Monday, 11 May 2009

Music from a country where I used to live

FSB is virtually unknown outside of Bulgaria, but they are a rock/blues band in the best of traditions. And how they work it: the jangly chords, the embarassing sunglasses, the makeshift videos. This is a big, over-the-top rock ballad - and it is heartbreakingly beautiful. It is a pity I haven't found a decent translation of the lyrics, or I would have posted them here. The song is about love, of course. Over-the-top rock ballads always are. Enjoy!

Friday, 8 May 2009

Imagining Marie de France

This would have been a "Beauty of the Day" post, if, of course, anyone knew what Marie de France looked like. Almost nothing about her is known for sure, except the fact that she lived between the twelfth and the thirteen century; and that she wrote. Her most famous work is "The lays of Marie de France", twelve poems based on Celtic romances. A line in her work tells us her name: Marie ai num, si sui de France. My name is Marie, and I come from France. That is about all she chose to tell us.

I imagine she was a poised, observant woman, dreamy but with an ironic mind. Her Lays are preoccupied with what happens with people's hearts when they are on their own and far away: in a foreign land; alone in a forest. Marie knew that a traveller hardly returns the same from any journey. Her tales speak of an old world that kept all its secrets.

I learned about her from another writer: in his 1974 story collection "The Ebony Tower" John Fowles retells "Eliduc", a Breton romance included in the Lays. He suggests that European novel began when a young woman of good birth started looking at people and writing about what she saw, through the whimsical patterns of Celtic storytelling. Marie ai num, si sui de France: those may very well be the words that mark the birth of literature as we know it.

Some thoughts on self-preservation

I've struggled a bit with the idea of this blog lately. It sounds abstract as it is; but I cringe at the thought of making it too personal.

There is generally too much personality going around, and not enough food for thought, not enough problem. Right now, I would rather think than feel; right now, I would rather be angered than entertained.

The season might soon change, of course. Maybe the whole idea of someone basically private blogging is ridiculous. However, I have always cherished the vision that I will be able to write interestingly about art and madness, politics and strategy, elections and obscure movies without having to throw my personality at total strangers in the hope that they will like me.

So... I will try to make this a blog about what I fancy, and not about me. If such a feat can be accomplished at all.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Beauty of the Day

Chulpan Khamatova

Last seen:
Goodbye Lenin, Luna Papa

Why I love her: If any girl can make you believe she carries the son of Moon, this one is it. Bloody shame Tadjik cinema never really took up.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Europeans, go vote!

Europeans usually either love or hate the European Union. In my opinion, it is a great idea and a worthy project, besides being intelectually rewarding for me as a professional - where would I be without the tons of interesting case law it produces, the stuff of so many hour-long arguments?
But there is more worth to the EU than its being intriguing from an academic point of view. The EU adds a furhter dimension to the personal freedom of its citizens. Free movement, free enterprise - those are not just legal terms, but give a person more options in his or her daily life. You want to travel, do business, buy property, study, work - Spain to Finland, UK to Greece no authority has the right to hinder you in the slightest. North to South. East to West.

It is, thus, paradoxical that so many Europeans continue to see the EU as an undemocratic, distant, prohibiting bureaucracy. Paradoxical it may be, but it is also understandable. The average citizen has very little insight or influence over how the EU functions.

This is partly the case because most of the legislative and regulative work is done by the Commission. It is staffed by the governments and bureaucracies of the Member States, not directly elected.

The one entity, however, that IS directly elected, is the European Parliament. It used to be an institution of very little consequence until some years ago. All it had a right to do was advice the Commission, in other words: produce loads of paper no one read.

The new European constitution foresaw a dramatic strengthening of the rights of the Parliament, giving the institution legislative power. This would have enabled the citizen to have direct influence on EU politics through his elected representative. The legislative process would have become considerably more transparent and would have ceased to look like constant haggling between heads of state.

But guess what? We didn't want it! We! The bloody citizens of Europe! We let it pass! The proposed consitution was rejected by referendum in Member States of paramount importance, France and the Netherlands. Few of the others even dared to expose the constitution to people's vote.

What is worse, we continually weaken our own chance of being heard at EU-level by not voting at elections for the European Parliament. It is such a neglectable institution because we neglect it. We do not vote. We do not take the chance to influence EU-politics when we have it, and then we complain about the EU being distant, bureaucratic and generally a pain in the arse.

The solution is not - and never has been - to scrap the EU and return to protectionistic politics. The solution is to reclaim what is ours. We have to use every democratic tool to gain representation at EU-level - we have to do the obvious. Go vote.

