I discontinued my travel blog a while ago. Not that I ever thought I would be writing significantly on travel, but I still enjoy reading the classical genre. So, I became interested in joining the travel writing forum “From here to there” at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, to find out where modern travel writing is going. It was a very shallow experience. Stephen Vines, a columnist at the South China Morning Post (SCMP), moderated a panel of three. Starting off by mistaking being unprepared for “humor”, I was looking forward to Geoff Dyer who at least knew what he was talking about. Geoff distanced himself immediately from being a “travel writer” to being a writer who travels. I did not understand why from the beginning. But then the two other “travel writer” panelists came into play and it became clear to me: Vicki Williams and Vivian Tang. Vicki and Vivian were of a different kind. Obviously you need no opinion or ability to articulate one to be an “opinion leader”. They were clearly not burdened by any kind of knowledge or education on the subject. When comparing the adventures of Victorian travelers with today, there came: “… sometimes I don’t even know what I will have for dinner on my plate”. This was the moment I busted laughing and decided to take the event as a bad stand-up comedy. Vivian embraces local knowledge by traveling with local guides and enjoys luxury yachts. She also found a beach in Hong Kong which had no geotag for Instagram. Isn’t that funny? Luckily, I have also been in a very interesting session before with the author Dung Kai-Cheung. Otherwise, I would have suggested to rename the festival into “Hong Kong Literacy Festival”, to celebrate what‘s left of it. If this was really the future of travel writing on display, then I guess Tripadvisor is up for a Nobel Prize.
My Nokia phone broke down about a month ago, after great lifetime. So, I went to one of the many electronics shops in Hong Kong and opted to replace it with a HUAWEI P20 Pro. It has rather high specs and is marketed by having a co-designed camera with Leica. Quickly I figured that this phone is not a phone. It is more of a pocket computer with a quite good camera, which can also to phone calls. I always thought that taking photos with a phone is more of Lomographie than photography. But have a look yourself below: these photos are all unedited, like they came out.
It is the end of August and I am thinking what to pack for Tilburg, where I am going to spend a month at the University. It is that time of the year, and I am looking forward to it. I have a good memory of what I packed up for last September, and it included a jacket and some wollen pullovers. Over the last 4 years, it has been this time in Tilburg, in which I witnessed the beginning of autumn.
But this year, it appears all differently. Today, in Frankfurt (Main), the forecast is a maximum temperature 33°C. That's more than 10°C above the long term average maximum temperature in August. In terms of rainfall during the core vegetation period, we have not been that dry since over 50 years, Just a few days ago the government decided to compensate partially losses in agriculture. It is for sure, the prices for many basic food items will rise soon. On top of that, there are response measures taken by the EU in response to the agressive US protectionism. This includes some food categories. I am generally not in favour of having long supply chains for food, and for sure many US products are of inferior quality anyways. But no doubt, it will add pressure on food prices.
Today, I went to the Niddapark, behind the house. That's my running trail, from spring time. Also spring this year was warmer than average: both April and May about plus 3°C. But it was still a healthy landscape. Now, the grass is yellow, trees show severe signs of drought stress, and my plan to get some wild Sambucus to make a syrup and jam, ended with looking at the dried berries. Also for yesterday night's picknick at the Main river bank, it was not easy to find a green spot of grass to sit on. Luckily some gardener of an office block decided not to care about the municipal request to cease watering decorative plants, and there was a patch. These are the joys of a financial industry which does not care. Actually, nobody does. I remember, when I studied Geophysics in the late 80s, there were already numerical models showing the direction and the energetic effects of composition changes of the atmosphere were available - even the full complexity was not really understood. Desertification, water scarcity, loss of arable land and it's effects on food supply, living conditions and even resulting migration were already back then quite seriously researched and discussed. I remember very well, a project with Münchner Rückversicherung, doing number crunching to adjust their loss models for future natural disasters. That's why I am a bit puzzled why people are surprised now.
