Sunday, October 19, 2014

East Germany- Before and After the Berlin Wall Fell

Location: Treptower Park; Former East Berlin
My AirBnB hosts, Fritz and Anna, are a kind and thoughtful couple, hippy hipsters, who despite being slightly shy over their passable English, cheerfully answer my questions about their beloved city each morning over breakfast, which they've generously included in my stay.
Anna grew up in on the East German side of the Berlin Wall, a proverbial world away from the West. This morning she shares with me some of her memories.

Living in East Germany
As with all Communist countries, unless you came from the political elite, little opportunity existed. The government's primary goal was control, control, control.
Freedom of movement, freedom of speech, of most choices, were almost non-existent.  If the the Deutsche Democratic Republic (DDR) desired a more working class oriented society, even if you were an outstanding student from an educated family, it was nearly impossible for you to pursue your studies further.

Even children had to be careful of what they said. For example, always interested in environmental issues, Anna drafted a letter to the politicians complaining that all the fish were lying upside down on the river's surface, poisoned by the chemicals dropped into the water by the local factory. When she presented her letter to her parents, she was told in no uncertain terms (imagine how stern and pointed the German must have been in the East) ?"absolutely not!" Not only could she never send the report to the local officials, she couldn't even speak of it with anyone or there would be serious repercussions at home. And they not only meant for Anna; her parents rightfully feared being sent to prison.
That means this environmental disaster never took place. No one reported it, no one spoke of it, a blind eye was turned, and it certainly wouldn't appear in any Communistic history book. How will such a society fare compared to one in which freedom of speech is a protected right? Which is more likely to have an ever growing cancer causing cesspool?

The incumbent government was re-elected with a staggering 100% of the vote each election!
You might think to yourself, "They must have been incredibly efficient, forthright, and managed the economy exceptionally well."
Maybe. Or maybe it's that they were the only party on the ballot.
Yet despite political experts from both East and West predicting "landslide victories," and nearly "insurmountable odds" for the non-existent opposition party, voter participation remained extremely high, mainly due to the fact that who thought their time would be better spent staying home on election day and watching the last vestiges of paint on their walls slowly disintegrate were soon visited by concerned government minders who asked ever politely, "What happened? ... It's okay, we brought the voting box to you."
"Still don't want to vote? ... I think your shack a bit more comfortable than an East German jail cell."

Consumer Goods
Limited, scarce, and of poor quality, with perhaps the exception of the pride of East German manufacturing, the DDR's answer to the VW Beetle- the famed "Trabant."
the Trabant
So exceptional was the original engineering, they found "no need to change a thing." The first auto off the assembly line looked and performed nearly identically to cars when production was finally halted in 1989.
The Trabant had a two-stroke pollution spewing engine which maxed out at an earth-rumbling 18 horsepower. Although they cut corners on safety features such break-lights, turn signals, and sometimes part of the auto-floor, no one seemed to mind, considering the car was rarely operational.
But in a collective society, the Trabant was available to anybody. Yes, that's the benefit of Communism, the equality of it all. Just sign here ... and wait 15 years.

The Falling Wall
Anna, who was in her teens when the wall fell, describes the aftermath.
"No one could believe how rapidly change took place. Our mood quickly crescendoed, excitement mixed with fear of the unknown. The biggest and most immediate change were all the consumer goods that flooded into the stores. Never before had people in the Eastern Bloc countries seen so many choices.
Inefficient factories which had operated in East Germany were closed, for the first time ever in this Communist society, some people were out of work.
Many East Germans were ill equipped to work and hold jobs in the West. The German government found itself paying for the schooling of the people of East Germany."

Re-Unified Berlin- Today
The DDR is still in the process of being absorbed by the West, Berlin still is not on equal footing as other German cities, a fact which manifests (a positive for visiting Berlin) in prices for food, rent, and the wages all being lower.
However, due to a concerted government effort, existing infrastructure, and economic support offered by West Germany, the Hangover of Communism suffered by the DDR has been far more mild than the other former Eastern Bloc countries.

Tumultuous change is the 20th century through-line of Berlin's history. From being built up by Hitler, then bombed into rubble during WWII, annexed by the Russians, to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city's heart simply beats to a different rhythm than anywhere else. With all the culture, monuments, and history, Berlin is an absolute must see city, and if a taxi driver driving a Trabant offers you ride, by all means take it. You'll have a great story to tel your friends, especially as you propel the car forward with your feet through the non-existent floor, much like Fred Flinstone.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Dark Side of Gdansk, Poland

Imagine being a referee in a tiny boxing ring, you're feet bound to the mat, in the middle of two heavy weights slugging it out, who are so blinded by ego and desire to dominate, they keep punching after the other retreats, uncaring of the collateral damage to your face.
this Soviet style building looks far better in
this photo (due to flash) than in reality
That's pretty much what the Poles have felt like the majority of the 20th century, stuck between Germany and Russia. First WWI, then intentionally destroyed by the Germans, followed by the Russian counterattack during world war II, then annexed and enslaved by the Soviets, The scars of battle are still etched on the unhappy faces of Poles today.

