Paris Notes

Wen and I went to Paris and it rained. Not a gentle mist or a light sprinkle (we live in Seattle; we don’t notice that). No: pounding sheets of rain that soaked you to the bone and swelled the Seine to levels not seen since 1982 and forced the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay to close.


But despite that we were able to see a lot of the city and have a fantastic time. What follows are various notes and observations.

1.

One of the things that makes Paris so fascinating is that while it is an old city (dating back at least 2,000 years) but the city everyone loves was built in the blink of an eye: basically 1860 to 1920 or so. Paris is a network of stone buildings that connect a series of monumental edifices. While the monuments accumulated over the centuries, the connective tissue of five storey limestone buildings with mansard roofs largely went up over sixty years.

It’s this physicality of this web – proudly not a grid – that makes the city so beguiling. The web makes buildings project onto each other at odd angles. Unlike American cities there is no straight road stretching off forever; every road appears to drive into a building.

The homogeneity of the building materials, this lack of perspective  plus the nature of the light means that you lose a sense of depth. The streetscape becomes a continuous ribbon that only breaks when you walk around a corner and the edges of each building shift relative to one another, reminding you that the world is three dimensional. I could spend all day walking around and soaking in the effect.

2.

More so than many cities, Paris rewards walking. If you are willing to walk just a little further, you’ll find something vastly unexpected. A 60 foot samurai warrior lit up in a courtyard. A famous architect’s atelier. A flower blooming against a hotel. An elevated park where trains used to run. Covered passageways that transport you through buildings. Parks hidden inside hospitals. The bustling cafe that the locals eat at versus the plain cafe on the corner. Some of these are in guidebooks but most of it is on you: the more you explore, the more you will be rewarded.

3.

Once upon a time, young lovers would come to Paris and demonstrate their love by clipping a lock to the edge of a bridge. Thousands of couples followed suit and a few years ago, there were so many locks on the bridge that it’s railings collapsed.

The authorities, smart people that they are, rebuilt the railings but covered them with plexiglass, making locks impossible to add. But young love is not so easily thwarted and now Paris has several locations that are overflowing with locks.

As you walk the Seine you now see lots of bridges and railings vying for the right to let you eternally seal your love (and don’t worry if you don’t have a lock-the touts will sell you one for a Euro).

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This is a great example of unintended consequences and they abound in Paris. Another favorite of mine is the unintended consequence of 10 minutes of free parking at the airport.

The departure terminals force all traffic into one lane, creating awful jams. But enterprising Uber drivers know to veer off and head for the parking lot. They’ll kindly drop you off at the elevator and then they rip off to get out before they hit the 10 minute cap. Sure, you’ve got to take the elevator up a few levels, but it beats sitting in your car for an extra 10 minutes.

4.

Speaking of traffic, Paris should be a hotbed for transport innovation – except that it’s not. Fun fact: the idea for Uber came from the fact that on a crummy night in Paris at a tech conference, the future Uber founders couldn’t get a taxi.

The city should be a playground for new transport ideas. The air is terrible (you have to wash your face after walking around all day), the traffic is terrible (one lane roads + delivery trucks means inevitable delays) and parking is a joke (people just bumper car their way into small spaces; alternatively, people just park in the intersection and force traffic to go around them).

But despite this, the self-driving car, the mass market electric car and Uber all come from California. The only significant transit innovation from Paris is a bike sharing scheme. While impressive, it only hints at a solution to the city’s transit issues.

In fact, the city is trying an electric car sharing scheme. But one look at it tells you that it will be an uphill battle. The cars are filthy: an unwashed silver that has turned to dun; each car is literally streaked with birdshit.

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It would be easy to wave this away by saying that Paris is a testament to the past. It’s streets are frozen in time and so we shouldn’t expect it to lead the way.

But this would be unfair to the French. They remain a creative, forward looking group. La Defense builds up to the sky and every few years a new, iconic modern building (most recently the Fondation Louis Vuitton; photo below) demonstrates the limits of design and construction technique.

