Monthly Archives: July 2006

My Second to Last Stop: First Four Nights in London

I took the Eurostar from Paris to London which is a fantastic way to jump between the two cities. It’s a 2.5 hour train instead of a 20 minute plane ride, and it’s more complicated than just jumping on the train (baggage security check, for example), but you miss all the airport stresses and two hour before flight check-in.

I started my journey in Ireland and I will end it in London. This makes my cultural entry and exit easier since Ireland and Britain are both English speaking and share many U.S. customs.

My first four nights in London I stayed in Chelsea, an upscale borough of London, with new friends Perry and Adriana, both involved in the world of blogging for several years now. They’re also politically engaged, contributing to the popular blog Samizdata.net. Nice, generous hosts.

I got a little lost finding their house after getting out of the bus. I asked a business guy in a dark suit pacing down the street if he knew were Cheyne street was. He told me to walk with him since he was going that way. I didn’t sense a British accent so I asked him where he was from. He said, "Like you." Pause. "Ok," I responded, confused. "The States," he added, "But I haven’t lived there for 25 years." "Oh yeah? Where do you live now?" He took a long, hard drag from his cigarette. "Saudi." Pause. Another long pause. We’re still walking. I ask, "You mean Saudi Arabia? What are you doing there?" Pause. Another drag from the cigarette. "Yeah, Saudi Arabia. Banking."

I had back-to-back-to-back-to-back meetings on my first full day in London, all either directly or indirectly a result of my blog. I met some interesting guys. Gareth Slaven has been persistent in reaching out to me and I’m glad we were finally able to hook up. Sonali De Rycker at Atlas Ventures is an impressive person who confirmed my initial impression that London is perhaps the most international city in the world. She was born in Bombay and now invests in software and tech companies in Europe (thanks Chris for intro). I met Jackie Danicki in-person, finally, at the Waterloo Burger King, which was a hoot. And then I had dinner with blog reader Mark Steele, an interesting young guy who got kicked out of high school and so is embarking on variation of my idea of "Real Life University." I hope to be able to help Mark in his work and real world education and learn from his intensive travel schedule!

Img_1603 Along the way I stopped at a Chelsea bookstore and picked up two novels which look good and had a bite to eat at a Dutch Pancake place. For some reason I had a craving for American pancakes — thick, buttery, pancakes — which I haven’t seen in Europe. I didn’t know what Dutch pancakes were, and just hoped they were close. Not really. Thin. Different. Oh well. As close as I’ll get.

On Saturday I returned to being a dumb tourist. I wandered around Picadilly Circle, ate at Subway since they were offering a 10% discount to students, and just generally tried to listen to as much of the wonderful British accent as I could. I went to the National Portrait Gallery, free, which was awesome — great photography and some amazing oil on canvas works. I then hopped on the double decker tour bus, almost by obligation. Didn’t London invent the concept of a open top tour bus?! I’ve done a bunch of tour buses on my trip and most are pretty good, some disappointing. For big cities it’s a good way to get a lay of the land and can even beat public transit when you’re going from sight to sight. From the tour bus I saw Buckingham Palace, Downing Street, Big Ben, etc. I got out at Tower of London and wandered around. Long queues were prohibitive, and the free boat ride was full, so I got on the tube and headed back home to get ready for the party.

By the time people cleared out it was 1:45 AM, so I went to bed at 2, got up at 7 AM, worked for a couple hours, went back to bed, got up at 11, had a brunch with leftovers from the night before, then headed out to the gym. I hadn’t been to the gym since Barcelona! Running outside is nice, but I’ve missed that treadmill, bike, and weights. I had an awesome workout. No better feeling. Afterwards I went to the Victoria & Albert museum right next door, one of the best in England, and free! It would take days to exhaust the place, so I just checked out the impressive first floor (Islamic art, Japan and China art, and some sculpture).Img_1622

I got home at 5, worked online, took a hot bath in a tub that actually fits me, and then went out for a late dinner. The London air was still and cool. Finally, a climate that resembles San Francisco! I could wear my SF Giants fleece! (I’ve been wearing t-shirts every night when I go out.) I had a chili thing and a salad and then walked along the main street by my house here. I grabbed a cup of hot chocolate and read at an outside table by the street. Very peaceful, cool, calm.

