Thursday, 29 January 2009

Recession and Travel.

A brief return to Bruges in the picture above which shows the Duc de Bourgogne restaurant in that town. The other side of the building is part of a small medieval square full of restaurants, each with jolly log fires burning and happy looking furnishings suggesting a laid back, country style of cooking and pricing. The canals of Bruges have a serious problem though, particularly in the summer, when they can smell like an open sewer, which is not the best advert for the culinary art.

It was the Duc de Bourgogne restaurant which first brought the reality of the impending recession home for me last year as I looked at the menu outside, having hoped to have lunch there. The prices in Bruges are high anyway, and this is not a budget restaurant, but the exchange rate, coupled with the high prices, had made the thought of lunch so unattainable that the management may as well have attached extra noughts onto the end of the prices, for I would not be handing over the defence budget for a small African nation in exchange for a bowl of soup anyway. Dear goodness, the pound felt very puny and continued doing so as I looked around the square realising that the Belgian dish of mussels and chips would set me back some twenty five pounds, if the mussels were cooked in wine or garlic. Wine OR garlic? Plain (which sounds awful) would save you a pound or two. Eating a sandwich in the fishmarket half an hour later and resigning myself to eating with friars or eating fried sausages in the market for the remainder of my stay and taking in the magnificent behind of the Basilica of the Precious Blood I wondered if it would get worse.

The boat going to Zeebrugge was almost empty, but going back it was packed with Belgians enjoying what to them was an absurdly cheap holiday to York, as Brits enjoyed cheap holidays to the USA a couple of years ago. Conversation turned to where it was possible to enjoy a holiday without being bankrupted by the end. This raises political and ethical considerations for the Christian abroad and ones where I find myself hovering between Aquinas and Augustine, whether to disengage or engage myself and at what level with the political ethics of cheap foreign beer. Have I fallen into the Guardian too far? No, not really, I have eaten in Eastern European restaurants, enjoying a cheap and excellent meal, still aware that I am spending more than the weekly salary of the waiting staff on dinner. I have eaten in the same countries meals which are absurdly cheap by our standards amongst people who veer between welcoming you ans pointing you in the direction of Touristik restaurants in the more photogenic parts of town. Only once have I enjoyed a real night of fellowship in a locals bar in an old communist country and that because we had little common language, I think. That and being careful not to present notes for drinks which represent riches to the locals and a heck of a lot less to westerners.

Hotels offer the same moral and political dilemma, for the same reasons. A Western concept of hospitality is presented on the website and offered on arrival, advertised and operated by people living in a different economic reality to the people delivering the product locally. Try looking at top hotels in Zimbabwe on the internet now, it is still possible. The local people are delivering a product run by, operated by and for people who are not themselves and the profits go to another country, indeed the whole system bypasses the host country except in labour terms, not unlike purchasing a shirt for two pounds, every part of the process happened in the county you live in except the actual manufacture, which was outsourced to sweat shops in the Far East, the same place we literally send all our rubbish to, this time for recycling.

Being an ethical consumer, being men and women for others in a Christ like way, is difficult, sometimes impossible. Deep engagement with political systems stands at variance with, say, Stanley Haeurwas, the American Baptist minister who advocates disengagement from the state and a prophetic witness of resistance. What has this to do with the price of moules frites in Bruges and the recession? I might suggest it informs our conscience as to the help offered to people put out of work - the City of London Churches will have a deep and prophetic role to play in the coming months and years - and it might address our engagement with the root of economic downturn, the advanced levels of greed and reliance on consumerism expressed by the world to relieve them of status anxiety. Engagement with the political system and a standing apart on matters of faith and morals, a demonstration of the reliance of Christianity and the world on the things of God which are always and continual and reliable, is as effective a witness as we can often offer to a changing world which fetishises consumerism as the central trunk of the tree of life, which it believes it can change according to the twisted needs of those who wish to preserve status on the quicksand of modernism.