Saturday, October 21, 2017

casting the first stone

The question usually comes the second or third day.

When northern guests visit me in Mexico, it takes just about that long for someone to notice the groups of shovel-carrying men filling potholes on the highway. "Why don't they buy some equipment and cut back on their labor costs?"

The question, of course, is posed as an economic one, and I respond accordingly. With an economic answer.

The low cost of labor in Mexico and the high cost of machinery would preclude an employer from recapturing the capital outlay during the depreciable life of the machinery. Even my economic nemesis Paul Samuelson would not disagree with that analysis.

The social answer is a bit more complex. And it is best answered with another question: "Then, what would the unemployed laborers do?" (A question we defenders of liberal globalization too often fail to pose.)

Most of western Europe and the northern portion of North America no longer face the labor cost-capital outlay question. Productivity increases are built into the economic system by the acquisition of more efficient technology. And that is why increases in the minimum wage usually end up with minority young people entering the ranks of the unemployed.

Mexico does not yet have the luxury of increasing productivity with capital outlays. Nor do The Azores.

Ponta Delgada is famous for the black and white mosaics that decorate its squares, sidewalks, and streets. The patterns are created by alternating the cobblestone-sized pieces of the two colors. Even with a limited palette, the possibilities are almost limitless.

But, everything ages. Even stone. Before it is turned to sand and water, the stones can be broken, dislodged, or swept away by its natural enemy: flooding.

That is where human labor comes into play. As far as I know, no one has yet built a machine that can carefully place each stone in a manner to capture the artistic outcome of these guys who repair the Ponta Delgada mosaics.

At least, I hope there is no such machine. I stood for a bit watching them restore a stretch of mosaic sidewalk. I have always admired seeing anything done well by an expert. And that is what these fellows were. Experts. Craftsmen. Artists.

It was almost as satisfying as watching the effortless arc of a Mexican machete clearing away brush along the road. Robespierre could only envy the skill.

One day Mexico will replace its road crews with machinery. After all, the world's 15th largest economy is going to mature soon.

And when it does, even those of us who look forward to seeing Mexico enter a new economic era will feel a bit wistful at the passing of an era.

I have no idea when Mexico moves on if the stone mosaic workers of Ponta Delgada will still be plying their artistry by hand. I hope they will.

After all, all change is good. But it is not always good that things change.


Friday, October 20, 2017

azores is portugese for yum!

The last time I visited The Azores was in 2012.

So says my blog (squares in the atlantic). Roy and I were trying to figure out when we were last here. Neither of us did very well at guessing. All I could recall is that I had written a piece on graffiti.

And there we have another reason for this blog's existence. It acts as a journal. The downside is that once I write an essay, the memory itself fades away.

Maybe not this trip.

We sailed out of Copenhagen on Sunday. It is now Friday and I have written nothing in those five days because I have been thoroughly enjoying traveling with my four compatriots.

The common thread in our travel group is Reno. We either have residences there or work connections. I travel often with Roy and Nancy. Karen and Sophie (who have worked with Nancy) are new to me as travel companions.

All of the days when I have not written have been sea days. I have chosen to relax. As a result, I have fallen way behind in reading my newspapers and magazines. But the world is going on just fine without me sticking my nose into its business.

Today was our first of two landfalls. As you have already guessed, we were in The Azores today. A set of islands in the midst of the Atlantic that are part of Portugal. Ponta Delgada to be exact. The administrative capital of the island group.

Like most provincial capitals, Ponta Delgada has retained a aura of another time.

The classic architectural style is white walls framed with black basalt rock. The Azoreans come by the basalt easily. Their islands are the tips of volcanoes that have peaked their way out of the sea.

The port call was brief. Just a few hours. But, it was time enough for Nancy, Roy, and me to re-acquaint ourselves with Ponta Delgada's waterfront.

Maybe this was true on our last visit, but none of us remembered the prices in The Azores being so reasonable. Groceries. Drinks and food in restaurants. Cheese at the port. All were extremely reasonable.

After Copenhagen's prices (a direct result of its high taxation to finance its government services), anything might have seemed reasonable. But the prices in Ponta Delgada were low in absolute terms.

I shot this photograph because of the building on the right. It had a far different mural when we were here five years ago. Coincidentally, later that afternoon, we ended up having lunch in the restaurant on the far left.

It was one of those random choices that has created a memory that will last as long as it takes for me to finish this essay. Possibly one of the best meals I have had in a long time. Even though I went there in search of sardine pate and found none.

