Strictly Strasbourg

 

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Like all cities Strasbourg has a unique identity formed by its geography and history. In this case, the geography is a major factor – with the River Rhine alongside sometimes providing the boundary between France and Germany and sometimes not, and along with the evolved Roman roads setting Strasbourg at the heart of European trade routes. The historic city, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, is on the Grand-Ile – an island bounded by the River Ile which has the great 15C Gothic cathedral at the centre and large numbers of medieval timber framed houses in amazingly good state of repair. The best examples of the vernacular architecture are to be seen in Petite France – a smaller area on the south and west of the Grand Ile where the Ile River is separated into several branches with covered bridges that allowed the installation of water mills. In medieval times the mills attracted tanners who consumed large quantities of water. Their houses typically have open galleries and roofs where the hides were dried.
We are staying in the historic Petite France area. Our apartment is on the ground floor of a four-story timber framed house. Just like our old house in West Cork the walls are massive and the damp courses only to be wondered about. The apartment fronts onto one of the branches of the river and we have a terrace some 10 feet above river level that gives amazing views of the barrage (covered bridge). We are very fortunate to be here for a reasonable time that allows us to get to know the city and its surroundings.
In our first week we quickly gained the context of the city, the wonderful tram system (just like Dublin but with much more comprehensive coverage of the city) and the maze of small streets with a profusion of boulangeries, charcuteries, restaurants, bars, speciality shops and more. The city is obviously a very popular tourist attraction. However, it is quite different to say Prague or Bruges in that the sheer numbers of tourists is not so overwhelming, and we detect there is not the same thirst for consuming excessive quantities of alcohol. Certainly, we are staying right in the heart of the historic district and we are not disturbed by overnight noise, nor by parties of revellers. In fact the city feels lived in, and obviously indigenous inhabitants are strongly in evidence.
Chatting to one group of tourists we learned they were on a cruise ship on the Rhine, and it seems likely this would account for quieter evenings on the city streets. The visitors are strongly French, German, Japanese and American. Not many Brits in evidence here in the heart of Europe! Of course Americans will be themselves and we chuckled to ourselves as we heard the comment from a lady looking at a tanners house saying, “It’s so cute, I feel like we are at Disneyland”.

Also in our first week we visited the European parliament [see separate blog entry] and the lovely Botanical Gardens in the university area. These are a little way outside the Grand Ile easily reached by tram in twenty minutes and allow us to explore a little around the Neustadt – the German influenced areas of the city, which BTW were also granted UNESCO heritage status in 2017. The area is evidently typical of a Germanic architecture that has been lost to bombing in Germany and the Neustadt area is teeming with a diversity of architectural styles which make this historical district very attractive. A place with wide tree lined avenues where Art Nouveau and neoclassical buildings sit contentedly side by side.

Having lived in West Cork for years we are having great fun learning to be city dwellers again. We even have a bit of a routine of clearing the terrace every morning, watering the tomato, pepper and lettuce plants in their raised beds, going out to the boulangerie to purchase wonderful croissants and baguettes. Sometimes we treat ourselves and go to a boulangerie for breakfast and just inhale the ambiance. And looking after the cat! Yes we are minding a tiny 8 month old beautifully marked kitten, and she’s minding us. Several mornings I have been woken to the sounds of battle in the kitchen. And, being cat owners down the years we know exactly what’s going on. First time it was a mouse; easily dealt with. Second time was a small bird. And you know what happens the cat will play with the bird (or whatever) until it loses interest when it no longer moves. When I took it from her she disappeared off and very shortly came back with a pigeon! Fortunately the bird was too big for her to bring in through the cat flap, so I was easily able to deal with it. This morning it was a mouse – alive this time, and she promptly lost it. So I had to encourage her to go under the book case and retrieve it so I could deal with it. She promptly went off in a huff and I’m expecting a rat shortly, at the very least!

