Author Archives: kaigara

Cool Britannia

How can the capital of the former British Empire be considered the coolest city on earth? Shouldn’t it rather be Shanghai or San Francisco or Berlin? Why is London the city that receives more foreign visitors of the whole world? Shouldn’t it rather be New York or Paris or Rome?

Is it the history?…. well, after such intense bombardments during the second world war not so much is left…Or Is it the quality of life?…well, not easy to find such an expensive place on earth…

My answer: this unique blend of old and new, of classy and eccentric, of all colors, religions and races makes London today the paradigm of a global city. In other words, it is the Londoners that make it so unique!

Ages, old and new

From the Houses of Parliament to Buckingham palace, from Whitehall to Covent Garden, many people come to London in search of old imperial glory. The British Empire was the largest the world has ever seen, straddling the five continents, from America to Australia, from Africa and the Middle East to India. And London was its epicenter, its political, economic and social heart, deciding the fate of hundreds of millions of people; the pound sterling was the first global currency; and English remains the only global language to this day. This glorious (and also infamous) past reverberates all over the city.

And yet, most visitors today have other things in mind, more recent and sometimes surprising. From the music of The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Freddy Mercury, Adele or Arctic Monkeys to the ideas (often without even realizing it) of Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes or even Margaret Thatcher.

From Pop, Punk and Hipster movements, to Scotland Yard, MI6, James Bond and the war in Iraq.

From Chelsea, Wembley and Wimbledon to the Tate, British Museum, Shakespeare, Austen, Hitchcock, Martin Parr, Turner, David Hockney and so on…

London was once the capital of the greatest Empire, it is still the city where music and new social styles appear and grow, where old and new political and economic ideas flourish, where art and sports still attract crowds.

So British

Stereotypes abound about the Brits, eccentric, understated, distant, tight upper lip …all surely, and partially, true, as Kate Fox wrote in her book “Watching the English, The Hidden Rules of English Behavior”. But the real excitement of being in London is about its people, young and old, open, tolerant and very mixed.

Indians respect no rules, the Swiss and Germans respect all rules, and Londoners are, well…very selective. Most people follow fashion, Londoners creates it.

Is this Europe? Yes, but most Britons have serious doubts about it, seeing themselves more as global citizens than just part of an European Union run by faceless bureaucrats sitting in Brussels.

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Races, the united colors of the world

Who are the real Londoners? The Russian oligarch in Belgravia or the Indian grocer in South Hall? , The EastEnders or the cool Soho lot, the Shoreditch neighbor, or the Camden show off?

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All of them and many more, create the unique mix that gives London its rare appeal for visitors from all over the world, a place where hip hop mixes freely with international banking, where anyone can feel at home.

A city that is never dull, always inspiring and where there is always something new to interest, motivate and excite. Always on the edge.

Conclusion

This unique blend of people, old and young, of all origins, colors and faiths, give the London experience its unique character, its frantic dynamism, making it irresistible and so cool …

As Samuel Johnson said “tired of London, tired of life”

I greatly appreciate the help and testimony of Bob Owen and Gustavo, as always!


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The Chinese Dream

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To get rich is glorious…

China has changed more over the last 30 years than any other country in human history. This change has affected directly the life of 1300 million people (one human being out of 5) and transformed the whole world economic map, with many regions now depending more and more on Chinese trade and investment. When compared with the British led industrial revolution that redefined the world at the time, the Chinese revolution concerns 40 times more people and its happening far more rapidly

The reforms launched by Deng Xiao Ping were not only an economic but also a social revolution. They have lifted more than 500 million Chinese (the entire population of Europe) out of poverty and into the consumer age and have produced the largest ever migration, with over 250 million Chinese from the poorer western provinces moving to the richer and freer coastal cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangdong.

Therefore, old Chinese can remember, over the last century, the end of the traditional empire, decades of warlords and civil war, the tragic Japanese invasion, the communist takeover, the upheavals under of Mao with its leaps forward and cultural revolutions, and finally this momentous modernization. Enough change for several lives in any other country! And more than enough reasons to feel at a loss in this brave new world.

Socialism with Chinese characteristics…

This explosive transformation in just over a generation has created the largest economy in the world (recently overcoming the USA), starting from a backward, very poor and agricultural society after the death of Chairman Mao, to become a consumer society.

From a vast majority of Chinese living in the countryside and earning a living as subsistence farmers, mostly for many generations in the same place, to a dynamic high tech society living mostly in cities, some of them real global mega polis, like Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, deeply connected to the world and immersed in a consumer paradise. IPhones, fashion and dancing, all unknown a few years back, now at their disposal.

While their parents were consumed by political mobilizations and propaganda, young people have more freedom and access than ever before in Chinese history, in spite of the one-party state.

