Saturday, May 21, 2005


Billion-dollar battle over hippies' favourite sandal:
LOVED by hippies and Hollywood stars alike, Birkenstock sandals are now at the centre of a multi-billion-dollar battle between the firm's heir and his wife.

At stake is the name of the company which sells 40,000 pairs of the no-nonsense shoes every day of the year. Fans include Leonardo DiCaprio, Gwyneth Paltrow and Johnny Depp.

Susanne Papenbrock, 34, is divorcing the firm's heir, Christian Birkenstock, after a 15-year marriage and wants to take the company name with her. Newspapers have dubbed the divorce fight "Dallas on the Rhine".

Ms Papenbrock, who walked out of the River Rhine castle she shared with her husband two years ago, has started a rival company using the Birkenstock name. She markets a sandal called Beautystep that was produced by the "Susanne Birkenstock International" firm and touts her married name in adverts for it. Helped by her blonde good looks the shoe became a hit and she has appeared on numerous German TV talk shows.
Rather like Ben & Jerry, I guess hippie chic is big business. Sheesh, next we'll find out out about big tofu cartels.

While we're doing Europe, don't forget that tonight is the 50th Eurovision Song Contest. Evolving beyond providing fodder for innumerable Benny Hill skits, it's apparently has taken on some sort of transcendental meaning in Euroland:
Over the years, the contest has served as an unlikely metaphor for Europe: parallel politics in a lamé jumpsuit. Eurovision was invented in 1956 by a French music producer called Marcel Bezençon as “a way of uniting the countries of postwar Europe”; the EEC arrived a year later, with only six members. Today the EU has 25 members, and more than 40 countries will compete for tonight’s prize and the right to stage next year’s extravaganza.

What began as an exclusive Western European club has expanded and, in recent years, moved markedly eastwards. As in Europe, the most enthusiastic participants are also the newest. Ukraine are the hosts tonight; Turkey, Latvia and Estonia have won the three previous years. In each case, the winning country hailed its victory as a political breakthrough. “We are no longer knocking at Europe’s door,” declared the Estonian Prime Minister after his country’s victory in 2001. “We are walking through it singing.” (Even by Eurovision standards of hyperbole, this was a stretch: nobody who heard Estonia’s Tanel Padar and Dave Benton perform Everybody could seriously describe it as “singing”.)
Conversely, the countries of Old Europe regard the contest through increasingly jaundiced eyes. The Italians no longer bother to compete. The British regard the whole thing as a camp joke, a stitch-up worthy of smothering under a thick blanket of Terry Wogan mockery; but we still get angry when we lose. Even the Irish, who have won the contest more often than any other nation, claim to be taking it less seriously (and have already been eliminated). France invented the game and won the first three contests, but a new survey of Eurovision voting patterns by a team of Oxford statisticians found France to be notably “out of tune” with the rest of Europe. The French have not won since 1977, and the country seems increasingly disillusioned by a contest it can no longer dominate. A week from now, millions of Frenchmen and women will vote against the EU constitution, for rather similar reasons.
That'll put a song in your heart!
In the end, Eurovision is less a contest than an idea, a vision of Europe, a long-running exercise in hopeful internationalism that is simultaneously naff, hilarious and oddly touching. Away from the pomposity and boredom of Brussels and Strasbourg, this is the one moment of the year we can say “Hello Belgium”, and mean it.

Eurovision can make even the most hardened cynic feel better, or at least superior. Offering predictions about this contest is foolish, but here is one: if France wins the Eurovision Song Contest today, then the French will vote “yes” in the EU referendum.
On that basis, they'll probably rig the voting.