A Train full of Old Men – from Edmonton to Winnipeg

In the first part of this Trans-Canadian railway trilogy, the prior perusal of which I recommend for reasons of strictly following the tracks, I had written about the historical importance of the railway for the establishment of Canada. The current importance for passenger traffic can be inferred from the location of the train station in Edmonton. It is situated far from the inner city and not even connected by bus. Edmonton, I should remind readers, is not some tiny hamlet, but the capital city of Alberta.

Because my chest of books is too heavy to drag all the way to the station, I have to ask a taxi driver for help. Coincidentally, he has just moved from Winnipeg to Edmonton. Asked about the difference between the destination and the point of departure of my journey, he succinctly says: “Winnipeg is better for social life. Edmonton is better to find work.” Perfect, then I am going in the right direction, always running away from work.

The station is still closed, but a few other passengers are already waiting. Like me, they expected a grand station with restaurants to spend the last stationary hours, and like me, they are now freezing in the cold. There is a French-Australian couple also taking the train just for the fun of it. There is a Canadian, who introduces himself as Trevor, not only with a hearty handshake, but by pouring out his heart right away. His mother has died, aged 75 (from pneumonia and infections) and he is going to Ontario for the funeral. He left her, his stepfather, his siblings and his children behind eight years ago, when he moved to Edmonton for a job, something with truck parts. In Canada, people work so much that they can’t visit their families before retirement or death. “The last five and a half years, I haven’t taken any holidays at all,” he explains proudly. For all that effort, he looks exhausted and drained. This is what capitalism does to people.

Now, Trevor has given up the job. He wants to start over in Ontario and reconnect with the family. Sometimes, somebody needs to die before we realize what’s important.

The oldest of the early arrivals looks even more haggard. A wrinkled, unshaven man with cowboy boots, leather jacket, wool cap and no more than a few teeth, he looks about 80 years of age. He points to the freight trains in the station and says, with a strong Russian accent: “I used to jump onto those trains and travel across the whole country.” Which country he means, he doesn’t say, but I have the strong suspicion that it was one of those countries that no longer exist.

Then, the door opens and a Via Rail employee, who identifies with his employer so much that he has assumed the proportions of a locomotive, summons the passengers: “Welcome to the home of the late train!” Nobody even bats an eyelid about the announcement that the train already has a delay of two hours. In any case, we are compensated – or maybe seduced into acquiescence – with free coffee, jam-filled biscuits and ice cream.

Once on the train, you recognize the experts of train travel, by which I mean myself,  because they immediately change from hiking boots into slippers. The beginners, on the other hand, are those who are shocked by the absence of internet. I would like to hope that they will be positively surprised by the internet-fee days ahead of them, but some of them have already moved down too far on the path of addiction. Just like the smokers who beg the conductor that he may please wake them up each time the train makes a stop, even if it will be at 2 o’clock in the morning.

The sun sets before we leave the station, hence there is no beautiful sunset shot today. Finally, with a delay of three hours, we get rolling. I have caught the train just in time for dinner in the restaurant car (vegetarian curry) and go to bed immediately thereafter. Returning to my seat, which is all I have for a bed, from dinner, I notice that we are still in Edmonton. During all that time, we have only moved around 3 km. That’s gonna lead to a hefty delay! I am not too perturbed, but Trevor may miss the funeral. Signs of nervousness are creeping into the sadness already engulfing him. As medicine, he brought several bottles of beer.

We are held up by those bloody long freight trains again, of which there seem to the thousands on the rails. Even worse, some of them have derailed in recent months. So, this may turn into a very slow journey.

Once the train picks up speed, I am quite convinced that we will meet the same fate of derailing. It’s scary how much the train sways, jerks and screeches. Even my two Atlantic crossings were less rocky. The whole ruckus is all the more disconcerting because the ride through the Prairies should be along an even and straight line.

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There is no thinking of sleep. The train driver seems to be hell-bent on catching up the delay, forgetting completely that he is ferrying human beings through the night instead of cargo across the plains.

