Monday, August 6, 2007

bye bye Barcelona

A wave of tears has flooded my keyboard, rendering me incapable of typing for the moment. Here, however, is a pic that captures a real slice of the city for me. The dialogue sign says: "Got your phone? Your wallet? YOUR TRASH?" Similar signs in multiple languages pop up along the city beach. A small touch, but indicative of the attitude here: trash on the sand is definitely a problem, but how can we address it in a "cool" way that might earn respect and compliance, rather than sticking a generic "No Littering" sign to be ignored? 
Ah, Barcelona, how I will miss your slightly-trash-strewn shores!

Sitges getaway, sans tourists

Last weekend I had the good fortune to escape the oppressive, intense, competitive atmosphere of Bcn and enjoy a relaxing wknd in Sitges (pronounced SIT-jess). My lovely roommate B’s family owns a great flat in a quiet, modern part of town--one of those tastefully designed "Mediterranean" developments on a hillside that keeps things simple and white and makes the most of its views. In addition to a terraza with ocean view, they have a rooftop with an even better 360* panorama. Pictured above are B, T, C, E and E, various of the 14 people who crashed that wknd. Things were kept simple: we ate, drank, slept, and swam, all in prodigious quantities. Some of the participants, who will remain nameless, were so content with the rooftop (which comes with lawn furniture, shower, bbq, and perpetual breeze) that they never actually set foot on the beach. A memorable highlight was the majestic full moon, which some of us watched rise like a specter over the ocean from the beach as it got dark. We tracked the moon’s arc from the horizon as it got higher and brighter, all the way till 4am, when it started to get blurry for some reason. Then I passed out.

Sitges, whose central church can be seen rising in the background, became an important town in the 18th century when Spaniards built nice houses there upon returning from the New World, where they’d become wealthy. Then, toward the end of the 19th century, Sitges hit the big time, becoming a center of the modernist movement in Catalunya. A century later, the town had become known for its pretty cobblestoned streets, lovely beaches, and massive influx of gay vacationers and accompanying party scene. The central beaches during the wknd are disgracefully packed—to the point where I can’t fathom how those people actually enjoy being on the beach: it’s just skin, umbrellas and a couple of patches of sand. (It reminded me of some of the worst parts of the Costa del Sol, the difference being that at least this town has a genuinely Spanish old town and culture, whereas the latter in parts feels more like a British (or German) colony. I get queezy just thinking about it.)

It’s a bit sad to see a town with a distinct personality just get taken over by tourism and turn into a more generic coastal destination. I got the same feeling during the highest part of high season in Tarifa (Cadiz, Andalucia) when we were living down there. Tourists bring money, development, and prestige, but can absolutely kill the unique feeling of a town. Or change it, at least. The problem with Spain's ever-developing tourism industry is that there's no end in sight to an approach that privileges quantity over quality. Sitges seemed much more exciting when I was there 9 years ago, possibly because the beaches were less crowded, but more likely because I didn't think about these sorts of things. It's certainly a bad sign that places like Tarifa--which is much harder to get to--are also being overwhelmed. Even in 2002, when we lived there, locals were predicting the end of the charm and the beginning of the phase of the "guay kite-surfero," or the cool kite surfer type. Prices were already going up, because wealthy extreme sports-types and Northern Europeans were installing boutique hotels and pretentious bars. For a while it's great, I suppose, because one feels a sleepy town waking up and becoming cool. It was a mark of pride for a Spaniard to have one of these famous bright Tarifa t-shirts, with a wispy kite-surfer mascot breezing along. Now it's passe-- you see a dozen of them every day in Barcelona and Madrid. In short, the slippery slope effect in beach tourism can be an ugly phenomenon (here's a useful look at the impact of tourism on Sitges). Many in Spain still fear a double crash of the housing market and the tourism market as cheaper destinations appear (Northern Africa?), a scenario that would leave Spain blighted with ugly concrete developments, too many golf courses, and a collective memory of simpler, better times.

If you’re working in the industry, you probably don’t care; but I’m sure the Sitges locals are pretty fed up with the summer deluge. The smart ones probably find some other beach to go to, and rent out their flats to some pasty Englishman! Luckily for us, B’s apartment was by the port, because our “local” beach, the northernmost, was the finest in town. We couldn't complain. And oh, how that moon had us transfixed!

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

US addiction to fame: worse than EUrope?

In a breathless and damning op-ed today, James Carroll argues that “An obsessive deference to [such] fame, and an all-consuming preoccupation with it, has become the defining mark of American culture.”

Carroll argues that the American adoration of fame is either worsened or caused by (I’m not sure which) our lack of historical background. This seems to me at once partly correct and complete bullshit. I’m a bit sick of facile arguments chronicling our “crack cocaine” addiction to fame and celebrity, as if other nations didn't share the same weaknesses--which, once a pop culture sets in, are universal. Though I haven’t measured it, Europeans seem to have just as many idiotic gossip magazines, fashion magazines, become-famous TV contests, reality shows, etc, as we do. And they can have just as selective a memory of history as we Americans, or anyone else.

Carroll makes some useful observations about the destructiveness of our capitalist (and profit-obsessed) mentality, and there is no doubting our obsession with celebrity. He also remarks that the “conjuring of the appearance of opposition where none actually exists has been mandated by the American political system since the onset of the Cold War.” I would agree with the driving idea behind both claims, but I’m still not sure about the connection to celebrity and fame here. The column also rests, bizarrely, on a comparison between Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis, a difference which “matters,” though I’m not sure why.  Thus, when he concludes—without mentioning other countries’ stances on celebrity culture—that “under the martial law that implicitly governs the United States, history can never be invoked except for its celebrity value - not even history in the making,” Wait— what?

I may have had too long a weekend in the sun (it’s finally hot in Bcn), but what am I missing here? In a globalized world, Europeans seem to exhibit more and more of these “American” traits. In Why the Rest Hates the West, Meic Pearse observed that people around the world see Western societies as being ones that "derogate religion, exalt triviality (sports, entertainment, fashion), endorse sexual shamelessness, deprecate family, and discard honor." Europeans are implicated in the shameful behavior.

And if some countries tend not to need to find enemies, my immediate reactions are either that they are too small or weak to create enemies or take action against them; or they weren’t looking hard enough when enemies were there (WWII neutrals like Switzerland and Sweden; the EU during the breakup of Yugoslavia).

In short, Carroll does a disservice to his fellow liberals by writing a sloppy (uhh...Marxist?) critique of the American culture of celebrity that would be more appropriate of an upstart Masters candidate (or undergrad).

