Monday, January 30, 2012

Poor in Paris? Visit your tante

This may look like a bank but it's a pawnbroker used by the poor in Paris. My friend sent me an article from good business which is in English and clearly explains this peculiarly French version of going to the pawnbroker or visiting your 'tante'. So I'm using a lot of the article because for me it finally cleared up this confusion I've felt about this 'tante'. Researching a book several years ago, Laura my editor suggested I look up a man who used Bayonne's Crédit municipal bank - pawnbroker - to embezzle huge funds which resulted in a scandal and exploded in December 1933. The embezzler Alexandre Stavisky, known as le beau Sasha - the handsome Sasha - was linked to several government deputies in a complicated scheme and some say this brought the Daladier government down.
He later 'committed' suicide.
This week, thousands of lucky French people had their financial obligations forgiven after the country's oldest bank decided to simply wipe their slate clean. The 3,500 clients who benefitted from the bank’s largesse had debts of 150 euros or less - about $190 - with the Crédit Municipal de Paris, also known as the "Mont-de-piété," the bank of the poor, which has for centuries allowed the needy to get loans against their valuables—an ethical pawnshop, or the original microlender.
Celebrities of the past secretly used the bank: Victor Hugo, Claude Monet and Napoleon’s first wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais,
among others. Prince François d'Orléans, third son of King Louis-Philippe, once pawned his watch to settle a gambling debt. Ashamed when asked what happened to his precious timepiece, he answered, "I left it at my aunt's' ma tante'.To this day, getting help from 'ma tante' is a discrete way of saying one's been going to the "poor people's bank."
The unexpected gift is a way for the bank to celebrate its 375th anniversary. The Crédit Municipal de Paris was created in 1637 by Théophraste Renaudot, a doctor, journalist and philanthropist who wanted to combat poverty by giving the needy access to fair banking. Interest rates at the time could go up to 130 percent. The doctor's idea was to give the poor people of Paris loans they could reasonably hope to repay, at decent rates for the time (about 10 percent annually) against whatever collateral they could produce: pots and pans, linens, silverware, artisans' tools. Records show a 19th-century woman so destitute her only possession was her mattress. Every morning, she would carry it to the bank and pawn it. With that money, she'd buy potatoes, sell them for a profit during the day and buy back her mattress at night.
Today, the bank stores more than a million objects, from the small piece of jewelry to the grand masterpiece, in headquarters covering a city block in the historical center of Paris. With a capitalization of 60 million euros, the bank had 93 million euros in pawn-broking loans outstanding in 2010. Its 2010 profit of 1.3 million euros was partly assigned to improving shelters for the homeless. Similar city-owned, not-for-profit banks opened all over the country ie. Bayonne which Stavisky took advantage of, on the same principle: Pawn an object and you get a yearlong loan. Pay off the interest - 4 to 8.9 percent annually- and you can extend the loan; pay off the principal and you get your property back. If your valuable is sold for more than you owe, the profit is yours. These banks were eventually granted a state monopoly on pawn-broking loans, which continues to this day; France is thus a country without pawnshops."People were never very proud to go to the Mont-de-piété," says an official. It may be why people turned away from it: With the prosperity of the 20th century, people wanted to forget this symbol of poverty. But it is no longer forgotten."Our director likes to say our waiting room is like that of a hospital emergency room," the official adds "Everyone comes to it at some point."
Cara - Tuesday


No, this isn’t about the philosopher. I leave that kind of stuff to our Greek expert, Jeff Siger.

My post of today is about this guy:

Socrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira.

It’s been my privilege to be introduced to some of the greatest stars Brazilian football ever produced, Pele, Rivelino, Jairzinho, Gerson, Tostão, Falcão, Zico, but there was no one quite like Socrates.

We met first on the Lido, in Venice, back in 1983, when he was already a star, and I was still very ignorant about the beautiful game. He was there with a friend of mine. We boarded the same boat to go to the Rialto.

I’d heard of him, of course. In Brazil, Doctor Socrates was already a household name and widely-regarded as one of the greatest midfielders ever to play the game.

He’d been captain of the Brazilian team that played against Italy in the 1982 World Cup, a game of such surpassing skill and spontaneity that no one who saw it will ever forget it.

But I thought Doctor was just a sobriquet.

Not so. That day, in chatting with him, I learned that Socrates actually was a doctor, an orthopedic surgeon. And that he was also a folk singer, an author and a very modest and agreeable man.

