July 15, 2013
When the Clouds Ask You to Dance Under an Icelandic Sky
She picked me up from "the nautical hotel", the one that wooed me with the red balcony that faced the blue and abandoned ship in Reykjavik's Harbor. I could have written sad and happy things for days on end facing that crazy abandoned ship whose gaze continued to dazzle me outside my bedroom window.
Suddenly, she made a sharp right and headed east into the countryside, some 40 kilometers outside the city. There's a point when all pretenses fall loose and it was one of those moments. My first trip out of Reykjavik a few days into my trip, it was as I feared, rainy and drizzly as the weather report indicated. And yet, sometimes, blue sky and white clouds made their appearance because perhaps they wanted to dazzle an overworked brunette from a far away American land.
"Wow, this is pretty," I said and felt. It was such a meek and ridiculous attempt at what should have been, "this blows," or "this is outrageous"...Or perhaps nothing at all and just breathe into one aha and joyous moment after another had I been from somewhere in this world that didn't need a phrase to qualify such a beautiful existence.
It was as if I was witnessing a place where Ireland just married the Moon and then tossed with some magical dust from Scotland, Norway, Antarctica and New Zealand and I didn't know what to do with it.
The area is called Nesjavellir, a great launching pad for trips in the south of the country. I was on my way to new resort and was in a rare place of accepting the forthcoming indulgence.
Nesjavellir is set in the Icelandic countryside where there are very few frills - it's all about the air, the sights, the smells and the tastes from nearby lava fields, the thermal steam and vapor and an ever so stunning early summer Icelandic sky.
As a frequent solo traveler, I arrive somewhere I am reviewing, often a hotel, resort, activity, adventure, spa or tour and 95% of the time, people around me are couples, 4% are very young travelers and 1% are in that other category, the one I guess I would fall into -- the misfit category. And so from the category of the misfits, I hold a perspective which is unique and muddled and distinct and reflective and beautiful and blessed and pure and often....complex.
Holding that mindset, imagine my dinner, which started off mid-way to great until a fairly lame Chilean red arrived since the options by the glass were slim. Suddenly, a Viking who says he's a blend of bartender, waiter and fix it guy, showed up with a bottle of 1991 Bordeaux. Classy, I think as I watch the lame glass of red leave my table.
As I slowly sipped my Bordeaux, I dove into the Icelandic sky since it seemed to be so gracious with its time, energy and beauty in a way that the best food and wine can never begin to offer.
While the wait staff started out a little reserved and quiet, they slowly picked up steam. Liquors that solely belonged to Iceland suddenly began to appear. New to me, crowberries and einiberja soon graced me with their presence.
A local doctor who was out for dinner with his wife popped over to say hello and shared a few photos with me after I offered to take a shot of both of them at their table.
"It is usually a photo of just one of us," she said with a smile as I snapped away. My God, I thought as I looked them, they're whiter than the Irish. Later, when he approached my table as I was nearing my coffee, I realized that his eyelashes were whiter and lighter than blonde - I could barely see them as he stood to my side slightly bending over me, his 70 year old fingers sliding left and left again, so I could see all the shots he took on his phone over the previous two weeks.
It was an Iceland I had not yet seen since my days in the country were still so few. That moment in time was special if not rare...a retired doctor confiding in me even if it was for a few brief moments and showing his endearing and reflective self. The tenderness and vulnerability came through and it was a treasured and elegant memory to say the least. Iceland isn't just unique or pretty or inviting, it's dramatic, spiritual, intense, volatile and ever so engulfing. And, most importantly, the people are what make it so...
After the doctor leaves and a glass of Bordeaux has warmed my soul, a blonde Icelander returns to my table to inform me that they'll open up the 10 meter hot tub pool for me and me alone, half of which extends into the open air and half of which is covered. It is typically closed after ten, about the time my second wind is re-ignited and so, this news brought on a huge smile.
As I made my way into the shallow hot pool with temperature of 95 degrees or so, I realized there were no jets or chlorine and the bottom of the pool was both murky and slippery because it was coated with green algae...natural green algae. Surreal, peaceful and tranquil Eastern instrumental music played in the background and like I am so often these days, I was alone. It was just me and an Icelandic sky.
Gratitude won. Presence won. The hot natural waters won. The thermal steam won. The Midnight Sun won.
A couple hours later, I slowly removed myself from the pool, the one with the slimy green and black bottom. Ahhh, the pure naturalness of it all I thought.
As I made my way down the hallway, I listened to a group of Norweigans and Icelanders laughing in the lounge only two doors away from me...reserved but after much alcohol, no longer quiet. The women would frequently gasp under their breath when they spoke as if they lost their breath somehow for a moment and were fighting to get it back and in a so not so sensual way. A friend claims the women (and men) do this in Norway too. It was something I never did get to the bottom of or understand.
Two girls continued to drink and as they did, their boyfriends started to howl...once quiet reserved Nordic types now in a different place of mind.
I returned to my room and as I shut my door and turned the lock to the left, I could hear people's laughter, the same 20 or so who were in the resort restaurant some hour or two before. There was still plenty of Bordeaux left but I poured some Earl Grey tea instead and faced my open window which looked out onto a brightly lit 2 am sky.
Clear Blue sky turned to white fluffy clouds every twenty minutes or so, at times, turning into tenuous or threatening clouds. Just when they just seemed to be settling down, you suddenly felt them dancing in front of you asking you for a hand in a delicate or perhaps a not so delicate dance. You see, Iceland is this way - forever changing and you never can be sure where it's going to take you. In the midst of my volatile dancing clouds, there were rolling meadows and luscious hills.
To my left was a view of Icelandic tundra and flowing landscape and to my right was a painted white horse against a concrete wall, hazy at best against a later than midnight sky. A juxtaposition in time or was it really all one in the same?
I wanted to shut down my laptop, yet there were photos to process, more hot water for my tea to fetch, emails and tweets to respond to and a life size photo of a horse's head to say hello to. Breathing into my beautiful Icelandic horse on my wall...stage right, and the meadows to my left with the three shades of brown drapes covering a third of my view, I breathed deeper than I had in awhile, and as I did, I acknowledged it was okay that I didn't say hello to anyone else but me and that I didn't have to be someone else other than me for a moment or an hour or as Iceland would remind me, a lifetime.
In my white robe and bare feet, I "okayed" my wet bathing suit that lay on the concrete floor. I also acknowledged that it was okay not to pick it up, hang it up or dry it before my day's end. I let it be. I let me be. I let the Iceland sky be. I let the laughs of the all Nordic guests at the end of my wing just be. And then, and only then, did I hit save and toss my computer off my lap without packing it away. It fell into a bundle of pillows to my left and then I gently moved it to the floor as the pillows followed without rhythm, without choice and without a plan.
Suddenly, pure joy. With feet up in the air behind me, dangling as a ten year old would dangle them, I looked out into my Iceland sky and its draping, green luscious hills which stretched to my south and smiled. Thank you for that gift you Nesjavellir wonder I thought. Thank you for that gift!