I leave the question to you, diligent readers, astute observers, sagacious thinkers: do Americans really value celebrity over history to the extent that Carroll implies, and more than others? Is he making a mostly good point that I am missing? Or is he full of hot air?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Update: EU constitution, er, REFORM treaty

Call it what you will, it’s looking like the secret is out on the latest EU Treaty. The secret is that the sexy new reform treaty, recently modified under Miss Mild Mannered Merkel’s leadership at an emergency Brussels summit in order to be re-presented to the public after failed referenda in France and Holland, is barely different from its predecessor. Granted, those few differences are formidable, as will the political spin put on the whole 2nd draft, but most of the treaty remains the same. This fact is the source of both critics’ ire and proponents’ glee. That is to say, the latter still like the original idea, the former still don’t. The more things change…

Now those nasty sceptics— who won’t be happy until the EU is broken and oozing internal goo like Humpty after his fall— are going to throw a tantrum. They are going to start breaking the good china in the House of EUrope until there’s nothing left to eat on and everyone reverts to animalistic grunting. So we have conservative EUroskeptics par excellence Open Europe arguing that its exhaustive analysis shows that 96 percent of the new text is the same as the rejected constitution. Sure, in quantity maybe only 10 items have changed, but that speaks nothing about the quality of the changes, idiots! What about direction, the future, sacrifice, teamwork?! No no no. Instead we have fingerpointing (with chubby little baby fingers):

"If Brown now tries to carry on pretending that this is somehow a different document, it will be one of the most audacious political lies in the last couple of decades. It would be simply ludicrous," said the group's director Neil O'Brien.

Meanwhile, proponents of the Reform Treaty are taking classic political measures in order to justify the bypassing of a national referendum: they are relying on semantic bullshit. Thus the new, strapping young British foreign minister David Miliband claims:

"The concept of a constitution has been abandoned. That is made clear in the new treaty. In that context we don't think there needs to be a constitutional referendum."
See? No wonder he got the job.

The poor reform treaty! How will it ever pass, now that people are beginning to realize it’s not really that reformed! And one of the Reforms was to take away the EUro symbols—itself a terrible sign! Joder, things are looking bleak.  Have a great weekend!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Remembering 1992, Spain’s moment

A lovely and historic moment last night here in Bcn: the same archer who famously lit the Olympic torch with Elvin accuracy while the world watched , was invited back for a redo to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Games.

The archer, Antonio Rebollo, appears to be aging like a fine Rioja. He met the high expectations of everyone who’d seen his first shot by nailing the target again, this time from outside the stadium—a tough shot, though he did have literally years to prepare (and, most likely, exclusive use of the stadium area for target practice, along with that cool white outfit) .

Most Barcelonans look back proudly on their famous Summer Games, “the best ever,” according to ex-Olympic Committee honcho Juan Antonio Samaranch (a Catalan). They were certainly the best Olympics I have ever been to. Although I was only 14, the trip I took with my father to Spain that summer was unforgettable—in retrospect, it’s clear what a watershed year it was for the country, one which set it on the path to its current esteemed place in Europe.

With the crazy decade of the Movida (popularized by Almodovar in his early films) following Franco’s death in 1975, Spain had already undergone a notable transition into capitalist democracy. But 1992 set the world’s eyes on the country in a way that can’t easily be repeated.

Madrid was named the cultural capital of Europe, and Sevilla was hosting the funky futuristic World Expo. Both of these medium-term events brought with them significant monetary, cultural, and infrastructural advances. The crowning jewel of this Year of Spain was the public unveiling of the hip new Barcelona. During the Olympics, it really was a magical city filled with a palpable spirit of glee and camaraderie. It was like the good old days: the city looked gorgeous and shiny and new, the events and housing went off without a hitch, and the US Dream Team even won the Gold Medal in basketball (though they spurned the spartan Olympic Village accomodations for a luxury hotel). The sporting highlight for me was making my first trip to the Nou Camp stadium (which I revisited in June to watch Barcelona throw away their season by giving up a last-minute tie to crosstown rivals Espanyol) for the gold medal soccer match, which the hosts won by scoring with 2 minutes left against Poland. Imagine 100,000 Spaniards going bonkers in a stadium-shaking, flag-waving goosebumpfest, singing the classis Olé! Olé Olé Olé! song for hours afterward. I was hooked.

As amazing as the Games were, the real triumph of Barcelona '92 was one of urban planning, toward the long-term goal of achieving a fully integrated and dynamic city of international reknown.

As most residents will explain to guests—say, upon bringing them to the Olympic Village, beach areas, or Montjuic—much of the city was renovated or rebuilt in preparation for the Games. The scale of investment and work is staggering, but it has become a paragon of large-scale urban renewal projects around the world, a phenomenon still being studied today.

This is not to say that the operation was carried out perfectly, because it wasn’t, but one simply cannot compare the pre- and post-Olympic Barcelonas. Barcelona’s current success and beauty are the result of a bold (yet logical, I would think) vision, good teamwork, and not-that-much corruption getting in the way.

In preparation for the Games, the inustrialized and largely abandoned beachfront, several km worth, was cleaned up and re-introduced to the city; the Olympic Village was turned into long-term housing; it served as the motor for the eventual comeback of the industrial, bleak Poble Nou neighbourhood. A new wave of renovations continues, as Barcelona expands its seafront amenities and Poble Nou (perhaps the Williamsburg of Bcn) renovation toward the Diagonal Mar area, while also consolidating the infrastructure of the Old Town and Eixample. Projects like Diagonal Mar and the Forum will be the subject of future posts, but for now imagine them as new pieces being added on to geographically essential areas of the larger urban grid. (If you’re interested in getting a handle on the city’s history, neighborhoods, and the scope of urban renewal over the last 20 years, check out the Barcelona Field Studies center; For those of you wondering what happens when Olympic games fail on an urban renewal level, look no further than Atlanta ’96.)

A simple stroll around the old town reveals that Barcelona has always been a uniquely beautiful Euro city. However one cannot comprehend its ascent to one of the coolest cities in Europe without knowing about the Olympic project. That’s why, sitting on Bogatell beach, I always compare it with the happy scene of 15 years ago; I couldn’t imagine it any other way. I’m lucky to have developed such a personal connection with this special place, and I’m going to miss it very much.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

French gov't sick of all the thinking, putain!

No, seriously, my fellow French:

Look into my eyes... Now, think less. ...And just work more.

Have I heard this before?

Sarko the darko? He looks kind of scary in this picture next to Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, who got rich as a big-time Chicago lawyer and looks like a robot in a Simpsons episode.

I still don’t believe it. Surely these are just bizarre coincidences! There must be some explanation for this blatant anti-intellectualism! Some sort of historical or philosophical background would be in order. For example, maybe his father abandoned him when he was young and forced him to work hard and depend only on himself to rise to the top? Maybe his Napoleon complex comes from being shorter than even the girls in the class and being made fun of for his atypical features?

