Every King wears a Crown

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As we all know, every king wears a crown… Although I do know it has become a bit out of fashion ; apart from maybe the British Queen, who still wears one?  I have never seen our king with a crown, and I even wonder if he has one. But still, the Belgians have an official Coronation Feast, even though it has nothing to do with our Royals, and everything with Saints. For this you must go to the city of Tongeren, Limburg, every 7 years.

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So that is what I did. I drove down into the deep Limburg, close to the boarder with Wallonia (our French part), close to the German Belgian part (yes, we do have a German part in Belgium, and German is an official Belgian language), and the Netherlands. It is so far away from where I am staying (close to Bruges and Ghent), that is seems like another country. The language spoken is a strong Limburg dialect that sounds so odd to me that I was doubting wether they were speaking Flemish or German, and I had to constantly ask people to repeat what they said as I didn’t get it the first time. It is about 150km from where I am staying. A mere 1:30h drive. This is Belgium. 

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Tongeren is small town in the south east of Flanders, with an oversized basilica (build in the 13th C and UNESCO heretage). It has played an important role in history. We have all heard of Ambiorix and the Eburones, who angered Ceasar by ambushing his army and thus killing about 9000 of his men. This Caesar, enraged and humiliated, then extinguished the whole tribe and gave another Germanic tribe, the Tungri, permission to settle in the area, and thus Tongeren was created.

Because of its strategic position it got the status of Municipium and Civitas, but the glory didn’t last. After the Roman era it came into decline and although importance went up and down over the centuries, it never returned to its former Roman status of importance. Today it is known for its Gallo-roman museum, for its statue of Ambiorix, and for the septennial Coronations Feasts.

From the 14th century on, every 7 years for the duration of 2 weeks, the relics of the church were put on view for the pelgrims to see, until it was abolished by the French in 1790. It wasn’t until 1890 that the Coronations Feast, with procession like we know it today, came to life, after the bishopric of Luik received permission for a Canonical Coronation of ‘Our Lady Mary Cause of our Joy‘, by pope Leo XIII.

Unless there was a war going on, it has taken place every 7 years ever since, and is today at his 18th edition. People from Tongeren date events from before or after a Coronation, and tell each other which one was the last one they saw. It is an important event in which 3000 of the 30,000 inhabitants, from newborn babies to elderly in wheelchairs, and all ages in between, participate in the procession. The others helping behind the scenes or standing in the streets watching the story telling procession pass. It shows several events in Marys life, and of course the statue of Mary herself joins the walk through the town. And afterwards, just to get a good view on things, you can see the whole story replayed during an evening open air play.

It is a 1 week event, with 4 processions, followed by an evening play and other events; including an photo exhibition. So now that I have put Tongeren, Limburg on the map, hop in your car and drive over. There are 2 more processions on the way (Friday the 8th and Sunday the 10th of this month), and hurry up, if you miss it you must wait another 7 years to get another chance. It is a nice area, and a cosy little town. Make it a day trip, and visit the photo exhibition and the Teseum. You can either reserve a ticket for the procession or take your own chair and sit where ever alongside the roads, but you will need to buy a ticket if you want to see the open air play which, unfortunately, is sold out.

For more details, check their website.

 

 

 

 

The Red Light City

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Patience is what I thought I have already learned. When you live in Argentina, patience is what you need. To wait in line at the bank, to wait in line for the bus, to wait in line for the supermarket, only patience can save you. And I thought I had quite enough to face the world’s challenges.

Until I started traveling in Europe and ended up in Zurich, Switzerland. A beautiful little city on the lake with the same name ; very, very picturesque, cobble stoned streets full of nice restaurants and shops. It has international vibes, let’s say I heard more English spoken than German. Suisse German I must say. Although my German is quite rusty, I do understand most of what a German says, where as I can’t figure out anything these Suisse are saying. Fortunately (for me) the Suisse are true polyglots.

But what struck me most when coming here, is the amount of red lights. It seems the huge amounts of traffic lights are all set on red. For cars as well as for pedestrians.

