Don’t let Doel die


I was missing chaos when I found Doel. After a recent trip to Indonesia which gave me a crash course on how chaos can look like, Brussels seemed a tad too orderly and sober by contrast. No monkeys on the roof, no motorcycles that carry whole families together with their belongings, no passengers on top of buses, cars that actually stop at the red light –the ordinary was failing to excite the eye and mind and the civilised world was once again comfortable, yet colourless and dull.

Somewhere not far from Antwerp lies Doel, a small village the Belgian state is giving up on based on a decision to expand the Port of Antwerp, one of Europe’s largest. Doel happened to be in the wrong place. Its inhabitants left. Some 25 people are still refusing to do so, but the evacuation order could become resolute one day. Doel is slowly but rather surely going down.

Yet for now, its streets are alive with a weird kind of magic atmosphere. They are empty, devoid of residents, overtly displaying heaps of dirt and unkempt gardens filled with greedy weeds that grow uncontrollably. Some houses collapsed, others are still standing. And in the creepiness of an area that leaves the impression that a cataclysm made everyone pack and run, a strange and unexpected sight! Every single wall is covered in graffiti, making Doel a colourful if far from cheerful place in the gloomy mood set by the Belgian weather.

European graffiti artists left their marks on the walls in an attempt to save Doel from demolition, hoping to convince the government to preserve it, if only as a container for street art, an accidental tourist attraction. But it does not look like the message is coming across. For now, no entry fee is claimed and no one distributes flyers to celebrate the fortunate outcome of a derelict village that was doomed to disappear but escaped its fate.

In spite of itself, Doel magnetises visitors, however, no doubt thanks to its creative graffiti that gives life to its eerie emptiness. People who are curious enough go to this dodgy but seductive area with a camera and snap some shots. The day I visited, a group of men were taking pictures of their Ferraris and Porches parked against various graffiti backgrounds. Doel, it must be said, has become an original and seriously cool place unlike any other.

Some of the graffiti artworks are exceptional. It is exciting to be almost alone on empty streets amid the bountiful testimony of street art. Scary, too. This is a genuinely derelict place, not a museum that is meant to recreate the impression of abandonment. The doors to some of the houses were left open just wide enough for the curious passer-by to spot the traces of a questionable kind of occupancy. Squatters, no doubt.

Doel made me marvel. Not only at how an ugly place (if you add the neighbouring nuclear plant and the large number of electricity pylons) can become eye-catching, visually interesting enough to be inspiring, and even earn itself an identity made of spray paint models. Graffiti made Doel worth a visit, if only for a while. And with discussions to erase it from the map dating back since 1970, my guess is that you still have plenty of time to go and take those pictures, too!

Doel5 Doel4 Doel3 Doel2 Doel_Belgium_16 Doel_Belgium_15 Doel_Belgium_14 Doel_Belgium_13 Doel_Belgium_12 Doel_Belgium_11 Doel_Belgium_10 Doel_Belgium_8



East side to the West side

Courtesy of Wikipedia
Courtesy of Wikipedia

I have never thought I’d be reading books about volcanoes one day. There’s hardly anything I hate more than earthquakes and related catastrophes. But when you’re travelling to Sumatra, Indonesia – situated somewhere in the Pacific Ring of Fire, it only seems appropriate. And if I was to get into it, I wouldn’t have settled for anything less than the real thing. This is how “Krakatao – the Day the World Exploded” ended up on my desk.

I remember having seen at some point in childhood a movie called “Krakatoa, East of Java”. While it didn’t leave me with more significant memories other than that of a volcano spreading ashes and lava all over, it at least left me with some knowledge as to the geographical position of the mountain/island. Which, I realized as I opened my newly acquired book and had a look at the map on the first page, was completely wrong. The last thing I expected was to find Krakatao very much opposite where the movie title so self-confidently placed it. Because (and there go some years of conviction down the toilet) Krakatao is, was and, unless some massive tectonic movements put it elsewhere, West of Java!

In a moment’s hesitation, I do a quick mental review of my understanding of the four cardinal points. Did I skip the wrong geography class? Well, someone evidently has. I get mad at the thought that my intelligence has been so badly insulted for years and start playing the detective. What I found on Wikipedia is priceless. It goes like this: “some problems with the film include inaccuracy in detail. Krakatoa is, in fact, west of Java.” Come again: SOME problems? No, no, no, Wiki, this is huge, biiiig, biiig problem; this is a non-fiction movie which shamelessly sells geographic inaccuracy to an audience already unacquainted in its large majority with the subject matter: the regular popcorn-eating cinema goer in want of special effects.

But wait, it gets even better – hang on: “While the film was in production, its makers became aware of the geographic error in its title but used it anyway, apparently believing that this was a more exotic title than “Krakatoa, West of Java.” So let me get this straight: a script (with a carefully chosen title) is drafted and sets the real volcano somewhere it is not. Only THEN, at a much later stage (and I don’t even dare to think how many people are usually involved in the approval of a movie production) does someone finally have a look at the map and understands that Krakatao is in the other east, traditionally called west.

I admit, I was seriously impressed with this. One always is when it comes to things that go beyond one’s own capacities, I suppose. Now, no one is perfect, but how can a screenplay writer (oh, wait, there were two!) and a movie director refuse to put in the minimum effort of documenting themselves on the volcano, the base on which they were building on their entire story, and check the accuracy of the title? After all, they were trying to recreate historic events, for Christ’s sake and the title only consists of 4 words! How can one move a real volcano and the actual events to the wrong side of the island? This is just too huge not to be impressed.