July 12, 2013
Reflecting Under Iceland's Midnight Sun
It's a late June evening as I take another spoonful of my Blueberry Skyr, a creamy substance that looks and feels like yoghurt, only Icelanders make it better. While looking out my hotel window that faces Reykjavik's harbor, I can't imagine another place I'd rather be or anything else I'd rather be doing.
I had just come from an environment where they talked about start-ups and new business ventures at an event hosted at HARPA and was suddenly thrown into one where they talked about fish, thermal baths and spiritual retreats in the countryside and hikes in the north that would soon would leave me both speechless and breathless. Taking in the weathered ship in all its ancient glory, I smile in quiet knowingness and nothingness all in the same breath.
My Skyr cup is now empty and using an underhand maneuver, I toss it in the bin. Score! Slowly I lick the rest of what’s left on my spoon and put it on my sailor themed table eager for any action at all since I hadn’t yet given “it” or my laptop any attention. Iceland’s Midnight Sun is happy about this decision and so am I.
Hands empty, I grab my camera, hotel key and nothing else and head out the door.
Wandering through Reykjavik's streets on a not so warm summer night, you're quickly reminded that you're about as far from Kansas as you can be. And so, I take in the nautical-ness around me for a couple more hours. Midnight had long passed and yet the skies glowed above me, egged me to explore textures and colors. It was then that I realized my Icelandic journey had really begun and I knew there was something magical awaiting though I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time.
I walk and walk for what feels like hours and hours – is it 5 am yet? There's a truck clearly ready to head into far more rustic areas than Reykjavik's city center and yet, I haven't begun to dive deep into Iceland's nature wonderland, so in that moment in time, I only imagine what hills, valleys and rivers those wheels have crossed.
I still didn't know what Iceland had to offer you see, since I did no research before I left home. The good news about this fact is that I allowed locals to lead me by the hand and tell me where to go, what to do and often, who to meet. It's a small country and it's astonishing who knows who. Incestuous almost. That said, there's an endearing and magical quality to its intimate size, where an energy, spirit and energy I forgot existed. It was the same one I grew up with in the Adirondack Mountains.
But it was too early to know all of that. For now, Reykjavik at night was my playground and I "it." I wandered through the streets taking it all in and didn’t get back to my hotel room till after 5 am. Alone – all night long – was so the right way to "take her."
I retired to my bed to only see a similar view out my window from the one I left six or so hours ago. Welcome to an Icelandic night, the one which never sleeps and where the sun never sets.
Those first few nights were the start of something transformative, but I just didn't know it at the time. Soon, Iceland was about to bring me back home, not to the Adirondacks, but back to myself.
June 28, 2013
Meet Startup Reykjavik, Iceland's #1 Accelerator Program
When I was in Iceland this month for Startup Iceland, an event started by serial entrepreneur Bala Kamallakharan, I had the opportunity to meet a host of locals working on start-up initiatives.
Leading up an effort within the Startup Iceland community is Kristján Freyr Kristjánsson, who is spearheading Iceland's #1 Accelelerator program: Startup Reykjavik.
Startup Reykjavik is similarly structured to TechStars but open for any type of businesses to apply. The program includes ten teams (16k at 6% across 10 weeks) and ends with an investor day on August 23, 2013. It kicked off while I was there and one of the team building exercises was to take 20 or so entrepreneurs into the interior of Iceland's natural wonderland for games and bonding. They headed to a place called Thorsmork, within the Þórsmörk Nature Reserve where they had pow-wows in volcano huts and hiked, a little different from our pizza and soda networking shindigs in Silicon Valley.
Here is an overview of the teams for this year's program:
- Mindlantis: While helping children discovering their true potential, they make high quality products based on their ideas.
- Activity Stream: They enable capture, processing, visualization and reporting of Business Activity Information - in real time - cloud based.
- Golf Pro Assistant: GolfPro Assistant is a web app designed for golf professionals to help them manage all aspects of running a golf teaching business.
- SARdrones: SARdrones develops unmanned drones and image analysis software for search and rescue purposes in barren landscapes.
- Snjohus Software: Snjóhús is a two man team, programmer and artist, working to make high quality apps.
- Silverberg: Designing and developing a measuring equipment for fitness centers, along with a software solution where users can track their progress.
Non-Tech companies (e.g. Bio-tech, Fashion, Alumnium Roller coaster, Whiskey Brewery)
- Herberia: Herberia fills the gap between unregistered natural products and medicines by manufacturing herbal medicines of the highest quality.
- Y-Z: Y-Z is an innovative fashion brand aimed at forward thinking women - classic design with avant garde flexibility.
- Zalibuna: Zalibuna will design and build a one man rollercoaster in the most traveled area of Iceland, Kambarnir.
- Þoran Distillery: The Þoran project it the brainchild of a few like-minded individuals who dream of establishing the first whisky distillery in Iceland.
They have 10 alumni teams and a database of 100 Icelandic startups they have been helping through the past years, with roughly $20 million invested so far. Below are some of the entrepreneurs who participated and are part of the startup scene, from the Hackathon, the Startup Iceland and the entrepreneurs who will be part of this year's accelerator group.
June 13, 2013
Start-Up Iceland Event Draws Iceland's President & Attracts American Thought Leaders
Hackathons are fairly common in Silicon Valley and while they're starting to pop up in pockets around the world, Iceland may not be a place that immediately comes to mind when you think of start-up geek fests.
Reykavik, Iceland's largest city and home to two thirds of its 320,000 people, recently held a Hackathon in conjunction with Start-Up Iceland, an event committed to helping local entrepreneurs build a thriving start-up ecosystem in the country.
Started by serial entrepreneur, angel investor and Greenqloud CEO Bala Kamallakharan in 2012, Start-Up Iceland has not only grown in size in just one year, but attracted top notch angel investors from the states, as well as European and American entrepreneurs and thought leaders.
TechCrunch's John Biggs presented, as did American venture capitalists Brad Burnham from Union Square Ventures and Foundry Group's Ryan McTyre and Jason Mendelson. To top that list, Iceland’s US Ambassador Luis E. Arreaga and the country's President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson thought the event was important enough to show up to address the more than 300 attendees at the beautifully designed conference center HARPA in the city center.
In true start-up conference style, the event kicked off with an UnConference led by Joshua Kaufmann and a Hackathon, held at the University of Reykjavik, where geeks gathered together to cook up some innovative ideas.
The Hackathon was free and open to students, hobbyists, professionals and frankly anyone who likes to hack on cool code and be creative.
Startup Iceland Hackathon participants were asked to create and present hacks around the central idea that the world is undergoing drastic cultural, climate and economic shifts that impact global business.
As the founding organizers mission suggests: "Strengths lie not within avoiding catastrophe but in planning and mitigating problems before they arise. We can accomplish this by understanding the needs of the business community, anticipating the hurdles and creating proactive solutions." Well said.
