Proof of identity

Identity and its documentation – the story of my search for Swedish citizenship and my passport’s peregrinations

In the weeks after the British referendum on 23rd June, verbal and physical attacks on European Union citizens living and working in Britain were coupled to the question of what would happen to British citizens living in the EU. There was a nasty feeling that my fate was suddenly being played around with by people over whom I have no control and for whom I have no respect.

It was time, finally, to get my finger out and apply for Swedish citizenship.

Submitting the application

Identity: Norrköping
Norrköping

One of the requirements for seeking Swedish citizenship is to submit the identity documents that you have from your home country in the original. To be sure they stay safe and reach their destination, this means using registered post. Not a problem, though the authority – Migrationsverket, the Swedish Migration Agency, based in Norrköping – took their time acknowledging receipt. Eventually, however, I got a letter from them to say they’d received my application and my British passport.

The Migration Agency also pointed me to their website. After I’d set up an account and identified myself electronically, I got access to “my Migration Agency web page”. There they promised I would be able to follow the course of my application. The first time I logged in it was a small thrill to see that my application was being processed.

Just a formality?

It wasn’t until after I had sent off my passport that I actually realised how long the processing time would be. In my naivety I had assumed that – for me – applying for Swedish citizenship would be pretty much a formality. After all, I’ve lived in Sweden for close on 30 years. I’ve had permanent residence for the last 20. Why would it take them much time to decide favourably?

The mills of bureaucracy grind exceeding fine, exceeding slow. Also, to be fair, the Migration Agency is under considerable pressure coping with staff shortages, the influx of refugees from Syria and elsewhere, and threats against their buildings and personnel. Not to mention Brexit, which has seen the numbers of British people applying for Swedish citizenship rise steeply.

No one jumps the queue

When I was on the Migration Agency’s website to download the application forms, I saw that the expected time for processing a citizenship application was four months. That seemed a lot and I rather thought that it would only take them about a month to deal with me. So, after a month I phoned them. They were very clear – no one jumps the queue and everyone is processed in due order.
So there we were – my passport in Norrköping for the next few months and me in Gothenburg or Brussels.

Identity: Gothenburg to Norrköping (from a train window)
Identity: Gothenburg to Norrköping (from a train window)

That didn’t seem to be a problem. I’ve noticed how easy it is to travel between Belgium and Sweden without showing your passport. This is because both countries are members of the Schengen area within the European Union. In fact I have more than once travelled back and forth between the two without showing any sort of identity document.

Not a valid travel document

At the end of July, Mrs SC and I travelled to Denmark. Crossing from Helsingborg in Sweden to Helsingør in Denmark was easy. The reverse journey was less so.

Because of the influx of refugees and migrants finding their way to Sweden (which – to be fair – had initially opened its borders to people fleeing the civil war in Syria), special immigration procedures had been imposed at Helsingborg.

The border police didn’t like my Swedish identity card. My card was issued by the tax authorities, not by the police. It doesn’t include my nationality, so it’s not a valid Schengen travel document.

My Schengen identity

The chap who stopped me was very reasonable, and after checking me in his database, he accepted that I was probably not an illegal migrant or a potential terrorist (the beard not withstanding). But he warned me that I would need to carry a valid Schengen identity card in the future.

Of course, as soon as we got home there was a mad scramble to find our Belgian identity cards (which we’d brought with us but tucked away somewhere safe) just to check. And a collective sigh of relief when we confirmed what we really knew all along: that our Belgian ID cards are indeed fully fledged national identity cards.

Murphy’s Law

Identity: Norrköping waterfall
Norrköping waterfall

About a month later I flew back from Gothenburg to Brussels. I won’t say that I was completely relaxed, but I wasn’t very nervous. After all, I had my Belgian identity card; I was flying within Schengen. Everything ought to go smoothly. Still, I was also conscious Murphy’s Law is always hanging like the sword of Damocles over one’s head.

And of course it dropped.

It may have been because somebody on board the aeroplane was taken ill and needed medical attention, but in Brussels the plane taxied to a different arrivals gate than usual. Leaving the plane and coming to passport control I flashed my Belgian identity card. The inspector looked at me like I was trying to pull a fast one.

Where is your passport?

An international arrival

I explained that I didn’t need it because I was flying within Schengen.

But this is the international arrivals gate, came the reply. You must have come from outside the EU.

No! Gothenburg– My plane flew– I came directly from– I’ve not been outside the EU!

The inspector listened stoically to my protests. He’d heard it all before.

Please! Just check!

With a look of great suspicion he made a couple of telephone calls. Finally he confirmed that indeed my plane had flown directly from Gothenburg even though it had disembarked all its passengers at the international exit.

Very reluctantly, he let me through with the caution that I should always carry my passport with me. This seems to undermine the point of Schengen, but deep down I’m actually in full agreement.

No passport, no Britain

Identity: Norrköping to Gothenburg from a train window
Norrköping to Gothenburg (from a train window)

Once I was in Belgium all went well and I didn’t need to use my identity card again until October.

Being without my British passport, though, upset one plan. I’d intended to visit my mother in September, but I had to cancel. You see, although I can (ought to be able to) travel between Sweden and Belgium with my Schengen identity card – or visit France or German, Portugal or Poland – I can’t visit the United Kingdom.

The UK is outside Schengen, so to travel to the UK from the continent I would have to have my British passport. Or a Swedish passport would do. Without either I had to postpone my trip.

Well, I thought, four months. I’ll get the passport back by the end of November.