That is a bit ironic because the last meal I remember enjoying that much was a scabbard fish plate in Madeira (a shot of madeira)-- Portugal's other island autonomous region. And that was with Nancy and Roy, as well.

Today the dish was arroz con mariscos. And it is the same in Spanish and Portugese. Rice with seafood.

But the name did not do it justice. The seafood was prawns, clams, and mussels. All in their original houses.

The only surprise is that it was not a dry dish. It included a broth that made it akin to bouillabaisse or ciopino. But far better.

The photograph is not my meal. I ate mine so fast that the camera cap did not even come off. Instead, I relied on the kindness of our ship officers who had the table next to us.

It was the only meal on this trip where all five of us agreed that we had made a good choice. Having said that, mine was unquestionably the best.

One rule of Mexpatriate is that I get to be the narrator; I do not appear in person. Today, there will be an exception -- I am taking center stage.

It will be nice to look back on what will be one of my best moments in life. This will remind me.


Monday, October 16, 2017

dropping che

"Not only does democracy offer the best hope of progress for the masses, it also protects the left against its own mistakes. It is long past time to bury Che and find a better icon."

So says The Economist in this week's issue, supporting the idea that Che Guevara is exactly the wrong role model for the left to follow. Such are the things that keep me amused on cruises.

Communism is a zombie ideology. Not only is it the very essence of evil, it just refuses to admit that its permanent address is the Dustbin of History.

Take those Che t-shirts. I always assume the wearers have left their Hitler hoodies in the laundry.

The Danes have found a very creative solution for some of Communism's fallen symbols. And Halloween is the richer for it.

While shopping in one of Copenhagen's better supermarkets for a good blue cheese to take along on the cruise, I chanced upon a bit of Halloween paraphernalia. On top of the pile was this re-purposed sickle -- complete with bourgeois blood. For all I know, its fraternal hammer was in another bin. The Danes are that type of utilitarian folk,

Now, if we could put all of those Che t-shirts in the same warehouse with the statues of Robert E. Lee, we would all be a bit better off.

Readers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your change. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

mad about ophelia

Today is the day we set sail for America.

At least, it is the day we are supposed to set sail for America. But, just like Hamlet, Ophelia may complicate our lives.

If you have not been following Ophelia (the storm, not the drowned lover). it is a category 3 hurricane that is now to the west of the Azores (our first landfall) and heading directly for Ireland and Scotland. If she follows her current path, she should be there by Tuesday. Probably, downgraded to a tropical storm. There is not a lot of hot water off of either coast.

This is the ship captain's issue. How can he cross over the top of Jutland and head south while avoiding the storm. The English Channel is a terrible place to be caught in high winds. Maneuverability is extremely limited. Just ask the Admiral Duke of Medina Sidonia how it worked out for him.

But that is just punter blather. Norwegian Cruise Lines is not going to put one of its newer ships in the path of a storm. There has even been some loose talk about visiting ports in the Baltic Sea to give the storm time to pass. But that is just talk.

Either way, we are about to leave our apartments to board the Getaway (Yup! Commercial ships are now being named as if they were the same as your Uncle Ralph's 35 foot pleasure boat).

Taking into account the vagaries of shipboard internet this may be:
1) My last essay until we get to Florida.

2) My last essay until we get on board the ship.
Or 3) My last essay (because I have made God laugh about my plans).

Whether I write or not, I am planning on a great time at sea -- no matter where we end up stopping for ports. Hurricanes pulled St. Thomas and St. Martin off of our list. Ophelia may do the same for the Azores and Bermuda.

Fear not. There will be tales to share. Some time.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

rainy days and saturdays

Rain alters the way we see life.

I wrote about that phenomenon earlier this year in Sydney (sydney as london). The city my friends Roy and Nancy wanted me to love never showed up. Sydney hid behind a wet London impersonation.

I am glad I saw Copenhagen yesterday in full sunlight. Danes have told me the day was an exception for this time of year. Usually, the sky is overcast with bits of drizzle now and then.

Today was the norm -- with overcast skies and drizzle. So, the three women in our group decided it would be a great day to go shopping.

Copenhagen has a street dedicated to shoppers who want to buy high-end items. Louis Vuitton. Hermes. And a lot of middle brow stores. Victoria's Secret. Foot Locker. The type of retailers you can find in any decent strip mall.