In my last few days on the road, I’ve made a conscious decision not to stuff tourist activities and busy-ness. I’ll take it slow. Not only because I’m, well, exhausted, but because I’ve become rather uninterested in tourism now. Yeah, 6.5 weeks of looking at sights and every single goddamn church starts to look the same. I’m going to focus on reading and talking to Brits (who are bloody good people).

A big thank you to my gracious hosts Perry and Adriana! Such hospitality and good conversations!Img_1633

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16 Year-Old Iranian Girl Hanged for Sexual Immortality

This made my heart drop, all the more poignant since this girl was the same age as me. What can we do to help Iranian girls throw off their veils?

Andrew Sullivan:

This is another chilling story from Iran. This time, a 16-year-old girl is hanged for "sexual immorality" which, so far as we can tell, was a function of being raped continuously by a man three times her age. Money quote:

Being stopped or arrested by the moral police is a fact of life for many Iranian teenagers. Previously arrested for attending a party and being alone in a car with a boy, Atefah received her first sentence for "crimes against chastity" when she was just 13. Although the exact nature of the crime is unknown, she spent a short time in prison and received 100 lashes… [Subsequently], the moral police said the locals had submitted a petition, describing her as a "source of immorality" and a "terrible influence on local schoolgirls".

So she was arrested again. Then there’s this moment in her "trial":

When Atefah realised her case was hopeless, she shouted back at the judge and threw off her veil in protest.

That earned her the noose. This is the enemy we face. And they do this in God’s name.

London Party to Celebrate the End of My Travels

My friend Jackie Danicki pulled off quite a feat Saturday night, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised given the generosity of all my blog readers this trip, especially Jackie.

About 20 people filed into the Chelsea / London home of blogging gurus Adriana Lukas and Perry de Havilland for a long night of drinks, food, and conversation in party timed to celebrate the conclusion of my seven week Europe tour. Though not a lot of diversity in political views, there were fun and interesting personalities. Josh Hanna, an American now in London running the UK operation of Ancestry.com, and I had a great time watching the impressive Damian Counsell debate the personal expense account of Sherry Blair. I have a video clip, but I don’t think the language therein is appropriate for this G-rated blog ("rubbish" this and "rubbish" that). Page Sands reminded me that a master’s in e-business still exists and can be useful, and Antoine Clark confirmed and disputed some of my impressions of France. Other good chats abound.

Jackie posted a funny spread of photos from the night which ends in a digitally altered image to highlight the greedy, blood-sucking, 3rd-world-exploiting capitalist bastards we are. Other photos at Flickr. Thank you Jackie for organizing the great party and to Perry and Adriana for hosting!

(Me in foreground below. Notice upright posture, combed hair, and stylish business shoes. Yeah, I try.)
Slouching6b

Bar Outside

Japan's $2.5 Million Travel Theme Parks

If I was only living in Japan, I could have visited Holland, Italy, and Spain by walking across the street. Responding to a desire for citizens to taste different cultures, Japan has set up massive cultural theme parks that attempt to replicate tourist attractions, food, and the landscape of certain European countries. I’m a fan: people who really care and are blessed to have the shrinking but still sizable resources needed to travel will visit Italy in-person, but for people who wouldn’t otherwise get a sample, now they have that option.

Skillfully inverting a few essential principles of travel, the parks offer a stress-free and decidedly postmodern way of seeing the world — a sort of abridged Grand Tour for the fast-food generation

“People want to taste different cultures,” says Akira Fujiwara, a representative of the Italian Village in Nagoya. “But they don’t necessarily have the time, or the money to go abroad. This place is a convenient way for people to get a taste of something different.”

