Repost: How the Global Financial Crisis Has Affected My Life

The following was originally published online on Tuesday November 4th, 2008.

So as everyone knows, ever since the middle of September, there has been nothing but doom and gloom all over the media about the consequences of the financial crisis. CNN waxed lyrical about falling shares, stock prices plummeting, and interest rates slashed in such cunningly globally synchronised methods so as to wonder if these central bankers are really international superspies.

But what does all that mean to real people? The news paints this as a global disaster, yet the only images we see of people hurting from this are stock brokers weeping in each others arms around the world. I’m not from Iceland, Ukraine or Hungary. I dont have a mortgage, and my (Irish) government was the first in the world to guarantee all my (non-existant) savings. All through this melodrama, I never felt any real fear that any of these events could effect me in any tangible way. I was wrong.

As some of you know, I have been living and working in Barcelona since the middle of September (I actually started working the day Lehman Brothers collapsed). Barcelona is a tourist city, and like any other is dependent on the spending power of incoming tourists. This is especially true of Barcelona’s night scene, where its hundreds of bars would not come close to breaking even if they had to depend on local business.

The past three weekends I have seen a notable drop in tourists at the weekend. While you could make the argument that the summer season is over and no one is going on holiday at this time etc, Barcelona is a year round destination thanks to the low budget airlines, and I am assured by locals that the absence of stag parties on La Rambla in October is unusual. So therefore I am assuming that this drop off in tourists is because people aren’t spending money on luxuries because they’re worried about the consequences of the credit crunch.

One good point of this is that bars have to become more competitive in order to get business. When on a night out, it is impossible to walk down the street without being dragged into a bar and free drink offers shoved literally down your throat.

Barcelona’s night life isn’t just bars however, and the drop in tourists has shown me a whole new part of the city that previously was hidden. Its never really taken into account, but a significant portion of visitors to this city are actually sex tourists, who come just to avail of the local prostitutes. But alas, sex tourism is not recession proof, and therefore their absence has instantly severely altered the ratio of prostitutes:unwilling punters. I am one such unwilling punter.

Previously after a night out, I could calmly walk down the street I live just off La Rambla, not a care in the world. Now, without fail, I have three or four prostitutes fighting over me while I’m still showing no interest whatsoever. And whats more, they seem to be getting more aggressive in their propositions. When I first noticed this change in my neighbourhood, a simple shake of the head would make them move on to some other poor bastard, now as the weeks have gone on, when I say ‘no thank you’ or simply keep on walking, I get abused on a crowded street by a very young Nigerian prostitute who is shouting obscenities at me. And once I’m out of earshot, another one comes over and the whole process starts all over again.

So, as you can see, none of us are safe from the effects of the financial crisis. I never would have thought when I read that Lehman Brothers collapsed, that the net result would be me getting endless hassle and abuse from a never ending stream of African prostitutes.

Support the corporate bailouts.

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Across A Smokey Room

Whenever anyone is flying in to visit me here in Vienna, one thing I always do is tell them to pack one more pair of clothes than they would usually bring on a similar European trip they have taken. The reason for this is that most of the people visiting me are natives of English speaking countries, and in virtually every English speaking country in the world there are laws against smoking cigarettes in restaurants, bars, museums, churches, synagogues, hospitals and any other place where people congregate en masse. Austria has no such ban, and therefore an evening spent inside a restaurant or bar will generally leave your clothes smelling like a tramps trusted dog. No one wants to wait for and board a Ryanair flight smelling like this on their way home, hence my advice for those about to visit me. I am not a smoker and people smoking around me doesn’t bother me too much, however I am reasonably young and do not have any children to protect from tobacco inhalation, so I consider myself on the borderline, floating in and out of a plausible degree of objectivity when discussing the smoking ban. The overarching thing about the lack of a smoking ban in Austria however, is that it is a shock to everyone when they first learn of it.