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I think the reason why Paris didn’t invent any of the above is illustrated by the differences between the two types of people who ask you for money on the streets. The first are the sans-papiers: refugees and other folks who are busking on the corner and, one imagines, have had a tough, unfair life.

But the second group – chomeurs (people on social assistance) – are more complex. These are people who are well dressed and otherwise undistinguishable from everyone else. And they’ll walk up to you and simply demand money: monsieur, donne-moi un petit piece. We watched in awkward awe as one guy went down a train and patiently asked every single person individually for some cash.

My hypothesis is that this is an outcome of the ridiculous youth unemployment that exists in France. Apparently one in three under 35s are unemployed. You don’t need to continue that for too many years before you risk a lost generation.

As a tourist you only see a few signs of this crisis. The above-mentioned beggars, twenty-somethings drinking in parks and ubiquitous posters urging a national apprenticeship program:

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But where did the crisis come from and what does it have to do with electric cars? We asked a few French friends and they told us that the unintended consequence (there they are again!) of rich social benefits is that no one wants to hire. See, the social contract is such that if you hire someone, you need to pay their unemployment for a while after you let them go.

So imagine that you’re a small business owner and you come up with a new idea to expand. You hire someone to develop it (you pay salary plus development costs; no revenue yet). You launch. It fails. Now you’ve got cost (salary) but no revenue. So you have to fire the new employee or else you risk your entire business. Except that when you fire them you still have to pay their benefits. Now your entire business is at risk.

This might not sound like how it really works, but when you talk to  folks, you learn that it is. A small business owner friend can’t expand as fast as he’d like to because of employee costs (scarily, if you hire a bad employee and fire them for poor performance you are also still on the hook for their benefits). Another friend can only get jobs “on contract” and expects to be fired after a few renewals (because at some point the employer needs to formally hire her or they’ll be violating contract law). The result is an economy that doesn’t take risks and grows slower than it could (if at all). And that’s why normal-looking people ask you for money on the streets of Paris and you don’t see two-seater, self-driving electric cars whizzing by.

5.

Paris is a series of frames. Everywhere you go, moments are framed by doors, archways, windows, passageways and trees. Shots compose and decompose as you walk; blink and you miss them.

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6.

The English language manifests itself in ambiguous ways in Paris. They’re the words you’re familiar with, just not in that context.

Example: you’re in a McDonald’s (yeah, I’m embarrassed) and the song’s chorus is “I’m fucking amazing.”  Alternatively, you’re sitting on a cafe and the hip hop on the speaker system states that “this is for all my niggers in jail.” The locals are oblivious.

Related are the ridiculous English names of stores. Fashion stores called “Ice Club,” “US Marshal” and “Gentlemen’s Club.” (Hey honey, just going to the gentlemen’s club to get a, uh, suit). “Digital Smoker” vape shop. “Speed Rabbit Pizza.”

7.

While I mock the use of English in Parisian  storefronts, Parisian stores are actually beautiful things. Each store appears to focus on doing one thing well (you can be a  butcher, a baker or a cheesemonger – but don’t you dare be all three). It feels like generations have been sent figuring out how to best merchandise each store’s wares so that they are maximally appealing. You could make a beautiful coffee table book of Paris’ stores.

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8.

If you visit Paris, be sure to spend some time people watching. The old woman walking down the street with twelve baguettes slung over her shoulder. The cheesemonger wearing a beret and sitting in his shop with a look of infinite  tristesse. The old man sipping wine before noon in the café while he pores over the paper. The two girls sitting on the terasse smoking furiously (it’s the national sport) while sipping coffees and wearing matching tan trenchcoats.

And soak in the silly things that French men do. Scooters (the emasculating push varieties, not Vespas) abound. Hoodie and scarf. Driving down the street on your motorcycle cranking “I just called to say I love you.” It’s these details that a culture make.

Oh, and sometimes the tourists get in on it, too. Nothing says “I’m a North Korean general’s princeling” like this backpack:

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9.

