Wednesday, September 30, 2009

20 years ago: Yugoslav hyperinflation

Twenty years ago today, Yugoslavia was still a single country and its currency was in crisis. I'd just arrived from Budapest and, at the train station, lined up to change $20. I was handed a stack of large denomination dinar notes three-inches thick. Unable to fit them in my pocket, I carried them around in a plastic sack.

In Split, merchants had already taken to writing all prices on chalkboards and changing them throughout the day as the currency collapsed. Residents said the first thing they did upon receiving their pay is to spend it all -- preferably within hours -- before the 2500% annual inflation ate up its value. The presses at the central bank couldn't keep up, with 5000 dinar notes the largest in general circulation that day. At lunch, hamburgers for six cost over a million dinar, and it took ten minutes to simply count the bills (pictured above.) Credit cards not being in widespread use back then, we had to change money a couple times a day.

The next time I visited -- just five weeks later -- the streets and railroad underpasses were awash in discarded banknotes; they blew around in the wind at train stations and gathered in ditches. I filled a bag with 100 dinar notes with Antun Augustincic's Monument of Peace (which sits in front of UN headquarters in New York) on the front; the entire bagful was worth, at most, a few pennies. So was any cash anybody had stashed under their mattress or otherwise forgotten to spend.

The corrosive effect of all this on a society is hard to underestimate. and it only got worse during the war. By January 1994, Yugoslav dinar inflation peaked at a mind boggling 313 million percent per month, the second highest rate in human history. The highest? Hungary at the end of World War II, which saw prices increase by 3.8 octrillion fold in a single year. That's 3.8 with twenty-seven zeros after it.

The Dalmatian Coast was the first place I'd seen whose physical beauty rivaled that of my native Maine: limestone mountains falling straight into the azure sea, only to rise up again as islands a few miles offshore. The towns and villages had a Venetian flavor: white stone buildings with red tile roofs climbing steep hillsides. For the visiting tourist there was little indication that the country would soon descend into civil war.

Top Image (c) 2009 Colin Woodard.

1989-2009: 20 years ago, Hungary at the Threshold

Twenty years ago today I was in Yugoslavia for the first time for one of what would become a series of whirlwind three-day weekends throughout the region.

By late September I'd gotten my bearings in Budapest and felt a mild sense of disappointment: it seemed that the "big events" of '89 -- the symbolic dismantling of the iron curtain, Imre Nagy's funeral, the Pan-European picnic, and the mass release of East Germans -- had happened before I had arrived. We'd all been holding our breath: would the Soviet Union crackdown, whisking reformist prime minister Miklos Nemeth off for a Nagy-like execution and rolling the tanks as they had in 1956? As days passed it seemed less and less likely. Hungary, amazingly enough, seemed to be on its way to joining Yugoslavia as a non-aligned Communist nation, open to East and West.

Of course, we foreign students were hardly the best informed, but we had one big advantage. Two of our professors at the Karl Marx University of Economics -- Geza Jeszenszky and Peter Akos Bod -- were members of the semi-legalized opposition and were participating in round table talks with the government that were supposed to lead to free elections in 1990. Both kept us apprised of what was going on at Parliament. Bod, who would later serve as head of the Central Bank, taught a class on socialist economics which emphasized the tragicomic effects of central planning on the average person. Jeszenszky, a future foreign minister and ambassador to Washington, darkly warned of the military threat posed by Ceausescu's Romania, which (as I would soon see) had entered its final Orwellian phase.

Three things stuck out for me about life in Budapest in 1989: moneychanging, air pollution, and the lack of computers.

Black market moneychanging was everywhere, especially the first week I was in country, when tens of thousands of East Germans were trying to secure hard currency for their flight to the west. Street changers -- most seemed to be East German refugees, Romanian exiles, or Middle Eastern students -- offered nearly a third more forints for your dollar, making everything in Hungary a third cheaper. Having grown up poor, the inflated exchange rate made me feel affluent for the first time in my life. My monthly public transportation pass (above) cost less than a buck; a full meal with drinks and appetizers, $4; a round-trip overnight international train ticket with a sleeping couchette, $4.25. Changing on the street had its dangers. There were plenty of thieves who would count the money they were to give you in front of you and, with a sleight of hand, swap it at the last second for a bundle of low denomination notes. An East German refugee pulled this on my roommate, presumably to help get his family out of the Soviet bloc.