Fallow Land
Aside of the very center of the city, a tremendous amount of space lies fallow in and around Gdansk. You'd imagine land to be relatively cheap, and thus single family houses would quickly spring up.
Instead, the area is dotted mostly by large Soviet built apartment buildings, each uglier than the next, the only make-up, rouge in the form of brightly colored red flowers applied to the window sills and balconies.
In an impoverished population, it's apparently more economical to put everyone atop one another.

An example of the fallow land which exists around Gdansk

How Poor?
Minimum wage here is a dollar in half an hour. Aleksandra's friend Alice works full time in a small stand selling pastries and breads for $300 a month, sitting 10 hours a day, a tedious, and what would be thankless job except for being able to gift muffins and donuts to her friends. A smile spreads across her face, during an otherwise glum afternoon.
Some laborers are on the job 20 hours, multiple days in a row. Don't like it, that's fine, there's a line of people waiting to take your place. Overtime? What's that?
There is little of sense of loyalty between employer and employee here, and vice-versa. Its the wild wild west of labor, a nearly lawless divide, circa Great Britain at the start of the industrial revolution.

Government + Lack
During Communistic times everything from clothing, to heating fuel, to food was in short supply. Often there wasn't enough to eat, and people had to fight for the few available resources.
The accompanying scarcity mentality still exists in Poland, the hangover of Communism still strong.
People stream onto the bus, elbowing each other in the side as they battle for the available seats. It's a habit you'll feel in peoples' presence outside as well.
A money changer gives me a fake 100 Zloty bill, augmenting his income substantially ($33) for the month.
If you can afford to pay your bills and go to the cinema a couple times a month, people assume you're most likely in the mafia. For those who are prospering at all, tremendous jealousy is the response of others.
But dishonest bill changers and the mafia are not the greatest of Polish peoples' worries. As Peter (23) tells me, "There are thieves, and then are thieves ... and then there is the government."
You want to get rich in America, you start a corporation and succeed. Want to get rich in Eastern Europe? Work your way up the government ladder.

Peter rationalizes his unhealthy habits. "Smoking calms me down, without it Polish people would kill each other. As for the heavy drinking, we do so to forget our reality."
Asleep at the bus stop- look carefully
Look carefully at the above photo. This middle aged man is asleep at the bus stop, blood dripping down his face and onto his shirt. 
Being drunk and falling asleep in public- a recipe to be assaulted by the unhappy populace. Many men go to bars in search of a fight, something to make them feel strong, to justify their existence. 
As Peter tells me, the only thing that is easy about Poland, is the decision to leave. In full agreement, I booked my ticket for Germany immediately, leaving in the morning.

Lotos- huge building in the center of town- the Polish oil company

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Touristy, Disneyland Side of Gdansk, Poland

volleyball on the beach, Gdansk, Poland
Invited to visit Ola in Gdansk, Poland. Airport pick-up, she takes me to her family's house located twenty minutes from the city center which we quickly set out to explore.
First stop- the beach. It's a warm weekend day in July on the Baltic Sea, and crowds have gathered to enjoy the sun.

Me + Aleksandra (Ola)

The beach in Gdansk

A few volleyball nets, and a couple soccer goals set-up comprise the majority of the public infrastructure, save the pier extending out into the water. I watch a couple teenagers jump into the ocean, and I feel pressure to follow suit. Heck, I want to be cool right?

Jumping off the Gdansk pier

town center- doesn't quite look "real"
Drying in the sun, we head to the city center. Sadly, the entire area was destroyed in World War II. As a measure of pride, and an attempt to increase tourism, the city council decided to rebuild, attempting to replicate exactly what existed before. Unfortunately,everything looks too new/ done on the cheap (as you might be able to tell in the below video.) If I were a museum curator, I'd immediately deem it a fake.

The main square of Gdansk Poland

Ola atop the lion- there are many lion statues throughout Europe
Gdansk cathedral
Ola under the corridor of beautiful trees

photo makes me smile- people having fun
Ola wants to show me the biggest park in Gdansk park on my last day, a staple of her childhood.
It's literally breath of fresh air, always a pleasure to surrounded by green, to watch people enjoying themselves.