Paris wasn’t just built with stone; all that stone is held up by iron. Old banks and department stores have soaring iron atriums. The passageways between streets are capped in wrought iron windows. Market halls and even churches have metal ribbed vaults. A fantastic French steampunk story awaits writing.

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10.

Paris has been very unlucky in that it has been the victim of two recent terrorist attacks. This manifests itself in soldiers outside synagogues and national monuments, clear plastic garbage bags with “vigilance” printed on them and apparently arbitrarily locked doors (if you ask a local why, they just answer vigipirate – the ominously named government program to increase readiness). Train stations have posters explaining how to a survive terrorist attack . Major stores check your bags before entering and wave you down with a wand – but the latter is just theater; the wands aren’t on and won’t buzz on a metal belt.

A map is essential to Paris; GPS makes it even better. We travelled the city using an offline version of Google Maps as data roaming charges are usurious. For your  convenience, offline Google Maps include cached versions of popular places.

But Google picks these places based on an algorithm that likely uses search frequency as a proxy for popularity. One macabre aspect of this is that the sites of the terrorist attacks are cached as “popular” places. Algorithms don’t have feelings.

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11.

The Parisian sartorial color palette is muted.  Black, charcoal, navy, brown, grey: this is the country of existentialism, after all. No bright colors for you. And you can’t look cool smoking in a neon orange shirt.

But there is one additional permissible color for men: red – but only as pants. Wendy’s trip was made when she overheard two men in red pants talking about the difficulty of maintaining a yacht in St. Tropez.

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12

The poor quality photo below absolutely fails to capture the wondrous example of urban life that is a Parisian square. This photo comes from Place Gustave Toudouze on a middling Friday night in early June.

Five cafes overflow with families, friends, lovers and the odd tourist all having a drink and maybe a meal. Kids run around the square, squealing with delight. A kiosk vendor sells magazines and candy to passing folks.

I suspect that the French don’t even notice how vibrant it is (and this is probably a square that most would consider mediocre or mundane) but I highly recommend you camp out at a table and split a bottle of red wine with someone while watching the street life unfold.

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13.

No trip to Paris would be complete without seeing how the other half lived. There are several historic mansions where an old banker/industrialist/socialite collected art over a lifetime and then donated it to the state on the condition it remain a museum. We visited  the Musee Nissim de Camondo to imagine what it would be like to be a early 20th century banker obsessed with the pomp of the 18th century.

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14.

The food & drink were great. Obligatory photos below. A few fun places we visited were:

  • KB Cafeshop – finding good coffee in Paris is remarkably hard. This place meets the bar. Still has outdoor seating for people watching
  • Du Pain et Des Idees – exquisite bakery in the 10th. They are home to the banana pain au chocolat and a slew of slightly-larger-than-bite-sized meat & cheese-filled pastries
  • Gut de Brioche – these people do one thing: brioche. And they do it well. So well that they’ll charge you 7 Euro for a brioche and you won’t complain after you take the first bite
  • Cannibale – splendid old cafe that has been turned into a fun bar. Go there in the afternoon and drink a Spritz (Aperol, prosecco & soda water – where have you been all my life?) while listening to some good music
  • Yoom – most people, understandably, go to Paris for the French food. But that would ignore the (literally) world of options available to you. Moreover, when the French apply their attention to detail to other nations’ cuisines, tasty things happen. This dim sum joint is a great example of that (and some of the best dim sum I’ve ever tasted).

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15.

When you’re walking Paris, be sure to look out for the street art. The entire city is a canvas. Go down alleys and look around corners to find silk screen blowups in unanticipated locations. You’ll find that the same cast of characters follow you around the town.

A few good places to look: along the Canal Saint-Martin/Bassin de la Villette (hint: this is also a good running spot, so go for a run and bring your camera) and Rue Denoyez in Belleville.

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16.