We are also loving not using the car, it’s sitting in a garage. We’re walking and taking the tram everywhere; shopping on a day by day basis; dropping into a bar or café or restaurant by chance and always getting wonderful food and service. We have been to three concerts so far. A chamber orchestra from Zagreb playing Mozart, Grieg, Sorkocevic and Britten. The Britten Simple Symphony was incredible and overall it was an outstanding performance played with energy and confidence that reminded us of Katherine Hunka and the Irish Chamber Orchestra. A piano recital by young man Samuel Aznar, playing Debussy and Chopin, and demonstrating a huge talent for jazz. An unusual orchestral performance by OrchestraUnlimited – a very large orchestra with minimal strings but significant brass, wind and percussion, playing classical and popular pieces in a modern mode, including some Star Wars pieces that we ourselves have a more than passing acquaintance with. It was interesting that at all three concerts we felt like we were in West Cork – because the audience were very clearly predominantly local, meeting and greeting as you do. The orchestral concert was also very obviously a university crowd of hugely enthusiastic youngsters.

Finally there is dancing in Strasbourg – it appears there’s an Alsatian equivalent of Morris dancing happening on many of the city squares most evenings. We haven’t joined joined in!

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2018 Roadtrip Gets Real

I was in the UK (well England) for five weeks (M for 4 plus her week on the Camino). It was the hottest summer almost anyone could remember, and at the time to writing seems to be set to continue. In many ways hot is a good adjective with English football looking brighter than at any time since 1966; with Brexit politics looking set to end in fireworks as the cabinet engage in open warfare and as British business start to put the boot in. We walked a good bit locally and were yet again reminded of just how good the UK footpath system is.
Saturday 30th June we left Essex in the early hours to catch a mid-morning shuttle from Folkstone to Calais. It is nearly 25 years since we did this route and it remains busy, efficient and impressive. We wonder what will happen following a hard Brexit after March 19. On the road south, we take the A26 autoroute. It’s quiet. The tolls are just as expensive as ever, but the route is fast. We reach Reims by mid-afternoon covering some 300 Kms. Northern France remains little changed apart from the even bigger fields of golden corn, barley, oil seed rape and the omnipresent wind turbines. I had prebooked a campsite outside Chalons en Champagne, purely and simply for its proximity to our halfway point on the autoroute. The site is municipal and as expected does just what it says on the tin. We are early and can choose a good pitch. They are all a good size but good tree cover is important and also optimal proximity to the facilities. Not too near, not too far. The facilities are nothing short of excellent. Not quite German standard but clean and well maintained. There are a few British registered vehicles, but the majority are French, Belgian and Dutch. This is North Eastern France.
We haven’t had the tent out of its bag for some 10 years! But it’s perfect. Goes up in 10 minutes and fully pitched and organized in under an hour without any arguments. We have a supper at the camp café with the added bonus of the French – Argentina match on TV. And as you can imagine being France there is a small crowd and they are wild with delight. Normally my allergies cause me real agro when eating out, but this night we both have burger and frites (chips to you). Of course, this is France and, notwithstanding this is a very small establishment on a campsite, I know full well that the burger is a going to be a suitably shaped piece of pure meat. Not horse either! And just to take my life in my hands, I have a couple of beers because they are local blonde beer with just three ingredients – barley, hops and water. If I didn’t have to become fluent in the language I would move to France in a heartbeat and my life would be much simpler.

