My Kingdom for a Bulb! 
Tuesday, May 5, 2009, 10:24 - Commentary, Photo of the Day
One of the things that I love about Europe is that no matter how intermixed its cultures become there will always be noticeable regional differences. Take the British and the Germans for example. A friend of mine who lived in Germany for many years once joked that if the government there declared that everyone should wear purple pants the next day at least half of the population would comply. Not so with the British who take every government decree with a healthy, and sometimes not so healthy, dose of skepticism as we learn from the New York Times.

Wot? London 2005

“Mr. Wright says that in the last two months he has sold 3,000 of the 100-watt bulbs — the traditional mainstay of British light fixtures — more than 30 times the usual. People are buying 10 at a time, the limit per customer, even though their price is nearly 50 percent higher than it was a year ago.

“Mr. Wright’s store is on the front lines of resistance to controversial global efforts to end the era of energy-gobbling incandescent light bulbs by phasing out their sale to encourage (or in Mr. Wright’s view, force) people to turn to more efficient compact fluorescents.”

Challenging the authority of government is perhaps the first right of every citizen, and given the sheer number and stupidity of most laws it is clearly not a right we exercise enough. But in this case it is more about traditions dying hard. There is no surely way of creating a desire for something than to ban it and this is what the British has done. Personally in the case of incandescent light bulbs I am in favor of taxation. If you really want the warm glow of one then you should be prepared to pay the true environmental cost. If you make them ten or twenty times as expensive as other lighting choices then most people will come to the conclusion that the warm glow isn’t worth it and those who persist can still have what they want while paying their fair share. Something tells me that the Brits won’t bother with this level of sophistication and will continue apace on the course they have set for themselves.

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Learning to Love Taxes (or at least not hate them) 
Monday, May 4, 2009, 10:15 - Commentary, Photo of the Day
“Us and them.” It is often what the world breaks down to. “Them” is always an abstraction, never a reality and rarely nuanced. One of the great things about traveling and living abroad is that it brings you face to face with “them” and if you aren’t careful you might even become one of them. In a great article in the New York Times Magazine Russel Shorto talks about his experience in Holland and how he grew to admire, if not love, the social welfare state.

Burning down the house. Berlin 2007. © Damaso Reyes

“Logging into my bank account, I noted with fleeting but pleasant confusion the arrival of two mysterious payments of 316 euros (about $410) each. The remarks line said “accommodation schoolbooks.” My confusion was not total. On looking at the payor — the Sociale Verzekeringsbank, or Social Insurance Bank — I nodded with sage if partial understanding. Our paths had crossed several times before. I have two daughters, you see. Every quarter, the SVB quietly drops $665 into my account with the one-word explanation kinderbijslag, or child benefit. As the SVB’s Web site cheerily informed me when I went there in bewilderment after the first deposit: “Babies are expensive. Nappies, clothes, the pram . . . all these things cost money. The Dutch government provides for child benefit to help you with the costs of bringing up your child.” Any parents living in the country receive quarterly payments until their children turn 18. And thanks to a recently passed law, the state now gives parents a hand in paying for school materials.”

I’ve often said that we Americans have as much to learn from Europe and they do from us and this is very much true when it comes to what they call the social welfare state. A society which is slightly more geared towards the common good is not a bad thing. In fact the United States has been heading in this direction for quite some time. Having spent a good deal of time in Europe these benefits and the higher taxes that come with them don’t seem to impede personal liberty. No, that comes more from social norms and attitudes than anything else. But having that safety net, and the freedom that comes with it, is very valuable indeed. Freedom from fear is indeed the very first freedom citizens from every nation should come to expect.

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Falling Prices, Failing hopes... 
Friday, May 1, 2009, 11:10 - Commentary, Photo of the Day
Happy May Day! At least happy for some of us, not so happy for others caught in this global economic crisis, which turns out to be most of us. Spain, once one of Europe’s fastest growing economies now risks getting caught in a cycle of deflation, as we learn from the New York Times.

Time to start praying? Barcelona 2005 © Damaso Reyes

“Faced with plunging orders, merchants across this recession-wracked country are starting to do something that many of them have never done: cut retail prices.

“Prices dipped everywhere, from restaurants and fashion retailers to pharmacies and supermarkets in March. Hoping to increase sales, Fernando Maestre reduced prices by a third on the video intercoms his company makes for homes and apartment buildings. But that has not helped, so, along with many other Spanish employers, he is continuing to fire workers.

“The nation’s jobless rate, already a painful 15.5 percent, could soon reach 20 percent, a troubling number for a major industrialized country.”

