Global Thoughts 29 September 2022 — Plus Travel Notes Europe (Geneva, Stockholm, Budapest, Bavaria)

Chateu Chillon in Montreux, Switzerland

I’m walking down this street that is usually filled with homeless people up against the sides of buildings and someone sets up a radio blasting NPR NEWS FROM WASHINGTON. So instead of some funky music I’m hearing about some meeting with India’s prime minister. You thought it was going to be Edith Piaf? No, that’s the guy who rides around on his bike. New York City is a weird place… Today on that block I see this homeless guy get ouf of his bed wearing a mask; considering the filth he’s living in, is this his biggest worry? At this point, 6x as many people die each day in the US from heart attacks than from Covid.

Asians tell me that we westerners look all alike to them. Which is good since they all look alike to me.

Once in a while, you hear something out of the blue that rocks your world. I was sparring with this blue belt in jiu-jitsu (one level above white) who has been practicing the sport for 4 years. He tells me that 3 years ago he participated in the world championships for jiu-jitsu. Huh? He said there is a world championship for blue belts. Hmm.. I think of all these teenage kids putting things on their college resumes and I figure there must be world championships for every conceivable thing at every conceivable level. Had I known better, I would have entered my kindergarten kids in the world championships for scribble-scrabble and let them put that on their admission application for elementary school.

Several years ago I was feeling down about GlobalThoughts.com and thinking that I didn’t have anything useful to say that wasn’t already out there in print. The world was more boring. I felt similarly prior to 9/11. I guess the lessons of the last 25 years is that we shouldn’t get too upset when not much is happening. Right now too much is happening and it’s making it much harder to figure out where the world is and where it’s going.

Schloss Elmau in Germany

I’ve been saying for at least several years that the world needs to move on with Iran and assume that they will become a nuclear power. Ehud Barak, former prime minister of Israel, recently wrote an essay for Time Magazine stating this. He says that the world is not going to stop Iran from becoming a power. You’d think that intelligence agencies would have figured that out by now, so Biden signing some declaration in Jerusalem that he will not allow Iran to become a nuclear power sounds really lame because there doesn’t appear any belief in the Middle East that he will do anything to enforce it. The US has been setting red lines for 20 years and not enforcing them. My feeling is that we should stop setting theoretical red lines and decide what we really care about and then be prepared to enforce that. An important reason these red lines are theoretical is that Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on what they are. Everyone around the world is already looking past Biden and figuring the Republican president and Congress will be more permissive as to what an isolationist-leaning US will tolerate. It’s funny, because it used to be the other way around. Remember though that prior to World War II one reason why Roosevelt wouldn’t help Europe out was that he was worried about being outflanked in a presidential election by isolationists.

I put in a $50 annual subscription to Foreign Affairs and every day they send me 4-5 articles that tend to be good reads. One of them was about Pakistan. In my last posting, I wrote about Sri Lanka going bust. Well, China might have been able to afford letting Sri Lanka go bankrupt and go into revolution, but Pakistan is also in deep doo-doo and potentially unstable. Will China want to bail them out? Should Pakistan be that dependent on China? Should Pakistan be diverting so much of its resources into fighting with India? Should the US intervene to make sure China doesn’t further sink its teeth into Pakistan, but at the same time not serving to enable Pakistan to run a total shit show? Interesting stuff.

Kids on a Via Ferrata climb in Bavaria

The Economist had an interesting article about MBS of Saudi Arabia who this week was declared the country’s head of state meaning the frail King is probably about to abdicate and that he now has sovereign immunity if he visits another country (meaning he cannot be arrested for that Khashoggi thing). It said that he was mistreated as a child by the other princes. Since he effectively became king, it’s been payback time for these dudes. The question for the future is whether he will become more magnanimous in victory and allow people to fear him less (the article says that people are afraid to leave their cellphones on and that ordinary people are just picked up and thrown away for no apparent reason), or continue being vindictive and paranoid his whole life, especially as he enjoys the power of being king de jure and unchallenged. So far, in terms of the visionary projects he has wanted, he has rather little to show for it. People don’t like working for him, nobody around him wants to tell him the truth because he goes apeshit and takes it out on people, and his Neom showcase city is still dunes in the desert as consultants come and go and take big fees for talking the talk and then running away before they have to walk the walk.

