Thoughts

On governmental stimuli for child-rearing

As the rate of population growth in developed or developing countries decreases, governments interested in managing their financial risk for social programs quite often offer one short-sighted solution: financial stimuli for making more children. The idea is to increase the future tax base and cover the costs of running a country’s social programs. It’s what just happened in Romania earlier this year, as the monthly allocation for each child was increased. This is the wrong approach.

Contrary to unfortunately popular beliefs and populist politicians, a nation’s decreasing population is a good thing. It’s an educated, informed, working population’s natural response to overpopulation, to the state of the world and the world’s resources, and its preference for quality over quantity. They prefer to have less children, often just one, and to ensure that that child gets the best education and upbringing that each family’s money can buy. Gone are the days when a family would have several children, knowing that a few would be lost during childhood and also knowing the ones who’d reach teenhood and adulthood would be good help on the homestead. Also gone are the days when a country’s population growth was seen as a nationally strategic decision and encouraged against reason and odds.

Still, financial stimuly for child-rearing are a popular topic with voters. What are a country’s leaders to do as they try to shift their country’s focus from quantity to quality, on all levels of life? Here’s a thought: do what the educated parents do. Lavish proper financial stimuli on a family’s first child. I would increase the amount of aid offered by the government by quite a bit, but only for the first child. After that first child, the aid would stop. Each family should be completely on its own if they want to have additional children.

This could be taken one step further in order to fully address a country’s population growth: governments could institute a higher income tax on those families who choose to have more than one child. Whatever name gets attached to it, in those countries where population growth must be curbed, there should be a tax — perhaps even a tax that grows exponentially — for each additional child.

In a world that is well past the mark of overpopulation, each family that chooses to have additional children should ensure they have the proper resources to take care of them instead of being a burden on society. The making of children purely for the purpose of obtaining financial aid from the government (which is a thing in Romania among certain people) would no longer be a problem. The problem of uncontrolled population growth would be fully addressed.

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Thoughts

The best of times

Isn’t it interesting how timeless and true good writing proves itself, even in our modern age, and even though it was originally intended for a different literary context?

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

“A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens, 1859

We are indeed living in the best times of current recorded history and because every coin has a flip side, there are surely plenty of things to complain about. Yet I thought I’d point out some of the good things in this post.

Out of all our known and written history, I don’t believe we’ve ever had a time like this, when most of the world is enjoying a period of “not war” and when the options available to us in areas such as healthcare, living conditions, hygiene, infrastructure, learning, jobs, possessions, transport, personal freedoms and just about everything else you can think about are so many and so readily available. Yes, some of these options can get expensive, but they are there and they are available, whereas most of them simply did not exist in the past.

We get so caught up in our daily, mundane routines and our various disappointments that we allow to blacken our lives, that we forget we have it so good. I’d like to invite you to find and watch documentaries and TV series that portray our various periods of history with accuracy; there are quite a few these days. I’d like you to become acquainted with how people lived and how hard it was to simply get through a day and have some food to put on the table, much less be able to afford a few knick-knacks here and there.

Most people have never been able to afford what we call a proper home and have lived in sheds, hovels and small cottages for most of history. Most houses were a one-room affair in the past. The toilet was a pot under the bed or a communal outdoor hole in the ground. Chamber pots would be thrown into the street every morning. Think about taking a walk in those cities! Even in civilized cities, right up to the 1960s-70s, people would have to share a common bathroom or bathrooms in apartment buildings or subdivided houses. And now we’ve gotten to the point where we mind sharing a bathroom with our guests and we complain if our house has less than 3-4 rooms.

The capability to take a daily shower under hot running water, with a pleasant soap and shampoo, has been unheard of in all our recorded history, until recent times. And yet people still find excuses when it comes to maintaining proper daily hygiene and complain about water hardness and water pressure and soap quality, etc.

Dental care is so important. Without it, most of us would be toothless by our 40s and those who’d still have teeth would have some rather nasty decoloration and build-up on them. Should we be part of the majority of the population without teeth, we’d have to wear dentures made of wood or animal teeth, or of metals such as lead, dentures that wouldn’t fit properly and cause us daily pain. We now have access to orthodontics, fillings that match the color and hardness of our teeth and are almost invisible, crowns, implants and now stem cell implants, which can regenerate our own teeth! This was never available in the past. We’ve had to struggle with primitive tooth care for so long.

Of all healthcare options available, I would single out trauma surgery as the most important development. Nowadays we have the option of receiving triage and trauma care that allows us to fully heal without infection, including proper bone and joint surgery and for most of known history, we simply didn’t have this. Broken arms stayed broken. Torn joints stayed torn. Cuts and flesh wounds often got infected and led to death. Yes, healthcare is terribly expensive. Yes, good basic healthcare should be a right, not a privilege. But look at the bright side: it exists! How governments choose to make it available to their citizens is an open and ongoing discussion instead of a “No, we’ve never heard of that, it doesn’t even exist” kind of discussion.

How easy is it to learn things nowadays? Access to information is virtually free, and more resources (historical and modern) have become available online than we’ll ever have time to read, and yet I’m hard pressed to come across than a few learned, thoughtful individuals during the course of a day and sometimes even a week; (perhaps that’s also due to the way our educational systems are structured.) Various apps on our mobile devices compete to make learning as fun as possible for us. Universities and colleges post videos from their courses for free online access. For most of history, people didn’t know how to read or write. They were thirsty for learning but it was out of their reach. It was simply too expensive or just not an option for them. Trade secrets, for example, were closely guarded and only revealed to tradespeople in secrecy, after long apprenticeships. Now everyone can watch how-to videos and learn how to do something, but how many follow through and actually do those things or even more, persist at them until they get good? Most of us tend to confuse reading or watching the news with learning. Opening up our minds and pouring in the news isn’t learning, it’s just a deluge of unhelpful and depressing bits of information.