As we discussed earlier in the week a European problem needs a European solution. Otherwise the weaker nations of the E.U., like Spain, will start to bring down the larger, but increasingly fragile economies of nations like Germany and France. Without strong and decisive leadership European citizens and consumers will increasingly put less faith in their governments and economy, exacerbating the problem. Of course those who will suffer most are those at the bottom of the pyramid: small business owners and low income households. Let’s hope that the magnitude and seriousness of the present situation motivates European leaders towards action.

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All Together Now! 
Thursday, April 30, 2009, 09:53 - Commentary, Photo of the Day
So how will Europe deal with the economic crisis? This seems to be our theme of the week here at The Europeans and it is an important topic indeed. Recently Der Spiegel interviewed the Chancellor of Austria who had some interesting things to say.

Next Question… Vienna 2008 © Damaso Reyes

SPIEGEL: Mr. Chancellor, you don't seem to be able to please anyone at the moment. Some mock you as the cuddly chancellor of a Grand Coalition in a "land of smiles," while others refer to Austria as a "land of the wavering." What is going wrong?

Faymann: In this crisis, it is important that we mobilize our strengths primarily through cooperation and not by distinguishing ourselves at the expense of others. Of course, we have to know where we want to go -- how not to lose sight of social security and justice, and how to address unemployment with training guarantees or economic stimulus packages. Under these circumstances, teamwork is always better than confrontation, of the sort I experienced in the previous government.

You really should take a few minutes and read the whole article if you have the time. Faymann, in no uncertain terms, says that the solution to the problem must be European wide and not dealt with on a national basis. Of course Austria is a small nation so it makes sense that they would seek the cooperation of their larger neighbors. Nevertheless it is an important shift in the discourse about how Europe, the E.U. and its member states should deal with the challenges that it faces. I sincerely hope that what comes out of this crisis is greater cooperation and a strengthening of a sense of common solutions to common problems.

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Back to the Future 
Tuesday, April 28, 2009, 09:39 - Commentary, Photo of the Day
The more economic news we hear from Europe, the more it seems like the party is indeed over. Of course rising unemployment rates in places like Spain don’t just affect citizens but also the thousands of immigrants who have come to Western Europe seeking a better life as we learn in this article.

“Six years after the Spanish construction boom lured him here from his native Romania, Constantin Marius Mituletu is going home, another victim of the bust that is reversing the human tide that has transformed Europe in the past decade.

The best is yet to come. Vienna 2008 © Damaso Reyes

“Everyone says in Romania there’s no work,” Mr. Mituletu, 30, said with a touch of bravado as he lifted his mirrored Ray-Bans onto his forehead. “If there are 26 million people there, they have to do something. I want to see for myself.”

“Mr. Mituletu, who is planning to return to Romania next month, is one of millions of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Latin America and Africa who have flocked to fast-growing places like Spain, Ireland and Britain in the past decade, drawn by low unemployment and liberal immigration policies."

How will these large scale economic forces impact the lives of ordinary people? What will happen when the waves of immigrants who left Eastern Europe return? In many ways the European Union is a sociological experiment writ large. Moving around hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people from different cultures is going to create conflict as well as change. How the E.U. and its member states deal with this economic crisis, if they deal with it at all, may determine the future of the Union for years, if not decades to come.

Will the center hold?

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Any Port in the Storm... 
Monday, April 27, 2009, 09:28 - Commentary, Photo of the Day
I really, really want to go to Iceland this summer so if anyone wants to help subsidize the trip just let me know. I have become a little fascinated by this tiny island nation since their banking system, and just about the rest of their economy collapsed last year. There is a lot going on there are we learn from this article in the New York Times.

Let’s clean up this little mess we have here. Cologne 2007 © Damaso Reyes

“Buoyed by an election victory that gave a strong popular mandate to her three-month-old caretaker government, Iceland’s prime minister, Johanna Sigurdardottir, told cheering supporters early Sunday that she would move to protect the country’s battered economy by applying for membership in the European Union as soon as possible.”

