Uh Oh (Again)

The news from Europe has not been good for some time now — but today may be a turning point into even more negative territory.  As the United States enjoyed the Labor Day holiday, equity markets across Europe plunged by an average of 4 percentGermany’s DAX took the hardest hit, falling by more than 5 percent.

It’s not hard to understand why European investors are troubled.  Greece, Spain, and Portugal all are struggling with serious debt problems, and recently Italy, one of Europe’s biggest economies, also has tumbled into distressed territory.  In the meantime, the large, more solvent northern European countries — particularly Germany — have had to prop up their profligate southern European partners.  Germany’s financial support of free-spending Eurozone countries hasn’t gone down well with German voters, who delivered a stinging rebuke to the ruling party in regional elections.

Interestingly, some political leaders in Germany and elsewhere seem to see the ongoing problems as a reason for an even closer political and economic union between the nations of Europe — whereas European citizens, in contrast, appear to be yearning for more control over the destinies of their own countries.  The depths of the Eurozone debt problems are not yet fully understood, and analysts wonder how much worthless debt is held by European banks and whether the piecemeal bailout efforts will ever staunch the outflow of investor confidence.  Given all of these circumstances, it’s not hard to foresee more hard times ahead in the Eurozone.

At An Odense Commune

Richard’s excellent reports on Eurotrip 2011 show how interesting travel can be.  You’re an American, knocking around Europe solo, and before you know it you’ve made some friends and had an interesting adventure or two.  My travels through Europe after college, three decades ago, involved similar experiences.

One notable adventure occurred in Odense, Denmark.  Odense is the third largest city in Denmark and was the birthplace of Han Christian Andersen.  It wasn’t on my itinerary.  However, I had met a fellow American, a Californian named Dan (last name now unrecalled), and we began traveling together to save a few bucks on rooms.  We were on an overnight train from Oslo to Copenhagen that I had booked as a cost-saving measure — if you slept on a train you didn’t need to pay for a hostel, of course — when Dan said he couldn’t sleep on the hard train seats and was going to pay for a sleeper car.  I stuck to my guns and dozed on the upright seats.  When I saw him the next morning he had made some new friends who had shared his sleeping compartment.  They were Danes who lives in an honest-to-god commune in Odense, and they insisted that we come and stay for a day or two.  How could we refuse?

I don’t remember their names, but they were about the friendliest folks I had ever met.  They opened their hearts and commune to us.  About a dozen commune members chipped in to pay for the house, which was in the middle of town, and supplies.  They plied us with food, beer, aquavit, and schnapps and were intensely curious about the United States.  What was it like, really?  Were some Americans really going to vote for a former movie actor for President?  What did we think of Europe in general and Denmark in particular?  Dan and I reciprocated by pooling our money one night and taking them all to a nearby pub where we drank a lot of strong beer, but that was all their generosity would allow.

The last night we were there they served a huge feast where we all drank too much and Dan hooked up with one of the commune residents named Oosa.  When we left on the train for Munich the next morning, heads pounding, they gave me a blurry Polaroid photo that I’ve long since lost.  And after we got to Munich, Dan decided it might be a good idea to go back to Odense and hang with Oosa some more — which he did.  I never saw him again.  For all I know, he’s still there.

Bon Voyage!

This afternoon Richard is leaving on a grand tour of Europe and its close neighbors.  He will be traveling for 4 1/2 months.

The intrepid traveler

Richard’s journey will begin in Istanbul when he lands there tomorrow.  The plan is to move from Istanbul to Greece and the Greek islands and then travel along the southern rim of Europe during March and early April, moving north as spring arrives and the warm weather appears. His return flight, four months hence, will depart from St. Petersburg, Russia.  He’ll have the opportunity, at least, to visit pretty much everywhere in Europe during the intervening months.

Richard has made all the arrangements himself.  He is carrying only a backpack as luggage, and he has made some careful judgments about what to take.  Kindle and iPod, yes.  Books and cell phone, no.  Light weight, fast-drying towel and light walking shoes, yes.  Bulky clothing likely to be worn only once, no.  Toothbrush and toothpaste, yes.  Every other form of personal care item that can be bought if necessary, no.