For most of our history, people couldn’t pick their jobs. There was little social mobility. If you were born into a peasant family, you were a peasant, end of story. Only the aristocracy could pick and choose what they wanted to do, but even if they were passionate about something, it could only be a hobby, because they were expected by all to be aristocrats, not do things (I know, boo-hoo for them…) Now anyone can be just about anything, and training for that job is within reach if they want it enough. One way or another you can make ends meet and get to do what you like in life. I know, I know, student loans are huge… that’s why it’s doubly important to figure out what you want to do before you start going to school for it, else you’ll be spending money you don’t have so you can get to do what you don’t want to do. While I’m talking about this, allow me to pitch you on choosing a career in the trades; good craftsmen are in severe demand these days.

The subject of possessions is huge, both figuratively and literally. We could talk all day about rampant consumerism and fake economies and fast fashion. The point is, it’s incredibly affordable to buy things today, and it simply wasn’t the case for most of our history. Even something that we often take for granted and is typically rusting in our garden sheds, such as a simple hand saw, was incredibly hard to make and buy during medieval times. Even an axe or a pick was hard to make. They cost lots of money, the equivalent of small cars nowadays, so people saved up for years to buy tools, then cared for them and handed them down to their sons and daughters. Clothes were made by hand, and that included the materials. You cared for them and mended them as long as you could. Someone would typically only have one change of clothing. Nowadays clothing is literally clogging up our homes and people are desperate to get help in order to clean them up and organize them.

In the last 100 years, means of transport have progressed tremendously. Whereas travel was slow and expensive, it’s now fast and inexpensive. We can travel by car, train, ship and airplane. We can even skip physical travel and visit locations virtually by looking at photos from those places, or street views in mapping applications. We can even immerse ourselves in 360 degree videos and virtual realities.

We find time to bitch about every little bump and pothole in our public roads, yet we’ve never had it so good. It’s true that Roman roads are legendary, but you have to remember they were cobblestone in a time where suspension hadn’t yet been invented. Every single bone and sinew in your body would have been shaken out of sorts by the time a day’s ride would be over. After Roman civilization degraded, we were back to mud ruts and dust for over 1500 years, plus frequent attacks from highway robbers. Now all but the most rural roads are paved and can be safely traveled.

How about personal freedoms? Have societies ever tolerated so much free speech, even when it’s hateful and offensive, and offered so much personal freedom for various lifestyle choices, even for something that we now consider so commonplace as divorce or adultery? Do you know how shunned people were for adultery in the past, or how impossible it was to get a divorce, even when situation was terrible and abusive? How about the open criticism and ridicule of politicians, business leaders and other figures of authority or fame that we now tolerate? When was that sort of thing well-tolerated in the past? And yet we still find ways to take these things to the extreme, and we keep pushing the boundaries till things get truly and downright brazen and defamatory, instead of celebrating the freedom of speaking out against someone and doing it with some sense of decency.

I do wish more people would realize how good we have it and would be more grateful for all of the opportunities, amenities and conveniences that modern times offer us. We certainly don’t want to put ourselves in a position where we lose what we’ve worked so hard for as a human race and civilization, because then we’ll have really failed ourselves. I think the way to become more grateful is to pay attention to the past, because it offers up enough contrast to the present to make us have those little epiphanies of conscience that raise our collective morale.

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Thoughts

The answer to a great many questions of today

This post will seem to fall right out of nowhere for you, mainly because you haven’t been privy to my thoughts in recent years — how could you be, after all? It may also strike you as highly inconsiderate and you may even become angry with me. Let it be so. You will inevitably calm down and you may also agree with me in a few months or years. 

The pompous title may lead you to think I’m going to philosophize. Nope, it’s just a little bait meant to entice you to read on. I’m going to speak plainly, because this must be said plainly and repeated loudly, for all to hear and understand: the answer to a great many questions of today is “too many people”

Go ahead, ask a question about the state of the world or the state of the planet. Any question at all. The answer, if you dig right down to the core, is inevitably overpopulation

Shall we have a go right now? Here are a few examples; keep in mind you already know the answer: 

  • Scarcity of clean drinking water?
  • Disappearing forests?
  • Disappearing fish? 
  • Disappearing animals?
  • Garbage piling up everywhere?
  • Pollution?
  • Overconsumption?
  • Poor quality of manufactured goods?
  • Poor quality of foods? 
  • Traffic jams?
  • Growing numbers of lonely and depressed people in large cities? 
  • Filled up cemeteries that are now contaminating water tables and surrounding land?
  • Crowded schools?
  • Crowded hospitals?
  • Crowded nursing homes?
  • Crowded mass transport? 
  • Crowded buildings/smaller apartments/taller buildings/feeling like a sardine in a tin can?
  • Natural beauty ruined by poorly planned and poorly made modern development?

I could go on and on, I suppose, but I would also get sadder and sadder as this list grew bigger. It’s daunting to face up to the problems we’ve created for ourselves, simply because we collectively thought there should be more of us. “Sure,” we thought, “let’s go on f*****g, it feels good and we’re making babies. The world needs babies…” 

It turns out, the world doesn’t need that many babies. Babies of all species are absolutely adorable and they melt your heart with their cuteness, but the overpopulation of any species is a real threat to the species itself and to the planet as a whole. 

In the past, people thought the answer to many questions were more people. How do you solve a labor shortage? How do you fund social security? How do you gather enough revenues as a government in order to build and maintain a modern infrastructure and have enough employees to take care of it all? How do you grow the economy? We thought “more people” was the answer. Well, it turned out not to be so. 

