Monday, May 6, 2024

Trying out Substack

Here is a link to my latest Substack piece:

If this Substack site (called Parsing the Parade) gets some traction I may put my main focus there and put my other sites on the back burner. At this stage, however, it is just an experiment.

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Here is a general link to Parsing the Parade:

Monday, March 11, 2024

Outpatient at Mater Dei

Back in December, when I was in Sofia, I noticed a dark, more-or-less rectangular shape in my field of vision when I opened my right eye after sleeping but which resolved itself after a few seconds. It was obviously a symptom of something but, as it wasn't affecting my life in any way and as it appeared to be stable from day to day, I decided not to see a specialist.

In January, after talking to friends about it, I finally decided to act. I was staying in Malta at the time at a hotel which happened to be within walking distance of a large public hospital (Mater Dei). I went there to make enquiries and was directed to the emergency department. They organized an immediate examination by an ophthalmologist; no red tape or bureaucratic obstruction. Laser treatment was recommended and a booking for the next day was made for me at the hospital's ophthalmology outpatients clinic. The purpose of the treatment was to seal a retinal tear which had already healed itself naturally but which could (I was told) be made safer.

The treatment was quite an experience. The doctor, a young woman, seemed at first to be having a bit of trouble. It wasn't going quite as she wanted or expected. With my approval she turned up the power. The long laser blasts were still not having the desired result however. Apologies, and another tweak upwards on the power dial. This happened three or four times.

The bright yellow blasts seemed to go deeper and deeper and were painful in a dull, edge-of-consciousness sort of way. It was quite unlike the sharp pain of a dentist's drill. A couple of times the doctor stopped and took a short break, presumably for my benefit but maybe for hers also. Normally a bit of a wimp about pain, I played the stoic this time because, for obvious reasons, I didn't want to move my head or distract her in any way. Eventually her supervisor took over and added some final touches (with short bursts and a lighter hand).

At a follow-up appointment a couple of weeks later at the same clinic, the eye was examined by another doctor who recommended no further treatment. My response: relief, cautious optimism and a renewed focus on stress minimization, hydration and diet.

Before having the treatment I had asked around about Mater Dei Hospital (positive responses), and also did a quick Google search which indicated that standards were high but waiting times could be long. Not in ophthalmology apparently. As a foreigner from a country which has a reciprocal health care agreement with Malta, I was impressed by the quick and no-nonsense way I was integrated into the system and treated.

Friday, February 9, 2024

Maltese culture and language

My first introduction to Malta was via my childhood stamp collection and some richly coloured, colonial-era stamps. Subsequently, as a student, I came across Samuel Taylor Coleridge's account of his sixteen-month stay in 1804-5. He was struck by how noisy the place was.

There's still a lot of noise here 220 years later. Too many cars, for example. The local driving style is pretty aggressive and road rules are rarely enforced. Double parking is endemic and you often hear car horns being sounded aggressively and repeatedly by the angry owners of blocked-in vehicles. Overall, I would characterize the culture as free and easy, verging on the chaotic.

Maltese is a very unusual language. Its grammatical structure and morphology derive from an old form of Arabic (Siculo-Arabic) while much of its lexicon derives from Italian and other European languages (including English). Since independence in 1964, the Maltese language has been strongly promoted and supported by the government and official bodies (with a bit of help from the European Union since 2004).

In general, I am not a supporter of keeping languages alive via legislation and regulation. Language change and death is a natural process and individuals should as far as possible be free to choose what language or languages they want to speak and what language or languages their children should speak and be educated in. I recognize, however, that language policies of one kind or another are necessary in multilingual jurisdictions and decisions must be made. The way I see it, something is gained and something is lost either way when it comes to a choice between promoting a local language (or dialect) as against a more widely-spoken and professionally useful one.

As I understand it, the policy during British colonial times was to promote the use of English and standard Italian rather than Maltese. Italian is still spoken, though it is less prevalent than it was.

English remains an official language and is taught in schools but proficiency varies greatly and most locals (including young professionals) are more comfortable speaking Maltese. The situation is slowly changing however. Survey data indicates that Maltese under-20s are more likely to favour English and identify English as their first language than other age groups.

