September 03, 2011
Eastern Europe Attitudes Shift as Tourism Leads & Corrupts the Way
Life was different and people were present more often than not, so lacking even in a 1980 and 1990-something America.
The wild west didn't have cell phones and we weren't glued to social networks, yet we still weren't as present and as engaged as Europeans were, at least that was my first experience of the place -- on the continent and the UK.
I've been back to Europe dozens of times since I moved back to the states, but more often than not, the goal was less about being committed to a life there and more about networking or sadly, even shopping. Or, a conference. Yawn.
In recent years, at meet-ups and conferences, everyone had their laptops open and cell phones handy so the "chat" was more to it than it was with each other. Yes, even in Europe, largely because the events were within a particular ecosystem, the one I live in inside the bowels of Silicon Valley -- technology.
I went on a walkabout to London (one of the places I lived btw) a few years back and decided to disengage from technology and re-engage with people and my trusty Canon 7D. One result aside from quality time with old South African and English friends in the burbs was a photo book entitled: Faces of London. I probably "shot" 10,000 photos during my time there across at least a dozen neighborhoods and had nothing short of a blast.
Even though I had "alone" time on my European "city" trips (Paris, Munich, Dublin, Rome, etc) in recent years, I didn't have the same kind of deja vu moments I had in Prague and Budapest over the past couple of weeks.
It started in Budapest where I met with a few start-ups and by chance, was lucky to be there for their annual "Independence Day" equivalent. I stayed along the river at a boutique 4 star hotel, one with a fabulous view of Parliament.
While I have done business with western and northern Europe, I haven't directly worked with Eastern Europe. In London, you can do a walkabout and get completely lost in the fabric of the city and no one will quite notice.
In Eastern Europe, even though physically I could blend in with the city's fabric, there are less tourists and the kind of tourists are likely different than what you'd find on the streets near Knightsbridge and the UK's own Parliament. The same applies to Paris.
What I forgot about the east was how structured things were despite the fact that in many ways, their bohemian past makes them rule-breakers rather than conformers. Like the rest of Europe, they seem to be obsessed with privacy so conversations about social media tend to get interesting.
AND, like southern Europe, things move at a snail's pace. If I send an email at 10 pm on a Friday night at home in California, chances are that email is answered by Saturday morning if I'm pinging someone in the states, east OR west coast. If you want to continue a discussion from a Friday meeting that went from 10 to 2 on a Friday, chances are you won't pick up that dialogue until Monday afternoon or Tuesday at the earliest. (not abnormal of course but in the land of technology start-ups, no response for 3 days feels like an eternity, at least to this overly connected baby).
I was hooked up with an iPhone on Tmobile which didn't work more than it did. That said, there were a number of free Internet cafes in both Budapest and Prague so if I really wanted to give the cities amiss, miss out on the history and culture and merely be connected, it wouldn't be too difficult to do so. Hotels still charge a fortune a day for connectivity and it's not always that fast.
Being connected and "staying" connected makes it pretty hard to truly be present with a destination's history, antiquity and human stories, all of which capture 700 year old castles, its walls and ceilings not to mention the nearby cathedral's altars and stained glass windows.
What was interesting about this trip was the polarity of things. On one hand, I was not as inspired to "shoot" as much as I normally am; somehow I anticipated I'd shoot 30,000 photos or more of romantic Prague, pegged the Paris of the east.
Yet, because of the commercialism I couldn't seem to escape from, I found it hard to be connected to my surroundings because in the foreground, there were countless groups of tourists with cameras and brightly colored sneakers and segway tours with loud-mouthed guides shouting at the dozen of so people in its wake.
Even in Paris, one of the most visited city in the world, I can still barter in a market, but in Budapest and Prague, they were less willing to barter and their prices were steep, i.e., $40 for a barrette sold by a street vendor, $70 for a plate of salad, pasta (no meat) and one glass of wine, $200 for pottery, and so on.
While entrepreneurism wasn't at the core of their attitudes, something had shifted and it was much worse in Prague than Budapest which is much less commercial.
In Prague, tour buses zipped in, leaving droves of people in groups who followed those in front of them like sheep not really lisening to their tour guide who spent far too long telling the history of a brick statue than anyone should.
"Dribble, dribble, 14th century, dribble dribble," her voice echoed as about a quarter of the audience tried to follow along while others snapped shots of the statue they'll never remember the name of later. Then there were others who were merely starring off into the distance, still trying to recover from jetleg.
I ducked under and above the dribble and the wall of people who stood so close that it was hard for me to find my way to a free space. Alas, freedom. Blue sky. Clouds. Soft wind. Breeze. And then, more of them pile out, clinging to each other for safety and belonging, only later to be found at some Americanized or Anglicized pub where everyone speaks English and all the menus have prices listed in Euros as their primary currency.
In Prague, I found myself in angst by day four, ready to declare Prague the Eastern European Disneyland, a city who sadly sold its soul to the yanks, with its McDonalds and KFC scattered through its old town. Local artists have grown so accustomed to the tour buses and wealthy tourists that small photos were $30 and above on the Charles Bridge and a small regular coffee was about $4 a pop.