Paradoxically, at over 7.2 billion people, we still have massive labor shortages, social security and other social safety nets are in the dumps, it turns out that governments can never have enough revenues, and most puzzling of all, that economies and companies do and must stop growing. As a matter of fact, the very economic model that drives every economy in the world is based on constant growth. We can talk about “boom/bust cycles” and “contagion” and “recovery” all we want, but in the end, it’s about growth. And you can’t have growth forever. At some point it stops. It has to stop. You either run out of people or you run out of resources. To pick an example out of recent memory, there are only so many smartphones that people will buy. Given the limited resources available on Earth, there are only so many TVs/cars/houses/pieces of furniture you can make before you turn the whole Earth into a dug-up wasteland. 

This is a huge topic: an immense “minefield” that we’ve built and that we’ve got to wade through and “disarm” if we want to have a sustainable future. It’s filled with “hot potatoes” that no one wants to touch or step on, because there’s a real price to pay in the real world if you are a person of any clout and you dare talk about these things publicly. But these things must be said and someone must make the hard decisions, or else… 

Shall I tell you what you’re thinking? If you’re a parent, the basic question swirling through your mind right now is: “How dare YOU tell ME whether or not I should have MY children?” How dare I even bring up the question of procreation, which most people, at some level or another, conscious or subconscious, believe is their God-given right and even more so, God-given blessing? 

I wonder though, should God ever truly speak to us — if He or She or It would even deign to speak to an arrogant, dirty, criminal and avaricious species like ours — would would be said? We don’t know. God isn’t speaking to us, in spite of what some deranged “religious leaders” seem to think on the topic. We are left to figure this out on our own. 

I think it boils down to egotism. We are all so caught up in ourselves, most of us much more so than we realize, that we believe the world would be deprived of something if we didn’t have children, as if our exact chromosomes will combine to create a super-child that will solve the problems of the world. Let me assure you, right here and now, that collectively, the world won’t miss a beat if any one of us stops having children. It might even breathe a sigh of relief, as in “Thank God, I’ve been spared another mouth to feed!” And no, your “super-child” won’t solve the problems of the world. YOU need to work on solving them RIGHT NOW, so STOP procrastinating and passing the buck to future generations! 

What about the other egotistical question, “But who will take care of me when I’m old?” Does it always have to be about you? Must you be a burden to your children in old age? How about you figure out some other way, such as taking care of yourself and your money, so that you reach old age in relatively good shape? That way you can be independent and function well, living from your own resources. Why, you might even be able to give back to society, through volunteering and donations, instead of being a feeble shell of your old self, depending on social security and being carted around by a nurse. 

Is it any wonder that the rate of birth among well-read, well-educated folks all around the world is declining rapidly? As people better themselves and start to think beyond their bellies and their willies, they begin to see that all is not well with the world, and they choose to have less or no children. 

When I think of the people who are having more children, it is unfortunately those who shouldn’t be having them. Let me make it CLEAR here that I am NOT talking about RACE. What I am talking about is: livelihood, education, household resources, strength of the couple’s relationship, geographical location, available opportunities and so on. Let me make it plainer: a child born to a couple who abuse each other physically and verbally, living on government aid or in poverty, or in a country roiling in upheaval and conflict, will have limited or no opportunities and will have a poor quality of life. That child will likely be abused by its parents, perhaps even sexually — certainly and at the very least emotionally — and will grow up just like them, stunted, tortured, a stump of a human being that will likely continue to hurt others, just as it was hurt, knowing no better way in life, unable to do better in life even when shown and helped. That mother and father should give serious thought as to whether they should be having children at all, because they cannot provide for them, but unfortunately they give no thought to this at all and typically have them in droves. Is that the right thing to do? 

The solution is simple in theory but near-impossible to implement: we must each of us choose to have but one child or no child. It must not be forced upon us, or else it’ll feel horrible. We must make that choice. If all the families in the world would choose to make this decision, for the sake of our world as a whole, the world population would enter a steady and unforced decline, a very welcome decline that would allow us to slowly plan and become accustomed to an ever-decreasing population and re-work our economic and government models in order to account for it. 

I cannot state how dire the situation truly is. In developed countries, it’s easy to get lost in the abundance of it all, even if you’re poor. You can still dream about “having it all” and you think it’s going to be like this all the time. But we are on the precipice. We have been for some time, our end postponed for a little longer and a little longer. Mind you, I’m not talking about Biblical stuff here. I’m talking about the planet shaking and scratching us off like a bad case of fleas, but it’ll certainly feel Biblical to us. I’m talking about us doing it to ourselves, because as a species, we are all of the stuff I said we are in the paragraphs above. And it’s so easy to solve this peacefully, slowly, without the use of force and fear and horror, if we act now and we act collectively. 

I am sorry to dump this on you so near to Christmas. I’ve been mulling over this stuff for years and I’ve alluded to it here and there, but I haven’t come out and said it outright so far. Since most of us will have some downtime and our bellies full this year-end, it might be a very good time to think on these things. 

I remain hopeful. Who knows, in the near future, instead of bugging newlyweds for grandchildren, parents might ask them instead, “Have you thought about not having kids?” or “Isn’t one child enough, honey?” Wishful thinking, I know… 

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Video Log

The need for true craftsmen

I filmed a short vlog today about the need for true craftsmen, which is becoming more apparent in developed countries pretty much everywhere. The more emphasis is placed on white collar jobs, IT and college degrees, the less people you have going to vocational schools in order to learn how to become craftsmen. Countries don’t run on computers alone. We need people doing real, physical work, building the infrastructure and taking pride in their jobs, building with the best methods and to the highest quality available to them, otherwise fields like construction are going to get worse, not better. (Have you looked at the build quality of the sheds we call “homes” these days?)

I hope you take a few minutes to watch the entire video and do your part to encourage your children or your students in schools to become real craftsmen. They can make a good living, even a great living, doing craftwork, and they can do it without going into debt by the tens of thousands of dollars, getting college and post-graduate education which isn’t going to be useful to them. If you’d like a list of good, honest trades and crafts, this article which lists 19th century occupations alphabetically should help.

