Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Sweden

I'm now on the plane from Gothenburg to London, flying over the Northern tip of Denmark at the moment. No the plane doesn't have wireless (I wish), but I'm just writing this offline and I'll publish it when I get home. The Gothenburg conference was very fruitful, I made a lot of contacts and it gave me a clearer picture of our magazine's ideal target audience, which will be helpful for the conference we're planning on organizing in San Francisco early next year.

Gothenburg itself was nothing special, pretty small. It is the second biggest city in Sweden, but I guess that's not saying much. One amusing anecdote from the conference, during one of the main sessions someone's cell phone went off, and I think they get the prize for the most embarrassing ring tone to go off at a very bad time. The speaker was in the middle oh a rather passionate speech about IP reform when all of a sudden a blaring police siren went off somewhere in the room. Everyone looked around a bit confused, thinking maybe it was a fire alarm. Then a familiar tune started, and I realized it was, I kid you not, the theme song for the cartoon "Inspector Gadget." It begins with a police siren. And I thought my ring tone was embarrassing! (It's Mason's Exceeder).

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Copenhagen-Malmo

I’m now on a train from Malmo to Gothenburg in Sweden. The high-speed trains here have internet access which is VERY nice. Especially since I’ve had a hell of a time getting access to internet the last few days. Copenhagen was fun, it’s a lot more cosmopolitcan than I would have imagined. The town hall square is just packed full of neon lights, kind of like Times Square as a medieval centre. I hit all the requisite sites, including the little mermaid statue, which yes, is very small.

Here are some things that there are a lot of in Copenhagen:

-7/11s
-bicycles
-squares
-Americans

There really were tons of Americans there, you couldn’t shake a stick without hitting one (and not just because they’re so fat). Even beyond just Americans, you hear tons of English there. So much so that there’s no need to ask if someone speaks English before you just start speaking, as opposed to France or Germany where that would be rude and somewhat presumptuous (I did ask the Danes I met if they were ok with that). 7/11 seems to have taken over all of Scandinavia, it’s almost eery. Literally there’s one on every corner.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Cologne-Hamburg

I’ve just arrived in Copenhagen, I’m at a café on the harbor with my laptop. It’s a bit cold to be sitting on the harbor for this long, but it seems like something one should do when traveling across Europe in the 21st century. The train ride here from Hamburg was really cool. Long, but cool. The train actually goes right onto a ferry and then the ferry crosses over to Denmark, then continues making its way on to Copenhagen. You can get out of the train and walk around too, it’s nice. Here’s a photo of the ferry.

Cologne did not dissapoint in its debauchery. Me and Hale went to this huge party at a club under the bridge that leads to the zoo. It was quite far but apparently there was this gay bus full of the gays picking people up and bringing them there. I thought the bus was just about the funniest thing I had seen in my life. Of course by that point we had finished off a whole bottle of rum so I was pretty amused by just about anything. The club was pretty crazy, here’s a picture of that too (love that cameraphone). Thursday was a holiday in Germany, the day of the ascension, so noone had work the next day. After that club we went to another club somewhere (who knows) and ended up staying there till 7:30 in the morning, at which point I realized my plan to catch a 9:10 train to Hamburg didn’t make a whoile lot of sense, so I decided to just head right to the train station and get the next train to Hburg.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Frankfurt

I'm here at the Cleantech Conference in Frankfurt, overall it's pretty interesting. This is my first time in this city (apart from the numerous times I've transfered through the airport), and the first thing you notice is how incredibly un-European it is. It really feels like an American City (an impression aided by the fact that there's tons of Americans here). The downtown is made up of tons of tall skyscrapers, and there's really no quaint "old town" area to speak of. The general impression I get from Germans is that it's maybe their least favorite city in the country (well, aside from Dresden!) beause it doesn't have much character, and feels just like a big conglomeration of skyscrapers. Kind of like if you made Canary Wharf into a whole city.