Now as you recall the whole point of this project is to document how Europe is changing as the E.U. expands. Well it seems like the global financial crisis is now causing the E.U. to expand! Of course if I was already part of the E.U. I would ask “What’s in it for me?” After all, E.U. members tend to bail each other out and another hungry mouth at the table is the last thing the E.U. needs. But if the Union can be seen as a refuge in the storm and help pull Iceland away from the brink then I believe it will do wonders for the Union’s reputation, among other things…

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By Hook or by Crook... 
Wednesday, April 22, 2009, 10:59 - Commentary, Photo of the Day
European Union elections are notorious for their low turnout unlike local and national elections in most nations. Not all European leaders are asleep at the switch, even if their methods for increasing turnout is a bit dubious. We learn more from

Calling all voters. Vienna 2008 © Damaso Reyes

“With voter turnout expected to be low for the upcoming June European parliamentary elections, North Rhine-Westphalia’s government is giving out a free ring tone for cell phones to encourage young voters to take part.

"The ring tone is a pop version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” which serves as the European Union’s anthem. Calling it “a catchy tune,” Andreas Krautscheid, NRW’s minister for European affairs, had the ring tone specially composed in order to make younger voters aware of the European elections.

“We want to speak to young people’s preferences and habits and to enable a playful entry to Europe with the cell phone ring tone,” Krautscheid said Sunday.”

Well you have to give him credit for trying, something too many E.U. leaders are not willing to do. I don’t know how much of a difference this plan will really make but at least European leaders are beginning to see the importance of engagement as well as the need to think outside the box…

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Four Years On... 
Monday, April 20, 2009, 10:45 - Personal, Commentary
Last week I let the 4th anniversary of The Europeans pass without so much as a note. Personally I am not much of a birthday or anniversary type of person but it is important to recognize the passage of time. It is also a useful opportunity to think about where we’ve been and where we are going.

One photograph at a time. Vienna 2008 © Damaso Reyes

As I’ve said any number of times, when I first boarded that plane at JFK international Airport in New York I had no idea of what kind of images I would be taking. All I knew was that something was happening in Europe and I wanted to try to capture it. Back then it was a tall order and it still very much is. This project has challenged the way I see the world as well as the way in which I document it.

Waiting. Berlin 2006 © Damaso Reyes

The Europeans began without a clear plan and in many ways it is still quite open, something which I feel is an asset. Many of the images I have taken have been happy accidents, the kind that could never be planned. The more I work on the project the more I feel that the changes which are happening in Europe are so subtle that they deserve to be found not by research or planning but by organically experiencing life.

The beauty of Art. Paris 2007 © Damaso Reyes

Sometimes I feel that people expect too much form these images. I have always said that this project is not an academic exploration of history. Personally I hope these images raise far more questions than they answer since the real change that is happening in Europe is not one of economics or politics but a change in mindset and self perception. As an artist and documentarian I try to hold up the mirror as well as draw back the curtain in front of the window. My work is to simply begin a conversation or at least to make it more interesting.

Going home. Kosovo 2005 © Damaso Reyes

And where will the future take us? Of course I don’t have those kinds of answers but I will say that I hope to continue the work that I have begun and delve even more deeply in the waters in which I swim. I can begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel but that light is still so very far away…

Utopia Planitia. Amsterdam 2005 © Damaso Reyes

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All that Glistens... 
Thursday, April 16, 2009, 11:34 - Commentary, Photo of the Day
When I was living in Germany in 2007 I got to visit the quaint town of Pforzeim a few times. Well as we noted yesterday the economic crisis seems to be invading every part of Europe including the places thought to be untouchable, as we read in an article from the New York Times.

The hard times are here to stay. London 2005 © Damaso Reyes

“This town on the northern edge of the Black Forest traces its heritage as a jewelry center to 1767, when its overlord founded a factory for watches and jewelry at the local orphanage. In recent decades, as the production of lower-end necklaces, rings and bracelets migrated to cheaper labor markets in Asia, the highly trained metal workers here turned to making precision parts for the automobile industry.

“But the combination of luxury goods and automobile parts proved a poor one in this economic downturn, leaving the town of around 120,000 exposed to the clampdown on spending by consumers, particularly in the United States. Pforzheim’s experience is one small part of the losses inflicted by the broader plunge in exported goods around the country.”

Economic disruptions have a profound way of changing not only the way we see the world but the very image we have of ourselves. I think this will be the case for many places in Europe, especially the ones that have grown comfortable in their prosperity. Sometimes heritage is not enough. Sometimes we have to find a way to remake ourselves even as we try to hold onto those qualities that we feel define ourselves. But we can never make the mistake of believe that our history is who we are…

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Struggling in Bohemia  
Wednesday, April 15, 2009, 11:15 - Commentary, Photo of the Day
European countries large and small are feeling the pinch from the current economic crisis. You may not feel that the fact you’ve decided not to buy a new television in Berlin or Barcelona matters very much anywhere else but as we discover from an article in the Prague Post, the ripple effect is very real…

Sharing the pain. Berlin 2007 © Damaso Reyes

“The Hitachi Home Electronics (Czech) plant in Žatec, a producer of LCD and plasma screen televisions, has ceased production and will cut 800 jobs by the end of April. The announcement deals a big blow to Žatec, northwest Bohemia, where jobs are already scarce. The company will have to return 246 million Kč ($12 million) in investment incentives to the state, said Kateřina Wheeler, a spokeswoman for Hitachi. The company has also pledged to work with the Czech government to find new investors for the production facility in the hopes of maintaining jobs.”

