Monday, September 06, 2004

All in the same EU-Boat, Part 6 

It's that time of the month when we once again have a look at what's been going on among our European older cousins. We all know that Europe has reached a higher level of political, economic, social, not to mention moral, development than the rest of us mere mortals around the world. What can we, the uncultured, unsophisticated, unwashed, barbaric, tacky and ignorant masses learn from the Mother Continent this time around? Actually, probably only this:

Dear Europe, you're just like the rest of us, only older!

In political news, the famous (albeit now rapidly aging) Italian porn star
Cicciolina (born Ilona Staller in Hungary) is planning a run for the mayor of Milan in 2005 on a platform of making this northern Italian city "an exciting place." Well may we say, she should know how to, but in addition to her other talents, Cicciolina has got plenty of political experience already under her garter belt:

"She entered politics in 1987 when she won a seat in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of [Italian] Parliament, on the Radical party ticket. Three years later, Staller publicly offered to have sex with Saddam Hussein if the then-Iraqi leader agreed to free foreigners being held hostage in Iraq before the Gulf War. Staller did not run for re-election at the end of her 5-year term, but her interest in politics remained -- she made a failed bid to get on the ballot for a parliamentary election in her native Hungary in 2002."
There's a lesson there for all of us: get screwed by Cicciolina, or risk getting screwed by the Americans.

Meanwhile in Belgium, the
European Union headquarters is preparing to reopen, true to form, "[s]even years late and three times over budget." It was shut down for renovations in 1991 after asbestos has been discovered in large quantities throughout the building.

"Incoming Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has already decided the new building will house all 25 European Commissioners, to foster team spirit. The new commissioners will enjoy grand offices on the top three floors of the 13-storey Berlaymont. They can expect five windows - on the basis of hierarchy - and an office of at least 75 square metres which will soon be filled with leather sofas and other trappings of euro power. The 230,000 square metre building will also be the workplace of 2,200 of the Commission's 18,000 Brussels-based staff.

"The large, bright reception hall resembles more a modern airport or shopping mall than the heart of Brussels bureaucracy. The building is also designed to withstand unhappy EU citizens: specially-fitted anti-demonstration windows will keep warring protesters at bay. The command centre of the EU HQ is on the 13th floor, where Barroso and his commissioners will meet for weekly strategy sessions. Entering the room gives the impression of walking into a sci-fi movie. Under a futuristic light fitting shaped like a large egg, an oval table is equipped with James Bond-like pop-up computers. A large, dark wall protrudes out over Europe's capital. Bullet-proof glass and protective walls will hopefully put paid to any terrorist attacks.

"To boost the Commission's tarnished public image, contractors have installed ground-breaking energy conservation technology. This includes reflective outside panels, which use heat sensors to warm the building in winter and keep it cool in summer. But the Berlaymont has been unable to distance itself completely from Greenpeace accusations that contractors may have used illegal Indonesian timber in the refurbishment process."
The Commission's public image might become further tarnished when the Euro-citizens learn that the total cost of reconstruction is expected to top 1 billion Euro. Oh well, the Commission will just have to put in even more energy-saving technology to placate the taxpayers (although a cynic might say that with 2,200 Commission employees "working" in the building, there won't be much energy expended anyway).

In international relations news, so much for the "ugly American" being the only one with an international image problem: according to a
poll conduced by the Emnid Institute, "63% of Germans have felt embarrassed at least once by other Germans while away on holiday. Asked what they found most annoying about other Germans, 88% said it was the noise they made. Excessive complaining (82%) and constant requests for German food (66%) were also frequently criticised, the Berliner Kurier reports. And 65% of people interviewed said they felt embarrassed to witness the bad dress sense of fellow Germans - including the notorious combination of socks and sandals."

Meanwhile, the French are starting to get
ignored even in Europe: "European Commission chief-in-waiting Jose Manuel Durao Barroso denied Friday that France had got a bad deal by being given the relatively lightweight transport portfolio in his new EU executive." The Franco-snubbing continues on the grass-roots level, too, with Spain eclipsing last year's favourite France as the biggest tourist destination in Europe. Maybe it's because there are too many noisy, complaining, tastelessly dressed German tourists in France. Then again, maybe not, as the research suggests that Germans like holidaying mostly in Italy, Austria and Turkey. So maybe it's just the French.