But, it has some flavour to it I suppose. I went out with my friend Sasha, who I haven't seen since I was in Pragut five years ago, last night. Him and his boyfriend (pictured left) took me out to this great sushi restaurant and then went to the gay neighborhood to a bar there. The city was all pretty quiet, but that was I'm sure partially due to the fact that Thursday is some kind of holiday here and everyone is saving their energy for tonight. We went to a karaoke night at this bar (pictured above), it was fun, reminded me of Pieces back in the day. One thing that was interesting was they give you this card when you go in the door, and when you order a drink the bartender swipes your card rather than taking your money. When you leave, they swipe your card to find out how much you spent on drinks, and you settle up there on the spot. It's a great system because it frees the bartenders up so you get your drinks faster. Those Germans, so efficient!

I'm on a break at this conference, here's a picture of where I am right now. Ha I love pointlessly using technology. I'm going to some panel discussions this afternoon and then I hop on the express train to Cologne to hang out with Hale. I haven't gotten much sleep this trip, and I have to be on a 9:15 train to Hamburg tomorrow morning. Hopefully I can sleep on that train, but that's doubtful.

auf wiedersehen

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Monday, 14 May 2007

My first Eurovision

I'm here in Munich, the weather's been absolutely amazing, such a nice change from London which has been rainy for weeks now. I got here Saturday and was a little bummed about the timing because Saturday night was the Eurovision Grand Prix, and a friend of mine in London was having a party for it. I've been so excited about being able to see Eurovision this year! It's this gigantic contest that's been going on for decades where each country in Europe holds a contest to select one song to compete for the nation, and then all the nations compete in a final round. It's a huge big deal, like the superbowl or something. I went outside to grab something to eat during it Saturday night and noticed it was like a ghost town. Everyone was inside watching the Grand Prix!

Sadly I just had to watch it in my hotel but it was still fun because I was messaging my friends all over Europe while it was on, and it was pretty cool that everyone was watching the same thing. The two favorites to win this year were Sweden and Ukraine, but the actual winner was Serbia. It was interesting because the Ukraine entry was a drag queen, the Swedish entry was this sort of glam rock guy with a feather boa and lipstick, and the Serbian entry was a lesbian (I think?). Apparently this is just about the gayest contest ever. I was routing for Ukraine, they were so freakin great (here's the video below). Sadly they didn't, and the Serbian won. She was ok though, although I didn't understand what was going on in the song. It's just her wailing about something in Serbian surrounded by beautiful models comforting her. She's a good singer, but come on, Ukraine was AWESOME! At least they came in second.


Munich's been fun, much better than my last visit here five years ago. Last night I went to this gigantic beer garden with this guy I met Saturday night. He's a doctor and we were talking about health insurance here. Did you know Germany doesn't have national healthcare? I was shocked. They have a kind of hybrid public/private system where people who make under 40,000 euros a year can buy insurance off the state, and their employer contributes. But you don't have get get health insurtance, it's not required. Still, he said, probably 99 percent of people do, even though if you're unemployed it can be quite expensive. I think I may have made some assumptions about healthcare in Europe that aren't true, this will require some further investigation.

One thing that's funny about Munich is people seem to obsessively follow the walk signals. It doesn't matter if it's the middle of the night and there isn't a car for miles. If the walk signal is red, they'll just stand there on the street corner and wait. It's very strange.

Tomorrow I head to Frankfurt for a conference on Wednesday. I'll see my friend Sasha there who i haven't seen in five years, and then it's off to Cologne to visit Hale.


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Thursday, 10 May 2007

Fannies and packies

I’ve been telling two highly embarrassing stories about miscommunications here in the UK, and people keep telling me I should put them in a blog. So I figured I’d write an entry about some of the difficulties of being an American surrounded by British English, which sometimes feels like a whole other language. Some are just minorly confusing, while others have caused big misunderstandings!

The first came just a few weeks after I arrived here. I was in the break room with a group of my coworkers and we were discussing a project that needed to get done. They were saying that a certain woman in the office needed to get to work on it because she hadn’t done anything so far. So I said,

“She just needs some pressure on her, give her a little kick in the fanny.”

The room went silent. They stared back at me with expressions of horror and disgust. And I left completely puzzled as to why it got so quiet after I said that.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Welcome to the new France

As predicted, Nicolas Sarkozy became the new president of France on Sunday, ushering in what most observers are predicting will be a new era for France. The outcome of this new era, however, is far from certain, and the apprehension in the country is palpable.