And the shop fronts could be almost anywhere. Until you turn around and look at the view. That steeple is quintessentially Danish Lutheran.

Our shopping tour gave me an opportunity to share an interesting fact about Copenhagen. It is a city filled with bicycles, and bicycles reign in the pecking order with their special lanes and high-speed commuting. Pedestrians are far more likely to be hit by a bicycle than by a car.

The bicycle parking lot is in the midst of several food tents. While the rest of our group enjoyed Danish hot dogs, I visited a salami and cheese stand staffed by Dutch merchants.

And I came away sated. With three pepper salami sausages and a wedge of cheese stuffed with very spicy chili. I managed to eat most of it before I got back to my apartment.

Yesterday, I told you Copenhagen has had the opportunity to rebuild itself after two major fires. But they were not the only fires that damaged Copenhagen's historic buildings.

Christiansborg Palace has been the home to the Danish parliament since 1849. Before that, it was the residence of the Danish monarch.

The current monarch, Queen Margrethe II, still uses the palace's chapel, whose architecture is pure Danish Lutheranism. Like the palace, the chapel has been rebuilt several times due to changes in fashion or as a result of fires.

The latest chapel fire in 1992 caused the dome and ceiling to collapse. The art of building this type of architecture has almost been lost. But, by referring to old records, the restoration was completed using original materials. And here is the result.

But there are two figures that we have not yet visited that define Denmark for outsiders. The first is Hans Christian Andersen, the author of such stories as "The Emperor's New Clothes," "The Little Mermaid," and "The Ugly Duckling." All of them built around rather conservative moral lessons.

He is honored with a statue in front of the City Hall. So many people have sat on his lap or rubbed his knee that his trousers are looking a bit brassy.

The second Copenhagen institution is Tivoli Gardens, the second oldest amusement park in the world. The oldest is 
Dyrehavsbakken, started in 1583 -- also in Denmark. By that standard Tivoli is a youngster, having opened in 1843. Apparently, Walt Disney visited the park in the early 1950s to get ideas for his own parks.

There are two rules of life. The first is that change is always good. The second is that new is not always an improvement. That is certainly true of amusement parks.

Compared with Disney parks, Tivoli is quaint and charming. It is not snazzy and spiffy. It is just fun. And its recipe for amusing people is what has kept it running since James Polk was president of the United States.

Tivoli was dressed in its Halloween finery during our visit tonight.

Many amusement parks decked out their sites with electric arches when light bulbs were introduced. It is a tradition that still thrives at Tivoli.

And then there are rides. A couple are modern. But most retain the park's traditional amusements that seem just a bit quaint. But still endearing. If not thrilling.

I managed to avoid any emotional response until I saw the bumper cars. My brother and I spent hours on the bumper cars at Jantzen Beach and Oaks Park. The smell of the electricity arcing off of the metal ceiling brought back pleasant memories. Most of them built around revenge.

There are also ranks of restaurants in the park -- an idea Walt Disney slipped into his establishments. I am convinced that all foods cost the same in Disneyland. Do you want a large Diet Coke? That will be $40. A five-course Cajun meal?  $40. I did not look at the Tivoli menus to see if that is where Disney developed his food hegemony.

For a day that began (and ended) in the drizzle, Tivoli managed to put a nice spin on the day. And, isn't that what an amusement park is supposed to do?

Friday, October 13, 2017

how do you say tip in turkish?

Some people say returning to Venice is like falling into the arms of an old mistress.

If that is true, returning to Copenhagen is like visiting your banker. In her office.

I am quite fond of the city. But it is not a place to arouse unseemly sentimentality. Like the Danes, it is orderly with classic lines -- and cool (both in the stylish sense and temperature). The type of city you could take home to meet your mother.

Not many of us would consider Denmark to be a major power. Sitting on top of Germany, it looks like a pencil eraser. But, Copenhagen was once the capital of a great empire that included the Kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden along with the territories of Iceland, Greenland, and a scattering of islands.

"Island" is an important concept for Denmark. It still rules the largest island in the world (Greenland). But a large portion of the kingdom consists of islands. The largest of the group, Zealand, hosts Copenhagen. Unlike most European capitals that are near the center of their country, Copenhagen is almost on the border with Sweden.

The island identity is re-enforced by its harbors on the Baltic Sea and the canals that cut through the city. Denmark has thrived on trade for centuries. The canals are the remains of a past where Danes grew rich on moving merchandise. And, of course, there was a bit of wealth derived from those Viking raids on the rest of Europe.

