Thursday, 23 August 2012

Return - Britain


At the airport they'll wrap my bicycle in plastic. Round and round they'll spin it until it's all shut away and suffocating inside, waiting to be mistreated by baggage handlers on both sides of Europe. My month of pedalling will be undone in just three hours and forty minutes. London will be waiting for me, ready to give me what for and remind me of my other life.

I wrote a book the other year, my story of breaking a world record for a circumnavigation by bicycle. The manuscript is sitting on the desks of publishers all around the city. Most of them, I'm flattered to say, agree with the agents who wanted to represent me... they say that it's an excellent piece of writing. Excellent writing. But. We're not sure how to market it. Nobody knows which shelf to put it on in Waterstones. When I think about it on my bicycle I find myself pedalling faster, my heart beat following. So I try not to think about it. Publishers are like high street banks... they arrive late on the scene and then buy too much. Agents across London are tearing hair out over piles of chick-lit they can't shift for love nor money... all of it conceived of and signed for in a boom... worthless in the bust. As with markets and politicians, publishing waits on the next big thing... only the world is not what it was. In the past a book could not be sold for less than a publisher-set price, council libraries would buy a copy of every book put out by a major publisher, an indirect subsidy to the arts that also kept bookshelves well stocked. Bookshelves. Are not what they were. Council libraries. Are not what they were. I return to that world of safe bets, where our writing, artforms and creativity are presided over by retail trends. The market now does the work of state censors and offices for public morals. In a sense it's democratic... and yet, subjectivity aside, what is popular is not always good, just as what is good is not always popular.

I expected some of what I found during the two thousand and something miles I've just ridden... other things took me by surprise. I never expected Croats and Italians to talk so much of an angrily hopeless younger generation, just as it was the younger Greeks I spoke to who were most venomous about what is being done to their country. It's not only Britain's youth that bristles against the future being carved out for us, a generation told that in modern society all the carrots are gone and only a big stick remains. I didn't expect to hear people in Livorno and Geneva describe their cities as 'livable', two former UK residents who shudder at the high living costs and low quality of life they left behind. In a word like 'livable' you see the brain drain by which the UK economy hemorrhages talent because we mistake 'mean' for 'efficient'. Public holidays, living wages and tenancy rights did not stop Germany developing an infinitely better balanced economy than our own... some might even say these things helped. Most of all I didn't expect to arrive in Istanbul and hear of plans to construct tunnels beneath the central area of Taksim Square, creating a pedestrian space above ground. The idea is a crazy one, and nor does it address the root of the problem, but if a city as obsessed with the car as Istanbul has realised that the twenty-first century requires urban spaces that are about people rather than traffic... this really does leave London as Europe's last city to grasp the nettle. From afar I hear of Boris Johnson's plans to create cycle lanes above the roads, evidence of a mayor who really will stop at nothing to avoid making the roads themselves more civilised. Cycle lanes in the sky will do little to make life safer for people on foot in London... 77 pedestrians were killed by London's drivers last year. In the plan, and as ever, you find a mayor more at home in gimmickry than politics.

Along my road I wasn't surprised to find antipathy towards the EU. Croatians talk of the family dairies and cheese makers who survived civil wars and will now go bust because they can't afford new equipment required by EU standardisation. Greeks talk of seaworthy fishing fleets that had to be scuttled, with new vessels bought to satisfy similar criteria. When you see the corner into which the EU tries to force Greece, with only a political and banking class set to benefit, it becomes hard to argue that the EU is not a sinister imposition upon everyday Europeans. That's not entirely how I feel, it's certainly not what I want to believe. The thing is that cycling across Europe gives a sense of freedom and community in perfect harmony with the ideals of an institution like the EU, but whereas my journey has everything in common with the EU's notion of togetherness, the EU seems to have nothing in common with my journey as evidence that life is all about the everyday people of a country. In the EU I see the ideal of community used as the garnish-come-distraction for little more than the flawed fairytale of trickle-down economics, with shit falling from great heights on the people that I encounter as I ride. I'd be more convinced by the EU's intentions if it made Gini coefficients, or some other measure of wealth inequality, as central to accession as low capital controls and the rights of foreigners to buy land.

Everywhere I went I expected to find markets... to find finance, and if there's any place where such things are most at home then it's the society to which I'll return. Marx argued that the revolution should've happened in Britain and not Russia, that we were the most advanced along the path of capitalism. It's hard not to agree, although I won't hold my breath for the revolution part. London may be the world's self-styled financial capital, but more worrying is the enthusiasm for markets that persists in political dialogue, even as markets go about running amok amongst society. It's not only Britain's rail commuters being squeezed until the pips squeak... bankrupted shops have their windows bricked up and are turned into flats, bankrupted pubs are carved into flats, unprincipled landlords use plasterboard with the soundproofing properties of a rice cake to squeeze two tiny rooms out of one small room. Meanwhile the government sets targets for 20% of housing to be affordable, and even though their definitions of 'affordable' are questionable, more mind-boggling still is why the government would have a target to make 80% of houses un-affordable. I know an independent florist turning his basement into a flat so that he can rent it out to survive. I know an independent bike shop that stayed in business by sectioning off the old workshop and installing a toilet so as to rent the space as an artist's studio. Both are places where the owners help old ladies across the road, will do a bicycle delivery for the local cafe, lend tools to teenagers, or simply be the sort of business around which a community is formed.