That’s it. Let me leave you with some additional photos. Can’t wait to go back one day.IMG_9897IMG_9551IMG_9650

Travel Notes

So Wendy and I are wrapping up our travels. As I write this, it’s been 164 days, 12 countries and 43 different cities since we left New York. We’ve traveled by just about every possible mechanism: jet, prop plane, train, subway, dodgy wooden boat, dodgy metal boat, bus, car, rickshaw, camel and elephant. And we’ve walked miles by ourselves.

To close out our travels, I thought I’d share a couple of thoughts that have popped up while we’ve been abroad. (If you’re looking for a top x list, this will disappoint; fortunately the Internet it full of said lists).

1.

The world’s great travelers are the…French. Perhaps it’s the 26 hour work week and the mandatory retirement at 42, but the French were everywhere we went. The Dutch travel a lot too, but they seem to focus on the former colonies. On the other hand the French are ubiquitous. Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Uzbekistan, India; sometimes I thought they were simply following us around.

I was shocked by how few Canadians, Aussies and Americans we saw. There’s a massive gap between Southeast Asia and Turkey where, with the exception of the Golden Triangle in India (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur), you don’t hear much natively spoken English.

The other interesting trend is the rise of the Chinese tourist. They travel in packs and seem like teenagers who are aware that they’re getting stronger but aren’t quite confident with their new muscles. Hordes of them are descending on places that, like Ha Long Bay, seem curiously reminiscent of China.

In fact, their travel reminds me of Canadians. For most Canadians, their first trip is to America. It’s a chance to get a taste of a foreign country and see what “foreigners” are like yet not give up the familiarity and safety blanket of home (heck, they look like you). Yet we all go abroad eventually; expect to see many chinese tourists near you soon.

2.

Everyone loves to compare countries. It’s natural; one of the reasons we travel is to see how things are in different countries (unless you are doing the Canada -> Mexico/Cuba booze run; there’s little anthropology involved there).

The standard way economists compare countries is to use GDP or GNI per capita, adjusted for purchasing power. Said another way, take the value of everything made and traded in a country, divide it by the population and adjust for how expensive things are in different countries.

This sounds great, but having seen it in action, I think it’s one of the silliest metrics out there.

Consider the following:

You’re looking at gross national income per capital, ppp adjusted for India, Uzbekistan and Laos. India is the leader here with a value of $3,260. Uzbekistan is about 10% lower at $2,890 and Laos is the laggard at $2,210.

Based on this you might think that India is more developed than both of these countries and a better place to live. But the reality is a little more nuanced.

When you fly into Tashkent you might mistake yourself for being in a lightly populated European capital; leafy boulevards and cafes abound. You would never make this mistake flying into Mumbai or Delhi (or, god help you, Calcutta). Similarly, Laos is, on average, poorer than India but it’s low population means that you will never be accosted by 5 year old children gently tapping on your car’s window and gesturing to their mouths for food.

So if we can’t compare countries’ development based on per capita income, how might we compare them? Here are a bunch of signs that I think could be combined into some sort of development index to figure out how far along a country is:

  • Can you get Diet Coke? In the smaller towns?
  • How many households have washers and dryers?
  • Are there any garbage cans in public places? If there’s one, is it ceremonial or are there enough and are they frequently emptied?
  • Are there convenience stores that are not attached to gas stations? How sophisticated are they? Are items just arrayed on the shelves or is there some sort of science behind how they’re arranged? How frequently does the stock turn over?
  • What is the ratio in the cost of a liter of oil vs. a liter of bottled water?
  • Are people allowed to park on the sidewalks or is there zero tolerance for this?
  • Are there wild dogs and cats in the city?
  • Is there a modern art gallery in the capital city? Do people actually go there?
  • Can you place an outbound call from your hotel room?
  • Do stores have price stickers on their goods or are you negotiating every single price?

So how do select countries compare?

Japan is the clear winner in the convenience store category, followed by Hong Kong – with Laos and Vietnam getting into the game. Germany, India and Uzbekistan aren’t doing too well.

Wild dogs pop up in strange places. Istanbul is a giant squat for feral beasts and new breeds of mutt are being created daily. India gives it a run for its money.

