Vox Populi, Vox Dei

7 05 2012

For the learning-impaired among you, the headline of this post is Latin, and means, “The voice of the people is the voice of god.” If this is true, then the deity in question is either bat-shit insane or mind-bogglingly stupid. Possibly both.

The voters have spoken in several countries recently, and the Voice of the People appears to belong to the village idiot. In Russia, voters inexplicably voted Vladimir Putin back into office, presumably because they were afraid he’d have them all dosed with polonium. Maybe it was the largely-unclad women waving his campaign signs that did the trick. Either way, the world’s only world leader with a legitimate claim to Bond-villain status is back. His flunkies are running off at the mouth with dire threats of “retribution” against the US and NATO if they don’t stop building missile defense systems. Putin is the last of the Cold War apparatchiks, and his minions seem to be trying to turn back the clock to the late 70’s and early 80’s, when people took Russian saber-rattling seriously. Like most such posturing, the bluster and chest-thumping coming from the upper echelons of the Russian power structure is largely for internal consumption. Putin’s primary voting demographic is the older folks who long for the security of the Soviet era. Bloefeld Putin needs to give the appearance of re-starting the Cold War to mollify these dotards while hoping desperately that no one with a modern military calls his bluff, since all he’s holding is a pair of threes.

Meanwhile, in darkest Europe, there are a couple of other elections with possibly deleterious results. The French government of President Sarkozy has fallen to a leftist party which is vowing to suspend its obligations under the Eurozone Bailout plan in favor of soaking the rich and expanding government services. Apparently Francois Hollande hasn’t been following the news from Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece over the past couple of years. There simply aren’t enough rich people in France to pay for the increasingly-aged French population. The Demographic Bomb has hit Europe hard, with declining native populations and a sub-culture of dissatisfied immigrants angry over being denied access to the European Dream (like the American Dream, but with strange accents and served with a baguette). While many of the northern European countries have been working on assimilating the immigrants into the economic system (but rarely into the political and social systems) in largely-successful attempts to minimize the damage, most of southern Europe- notably France, the second-largest economy in Europe- routinely treat second and third generation immigrants as foreigners. Instead of contributing to the economy, these disenfranchised and largely disillusioned youths are adding major strains to the already burdened social safety nets in southern Europe. Monsieur Hollande may in fact be aware of these facts, but his public statements show little sign of it. Adding to his political miseries is the fact that right-wing hard-liners are making political gains and forcing Hollande’s government to cater to the political preconceptions of their base demographic to avoid losing power.

Speaking of southern Europe, let us turn our eyes to Greece. After the last government was forced out by popular dissatisfaction over Eurozone-mandated austerity measures, the Greeks went to polls and voted in a conservative leader who vowed to re-negotiate the bail-out that is the only thing keeping their economy afloat. In an ominous turn of events, the Greek version of the Nazi party received more than double the votes they normally get. The “winner” of the election, Antonis Samaras, tried and failed to build a coalition government, so add long-term political instability and growing numbers of fascists to the lamentations of the Greeks. One would think that the Greek lesson in how to fuck up an economy would be useful to other southern European nations (looking at you, France) in trying to avoid the same mistakes, but the Voice of the People says otherwise.

Speaking of learning from others’ mistakes, we cross the Mediterranean to Egypt. Despite the “Arab Spring” and the resulting ouster of President-for-Life Mubarak, little has actually changed in Egypt. The military still holds all the aces- Hell, most of the face cards- and the voters are busy squabbling over the remains of the deck. Some talking heads in the US are wetting themselves over the fact that traditionally hard-line Islamist groups have largely taken over the new parliament. Non-muslims and non-majority muslim sects are more concerned with roving bands of extremists doing their best to eliminate anyone and anything which is even slightly different from their particular brand of Islam. They have reason to be concerned- even terrified. Political instability tends to allow troublemakers virtually free rein, which in turn contributes to more political instability. Unfortunately for Egypt, the fundamental causes of the original unrest against Mubarak are still present: A growing population with fewer jobs, political alienation, less money, and rising prices for staples fueled the Arab Spring, and those fires are still smoldering. It won’t take much for those embers to return to violent, furious life.