If that sounds a lot like society being taken to the cleaners then don't worry... because the market will find the answers. The market already found the answers. The market has the answers if you fancy working in Domino's Pizza for a minimum wage that the politicians who set it would never get out of bed for. And don't worry about feeling the pinch when the rent is due either... because the market provided a payday loans company to give you an advance, and a pawnbroker who'll buy anything of value in the meantime. If you'd like to improve your lot in life then you'll have no difficulty finding a betting agency any more, have a flutter on the hope that maybe it didn't have to be that way, drown your sorrows in a bucket of fried chicken once it transpires that actually it did. They're the answers the market's got waiting for us... my hot tip for the coming years is to invest in plasters and bandages... that's right, home first aid kits are going to go through the roof once all the kids have had their playing fields sold to developers and there's nothing but concrete to fall on. Meanwhile the government gives us a crisis to fear, the threat that things could get worse... well... too late, because this is worse... and after it there will come another worse and another worse until people start demanding something better. Positive examples abound throughout (drumrollThe David Cameron Big Society... but the problem is the government doesn't want to model itself on people-led initiatives, it wants to stick gold stars on their chests and give them a pat on the head as it carries on business as usual.

I really don't think this is about party politics, you can blame the red team just as much as the blue team, but I find it sad that today's Conservatives, the party most comfortable with flag-waving, think so little of our country they can't imagine business or employees wanting to settle in Britain for any reason other than low tax and carefree regulation. Eighteen months ago we were subjected to a fairly routine bluff and told that Barclays bank might leave its London headquarters for New York. The New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, welcomed the idea, but said there'd be no special incentives. His words, to be precise, "I've always thought it doesn't make sense to buy business." It doesn't. Our government has fundamentally misunderstood its role, positioning itself as some sort of broker between business and people... when the idea is they're supposed to be the people. Wherever I've travelled, the things people seem to respect most about the UK tend to be free entry to museums, the NHS, and the BBC... in short, the things that are intended to have a human value beyond some grubby, little price tag. I don't dispute there are inefficiencies within each institution, but the correct way to deal with these issues is to audit the services with a view to the public good, not sell them off to be asset-stripped by a private sector that will only impose its own inefficiencies anyway. Bonuses for failure and bankers getting half-drunk at lunchtime are two examples that spring quickly to mind. The clash between public and private sectors is much more about dogma than rationality, and the excesses of markets are no better than the excesses of states.

Perhaps that doesn't sound like an optimistic starting point... but cycling across a continent has a tendency to make you feel positive about things. In this world there are better ideas and there are worse ideas, and there's nothing like the mentality of a foregone conclusion for letting the wrong ideas win out over the right ones. This is positive... this will end positive, because since I started riding South Korea has decided to tax derivatives, the negative publicity of starving people has seen Commerzbank join other German banks in a moratorium on funds trading agricultural commodities... and the French... god bless 'em... have not only resolved in Paris to pedestrianise urban motorways along the banks of the Seine, but also initiated their financial transaction tax. It's only 0.2%, but its main value is as a precedent against financial institutions profiting when endless speculations create chaos for the 7 billion people on this planet who simply need money to go about their daily lives.

But even without all that, this is positive... because with only my legs I just crossed Europe in a month. I'm still amazed that when I cycled around the world I reached Shanghai in 83 days. 83 days might not exactly be a short amount of time... but Shanghai is the other side of the world. I could never adequately express just how amazing it feels to make your way across maps by bicycle... you see the world as it truly is, whether that's the beauty of descending a summit or the grim reality of a stray dog gnawing off the hind quarters of a roadkill cat. Out there you clear out the smoke and mirrors, the bread and circus is left behind and you remember what humans are supposed to live for... you are reminded that people everywhere are good, and that the everyday people of the world want nothing more than the same simple securities and pleasures. Most of all... powering yourself across a continent or a country like that... you're reminded that things are possible, eminently possible... they're just waiting for us to make them happen.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