The rioting Sunday night in response to Sarkozy’s win was underwhelming by French standards (really, I expect better from the Gauls!). The margin wasn’t razor thin but it definitely wasn’t a landslide either, the 53-47 split being wider than what the polls had showed just after the first round election.

The reaction to the outcome has been interesting. UK press coverage has been more thoughtful, examining the complexities of the election and what it means for Europe as a whole. US coverage has been, on the whole, misleading and inaccurate. A sampling of some of the US headlines for the result on Google News includes, “Pro-US Sarkozy wins French Presidency” But the idea that this election result had anything to do with the US is a stretch. Though the US media has painted Sarkozy as “pro-US” because of a visit he made to the Bush White House a few years ago, Sarkozy’s win was only made possible because he barely mentioned the US throughout his campaign. In fact it was his supposed friendliness toward the US that was considered one of his biggest vulnerabilities. The little bit that he did mention the US was only to affirm that he would not be a “US poodle,” a reference to the nickname given to Tony Blair by the Brits because of his sycophancy in the Iraq war.

Actually the US coverage in general (especially in evidence in that first link to the Fredericksburg article) really demonstrates the complete lack of understanding of European politics in the US media. For the US to refer to Sarkozy as “right-wing,” without context is pretty misleading to a US reader considering the European political scale is drastically to the left of its American counterpart and Sarkozy would be a Democrat if he were in the US. But the biggest area in which US media is getting this wrong is in their obsessive naval-gazing. This election had nothing to do with France’s ties to the US, it was about European socialism’s failure to adjust to a changing world in the era of globalization.

The biggest thing one needs to keep in mind with this election result is that the French people wanted to vote for Socialist candidate Royal but felt they needed to vote for conservative candidate Sarkozy. People generally don’t like him as a man, but came to the conclusion that France needed to drastically change course and he was the only candidate offering that change. In fact most French people I’ve talked to about Sarkozy said they would never vote for him for a second term, even if the first term was quite a success. Perhaps it’s a bit like Thatcher in the UK. They need someone tough to break the unions and change the country’s direction toward economic reforms, but once you’re done, get out.

One also needs to keep in mind that the French election didn’t happen in a vacuum and is actually the latest in a series of centre-right victories in Europe. Just last Thursday the Labour Party lost control of the Scottish Parliament to the Scottish National Party in local elections there, which wants Scotland to secede from the UK. It’s the first time Labour hasn’t dominated Scotland in fifty years. Last September, Sweden's Social Democrats were voted out of power by a young dynamo promising economic reforms and curbs to the traditionally cherished Scandinavian welfare system. And in 2005 Angela Merkel led the centre-right party of Germany to victory over the Social Democrats in Germany.

The election results in Southern Europe have been the opposite, but they’ve been real squeekers. Zapatero narrowly won a bid to become Prime Minister directly after the Madrid train bombing. Romano Prodi barely won election last year in Italy and his government nearly collapsed last month because of its razor-thin grip on power.

So what does all this mean? It comes down to idealism versus practicality. Europe is proud of its unique social model and the guarantees European countries can offer each one of their citizens. Europe’s Democratic Socialist triumph over the last 50 years has led to universal healthcare in all countries, generous unemployment benefits, and a quality of life unrivaled in the entire world. In fact in the quality of life rankings that come out every year, the top ten are always European cities, and you don’t start seeing American cities until you get into the 20’s.

All of this progress was made possible by the combination of peace, security and rebuilding that Europe enjoyed following World War II. Strong labour unions were able to negotiate decent wage agreements for workers and protectionist policies ensured that all people were guaranteed a basic standard of living. Because Europe could rely on NATO (aka the United States) for military protection, it was able to spend virtually nothing on its defence budgets, using that money instead to support generous social programs for its citizens.

But two key things have changed. The end of the Cold War means that the US no longer has a vested interest in protecting Europe, and the Iraq War has led many to conclude that the military goals of the US and Europe may no longer be compatible in the future. This means Europe is going to have to come up with the money to develop a viable standing force capable of self defense. At the same time, the forces of globalisation have dealt a shock blow to the continent’s traditional social system. Heightened competition has meant French workers, for instance, now have to compete with workers all over the world. And why would an employer hire in France, where they have to guarantee workers employment for life and can’t make them work more than 35 hours a week, when they can hire workers in India and China with virtually no restrictions. The basic premise of Democratic Socialism, to produce economic growth that lifts up the poor and the middle class as well as the rich, has now been challenged. And the European left hasn’t found a convincing strategy to address that challenge yet. So Europeans, uneasy about what the future holds for them and wishing to stay competitive in a modern world, are turning to the centre-right for answers.