Now I am hoping for an "Indian Summer", which we call "Goldener Herbst". I would not be too surprised though, that while the sun's Zenit moves further South and the Westerly winds kick in at such temperature deltas over the North Atlantic, there will be a bit of wind ahead and winter won't come easy. It was a long summer. The only memory I have of such a year, was the summer drought of 1976. I was just aged 10 back then, and time was endless anyway. Now, this is special.
Strasbourg is famous for many things: for example the Christmas Market, the European Parliament and the pleasures coming with Vin D'Alsace. It is a very pleasant visit in this endless summer, and no surprise many Germans from close by cities hop over on the weekend. It reminded me seriously to polish up my French, as it got rusty over the years. The first days are always the hardest to get a language back on the tongue. Specially now, that English has degenerated at such a pace into a "smallest common denominator" (at best), it is good to have the whole language portfolio again and keep it active. This means for me, also a recap Chinese course in fall is on the list. And then, of course I have to kick start Russian and find a good way and the right moment. I did a Russian course as a student at the University more than 30 years ago. But that's really all gone. For French, it would be easiest to move there for some significant time. And that sounds, for many reasons, like a good plan in the years to come.
I find it appalling that in the 21st century some governments outlaw certain kinds of apparel, namely types of Muslim women’s clothes. Even the argument that it would be a symbol of oppression, I can only partly follow. At least, the veiled Muslim women I know: should it be oppression, they would be the first ones taking it off. Some do, some don’t. The other argument is, that disguise threatens public security. The late Peter Scholl-Latour, the Middle East Expert, even said that Burkas should be banned, because even a man could hide in them. I am not sure what made men in women’s clothes more dangerous to Peter, but I am sure he spoke from rich experience. It may have caused him surprises at some point. And then there is Boris Johnson, recently appealing to his ale drinking electoral base, making jokes that such women look like letter boxes. It’s too easy to counter that by making jokes about Neanderthals, Boris. Looked into a mirror recently? Hahaha! How I love this British humour.
Unfortunately, it’s not just men with homophobia and dumb humour, but today I also had to witness some English women making depreciating comments on Muslim women’s looks who were wearing Hijabs. Given that they were clearly sitting in the glasshouse throwing stones, when it comes to beauty and style, I could not help seeking clarification.
It went about like this:
“Sorry, but from the Muslim ladies I know, they are not just well dressed, elegant, graceful and take good care of details; but they are also educated, interested, speak 5 languages and play chess. By contrary, from the English women I know, there are some but not many who have these qualities combined. So, ‘be the change you want to see’ – and sorry, for quoting Gandhi to educate English people. This may hurt your superiority feelings."
… (some vulgar response) ...
You remember who Gandhi was, right?
… (some incorrect response, followed by the attempt to be funny) ...
No, he was not a naked man with diapers and a turban … Why don’t you have look in the Encyclopedia Britannica?
…. (confused attempt to change the subject) ...
"Oh, you are from Manchester? Then look him up on YouTube. Gandhi not Gandy … ah, enjoy your holidays … good luck, ladies!”
When I visited the city last year in spring, I already stated that Moscow is the new London. Now, I went again and I can truly say that Moscow is one of my favorite European capital cities. The FIFA Worldcup, was the latest opportunity to tidy up and internationalise. Even I am not a soccer enthusiast, I appreciate it as another piece in brining the city again steps forward. What I really like about Moscow is the rich cultural life. We strolled through museums and watched La Boheme in the Bolshoi. This opera is for me like the "Pizza Margarita of performances" - in the sense that you can use it very well to compare performance quality across geographies. The Bolshoi was outstanding and far ahead of the Opèra Garnier (and most others). This did not surprise me, but I enjoy it when institutions live up to their reputation. But also just walking in the streets in inner Moscow is a real pleasure. People are very friendly and polite, and you find quite a number of outstanding characters. I also had the chance to see the amazing campus of Moscow School of Management Skolkovo. Really impressive, but I could not help estimating payback periods for this investment with a smile.