Istanbul also has a great and popular modern art gallery; most of Uzbekistan can’t imagine one (modern art is an interesting proxy for political freedom and drive for modernity).

In Japan it’s going to cost you a lot more than gas for a liter of gas. In Germany it’s actually cheaper – thought barely – due to the ubiquity of bottle shops (people buy bulk). In India water is cheap and gas is very expensive.

Not one of these indicators will predict the level of development of any country, but put them together and you get an interesting perspective on how different places are doing.

3.

The seatbelt is universally hated by the populations of all nations. Taxi drivers around the world have rejected it.

Conversely, irrespective of whatever country you’re in, if a car you’ve never seen flashes their high beams at you, you should assume there’s a cop right around the corner.

4.

I like using travel to explore the banal. All countries face the same set of basic challenges: feed a large mass of people, protect them from famine/war/invaders/disease/etc. and then try and raise their standard of living.

I’m particularly interested in what countries do once they’ve satisfied those first two and can start to focus on the third. Because at that point, everyone starts to encounter the same set of banal problems, but lots of countries come up with different solutions.

Consider, for instance, the pressing need to open canned goods. I’m sure that every reader of this blog (all six of you) have, at one point or another in your life, used a can opener. Since many of you are Canadian, the process probably went like this:

a) Pickup can opener

b) Open jaws

c) Place one side of jaw on upper lid of can. Place other jaw underneath lid

d) Close jaws

e) Rotate large bar on side can opener while squeezing jaws shut

f) Watch in awe as your can of Alphagetti opens and shares the wonder of the latin script with you.

Simple right? You’ve done it hundreds of times, so you’re pretty confident you can open a can.

Well, I thought so too, until I tried to open a can in Germany.

Here’s how one opens a can in Germany:

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The can opener immediately confused me as there were no jaws. Just two little wheels staring at me. Watching. Judging.

Like a cave man trying to decipher a telephone, I groped at the tool, tossing it gently from hand to hand, sensing its weight and hoping it would yield a clue. After a few minutes, a breakthrough: when I depressed a plastic button in the handle, a handle shot out the side. This must be the right path.

In the third photo above you can see what I tried to do next: I tried to use the German can opener with the North American technique. I thought the handle and the main body were analogues to the jaws on a normal can opener and I had to use them to vertically grip the can’s lid. Every time I closed the jaw, the can opener would shoot sideways and clatter to the floor.

Much cursing ensued.

Hunger stopped me from learning anything and instead I assumed that there was some “trick” and if I could just get the angle right the damn lid would come off.

After five minutes of this I realized that this wasn’t working. Male pride would not allow me to admit defeat and I considered getting out a knife and simply hacking away at the top of the can. (Wounded male pride must be responsible for most household accidents and visits to emergency wards)

But then I had a thought. What if the can opener didn’t work up and down, but rather sideways. It was an Archimedes-like moment of inspiration but instead of yelling “Eureuka” I simply muttered the brand of the canned soup under my breath.

I gently slid one of the rollers on the inside lid of the can and the other on the outside. I depressed the previously inscrutable handle and there was a satisfying lock as the teeth gripped the edge of the can. The can opener stuck out horizontally, sneering at gravity. Solid. German.

And then I turned. With gratifying effort, the top of the can gave way. But I wasn’t cutting off the lid, I was cutting off the top of the can.

And that’s just how they roll in Germany. I’m sure that every German over the age of three knows how to open a can. And now I do too.

I’ve kept the can opener to remind me of just how little I know.

Another banal area that I am now intimately familiar with is laundry. I’ve had the opportunity to be on the receiving end of how almost half the world’s citizens wash their clothes. You laugh, but washing your clothes when traveling – and getting back the same clothes you started with – is a decidedly non-trivial experience.

The only place I could find a self-serve laundromat was Tokyo. Interestingly, it was entirely self-service. No one worked there and it was just trusted that everyone would take care of the place: not trash the machines, take their laundry out in a timely manner, etc.

