I have this strange relationship with Berlin because there is some history between us and it goes back a long time. Growing up on the other side of the Iron Curtain, West Berlin was the window to the normal world. Everybody knew it. The ruling communist party was 'the best' of course and they did not want you thinking otherwise, which is why U-Bahn trains venturing temporarily into the west end of the city had steel plates welded on the windows so the passengers couldn’t see how the other side was booming.
Life can go astray on a short notice, really out of control, and the way down is quick, and this is how you can end up riding a train with its windows welded shut.
YOLO, as the kids say these days (you only live once), so the advice is this - Achtung Baby!
I knew two Berlins, the somber east and the booming west, the showcase of cold war propaganda coming from the western media.
“Whatever best you got, multiply it by 10 and display to the guys in the east,” was the motto. “Show them how miserable they really are.”
Interestingly, Berlin went through a slump after the unification of Germany. Sure the government functions moved in here in full swing, but these guys don’t make money – they cost money.
“It was quite bad until about 2006,” the taxi driver in a cream colored Mercedes said to me. “It has been getting better ever since, high tech and banking moving in here mostly. And the law firms of course,” he looked at me “it used to be that to do business you shook the other guys’ hand and went for it, but not anymore.”
“Are you a Berliner?” I asked. “All my life,” he said, “all 62 years.”
“JFK said that too,” I remembered.
"Ich bin ein Berliner," the driver nodded his head and he was a serious man now.
I was in Berlin for a few days recently, attending a conference and staying not far from the famous Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing point to the East that was featured in more movies than I care to remember. In Elton John’s “Nikita” song too, just watch the video, its very 80’s but it brings the point home.
The hotel’s name was Titanic, which is a strange name - not exactly a success story that you would want to put in bright lights above your establishment.
Then it occurred to me – the Germans are always busy building an empire. Ein, zwei, ein, zwei, building an empire. Then they start a war and the whole adventure ends up in a big blow up, and after they start again. Ein, zwei, ein, zwei, building an empire. So maybe the Titanic word has different vibe in their minds, like sinking is a part of life.
I walked the Kurfürstendamm on Saturday night and I thought – “where is everybody?” I was hoping that Netflix had something good on that evening, otherwise this was depressing.
In contrast, walk around Yonge street in the downtown core of my second home, Toronto, and you will see vibrant and intoxicating nightlife at it’s best.
In my view Berlin is still a wounded bird, not fit to fly and it may never be.
Sad story, this.
Still, being here has some appeal to me. It brings up memories from my youth, really better then the real experience.
At Checkpoint Charlie they’re building a condo now, it will be called “Charlie Living”. Kind of neat.
And I want to say this - I don’t believe that humans can learn intellectually, I read about this concept, just never saw it happen in the real life. We learn by experience, and the experience that shapes us is impossible to shake.
The Berliners have their own, and maybe this is why the city seems strange to me.
The memory of it is better than the real thing. How weird is that?
I heard this music for the first time on a sunny September day in Lisbon, having a white sangria in the Bar 38º 41' at the Altis Belem on the shore of the Tagus river.
Fado is Lisbon vibe pure, a form of music full of mournful tunes and lyrics infused with a sentiment and melancholia. A typical trait of fado is rubato, when the guitar pauses at the end of a phrase and the singer holds the note for dramatic effect. The music uses double time rhythm and triple time, in a waltz style. Which is not really my style, I like tango the best.
Still, I was curious.
“Your guitar sounds good,” I said to the old man who was selling fado CD’s from a green ancient truck on Rua Augusta. He was sitting in front of his old British Bedford playing the Portuguese guitarra, a plucked string instrument with twelve steel strings arranged by two. And he was playing it just right - the music filled the narrow street without being too intense.
So I couldn’t help myself from asking:
“What do you think about tango? You play guitar so well, you could play anything.”
He didn’t react to the question for a while until he seemed to get out of his comma once he put the guitar away. He stomped on the cigarette and started speaking with a low voice: “I can, and I did, I still do on some evenings. And you don’t really dance the tango, that’s the genius of it, it’s what makes it special – you play it. You hold your woman close to you, or you try. And she moves like a cat, full of passion and desire, around the man. And the music makes it both, hot and subtle. She asks you to control her, but she doesn’t say it, she just wants you to know it before you even start the dance. “ He hung down his head like was exhausted with his memories.
“What was the most important thing she said to you?” I asked, and he looked up, not really seeing me at all.
“She said – hold me tight.”
Then he was just looking at the cobblestones of the street.
“But I didn’t, I failed,” he said finally.
Later he was gathering his things, the big guitar and the CDs packing them into the old green truck. And he looked at me one last time. “What do you listen to when the life don’t go as you had hoped it will?”
