Wednesday, 31 March 2010

A City Lost to Tulips

A simple conversation with a work colleague today stirred a memory of a story I heard long ago that had been lost to me, and suddenly sprang back when I least expected it. The best stories are not those created by the fantasy of fertile minds, but rather those that are so fantastical in their truth that even the most inventive of minds could not have made them up. This is the story of a city lost because of tulips.

As already touched on in previous entries, I am something of a history buff (albeit one with a very bad memory for dates, and thus glad that Wikipedia is my friend) and this story begins in the 17th century, not long after the magical time of pirates and privateers in what was then called the New World. It is the story of a Dutch colony, the fine city of New Amsterdam.

In those times, governers of settlements were very rich men, and rich men spent their money on tulips. A single botanist was charged with the frenzy for the flower and he grew many unique varieties, the creation of which has since been credited to the unwitting introduction of a virus to the plant that caused explosively-colourful variations in the petals. So prized was the humble tulip that individual bulbs were bought and sold for ten times the salary of a skilled craftsman.

The tulip market was noted even then for its extreme volatility and in what may have been the world's first example of a credit crunch, the Dutch governor of New Amsterdam was badly affected when the market collapsed in 1664. At the time, his country was at peace with England, but in a perfidious manner typical of the colonial powers at the time, the English sailed a number of frigates up the river into the settlement. The governor, unable to raise the funds to pay soldiers, had no choice but to ignominiously surrender his city to the English. New Amsterdam became New York, and the rest is history.

Of course, like all good stories, there is a certain amount of poetic license. Less than ten years later, the Dutch recaptured the city and renamed it again, only to cede it back to the English in return for the territory of Surinam. But in this instance I don't want fact to interrupt narrative. There is a certain wonder to a tale simply told, and I find this to be a wonderful story indeed.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

A way away

Well, it's been a few weeks since I was last on, and I'm blaming this squarely on the knee injury I picked up on the first day in Bulgaria. It's...ahem...far too painful for me to be sitting on a comfortable chair in my own front room and type. (This would actually be a good excuse not to go to work as well.) I'd also like to pretend that it's been because I've been so busy since I got back, but even though I made it to a fantastic showing of Les Miserables on Thursday evening, I haven't even had poker as an excuse.

Bulgaria...a strange country. In fairness, I saw only a very small part of it (mountains and ski resorts all look the same after a while) and my expectations were a little coloured by the things I'd heard and read. The Sunday Times Travel Magazine, which is fast becoming my bible of things I'd like to do and places I'd like to go, had an interview with one of those tedious Pop Idol types who had rated Bulgaria as the worst country she'd ever been to. Likewise, my work colleagues were warning me that on leaving Sofia airport, I could expect the bus to drive through a massive gypsy encampment. Scenes from Snatch ran through my mind, though the combination of a dreary day and delayed flight meant that I conspired to forget to notice it, if indeed it was there at all.

In terms of its landscape, Bulgaria had much in common with Britain, or any other northern European landscape. Sofia at night looked much the same as any former Eastern Bloc city, which is to say gunmetal gray buildings at perfect ninety degree angles, and half-scared people hiding behind small curtains in endless rows of flats. The way in which it differed greatly from the familiar is when you swap the city for the country, where dilapidated towns and villages seemingly composed entirely from rust are sinking into swampy marshland while signs for luxury apartments (not yet built) tempt canny foreigners into investing their hard-earned Euros.

The Bulgarian currency seems robust, the tourist trap mentality of those living near the resorts was plainly alive and well and the people we met seemed genuinely friendly and pleased to have us there. Overall, travelling abroad fills me, as it always does, with a surge of pride for blighty. We may moan about the bureaucracy, the climate and the way that things always seem worse than they were a year ago but I honestly could not imagine leaving the country of my birth for ever. I'd miss the drizzle, the low quality newspapers and those strange people who hang around the Tesco Metro after 9pm for no good reason. Yes, it's good to get away, but it's even better to get back. As long as it's not a weekday.