Archive for February, 2010

The mayor of the town in which the chateau is located, Differdange, was here a few nights ago to give a talk.  He noted, as we hear regularly, that people with deep Lux roots are now becoming a minority in their own country.  According to the Ministry of Education, “some 40 % of the global population and more than 65 % of the active population do not have the Luxembourgish nationality.”

On local education:  the Lux schools teach reading and writing in the primary grades in German.  Then after a few years, the classes switch to being conducted in French, except for math, which continues in German.  No one can quite explain why math is taught that way.  Of course the point of having classes conducted completely in French or German is to give people a solid command of those tongues, including how to write in them.  The Portuguese kids in the system are encountering a language they have no acquaintance with, German, as they learn to read and write.  So apparently they often have difficulty.  Meanwhile, Luxembourgish–a originally a dialect of German that evolved on its own after about the 4th c AD (there was no standard German language in any event until the 16th c, and dialects in Germany dominated in everyday life until 1945)–continues to have great cultural and, we might say, emotional significance for the “native” population.  It is almost completely an oral language, and you do hear it spoken here a lot.  There are also various signs around in that tongue.  So the country has a delicate task:  preserve some sort of national identity, for what is a country that doesn’t have a usable language of its own–while simultaneously educating people for a wider world and absorbing immigrants from all over.  It’s a tough row to hoe.  All teachers, nursery school through secondary school, have to speak Luxembourgish, know “standard” German, and be able to work in French.  So that leaves out many immigrants.  In fact, to go very high at all in any office or business, you have to be able to deal with things in French.  German is also an official language for documents, courts, and so on, but it is clearly in second place behind French–even though the biggest newspaper here is the Luxemburger Wort, obviously in German.  You can go into almost any store or cafe and address people in French or German, but French is the language of well educated people.  The higher the level of education anyone has, the more likely that person is to use French first.  English is of course also taught in the schools, starting around age 13.  So a “native” Luxembourger often speaks four languages.  Again, if you come into this system with Portuguese or another, more distant language in your mind–you start with a disadvantage.

So here is another case of stepping delicately around the language issue.  Like Canada, which seems to have weathered the storm over French and English usage pretty well, or Ukraine, with its attempt to be bilingual in Ukrainian and Russian, and our good old US with Spanish and English, language is a cultural and political minefield.  Solution:  just do it; learn the languages your country asks you to, hard as that may be.  It’s only good for you.

On gnome land security, as one commentator put it:  I learned while the mayor was here that until 9/11, the chateau grounds were open to local people, who used them as a park.  After 9/11, an electronically controlled gate was installed at the main, paved entrance to the grounds.  Locals were instructed to stay out, which they do.  The thinking, of course, was that an institution in Europe peopled by Americans would be a ripe target for terrorists.   Dubious, friends, dubious.  Anyway, the electronic gate is always open.  Wide open.  The second gate has a lock which is never locked.  Today, a beautiful day, thank goodness, the first sunny one in a long, long time, I took a walk around the back side of the chateau.  There really isn’t even a fence or a wall in most places.  So our protection against terrorists consists, or would consist if they were ever locked, of 2 gates, which, if locked, would possibly prevent the bad guys from driving in with a truckload of explosives.

I wrote about terrorism here before; to repeat a point driven home to me by a walk around the chateau grounds today, counter-terrorism isn’t the best way to deal with terrorism.  We can’t lock up the chateau grounds without spending a fortune, and even then 1 person with a gun could walk in and slaughter people, a la Virginia Tech or other killing grounds in the US.  Is it not time to think carefully about what factors give rise to terrorism in the first place, and how we might address those (hint:  not by trying to impose our civilization and “values” on Afghanistan).  I think so.

Good night.  Bon soir.  Guten Abend.  And I have no idea how to say that in Luxembourgish.


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Back from a week in Italy.  Bari on the Adriatic Coast, Cetara on the Amalfi Coast, and many a hill town in between.  Pompeii and Ravello, fabulous cathedrals–I’ve come to like the details of carvings and interiors more than I care about the architecture–to each his own.