Look, everything’s going to work out just fine with mon mec Sarko, my friends. As one of my favorite songs of all time has it: no one said... it would be easy. So put down the croissant and roll up your sleeves, you lazy frogs! You can't just sit around at home or protest every government reform-- if you want a chicken in every pot, you've got to kill some friggin chickens. Tu bouge quoi!

Just give the man some time to calm down… and think about things in between doing them.
Hey, at least he's got some great old turncoat Socialists to help him think up a way to rescue France from its morass, its malaise, its... je ne sais quoi, mais... zey are ol go-eeng to haf to woryk too-gezair.

must-see non euro fotos

Ladies and gentlemen, I am normally not one to post ‘random’ material, but some things are worth the diversion.

I made a bizarre comment earlier about a Burmese python trapped in Florida. That was a reference to an article I’d come across waaaay back this morning about this invasive species of Burmese pythons that appear to be taking over Florida. I forgot where I'd originally seen the article, but I googled my way to this pic. Now that is some nature for you!

I’ve never wanted to go to the Everglades, by the way. I mean, I wouldn’t not go if you asked me to take a nice drive and gave me a gun. But it’s not high on my list. I know it’s pretty, but it seems to me one of the last savage and brutal spots on the planet. Or at least in America, which is rather large and diverse. For me the Everglades is like the deepest forest off the grid in the Rockies, or the vast cracked desert plain of Nevada, or any scene out of Cormac McCarthy. Beautiful, but forbidding. Nay, positively frightening, because the opaque water hides these horrific creatures that will bite off whatever part of your body unfortunate enough to penetrate the surface. 

Not only are there alligators (and crocs, I suppose), but there are also 20 foot pythons that will eat alligators. Or try to, at least. This photo shows what happens when a species is put in an environment to which it is not naturally accomodated: it explodes.

See more incredible photos on Monga Bay (my favorite rainforst/fish/Madagascar photo blog aside from Natty Geo).

Finally, I have to admit I want to tab this as globalization because, well, the global pets market and illegal importation of exotic pets and the ecological damage that results-- it's endemic to the globalized world we've become. We should expect it to reoccur, sort of as collateral damage for the crisscrossing of people and goods (and animals) around the planet. Textbook! That is why the EU has very tough laws about pet transport.

Back to your regularly scheduled programming.

... blackout update... blackout update...

New shit has come to light: the cause of the Big Barcelona Blackout of 2007 has been a massive power cable that snapped and went loco like a Burmese python trapped in Florida (we're talking chain reaction, fire, all out chaos)!

Though most service has been restored, the papers are still reporting on each and every development in the blackout story. Barcelona has been sent back to the middle ages, after all.

Because a single cable snapped. Half or a third of the city is in the dark for two days. Don't just call and complain! Let us take to the streets! The Catalans, the richest and most advanced non-Spaniards in all of Spain, will not accept this!

biba epanya! osea catalunya!

Monday, July 23, 2007

wknd recap + blackout anarchy

As a result of the current power outage, I had the strange opportunity this morning to ride through a city without working traffic lights. I crashed my bike and passed by another accident, but for the most part things seemed to go smoothly.

In truth, the bike crash was just a wipeout and entirely of my own doing. I am still getting used to this “new” bike (my previous one, a sweet Rock Climber with front shocks, was stolen), which let's say doesn´t suit my reckless driving style nearly as well. Plus it came with an unwieldy U-lock that has no fixed mounting place on the frame, so is kept around the handlebars—not ideal if you bike fast. So I tried to affix the lock closer to the handlebar T, where it might clank less. What I did of course was negate my ability to drastically turn the bike to either side, which I had to do not 3 minutes later to avoid a pedestrian. So, like an idiot, I wiped out on my own in front of confused onlookers. Luckily I escaped without tumbling onto the ground. My piece of shit bike was ok too. I took a bow in front of the crowd and got back on the horse.

The Eixample neighborhood has tons of traffic each morning, and it was eerie to see cars driving much more cautiously than normal. (Btw, no one had any idea why that part of town is blacked out or when it might come back; the press is reporting massive traffic jams and general chaos, but I didn't see any of that, and we have electricity here in the Raval, so who knows. It would probably be much cooler if we were blacket out too, because then we'd probably go have a drink.) You might think that no traffic lights would translate into traffic anarchy, but most drivers seemed to understand they ran a risk of ruining their day. The one thing that everyone did was edge up into the intersection as much as possible, so as to potentially deter oncoming traffic and effectively force them to yield the right of way. This seemed like a question of critical mass: one car jutting its way forward looked aggressive and dangerous, but 3 lanes’ worth seemed like something to stop for.

Aside from a minor fender bender I passed, it was just another lovely morning in the Eixample. Oh—in both police cars I saw driving around, the officers were visibly amused. I assume they found this morning’s lawlessness a welcome departure from the norm.

I'll try to get to the bottom of this blackout situation. In the meantime, other highlights from this wknd:

1) P, G, S and L are all visiting Bcn this wknd, or longer—having so many friends coincide can be tricky, but P and S know each other (and me) already from Budapest, so that helps. Saturday afternoon was spent at the beach in Castelldefells, where ultimate frisbee practice was later held. L showed up directly from the nearby airport in business attire and luggage. Saturday night saw some good eating and epic partying—first a house party (friends of friends), then Tiefschwartz at Nitsa, a great show at a great venue. Closed down to a full house at 6.30. Tief were celebrating their 10th anniversary and were in a very good mood, and the crowd loved it, even jumping onstage at one point to dance right in front of the decks, to the DJs’ delight, until the records inevitably skipped, and we all had to step down. That type of thing rarely happens without security pummeling you, so we felt lucky. A great moment of the summer.

2) Sunday we strolled through the wonderful Ribera/Borne neighborhood (which is probably already too hip for its own good, but just so gorgeous and so fun that you don't care; in fact, it makes you want to be rich so you can buy the hip clothes here and eat at all the hip restaurants) and ended up eating at a wonderful place in Borne, Origens 99.9, which serves authentic Catalan food in a traditional rustic setting. We highly recommend the cava sangria. Then we hit the beach by sundown and walked up north to Nova Mar Bella, where there were 3 great parties at 3 consecutive chiringuitos: a gay, lesbian, and ‘normal’ one. We ended up drinking mojitos at the lesbian one, digging the house music and the whole scene, which was apparently a warm-up party for Loveball, the European gay and lesbian festival, which is coming to Barcelona the first week of August. Curiously, some young Kiwi visitors we met at the bar were absolutely amazed that there was such a big and public gay party in the city (it didn't seem too bizarre to me-- though the lesbian couples going at it on the beach were hard not to watch)-- these guys have no idea what's in store for them!