At the end of the last train ride, I didn’t even want to get off. This time, the night is so restless and unedifying that I already worry about the next leg of the journey, another 35 hours on the train, from Winnipeg to Toronto. Plus delays. At 6 o’clock in the morning, when we stop in Saskatoon for 20 minutes, I am already awake and step outside with all the smokers.

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My hope is that the fresh air will do what the lack of sleep couldn’t. And then, perfectly choreographed, the sun rises just as we are pulling away from Saskatoon.

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The delay has shrunk to two hours, the conductor informs us. So, the train was really speeding like a maniac all night.

Slowly, the passengers are introducing themselves. After all, depending on the final destination, we will spend one or several days together. The Canadians talk about shops, businesses, buildings and who owns what, yet again. One very adventurous couple reports about having driven to the USA, where they visited a Walmart supermarket.

Only the old Russian seems to have somewhat more intellectual tendencies. He waves me over to his seat (as on the last trip, every passenger has at least two seats, which is very relaxing) and opens a briefcase, old and old-fashioned, probably made of Soviet leather. “I have something for you to read.” In precautionary mode, I explain that I really have enough books with me, but he interrupts me: “Oh no, you certainly don’t have anything like this.” I am fearing some religious pamphlets, because who else pushes reading material upon innocent victims?

He pulls a stack of about 80 typewritten pages from an envelope. “I write film scripts. I want you to read this and to tell me your opinion. Your honest opinion.” He only needs 4 million dollars for the production, he says, adding that this isn’t really much for a motion picture.

The script has been wandering through many hands, that I can tell from the crumpled pages. From the title page, I learn the name of the author and fellow passenger (Beniamin) and the year it was typed up (1982). “I have six more scripts,” he threatens, but this one seems to be the best one, the one he carries with him, wherever he goes.

I begin to read, something about cowboys and horse races, not bad at all. The dialogues are good and flowing naturally. When I get to the point where an old man remembers how once, as a young man, he had been riding a freight train and jumped off in Winnipeg because it looked as if there was work to be found, I can’t tell if the script is based on the author’s life, or whether he enriches his own life story with the product of his creativity.

The story becomes more serious, the contrast between countryside and the city is one of the issues. I like the caricature of the Canadian obsession with work, money and real estate. As I pass my verdict, Beniamin almost becomes angry because I failed to spot all the references and connections. Impatiently, he explains how the film is to be interpreted.

The anger may be borne from frustration about his journey, because, as he hastens to tell me, he took the train west to Vancouver, to Calgary and to Edmonton to sell his script from 1982. But the journey was unsuccessful, probably not for the first time in his life.

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Time for breakfast. In the restaurant car, the waiter points out a bison farm. “Good meat, very tender,” he explains, looking at the animals outside. Unfortunately, that meat is only served in First Class. Yesterday,  I thought that slippers and jogging pants are enough to prove my train travel expertise. Today, I realize that iron cutlery would also be clever utensils to bring aboard, because breaking plastic forks are annoying. I bet in First Class, they have proper knives. On the other hand, with proper knives come proper murders, as we know from the Orient Express.

As I am sauntering up and down the aisle – one of the pleasant activities, which you can hardly engage in on planes, buses or in cars, at least not without irritating others -, I sometimes sit down for a talk with the scriptwriter. After all, we have plenty of time. On one of these visits, I have a newspaper with me, and with that, disaster takes it course.

Beniamin points to the headline promising or threatening changes to Canadian asylum law, and he gets going faster than the train in which we are sitting: “This will be the subject of my next film! I have been telling you for 20 years already that you are allowing too many foreigners into your country,” he agitates. He thinks that I am Canadian. I asked him when he came to Canada, but he fails to notice the irony. He emigrated or fled in 1975.

I explain that I deem migration to be something quite natural, that all groups of immigrants to North America were seen as a threat at first, but that they all integrated quickly, that the term “illegal immigration” might be best applicable to the European settlers in North America, and that it is rather comical that a Russian explains to a German, both living in Canada, that Canada has too many immigrants. But Beniamin isn’t interested in my objections, I notice. He prefers to keep talking without pause and responds to his own arguments. Maybe that’s the effect of writing movie scripts. I have to ask him several times where in the Soviet Union he came from. And even when I, quite excited, tell him that I have actually been to his hometown of Chișinău, it doesn’t stop the flow of words and prejudice.