Crossing the river by feeling the stones…

However, not all Chinese have profited from this boom. Many have been left behind and continue to live very much like their parents but surrounded by another world.

Traditional architecture, like hutongs in Beijing, survives in spite of massive demolition and rebuilding. Street cuisine flourishes in spite of the proliferation of gourmet restaurants. Many people still spend most of their time in the streets.

Old people struggle to adjust, adapting tentatively and progressively to the reforms, feeling more and more disconnected from their grandchildren, unable sometimes to fully understand where they are, but also adapting to new fashions with gusto!

Even the longest journey starts with the first step…

All revolutions have their unsung heroes, those that make it possible but often remain unknown, even despised.

In China, the 250 million migrant workers, moving from west to east, are the pillars of this new revolution. Seeking employment and higher salaries, attracted by the lights and promise of the coastal cities.

Leaving behind part of their family, saving to finance their children education, without a resident permit (hukou) and therefore with difficult access to social services, including education and health. Illegal in many ways, but tolerated as essential workforce.

The future is now

Welcome to the new China, where old and new coexist with difficulty, but where the future of the world is being decided today. You may like it or dislike it, but certainly not ignore it if you want to understand where the world is going.


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Istanbul: city of hüzün

Hüzün, melancholy or nostalgia in Turkish, is a feeling to be found in many cities, but nowhere to the extent you can find in the streets of Istanbul.

Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul, the former capital of two worlds empires (Roman and Ottoman) during fifteen centuries.
It has been called “The Queen of Cities” and “City of the World’s Desire” by travelers and writers.

Straddling Europe and Asia, ruling over vast territories in the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa, it was always destined, by geography and history, to be an important global hub.

Her people live surrounded by remains of imperial glory whereas they live now in a provincial city since Ankara became the capital of the new Republic.

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This feeling of being neither here nor there, somewhat always in transition, with the past still very much there and the future still to materialize fully, exacerbates this melancholy, this atmosphere of lack of fulfillment and uncertainty about who they are and where they are heading to.

Or is it the centuries´ old fate of a people, the Turks, that starting moving from Central Asia, slowly but steadily moving west, to arrive at the doors of Europe, but are not yet part of it?

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Or maybe simply the nostalgia of the times when Istanbul was the center of an empire straddling three continents, when people from Ottoman provinces (now many independent countries), could be heard chatting in so many languages while crossing the Galata Bridge or walking around the Rue de Pera?

They, or they families, remember the prominence of substantial Greek and other communities in the city life, whereas now their hitherto elegant houses are inhabited by more recent and poorer Anatolian migrants.

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It is so easy in Istanbul, while wandering around former Greek or Armenian quarters to imagine how this city felt central, cosmopolitan, where speaking several of the languages of the empire came naturally to their residents, side by side with their mother tongue.

When they could speak Turk with a neighbor, Greek or Hebrew in a shop, Persian at the imperial court and Arabic at the mosque.

When being an Ottoman from Constantinople was not at all synonymous with being Turk, and in some ways many Turks from the Anatolian provinces felt like foreigners in their capital.

Whereas now, most of these cosmopolitan citizens are gone, due to war, the new republic and later conflicts, and their place has been occupied by other immigrants, mostly Turks from Anatolia and other poorer provinces, but also economic refugees from the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

The place of the merchant from Aleppo, the official from Cairo, the Janissary from the Balkans, the moneylender from a Jewish family expelled from Spain and the sailor from a Greek island, now replaced by a Syrian refugee, a Gipsy, a street vendor from Colombo or Lagos and a Ukrainian young lady.

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However, many old families continue to keep traditional customs while, over the last century, the city has experienced rapid westernization and modernization, a population explosion that make it the biggest city in Europe with over 15 million inhabitants, and spectacular economic development. This has created sharp contrast between modern and traditional ways of life.

They live in a country that aspires to European modernity ever since Ataturk, while the Asian and Middle East influences become ever more present and EU accession recedes in the horizon.

Some of them pious Muslims, others utterly westernized. Some striving to make ends meet, others very affluent and flashy. Some firmly looking West to Europe and the USA, others looking East to Anatolia and Asia.

But all of them sharing the same rapidly growing city, the same fast developing country, the same drive to live better lives, the same nostalgia for the time when, and the place where, things were better, more familiar, more authentic.

Very different backgrounds and expectations, but similar desire to improve their lot in life.

These sharp contradictions of old imperial splendor and modern squalor, of traditional Muslim values and western modernity, of poor immigrants and new rich Anatolians, shape life in Istanbul, giving their citizens this unsettling sense of loss and disorientation, this melancholy, this “hüzün”.


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