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I was shocked when I moved here and discovered there was no smoking ban, as I thought by now it was European Union-wide legislation. The first thing I was told (by an Austrian non-smoker) was that there would never be a smoking ban in Austria, that there was too much opposition against it, that smoking in cafes and bars was part of the Austrian cultural heritage. This argument shouldn’t convince anyone who has lived in Italy, Spain, Ireland, The UK, The Netherlands etc. where the same argument was proposed by the critics of an eventually successful smoking ban. I am not educated enough in the machinations of Austrian politics to discuss why there is no smoking ban in Austria, so I do not mean to discuss it here in this post. Much as a sausage is more enjoyably consumed than the information regarding its creation, so too are the effects of laws much more interesting than the debates that lead to their ratification. In a previous post I revealed myself as a believer in Realpolitik, and that politicians only act in order to bolster their powerbase and ultimately enhance their prospects of re-election. I am reminded of this because Ireland was actually the first country in the world to introduce a nationwide smoking ban, which was timed perfectly to coincide with Irelands presidency of the European Union in early 2004.

This is not to say that there aren’t perfectly good reasons for introducing a smoking ban. The link between tobacco inhalation and cancer is by now undeniable. Anyone who has smoked a cigarette in the past twenty years knows at some level that they may be incrementally contributing to their own death. Despite what the V for Vendetta masks say, we in Europe actually do live in free societies, where people can make self-destructive decisions like this (as long as the abused product is taxed). However, smoking indoors does not just harm the smoker themselves. The fact that the toxic fumes produced by tobacco cannot be limited to just the individual who chooses to smoke means that the government is forced to act. In economic theory we would describe this cancerous ‘smoke’ as a Public Bad. This phrase sounds like it was conceived by a kindergartener, but it is simply the opposite of a Public Good, a phrase which incorporates everything we all freely enjoy such as air, water, public roads and… well, freedom. For every good, there is a bad. A government has to act to ensure the availability of public goods, and it is also responsible for protecting us from the bads(ies). What is conspicuous is that governments do not ban tobacco altogether if it is so dangerous to the health of its citizens. Smoke outside, harm yourself, the air that is not captured between bricks and mortar is not their jurisdiction.

One thing I must say about bars in Austria is that they are very atmospheric. Smokey bars to people from smoke-banned countries equates to travelling back in time, to a Golden Age of acceptance. In Ireland a few weeks ago, one of the most frustrating things encountered was that half the people in a group would migrate outside to the smoking area every half hour or so, instantly dissecting any dynamic that had been formed. In smoke-ban countries, there is segregation between the smokers and the non-smokers. Both groups are welcome in each other’s territory (laws permitting), but none are truly at home unless they are with their own kind. Most have heard of the modern phenomenon of non-smokers going out to the smoking area for a change of scenery from the main club. In the smoking area, there is a sense of comraderie, borne out of segregation; it is much easier to spark up a conversation, as you at least have one thing in common with whoever else is in there. Also in Ireland, a lot more girls smoke than guys, so that may have something to do with the smoking area having evolved into a chillout lounge. In Austria this is not the case, men and women of all ages smoke openly in front of each other.

The reason I wanted to write about the lack of a smoking ban in Austria is because there are too many times I have been in a supposedly ‘Less Developed Country’ and heard tourists just like myself mocking that country just for the fact that people can smoke inside, as if smoking inside is some barbaric thing from the middle ages. It isn’t, it still happens in the heartland of Europe. It makes your clothes a lot smellier, implying a lot more laundry bills, and also a less-than-perfect bill of health in twenty years. It leads to less social segregation, and more atmospheric bars. What I am saying here is that the lack of a smoking ban in Austria is not a good thing nor a bad thing, it is just a Thing. It is also something that cannot last forever, and smokers here should enjoy it while they can. Their time in the wilderness shall come. Also, I do think a large part of Ryanairs success in limiting their passengers to one carry-on case has been due to the lack of a need for one extra change of clothes for a European weekend trip.