Chalons en Chanpagne
When we tell folk we are camping as we travel between our major stops the usual reaction is, “What, with a tent? You poor dears!” But what they really mean is, “Are you out of your heads?” But we are committed campers; it’s true we haven’t camped a lot since we have been in West Cork, but we have nothing but good experiences to report. Of course you need to work it right. First, we always try to choose 3 or 4 star sites. Preferably municipal. The 4 to 5 star sites are always much more crowded, full of children very noisy and expensive. The 3 star sites are cheap as chips and you normally get what it says on the tin. At busy times we pre-book. Other times or when we can arrive quite early in the day we will arrive on spec; particularly if there’s one or more alternatives. Then the mid-range sites are full of people like ourselves; older, couples, experienced, quiet. Always willing to share experiences. In Chalons en Champagne we had some great neighbours; Scots, Brits, Belgians, Dutch and French. And I picked up a few good tips on places in mid Austria, which I am still researching for later stops on this trip.
Relaxed start on the Sunday. We need to be in Strasbourg early evening so we leave mid-morning and resolve to take backroads, at least for the first part of the journey. The weather is extremely hot again and we take it slow across the vast corn fields. We stop at Bar-le-Duc. But the advertised Ville Haute is less gripping that expected. Continuing on we stop at Donnmartin-mes-Toul. As usual we find everywhere shut. It’s Sunday and the French rightly do their own thing and ignore any demands for Sunday opening. In the end we find a perfectly decent fast food restaurant that once again confounds expectations by providing the highest quality of good food at very ordinary prices. Vive la France!
Being Sunday the traffic flows are not heavy and we make good time. We are excited to see the mountains on the near horizon and a quick shufty at the map confirms it’s Germany and the Black Forest. It’s an area we are pretty familiar with, so we won’t be going there on this trip. We eventually park up in Strasbourg late afternoon. Total trip 800 Kms. Don’t ask about the city navigation. The GPS lost its way and we had to reboot. Not an easy city to navigate around by car. However on foot, bicycle or on the tram is a different matter; we will be here for 12 days and while it is a recognized tourist destination we envisage we will have time to live as city dwellers.

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Glimpses of Glastonbury

Glastonbury is the first real stop on our summer long road trip. Our younger son moved into a new old house at the start of the year and we are helping with decoration and renovation duties. It’s an interesting stay because it’s a working visit with time to do exploring, walking and get to know the area better than if we were regular tourists.

I guess everyone has heard of the Glastonbury festival. Evidently its the biggest greenfield festival in the world with nearly 200,000 visitors nearly every year. The back story is that the first festival was held in 1970 and that the hippies and counterculture people came and many stayed. Today the town is a magnet for alternative culture.

The first thing you notice about Glastonbury is the Tor – a 531 foot high hill that stands alone above the town and the Somerset levels, with a 15th century church tower that’s all that remains of two earlier churches. It’s a limestone hill with a sandstone cap which means the softer base has eroded to create very steeps sides, while the harder sandstone cap has remained intact. Its really steep slopes make for a good climb, and I walk/run around up and down first thing almost every day. I vary the routes but keep the time under 60 minutes. There is absolutely no truth in the rumor that I can make the top in under 16 minutes. But the Tor is an amazing landmark. And I meet many interesting people on the hill – dog walkers, American, German and Japanese tourists of course, but mostly locals and visitors that climb the Tor as a spiritual place to reflect in their own ways.

Consider that until the last few hundred years the levels were frequently flooded and that the Tor was an island. Which of course gives grist to the mill that the Tor was the island of Avalon, the legendary island featured in the Arthurian legend in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1136 pseudo-historical account as the place where King Arthur’s sword Excalibur was forged and later where Arthur was taken to recover from his wounds after the Battle of Camlann.

glastonbury-tor9

After the Tor, the town. The high street is radically different to any other in the UK. By my own observation, a significant majority of people are dressed in counter culture – women in long dresses, kaftans, beads, head dresses and more. The men similarly showing a disregard for orthodoxy, with beards, pony tails, bare feet, dresses, beads and more.  Some will be local people, some visitors. And there is an energy in the high street and an obvious friendliness. To add to the uniqueness, none of the usual UK high street names are here. Don’t bother looking for McDonalds, Pizza Express, Next, Starbucks, Costa, WH Smiths or Nandos. The only one here is Boots which is perhaps a necessity. All the other premises are individualistic, counter culture and the people running the shops are full of enthusiasm for their alternative artwork, crystals, fairy dust as well as organic, whole food, vegan and vegetarian foods. And of course I loved the music store with guitars hung outside the shop marked for street players. Similarly the cafes and vegan restaurants with creative meals beautifully prepared. In fairness one of the restaurants we visited did have have fish and meat on the menu, but we could see the primary demand was for the vegan offerings. And the prices! We were amazed at the reasonable prices being charged in shops and restaurants.