Budapest's air pollution was staggering. An eye-watering grey haze hung over the city as often as not, the result of leaded fuel burned in cars without pollution controls, including the two-stroke engines of East German-built Trabants and Wartburgs. Sometimes the clouds of exhaust were so thick you had to hold your breath and run for cover. I know Budapest still gets wintertime air inversions, but this was in the early fall and was much more intense. This and other profound environmental problems I encountered in the region later caused me to become an environmental journalist.

But it was the utter lack of computers that most affected my day-to-day life. By 1989 most U.S. college students had a computer and western banks, travel agencies, and airlines used networked computers to process transactions. In Hungary, most banking and travel transactions were done by hand, with occasional telephone calls (over a barely-functioning phone system) to other offices to verbally collect dispersed information. The result: two-, three-, and four-hour lines to buy international train tickets (and mandatory seat reservations) at the Hungarian State Railways reservation office. And there was no way to secure a seat reservation for the return trip to Hungary; you had to stand in line for hours at your destination and hope there was still a place for you on a return train before your Polish or Czechoslovak visa ran out. Throw in the lines to secure transit and tourist visas at foreign embassies and it sometimes seemed one spent more time waiting in lines than in the destination country.

Of course I had it easy. As I'd soon see, Poles were waiting in line for toilet paper, Romanians for pigs' feet.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Austria: fearing a borderless Europe

My piece on the (fearful) Austrian reaction to their vanished Eastern frontier has finally posted at The Christian Science Monitor. The original piece ran in the September 13th edition of the Monitor's weekly print magazine as a companion to this piece on the (more celebratory) reaction in Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. The old Habsburg empire is now borderless again, after all.

I'm also following the aftermath of the arrest of four suspects in the spate of death squad style gypsy murders in Hungary. There's been a curious lack of information coming from Hungarian authorities, which is being capitalized by the far-right Jobbik party.

For more on Eastern Europe (including Jobbik and the 20th anniversary of 1989) click here.

Maine: under the radar news roundup

For Mainers out there, a few "under the radar" news items of interest:

First, a number of Portland city councilors -- collectively, our elected executive -- have expressed frustration with city manager Joe Gray for refusing to provide information and documents they have requested. Dan Skolnik (Dem) lost his temper at Gray (in absentia) last week. Yesterday, John Anton (Green) made his concerns public on WMPG's morning show. The upstart Portland Daily Sun has latched onto this one.

Secondly, the Midcoast Forecaster has a follow-up on Oxford Aviation, which is looking for public subsidies for a project at Brunswick Naval Air Station even as it apparently failed to deliver on a similarly subsidized project over in Sanford; it suggests strong political pressure from Augusta may be being applied. (The head of the company responded to the original story with a strangely off-the-topic letter focused on how wonderful his employees are.)

Laurie Hyndman, former owner, and publisher of Port City Life has departed the magazine less than a month after its re-branded relaunch as The Maine Mag. Before her Sept. 15 departure, Hyndman had been serving as the magazine's managing editor.

Finally, while I've been reporting a great deal about how the city has over-hyped the benefits of cruise ship tourism, Mainebiz carried this report on what appears to be an intelligent effort to facilitate cruise ship crews' spending here. Good news with the bad...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Lobster Coast talk: Scarborough, Maine, Sept. 26

The town of Scarborough chose my book, The Lobster Coast, to be their community read this year. On Saturday, September 26, the Scarborough Public Library is hosting a day-long event including lobster rolls, children's events, a discussion with lobstermen and members of very old Maine families, and book discussions.

I'll be giving my keynote, taking questions, and signing books from 9:30 to 11 or so. But Crusher, the mascot of Portland's new minor league NBA franchise, the Red Claws, will be upstaging me an hour later. Who can compete with a bipedal dancing decapod?

For details on the event, go here. For my own event schedule, try here.

I'm also appearing at the Susan L Curtis Foundation's annual auction here in Portland, Maine tomorrow night, September 25, 2009. It's a fundraiser for a good cause, so you need to buy a ticket.

Maine: Portland camapign disclosures rematerialize

Earlier this year I broke the story that Maine municipalities had been systematically destroying the campaign finance disclosures for local candidates on the faulty advice of state officials. As a result, state legislators quickly changed the relevant law to ensure these records are retained -- and that the relationship between city officials and developers, unions, activists, and lobbyists can be again be traced over time. (The whole story can be read here.)

