Skip to content

Thirty years of pain, ended

On 28 April 1990, my beloved Liverpool Football Club won the English football championship for the 18th time, with a team headlined by the magnificent Kenny Dalglish that also included stars such as Ian Rush, Alan Hansen and John Barnes.

In many other respects, 1990 was a great year for me. In early summer I started a new job, my son had been born the year before, I was still getting used to the collapse of Communism in the country of my birth and the rest of Eastern Europe…a year full of hope and optimism. The Liverpool championship was the icing on the cake, and of course winning championships was something we Liverpool supporters were used to and almost took for granted.

But then the years went by, and new powers such as Manchester United and later Chelsea and Manchester City emerged. Liverpool remained one of the top teams, and they won a number of trophies during the next decades, including the FA Cup, the Champions League (that memorable Miracle in Istanbul in 2005), the UEFA Cup, the League Cup…but not the league. Each season they just did not have the staying power or the luck or the consistency or whatever to win the championship over the course of 38 matches. They came second on several occasions, most painfully in 2014, when the arguably greatest Liverpool player of all times, Steven Gerrard, slipped in a home match against Chelsea, allowing Chelsea’s Demba Ba to score on the way to a 0-2 defeat which effectively ended Liverpool’s chances of winning the championship that year.

But then, in October 2015, Jürgen Klopp arrived at Anfield. He had been a successful manager in his native Germany, and now he came to take Liverpool to the Promised Land. It was not instant. Liverpool made it to the final of the Champions League in 2018 where they lost to Real Madrid. The 2018-2019 campaign was the best in many years, and Liverpool, with their pressing, relentless, magnificent style of play, dominated most of the other teams in the Premier League–as did Manchester City, unfortunately. These two teams were far superior to the rest, but Manchester City turned out just a tiny bit more superior and won the championship by one point. The disappointment was made somewhat less painful by Liverpool’s performance in the Champions League: the 4-0 win over Barcelona at Anfield in the semifinal second leg to erase the 3-0 loss at Nou Camp the week before, followed by the win over Tottenham in the final. But still…I had to resign myself to another year of waiting.

Then came the 2019-2020 season. Liverpool just continued at the same level as the year before. Manchester City did not (they ended up losing an unheard-of 9 matches during the season), and by Christmas Liverpool was 8 points ahead in first place. After the New Year, things got better and better. Finally, on 29 February, Liverpool proved to be human after all, suffering their first loss of the season, to Watford (!). By then, though, they were 22 points ahead at the top of the table, and it was only a matter of time before the championship would be theirs and my 30-year wait would be over.

But then…on 13 March, the Premier League was suspended indefinitely due to the Covid19 pandemic. It was unclear whether the season would be finished later, or simply be cancelled as happened in some other countries, for example the Netherlands. It was almost too much to bear. My Liverpool were 25 points clear with just 9 matches left to play, and all this could be for nothing!

After three anxious months, the season was re-started in June, with empty stadiums and some new rules (5 substitutions per match, a short drinks break midway through each half). It all felt strange. But the football was back and it was real. Liverpool came back with a disappointing 0-0 draw against Everton on 21 June, but this was followed by a 4-0 win over Crystal Palace three days later, which meant that the title would be ours if Chelsea took points off Manchester City on 26 June. How ironic! – the same Chelsea that cost us the championship in 2014 could now give it us in 2020.

In the evening on 26 June I settled down in front of the TV to watch Chelsea-Manchester City. It is the kind of match I would watch anyway–two good teams–but this time it was special because of what was at stake. In the 36th minute, Chelsea went ahead on a great goal by their American player Christian Pulisic. With the halftime score 1-0, I was beginning to think…could it happen tonight? But then, 10 minutes into the second half, Manchester City equalised, thanks to their Belgian superstar Kevin de Bruyne, definitely one of the best players in the world. At that point, I fully expected City to complete the comeback, leaving it for another day for Liverpool to win its title. But in the 75th minute of the match, Manchester City defender Ferdandinho handled the ball, a penalty was awarded, and Chelsea now led 2-1. Fifteen minutes left. Ten minutes left. I began to realise that this was it. Manchester City were not going to score twice in those remaining 10 minutes. My daughter was with me in the living room, and she looked at me with a mix of bemusement and concern when she saw that I had tears in my eyes. But those were tears of joy. A few minutes later, and we were in the Promised Land. Finally.

