Category: Travels

Back in Berlin

The President of Germany had to resign over this?  On the bright side, it doesn't seem as important as Lena winning the Eurovision contest.

And so I am back in Berlin and for a good bit of time.  I've already blogged my 1985 visit to East Berlin with Kroszner, which remains one of my strongest and most influential memories.  I also returned the summer after the Wall fell, and spent about two days walking and driving around the Eastern part, more or less pinching myself to see if it was real.  The same people who had been afraid to talk to me five years before suddenly were friendly and open.  It felt remarkably like West Germany…and yet not.  I don't expect to personally witness a comparable liberation in my lifetime and those days too have stuck with me deeply.  For a number of reasons, just stepping foot in Germany is for me an emotional experience.

Twenty years later, I experience Berlin as a normal city for the first time.  But I just arrived, so we'll have to see. 

It is striking how cheap rents are.  I have a two-bedroom apartment, fully furnished, short-term, in a neighborhood comparable in quality to Manhattan's Upper East Side and yet it costs less than many a mediocre place in Fairfax.

Istanbul notes

Contra the United States, here it is the leaders who have the moustaches and the voters who do not. 

Nowhere have I seen more free toothpicks for offer, yet after days I still have not encountered a single Chinese restaurant.  Turkish food dominates the culinary landscape.

The bestsellers are mostly by Turkish authors, yet The Prince of Persia fills many a movie screen.

Orhan Pamuk: "To be traveling through the middle of a city as great, historic and forlorn as Istanbul, and yet to feel the freedom of the open sea — that is the thrill of a trip along the Bosphorus."

Turkey is the world's second leading producer of watermelons and the leading producer of cherries; you can see both in the streets.

Full of small villages, it's one of the best walking cities.  People are friendly and helpful to strangers.

According to Forbes, there are 35 billionaires in Istanbul.

The major sights underwhelm me, in part because they are so crowded with tourists and in part because the "real city" feels further removed from them historically and spiritually than say Cairo does from its classic mosques.  

Sultanahmet is the worst tourist ghetto I've seen in any major city, ever.  It is essential to stay in some other part of the city, any other part.  I'm far from the center in Topkapi (not near the palace of the same name) and happy with my choice.

I could imagine living here.  It offers many of the benefits of major European cities but at lower expense.  It is less exotic than I had expected, and that's taking into account the typical first-order illusion about the exoticism of distant foreign cities. 

Turkey is Europe's leading producer of televisions.  After the 2001 troubles, both the banks and the government are in good fiscal shape.  The Turkish lira has yielded strong returns for years.  The economy is well-diversified.

Oddly (or perhaps not), the city reminds me of a larger-scale Marseilles.

Three years ago, here is Alex on Istanbul.  I took a cab there, and then the ferry back.

Ithaca assorted links

Parisian women and behavioral economics

Psychology is also at work when you look at the women of Paris. The principle at work here is the assumption of style and the amplification of grace. Because you are in Paris, you assume that women are fashion-aware, which colors all your judgments about dress, hairstyle, and other factors of appearance. Because you suppose the most stylish of intentions behind whatever the actual outcome, you will find seductive and ennobling qualities behind almost everything and anyone. What would be a dowdy old hag or a trampy termagant in the wrong part of Baltimore is suddenly the epitome of French cuteness. It’s a sophisticated variant on the “Emperor without cloths” syndrome.

That's from jfl at Ionarts.

Grenada is expensive

A lot of islands are expensive but here it is pronounced.  Western "shopping mall" goods are not bought by many people in the core population, so the market consists mainly of low-elasticity demanders, namely tourists and wealthy expats.  A small number of buyers have to cover the fixed costs of transportation to the island plus the costs of a not-so-efficient retail sector.  Taxi fares are cartelized plus it's only locals on the informal buses, so even intra-city transport costs are high.  That means lots of local monopoly and yet higher prices.  To go from a typical tourist hotel to some semi-cheap local food isn't easy to do, and so it is possible to spend $30 or more on a mediocre breakfast and yes the portions are small too.

