Paying up

Enormous donations follow the gutting of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris

The sight of the spire of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris toppling into the burning body of the 850-year-old building live on TV was haunting.

The fire spread quickly, shocking Parisians gathering on the bridges over the River Seine that surrounded the island on which the cathedral stands.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, spoke of how part of the heart of every French man and woman was burning.

It seemed that the very historic consciousness of France was alight.

The old, rich families of France were quick to respond with pens poised above chequebooks to support the restoration of Notre Dame.

The Kering luxury group, home to brands such as Gucci and Balenciaga, pledged $113m. L’Oreal offered $226m. Disney, who produced the 1996 film ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, pledged $5m. Others joined in, with oil giant Total also giving $113m.

But eyebrows have been raised at these huge sums of money.

Paris is a city with more than 3,000 people sleeping on the streets, according to the French capital’s own census on homelessness.

Could this fund for the cathedral provide more shelters, more hot food and drink, more help to them to get back on their feet?

And what about trying to improve the quality of life and the life chances of children growing up in the underdeveloped corners of French cities?

There must be money to restore Notre Dame: it is one of the world’s top visitor attractions with historical connections to nations across the globe.

But there are also other causes to fight for.

Art has been destroyed and literature burnt throughout human civilisation and the destruction of ideas and imagination is a real threat to human culture.

But a civilised humanity requires a focus on humans themselves, as well as the culture they create.

Notre Dame has been damaged before, being bombed in the First World War, and there is an ambition among the authorities in Paris to try to rebuild it in time for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in the city.

GREECE – Video Report

A power cut knocks out electricity  and water services on the Greek island of Hydra

No electricity forced most restaurants and bars to close early as they were not able to provide working toilets; refrigerators and freezers malfunctioned; and candles in a public place posed a fire risk.

The payment situation was a problem: ATMs were not dispensing cash and some shops would not accept card payment.

WiFi networks in hotels and restaurants went down and people could not charge their phones, tablets or cameras. As well as not being able to have a cool shower for a respite from the 33C heat, air conditioning units were not working, leading to an uncomfortable night for many visitors.

However, the blackout made for a spookily dark town, with only the flicker of candles to be spotted in house windows here and there. The drop-out in power coincided with a full moon, which rose majestically over the dark, quiet harbour.

ICELAND – Video Report

Iceland: where volcanoes erupt underneath glaciers

It is the land of the world’s largest ice cap outside the two poles, sitting astride a massive ridge of underwater volcanoes, being pulled apart slowly by the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.

An attempt to list Iceland’s geological wonders is no small endeavour. In addition to the features noted above, there are glaciers spilling down mountain ranges, mud pots gurgling with acid and fumaroles spitting sulphur over crimson rocks. Geysers fire scalding water high into the near-Arctic air, the biggest waterfalls in Europe churn over cliffs, there are hexagonal basalt columns and sea arches, flat-topped mountains standing like enormous cuboids, deserts, black-sand beaches and caverns.

Windswept and wet, unforgiving in its terrain and teetering in near-total darkness in the winter and near-endless light in the summer, Iceland is a unique, extreme place.

Look to your right for some Iceland photos on my Instagram – or click here.

A mountain view for Catalonia

Could a Pyrenean principality be a blueprint for an independent Catalonia?

CREDIT: visitandorra.com

A free and sovereign nation-state, where Catalan is the official language and the euro is the currency.

Whilst that may be a dream for many people across Catalonia – it is the reality for the 80,000 citizens of the principality of Andorra.

Could the tiny mountain nation be a model for a future Catalonia if they region were to break free from Spain?

Andorra is sandwiched between France and Spain, unique in that it is the only country governed by a co-monarchy. One head of state is the president of France and the other is the Bishop of Urgell (a town in Spain just to the south of Andorra).

The heads of state act in concert with the elected government. Winter skiing and summer hiking provide a substantial tourist income.

Andorra has a lot of cultural affinity with Catalonia through music, literature, and dance.

A breakaway Catalonia would have several other similarities.

Like Andorra, it would not be in the European Union, it would use the euro, and, of course, it would be a Catalan-speaking country.

But there are no guarantees that Andorrans would rush to embrace their separatist brethren across the mountains.

They might very well like to see another Catalan-speaking nation.

But Andorra could find itself having to choose between being the first country to recognise an independent Catalonia or preferring the stability of the wider region and hoping that the integrity of Spain is preserved.

CREDIT: britannica.com

There is also the example of the little-known enclave of Llivia.

A part of Spain surrounded by France, Llivia is a relic of the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees, when Spain ceded a group of villages to France.

But rather than a village, Llivia had been designated a town, and so it remained part of Spain. As every village to the north, south, east and west integrated into France, Llivia was left as an inland island of Spain.

In truth, it is more an island of Catalonia.

The Catalan estelada flag flies from the balconies, Catalan is spoken and it is part of the Catalan province of Gerona. Llivia also voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence in the banned referendum on 1 October.

The enclave offers an intriguing viewpoint of a part of Spain that is already physically separate from the mother country.

