Saturday, 17 March 2018

Abdicating decision-making can be such a good decision

I’ve long since given up – or at any rate delegated to a significantly more competent authority – power of decision over where I live. 

After 35 years of marriage, it’s become clear which matters are much better left to my wife, and choosing addresses is one where her superiority is manifest and entirely recognised by me.

Maybe, in the fullness of time, we'll identify some areas in which I excel in turn.

The latest address selected by Danielle is a small flat in Valencia, in southern Spain. It takes the place of the apartment in Kehl, in the far west of Germany, which we recently vacated. Kehl has many great virtues – the city of Strasbourg just beyond its doorstep, the Vosges mountains in France and the Black Forest in Germany, the river Rhine, the Swiss city of Basel an easy drive away – but Valencia, as well as its charm as a city, also has the sea and a quality particularly dear to me right now (after an apparently interminable winter), of a mild and pleasant climate.

I say particularly dear right now because, before leaving for Valencia, I spent two hours in a sleet storm stuck on the tarmac at Luton aiport waiting for de-icing. That’s in spite of our being just a week away from the reintroduction of summer time. Whatever the calendar may say, England continues grey, cold and wet. The idea of something that actually feels like spring was immensely attractive.

As a general rule, when we’re moving to a new home, we go through a little pantomime where I visit the place before the deal is finalised. I try to gauge Danielle’s feelings on the choice, so that I can prove my unerring judgement by shaking my head and suggesting “not sure whether this is right for us” about ones she doesn’t like, or expressing enthusiasm for the ones she does. This time we dispensed with this admittedly slightly vacuous ritual, and she just went ahead and took the flat before I’d even seen it.

That made the trip out doubly exciting: not just getting away from winter but getting to see the place of which I was now the proud joint-owner without having more than a vague idea of what it looked like.

The event entirely fulfilled my expectations. OK, the city wasn’t that hot – only 14C, which is just nudging the bottom end of what one might call spring-like but, hey, that was fourteen degrees more than in England when I left.

High celings in Valencia
Danielle in the foreground with Sheena
In the background: Ikea man assembling a bed
As for the new flat – well, it has ceilings that feel as high as a small church’s, mini-balconies at both ends, and amusingly tiled floors. What’s more, Danielle, my son Nicky and daughter-out-law (who I hope will soon become a daughter-in-law) Sheena, saw to it before I even got there, that those fine people at Ikea would equip us with beds in time for our first night in the place. That was vital, since some of the furniture we rescued from our old home in Kehl is due to arrive here, but not until May. Those tiled floors may be amusing, but I suspect they’d be no fun to sleep on.

Tiles on our bedroom floor
Fun to look at. Not to sleep on
A great city, a huge improvement in weather, and an attractive flat. Everything combined to confirm the quality of the decision I’d made.

That, of course, is the decision to leave all decisions about the places we live in to Danielle and only turn up once they’ve been made.

Nicky enjoying the mini-balcony at the back

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Vintage 1982

One of the advantages of clearing out a home, as I described a couple of weeks ago, is that you find lots of things you’d forgotten about. Many of them deserve nothing better than being forgotten, and there’s nothing to do but throw them away. Others, however, it’s a pleasure to rediscover.

The flat we were leaving was on the Franco-German border and we were going to be travelling back through France. Since we were running out of wine at home, this was a welcome opportunity to buy some more. Good wine at sensible prices.

However, down in our ex-cellar we discovered not just a few bottles of wine, but several dozen. That rather eliminated the need to buy any on the way back to England. There were, in fact, rather more bottles than we were able to get into the car with the other belongings we chose to rescue, so we gave a number away – though the smallest number possible.

These were the leftovers of a time when I used to buy bottles of wine when they were young and cheap and lay them down for a few years till they became far better. Fine wines at cheap prices. However, few English houses have cellars, so that’s rather gone by the board since we returned to the country. But it was wonderful to find that some bottles had survived. Even though, in some cases, this wasn’t a matter of saving a fine wine but rather of reawakening an old memory.