The formalities were completed at Anfield on 22 July. Liverpool beat Chelsea 5-3 and received the Premier League trophy after the match. Fittingly, the winners’ medals were given to the players by Kenny Dalglish himself, nicely connecting this glorious moment with our glorious past.

You’ll Never Walk Alone was played in the warm summer night and all was well in the world. At least for one evening.

Carmen’s painting

Carmen is the finance manager of our department. She makes sure that our spending is in line with our budget, helps us ensure that our purchases of things such as consulting services and databases are made in compliance with all relevant public procurement regulations, and in general keeps us on the correct side of the law when it comes to spending money.

But Carmen is also an accomplished artist. I got the first hint of it a couple of years ago, when she gave me a homemade Christmas card:

More recently, Carmen asked me for some photos of my late mother’s magic cactus in bloom, which I post from time to time, most recently in May. She wanted to paint it based on my photographs. So I sent her this particular image of the “mother” cactus and its “children” in full glory:

And last week, Carmen sent me the painting she has made based on this image. It is not a literal reproduction of the photograph. Rather, it is Carmen’s interpretation of the subject. I like it very much:


I am fortunate indeed to have such a talented colleague. If you would like to see more of her work, check out her Instagram page: @buganvillasur.


Confinement reading list

During the period of confinement, starting with the declaration of the state of emergency on 14 March, I have been working from home, cooking more than usual, and reading more than usual. The latter partly because I had to stay at home except to buy food and other necessities until early May (at that point daily bicycle rides became possible as well), and partly because there was no football on TV at the weekends, an activity on which I usually spend several hours Saturday and Sunday. We are no longer confined, and the state of emergency will end on Monday, but there are still many restrictions and I will be working from home until September (and that assumes no big “second wave” of infections). So I still consider myself semi-confined and will continue the reading list below until I go back to the office.

So, this is what I have been reading during the confinement. I am fortunate to be able to read all the books below in the original language, but I have provided links to the English translations on Amazon where appropriate.

Johannes V. Jensen: Kongens Fald (1901). A fantastic historical novel by the Danish Nobel Prize winner (1944), taking place in 16th century Denmark, with the 1520 Stockholm Bloodbath as one of the central events. It was elected as the most significant Danish novel of the 20th century in 1999 by two leading Danish newspapers. Available in English at Amazon.

Stanisław Lem: Solaris (1961). Science fiction is not among my preferred genres, but this book has been on my “to read” list for several years, and last year I picked up a new edition during a trip to Poland. It was interesting to read a serious novel in my native Polish, and it was hard to put it down. The richness of the novel lies in the psychological aspects of the main characters, rather than in the technological fantasies that are the focus of much other science fiction. The book is almost psychadelic. Available in English at Amazon.

James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Another classic, meaning a book that has been on my shelf for a long time but which I never got around to reading–until now. And what a book it is! The edition I have is from Oxford’s Word Classics, and there is a 40-page introduction which I frankly wish had been edited down to 10 pages. But once I got into the novel itself, I was transported to late 19th century Ireland and the harsh conditions there. But what the book really brings is the richness of Joyce’s language. It is not an easy read; but it rewards one with phrases such as this, from chapter V, as good a description of a writer’s lack of inspiration as I have ever seen: “His mind bred vermin. His thoughts were lice born of the sweat of sloth.” Reading James Joyce is an effort, but an effort that pays dividends.

Antoni Libera: Madame (1999). A modern classic, as far as I’m concerned. The action takes place during the 1960s and 1970s in Communist Poland, with the central character a secondary school student who falls in love with his French teacher. Sounds like a banal story, but Libera’s description of life in Poland in those dark days and the emotions of the young man are incredibly well crafted. I swallowed the 400-page book in 3 days or so. Available in English at Amazon.

Anne Griffin: When All Is Said (2019). Another Irish miracle. I bought it in Dublin last year, while browsing in a bookshop near Trinity College. It is Griffin’s debut novel. It is simply fantastic. As I write this, I am not done yet–I still have about 70 pages to go, out of a total of 266. But what I have read is sufficient to convince me that Ms. Griffin is a genius. The plot is simple on the surface. Quoting from the back cover: “At the bar of a grand hotel in a small Irish town sits 84-year old Maurice Hannigan. He’s alone, as usual–though tonight is anything but…Over the course of this evening, he will raise five toasts to the five people who have meant the most to him. Through these stories–of unspoken joy and regret, a secret tragedy kept hidden, a fierce love that never found its voice–the life of one man will be powerfully and poignantly laid bare.” This is not false advertising. This is the truth. Do yourself a favour and read this book.