I’d be seriously disappointed if I were to find out that the production team did not make any public apologies. Later on, having collected a series of complaints, they decided to play it safe and the movie was eventually reissued under the name “Volcano” – much less exotic, if you asked me, but at least it leaves aside the risk of spelling mistakes and the like. Their greatest achievement with this movie was probably to make a mistake commensurate with the size of the cataclysm itself, but fortunately, with fewer casualties. While Krakatao is described as “the 1883 volcanic eruption known as the world’s most spectacularly recorded natural disaster that sent shock waves across the globe seven times” (Dennis Schwartz), the script (and title) of the eponymous movie will be remembered as “man-made disaster.” At least some consistency on the catastrophe line.

Peru: Preps ‘n’ Early Beginnings

Lake DistrictThe idea of going to Peru has stressed the life out of me. For two full months I roamed in circles like a lion in a cage before I finally did the irreversible and booked. Root of the problem: I wasn’t perfectly sure whether I was fit enough to tackle the Inca Trail. In my head, I was picturing this to be a sort of survival hike and was really conflicted as to why on Earth I would put myself to such a test. There was also the altitude, the cold on the mountain plus my apparent frail physical structure that made me deeply weigh the level of trouble I was getting myself into. It was the Amazon that I had always wanted to see, and the Inca was included in the package. All these fear factors accumulated, truth be told, I do not mind a good challenge. Still, once in a lifetime experience though it promised to be, I was still counting on coming back.

I submissively received a shot against yellow fever (supposedly compulsory if you enter the Amazon, but no one asked for proof of evidence there) and thus added one more to the collection of vaccines I had already acquired prior to my departure to South Africa. The travel doc waves about five prescriptions at me on which he scribbled medicines intended to help me go through a variety of ills. I was to become broke after buying them. Luckily, I brought all of them back untouched and while tablets against altitude sickness and diarrhoea (thank God for the spelling corrector for this one!) have been reported to come in handy, you do not need water purifying tablets and these are actually the most expensive in the lot.

At that stage I was not concerned about the gear. But I decided I had to deal with the training part. Reaching a new level of my spontaneity, I booked a flight to Manchester from one week to the other to follow a two-day wild camping crash course in the Lake District. I had no idea what I was doing. Saying that I was absolutely not prepared for spending happy times in the mountains would be drastically reducing the reality of the situation. I had imagined this to be more of a leisure hike in an area that for me did not have anything to do with mountains: since when do 978 m tops are spoken of as “mountain”? Belgian and British people have a funny sense of what mountains look like, I thought. They’re trying to boycott geography. Dutch people might actually get altitude sickness there. But while I was poking fun in my head at the others, the Gods of righteousness were getting ready to punish me double-fold for real.

I must have looked like the biggest idiot ever to the two mountain guides when they asked me if I had everything I needed for the trek and opened my luggage in front of them. They looked at one another and silently started to bring me long ski trousers, gloves, winter cap, plenty of long-sleeve items, some of which were really thick and warm. They also got rid of my sleeping bag and replaced it with a polar one, capable of keeping someone alive at -30° C. Did I book for the right trip or were we all being sent to the North Pole? Where were they taking me? It was nicely sunny and I was perfectly content in my T-Shirt on that lovely May day 2013.

See, that changed around 7 p.m., after we set up our tents and decided to go for the peak. Nature has a very funny way to make one feel insignificant when it sets its mind on it. With suddenness that no one would have predicted, heavy clouds, mist and a terrible cold encircled us. We met people who were still looking for the peak after having literally passed inches away from it. They hadn’t been able to see it, so dense was the fog.

We, on the contrary, make it to the top, but we lose our way back. At midnight, unsteady on our feet and barely seeing each other, we were still looking for our lost tents in a paralysing cold and with no one else around. Jamie, our guide, and my personal protector and saviour (God bless him), was running in all directions searching for the lost tents, checking my pulse once in a while to see if I was still part of this world. It would all have been a funny spectacle, had I not reached a stage in which my senses had become stubbornly numb. It was eerie dark, my legs were not listening to my brain instructions anymore and it’s a miracle I did not sprinkle any ankle on those slippery rocks. I had passed the “frozen” level and under a wind-proof bivy tent that Jamie fetched for us as a protection means while he was away scouting for our shelter, my will to move had given up on me. But Jamie is a wizard and brought us back safe and sound.

You would have understood: having the right gear is crucial. The two-day hike in the Lake District marked my understanding of this forever. With my T-Shirt and light rain jacket, fully unprepared for the mighty cold that almost got me into hypothermia in spite of wearing 5 layers of very warm pullovers and jackets (and ski gloves) that Jamie had carefully provided me with, I would have learned my lesson.

Having survived Lake District and Scafell Pike, one doubtful question was still hovering over my head: how will my body react at 4200m altitude? This no one can tell, really – you might be a highly-trained sportsperson and still be rushed down the mountain in an emergency if your very personal genes do not adapt quickly to that.

If you intend to do the journey to Peru, here are some things that I would have liked someone to tell me. And let me reassure you: you’ll be just fine!

