Monday, December 27, 2010

Mon 27 Dec - Thurs 31 Dec: Strasbourg

And so on to Strasbourg. Located in north-eastern France and part of the Alscace region. It was French, then it was German, then it was French. Apparently, over a 75 year period in the 19th and 2oth century, it changed hands four times. Which explains a hell of a lot. I found it to have the beauty and style I'd expect from a French city, populated with many traditional German looking buildings, with many restaurants serving typical German food. Many road names are in both French and German.

Strasbourg is supposed to be France's most bicycle-friendly city, although the entire city was under snow so it was impossible to actually see any cycle paths. Their tram was reliable and cheap, and the city still had its famous Christmas markets dotted about all over the place. Two more things that made it feel more German than French. I have to say, I just don't see the appeal of Christmas markets. Every city now seems to have them. They do look nice and make you feel all Christmassy, but they sell tat, and how many stalls do you possibly need selling mulled wine?

Strasbourg actually reminded me of a bigger Ghent. It had the canals and the bridges amongst other things. I had a cold from pretty much the moment I got here which never went away. It was cold and traipsing around in the snow all day is exhausting stuff. I think this was the trip where me and C questioned whether we were both suffering from "travel fatigue." We did only get back from Cuba a few weeks ago and have been away quite a lot this year. I just think it's the cold, the endless grey and damp weather, the fact that the sun does seem to go into hibernation from December until May. Winter is pretty miserable in northern Europe.

But, I did really like the city and would definitely come back, but when it's much warmer.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Sat 18 Dec - Mon 20 Dec: Paris

Have a few European mini breaks lined up over the next couple of weeks. Apparently, they call it 'un cite-trip,' rather than a 'vacances,' if you're only away a few days. (I stand to be corrected).

Went back to Paris for the 4th time. And the 4th time in Winter. Plan to go back again next summer, finally to see what this city's like when everything's bathed in sunshine and the caf├ęs take over the streets. I love Paris. I really do. There's something about the place. I actually find it quite hard to describe. When I first went a few years ago, my initial impressions were that it was fairly shabby, a bit dirty and very run down in places. The amount of graffiti (and of course dog mess) also struck me.

But, by the end of my time there, I found myself liking it more and more. The same thing happened on my second visit. I'd forgotten what I liked about it, until its magic and charm did its bit once again.

It's such a traditional city. In many ways, deeply conservative. Like the French in general. Socially liberal but always clinging on to the past, whether it be in defence of its generous state welfare, pensions, or even in their vigorous efforts to safeguard the language itself. It's very hard to change things in France. Successive presidents have found this. Instead they like to portray themselves as the antidote to our individualistic, uncaring, unkept, Anglo-Saxon capitalist model.

It's also such an intimate city. It's not nearly as big as London and therefore very easy to walk around on foot. Because of old planning laws, no building in the main centre can be above a certain height, which certainly gives it a different feel to other capitals. Things are small in Paris: hotel bedrooms, bathrooms, flats. Their bistros and restaurants are so small that very often you find yourself virtually touching the person next to you.

And yet, I never find Paris overly crowded, providing of course you avoid the obvious tourist traps. I never find it stressful or claustrophobic in the way that London can be. At night it really is one of the most magnificent places in which to wander.

However, its conservatism is coming at a price. Its young are flocking to London to look for work. Alienating the younger generation isn't particularly wise. Its behaviour towards its immigrants, and outsiders in general, still leaves a lot to be desired. Its cuisine, which I have never been mad on, is ridiculously overrated (although it seems nowadays it's only the French who still rave about French food!) and very samey.

Have you ever been to a vegetarian restaurant in Paris? They're still churning out the kind of fare we served up 20-30 years ago: plates of vegetables without sauce or flavour and that stringy looking accompaniment (can't think for the life of me what it's called) as decoration.

But if it changed, it wouldn't be Paris. And to admit that it needed to change just wouldn't be very French.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wed 15 Dec

A lovely surprise at my local supermarket. They've installed self-service checkout machines. Cue lots of unsure and concerned looking locals, tiptoeing around them, scratching their heads, before deciding against Mons' latest forray into the 21st century. Most people seemed more than happy to join the usual enormous queues (and painfully slow service) that are standard in this shop.