Above, locals present their ideas to attendees and a panel of judges and below, Seattle Angel Conference's John Sechrest moderated a session.
Below the Hackathon finalists pose with American thought leaders and entrepreneurs.
Winners and finalists receive acknowledgement on stage.
The winner of the Hackathon was GreenQloud Automated Server Balancer, which is a collection of scripts that manage and change attributes to a GreenQloud hosted server depending on the load.
Simply put, when a user's server is idle, only one system is running. Once the load gets to a specific point, a new system is activated, which allows for consistant performance across the board without wasting so much power. Lower Power usage, lower wasted dosh.
While green energy may be enviromentally friendly, it's not unlimited, so their notion is that you should only use what you need. With their approach, you can efficiently waste the least amount of power with enough performance to do what you need.The team was awarded $1,000.
Below, Bala does a fireside chat style interview with Ryan and Jason from Foundry Group.
The UnConference presented a host of great ideas, which were far more varied than what you'd find in technology hubs in the United States, largely because many of the needs and problems that locals need to solve on a Nordic Island are unique.
Some of the ideas included angel investing in Icelandic start-ups, the role of big companies in the start-up ecosystem, women's role as investors, entrepreneurs and consumers, cultural barriers between those who have money and those who don't, the value of mentoring, bootstrapping, what can be gained from a Pan-Nordic collaboration, growing Icelandic tourism through better customer service, attracting talent to Iceland and the importance of having a start-up friendly government policy.
Kudos to the Start-Up Iceland team and everyone behind the scenes who made everything happen, from the Hackathon and UnConference, to the more formal Start-Up Event at HARPA, which included a VIP dinner and the President's speech.
I first heard Iceland's President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson speak at PopTech, an annual event in Maine I've had the pleasure of attending and being involved in over the years. His presentation style is very warm and inviting and once again, he brought that quality to the stage. Below he gives a touching and inspiring talk to attendees.
The video of his talk below.
My takeaway went beyond the fact that Iceland now has a thriving and growing start-up community as demonstrated by Start-Up Iceland and the level of support for the event. Icelanders have resilience and dedication to making things work regardless of what is thrown their way.
Consider what the country went through in 2008 during their financial crisis and how as a nation, they came out the other side as committed and united, able to move forward with a team and “can-do” attitude, something every startup needs to not just survive but thrive.
The fact that Iceland is a small country can be used to their advantage. Icelanders help each other out, share and cross pollinate ideas and don't give up easily. Smaller communities in the U.S., such as Boulder and Portland also implement more of a sharing and caring mentality, something Silicon Valley could use a bit more of. As Foundry Group’s Jason Mendelson commented on a panel, “in Silicon Valley, it’s more like every man out for himself.”
We have a lot to learn from Icelanders and I felt fortunate to meet some of the early entrepreneurs who are helping to make Iceland grow and thrive as a global player in the entrepreneurial world.
May 05, 2013
Reflections: A Walk Into a Past & Present Estonia...
I'm lost as I navigate my way through the outskirts of Tallinn, but purposely so, as I know that magic lies in the unknown and what a better way to discover that unknown than to get lost. I flash back to my grandfather who would never hold my hand as we walked through the woods in the dense Adirondack mountains when we embarked on our summer hikes.
I know now that I never left his vision although at the time, he made me believe I was on my own after he purposely disappeared out of sight and watched me from behind a tree as panic entered my small face, those youthful child-like eyes searching for his familiar red and blue flannel shirt. Bringing me out of my comfort zone again and again was something my grandfather sought and it was less of a 'thing' he did from time-to-time, and more the way he lived his life.
It wasn't until I had long passed my twenties that I realized what a gift he had given me so many years ago despite the fact that to this day, anxiety still swallows me when I lose my way.
That anxiety occasionally moves to a "fight or flight" place and yet there's an excitement in that kind of anxiety, for I know that in that unknown place, I'm bound to make some rare encounter or learn some bizarre lesson about some bizarre piece of life I never deemed important before.
I reflect in that memory as I turn another corner, realizing that I left no trace of where I had been nor did I have a clue about where I was going. Having moved beyond the boundaries of the old town at least thirty minutes before, I stopped looking for landmarks I may have read about in some brochure or guidebook, and began to notice what was around me.
It was one of those off-blueish colored moments, where I realized I was pretty far from Kansas, in a part of town where people lived and didn't deal with tourists as part of their day...not unlike the small town and world where I grew up, they too didn't fit the storybook culture up until know, I had only read about.
I was struggling with the notion that Eastern Europe could become as modern and western as the rest of Europe even after over 20 years of independence. The last time I had been this close to Russia was the mid-eighties when I didn't have permission to have free-flowing conversations with locals nor did they with me, there was a thriving black market, our hotel rooms were bugged, shops were stark and restaurant menu offerings were slim.
Even my return visit to Budapest and Prague a couple of summers ago didn't convince me that everything had transformed even though I could rent a segway, buy a t-shirt with the city plastered on it and order fine wine.
If that wasn't enough, every newspaper, history book and photograph proved that it was all very real and we were now living in very different times. And yet, like the abolishment of slavery didn't transform America's attitudes about how blacks should be treated after 20 years, you can't remove the impact of more than a century of tyrant rule and communist life in one generation.
Like many cultures in Eastern Europe, Estonians didn't always rule their own land. In fact, for over 800 years, the Swedes, the Poles, the Danes, the Germans and the Russians have all invaded the country and put down a stake.
I learned through my visits to Kolga and Sagadi Manors that the Scandinavians and Germans held fort for many years while Estonians served them tea and watered their gardens. While they've enjoyed stints of freedom -- for two short years in the 1200s -- and for 19 years in 1920, not ruling their own land has been more common than ruling it.
Not being given control of your own destiny time and time again must play a toll on one's attitudes, personality & outlook on life I thought as I wandered aimlessly down yet another street, one that didn't seem to have a visible street sign.
I also thought about what else I knew about Estonians aside from the factoid that my fellow travelers were most thrilled about: Estonia is the most connected country in Eastern Europe. Aside from connectivity, the other topic that came up again and again was the one that breaks up countries, marriages, families and cultures: Religion.
You can't go to many places in Europe and not be inundated with churches and people's fixation with them. Yet, Estonia is apparently the least religious country on the planet with Ireland, Poland and Greece being the most religious...at least in Europe. In talking to a few locals in the first few days, the proof was there.
Women in their twenties and thirties both told me they didn't go to church nor did they grow up believing in a God. 80% of the same group of women said that they didn't feel the need to marry their partner even if they wanted to have children.
Like we do when we want evidence of stereotypes to show up in our face, I looked for more irreligious types on my walk, as if they'd somehow show such a trait in their walk or attire.