Wait. Wait. Wait.

So stressful I decided to take out my chronometer. Probably the first time I ever used that thing on my phone. 1 Minute until it switches to green, long enough to let 6 cars or so pass. If you can’t pass through the first green, add another minute or so to your schedule.

Or more.

Same for the pedestrians, 2 to 3 red lights -or even more- to get to the other side. Compared to this, crossing the 9 de Julio in Buenos Aires feels like a breeze.

But I am not complaining. Today I will leave the car where it is, in the parking lot of our hotel just outside the old city center, and try out the public transport. And as a pedestrian, I am bad, I cross the streets when the light is red and there are no cars. What is normal in Buenos Aires, is not done in Switzerland, but well. If that is as bad as I will be today, we shouldn’t worry too much, should we?

Sí se puede!! (yes we can)

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Today was the big day, the day we have all been hoping and waiting for, not just for weeks, but for years. The day that the melagomane, populist, demagogue that Cristina was, would be replaced by a normal, intelligent president. How she could talk! Wrap everyone around her fingers saying whatever. Letting her tears roll abundantly when it suited her. As we have seen, for the last time, yesterday.

She managed to leave the country in a complete mess, making sure, during the last few weeks, to make the mess as big as possible. She doesn’t care about the country’s sake, only about how she can make it hard on her successor.

Those days are now gone, and today history was made. At last Argentines felt that their votes had (literally) been counted, that their opinion mattered, that they can make a change towards their new future. And that is what I saw today.

You can read about it, you can watch it on TV, but nothing beats being present when the Argentines let their emotions go and flow. They were not only celebrating the new era, the new president. They were also celebrating hope, finally there is hope of improvements, of economic growth and more security. Hope to finally see some transparency instead of reading and seeing only corruption. Hope to get a better life with a president who works for the country instead for his own pocket and that of his companions. But they were also celebrating democracy, which was undoubtedly, the theme of the day.

It literally gave me goose bumps, and made us all emotional. The joy was powerful, the passion contagious, when the new president and his crew drove through the crowds, and even long after that, people kept on celebrating.

The streets were crowded, the people were chanting and singing. “sí se puede” (yes we can), “Argentina! Argentina!” and many more. Not even the steamy heat, nor the blazing sun, could keep them quiet. The security measures were unseen. Cops, prefecture and soldiers made a line, all the way between the Congreso and the Casa Rosada, to make sure that no opposition could spoil the fun of the celebrators.

It was an historic day. And I was part of it. So proud.

 

She’s finally off

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An era has ended. Cristina Fernandez de Kirschner is off. It is not at all to her liking, like a little mad kid she has been behaving really badly these last 2 weeks, angry because she no longer will be the de facto Queen of Argentina. Yes, she does suffer from severe megalomania.

_KTI4245As she has even refused to take part in the hand over ceremony tomorrow, -she does not want to be on the same photo as her successor-. she had her last speech from the Casa Rosada today. And who would I be if I wouldn’t want to be present on that occasion. Hoping for an epic Evita kind of scene where the president would stand on the balcony speaking to the people, singing ‘don’t cry for me Argentina’, I was off, direction Plaza de Mayo.

_KTI4234What seemed to be a normal middle of the week rush hour, only changed when crossing the Av de 9 de Julio into the Av de Mayo. With a lot of elbow work and even a lot more patience, I tried to approach the square, camera at hand. People applauding at the necessary times to what the president was saying, although from where I was standing I couldn’t hear a thing. Sweat pearling down our faces and the rest of our body, as the heat of the day was only going up with all those sweaty people unwillingly touching each other, all with the same goal : to get to the square.

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It was all rather calm, the usual drums that I love so much, were absent. No one was crying. There was little singing. I am used to more emotions.

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I was only about 10 meters from the corner where the square starts, when people started to really push to get forward. The speech had ended and I guess they all wanted to have a last glimpse of her before she was gone for good. A girl next to me said that we all try to convince ourselves that right at that corner, there where the square starts, things will get better and we will have place to stand at ease, but don’t we all know, it will only get worse.

