Global Thoughts — 15 April 2024 including travel notes Davos, Jamaica, Italy (Rome, Naples, Pompeii)

The Blue Hole, Jamaica

There is a lot of stuff here and I suggest you enjoy this over the Passover holiday. It’s all really good though. I switch subjects a lot so if you are bored with one subject, just go to the next item.

Jeremy texted me “I love Arabs today.” His school, with maybe 5 Moslem students out of 350, gave him off for the end of Ramadan. If Iran declares a holiday and they’ll give him the day off, he’ll go for that too.

I’m trying to round up 45 high school classmates to invite to a 40th high school reunion. It’s turned out to be a Herculean task — virtually every girl got married and changed her last name, nobody had an email address or cellphone, and all the landlines and addresses that belonged to the parents that were listed in the yearbook are long defunct.

I was in the gym watching two TV screens. One of them had a UFC fight going on, and the other showed the skies of Tel Aviv waiting for Iranian drones and missiles to arrive. All week long I was reading of private messaging going on between the US and Iran via Oman, Germany and whatever to let them know the strikes would happen but not too much to risk escalation. I felt that like the Saturday night volley was theater for the Iranians to save face after they took some serious hits from the Israelis. Jeremy thought the Israelis should just send the Iranians a list of targets they wouldn’t mind if they hit.

Maybe you are wondering who my wife of 20 years is anyway? She was recently honored for being a woman who achieved a high professional position in an industry in which women do not feature prominently. If you’re curious, take a look at this one minute video and see something about Karen Heilig. You do not need to log in to Facebook to watch it. https://fb.watch/r6waXYY1yi/

President Biden drove by our neighborhood and 5 days in advance the police started putting up barricades. Had he just driven by, nobody would have noticed. Instead you might as well be a sniper and go rent an apartment and get ready with all that warning. My son joked with an officer, “You don’t need a bomb to kill him, just a cold.” The amount of money and manpower that gets spent every time a president simply passes by a place is astounding. And we are protecting two people these days that nobody really wants.

If you want to know the President’s schedule, there is a website that shows it the night before. The Secretary of State’s schedule is also posted online. If you want to know the Vice President’s schedule, good luck. I searched all over the place and can’t find it. I guess she must be too busy to post what she isn’t doing.

Don’t try this at home: Remember Saddam Hussein of Iraq? His son-in-law made a disgraced subordinate drink gasoline and then shot him to see if he would explode. Sounds like a great chemistry experiment.

Speaking of other nutcases, I think that people like Marjorie Taylor Greene ought to be given a real job with real responsibilities and let’s see how she does. Having people in Congress that are just complete blow-hards who have never had a real brush with responsibility is just driving our country insane. If she had any idea of what it means to do what she is doing, she might stop and maybe people like her wouldn’t keep Congress from doing its job. Just in case this is not clear, she is a Congresswoman from Georgia who has some weird ideas and now wants to get rid of the speaker of the House for making a deal to keep the government from shutting down. There is basically no deal in anything resembling a parallel universe to prevent this that she was interested in supporting. A group of Maga-type people apparently just want disruption for the sake of disruption.

Boarding in Davos, Switzerland

If you like Jeremy’s humor, here’s some more. We were in Switzerland and went to see the Davos Hockey Club play. Jeremy’s favorite part of being a fan is to insult the players, but even though we couldn’t speak Swiss-German, we could tell that nobody in the stadium was trashing the players. Instead, they were chanting all sorts of supportive ditties. This was intolerable to Jeremy who watches Yankee games behind people who snipe at the opposing pitcher with lines such as “Your mother hates you” and started coming up with backhanded compliments that he could shout aloud without risking a riot. Fans near us must have been wondering what the heck he was saying even if they could understand English:

Top 4 Made-For-Swiss Hockey Trash-Talk Insults by Jeremy: 1. Your bed is always perfectly made. 2. You look handsome in your uniform. 3. You look like you use 3-in-1 shampoo (something little kids use). 4. I’ll bet you returned your shopping cart today!

I was working out in a hotel gym in LA and wound up talking to this 64 year old rather buff guy who leads expeditions for National Geographic scientists and engineers. He’s rather good with knives and bushmen. His 14 year old son was too lazy for his taste so he threw him out of the house for a summer and sent him to China to live with the monks. The second summer his son went back voluntarily. I saw a photo of what he looks like today and damn, he looks like a monster. He really learned a lot of kung fu with those monks. Something to think about if you’re stuck at home with a lazy kid. I asked my nephew what his hobby was and he said “laying in bed cuz I’m really lazy.” Jeremy said that his cousin sounded like his kinda guy.

When kids were about 2 years old we went through the Terrible Twos, where the kids always say No to everything. Now I’m in the “Getting Parents to Yes” stage where the teenagers just want me to say yes to everything they want to do and I’m not necessarily inclined to agree. Sticking points range from riding on e-bikes all around New York City even at night to telling me they’re going one place and actually going somewhere else. At a certain point, you can say No but they just lie to you anyway. And at a certain point, they graduate high school and leave the house anyway, so do you really want to tell them what they can do after their 12th grade prom when a few months later they will be completely on their own on some college campus where there will not be any parent-teacher conferences?

I don’t know if it is my age, but every time I move around the house or do anything, I am constantly aware of my body and trying to avoid injury, especially with regard to my back. I am careful juggling balls because I have to keep bending to pick them up and every time I bend I am afraid of putting myself out for a week. If I have a day without back pain, I feel thankful. I train a lot, so that I could be part of it, but my trainers are all in their 20’s and 30’s and say their back never goes out on them. So maybe it’s the fact that I’m Jewish, and Jews complain a lot. You never see any Jewish trainers out there, right? My Korean chiropractor says that other nationalities complain too. He and another back doctor say the dividing line is that people who never go to back doctors don’t realize that they walk around in pain all the time because they’ve never felt a lack of the pain.

We had a house guest who had to take a train back to her home in Philadelphia. I thought a one-way ticket would cost about $50-70. The cheapest ticket on a Sunday for same-day travel was $133 and most trains cost $169. If you wanted Acela service (the somewhat faster train), it was between $220 and $330 for a ticket. Compare that to our trip in February from Davos to Zurich first class on Swiss rail for $115 a ticket. Of course, Amtrak is not first class by any means and their trains are much slower and the distance between NYC and Philadelphia is less than half the distance between Davos and Zurich. Americans are paying way too much for train service on a government-sanctioned monopoly. They are begging people to take buses and cars. Although you could take commuter rail for way less (although it takes longer): New Jersey transit between NYC and Trenton NJ is $17 a ticket and then Septa between Trenton and Philadelphia is another $10. A bus ticket is $20, so that’s pretty good, especially since trains don’t get caught in traffic jams.

The average American thinks they need $1.5 million to retire. The average person has saved $88,000. Oops.

Pity Tucker Carlson. The guy fawns all over Putin and gets blasted in the US for giving Putin a free pass during his TV interview. Then Putin says that he was bored during his interview because Carlson didn’t ask him any real questions.  No one deserves more.