And maybe the French are
finally getting the hint: "French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier... told his country's 300 ambassadors and chief diplomats around the world to ditch arrogance for influence in their dealings and concentrate on projecting Paris's power through the European Union." After the meeting, the Foreign Minister was taken aside by a few senior officials who explained to him that Paris's power had run out sometime around 1940 and arrogance has been the only economical substitute since then.

Spain's good fortune in tourism stakes, meanwhile, may not continue for too long, as the local authorities are starting to
crack down on tourism companies and bars which encourage excessive consumption of alcohol among young tourists: "One newspaper in Catalonia has reported that a German operator is offering five hours of free drinks a day for its clients at their hotels in the Costa Brava resort of Calella. Some Dutch operators arrange to take their customers on a crawl of more than 10 bars on the first night of their holidays for a cost of just EUR 9, the newspaper added."

In defense and the war on terror news, a Belgian airliner was recently forced to make an emergency landing after an
"aggressive kitten" escaped from a box into the cockpit. According to another report, "The scared animal was 'very aggressive and scratched the co-pilot'."

The good news though, is that the Europeans are finally
waking up to danger: "Governments across the world must step up counter-terror cooperation to prevent a repetition of the Russian school hostage crisis, Dutch Foreign Minister and current European Union spokesman Bernard Bot said Friday. At the same time, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said the conflict in Chechnya could only be solved through political means, warning Western governments against being drawn into a clash of civilisations with Muslims, but added: 'We have to defend our values, even under difficult circumstances'." Or maybe not. We might know once Europe makes up its mind.

Overall, European nations can breathe easier: after centuries of military adventurism, German army might finally be
too busy having sex to engage in new conquests:

"Germany has introduced a new guideline that allows both heterosexual and homosexual relationships between members of its armed forces, provided it involves two consenting adults.

"The Bild Daily has reported that while sex during work hours will continue to be considered a disruption of service operations, the new ruling will be pretty liberal on what soldiers do in their leisure time."
Blizkrieg might have worked well as a military doctrine, but being on the receiving end of a lightning-fast conquest might leave female soldiers rather unsatisfied.

In economic news, there are signs that Great Britain is catching the
Continental disease, as businesswoman Beryl King is "banned from asking for 'hard-working' staff in a job ad because it discriminates against the lazy." Then again, it's a good sign that in the UK even the lazy ones are still looking for work.

Meanwhile, across the Channel, French farmers continue their proud tradition of
rent-seeking: "French produce farmers upset by falling revenues due to oversupply and imports are staging disruptive protests to get help from the government, which is considering price-fixing that could violate EU competition rules. Milk producers invaded supermarkets in Lyon and other cities Thursday, putting stickers on milk cartons and bottles showing the prices they are getting paid versus the retail price. In Nancy, groups of farmers pushed shopping carts full of dairy products into the street without paying for them and handed them out for free to passers-by." Ah, the Golden Age when the government officials would push shopping carts full of taxpayers' money into picturesque village lanes and hand out the bundles of francs for free to passing farmers.

The Germans, too, are increasingly in the
doldrums: "Poverty levels in Germany are increasing, and greater discrepancy in wealth distribution is expected in coming years, according to Data Report 2004, a survey released by the Federal Statistics Office." As Frankurter Allgemeine Zeitung comments: "When it comes to living standards, Germany has also slipped into Europe's mid-field. Not surprisingly then the report also concluded that Germans were among the least satisfied people in the 15 European countries surveyed in the EU before the accession of the 10 recent entrants." So the Germans are becoming an increasingly unhappy bunch: "Pessimism is spreading through German society, a survey released on Tuesday showed. The survey found that 34 percent of all Germans between 14 and 69 considered their situation to be worse today than it was two years ago. Last year, the total was 28 percent. "

But at least the Germans will be able to console themselves, thanks to an ingenuous invention created out of an old slot machine by an artist, Jennifer Baumeister. In the
Comfort XxL, "[a]t the push of a button, a screen shows a short video of somebody saying encouraging things... Baumeister videotaped some 100 people, and their messages range from two young women chanting 'You are great! You are beautiful! You are so fantastic!' to a man's more down-to-earth 'Remember, it could be worse'." Other suggested messages include: "Don't worry, you're still an economic superpower," "The future belongs to a Paris-Berlin axis," and "Remember, it could be worse - you could have reunited with the whole of the Eastern Europe, not just East Germany."