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I am not exactly a K fan, and she had left anyway, so I gave up my hope of a good shot and tried to make my way back.

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While pushing my way out, I realized that there were still more people going towards the square then back. Soon I was able to breathe again. Soaked, I couldn’t get home quick enough to wash the other peoples sweat off, but not before I got myself a nice light-blue-and-white flag, with a beautiful glitter-gold sun in the middle. I will need that tomorrow.

 

Exit Cristina, Welcome Democracy, Long live Mauricio, may the new era begin.

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Après nous, le déluge ! *

It feels like a good wind is blowing over Argentina. It all started with the celebrations after it was known that Scioli (the pro-K presidential candidate) had about 36% and Macri (the opposition) with his party suitably called ‘Cambiemos’ (let’s change) had 34% of the votes. But don’t get me wrong, the celebrations weren’t because Sciolli had ‘won’, but because -against all expectations- he hadn’t : he didn’t have 40% and 10 points difference to the opposition, which means we are going for a 2nd round, for the first time in Argentine history, on Nov 22.

Even though it is not at all certain that Cambiemos will eventually win the presidency, it is at least clear that the majority wants change. And you don’t have to be an expert to know that change is more than needed.

Inflation is sky-high (over 30%), there is an artificial official dollar rate, and there is the blue dollar worth about double, there is the ‘cepo’ (limit on amount of pesos that can be exchanged into dollars, necessary to pay foreign suppliers/import goods) and there are the import restrictions. Just to name a few.

The K’s moto is ‘après nous, le déluge’. “Let the next government solve the problems (we caused)”. They couldn’t care less about the future of our beloved country. **

But now they have also touched the airlines. Of course it does not come out of the blue, but the big airliners, knowing that they are have more and more trouble to exchange their pesos into dollars due to the cepo***, and fearing a repetition of what happened in Venezuela, have now decided to not offer special prices for the flights booked out of Ezeiza anymore, and it will not be possible to book a flight more then 90 days ahead. Not that it will change a lot, I have been traveling back and forth to Europe this year and never saw any special rate, rates by the way, that start off at 1750 usd, where as a flight with the same company but in the other direction (to and not from BA) is about 1000usd.

But I am claustrophobic. Even in a huge country like Argentina, where you need days to drive to both the south and the north, in order to reach the boarder, a land that is empty, a land that is fertile and rich ; the mere fact that outbound flights might be limited and super expensive touches my feeling of freedom. A change must come. And it must come soon. Let’s cross our fingers for Macri/Cambiemos, that is all I can do, as I can’t vote, being a permanent, non-argentine, resident.

And a tough job will be awaiting him, getting this wonderful place back on track.

* “Après moi, le déluge” is a set phrase used to denigrate the attitude of someone who acts irresponsibly, without worrying on the consequences that his/her acts could have. Something like: “I don’t care what happens next, I’ll be gone”, “The world could collapse after I’m gone, no big deal”

** they literally said :”Vean estos números con el próximo gobierno porque nosotros nos vamos”

*** a good article about dollars and cepo and airlines 

The importance of water

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Sometimes, living abroad and traveling a lot means it can be hard to meet up with friends. Especially when they also live abroad and travel a lot. Like my friend C. : when she is in BA I am in Belgium, I am in BA when she is in Spain, when I am in Belgium she is anywhere but. In between we are both trying to get it coordinated, but in vain. We don’t seem to be that good at timing.

So when she send me a message, as we say in Belgium, ‘between the soup and the potatoes’ (‘tussen de soep en de patatten’, between the 1st course and the main course, or when you really don’t have time to get into it), telling me she is in Belgium for just 5 days, I immediately answered that we should meet the next day, letting her choose time and place. She chose the most convenient and easiest solution : a renown and popular restaurant close to where she was staying. The Rubens in Knokke.