The next elections for the European Parlament are on June 4th 2009. Find out who your MEP is here. Find out how to vote here. And most importantly: GO VOTE! Be a citizen.

A "successful" hunger strike?

Hollywood actress Mia Farrow has been on a hunger strike for ten days. She is fasting in protest against the expellment of aid organsiations from the region of Darfur.

A Sudanese official called her "ignorant" for hoping to achieve something through that course of action. Indeed, how likely is Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir to be impressed of the self-inflicted death of an actress? Death of hunger is mundane in Darfur; dying of hunger in a rich and peaceful country might even seem obscene to some survivors.

It strikes me as a very sad thing to do, understandable as a form of resignation, strange as means to an end. Success in the context of a hunger strike often has a weird tinge to it.

One example would be successful five-day hunger strike of Bolivian President Evo Morales. What he starved for was an ammendment to the constitution that would allow him to run for second term.

Cuban prisoner Jose Daniel Ferrer Garcia went on a hunger strike for more than week in 2008, hoping for - at least - a mattress that was not infested with germs.

And, as it seems, some Harvard students go on hunger strikes for the most curious things, like security guard pay.

Oh, people. Hunger strikes are for the ones who don't have a voice. Those of you who have... talk.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Divorce, Italian Style

Veronica Lario seems to be a formidable woman. She has to be. Almost twenty years of marriage to Silvio Berlusconi and almost thirty of living with him are no easy feat.

It is not possible to ennumerate all that the Italian Prime Minister is notorious for in a simple blog post. Suffice to say he is a notorious politician and a notorious womanizer, and most notorious for not keeping the two apart. The anti-discrimination officer in his cabinet is a TV-starlet. His promoted candidates for the European parliament included former Big Brother and Miss Italy contestants.

Veronica Lario has fumed at these occurences - justifiably so. After several angry but intelligent letters to the press, she has now filed for divorce.

Divorce from Berlusconi is likely to be even more difficult than marriage to him. In every other country, Ms Lario would have been sure of public sympathy. In Italy - a country where porn star Cicciolina was elected to parlament - a prime minister is not likely to be blamed for helping beautiful women along in their political career.

Ms Lario herself ticks more clichè boxes than is good for her case: an aged topless beauty who has married a powerful man, now obsessing over his flirts with younger women. Italian culture has not been kind to inconvenient older women: in the ubiquitious movie"Divorce, Italian Style" Marcello Mastroiani commanded sympathy and understanding for killing his wife in order to marry his 16-year old cousin.

Berlusconi has yet to rise to these heights. Nonetheless, Veronica Lario might find herself facing more than lengthy and messy divorce proceedings: implicitly, she has taken issue with the whole way the culture of her country envisions women. I, for one, hope she emerges victorious. Because Italian society has to accept that a woman does not forfeit her right to dignity, and loyalty, and respect, simply on the count of not being eighteen any more.

The Smoothie Sell-Out: the End of Innocence

I am a sucker for Innocent smoothies. The brand hooked me instantly: the contents (nothing but pure crushed fruit), the image of good wholesome sustainability, the charming ravings on the pack. Remember the one about Boyson, the guy who "invented" boysenberries? Madness.

I like the whole whimsical affair. I like the maverick-y yet ethical image of the product. I like how the things taste. Up to april this year I liked pretty much everything about Innocent smoothies.

On April 6th Innocent Drinks sold a twenty percent share of their business to Coca-Cola. And that really got my goat.

And not only mine. Thousands of customers who had hitherto happily slugged mango-and-passion fruit concoctions by the bucketful felt cheated out of their guiltless pleasure and made no bones about it. Innocence is - or was - the main selling point of Innocent Drinks, much more so than the nice taste or the preservative-free recipe. How often do you get to enjoy anything that doesn't harm you, the planet or local communities?

With brands like Innocent, product quality is hard to separate from ethics. Authenticity and constistency in running the business seems to directly affect the authenticity - the goodness - of the product itself.

One example is what happened to the Body Shop. It used to be a range of cosmetics that gave you both easy consciousness and glowing skin, most of the shampoos and body butters and lotions smelling so divinely that one was tempted to eat them. After the late Anita Rodick sold the business to L'Oreal (for almost 1 bn euro) the brand has never been the same. The new ranges smell like every other artificial ointment out there, and, what is worse, there is almost nothing left of the old "every woman is naturally beautiful" philosophy. In times past, Anita's opinion on anti-cellulite and anti-aging creams was: "You're better off spending the money on a bottle of Pinot Noir." When I saw the ads for the new anti-cellulite range of Body Shop shortly after the takeover of L'Oreal, I felt cheated as a customer and insulted as a woman.