And Andorra, too, provides a fascinating and unique example of a Catalanaphone nation-state.

For pro-independence Catalans who have been suffering from nightmares over the last week after their leader fled to Belgium and Spain withdrew some of Catalonia’s devolved powers, they could perhaps settle on a more pleasant dream if they turn their gaze northwards to the Pyrenees and the thoughts of what the future could yet bring.

What’s the key to ‘scorpion journalism’?

“The media in Mexico is tremendously sick but will not die”

The words of YouTuber Chumel Torres, who joined Honduran journalist Graco Pérez for this event at London’s Canning House, the UK-Iberia & UK-Latin America foundation.

Mr Pérez opened in a determined fashion: “a more informed press leads to a more informed population”. He acknowledged that Honduras was a developing country and admitted obstacles to progress.

He said that many reporters practise self-censorship over fears from organised crime, government interference and societal corruption.

He went into detail over the more serious issues facing journalists in Honduras as well, including an “alarming level of violence and lack of protective mechanisms”.

In spite of this, Mr Pérez insisted that press freedom as a whole has been managing to grow through social networks and the space they provide.

Chumel Torres declared early on that he had no journalism background but rather came circuitously into presenting what is his wildly successful online political and cultural satire show, ‘El Pulso de la Republica’.

Alongside what is rapidly becoming regularised violence against reporters, he laid out what he sees as the problems facing the media in Mexico.

Torres noted that “the public sees the press as government puppets” and that the media have “lost their strength”.

His prescribed medicine for the press was the need to “try to be reborn”.

During the question-and-answer session with the audience that followed, Torres touched on the role of the media in the run-up to next year’s general election in Mexico, lamenting threats made against radio, print and TV journalists but finding gold in the dust with a message of hope: “[there’s] a bright path just behind the curtain”.

Graco Pérez said that the media can build up wider networks of trust and influence but must do so whilst understanding the need for meticulous research and extreme caution. He admitted that the environment online, on mobile and in print is still volatile in many parts of Honduras when it comes to threats to reporters.

This blog pondered the rise of citizen journalism and the immediate coverage of breaking news offered by the public through their phones.

The room agreed with the notion that the “internet never forgets” and both speakers agreed that millennials are pushing the pace and breadth of news and the different platforms for consumption.

The two speakers didn’t think that traditional media should worry too much about the explosion in citizen journalism and that there would still be the need for questions, analysis and follow-up enquiries by ‘traditional’ journalists.

Chumel Torres had the last word, calling for a return to what he called “scorpion journalism” – achieved through: regaining trust; rethinking how you are working and what you are working on; and challenging yourself as well as challenging power.

Moscow on manoeuvres

While playing openly on the world stage, Russia holds onto a more subtle influence in Europe

Vladimir Putin has been holding court on the international scene in recent months.

Laughing off US investigations into election meddling, championing the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s civil war efforts, and reining in Western powers’ determined punishment of North Korea.

It waves its veto whenever a Syria resolution is brought before the United Nations, and only gives the green light to sanctions on North Korea that ensure the secretive state does hold onto some wriggle room.

But as all this global drama plays out, Russia also has ongoing geopolitical interests in hidden corners of Europe.

Moldova sits on the shoulder of Romania, jutting into Ukraine. It is an often-overlooked nation – except, perhaps, by European football fans on unique away-days.

It is the poorest country in the region. Economic output last year was $6.8bn, according to the World Bank. Comparable in population size, income status and geography, Albania saw GDP of $11bn, with a much higher life expectancy.

Moldova also has a breakaway, Russian-leaning region.

Transnistria comprises a sliver of land to the east of the River Dniper up to the nearby border with Ukraine.

It has declared independence but is only recognised by other breakaway, Russophile regions, namely Abkhazia and South Ossetia (both parts of Georgia now controlled by Moscow).

Russian is the local lingo, the hammer and sickle is on the flag and citizens buy their shopping with a version of the ruble.

So could Transnistria rejoin the Moscow motherland?

It is not without precedent.

The Russian state of Tuva, now an integral part of the country, is a southern province off the south-east border with Mongolia. And in 1944 it requested incorporation into the Soviet Union. Tuvans enjoyed a 23-year-long independence before calling off their self-governing statehood.

But if Transnistria were to re-incorporate into Russia, then it would be cut off from the mainland. It would be stranded in Europe, surrounded by independent countries wary of Russia.

That, too, would not be anything new.

Nestled between Poland and Lithuania, Kaliningrad is a constituent part of Russia, but an exclave with no direct land connection to the mainland.

Annexed by the Soviet Union after World War Two, when the USSR broke up in 1989, the former Communist Poland and the former Soviet Lithuania declared independence, encircling Kaliningrad, which remained part of Russia.

It may have lost a number of its territories when the Soviet Union collapsed, but there remain several pockets of peoples across Europe who want to break free of their European Union-leaning governments and look to Moscow for their futures.

And if we are looking for a sad illustration of when these disputes turn to war, then there is also an example for this: the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, where Russophile rebels are fighting the government in the east of the country.