No more crossroads - Turkey


About 200 miles separate the Greek border from Istanbul. I knew before I reached them that I planned to ride quickly and get back to some of the comforts of a settled life. In Greece and Croatia I would regularly talk EU with those I met... it’s topical, comes up in conversation. I knew before I got to Turkey that I wouldn’t mention it once, and neither would anyone else. Perhaps when I lived here four years ago it might’ve been different, but even then approval for accession was faltering... nowadays the matter has become completely irrelevant. On too many occasions the EU exposed the reality of its supposed inclusivity. We had Sarkozy openly opposing Turkish accession, Austrian politicians at least have the clumsy decency to be honest and admit they see the EU as a Christian affair, Germany finds it easier to welcome Turks as workers than as citizens. A year ago I asked a Turkish friend if she thought Turkey still wanted to join the EU. She laughed... “I think that soon the EU will ask to join Turkey.” Turkey is not at a crossroads. This may come as a disappointment to cliche enthusiasts all over the world. People love the “east meets west”... Istanbul as a city straddling two continents... Europe and Asia. All that hokum is the lifeblood of tourism here, but the reality is that Istanbul is no more a meeting point of cultures than Bradford, Leicester, or the Edgware Road... and as a city it’s much less diverse than London or Paris. Turkish politics is charged, it always is... but it doesn’t involve the EU, not anymore.

For some time Turkish horizons have been broadening, looking as much to the south and east as to the west. The Turkish economy is dominated by a handful of enormous holding companies enjoying significant control of media outlets, not to mention relationships with government that are far too close. From this domestic stronghold Turkish construction in particular has spread outwards, $20bn worth of Turkish projects were interrupted when Libya went into civil war, everything from airports to roads and ice rinks are being constructed by Turkish firms in central Asia. The economic push has its cultural counterpart, a Turkic brand of Islam is taught by Turkish-backed schools known as the Gülen Movement, the schools are not without controversy, but nonetheless have seen a Turkic vision of Islam being taken to nations such as Pakistan. In 2009 I was cycling through Kazakhstan, where oligarchs who emerged from a falling Soviet Union have holidays in the south of Turkey and send their children to be educated in Istanbul and Ankara. Turkey exports soap operas all over the Caucasus, now and then I would be with families in the middle of the Kazakh steppe, amazed to find teenagers in particular glued to images from Ortaköy and the Bosphorus. In the Caucasus, Istanbul has developed the same sort of prestige a European might lend to New York.

How does all that convert to the streets of Istanbul? Outside, the world media depicts Turkey as a rapidly developing economy... a story of boom every bit as simplified as the Greek story of bust. The Economist, who should really write children's stories rather than news articles about Turkey, have spoken of the country as Europe's China, and yet domestically people still talk more about high unemployment and inflation. In the Galata district, south of Taksim, I talk to a graduate student of Bilgi University. She tells me the once renowned state institution has been sold to the American Laureate Education Inc, one of the world's biggest retailers for private education. She tells the same story as others I know at private schools in poor countries... 'most students don't want to learn... always tapping at iphones... but because their parents pay such high fees it's almost impossible for teachers to fail them.' Nobody told the UK's coalition government how education works when you make money its central component.

Looking for optimism, we talk instead about the quality of Turkish fruit and vegetables. In response I hear of the urban migration underway in Turkey, with villages sucked dry to provide workers for overcrowded cities. I listen to the story of the Turkish banana... "always grew really well in southern Turkey... but now Turkey has started importing more bananas from South America. People say they're better quality, which isn't true... and part of the reason for the change is the economy here is doing well, and there's employment for farmers in the textile factories..." she places her hands on the table... "the problem is when the currency goes down, or the textile factories move somewhere with cheaper labour... then there's nobody left growing food, and we'll have no money to buy any."

If that's the outlook for rural poor, urban middle classes look to be having a better time of things. In the affluent district of Levent I cycle by the newest of the city's shopping centres, still as busy as when I first saw it two years ago, and me still just as amazed that you can see Harvey Nichols in Istanbul. Inside you find Wagamama waiting to be joined by Carluccio's, and outside a security guard tells you there is a policy of no bicycles on the forecourt... the whole arrangement a nice tribute to the fact that Turks do privatised control of public space as well as any Briton, and Muslims know how to worship consumer gods as ardently as any Christian. I wonder if I'm looking at the future of humanity... with core economies holding cultural and economic control of the entire world, whilst the third world - be it Africa gobbled up by the Chinese or the Caucasus by Turks - is left as scraps for the second world, and middle classes everywhere are given Harvey Nichols and katsu curry to make it through seven disempowered decades on the planet. In each of these countries - from Britain to Kazakhstan - the world's poor sink below the radar, drop out the bottom.

I meet Turkish friends who seem little more positive about the future of their society. People are sad about the rise of gated communities, the inequality, exclusion and ugly portrayal of affluence this belies. Turks are amongst the world's top users of Facebook, and my friends lament that this is the medium through which the middle classes now live. They reproach themselves... "of course I could go to a protest... I care... I care so much... but I don't want to be hit with a policeman's gun." I tell them that although for the most part less brutal, kettling protesters has the same effect on activism in Britain.