I remembered the live strip show on Viru Street I had passed on my way out of town, red satin dots across fake diamond studded banners fell in and around the Golden Dolls Gentleman Club, where they hold shows every day from 10 to 6. It was next to a Veta clothing store, Restaurant Cru and a Baltic amber shop, one of the dozens you'll find on any street in Tallinn.
This wasn't quite the evidence I was looking for however, nor did it support my theory that more remnants from pre-Soviet days were still around moreso than tour guides would have you believe. I, for one, would have loved to sit down with an 80 something year old male Estonian and drill him on every decade of his life, from his job, the wars, his military duty, his experience with Russian soldiers, how he provided for his family then and now, what his daughters thought they would become at ten and who they are today, politics, the environment, education and every miniscule detail in between.
Lacking a victim born in 1924 to sip coffee with for the afternoon, I continued walking. Urban shops and signs gave way to more stark buildings, some white washed and gray with weathered textures that wove in soft pinks, oranges and yellows in that antiquated way that old stone buildings display after a century of wear and tear.
Olive green paneling is plastered across the top of a turn of the century stone building and graffiti in more than one language decorates the bottom half. Two smoke stacks protrude into the sky ahead of me, one with a red stripe I can barely make out in my hazy view, one which suddenly feels more surreal than what actually just met the eye.
A woman in a bubble gum pink coat wearing matted gray rubber shoes with furry tops, stands with her son at a bus stop. She has a faux leather bag with keys dangling from a worn-out fringe and she looks away from her son while she takes a puff from her cigarette, as if doing so, will ensure the 36 bus comes that much faster.
While in the country, they spoke of mushroom farms, Juniper forests and limestone gravestones, in Tallinn's greater urban-ness, I learn about relics from the past, savory dishes that are more meaty than not, amber and the the attitude dynamic that exists between a not-so-wide generation gap.
I chalk up a conversation with a man in his forties standing a few feet away from my pink-clad woman with the cigarette dangling from her mouth, now on her third and there are still no signs of the bus. His English isn't fluent, yet we can communicate and his blue sparkling eyes which exuded generosity and authenticity in double doses, were enough to make up for whatever word or phrase that might present a communications challenge.
Not knowing what bus he was waiting for if he was waiting for one at all, I figured that I didn't have much time to start the conversation with trivial chit chat and work my way up to what I was really wanting to know.
And so, rather than begin with "Is it always this cold in Estonia in April?" especially since I had already heard countless times that this was an unusually cold year, I dove right into a question about his life as a teenager and oh btw, what were your twenties like while we're heading down that path? Luckily, he didn't think I was some American stalker or loopy redhead hitting on him on a random Thursday afternoon.
Andrus used to drive a military truck and spent time as a night sniper, oddly not the first one I had met since I arrived in Estonia. The Soviet army brought him to Moscow for training when he was just 18 and as he drifted off into memory lane, I learn that he was brought to the "KGB House" twice during his 2 and a half year stint with the Russians.
Afterwards, he was given an offer to stay where he'd receive a one room apartment and a black Volga or return home to a small town an hour or so from Tallinn. He chose the latter wondering if that choice might land him in Siberia instead, for who knows how much was required to demonstrate one's loyalty to the Party way back when?
As he shares his stories with me, I take in the volume of graffiti adorned on two century-old buildings across the street, while the structure next to it meets me with a mixture of urban decay and remnants from a Soviet past. Signs in a language that look as unfamiliar as Klingon might; Mustikas, Karamika, Infoveva, Euro Vaistine line up next to brightly colored plastic bubbles, where I think locals might dump their recyclables.
I move on and lose myself for awhile until the word Turg presents itself, a sign that is next to or part of a long blocked off area with a plastic cover draped over its top.
The ceiling has ripples of sorts, a flimsy covering that barely seems as if it could give the people below it shelter if the sky should open up. I can see that it's a market of sorts.....flowers, fruit and vegetable stalls face me mostly in open air, yet the stall tellers don't flinch despite the beckoning of rain.
Cars lined up on sidewalks in front of the shops without any logical reason given the volume of open parking spots scattered nearby. Bright colored clothing with over the top costume jewelry is the fashion order of the day, their glitter too much for the eye to bear against its otherwise stark background...I can see the glare from the shine echoing through the windows. Most of the shops appear to be closed yet the cars linger....another mystery in a mysterious land.
In these near suburbs of Tallinn, I don't see architectural evidence of the Gothic, Baroque and Rococo styles that swept through the centuries and still remain in tact at some of the country manors and estates.
I see a Tallinn struggling with its past and its present, trying to figure out its future, one where East not just meets the West, but embraces it with fortitude.
I continually met welcoming hospitable people, inside the city and out, eager to protect their heritage and history even if that history didn't include a religion or two that mattered.
They are if anything resilient. Moving. Intriguing. Reserved and yet warm. Authentic. It was an Estonia I wanted to return to and as I decided it was time to navigate my way back to more familiar streets as the light began to fade, I bid farewell to the part of town where locals lived not worked, smiling into the distance and thinking: this was a trip worth taking.
Note: I didn't take many photos as I ventured out of the old town center, so these are selected shots taken in and around Tallinn's old town.
May 02, 2013
Lithuanian Start-Up Demos Cool GooGPS Travel App on Tablet PC
I discovered (and used) an interesting new GPS app from a Lithuanian company when I was in Vilnius Lithuania recently.
They call it GooGPS, and the model is data for travel and tourism for visitors. Imagine a Samsung like tablet PC that is loaded with all the best of a city - main attractions, festivals, events, museums, churches, restaurants and hotels, that is light enough to hang around your neck while you meander through a new city.
Then, imagine along side of that data, you have access to all your social apps like Foursquare, Twitter and Instagram, a video camera for easy capturing and a browser to check email....all on a device that is connected 24/7 and limited for E10 a day.
UAB is a global pioneer that is successfully developing a new business model – rent of tablet PCs for travelers. These guys have created a set of programs called “interactive travel guide” that works with a modified Android operational system.
In the system which is within a portable 7-inch tablet, you have 3D navigational maps, connected to their controlled interactive guide with places of interest, routes and audio content.
It is currently available for visitors to Lithuania and Latvia with plans to expand to other regions in the future.
I tested it out for the day, which included site seeing in Vilnius, the main city and the outskirts. The only glitch I had was limited battery life, so the tablet died half way through my day but when it was up and running, it worked like a charm and was fun to use. Below is a video of me chatting to the product manager.
April 29, 2013
What a Trip to Helsinki Reminded Me About Life's Lessons...
It’s a funny thing in life in that quite often, the opposite paradigm of the same thing applies: when you ask for something, you usually get what you ask for and equally, when you least expect something to happen, it often does.
I find that I’m much more aware of both paradigms when I’m on the road.
The week I was due to fly to Eastern Europe, I found myself wondering why I was once again heading to a cold climate country when I had been dreaming of warm weather destinations for months.
