Wednesday. 17/11/2021

The Monocle Minute

Image: Samuel Zeller

Opinion / Markus Hippi

Changing platforms

Among other things, railway stations can be places of memory. I remember waiting for a train when I was leaving my hometown of Siilinjärvi, Finland, to study elsewhere for the first time. Later in life there was the sense of excitement about travelling to and arriving at some of the world’s great stations, often greeting a friend or saying goodbye to someone close to me. Even the announcements can be evocative: I remember wandering past the station in my university town and hearing the calls that reminded me of my connection to home.

All of which is why it’s unfortunate that Sweden’s railway stations have been quieter this week, after Trafikverket, the country’s transport administration, decided to end most platform announcements. From now on passengers will only hear information if there are delays or unexpected changes to the schedule. The reason given is that providing regular updates on the arrival and departure of trains and their platforms threatens to drown out the announcements that really matter.

The move has been criticised by the Swedish Association of the Visually Impaired but they’re not only the ones who will struggle to read information from station screens, and might be upset by the new development. Train announcements provide an important sense of a place: they create an atmosphere and play a role in the image that customers have of the stations and railway operators alike. Is it really necessary to discard such a strong element of the passenger experience? And has anyone thought about what we might lose if we reduce the trusted, familiar announcers to a voice that only signals problems on the line? Cutting down unnecessary noise pollution is one thing but losing a familiar and welcoming voice in our train stations – and forcing people to spend more time checking screens – is another.

Image: Getty Images

Diplomacy / Greece

Bust up

Greece’s prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has upped the ante in the ongoing Parthenon Marbles restitution debate, by demanding the return of the sculptures (pictured) in a meeting yesterday with Boris Johnson. Also known as the Elgin Marbles, they date back to the 5th century BC and were removed from the Parthenon Temple in Athens in the 1800s by the Seventh Earl of Elgin, the UK’s ambassador to the Ottoman court. Now housed in the British Museum, they’ve long been the subject of a heated debate, with Johnson adamant that they were acquired legally. In exchange for their return, Mitsotakis has offered to loan rare objects that have never been seen outside Greece; international organisations including Unesco have backed his call. But Tatiana Flessas, associate professor of law at the London School of Economics, says that Mitsotakis should tread carefully. “The real problems are twofold,” she tells The Monocle Minute. “The fear that it will lead to the emptying of great national ‘encyclopedic’ museums and the belief that returning the marbles would be bowing to political pressure.”

Hear more from Flessas on today’s edition of ‘The Globalist’ on Monocle 24 and look out for an in-depth discussion on the subject in Monocle’s forthcoming December/January issue.

Image: Shutterstock

Defence / South Korea & Indonesia

Firing line

South Korea is one of several Asian countries that are currently developing fighter jets but its decision to partner with Indonesia on its flagship KF-21 programme is proving costly. The Southeast Asian nation agreed in 2015 to shoulder 20 per cent of the costs but halted payments in 2017 amid challenging economic conditions. A South Korean delegation was in Indonesia last week for talks: Seoul agreed to reduce Jakarta’s contribution by almost $85m (€75m) and allow up to 30 per cent of its new $1.4bn (€1.3bn) bill to be settled with payments in kind, such as palm oil or other exports.

The first KF-21 prototype was unveiled by president Moon Jae-in (pictured) at a ceremony in South Korea earlier this year and test flights are due to start in 2022; Seoul is aiming to build 120 fighter jets for its military, while Indonesia wants nearly 50 of its own. Asian air space is expected to heat up this decade, so South Korea will be hoping for a more reliable wingman.

Image: Getty Images

Society / Serbia

Dropped Serbs

Depopulation is a massive problem across the western Balkans and one of the region’s largest country, Serbia, is no exception: OECD figures suggest that it has lost 650,000 people over the past 20 years from a population that once totalled almost eight million. Last week an MP warned that the exodus was particularly acute in the south. The pandemic has paused the outflow and encouraged some expats to return: the UN Development Programme puts the so-called “repat” figure at more than 100,000. But a virulent disease is no substitute for policy. The London-based Serbian City Club expats organisation says that more encouragement of “circular migration” is needed. The group helped to set up Returning Point, a government-supported scheme that aids Serbians to return to the country by cutting through red tape and highlighting business opportunities. It works for thriving cities such as Belgrade and Novi Sad but not southern Serbia, where satellite data shows that the lights are (literally) going out. And once people leave, they’re unlikely to return.

Hear our full report on Serbia’s depopulation struggle on the latest edition of ‘The Monocle Daily’.

Image: Shutterstock

Culture / USA

Open Sesame

In the early 1970s, Sesame Street character Kermit the Frog debuted “Bein’ Green”, a Sinatra-esque saloon song that dramatises his dawning acceptance of his leafy hue. The lyric ends: “I’m green and it’ll do fine… and I think it’s what I want to be.” The poignancy of the message – that there’s beauty in difference – is heightened by the show’s non-specificity; its silliness and anthropomorphism give power to a universal, human statement. So what to make of this week’s announcement that Sesame Street will introduce its first Asian-American character? Ji-Young (pictured, on right), a Muppet of Korean descent, was devised in part as a response to racial violence in the US this past year. While some might regard a move like this as tokenistic, such representation matters in the dispiritingly essentialist context of that country, where race is now treated as an inescapable reality by racists and progressives alike. The programme makers should be applauded – but what a shame that such an intervention has become necessary at all.

Image: Alamy

M24 / Tall Stories

Mosaic Stadium, Regina

Monocle’s Sheena Rossiter takes a trip to the Saskatchewan capital to see the newly renovated Mosaic Stadium come alive.

Gunsan: building on the past

Natives and newcomers to Gunsan in South Korea are creating quirky bars, art spaces and a bright future for this charming outpost.

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