So what can we do about all of that? The best thing we can do is to keep our fat fingers out of it all. Despite our pretensions as a world power, the US cannot control events in every country on Earth- and it would be disastrous to try. If the Russians are happy with an ex-KGB thug as their President, that’s their choice. We’ll just have to deal with it (and not eat or drink anything at Russian State dinners). If the French want to recreate the Greek tragedy on a larger scale in their own country, we can only try to mitigate the worst effects of their economic immolation on our own economy. If the Greeks are willing to slit their own economic throats to spite their German creditors, our task should be to avoid getting splashed with the resulting splatter of appropriately red ink. If the Egyptians want to elect ultra-conservative theocrats to run their country into the ground at Warp 5, all we should be doing is quietly and quickly getting out of their way. Their country, their rules- and their problem. The best we could possibly achieve by trying to meddle in the internal problems of other countries would be to provide those countries with an external enemy upon which they could focus their anger. Aside from the problems this would cause us, it would also help prevent the people and governments in those countries from trying to fix their problems. Blaming an external boogeyman is so much more satisfying than admitting responsibility for your problems, but tends to delay or derail any attempt to deal with those problems rationally.

Make no mistake, the net result of the elections I’ve listed here is very likely to be a global economic headache. Greece dropping out of the Euro and defaulting on its debt has a fair chance of dragging several other Eurozone countries down the oubliette with them- most importantly and especially France. The shockwaves from that implosion may create a meltdown which would make the recent recession seem like the height of affluence by comparison. In my opinion, we have little or no possibility of changing the eventual outcome, so our best course of action would be to prepare ourselves for the aftereffects and try to avoid falling into the same traps. Such economic disasters have been known to cause wars. War, for those who haven’t been paying attention to history, is probably the worst possible way of getting out of a global depression. The last time humanity tried it, we ended up with most of Europe reduced to rubble, nuclear weapons dropped on Japanese cities, and better than 60 million people killed. Even if this was a guaranteed way to climb out of a global depression, I don’t think it will be worth it- especially since the devastated continent in the next war might be North America.

Current status: Concerned

Current music: Safety Dance by Men Without Hats


22 08 2011

The sacrifices of the last six months are finally coming to fruition for the anti-government forces in Libya. Using a fairly clever maneuver, the rebels surged into Tripoli from the sea and the west, and joined with their fellow anti-government fighters already within the city. Savage fighting ensued as the poorly-disciplined rebels closed with the better trained and better equipped government forces in Tripoli. Many of Qaddafi’s troops have either surrendered or merely slipped away into the city, but the “Brother Leader” still has a significant cadre of troops armed with heavy weapons throughout the city, and combat in urban areas is the most unpredictable and bloody form an already-unpredictable and bloody enterprise can take.

The National Transitional Council (NTC) in Benghazi have been cautioning their people that the war is not yet over, and the NTC leadership seems to be aware of the fact that digging Qaddafi out of his fortresses in Tripoli will most likely be a matter of weeks, but the people in the NTC-held regions are rejoicing anyway. After a long series of lightning attacks followed by undignified routs, the people of Libya are eager to get down to the business of re-building their country- which will probably be much harder than wresting it away from their despot has been.

Amid all the celebrations- in Libya and elsewhere- a truly ugly dialogue has sprung up in the US. Instead of celebrating the courage, dedication, and sacrifices by the people of Libya, a large number of people in this country have been jockeying for position to take “credit” for a victory which does not yet exist. This shameful activity can be easily found on the bread-and-circuses crap which pretends to be the mainstream media in the US, but is most evident in online forums and chat rooms. People from both sides of the American political divide are eagerly claiming this not-yet-existent victory for their favorite political party. To all of these arrogant shitbags, I have only one thing to say:


