Saturday, 31 May 2014

A daily dose of hate - Somaly Mam - sex, lies and videotape

First I want to give credit for the title of this post - "A daily dose of hate" is a Facebook page and a blog I follow, which I think are maintained by my distant acquaintance Magdalina Genova - a brilliant blogger (in Bulgarian) and sort of a political and social activist for all things good and fair. Magdalina and I are born on the same date - 30 March - and while I know personally about four more people born on this date, Magdalina's blog sometimes sounds like my thoughts - always annoyed/angry at and ranting about some injustice in the world or another. If you can understand Bulgarian and care about politics and justice - I recommend it. 

So today I want to be angry about a disgusting story of sex, lies and videotape - the one of Somaly Mam and her foundation. This post may at times repeat or be inspired by other articles on the topic by Maggie McNeill, Melissa Gira Grant in the New York Times, and

The Somaly Mam Foundation is officially an organisation working against human trafficking in Cambodia, bearing the name of Somaly Mam - an anti-trafficking activist. I heard about it a few years ago, thinking first that it was an organisation of Somalian mothers or something. Somaly's star was shining bright in the anti-trafficking sky - receiving awards, attending UN and US Congress hearings, being proclaimed woman of the year and one of the 100 most influential persons, appearing at gala's with actors, musicians, statesmen... It took me, though, one look at the foundation's website to realise that the star was shining brightly in ALARMING RED - it was all about 'those poor girls', 'millions of children', 'trapped in sexual slavery', and accompanied by photos of bruised, abused and chained girls. The usual moral panic that always makes me feel sceptic about an organisation but is so attractive to celebrities, media, authorities and their dollars. To mention some of the recognition Mam received: CNN Hero Award 2006, Glamour magazine Woman of the Year 2006, US State Department "Heroes of the Anti-Trafficking" Award, Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential Persons in 2009 with a speech by Angelina Jolie. And, of course, 2.8 million dollars of donations to her foundation only in 2012. 

But all this glamour and success tumbled down this week when Newsweek published a story revealing the lies on which Somaly's work was based. They were actually first revealed already two years ago by Cambodia Daily but after the piece in Newsweek, Somaly finally resigned from her own foundation. So Somaly's success was due not only to the moral panic she was generating and maintaining but mostly to the lies she concocted. It began apparently in 1998 when a French TV aired a video about Somaly's organisation where a 14-year-old girl told her story of being kidnapped, raped, sold, trafficked and what not. Two years ago she finally admitted that none of this was true but she was reading from a script that Somaly had given her. Somaly also had a couple of personal horror stories - that she was herself an orphan, kidnapped, raped, abused, trafficked from age of around 10 (depending on who she was talking to, apparently the age was changing too). People in her village, though, admitted that she had parents, went to school and was a happy child - no selling, raping or orphaning.. Somaly also claimed that her own daughter was kidnapped, raped and had her eye gouged out by pimps and traffickers as a retaliation for her mother's work. Somaly's husband later clarified that their daughter's eye was actually removed by surgeons because of a medical condition and that she had run away with her boyfriend and was not kidnapped by anyone. And so on... 

Somaly's supporters and her foundation are now trying to convince us that it was all worth it, because, you see, they "rescued", "saved", "empowered", "sheltered" thousands upon thousands of women and girls from trafficking, slavery, kidnappings and rapes. But this begs the old question - when and to what extent does the end justify the means? Should you kill a killer? Is dictatorship justified if it, let's say, improves the economy? Should an NGO tell a few "white lies" if this will help it do good work? I am outraged that there are so many good anti-trafficking NGOs that adhere to strict ethical principles and, as a result, hardly receive any media, let alone celebrity attention, and struggle for money and recognition but do their job honestly. NGOs which always say that we don't know how much trafficking there is in the world and we should be careful when interpreting figures; that trafficking happens in the unregulated labour sectors, such as the sex industry but also agriculture, construction and domestic work; that sex workers should be consulted on anti-trafficking policies; that "sex trafficking" is wrong terminology and "sex slaves" even more so. And so on. On the other hand, organisations like the Somaly Mam Foundation fabricate stories to create moral panics and to receive millions of dollars in donations without ever having to write "logical frameworks", "sustainability of the action" and justify the "value for money" budgets and then keep every single receipt to account for the meagre amounts they received. How low can you stoop to attract more money and to further your agenda? 

Finally, not only was Somaly's work based on lies but it was damaging to sex workers in Cambodia. In a country torn by conflict, a lot of women turned to sex work as their only means of making a living. However, Somaly's rhetoric led to their arrests and prosecutions or, at the very least, their "rescue" from brothels. There are two famous stories, involving the Somaly Mam Foundation and Pulitzer-Prize winner and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof - in one he "purchased" a victim of trafficking from her pimp (unclear to me now if she was such or a voluntary sex worker) for 200 USD or whatever and in another - he live tweeted a brothel raid in Phnom Pen. To anyone with a sound moral judgement, this is the opposite of empowerment and assistance - it's abuse and re-victimisation! And what happened to the "rescued victims" - they were placed by Somaly's Foundation to work in garment factories in Cambodia for two-thirds the living wage. I have to wonder, who is the slave and who needs to be rescued - the sex worker who decides when and how to work and probably makes reasonable money or the garment factory worker who can't leave and has to toil long hours for a measly wage? It may sound slightly like a "conspiracy theory" but claims that Nike funds the foundation of Nick Kristof, which "rescues" women from the sex industry only to place them in the garment industry: "Most women in Cambodia live under conditions of poverty and desperation, and the garment industry’s insistent refusal to meet living-wage standards ensures this will continue for some time. Still, garment workers know an entire international trade system relies on their willing participation... The big brands know it too, which is why the Nike Foundation funds Half the Sky — as do other multinationals that both enforce, and rely on, women’s desperate poverty around the world."

The sweetest thing

This post is not about prostitution, sexuality or even love, which some claim is oh-oooh-oh, the sweetest thing. It's about literally a very sweet thing - the perfect cake frosting/crème that you can put on or between anything. 