Whenever we dropped out laundry off in Germany it was handled with Prussian efficiency. Every single article had a sticker with our order number written on it:

Germany Laundry

Contrast this with India where, at Mt. Abu’s Fawlty Towers-esque Lake Palace, they actually wrote “LP” in indelible marker on every article of clothing we dropped off:

Indian Laundry

Unfortunately for Wen, they actually wrote “LP” on the front of the neck of many of her t-shirts so she had an awkward little tattoo for a few weeks of our trip.

Sometimes you come across a problem that a country has solved and you didn’t even know you had. One of the ones I noticed was the two sets of alarms on German light rail cars. You can tell the driver how long the door has to stay open when requesting a stop: if you’re traveling with a child you’ll probably need a bit more time to get out of the car:

German light rail stop request

5.

One of the unintended consequences of globalization is that whether you are in Fort Kochi (India), Hanoi or Istanbul, someone is going to try and sell you a hand-powered mini-sewing machine or a glowing toy that fires a spinning parachutist into the sky.

Somewhere in China is a factory that makes both and the workers there have absolutely no idea what they have set loose in the world.

In other news, I’d love to know the distribution system that makes sure that this useless stuff gets delivered to all the varied corners of the Earth.

6.

When Wen and I go to a town, we try and get at least a little bit off the beaten path. I want to see the popular sites, but I also want to get a sense of how the locals live (In no part because so many of the the locals in many of the countries we visited want what I have – I don’t begrudge them that as I was born very lucky in a great country – and I want to get a sense of where they’re at in getting it).

This lead us to some interesting places. A walk through Tokyo’s, Istanbul’s and Hanoi’s back streets. Aimless wandering in Kowloon. Grocery shopping in Semporna (Borneo) and Udaipur amongst other places.

I always thought Wen and I were a little weird for this, but then I found out someone who is, in part, making a career of it – and came up with the great term “Geopolitical travel.” Here’s a snippet from a great article where he describes it:

There is another part of geopolitical travel that is perhaps the most valuable: walking the streets of a city. Geopolitics affect every level of society, shaping life and culture. Walking the streets, if you know what to look for, can tell you a great deal. Don’t go to where the monuments and museums are, and don’t go to where the wealthy live. They are the least interesting and the most globally homogenized. They are personally cushioned against the world. The poor and middle class are not. If a Montblanc store is next to a Gucci shop, you are in the wrong place.

Go to the places where the people you will never hear of live. Find a school and see the children leave at the end of the day. You want the schools where there is pushing and shoving and where older brothers come to walk their sisters home. You are now where you should be. Look at their shoes. Are they old or new? Are they local or from the global market? Are they careful with them as if they were precious or casual with them as they kick a ball around? Watch children play after school and you can feel the mood and tempo of a neighborhood.

Find a food store. Look at the food being offered, particularly fruits and vegetables. Are they fresh-looking? What is the selection? Look at the price and calculate it against what you know about earnings. Then watch a woman (yes, it is usually a woman) shopping for groceries. Does she avoid the higher priced items and buy the cheapest? Does she stop to look at the price, returning a can or box after looking, or does she simply place it in her basket or cart without looking at the price? When she pays for the food, is she carefully reaching into an envelope in her pocketbook where she stores her money, or does she casually pull out some bills? Watch five women shopping for food in the late afternoon and you will know how things are there.

Go past the apartments people live in. Smell them. The unhealthy odor of decay or sewage tells you about what they must endure in their lives. Are there banks in the neighborhood? If not, there isn’t enough business there to build one. The people are living paycheck to paycheck. In the cafes where men meet, are they older men, retired? Or are they young men? Are the cafes crowded with men in their forties drinking tea or coffee, going nowhere? Are they laughing and talking or sitting quietly as if they have nothing left to say? Official figures on unemployment can be off a number of ways. But when large numbers of 40-year-old men have nothing to do, then the black economy — the one that pays no taxes and isn’t counted by the government but is always there and important — isn’t pulling the train. Are the police working in pairs or alone? What kind of weapons do they carry? Are they everywhere, nowhere or have just the right presence? There are endless things you can learn if you watch.