The flat terrain may be a more appropriate symbol for the country than the Rocky Mountains, which insinuate audacity and wilderness, for which Canadian culture has no place, except in mythical self-perception. An announcement on the train informs everyone that the bar on board only has a license to sell one alcoholic drink per passenger per hour. The conductor also warns that he will intervene upon the smell of marijuana products, strong perfume and smelly feet. Smoking is banned and frowned upon anyway. So much for the Wild West. It only looks like it.

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Quite as flat as Hungary or Holland the Prairies are not. But you can’t call them hilly either, maybe wavy. Just so much that tractors and harvesters find no insurmountable obstacles.

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The landscape is dominated by agriculture. We pass small towns like Young in Saskatchewan with cute wooden churches. But the real cathedrals are the grain elevators.

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The distances between the towns look as if one could walk for several days without coming across any human settlement. I wonder where in these eternal plains the Trans Canada Trail runs.

From below the fields, mines produce potash, which is then distributed on the surrounding fields as fertilizer. Or, as an old gentleman in the panorama car explains: “Potassium is an alkaline metal, but in nature, it only occurs in ionic salts and thus has to be distilled.” He keeps talking of potassium silicates, macronutrients, lignin and turgor pressure.

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All of this he is not telling to me, but to a young lady sitting across from him. For the remainder of the ride, it remains unclear if she is his granddaughter or not. She calls him Joe, they share meals, she gets him a beer from the bar, but on the other hand, she tells him about her life as if he doesn’t know her yet. Or maybe he is just not interested. Like many old men on this train, he prefers to listen to himself talking. I sense, with some dread, that I am encountering my future self on this journey.

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I had taken a book to the panorama car, but Joe speaks not only very loudly, but is also quite fascinating to listen to. The contrast between appearance and rhetoric couldn’t be any greater. He looks like a farmer, at least 80 years old, with white hair. He scuffles through the train with a bent back. His pants are held a bit too high by a pair of suspenders. How many teeth he still has, he can successfully conceal. He looks like Spencer Tracy in “Inherit the Wind”.

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And he speaks with exactly the same eloquence, no longer about agricultural economics now, but about the bourgeoisie before the French Revolution, the Oracle of Delphi, about Sparta, the Amazons and the Isthmus of Panama. He speaks slowly, but refined in his expression and with a conviction as if he had personally lived through everything that he has read.

The next town justifying a stop, if only for ten minutes, is Melville in Saskatchewan. The local ice hockey team is called, in typical Canadian-capitalist fashion, the Melville Millionaires. Or maybe the founders simply couldn’t come up with a better alliteration.

The old station building is no longer in use, but there are plans to restore it. As so often in Canada, this needs to be financed privately. To that purpose, the band Soul Deep will give a concert on 27 April 2019, charging a steep entrance fee of 60 $. But then, in a town of millionaires, that’s nothing.

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It is a beautiful sunny day, but the wind sweeps across the platform so crazily that the driver has to keep the foot on the brake for the whole stop, to prevent the train from being blown away. Now I understand why it’s always so darn cold in the middle of the Canadian meteorological map.

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What I don’t understand, on the other hand, is the absence of wind turbines and solar panels. Here, you got space, sun and wind in abundance, and a population that likes to earn money and won’t protest if something gets built. (In Canada, there are only protests if something is not getting built.)

Back in the glass-domed panorama car, Joe is still holding a monologue, now about the diminishing role of OPEC, the necessary reforms to the election law, Belize and Curaçao as possible places for his retirement (how old does this guy want to become?), Bitcoins and the separation of the train passengers by classes. Sometimes, he has to cough so severely that one can already hear the Grim Reaper, but other than that, there is nothing that can interrupt him.