Grant you, I began to realize quite awhile ago now that the U.S. was on its way to being a third world country and its currency was going along with that title: Thank You George Bush. It was no more prominent in a place like Prague where prices felt more like Paris than East Europe, some of which was the result of the dollar being in the toilet. 20-something year olds even remarked how they remembered the dollar being at 40 when they were younger (5-8 years ago) and today it stands at about 15-16 to the Czech currency making most purchases a serious consideration more than an impulse buy.
Other aspects of disenchantment and disillusion had to do with the fact that Prague had become so commercialized that it was hard to break free from its Disney-like facade. The only way to avoid it was to jump on a metro or tram, choose a funky neighborhood ten or so stops out, get off and start walking. (away from town).
And, so I did. There was no other choice really. Not wanting to declare Prague a commercial write-off (it's beauty is far too magnificent and its musicians too awe-inspiring), I discovered side-streets and neighborhoods that locals told me.
I requested grit and grunge. I requested working class communities. I requested graffiti. I requested former bomb shelters. I requested local pubs and bars. I requested cafes with local prices and local service. I requested parks and steps, stairs and alleyways. I requested stone walls, weathered and torn. I requested places that didn't have places to serve me at all, but merely buildings, houses and terraces where people lived and life was exactly the same every day.
The discovery process began of course, but like every European city, you really need a few months (a year is better) to really get acquainted with its smell, culture, nuances and quirks. The more I meandered outside the inner walls, the longer I wanted to stay. The more I got stuck in old town and the tourist areas, which seem to spread for miles in Prague, the more I wanted to leave. (even Paris felt less saturated I thought).
I met 26 year old Marek, who told me his life story. I found him on a side street and intrigued by the fact that he was in old-fashioned overalls, I learned about his trips to various countries, all of which were escapes from commitment and a "real job," the primary reason he left Prague in the first place.
He would work for a month or so at high wages, so he'd have enough in his pocket for a few months of travel and then the cycle would repeat itself. (not uncommon for adventure-types in their early twenties, but I got the sense that Marek -- a high school drop-out -- would be doing this two decades from now.
He lived on "weed" and not much else. Connections with interesting people and diversity seemed to be important to him and after awhile (a long while), he admitted to the main thing missing in his life: a woman in his life, just one. Aren't we so much more alike than we are different, despite our demographics, despite our income levels, despite our goals?
Then there was the placid nature of my late twenty year massage therapist in Prague. She didn't seem to know the protocols of more formerly trained therapists yet she listened to what you needed and responded like a robot. I found it hard to find a male masseuse and wondered how much that had to do with protocols and culture than it did interests, norms and trends.
Everyone seemed to be afraid to break the rules, whether that was giving you a cup of tea 15 minutes after the breakfast dining room closed or sampling a taste of ice cream because there were 25 flavors to choose from. (on that front, the ice cream in both Budapest and Prague were so well presented, you thought for sure you must be in Italy not Eastern Europe -- and might I add, ten times more tasty than the U.S.)
My experience of Prague was about as close to my memory of it from the mid-eighties as Disneyland is from central Africa. Because of its intense overly processed structure, I had to move beyond my notion that Prague sold out to the yanks -- from its coffee to its tour buses to its castle tours and postcards to its outlandish prices.
The talent of the local musicians made most of this melt away, not to mention the incredible textures in the bridge walls and other antiquated buildings in the city. Then there was the outstanding art, conversations with local vendors and shop owners and overdoing it daily with chocolate, wine, duck, venison, lamb, foie gras and other such delicacies without feeling guilty for taking it all in.
Certainly a different experience than twenty years ago or even ten. The East has caught up with the west even if its governments have not. Go but go with more research and be sure to get out of the city centers into the neighborhoods and have conversations with people -- young and old -- and hear their stories. After all, isn't that what makes every trip memorable?
August 22, 2011
The Music Doesn't STOP in Budapest!
I feel as if I'm about ten, have just come back from music camp and my life is full of endless possibilities. It's as if I fell upon a candy fountain oozing with different vibes and rhythms from around the world, and they're firing out rainbows of melodies, each one asking me to be part of its creation.
This isn't a mash-up and I'm not even online. All day, I wandered the streets of Budapest getting fed, not with food, but with song. The soul is so full after a day of song that it forgets about food, even with plenty of it around.
With Vienna only a couple of hours away, I felt as if I could have been within its walls, the music permeatration was so intense. Yet, it's not Vienna, but -- some would say -- its less cultured cousin, Budapest, split by the Danube River so that Budapest doesn't even call its city its own entirely - one side gets Buda and the other gets Pest.
My first and only memory of the place was in the mid-eighties and music was first and foremost in my mind, even in an era when East Europe was mostly gray and full of restrictions. I was very young and had not yet been exposed to composition -- REAL composition that is, despite the fact that both art and music teachers had tried. We were in some traditional old world restaurant eating goose & duck and drinking Cabernet before I knew you could have orgasms on the stuff. Around us swam violin players who played throughout the entire meal, one which lasted six hours long and ended with a $25 bill including several deep, luscious reds.
I remembered the violin because both players were so damn good. Every form of expression, whether it be on the keyboard, or on a blank white canvas, happens for me at a visceral level. Back then however, I wouldn't have known a great violin player from a good one and yet, I was stopped in my tracks.