On a good day the streets are crowded with hippies. Gathering in the churchyard among the gravestones, or on the open spaces outside the coffee shops sitting on the ground, singing, playing the guitar, doing pavement art, chanting over a chocolate cake (sic).  Glastonbury is without doubt a place apart. It’s even quite difficult to get to. There’s no train station. A bus to Bristol takes an hour and 40 minutes. There are no major highways nearby.  At this time of year when the weather is quite good there are lots of people sleeping rough. In the orchards, fields, beside the road. Some in tents. Some in vans. They are not all young; far from it. Many of the hippies are as old as I am!

My favorite memories . . coming down from the Tor shortly after eight o’clock in the morning, and seeing a scantily clad chap with beard standing outside his tent in the middle of an otherwise empty field playing his saxophone. Or rounding a bend in the country lane at a similarly early hour, and coming across a well dressed little chap sitting on a seat beside the road, combing a huge head and beard of very grey hair. “Good morning, what a grand morning it is!” I said. He replied, “Tis a grand morning indeed, and I am grand and grey!” I think I had just met my very first leprechaun.

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Shapwick Nature Reserve – Walking Neolithic Trackways

The Somerset Levels are a unique wetland environment covering some 160,000 acres of very low lying land, averaging 3 to 4 meters above sea level. I recall back in 2013/14 the Levels getting extensive media coverage because they were badly flooded after extensive rainfall and many hundreds of houses, villages and farms being marooned for weeks. But of course such low lying land is always at risk and interestingly because the terrain has extensive peat bogs the history of the area is available to researchers (because acidic peat preserves artifacts).

To be honest we didn’t know anything of this; we were encouraged to go take a walk because there are several beautiful nature reserves in the area. And indeed there are. The Shapwick reserve is about 500 hectares (1235 acres) covering the Avalon Marshes in which we are encouraged to spot Bittern, Egret, Marsh Harrier, Otter etc.

The trails are, well flat! Just about as flat as is possible. And there’s a lot of water around; drains, canals, dykes and ditches. The habitats are wildflower meadows full of golden irises, dark fens, wet fern woods and open water, fringed with rustling reed-beds and full of water lilies. From the hide we watched swans nesting, egrets and herons hunting but sadly no harriers or bitterns that day.

The highlight of the walk is to traverse a reconstruction of the Sweet Track – so named after Ray Sweet who discovered the path while ditch cleaning. Evidently the area was in neolithic times criss-crossed with wooden tracks, evidencing considerable activity in the area in those times and many were discovered by turf cutters in the 1960s (who were encouraged to find them by having one named after them). The Sweet Track just so happens to be the oldest one found, and is dated as being 5815 years old. How so accurate? Tree ring dating (dendrochronology) is of course accurate to the year, accompanied by dating of (embedded) pollen.

The Sweet Track was an amazing construction considering the builders had no saws, iron axes or chisels, just stone axes and wooden wedges. It was constructed by driving sharpened poles obliquely into the peat to form a V into which planks were fixed. These planks were then stabilized by driving long pegs through holes in the planks and down into the peat and clay beneath.

Fascinating walk on many levels (sic). About 90 minutes excluding time in hide and on photography.

June 2018

 

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The Polden Way

It’s been a while since I had my boots on. So I looked for somewhere close to Glastonbury where we are staying for a serious walk. Much of the terrain is dead flat – ergo the Somerset levels; but there are a series of escarpments crossing Somerset. The geology of the ridge looks very similar to the South East of England, for example the North Downs. The Polden Way, so called because it traverses the Polden Hills. And like the North Downs, in history the ridge provided the east west road, in this case from Roman times.

