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!!

Euro kicking dollar’s ass

The IHT has interviewed American tourists in various Euro capitals--and they're pissed off! The consensus is that Europe remains a lovely place to visit but man is it fucking expensive!

Welcome to my world, people. When I moved to Spain in July 2001, they were on the peseta, rents were manageable, and I’d usually get a free tapita with my beer. How times change! (Does this mean I’m actually getting old?) Now, the peseta is a piece of folklore, and the time when a dollar equalled a euro is receding deeper into the hazy memory of early expatdom.

In fact, the dollar has reached a record low against the euro and a 26-yr low against the Brit Pound. So it’s payback time for Europeans who’ve always hesitated to visit New York. With the euro up to 37% stronger (and climbing), that week in Manhattan is suddenly possible. Not to mention a 2 day escape to, say, Vegas, where that saved cash can be blown on those universal leisure pursuits, gambling and prostitution.

For us Americans, however, times is hard. Especially for young people. Typical expat jobs like language teaching or bartending/waiting don’t pay very well to begin with, so the ‘advantage’ of getting paid in euros as opposed to dollars isn’t really that great, since the overall salary sucks. On the other hand, if you’re an American getting paid in dollars (like me, though my salary is nothing to write home about), you have to chop off 30% to get your euro equivalent. Poof! And I remember the Parisian days when I couldn’t wait to convert my euro bank account into dollars… what goes around, poof!

Americans have treated Europe like their default vacation destination for a long time, but the time has come to consider South America and Asia as legitimate options. Most of those places are still “cheap” for us, though expensive airfare may deter short trips. The thing is, those places, while surely more exotic than most Euro destinations, still don’t occupy nearly the same sanctified place in our collective mindset as EUrope: despite the economic hardship, the number of US tourists in EUrope has continued to increase as the dollar has fallen. That speaks to the sheer size of our upper middle (and upper) class: we've got more than enough well-off families and their ignorant, spoiled children to fill every internet cafe and hostel on this puny Continent!

And in the end, what’s the big difference between spending $2000 and $2600 on your trip? (I won’t answer that.)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Germany, Russia and US

So here’s the political maneuvering question of the day: If you were Mild-Mannered Miss Merkel and someone in your governing coalition said that Germany should keep equidistance between Russia and the US, how would you, as chancellor, react?

John Vinocur, lover of political intrigue and rancor, thinks you must “crush” the statement.

From both political and IR standpoints, this is kind of juicy. The question of whether Germany is appeasing or warming up to Russia, -- and, consequently, distancing itself from the US—is inevitable, isn't it? Especially under the bizarre condition of Shroeder’s working directly for Putin over at Gazprom. That aside, Germany can't actually be big and strong enough to act in its own interest as much as possible, right? Because that would be totally crazy. (Because they’re all militarists at heart, so we need to keep an eye on them, even after they’ve become the most ridiculously peace-loving and green G8 country…) Germany would do well to remember who its friends are! While, at the same time, the American president cozies up to Putin and invites him over to Kennebunkport to chat with Daddy. 

The implication is clear: we can--to put it nicely-- toe the line with Russia, but when Germany does anything resembling same, they are appeasing their old enemies. This is positively Rovian. Vinocur is very insightful but blatantly hypocritical-- unless, of course, you subscribe to a realpolitik wherein double standards are unavoidable because some countries are bigger and stronger than others, and have more on their plates, like the US. In that case, it's the same old Cold War mindset in a radically different world: "Dearest Allies, do as we say, not as we do, mkay?"

What’s Russia ever going to do, after all, in this peaceful post-Cold War world? It's not like Russia's going to be a threat, like, militarily. They're not going to invade any Western country—not in this day and age. Democracies don’t get into wars, right? (They may well rumble with China, but that'd just be good fun for us Westerners!)