The musicians forced me to stop eating and pay attention. They forced me to understand composition. They forced me to cry at their nearly perfect musical offering. They forced me to hear their texture, whether I was in the mood or ready to understand it or not.
Exceptional talent forces great things on you when you're ready to listen, which I almost always have been, other shortcomings aside.
Exceptional talent stops you in your tracks and then somehow, you're fundamentally changed because you listened and because you heard what they had to say.
Budapest spoke to me all day, starting with folk music at the top of the hill in some enclave within Buda Castle. It was "okay" (better than average), most definitely 'local' but more than anything else, the musicians were committed. God, I love that word. (it's probably because I live on the west coast of America now where I feel as if I'm swimming among the least committed people I've ever settled down with and that's after spending time "settling" in 11 countries).
After the "okay but very committed" folk music performance, I fell upon traditional music which included the top Hungarian dancers from around the world, each one doing a chosen number within a three hour period. All of them were, yes...you got it, committed.
Each in their native custume attire, they flew out on stage ready to perform, none of them fearful or worried about people shooting them with a still or video camera, none of them caring where their "performance -- their committed performance" would show up.
In the states, where the Internet and social media reign, its amazing how much performers care about the potential publicity a 2 minute clip would lose in revenue despite how much publicity and connection it would generate. Then there's their publicists, agents, handlers and middle men.
The Hungarian performers said "bring it on," as their committed selves showed up and played 200% in front of the camera and when the light was no longer green. I get that Hungarian culture doesn't embrace entrepreneurship and so you could argue that their lack of loving green paper has kept them behind socially and economically.
Having an entrepeneur spirit myself, there's no question when I saw a tent loaded with interesting pottery created by the Secondary Technical-Vocational School of Folk Arts and Secondary Academic Grammar School, that I was annoyed that the art was not for sale when every other tent was collecting money for their 'creations.' Let them sell I, I thought. "Teach them entrepreneurship. Profits from their pottery could go towards a future dream," I said to the late thirty-something very blue-eyed woman who struggled with my response. (Below, their beautiful masterpieces)
I knew she understood some of what I said but also knew that my plea was one that would be noted but not transferred into something actionable in the next 60 days, and so I made my pitch, told her the work was stunning and moved on.
From folk to traditional to guitar (one called the ZITHER, which had me mezmorized in the same way that the Indonesian gamelan does does), to world music and Mbaye Ndiaye & the Afro Magic Band, which has its roots from Senegal but did a nice job blending African, reggae, jazz and global fusion together.
Within the hour, I was up on stage dancing with their lead drummer (solo btw) and shortly thereafter dancing with Gabor stage right, a blue-eyed Russian, who while may have been adorable, had so much alcohol on his breath that I had to politely decline after our first attempt at a cha cha to a slow-ish African jazz number.
The performers went out of their way to bring the children on stage and coach them on not just how to dance, but how to move by feeling their way to the rhythm simply by listening. It was fascinating and I loved every minute of it.
I was sorry to see Mbaye Ndiaye pack up...their energy and spirit only made me crave more of it. And so, I meandered over to another area of the massive hill which houses the castle only to discover more folk dancing and guitar, soon to be followed by traditional Gypsy (also spelled Gipsy) music which carried on for another 3 hours.
While it may be hard to dance on uneven cobblestone ground that is well over 500 years old, it was even harder not to try. I ran into a Scientologist who looked like Joseph (yes, Jesus' Joseph) who was selling corn on the cob while simultaneously trying to convert me in VERY broken English, all while tapping his foot to the Gypsy band.
I had already gleefully become ten again and full before I left the castle, when I suddenly fell upon more live music. I was on a search for one of the old world bars, bistros, cafes or restaurants recommended by my host, friends and a bunch of online pals who sent me great suggestions via Twitter and Facebook.
I had crossed the chain bridge, hung a right looking for the decadent chocolate stand on the street (she must only set up on Friday and Saturday nights I quietly cursed), knowing that I had been thinking about that dark chocolate pistachio and cranberry creation for half the day. I asked for directions from a local cafe to two different locations and was told it was a 25 minute walk.
The backpack was heavy with camera lenses and a fabulous set of hand-painted coasters I picked up with a local artist along the way, yet I was in it for the haul, so re-adjusted my bag and foot bandaids (necessary for any Europe trip where you're wearing sandals and plan to do a lot of walking) and began my journey towards my Hungarian bistro on the other side of town.
And then I heard it. Clapping. Voices. Cello. Violin. The violin...ahhh, it purred. This was no ordinary violinist, something I could tell from four blocks away. I was told to scout down Lakatos and hear him play if he was in town for a performance but little did I know that I'd get a surprise I hadn't anticipated: Zoltan Maga accompanied by the Vac Symphony Orchestra, playing outside the Szent Istvan Bazilika, a church named for Saint Stephen I, the first King of Hungary.
Imagine the scene: a gorgeous, ancient white-stoned church named after a Hungarian King on a warm summer night.
The moon was out, glistening over hundreds of people sitting outside, sprawled on chairs and the ground while an orchestra of cellos, violins, tubas, saxophones and clarinets played. Zoltan Maga's passion was addictive as his talent for the violin led the way, together with the conductor and nothing -- I mean nothing -- could have distracted you from the two hours of musical joy.