Maybe he will last for 50 years, but I think that his style is not conducive to him getting good results. This is a guy who locked up a minister in a toilet for 10 hours and sprayed a ceiling with bullets during an argument with his mom (she’s now locked away somewhere), according to the Economist. People won’t want to invest in the kingdom and, if he goes too far, he won’t have any western allies to back him in case he gets overthrown. They may just decide that the alternative is not so bad. He might high-five Putin at an OPEC summit but he really doesn’t want to have to rely on him for his security; he ain’t gonna get anywhere embracing Putin and thumbing his nose at the West. China might be a good trading partner but they are not in a position to secure the passage of oil through the Arabian Gulf. He needs the West just as much as they need a stable Saudi Arabia, and if at some point he is seen as an unstable presence, they might just decide that he is expendable. Consider that Tom Friedman recently wrote that Biden doesn’t trust Zelensky and that there is more trouble going on behind the scenes than is apparent inside the Ukrainian elite, and you can look at the Ukraine as a test case for what you might see later with Saudi Arabia.

Re-enacting the Merkel-Obama G7 scene at Schloss Elmau

Someone asked me where in the world I would go if I had 5 days to go somewhere. I thought about it for a week and then decided that I would like to go to Oman and Qatar. Hopefully after the world cup is over, Qatar will be a nice place to visit. And Oman is supposed to be gorgeous. Saudi Arabian tourist sites are on my list but I think they are not quite ready for tourists yet.

Consider the following: 70% of Americans have less than $15,000 savings in the bank. 55% have less than $5,000. That doesn’t leave people much for retirement.

How about if China had just killed off all their old people instead of all this covid zero stuff? All these old people are going to be a big drag on the country anyway. I’ve been waiting to see a news item saying that China opened fire on 300 people inside an Ikea trying to escape after they penned the place up due to a covid case among them.

America could send homeless people to Europe to be baggage handlers. They would be most welcome.

Last month I reported that my daughter was sighted watching BBC World News. This month Jeremy was similarly sighted. He said that it is much more informative than CNN or Fox. CNN he said was opinionated and Fox he said was just nuts. NEWS ALERT: Jeremy was sighted on Sunday morning doing his homework. The world’s gone MAD!

More scenes from Elmau

Birthrates among Israelis are increasing significantly while birthrates among Moslems in Israel are going down significantly. The old arguments about demography and democracy are being put to the side as this unexpected reality takes hold. Basically what it means is that Arabs are not racing toward becoming a majority in that country and the 2-state solution is becoming less of an imperative to people as the one state idea looks to be more evenly balanced in its demographic balance between Jews and Arabs. I still think though that most serious people prefer a 2-state solution and that it is mostly people who don’t want anything to happen or that expect nothing to happen that favor the 1-state solution.

Someone I know was recently in conversation with one of the leading architects of Oslo (a failed attempt during the 1990’s to bring peace to Jews and Arabs) who said that Arafat was offered 91% of the West Bank by Ehud Barak in an interim deal that would have eventually led to a final agreement had they both survived in power, with the understanding that the deal would become final if they both stayed in power but that calling it final at that time was too much for either public to swallow. Arafat responded that he was afraid he would be killed by his own people if he had accepted the offer. To which he was told “Who cares?” Meaning Sadat made peace and got killed for it; Rabin made peace and was killed for it, so if Arafat was always brave as a fighter, he should have been willing to sacrifice his life for his people’s future. But that courageous he was not. Arafat had a great deal on offer but was not prepared to risk his own life to take it. Palestinians have continued to pay the price for the past 25 years or so essentially because their fearless leader put himself first. He died soon after anyway.

Bike riding in Bavaria

Somewhere I read around May that you might see a sudden collapse of the Russian position in Ukraine in July. In September, you saw something close to it, and this callup of reserves now is probably not going to help Russia all that much, because the morale of the soldiers is in the dumps and their equipment is just not there. The war might continue but it is a loser for Putin and Russia; after this winter, Europe is going to be permanently shorn of its dependence on Russian energy and it will take years for Asia to replace the demand. Countries such as India are already starting to cancel contracts to buy Russian weapon systems after seeing that they don’t work. Horseradish tears for China’s Mr. Xi who carted his horse to a loser like Putin and who has to drag this albatross around him as he goes into his party’s congress in October. China’s leader has to be wondering just how well his military would do in Taiwan considering that it has virtually no battlefield experience and he’s surrounded by Yes Men who feed him the same BS that they gave Putin for fear of telling him the truth. I have a strong feeling that privately the leaders of China and India read Putin the Riot Act during that congress the leaders of these various countries just had in Uzbekistan earlier this month.

I’ve been trying for months to make sense of what’s going on with this war because strategy cannot take into account stupidity, and Putin has been acting stupidly. Recently, a New York Times article said that Putin is overruling his military advisors and telling the army what to do. He’s only as good as the advice he is getting, and US intelligence feels he is being fed overly optimistic assessments of the battlefield. His generals want to retreat behind the city of Kherson and come back to fight another day. He doesn’t want to withdraw because he fears humiliation. My gut tells me that the Russian army will be driven out of Kherson, and then they will start to mutiny against him at the highest levels because Putin has been driving his military toward total humiliation. The history of military coups in Russia is very sparse but remember that day at the beginning of the year when Putin humiliated that general on TV and treated him like a stuttering schoolboy. Revenge will come from it.