I often visualize myself listening to Chopin’s Concerto in D (any of the minors really), on a beach in Chile, breathing in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, or dining with a Mr. Handsome in some scrumptious steak restaurant with award-winning Mendoza wine in Buenos Aires, an evening which ends with a dance that equally embraces artful precision with unbridled passion. So Argentina I think. Grace and beauty at its best.
As travelers, we all cherish such moments on our around the world adventures, as we check off magical moments and experiences we have on some bucket list. Many of these moments forever change who we are and ultimately who we become.
These are the magical moments of travel: cultural faux pas’ that end in laughter, culinary experiences when our tongue is awoken to a new taste we never knew existed, or a hug from a child who doesn’t speak our language. It’s not just the tender moments which forever change us but the painful and unpleasant ones as well. We know this, but we try to avoid them at whatever cost.
With little sleep from the previous week, my emotional energy was thin, worn down like a pencil which had been sharpened so many times it had lost its original form. In that state, with bags under my eyes, I boarded an American Airlines fight from SFO to JFK and climbed into a tight space with someone close to 250 pounds next to me, a seat I had paid an extra $50 for the privilege of this insufferable leg.
I tried to recall earlier moments in time before airlines nickeled and dimed you for blankets, pillows, headsets and more, shrunk your leg room and seat size, you know....the times before you were charged extra to sit closer to the front, regardless of whether it was a middle seat or not and before you were charged for each and every bag. This was a period of time in travel, if you’re old enough to remember, that the flight to your destination was as pleasurable as the destination itself.
After five hours of cramped flying, I boarded another overbooked flight, my first with Finn Air, tweeting that it was so, as I made my way down the ramp. It was the ‘whitest’ flight I had taken in years, perhaps at all, unless a puddle jumper in northern Canada counts.
The other observation was how structured and controlled the boarding process was, so much so that I made a mental note that I was heading to the Switzerland of the very north.
Rules were not meant to be broken under any circumstance I thought.
It wasn’t until I sat down in my seat and endured several hours of resistance and persistence, that my trip to Eastern Europe became clearer.
My Finnish neighbor was sadly one of the rudest women I had encountered since my Egypt trip so many moons ago, and even worse, her bitter attitude didn’t lift for the entire seven hour journey.
As she jabbed me in the side of my ribs, barking over and over again that the arm rest was her’s and her’s alone, not to be shared, I found my anger and resentment building. She then proceeded to include me in a bucket of “god awful Americans”, clearly the result of one negative encounter she experienced at some point in her life.
Trying to reason with her in any way that seemed logical failed again and again. After a very sexy Finnish airline steward with sparkling blue eyes also tried to reason with her and also failed, I spent more of the flight standing up than sitting down, chatting with him in the rear of the plane about her stubbornness, he assuring me that all Finns were not like this. His dreamy eyes gave me cause to believe that he must be right.
When I finally surrendered to the fact that sleep wasn’t in the cards, I tried to change my own attitude towards this difficult woman, the one whose arm and elbow continually dug harshly into my side as she proceeded to show me who was boss all the way to Helsinki.
Breathe deep, I told myself and followed with other mantras and incantations of positive energy hoping that this mental exercise alone would melt her stubbornness. Sadly, this didn't work as it had already become personal since it was clear she hated Americans. She verbally said so.
As I saw how tightly wound she was, I realized I had been as tightly wound over the last few months for my own personal reasons. My work schedule has been insane, with barely a break to do anything much at all except to handle the myriad of external and internal requests and the same cycle repeated again, day after day, even on weekends. Ever have the experience when you exceed all expectations, work over and above what is humanly possible and received less acknowledgement than if you simply played the soldier? Alas, the soldier, which Seth Godin refers to as the cog in the wheel...the obedient employee who delivers precisely what he or she was told, regardless of whether it was a savvy decision or best for the company's success.
Perhaps she had been experiencing something similar in her own life? Ambushed by some ill form of logic that defied her own odds and deflated her own sense of worth and being? By her employer, her husband, her child, her sister, her colleague?
Either way, I realized that before the plane landed in Helsinki, I had to rid myself of the notion that all Finns were as rude as this encounter so I didn’t leave the country thinking they were all a bunch of control freaks who needed the rules to be precisely as they were or else they'd torment you into submission.
The thing about cultural stereotypes is that so often many of them hold a "certain" truth. The danger of course is that there are always exceptions and over time, people can dramatically change as we saw over two generations in Japan...two groups who couldn’t be more different from one another. If you're not sure this is true, just talk to a friend of mine whose brother wears punk clothing and purple sneakers, has an earring and four shades of hair while his grandmother who doesn't speak a word of English, still wears a traditional Japanese kimono, bows and serves tea.
I know that Eastern Europe is slower to change since they are fixated on the past more than most regions of the world I’ve visited and I wondered how much of this had extended over its borders to nearby neighbors like Finland.
My first time to Helsinki was in 1980-something in one of those old-fashioned boxed vans hippies drove the decade before. We had driven north from mainland Europe, across Scandinavia, into Finland and finally into the Soviet Union – the old Russia -- the one that detained us at the border, strip searched everyone and literally dismantled the vehicle searching for everything they deemed propaganda or trade-able on the then thriving black market.
It was a very different time for European travel and nothing was exactly what it seemed. Just like the experience with my Finn Air flight companion, when you least expect something to happen, it often does and back then, it did more consistently than not.
The wall was still up in those days and tensions were fierce behind not just THE wall, but the invisible walls, the ones that led east that is – Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and the Czech Republic (the then Czechoslovakia).
Finland was the most foreign to me, even moreso than Russia and Poland in many ways, largely because I didn’t expect it to be as foreign. We knew about the Black Market, about the minimalistic hotels with dingy barren rooms that were bugged, the stark food supply, the weathered buildings and surreal lack of optimism...a place where women paraded around in unfashionable rubber boots and in-need-of-repair colorless coats. Finland never fell under that umbrella however despite its proximity to Soviet borders.
What I remember from my first trip to Helsinki was how clean the streets were and how distinctly organized everything was in that Switzerland kind of way...a little disconcerting at first, especially if you had just come from a country like Italy which embraces chaos and passion more than order and structure.
I visited a friend who was in my South African high school in Johannesburg, where we had spent our senior years. Not originally from Helsinki, he was either living there at the time or drove in just to see me. We were but 'babes' and that innocent and youthful naivety was floating in the air. Combine that with the fact that Helsinki streets ooze playful energy all night long in the summer since the sun never sets: drinking, walking dogs, sipping coffee and eating ice cream is how you spent your time on open air streets at 3 in the morning.
Mika and I had a magical time walking through the city, lounging on park benches discussing our life's dreams and aspirations as youthful warriors in-the-making so often do. I think I may have been but just 19 at the time.
