The Fleecing of America, or Where Did All of Our Money Go?

Mike Lince:

Part 2 in a series of stories about getting reacquainted with living in the United States after three years abroad.

Originally posted on Applecore Too:

I believed the reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that the U.S. inflation rate has held at around 1-2% for the past five years. However, I noticed from our trip abroad to Sicily in 2012 that one U.S. dollar was worth about .80 Euros, and on our most recent trip through Europe in 2014 one dollar was worth about .72 Euros. That is a 10% loss of the purchase power of my dollars in two years. Something is not right.

Shortly after our return to the U.S., I had a conversation with a friend of mine who was trained as a financial advisor at Morgan-Stanley. I told him I noticed a discrepancy between what my dollars were worth and what our government was telling me about the inflation rate. I mentioned also that my wife and I both were experiencing severe sticker shock¹ at the price of basic…

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The Duping of America

Mike Lince:

I created a new blog, Applecore Too, where I will post stories about things other than my travel experiences. This is the first post on my new site. It is an opinion piece about the United States based on my perspective having traveled on four continents over the past three years. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Originally posted on Applecore Too:

Yes, America, we have been duped. Language is one way we are manipulated through mass media. Deep divisions between groups are often the result of stereotyping. We use words like weapons on one another to reinforce these stereotypes. The people on the left are labeled liberals, socialists, commies, takers, bleeding hearts, and libtards. When religion creeps into the conversation, a lefty is often called godless, atheist, and anti-Christ. People on the right are labeled nut jobs, homophobes, racist, greedy, mean-spirited, and enemies of the poor. Through the prism of religion, a righty is often called Bible thumper, faithfool, and Christard. There are also derogatory terms especially for Muslims and Jews. We have all read and heard them – towel head, raghead, Hebe, Yid, Kike.

Within the safety of our private internet world, we freely throw out verbal bombshells to retaliate or to provoke. Pick a topic – climate change, gun…

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The Day Mt. St. Helens Blew

Our view of Mt. Rainier from Chinook Pass Photo credit:  Wikimedia.org

Our view of Mt. Rainier from Chinook Pass
Photo credit: Wikimedia.org

Note: Inspired by memories of my younger days, this story is the second in a series looking back on my experiences growing up in Seattle.

It was May 18, 1980. I was standing on a snow-covered ridge south of Chinook Pass on a bright, sunny day with Mt. Rainier towering over the western skyline. Above us to the east stood Naches Peak, a 6,000 foot peak overlooking our snow camp. I was encamped with nine teenagers and one other adult – my friend Scott.

Scott and I were leaders of an Explorer Post in Seattle with nine teenagers including three girls. These were kids I had backpacked with a number of times. I had led backpack trips over previous summers with each of them as members of the group. They were all great kids, and like me, they loved the mountains. Now they were sixteen and old enough for their parents to entrust them to my care to teach them mountaineering.

Our practice slope for self-arrest practice near Naches Peak Photo credit:  EasyTrails.com

Our practice slope for self-arrest practice near Naches Peak
Photo credit: EasyTrails.com

Our snow camping and ice axe training was the final field trip before our planned graduation climb of Mt. Rainier. We had hiked in from Cayuse Pass the day before, and we were busy kicking steps in the steep snow after breakfast. Scott and I were supervising ice axe practice from our vantage point on the ridge above our campsite. I looked west to take in the fantastic view, and that is when I saw what appeared to be a massive storm cloud, and it was clearly moving in our direction. I even thought I saw a bolt of lightning. That was strange.

Ash cloud of Mt. St. Helens soon after the May 18, 1980 eruption. Photo credit:  Joan Magin

Ash cloud of Mt. St. Helens soon after the May 18, 1980 eruption.
Photo credit: Joan Magin

It was a sunny day and the weather report had been favorable. I looked at my altimeter which would indicate an increase in elevation with any drop in barometric pressure. It showed no change from the day before. This was too weird. Nothing in my experience would account for a sudden weather change without a corresponding change in air pressure. All I knew was what I could see, and that was a colossal storm headed directly for us.

In my experience, when something is happening that you do not understand, do something now and ask questions later. I yelled out to the group, ‘That’s it, we are done! Coil your ropes. Pack up. We are leaving NOW!’ These kids could hike! We boogied down the mountain and within an hour we were back at the parking lot. It was about 10:00 a.m. as we headed down the highway. Droplets began striking our windshield, but there was no water. These drops just blew off our windshield. I soon realized those droplets were volcanic ash when, thirty miles down the road, we finally had radio reception. That was when we first heard that Mt. St. Helens had erupted at 7:32 a.m. that morning. I breathed a quiet sigh of relief when I realized we had averted a major disaster.

