The Ever Shrinking World (Part 3)

Posted: Dec 26, 2011 12:01 AM

There are three universal facts about dining in foreign countries today: First, no matter how small the town, there is at least one Chinese restaurant. Second, every menu that isn’t Chinese has a pasta dish on it. And third, you will always be served by someone from a country other than the one you’re in.

When we arrived in Inverness, a town of 56,000 that is the administrative center of the Scottish Highlands, we expected to hear people speaking with a Scottish brogue, much like Craig Ferguson of the Late, Late Show on CBS. And indeed, that’s exactly what we heard from the first three people we met – who, incidentally, hailed respectively from Poland, Hungary, and Germany. We were equally discombobulated when we traveled further north to see The Falls of Shin, where salmon are famous for jumping out of the cascading water. This obscure place featured wines from South Africa and New Zealand. We returned to Inverness and passed a Jamaica Jerk Chicken joint on the way to experiencing the Scottish national dish of Haggis. The international fare available in this remote, beautiful Gaelic countryside proves yet again that the world is shrinking ever faster.

But what also appears to be shrinking is the native Scottish population. In fact, the native Scots we met were mostly older folks; the young men and women were generally immigrants. This is typical of the demographic changes taking place throughout Europe, and causing a lot of the problems in places like Greece, Portugal, and Spain. The birthrates of these countries are far below the replacement level and there are just not enough young, working people to sustain the public retirement programs. Walk the city streets of Scotland and you observe these changes with your own eyes.

Talking with ordinary people makes you aware of other challenges facing Europe. We had dinner next to two gentlemen from Stockholm who had flown into Edinburgh for the weekend – you can do that in Europe. We started talking about Sweden, and they gave us some interesting perspectives on the dilemmas being faced in their native country.

These two Swedes were happy to have their own currency – the Krona – and not be subject to the gyrations of the Euro, although they admitted that the country was confronted by their own pension-related budget problems. I brought up the issue of their aging population, and the fact that their low birthrate was not producing enough young people to support the retirees. They expressed concern that the people who are filling those roles are principally Muslim immigrants who are not adapting to the Swedish culture. It certainly seems to be the challenge of the day in Europe.

London has become a United Nations of people, but one thing remains the same – the cabbies.

Our driver, Danny, told us how he had to study for five years to become a London cabbie. You have to know every street, every neighborhood, and every point of interest – no slackers allowed here. Wouldn’t it be nice to find a cab driver in New York who was trained like that? Heck, it would be nice find college graduates in the U.S. that are as well trained.

It’s fascinating to walk the streets of London and hear all the different languages being spoken. But one thing I still can’t accept is women walking in full burkas with face coverings. Disregarding the security issues, no one will ever convince me that this is not dehumanizing to women and is anything other than subjugation. It turns my stomach to see women treated like chattel, and I will never believe that they do it willingly. The French got something right for once when they prohibited burkas, and the U.S. shouldn’t allow them either.

One of the great joys of traveling is working with and talking to concierges. These men and women have devoted their lives to service at the highest level, and enjoy taking care of even your smallest needs. At our hotel, the concierge, Michael, lamented that it’s very hard to attract young people to the profession. They have to endure a long apprenticeship to earn the gold keys that signify acceptance into that respected order, and, unfortunately, few are willing to put forth the effort. And some say there are no jobs….

My wife wrangled tickets for a tour through Buckingham Palace – an indulgence that’s only available for two months every year, when the Queen is on holiday. It was a rather special tour because the wedding dress belonging to the Duchess of Cambridge (Kate) was on display. Unlike the White House, you can’t take any pictures inside the Queen’s digs (although my wife, ever the rebel, was able to sneak one of the dress.) You also have to pay a pretty penny to view the Queen’s fabulous art collection and walk through her enormous living area (no viewing of her private quarters), all of which can usually be seen only in a BBC documentary. My wife loved it, but the revolutionary in me thought: “Turn all this stuff over to the people and let them view the pilfered treasures for free!”

Thank God I was born a colonist. Have a Happy and Healthy New Year no matter on which continent you celebrate it.