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Why I am a monarchist

In connection with the death of Queen Elizabeth II the other day, some of my American friends on Facebook have posted various messages expressing their befuddlement over the persistence of monarchy in modern, democratic countries such as the United Kingdom. This post is an attempt to answer them, with reference to my country, Denmark, ruled for 50 years now by Queen Margrethe (Margaret) II.

First, let us define a few terms. Every country has a head of state and a head of government. In most cases, the head of state performs mostly ceremonial duties and even if initially elected by the people or the parliament, is generally not part of the political process. The head of government (usually known as the Prime Minister, occasionally by other titles such as Chancellor in Germany and Austria) is the political leader. In democratic countries, the head of state is either elected (directly or by the parliament) or a hereditary monarch. Examples of the former system include Germany, Finland, Italy, Israel or Ireland. Those countries have presidents, but the real political power is exercised by their prime ministers.

A number of European countries have retained their monarchies. In this context it should be noted that historically, most countries were monarchies; those monarchies came to an end usually as a result of some violent event: the French Revolution, Germany’s defeat in World War I, the Irish war of independence in the early 20th century, and so on. But in countries including the Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Norway, Sweden), Benelux (Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands) and of course the UK and a few others, the monarchy has survived, albeit in a very different version compared to what existed 200 years ago (other countries around the world are monarchies too, of course, but I am restricting my discussion to democratic countries, thus ignoring dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia).

In a few democracies the roles of head of state and head of government are merged into one office, the president. The most prominent examples include France and the United States. I believe that the fact that the US head of state also has real executive power is one reason why Americans confuse the European monarchies with what their forebears overthrew in 1776. They do not fully appreciate this distinction between the roles of head of state and head of government, because it does not exist in their country (which in my view is very dangerous, as is illustrated by the behaviour of the US president from 2016 to 2020, including the attempted coup d’état in 2021).

With this as a background, let me describe the monarchy in Denmark as I see it, and what it means for me.

Queen Margrethe II ascended to the throne in 1972, following the death of her father Frederik IX. She is extremely popular in our country, including among people on the left whom one might normally expect to be republicans. As is the case with other European monarchs, her duties are largely ceremonial. While she formally names the government and meets the prime minister regularly, she never comments on any political issue. In short, she is above politics, which is precisely what gives her a certain moral standing when she does speak about issues such as racism and the need to make room for everyone in our multicultural society as it exists today (as she has in the past, during her New Years Eve address).

On a practical level, the Queen is extremely useful in promoting Denmark abroad, much more so than an elected president would be. When she travels to another country on an official visit, there is always a large delegation of business people accompanying her, taking advantage of the occasion to sign contracts etc. This is vulgar in some sense, but such export promotion is not to be sniffed at. Furthermore the Queen is an educated and artistic person, speaks several languages, has translated French literature into Danish, choreographed ballet, and engaged in other artistic endeavours.

But the main reason why I revere Queen Margrethe has nothing to do with these practical considerations or even with her as a person. What I revere is what she represents–more than 1000 years of history of a unified Denmark, tracing her ancestry to the 10th century king Gorm the Old. The previous Queen Margrethe, the first, ruled in the late 14th and early 15th century and established the Kalmar Union, uniting Denmark, Norway and Sweden for more than a century. It is this continuity of my country, despite all the changes, some for the better, some for the worse, that the monarchy represents and this is why I, along with the vast majority of Danes, value the institution.

To be sure, the monarchy has evolved too. The next king, Crown Prince Frederik, is married to an Australian TV personality, has served in the military and is an avid runner, having participated in the New York City marathon among other events. His younger brother, Prince Joachim, also has had a military career, attended the École Militaire in France and is now the military attaché at the Danish embassy in Paris. Still, it is the Queen who matters. And the fact that throughout her 50-year reign, she has conducted herself with dignity, humanity and skill of course contributes to the continuing support for the monarchy in Denmark.