Richard Llewellyn: How Green Was My Valley (1939). A 20th century classic which I just got to now. An epic novel about the hard life in the coal mining community of South Wales in the late 19th century and early 20th century. It is a bit sentimental in places, but gives a poignant and bitter-sweet picture of what once was and is no more. The novel is told through the eyes of Huw Morgan, the son of a local community leader, and it has all the elements of the human condition: love, tragedy, joy, sadness and loss. It ends with the death of Huw’s father during the Tonypandy Riots in 1910; by then, the community in which Morgen had grown up and cherished had been torn apart by economic decline, internal strife and emigration. A sad ending, but a book which gave me understanding of many Welsh traditions and of modern history of a part of the UK of which I am very fond.

And then some works of non-fiction. This one reads like a novel, and is sadly relevant in these times of virulent racism and violence against people of colour, especially in America but also elsewhere. Patrick Phillips: Blood at the Root (2016) describes, in harrowing detail, the lynching of two black men in Forsyth County, Georgia in 1912, followed by the forced expulsion of all black people from the county, a case of ethnic cleansing that persisted until the late 1980s and arguably still persists. If you want to understand the background for the BLM movement, this is as good a place to start as any.

I have always hated John Bolton, a right-wing extremist warmonger. But he is not stupid and has experience from several administrations. So when I saw that the fascist regime in the White House tried to stop the publication of his book, I simply had to buy it, even though I disliked the thought of giving my money to Bolton. I have now read the book, The Room Where It Happened (2020). It is not great literature, and as one might expect from a man who resigned from his job as National Security Advisor in September 2019, the narrative is quite self-serving. But still, the description of the decision process (if one can call it that) in formulating the foreign policy of the world’s most powerful country is positively chilling. And Bolton is a credible witness, precisely because he is ideologically not that far removed from T***p, so his criticism is not coloured by differences over the basic direction of policy. Available everywhere, including Amazon.

I am an economist, and so at least one serious economics book made the confinement reading list. Unfortunately, it is only available in Danish. The book is Økonomien og virkeligheden (“The economy and reality”) by Katarina Juselius, professor emeritus at the University of Copenhagen. It is not an academic treatise, but it does treat the serious question of the inadequacy of the economic models used by the Danish government (and most other governments) to analyse the effects of proposed policies. In her view, those models make too many simplifying assumptions and thereby miss the impact of structural features of the economy, such as the huge expansion of the financial sector following the deregulation of the past decades. The book was published in 2019 by Informations Forlag. To learn more about her research, have a look at her Copenhagen University web page (in English), and if you are really hard core, look for her 2006 book on Co-Integrated Vector Autoregressive (CVAR) models. Her message is important: we economists must study the real world and not get lost in mathematically elegant but fundamentally flawed theoretical models.

In early September I finished Paul Kriwaczek’s Yiddish Civilisation: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation (2005). What prompted me to pick up the book was a question from my wife: how did the Jews come to Eastern Europe, so far from their Middle Eastern origins? Shamefully, I did not know the answer, even though this is where my origins are, my father having been born in Lublin, Poland. Kriwaczek, the son of Viennese Jews who escaped to Switzerland and then Britain just in the nick of time in the late 1930s, clearly has done a lot of research for this great book. He starts with the beginning–Roman times–and tells the story of how Jews spread across the Roman empire and indeed the influence they had on Europe’s cultural and economic development in the subsequent 1500 years. This is a part of the story that is rarely told–the story of Yiddish-speaking Jews usually starts with the poverty and persecution in the Pale of Settlement in the 19th century and the tragedy of the 20th; but there is so much more to it that I simply never knew before I read this book. In the final chapter, we are taken to London’s Brick Lane, a street which has housed immigrants for centuries, as illustrated by a building that started life a Huguenot church, then was converted to a Methodist chapel, then became a synagogue and is now a mosque in what is today a Bangladeshi neighbourhood, the Jews having moved up and out to the suburbs. The book is available here.