Unfortunately, many records were destroyed. In Maine's largest city -- Portland -- the city clerk's office reported they had destroyed all disclosures -- electronic or physical -- prior to 2006.

Or had they?

The city has quietly posted a gigantic PDF of the 2005 disclosures of city council candidates -- documents previously reported destroyed in response to a open records law request. The rediscovered records restore public access to the campaign donors of longtime councilor Cheryl Leeman (who ran uncontested in 2008), recently-elected councilor John Coyne (who ran for school board in 2005), and former mayors Ed Suslovic and Jim Cohen (who now sits on the Portland Charter Commission.) (Maine State Pier watchers: a preliminary review suggests no long-term relationship between Ocean Properties and any of these individuals.) I've added links to this PDF to my Ad Hoc Portland, Maine Campaign Disclosure Page, currently the most complete source for this class of documents.

So how were the 2005 disclosures misplaced and is there any chance others will resurface? City Clerk Linda Cohen (a champion, incidentally, of the legislation that fixed the original problem) said they had been previously overlooked in a drawer, but that no older ones have survived. "That's it," she said. "We don't have any older ones than that."

If you have access to reports prior to 2004 and would like to share them with the public, feel free to contact me.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Guatemala's hunger crisis

My colleague, Sam Loewenberg, was in Guatemala recently and has this poignant audio slideshow on the country's malnutrition crisis up on The Atlantic's website. (Other stories from his trip are at the Pulitzer Center's site and at The Economist.) Most of the hungry are rural indigenous people, whose exclusion from the economic and political life of the nation was at the roots of the country's bloody 30 year civil war, which claimed an estimated 200,000 lives.

This is all sadly predictable. When I was in Guatemala in 1997, just after the civil war had ended, it seemed pretty clear that the country's feudal power structure -- 2% of the population owned two-thirds of the arable land (and, for much of this century, the army, police, and courts)-- was the largest obstacle to the country's future prosperity and stability. Here is one of the pieces I wrote back then for the Christian Science Monitor. Sadly, twelve years later, it sounds depressingly up-to-date.

Monday, September 21, 2009

1989-2009: Habsburg lands borderless again; does anybody care?

Twenty years ago, when I was an exchange student in Budapest, our teachers would tell us how in the early 20th century it had been possible to take a streetcar from Vienna to Bratislava. It had all been one country then -- the Habsburg's Austro-Hungarian Empire -- and people moved freely from Krakow to Ljubljana. I remember how, at the time, this seemed so preposterous, given the Iron Curtain -- guards, fences, tank traps, visas -- then dividing Austria from Slovakia.

How times change. For nearly two years now, most of the Habsburg Empire (save Transylvania, Trans-Carpathia, and parts of old Yugoslavia) has been borderless again, recreating the mythic cultural space called Middle Europe. Bratislava's city transportation system doesn't quite make it to Vienna, but you can get as far as Hainburg, and there are plenty of trains of course.

I have two pieces in last week's weekly print edition of the Christian Science Monitor that ask how this is all playing out. Is Middle Europe being reborn? If so, why are Austrian borderlanders so queasy about it? The main piece -- from Sopron, Hungary -- is now online at the Monitor's website but, last I checked, the companion piece on Austria wasn't up yet. [Update: 9/25/09: the companion piece is now online.]

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Talk Like a Pirate Day: my interview in USA Today

Today is International Talk Like a Pirate Day and, in anticipation, a writer for USA Today contacted me a week or two ago to suggest "10 great places to swashbuckle down," the results of which are in today's paper.

I visited many of these locations while writing The Republic of Pirates: The True Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down. Sadly, there's not a lot left of the late 17th and early 18th century in the New World: hurricanes, fires, development, wars, and tropical decay wiped many locations off the map. Some of the places where one can best soak in the feel of the pirate era -- and walk in their footsteps -- are in Sarah Sekula's USA Today piece, and in more historical detail at my Republic of Pirates site, including Williamsburg and Cape Cod. There are also some additional ones, like Philadelphia and Boston. One of these days I'll get around to adding other locations.

If you're curious about the relationship between Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean films and the lives and lifestyles of the actual pirates, you may enjoy this piece I wrote for the Christian Science Monitor when the most recent film came out. I also blog on the golden age pirates from time to time.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

USA: Homeless nuclear waste in Maine and beyond

By coincidence, I have three articles in the current weekly print edition of The Christian Science Monitor. The first of these -- on nuclear waste stranded on the former sites of decommissioned power plants -- posted at the Monitor's website today.