Park with hedges for children

Also, if you're by the park, there's a medium sized church nearby. It's not St. Peter's Basilica, but they do have free organ concerts, though you'll have to bypass the collection plate being passed around.

So there you have it: my version of the Gdansk Welcoming Committee, inviting you to visit this city.
Of course, as I'm not employed by the Polish Tourism Board, I do feel it necessary to share with you the darker side of Gdansk too.

Organ concert in church

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Preikestolen- The Pulpit Rock- Heavenly View of Earth

We all travel for different reasons. Oftentimes it's to experience new things, try exotic foods, to expand our perspectives and enable us to see the world through the viewpoint of other cultures.
For me, it's to open and experience the "juice of life."
What do I mean by that? There are moments in our existence when we become completely present to an energy far greater than what our mind generally perceives. A moment where gratitude and love flow completely through you being. Each time I experience this state, it becomes easier and easier to get there again.
One of the frequent keys and conduits to this is the sheer indescribable beauty of nature.
Preikestolen unequivocally meets this criteria. It's one of the most majestic, dynamic places I have seen in my life, and will leave you positively breathless. Thoughts wash away as you take in its spectacular beauty.
The literal translation of "Preikestolen" is "the preachers chair," though it's more commonly referred to as "The Pulpit Rock." Why? It's such a heavenly view of earth, I feel as though I've been instantly transported there.
Below are photos and videos I took while there. Enjoy!

Preikestolen as you approach

The Preacher's Chair

A religious experience

A different of view from the Pulpit Rock

exquisite natural beauty

ain't getting no closer to the edge without a parachute

the fjord snakes away. That's over 2,000 feet straight down! 

The Trail to Preikestolen- Spectacular Norwegian Nature

Priekestolen- the mythical preacher's chair/ pulpit rock, was described as a must see in Oslo. Following the must, I had taken the train to Bergen, then drove two days around windy roads, up and down mountains, and over the fjords by bridge and ferry.
At long last, we were ready to begin the two hour, often steep, hike to Preikestolen. Below are photos and videos of what you'll see on your way.

Norwegian nature is a site to behold. A vast country filled with forests and water. The stillness and serenity of it all is inspiring.  


love this photo of the fjord between the mountains

me by a small lake close to the summit

Click here to for photos and videos I took of Preikestolen itself- the pulpit rock

Friday, October 10, 2014

Norwegian Oil Fund Economics- They're all Millionaires, but Can't Afford Beer

Rising like an ancient sea monster in the middle of the fjord, an oil rig. Directly in view from Astrid's living room window, I ask her what she thinks of it.
"It means money and jobs," she proudly replies. 
oil rig on the Norwegian fjord
In the past Norway's economy relied heavily on fisheries, agriculture, textiles, and timber. Though people weren't starving, Norway was one of Europe's poorest countries, In 1969, the country struck oil. 

The Oil Fund
Norwegian oil was treated as a national resource, and somehow the wealth didn't end up in the hands of a select few, as in the Middle East, whose royal families buy off the populace with very minimal distribution of the wealth, Russia, whose citizens suffer while a kleptocracy of oligarchs squabble and grab every fistful of dollars they can from the collective table, the rampant corruption of Africa, or even the United States and Canada, where oil revenues primarily benefit private corporations, with a smattering of royalties paid to the government. 
While companies do benefit from the technologically difficult extraction of oil from the North Sea, and offshore labor like welders, engineers, and even cleaning crew get paid wonderful wages, the majority of revenues flow into a government run oil fund. 

How Big?
Care to guess how much Norway's oil fund is worth? Close to 900 Billion dollars (yes Dr. Evil,- you can put your pinky finger to your lips, 900 times.) That means if they were to disburse the fund to Norwegian citizens, every single baby, soldier, Grandpa, hooker, politician, and maid, would receive a check for over a million Norwegian krownes; even taking into account the cost of postage.
But don't anxiously wait for the postman. Since its inception the fund is allowed to spend 4% of it's worth each year in Norway, saving the rest for a rainy (a very rainy) day.
Norway's government anticipates two things. First, that within the twenty years, oil and gas will be an antiquated form of energy, as the cost of renewables is rapidly decreasing; second, even if oil and gas are still viable, Norway's production will decline and their reserves will eventually run dry. 
Hence, rather than spending every petro-dollar on the bling-bling malls and high-rises you see in Dubai, high octane cars, or diamond and gold chains, Norway puts the money into a national retirement account to ease the post oil transition for future generations, somehow ignoring the human impulse to spend now
Meanwhile the USA plunges further and further in debt.

