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Global Thoughts — 1 November 2017

Making Chocolates at Max Chocolatier in Lucerne, Switzerland

Last night was Halloween. Jeremy spent a whole rainy Sunday decorating our front door as you can see. Since we live in a city, you can walk down the street in costume and merchants give you treats. Jeremy dressed up as a human whoopee cushion with a fart machine hidden under his costume and Elizabeth operated it with a remote control. It was a real blast!

Elizabeth nearing age 12 is getting awfully aware. She walked out of a lunch buffet at my local synagogue today. She felt there were too many people in the room and she was afraid of a fire hazard. At the supermarket she realized that the 12 ounce size cream cheese was a bad deal at $6.59 when the price of the 8 oz size was $3.59. (Adults must not figure it out because the price was the same a week later.) This fall she has had to start using the city bus to get to and from school and it has been a big adjustment, having to cross streets by herself to get to and from the bus and to get on the correct city bus by herself. She wants a cellphone but we are resisting it. She said that this week they had a session on cyber-bullying in school and she asked if she could skip the session since she doesn’t have a cellphone and couldn’t bully anyone with one. They made her stay anyway.

I want to show my support for local merchants but it’s nuts when the same photo album that costs $16 on Amazon with free 2 day delivery costs $30 in a local store. Stores can’t pay the rent, but I don’t want to be taxed every time I buy something locally. That Amazon Prime service is neat; you get stuff really fast, and find out that almost anything in the world you wanna buy you can get via Amazon. Even those extra yummy chocolate bars you find in Paris.

One thing that has improved in NY City is the busing. They have dedicated street lanes for some buses and you get a ticket in advance so that the bus doesn’t pile up time with people getting on the bus. It really works. You can now get across town in 20 minutes on routes that used to take double.

I have a great idea for a diet that ought to make me a billionaire. You can basically eat a huge meal and as long as you go swimming an hour or two afterward for about 10 minutes of laps, the meal will digest. Even better than an hour in the gym!

Trick or Treat?

Don’t you think that “awesome” is now the most over-used word in the English language? And don’t you think you’ve seen more pumpkin spices being used in every conceivable food during October than you have ever seen in your life? And what if you don’t like pumpkin?

Since Elizabeth is turning 12 this year, we are celebrating her Bat Mitzvah, a Jewish coming of age ceremony. We’ve been preparing in part by reading Judaism for Dummies, a rather good encyclopedia kind of book giving you a rundown of everything Jewish in about 400 pages and 30 chapters. It’s a good book, and a good opportunity for me to see everything from A to Z in a neutrally presented easy to digest manner and to pick up a few facts I never knew before.

If I were going to pick Time’s Man of the Year award it would go to the inventors of Google. It has changed everyone’s lives; if you have almost any question, you can just go to Google and ask and most probably get an answer. Google is the Tree of Knowledge that Man has forever sought.

Another thing that has changed around here is cable tv. I brought back our cable box and we don’t have cable tv anymore. My wife and I hardly watch anything and the kids just sit and keep watching America Ninja Warrior like zombies (the same obstacle course over and over again) and don’t want to do anything else. Besides, you can watch youtube for nothing and see the best clips of yesterday’s shows such as Saturday Night Live. When I was at the local cable office, I saw other people giving back their boxes and the people behind the counter were offering people streaming packages as a last desperate ploy to keep their customers.

Parkour in Zurich and Pontresina

Jeremy was asked by his teacher what was his favorite city in the world. He answered Zurich. I had just taken the kids to Zurich to show them why it was my favorite city in the world. I asked the teacher if he responded Zurich because his dad liked the city or because he liked it. They said it was the latter. I asked Jeremy what he liked about the city; he mentioned the chocolate factory we visited in Lucerne, an hour away by train for a day trip. But close enough.

At the next Passover Seder I want to ask why we have a Jewish holiday where the ceremony revolves around the kids asking their parents the Four Questions. The most distressing 5 words in the English language that I constantly have to listen to are “Dad, I Have A Question?”

