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Thursday, September 3, 2015

What If Bukharin Won and Had "Big Data"?

I have been fascinated by economic systems since my college days. At that time, the late sixties, the West was in a very similar funk about itself as it is now. There was a fascination with hybrid economic systems blending laissez faire capitalism with central planning; individual freedom balanced against collective welfare.  Yugoslavia was the “darling” to be studied at this time; its ten year GDP growth (1961 – 1970) was estimated at 5.5% per annum. The “USSR” (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) was also in the frame of study.

But why the title: “What if Bukharin Won and had “Big Data”? This requires a bit of historical background. As the Russian Revolution was winding down in 1922 after five years of bloodshed and deprivation, Lenin was trying to patch together the communist utopia. Pragmatically, he relaxed the nationalization of production that had occurred in War Communism and introduced a somewhat mixed market system dubbed the NEP (“New Economic Policy”). Reluctantly, Nikolai Bukharin, a rather brilliant theoretician, economist and party luminary, came around to this thinking and became its chief exponent. By 1925, the Russian economy was turning a corner, industrial and agricultural production were back to pre World War I levels – life was improving, albeit from a terrible starting point. However, with Lenin’s death in 1925 a power struggle interfered with governance. Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev wanted to scrap NEP’s decentralization and liberalization with a totally centralized system; Bukharin dug in on the merits of the NEP. Stalin, the savviest and most ruthless of the Central Committee sided with Bukharin in order to defeat Trotsky; afterward abandoning the NEP for centralization.  Eventually through Stalin’s manipulation, Bukharin was discredited, declared disloyal and executed in March 1938 – tossed upon the scrapheap of history.
Beginning in 1928, the economy was re-nationalized. In this year, the first Five Year Plan covering 1929 – 1933 was introduced; there were a total of thirteen Five Year Plans, the last issued in 1990 for the period 1991 – 1995. Alas, the last was never implemented, the USSR was dissolved and Gorbachev resigned as its leader on December 25, 1991. It had lasted as a political entity only 69 years (actually five days short of 69).

I wonder about an alternate history. What if Stalin had been bested by Bukharin and his more right leaning Central Committee members? What if the NEP was renewed every five years and decentralization remained in place? Another query comes to mind. What if computing power was what it is now, or even that of 1980? The Soviets did understand the early power of this; they nationalized the Odhner Factory, an early manufacturer of tabulation equipment quite early on, and they were a large customer of the newly formed IBM in the 1930s.
Computation power has been expanding and its cost dropping relentlessly. MIPS/$ (“Million Instructions per Second”/US Dollar) have been increasing at annual rates from 20% to 52% since 1978. Data storage and retrieval are ubiquitous; if not at times dangerous and invasive. Bukharin couldn’t dream of this power in the planning and implementation of NEP.

This train of thought logically leads one to contemplate The Peoples Republic of China (“PRC”). PRC just might be a reincarnation of this alternate history. Mao and his Cultural Revolution kept China mired in its peasant past until his death in 1976.  Deng Xiaoping reversed course out of adversity, much like Lenin in 1922; he posited that “socialist” and “market” were not mutually exclusive – at a point where IT, computers and peripherals were exploding onto the world scene. There have been many challenges to this mixed market tack, especially after Tiananmen Square in 1989; but the “decentralists” have remained in power.

Now fast forward to Xi Jinping. The PRC was born in 1949 as Chiang Kai-Shek retreated to Taiwan. If Soviet history is to be repeated; will The Peoples Republic of China also disintegrate in 69 or 70 years – that would be around 2020? The recent wobbles with the currency devaluation and stock market free fall has dented the omnipotent image of China’s ruling elite. Xi also is a new breed; replacing the “socialist construction” with what one might call a new “Chinese nationalism,” and is consolidating presidential power at an unprecedented rate. No one still believes the GDP growth rates that are officially published; actual rates might be as low as three percent. How will the world’s second largest economy handle the transition from the factory of the world to a domestic products and services consumer?  What will follow? In the end, will a mixed market strategy and “Big Data” save the regime and let it live past the USSR’s inevitable “sell by date”?

Nils Bohr, Physics Nobel Laureate, perhaps said it best: prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future.”  That said, who in 1986 would have predicted that the Soviet Union would be no longer five years hence. My sense is that China will overcome the current turbulence, in no small part because it kept away from total centralization and because of the miracle of computation power.

Still, now that I’m retired and 45 plus years from those college days, I realize I’m (and we) are not as smart and clever as I (we) thought we were. It isn’t easy to plan anything, so a national economy is a bit of a stretch. In my college years I was very much in tune with Bukharin. Today I am more free market, which is inherently more decentralized and flexible. And I’m less enamored with computational power as strictly a force for good. There are dangers lurking everywhere, but I am keeping more of a wary eye on solutions involving central planning and on big data solutions than I am on markets and individual freedom.


In spite of it all, Nikolai Bukharin remains a individual to be admired.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Mallorca | August 2015

Friday, August 14, 2015
We left London on Friday, August 14 for Mallorca (Mallorca is Spanish Catalan; Majorca, the English spelling), the largest of Spain’s Balearic Island chain; (the other members being Ibiza and the lesser known Formentera and Menorca). Like most other Mediterranean isles; the Balearic’s have been contested and fought over for thousands of years: Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Moors, Turks and even Mussolini’s Fascists all took their turn. In the 13th century the Catalans settled here; their dialect still predominates.
Mallorca (and Ibiza even more so) had gotten a reputation for cheap package tours and stag and hen parties gone out of control; so we approached the trip with some caution. But we have travelled before with friends Annie and Joël, and they highly recommended our planned accommodations – we were in their seasoned hands.

Our British Airways’ flight was good from Heathrow to Palma, the Balearic’s capital city. Clearing customs and luggage retrieval went smoothly and we were soon in our Hertz Opel Meriva for the twenty minute drive around the Bay of Palma to the Cap Rocat Hotel in Cala Blava. The hotel and grounds were converted into a hotel from the former complex of the Spanish military battery of Cap Enderrocat. They were built between 1898 and 1930 to defend the port of Palma, although this strategic vantage point has served as a watchtower over the bay for many centuries.
The property is hard to describe; most of the fortifications were dug into the sandy chalk hillsides of the landscape; with wide swaths of cut pathways connecting everything – so the 29 or so suites are a bit dark and confining, although very chic. The exterior architecture is soft yellows, flowing white cotton, torches and candles; with palms stabbed here and there, cedars standing sentry - a distinct Moorish feel. We checked into suite #44 after a quick stop at the pool to say hello to Annie and Jöel who had arrived a few hours earlier.
Hotel Cap Rocat

Later that evening we met them for drinks at the outside bar near reception and then we all had dinner at the hotel’s Sea Club Restaurant above Queen’s Cove. Thankfully we had a table under cover; a sudden and strong rainstorm hit shortly after we were seated; scattering other unprotected guests all seeking some shelter. After a walk back to our room up the carved out military pathways we were quickly asleep.

