When the New York Times tries to be positive about Israel

A blog post by Jesus (aka Tony Wolkovitzky) pointed my attention towards an article in the New York Times dedicated to the urban culture of the Israeli city of Haifa. The article is titled “In Israeli City of Haifa, a Liberal Arab Culture Blossoms”, and boy, its a hilarious one. In Haifa, the NYT preaches, “30,000 Arab residents, around 10 percent of the population, include equal numbers of Muslims and Christians, and they are generally wealthier and better educated than Arabs elsewhere in Israel”.

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Haifa is a gorgeous city on the Mediterranean sea

According to the NYT gospel, “This makes Haifa a comfortable place for liberal Palestinians who want not only to escape the constraints of conservative Arab communities but also to be among their own people.” Surprisingly, the place where they can “be among their own people” turns out to be… drums… Jewish neighbourhoods!

“”If you live in a Jewish neighborhood, you are a stranger, and that gives you freedom as an Arab woman,” said Fidaa Hammoud, 32. […] She and her partner live together in a Jewish neighborhood where they run a Palestinian cafe called Rai. “I couldn’t do this anywhere else,” she said.”  The emphasis is mine, as you probably guessed. From the murky description of their relationship I guess Ms. Hammoud is either unmarried or gay, and living in an Arab neighbourhood would be a nightmare for her, even in Haifa.

Essentially, what “makes Haifa a comfortable place for liberal Palestinians” is living alongside a significantly larger Jewish community. It is the Jewish community where they can escape to and where they enjoy the liberties and tolerance. Sadly, both the “liberal Palestinians” and the NYT fail to thank Haifa’s Jewish community even in a footnote.

But hey, what can one expect from a newspaper that produces a headline like “Israeli Woman Stabbed Amid West Bank Exchanges of Violence”, leaving it to the readers to guess, even after reading the article, that the pregnant woman was not “exchanging violence” with anyone but was stabbed by a Palestinian terrorist because she was Jewish.

Back to the Haifa article, the funniest part was the subsequent criticism of the article from Ayed Fadel, the owner of Kabareet nightspot, who is quoted by the NYT as  saying “We want a gay couple to go to the dance floor and kiss each other, and nobody to even look at them, this is the new Palestinian society we are aiming for”. Mr. Fadel’s complete rant is available here, but basically he is pissed about having “been totally used as a “pink washer” with the quote above!!”

The thing is, Kabareet was among the bars and cafes that held screenings for Kooz Queer, the first Palestinian gay film festival. The only place in the Middle East such a festival is even imaginable in is Israel. Yet somehow, for Mr. Fadel, Israel still gets to be the bad guy for allowing the festival to take place. And the NYT pissed him off by not mentioning the “pinkwashing” angle of Kooz.

Let me get this straight (pun intended). A Palestinian LGBT-themed film festival is held in Haifa, Israel. One of its most important topics is the Israeli “Pinkwashing” – the supposed exploitation of the idea of Israel being LGBT-friendly to promote public perception of Israel as a cute and cuddly country. But doesn’t the festival prove exactly the opposite?

First, it shows that Israel is a gay-friendly place – just think how the public and the state would react to a similar event in any of Israel’s neighbouring countries.

Second, it demonstrates quite clearly that Israel is not trying to “pinkwash” itself. Its not like the festival was promoted by Israel as a proof of Israel’s cuddliness. Mr. Fadel probably sees this lack of attention as “being silenced by the Zionist oppressor”, but he’s not going to be satisfied either way, I guess.

Third and finally, by allowing a festival with “pinkwashing” smear theme to take place in a major Israeli city like Haifa, without as much as a grumpy face from a single Israeli official, shows that Israel respects the freedom of expression and opinion, no matter how obnoxious and detached from reality this opinion may be.

I’m not the first nor the only person to note that in the Middle East, this sort of liberal, secular and gay-friendly scene could take place only in Israel, under Israeli laws and protection. The NYT was apparently sufficiently concerned by the criticism to publish not one, but two responses by Margaret Sullivan, the NYT public editor, who “handles questions and comments from readers and investigates matters of journalistic integrity”.

According to Ms. Sullivan, Diaa Hadid, who wrote the original story, disagrees with the claim that Israel is the only place in the Middle East where openly gay persons have freedom and safety. Ms. Hadid points out that “Beirut has a fairly vibrant gay scene”. Perhaps to prove her point, Ms. Hadid can, once she gets the chance, report from a gay film festival in Beirut? In fact, I’d be pleasantly surprised if Ms. Hadid has something positive to report on gay issues from any Arab capital. In the meantime, I wish her all the best exploring the diverse subcultures that peacefully coexist in Israel.

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Best bag for the cycling commuter

My review of commuter’s bicycle bags was published in the Bike Citizens Magazine. Here’s why you should go and read it.