A much lighter work of non-fiction is Bill Bryson: Notes from a Small Island (1995). Another book which I have had on my shelf for ages but only got around to reading this summer. Bryson, originally from the American mid-West, had come to England in 1973 and lived there for more than two decades. Before moving back to the US with his English wife, he embarked on a valedictory journey from the south coast to northern Scotland, and most of the book is a recounting of that journey. For an Anglophile like me, this is wonderful, light reading. At risk for providing “too much information”, I kept the book in the toilet. Its short chapters are ideal for reading while sitting on the throne; it would seem sacrilegious to read the other books listed here in such circumstances, but this book is ideal for this purpose. And I mean it as a compliment.

Another light book I just finished is Ned Boulting’s How I Won the Yellow Jumper (2011). Boulting covered the Tour de France of Britain’s ITV from 2003 onwards. He was a well-known football commentator at the time with no prior experience with  professional cycling. The title of the book refers to a mistake he made during one of his first broadcasts from the 2003 Tour in which he mis-named the Yellow Jersey. But he learned quickly, and the book is an entertaining mix of chapters about individual cyclists (Cavendish, Armstrong, Wiggins, Contador etc.) and stories about life as a reporter covering the tour: the modest hotels, food that ranges from sublime to awful, toilet facilities, everything is revealed. I think this book would make good summer reading even for people who are not into cycling.

If you want to see what we have cooked during the confinement, you can look here.

Some airlines suck, others don’t

It is often said that the true customer service ethos of a company becomes visible in difficult times. And when it comes to travel, we are currently living in very difficult times indeed. Like millions of other people, I have had to cancel several trips this spring, and the way those cancellations were handled will certainly influence my choices when travel becomes possible again.

Exhibit 1: Iberia. This is an airline I have criticised heavily in the past, even to the point of acquiring the domain after a cancelled flight in 2015. But living in Spain, it is impossible to avoid it, and so in mid-February we bought tickets from Alicante via Madrid to Puerto Rico for my wife and daughter to go there for a family event in early April. As the various shutdowns mounted but before the flights had been formally cancelled, Iberia sent me various e-mails offering first a voucher for other flights, good until the end of the year, later improved to be valid until 31 March 2021. At some point in March the flights were finally cancelled, and Iberia sent me the voucher offer yet again. They also made it very easy to get the voucher: all one had to do was go to their web site, fill in a simple form, and the voucher would be issued immediately. But I did not want a voucher; I wanted a refund. The amount involved was substantial, about 1100 Euro, and I preferred the money to a voucher which I might or might not use. The catch, however, was that to get the refund one had to phone Iberia’s customer service number, which of course was overloaded. After spending hours listening to music on the phone, I decided to contact Iberia via their Facebook page instead. And that worked very well. I sent them a message on 30 March, they replied the next day, and on 1 April I received confirmation of the refund by e-mail. Within the week the money was refunded to the credit card I had used to buy the tickets. So finally, not great but acceptable service here.

Exhibit 2: SAS. As I do every year, I was going to Denmark in April, and my sister, who lives in Poland, was going to join me there for a few days. I had bought her ticket from Poland to Denmark on SAS. Again, as was the case with Iberia, SAS initially offered me a voucher etc., but once the flight was cancelled, it was easy to apply for a refund online, and on 30 March I received a confirmation of that refund by e-mail. The next day and again about a week later SAS sent me apologetic e-mails in which they explained that due to the high number of cancellations it was taking longer than normal to process the refunds, but that I would get my money back eventually. A few days ago I got tired of waiting and contacted SAS via the chat function on their web site. I actually chatted with a human, not a bot, and I was told that on that day they were processing refunds from 11 March, meaning that it would be between 2 and 3 weeks before they got to 30 March and my refund. But I am confident that it will processed without any problems, so I will just be patient.