Saturday, August 15, 2015
The weather forecast looked particularly bleak for the next few days; very uncharacteristic for August in the Med. We awoke to rain and a dark gray sky and had breakfast in the room. The foursome decided to take a short 40 minute drive to Sóller, north on the coast from Palma. Lunch was at the Jumeirah Port Sóller Hotel and pleasant. It was then a visit to Sóller’s waterfront and Plaça d’Espanya; we watched the iconic wooden paneled narrow gauge train pull in to the quayside station from its long winding journey.
 Sóller's Narrow Gauge
Back to the car still dodging raindrops, we headed south on the twisting but beautiful coastal Ma-10, terraced stone hillsides everywhere, to the small village of Deia. Continuing on to the lovely mountain town Valldemossa; forever linked to the French novelist George Sand and Polish composer Fréderic Chopin – both part time residents. After finding a place to park, we all toured the expansive Real Cartuja de Valldemossa, a royal residence and from 1399, a Carthusian monastery packed with interesting local artifacts. We then travelled back to Cap Rocat; eventually having dinner again at the Sea Club. The fresh sea bass grilled and filleted was excellent, along with a local white wine, Ribas. Everyone crashed to bed about midnight.



Sunday, August 16, 2015
We were up to a more typical sunny morning. We spent the day at the pool; stunning views to the sea and a tranquil peace enveloping us. Judith and I read, partaking in both lunch and dinner with our friends at the Sea Club. The day was a preview to heaven, except for my Internet bandwidth headaches – god’s helpline was busy!
Cap Rocat's Pool

Monday, August 17, 2015
Bad weather returned with a vengeance. After breakfast we were off to Palma under heavy rain and struggled to find parking. We waited in line under our umbrellas, shoes soaked and pant legs soggy, to enter the magnificent Palma Cathedral. On the bones of the mosque of Medina Mayurqa, a new cathedral was finished in 1587. Early in the 20th century, the famous Antonio Gaudi created a new high altar, the Baldachino; a wrought iron canopy incorporating lamps, tapestries and a multicolored crucifix. Somehow this does not visually interfere with the exquisite 36 foot stain glassed rose window dating to the 16th century. The whole Gothic edifice is a startling but refreshing attack on the senses.
Gaudi's Altar

Palma's Cathedral

We journeyed back to Cap Rocat, still under a heavy rain and had a late lunch at the bar. We met Annie and Joël and drove back to Palma (thankfully no rain) for aperitifs at the boutique Hotel Can Alomar overlooking the fashionable Passeig des Born; later a nice alfresco dinner of paella at Caballito de Mar. We had made the best of a rather dreary day.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015
A hopeful sunny start when we rose was extinguished by ten, replaced by threatening cloud cover. We were off after breakfast to Andratx, a small and sleepy town in a valley of almond groves on the southwest coast of Mallorca. Its port, five kilometers away, is a different story. Here, in a protected bay, luxury yachts are moored snugly and equally lavish villas dot the adjacent hillsides.
The rain continued unabated. Our next stop was to La Granja, a possessió, or private estate from the 18th century, just outside the small hill village of Esporles. Once a convent, it is now the home of the Segui family who have opened it as a public venue. Think of a crazy and eccentric aunt you might have and where she might live if suddenly wealthy. The gardens are haphazard affairs, caged birds, goats and other more exotic creatures are combined with follies and strange water features. If the seven dwarfs wandered past us I wouldn’t have been startled. The house is equally bizarre – music alternating betweenThe Marriage of Figaro and a Muslim call to prayer. The dreary weather only added to the eeriness.
La Granja

Not looking to head back to the hotel quite yet, we revisited the charming town of Valldemossa and took in the Saint Bartomeu Church. It was then back to Cap Rocat; arriving about five.
St. Bartomeu

We met Annie and Joël for drinks and dinner; tonight at Rocat’s gourmet Fortress Restaurant for a five course tasting menu. We were not disappointed.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015
The weather is forecast to improve; we have one more day of so-so cloudiness – at least no rain. Our friends opted for a short excursion to Portals Nous, just past Palma; but we decided to camp at the pool with our books. We went to lunch at Sea Cliff about one; Annie and Joël returned and joined us a little after we had sat down. All were back to the pool until six; the weather was as advertised, mostly cloudy with an occasional wink from the sun.
Dinner was outside at the Sea Cliff; I had very nice beef tenderloin in lieu of fish tonight. We also partook in a wonderful white, Belondrade y Lurton, from the Rueda region and verdejo grape. Judith and I had met the Lurton family at a wine tasting at the RAC.
There was a star filled sky as we walked back to our suites.


Thursday, August 20, 2015
Finally we woke to blazing sun and perfectly blue sky with temperatures forecast at 86⁰F! Our breakfast arrived; Joël had finally “trained” the kitchen to provide us uncut crusty baguettes that were wonderful, the yogurt with honey divine.
Palma Cathedral's Exterior
 
We got to the pool by ten and had a fantastic three hours of relaxation, reading and swimming. At a bit after one we traveled back to Palma to see things not from under an umbrella – what a difference on a pleasant day. Parking on Avinguda d’Antoni Maura we had a quick bite and then walked around the cathedral’s exquisite exterior. After, it was to the Basilica de Sant Francesc and its expansive cloister. The refined Gothic style and the Baroque altarpiece were inspiring. From here it was a short walk to the Banys Árabs, a well preserved 10th century Moorish bath. We finished with the Palau Reial de l’Almudaina, the royal family’s palace in the Balearic’s. The admission price was high and the visit not very interesting. The drive back to the hotel was without traffic.
Banys Árabs
Palma Cathedral's Exterior


That evening, we drove back into Palma with Annie and Joël. Drinks were at the Can Alomar’s terrace and dinner followed at their Asian themed De Tokio a Lima Restaurante, also alfresco. The food and wine were excellent, the service didn’t quite match.

Friday, August 21, 2015
The weather remains perfect. We were down to the pool by ten and had a relaxing morning of reading and swimming. The view from the pool over the Bay of Palma is breathtakingly beautiful. At 12:30 we returned to the room, changed and were off to visit Portals Nous, northwest of Palma. Its attraction is a glitzy new port, very big, with plenty of shops and restaurants. We had a nice lunch at Spoon Restaurante looking out to a field of pleasure boats.
Back to the hotel, it was to the pool until about six. Dinner with our friends was at the Sea Cliff.