Who, surprisingly, didn’t put football first.

The things that concerned him were eliminating poverty and building roads and schools.

And it wasn’t just talk.
In later years, after he retired, he went on to become a political activist. He wrote for newspapers, not only about sport, but also about politics and economics.

Unfortunately, he also became an alcoholic.

The activism was of a kind that could have gotten him killed during the military dictatorship of the 1970’s.

And the alcoholism did kill him.

Take a moment, now, to enjoy the Brazilian Team’s goals in the 1982 World Cup, from the days when Socrates was in his prime:

(C’mon, watch the video. Please! It’s a part of my continuing campaign to generate interest in the sport among you non-football fans. Remember, there’s only a little over two years to go before the event kicks off here in Brazil.)

Socrates died last month at the age of 56, just one day before his old team, Corinthians, won the Brazilian championship for the fifth time.

He was a doctor. He knew what the endless cigarettes and caiprinhas he was so fond of had done to his health.

Nevertheless, on the night he died, he went to a restaurant with a group of friends and overloaded his liver with the same degree of serenity that his namesake displayed when he drank the hemlock.

He was a most extraordinary man.

And Brazil is missing him.

Leighton - Monday

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Quality of Life?

Among the many, many things that irritate me about The Huffington Post is the fact that it insists on finding new ways to tell us which countries offer the best "quality of life."

Why does this irritate me?  First, because it's stupid.  I know people who would be happy anywhere, and people who couldn't have a good time if someone handed them a lamp with a genie in it.  And let's face it: for a statistically significant number of people, what's desirable is simply what they don't have.  Even when you get beyond those for whom a "better quality of life" would mean something as simple as "enough to eat," there's still the ever-present discontent with what's at hand. Many Swedes, for example, would like to live somewhere with palm trees, and lots of Peruvians would probably like to try a few hours at sea level.

Second, the winner always seems to be Liechtenstein or some other off-brand country you need spellcheck for, some place with mountains.  Mountains are good for falling past, good for collecting (ughhh) snow in the winter, good for passes that funnel icy winds down on perfectly nice people, good for yodeling and lederhosen and goats.  But to live with?  Please.

All these intangibles aside, it seems to me that one index of how much people in a given country actually enjoy their quality of life might be how often they end it by their own hand.  It's hard to come by statistics about what percentage of people living somewhere wished they lived somewhere else.  Hard to identify a threshold - does a mild longing qualify?  A frequent flip through National Geographic?  The occasional semi-erotic daydream?

Suicide, on the other hand, has a clear threshold.  So I asked myself, which countries have the highest and the lowest suicide rates?  Surely those with the highest incidence of citizens offing themselves have to acknowledge a certain malaise.  This being the age of the Internet, here's what I learned.

The nation with the highest suicide rate in the world (in 2010) was South Korea.  (Numbers are not available for North Korea.)  This is generally attributed to the rapid rate of economic and social change in Korea and the personal and professional pressures South Koreans impose upon themselves.  Alcohol use, which is pretty liberal, may also be a contributing factor.

Twelve of the twenty countries with the highest suicide rates -- Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Hungary, Russia, Latvia, Slovenia Ukraine, Serbia/Montenegro, Croatia, and Moldova -- were previously members of the Worker's Paradise of the Soviet Union.  So that's yet another reason to be thankful to Communism; it left behind an  environment to which death is preferable.  Can there still be anyone who feels that Soviet-style Communism was a good thing?  As Orwell recognized way back in 1945, some pigs were much more equal than others.

Japan, where suicide is, so to speak, a way of life, is seventh.  (By the way, seventh place translates into 23.8 suicides per 100,000 people.)  Temperature seems to be a relevant factor; Guyana and Sri Lanka are the only tropical countries in the top 20, and, in fact, colder countries--sorry, Yrsa--generally seem to have more suicides.  (A lot of them have mountains, too.)  This phenomenon is especially striking in view of the fact that all five of the countries with point zero (.0) suicides in the most recent reporting year are in, or on, the Caribbean.

Surprises?  Some countries I tend to think of as miserable -- Iran, for example -- are pretty low on the index.  The United States, at number 41, has fewer suicides than Switzerland, France, Austria, Sweden, Canada (!), Portugal, and Norway, but more than Australia, Germany, Denmark, and the United Kingdom, to name a few.