Not quite on the economic topic, but Comfort XxL reminds me of the new
talking Dutch toilets:

"The citizens of Amsterdam may now take counsel of talking toilets that expound on the perils of smoking or the futility of war and berate them on hygiene and cleanliness. The first such toilets, fitted with sensors to detect exactly what visitors do and to pass comment if appropriate, were installed in a central Amsterdam cafe... Depending on circumstances, the toilet might remind you to wash your hands or ask you to lift the seat."
The last time a toilet spoke to me was some years ago, when I was really drunk, so unfortunately I can't remember its exact words, but I think it might have been "You are great! You are beautiful! You are so fantastic!" Another thought: has the European Union been getting the ideas for its foreign policy lately from a talking toilet?

Finally, and back on the economic subject, the new
European currency is proving too much for some: "A dog in Germany has been treated for an expensive case of indigestion after eating a wad of Euro notes.

"The dog's owner, a woman from Stockstadt, had withdrawn 450 euros (£300) and left them under a bank statement on the passenger seat of her car. Later when she returned to her car after shopping, the money was gone and she found her dog had collapsed in a pool of vomit.

"Believing someone had broken into the car, poisoned the dog and stolen her money, the woman called police. Officers took the owner and dog to the nearest veterinary surgery. They quickly realised what had really happened when the dog began coughing up six 50 euro notes. The rest of the money soon followed, along with the bank balance sheets. 'The dog just kept spitting out pieces of money,' said a police spokesman."
Who needs an Automatic Teller Machine when you have a dog?

In culture and the arts news, from the "
it had to happen one day" file: "A cleaner at the Tate gallery [in Great Britain] threw out a modern art exhibit because she thought it was rubbish. She thought the piece, cardboard and paper and wrapped in a see-through binliner, was a sack of litter... She had no idea it was all part of an installation by German artist Gustav Metzgerand displayed on the floor at London's Tate Britain. Metzger's work, First Public Demonstration Of Autodestructive Art, stood proudly in the gallery's Art And The Sixties display." We don't need more artists, we need more cleaners.

The Bosnian city of Mostar, meanwhile, will
immortalise the kung-fu legend Bruce Lee by building a monument in the centre of the city: "A statue of the action hero is intended to remind people of Lee's 'loyalty, friendship, skill and justice'. The city remains ethnically split with Bosnian Muslims, Croats and Serbs divided since the 1992-95 war. Writer Veselin Gatalo said: 'Lee is a true international hero and is a hero to all ethnicities in Bosnia and that's why we picked him'." Enter the Dragonovic, perhaps?

Across the border, the parliament of Serbia-Montenegro has
failed to approve the country's new national anthem in time for the Athens Olympics. "[T]he head of the Serbian Orthodox church denounced the new tune - a hybrid of an old Serbian song and a new Montenegrin one - as a 'centaur'." It's unknown which part of the anthem is human and which one resembles horse's ass.

commercialisation of tragedies arrives in Europe: "The man in Germany convicted earlier this year of killing and partially devouring his homosexual lover has sold film and book rights to his case for an undisclosed sum." In the United States he probably wouldn't get much time to make money out of his deeds before getting executed. How barbaric!

And still in Germany, a victory over the
American cultural imperialism is achieved: German children no longer have to be intimidated by a Malibu Barbie, now that "James Waldron, head designer for the fashion label Rena Lange, has created a special Oktoberfest Barbie wearing an Alpine dirndl dress - complete with beer jug." Speaking of traditional German fashion, "[d]emand for traditional German clothing such as lederhosen for dogs is said to be increasing in the run up to Oktoberfest." As long as dogs don't wear socks and sandals.

In history news, a Swedish geographer has discovered the secret that so far had eluded generations of historians: Ireland is really
Atlantis: "Geographer Ulf Erlingsson, whose book explaining his theory will be published next month, says the measurements, geography, and landscape of Atlantis as described by Plato match Ireland almost exactly. 'I am amazed no one has come up with this before, it's incredible,' he told Reuters." We agree.

Meanwhile, somewhat more recent - and real - history is at stake in Germany, as the last remaining 1.3 kilometre stretch of the
Berlin Wall is falling into disrepair. Because of the uncertainty as to who owns the wall, no one is volunteering with the necessary 1.5 million euro to fix it.

Other German-related history continues to cause problems across Europe. A heated controversy has erupted in Estonia, as town of Lihula unveils a
monument to commemorate Estonians who had died during World War Two while fighting alongside the Nazis. "This monument is for people who had to choose between two evils, and they chose the less evil one. They had already experience of the Soviet occupation, and they didn't want it to come back," said Tiit Madisson, the governor of the Lihula parish. A plaque on the monument reads: "To Estonian men who fought in 1940-1945 against Bolshevism and for the restoration of Estonian independence." The Croats are having similar problems, with the authorities urging the village of Lovinac to pull down a plaque commemorating a minister in the collaborationist World War Two government.