I happily felt more than confident to give them a go. After all, I have had years of experience of using them at Asda and M&S, where they never seem to work properly and give the illusion of you saving time. In practice you spend most of the time trying to catch a shop assistant's attention because you have an 'unexplained item in the bagging area,' or you need someone's approval because at the age of 31 you've decided to buy a bottle of wine and they need to check you're not 15.

To be fair, when they first got introduced in England, I think most people (technologically sceptical by nature) stuck with the familiar and checked-out via a human being and not a machine.

Still, in the last couple of months we've had Sunday opening and now self-service checkout machines. Whatever next? "Le cash-back?"

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tues 14 Dec

Bart De Wever, leader of the Flemish separatist party, the N-VA, has been universally castigated by politicians in Wallonia for 'talking down' Belgium. His crime? To say that Belgium was now the "sick man of Europe."

I'm surprised it took him, or anybody else, that long to realise. His comments were branded irresponsible, reckless and unhelpful. They forgot accurate. Sick man or not, this country doesn't work, and the bunch of clowns charged with fixing it are as clueless as ever. Maybe I should offer my services. I do weddings, barmitzvahs and hopelessly divided countries.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Mon 13 Dec

That's exactly 6 months and counting folks. 6 months since the Belgian general election, and still no sodding government. What a way to (not) run a country.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Mon 6 Dec

Back to work today. Nasty shock waking up (alone) in the pitch black. Walked to the station, half asleep, shivvering. Even felt overwhelmed by how busy the station was. It's always packed early in the morning with hundreds of students arriving in Mons by train from around the region. Curled up on the train and went to sleep.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Sat 4 Dec - Urgences!

Less than 24 hours after getting back from Cuba, and we found ourselves in A&E, or 'Urgences,' as they brilliantly call it here. That's the name they give "ER" when it's on TV too. C's sore throat, which had been developing over the last 2 days of the honeymoon, got even worse in the night. It was revealed by the doctor to be an abcess on the tonsils, combined with a throat infection. Ouch. So bad, that eating or drinking anything was extremely painful.

Now, normally, you'd expect to see a doctor, get a prescription for some antibiotics, and be on your way. But, this is Belgium. They like to control everything centrally. And it seems, your health too is government property. C was told to expect to spend the next 3-4 days in hospital. They clearly don't have a bed shortage in Mons. In England they can't get rid of you quick enough. You have to be dying in order to get a bed. In fact, when C protested, the answer was a simple: 'either stay in hospital and have your antibiotics intravenously, or go home where'll you get no antibiotics and be in pain.' Nice bunch.

So, back to reality with a bang. Cold and snowing outside, wife in hospital bed with a drip coming out of to her hand, back to speaking incomprehensible pigeon French with strangers, and crazy of all, painful red-raw sunburn on my right shoulder.

Listening to C's account of her time in hospital, it seems that there's little difference between the quality of care between the two countries: unsympathetic/cold nurses, (all nurses and doctors really need to regularly attend 'human empathy courses.' You would have thought this would be a basic requirement if you worked in the medical profession. Clearly not), mixed wards, inedible food making aeroplane food look like fine dining, woken up every few hours in the night by nurses wandering in and out and turning the lights on, and a lack of doctors around on the weekend.

At least C got some free French practice. Can't imagine what it would have been like being there this time last year, considering our level of French then.

A surreal few days. All the street Christmas lights were now on but I couldn't have felt less Christmassy.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Fri 19 Nov - Thurs 2 Dec: Cuba

Time for a 2 week diversion. Just spent the last fortnight in Cuba as part of my honeymoon. Had a terrific time. Cuba is a fascinating and unique place. Not the most relaxing way to spend your honeymoon, but me and C don't really do lying on the beach holidays so we're not complaining. I've never been anywhere like it and not sure I would have gone had it not been thanks to wedding gifts that helped pay for some of the trip. To be honest, I quite fancied spending 2 weeks in Italy (Sardinia, the Lakes, Tuscany) but we both felt that we had to go somewhere completely different; get out of our European comfort zone.

If moving to Belgium from the UK represents something of a culture shock, holidaying in Cuba is the Mother of all culture shocks. A flippin' earthquake. I'd done a fair bit of reading prior to going and knew quite a bit about the political situation there. But, it isn't until you actually visit somewhere and see it all for yourself that you're really able to have a grasp of what life is like in somewhere that, despite the global reaches and enormous influence of our liberal democracies, still manages to remain Communist in ideology, outlook and practice.

