18 September 2008

The city has given up all presumptions of enjoying balmy, southern weather, with pretensions to the status of a chic, gentrified metropolis and has reverted to type, that is to say damp, dark and COLD. It’s not so easy to be bohemian when you are wrapped up in a duffle coat, clutching your paper cup of caffĂ© latte trying to warm your hands as you wait for the tram. This is a city for practical people who wear sensible warm shoes and wrap themselves in scarves. It is already pitch black outside when I get up. It won’t be long before the clocks go back, but the hours of darkness during the day will still be considerable.

How quickly the wooden benches and little tables have been cleared off the pavements and spirited away out of sight. The bio-ice cream parlour that last week was overflowing with kids and school bags is now deserted – only one little park bench remains outside the shop window, cemented to the pavement. The assortment of benches, stools and odd chairs (no two pieces were the same) had gone and the few die-hards who just have to have an environmentally-friendly ice cream are now forced to eat it on the way home. If nothing else, the consumer has no fear of his confection melting before he gets to the end of it.

The only patrons that don’t seem to be adversely affected by the inclement weather are the beer drinkers, specifically those that like to imbibe their beverage while puffing away on a cigarette. New legislation means that they cannot smoke even inside a pub, unless the premises are large enough to provide a separate room just for smokers. Since most pubs and bars are tiny, one-room affairs, this means that the clientele have to sit outside on the pavement. It appears that the combination of nicotine and alcohol in substantial quantities renders the individual immune to bad weather: it fails to have any perceivable effect on him. Postscript: the constitutional court has recently ruled that banning smokers from small pubs is bad for business and drives customers away. It is unfair competition on the part of the bigger establishments. Smokers can now return to the comfort of their favourite corners, safe in the knowledge that should the Ordnungsamt official perform a surprise raid, the proprietor won’t be fined for breaking the law.

Any visitor using the public transport system here had better make sure he is in possession of a valid ticket. Inspectors conduct lightning checks on a regular basis. On many occasions I have had to produce my ticket twice or three times in one day! You can never spot them when they get on: they look like regular workers, punks, apprentices. They are mostly men, always working in pairs (they start at opposite ends and work their way to the middle) but there is a couple that pass themselves off as husband-and-wife. I am constantly surprised by the blasĂ© attitude of people that get caught without a ticket. It’s as if they think the risk of getting caught is worth taking or perhaps the fine is a lot less than the cost of a monthly travel pass. In any event, when they hear the familiar “Tickets, please”, they immediately have their ID cards ready instead, for the details to be recorded. They seem to know the procedure well.

The pitiable chestnut trees of the city have already lost the last of their brown and withered leaves but it has nothing to do with the onset of autumn. The culprit is a moth from Skopje that has found its way to western Europe, laid its eggs on the leaves of chestnut trees and decimated the population. Tree doctors are desperately seeking a cure – some say perhaps injections will do the trick. One thing is for sure, the street vendors will be short of chestnuts to roast at Christmas – we’ll see where they will get their raw material from.

The Chancellor Angela Merkel recently visited a vocational training school in a district renowned for its Muslim immigrants. Here young Muslim women were learning their way around a sewing machine and picking up skills for work as seamstresses (no more need to import cheap clothes from China!) This was just one stage in Mrs Merkel’s nationwide-tour of German schools so that she has a better understanding of the state of the country’s education system. This is conveys the importance of education to the wealth and wellbeing both of the individual citizen and the nation. Everyone (whatever his abilities) can contribute and no one will be left behind to be a burden on society/welfare benefits/indulgent parents. For those that want to learn here, all the doors are open. You can choose anything from degrees and foreign languages to cooking on a budget and philosophy. I think there are some lessons to be learnt here for some of Mrs Merkel’s other European counterparts.

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Squeaky Door by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.