3) Then we made it over to the party we were actually looking for, which was mobbed—the dance floor spilled over onto the beach, and tons more people were seated in the vicinity, while the elevated promenade was lined with onlookers as well. Lots of attractive, happy people; a nice balance bw natives and internationals. A few swimmers, a few too many drunk guys pissing in the ocean. Luckily for my professional life, the music was killed at 1am. No one was ready to leave. But, being a responsible adult with a sort-of job waiting for me the next morning, I suggested we let our weekend end there, and get some sleep. Anyway, these ubiquitous informal beach parties are precisely the type of thing that make Bcn so attractive. How many big cities can compete with this? Even without a big party, the chiringuito scene offers music and food/drink with an unsurpassed view-- basically, the perfect vibe, day and night. And sheer amount of beach (4 km? more?) make it so easy to meet up with friends and simply chill out, with plenty of space and no hassle. In short, the beach is Bcn's park. Add to that the Forum, which is not a beach but a multi-use port-marina-park complex that offers a swimming area, expositions, great summer concerts, and a massive, iconic solar energy panel. What else could one ask for?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Iberia (2): Update

The day after I waxed theoretical on Saramago's vision for a federal state of Iberia, El Pais published an article (again only in Spanish) on the same topic by Miguel Mora. It is a bit more realistic than my post. Here is an English article about the story.

The basic conclusions from the press are that, despite a clear sense of Iberian solidarity between the two countries, Saramago is indeed off his rocker. The fact is that Spain and Portugal are already quite commercially intertwined, and EU membership already accomplishes much of what an Iberian arrangement would. So an Iberian federation might be more hassle than help. Mora claims:
Today, in the 21st century and thanks to the only rampant ideology (the free market), Spain and Portugal are, paradoxically or not, more united than ever. Money, markets, workers, turists and companies flow without end from here to there, and political utopia seems to have lost all its sense. But there has been such a long time of mutual scorn that the idea continues to excite people.
All this not to mention the sticky issue of nationalism: even if the countries found an adequate power-balancing mechanism, the perceived threat of a Spanish-dominated Iberia to the small Portuguese population would likely be more than enough to kill the project. I would still agree with Saramago that Portugal would not risk losing its own identity as part of a greater Spain renamed Iberia (look at Catalunya and Pais Vasco). But the essential question here is: what's the point? It is hard to believe that Portugal would have that much to gain economically. Still, I would like to see some figures.

All the same, it's fun to think about if you're into federalism and post-national political configurations. Some more info and Iberian statistics on this blog post. Also, if you want a fun idea to gnaw at, check out Jan Zielonka's Europe as Empire, which claims the EU is turning the Continent into something more closely resembling the old neo-medieval and Holy Roman Empires: a looser and more complex structure, with interlocking levels of governance, fluctuating relationships and agreements, and its own organic rhythm beneath the chaos. Provocative and smart stuff.  

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Portuguese presidential soap opera

For those of you interested in the complexities of EU-member state relations, and the polarized feelings that membership inevitably causes, this piece on Portugal’s ambivalent relationship with the EU is instructive. And kind of funny, if you’re willing to look at EU studies a soap-operatic type way--which is the best way to look at it. There’s a little bit of everything here. One gets a sense of the wide spectrum of interests and players (or characters in the soap opera) involved. Through their compelling personal struggles and political hardships, we learn why the EU is such a mysterious and exciting bureaucratic nightmare/opportunity.

For a typical polemic to get the soap opera going, let's hear from an economic commentator for the country's leading financial newspaper:
"We spent all this money building stadiums when we should have used the money to improve worker skills and to make us more competitive and more prepared for change,"
Development 101. Planners take note. This shit is still happening.

From the botched planning and its political implications, it’s not a great leap to the top of the top:
"Having Barroso as president of the Commission is not making people here love the EU or care about it," said Miguel Moutinho, 26, an animal rights activist who possesses extensive knowledge of EU affairs and admits to reading EU animal hygiene directives for fun. "People felt Barroso betrayed the country when he went to Brussels, and that feeling has not gone away."
One has to wonder if this young man (when not reading up on animal hygiene) can be trusted. After all, we never hear about President Barroso’s dark past in the EU news context! WTF? If he screwed over Portugal when he left, is he the right man for the EU?! Who is this Barroso, anyway, and what of his Iberian cabal, the cosa he runs with Solana, and the other one, Almunia-- You expect us to believe that's a coincidence?

But wait, there’s more. How about the unavoidable rivalry with their Iberian neighbor:
Economists say Portugal's ambivalence toward the EU also can be explained by the fact that it has invested its ample EU funds - about €25 billion, or $34.6 billion, last year alone - less productively than neighboring Spain.

While Spain's investments in modern infrastructure helped offset uncomfortable structural changes, like liberalizing the labor market and privatizing state-owned industries, Portugal used its EU funds to expand its economy, without addressing embedded problems such as its inadequate education system. Political pressure from small-town politicians also diverted funds to rural areas at the expense of cities.
How embarrassing for poor Portugal to get left in the dust by mediocre Spain! What can they possibly do to catch up (short of trying to unify with their richer, larger neighbors in an Iberian Federation)?

Finally, let’s not forget about the last 2 complementary components of the glorified soap opera that is the EU. The first is is self doubt:
We Portuguese seem to be incapable of governing ourselves and the EU gives us much-needed stability," he said, adding that "the EU forces us to look beyond Portugal and to have the discipline we need if we are going to prosper in the future.
Another timeless trope: the EU as answer to southern Mediterreanean countries' inability to govern. The same has been said about Italy and Greece--notably, Spain has done better in this regard--and one could see the Eastern European Big Bangers in a similar light (it turns out that many countries seem or see themselves as incapable of governing effectively). 

Luckily, to end the Portuguese story on a less-skeptical note—this self-doubt is tempered with something of a youthful optimism:
Whatever the ambivalence about the EU, the younger generation is adamant that the future of a small country like Portugal rests firmly and abidingly in Europe. Moutinho said many of his friends were ignorant about the EU, which they viewed as distant and inaccessible. But he insisted that the economic and political benefits of being part of a 27-member bloc were Portugal's greatest asset in a globalized world and few Portuguese doubted this.
In conclusion: The path will not be easy… but EUrope is the way forward! (Not that they really have another choice, like Norway.) Now we’re all ready to see how this Presidency will affect Portugal. And the EU. And all these real people caught in the middle.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Sarko the darko?

Much is being made of mon mec Sarko, and rightfully so. Sarko is doing so much in his first months as President that everyone is taking notice, which is exactly how he likes it. He is ruffling feathers like it’s his job. He has:
Sarko is clearly determined to get his term off with a bang--perhaps not as impressive as his predecessor Chirac’s testing of a nuclear bomb in the South Pacific, but a pretty good showing nonetheless. He has most people surprised, scared, or skeptical--like John Vinocur, who will be the last one to be seduced by Sarko’s flurry of photo-ops.

