Friday, January 20, 2017

Transfer of Power, 2017

Today, Donald Trump will be sworn in as America’s 45th president. He enters office under a cloud, a huge cloud, a cloud like no one has ever seen before. Believe me.

His approval rating has dropped to around 37% (according to Fox News), unprecedentedly low for an incoming president. For Obama in 2009, it was 80%, more than twice that of Trump.

Trump lost the popular vote by three million, and still became president, which might be a bit difficult to understand for folks in Finland, where one vote equals one vote.

He won the Electoral College by 77 votes (34 over the 270 required to win). He likes to claim this as an historic landslide, despite the fact that Obama won the College by a margin almost three times higher (95 votes). Bill Clinton’s was even higher.

Trump also won after a divisive campaign that included allegations of interference by Russian-sponsored actors. There are reports this week that three of his associates are under investigation by the FBI for inappropriate dealings with the Russian government during the campaign. There may still several shoes to drop before this over.

Winning by the thinnest of margins, Trump is now pushing the most ideological agenda we have seen in since Reagan, who truly did win by a landslide. No matter how you look at it, Trump won with support of only half the country who bothered to vote, yet he’s happy to pretend he has a mandate to ignore the other half (plus some 3,000,000) who voted differently.

The GOP Congress, encouraged by having a nominal Republican in the White House, is preparing to tick off some items on a long-held conservative wish list. Two such items, selling off public lands and dismantling the National Endowment for the Arts, are just two of the most recently reported actions Congress is gearing up for, with the assurance that Trump will sign whatever congressional Republicans want.

I have my doubts that Trump really cares about much of what the Republican Congress has in mind for America, other than repealing Obamacare, building a wall, and perhaps sparking a trade war in the name of “bringing back jobs”. The rest he could care less about.

I suspect he’s made a bargain, if you will a “deal”, with Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell that they can “run things”, pass the laws they want and he’ll sign them. In return, he gets to bask in the glory of being THE PRESIDENT. The alpha male. The Boss.

I’m not happy about any of this. Trump will be president. Sadly, a perfectly legitimate president. I don’t see any reason to doubt he was duly elected, though I do think the FBI and the Russians contributed to his success.

While he may be legitimately elected, you have to wonder how long this erratic, ignorant, entitled, bully will remain in office. There may be grounds already to impeach him, if the Republican Congress so wished to do so, if at some point he becomes a liability or outlives his usefulness. Or, maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part.

In the meantime, I have no choice but to recognize that he’s becoming president today. A legitimate one, which is a courtesy Trump refused to extend to the 44th president for nearly a decade. Trump will be president, but don’t ask me to celebrate it. 

Friday, January 6, 2017

Travel Log 2016: Brussels

The other foreign journey I took last year, after St. Petersburg, was to Brussels, capital of the EU. My wife goes there several times a year for work, and on one such trip in June, I came along just for a bit of a holiday. 

As a destination, I like Brussels well enough. Though it doesn’t have the allure of London or Rome, it does have its share of famous attractions and museums. And maybe I have a weakness for French-speaking cities with good chocolate. And beer.

When I was there last time, in 2011, my daughter and I cruised several art museums including, of course, the one dedicated to René Magritte, surely Belgium's best-known painter. It was surreal. This time, however, I just went sightseeing, walking around different parts of the city on my own, checking out places I hadn’t visited before, such as the district around EU parliament, so much newer-looking than the rest of the city. 

In a café around the corner from the European Commission Building, I overheard a well-dressed EU official commiserating with his British colleague over the shocking decision of the Brexit vote, which had occurred only four days before. I also made a day trip to the extraordinarily scenic historic town of Bruge, about an hour away by train. It's a city everyone should see before they die -- according to the dark comedy “In Bruge”, staring Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes. I have to agree.

Much of Brussels itself seemed familiar from previous visits. I was amazed to see that the Rogier metro station, which was under construction in 2011, was still under construction. Nothing new there. What was new was the heavy presence of the military. Throughout the city, army vehicles were parked at strategic spots, while soldiers wearing berets and cradling machine guns (I noticed one with an Uzi, I think), stood around eyeing the passing pedestrians.

They are there for a good reason. Rather, for an extremely unhappy reason. This was only three months after the suicide terrorist attacks on the Brussels airport and metro, in which more than 30 innocent victims died. The city was on high alert. Probably will be for years.