What I failed to remember is the influence of Austrian music greats at the time when Hungary used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Because of that, people appreciate classical music and embrace it. The country combines composers (Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn) coming from Austria/Germany with strong Hungarian folk and gypsy blends.
AND, Hungary has its own greats, the most famous being Liszt, followed by Bartok, two of the all-time greats. Kodaly is probably next followed by Kurtag and Ligeti, who are two of the most prominent classical composers from the last 60 years -- both Hungarian.
To top it off, they have an amazing number of top-rank conductors: Ormandy, Szell, Dorati, Solti, Reiner, Kertesz, and Fischer. And then there's their pianists: Kocsis, Schiff, Fricsay.
Crikey, it's no wonder I felt like ten, that the world has endless possibilities and that incredible talent was following me around the city all day -- and night.
Thanks Budapest for the incredible memories and the musical talent, all of which was infused with so much passion and commitment that it made me dream of practicing piano again and the idea of searching for a saxophone teacher as soon I got home.
Below, Zoltan Krulik and the Makam Band!
August 20, 2011
The Connecting Flight, The One Following the Mad Tearing Run…
The flight is delayed and you have to make that connection….or else.
It seems to happen to me more often these days and I’m not sure if that’s the result of airlines having less planes available resulting in fewer connecting flights or the fact that systems are just breaking down.
Certainly, most of the internal systems are antiquated or ridiculously absurd and don’t have a lot of logic.
For example, recently I was on an Air France flight to Paris and had to catch a connection to Budapest. I saw the connection time on the flight itinerary and in “theory” it seemed fine. After all, it was a connecting flight and for some odd reason despite how much I’ve traveled, I thought there’d be one of those “side lanes” where you could transfer to another flight within Europe. You know, arrive at gate C and just walk down a hallway to Gate D and board your plane. Logical right?
The flight was actually on time (ish) however it took awhile to settle at the gate delaying gate arrival by 15’ish minutes. Again, in theory, I didn’t think I’d have a problem making the connection. After all, I was arriving in Gate C and I was departing out of Gate D (Gate D2 that is) from Charles de Gaulle Airport.
Sure, I knew it was massive but as I was scurrying out, the Air France agent assured me it was close, repeating the C and D twice, which certainly seemed logical to me as well.
I started with a brisk walk but not a sprinting one until I realized that D was nowhere close to C since the signs for it kept reappearing after every corner turn and after yet another walking escalator disappeared behind me, there was another one on the horizon with D2 off in the distance.
We’ve all done a short sprint but this one seemed to never end until I finally stopped to ask an Air France staffer who was lingering in a busy hallway with a clipboard pressed up against her. “Budapest D2” I gasped short of breath. “Pardon,” she replied. “BUDAPEST, DAY-EH DEUX” I said, gasping even more dying for my bottle of water which had fallen from my carry-on backpack by this point.
“Tout de doit and sortie,” she motioned. “Sortie,” I thought, NO, I don’t want Sortie, I have a connecting flight. When I heard Sortie and realized she wanted me to exit, I said to her exasperated, “I have a connecting flight, une connection a Budapest. Je ne reste pas ici a Paris.” She pointed straight ahead and repeated Sortie.
So what does a seasoned traveler do with 15 minutes to go, knowing that their flight “in theory” was supposedly already boarding. She sprints of course.
Now, I’m not a marathon runner and nor am I in the best shape of my life, but having grown up as an athlete, the muscle remains. In other words, it re-emerges when it needs to, in cases of emergency or when you know you’ve spent far too much time in front a PC monitor and your body is desperate for a little oxygen.
I was wearing out and not getting a minute of sleep on my 10 hour flight didn’t help matters. When I saw the long line through passport control, I panicked as my heart raced. “Fuck,” I thought, I really don’t want to miss this flight. It’s not that I mind getting stuck in Paris, but getting stuck at an airport waiting for a small plane heading east after a half day of travel across 4 time zones wasn’t my idea of fun. Besides, Hungary was waiting.
In fact, Hungary was calling in a loud voice, saying, “Renee, you’ve been to Paris hundreds of times, I’ve been waiting for your Gypsy spirit to come taste my wine, come eat my beef medallions and my goose pate.”
I firmly but politely grabbed another Air France rep explaining the urgency, flashing my ticket and pointing to my watch which I had just changed five minutes before the plane landed. She took pity on me and ushered me through an empty line, obviously waiting for loud, late, ill-mannered Americans like me. (after all, aren’t we all?)
Passport control man was in no hurry despite seeing me out of breath and sweating and I knew it didn’t help when I hurriedly said in my pathetic French, “Je ne reste pas ici, Je suis en retard pour mon vol de Budapest.”
Quietly I was cursing, thinking, what the hell are they giving me a stamp for when I’m going to be here for 15 minutes? I also knew that the number of pages and blocks which could be stamped was running out and I still had a few years left on this passport. Slowly and smugly, I got my stamp and flew like a bird running from a cat who hadn’t eaten in days.