I planned a linear route from end to end, returning on the same route, just missing the first 3 kms, making a walk about 18 kms. The route information usefully told me to look out for Large Blue butterflies and White Throats. Sad to say I saw neither, but I did see a buzzard quite close up as it flopped from a dead tree right in front of me, and what could have been a Speckled Wood (see picture). The terrain is typical English ridge; trees included oak, birch, beech, rowan and even the odd pine. Very different to home.

The ridge walk walking was excellent – unlike say the North Downs, the trail actually kept quite close to the escarpment, so the views were outstanding. The sun was really hot and there was just enough cover to stop me expiring. I noted that the stiles and gates had signs crediting a Landfill Community Trust with financial support. This is very interesting – we might infer from this that the escarpment was at one stage covered in quarries; and that subsequently these scars on the landscape were filled in with landfill rubbish, and after the quarries were filled, the owners were obliged by planning conditions or of their own free will, funded the trail. Either way I applaud them. For once business managers have done something really constructive for the community!

 

Look closely at the pictures and note the Glastonbury Tor just visible between the trees. I have been walking up and around this every day for the last week; it’s great exercise. But as you see it’s an amazing landmark visible from miles around. More about this in another blog. The walk took 5 hours excluding stops. And I did stop a good bit to search for the absent Large Blue.

I am optimistic we will find many more walks in this area including the Mendip Hills, Cheddar Gorge etc. in between renovation and decoration duties. The road trip continues in July with Strasbourg, Alsace, eastern Switzerland and the Wienerwald south of Vienna. Great walking opportunities at every stage.

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Brexit gets Personal

COmposite map

In today’s world talk is cheap and words often mean nothing. In Theresa May’s speech on future UK-EU relations 2 March, she said referring to the EU, “We know what we want. We understand your principles. We have a shared interest in getting this right. So, let’s get on with it.” We all know the exact opposite is true. The reality is, nothing is settled and internal UK political conflict is preventing agreement. Therefore, Brits living in the EU are in a permanent state of worry about the impact this will have on them personally.

I am a British citizen. I was the archetypal Brit that Theresa May speaks about – innovating in both technology and commerce, a global business person representing my country.  I was born and lived in the UK and several other countries including the USA, Ireland and South Africa. I also travelled and worked in countless other countries as a researcher and consultant in information technology architecture advising many of the worlds’ leading enterprise. I moved to Ireland 17 years ago, and last year retired at the age of 70.

Brits in Ireland are in a slightly different situation to those in the other EU 26. Ireland and Britain maintain a Common Travel Area (CTA) that allows free movement as well as linked social services. But there are several issues that I am very worried about.

  1. The UK government has said they are committed to the CTA. But relations between UK and Ireland have seriously deteriorated over the Northern border. So, in the event of a “no deal” what will happen to the CTA? While I will retain residency rights, my UK pension may be frozen. There are precedents for this for Brits living outside the EEA, such as Canada. The pound has dropped in value by around 30% since June 2016. This important part of my now fixed income is under threat.
  2. The negotiations around citizens’ rights have not focused on issues specific to Brits in Ireland; perhaps because the CTA is assumed to be enduring because of Theresa May’s earlier statements. I would not be so confident. British in Europe have pressed the point that, given the citizen’s rights were not finalized in Phase 1, they should be made a separate agreement from the trade agreement to ensure they do not become a bargaining point in the trade negotiations. I have heard no commentary regarding the future of the CTA. Now I really don’t know whether this is a good or bad thing; if it is opened up for negotiation anything could happen. If not, it might actually be allowed to wither away, just like the Good Friday Agreement.
  3. Ireland is a thriving country with world leading tourism, technology and pharmaceutical industries. The stability of Northern Ireland is a key aspect of this success. The current machinations of the British Government and their allies in the Northern Ireland DUP have rendered the Good Friday Agreement and the devolved government inactive. The DUP have effectively seized control of Northern Ireland by proxy without either a popular mandate or compliance with the Good Friday Agreement. The majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU; but the DUP are strong supporters of Theresa May’s conservative government and Brexit. If there is a “no deal” a hard border will inevitably be required and all the efforts to establish peace through the Good Friday Agreement will be lost. The impact on Ireland may be profound. Peace is hard won and easily lost, and the UK government is playing with fire. Brits in Ireland will be deeply concerned that the success and stability and peace may be compromised, with unforeseen consequences for macroeconomics and personal safety.