Our oldest wine was a Brouilly from 1982. 35 years old. Older than my sons.

Well, we certainly aged that one...
Twice, in our wine-collecting days, Danielle and I went to the wine fair in Hagenthal, not far from her home village in Alsace, Eastern France. Ah, those were different days. Not necessarily better, just different. The police let it be known that they would not be carrying out alcohol tests on drivers near the fair for as long as it lasted, so tasting posed no danger – no danger of arrest that is, though plenty of danger of injury to oneself or others.

The first time was in around 1984, which was when we bought the Brouilly. I knew little enough about such wines at that time and chose the ones I bought merely on the basis of taste. This one seemed good and I assumed it would become better with a little aging.

For second visit to the fair, we were accompanied by our sons. The younger, Nicky, must have been about four at the time. He stuck to me like glue and insisted on trying a sip of every wine I tasted, leaving him in a curious state by the time the evening ended.

Different times, as I said. But not necessarily better.

At least, it seems that the experience did no lasting damage to him. Unless one counts his invariable tendency to challenge my judgement on any matter we discuss. Which, considering that I fed him wine when he was four, is perhaps not entirely out of place.

And the wine itself? Well, a Brouilly is a Beaujolais. Some can be kept quite a while, but the Brouilly only five to ten years. We tasted a bottle of the 1982 when we got home. And then tipped the rest down the drain, which I’m certain helped clear it quite effectively.

Not a great wine, as I said, but an eloquent reminder of days gone by.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Cats. Dogs. Natural Justice

Every now and then, our pets gather on our stairs. They sit there and observe the comings and goings below. But I'm sure they also discuss matters of significance: after all, these meetings look like nothing so much as the kind of philosophical discussion groups that would have graced Athens. 

Very Platonic.
Staircase meeting
between (left to right) Luci, Toffee and Misty
Now, I believe we can learn a lot from animals. And all the more so if they're tackling some of the great questions of philosophy and ethics. Like, say, natural justice.

We all believe in natural justice, right? Somewhere out there, there are principles that exist independent of us, but which we all recognise and generally try to follow - and when we don't, most of us feel guilty about it.

Why, one of the finest writers of English today, Tom Stoppard, had a character in Professional Foul point out that even in children there is a sense of fairness which they protest about when it's infringed:

A small child who cries 'That's not fair' when punished for something done by his brother or sister is apparently appealing to an idea of justice which is, for want of a better word, natural. And we must see that natural justice, however illusory, does inspire many people's behaviour much of the time.

Sadly, I may be rather too much of a cynic for this kind of thinking. My problem is that while I've seen children cry out 'that's not fair' when another child receives a gift that they missed out on; I've yet to see a child make the same complaint when he or she receives a gift another child was denied.

That makes me feel that the claim 'that's not fair' isn't actually an appeal to natural justice. It's an assertion of self-interest. It's what lies behind the attitude of a business executive who takes a bonus even though the company's going down the pan and workers are being laid off.

Now, what's true of children and executives is true of animals too.

In the mornings, Misty, our cat, likes to wait for the dogs to move away from their bowls of breakfast kibble. I'm pretty sure he wouldn't normally enjoy dog's biscuits. But there's something irresistible about taking someone else's food.

Toffee takes a different view.

When she saw him going for her food, she was off into the kitchen like a flash. She weighs just half as much as Misty but when she decided to drive him away, he went. She knew it wasn't fair that he was eating her food. Helped, I suspect, by the fact that his own conscience was telling him that what he was doing was wrong.
Misty retreats. Driven away by the featherweight Toffee
But things weren't over. Toffee moved back on her bowl when Misty left. But the cat didn't give up. He just moved over to the other bowl - Luci's.

It was Toffee's reaction to that move that interested me. She moved over as though she was trying to drive Misty away from that bowl too. But then she just took a look. She clearly decided 'that's Luci's dish. It doesn't matter.' Then she returned her attention to her own bowl and left Misty in peace to empty Luci's.