Sortie was ahead of me but when I re-entered, I noticed that I was somehow standing in the middle of F. Where the hell did D go I thought? It looked like arrivals and I started to move from exasperated to pissed. What kind of connection was this I thought? 45 minutes to get through Immigration’s long line and find your way half way (no, all the way) across what should be one terminal (C to D)?
Here I could speak the language (enough anyway) and was sprinting like a failed marathon runner but one who had a reason to win, and yet boarding had already begun according to my ticket 20 minutes ago and I had not even gone through a NEW security gate.
Security found me amusing no doubt as I whipped off my belt with fury like I was ready to have quick and passionate sex with a 23 year old lover. My boots came flying off as did my jewelry and I was sweating up a storm, as if the sex was already over and it was the best I ever had.
My hair was tossled, my brow was wet, my light cover up was off which showed that I wasn’t wearing a bra.
FINALLY, a sexy polite French security agent who wasn’t 23 came to my rescue. He smiled as he assured me I would make my flight and that I was in D2. but still had to get to D70 WITHIN D2. But, he added, “it’s just around the corner. I’m trying to help.”
Carry me I thought, that’s how you can help. Show up in one of those airport mini-trucks that shuttle the handicapped and seniors and make the damn thing go faster than you think its capable of going. Whisk me away. Call them and tell them to hold the plane for 30 minutes and let’s do a driveby the Air France First Class Lounge for a Parisian cappuccino & some pate for the road and then drop me off in front of my plane.
I imagined him kissing my hand bidding me Au Revoir after he completely turned my nightmare mad dashing run across the entire Charles de Gaulle airport into a nice sweet travel memory.
Cursing under my breath but remaining focused like a good seasoned traveler always does, I made a hard “gauche” after exiting security where they confiscated my mini-bottle of Merlot from my last flight. I looked up and saw the number 58. Of course I was at 58 and of course, the Budapest flight would be 70, at the EEEENNNNNNDDD of the hall. And, so I sprinted.
Nothing about arriving in Paris felt like Paris but thankfully I had so many positive memories of Paris that it would be easy to give this one amiss.
Even if the plane didn’t screw around at the gate for 15-20 minutes, anyone would be hard pressed to make this connection with the long immigration line, the distance they had to travel, and the likelihood that they didn’t speak French if they got lost on the way…easy to do at Charles de Gaulle and easy to do if you’re not a seasoned travel.
Puffing (and huffing) and puffing, I flicked my passport and ticket at the woman standing behind the gate who was about as calm, collected and type Z as you can get.
It was 12:39 and the flight was supposed to take off (up in the air, take off) by 12:45 pm. Obviously the flight was late, so while I was catching my breathe, I asked how late it was. “It’s not late,” the woman behind her said.
Hmmm, I thought. No one was on the plane yet, I was informed they were still cleaning it, yet 6 minutes before take-off and they didn’t classify it as late. Welcome to Hungary I thought, although both agents were clearly French.
I did one of those circular paces that people do when they need to think for a minute. (clearly that is). I circled around 3 or 4 times and then made a slow-paced walk over to the coffee stand where I learned that a bottle of water with the horrific U.S. dollar exchange rate would cost me $8. Had I ever been to Europe when the U.S. dollar was weaker than the Canadian one? At a time, when there are plays, comedians and talk show hosts talking about China as the new super power and America as a third world country?
I didn’t want to think about the exchange rate or the likely $10 beers and $500 shoes that lay ahead which was unlikely to be the case in Hungary since they weren’t on the Euro and I figured I’d lay low and avoid purchases in Paris to and from until Obama fixed SOMETHING, anything, so I could return and buy those $500 shoes for $200 again.
I opted against the $8 water and flopped down on a bright pink “kitch” plastic couch that wrapped around a plant sitting in a bright pink "kitch" plastic pot. It only then occurred to me that I made my flight and as I was looking for napkins at a nearby café to wipe my sweaty body down, a 15 year old Italian girl came down and sat next to me, bumping into me twice when she did so, despite the fact that there was a ton of space on the other side of her.
As we boarded, I stripped down even more since the mad tearing sprint caught up with me and not only was I sweaty but I was baking.
As I got close to the entrance to the plane, I could see the Paris day through the open crack and feel the August sunshine and feel the warm breeze coming through, hitting my face, blowing my hair back just slightly. AHHH yes, Paris in the summer I thought.
There’s nothing like boarding a plane from a place where the weather is fabulous knowing that you’re going to a place you really want to see and knowing that the weather is fabulous there too. The last time I had been to Budapest was in the mid-eighties. Yes, really.
I flopped in my seat, which had no one next to me and the seats were slightly wider than normal with an actual place to sit two drinks to my left. Recline worked. I was in the front. The Hungarian flight attendant handed me a bottle water when she saw the way I looked and I settled in for my 2+ hour flight on Malev, an airline I had never flown before.
Budapest, I reflected as my heart rate started to finally slow down. Gypsies, artists, dreamers, foodies, lovers of wine, musicians, old souls and historians. I remembered an “old world” dining experience I had with an ex-boyfriend so many years ago, where the violin players circled around us and I thought of how young I was. A kid really. What did I know of violin players and good red wine? Or duck, liver, pork, mousse, goulash and cured ham?
And then I smiled when I remembered I was coming to meet technologists not gypsies. From Silicon Valley to Hungary because there’s a wealth of incredible engineers in Budapest I was told and knew I would soon discover. As for my host?