Saturday, August 22, 2015
The beautiful day was the perfect excuse for laziness and hedonistic sun worship; and we found religion came easily.
Before lunch, we looked at the new Sentinel suites (three in all), wonderful spaces carved into the rocks with very private terraces and plunge pools overlooking the indigo stained Bay of Palma – very dramatic and one of a kind. We left the pool reluctantly after six.
The four of us had drinks on the upper terrace of the Fortress Restaurante, overlooking a wedding party in the courtyard. It was then down to Sea Cliff for our final dinner here.
Judith, Annie, Joël and me

Sunday, August 23, 2015
We woke to a slightly overcast morning and it was time to check out of Cap Rocat and move to our next location.
At noon we were heading north about 60 kilometers toward Pollença and to Son Brull Hotel. This Relais & Chateaux establishment is contained within a 40 acre farm; a magnificent natural environment of olive grove, vineyard; as well as almond, lemon and orange trees. Located at the foot of the Sierra de Traumuntana mountain range, overlooking the sea in the distance, this 12th century former Jesuit monastery has 23 rooms and suites, a pretty pool and highly regarded restaurant. The austerity of the original building has been softened with a cool, modern design, but totally in keeping with the spirit of the place. We checked into suite #37, spacious and very nice, a view to the Bay of Pollença. We settled in and took a leisurely walk around the grounds.
Hotel Son Brull
Dinner was on the terrace and did not disappoint. Our leg of lamb was cooked flawlessly, tender, flavorful; the 2008 Torrent Negre Pla i Lleevant, a local Mallorcan red, the perfect accompaniment.

Monday, August 24, 2015
After a very nice breakfast, we spent the day at the pool swimming, reading and relaxing; only interrupted by a tapas lunch. The weather was perfect, sunny with a light breeze to cool the skin. Dinner was a bit disappointing; we all had herb crusted hake that was bland and overdone. Desserts were a helpful consolation.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015
It was only partly sunny today. After breakfast we were out sightseeing, our first stop the nearby Pollença. It is a picturesque small town, its Plaça Major a bustling hub of cafes. There is a wonderful church, Nostra Senyora dels Angels, from the exterior a gothic temple built in the mid 1700s, but the interior contains some beautiful baroque altars. We also climbed up the 365 steps to El Calvari, a hilltop chapel with an interesting gothic cross, carved in wood.
365 Steps to El Calvari
Back to the car, we headed to the Port of Pollença and then on to the twisting Ma-2210 out to the most northern point of Mallorca, Cap de Formentor and its lighthouse. The jagged cliffs looked like the upright sharpened gray flints of some long ago giants; scrub pine and the occasional mountain goat to stop traffic. We got back to Son Brull about three, had late tapas and relaxed at the pool.
Dinner was alfresco with our friends.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015
After a typical but very nice buffet breakfast we were off again on a hot and sunny morning. Our first destination was the Santuario de Lluc, 20 kilometers southwest on the narrow Ma-10. This remote site is high in the hills of the Sierra Tramuntana.
Basilica's Main Altar
It is a 17th century monastery and shrine to La Morenta, or Black Virgin; 13th century folklore recounts that a young shepherd boy found the statue on a nearby hilltop. The Basilica has an imposing stone façade but wonderful baroque interior. Behind the apse is a small altar by Gaudí displaying the Black Virgin. The adjacent museum is uninteresting except for the collection of Mallorcan paintings; once again I was impressed by this local artistry. The wonderful impressionist painter of the isle, Coll Bardolet, donated 236 of his works depicting Mallorcan scenes. There are also fine samples of other impressionists, Guillem Gill’s watercolors a standout.
Guillem Gill's watercolors

Next we were off on the torturous Ma-2141 to Sa Calobra. Although a short distance away, it is a 45 minute trip contorting through Puig Major; the route plunges over 2,500 feet in 13 kilometers. At one point, the road turns 270⁰, looping under itself (road engineers call this a “knotted tie”). While trying not to careen off a precipice or having my left side mirror snapped off by a passing vehicle; the views of the seemingly hand carved gray cliff sides and towering peaks were spectacular. Intrepid goats sometimes block the tarmac.
The cove of Sa Colabra is a light emerald bay tucked among the rock face. Further along the promenade there are two tunnels leading further into the bay’s round pebble beach and the end of the Torrent de Pareis, a 3.3 kilometer gorge beginning in the peaks of the Sierra Tramuntana range. After a quick bite, we back tracked our route, arrived back to the hotel after three and were quickly into the pool.
Sa Colabra Bay










Torrent de Pareis meets the sea


Dinner was on the hotel’s terrace; after a bit of TV news we were off to sleep.

Thursday, August 27, 2015
The weather remained perfect; mid eighties ⁰F with enough breeze to keep things fresh. We had a full day at the pool; reading, relaxing, nodding off occasionally, and some guilty swimming afterward. The pool area is a bit quirky, but it has a certain genuine charm – one might think you were at a villa in Tuscany. Our lazy behavior was only interrupted by lunch.
Son Brull - Poolside

We had booked dinner at Hotel Castell son Claret in Calvía; west of Palma and about a 50 minute drive from Son Brull. Their restaurant, Zaranda, is one Michelin starred, the young chef Fernando Pérez Arellano working hard to please. The food was inventive and tasty; the local 2011 Cumas red, a blend of mostly Mantonegro grape with a 5% splash of Syrah, a pleasant and inexpensive surprise. It had a nice peppery taste and fruity finish; it reminded me of Drouhin’s Willamette Valley pinot noir.
Joël navigated us back to the Son Brull in light traffic.

Friday, August 28, 2015
Our last full day here remained bright and sunny with a nice breeze. It was more of the same, a repeat of yesterday. Dinner at the hotel was another disappointment.

Saturday, August 29, 2015
We were up early and bid our friends Annie and Joël a safe flight back to Luxembourg; they were leaving before us. We had a last swim and some sun before we packed and checked out. It was an easy ride back to Palma airport; we arrived early so we had to loll in the lounge for a few hours. BA 0450 was delayed about an hour, but we had a good flight nonetheless. Masood had us to the flat by about eight.
Mallorca was a pleasant surprise and we will most likely be back. The island was very clean, its people upbeat and helpful; there was much to see historically and scenically and our lodgings, pleasant and one-of-a-kind types of places.


Thursday, July 30, 2015

Adriatic Adventure | July 2015

CROATIA

June 27, 2015, Saturday | Budapest to Zagreb
We left Budapest early afternoon for Zagreb. It’s become a first stop for us on trips south; an easy 3 ½ hour, 350-kilometer drive. We checked into The Esplanade, Zagreb’s nicest hotel; even so, it is a tad bit shabby. Rain threatened all day and in fact we watched as a wedding ceremony held on the hotel’s extensive terrace washed out during the young couple’s vows. Our dinner was in the bistro; the risotto quite nice. After a nightcap it was off to bed. 

June 28, 2015, Sunday | Zagreb to Split
We were up early, had breakfast and were off on the 4 hour, 410-kilometer drive to Split. The trip down the very new and well constructed E71/A1 was very scenic, forested mountains with numerous tunnels boring thorough the landscape. As we approached Novigrad and the sea the terrain became more arid and flat; we paralleled the coast past Šebinik, turning toward the sea and Split on the D1.
Our home for the next several nights is the large, very modern Radisson Blu, on the coast, 20 minutes east of the old city. We booked a nice suite on the sixth floor with terrace and views to the Adriatic and Brač Island. The room wasn’t ready upon our arrival, so we had lunch at the hotel’s terrace restaurant. There was a brief rain shower that sent us under cover, but the sun quickly returned. By 2:30 pm we got to the room and unpacked quickly.