In turn that keeps away tourists and maintains the need to spread fixed costs across a small rather than a large number of buyers.  Chicken, egg, etc. 

There is good cheap food in the countryside, especially if you catch a jamboree or fish fry.

Addendum: They also use the East Caribbean Dollar, which perhaps for them is not an optimum currency area.  Should Grenada be pegging to the U.S. dollar?

Grenada notes

The for-profit medical facilities are impressive.  It is a quiet country, full of quiet people, and it is much safer than Jamaica (e.g., no one trails your every movement).  Women, but not men, will hesitate before answering questions.  Even a simple query like "Where is the beach?" will draw a puzzled stare from hotel staff in the lobby.  Eventually an uncertain answer will be forthcoming, even though the office is only three minutes from the ocean.  A Sunday drive through the countryside will reveal many cricket matches.  The rum factory uses something not too far from Industrial Revolution technology.  Many feel their country is threatened by Muslim terrorists.  Grenada is not wealthy but rarely does it look like a total dump.  You can visit the rotting hulks of Russian and Cuban transport planes.  Nothing is cheap, as even street food can cost well over $10.  At the Jerk Chicken Hut they sell your leftovers to the other customers.

The bottom line: If you seek a good introduction to English-language Caribbean culture — in a perfectly safe setting — and don't mind the non-bargain prices, it is definitely recommended.

The economy in Grenada

It's not good:

Grenada has been hit hard by the global economic slowdown with the two mainstays of the economy – tourism and foreign direct investment (FDI) – weakening significantly. Real gross domestic product is estimated to have declined by 7.7 percent in 2009, after 2.2 percent growth in 2008. Tourism dropped by about 13 percent year-on-year and FDI-related construction is estimated to have contracted by about 50 percent for the year, although the pace of decline slowed in the last quarter of 2009, reflecting an uptick in FDI inflows. Prices fell by 2.4 percent in the 12 months to December 2009, reflecting weak domestic demand and lower international food and fuel prices.

The current debt-to-gdp ratio here is 120%.  On Feb.1, they put in a fifteen percent VAT.  I am curious to see how long it takes them to spend that money and move back to major deficit mode.  Is there a systematic empirical study of this question?

Overall, it's hard to see where future economic growth will come from.  Grenada doesn't have enough night life to appeal to younger, non-yacht-owning American tourists, and wealthy British tourists and expats wonder why they should come so far, especially with such cheap European airfares and the use of English spreading globally.  The island doesn't seem to have much in the way of factories or light manufacturing.  Nutmeg is fine but doesn't hold a huge future and in the meantime the trees still have to recover from the hurricane.  One option would be to encourage more Indian and Chinese immigration.  Yet it seems to me the place is just well off enough that they don't feel compelled to make big changes and they will experience slow deterioration of their relative standing.

Concepción, Chile

I haven't been to Concepción since December 1989, yet I will never forget my trip there.  It was the first time I learned what was for me to become an important truth.  If you set off to a mid-sized city in South America — especially in the Southern Cone — your chance of finding an idyllic spot are high.  There may be, in a way, nothing to do there, at least not in the sense that your guidebook can report.  But it will feel so fresh, so undiscovered, so representative of the vitality of everyday life, that you will at times think you have stumbled upon paradise.  Everyone there will seem so apart from the world you know and there is a sudden (and quite silly) shock at seeing how seriously they take the world they know.  Plus they have superb vanilla ice cream and strawberries for dessert.

Here is the Cathedral, which was destroyed in 1939 by an earthquake.

America’s best BBQ?

Could it be Lonnie Ray's BBQ, in Harrisburg, Missouri?  That's about half an hour outside of Columbia, Missori.  I ate there yesterday and I am still staggered by the encounter.  It is one of the two or three best barbecue experiences of my life and possibly #1.  It doesn't seem to be written up by any of the standard sources (here is one good web review).