Look for the bald man he had said. I thought, “would there really only be one bald Hungarian at the airport?” “Some say I’m as wide as I am tall,” he had added. A little more data I thought, certainly more than Air France provided me about my connecting flight.
I drifted off curled in an arch, my last visual memory of blue sky and powdery white clouds through my window, knowing that Germany was below us by that point. Hungary is waiting for me I thought as I drifted off into my thirty minute nap. Hungary is waiting for me.
August 20, 2011 in America The Free, Europe, New England, New York, On Africa, On Australia, On China, On Costa Rica, On East Africa, On France, On Geo-Location, On Guatemala, On India, On Italy, On Japan, On People & Life, On South Africa, On Spain, Reflections, South America, Travel, WBTW | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
August 05, 2011
Technology is Like a Farmers Market: Feel the Peaches & Make a Bet
Thanks to my industry pal David Frank for sharing this with me recently. The quote is spot on and brought a smile.
"Life is a farmers market when it comes to technology; you have to walk the aisles...feel the peaches and make a bet. BUT, but you have to walk the aisles.."
Banning Social Media in Schools = Modern Book Burning?
What is the impact of having schools ban students from using social media during school time as if it doesn't exist or doesn't add value to learning? Is this the modern version of burning books?
August 04, 2011
Teaching Kids to Program Around the WorldTeaching Kids Programming is using social media to scale guerrilla teaching. Here's a bit more about them including their Twitter feed so you can follow along.
July 07, 2011
Meet Google+: Curate or Die!
Google+ has been "out" in limited beta for close to two weeks now -- give or take -- and I finally found a window to explore. I waited of course for the same reason I waited on Facebook when it was new...an early version of anything means I'll lose a days (weeks) of my time. Testing early products is a time sync yet if you're in the technology industry, you waste a lot of time in front of big and small monitors alike, hour after hour after hour. We've all been there.
Because it's Google, you can't really ignore it. Unlike the zillion other social media and so called "productivity" apps I get pitched on a regular basis, Google is the giant Big Brother we all hate and love and bottom line, if you don't know what they're up to at an intimate level, it's hard to walk tall in Silicon Valley.
And so I dove in like a lion who hasn't eaten in two days, the same way I dive into all apps...it's one of the reasons product management and UI gurus love me if I actually commit to the time, which is becoming harder and harder to get me to do.
After four hours, I had the same reaction after spending time on any new "tech tool or service" that takes me away from time in the physical world. Do I really need another social network that glues me to a monitor and in this case, weds me even more to Google's world than I already am?
Of course I get why Google is doing this and would do the same thing if I were them. Facebook is the closed wall garden giant that has millions of us couped up inside their massive restricted "room" and there are so many things they do wrong, why not take a stab at it if you had the budget the size of Google?
On the surface, you might think this is Facebook with a Google UI, but without the apps and bells & whistles since its still so new. But Google has other plans and those who have worked with them on partnership deals know that they cross their t's, dot their i's and have nothing but a leadership position in mind.
What intrigues (and also exhausts) me more than anything about people's behavior whenever a new "platform" comes to town, is how consumed early adopters are, myself included.
By consumed, I don't just mean getting an account and inviting friends into your new "system" (like we all need another "system of people" to manage), but the hundreds of comment threads speculating whether Google+ is going to be the platform which will kill Facebook for good. (all 700 million Facebook users that is).
How many comments posing questions have you seen which ask: how much time have you spent on Facebook and Twitter since you started using Google+? Of course, the early adopters are spending all their time on Google+ because it's still a novelty and part of it, dare I say, is the curiosity to see who's on it early, what they're saying and doing and to score some points or badges we don't even know about yet. "Oh yeah baby, I'm an early Google+ user and that makes me a cool cat." Remember that Buzz Lightyear was glamorous and hip compared to Woody when he first arrived on the scene but it was Woody who Andy had the hardest time giving up at the tail end of Toy Story 2.
Yet, we all flock to the new glamorous platform (aka toy) in hopes that they'll do a better job than Facebook and then we'll spend massive amounts of times (weeks not days) rebuilding our network on ONE more place on the web. And of course Google unlike Facebook won't be a walled garden or use our private data for any other purpose than for the value and usefulness of their customers.
Google+ is more than just another new social network and you can guarantee Google is thinking far beyond what we see today, yet we're all spending a helluva lot of time in it. BTW, I think it's shocking that Google Apps don't currently work with Google+, something you think they'd sync up before their launch, beta or not.
What is cool is the ability to select and toss people in circles. It's also fun and addictive, far too addictive in fact to be healthy. The UI is sweet, however it is still too cumbersome to add people to categories, especially when you want to add someone to more than one, which I do often.
Note that while my geekier friends tell me tagging is enuf, I want my damn categories - it's the way my brain thinks and works, so having a "circle" that is geographical as well as topical is important to me.
The + seems to be the key thing here, but in order to use it, guess what? Your profile needs to be public. The "wear your life on your sleeves and in every corner of the Internet" folks always say to me, "give it up Renee, privacy is dead" yet perhaps some of us still want just a little corner of privacy we call our own after hours of being public public public everywhere, all the time. People forget how valuable our check-in and content contributions are to Google, Foursquare and big brands.
