Category Archives: Europe

Honeymoon 2015

Dan and Marta’s lune de miel trip through Poland and the Czech Republic.

On April 26, 2014, Marta and I got married in Lake Tahoe. Instead of taking our honeymoon right after, we decided to hold off until our Polish wedding with Marta’s family the following year.


Second day of the second wedding.

Americans may make a big deal about weddings these days, but so do Poles—in a different way though. The emphasis isn’t so much on proving your individualism, but rather on pleasing and entertaining your family and friends through constant spectacle. Like something out of a fairy tale, Polish weddings last for two days, and you put everyone up in a hotel for the night in between. Although our wedding was indeed entertaining, suffice it to say that by the second day, we were pretty exhausted and ready to head out on our trip.

To complicate matters, the day before we were planning to leave for the trip, we drove to drop Peter off to see his family in Kamieniec Zabkowicki and I made the fatal blunder of leaving my iPhone cable—the only one I had brought for both of us—at his grandparent’s house. It wasn’t till we got back in Lisięcice, 60 miles away, that I noticed it was missing. Going in the opposite direction of our first destination was not something I was open to doing. On the bright side, we had the chance to see the sublime Kamieniec Palace as well as the abbey and medieval church while we were visiting his family.

The charger missing, most of the day before of our voyage was spent trying to find various ways of finding a replacement, especially since we were going to rely heavily on battery-draining Google Maps to help us navigate the backroads of Poland and the Czech Republic. Marta’s family, in typical Polish fashion, ran around the house, to stores, and through all of their supplies, trying to find us a different one, but we just couldn’t seem to get one to work. Apple’s disabling “non-genuine devices” really screwed us over. Eager to get on the road, I said that I had enough battery to get us to Krakow—dubious though that was—and that we could pick up a new one there. There would be no postponing the trip, that much was certain.

The Fiat Doblo - 1.9 L diesel, manual beast

The Fiat Doblo – 1.9 L diesel, manual beast.

So with the whole extended family worried, we took off the next morning in the green diesel Fiat Doblo, and started our way to the bustling city of Krakow. As we drove out of town, I felt an initial elation to be out and on our own again—there’s nothing quite like that feeling of roaring off into the distance in pursuit of adventure and the unknown and away from the comforts of home life.

On our way, near Katowice, some light rain fell as we arrived at our first waypoint to meet Jacek and Dominika, a nice couple who came to the wedding, Dominka being an old friend of Marta’s. They served us good coffee, cake, and a full meal of spinach crepes. Truth be told, we were both still full from the constant eating of the wedding, but the food was so good that we powered on regardless. Dominika was pregnant then and Jacek was working from home. After good conversation, we said our goodbyes, knowing it’d be a long time before we saw each other again.

First Stop: Krakow

Great place in Krakow!

Great place in Krakow!

An hour later, the rain cleared as we made it into Krakow. I had booked us an Airbnb near Old Town for two nights, which included parking. In the end, this place would turn out to be the best one we had during the whole trip: the bed was comfortable, the place was spotless, and we were in walking distance to everything. After checking in and relaxing, we wasted no time in heading to see some of the sights.

We walked past the university and to the main square, explored the marketplace, and went up into one of the towers. Storm clouds started to form and it was nearing dinner time, but we were too excited and wanted to get a quick view of the town and its offerings.


Krakow Town Square.

In Krakow, I already felt back in old Europe, with its rich history and architecture. This city already embodied everything I love about Europe: medium-sized cities of medium-density, somehow the ideal balance for human creativity and progress, not too sparse and barren and atomized as American cities and small towns, nor too dense, crowded, overwhelming, and coldly modern as Asian cities. There is something in Europe that always is on the human scale, a legacy of humanism, itself an outgrowth of Christianity’s human God. From the Renaissance onwards, everything in Europe—up to, of course, modernism—speaks to our natural human senses. The music is orderly and beautiful, as are the cities, the fashion, and the societies themselves. There’s a brisk, robust health to everything, and the fact that every town in Europe worth seeing is from this era, speaks of a universalism apparent in Renaissance humanism. That Europe decided to turn on itself and throw out its great civilization and traditions is one of history’s great tragedies.