There are undeniable signs that Sarko is mistakenly trying to throw around weight that he has not yet gained (or earned) in Europe. It’s too early to tell, but Sarko’s smiles and promises may be hiding a darker, more confrontational and megalomaniacal side. Does Sarko have a long term strategy, or is he just opening up a bunch of cans of worms and waiting to see what crawls out? It seems the most vexed of all France’s partners is Germany, specifically Miss Mild Mannered Merkel, Europe’s de facto leader. MMMM has proven herself as a smart lady and good leader, but will she figure out a way to deal with the Sarko attack? Der Spiegel is worried:
The new administration in Paris is doing its utmost to provoke Berlin…. Sarkozy is looking for a fight wherever he can…. A showdown appears unavoidable.
Oh snap! I hope they air this showdown on Pay Per View! I would pay 25eur to see these two go at it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Miss Mild Mannered Merkel were a beast deep down inside—she’s probably a firebreathing negotiator behind closed doors. I can imagine the Mild Manneredness giving way to the heft of her fist banging on an oak table and scaring the shit out of the men in the room. 

At the same time I worry that mon mec Sarko might full of sound and fury but signify nothing. MMMM has been around the block, and a clearly deluded, hyperactive Sarko probably needs a little beatdown to come back to earth and learn his place. Let the showdown begin!

Madrid (III): vs. Barcelona

It's not just about soccer.
Granted, I am still smarting from seeing a thoroughly inferior Madrid team take the title from my poor, injury plagued Barca a few weeks ago. But the battle takes place on a more profound level: which city is better? The question is timeless; hardly a day passes without someone asking me, upon discovering that I’ve lived in both places, which city I prefer.

People seem convinced that Spain is just too small for 2 big, world-class cities*. So, as the prophet Biggie Smalls once said, “Somebody’s got to die. If I go, you got to go.”

But wait!—this ain't easy. Both cities are gorgeous. Both offer fine food, lovely architecture, great neighborhood ambience, world-class cultural offerings, and wonderful weather.

Let us split hairs then.

Weather: Barcelona has a humid Mediterranean climate, while Madrid is arid and tends more toward extremes due to its altitude.
Winner: Barcelona can be insufferable in the summer, but at least one can swim. And in the winter, Madrid gets downright chilly, while Barcelona remains on the Mediterranean. (I spent the winter of 2000 here and it rained thrice.)
Decision: Barcelona

Architecture: This is tough because Madrid's old town is maybe prettier-- and larger--but Barcelona's is gorgeous, too, and older. Barcelona’s Eixample stands out as a playground of modernist architecture, not to mention the various Gaudi buildings nestled like gems in the rough. Madrid has no equivalent, though the Retiro and especially Salamanca barrios are probably its answer to the stately, comfortable, boutiquey areas. Both cities have huge Pijolandias (preppyville) in the north of the cities and extending out into the suburbs that are not worth exploring. Madrid wins the park war, with Retiro, Oeste, and Casa de Campo; although lacking any real park other than dusty Ciutadella, Barcelona does have lush green hills ringning the city (see natural setting).
Decision: Barcelona by a hair, mostly due to variety and coolish experimental stuff such as Diagonal Mar, which is nothing less than a daring extension to the city’s north, extending from the iconic Torre Agbar down to the coast.

People: A little easier, but we will have to speak in stereotypes here, which is lamentable. Madrilenos are incredibly nice; Catalans are only nice, while some aren’t very nice at all. There's the whole issue of the Catalan "attitude". I won’t waste time trying to describe it, except to say that Catalans have a reputation for being colder, harder to get to know--but that once you know them, they are great friends. Catalans are a people unto themselves, and I do discern a general difference between them and other Spaniards I've met (physically, as well, Catalans have distinct facial features, and if you spend a lot of time in Spain you can tell the difference). In my experience, which is highly subjective, there’s just not the same openness one finds in Madrid (or in Asturias or Andalucia). Maybe this is because I don’t speak Catalan.
(Oh also both cities have tons of gorgeous people; I’d say I prefer the Spanish women to the Catalans, but that is an even more personal choice, and probably not worth sharing.)
Decision: Madrid.

Natural setting: Not a contest. Madrid may be in the center of the country, but it’s also in the middle of nowhere. The Sierra to the north is absolutely lovely, and only a long hour away. It also boasts many nearby small cities worth visiting: Avila, Toledo, Segovia, and palaces and stuff. Madrid has a river, but the Manzanares flanks the outer edge of the city and is no Seine or Danube.
Barcelona, for its part, may be the perfect place for a city. Not only is it on the beach, but it’s nestled among a ring of massive hills that surround the city, while Monjuic and the Parc Guell area are smack in the middle of the city. Then you have the Pyrenees only 2 hours away, just in case you want to escape the Mediterreanean climate and ski.
Winner: Barcelona

Culture: Both cities off the hook. Madrid has a better museum scene, as it is probably one of the finest art cities in the world; Barcelona probably has a more diverse gallery scene, if anything because it seems to attract more artsy foreigners. Both cities do a great job of investing in public concert series and exhibitions—there is never, ever a shortage of things to do here. Young people in both places seem to have opportunities to throw concerts or parties, start up shops, etc. Both cities are thriving.
Ditto with the bar scene. I have to say that I was blown away revisiting Madrid: Malasana, Latina, Chueca, Huertas, and Lavapies are each great hoods in their own right, whereas in Barcelona the choice more often seems to be between the three areas of the old town: Raval, Barri Gotic, and Borne. The Eixample is a great family neighborhood but only has a few exceptional bars in the whole grid. Barcelona can’t compete with Latina and Malasana; Madrid can’t compete with chiringuitos playing techno or raggae on the beach. Both cities have legit club scenes and bring in DJs and performers non-stop, both big-time and underground. Barcelona, known as the more 'cutting edge' city, hosts Sonar, a huge electronic music festival; and FIB, an even bigger and longer festival, is not too far away in Benicassim.
Decision: tie (sorry)

Plazas: Spaniards love their plazas so much that it deserves its own category. The headline battle is clear: the huge, stately perfection of Mayor vs. the palm-treed simple beauty of Reial. I’d hang out in Reial any day, but I think Medieval Mayor gets the nod here, with that restored fresco in front, and the steely corner towers, and all that open space for concerts and Frisbee throwing. Plus Madrid has 2 de Mayo in Malasana, San Andres and Paja in Latina, and of course Oriente, nestled between the Palace and the Opera—sunset central. Barcelona fights back with Plaza Pi, plaza des Angels at the Macba, and Gracia’s charming little underscored squares. All of which are lovely, but it’s no contest really.
Decision: Madrid