I miss the old Body Shop. I miss the pleasure its products used to give me, the fruity and earthy and herby smells, the varying textures - rich and abrasive, smooth and permeating, the burn of the peppermint, the caress of the honey. But most of all, I miss feeling like a goddess while using them: a goddess with cellulitis, split ends and brittle nails, but a goddess nonetheless, a goddess just because.

With Innocent smoothies, I used to feel like a happy monkey gorging on its daily crushed banana-and-strawberry. I had banana-and-strawberry the day before yesterday and it tasted fine. Yet.

But Innocent already started making promises they can't keep: a banana-free smoothie with nettle extract supposed to be a "slim" option gave me the same feeling of cheat and disappointment as the anti-cellulite creme of Body Shop.

Loss of credibility is usually the ruin of ethical brands. Forfeiting the honesty that made them great is killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. It just can't work.

So... I guess I will be making my own smoothies from now on. With bananas. Lots of them.

Monday, 4 May 2009

The Cleaner

You can persecute graffiti painters - "Please, Mr. Officer, it is art" usually doesn't count as much of an argument - but what do you do with Reverse Graffiti?

The painter in the picture - Brazilian Alexandre Orion - creates his art by cleaning walls. His haunting designs are - literally - painted in the dirt.

His technique created quite a lot of confusion amongst the authorities of Sao Paulo. While it would have been possible to persecute him and/or prohibit him from painting had he been doing traditional graffiti, there was no legal possibility to stop him from partially cleaning particularly dirty walls. What they finally did was scrub the walls of the tunnel where Alexandre had been painting completely blank - and, subsequently, scrub the walls of ALL tunnels in Sao Paulo.

Check out some of Alexandre's awesome work here:

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Beauty of the day

Rie Rasmussen

towering over Luc Besson.

Why I love her:
Rie's big. Not only in the sense of tall. She could be just one more nordic beauty, but the human warmth that radiates from her makes her touching, engaging, exciting. Very good choice for an angel that has come from heaven to kick your ass, as in "Angel-a". The bootcamp angel.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Five improbable seductions

There are other ways to accomplish a seduction besides kissing the girl to a thousand cloying violins and the classic "eyes meet across a crowded room". Below, my five favorites: every now and then in the history of cinema, two lovely freaks meet against all odds to live out their unorthodox love story.

Nr. 5 Wall-e meets EVE

Changed the way I look at machines. If my laptop falls in love with my microwave oven, I'd probably give them my blessing and listen to them peep to each other with sentimental tears in my eyes.

Nr. 4 Harold and Maude

Talk about age difference. Goes to show that the single most important thing for a couple are common interests, in this case a shared fascination of death. I admit it would have been less of a good movie if it were bowling.

Nr. 3 Rocky and Adrian

Yeah, yeah, you're all going to say you saw that one coming. Well I didn't. How many boxers did you ever see with a girl like Adrian? And when he talks and talks and she doesn't say a word? Or when he takes her to his flat, that dump with the goldfish, and she doesn't run? The detail with the torn undershirt? (Rocky was a man badly in need of a woman, he was.) And when he tells her, I bet you'd be beautiful with your glasses off, and she really is? That is my favourite moment. No complicated make-over, no fancy clothes, no new hair. He just tells her, I think you are very beautiful and wham, from one second to the next, she is. If only more men could do that trick.

Nr. 2 La mala educacion: Enrique and Ignacio

Trés gay and improbably tender. The eyes of a tranny (Zahara, formerly known as Ignacio) and an unapologetically gay hunk of man meat (Enrique) meet across a not particularly crowded club. The tranny turns out to be Enrique's childhood sweetheart. The scene is tainted with such longing it is hard to bear.

Nr. 1 Black Cat White Cat: Zare and Ida

This scene from Kusturica's gipsy comedy is bliss pure and simple. Getting away from everyone in an endless sunflower field, under a blue blue sky. It is improbable enough that a perfect moment like that can occur. Or last.

Aw, just by the way: the sunflower scene starts at 5:27. Until then, nasty scenes of forced and arranged marriages. But it only proves the point, no? Every beautiful seduction - love - is, after all, improbable.

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Beauty of the day

Laura del Sol

Seen: Most memorably, "Carmen" by Carlos Saura

Why I love her: She looks like a savage and like a child at the same time. She is imperfect. She is intense.