Having a public profile of course makes our posts more useful to everyone else in your network, but that info is more useful to Google and all the vendors and brands who want to sell something to you. Don't get me wrong; I'm a huge fan of human curation as an integral and wedded partner to search in order to improve the experience we have today, but at what point do you sit back and ask how valuable your time is? When will companies start giving something back? And, I don't mean making me mayor of Hooters and giving me a free coffee every tenth check in.
Google says of +'s value and having that public profile: "this helps people see who recommended that tasty recipe or great campsite. When you create a profile, it's visible to anyone and connections with your email address can easily find it." They do note that your +1’s are stored in a new tab on your Google profile which you can show to the world, or keep it private and just use it to personally manage the ever-expanding record of things you love around the web. Here's a link to their video which takes you through the why +1 and how to start using it.
I'll admit that the latter is very useful as a curation tool and the UI is definitely more consumer-friendly than predecessors and others in its league who have been trying to make some headway for years.
While we're on the topic of UI, creating a comment from the upper right is annoying. Perhaps its just that I'm so used to being able to do it from a box in front of me but it "feels" like an extra step. Also when I post a comment in Facebook I simply hit return and it posts automatically whereas in the Google+ window, I have to physically hit that green post comment button.
I'm also not a particular fan of the UI for uploading photos. People take their photos personally, whether they're amateurs or a prosumer shooter like me. There should be a way to organize your photo albums the way you want with a customized display you want your readers/friends to see. And btw, like Facebook, does Google own your photos & everything else you post in its growing social garden? Just curious. You should be too.
The photo feature I do like is the photo display from others in your network - see below: (though what would be much more valuable is to choose what photos you'd like to see and not see from your network - quality vs quantity please. I'd much rather see more of Thomas Hawk and less of a friend who shoots underexposed shots from their iPhone for example).
Other schtuff: there's a cool incoming feature which allows you to see posts from people who are following you, making it a compelling way to interact with friends and fans without having to follow them back (Twitter model...though lists and streams within Hootsuite make this very doable for me and it is like reading 6 newspapers from across the world every morning -- I don't mean streams here, I mean accounts...yeah I have that many). Sigh.
This would be an appropriate time to beg the Hootsuite development team: Add Google+ to my dashboard tomorrow please - we're all far too busy to manage one more tab, one more window, one more stream.
YET, here we are playing in all these networks and spending a lot of time doing so. It's astonishing to me how much time we spend sharing and consuming in these walled online gardens. Sure, there's value for us or we wouldn't be doing it but my point is that there's more value for brands and marketers and we don't get a financial high five back for our time: our valuable contribution of content time. And in Google+'s case, our valuable human curation time. (see Steve Rosenbaum's book: Curation Nation).
The personalization and recommendation aspsect of Google+ clearly isn't new (Yelp, StumbleUpon, Digg, Facebook likes, retweets, #FF's, the list goes on), but coming from Google, the massive Silicon Valley giant that knows how to exude its extraordinary power in the U.S. and beyond, we are all getting sucked into building yet ONE MORE SOCIAL NETWORK.
I saw someone post a comment suggesting that they might replace their Tumblr blog with Google+. Really? So, who owns that content? ...Your content? If you don't have the domain, aren't you placing your valuable contributions and ideas (visual, audio and other) into Google's hands?
I still think there's huge value in a site that you create from scratch - your own design, look-and-feel, personality, font, photos -- all of it. It comes from you and you alone and there, the world can see a more holistic view of what you're about and what makes you tick. It doesn't mean that you can't and shouldn't push some of that content out to Google+, Digg, Facebook or Twitter, or wherever your fans, customers and readers spend their time, but it should mean that you think about what content is relevant for what platform and be discerning about what you share where.
And now, because I make my living inside the technology industry, I have no choice but to lose time inside the bowels of Google+ observing the every growing circle of people who sign up every day, ensuring that I'm part of a new ecosystem that I can't afford not to be part of even if I really don't want or need another network to manage.
Why dive in if you resist it so you ask? It's like not going to that god awful high school party that the tacky cheerleader hosted at her house. More than anything you hated going, but not to go meant that you were left out of the conversation and being left out of the conversation is death in social media. I was one of the rare ones who was found at the football parties, the artist parties, the late night on the rock parties and the druggie parties and there was very little overlap between the four. But man, did I have perspective because of it.
People had their communities just like they do online today and even though there is always some overlap, you pick a tribe along the way and there you stay. Choosing more than one tribe makes you a great observer of behavior, a great marketer and a great curator but it also means you may not be quite as immersed as those who only choose one and have no interest getting to know or understand another.
In spending hours on Google+ observing behavior of a few of my tribes, one of the things I have noticed is an obvious one: the overlap in "friends and contacts" between people I've known for over ten years is larger and our social graph tends to be more alike despite the fact that our tastes and jobs are very different and have even changed along the way.
The other thing that I noticed is just how fragmented my networks are, something you can see within Facebook, but it's not as visually obvious as it is inside Google+. And, despite how many people I know around the world, Google+ even in its early days is a reminder how many people I don't know, which left me thinking about something I refer to a lot lately: "we don't know what we don't know."