Check your application…

That was when I went online to “my Migration Agency web page” and discovered that absolutely nothing new had happened. In fact, the page as far as I can see has exactly two settings. In one it says: “Your application has arrived and is being processed.” In the other (and I’ve not seen this one, so I’m guessing) it says either: “Your application has been accepted, Välkommen!” Or it says: “Your application has been rejected, !”

There is no indication of how long the processing is going to take. Nor is there any indication, if there are stages in the process, which stage your application is at. There is only: “Your application is being processed” (so sit on your hands and wait). I sat on my hands and waited, but I did look and check and it seemed as though they no longer needed my passport. It was possible to ask them to send it back.

But… where would they send it?

PostNord lies

The problem is the Migration Agency can only send the passport back to my address in Sweden. Since we’re temporarily in Brussels, we have a forwarding agreement with PostNord, the Swedish postal service. But would they be prepared to forward a registered letter?

So I phoned PostNord and asked them.

Yes, they assured me. No problem. Of course we will send registered mail on to you in Belgium.

Using a form on the Migration Agency’s website I wrote and asked for my passport back. And I heard nothing more.

Other things on my mind

Now, I spent much of October and November enjoying my hernia and carcinoma (see my earlier post) so I had a couple of other things on my mind. Eventually, though, I decided I had to find out what had happened to my passport. On “my Migration Agency web page” there was still no new information, so I phoned them.

Identity: Head in Norrköping
A head in Norrköping

Oh yes, they said, clearly consulting a database of information that they didn’t want to share with me. We have a record that we sent your passport off as soon as we received your request.

You did! But I haven’t received it! It’s lost! It’s stolen!

No, they said, it was returned to us. Undeliverable.

So much for PostNord’s promises.

We don’t do that

But why, I wailed, why not let me know? You have my e-mail address. Or if you didn’t want to write, you could have posted something on “my Migration Agency web page”.

Oh, we don’t do that, they said.

Once we’d established that my passport was safe at the Migration Agency, though, I felt relieved. That was when I asked if I could expect to hear from them about my application soon – it being nearly four months since I’d sent in my application.

Dear me no! Four months? Where did you get that idea? It could take up to a year to process your citizenship application. Although (looking through that secret database) there’s no obvious reason why you shouldn’t get it.

(I count to ten.)

Back to the question: how to get back my passport?

In person or by proxy

The Migration Agency could send me the passport as registered post but only to my Swedish address. But as we’ve established, PostNord won’t forward it to Belgium.

My only other options are either to collect it in person or identify a proxy in Sweden to receive it. But identifying a proxy sounded far too complicated. As I knew I’d be coming back to Sweden for Christmas early in December, Mrs SC and I decided to travel to Norrköping and fetch the passport ourselves.

I get my passport back!

This is what we did, and we did it yesterday, on Tuesday 20th December. To cut a long (12 hour long) story short, we got to the Migration Agency just after midday and after about three-quarters-of-an-hour in the queue I received the passport, signed for it and took it away. It was a great relief. We celebrated with a photograph outside.

The next problem down the line will be when (if) they give me my Swedish citizenship. They will send that document also to me as a registered letter to my address in Sweden… but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Meanwhile, “my Migration Agency web page” still says my application is being processed. Not quite so much of a thrill, looking at that now.

Identity: With my passport at Migrationsverket
With my passport at Migrationsverket

I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

All that Jazz – after-hours in Saint Joos

Jazz in Saint Joos – A walk through a gallery of jazz musicians only to be seen after-hours along the Chausée de Louvain in Saint-Joos-ten-Noode

Jazz heroes: Manu Dibango on saxBelgium has a reputation for jazz. At least in Belgium’s own mind. Belgians will be quick to remind you that “they” invented the quintessential jazz instrument. Well, to be sure, Adolphe Sax was Belgian. But in 1846 when he patented the saxophone he was living in Paris. Also he intended his instrument to be used by marching military bands. The jazz saxophone didn’t really become a thing until the 1920s.

Okay, the saxophone isn’t the only claim Belgians have on jazz. Even somebody as ignorant as I am of this music form has heard of a couple of Belgium’s big-name contributions to the jazz pantheon. Toots Thielemans (who I know of as a harmonica player) was Belgian before he became American. And Django Reinhardt, the demon gypsy jazz guitarist, turns out to have been born here.

Jazz heroes: Cesaria Evora singsHistory apart, there is a flourishing modern jazz scene in Brussels. If this is your preference you’re pretty well served. Even if you’re not particularly keen, you still find yourself stumbling across jazz references wandering about town. Never more so than along the first stretch of the Chausée de Louvain/Leuvensteenweg between the Madou metro station at Place Madou and St Josse Place.

Jazz heroes: MenThis is a well-trafficked though rundown shopping street on the edge of the European quarter. It’s just inside Belgium’s smallest and most densely populated municipality, Saint-Joos-ten-Noode. During the working day, you probably won’t see anything so much out of the ordinary, but walk down here in the evening after the shops are shut, or on a Sunday, and you’re confronted by a gallery of jazz musicians.

Jazz heroes: Chris Cody and the Sydney Opera HouseThe pictures are painted on the roll-down metal blinds that cover the doors or the whole display windows of some of the shops. The portraits show an international array of stars, each playing their instruments. Behind each is something “typical” of their home country – the Eiffel Tower, the Congress building in Washington DC, the Sydney Opera House. I’m not sure how many there are, but when I went to take photographs for this article at the beginning of November I found eleven. (Though the pictures are numbered up to eighteen.)

