Wednesday, April 29, 2009

There and Back Again, Part 1

When I got off the Metro at Felix Faure on Monday after 17 days in the Balkans, I first noticed the trees. They were green. Spring had crept up on Paris while I was gone and I was sad to have missed the flowering buds turn green in my favored Luxembourg Gardens. But oh my did I have a great time in Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Bosnia. I'll try and give a brief rundown of each city over the next few days.

Zagreb served as my entry and exit point to the region. In my first moments in the city, I noticed the wide spacing of the streets and the exaggerated distances between buildings; a place with space to spread out and grow unlike the often cramped and narrow quarters of Paris. We ate well and cheaply and drank beer from 2 liter bottles and almost saw a riot break out a soccer match. Having met an American, Korean, Frenchman, and Englishman all of whom worked for Adidas in Germany, we decided to check out the local side, Dinamo Zagreb, play a match at their home ground. Buying the cheapest tickets possible, we stood in line to be searched with all the other fans, but the crowd turned violent as the search process allowed only one person to enter at a time and, with the match set to begin, the most die-hard supporters began pushing and shoving, eventually overcoming the barricade and the riotgeared police who decided not to challenge the on-edge crowd. It was the only moment on the trip where I felt at all unsafe and decided not to take my camera out for the 5 or so tense minutes before the barricades finally fell so sorry that I don't have any photos of the event. Zagreb's a fun city and worth spending a night but doesn't hold a candle to the blunt charms of the Adriatic coastline.

Split. It's 5 AM Easter Sunday and I have just arrived into this sleeping port city, devoutly Catholic and still hanging in the morning fog. Unable to check into our hostel until at least 8, we sit along the waterfront, hungry and bleary eyed from a night bus from Zagreb and waiting and praying (it is Easter) for a bakery or anything to open up. By 7:30 we buy bread and soon after get into our hostel room and collapse into beds. Such was my introduction to Split a city mired in history. Sure it's pretty, but so much of Croatia's coastline is more beautiful that looking back Split's a dulling place. Diocletian's Palace is the highlight but otherwise there's not all that much to see or do. The city is the gateway to get to the Adriatic islands and those islands and Diocletian's Palace are worth the trip so get in and find the Jadrolinija booth (for ferry tickets) and get out!

Hvar. I think Hvar spawned the phrase "we win at vacation." It is unfairly beautiful. Why this little island gets to have it all I know not. Detroit should be pissed off. Hvar's old Medieval town center, framed by the spires of two monasteries sits below a 15th century Venetian fortress towering over the city and looking out onto the ever so blue as always Adriatic. Renowned for its nightlife come summer, in April the season hadn't yet begun and the island died at about 10 PM but the days were gorgeous and there was much sun to be had on the rocky beaches.

Monday, April 27, 2009

This Is Water

In several emails written during my recent trip to the Balkans, I tried to communicate the color of the Adriatic Sea and despite using countless adjectives and modifiers, I never found the write expression to capture the deep, heavy blue of the Croatian coast. Nor could I define the incandescent humming blue-green of the Tara River Canyon cutting down from Sarajevo to Mostar or the depth of the graying fjords of Montenegro. So, stealing my post title from a David Foster Wallace essay, here are a sampling of photos from the Balkans and back again.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Travel Update: Prishtina, Kosovo

Where to begin? Since my lost post, I've darted down the blue watered Croatian coastline, ducked around the largest fjord in southern Europe and climbed over the Accursed Mountains. I've ate more burek and drank more pivo than is good for anyone and now I'm dodging this Kosovar rain/mud storm at an internet cafe. The trip's been so many things and I hope to provide a little more synthesis when I'm back in Paris on April 27.

But for now, I'll give a quick summary of my time in this young nation. My friend Rafael and I left the bus station at about 6 am and walked up Bill Klinton (that's how they spell it) street and made our way to the "city center." The city has no true center except for the UNMIK compound (UN Mission in Kosovo) housing lots of police and development workers. This is the first time I've really seen an active UN or EU in a developing country. Aside from all the SUVs brandishing the yellow stars of the EU, I haven't seen any unified projects except for the park financed by the Italian government near my hostel. Thanks, Silvio!

But, otherwise, Prishtina sprawls for several dirty and dusty blocks of cigarette hawkers and concrete buildings. I hope the US remains high in the hearts of the Kosovo people because if we make a bad move and they catch up with the rest of the world in Bush bashing they'll have to rename just about everything from Robert Dole Street to Route 66 Cafe.

Off to Sarajevo tomorrow, then an extended stay in Mostar before dashing back to Zagreb and Paris! Will have many, many pictures when I'm back.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

East to Eden

So much for Spring. The rains and gray have returned once again. Hemingway did caution against the "false Spring" in Paris and I should listen to him, but it is too difficult to not enjoy the gardens and the sunlight when it is to be had.