The highlight of this area of mainland is still clearly centered on Diocletian’s Palace. We drove to old city, found good parking close by and set off to explore.
Split is on the map primarily because one of its native sons “made it big.” Diocles (or possibly Diocles Valerius) was born in Solin on the Dalmatian coast in 244. He was poor and most likely the son of a slave. He rose in the military under Emperor Carus, eventually becoming commander of his elite cavalry force – a post that earned him the honor of a consulship in 283. After the death of Carus and his son, Diocles became Emperor Diocletian in 284. He ruled until 305; then left the imperial office, becoming the first Roman emperor to abdicate the position voluntarily; how very democratic. Everything wasn’t perfect, under his rule it wasn’t a very good time to be Christian, but I won’t get into that here.
In his retirement he moved back to his Dalmatian birthplace and built a palace, Diocletian’s Palace to
Rendering - Diocletian's Palace
be specific. His seaside retirement “home” was ambitious and very big: approximately 160 meters by 190 meters – about 7 ½ walled-in acres to you and me. Think of a giant double Mac-mansion combined with a fortress and housing for his retainers, staff and military guard; a temple here and there, and a nice mausoleum thrown in for good measure. Fast forward and this is now the center of Split, Croatia – thank you Diocletian.

The Palace today is anything but a palace; it’s more a medieval maze of 220 buildings – currently housing about 3,000 Splicani (Split residents), shops, cafes and restaurants. Four gates (named Gold, Iron, Silver and Bronze) located midpoint on each wall create two bi-sectional passages, north-south and east-west; with everything radiating out from one of these arteries. Originally the southern half (facing the Adriatic) was the Emperor’s wing, and the northern, home to guards, retainers and staff.
The anchor of the Palace remains the Peristil, an impressive imperial square framed by two colonnades to the east and west, a prothyron to the south leading to the vestibule and further to the imperial quarters. Most of the structure is made of white stone from the nearby island of Brač; however; the columns are made of Italian marble and there are other exquisite imports from all over the Roman world.
Our first stop was logically to the Peristil; a bustle of tourists jostling with their cameras and selfy sticks recording their personal moments. The octagonal shaped mausoleum had been transformed by the early Christians into the Cathedral of St. Dominius. The 13th century doors were marvelous, 28
St. Dominius
panels of Romanesque miniatures; the altar, magnificent. The exterior belfry is framed by two lion figures and there is a beautifully preserved Egyptian black granite sphinx adorning the wall to the right of the entrance.
We briefly stopped in the Vestibule hall; an impromptu archapello group singing within the wonderful acoustics of the dome. It was then down to the adjacent basement halls, exuding a haunting timelessness amidst the dim light and moss laden walls.
We were back to the hotel by six, drinks and then to our room. A late dinner was on the terrace and we were quickly to bed.


6/29/2015 Monday | Split
We were up early to a hot, sunny, breezy day. Parking in our spot, we walked up to Marjan, the hilly nature reserve just to the west of the Palace. Hundreds, Judith would
St. Nikola
say thousands, of steps later; we reached the Vidilica Café with its wonderful views, and a nearby Jewish cemetery. Staggering on in the heat, the little stone chapel of St. Nikola came into our sight – reaching it we gave up and headed back down to the sea.
Trudging back towards Diocletian Palace’s northern gate (Golden Gate) we stopped for espressos at the shaded café of Gallery of Fine Arts. Refreshed, we continued on to the massive Gregorius of Nin statue, sculpted by Meštrović, just outside the walls; and then the Temple of Jupiter, City Museum and the Synagogue, all within the Palace.
Lunch was an okay pizza on the city’s seaside promenade, Obala Hrvatskog Narodnog Preporoda. Thankfully it is commonly referred to as the “Riva,” so we didn’t need to pronounce this Croatian mouthful of mismatched vowels and consonants. We were back to the hotel by three and had a glass of wine at the beach.
It was a taxi to dinner at a very nice spot, Dvor Restaurant, on Put Firula, 14. It had a lovely terrace overlooking a tranquil bay; staff and food were excellent. Another taxi, nightcap at the hotel and then it was quickly to sleep.

6/30/2015 Tuesday | Split
Eyes opened to another hot and sunny morning. We were off to Solin (Roman Solona), about 15 kilometers northeast of Split. This archaeological preserve was the former administrative headquarters for Rome’s Dalmatian province, and established in 78 CE. The site is massive; at the far end its amphitheatre, now in ruin, accommodated 18,000. This was also an early Christian area and remains of the 3rd century trench graves bear witness to Diocletian’s persecutions. The city was eventually sacked and destroyed by the Avar and Slav invasions in the 7th century.

It was then onto Trogir, 30 kilometers west. This tiny village is set within near perfectly restored medieval walls, and is fronted by a beautiful seaside promenade. The highlight was the Cathedral of St. Lovro, a 13th – 15th century Venetian inspired Romanesque beauty. We had a seaside lunch at
Trogir
Pizzeria Mirkec; an adequate caprese salad. We returned to Split via local coastal route 409 passing through a series of seven small fortress towns, collectively the Kaštela. Unfortunately, these beaches remain polluted from previous Communist-era factories, and so are off limits to all but the most foolish bathers.
After our arrival back to the Radisson Blu, we were down to the beach for a drink; eventually dinner was at the hotel’s nondescript terrace restaurant.

7/01/2015 Wednesday | Split
It was another hot, sunny day, so we decided to spend a few morning hours at the pool.  Afterward, we returned to the city to see the Gallery of Fine Arts collections and Ethnographic Museum. The
Gallery of Fine Arts
museum has an interesting terrace; one is able to see into the Vestibule and the full expanse of the Peristil.
We had ice cream and espressos for lunch, and then traveled back to the hotel. Dinner was at Hotel Vestibule Palace in the old city and was quite good. During our meal we were serenaded by a local concert in the adjacent Ethnographic Museum. A taxi back to the Radisson Blu, a last glass of wine on terrace and then it was to to bed.