Remember you read this here first: I have a bad feeling that something will happen in 2025 that involves kicking America’s ass. Biden’s team is too predictable and wussy and Trump’s team will be inexperienced. America’s enemies know they have a free kick to use against us. They are preparing for it, and America is too busy worrying about some aliens at the Mexican border to bother with it. Middle East experts know that Iran is close to the nuclear threshold and working feverishly toward it, while the world is occupied with Ukraine and Gaza. Israelis and American officials know this is a problem but don’t have the bandwidth to deal with it and are in denial hoping they can wait until the pile in their Inbox goes down to leave it to be dealt with. The same Israeli expert told me that in 2006, the Israelis knew that the deal with Hizbullah was a farce (UN resolution 1701 to provide border security with Lebanon) but were OK with the lie because it kept the peace for 18 years. I feel this is peace like a bank loan with interest that piles up and now has to be paid back, except nobody can afford it. Worse, they will create another farce and Israeli evacuees will go back to their homes at the northern border, and then 6 months later Hizbullah will return to the border and again the Israelis will be afraid to take action because everyone is back at the border facing each other. I see really bad times ahead both for the US and for Israel. For investment purposes, people should think about what you invest in during times of war. I’m looking at funds that invest in industrial type companies.

Back to Lebanon for a minute: The Israelis are preparing to fight there. The army is currently doing what is known as “battlefield shaping operations” meaning they are preparing the terrain for war-like operations. So for instance, they are destroying all sorts of trees and obstacles that would give cover to snipers. Lebanese territory south of the Litani River to the Israeli border is a wasteland. Remember that there are thousands of people out of their homes and school starts in September. People want this over and done so their kids can go back to school.

Who comes after Bibi Netanyahu as Israel’s next leader? Naftali Bennett, who recently served as prime minister, actually leads among the right-wing parties and got good marks during his one year stint for collegiality and getting things done. Bibi wants Yossi Cohen, former head of the Mossad, to take over. But historically, heads of intelligence and army generals are poor political leaders because they are used to giving orders instead of forging compromise. Funny thing: Had Bibi left office with the last election, right now everyone would probably be clamoring for him to return to the prime minister’s chair. He wouldn’t have been blamed for October 7th. Instead, by staying past his sell-by date, he will go out in disgrace bearing the blame for all that happened.

Central Park in NYC at night

I recently heard an Arab say something profound about the Palestinians: He said that because their culture glorifies every possible outcome and does not allow for admission of failure, there is no resiliency built into the Palestinian people. If you fight Israel and stay alive even if you lose, you are a freedom fighter. If you fight and die, you are a martyr. But you never lose, so how can you bounce back? People learn through failure and bounce back from it. They are stronger for it. Jews are resilient because throughout their history they fail and come back.

I also heard an interesting argument about this whole colonial business about Zionism. The progressive argument is that Jews are colonizers of Palestine and therefore evil. If the lens of history is only this century, that works. But consider 2,000 years of history with the Jews in Palestine rising against their colonial masters in Egypt, Greece, Rome, Babylon, Ottomans and British, and there could be no better story of anti-colonialism than the Jewish freedom fighters who fought against all of these colonizers who came from the outside to rule Palestine. I’m mentioning it here because it’s useful to know the counter argument to this garbage passing as scholarship. My wife sat in a zoom on a panel of college professors discussing the Gaza war and somebody asked a question about the prospects for future Israel leadership and how it would affect Palestinians. The person said that she didn’t care about anything involving Israel – she only wanted to deal with colonialism, privilege, and the rights of starving Palestinians in Gaza. It was total garbage because it was completely devoid of any interest in knowing anything about the real world beyond slogans and catchy words.

I have a broader problem with this whole college thing. It starts with the idea that merit no longer counts in your favor but rather is a mark of privilege that should be renounced. It’s a total cop-out and it’s in line with rejecting all the things that made America great – the ideas that hard work gets you somewhere instead of the color of your skin. Fortunately, I think that people are starting to realize that this is crap and things are starting to move in the other direction. Problem is the Republicans are so crazy that they are rejecting leftist fascism with their own brand of the same. For Jews it’s all bad news, because societies that say that you don’t earn what you achieve but that if you have it, it should be taken away from you, is never a good omen for the future. This will hurt America as a whole and it adds to the general debasement of American culture that is taking place as American values are being rejected on both sides of the political aisle. Isolationists on the right who think we shouldn’t stand up to Russia now before Putin plays Hitler with the rest of Europe, and leftists who think that Hamas should stay in Gaza and are blind to the fact that Hamas is just a front for Iran that is taking on the whole Middle East with its death cult and dead-end ideology that ruins every nation-state in which it resides (think of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran) with Russia and China praying for them to succeed and further sow confusion in the West– both sides in America are helping to destabilize the world as we know it by falling for this disinformation and siren song, and we will pay the price for it. More about this college stuff later.

Trevi Fountain, Rome

Maybe it’s necessary so that we can be shocked to our senses and regain some common sense for another century. After Pearl Harbor, it was hard to find an isolationist who wouldn’t admit that we were punched in the face by the Japanese and had to go to war with them. And nobody stopped the war after we killed the same number of Japanese who killed us. Nothing about proportionality. We fought that war to win. Since then, America has forgotten how to fight to win. The Israelis refuse to do that, because they can’t afford to lose. That’s why they won’t listen to the US tell them what to do in Rafah or Lebanon. It does matter that they can’t go far without American weapons, but at the end of the day, the leaders of the West and the Gulf know what this is about, even if they won’t say it publicly. The UAE didn’t’ sign a peace agreement with Israel because they like Jews; they signed because they are an ally that fights to win and you want them on your side in case the US doesn’t show up on the day of the war, something they saw Trump do very well when they and the Saudis were attacked by Iran and its Houthi proxies.

I think I mentioned some months ago that I rented a wholly electric vehicle and hated the experience. I told Avis I only wanted hybrids or regular cars. They told me that hardly anyone wanted the hybrids. I thought they were great because you get so much mileage to the gallon with them and the convenience of knowing how to refill the gas tank. Now I read that hybrids are selling like hotcakes and that the wholly electric cars are not.

Let’s talk about China. Did you know that 600 million Chinese people live on $139 a month. And I thought Jamaicans who get $20 a day were poor. The Chinese just raised the minimum pension by $2 a month, which is actually a big deal as a percentage jump over the present amount they were receiving. Gotta wonder how low that figure must have been.

China is creating huge trade surpluses all over the world by dumping exports below cost rather than trying to increase domestic consumption in order to lift their economy. They are going to have a big confrontation all over the world including in Europe, which is reeling from this onslaught. Meanwhile, the discount on Russian oil to China is down from 10% to 5% over the past 2 years. But even though the axis of powers that opposes the US (meaning North Korea, Iran, China and Russia) are working together, they still have lots of opposite interests and are really not much of a threat, which is probably why you won’t see the West do a whole lot to oppose this alliance because the more the US does to drive them together at a certain point, the more they will try to create alternate payments systems to get around the Western ones. So far they have had limited success with all their machinations. What you do see by the West led by the US is a ratcheting up of sanction effectiveness and this slowly is deterring members of this alliance in doing things together that piss off the USA. It’s a tricky game to play – hurt them enough to keep them down, but don’t kick too hard to get them to stand up taller.