The proprietor, Mike, is also a true scientist and scholar and gentleman.  He studied with Mike Mills and he will engage you at length on how to render fresh lard, why Kansas City barbecue has declined, and the importance of the wood source.  He has studied — and I do mean studied — Texan, Kansas City, and even North Carolina styles.  The pulled pork was my favorite dish and I usually don't like pulled pork much at all.  Both the sauces and the atmosphere get an A+ as well.  He is now studying how to cook tamales.  If only everyone in the scientific community had his attitude.

I am serious in my claims for this place.

Here is their Facebook page, you know what to do.

Daniel Gross, Me, and the Efficient Market Hypothesis

Daniel Gross is at Davos and writes:

I noticed a piece of gray paper on the floor. It looked like it might
be currency of some sort–certainly not a dollar, but perhaps Swiss
francs or something else. I started to bend over to pick it up, but
then I caught myself. This is the World Economic Forum. It is populated
by hundreds of economists and by thousands of business people schooled
in the tenets of economics. This is possibly the most rational,
profit-maximizing concentration of human capital in the world. These
are the actors who make up an efficient market. And of course adherents
to the efficient market hypothesis famously don't believe in the
concept of found money….

But I'm a
connoisseur of economic irrationality. And so I bent down and picked up
the paper. On one side, the grim visage of Queen Elizabeth. On the
other, Charles Darwin. It was a 10 pound note, worth about $16.25. Just
lying on the floor, unmolested by Nobel Prize-winning economists, CEOs
of Fortune 500 companies, and financial journalists.

Gross concludes the efficient markets hypothesis must be false.

The same thing happened to me once except I wasn't at Davos, I was walking in New York near Wall Street and I saw a green folded up note that looked to be money.  I too paused and thought of the old joke that if it was money someone would have picked it up already, but I picked it up anyway and took a closer look…..alas, it was a cleverly folded piece of paper designed to look like money when dropped on the sidewalk, although it was actually an advertisement.  Kudos to Eugene Fama, I thought on that day.

Perhaps our different experiences account for some of our differing economics views.

Hat tip to Ezra Klein.

My history with Haiti

Looking back fifteen years or so, I regarded Haiti as an extreme which people did not dare visit.  I had the image that if I walked down the street someone would come along and lop off my arm with a machete.  I wondered if visitors could go out without armed support.  Somehow I felt that if I could manage a trip to Haiti, I could deal with many of the life problems which would, sooner or later, come my way.

I also imagined the place was full of lush trees, which is the direct opposite of the reality.

I set off in (I think) 1993.  The place was popular as late as the 1970s, but by then hardly any Caribbean guidebooks covered Haiti at all.  My friend Christopher Weber, the investment writer, ended up coming with me at the last minute, maybe as more of a dare than anything else.  Plus he had the longtime dream of visiting the remote Haitian city of Jeremie, because of its association with the family background of Alexander Dumas.  

Upon arriving, I realized the country was relatively peaceful, provided you were not there in times of elections, coups, or demonstrations.  The terrain is so crowded, and white people are so conspicuous, it is (was) hard to get into trouble.  Plus Haitian crowds are known to knock down and kill petty thieves on the spot.  There's just not enough room for anyone to mug you, at least if you exercise due caution.  Nor, for that matter, were there very many beggars, since usually there was no one to beg from. 

Despite oppressive poverty (other than India, I've never seen anything comparable), there's simply a remarkable feeling there and most visitors to Haiti end up sharing this understanding with other Haitiphiles.  I've long wished I could explain this.  I've since been five times, though never to the north.  I also started collecting Haitian art and reading everything I could about the country and going to Haitian concerts.  

For the last ten years I've been afraid to go, mostly because kidnappings started on some of the roads.  Finally, it seemed safe enough and the economy was improving.  Over last weekend, in Miami, Natasha, Yana and I drove around Little Haiti, ate a wonderful meal, and bought some Haitian gospel and compa CDs, which served as the soundtrack for the rest of the day in the car.  I was all set to plan my next trip back.

Neither Chris nor I ever made it to Jeremie.