2011 involved quite a bit of overseas travel for us, some for pleasure and some for business…usually both.
Madrid was a wonderful experience for the art, the food, the architecture and the weather (very warm and sunny and very long days, with dusks that seemed to last well into the night…a nice congruence with the dining patterns of not beginning to go out for dinner until about 10PM). The city is handsome and the museums, especially the Prado, are among the finest in the world, not just for their spectacular collections but for the grace and ease of the buildings that house them. Don’t miss the Thyssen-Bournemissa.
|The Royal Palace, Madrid
The history is also fascinating, though Madrid is not an ancient city…a relative newcomer among Europe’s capitals. The impact is, I think, greatest on an American (North and South American, that is) since the real history of Madrid begins with the conquest of most of those two continents by a tiny number of Spaniards and their now well-known chief allies: guns, germs, and steel. The American empire’s gold and silver…and coffee, and cacao, and tobacco, and maise returning across the Atlantic made Spain hugely rich and caused it to rank first among European nations for nearly 400 years after Columbus sailed. The most impressive building in Madrid is the Royal Palace. High above its main entrance are two monumental statues, one of Moctezuma and the other of Atahualpa, acknowledging the source of the grandeur Madrid came to enjoy.
Today, the pace is relaxed (at least in August) and the spirit of grandeur seems to be replaced by a sense of a final moment of comfort on the eve of an unknown but probably unwelcome next chapter. Not exactly pessimism, but a resignation that not so good times are ahead…and that there’s not much to be done about it, but muddle through. In the midst of the August version of the European soveriegn debt crisis coming to a head, in one of the most significantly vulnerable locales, there was a puzzling non-chalance. It may have been that the Madrilenos were away for their August holiday and the tourists couldn’t really care…besides, the Pope was due to arrive soon for World Youth Day (week?) celebrations, so why worry about the economy when the food is so good and the weather is so nice? At the least, I’d say that you sensed no urgency to action.
In fairness, the Spanish have since then just elected a new government, committed to long term solutions to Spain’s fiscal problems and to reducing structural impediments to its long range economic success. I wish them very well in these efforts, for all of our sakes and especially for theirs. I’m eager to return.
Shanghai (July) and Hong Kong (October) were mostly business: speeches, interviews, meetings with fellow professionals, potential clients, and with government officials, awards presentations, a true blizzard of card exchanges. In both of these cities, the forward perspective and optimism were palpable. Things were so much better (bigger, more modern, taller, cleaner, more fun!) than they had been before and they were going to be even more so soon. Everyone had an idea for their own success and how that contributed to, or relied upon, the success of the country as a whole. In either event, the whole society had a common stake. In contrast to the non-chalance of Europe, China is on the make…especially the women. Women were disproportionately represented in every entrepreneurial venue we encountered.
A sense of confidence is everywhere. No challenge is too great, no accomplishment beyond reach…and what are we waiting for?…let’s get busy!
I give you just two examples: from workaday to the height (literally) of publicly visible luxury.
The Hong Kong subway goes everywhere (including under the harbor of course), is cheap, full of passengers at every hour, and was built in just a few years! Imagine the obstacles, time, and cost it would take to match it in the US? I’m not sure that we’d even try. The now tallest building in Hong Kong (that claim seems to change every year or so; the most impressive buildings in town when I made my first visit here in the early ’80′s are now in the shadow of newer neighbors) has at its top floors the Ritz Carlton Hotel and its dining room at the very top. The setting, materials, and super chic design are almost beyond description in their beauty and power to impress. It’s not at all the only public space designed to “blow you away” with it’s elegance…just, for now, the highest above sea level.
This is not to say that China has no serious problems to cope with. It does, naming just a few: rural poverty, bad age demographics, risks of asset bubbles, an eventually unsustainable central political control, and a delicate balancing of its economic power throughout the world, its cultural influence, and its potential military power in East Asia and the Pacific. However, the strong impression you get is that the Chinese are not afraid of these challenges and have great confidence in their ability to achieve results that are well beyond merely okay.