So there's that. Then there's the internal German political intrigue, which I know less about. I have no idea who this parliamentarian is, aside from being a member of Merkel's ruling coalition. So you'd think that MMMMerkel would just shut him up. But it seems to me there’s a possibily that such a statement would have support in Parliament, given the unspoken anti-US feeling in Germany since Bush took over. Perhaps Germany can afford to be a bit more multilateral in their foreign policy without distancing itself from the US. It’s hard to say because MMMMerkel never says anything bold or confrontational—it’s not her style. (Which is another reason why her relationship with Sarkozy is going to be fun to watch.) She prefers to remain quietly confident in public and firm behind closed doors, and concentrates on getting results. It has been an effective enough strategy for her, but it’s boooo-ring! I’m so not amused! I want fireworks, quotable quotes, controversy! Miss Mild Mannered Merkel, I implore you to say something exciting—preferably about Germany between the US and Russia. But anything at all will do. For chrissakes, you’re more boring than Munich on a Tuesday night!

chicas Obama v Hillary (takes a global village)

This has nothing to do with Spain or Europe, aside from the fact that copycat “films” are likely to pop up in the near future somewhere on the Continent (let me know if you see any lovely French girls fawning for Sarko). It’s incredibly silly, and feminists are going to get pissed off, etc, but it’s totally entertaining. It’s worth the three minutes, anyway.

This is an entirely logical addition to the media and entertainment spectacle that is contemporary Western culture (dominated by the US, but alive & well across EUrope). It’s entertainment dressing up as newstainment. As Obama himself noted in reaction to the question of whether his tribute was organized by the Obamachine (it was not), it’s just a sign of all the creativity out there, and you’re going to see a lot more of it.

As we all know, YouTube has made history by creating a limitless forum for slightly creative people to put out slightly entertaining, slightly intelligent, but mostly silly crap that we can all watch during work (or during class, which I discovered last Spring sitting in on an undergrad course— how sad I felt for the various students watching YouTube or playing poker during lecture! And angry, too: once I almost got up and broke some guy’s laptop over his head because he was reading for like 30 minutes—which is 25 mins too long—while the professor was talking about immigration in Europe). So these political sex kitten videos are quite predictable. Take a culture that adores fame and beauty and television, give it the wealth and tech capacity to make the masses into video artists, and you’re going to have even more of these videos than blogs. Which is saying something. But the videos are the pinnacle of a visual culture in which several captioned images trump a single detailed explanation.

Take the "hott4hill" video, which is brilliant, but serves more than anything as a careerbooster for the young (22) actress behind it. What she needs now is exposure, and accessing the political world and its attending media circus by reacting to the Obama video is pure genius. The whole thing took her 5 days, and now she’s doing TV interviews. It’s really an amazing turnaround. My good natured soul says “good for her, ” because it was (kind of) smart and creative; my head-shaking moralist disdains the manipulation of politics and art for the sake of “exposure”.

The newspaper headline “Chica Barack contra Chica Hillary reminds me of just how prescient Marshall McLuhan’s vision was. Back in the 1960s, he foresaw the global village we were becoming. This meant the collapse of the then very real spacial and temporal limitations through an enhanced communication technology that would allow all of us to plug in to a worldwide real-time information system, an eventual metaculture of sorts. With the digital revolution, that system is coming into shape: the internet, digital and satellite technology, and increasing portability and accessibility. And because the sheer quantity of information society cannot be organized into categories, we have an inevitable blurring of the old categories of fact and opinion, news and entertainment, academia and creativity/art, public and private, etc. Navigating one’s way through this jungle is only going to get more challenging, as a higher percentage of our lives goes online, from email to myspace to professional profiles… we’ll slowly realize the ultimate irony of postmodern life: as it is made materially and informationally easier, life will also speed up as we do more (especially entertain ourselves), and personal relationships will be spread thin as we meet more people… as globalization imposes more of a collective identity on everyone, local and regional tribalism will backlash against the trend, as the classic idea of the individual will struggle not to get devoured in a digital sea of information where one can be anything one wants and is therefore nothing at all... our notions of identity will be altered inexorably.

I thank the Obama and Hillary girls for being such yummy food for thought.