Joe would actually be a good person to play the main character in Beniamin’s script. And, speaking of the writer, I soon run into his arms and thus into another long conversation. On the one hand, he is educated, talks about Schopenhauer, about Nietzsche, about the work as an artist giving wings that make you independent from the opinion of others and of society. “If you are an intellectual, you know it yourself. You don’t need anyone’s confirmation.” But he regrets that he just isn’t a salesman when it comes to his own work. I can sympathize with him on that one.

On the other hand, he is stuck in the past, speaks favorably of Lenin, fears evil Western misdeeds behind every corner: “Everything that you read about Russia is false propaganda.” He still lives in the Cold War. He insists on calling the popular uprising in East Germany in 1953 a “putsch” and is proud that he helped subdue it with his tank. And he won’t realize how dopey it is that a Jewish Soviet refugee from Moldova, living in Canada, is ranting about migrants with a Russian accent.

The old men on the train provide more entertainment than the musicians organized by Via Rail, although on this train, they are quite good. The clientele on the ride across the heartland is different from that on the train through the Rocky Mountains. Fewer tourists, but more people who simply have a lot of time. Or maybe they are all afraid of flying.

The landscape is less dramatic than the one in the west, that’s no surprise. But the ride is more relaxing, because I don’t constantly have to jump from left to right to capture dramatic photos of mountains and rivers.

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The conductor is running through the train, all excited, informing us that we have more than caught up the delay and that we will reach Winnipeg early. “I haven’t seen that happening in more than two years,” he is stunned.

Outside of Winnipeg, the land becomes totally flat, so that the wind is roaming across the Prairies unhindered and inexplicably still unharvested. The sun disappears behind hazy clouds, unspectacular like the whole ride. Yet, a bit of melancholy overcomes me, as the capital of Manitoba is coming closer. The train has become a home, the fellow travelers flatmates. Some of them are oddballs, but interesting characters, like in a Steinbeck novel. Joe reminds me of a farmer in “Pastures of Heaven”, who devoured the encyclopedia and the Greek classics.

The generous approach to time means that even those continuing the journey get to spend three hours in Winnipeg. Thus, they can smoke as much as they need, go for a walk and maybe look for a shower. As I say goodbye to Beniamin, he tells me that he doesn’t even know where he is going to live now. He sold his house, all in an attempt to finance the film. “But,” he adds self-mockingly, “because that didn’t work out, I have a lot of money now.” Which proves that you can earn a living with writing, after all.

Practical advice:

  • The website of Via Rail has all the information, schedules and booking options.
  • In summer, the train goes three times a week, in winter twice per week.
  • If you are flexible, try out different dates because the prices vary greatly. In summer, the train is quite booked out, and a conductor has told me that from 1 June, the prices will double. In the off-season, the complete ride from Vancouver to Toronto is available from 466 Canadian dollars (= 300 €). I haven’t seen any cheaper price, except for teenagers or seniors, which may explain why there were so many geezers on the train.
  • I couldn’t book the ticket online with my European credit card and thus had to go to a travel agency. In the off-season, it is however possible to simply buy the tickets at the train station before you depart. I saw some of my fellow passengers do that.
  • What you should take with you: a book, a blanket for the night, slippers.
  • Internet is only available at the train stations. (The lack of internet was one of the factors I liked the most. It made people much more communicative.) But every seat has a power outlet.
  • A tip for cost-conscious travelers: The tap in the washroom is high enough to allow bottles being filled up with water. That way, you don’t need to spend anything for drinks on the train. And if you want to be a supersaver, you will most likely find an empty plastic bottle in the rubbish bin of the train station where you embark. – As I always say, traveling doesn’t need to be expensive.
  • The food on the train is actually not expensive (take a look at the menu), but if you really want to save, you can bring everything with you. There is boiling water next to the kitchen, so you can prepare tea and soup.
  • Calculate a few hours of delay. In no case should you book a flight directly after the planned arrival.