Jazz heroes: Josephine Baker in white-faceAs I’ve implied, I’m not a great jazz aficionado. I don’t actually recognise the names of any of these musicians (with the exception of Josephine Baker). But several of them are quite obviously jazz musicians. Here is Terumasa Hino blowing his horn in front of Mount Fuji. Here is Manu Dibango playing his sax in front of what appears to be a spiral playground slide. And here is Nils-Henning Örsted Pedersen plucking his double bass in front of a seal. No, sorry, it’s the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen harbour.

Jazz heroes: Terumasa Hino blowing his hornA couple of the pictures include an Internet website address: sarendip.org. Follow the link and you find the website of a street art collective, Sarendip. They look as if they were quite active a few years ago. The most recent entry on their website, though, dates from 2012. There are two entries from September 2011 titled “St-Jazz Ten Nood” (sic). It isn’t entirely clear to me what the website is trying to say. However, I think the pictures were created to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of a jazz festival – Saint Jazz – that takes place annually in Saint Joos every September.

Well, these are the remnants of that commemoration. I’m guessing that some of the pictures have since been removed – the blinds replaced – but it’s impressive that the ones that remain have escaped being graffitied over. Honour among graffiti artists perhaps. How long will the pictures that remain last, I wonder.
Jazz heroes: Nils-Henning Orsted Pedersen and seal

I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge. I also produced a shorter version in Swedish for Bladet – the magazine of Svenska klubben in Bryssel (the Swedish Club in Brussels).

A couple of days in Maastricht

Maastricht in the Netherlands – a photo essay and a wander through this charming, picturesque little city in company with Mrs SC and TheSupercargo.

Maastricht's Basiliek van Onze Lieve Vrouwe from WyckI wrote last time that I went through a bit of a dark patch in October and November, but even in the dark there can be flashes of light. At the end of October we celebrate Mrs SC’s birthday. It can be hard to wrestle the time from her schedule, but last year we managed four days in Florence. This year we pulled an overnighter in Maastricht.

The John F Kennedy Bridge and the MaasThis little Dutch city on the Maas river (downstream from Belgian Liège where the river is the Meuse) claims to be the Netherlands’ oldest. Apparently there’s a dispute with Nijmegen. It’s probably best known today – for those of us outside Benelux – as the city that gave it’s name to the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. That was the treaty that established the European Union and the euro as a currency. Which probably puts Maastricht near the top of the EU-haters’ hit-list.

Disused docks on the Maas, Beisenwal, MaastrichtA shame if true. It’s an appealing little city – or at any rate the centre is. But even the docks and factories by the side of the river, run-down or disused now, have a picturesque charm in the autumn sunlight.

Maastricht: Through the Helpoort 1229Walking around the centre, you can see how the city grew. Maastricht was awarded its city charter in 1204, and immediately started building protective walls. This gate proudly displays a date – 1229 – making it, I suppose, one of the earliest city gates. It’s called the Helpoort – the Gate of Hell, though it looks fairly innocuous now.

A part of the Maastricht city walls along Lang GrachtjeClearly a wealthy city, like Brussels and other places in the area Maastricht outgrew one ringwall after another. There are well-preserved remnants of city walls from various periods inside the city, incorporated now into the structure of the town.

Maastricht: Lit interior through arrow slitLook through a slit window in one massive bastion and peer into a room already decorated for Christmas. Is it someone’s living room or the interior of a shop? (It’s a shop – even in forward-looking Maastricht, private homes are not decorated for Christmas at the end of October.)

We reached Maastricht in the afternoon on Saturday 29th after an adventurous train journey. Not so adventurous really, just that we missed our stop to change for the Maastricht train. It meant we took a detour through the surprisingly hilly country towards Eupen before the ticket inspector put us right. The history teacher in me was interested to see Eupen. The victors after the First World War granted this largely German-speaking area to Belgium in reparations. Nazi Germany took it back in 1940, but Belgium regained it in 1945.

Eye contact in Maastricht 2That first day was overcast and dull. Not great photography weather – especially not from a moving train. It was better in Maastricht. In the Vrijthof, a big, light, open square, lots of people were standing around or sitting in pairs looking one another in the face. Hand-draw signs asked “Where has the human connection gone?”

Eye contact in Maastricht 1It was a manifestation – or an installation – or perhaps just a happening. On Facebook when I checked later it was billed as The World’s Biggest Eye Contact Experiment.

The bar and barmaid at Café de Pieter, PieterstraatWe stayed not far from the Vrijthof at a little hotel on a street called Achter de Molens (Behind the Mills). There’s a restaurant, Le Petit Bonheur, in the same building which seems popular. At least, there was a late-night party going on there the night we stayed. Hallowe’en, of course. But it really didn’t disturb us because we were out exploring the town by night and drinking in a local bar – Peter’s Café.

Through an arch on Achter de MolensThe following day, though, the autumn sun came out and we took a long photo-walk through the old town. The sun and the turning leaves made Maastricht even more attractive.

Part of Maastricht city wall and moat at Haet ende NjitAt the newest gates to the old city (I think they date from the 16th century), the Jecker, a tributary of Maas, was once canalised into a moat. The Jecker is still here, and the moat, to the delight of quite a variety of water birds. And one or two photographers.

The Hoge Brug from Wyck 1A little beyond, we crossed the Maas by the modern pedestrian and bicycle bridge, the high bridge – Hoge Brug. On the the far bank, Wyck seems to be an early suburb of Maastricht.