These thoughts must have come out while pondering the middle age tortures as we climbed the Town Hall Tower. Despite that, my hunger continued to grow unabated. By the time we got out of the tower, we were ready to search for some food. On the way back to the room, we dined on fish at a small, underground place with odd, risqué paintings—which somehow blended the medieval with the contemporary—and then we headed in for the night.

First dinner in Krakow.

First dinner in Krakow.

The second day in Krakow we set out to conquer the city, with no plans to use the car at all. After a quick detour in which we set up a bank account and got the wedding cash out of our hands, we went to Old Town.

Marta in front of Wawel Cathedral.

Marta in front of Wawel Cathedral.

We hijacked a tour a couple of times and got some of the details on the Jagiellonians and other royal lines. The deep link between the nations of Lithuania and Poland interested me, since my last name is Lithuanian and I’m also partly of Polish heritage.

After all this, we strolled through the Jewish quarter some more, and I came across Zamoyski’s Poland: A History, which I assumed I could get elsewhere and did not purchase at the time. (For some reason, I always make this mistake.) In the end, I had to purchase it online back in America. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but wished I’d got it in Krakow. All I can really say about for now is that Polish history is a lot different than what I expected.

We learned about the German occupation and near destruction of the city. And then we walked over to the Jewish quarter and the Jewish cemetery, two areas of town filled with dark, sad memories of the occupation and holocaust. On a moderately bright note, the Jewish quarter had started to see huge renovation projects and was filling with youth and life. We dined in a small place here for lunch, then made an obligatory trip to the mall for the iPhone cable. We got a knock-off at an exorbitant $10 USD, which was to work about 60% of the time before breaking completely, barely managing to get us through the trip.

If you look very careful, you can see Korwin's gray hair and bald head.

If you look very carefully, you can see Korwin’s bald head (left of the other bald guy).

After a break at the room for a while, we headed out to a nice Italian dinner back near the main plaza, where we both enjoyed excellent risotto. After that, we walked through the plaza and caught sight of a rally at which the controversial Euro-skeptic Korwin-Mikke was in attendance.

We then headed over to a local brew pub for some of the craft beers. Although Polish craft beer has a long ways to go, it was nice to see it up and coming in Krakow.

Second Stop: Zakopane

Our second waypoint was a bit out of the way of our final destination, but I was eager to get a taste of the Polish mountains, so we headed there in full force to a small hotel in Ząb, the highest place in Poland, which promised the respite of a sauna.

The Fiat had no trouble making it in the hills, but we barely managed to find our way around the confusing mountain town to the small inn. Although the chalet was cold and empty, we had a great view looking out at the mountain ranges.

Overlooking Zakopane, before taking the tram down.

Overlooking Zakopane, before taking the tram down.

Wasting no time, we drove off in search of the tram to take us into Zakopane. We had a tough time finding our way around the mountains. We had to ask some locals where we were going, but finally ended up in some strange area with a parking lot and a mountain tram to take us into Zakopane. And . . . oh my! What a tourist trap it was. I did enjoy the local cheese, but I really was not expecting so many miles of trinkets and junk. The town looked kind of like a section of Disney World. Really shocking. Fortunately, we did get to try some mountain-style kasha (hearty buckwheat) and then we headed back in for a nice evening of beer and relaxation in the sauna.

The next day was a big one. We planned to hike Morskie Oko, the “Sea Eye” deep in the Tatra Mountains along the Slovak border. Although it was early May and we knew there’d be some weather to deal with, we still assumed it wouldn’t anything extreme. The hike itself was 8 kilometers in and 8 back—not too much for us seasoned hikers, but still a full outing hike. So out we went with our Converse sneakers and a standard urban jackets. Umbrellas, yes, but nothing much else for weather. Anyway—what could happen in May in the mountains?


Morskie Oko in May, 2015.

At the start, the sky was a bit gray, but I couldn’t help relishing the views and the freshness of the air. Mountain air, in Poland or America or anywhere else, is always refreshing and enlivening—there’s something holy about it. The path was paved, so it wasn’t too extreme of a hike and we were moving along quickly, until about halfway in the rain began to fall heavily. We carried on for another 4 kilometers through this rain, passing waterfalls and seeing more and more snow on the ground. Then at last, completely soaked, we made it to the great lake, the Eye of the Sea—frozen solid amid the snow-capped mountains, our hands and extremities frozen and wet.


Standing on Morskie Oko in May. Life is great.

