Sunday, January 17, 2016

Appropriately modest desires

On Friday we arrived in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, where will be through early afternoon Wednesday.

That first evening we ate at a restaurant that serves really traditional Moldovan food, with musicians playing in the background (a mix of traditional tunes plus Hollywood or other familiar music repackaged in a more Balkan style). We were joined by students from the local university who shared their experiences and impressions.

Yesterday we had an outing to the countryside north of the capital, Chisinau. Our first stop was at Brăneşti winery, located in a limestone area with lots of tunnels carved into the earth.

The owner meets us at the gate
The proprietor told us that in a radius of 8 km, there are 1,000 km of tunnels. Some of the limestone pulled out in the tunneling process is used as a construction material.

Gouges in the wall from the tunneling machinery
Apparently there are foreigners - such as the former Chinese ambassador to Moldova - who rent space in the tunnels to cellar their wine.

Don't lean back: that's some sort of mold on the walls (and on the chandeliers), and it'll get on your clothes:

From the winery we went to a monastery carved into a rock outcropping nestled in the bend of a river (see the location marked "Monastirea Orheiul Vechi" on this map).
The view from the icy ledge outside the monk's cell.
Noticing good-luck coins wedged into crevices in the limestone
Atop the outcrop there's a stone cross with an ornamental figure in the center. The local custom is that if you make a wish while resting your hand on that figure, your wish will come true.
The wishing cross
After visiting the monastery and the cross and the church at the top of the ridge, we negotiated our way back down the icy hillside to the village at the bottom where we had another traditional Moldovan meal, this one in an "eco" restaurant where the family grows or raises many of the ingredients themselves. It was in a fixed-up traditional house, with the staff in sheep-skin vests and a kitty up in the rafters that later came down to walk among the legs of our chairs.

The students have been great about willingness to go with whatever's thrown their way, in terms of both experiences and food, sampling unfamiliar things and even liking several of them. But we thought it might be a good idea to give them a break from the cultural novelty and go for dinner at a pizza place that had been recommended to us.

"Yes!" said one of the students. "That's what I wished for at the cross! Pizza!"

I guess if you're going to go making wishes, there's something to be said for keeping it realistic. You're less likely to be disappointed asking for comfort food than pinning your hopes on, say, winning a Grammy.

On the other hand, you have to wonder if the cross wasn't a little put out by the whole thing. "Really? Pizza? People climb this icy slope to ask me to cure their crippled limbs or to make their child healthy, and you want pizza? OK, whatever - here's your pizza."

Still, keep it practical, and you just might get your wish.

FOX News Chisinau

The restaurant here at Chisinau Hotel in the capital of Moldova has a remarkable service, FOX News Live.

It takes the form of an American guest, aged about 60, from Colorado.

He and I were the only guests in the restaurant at breakfast this morning - I was just finishing mine, he had ordered his.

He got on his phone and I heard him ask the other party if they had laundry soap. We're looking for where to wash some clothes, so I thought I'd ask if he knew about a laundromat.

When his food came, I wished him bon appetit, and we exchanged pleasantries - where are you from, etc. Hearing I was from New York, he talked about growing up on Long Island, he couldn't remember if it was Valley Stream, or maybe it was Kew Gardens, and driving up to Canada.

"In those days all you needed was a driver's license, we didn't have all these problems."

And he was off:

We have a real lack of leadership (though he said the last two administrations).

Things went off the rails in the second Clinton administration, and from there a long disquisition on Lewinsky.

"And Cohen, the secretary of the Treasury ..."

"Wasn't Cohen the defense secretary?"

"Oh, that's right. Who was at Treasury?"

"Was it Summers?" I asked, uncertainly.

"No, not him."

"Wait, it was Rubin."

"That's right, Rubin." (Rubin/Cohen. Because who can tell one of them Jews from another, amirite?)

Over those 10 minutes I spoke little more than my part in the preceding exchange.

I learned that we the people didn't do adequate background work on Clinton before electing him. I learned that Clinton's taste in the women that he allegedly had brought to him was very poor, though in this man's view that also helped explain how he chose Hillary, with her big legs, "not to be disparaging." (Oh, no, not disparaging at all.)

I learned that Obama is incredibly weak and that (by implication from what this man thinks Obama should have done), we should now be at war with Russia over Crimea and China over some pissant islands a few miles off their coast.

I excused myself by explaining that I had some reading to do (which is true, so I should wrap this up now) but I had a question, which is whether he knew of a laundromat, since I'd heard him on the phone ask about laundry soap.

Unfortunately, he was talking to a friend who's letting him use his machine in his apartment.

And in parting I said I thought Bush had weakened us incredibly by getting us into a war we shouldn't have been in, and that Obama had been doing a reasonable job of trying to clean up that mess. (I'd already showed my hand earlier when he'd referred to "the occupant of the White House," and I'd interjected, "You mean, the President?")

He parted friendly enough, we're each entitled to our opinions, etc. etc.

But maybe I'll just stay here in Moldova. A little change of insanity does a person good.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

How much are we spending, really?

A colleague linked to a New York Times article on the high cost of higher education.

Particularly in the case of public colleges and universities, people have blamed at least part of the rise on a decrease in government support.

The article's main contention is that there has been no such drop in support. "It is a fairy tale in the worst sense, in that it is not merely false, but rather almost the inverse of the truth."

"In fact, public investment in higher education in America is vastly larger today, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than it was during the supposed golden age of public funding in the 1960s. Such spending has increased at a much faster rate than government spending in general. For example, the military’s budget is about 1.8 times higher today than it was in 1960, while legislative appropriations to higher education are more than 10 times higher. 

"In other words, far from being caused by funding cuts, the astonishing rise in college tuition correlates closely with a huge increase in public subsidies for higher education. If over the past three decades car prices had gone up as fast as tuition, the average new car would cost more than $80,000."

There are a few things wrong here.