Preparing for a street party on Rechtstraat in WyckThere was some sort of a local food day in preparation in Wyck. This whole street, Rechtstraat, was blocked off and filled with a laid table. But not, at the time we passed, with any food. The sign advertises “La Saison Culinaire de l’Euregio”. The Euregio turns out to be a local cross-border region covering this part of the Netherlands and adjacent districts in Germany. It’s been building cultural links (and other links) here since 1958.

Nee on RechtstraatI must share this picture that suggests there’s a sold front against direct advertising in Maastricht. I saw many letter boxes – or letter slots perhaps – where the home owners made it clear they didn’t want advertising or free publications. Nee! Nee!  and Nee! Nee! But this house had the best contrast between the Nees and the surrounding material. I should add – in the interest of balance – that I did see the very occasional Ja! but never in a context that made it easy to photograph.

De Wiekeneer by Frans Carlier - Wycker Brugstraat outside Hotel BeaumontOne final picture. This is a representation of the typical Wyck resident. That’s how I interpret sculptor Frans Carlier’s title “De Wiekeneer”. A stoic citizen who strides on his way though the sharp wind off the Maas cuts like a knife. Though I may be reading more into it than I should.

All in all it was a very nice short break, though we didn’t see everything that Maastricht has to offer. There is said to be a fine collection of early Dutch paintings in the Bonnefantenmuseum, but it was closed when we came by. Perhaps another time. It’s only a couple of hours away.

(I find myself saying this rather a lot nowadays, but there’s always somewhere new to visit instead.)

Painted bench on the De Griend waterfront in Maastricht
Painted bench on the De Griend waterfront in Maastricht

I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Wounds and scar tissue

This week, wounds and scar tissue. Not one of my usual efforts, though it is a kind of a Stop and a kind of a Story. I want to give some explanation of why I’ve not been enthusiastically blogging the last few weeks. It all starts with my birth…

I was a forceps baby. I was a big baby and my mother is a small woman. To be sure, back in 1958, I was not nearly as big as I have become and my mother was larger then than she is now. Nevertheless I was a difficult child to birth. Back then Caesarean section was not as common as it is today. It was a more risky procedure used only for very serious complications. Instead, forceps were frequently used to help tardy babies come out.

A pair of forceps is like a pair of tongs. It has cupped ends that the doctor or midwife inserts into the mother’s vagina, then opens inside her to cup the head of the child, get a grip and tug. The mother pushes, the forceps wielder pulls and with any luck the baby comes out. Partly as a result of the procedure, forceps babies often have noticeably conical heads.* I did. I also had a cut on the crown of my head – or at least there was dried blood there when my mother saw me after I’d been cleaned up.

Her theory is that the doctor in the heat of the moment cut my head with the forceps. We never found out the truth of it – and I don’t know whether mum ever asked. This was in the long ago, and in England too; there was no question of enquiries over such a small thing. Besides mum was just happy to have me out.
Scar: Little conehead

I grew up with a scar on the crown of my head, a little bald irregularity like an uneven button. Unlike all the other scars I picked up over time – on the ridge of an eyebrow when I fell on stone steps, on the wrist of my left hand when as a student I put it through a window, on my right knee when I came off a bike on a gravel road in Sweden – the scar on my head did not sink into the skin and fade over time. It stood a little proud of my scalp, but I never thought much about it unless I caught it with the teeth of a comb.

I’ve recently learned that head scars like this have a medical name. They are keloid scars, and they are caused by an excess of collagen. According to the website of the British National Health Service (long may it exist!) keloid scars are not really understood. “Experts don’t fully understand why keloid scarring happens.” The site goes onto say keloid scars “are not contagious or cancerous.” Not contagious, obviously, but not cancerous? I’m not so sure.

It all started last summer when Mrs SC and I were visiting Lisbon. I was crouched in the wardrobe of our hotel room trying to get at the little wall safe hidden in there. I stood up rather too quickly and whacked my head on the clothes rail in the wardrobe. Bull’s-eye on the scar. My first reaction was to stumble around the room holding my head and cursing, but that passed quickly enough.

We were in a hurry so I carried on getting ready to go out, but was puzzled suddenly to see my fingers were leaving red smears on everything I touched. Also there was a tickling sensation above my eyebrows. Mrs SC looked at me in horror. “There’s blood all over your forehead!”

Head wounds are notoriously bloody but often not serious. I wasn’t particularly worried. But the blood kept flowing through all our efforts to staunch it with handfuls of tissue paper and cold water. Everything had to stop while we waited for the blood to coagulate. Eventually it did. I cleaned up and all was well. The day was not ruined.

But the scar didn’t really get better. Mrs SC started giving me morning colour reports – how red it was looking when it always used to be off-white. And some mornings I woke to find bloodstains on my pillowcase.

It’s unusual – was unusual – that I ever looked at my scar myself. (How often do you look at the crown of your own head?) It involves too many mirrors and awkward poses in the bathroom. My increasingly poor eyesight doesn’t make it easier. But while I was bent over and trying to get a look at the scar after the latest bleeding incident, it struck me that with modern technology I ought to be able to take a photograph.

Easier said than done. And once I finally managed, I wished I hadn’t. The photo was crisp and clear. Horribly so. The scar looked like a huge crater in the top of my head. There were flecks of dried blood and irregular lumps and pits of sore skin and what looked like a couple of pus-filled spots. It was stomach turning and I have no wish to share it with you. (See the artist’s impression instead.)
The scar on my head

Fast forward to October and back home in Sweden. I was admitted to hospital for an operation to repair a hernia that was making walking increasingly difficult for me. It was a keyhole op that left me with three holes in my abdomen and feeling like I’d been kicked in the stomach by a horse. As the surgeon pointed out, he’d actually stabbed me three times in the stomach. There was no simile required. The pain after the operation was greater than the pain I’d had before and it dragged on for weeks. And dragged me down. For a longer time it didn’t seem worth the exchange. But there I was, holed below the waistline and stitched up. I had to visit my local doctor here in Brussels after a couple of weeks to get the stitches taken out.