After spending time in Slovakia and Hungary I have a new appreciation for just how important these plants are to the local economy.

  |  0 trackbacks   |   ( 3 / 1800 )

Stand Up and be Counted 
Tuesday, April 14, 2009, 11:38 - Commentary, Photo of the Day
Race is a problem that’s not going away in America, let alone Europe. While we’ve had our Civil Rights movement and the cathartic election of Barack Obama has done much to heal old wounds old and ongoing injustices still ache like, well, old wounds. France is having its own troubles as we learn from The Economist.

The first step. Spain 2005 © Damaso Reyes

“How can a country decide if ethnic minorities are thriving when it refuses to acknowledge they even exist? France has grappled with this conundrum for years. Under its egalitarian ethos, it treats all citizens the same, refusing to group them into ethnic categories. It is forbidden by law to collect statistics referring to “racial or ethnic origin”. Yet even the casual visitor notices how multi-ethnic France is—and how few non-whites have top jobs. Now a new plan seeks to make it possible to measure “diversity”. Yazid Sabeg, the government’s diversity commissioner, has set up a group to find the best way to collect information.

“The hope is that this will give France “the statistical tools that will enable it to measure diversity, precisely in order to identify where it is behind, and to measure progress.” That was what President Nicolas Sarkozy called for last year. To American or British ears this plan may sound uncontroversial, but in France it is causing uproar, even though Mr Sabeg wants any data to be offered voluntarily, anonymously and on the basis of self-categorisation.”

The first step of course is admitting you have a problem, at least that’s what people in recovery say. France needs to acknowledge just how its colonial past has affected its current citizens. I applaud the intellectual desire to treat everyone the same and to be colorblind but what’s the point of doing that if society does not in fact reflect your aspirations. Actually being able to count people as who they are will help France better understand who needs help and what needs to be changed. But owning up to the past is never an easy thing to do and I doubt that even a small change like the one discussed in this article will lead to the other, more profound steps that society needs to take. But to quote a cliché every long journey does indeed begin with a single step…

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Photo of the Day #133 
Thursday, April 9, 2009, 11:24 - Commentary, Photo of the Day
It’s strange that in that most law abiding of European nations, Germany, that they are having trouble enforcing a smoking ban. I guess those Berliners are just living up to their wild and crazy reputation for bucking the trend. We learn more from The Local.

Just another puff please… Paris 2007 © Damaso Reyes

“Berlin's smoking ban is sick – it's coughing and wheezing like a dying patient desperate for attention in an apathetic hospital. In comparison, Europe's other smoking bans are striding around like robust, sturdy nurses, immune to the two viruses that have infected their German counterpart: legislative confusion and popular resentment.

“The first of these has caused noticeable damage: the ban has been so weakened by legal exceptions, constitutional interventions and the failure to enforce it that Berliners could be forgiven for thinking it had been reversed. Most bars give ashtrays to any punter who asks and sometimes even this pretence is foregone – after a few months of discretion, a lot of places just plonked them back on the tables. The realization has dawned on this city that the district authorities do not have a hope of policing the prohibition.”

Now I’m a live and let live kind of guy, just ask anybody! But this is a public health issue. The majority of people, even in Germany, don’t smoke so why should their health be damaged by those who do? You can’t smoke in a bank or on a train so what is the big deal about a bar? I guess people really like to have a puff with their pint. But the smoking ban has been extended throughout much of Western Europe without a problem, why are those Berliners so hard to wrangle? Personally I think time will prevail on this issue…

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Photo of the Day #132 
Wednesday, April 8, 2009, 13:30 - Commentary, Photo of the Day
Isn’t it interesting that something most of us had never heard of twenty years ago, the internet, now plays such an important role in our lives? Just by reading this sentence you affirm the role of the worldwide web in your life. In Moldova the web has played a critical role in protests over the last week as we learn from the New York Times.