Specializing in the importation of culture, the parks package and present foreign countries like the Netherlands or Spain as a plethora of architectural reproductions, educational attractions, shops and restaurants, with the odd roller coaster or two thrown in for good measure. The most popular attraction at the Italian Village, for instance, is the gondola ride. The boats (imported from Italy) are manned by a youthful crew of Italian boatmen. As they steer passengers along the faux Venetian canals, they smile for the cameras, shouting ‘Buon giorno!’ at irregular intervals.

The Blaring London Headlines

London papers are funny. Blaring headlines and articles filled with the same kind of Economist/British snarky bite that’s usually entertaining.

Recently there was the following headline on the newstands: Man Mugged on Tube for Bottle of Water
He was also carrying an iPod and wallet. The guy wanted his bottle of water.

Hell, I’m surprised I haven’t mugged someone for water yet.

(P.S. The Tube is madly expensive and as hot as a microwave with no AC. Definitely disappointing.)

The Insane World of Greetings: Handshakes, Hugs, and Kisses

Freshman year in high school I was labeled "anti-hug" (I’ve never recovered) because I didn’t want to cater to the utterly insane American practice (always with girls, sometimes with guys) of hugging someone when you meet them and when you say goodbye. I looked forward to business meetings, a reprise from such social awkwardness due to the dominance of the handshake. No questions ask, shake hands at beginning, shake hand at the end. The pitfalls are easy to avoid: don’t offer a dead fish (ie, make it firm) and don’t put out your hand too early. A premature shake — done when conversation is still going — often leads to yet another shake before you part ways, undoubtedly a damper on an otherwise outstanding chit chat.

So when I hear guys like Donald Trump write off the hand shake as a waste of time and haven for germs I say, "Yo, Donny, be thankful. It ain’t nothing compared to high school, and not even close to what our European friends have to go through."

If you want to understand the maze of possible handshake / hug greetings by people under age 25, check out this hilarious CollegeHumor article, complete with graphical illustrations. From personal experience, there’s no worse feeling than going "for a pound" (leaving a clenched fist out after a shake) and the other person not responding with a pound themselves right until you drop your fist right as they go to touch it. Race, as always, complicates matters. A white-to-white shake is usually different than a white-to-black, or black-to-black.Dudegreetings_shake_variation_1

After visiting 10 European countries I can safely say, however, that these kinds of challenges don’t even compare to what the poor Spanish and French have to go through. Kissing both sides of the cheek still rules the day. "Kissing" is imprecise: you touch your cheek against the other person’s and then make a kissing sound with your lips. How bizarre is that? Most Europeans I met don’t find it worth the effort, but do it because they have to. They also have their gripes about the American system, though. Imagine how it feels to walk into a meeting with gung-ho Americans and receive the ultimate symbol of business affection: the bear hug, a full body wrap where both people slap their big, sloppy hands against each other’s back.

My wish is the world would evolve toward two very simple level of greetings, whether it be social or business: if you meet a stranger or a weak relationship it’s a simple handshake. If you’re closer to the person you use your other arm to give a half-hug or a squeeze on the upper arm/lower shoulder.

Personal Blogs Are So Upbeat – When You're Gonna Blog Something, You Want it to Be Positive

Out of my 200+ RSS feeds, about 20 are close friends of mine, not only for their words but because I know them so it’s more fun. I notice almost all of the personal blogs I read are consistently upbeat.

It’s rare to see a post, “I’ve had a real shitty week. Let me tell you about it” or “Here are all the things I’ve messed up on the past couple days.” Instead, we get only highlights. On my blog, at least, this is defintiely the case. But I don’t think I’m being dishonest; I do think I have a really good life!