  • The Inca trail is not a very difficult one (I had a 71 year-old lady in the group and she did perfectly well – don’t know what happened once she went back to her country, though). It is not a walk in a park either, but it does not require a professional fitness level. Anyone can do it. The most important thing is to establish your own rhythm and not run after the people in front of you. Take it nice and slow, and you might just enjoy the surroundings even more. After all, this may be your only chance in life to see this place. There is no point in walking quickly also because if you make it to the camp at 3 pm, there will be nothing there for you to do: you’ll just have plenty of time to try to deal with the cold.
  • Peru is not a country where you would want to just go and be spontaneous, but one you need to prepare for. If you want to do the Inca, you need to book permits way in advance (read some 5 months in advance) – there are only 250 permits a day and in high season the trek is sold out rapidly. The dry season (May to September) is the best to do the Inca trail (less chances of rain).
  • The difficulty with Peru is how to dress up: for the record, the country has no less than 28 climates (there are 32 in the world), meaning that no matter the season, you will alternate between cold and hot. So instead of taking thick pullovers, what you want is layers: sweat-proof T-Shirts, thermal underwear, long sleeve shirts, polar fleece, wind/water proof jacket, etc. (some useful reading from G Adventures:
  • During the hike, do wear the trekking shoes you are the most comfortable with. After having carried across Peru two pairs of trekking shoes, I finally opted for the one without ankle support. Personally, I’d much rather be able to move my feet and not walk like Robocop, but this is totally a matter of preference.
  • If you don’t book with a tour operator, make sure you acclimatize correctly. The best approach is to go up gradually, spend some nights in the altitude, then go lower and then high up again. Hopefully, your body adjusts.
  • The currency is the Peruvian Nuevo Sol (the sun, of course, that the Incas worshiped so much) but locals gladly accept the US dollar, too. The only trick is that you will be given the change in soles, so having a minimum knowledge of the currency exchange is useful, although Peruvians proved to be quite honest people.

Time was ticking away and I was finally almost ready for my adventure, because despite all my minute preparations (I even iron my trekking clothes) this is as close as I would ever get to feeling prepared for the take-off. Ready or not, it was time for me to hit the road. Peru

I’m wrong therefore I am

Learning to tame windmills rather than tilting at them
Learning to tame windmills rather than tilting at them

The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. (Philip RothAmerican Pastoral)

Whenever I feel lost with regard to human nature and behaviour, whenever I feel that I’m missing a piece of the puzzle, when I start wondering if getting people wrong is some special sort of gift that only I of all people must have inherited, I turn to Roth. I spent some time with him and his long sentences during my years as a student, wrote half of my dissertation on one of his books and read 9 others. I never ceased to have anything but an escalating admiration for this grumpy man’s lucidity and gripping writing style.

Roth “talks” as if he knew life itself. As if he’d understood the mystery of it. He takes life and moulds it into words – that’s his power. He translates life for us. He chooses human tragedy because it’s endlessly rich: no need to get optimistic with Roth, life is a game at which we all lose; we are doomed to fail from the start and he’s there to remind us, in captivating ways, that we cannot fight conditions and truths that are beyond us. Downfall is his favourite character.

American Pastoral is about the struggle to make sense of people, which inevitable ends in failure even when it comes to the closest ones. About how little we can do to change them or help them or make them see life in the same colours as we do. About how powerless one always is when it comes to someone else. How love, the strongest of feelings is an insufficient ingredient when it comes to “saving” people from themselves and bringing them on the “right” path. How life can and sometimes does go wrong. It is about watching one’s own incapacity to change the course of the game. Helplessness is a crushing feeling. The understanding and acceptance of it are killers, too.

Getting someone wrong takes time and patience. We get people wrong because we have expectations, we make assumptions and we filter the others through our own intimate system of values, secretly wanting them to be the same as us. More often than not, we imagine people to be someone they’re not, we create a hologram, a projection. It comforts us to pretend we understand them while most of the times we do not truly understand ourselves.

We spend time studying someone, thinking we might capture fragments of the soul beneath the skin, that in time and by paying the utmost attention we will finally get to the bottom of the obsession and end up understanding that someone. Isn’t this what we all want, to figure someone inside out, no more questions, no more doubts? To solve the equation taking place somewhere among the brain, personality, reactions, and emotions and finally have a break from this exhausting study and say: “Now I know who you really are!” It would be such a relief, such an amazing solution to save energy, time, ourselves. One look into someone’s eyes to get all the certainty and comfort we’ve been looking for to reach perfect equilibrium. How precious would that be?

Roth sets the record straight mercilessly, like it or not. There is no understanding people. We’re chasing an illusion. It would seem indeed much more reasonable to start from the conviction that eyes cannot be read, that gestures can only be interpreted and that the complex human in front of us is too multifaceted, too intricate a mechanism to decipher in a lifetime. Still, each with our own tactics, we all try to break the code. We are a fascinating species.

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion.

I often sin by allowing myself to get caught in this natural, primal instinct of wanting to understand people, to have an explanation for everything. Roth punches me in the nose and gives me back my clear vision. And therein lays the Roth supremacy: he knocks one to the ground with one crude food-for-thought observation that puts things into perspective. Why walk the painful road to understanding?

I intend to keep observing people (after all, being insightful is part of my quest as a writer) but, like a harmful vice, I will try to give up the need to understand them. Let us be a bit more wrong about one another every day and deal with it, accept it as part of life’s mischievous games! Maybe even enjoy it.

Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.

The Lisboa Experience

Ponte 25 de Abril
Ponte 25 de Abril

Lisbon is destined to be a very lovable city. To begin with, it has an exquisite geographical position: it is the only European capital set along the Atlantic coast. Summer there lasts for about six months and the average temperature in the coldest months of winter is +/- 15°C. This alone won my heart completely. But there is so much more: this is a place with friendly people, mixed cultures, and delicious food at prices that do not give one a heart attack. Colourful in every way with lively neighbourhoods, large and airy boulevards contrasting with narrow streets and endless stairways, old and shabby and timidly modern, equally charming in the sunlight or at dusk, Lisbon can hardly disappoint.

eletrico 28, LisbonThe people of Lisbon are among the kindest I have ever met. Though I only spent four full days there, I don’t believe to be mistaken in making this contention. It is not the customary kind of polite kindness you get in all civilized places. People here do something more. That extra gesture that convinces me that I’m right. There’s something more genuine in their desire to help you out, they seem easier to reach. In Lisbon, you are definitely in a warm, welcoming city.