I’ve written several times about the bad economic stories out of China. I recently read an interesting article by an economist in Foreign Affairs arguing that people are exaggerating the economic problems in China and that they are doing better than people are giving them credit for in terms of investments and indicators such as inflation. I’m not an economist and I can’t tell you for sure, but I would at least say that educated people can disagree as to how China is doing, but the bulk of what I’m reading is negative and certainly the elite and foreigners are pulling their money and people out. They may still have 30 million companies in the country, so anything that goes on there is going to be big. I will return to China later in this posting.

The gender gap is widening worldwide as more women than men go to college and are exposed to liberal ideas. Women are actually starting to do better than men in some places.

Spanish Steps, Rome

Someone wrote a book calling for a limit on a person’s wealth and figured that $1,000 less to that person wouldn’t make a big difference to a millionaire but to a poor person it would make a huge difference. The Economist’s reviewer posed the question as to what would happen if a government set a limit of $1 million on each person’s income. The answers: People would leave, cheat on their taxes, not invest in companies (why would you risk money if you were already above the limit if the price of further success was to give all of it away). Government would wind up doing all the investment in the country, and we all know that governments are poor investors. No successful person would continue working once they reached the limit of what they could keep. So the rest of society would never get any benefits from that person. Five countries currently have tax rates so high at 70% (Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Austria and Belgium) that those countries would make more money if they would lower their tax rates.  You can compare this to what I wrote recently about Picketty’s discredited theory that inequality in the world went up over the past 50 years. In fact, globally, inequality went down significantly and within countries it hardly changed.

Here’s an issue for Republicans. I’m sick of toilets that don’t flush, showers that don’t have good water pressure and air conditioners with sensors that make them not work well to cool rooms. The environment might be happier with all these regulations that force companies to produce products that are more useless, but humans are not being treated well with all this. I have no doubt that we will all destroy each other way before we destroy the planet.

When Alex Navalny returned to Russia after being poisoned and then was arrested upon his return, I said he must have been the dumbest white man alive this side of the Mississippi. Now that he’s been killed after rotting in prison, don’t you agree? The only thing that surprised me is that he continued to be allowed to live as long as he did. Considering that he wanted to be the new leader of Russia, you have to look at this guy and wonder if you would want such a reckless guy to be in charge. At least the Ayatollah Khomeini waited his turn in Paris in exile before returning AFTER the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

I had this random thought during the middle of the night. When I have those, I make sure to write them down so that I don’t stay awake worrying that I will forget about it in the morning. Anyway, my thought was that when I left Tel Aviv last month, the departure board still looked quite full even though the majority of flights into and out of the country were not operating. Contrast this with the departure board in Mumbai, India in 2005 where there were about a dozen flights for the whole day.  Even in the middle of a war with foreign airlines staying away, Tel Aviv still had a dozen flights per hour going out.

I’m concerned when I read that Gulf countries hosting US air bases such as the Emirates and Qatar are restricting US operations against Iran and its proxies. They obviously are more afraid of the Iranians than they are confident of the US protection they get from these bases.

Have you noticed that gyms all over the world look the same? They even have the same TechnoGym equipment. Once in Cuba I saw a gym that looked different, but that was because everything there was about 30 years old.

In my last edition, I gave you the rundown from a senior Israeli diplomat who said that a driving force behind the Israeli priority of returning hostages from Gaza was the social contract between its government/army and its citizens. We recently hosted an Israeli paratrooper for dinner who finished his reserve service in Gaza and he also put this high on his list. He said that if Israel decided it wasn’t worth risking lives to get hostages back, nobody would believe in the state anymore. Both this person and the diplomat were very animated when they referred to the rape of Israeli female hostages. Hamas might enjoy the spectacle of raping Israeli women but it is really motivating Israelis to take revenge and to keep fighting.

I asked this soldier two questions: What surprised him the most about Gaza? He was expecting a shithole and said the place was much nicer than he expected. He also said he got a better night’s sleep in Gaza than at home. What did he learn from the past few months? That the world as we know it is held together more by a thread than we realize, and that we need to work harder to preserve stability. He said that he considered himself liberal, but that he didn’t expect such a primitive kind of attack supported by civilians and that he now felt less sympathy for the other side. He never expected to find himself fighting in this kind of war.  I think this is one area where the intelligent reasonable person sitting outside the country is not going to “get” the understanding that the Israelis felt super-violated and that hardly anyone there is in the mood right now to talk about any kind of two state solution, even if it seems obvious to the rest of the world that recent events only prove its necessity even more.

Pantheon, Rome

I’ve said in the past that China is failing economically for the long term and that Xi is a real danger to his country with awful policies. I’m repeating that now. The Economist mentions that 10% of the population has a net worth of between $100,000 and $1 million USD. 50% of the wealth in the country is held by this group of people; they also hold 65% of shares in the stock market and 61% of investment funds. The government is letting these people lose their money in bad investments that the government should have regulated or taken an interest in. The government’s sense is that they are rich anyway so let them suffer. The problem is that trust built over the past 40 years between this demographic and the government has been squandered and they are not going to invest in the country in the future. They have less money to spend and China needs its citizens to spend money inside the country. They travel, pay for kindergarten, consumer goods and medical services. Excess savings now accounts for about 3.2% of China’s GDP, a very high figure because citizens who are afraid to spend or invest are instead saving their money. Foreign investment is tanking as well after so many slashes and burns over the past 5-10 years under this government. It doesn’t help that foreign and Chinese executives keep disappearing and surface in jail on trumped up charges or dead. Or that there is nonstop corruption in the country and that anti-corruption drives by government seem more to establish control and vanquish enemies than to actually deal with corruption. Are Chinese missiles filled with popcorn with corrupt generals in charge? Xi has to wonder. I don’t see where any of the private sector is going to help China move forward for the next 10-20 years. The country needs that sector to spend money and to invest it so that its capital markets can work. Not happening as the government keeps showing that political control and party ideology is much more important to it than having businesses succeed (and that it’s willing to trash companies in favor of ideological fixations and perceived threats to national security that have made it impossible for many companies to do business there).  And the poor people – well, I’m reading articles about millions of Chinese laborers inside China who haven’t been paid for months. When any of these people in either sector complain, they get arrested and locked up. So tell me, what’s working here?

Nevertheless, China is trying its best to get its citizens to stop using US technology, such as Apple phones. They want to make sure that if there is a war with the US, they are not reliant on US tech. Meanwhile, the US continues to be highly reliant on Chinese parts to run its tech. Not such a good thing.      The Chinese also showed that the US couldn’t hold Huwaie back from creating a pretty good phone with advanced chips even though the US set out to destroy the company’s ability to do just that. I’ve never been a fan of sanctions; you can see that it hasn’t stopped Russia or Iran one iota in terms of its activities. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the US keeps working to make sanctions more effective and there are occasional gains, but for the long haul, I don’t believe sanctions as a primary source of coercion work or are really in our national interest because they harm us more than they hurt the other side.

