August 30, 2007
A friend of mine and I were having a discussion about God-awful Starbucks and how unlike the Europeans, we are stuck with this or watered-down Sanka at roadside diners. He sent me this rant and I resonated with it so much, I had to post it here.
When I began traveling in Europe in the early nineties, it was Coca-Cola that made me most chagrined about being an American abroad. A corner grocer in Cetinje, Montenegro, had no fresh fruit on offer but stocked ample supplies of Coca-Cola at half the price of the local bottled water.
Starbucks is the current Coca-Cola. WalMart, who we also love to complain about, is too big for Europe. But imagine a WalMart diced into a hundred squares and seeded across all of London, settling on every third corner and stamping each neighborhood with an American seal. That is Starbucks in London and other parts of Europe.
Perhaps you enjoy their coffee. Perhaps you think $4-5 a cup is good value for a coffee chain.
Everything is becoming the same everywhere. Even New York, which - except for 9/11 - was always imperturbable to outside forces, looks in many places like a high-end suburban shopping strip with a few floors of flats plonked atop. If you have an interest in heterogeneity, uncertainty and variety in what you eat, who you speak with and where you lay your head when you leave home, could you please tell your British friends to buy their cup of Joe elsewhere?
Starbucks is the latest Stamp Act. Let's inspire our former colonial oppressors to have a London Coffee Party, tossing shipments into the Thames, casting a vote for difference everywhere. As Patrick Henry would have said, "I know not what course other shoppers may take, but as for me, give me local merchandise, or give me death."
August 26, 2007
Pleasure-Seeking in Italy
One of the things that gives me so much pleasure about going back to Italy IS in fact sheer pleasure. And if I had to choose a second, it would be design and design in multiple ways, not design the way the traditional west thinks about it.
Italians understand pleasure in a way that other cultures only dream about or maybe that's the problem -- other cultures not only don't dream about pleasure but avoid it. You might be reading this and thinking, "hey, what about the yanks, that's a purely pleasure-seeking society," but no, its not, a purely entertainment-seeking society. Therein lies the difference.
And as for design, even at the smallest of levels, just take a look at a WalMart or CVS bag versus an Italian pharmacy bag, one which has a cursive written logo with flowers and fruit on the front. Luigi Barzini attempts to explain in The Italians why the artistic and the beautiful are so revered but also why both are so individualistic.
Says Barzini, "Italians will tolerate hideously incompetent generals, presidents, tyrants, professors, bureaucrats, journalists, and captains of industry, but will never tolerate incompetent 'opera singers, conductors, ballerinas, courtesans, actors, film directors, cooks, tailors....'
Elizabeth Gilbert sums up his viewpoint in her latest novel. "In a world of disorder and disaster and fraud, sometimes only beauty can be trusted. Only artistic excellence is incorruptible. Pleasure cannot be bargained down. To devote yourself to the creation and enjoyment of beauty, then, can be a serious business -- not always necessarily a means of escaping reality, but sometimes a means of holding on to the real when everything else is flaking away into.....rhetoric and plot."
Reading this and re-living every trip I've made to Italy over the years, it made me wonder, is this the root of Italians' obsession with beauty, design and culinary pleasure?
Whether it was my extended stay in Tuscany, my camping trip down the coast on a Swiss motorcycle, my train and bus rides that zigged and zagged across the country from north to south, my lazy days and nights sleeping on Italian beaches or people watching in cafes in Rome, the aura has inevitably revolved around pleasure.
Italy makes me think of pleasure exploration, mostly around food. After my Tuscany trip which also took me to the south of Italy, I found that I returned home with an addiction to pasta. You think I'm kidding, but the carb-rich perfectly cooked homemade pasta served with extra extra extra extra olive oil, garlic and basil which coated my dishes like silk, was forever on my mind for close to a month after my return.
I'd wake up in the morning and crave the taste, the texture and the experience of an Italian meal not long after I finished a shower. My boyfriend at the time had to cope with these cravings which sometimes resulted in bribing a restaurant chef in the Boston suburbs to prepare an early lunch so my breakfast craving could be met.
Meanwhile Bill would ask in awe, "what's wrong with cereal? You used to like toast? I'll make you eggs...." In other words, please become normal again. For a traditional Irish boy who grew up with classic anglo-breakfasts, pasta or anything resembling it before 6 pm was as far of an acceptable option for him as morning whiskey would be to The Pope.
I tried to explain that it was a craving, ya know, like pregnant women have with pickles and ice cream, "its my body hon....." Once I went cold turkey for a few days, I didn't get the shakes like a caffeine addict does, but I did find it hard to concentrate during the day and my mornings were tired. Then as quickly as it started, it disappeared, which everyone in my life was thankful for.......