I love baking cakes - maybe even slightly more than eating them. And a few months ago I finally found the perfect frosting to put on top or in the middle of my cakes to make them sweeter, moister, fatter and tastier. 

So there it goes - you'll need one pack unsalted butter (125 gr.), one pack cream cheese (I use full-fat Philadelphia of 185 gr.), around 250 gr. thick yoghurt (I use "Greek style") and one cup powder sugar. You can adjust the proportions slightly to your taste - more yoghurt makes it lighter, less sugar - less sweet, less butter - less fat.. Beat the cream cheese with the softened butter, then add the yoghurt and afterwards the sugar, mix well and voilà - the sweetest thing in five minutes or less. It's very sweet but at the same time not heavy. 

You can also pimp this up in every way you want to fit your taste - add vanilla or caramel, fruit, jam, coconut flakes, other nuts, cocoa, melted white chocolate... You can put it on top or in the middle of any cake, I've tried it, for example, in the middle of this Sacher cake instead of the apricot jam (the recipe is in Russian) but of course, then it's not Sacher anymore... If I'm too lazy to bake, I just put a layer of biscuits or lady fingers (I dip them first in coffee, milk or fruit juice), a layer of the crème and then repeat, possibly with cocoa or fruit in the middle and on top.


Friday, 30 May 2014

Prostituto - part 2

So, to continue my rant about prostitution and the similarities between the anti-sex work and anti-LGBT discourses... 

Out of sight - out of mind

Invisible man
As I mentioned in part 1, in Bulgaria (for example) there are a lot of tolerant, compassionate and progressive people, who don't want to see all LGBT people dead or in a mental institution. Or anywhere else, for that matter. A typical statement you can read in message boards and comments under news articles is "I have nothing against gay people but I don't understand why they have to parade their sexuality" or "I don't discriminate against anyone, let them do whatever they want in their bedrooms but not go out on the streets and demonstrate their sexual orientation". (And believe me, this IS a tolerant attitude over there!) These sentiments are repeated at the highest political and social levels. In 2008, before the first organised and largely promoted Sofia gay pride, the then Prime Minister, now chair of the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the Party of European Socialists, Sergei Stanishev, when asked about the pride parade, said that the Bulgarian government fights discrimination and protects the rights of all its citizens but "personally, I don't like the demonstration and manifestation of such orientations". [On an irrelevant but related note: rumour is that Stanishev himself is gay and has (had?) a relationship with the current Foreign MInister Vigenin...] Under pressure from united nazis and Christians, the then mayor Boyko Borisov moved the pride march from the city centre to a more invisible place outside the centre (and later moved it again back to the city centre...). A couple of years later, when Borisov was Prime Minister, he stated that "in GERB [his party] men love women and women love men". Yes, in his party, there are no LGBT people. 

Invisible woman
The anti-sex work debate usually focuses on street prostitution and the abuses that street workers face. Even though some estimate that street prostitution accounts for not more than 20% of all prostitution, the anti's love focusing on this 20% to make their point, disregarding the other 80%, which includes call girls, escorts, webcam workers, etc. who are far more high-level, protected and well paid and where trafficking, abuse and exploitation occur much less often. So it seems the main goal of the anti's is to see street prostitution disappear, i.e. to simply not see any sex workers. But the main way in which sex workers are made invisible is by ignoring their voices. When it comes to policies around sex work, real, actual, active, present- or past-day sex workers are largely ignored, in favour of fake "survivors of prostitution". The Council of Europe Rapporteur I mentioned in the previous part is a perfect example. 

By making any group invisible and ignoring it as small or unrepresentative, governments, policy makers and society find it easier to ignore the group's demands, rights and needs, instead of improving laws and policies that actually protect them. 

When they say your sister is a whore... 

There's a saying in Bulgarian that goes along the lines of "When they say your sister is a whore, you can't prove anymore that you don't have a sister". It sounds a lot wittier actually but the idea is that once a claim/rumour is out there, it's really difficult to disprove it as false, even if it's something as simple as the fact that you don't have a sister.
In any debate it's easy to spread rumours and unfounded and unprovable claims but it gets worse when you employ rheological fallacies, which make it seem like your claim is or can be true. In the anti-LGBT (or rather, anti-gay) discourse there are plenty of unprovable claims like "God hates fags" or "75% of gay men have had sex with more than 1500 men" or "Gay prides are not about rights but pure pornography" but I will mention here a few recent and very absurd ones designed purely to create a moral panic, which on the outside, to the dumb reader, may appear to be substantiated. 
- The EU wants to legalise incest seems to be another legitimate sounding rumour. The EU and US and their human rights are, of course, the worst enemies of Bulgarian, Russian, Serbian, etc. law-abiding orthodox Christians and it follows that after legalising same-sex marriages, the next logical step is legalising incest, peadophilia and zoophilia. Just last year I heard at an unfortunate encounter in Bulgaria that "The European Parliament is now discussing measures to legalise incest because the Nordic countries, especially Norway and Iceland, are pushing for it". The idea that the EU will have a say in incest and even "legalise" it may sound legit to some but that Norway and Iceland are in the EU is simple ignorance with which you just can't argue (or next you'll find yourself trying to convince someone that Africa is a continent or that the Earth is round..) The rumour itself was started by a crazy Russian woman who claimed that her Norwegian husband and his family molested their son and the social workers and the whole state actually encouraged paedophilia and incest and then spread like wildfire in all Putinesque media and circles. So someone heard a fake story about incest in Norway and decided that the EU will legalise incest and that incest and paedophilia are "Western values".
Jamie and Cersei at a hearing in the EP...