And the centre-right is providing answers, although it remains to be seen whether they will work. Sarkozy promised that by deregulating the labour market, he could create more growth and more jobs. Royal, on the other hand, seemed to just be advocating the status quo, the maintenance and even expansion of France’s generous social protections.

So what lessons can be drawn from this for American progressives? In a great editorial in the Washington Post today, E.J. Dionne Jr. says that the American left should think about the frustrations that are making Europeans turn to the right for answers, but not to get carried away trying to draw analogies. He writes:
It would be a mistake to draw too many American lessons from the troubles of European social democrats. For one thing, the social insurance system is much weaker in the United States than in Europe, where even conservatives support substantial government provision for health care and child care. If European voters seem willing to gamble on a bit less security because they have a lot of it, American voters now seem inclined to ask for more because they have so little.
I think this observation is dead on. Sure, in the US there’s still widespread “welfare-bashing,” but it’s mostly stemming from ignorance and sometimes racism. The biggest complaint you hear from the US working class is not that they’re receiving too many social benefits. Some of the biggest complaints of US voters today are about the terrible state of US healthcare, the outsourcing of US jobs and the steady increase in the number of Americans living in poverty. All of these things are the result of the weak (now defunct really) US labor movement and the lack of social protections. So as globalization makes Europe reexamine the generosity of its social system, it may make Americans reexamine the stinginess of theirs. This could create an interesting scenario where the two blocks each move away from their extremes and meet in the center.

Of course, this would be the logical way for people to vote and if Democracy has taught us anything its that people (especially in the US) often don't cast their votes based on well-thought-out logic. But regardless of what happens in the US, one thing is certain. Sunday’s vote is going to drastically reshape the direction of not only France, but of the EU as a whole. And as much as I don’t like Sarkozy, he may be the only one who can revive the stalled EU-building process and move it firmly in the direction of being a viable political union.

Thursday, 3 May 2007

Le Débat

I watched the French presidential debate last night on France24 and all I can say is, wow! Very different from a US presidential debate. The candidates directly faced each other and it got very heated and personal, with Sego calling Sarko “immoral” and Sarko saying Sego was unhinged and hysterical. I could have done without the personal nastiness but all in all I found it much more informative and substantive than a US debate.

As I have written about before, socialist candidate Segolene Royal really needed to stress two things in this debate to close the gap between her and her opponent, conservative Nikolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy has been party of the ruling conservative government of Jacques Chirac of the past five years, which isn’t terribly popular in France because the administration didn’t really do much while it was in power and presided over a period of great economic and social unrest. Sarkozy has been trying to run as an ‘outsider,’ and Segolene needed to remind voters that he has been part of the current government as Interior Minister and presided over many of the failed policies. She also needed to purposefully get him riled up, so he would play into the image French voters have of him as a brutal and arrogant tyrant. I don’t think she was successful in either.

In response to her bringing up the failures of the administration he was a part of, he took responsibility and said he shares in the blame. And despite her consistently aggressive approach, she failed to get him unhinged except for one point about an hour into the debate when he raised his voice to accuse her of being unhinged, saying:

"Calm down. Don't point your finger at me like that. I don't know why Ms Royal, usually so calm, has lost her nerve...You have shown how easily you get angry. But to be president of the republic carries heavy responsibilities."

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Paris

I went to Paris this weekend with Josh and Lori, who are both also recent transplants to London from New York City. As you can imagine it was a weekend of esoteric New York references. We took the train there which was really nice, I loved not having to fly. I was a bit annoyed that we had to go through this extensive passport and immigration check on both ends though, because you don’t have to do that on most inter-country train routes elsewhere in the EU.