During the four days that I spent there I only ate fish and seafood variations for lunch and dinner. My relationship with the fish as a dish had always been sour: we’d come to this, the fish and I, because my father, the ultimate fish eating lover, would display a giant catch from the Danube on our kitchen table on Sundays and would prepare it for cooking by taking its bowels out. That could have almost turned me into a vegetarian. But you cannot walk the streets of Lisbon without eating fish: it smells and is devilishly good everywhere.

Please, by all means, do not avoid queuing up at the Pastéis de Belém and treating yourself with the famous custard tart – it is as tasty as the reputation goes and again, you will not have the feeling that you’ve been robbed. Another reason why I could live in this city is the pastelarias (pastry shops). You can find them anywhere and it’s always a rewarding stop. Don’t hesitate to ask for things that are not on display, like fruit salads. They will fetch one for you. As one waiter was saying to a customer: “You get what you want. Just say what you want.” This, I thought, summarizes pretty well what Lisbon is all about.

Now, if it’s cocaine that you want, look no further: you will be stopped and asked if you wish some in the city center. Though it took me a moment to realize I had arrived somewhere in Europe and not in a Brazilian favela, the situation is not as critical as it may seem when you have just landed, feel dirty, hungry and everyone else around you looks and actually is high. Give it some time, this is an aspect you will soon forget.

There is a myriad of things to see and do in the central area of Lisbon and I could not recommend one in particular, so make it a personal discovery. It is very easy to move around, be it by metro, sightseeing bus, train, tram, etc. But I find the city is best enjoyed on foot. Some streets have a serious inclination problem, so if you are allergic to walking, this is not the moment to be brave and give it a go. And ladies, spare yourself the trouble and do not put on high-heels: Lisbon’s cobblestones do not exactly offer catwalk quality, the streets go up and down in impossible angles (I wouldn’t drive there, let alone attempt parking) while the staircases are plentiful.
Lisbon, Portugal
What I would advise, though, is a trip to Sintra. Just not the way I did it. Sintra is 40 minutes away by train and the ticket has the ridiculous price of 4€ for a two-way trip. Once in Sintra, have some mercy on your feet and take the bus that takes you to Palácio Nacional da Pena – an absolute must-see– or walk to the historic center and by God, do take a bus at least from there. Lost to the landscape and aerial as I was and having read absolutely nothing about the place other than that it was worth a detour, I thought I was heading for a leisure walk to the castle.

By the time I realized I was hiking up a mountain and that all the bus stops were exhausted, I had gone much too far to turn around. All in all, I walked up a steep slope trying to avoid being hit by cars for 5 long km and was a mess when I arrived at my destination. That the day was not going to get any better became even clearer when I was announced that I had to walk through a large park and further up before I reached my target: Palácio Nacional da Pena. In addition to that, I also managed to lose my way, for the park was big and lacked visible signage.

This made me ponder as to the origin of this palace’s name: was it called like this because it was such a pain (“pena” means “punishment” in Portuguese) to get to it or because it was worth seeing it (“que vale a pena” stands for “it’s worth it”)? When I found myself at its feet, I had to admit in a fraction of a second: yes, it was well worth the torture. It is, truth be told, beyond beautiful and I would have spent a full day there soaking up those unbelievable towers, each different in colour and shape, giving the palace the overall aspect of a superbly ornate cake. The view on Lisbon was quite mind-blowing, too. I did take the bus to go back.

Lisbon is one of the oldest European towns. Choose a viewpoint from where you can have a long and attentive look at the panorama of buildings: different sizes, shapes, colours, styles, spread out on unequal levels as they are. I would recommend watching at least one time the sun go down over the city from the Miradouro da Graça. And walk through the Alfama neighbourhood before or after: though finding your way easily in a town is a relief, it is also a pleasure to learn how to lose yourself and find your way back again. This is a good starting point for such matter.
Lisbon, Portugal
Some other 40 km away from Lisbon is the thing that I, as a resident of a dark country, am generally longing for the most: not only the sun, but also the sand beach, all into one! Ok, the water is still cold, but when you’re lying on the beach of Carcavelos (much nicer than Cascais, I find), you’ve just had octopus for lunch and beer for less than 15 euros, there are no reasons to complain.
Lisbon, Portugal
Still, there is one thing I would like to complain about: the wind. There’s a perpetual wind in Lisbon, which messed up my hair so much that it would have been more reasonable to cut it than try to comb it. It was the sort of wind that might work for the L’Oréal “Because I’m worth it” commercials, only I was worth it the whole day. Strangely enough, of what I noticed, the Portuguese seem to be much chilled and more patient than their much more agitated Latin cousins. Could it be that the strong Atlantic breeze had an influence on their temper and literally cooled them down?

Cabo da Roca - the westernmost point in Europe and possibly the windiest place on Earth.
Cabo da Roca – the westernmost point in Europe and possibly the windiest place on Earth.

All things considered, Lisbon and I almost didn’t happen. Two flights with two different air companies scheduled ten minutes one after the other, one moment of absent-mindedness and I was on the wrong line. I almost missed the flight. It was the first time that I embarked on a plane as the last passenger and the second time I ran as if my life depended on it.

A bridge, a tower, a palm tree, the blue of the distance. Lisbon seduced me, no doubt. It treated me well and sent me back with splendid memories. However, with the Portuguese flocking to countries such as Angola and Mozambique (and apparently there are big queues in front of the African embassies), Lisbon reminds us that perfection does not exist. That we can only get that close to it. Hopefully, we’ll meet again.

“We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.” Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon

Lisbon, Portugal

Where is the European Union?

Taken from Carloseco
Taken from Carloseco

“What is that?” asked the man when I said that I was coming from Brussels, headquarters of the European Union. The couple I’m talking to comes from the US, so that justifies the question. We met on a boat to Amalfi, the name of which they cannot really pronounce either. But generally speaking they know we are in Italy. Europe.