I would probably find it more believable if someone told me that Jamie and Cersei Lannister are lobbying the EU to legalise incest than Norway and Iceland :-) 

- The Netherlands is a country of gays and paedophiles. The Netherlands was the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriages and is also popular for its liberal stance on marijuana use and, of course, prostitution. The Dutch government, its embassies and Dutch foundations fund a lot of LGBT initiatives around the world, including contributions to all gay prides in Sofia. In the narrow minds of extreme conservatives and Christians this makes the whole country worse than Sodom and Gomorrah. But my example - in 2013 the Bulgarian judiciary organised a seminar with Dutch experts on improving the workload of magistrates. A recently leaked letter from a high-level magistrate quotes his reasons to decline the invitation: "I see that there will be a Dutch expert. As you know, this country is ruled by gays and they also have a paedophile party, which is making its way to Parliament"... While there are open LGBT people in Dutch politics, none are in the government and you can hardly claim that the country is ruled by gays (of course the claim itself is preposterous enough). The mere existence of Association Martijn, however, allows all anti's to use it as "proof" that the country is infested with paedophiles (and by extension - gays). In reality, the association is not a political party, has hardly any support, let alone trying to make it to Parliament or have any sort of power. It's been banned and unbanned a few times and in April 2014 it was banned for good. But once the claim is out there - no one cares about these "details". The magistrate who refused to allow a Dutch expert to teach the "Orthodox, traditional-value" and completely rotten Bulgarian judiciary was awarded 40 monthly salaries upon his retirement in 2014. 

Lastly, I want to share my frustration with the campaign for EP elections in Bulgaria - if you listen to some of the candidates and their messages you'll get the impression that next year the EU will force every Bulgarian to marry someone of the same gender and then have sex with animals in front of kindergartens every morning... 

In the anti-prostitution discourse there are even more ridiculous but legit-sounding claims that seem founded in "carefully selected" research. Maggie McNeill has a long list of them in her blog and in the Washington Post and Dr. Ronald Weitzer more here
But to mention a few for my readers: 
- The average age for entry into prostitution is 12-14 years 
As Maggie points out, this is first of all a mathematical impossibility because it suggests that for every sex worker who started at 20, there's one who started at 6 to 8... Or for every one who started at 24 there's one who started at ... 0 to 4. It took me five seconds to do the math but the myth is more important than the math... Anyway, it seems the myth refers to a study of the first sexual experience of minors. And minors are always below the age of 18 but myth or math - who cares, let's create a moral panic..
- In The Netherlands 50-90% of sex workers are forced. 
This is another commonly repeated lie because (apart from "the Dutch are always to blame":) it came from an Amsterdam city official in 2009 which was not based on anything but a simple guesstimate. In reality, a 2007 official evaluation on the lifting of the ban on brothels found out that around 8% of the interviewed sex workers said they had started under some form of coercion. Sex workers in the Red Light District will tell you that the forced prostitutes are even fewer than this. 
- More than half of Amsterdam brothel owners have criminal records. This is not one that's particularly pervasive internationally but I'm including it because of its utter distortion and absurdity. It was used in the reasoning behind the European Parliament resolution on prostitution from the end of February 2014. When real researchers actually bothered to trace this claim they found that: it wasn't about Amsterdam but only part of the Red Light District; it wasn't more than half but less than one-third; and the most spectacular one - it wasn't about brothel owners but about coffee shop (where they sell marijuana) owners... But when you start your sentence with "A 2009 study found out that..." and don't provide proper references, you can get away with it, even if you're a Member of the European Parliament. 

The anti's will always find rumours, hear-say or unfounded claims to further their agenda. Luckily, there are also always diligent researchers and activists who are ready to refute these claims, but like I said in the beginning, once it's out there - most people react to the scandalous, the morally outrageous claim and can hardly ever be convinced that the reality is different. But of course - no victory comes easily... 

Tempters, homewreckers and sinners!

Now this part came a bit unexpectedly, I hadn't thought about it until I got into a sort of an argument in the comments of the blog post "Does legalised prostitution really increase human trafficking in Germany" on FeministIre. A certain georgefinnegan was one of few very vocal commenters against sex work. At first I thought the guy was just conservative or religious but from several different comments, something here, something there, I was left with the impression that he objects to prostitution because prostitutes sleep with married men, therefore they ruin marriages, therefore their job is a disgrace to society and traditions, therefore it shouldn't exist, let alone be legal (in a way it's a refreshing attitude not rooted in the "victims of human trafficking" or "violence against women" paradigm). In another comment, george had admitted to talking to a prostitute once, even flirting with her. All of this made me assume, whether correctly or not, that he actually wanted to visit a sex worker and use her services but didn't because of moral considerations (and I admire his level of restraint in the name of fidelity and marriage!). We also know, although I can't quote sources now, that the people who most vehemently oppose LGBT rights are often people who themselves have homosexual desires. I'm sure that, like me, a lot of gays and lesbians have had sex with married men and women but to shift the responsibility only to gays, lesbians or sex workers for people's infidelity is simply not serious - it's a two-way consensual and conscious interaction. People who want to cheat will cheat, be it with sex workers, people of the same sex, or their secretary or possibly anyone they come in contact with. Obviously we can't ban interpersonal communication to prevent cheating. And while with gays and lesbians these outside-marriage activities have the potential to cause romantic complications, with sex workers it's actually just a business transaction. But some straight and bi men and women prefer to have an easy scapegoat, which they can blame for their failed marriages/relationships instead of making an effort to understand what's wrong and work it out or leave and try to be happy with someone else... Someone had told me that this is why so few men actually support sex workers rights - because they are scared that they will appear to want to use sex workers' services (whether they actually do or not). Needless to say, in the same way in backward countries like Bulgaria, so few straight people defend LGBT rights, again out of fear of being perceived as gay/lesbian themselves. 

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Tuscany, part 2 - Florence

This is part 2 of the account of my short visit to Tuscany - Arezzo and Florence, see part 1 (only in Bulgarian for now). 

Part 2 - Florence/Firenze 

I arrived at Florence Santa Maria Novella station on Wednesday around 11 am, by train, which this time took only about one hour. My hotel was close to the station but I could only check in from 1 pm, so I headed off for a walk, a lunch and sightseeing. About ten minutes later I was at the Florence Cathedral or Il Duomo. The Duomo is ridiculously, indecently big and besieged by tourists on all sides. Now I know that good Catholics need to feel small, insignificant and unworthy inside and around their Heavenly Father's homes, but it almost seemed like the Heavenly Father himself would feel small and insignificant in the face of the Duomo. 