The people of Libya have stood up to be counted and pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to overthrow a tyrant. Far too many Libyans have died in their attempt to make Libya free, and many more will doubtless make the ultimate sacrifice before they achieve this noble goal. At the start of the uprising, those who demonstrated against Qaddafi literally risked their lives to speak out, but they did so anyway- by the thousands. Even Qaddafi turning anti-aircraft guns on the protesters in the streets of Benghazi and Tripoli didn’t stop the people of Libya from speaking out against him. The sort of courage and dedication the people of Libya demonstrated in the face of torture and death deserves better than a bunch of lard-assed Americans claiming that the “victory” was the result of any particular political philosophy on another continent. While Libyans were dying in the streets, Americans were getting distracted by such ephemera as the football strike/lockout. Unless you travelled to Libya and put your one-and-only tender skin in harms’ way, all of you democratic and republican partisan hacks need to shut the fuck up.

Not quite as loathsome, but still repellent, are the talking heads on some “news” channels whose only interest in the Libyan uprising are what it will do to the price of oil. Here’s a clue chit for those creatures- what is happening in Libya is more important than oil. It’s more important than the state of the Dow. It’s more important than any quarterly earnings statement ever written. The Libyan uprising is a truly popular rebellion against a ruthless dictator, just as were the earlier uprisings against Arab strongmen in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen. The political repercussions of this “Arab Spring” are already being felt throughout the lands of Islam, where other rulers are growing worried about their previously-quiescent people. Despots like Assad in Syria, the ruthless Imams in Tehran, and the House of Saud are finally forced to face up to the fact that keeping their people poor and ignorant no longer works in an era where any teenager with a smart phone can outwit government censors with impunity.

There are those in the US and Europe who are wary of this “Arab Spring”, fearful that the newly self-liberated lands will become havens for Islamic extremism. Too fucking bad. The people in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya have chosen to write their own futures, and this is as it should be. Their countries. Their rules. Their decisions. In lieu of poking our noses into the internal affairs of other nations, why can’t we- as a culture- just try to deal with each country on its own terms? If the people of Tunisia want to elect an Islamist government, that is their choice. If the NTC in Libya abruptly decides they don’t want to sell oil to kaffir anymore, too bad. It’s their oil. If the Yemenis decide to grow closer with China or Iran, that’s their business. If we in the west want to do business with the new governments across North Africa and the Middle East, we need to accept that we must do so on their terms. Trying to manipulate or dictate policy to these new nations will be merely repeating the mistakes of the past. Let’s try learning from those mistakes.

For a change.

Current status: Disgusted

Current music: Time of Your Life by Green Day

In The Company Of Heroes

16 02 2011

I realize the American fetish for quickly moving on to the Next Big Spectacle has largely washed the events of the last few weeks out of our collective memories, but there are some heroes of the revolution in Egypt who have gone largely unsung (in the US media, at least).

Let us cast our minds back to January 30th. The protests were still ramping up in intensity, and the Egyptian Army had already moved into Cairo and surrounded Tahrir Square. Despite the efforts of Mubarak’s goon squads, the protesters had refrained from erupting into mass violence. During those tense hours when security forces in disguise were attacking the protesters with rocks, molotov cocktails, and occasional sniper fire, Mubarak ordered the Army to open fire on the protesters.

I have mentioned before that the Egyptian Army is largely composed of conscripts, and also that the Army is widely seen as a way out of the poverty which is the normal lot of most Egyptians. Due in part to the close working relationship with the US military, Egypt’s military is considered to be a generally professional force- even by western standards. The Egyptian military is very highly regarded by most of the citizens. When the Army first arrived at the Square, the protesters welcomed them warmly with cheers and patriotic songs, and the soldiers were visibly sympathetic to the protesters.

When the order came, some of the soldiers dropped their rifles and joined the protesters. The others looked to their officers and unit leaders for guidance. The unit leaders and tank commanders- generally the sons and grandsons of former soldiers- pulled out their cell phones and called their ex-military parents and grandparents and asked, “What should I do?” Unknown to most of the world at the time, History held its breath. Would Tahrir Square become another Tiananmen?