I surprised the kids at school when I picked them up and took them straight to the airport for a weekend at Universal’s new Volcano Bay Water Park in Orlando. The park has some good rides and we liked the park, but they are letting too many people into the park so that by the end of the first hour you have to wait 2 hours to get into the most popular rides and you can’t go on any other time-reserved ride till you clear the ride you already reserved. I thought it was awful and even my kid thought it was a huge ripoff. Even for people staying in resorts who get in an hour early, it sucks because after half an hour they can’t handle even that crowd (and it didn’t help that there were mechanical failures on our first two rides of the day), and once you get a timed ticket you can’t go on any other rides for the rest of the hour. We won’t be returning again unless they clean up their act. We heard that many people are complaining. It’s purely corporate greed at work. I noticed at the park that it was a very homogenous crowd; I would say 99% of the people in the park were White and looked like they voted for Trump.

One ride had a 6 foot drop into a swimming pool that was 10 feet deep. There were lots of signs warning you about it and that you need to be a good swimmer to go on the slide. There were two life guards there. I asked them if there are any idiots who go on the slide that can’t swim. They said they get several of these every day!

We were very happy with the Lowes Portofino Bay Hotel, and I will tell you that staying in the cheapest rooms is perfectly fine here. The food is good on this property, particularly if you like eating Italian. It’s about a 15 minute walk from the two theme parks. If you stay in the hotel and go to the park before 9am, you can finish the whole park (either Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure) in a few hours. It is a 15 minute shuttle ride to the water park featuring a really funny bus video. My kids loved the two roller coasters with the loop the loops – each park has one. But my favorite ride remains the Minions – it’s the only cute ride outside the kiddie land portion. We also enjoyed the new ride Jimmy Fallon’s Race in New York City. They did a beautiful job re-creating NBC Studios at Rockefeller Center. There is some class to this company; it’s a different style than Disney.

Here’s a really stupid story. My kid woke me up to go to the water park. I looked at my watch and it appeared to be 10 minutes before 7, so I got up, cancelled the wake up call for 7, got dressed, stretched out and was ready to go to the gym and I looked at my watch again – time was 4:25. Must have been looking at it upside down. Back to bed!

Lakeside at Vitznau

I have been home for 2 months since my summer vacation and I am really at a loss what to write about. What can I say about Donald Trump that you can’t read elsewhere?  I see these columns day after day in the New York Times calling him a liar and an idiot and I just skip to the end. It really adds no value at this point. Almost half the country supports him and conflict bias is part of the equation – if you tell people that something goes against what they are committed to, even if it is correct, people are just too proud to go off it and they will go overboard to reject the evidence that goes counter to their belief. It doesn’t really matter who is right – if you go to someone who is pro-Trump and criticize a speech that Trump made, that person will tell you how great it was that Trump gave a speech using a teleprompter instead of simply adlibbing, as if this was some great achievement.

I had thought that Alec Baldwin had given up doing Trump imitations on Saturday Night Live but I see he’s back for another season. The pay must have been that good or the role must be that fun. Another person who seems very happy is Obama who looks like he’s having the time of his life not being president. He’s surfing, boating, moving into mansions, and giving lectures and he’s got a huge smile on his face every time I see a picture of him.

The unhappiest camper of the lot is presumably Secretary of State Tillerson who has to wait his turn to be fired or to resign, the quarterly quota of which in the cabinet and administration has already been exceeded. I figure that other unhappy campers have to include officers in the Secret Service who have to protect this guy 24/7 and probably wonder if this is what they really signed up for. Below you’ll see a book review written by a retired officer and what he writes about his years in the White House is not pretty.

What you don’t see here is a bunch of people walking around saying how they wish that Hillary Clinton would have been elected. To most Democrats she is a bad dream which they wish they could shake off and a real nuisance every time she resurfaces with another interview about why she lost.

