Is Davos toxic? (for your health)

January 29, 2011

This is part of a series written by Anya Schiffrin, author of “Bad News,” and the wife of Nobel Prize Winner Joseph Stiglitz. The opinions expressed are her own.

This morning at the Davos coffee bar I was, as usual, tucking into the stale Danish, when I spotted a Davos Wife (easily identifiable by the infamous white name tag) drinking a cup of green tea. My companion, a Glamorous Davos Girlfriend (GDG) (my husband was, of course at a meeting) congratulated her on her healthy choice.

“I am trying to detox because of all the crap I have been eating,” came the pithy reply.

It may sound like we Davos-goers are whinging ingrates – and that is certainly true — but one of the perennial complaints about Davos is the generally unwholesome atmosphere. Indeed the GDG – who juggles being a GDG with her job as a health consultant — is convinced that Davos is toxic.

Apart from the obvious problem of male egos, general pushiness and bad behavior there is the physical exhaustion that comes from the relentless string of panel discussions in oxygen-deprived basements rooms. It starts with the flight to Zurich and the schlepping of luggage and continues with massive sleep deprivation, stodgy food and the risk of broken bones.

Before the sun has cracked through the dark Alpine sky, the average Davos Man has left his hotel room and begun the long march to his early morning power breakfast. The most legendary was the annual Musharraf breakfast which meant thinking about the Pakistan Intelligence services, the doomed war in Afghanistan and Islamic fundamentalism over bad coffee, rubbery overcooked eggs, sugary orange juice and gluey yogurt. It’s a menu that would make Michael Pollen cry and which surely can’t be expected to inspire the financial world’s most brilliant minds to come up with a way to save the world.

But it’s even worse at 3am New York time before anyone has gotten over jet lag. The sponsor’s sister complained so much about the timing that this year the organizer changed it to a lunch with Imran Khan which was a lot easier all around.

After breakfast the day gets into gear with the average Davos man taking a new meeting every half hour, speaking at various panels, stopping at a few receptions, attending a working dinner and finishing up glad handing and “exchanging views” at sundry after hours parties. After all it costs so much to attend that everyone want to use every minute, giving rise to all sorts of meetings that are probably unnecessary but which justify one’s right to return to Davos next year.

Of course the back-to-back bookings means everyone is on Davos Time which could mean being half an hour late or your appointment not showing up at all because he got a better offer and didn’t bother to cancel.

The Important People get a Mercedes to take them around. The rest of us hoof it up and down the Promenade or wait for the shuttle. A Davos Wife close to the situation told me that the town of Davos hates the World Economic Forum so much that they only shovel the snow after we leave. I don’t know if this is true but I noticed on the way in that the neighboring town of Klosters has very clear sidewalks.

The sleep deprivation and dehydration from the mountain air prompts excessive coffee drinking, resulting in widespread Davos halitosis.

“It’s caused by a lack of dental hygiene exacerbated by too much talking. The usual flushing and brushing goes by the wayside because your mind set is go,go,go” explains the GDG.

Too bad they don’t put breath mints in the conference bags.

Being up in the mountains of Northern Europe means a shortage of fresh fruit and vegetables. The average Davos meal consists of a wilted salad, overcooked meat and all the bread and potatoes you can eat. And for snacks between meals the Canadian investment authority has cruelly set up a kiosk to give out irresistible fried “BeaverTail” pastries served piping hot and slathered in chocolate sauce and cinnamon. This may even surpass the annual Infosys reception pakoras as Davos’ most delicious fried food. But nothing will replace the horrific memory of the Victor Pinchuk Foundation luncheon where I bit into a slice of bread topped with what I thought was sturgeon only to find it was in fact a slab of pork fat.

Most depressing of all was a sobering panel yesterday about the world’s oceans and the serious environmental danger they are in. After an hour of gloom and doom and a compelling slide show from several committed environmentalists it was time for the Q&A. One Davos Wife stood up to ask, “As a wife and mother, what is safe to eat?” A very good question.

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