Most people like to spend their honeymoons in some hot, touristy location. In America, they go to Hawaii or the Bahamas, depending on the coast they reside nearest to; in Europe, they may go to Spain or Italy—or better yet, to Tunisia or Egypt. Often, people “don’t leave the room,” as the joke goes, or if they do, they just go down to the pool to relax, drink, eat and spend hours on end in the sun. We met people who visited north Africa but stayed in the hotel or resort the whole time, even failing to get out and see some of the major sites. But a Bablinskas honeymoon? That’s not for us. We’ll go to the mountains—covered in snow if they happen to be, no matter cold or storm, no matter if we only have an old Fiat diesel to get around and that the only place we have to stay is a random chalet in a tiny mountain town. We get out day and day again, exploring new haunts and never letting anything get in our way.

On the way down from the mountain, we were pretty damn tired and wet, so we shelled out the money to take the horse cart back down. The Poles sat there with us, smiling and soaked. When we got to the car, we popped across the border to Slovakia for a quick picture, and then headed back in for food and a relaxing night at the hotel. We ordered a giant pizza for dinner, whose leftovers (along with some mayonnaise for Marta) were to become an interesting part of our next leg of the journey.

Third Stop: Brno

The next morning we got up early and packed up the car. It was damn cold and we were at a high altitude so the engine took some time to roar to life. This was the first time I was worried the little beast might not last the whole trip. The day was to be rainy and we had quite a lot of ground to cover: we were finally going to get into the Czech Republic. After winding our way through the hills of Poland for a few hours in heavy rain, and over numerous potholes and rough roads, we made it to the Polish-Czech bordertown of Cieszyn. Here we stopped for a coffee and saw a giant Rubik’s cube some ancient relics from the Swedish invasion of the area.

Rubik's Cube in Cieszyn.

Rubik’s Cube in Cieszyn.

As we were getting back on the road and preparing to enter the Czech Republic, I fired up the Fiat and told Marta to get the map ready so we could get going. At the time she was trying to eat her pizza that she had covered in mayo. She couldn’t see why I was in a hurry to get out of the parking lot (our ticket there had expired, and I didn’t want to have to dish out any more money), so I kept going and kept asking her to get the map started on the phone.

There was a verbal altercation about the status of the map and let’s just say that the pizza and mayo didn’t exactly end up where I hoped they would. I pulled off to clean my face and clothes while Marta now prepared the map at her speed.

Finally we entered the Czech Republic and were soon on the vast, beautiful highway heading towards Brno. Not long after we got into the clean, sleek town and made our way to our modern-looking hostel. As usual, we headed right for downtown to check out the city, since we’d only have one night here.


Doing what I do best – this time in Brno.

Despite being cleaner than Poland, there was something a bit colder about the Czech town—maybe it was the lack of religion, or maybe it had just more fully integrated into the Western sphere (the two could be related). It was nice, but there wasn’t really anything very characteristic about the city itself. There was a good-sized, open square, but very few cafes or eateries sat against it, unlike in Krakow, where the square bustled with life and character. There weren’t many Medieval or other historical landmarks either. Well, what can I say I expected… Brno isn’t much covered in guidebooks, probably for a reason. But we did get some good food and beer. I was glad to have a real Pale Ale—I’d been missing the kind of beer that the Czech Republic could provide me.

Last Stop: Prague

The next day we started off toward Prague, crossing most of the Czech nation in the process, moving along the beautiful highway again. Marta had long had the opinion that the Czech Republic was Poland’s smarter, more sophisticated older brother, always beating the latter by just a hair—better roads and cities, a higher standard of living, more integrated into the West, and so forth. In general, she thought that the grass really was greener in the Czech Republic. She remarked at the quality of the roads, but also of the countryside, which was cleanly groomed and had more of a gentle roll to it, as opposed to Poland’s bleak flatness interspersed with shabby towns and unkempt forest. I did notice  a bit of a difference, but I didn’t find it to be so great, and I did like that Poland seemed to have a stronger identity than the Czech Republic, but to be honest, I liked them both about equally and for different reasons.

Beer and sausage. We're not hard to please.

Beer, sausage, bread. We’re not hard to please.

