Tag Archive | europe

24 Hours in Transit

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March 14, 2012 was split between two different countries, and two vastly different modes of travel. The first, Cyprus: warm, palm trees, airport with wifi, food and drink on the plane, well rested and light. The second: the United Kingdom: cold, poor, tired, dark, hard floor of Heathrow Terminal 1 with no 24-hour places to eat.

My first hours in the UK were rough and tense. The following morning (it doesn’t make sense to distinguish by something so arbitrary as dates in this story) I boarded a flight to Belfast which landed in a dense fog and cold mist. It was a bitter beginning to the last leg of this journey; in my run-down state, I cringed at the industrial streets of Belfast, imagining shadows around corners and in doorways.

My 24 hours in transit between these opposite corners of Europe, shifting focus between the massively different, dividing conflicts in each wasn’t exactly a typical approach to island hopping.

Future Wilderness

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If the Buffer Zone is ever demilitarized, swept for mines, and opened to all (which I am predicting, without much supporting evidence, will happen in my lifetime), it’s going to be an awesome piece of wilderness to explore-hopefully one that is supported by some ecological,  environmental, and commemorative initiatives like the European Green Belt project. There is, in fact, a silver lining that comes with sealing off a chunk of land to humans for a generation or two.

This picture was taken very near the BZ from the Turkish occupied north.

Welcome to the Island

Today was a travel day, and though I had landed in Cyprus by 9am, I was pretty shelled out by the efforts involved in the airport process. I don’t have any pictures from today, but here are a few random thought sketches.

Waiting on a street corner at 3am, with all of my possessions, for the Sherut to pick me up for the ride to the airport was a terrifying farewell to Nachlaot.

Airport security was not as bad as it could have been, but I’m pretty sure I was shunted into one of the more high-security inspection lines. My stuff was unpacked and inspected for explosive material; my harmonicas were apparently extremely suspicious.

Arriving in Cyprus was amazing. I felt totally relaxed in the airport while waiting for a shuttle to the capital, Nicosia. I was back in Europe, if a distant corner geographically speaking.

I was staying with a classmate’s family, though they were away when I arrived and I had the entire flat to myself, which felt astonishingly luxurious. I had an excellent nap as soon as I settled in.

That afternoon, discombobulated by daytime sleep, I wandered down a street with broken sidewalks to a market where I bought pasta, salad, bread, and bananas. I was surprised by how quiet the city felt and had a hard time orienting myself in the urban landscape. True, it was a residential area, though it seemed sparse and empty after Jerusalem’s fast-paced density. Welcome to the island?

Fresh Photo Friday: Communist Rally in Rome

Rally

April 2009, Rome

This was probably the first time I tried to cover an event as a photographer and create a comprehensive photo essay. The occasion was a Communist rally on a warm spring day in Rome, where I had arrived days before for the second leg of a study abroad program. I can’t remember how my friends and I heard about the rally, but it was a Saturday morning, and we took the worlds’ worst metro system to the Pyramid stop, where we emerged, wide-eyed, to a sea of red flags and hammers and sickles. It was overwhelming for my midwestern senses, which were still adjusting to a world outside of Minnesota, much less the USA. But then the adrenaline kicked in and we started to follow the parade towards the Colosseum.

I stayed on the outside of the parade, working my way toward the front. I took a lot of pictures of people’s backs and sides, much to my irritation nowadays. Nearly an hour into the march, I found the beginning of the pack and the leaders of the action. They were riding in the back of this white pickup truck which was advancing at a crawl down the middle of the street. One shouted into a megaphone in Italian. An old man wearing a red scarf walked on the passenger side of the truck. But most of all, I was transfixed by this young woman who seemed to rally the crowd with ease, starting chants and directing the fists of Italian youth. I read her as a symbol of the movement. She was young, maybe as young as I was, and her behavior was a fascinating split between powerful and frail, anonymous and strangely familiar.

As the parade approached the Colosseum, the men in the very front produced giant sparklers which gave off a tremendous amount of smoke when lit. It was the climax of the entire morning and emotions ran high. I began a flat out dash to the very front, planning to throw myself in front of the marchers to get the shot: the men with the angry red sparklers against the backdrop of the Colosseum. Suddenly, other photographers were there, all with giant lenses. I jockeyed with professionals for space, also for the first time, watching to see where they would try and shoot from. And then, my camera ran out of battery. Just like that. Dead. No more photos. I never got the shot. Although the friends I came with were behind me, at least a few of them snapped photos that could have ran on AP with ease. Most of the work is showing up and finding the right place at the right time, but it doesn’t count when your equipment doesn’t show up with you.
I learned a hard lesson that day, but since then, I’ve never ran out of battery at an event. However, I still hate photographing flags, fundamentally fickle in the wind.