Scenes from that bike ride in Bavaria

The Russian military must know they are stomaching very bad bile from Putin. Now they are forcing Ukrainians in the Russian-occupied zones to be conscripted, and you can imagine how motivated those guys are going to be in the fight. They have shortages of food and weapons and are fighting a war they don’t believe in. Putin told people on 3-6 month contracts that they can’t quit and he is pulling men out of little villages where they are needed to make sure those villages are ready for winter. Nobody is going to trust him inside Russia to volunteer for anything now that he broke his word everywhere domestically. He is bringing ruin on his country in so many ways and doesn’t appear to be at all bothered by it as he pursues this delusionary war which Russians are now realizing is ridiculous, now that it will affect them. You see thousands of people running for the borders and injuring themselves to get out of the military. Bordering countries are closing their borders to these draft dodgers meaning that they will now agitate within Russia instead of living abroad forcing the pot to boil. There are all these important people falling down stairs and out of windows to their deaths in Russia and you wonder what’s going on over there. Although the Russians are paying plenty for propaganda around the world, so far most of the rest of the world isn’t buying it. Russia cannot make up for the economic damage being caused all over the world and they know he’s the cause of it. Countries in the Middle East and Africa won’t be able to get shipments of things they need, and China is not necessarily compatible with what Russia offers.

Lake Ferchensee in Bavaria

We don’t need to reform the United Nations. The UN is a pipe dream that is never going to work because large countries with vetoes run by autocrat-dictators that are against a World Order are not going to yield to some governing body that claims to be the custodian of such an Order. What does need to happen is that the world needs a treaty governing major countries that there will be some sort of checks and balances in a country so that no one person such as Putin, Xi or Trump can take over the running of a country and then hold the whole world hostage to his whims. Of course, that’s the whole point which is why it will never come to pass, which is why the world is a dangerous place today. At some point, Russia is going to “give” way to some sort of internal revolt because of the ruin that Putin has brought upon his country. Xi is causing plenty of damage to China as well and, except that Xi has methodically removed any opposition, he would never be appointed to another term in any kind of democracy based on his performance. The question is whether they get replaced with yet another autocrat or if there will be some reform within so that this kind of mistake does not happen again. China had put in  some checks and balances until Xi managed to get rid of them. America has a constitutional order and Trump is not going to be override it. The question is whether Russians and Chinese elites figure this out as well and do something to reign in future leaders.

India is an interesting case. The history is that India gets its arms from Russia and has a long history of being allied with the country in the Non-Aligned Movement.  But it’s not really true today. The amount of annual trade with the US and the number of Indians in the US pales the amount as to Russia (30,000 vs 4.6 million people and $13 billion vs. $157 billion) and the percentage of arms it buys from Russia has gone down 50% in the last decade. India has fought land wars with China and recently had border skirmishes with it; it fears that Russia will be under the thumb of China as it grows weaker and assume China’s positions with regard to matters involving India. India knows its future is with the West even if its leader Modi is an aspiring autocrat.

Stockholm from the balcony of the Grand Hotel

The US Midterm Elections: I’m told that the odds of the Democrats retaining control of the Senate in November elections are 50/50. The Republicans will take control of the House. Tax bills must start in the House so there will be no new taxes for the next 2-3 years. I think that Trump will be under so many investigations, some of them will be criminal, that he will not be able to practically defend them and run for office. Fundraising reports show that he is not getting the donations from the masses that he used to. Whether De Santis will be the Republican to watch is not yet clear; he is not a great campaigner even though he is getting lots of money. I know that everyone takes it as a given that Trump will run and win in 2024; I think that neither will happen. I’m not even sure that Biden will run but at least he wins the award for greatest improvement in 2023. He’s done a good job dealing with Ukraine and I’m not sure that any president would have gotten a bye on inflation; the whole world is dealing with this problem and you can’t blame it on a few stimulus checks. Fault also lies with the Fed for letting inflation get ahead of it. Right now the prices for airline tickets and hotels are insane and I hope to see them go down but it won’t happen until demand goes down – airline seats are sold out months in advance so clearly demand is too high. Something is very wrong here – you walk into a Pret a Manger store to buy a few items of food and it costs you $30, half a day’s wages for a minimum wage person. People who bought their homes with a 3% mortgage are not willing to sell and then take on a 6% mortgage. Something has to give – and I don’t know what it is going to be. I do remember how the variable rates mortgages in 2005-2007 caused the markets to crash and the same thing is likely to happen again.