It was a great time to be in France because they are gearing up for round two of their presidential election, which I’ve been writing about in this blog. The atmosphere is quite heated and everyone is abuzz about it. France had an 86 percent turnout for the first round of elections, so really everyone you meet has some kind of opinion on it. The contest for the second round is for Socialist candidate Segolene Royal, who would be the first female president of France, and conservative Nicholas Sarkozy, who was the interior minister under conservative president Jacques Chirac, who is now retiring.

There were posters and flyers everywhere, and tons of people running around handing out campaign literature (all for Segolene, Paris is solidly Socialist). Actually the whole time we were there I only saw one poster for Sarkozy, and someone had drawn a little Hitler mustache on him. The rest were all for Royal. Actually it was funny, the two friends I was with didn’t know anything about the French election, and Lori thought the posters were ads for some kind of beauty product. “Easy breezy beautiful cover girl!” Because, as you can see in the photo, Segolene is hot!

I used every opportunity to chat up people we met about the election. It seemed most people, especially people we met at gay bars, were Segolene supporters. But we did make a new friend Mattieu, who took us to this spot under a bridge on the Seine where all these university students hang out to drink beer. Here’s a photo (ah the joys of having a camera phone). Mattieu is a Sarkozy supporter, and the reasons he gave for this support I thought sounded totally rational and reflect my own opinions on the race. If France is looking for change, Sarkozy inspires a lot more confidence that he is the candidate who can bring that change, whereas Segolene seems more like the status quo. Ironic when you consider that Sarkozy was actually a part of the conservative government that has done basically nothing for the past five years. In fact the last five years of conservative rule have seen nothing but social tension and economic struggles. But Sarkozy has billed himself as an “outsider,” and for the most part the characterization has worked. And considering he seems to not be a big fan of Chirac and was actually working behind the scenes to overthrow him while he was interior minister, this may not be an audacious claim to make. But in the debate coming up in a few days, Segolene really needs to emphasize that Sarkozy is part of the ruling party of the last five years and shoot down this "outsider" label.

In general I was very impressed with how excited and engaged everyone was with the election. In the US what I mostly hear in the runup to an election is how sick everyone is of it, as if they’re angry that this democratic exercise would take time away from their nightly Friends reruns. Coming from a country which struggles to get a 40 percent turnout for elections, I was certainly impressed with French civic participation.

Actually, funny story. Me and Lori were sitting outside of a bar in The Marais, and this group of college-age boys came down the street getting people's attention and giving them pieces of paper. “Ugh,” Lori exclaimed, “here come the twinks with their flyers!” I confess I thought the same thing, as they resembled the army of pre-pubescent looking boys who accost people with flyers on Old Compton Street in London.

But then the boys started shouting “Segolene! Segolene!” and gave Lori a flyer. “What is this Segolene place?” Lori demanded. I burst out laughing when I saw the flyer, a promotional brochure outlining Segolene’s policies and platform. Of course the cynical New Yorkers assume a group of young gay boys are doing something stupid and frivolous. In fact they were young campaign volunteers working for change. For the rest of the weekend every time we saw campaign flyers we would say, “damn twinks with their flyers” and share a good laugh at ourselves.

This trip to Paris was much better than my last one, which was in the winter with awful weather. I went for a week by myself on my way back to New York after living in Prague, and I was depressed because I didn’t want to be leaving, so I spent the whole time moping. This time was much more fun, and the weather was great.

Some observations about Paris. The Paris metro is 1,000 times better than the London tube, although still not as good as New York’s I don’t think. It’s just below the surface like New York’s so getting down to the tracks is easier, and switching trains is a breeze. They also have the RSS trains which run on the same metro system, which are big trains that make only a few stops in the city so they’re sort of like express trains.

We all speak French but out of the three of us Lori’s was the best. She also hasn’t taken French since high school and I was surprised by how good hers was, and it made me realize that mine is really bad! I think also when you’re with a person who’s a better French speaker than you, you tend to kind of tune out and let them handle all the talking, because I was much better with the French last time I was there.

I’m making the final preparations for my big Germany-Denmark-Sweden trip in 2 weeks. It will be about half working and half pleasure, so in total it should be pretty exhausting. But the nice thing is since I’m working I can actually stay in hotels rather than hostels. I made some sort of public map on google, I’m not sure how it works but here’s a link to it. I’m not exactly sure why you would want to share maps, but I guess this is an instance where you might want to do it.