The front side (perhaps the other sides too) is ornamented with, among others, dozens of statues of stern, strict, condescending, angry-looking priests, cardinals, popes, saints, I don't know whats, who were looking down on me, as if saying things like "you are a sinner-eh", "you need-eh to repent-eh", "you'll burn-eh in hell-eh" (I'm trying to imitate the way Italians sound when they speak English:-). After ten minutes of contemplating this impossibly strict but just grandeur, and trying to figure out how to take a photo of it, I decided to move along and see what awaits me next. I had read about Florence on Wikipedia and knew I wanted to see the statue of David, the Fountain of Neptune, the Palace of the Medici, something with Machiavelli (a statue, a grave, I don't know), the Ponte Vecchio, but had no idea where they were. Google maps could tell me which piazza is where but not what's on it, so I was ready to be surprised. And I was. Following the hordes of people and looking up, down and sideways with a curious look, like a real tourist, I suddenly found myself on the Piazza della Signoria. Wikipedia claimed it was one of the most beautiful squares in the world. And beautiful it was - if you could only make the tourists disappear for a while. Well, the piazza itself was not so impressive as the statues in it - a world of difference from the nasty, judgemental Christian faces on the Cathedral. These were beautiful, athletic, naked, defiant ancient gods and heroes, fighting evil, conquering enemies and slaying creatures. The most prominent ones that I could recognise were, of course, Neptune, David, Hercules and Perseus. 

The women, on the other hand, usually had their private parts covered (Jupiter forbid we should see a cunt), sometimes missing limbs, doing nothing, sometimes getting raped or being abducted as brides... My feminist feelings were a bit hurt but my aesthetic ones - filled with joy from the male statues! Apart from the strong, muscular bodies, though, there was also a large body of tourists, in groups, in couples and trios, or alone like me, which were driving me crazy. I mean, you can't even take a proper photo of anything without dozens of unknown people in it. As Carrie says, "I couldn't help but wonder", if the world's wealth was more equally distributed, as I usually wish, how many people would there be on Piazza della Signoria, or for that matter, on Damrak or the London Eye, etc. etc. Whenever I visit a popular tourist destination, should I be happy that there are hundreds of millions of people living in poverty who are not able to travel to these places? (And I'm blushing with shame at the moment!) So, despite the naked men and annoyed with the crowds, I decided to move on.
With Dante on my shoulder

Looking so Machiavellian! :)

A few metres away was the Uffizi Gallery. I didn't go in the gallery itself, I believe that art is, unfortunately, largely wasted on me, but I love statues. And here I found the third "set" of statues in Florence - after the ugly, angry Christians and the mouth-watering ancient heroes, these were the artists, scientists, poets and statesmen of Florence (and Italy?). Starting with what I learned was called "the big three" - Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarca - these men (yes, again, only men) were looking proud, dignified and confident. And rightfully so - all of them have made great contributions to literature, art and science. There were a few names that I didn't recognise but among those that I did were Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, Gallileo, Machiavelli, Amerigo Vespucci... Passing by the last one, I heard someone explaining to a couple of American tourists "He's the one that discovered America - you see - Amerigo - America"... Oh by Jove! So few things more annoying when you travel than to meet American tourists "doing Europe" in a week. At one point I was, like, how many times can you, like, say "like" in, like, one sentence ... and stuff? Like-ing aside and, of course, Columbus is more known for discovering America, but come on, people... Go to school! 

From Uffizi, I headed to Ponte Vecchio - the Old Bridge. When the Allied Forces were advancing in Italy at the end of WWII, the Germans destroyed all bridges on the Arno river in Florence but someone somehow convinced them not to blow up Ponte Vecchio because of its historical value. While taking photos of the bridge from a few hundred metres away, finally something happened that I had been expecting for three days - I felt the spontaneous smell of baked bread, tomatoes, olive oil and garlic, coming as if from nowhere. In Belgium you can spontaneously smell Belgian waffles and chocolate, in Germany - baked wurst and in Amsterdam - weed, so I was hoping that in the same way Italy would smell like tomatoes, garlic and basil.. Anyway, I started sniffing and turning around frantically, as if I had smelled ... success or something, until I noticed the people sunbathing and barbecuing (well, obviously an Italian version of barbecuing) on the river banks below. Mmmm yummy! But then I had to move along and find something to eat. The Old Bridge is now filled with small booths selling all sorts of stupid stuff and, of course, tourists. I crossed it quickly and sat down to eat the most expensive and dry panini with prosciutto and mozzarella in my life. But these things happen when you're a stupid tourist and actually worse things have happened to me, so I decided not to be annoyed for more than 20 minutes and proceeded to Palazzo Pitti - the Palace of the Medici. The Medici were the most powerful family in Florence for centuries and apparently stimulated the arts, sciences and trade but I somehow associate them with greediness, cruelty, scheming, murders and poisoning. I was even prepared to pay 10 Euros entrance fee for the Boboli Gardens and the Palace but the lady at the ticket desk didn't have a 10 to return from my 20-Euro note... And didn't accept anything but cash. I stuck around for a while but after a few minutes she still didn't have a 10-Euro note, so I decided to try again tomorrow and went to find my hotel. 

My hotel was not really a hotel but a "pension" and I was welcomed there by a strange person - a skinny 50-or-so-year-old either a woman with a prominent grey moustache or a man with a very feminine voice (being in Italy, I assumed the first). She didn't speak much English but showed me to my room and asked "you - fumare?" and showed me the balcony where I could fumare (smoke). The room and the fact that I had a balcony were great, the only downside was that there was one toilet for the whole floor. Still, the price was 45 Euros and I didn't go to Florence to sit in my hotel, so this was just a minor inconvenience. 