As we got close to Prague, we saw a sign on the highway for a castle in a small town in Central Bohemia, so we took our chances and pulled off the road. Marta expertly navigated me toward the castle, which was on a hill in the center of the small town. There happened to be a marathon going on at the time, and the finish line was passing right through the castle. We didn’t think we were intruding too much, so we sat with the people at the finish line and had ourselves some grilled sausages, beer, and bread. It was about as perfect as a meal can get.

A couple of hours later we sped into Prague and managed to find our way to the agency downtown that provided our key to the Airbnb. The flat was in a protected building with German writing all over it. It had a parking garage, which solved our main concern and would let us keep the car out of our minds for the rest of our time there. Inside, the room was very poorly cleaned—which irked us quite a bit. It was a Russian agency, and I called them up and they said that the cleaning lady was on her way. To our chagrin, she didn’t clean the place very well. Oh well, we were just there to sleep and see the city. It would do.


Only in Prague.


Only in Prague (part 2).

That afternoon, we took a long detour through a park, then made our way down to Old Town for some dinner. What can I say about Prague that hasn’t been said? It was great to be back in this Bohemia. The town appeared richer and cleaner than my last visit, also less Eastern and more Western. At heart it’d become “just another Western European city,” which is in many ways a good thing, given the increase in prosperity and variety, but in other ways a bit sad.

The following morning we a went on one of Sandeman’s free walking tours back in Old Town. Our guide was a witty Bavarian who took us through a crash course in the ups-and-downs of Czech history, writ-large all over the city of Prague. Despite the aforementioned, this is truly the best time to be alive in the Czech Republic. Europe survived the religious wars of the Middle Ages and the Reformation, survived the wars of the colonial powers, of Nazism and Communism, and at last came out of it all with a reasonable standard of living and the framework for a successful civilization. This was a very long, painful process, costing the West millions of lives, so it’s sad to see now, at this pinnacle of progress, that everyone is losing their belief in Western values and the elites are working overtime to undermine their societies. In any case, it’s not a bad time to be alive in Eastern Europe—and it may end up being one of the freest parts of the globe in the not-so-distant future.


Marta in front of the Estates Theater.

The next day, we saw a good deal more of the city, including the Charles Bridge, where jazz music played and artisans worked on crafts. We finished up some shopping, getting gifts for family and friends, and had more good local food. That final evening, we ended with a trip to the Mozart opera in the Estates Theater, which was a perfect way to bring our honeymoon to close, despite Cosi Fan Tutti not being a very honeymoon-esque opera. Afterward, we stepped out into the night—the black brick of the city was all lit up orange and a light rain was falling. We hopped in to a bus, and it felt good to be in the warmth among the evening commuters.

And it was over. The next morning we packed up and started the car, and headed all the way back to Lisięcice, Poland.

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Posted by on December 15, 2015 in Europe, Travel


Alcohol Belts of Europe

Europe has three alcohol belts. The vodka belt in the northeast, the beer belt in the northwest and the wine belt in the south.

Also included in the wine belt here are Israel, Lebanon and Armenia, where wine is often drunk. Notably, the wine region is the least prone to alcoholism; the people there like to sip their drinks with meals, and have cultural and genetic defenses against heavy drinking. All brewed fruits are considered wine: that includes not just grapes in the whole region, but apples in northern Spain, France and England, as well as Pomegranates in Armenia (if you haven’t tried pomegranate wine, get yourself a bottle immediately).

Fruits, not growing in such large quantities further north, means that grains have to be brewed and made into beer, or potatoes and grains mixed and made into vodka. Heavy drinking prevails in the vodka and beer belts, though it’s far worse in the vodka belt, where alcoholism is almost a cultural norm among men. In fact, the place where Orthodox Russian civilization begins and Western European civilization ends (this can be somewhat blurry, mind you) is at the end of the beer belt, in Poland, Finland and the Baltic States.

All of these regions overlap, and they have their origin in climate and geology, though such climactic differences have resulted in some rather large cultural differences on the European continent.

My ideal part would be an overlapping region of the wine belt and beer belt, my two favorite drinks. Southern German, the Czech Republic, Austria… these regions also make the best beer, because they can experiment more with different temperatures and variations including fruits.


No logical reason to bring cash abroad

This post is mostly targeted toward future auxiliares de conversacion trying to figure out how to get their money to Europe safely and effectively. But it also has some general rules for dealing with money and living abroad.

When you decide to travel or move abroad, you have to deal with annoying currency exchanges a lot. Also, you have to worry about transporting your cash, credit cards or traveler checks and finding ways to get money without racking up large fees.