Ash cloud looking north Photo credit: USGS

Ash cloud looking north obliterating Mt. Rainier in the background
Photo credit: USGS

By the time we arrived back in Seattle, the ash cloud from the eruption had turned day into night in the City of Yakima, and our camp had been directly in its path. I have no idea what happened to the day hikers who were out there when the ash started to fall. I only know how relieved the parents of my young climbers were when we called them from my house in Seattle to say we were all safely back in town.

A few weeks later, six of my young scouts reached the summit of Mt. Rainier. My reward was the satisfaction of seeing the elation on their faces. It was the 16th anniversary of my first climb of Mt. Rainier, and these kids achieved the same goal – reaching the summit of Mt. Rainier as a teenager. I could not have been happier for them.

I eventually lost track of these young people as they got on with their busy lives. Although we did not climb together again as a group, we will always have the experience we shared that day, the day Mt. St. Helens blew her top.

My Most and Least Favorite Things About Spain

Spain has been an interesting contrast with the other countries in which we have lived over the past three years. As we prepare to move on, it is natural to reflect on the high points and the low ones. Here are some thoughts about what I most enjoyed and least enjoyed about Spain.

#1 Least Favorite – Dog poop

I find it incredible that dog owners in towns all around Spain do not clean up after their poopy dogs. There are piles of dog crap on almost every sidewalk of every block of every town I have visited. The big cities like Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, Granada, and so on, are well-enough funded to have maintenance employees in the city centers who pick up pet poop along with garbage. Not so in the other areas of the towns. If the people of Spain had any idea how disgusting it is to tourists to have to dodge these piles, and how poorly it reflects on their country, they might do a better job of enforcing dog sanitation regulations. Thank goodness dogs are outlawed on the beaches!

#1 Most Favorite – The people

Our finest friends in Spain were the Brits, Mike and Ruth, on either side of me.  Joining us were their friends from England, Debbie and Hannah at the site of a Roman quarry in La Torre.

Our finest friends in Spain were the Brits, Mike and Ruth, on either side of me. Joining us were their friends from England, Debbie and Hannah at the site of a Roman quarry in La Torre.

We have made friends in every country we have visited, and Spain was no exception. It is always the memories of places and events shared with locals and fellow travelers that seem the most vivid. Even if we never see some of these friends again, we will never forget the kindnesses they have shared with us that made our time in Spain memorable.

#2 Least Favorite – The poor

There are poor people in every country, but that is no reason to forget about them. The poor economy hit Spain harder than most industrialized countries, and they have lagged behind the rest of the world in recovering. Personally, I think Spain has the resources it needs to take care of its people. Unfortunately, much of the revenues that flow into the economy seem to get siphoned off through corruption and unethical business practices.

When Spain recently announced Felipe VI as their new king, he proclaimed he would work to achieve greater equality and more opportunities for the unemployed and the needy. I hope he has the influence, the leadership and the integrity to bring about these benefits for his people.

#2 Most Favorite – The Food

The Central Market of Torrevieja, where I purchased dried figs and apricots.

The Central Market of Torrevieja, where I purchased dried figs and apricots.

I love fresh markets, and Spain is a fantastic place to find countless varieties of fruits, nuts, vegetables, olive oil and prepared foods to meet most people’s tastes. The land is fertile and productive. There is no reason for the people of Spain to ever go hungry. We also learned they make delicious chocolate in Spain!

#3 Least Favorite – Pickpockets

In the resort towns along the coast, there is little concern about personal safety and security. I have never felt unsafe walking alone or with my wife. And even though we were never directly approached in the big cities – Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Granada, Cordoba – we were always cautioned to be on the lookout for pickpockets. This was especially true in the bus and train stations whenever we were toting luggage. After having my wallet lifted in Rome, I have become more vigilant about watching out for thieves. They have become quite sophisticated in some instances. For example, I witnessed a well-dressed man in a fine suit carrying a clipboard and hanging around our hotel in Granada while the tour buses were unloading. When he saw that everyone remained standing next to their personal bags and he noticed my wife and I were watching him, he walked away.

#3 Most Favorite – The Weather

A typical sunny day at one of Torrevieja's many local parks.

A typical sunny day at one of Torrevieja’s many local parks.

