I wrote this blog for myself, finding that the expectation that someone might actually be reading it (unlikely as that might be) enough to keep me posting away when there were more laughs to have, beer to drink, sights to see. We made many new friends, but Christi, Robin, Mike, and especially Glenn saw us through some disappointments with good humor and high spirits, making our bus discomfiture quite tolerable. I will miss them all.
Donald Rumsfeld once made a derisive and divisive remark about “old Europe v new Europe,” but the continent continues to unify despite such idiocy. Though the US newspapers keep writing stories about the demise of the EU and euro, about ten countries are in some form of application to join. The EU is the world’s largest (or second largest, depending) economy. It appears to be delivering a higher standard of living to its citizens than any other, if stat tables, doubtless written by socialists, can be believed.
Some speak of “living in the past,” but the wisest of people live with the past. My impression of the countries we visited (Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Hungary) is one of people taking what has been left to them and enhancing it, perfecting it. The wonderful cities we saw are not reproductions of some time gone by, but are a fusion of yesterday and today. To live in a thoroughly modern world is to spend one’s life no deeper than civilization’s skin—its bones and muscle show how the past has created the present. The modern ancient city is like a Japanese garden, carefully pruned and shaped to look natural and spontaneous, when it is in fact crafted to be what it never was and could not have been without artful planning. The Las Vegas tradition of making copies misses this point altogether.
The most fascinating people to observe when traveling are the young, Their optimism, energy, interests, and behaviors are a vision of a world to come. A vision which may be inaccurate, certainly indefinite, but always compelling. They share one thing in common—the gift of life. Doubtless many will squander it; many will have their potential cut short by injustice and misfortune; but most of the people I met are living joyously in their part of the world with no desire to be someone else or live elsewhere.
Tourism as an economic force is remarkably large. Droves of people gawking at the cathedrals, traipsing through palaces, and meandering the streets of seventeen popular cities, out of hundreds like them, make up a spending engine that has unlimited potential. Viking Cruise Lines is currently building fourteen more ships, and there is plenty of competition on the rivers and oceans from other carriers. Crowds of people at restaurants and bars are enjoying life, each other’s company, and the labors of the less fortunate. The demand for more tourist space is improving these urban centers from the inside out.
Is the US keeping pace? Ironically, the disparity of wealth in America is more like medieval Europe than Europe of today will ever be again. A few citizens are accumulating massive wealth and are independent of nationality. Their personal fortunes are less associated with their citizenship than any member of European royalty could have thought about their kingdoms.
We are told that our infrastructure is falling apart, but money goes to stadia and airports instead of high speed rail and neighborhood improvements (and needless conflict). One trusted investment advisor recommends shorting the euro against the dollar. It may be a wise strategy, but the signs of the euro’s weakness were hidden from me. A store in Budapest, where I bought a single shirt, had tags with prices in seven currencies, none was the US dollar. Euros are the currency of choice by those countries outside the euro. That might just be proximity, but the absence of the greenback was a small shock.
Who is on this ship of fools?