From the earlier generations of Egyptian soldiers came the reply. You should not fire upon your fellow Egyptians. Disobey this order. As we now know, the Army listened, and chose to refuse to massacre their countrymen.

There are those who, from the comfort and safety of their homes in the US, claim that the military refused the order out of concern for their extensive commercial interests within Egypt’s economy. Egypt’s military does have wide-ranging commercial enterprises throughout the economy, and this may have been a factor in the larger decision on whether or not to open fire on their own people. This does not take away from the very real and very personal risks those men took by telling their President, “Sir! No sir!” Disobeying such an order took enormous amounts of courage, for President Mubarak would have dealt very harshly with the Army had he retained his position. The Army leadership decided that the President had issued an illegal order, and they would refuse to carry it out. Under similar conditions in China and Iran, the troops turned on their own citizens. To their everlasting credit, the Egyptian military proved that they really are a professional force and refused to emulate the butchers of Tehran and Beijing.

Despite my philosophical distrust of military rule, Egypt’s military has shown that they are the guarantors of liberty for their countrymen. Perhaps the military will come to be a stabilizing force such as the Turkish military, or they may turn into another military government such as Myanmar (Burma). What the future may bring is always in doubt, but there are some unshakable truths which offer some hope that the future may not necessarily be too terrible: The people of Egypt are better off today than they were on January 25th, and the soldiers of Egypt’s Third Army proved to be far, far better men than their recently-deposed President.

Current status: Hopeful

Current music: Such Great Heights by The Postal Service

Chickens, Home to Roost

3 02 2011

Looks like the Revolution will be televised this time- despite the efforts of Egyptian police and security forces, who are doing their best to muzzle anything resembling a free press both inside and outside of Egypt. Journalists and reporters have been beaten and arrested whenever they are found.

Even in the face of this media crackdown, Al Jazeera has been doing excellent reporting from inside Egypt- especially from the chaos in and around Tahrir Square in Cairo. MSNBC has been carrying excellent video from Cairo and Alexandria, and Reuters and the BBC have been doing yeoman’s work getting the word out to the rest of the world in defiance of Mubarak’s attempts to shut down anything even loosely related to the truth.

For those who have been living in a cave for the past couple of weeks, the people of Egypt, inspired by the so-far-successful revolt in Tunisia, have been protesting against Egypt’s de-facto President-For-Life, Hosni Mubarak. After more than a week of ever-larger protests throughout the country, Mubarak went on Egyptian TV and vowed to not run for re-election in the upcoming September elections, and asked the protesters to stop protesting. The protesters thought about it for about 30 seconds and decided that wasn’t good enough. They want Mubarak out immediately, if not sooner.

Mubarak is now in a tough spot. If he orders the Army to crush the protests, there’s a very real chance they’ll tell him to pound sand. So far, the Army has shown a lot of sympathy for the protesters, and the protesters share the average Egyptian’s reverence for their professional military. Worse still, most of the Egyptian military officers have deep ties to the US military. Many of their officers are graduates from US military academies, for example, and US troops routinely practice desert warfare with Egyptian troops in Egypt. Furthermore, most of Egypt’s military budget is based on the more than one billion dollar military aid provided by the US, and Congress has been not-so-silently warning Mubarak that using equipment purchased with US money against the protesters will cut off the money tap.

What to do? What to do? Mubarak took a lesson from the Green Revolution in Iran and brought in a bunch of thugs to attack the protesters. Mobs of supposedly pro-Mubarak protesters gathered in Cairo and assaulted the anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square. Unfortunately for Mubarak, he didn’t have enough secret police to dress in civilian clothes and send into the streets on his behalf, so he was forced to hire a bunch of regular Egyptians to augment the disguised police. Several hundred “Mubarak supporters” piled into Tahrir Square with whips, clubs, fists, and Molotov cocktails … and found themselves facing several thousand very angry anti-Mubarak protesters.