My theory is that when you know in advance you’re going to blog something, it changes the actual experience, and you’re inclined to try to make it a positive one so you can write about it positively. For example, I recently had a great solo dinner in Rome. I had a terrific companion (newspaper) and good food. About 1/4 of the way through this thought crossed my mind: “This is an awesome meal. I’m going to blog it.” I did. I was committed in my mind to making it a positive night overall, and it did end up that way. In sum: when I know I’m going to blog an experience, I’m committed to making it a positive experience, and since intention and reaction mostly define the quality of an experience, it usually turns out positive. True, I could always commit to having positive days each day, but knowing I will blog something introduces a weird form of “public accountability.”

This is all related to constructing the preferred narrative of our lives, telling ourselves stories, deluding ourselves to stay happy, crediting our successs to talent instead of luck, so on and so forth. All this is fine by me.

Why live in “reality” when you can live in your own joyous conception of it?

The City of Lights — Paris, France

Meinfronteffil_1 On Monday I had one of those beautiful moments of meeting a previously anonymous blog reader who reached out me to a few weeks ago and offered his home and local expertise to me while in Paris.

Before meeting Pierre in a cafe near the Arc de Triomphe, I lunched with Eric Grabli, a private equity guy who Seth Levine introduced me to. Eric shed good light on France and European business culture. His thoughts — delivered in a slow, deliberate manner — were consistent with what I’ve heard from others (and which I’ll summarize later). We gorged ourself on sushi and water.

I then hooked up with Pierre, the blog reader and friend and host, and we drove back to his house 30 mins north of Paris. I’ve spent a lot of time in European capitals so staying in the countryside where it’s quiet was a refreshing change. After taking a nap and cruising on wi-fi, we went to a free one hour concert at a church. It was quasi-opera, quasi-drama. Apparently something uniquely French. A handful of opera singers sang different numbers but in quite a dramatic, acting style. It was fun and entertaining.Bridge_1

Pierre and I went to a local creprery for dinner where I had my first two authentic French crepes. Back in San Francisco I am a frequent customer at Crepes on Cole, a "creperey" run by Middle Eastern dudes who serve excellent Americanized crepes…which means a crepe stuffed to the brim with meat, lettuce, cheese, and the like. Predictably, French crepes are smaller but more eloquent. We had a dinner crepe and desert crepe and alcoholic cider to wash it down. We talked globalization, France, travel, America, and business. A good conversation.

The next morning we set off early in the morning for Paris. I spent the day by myself exploring. I started at the Arc de Triomphe, took a few pictures, and then sped over to the Eiffel Tower. By arriving before 10 AM, I beat the long queue, and took the elevator up to the very top. I must admit that seeing the Eiffel Tower on my "Paris By Night" car tour a couple days before gave the same feeling as when I saw the Roman collisieum or David by Michaelangelo: "Oh shit, there it is!" You see it in endless photos, you know exactly what it’s going to look like, but then when you see it in person, it overwhelms. The view from the second level of the Eiffel Tower is arguably better than the very top because it’s open air. At the top you’re enclosed top to bottom in protective glass, and the view is only slightly better. After going to the top, I just hung out near the grass field under the Tower. I gazed up at the massive structure and when my neck hurt I looked at tourists try to take the perfect picture in front of it, a difficult task given the size imbalance between both subjects of the photo!Effile

I walked around Paris the rest of the day. I walked from the west side of the City (Eiffel Tower) to the East Side near Gare de Lyon train station. I stopped at a cafe for lunch but otherwise it was walk, walk, walk. I made a decision not to visit The Louvre while in Paris. I’ve seen a number of rock star museuems and since I have so little time I didn’t want the queue to eat up 1/2 or 3/4 of my day. The musueum itself is huge, too, and could easily take three full days to visit all the art. Without the Louvre on my agenda, I could walk slower, get lost, and take better photos.