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Who knows, maybe the best commuter bag is not a bag at all… It all depends on what you commute with, I guess.

Often, reviews of products you come across online are useless. Take bicycle commute’s bags, for example. The reviewers pretty much assume you commute with a which bagbackpack, and then throw in a messenger bag as an afterthought. And somehow, none of the bags they review seems to have any flaws. Which is obviously impossible – we all know every product has its limitations.

I think that the poor quality of reviews has two reasons. One reason is that the people who write these reviews don’t know what they are talking about, and write based on hearsay. “We consulted cyclists in The Independent office, and tested a range of bags for all budgets” – that comes from someone who wrote 200 articles in 12 months. Do you really believe she had the time to test 10 bike bags and come with a decent review? Second reason is that these reviews are often published in various lifestyle outlets, dedicated to praising consumer goods. Their goal is to get you to spend – why would they point out the flaws or drawbacks in the products they try to sell you?

That’s why you need people who know their material, and who are not driven by consumerism. People like me. If you need help in choosing a new bicycle bag, check out my review of commuter’s bicycle bags, published in the Bike Citizens Magazine. It is an honest, no-nonsense comparison of the four very different bags I use routinely, written based on decades of cycling experience. I hope it inspires you to cycle more often on your commute, regardless of which bag you use.

The Bike Citizens Magazine will be publishing more of my articles in 2016, stay tuned!

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Happy New 2016!

Dear readers,

Thank you all for visiting my Small European Country blog in 2015. I would like to thank all of you, wish you all the best in the new year, and I hope you will come back to read more about the life of a small European country in 2016.

The past year has been rather eventful for me to say the least. The birth of my second child, my son Boaz, is without a doubt the most significant thing I will remember from 2015. Of course, having more than 6500 visitors coming to read my blog has been a joyful event as well, so thank you again for stopping by.

I have great plans for 2016. Finishing my Ph.D., finally running the marathon, finding a new job and perhaps a new career in, who knows, a different (small European) country – not necessarily in that order – these are just some of the things I hope to accomplish in the coming year. I hope you will excuse me for sometimes being more focused on achieving these noble goals, and less concerned with reporting the progress on this blog.

In the meantime, the WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for me.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed almost 10000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Let’s make 2016 a very good year, shall we?

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How to improve your triathlon cycling (spoiler: not by cycling)

I know that by now its October and triathlon season is definitely over. But with the competition season over, its time to start training for the next year, and I thought my learned advice might actually be of use for other triathletes or those who are considering participating in their first triathlon in the next season.

Last summer, I’ve participated in my 21th triathlon.  Its not like I won any of them, and I’ve only done the shorter versions (up to Olympic distance so far) but I had a great deal of fun participating and have gathered a bit of experience as an amateur triathlete. Over the years I have become better in using that experience rather than sheer muscle power to boost my performance. Triathlon is an endurance sport, but there are quite a few technical sides to it. Of the triathlon components, cycling is my poorest discipline, and I have therefore focused on trying to improve that. So for what they’re worth – these are my suggestions to improve your triathlon finishing time, at least, as far as the cycling part is concerned.

On of my first triathlons... more than 10 years ago

On of my first triathlons… more than 10 years ago

The biggest difference between “normal” cycling and triathlon cycling is the switch. Changing from swimming to cycling and from cycling to running requires a transition between rather different sports, with a different body position and a different set of muscles working. It takes your body (and mind) an effort and time to perform the switch.

Start switching while swimming

Let your body start the adjustment before you exit the water. In the last tens of meters of swimming, lower your legs to start adjusting to the more vertical cycling position. Slower your arm work and power up your legs. This will start redirecting the blood stream to your legs, that will have to do the work from now on.

After leaving the water

Don’t let the adrenaline rush to blind you. Run to your bike, but not too fast – you just stood up and all the blood is flowing to your legs. Besides, there are dozens of other (disoriented) athletes around you running to their bike around you, and accidents are best to avoid.

Some Parc fermé's get very crowded

Some Parc fermé’s get very crowded

Gearing up

Put the helmet on first! Practice the “gearing up” procedure at home as part of your training routine. This will make sure that on the day of the race you know what goes where and in what sequence, so that you can put your stuff on and cycle away “on auto pilot”. Come well in advance and rehearse the procedure a few times at the race location and make sure you know where the exit of the Parc fermé is (you’ll be surprised how many people lose time looking for the exit).

Its not about your gear, its about how you use it... a fixie can be a triathlon bike too

Its not about your gear, its about how you use it… a fixie can be a triathlon bike, too

Mounting your bike

Only AFTER leaving the Parc fermé! Here, there are basically two options – putting the shoes on first, or clicking them into the pedals and putting your feet in while cycling. Which you use depends on personal preference and the type of shoes you wear, but again, this you can test at home to get used to the technique.