Links:

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Posted in Canada, Photography, Travel | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

“Couchsurfing in Iran” by Stephan Orth

Couchsurfing, staying with hitherto strangers for free, is a good way to get to know a country and its people. It’s even more rewarding in countries where you don’t speak the language and where you are sometimes a bit lost without local guidance. (One of my best Couchsurfing experiences was in Abkhazia, for example.) And Iran is a fascinating country to visit anyway.

Stephan Orth, a journalist from Germany, apparently thought the same. For one month, he flew all around Iran, spending the night at locals’ houses whenever possible. They told him about life in Iran and showed him the parts that most tourists never reach, like the battlefields from the Iran-Iraq War.

dfau_oqxuaahxyaUnfortunately, for the most part, the book scratches only the surface. Of course, he discovers what every other traveler to Iran has found out, that there is a public sphere and a private sphere. As soon as you cross the threshold into someone’s house, headscarves fall, Western music is turned up, alcohol magically appears and the conversation is open and uncensored. But Orth seems to have met mostly people who were looking for freedom in shopping frenzies and drugs. Some Persian poets also pop up, but one thing that really made me wonder is that in a book published first in 2015, nobody spoke of the Green Revolution in 2009. Not a single word in the whole book. I just don’t believe that. Maybe the author wants to protect his hosts, but then he could have put the political discussions into the mouths of the ubiquitous anonymous taxi drivers.

The many interspersed text messages, which the author, allegedly an adult, exchanges with Iranian teenage girls are rather childish. These embarrassing attempts at flirtation do not exactly enrich the book.

I am even more disappointed by this book, because I had previously read “Couchsurfing in Russland” (so far only available in German) by the same author. That one was better, well-researched, more informative. I have the impression that after the success of the book on Russia, he got the assignment to go to Iran with the sole purpose of writing another book, even if there was not enough material. Not every trip needs to be turned into a book.

The author may have been aware of this himself, because at one point, he laments that “doing Couchsurfing, you only meet a certain group of people, the educated ones who speak English well and who are modern and internet-savvy.” This is not the way to get a real reflection of Iranian society. The speed of the journey is not conducive to a literary work either: “It is one of many days in Iran, on which I wish that I wouldn’t constantly be on the go, moving from host to host. I wish that I could stay longer and gain more than just a fleeting insight into someone else’s life.”

In some parts, Orth addresses interesting and delicate issues that would have deserved a deeper investigation. Like him, I have experienced that German visitors to Iran are greeted as “Aryan brothers”. Even when I was in Evin prison, the judge mentioned this to me. (That story should actually be turned into a book!) The widespread appreciation of Hitler in Iran and the neurotic fixation on Israel as the alleged source of all evil are annoying, and one has to give credit to Orth that he mentions these bad habits, hoping that some Iranians may rethink their opinion or, at the very least, that other travelers are forewarned.

Links:

Posted in Books, Iran, Travel | Tagged | 9 Comments

Honeymoon on a Train

The young man went to the dining car alone because the wife had a strict rule about not eating after 8 pm and, having crossed several time zones on the long train journey, she was unsure which of them to apply to her digestive system.

Not being used to going out alone, the young man chose a table occupied by an old man, not without asking for permission, of course. Permission was gladly granted, as the old man was tired of eating alone anyway and maybe, subconsciously, the longing for human company, not for a burger and a beer, had been the real motivation to go for dinner.

As always on trains, the conversation began with questions and answers about departures and destinations. The young man was happy to reveal that this was part of his honeymoon. The old man seemed to be traveling for fun, to visit some places that he had known decades ago and some that would be new to him.

Naturally, given the advantage in age, the old man had more stories to tell, and better ones too. He recounted the days of the gold rush, and the young man’s eyes lit up. He spoke of the war, and the young man listened wistfully. The old man had sailed in the merchant navy for quite a while, before containers were used, when you could still spend a few days in every port city, from Salvador to Cartagena, from Brindisi to Haifa. “Wow, I have always wanted to go there,” the young man exclaimed, over and over again.

“Where are you going next on your honeymoon?”, the old man inquired.