After resting for an hour or two, I went out again, this time to check Florentine fashion shops and weep. Florence is among the top 50 "fashion capitals of the world" and I wanted to see what this means. Well, as anyone can imagine, it meant looking at fancy label shops and their fancy windows and wondering if I would be even allowed to enter, in my shorts, T-shirt and sneakers. I was travelling with hand luggage only, otherwise I would've bought myself a hundred things (yeah, right, as if I can afford it:-) After a consolation prize of coffee and gelatto, I returned to one of the most dick-populated squares in the world - Piazza della Signoria. It was already around 5-6 pm and this time there were far fewer tourists on the square. Without them, I could enjoy the art immensely more. (I also couldn't help thinking of South Park - "one wiener next to another wiener... floppy wiener, wiener party..." :-).

Seriously though, floppy wieners and kinky associations aside, I was captivated by the sculptures, the details, the curves, the proportions, the stories they were telling - David before the battle with Goliath, Hercules defeating Cacus, Perseus with the head of the Gorgon Medusa, Menelaus holding Patroclus... Maybe, after all, art was not so wasted on me? I spent probably an hour staring at David, Neptune, Hercules, and all the other heroes, gods and monsters, this time closely and looking at every detail. I thought I had read somewhere that David has the perfect proportions and is taught in Sculpture classes as the perfectly shaped male body. Maybe that's why I was so fascinated - supposedly we're attracted to body and face proportions and, well, who wouldn't be attracted to a body/face with the perfect ones? And the statue of Hercules and Cacus, which, like I said, brought on strong kinky associations and I took probably ten photos of it ;-) 

I went back to my hotel for a bit, then out again for dinner and hopefully to find a gay bar to have a couple of drinks. I had a lovely foccaccia for only 5 Euros but the only gay bar, which was not a cruising bar, was apparently closed at 9 pm. Aaargh, I hate that gays are such vampires - I can kind of understand that a gay bar doesn't work at 2 pm but why not at 9 pm? Does nobody like going out for a couple of drinks before midnight? So I went back to see Piazza della Signoria when it's dark and there are even fewer tourists, sat there again for half an hour and went back to my hotel. A step-measuring app that I had once installed on my phone and forgotten about, suddenly popped up saying I had walked 22 000 steps that day, which was my record. I calculated this should be around 11-13 kilometres and felt good about myself :) 

On the next day, my flight was around 5 pm, and I had to check out of my hotel at 10. So I had decided to spend most of my time in the Boboli Gardens and Palazzo Pitti. As if on a mission to spite me, the woman at the ticket desk again didn't have a 10-Euro note to return from my 20. Normally I would get really annoyed and just leave, but now I decided to be stubborn, so I went and bought a coffee and water and finally had the right banknote to buy a ticket to the gardens and palace. And I'm glad I did.

The gardens were relatively big, with small alleys among the bushes and trees that made me think of a labyrinth and wonder if a Minotaur would jump out of somewhere.. Well, they were also well lit and there were people around (not as many as in the centre, thank Juno!), so there was no real danger.. But there was an obese American tourist complaining about all the stairs and climbing - apparently the stairs were more dangerous to people's health.. 
I think I walked through most of the garden for the fun of it and for a futile attempt to make a panoramic photo of Florence (since I had recently discovered that my phone can make those). I didn't find a good spot, so without a panoramic photo, I decided to go inside the Palace, where I was mainly curious in the exhibition "Hats - between art and Extravaganza". 
The exhibition was part of the "Costume gallery" of the Palace, so I was lucky to see not only artsy and extravagant hats but also costumes - ranging from the 15th century to nowadays. Unfortunately, as in most museums, you can't really take photos of everything you want, you have to do it sneakily. So these are not the most extravagant hats - there were also some with birds, others with flowers, nets... I passed probably 20 rooms or so (as part of the exhibitions) and this was only a small part of the palace. "I couldn't help but wonder", who needs so many rooms and what the hell did the Medici do in them? If I were a royalty or from a powerful ruling family - would I have such a shamelessly huge palace? Probably yes... Of course, the walls and ceilings of the rooms were heavily decorated with ornaments and paintings. One particular ceiling caught my eye (and damn it, I couldn't take a photo and now I can't even find it on the internet O_o) and I fantasised a little story around it. It depicted a 25-30-year-old handsome, athletic Greek/Roman soldier (with the tunic and sandals) being outed as gay in front of his family by the poet. The poet had a harp and the look of a person betraying someone else for the fun of it. The soldier was looking down, with his head in his hand. The sisters were looking at him with amusement, slightly snickering or gossiping, while their husbands and the father were giving him a judgemental, disapproving and reproaching look. The actual story is probably entirely different, but seriously, these were the looks and postures of most of the people in the painting. And my version is so much more interesting and current around the International Day against Homophobia, which is the day I'm writing this post :-) 

Even though I still had plenty of time, I decided to have a last pizza, a last visit to the famous Italians, the naked boys standing on the square and the judgemental Christians on the Duomo and head back to the station to take my bus to the airport. 

Some final "general" thoughts on Italy 
Like in every southern-European country, you can enjoy nice weather (I even got a little tanned from my three days there), great food and open, chatty and loud people (provided you can speak the same language), but the streets and the building, seem a little ... unmaintained. You can notice that the country or city is not as organised as, say, Amsterdam or Brussels, where you don't see buildings with smoked or falling façades. Everywhere I've been in Italy, there are very narrow streets with very narrow sidewalks, sometimes just one sidewalk and all the houses have shutters (which is kind of cute and definitely handy in the summer). If, like me, you like drinking 2-3 coffees in the morning and have at least two cigarettes with each, be sure to order "caffè Americano", otherwise you'll get about a spit of very strong espresso, which means you will gulp it in one go and can't take a second. Well, at least my head started spinning after two espressos and half an Americano. In Italian all words end in vowels and the stressed vowel is always long, that's why they speak English so funnily - "do you waant-eh miilk-eh?" 

Alora, arrivederci and andiamo!

Most of my photos from Italy are available on my Facebook

Saturday, 17 May 2014

IDAHO - Ай-да-го....