On your bicycle

Start on an easy gear and give your body a few minutes to adjust to the position and pace. This is something you can train as well – go to a park and lay down flat next to your bicycle for a minute. Do a few push-ups to get your heart rate up, then start off. Time how long it takes you to cycle at your regular tempo.

Switching to run

Just like the switch to cycling – start preparing in the last minutes by standing up a few times to get used to the upright running position. To shave off a few more seconds, you can pull your feet out of the cycling shoes before dismounting. And, again, start off easily, as cramps are not uncommon at this stage.

And, of course, most important is to remember to enjoy the race! Hope my suggestions help you improve your next (or first) triathlon and I would appreciate any feedback and other suggestions.

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Keeping the Dutch cyclists rolling

Cycling is immensely popular in the Netherlands. The Dutch cycling infrastructure is world-famous, and rightly so. But the popularity of cycling puts the existing infrastructure under pressure to keep up. My latest article for the Bike Citizens Magazine discusses the challenges posed by the tremendous popularity of cycling. Read more about it here: http://www.bikecitizens.net/investing-in-the-dutch-cycling-infrastructure/

The brand new train station in Delft came with an underground parking garage for 5000 bicycles. Just a few of months after the opening, the garage is already overflowing. The lack of parking places leads to frustrations and unsafe situations.

The brand new train station in Delft came with an underground parking garage for 5000 bicycles. Just a few of months after the opening, the garage is already overflowing. The lack of parking places leads to frustrations and unsafe situations.

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Alsace and Schwarzwald – a photo essay

Alsace has been described as “where France crashes into Central Europe”. I don’t know about Central Europe, but it is definitely where France and Germany collide, albeit today the collision is much more peaceful than it was in the past. I just came back from a two-week vacation spent in Alsace and its German counterpart – Schwarzwald. Since I am a bit short on time to write about the trip, and since I have some great photos, I will just show you where I’ve been.

Classic Alsatian views in Colmar

Classic Alsatian views in Colmar

Toy museum in Colmar is fantastic

Toy museum in Colmar is fantastic

Dozens of trains in the Colmar toy museum

Dozens of trains in the Colmar toy museum

Colmar itself is not bad at all

Colmar itself is not bad at all

OK, the weather in Colmar helped a lot, too

OK, the weather in Colmar helped a lot, too

Hiking with children in France...

Hiking with children in France…

...and in Germany

…and in Germany

The vineyards in Freiburg are right in the city

The vineyards in Freiburg are right in the city

Sweet grapes of Alsace are ripe for the picking

Sweet grapes of Alsace are ripe for the picking

Smelly Munster cheese goes great with Gewurztraminer

Smelly Munster cheese goes great with Gewurztraminer

A Schwarzwald kindergarten

A Schwarzwald kindergarten

A young farmgirl :-)

A young farmgirl :-)

Freiburg market from the catherdral tower

Freiburg market from the catherdral tower

Alsace and Schwarzwald 6

Radhaus square in Freiburg

Unmistakably Gothic  Freiburger Münster cathedral

Unmistakably Gothic Freiburger Münster cathedral

 

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How to choose a (small European) country

As the term of my contract at the university is drawing to a close, I begin to ponder on the next move. It is by now obvious we need another place to live. Our small European apartment has been a perfect place for the two of us, and we’ve managed very well to make it suitable for a baby, but with two children rapidly growing up it is becoming rather crowded here. We have few wishes – I dream of a kitchen with room for a dishwasher and the wife has always wanted a garden, even if a handkerchief sized one. The chances of finding an affordable place with a garden in a decent neighbourhood in Rotterdam with our current income are… well, not high. Besides, its not that I don’t like Rotterdam, on the contrary, but the air quality here is the worse in all of Western Europe.

Rotterdam is a pretty cool place to live

Rotterdam is a pretty cool place to live

Leaving Rotterdam – but where to?

Since in order to improve our living quarters we would have to find a new town,  I thought “why not tackle bigger issues, while we’re at it?”. There are many plus sides to living in the Netherlands (more about it in one of the next posts), but I would really like to live in a place where you don’t need to look at the calendar to know which season it is. But where to go? And how to decide? I sat down to compile a set of criteria my (our) new home would have to meet. The goal is to apply “Parkinson’s law for hiring”, and to reduce the number of possible places to move to. When applied right, in the end, the choice will be very, very simple.

Van Nelle factory - a Rotterdam architecture icon that is on the UNESCO World Heritage List

Van Nelle factory – a Rotterdam architecture icon that is on the UNESCO World Heritage List

A properly run country

First of all, I want to live in a properly run country. You may ask “How do you know whether it is run properly?”. And I will tell you it is very easy to tell whether a country is run properly. Simple question – is it safe to drink tap water there? I think it is a perfectly reasonable thing to ask. Turns out, it already rules out huge chunks of the world. All of Africa, all of South and Central America and most of Asia don’t have drinkable tap water. What’s left is Western, Northern and a bit of Central Europe, supplemented with the Anglo-Saxon division (USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) and the outliers of Asia that only prove how much they do not belong there (South Korea, Japan, Israel, Singapore, Hong Kong and Brunei).

