Terriffic Tallinn

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Learning about Tallinn’s history I heard a phrase I haven’t heard since my high school Western Civilizations class, The Hanseatic League.  Huh?   What does that have to do with anything?   Learning about it was pretty cool.  The Hanseatic League was middlemen/traders.  For about 500 years (from 1250-1750), they controlled most of the commerce in northern Europe.

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Before the rise of powerful kings and the modern nation-state, local leaders ruled small fiefdoms, kingdoms, dukedoms and probably other –doms.  Local governments were small and relatively weak.  City dwellers were interested in trade, but paying taxes and tolls to each and every feudal overlord was excessive and impeded trade.   Rulers and the various -doms were too small to develop an effective coordinated response to pirates on the seas.   It was difficult to conduct any sort of large-scale commercial activity in such an environment.

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Enter the Hanseatic League.  Prominent merchants banded together, forming a merchant guild to defend themselves against pirates.  They hired armies to protect their ships and ports.   It worked well and they began establishing trading posts in abroad where they bargained with local leaders for discounts.  The Hanse (which in German means trading guild) would trade fish from Scandinavia for grain from the Baltics or luxury goods from Flanders or English wool.  It worked well and trade flourished.  Everyone got something out of it and the League got rich off of their cut.  Not only rich, in a time before strong nation states, they became powerful.  In their heyday, they were a dominant force and stabilizing influence.

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If it worked, what happened?  Rising nation states, particularly their kings, didn’t want to compete for power and were jealous of the League’s wealth.  Plus, the post-reformation religious wars tore apart old Hanseatic alliances.   By the 16th century, trade moved decisively to the south and west as countries like Portugal, Italy, Spain and France set ships to explore and return with treasures from Africa and the Americas.

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We took the ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia.  While it was a short ride, it had a culture that was distinct from Scandinavia, both Nordic and Russian.   After the decline of the Hanseatic League, it experienced two centuries of Tsarist Russia rule before World War I and 45 years of communist rule after World War II.  In September 1991, Estonia left the Soviet Union and declared independence (along with the three Baltic states of Latvia, and Lithuania).  The U.S.S.R. recognized Estonia as being independent on September 6, 1991.  In November Yeltsin issued a decree banning the Communist Party throughout Russia.

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While independence was natural for many Estonians, it has an enormous Russian population, many of whose families came during communism and never fully integrated.  Nevertheless, many Estonians think of themselves as part of the Nordic and European sphere and Estonia is part of the European Union.

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It was a quick walk into the old town Tallinn from the ferry terminal and an easy cab ride to the airport.  While we saw old wood buildings in the areas surrounding the old town, the walled city has an Old World ambience.  Tallinn’s old town medieval center is amazingly well-preserved as there wasn’t a lot of building there during communism.  The old town has watchtowers, colorfully painted medieval houses, cobblestoned lanes, and old Lutheran churches.

Tallinn, view

Tallinn, view (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Post-communism, Tallinn modernized quickly and prices have risen with the development.  Even so, being used to Swiss prices, we almost cheered when we saw Tallinn’s rates.  The food was great and we enjoyed dinners out, something we don’t do often in Geneva.  We weren’t the only ones, the streets were filled with people eating, drinking and making merry.  There was a general relaxed, happy summer vibe.  Scandinavians, especially Swedes and Finns, come for a night away and cheap alcohol as it is very highly taxed in their home countries.

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The Town hall of Tallinn, Estonia. Eesti: Tall...

The Town hall of Tallinn, Estonia. Eesti: Tallinna raekoda. Français : L’hôtel de ville de Tallinn, en Estonie. Русский: Таллинская Ратуша. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Town Hall Square has served as a marketplace since the time of the Hanseatic League. The 15th century Town Hall dominates the square.  There are lots of impressive churches like the Cathedral of Saint Mary o, but the best part about Tallinn is the Estonians who inhabit it and how well-preserved it is.  Enjoy wandering the streets, talking to people and taking in all the details.