Across the board, no matter where they are, men are much more likely to kill themselves than women -- often ten times more likely, more usually four to five times.  (The sole country in which there were more female than male suicides is Sao Tome/Principe in western Central Africa, but the numbers are so low it may be a one-year anomaly.) Beyond Sao Tome/Principe, the exceptions are rare: the numbers are almost even in Tajikistan; three quarters as many women as men kill themselves in India; more than half as many women as men in Kuwait, Singapore, and the Philippines; and a little less than half as many women in Turkey and Hong Kong, and a few other places.

Among the countries in which the writers on this blog set our books, France, at #21, has the most suicides per capita, all those great pastries notwithstanding.  (France probably has the most existentialists of anywhere on the planet, too, and there may be a connection.)  Iceland is second, at #38, Land-of-Smiles Thailand is third at 62, the United Kingdom is fourth at number 61, followed by Brazil (70) and Greece (84, and Jeffrey clearly has the right idea).

No numbers are available for Botswana, but South Africa is #23.

I have no idea what any of this proves and would be thrilled to get some suggestions. It's one of those topics that seems interesting on the face of it, but when you get down to the final paragraph, there's no conclusion.  Yet another reason for me to learn to outline.

Anyway, keep living.  You never know when you might meet someone.

Tim -- Sunday

Something lighter next week, I promise.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Gods Will Be Back

I long for the day when the mention of Greece will once again first bring to mind ancient gods, epic tales, and a land and sea infused at every inch with the seminal essence of western civilization.   Someday that will happen, for financial crises are transient and gods are immortal, though not eternal—after all, they do need nectar and ambrosia to sustain them.

Ahh, yes, the good old days of true Greek gods quick and strong, knowing all things, capable of miraculous achievements.

It’s been a long while since I’ve read up on the ancient gods, and I must admit to often getting them mixed up, but I’ve just learned that my confusion puts me in illustrious company. 

Socrates (469-399 B.C.E.)
According to Alexander S. Murray’s Who’s Who in Mythology, even Socrates was confused by the varying number of seemingly same gods (one Aphrodite or two?) and multiple names for one god (Zeus in summer was called Zeus Meilichios, the friendly god, and in winter Zeus Maemaktes, the angry god).

Aphrodite (Bouguereau 1879)
Some think that’s attributable to disparate early Greek tribes who even after coalescing as a single race kept the original names for their separate gods despite obvious similarities to each other (Dione, Hera, Gaea, and Demeter). 
Hera with Zeus

But call them what you wish, the essential purpose of the Greek gods was the same: their existence and interactions explained to mortals the natural order of things, e.g., the earth, the sun, the moon, the stars, the clouds, lightning, thunder, earthquakes, storms, waves, and on and on as needed.  

What made Greek gods so significant was that the essentially human form of the Twelve Olympian Deities of Mount Olympus and of the lesser gods living in other environs gave to those who worshipped them the sense that their deities could understand and relate to a mortal’s needs and fears. 

The mythological explanations offered by the carryings on of the gods largely centered upon the three supreme rulers of the world: Uranos, Kronos, and Zeus. 

The first to rule was Uranos.  He represented the heavens and, as the husband of Earth, brought forth life and everything on our planet. 
Uranos with Earth

His son, Kronos, ruled next as god of the harvest, ripening and maturing the forms of life brought forth by his father. 
Kronos and Rhea

And, lastly, ruled Zeus, bringing order and wisdom to the universe. 
Zeus overthrows Kronos (Van Haarlem 1588)

I think it’s safe to say that Zeus hasn’t been around for a while.  Or has he? 

Whatever, all of this impresses me, as it should every writer, artist, and musician who freely borrows from the tales of the gods in their own creations, albeit sometimes consciously oblivious to the source of their inspiration.  So much of what we think unique to modern culture is simply a new way of retelling of what ancient Greeks witnessed in their deities. 

I wish I had time now to say more.  But there will be later.  One must always make time for the gods. 


Friday, January 27, 2012

Left Ear, Right Ear and Too Austere

I remember the death of Princess Diana. Who can't? A nation entirely took leave of its senses. It was like waking up to find you'd been inculcated into a cult you never knew existed, all that showy grief and those crocodile tears. It was also an excuse for the very canny to exploit. My favourite story is of a pub owner in the North East, who, in the days after Diana's death, put a sign up in the window. It read: 'Due to the tragic death of Princess Diana, and as a mark of respect, Happy Hour will be cancelled this week.'