This is another fact about constitutional monarchies in the 21st century: their survival is dependent on the behaviour of the people who occupy the post. For example, in Spain, King Juan Carlos I, while credited with helping squash an attempted military coup in 1981, thoroughly ruined his reputation in his later years via dubious business dealings and unsavoury behaviour (shooting elephants in Africa, for example), and was compelled to abdicate in favour of his son Felipe in 2014. The British monarchy has undoubtedly been damaged by scandals such as Prince Andrew’s association with Jeffrey Epstein. In Denmark, while there have been some mild controversies, they have been nothing on this scale, and the Kingdom of Denmark will remain a kingdom for the foreseeable future.

I do not advocate countries that are republics today should adopt constitutional monarchy. I think that it is a one-way street: once you get rid of the monarchy, there is no bringing it back. But for the old countries in Europe like Denmark, to retain the monarchy is the right choice.


Francesc Català-Roca

I learned of the Catalan photographer Francesc Català-Roca from my friend in Barcelona, Lluis Ripoll, himself an eminent photographer (you can explore some of his work on the Leica Users Group gallery). Inspired by Lluis, I bought a newly published book of Català-Roca’s photographs from the excellent online bookshop La Fábrica in Madrid. That book contains more than 200 images, many of which are currently (until 18 September 2022) being shown in cultural centre El Águila in Madrid as part of the PhotoEspaña 2022 photography festival. The PhotoEspaña catalogue describes his work as follows:

Today, one hundred years after his birth, Francesc Català-Roca (Valls, Tarragona, 1922 – Barcelona, 1998) is universally revered as on of the founding fathers of humanist documentary photography in post-war Spain. He consolidated his style in the 1950s, a personal approach marked by a distinctive gaze that was manifested in his positioning of the camera, with precise frames that avoided frontality, his use of high- and low-angles, his mastery of light, his quest for balance and incorporation of dynamic movement, and his great love and empathy for his subjects. Català-Roca managed to combine the technical expertise acquired during the years working in his father’s laboratory with his knowledge of the photographic trends of the interwar years, and used that compendium to create photographs that bore witness to the reality of his homeland. His efforts materialised in remarkable projects such as his photo essays on Madrid and Barcelona, published by Destino in 1954 which, if not for the political circumstances in Spain, still quite isolated at the time, would certainly have been included among the greatest urban photography books.

I went to Madrid last week to spend a day visiting photo exhibitions, and I started with the Català-Roca exhibition, called La lucidez de la mirada (“the lucid gaze”). I cannot recall visiting a photography exhibition in recent years that had such an impact on me. I had seen the images in the book, but to see them in real life was a revelation. In the photo below you get an idea of the size of the prints–Català-Roca used mainly a 6×6 cm Hasselblad or a 9×12 cm view camera. The prints on display are recently made copies, but all are traditional silver gelatine prints, faithful to the craft of the photographer.

Visiting La lucidez de la mirada

So what made such an impression on me? I have seen exhibitions of works by most 20th century masters of urban photography (e.g. Cartier-Bresson, Winogrand, Friedlander etc.). They are great. But Català-Roca combines the same vision with exquisite craftsmanship that is unparalleled. Every image is carefully crafted, with exquisite attention to composition, light, everything. This is simply fantastic work. The blurb I quote above is spot on: Català-Roca had the misfortune of living in a culturally backward, Fascist dictatorship, and so his work did not get on the radar screen of the cognoscenti in New York or Paris until late in life. For me there is no doubt: Català-Roca was one of the two-three greatest photographers of the 20th century. If you can make it to Madrid before 18 September, go and see the exhibition. If not, buy the book.

As a bonus, when I was leaving the exhibition, I stopped for a brief chat with the lady at the welcome desk (there is no ticket counter since entry is free), and it turned out that she had her little helper with her.

Roe v. Wade, or how NOT to make laws

I am a bit hesitant writing this blog entry. My progressive friends may get upset, given the current political climate in the US. So, just to make sure: I fully support a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. I consider the so-called “pro-life” movement a bunch of right-wing hypocrites who care about fetuses more than about actual living children and their welfare. This post is therefore not an attack on abortion rights. Rather, it is a criticism of the way those rights were instituted in the US in the 1970s.