Tallinn Old Town (Toompea)

Tallinn Old Town (Toompea) (Photo credit: rlanvin)

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No Horsing Around, The Horse Meat Scandal

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Have you ever eaten something and then regretted it?  Since moving here, I’ve occasionally eaten horse.  I buy it for American visitors to taste.  If you’ve watched the news lately, you can understand why I might be regretting it.  If you haven’t seen news stories about Europe’s horse meat scandal, here’s a recap.  Horse meat has been discovered in European beef products sold in supermarkets in countries including Britain, France, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany and Ireland.  Here, eating horse (particularly in countries like France and Switzerland) is commonplace; it’s estimated that each person in Switzerland eats between 600 and 700 grams of horse meat each year.

From The Swiss Watch Blog

There are two types of horses, ones that are given the powerful and dangerous veterinary drug called phenylbutazone (also known as Bute and banned for human use because to cases severe side effects) and those without who are issued health certificates certifying they can enter the food chain.   Can you guess what happened?

from afp.com

Spanghero, a French company, labeled the horse meat it received from a Romanian slaughterhouse as beef.  According to officials, Spanghero should have identified the meat as horse from its Romanian customs code, as well as its appearance, smell and price. The company said it acted in good faith, never ordered horse meat, and never knowingly sold horse meat.  Parisian prosecutors are now investigating it as fraud.

From Business Inquirer

The geographic scope of the scandal expanded this week.  While the quality of food and the food chain in Switzerland is quite high, Swiss company Nestle (the world’s largest food company) is now embroiled in the scandal.   It suspended deliveries of all products supplied by German subcontractor H.J. Schypke alleging they sold the contaminated meat to one of Nestle’s suppliers.  German discount retailer Lidl pulled products from Finnish, Danish and Swedish stores after finding horse meat in products labeled as beef.  German ministers met in Berlin earlier this week to discuss the scandal.

Horse meat scandal dominating the front pages

Horse meat scandal dominating the front pages (Photo credit: Gene Hunt)

But, wait, it gets worse…. The Swiss program, Kassensturz, showed emaciated horses being beaten, neglected and transported in cramped conditions without food or water before being slaughtered.  Apparently it was pretty disturbing.  In response,  several grocery stores, including Coop, Denner, Aldi, Spar and Migros, pulled most horse meat products off their shelves.  Coop and Migros continue to sell some from suppliers (mostly in Canada or France) in whom they have confidence.  It’s almost enough to make me a vegetarian again.  It’s definitely enough to reduce my meat consumption and be choosier about where I purchase it.

 

No World Wars In Western European Since 1945 = Nobel Peace Prize

Yesterday, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  In 1993, I was living in Belgium and the Maastricht Treaty  (aka the Treaty on European Union) was taking effect.  It was all over the news…and I didn’t understand any of it.  I asked and a lovely Belgian friend explained it to me.   Before I tell you when they told me, lets detour to quick history lesson.   This is a list of just some of the battles that have the battles that have taken place on Belgian soil:

 

  • World War I The Battles of Flandres – There were five, yes five.  The First Battle of Ypres, the Second Battle of Ypres, the Battle of Passchendaele, the  Battle of the Lys,  and the creatively named Fifth Battle of Ypres.  Germany and the Western Allies faced off once again in Belgium.  Industrialization increased the scale of wars and they took on a far more devastating nature.  Battles with over 50,000 fatalities became common.  Mustard gas doesn’t seem like a particularly good way to go either.  Belgian farmers still turn up canisters of gas when they plow their fields in the spring!
  • When the Germans wanted to invade France’s Mangiot Line fortifications built after WWI, they just went to Paris via Belgium.  Like many of the occupied countries during WWII, most of them weren’t too happy about their visitors.
  • Battle of the Ardennes (also known as the Battle of the Bulge and the Siege of Bastogne) – After the Allies landed in Normandy, they made their way to Germany.  If you’ve read the last few bullets, you know the easiest way from France to Germany (and vice versa).  Southern Belgium has the Ardennes mountains, which happen to be a good place to entrench (and freezing in the winter).  The Germans mounted an offensive and surrounded almost 20,000 American troops.  It’s famous for General Anthony McAuliffe‘s line, ‘Nuts,’ in response to the German’s request to surrender.  Although I have heard that  ‘Nuts’ was the only printable equivalent of the word that was actually used, it goes without saying that a battle ensued.

