Straight Roads and Roundabouts

I have been meaning to finish this for as long as I have needed a haircut. Well I have done both now. No real reason for having not either. I have busied myself with various studies, focusing my reading and education while trying to fit in some photography and exercise but there should always be time for this.

Firstly I need to thank the Germans for their simplicity, honesty, straight-forwardness and paying my credit card bill. Getting a refund in the UK involved tortuous phone calls, letter writing and the ubiquitous £10 administration fee. Essentially a charge to do their right thing but that apparently isn’t their job. They have red tape to follow, a beautiful bureaucracy which they complain hinders their business on the one hand but of which they abuse with malevolent glee when convenient.

But not our German brothers. One call, one letter and they have refunded the ticket price and with the bonus of shifting exchanges rates, I have actually made about 10 euros. Das ist gut, nein?

So what have I been doing? Spending money to put it succinctly. Two weekends in a row I got down to Krakow, the second city of Poland and its university heart. The city survived the war fairly intact even as a large percentage of its population was sent to the nearby Auschwitz. The centre radiates charm and bohemian sophistication. Backstreet bars are full of young , hippily-dressed students, knocking back drinks over conversations full of political thought and artistic vibes. It’s a city to hang out in and far superior to the pretentious, ugly and vacant Warsaw.

The first weekend involved a reunion of some of the boys. Joe flew in from Dublin while Tom along with Russ was in Europe for a month and came up from Budapest. It was a fairly simple weekend, involving copious amounts of vodka, bought in the wrong bars. No surprise there. It was good to see the boys though. Hadn’t seen Tom since I managed to crawl out of his apartment in Bangkok and get the flight to Paris in August after a marathon session and some hooker karaoke. The absence of Joe, while always online to discuss the unfolding disaster of Newcastle United goes back to him coming over for a game in London in Dec 2006. Good to see the boys.

Linden came over from Berlin the weekend after. We met in Warsaw and proceeded to eat Polish food, sort out the world of relationships and human psychology and drink a bottle of Zubrowska vodka far too quickly. Linden is a trooper though and held up her end up. Eventually we ended up in a talky bar with an American and Turk we met in the hostel. They had a 7am flight and were doing the right thing; drinking through the night and talking with us.

We caught a train to Krakow the next day. The yappy dog in our cabin, reminiscent of a rat on a string, abetted by my hangover drove me to murderous thoughts. We hid out in the buffet for the rest of the trip. Our hostel in Krakow was a cracker. While seemingly quiet, the pace picked up every evening as a Dutch guy, Aussie, two Germans and a hippy American gravitated towards our drinking habits and we shared our vodka with them. We spent our days checking out the cultural home of Poland, alive during the day with Easter which is taken very seriously in Poland. The staff at the hostel enjoyed our attitude and took us to various cool little bars run by friends and open until the dawn hours.

After a relatively lifetime of 4 days there, I returned north to Warsaw and Linden took the direct train back to Berlin. I have yet to make my mind up about Linden. A top girl indeed, full of vigour, knowledge, quirkiness and long words, we have become firm friends. She challenges me with her extensive vocabulary and references to higher culture. No average American girl indeed.

And now I am back here on a Friday afternoon, sitting in a cafe with terrible music and more staff than customers. The job is going fine but I am counting down weeks now. When you have to leave a city to find good music, bohemian hustle and inventiveness, its not a place for Danny Boy.

Poland has been very good for and to me. I needed to get away from the UK with its mourning of TV morons and its media which switches between fear and negativity like the metronome the Ting Tings use for music. The staff at work are amazed by my reading of Polish history and while my fluency in the language necessitates I flee the neighbours, I have managed to explore what makes the Poles tick. Perfectly suited to my planned, future anthropology studies.

The summer looks enticing. The options around here from Salzburg to St Peterburg give me the jitters. Colombian Gabriel is meeting me in Helsinki. Kaz will be along soon after and we’re all off through the Baltics to rest at the Heineken Opener Festival in Gdansk to see the Kings and the Arctic Monkeys. (£20 ain’t too bad eh!)

I should thank James, my old buddy for reminding me to get this up on the blog. I’ll get some more thoughtful stuff up soon! Look forward to a meet in the autumn man.

Obama derangement syndrome

Excellent read as usual, especially the last paragraph.

Lexington: Apr 16th 2009
From The Economist print edition

The president is driving some people mad. That may be to his advantage in the short term

BY MOST people’s standards Barack Obama has had an excellent week. He enjoyed a counter-Carter moment when navy commandos rescued an American hostage, leaving three kidnappers dead. He gave a measured speech on the economy. And, to cap it all, he gave his daughters a Portuguese water dog named “Bo”. What’s not to like?