Abortion is an important public policy issue, and like other important public policy issues it should be decided through the political process. In democratic countries, this means an act of the legislature or a referendum. This is how abortion became legal in most democratic countries. The debate is always difficult, since abortion is an issue that involves religious beliefs, women’s rights, ethics and so on. In my country, Denmark, abortion became legal through an act of Parliament in 1973. The opposition was strong and emotional. The photo below shows two of about 30 Lutheran priests who were in the spectators’ gallery, praying for the law to be voted down. In the end, free access to abortion became law with a narrow margin of 96 votes for in the 179-seat Folketing.

Another example is Switzerland, one of the last European countries to make abortion universally available. This happened through a referendum in 2002. Most recently, abortion became legal in Ireland in 2018. In the then West Germany, abortion became legal in 1974 through an act of the Bundestag (although it was later struck down by the Constitutional Court and had to be revised in 1976). East Germany actually had more liberal abortion laws, enacted in 1972, and after German reunification, the two sets of legislations were reconciled in 1992.

The point of all this is to illustrate that important social issues like abortion are resolved through the political process in all democratic countries–with one glaring exception. In the USA, abortion became legal through the Roe v. Wade decision of the US Supreme Court in 1973. The court decided, by a 7-2 majority, that the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution guaranteed a woman’s right to have an abortion. Predictably, in the 50 years since that decision, abortion has been and continues to be one of the most contentious and polarising issues in American politics. While in other countries the issue more or less goes away once it is resolved in the political arena, in the USA it has continued to poison public life in many ways. Women who seek abortions and the clinics that provide them are subject to threats (some of which are occasionally carried out), countless confrontations occur in the political arena and elsewhere. This is no way to make laws.

And now, the US Supreme Court has a clear anti-choice majority. It is only a question of time before Roe v. Wade is either overturned outright or significantly weakened. While I think this is a bad thing, I do not share the view that it is the disaster many on the American left think it is. The issue will end up in the political arena in the various states, and this is how it should be in a democracy. Laws should be made by the people and their elected representatives, not by 9 unelected judges. This does not mean that there is no role for the Supreme Court. Its job is to interpret the laws passed by the legislatures and strike down those that go against the Constitution, as it did, for example, in the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, in which it ruled that racially segregated schools are inherently unequal and therefore their existence violates the Constitution.

So what will happen if Roe v. Wade is overturned? In some states abortion will be legal, in a few it will be made illegal. That is unfortunate but that is the nature of the federal system in the USA. There are differences among the states in many other important areas, including some that literally involve life and death: some states have the death penalty, others don’t; some states allow euthanasia, others don’t; some states have no income tax; some states allow recreational use of marijuana, and so on.

As much as I hate to agree with conservatives on anything, I do agree on this: courts should enforce laws, not make them.

21 August 2021

Yesterday was an anniversary of a defining event from my childhood and more importantly, a defining event for our continent, largely ignored by the media amid the chaos of Afghanistan.

Still: one this day in 1968, more than half a million troops from the Soviet Union, Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary invaded Czechoslovakia to put a violent end to the Prague Spring, Alexander Dubček’s reforms begun in January 1968, an attempt to create “socialism with a human face” by retaining the socialist economy but giving people freedom of speech, freedom to travel, and other elements of a decent life that we in Western Europe had enjoyed since 1945 and before.

This was not something the Soviet Union could accept, and after unsuccessful attempts to get Dubček to change course, the matter was resolved militarily. The Czech people resisted bravely but there is only so much people with bare hands can do against tanks, and in a few weeks darkness descended once again on the country.

My personal memory is this. In September 1968 I started second grade in Wrocław, the city in south-western Poland where I lived. On a sunny day in late September we schoolchildren were commandeered out into the streets of Wrocław to greet our returning soldiers, who were coming home after “saving socialism” in the neighbouring Czechoslovakia. We were equipped with little Polish flags and told to wave them as the army rolled by.

Even though I was just 7 years old, my parents had told me enough for me to know that this was all a lie. During the following years, they continued to educate me to counter the propaganda I was fed at school–I still remember nightly sessions of listening to Radio Free Europe at home, despite the persistent attempts by the authorities to jam the broadcasts. And less than 4 years later we left all that behind and emigrated to Denmark.

In retrospect, the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia was the beginning of the end of the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, but it would take another 21 years for the system to collapse, with untold suffering and misery endured by those on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. That is why this is an anniversary that needs to be remembered.