Just that morning, after I showered, the scar on my head started bleeding again. So after the doctor had removed the stitches in my belly, I asked him to look at my scalp. There was a sharp intake of breath. Then he wrote me a referral to “the best dermatologist. I could send you somewhere else, but they would just send you on to him.”

Mid-November I had a consultation with the dermatologist, and he booked me in for a biopsy. Now, in my ignorance I assumed the biopsy would involve someone taking a little bit of my scar and checking it before deciding what to do next. Wrong. Under local anaesthetic the diminutive lady surgeon enthusiastically cut off the entire scar and some clear skin around it. Then she stitched up my scalp. I felt the needle scraping on the bone of my skull as she dragged the skin up left and right, front and back, to close the hole she’d made.
Scar: Post-op-stiches

It wasn’t until the anaesthetic wore off that I really hurt. And then for a couple of days I was walking around with the constant sensation that I had just banged my head hard on a sharp corner. Painkillers didn’t really help. Nor did the fact that the wound was protected by a pad of sterile gauze held in place by an elastic bandage wrapped around my head under my jaw.

Beatrix Potter's sick guinea pigAdding insult to injury this made me look like a particularly disgruntled guinea pig. In fact am sure there is a Beatrix Potter illustration somewhere…

So that’s the story of my wounds and scar tissue. In two weeks time I’ll go in to see the consultant again and learn what the biopsy tells him about the scar. Was it really a tumour or was all the bleeding simply an ongoing protest at the blow I gave it in Lisbon? And if it was a tumour, was it benign or malignant? And if malignant, will it need another operation?

Heigh ho. At least I seem to have stepped back from the depression that for weeks I’ve been teetering on the edge of. And today, today the headache is less intense than yesterday, which was less intense than the day before.

Scar: Bandaged guinea pig

Added January 2017

For anyone who wants to know – the diagnosis was basal cell carcenoma. If you are going to get a cancer, this is one of the better ones. Very unlikely to metastasise and easy to treat – cutting it out is usually enough. An Australian colleague of my wife, who has presumably had several removed over the years, wondered why I was kicking up such a fuss. He has a point, I suppose.


^* Most babies who have spent a longer time being born come out with conical heads because of the pressure in the birth canal, forceps can make this more pronounced.

The Beatrix Potter drawing comes from her late (1929) book The Fairy Caravan. Download a copy from The Faded Page website. All the other illustrations are my own.

I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

New York Stories

New York Stories – and the people who tell them… and the photographer who reports them

Review of Humans of New York: Stories

A photo-book by Brandon Stanton

Humans of New York: Stories front coverBrowsing the photo-books in a bookshop recently, looking for a birthday present, I came across this volume. I picked it up and leafed through it and thought it very attractive, but not quite what I was looking for as a present. I also thought it was rather expensive, but it stuck in my mind.

A few days later I found it again, in another shop, and picked it up and carried on leafing through it. The layout and quality of the book is attractive and the photos are portraits of interesting looking people. Best of all, attached to each photo are stories about the people portrayed. But, no, I still thought it was too expensive.

New York Stories: book coverThen I came across it again, and I decided, OK, by the rule of threes I am obliged to buy this book. What the hell, it’s only money. And indeed it was only money – but now it’s a big, beautiful book of photographs and stories on my bookshelf. A book it took me four days to read even though it’s a photo-book. (I rationed myself; I took it slowly.)

10,000 people

According to his website, Brandon Stanton – the author and photographer – moved to New York in 2010 with the intention of becoming a portrait photographer. He set himself the task of photographing 10,000 people. Apparently he started by just taking the photos for himself and then branched out into sharing them on Facebook. When people responded favourably, he took it a step further and set up his website and started posting in various other social media outlets. (He now has several million followers on Instagram alone.)

After a time he started asking the people he was photographing for quotes to caption their portraits, and went the further step and began to interview them. Humans of New York: Stories is his second volume. The first was just Humans of New York. This is what he writes in his introduction.

Humans of New York did not result from a flash of inspiration. Instead, it grew from five years of experimenting, tinkering, and messing up… The first Humans of New York book… included some quotes and stories, but largely it represented the photographic origins of HONY. It provided an exhaustive visual catalogue of life on the streets of the city. But soon after it went to print, it became obvious that another book was waiting to be made – one that includes the in-depth storytelling that the blog is known for today. This is that book.

New York stories

It is a wonderful book: 428 pages of photographs and stories. Some of them pithy one-liners…

New York Stories: Snap it quick“You’d better snap it quick because I’m jumping on the first thing that comes down this track.”

“I’m late for a show. You can try to take my photo while I hail a cab.”

“I’m trying to write a book based on myself, but I keep changing.”

“I started taking heroin to get away from the draft, then I joined the army to get away from the heroin.”

New York Stories: Not a thing about me“You’re not find out a thing about me”

“Our agents set us up.”

“I’m a science writer. I like anything complicated.”

“I shouldn’t have moved in with him just because I was lonely.”

Others are longer pieces – some of them linked to 2 or more photographs.

