Category Archives: Just another small European country

The biggest Small European Country

Back in 2015, I’ve written a post titled “How to choose a (small European) country“. I pondered on all the reasons I had to move, and on the challenges posed by choosing a new place. I won’t keep you in suspension – I did move. Out of Rotterdam. Not too far though – the municipal border of Rotterdam is about 500 meters away. But its a whole different country I am living in now. Since a few weeks, I live in  the biggest country in Europe – Suburbia. Here’s how it happened.

In the post I mentioned, I set down several criteria for a new place to live in. I was looking for a properly run country, with a pleasant climate, where I speak the language, in Europe, close to mountains and not too far from the family. After some though, and to my big surprise, I discovered I already lived in such a country, and the need to find a new one was rather less urgent than I though. As you perhaps recall, my test for a “properly run” country was the quality of the tap water. The Dutch tap water is the best in the whole world, so the country is obviously properly run. To determine whether the climate is pleasant I came up with the “wine test” – if the climate is good for wine, its good for me. While the Netherlands is best known for its beer, there are about 200 commercial wine yards spread throughout the country, so the Dutch score again. After 14 years spent here, I speak the language very well, so its another one for Holland. The country is obviously in Europe, so that criterion is satisfied, too. The proximity to mountains is a bit more difficult one. However, the Ardennes are just a couple of hours drive away, and the Alps are within a day’s drive. Sadly, the night train connection to Switzerland has been discontinued, but it’s not like I was using it every month or something. Finally, I wanted to live close to the family. Since we were pretty settled on remaining in the Netherlands, we though we might as well get the best of it – and grandma and the cousins are within cycling distance. I think we’ll be visiting them more often than I would visit glaciers, so its quite a good deal.

And so, I’m still blogging from a small European country – the biggest one of all – Suburbia.

 

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Greece – just another small European country in big trouble

[Disclaimer: This post contains no shocking news and concludes that there will be “more of the same”.]

I’ve been to Greece once, about 10 years ago. It was a short visit – all I had was a 7-hour layover in Athens, and I went to see the city rather than hang around in the airport. The brand new subway, built for the 2004 Summer Olympics took me to town, past huge stadiums built only a year or two before, especially for the Olympics. Abandoned and disused since, the stadiums were already overgrown with weeds. Once in Athens, I didn’t do much – walked around town, climbed a hill to a church and a ruin, lunched on bread and olives from a local supermarket and headed back. The Greek capital did not leave a good impression. I found it dirty, the roads were cratered, the buildings in terrible disrepair and I’ve never seen such shortage of attractive women. Add to that constant harassment by street venders trying to sell me illegal cigarettes and counterfeited perfumes, and you’ll understand why I was relieved to go back to the airport. Greece was painfully far adrift from the cradle of Western Civilization it once was supposed to be.

The entry of King Otto of Greece in Athens and his reception in front of the Thiseion temple, in 1833, a painting by Peter Von Hess (http://www.pinakothek.de/peter-von-hess)

As we all know, since my short visit (and totally unrelated to it) things have only been worse for Greece. Last weekend’s elections result has just thrown in an extra portion of uncertainty into the situation. Syriza, a militant alliance of radical left groups, has won on a populist promise to “end austerity”. The statements by Syriza leaders before and after the elections are, of course, rather contradictory (before: “[Syriza will demand to] write down on most of the nominal value of debt“; after: “We are not talking about writing off 50% of the nominal debt”). So what is going on there? And where will Greece (and the EU) go from here? The way I see it, there are 4 possible scenario’s:

  1. What Greece wants
    The debts are forgiven (“written off”) and Greece is free to recover. Highly unlikely. The Greek have shown no intention to mend their ways. The rest of the EU is not bent on a repeat of the situation, having to save Greece again in 5 or 10 years. “Pardoning” Greece’s debt is politically unacceptable in the loaning countries (like Germany and the Netherlands) and will be met by similar demands by other bailed out countries (Spain, Portugal, Ireland). Such demands are clearly impossible to meet. Not an option.
  2. What the (Northern) EU wants
    Greece paying its debts. Equally unlikely. By now it is clear that the Greek economy is simply unable to recover sufficiently to generate tax income that will allow the government to repay the current loans. The pace of reform has been virtually zero. Syriza promises a lot (an anti-corruption task force, “an end to both bureaucracy, corruption and tax immunity“) but these promises have been made by previous governments as well. There’s no sign or prospect of Greece’s economy becoming “Germanized”. And without drastic reforms, there’s simply no budget to pay back the loans. Won’t happen.
  3. A creative solution
    Thinking out of the box and breaking taboo’s. Grexit is one such option. Again, unlikely. Greece has no intention of leaving the Eurozone. Grexit will deprive it from the only leverage it has – “help us or we will bring you down with us”. In plain words, we call it blackmailing, but its politics, so “using the available assets” is considered a more proper term. The EU has no legal means to force Greece to leave the Euro. And the fall-out will be too big for Grexit to be a real option. Other creative solutions are possible, but politicians are not really good in recognizing and applying them. Even less probable than the previous two scenario’s.
  4. More of the same
    I recently learned that if weather forecast would simply state “tomorrow’s weather will be like today’s” it will be accurate in about 65% of the cases. The huge spending on meteorology improves the accuracy only marginally to 75% of the cases. My guess is that the same applies to economy. As a former boss of mine used to say: “The soup is being eaten cooler than it is served”. He meant that bold statements and stiff negotiations positions are usually watered down to match reality. In Greece’s case it will probably mean that:
    a) Syriza-led government will find it difficult to negotiate a significantly better deal
    b) The EU will have to write off some of the Greek debt (here a creative solution will be found – they will name it differently to avoid a scandal)
    c) Syriza’s populist promises of higher wages and pensions, expanding the number of government jobs and such are easy to make but impossible to fulfil.

So expect drama in front of the cameras but little dramatic results at the end. The pale reaction of the international stock exchange markets to the elections result is a clear indicator that not much is going to change. Is this good news? No. But its much less bad that it could be.

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Being an idiot in Denmark (which, after all, is just another small European country to be an idiot in)

Cycling around few more blocks on the Aarhus free city bike. Having another go at the buffet in the Vietnamese restaurant. Coming back to pick up the bag I forgot at the said restaurant. Deciding at the last minute to buy a newspaper for the road. Trying to pay for the newspaper while in line behind a very drunk Danish lady who had no clue what she was doing in the store anyway. There were many factors that contributed to me missing the train to Kolding, where I was supposed to board my CityNightLine back to Holland. But they all boiled down to one simple fact – I was an idiot. I had some 5 hours in which I could have taken 5 trains to Kolding to kill some time there before nicely and easily boarding the night train home. There I was – staring at the back lights of the last of these trains as it left the Aarhus central station.

The view from my hotel window in Aarhus - through the window I could climb to the roof, if I wanted to!

The view from my hotel window in Aarhus – through the window I could climb to the roof, if I wanted to!

This was not the first time I was an idiot, nor was Denmark the first small European country I was being an idiot in (my followers might recall the story about the wrong airport in Belgium). However familiar the situation felt, I still had to try and resolve it. I bravely boarded the first train in the general direction of Kolding. The poor conductor and his poor English buckled and grumbled under the barrage of my questions. His general attitude was, and I can’t blame him for it, “you’re the idiot – you work it out”. I, however was relentless. The guy was my only lifeline and I wasn’t about to let go.

dsb

Danish rail – this is what I was up against

The train I was in was heading to Kopenhagen, not even passing Kolding. I could catch a connecting train, which would bring me there exactly 5 minutes after the CNL would leave, which was quite useless. Sure, even if I’d miss the train I would get home eventually, but it would cost me both time and money and I’d be damned if I wouldn’t try my best to salvage what’s left. Just as I was about to grow desperate I spotted an opportunity – I could try and catch the CNL by taking a taxi from Fredericia. Finally, I had hope. The Danish conductor was not that encouraging. With infinite easy and brevity, he smashed my joy upon the discovery of this opportunity by a dry “too far”. He was a man of few words, but the ones he used made direct hits. His colleague, apparently more sympathetic to my despair, suggested I could try from Vejle – it was closer and I’d have a better chance. However slim, the odds were better than zero.

As the train pulled into Vejle, I jumped off and hit the ground running. “To Kolding!” I called, plunging into the waiting taxi. A slight Sherlock Holmes-ish feeling got hold of me. I felt as if I was pursuing Professor Moriarty making his escape to France, chasing him to the ferry in Dover. The taxi driver was absolutely not playing the role of Dr. Watson though. Contradictory to the hell-raising Belgian from that other time I was an idiot, this one seemed to be giving a driving lesson. He followed all the signs and drove at the EXACT speed limit. It would be a close call – we had 20 minutes to cover the 25 kilometres, mostly through towns and villages.

Fortunately, I had a back-up plan – if I’d miss the CNL in Kolding, we would drive on to Padborg, where I’d surely catch up with it. Unfortunately, I was scared to even think how much that taxi ride would cost. As I shared my plan with the driver, I suddenly thought that perhaps it wasn’t such a great idea – what if he’d let his foot off the gas just that little bit so that I’d miss the CNL in Kolding and he will get a big ride to Padborg? But he just kept driving, sticking to the cursed speed limit, not making any cunning plans but just transferring me from A to B.