Her family, mine, friends ; we ended up being 10 and had a fantastic night together. So much to talk about and so much to catch up. My kids as well as well as hers are scattered around the world and she exchanged BA for Madrid…. The whole world but Belgium seemed to be the topic of the day. We didn’t even have time to notice the food : we all had a typical Belgian meal, either shrimp croquettes or mussels, not bad but not exceptionally good either.

It was but when we decided to get the dessert outdoors, an ice cream on the go, and asked for the bill, that we were put back with our feet into the Belgian ground. The bill was outrageous. When checking the details, -how on earth did we get to 50€ per person?- we saw the price of a bottle of water… our jaws dropped, we raised our eyebrows and stared at each other in disbelief. WHAT??!!

Isn’t water a primary right? Shouldn’t water be free? Why don’t the restaurants in Belgium offer the choice between bottled and tap water, like they do in our neighboring countries and in the US? Why didn’t we drink from the bottle of water one of the girls had in her handbag? These were all questions that came about. Unanswered. And useless.

One of us asked the waiter if she had not been mistaken. It can’t be that a bottle of water is 10€, can it? “Didn’t you make a mistake?”

And then came her answer. Our jaws dropped even more. “Well madam, you are in Knokke, you must pay for that!”

We were baffled.

We agreed to swallow our pride, take our loss, and blame only ourselves, because we were the foolish ones, getting ourselves robbed like that, by going to a mediocre place in a posh coast village, just because it was easy and convenient. It is again confirmed that nothing beats a good Belgian-Argentine Style Asado at home, with good Argentine wine, and liters, liters and liters of chilled tap water with some lime slices in it. Super delicious, cosy, relax, chill, and… cheap!

Alles voor het vaderland (tout pour la patrie)

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It is our National holiday. 185 years ago our country was founded. All those long centuries before, the our surrounding nations have always tried to conquer our regions. We were wanted. We have been part of Spain, Austria, France, Holland and Germany (if we include the 2 last wars). Until our surrounding nations, including the UK, decided it was best to found a new country as a buffer between the rivaling big countries. They united 2 totally different people, the Flemish and the Walloons, and that was the beginning of the country called Belgium.

So it mustn’t surprise you that, on the national Belgian holidays, those that wear the Belgian national colors, are mostly tourists, maybe expats, and a lot of immigrants. (Thank God we have them).

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(one of the rare people wearing national colors)

Ok. That must be a small exaggeration. But well.

I was looking forward to the National Parade. Never ever had I seen it, and the mere mentioning that I would be going to friends and family made them roll their eyes. ‘Really?’ ‘You are going to see the ‘defilé’?’. But as I go and shoot every parade I know of in Buenos Aires (and there are many) I thought it was time I did something for my home country. I took the train to Brussels with my camera at hand. Tout pour La Patrie, alles voor het vaderland.

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Brussels is a small town, and to my surprise the festivities were concentrated in just a small part of the city. Streets full of French Fries (read : Belgian fries) boots and waffle stands. Dozens of them over a couple of 100 meters. Folklore music and activities passed through the main street, and then went back through the same, crossing and passing other groups, while the people just walked between them : it was totally disorganized. The bands had nothing of the sweeping Argentine drums that push up the adrenaline in Buenos Aires. Instead they played timidly. Carefully. Too controlled. They lacked passion. Fire. Energy.

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(momentary chaos)

The official ‘defilé’, or parade, was just around the park in front of the royal palace, the narrow sidewalk not giving enough space to half of the people present, so the streets to and from the park were over crowded and there was hardly any police to keep the people lined up. I found a good space, defending it with my life and only accepting a bunch of small kids excited to see it all, in front of me, but soon, and over and over again or rather, the whole time, overly rude people just came to stand in front of us. But that is when Argentine fury came onto me : to go in front of someone in line is probably one of the worst sins in Argentina and totally not done.