“A violin,” I said.
I left and got in the line to the Santa Justa lift, which connects the lower streets of Baixa, with the higher Carmo Square. Standing there, I saw his green Bedford truck leaving and it was all quiet on the street now. The lift was built in 1902, with fancy shapes of the places where columns attach to the horizontal structures. It has a platform on the top with the best around view of Lisbon, my opinion. This was the end of a beautiful day, end of the weekend too. Down on the Tagus river a couple of ships were anchored, waiting to moor at the port on Monday to get their cargo and then go back in the Atlantic.
Down in the narrow streets, in the shadows thrown by the setting sun, someone was playing violin.
“Just follow the river”, said the young Frenchman at the reception.
I was checking into a hotel in La Petite France, a historic quarter of Strasbourg, located at the western end of the Grande Ile, which contains the historical center. And as my motorcycle was cooling down after the fast run from Basel, I went to town for a late lunch. And the food was delicious, grated potatoes with bacon, ham and onions, all baked in a great smelling cheese which I topped up with a glass of local rose wine. By chance I sat on a patio near the famous Haderer House, a beautiful old building, and an army of Chinese tourists were in front of it with their cameras. The “click, click, click” was louder that the music from inside the restaurant. There is always something out of touch in the world.
Earlier that day I stopped for gas at the Autogrill station in the Basel area. That place is big, and its ends connect to either Zurich direction, or the way up north. The problem is that they both identical, down to the Erotic Megastores on both sides. And no, I don’t understand it either.
So, I emerged on the south side, and my bike was nowhere to be seen. I looked for it for some time with a slight panic and decided to call police, take taxi to the station and a train home. The lady at the kiosk had a very calming behavior: “going north or south?” she asked. “North”. “And this is the south side, go across the building and your bike will be there.” It seemed that she went through these types of discussions before.
She was right, and I saw that a bright orange Lamborghini Huracan had parked right next to my motorcycle. It is possible that the driver was looking for his car at the south end with even greater sense of panic.
Strasbourg is, of course, the seat of the European Parliament, located in a sprawling hemicycle where MEPs from all EU countries engage in improving the lives of commons. In 2017 they enacted 2093 legal acts in 25 plenary sessions.
Pumping out legislation with such a vigor is impressive by any standard.
You could argue that this detailed level of a law should be enacted closer to home, where it better reflects specific conditions, but this doesn’t seem to be a concern here. This is, however, one of the reasons why the EU is starting to crumble at the periphery. This is an interesting phenomenon – progress and innovation start at the center and spread out, the closing acts seem to come the other way.
It has already been a battle to save the Euro currency, and the European Central Bank hand-managed the markets for a while now (ECB is headquartered in Frankfurt, Germany, and that’s the real engine behind the experiment). The overriding reason for keeping the Euro alive is the fact that Germany is an exporting economy (47% of GDP was exported in 2017) and can’t afford currency risk in Europe. Also, the US dollar is strengthening and will continue to do so, in my view, so life is good for BMW et al. The problem is that the economy is a zero-sum game, so for any surplus there must be a matching deficit.
For now, any forms of resistance to the status-quo, especially in the South of Europe and labelled “populism”.
OK, enough about the EU, time to ride back.
Between Strasbourg and Basel, the land flattens out, even though you can always see mountains on the horizon. The road remains me of Muskoka, Ontario, just without the signs “slow down for snakes”, or “watch for turtles”. Plus, we don’t have these integration issues in Canada. We experience the opposite - the Donald just broke the NAFTA trade agreement to pieces and is harassing the Chinese with tariffs.
He is clearly going the other way.
It could be that the whole world is a zero-sum game.
I knew that this was going to be a strange week, because it started off weird. This happens when people, who are paid decent money for the sharpness of their brains, say something outrageous in a very public way. In graphic terms, this is like encountering a Burger King drive through when climbing rocks in the beautiful Yellowstone Park.
So, Dieter Zetsche, the boss of Mercedes-Benz was very clear and said this: “we’re going all in, it’s starting right now.” The venue was the worldwide premiere of Mercedes EQC in Stockholm, the first in series of battery-powered models.
The car joins the Porsche Taycan, Audi E-tron and Jaguar I-Pace in putting pressure on Tesla. The Audi E-tron will be launched later this month in San Francisco, Tesla’s backyard and the center of the tech community. Audi (as the entire VW concern) is developing electric cars with vigor, trying to shake the image tainted by the emission scandal. And right off the bat the Germans are ahead of Tesla’s technologically - BMW is already selling a car with wireless charging capability: the 530e hybrid has been available in Germany since May.