Of course I was only ever going to get a flavour of what life is like in Cuba. Being part of a small tour meant that you are, to some extent, sheltered from some of the grim realities of life here. Although you certainly get a taste when wandering around Havana. It is worth noting that before 2008 locals were prohibited from entering certain places/areas earmarked specifically for tourists, including restaurants, beaches and shops that dedicated themselves only to serving non-Cubans. Since a change in the law, locals and tourists have been able to mix and interact far more freely in these places and others, although within resorts such as Varadero, you can lock yourself away and never see a Cuban (except for hotel and restaurant staff). Indeed, many tourists used to prefer to see Cuba this way which strikes me as odd and rather pointless.

There were two things that hit me as I got off the plane: the humidity and the smell. A sweet, sickly smell. The smell of the Tropics. I could also see mozzies flying. Let me reassure you though that I only got bitten 3 times in 2 weeks. I've been bitten 3 times in a day in Belgium! You then have to spend almost an hour queuing at customs (2 hours on the way back). It did feel slightly intimidating. There are rows of small booths with someone sat in each one. As you approach, they look at you, look at their paperwork, look back at you and then spend a few minutes looking something up on the computer. They then take your photo and you are free (although no one else is in Cuba) to walk through a door which says 'Exit,' not knowing what the hell is on the other side. I had visions of one of me or C being left behind. I did actually see people on our arrival and when we departed being turned away. No idea why.

As we finally walked out of the arrivals area we were greeted by hundreds of Cubans, many of them standing on top of one another. We then had to exchange some of our Euros for Convertible Pesos (CUC), the currency used by all tourists (locals use National Pesos of which 25 = 1 Convertible), in order to afford to take a taxi to our homestay. I particularly enjoyed the sounds of Cuban hip-hop blaring out from our driver's speakers as part of our 45 minute journey. We chose to begin and end our stay in Homestays, which are basically their B&Bs. Cubans are allowed to open up 2 rooms in their house to guests and charge no more than 35 CUC a night per room, and they're a decent alternative to the overpriced hotels. You also get to chat to the locals, although most only speak Spanish. Fine for C, not for me.

Havana, a city of just over 2 million inhabitants, would have to be the highlight of Cuba for me. A bustling and lively place divided into 4 distinct areas of which we saw 3: Old Havana, beautifully renovated and restored with 4 wonderful, European-like squares as its centrepiece, and the most touristy part of the city. A few minutes walk away and without realising it, it then morphes into Central Havana, where you feel as if you have stumbled into a different city. This is more of the 'real Havana:' noisy, polluted, dirty, humid and crowded. All around are buildings which are literally falling apart before your eyes. Not where you find most tourists wandering but a must if you want to experience something more authentic. We actually had a private salsa lesson here, in a sweaty room above a theatre, with 2 Cuban ladies, who took great delight in giggling at my lack of hip movement and coordination.

Then there is Vedado, where we began and ended our trip. A far more spacious and greener part of Havana. It is here that you can try and begin to appreciate what Havana must have looked like before the Revolution. The streets are lined with the most magnificent post-colonial mansions, of which a huge number are now crumbling and dilapiated and in dire need of doing up, but lack of funds or political will means they have been left to ruin. The cities of Cuba were not a priority for Fidel Castro after seizing power as he sort to improve conditions in the countryside first.

We spent the first two days just wandering around as much of Havana as we could. Taking it in, whilst at the same time taking something else in: exhaust fumes. Classic, vintage, American cars are everywhere to be seen thanks to America's influence in the first half of the twentieth century where, according to the Rough Guide, they hoped to turn Havana into the "Caribbean Las Vegas." Gambling places proliferated whilst prostitution flourished. It became a paradise for the wealthy, with middle class Cubans also benefiting, whilst everyone else lived in poverty. When Castro arrived on the scene, the Americans left, leaving behind their cars. As it's been difficult for Cubans to buy new cars since the Revolution, and also as a result of the American embargo, Cubans have had to resort to looking after and maintaining the cars left behind.

The sights and sounds of pink, green and blue Chevrolets, or the yellow and black or purple Cadillacs, all help in giving Havana its energy and vibe. They also bellow out the most foul petrol fumes. A walk down a main road was not really a pleasant experience as you try and cope with the smell and the humidity at the same time.