The lens at which I experienced Helsinki so many years ago was through his lens, a native of this strange land with a strange accent and language that differed so greatly to those on the European mainland. On my most recent trip, I talked to a French couple from Paris who stopped over in Helsinki on their way to the states. She said to me with a surly smile about her experience, "it's only a two hour flight and yet the culture is so different to our world, it's as if a solar system separates us not a thousand miles."
Structure is the word that comes to mind, something they wear on their sleeves, much more than their Scandinavian neighbors. The Swedish and Danish travelers I hooked up with for short jaunts of my first trip to Europe presented a free spirited energy to their walks and talks. While my Swedish friends all seemed to have summer homes with saunas they ventured to annually, there was an equal hunger to explore the world which I didn’t find from my conversations with the Finns at the time.
It was as if once we crossed the Swedish border, things and people had more rules and alignment and order reigned. It doesn’t mean I didn’t have a great time – after all, Mika’s eyes were dreamy, he was courteous and sweet, and won me over by swinging me under his arm next to a luscious hovering tree that took us into its breath, creating an aura of moonlight when the Northern Lights ensured there wouldn’t be a real one.
He treated me to dark roasted coffee in outside cafes and introduced me to other Finns who were intelligent, quirky and funny, as long as you could understand their dry off-beat humor. We drank beer well into the wee morning hours, at the time, the most expensive beer I had ever had. Everything seemed insanely expensive from my recollection….and insanely odd.
Remembering that it was the mid-eighties, Helsinki had price tags that made your jaw drop. An apple was $3 a pop, beers exceeded $7 and meals in restaurants were simply beyond my reach and so I lived on bread and cheese. Today, the same is true. A 50 Euro dinner for a starter and main course isn't that uncommon.
Within the confines of those beautiful summer walks under Helsinki's skies, I felt taken care of by Mika and his friends and it was this memory I brought to the forefront as my Finnish companion on this hellish long flight jabbed me once again.
While hot places like St. Maarten and Greece have been on my mind, and I’ve been puzzled by all the trips to cold countries I’ve taken in the past two years, I realized that on this sleep deprived flight all the way to Finland with an angry woman at my side, that we throw ourselves into the experiences the universe wants us to see, as if they are in fact, a mirror of ourselves, showing us exactly what is happening in our lives.
It is that visual representation and that insight that allows us to change the course of our lives....that is, if we are paying attention to the signs and can admit the truths we see in the mirror's reflection.
Relinquishing control is not inherently a natural trait of northern Europeans or the Baltic states and if you think that is a broad statement, compare the relationship with control and structure of those regions to cultures like Jamaica, Italy, Spain, Kenya, Fiji…..need I go on? You get the idea.
Upon this reflection, the plane makes a harsh landing at Helsinki’s International Airport and I remind myself that so much of the flight felt like “torture” because I allowed myself to be drawn into “her” tortured state. She clearly lived in that place all the time and because I was so out of balance and overworked myself, her torture became my own. I hadn't taken time to look in the mirror - the internal or external one. In order for me to "see" again, it seemed to require a long haul to northern Europe and a flash back in time. I call this a "walkabout," where we venture far away from our everyday reality so we can get clear again about who we are, where we are and more importanty, where we want to go.
These are the lessons we learn on the road. And, for all those precious marvelous moments we share with new cultures that draw us into such delicious foreign experiences, we also run into people who are internally tortured or who inflict their pain on us for whatever reason and in most cases, we’ll never learn what they are. We wonder why were chosen to receive their torture until we realize it is us who chooses that the experience be one of torture or joy.
It happens on the road, whether it's in a third world country where someone steals your bag, or gives you the wrong directions because they’re not a fan of your nationality or overcharges you because they think you’re richer than they are and can afford it. The list goes on. Every day life is like this too.
In those moments, we learn about ourselves – what we’re showing of ourselves to the world in a mirror, the same one that reflects back to us if only we take the time to notice and acknowledge it. It’s in these moments – painful and precious – that we grow and move forward on our life’s journey.
My experience here in Finland and soon, Estonia and Lithuania, will be far from warm sandy beaches with pineapple trees and the blissful sound of waves that could put me to sleep every night. I won’t be sleeping in a hammock nor will I be eating fresh fish from a warm salty sea.
But now, I know why I’m here. And with my winter coat, mittens and toasty wooly hat packed in my bag, I will venture into yet another cold country experience paying close attention to what I can learn from countries that need to be more in control than not, taking in the gift I learn from it and from them. New cultures to learn from, to play with...to be grateful for and most importantly, to remember what's real and truly matters along the way.
Photo credit: The Telegraph
March 03, 2013
The Connected Things Discussion at London's WebSummit
Techcrunch's Mike Butcher interviews Alex Hawkinson of Smart Things and Fabrice Boutain of HAPILABS in an interactive chat on the Web Summit stage in London last week.
Below is a video of their conversation, which includes demos.
December 14, 2012
LeWeb's The Internet of Things: From Lightbulbs & Robots to Augmented Reality Apps & Air Quality
From a couple of hundred attendees in the first year, they had 5,000 attendees this past year alone for both their London and Paris events, London being a test, something that they plan to continue doing in the years ahead.
They attract big players like Orange, Microsoft and others and mid-tier players known in Europe and beyond, like Parrot, as well as tons of start-ups eager secure funding and entrepreneurs looking for the next big thing. It's also an incredible place to "schmooze" on the floor at the event itself as well as the umpteen after parties and events they hold in the evenings throughout the center of Paris.
I returned to San Francisco from an exhausting trip of meetings and pow-wows to hear that LeWeb was acquired by Reed MIDEM, one of the leading events organizers in the world. How that changes the format of LeWeb moving forward is yet to be seen, but more budget and marketing should 'in theory' lead to more "high-touch" events, better food and higher profile speakers. That said, it could also drive ticket prices up.
Acquisition aside, Loic and Geraldine LeMeur managed to pull off yet another fabulous event, from A-list speakers to entertainment and networking.
So, who showed up there and unveiled their latest?
Parrot's CEO Henri Seydoux, who I had an opportunity to meet several years ago when they hosted the TravelingGeeks trip I organized to Paris, was as charming as ever on the LeWeb stage in an interview with Loic LeMeur.
Within LeWeb's theme of the "Internet of Things," he made what could have been a 'faux pas' by saying that you can't reference women as things or you'll be in trouble for a long time. It didn't turn into a faux pas though at least from what I could tell, since everyone laughed -- including women. I happen to like their products and team. As an aside, rumor has it that his actress daughter played a role in the latest James Bond film. Ahh yes, the things you learn at LeWeb.
Chris Shipley ran the start-up event; the finalists were: Be-Bound, Qunb and Recommend.
Be-Bound gives you access to the Internet without wifi, aka stay connected to the web without the Web.
A stat for the taking: 3G/WIFI = 14% and 2G = 86%. These guys use the SMS layer. Their business model is using prepaid credits called B-Miles. For example, 3 Euros = 35 Be-Miles, 10E = 200 Be-Miles and so on. They'll also use advertising and couponing to drive revenue.
