Photos of People

Despite my saying in an earlier post that I don’t take photos of people surreptitiously, I have accumulated a neat collection of photos of some of the people I have met over the past ten or twelve years, with one or two pictures of strangers thrown in.  Some of these people I only knew briefly, some of them I’ve known for years, some I am related to, some I love, and some I don’t like very much at all.  I post their pictures not as a commentary on them as people, but because I think they are nice photographs and illustrate well the variety of people I’ve met along the road, such as my friend Kenny below.

The full collection can be viewed here.

Geneva: Still Dull and Expensive

Sometimes I wonder if the BBC is a bit like the Clinton Foundation and receives hefty bribes cash donations in exchange for favourable treatment, in this case puff-pieces on various trendy expat locations.  This week the city under discussion is Geneva:

For an affluent country once considered one of the most stable economies in the world, Switzerland is going through a rocky patch.

In the country’s financial hub, Geneva, a slowing economy and an investigation into the country’s secretive banking industry has led to almost 2,000 jobs being cut over three years, about 9% of the sector, according to the Geneva Financial Center.  In the coming years, more jobs could disappear following Brexit, since the UK is Geneva’s fourth largest trading partner.

Eh?  Geneva – located in a non-EU country – could see jobs disappear because Britain leaves the EU?  What’s the mechanism for that, then?  The BBC doesn’t say.

Yet the city (which is not the capital, that’s Bern) remains an incredibly popular place for expats to relocate to for work. Mercer’s 2016 Quality of Living Survey ranks Geneva among the top ten cities to live in, scoring highly for personal safety and quality of life.

Ah yes, we’ve been here before: these surveys tend to identify which cities upper-middle class wives with husbands who draw large corporate salaries most like to live and raise kids in.  The result is usually a list of cities which are clean, safe, expensive – and mind-numbingly dull.  Geneva, then.

One of these fans is Silvana Soldaini. After nearly 20 years working in Milan, Italy, Soldaini received a job offer to work in banking in Geneva. She arrived in March 2004 as a single parent of two.

Before she arrived in Geneva, she held some common preconceptions about it.  “Being an Italian, my stereotype of [the city] was that it was stiff, that it had a culture without much soul to it,” she says.

Twelve years on, she’s a convert. She lives in a spacious apartment a 10-minute walk from Lake Geneva and has no desire to move back to Italy. Her two teenage children speak French, Italian, German and English.

Okay, good for her.  But if you’re looking for somebody to disprove the stereotype of Geneva being a boring city, you might want to pick a 25 year old bachelor rather than a middle-aged woman bringing up two kids on her own.

Switzerland is one of those places where the 1% – that tiny chunk of the global population who are rolling in money – are conspicuous. Luxury watchmakers specialising in diamond-encrusted watch faces line the riverfront, and it’s not uncommon to see Ferraris and Lamborghinis cruising down the spotless streets.

So a bit like London, Paris, New York, Dubai, and Singapore, then.  With the possible exception of the spotless streets in those first three.

Initially drawn here by higher salaries, expats – especially those with families – often choose to stay for the year-round cultural events such as the Geneva Music Festival or Nuit de Bains, a contemporary art event, plus a wide range of outdoor activities around Lake Geneva…

…but mainly for the higher salaries.  And wifey’s ability to park the Porsche Cayenne without some brown oik nicking it.

While it used to be standard practice for multinational firms to fork out for housing and children’s school fees, this is not always the case today, says Laetitia Bédat, managing director of relocation agency Welcome Service. Now, most foreign hires will either get no allowances or they will only get relocation services, tax assistance and medical benefits.

Bless.  How will they cope?

According to research from global consultancy firm ECA International, Geneva is one of the most expensive cities in Europe, second only to Zurich. In other words, you will need good salary prospects to even consider living there.

For American Sarah Brooks, who moved from Washington, DC to work at a human rights organisation, she found her expenses comparable.  “There is more take-home salary,” Brooks says, “and I find I tend to spend it in different ways, like I don’t spend it on commuting anymore.”