Food: Barcelona is known for its experimental culinary culture, but I really don’t have the money to indulge in that world. I’ve spent more time indulging in 2euro everything-included sandwiches made by my boyz over at Tetuan, or in the one and only Israeli Maoz falafel at like 2.30am. That being said, I do eat tapas. Both cities have many Basque tapas bars, which is to say the bet tapas bars. Otherwise, I would say it’s a virtual tie. For those of you thinking of Bcn’s ocean access, know that Madrid is second to none in seafood: they take perverse pride in flying in fresh stuff all day. In Madrid your cana is more likely to be accompanied by a little tapita, but only in Barcelona can you get pan com tomaquet, or bread smeared with tomato (and olive oil), which is delicious. I just have a greater fondness for Madrid's old-school tapas bars—they’re just cooler: Santa Ana and the area around c/Jesus, and c/Almagro, etc—incomparable.
Winner: Madrid (though, again, in a sadly narrow culinary scope)

OVERALL WINNER: in an extremely close contest, Barcelona**. But the truth is that if these two badasses actually did get into a fight, or have, like, a duel, they'd probably both shoot each other. Barcelona might stay alive a bit longer and enjoy the pathetic sensation of watching Madrid die, but after a while he too would expire, tortured, confused, wondering why two such cool dudes couldn't just get along.

*Luckily Barcelona is in Catalunya, which is its own nation, right? So this competition gets asterisked. Results will be under review.

**As you may perceive, this judgment ultimately comes down to the fact that Barcelona has a beach, and Madrid does not. If you are not a beach person, you may well preferMadrid—many do. I have reservations about this selection, but as many of our conversations have concluded this summer, the simple fact that one can retreat to the beach after even the shittiest of days at work trumps pretty much everything. This also has something to do, I suspect, with Barcelona's reputation as a more 'cutting edge' city. The fact is that more young artsy people come here because there's a beach and a Mediterranean climate. Let's not complicate things here.
What's really impressive about Barcelona (aside from the fact that everyone seems to love the place), if you think about it, is this: If you consider the fact that a beachless Bcn already competes with many other European cities in quality of life (aside from lack of central parks) and the above categories, the fact that it has a beach is downright unfair. For me, a beach and mountain lover, that's what it's all about. Biking or takign the metro to the beach, even just for an hour? Are you kidding me?
That’s why I simply cannot for the life of me understand the IHT’s recent world city livability rankings, in which 3 Scandinavian cities place in the world top ten. What kind of crack are those guys smoking?

Spain + Portigal = Iberia

This is one of the more intriguing and pertinent posts I’ve read in a while (it is unfort in Spanish only). The nobel prize winning fiction writer Jose Saramago, 85, is predicting the unification of Spain and Portugal into a federal entity that might be called Iberia. It seems ludicrous, of course, for something like that to happen now. But the old man is not going crazy. After 20 or 40 years of debate, in the context of the EU’s own evolution and cohesion, perhaps it’s not impossible? So long as it was clear that the union was federally based and still contained two countries, or, better said, two nations: the Spanish and the Portuguese.

This gets really interesting politically because I could see the Catalans, Basques, and maybe Gallegos, interested in this fusion, insofar as they’d probably have a case for even more relative autonomy within a larger Iberian entity. Spain is already a federation, but a ‘merger’ with Portugal would allow the rest of the world to think of the area as one big peninsula with multiple peoples--not just Spanish and Portuguese, but Castillian, Portguese, Catalan, Basque, Gallego, Andalucian, Balearic. 

While politically far fetched, Iberia is a theoretically rich proposition because Spain is itself a bit of an artificial creation. I don’t mean to challenge the validity of a monolithic Spanish culture--which does exist—but to qualify it as a plurality. Moreso than any other European country, Spain is also a conglomeration of distinct regions, microcultures. This is not entirely unusual: France also has profound regional variation, but le Francais have had a much stronger collective identity and fewer would-be breakaway states (though there’s Bretagne and the French Pays Bas, each with their own languages), and never needed 40 years of dictatorship to help foment a sense of “Frenchness” based around the central capital (though they did have De Gaulle). 

Partly as a reaction to Franco’s centrism, Spain now takes regionalism to a new level. Geography and history help. Cadiz and Andalucia are virtual deserts and entirely unrecognizable from the northern regions; both areas are distinct from Castilla La Mancha and the arid meseta in the middle of the country. Then you’ve got the sordid intertwining histories of all Iberia’s peoples over the millennia, which is best illustrated by the 5 different languages still spoken (Spanish, Catalan & Valenciano, Basque, Gallego; and maybe Bable in Asturias, which is virtually dead; and recall that Andaluz often seems like a dialect).

Spain isn’t in danger of dying: its meta-culture is too strong. But, looking to the future, I do believe that there is more room for regional recognition and autonomy. (Tourism-wise, Spain would do well to promote its unique diversity, but doesn’t really present itself as a patchwork of microcultures— too politically sensitive? The Spanish tourism ads have always been terrible.) Ditto for Europe: because the continent is small and cultures often cross borders, regionalism has always played a significant role. The EU has obviously made it easier to think in terms of regions, as we see the onset of a new transnational cultural topography. Just as we think today of a Mediterranean region and culture (and food), Europe used to think of Iberia as that distinct region below the Pyrenees connecting the rest of Europe to Africa. Heck, there was even an Iberian Union that governed the entire peninsula from 1580-1640 (until Philip III got too greedy with Portugal and pushed them to revolt against Spanish authority, at a time when the poor King was already hamstrung by the 30 Years War and a separate incursion by pesky Catalunya). It was natural to consider the Spanish and Portuguese together within the larger European rubric, even though any person could tell you that the Castillians were different from the Portuguese (and from the Aragonese and Catalans, for that matter, who had their own kingdom for a while. This is a big deal to Catalans, who'll tell you how a quirk of history denied their independence as a nation).

We’ve already got the Benelux countries and their common culture (which consists of obscenely high levels of wealth, technology, education and population density). Western Germany (Cologne’s region) wants to join Benelux because, economically, they’re basically part of it already. There’s Scandinavia in the north, and the entire block of Slavic peoples in the east, and in particular the region that resulted in the artificial creation of Yugoslavia (we all know how that turned out). Then you’ve got the Muslim pocket of the Balkans, also crossing national borders. Romania’s Transylvania used to be Hungarian (not to mention all the other areas bordering Hungary). South American visionaries have long wanted to start their own Community of Nations, based on the EU. However, regionalism is not a top-down political phenomenon like the EU. Rather it is an organic historical reality that, as communication and transportation improve and national borders lose importance, will gain importance, and may well affect political geography.