I'm preparing for my trip to the Balkans with salty visions of the Adriatic and I find my mind has already drifted East.

I'll most likely not be posting during those two weeks, but I promise to have pictures and stories and thoughts up when I get back to Paris at the end of April.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Wishful Thinking

Image via

A note: This piece represents the accumulated frustration of watching two years of impotent city governments in Washington, D.C. and Prince George's County fail to reach a deal with D.C. United for a new stadium.

There hasn't been much good news for us soccer fans in the nation's capital the last few months. From the demise of the Poplar Point stadium project to a mediocre 2008 season, D.C. United supporters have suffered waves of injuries and watched high priced foreign talent capsize in MLS. We've been told we can't stay at RFK Stadium, but can't seem to find anyone willing to let us build a new stadium. At least Ben Olsen is playing again these days.

When Victor McFarlane and Will Change bought the team in 2007, they rode into town with deep pockets, ready to throw bags of cash down on a new stadium, the aforementioned Poplar Point Stadium on an undeveloped piece of land in Anacostia, D.C.'s poorest ward. The plan had the support of then mayor Anthony Williams and of then mayoral candidate Adrien Fenty. The team would foot the bill for the stadium and McFarlane would develop the rest of the area surrounding the stadium, promising mixed-use development in an area desperate for investment after years of neglect from a city that has kept its eyes firmly fixed on the other side of the river. In return, McFarlane asked for $200 million in tax incentives and infrastructure improvement from a city still swallowing the $611 million baseball stadium that had been shoved down their throats.

Winning election in 2007, Fenty saw Poplar Point as the crown jewel of his mayoral legacy. Just as Williams has staked his legacy on the success of the Nationals in D.C., so Fenty saw an opportunity for Poplar Point and wanted more. He took McFarlane's plan off the table, opened the project up for competitive bidding, and, subsequently, awarded development rights to Clark Realty.

With no hopes of controlling surrounding development rights, McFarlane said goodbye to the city that had welcomed him with open arms a year before knowing that without developing the rest of Poplar Point, spending his money on a stadium would not be profitable. Just as Abe Pollin built not only the Verizon Center, but also much of the surrounding commercial and residential real estate in the Gallery Place/Chinatown area, McFarlane envisioned a similar renaissance for Poplar Point, but with his plan taken off the table, he ran to Prince George's County, hoping to get the taxpayers to foot the bill for a United stadium. But talks over that project have stalled and are all but dead as politicians are reticent to commit to public spending during a financial crisis.

I've never supported publicly financed stadiums. I think the United plan was a raw deal for P.G. County taxpayers who would never have seen the kind of economic benefit county and United officials had been touting. A suburban soccer stadium will never be a "landmark destination" in P.G. County. No United fan wants to spend his or her evening out at the Morgan Boulevard Metro stop.

Look at the recent success of the Washington Capitols (and soccer teams in Seattle and Toronto). The Caps, in addition to bringing in Alex Ovechkin and winning a lot of games, have targeted a young demographic eager to spend their disposable income on hockey tickets and beers in Penn Quarter. It's cool to be a fan of the Caps in D.C., just as it's cool to support Seattle Sounders FC or Toronto FC. Now if someone proposed a United stadium at the corner of 14th and U with public money I might change my mind, but I don't think the $611 D.C. paid for baseball will pay-off for the taxpayers nor do I think a Prince George's County stadium would have driven a suburban renaissance.

As for Poplar Point, the project could be nearing completion under the guide of United and McFarlane. From my perspective, the city's $200 million investment would have been incidental given the fact that any development on the Poplar Point property would have needed new roads and expanded Metro access if they had built a stadium facility or not. For McFarlane, who has committed over a billion dollars in development in this city, it seems like a small price to pay for development in an area that craves it and during a period when we need to be creating jobs in the District.

But this dream is far from reality. Clark Realty dropped the Poplar Point project as the economy turned sour and the area remains as overgrown and underdeveloped as it was almost three years ago when this whole process started. And today D.C. United's project in P.G. County was finally given its coup de grace.

Worst of all, none of this blame has landed on Adrien Fenty, the man unwilling to be the champion of Ward 8, Poplar Point, and D.C. United. The residents of Ward 8, hungry for change, continue to not see the development their ward needs. As the unemployment rate charges to 10% and shows no signs of slowing, a few thousand construction jobs could go a long way to keeping families solvent and in their homes.

I'm sick of the waiting for something to get done and so is the team. As a soccer fan, I love seeing cities like Seattle and Columbus get behind their clubs, only to find myself feeling abject anger towards my home town. D.C's brought this city four championships in 13 years, spent countless hours working in the community, and brought together disparate sections of this city's diverse population, united in their love of their club. It's time we thank them and recommit ourselves to Poplar Point, Ward 8, and D.C. United's initial stadium plan.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Friday, April 3, 2009

La vie quotidienne

So I've had a request for a summary of day in the life of Paris Andrew Helms. I've resisted writing such a post up until this point since I didn't want the blog to devolve into a Twitter like stream of facts about the mundane and insignificant details of my life, but I give the people what they want so here it goes.