Although the Costa Blanca has experienced its worst drought year on record and there have been dozens of brush fires in the surrounding countryside, it has been pleasant living on the coast just a few short blocks from the beach. The evening breezes coming of the Mediterranean Sea are cool and refreshing. In fact, we have seen rain here on the southern coast of Spain just a handful of times during our stay. We have been most fortunate weather-wise when we take into account that Madrid received over a foot accumulation of hail on July 3rd. The traffic on the freeways feeding this city of 3.2 million was brought to a standstill and the precipitation eroded the track of the high speed train from Alicante to Madrid. The Metro subway and the airport were flooded forcing delays and diversion of flights. I am grateful that we live on the Costa Blanca where it was 85°F and sunny.

There is something for everyone in Spain, and I am sure I will think of more things I could have added to this list after we leave.  Suffice it to say Spain should be on your list of countries to visit. Should you decide to go, I will be watching for your stories so that I might reminisce about our time in Spain. Buen viaje!

Thoughts and Recollections of Spain

In just a few short days we will be departing Spain, and I am reflection on our experiences here as we prepare to leave. Spain has impressed me in a number of ways – some good and some not so much. Many of these impressions will become my memories of Spain, and I share them here with you.

The Food

A typical delicatessen in Spain offers whole or cut cured hams and many varieties of cheese.

A typical delicatessen in Spain offers whole or cut cured hams and many varieties of cheese.

The selection of fresh fruits and vegetables and the varieties of market-fresh meats, cheeses and fish in Spain are remarkable. Prices can vary a lot compared to what I am used to seeing in the U.S. and the U.K. The most inexpensive fruit is oranges. The flatlands near where I live have orange groves that spread as far as the eye can see. Restaurants and sidewalk vendors offer fresh-squeezed orange juice almost everywhere in the country.

The most expensive food item is ham, which is a story in itself. There is cured ham you can buy at a deli counter (jamón cocida), and cured hams sold as an entire leg (jamón ibérico and jamón serrano). A ten pound leg can sell for $100 at the local meat store or run as high as $500/pound for the gourmet stuff. These hams look remarkably similar to prosciutto, but they are not the same.

One of Spain’s major contributions to world cuisine is paella, a pan of rice cooked with spices, vegetables, seafood, chicken or meat. It is a staple on many restaurant menus and a good choice for a large group. I like to think of paella as comfort food like how Americans eat macaroni and cheese or a bowl of chili.  It is not a gourmet dish, but it can be quite tasty.

I also have to mention tapas. Some have been quite good. Most have been mediocre. I think of tapas as better-than-average bar food – something to snack on with beer to take the place of preparing a regular dinner.

The People

We have made a number of friends during our time in Spain, and every one is from another country – Portugal, Colombia, Cuba and England. None are native Spaniards. Although I live in an all-Spanish, non-English speaking neighborhood, only one person ever smiled or greeted me with a simple ‘Buenos dias’. One good thing is that people give us space and do not impose themselves. Still, I have to wonder if the locals are just not all that friendly. Perhaps the beach towns have been so overrun with expats for so long that the locals are numb to outsiders. Since joining the EU, Spain has experienced the flood of northern European expats and seen the cost of real estate soar. Most of the coastal areas of Spain are now a string of resort towns. Tourism dictates the local economy, and our city of Torrevieja is no different.

The Country and its History

Elaborate exterior décor adds to the elegance of the architecture in Spain's fine cities.

Elaborate exterior décor adds to the elegance of the architecture in Spain’s fine cities.

Spain has played a central role in the history of civilization from the ancient Iberians to the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Moors, the Catholic monarchs, the global explorers, the conquistadors and the rise and fall of the Spanish Empire. Like other countries, Spain was built in layers, one on top of another.  Most of the architecture in the cities now reflects the elegance of 19th century facades with many fine parks, plazas and pedestrian walkways.

We have enjoyed the quirky grandeur of Anton Gaudí architecture in Barcelona, the mosque cathedral in Cordoba, the Gothic cathedral in Seville, and the classic beauty of the Royal Palace in Madrid. We have seen the Roman amphitheater in Cartagena, the Alhambra in Granada and the fertile countryside filled with vineyards, olive groves, almond orchards and fruit trees. There is a sense of grandeur in Spain that rivals any of the Old World countries, and their culture lives on through traditional music, dance, bullfighting, art and a modern-day monarch.

Statues of Christopher Columbus standing before Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in the gardens of the Alcazar of Cordoba, one of many monuments honoring the memory of Columbus.

Statues of Christopher Columbus standing before Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in the gardens of the Alcazar of Cordoba, one of many monuments honoring the memory of Columbus.

Even with Spain’s rich history of art, culture, architecture and empire, I am left with gaps in understanding the country. For example, there are statues, monuments and tributes to Christopher Columbus throughout Spain. Why is there so little history told about Magellan, Pizarro, Balboa, Cortez, et.al., and the roles they played in building the Spanish Empire? I started reading about these explorers and conquerors in elementary school. One must understand something of their exploits to appreciate the history of all of Latin America, the Caribbean and The Philippine Islands.