There is, however, one issue about electric mobility that is rarely mentioned – that the concept really consists of switching the emissions from trucks and cars to power plants. The perceived solution is to produce electricity by other means than fossil fuels, so-called alt energy. This will only happen on a mostly limited basis if at all.
Electric cars are not the solution, they’re a distraction from the real issue which is the fact that the world will, at some point, run out of cheap oil. This will put brakes on globalization – supply lines that stretch 10,000 miles will no longer be feasible and many business models will be exposed as flawed. A good example is Amazon – they do great damage to the big box retail industry, and I don’t feel sorry, but at the core of their model is the idea that every single purchase requires a truck or van trip to the buyer. This will be exposed for what it is, nonsense. And Amazon is not capable of making any money even with oil and gas being cheap – their posted profits are in the range of statistical error.
Life will become more local again, and somebody asked me the other day if this would bother me.
And I said this, quoting a great song again: “I got the house on the hills, I ain't got time for the bills, I got the girl of my dreams, I think she's finer then real, so no.”
From the Swiss perspective one can always tell that something worrisome is going on in the world when the franc is strengthening. It has exceeded analysts’ predictions so far this year.
The issue this time is that the contagion is global – the emerging markets crisis, EU bond markets and the US mad hunt to impeach Trump. The people who want him out so badly don’t seem to ask one simple question – who comes next? Americans will not accept another career politician like Obama or Clinton. Whoever replaces Trump will be perceived as a puppet of the establishment. This could become very ugly fast.
For the first time in recent history the capital has nowhere to go. Sure, Switzerland is a safe haven but the markets here are not deep enough, one needs US for that. I have the feeling that events are escalating, but maybe I am just thinking too much. I should stop and go back to staring at the sun.
They bloom from June to August. I was late in Provence this year, visiting the southeast area of France, just north of the French Riviera, the last weekend of August, just missing the beautiful violet fields. I stayed the night at the Hotel Le Panoramic, at the end of the Gorges du Verdon, one of the most scenic locations in Europe.
In the late afternoon I was sitting on the patio, enjoying the view and having a glass of local rose wine when another rider parked his motorcycle just down from mine, took off his helmet and asked, “you made it from Vaud in one day?”
“Yes”, I said, “and I am riding back tomorrow. I like things moving.”
He laughed and went to the bar to get his own drink.
And I probably learned this attitude from an old song that goes like this: ‘buy me a drink, sing me a song, take me as I am because I can’t stay long.’
Even this late in the year, the fields smell nicely as you ride trough them for miles and miles. It’s an all-lavender theme as you ride from the mountains into the south plains of France. The small, historic villages and towns are just a delight to see.
But one more thing, if you leave the hotel early on a Sunday morning, like I did, it’s a special kind of silence in the mountains, just me and the canyon, 700m deep. Small chunks of rock were lying on the curvy road, like they fell down during the night and needed some effort to avoid.
About halfway through the gorge I saw a small place to park and take pictures. There was a van there and two young people were getting their gear ready to climb the rocks.
I said, “Bonjour,” with my best French accent. The girl looked at me with a smile and said, “hi bro.” Nobody has ever greeted me this way, but it was nice to hear.
Later that day riding through the Alps towards Grenoble on a curvy two-way road, my motorcycle started flashing a warning light, that I am loosing pressure in my front tire. “Great,” I thought “middle of nowhere on a Sunday afternoon.” So I stopped, gave it some time, kicked the tires a few times, started again and the issue disappeared.
BMWs are pretty reliable, sensor glitches and all that, and the bikes actually saved the company from bankruptcy more then once, so they do something right. The machines are good to the core, and I am here to testify.
So this got me thinking about the BMW business, specifically that BMW is actually is the one company to take private, not Tesla. All it would take is maybe selling some non-core assets, suspend dividends payments for a bit and find some investors from the Middle East, since the Quandt family controls it anyway. In a striking contrast to Tesla, BMW is awash in cash. They also know how to make money on volume cars, as do the Detroit boys. It took them at least 50 years to master it and they are not incompetent. Worldwide supply chain with just in time delivery and assembly not in a tent in Fremont, California, but in controlled environment are not easy to match.
But I seriously doubt the Quandts will go for it, even though it would be fun to watch.
So, back to riding hard and keeping it real - I have this friend in Ontario, in the city of St. Catherine’s, opposite side of the lake from Toronto. We come from the same little town in Poland originally, but we only met in Canada. And he tells me to “watch out Tom, I had a friend like you, he loved bikes, even parked his Harley in the living room. Then a bunch of teenagers t-boned him and he is gone now.”
Sure, things happen, but you need to live it up, no? “Buy me a drink, sing me a song…”
Tom Kubiak is the author of The Traveler