Three Smart Women

These three made me question everything I've assumed about success.

1. Friede Springer

Started out as a nanny in the household of German publisher Axel Springer. Ended up marrying him and inheriting the better pat of his business. Her fortune is currently estimated at 3,2 bn dollars. AND she is a personal friend of the current Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel. Talk about SuperNanny.

2. Gloria, Princess of Thurn and Taxis, aka Princess TNT

Worked as a waitress before marrying Prince Johannes of Thurn and Taxis. To be fair, she also came from a noble, but impoverished family. Managed to piss off most of the other Thurns and Taxis with her temperamental character and flashy appearance, and most of all by successfully and independently managing Johannes' 2bn fortune after his death.

3. Maria-Elisabeth Schaeffler

Currently one of the owners of the Schaeffler group, one of the world's largest producers of roller bearings. Roller bearings. Oh.
Well, roller bearings are not particularly glam, but, since Maria-Elisabeth's personal assets are estimated at almost 5 bn euros, they must sell well.
How did she get that? The born Chech met Georg Schaeffler while she was studying medicine in Wien. Married him. Georg, being 24 years her senior, died in due time and left her a load of money.
She never finished her studies, but proved herself a very capable manager.

The moral of the story: boy, I should scrap university and get a job as a nanny. For the kids of some rich, old man.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

One for Teach

First good news of the day: teacher Michael Csaszkóczy gets 33.000 Euro in damages from the German province Baden-Württemberg.

The Baden-Württemberg ministry of education prohibited him from teaching four years ago. The reason: he had been a member of the Heidelberg Anti-Fascist Organization (Antifa).

The Heidelberg Antifa are really a rather touching organization -they count as extremely leftist, but are not banned and not violent. Rumor has it they talk loud and smoke a lot of pot.

Be that as it may, Michael Csaszkóczy, though no longer a member, refused to denounce his political views in order to get a job."I'd like the kids to have a teacher who is not ashamed to look at himself in the mirror", he said.

After five lawsuits infront of four courts, the decision banning him from working as a teacher has been lifted. He has already started teaching in a small town near Heidelberg, and today, the court has also acknowledged that he is entitled to damages.

Personally, I do not share his political views, and I frankly think the organisation he belonged to is rather ridiculous. However, this guy stood up for his rights and fought a four-year court battle to be allowed to enter his chosen profession. I think he would be a good teacher. I wish I had had one teacher like him at school.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Vintage Maverickdom

Okay, this one is a true moment of maverick rage:

Wolfgang Seidel, drummer of the German blues band "Ton Steine Scherben" smashes a table during a talk shaw - live for all Germany!

What starts like a rather boring culture talk ends up in absolute anarchy - delight!

Bright Penny

Her music is pensieve, beautiful and surprisingly strong - Sage Redman is 16 and sings like a (very disillusioned) angel. Check her out here.

What Margaret Did

Margaret Haywood is 58 and had been a nurse for over twenty years - right until 16 April 2009, when the British Nurcery and Midwifery council struck her off from the nursing register over a charge of misconduct. Her crime? She had chosen to do right instead of going by the rules.

Every day, she was witness to how the elderly patients of the ward were treated. She saw they were left in pain, left lying for hours in their own urine, and, in many cases, left to die alone, unattended and unnoticed. The nurses didn't care to fulfill even basic duties like changing catheters on time, and the hospital management didn't care to discipline them. The numerous complaints from patients' relatives remained without consequence.

So, when a member of the BBC Panorama team asked Margaret Haywood for her support in exposing the conditions at the Royal Sussex Hospital, she agreed. She filmed - secretly - the staff's treatment and neglect of patients, and thus made an ongoing injustice known.

The Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust admitted to "institutional cruelty" and issued a lengthy apology. It was clear that someone had to be punished for what had happened.

But not the nurses guilty of the filmed occurences, nor the hospital management that let them pass unsanctioned. Nor, God forbid, the hospital director. The only one punished was Margaret Haywood herself. The only one found guilty of disrespecting the standards of her profession was the whistleblower.

This is, of course, perversely logical. What the Nurcery Council obviously expected from her was to go by the rules, even if that meant disregarding common ethics and care duties.

Margaret Haywood was made a victim of a painful contradiction between what is right and what is permitted. This contradiction is not inherent to the notion of rules; it would have been up to the Nurcery Council to treat this courageous individual according to the spirit and not only the letter of professional law.

Please click here to sign the Margaret Haywood petition.