The hesitations might be the same, but the protests are different. The Turkish protest movement is levelled almost exclusively against an Islamic government. Since the 2002 election of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey's secular and republican middle classes have felt increasingly threatened. There is no disputing that AKP were democratically elected, the concern is that democracy has allowed Islam retake a central place in Turkish society, but that once that position has been consolidated, Islam will never extend democracy the same courtesy. The fears seem justified, and even though The Economist maintain a strict code whereby it's impossible to read the name AKP without the prefix 'moderately Islamist'... both the New York Times and The Guardian have begun to talk about the erosion of democracy, with Turkey now the world leader for journalist arrests, and the government having acquired the power to appoint judges in the constitutional court. The electoral strength of AKP helped Turkey move away from a dark history when democratic governments were intimidated and toppled by military coups. The concern now is that the AKP are weakening that same democratic process in the name of their own power.

You have to wonder what took the outside world so long to start cottoning on. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, once expressed regret at having played football in his youth because shorts were immodest. In a recent blunder, a low ranking minister said that a woman without a headscarf is like a house without curtains, either for sale or rent... and yet such comments have leaked from the party ever since their 2002 election. The party's keynote Islamic policy, lifting the ban on headscarves in universities and other state buildings, has been used by foreign media to represent the party line, when in reality it's more like the tip of an iceberg. By far the most troubling factor, which has again gone unnoticed, is that the headscarf ban was lifted more in the name of Islam than in the name of freedom and equality of expression. It'll be interesting to see how The Economist reconciles its 'moderately Islamist' with a proposed outlawing of abortions .

Worse is what the tone of religious rhetoric has done to relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, especially women. Secular friends talk of being looked at with disdain by covered women in cafes where everyone once would have sat unconcerned by theology. In retort I've heard it said that women in full, black niqabs look like cockroaches... I'm assured it's a joke, but joke or otherwise it shows the low ebb to which relations have fallen. Most distressing is the incidence of domestic violence, specifically honour killings of a woman or teenage girl who resists her family's marital decisions. Although statistics are haphazard, there is general agreement that the practise has increased during the ten years of AKP power, particularly amongst Kurdish communities. Ironically enough, the last decade has also seen an improvement in legislation to protect Turkish women... apparently words on paper don't go very far when the government helps to create a culture in which the greatest abuses and misuses of Islam are committed.

Across the last four years I've spent the best part of eighteen months living in Turkey. I can still wax lyrical about the flavour of the tomatoes and peaches, the grilled meat and fish, the richness of the language and the fact that Turkish has a word for the reflection of moonlight on water. I love the respect for the universe that is implicit to the culture here, a spirituality thanks in no small part to the holism of Sufi Islam. I still love the way that Turkey remains broadly uninfected by the west's evil, media-infused culture of fear... the way strangers will talk to one another, that a man will pick up someone else's child and ruffle his hair without any thought that such an innocent act could ever be the precursor to something sinister. On a crowded Istanbul bus, when someone gets on at the middle door, they sometimes pass their akbil, the equivalent of their oyster card, through the crowd towards the front of the bus. Complete with the owner's keys, the akbil will make its way through the strangers to the front of the bus, where a stranger swipes it and sends it back through the strangers to the original owner. Turkey will always be a special place to me, but any idiot can wave a flag... if you really care about a country, it's no less important to criticise it.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Bailing out - Greece


The air in Greece is not thick with anything. There is nothing etched on the faces here. You cannot feel the tension on the streets... at least not the streets of Edessa, the northern town I reach soon after crossing from Macedonia. Greece is suffering a stark hyperbole crisis, sensationalism here has run into diminishing returns. If we were to tax the financial media's use of words like 'toxic' and 'brink'... southern Europe would soon be back in the black. Greece is a European country being stuffed by the markets. Simple. It's not doomsday here... just a country being stuffed by the markets.

Greece is not in turmoil. This is especially relevant to stock markets, which Flaubert once described as nothing more than "barometers of public opinion". Irrespective of any fundamentals, objective or otherwise, the projection of chaos that has become associated with Greece is partly responsible for the fact that the Greek government has to pay yields of up to 30% to borrow money. I ride into Thessaloniki, up the inside of stagnant traffic jams. When whole cities can still afford to sit in cars, burning petrol at €1.80 a litre... there's obviously a lot of crisis left to run.

Everyday Greeks seem similarly dismissive of Crisis! A woman in a bakery smiles... "What did you expect?... are we all supposed to be crying?" A man sits outside a cafe... "Pro-pa-gan-da!... Bullshit!" His friend grabs a stool... belly like a water melon, stubble, black sunglasses, curly hair cut short at the sides. He spreads his legs, pulls his shorts up like a Greek John Goodman straight out of The Big Lebowski. He plants a finger on a hairy thigh... "You see a crisis here?!... we have sun, sea, farms, petroleum... There is a crisis... a bankingcrisis... and they want us to pay for it." He goes on. "The euro was a catastrophe for Greece..." he points into his palm... "€1 was 340 drachma... coffee was 100 drachma before... then it was €1." Italians will say exactly the same. Prices doubled overnight.

