Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Swedish Chef

Whenever I travel abroad, especially to the Americas, I find myself constantly haunted by this figure. Maybe it has to do with that I am always cooking at people’s places when visiting? Anyway, last night, staying with my Polish friends in Brighton, I made the great IKEA success, the Swedish meatballs. And I am happy to report that they were highly appreciated.

Unfortunately something sad happened yesterday as well. I lost my new €350 Olympus digital camera which had brought me so much joy over the last weeks. It was this typical situation when you leave it unattended for one minute and someone simply takes it.

I am thinking of sending a claim of compensation to Mrs Margareth Thatcher, personally.

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Friday, June 29, 2007

Under my umbrella

Whenever my friend hears "in an ever more globalized world", he feels like reaching for his revolver. So, how about this?

I am having a jacket potato down by the English channel, chicken, bacon, avocado, the Barbadian singer Rihanna with "Under my umbrella" playing at a high volume, incidentally the same music as in that Pristina internet cafe where I composed my post on Unmikistan, then, reaching for my coke I am surprised by its cyrillic letters, and even more surprised when I read "Prishtinë - Shkup" on the can!

It is a small world nowadays, ehh?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

At the sea


Today, the journey took me south, in fact all the way down to the Atlantic ocean in Brighton where I (surprisingly enough) plan to stay for the coming days…

On the train I read an article in The Guardian by one of my favourite journalists, Timothy Garton Ash, who apparently has traded Central Europe for Brazil this summer. Writing about the favelas of Sao Paulo, he asks how long Brazil will be able to sustain its liberal democracy with such extremes of inequality, poverty, social exclusions, crime, drugs and lawlessness?

It is clearly a warranted question. Witnessing the affluence in Cambridge last night made me once again aware of the urgent need for progressive politics, both within and between the countries of the world. As I have argued elsewhere, I believe we have a unique opportunity to strike a global Fordian compromise between the capital intensive North and the labour intensive South. Instead of keeping billions of people at subsistence level (or, more often, below), we should recognize that we all are to gain from development. This is why I felt so saddened last weak when learning that the G4 group failed to reach an agreement, further squandering the already slim chances of success for the Doha round of free trade negotiations.

As always, the problem this time was agriculture, a sector in which both the European Union and the US pursue insane policies of over-production, dumping and subsidies – all at the expense of the global poor, especially in Africa. The current regime, in combination with the ongoing securitization of migration, creates a sense of ultimate despair, perhaps most evident in the thousands of people who every year drown in the waters of Malta or the Canary Islands, trying to make their way into Festung Europa.

Eddie – the dog

Walking Hills Rd up it felt kind of surreal to be greeted by Lars and Eddie, his wonderful, oversized, half Australian Shepherd and half Christiania-mix-everything-breed dog. Just before we met I had written a post here on Rawls & Me. But for the second time in less than I month I felt deeply unsatisfied with the post so I decided to delete it.

This time, I was troubled because it felt like my words were directed to someone special when, in fact, my only intention was to reflect on certain life experiences of my own. In any case, I realised that the post was on the far side of that thin line between personal and private. So, deleted.

But Cambridge is pretty - as always.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Transfer

The Airbus made a safe descent through the dark rain clouds and at 8.27 p.m. we finally rolled out on runway 05L/23R at Manchester International Airport. The flight had taken me away from a Denmark which, for some metaphysical reason, felt surprisingly empty today.

Barring something unforeseen I now have nine days on the British Isles which I will split evenly between work and leisure. Tomorrow I am going down to Cambridge to meet my old-time friend Lars who now works as a computer specialist at a bioinformatics company. It will be great to meet him again and enjoy that special kind of nerd-humour:

"98.5% of DNA is considered to be junk DNA with no known purpose. Maybe it is XML tags?"

Next Monday the conference starts at Mansfield college and I am now frenetically reading through all the papers. Besides presenting I will chair one session and be discussant on another so I can count on an intensive week in Oxford.

After all my travels it does take a certain effort to restart the professional part of one’s mind. Contractual justice has felt very distant over the last weeks. On the other hand, I have read a lot about world affairs and especially Balkan contemporary history. And I guess I will take some of that with me into my teaching this coming fall.

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Saturday, June 23, 2007

Lainz allein

It has been said that "nichts ist so öde wie ein Sommer allein". That may be true, but this Saturday morning I intentionally sought the solitude.

First, 12 km of running through Schönbrunner Schloßpark. Then, a long hike through Lainzer Tiergarten, alone. Luckily, the wild boars were not too interested in my sushi.


- And Gabriel, it nags me that I missed the bronze statue this time around. Perhaps I can get a second chance next summer, how about two weeks in Tajikistan?

Friday, June 22, 2007

Halušky midsummer

On midsummer's eve, my Viennese friend Markus and I decided to take the train to the Slovakian capital. It is a quick 7 euro ride with die Wiesel and a good way for me to slowly reduce my daily intake of Eastern Europe :-)

In Bratislava we had the Slovakian-Hungarian speciality of Halušky, in fact very similar to the local food from where I come in Sweden ("kroppkakor") but the Slovakian edition does not come in the shape of dumplings. We also went strolling through the old town, had coffee at a place called Hemingway's. All very postmodern.