You get the idea.  If you got tired reading that list, you can imagine how tired the Belgians were of the wars themselves.

My Belgian friend explained to be that linking their economies and cultures so thoroughly that untangling them was more difficult and costly than waging war was the only way to prevent it from happening again.  At that time, many people were alive who’d lived through the occupation and the war.  I met people whose family members were shot dead in front of their house by the Nazis.  When you think about it, Belgium is a country that only experienced intermittent periods of peace before foreign powers again waged war on their soil.  As a citizen of the tiny country that was continually caught in the cross-fire, they were hopeful that the European Union would help put an end to the seemingly never-ending series of wars waged by European powers like England, Spain, France, and Germany on their soil.

You can’t read the news today without reading about the European Union’s problems.  Some countries, like Switzerland, have good reasons for not joining (which they haven’t in order retain their neutrality and independence).  Nevertheless, as someone who likes a lot of Europeans and likes to travel, there hasn’t been a war on Belgian soil since WWII and I will happily celebrate that.

Eurowhat? Our Introduction To Eurovision

Most Americans don’t know the Eurovision Song Contest exists.  Most Europeans have watched at least a bit of it.

Eurovision song contest

Eurovision song contest (Photo credit: kjelljoran)

Eurovision is a singing contest started in 1956 and is one of the longest-running television programs in the world.   It’s a bit like a schlocky, international American Idol in which each country gets to put forth a contestant and they compete against each other.

Developed by the European Broadcast Union, on the belief that music (along with sports) could unite a multi-lingual continent, Eurovision was content for a new technology of television.  Today, participants are broader than just the European Union countries; 43 countries take part.   Switzerland participates although it is not part of the EU.  Former Soviet republics and even Israel participates.  The contest is broadcast further Europe, Arab countries, Hong Kong, India, Canada, Australia, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, South Korea, and Vietnam all can watch it.  In fact, the Eurovision Song Contest is one of the most watched events in the world with audience between 100 million and 600 million internationally.

Each country chooses a singer or band to represent their country and they compete against each other. Residents of a country cannot vote for their own country.  For example, Swiss cannot vote for the Swiss entrant.

TV Shows We Used To Watch - The Eurovision Son...

TV Shows We Used To Watch – The Eurovision Song Contest (Photo credit: brizzle born and bred)

Before the days of internet and cable, Eurovision was huge.  Today, it faces increased entertainment competition has lost some of its luster.  Nevertheless, it is still popular enough that he has learned all about it at work.

Famous Eurovision contestants include:

  • Sweden’s ABBA, who won with Waterloo in 1974.  Olivia Newton John placed 4th that same year.
  • Julio Iglesias placed 4th for Spain in 1970.
  • Israel’s Dana International was the first transsexual to win in 1998.
  • Celine Dion won for Switzerland in 1988 with  “Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi.
  • In 1997, Katrina and the Waves won with “Love Shine A Light” they are best remembered for their 1985 smash hit “Walking on Sunshine.”
  • Scottish singer Lulu won in 1969, with ‘Boom Bang-a-Bang‘. I can’t explain how France, the Netherlands and Spain also won that year.
  • The English group Bucks Fizz won in with the song “Making Your Mind Up” and their whip-off skirts.
  • Sandie Shaw who sang “Puppet on a String” (we’d never heard of it).
  • Engelbert Humperdink‘s “Love Will Set You Free” is the UK’s entry this year.  I think my dad may have an album of his from the 60’s tucked away somewhere.
Dana International

Dana International (Photo credit: Daniel Kruczynski)

Songs with overtly political messages are banned. Notable songs that premiered at Eurovision include:

  •  “Nel blu dipinto di blu,“ better known as “Volare“ (it didn’t win)
  • Toto Cutugno‘s “Insieme“, is a song that many Germans still know by heart.
  • You might remember Gina G’s 1996 dance-pop entry for the United Kingdom, “Ooh Aah…Just a Little Bit.”
  • Luxembourg’s France Gall‘s 1965 song “Poupée de cire, poupée de son” was a sensation.  Written by famous French singer Serge Gainsbourg, it became in international hit.  It was one of the handful of Eurovision songs that radio stations played and people bought.