I Can’t Wait For the Movie

Ever since I first finished reading On The Road almost 10 years ago, I was aware of a dormant IMDb page of the same name, which habitually went from being designated as On The Road (2003) to On The Road (2005) and sometime in the middle to On The Road (20??). The people attached constantly changed: Brad Pitt was involved one year, Hugh Jackman the next, while every auteur director of the moment was attached at some point. Finally, this year, and to little fanfare, On The Road (2012) was released, starring the guy who played Ian Curtis in Control, and directed by Walter Salles, he of The Motorcycle Diaries. Just before watching this movie a few weeks ago, I realised that I didn’t really have any interest in seeing it at all, and had no expectations about it apart from a mild curiosity as to how they would deal with an apparently unfilmable book.

I am a big fan of On The Road, and it is apparent that only big fans of the book will seek out such a low-key cinematic release such as this. The issue here is that movies of books are generally meant to attract the core group of fans that the book already has, while also hopefully attracting new ones. It is unlikely On The Road (2012) will satisfy either of these conditions, as it is a movie basking in the glow of its own source material, and quite inaccessible to the uninitiated. That, and not many fans of the book were interested anyway. Yet still, in newspaper articles written in the build-up to its release, and also the release of any movie version of a popular book, the message was that ‘fans of the book are really excited about finally seeing their beloved characters on screen’. Maybe some fans are really excited about the cinematic release of their beloved book, but really: should they be?

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Thanks to Charlie Kaufmann for the image, as well as Susan Orleans’ seminal work “The Orchid Thief”

The thing about reading a book is that it requires the conscious help of the reader to build the story and events in his/her own mind. Every individual reader thinks in a different way, and therefore the stories created in each individual readers mind will be different in countless unimaginable ways. The problem about watching the movie of a book is that you are seeing just one version of the story you love so well: the version that the writers and directors agreed on, with input from the actors and set designers, as well as others. Watching a movie is a passive experience, it requires no participation, just for the viewer to sit back and observe. There is literally no chance whatsoever that this movie version of a book you love will end up exactly as it was in your head.

Maybe in your version, a major character was very sympathetic, but this movie version decides she is just a coward after all. There is little you can do but sit back in horror as a fond memory is brutalised before your eyes on screen. Movie adaptations of books nullify all of the countless versions of a story that readers create and love, and instead supplant on-screen just one of these. It is a risky endeavour, as anyone who has read a book and watched the corresponding movie will have ideas about how each scene should be played and how each character should behave. Not many fans of a book will watch its movie and feel satisfied, that is for sure.  If done well, however, even loyal fans of a book will appreciate what changes the creative team behind the movie have implemented. This is rare however, as most book-to-film adaptations are crass, simplified restatements of the basic plot rather than bold reinterpretations.

Based on this crass simplification, I would classify book-to-film adaptations into two broad categories: ‘The Safe Bet’ and ‘The Labour Of Love’. The best demonstration of the difference between these two types of adaption came in Winter 2001, when the first part of Peter Jacksons Lord of the Rings Trilogy was released a matter of weeks after the first Harry Potter movie. Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone was fast-tracked through development at Warner Brothers once it became clear that the books were a phenomenon and that each further book would outperform the last. The movie was very well made, stuck very close to the source material and did exactly what everyone wanted it to. Lord of the Rings went through decades of development hell, going from studio to studio, from visionary director to visionary director, and finally when Peter Jackson convinced New Line Cinema that he could create something special whilst also providing a return on their enormous investment, the green light was given.

These two movies were compared a lot back in winter 2001, but really there is not a comparison to be made. Both movies were insanely popular, but anyone who has seen both could tell you which is The Safe Bet and which is the Labour of Love. For a safe bet, Harry Potter was used in order to convey that this categorisation does not immediately have anything to do with the quality of the movie; it just means that its production has more to do with dollar signs in the eyes of studio executives rather than a nuanced interpretation of the actual source material. The movies based on Dan Browns bestsellers were also in this mould, as will be Fifty Shades of Grey when the script is finished tomorrow and is released next week. A safe bet can be good, but the odds for success are stacked against it.