Summer in Frankfurt is coming to a climax with 37 degrees Celsius. During this time, when theatres are in their Summer break, Der Palmengarten (Frankfurt's botanical garden) offers a series of open air concerts and events. Yesterday, is was Reut Regev's R*Time initiated by the Jazz-Initiative-Frankfurt. I really liked it. First of all the music and show itself, and secondly the atmosphere and the great spirit of the audience. How better can you spend a mid summer evening, than sitting in a palm garden (on the grass) with great music and a glas of wine? What did surprise me though, was the age distribution of the visitors. I clearly was at the lower bracket. Well, this concert was really cool, with complex music and great fun. And it is even more strange, because Bockenheim is the University area of Frankfurt am Main, and still no young people around. Perhaps they did not find it, because there was no "app"? Perhaps it was too expensive? I don't think so: at a reduced rate applicable to students the ticket was EUR 6.00 (US$ 6.98). Perhaps I should go to some of "their events" to find out. Let me download an app first.
The days in the North are long and this summer seems endless. Time is really passing more slowly recently. Hard to say why, but this is worth researching. This is why I decided to resume writing my diary again, and activity I paused about a year ago. One aspect clearly is, that here in Germany, so many things can be done in a day with ease, while in Malta the most simple things become a daily project due to the general shortage of infrastructure and reliability. But now there is always so much ahead after the early sunrise. Based in Frankfurt (Main), I went to Bonn and Stuttgart. I really liked Kirchner's unknown collection, exhibited in the Staatsgallerie Stuttgart, and also the other museums I visited.
It took me 52 years to come here, even though since 1989 it would have been logistically an easy trip. I followed the track from my mother's birth place along the paths of the refugees, seeing it all - also the German Concentration Camp Stutthof. I spare you the cruelty, violence and the stories of the collapse of humanity. I deeply regret them, but it would not help to add more "awareness porn" to the online world. We all know our responsibility. And if you feel in doubt, just visit a war cemetary. Here you will meet moments of deep silence and then wonderful people living here cheering you up. And in the end they were the main victims of German invasion and tyranny, before the Nazi agression bounced back. Not even to talk about Russia, and the holocaust. And another thing to remember, when standing where they crossed the ice under heavy civilian losses in 1945: protecting refugees from today's war zones is not charity, but it's our duty.
Wójtowo (Voigtsdorf) is located between Lutry (Lautern) and Reszel (Rösel) in the Polish part of former East Prussia (Ostpreussen). A few plots of land in this small agricultural settlement was enough to be relatively wealthy. And it was not too much to be executed on the spot as land owner when the Red Army moved in, back in 1945. Who knows the truth after all these years only captured by oral history? I was there today for the first time, to see my mother's birthplace. I took many photos that may trigger her memories: the buildings, school, garden and just the fields across the road. She never came back. I also talked to people. There are stories of violence, betrayal, and death, but also those of bravery and humanity. I decided not to write in public about what I heard. It's too easily misunderstood in the rough world of social media and there are radical views on this chapter of history. And honestly, I can't even talk about it without loosing my voice.
All that counts for me today is that I am happy to see my mother's birthplace. Now a wonderful Polish family is living in the house. It is still as a farm. I even saw some Trakehner horses. They maintain it by the means they can earn from the land. That's not easy. It never was.
In the late winter of 1945, the ice on the "Frisches Haff" at the Baltic Sea was not thick enough anymore to carry all carriages and horses. My mother and her family left Eastern Prussia under the pressure of the incoming Russian Army. What happened then, was a story that shaped us for generations. Some went on land Westward, others crossed the thin ice. Too slow to make it off there before sunrise, they became easy targets for the Russian Air Force pilots. Nowhere to hide, they pretended to be dead, lying still on the ice until sunset, watching their neighbours sink and die randomly. They were running from an Army which was seeking to defeat the country which invaded it brutally and merciless before. For those who survived then came hunger, typhoid, the search for their relatives and children, homeless years, hope and despair - and for some the madness never left them. Some families were reunited in the 50s with the return of surviving prisoners of war from Siberia. Others in 1989 when the German wall fell. Many did never see each other again.