I’m not alone in my views. You can also watch Mike Rowe, host of “Dirty Jobs”, give a testimony before Congress where he urges the US government to encourage our children to choose to go to vocational and tech schools, because there’s a real need for these kinds of people in the US economy.

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Places

Beware of chimney sweeps in Romania

As cold weather begins to set in Romania, itinerant chimney sweeps begin to make their rounds. They’ll come to the gate and offer to clean your chimneys, or they’ll use lines like “We’re here from our head office, we’ve been sent down to check and clean your chimneys,” which of course is a bold-faced lie. Chimney sweeps mostly work alone, they have no companies, and no headquarters. It’s been that way for centuries. Sometimes, as an added bonus, they’ll reek of cheap wine. And almost always, they’ll be of Roma (gipsy) origin.

The keyword when using their services is CAUTION. If you don’t exercise caution, you do so at risk to your wallet and some of your smaller and perhaps valuable belongings. I’m not stereotyping here, I’m summarizing popular wisdom. I’ve met honest, hard-working gipsies, but they are few and far between.

If you ask them what it costs to clean a chimney, they’ll give you a quick look-over (if they haven’t already), and since they’ve already checked your house from the outside, they’ll quote a price that’s in line with your neighborhood, your house and your clothes.

If you say okay and bring them into your attic to start cleaning, you’ve got to be very careful, because they’ll often double their prices. They’ll say, and I speak from personal experience here, that your chimney is too tall, and they’ll need to charge double. At this point you have two choices: pay the extra money, or begin to escort them to your gate so you can kick them off your property. You should ALWAYS choose the second option.

What’ll happen next is they’ll back down and try to haggle a new price, somewhere between the one they quoted at the gate and the one they quoted in the attic. NEVER back down. Stick to the quoted price or kick them out. They’ll usually give up and agree to the original price.

Make sure they come equipped with all the equipment they need. They should have an adequate chimney brush, not a make-do one, and they should have a mirror, to look up the chimney and ensure that it’s clean. If they don’t have a mirror and ask you for one, make sure to check around when you get back to make sure nothing’s gone. Also make sure to monitor their every move while they’re in your attic/house. Something may just disappear when you’re not looking.

Photo courtesy of Northern Tool & Equipment

Finally, when they’re done, make sure they give you a stamped and signed receipt which states your full name and address, and also a certificate which states that your chimneys have been checked and are working properly — you may need the latter in your dealings with Romgaz and its subsidiaries, the only (can you say unfair monopoly…) natural gas company in Romania.

If you happen to live in a nice neighborhood and have taken care of your house, then beware of the initial quoted price, it may be higher than what their services are worth. Try to halve it, then negotiate up to 65-75% of their asking price if need be, or try to get it down to 50%. For example, one price I heard lately (fall of 2010) was 30 RON per chimney. I think that’s adequate, but it could be negotiated down to 20 RON if your budget is limited, or if you’ve got lots of chimneys (5-6 of them, for example). Use your judgment and exercise caution.

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Thoughts

Child rape survivor saves young girls in Zimbabwe

So happy to hear about the good work Betty Makoni is doing in Zimbabwe. She’s put together a support network for rape victims.

Child rape survivor saves ‘virgin myth’ victims – CNN.com

Witch doctors (so-called traditional healers) have spread the rumor that a man can be cured of AIDS if he rapes a virgin. So you have all these HIV-infected men with no scruples and no morals whatsoever who are raping young and younger girls — even babies. Unfortunately Zimbabwe’s culture makes it very difficult to get support after rapes occur, but this woman, Betty Makoni, has organized a country-wide network of support for the poor girls.

I say the filthy men who do this sort of thing, and the witch doctors who spread the unconscionable advice, ought to be rounded up and raped by prison gangs. Either that or they should be castrated, without anesthesia. Let the punishment fit the crime.

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Places

The Italian road trip

We came back yesterday morning from a wonderful week-long road trip through Italy. We started out in Pisa last Wednesday, February 18th, and returned from that same city yesterday, on February 25th. Before we left, we mapped out a circular route that cut through the following regions: Toscana, Emilia Romagna, Veneto, Marche, Abruzzo, and Lazio.

Italy - Tourist and Road Map

Morning fog over Florence

I traveled to Italy in 1999, 10 years ago, and stayed in Rome for three weeks. I also visited Florence for a day. Lots of things have changed in Italy since then. Here’s what happened this time around.

The route

The towns we visited were, in chronological order: Pisa, Firenze, Venezia, Ravenna, Rimini, Grottammare, Tivoli, Roma, Ladispoli, Capálbio and Rosignano Marittimo. All in all, we drove about 1,300 km. It was a fairly large amount of ground to cover, and I was even told it couldn’t be done in a week, but I knew that if we stuck to the route and were disciplined about the amount of time spent in each city, we could accomplish our goal. We did, and even had time to make unscheduled stops in towns too beautiful to pass by, such as Grottammare, Capálbio and Rosignano Marittimo.

Unbeknown to us, we passed right by the Lamborghini factory in Sant’ Agata, near Modena. It was evening, and we drove through the little village on our way to Ferrara. We wondered what in the world the red Lamborghini brand was doing on a glass-encased rectangular building that lined the road, and about an hour later, the jigsaw puzzles came together and it finally dawned on me what we’d seen. D’oh! We didn’t have time to go back, or else I’d have tried to get a tour. That would have been fun!

My intent is to write individual articles about each city we visited, each illustrated with plenty of photos, so stay tuned for that. I will add links to those articles below as they are published.

The weather

It was February, which is technically winter, but we stuck to the warmer regions of Italy, so we had beautiful, spring-like weather. Temperatures ranged from 1 – 19° C while we were there, and it was mostly sunny, with little rain.

Late afternoon fields

There was no snowfall, although if we’d ventured further north, I’m sure we’d have gotten some. There were times when we passed through mountains, particularly on our way from Pescaro to Rome, that the weather got downright freezing and snow was clearly visible on the mountain tops.