To get to my apt./hotel room in Cetara, I had to climb 95 steep steps.  At Amalfi, Metara, Ostuni–up and down, over the steps and cobblestones.  No place for sissies, and I wonder how great all this is for old people.  They should move to flat places, but people can’t afford to move in any event.

The first rule of Italian driving (I rented a little Lancia, which more or less held its own, except that after a while on mountain roads in second gear, it was really hard sometimes to get the car into third) is not “never look behind you”; it’s never look beside you.  If you did, you’d freak.  There’s no room to get by the truck coming up the hill, but you do.  People and cars dart out from side streets, and that’s your problem, not theirs.  The streets are narrow, cars and scooters are parked everywhere, people are walking everywhere–it’s nuts.  I have seen the like before, e.g. in Jamaica and Turkey, but a week of Italian driving will cure you of worrying about peripheral vision.  Don’t bother.

By the way, Western Europe is absolutely car crazy.  There is good public trans, but everyone wants a car, and it seems that most people have one.

Got back to the chateau at 3:30 AM this morning, and today felt like I was walking through jello.  So I’ll just put up a few pictures and call  it quits for now.

Positano, Amalfi Coast


bodies at Pompeii, preserved in a plaster process

Chimneys, Matera

pulpit, Ravello church (begun 1080)

carvings at Trani Cathedral, begun 1097

Happy to be back in my home away from home!

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All I want to do here is record the names of the Italian towns I visited or drove through today:

Ostuni, Martina Franca, Lecorotondo, Alberobello, Putignano, Turi, Casamassima (that one sticks in my mind because of the character Princess Casamassima in Henry James’ The Golden Bowl.  A long read but somehow I made through and even liked it), Adelfia, and back to Sannicandro di Bari.  If it sounds like a melodious ride, it was.  More to follow, with pics of course.

And other dinner in which the Italians gave me far too much food, not quite as good as last night, but still fine.  And again only 15 euros.

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Here are some streets of old town Bari:

Here’s an old riddle: you’re staying in a cabin in the woods. You go out for a walk but get lost; it rains hard. By the time you get back to the cabin, you’re wet, cold, tired, and hungry. You open the door. Inside there are a wood-burning stove, a lantern, a fireplace with wood ready for a fire: what do you light first?

Answer: a match!

Okay, you take a walk in Bari. It rains hard. You didn’t wear the right clothing and you’re cold. You’re hungry but nothing is open. You’re lost. You have to pee pretty badly. You need to find out about getting a rental car but your telephone got wet and is acting crazy; it enters the wrong letters or digits. What do you do first?

Answer: get lucky!

I asked some Italians on the street how to get to the train station. They happened to b e standing at a bus stop. They explained to me–somehow I understood their Italianate speech–that I could take any bus that stopped there. One came in 2 minutes. Took me right to the station, where I used the WC. Then I took the battery out of my phone, for the 3rd or 4th time, waited, put it back in, waited for the phone to reboot. This time it worked! And, after a couple of minutes on the phone with a guy who spoke only some English, I found they had a car for me at the airport. Went out to the bus stops–there was a bus marked aeroporto. And next to it was a tobacco kiosk where they sold tickets. Got one, got on the bus, it left pronto. Got to the airport, found the rental agency, took care of the paperwork, got juice, a sandwich, coffee. Went to the car, hooked up Ms. Tom Tom, and away we went. Only we went in circles for a while. Finally got back to the hotel. The very kind woman at the desk, whose English is good, made a reservation at a local restaurant for me. I put myself in the chef’s hands. Had: very good ham and another cold meat with fresh mozarella cheese. Fried eggplant. Fresh fish rolled into balls and fried in olive oil. Potatoes and rice. Pasta (small shells) with excellent pieces of sausage. Dessert, something between cheesecake and pudding. A big bottle of mineral water and a liter (I didn’t drink most of it) of red wine. I shuddered to think of what it would cost, but I thought I earned it today. The bill: 15 euros! Not much more than 20-22 $! Where am I??

So there’s good times and bad, but golly gee, when it gets wrapped into a single day, you’re a yo-yo!