So what’s the best way to go about this?

Simple. Use your debit card and Capital One credit card. If you don’t have a Capital One card, get one before you go abroad. To my knowledge, apart from fancy cards which require excellent credit and involve yearly fees, the Capital One card is the only one which does not charge you each time you use it outside of the country. A good credit card is a must for emergencies, especially when you move abroad.

As for day to day cash, if you are moving abroad, I see little logic in bringing more than 300 dollars cash with you in hand. Currency changes are notoriously bad, almost everywhere you go. People nowadays like to deal in digital money. There is no labor in making computer transactions, as opposed to cash shuffling. So, generally speaking, apart from a small ATM fee, you get the best exchange rates through withdrawing money directly in the foreign currency of your choice. With your debit card you can take out enough money to open a bank account and start depositing it. It’s also easier for you to keep on eye on the exchange rates because they usually follow a day behind what’s going on on the market. The day your currency is up, the following day go and take out a lot of money and bring it to your new bank account, or to spend.

Cash is bad. I made the mistake of moving to Europe with most my money in hand. First of all, forget the scam of cash exchange rates. It’s just dangerous. People can rip you off at your hotel or on the street. In Spain, where I moved, pickpocketing is common, as are hotel maids who will steal your money without so much as a flinch.

Banks are pretty bad in Europe, not because of charges or anything, which aren’t very bad, but because of their lack of working hours. This will be a continuous problem, so make sure that when you get an account you get an ATM card with it or else you’ll often be out of luck.


Americans need a break from work

Why do we have to work so much? If we’re the richest country in the world, we should be able to relax a little bit more. Overworking, anyway, is not healthy. Sayeth the article, 

It’s typical for Germans to take off three consecutive weeks in August when “most of the country kind of closes down,” Schimkat said. That’s the time for big trips, perhaps to other parts of Europe, or to Australia or North America. Germans might also book a ski holiday in the winter and take a week off during Easter.

Schimkat’s family back in the United States teases her that she’s spoiled. But when she tells Germans that workers in the U.S. usually get two weeks of vacation a year, they cringe.

“They kind of have this idea that Americans work like robots and if that’s the way they want to be, that’s up to them. But they don’t want to be like that,” Schimkat said.

“[Germans] work very hard, but then they take their holiday and really relax. … It’s more than just making money for Germans, it’s about having time for your family and it’s about having time to wind down.”

Weird, because Germans are a little bit less family oriented and traditional than Americans and yet it’s American politicians who always play up the family thing, but at the same time they don’t want to cut any hours and give middle class Americans more time to spend some time with their own. 

But there’s also cultural reasons for this, 

Working more makes Americans happier than Europeans, according to a study published recently in the Journal of Happiness Studies. That may be because Americans believe more than Europeans do that hard work is associated with success, wrote Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn, the study’s author and an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Dallas.

“Americans maximize their… [happiness] by working, and Europeans maximize their [happiness] through leisure,” he found.

Yes, I like that we enjoy doing things… It’s a good attitude. So I think it should be that you get four weeks vacation by law and you can take them if you want to or work more for overtime if your firm allows. That way, we don’t go into six week terrain and scare away people who think we’re getting soft like the Euros and then, if you really want to bust your ass, you still can. 

Besides, it doesn’t do you much good to work too much. And we do need time for our families and to be able to see the world, exercise, explore and get out of the office. 

“There is simply no evidence that working people to death gives you a competitive advantage,” said John de Graaf, the national coordinator for Take Back Your Time, a group that researches the effects of overwork.

He noted that the United States came in fourth in the World Economic Forum’s 2010-2011 rankings of the most competitive economies, but Sweden — a country that by law offers workers five weeks of paid vacation — came in second. …
“You would have had the idea that we were calling for the end of Western civilization. Comments like, ‘Oh, they’re going to make America a 21st-century France,’ as if we were all going to have to eat snails,” de Graaf said.

“I’m in no way anti-capitalist, I think the market does a lot of good things, but the Europeans understand that the market also has its failings and that when simply left completely to its own devices, it doesn’t produce these perfect results.”

You mean the market isn’t always perfect? You mean to say a modicum of government interference might be necessary now and again?