It could be interesting to try a new exercise: join a new tribe, one which has an entirely new set of contacts from any of your former tribes just to see what it feels, looks and tastes like. If you're an artist, choose science contacts, if you're an academic, choose business management ones...(only). Try to play in and engage with that tribe for awhile to see what kind of data you get, the unique distinctions you pick up along the way and what your own contributions and perspectives mean within the textures of a whole new world, a whole new tribe. I digress, but it's something to think about...
I'm putting on my anthropology and sociologist hat on, the results of which would be nothing short of eye candy for someone like me who has lived in 11 countries and thrives on learning new shit from diverse cultures.
While all of this is interesting, I see the value of the brand spanking new Google+, like the UI and its potential, here's my point:
- Do you ever wonder whether you'll wake up one day after spending thousands of hours building and rebuilding yet a new social network and commenting to endless threads of fodder, that it will all seem rather pointless even though it was highly addictive and "felt" important at the time? (note that most successful CEOs I've talked to always emphasize the difference between important and urgent when making decisions of how to spend their time)
- Do you ever wonder that despite social networks' usefulness in connecting us with others from around the world (trust me, I GET this value as someone who has friends on every continent), that the amount of time and energy you spent trying to keep up with it all (never mind managing your Klout, PeerIndex and influence scores on a daily basis - am thinking high school scrambling to be more popular than the next guy behavior), meant 100 less hours with your kids in a given month or not having that coffee, dinner, or hike with an friend?
- And, knowing, understanding and relishing in the fact that these tools give people who wouldn't normally have a voice a megaphone (many stories that will make you cry), in ten years, will you wonder how much you could have created or built with the time you were spending commenting to threads and reacting to Twitter feeds just so you could continue to be part of a whole lotta fragmented conversations? (Refer to my blog post on Seth Godin's Linchpins where he talks about "creation mode" & how creation can't happen from "reaction mode" which is what we're in when we're glued to Twitter, Facebook & now Google+ streams).
I love what we have been able to do for others (individuals and nations) because of open social networks -- have met some amazing people through Twitter and my blog -- but I only ask that in the midst of more and more being thrown our way to "manage," to not lose sight of the magic in a human connection and to make sure we don't get lost touching hundreds of people through our now Google+ circles when someone close to us wants a physical hug.
Perhaps that's a bit too deep for the end of a Google+ post, but I don't think so. Hopefully you get my point.
Perspective and balance people. Perspective and balance.
July 7, 2011 in America The Free, Europe, On People & Life, On Spirituality, On Technology, On the Future, Reflections, Social Media, TravelingGeeks, WBTW, Web 2.0 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
July 01, 2011
Luxembourg: 2011 European ICT Awards Winners
Below is a list of winners from the European ICT Awards which took place on June 28th in Luxembourg. The awards took place during the ICT Spring trade show which gathered worldwide ICT innovative firms, 87 revolutionary startups and 2,300 attendees in Luxembourg.
European ICT Media of the Year : French Web
Also nominated: Data News and Computerwoche
European Startup of the Year : Bime / We Are Cloud. Also nominated: Kwaga and Yappoint S.A.
European ICT Innovation of the Year : iNUI Studio SA. Also nominated: Goomeo and Yappoint S.A.
European CIO of the Year : Mr David Wilde CIO City of Westminster. Also nominated: Mr Manuel Fischer CIO Cetrel SA (Luxembourg) and Mr Peter Ligezinski Chief Information Officer Allianz Investmentbank AG (Austria)
Plug & Play Tech Center selection: 3 firms were selected by Plug&Play Tech Center to enjoy their incubator services during 3 months in California. Prestashop, Badgeville and iNUI Studio SA
June 28, 2011
Opera 11.50 Introduces Cool New Speed Dial Extensions
Opera has some news! Here's a great comparison Opera threw our way. DYK that almost 1.2 million stormtroopers, droids and janitors can fit into a fully operational Death Star and nearly 11 million people follow Lady Gaga on Twitter?
Below are the details for Version 11.50, which introduces a new and novel type of browser extension: Speed Dial extensions.
Instead of handy thumbnails and links to your top sites, you can embed your Speed Dial with extensions that keep you updated--instantly--on what is happening around the Web. Take weather updates, for example. Why click through to a website when you can get the current conditions live at a glance? Or, why not be the first to know the hot news of the day just by opening a new tab?
Here's a few examples for you to try out:
See how easy it is to create magic?
Another example is The Hype Machine, a popular music service that tracks emerging artists on blogs. They created a Speed Dial extension that features the most popular tracks of the moment, giving you an easy way to stay on top.
And, with StockTwits, you can share real-time information and ideas about stocks. Using their Speed Dial extension you'll get instant access to a passionate community to see which stocks are trending right now. You can try it here.
A few other new additions worth mentioning:
- Password synchronization: Now, Opera Link supports passwords, so you can synchronize your website passwords--securely--with other Opera browsers.
- Sleeker Design: Opera 11.50 sports a new design that's even more streamlined and lightweight than the previous version.
- Tighter Technology: They fixed thousands of bugs and tweaked their software graphics engine with faster CSS and SVG rendering. The result is faster speed and better reliability.