Some countries tend to do well:

  • Ireland holds the record for the highest number of wins with seven.  The even won three consecutive times in 1992, 1993 and 1994.
  • FranceLuxembourg and the United Kingdom are joint second with five wins.  Nevertheless, Brits have generally prided themselves on not taking Eurovision seriously and often strike out.  It was still poplar viewing in the UK, due in large part to the Terry Wogan‘s cynical commentary.  He barely suppressed guffaws over the quality of the acts/presenters and the kitsch.  Outraged at the politics behind the scoring system he stopped in 2008 and vowed never to return.

The scoring/winner is likely to change as blocs of countries have started banding together to vote one of their region a winner.  This has lead to frustration about the winner’s worthiness.  Andrew Lloyd Webber even visited Moscow met Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to ask him to call on all East European countries to refrain from block-voting for each other.

Partisan voting doesn’t seem to be a new phenomenon, Cliff Richard‘s second-place finish in 1968, its now attributed to direct intervention by Spain’s then-dictator, General Franco.

A map of Europe showing how many times each co...

Historically, some countries have done poorly:

  • Until Finnish band Lordi won with their rock song “Hard Rock Hallelujah” in 2006, Finland had participated since 1961 but never even made it into the Top 5.
  • Norway has scored no points in four separate contests.
  • Austria, Finland, Spain, Switzerland aren’t far behind with three null’s.

Many self-respecting musical acts stay away to preserve their dignity.   Garish outfits are mandatory and gimmicks used in the contest include:

  • In 2008, Russian entrant Dima Bilan sang “Believe” while Olympic gold medalist and three-time world champion Evgeni Plushenko ice skated.
  • Ukraine’s Kseniya Simonova‘s sand-painted  clouds, planets and angels in sand while singer Mika Newton howled into a wind machine.
  • A Moldovan act once included a woman dressed as a fairy on a unicycle and digital gnomes flying across the stage’s LED screen.
  • Sweden’s Eric Saade smashed through a glass door onstage.
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Blue, representing United Kingdom, performing at the Eurovision Song Contest 2011 final on 14 May 2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Boy band Blue (kind of like the Backstreet Boys) was big in the 90’s.  They staged a comeback in Eurovision, while it brought them some attention, it didn’t result in the desired comeback.
  • Turkey’s Sertab Erener sang  “Every Way That I Can” (a song about a woman in a harem in the 19th century, who wants to win back a Sultan that had expelled her) with a troupe of belly dancers performing enthusiastically.
  • This year, Russia’s song is from Buranovskiye Babushki a girl band whose name translates to the Buranovo Grannies.  These singing grandmothers from the Udmurt Republic have an average age in the 80’s.  Two years ago, they failed to qualify with the hip hop produced track “Dlinnaja-Dlinnaja Beresta I Kak Sdelat Iz Nee Aishon.” This translates into “Very Long Birch Bark And How To Turn It Into A Turban”.
  • Austria’s entry this year is by Trackshittaz.  I’m not kidding.  That’s really their name. They have dancers with their buttocks highlighted with fluorescent paint.  Again, I’m not kidding.  I couldn’t make that up.  They have promised to “learn a little bit of English” before the contest.  Will this lead to a name change?
  • Montenegro’s Rambo Amadeus‘ (no joke) song has a video in which he surprises two topless women with a donkey.

Azerbaijan won the contest last year so they have to host this year.  Countries have been known to put forward a lamentable contestant to avoid the expense of putting on the contest the next year.  Yes, Ireland I’m looking at you.