With a pleasant climate

Having thus excluded most of the world, I went on to think about what makes a place pleasant to live in. I mentioned the climate, but how to define what makes a pleasant climate? And I am proud to say I found a way to do it – wine! I will quote this passage from www.earthmagazine.org in full, because it illustrates my point so well (emphasis added):

“Are there ideal weather conditions for growing winegrapes? Although no two vintages in any region are exactly alike, growers everywhere would be ecstatic with adequate precipitation and warmth to grow the vine and ripen the fruit, with no weather extremes (like frost, hail and heat waves) and disease. During the dormant period, this would equate to enough soil-replenishing rainfall and a cool to cold winter, without vine-killing low temperatures but with enough chilling to ensure bud fruitfulness the following year. The spring would be free from wide temperature swings and frost, and have enough precipitation to feed vegetative growth. During flowering, the weather would be cloud-free with moderately high temperatures and high photosynthetic potential to allow the flowers to fully set into fruit. The summer growth stage would be dry, with heat accumulation to meet the needs of the variety and few heat stress events. The ripening period would be dry with a slow truncation of the season toward fall, with moderately high daytime temperatures and progressively cooler nights.”

In other words, a wine-growing area has a properly cold winter, but not a bitterly cold one, a pleasant, sunny spring without the wild mood swings the Dutch springs are so famous for and a dry, warm summer, that gently slides off into a cooler, but still dry autumn. Look at this picture below and you will see that wine-growing areas are primarily in places like Southern France, California, and Southern Australia. Coupled with the clean tap water requirement it already leaves us with preciously little places to choose from. For the ease of further comparison I will exclude exotic wine-growing areas like Sweden or Canada – I am sure you understand that is not what I mean by “a pleasant climate”.

World Wine Areas, image by Denkhenk

Where I speak the language

Next, I decided I want to live somewhere I either already speak the language or where I can learn a language that is widely used. This leaves out destinations like South Korea and Slovenia. Not that I am not open for attractive business opportunities from Japan or Poland, but I am trying to find ways to cut down my list here.  I already speak Dutch, English, Hebrew, Russian and a bit of German and Spanish. French is a language that would be extremely useful to learn as there are so many French-speakers in the world, and Italian gets a wild-card for ease of learning (from hearsay) and its usefulness in enabling you to at least understand French and Spanish (again, hearsay). This trims down the list to France, Spain, Italy, Australia and New Zealand, USA, Israel and the German-speaking countries.

In Europe

The choices become more difficult, as all the above are rather attractive places to live in. But one has to make choices. The USA is out for preferring guns over nipples. While Australia and New Zealand are really fun, living there would take me rather far from my friends and family, almost all of whom live in Europe. Again, given the right incentive, I will sail for Australia and never look back, but I would prefer staying closer to the ones I love. I’ve already lived in Israel and its just too warm there for me. What’s left are “just” France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Austria to choose from.

Close to mountains

If there’s something I love its mountains. Hiking, climbing, canyoning – even just watching mountains makes me happy. Maybe its the years spent in the flatness of the Netherlands that make me want to live within easy reach of a serious mountain chain. And I don’t mean something like the Massif Central or the Ardennes – I mean mountains with glaciers and all. That narrows the options down a bit further – of the mountain chains in the countries that made the short list, only the Pyrenees and the Alps have glaciers. The Pyrenees glaciers are quite small, and since I’m in the business of making choices here, I’ll leave the Pyrenees out for the moment. Its just the Alps then.

Swiss mountain lakes...

Swiss mountain lakes…

And not too far from the family

Coming to think of it, since we’re pretty settled on staying in Europe, it would be nice to live somewhere reasonably close to the family in the Netherlands. That way, we could drive down to visit grandma and grandpa for the holidays, the cousins can come over to us for a long weekend. So not moving away too far – but how far is not too far? My experience is that driving 800 kilometers is about the maximum for a single day without breaking yourself. And there’s a great tool to help with that, called “How far can I travel?“. I’ve filled in “800 kilometers from Rotterdam”, and the nearest place with mountains hits the spot – its Switzerland. Incidentally, its also the country with the highest salaries and the lowest taxes. Cows, mountains and cheese, here we come! The tough part of having to decide where to go has thus being taken care of, all I got to do now is finish my PhD and find a job. Piece of cake.

Matterhorn - a super strong argument for Switzerland

Matterhorn – a super strong argument for Switzerland

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