I’ve spoken to several Ukrainians in the US who say that fellow countrymen are getting tired of the war against Russia and that they don’t want to keep fighting for a corrupt government. People are starting to avoid military service; there were always some of these but now there are more. They are starting to figure that Trump will abandon Ukraine and they will lose the war, so what’s the point of fighting during the coming year if the end result is already in doubt? This matters because the country needs more soldiers and motivation counts. The Russians are not motivated and in fact simply send people to get killed, but the problem is that they wear down Ukrainians at the front and the Russians have also gotten better at dealing with areas they were weak before erasing advantages Ukraine had a year or two ago. They have the momentum going their way and if Trump wins, they walk off with it. No reason for Putin to negotiate anything with Biden over the next year especially with the GOP lined up against any more aid to Ukraine. I don’t know what congressmen are hearing in private, but I suppose they are being told that Ukraine is corrupt and we keep hearing stories of scandals with military aid. They are being told that the Ukrainians don’t take our advice and are losing because of it, and that also turns off Republicans from being enthusiastic about supporting the cause and Democrats are not all that upset either about the holdup. Remember what I wrote a few months ago about the Russian who said the West is being stupid because the Russians outman and outgun the Ukrainians and it’s only a matter of time. Putin wants to win this more than the rest of the world does.

An interesting article I read says that one good reason to maintain ties with countries you don’t like all that much when they have dictators but don’t oppose such as Poland and the Philippines is that governments change and then you have the lines open to communicate with the new government. In both of these countries, the past year or so has brought greater democracy and new leadership and the US has made good progress dealing with both. Turkey’s Erdogan has announced he is not going to run for reelection in 4 years, which means that Turkey may also change its tone and the US needs to be ready for it.

Another way to think about Latin America: To most of America, they are banana republics that send us poor immigrants. These countries also have lots of important natural resources that could help make our supply chains less reliant on China. Even though many countries in Asia are supposedly taking production away from China such as Vietnam, India and even Mexico, it’s a phony change because the parts that go into the final production are still coming from China. India is producing more cellphones but they are also importing more parts from China. China has noticed that Latin America can be very useful and is making deals there; the US ought to pay more attention to the region and make deals for natural minerals and strategic commodities because otherwise in a crunch the Chinese will still be in the position to shut off supply to the West.

Pompeii

At the very beginning of the Ukraine conflict, I wrote that I asked leading experts on Russia “why do we care?” and then I told you the reasons I was told why we should care. But Trump has a point: why should we keep bailing out Europe if they just want to talk about security but not actually pay for it? And then taking that money and throwing tariffs on American goods? Scaring them by telling them that we’d let Putin overrun deadbeat NATO countries might get them to be serious. So far during the past 2 years since this Ukraine thing started the Germans talk about change but they haven’t really done anything. It’s just been talk and the German leader is in bad political straits because he is disdained as a leader. Britain and France have militaries that are a joke. Most Americans couldn’t care less if Russia took over Ukraine and even the Baltic states. The media and think tank analysts can keep saying that we should care but I don’t think that people care. This is another reason why Trump will confound his critics and probably win the election. When the Iranians struck Saudi Arabia, Trump said that as long as Americans weren’t killed, he didn’t care. And he was probably correct in that Americans are not interested in protecting Saudi Arabia against Iran. This all might be penny wise and dollar foolish but that is a different discussion.

The Economist had an interesting analysis of swing voters that will decide the upcoming US election. It says that if Trump wins, it will be because poor White, Black and Hispanic parents of children who were locked down from school during the pandemic and have suffered the effects of inflation vote against Biden. Abortion is not going to be a critical issue because it is not affecting swing voters – meaning people who vote differently from one election to the next.

There is something seriously dysfunctional about having a system of government where the executive cannot deliver anything because it is the legislature that must pass all the laws and they consistently fail to act. In Britain, the legislature and executive are controlled by the same party. I would hate to be president and not be able to make treaties or agreements with other countries because Congress has never ratified a treaty of any importance in something like 50 years. This year Congress ratified one treaty and it was on double taxation with Chile that was presented to it in 2012. This is nuts. It doesn’t look like there is anything a president could do today that would get Congress to approve. The Republicans blocked their own immigration reform bill just to make sure that nothing got done to fix the problem in an election year. I read an article about a pending immigration bill in 2006 and it could have been written today because nothing has been done. Is this why people are deserting Congress in droves, because there is no reason to be there?

Much as I like having a GOP Congress block a Democratic president from raising taxes, I feel that if you vote for someone to be president, the guy deserves a fair chance to have his program enacted. Even if the president is Trump. Otherwise, what’s the point of voting for a president who runs on a party platform? Right now it’s the worst of everything. The GOP Congress vetoes the Democratic program but has no proposals of its own. So nothing gets done. Meanwhile, the rest of the world goes on. At least we have great Super Bowl halftime shows. Washington doesn’t regulate those. It’s the one area where the rest of the world admires America. China could put on an impressive show with 100,000 synchronized minions waving placards, but nobody wants to be like China. Darn, I thought Usher looked really good at age 40 doing the halftime show! You should see his big yacht right on the creek in Miami Beach.

Washington DC cherry blossoms near the Jefferson Memorial at night. Amazing these iPhone 15 cameras, huh?

I read an article in Foreign Affairs written in 1963 by Dean Acheson, who once was US secretary of state and a founder of NATO. 60 years ago he wrote that if NATO didn’t get serious about creating a better conventional army inside Europe, the alliance wouldn’t stand the test of time. Europe couldn’t count on America using nuclear weapons to defend Europe unless the US itself was in great danger, despite the Article 5 fantasy that an attack on one NATO member would be treated as an attack against all. Trump is basically breaking a taboo by saying aloud what Acheson wrote 50 years ago, and truth be told, Europe still hasn’t done anything major to upgrade its conventional capability. The Ukraine war shows that nuclear weapons won’t stop conventional attacks and that if someone wins a conventional war, the likelihood is that nuclear weapons won’t be used to step in and stop the defeat. The answer for NATO is not for Europe to try to develop its own nuclear capability – Acheson wrote that whatever Europe could create wouldn’t be enough to deter Russia – but to get more serious about creating a better conventional defense to stop any invasion from the east.

Consider that the EU spent more money with Russia on oil and gas in the first year of the Ukraine war than it has provided to Ukraine itself in 2 years of war. Wonderful support, eh?

Europe is not really organized and committed and spends more time in-fighting than actually doing anything. For instance, it will argue over which country gets the defense contract to protect their home turf and then not really do anything or the thing they buy might not be worthwhile. Trump might do Europe a favor by kicking them in the ass and forcing them to get real about threats to the continent. They shouldn’t really believe that America will uphold Article 5 of the NATO treaty and send soldiers to defend them. You really think America will risk nuclear war to save Paris?