Why a human rights organisation chooses to base itself in one of the most expensive cities in Europe is a question the BBC didn’t bother to ask.  But I’m glad those who work selflessly for the betterment of mankind aren’t having to slum it:

According to the survey, nearly a third of expats in Geneva earn more than $200,000 a year, second only to Hong Kong’s high-earners.

Which will no doubt bring comfort to those rotting in the dungeons of a third-world kleptocracy.

For Olivier Greneche, his reason for relocating from Paris in 2012 was simple.

He could finally escape French meetings?

Besides the job opportunity from a French bank, it was also for his two children who were toddlers at that time. Geneva’s access to nature and green spaces made it an easy decision.

“To understand Switzerland, and to fully enjoy Geneva, you should be keen on going to a chalet in the mountains on the weekends and the countryside quite often,” he says.

Similarly, to understand France, and to fully enjoy Marseilles, you should be keen on taking your yacht out at the weekends.

Soldaini’s family were much more city-centric, and state benefits – such as allocating 250 Swiss francs (about $260) per child to a family or the four public swimming pools within a 15-minute bike ride from her apartment – made life as a single working mother much more manageable.

Which is great, until you learn that:

Eating out could terrify frugal newcomers. Lunch in a low-key restaurant will generally cost more than $20, while a mid-range restaurant can quickly surpass the $100 mark with wine.

Does having free stuff offset ludicrously high prices?  I’ve generally found it doesn’t.

As for their schooling, Geneva is spoiled for choice. Public schools are free, and generally considered very good. Due to the large number of expats, there are plenty of international and private schools, although tuition fees can hit 30,000 CHF ($31,200) a year, says Greneche.

I think that tells you just about everything you need to know about the type of people who show up for expat positions in Geneva and the taxpayer-funded international organisations that are based there.

Much of the residents’ social lives revolve around stunning Lake Geneva, a pristine, freshwater lake measuring roughly 21 sq km.

Tim Worstall is forever bemoaning journalists’ lack of grasp of orders of magnitude: Lake Geneva covers 580 square kilometres.

So Geneva sounds awesome.  Only:

Often, residents cross the border into France at weekends to buy groceries, to avoid Switzerland’s higher prices. Produce is generally double supermarket prices in France, while meat generally costs triple.

What the article doesn’t mention is how many people work in Geneva but choose to live over the border in France, getting the best of both worlds with high salaries but lower living costs in a place which doesn’t shut down and go to sleep at 6pm.  This practice is so widespread that the canton of Geneva and others deduct French taxes from your salary. Yes, there is a reason why Annecy and its surroundings are so popular, and it’s not just because of the lake.

Ban Polish apples, get a new road!

Browsing through Twitter I came across this story which is so very Russian:

Gangs smuggling goods into Russia have secretly repaired a road on the Belarussian border in order to boost business, the TASS news agency reported Monday.

Smugglers have transformed the gravel track in the Smolensk region in order to help their heavy goods vehicles traveling on the route, said Alexander Laznenko from the Smolensk region border agency. The criminal groups have widened and raised the road and added additional turning points, he said.

Vital infrastructure being provided by fruit smugglers.  Who needs government?

As to why this is happening:

A convoy of trucks was recently stopped on the road carrying 175 tons of sanctioned Polish fruit worth 13 million rubles ($200,000). The produce was subsequently destroyed, TASS reported.

Local border guards, customs and police officers have checked over 73,000 vehicles entering Russia from Belarus this year, Laznenko said, claiming that the number of heavy goods vehicles crossing the border from Belarus has increased dramatically in the last year, he said.

To be fair, nobody could have predicted this:

We can also expect “businessmen” in Kazakhstan and Belarussia to do well out of this.  These two countries have not adopted the Russian sanctions yet are in a customs union with Russia.  Therefore, in theory, these countries can import as many EU goods as they like and re-export to Russia without interference.

I expect these two re-routing options to meet the bulk of the demand for goods banned by the sanctions, at a cost to Russian residents of somewhere around 10-30% in price and reduced freshness of the produce itself.  Where the Russian government intervenes with price controls, we can expect those products to disappear from shelves almost entirely and a healthy black market springing up.