Lately, however, during my efforts to grapple with one of the most sensitive and hot topics to date on the European agenda – immigration- I came to ask myself the same question as my American friend. I, too, am lost as to the European Union’s position, even though I am able to locate the building. But where is it, really, when it comes to addressing the unprecedented illegal mass migration that is currently reshaping the most crucial aspects of the European economic, social and political landscape?

Take Lampedusa, for instance. Now, if I were to explain the situation to my newly-made encounter from the States, I would put it simply: a small, once quiet and touristy island in Italy 115 km away from the Tunisian coast, this is where asylum-seekers first arrive before they evaporate somewhere in Europe. But Lampedusa has a problem: too many boats it can handle arrive filled with immigrants. And it also has few more: the locals are exceeded by the number of uninvited visitors and start to be fed up with it. They are kind people, mind you, but they cannot stay passive forever and watch their lives take a U-turn while the only source of revenue – tourism – turns into a fiction and they experience fear in their courtyard. Anyone would lose patience, sympathy, and even humanity.

Sadly for Lampedusa, it cannot count on its government’s attention too much and so it deals with this massive problem the best it can. But Lampedusa knows it is only a transitional territory, a gateway for the immigrants to spread across Europe. And so, Lampedusa, carrying its big problems on its feeble shoulders all alone might wonder, how is it that the broader European Union turns a blind eye to what is going on and leaves the burden of rescuing, welcoming, sheltering, feeding, shipping immigrants elsewhere on its population and resources alone?

Greece, which bleeds its way out of the worse financial crisis only to wake up the country with the highest debt in Europe (Italy comes second), could ask itself the same question, considering that 9 out of 10 illegal immigrants to Europe enter through its territory. I think even my 7-year old nephew would ask himself how is it that two of the most indebted countries, already fraught with corruption, poverty, unemployment, and other plagues that come with the realities and extent of their troubles, are left to deal with a tsunami of immigrants all by themselves. Because they happen to benefit from an immigrant-friendly geographical position?

So far, June 2014, it is estimated that around 42,000 people engaged in the crossing of the Mediterranean to reach the Italian shore, which is already the equivalent of last year. And Greece never even had African colonies in the recent history, so why should it deal with the aftermath for which other European countries should rightfully be responsible?

In light of the EU’s frail involvement and its mere acknowledgment that yes, “Houston, we have a problem”, the European countries will start taking decisions of their own. “If the mainstream does not act, extremists will,” warns the controversial journalist Douglas Murray during a BBC World News debate on the motion “Europe should shut the door on immigration”. This he said in 2013.

The man is a psychic. It is 2014 and the far-right National Front –yes, an anti-Europe, anti-immigration party led by Marine Le Pen – wins the European parliament elections in France. Founder of the party is the man who had the courtesy to state that “Ebola could solve France’s immigration problem in three months.” There you go. My hope is that what he needs is simply another speechwriter.

Crossing the English Channel, we find a similar trend – the UK Independence party wins. Their dream of getting out of the European Union is about to come true. Murray was saying the truth: the EU non-action triggers country per country reaction. The UK is already struggling to cope respectfully with legal immigration and has experienced major distress at the thought that the border would be open to a Bulgaro-Romanian invasion that never happened. They surely couldn’t bear the sight of more Somalis delivered via Lampedusa.

Migration is by no means a new phenomenon, but at the scale and the speed at which it occurs, it is a determining one for Europe nonetheless. It is a problem that waits for adequate solutions. With hundreds of thousands of people fleeing North Africa into Europe to final destinations I’m not even sure that any authority of any country takes note of, this has the potential of creating a domino effect. The Maltese and Italian coast guards try to save the immigrants from drowning when they can, but what if in time they decide not to anymore, submerged themselves by the incapacity to deal with new arrivals daily?

Most importantly, immigration is about people who wait for solutions. Behind the growing numbers of refugees that try to escape wars, poverty or simply try their luck and find a better life, there are people. People who do not put their lives at risk for fun. People who are desperate. People whom none of us would like to be. People who literally go through hell and back in hope for the better. Because try is all they have. They are often people smuggled, injured, kept in inhuman conditions in overcrowded camps until they are packed and sent somewhere else with few chances of ever knowing integration because Europe is too overwhelmed to be guaranteeing this today. A large number does not make it to the shore.

Illegal immigration is dead serious business. It impacts all levels of life and for everyone. Today, the Dublin II Regulation has a hard time proving its efficacy. Its objective of “avoiding asylum seekers from being sent from one country to the other” is clearly crippled. Nor should the “Member state into which the asylum seeker has irregularly crossed the border” hold full responsibility “for examining the asylum application.” Not in the conditions in which a Member state is but an entry point which can hardly support its own population and certainly not when it faces such number of incomers. That union makes strength should at the very least be shown by revising this regulation and adapting it to more contemporary circumstances.

Some interesting videos:

Hell of a May Day

Royal Greenhouses in Laeken
May 1st is, no doubt, a public holiday in Belgium, too. Labour Day or Easter – who cares about the underlying significance of the event, as long as it is a day off? I was once asked by a seemingly mature person why Easter was supposed to be a sad occasion. True, if you grow up thinking that Easter is that one moment when you look for egg chocolates in the garden, you might slightly overlook the mythical Crucifixion of Jesus (you know, the guy in urgent need of a haircut) by the Christians. Nowadays, everyone is just happy to have a day off away from the office. And I am by no means an exception.