I am excited for Richard — and, candidly, a bit envious — as he leaves on what should be a great adventure.  He has promised that he will keep us up to date on his travels through postings to the family blog.

The Toilet Paper Towel-Off At The Hotel Kabul

It was the summer of 1980.  My college graduation present from Mom and Dad was round-trip airfare to Europe on Laker Airlines, which was the low-cost carrier of that day.  I saved up enough money for a Eurail pass, borrowed a shoulder bag from Mom, and set off for the broadening experience of foreign travel.

My first stop on the continent was Amsterdam.  After a day of visiting the museums and the Dam I decided I needed to secure lodging for the night.  A travel guide had said the Hotel Kabul was the cheapest night’s stay in Amsterdam, and I was more interested in saving money than anything else.  When I arrived at the Hotel Kabul, however, I began to question the wisdom of that approach.  The hostel was in a run-down part of town a few blocks from the red-light district.  It was dark and dingy inside.  But it was inexpensive.  I paid for the cheapest sleeping accommodations, which turned out to be the bottom half of a bunk bed in a barracks room filled with perhaps 20 bunk beds and a number of scruffy looking miscreants.  The bedding was marginally clean.  That night I slept — fitfully — in my clothing, trucker’s wallet pushed deep into my pants pocket, using the shoulder bag as a kind of pillow.

As the first gray light of morning filtered into the dim sleeping area I groggily decided I really needed a shower.  I took my stuff to the bathroom, secured a shower stall, and rinsed off in a tepid stream.  I emerged from the shower . . .  and looked in vain for a towel.  Being a complete rube, I hadn’t realized that hostel users either brought a towel or rented one at the front desk.  I had done neither.  So there I was, dripping wet and feeling like a complete imbecile, in a grim bathroom in the cheapest hostel in Amsterdam.  What to do?

The options were few.  I could try to wipe myself off with some of my other clothing and then cart the wet clothes around as I did my day’s touring.  I could sit around until evaporation worked its magic.  Or, I could resort to the toilet paper towel-off — and that is the option I chose.  After first congratulating myself on the solution, I quickly came to realize that this was not the greatest idea, either.  The Hotel Kabul’s toilet paper was — not surprisingly — ridiculously cheap.  It somehow combined a pulpy scratchiness with gossamer thinness.  As I tried to swab myself dry I realized that I was instead being coated with a flaky crust of toilet paper dust and tiny nubbings that stuck to my skin like glue. I tried to remove all traces of my resort to the bathroom tissue option, but you don’t really want to spend a lot of time in a strange communal bathroom picking objects that look like lice off your skin.  I know I was unsuccessful in ridding myself of all of the toilet paper trappings.  So, I skulked out of the lobby, keeping as far away from the front desk as possible, and relied upon the good manners of the friendly Dutch to refrain from telling me that my skin was streaked with a weird white residue and I was leaving a trail of toilet paper pellets as I walked on.

My European tour was underway.  From that point on, I gladly paid to rent a towel at the other hostels I visited.

Backpacking And Eurailing Through Europe

For the Webner family, the countdown has begun.  We’re about a month away from Richard’s departure on a four-month trip through Europe and adjoining countries.  His itinerary calls for an arrival at Istanbul and a departure from St. Petersburg more than four months later.  In between, he will go where the wind blows and interest carries him.

I’m hoping that Richard will share some of his planning and preparation for his trip on this blog, and then do some additional blogging about his adventures when he is across the Atlantic.  In the meantime, I can only give him kudos for excellent travel preparation.  He has carefully researched where to go and prepared a rough itinerary of where he wants to go and what he wants to see.  He has purchased his Eurail pass and requested the necessary visas.  He has analyzed, and in some instances purchased, the lightest, slimmest, most comfortable necessities to take on his trip, and he has further reduced the weight of his baggage by opting for a Kindle rather than heavy and bulky books.

I’m envious of his coming voyage, and I’m going to live vicariously through any accounts he may decide to share with us.  In the meantime, his trip reminds me, inevitably, of my four weeks of travel through Europe after I graduated from college in 1980.  Steel yourselves, O Webner House readers!  I’ll be posting accounts of some of my misadventures and observations from the 1980 trip in the coming weeks.