Plenty, according to some people. Mr Obama may be widely admired both at home and abroad. But there are millions of Americans who do not like the cut of his jib—and a few whose dislike boils over into white-hot hatred. The American Spectator, which came of age demonising the Clintons, has run an article on its website on Mr Obama entitled “Il Duce, Redux?” The internet crackles with comparisons between Mr Obama and various dictators (Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini) or assorted psychotics (Charles Manson and David Koresh). When Jonah Goldberg, a conservative pundit, praised Mr Obama over the dispatching of the Somali pirates, his e-mail inbox immediately overflowed, he said, with “snark and bile”.

A recent Pew poll showed that public opinion about Mr Obama is sharply divided along party lines. Some 88% of Democrats approve of the job that he is doing compared with only 27% of Republicans. The approval gap between the two parties is actually bigger than it was for George Bush in April 2001. Bush loyalists, led by Karl Rove, have duly over-interpreted this poll in order to soften their former boss’s reputation as America’s most divisive president. Today’s Republican base is significantly smaller than the Democratic base was in 2001, so surviving Republicans are more likely to have hard-core views. But there are nevertheless enough people out there who dislike the president to constitute a significant force in political life.

As The Economist went to press, the bestselling book in the United States was Mark Levin’s “Liberty and Tyranny”. Mr Levin frequently denounces Mr Obama on his radio show as an exponent of the second of those two qualities. The new sensation in the world of cable is Fox News’s Glenn Beck, who has already attracted 2.2m regular viewers since his show was launched in January. Mr Beck recently apologised to his viewers for saying that Mr Obama’s America is on the path to “socialism” when it is really on the march to fascism. Media Matters, a left-wing organisation that monitors the media, reports that, since the inauguration, “there have been over 3,000 references to socialism, fascism or communism” in describing the president.

Rush Limbaugh claims that he has seen an uptick in his audience since he announced that he hopes that Mr Obama fails. He has no time for the idea that all Americans should wish their president well (“We are being told that we have to hope Obama succeeds, that we have to bend over, grab the ankles…because his father was black”). Mr Limbaugh is not the ankle-grabbing type. He has also added Robert Mugabe to the list of people to whom Mr Obama can be likened.

Why are some people so angry? For all his emollient manner and talk of “post partisanship”, Mr Obama is just as much an embodiment of liberal America as Mr Bush was of conservative America—an Ivy League-educated lawyer who became a community organiser before launching a political career in one of America’s most cosmopolitan and corrupt big cities, Chicago. Mr Obama almost lost the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton because of his lack of rapport with white working-class voters. In the general election he did worse than Michael Dukakis in the Appalachian states of Kentucky and West Virginia.
Tough times make for tougher talk

The economic crisis has transformed this cultural suspicion into a much more potent political force. It is true that Mr Obama’s solution to the recession—spending public money in order to stimulate demand and trying to prevent a run on the banks—is supported by most economists. Mr Bush would have done much the same thing. But it is nevertheless driving many Americans crazy. April 15th—the last day on which Americans can perform the melancholy duty of filing their tax returns—saw rallies (dubbed “tea parties” after the Boston one) in every state, 500 or so in all. The protesters, some of whom dressed in three-cornered hats and waved “Don’t tread on me” flags, repeated a litany of criticisms that has been mounting since Mr Obama won the election—that he is a big government socialist (or fascist) who wants to take people’s money away and crush their freedoms.

It is hard to judge so early in the game what the rise of anti-Obama sentiment means for the Obama presidency. Bush-hatred eventually spread from a molten core of leftists to set the cultural tone of the country. But Obama-hatred could just as easily do the opposite and brand all conservatives as a bunch of Obama-hating cranks.

What is clear is that the rapid replacement of Bush-hatred with Obama-hatred is not healthy for American politics, particularly given the president’s dual role as leader of his party and head of state. A majority of Republicans (56%) approved of Jimmy Carter’s job performance in late March 1977. A majority of Democrats (55%) approved of Richard Nixon’s job performance at a comparable point in his first term. But today polarisation is almost instant, thanks in part to the growing role of non-negotiable issues such as abortion in American politics, in part to the rise of a media industry based on outrage, and in part to a cycle of tit-for-tat demonisation. This is not only poisoning American political life. It is making it ever harder to solve problems that require cross-party collaboration such as reforming America’s health-care system or its pensions. Unfortunately, the Glenn Becks of this world are more than just a joke.