Meanwhile Europe is drip-fed a diet of ignorance. Reuters will whisper about 'Grexit' and a 'drachmageddon' that will cost hundreds of billions of euros if Greece fall out of the eurozone. Either lazy journalism or market omerta prevents the making of the obvious point that bailouts to keep Greece in the euro have already cost - erm - hundreds of billions of euros, failed to work, and will ultimately see Greece sell their national assets - from islands to major ports - at far below their true value. It's a little confusing that the structure of a Greek restructure is a country that has sold the very things by which it could once have made money... perhaps that's just the formula for the 'mature economy' the Greeks are to become. A mature economy is one that innovates new ways in which it can be stuffed by the markets.

Talking to people on the streets, what is most obvious is that everyday Greeks quite clearly do not want to be bailed out, just as Angela Merkel tries to appease the everyday Germans who do not want to bail them out. If everyday Europeans, both bailers and bailees, do not want to do any bailing... it seems the only ones in favour of a bailout must be the French and German banks that will otherwise be unable to absorb the losses of their own failed investments. Let's be clear... we do not bail out governments or taxpayers... we bail out banks, the primary representatives of capitalism who are not themselves subject to the primary rule of capitalism. Failed businesses are supposed to go bust.

And yet there's more to it than that, and northern Europeans would do well to resist judgements of lazy Greeks getting what they deserve. Greece is a foothold for the idea of market preeminence over societies, applauding its application in the Mediterranean will help bring about the day when we are all made Greek. The 1929 Wall Street Crash and Great Depression saw Roosevelt famously tell the American people, "we have nothing to fear but fear itself"... in the twenty-first century our governments encourage us to shit ourselves and hope that the markets will clear up the mess. Keep hoping. For five years Europeans have been given a constant crisis narrative, one accompanied by a paucity of any real information. Italians have low household debt, a banking system thought to be solvent, and high government debt. Spain has a largely insolvent banking system and low government debt. Public sector spending is higher in France than in Italy, and yet traditionally stable France has become a more attractive destination for investment since Crisis! gathered momentum. Britain saw a financial sector debt crisis transformed into a public sector debt crisis, not least because of the costs of supporting the financial sector. Faced with very diverse economies and problems, each different nation has been prescribed the exact same solution. Strip your states... empower the markets. The markets, the markets... always the markets, a remedy proposed by those who stand to benefit from its application... if this were a medical situation we'd be talking about quack doctors and second opinions. Only in a climate of hysteria could such flimsy reasoning have come so far.

It is this climate that has prompted the human suffering that is the overwhelming focus of contemporary media about Greece. A 40% increase in suicides has become the most infamous indicator for as much... and I wonder if perhaps that's just what the markets call the price of a mature economy. Even with recent gains in the suicide rate, it should be noted that the Greeks were starting from a very low suicide base... you're still much more likely to kill yourself as a Frenchman, German or Brit. Racist attacks have also increased significantly, some Greeks have fallen for that all too human failing... when being screwed by a white man who speaks your own language or English... the obvious thing to do is beat up an immigrant. Health and social services are being deprived of resources, so that a recent case drawing nationwide and international attention saw patients in a psychiatric hospital facing food shortages. Modern capitalism will frequently be given credit for the notion that they are responsible for feeding the world. Whether in the form of austerity-hit hospital budgets or high oil prices diverting land to biofuel rather than food... it's less talked about that markets also know just how to starve people.

Heading east for Alexandropoli I see graffiti covering signposts, a handful of which caution drivers to turn on headlights in tunnels, to be aware of landslides. It's noticeable that just the English language portion of the warning has been painted over, so that you can only see it if you're passing slowly on a bicycle. I doubt it will cause the deaths of many foreigners, but the antipathy of some is clear. None of what I'm saying is to claim that all was once well in Greece. There is general consensus that taxes were evaded, corruption problematic and pensions generous. Whatever the truth in that, the solutions on offer will create new problems rather than eradicating old ones. 