I see something similar now in these austere times. After years of living it up, we are being told to cut our cloth according to our means. I never really had that much cloth, even in the good times, which is why I walked around financially stark naked, but it's sound advice I suppose. I also have a bit of a problem with all those people urging the banks and the Government to do more for the responsible folk who saved their money. The hard-working savers, and hard-working families. But what about the feckless spenders? Don't we have rights too? We propped up this economy for years, and now we've been dumped, shoddily, callously, like a Gingrich spouse.

What irks me is that some people I know are enjoying this austerity thing a bit too much. The ones who slipped away from the pub before it was their round, or somehow seemed to be in the gents. They bragged about the bargains they found and we all turned our noses up. Look, a Saville Row suit that someone died in for £50!! How we laughed at their parsimony as they wiped the bloodstains from the soiled jacket sleeves. Now everybody's buying second hand clothes, and telling everyone else about it while they're at it, or that they're brewing their own beer at home, or cooking pots of soup and stew at the start of the week and making it last until Thursday. Let's just be clear: any home brew tastes absolutely disgusting, soup is not a meal, it's medicine, and leftover food is awful, unless its curry and only, and I mean ONLY, when eaten for breakfast with a hangover.

Everyone is talking about their budget. Even my sister, a lawyer, (and therefore hardly on the verge of the workhouse - just mentioning her, even without naming her, cost me £200) and a shopaholic who has so many shoes she makes Imelda Marcos look like Gandhi, told me at Christmas that 2012 would see her live within her means. No more than £150 on a single purchase. She'll probably just go and buy the left one the next day.

But there is a serious issue here. Namely, the businesses who will hide behind austerity to cut jobs rather than make a bit less money; and more insidiously, the Governments, like our very own coalition, who will hide behind austerity to slash any number of budgets and benefits that ordinary people rely on to live and survive, in the name of austerity when really the motive is ideological. Only this week the reprehensible lot who run the UK were caught trousers down trying to sneak through welfare cuts, or increase charges, that will only affect the poorest. Single mothers trying to track down errant fathers to pay towards the cost of bringing up their children will be charged for doing so by the Child Support Agency, while the social fund, basically a one-off payment to the truly desperate, usually to tide them over until some administrative hiccup is solved, or until a much needed cheque is paid to them, is to be abolished. Meanwhile, guess what? Huge bonuses are still paid in the city, the rich still manage to avoid paying their fair share of tax (this might have some resonance in the States, eh my old mate Mitt?) and the diabolical Mayor of London, who has spent four years coasting on public cash, still manages to go on two skiing holidays in one month.

So, Happy Hour is officially over. Unless you're rich.


Dan - Friday

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Something from nothing

As is the case in many Third World countries, most South African families don’t have enough money to give toys to their kids.  As would be expected, the kids make their own – usually from stuff that nobody wants.

Ever since I can remember, I have watched kids (usually Black) playing with toys that were far removed from the Lego, Meccano, Lionel trains, and so on that I was privileged to have.  When young, my reaction was confused because I didn’t quite grasp the implications of poverty.  The older I became, the more I appreciated the creativity of these home-made toys.  Today I covet them.
What has happened is that this creativity has spilled over into the general community, which has needed to find ways to make money in times of horrific unemployment.  So we are blessed in South Africa by a plethora of arts and crafts made from trash or stuff that no one else wants.  My house is filled with them.
Pop cans are a huge resource for the do-it-yourself artist or toy maker.  My online research indicates that Americans throw away, not recycle, 1500 cans a second - that's billions a year.  Although not as wasteful, South Africans also gets rid of millions.  Here is what you can do with them.
Roses – I have this bunch sitting on my desk in my office.  Also saves water in this drought-prone land.

Sculpture – I saw this Coca Cola lion in a local shop.

Pictures – incorporating used cans and other leftovers into wall hangings is very popular here.  How many brands can you find incorporated?

Tired of boring frames for pictures or mirrors?  There is an alternative.

These handbags or purses use old car number plates as decoration.

And these notebooks have Castle lager cans as covers.

Do you need a shopping basket?  Here's one made from cardboard, packets, advertising, etc.

Or need to know the time?

One of my favorite styles are baskets made from telephone wires.  I wonder why my phone doesn’t work all the time.

A year or so ago, I was wandering around the Winterberg mountains, and I came across a little coop started by a farmer.  She sold crafts made by locals, funneling all the money back to the artist.  I couldn’t resist this hippo (a kubu) made from mud by a nine year old boy.  It was his first sale as an artist.