“Well,” the young man explained, “we actually have to fly straight home after this train journey. You see, we’ve just bought a house and we both need to work a lot to pay off the loan.” With neither of them wishing to explore that topic further, the old man helpfully continued with stories about pirates and whales and delivering supplies to Antarctica.

Finally, the young man was ready to get up, saying his good-byes, explaining “I need to attend to my wife. She wouldn’t like it if I am gone too long.”

“It was a pleasure to meet you,” the old man replied. “Having gotten to know you a bit, I would just ask you to keep in mind one thing. Sometimes, we feel that we have an obligation to someone because we promised them something. But we also have an obligation to honesty and truth, to our dreams and to what we really want. If we remain in a commitment, although we really want something else, we not only waste our own life, but also that of the other person.” And, after a short pause: “But now, you must go.”

The young man was startled, for he realized that the old man was right and that he could never unthink what he had just thought.

On the short way from the restaurant car to the coach, the young man tried to come up with a reason not to do what he wanted to do. No such reason came to his mind, and he couldn’t have claimed that it bothered him a great deal.

“Oh, you look happy! What happened?”, his newly-wed wife greeted the young man.

“Why, I am happy to see you,” he lied, because they still had three days to travel.

Licht in Kurve

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Posted in Fiction, Life, Love, Marriage, Time, Travel | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

What kind of Brexit do you want? No! No! No! No! No! No! No! No!

With only a few hours left before the Brexit deadline and with the United Kingdom still unclear about what it wants to do, British Members of Parliament were presented with eight options today, some of which they had already refused in the past, some of which were new, some of which remained vague.

Prime Minister May had been complaining that Parliament keeps telling her what it doesn’t want, but cannot agree on what it does want. Among eight options, one would hope, at least one could garner a majority.

Alas, that didn’t happen.

So what will happen next? Chaos and mayhem, even more of it.

But, respected loyal subjects of the Crown, you must not despair, for Parliament did find time – on the same day! – to discuss such pressing matters as the Queen in Parliament, the Civil War of 1648 and the sovereignty of the mace.

The mentioned mace, for the illumination of readers not versed in arcane political symbols, is a silver-gilt ornamental club and a symbol of royal authority. Without it, Parliament cannot meet, debate or pass laws.

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So, if you want to bring British parliamentary democracy to a standstill, you simply pick up the mace and walk out of the Palace of Westminster. As the monarch has no real executive or legislative powers according to the constitution, which, by the way, nobody can seem to find and nobody has ever seen, the Queen would be rendered ineffective too.

But surely, that would never happen, would it?

Well, last December, a Member of Parliament tried. The end of the political system as we know it was only averted because a lady with a sword stopped him. And what country wouldn’t have ladies with swords in their parliament in the 21st century?

Fun fact 1: If the right honourable member for Brighton Kemptown had managed to get to the nearest church with the mace unscathed and found a bishop to perform the necessary ceremony, he could have become king. But only if he is not Catholic.

Fun fact 2: One argument of Brexiters against the European Union was that it was, allegedly, an undemocratic body with opaque rules.

Links:

  • More articles about Brexit.
  • Another example of everyday objects being mythologically supercharged in Great Britain is the Stone of Scone.
  • This story was also published on Medium.
  • Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Artikels.
Posted in Politics, UK | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Where do Babies come from?

The other day, I overheard a conversation at the restaurant:

  • Everyone on my Facebook is having a baby.
  • That doesn’t mean we need to have one too.
  • These baby photos receive a lot of likes, though.
  • How many?
  • 33, 25, 28. Look! Even Anna – you know? the ugly one – her baby got 17 likes already.
  • Mmhh. Yeah, maybe it’s a good idea.

Before we judge, let’s remember that we have no idea what our parents thought back then. If you investigate, you may find out that government subsidies for newborn children or other unromantic reasons played a role.

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“I don’t even want to know why I am here.”

There really seems to be a pattern that I have observed again and again. In a circle of friends, one couple has a child, whether by accident, out of boredom or because they think it will save the relationship (it won’t). Usually, within no more than half a year or however long it takes to produce these babies (I don’t really know anything about that), at least half of the couples in that circle of friends will have babies, too. And thus, a number of little extra pollutants are put on the planet just because people can’t withstand peer pressure.

