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I inherited a modest sum when I was in my early twenties, bought an apartment, invested what was left over, and then proceeded to work for 20 years as an attorney at law firms in New York City and Washington, DC. I saved aggressively because I thought I could get fired at any time, and invested... More
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  • Basquiat Paintings?

    We are developing new routines. Most days, we pack our son off to school, and then spend the morning preparing for our Portuguese lessons, which start at 9:00am. After our two hour lessons are through, we run errands, do chores, eat lunch, and I then head off to the gym. Typically after that, I do a last minute shopping to get whatever fresh ingredients we need for dinner (bread, fish, veggies), and then pick up our son at the bus stop. There is maybe an hour to relax, and then we take our son to his martial arts lessons, come home, eat dinner, do homework and prepare for school the next day, and then, once everyone is in bed and it's slow and quiet, I spend a couple of hours reading financial news and digesting whatever reports I find interesting or useful.

    Today, though, I decided to take a break from the routine, and walked down into Chiado for the specific reason of obtaining a 60 cup of espresso at my favorite cafe, The Brasiliero. What I love about this cafe is, above all, the coffee, but also the artwork that hangs on the wall. One of the paintings bears an eeri resemblance to Jean Michel Basquiat, although when I asked the bartender about it, he'd never heard of Basquiat. If it were a genuine Basquiat, then I assume it would be worth roughly 50 times the value of the entire Cafe Brasiliero, and I'd also have to assume that the bartender would be keenly aware of that fact. Still, you learn to let nothing surprise you in Lisbon.

    In about a week, we will go in for our interview to obtain a residency permit - which is distinct from a Visa. The permit is the official document that says we are allowed to remain in Portugal for the next year, whereas the Visa expires after three months. We don't fit into any obvious category, though. We are not specialized employees since we don't work, and we are not pensioners, per se, since we (like most Americans) do not actually have any pensions whatsoever. From what I can see, the requirements for a residency permit are entirely ad hoc, which can have benefits as well as detriments. The bottom line is that if the country wants people like you, you'll find a way in, and if not, you won't. It's very useful to hire an attorney to help with this aspect of immigrating to Portugal, but given the flexibility of the permitting process, I suspect no attorney can actually give you assurances that if you do XYZ or provide ABC documentation, you're guaranteed to get your permit. So, with fingers crossed, we boldly move forward.

    (click to enlarge)Brasiliero

    Sep 14 6:19 AM | Link | 14 Comments
  • Risk Takers

    After our son goes off to school, my wife and I walk up the street to our language school to take two hours of Portuguese lessons every day. A good portion of each class is devoted to grammar and vocabulary, but today, we and our teacher spent an hour having a free discussion on wide ranging topics. She used the opportunity to teach us practical vocabulary tailored to our interests, and to help us with conjugations in real time. It was a great learning experience, both from the standpoint of practicing the language, but also on account of the insights our teacher has into Portugal and the Portuguese people.

    According to our teacher, Portugal used to be what she describes as a very happy place, but times have changed and now, many people (especially young people) have a deep sense of hopelessness. Youth unemployment is high, and those few college graduates who are able to get jobs tend to work in very low paid positions earning 4 euros an hour. They accept it with resignation, they are grateful and bitter, as their less fortunate unemployed friends look on with a sense of "why don't I feel more envious."

    Most young people here live at home with their parents - which was the case with our teacher and her husband until one day, they suffered a dramatic personal loss. At some point while they were recovering, they realized that they couldn't stay in Porto (where they'd lived most of their lives), and so they moved to Lisbon. Our teacher didn't know anyone in Lisbon and had no job, so she spent her days mostly on her own with her delightful dog (a wonderful, friendly dog who hangs out at the language school hoping to get her head scratched or for someone to toss her the particularly manky tennis ball she gnaws all day). Months passed, and after deciding that they really had nothing left to lose in life that mattered all that much, our teacher's husband quit his job and together with our teacher, the two of them opened this lovely little language school where my wife and I now take lessons. They basically created this joint project out of thin air, and threw themselves into it as a team. It is exhausting, but it is working.

    My sense is that in Portugal, like many places, you have a lot of people hunting for a job, becoming increasingly discouraged as the months and years go by. In this place, it is not a question of waiting for the economy to turn - the periods of unemployment are interminable. Few things are as depressing as feeling utterly unwanted and useless, and not seeing any end in sight. According to our teacher, that feeling is now widespread and has been for years and years and years. Many younger people in Portugal have stopped going to college altogether, because ultimately, there is no benefit to doing so. Those who can afford to leave the country often do. It wasn't always like that here, but for the past ten or more years, there is an entire generation that has been more or less discarded by society, and that has little hope of enjoying the simple but predictable and stable lifestyles that were once commonplace among their parents' generation. Living in Lisbon, you mainly see construction, new restaurants, chic new stores. The place feels like it's ablaze with opportunity. Step outside beyond this region, and the story takes a dramatic turn for the worse.

    But then there are people like my teacher and her husband, who basically decided that they are not going to wait around for someone else to open doors for them. Their approach: conceive of and then construct the doors for themselves. It seems like Lisbon attracts young, energetic people who have decided that they are not going to be economic victims, but instead, who will take charge of their lives, build something, put in 100% of their effort, energy, money and creativity, and make it work because there is simply no other alternative. We've now met several people in Lisbon, and this story of triumphing over waiting, futility and frustration is by no means unique. There are a lot of people in this place who are taking charge of their own futures, and best of all, it is working.