I am reading two interesting books — one by Henry Kissinger about 6 great world leaders, and the other by Walter Russell Meade called Arc of the Covenant which the New York Times book reviewer called the best in its field for the past 25 years. So far it is living up to its reputation. At its beginning it explains why the study of American Foreign Policy is compelling — because it crosses so many disciplines and ultimately is purposed toward preserving the human race. Let’s face it — America is trying to manage a world in which Putin threatens the use of nuclear weapons, China threatens its neighbors and is trying to intimidate people all over the world and Iran and North Korea threaten their regions with nuclear strikes. Discussion of these books to follow in the next edition.

NOTES – Europe Trip / Geneva, Stockholm, Budapest, Munich and Bavaria August/September

SoFo District in Stockholm

We went on our summer vacation to Europe for 2 weeks touring Switzerland, Sweden, Hungary and Germany. We tried to avoid crowds by going to secondary cities. We are also enjoying the lack of tourists from India and Asia, mostly China. We hope they stay away for years to come! We remember having to exit the British Museum in 2019 because of throngs of Chinese tourists crowding the exhibits making it impossible to get near anything worth seeing.

United Airlines has upped its game and we enjoyed our flight to Geneva and its Polaris lounge at Newark airport. But for months they keep serving the exact same food so frequent travelers probably get sick of it.  Using Clear at the airport also significantly improves the check-in experience. This trip follows the same path I took about 20 years ago and it was amazing to me how little I remember from that trip. Apart from the front of hotel buildings where I stayed, I don’t remember a thing.  Makes me wonder.

Inside Gruyere Castle in Switzerland

We crashed at an airport hotel near Geneva airport called Movenpick Hotel & Casino. You can book day rooms from dayuse.com and this is a good way to avoid paying an expensive resort or hotel for the previous night when they won’t let you check in until the afternoon. They had a good breakfast buffet there for an airport hotel. Also a rooftop gym overlooking the airport. Family rooms have 2 beds in them; they may not connect to other rooms but they adjoin and they are larger than regular rooms.  Later that day, we checked into our hotel La Reserve which is 10 minutes from the airport and 20 minutes from downtown Geneva by taxi. The hotel also operates a shuttle boat during the summer along Lake Geneva. Good department stores are Globus and Manor. Sprungli has a counter inside Bon Genie department store behind Globus. New macaron flavors include chocolate raspberry with more chocolate goo on top, and strawberry shortcake. C&A is next to Globus. The extensive wooden playground along the lake they used to have is mostly no more but the resort is still relaxing around the theme of an African Safari. We thought the designer was the same as the Schloss Elmu resort in Germany but the properties were each designed by their billionaire owners; the one in Germany has Indian elephants while here it is African. This is what the managers told me. Dinner at the hotel’s main restaurant was one of the best of our 2 week Europe trip. There is also a Chinese restaurant which we had dessert in. Important to know is that no rooms really face the lake which is set far back, so there is no reason to pay extra for those rooms. Uber works in Geneva and will save you some money and mostly offers more choices.  All through the summer, I find it really annoying sleeping with these duvets; ask for a top sheet from housekeeping and you’ll sleep better at night. Our kids were rained out of a hike on the Saleve mountain overlooking Geneva and a windsurfing activity on Lake Geneva. Instead, we went on a walking tour of the city including a farmers market where you could get toasted cheese sandwiches and nice pastries and fruits. We walked the historical part of the city and took a tram to the international part of the city with the UN headquarters and a porcelain museum right behind it (but was rather disappointing). We had dinner at a touristy restaurant next to the City Hall and the Arsenal which was pretty lousy but Jeremy enjoyed the cheese fondue. On a return trip we’d want to see the CERN scientific site and see the Patek Philippe factory where watches are made.

Interior of Chillon Castle

A $250 taxi takes you one hour to Montreux to the chocolate train. You could go other ways, but we had to be there about 9:30 on a Sunday morning and didn’t want to get up way early to get there by train and bus. The chocolate train is a bit of a scam; you go for an hour on a train and then the rest of the day is mostly with bus and sitting around at various places wasting a lot of time. You see a cheese factory, have lunch and see a castle and a village at Gruyere, and then visit a chocolate factory owned by Nestle. A lot of time is wasted having people get on and off the bus and deal with a big group. We enjoyed the lunch and visit to Gruyere, where there is a good local chocolatier. We left the tour early and took another taxi $180 for a 45 minute ride to Montreux to the Chillon Castle; last entry at 5pm and it closes at 6. Everyone really liked climbing to the top and seeing it from the lake though and it would have been sad to miss it.  We took the express train from the central station back to Geneva which took a bit over an hour and then a taxi to a lakeside restaurant Creux de Genthod which was very pleasant and where I met one of my friends with his kids.

Geneva airport works well but they can be mean about carryon luggage. We restricted all of us to small carry-on suitcases and a tote bag due to flight connections and the fact that lost luggage is piling up all over Europe. No print magazines in the airport club and Swiss has eliminated its print magazine onboard flights.  I’m waiting for the digitization of their onboard food services as well. We had a tight connection through Zurich and ran to the gate but generally the airline went well and fed us on each flight, no matter how short.