Where is the energy and drive that keeps a country’s economy vital and strong? While most of the industrialized world has more or less recovered from the economic depression of 2007-2011, Spain seems mired in record high levels of poverty and unemployment. Young people with college degrees are leaving Spain in record numbers to find work elsewhere, creating a brain drain that will take decades to restore. I have listened to stories of the work ethic of Spaniards who are more focused on clock-watching than productivity. Spaniards still prefer to take afternoon siestas, which made sense when people worked outdoors. However, what do employees who commute to work do for three hours when their place of work closes its doors every afternoon?

I have read and viewed so many news stories about corruption in government in Spain at every level that I sometimes wonder how the the country has managed to build their wind turbines, high speed trains and solar farms. Then I read that energy rates and train fares continue to rise to cover expenses while economies of scale would suggest that costs should be coming down. Where is all the money going?

I came to Spain with high expectations, and I enjoyed my time here.  I am a bit pessimistic about Spain’s future as I mull over these puzzling questions. Whatever happens with Spain, there is no denying its appeal. It is a beautiful country and we have taken in much of its beauty during our six months as you can see from this brief video Florence created. I hope you enjoy the imagery as much as we enjoyed experiencing it.  Hasta luego!

© All photos are copyrighted by Florence Lince.

News and Sports from a Global Perspective

The crown is transferred to Felipe VI of Spain on June 19, 2014.  His wife, Letizia and his two daughters stand before the Congress of Deputies for the ceremony. Photo credit: Reuters

The crown is transferred to Felipe VI of Spain on June 19, 2014. His wife, Letizia and his two daughters stand before the Congress of Deputies for the ceremony.
Photo credit: Reuters

While living abroad over the past three years we have witnessed several historic moments up close. When we were in Mexico in March, 2013, we experienced firsthand the collective elation of the Latin American world when the Argentine cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was named Pope Francis I. We were living in the United Kingdom in July, 2013, when Prince George was born, the newest heir to the British Throne.

Pope Francis visits the slums of Vargihna, Brazil in 2013. Photo credit:  Wikimedia.org

Pope Francis visits the slums of Vargihna, Brazil in 2013.
Photo credit: Wikimedia.org

Most recently, we watched the swearing in of Spain’s new king, Felipe VI. The event was a ceremony without a coronation or much fanfare, following the abdication of his father, King Juan Carlos, for reasons of poor health. Even though this was a low key event by royal standards, hundreds of thousands of Spaniards lined up along the parade route from the Congress of Deputies to the Royal Palace in downtown Madrid, where thousands more assembled below the palace’s central balcony to cheer their new king and his family.

Outside of the political arena, the top story in the world right now is the World Cup soccer tournament taking place in Brazil. It is fascinating to watch the hopes of sports fans from around the world rise and fall with the fortunes of their national teams. I wonder how many Americans know or care that the United States soccer team is still alive in the qualifying pool with Germany, Ghana and Portugal, and a victory in either of their next two games will advance the U.S. team to the win-or-go-home second round of the tournament.

Mexico's Andres Guardado is fouled by Brazil's Daniel Alves. Photo credit:  Sydney Morning Herald, Australia

Mexico’s Andres Guardado is fouled by Brazil’s Daniel Alves.
Photo credit: Sydney Morning Herald, Australia

Every café and bar across Spain turns on the live telecast of the soccer matches. Games start here five hours later than local time in Brazil and fans gather in the evenings at every watering hole for the excitement. Unfortunately, Spaniards have had little to cheer about. Although Spain was the top-rated team going into the World Cup, this week they suffered their second straight loss and they will soon be packing for the trip home. Highly-ranked England lost their second game as well (to Uruguay), and they, too, are headed home.

Although my expectations for the United States team are low, I will be excited if they advance in the tournament against the world’s elite teams, most notably Holland, Germany, Brazil and our next opponent, Portugal. And even though I am not a huge soccer fan, I find myself cheering for teams from my favorite countries that I have visited – Croatia, Chile, Uruguay and Mexico.

Soccer in the U.S. has never caught on like football, baseball or basketball. Even professional hockey draws three times more paid attendance per season than does soccer. I think one reason Americans find men’s professional soccer laughable is because so often following contact between players, the player with the ball collapses in a theatric display of pain and agony, which looks as phony as professional wrestling. It appears these feeble antics are displayed with the hope of drawing a penalty, and most American spectators would react like ‘What a wussie!’ The exception this week was Mexico. Their machismo was evident as they battled host-nation Brazil to a 0-0 tie. The Mexican players jumped up quickly from the turf so as to not give any satisfaction to their more physical opponents that the hits they absorbed had any effect.