As we drove up to Kolding train station, I swiped the card in the pay machine in the taxi, swiped it again, cursed, swiped it in the right direction, frantically punched in the pin-code, rushed out of the taxi, hit the ground running again, ran into the station, onto the platform and jumped into the train barely seconds before the doors slammed shut behind me. The whole ordeal cost me 70 Euro and a nerve-wrecking hour. Denmark turned out a cheap country to be an idiot in.

Blessed be the night train - if you can catch it, that is

Blessed be the night train – if you can catch it, that is

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Is Luxembourg the biggest microstate or just another small European country?

Andorra, Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco, San Marino, and Vatican City are usually counted as European microstates. As you may know, I don’t consider Monaco and Vatican City as “countries” or “states”, since they don’t have their own football team, which I view as the basic necessity to be considered a country. On the other hand, Faroe Islands and Gibraltar are members of UEFA, so naturally I do count them as a microstate, too. But some people, including authors of books about microstates, consider Luxembourg a mircostate as well. In addition, Iceland, Montenegro and Cyprus are sometimes considered microstates, although having been to Iceland I don’t know how you can call anything about it “micro”.

Luxembourg is the odd one though. While the “real” microstates in Europe are really tiny, all of them being smaller than 500 km square, Luxembourg is more than 2500 km square, bigger than all the others combined. You can’t really walk through it in a day, like you can do in Andorra or Gibraltar (well, OK, walking 50 km across Andorra is going to be tough but I am sure it can be done). In addition, Luxembourg has a population of about half a million, which I find rather big for a “microstate” (same applies to Malta, but its an island so other rules apply). On the other hand, Luxembourg, as well as the other countries on the list, participates in the Games of the Small States of Europe. So sportswise, Luxembourg considers itself small enough to play in the “Little League”, but does it make it a “microstate”?

Most Dutch only know Luxembourg as the place to buy cheap gasoline on the way to France. I filled up there, too, and gas is seriously cheap there (its about the only thing that’s cheap in Luxembourg). But I’ve been to Luxembourg on other occasions as well, and I think, eventually, I wouldn’t call Luxembourg a microstate. And the reason is – it has what other microstates don’t have. The thing about microstates is that they are rather uniform – they are just not big enough to have a variety of landscape, culture or climate. Luxembourg is diverse. There’s the capital, which has the vibe of a big city with all the banking going on. There are the wooded hills of the Ardennes, which, compared to the rest of the BeNeLux are about as densely populated as the Sahara. And of course there’s the wine-growing valley of the Mosel, which is absolutely charming. As a holiday destination Luxembourg is pretty ideal. Its small enough to get around easilly, big enough to have a little bit of everything and even if its a bit expensive, you can shop for cheap groceries just across the border, like all the locals do.

The biggest of the tiny countries, or the smallest of the small countries, Luxembourg is absolutely worth a visit.

Luxembourg City

Luxembourg City

Castles on every corner in Luxembourg

Castles on every corner in Luxembourg

Great hiking, too

Great hiking, too

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The music of Estonia

This is a contribution by Julie Bowen, who also wrote a guide to the Baltic for Iglu Cruise.

Music is a huge part of Estonian culture dating back to c. 1179 when ancient warriors were said to sing before a battle to rally the troops and instil morale. It’s developed through the ages and Estonia’s heritage song became their anthem of independence and even now, music festivals of all genres are held all over their country to celebrate their culture.

History of Music

Estonia has deep roots in animism – the belief that all animals, plants and objects have feelings and spirits. Therefore, storytelling and folklore have a huge place in their culture. These tales were often told though music and these songs were passed down from generation to generation. In fact, they weren’t even written down until the 19th century during wartime, when preserving Estonia’s culture and history was of the utmost importance to the Estonians. These songs not only told stories of the afterlife, giving more modern Estonians a better idea of their ancestor’s belief system, they also provided teachings on life, birth and marriage.

The Singing Revolution

When Estonia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 with other Baltic countries Lithuania and Latvia, their love of music took on an even more important role. The “singing revolution” saw hundreds of thousands of Estonians gather to raise their flag and sing their heritage song during the 1980s. These songs had previously been banned by the Soviet Union and therefore carried a strong message of defiance. This show of togetherness and solidarity caught the attention of the Baltic’s Communist party, who eventually pushed for Estonia’s independence in the early 90s.