This has to be short post since my internet minutes are running out but I would just like to wish you all a very happy midsummer! And take care, especially if you are going somewhere where the internet may not be as allgegenwärtig as in Britain.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Vienna

According to Lonely Planet Eastern Europe, the parties in Studentski grad never stop. I believe it to be true. Vague memories of Ukrainian punk rock mixed with consenso, smoke-filled apartments and too many Long Island Iced Tea. At 2 a.m. I freaked out.

Landing at Wien Schwechat on runway 11/29 felt like returning home. Ahead of me I now have two days in the Austrian capital. Tonight I plan to take some sushi with me out to Lainzer Tiergarten and start my new healthy life :-)

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Studentski grad

After a week on the road, Gabriel and I find ourselves in one of the many lounge bars of Sofia. And, truth to be told, we are both rather exhausted. A late night out in Pristina left us with only three hours of sleep before we had to take the 05.30 bus down to Skopje in Macedonia and then onwards to the Bulgarian capital...

Our Balkan shuffle is drawing to its end. Tomorrow our flight will take us back to Vienna, our starting point. Nine countries in seven days; not one night have we slept in the same country. Some may rightfully find this hectic. But this is, by all means, a first reconnaissance, a broad sweep. And all the time, we find layers upon layers of languages, culture and contemporary history in the making.

I would say that, above all, one thing stands out from this journey and that is the momentum which these countries are gaining. People educate themselves, spend summers in England working the fields, and return home eager to build a better future. At the same time, old prejudices are never far away, as especially visible towards the sizeable minorities of Roma people who live in these countries and who still suffer tremendous hardship. But the general tone has to be a positive one. Strolling the streets of Sofia tonight we come across dozens of posh restaurants, not inhabited by ex-pats or tourists but by locals. To me, that is a clear indication that the centre of gravity in Europe is steadily moving east.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Unmikistan

By nightfall, a heavy rain was indeed upon us. Not in Macedonia though, but in the territory which once constituted the autonomous province of Kosovo and whose citizens today carry blue passports issued by UNMIK, or “United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo” as the full name reads.

Following a series of highly debated articles in Dagens Nyheter by Maciej Zaremba, Gabriel and I decided to head north from Skopje.

After a long hour at the border post, the gate was finally raised, and with the green light our bus was allowed to continue its journey towards Pristina. Having witnessed the burgeoning affluence of Macedonia, especially around the highly scenic Lake Ohrid, we expected a sharp contrast on the other side. And of course, you do see how deep the scars go in this country, how many buildings that have been destroyed by conflict and loathing. But what is even more striking is the normality, the everyday security which the UN mission seems to have brought; children playing basketball in the streets, the latte macchiato under the trees, and the billboards advertising tripple-play (that is, broadband internet, tv and telephony in a single price plan).

Nonetheless, and especially considering that today is World Refugee Day, enormous difficulties remain. Unemployment is pervasive at around 40-50% of the labour force, 250 000 people are still refugees or displaced from the war, and corruption is endemic. And it is a tragedy everytime a great institution like the UN falls vicitim to nepotism, favoritism and mismanagement. All of which seems to have been widely practiced here in Kosovo.

Yet, it is unrealistic to expect improvements to be instantenous. It takes time to build a working democracy and a prosperous economy, and sometimes, haste can be an impediment in itself. Since the war in 1999, 30 billion euro has been spent in Kosovo, a land area about one-third the size of Nordrhein-Westfalen with no traditional industrial base. Even more problematic, the international presence has created a "mission economy" of its own with countless latte bars, "king burger"-restaurants (sic!) and internet cafés like this one. One day, when the UN eventually leaves, they will most likely leave behind a black hole. Even so, my own immediate (and obviously unscientific) assesment has to be a lot more optimistic than Zaremba's. This is a living city and I recommend everyone to come and visit it.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Before the rain

How strange that I have come to write this with a white pen, taken from a London hotel, as I travel through the Macedonian night. Shifting scenes, just as in the movie by Mančevski.

An decrepit ex-Italian Railways train took us away from Tirana. To the very end, Albania left me bewildred. We found our safe haven though, Tirana Backpacker Hostel, situated in an old Italian villa in the diplomatic quarters. I can only recommend it.


60 hours remain until we have to be in Sofia for our flight back to Vienna. We travel so easily between these worlds, the people here do not. Not even those who could afford it.

To get an EU Schengen visa requires a considerable amount of determination and financial resources. Not only do you have to go to your country's capital for an interview, but you have to pay all accomodation and travelling in advance, giving proofs that you hold sufficient funds to live well in the EU country you plan to visit. No cheap kebabs there.

This strict visa regime, more than anything else, alienates the young generation in many countries bordering the EU. Instead of integration and (at least formal) equality, the present regulations make it absolutely clear to these people that they are second class citizens, forever separated from roaming backpackers like ourselves.