As I ride for Turkey I think back to Paris, to the businesswoman who told me the French didn't believe in the crisis and would "bury their heads in the sand." The more I think about it the more I disagree. Swallowing the pill of austerity and putting your faith in ultimate salvation from the markets has been disguised as some sort of dignified resilience. Suck it up and don't squirm. She had it the wrong way round... the only dignified thing left to do is voice the sort of truths that society has long been made embarrassed to declare. The rules of our system are broken... we must take our heads out of the sand in order to say so.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Outside - Croatia






I cycle with the world economy stuck in my head. The total value of global derivatives, an insurance market for things that may or may not come to pass, is twenty times bigger than all global output. About 1% of all the world's shares are owned by Norway's sovereign wealth fund. A two pence coin is made with more than two pence worth of copper. In the early 90s, the Tokyo real estate market was worth five times the world economy. The temperature has been up around forty all down the coast of Croatia, punishing heat, like riding through a hairdrier. I cycle down the last hill of a deserted stretch, into the town of Karlobag. Boats are bobbing at anchor, a quay beside deep water. Take off your shoes and shirt. Jump. And the world economy and that too too solid flesh it melts away into the cool waters of the Adriatic.

Croatia is like an escape within the escape, an EU stopgap. Next year that changes, Croatian accession comes in July 2013, a recent referendum settled any last minute jitters that the Croats might have been having. With the unfortunate arrogance that persists in some western Europeans, one journalist spoke of the referendum as a choice between progress or Croatia as "Balkan quagmire". As I ride south the heat increases and the figs ripen on the trees that line this coast, you can smell pigs roasting on spits, you break from the sun by jumping into the clear, cobalt waters of that ever-present sea. If Croatia is a quagmire... well... then quagmires are all right by me.

I rode here five years ago... it was just as perfect then, the difference now is that idiots like me went back to the UK and shot their mouth off about how beautiful Croatia was. EU or otherwise, Europe has arrived in Croatia. German and Dutch supermarkets have appeared in out-of-town retail complexes, the bank of Split has been absorbed by France's Societe Generale group, each major city has its own wireless network. Western Europeans - from Brits to Italians to Germans and Swiss - are everywhere. There are billboards at the roadsides - "In emergency - dial 112" - written in English. On this coast of road trips there must be a lot of cars, campfires and drinking sessions that go out of control with the words "what number is 999 in Croatia?" I watch tourists take photos of their meals as the plate is set down, like a prayer of grace for the digital age, uploaded to Facebook after they finish eating. A Croatian waiter tells me Croats are reserved people, intolerant of tourists... he jokes that people would only be happy if tourists arrived at the border, handed over €500... and went home.

The attitude to the EU is similarly cool. 65% of Croats voted 'Yes' to membership, but only 40% of people bothered to vote... a clear sign that voter apathy is not only the prevail of affluenza societies in the west. I ask everyone their thoughts... 'no opinion', 'don't care', 'doesn't concern me' . A fifteen year old girl serves me a sandwich at her family's kiosk. She tells me she is "too young for things like that", and assuming it outlives her, will now lead the rest of her life inside the EU. It's a striking contrast that up ahead waits Greece, where frustrated people still just about believe life outside the EU will be worse. Here in Croatia the people are told life inside the EU will be better... and are skeptical. Whatever the circumstances, everyday folk generally tend to doubt that change will be in their best interests. Back in Trieste I met an Italian-Croat who bemoaned that EU membership means his family will have to pay tax on the Croatian home of his deceased grandfather. He was unsure of details, but to me it sounded like the change was more likely caused by the new tax regime of Italy's Mario Monti. His feelings underlined two pertinent EU trends. People are unsure how the EU actually works, but will still blame it for making their lives worse. Croatian nationalists question the wisdom of signing over their autonomy to Brussels, when two decades ago Croats were dying to preserve their independence. Try telling a nationalist that domestic culture is more alive in a euro-toting French boulangerie or Italian cafe than on most pound sterling high streets of clone town Britain.

Not everyone agrees with the nationalists. Elder Croats with keen memories of Yugoslavia and its wars seem to take a pride in being admitted to the European club. Along the borders, Albania, Serbia and Montenegro are a long way from any meaningful chance of accession, and for many Croats there is no difficulty in choosing between association with their neighbours or Europe. Croats are not losing any sleep over which side of 7% Spanish bond yields go... in the Balkans a crisis is not measured in basis points. EU leaders will be relieved that the Croats voted accordingly, Croatian accession will maintain the idea of the EU as a vision of the future worth belonging to, a political project with the longevity to outlast the market's whims. If 4 million people in the Balkans had been accepted to the EU, only to decide that French and Germans had nothing to offer them... as snubs go, it would've been pretty monumental.

The question becomes more complex if you move away from the understanding that the EU equates to progress. At a roadside near the Bosnian border I speak with an economics student from Zagreb, selling watermelons for his holiday. He points to his grandmother's field and slaps a melon... "that is where this comes from, but..." and he drills a finger on his forehead, "Balkans are crazy... we import melons from Greece! We could grow everything here... but instead we import!" For him, the EU means finance given to Croatia to grow food with western corporations who will then profit from exporting the food whilst Croatian taxpayers repay the loans. "Croatia... will be like a field for Europe... just a field."