IDAHO - ай-да-го...

I've been planning to write this post for a long time and decided to post it today, on the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO), because of what happened a year ago. The Bulgarian part of the title is supposed to be a word play - it sounds like IDAHO but means something like "screw it" - to express my annoyance better... 

So on IDAHO 2013, the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) presented the findings of the largest EU LGBT survey. More than 93 000 LGBT people from all over the EU responded to the survey, whose aim was to study their experiences with discrimination, hate crimes, hate speech, access to justice, etc. The results of the survey showed that violence, discrimination and hate speech are still wide spread in the EU, while the majority are not reported to the authorities. You can see the results in different graphs here  and here or just some of the main findings in this three-minute video.
 But just to mention some main points: around 50% of respondents felt discriminated on the basis of their sexual orientation and 90% of them did not report this to the authorities; around 66% avoided holding hands in public; 80% had heard jokes about LGBT people and felt insulted; 20% had felt discriminated at work or when looking for work; around 25% had been attacked because of their sexual orientation. And so on. When it comes to trans* people all these numbers are even higher. 

Now you're probably wondering what exactly annoyed me so much... Well, it was the "surprise" with which these results were met. I watched live the conference where the survey results were presented - here in The Hague, at the closing of a two-day conference organised by the Dutch government and attended by, among others, (then) Princess Maxima, Members of the European Parliament, ILGA Europe and EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding. Unfortunately I can't find now a recording of this part of the event but I got really annoyed by the reactions to the survey findings. The MEPs and Reding were acting all surprised, shocked, flabbergasted and what not by the results. They had no idea that homophobia, discrimination, hate speech and hate crimes were so widespread in the EU. They expressed their direst concerns about the position of LGBT people, their strongest condemnation of discrimination and their continued commitment to the improvement of LGBT rights in the EU... I thought that even ILGA Europe's participation was in the same weak "oh this is so terrible, we had no idea" style, even though they publish an annual review of LGBT rights in Europe, called Rainbow Europe, which pretty much confirms the same findings every year. 

I think if you ask any random 20 LGBT people on the street you'll get exactly the same responses about their experiences. Of course I know that official data, based on almost 100 000 responses, is important and necessary and more reliable, but if you live in this world, don't pretend that you don't know how wide spread homophobia is! 

The most reasonable and honest comment I heard at the conference came from Michael Cashman, a British MEP, chair of the Intergroup on LGBT rights in the EP. Cashman said that we need to address the elephant in the room - that there was "political cowardice" among many of his fellow MEPs to work for the improvement of the situation of LGBT people because, even if they support our rights, they still want to be re-elected... And, as we know, LGBT rights is a controversial and unpopular issue in many countries and among many people. Of course this little outburst of honesty was pacified by Reding with some more bla bla about a roadmap, strategy and all sorts of future tenses.. So I tweeted 

Whether in response to my tweet or not, Reding went on to explain what the Commission is doing to further LGBT rights (sorry for not remembering the important details): "Now we're doing ... and this is NOT BLA BLA; then we'll do ... and this is NOT BLA BLA"... However, I remain unconvinced... This survey, whose results were, like I said, obvious and predictable to anyone who cares to ask, was commissioned in 2011, carried out in 2012 and presented in 2013. The EU roadmap against homophobia and discrimination was voted by the Parliament in 2014 but it still has no legislative value. To move forward, the Commission needs to come up with a binding directive, which will then need to be transposed by the member states within, let's say 3 years... At this pace, I wonder if the EU will actually do anything on this matter in my lifetime. Even something as simple (in my opinion) as Member States recognising the civil status of same-sex couples from other Member States, regardless of their domestic marriage legislation. I mean, isn't it ridiculous that if I'm married to a man in the Netherlands, this man will be my no-one in Bulgaria and most other EU countries? Whether we decide to move and live there or just go on holidays and I have to visit him in a hospital? If you have a car, a property, a spouse of the opposite sex, a child or a bank account in one member state you have them in all of the EU but a spouse of the same sex you can have in only certain countries? I mean, even the US went further in this direction and I always thought we in the EU were a bit more ahead when it comes to human rights and civil liberties...

But, the fight continues and let's hope that one day... 

Friday, 16 May 2014

Tuscany, part 1 - Arezzo

Всеки път когато пътувам някъде си мисля как трябва да си водя записки, или след това да си опиша спомените и ... никога не го правя. А времето си минава, спомените избледняват или се изкривяват и ми става криво и на мен за това, че не съм записал нищо. Но - по-добре късно, отколкото никога. И това е първият ми пътепис - за разходката до Арецо и Флоренция. 

Организацията, в която работя, беше поканена в Арецо, провинция Тоскана, Италия, на конференция за трафика на хора. Конференцията е 4-5 часа, на съвсем местно ниво, със световно неизвестни организации от региона и колежките ми бяха твърде заети, за да й обърнат внимание. Единствените други външни гости на конференцията бяха Паола от германската организация Hydra, и Даниела Данна, професор по социология в Университета в Милано. И двете познавах само като име от света на анти-трафика и проституцията. Тъй като от Ла Страда се изискваше само да направим една 20-минутна доста обща презентация за това кои сме и как работим, аз изявих желание да отида. Мога да говоря общи приказки за организацията и 40 минути, ако трябва, а в Тоскана не съм бил никога, особено пък без да плащам самолетен билет и две нощувки в хотел :-) Шефката ми се съгласи, а организаторите бяха ужасно доволни, че някой от Ла Страда ще ги удостои с присъствието си. Тъй като ми взеха билет до Флоренция, аз поисках да остана един ден повече, за да разгледам, на свои разноски, разбира се. 