Applying Mom’s Wisdom To The Greek Debt Crisis

The dominoes set in motion by the Greek debt crisis totter and topple. The credit ratings of other European states with debt problems similar to those of Greece get revised downward, and the costs of servicing their debt soar.  Cracks in the facade of the European Union continue to appear, as the frugal states question bailing out the profligate borrower states — especially those with economies, and debt burdens, that are much larger in real terms than are found in Greece.  The value of the Euro drops like an anvil directed at Wile E. Coyote’s noggin.   Nervous creditors wonder if a wave of government bond defaults are in the future.  And, across the globe, stock market indices drop with sickening speed as investors question whether the world could be plunged into an even more severe recession.

It is clear that unsustainable and unsupportable government borrowing is what led to the Greek crisis and the dire predicaments of other European countries.  The choice for the United States is whether to chart a different course and start making serious spending cuts right now and or to continue our massive federal borrowing and potentially follow the Greeks and other European states into the debt abyss.

On this Mother’s Day, it seems appropriate to apply some of Mom’s wisdom to this issue.

We all remember the scenario.  You were a kid who wanted to get your Mom’s permission to do something.  She was not cooperating because she perceived, rightly, that it seemed like an ill-fated and stupidly risky venture.  As she resisted all of your persuasive powers, you eventually said:  “But Mom!  Everyone else is doing it!”  And her inevitable response was:  “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you jump, too?”  That ended the argument — and usually, either right away or after a while, you knew deep down that your Mom’s judgment was the right call.

In the United States, we can listen to Mom or we can join other countries in jumping off the cliff.  I’m for listening to Mom.

An Extreme Christmas

While we here in the Midwest hope that we might see a white Christmas, over in Europe they are battling a winter storm of epic proportions.  Some areas have seen up to 20 inches of snow, and in parts of Austria, Germany and Finland temperatures have fallen to 33 below zero.  Plane, train, and road travel have been disrupted, and a number of deaths have been reported due to exposure.

Over the years Kish and the boys and I have occasionally talked about traveling to Europe over the Christmas break, to see firsthand how the holiday is celebrated in the Old World and to look at the continent in winter.  I’m glad we didn’t do that this year.

Air Conditioning

According to Wikipedia, the concepts underlying “air conditioning” were known to the ancient Romans, to Chinese dynasties in the centuries before A.D. 1000, and to the medieval Persians and Egyptians. The first modern, electrical air conditioning device was invented in 1902. Air conditioning was common in American hotels and restaurants in the 1960s — I recall, during summer visits to Ocean City, New Jersey during that decade, going to a restaurant that marketed itself with “air conditioned” painted on the front of the building in blue letters, with icicles hanging down — and, currently, virtually every American hotel, shopping mall, fast food outlet, grocery store, and other commercial establishment features powerful air conditioning units capable of cranking the temperature down to meat locker levels. During the summer and early fall months, when the mercury rises and humidity levels are high, many Americans — myself included — have come to rely on air conditioning to allow them to sleep comfortably and live their lives without dissolving into pools of sweat.

So, why are so many establishments in non-American countries so different? During our recent trip to Quebec, when we stayed at an otherwise spectacular hotel, our room air-conditioning unit was a pathetic failure. The only “conditioning” apparently accomplished was to add moisture to the air, and then feebly exhale the still warm, now moist, air into the room. It had about the same effect as someone breathing on you, and each morning I woke up a sweaty mess. Nor do I think our Canadian experience was anomalous. During our terrific trip to Italy, we experienced a number of sleepless nights when the heat and humidity in our rooms was unbearable. This may also be why so many restaurants and cafes overseas emphasize outdoor seating, where there is at least the promise of a breeze and cool shade.

Why can’t other countries be more like America, and recognize the value of air conditioning? If, as France’s high court found, access to the internet is a basic human right, shouldn’t air conditioning also receive that designation? Of course, if something like the recent “climate change” legislation passed by the House of Representatives is enacted into law, America could end up being more like other countries, and the current days of brisk, air conditioned comfort would become a fond but distant memory. To that I say:  Please, Congress — don’t take away my air conditioning!