Their objective is to reach 3.2% of this business over the next 3 years. They said on stage, “our business is cash generating. We hope to achieve cash-even in three years.”
Qunb's platform is all about quantitative data. The idea is you can now visualize and broadcast your own data! How it works: their platform understands your data semantically so your data becomes compatible with other data so they can make sense of each other. They’re going after large corporations who are willing to understand their data and compare it so it makes sense in a meaningful way. Currently, their product is featured on the SAP marketplace.
The last finalist was Recommend, which is a platform that gives you recommendations from people you trust. There seems to be a lot of 'recommendation engines' out there, so I thought this one had the least potential from running a sustainable business in the long run vis a vis the others.
Their pitch is quality not quantity: recommendations from friends only in your network. (friends + friends of friends). They say they will succeed because it’s viral and sticky, sticky because it’s recommendations for every day things and apparently there's also notifications for extra 'value.'
Then, Team Blacksheep gave a demo - well sort of. A flying plane was let loose in the LeWeb audience. The TBS DISCOVERY frame is an upgrade for all Flamewheel F450 frames, using F450 arms and a custom TBS top and bottom plate including power distribution board. It's cool to watch and for geeks who are interested in this, apparently easy to build.
I thought that Netatmo's concept was interesting - they're offering a personal weather station for the iPod and iPad, where you can monitor weather and air quality. Says the team, "we spend 80 percent inside - our lifestyle is indoor and we have to think about indoor air quality as well as outdoor air quality." They have created a weather station to monitor inside and outdoor environments and then they send this data to the cloud.
The team showed real time data across a map of Paris where we could see weather patterns across different sections of the city. They take measurements of environment and are using crowdsourcing to bring this data to people in a way that is usable and "useful."
They think that real estate prices will rely on data like this and can impact prices and other things. The more co2 you have, the more dense your space is, which decreases the quality of your air.
Then, MG Siegler interviewed Instagram's Kevin Systrom, who's always at his polished best. I saw him a few months back in a similar "question exchange" with Sarah Lacy at one of her PandoDaily events in San Francisco.
Polished aside and interesting app or not, I still just can't get over or accept that their app could have been worth $730 million when the Facebook acquisition 'completed' back in September or ever could be. And, I'm a serious photography geek and still don't 'get it.'
Stephanie Hospital and team at Orange hosted a power girls networking bash one afternoon, which I ironically went to with Yossi Vardi, most definitely not a woman.
While it was indeed mostly women, a few male stragglers were there including French photographer Olivier Ezratty who is working on a photo exhibition of powerful women in the digital age. I'll share the latest as his work progresses. He also does a wonderful round-up of LeWeb every year, so check out his coverage here.
Speaking of Yossi, he gave a talk on things start-ups need to think about and tips of the trade. He says, "Pivoting is important because of the feedback you receive along the way, however doing more than 2 pivots is bad."
Additionally, he encouraged young entrepreneurs to network more often, always look for ways to provide value, and to try to find a funder from a mutual contact (someone you trust and someone the funder is likely to trust). He says of investors, "they need assurances and recommendations from people they trust." His main source of deal flow is through friends with credibility.
On exits, he says there's a big debate in Israel at the moment about whether early exits are good. Pros and cons, he notes. Having an early exit leaves a lot of value on the table but if you want a bigger exit, later...you obviously increase the risk because it will take more time.
I also ran into Stephanie Czerny who is one force behind the DLD Conference, held every year in Munich Germany. If you haven't been, you MUST - I keep meaning to return it was so good, if only January didn't present so many deadlines. I love these guys! Not only is the content and networking top notch, but their hearts are in the right place -- they're doing great things for the industry and world.
In the main room, we then moved into physical objects, you know, real tangible products you can feel. The team from Sphero gave a demo on stage of their robotic ball, which has mechanics and two way wireless communication.
They're using 6 axis IMu (essentially a navigation system) so they know where Sphero is going. Think of it as a robotics gaming system.
They said on stage, "We think there's a continuum where games live inside augmented reality and we're trying to mash and bridge the virtual and the real." He adds, "a system of this nature requires strong computational power and you have to build interfaces in virtual and physical world."Ubooly also wants to bridge this world, but for kids aged 4-9. CEO Carly Gloge was on the LeWeb stage showing a stuffed animal that comes to life when an iPhone is stuck inside it using voice recognition.
The "toy" suggests games to the kids in real time and gives feedback on their participation based on the phone’s accelerometer. Price point is cheap and perhaps one of the reasons, it seemed to receive positive feedback. Current going price is around $29.95.
Lockitron also got quite a bit of buzz at the event and apparently others think its cool too - they've already placed some $2.2 million in pre-orders for the device.
The device is a smartphone=controlled keyless door lock. You can reserve one with a shipping date of late May 2013 for $179.
I hung out with the HAPILABS guys who were showing off their HAPIfork, which will be unveiled at CES next month. The HAPIfork is an electronic fork that monitors your eating habits, giving you precise information about your eating schedule and alerting you with the help of indicator lights and a gentle vibration when you are eating too fast.
Below is CEO Fabrice Boutain showing off their first prototype.
The other cool thing I saw was Australian-based LIFX, a revolutionary new lightbulb that takes something that we all use in our homes, and makes it smarter and more efficient. It was launched on Kickstarter, where they raised over $1.3 million.
The LIFX lightbulb is a WiFi enabled, multi-color, energy efficient LED light bulb that you control with your iPhone or Android. How cool is that? See the below video to learn more.
I had an opportunity to meet and chat with the founder of San Francisco-based ReAllocate, who is not about launching a new social media apps or anything that will connect things to the Internet or the Internet to things.
ReAllocate is a global network of engineers, designers and entrepreneurs empowering under served communities through technology and innovation to improve quality of life. I love what they're doing!
They call themselves "ReAllocators" and they engage in digital storytelling to inspire participation, promote collaboration, and raise awareness about humanitarian causes. I hope to visit them state-side.
They supports three program areas that intertwine to create an infrastructure that supports sustainable development through education, ecosystems, equality, and economics. Learn a little bit more about what they're doing in Alaska and in Japan.
I also had fun hanging out with the UK Trade & Investment folks as well. Did I mention all the after events? It's no wonder everyone who ventures to Paris every December for LeWeb is so happily wiped out at the end of it - fois gras, French bordeaux, dark chocolate, crepes, fabulous coffee and more.
In traditional Loic and Geraldine style, they managed to nail a top notch act for the speaker dinner. Four girls in an act called ESCALA wowed the crowd with their violins and energy. See my write-up on them in We Blog the World's Music Section.
The Dublin guys also did a meet-up at a place called Delaville Cafe on Boulevard de Bonne Nouvelle. It's a place my Paris buds didn't know about, but the ambiance was great, especially for group gatherings. They too do great things for the industry between their Founders event, Dublin Web Summit and other initiatives. And, I have to admit, like the French, I have a soft spot for the Irish and I love Dublin.