Anti-colonial sentiments are still evident here. I noticed, for example, that Malta's period as a British Crown Colony was referred to as the "British occupation" on an official plaque displayed outside Malta Police General Headquarters in Floriana. How deeply this kind of attitude runs amongst the general population is hard to say. Not very deeply, I suspect. It should be noted that before becoming a British Protectorate in 1800 and a Crown Colony soon thereafter, Malta had for more than 600 years been part of (or, during the period when it was ruled by the Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem, a vassal state of) the Kingdom of Sicily.

On the whole, people here seem very laid back and friendly and not at all weighed down by post-colonial resentments. Their patriotism generally manifests itself (as one might expect in such a tiny nation) as a cultural phenomenon, as pride in cultural identity, rather than as something political or militaristic.

There are dark aspects to Maltese society, however. They are mainly related (as far as I can ascertain) to racial frictions and to organized crime and corruption. On the latter issue, a local journalist and anti-corruption campaigner, Daphne Caruana Galizia, was killed by a car bomb in 2017 and people still leave flowers at a memorial set up to honour her memory.

Friday, December 29, 2023

In Bulgaria

My lack of knowledge of the Bulgarian language has made it difficult for me to get beyond a superficial understanding of the country but the very fact that so many people here (including the young) are strongly committed to their language and culture is revealing.

Compared to Athens, Sofia seems gentler and more congenial. Bulgaria is clearly a poor country, but I think it’s safe to say that the economic situation here is not as dire as the situation in Greece. Greece struck me as a very unhappy country indeed, with abundant signs of psychological stress, anger and resentment in sections of the population. Such signs are less evident here.

There are countless reminders of Bulgaria’s Communist history, both physical (older buildings and infrastructure) and psychological (culture and attitudes). But whether the apparent Stoicism of the not-so-well-off is due to the country’s experience during the Cold War or something older and deeper I do not know.

I found the metro in Sofia more pleasant to use than the Athens metro. But one day, hurrying to board a departing train, I was not quite quick enough to entirely clear the rapidly closing doors. The doors caught and crushed my small backpack so that, for a few seconds, I was pinned to the doors and unable to move.

This was an old, square-fronted Soviet-era train, one of the few still operating. The carriage interior, from the floor covering to the seating to the ventilation and heating system, was markedly different from any other metro carriages I had seen here. But the most striking feature (pun intended) were the automatic doors which closed with sudden and vicious force. Guillotine-like. I’ve never encountered anything quite like it.

As it happens, I have had no health insurance cover while in Greece or Bulgaria and so am living dangerously. I thought that so long as I took reasonable care and avoided wild, wooded areas (there are wolves and bears apparently) I would be safe. Little did I realize that even in boring parts of town (to which I tend to gravitate) hazards abound.

On the roads for example. It’s amazing how ingrained one’s intuitions are about traffic flows. This applies to pedestrians as much as to drivers, and if virtually all one’s prior experience was gained in countries where traffic drives on the left-hand side, it’s so easy to step off the curb at the wrong time and walk under a passing bus.

Even some instances of the apparently benign walk (or “green man”) traffic-light signal may betray sinister intent. Were these configurations cunningly designed to trick foreigners or perhaps – more sinister still – to cull the duller or less-alert segments of the population? For example, the other day I was just about to respond to a green walk signal straight ahead of me across the street when I noticed a red signal on the thin median strip and so just managed to avoid walking into the torrent of traffic surging from my left.

Returning to my Sofia hotel (near the airport) one afternoon, I was surprised to see an unsupervised and untethered horse grazing on the grassy verge. As I walked past on the paved sidewalk, I saw a teenaged boy approaching the horse and was vaguely reassured that the animal would in due course be taken to a safer place. The horse panicked however and bolted past me, rather too close for comfort. It galloped around behind the hotel, followed by the running boy.

Another hazard are automated boom gates. They are everywhere in these parts, usually complemented by cyclone fencing topped with barbed wire. There are boom gates and no dedicated pedestrian entrance at the hotel I am staying at, but thankfully no barbed wire.

On a more serious note, I must say that I am glad to be in Europe again and beginning the slow process of acclimatizing myself to the practical contingencies and perspectives of contemporary European life. New experiences meld with literary and intellectual influences. Old memories are revivified and tested.