Fight for your right! Berlin 2007 © Damaso Reyes

“A crowd of more than 10,000 young Moldovans materialized seemingly out of nowhere on Tuesday to protest against Moldova’s Communist leadership, ransacking government buildings and clashing with the police.

“The sea of young people reflected the deep generation gap that has developed in Moldova, and the protesters used their generation’s tools, gathering the crowd by enlisting text-messaging, Facebook and Twitter, the social messaging network.

“The protesters created their own searchable tag on Twitter, rallying Moldovans to join and propelling events in this small former Soviet state onto a Twitter list of newly popular topics, so people around the world could keep track.”

Can you imagine what the would be revolutionaries of 1968 would have done if there had been an internet? It is harder than ever for oppressive or even simply unpopular governments in developed nations to retain an all encompassing grip on their people thanks to the combination of the internet and mobile phones. The youngest generation, those under twenty-five, have grown up with this technology so it makes sense that they use it for these purposes. What is interesting is how the web will increasingly be used in the future to organize mass movements. I think that tiny Moldova is showing us the wave of the future…

  |  0 trackbacks   |   ( 3 / 1889 )

Photo of the Day #131 
Tuesday, April 7, 2009, 11:49 - Commentary, Photo of the Day
One would think that the issue of the separation of church and state would have been largely settled in what is becoming an increasingly godless Western Europe. But from time to time the big man, or woman depending on your preference, makes an appearance. This time the spotlight moves towards our friends in Germany. We learn more from The Economist.

Vaya con Dios… but whose? Berlin 2007 © Damaso Reyes

“By American standards, German culture wars are mild affairs. A spat in Berlin over teaching religion in schools may be an exception. Next month the city will vote on whether schools should teach the subject as an alternative to an ethics course. The debate is only partly about how God fits into the classroom; it is also about how Muslims fit into Berlin.

“In most of Germany, the constitution already makes religious instruction part of the curriculum (secular students can opt out). But Berlin and two other states are exempt. The city’s godlessness was shaken in 2005 by the “honour killing” of a young Turkish woman. As an antidote, Berlin’s government brought in a non-religious ethics course a year later.

“For Berlin’s beleaguered believers, this was both threat and opportunity. Enrolment in (voluntary) religious classes outside school hours dropped. But some religious folk spotted a chance to sneak in more traditional teaching. Thus was born Pro-Reli, a movement that has festooned Berlin with red-and-white posters demanding “free choice between ethics and religion” and collected 270,000 signatures to force a referendum.”

Should state schools be in the business of providing religious instruction? Of course not. Should religion be taught at all, even as an academic course? I don’t think so. Many who are in favor of teaching religion in schools talk about culture and the Christian historical traditional which is so important to European identity. I point out the reformation and the Inquisition. Schools have much more important things to do with their limited time and even more limited resources than to do the work of the church and it is far, far too easy for such instruction to quickly become proselytizing. I hope that Germans are able to see the light on this issue…

Percentage of those who believe…

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Photo of the Day #130 
Friday, April 3, 2009, 11:37 - Commentary, Photo of the Day

Well it certainly is nice to be back in New York! Spring has arrived and I am enjoying it as much as possible. I can report however that the Guinness at the Dublin airport is tasty, lending credence to the idea that the closer one get’s to St. James’ Gate the better the brew.

Which of course leads us to today’s story about how the European Union plans to give free food to Europe’s poor in an attempt to foster some good feelings among that demographic. We learn much more from

I can has yummies? © Damaso Reyes

“When a poor European sinks his or her teeth into free food from the European Union, it increases that person's support for the EU.

“That at least is one of the arguments used in the European Parliament voting in favour of donating over DKK 3.7 tax kroner in food donations to the poor.

“In the 'Explanations section, in which the background to the proposal is explained, the poor and food are coupled to popular support for the European Union.

"Apart from its benefits in reducing poverty among the Union's most deprived citizens, food distribution changes their relationship and attitude towards the European Union and the Common Agricultural Policy," the section says.

“It goes on to warn that negative attitudes towards the Union risk growing if the EU does not decide to donate food.

"Accordingly, any attempt to abolish the programme or limit its financial resources could produce an adverse public reaction, bolstering the ranks of the Eurosceptics," it says.

Not exactly the most enlightened of arguments but I suppose that one can argue that the mere fact that the E.U. has figured out that it should care about how people view them is a form of progress. Of course no amount of free food is going to really solve the issue at hand: convincing Europeans that the E.U. is a positive force in their lives and that a more integrated Europe is a good thing. This is a small step in that direction but the argument needs to be made much more forcefully if it is going to succeed.

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