When my father, the editor and writer Andre Schiffrin, was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer last spring, my family assumed we would care for him in New York. But my parents always spent part of each year in Paris, where my father was born, and soon after he began palliative chemotherapy at Memorial Sloan Kettering my father announced he wanted to stick to his normal schedule — and spend the summer in France.
Thomson Reuters finance columnist Felix Salmon once noted that there is an inverse correlation between how important you are and how much time you actually spend at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Film stars, heads of state and the likes of Bill Clinton swoop in, speak on a prestigious panel, take a couple of important meetings and fly out within a day or two.
In his entertaining lectures at Columbia Business School, the economist Bruce Greenwald likes to employ cite the line often used by Warren Buffett: When the tide goes out, you can see who is not wearing a bathing suit. This is the feeling I have in Spain. In year five of the financial crisis, I can see which of my relatives and friends had no swimming trunks. The slow downward slide is horrendous for the people living it. Over and over we see the bewilderment of those who worked hard and paid taxes. They don’t understand why they are seeing their first-rate healthcare system being undermined, pensions and salaries cut, and their education system — still not up to par — being squeezed further, while being told they have to bail out the banks because that is what Germany insists on. The downturn is persistent enough that the country’s largest bookseller, Casa de Libro, had a shelf dedicated exclusively to books about the “crisi” (see picture).
Although the Russians and the Chinese are reportedly fretting about the end of the world tomorrow — according to an interpretation of the ancient Mayan calendar — down here in the Yucatan, which was part of the Mayan empire, the locals couldn’t care less. Nor does anyone in Mexico City seem to notice. They are too busy thinking about what the new government is going to get up to. With its candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, sworn into as president on Dec. 1, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is back in power after 12 years out of office.
During the parts of my childhood I spent in Spain in the sixties and seventies, life was what we call “de la vieja escuela,” strictly old school. My grandmother and her sisters, who were all widows or spinsters, had money left from their husbands and fathers but lived frugally. Ice cream (not artisanal but bought from the kiosk on the corner) was a treat for Sunday lunch. My great-aunt Clementina left an embarrassingly cheap 25-cent tip whenever she took me for an afternoon snack of hot chocolate and churros (fried dough). The same old leather address book sat by the phone in the living room for decades until it was all worn out, and even then no one saw the need to replace it.
On a recent visit to the remote Ibo Island in the Quirimbas Archipelago in northern Mozambique, we were struck by the island’s stunning views and the soft white-sand beaches, the mangrove swamps and the wooden dhows that have plied in the Indian Ocean for decades. Beautiful though it is, the island is poor, and few people live there. The island has been abandoned many times throughout history, and cries out for more development and for businesses to come and turn the crumbling colonial-era buildings into boutique hotels, cafés and craft shops. Some are optimistic that recently discovered energy reserves will boost the island’s fortunes, but our timing was perfect to witness a smaller revolution: the arrival this spring of electricity.
We visited Tunisia last week, during a scorching heat wave. The women we met were wearing sleeveless summer dresses, but a couple of them said that when they go out, their neighbors now tell them off for wearing revealing clothes. With the religious Nahda party now in power, uncovered women worry that their daughters won’t be able to wear bikinis and wonder which countries their daughters can move to if things get worse.
On our way to Bhutan’s capital earlier this month we drove through a long valley surrounded by tree-covered mountains. This magnificent scene of natural beauty was dotted by the occasional Buddhist chorten. A river rushed below – spanned here and there by a shaky pedestrian bridge made of planks and wire draped with prayer flags.
A recent New York Times story about high-end U.S. retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Tiffany marketing directly to wealthy Chinese visitors reminded me of some of the extreme Chinese shopping I’ve witnessed in Europe. Stopping in the Zurich airport branch of Sprungli on my way home from Davos, I saw a Chinese man (who spoke no English at all) spend $900 on Swiss chocolates. Offered a free taste by a saleslady as a courtesy for buying so much stuff, he waved it off. Apparently he was not actually a chocolate lover but just buying gifts for some lucky friends. On the tube in London I saw Chinese women en route to Heathrow with the most enormous Louis Vuitton shopping bags and clocked the resentful glances of their fellow passengers. It reminded me of how Americans abroad used to be rich and universally loathed.
Despite being a cynical New Yorker, I was charmed by Bhutan on a visit there a couple of years ago. The beauty of the unspoiled scenery, the rhododendrons in bloom, the mountains and the monasteries — all were uplifting. The quiet intelligence and the thoughtfulness of the people we met were inspiring. Bhutan is a country of traditions and pride in local culture. Visiting the villages we saw astounding feats of archery, which is the national sport, and we took long walks with a local guide who also happens to be a serious cyclist and has helped spread mountain biking throughout the country. One scene stayed with me: Walking to a monastery one day we passed a man sitting on a mountainside doing embroidery as he looked out over a dramatic view of cliffs and mountains covered with trees. With him was a friend who peered over the embroiderer’s shoulder as he stitched. We went for a long walk, and when we came back a few hours later, the two were still there embroidering and watching.