FROM ANTWERP TO BOCA: RANDOM NOTES AT DAWN OF WAR
by Mark Scheinbaum
American Reporter Correspondent
Boca Raton, Fla.
BOCA RATON, Fla., March 24, 2003 -- I was in Paris the day Gulf War II broke out. Two days later I was back in Florida with a head full of notes. A few newspapers and Websites call me a business columnist. But I'll always be an old New York and New Jersey police reporter at heart.
As war images dominate all our waking hours, here are some items far behind the headlines garnered on a business trip to Europe. BRUGES, Belgium - A female clerk in a lace and linen shop, in her 20's, best articulated a frustration I had heard on both sides of the Atlantic. "It's not about whether we support the U.S. or France, it's just that my generation--and maybe most people--have lost any connection to political power. There might be reasons for war, maybe not. But, I feel so helpless. I feel that even when I see demonstrators, I will not influence any political decision." ANTWERP, Belgium - An art dealer who travels monthly to the Russian Federation, and has funded a foundation to preserve history and art in Russia, feels that stories about the "Russian mafia" and corruption are not the full investment or political story. "Listen, I go to Russia about once every three weeks. I have slowly made investments there, and I know the problems.
But I also see some vibrant, good, professional people, building solid new enterprises. These are not the criminals. I think the speculators have had their fling, and more conservative international investment houses are starting to take large, long-term positions, in a very modern, new, Russia." BRU.S.SELS - From Mercedes and new Volvo station wagons, to incredibly high prices even in a neighborhood brasserie, conspicuous consumption is, well, in your face. The city seems to take its self-appointed "Capital of Europe" name seriously, with the result a sort of mercenary shallowness. In contrast, Antwerp, 30 minutes to the north, takes pride in its Dutch influence and work ethic, and seems a fair balance of history and modern vibrancy. SECURIRTY - a drive to the North Sea ports east of Dunkirk, showed signs of frequent jet fighters patrolling harbor facilities. Security at the P&O Ferry depot to Hull, England was tight, but not overly so. The key North Sea harbor of Antwerp, bordering the Netherlands, in contrast, had heavy concrete barricades at many building and store entrances; limited truck and car access, and heavy police patrols on land and sea.
At Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris, security was tightest around the supersonic Concorde jetliner. However, ground crews around the plane were seen lounging, chatting, and congregating in clusters, and on taxiways security seemed much more relaxed than in the terminal building. LUXEMBOURG - Since World War II, the Grand Duchy of Luxenb(o)urg has evolved into a super global banking and finance center. With a picture postcard countryside of cathedrals and castles, a cosmopolitan population, the 30-by-80 mile country has more room to grow, than tiny tax havens such as Monaco or the Channel Islands.
Also, since the Duchy was liberated by the Allies (Gen. Patton) during World War II, its banking infrastructure had little of the Holocaust banking baggage of Switzerland. Schools, hospitals, public transportation, tolerance of visiting ethnic and national minorities, a large but not overpowering tourist industry, all make this the economic "sleeper" of Europe.
I was impressed by the southern industrial park zone, and new sports and cultural centers called "Utopia" featuring the Harlem Globetrotters, Olympic Swimming and Diving stadia, and multiplex cinemas. Americans were treated in terms of their interests and business needs. Unlike the French, personal politics were never raised, unless you started the conversation. Countryside villages such as Bour, Vianden, and LaRochette, are wonderful quiet conference or vacation spots. GERMAN-U.S. RELATIONS - As soon as I approached the Bitburg area of western Germany, I picked up Armed Forces Radio in my car. The good news was a comprehensive report on how volley ball tournaments, sporting events, and field trips for service families had been canceled because of the imminent war in Iraq.
The incredible, and shocking news, is that the Army sergeant who was reading the news, then went on to give Web site addresses, and precise information on where parents could pick up their kids early at nurseries, schools, gyms etc. that afternoon. Any prospective terrorist looking to target the families of U.S. military personnel at airfields in the area, only had to tune into local Armed Forces Radio and open their lap top computer.
REIMS, Champagne-Ardennes, France - The boycott of French wines by some Americans is shrugged off my some economists. Yet, the gourmet champagne shops, and wine stores which ship cases of discount vintage wines to U.S. and British tourists were virtually empty. Local business articles showed that wineries are getting seriously concerned. Looking at the prices (no, I didn't buy any, nor did I drink any), deep discounting has already started.
FRENCH HYPOCRISY - The night the war started, Jacques Chirac got on French tv and said that even if there are differences with his good friends the Americans, one thing is sure: France - for humanitarian reasons - wants to be included in the first wave of nations to rebuild Iraq after the war.
"Slim and none," was the opinion of John George, a South Florida businessman, with many European clients, when I asked him about the chance of Cirac's kind offer succeeding.
"They sold Iraq plenty of weapons, get most of their oil from Iraq, support their crimes, abstain or oppose destroying Saddam, and now want to make money on rebuilding the country? The Bush Administration will never allow this to happen," he said. The final hypocrisy came in the holding area for Air France's direct flights from Paris to Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and my flight to Miami. A few people briefly watched a tv tuned to news in a duty-free electronics store. All flights were sold out, mostly to French and other European citizens (I watched the passports going by). There was some head shaking about the terrible war.
Then the real discussions started. Booklets and maps came out, animated discussions started, and the real relationship between the French citizen and America became evident: condos they own in Naples and Fort Myers; apartments they own in Miami's trendy South Beach; family time share vacation at Orlando's Disney World, and a discussion of which colleges and graduate schools in the United States to visit their their children, who are prospective students.
Ah, America - the culture they love to hate.
Mark Scheinbaum is chief investment strategist for Kaplan & Co., BSE, NASD, SIPC.