Geneva’s Rising Crime Rate

Courtesy of World Radio Switzerland

The New York Times recently ran an article entitled “Open Borders and Wealth Lure Thieves To Geneva” addressing Geneva’s dramatic rise in crime rates (for property crimes like property theft, car theft and break-ins).  It cited several reasons for the rise:

Locals have complained about the deteriorating security situation ever since the Schengen Agreement opened Switzerland’s borders to much of Europe.

Courtesy Moveoneinc.com

In December 2008, Switzerland (even though it is not part of the European Union) became part of Schengen, a zone offering unrestricted travel to Europe.  In Schengen areas, borders are open.  There are no more passport checks entering countries or at borders (even though there are police checks at borders or checks for trafficked goods). On a side note, don’t get caught bringing a bunch bargain French meat into Switzerland.  The Swiss, who love a fine, will make you pay.

Before our move, people warned us of the problems with break-ins.  We forked over a ton of CHF‘s to get this.  It bolts the door into the door frame.  We also got an additional top lock.  To get into our apartment in Geneva, you pretty much need to do this.

Courtesy of Vortex

All of the buildings here have these too.  Our code changed once already because of an attempted break-in.  Our neighbor’s bar stopped the thieves, but it was so badly damaged that they had to call a locksmith to let them in.

After having lived in Detroit, I keep track of my stuff, don’t leave anything out, lock all of my many locks and don’t worry.  Mom and Dad, you don’t need to worry about either.  Despite the rise in reported crime, Geneva is still the sixth safest city in the world.

Congratulations Belgium! After 541 Days, You Have A Government.

English: Flanders (red) in Belgium and the Eur...

English: Flanders (red) in Belgium and the European Union (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Belgium was unable to form a government for 541 days! What?  How can they have been governmentless for so long? There was an ethnic standoff in Belgium’s parliament. The French and Flemish (Dutch) speaking communities* were divided and were not able to form a government… for about 18 consecutive months (demolishing Iraq’s record).

 

 

English: A graphical representation of the six...

English: A graphical representation of the six biggest Flemish political parties and their results for the House of Representatives (Kamer). From 1978 to 2010, in percentages for the complete ‘Kingdom’. Nederlands: Een grafische voorstelling van de 6 grootste Vlaamse partijen en hun behaalde resultaten voor de Kamer van Volksvertegenwoordigers. Van 1978 tot en met 2010, uitgedrukt in procenten voor ‘Het Rijk’. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Why didn’t they hold new elections. Few people believes calling new elections would help. The Belgians don’t have any truly national political parties, only regional (i.e., Flemish, French, etc.) parties. The Flemish-speaking separatist party (New Flemish Alliance) is quite popular and there are deep divisions between the parties. If they held new elections, the results would likely have been the same (as the one that created the stalemate) or the more extreme populist parties would have gained ground.

 

Things continued to function, more or less, on auto-pilot. Civil servants showed up to work. Governmental power was already somewhat decentralized from the national government to the French and Flemish speaking parts of the country. These separate divisions continued to function. Also, Belgium is part of the European Union which exerted power (ironically from Brussels).

Elio Di Rupo

Elio Di Rupo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was finally resolved when a Flemish separatist party left negotiations in the hope of provoking new elections. The move backfired when another party managed to cobble together a new government when Belgium’s debt was downgraded last month. Their new leader is Elio Di Rupo.

I love Belgium. It is a fantastic country. To celebrate Belgium’s new government (and aid you in your holiday beverage selections), I am declaring this coming week Belgian Beer Week. Cheers! Sante! Op uw gezondheid! Proust!

Français : Etape 19 (L'Alpe d'Huez) du Tour de...

*Cyclist Philippe Gilbert just won an award for his bravery uniting his fellow Belgians, both Flemish and French.

**Mr. Di Rupo is the country’s first openly gay leader and the second openly gay leader of a country (after Johanna Sigurdardottir of Iceland).

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I was going to post this early last week. On the way home, I heard on the radio that a gunman in Liege, Belgium opened fire on a crowd. The gunman killed six (seven including himself), and injured 121 people. Words can’t properly express the tragedy and sorrow created by this senseless act.