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Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Makingby David Rothkopf
Gentiana is a small restaurant that would scarcely warrant a second glance in any other village in Europe. It is rather traditional, only slightly more charming than the bland shops and modest hotels around it. One nearby storefront offers a remarkable array of Swiss Army knives, another boxes of chocolates, another fur hats and mountain gear. The restaurant has a cozy, neighborhood feel to it. Beside the door there is a blackboard highlighting a few specials, and on the ground floor there may be seating for twenty if they are both thin enough and friendly enough. Upstairs there are a few small rooms for private parties, the biggest of which seats ten people squeezed in on either side of a long narrow table. Most of its character comes from a feel of woody intimacy, the dark wood façade, dark wood floors, dark wood tables. In fact, for all its charm, it is definitely not a place for claustrophobesor people with an extreme fear of splinters.
The reason to go to Gentiana is the fondue, especially the cheese fondue, which is offered in robust portions that recall an era before cardiologists. My wife, Adrean, has a special weakness for fondue, and every year that we have gone to the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos we have gone to Gentiana for her birthday. We make reservations long in advance because during the week of the January meetings, which are attended each year by more than 2,000 business and government leaders from around the world, getting a table at Gentiana is not much easier than getting one at renowned eateries like Aragawa in Tokyo, Gordon Ramsay in London, or Le Bernardin in New York. Perhaps more surprisingly, for that one week the clientele at this humble Swiss bistro looks pretty much the same as what you might find at those world-class restaurants.
Of course, even during that week, there are still a few tables at Gentiana occupied by locals. One regular is a particularly garrulous drunk who loves to hobnob with the CEOs, heads of state, and rock stars who are wedged in, elbow to elbow, spinning hunks of bread on long forks in the pots of bubbling Gruyère. The local speaks only Swiss-German to the polyglot crowds around him, and few understand him, although judging by his demeanor the casual observer is not sure whether that has to do with the language he speaks or the local beer that he favors. No matter. He smiles and they smile, and the general effect is cheerful and relaxed.
One afternoon during a recent Davos, my wife and I were hurrying along the sidewalk on our way to Gentiana. This can be dangerous, as the locals do not shovel away the snow and ice lurks just about everywhere. In fact, attendees at Davos can see with some regularity central bank governors and senior executives of the IMF and other distinguished middle-aged men and women swaddled in cashmere, calfskin, and politically incorrect pelts of many origins launched skyward, only to land on their broader, softer regions. We walked gingerly, therefore, but with purpose, knowing we were meeting our friends in just a few minutes.
The weather was typical. A light snow was falling. It was very cold. But the Alpine air was crisp and dry and invigorating. We chatted about the meetings, who we had seen and who we hoped to run into. As we walked, we reflexively did what most of the visitors to this small mountain town do: We glanced at the people passing us in the street, trying to determine who they were. (Given the nature of Davos, they were likely to have been somebody.) Its a ritual made easier by the fact that everyone at the meeting has to wear a badge around his or her neck at all times. The badge is used to get through the many security checkpointsthere are at least two Swiss soldiers and policemen in Davos for every delegate who attends the meetingsto register for sessions, and to let everyone know who you are. Your name is on the badge, along with the organization you represent. So too is your picture. People tend to walk with their badges dangling in plain sight so they dont have to fumble with them getting in and out of buildings or past police. Thats how it was for everyone except for the universally recognizablepeople like Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Tony Blair, Bono, or Angelina Jolie. The badge-scanning move is so ubiquitous you might call it the Davos dip: Bend the knee slightly, cast a subtle glance downward, assess and move on.
Leaving the Congress Centre and walking along Davoss main street, the Promenade, we passed Thierry Desmarest, the CEO of Total; a small cluster of Harvard professors; a senior executive of Saudi Aramco; and a woman pulling her two small children on a sled. (She was local and the sled seemed to hint at the reason they dont shovel the sidewalks.) We stopped briefly to chat with Tom Donohue, the CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who happens to be my wifes boss, then paused a few steps later to chat with an Indian-born U.S. venture capitalist with whom I had some business. It was a typical sample. Five minutes along the Davos Promenade in January offered a cavalcade of freeze-dried economic leaders from three continents.
About two blocks from Gentiana, I was grousing about how one of the conversations that I had most wanted to have had resulted in a frustrating series of near misses. The objective was a long-delayed chat with Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian author of The Alchemist. Coelho has sold more than one hundred million copies of his books worldwide and is, after the Harry Potter author, J. K. Rowling, the second-best-selling author on the planet. He is also one of the few cultural regulars at Davos, one of a handful of people who might offer a different perspective on the Davos zeitgeist. We had intended to meet almost a year earlier but, due to a series of scheduling mishaps, had repeatedly failed to do so. Finally, we aimed for Davos, but I had yet to lay eyes on him. What did I expect from a man who lived on the other side of the world and was constantly in motiona Brazilian who lived much of the time in Europe and sold many of his books in Russia? There was a little bit of hubris in thinking we might ever be able to end up in the same place at the same time. And then: “Oh, my God,” said a voice I did not recognize, “its you.”
A smallish man in a fur hat was staring at my name badge. He had a graying goatee, and he greeted me like a long-lost cousin. It was Coelho, appearing almost miraculously out of the Alpine mist as if conjured by our conversation.
Passing along the sidewalk from the Congress Centre where we had just heard an address by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and comments from the Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, through the stream of big name boulevardiers, and then walking directly into this icon of the global literary sceneit was made clear again that Davos was truly the incarnation of Marshall McLuhans global village. It was like small-town Planet Earth, or the once-a-year Brigadoon of globalization: a community connected to everywhere and, in one way or another, to everyone. Indeed, during the course of this meeting, top trade ministers would caucus to try unsuccessfully to rescue global trade talks, Africa activists would meet with corporate chiefs and political leaders to seek funding for medical aid programs, global warming would “go mainstream” as mostly American skeptics were persuaded by session after session of expert views, and proponents of different solutions for dealing with everything from anxiety about immigrants to anxiety about terrorism would present their views directly to those in a position to implement them. If, as Hillary Clinton has asserted, it takes a vill
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