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The soldiers and para-commandos passed right in front of me, proud and disciplined. The marines, air force, one group after the other. They passed by quickly with long periods of waiting in between. Meanwhile and totally unexpected and unpredicted, the sun had come out and was blazing on our heads, turning everyone’s skin red in no time. Drops of sweat pearling on our faces. Soon I grew tired and had enough of the struggle and tried to find my way through the crowds and back to the train station.

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Belgians need to get some national pride, and a bit more passion about their country would do no harm either. Belgians are too modest and should see celebrations a lot grander… Says the expert.😉

Vive La Belgique, Lang Leve België.

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“I kiss her on the mouth…

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no matter her stinking breath” (Stephan Vanfleteren about Charleroi) 

 

It is a dark and gloomy day. One of those that are typically Belgian, although, ever since I got here -it already seems months it is just weeks- we have had none. A day we decided was ideal to visit my grandmothers city of birth. City of birth, although her real roots can’t be found there : apparently her parents just happened to be there when she was born.

Charleroi, an old cole mining city in the south of Belgium. In ‘those days’, it was the 3th richest area of Europe. Cole mines and heavy metal factories were so blooming that they had to import ‘hands’ from the Flanders, Italy, Spain and Greece. That was probably the only reason why my great grandparents were there before the first world war, and why my gran had ‘Dampremy’ on her birth certificate.

Since then it has changed a lot. The mines are closed, so have the factories. And apparently, for the last 50 years nothing significant has been done to restore economy, to re-school the unemployed, no reconversion at all, to bring life back to this deteriorating place.

To us, Flemish, Charleroi has a bad reputation : we see it as the example of all that is wrong in the southern part of our dear country. It is poor, dangerous, dark and gloomy, and corrupt (‘Palermo by the Samber‘). More then 1/4 of the population is unemployed, and has been for years. It is also known as ‘the ugliest city in the world’.

Charleroi is obviously not the most logical tourist destination. But we went anyway.

 

Driving past the center towards the Musée de la Photography made us think, just for a minute or so, that it might not be that bad. Beautiful city villas and mini castles, dating from the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, one next to the other, not all in ruins, witness some of the prosperity the city once had. Only to be put back into reality by the photos of Stephan Vanfleteren -my favorite Belgian photographer- : Touching, dark, hurting and depressive at times, if not always. Confirming our expectations.

Stephan Vanfleteren has a way of getting to people on the edge of society, and to express what he sees in a different way then most photographers. Over the years, he has spend weeks, days, nights, wandering through the town, which he learned to love, meeting with its people. Although poor and unemployed, the Carolos (inhabitants of Charleroi) are extremely friendly and hospitable. And although the situation is still extremely bad, some changes and improvements seem to be coming. Slowly.

 

But also the words in which he describes the city are as catchy as the images.

‘The unemployment numbers are shocking. Nowhere in Belgium the numbers are visually translated into reality. You see it in the streets, the houses, in the bars, the gambling houses… There is a name for it : degradation. You can not only read the misery off the streets, but off the peoples faces. The face of poverty is pale, gloomy, stupefied, it has broken teeth. In the past pneumoconiosis caused early death, today it is alcohol and nicotine that break the adult bodies.’

We had lunch in the center. It had started to drizzle, it was darker and gloomier still. Not the most glamorous way to see any city. It was crowded with people going to the Sunday market, lots of fruits, nicer and fuller then on the market in my town it seemed, and other food, plants, clothes… We didn’t stay long enough to feel the poverty and misery Stephan Vanfleteren found, but honestly, we weren’t really looking. I am no Vanfleteren wannabee, nor am I what we call a ‘disaster tourist’ (ramptourist), enjoying photographing other peoples misery and then quickly go home to forget all about it. I am glad to have seen the exhibition, and what better location could it have been than in the town that is its subject. It certainly is a place with potential, and I can only hope that the situation gradually improves, and thad one day, we can see Charleroi again in its full glory.

If you can’t make it to Charleroi (you should at least try), buy the book :

‘Charleroi, il est claire que le gris est noir, mais Charleroi sera blanc, un jour’, Stephan Vanfleteren. 

exhibition until dec 6, 2015

photos : one of the main square of Charleroi, in front of the ugly church, the others images of the exhibition. 

