Wednesday, August 22, 2018

A Tale of Two Cities

Let's make it three cities.

There's London, still magnificent but staggeringly expensive and choked with traffic.

There's Copenhagen, a fairy-tale capital facing big changes.

And there's Bergen, the city of Grieg, balancing North Sea oil wealth with a desperate need to be green.

All three are northern European, very much so, and all three are dealing with an influx of refugees and a slew of other problems.

My wife and I just returned from a visit there and saw changes that were not apparent even a few years ago.

Copenhagen was and is a delight, with castles, the Stroget walking street, a magnificent harbor and 16th century Nyhavn, one of the most photogenic settings in all of Europe. It's the city of Hans Christian Andersen, celebrated by Frank Loesser: "Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen, salty old queen of the sea."

But taxes there are sky high (40-65%), and assimilation of Middle Eastern immigrants has not gone well. Many we spoke to were critical. One woman, choosing her words carefully, said, "I really see our culture slipping away." I saw no racism, but rather a kind of sadness.

Bergen, a gorgeous Hanseatic League city on Norway's west coast, has similar problems but a very different profile. Norway transformed itself from one of the poorest countries in Europe to the richest in terms of per capita wealth. How did the Norwegians pull this off? Sacrifice and frugality? No, they discovered North Sea oil.

Petroleum wealth coupled with the high taxes of a socialist state ensures everyone is taken care of from cradle to grave. Norway consistently ranks among the five happiest countries in the world. But there is a downside. One of our guides, a hilariously cynical Australian, said Norwegian students were notoriously lazy, but she said that prepared them well for the Norwegian workplace where productivity was happily low. With subsidies available, no one worries about productivity.

Religion is also optional. Norwegians can opt out of mandated church membership by simply checking a box online.

We asked about the environment, a cause celebre in northern Europe. "Ah," the guide said, "Norwegians want to get paid for their oil, but they don't want anybody to use it." No reason to let happiness be sidelined by guilt.

Another guide boasted that 40% of Norwegian car sales were for electric vehicles. But, she lamented, when the government withdrew hefty rebates, sales tanked. Apparently free-market principles die hard, even in Norway.

Then there is London. During my working days, I spent a good bit of time there, and I can attest to striking changes. The Muslim influence is ubiquitous, with veiled women everywhere. The young women we encountered were unfailingly courteous and helpful. Not so the older women (withdrawn) or any of the men (surly). During our visit the big story was whether burkas should be banned, as they had been in Denmark and France.

Costs, always high, seemed spiraling out of control. Tiny apartments are going for $3 million, and affordable housing is in crisis mode. (The problem isn't limited to Collier County.) Home ownership rate among 25-34-year-olds has slipped to 28%. Some 350,000 Londoners left the city last year.

But even in times of change, some things remain constant. Chelsea signed a new soccer goalie for $80 million, and the cricket-mad press reported that a topless female protester ran onto the pitch during a match with India. Both sides were said to have cheered.

As a final note, I think it's useful to do a quick measure of standards, a useful way to check the pulse of a city. In London the standards may be slipping. For example, we sat next to a lad in shorts and a tee shirt eating pizza out of a box at a BBC Proms concert in Royal Albert Hall. Good grief. On the plus side, we had a taxi driver, embarrassed by the choking traffic, refuse to accept all of his fare. "Mate, I can't take your money." And even tolerant Copenhagen was appalled by Chinese tourists throwing paint on The Little Mermaid.

These musings have no bottom line except to say that changes -- some good, some not -- are afoot  everywhere in the land of our ancestors. That's quite a few of us. Some 62% of Americans have roots in western Europe.

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