In my lifetime I have seen at first hand countries undergo major transformations for the worse for no good purpose other than the incompetence or venality of politicians. I am deeply concerned that the UK is throwing not only its ex patriot citizens over the cliff but also the indigenous population. For Brits in Ireland the position is compounded by the clear threat of destabilizing the hard won peace in the North.

Published for Brexpats Hear our Voice and British in Europe March 2018

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We have just crossed a threshold – it’s time to fix Facebook, Twitter et al.

Myanmar genocide

We have crossed a threshold where technology Facebook et al are potentially facilitating fixed elections and genocide. It’s time to act.
At long last there is wider interest in the Facebook and Twitter models and growing understanding of the damage they are doing to society. We have all seen the widespread interference in elections by state actors and vested interests; the rise of angry politics in the USA, UK and elsewhere, channelling discontent and splitting society; the spread of fake news; the reduction in trust generally and support for criminal or terrorist based activities; and so, the list keeps getting longer. Last week however I felt a threshold was crossed that needed to be exposed.
Last Tuesday Kevin Roose wrote in the New York Times about the activities of Facebook in Myanmar and other parts of the developing world. He explains in 2016 Facebook joined a partnership with MTP, the state-run telecom company to give subscribers access to its Free Basics program. Free Basics includes a suite of internet services including Facebook, that can be used without counting towards the cellphone data plan. As a result, the number of Facebook users in Myanmar has skyrocketed from 2 million in 2014 to more than 30 million today. Apparently violence against the Rohingya Muslims has been fuelled in part by misinformation spread by Facebook which is now used as a primary news source by many people in the country. Doctored photos and unfounded rumours have gone viral on Facebook, many of them shared by official government and military accounts. I’m sure there’s more to the ethnic cleansing happening as we speak in Myanmar, but at the very least Facebook can clearly be accused of facilitating genocide!
As Facebook, Twitter and Google were grilled last week by the USA Congress, all the attention was on interference in presidential elections by Russian state actors. Whilst this is fully understandable, I suggest it’s insufficient. The intelligence emerging from Myanmar tells us the platform model is a clear threat to society and urgent response and actions are necessary. Even though the platform companies are US corporations, given the state of politics in the USA, I suggest we shouldn’t wait for the USA to fix the problem. And it goes without saying that the platform providers, Facebook, Twitter and Google are completely incapable of exerting the governance because their business models are in direct conflict with appropriate actions.
I blogged in August under the title, It’s time to exert governance over the Global Tech Leaders!
But even though my thinking was probably radical for many, it didn’t go far enough. I believe now there is just one primary focus required – to make the platforms trusted. Some key actions include:
1. All three platforms must provide a Trust Review button where all posts, tweets and search responses can be rated for reliability on several dimensions, including Ownership and Validity. The objective is to ensure transparency of authorship and elimination of anonymity, and trustworthiness of content and elimination of fake news.
2. All users are encouraged to provide review feedback. Think Trip Advisor, where reviewers themselves are reviewed and rated.
3. All platform providers are required to provide open (service API based) access to content to allow external and independent actors to develop real-time AI based review engines, that contribute to the trust rating.
We might imagine that the platform providers themselves would be motivated to provide AI based Trust engines, but so would reputable communications companies, perhaps in conjunction with platform providers.

How might this happen? First it seems to me that the platform providers might just realize this is necessary and act because these actions would actually help their business model, and even provide empirical data that allows them to compete more effectively. Second, public opinion; we need to energize platform users to help them understand the damage that’s being done to society. In my earlier post on this topic I considered the UN as a point for governance; and I still believe this is the best long term solution. But right now we need action fast and triggering better behaviors from the platforms themselves is probably the best course of action that will protect their business model as well as society as a whole.

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