Tomorrow I still have a project presentation, and then I am on my way to Gdańsk (Danzig), with an old bilingual map, a field GPS and the few photos, articles, and extracts from birth registers. From there, I will head South-East to a village which has was called Voigtsdorf, close to Rösel. I am looking for the place abandoned by Anton Siegmund and Maria née Gabriel and their children in that late winter of 1945, in Poland and their favorite Café and chocolate maker in Königsberg / Kaliningrad (Russia).
When you walk down the Neroberg into the direction of Wiesbaden, suddenly framed by the forest trees, appears the Russian-Orthodox church. It was built by Herzog Adolf von Nassau in memory of his wife, the Russian Princess Jelisaweta Michailowna, who died at the age of 18 together with their first child while giving birth. It is a very beautiful and exotic building in this region, and also the interior is bright and holds a the tomb of the Princess. I also like it, that they implement minimum standards in apparel for people entering it, not so much for religious reasons, but I think it is a disgrace if you have such a beautiful building littered with excess of "functional wear". Wiesbaden itself and the neighbouring forests, I like a lot. It's an old thermal bath and was developed into a major bathing location under the rule of (the very disputable) Wilhelm II.
It is nice to be back to Malta for a few days, even though the weather is not significantly better than in Germany. I had friends to come and visit me, and I also caught up with those on the island. I am very sorry, I was not able to see everybody, but I will be back soon.
The little country is in a building boom and for some this causes discontent. It is hard to keep the balance between building up capacity and infrastructure at the same time at such a pace. That's quite normal - everywhere. A risk then often is, that the infrastructure development falls back, or the technology used is dysfunktional because there can be no "money made" with it. I would guess this risk is even higher in Malta, because there are hefty subsidies on public services. A lot of projects I see, are just an expansion, but not a true modernisation. This is a limited strategy in such a small country. Now the developers still have cash, given the rising property prices and extremely low interest rates. Should the coming demand have been hugely overestimated, then specially for the larger developments, the potential bubble would hit the developers and then the banks quite quickly. It's always the same game and not unseen in Malta either. Luckily there is a large proportion of foreign cash coming in, which is not borrowed from local banks. However, this drives up inflation and subsequently labour cost, which is one of the few competitive advantages. Further, even with all creativity to create "opportunities", also the ways of attracting foreigners into Malta are limited. Specially, for those who really want to live, work and spend money here: facing bad infrastructure, outdated and ineffective institutions, political trench battles, low management competence, unskilled workers, and a weak education system. I would be personally not unhappy to see a slower economic growth in Malta, and a better balance. But now, that it made "boom" already, I guess we will just watch how high it flies.
Yes, I am a city dweller in Frankfurt. But the park just beside my habitat is crossed by the Nidda creek, which in its lower part can be easily paddled. So, I got a Nordik Scubi 1 foldable kayak, which design reminds me a bit of the Klepper Aerius, but is much lighter (just 12 kg, as the manufacturer says) and much cheaper. First I was sceptical what this small boat can do for somebody of 1,90 meters height and 84 kg. Today I took it for a first paddle, and it turned out to be the perfect "always in your pocket boat". It took me 30 minutes first assembly, and I found it easy. I am using a 4 piece collapsible paddle of 240 cm, which I was warned could be wobbly, but it's not. And then I got a little trolley from the Chinese man running a shop on Leipzigstrasse and a 22 liter Ortlieb drybag. Pump and drybag fit behind the seat for storage. The trolley can be strapped on top. You can't store anything in the foot room at my body size.
Then off I went. Watch out: the Nidda from Niddapark, has one barrage which requires to take the boat around. Then it is very nice and quiet until before Höchst where the water gets fast two times. But in both cases, follow the current on the deep stretches and all will be fine. I was a bit concerned what will happen when I hit a rock with the light boat. But I did not. Entering the Main river at Höchst, you will pass a few house boats and a floating restaurant. I decided to go upstream until the foot of the Griesheim hydropower plant. There is no strong current, so no problem. Then I turned back, disassembled at Höchst and too the tram way (Line 11) back to Frankfurt. I did not manage to get the pump back into the boat bag in the field, so keep some extra space in your rucksack. Going along the rivers is always a nice and interesting view on city life. And in this case, it does not even feel like a city. The little kayak had a really good start: stable and easy to manoeuver, quick in assembly and collapse, small when packed. I like this boat.