Exhibit 3: Ryanair. This is an airline with a reputation for bad service. I do not actually dislike them as much as some people do. Yes, it is a budget airline and the ambience on board is not great, but they have a good safety record and are quite punctual–their business model depends on that. And as with Iberia, given where I live, it is difficult to avoid Ryanair. And so for my own trip to Denmark (see above) I bought a Ryanair ticket to Copenhagen and a ticket back from Billund. I also booked a car rental via Ryanair. So when it became clear that I would not be travelling, but before Ryanair had cancelled the flights, I first cancelled the car rental. That was done online, without any fuss, and the deposit I had paid was credited promptly. But the flights…the cancellation finally was announced on 24 March, and as with the other airlines, Ryanair tried to get me to accept a voucher in which I was not interested. I asked for a refund (at least that could be done online too) and on 28 March I received an e-mail informing me that due to the high volume, the refunds would be long in coming etc. OK. But then, on 20 April, I receive, out of the blue, an e-mail from Ryanair with a voucher code! They are trying to trick me to accept some stupid voucher instead of a refund. I immediately tried calling their customer service–hopeless. I tried the chat on their web site–equally hopeless. I finally contacted them via Facebook, similarly to what I had done with Iberia. They reacted quickly and asked for the details of my cancelled reservation, which I provided, but now 2 days have passed and I have had no further communication from them. I am not sure if I will get my money back or will have to make do with the voucher–the amount is modest so financially it would not do much damage, but it is truly annoying and leads me to conclude that Ryanair sucks, well and truly.

So, of these three airlines, SAS wins for the best communication, Iberia wins for refunding my money the fastest, while Ryanair loses on both counts.

Update (August 2020)

SAS continued to stall by sending me apologetic e-mails from time to time, and in July they offered a voucher good for a year, even some extra incentives thrown in. But I wanted my money back, not a voucher, and finally, on 7 August, the money was refunded to my credit card, more than 4 months late.

Ryanair refunded one of my flights on 23 June. The other refund did not work using the link on their website, for reasons that escape me to this day. In the end, I ended up using that voucher for a flight in October. Keeping fingers crossed, obviously, given the 2nd wave of the epidemic we are having here in Spain.

So, the final ranking of these three airlines has to be revised a bit. Iberia still wins because they refunded the money quickly–in fact, it was the only one of the three airlines that gave me my refund within the timeframe foreseen in EU regulations. Ryanair still had the worst communications, but at least they refunded one of the two tickets in June–way too late, but much better than SAS. SAS is a disgrace: not only were they far slower than the other two airlines, but they were even the beneficiary of a state rescue package from the governments of Sweden and Denmark, so they certainly had the cash! I will not use them again if I can avoid it.






A sad day

At midnight, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. From my point of view, as an Anglophile European, this is a tragedy. It will diminish the EU, most obviously by removing the second-largest member state with its almost 70 million people and a vibrant economy. It will damage the UK, of course, maybe even leading to a breakup of the country. It will carry a heavy economic cost, both in the UK and on the Continent. But to me, personally, the greatest damage is on the emotional level.

As far as I can remember, I have loved all things British. Even as I child in Communist Poland in the 1960s, I was taught in school about the heroism of the people of London during the Blitz and the Battle of Britain (not least because of the contribution made by Polish pilots). My older sister listened to the Beatles. I dreamed of visiting London some day…

As a teenager in Denmark in the 1970s, the music I listened to was all from England: Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zep, The Who, David Bowie–all my favourite bands were British. Later in the 1970s, I embraced punk, even convincing my music teacher in high school to acquire music by the Sex Pistols for the school’s record collection. At the same time, every year I wholeheartedly enjoyed The Last Night of the Proms on Danish TV and sang along with Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory. And some time in the early 70s, I fell in love with Liverpool Football Club, a love that has endured to this day and will be with me till the day I die. In history lessons in school, we listened to a recording of a BBC broadcast from 4th May 1945, announcing to the people of Denmark that the German forces in the Netherlands, north-west Germany and Denmark had surrendered to Field Marshall Montgomery. The British army had liberated our country from five years of German occupation.

English is the language we speak at home. It is the mother tongue of my children. When my son had to choose where to go to university, he chose to study in England (we were living in the Netherlands at the time). In 2013, I had the enormous privilege to attend my son’s graduation from the University of Bath, held at Bath Abbey–a more magnificent setting I cannot imagine. And my daughter too studied in the UK, in Cardiff, which gave me the opportunity to get to know the wonderful country that is Wales.

In my office I have pictures of my wife and children, as many people do. But I also have a portrait of Winston Churchill, the man who saved Europe in the darkest hour. And then, I woke up that morning in June 2016 and saw the results of the referendum. I was in shock. How could this happen? How could the people that had given us some of the greatest thinkers, artists, statesmen of the past 1000 years come to such a disastrous, stupid, self-defeating decision? And how could it be that they chose an unprincipled buffoon to lead their government and a deranged Trotskyist to lead the main opposition party? There are all kinds of socio-economic factors that can be invoked as explanations. But for me, it is as if someone I love had decided to reject me.