In this case, the producing class should be let off their hamster wheels for a while and allowed to take vacations to enjoy the fruit of their labor a bit. There’s really no point to rush into retirement so that you can hobble around the south of France in the youth of your early 70s. Spread it out, see the world bit by bit, enjoy the freedom of time, probably the biggest freedom of all, and the one which we Americans lack the most.

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Posted by on May 26, 2011 in Career, Culture, Economics, Europe, Germany, USA, Work


Why Europeans don’t get fat

European men and women are less fat than American men and women (stop the presses), but why? Well, as far as I can tell, there are four main reasons—and diet is last on the list.

1. Walking. Good luck getting everywhere by car in densely populated Europe. Even if you have a car, it’s probable you’ll have to climb the stairs to your apartment occasionally, something which never happens out in the burbs. In the end, you do a lot of walking and working off your blubber in Europe. Oddly enough, Europeans do less hardcore exercise than Americans (you don’t see very many joggers and the gyms are less full of the well-to-do) but walking around all day burns a lot of calories.

2. Inconvenience. Things are small in Europe. Cars, bathrooms, beds, metro chairs, plates. They all affect your perception of yourself and the amount of space you’re taking up. Being fat in Europe is a true day-to-day trial. Try fitting on a European toilet seat in a tiny European bathroom after going down small European stairs. Which segues neatly into the next one.

3. Shame. Europeans aren’t very fat accepting. Not only is it a pain to get around, but everyone looks at, you have a hard time making friends and people shun you for being fat. I hate to say it, but shame is social tactic that works damn well. Also, since you’re around people a lot more, on the metro, walking around town, you’re made aware a lot more often of how you compare to others, which won’t happen to you in a car.

4. Diet. Europeans don’t eat all that much better than Americans (contrary to popular belief) but they do sure eat a lot less. They also talk a lot, drink with food, and smoke a lot, all of which facilitate the burning of calories. They don’t exactly count calories or go on diets as much, but they don’t mind going without a meal now and then and hardly ever snack when they’re out and about.

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Posted by on May 23, 2011 in Culture, Europe, Food, USA


Spain’s transition from Franco to Ellis Island

After the 700 year reconquista of the Iberian peninsula from the Moors, modern Spain became a more or less homogenous nation state. In 1492 Ferdinand defeated the last Muslim rulers of Granada and demanded the conversion or departure of all Jewish and Muslim Iberian settlers to Christianity. Those who did not convert were forcibly removed to North Africa, Italy and the then Ottoman Empire. Spain went on to conquer much of the new world and would, up until the 1970s, remain a nation of emigration, with a relatively high fertility rate—about 3.0 per woman in the 60’s and 70’s—that kept its population growing and spreading abroad.

In 1975 Franco, Spain’s dictator of 40 years, died, and in 1977 Spain underwent a transition to democracy. Spanish society and economy were liberalized and the fertility rate of Spaniards began to take a steep dive that would not bottom out until 1997 when it hit 1.15 per woman, the second lowest world-wide at the time and almost half the necessary rate for population stability (2.1). In 1975, foreigners had made up less than one half a percent of the population and still, by 1997, there were only about 600,000 of a total population of 40 million, or 1.5% of the population. At the same time, Spain was undergoing an economic boom and would soon face a shortage of workers and population decline. Spain then began abruptly to pursue an open borders policy begun under the People’s Party, then headed by President Aznar who invited thousands of Ecuadorian workers to work in construction and Moroccans to work in farming. By the year 2000 foreigners grew to 2.28% of the population and numbered less just under 1 million—a significant increase but still much lower than European countries such as France, Germany and Britain. Illegal immigration also began to increase.

The open borders policy would continue, accelerating, along with the property boom, when president Zapatero of the Socialist Worker’s Party was elected in 2004. By the year 2005, the number of foreigners living in Spain had surged to 3.7 million, or 8.5% of the total population. The number of foreigners then leaped to a further 5.7 million in 2010, or 12.2% of the total population, a 500% increase over 10 years. The total population of Spain nearly reached 47 million in 2011, but the number of foreigners showed no significant increase from the following year due to the deepening economic crisis. Without immigration, Spain’s population would have likely gone into decline in the mid 2000s.