Scenes from Stockholm:  Skansen Open Air Museum, Making Cinnamon rolls

STOCKHOLM — Arrival in Stockholm is via the Arlanda Express airport train which takes 18 minutes to center city.  Humans sell family tickets (minors go free) in the baggage claim area. Take a taxi from central station to your hotel rather than transfer to the metro at this sprawling station; also, if you get out of the wrong exit your walk to the hotel could be lengthy. We stayed at the Grand Hotel which is best in town and truly a grand hotel that Sweden is proud of. 20 years ago there was no AC and I was sweating a lot through a heat wave. Now the rooms are freezing if you set them that way. We had a nice room with balcony overlooking the harbor with flowers and we took lots of family photos. The hotel has a really nice spa for a city hotel with a warm water wading pool (which I managed to swim laps in) and its breakfast and dinner buffets are very good. We really enjoyed the fresh juices and berries here. Here you can get a Swedish Massage (how could you go wrong?) and the 75 minute Relax version by Helen is quite good. Showers in the spa are better than ones in the room. The metro station near the Grand Hotel at the parkside exit has a really cool display in the station built into the rock and a cool elevator that goes partially sideways as it goes up and down. Definitely the coolest metro station I’ve seen anywhere.

 

Sunset along the promenade in Stockholm

We started with a half day walking tour to see City Hall (which is impressive), Old Town, Changing of the Guard at the Royal Palace (show up about 12:30), and the armory below the palace (we didn’t get to see the chariots which were under maintenance). The tour guide was arranged by the hotel at the last minute and was excellent. She is Anna www.sthlmsguiden.se phone 46.73.657.2848. The NK Department store is 5 minutes walk from the Grand Hotel and has some nice brands you don’t see elsewhere. Finding an ATM is now a federal project because the country has gone mostly cashless and there are few in center city. Bathrooms are now mostly unisex; there are no urinals and each stall has a door so everyone goes their own way. We took an Uber (saves a good 50% off the price of a taxi) to someone’s house to bake cinnamon rolls and have a coffee with their family of teenage kids and a dog. While the yeast was rising we took a walk around their neighborhood which had forests and lakes and was really pleasant. Upon return to hotel we had dinner provided by a kosher caterer “Miriam” with schnitzels, goulash and chicken dishes, along with sides and desserts which were rather good. Only trouble is you have to pay in cash so I had to run around finding that ATM. Hotel room service heated up the food for us and charges a small setup fee.

Next day to Drottningholm palace about an hour from Stockholm reachable either by boat or bus/metro. The site features a working theater from over 200 years ago but I would advise skipping the tour because they just tell you about the history without showing you how anything works. It was a 30 minute waste of time for us. There is a good café for lunch on the grounds. It was a pleasant visit outside the city. We had booked a Viking History Tour which would have been a 7 hour tour but decided to cancel it so that we could spend our last day enjoying the city, which was a good move.  There is a Jewish Museum in the old town worth seeing. The National Museum next to the Grand Hotel has some nice things to see; I liked a wall painting of a Swedish king being taken from the battlefield. We looked for interesting craft stores; the Sofo district has cool stores and there might be some nice things in the Gamla Stan old town. In other parts of town, DesignTorget is a waste and SvenkstTenn is a beautiful showroom but little we wanted to buy. Also a trendy restaurant Urban Deli; if you sit down to eat and want fish, you can get some from the store’s takeout department.  Matbaren bistro in the hotel was quite good from a famous Swedish chef; very trendy stuff and also tasty.

Vassa Museum, Stockholm

Next day to Vassa Museum to see a big ship from hundreds of years ago that sunk on its maiden voyage and was lifted from the sea and restored. Everyone liked it for an hour. There is a nearby museum of art that looked good but which we timed out of. Nearby was Skansen, an open air museum like Colonial Williamsburg that gave you a feeling of old Sweden. There is also a museum of history that has a lovely exhibit about the history of Sweden, and a small exhibit about the Vikings that was OK. The café had good food too.This whole shebang took us about 4 hours; we used a taxi to get to the Vassa and then walked to the other places. Sunset views at Fjallgaten Terrace near SoFo district. Get to the terrace at least one hour before sunset or else you lose the colors. Another place for views, the restaurant in the Katarinahissen building, was closed for renovation. Sturehof is a fancy restaurant which we skipped but is a concierge’s recommendation. Arlanda Express plus a taxi got us to the airport in a breeze; you just go up an elevator and you’re at check-in and the airport was really quiet at 11am on a Friday morning. It’s a 2 hour flight to Munich and then another hour flight to Budapest. The plane to Budapest was smaller but they just take your luggage at the plane and give it back to you on the tarmac next to the plane. Lufthansa fed us throughout the day and it was not at all the bad day I was expecting. Munich’s lounge is quite nice and there is lots of shopping in the airport, including Sprungli! Other things we’d like to see in Stockholm are Abba Museum, the Nordic Museum, islands of the archipelago, and the sphere building with the funicular view.