Fresh Photo Friday: Lost

Lost, 2009

It’s Fresh Photo Friday, where I dig into several years of photography files and dredge something up that I’m still excited about. I took this picture in Rome during a study abroad program focusing on digital photography and new media. I found this scene on the banks of the Tiber, not too far from Vatican City. There is a long stone canal, with walkways and many bridges that cradles the river on its winding route through the city. Walking there felt a little scary to me, as these were some of my first solo footsteps on the European continent. Add this to the fact that my goal was to get lost, and make desolate photos that reflected the foreignness I felt.

My favorite qualities in this image include the pops of bright color, the abandoned feel to the refrigerator and blue plastic, and the grit and grime that’s been washed up from the river. The strong lines move your eyes around the picture, if in a disorienting way. Did I get lost? It’s hard to separate my memories from what I hope this picture conveys, but 3 years later, I still like this photo. Here’s hoping you do too.

Nova Scotia’s Cold War

I recently remembered a geographical oddity I’ve been meaning to write about. Last summer, I led bike trips around Nova Scotia’s southern coast. On the eastern side, north of Liverpool, we passed through two tiny villages named East Berlin and West Berlin.

My group was coming from the east and if I recall correctly, there is a hill between East Berlin and West Berlin, and I encouraged my young charges by telling them we were escaping the East German communist regime on a particularly scenic road to freedom. I’m not sure if any of them found this truly motivating, but I was fascinated by the villages’ namesakes and eager to learn more about their history.

Unfortunately, I haven’t found any information on the villages (aside from how to get a vacation rental there), so I can only speculate. A few observations and questions:

1. There are lots and lots of towns in Nova Scotia named after more famous European cousins (i.e. Liverpool). It’s entirely conceivable that German immigrants settled on the coast and named their new home after their former capital.

2. Surely, these unfortunate names must have been bestowed before the German division and the Cold War. How did East Berlin and West Berlin residents feel in the light of these developments? Did East Berlin real estate prices plummet?

3. Here’s the kicker: West Berlin used to be named Blueberry, according to a sign at the entrance to the village. When did they change it and why? Does it reflect a desire to connect with their neighbors, or to distinguish themselves from the East Berliners? Maybe the mayor was allergic to blueberries? Perhaps there was a berry blight?

4. A little investigation on Google Maps reveals a West Berlin in New Jersey, and East Berlins in Pennsylvania and Connecticut; the latter lies east of a larger Berlin. But as far as I know, this partnership in Nova Scotia is one-of-a-kind.

Have you been to East Berlin and West Berlin, Nova Scotia? Can you explain the history behind these village names? Accident of history, or too good to be a coincidence?

On Permanence

My latest fascination related to European history and borders is embodied by this video:

There are a couple things that really strike me here:

1. The fluctuation on the British Isles. Scotland, Ireland, and Wales alternate between independence and being sucked up by England’s imperial gravity over the course of the video.

2. The long fragmentation of ‘Germany’, particularly as other nation-states become larger and seemingly more unified around it.

3. The amazing music choice, somehow making 1000 years of European war and conquest more dramatic than it already is.

But these are just minor observations. What I really want to talk about is the last 20 seconds of the video, the last 70 years it represents, and how we understand the permanence of borders.

So go back and watch the last part, starting after World War II where the purple of Nazi Germany is squeezed off the map. After this there is a minor shake-up, and then, calm. For the three-second period that represents the Cold War,nothing changes. This is astonishing after having watched the European map morph unrecognizably for the last three minutes. At 3:16, the Iron Curtain falls, the Soviet Union collapses, and Eastern Europe gets rearranged, while Western Europe remains still. Overall, this 70-year period from World War II to the present day sees significantly fewer fluctuations of borders and territory than almost any other 70-year period throughout the rest of the video.

In the long view, 70 years is not much time, and the medium of the timelapse illustrates this perfectly, giving equal weight to each year as an impartial observer. My lived history, the German division that gets my heart racing and my fingers reaching for the pause button, the Nazi occupation which looks so terrifying on this screen, are all treated equally, as the format cannot understand or accommodate which events resonate with its viewers, which movement of lines and colors changed lives. It is the combination of this equality inflicted by the medium, and the familiarity of the last 70 years by virtue of the human lifespan, which makes this period stand out and demand special consideration.

