18 May 2012

Observations of an American Tourist

Our hotel was at the base of the London Eye, across the river from Big Ben and Parliament. We watched Andrew Marr interview Prime Minister David Cameron and our hotel window was just over Andrew’s shoulder. The first morning we came out through the lobby, super models were posing on our front steps. We inquired about this and were told that it was a piece for Mexican TV that was being made in anticipation of the London Olympic Games.  The following morning, the rain had eased up but, alas, there were no supermodels on our front steps. Not wanting to come across as boorish Americans, we decided not to complain to the front desk about this lack.
We visited Churchill’s War Rooms. On one wall was a remarkable hand-made chart showing the daily casualties (the sum of deaths and serious injuries) from Nazi bombing of London. During one two-month period shown, casualties ranged from 80 to 600 per day. Imagine the trauma of 9-11 every week. I suspect that our generation would have snapped like a Xanax tablet in these conditions.
The UK’s recession officially began its second dip while we were there, GDP growth dropping below 0. David Cameron – the sort of intelligent and articulate conservative one might wish for in this country – is struggling with a 29% approval rating. He looked beleaguered in his interview. “So if we’re doing the right thing by cutting spending and the Americans are doing the wrong thing by stimulating, why is the American economy doing so much better than Britain’s,” Marr asked.
In the British Library, the Treasure’s Room, there are a number of remarkable handwritten documents. Among them is a piece of music by Beethoven that seems to capture his energy almost as much as his music, even to the frenetic energy in the crossed out sections.
Whenever it was convenient, I asked young people throughout our trip whether they were optimistic or pessimistic about their economy, about its ability to create jobs for them and their generation. Every single European – even the Germans  - was pessimistic. The only exceptions? Two Argentinians and one Brazilian. It might be mere coincidence that Argentina and Brazil have female presidents.
Westminster Abbey is a stunning cathedral, but obviously a national tomb, in contrast to St. Peter’s at the Vatican. Not just kings but war heroes, poets, and scientists are buried here. Charles Darwin and men who led troops are buried here. It truly is the Church of England.

It may be unrelated to the euro, but while Blake and I were decoding Paris’ subways, we couldn’t help but notice that about 50% of the folks coming to street level just jumped the turnstiles. This did not strike me as a culture particularly constrained by rules, whether about paying a euro to ride public transit or paying taxes to support said euro.
It is no wonder that the French riot when their 35 hour work week is threatened. The French word for work is “travail.” Who wants more of that than absolutely necessary?
Unemployment rates are stubbornly high in France and Italy – nearly 10% if measured as we do, and their youth unemployment rate tends to run about double that. Spain’s youth unemployment is about 50%. If you offer people a system that offers them nothing, it is no wonder that they’ll seek alternatives. The day after we left, Hollande won the presidential election; for the first time in 17 years, France has a socialist president.
It turns out that Sarte’s favorite café was directly across from our hotel. It was the place where he redefined philosophy and modern relationships, smoking unfiltered cigarettes and waxing eloquent about existentialism. For all of my story telling to Blake, this moment of explaining existential philosophy over an omelette seemed the most oddly gratifying.
There are times when clichés play into the theater of our lives in ways that leave me confused. I’m never sure whether to reject them as serendipitous or embrace them as emblematic. As we wheeled our suitcases down the street in search of our hotel, we passed a sidewalk café with a beautiful young woman sobbing as she told her story of – presumably – heartbreak to an older man who seemed insufficiently moved by her beauty, her sorrow, and her story. I was moved to see that not everyone in a sidewalk café is empty with existential dread. Romantics still inhabit this city.
Speaking of romantics, the charm of Paris seems to resonate more with females. Nowhere on my travels have I seen more single women with suitcases, backpacks, and guide books. This is the city of love and apparently women still come in search of it.

As I came into Paris through the subway, I got the sense that I should stay on the alert for criminals; coming into Rome, I got the sense that I should be on the alert for the businessmen.
Rome is shabby. Broken sidewalks, pot holes, graffiti, and trash were everywhere. The Vandals invaded Rome and apparently never left.
What Starbucks outlets are to cities in Canada or the US, churches are to Rome – only bigger. I don’t think that we ever walked more than 3 blocks without seeing another fairly remarkable church.
I wonder if an economy dependent on ruins doesn’t do something to the psyche. It felt like great deference to the past, to the point that fallen Roman columns were simply left lying in fields, property in the heart of Rome left idle because someone had built a structure there 2,000 years ago.
Perhaps it is part of the make work mentality that the ruins have almost no signs; for information about what you are seeing, you are dependent on guide books and guides. Few objects have even simple labels.
Augustus’ palace is in ruins near the Forum (you know you’re something big when a month gets named after you – everyone for thousands of years living 8% of their lives in your shadow, as it were), as is a truncated version of the Stadium where 250,000 fans could watch chariot races (Roman NASCAR). The only signs I could find in the area explained what type of flowers are planted in the beds.
They say that all roads lead to Rome, but apparently it’s harder to find a pithy saying to help you to navigate the city once you’re there. The only thing that people seemed to spend more time doing than look at ruins was looking at maps. There’s little that seems predictable or intuitive about the city’s layout.
The sense I got of Italy is that it’s a place where far more passion is expended in protecting jobs than creating them. The entrepreneurial spirit seemed largely subdued, seemingly finding its only expression by what struck me as African immigrants selling suspect products on the sidewalk. As an example of how jobs seemed to be protected, we got processed at the gate for boarding the plane out of Rome and then – inexplicably – about halfway down the ramp to our plane, we were stopped by two women in uniform who – again – checked our boarding passes and ID. Unsurprisingly, no one new had entered the line.
Like Disneyland, the Vatican is an independent kingdom completely surrounded by a foreign city. Unlike Disneyland, it is an absolute monarchy, the world’s last. A place where the fact that 12 is the legal age of consent (the lowest in Europe) is irrelevant for the simple fact that its roughly 800 citizens are all clergy or Swiss guards.
Blake raised an interesting question. If the Vatican is a foreign city, does that mean that every Catholic Church is technically an embassy? I’m sure there are priests who would welcome diplomatic immunity.

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