7/02/2015 Thursday | Split
Many do not realize that Croatia’s Adriatic coast is dotted with over 1,200 islands; most small and uninhabited. Through the hotel we hired a 34’ Sunseeker Superhawk with skipper and mate for the day to explore. The skipper, Vinko Mariani, and his mate, also Vinko, picked us up at the hotel pier at 9:30 and we were off on a cloudless and beautiful morning. We had a full day planned, heading south through the channel between Soltar and Brač Islands; our first port of call was Hvar about 1 ½ hours off the coast.
This island’s hub is Hvar Town, a beautifully preserved 13th century walled town, ornamented with Gothic palaces and glassy marble streets. Vinko arranged a taxi to take us up to the Fortica, the citadel, originally a fortress defense against the Turks. The view was magnificent. After this visit, the
Hvar Town - View from Fortica
driver dropped us back to the promenade and St. Stephen’s Square, dominated by the cathedral. It was then a short walk to the Franciscan Monastery with its elegant bell tower, adjoining Church of Our Lady of Charity and a tranquil Renaissance cloister. There is a cypress in the adjacent garden that is over 300 years old.
Vinko was waiting for us with the boat, and soon Hvar was fading into the horizon as we sped to our next destination, the Devil’s Island chain; twenty-one in total, for our lunch. In Croatian, these are actually the Pakleni Islands, named for the resin once used to seal boats. We arrived to Sveti Klemant Island and Palmižana cove and disembarked at Toto’s for a very pleasant lunch.
Continuing on after our meal we stopped at Stari Grad, another town on Hvar Island and then to Bol on Brač island’s southern coast – this place is a wind surfer’s dream with the breeze naturally
Bol Beach - Wind Surfers
funneled west through the Hvarski Channel. Our final island town was Milna, also on Brač, a former sardine canning hub and now a bucolic seaside port of pleasure yachts.
As if we hadn’t seen enough, Vinko showed us a decommissioned submarine installation on our way home, an eerie Cold War throwback now a part time hideaway for fish poachers and other miscreants. We were not back to the hotel until seven, a long but very rewarding day. There is nothing like the perspective of the sea to make one realize how small a place we occupy on this threatened planet of ours. I would love to come back and sail these waters at a more leisurely pace. We had a lazy dinner at the hotel and put our wind and sun bruised bodies quickly to bed.

7/03/2015 Friday | Split
We woke to another nice but hot day and decided to be a bit lazy. We took a morning trip to Šibenik, 88 kilometers and about 1 ½ hours north of Split along the coast. It is unique in that the city was founded by a Croatian, Petar Krešimer IV in the 11th century; it is not an abandoned outpost of the Illyrians, Greeks or Romans. Still, its ownership bounced around over the centuries among the Venetians, Hungarians and Austrians.
The city’s steep medieval streets are interesting, but the main attraction is St. James’ Cathedral. There was much restoration work being done to this edifice, but the majesty shows through, beginning with the graceful marble staircase leading up from the quay to Trg Republike. The cathedral was begun in 1431; the undisputed masterpiece of its designer, Juraj Dalmatinac. It is the largest church built completely of stone without brick or wooden supports – it truly deserves its status as a World Heritage site. The frieze has 71 heads; it is said that the stingier the 15th century donor was the more grotesque was his caricature. Lunch was a very chic spot for the size of the city called “Pelegrini” – well worth a stop.
St. James' Cathedral
We were back to the hotel by early afternoon; dinner was on the terrace with a very nice Croatian Pinot Noir: 2012 Pinot Crni (“black” in Croatian) from Korak. We decided to cut our stay in Split by one day; so heading for Dubrovnik tomorrow.

7/04/2015 Saturday | Split to Dubrovnik
After breakfast and some computer chores, we left for Dubrovnik at 11:30. It is 230 kilometers further south and should take about three hours. The first part is along the modern A1, but at Mali Prolog we transferred south on single lane Route 425 toward the coastline, then along Route D8 and the Neretva River. Since the fragmentation of Yugoslavia into six sovereign states in the late nineties (and later for Montenegro, 2006) travel has become, pardon the pun, more “balkanized.”  Croatia inherited most of the coastline, but Bosnia-Herzegovina (“B-H” for short) held onto 24 ½ kilometers, centered on the city of Neum. So in this little stretch of road we went through two immigration crossings. We left Croatia, check point one (30 minute wait) drove 20 minutes, and encountered check point two, B-H (50 minute wait) – all very frustrating. Croatia has proposed building a bridge to span the one and a half miles from the mainland before the Montenegrin boarder to the northern tip of the Pelješac Peninsula, in its territory. Another option is a sealed transit road further north of Neum. Momentum for the bridge ebbs and flows with elections, but has gone nowhere since first proposed in 1997.  I can only imagine the drag this must have on both commerce and tourism. A bit more on this later, but by the end of the drive I was willing Marshall Josip Tito from the grave to glue this fractious land back together.
In spite of this, the coast drive was indescribably beautiful. To our left, steep cliffs of gray stone and scrub pine and to the right, the shimmering light blue and turquoise palette of the Malo Sea, and the Adriatic; classic wooden oyster traps bobbing everywhere in the water. Rounding a corner on the D8, the ultra modern Franjo Tuđman Bridge appears, and around the next Dubrovnik’s iconic walls present themselves in all their historical glory. We had arrived and our immigration frustrations melted away.
View from Room #410

Our home for the next five days was the Excelsior Hotel, east of the old city, but only a ten minute walk. After a bit of room jockeying, we landed in suite 410; spacious with wonderful views to the city’s Ploće Gate and the harbor. We had a late lunch on the hotel’s sea breakwater/sundeck, unpacked and lazed around a bit; and had a sunset bathed dinner of grilled tuna, also on the breakwater. Our waiter was a wonderful young professional – marvelous! 

7/5/2015 Sunday | Dubrovnik
After our Soviet inspired hotel buffet breakfast we were off to the old city on a very warm morning.
Dubrovnik is a treasure; we last visited over 30 years ago while I was working for Yugo America. In the 7th century the Slavs finished off this part of the crumbling Roman Empire; Epidaurum (present day Cavtat) was overrun, inhabitants escaped north to the rocky islet of Ragusa and rushed the completion of defensive walls. Similarly, locals were heading south from Zaton and by the 12th century these communities merged into present day Dubrovnik, filling in the channel that separated them.
Dubrovnik came under the thumbs of Byzantine, Venetian and Hungarian rule, but by the 14th century it was a self governing city state. In the 15th and 16th centuries it flourished economically and artistically because of expansive trade with the Ottomans. Much was destroyed in the 1667 earthquake; what is seen presently is the rebuilding from that natural disaster. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the damage from the 1990s Serbian shelling has been artfully restored. Still, you can see where the bombs fell; these sections of tile roofs are orangey new compared to the original muted and sun baked mossy ones.