I met Pierre at a cafe in the evening and we came home and had dinner with his family. We had a traditional French meal on their table outside. The air was still and you really felt like you were cozily ensconced from any of a busy city’s stresses.Img_1536

Wednesday morning I went for a one hour run in the woods and corn fields of Northern France. When I popped out of the woods and into endless corn fields, I felt like I had just walked into Field of Dreams. Awesome sceneary and true tranquility. The only noise on earth was my breathing and feet hitting the gravel. I went into Paris in the afternoon and visited the Musee D’Orse, home to many famous modern paintings. Van Gough’s self-portrait highlighted his room, and many Monet, Renoir, Degas, and others abound. D’Orse is a great place to visit in Paris not only because of its outstanding art but given its proximity to the Louvre the queue is compartively short.

I met up with Pierre and we went to the Palace de Tokyo, described here.

We had dinner at a Lebonanse restuarant — interesting timing, I know! — which was excellent. I love Middle Eastern food. More good conversation. A Ben stuffed with food and 4 liters of water from the day (yes, it’s been *very* hot in Paris, thus lots of water consumption) wobbled into the car and we cruised back to the house in thunderstorms and lighting.

Paris is without question a world-class city. Everyone must visit Paris. Would I want to live or work there? No. I will explain why when I summarize and analyze my findings of French culture on my main blog.

A giant thank you to Pierre and his family for being wonderful and generous hosts!

Pierreandme


Palais de Tokyo in Paris

One of the highlights of my meanderings around Paris was a visit to the Palais de Tokyo, a futuristic / modernist "museum" that has nothing to do with Tokyo but everything to do with technology, art, urbanism, and the environment. It claims it’s the "only museum open from noon to midnight". That should give you a sense of the attitude of the place.

This summer the set is "Tropico-Vegetal Program": "Lying at the point where global exoticism, ecological concerns, summertime tourism and paradisial utopias meet, the different shows and projects that finger in Topico-Vegetal Program constitue an invitation to an artistic conquest and lucid stroll through a world filled with paradoxes and ambiguities, between an idyllic imagination and politically committed questioning, historical perspectives and political and ecological analyses."

Tokyo

In sum, it’s all very bizarre and confusing (I have no idea what that description means!) but it’s well worth a visit. In the current exhibition there are five different areas. The first one appears to be about nature, as there are big green sitting cushions, fake forestry apparatus hanging from the ceiling, TV screens and pictures of water lilies, and the color green everywhere. But upon examination, the phrases and fragments written on the wall are all anti-globalization. At first they seem innocuous — just factual statements about business and capital. But as the wall stretches to the right they gain complexity: "The neoliberalism vision has screwed tons of people" one essentially says. Ah, France! On the other side of the room there is a crocodile and herein lies the nut of the exhibit: it’s about what happens when "Crocodile mentality" (a real cognitive process) drives actions.

The next exhibition is a 2D topographic display of what happened in Puerto Rico after the U.S. conducted bombing exercises on one of their islands. How lovely!

No, it’s not all anti-capitalism or anti-American. The next few exhibits focus more on nature, rainforests, architecture. It’s a fascinating and massively confusing place. Trying to discern meaning out of everything is tough; just soak up the strange setting you find yourself in. The bookstore is also excellent: tons of books on urbanism, design, art, the future, and culture.

My understanding is that the Palais de Tokyo changes its exhibitions regularly but it’s well worth a visit any time of the year.

How Mafia Children Learn to Distrust Everyone

A retired Mafia boss recounted that when he was a young boy, his Mafioso father made him climb a wall and then invited him to jump, promising to catch him. He at first refused, but his father insisted until finally he jumped — and promptly landed flat on his face. The wisdom his father sought to convey was summed up by these words: "You must learn to distrust even your parents."

-Francis Fukuyama on social capital (and lack thereof) in Southern Italy.

I have embraced "trust no one" with gusto on my Europe trip. No matter how friendly someone appears to be, I know that what they’re really after is my passport, and the moment I see their hand move toward my pant pocket is the moment I either run or I end their existence (probably the former).