If global finance offers little hope for Croatia, a barman suggests that at least the difficulties of life under  capitalism are helping everyone get along better. The markets will be the new strongman, holding different ethnicities together instead of a Tito. In my cycle down the coast there is one fifty mile stretch more important to me than the others. I leave the tourist road and head inland towards Benkovac. Five years ago I went that way as a wrong turning, found roadside fields marked throughout with signs warning of landmines. This year I go there out of curiosity, and though you can still see the houses that were peppered with gunfire, I find only one remaining sign post. It's been uprooted, and is rusting in the long grass. The fields have been cleared and ploughed, black vines are twisting from out of the earth, tiny bunches of grapes trickling downwards through the fullest green of leaves shot through with sunlight. I try to avoid sentimentality... and yet... it's really nice to see vines buried in earth that once held land mines.

I leave Croatia across its southern border, riding into a 48 hour stint that will take me to Greece via Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia. In informal world politics, the best way to judge relations between two countries are the roads that connect them... nobody improves passage to places nobody wants to go. As I head inland, away from the coast, the road into Montenegro is being rebuilt and resurfaced. Progress has definitely been made in the Balkans... it's a poke in the eye for Clash of Civilisations, a timely reminder for Europeans that to achieve its potential a nation has to start picking the right fights, not revisiting old ones.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The threshold - Italy

I've climbed through the Alps. The world feels different up there... all silent and timeles beneath peaks where snow still shines in the sunlight. I've ridden over the Colombiere, Roselend, up the road to Saint Bernard, summits and passes steeped with the rich history of European cycling, lessons in patience learned on your way up above two thousand metres. After Saint Bernard the road angles down, you see the Valle d'Aosta opening below as gravity takes a hold and starts hauling you down, pulling you faster. Faster. Faster the tarmac tumbles under you, the corkscrew unwinding so that the road invites you to accelerate... pines, abandoned restaurant...to accelerate down into the turns, daring you carry more speed into each new bend, stay later on the brakes so that in the dying metres you're sticking out your chest to try and catch a little more drag, leaning in and out of the bend... upright again as the road goes straight down... crucifix, fountains... everything jumping out from the corners of your eyes, the lands below shining in misty sunlight as the speed gains, pulls water from your eyes, the valley walls opening to let you out after almost an hour of pure descent, gliding down into a summer's morning... in Italy.



Newly downgraded by Moody's to "Baa2". I like to imagine Marcus Aurelius being told by a young buck in a suit that he's been made a "Baa2". The timing of the downgrade couldn't have been more political, a matter of days before an Italian bond auction, one more proof that credit rating agencies are not the objective market observers that their profitability hangs upon. Cycling in Italy the surprise is not so much that the country faces economic difficulties, it's more that the economy ever got so strong to begin with. On the roads I'm passed by groups of old men, a dozen of them in matching lycra and bronze skin, pedaling up towards hills where later I pass them snapping cards down upon a cafe table. The cafes and beaches are full, the most regular signs of commerce are stalls selling peaches at the roadside, the occasional rusting bicycle that rolls by with a crate of courgettes stuck over the back wheel.


And yet Italy still works. Apartment blocks are still being constructed in Genoa, a General Electric plant on an industrial stretch of the Tuscan coast is still constructing platforms for oil and gas extraction, foreign number plates still drive in to spend their tourist euros. As with Centre Parks in the UK, as people start taking their holidays closer to home, recession has been good for domestic tourism. At the same time, there are signs of trouble. In a foccaceria, the woman behind the counter puts my €20 note through a machine, raises her eyebrows and nods that counterfeit notes are definitely a problem. In the hills outside Genoa, a Tunisian man with a fruit stall enthuses that "Italy is beautiful!... to visit. To live and work," he smiles, "as a foreigner... is difficult." In Tuscany I'm assured there are no more prostitutes than before on the road from Pisa to Livorno, but with at least one on every junction, to me it seems more present. Italy's street art is as lively as ever, all the usual encouragement to smash fascistas and capitalistas, to rebel, to remember that the Genovese police killed Carlo Giuliani at the G8 protests of 2001, that they beat up a school full of activists in the same week. All through the north I see "No TAV" daubed on walls, I'm told it's a proposed high speed rail link to Lille in northern France. Italians joke that nobody wants to go to Lille anyway... it's comforting to learn it's not only British politicians who have a soft spot for fast, expensive trains at a time when the economy seems to ask for something more.


As ever I'm confronted with a conflict. Travelling by bicycle, with farmers giving you peaches and refusing your money, lends life a feeling that all is well. At the same time, it's clearly not so simple, because if it were then the police brutality, prostitution and government waste would not be the problems that they are. What I like about life by bicycle is its tendency to prove the fundamental goodness in human society, and the fundamental deception behind the cultures of consumerism and fear all too prominent in our societies. That said, there's clearly work to be done in making societies a bit more reflective of the spirit of life on two wheels. 