Imagine it is a Tuesday at 7:30 AM because on Tuesday's I wake up around 7:30. Shower, shave, get dressed, eat breakfast. Getting dressed takes longer than normal since I have to answer one difficult question every morning: Do I look American? If I look in the mirror and the answer is yes I find my black turtleneck sweater and put on my dagger-like pointy shoes. I'm only slightly kidding. I have no black sweaters or pointy shoes, but I do try and look put together every day.

For breakfast, it's normally Cruseli au chocolat and tea. I love that cereal. Though I could go for some eggs and bacon every now and then, the French aren't big on breakfast so I take what I can get.

I'm out the door by 9 and onto the Métro, taking the 12 from Convention to Montparnasse. First class at 9:30 on France and the European Union. Class covers the history of European integration following WWII. We often digress and discuss European politics which can be interesting and can be boring. Usually boring. European politics are dull.

Class gets out around 11 and my next class isn't until 1:30 so I now must decide what to do about lunch. If I'm busy and have work to get done, I'll grab a sandwich from the boulangerie on Rue Littré and head to the Tufts in Paris center in the Tour Montparnasse. If I'm not busy, and for the sake of this hypothetical day I am unstressed and free to enjoy a nice lunch, I will do one of two things. If it is nice out, I will walk down Rue Vavin, grab a sandwich and pastry, and head into the Luxembourg Gardens for reading, writing, people watching, and conversation (if I'm with a friend) .

Une petite parenthese on sandwiches. I've recently learned that the Parisian sandwich craze is recent. Today, lines stretch around the corner of the most popular boulangeries in Paris, but, if 10 years ago, you walked into a boulangerie and asked for a jambon buerre with perfect Parisian accent you would have been given a frustrated look from the boulanger who would either try to dig up some ham in the back room or tell you and your impatient sandwich eating self to get out of the store. That was before the Euro when the cafés were cheap and good. Then, you could enjoy a chevre salad and a glass of red wine, washed down with an espresso and still have money to burn on a fondant au chocolat walking back to the office. But with the change from the Franc to the Euro, the cafés prices rose drastically, moving them out of the Parisians daily price range. Not to mention there's been a movement for efficiency in the workplace so those marathon lunches had to go and they stuff down sandwiches like us. Thanks a lot economic integration. Way to destroy the café culture. I close this parenthese (when speaking, the French actually will introduce and close tangents in this fashion).

But back to my lunch options. So if it happens to be one of the frequent gray and rainy days, I'll duck into La Duchesse Anne. Obscured by a bustling crepe stand out front (that sells sandwiches too!), inside, La Duchesse is rich in eclectic decor in homage of its namesake, the famous Duchess Anne of Brittany. The food is good and cheap and the service is reliable. Try to the Rosbeef frites when it's the plat du jour.

With lunch over it is onto class. French language. After I have a short walk to the Institut Catholique for my class on the foreign policy of the Third Republic. Lots of Bismarck all the time. A good thing. The best.

Then it's home around 6:00. Dinner's at 8:30, so the mean time is passed responding to email, reading, and being hungry. I could talk for hours about dinner so I'll save that for another post. If after dinner I'm adventurous maybe I'll grab a drink with friends in the 11th. Then I sleep. A typical day. Is it all you dreamed it would be?

PS -- Sorry there are no photos, but I haven't had a chance to take many of late. I'll get back into it this weekend.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Get Over Yourself

So apparently some guy got mad I used his photo of Jozy Altidore without permission so, instead of maybe emailing me to ask that it be removed or saying hey do you mind crediting me for that photo, he changed the link code to a picture of some South Park character, saying "Hotlinking is bad mmmkay."

My bad. Sorry all of the 15 people who read this blog didn't realize that you had toiled for hours over that Jozy Altidore wallpaper. I solemnly apologize for all the damage I have caused you and your loved ones.


But as for me, I'm trying to get my art history paper on the Haussmannian renovations of Paris done in the next hour or so. I've spent two gorgeous Spring days working on it and for that I am bitter and thinking about the reading and writing I could have done in the Jardin du Luxembourg or the afternoon drinks I've missed on the Place du Bourg Tibourg sitting and people watching drenched in sun.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Don't Tread on Me

U.S. Men's National Team vs. Trinidad & Tobago
Tonight, April 1, 2009
7:30 PM -- ESPN 2
LP Field, Nashville, Tennessee

If you are stateside, watch the boys as they push towards South Africa and the 2010 World Cup.