'Hey, what are you doing, Misty? Oh, I see. Eating Luci's food. Carry on.'
See? 'It's not fair to eat my food' but 'eating someone else's? No problem.'

An invaluable lesson in the essence of natural justice. Delivered by my animals.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

In the summer of 1979, I attended a two-month workshop in Aosta, an enchanting market town in a fabulous long Alpine valley of northern Italy. To give you an idea of just how fabulous, the nature park there is called the Gran Paradiso, or Great Paradise. And it deserves the name.

Val d'Aosta
It’s Italy in political terms only. It was once a town in a country called Savoy stretching from Turin in the south to Chambéry in the north. Its king ascended the Italian throne when it was first created, but at the price of giving up the northern part of his ancestral lands, today part of France.

Aosta became the only French-speaking area that stayed with him, because it was on the Italian side of the Alps. Mussolini, as a fanatical nationalist, resented having a French town within his Fascist nation, so he shipped in lots of people from the deep south, from Calabria. Other Italians followed after the war so, when I got there, the French-speaking population was an embattled minority. Like many native groups being submerged by incomers, they had a single term for the Italian-speaking outsiders: they were all ‘Calabresi’.

One old Aostan particularly sticks in my memory. He joined me on the terrace of a hotel, where I was enjoying a warm Alpine sunset over a glass of wine, and poured out his heart into my not entirely willing ear. The tragedy of his life? His daughter who had married an “Italian”. Why, he told me tearfully, she could have married someone from Chambéry or Turin – either would have been acceptable – but instead she chose someone from Genoa. Now, in my book that’s a northern Italian city; in his, it was from the deep south, its inhabitants just another version of Calabrese.

The tears weren’t only down to sentiment. There was a fair element of liquid lubrication there, as it was easy to tell whenever he leaned close enough for me to smell his breath. Which made it slightly surprising when he announced to me with great seriousness that he never touched alcohol. It took me a while to understand what he meant, but eventually it dawned on me: he never drank spirits. Wine, on the other hand, simply didn’t count as alcohol. More an essential component, I suppose, of the very spirit of the Valley of Aosta.

Why am I recalling all this now?

Because yesterday it became clear that Italy, my native country, had elected a hung parliament in which various brands of nationalists and populists took most of the seats and prepared to bicker with each other endlessly over power. “Ingovernabile” was the verdict of one of the leading dailies of the nation.

Well, it’s not the first time Italy has seemed ungovernable. When I got there in 1979, it had been two months without a government. When I left, it had been four months without a government.

And yet, it all ran perfectly smoothly. Buses turned up at bus stops. Shops were open and sold goods. Restaurants operated. You could get a drink when you wanted one even if, unlike my Aostan acquaintance, you felt inclined to move beyond wine to something a little stronger.

It was an object lesson to the world, I felt. A nation could live just fine without a government. We all make far too much fuss about the need to have governments around all the time.

Indeed, in Italy, especially right now, the problem isn’t the absence of a government. It’s going to be when one or more of the leading parties forms one. Their xenophobic, intolerant and populist nationalism may well be just the kind of thing that would have made Mussolini proud.

Italy may be about to deliver another object lesson to the world. It may show us all that it’s far less dangerous to have no government than to have entirely the wrong kind of government. A lesson the United States is already teaching us daily.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

A rolling stone sheds some more moss

Closing an era. Moving on. Turning the page. All those clichés. Danielle, and I have just done them all. 


Turning the page is particularly apposite. My grandmother once told me that I had occupied three pages in her address book, I'd moved so often. And that was while I was still a student, before I even got launched on my removal-littered career.

A few days ago, Danielle counted fourteen places we'd lived in since we've been married. As she's just bought us a new flat in Valencia, in Spain, we're ready for the fifteenth. Which will be fun, since I've not seen the place and I'm looking forward to discovering it.