The next time you travel I highly recommend doing so geopolitically – even if it’s just the city down the road.

7.

Here are a couple of political thoughts I’ve had while traveling; my worldview is shifting:

  • Corruption is the world’s biggest problem. A corrupt society can never truly be free and will never have a standard of living that, on average, matches those of uncorrupt societies. The only way to stop corruption is through free elections and an accountable judiciary. Influences: Uzbekistan and India.
  • I’m currently wondering if democracy works at scale. I believe in democracy and think it’s the only form of government that will really work, but after spending time in America and India, I’m not yet sure we have the institutions to make it work at scale.
    • India’s the largest democracy by population but its politics are captured by caste; you don’t cast your vote – you vote your caste and then get a job from them
    • America, the world’s largest democracy by economic might, is currently experiencing regulatory capture where special interests seem to dictate what occurs. Direct democracy in California has been a disaster
    • Maybe when a country hits a certain size it simply needs a new set of democratic institutions (broader executive powers with supermajority recall? Special track for long-term, expensive projects? I don’t know)?
  • The emergent challenge of the 21st century is not “East” vs. “West” but “Modernity” vs. “Western Values”
    • “East” vs. “West” doesn’t work because Japan is definitely not Western but embodies many of the notions of the West; Turkey is in a similar but different boat
    • Instead, in many countries its a question of “can I give my people modern technology without freedom?” China is at the forefront of this, trying to use technology to secure the Politburo’s supremacy all the while soothing its populace at the teat of washing machines and online video games. Don’t think that countless countries in Southeast and Central Asia aren’t closely monitoring this experiment. (Any time a country explains that “social stability” is a prime goal, they’re going to be interested in this experiment)

8.

There are all sorts of indexes out there that tell you how free a country you’re visiting is. Most of the time, it’s hard to tell exactly how “free” a place is (after all, if it’s not free, the locals probably aren’t hunting down tourists to tell them so-although in Uzbekistan they sort of did). Here are a couple of things I’ve noticed are half-decent indicators of how liberal a place is.

  • Do you need a visa to get in the country as a tourist? Do you need an invitation to get said visa?
  • Can you get money out of an ATM at the foremost international airport?
  • Do your bags get x-rayed after you’ve landed but before you’ve entered the country? (Ostentatiously to protect the locals from drugs and contraband)

9.

One final thought. I love traveling and seeing what the social contract is like in different countries. The goods you can buy, the services offered, the quality of the dwellings, the manifestation of the state on the street via cops and other civil servants, how people treat each other: it’s all a signal of a society’s social contract between citizens.

Traveling is most fun when you start to understand how a country’s social contract is different from yours – and that maybe yours isn’t the best. We had the best chance to observe this in Germany as we spent a lot of time there and it was the least foreign of all the countries we visited and thus the easiest to compare with what we know.

Some of the interesting things we noticed: a thriving publishing industry and airport coffee in glass cups.

In North America, the physical publishing is being killed by the online world and this is taken as inexorable; in Berlin there are about a dozen daily newspapers and countless magazines vying for your attention.

In North America, a cup of coffee at the airport is going to come in a disposable mug; in Berlin it came in a glass cup. Moreover, you could take it away from the coffee bar and over to your seat in the waiting room. It was assumed you would bring it back – because why wouldn’t you? This movie would end badly in Canada or America.

So there you have it, the results of almost six months of travel summed up in a blog post. It was an awesome trip and hopefully a trip in a lifetime, not the trip of a lifetime. I’m looking forward to a bit of normalcy back in Canada, but one day Wen and I will have to get back on the road!

The Ritter Sport Unboxing Experience

One of the simultaneously silliest and greatest trends to emerge from the 21st century’s fetishization of technology is the notion of “unboxing“. The combination of blogs and online video and cheap digital cameras now allow young male otaku to document in clinical detail the experience of opening the box of a new gadget.

