Sunday, August 20, 2017

OVERSEAS TRAVEL: FUN, WITH SOME PAIN



 My wife Anita and I go to Italy a lot, usually by way of Holland and France. My mother (now 104 years old) lives in Holland, so each year we first spend a couple of weeks with her and then we travel South. We feel that pound for pound, Italy has more to offer tourists than any other country, closely followed by France.

Intercontinental travel gets harder with age. But we haven’t thrown in the towel yet by just going on cruises and organized tours. We still run around Europe independently by car, by train and by airplane. This usually leads to some unsettling experiences.

The last time we flew to Rome from Holland, we had our first “interesting” experience immediately upon landing at Fumicino airport late in the evening:

After deplaning, we both hit the first toilet we could find, a fairly common practice. Then, we proceeded towards baggage claim. Only AFTER we were outside the security area did we realize that Anita - who is diabetic - had inadvertently left her insulin pack in the bathroom which she had just visited.

Panic! Diabetics need to have their insulin on hand. Without it, the situation can become life-threatening within hours.

We spent the next half hour running around and asking Italian officials how to proceed.

And here, we experienced (again, as in the past), the common-sense, courtesy and common humanity of which Italians seem to have such an abundance: After we explained our problem to security guards, they permitted us to RE-ENTER the secure area! Then, under supervision of ticket agents, we were allowed to search several bathrooms for the forgotten insulin. It was difficult to retrace our exact steps in the labyrinthine Fumicino airport, so we had to check out many bathrooms.

After an hour-long search, we found the medical pack. I wonder whether Homeland Security would have been equally flexible. Had the same thing happened to us in this country, might the authorities’ response not have been: Tough luck. Just go to the nearest emergency hospital and get yourself a new supply of insulin, cost what it may...?

* * * * *

We also returned to Venice. Our experience there was mixed. It was a bit of a pilgrimage, as Anita’s ancestry stems from there.

To be sure, I have always found the mysterious watery city magical. However, the crowds are worse than ever, with gigantic cruise ships disgorging thousands of tourists every day. San Marco Square can be a nightmare. Venice can be very tiring. The best part are the vaporettos , which take you from the airport to your hotel, and to the gorgeous and colorful islands of Murano and Burano, where you can eat great food and shop for famous lace and glass work.

A much better experience was Verona. That Tuscan city is a jewel. Its Roman arena, while not as large as the Colosseum in Rome, is better preserved, and it is used for a variety of events. We went to a rock concert there by the Italian idol Zucchero. For three hours, the band played ear-shattering rock, blues and other genres, while thirty-five thousand Italian housewives, businessmen, businesswomen and youngsters stomped, jived and sang along enthusiastically. A true feast!

Italy remains awesome. We hear a lot about its problems - economic, demographic, political. These don’t loom very large when you are there, at least as a visitor. The country appears vibrant and comfortable. Its people are diverse, but not extremely so. They don’t appear to be overwhelmed by a flood of refugees and illegal immigrants from across the Mediterranean. Do those tragic folks live in hidden refugee camps, invisible to tourists and middle-class Italians?

We always stay at the Paba, a tiny hotel one block from the Forum and the Colosseum. The owner is Alberta, a lovely and loveable sixty-something woman. She brings breakfast to our room every morning.

We had another “interesting” experience on our departure day: The taxi that picked us up to get us to the airport was driven by a phenomenally beautiful middle-aged woman. Clearly a hardworking mother, possibly single. Incredibly charismatic, charming, competent.

Alas, as we drove down the Via Imperiale to circle around the Colosseum, we got rear-ended pretty badly. We weren’t hurt, but our necks didn’t feel too good. Also, the trunk could no longer be shut and hold our baggage.

The beautiful taxi driver promptly got out and discussed the matter with the imbecile who had hit us and caused a monumental rush hour traffic jam at the foot of the Colosseum. The discussion took all of five minutes. Within seconds she had taken all the necessary pictures with her iPhone, and insurance and personal information was exchanged in courteous and businesslike fashion. Her mission was to deliver us on time, and she wouldn’t flinch from that. She promptly transferred our baggage from the non-working trunk into the back seats and we were on our way before we knew it. What professionalism! What sang-froid!