Some would say that greater freedom of movement would cause crime. That is most likely true. Yet, after the wars in Yugoslavia, we should know that the long-term price of nationalism tends to be considerably higher than that of petty crime. And expelling a whole generation from our EasyJet-existence seems to be an exceptionally effective way of fuelling such murky sentiments.

La Grande Bouffe

The Tirana night turned out to be a long one. At 3 a.m. we were still sitting in the garden, drinking Slovenian šnopc (thank you Zeleno) and discussing old movies. Someone brought up "La Grande bouffe". Said and done, Gabriel and I realized that we could not leave Tirana without staging a really good brunch...


Sunday, June 17, 2007

Tiranë nights

A crowded night train brought us down to the coast, to Montenegro and Sutomore, a small town which never really has left my imagination since I was there at the age of 12 and fell in love.

Long gone; Gabriel and I went swimming, recovering after a night tightly confined to our "sitzplätze" in the train compartment. After a few relaxing hours at the Adriatic Sea, we embarked on a surprisingly quick journey. Using a combination of minibuses and taxis we managed to get all the way to Tirana for just 25 euro per person, all in little less than five hours.

Our first impression of Albania: bunkers. The dictator, Enver Hoxha, built around 750 000 of them during the Cold War to protect the country from foreign aggression. Or maybe, more likely, from internal revolution.

To me, Albania has always been the very defintion of a "white spot on the map" and it feels strange to realize that tonight I am walking the streets of Tirana. It is too early for any witten observations, I can only fill in what others already have said about the city: that it is amazing what a little paint can do (there is an ordinance saying that grey concrete buildings are to be given bright, if not outlandish, paint jobs), that it looks a bit like Italy, and that the dire poverty is still very present.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Belgrade mornings

Belgrade morning, though it is already 1.15 p.m.

Walking from the station to the youth hostel was a necessary history lesson; bombed-out buildings revealing their surreal interior of electric wires, rebar beam cages and debris of what once served as government offices. Signs of war less than a decade old.

At the same time: the trams, the tremulous radiance of a Friday summer night, people walking around with ice-creams in their hands. The Bohemian quarters, the cold beer on the porch of "Idiott" at Dalmatinska 13; this could have been anywhere in south-east Europe.

At 3 a.m. in the morning we get back to the hostel. Over-tired I decide to type in the blog post I had written in my notepad on the warm train from Ljubljana. I struggle with the words, with finding the right tone. Afterwards I realize that I failed nonetheless, becoming patronizing in exactly the way I wanted to avoid. So I delete the post, virtual memory loss. The blogosphere does not need another liberal complaining about corruption.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Again the roads are silent

Night has fallen. Distant American voices here at Metelkova; old army barracks turned graffiti playground, youth hostel and club scene.

I flip one of the last pages in my newly acquired collection of poems by Tomaž Šalamun and read out:

"again the roads are silent, dark peace
again there are bees, honey, silent green fields
willows by the rivers, stones at the bottom of the valleys
hills in the eyes, sleep in the animals"

Six hours of train ride to get here from Vienna durch die Steiermark. Stunning landscapes and enough time to sink into the reflective mood necessary to digest poetry. "mellan mål".

But also enough time to give me second thoughts about the whole enterprise. Tomorrow we will begin our journey through lands scarred by recent war. Under such circumstances, the "lonely planet enthusiasm" has to yield, by what right do we travel through these countries? What do we know of the people here and their experiences?

Do get me right. I truly believe that returning tourism, even trains fully loaded with backpackers like ourselves, is an important first step towards political normalization. But there is clearly no eurodisney-land lying ahead of us. As a European one has an enormous responsibility for what happened in the Balkans during the nineties. The way the EC first gave out big loans to finance industrial investments and then kept Yugoslavia outside its impenetrable custom wall. A policy which effectively created enough unemployement, inflation and hurt national pride to pave the way for leaders like Franjo Tuđman and Slobodan Milošević.

Wars do not break out by themselves. There is always a history and not necessarily one of irreconcilable "identities". One purpose of our trip is to seek out sentiments of Yugostalgia; people who, when the war broke out, did not want to be Serbs nor Croats but rather remain Yugoslavians or simply, humans.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Wien, 16. Bezirk.

All that is solid melts into air as Marx would have said. Over and over again. In such uncertain times there is undoubtely a comfort in returning: to get off the red S-train at Gersthof, to walk down through the wine yards from Kahlenberg or to have that portion of Spinatnockerln at 7sternbräu and to discover that it is just as formidable as you remembered it...

This time I also have my friend and co-blogger Gabriel with me. Together we flew into Vienna during the early morning hours and are now getting ready for the ultimate "apocalypsa balkanika": Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and Bulgaria - all in 7 days.

As for web logs, I will do my best to transmogrify my experiences during this trip into something intelligible, so stay tuned. But for those of you gazing even further to the East I regret to inform you that this trip will not be followed by 40 days in Asia as earlier announced. Thanks to the magic mysteries of award travel I was able to cancel my ticket free of charge. So instead I am now looking forward to a summer in Scandinavia and, hopefully, also in Germany.