But before we get to number 15, we've had to clear up number 10. That was our flat in Kehl, just into Germany on the east bank of the Rhine, opposite Strasbourg in France's most eastern province, Alsace.
The Kehl Passerelle between Germany and France
No blood runs beneath it today
When I describe Alsace as being in France I should add "today". The country Alsace belongs to is a matter of history and not just geography. Danielle's grandfather was born German and her mother spent four years of her childhood under German rule. Today, Kehl has a soaring footbridge across the Rhine, so we can stroll across from one country to another in leisure and at ease, without even showing a document. It's a monument to the resolution that never again should blood be wasted over that border, as it has so often down the centuries.

Cellars and attics are great but they're dangerously tempting. They become repositories for huge quantities of things that we find it hard to part with but which we never actually use or even look at, preferring just to know that we still own them though they do nothing for us. Our flat in Kehl contained twelve years' worth of accumulated possessions, and at least the same amount again in the cellar - boxes and boxes dumped there and forgotten about until we had to deal with them as we left the place.

It took four days of intense work. The first day was spent packing things for Spain, making some hard choices on the way: we decided to take less than a third of our possessions. On day two, once the removals van had left with the stuff for Valencia, we had to find people we could give things to, and prepare the rest for dumping. On the third day, three men turned up with a dumper lorry and dumped a huge pile of our belongings in it, throwing them in without respect or care, breaking up chairs and tables, transforming them from objects to some of which we were attached, into simple junk.

Then there were the books. There were 3000; we kept fewer than 300. The entrance hall was once lined with well-stocked bookshelves. Gradually the books had to go. Then the bookshelves went too. It was a long drawn-out parting ritual that brought home at last to me that we were truly leaving.

The hall well-lined with books; shelves emptying as boxes fill;
the bare hallway at the end
Fortunately, though, we didn't have to throw any books into the dumper. A wonderful woman came around to see us not just once but five times, bringing empty boxes for the books and cheerfully carting full ones downstairs and into her car, more quickly and apparently effortlessly than I could, despite her seventy years. They'll be sold for a small sum a kilo, but they'll go to someone who wants them, and whatever money they generate will be used for charitable purposes.

Day four of the trip was when we wrapped things up. A few more things could be given away. As much as we could get into our car went into it, for the trip back to England with us. And then came the really heart-rending moments: the decision that this or that precious possession had to go to the tip or charity. My PhD notes. Danielle's long-treasured Christmas-tree decorations, practically family heirlooms, went to a charity. The latter was particularly sad: we could probably have fitted the decorations into the car after all, but now we've parted with them.

That's what closing a chapter means: a lot of partings and almost inevitably at least one leading to regrets. We just have to keep reminding ourselves that if we were able to live without those things for so many years, we probably didn't really need them that badly. Like most rationalisations, that's persuasive though hardly a consolation for a sentimental hurt.

Finally, we climbed into the heavily-loaded car and headed for home, having pulled up our roots in Germany.

Not that Kehl really feels all that German any more. Even when we moved there, we'd hear a lot of French in the streets. One of the benefits of the euro was that prices were entirely comparable on each side of the border, and a number of Strasbourg residents worked out that there were a lot of things that could be bought more cheaply in Germany. Most shops had at least one French-speaking employee. Indeed, I even heard one shopkeeper apologise to a client for having only German speakers. It struck me as a delicious irony that the German owner of a shop in Germany had to apologise for conducting his business in German. A powerful illustration, if any were needed, of the principle that it's the customer who counts.

On this visit, however, things had gone far further. The Strasbourg tram now runs all the way to Kehl. One now hears more French than German on the main street. Instead of being short of French staff, there are now shops in Kehl with only French employees, where there is no native German speaker. Kehl is rapidly turning into a French town.

It was a French possession once before, in the eighteenth century. But that was down to military occupation. This time it was the natural extension of a conurbation. A far more civilised way of achieving the same end.