Those horrific murders were sparked by police raids conducted the previous week (when, as it happened, my wife had been in Brussels) in the predominately Muslim neighborhood of Molebeek. That’s where the perpetrators of the even more horrific attacks in Paris in late 2015 had lived.

Areas such as Molebeek are often portrayed by anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim activists in the States and Europe as being “no-go zones”, immigrant enclaves where even the local police dare not enter. I’ve often been skeptical of such claims, such as those made about London by nearly forgotten GOP presidential candidate Bobby Jindal when he was visiting the UK.

Prior to the Paris attacks, I’d never even heard of Molebeek and was surprised when my wife mentioned once that it lay just on the other side of canal that runs through the middle of the city, only about a kilometer from the part of Brussels where she works when she's there. 

Realizing that Molebeek was so close, I decided it might be interesting to see what it’s really like there. I recently mentioned this to someone I know from Brussels, and his immediate strong reaction was “Why?” Good question. I guess it was mainly out of curiosity.

So, prompted by this curiosity, my wife and I very briefly ventured over the canal into Molebeek. I noticed already at a tram stop on the east side of the canal that there were several more middle-eastern men and women than you normally see on the more touristy streets of Brussels. However, after crossing the Porte de Flandre bridge and starting down a bustling shopping street, the Chaussée de Gand, the difference became much, much more striking. Almost everyone, it seemed, was dressed in middle-eastern garb.

Now, it’s nothing unusual in European cities to see women wearing what you might call middle-eastern or Islamic headscarves of various types. In the past few years, this has become increasingly true in Helsinki, as well. I’ve even seen a few women here wearing burkas in the past year or so. But, immigrant men, on the other hand, are always decked out in strictly western clothing.

Not so on the Chaussée de Gand. Quite a few of the men milling around were wearing what I suppose are thawbs, full-sleeve, ankle-length tunics. That, and the more “ethnic” nature of the shops gave the street a slightly exotic feel, maybe echoing North Africa. Perhaps I wouldn’t think so if I’d actually ever been to North Africa. Who knows?

Still, it was different enough that I did feel somewhat out of place, not quite an outsider, but still conspicuously not part of this community. Even more obviously a misplaced tourist. In fact, it appeared we were perhaps the only “Europeans” on the street, thought I wouldn’t say we attracted any particular attention from the folks around us.

We walked along for a couple of blocks, then turned down a narrow, crowded pedestrian street that led to a slightly wider square crammed with market stalls. It was a busy place, and I wished I’d looked around a bit more to see what was being sold there, to see if there was something you don't see elsewhere in Brussels.  

This passageway soon opened up into a broader square, fronted by a Catholic church on one side, and a police station and Moroccan bank on the other. A couple of old men sat on a bench, in the shade, talking familiarly. To be honest, the scene seemed no more exotic than one we ran across once on Montmartre in Paris when we passed a couple of old men helping themselves to the roasted sheep’s head sitting on the park bench between them.

From there we headed back to the canal, still only a couple of blocks away. In total, we’d spent maybe half an hour in Molebeek. Only scratched the surface, so to speak.

Is Molebeek an actual “no go zone”? I can’t properly answer that question. Not the part we saw, I would say. But of course, that was such a small portion of it, just along the edges of the district.

What I can say is that I was impressed by how distinct it was there compared to the rest of Brussels and how immediate was the change once you crossed the canal that separates the two. It is clearly a cultural enclave, such as exist in many cities, for good or ill. Maybe it’s not as insular, or even notorious as, say, San Francisco’s Chinatown was in the 1800s, and after one very brief walk there, that’s something I can’t possibly know. But it does seem segregated, distinct from the rest of the city, and to me that doesn’t seem like a good thing.

In any case, its name is forever tied to some monstrous men who took and ruined the lives of so many people in the name of a terrible, death-crazed fanaticism. That reputation may not be fair to the majority of the no-doubt decent people who call Molebeek home. It is, nonetheless, something those residents will have to live with for a long time to come.

A street scene in Brussels. Not in Molebeek.

Sign of the times. Graffitti on the side of the Bourse de Bruxelles.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Travel Log 2016: St. Pete

One thing I love to do is travel. I love going to different places, seeing different landscapes, experiencing (on a superficial, touristy level) different cultures. Of course, that’s true for everyone, I would guess. At least, for most people I know.