A Labour of Love is different, as usually it is instigated and followed through passionately by a true lover of the source material, or indeed of the potential of this source material. Though the title of this category is a little romantic and idealised, it too also does not have much bearing on the quality of the finished movie. On The Road (2012) is an awful movie, yet it is truly a labour of love. The detail in the movie and the performances are impeccable, yet the creators simply cared too much about the books legacy, and clinged to the source material, which was quite unfilmable. In contrast, another unfilmable labour of love was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which from the very beginning was obviously Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, so fans of the book could just sit back and watch his interpretation. Stanley Kubrick also saw the potential in The Shining and made it his own, and far different from how Stephen King originally imagined it. A labour of love adaptation is motivated primarily by wishing to convey a unique view of the source material to the general public. There is no guarantee that this unique view will be accepted or acceptable, but I think most would agree that this type of adaptation is preferable to the generic cash-in of a Safe Bet.

Every few years articles appear in film sections of newspapers noting the prevalence of book adaptations coming out in cinemas these days, and the journalists then take this to mean that society as a whole is running out of fresh ideas and is doomed merely to rehash the past. I don’t blame movie producers for wanting to churn out as many popular book adaptations as possible, or for not caring about their quality. Film is a tough, expensive business, and filming an adaptation of an extremely popular book mitigates this risk immensely by already guaranteeing that a substantial part of its fans will pay to see the movie, even purely out of curiosity. It’s a safe bet, as in the opening weekend of release production costs may be reclaimed even if it turns out the movie is terrible. If some thought goes into the adaptation, fine, fans of the book get to see one bold reimagining of their beloved book, and can discuss it later with other fans. Rarely however will either of these types of adaptations really satisfy the fans of the book, they merely satisfy the bank balances of movie studios, a deflated publishing industry and sometimes just an egotistical auteur.

The adaptation is rarely for us, so should fans of a book really be as excited as magazine articles always claim they are? It is also rare that an adaptation of a book is as good as its source material, or even watchable in its own right. Most likely it will fall well below the expectations of fans of the book, but these fans should know that already. The movie should be a curiosity, nothing else. If it is good, then fine, but otherwise, don’t expect much. We shouldn’t have to rely on Hollywood to show us the correct version of the amazing story we have already played out in our own heads.

Capitalism: I Just Can’t Seem To Get Enough of YOU (even in socialist Vienna)

Walking around the new Wien Mitte mall in Central Vienna, I was shocked to see that it contained a new Spar convenience store, open till 11pm, every day of the week. This was amazing, I thought, truly amazing, the future is here. After that I suddenly got very depressed about how such a small thing could possibly make such a big difference to my life. To get a few things straight, Vienna doesn’t do convenience stores: supermarkets close at 7:30pm, and the vast, vast majority of those are closed on Sundays. Therefore the existence of a store such as this Spar which breaks all of these rules, and located just three U-Bahn stops from my door, and on my way home from work is, rather depressingly, a big deal.

Although I have lived in Vienna for over a year, and previously in other European countries with a similar system, I am still aligned to the convenience-culture which is prevalent in the English speaking world and also much of Asia. I am not content unless there is a convenience store on my street where I can buy food at ungodly hours, any day of the week. As a result of this, I often feel a slave to the opening hours of supermarkets in Vienna, rushing home to the local Billa before 19:30 if I want to do such a simple thing as prepare a meal at home that evening. This is worse on Saturdays, as all supermarkets close at 6pm, and do not reopen until Monday. I know all of these difficulties are mostly related to my own deeply-rooted psychological problems and procrastination issues, however this has rarely stopped me ranting here before.