I will continue to love the Beatles and Liverpool Football Club–the latter a manifestation of a UK that is open to the outside world: a team coached by a German, with star players from England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Brazil, Egypt, Senegal. I will continue to listen to the BBC every day. And I hope against hope that one day the British people will reconsider their ill-fated decision of 2016.





Tomorrow, I am going to Helsinki (a business trip). I know Finland’s capital reasonably well. Back in the 1990s I worked for a company that had some of the biggest Finnish companies as customers, and I travelled to Helsinki for meetings on many occasions. I like the city, even though visiting there in the winter can be quite bracing, to put it mildly. But that is not what this post is about.

My maternal grandmother was Finnish. As a very young girl, just before the Russian revolution, she married a Russian officer and settled with him in St. Petersburg, which was soon to become Leningrad, where my mother was born in 1923. I remember my mother telling me of cross-country ski trips to Finland when she was a teenager, but then World War II put an end to all that, and since then, my mother never visited Finland. My grandmother died in the 1980s, also without ever setting foot in her native country.

During the period in the 1990s when I was making all those business trips to Finland, I got the idea of taking my mother on a trip there so that she could see the country of her mother’s birth. We talked about it on numerous occasions, but it was not until early 2001 that we finally fixed a date, in June of that year, and I booked the flight and the hotel. But then, that winter my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer with no prospect of effective treatment. She died in late April 2001.

In dealing with the sorrow and the many practical issues following my mother’s death, the planned trip to Finland was one of the items. The whole purpose was to show my mother the place, something which had obviously been rendered moot by her death. But I decided to go anyway, with my father, in a way to honour the memory of my mother. And so we did, and we spent a couple of interesting days in Helsinki, and also drove to the town of Kotka where my grandmother was born (that, and her maiden name Eklund, are the only things I know about her Finnish origins). We had lunch in Kotka, and I remember looking in a phone book at a payphone to see if I could find some people with the surname Eklund, but no luck.

So that was the last time I was in Finland, now more than 18 years ago. Tomorrow evening I will be in Helsinki again, and despite the forecast of freezing weather, I look forward to it. Very much.

Update after the trip: it turned out that Helsinki really spoke to me in a way that I had not anticipated. As I was walking around the cold, dark, empty streets, I felt the joy of recognition of familiar places. A pictorial record can be seen here.


A moving episode in Kraków

Last week I spent a few days in Kraków, attending a major conference on innovation and intellectual property, arranged by the Patent Office of the Republic of Poland. It was an excellent conference and my hosts were most gracious. But that is not what this post is about.

On Friday afternoon, I had some free time which I used to walk around Kazimierz, the neighbourhood which before the war housed many of Kraków’s 80,000 Jews. Most of them perished in the Holocaust, and Kazimierz was neglected by the Communist authorities after 1945. During the post-Communist years, interest in the Jewish heritage has increased markedly (and there has been a bit of a revival of the Jewish community), driven partly by idealism and partly by hard-nosed business considerations; sites such as Schindler’s factory are major tourist attractions, and there are several restaurants in Kazimierz serving Jewish food, putting on Kletzmer music performances and so on.

But I was just randomly walking the streets, looking for signs of the life that was once lived here. Suddenly I was intrigued by this sign on a modest building:


The paper simply reads “Mordechai Gebirtig poetry workshop”. Intrigued, I looked down through the window. One could see a studio of some sort and some sheets of paper, apparently for the taking:


Sticking my lens through the bars, I could see that indeed, the inside was a shrine to a local poet:


The papers in the windowsill provided the explanation of who Gebirtig was and the motives of the people who are fighting hard to maintain his memory. The explanation was provided in Polish and in English, and you can read either using the links below. If you can read Polish, I recommend reading the beautiful poem “I had a home” in the original, Polish version, but the background is more fully explained in the English version (which also contains a translation of the poem).



Coming across this little memorial was the most moving experience of my trip to Kraków.

Update November 2018: by sheer coincidence, I listened to another one of  Gebirtig’s poems today on a CD of Kletzmer music. It is called “Es Brent” (“It’s burning”) and is about a pogrom in 1936. The song is sad and beautiful and foretells the disaster that was to befall Gebirtig’s people just a few years later. You can listen to it (and read the lyrics) here.