It's not as if Bill or others in my life at the time had not been to Italy or other pleasure-seeking centers, such as Paris, Singapore (oh God, the food in Singapore), Penang (I actually extended my flight by a few days so I could feast at least a dozen more times) and New Orleans.
But how to explain that the addiction was not just to the carbs but to all the things that come along with the pleasures of Italy? The attention and relentless commitment to beauty, design, fashion, colors (go into a men's store and notice the umpteen choices of brightly colored cashmere sweaters), wine, cheese (don't cry for me Pecorino), gelato (I had a chestnut gelato recently that was to die for), and that primo piatto homemade pasta and pizza, a stark contrast to what tastes like stringy cooked Wonder Bread noodles at home. (exception: New York's Little Italy has laid some surprises on me)
This trip, thankfully I have Corsica, Paris and London between Sardinia and home and have already started to break the pasta addiction with French crepes. That leaves us with the decadent fromage cravings that are sometimes even harder to break, but that's another story.
August 24, 2007
Writing Break From Technology
It's hard, almost impossible to write about or even think about technology when you're in a remote village in Corsica France. The only time it comes up and in a big way is around cost. For example, phone cards versus SIM cards for your GSM phone.
Both are incredibly high, so expect to pay a lot if you want to continue communication with the states or elsewhere in the world. Don't even mention the word Skype because when it wasn't performing like a snail before its recent crash, it had to behave nicely with all of your applications when traveling (boooinnng) and it still isn't available on most public machines.
The other time it comes to my attention is the noticeable lack of it in businesses, particularly ones you are trying to do transactions with, i.e., bus, train, ferry, hotels, restaurants, etc. And accessing the Internet for schedules to and fro or booking a room in advance is incredibly useful.
Yet, if you have more time on the road and you're lucky enough to not have to conform to a traditional corporate vacation schedule, over-access to technology can get in the way of having a peaceful journey. There's a reason you don't find people with laptops on ashrams or in yoga centers.
So while I don't plan to access typepad.com to put finger to keypad much in the next several days, when I do, it is unlikely to be about tech. On a late warm August summer day, if you had the choice to read about a new widget or a hike through the Corsican mountains, which one would you choose??
Speaking of ashrams, I visited one years ago when it was easy to leave laptop behind, but haven't done so since devices (one after another) have started invading my life. Maybe that's a future trip for the hell of it. An ashram would be good for me I think.
As for the 30-60 days of complete silence a few friends have told me about, I contemplated it for all of 5 minutes. I get meditation, I get cleanses, I get yoga, I get the spiritual journey, I even get crystals, but not one word in two months?? Maybe a Pisces or a late Capricorn could deal but it would be death for a Sag :-) Now, back to those Corsica mountains.
Who Needs Monty Python?
If you're planning a trip to London anytime soon, you'll be thrilled to learn that you can visit the Leg 'of Mutton Wildlife Reserve on the banks of the Thames.
The nicest thing about being on holiday outside of the states is the ability to walk through an unknown street in an unknown town and be relatively sure that the majority of those around you have never seen you before or know what language or dialect you speak. What's even better is that the same applies to those around you.
That said, I personally have managed to run into people I know on remote streets in India, Hong Kong, Australia and Israel throughout the course of my travels when neither of us knew we were traveling to those areas.
When in nomad's land however, you can wander aimlessly through foreign streets, never look at a watch, miss a meal or two or three if you choose and avoid examples of technological innovation if you so choose, with the exception of cell phone usage in the streets, which is pretty much becoming dominant everywhere.
Don't get me wrong, I love what technology has done for my life, largely as a tool to communicate with people I know and care about around the world. But distance from it gives you the kind of perspective you can't get when you're baked in it 24/7. It gives you more humanitarian ideas of how it can be used when you return to the engineering factories of the companies you work with.
I highly encourage everyone in the tech industry to do a walkabout in a foreign land away from (far away from) from the tentacles of technology once or twice a year.
August 22, 2007
I recently landed in Italy from London for some R&R and architectural discovery. Okay, and yes a bit of beach sand as well.
The wind along the northern Sardinian coast of Gallura constantly moves, its energy ever apparent. The air is tepid however, the kind that reminds you of a very early June day on Cape Cod, not a late August one in Italy.
In Capo testa, the jagged edges of the rocky cliffs jut out into the breeze-fed waves. Italian and French visitors nestle in sheltered enclaves, all of them committed to their beach umbrellas. Like determined conquerors placing flags on foreign soil, I watch an Italian tourist re-affix his umbrella pole in the stand for the third time and can't help but think, "he ain't no Marlboro man," yet this American icon never had the style of my beach subject who was scantily clad in brightly colored designer swimming gear.
These same men share their female mates' fascination with jewelry, perfumes, decadent oils, chocolate and fine wine. Leaning in together, shoulders at 90 degree angles, they review with equal interest, the standkeeper's wares, jointly deciding the best choice.