Saint-Lô and the Mausoleum of La Famille Blanchet

I first visited the old mill near Campeaux mentioned in the previous post in August 2014, two years ago.  When I was there I took the opportunity to visit the nearby town of Saint-Lô, where I went to the cemetery and then spent twenty minutes or so locating the mausoleum of the Blanchet family.  Readers are entitled to ask why, and so I shall duly explain.

There is not much to see in Saint-Lô.  It was destroyed to the tune of 97% during the battle for its liberation in July 1944, causing one American solider to remark “We sure liberated the hell out of this place”.  It was rebuilt, as Wikipedia puts it, as follows:

The dominant style was a neo-regionalist functionalism which was dominated by concrete. Its dated and monotonous character was soon criticised.

And for this reason there is very little worth seeing in the town.  One thing of interest, however, is the monument to Major Thomas Howie, who was the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division after the D-Day landings.  As the story goes:

On the morning of July 17, Howie phoned Major General Charles Gerhardt, said “See you in St. Lo”, and issued orders for the attack. Shortly afterward, he was killed by shrapnel during a mortar attack. The next day, the 3d Battalion entered Saint-Lô, with Howie’s body on the hood of the lead jeep, at Gerhard’s request, so that Howie would be the first American to enter the town.

After the war, the town of Saint-Lô erected a monument to Howie, shown below.

However, Thomas Howie wasn’t the only US army major fighting around Saint-Lô on that day.

One of the most influential books I have read, at least insofar as it made an impact on me, is Colonel David Hackworth’s About Face.  During his development as an officer, Hackworth was greatly inspired by the wartime exploits and soldiering abilities of one Glover S. Johns, Jr who would lead the vanguard of American troops sent into West Berlin by John F. Kennedy in 1961 as a show of strength as the wall was going up.  In his book, Hackworth refers to Johns’ own book, The Clay Pigeons of St. Lô, an account of his day-to-day experiences as the commander of the 1st Battalion, 115th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division over a period of one month leading up to the liberation of Saint-Lô.  Hackworth praised the book’s extremely well written descriptions of each military operation and action the battalion undertook, and believed the book should be required reading for all infantry officers.  Having never forgotten its name, eventually I ordered myself a copy and read it for myself.  As a story of the Battle of Saint-Lô it isn’t much good, but as a highly readable account of what life was like for an American soldier fighting in the hedgerows of Normandy and the day-to-day role of a battalion commander in a major war, it is probably the best out there.  In other words, it’s for military nerds but not for the casual reader.  One thing is for sure though, it gives you an idea of the horrendous casualty rate the American infantry suffered while up against a German army that even on the back foot was still highly capable.

Towards the end of the book, as Major Johns’ unit is entering Saint-Lô, he found the place he had chosen for his command post was too dangerous and he was losing men at an unacceptable rate, and so he sent one of his subordinates off to find a better one.  Quoting from The Clay Pigeons of St. Lô:

Half and hour later the S1 came up to lead him back to his new home in St. Lo, which turned out to be an imposing mausoleum in the cemetery!  On the facade were two words Johns would always remember, “Famille Blanchet.”  He balked at the idea of moving in with the Blanchets; but when he looked inside he decided it was the best command post he would ever have.

The walls were of polished marble blocks 18 inches thick, with a heavy door set back under a small but equally solid portico.  There were no windows to be blown in, so that only a direct hit on the front steps by something big would have any chance of hurting anyone inside.  It would take a bomb to damage the building itself.

Inside, on the ground floor, was a small chapel.  Though the room was only about 10 feet by 15 feet in size, it would hold everyone who had legitimate business there.  Furthermore, there was plenty of room outside for the runners to dig foxholes so there would no longer be any excuse for bunching up.  Under the chapel was a crypt, reached by a narrow flight of stairs leading down from one side.

The vault was largely occupied by an enormous stone sarcophagus.  The thing sloped upward towards the entrance, the high end having a flat surface on top which was at an awkward height but would do better than nothing for maps.  A small stone tablelike affair was set into the wall opposite that end, with barely room for one straight chair.  The crypt was cramped, but it would do.

Space around the sarcophagus itself was limited.  A man could walk by without touching, or lie down full length and be comfortable, but two men could never pass one another.

