Just like old times: Citroën to roll out another French eyesore


The French, for all they have contributed to Western civilization, remain an enigma for a variety of reasons, not limited to their public toilets, their habit of greeting each other with kisses on both cheeks and their penchant for driving like maniacs.

Among things that have set the French apart from the rest of Western Europe is their approach to building cars. As my dad has said more than once, the French design cars as though they’d never seen one before.

He was speaking specifically of Citroën, which has been manufacturing vehicles for nearly a century.

While living in California in the early 1980s, I spied the occasional late ‘60s and early ‘70s Citroën DS about, which, in an area that not only had its share of modern sports cars but also a sizeable number of classic American cars, stood out like a great Gallic mutation. (One supposes they were driven by aging hippies who had tired of their Volkswagen vans and wanted to move on something more pretentious.)

In the intervening years it appears the company began to pay attention to other more stylish automakers and actually managed to churn out a variety of decent-looking cars.

However, in a nod to its perplexing past, Citroën will soon release the E-Mehari, an open-top electric runabout that reinforces the company’s willingness to throw caution, and taste, to the winds.

While the BBC’s car reviewer gushes over the new model, the E-Mehari is balky, ugly and looks to be something more akin to what a group of children, given access to plastic molding equipment, would fashion given the opportunity.

It has a top speed of 68 miles per hour and a cruising range of 125 miles.

It’s obvious that the PR folks at Citroën had their work cut out for them in trying to make chicken salad out this mess of chicken feathers.

Continue reading

‘Coming a cropper’ on a cranky camel along the River Nile

camel corps

While there’s no question that European colonization of Africa in the second half of the 19th century left permanent scars, it’s easy to forget that many of those who planted flags of various imperialist regimes had a variety of reasons for doing so, and not all were self-serving.

The so-called three “Cs” of colonialism – civilization, commerce, and Christianity – were the driving force, along with grabbing strategic lands to enable various European powers to be positioned in case they came into conflict with one another.

Thomas Pakenham’s sprawling work, The Scramble for Africa: The White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912, details how Great Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy and Portugal carved up Africa with little regard for its inhabitants.

The 738-page book has been out for more than 20 years, yet it remains one of the definitive descriptions of the colonization of Africa.

While Pakenham’s book is full of somber topics such as diplomatic squabbles, political maneuvering and bloody clashes between natives and Europeans, it also has its light moments, delivered in Pakenham’s Anglo-Irish style.

Among the best is his description of Gen. Garnet Wolseley’s effort to relieve Gen. Charles George Gordon, besieged beginning in March 1884 at Khartoum by forces led by a self-proclaimed messianic redeemer of the Islamic faith, Muhammad Ahmad.

Wolseley’s relief expedition consisted of 10,000 men, led by a picked force of 1,600 officers with 2,500 camels, the former described as “the flower of the British army led by the flower of London society – including eleven peers or peers’ sons.”

By mid-November 1884, the camel-borne soldiers were plodding along the banks of the Nile, strung out in groups of 150, stretching 240 miles from Aswan to Wadi Halfa.

Unfortunately, the “flower of the British army” and their beasts of burden weren’t particularly well suited for one another, according to Pakenham:

What confirmed the air of a charade was the outlandish uniform of the new Camel Corps, a hybrid of the seventeenth century and a circus: red jumpers, breeches and bandoliers, sun goggles and white helmets. ‘Fancy a Life Guardsman clothed like a scarecrow with blue goggles on, mounted on a camel, over which he has little control. What a picture!’ was Wolseley’s comment. The camels, too, were a strange collection, raked up at the last minute from as far away as Aden, beasts of all colours and sizes, from the great brown baggagers, each as large as a rhinoceros, to the elegant fawn-coloured racing camels from Arabia. The men found that mounting a frisky camel was exciting work, and they often came a cropper. Wolseley himself fell off, painfully hard, on a piece of gravelly sand, in front of his army. He hated camels. ‘They are so stupid; they begin to howl the moment you put a saddle on them and they smell abominably … ‘

Perhaps not surprisingly, Wolseley’s force arrived too late to save Gordon, who was killed and beheaded by Ahmad’s men in January 1885 amid a general massacre of Khartoum.

(Top: Photograph of two Sikh members of Camel Corps, taken during Nile Expedition to relieve Khartoum in either 1884 or 1885. Source: National Archives, United Kingdom.)

‘Jet blimp’ concept still unrealized, 60-plus years later


Amid stories focused on the final weeks of the 1952 US presidential campaign, including an article that Adlai Stevenson “wasn’t always so plain,” at least according to his sister, and charges that New York Republicans had paid children to boo President Harry Truman on his whistle-stop tour across that state, came a report claiming an aeronautics breakthrough in Europe.

Under the headline “Jet Blimp Is Reported By Italians,” the Associated Press noted on Oct. 12, 1952, the development of the world’s first “big jet-propelled helium-filled dirigible.”

The Italian newspaper Il Giornale d’Italia, the AP reported, claimed the blimp was 184 feet long, 42-1/2 feet in diameter and had been already been put through 14 successful test flights by Italians.

The Rome-based publication, the AP added, stated that much larger jet dirigibles were planned by the United States but were still in the “drawing-board stage.”

Giornale D’Italia did not specify the speed of the airship or how many men it would carry,” the wire service concluded.