Though I have no expertise in natural history, I feel the need (or the desire at least) to be able to identify common plants, birds etc., at least to the extent that any normally observant person growing up in a given geographical location will know them. I know some European birds and trees but found it slightly frustrating not to be able to identify, for example, the black birds that formed large flocks in the vicinity of Sofia airport and whose aerial manoeuvrings reminded me of bats. Were they Eurasian jackdaws? The elegant, long-tailed Eurasian magpies were easier to identify.

With respect to local trees, many of them (unsurprisingly) are identical to English and other familiar European varieties.

But my main areas of interest (at least in recent times) relate to the human realm: to psychology, to culture, to politics. And cultural attitudes in Bulgaria incorporate a number of apparently conflicting strands. A certain nostalgia for the Communist era mixes with attachments to older religious and mystical perspectives; and strong commitments to the EU exist side-by-side with elements of Romantic nationalism.

Environmental issues are taken very seriously but usually in sensible and practical (rather than ideological) ways, with the focus on simple and appropriate technologies.

More generally, ordinary life seems less politicized here than it has become in other countries with which I am familiar. This is a good thing, in my opinion. Politics has its place but when it dominates a culture and intrudes into private, personal and inter-personal areas, social and intellectual life is inevitably compromised.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Athens interlude

I spent the latter part of October and most of November in Athens. The weather was glorious. And the rocky, dry, austere landscapes of Greece have always appealed to me. But economic pressures are obviously taking their toll and the country appears to be locked into a downward spiral.

Just down the street from where I was staying is Athens railway station (also known as Larissa Station). The station has seen better days. In the past it was integrated into the European rail network and hosted the Orient Express and an express to Berlin. No more. Today there are no international links. You can get a train to Thessaloniki – if you’re lucky. When I tried to book, there was a notification that part of the line was out of action.

Athens road traffic is heavy and not easy to deal with as a pedestrian. There are many parks, however, including Pedion tou Areos with its oleanders and jacarandas and extensive network of paths and walkways.

There is a quaint little park by Larissa Station but this area (like many areas of the city) is impoverished and run down. Next to the park – as if mimicking the ancient ruins which characterize this part of the world – is a derelict basketball court, two hoops lying on the ground with their support structures uprooted. And overlooking the abandoned court is a residential building with its ground floor a boarded-up and apparently fire-damaged retail space. So many buildings hereabouts (hotels, residential, commercial) are standing idle, abandoned and boarded-up or half-demolished.

Many of the people I encountered seemed stressed, unhappy and not well disposed to tourists. I would go so far as to say that there is resentment towards tourists on the part of a sizable proportion of the general population. Such sentiments spill over into politics. I saw some graffiti touching on this theme (“neighbours not toyrists” [sic]).

I won’t go into the political situation except to note that Greece has a long and strong tradition of radical thought and action. Police – with armoured vehicles and riot shields – were out in force on at least two occasions while I was there to deal with student demonstrations. Trade unions were also involved in the demonstrations.

There is widespread poverty and borderline living. Many beggars, some of them elderly; and people selling bags of vegetables etc. on the streets. In the area in which I was staying, there are dozens of depressing “mini-marts” selling the same limited range of groceries and halal products, businesses run for the most part – and patronized by – Muslim immigrants. Service with a scowl seemed to be their preferred approach – though they may, for all I know, have been very pleasant to their regular clientele.

While in Athens I needed to replace my sneakers and bought a new pair from a cluttered local shop-cum-warehouse run by a Chinese couple who import shoes and jackets from the People’s Republic. The mini-marts accept credit and debit cards, but this Chinese entrepreneur only took cash. The shoes I chose were marked €23.

“For you, 20 euro,” he said. A real businessman this one!

One of my high school teachers (his name was Lionel Lobstein) was said to speak six European languages, all with the same accent. He taught us social studies (geography and history) and later joined the Italian department at the local university. He was full of praise for Greek culture. They had their priorities right, he told us, valuing social intercourse and conversation over mundane chores, etc.. He routinely spent his annual holidays in Greece, sipping coffee and chatting in shaded courtyards (or so the story went). Later I latched on to the poems and novels of Lawrence Durrell, a British expatriate who was deeply immersed in the Mediterranean world.