Oddly enough, when the anti-government protesters captured some of these “Mubarak supporters”, they found Police ID cards on them. Despite the violence, the anti-government protesters refrained from tearing the now-revealed police limb from limb and just turned them over to the Army around the Square. The Army, for its part, did try to keep the two groups separated, but were sort of hampered by their desire to avoid taking sides. The troops around the Square did act forcefully whenever one of the “Mubarak supporters” started using firearms, but not quickly enough to prevent a half-dozen deaths and hundreds of injuries among the anti-government protesters.

The protesters improvised barricades and shields and weapons from what they had on hand, and drove the “Mubarak supporters” out of the Square. Injured protesters were carried to improvised aid stations and clinics set up inside the Square and in some of the buildings nearby. Doctors from the area joined in helping patch up the wounded, and protesters have been amassing medical supplies, food, water, and shelters to keep up the fight.

Mubarak really stepped on his dick with this move. All this little stunt has done was harden the protesters’ attitudes toward the regime. The deaths and violence have demonstrated to the whole world that Mubarak has no intention of giving up his rule, and he’s willing to spill the blood of his own people to stay in power against their will.

I have already stated my dislike for the US government’s habit of cozying up to ruthless murderers and despots in the interests of “stability” or in support of international political interests (however defined). Let me amplify that opinion a bit: The US government should pull its collective head out of its ass and call for Mubarak to resign. Immediately. The US government and military should apply pressure on the Egyptian military to force Mubarak out of the country and hold immediate elections. I submit that allowing the people of Egypt choose their own destinies is better than continuing to support a brutal dictator. If the Egyptians vote in a bunch of radical Islamists to run their country, that is their fucking business, and interfering in their right to choose their own government is absolutely in violation of the principles this country supposedly supports. Half-hearted calls for both sides to play nice aren’t going to cut it. If America really stands for liberty and self-determination, then we need to let Egypt choose its own destiny- whether or not we agree with their choice.

Here are some excellent sources of information and opinion on the situation in Egypt:

Pictures of the clashes in Tahrir Square

An article from the Washington Post

Excellent article from the Guardian UK

Democracy in the Arab World from the Economist

Mubarak holds Egypt hostage from Foreign Policy.com

Remember the Green Revolution in Iran from a while back? I mentioned it above, and said that Mubarak seemed to be trying to copy Iran’s moves in dealing with the crisis. Here is what the protesters have to look forward to if they lose: while the rest of the world has been fixated on Egypt, Iran has been quietly executing scores of people who were arrested during the unrest after the elections. Mubarak has already demonstrated his willingness to shed other peoples’ blood to keep Egypt in his grip. If he succeeds in crushing the protesters, the survivors will likely envy the dead. If for no other reason, that is why Mubarak must not be allowed to remain in power.

So, what can we, the People, do about it? Write and email and call your Congresscritters. Now is not the time for stupid partisan hackery. Now is the time for the US to speak out in favor of the right to self-determination. Tell your Representatives and Senators and the White House to cease their bickering long enough to take care of something really important: the possible birth in blood and fire of a new Egypt.


Current status: Hopeful

Current music: Cold Wind to Valhalla by Jethro Tull

Blood and Ballots

30 01 2011


I’ve been a bit overwhelmed by the news out of North Africa the past couple of weeks. Tunisians deposed their government using largely massive street protests. The despot ruling the country, Zine el Abidine ben Ali, chose to take the money and run in lieu of using the Tunisian military to crush the protests. Best of all, getting rid of the President-for-Life did not involve foreign invasion- especially by the US.

The US government has been extremely cozy with Tunisia’s dictator for a long time, providing him with international legitimacy in exchange for Tunisia’s strategic position. As a result, the US government was pretty slow to catch on to the fact that Abidine ben Ali was on his last legs, politically. Once this fact became glaringly obvious to everyone on the planet, the Administration was slow to react, and still haven’t come up with a policy for the new reality on the ground in Tunisia.