The Germans had used the vault too.  Empty wine bottles lay about, and a half loaf of hard, dry bread took up space on the little table.

Remembering this passage from the book, I decided to find this mausoleum for myself given I was in the area, and take a look at this obscure little piece of military history.  When I did, I looked inside and poked my head down the stairs into the crypt and found it exactly as Major Glover S. Johns had described it having been there 70 years before.

The broken cross on the top bears witness to the mausoleum’s past, as does the shrapnel marks on the exterior walls.  But a small scrap of paper in cellophane off to the side marking it out as a waypoint on some sort of military tour was the only indication that anybody else knew about this tomb’s role in the liberation of Saint-Lô and the battle for Normandy.

Hurrah for Comprehensive Education!

There is a furniture company in the UK which advertises relentlessly on Sky Sports, particularly during cricket matches, and earlier this year it looked as though they would be able to supply me with some items I was looking for.  They didn’t deliver abroad, but did offer free delivery in the UK, and so I could get them to deliver the goods to the premises of this outfit which I have used before to bring furniture from the UK to France (I can recommend them).

The cross-channel transport company quite reasonably asked what volume of goods I was shipping to they could give me a proper quote and reserve space in one of their vehicles.  Unfortunately, the furniture company don’t do what most furniture companies do and specify the volume of each item on their website, and so I had to email them and ask.

This turned out to be a difficult question to answer: apparently, they were unable to tell me unless I placed an order.  Alarm bells started ringing: could it be that I’d gotten involved with a company that puts 90% of its effort into sales teams and mass advertising, and 10% into delivering on its core services?  I was advised that I could place an order but not pay for it, and then ring them up (international call, of course) and get the information.  So I duly did just that.  The person who took the call sounded as though he applied for an entry-level position in a vegetable-packing plant and got turned down due to lack of intellect.  If he’d told me he’d suffered major head trauma in the past 24 hours but couldn’t get time off to go to hospital, I’d have believed him.  He told me he could see my order but couldn’t give me the volume because “only the logistics people know that”, and he thought they’d all gone home.  But he’d check.

After a few minutes he came back.  “Two point three centimetres squared”, he told me.  I sighed.  “Firstly,” I said “you have described something the approximate size of a cigarette lighter and I’m sure my furniture is a little larger than that.  Secondly, the unit will be cubed, as we are talking about a volume not an area.”  He replied with a voice that betrayed either a heavy cold, a hangover, or somebody holding his nose, “Well, this is what my computer screen is telling me.”

I finally got the information I wanted by converting his centimetres squared into metres cubed, but I never got the furniture: compared to his colleagues with whom I dealt with later, this chap was Employee of the Year.

More on Trump vs Clinton

By all accounts, if the poll data is correct, Hillary Clinton ought to win November’s presidential election at a canter:

Having been holding his own right up to the conventions, Trump appears to have gone into meltdown while Hillary just carried on as usual.  Senior Republicans are urging their party to abandon their own candidate – who, it should be remembered, won the nomination hands down – having seemingly conceded the presidential race and are looking to shore up their own positions in the Senate and House.  How this is supposed to demonstrate that a party is fit to govern is anyone’s guess: if the Democrats sweep the next elections, the clueless Republicans will only have themselves to blame.

At this point one would normally say that unless major revelations come out about Clinton between now and November, the election is in the bag for her.  Only major revelations about Clinton have been coming out on a weekly basis for as long as I’ve been paying attention and none of them seems to have damaged her in the polls at all.  Quite what a Democrat candidate would need to do in order to experience a collapse in the polls is a question worth pondering.

But with all that said, and Trump being written off, I still think there’s room for a surprise here.  Trump trotted into the Republican nomination in part because many Republican voters and conservatives were fed up of their representatives in both houses pandering to the Democrat agenda, and they felt the other Republican candidates were basically Democrats wearing a different hat and very much part of the same Establishment.  By abandoning Trump and endorsing Clinton, these rebelling Republicans have now gone and proved it.  If Trump doesn’t represent an electable Republican, these “moderate” Republicans who are throwing their toys out of the pram make him look like Ronald Reagan.