Different Priorities
How many politicians in the US could resist raiding this fund if they inherited it? A different psychology exists in Norway, a more socialist outlook, combined with true faith true faith in government. 
Norway has no government debt or deficit (in fact they operate on a huge surplus), and education is free from pre-school through post graduate university, and healthcare is largely subsidized.

So Where's the Cash?
The fund is heavily invested in equities and real estate. The fund owns nearly 2% of all public European stocks, 1% of the American market, as well as property in most big cities around the world: New York, Boston, London, etc.
The money is invested fairly conservatively, and its 60% allocation into equities is based on the supposition that over the long term they are the safest and best yielding investments. 
Additionally, to garner Norwegian capital, companies must meet certain ethical standards. All tobacco stocks and companies deemed to cause too much environmental damage have been blacklisted. 

Plus + Minus
While Norway has done an amazing job with managing it's oil resources and wealth, it has done a far less acceptable job managing one of its oldest economic resources, fish stocks, which have plummeted to critical levels. 
To combat this, Norway has embarked on salmon farming, even investing some of the oil money into research, and exporting that technology to other fish farming nations of the world, such as Chile. 
video: how to tell farm raised from wild caught salmon

Norwegian companies are heavily regulated, especially with respect to labor relations. Unions have negotiated very high wages and rights for workers, surpassing even those in Sweden which is hard to fathom. Many Swedes come to Norway for the higher pay, and I am told they are often preferred hires, as they make less stink about labor laws than Norwegian citizens. 

As conservative as Norway is fiscally, (a friend of mine who has lived there for years describes Norweigens as "super cheap") the government deserves tremendous credit for how they've managed their wealth, a model which should be emulated at least to some degree not only by other sovereign nations, but also individuals. 

Yet, knowing what it's like to be poor and wanting to save what I made so I would have some breathing room, I can relate to Norway's attitude towards money, which is especially ingrained in the older generations which have known lack in the past. 
My friend Egil, involved in Norwegian politics, a multi-millionare, CEO and senior partner of a large asset management firm, tells me of how he sent his father on all expense paid trip for his 80th birthday to Norway's most beautiful and expensive hotel. Egil told his father everything was to be paid for with his American Express Black Card, and to spare no expense.
Upon arrival, his Dad checked in, went down to the bar for a beer, and upon being told the price, promptly sent his grandson to the liquor store to get him a six-pack. It was just too expensive.  

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Are Danes the World's Happiest People? And other Scandinavian Stereotypes

Having now traveled to each of the Nordic countries, I wanted to respond with my new found knowledge to some common stereotypes/questions about the area.

Scandinavian women are empowered.
TrueA lamentably told joke I heard from a Dane was that women would leave their man the first time he left the toilet seat up.
High salaries across the board (a cashier in a department store can take home $4,000, waitresses make $20 an hour + tips) coupled with a progressive tax system flattening out the income curve, means that women do not need a dual income household to survive.
Scandinavian women have the choice of the types of behavior they are willing to put up with from their mates, whereas females in poorer countries with not only less opportunities, but where they get paid far less for the same work, are much more dependent.
I'd conjecture that marriages which last here are likely more healthy than in less economically advantaged countries.

Scandinavia is super expensive. 
Norway, nature-wise, is so utterly stunning
True: Norway is the most expensive country on earth, and the rest of the Nordic countries are not far behind. Heavy consumption taxes (VAT)  combined with onerous regulations on businesses only fuel the fire. Despite this, Scandinavia has about the highest standard of living on earth, and if your wallet can take the beating, I'd highly recommend visiting.  (especially Norway and Sweden)

Finland is a Scandinavian country.
False. Actually, neither Finland or Iceland are considered part of Scandinavia.
Finns look much more closely related to Russians than they do Swedes, and the language has few similarities with other Nordic countries.
While Icelandic people are far closer in appearance and language, my guess is that the other Scandinavian countries wanted to disassociate themselves from the vast amounts of incest which takes place there (everyone is related to one another.) That said, I doubt my explanation would hold up in court. ... Both Iceland and Finland are considered part of the Nordic region.