An interview with Joseph Weismann

My uncle in Le Mans, Joseph Weismann, turned 90 in June. He is the senior member of our family, and one of only two with personal memories of World War II. He was born in Paris in 1931 and lived with his parents and two sisters in a modest apartment in Montmartre. In July 1942, like thousands of other French Jews, he and his family were arrested by French gendarmes from the Vichy regime. They were held for a few days in a Paris velodrome, Vel d’Hiv, before being transferred to an internment camp from where they were deported to Auschwitz and killed there, including Joseph’s parents and sisters. He escaped from the internment camp with another boy and survived the war posing as a French village boy in the Loire valley. After the liberation, he ended up in Le Mans where he has lived ever since. The story of Joseph’s miraculous escape and survival was the subject of a 2010 film, La Raffle (The Roundup). More recently, Joseph has told his life story in a book, After the Roundup.

As he does every year, Joseph spoke during the commemoration of the roundup on the square in Le Mans which houses the prefecture and several monuments. So during that week, we had a small family reunion, with us driving up from Spain, my uncle and cousin from Florida also came with their respective spouses, and we had a few fun and emotional days. The commemoration of the roundup was held on Sunday the 18th, and the day before, a nice interview with Joseph was published in the local newspaper Le Maine Libre.

The interview in the original French is here:

I have also translated the article into English since most of the family outside France do not speak French:

November 3rd, 2020

The presidential election in the USA is an important event not just for people who live there, but for the entire world, given the USA’s role as the world’s (still) biggest economy and (still) pre-eminent military power; but also the source of much popular culture around the world, something unlikely to be matched by rising powers such as China in the foreseeable future, if ever. I have a personal interest as well: my son and daughter-in-law live there, in addition to my uncle, three cousins and their children. My wife is from Puerto Rico, a US territory, and most of her family lives on the island. So my interest in the election is both political and personal. That is true every year, but it was even more true in 2020.

The incumbent president’s four-year rule since his shocking victory in 2016 has been even worse than feared. The nature of his regime: the breathtaking corruption, the nasty tone of the discourse (if one can call it that), the total disregard for professionalism and science in all aspects of policy, the snubbing of democratic allies and the cuddling of autocrats, the evil to which immigrants and vulnerable groups were subjected…the list is endless. I do not use such words lightly, but the administration of the 45th president of the United States had many characteristics of a fascist regime.

For that reason, Biden’s victory is a huge event. There are many problems facing the country, and one could reasonably ask why anyone would be prepared to take on the job! And one must be realistic. The political process is complicated, the big business lobbies will continue to wield disproportionate power, the Senate will most likely remain in Republican hands. All of this will mean that large parts of Biden’s agenda, for example in the area of the environment, will be difficult to enact.

But as today’s Washington Post points out, many of the worst excesses of the previous administration did not come about through legislative action. The withdrawal from the Paris accord on climate change, the withdrawal from the World Health Organisation, the sabotage of the appeals process at the World Trade Organisation, just to name a few, were results of executive orders and can similarly be reversed by executive orders. Some of the nasty tricks used by the Republicans in the last four years, such as appointing “acting” members of the cabinet to avoid Senate confirmation proceedings, will now come back to bite them. Of course, one can hope that at least some of the Senate Republicans will come to their senses and become a constructive opposition, but at this point I do not have high hopes. The Republican party as it exists today is a criminal organisation which makes even the Mafia look honest and honourable.

Other things that Biden can do regardless of what the Senate thinks include reversing his predecessor’s systematic destruction of the civil service and stopping the undermining of vital agencies such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or the US Postal Service. Looking beyond US borders, relations with allies need to be repaired and a coherent foreign and security policy must be developed so that both friends and foes know where the USA stands.

Finally, the whole tone of the administration will no doubt improve. No more erratic policy shifts announced on Twitter at 3 a.m. No name-calling of political opponents. No “grab them by the pussy” quotes from the past. In sum: an adult in the White House, again.

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.

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.

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:

Update, February 2021: earlier this month, I photographed Carmen in her office where she has displayed some of her works.

And a closer look at the paintings in the background:

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.

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.