Although 12.2% of the population is now made of foreign residents, the total number of non-ethnic Spaniards is estimated to be much higher. Children born in Spain are naturalized as Spanish citizens and non-Spaniards tend to have higher fertility rates; additionally a large number of residents have been naturalized. It’s probable that approximately 8 million Spaniards are foreign resident or foreign-descended, making up 17% of the total population. The largest groups are Romanians, Moroccans, British and Ecuadorians. The majority of the others come from a diverse medley of South American, European and African countries.

Lately, some South Americans and Eastern Europeans have understandably returned home, given that the estimated unemployment rate of foreign residents is now 30%. Spain also embarked on a program of paying some foreigners to leave and not return for three years to help ameliorate their chronic unemployment. And some Spaniards, especially the young, educated and unemployed, are beginning to move abroad in search of opportunity.

Despite the fact that Spain’s immigrant population has leaped from being one of the smallest in Europe to one of the largest, ethnic tensions and xenophobia remain low compared to other European countries and, though they certainly exist, most Spaniards are relaxed and positive about immigration. In a recent poll, 91% of Spaniards under 30 had an overall positive view of immigration and 69% said they had one close friend who was an immigrant. Crime, however, has increased, but less so than in other European countries of mass migration.

Since the beginnings of mass immigration to Spain, the fertility rate has risen from the dismal 1.15 per woman of 1997 to 1.47 in 2011 and the population has continued to grow steadily. At the same time Spain has transformed quite rapidly, especially in the last 10 years, from a strongly Catholic, mostly homogeneous nation to a secular, largely non-religious, multicultural nation. As of yet, there has been no rising anti-immigrant backlash or nativist political parties like those which are growing fast in Northern Europe.


Potatoes and Northern Europe

While I was eating potatoes and eggs for dinner tonight, I remembered a quote I had read about the importance of the potatoes in Northern Europe from Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire.

When the potato got to Europe, it changed the course of European history. Before the potato, the northern tier of Europe, the population was relatively small and was held back by regular famines caused by failures of the grain harvest.

The further north you go, the dicier it is to grow wheat. And so the center of gravity in Europe, before the potato, was the Mediterranean, where you could grow grain more reliably. The potato did very well at the more northerly areas. It did very well in wetter areas, and it did very well in really poor soils.

So suddenly there was this vast new source of calories that could underwrite the growth of the population, such as never would have happened without the potato.

Since one individual can grow so much food, you need fewer people in the fields to support an urban population. So it’s really hard to imagine the Industrial Revolution proceeding as it would without the potato to kind of support it. This New World food remade the Old World.

Some evidence to Northern Europeans lack of ability to produce and harvest lots of wheat is the fact that Northern Europeans and their descendants are much more likely to have Celiac Disease than Southern Europeans, who rely a lot more on wheat, eating loads of bread and pasta.

So, the Spanish, bringing the potato to Europe from America, spawned Europe’s population growth which led the industrialization of the northern region and a subsequent shift of Europe’s power from Italy and Spain to England, Northern France and Germany—which remains to this day. Northern Europe’s success was—and still is—dependent on the potato.

Interestingly enough, it took the potato quite a while to catch on in Europe. It was initially used by only the poorest and by sailors, who found it could keep scurvy at bay.

Gradually, the Spanish realized that potatoes were perfect food for sailors on ships returning from Peru. . . . As early as 1570, potatoes could be purchased in markets in Seville, and, by 1573, they were being fed to hospital patients in other parts of Spain.

Through the first half of the seventeenth century, potatoes were eaten primarily by the poor and soldiers in Spain. . . .

From Spain, potatoes spread to all parts of Europe. Spanish ships carried the vegetable to Italy around 1560, making that country the first after Spain to eat potatoes on an appreciable scale.

The inventive Italians were quick to incorporate New World foods into their diet. It then spread throughout most of the world through Europe’s trading empire.

By 1600, the potato had entered Austria, Belgium, Holland, France, Switzerland, England, Germany, and, most likely, Portugal and Ireland. Some historians claim that it was Basque fishermen who first brought potatoes to Ireland, when they came ashore to dry their catches on their return voyages from Newfoundland. Others maintain it was Sir Walter Raleigh who planted the first potatoes on his estate in Ireland. The potato was introduced in India, possibly as early as 1615, and had reached the most remote parts of China by 1643. Beginning about 1730, the Scottish Highlands adopted potatoes as completely as Ireland had.

But the potato would have to undergo de-stigmatisation before it could be fully disseminated. Many priests and peasants feared its evil nightshade power (as do our modern nutrition health gurus).