Mountain village

The prices

We visited during the off-season. Not many people go to Italy in February, so prices are less than in high season.

Expect to pay about €10-20 per plate for lunch and about €15-30 per plate for dinner at restaurants. Even a restaurant located right on the main canal in Venice or near the Basilica di San Pietro in Rome won’t cost you more, for lunch anyway. Of course, you can also go into a buffet and get a slice of pizza or some spaghetti or something, and it’ll be a lot less, but it’s nice to know going to a restaurant won’t break the bank. Make sure to always ask for a menu before being seated if you’re uncomfortable getting up from the table once you find out what things cost.

A restaurant near Basilica din San Pietro

Going to a supermarket and buying bread, fruits, vegetables and various kinds of cheeses and other delicatessen is even less expensive than going to a buffet or cafe. You can eat the food up on a hilltop, or in a forest, or even in your hotel room if you’re rushed for time — just not in public parks, because it’s not allowed there. It’s healthier and a lot lighter on the wallet. But make sure not to litter if you eat out in nature. Bring an empty bag along and take all your trash with you. It’s the civilized thing to do.

The hotels were also not as expensive as we thought — at least the ones we looked at. Rooms ranged in price from €50/night at a two-star hotel to €90/night at a four-star hotel for a double room with the usual amenities, including breakfast.

Fuel prices ranged from €1 to €1.30 per liter for regular diesel, which is what our rental car used.

The people

We had nothing stolen from us this time, unlike what happened to me in 1999, and on the whole, the people were a lot friendlier than I remembered them. Even if I could only speak a little Italian, they were willing to help me and we got along in fragments of mixed English and Italian. I found the people in the smaller cities and villages were a lot nicer than those who lived in the larger cities. It looks like my theory about larger cities being too stressful for healthy living is true — not that I’m the first to think of it.

The transportation

We rented a Ford C-Max 1.6L Diesel. I liked it a lot. It’s the European version of an American station wagon. It can seat five people and their luggage comfortably for long stretches of time. The ride was smooth, the gear shifting was smooth, braking was strong but not crude, and things worked as they should. It had decent acceleration for a 1.6L diesel engine loaded down with five passengers and a full trunk, even going uphill.

Our rental car, a Ford C-Max 1.6L Diesel

I liked its many storage compartments, and the fold-out trays behind the front seats, which can be used for light meals inside the car. I liked the windshield wipers, and here’s why: when you squirted wiper fluid onto the windshield, they did a few passes, then stopped for a few seconds to wait for the last beads of fluid to pour down the glass, and did one last pass to get them. It’s a clever little touch that means a lot to me, because I always found myself having to do that last pass manually on other cars.

I also liked the car’s light fuel consumption. On average, it did 6.1 liters per 100 km, and oftentimes it did even less, even when I drove over 100 km/h, which is pretty good considering the load it carried and the car’s size.

Steering wheel and dashboard, Ford C-Max 1.6L Diesel

One thing that bugged me about the car was the safety belt beeping. If you didn’t put your belt on right away, it started to beep annoyingly every few seconds. That really got on my nerves, and it seems like most newer cars bug you like this. One reason I like my MINI so much is because it doesn’t beep. All I get is a red light on the dashboard. That’s plenty for me.

Another thing was the somewhat soft steering at higher speeds. I didn’t go faster than 130 km/h with it because of that very reason. It just seemed like it wouldn’t do very well if I had to do a quick swerve to avoid something, so I didn’t push my luck.

Would I rent this car again? Definitely. I even took it offroad, and it’s so well-built underneath that you can’t break your exhaust pipe on a rock or crack your oil drum, like you can with other cars. Everything is neatly tucked away above the car’s steel frame. Even though ground clearance isn’t high, you can take it over uneven ground and it’ll do just fine, within reason.

Driving and traffic

The drivers are civilized and slow-paced in the smaller cities or villages, but fairly crazy in the larger cities like Florence and Rome. They’ll make four lanes out of two at stop signs or roundabouts — that’s if they stop at all. You really have to keep on your toes when you drive there, or you might run into another car or a pedestrian, who will step out into the road at a crosswalk and expect you to stop, which is not what happens in the US, but is what you should do in Italy. Honking and cutting in front of other cars without warning is quite common and should be expected there.

While this style of driving was a shock to my system at first, I quickly got used to it and found it quite advantageous in the end. You see, I had to constantly pick my way through the cities by following the maps and street signs, and if I was a little late with a turn, I could cut through the traffic my “elbowing” my way in, so to speak, just like the others did. They might honk at me and shake their hands at me, in typical Italian fashion, but I’d just shrug my shoulders and smile — and they’d let me pass.

I didn’t see a single case of road rage in Italy, unlike in the US, where some doofus is liable to pull out their gun in the middle of the street. The Italians might get angry, but it’s only surface anger — a small reaction to the situation which quickly gets forgotten as the annoyance disappears. If they honk at you, it’s to get your attention, not because they’re truly angry. If they shake their hands at you, they’re not swearing, it’s just the way they react. Really, it’s not as bad as it seems. Just go with the flow.

An Italian highway at night

Roads and street signs

The roads were kept in good shape. There were a few towns (Pisa, for example) where the roads were in construction and full of potholes, and a few sections of the highways where potholes were beginning to emerge through the asphalt, but generally speaking, the roads were smooth, well-built and fairly safe.

I have a bone to pick with Italian speed limit signs. You’re generally expected to do 50 km/h while in the city and 90 km/h outside, but more often than not, they had me going 50 km/h outside the cities, in places where I should have been going 70-90 km/h or more. The Italian drivers themselves didn’t obey the speed limit signs. They usually did 10-20 km/h more than the posted speed limit, or even more, even in the cities. I tried to obey the posted limit but also keep up (more or less) with the general traffic, and I hope I’m not going to be surprised with one or more speeding tickets in the mail.