Swedes have been steadfastly neutral when it comes to Russia and other things in the world. The recent invasion of Ukraine has knocked Swedes off their teeter, especially after Finland joined NATO. Swedes now profoundly distrust Russia and are very scared of the idea that Russia doesn’t follow rules and could threaten their neighborhood. You will not find hardly any disagreement on this within Sweden at this point.

We were lucky with a great exchange rate; Stockholm was not nearly as expensive as I had feared it could be. We all enjoyed the city; it’s modern and hip and everything works. We would definitely want to return. I’m hoping Jeremy will like Budapest, our next stop – he keeps telling me it’s gonna suck.

Hungarian Parliament

BUDAPEST – It’s half an hour drive into the city and the airport is small and easy to navigate, but they are building a bigger terminal. The Four Seasons hotel is probably best in town and is located with a view of the river. You could get similar views from the Intercontinental. The other good hotels are the Ritz Carlton and the Kempinski both very near the town center. The Four Seasons is more exclusive; we had a nice room overlooking the river which turned out to be front row seats for the national day fireworks show, which had been postponed a week after the weatherman made the wrong forecast (for this he was fired). The hotel has pretty good facilities – not necessarily what I’d expect in a Four Seasons but probably best in town here. The feeling I had on the property is that it was state of the art when it opened in 2004 but since then has not really been the beneficiary of too much refurbishment of its facilities. We went to Friday night dinner at Chabad; there were about 400 people there, the majority of them being Israeli Sefardis; there are 7 flights a day between Tel Aviv and Budapest. It’s a cheap location; what costs 6-7 Euros in Stockholm costs 1 Euro here. It was a real zoo there at the Chabad house but for 36 Euro you can have Friday night dinner there and it was actually pretty good. The kids had a blast with the whole experience but we left at 10:30 and didn’t bother waiting for dessert. The Rabbi has been there for 20 years and he spoke mostly in Hebrew to the crowd.

The next morning I went to the famous Doheny Synagogue. Karen was kicked out because her dress did not reach to her ankles. It was 90 degrees out and the guards wouldn’t even let her sit in the courtyard. The Doheny by the way is not an Orthodox synagogue, but the rabbi is nuts. They had hardly 10 people there, mostly old and weird and you couldn’t hear a word of anything being said. I left after 2 minutes. The next day it was much more populated by tourist groups on tours; they maintain a dress code and tourists had to buy hospital gowns for a few Euros to walk inside. On a walking tour of Jewish Budapest, we saw several synagogues, one of which had recently been restored. Lest you think the government is doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, we’re told that half the money disappears and a good amount is probably kicked back to the government ministers who gave it out in the first place. We got the distinct impression that those expats that are here are generally corrupt and shady people who are here to get while the getting is good. We also saw on that tour the old ghetto wall, and several memorials such as the shoe memorial along the Danube where they shot cumulatively roughly 3,500 people who fell into the river. They were too cheap to waste bullets in 1944 on some Jews so they chained everyone and figured that the first few would drag everyone else down with them.

Exhibition Palace in Budapest

Near the hotel are a few crystal and porcelain shops and we bought a few things from Zsolnay. Ajka also had some nice things but it was more expensive. We took a walking tour of the country’s parliament building which is very impressive; you need to buy these tickets well in advance over the internet. You don’t need to bring a passport to the tour. We did a walking tour that covered the Buda section of the city; Ruszwurm in Buda has great pastries (try the Gerbaud) and around the corner from there in that Castle District was a strudel shop Budavari Retesvar that had really good stuff in many flavors. This was our hands-down winner of best strudel and fresh pastry in town and we went back for seconds. The city’s metro offers a family 24 hour ticket which is good for subways and buses and is a great value. The City Park is also pretty with a nice castle and the heroes monument nearby. It is best reached by metro. Some metro stations were built as nuclear shelters and you can still see the doors that can be locked. Dinner at a good Italian restaurant near the hotel called Tom George.