Some thoughts about Israel: 1. The Israelis would be in a bad situation if the US cut off its military aid. They can’t go a week in this war with Gaza or Lebanon without it. So even if they want to fight Lebanon, the US will ultimately decide if it will fight. Same thing with Rafah in Gaza. That said, I’m told that there is no way the Israelis could take Rafah in a manner that would please Team Biden who I’m told has no strategy of their own. So I am being told at a very high level that they will eventually wink and nod with the Bidens and the shit will happen.  2. I think that what is pissing off the US and other governments is that Israel tore up Gaza, has no interest in staying to occupy it, but doesn’t want to run the place either and the area is falling into chaos. To add insult to injury, 5 minutes after the Israelis leave a place, Hamas reappears. Netanyahu declaring he will fight until “ultimate victory” is unrealistic and the situation is exactly what I feared when I wrote in mid-October that if the Israelis want to occupy the place, they better be prepared to deal with the consequences otherwise they should just build a buffer zone and stay out of there. They appear to be building a buffer zone anyway but want to have it both ways. I spoke with a brigadier general this month and he’s a pleasant guy but was quite ambivalent about having to be responsible for Gaza while expecting to have their way throughout the territory.  As far as he is concerned, the war ended 2 months ago but nobody wants to say so.  3. This war has hurt companies. If you have a company in Israel, you have to pay the salaries of reservists who get called up. Nobody ever expected reservists to be called up for months at a time.  It’s not as if you can just plug in replacements in small companies especially if similar people are also being called up. It turns out that the government ultimately compensated companies for reservists. A company I know of that had an office in Israel recently made the decision not to make any future investments in Israel because the risk of having a payroll that doesn’t actually work is too high and the company took a bath paying for people who don’t work. This war is going to sour foreign investment there because you are looking at years of heightened military service and diverted economic resources with constant military threats from Israel’s borders and Iran. If Israel wants to maintain foreign investment, it’s going to have to protect foreign owners against stuff like this. And it won’t.

Me Tarzan, You Jane? In Jamaica.

I’d like to end with more on the issue of college. This whole college application thing has been a real crock as a parent. You are supposed to decide about a 4 year college career based on a 2 hour visit to a campus at an information session which could be “fill in the blank” with the name of the college in it, and a campus tour at which you see a few lobbies and some outdoor walkways. Nobody really answers any questions and you don’t get a chance to see anything, even if you call the admissions office before making a repeat visit. Of course, if you are Black or an athlete, you’d get a shadow and a red carpet. It’s not the way I want to make a decision about where to spend a few hundred thousand dollars and have my daughter go somewhere for 4 years. Kids are mainly making their decisions on brand identity and what their friends tell them. And of course pushy parents who feel their life’s work is a failure if their kid doesn’t get into the right college. On the other hand, as I will discuss below, college admissions boards also have to make decisions based on really flimsy evidence.

Some of the things I’m hearing about are really nuts and it makes you wonder what applying to college has come to.

For instance, now that the Supreme Court ruled on race-based affirmative action, kids are asking themselves if they should reveal that they are White when the common college questionnaire asks them for their race. Kids are thinking that they hurt their chances if they put down on the form that they are White. You’d think college admissions officers might figure these things out anyway?

The kids all have to write a 650-word essay that is supposed to tip the scales on their fates in the absence of personal interviews and anything else other than a transcript and maybe some standardized test scores. The average admissions board probably spends only a few minutes looking at someone’s college application so they also are making decisions with not much to go on. These essays are supposed to give the college a sense of who that kid is and why they should pick them. The essays don’t really do that; they are some kind of literary masterpiece written to appeal to the perceived biases of people on admissions boards at the prodding of everyone around the applicant who tells them that they must do things a certain way or expect to fail. They sort of tell you something about the kid but not really. Kids talk about how they have paid experts writing their essays for them. Some kids already attending a top school even said that they never even seen their essay before it went to the college. I’m really appalled by it except that I looked at the essays that I wrote 35-40 years ago for college and graduate schools, and they were awful; there is no way I’d get into any of these schools today with those essays. But at least I wrote them, and the admissions boards probably knew it and admitted me anyway. I wonder what college admissions officers think of the essays they are reading. Is it all a big charade with everyone in on it?

Somehow it seems to work; most kids wind up in the college that’s right for them. Otherwise, if it were truly failing, colleges would have to overhaul admissions quickly. I’ve been told that the Number One factor that decides if a kid is happy in college is the roommate, and that can be really random. Who knew?

Making Pasta in Rome

I think people are more jaded about college admissions than ever, and this affirmative action ruling has opened the floodgates to getting rid of legacy admissions, considering that 4x as many white kids were coming in that way than minorities who were gaining admission through affirmative action programs. At this point, the legacy admissions are preventing other white kids who are qualified from getting in because the colleges are taking inferior kids from other races to make up for it and the whole thing has become ridiculous. And everybody knows it to the point that when college admissions officers talk about “holistic” admissions policies and “merit”, you just look at them and laugh inside because you know it is total bullshit. And they probably know it too.  I predict legacy admissions will be gone within the next 5 years.

Consider another thing: Orthodox Jews are being accepted less at Ivy League schools. Their numbers are down by more than half over the past decade. One answer is diversity bla bla against White Privilege and Jews are considered part of that category, but I think the real reason is that Orthodox Jews have been attending now for a generation and when they graduate, don’t contribute money to these institutions. They keep to themselves and to their Hillel Houses while on campus and don’t contribute much to campus life. I think that colleges have decided they don’t carry their weight and are not worth giving valuable slots to even if they are good students. So are Asians but they are also in disfavor probably because they just work all the time and are not perceived to really add value to the community. That might be wrong in fact but clearly Asians are trying to look less Asian in order to get into colleges. Jews are trying to paint themselves as some kind of minority race such as Sefardi to get out from the White label. It’s all become a real joke out there.

I really don’t care where my kids go to college. I’ve just told them to figure out where they would best like to spend 4 years of their lives considering all the pluses and minuses of the given college. I’m not one of those people who believe that my kids’ success hinges on where they graduate from and I don’t need to brag about where my kid goes. It reduces a lot of pressure that way and hopefully produces happier kids.

If you want to read some more juicy things about the college application experience, check out my oped piece on this subject with this link.

Here are things I heard from reliable sources at the Washington Institute Conference held April 10-12 in Washington. I am a trustee at that think-tank that deals with Middle East policy issues from an American perspective. The annual conference is attended by a few hundred trustees and features talks by institute experts as well as leading officials in the region, such as Israel’s defense minister, the US deputy national security advisor, the Saudi Ambassador to the US and the deputy head of US Central Command.

One thing I noticed was not what I heard but how I heard it. Women at the conference are so different today than what Washington looked like 35 years ago when I first visited as a professional. They used to walk around in these power suits that looked very stuffy and official. Now they dress down and talk much more casually, almost like Valley-Girl talk and gestures sometimes. The Saudi Ambassador is a lady who came without any head covering and made gestures and used idioms from the podium that were very casual.  But she has a great history of doing things and was by far the best speaker at the 3-day conference and did a great job of selling her country. She was inspirational as a role model for women, especially for my 18-year-old daughter Elizabeth who I brought along with me to the conference.  Women are much more confident that they can portray their true selves a bit and still retain their credibility among the men in the room.

The Saudis and Emirates have great ambassadors in DC. Right now so does Israel, but just below him you get these party hacks they send over and they are lousy. If the Israelis really care about their public image, they ought to send better people abroad to represent them.

The Blue Lagoon in Jamaica

The Saudi and Jordanian intelligence chiefs said that Israel in Gaza fighting Hamas was fighting for all of them and they all want Israel to win. They just want it done in a day and with no civilian casualties or TikTok videos. They don’t want to see a wedge between the US and Israel; Iran is fighting on 7 proxy fronts and they know that if the US doesn’t stand by Israel, they will never stand by them. Things Jews take for granted in terms of the US-Israel relationship can no longer be taken for granted. Military aid might be conditional; you have 56 members of Congress calling for this. The idea that Israel will defend itself by itself may not be realistic anymore, so they may have to increasingly care what the US will allow it to do. This alliance needs a new regional project to keep everyone in support of it.