More old stuff from Bari:

The Bishop’s throne, San Nicola, c. 1150.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

door of San Nicola Church, Bari

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Just one story from the teaching trail:  early last week I divided the class of 31 into 3 groups.  One was to stage a witchcraft trial in a fictitious area, which they were to name and describe, that had a mild witch hunt.  The second group a moderate hunt, and the third, well, you get it.  Each group had to have someone play the role of the judge, of witnesses, of the accused witch, of the torturer/executioner, and so on.  In each group the accused witch had to make a statement  before being tortured and another afterward.  The girl who played the role of the witch in the last group is a nice girl–I mean, if you had to pick someone, judging by the exterior, who is a Nice Girl, it would be this one.  So she made a statement of innocence before being tortured; afterward, she very cheerfully confessed that, yes, she had met the devil, had signed a pact with him, and had flown to a witches’ sabbath.  “And there,” she went on happily, “I had sex with the devil all night!”

Oh my, what am I doing to these kids?  Probably no permanent damage.

Fly away in your dreams to somewhere nice.

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Flying down to Bari

The Battle between Carnival and Lent. Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1559

Took my first Ryan Air flight today. Absolutely cut rate; the seat backs didn’t recline, and there were no seat back pockets. The attendants went constantly up and down the aisles selling things, from food to lottery tickets to smokeless cigarettes. But the flight left and landed on time! And to me, other than getting there safely, that’s the most important thing.

Ryan Air flies all over Western Europe, often for ridiculously low fares, e.g. 5 euros. I’ve even heard of 0 for the fare–taxes definitely not included! Their business model, according to Al the Business Prof, is to get people into the seats almost at any price, then charge for everything, inc. of course checked baggage. Al says they have an algorithm that keeps track of how many people are checking fares for various flights; if you then don’t book that flight immediately, the price will go up when you go back to the Ryan site. And there is no first class, only an extra charge if you want to board the plane ahead of the mob. But boarding with the plebes presented no problem for me.

Ryan flies out of Frankfurt Hahn airport, among many others. I knew about that place only because I took a bus to there from Frankfurt Main last May, then another from Fr. Hahn to Lux City; that seemed the easiest way to get from Fr Main to Luxembourg. Fr Hahn is a small airport, which I like. A week ago I visted their web site to check on parking; in the long-term lots, it’s really cheap, like 4 euros a day. Wella wella, when I arrived there today, one long-term lot was taking only cars that had made reservations-!! at an airport parking lot?? Another lot was closed due to snow. Okay, they’ve had a lot of snow, but they’ve always had that. So now it will cost me more like 10 euros a day for a week. Wah wah.

I haven’t exactly seen much of Bari yet. This is a nice hotel, but it’s way out of town. Reached here when it was already dark. Tomorrow I’ll go into Bari one way or another. On Monday morning I’ll pick up a rental car. But one object of this vacation, during Carnival week, is to get some extra sleep. That just might happen.

Happy Carnival, a word derived from the Latin for meat or flesh (funny, in German, it’s the same word, Fleisch–they don’t substitute French words for meat that they eat, like we do–veal for calf, pork for pig: in German that’s Kalbsfleisch, Schweinefleisch), as in today’s Spanish, carne. In ancient and medieval theory, meat was inherently warm, no matter how you served it. You would become warmer by eating meat. I.e., you’d get hot–sexually. That’s why Catholics ate fish (inherently cold) on Friday, so maybe they’d have less sex and be more pure come Sunday morning. In the days just before Lent started, esp. Fat Tuesday, people were supposed to eat up all the meat, eggs, butter, etc. that they had–then they’d be in shape to forego all sorts of things during Lent, esp. sex.

So eat up that carne before Tuesday night.

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Meds in Lux

Luxemburgers are pretty healthy overall. First of all, the country is wealthy. Below are the figures (for 2006, so we should scale down many countries, esp. Iceland and Ireland). It’s interesting how much money you can make from other people’s money. But of course they make things in Lux, too, e.g. specialized steel.