Links:

    • More posts about children.
    • And, as a warning, some articles about family law. In short: just don’t do it!
Posted in Economics, Facebook, Life | Tagged | 16 Comments

The Border between Europe and the Orient

Where exactly are the boundaries of Europe? With that question, you can entertain your guests for a whole evening of barbecue, especially when serving ćevapčići and kebab.

It can’t just be the European Union, because why should San Marino, Norway and soon the United Kingdom not be part of Europe? Also, that would make Mayotte and French Guyana parts of Europe. The sea is a nice natural boundary, although Iceland wants to be European and Carthage had much more to do with Europe than the barbarian tribes of Germans. And in the east, there is no continuous sea anyway. The Ural mountains are a rather arbitrary choice. They are not even very high, are they? The Pyrenees or the Alps are higher, but nobody allows himself to be cut off from Europe by them. And then there is the silly Bosporus, not exactly a very impressive body of water, small enough to be crossed by bridges even. If rivers, then why not the Volga or the Danube, along which you can walk for days without finding a bridge? Some Greek islands are just a few kilometers off the coast of Turkey. And what about Cyprus?

As I said, the discussions will last until late at night. You may even have to get the old school atlas from the children’s bedroom.

For me, ever since I traveled through the Caucasus, it has been clear where the boundary between Europe and the Orient is situated: between Georgia and Azerbaijan, exactly on the Red Bridge. At this border crossing, locally called Krasny MostTsiteli Khidi or Qirmizi Körpü, all of which you have to remember because you don’t know in which language the bus driver will put the sign behind the windshield (which he might, to confuse you even more, spell Красный мост or წითელი ხიდი), you step across the threshold from one world into the other.

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In Georgia, everything is calm and relaxed, but as soon as you enter into the border building on the Azerbaijani side, chaos, noise and quarrels rule. An unorganized swarm of people is pushing in front of the counters, with no specific lines attributable to either of them. In between, sacks with potatoes, bread and sunflower oil as well as two children’s bicycles are being pulled and pushed, tossed and torn. People insult each other, scream at each other and almost hit each other. The Azerbaijani border guards don’t seem to care. I speak none of the languages used in the disputes around me and hope that all involved parties recognize that I am neutral. This is how the blue helmets must feel between the frontlines.

If I don’t want to be standing in the waiting hall for anther week, I too must start to push and squeeze a bit. With my civilized queuing method, learned in Britain, I am not going to advance a single meter.

The actual immigration check is carried out rather quickly, as I had already applied for and received a visa beforehand. But right after the border, on Azerbaijani soil, the matter gets even worse.

Hordes of money changers and taxi drivers all run towards me. All of them deny that there is a bus to Ganja. The bus to Baku denies that it goes past Ganja. (Is there even any other way?)

At a small shop, two men are arguing heatedly because both claim to be the owner of the shop, asking me to pay for the bottle of Coca Cola with the one and not the other.

I know that there is a bus to Ganja. It’s Azerbaijan’s second largest city, and there are always buses. But I can’t go looking for it in peace, because four or five bearded men are constantly an inch beside my face, screaming at me in Azeri-Turkish. Just to get away from this mayhem, I finally relent and allow one of them to take me to Qazax, the next town. There, I hope to be able to organize onward travel to Ganja in a more relaxed setting.

The country road runs in a straight line for the most part. On both sides, there are hills, somewhat dry (it’s July), but golden-grey. The blue sky is interspersed with photogenic fluffy clouds. Tractors are taking home bales of hay. Field workers are riding horses to the next village bar. A flock of sheep, led by a goat, crosses the street, not at all afraid of the oncoming taxi.

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It could be beautiful, if only I wasn’t sitting in the car of a liar and fraudster, who is still speaking of going all the way to Ganja, pretending not to understand me. Worst case, once we get to Qazax, I will have to jump out at a red light or subdue the driver. Worryingly though, he looks as if he is much more used to violence than me.