Hungary today is not nearly as optimistic as it was during my last visit in 2002. People don’t smile and when you say things to them, you get answers you don’t expect. I tried to be nice and say that despite the good food in Hungary, people are thin. What I was told in return is that people can’t afford food there. I was told that roughly 60,000 people a year leave the country; in rural areas you can’t have a baby several days a week because there are no doctors. The salary for a white collar job is $800 a month take home. Pubic doctors make just twice that amount. Freelancers did not vote for Victor Orban so he punished them by raising their taxes 300% on 24 hours notice and essentially begging them to emigrate. The country does not invest in education and people don’t want you to pay them in Hungarian forints (their currency) because it is constantly losing value against the Euro or Dollar. Retailers were recently gridded to the country’s tax service and the punishments for violations are very severe. This is not a happy place and it’s going backward. I did not feel that what I looked at over the internet at the hotel was private and people are afraid of saying things out loud and getting punished. Hungary, like Turkey and Iran, are going in the wrong direction and it doesn’t look like a place with a good future.

There is a tethered balloon ride in City Park but it often does not operate due to weather conditions so you can’t buy tickets online. We didn’t go. There is a grand city market that sells produce and some souvenirs but it’s low quality. There used to be a hand market by the castle but it closed. We didn’t get to the Museum of the City of Budapest; and you should know that museums are closed on Mondays.

River Cruise with parliament building

A good kosher restaurant in town is Hannah’s Garden and for $100 the 4 of us feasted on tons of food. The flordni pastry desert was actually excellent. Jeremy was trash talking in the street and someone completely drunk walks up to him and starts trash talking him too. You never know here what might happen if you talk too loud on the street, even during midday. Fortunately it was a happy drunk and he was very funny as he told his story that had no ending. Reminded me of an elderly cousin I had that would talk forever without making a point. We visited the House of Terror Museum; probably good to get the audio guide but it doesn’t take a genius to get the flavor of the place. It’s a museum telling the story of Hungary under Fascism and Communism. Dinner cruise along the Danube offers good views of the Parliament, Castle and various landmarks. Food was semi-decent and there was a band with dancers. A nice way to spend 2 hours. Walking along the river at night is fun, particularly by the Intercontinental Hotel with all the restaurants having live music around. It’s not a high-class crowd here, but it is festive. You still feel all the old communist buildings everywhere and the streets are still under construction even 20 years after I was last here. The traffic patterns are awful; to go a few blocks in a certain direction you have to circle halfway around the city center when you could have just walked a few blocks to get to where you wanted to go. It’s a complete waste of time and petrol.

Szentendre Village and Marzipan Museum

Visited the village of Szentendren about 45 minutes drive or train from Budapest. It’s an artists village with some interesting shops, an old church or two, and a few interesting museums such as the Retro Museum with old knick-knacks, cars and appliances from 40-50 years ago. The kids really liked it. There was this Szamos Museum of Marzipan (chocolates) with a chocolate shop. The product was good and we bought a good amount of it. Wasn’t sticky like normal marzipan. The museum was great with all kinds of things built of marzipan. 3 hours here was plenty. On Mondays, several things are closed but the crowds are thinner. We finished the day with a 3 hour strudel baking workshop at Chef Parade. We made several kinds of strudel; it is hard to make and you really can’t do this at home. What we made didn’t turn out tasting all that good, but it was a fun activity and the kitchens there are beautiful. We didn’t make it to storied Gundels for a dinner; Café Gerbaud is by the hotels and actually the pastries were not so good but it is a pretty café. At the airport, there is a fast track for departures and we breezed through the airport. Going back to Munich we were on a full Airbus 320 that was like a shuttle filled with connecting passengers.

Making Strudel in Budapest

The short bit on Hungary is that it is a country that loves Dead Jews. Alive ones are not particularly welcome although if you are a Hassidic Jew there, nobody is going to bother you. It’s the George Soros liberal types that represent a threat to the Orban government (funny thing is that once upon a time those 2 were good friends). Now, Orban spends $20 million putting posters of George Soros on buses depicting him as a Jewish puppeteer controlling the world. Right now, religious Jews are convenient tools for a very anti-Semitic government to show itself as being friendly but nobody there has any doubt that some day the attitude could change and they’d all have to give up their futures. Many do not want to wait and are heading toward the exits. It’s not easy because you have a license in your trade such as a tour guide and you don’t want to start from scratch in another country. But clearly the country has a dark future ahead with an authoritarian and corrupt leader who keeps changing the rules on short notice, being vindictive to his perceived enemies, and making anyone with half a brain unsure as to their future in that country. Jeremy didn’t care much for Budapest and all this Dead Jewish Stuff. I would say that plans to visit Prague and Poland are definitely going to be pushed back a few years.

Welcome to Munich!