Europe has become an ‘easy’ place to travel, a summer destination for college students and retirees alike, comfortable, peaceful, and relatively well-off.

It’s easy to forget that this is a new development for a weary continent.

When we learn geography, it’s too often from the perspective of “this is how things are” not “this is how things are…for now.” My lifetime alone has seen the fall of the Soviet Union, the dawn of the European Union, Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty, the construction of the Israeli Separation Barrier, South Sudan’s secession, the rise (and fall?) of the economic borders of the Eurozone. And despite this, I still have an overwhelming, gut reaction to regard current borders as the Alpha and Omega of political geography, because stuff like this feels real:

But my fascination with borders comes from the inevitable yet improbable changes they undergo, physically, mentally, geographically, politically. It’s easy to forget that these changes happen at all when you’re standing at the base of a 30-foot wall. But this timelapse of European borders reminds me that these changes happened both 1000 years ago and in my lifetime, and in all likelihood, they will happen again, for better or worse. Changing borders requires daily work, maybe a watershed moment, but also patience to remember the long view and appreciate the passage of time, because stuff like this is real, too:

 

What’s in a Name: Linguistic Colonization

Europe in PolishOn my recent trip to Poland, I spent a good deal of time ogling over a map just like the one on the right.

At a glance, it’s just Europe, right?

WRONG.

This map is in Polish, and a lot of the country names are pretty different, if not unrecognizable.

So this got me thinking: why are place names different in different languages?

Wouldn’t it be easier if everyone just used the same names? Think how much easier travel would be if everyone referred to Vienna as Wien. Pronunciation woes erased if Warszawa was just Warsaw.

But thankfully, the world is not so uniform or predictable.

I have a theory about this: when a language has a unique name for place or a country, people who speak said language then have a small stake in the country, a foot in the door, a piece of the nation’s pie, just for them: Linguistic colonization.

Then I started thinking about different languages, different countries and place-names. And I came up with a hypothesis: more influential countries will have a greater variety of names across languages, because a piece of their pie is tastier than less influential countries.

Then, I did an experiment. Download this pdf to follow along: CountryNamebyLanguageshort

Firstly, I’m not a linguist. There’s probably a lot more going on than what I’m observing, so I’d like to hear your thoughts on this, too.

Observations:

1.Generally, the “More Influential Countries” have a wider variety of names. They have an average of 6 significant differences across 7 languages. The “Less Influential Countries” have an average of 3.8 significant differences. (significant difference = change in spelling, not accent placements. Pronunciation plays no role here). Hypothesis proven true.

2.Look at Germany. It has 4 drastically different spellings. Only the United Kingdom and the United States also differed so drastically, and I would posit that these changes can be accounted for by the fact that their names are made up of two independent words: United and States/Kingdom. Is it possible that the roller coaster of German history and its array of incarnations (Prussia, First Reich, Weimar Republic, Third Reich, East/West Germany, United Germany, all within 150 years!) plays a role in the way it is conceptualized and referred to across languages? I think I’m on to something.

3.Honduras, Laos, Liechtenstein, Niger, Uganda boast just 2-3 variations. What’s up with that? Is it because the names just don’t translate in the languages I’m sampling? Can’t be the whole story, Honduras is definitely Spanish and Liechtenstein screams German. Or is it just that these countries aren’t important enough to these languages and their speakers to warrant a linguistic stake in their names?

I’m fascinated by this and I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you’re an actual linguist or a colonialist.

UPDATE:

My friend Andrew, who actually got his BA in Linguistics and is now studying at Oxford, says (via Facebook):

I feel way underqualified to answer this, but it’s so interesting! i know what you mean about random name changes. during the winter olympics in Torino different news networks used Turin (as in the shroud) or Torino. People weren’t sure if it was famous enough to use the English name or not. I think sometimes city name differences have to do with changes in pronunciation. For example, the word Rome 500 years ago would have been pronounced with two syllables by an English speaker, pretty similarly to Roma.

I like your idea about power and naming, but I’m not sure if it’s right. There are historically old names that languages have for neighboring regions, ethnic groups, or countries. It seems like different ones are used for Germany. England goes by Britain or UK and the Netherlands gets subjected to metonymy all the time when it’s called Holland, but that doesn’t have to do with power just history and government. The Chinese names are usually transliterations that get shortened. Deguo is short for Deyizhi (Deutsch) plus guo meaning country. Likewise France usually gets shortened to Faguo. America is the same too. It seems like a better way to divide names up is by language family rather than power, with proximity to the language being a factor.