I love the Westerwald forest and the rivers. But for 9 years I had to decent to the Lyceum in the small town of Neuwied. We call it Gynmasium, and it is the traditional school track to prepare you for University following 4 years of primary school. Every day I walked or cycled along the Wied river and then the upstream direction of the Rhine river. It took about an hour to walk one way, and back in the afternoon. The rest of the day I spent "hiding" in the countryside and forest before the next morning I had to decent again - 6 days a week. There was nothing exceptionally wrong with the school, in my view. Even though only a few teachers were good. Sometimes there were retired Nazis making some pocket money to top up their pension, church bred Latin and history teachers, or fluffy 1968 students which had concluded in the shades of the upraises that nothing really matters. We had the first wave of immigrants from Russia, which were usually of German origin and have been deported by Stalin into Siberia. Some of them became dear friends and others got fame for the brutality with which they resolved conflict. Knifes, chains, Nunchaku and even guns were daily toys. Then came the unfortunate, but very smart, Iranians, fleeing the revolution. As I was banned from religious studies, like them, we got along quite well. Neuwied once was famed for the highest German crime rate per capita. It does shape your attitude to what you can expect from people.
As a teenage boy in Neuwied there were just three ways to choose for your life: 1) degenerate to the equilibrium, 2) go to Waffen Walter (the local gun shop) and put a 9 mm Parabellum bullet through your head, or 3) fight your way out. As 2 is always an option, I decided for 3 as a start. Home was also not much of a help either. Neuwied was the anti-model for everything. Then I was drafted into the Army. Next anti-model. And last but not least, let's not forget the church. Acting people. nothing but an anti-model.
Luckily there was short wave radio, first a receiver, then an (illegal) transceiver which connected me with the world. Then there was the school library and a local museum. Once I picked up a copy of the National Geographic Magazine at the train station, an unsold copy and the shop owner sent the title page back to the publisher for refund. But he gave all other pages to me. My conclusion was that no matter which direction you go away from Neuwied, it can only get better. And very luckily, I had excellent Math, Physics, English, Biology and Geography teachers. I owe them a lot. My French teacher was also good. But I did not appreciate it at the time. Communication changed since the short wave time, but still short wave radio remained a symbol of freedom for me. I met a Soviet run-away in the South China Sea, who was just the same. The other symbols of freedom remained also. That maybe the heritage of a refugee family. I think, one day I have to talk to today's refugees to tell them what not to do to their children.
Today, my sister and I decided to go these paths one more time. The beauty of the fields, forests and rivers is unchanged. But the city of Neuwied became an even more depressing place. Where the former bookshop was, now resides a discount store. People are fat and dull. Teenage women are pregnant at the side of a tattoed male creatures. Then the perceived age demographic grows exponentially. Like there is nothing between the young proletarian and grandparents. A bit like a small German version of Manchester, Wolverhampton or Glasgow. Shops are closing. The streets are littered and under construction. The Rhine river, which I love, runs through filth. And I was reminded of the donkey in the Grimm fairy tale Bremer Stadtmusikanten (Bremen Town Musicians) when he convinced his followers to join the journey: "Join me. Something better than death you will find everywhere."
That's my home. Good we were born in a time, we still had the courage to run away from it and hide in the forest.