Street and landmark signs are pretty good. Sometimes, there are too many of them and you can’t figure out which way to turn while the traffic behind you keeps pushing you along. What I did was to put on my emergency blinkers and pull to the right. As long as you don’t do it in the middle of an intersection, people will understand.

Be careful with a new batch of signs called ZLT (Zone a Traffico Limitato). They weren’t in place in 1999. They were introduced recently to curb the traffic through certain areas in popular cities, and to reduce the amount of pollution. You’ll get a hefty fine if you happen to pass through such a zone when you’re not supposed to do it. The signs should say what hours and days the ZLT rules are enforced. Ask a policeman to be sure, or just don’t venture inside the zones. Find a parking spot somewhere near the places you want to see, and go on foot.

Hotel signs are another matter altogether. There are tons of little signs advertising hotels of all kinds along the roads in major cities. They’ll say go left or go right, but unfortunately, those initial signs aren’t followed up by subsequent signs that take you to the hotel. You may find yourself nowhere near the hotel at the end of 5 minutes’ or 10 minutes’ driving, even though you’ve turned like the sign said. That can get pretty frustrating, particularly if it’s getting dark and you need to find a place to stay.

The hotels

In Italy, there’s a huge difference between a two-star or three-star or four-star hotel in a city, particularly in a city’s downtown area, and a two-star or three-star or four-star hotel on the city’s outskirts, or in the countryside. Keep that in mind when you look for hotels in Italy.

We stayed at a two-star hotel on the outskirts of Ferrara one night. A few days later, we looked at two-star and three-star hotels in the middle of Pisa (centro), and they didn’t even compare to the two-star hotel out in the countryside of Ferrara. That hotel was clean, roomy, warm and downright luxurious when compared to the dumps they call two-star hotels in Pisa. Those don’t even have bathrooms in the rooms — they have a single bathroom in each hallway, yet they have a sink, bidet and trash can next to the bed, which is disgusting.

The lesson to be learned is simple: stay at four-star hotels inside the cities, if you find a good price, or find two or three-star hotels, or even bed & breakfast places, outside the cities, in the countryside or in small villages, if you want something clean and comfortable. Of course, that entails having a car so you can get around without having to worry about public transportation routes, which don’t exist (to my knowledge) in the countryside.

While most gadgets one carries around with them when traveling are made to work on both 120V and 230V current these days, almost all of the electrical outlets in Italian hotels take only the thinner round prongs, not the thicker round prongs used elsewhere in Europe. This means you won’t be able to recharge your laptop or camera batteries or your cellphone if you don’t bring or buy an adapter that has the thinner round prongs.

Two types of plug prongs from Europe

Also related to electrical outlets, make sure to also have an electrical strip or splitter with you. You’ll be lucky to find one spare outlet in most hotel rooms, and if you have multiple gadgets and no splitter, you won’t be able to recharge all of them during the night. I found no spare outlet in a few of the rooms we stayed, and had to unplug the TV in order to plug in my own stuff.

Here’s the list of places we stayed at, in chronological order:

Villa Aurora, Firenze: not open to the public. Family of ours from Florence arranged our stay there, so it doesn’t really count, but it was beautiful. I’ll post photos from there in my Italy album, probably under a new sub-album for Florence. Price is usually €50/night for a double room.

Hotel Daniela, Ferrara: a two-star hotel with bigger, cleaner rooms and newer fixtures and linens than a three-star hotel in downtown Pisa. It had rooms with real bathrooms, proper heating, shiny floors and clean, comfortable beds. Shower water was piping hot, which was nice. Breakfast was included, and it was good. Espresso was good as well. Only problem was a pipe/drain in one of the walls that made a small but annoying dripping noise during the night. Thankfully we were so tired we slept through it. Price was €60/night for a double room with a queen size bed and €80/night for a triple room with a queen size bed and a single bed. The hotel is in the middle of a field. The view isn’t special in any sort of way, but the price is decent and it’s very clean. There’s parking in the back.

Hotel Caldini, Chiaggio: no stars were advertised for this hotel, but the rooms were large, clean, well heated and it had large, proper bathrooms. Breakfast was not included, but we started on the road so early that day that we didn’t need it. The price was definitely worth it: only €50/night for a double room with a queen size bed and €55/night for a triple room with a queen size bed and two single beds. The hotel is inside Chiaggio’s centro, and faces a canal with small boats. Nice view. There’s parking in the front of the hotel.

Bed & Breakfast La Toretta sul Borgo, Grottommare: this was an experience above and beyond everything we’d hoped to find on our road trip. We found the city of Grottommare by happenstance, because we saw its lights from the highway. It looked nice, so we pulled off, and when we entered the old part of the city, our jaws dropped. We just had to find a place to stay right there in the old city, so we kept looking around until we found this B&B, which is set right in a medieval building in an old citadel. They only had one room available, but we didn’t care. We crowded into it, all five of us, and we loved it. I definitely recommend it, and will post photos soon. Breakfast was included and it was delicious. The espresso was great. The view was amazing, and so was the decor. Price was €100/night for a room with a queen size bed and two bunk beds, meant for four people. We squeezed in five of us anyway, and it was worth it for the amazing experience. You can get a double room there for €60/night. Parking is available in the general parking area right outside the castle, but you’re allowed to drive up to a piazza close to the B&B to unload your luggage, if you can squeeze your car through the narrow medieval streets.

Hotel Executive, Roma: four-star hotel near Piazza Fiume. The rooms we got weren’t quite up to four-star standards, as the bed covers, room fixtures and furniture looked like they’d been there for a few decades, but at least the bed linens and the bathrooms were clean. A nice bonus was a large terrace that I used to take photos of Rome at night and in the early morning — we were given rooms on the top floor since that’s all they had available. Price was €100/night for a double room and €130/night for a triple room, breakfast included. The espresso was good. They had valet parking but it cost €35/night, so we used metered parking on the street, which was hard to find but only €4/day.