    So, the days of lifetime guarantees, economic and financial safety and the right to be taken care of in reasonable comfort seem long gone now, but perhaps enough time has lapsed that people here are waking up and saying "now we need to find another way. Nobody else is going find it for us." If I understood what my teacher was saying, expectations are not what they were ten years ago. Hopeless? Perhaps, but maybe, expecting or even merely just hoping for someone else to come along and provide you with opportunities and rewards is twice as toxic as waking up one day and saying "there is nothing left to lose, so I'm going to build something." Lisbon attracts risk takers, doers and creators, and if whatever it is in the water here spreads to other parts of Portugal, this country will be destined for wonderful things. People like my teacher and her husband are the solution.

    (click to enlarge)Space

    Sep 09 5:14 PM | Link | 5 Comments
  • I Won't Eat That.

    We all know that we should eat our vegetables, and moreover, ought to eat a healthy variety of vegetables. But suppose your mommy packed you something like what is shown below into your lunch box?

    (click to enlarge)Cherry

    Now, as it happens, I found this little red veggie spray-painted onto a wall up here in Barrio Alto, and my first reaction was, what is it? A cherry? A radish? A beat? I haven't a clue! But being a vegetable, I know that it is generally good to eat vegetables, so the three eyed unknown vegetable fruit whatever thingy should probably maybe be sort of healthy I guess. The bias is to at least take a little nibble of this thing because it is a veggie, veggies are healthy and it's responsible to eat them, and yet.... yet.... something is holding you back. What?

    I'll tell you what is holding you back. Like me, you don't actually know what this thing is, and so you are quite naturally disinclined to put it into your mouth. And, you know, it has three eyes and fangs. The more you look at it, the more of a no-brainer it becomes. It's simply not going into your mouth and that just becomes more and more obvious the longer you stare at this thing.

    Which got me thinking. If I wouldn't put this red cherry thingy with three eyes into my mouth, why would I ever want to put a three eyed, green tongued, unknown share of stock I can't quite categorize into my portfolio? As I wave the notion off with a dismissive snort, we all recognize the question is almost ridiculous to ask, of course. I wouldn't buy an unknown unknowable share of anything any more than I'd put slices of whatever this graffiti veggie is into my salad.

    But remember, that wasn't really what we were talking about earlier. My ORIGINAL question is, what would you do if your mommy packed this into your lunch box? Rephrasing the question into a more prosaic financial terms, what do you do when a COMPANY you own spins out shares of some subsidiary business that you know nothing about, landing the proverbial three eyed radish cherry thingy smack into the middle of your stock portfolio? Does it go into your mouth because it is presumed to be a healthy, vitamin packed, nutritious morsel? I'll get to that in a moment.

    But first, it may surprise you that I come at shares of stock from a rather different perspective than I come at vegetables. When confronting shares of stock of a business I don't understand or even know anything about, I'm like a toddler assessing anything OTHER than chicken tenders and fries on my plate. That is to say I ASSUME it is toxic as hell until proven otherwise. Not only will I not put it into my mouth, I will actively contemplate flinging the offending piece of unknown whatever-it-is-mommy-is-trying-to-feed-me onto the floor with a resounding splat. And maybe throwing a tantrum for good measure, too.

    Why the distinction, though? What makes shares of General Electric fundamentally any different from, say, a stalk of celery or a parsnip? The answer lies in the simple fact that companies don't ever lay off their star employees. Nor will do companies ever hire a bevy of expensive investment bankers to spin off their most desirable lines of business. Face it, a corporate spin off is the equivalent of "hey, give it to Mikey, he'll eat anything."

    So, when those spin off shares of stock arrive in my portfolio, my first instinct is, you know, not only is this thing presumably a three eyed cherry with a green tongue, not only can I not identify what the hell it really is, but the person who CAN identify it won't put it into his mouth? Whoah ho ho, sorry man, I'm not putting that thing into my mouth, either. No, I'm thinking I'm going to fling it, that's what.

    And so I come to the issue of CCP - the recently spun off skilled nursing care REIT from Ventas, one of my core holdings. I tend to subscribe to the view that if you don't know what you are doing, don't do it. I have literally no idea whatsoever what I am doing when it comes to CCP, but neither does a toddler fully grasp what she is actually seeing when mommy plops a plate of raw oysters in front of her for dinner. Doesn't need to either! The choice is swift and uncompromising: the oysters go on the floor, not in the mouth.

    Accordingly, my "I don't ever sell except when...." alert is flashing, and my plan will be to liquidate CCP, and just reinvest the proceeds right back into Ventas. When I will do this, I can't say. I think it will be soon, but I typically like to avoid doing anything when lots of other things are happening. And my plate happens to be filled with enough other strange items to keep me solidly focused on matters besides three-eyed cherries with fangs. Items such as orange cows with lime sections licking strange bread loaf object thingies, which I found spray painted onto a wall along Travessa Cabra in front of our old convent here in Barrio Alto.

    (click to enlarge)moo

    Sep 04 6:15 PM | Link | 11 Comments
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