Monday, June 06, 2005

Europe? What Europe?

A week ago, the country I live in decided to give its leaders the finger by rejecting the European Constitution treaty through a national referendum. Usually, I am very enthusiastic about any exercise in democracy as I feel that we should be given the opportunity to express our opinions more often than just during elections. But this time, I can't help having a bitter taste in my mouth. Stupidity won over rational thought, and saying that it makes me angry is the understatement of the century. I am bloody mad!

For as long as I can remember, I have been a supporter of the European ideal. How could I have not been, with a Dutch dad, a French mom, and an education which prized tolerance and broad-mindedness? My family's history on the Dutch side also helped to shape my convictions, but that is a long story that I reserve for another day. Anyway, for all its flaws, I saw European construction as a progress, and I was happy that France apparently thought likewise. How quickly things can change!

While the yes campaign was mostly inept, the no campaign was no better, choosing to play on fears and ignorance. And given the current political climate, this was enough to turn a majority of the population into day-dreamers. Apart from the far right which as usual defended a France that ceased to exist more than half a century ago, most of the opposition to the treaty focused on the theme of a "more social" Europe. That's sounds fine and dandy, but if it means ignoring some hard realities, it simply does not fly. Market economy is the only system that works, and what's more, it actually allows to resorb most of the main problem France is facing right now= unemployment. Of course, it is hardly a French tendency to look on the other side of the Channel to see what works there, but in this case it would be helpful. The irony is that France, a country ruled by a right wing government, is seemingly rejecting a working system implemented in the UK by a (more or less) left wing government under the excuse that it is not "social enough". To borrow an expression from our British cousins, it's bollocks!

So here we are, with a European Constitution dead in the water, most of which already implemented by existing treaties anyway, and a country in search of guidance. Europe has been turned into a scapegoat, the symbol of everything that is wrong, while most of it actually comes from domestic reasons. The French certainly have pride, but that's pushing it! And while I love my country, I can't help being ashamed these days. European construction has fallen victim to fear, xenophobia, and utopic ideals. And I have my doubts that it will ever recover from that blow.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

The dream car that would not go away...

Back when I was a kid, in the 70's and early 80's, there were many cars I found interesting. Any sport car was a source of excitement, even though I hardly could picture myself driving one at the time. But even so, two models stood out from the rest. These were my dream cars, and I promised myself that I would own them when I got older.

I never owned the first one, and it's probably better that way because it was the fascinating but scary Lamborghini Countach. One hell of a shape, making the rival Ferrari (the Berlinetta Boxer) look tame in comparison, but also a seriously flawed automobile. The clutch was borderline usable, the gearbox required Schwarzenegger's muscles, and the brakes were a joke. From what I hear, owning that vehicle was the best way to end up hating it, and I don't like to shatter my childhood dreams.

I not only ended up owning my second dream car, but it actually was my first car. This lovely piece of Italian design is the Lancia Montecarlo.

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I won't bore you with the details, but my family dentist owned two, and I managed to convince my dad to buy one of them for me. And that happened almost a year before I was eligible to pass the driver's test! For months, I was confined to either being a passenger in my own car, or simply start its engine in the underground parking. That year seemed extremely long to me, but I finally got my driver's license and used the Lancia as my daily transport for several years.

But not unlike what I wrote about the Countach, some dreams are better left where they are. Owning the Lancia made me discover the hard way that Italian engineering in the 70's and 80's left a lot to be desired. The car was unreliable, poorly finished, and in some respect very cheaply executed. A shame for a machine that was meant to rival the Porsche 924. Not that the later did that much better on the market actually... But those were details, completely set aside by the blind love I had for my Lancia. Impossible to find spare parts? Bah, I'll get lucky! Electric wiring regulated by a poltergeist? Bah, just an annoying quirk! To its defense though, the Lancia was a joy to drive. The mid-mounted engine made the car extremely responsive, though the other side of the coin is that it could quickly become tricky on wet roads. Another endless source of pleasure came from the shape of the Montecarlo. Designed by Pininfarina, it actually shares many styling cues with several Ferrari cars of the same period. And that's the way I liked to define my Lancia: a miniature Ferrari.

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After more than a decade of ownership, my priorities had slowly changed though, and I found myself driving the Lancia less and less. In the meantime, I had moved to Paris, and my car had remained on the French Riviera where my parents lived. So it became less and less justifiable to keep it, and I therefore made the painful decision to sell it. That was in 1999. Since then, I have had some contacts, but none ended up in a sale. I therefore still own this car, even if I almost never drive it anymore.

Sometimes, I wonder if I really want to sell it. My heart usually answers no, but my head knows better. This car now deserves a new owner, someone enthusiastic enough to forgive its faults, just like I did when I was younger. Meanwhile, I'll keep with me the many good memories, allowing the Lancia to become again the dream car of my childhood, without the worries of actual ownership.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Catching the collecting bug

As far as I can remember, I have always liked wristwatches. Then at 18, I spent most on my savings on a Breitling Old Navitimer, what I saw at the time as the ultimate pilot watch. I wore my Breitling for years, happy in the knowledge that I had a classic on my left wrist. It occasionally got replaced by a Longines Hour Angle Watch (a high school graduation gift), or a Breitling Aerospace (a business school graduation gift), but I always kept coming back to my Navitimer.

Then, in the summer of last year, I lost my hero and role model: my dad died after a gallant fight against his weak heart. He probably was partly responsible for my love of fine watches, though we did not always share the same tastes in timepieces. I nevertheless found myself inheriting his small collection, and rediscovering the joys of owning "new" wristwatches. Honestly, most of his watches are only mildly interesting, the exception being a Breitling Cosmonaute. Three other Breitling are Quartz-powered, and one of them is dead according to the company's service center. The same thing was said by Tag-Heuer about a chronograph of theirs, except that a local watchmaker managed to have it work after a thorough cleaning. To me, this illustrated how flawed quartz technology could be for an expensive watch. What good is there in spending thousands in a timepiece which movement will die after a couple of decades? What's more, what poetry is there in an electronic assemblage such as a quartz watch?

That's how I decided to get reacquainted with mechanical and automatic wristwatches. No battery to change, a movement which can last decades if properly taken care of, and a soul that only fine mechanical machines can have. This was more like it!

For a few months now, I have been buying watches, mostly chronographs from the 60's, 70's and 80's, on eBay. I got slightly burnt a few times, but overall I've done pretty well. I am actually amazed it took me this long to realize that I was a collector. But now that I am aware of that, there is no turning back...

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The start of it all...

Well, that was easy enough! I was always curious about blogging, but never could be bothered to start one. Well, that changed today.

I intend to collect here some random thoughts about my various passions, namely cars, planes and wristwatches. Let's see how long that lasts.