* * * * *

Over the years, we have had many such “interesting” experiences when traveling overseas. Anita was mugged at Paris’ Gare du Nord. Her assailant didn’t get anything from her, but he did cause her back pain. A few years ago, two Roman punks grabbed my briefcase. I ran after them and got it back. I was already in my seventies, so I am proud of this. But that too, caused me some physical pain. We have missed our share of train and airplane connections. Sometimes a train stops for several hours in the middle of nowhere, as it did once due to a suicide in Holland, and another time due to a collision with a cow in rural France.

In 2005, it took me three days to get back home. I was supposed to connect at Heathrow, but the Russell Square terrorist attack in London created havoc with all air traffic.

In 2010, I was forced to spend an extra week in Europe because of the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallaj√∂kull volcano (try to spell that!).

I can do without surprises or “interesting” experiences (remember the old Chinese curse). Unfortunately, the only real surprise when traveling is if there is NO surprise. By and large, surprises are inevitable.

Ideally, you would be transported to your destination, beamed there by Scotty. The old Greyhound Bus slogan “Getting there is half the fun” is false. Getting there is not fun. What’s fun is BEING there. That’s why we haven’t given up international travel.
© Tom Kando 2017;All Rights Reserved
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Friday, August 18, 2017

American Fascism, Donald Trump and the Slippery Slope



 No day goes by without one more outlandish behavior by our non-President. Howard Dean said it well the other day: Currently, America does not have a functioning president. There is guy who got elected to the White House by accident. No rational person seriously views him as a real President. He is something else - a celebrity, an actor, an oddity, something else. We and the rest of the world have to live with this for the foreseeable future, but this country is now essentially without a functioning president.

A good illustration of this is the flap about Charlottesville: A group of racist Nazi white-supremacist KKK fascists held a rally, they were confronted by a group that opposes racism, violence ensued, the fascists murdered a young woman.

Then, Trump argued in front of the entire planet that both “sides” were equally at fault. Read more...

Thursday, August 10, 2017

North Korea



We just returned from a three-week Hawaiian vacation and I am happy to resume blogging.

When starting up again, the first question is, what shall I write about? The choice is always between something fun, like a travel story, or something grisly, like Trump or North Korea.

Unfortunately, I have to select the latter, since our blog is primarily about current affairs. So right now, I am going to talk about the most important issue in the world today. Next time I’ll tell you about some of our funny experiences on our recent trips. The most important thing in the world today is the face-off between two lunatics - Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un.

Now don’t misunderstand me: I am not engaging in moral equivalency between the US and North Korea, or between the two countries’ regimes. The US, despite its unhinged President, remains a functioning democracy. North Korea is an indescribably totalitarian, militarized insane asylum. Read more...

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Democracy in Chains: A True Horror Story

by Madeleine Kando

Preliminary Note: My knowledge of politics and economy is not adequate to give this book its full credit, but I felt it was important enough to write about. It describes the Far Right’s vision of a ‘good’ society, one that safeguards liberty for the few at the expense of elementary fairness and freedom for the many. Knowing that the majority of Americans do not share this vision, the billionaires backed Far Right has been working toward their goal by stealth. If you do not have time to read this 240-page masterpiece, just read the last chapter, the conclusion. It is horrifying.

‘Democracy in Chains: the Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America’ is so disturbing, that it takes a while to realize its full significance. Nancy MacLean, a professor of history and public policy at Duke University, suggests that James McGill Buchanan, a libertarian economist and Nobel laureate who taught at George Mason University and died in 2013, inspired the billionaire Charles Koch’s campaign to “save capitalism from democracy — permanently.”

Almost 70 years ago, Buchanan was already promoting the ideas that define libertarianism: Individual freedom, unfettered capitalism and minimal government intervention. In his view, the majority cannot dictate what the individual should do, especially when that individual is rich. He was against everything that a progressive society values: public education, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and of course progressive taxation, i.e. everything that is essential to making a society more fair and just.
Read more...

