Thanks to the happy excuse of my brother's wedding, I recently spent a week and a half in Spain, first in Barcelona and then in Palma de Mallorca.
Wonderful places, these.
Here they don't destroy buildings to widen the road, they make the cars smaller.
Before long you realize that it isn't just the language that separates the United States and Spain, it is an approach to living. The Spanish seem to revel in every day.
Maybe it's a consequence of living around grand structures, hundreds of years old, where design and aesthetic detail are more important than maximizing square footage.
Maybe it's the tumult of a long history of wars, revolutions, suppressions and inquisitions, that makes one more cognizant of the need to live well before the world's next nasty surprise. However it happened, Spaniards have decided to work to live and not the other way round.
Don't bother showing up at the Palau Episcopal or Bishop's Palace between the hours of 1 and 3 p.m. The gates will be locked and the staff gone to enjoy their two-hour lunch break.
Accommodating tourists is important but not enough to disrupt workers' time for a leisurely meal with family and friends and maybe a quick siesta.
My new Spanish relatives-in-law regaled me with stories of their health care system, where no one has to worry about bankrupting themselves to receive top-flight treatment.
The bride's father, who recently had a liver transplant — for free — told me of a Spanish friend who was in the United States and in need of medical care. Before receiving treatment, the friend was asked "do you have a fortune?" because that's how much it was going to cost him.
Yet even with such attractive national and cultural priorities for its workers and citizens — ones that undoubtedly have the side effect of tamping down worker productivity and wealth accumulation — Spain's currency, the euro, is trouncing our dollar.
In November 2000, the euro was worth about 84 cents. Now, it takes around $1.58 to buy a euro. For me that meant getting punched in the wallet at every meal and hotel.
You want a small plate of pasta for lunch? That will be a reasonable 12 euros — that is if you get paid in euros — or a pricey $19.
You want to stay at a decidedly unluxurious hotel for four nights? That will be 497 euros or $803 with the usurious Visa mark-up. Ouch!
How did this happen?
How did the greenback go from being the world's king to being a titled duke in a shabby manor who has to borrow money from friends to keep up appearances?
A big contributing factor, according to economists, is our persistently outsized trade deficit that reached more than $700-billion in 2007.
We simply import far more than we export, and that can't go on forever.
A weakened dollar makes American exports more attractive. And while the sputtering-dollar approach is having some positive impact on the whopping imbalance, our dollar still has a long way to fall if this is the way we'll reach equilibrium.
There may also be a psychological aspect to our current fix. Note that the dollar's decline has been concomitant with the fall of America's international stature.
Why bet on the growth and stability of a nation that is a spendthrift debtor, hubristic bully and unapologetic torturer if there are reasonable alternatives like the European Union?
But, whatever the causes, climbing out of this hole is going to hurt — particularly if oil exporters start losing their taste for the dollar.
Upon return from Europe, at passport control, I was questioned if the value of goods purchased to bring home was truly zero, as I had declared.
"Our dollar stinks" was all I had to say to be waived on through.
"Old Europe," as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld used to mockingly call it, is cleaning our clock and living better doing it.