Walking down from the hotel we entered through the eastern Ploče Gate and our first order of business was to walk the perimeter walls, all 6,363 feet of them, plus innumerable stairs. The views were well worth the perspiration. During this rampart trek we also stopped into the Dulčić-Masle-Pulitika Gallery, exhibit space for these interesting local artists; and the Maritime Museum.
The main street, Stradum, most times called the Placa, is the major artery of the city, bisecting it east to west. Its ancient marble pavement stone is polished to perfection, reflecting the light and heat of July without mercy. There are too many beautiful things to fully report on here; before lunch we took in the Sponza Palace with its clock tower and the exterior of St. Blaise, closed for renovation. We
Rector's Palace Staircase
found a nice spot for lunch, Gradska Kavana, and had a well prepared beef carpaccio.
Refreshed, it was to the Rector’s Palace and its Cultural Historical Museum. Judith posed for me on the palace’s gothic 1435 staircase – I have a photo of her in this exact spot from 1985 (maybe 1986). We continued down the Placa to the 15th century Fountain of Onofrio, the Franciscan Monastery and the western Pile Gate. Continuing our touring marathon, we swung south to the Orthodox Church. Circling along the seaside wall we arrived to the Dubrovnik Cathedral and Treasury, built right after the earthquake – magnificent. Still going, our last stop was the War Photo Limited Museum, a gallery featuring intensely compelling photography stressing the senseless human suffering of war – very powerful stuff. The anguished faces of old women and the baffled stares of children were haunting – the backdrop smoldering ruins of both buildings and lives.


Exiting through the port, we dragged ourselves back to the hotel, both noting that trying to keep the pace of twenty-something sightseers is rather foolish. We changed and had a refreshing swim in the sea; dinner tonight was not very good. After a nightcap, we crawled into bed. 

7/06/2015 Monday | Dubrovnik
It was another beautiful 90⁰F day; we decided to have an easier schedule. We took the Dubrovnik Cable Car to the top of Mount Srdj. It began transporting passengers back in 1969, but was
Dubrovnik from Mount Srdj
completely destroyed during the Croatian War of Independence and not restored until the summer of 2010. The panorama of the city was breathtaking.
After this, we visited the small synagogue, and travelling through the Pile Gate, viewed the detached Lovjenac Fort which stood guard on Dubrovnik’s southwest flank. We retreated to another nice lunch at Gradska Kavana and returned to the hotel for an afternoon of swimming and sun. The Adriatic seemed perfect. Dinner was on the upper terrace, still nothing special. We were quickly asleep.

7/07/2015 Tuesday | Dubrovnik
On yet another nice day we ventured a drive up the Peljšac Peninsula, a 40 mile narrow finger stretching north from Dubrovnik. Our first stop was at the start of the peninsula in Ston and (“little”) Ston. There is a 3 ½ mile wall linking the towns, in the shape of an irregular pentangle and traversing up a steep mountainside. It was completed in the 15th century, along with its 40 towers (20 of which have survived) and 5 fortresses that formed a part of Dubrovnik’s defenses. Ston is still the home of a once thriving salt works; the salt pans stretching as far as one could see.
Ston's Defensive Wall
Back to the car, it was another 45 minutes up and down narrow winding roads with harrowing drop offs (guardrails are for sissies) to Orebić, about ¾ of the way to the tip of Peljšac. Here we parked and boarded a passenger ferry for the four mile crossing to Korčula Island and its main town, Korčula. This is perhaps the nicest walled city we have seen. Charming in scale, its 13th century walls preserve a little jewel. The Cathedral of St. Mark in the main square, Strossmayerov, is built of honey-colored stone
Approaching Korčula by Ferry
with an impressive bell tower. The Land Gate (“Kopnena Vrata”) and its staircase exude the importance the Venetian’s poured into this small settlement. Best of all, we had a fabulous lunch overlooking the sea and nestled under an umbrella of pines at Lešic Dimitri’s Relais & Chateaux restaurant.
I was restless to get going so I arranged what I thought was a private water taxi back to Orebić. Unfortunately the skipper had other plans, and we waited for two ladies also travelling with us. One was young, the other very, very rotund; wearing a too short whimsical skirt and outlandishly large hat, even for her size. Throughout the journey back, she posed for photographs taken by her mate on the afterdeck of our well worn little boat – we both tried to look away! Needless to say, the public ferry beat us back to the opposite shore by several minutes.

It was then backtracking along miles of winding road to the hotel; about two hours total each way. Dinner was on the terrace; not much else to tell.   

7/08/2015 Wednesday | Dubrovnik
The weather remains divine; breakfast less so. Today we were off to Cavtat, 12 miles south of Dubrovnik. It is just far enough away that it misses the mainstream tourist flow so it has a bit more of a peaceful, local feel.
The town sits in a beautiful bay with a very nice seaside promenade, Put Ante Starčevića. There is a small church, St. Blaise and a connected Franciscan monastery. On the far promontory is the Račić Mausoleum, a Byzantine inspired domed structure by Meštrović – we decided not to hike to it. Instead we had a nice lunch at “Bugenvila” on the promenade; they had a caprese salad that was
My Zucchini Flowers!
topped with a heavenly tempura zucchini flower. I persuaded the waiter to make us half dozen more! After lunch we visited the museum and former home of Vlaho Bukovac, perhaps Croatia’s most famous painter. The artist had a rich and varied life; some of his impressionist paintings of his three daughters were ephemeral; love and innocents delicately reflected.
We were back to the hotel by four; I got some work done. Dinner was in the old town at “Restaurant 360,” our table perched up on the rampart. The food and wine were excellent, but toward the end we were plagued by bugs. Greece and a market glitch on the NYSE sent yet another shudder through the markets; we went to bed with our net worth slightly dented.

7/09/2015 Thursday | Dubrovnik
It was another nice day and we spent most of it at the seaside. Judith and I usually prefer pools to the sea, but today could have changed our minds. The water was crystal clear, exposing a rocky seabed. The temperature was a bit of a shock when first lowering yourself down the ladder, but within seconds was perfectly refreshing. Lunch was at the seaside.
In the late afternoon we visited the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, founded in 1945. The building was originally conceived and built (1935-1939) as the showcase residential mansion of Dubrovnik ship owner Božo Banac, and in 1948 it was converted into exhibition premises and museum. Works displayed are mostly classics of Croatian modern painting. One of my real joys of travel is to be exposed to local Impressionist masters.In addition to Bukovac’s canvases; favorites included Ingjat Job’s “Olive Trees” and Vlasimir Becić’s “Siesta.”
"Olive Trees" by Ignjat Job
Dinner was a return to Gradska Kavana, with after dinner drinks at “Restaurant 360.” We had a very thoughtful conversation with the restaurant’s manager. He relayed his sadness at what Dubrovnik had become; too many cruise ships (712 disgorging in 2014!) and overall crowding, a loss of the cultural connection to the past for many visitors. Locals can no longer afford to live within the walls, so the authentic bohemian nightlife of earlier times has vanished. With these thoughts on our minds, we walked back to the hotel and were off to sleep.