Modern Music

Music is still a prevalent part of modern Estonian life with a range of festivals taking part every year. Estonia’s Song Festival is one example. Every five years in the country’s capital, Tallinn, up to 18,000 choir singers take part in the atmospheric song festival in order to sing well-known Estonian songs, including their heritage song.

As well as the song festival, Estonia also hosts a range of instrument-based festivals, including the incredibly varied Haapsalu String Festival and Accordion Festival also known as “Harmoonika”. The latter sees several accordion players pay homage to famous Estonian musician Karl Kikas. The popularity of the modern song, dance and music festivals reflect the country’s deep love of music to this day, showing the world that peaceful protesting and storytelling through verse still has a firm and effective place in Estonian culture.

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Croatia – a small European country that has been robbed yesterday

Yesterday at the 70’th minute I stopped watching. Croatia was robbed.

England, 1966. The Hand Of God, 1986. Spain vs South Korea, 2002. The FIFA World Cup Finals keep producing controversies. Qatar 2022 is still 8 years away but it is already in the running for the most controversial World Cup yet. And Brazil is no stranger to football controversies – have another look at Rivaldo’s performance back in 2002, rivalling that of Fred’s in yesterday’s match against Croatia. Sadly, the first match of 2014 World Cup added yet another smeared page to the history of football. The awkward decision by the referee to award Brazil a penalty against Croatia is a fitting opening to a World Cup already mired in corruption, failed constructions and violent protests.

FIFA insists on living in the past. After years of dragging its feet it finally introduced Goal Line Technology, unable to resist the storm of criticism following the missed England goal against Germany 4 years ago in South Africa. But what about instant replays being allowed as a refereeing asset? Basketball, tennis, ice hockey, rugby – the list of sports that recognize the need for supporting technology, its importance in reducing controversy, is growing.

I accept that the referee can not be everywhere all the time. Yesterday’s decision may have been an innocent mistake. But with so much at stake, how can one not be suspicious that Brazil failing to win the opening match was just not an option, at any cost? Undoubtedly, poor record by the home team would fuel the justified protests against spilling resources on fancy one-time events instead on necessities like sewage or basic education. Until football referees in crucial matches are allowed access to modern-day technology, doubts will remain about the real motives behind faulty decisions. And a small European country will feel it has been robbed of what might have been an excellent start to its World Cup Final.

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What is the average European country?

How do you decide a country is “average”? Like no two people are the same, countries are also different and the “average” country is a virtual concept, just like “average Joe”. There are some statistics though, that are commonly used to compare countries – geographical size, population and income, so I’ll try to use those to find out which European country is closest to what you might call “average European country”.

But first – a bit of math (don’t worry, just a tiny bit). There are several ways to decide on what is called “average”. The “mean” is the “average” you’re used to, where you add up all the numbers and then divide by the number of numbers. The “median” is the “middle” value in the list of numbers. The “mode” is the value that occurs most often. If you take the numbers 1, 3, 4, 4, 10, 20, 40 and 100, the mean will be 22.75, median is 40 and mode is 4. I don’t think mode is very useful here so I will only use mean and median in my comparisons.

Europe has 55 countries (countries are defined as UEFA members), spreads over 10.2 million square kilometres populated by 740 million Europeans who produce a total GDP of 19 trillion (with 12 zeros) USD. The data may be a bit old and the presence of trans-continental countries like Russia and Turkey makes the statistics slightly distorted. But the influence on the averages is limited – for example, 80% of the population of Russia lives in the European part, so as a first approximation its fine. Dividing all of Europe between the 55 countries we calculate that the “mean” European country has an area of 185 thousand square kilometers, populated by 13.6 million people who produce 25.5 thousand USD annually on average. No single country fits the description. The closest ones are Belarus (area), Greece (population) and Slovenia (income). Finding the “median” country is simpler – just list all 55 countries and find the 28th in ranking, the one in the middle. The “median” countries are Georgia (area), Slovakia (population) and Czech Republic (income).

An average street in an average European country

An average street in an average European country

As you can see, statistics is pretty useless here –  no country combines even two of the averages. So I’ll just point out the one I think is the most average. And the most average European country is… the Czech Republic! Why? Because its much “averager” than  the other candidates. The Czech Republic is quite close to the mean values (except size, but Russia is distorting the statistics), and it is very close to the medians, too. Besides, a small European country that actively brands itself as being “in the heart of Europe” is sort of asking to be labelled as the “average” country, don’t you agree?

So what do you think? Do you agree that the Czech Republic is the most average European country? What do you think would be a good criterion to determine the “average country”? If you have other candidates, please let me know!

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