Monday, August 6, 2007
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.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)?
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.
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).
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
- challenged the independence of the Euro Bank, contending that the overvalued euro is hurting French exports;
- been adamantly against Turkey’s EU candidacy and instead proposed a Mediterranean Union;
- hired no fewer than 3 prominent Socialists into his cabinet (more on that shakeup later).
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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?
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).
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?
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
Some highlights from
-Informal live flamenco in
-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
-sunsets from anywhere between the
-partying with NYU undergrads who’d just finished summer courses in
-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."
[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
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,
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
One last thing about
The Royal Palace and Sabatini Gardens, sunset
La Almudena Cathedral and the Palace after sunset, taken from Parque del Oeste
I arrived in
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
And I reply: "My dear
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
Thanks again to M. for hosting me and our NYU colleagues for coming out and ripping it up with us in Malasaña, Huertas, and