July 27, 2011 – Report From Europe, Part IV



3) Report From Europe, Part IV. Milan, Italy appears to be a city entirely populated by fashion models riding bicycles on the city's frenetic streets. That is one's first impression coming out of the monolithic Milano Centrale train station, built by Mussolini to reaffirm faith in his state. Despite years of allied bombing during WWII, the building is as imposing as the day it was built.

You Think It's Easy Fitting into a Size 0?

I came to this medieval city to speak at another strategy luncheon, which was attended by readers from throughout Europe, from the surgeon hailing from Trondheim, Norway, to the Hungarian hedge fund manager. The Westin Hotel provided a spectacular lunch, as only the Italians can.

Much of the conversation revolved around the Euro, which everyone in the room to a man believed was grotesquely overvalued, given the continent's economic outlook. Still, as long as the European central bank pursues its mindless policy of raising interest rates to control commodity driven inflation, it will remain firm.

We discussed various breakup scenarios for the EC which come into vogue every time Greek debt gets downgraded, which is often. This is unlikely, given the modern European's dislike for open conflict. Bring nationalism into the equation, and things could deteriorate quickly. Germany could bail, unwilling to refinance the debt of lazy, tax avoiding, garlic eaters. Southern Europe could do a disappearing act, unwilling to pay their debts to the sauerkraut eaters up North.

Yes, I Can Be Bribed

In either case, the European currency bloc shrinks, or disappears completely. It is just a matter of time before an opportunistic political party rides this fast track into power. The Germans will tell you from hard earned experience that this always ends badly.

I cautioned that the risk of nationalism was probably greater in the US now than in any other major country. Of the dozen republicans now vying for the presidential nomination, at least three could be described as extremist, pandering to conservative America's worst fears (high taxes, immigration, cap and trade, gay marriage, the rise of minorities).

An isolationist America would withdraw from international organizations, like the United Nations, the World Bank, and the IMF. Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would be stepped up, while we would probably walk away from Obama's war in Libya. It would adopt a more threatening posture towards Russia and China. Remember, Sarah Palin threatened to launch a nuclear war against Russian for its invasion of Azerbaijan. We laughed, the Russians, not so much.

I had exactly one free afternoon to spend in this amazing city. I visited Michelangelo's Last Supper at Santa Maria della Grazie monastery, looking for evidence of the conspiracy theories long ascribed to this masterpiece. I did a quick run through the Galleria and stepped on the bull's balls, conducting three clockwise rotations to bring good luck. Looking at my performance since then, it obviously worked. The impact of the fashion industry on Milan is enormous, with every conceivable brand imaginable on show.

I managed to scoot into the main Brioni store just before closing. There, I watched two Russian Mafia types in their thirties buy a half dozen exquisitely tailored, 200 thread count suits each for $6,000 apiece. That's $72,000 worth of clothes'¦. for guys! Alas, they don't carry an American size 48 long in stock, it would have to be a custom order, so I left with only a couple of Leonardo ties in hand. In any case, I happen to know that I can get the identical suit at the Brioni shop Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas for half, thanks to flaccid Uncle Buck, plus they likely have my size. And I will be there in two months for a strategy luncheon (see above).

The next morning found me in a mad dash back to the train station, my taxi driver artfully weaving in and out of traffic, where I boarded a first class Eurostar train. The engine powered North towards the Italian Alps, passing through the Milan slums. Retracing the route seen in the classic Frank Sinatra war flick, Von Ryan's Express. Next stop: Zermatt, Switzerland, and the Matterhorn.

To be continued.