I’ll put down my crystal ball long enough to say that some other bigwigs seem to think that Saramago esta loco. Antonio Martins da Cruz, for example, former Minister of Exterior and ex-Embassador to Madrid, considers Saramago’s vision one from the 19th rather than the 21st century. But then again: who the hell is Cruz? Sure, it’s easy to dismiss this idea and call the old man a national traitor. But the big picture is that advanced capitalism is forcing a new order of alignments, and, as Saramago argues, such a political union would make economic sense for the Portuguese, who only have 10 million people (to Spain’s 60). Granted economic sense doesn’t translate into cultural sense; nation-states are still the foremost source of personal identity, and patriotism exists. However, I do believe that people are slowly beginning to realize that, in a globalized world marked by a federally-minded EU and other trans-national alliances (be they political, commercial, or cultural), long-established identities do not actually need the political entities of nation-states to prop them up. (Catalans know this already; so do Californians.)

My guess is that our traditional concept of identity is going through an historic change wherein the myth of a single, stable national identity will finally be disposed by the reality of overlapping multiple identities. This change is largely facilitated by the global village we’re becoming, which I wrote about the other day. I remain curious as to how much an evolving EUrope can affect this change (the EU may well fall flat on its ass), but I do think it’s where the world is headed over the next couple of generations.

What do you guys think? Is this possible, or am I too eager to predict the dawn of a new world order? 

Spain wants their good food recognized

And who doesn't want recognition for the things they do well?

In the latest example of perverse globalization, Spain wants Mediterranean food qualified as a world-heritage cultural…item?
It's not a completely absurd idea: Elena Espinosa, Spain's Minister of Agriculture and Fishing, suggested at an EU meeting on Monday that Mediterranean food should be added to UNESCO's list of "intangible" world-heritage contributions, which would lift the international profile of paella and gazpacho to the level of pygmy dances in Africa or death rituals in Mexico.
I call it perverse globalization because it’s an inevitable byproduct of a world in which every item of value is classified, commodified, and marketed to its maximum potential. The world market really means that the world becomes a market. (Does that make sense?) Countries and regions have long been known for things they do, grow, prepare, or produce better than anywhere else. Vodka (Russia), maple syrup (Canada), kabuki (Japan), drums (Africa).

Getting a Unesco heritage for food of a specific region is taking it one step further. The region is going to improve and protect its image by getting their unique and world-famous cuisine (which I guess covers the vast space of Mediterranean cuisines in all Mediterranean countries? Or is this just Europe here? Oooh—how are they going to decide which countries can get in on this? Depends on their selection criteria, I guess) officially recognized, which de facto lifts it above other non-recognized cuisines, which in theory are competing in the world market for the educated consumer's money. Unesco: helping the cream rise to the top.

The point is, Spain’s appeal to Unesco is kind of silly. But in int’l tourism and marketing terms, it makes total sense. The Mediterranean diet is special, delicious, and the food products that go into the cuisine are all very well respected and big sellers worldwide. So with a Unesco seal of approval, everyone wins, right? That is, until all the other micro-regional culinary traditions of the world follow suit. Then you’ll have a big brouhaha about how the world market should be divided. Europe alone will be host to the nastiest bureaucratic foodfight one is likely to see (though that wouldn't be surprising to those familiar with current EU food, vodka, and wine wars). And if they believe the Unseco designations will help boost their country’s prestige and tourism, then the rest of the world is likely to follow suit. Soon the great Unesco food fight will spread across the globe, with some cuisines making the cut (south east Asian, Indian), and others not so much (Peruvian). And around the earth until all foods are categorized appropriately! Unesco designations will be like some perverse combination of Zagat’s and what's his face, the dorky travel guru, with the TV shows and books and corny voice but eternally pleasant disposition.

Spain’s airtight application even has some evidence to back up their claim:
Spain's written bid calls the Mediterranean diet "rich, varied, balanced, healthy and delicious." It wants to promote the cuisine as a contribution to world nutrition, and it bucks up its case with evidence from a US researcher, Ancel Keys, who published a study in the 1950s making the now-conventional claim that a diet rich in olive oil, fruit, vegetables and fruit -- plus measured doses of wine -- could lower the risk of heart disease. Keys died in 2004, at the age of 100.
The coup de grace: "Eat like us and you'll live longer!" Unesco, ya'll betta recognize!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Madrid II: some high and low lights

Some highlights from Madrid, aside from the perfect weather, great people, and wonderful neighborhood vibe:

-Informal live flamenco in La Latina. This place, whose name I will not divulge because too many tourists are beginning to appear there, is where flamenco aficionados, amateurs, and the odd professional congregate to hang out and play informally. It’s not nearly as good as going to a legit professional show, but it’s a hell of a lot cheaper, likely more intimate, and extremely fun. Flamenco really is not so much a music as a culture, and in certain Madrid spots you can see it in all its wine-guzzling, chain-smoking glory. These guys are having a lot of fun, and its impossible for visitors not to appreciate it.

-Speaking of visitors, my friend had 2 cousins visiting from an anonymous Euro country. These nice, young, ignorant people did not appreciate flamenco, nor anything else about Madrid or Spanish culture. They were 16 and 22 and so utterly provincial and boring that I wanted to slap them. All they wanted to do was go to the municipal pool every day! Granted, that place is wonderful (they’ve got real grass, tons of shade, and several pretty pools, plus a nice café, etc), but they had no interest in seeing the real city, aside from visiting shops like Zara and H&M. Don’t get me wrong, the girls seems very nice, but they are the worst kind of tourists, and should be eliminated (from tourism, at least).

-sunsets from anywhere between the Royal Palace up to the Parque del Oeste. Picnic central. Great sunset over the Sierra of Madrid, light on the old town “skyline” of the cathedral and som other churches. In the summer there are live concerts or jazz or classical each night in the Plaza Oriente, and you can just sit back and take it in, have a drink at a café or sit on the grass and have a picnic. The other option is to run in the larger Parque del Oeste during this time, which is simply glorious, as the heat is dramatically reduced and you can see the color of the sky and trees change, and smell the pine in your lungs. (again, pics soon, I promise)

-partying with NYU undergrads who’d just finished summer courses in Madrid, some of whom were old students of mine. They were quite excited to get to discover that their teachers could party with the best of them. Highlights include trying not to stare too long at 18 year old girls, and going to the Pacha club and 3 of us being turned away-- me, because I was wearing shorts and sandals (didn't want to go in anyway), the other two, because they "didn't look right," which is always tought to hear when you are dressed up. Anyway we just went back to the other bar, where some crazy dancying ensued. I believe I have potentially incriminating photos and video.