Във конски вагон... 
И така, пристигнах във Флоренция в понеделник следобед, леко притеснен - знае се,
че италианците не говорят много английски, а аз отдавна не съм нито слушал, нито опитвал да говоря на френски, за да успея поне нещичко да измисля как може би се казва на италиански. И както обикновено ми се случва когато трябва да кажа нещо на език, който не говоря, започнах да бълвам прости думи на холандски - ja вместо si, een вместо uno, dank je wel вместо grazie. Това водеше до фрази от сорта на een caffe americano, por favor. Качих се на бавния пътнически влак от Флоренция до Арецо (който щеше да спира през около пет минути на всяко село и паланка и да отнеме час и половина) само умерено подразнен, тъй като очаквах да гледам тосканските пейзажи през иначе удобния влак,
а и бях решил да чета новозакупената книга на Maggie McNeill "Ladies of the Night". Маги е бивша проститутка и пише блог за проституция, сексуалност и собствени преживявания, който често чета и много харесвам. Постовете й са много аналитични, остроумни, откровени и на места политически, и като че ли очаквах и книгата да е такава, макар че е fiction. Представях си как на фона на тосканските пейзажи ще чета истории за проститутки и ще си мисля за изискани италиански дами на нощта, които ядат тирамису преди работа. (Леко отклонение - още отдавна бях чел в уикипедия, че тирамису означава нещо като "вдигни ме", заради многото какао и кафе в тортата и че италианските проститутки я хапвали, за да могат да стоят будни, свежи и в настроение по цяла нощ). Не знам и аз как точно си представях тосканските пейзажи - може би безкрайни полета от маслини, домати, грозде, босилек и прошуто - но тосканският пейзаж от влака упорито приличаше на този между Враца и Лом... Хълмчета, горички, малки неподдържани селца (както вече казах, през пет минути) и много храсти около релсите, които да пречат на и без това невпечатляващата гледка. Все пак - ХЪЛМОВЕ - такива неща не бях виждал от почти една година, та беше приятно да си ги припомня. Първият разказ, който зачетох, пък изобщо не беше свързан с проститутка, а през повечето време героинята сънуваше много, много странен сън. Все пак, разказ за много, много странен сън е също доста, доста интересен. С други думи, пътуването с влака се оказа различно от очакванията ми, но и много приятно. 

Граппа, кианти, панцанелла и много много месо
Пристигнах в Арецо и се настаних в хотела си. Като влязох в стаята, почти прихнах да се хиля - луксозна та кичозна - два тежки фотьойла, три тежки картини със златисти рамки, тежки пердета, розов полиелей, банята и тя в сходен стил... Не можах да не направя няколко снимки и да си представя, че съм я Медичи, я проститутка на Медичи :-) Организаторите (Провинция Арецо) ми бяха оставили бележка да се насладя на тосканската кухня като техен гост в еди кой си ресторант. В еди кой си ресторант, на виа еди коя си, пристигнах около 8 часа, казах буона сера и дадох писмото от общината. Бързо разбрах, че никой не говори английски там, но се разбрахме лесно, че искам вода "но гас" и една малка граппа. От там насетне всичко протичаше без моя контрол и знание - не ми донесоха меню, а вино (Chianti, разбира се), след известно време плато антипасти (с брускети, панцанела, прошуто и салами), след още известно време талиатели с кайма. Самичък на маса, без никаква представа дали ще идват още ястия, какви и кога, и без да мога да питам някого, седях, пиех си виното, блеех си в телефона, излизах да пуша и размишлявах как би се чувствал някой вегетарианец на моето място, например колежката ми Марийка, ако тя беше дошла. Ами ако аз бях вегетарианец? Можех да кажа "но карне, но карне, йо соно веджетариаано", но какво от това - менюто явно беше избрано предварително, все с месо. Щях да изям две брускети и панцанелата, и да се надявам, че ще има десерт - джелатто без месо :-) И докато с омаяния си, леко объркан и отегчен мозък размишлявах за южняшката кухня и неволите на вегетарианците, видях как сервитьорът ме показва на едно младо лъчезарно момиче, което бързо стигна до моята маса, разцелува ме и каза "здрасти, аз съм ПиДжи" (вече на английски, слава Богу). 

Джиджи ПиДжи
Моето временно бести ПиДжи
ПиДжи се казва Паула Джойа нещо си, италианка е и работи в организацията Hydra в Берлин и е абсолютна джойа да си около нея - весела, енергична, умна, непринудена, симпатична... Представям се и аз кой съм и откъде съм и спонтанно и двамата започваме да се чудим защо точно са ни поканили на тази конференция и какво очакват от нас. Аз само съм чувал за Hydra, и тя ми обяснява, че е по-скоро организация за проституиращи, отколкото против трафика, per se. Аз подхващам обичайния си рант за това как ме дразни анти-проститутското говорене, защото като гей мъж, ми прилича на анти-гей говоренето. Дали като отговор на това "откровение" и ПиДжи решава да ми камаутне и казва, че самата тя проституира, освен дето нали и консултира проституиращи в работата си. Някакси ми става още по-интересна и приятна. През това време носят и на нея плато с антипасти, след това и талиатели с кайма, а аз си сърбам виното, все още в неведение какво още ще ни черпи провинция Арецо, ако изобщо нещо. Споделям това с нея, тя пита сервитьора и разбираме, че ще идва ... второ основно ястие (май се оказа, че пастата се брои за първо основно или нещо такова). Шегува се, че ще яде бързо, за да можем да свършим заедно... Въпреки че ми става много смешно от тази реплика, кой знае защо се чувствам и малко некомфортно и отивам да пуша, защото сама сигурно ще свърши по-бързо, хаха (не го казвам де). През остатъка от киантито, телешкото с три бейби морковчета (вече и двамата размишляваме за неволите на вегетарианците в южна Европа) и джелатото, аз съм почти пленен от историите, които слушам. Дали заради италианската си природа или не, ПиДжи говори много, увлекателно и с чувство за хумор. Не помня конкретния ред на нещата, но до края на вечерта научавам, че е на около 33, има PhD отскоро; дисертацията й е била за това как езикът се използва за ограничаване на миграцията и потискане на мигрантите; мнението й за проституцията и връзката й с феминизма, патриархата, сексуалността и джендъра; че е родена в Рим, живяла е в Барселона, Лондон и Утрехт, а сега в Берлин; че е купонясвала цял уикенд в Барселона и от там летяла за Берлин и след това за Флоренция и сега е много гладна и изтощена; че е лесбийка, но когато проституира, го прави с мъже; има за гадже (когото нарича партньор) гей мъж; проституира само когато е в Лондон, защото Берлин е беден град, а и понеже проституцията в Германия е законна - е пълно с проститутки, което сваля цената и не си заслужава човек да проституира там... Всичко това беше толкова забавно, че за момент ми се прииска аз да съм този гей мъж партньор, за да бъда свидетел на всичко това. Не можех да спра да си мисля колко интересни човешки отношения има в света. Най-нестандартната връзка, която аз познавам май е тройката на Хю, Христо и Крег, която ми изглеждаше почти банална като история, в сравнение с това, което чувах... В хода на вечерта стана дума и за Даниела Данна, която също се оказа, че е лесбийка и се познават с ПиДжи и си ходели на гости в Лондон с гаджетата.. Даниела така и не се появи в ресторанта, и ние с моето ново временно бести се прибрахме в хотела. Аз - с водка за 8 евро, която купих от магазин с продавач, който приличаше на румънски циганин. 