New York Stories: It just happened“I wasn’t planning on it happening. It just happened. I don’t know what to say. I lost about 10 or 15 pounds during the affair, just from the stress. The longer it went on, the more the other woman wanted to control me – that’s how they always get. She wanted more and more of me as time went on: ‘Come over,’ ‘Let’s do this,’ ‘Let’s do that.’ It got more and more difficult to hide. I’d been with my wife since we were 16, so she knew something was up. One day she just straight-up asked me, and I said: ‘Yes.’ It was almost a relief. There was crying, screaming, yelling. All my shit went out on the lawn. Then it was back in the house. Then it was out on the lawn again. But we went to therapy and we got over it, and she forgave me. I think.”

Dialogue

Sometimes there are dialogues between the photographer and his subject:

“Studying the brain is like working in a toy store. Nothing could be more fucking fun.”
“What do you think is the greatest weakness of the brain?”
“That’s a lousy question! I’m not answering it.”
“Why is it a lousy question?”
“What do you want me to say? Road rage? That we get pissed and shoot people? That the newest parts of our brain should have been in the oven a little longer? How is that going to help you? If you ask a crappy question, you’ll never get a decent answer. You need to ask smaller questions – questions that give you a pathway to finding some more pertinent information. The major advances in brain science don’t come from asking crappy questions like, ‘What is consciousness?’ they come from microanalysis. They come from discovering pertinent information at the cellular level.”

Leaf through

New York Stories: Leaf throughI just leafed through the book again there and disappeared for 10 minutes. It’s such a fascinating document. For anyone who takes photographs – for anyone who is interested in the stories that people tell – the book is catnip.

I’ve always admired people who can take street photos – portraits of strangers – and then talk to them. I’d like to know how Brandon goes about that. Does he take candid photographs and then talk to his subjects, or does he ask permission first? Some of the pictures in the book look so completely unstudied that I think he must take them without asking. Others are clearly posed.

How?

In a review of his first book in The New York Times, a journalist, Julie Bosman, describes following him around for a day to see what he does. She writes:

He does everything he can to warm up his potential subjects, wearing a backward baseball cap, gray hoodie and New Balance sneakers to look casual. When he approaches a stranger, he hunches over or squats down, sometimes sprawling his 6-foot-4 [1.95m] frame on the sidewalk.
“It’s all about making myself as nonthreatening as possible,” he said. “I lower my voice, I get down on the ground.”

So that’s what he does now, but I wonder if it was always how he worked.

New York Stories: FireworksMy other question, to which I haven’t found an answer, is how he gets his subjects’ permission to publish their photos. Does he have some sort of a printed formula he gets them to sign or does he just count on them not complaining? This is especially relevant for the photographs he’s taken of young children. (Though the captions sometimes suggest there’s a parent just out of frame.)

Better on paper

New York Stories: Brandon on the flyleafAs soon as I realised Brandon Stanton had an Instagram account, I started following him. Here’s a strange thing. I don’t find his photos on-line nearly as appealing as the ones in his book. I don’t know whether that’s because as he’s become more famous he has changed his style. (Apparently he lives by his photos now.) The verbiage of the stories he reports now seems to overwhelm the photos. It could be the format, or it could be that the photos in the book are a “best of” selection. Or perhaps he is still evolving as a portrait photographer – and has evolved in a direction I’m less willing to follow.

No matter, I’ve got the book now and I’m sure I’ll be dipping back into Humans of New York: Stories for quite some time to come.


Is Humans of New York: Stories expensive? It may be expensive in bookshops, but I’ve since discovered the book on-line at half the price I paid for it.

I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The Saint Job Fair – a September event

The Saint Job Fair in Uccle: giants, a brass band, death and the baker, a boy in a bubble, a jousting knight and a sleeping cat… among others things

About the middle of September, all around Brussels (and for all I know around Belgium too) fairs are taking place. Some of them seem to blend into the weekly markets (such as the one at Place Flagey), but others are unique to themselves. There are sideshows and performances, parades and music, and some take the opportunity to promote a local district or municipality. My guess is that they have developed from harvest festivals in much the same way as Thanksgiving in the USA, but as local rather than national affairs. Last year, my first September in Brussels, I simply registered what was going on. This year I thought I should get out with the camera and take some photos.

The waterbearerThen came the question – where to go? Up the road towards the city centre, the Parish of Saint Giles (Parvais Saint-Gilles) was advertising a major effort with processions from four different starting points in the municipality all leading to a celebration of Les porteuses d’eau (the women waterbearers). I was tempted.

Then I saw that my own municipality was offering the “129th Annual Market of Saint Job”.

I’m not sure why the Old Testament prophet is dignified as “Saint” Job in this corner of Belgium. A trawl through the Internet doesn’t leave me much the wiser (though I really doubt it has anything to do with the Orthodox Saint Job of Moscow, Wikipedia). But I’ve always had a soft spot for Job, so Saint Job’s market won the toss.

Giants of the Saint Job FairThe Belgians have a fascination for géants – giants. This seems to be a tradition that has hung over from the Middle Ages. Every district of Brussels has its own giants who are wheeled out (literally) every year for these fairs. They also make occasional appearances at other spectacles and events to represent the spirit of their district. At the Saint Job fair the two principle giants were a fellow in a bicorn hat and a curly-haired blonde. The two had a couple of half-sized giant children who orbited around them.

A parade in a tubaSeveral of their helpers (the people necessary to manhandle them over cobbles and kerbs) were also dressed up – as you can see from the photo. They looked like toys the giant children might want to pick up and play with.

Of course, you can’t have a parade or a festival without music, so there was a brass band on hand. In this photo you can just make out the tuba-distorted reflection of the male giant at the head of the parade.