NB Charleroi is also known as ‘Brussels South’, the Ryan Air hub. It is 50 km from Brussels.

Lists

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I think everyone has a list of places he or she wants to visit in his or her life. Historical places, see the land where your favorite tv show or movie was filmed, hear say : about everyone you know has been there and loved it. London Paris New York, New Zealand, Patagonia, Bora Bora… 
I am quite sure that Scotland figures high in many a list. It is a country rich in history : you could stay in the same place for days and visit castles around you, or travel around and see one every single day. Its nature, at least in the north, is mainly unspoiled and in a way it resembles some parts in Patagonia, but then without the sun and the wind. Several places have definitely been used in various movies. It is full of water, lochs or seas, so plenty of opportunity to do water sports. And if you enjoy some Scottish heritage that tastes good, there are plenty of whiskey distilleries to visit. 
If only the weather were a bit more cooperative, but then I would imagine it way too crowded to be fun. Many a time we told each other that this is probably a great place in summer, until we realized we actually are in summer. The wild landscapes go perfectly with low dark clouds and the sun coming out just occasionally, but it’s the lack of agreeable temperatures that withholds you from getting in a true summer spirit. Temperatures between 7 and 14C are more like Buenos Aires winter temperatures then what we expect in summer. On the over hand, days are so long it hardly gets dark at night, so however cloudy it is, you are sure to get enough light in a day. 
While Europe is suffering and sighing under a terrible heat wave, temperatures towards 40 and more, tennis players almost killing themselves on the main court in Wimbledon in 40 degrees, northern Scotland will get a mere 22 degrees. A perfect place for heat haters. 
But whatever the weather, Scotland is Scotland, and actually should be on everyone’s to do list. Lots to see, lots to do, good food, and great people (if only you understand what they say).

Although my biggest disappointment being not having seen any of the William-Lawson’s-whiskey-commercial men in quilts. Do they only exist in dreams? 😁
William Lawson’s whiskey commercial men in quilts

flatties

Put me in a luxurious beach hotel under a palm tree and I will die of boredom. Going on road trips is what I like. Especially with the family : nothing quite as intense and fun, as spending days in a row in a car with your kids. 

Of course being on the road for long hours does have it risks. Calculated risks, I suppose, but still risks. Traveling on gravel roads through Patagonia, for instance, requires 2 spare tires. You never know when your tire will run flat and you know even less when you will be able to get it fixed or replaced. We had 3 flat tires in 40 days. Apart from the expense of buying a new one, there is not much to it, it certainly makes you fluent in changing the wheel. 40 minutes the first time, less then 10 for the last. God knows how fast we would become the 4th or 5th time. 
But that was in Argentina, a country that is -after all- still a third world country. Patagonia even being cut off from the world. You can drive hours without seeing a living soul. No cell phone reception. Pure adventure. 
So we thought we’d try a road trip in the first world. First of all I had to plan every little detail in advance -so unlike me- but well, it had to be done : it’s almost an impossible task to find places to stay for 5 people in a country like Scotland. Some days our schedule is tight, because we just couldn’t find a place at the right distance. 
And then the inevitable happened. Flat tire. How fun that is in these cars of today that don’t come with spare tires. Instead, they come with a phone number. A number you must call when you run flat, a free service comes to help you out. First of all you need cell reception for that, which is on and off here in northern Scotland. Eventually we got hold of them, and the administration process could start. A calls B who then calls C to say that D will eventually come and tow the car, which will be brought to E and then be brought back to us more then 24h later. Twenty four hour later. Meanwhile, -4 hours after the tire ran flat- we are brought a replacement car, half the size of ours, where the 5 of us or stowed in together with som of our luggage, so we can get to our B&B we have booked for tonight.  
Living in a third world country teaches you to be patient. Patience you need when you run flat in the first world. A flat tire. What a terrible waste of time!