Hotel Miramare, Ladispoli: a three-star hotel built in the early 1900s, with original marble pebble floors, stairwell and doors. I think the rest of the stuff got renovated sometime during the last 10 years or so. The taste of the recent interior decorator left quite a bit to be desired, but the original architecture and design thankfully still showed through. The rooms were nicely sized and clean. The bathrooms were alright as well, but the shower stall was so tiny I could barely fit in it, and I’m not a large person at 5’11” and 165 pounds. The hotel isn’t soundproofed in any way, shape or form, so you’ll hear your neighbors if they talk somewhat louder or do something else… We got woken up early in the morning by sounds from the bathroom fixtures of our neighbors. Smoking is allowed in the hallways, but the smoke will make its way into your room sooner or later. The breakfast, included in the price, was halfway decent. The espresso was the best I had during this road trip. The price was €60/night for a double room with a queen size bed and €80/night for a triple room with a queen size bed and a single bed. For what it’s worth, the hotel is right on the beach. Parking is €5 per night, or you can find a parking spot on the streets, which is free but hard to find in-season.

Hotel Repubblica Marinara, Pisa: a four-star hotel outside Pisa’s centro. This was the best equipped hotel we stayed at during this trip. I liked everything about it. The rooms were large and clean and had interesting lighting, the bathrooms were large and clean, and they smelled fresh. I think they’d redecorated the hotel recently. Some hallways still smelled of fresh paint. The shower stall was finally properly sized. I could stretch in there and twist around as one normally does when they wash, without hitting my elbows on the walls. Another thing I loved about this hotel was the presence of extra electrical outlets in the room, which is a rarity in Italy, believe me. The had four outlets right above the desk and one outlet next to each side of the bed. Two of those four outlets next to the desk even worked with the thicker prongs of the plugs from other regions in Europe. I was in gadget heaven, as I could finally charge up all my stuff in peace. Price was €90/night for a double room with a queen size bed and €110/night for a triple room with a queen size bed and a single bed. Breakfast was included and they had ample free parking in the back of the hotel.

Electrical outlets in our hotel room

We really enjoyed our trip to Italy. It got a little stressful in the larger cities as we tried to find our way around and a place to stay, but it’s a very freeing experience to go out on your own and plot your own course through a country, then follow up on your plans and bring them to completion. It’s also fun to stray off the course when you discover something you really want to see, as we did, then pick up where you left off. As I promised above, I plan to write up the experiences we had in each city and to publish photos that I took. Stay tuned for that.

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Thoughts

Good vs. bad globalization

As I traveled around Europe, I saw globalization in action, and made the following observations.

Being able to drive through various countries without needing to go through customs checks at the borders was wonderful. Unencumbered travel is a great experience.

The preservation of local or national cultures is of the utmost importance as people from various countries mingle more freely. Dominant cultures end up dominating, and that’s not a good thing. If I switched through various radio stations in Austria or Romania, I seldom heard German music, and even less often did I hear local music, like traditional Tirolean songs. Instead, I heard the latest hits from the US and the UK. I really don’t care to hear the same music I hear at home when I travel. I’d rather be immersed in the culture of the country I’m visiting, but that’s become quite rare nowadays.

Related to the point made above, the people who win from globalization preserve their local culture, because it not only enriches them, but it’s also a bankable practice when it comes to tourism. Clean, beautiful cities, where the old building were preserved and renovated, not torn down, and friendly local people are what tourists want to see.

The ability to export and import goods freely is great. It’s good for the local economies to have the potential of greater distribution. By the same token, it’s horribly bad when companies and factories move to areas where it’s cheaper to operate. Local economies, cities and people suffer so much when that happens. Just look at what’s going on in the US. I can see the same thing happening in certain cities in Romania. Just a decade or so ago, people used to have jobs and work in local factories or shops, and now they’ve all been sold or moved, and those same people, tied to those cities through their families and houses, are now scraping the ground to get by. I don’t know how they do it. It must be incredibly tough and frustrating.

Related to the point made above about not companies staying put and not moving, why do you think the US economy is hurting so badly now? It’s because it has become based on services and virtual goods like complicated and unnecessary financial speculation, not hard goods. Other than farming products, we make very little in the US these days. Most of the US products (and most of the world’s products for that matter) get made in China. Is it any surprise to see that China’s economy is booming?

Remember that countries have two ways to exert their influence in the world: (1) soft power, which refers to economic and cultural power, and (2) hard power, which refers to military force. US’ soft power has been waning in recent years, through its own faulty policies, and so the only way left for it to retain its dominance is to increase its hard power. The problem is that exerting hard power makes the soft power diminish even more and it also breeds enemies, which makes it even harder to retain dominance in the long run. Soft power preservation is the best long-term foreign policy a country could have, and the US has failed at it.

EU taxes are a heavy burden to bear. The VAT (Value Added Tax) is around 20%. That’s crazy. Not only does that make everything more expensive, but the markups are also higher. This means you’ll sometimes find that the same product, like a laptop or a camera, is up to 50% more expensive in Europe. That doesn’t make sense to me, particularly when salaries in so many Eastern European countries are unbelievably lower than in Western European countries, yet the prices are just as high.

In globalized economies, there’s greater potential to encourage correct or responsible behavior by standardizing business or agricultural practices. Vice versa, there’s greater potential to mess it all up as well, but let’s try to stay positive here. I liked what I saw in Europe when it came to land care and the preservation of forests. I also liked seeing entire fields filled with wind turbines, which generate electricity with zero pollution. I also liked seeing solar panels on the roofs of many, many houses in the countryside. I like the EU’s anti-corruption efforts, and I like the way they encourage good infrastructure through grants and loans to member countries.