It seems Kehl is setting out on a new era of its existence just as we end the era of our residence there. We've parted from our favourite flat, from many good friends and, least important of all but nonetheless a wrench, from many things we thought mattered to us.

We may well be back. To see the friends, mainly. To visit Strasbourg. To see how Kehl's getting on.

But never again as inhabitants.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Italy: African, Austrian, neither or both?

Africa, Northern Italians tell me, starts at Rome.

Ah, my native city. English though I am, I always feel a certain sense of homecoming when I return to Rome. But I can see what the Northerners mean. The streets are potholed, the pavements are filthy, the traffic noisy and congested. There are certainly aspects of Rome that feel more appropriate to, say Lagos.

Of course, Romans say that Africa starts at Naples. I don't know what Neapolitans say. I can't really say I know that noble city. Perhaps, with no obvious metropolis south of them, they say that Africa starts at the African coastline, which would be less amusing though it would have the merit of displaying more geographical sense.

For my part, I'm always inclined to say that Austria starts at Milan.

Just to clarify, I realise that Austria is a fine country, with glorious Alpine scenery and gem-like cities set in it at one end, the majestic if slightly ponderous city of Vienna at the other, with the Danube - not, to be honest, really all that blue - flowing through it. But my comment about Milan is more about certain other characteristics: a degree of self-satisfaction, a shortness of self-deprecatory humour or, to put it another way, an inclination to take oneself too seriously, to say nothing about a somewhat impersonal efficiency a little short of warmth.

Of course, Milan's a lot further south. So in a sense, it's rather like Austria with better weather, the same remark I frequently make about Australia and England. Not that the Australians thank me for it, and I don't expect the Milanese would either.
Passport queue at Milan's Linate airport
As seen by Gianfranco Repetto (@gfr70)
who suffered even longer than I did
My latest trip to Milan challenged both my beliefs about the city. In some respects, it's very much in Italy. Though, on this occasion, I found the weather far from Italian: I turned up to cold under grey skies, with rain bucketing down. Honestly, I could have stayed in England and it would have been no worse. It was a relief to get inside the terminal building at Linate airport, though that's where the city began to show itself to be far more Italian - or perhaps African - than Rome ever is. Fiumicino airport outside Rome works well. Passengers move rapidly from plane to passport control to baggage retrieval. It's a smooth process. The Austrians would be proud.

At Linate, I found myself in a twenty-five minute queue to get through passport control. Now, that's partly my own country's fault: if Britain in its xenophobia hadn't refused to join the Schengen area, we would have been able to enter Italy without even showing a passport, so I'd have sailed through to the baggage area.

But even without the Schengen benefit, there are other European nations which have passport-reading machines in place. In a rather wonderfully African way - I've had some epic adventures trying to cross African frontiers - we just stood in a queue that was glacier-like in its movement, while the two policemen on duty methodically, systematically and ponderously checked two or three hundred passengers' passports one by one.

The baggage hall was a mess, too, with much of its ceiling down and a great deal of scaffolding up, all part of a major refit, apparently. I wonder if they're going to instal passport readers?

Several carousels were out of service. It came as no surprise when I couldn't find my case on any of the few still running. I went to one baggage information counter, only to be told to go to another. Where I stood and waited for a further unconscionable time, even though there was only one person ahead of me in the queue. The woman behind the counter was full of goodwill, but her computer system wasn't that functional, and she seemed to have to record much of the information on paper.

What made it worse was that the man in front of me was Norwegian. Neither he nor she spoke particularly good English, which made it particularly entertaining to listen to a long conversation about just how to record one of the letters in his name, the distinctly Scandinavian ø.

Fortunately, however, she turned out to be friendly and helpful, as I discovered when it was finally my turn to be helped. In fact, after a few questions to establish the basic facts, she asked me, "are you sure your bag's not there? The system shows that it was on the plane."