The dog that didn’t bark: Palestinians in the West Bank and Israeli Arabs have not joined in the Hamas frenzy. Cooperation in security by the Palestinian Authority has been excellent. None of the peace treaties in existence were suspended and none of the Abraham Accords countries backed out.

90% of the “students” at a recent NYU pro-Palestinian demonstration were not students. They were members of a socialist group that came in.

For the next several years, you are likely to see Gaza treated as an Area A or Area B territory as per the West Bank, meaning the Israelis will stay out people’s daily lives but enter at night to arrest whoever they want.

Hamas doesn’t expect to win; it just wants to survive. It feels that it wins by having more civilians die.  They didn’t build a single shelter for civilians. The mantra that you cannot kill the idea of Hamas is ludicrous; you kill an idea with a better idea. Once Arabs see that there is a better future with a two-state solution, they will abandon Hamas’s idea. A lead of Hamas said so itself in an interview about 20 years ago.

There is concern that if the war drags on and is somehow seen to affect the US election, no matter who wins the election, that there will be blowback to Israel and Jews in the US.

When the time comes, there will be a mass coordinated resignation of military and intelligence leaders in Israel and the Histadrut will call a general strike. And then the government will fall.

Half Moon Resort, Jamaica

Iran has an advantage of soft power in the region because it has coercive power and control over its allies. It shouldn’t because all of its allies are failed states because of Iran’s backward looking ideology. The rest of the Arab Middle East is divided among themselves and they don’t really like or trust each other. But several Arab countries such as the UAE and Saudi are swapping a narrative of Grievance for Opportunity and trying to show their citizens a path toward a brighter future. This is exciting and the Axis of Resilience will beat out the Axis of Misery.

Saudi’s message to Jews and Israel is that the war is between stable moderates and radicals and the forces of chaos, not Jews or Christians and Arabs. Their message is “take a leap of faith, trust us, and let’s try to see if we can create a stable and peaceful region and, once Iran sees that this is where the region is going, they will eventually tag along or at least be totally isolated. If it fails, well, we tried. But if it succeeds, the rewards will be huge for all.” Otherwise, they see a new generation of people being radicalized by misinformation about this war.  The extent of normalization with Israel depends on the government it elects; nobody is going to do much with the current government with radicals such as Ben Gvir and Smotrich in it.

The Saudis see China as colonizers and they along with the UAE are very clear-eyed about China, Russia and Iran. They see the Palestinian Authority as the best situated to run Gaza because they are the only ones with the local know-how.

The US top official for Gaza aid, a man with 40 years of experience who came out of retirement to do this job, said that if you flood the area with aid, the incentive for criminals to grab some of it and try to mark up its price dries up.

The NY Times got high marks for its Gaza coverage. After the initial mess-up reporting an aerial strike against a Gaza hospital, they “cleaned up their act.” The Washington Post has a cadre of editors and reporters straight out of prior gigs at Al-Jazeera and has been much less objective in its reporting.

The threat of coercive measures must be part of a package of incentives if you want someone with evil intent to do something. Simply incentivizing Iran or Hamas to do something is not going to work.

The Saudis want a treaty with the US to show Iran that if the Saudis make peace with Israel, the Iranians had better not attack it.

Regional actors such as Turkey are increasingly building their own weapons when faced with US sanctions. Often what they produce is better and cheaper.

Leaders do not need to like each other and often don’t. What matters is if they can trust each other to do what they say. (Saudi Ambassador)

The Houthis are not some rag-tag militia but rather a well-trained and armed force with top tech that’s been around for a good decade.

Jeremy flipping out at the Blue Hole in Jamaica

The Israelis are the only army in the world with a subterranean commando unit, and that unit is going inch by inch over a 300 mile long network, and their targeting in Gaza has generally been a model for the US to follow. This from the #2 guy at Central Command. They asked him what would he say to Israel right now and he said “We support you. What else do you need?” It was much more supportive than what we heard from the deputy national security advisor. He said that Mosul in Iraq is not comparable to Gaza; the US had months to evacuate the city and there was someplace for people to go. The complexity of Gaza is 10x that of Mosul in Iraq and that of anything anyone anticipated when this war started. (That last sentence was echoed as well by the top US official in Israel heading up relief efforts in Gaza).

Lebanon to the Litani River is now a wasteland. But even if Hizbullah is pushed back above the river, they have so much with which to threaten all of Israel with precision guided missiles that can hit key infrastructure points with great accuracy that life cannot return to normal in Israel as long as all that capability remains there. Israel will have to fight in that arena, but now may not be the right time. It needs time to rearm, rest and plan for a war it kept hoping to avoid except that it is like interest collecting on a debt.

 

TRAVEL NOTES – DAVOS SWITZERLAND

You might have noticed that I mentioned we spent a week in Switzerland this month, some of it in Davos. Last year I gave a more detailed rundown of our trip. Here are some additional findings from our week in Zurich and Davos: Passport control in Zurich was vastly improved over the previous year with good staffing. Uber picks up at the departure level just outside the terminal building. It’s roughly half the price of a taxi and they use GPS; on the way back to the airport I took a taxi and the fare came out to over $100 because the guy had no GPS and there was construction. The Uber from the airport was only $40.

We were reminded during a night in a “family suite” why it is better to have two separate bedrooms and bathrooms in a hotel when traveling with the kids. It’s a good reason why families hate vacations. Two of the big department stores in Zurich are closing their downtown stores (Jemoli and Manor which has already closed); the reason is that landlords can charge more rent to multiple smaller stores than one big store. A big attraction for us is the department stores and it will make Zurich less compelling a stopover. A cheap fish dinner in Zurich is Nordsee at the train station which closes at 9pm. It’s also useful if you don’t want a big sit down dinner after flying in that day. Zurich is still one of those places where on Sundays you have to find an emergency pharmacy if you want an aspirin. The city is eerily quiet even at 3pm on a weekday if you walk on its streets. The tram line is so silent you can walk in front of a moving train and not know it. An interesting restaurant for next time visit is Lindenhofkeller on the stairway to Lindenof Terrace from the Rennweg street. If you stay at the Widder Hotel on the Rennweg, you should know that Ubers cannot go on the street. Café Sprungli is still a great place to have lunch or afternoon tea. They stop taking orders at 4 and close at 5. There is a nice Italian restaurant between the Rennweg and the Bahnofstrasser called the Cantina Antori.

The House of Chocolate Museum about 10 minutes drive from the center of Zurich is a nice attraction with plenty of free samples included with your ticket. Sprungli café at the Paradeplatz has a takeout section with good food for the train rtide to Davos, which is about 2.5 hours. Everything was green until the last 30 minutes of the ride when it all turned to snow. Now that we have been there the year before, we knew to get off the train at the main station and go straight to the ski rental store and get the equipment and then take the shuttle to the hotel. Same thing on the way out of town. Saves a lot of time that way. If you buy a train ticket a month in advance before arrival and know which train you want, you can get a cheap price. Otherwise, the tickets will cost double the amount if you buy them on the fly. On a Sunday, it’s best to take the train back from Davos to Zurich; we saw standstill traffic for miles on the highway as we flew by on the train.