Lakeside St Moritz

The crux of it all in my opinion is that America talks Republican and acts Democratic. The Democrats lose because they talk like Democrats and the Republicans lose when they act like Republicans. The one thing Trump did so far this year that the majority of people liked was when he bypassed Republicans to make deals with Democrats in Congress (which he then walked away from a month later). The Democrats won’t win by having Bernie Sanders run again in 2020 or having the party hijacked by its liberal wing, and the Republicans won’t win by saying no to everything involving government especially after all these disasters have hit areas such as Texas which has tried to veto every attempt by the federal government to help anyone else who was hit by a disaster. Especially after a couple hundred thousand Puerto Ricans move to Florida; if the Republicans don’t come up with the goods for them now, they will swing the state into the Democratic column which could make a big difference in 2020.

You look around and notice that Austria, Canada, Italy, France and New Zealand have recently elected heads of state that are around 40 or under. North Korea and Syria are non-elected but also have young guys as heads of state. The US, particularly in the Democratic party, has few people under 40 that are identified as back bench talent. It’s not a good sign for America in the world.

I just finished reading “Crisis of Character” a book by Gary Byrne, a secret service officer in the Clinton White House. I somehow never heard of this best-selling book during the 2016 campaign, and the book was published to warn people of how bad the Clintons were. The author names people by name and essentially says that Hillary was a vicious disgusting person and that Bill Clinton was romper room personified in the White House. It got to a point that he had a girl in the Oval Office and one in a side room waiting. Hillary’s one redeeming quality to him was that she could shoot pretty well. He wasn’t all sourpuss — he said that the Bushes were really classy people, something I’ve always heard about them.

Dining room of the Hotel Kronenhof in Pontresina

You have to wonder what the North Koreans are doing trying to figure out what the heck is the meaning of what is being said in Washington. My gut feeling is that they do not want to get their butts kicked going to war against the US, but they do not know what to make of Trump and the more he speaks loudly the harder it is for them to climb down from their tree. If Trump pulls the rug out of the deal with Iran, he will be all alone in the world because hardly anyone including Israeli generals thinks it is a good idea to scrap it. Funny thing about Obama – people are not thrilled with the things he did such as health care and the Iran deal, but there are no great gains to be had in breaking them down either.

My kids ask me if there will be World War III. I say to them that I think most of the world is hoping that if they can just hold on a few more years, the Americans will have someone more sensible leading the country and that the world will be OK at that point. My daughter asked me why World War I started; the anniversary is 100 years now. I can’t really think of a good reason why that war started. Can you?

I’m noticing that a good portion of Europe is recovering from earlier economic hardship; Spain and Portugal in particular are doing better. We wait to see if Macron in France walks the walk on policy as much as he talked the talk about economic reform. We wait to see how long Germany’s Merkel and Britain’s May will survive in their jobs. Turkey is a wild card and seems to be all over the place; at last count they were about to stage attacks in Syria allied with the Russians against the Iranians. The one thing the Turks know they are against are the Kurds.

Israel’s Netanyahu probably has the best relations with Gulf Arabs that any Israeli leader ever had. He’s also doing well with China, Latin America, Africa and Asia. They view him as a force for economic development and stability; America they’re not so sure about these days.

Hot Chocolates@Hanselman’s cafe in St. Moritz

I was in an Amazon bookstore in the Time Warner center in Manhattan, and I was impressed. It is a new retail concept for them, selling books in a brick and mortar store. They make the books look as appetizing as food, and they have a good selection of things to buy. Instead of trying to sell everything, they just stock things that are popular. They show a book and a sign says if you like this, you’ll love these other titles. They also sell games and electronics. I normally am a horrible shopper but I found myself buying more than normal at this store. If you have Amazon Prime, you get the discount in the store automatically, and it can be substantial. It is a good sign for Amazon.