I went back to the carousels and - picture my joy - there was my bag at last! It was a matter of moments to go back and thank the lady for her help, before getting a taxi to whisk me through the sodden streets to my hotel and a meeting for which I was, in the end, only a few minutes late.
The scene outside the hotel - as wet as England
The hotel was full of strangely dressed people. Elaborate hairstyles. Eccentric clothes. Heavy makeup. I wondered for a moment what sort of a hotel I'd drifted into. But it turns out that it was Milan fashion week. What I was seeing wasn't people preparing for a Halloween-themed fancy-dress party but the chic classes in what I suppose one has to call creations.
An elegant lady heading out into the rain
of Milan Fashion Week
Since fashion, like football and the English hallmark warm beer, is something that has rather passed me by, the elegance left me more than a little cool. I just felt sorry for anyone who, having spent so much time and probably no insignificant amount of money to make themselves look that way, had to go out into the rain to get to the next show they were visiting. It was amusing to see how difficult it could be to get through a revolving door with an open umbrella. I hoped for their sake that they'd find their taxi journeys more Austrian than African (I've had some memorable taxi trips in Africa too), since I had now seen how Milan, as I had now learned that Milan as well as being Austrian in weather, could also be African in service efficiency.

Although, to be quite honest, I do have to qualify what I said about my missing case. It does occur to me, in retrospect, that it may have been on the carousel the whole time. That I just didn't see it in my flustered state after the frustration of the passport queue.

But, hey, I'm not going to admit that. It'd spoil the story.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

A racially pure Britain

It’s been quite a month for racial awareness in Britain.

First we learned that the country’s first inhabitants were black. The first recognisably human people to populate the island, some 10,000 years ago, were dark-skinned, new research into so-called ‘Cheddar Man’ has shown. Bad news for those grieving for the ancient racial purity of the country. At least if they’re white.

Next we had the news that quite a while after Cheddar Man’s time, around 4500 years ago, a bunch of people showed up from the Continent. These were the ‘beaker people’, so-called because of finds of a distinctive style of pottery beakers with a flared lip. DNA analysis has shown that they’re distinctly different people. They turned up in Britain and the previous inhabitants simply vanished into the background, never to re-emerge.
One of Britain's original inhabitants, apparently
So the population of Britain was originally black. Those people were then supplanted by immigrants from Continental Europe, though what their colour was I don’t know: what I’m focusing on is that they came from what is now the EU.

What this means is that all those concerns about immigration that drive Brexiters are entirely misplaced. Especially when they target immigration from the European Union. We – and indeed they - are the immigrants from Europe. Without such immigration, few of us would be there.

The third piece of news that caught my attention in this context was the statement of Diane Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary (Labour’s spokesperson on home affairs), that some use the term ‘immigration’ as a euphemism for ‘race’. Good for her for having said it. To be honest, the statement is so obvious that it really shouldn’t be necessary to say it, but it certainly is. There are far too many siren voices, particularly worried about the pro-Brexit sentiments of the North of England, who keep urging the rest of us to understand the ‘legitimate’ concerns in some communities about immigration.

Well, if it’s a euphemism for racism, as it all too often is, I see no reason at all to accommodate it.

In any case, these new findings of archaeologists should have left the xenophobes in disarray. Let’s say we do set out to get rid of the immigrants from our midst. One of the geneticists who worked on the Beaker people project reckons that “at least 90% of the ancestry of Britons was replaced by a group from the continent”. That would suggest something like 59 million would have to leave Britain.

Angela Merkel has been good about taking refugees in the past. Today, however, the pressure is on her to stop. And in any case – nearly 60 million? Could be tough.

Interestingly, that would leave a very small number of Britons on the island. It might be hard for them to keep basic services going – the schools, say, the hospitals, the trains. But then I suppose that’s the problem with people who want to create ethnically homogeneous nations: they don’t realise they’re cutting off their noses to spite their faces.

Still, they would at least have achieved their aim. The country would at last have shaken off the impact of 4500 years of immigration. It would be racially pure.

And, of course, black.