Even allowing for nostalgic and literary distortions, I have the strong sense of a culture which – exposed to various external forces and (perhaps) internal contradictions – has sadly lost its way.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

In the Blue Mountains

Having given up the apartment in central Melbourne which I had leased for more than a decade, I have been staying for the most part in hotels – and intend to continue to do so. The general plan is to travel in a slow and leisurely way as I consider my longer term options. One thing I need to do is to develop a shortlist of retirement destinations, places where – when (or if!) the travelling stops – I could live contentedly and within my means.

I won't go into the details of my personal finances here but the general picture is that I have cash savings and a few stock market investments which generate a modest income. Part of my strategy is to simplify my life as much as possible and (without going to extremes) to minimize "overheads", i.e. income taxes and monthly or annual fees and charges.

I am currently staying in the Blue Mountains, about 100 km from Sydney, and intend to move on soon and spend some time in Southeast Asia and, later, Europe.

I have never been all that fond of the Australian bush and feel more comfortable by the sea or in certain urban environments. But the landscapes here, as well as the flora and fauna, are certainly unique and worth taking in. I recently went with a friend on a relatively challenging walk near Blackheath.

The photos were taken on the Centennial Glen walking trail by Anne Williams.

Certain towns in the Blue Mountains were fashionable resorts in the 1920s, '30s and '40s. Foreign tourists still come (to Katoomba and Leura, for example) but the towns and villages of the region, though still reasonably prosperous, have clearly undergone profound social and economic changes over the years, not all of them positive.

This old black and white snap, taken in 1942, bears witness to a family connection with this part of the world.

My mother (nearest to the camera, 17 years old) is holidaying with an older sister and friends in Katoomba.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Geopolitical tensions


Current American foreign policy settings are arguably at the root of our most serious and urgent geopolitical problems. Under the influence of advisors committed to extreme forms of neoconservatism, aspects of policy have become disconnected from reality, even delusional.

In fact, the Cold War period was sane by comparison. Sure, it was a dangerous time but U.S. policies were hard-headed and sometimes intelligent. And, crucially, they were not completely out of kilter with underlying economic realities.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the U.S. and its allies have pursued policies based on what I see as very problematic assumptions (regarding American exceptionalism, for example). These policies often involved regime change and the attempt to establish Western-style democracies in places lacking the cultural prerequisites for such systems to establish themselves.

Unfortunately, past failures are not being fully acknowledged and there are few indications that any serious reassessment of current policy settings is in train. Nor is there sufficient recognition of the irrevocable nature of various changes that have occurred on the geo-economic front.

As I have previously noted, the relative size of the U.S. economy with respect to the rest of the world has declined significantly over the last sixty years. Throw in other factors – like sovereign debt levels and financial and monetary issues – and it becomes clear that the prospects for a continuation of U.S. global hegemony are slim to non-existant.

Fading powers are always particularly dangerous. They see their military dominance as being eroded or as being under threat (ultimately for economic reasons). Time is not on their side, so they are motivated to provoke wars, to fight sooner rather than later in an attempt to turn the tide.

Is this not exactly what we are seeing now in Eastern Europe and the East China Sea? There are irresponsible actors on all sides, I don’t deny it. But America and its closest allies now pose the greatest danger in my opinion.

As individuals our primary duty in respect of these matters is, as I see it, simply not to fall for or contribute to unnecessarily divisive ideas. Ideally we will also assess and either embrace or try to change our own governments’ policies.

I am not interested in demonizing or assigning blame but rather in identifying – and, where possible, promoting – Western policies which will manage in a responsible way the fault lines of a world which is armed to the teeth with increasingly sophisticated weapons.

Military conflicts are occurring and will continue to occur. Foreign policy settings may encourage or discourage such conflicts. But, whatever the situation, whatever specific goals are being pursued, the overriding goal for policy-makers should always be to minimize the chances of conflict between major powers.

And outsiders attempting to engineer regime change in Russia or China in pursuit of a geopolitical strategy based on notions of American exceptionalism is clearly not the way to go.