-the Rastro on Sunday. This is one of the coolest markets anywhere, and certainly the place to be in Madrid on Sunday morning/afternoon, just as much for people watching as shopping. Clothes, accessories, knickknacks, touristy stuff, antiques, bags, shoes-- much of reasonable quality or better, and most at good prices. A thrilling throbbing mass of people walking up and down the long hilly shady street in search of the perfect bargain. A charming mix of natives, tourists, and pickpockets. After they close down at 2pmish, it’s time for lunch at neighboring La Latina, where the place is full of young cool-looking people eating and drinking out in the plaza, nestled under umbrella canopies. The perfect vibe (aside from the friggin cops; see below), unlike anywhere else I've been.

-police presence. Lowpoint. In order to enfore the infamous botellon law, the Madrid cops (just like those here in Barcelona), are out in force, roving bands of 4 or 8, and rather funny-looking in their neon yellow “pedestrian friendly” shirts. The civilian police are around just to make sure everything is chill, and that groups of people are not drinking in public areas. People chat with them and vice versa—they are not intimidating (on the contrary, the few I talked to were quite charming—probably because they appreciate being on what I’d call the “chaperone shift”. Their job is to ruin what used to be a good vibe. When we used to hang out in Plaza 2 de Mayo, the center of Malasana, we’d do so with litros in hand… others would be smoking joints. Same deal at the Rastro. These days it’s harder to find this (though it remains an ingrained part of youth culture) because the police drive around popular areas on their little motos, doing laps and wasting taxpayer money. People still hang out, and the scene remains lively around restaurants and cafes that set up in plazas—but still, the city has noticeably lost something. This isn't a black and white issue, because neighborhood residents have a right to sleep in peace; but still, my general feeling remains, "Bummer, dude."

biking in EUrope (not just Paris)

An article in IHT has me pissed off this morning.
[Tues morning, actually –ed.]

This kind of think might only irk me on another day, when I wasn't so pissed off about having my bike stolen. But then the article does happen to be about… bikes. How am I supposed to not be pissed off right now? I had a relationship with that bike. Can you guess how angry I am? Are the italics getting the point across?

So. The famously cool, openly gay mayor of Paris has finally willed into existence the largest public bike program in the history of Europe. Ooh la la! Granted, the Dutch and Germans are light years ahead in urban biking culture, but the scale of Paris’s program is stunning. Why? Possibly because the bikes weigh 50 kg and are retro cool and shiny silver… but more likely because, well, this is Paris. When a bird shits in Paris, the IHT sends some minion to report the details.

Meanwhile, other EUrocities have already introduced comparable programs--both Berlin and Vienna have had popular programs for over a year now. They may be smaller in scale, but they’re accomplishing the same goal: reducing car traffic and pollution, and getting people off their asses—well, that’s not true—keeping them on their asses, but at least making them responsible for moving them. It’s the same idea, and it’s revolutionizing these cities in the same way—so why isn’t it being reported on?

Operational since March, Barcelona’s Bicing has become a big hit. The Catalan I live with has already subscribed (there are now over 80,000 members), even though she has her own moto. The cute-enough red and white bikes are already ubiquitous in central Barcelona, and many stations are already totally empty in the middle of the day—another sign of success, but also of the need to amplify the infrastructure. Bicing’s home page (only Span/Catalan) will give you the full lowdown. In short, the genius is the simplicity of the system. You type in your code at a station, and pull out the bike. You have a couple of hours to return it to another station, where you again type in your code and are directed to a dock number. The time limit apparently encourages people to keep the bikes within city limits, as they are intended. With more and more stations around the city, it only becomes easier to find a bike wherever you are. And no worries about making an investment and then having it stolen by some asshole while you are, like, away on a trip.

The yearly charge for this incredibly useful service is too embarrassingly low for me, as an American, to share. However American cities, not without their own congestion problems, are beginning to take notice. Coincidentally, the NYT just ran an intelligent op-ed plea for Mayor Bloomberg to push for a similar program before he leaves office—now that it seems the London-inspired pay-to-drive plan, logical as it is, has failed to gain momentum. As a New Yorker and a biker (er, bicyclist?), I can’t overemphasize my support for such a program. Aside from how wonderful it is to imagine a bike-infested Manhattan, Haskell’s case makes financial sense. Check it out. Bikes are back, yo.

One last thing about Paris—the program is impressive because it is truly massive. And, as you can see, the bikes are kind of sleekly retro, in that uniquely French way that we hate to love. I do hope the plan works, because—as unfair as it is—the fact remains that if it works in a place like Paris, other megacities will have to adjust, if for no other reason than to maintain their competitivity in the “great cities of the world” pissing contest. (Hey: whatever you need to become better, I guess.)

Madrid: a tribute

The Royal Palace and Sabatini Gardens, sunset
La Almudena Cathedral and the Palace after sunset, taken from Parque del Oeste

I arrived in Madrid last Weds night, dropped my stuff and showered at a friend's place at 11, and we went out… until 5am. On Thurs nite, after a day full of walking around the city, we napped until 11pm and then went out until 6 (I remember smiling exhaustedly at the encroaching daylight outside). We were able to wake up at noon only because we knew we were going to the pool, where we could sleep more.

Now it's 8pm and I've been trying to work at a funky café/resto with WiFi for an hour, to limited success. The sky has that crystal clear late day brightness, and all I can think about is Plaza Oriente, with its epic sunsets that cross the Casa de Campo (forest) and bathe the Palacio Real in orange light. How wonderful to be back in Madrid. It was as if, because I wasn't actively "missing" Madrid, I'd forgotten how amazing it was. I felt kind of guilty. It probably has something to do with the current Barcelona phase/obsession—which just sort compounds the guilt (add to that the fact that I prefer Barcelona’s soccer team but Madrid’s tapas bar scene-- both fundamental elements in the quality of life equation-- and it gets very complicated; but more on that later). Coming back here, the city in its overwhelming beauty and fantastic vibe is speaking to me. It is saying: "This is why you lived here, fool. How quickly you forget, you ungrateful scum."
And I reply: "My dear Madrid, I'm so sorry. It will never happen again!"

So I went out and enjoyed it as much as possible… I walked till my feet hurt. I didn't get in 4 days and 5 nites to all the old haunts, but I got to many of them—and discovered some new ones. I was a man on a mission. And this time, for the first time, armed with a digital camera! Thus the sense of progress from my old days in Madrid, in 98 or 01-02—I'd moved up in the world! (Pics will be posted any day now.) It was highly rewarding to see that Madrid was by and large prettier and more impressive than I'd remembered it. Many renovations were finished, the neighborhoods boasted even more shops and bars, and things looked spiffy in general. While newer, northern Madrid is mostly a modern wasteland of financieros (finance types) and pijolandia (preppyville), the division makes it much easier to appreciate central, old Madrid, which is eminently walkable and overwhelmingly pretty.

Thanks again to M. for hosting me and our NYU colleagues for coming out and ripping it up with us in Malasaña, Huertas, and Latina. Hasta el otoño mis amigos!!