Aside from its odd, unaesthetic appearance and initially bitter taste, the tuber was feared for a variety of reasons. Since it was not mentioned in the Bible, it was often associated with the devil. As a consequence, in the north of Ireland and in Scotland, Protestants flatly refused to plant them. In Catholic Ireland, to be on the safe side, peasants sprinkled their seed potatoes with holy water and planted them on Good Friday.

Another source of prejudice against the potato was its membership in the nightshade family . . . So great was the fear that, when Frederick the Great of Prussia ordered his people to plant potatoes in 1744, they pulled them up. Frederick was forced to post soldiers to guard the crops. Ten years later, in 1754, the king of Sweden also ordered his subjects to grow potatoes. Yet, when famine struck Kolberg in 1774, wagonloads of potatoes sent by Frederick were rejected.

Frederick the Great really was great by the way. But I’ll save that for another blog post. It took the French, who also initially reviled the potato, to make it both acceptable haute cuisine and as a symbol of the republic’s dedication to liberte, egalite and fraternite.

The French were no more enamored of the potato at first than any other Europeans. Legrand d’Aussy, in his 1782 Histoire de la vie privée des Français (History of the private life of the French) wrote that the pasty, indigestible tuber should be eliminated from aristocratic households and left to the poor. . . . .

By 1780, potatoes were the chief food of the Pyrenean highlands. By 1840, the potato was well established in French cuisine, making its way in through the soup pot, where it added bulk and absorbed flavors. . . .

In 1793, during the “Reign of Terror,” the French people celebrated potatoes as their republican salvation. Even the royal Tuileries gardens were symbolically converted into a potato field. . . .

Potatoes gradually acquired a place in haute cuisine. Collinet, the chef for King Louis Phillippe (reigned 1830–1848), accidentally created the famous pommes soufflées (puffed potatoes) when he plunged fried potatoes into extremely hot oil to reheat them when the king was late for dinner.

And then there’s one of those odd twists in history where the potato made its way back to North America by way of Europe, rather than directly through South America. It took the Irish immigrants to entrench full scale potato eating to America; and the common potato we eat is the Irish potato, a breed that’s undergone modification in Europe for almost 300 years now, and far removed from the much more colorful and flavorful Amerindian varieties.

These potatoes, of which there are thousands more varieties, are more nutritious than the European type; less sugary, starchy, with more flavor and vitamins. One downside, however, is that they do contain more of the harmful substances that the European peasants were so worried about and are more likely to harbor viruses. I’ve heard stories of people eating too many potatoes in the Andean highlands and falling into a deep 12 hour sleep with little memory of what happened due to the large amount of solanine in these potatoes, which was bred out in the European varieties eaten in most places around the world.

But even the Irish variety is a nutritious feast, despite what our health overlords will have you think. The only real downside is its high glycemic index—which means you should just eat it with an ample serving of butter or sour cream.

You can actually get all the nutrients you need to survive on a diet of potatoes, milk and oatmeal. Sounds pretty damn Irish to me. Actually, this guy argues that that’s what they were basically eating for quite some time, and that there were reports of them being quite healthy on that diet.

Before the Great Famine, the traditional Irish peasant meal consisted mainly of potatoes, milk, oats, beans, barley, and bread. Potatoes were the mainstay. As the years grew leaner, dairy products largely disappeared from the Irish diet, since poverty forced many farmers to sell their milk to pay rent. By the time the famine hit, the peasants were eating pretty much just potatoes, supplemented with some salt fish and oatmeal.

How did the Irish do on this diet? We can’t be certain — nobody was conducting nutrition studies in those days. But there’s reason to believe they were healthier than you might guess. In the century before the famine, Ireland had the highest birthrate in western Europe. Some credit potatoes, saying the availability of easy-to-grow, easy-to-cook spuds made it practical to raise large families. Telling evidence on this score, one historian writes, “is that the Irish in general and Irish women in particular were widely described as healthy and good-looking.”

Not that that’s the most scientific analysis, but the trio of Irish women I met the other night were certainly Celtic beauties.

The only downside to that monolithic diet was, well, first they stopped being able to afford milk and then they got hit by the potato famine, so that, even if Ireland had the highest birthrate in Europe (still does by the way) its modern population is only about half of what it was a couple hundred years ago.