I don’t know if it is global warming but a few years ago my wife and I bought warm winter pants from Uniqlo for ski trips and so far they are still sitting in the closet with the tags attached. The tights aren’t being worn either. The problem with really warm pants is that you burn up in them once you get indoors to such places as restaurants and hotel lobbies where you might sit. The weather in Davos for 2 years in February was just not that cold and in Zurich it was as warm or warmer than New York City. I packed tee shirts and one dress shirt, one or two warm shirts, and a light coat from North Face that keeps you very warm. Gloves and a hat for when it was below freezing, and a mix of pants depending on how cold it is, but really, that’s about it. I wind up never wearing all the clothes I take on winter trips so I just keep taking less and less and it works out just fine.

T

Zurich

he Alpenhof hotel in Davos is a 20 minute walk from Jacobshorn ski area and has a great old-school Italian restaurant fantastic for lunch. The maître D’ is like Carson the Butler on Downton Abbey and he just tells you what he’s bringing to the table and you like it! The apple strudel out of the oven is best in class. Dinner at the SchatzAlp hotel at the top of a mountain reached by funicular is another old-school dining room and it’s a place where all sorts of people go to escape the city below. It’s not fancy but it’s excellent and the gardens in summer are famous. Café Schneider in the city is a steady-Eddie place for lunch or dinner and has a great bakery good for treats for the train ride back to Zurich. There is also a buffet at the Co-op supermarket near the train station.  Hochenweg restaurant at the middle station halfway up the mountain at Parsenn ski area is fun for rosti potato dishes and kaisershmarm plum dessert. The gym at our hotel (Steigenberger Belvedere) sucked but if you go 2 stops on the city bus down the road you wind up at Davos Fitness Center, a great gym that sells day passes for $25 apiece (a week is $75). You can stand on a treadmill and look at the ski runs.

There is a pretty lake in Davos and you can walk around it. We saw lots of Hassidic Jews everywhere in both Zurich and Davos. We don’t know why. They were a bit shocked when I wished them Good Shabbos as I saw them walking around the lake. Leave it to the Germans to come up with a word to describe a walk to get your body to digest your meal: Verdauungsspaziergang.

Jeremy lost his phone while skiing and we found out you can’t rent a phone here, so I bought one and figured we could keep it as a spare. Add to the packing list a spare cellphone into which you can insert a SIM card wherever you are to make it useful.

We stayed at the Widder hotel in Zurich on the way in and at the Park Hyatt on the way out of the country. The food situation on property is better at the Hyatt; the atmosphere of the hotel is more authentically Swiss at the Widder with unusual décor and rooms. The Widder has a beautiful gym; the Hyatt has a steam room and although its gym is small and sparse, there is a great gym and indoor pool next door.  The Widder is better for walking with your shopping close to the stores; the Hyatt is closer to the lake, but both hotels are within 12 minutes walk of each other. Ubers serve the Hyatt but not the Widder. This means that we had to walk with our luggage the last 2 minutes to the Widder hotel after being dropped off on a main street. The Widder is on a beautiful street, the Rennweg, with everything there you could possibly want. The Hyatt is on some boring street.  Bringing a foam roller with me was a good idea; I needed my own in 2 of 3 hotels I stayed at this trip.

At the Zurich airport, there is a Pret in Terminal E near the departure gates. Same at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris. Seems like Pret has become like McDonalds; the first and last thing you see when you enter the country as you exit the plane. Swiss says they will be halving the number of first class seats with their new A350 aircraft next year but will be introducing a premium business class service above their regular business class service. Wonder what that will be like. Swiss is one of the few remaining airlines to have a first class service.

JAMAICA

My son and I had such a good time in Jamaica a year ago that we returned this month with the rest of the family. There are many flights from all over the US and even Europe to Montego Bay Jamaica. Using the VIP service called Club Mobay to get through the airport on arrival is highly advised. It is not very expensive at about $50 a person. It is also useful upon leaving the country at $35 a person; you get access to a very nice airport lounge with Wifi which is a good thing because Wifi is not provided at the airport to the general public. Half Moon resort just 10 minutes from the Montego Bay airport is a real gem of a property; charming and chill with a great feel for the sea throughout the property. Facilities and food are equivalent to a 5-star resort anywhere else in the Caribbean and  you get much more value for your money here than at all the Ritz Carltons that are monopolizing the top-tier tourist trade elsewhere. You get great beaches, pools, food options, gym and spa. Rooms in the Hibiscus section are bright and large and face the ocean. Attractions in Jamaica include the Ocho Rios district with the Blue Hole swimming area where you jump off rocks near a water fall, Dunns River Falls, and, much closer to the hotel, the Luminous Lagoon where at night you splash around and make the water turn neon blue. Next visit we want to go in the other direction toward Negril and see Rick’s Café, where tourists and divers cliff jump, and the Seven Mile Beach which is supposed to be crystal clear. Jeremy liked the people here and the island vibe. It is a good idea to bring extra cash with you for tips to guides and admission fees; getting to an ATM here can be a real pain.

 

ROME AND NAPLES/ POMPEII ITALY

Having a teenager like Jeremy stay home for 2 weeks bored is not a good thing for US national security, so to save the world I took him to Italy for the rest of his spring break. We spent 4 days in Rome and Naples, Italy. The Rome airport Hilton is a 10 minute walk or a 3 minute shuttle ride from the main terminal and a good place to crash after a morning arrival. It has a great gym, pool and even pickleball courts attached. Day rates are about 150 Euros on the Executive Floor, which is not worth the extra premium because the lounge does not serve breakfast. This time in Rome, I tried out two hotels for a night in each: The de Russie by Rocco Forte which has been around awhile and is a top tier property, and the Bulgari. The de Russie was disappointing; it had no wow to it and they didn’t do anything to try and impress us. Its gym and pool were under renovation and its pool in any event is a wading pool. The location is about 10 minutes walk from the Spanish steps. Its sister hotel the De La Ville has a gym but it’s no big deal and it’s a long walk away. The Bulgari just opened this past year and it is a much better property with a stunning indoor pool, spa and a pretty good gym. The staff were very engaging and dinner there was memorable, although it is a modern Italian cuisine and you either like it or you don’t. Its location is across from the mausoleum of Augustus, also about 10 minutes walk from the Spanish steps. The metro in Rome doesn’t go near either of these hotels, but you can get taxis and Uber also works here (and you can get taxis via the Uber app). Taxis here are cheap; just 3 Euro to enter and you can go across town for $10; in NYC it’s almost $10 just to get in one. The metro is also cheap.

One thing we did was ride e-bikes late at night when the streets were clear. It wasn’t so bad even though many of the streets are with stones rather than pavement. “Lime” e-bikes can be grabbed wherever you find them and returned wherever you want to leave them. There is an app you use to find the nearest bike. You can literally walk 30 seconds from the Trevor Fountain and grab a bike and go to your hotel with it. GPS has changed the world for a tourist; you no longer need to walk around with a map. The GPS had us going down all kinds of weird alleys to get places and it actually works — you know before you start what time you will arrive and you can decide if you want to walk or take a taxi or Uber.

