Thursday, May 25, 2017

Here's to Europe, Warts and All

My wife and I returned from Europe to find the U.S. media fretting about whether world order was reordering. Whether a populist wave was sweeping Europe, about to wash away the European Union and, gasp, socialism. Whether countries were about to restrict immigration. Whether the EU would survive. Heck, whether Europe would survive.

Not to worry. The answers are no, no, yes and yes. The sky isn't falling. In fact, our brief travels suggest nothing much is changing, Brexit and Trump notwithstanding.

The welfare state is alive and well, with bureaucracies bloated and inefficient and regulations so pervasive they make the Obama years look like unfettered free enterprise. Everything and everyone are taxed to the point of breaking (like in Connecticut). Unions still call the shots. Business productivity is a joke. And entitlements reign.

Little is spent on defense. In France, it's "croissants, not cruisers." In Italy, we saw a few military ships that looked like relics from World War II. Without U.S. protection, Europe would be overrun by Russia in two weeks. Okay, maybe it would take a month. Some wag said Sweden is already drawing up surrender papers.

In Germany people are scandalized that Trump asked NATO countries to pay 2% of their GDP for defense, as was agreed many years ago. But why should Germans sacrifice their weinerschnitzel and long vacations if Angela Merkel can get the Americans to guarantee Europe's safety? Even more important, why buy guns when you can spend the money to subsidize green energy? Who knows, maybe wind turbines will be a shield against Iranian missiles.

Okay, enough negativity. Americans still love to visit Europe, and my wife and I are no exceptions. The food is great, the wine even better, and you can't beat the exchange rate. The quaint and picturesque are everywhere. And there's the history. Europe is, after all, the land of our ancestors -- for many of us anyway. And history still matters.

Europe never ceases to surprise. Even armed with old-fashioned guide books and the newfangled Internet, you can expect the unexpected.

For example, we learned that Malta, a big ship-building center, was more heavily bombed in the Second World War than London. And who knew that cannoli was invented in Sicily or that sea salt is still mined there? Or that Italy has two of the world's three most active volcanoes -- Etna and Stromboli (the third is Kilauea in Hawaii)? Or that Vesuvius, hovering over Naples, is 23 years past its eruption due date?

Here's one for the foodies: Only half of the tables in iconic Tour d'Argent look out over the Seine and Notre Dame. The other half give diners a killer view of Parisienne chimney pots!

Then there's the Sistine Chapel, said to have the highest concentration of pickpockets in Europe. I don't believe that. Anyway the ceiling is now clean and visible, and still quite remarkable.

Europe remains a photographer's dream -- from the Amalfi cliffside to the Sicilian antiquities to the Impressionists in d'Orsay. There's nowhere else quite like it.

So back home in Naples -- Florida, that is (there's a difference) -- I toast the grand dame across the pond. Warts and all, Europe will always be a favorite destination.

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