Saint Job Fair: A break from blowingThe band had a lot of blowing to do, so they were happy take a break now and again. Here on the steps outside the church. (I think they’d want me to remind you, by the way, that the saxophone was invented by a Belgian – Adolphe Sax. You can post your heartfelt thanks below in the comments. Or not. As you wish. 🙂 )

Saint Job Fair: Posing for the cameraApart from the parade and the giants there was an exposition d’animeaux de la ferme. (This was one goat, one donkey, some chickens and a small selection of child-magnet-rabbits).The donkey was very obliging and happy to pose for photos when other people pointed their cameras at her. Me, she turned her back on.

Saint Job Fair: Pony go roundThere were also some ponies that had been coralled into an area like a small roundabout, and were walking around in a circle. Each had a small child uncertainly perched on top. There was a recorded – very distorted – voice blasting out a message in French. A message punctuated with the sound of a cracking whip and a “Yeeha!” I just can’t feel convinced by a “Yeeha!” when it’s part of a sentence in French. I’m probably deeply prejudiced.

Saint Job Fair: With death by my sideThe inevitable stall for face painting meant there were quite a number of kids running around with startling faces. The one that startled me most of all was this young man’s face. He was watching with intense interest as this baker demonstrated his craft. You could buy samples of the bread once baked, but personally I found the presence of death at the baker’s side a bit off-putting.

Sleeping cat lyingThere were other things for kids to do at the fair. They could visit the exposition de chats d’exception. A lot of very indolent pedigree cats in travelling cages. The cat show took place in a rather a dark, enclosed hall, so I came away without any photos. On my way home, though, I met a street cat I know who was happy to let me photograph him in his favourite place, on warm tarmac under a parked car. By way of a fill-in photo for all the siamese and persians I missed.

Saint Job Fair: Boy in a bubbleThere was a piste d’agilité vélo, a bicycle obstacle course, overseen by two dour police officers. It didn’t look a lot of fun and certainly while I was there, didn’t seem to be attracting much interest. By contrast kids could also get their parents to pay to have them zipped into plastic balls in a paddling pool. This looked to be really popular. It gives a new sense to the Boy in the Bubble.

Saint Job Fair: At the tourneyIt didn’t surprise me that so few kids were interested in the bicycle obstacle course, though I was disappointed so few wanted to try out the medieval jousting. However, I was patient and eventually a happy tourney rider showed up to reward me.

I hung around the fair from about 11 a.m. until 14.30 hoping to get some photos of the concours du chien le plus sympathique. I like sympathetic dogs – and these were very sympathetic dogs remember.

Saint Job Fair: The Green ManUnfortunately for me it seems everyone likes sympathetic dogs . (Well, of course. I should have guessed.) Probably the most well attended event of the fair, by the time the parade started the crowd pressed too densely around the stage. I tried, but there are no photos I want to share.

So I gave up. I was actually on my way home when I met another giant. Not quite in the same league as the official ones, perhaps, but he had a charming face and happily posed for me to take a photo. This Green Man was standing on stilts. He was about as tall as the bicorn hat giant’s shoulder.

That was my visit to the Saint Job Fair.


I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.

United Music of Brussels

United Music of Brussels was a day of music to launch a new season of classical music, and I heard it announced over the public transport address system

At the tram stop - house gable cartoon central Brussels“What are we going to do this weekend,” she asked.

I’m usually stumped by this question but not this time.

“Listen,” I said. Over the tannoy a message was being delivered in English. This weekend… United Music… Belgian National Orchestra… BOZAR… La Monnaie… Bourse…

“That’s what we’re doing!”

“What?”

“Listening to United Music,” I improvised. “It’s a promotional day for the Belgian National Orchestra and the Royal Theatre. The beginning of the autumn season. Musicians, singers, dancers – short concerts – all afternoon in different locations. There’s more information on-line!”

“Are you sure about that?”

The Internet can answer all your questions

It’s never easy to find information about what’s on in Brussels if you don’t read French. Even if you do read French, I think it’s probably a challenge. Belgium seems about 15 years behind Sweden in terms of Internet usage and Internet literacy. I remember how it used to be. We were just as starry eyed and innocent. Just as clumsy.

Many Belgians – individuals as well as institutions – clearly want to believe that the Internet can answer all your questions. Everyone is always making promises about how you can find so much on-line. How you can book tickets or appointments on-line. How you can easily transfer money from one bank account to another on-line. How you can check deliveries or send messages on-line.

Mmmnnno. Not really. But I remain hopeful.

This offer is unrepeatable
This offer is unrepeatable

It seems the Belgian advocates of the Internet haven’t quite grasped – yet – that design is not all. For people to take advantage of services on line, someone needs to write the software to enable the service actually to work. That if someone is to be able to get correct information out, somebody else needs first to put that correct information in. And to put it in, in such a way that getting it out is both logical and easy.

I think the truth is, most Belgians really prefer the personal touch. Face-to-face contact, human interaction, these are the things that add value to Belgian society, not digital interconnectivity and virtual reality. Which is very endearing.

Information dearth

Everything would happen in the afternoon, we learned from various sources. At 2 pm. Or maybe 2.30. But where? That remained a mystery.

Hoarding on Rue Ravenstein, Brussels
Hoarding on Rue Ravenstein, Brussels, just opposite BOZAR ticket office

Because we knew that BOZAR were involved, we took ourselves there first. BOZAR is the jokey local name for the Palais des Beaux-Arts in the centre of Brussels. (Beaux-Arts sounds like BOZAR.) The three people staffing their ticket office were sure they knew they’d heard about the event. Absolutely. Didn’t they have some brochures about it? Over there in that rack? No? Oh well they had had some brochures.