Yet another successful LeWeb, an event I look forward to every December. Loic and Geraldine know how to curate an incredibly bright group of people who are working on things that will help shape technology as we know it and as a result, life as we know it.
I love the initiatives coming out of Europe and LeWeb is the best place in Europe for that global conversation that bridges what's happening on the continent and the rest of the world!!
For hoots, check out my review on UBER's launch at LeWeb (aka in Paris) last year, my LeWeb round-up from 2010, as well as a fun post from 2006 praising the food, suggesting that American conference organizers could learn a lot from their French counterparts.
December 14, 2012 in Conference Highlights, Europe, Events, On France, On Innovation, On Mobile & Wireless, On Robotics, On Technology, Social Media, Videos, WBTW, Web 2.0 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
December 06, 2012
Paris: Absorbing the Many Sides & Moods of Her
Paris has a funny way about her and yes, I'm sure she's a her. She's all the things a her can be: beautiful, moody, complex, dynamic, essential, turbulent, pensive, fashionable, delicious and vivacious.
I've been meandering through her alleys, eating her crepes and sipping her coffee every December for years now. I've never shied away from her nor have I ever rejected her....she has that way about her of pulling you in like gravity, the force of which is so powerful you find yourself agreeing with her even if she toys with your patience from time-to-time.
This year, as I thought about her brittle wet days and nights, as she is every December, I realized I was hesitant to go. She wasn't egging me on and part of me feared: Am I done with Paris? Is she done with me? I contemplated the thought but only briefly as I realized my dismissal of her was only because I was so preoccupied with the year 2012 and seeing it come to an end.
Far too many heady reflective messages this year....the ones that call you to challenge things you once believed were crystal clear only to discover they were muddier and murkier than a pond on Detroit's south side during a lightening storm.
It's not as if I needed a 'soulful' place to visit...not that Paris doesn't have its fair share of soul. More than a soulful city however, Paris is an invigorating one, one which re-ignites lost creativity and inspires the artist within. Who doesn't need a creative light and inspiration regardless of what stage in life they're in I thought? And yet, I reflected on one insightful early December night before I boarded the plane, I want silence, not noise, warm balmy nights, not icy windy ones, clear blue skies that hurt my eyes from their brightness, not gray cloudy ones, and warm brothy soups, not sizzling duck with a glass of Bordeaux.
But then I remembered all the drizzly rainy cold days and nights with Paris below my feet and how many of them I spent with her alone. Ahhh yes, Paris alone. Most people don't think about her that way - they head there when they want to propose to a loved one, take in a romantic weekend away, surprise someone with an anniversary present, or simply to experience the allure of her magnificence, the allure Hemingway and other greats have written novels about since anyone could.
Alone is when Paris really shines, I thought to myself and I've more often had her to myself than not, so why would this year be any different? She'll surprise me in a different way like she always does, I told myself. It will rain since she's rarely given me sunshine and I will hover under some broken umbrella on a corner somewhere savoring a piece of dark chocolate that was beautifully wrapped in 3 colored foil with a golden blue ribbon.
I knew the shop, the many shops I could go to for such a delight and marvel in its decadence the moment I stepped back out onto the wet pavement. I knew Paris would be good for that or for a plate of mussels near Saint Germain des Pres. Or for her lights. Her beauty. Her mystery. Her endless cafes where you could sit for hours over a dark roasted coffee in a cup the size of a thumb nail or one large enough to be a soup cup.
I wondered about the latest boot and shoe fashion and what St. Paul's window displays would bring me, or the beer I'd have with a journalist friend who always insists on meeting near the Republique and I always say yes even though I'd take grapes over hops any day. I considered a couple business colleagues who would roll their eyes when I pleaded for old world charm when they simply wanted to take in a modern brasserie or cafe. Then, there is my friend who has lived there for nearly thirty years, who remains as enthusiastic and endearing about life itself as he was when I first met him on that Eastern African island where we were stuck for weeks because there was no boat, rig or plane that could bring us back to the mainland.
I remembered one year where I had more time than most and walked ten miles of her wet cold streets every day for two weeks. At the end of each day after I had killed two or three of those $5 umbrellas because the wind blew them apart, I'd trek back to the apartment where I was staying, which had an unobstructed view of the Eiffel Tower from its kitchen. Every night, the Tower was magnificent and looked like it was close enough to touch from my balcony, the vibrancy of its lights rightfully overpowering anything else near it. Waiting for me was either a graceful or complex Bordeaux (I never knew which one I'd get) and some dark chocolate.
On the way, I'd stop at a corner near La Motte Picquet Grenelle's metro station and order a crepe with ham and mushrooms and because I was there so often, I didn't have to explain daily why I didn't want cheese, something that confuses anyone who lives in Paris, French or not. I wondered if the same man was there, the same man who'd smile every time I ordered the same thing night after night.
"Poivre?" he asked the first time. "Beaucoup, beaucoup," I responded. As he was about to fold the crepe from the piping hot skillet and scoop into a paper plate, I stopped him and said, "plus de poivre s'il vous plait." He looked at me in disbelief as if to say that any more pepper atop his perfectly crafted crepe would destroy the flavors inside. Perhaps he thought, "damn yank, she doesn't have a clue," on that one cold December night, the first time I bought a crepe from him. Over time, the smiles increased and he even helped me navigate a very long walking route one day on my crumpled damp paper map and although he kept reinforcing that it was too far to walk and why wouldn't I take the metro, he gave me advice anyway. And, we never had to talk about "poivre" again for he sprinkled the perfect amount on my ham and mushroom crepe with no cheese every day until I left.
Why was I fighting her I thought? Reflection time aside, doesn't Paris always take me in whether I am in a state of chaos, glory, beauty or solitude? Doesn't she always give back even if there are some cuts and bruises along the way? You know, the side that many foreigners complain about. The French "attitude," they receive because they aren't sophisticated enough, cultured enough, educated enough, polished enough, fashionable enough, French enough or French at all.
We've all been there and yet, a variation of it exists in many cultures, albeit more common in cosmopolitan cities. Yet, with the exception of Buenos Aires and Tokyo, I've been to all the other major cities around the world and truth be told, Paris does have more attitude. It's France's New York, posing the same directness and attitude but with more charm unless of course if you happen to be British or American.
New Yorkers feel the same way about their city, as if there is no other city greater in the world and why would you go anywhere else, even for a weekend for crying out loud?
I was no longer worried about why I brushed Paris aside this year. Once my flight was booked, the hesitation went away and even after looking at the 70% rain weather report, I moved forward packing warm socks, waterproof boots, mittens, hats and scarves and one of those many mini $5 umbrellas I was due to destroy in the coming days ahead. I wondered as I thought about the cloudy gray skies that would meet my gaze when I landed at Charles De Gaulle, what she had in store for me at the end of this very long year.