Speaking to Italians, people obviously believe the wrong work is being done. The government of Mario Monti is well passed its honeymoon, the early days when a grey haired academic, dubbed 'the professor', took charge of a team of technocrats to give politics some post-Berlusconi respectability. After the former president's charges for sex offences, Monti was parachuted in at the behest of the head of state, the equivalent of our queen choosing a successor to a disgraced prime minister. At the time there were raised eyebrows, but it's as the policies become more unpopular that the government's credibility is being questioned. Just as Britain has found itself beset by an aggressive regime of privatisation that didn't figure in any election manifesto, so too are the Italians scratching their heads at the democratic gulf that seems to have opened. Monti himself seems little happier in the role, and with Berlusconi eyeing a return to office, the new man has already said this will be his only term.


As for the policies, they are dismissed as either insignificant or set to effect the wrong people. The billionaires and mafia are being ignored, people anticipate that hard-saving Italians will be left to pick up someone else's bill. Italians demonstrate the remarkable human ability to detect unfairness whenever they are a victim of it. A cafe owner complains, in words that vault a fairly high language barrier, that in today's Italy only the Church has any money. The new government has started to address as much, and the church must now pay taxes on profit-making ventures such as its many commercial properties. Too little, too late summarises the reception, and middle-class Italians seem more concerned by the repeal of a Berlusconi tax break on second home ownership. Unaffordable housing and adults stuck at home with parents make those who have saved for country retreats no more sympathetic. Cash is proving a further bone of contention, and the outlawing of cash transactions above €1000 has been an unwelcome start in clamping down on commonplace evasion of VAT. The verdict varies from this as encroaching government, to discrimination against an old population without plastic in wallets or PINs in heads, and repeat questions about why the government isn't going after Italy's largest firms instead. Market liberals will be little happier. There is talk of opening the pharmacy business to competition and stopping old practices of price protection. Taxi licenses are to be reassessed, with the revocation of licenses that have been sold-on by previous holders. Cabbies in Rome have already begun to make their displeasure known, in the capital the license is enough to secure a mortgage approval from a bank, but even then... nobody believes chemists and cabbies are at the heart of the problem.


It's become a piece of eurozone trivia - Italian debts are bigger than Greek, Irish, Portuguese and Spanish combined. Greek perseverance within the euro is key to keeping the heat off Italy and remaining contenders for the unenviable position as Europe's sickest man. Debt-GDP ratios have also become part of the popularisation of debt culture, Italy has a debt 120% of an annual output... a more terrifying way of saying that Italian debt could be cleared with fifteen months output. Government debt stands at about $2.2 trillion... Italian GDP is about $2 trillion. None of this is to say Italy has no problems, only that if there's a calm or an apocalyptic way of saying something, the mood of our times is to go for apocalypse. Few commentators mention that some of this debt will not mature for half a century, that innovations and inventions will have made the economy a very different place by the time they do. For all the stereotypes put about in the name of selling olive oil and pesto, the truth is Italy is a significant industrial nation. Everything from helicopters to torpedos and dentist chairs to power tools are manufactured here, not to mention the obvious production of automobiles, gourmet foods and designer labels. Italy is not a southern European backwater that may or may not have been admitted too early to the euro, it's an original member of the G7. The 1970s proved that governments do go bankrupt, but bankrupt governments are not in the interests of the markets. Without markets society is in trouble, but without societies that trade, produce and consume... the markets cannot even exist. You can find evidence of as much in gains for the dollar and yen across the last eighteen months, this in spite of Japanese debt rates of 200%, and the US senate constantly having to lift the debt ceiling to permit more borrowing. In uncertain times, markets have no safer bets than large, functioning economies... just don't expect them to shout about it.


So is Italy doing fine? In terms of gelato for a touring cyclist... definitely. In terms of a robust economy... perhaps not. My road is about to take me out of the EU, into Croatia, and via a city that underlines the foremost Italian problem. In Trieste the local newspaper is covering a McKinsey report that has found the city to be Europe's oldest, with 27% of the population older than 65. Italy's declining birth rates and generous pensions have created a somewhat top-heavy pyramid scheme. Monti's government has already raised retirment ages, prompting predictable resentment in those who have seen the finish shift just as they were sticking out their chests to cross the line. At the younger end of society, the extension of working lives exacerbates an already acute lack of jobs. Italians stress that national debt is a government problem, families here balance their books, and household debt is all but non-existent. Of course the complaint is relevant, but if generous pensions and state empoloyment has bankrolled this nation of savers, it's ironic that Italians can simulatenously be found to complain that the state is too big.



As with all the countries I will cycle through, the Italians need to make some big decisions in the coming years. The root of the problem, however, is how best to balance our sovereign monetary systems with unstoppable changes in populations. Whatever decisions are made, the whisperings of the free market will not provide the best advice... I didn't ask an insurer if cycling to Istanbul would require travel insurance.

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