Two of them went into the storeroom behind the scenes to check. The sound of cardboard boxes being torn open, but, sadly, no. They didn’t have any left. We are desolate. Sad emoticon. They couldn’t suggest a place we could go to get more information, but we might find some brochures left in the racks at the entrance to the art gallery across the road.

We looked, but no.

So we walked down into the Grand Place and went into the tourist information centre there. The young man we spoke with said, Yes! He’d also heard something about the music event. Though he too was desolate. Are there brochures? We have no brochures. Wouldn’t you prefer to listen to the dance-band/oom-pah performance going on in the square?

We said thanks, but no thanks. He couldn’t make any suggestions about where we could go to find more information either.

United Music at the Bourse

United Music brochure and mapWhen Mrs SC and I were wrestling with the information dearth on-line, she’d stumbled across something… (Her command of French is several orders of magnitude better than mine.) Something about a concert in the Saint-Géry Market Hall. Meanwhile I remembered that I’d heard something about the Bourse in the original announcement. For want of any more reliable information, we walked down to the Bourse and thought we could go on to Saint Jerry’s after.

It turned out that the Bourse was exactly the right place to go.

Here there was a little band playing under a tent and young people in T-shirts advertising the United Music of Brussels giving out the very brochures we had heard so much about. Brochures that included maps of the city showing the different venues. At first glance they were perfect. Just what we had been looking for.

There were sixteen different venues scattered across the town with small groups performing concerts of all sorts.

The Tanners’ Studio

United Music of Brussels Philip Defranque, tenor
At the Tanners’, tenor Philip Defranque,

Glancing through the brochure Mrs SC saw The Juliet Letters. That was for us! A place called Atelier des Tanneurs, so we took ourselves there.

Do you know The Juliet Letters? It’s a song sequence for a string quartet and a strangulated voice. A co-production by Elvis Costello (punk hero) and The Brodsky Quartet (classical music heroes). The singer at the Tanners’ Studio was the Flemish tenor Philip Defrancq. I thought he was pitched a bit high till I got home and listened to Elvis Costello’s performance again and realised – Defrancq nailed it.

United Music of Brussels: In the Tanners' Studio
In the Tanners’ Studio – the string quartet and tenor perform The Juliet Letters

On the way to the Tanners’ Studio we discovered that the map in the United Music of Brussels brochure was not really as accurate as it might have been. However, with a certain amount of guesswork and asking the way, everything worked out. Not only did Defrancq sing a couple of The Juliet Letters, he also sang an aria by John Cage (brilliant and weird and involving at one point the singer gargling with water).

The Tanners’ was an interesting space – presumably a former tanning factory though there was no evidence of the industrial process left. Just a two story interior space with a wrought-iron or cast-iron colonnade and a bridge across the middle. Acoustically rather good.

The swimming pool at Jeu de Balle

Which was more than you could say about the next venue.

From the Tanners’ we took ourselves to Les Bains de Bruxelles. An interesting experience in itself, just trying to find it. I’ve heard about this public swimming pool. It is an architectural feature, not least because of the pool itself – on the second floor of the building with views from the window out over the town.

United Music: Panorama of Jeu de Ball swimming pool
Panorama of Jeu de Ball swimming pool (Les Bains de Bruxelles)

The performers had a stage at one end of the pool in front of the windows and a drummer and a violinist played while a woman danced a wild modern ballet.

United Music: Jeu de Ball swimming pool performanceThe acoustics were – interesting perhaps is the kindest word. There were a lot of echoes and a lot of foot stamping as well as drumming. But it was an experience to sit there on the tiled benches enveloped in a faint cloud of chlorine to watch and listen. There was quite a crowd at this venue – possibly because of the building rather than the performance.

The lap of victory

At the end, after the performers had taken their bow and the applause, they dived into the pool. Well, the dancer and the violinist dived; the drummer jumped. And they swam the length of the pool to even more applause. The dancer and the violinist racing one another (the dancer won.) The drummer kept his glasses on and did the breaststroke and came in last. Mrs SC and I reserved our special cheers for him.

Halles Saint-Géry

United Music: The pianist at Saint Jerry'sAfter that we took ourselves to the Saint Jerry Market Hall and were in time to hear the United Music’s concluding performance. A pianist played in the main hall and a choir sang in the market’s upper level. As it turned out, the choir were from the Belgian National Theatre, La Monnaie. The venue was crowded and the choir were a bit of a surprise as they were dressed like the rest of the audience. We only realised who they were when they started to sing. It was a good way to end the day.

In all we saw and heard three concerts (plus a little bit at the Bourse). And I’m not sure we’d have managed more than one more even if we’d had the brochure-map and got into town for when the whole event actually kicked off at 14.30.

United Music: Members of the choir of La Monnaie National TheatreBesides, we had all the pleasure of our initial face-to-face human interaction with the good people in the BOZAR ticket office and at the Grand Place TI centre.

More than the music, the exercise was interesting for the opportunity to see the different venues. To see parts of the city we might not otherwise visit. I’ve kept the map and will, later, try to see some of the other sites.

Afterwards Mrs SC and I took ourselves to the Cuban restaurant La Cantina on Rue du Jardin des Olive for our evening meal. (And she continued her dogged search for the perfect iced-coffee.)

United Music: Panorama in Halles Saint-Géry
Panorama in St Jerry’s (Halles Saint-Géry)

I wrote this entry for the #Blogg52 challenge.