We ate at an old favorite called Emma’s Pizza near the piazza navone for modern Italian food. Also near that piazza is Frigidarium gelato which was rather good. I liked the coconut almond in particular. My favorite place for gelato is La Palma on Via del Pantheon, right up the street from the Pantheon. They have 150 flavors and a real authentic Italian circus kind of feel to the place. It may not be the very best gelato but it is good enough and can you really tell the difference at some point? Visited the cave of the capuchin friars and saw all the weird skulls in the crypt. I knew Jeremy would find the place creepy but cool. The Rinascente department store on Via Tritone is a few minutes from there; the store is excellent but no longer has housebrands for items such as wallets and pocket books. The stuff is higher end and boutiqued to name brands. But there is a lot of good style under one roof there. The more lower end store OVS is right across the street. A good store for men was Boggi de Milano on Via Babuino near the Spanish steps. One shirt store that I really like is called Dan shirts near the Spanish steps above the steps about 2-3 blocks away. They make really nice shiny white shirts and look great in photos that are reasonably priced. The best shopping in my opinion is on Via Nazionale, which is a 10 minute walk from the Rinascente. You can get really nice things there at a good price such as clothes, handbags and a quick lunch. The Vittore Emmanuelle monument is a great city view with a good lift, although you have to walk up quite a bit of stairs to get to it. Across from that monument right off piazza Venezia is Palazzo Valentini, a great archeological site that takes 80 minutes. We saw it 5 years ago and Jeremy didn’t remember it. It shows you what’s underneath you and the story of an old house at least 1,500 years old. Through computer imagery projected onto the ruins, you see what things would have looked like, and it’s amazing to find out how sophisticated the decoration of a senator’s house was during the Roman Empire. There was wall color, art and things such as antiques (to them) and books that showed status and learning. On certain tours, there is also a video that deciphers the scroll of images on a huge colonnade put up by one of the emperors about a war that everyone sees from piazza Venezia that nobody ever thinks about. Take the 5pm tour that includes the colonnade visit. There is only one or two of those tours each day. You can buy tickets to all these attractions in advance on the internet. Some of the tickets are timed, but not all. It saves you the trouble of standing in line everywhere.

We did a pasta making class at Fabioloso Day in Rome cooking school. We did this about 5 years ago and had fun, so we did it again. Jeremy didn’t remember it. We made 3 pasta dishes and tiramisu and then ate them. All great. It’s a 2.5 hour course and it costs about $150 a person. They had several kitchens and a bunch of US school kids on a trip were in the next room. Another great activity was the Vespa Sidecar tour of Rome; it’s 3 hours and you either sit in a sidecar or on the motorcycle behind the driver. We made several stops at key sites in the city and had a coffee near the Pantheon (and also visited the site). The Vespa was surprisingly smooth on the butt. You can look this up on the internet but our particular tour was private and booked via the hotel concierge.

Rain happens in March and the streets slow down when it rains. Allow extra time to get to a train station using a car even if the GPS says what time you will arrive. We took the speed train to Naples; it’s a bit over an hour. They have various classes of service, with the Executive being the best. You can order whatever you want from a large menu in that cabin. That ride used to be 4 hours and 20 years ago I recall that I just flew from Rome to Naples.

At the Washington Monument with the Capitol in the background

In Naples, we stayed at the Grand Hotel Vesuvio which was a grande dame property along the waterfront. Our room had a nice view of an old fort on the water. It’s about a 20 minute walk into town. We had a pre-dinner at Pizzeria Augusteo, a little hole in the wall place in town, and thought their pizza was tied for first place among the 5 pizzas we eat during our 4 day visit. It’s at Via Speranzella 104 and it cost all of 6 Euros.  Everywhere we went for pizza we just ordered a plain margherita pizza so we could compare them. It’s like that with gelato as well; you can order weird flavors but usually the plain classics are the best. The hotel was renovating its facilities as well during the very quiet period of our visit; there is a Virgin Active health club 2 minutes walk from the hotel with a pool, saunas and full gym where you can buy a day pass. Bring a swim cap with you to Italy; most pools in clubs require them. This hotel was more traditional Italian; Jeremy preferred it to the more modern places we saw in Rome. They had a nice breakfast buffet with lots of home-made Italian cakes.

If you want to insult an Italian, put pineapple on your pizza. On the other hand, if you don’t eat pizza with a knife and fork here, it will just fall apart if you try and lift up a piece of the pie. Another great pizza place, which was probably Jeremy’s favorite, is Chiro Pizzeria in central Rome a few minutes from the Trevi Fountain. It is old school Italian and it had great pizza, pasta and fish. I thought his pasta dish with the Tonelli and the marinara sauce was tops. We had 5 pizzas and 10 pastas to compare over our trip.

We did a 5 hour tour with a great guide named Rafaelle from Tours by Locals to Pompeii and the old city of Naples. Pompeii is a 45 minute drive from our hotel; I would say it’s about a 30 minute drive from the train station to Pompeii. You could go from Rome to Pompeii and back as a one day trip, but we chose to slow things down a bit and spend a night in Naples. We spent 2 hours at Pompeii; it was mildly busy but not the zoo it would be in summer. Cloudy in the mid-60’s it was also much more pleasant. There is no shade at Pompeii. We saw the main forum (market street) area, a house or two, a bathhouse, amphitheater and the gladiator training area, and some side streets. Jeremy would have liked a third hour there, but I thought it was fine. Most day trippers see what we saw. You could spend several days there if you really want to see all of it. Our guide took us to Salvo’s back in Naples for another great pizza, which he says is the best in town. We walked around the old city and saw this underground tunnel network with aqueducts and pools, about 150 feet below the city starting at a cathedral. It was a great site and for reasons I don’t know, nobody else was there.  During World War II, several thousand people sheltered there for several months as the Allies bombed the city. Throughout our 4 day visit, we had no rain except for a hour of pouring rain while we were mostly underground in Naples. But when you come up to street level, you have wet stones to walk on and it’s not great. That’s why Pompeii is not a great place to be in the rain. Just outside the cathedral as we exited we found this little bakery on the street selling all kinds of pastries; Jeremy loved the tiramisu and said it’s the best he’s had. It’s called Casa Infante on Via Spaccanapoli.

With my fashionably dressed daughter at the Washington Institute conference

Fiumicino airport in Rome is a pain because the international departure gates to USA are a train ride away from the main terminal. If you decide to return to the main terminal to get a VAT refund or go to an airport lounge, you have to go through a small security check and it can slow you down if there is a crowd of people transferring flights. I was going completely apeshit trying to figure this out the first time, but when I had to do it a second time because I mistakenly left my passport at an airport lounge counter, I made the round trip in 12 minutes. Fortunately, you no longer need get your VAT refund form stamped by a customs officer unless you are selected for additional screening. If you go straight from the airport entrance to the gate, you can do it in 30 minutes if you just go straight through. They have e-gates for the passports now from the USA and other major countries including Israel and Australia.

United Airlines is stripping its business class of any cachet. They give menus out on black and white cardstock. I used to play a game called “Find the Pistachio” in the nut plate they would give out. There would usually be at least one. Now there are none.  It’s a 9 hour flight to NY going west, and about 7.5 hours going east.

So basically, what I learned this trip was to check with hotels to see if they are renovating their facilities. More often that I like, I arrive to find that the pool or the gym is undergoing renovation and you can’t use it. If you are paying for those services, it pays to check before you go to make sure those services are really available.

Whew, you made it to the end. There is no monster at the end of this posting. Sorry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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