The piece features the waste stranded at the former Maine Yankee power plant in Wiscasset, where the reactor station itself was demolished years ago. As with other plants across the country, rate payers have already paid for the waste's disposal, but the federal government has reneged on its contractual duty to take possession of the spent fuel for lack of anywhere to put it. With the future of the troubled Yucca Mountain waste depository in doubt, it could be a very long time before wastes at Maine Yankee and other plants reach their final resting place.

Sources raise concerns for what this will mean for plans to begin building new nuclear plants to reduce U.S. oil dependency and greenhouse gas emissions.

Image (c) 2009 Colin Woodard

Friday, September 11, 2009

1989-2009: Sept 11: Hungarians made history, I bought towels

As I wrote yesterday, I arrived in Hungary on September 10, 1989, just as the reform communist government announced it was letting the 60,000 East German refugees in the country escape to the West. (My piece on all that is in yesterday's Monitor.)

The ruling took effect at midnight, and on September 11, 1989, ten thousand of these East German "tourists" fled to Austria (and on to West Germany) by any means they could: Trabants, buses, trains, hitchhiking, you name it.

I, on the other hand, had gone without sleep for 36 hours to get from rural Maine to Budapest's Ferencvaros neighborhood via Boston, Zurich, and Vienna. (It was cheap!) I read my journal entry for this historic day -- and my first full day in Europe -- and what did I do? I bought a towel.

Yes, despite having read Douglas Adams' books, I'd come all that way without packing a towel, and the Jeno Varga Dormitory at Karl Marx University certainly didn't provide them. So it was off to the towel section of the old Corvin Department store on Blaha Lujza ter (No trendy rooftop bar back then, I assure you.) My first Eastern Bloc shopping experience made an impression. "The clerks were all highly amused by my ignorance about socialist shopping," I wrote in my journal afterwards. The towels were stacked behind the counters (still are in many smaller shops in the region) and could only be examined through the graces of one of the people behind the counter. "Four people were required to handle my purchase: one to take down the towel, another to carry it to the register and then to a wrapping station, a third to take my money, and a fourth to wrap my purchase in brown paper." Maximum employment I suppose. Looking back on it I'd guess three of those people were out of work a year later while the value of their savings and benefits evaporated.

My other recorded "accomplishment" of the day: at 20, I was apparently legally served a beer for the first time. The location is lost to history.

Fortunately I'd interface with history much better in the coming days and months. I'm not entirely sure if it was entirely clear to us at the time -- pre-Internet days these -- exactly what the Hungarians had just done. I seem to remember hearing about it all as if it were all rumor, passed from person to person like jaw-dropping gossip. You weren't sure if it was all entirely true, but it sounded extraordinary.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

1989-2009: Arriving in the East, as Zonies flee West

Twenty years ago today I arrived in Eastern Europe for the first time, crossing the border from Austria at just about exactly the moment Hungary's reform communist government announced it was letting the 60,000 East German refugees on its territory escape to Austria and on to West Germany.

I was back in Hungary recently and have a piece in today's Christian Science Monitor on the 20th anniversary of Budapest's decision to facilitate the East German exodus, an event which led to the opening of the Berlin wall two months later. Recent research suggests the decision was made with the tacit approval of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, but that nobody felt certain that there might not be a coup in Moscow or that Soviet troops in Hungary might react on their own to a provocation.

On my train from Vienna to Budapest on Sept. 10, 1989, that sense of uncertainty was palpable. At Vienna-Westbahnhof I had sat down in a compartment with an elderly man and his wife, but the man got off the train just before departure. He'd see his wife in when she next visited Austria. I recorded his explanation in my journal: "I left Hungary for good six months ago and I won't go back. There's no warranty that things won't return to the way they were. I just don't believe fundamental change an happen -- we don't have a Gorbachev."

I'd expected some sort of drama at the border -- it was supposed to be the Iron Curtain after all -- but the guards took little interest in a young American and his ample supply of luggage (I was 20 and on a university exchange program.) They were far more interested in questioning the Hungarian passengers, but even that seemed no more intimidating than at U.S. Customs. The Evil Empire's minions seemed to have lost their edge.