Walking around at night is also an experience. Power cuts are common, and well over half of the street lights are never working. At times you are walking in almost complete darkness, trying to negotiate potholes at the same time. I felt Havana, and everywhere in Cuba, to be extremely safe. In fact, it prides itself on being a safe tourist destination. It doesn't suffer from the levels of violent crime or any other crime for that matter, that you find in other islands in the Caribbean. I imagine partly because the penalties are so severe for anyone commiting a crime against tourists.

Another reason may well be economic. It is rare to see anyone sleeping rough, or see the kind of abject poverty that you hear about in places such as India. The government has always promised to act as a safety net for its citizens. Everyone is housed, even if the houses are not in particularly great condition. The government claims that almost everyone is in employment. Employed by the state. Although Raul Castro has promised that from next April 500,000 Cubans will be forced to stop working for the state and set up their own businesses. This number is expected to rise over time. In this respect, this has helped in keeping crime to a minimum. That is of course if you accept the link between economic disadvantage and poverty and crime.

We spent most of our time in Cuba as part of a tour of 15 people. Our tour guide was a Cuban woman from Havana. As a guide, she was smiley, lovely to look at, but useless. As a weapon of state propaganda, she was excellent. She dismissed talk of Cuban being Communist instead preferring to call it Socialist. The most common words to come out of her mouth could be summarised thus: "Fidel, Che Gavara, Raul, hospital, hospital, hospital." I have never had a tour guide take so much pride and spend so much time pointing out the local hospitals. I guess to expect her to give us a social and political commentary, and one not authorised by the state, would be naive anyway.

Hospitals are indeed a source of national pride for Cubans. The country is credited with having a great health system, some of the best doctors in the world, and completely free for everyone to use. Their hospitals do however suffer from a chronic lack of medication and resources. One of the most eye-opening things I saw was a pharmacy which looked like the kind of shop you'd find in the 1950s. It was virtually empty.

Cuba also claims to have a 100% literacy rate, although the UN puts the figure at 95% which is still impressive. Education was also a Castro priority in 1959, the year of the Revolution, as he set about, extremely successfully, trying to eradicate illiteracy, particularly in the countryside. He did this by sending thousands of teachers from the cities to the countryside in order to achieve his aim.

There were many other things that you notice when you drive around the country (our tour took in only the central and western parts of Cuba). There are enormous billboards everywhere proclaiming state propaganda and reminding people of their duty to uphold the values of the Revolution and reject Western criticisms. The Venezuelan flag is also prominent, thanks to Cuba's close ties with Hugo Chavez. They have replaced the Soviet Union as the country's most valuable ally.

On the motorways we kept seeing people hitch-hiking. According to our tour guide, anyone working for the state (i.e. most people) who drove past and had space in their car had a duty to stop and pick people up. Those working privately were exempt. Anyone who failed to stop and had room would have their number plates taken (by a police officer who would be waiting alongside the hitch-hikers) and then contacted some days later by the authorities in order to "arrange a meeting." These were the exact words she used. How very sinister. Or a way of fostering (by force) solidarity between the people.

The Cubans I came across were charming and friendly and keen to know where you were from (most thought I was Italian) and what you thought of their country. They also wanted to know if you had any soap or pens or other things that are hard to come by for them. I had heard of this beforehand and am annoyed that I forgot to take a whole load of things with me to hand out. Occasionally in Havana people would come up to us, although far more in the city of Trinidad (another city I really enjoyed. A real party town with coloured houses and outdoor salsa clubs) and it did get slightly irritating at times. Especially as the city is even hotter and more humid than Havana. But, so I'm told by others, what we experienced in Cuba is tame compared to elsewhere. And on the whole, if you smiled and said no, people left you alone.

The Cubans working in hotels were nothing like their compatriots on the streets. I found them surly and often brusque. I even had my own (very) mini-drama. In order to use the internet you need to buy an internet card (6 CUC, or about €5 for an hour) from the hotel front desk. You then have to rub off two lines which contain your login details. Only it's impossible to rub off without rubbing off half your number. When I told the staff that I needed another card they refused, said I should be more careful and walked away. They wouldn't even look at me. I continued to complain and refused to budge. By this time, 4 security men had been called and appeared in the lobby (there are security people everywhere in Cuba, especially in their hotels) glaring at me. I didn't fancy a night in a Cuban prison so quickly shut up. They did in fact help me in the end after having rung up the company in charge to get the code for me. I should have known it wouldn't be a straight forward thing. Everything is controlled centrally by some government run organisation.