Here’s an interesting study from the universities of Grenoble and Oklahoma cited in the Economist. The experiment tested wealthy and poor people in several countries to see if tax and or subsidy would influence people to buy more fruits and vegetables and fewer sugary items. Historically, it’s been believed that poor people ate fewer fruits and vegetables because they were expensive and the sugary stuff is cheap. The result was that the poor spent the extra money to buy more sweets and were not deterred by the tax. The rich who didn’t care about the tax since they didn’t tend to buy sweets spent their extra money buying more fruits and vegetables. So what we know is that people buy what they are conditioned to want to eat.

Another study by several economists used recent data from the Bank of International Settlements to conclude that it is not high tax rates that drive the very wealthy to stash money offshore. Scandinavians only put a few percent of their money offshore; the British and the Europeans about 15%. What drives money offshore is the threat of political instability; assets worth 50% of Russian GDP are kept offshore; in countries such as Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates the figure rises to 60-70%. Interestingly, the study notes that money stashed in Switzerland has gone down over the past 10 years while deposits in Hong Kong went up 600% between 2007 and 2015; that territory now ranks second behind Switzerland and reflects the surge of wealth in Asia.  One more interesting statistic – there are a total of 16.5 million people in the whole world who have $1 million in investable assets besides their home, its contents and collectable items. You’d think that figure would be higher in a world of 7 billion people.

People think that American manufacturing is down. In fact, it is at historically high levels. It just hit a 13 year high in fact according to an index cited in the Economist. Contrary to what the politicians are saying, the problem is not unemployment. The problem is a severe shortage of qualified workers to do the manufacturing work of today. Factories are spending lots of money modernizing and putting in robots, but they still need highly trained humans to oversee them. Minnesota for example needs 200,000 more trained workers. Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute calculate there will be 3.5 million job openings in the US between now and 2025, and 2 million of those jobs will go unfilled.

This month we will be going to Israel and to Athens, Greece in celebration of Elizabeth’s Bat Mitzvah.

The rest of this posting are Travel Notes from our summer holiday in Germany and Switzerland, in which we went to Schloss Elmau in Bavaria, Zurich, Lucerne and St. Moritz.

Picture perfect swimming at Schloss Elmau in Germany

Re-enacting Obama -Merkel G15 summit scene at Schloss Elmau

At Schloss Elmau, a resort in southern Bavaria about 90 minutes drive south of Munich which we have visited several times before, the new Retreat building has beautiful large suites facing the mountain but no air conditioning just like the old building. The building has its own spa and gym. I think it remains the best bet to stay in the old building at half the price; since there is no air conditioning, you are still going to be uncomfortable either place. They brought us fans for our room which helped a bit. The rock climbing area is gone (the environmentalists objected), but they still have lots of trampolines and it was warm enough to use the outdoor pools, which probably get used a few weeks per year. The new retreat building has an insanely beautiful infinity pool with mountain views that is for family use. A kid jumping on a trampoline with the hotel in the background with the caption “Never Stop Jumping” is all this resort needs for its advertising. This was our third visit to this hotel; they put in a Thai restaurant that is excellent considering I tend to avoid Thai food. The resort has been written up in the US and has more Americans there, but still mainly German clientele. Everything here remains top notch; the instructors for the kids in soccer, archery and tennis are world-class athletes. The nightly entertainment was a bit weird for my taste but it remains a cultural hideaway with great food, facilities, spas and activities. My kids loved the trampolines and believe it or not, the fresh butter.

Atop the olympic stadium at Garmische

Went to nearby Partnach Gorge which is in a park called Parten Kirche about a half mile behind the Olympic stadium in that area with the ski jump you can see from the road. It’s a great walk of about half an hour under big rocks with a river running between two mountains. You can get there with horse and carriage or just walk to it. At the Garmisch Olympic stadium (site of 1936 winter games) just parallel to the ski jump is the Flying Fox, a zip line that goes down the mountainside facing the stadium. It’s awesome but you have to climb the mountain yourself to get on the zipline going down. Nearby is the sonnerrodelbahn mountain coaster which is fun for kids. At the stadium there is an exhibit about the 1936 games. In town (Garmisch) there is a good bakery-cafe right in the middle of the pedestrian walkway.