When standards are put in place, there’s the potential to go overboard with rules and regulations. While the intentions are good, if you make it too onerous for an individual or a small business to compete or participate in the marketplace, you are effectively favoring large corporations and driving out the small guys. I see this happening with farming regulations in Europe. People that used to own herds of sheep and cows have now been forced to sell them or become part of large farming cooperatives, because they couldn’t afford to keep up with all the rules. Farmers operate on thin margins and big risks, and when you introduce extra costs, you are in effect killing them.

It would be a horrible shame to drive out all the small guys and let large corporations handle all of the marketplace. For one thing, you are killing the spirit of passionate people that love what they’re doing, and for another, you’re destroying a way of life that has served us well for thousands of years.

I do hope the EU and the US do their part to keep small farmers alive and well, while encouraging the production of food through responsible, renewable and healthy practices, free of genetic manipulation and unnecessary hormonal, pesticide and antibiotic treatments.

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Watch "The Energy Non-Crisis"

Please watch “The Energy Non-Crisis“. You can find it on Google Video, and probably on YouTube as well. Draw your own conclusions after you’ve seen it.

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3340274697167011147

Regardless of who is really in control of oil, what’s clearly evident here is that our economy is suffering. If there really are such huge oil reserves in Alaska, we should start drawing upon them.

On a related note, I live near Washington, DC and have visited the World Bank. I’ve seen their headquarters, I know people who work for them, and I’m not so sure they’re the ones in control of oil prices, like he says. But that’s not as important as making sure our economy stays healthy, and right now, cheaper oil would help a lot.

Also, there’s the benefit (painful as it may be) of higher prices that can and will be seen in the future through more fuel-efficient cars and better housing. I’ve railed against the shoddy construction practices in the DC area (and seemingly throughout most of the US) for some time. Houses are built like matchboxes, with very little insulation or thought for long-term existence or impact on the environment. As utility prices rise and stay up, people will begin to see the advantage of solid, time-tested building techniques, with proper insulation and solar panels and the like. So I can’t say that higher oil prices are entirely bad.

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Thoughts

Migratory state of being

Every single day, I go around with a little pain in my heart. It’s the sort of pain that only certain people can understand. These people are called immigrants.

Sometime this month, a familiar date will pass, and I’ll know that I’ve been in the States for 17 years. I’ve been a naturalized citizen for a number of those years. Born and raised in Romania, I came here when I was almost 15. I’ve lived the better part of my life in this country, and yet I still do not feel entirely at home. The States feels familiar, but not familial; it feels like I belong, but I don’t entirely fit in; it feels like home, but I don’t feel at home.

I envy Americans born here, I really do. In some ways, they’re better off than me. They feel something, every day, which I cannot feel; they may not realize it, and they may not even appreciate it, but they feel at home. It’s a priceless sort of feeling, and you don’t understand its true value unless you’re away from home.

It’s a painful way to live. I look around me, at those fortunate enough to have been born here, and they haven’t got my problem. They are at home no matter what part of this great big country they happen to live in — especially those that have been born, raised, and now work in the same cities or regions. They benefit from familiarity with customs, habits, lifestyles, places, people, language, traditions — all those things that make home feel like home. If they’ve moved to another part of the country, no matter how different they think it is, it’s still the USA, and it’s still the same country. Some things still apply, and the overall feeling of home is there.

Although I live in the DC area now, and have done so for the last 4 years, I spent most of my years here in the States in Florida. Still, it doesn’t feel like home. Sure, I know the streets and the neighborhoods. I know the cities and the beaches. When I walk or drive down a certain street, memories from my life there evoke certain emotions that make it familiar. The best word to describe that kind of a feeling is comfortable. When I step into my parents’ home down there, I get the closest feeling of home I can get here in the States. It’s relaxing and peaceful, that’s true. But it’s still not home. And I think my parents understand what I mean, since all three of us came to the States as a family back in 1991.

It would be logical to assume that Romania would feel more like home, since it’s where I was born and raised. You’d only be partly correct. Yes, when I go back there, I feel more at home than here. The strings of my heart vibrate at the same frequency as my birthplace. When I’m there, the air is sweeter, the food tastes better, interactions with people are more meaningful, every sensation is accentuated by the vibrancy of my home land. Sleep is more restful, and life takes on a new, familial rhythm. I feel a peace that I cannot feel here. Yet I do not feel at peace.

There’s the awful rub. In the words of Charles Laughton from the movie “It Started With Eve” (1941), “I’ve been tampered with!” I’ve spent so much time in the States that I’ve grown accustomed to the way of living over here. Not the comfort and abundance of products, though that’s part of it, but the way of life, of doing business, of approaching situations. I no longer fit in, in Romania, and I still do not completely fit in over here, after 17 whole years.

I can function just about anywhere, but am at home nowhere. I’ve got a mongrel heart, a split state of being, and it’s a sad, painful way to go through life, at least for me. A piece of me exists in each country, and I’m forever torn between the two.

It must be even worse for Ligia. She’s only been here for 4 years. She spent her entire life in the same region of the country, in a very close-knit family, among friends and relatives, and the only reason she left all of that was to be with me. It’s probably safe to describe the way she feels every day as home sick. At least she’s lived enough in one country to know which one feels more like home. Although the more time she spends here, the more she’ll bond with this country, till she’ll be just like me, a mongrel spirit.

I think of the pilgrims that came to the new continent from Europe, hundreds of years ago. I wonder how they must have felt, knowing that the likelihood of ever going back to their home lands was next to nothing, and having to face the rough conditions that awaited them in untamed territories. Perhaps the tough lives they led, and the blood, sweat and tears they put into eking out an existence bonded them more to their new homes. Or maybe they sat down on quiet evenings and silently bore pangs of sorrow over the distance that separated them from their birthplaces and ancestral homes.

Then I envy their children, who didn’t (and don’t) have to worry about any of those things. And I yearn for the normalcy and peace which I don’t think I’ll ever reach.

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