I hear the languages are all very similar.
Semi-False: As noted above, the Finnish language is quite different. Norwegians speak in a quite pleasant sing-songy cadence which leaves Swedes, who speak more neutrally, at a loss understanding them, while the Danish sounds like two old cats fighting while they spit up hairballs.
A hearty congratulations to the people of Denmark, as the Danish language has fought off worthy competitors in Chinese, Dutch, Arabic, and German, to retain its crown as the world's ugliest sounding language. (Travel tip: bring some headphones)
Poll after poll rates Denmark the "happiest" nation on earth.
(clearing throat ...) FALSE: And Danes would agree. The Danish people actively avoid eye contact, and are wary of outsiders, though people in their early 20's are more open,
Now, if you were to describe Danes as the most "content" people on earth, I'd be willing to listen.
There is less jealousy as incomes are not only high but fairly equal, and the state provides for those in need (healthcare, pensions, unemployment insurance, etc.) People in Denmark have what they need, there is no lack, and there is little class differentiation, and even if there are visible differences, acting as though you're better than others will earn you much social scorn.
This is actually becoming a problem in schools, as the smart kids pretend to be dumb, an effort to avoid the ire of their dumber classmates. "Don't stick out" is a learned behavior not only in Denmark, but most of Scandinavia.
The places where I have found the happiest, people, where you can immediately feel it in upon coming in contact with people, are tropical islands like Fiji and Bali. 
French girlfriend of my Danish friend David on his 23rd birthday- nice people
I hear Scandinavian women are both hot and sexually liberated. 
glasses works at the Stockholm airport. The airport! 
In a TSA job! And her friend- zowie!

Both true: I would have to say Sweden has the best looking women in the world (read more about Swedish looks) If you like tall, blonde women who are take care of themselves physically, as a majority of men do, you'll have be in heaven. The rest of the Nordic countries don't quite match Sweden (as they drink more/ smoke more, etc.) but it's hard to go wrong in the Nordics.
And yes, partly a function of their economic independence, women here are definitely sexually liberated.
You want more details? Sorry, I'm not one to kiss and tell.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Life for Locals in Rural Vikebygd, Norway + Organic Jam Making

Vikebygd, Norway

Kristine and I are invited to spend a night in the mythical hamlet of Vikebygb, a place I'm pretty sure I am making up, as no one either in or outside Norway has ever heard of it.
The village is rural, rural, rual Scandinavia, where ingredients for your omelet come from "the egg lady," rather than the local market; 15km away via windy roads. (motto: "Low selection, High prices!")
Vikebygb, Norway by the fjord
Egil and his wife Torill set us up for the evening in the cabin beside the cottage they use as a vacation retreat. As small as this village is, there are fewer full time residents.
I'm given a tour of the immaculate garden; Cherry, apple, and pear trees, black and red currants, raspberry, blackberry and blueberry bushes, almost any fruit which can be grown in this climate Egil cultivates. If you're hungry feel free to grab what you like off the branch. It's all in season, and positively delicious.
this beautiful cat was as friendly as most dogs, following me around
from place to place and purring whenever rubbed
Jam it Up
I'm taken inside the house, where Egil shows me a practical solution for the kilos and kilos of fruit he harvests- jar upon jar of black currant jam made yesterday are stacked upon another. Previous harvests have already been given away to friends.

A lesson in organic jelly and jam making in Vikebygd, Norway

Egil describes the pleasure of cultivating his garden, how relaxing he finds it, the hours he spends creating his fruit preserves. Contrast this with the fact that he's a senior partner and CEO of a financial services firm which has billions of dollars under management.
The man can afford just about anything, but chooses to spend his time on the simpler things in life.
I believe such an attitude is far more common in Scandinavia than America, especially in our big cities where many perceive a pressure to distinguish themselves, a display of power often manifesting in high priced autos, mansions, and fancy watches frequently purchased on credit. The ego, never satisfied with what you have, always demanding more.
Throughout human history ego acted as a double edged sword, both a catalyst behind flourishing civilizations and our ever advancing technology, as well as being the predominant reason behind most of society's ills; grievances, jealousy, and war.
For the individual, the ability to enjoy the moment, to be at peace with whatever is going on, with the wealth of technology and abundance we have today, which Norway is a prime example of, is far healthier than constantly needing to "be more."
In all of Scandinavia, showing off, presenting yourself as superior in any way, is heavily frowned upon, with major social repercussions. I'm certain this is the partly the reason why the region feels much more chill, even their big cities, than places like LA or Paris.
Egil in jam preparation 
While Egil continues with his jams, the women take me to visit their friend in the neighboring village (half an hour away.) Astrid is the youngest 73 year old I've ever met, with energy to spare.
 My Norweigen friend Astrid with energy and a terrific sense of humor explains how to use a 100 year old toilet

Sipping a cup of tea, I enjoy listening to the hens clucking away excitedly in Norwegian. .
An hour or so, we're in the car, driving back around the fjord, arriving home without incident. Kristine gets under the covers, and nods off instantly, while I stay awake listening to the sounds of the countryside. For a guy from Los Angeles, I find silence to be an incredibly moving symphony.