Thursday, July 30, 2009



It’s been a few weeks since my last post; we were on a long cruise in the Baltic Sea with limited, expensive internet access and I was uncomfortably out of touch with the news, so the Pontificator took a hiatus. The good (or bad, depending on the reader’s perspective) news is that I feel compelled to make up for lost time, so I have some reflections on our trip in this and the next (or last, depending on one’s perspective) post. All but one are confirmations of things I already knew, but experience brings these things, often lost in the nooks and crannies of memory, back to the forefront:

Point 1

Walking at a vigorous pace (a near trot, really; those of you who know me personally know exactly what I mean) is energizing. Walking slowly is enervating.

Point 2

You don’t learn much on a cruise because you don’t spend enough time in any one place and don’t have the opportunity (In some places, “opportunity” is a far too polite word.) to sleep in a local hotel and sample, or depend on, the local cuisine. However, given that there are five of us traveling, with all the packing and repacking that implies, and only one of us (yours truly, but the girls are coming along on this point) is an adventurous eater, the advantages of cruising (access to good food and a comfortable bed each night, great value for the money (We could never have stayed in comparable accommodations or eaten nearly as well as we did for anything like what we spent on the cruise.), terrific service, and a host of interesting traveling companions) outweigh the disadvantages.

Further, the educational value of traveling in general is vastly overrated. We were sojourning with many people who considered themselves experienced travelers, but no one seemed to know as much as I did about the places we visited. I found this interesting because I don’t like to travel (I travel because my wife likes to travel and I love my wife and strive to keep her happy. My favorite place to travel is home. If I have to travel, I would prefer a few days (but not a week) someplace in Wisconsin or Michigan tubing, eating, and relaxing by a lake.). I learned everything I know about our destinations from those objects of George Bush’s hearty and proud disdain, books, and I don’t pretend to be an expert on European, especially northern European, history. Yet I was not completely flabbergasted by, say, the extensiveness of the Scandinavian welfare states, as were most of the experienced travelers on the boat, and I knew something about the “Great Patriotic War” between Russia and Germany in the ‘40s. Perhaps if I traveled more, I would spend far more time shopping rather than wasting my time trying to learn a few things about the places I visit.

So most observations I make in this post have to be tempered by the limited nature of the cruising learning experience, but I doubt if I would have learned much more had we traveled on land.

Point 3

On any trip I take, I spend much of my time (Surprise!) observing what people drive. What I learned from such observations on this trip was the only observation in this post that was not a confirmation of what I already knew; in fact, I was completely surprised at the apparent car preferences of northern Europeans. Despite what we hear about “those tiny little cars” Europeans drive, it was hard to distinguish the cars I saw from those one would see in Chicago. A plurality, perhaps even a slight majority, of the cars I saw were in the subcompact class (Think Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa, though the model names were different in most cases.), but an almost equal number were in the compact class (Ford Focus, Mazda 3 (a LOT of Mazda 3s; the Europeans know a great car, apparently), Honda Civic, VW Golf (Rabbit in this country), Volvo S40, Toyota Corolla, Opel Astra, sold as the nearly identical Saturn Astra in this country). Further, mid-sized cars (Honda Accord (but a slightly smaller car; the European Accord is sold in this country as the outstanding Acura TSX), Toyota Camry, VW Passat, Volvo S60) were everywhere. Luxury marques (Mercedes, BMW, Volvo, Audi, and, newly, Lexus), were abundant and were identical to the models sold in this country, though, like many cars, with diesel engines. Even more surprisingly, I noticed a small, but not inconsiderable, number, of “pure American” cars: Chrysler minivans, Jeep Cherokees, PT Cruisers, Chrysler 300s (including 300 wagons that, not surprisingly, bear an amazing resemblance to the U.S. Dodge Magnum), even a Chrysler Sebring or two, which is especially surprising, given that the Sebring is quite ordinary. Cadillac SRXs were seen in nearly every port, as were Escalades. I even saw a few Chevy Malibus. I kept expecting the cars to get smaller as we moved farther east, but even in St. Petersburg and Talinn, these observations remained more or less consistent.

Another stark observation is the big move the Koreans have made into the European car market. Hyundais and Kias were everywhere, and I saw more billboards and ads for those two marques than for any other make of automobile.

So the northern Europeans aren’t driving econoboxes; they are driving essentially the same cars we are driving, albeit with more manual transmissions (Europeans know how to drive, apparently.) and diesel engines. What are missing are “everyman” large cars, like Chevy Impalas, Toyota Avalons, or Ford Tauri (The large cars that I noticed were luxury cars, like the Mercedes S-Class and the BMW 7 Series, though none of these is as large as a Caddy DTS or a Lincoln MKS.) and the huge numbers of SUVs and minivans found on American roads.

Also…while one sees plenty of Renaults, Peugeots, VWs, and Opels on northern European roads, I didn’t see many Fiats except for an occasional Punto or 500, both of which are very small cars.

So what are the conclusions?

First, as people get more prosperous, they tend to like larger cars. This is not a uniquely American trait. Perhaps the Obamacrats should ponder this before they pop off, ever confident about their superior knowledge of the mindset of the average person, a species as exotic to them as a zoo animal from some distant corner of the globe, about how the American car companies don’t build the cars people want to buy. Even with gas at the equivalent of $8.00 per gallon, people like some room and comfort in their cars.

Second, if there ever were a time for “world cars” (i.e., cars that can be sold with only slight modification almost anywhere in the world, or at least the developed world), it is now. World cars have been tried before but haven’t worked; perhaps the difficulty was only timing. As most of the readers of the Insightful Pontificator, and its predecessors, know, I have long felt that Ford was ahead of its Big 3 competitors in most every aspect of its business, and Alan Mulally’s push to internationalize their car line is yet another example of Ford’s fresh, though perhaps obvious to those outside the industry, thinking.

Third, Chrysler’s looking to Fiat for its salvation is an indication of the dire straits in which Chrysler finds itself. That having been said, I was amazed at the number of Chrysler products I saw in northern Europe. Mind you, the numbers were nothing like those of European marques, but were at least as large as any of the American marques, if one counts the ubiquitous Ford Focus as a European marque. (Bear in mind, however, that the outstanding European Focus, whose underpinnings are shared with the Mazda 3 and the Volvo S40, is coming to these shores as part of Mulally’s internationalization efforts. Toyota, Honda, and Nissan have reason to be nervous.)

Point 4

No one lives like Americans live, or, more precisely, the average person in our country lives far better than the average person anywhere else. (The very wealthy live well wherever they live, though it is no surprise that many of Europe’s (and Asia’s) very wealthy spend a lot of time on one of our coasts.) This is true even in the most advanced countries, like the UK, or in the Scandinavian welfare states that the international busybody groups repeatedly tell us have “the highest standard of living in the world.” Though life is pretty good in northern Europe (especially Norway, it seems), in terms of living space, food, access to automobiles, buying power, availability of a wide variety of cultural experiences, etc., no one is our equal.

This brings me back to the recurring theme, if there is a recurring theme, of the Insightful Pontificator. We have a great thing going here but it looks like, based on our nonchalance regarding our responsibilities as participants in our political system, our spendthrift ways, and our obsession with life’s more trivial aspects, we are on the verge of blowing it. If we don’t start paying attention, and saving money, we will have blown the abundant, unprecedented legacy our ancestors have left for us. And we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

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