The World Cup continues up to the finals on July 13, and I will be proud of the U.S. team no matter how they perform. Also, I will cheer for my favorite underdogs to hold their own against the world’s football powers. Unlike American football, superior strength and a strong running game is not the typical determining factor in a soccer match. Like Spain found out, being elite does not assure victory. Personally, I think Germany is the team to beat. Do you have a prediction?

Seville Before and After the Spanish Empire

The Gold Tower was built during Moorish rule in the early 13th century to guard access along the Guadalquivir River.  The tower's lime mortar gave off a golden glow in the evening sun which led to its name, the Torre del Oro.

The Gold Tower was built during Moorish rule in the early 13th century to guard access along the Guadalquivir River. The tower’s lime mortar gave off a golden glow in the evening sun which led to its name, the Torre del Oro.

Seville, an elegant city of over 700,000 people, rose to prominence as a working seaport on the Guadalquivir River.  It served as the launching point for the exploration voyages of Christopher Columbus.  Subsequent wealth that poured in from the New World making Seville one of the most important trade centers in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.  In addition, the wealth of treasures the conquistadors plundered from the Incas and Aztecs funded an expansion in Spanish military power greater than anything in human history up to that time.  That wealth is nowhere more evident than in Seville.

The bell tower of the Cathedral of Seville was originally a minaret for the mosque which once stood adjacent.  Over 340 feet high, the top is accessed by 36 ramps which allowed horsemen to ride to the top.  The Giralda is named for the weathervane at its top.

The bell tower of the Cathedral of Seville was originally a minaret for the mosque which once stood adjacent. Over 340 feet high, the top is accessed by 36 ramps which allowed horsemen to ride to the top. The Giralda is named for the weathervane at its top.

Seville from the Giralda Tower and the Alamilla Bridge's slanted white tower built for Seville's '92 World Expo.

Seville from the Giralda Tower and the Alamilla Bridge’s slanted white tower built for Seville’s ’92 World Expo.

Seville added to its prominence in the era of exploration with the global circumnavigation voyage of Ferdinand Magellan, which left from Seville in 1519.  The city monopolized trans-Atlantic trade with the discovery of the New World and opened a Golden Age of art, literature and music.  It was during this era that Cervantes wrote Don Quixote de La Mancha and the art works of Diego Velazquez and El Greco gained world recognition.  The influence of these and other Spanish artists has carried over through The Renaissance to modern times.

The vast scale Cathedral of Seville inspires awe.  It is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world in both area and volume.

The vast scale Cathedral of Seville inspires awe. It is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world in both area and volume.

Today, the architecture of Seville is a study in contrasts.  The Cathedral of Seville is the largest Gothic style cathedral in the world and third largest cathedral of any type.  The ultra-modern Parasol Metropol is the largest wooden structure in the world, and covers a subterranean archeological site.  On the ground level is fresh market where vendors’ stalls offer extensive choices of meats, seafood, fruits, vegetables and baked goods.  While it is not the largest of public markets, it offers a full range of purchase options.  It is also maintained to a level of pristine cleanliness that outshines any public market I have ever seen.

The Metropol Parasol is believed to be the largest wooden structure in the world - 490' x 230' and 85' high.  On the street level is the public market.

The Metropol Parasol is believed to be the largest wooden structure in the world – 490′ x 230′ and 85′ high. On the street level is the public market.

The public market is housed below the Parasol.  It sparkles with cleanliness and offers the full range of produce, meats and baked goods.

The public market is housed below the Parasol. It sparkles with cleanliness and offers the full range of produce, meats and baked goods.

Seville buzzes with vibrancy like any great university city with lots of young people surrounded by the bustle of commerce.  I found a rich mixture of modern and historic architecture.  There is no denying the artistic elegance of the city which proudly proclaims its class and style.

This vibrant city will resonate with me for a long time.  There is so much to see in Seville that I wish I would have had more time there.  Unfortunately, a single day was all we had.  That was most important thing I learned from our visit to Seville – to not try to fit in everything worth seeing into a single day.

This pavilion marks the entrance to the Park of Santa Maria Luisa, once the grounds of Seville's 1929 World's Fair.

This pavilion marks the entrance to the Park of Santa Maria Luisa, once the grounds of Seville’s 1929 World’s Fair.

© All photos copyrighted by Florence Ricchiazzi Lince