The Viking past seems ancient history when looking on the city today. Its restrained look is rather new. Very little remains of its medieval past. Most of that burned down in the great fires of 1728 and 1795. But, like most natural disasters, destroyed buildings made way for contemporary architects to show off their skills. And they did.

Copenhagen has some of the best examples of neoclassical and neogothic architecture in the world. And its modern architecture is just as stunning.

Like the opera house.

Or the national library's black diamond.

But not everything In Copenhagen is that staid. I suspect there must have been an outbreak of children being locked up and left in abandoned guard houses. What other reason would there be for this sign?

Or for this one on the gangplank to a Russian sailing vessel. What if something fit into both categories?

(I will hear from my mother about that one.)

But, my favorite Copenhagen story happened last night at the airport. After collecting my luggage, I hired a taxi to take me to the hotel.

The driver loaded my luggage without a word. I showed him the address of the hotel. And we were off. Both of us silent. Until his telephone rang.

It was his daughter. She asked him to bring something home. But none of it was in English -- or Danish. But I recognized enough words to understand what was being said. I just could not place the language.

Then, he spoke his first word to me. Kish? It was clearly a question, but I wasn't sure what he wanted to know. He repeated it with a slightly different accent. Kesh? While holding up his hand rubbing his fingers together in that readily-understood international sign.

"Ah," I said. "Dinero." Yup. I started speaking Spanish to a cab driver in Denmark.

As absurd as it sounds, it worked. He knew more Spanish than English. So, we stumbled through a conversation. The type of conversation that could only have taken place in a Berlitz world.

He was from Turkey. His daughter had asked him to pick up bread. He was from the fourth largest city in Turkey -- Bursa. Once the capital of the Ottoman Empire. He preferred cash to credit cards.

I make it sound as if we had the type of conversation two Spaniards would have over coffee in a sidewalk cafe in Madrid. It wasn't that elegant.

And here is my proof. Somehow, he thought I was from Spain and wished me a happy return trip.

When I told the story to my friend Nancy, she said: "Your Spanish must be getting rather good."

I responded: "As long as I am talking to a Turkish cab driver."

And that is how I hope this trip continues. Just as Henslowe informed us in Shakespeare in Love: "Strangely enough, it all turns out well. . . . It's a mystery."

Thursday, October 12, 2017

flying with hef

People who fly for the quality of airline food are the same people who read Playboy for the articles.

That pearl of wisdom came to me while flying high above the Atlantic. I was reading Hugh Hefner’s obituary in The Economist. The cabin steward delivered my full English breakfast just as I was reading: “Hef in his dotage would retie his silk dressing gown, shuffle into his velvet slippers and get one of his nubile assistants to adjust his hearing aid, since too much Viagra – ‘the fountain of youth’ – had made him deaf.”

Now, that is a sentence with punch.

I could not say the same thing for my breakfast. Or my chateaubriand last night. Even though I flew first class from Mexico City to London, in-flight meals are subject to the “Playboy for the articles” rule. If you want good food, you do not book a seat on British Airways. You book a table at Noma in Copenhagen.

The only true luxury of flying international first class is the seat. The Mexico City-London leg of my trip was just over nine hours in the air. Too long to stay awake the whole trip -- especially, on a night flight.

I have trouble sleeping on aircraft. For a pilot, that is a virtue. For a passenger, it is an annoyance.

I cannot sleep sitting up. And, if I am to avoid wandering the aisles in the night like an air-borne Lost Dutchman, I need a seat that flattens into a bed. That means a first class seat -- along with a duvet and black pajamas that look as if they are from Viet Cong war surplus.

That is the theory. And, it usually works just as it should. But, not last night.

Because a few older passengers complained the first class cabin was “freezing,” the purser stoked the heat to what my father called “cremate.”

They slept. I didn’t. I sweated. Until I started wandering the aisles like -- you guessed it -- an air-borne Lost Dutchman.

After a quick layover in London, I was on my flight to Copenhagen. And that is where I am now.

It is evening, and I have met up with my friends Nancy and Roy. I am ready for bed. But not before I share just one more thought.

One of these days the crankiness that comes with old age will most likely catch up with me. Maybe it has already. Until then, I am going to keep the airlines in shekels and the flight attendants in stitches.

As for Hef and his Viagra-induced deafness, everything has a cost.

Even travel.