Caught in Brussels, I decide to do the tourist and visit highlights that, possibly prevented by some exceptionally good instincts, I haven’t previously. Bill Bryson says that “once you’ve done a couple of circuits of the Grand-Place and looked politely in the windows of one or two of the many thousands of shops selling chocolates or lace (and they appear to sell nothing else in Brussels), you begin to find yourself glancing at your watch and wondering if nine-forty-seven in the morning is too early to start drinking.” (Neither here Nor there – Travels in Europe)

Still, the great thing about Brussels is that, small though it may be, one can hardly pretend having seen it all. There is always a park, a theatre, a museum, a bar, a site in or around Brussels that even locals are surprised to discover. Seriously, though I could criticize close to a hundred things about it, I am amazed how there’s always something to do or see in Brussels. Especially when you can’t book a flight to anywhere else.

Forgetting that I was not the only one enjoying a day off, I set my mind on visiting the Royal Greenhouses in Laeken. The day is bright though rain was supposed to be on the menu and I suspect that the guys from the weather forecast had been consuming again – somehow, their predictions are often wrong.

The first difficulty when reaching the park is to find a parking place – take the wrong lane like I did and you’re bound to do the tour of Brussels without any possibility of turning around in a foreseeable future. I end up managing to squeeze my car between two parking spaces for the disabled. Time to visit.

My mum is the fervent royalist, the kind who posts pictures of queens/kings and their inheritors from around the Globe on Facebook and captions them with enthusiastic remarks such as “Long live X or Y” ending in at least 3 exclamation marks. She dreams of restoring monarchy in Romania and I would hardly be surprised if she joined some activist group that secretly plots to get the job done. So I call her to say “Guess what? I’m going royal today: I’m visiting their weeds.” She asked for pictures with the intention to, of course, post them on Facebook for her other monarchy-crazed friends to like. She never ceases to amaze me.

The difficulty to find a parking place confirms my fear: half of the Brussels population had the same idea. Plenty also brought their children, strollers and most of their belongings with them. It’s a splendid sunny day, the entry ticket is 2.50 euros and I have a massive queue of humans in front me. I’m in trouble, for patience will be needed.

The cashier woman will not be nominated for the Kindest Person of the Year award. She looks bored already and it’s only noon. She takes my coins with a silent sign to put them down so that she can count them. I say “Bonjour” to her and although the poster says that the staff can reply in no less than 5 languages, she serves me a cold “alstublieft” in Flemish. She might as well have said “Go fuck yourself” to me. Maybe she actually did. The intonation was in no way different. I treat her with the adequate kind of look. Belgium is not a place where Flemish people love Walloon people (or the other way round), but Brussels is where they pretend to best. You should see Bruges!

Ticket in hand and with a still relatively good mood on my face, I get excited to see the flowers. But the road is packed with obstacles. To begin with, there’s a lot of walking to the greenhouses. There are also too many people lingering on and blocking my chances to move forward. I’m usually good at overtaking but this promises to be a very special day. People seem to stop and take pictures of every single patch of grass in a park that had absolutely nothing exceptional to offer and the families and big groups of friends occupy any available space, active at keeping everyone else behind.

I was starting to make my way when I was stopped by another big gathering: it was the queue to enter the greenhouses. I couldn’t see the door from where we were standing. I breathe shoulder to shoulder with the other visitors. A baby starts to yell so hard it reminded me of an excellent condom commercial (and if you haven’t seen it, please do before it’s too late: I was by then deeply cursing myself for having had such a wonderful idea as coming there that day of all other days.

And then the heaviest of rains started to pour down, making some of us run towards the two-three trees that grew in this park, clearly not made to accommodate visitors on rainy weather. Stoically, I endured it by covering myself, the camera and my bag (all three items soaked through within 5 minutes) with the only means of protection I had: my jacket. No, not a waterproof one!

Suddenly, it was not only grey and rainy, but also very cold. Under my very wet jacket, I was all but having fun. 10 minutes later, we were still not moving, and the rain wasn’t giving us any break. Once again, I congratulated myself on the idea. When we did move, it was only to put one foot in front of the other and then stop for longer minutes still. 100 metres were now separating me from the sheltering entry but it didn’t look like I was going to get in there that day. It’s the biggest joke to just stand wet in the pouring rain so close to a shelter and not be able to reach it. Frustration was escalating. But not to worry, two teenagers who must have been either volunteers or hired on very low wages to stroll around the park and make belief they were doing something there show up.

People, having identified them as traces of some sort of local authority start questioning them on how come we were left outside under such weather conditions. Those who had made it inside were evidently not giving one single fuck about those who were outside: they were having the time of their lives slowly taking happy snappies of every flower petal. I ask the teenagers if going back would get me out of the park. I had seen one plant too many and my car was still 2 km away anyhow.

“Oh, you’re right in the middle of the circuit and you can’t go back right now: everything is blocked by those who entered behind you.” Now this was absolutely unbelievable. In a country where it rains every 2 hours and on a day with high affluence for which heavy rain showers were actually announced, this royal park had taken absolutely no measure whatsoever to offer visitors an enjoyable, dry experience (and yes, damn it, I forgot my umbrella, but that doesn’t make them any less guilty). I can hardly imagine that no one has yet considered building shelters or at least sending guards inside the visiting spaces to herd the lazy crowds towards the exit. I know we were geographically in Belgium where people are not exactly familiar with the verb “to hurry”, but the awfully slow motion in the management of the place was simply unbearable.

Anyone who would have peeped beneath the green jacket covering my frozen self would have been met with a look that hinted to the fact that I was on the brinks of committing mass murder.

Not having anything better to do, I start to smile. At a sign of the only guard present I finally move in the covered area we had been longing for during those long minutes of incessant downpour only to notice that the sun had made it through the clouds again and was shining over us mockingly: “A tad wet, hey?”, it seemed to say to me. The guard tries to look like the world is depending on his job and does an affected kind of walking from A to B, speaking into the walkie talkie as if he was from homeland security. He does both actions very slowly, but gravely, in an imposing kind of way. Some old men take off their wet shirts in an attempt to dry them a bit. The old lady next to me whispers into my ear: “Look, topless men – if only for this and it was still worth coming.” Naughty old little lady! I agreed: we did get something worth 2.50 euros.