MONTENEGRO

7/10/2015 Friday | Dubrovnik to Sveti Stefan
Overnight we had our first bad weather; high wind, some rain and thunder. After packing and check out, we were on our way to Montenegro. This turned out to be a tough drive; single lanes most of the way; another customs nightmare leaving Croatia and entering Montenegro. As we approached the Bay of Kotor I realized the NAV was sending us onto a ferry; of course we didn’t have a ticket. Judith jumped from the car at a brief stop, sprinted over to the booth, tossed some Euro and dashed back to the Mercedes with our ticket as I was being flagged out of the cue. We did get on the boat, but upon the ferry’s arrival at the opposite shore the car didn’t want to restart – finally it sputtered to life and we disembarked. Something seemed amiss with the “eco start-stop” so I disengaged it. Perhaps the high heat was stressing the starter.
Traffic seemed to get worse; now the NAV was trying to persuade me in her prissy English voice to turn right onto what looked like a dirt road. On the NAV display, it looked so windy that it could have been a medical diagram of the small intestine. So I declined to follow and continued straight on, which was a terrible mistake. In about a mile, traffic stopped and we dragged along (pedestrians were passing us on the shoulder) until we were well through Budra. Dubrovnik was only 100 kilometers away. The journey took us almost four hours; but we finally arrived in Sveti Stefan and the Aman Resort.

A primary reason for taking this trip was that we were attending friends Regine and François’ 50th anniversary that was being held here. We had attended their 40th in Marrakech and had had a great time. The Aman staff was helpful and they directed us up to the Village’s Piazza restaurant where our hosts were waiting for us to start a very late lunch. We met the two other partygoers; Jeffrey and Andrew, friends of theirs from San Miguel de Allende. Afterward we were shown to our cottage and unpacked.
Aman Sveti Stefan is located in the centre of Montenegro’s Adriatic coastline, south of Budva and between the villages of Pržno and Sveti Stefan. The site incorporates two kilometers of coastline
Aman Sveti Stefan
including the pebble beaches of Sveti Stefan, Miločer Beach and the Queen’s Beach, behind which is the resort’s expansive spa facility. It’s connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus and enjoys breathtaking views of the sea, across the bay and along Montenegro’s most renowned stretch of coastline. While the historic exterior remains largely unchanged, the resort’s interiors have been restored and updated and there is an assortment of 50 accommodations: rooms, suites and cottages. The island itself measures a bit more than three acres; beautiful plantings, low hanging scrub pine, stone walkways, two small churches and two pools.
The six of us met for dinner at the island’s terraced Signature Restaurant, but a strong wind pushed us inside. After dinner, tired, we dropped to bed at midnight.

7/11/2015 Saturday | Sveti Stefan
We decided to withdraw from the professional sightseeing competition for the next few days. We woke up to a beautiful morning and had breakfast at the signature Terrace. It was then onto a lazy morning at the secluded Cliff Pool and an extended lunch with our friends at the Villa Miločer
Villa Miločer Spa
Restaurant on the mainland. We toured the beautiful spa facilities and the rest of the afternoon floated away as we lounged by the property’s other, larger pool. Dinner was outside at the Signature Restaurant; a wonderful local lamb had by all. Judith and I also received a late call with some good news from our friends in Bordeaux, Timea and Dan. They had a healthy baby girl: Maeva Lilou.
It was then to bed.

7/12/2015 Sunday | Sveti Stefan
We awoke to a beautiful morning and after breakfast we decided to take a short trip to Porto Montenegro on the Bay of Kotor, about a 45 minute drive. This time I took the advice of NAV and went up the twisty road we had avoided on our trip from Dubrovnik. It was hair-raising but did cut lots of time and traffic from the journey. Porto Montenegro was formally a naval shipyard named Arsenal, which fell into disuse after the breakup of Yugoslavia and the decline of the Yugoslav Navy. This shipyard was put on public sale in 2006 and purchased by a consortium including commercial luminaries such as Nate Rothschild, Jacob Rothschild, Bernard Arnault and Peter Munk, among others.
The site was redeveloped into a state-of-the-art deep water luxury yacht marina capable of handing super yachts of up to 150 meters. In addition to a series of luxury apartments, the Regent has opened a hotel here with 51 rooms and 35 one to three bedroom suites. All the global retail brands are represented here, as well as most boat manufacturers.
In future it would be a convenient base from which to explore the parts of Montenegro we have missed, but the whole complex presented itself as a depressing homogenization of overindulgence. Extravagance is getting easier to find, elegance and sophistication less so.

We returned to the Aman and had lunch with the group, Judith and I sharing a very nice pizza; we then went to the pool until about six.

Tonight was the official party, taking place outside at Regine and François’ little villa. Andrew and
Jeffrey, Andrew, Regine, François, Judith & me

Jeffery had arranged everything: hors d’oeuvre, food, wine, flowers and a wonderful pair of Croatian musicians. The weather was perfect, conversations engaging, the evening magical. We said our good-nights and all went to bed.

7/13/2015 Monday | Sveti Stefan
We all met at reception about nine since our hosts had arranged a charter of a nice Jeanneau yacht for a cruise to Dubrovnik. We had just been there, but we thought it would be fun to see the coast and spend more time with friends. We left from Budva on a beautiful and still day.

The boat was comfortable and the staff friendly, but our land based customs issues followed us out to sea. We were required to detour into Bay of Kotor, stopping at the Montegrian border station of Stari Grad. Back out to the open waters of the Adriatic for only about ½ hour; we again traveled back to the coast, this time checking in at Cavtat, Croatia. It was then back out and onto Dubrovnik.
Approaching from the water, the walls looked even more impressive; I’m sure medieval invaders
Approaching Dubrovnik
took pause as they contemplated breaching these defenses. The skipper skillfully weaved his way into the busy harbor and dropped us off at one of the piers. We went for lunch at Gradska Kavana, and afterward strolled along the Placa for a short while in blistering sun. A quick visit to the synagogue and it was back to the pier. Jeffrey and Andrew were staying on in Dubrovnik and then onto other destinations in Europe, so we all said our goodbyes.
The trip back included the customs stops once again. In all, we were on the water for almost eight hours. The actual distance by boat between Budva and Dubrovnik is a bit over 50 miles. The Jeanneau was cruising at 22 or 23 knots; so without the border crossing hassles the round trip would have been about four hours. Customs clearance had doubled our travel time – amazing!

We had a nice dinner with Regine and François and then all were off to an easy sleep.

7/14/2015 Tuesday | Sveti Stefan
We were up a bit later this morning, but to a beautiful day. After breakfast and some picture taking on
"Signature" Terrace
this serene little island we went over to Regine and François’ villa. They have a nice pool there, so we lazed away until late afternoon swimming, talking, snacking on a light lunch with some pleasant wine. The sun seemed mild, but Judith and I both got a little burn.
Our last dinner together was at the Signature and outside; another excellent pair of musicians adding to the tranquil atmosphere. After this relaxing meal, we bid our friends a good onward journey and thanked them for their hospitality; Judith and I were leaving very early to Zadar. It had been very nice to share in their memories and memory making.