Speaking Spanish does really help you in Cuba. I don't but I have a wife who does and witnessed on a few occasions better service for us when C spoke in Spanish. In particular, trying to get a cab once we'd arrived in Havana, where you just have to fight your way amongst the crowd of other tourists vying for attention from one of the many attendants who would then find you a cab.

The food is dreadful. Depressingly awful. I did expect this though. The Rough Guide says there really is no reason why it should be so bad when you consider the wonderful climate they have and the amount of produce that they're able to grow. I imagine lack of contact with the outside world would be a big factor. Food in England was samey and lacking in imagination until several waves of immigrants made their mark and showed us all how to cook and introduced us to a whole new range of ingredients.

Rice with black beans and sauce, which was actually quite nice (at first, slightly tiresome after the 6th, 7th..time), is a speciality and they like their roast pork and chicken. They're also obsessed with eggs. I had omlette for breakfast everyday. Everything else is cooked to within an inch of its life. Rather that than undercooked, eh? Had a Chinese meal out one night which was average. Although we did discover a great Italian restaurant in Havana. So good in fact that we went back 4 times. My saviour.

The food in the hotels, as warned beforehand, was as bad as it got. A particular highlight was soup which tasted like the grease left over after you've cooked a roast (probably because that's what it was), and spaghetti so soft and overcooked that it dissolved in your mouth. Other highlights on the trip include: soggy pizza, rice pudding (how the hell did that make it into Cuba?) and a vegetarian paella which was basically a plate of vegetables in tomato sauce. They hadn't bothered with a crucial ingredient: the saffron.

This meal was eaten at one of the most entertaining and bizarre restaurants I have ever been to. After ordering a bottle of red wine, the waiter delivered it to our table where we then had to wait 45 minutes for them to open it. Every waiter we pestered assured us it would be open soon. I think as C pointed out, rather poignantly, they probably only had 1 bottle opener between them and were spending the time trying to find it. We were also treated to the delightful sounds of a (tone deaf) pianist, playing all the classics from Bryan Adams to Celine Dion, every now and again shrieking and sounding as if he were drunk. Memorable stuff.

As a cultural experience, Cuba is well worth a visit. It's not for the fainthearted and isn't always the most relaxing place to be, but I'm so glad I went. I often hear people say that now is the time to go. Before it changes, or more bluntly "before America gets their grubby hands on it." Which got me thinking. Surely the sooner Cuba changes, the better. Better for its people. Who cares what us tourists think and want. Because whilst Cubans on the surface seem happy and well looked after by the state, they're not free. They're not free to leave Cuba. There's no freedom of expression. There's no free media, with everything state run (we managed to catch clips on TV of Fidel droning on about something or other), there's no opposition party, no elections and no means to express dissent or dissatisfaction. If you do, you get locked up.

So, yes, of course Cuba will change dramatically if it ceases to be a Communist country (although Raul's recent reforms and his future plans might ensure it remains Communist for many years to come) but then we should rejoice, for Cubans will finally be free. Free to experience all the things we take for granted.

In my mind, there is definitely something to admire about some of the ideals of the Revolution: the free healthcare and education, the high life expectancy, the lack of abject poverty, the feeling of solidarity. But, it has all come at a price. Cuba is isolated and its people cut off from the rest of the world, prisoners in their own country. It doesn't have the power or influence of China to stay Communist (although China has embraced a mixed economy) and still succeed.

The American embargo imposed as Castro took power and kept in place for Cold War ideological reasons is despicable in my opinion and there seems little hope of it being lifted anytime soon. It has clearly had a terrible impact on the lives of ordinary people. Interestingly, there are hardly any anti-US slogans daubed on walls or displayed on billboards. Our guide told us many times that Cubans don't have a problem with Americans, just their government.

Cuba is certainly a destination if you're feeling adventurous and fancy seeing something new. It is a remarkable, colourful and vibrant country, and in spite of some of the positive things the Revolution has brought to Cubans, it is still a country run by a dictator with no political or social freedoms. Personally, I think this is always worth bearing in mind when you're there. I'm not sure I'd go back, and if I did, it would only be if there had been some significant political change.

Arrived back at Charles De Gaulle Airport on Friday 3 December (after a time difference of + 6 hours). Everywhere looks very white. And the temparture has plummeted by about 30 degrees since leaving Havana. It's nice to be back in Europe.