Arriving at night at Budapest-Keleti, the first person I met was a black market moneychanger, eager to change Hungarian forints for dollars at a rate several times higher than the official one. He threw in a taxi ride to my dormitory at the Karl Marx University of Economic Sciences for free, and was as honest and efficient as could be. As I'd soon learn, many people were eager to buy hard currency, not least the tens of thousands of East Germans in the country who suddenly had a chance to flee the Eastern Bloc for good.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Lobster Coast makes the literary map

At the end of last month, the Maine Sunday Telegram and its library partners updated their Literary Map of Maine to include works of non-fiction. I'm happy to report that The Lobster Coast, my cultural history of coastal Maine, made the cut. (It's "mapped" to have taken place on Monhegan, which is probably as good a choice as any.)

Here's the Telegram's piece on the update, from their August 31 edition.

The Literary Map of Maine now has 100 works by Maine authors including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, E.B. White, Harriet Beacher Snow, the Nearings, and Stephen King. (Now there's a fantasy cocktail party.)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Times travels to Prouts Neck, even if you can't

I was surprised to see a piece on Prouts Neck in this Sunday's New York Times travel section. After all, the exclusive summer colony in Scarborough, Maine where Winslow Homer painted his famous seascapes if famously off-limits to the public, a fact I discovered while writing The Lobster Coast. As you can read in this passage, even in the dead of winter there's a gate, an electronic passkey reader, and the Scarborough Police Department blocking your way.

So I picked up Geraldine Fabrikant's piece with interest, knowing the Portland Museum of Art had acquired Homer's studio a few years back. If it's in the travel section, it must be something you can travel to, right?

Nope. Read the piece and you quickly discover the place is still as inaccessible as ever. "While the studio is on a private road, it will be open to small groups by special arrangement after [PMA's restoration] work is finished" in 2012, Fabrikant writes. "Prouts Neck is not easily accessible to visitors, and that is fine with the summer residents — not so much from snobbery, they say, but from a desire to keep it as unspoiled as possible."

The Times then carries on with their "If You Go" section as if you could actually visit the place, suggesting you fly to Portland and have a look at the Neck from Scarborough Beach State Park. (Not worth the trip, I assure you.) The only way you can so much as take in the view of the shoreline Homer painted is by shelling out at least $480 a night to stay in the Black Point Inn, which is owned by the Prouts Neck cottagers. (This gets you the right to walk their private trail.) There's even an interactive map showing you all the locations most of us have little hope of accessing for several years yet.

If the Times wanted to write about Winslow Homer's studio or the history of Prouts Neck, great, but put it in the Arts & Culture section where it belongs.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Maine: Forecaster investigates Air Station's savior

Here in Maine, investigative reporting is so rare that when one of our news outlets actually does some, it's a newsworthy event in and of itself. Aspiring-to-be-informed-citizens become so surprised and excited they pass the article around as if it were a picture of a live Great Auk, even if the piece has little or nothing to do with their own community. Look!, they write one another, Such-and-such news outlet actually did some digging! Can you believe it?

Such is the case with this week's issue of the Mid-Coast Forecaster, which carries a front page story by Steve Mistler which reveals that the company seeking taxpayer subsidies to open an aircraft maintenance facility at the soon-to-be-defunct Brunswick Naval Air Station already fleeced taxpayers in a strikingly similar scheme at the Sanford Regional Airport. The company, Oxford Aviation, is asking Brunswick for public subsidies while it can afford to pay power attorney F. Lee Bailey (of O.J. Simpson and Patty Hearst trial fame) to represent them at meetings of the local Redevelopment Authority.

It's the kind of reporting any newspaper worth it's salt should be doing week-in and week-out. If public officials and private interests know nobody is watching, there's little limit to what they'll try to get away with.

(P.S. Are you the editor of a major Maine newspaper and don't have any ideas about investigative stories to pursuit? Try this one. Or this one. Or maybe even this one.)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Republic of Pirates in The New Yorker

My most recent book, The Republic of Pirates, gets a mention in the new issue of the New Yorker, in Caleb Cain's review of Peter Leeson's Invisible Hook.

Mr. Cain's review provides a nice capsule history (and historiography) of piracy, and is itself the product of impressively thorough research. Take a look at his bibliographic blog posting and you'll see what I mean.

If you're interested in learning more about Golden Age piracy, you may want to check out my Republic of Pirates site and associated blog.