And a huge advantage of living in Europe -- even on the far edge of it, as Helsinki is -- is that foreign travel is relatively easy. You don’t have to go far to arrive at some unfamiliar, enticing locale beyond your own borders. From here, the “rest of the world” seems close at hand, sometimes real close. For Helsinki, it’s a mere forty-miles -- to Estonia, just as one example. And Paris is only a three-hour flight. That’s about the same as flying from Atlanta to exotic...Boston. Don’t get me wrong, Boston is a fine place to visit, but c’mon, Paris!

(Okay, to be fair, three hours from Atlanta will also get you to Cancun, which is exotic, but I'm trying to make a point here.)

So, from Helsinki I’ve been lucky enough to make a few foreign trips almost every year, either for work or pleasure. Recently, it has to be said, there have not been so many of those as it the past, but still enough of them to keep my wanderlust mostly in check.

In 2016, we made two such excursions. Looking back, a few memorable moments stand out from both.

The first was a June trip to St. Petersburg, the original St. Petersburg. We went by boat, the M/S Princess Maria, because that way you can skip an especially annoying border formality that always hampers travel to Russia. Unlike Finland’s other neighbors, Russia makes visiting a bit more difficult by requiring a visa. This means filling out paperwork and paying a steep fee. For Americans, such as myself, it’s $160. That alone would cover the airfare to Paris, for example, which one reason we’ve never much considered Russia as destination when planning holidays.

Fortunately, the St. Peter Line, which operates ferry crossings between Helsinki and St. Petersburg offers an attractive loophole, apparently due to an arrangement it has with the Russian government. Passengers can forego the costly visa if their stay in St. Pete is less than 72 hours, which is still plenty of time to get a reasonable taste of the city.

It was the first time I’d penetrated the eastern frontier since a 1984 bus trip my wife and I took to what was then called Leningrad. To say things have changed would be an understatement. For one thing, Lenin's former namesake is, like most everywhere else in the world, a bastion of commercial capitalism. Peter the Great, after all, did envision the city as a "window to the West", and so it seems to be once again. 

Something that hasn’t changed, however, is the grandeur of much of the city's architecture, especially the Neoclassical facades along the Neva riverfront, which are brightly floodlit at night to wonderful effect. Also, what was different this time was that, unlike on the previous trip, we were visiting in high summer, a magical time to experience far northern cities like St. Pete, or Helsinki, for that matter.

Despite a long day walking around the city sightseeing, I had trouble sleeping the first night because, well, my snoring prevented my wife from sleeping and, in turn, her sharp elbow in my ribs prevented me from sleeping. At two o’clock in the morning, I gave up and I decided to go for a walk.

Our hotel, on Vasilyevsky Island in the middle of the Neva Delta, was only two blocks from the wide Bolshaya Neva, the largest branch of the river. As I walked out to the quayside, I could see that the nearest drawbridge, the Annunciation Bridge, was raised, its two middle spans pointed skyward. The Neva is an important waterway for commercial shipping, but in St. Petersburg it is crossed by several busy drawbridges that are opened for ships only briefly in the middle of the night. During the day, you see sea-going vessels moored all along the riverfront, waiting for nightfall and the chance to move upstream.

The bridges are lined with lights along their entire span, so when raised they add a dramatic element to St. Petersburg’s nighttime display -- stretching a couple of miles along the left bank -- of stately, brightly lit buildings rising over the glistening, inky water of the river. It is a truly beautiful sight.

When I reached the Annunciation Bridge, it was already being lowered, so I missed a chance to get a good photo (and anyway, I only had my phone camera with me). But the Palace Bridge, the next one upstream was still raised. It was peaceful night. There was practically no traffic, though there were some cars waiting in line to cross the river once the bridge was down again. And there were a surprising number of people around.

Or, maybe not so surprising, since the “White Nights” are a magical time to be out and about. I walked up the University Embankment, towards the Palace Bridge, which also started to close before I got there. I kept going to the very tip of Vasilyevsky Island, the Split, where quite a few people, mostly young folks, had congregated.

The Split, one of the best-known places in the city, is undoubtedly a natural spot to hang out on a summer’s night, with its vista of the broad, dark river dividing the city, and the spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral rising into a bright northern sky. From there, I could see at least three more bridges upstream, some still raised.

I strolled back along empty, quiet streets behind the old stock exchange, arriving back at the hotel at 3 o’clock, just as it was getting light enough for the street lamps to automatically switch off. It was an experience well worth losing sleep for.

Our next trip was to Brussels, but will have to wait for another post. 

The Exchange Bridge in St. Petersburg, around 2:30 in the morning.