Ah yes, the lazy but engaging lifestyle of an Italian summer along the coast.
August 21, 2007
A Stroll Through My London
London, the call of the old in so many ways, including my old life. As I walked through Leicester Square, which I have done numerous times since I went to university there, new memories and images emerged. So little changed and yet, so much.
The pizza stand on the corner as you veer to the right heading towards Covent Garden remains unchanged as does the Cork & Bottle next door, now adjacent to a half-priced theatre stand. Blood Brothers is still playing in the West End, now in its 20th year. For old times sake, I saw it again, for the 9th time. As good as it ever was, the English dry wit and extraordinary drama are there to remind you that its not an American play with a perfect fairy-tail ending (both main characters die in the end).
One of the two colleges I attended has now been turned into Capital Radio and the Kensington campus of Richmond University seemed smaller somehow (isn't it supposed to be the other way around?) Two blocks from the main campus, a new bakery solely focused on cupcakes just opened. Then I proceeded to get lost in a park I knew cold.
I only had time to visit one of the numerous places I lived over the years, a small basement garden flat near Earls Court. Again, it seemed smaller and the outside plants needed work.
One of the coffee bistros where I worked had barely changed -- the new manager informed me that the same family who owned it twenty years ago is still involved. He served me the best cappuccino I've had in London on the house and nearly enticed me to help out for a few days.
As for the countless pubs where I served pint after pint, the central-London locales were close to untouched with the exception of an added TV screen or video game machine, both glaring oddities in a British institution.
High Street Kensington and Kings Road felt cheaper or perhaps my standards are now higher. Barkers recently closed down and while Harrods has as much grandeur as ever, the food hall, while enticing on multiple levels, did not measure up to Paris' Galeries Lafayette.
The chocolates were decadent and rich however and I found myself buying a few from each counter, always amazed at the beautiful choice of packaging, almost worth the price of the item alone. As I relished in one great design after another, I was reminded that soon, I'd be introduced to much more in Italy, my next stop.
August 20, 2007
Mind the Gap
London's familiar underground voice speaks up. It's programmed, automatic and a soft but perfectly articulate British female voice. She tells me that the next stop is Fulham Broadway on the District line. She then tells me to change at Earls Court (my old hood) for the Picadilly Line. It's a Barking train (baaahking) and I should alight at Victoria for commuter trains or the Gatwick Express.
When I left London, it was one of the strongest memories I had of my daily commute. That and the West End's footprint of nearly every musical and play I saw over and over again using heavily discounted tickets.
I could have recited every line to Les Miserables, Blood Brothers and the Mousetrap at the time, not to mention book categories on every aisle of the smaller, older, eclectic bookstores between Picadilly and Covent Garden.
Ah yes, the protest marches in Trafalgar Square, drag queen nights at the Hippodrome, outside performers on a drizzly but warm night and the countless hours eating crepes, drinking coffee and bartering at the once grungy Camden Market just outside northern London's Camden Town.
Somehow, Mind the Gap brought it all back. Again and again.
Tech Discoveries Along London's High Street Ken
Ah, vacation. A screen vis a vis an old fashioned notebook just feels wrong. Leave it to me to mix a little business with pleasure in London. I thought I even managed to accidentally find PC World's London office along High Street Kensington, however later learned from Harry McCracken that the below is actually a British computer chain, i.e., a bit like England's version of CompUSA and that PC World UK is known as PC Advisor.
August 18, 2007
When I Am Old....
I ran across this charming poem called Warning by Jenny Joseph on a poster in a restaurant ladies room in the pacific northwest. While it specifically talks about a woman's life, it could easily apply to both sexes. Enjoy.
When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple with a red hat which doesn't go and doesn't suit me, and I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves and satin sandals and say we have no money for butter I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired and gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells, and run my stick along the public railings, and make up for the sobriety of my youth. I shall go out in my slippers in the rain and pick the flowers in other people's gardens, and learn how to spit You can wear terrible skits and grow more fat, and eat three pounds of sausages at a go, or only bread and pickles for a week, and hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes But now we must have clothes that keep us dry and pay our rent and not sweat in the street, and set a good example for children; we must have friends to dinner and read the papers But maybe I ought to practice a little now? So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised when suddenly I am old and start to wear purple
When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple with a red hat which doesn't go and doesn't suit me, and I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves and satin sandals and say we have no money for butter
I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired and gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells, and run my stick along the public railings, and make up for the sobriety of my youth. I shall go out in my slippers in the rain and pick the flowers in other people's gardens, and learn how to spit
You can wear terrible skits and grow more fat, and eat three pounds of sausages at a go, or only bread and pickles for a week, and hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry and pay our rent and not sweat in the street, and set a good example for children; we must have friends to dinner and read the papers
But maybe I ought to practice a little now? So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised when suddenly I am old and start to wear purple