In sensitivity and tolerance news, can it get any more
sensitive than this? "A leading German dictionary publisher plans to launch a guide it says will help men translate the subtext of female conversation. The Langenscheidt publishing group, best known for its well-respected yellow foreign language dictionaries, will launch sales of a 128-page book to translate such baffling female banter as: 'Let's just cuddle' into 'No sex tonight please!'." A one-page guide on the subtext of male conversation is coming soon.

In Holland, meanwhile, an attempt at
a PC censorship: "A Dutch group wants to ban the word 'thin' from the dictionary because it's insulting to underweight people. The group, called Small Intestines Anonymous, represents people who struggle to put on weight. They say the word 'thin' is a term of abuse used by 'fat over-rulers' to put down slender people." I'm sure the activists will be able to work an anti-American angle into it.

Back in Germany, men are losing their last
bastion of masculinity: "German men are being shamed into urinating while sitting down by a gadget which is saving millions of women from cleaning up in the bathroom after them. The WC ghost, a £6 voice-alarm, reprimands men for standing at the lavatory pan. It is triggered when the seat is lifted. The battery-operated devices are attached to the seats and deliver stern warnings to those who attempt to stand and urinate (known as 'Stehpinkeln')." Why not instead manufacture toilets with the seat permanently attached down? And won't the WC ghost simply make German men urinate standing but without lifting the seat?

In the media news, the notoriously stuffy British TV is becoming
more watchable: "Starting nightly on August 16, Get Lucky TV will broadcast via satellite to European audiences the daily news read by a series of nubile young women who will gradually -- but tastefully -- remove their clothes on camera." One of the news anchors, Lily Kwan, says: "I got into Naked News very accidentally. I was actually studying to become a dental hygienist. I was attending school when I soon realized that I needed something a bit more creative to cultivate my creativity." Not to mention her vocabulary.

Meanwhile, the Olympic officials were attempting to get the
Greek edition of "Playboy" off the shelves for "brutal insult" to the spirit of the Olympics: "Headlines such as '2004 seconds of ecstasy' and 'Go for a Sexathon gold' corrupts the Olympic image, they say. Playboy also contains headlines such as 'Gianna's wild Rogge and Roll' - a reference to International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge and Athens 2004 chief Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki. It also sports a cartoon of the Olympic rings composed of condoms."

In health news, a British builder who woke up from a
41 day coma has told his mother to "f*** off". Joan Hopkins, 39, is reported to have cried with relief: "I told the nurse I'd know when he was getting better because he'd swear at me... It was such a relief - it was his way of telling me he was going to be all right. He hasn't stopped talking since." Unfortunately.

In education news, teachers at a fundamentalist Christian school in Norway have complained to the Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority that the school's headmaster keeps
trying to exorcise them. In the past, the school was criticised by the Inspection Authority for listing Jesus Christ as its executive manager (that's not a joke, by the way).

Meanwhile in Germany, when in doubt -
sue: "A German teacher ended up in the dock and was ordered to give a pupil higher marks after her parents complained their daughter should have been given better grades... The couple's legal team claimed that the questions posed in assignments were unfair because they were phrased in an ambiguous way, and demanded that the child be marked up and allowed to enter grammar school. The judges agreed - and corrected the marks on one assignment by two grades, giving the girl top marks on the paper. Another assignment was awarded a higher mark as well." At least the American judges only decide the outcome of presidential elections.

And in Romania, a
Star Wars academy has opened its doors to aspiring Jedi knights. It "teaches about the religion of the Jedi, use of the light sabre and speaking in Wookiee has opened its doors in Romania... The academy is also offering special modules for true devotees, like cooking some of the dishes seen in the Star Wars films including Wookiee Cookies, Princess Leia Danish donughts, Sand Trooper sandwiches and Twin Sun toasts." Don't you sometime get the impression that some of your lectures got their academic qualifications from a Star Wars academy?