Almost an hour drive away is the Innsbruck, Austria railway station to catch train to Zurich, about 3.5 hours away. The railway has great food; I can’t understand how Amtrak can’t do this in America. The Park Hyatt Zurich has high level staff used to catering to world elites, and we saw plenty of them there living the high life on money they probably steal from their own countries. The gym was surprisingly sparse for such a hotel. Food was good. The room was nice but they had to send an engineer to show us how to turn on the shower when we and the housekeeper couldn’t figure it out. Good shopping at Jelmoli, Globes, Manor and C&A. The last two stores offer great values for kids clothes. And Co-Op was also a good place to buy stuff at reasonable prices. Hotel laundry was ridiculously priced but I spoke to a manager and they gave me 50% off, so you don’t have to be scared just because the price sheet says so.  The location is a 7 minute walk from the paradaplatz about 2 blocks from the lake, but once you learn to use the trams it is only a block from a tram station and there is a tram running down the street virtually every minute.

HILTL vegetarian restaurant was quite good, but we were so loaded up with carbs from it that I felt like a rock in my stomach and my son threw up the next morning.  I feel better when I have fish or some other protein. It was also pretty pricey for eating veg; buffet for 4 of us came to $120.

Sprungli Chocolates

Besides Sprungli on the paradaplatz, which of course is a brand name for chocolates and all sorts of takeout sweets and sandwiches, Holdon has a good bakery and lovely canapes, and it is on Rennweg, a pedestrian street running parallel to the Bahnhofstrasse. The National Museum behind the main railway station is a great place to take kids. Elizabeth loved going down the indoor slide and jumping into a bin of ping pong balls. There was a special exhibit on jewelry that was very well done. We went up a funicular to see a nice city view from the university. The Karl Weber toy store across the street from the railway station has a big indoor slide and some nice toys.  There were nightly free concerts near the Co-Op Store on the Bahnhofstrasse; Karen and I had the fortune to dance to Dancing Queen from Mama Mia, our wedding dance song.

We did a day trip to Vitznau with light lunch at the Parc Hotel Vitznau, which is an adult-oriented retreat on a beautiful lake, followed by a boat ride along the lake to Lucerne and a walk around town to see the Lion monument. You can get tickets covering both the trains and the boats because they are both public transportation in Switzerland. You can get day passes for kids for less than $20 each, and perhaps a weekly pass would make sense if you travel enough, but you need to purchase this outside the country before you arrive. Allow several weeks for the passes and tickets to come to you through the mail.

At the gorge in Garmische

Anything not to go to the art museum in Zurich

We had a private tour and tasting at Max Chocolatier in Lucerne where we met with a chef and learned how chocolate is made, and made our own exquisitely decorated and flavored chocolate bar. Kosher dinner at the local JCC’s Olive Garden which seems expensive but is probably just a bit pricier than the average kosher Manhattan meat restaurant. The food was not bad, but it is best if you stick to the schnitzel and skip soup and dessert. The restaurant is a 15 minute walk or 2 tram stops from the hotel. Our 7 days of luck without rain ended and then we went with the kids to the Kunsthaus, the art museum, for a painful hour of looking at masterpieces before leaving town to St. Moritz via a 3 hour train ride, where I was a bit perturbed that the kids were more interested in their familiar video games on iPads than the awesome scenery amid the mysterious clouds.