One of my coffee tables sports half a dozen or so bird sculptures made from seed pods, mud, and wire.  I love them.

Very common throughout the country is ‘stuff’ made from wire.  It is fascinating to watch an artist sitting on the side of the road start with a long piece of wire, which is slowly bent into something gorgeous, like the baobab tree shown below, which I photographed on my village Knysna's Main Street. 

Here is the one I own.  I use it to hold the dried proteas picked from my garden.

It didn’t take long for these artists to incorporate beads into their work, and bead pieces are now a separate genre.  Look at the detail of this cock.

Anything can be used as subject matter from lizards, to giraffes, to seahorses (the symbol of my village, Knysna).

And all of this is separate from the wonderful wood and soapstone sculptures that are for sale everywhere.
I'm so lucky to live in a place where creativity thrives, producing objects rich in colour and design. 
Stan - Thursday

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The end of the rainbow - Norway

I am just back from a trip to Norway. There I visited three cities, Oslo, Stavanger and Bergen, on a mini tour organized by my Norwegian publisher Kagge. The trip included 2 other authors, Swedish Ulrika Davidson who specializes in low carb cooking and Jørn Lier Horst a Norwegian crime fiction writer that just won the bookseller prize in his home country and has now written a crime novel for teenagers. Both were super fun and the trip was very successful in every way. I bought Ulrika’s low carb book which promises a loss of 6 kilos in 6 weeks and am going to put my husband through the wringer. He will need more than one round though, how many I am not telling. I also bought Jørn’s children’s book and am going to read it to learn Norwegian. Although Norwegian and Icelandic are very similar langauages, like my husband I will need more than one round to reach my goal.

Norway is a paradise country. It is beautiful to behold and wealthy in a good way. It is the world’s second richest nation and this is not per capita. It is a net external creditor of debt, meaning they don’t owe – they are owed. I actually did not know that was possible. But Norway’s prosperity stems from them having one of the richest reserves of oil and gas outside the Middle East, endless hydropower, very good fishing grounds and lots of metals. But Norway does not behave like a Kardashian, despite their wealth being pretty a pretty recent development. Not at all. As an example, the profits from the gargantuan oil industry goes into a fund belonging to the nation. No one from their royal family is buying cars made of pure platinum or cleaning out their ears with Q-tips made of cashmere. The money is for the people. And did I mention that the people are great? It sounds too good to be true but it is not.

Well actually there is one snag. Everything in Norway is super expensive. I snuck to a MacDonald’s to have a hamburger without Ulrika seeing me and found out that a quarter pounder costs about almost the same as a bottle of Champagne in other countries. A sweater I liked cost the same there as if it were made of fur here, and so on. So I did not go on a shopping spree, only bought the diet book and the kid’s book. As an author I find it perfectly OK for books to be expensive. Hamburgers no and sweaters no.

There was one last thing that endeared Norway to me, hammered in the admiration actually. I passed through three Norwegian airports: Gardemon in Oslo and the somewhat smaller ones in Bergen and Stavanger. In each one the biggest ads hanging from the ceiling or posted on the walls were not from credit card companies, banks or vodka producers. No, they were ads promoting engineering as an occupation, from firms desperate to show why engineers should take up a job with them, or from recruiting agencies urging engineers to put their careers in their hands. Not that it would take much to operate a successful recruiting agency specializing in engineers in Norway if the shortage is anything to go by. Get one hopeful with a so-so CV in the morning, he’s got a job by lunch. On a slow day.

And this is the country my ancestors left to go to Iceland 1200 years ago. Because they found the king of the time annoying. And they did not even know Iceland existed. They just sailed away. To the north, in the direction of cold. So it is no wonder that the women of Norway did not want to join them.

It has been snowing here for days. Before entering the house in the evening you have to memorize where exactly you left the car in the driveway, as in the morning it will have disappeared. Become one with the plump, thick white carpet that swallows everything immobile. If my ridiculous ancestors had only tried counting to ten when dealing with the irritating monarch, I could be sitting in Bergen cleaning my ears with a cashmere Q-tip while yawning over the job offers piling up. Ah, to be an engineer in Norway.

Wednesday - Yrsa

Monday, January 23, 2012

below Paris

A few more photos from the file of subterranean Paris -beyond these gates of Parc Monceau, where Marcel Proust walked

lies a whole graveyard of Metro trains under this entrance

during the war a big shelter for the Metro VIP's with air sealed doors was constructed

Cara - Tuesday