Why the fascists could win in November

For the past two years, like most reasonable people, I have despaired about the direction taken by the world’s most powerful country (to which I happen to be closely connected). The hope was that the opposition would mobilise to win a majority in Congress in this November’s midterm elections, with a view towards a turnaround in the presidential election in 2020. But what I see so far this year largely extinguishes this hope.

My main gauge of political sentiment in the US is social media, and in particular the posts by my many progressive friends and by progressive movements in general. The vast majority of those posts are about how bad the current fascist regime is: corrupt, evil, etc. I share those feelings 100%. The problem is that to win elections, you have to put forward a positive agenda for the voters. And so far I have not seen one from the progressive wing of the Democratic party, except for various fantasies from Bernie’s friends. Criticizing T***p for using words such as “nigger” or “pussy” only reinforces his appeal to the people who voted for him in 2016–because they use those words in their daily discourse and therefore interpret the orange head’s use of the same words as proof that he is a regular guy just like them. Likewise, droning on about impeachment which is just not going to happen given the configuration of the House, is not going to win any votes. The average person does not relate to alleged interference in elections through fake news on Facebook and he (because most of the time it is a he) does not care whether Putin helped T***p win in November 2016.

Elections are won with positive messages: “ask not what you can do for your country”, “morning in America” or “yes, we can”. So far I have not heard anything like that from the current crop of potential candidates. I fear for another six years of this madness. If I were religious, I would hope for a fatal heart attack or a thunder strike on the golf course…but since I am not, I just despair.



My encounter with Danish medicine

On 27 August, my best friend Lars and I set out to cycle a 300 km brevet, a route in central and northern Jutland starting and ending in Aarhus. A brevet is a type of bicycle event where you do not race against others but simply have to complete a given route within the time limit, checking in at various control points along the route (which can take the form of buying something in a shop or withdrawing money from an ATM, so as to have a receipt to prove that you were there at the specific time). The time limit for a 300 km brevet is 20 hours, but from previous experience, Lars and I expected to make it in about 15 hours, so that, having started at 8 a.m., we would be home around 11 p.m. to enjoy a well-deserved cold beer. The weather was cool but dry as we set out on our ride. I was a bit unsure whether I would make it; I have done a 300 km brevet before, but this time I had been battling with a nagging knee inflammation for a couple of weeks, and I was wondering whether my knee would hold up during so many hours of riding. But once I got going, my confidence increased. There was pain but it was manageable.

The landscapes of central Jutland were pretty:


We completed the first 100 km with a hot dog at Himmelbjerget, the second-tallest point in Jutland (not saying much). This was also a control point, so I made sure to keep the receipt from the kiosk. And then we turned north. After 132 km, we stopped for coffee at a supermarket in a village called Ans. While there, I noticed that my lower lip had swollen for some reason–I had not felt any insect bites but something must have caused it. It did not look pretty (and actually, it looked a lot worse outside the supermarket, this photo was taken after I had already received drugs to make the swelling go down).


Lars did not like the look of my lip, so he called the doctor on duty (vagtlægen, reachable on the same number anywhere in Denmark) to ask about possible over-the-counter remedies we could buy in the supermarket. However, once he explained my symptoms, the doctor told him that given that I was apparently suffering an allergic reaction to something, and given that the swelling was near my mouth, he was concerned that it may spread to my throat, and not being able to breathe is not healthy–so he was going to send an ambulance for me right away. They sure take allergic reactions seriously in Denmark!

This was a real bummer; the leg I had been worried about was OK but my brevet was being cut short by some unknown Danish insect. But there was nothing I could do. So while Lars was phoning his brother to arrange the logistics of returning our bicycles to our home base in Aarhus (about 50 km to the south), we waited for the ambulance. Here I am removing the handlebar bag from my bicycle to take it with me to the hospital:


The ambulance arrived after about 10-15 minutes, with a doctor in a separate car to have a look at me:


In the ambulance, they inserted the IV, gave me some drugs per the doctor’s instructions, did an electrocardiogram, and took me to the nearest hospital, in the town of Viborg, about 20 km away. During the ambulance ride, I was chatting with the nurse who was taking down some basic information, including my CPR number (a Danish identity number that is the key to accessing all public services). I said that I lived in Spain and although I am a Danish citizen, I am not in the Danish public health insurance system, but that was irrelevant–they told me that they were worried about the medical aspects of our transaction, not the administrative ones.