We pass an army truck, Soviet model, being loaded with firewood. The soldiers cut one of the trees on the side of the road for that purpose. Or maybe the wood is for a nearby furniture factory, whose name is the only remaining reference to Europe: Avropa Mebel.

As we are getting closer to Qazax, I ask the driver to drop me at the bus terminal. As one might expect, he claims that there isn’t any. That’s it. End of my patience. “Of course there is a bus terminal,” I retort with a smile of superior know-it-all. I am bluffing, but the town has around 20,000 people and it is the first larger stop after the border. There has to be a bus terminal. “I never heard of that,” the driver counters, shrugging his shoulders like a poker player who doesn’t care about your cards because, in the end, he will shoot you anyway.

I raise the stakes: “I will show you the way,” I say, as cool as if I had grown up in this small town in western Azerbaijan. From my backpack, I take out the tablet with GPS and Maps.me, adjuring that somebody has marked the bus station. Success! Not only does it show the avtovağzalı, but also the taxi as an arrow moving rapidly towards the town.

Flabbergasted and fascinated, the pirate driver can hardly take his eyes off  the arrow showing our position in real time. I better put it away again. I have memorized the route. Lo and behold, the driver suddenly remembers the way to the bus station, too, where – the magic gadget has left a noticeable impression – he drops me right in front of the bus to Ganja, which he now points out with surprising helpfulness and politeness.

Unnecessarily, I have spent 10 euros for 30 km. Thrown in free of charge, I got a bad first impression of the country. There was once a James Bond film made in Azerbaijan, called “The World is not Enough”, but I already have enough of it.

No country should be judged by its cab drivers, I try to calm myself. But then, the same happens in Ganja. At the bus station far outside of the city, I am surrounded again by taxi drivers, screaming at each other. The lucky one, in whose Lada I get, doesn’t know Tabriz Street (it’s in the center), has to call the owner of the house twice and ask a passer-by for the way. Because the ride takes longer than planned (however one would plan a route to an unknown destination), he raises the fare from the agreed 10 to 20 manats (= 10 euros). If you don’t speak Turkish or Russian here, you will be fooled again and again.

Three days later, exhausted, drained and somewhat disturbed (thanks to the Aliyev family!), I return to the same border. By now, I am an expert and can ignore all providers of unnecessary transport services. All I seek is a money changer, to get rid of the remaining manats. In this particular business, competition seems to work. The exchange rate is fair.

On the Georgian side of the Red Bridge, I pick up plenty of cigars in a walkable humidor, but then, during the payment process, I am confronted with the question about the direction of my travel. As is my habit, I answer truthfully. “I am very sorry, but we are only allowed to sell the cigars when you are leaving Georgia, not when you are entering Georgia,” the young gentleman bursts my pipe and tobacco dreams. Not even pointing to my birthday melts his heart. I am genuinely back in Europe, where rules are rules.

Practical advice:

  • When traveling between Georgia and Azerbaijan, better take the train.
  • And there is almost always a bus, regardless of what cab drivers say. Except in North America and in Germany, but then, there are not even enough cabs there.
  • If there really shouldn’t be any bus, for example late at night, other people will be stranded too, so you can share a taxi and the expenses. I once had to do this on the border between Ecuador and Peru, ending up with petrol smugglers.
  • I probably should have simply walked for a few kilometers and then tried to hitchhike. Having said that, even with hitchhiking I had a bad experience in Azerbaijan, but more about that in my report from Göygöl.

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Posted in Azerbaijan, Europe, Georgia, Travel | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Communism in Canada?

With elections less than a month away in the province of Alberta, political placards are sprouting faster than crocuses.

“Communism coming soon,” I read on one, coincidentally as I was walking to the grocery cooperative, and I thought: “Well, that should be exciting.”

On the way back, giving it a second look, I saw that I had misread the message. Rather than social change, it promised yet more “condominiums coming soon”. How disappointing.

By the way: don’t worry, comrades, I am not really a communist.

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Posted in Canada, Elections, Politics, Travel | 4 Comments