Борис и Беатриче
Помпозната Сале ди Гранде
На сутринта видях бестито на закуска, но тя бързаше да си довърши презентацията (така е, който купонясва цял уикенд в Барселона). Запознах се с Даниела, обаче, която е по-възрастна, около 45, да речем, по-тиха и сдържана, но много умна жена. В 8.30 дойде Франческа (от организаторите) да ни закара до мястото на конференцията - палацо ди нещо си (понастоящем сградата на общината), в сале ди гранде. Салето и то като хотелската ми стая - гранде и кичозе. Макар да бе обявена за 9ч, конференцията, вероятно по стар италиански обичай, започна към 9.45-10. In the meantime Франческа ми доведе Beatrice - моята лична и собствена преводачка. Макар да ми се представи като Биатрис и да говореше с приятен британски акцент, аз реших, че всъщност е Беатриче. Беатриче изглеждаше като лелка на средна възраст (въпреки че може да е била и на моята, ох!) и беше също приятна и приказлива жена. За мен беше облекчение да има още един човек, с когото да мога да си говоря на английски и си бърборихме за всякакви глупости докато почна конференцията. Няколко официозни лица откриха - президентът и вице-президентът на провинция Арецо, някой си от регион Тоскана... Във въздуха и измежду думите на всички витаеше известна фрустрация от това, че явно вече няма да има провинции в Италия (поради административна реформа или нещо) и не се знае дали ще имат пари да продължат проекта си за трафика, който успешно върви от десет години. Мислех си, добре дошли в света на НПО-тата. Мислех си и как тези малки незначителни факти ще ми останат в главата, както само малките, незначителни факти могат... След официалните лица, които се и изнизаха за други задължения, дойде ред на "Борис Джерасимов", като най-виден анти-трафик експерт... Въпреки че и аз съм правил консекутивен превод и знам колко е гадно, когато някой не прави редовни паузи, някак се отплеснах и забравих да правя редовни паузи. Забелязах, обаче, че Беатриче се справя доста добре и се нагодихме. Макар че всички говориха по 5-10 минути, аз говорих около 25, вероятно и заради превода, дори към края реших да попретупам, за да остане време за другите. Хора си водиха записки, други ми снимаха презентацията, което приех за добър знак. След мен говориха и ПиДжи, и Франческа, и Даниела и още няколо души и най-сетне свърши конференцията (която продължи само пет часа и не знам защо казвам най-сетне, но вероятно и вие си го мислите вече). 

Via Petrarca
С ПиДжи и Даниела
Така с моите вече две бестита, ПиДжи и Дани, си тръгнахме от конференцията и решихме да се разходим малко из Арецо. Бях питал някого вече какво интересно има в града и ми казаха първо, че филмът на Бенини La Vita e Bella (Животът е хубав) е сниман тук. Май и аз го бях забелязал - рекламираха се туристически маршрути, които обикалят местата, където е сниман филмът. Макар и интересно, като един филолог уж интелектуалец, обаче, бях забелязал и Виа Петрарка и питах дали пък и поетът не е от тук. Потвърдиха ми го и ми указаха как да отида до къщата му - Каса ди Петрарка. Обзе ме странно и познато усещане. Още преди пет години, когато за първи път бях в Италия, имах чувството, че съм роден в малка, незначителна и никому с нищо неизвестна страна. За да не се депресираме, нека добавя, поне в сравнение с Италия. По която и улица да минех, на който и площад да се спрях, бяха все кръстени на имена, които съм чувал. Тогава бях на гости на един познат в малкото, никому неизвестно градче Omegna, на брега на неизвестното езеро Lago D'orta, и се оказа, че там е роден Джани Родари. Приятелят ми се учуди, че знам автора, както и днес приятелките ми се поучудиха, че знам Петрарка. Аз ги уверих, че съм много умен, макар че не знам нито едно заглавие от Петрарка, но не там е въпросът. Как така всеки от нас може да назове поне (поне!) 10 известни италиански автори, художници и музиканти, от Данте и Бокачо до Ерос Рамацотти, а сигурно никой чужденец не може да назове дори един известен българин? :-( Е, ясно е как де - те имали Ренесанс и Сан Ремо, ние - не точно и Златен Орфей..

Макар и леко фрустриран от тези мисли, с беститата обиколихме Арецо за половин-един час и седнахме да пием кафе. Научих още, че Даниела е във връзка, но по принцип не ги изкарва повече от шест месеца - нетипично за лесбийка; че ПиДжи има досадна майка (кой ли няма?), а гаджето (партньорът) й говори осем езика, докато тя самата - само шест... 

Купихме си и по няколко сувенира и беститата трябваше да си заминават, а аз се прибрах в хотела си да пиша този пост...

Всичките ми снимки от Арецо и Флоренция могат да се видят във Фейсбук, дори без регистрация. 

Част 2 - Флоренция (на английски)