The week started with a trip to Dresden, where I gave a guest lecture on China and the "One Belt, one Road Initiative" at the Technical University in the Zentrum für Internationale Studien. It was a great pleasure to be back to Dresden and catching up. And I really enjoyed the quality of the students. As I had one day gap between my Dresden assignment and further meetings in Berlin, I decided hop over to Leipzig and stay there over night. I have fond memories of Leipzig from the time of the German-German reunification and heard recently that it would become for creative people, an alternative to Berlin (where the cost of living is rising). I went to the Museum der Bildenden Künste Leipzig, visited some galeries, and talked to a few people. But somehow, I could not confirm what many people say about Leipzig. Sure, my visit was very short and it always depends a lot on the angle how you enter a city. Then in Berlin, of course, it was easy to confirm that the city is "hip". In the start-up scene some people bragged how often they already went bankrupt. It's entertaining, but professionally there is not much to do for me there. The week ended with a meeting and lecture in Mannheim, as well as catching up at the Mannheim University Business School, where I had the chance to see the impressive new facilities on campus.
Astana has a history going back to the Russian Imperial Era. It was then called Aqmoly in Kazakh and Акмолинский приказ (Akmolinsky prikaz) in Russian. But nearly all you can see today has been developed after the independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and when Astana became the capital of Kazakhstan in 1998. The development of the city was mainly funded by a special form of tax on the development of the national oil and gas reserves. And Kazakhstan is one of the more than 65 countries participating in the Chinese initiated "One Belt, one Road", also sometimes called "The New Silk Road". There are major ambitions and Kazakh activities often mentioned in this context is Qorğas (Khorgos) or 霍尔果斯 in Chinese. It is a large rail connected dryport and anout 10 km North-East of it a new transnational Kazakh-Chinese city, sometimes called "The Kazakh Dubai". And then, of course for the oil rich country, which has just started to develop major oil fields in the Caspian sea. It is a world of plenty and a region of fast development. This is not driven, but supported by "One Belt, one Road" and of course non-oil-and-gas infrastructure becomes an enabler for the expansion of manufacturing. I enjoyed the trip to Kazakhstan, I met wonderful people, a great spirit, and I will go back.
The Arthouse Cinema in Frankfurt is located at Roßmarkt 7 (take subway to Hauptwache). There is another one in Frankfurt Sachsenhausen, but this is a but further for me, and I really like the Roßmarkt Cinema for the venue and the movies they pick. Quite frequently there are also special events in which the director or producer is invited for a question and answer session. I got myself a rebate card, and found it very easy in the last few weeks to break even, because there is so much to see. The list below is just my start. I am not a cinema critic, but I also wrote a few words how I found the films
- Das stille Klassenzimmer (The silent classroom): excellent
- The Post (Die Verlegerin): kitsch
- Die stille Revolution (The silent revolution): too many platitudes, Jannike Stoehr did a great job in her interview
- Zwei Herren im Anzug (Two men in a suit): excellent
- The Mercy (Vor uns das Meer): trying to make a romantic story of an idiot trying to sail the world
- The Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri: excellent, not what I expected
- Sami blood (Das Mädchen aus dem Norden): interesting
- Drei Tage Quiberon (Three days Quiberon): interesting, but hard to think myself into Romy Schneider's tragedy
- Death of Stalin: so bad that I left the cinema half way through
- Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire): still very good, digitally remastered, and rare chance to see on big screen
Senglea (Isla) is the one of the "Three Cities" which involves the dockyards. This was the part of the Grand Harbour which was the center of British Naval ship maintenance and suffered consequently heavy damage during World War II. A lot if the region was abandoned and people were forced to move to the more rural areas, causing a lot of tension in the Maltese population which sometimes is still funnily present in some respect. Those who remained in the Grand Harbour region, specially in the South, had to live in ruins. The dock yards became a major employer, and rebuilding started. With the independence of Malta from British occupation (some call it "protection") this became the heartland of the Labour Party. Today, I personally think it is one of the most beautiful places on Malta. Sure, there is still a lot to do. But I rather see the potential than the deficits.
There are rarely exhibitions like this in Malta, and I found the Picasso and Miro exhibits an excellent contribution to the Valletta 2018 initiative in which the capital of Malta presents itself as the European Culture Capital. This was possible with the help of the Fondacion MAPFRE and is open until June 30th in the Palace State Rooms. The hanging had to be a bit improvised, as a palace is not an ideal venue, but lighting and presentation are excellent. The ticket also includes a visit of the armoury, which is a bit like an ancient gun shop, for those who like it.