That brings me to Egypt. The US has been providing Egypt’s President-for-Life, Hosni Mubarak, international legitimacy and billions of dollars in military and economic aid for the last thirty years. In a stereotypical Arab strongman manner, Mubarak completely failed to use this loot to improve the lot of the average Egyptian. Instead, he built up his military and security forces, and made sure a lot of that money went into his pockets and trickled down to a few of his cronies. There’s an old joke that applies, here:

“Mr. President, I’ve noticed that you’re spending billions on the Army, but nothing to alleviate the suffering of the poor.”

“This is so. When the Revolution comes, I want to be ready.”

Based on the scenes from the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, Mubarak lost his bet. Most of Egypt’s troops are conscripts drawn from the very people Mubarak’s government would have them put down. Far too many of them have been seen joining the protesters. Worse (from Mubarak’s point of view), the US government has loudly warned Egypt to avoid using a military bought and paid for by the United States against those protesters.

Other than that, the US government has been characteristically slow to respond to the protests, even as the rest of the world watched in awe. The American response to a (literally) world-changing event can be reduced to the following: “Play nice.” High-order platitudes and vague calls for restraint aren’t going to cut it. US Middle-East policy is being changed on the streets of Egypt by ordinary Egyptians- both the military and the protesters.

Let us take a look at those protesters. Middle-class Egyptians are joining beggars, students, and off-duty military personnel in protesting against Mubarak’s rule. There have been well-documented cases of protesters providing first aid to the security forces who have been injured, and they also joined together to protect the National Museum of Antiquities in Cairo from looters until the Army could arrive to provide security. For those who weren’t following the news from Egypt until the protests started, a large number of Muslim Egyptians did the same thing for Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority when the Copts were attacked by radicals. Muslims formed human chains to protect the Copts from violence in a show of rationalism and tolerance rarely seen anywhere, let alone in what the US refers to as the Middle East. When interviewed by western media outlets, most of those protecting their Coptic neighbors said some variation of the same ideal: “We are all Egyptians. They are our brothers.”

There are a large number of people in this country who could learn from those Egyptian Muslims.

Leaving aside geopolitical strategy (which the US government is historically incapable of managing adeptly in any case), we should be siding with the protesters. Those people marching in the streets of Egypt’s cities want nothing more or less than something we Americans take for granted: a say in running their own country. Mubarak and his cronies have grown rich and completely disconnected from the realities of life in Egypt, and the US government has encouraged him to do so. I, for one, am very tired of my government propping up dictators, despots, and presidents-for-life in the name of global strategy. The people of Egypt deserve the chance to make their own future- whether or not that future meets the approval of the US government.

I say we- as a nation- would be better served by dealing with the people who protected their christian countrymen from violent fellow Muslims than with a self-serving thug who enriches himself at the expense of his people and his country.

Current status: Amazed

Current music: I Write Sins, Not Tragedies by Panic! At the Disco


3 10 2010

Thanks to the US military, I’ve spent about 20% of my life overseas. I have generally enjoyed these sojourns away from the US. Among other benefits, extended travel away from home makes one appreciate home that much more.This is not to say that America is the greatest place on Earth (although I’d rather live here than anywhere else I’ve been), but rather that the experience of travel helps one appreciate what one has grown accustomed to- and taken for granted.

That said, there are some truly amazing places I’ve visited. The sixty-odd cities I’ve visited in twenty countries all have their ups and downs, but some are almost entirely up. Haifa, Israel is one such city. The Israelis I met were all very friendly, and the food was remarkably good. One of my friends said that Haifa was his version of Heaven on Earth. He said it had everything: beautiful women who speak English, like Americans, and carry guns. I have to admit the IDF bar we discovered and spent a considerable amount of time in lent a great deal of weight to this opinion. On the other hand, Haifa wasn’t at the top of my personal list. That honor goes to Antalya, Turkey.