I’d also say that writing systems mess everything up when moving things into new languages. sometimes people spell things the same way and then they get pronounced different ways in different places. other times, things are spelled so that they are pronounced the same but then they don’t look the same on paper. like i’d say that uganda and Fiji only have one version. although they’re spelled differently, i think that’s just as close as the languages could get either in spelling or in sound while maintaining their native phonemes.

And points interested parties to this book: Off the Map: The Curious History of Place-Names

Thanks, Andrew!

The Edge of Europe

The sun was getting low although it was only 2:30 in the afternoon, and a few of the PhDs were beginning to level their best threats at Wojciech, a Polish Geographer who had promised to get us up close and personal with the Belarus border before sunset. “If I don’t have pictures of this border, I will cut you into a thousand pieces,” the Bosnian-Italian professor told him matter-of-factly. The Israeli doctor muttered, “you’d better sharpen your knife.”

I was attending my first ever academic conference: Border Conflicts in the Contemporary World in Lublin, Poland. The last day of the event was devoted to a 12-hour excursion to Eastern Poland. All day, we had been looking at churches and cemeteries, while most of us were itching to see the actual border with Belarus, ominously nicknamed The Edge of Europe.

Finally, we piled back into the mini-bus and Wojciech announced that the next stop would be a new border crossing at Jableczna. The sun was hanging just above the horizon, but I felt pretty smug about my chances of photographing the border in low-light conditions. I was sitting in the window seat, watching the countryside of Poland D zip by. Dilapidated houses, barren fields, hardly any stores or shops. Economic ruin still reigned this far east, and it seemed oddly appropriate to find such conditions near the border, a kind of geographical gradient, a natural slide into Asia.

Belarus lies on the other side of that border crossing.Suddenly, we turned a corner and nearly collided with a line of cars that stretched for at least a mile up to the border crossing. Every car was an older model, with Belorussian plates. Many of the drivers were standing outside their vehicles, smoking, chatting, drinking from thermoses. It looked like a long wait. Our purple bus flew past the line, up to the crossing point. We stopped at the first checkpoint, where Wojciech tried to sweet-talk the guard. The crossing itself loomed ahead, a huge cement gate, painted beige with cyrillic lettering, intimidating and illegible. After a few minutes the border guard told us emphatically to clear out. Do not get out, do not take pictures, do not pass go. The busload of academics griped and moaned. Nobody understands us.

The official border, marked by a striped postWojciech tried to make it up to us by stopping at a border guards’ post. We were suitably underwhelmed. But the guards mentioned a nearby trail that led down to the river, the border itself. We HAD to go. By now the sun was dipping below the horizon, and we found ourselves in a hazy dusk, tramping past rusting machinery, a goat tied to a tree, and an empty field, down, down to the river. Five of us scrambled onto a sandy embankment and inhaled sharply. We were here.

Academics by the border!It was just a river, and I was thrilled by its ordinariness. There was nothing to distinguish it. The opposite bank was a stones-throw away, maybe 40 yards. We all joked about jumping in and having a go at crossing the border, and we all imagined refugees emerging from the woods at midnight, dripping wet, cold, but triumphant. But this river didn’t look different from the Canon River in my college town, where I spent lazy afternoons drifting down the current. The water here was slow. Plenty of cover. It would have been easy, I mused. Where was Fortress Europe? Where were the desperate immigrants? Where was the threat, and the protection?

The Edge of Europe. Disarmingly simple? Or deceptively dangerous?We made our way back to the bus, still parked at the guard post, generally satiated by the hike to the river. I was lingering behind and returned last to find Wojciech in an animated but polite conversation with one of the guards, encircled by our group. We piled on the bus again and Wojciech translated the discussion for the non-Polish speakers, “The guard was just asking if we had a good time and told us we could have gone to a nicer beach. We were just 50 meters away.”

Oh, that’s nice.

Wait.

WHAT?

Despite the tranquility of the river, the easy current, the concealing brush, the guards had been keeping a tight rein on our little expedition. Cameras, microphones, and God-knows-what-else had been strategically planted near the border. The guard’s smirk flashed in my head; they had reason to be rather pleased. Fortress Europe is hidden, more effective than a wall, alive and well. My mind was blown, James Bond-ish fantasies satisfied, and I settled into the dark bus for a bumpy ride back to Lublin.