Where I think the surprise might come from is people putting too much faith in polls, social media, and the traditional media.  The heavy defeat suffered by Labour in the 2015 UK General Election came as a complete surprise to everyone – not least the pollsters, who were confident right up the exit polls that it would be either a hung parliament or a narrow Labour victory.  The next morning, social media was filled mainly with those wailing about the result, as was a good chunk of the mainstream media.  Many questions were raised about how this happened, how all the experts, commentators, and pollsters had somehow missed the mood of the country.

Only the same thing happened again in June when the UK voted to leave the EU by a margin of just under 4% on a turnout of an impressive 72.2% (the turnout in the 2015 General Election was 66.4%, and in 2001 just 59.4%).  In the build up to the vote, every major political party, newspaper, and TV station came out in favour of remaining, and countless experts, business leaders, and other commentators both domestic and foreign maintained a continuous, overwhelming narrative of doom and disaster should Britain vote to leave. The Leave side were dismissed by the entire Establishment and political classes as being backward racists who didn’t understand anything, and even Barack Obama weighed in on the side of Remain in an episode that did little to alleviate historical British complaints of American cack-handedness.  On the night of the vote it appeared the Leave campaign would have no chance against such an onslaught…yet Britain awoke on the morning of 24th June to discover that they’d won.  As with the Conservative victory in May 2015, social media and most traditional outlets were dominated for the week by two themes: much wailing from the losing side, and utter incomprehension as to how this happened.  In the case of Brexit, the message was effectively:

“How did these backward, ignorant racists win?  All the right thinking, smart people voted to remain!”

There is no concrete explanation for how the Establishment, media, experts, and pollsters got things so badly wrong and failed to gauge the mood of the country, but I suspect it went something like this.  Having dominated the media for so long, sealed themselves off from opposing views, shouted the loudest on social media, and sought to outlaw views deemed unacceptable, the Establishment and their supporters have forced their opponents into hiding.  Most ordinary folk are just trying to go about their lives, earn a living, and support their families, and aren’t interested in social justice crusades and slanging matches across the Interwebs.  Nor are they interested in being berated by complete strangers for holding quite reasonable political views, and in an increasingly hostile climate they have taken to remaining silent rather than answer questions or respond accurately to pollsters.  Even somebody as thick-skinned and obnoxious as myself has occasionally found it is better just to nod along with some idiotic left-wing opinion than to mention I’m of an altogether different political stripe.  Better just to shut up and take full advantage of the secret ballot.

This isn’t anything new.  The “shy Tory” has been a phenomenon for years, but I think with the spread of social media, the particular vindictiveness with which the Establishment and their supporters operate in contrast to ordinary people, and the increasingly repressive restrictions on expressing (or even merely holding) opinions which to many people are quite reasonable has greatly increased this effect.  We’ve seen it in action twice in the UK, and although the US is not the same place I am wondering whether this most unusual of elections will reveal that the conditions are much the same over there.

For now we have almost the entire Establishment: politicians, business leaders, the media, celebrities, religious figures, foreign elites, all telling us that Trump will be a disaster and under no circumstances should anyone who doesn’t want to murder all minorities vote for him, and all the polls, commentators, and experts are telling us Hillary is set to win by a mile.  Only I have an inkling that this sort of thing is precisely what propelled Trump to the nomination in the first place, and is precisely the sort of thing that will seriously piss off the great, silent minority into turning out to vote for him for no other reason than to tell the Establishment they are tired of being insulted and ignored.  It could be I’m entirely wrong and the polling data will reflect how people actually vote, but I think this election could throw up a surprise or two yet.

I do love Dashiell Hammett

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit.

The opening of Red Harvest, written in 1929 and the inspiration behind Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars, Miller’s Crossing, and Last Man Standing whereby a man arrives in a town plagued by two warring factions and plays one off against the other as the body count racks up.

I first read this story in my early 20s in university, and loved it.  I re-read it a few years later and still enjoyed it as much.  Then I read it again early this summer and was rather sorry it wasn’t as good as I remembered it.  Age, I guess.  It’s still a good book though, and from one of my favourite authors.