Blowing bubbles at the glacier from hotel in Pontresina

I had wanted to stay at the Carlton Hotel in St. Moritz but it is now closed during the summer so we went on a Swiss friend’s advice to nearby village of Pontresina and the Grand Hotel Kronenhof, which is sistered to the the Kulm Hotel in St. Moritz. It’s a charming old world hotel with a gorgeous new spa and an excellent dining room that offered a high level of cuisine and exquisite desserts – nothing ordinary. It pays to get half board (dinner and breakfast) and there is a set menu each night, and they will bring you plenty of other stuff if you ask for it. Every hotel I went to brought me avocado in the morning, for example and the kids enjoyed beautiful egg dishes – the fruits, veg and eggs here are just among the best similar to Japan.  We found the staff and management of this hotel exceedingly warm and welcoming. One night they knew the menu would not work for us and they told us what they had made us for dinner. Taking the bus into St. Moritz round trip for two adults and two kids came to about $35 so they told us they would give us free shuttles to and from town. Every inch of the hotel is looked after, and we enjoyed the fresh flowers everywhere. The kids get all the free ice cream they can eat. The spa offers a wide variety of treatments and the saunas are interesting. The views from the rooms facing the mountains and glaciers are really cool. The gym is a bit more than adequate. The various public salons are very historical and pretty. This is a place better visited before late August when the kids have all gone back to school and the temperatures start to cool. It snowed while we were there the first week of September. You can dance in the bar at night and there is lots of music in the lobby at tea time, in the dining room and at the bar afterward. The hotel gives you a pass to ride funiculars up the various mountains. We had lunch two days at Hanselmanns in St. Moritz (one of the days we ate there and the other we took it out to the train). Karen likes the kitchenware store in the central part of the city (there is only one). They built an escalator from Badrutt’s Palace hotel in St. Moritz down to the railroad station and there is a car park there. It is a lavish project of Swiss engineering. In the summer we don’t appreciate the intense traffic that takes place here during the winter which this project is meant to alleviate. The escalator also leads you right to the lake. You can make the transfer in about 7 minutes walk. There is the leaning tower behind the town, and the Kulm Hotel has a beautiful lobby worth sitting in for a while. The railway station features fresh flowers and plants. It’s a very pleasant city.

At the Diavolezza Bernina glacier

We took the train to Alp Grumm which is about a 45 minute ride. You can get off for about 15-20 minutes and admire the views and then get on another train heading back to St. Moritz and get off after about 15 minutes at Diavolezza, which is a mountain peak reached by cable car. There are tons of snow at the peak and you can throw snowballs, look at the glacier and the week we were there you could have probably skied down the slopes. You can get between Pontresina and St. Moritz with a regional train, so you don’t have to get off at a stop such as Samedan and take a bus.

While Switzerland does have its $6 mangoes, they also tend to be some of the best you’ll ever taste. Some things I really love about this country are that you won’t find any dirty bathroom (it’s as if every place is entered into the cleanest bathroom of the country contest), no potholes, no late trains, and no stray trash. The kids noticed right away how clean everything is. I still wonder why the toilet paper here is mostly still very hard. Hotels have small gyms; people here seem to prefer just going outdoors and doing stuff to be active. I enjoy Radio Rumantsch which offers traditional Swiss music nearly round the clock.  In Potresina we saw two very nice houseware stores, Rizzoli and Rominger, and you can imagine that it costs a lot of money here to decorate one’s house with these fine wood products they produce here. It is not furniture made in China.

 

At the gorge in Garmische

On our return to Zurich we spent our last night at a traditional Swiss hotel Bauer au Lac, and it is a really lovely property with a garden, just a block from the lake at the end of the Bahnofstrasse, and beautiful art and flowers, and a pretty breakfast room. Make sure to watch the hotel movie on the TV. The gym here is probably the best in town for hotels with a nice view of the lake. Rooms were very large. Other hotels nearby are the Savoy on the Paradaplatz – prices are the same and the hotel seems to offer much less for the money other than its location on a main square. The hotel Eden au Lack is probably very nice but it is next to the Opera House and quite a bit further away from the shopping areas. Flying we noticed that elite mileage passengers get first dibs on the menu choices in the air and everyone else gets the leftovers. Swiss Air ain’t what it used to be. Same deal by the way on Lufthansa coming over. It’s still pretty good but you either bring some food on board or be prepared to beg for it if you want to choose from a menu and get your first choice.

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