I like Turkey. The Turks are generally quite friendly, very polite, and the merchants take “No” for an answer. The food is awesome (Doner Kebap), the women are breathtakingly beautiful, and I love to bargain. Antalya has all of this in spades. Every region in Turkey has their own version of Doner, and I find that I like the Doner in Antalya best. I also like the fact that a trip with my friends through the Old City was not nearly as harrowing as similar trips through Arab cities. We found a delightful bar in the Old City which was quite small by Western standards- basically the size of the living room in a modest house in the US. The customers all sat around a single low table to eat and drink. Later in the evening, some of the locals dropped by and played live music. Altogether a wonderful experience.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Alexandria, Egypt. The city is unbelievably filthy, and the whole area reeks from the raw sewage the locals dump into the river and sea. My first visit, a man came up to me with his 10-12 year old daughter in tow, and tried to sell her to me. I had to threaten him with violence to make him go away and leave me alone. Walking in the city is taking your life in your hands- if the traffic doesn’t kill you, some of the buildings might drop large chunks of their structure on your head. On the other hand, you can get anything in Alexandria for a price.

A word about currency. I have a lot of coin and paper money from the countries I’ve visited, most of which is worth less than the paper it’s printed on. Despite the fact that every country officially mandates using their own currency, the dollar is welcome everywhere. This is important to remember, since the currency you buy on the first day of your visit will probably be worth considerably less the day you leave. Worse still, some foreign currency has literally no value outside the country. Israeli Shekels and Egyptian Pounds are two of these. Even currency which supposedly has real value outside the country probably won’t be worth what you paid for it. The official exchange rates bear no relation to any putative value these currencies have. Carry dollars or Euros for most such countries.

When I lived in Italy, for example, we would play the Exchange Rate Game. This was before the creation of the Euro, so Italy was still using the Lira. The exchange rate fluctuated from week to week- and sometimes from day to day. When the dollar was up against the Lira, we would buy lots of Lira. When the dollar was down, we didn’t buy Lira. Managing your purchases according to the international exchange rates on such a small scale is unlikely to let you score big gains, but you can live quite comfortably on the local economy by paying attention to the rates.

Travel is said to broaden the mind. My personal experience bears this out, but this is not necessarily a universal result. I made a point of trying to learn a little bit about the countries I visited and did my best to learn a little of local languages, too. Even in France, making an attempt to speak their language helps when dealing with the locals (except in Paris). In my experience, most people will forgive your atrocious accent and wince-producing grammar as long as you make the attempt. Far too many Americans act as though everyone on Earth should speak English, and if you shout English at the locals, you can be understood. In some places, a large percentage of the population may, in fact, speak English (often better than the Americans), but yelling at them defeats the purpose. For really basic utility, you need to be able to speak the following ten words or phrases in whatever local language is applicable: Hello, Goodbye, Please, Thank you, Yes, No, Where is, How much, Beer, and Toilet. If you plan on staying in a foreign city for any appreciable length of time, you’ll need to go far beyond these basic words/phrases. Here’s a hint: find someone who speaks the local language and English, and ask them for help in learning basic words and grammar. Practice your pronunciation. It isn;t easy, but it pays real dividends.

Another hint for Americans abroad- haggle. Many countries prize haggling as an art form. Most of North Africa and the Middle East have this custom, and it’s worthwhile to learn. In Turkey, for example, the merchant will invite you in to the office and bring in sweets and coffee (or tea). You can spend considerable time working your way to a mutually agreeable price, and it’s actually a lot of fun. This sort of social interaction will improve your standing with the local merchants (at least a little bit), and can often save you a surprising amount of money. By the way, whatever gimmick you think you’ve come up with to help you with your haggling, the merchant has almost certainly seen it before. As long as you are aware of this, and play the game with good humor, you can enjoy the experience.

That, in my mind, is the best thing about travel: enjoying the differences between people. If you insist on behaving as if your local customs are the Laws of Nature, you won’t enjoy your trip. Worse, you’ll piss off the locals. Visiting another country is like visiting someone’s home. Act like you would if you were a guest in someone’s house. Even if you don’t agree with your host’s customs, at least respect them. You will definitely enjoy your stay a lot more, and you might even learn something. It seems to me that Americans in general could stand to learn a lot more about the rest of the world.

Current status: Meh

Current music: Peg by Steely Dan