Finally in! Now, whichever genius mind built these greenhouses, he/she was a selfish bastard/bitch with no intention of ever inviting in more than 10 people. There was only one very small path between the truly beautiful flowers (of which I now didn’t give a damn) gorging with too many people. I almost fainted at the thought that I was going to be stuck in there again. I prayed hard that the path please not be too long. It was. Visitors were stopping to find the best position for their future Facebook profile picture. Damn Zuckerberg, too, he transformed us into a bunch of selfie and like-my-status obsessed individuals. My plan to get the hell out of there as soon as I could was compromised. Suddenly, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to go very far to observe the animal in its natural environment. I had a whole safari right in front of me.

It didn’t rain anymore after this. It was only once I made it outside the park and the royal environment (with only one picture as a souvenir) and started to breathe regularly again that I realized why I felt that the Universe held something against me on that May 1st. I hadn’t had a single coffee the whole day.

Childhood: made in concrete

Galati by the Danube - courtesy of Wikipedia
Galati by the Danube – courtesy of Wikipedia

I grew up in a concrete environment. During communist Romania, blocks of flats emerged from the ground and spread across cities like mushrooms after a fresh rain, with no architectural purpose other than squeezing people in. Glued one next to the other and separated by thin walls, we could hear our neighbours putting a glass on the table. Because some families had been forcedly relocated from the countryside to the cities, they brought along their rabbits and hens and kept them on the balconies. Being woken up by a rooster was not such uncommon business.

To pass the time, we, kids of the blocks, would take care of the kittens and puppies that were systematically taken away from their mothers and thrown by well-intentioned neighbours in the huge collective garbage bins. Yes, Romania has a big collection of stray dogs and cats. These were the most exotic animals we had, and we bathed them and fed them in our apartments while our parents were our for work, named them, buried them and cried for weeks when they eventually died from poisoning or smashed by a car, as it was often the case.galati romania
Instead of having a playground, my generation played hide and seek among garages. We also discovered that the concrete was actually perfect for rollerblading: Romania thus gave rise to a generation of rollerbladers. All day every day during holidays we would skate along the Danube border (on the uneven asphalt of what we called ‘Faleza’). Chunks of it were close to collapsing into the water, making the ride all the more exciting.

Part of the holiday fun was robbing the few communal trees of their fruits. We used to think they were everybody’s trees because no one truly owned the small patches of land in front of the blocks where they were growing. Still, some people took possession resolutely, as often in life, considering that if they were occupying a flat on the ground floor and the patch was right in front of their window, it had to be theirs.

And they put a fence, and so did all the other inhabitants of other ground floors who had a window to the land. Some planted a tree or the tree might have been there before and all of a sudden the fence proved it belonged to someone. The improvised “land owners” sometimes even started cultivating vegetables and so whenever we accidentally dropped a ball in “their” courtyard, the item was either confiscated or claimed back with a lot of struggle and tough negotiation.

I didn’t have any relatives at the countryside like most of my friends. So when the city trees had ripe fruits, I was curious to climb and do the picking. I would then eat the fruits dirty and dusty as I found them, something which, had my mum known, would have caused her a panic attack. I was never convinced that I was committing the act of stealing, since the tree itself might have been confused as to the identity of its owner.

Since apart from rollerblading and fruit picking there was not much for the kids to do in my hometown Galati, we also took to playing tennis or rather squash. Most of the times, this meant banging a ball against the block’s wall. A wall behind which there was usually a family life trying to go on quietly. Not once were we cursed, chased, thrown water or tomatoes at for making noise and instructed metaphorically to go somewhere else. Which we did. To practise the same activity on walls that were a bit further down the alley, where people were not our direct neighbours.

Or else we were spending whole summers just gathered around a small camping table and playing cards. We were quite a number so we constantly swapped teams: the winners would sit down and continue to play with the new team and so on. I remember that once someone threw such a big plastic bag filled with water that it bent the wooden table that was positioned between me and my best friend quite badly when it landed. Water splashed on our faces with sudden violence and we remained blank faced, cards in the hand and just looking into each other’s eyes for long seconds, incredulous at to what had just happened. Then we laughed, of course. Analysing the damages thereafter, we concluded that, had that huge bag, most likely thrown from the 3rd floor, landed on one of our lovely heads, we might not have finished college after all.

We did a lot of asphalt drawing in the kindergarten, too. That’s when my parents realized that they needed to orientate me towards something different than the arts. We also did rope skipping. But my all-time favourite “game” was throwing myself from the block’s stairs onto the bars on which carpets were normally dashed. I was getting quite good at these improvised even bars. No wonder we have a country full of talented gymnasts. This went on daily until one of my neighbours spread Vaseline on the bars and I was forced to take up other sports. Try as I might (and I did), it is not easy to remove Vaseline from metal. My revenge was as cold as the water I threw on him one evening as he was going to work.

Yes, we were loud, we were eating sunflower seeds and we were spitting the husk on the ground and leaving hips of dirt wherever we camped. But there was hardly any entertainment for us in the concrete covered town we were living in. Those were the highlights of our holidays.

Maybe that’s why I have come to appreciate nature so much, that’s why I crave for boundless fields. At least no one tries to take possession of the trees that grow in the part of the city I now live in and put them behind fences. They bloom freely, defying the concrete that surrounds them.