In law and order news, the classic "Sir, would you like to
buy a bridge?" offer became a reality, thanks to seven enterprising thieves in Bosnia: "A rare iron bridge that survived three wars has been stolen by a gang of scrap metal dealers. The bridge near the city of Mostar came through the Balkans war of the 1990s because locals covered it with sandbags. The 40ft bridge had been built by Imperial architects from the Austro-Hungarian empire... [The police] said the bridge sections were sold to a local scrap yard for £90, where most of them were melted down before they could be saved."

In Norway, the authorities have developed a novel way to
fight road congestion: "Renathe Opedal was hopelessly stuck in traffic during rush hour when an overeager attendant slapped her with a $73 parking ticket." A speeding ticket would have been more surreal.

Prostitutes in Basel, Switzerland, are taking to wearing
roller skates so that they can faster escape the police. Speaking of Eurohookers, "German prostitutes have rejected the first ever employment contract created by union officials. The refused to sign the deal, which includes six weeks holiday and a pension, because they are to embarrassed to admit what they do. The union contract attempts to regulate everything from the duties of a 'sex worker' to working hours and holiday claims." We won't take it laying down, said the prostitutes' representative, announcing the strike action.

In related news, a gang of robbers in Norway was
caught on video tape by a crew making a porn movie. I'm sure the tape will be extensively copied and distributed throughout the Norwegian police force - for training purposes, of course.

Meanwhile, in Holland, a
fetish panic: "The Dutch Labor party wants to pass a law making unsolicited toe-licking an offence after police were unable to prosecute a would-be Casanova with a taste for female toes because he had committed no crime."

In Spain, a German prisoner and his girlfriend have
glued their hands together during a prison visit, in order to fight the man's extradition back to Germany. As the old Spanish police saying goes, the couples that stick together get extradited together.

And in Belgium,
identity problems: "Christina Lauwers from Antwerp was informed by the Central Administration for the Registration of Vehicles they could not register the car in her name because she died two years ago. She said: 'They wouldn't accept my word that I was still alive. They said they based their information on official data by the Belgian central administration'." Government after all, knows best.

Finally, one for the
legal aficionados: "The Dutch Catholic Church has gone to court to force insurer Aegon to reimburse a damages pay-out to a girl who was sexually abused by a priest. The Bishop of Rotterdam claims the abuse was an industrial accident and was covered by the Church's liability insurance." Better than an Act of God, I guess.

In sports news, the
Cold War is finally over in swimming, as the last world record held by East Germany is finally consigned to history: "Natalie Coughlin, Carly Piper, Dana Vollmer and Kaitlin Sandeno of the US bettered the longest-standing world record in women's swimming, in the 4x200 metres freestyle relay to 7:53.42 minutes. The former mark of 7:55.47 was set by East Germans Manuela Stellmach, Astrid Strauss, Anke Moehring and Heike Friedrich on the day 17 years ago, on August 18, 1987, at the European championships in Strasbourg."

Elsewhere, a
great victory for Finland:
"A Finnish man and a Belarussian woman won a competition for sitting in a blisteringly hot sauna on Sunday, with both nations keeping the world titles in the bizarre endurance test.

"Leo Pusa, 56, a three times former champion took back the title won by a fellow Finn last year, spending almost 12 minutes in the 110 degrees Celsius (230 degrees Fahrenheit) heat."
First prize: brain.

Russia today,
Olympics tomorrow? "If you've ever seen a rubber woman, you know it must take a lot of imagination to, er, handle her the way you're supposed to. Some Russian men and women apparently have even more imagination to spare - 126 of them used inflatable sex dolls as flotation devices to raft down rapids in the vicinity of St. Petersburg. The second Bubble Baba Challenge (in Russian, baba stands for 'woman,' only unlike the other word for woman, zhenschina, conveys not a shred of respect) was held on the Vuoksa river that runs in northwestern Russia a year after the first contest." Now all the embarrassed lonely men going into sex shops can pretend they're swimming enthusiasts.

And lastly, in animal news, Russia's president Putin is the
new poster boy for kindness to animals, after he'd nursed back to health a seagull with a broken wing he had found lying on the grounds of his villa. "Quite how the bird made it into grounds of the high-security presidential dacha is a mystery. But it got lucky: the president decided to look after it." Lucky for the seagull it wasn't from Chechnia.

And in France, authorities have closed down the
Paris zoo "after employees went on strike to denounce its dangerously rundown state... Parts of it were closed to the public last month because of falling debris from the artificial rock caverns and mounds that surround an even bigger, 65-metre (210-foot) high fake mountain." I say, if they can't run a zoo, how can they run the world?

But enough of this madness for one day - see you all next time.


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