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I have travelled around Western Europe a lot and spent extended periods in Italy, the Netherlands and most recently Austria. What has generally struck me about these countries is that they are a lot less obsessed with capitalism than the English-speaking countries in particular. The early closing times of supermarkets is just a symptom of this. Ireland was growing rich while I was growing up, and I saw the change from respecting the Sabbath day to Sundays becoming the Official Shopping Day of the entire country. Chains of convenience stores emerged, followed by 24-hour Tesco’s up and down the land. Commercial trading is done differently on the continent. Though not overtly religious, many European countries have laws preventing stores from opening on Sundays. There are exceptions, most notably at major train stations such as Wien Mitte/Landstrasse. Due to the lack of similar convenience stores around, I assume a problem is that trade licences that permit later opening hours are much more expensive than the normal licenses with state-prescribed opening hours. The innocence of the capitalist forces involved in opening this new Spar is shown in that normal supermarket prices are charged for all items. In Ireland, convenience stores charge a hefty premium, even with much competition. The Spar at Wien Mitte has no competitors for miles.

Christmas in mainland European countries is also a pleasant, non-commercial experience which contrasts greatly with the bombardment of pressure and gimmickry which those in the English-speaking world are presented with every year. While locals here still complain about the commercialisation of the festive season, it really does not compare with the yearly competition to buy as much food, gifts and everything else which defines the modern Christmas in Ireland, at least. Not that I am complaining about this of course, as since I grew up with the “Commercial Christmas”, it is that version of the holiday which I yearn for. It has to be said that a big part of my idealising of the European version could be that I am not susceptible to Austrian media and advertising in the run-up to Christmas. I do not watch Austrian television or listen to radio here, while at home in Ireland this would not be the case.

Another, more city-specific point to be made here is that while Vienna is a major capital city, it is not a major economic centre. Vienna is a very affluent city, but for different reasons than most. Vienna thrives through its tourist industry and also its designation as a major hub for international organisations. While the rush-hour commute frustrates and depresses, workers from London, New York and even Dublin would laugh at what we in Vienna must brave every morning and evening. There is no dramatic urgency with every step, there is no grabbing a coffee as quickly as possible, and there is no pushing people out of the way in order to catch that train even though there is one two minutes later. Viennese life is not fast-paced; it is structured and careful. I attribute this to the absence of a major financial sector and the presence in its stead of large-scale international institutions, however that is a story for a different day. Back to the issue, Vienna is not stressful, most of its workers enjoy predictable, steady working hours and therefore do not have much need for late opening hours or convenience stores.  Everyone who works here is busy and earns a decent wage, but no one is overtly stressed. This point is also a large factor in why Vienna is so often ranked highly in indexes of attractive places to live in the world.

As is predictable, I would obviously favour a system similar to that of my homeland, with generous supermarket opening hours combined with ubiquitous convenience stores. A 24 hour system is probably not good for society, as I am always reminded of Chris Rock’s point about the merits of 24 hour banking. Similarly, most who wish to shop at 3am should probably be offered some sort of counselling at the checkout. The  mainland European system of capitalism is charming and it almost takes us cynical expats back to a bygone era in our own home countries. However, anyone in Vienna who has ever visited one of those supermarkets in the vast, vast minority that are open on Sundays will know that the system cannot last forever. A few Billas in Vienna open on Sundays, and on this day all are absolutely crammed with people to the point of unpleasantness. I work beside one of these Billa’s, and know that it is only like this on Sundays.

With demand like this, and with more uncertain economic times ahead which are sure to eventually hit Austria, it is all but inevitable that the commercial trading restrictions I rant about now will be relaxed. Walking around the new Wien Mitte mall today, I couldn’t help but think of the adjacent street, Landstrasse Hauptstrasse, which contains all one could possibly want from a suburban shopping street, albeit stretched out over several hundred metres. When winter finally comes, this street will suffer due to the existence of the new centrally-heated Mall, and shops there may be forced to close. They will leave behind them valuable retail space which perhaps only major international brands can afford, and also the incentive to lobby the government for relaxed commercial trading laws. It is a shame, of course, but that is capitalism, and unfortunately right now we can’t even imagine a world without it.