Woluwé - unmistakably after rain
Woluwé – unmistakably after rain

August: Osage County – Women Got Nerves

The world has been swarming with problem-loaded families almost for as long as the Earth has been revolving around the Sun and rotating around its own axis. But for all the amount of problems one sole family can possess, it is the Westons’ that seem to own the record by a far margin. John Wells, director of August: Osage County brings Tracy Letts’ eponymous Pulitzer Prize awarded play on-screen and introduces us to the nuttiest family in the Universe – a fictional one, I pray.

The result is explosively hilarious. Though clearly a family drama founded on dark secrets that are never truly kept, unfaithfulness, divorce, suicide, inbreeding, addiction, and whatever other worldly problem you can think of, the portrayal is never tragic, but farcical. Letts has the unique gift of caricaturing the dramatic and making it so much fun. Wells and the entire cast not only respect, but elevate the originality of the play’s ideas and words, making the movie beautifully grotesque.

Meryl Streep is a cancer-hit drug-addict and above all spiteful mother who issues sarcastic, offensive remarks with every breath she takes, in or out. Ironically, Letts gives her mouth cancer. Julia Roberts is the stern, mature and control-freak daughter who decides to take the family’s problems upon her and hence turns into a bitter, acid woman, just like the mother she runs away from. These two massively talented actors undoubtedly lead the game. Almost hairless and purposefully made to look “ugly”, Meryl Streep acts an exquisitely funny opening scene, so naturally interpreting the drug-crazed woman who I had a hard time believing she was not de facto under the influence. While Julia Roberts is fascinating in her role even when she appears in pyjamas and talks about fish. Mostly then.

The film has no intention of preaching morality lessons: this is not a case study of the American family by excellence, nor is it ever finger-pointing to types of human behaviour or aims at being judgemental. August: Osage County is entirely focused on the characters’ play, which is truly high-calibre. The fucked-up family background is not even important, it merely provides the characters with the playground on which they can go wild and neurotic and shine through remarkable performances and deliciously sarcastic dialogues. August: Osage County is a random topic assigned to a random family which everyone should be grateful is not theirs, backed-up by a refreshingly smart script and act. It could have stayed a theatre play. It turned out a sparkling movie, too. So much the better.

Bon appétit!

12 years a slave – One to see. Once

12 years a slave

12 years a slave made me go two years back to the very first lesson that my SEO teacher sent me in the inbox when I took to being a copywriter: relevancy. This word that rules my professional and personal writing experience is glued to the low left side of my computer screen as a reminder, just in case the natural tendency to overdo takes hold of me. Relevancy makes you ask yourself “why?”, and “so what?”, essential when you address any kind of audience.

Going back to 12 years a slave, at the end of its 133 minutes which, truth be told, felt much longer, I had a hard time understanding why it is bound to win this year’s Oscar for Best Motion Picture and more worryingly, why the vast majority of critics sell it as a cinematic masterpiece. I do not set myself the ambition of understanding what Steve McQueen’s intention was as he directed the movie. But were some scenes really necessary or meaningful to build this blockbuster that deals with some aspects of slavery?

For instance, we could have easily been spared the long, hysterical and not quite credible cry of the woman slave-character who is parted from her children. The separation act in itself was sufficient for us, viewers, to identify as infinitely painful; did we really need the long audio abuse of an incessantly weeping lady as an overemphasis? Clearly, McQueen does not rely on subtlety (or on our intelligence to that) to make his point. He wants it highlighted, and with a red marker. The effect he tries to create comes out as quite the opposite: instead of sympathising with her, I almost feel relief when she is finally carried away and most likely finished with.

And on it goes. At some point in the movie, Solomon Northup, the main character and the man whose biography we’re witnessing, is sent to deliver a letter and accidentally comes across two “niggers” who were about to be executed. Now, executing black people was, tragically, not uncommon in the 19th century Americas in the cotton fields. But the way in which the scene is literally dropped out of nowhere in that particular moment is awkward, to say the least.

But McQueen has clearly his own take on relevancy. When a black man drops dead on the plantation, the surviving slaves engage in a very long song that accompanies the man to the grave and Solomon gets the benefit of a loooong close-up of himself crying his heart out. While I really wanted to cry with him, too, because that’s why I went to see this movie, my brain was fighting to attach significance to this yet another long sequence: we had not been previously introduced to the departed, ok, they sing well but then again they are black, and they are all sad as they should because one, it’s a funeral, and two, they are slaves. If there’s anything that justifies the length and even existence of this particular scene, I’m afraid I might have missed it.

Steve McQueen’s choices are confusing and the conversation is at no time satisfactory. Not even when Brad Pitt guest-stars for few moments. But movie critics are resolute: this is the next best thing about slavery (you know, that thing that lasted 400 years and involved a lot of whipping of which you get to see plenty in McQueen’s new movie). I had a hard time finding one who resisted the general trend of complimenting this movie as a wonderful cinema achievement. But I did:

Steve McQueen’s takes are long and frankly boring. Ok, the movie makes an effort not to fall in the trap of being cheesy and melodramatic, as it would only come naturally with topics such as slavery. The problem is that this effort shows. Besides, it lacks historic and emotional involvement and that long-lasting effect that would make one want to see it again. Try as I might, I could not connect to it.

McQueen complains that there are not many movies about slavery to date. And he is right. This might also explain why people seem to be so readily fascinated with 12 years a slave. I’m afraid the appreciation comes more from the fact that it deals with the (still) taboo topic of slavery than from its purely artistic merits. It is not because the movie has chosen to discuss a shameful page of the American past that it should be labelled as outstanding.

I only see one reason why 12 years a slave should take all those Oscars it has been nominated for: maybe this is the American way of asking forgiveness for the centuries of black oppression. As if Mr Oscar could potentially wipe it all away. For all the ingredients that were undoubtedly there – a strong topic which echoes back to a dramatic past, a remarkable true story, a great cast – the movie could have been a memorable one. Instead, it is just another Oscar movie that will not shine thereafter.

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