Mapping the Contemporary Iron Curtain

Last winter, an intern at Facebook created the above graphic, which represents ten million “friendships” on the social networking site with a thin blue arc connecting the real world locations of the users. The result was astonishing. By plotting this data, Paul Butler created a recognizable world map, which displayed not only Facebook friendships, but also continents, oceans, and countries. Paul wrote about the project and commented, “What really struck me, though, was knowing that the lines didn’t represent coasts or rivers or political borders, but real human relationships.” Yet, a cursory inspection of the map is enough to realize that the lines often DO imitate political boundaries. Although they do not represent borders themselves, the Facebook map reinforces their presence and significance in our lives, which is perhaps more profound than we realize.

Look at this map carefully and you can clearly see the shadow of East Germany in a significantly less-dense field of Facebook users. This map suggests that despite our increasingly globalized civilization, political borders still determine the way we live, work, and socialize in a way that is self-perpetuating. By examining a variety of contemporary maps, it will become clear that although the Iron Curtain fell 21 years ago, it is still a deeply felt reality beyond the traditional political map of Europe.

Consider this map of Europe (above) during the Cold War and compare it against the subsequent maps. You’ll see startling similarities.

Contemporary Maps and Statistics

The most startling examples are economic. Unemployment is higher, and income is lower almost across the board in areas once behind the Iron Curtain. Most strikingly, note the presence of our phantom East Germany, sharply distinguished from its western counterpart in each map.

Unemployment Rate

Average Weekly Hours

GDP per Inhabitant

Internet access and broadband connections in households

The map to the left is about internet access, and how prevalent it is an given region. Again, notice the significant gap behind the Iron Curtain. This statistic seems like the odd man out, but is likely rooted in the economic struggle Eastern Europe faced under Communist rule, and the subsequent discrepancy in technological and industrial development. It also goes a long way toward explaining our Facebook graphic-it’s difficult to have online friendships when you don’t have internet access.

Pupils at primary and lower-secondary education, as a percentage of total population

Here’s another off-topic statistic: countries once behind the Iron Curtain are more likely to have a lower percentage of their population in school at the primary and lower-secondary levels. What does this mean? There are fewer young people in the East. Especially, less young, educated people. The problem of young talent fleeing the East was a large factor in the construction of structures like the inner-German border and the Berlin Wall. It continues to plague these regions today, and the trend will probably continue as long as GDP and economic well-being (and internet access!) is at stake. And this time, there’s no physical border to stop them, only this invisible one, which lures migrants across.

It’s also important to note that there are a lot of maps and statistics from Eurostat that DO NOT show any sort of lingering east/west divide. These include things as diverse as: farming structure, transport infrastructure, and fatal diseases of the respiratory system. And, many statistics can be attributed to things like climate that are much larger than any political border.

However, the maps and the data they represent suggest that overall, Eastern Europe, specifically countries that were east of the Iron Curtain, are still behind their Western counterparts, economically and technologically. Furthermore, it is the lingering effect of Europe’s division that is to blame. Quite frankly, many people would not find it surprising that countries like Poland, Belarus, even the Czech Republic are a bit behind. Yet, the repeated appearance of the phantom East Germany on these maps is strong evidence that the gap is directly related to the Iron Curtain and its continued legacy.

The Recession and Conclusions

This issue has been dragged into the spotlight in European responses to the recent recession. As bailouts and debt were first hotly debated in 2008, Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany and Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek both voiced their fears of a new divide in Europe. Their countries’ economies are struggling, yet they desperately wish to avoid more debt owed to Western Europe. Gyurcsany actually invoked the term “iron curtain” while Topolanek warned against “new dividing lines” and a “Europe divided along a North-South or an East-West line.” Unsurprisingly, the recession hit hardest in weak economies once behind the Iron Curtain. As the Eurozone struggles to pull itself together, it’s increasingly difficult to ignore this touchy fact.

What can we learn from these maps?

  • The Iron Curtain lives on as an economic and social gap between East and West Europe and remains tied to an identifiable place on the map.
  • Political borders go way deeper than bureaucracy and citizenship. They permeate all aspects of economics, society, daily life, and will continue to do so long after their demise.
  • Is the gap self-perpetuating? When considering the data represented in the above maps in conjunction with the Facebook graphic, it’s easy to make the case that the Iron Curtain has spilled into a younger generation, despite the march of globalization. If this is true, it’s hard to predict when its legacy will no longer negatively impact the present day economics and overall well-being of Eastern Europe, especially in under the pressure of a global recession that threatens the stability of the European Economic Union.
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