CROATIA

7/15/2015 Wednesday | Sveti Stefan to Zadar, Croatia
We woke to a windy morning, had breakfast, packed and were off on the 470 kilometer drive to Zadar, Croatia; still a bit worried about the car’s performance. The route had us backtracking over old ground; the ferry crossing and four immigration stops. In all it was a seven our trek but not too bad.

Zadar is set on a narrow peninsula northwest of Split, developed in Roman times, specializing in exporting timber and wine. We found Hotel Bastion, our home for the night. It is a Relais and Chateaux property so we were expecting very nice accommodation and food – unfortunately neither turned out to be on offer here. Our suite had that unpleasant rundown bordello look and feel; and the food and service that evening were quite bad. I should write to Relais and Chateaux, but probably won’t.
The old town is compact and has two hubs. The first centers on People’s Square, and the nearby
Altar at St. Simeon
Church of St. Simeon. Housed within the church is a magnificent sarcophagus in the shape of a chasse, overlaid with silver and silver-gilt plaques, located over the main altar. The chest, considered a masterpiece of medieval art and also a unique monument of the goldsmith's craft of this age, is now under the protection of UNESCO. The other hub is the old Forum and it's Byzantine circular Church of St. Donat. With a bit more walking we also took in the impressive Land Gate and the Five Wells Square.

After our terrible dinner, we walked to Zadar’s “Sea Organ” which creates melodies using the tides and wakes of passing boats; and the “Greeting to the Sun,” installation, a 70 foot diameter circle comprised of
"Greeting to the Sun" Installation
photo voltaic cells. Its practical purpose is to power the some of the port’s operations, but at night it hosts a light show that is connected to the Sea Organ. The sound is transposed into a show of light that starts performing on the Zadar waterfront after sunset to the delight of residents and visitors. People were lounging, flitting and dancing through the multi colored beams late into the evening.




BUDAPEST

7/16/2015 Thursday | Zadar to Budapest
We were up early, had a quick breakfast and started our drive home to Budapest. Originally we were going to break up the trip and stay over in Zagreb, but decided to just do it in one go. It turned out to be a long but easy drive. With just one stop for a quick snack, we pulled into our garage at Palazzo Dorottya a little before four.

Throughout the trip, each evening we were greeted by the erry brightness of Saturn and Jupiter low in the night’s sky as these planets stage their closest conjunction until next August. It was comforting that there was actually some order and organization to the universe; some mathematical certainty. On the other hand, to the naked eye these heavily bodies looked a little blurred. The image a bit out of focus – in the shape of a fuzzy and squeezed rhombus - so not quite like viewing nice symmetrical stars. It’s because the planets’ moons confuse things – without a telescope everything gets somewhat distorted. It was a bit like this trip. The geography seems stable, timeless, clear and beautifully comforting. But then you add in an earthquake or two, three clashing religions, clannish isolation and the odd crazy but powerful leader and things get anything but stable, timeless, clear and beautifully comforting.

It was good to be back to Budapest from our adventuresome 2,784 kilometer road trip.



Saturday, January 24, 2015

Am I Charlie?

The event in Paris at Charlie Hebdo was a very tragic and horrific affair. “Je suis Charlie” quickly became the meme. There was no justification for this brutality, period; full stop.  But I also think the story, its lessons and consequences, are not as simple and straightforward as the media and most politicians have presented.  
The 2.5+ million people in the streets of Paris and perhaps another 1.5+ million in other French cities were a spontaneous outpouring of solidarity. But why were these citizens on the street, did they really consider what got them out? I believe if questioned and after some reflection the majority would say they were not there mainly in support of free speech; rather they were there to decry and denounce terrorism. Terrorism’s evil cannot be debated; however, the question of free speech should be, it is more nuanced.

Free speech in most advanced societies is not without strings attached; nowhere is it permitted  to write, say, print, post or draw anything you want – it is tethered to civil or criminal regulation. Defamation, the action of damaging good reputation, has a long history of statute. The crime of “libel,” (written defamation); and “slander,” (oral defamation) are upheld in courts every day.
Blasphemy, loosely speaking, defamation of someone’s god, is more troublesome. France abolished the offence of blasphemy in 1791. But this is far from universal in the world at large. A Pew Research analysis finds that as of 2012, nearly a quarter of the world’s countries and territories (22%) had anti-blasphemy laws or policies, and one-in-ten (11%) had laws or policies penalizing apostasy. The legal punishments for such transgressions vary from fines to death. In Europe, Germany, Poland, Ireland, Italy and Greece still prohibit some forms of blasphemy and are enshrined in their laws.

Hate speech regulation further limits free speech. Laws in many countries stop child pornography and hate speech against GLBT communities. Holocaust denial and other genocide denials are considered hate speech in Germany and most other EU states.

Sorry to belabor the point, but speech is abridged in many ways; and free speech is a very fluid concept.

David Brooks, columnist for the NY Times, published a thoughtful piece on January 8 titled “I am not Charlie Hebdo” and took a bit of heat for it.
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/09/opinion/david-brooks-i-am-not-charlie-hebdo.html 

Still, he got to the heart of the matter. We do need to be vigilant to protect our rights to free speech from infringement by the state; but we also need to nurture societal filters for respect and understanding of others and their beliefs.
Throughout history cartoonists and satirists have exposed “emperors with no clothes” to the long term health of us all; but there have also been fowl mouthed blowhards with no respect for anyone’s feelings – journalists with not much talent, just a bad case of coprolalia.  Modern times and the atomizing of media are giving these types a megaphone that was not available to them before the Internet.
I think of a civic minded and pious Muslim; these cartoons must have been an ugly affront to him – I imagine his conflicted thoughts about the tragedy. Think of other speech disrespectful to the beliefs of other religious people – Christian, Jew, and Buddhist. I am not religious, but I’m not so prideful to think I know what really is in the great unknown.

I’m still not sure where I come down on all this.  Inayat Bunglawala former spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, backed its demand for a “religious-hatred” law designed to shield Muslims from offensive speech or even sharp theological debate. Now, he says, his views have changed completely: the cost of seeing and hearing things you don’t like is more than outweighed by the benefit of being able to say anything you want. For me, I’m not sure I’m ready to endorse “being able to say anything you want.” Therefore, my heart is murmuring “Je ne suis pas Charlie,” even if I’m not saying it out loud. I reject terror, but I do not embrace unbridled and unthinking free speech.

But there is hope. On our walk this morning in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, we bumped into the end of the “Gaza Winter Walk,” the seventh such five mile walk in support of Gaza’s children, held in London and other cities. We passed a returning family; husband, wife and a small and pretty little girl. She was holding her pale blue foam hand pointy finger (think football game souvenir) with “Allahu Akbar” printed on it. Our meeting took place right at the Peter Pan Statue, an iconic sculpture of Sir George Frampton, installed here in 1912.
Pointing her foam finger at the bronze, she sweetly said to her parents that “she liked Wendy the best.” Someday maybe all of us will see the wonder in cultures and beliefs that are not our own, with less hatred and violence the result.