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Restorative or Retributive Justice: Which is better?

by Madeleine Kando

One of the most entertaining ways of getting a grip on the difference between ‘retributive justice’ and ‘restorative justice’, is by watching the TV series ‘Lilyhammer’, starring Steven Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen’s lead guitarist. It is about a former New York gangster named Frank "The Fixer" Tagliano, who is placed in the Federal Witness Protection Program and sent to Norway to start a new life.

Frank becomes a respected (read ‘feared’) local citizen, mostly due to bribes and intimidation. His ‘American’ method of doling out justice soon finds fertile ground in this over-civilized, rules-bound society. Norwegians ‘talk’ to work through conflict, but Giovanni’s Maffia style methods often get faster and more effective results. Lilyhammer makes fun of Norway’s soft approach to crime and oddly enough the show is incredibly popular in Norway. It must give Norwegians an opportunity to satisfy their thwarted sense of ‘retributive justice’. We all seem to have a desire to take revenge on the ones that have wronged us, whether we live in Norway or somewhere else.

What is Justice?

One of the earliest versions of justice can be found in the Egyptian goddess named Maat. She has an ostrich feather in her hair and a lioness by her side. Cosmic harmony was achieved by correct public and ritual life. Maat weighed the heart of a dead person on a scale against her ostrich feather. If the heart was lighter than the feather, it passed the test and was granted eternal life. If If it was heavy with the weight of wrongdoings, the lioness by her side devoured it and the soul was set adrift into chaos.

But since Plato and Aristotle, there has been a constant battle amongst philosophers on what justice really is: is it God’s Devine Command? Is it something that has been agreed upon between members of society? Or is it a Natural Law, like the law of gravity? If justice is what is commanded by God, is it morally good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is morally good? In other words, does justice exist on a higher order than God, who just follows the rules of justice, or did God create justice, like pulling a rabbit out of magician’s hat? Read more...

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Gathering Storm



I’m reading a marvellous book - Sean Carroll’s Brave Genius. It’s about the French Resistance movement during World War Two.

I’m not going to review this entire book. I just mention it because its first chapter evoked a frightening parallel in my mind: That first chapter is about the so-called “Phony War” which took place in Europe from September 1939 to May 1040, when the shooting war actually began:

Officially, World War Two began on September 1, 1039, when Hitler invaded Poland and the allies (France and Britain) declared war on Germany. However, what followed was what the French came to call the “Drole de Guerre,” or the “Phony War.” For over eight months, there was practically no fighting between the Germans and the allies. The major shoot-out began on May 10, 1040, when Hitler invaded the Netherlands, Belgium and France. This phase lasted barely five weeks and ended with the defeat of France. Read more...

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Is Trump's America Increasingly isolated, and are Americans Exceptionally Stupid?



A Dutch friend just sent me an article by Mars van Grunsven in De Groene Amsterdammer (Make America Exceptional Again).

Its main thesis is that America is increasingly isolated from the rest of the world, and that Trump is speeding up this process. It also discusses, as so many have done in the past, the presumptuous belief of many Americans in “American exceptionalism.”

My comments:

1. Isolation? The assertion that America is increasingly isolated implies a dichotomous view of the world: America vs. the rest of the world. But this is nonsense. America is just one out of a couple of hundred countries, some friendly, some hostile, some indifferent. America may enter into new sorts of alliances, with nefarious dictators such as the Philippines’ president Duterte. It is best to see America as a primus inter pares, in the near future maybe secundus or even tertius...just one of the world’s relatively large countries, also a flawed country, as many other countries are. So, not all that exceptional.

2. The Future? If a small country like North Korea can insulate itself and persist in its insane ways for many decades, surely a huge place like America will be able to continue its idiosyncratic culture indefinitely (its attitudes towards guns, sex, race, the economy, science, religion, the environment and everything else). Read more...