It’s difficult to determine what became of Italy’s “jet blimps,” but given that dirigibles are still, for the most part, ponderous behemoths of the sky, it’s possible to assume one of the following:

  • That the Italian newspaper was being taken for a figurative ride by government officials in dire need of good press (Italy was in the midst of its sixth government in six years in late 1952);
  • Il Giornale d’Italia knowingly printing false information spoon-fed it by the government in an effort to help the nation regain prestige lost through Mussolini’s World War II debacle; or
  • The paper simply was printing a rumor, likely fed it by an “unnamed” government source, and didn’t bother with too much fact checking for fear that it would learn the story wouldn’t hold up under scrutiny.

Continue reading

Cyprus seizes part of citizens’ bank accounts

Cyprus bank Nicosia cashpoint

Bank runs are generally discouraged by governments. The idea of long lines of people lining up outside financial institutions to suddenly withdraw money tends to destabilize banks, economies and sometimes even entire nations.

So the decision by the Republic of Cyprus this past weekend to take a sizeable portion of bank depositors’ money to help recapitalize the nation’s banks seems shortsighted at best.

Cypriots will have to hand over up to 9.9 percent of their deposits, part of a deal worked out with the EU and International Monetary Fund that would see the latter two organizations pump more than 4 billion euros into the nation.

Fearing bank runs, the Greek Cypriot cabinet is seeking to extend Monday’s state-mandated bank holiday through Tuesday, even though the European Central Bank has said it will offer unlimited liquidity to banks that experience deposit flight, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Under terms of the plan, the Cyprus government would impose 9.9 percent “stability levy” on deposits larger than 100,000 Euros and a 6.75 percent levy on deposits smaller than that, the publication added.

The rather stunning move comes as a result of the exposure of Cypriot banks to the Greek government debt crisis, the downgrading of the Greek Cypriot economy to junk status by international rating agencies and the inability of the government to cut state expenses.

Continue reading

Beauty of old manuscripts accessible online

The fruits of the Europeana Regia project, a 30-month effort which involved the digitization of more than 850 rare manuscripts from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, offer a tantalizing glimpse into a world where the written word’s beauty was as important as its meaning.

Three collections of royal manuscripts – the Bibliotheca Carolina, the Library of Charles V and Family, and the Library of the Aragonese Kings of Naples – were scattered among five major libraries in four countries.

But the Europeana Regia project, with the support of the European Commission, has brought the different collections together online, with each representing a distinct period of history.

The Bibliotheca Carolina (from the Carolingian Court) dates to the 8th and 9th centuries, the Library of Charles V is from the 14th century and the Library of the Aragonese Kings of Naples goes back to the 15th and 16th centuries.

Parts of all were dispersed among different European libraries.

This is the first time that the public at large will have easy access to some of Europe’s most precious Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, according to information aggregator called ResourceShelf.

“Almost none of these manuscripts have been digitized before … If you want to see these manuscripts at the moment, you have to do a tour of European libraries, which is far from practical, or you have to ask for copies.”

Continue reading

Author explains Poland’s WW2 story in detail

Many nations suffered horribly during the carnage of World War II: China, the USSR and Yugoslavia were among those that suffered massive destruction and population loss at the hands of the Axis powers during the conflict.

While it’s impossible to say which country got the worst of it, no one will dispute that putting Poland near the top of the list is a safe bet.

The Poles had the misfortune of not only being involved in the Second World War from Day 1 on Sept. 1, 1939, when the Nazis invaded, until Germany’s capitulation in May 1945, it also lost a staggering 20 percent of its population.

However, until the recent release of Halik Kochanski’s “The Eagle Unbowed,” a comprehensive English-language history of Poland at war had not been written, according to The Economist:

Many histories deal with the greatest crime of the war years: the annihilation of Europe’s Jews. That chiefly took place in occupied Poland, and the largest number of its victims were citizens of the pre-war republic. But these are books about the Holocaust, not about Poland. Books about Poland abound too. Some deal with the spectacular military events of the war: the Ghetto Uprising of 1943, the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Others have highlighted the great neglected scandals of the war, such as the Soviet massacre of 20,000 captured Polish officers. A book called “Dark Side of the Moon” tried to alert the West to the Soviet deportation of hundreds of thousands of Polish civilians to privation and death. There are even books about Wojtek, a bear cub adopted by Polish soldiers, who drank beer, ate cigarettes, carried ammunition and died in a zoo in Scotland.

Continue reading

European prince fights to retain power

Tiny Liechtenstein, the diminutive landlocked alpine nation of 36,000 located between Switzerland and Austria, gets little international attention due to its size, or lack thereof.

However, the principality has been rattled by a war of words between activists who want to revoke the royal veto and the hereditary prince, who has threatened to quit if they do, according to Agence France-Presse.

“Liechtenstein owes its very existence as a principality to its royal family and their princes, who have ruled it as an autonomous monarchy since the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806,” according to the wire service.

But current ruler Prince Alois von und zu Liechtenstein has threatened that his 900-year-old family will drop its royal duties if Liechtenstein passes a referendum eliminating the prince’s veto, a power enshrined in the constitution.

“The royal family is not willing to undertake its political responsibilities unless the prince … has the necessary tools at his disposal,” Alois said in a speech to parliament on March 1.

“But if the people are no longer open to that, then the royal family will not want to undertake its political responsibilities and … will completely withdraw from political life.”

Continue reading