I don’t think anyone wants to go through the health care debate here. Just one number:  the U.S. ranked 30th in infant mortality in 2005, according to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control. That is largely because more American babies are born pre-term, with low birth weight, etc.  But infant mortality is a pretty good indicator of how healthy a country is in general.  Pre-term, low  birth weight  babies often appear because of poor prenatal care–i.e., pregnant women don’t go to the doctor because they can’t afford to.

Anyway, some observations of my own about health care here.  1, it’s easy to see the doctor.  2, my family care physician in Ohio has 6-8 women working for him at any one time, including a nurse and some sort of other mid-range health person.  But there are always 4-5 people in his office who handle appointments and billing.

My doctor here works in a group practice with one other physician; between them they employ 2 people (women again) to handle appointments and billing.  I went into ask to have a prescription refilled; no problem.  Since I’m not yet in the Lux health system, I had to pay 35 Euros (about $50) for the appointment just to talk to the doc.  He handed me the prescription, which I took to the small pharmacy located just below his office.  I told the pharmacist that I could come back in a few minutes.  He answered, “Why?  I can fill this immediately.”  And he did, by bringing out my meds in their original boxes, no vials, no instructions, nothing, and placing them face up on the counter.  I was glad I wasn’t buying something more private.  Anyway, a large supply of the stuff cost me–and again, I’m not in the system–about $20, more or less what it would in the States under my insurance plan.

But if you are in the system here, the cost for medications is ridiculously low.  A friend of mine told me that, with insurance, he has to spend about $100 a month for drugs.  Here he spent 1 Euro 40 cents.

Yeah, that cost is subsidized, and people pay high taxes.  But they have access to health care, and so our infant mortality rate is more than 2 1/2 times that of Hong Kong or Sweden.

As for medical innovations in Europe, they may be behind the U.S., but not always.  Shoulder replacements began here, and they do not cost much.  But search on the web for that procedure and you will find many hospitals in Thailand, Mexico, etc. that try to attract U.S. patients.  Even with good insurance in America, you could pay a bundle for a shoulder replacement.  On this side of the pond, I have a Belgian colleague here whose wife just had the surgery.  A nurse and a physical therapist visit her each day.

People here don’t lose their houses because they can’t pay their medical bills.  The % of GDP spent on health care is lower than in the U.S., but people live longer.  There is more freedom here to change jobs–you can’t lose your insurance by doing so.

If something is wrong with your heart, do what the Saudi princes do, go to the Cleveland Clinic.  It’s the best.  If you have a health problem and your local doctors can’t pinpoint it, go to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where, if you can afford it, they will put a whole team on your case and find out what’s wrong.

But for everyday, preventive, low cost health care–and maybe for a shoulder replacement–I’ll take Western Europe.

Good health to you.

# 1 Luxembourg: $89,563.63 per capita 2006 Time series
# 2 Norway: $66,964.36 per capita 2006 Time series
# 3 Iceland: $53,029.30 per capita 2006 Time series
# 4 Ireland: $52,892.89 per capita 2006 Time series
# 5 Qatar: $52,239.72 per capita 2005 Time series
# 6 Switzerland: $51,032.66 per capita 2006 Time series
# 7 Denmark: $50,702.00 per capita 2006 Time series
# 8 United States: $44,155.00 per capita 2006 Time series
# 9 Sweden: $42,553.49 per capita 2006 Time series
# 10 Netherlands: $40,167.13 per capita 2006 Time series
# 11 Finland: $39,855.93 per capita 2006 Time series
# 12 Austria: $39,131.37 per capita 2006 Time series
# 13 United Kingdom: $38,849.97 per capita 2006 Time series
# 14 Canada: $38,439.78 per capita 2006 Time series
# 15 Australia: $37,433.85 per capita 2006 Time series
# 16 Belgium: $37,384.34 per capita 2006 Time series
# 17 Bermuda: $36,960.66 per capita 2003 Time series
# 18 France: $36,546.72 per capita 2006 Time series
# 19 Germany: $35,270.36 per capita 2006 Time series
# 20 Japan: $34,022.94 per capita 2006 Time series
# 21 Kuwait: $31,860.60 per capita 2005 Time series
# 22 Italy $31,495.95 per capita

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