Munich airport is a 40 minute 100 Euro taxi ride to the hotel; public transport to the airport is not so good. I tried to use GetTransfer service but from the airports it never worked and we wound up taking taxis for pretty much the same price. We did a 3 hour city walking tour and visited the Hofbrau beer hall and the room upstairs where Hitler got his start making brawls, and a beer garden (drinking age is 14 with parent in tow), the main square (the town clock has a little show at 11, 12 and 5 but it is really lame and you could skip it). We saw the city museum which was OK (the Nazi portion of it was interesting and had lots of things I didn’t see elsewhere). The fruit market near the city center was cool and had great fruits, a store selling honey and a kitchenware store across the street that was colossal. We saw the Residenz and the Hitler Bodyguard memorial nearby. It was a decent orientation tour and our tour guide dressed up in lederhosen. We learned that Hugo Boss designed the SS uniforms. Men in Black…. Our hotel is the Vier Jahreszeiten (four seasons in German) right on a main street about 8 minutes walk from the city center square. It’s the best location in town for a 5-star hotel but its gym sucks. However, its pool and excellent breakfast makes up for it. Other good properties to consider are the Bayischer Hof and the Charles but their locations are more off-center.   There is decent shopping in the city center (Karstadt, Kaufhof, C&A, a mens store across the street from C&A called Hirmer and a department store near the Virtualmarket called Konen. A high end store is Oberpollinger. A really good café is Café Luitpold – all the cakes and hot dishes we had were great. It’s about 15 minutes walk from the hotel. Germany is still coming off Covid; they still mask on planes and public transport (but on the planes you seem to be able to ignore it). They are not back to normal totally – the swimsuit dryer in the hotel was removed for covid (too many people touching it) and hasn’t been returned. In my sense, a lot of this covid is just an excuse for cutbacks. All in all, Munich is a charming city with its own feeling that is different from other cities. We had expected a bunch of Nazis in your face and it wasn’t that at all. There are some nice museums here such as the Deutsche museum of art, the museum of science and technology, and I’d want to return for some more time here. The C&A here had much more to buy than other C&A’s we had seen in Budapest or Geneva.

I’ve noticed that over this 2 week trip nobody turned on a TV in any of the hotels. They just watch their phones. I wonder if anyone is watching hotel TV’s these days. I used to travel with a shortwave radio and I don’t anymore.

Some more scenes from Switerland: Atop Gruyere Castle, Boating and Walking along Lake Geneva

A 2 hour drive to Schloss Elmau in Bavaria takes you a world away from Munich. This was our 4th visit to this property in the past 10 years. They built a second building called the Retreat which is a hotel within a hotel with its own spa, gym, pools, dining areas and staff. It’s a beautiful place and the G7 summit was held here recently with heads of state in the various suites. Ours was used by the Italian prime minister. The views are stunning and everything they used here from furniture to furnishings is all top of the line. The spa here is palatial and the buffets are amazing. You can lift weights and kick a bag in an outdoor pavillion looking at the alps and the sky and smelling the lavender. This property remains one of my favorites on the planet. Nice of them to have a billionaire who set this all up and maintains it. They had a show on Saturday night with a name performer and not much more than 100 people in the audience. My main peeve is that there is no air conditioning and the toilet paper is rough, so bring your own toilet paper and ask for a top sheet so you can sleep better at night.

Some more Stockholm scenes: Archeological finds in a metro station and placement for baby carriages along stairways and escalators

We did a sunset e-Bike tour with some of the most beautiful scenery anywhere and it was also a backstage tour of Bavarian villages that you just don’t see on the tourist track. These e-Bikes let you ride for 2 hours up and down steep hills and you barely sweat. We did a family walk to a pretty lake (Ferchensee) and the kids went on a Via Ferrata climb up a mountain and down cliffs with cables and not too many safety implements. They said it was quite dangerous but very fun as long as you didn’t die. I like that about Germany – you don’t have to sign tons of forms. I didn’t sign any. You are free to pursue danger and risk and to enjoy the thrill of overcoming them.  A professional photographer took pretty family pictures, some of which you can see on this site. There were things we wanted to see in the area such as Hohenshwagau and Neuschwanstein Castles about an hour away, Hofensee in Austria, and Innsbruck, but you are spending so much to be on property and it is so pretty here, you don’t want to go off property exploring other places. So it’s best to stay nearby and explore and then to settle down on property and feast on the cheeses, breads, pastries and juices that are here.

Munich airport works well on departure but signage could be better. The first class lounge can be accessed in the G concourse by Gate G21 (even if your flight is from J, K or L concourse). Another plus here is that Sprungli chocolates has a little store right around here by the duty free shops on the G level near the airport lounges. The business class lounge is very good and filled with yummy treats. There is a separate passport control booth within the first class lounge to exit to the part of the airport that is non-Schengen departures. Allow 12 minutes to get to the JKL section with long escalators on both ends and a train ride.

Our 8 hour flight utilized an old plane but Lufthansa is still a great airline in the sky and arrived at JFK nearly an hour early. Despite all the warnings of heart attacks we would suffer in airports, we found quiet entries with no lines or delays, no staffing shortages at any of the hotels we visited, and generally no covid restrictions anywhere other than at certain points in Germany which you could pretty much ignore as a tourist.

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