In the hospital, additional tests were done, I was given some more medications and kept for observation for about 2-3 hours. I was not happy about not being able to complete the ride, but I was grateful for the medical attention I was receiving.


It all ended well. The allergic reaction was controlled, and after checking a few more things and giving me some more drugs (including some to take over the next 3 days), they discharged me. By 9 p.m., Lars and I were back in Aarhus (as were our bicycles), eating pizza and drinking beer.

I have only good things to say about Danish medicine–this was my first interaction with it since my father died in 2004–both the ambulance crew and the people at the hospital were superb on this Sunday evening, and the issue of payment or insurance was not even mentioned by them. I did mention, as I had in the ambulance, that I did not live in Denmark and had an EU employee medical cover rather than the normal Danish sygesikring, but they were completely uninterested in the financial aspects–all they cared about was the patient. To this day, two months later, I have not received any kind of invoice, and I doubt that I ever will.

On the other hand, within a couple of days, all the details of my ambulance ride and hospital visit were accessible to me on the Danish health service portal, so that if I need to share any of the tests or information about the treatment I received with my doctor here in Spain, I can just print it out.

This is what medicine looks like when it is regarded as a basic human right and not something that exists primarily to make a profit for someone. My heartfelt thanks to the people at Regionshospitalet Viborg and the ambulance service of Region Midtjylland for the superb care they gave me on that Sunday in August. Tusind tak!



When bad people do good things

Recently, I posted some photos from Copenhagen’s Churchill Park on my weekly photo blog. For me, Churchill is the greatest figure of the 20th century, the man who stood up to Hitler at the darkest hour in 1940, when Britain was all alone, with the Continent occupied, America neutral, and Hitler conquering all before him. But then I got an e-mail from a friend in India. For him, Churchill was not a great man. He viewed him as a butcher in the same league as Hitler and Stalin, because of his role in colonial India and in particular the Bengal famine. This is a side of Churchill of which I knew little or nothing until my friend from Chennai made me aware of it. What it does show me is that history is complex. Churchill still is a great man in my eyes but I recognise that not everyone will share my perspective.

In a similar vein, the world of art, entertainment and sports is full of good people and bad people, just like the rest of society. This raises the question (for me, anyway): how to deal with a great performer/creater who is also a bigot, a racist, an extreme right-winger, or similar scum.

Of course, if the artist in question is no good, there is no problem. For example, Mel Gibson is an utterly disgusting character, but since his films are by and large forgettable garbage, it is no sacrifice for me to ignore him.

No, the problematic cases are those people whose work I admire but who have despicable traits or views that are anathema to me. Take the great Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, for example. His novel Sult (“Hunger”) is one of the great pieces of world literature, and his Nobel Prize in 1920 was thoroughly deserved. But alas, Hamsun was also a Nazi. Not just a Nazi sympathiser but someone who met with senior figures, up to and including Hitler, and who was unrepentent even after the war (he died in 1952). His mastery of the language is such that even his last work, Paa Gjengrodde Stier (“On Overgrown Paths”) from 1949 makes for great literature despite its defense of his repugnant views during the war.

Or take Ernest Hemingway, probably my favourite writer of all. In this excellent article in the Jewish Forward, Mary Dearborn discusses the very dilemma that is the subject of this post. Hemingway was clearly an anti-Semite, as were many Americans in the 1920s or 1930s. As Dearborn notes, however, later Hemingway showed his strong anti-Fascist stance, beginning with the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), which for many serves as a mitigating circumstance and is certainly in contrast to Hamsun. I conclude as Dearborn does: we should continue reading Hemingway, but we should also not close our eyes to the nasty aspects.

Things become even more complex when I consider Wagner, Hitler’s favourite composer. Obviously, given that Wagner died in 1883, I cannot blame him for the rise of Nazism 50 years later. But the connection is still there because of Wagner’s anti-Semitic writings and the nature of his music. And so, despite the undeniable merits of his operas and other compositions, I shun Wagner. It is wholly irrational, I know.

So what is the point of this post? Not much except to say that the world is complex and things are rarely black & white. Most of the time, they are a shade of grey.