There are whole sites dedicated to capturing this techno-narcissim in all its glory. Apple‘s various products are the clear winners in the unboxing sweepstakes, accounting for almost half of the google hits on the topic-which seems appropriate given their leadership in turning us into techno-gear-fetishists.

I would like to take this moment to try and move the dialogue around unboxing forward and move it into a new domain.

Chocolate.

I recently procured a bespoke chocolate from Ritter Sport (this is an obnoxious way of saying that I went to the company store, waited in line with the other tourists/unemployed people for half an hour and bought an overpriced chocolate) and now you can share with me in the unboxing experience.

Here it is, my brand new, customized chocolate. My fingers are trembling as I look at it on the table. It really is my chocolate creation:

Ritter Sport Box

Before opening the box, let’s look at one of the accessories: the ingredient list. Nothing says sophistication like adding candied strawberry, crunch cereal, candied yoghurt and mini smarties to already sweetened milk chocolate. No one will mistake my gourmet palate for that of, say, a Chef Boyardee loving four-year-old.

Ingredient List

The gentle tab at the back of the box gave away easily under my finger and yielded the first view of my chocolate payload:

Wrapped Chocolate

Notice that careful fold. It’s German craftsmanship matched only by the careful placement of the sticker on the reverse:

Back of Wrapped Chocolate

Bunte Schokowelt is not the outcome of some sort of Germanic physical altercation, but rather means “colourful chocolate world”. And all the colour is revealed by my first glimpse of the chocolate. The underside’s texture hints at the range of flavour about to be experienced:

Bottom of Chocolate

And, flipping it over, here’s the pinnacle of chocolate engineering:

Top of Chocolate

Internet, I hope you realize what a profound shared experience we just had. This is not navel-gazing on my account whatsoever, rather it’s me increasing our universe’s stock of knowledge.

Bon appetit.

(And in all seriousness, the chocolate was delicious – if a bit sweet – and I highly recommend getting your own one made)

Cappadocia

1.

I’m 1,000 meters above the earth and falling at 5 meters per second. Actually, it’s not just me – Wendy’s there too, plus almost 20 unbathed French, German and Japanese tourists.

The funny thing is that I have no idea that we’re falling. We’re not accelerating so I can’t feel anything. Despite the fact that the air is in front of my face – no windows here – I can’t hear any rushing or anything. And the martian landscape we’re above gives no clues as to depth. Add in the fact that the balloons around us are both going up and down and I’d have no idea which direction we were moving if our pilot didn’t tell us.

Cappadocia from above

A balloon ride over Cappadocia is an essential means of seeing the landscape. Every morning almost a thousand people go up in 72 different balloons; it’s the largest collection of balloons found anywhere outside of balloon festivals.

You arrive early to watch them inflate in the pre-dawn twilight.

Balloon inflating

Depending on the whims of your pilot, you might then rocket to a few hundred meters and watch the other balloons rise. And I should add that you have no idea where you’re going to go; your course is set by the vagaries of that morning’s wind.

Balloon taking off

Balloons

Our pilot then dropped down into one of the many ravines that dot the landscape. We all watched speechless as he glided over ledges and dropped down into canyons that contain thousand year old cave dwellings. We could have literally reached out and touched them or plucked walnuts from trees. You can get a sense of it about halfway through this video:

Our pilot then rose quickly to 1000 meters where the temperature is noticeably lower and we got a profound sense of just how thin the bottom of a balloon’s basket is and how far we were from the ground…

Balloons over Cappadocia

Balloons over Cappadocia

Landing is also an interesting time. Since nobody knows where you’re going to land, a fleet of chase vehicles are following you around as you fly. When you land, a trailer pulls up directly underneath you and the basket drops into place. Very professional.

A quick glass of sugary fermented grapes masquerading as champagne and you’re back to your hotel. And it’s not even 8:30 am yet.

2.

In the distance, looming over all of Cappadocia, is the massive volcano that deposited all the rock and ash that makes the area so unique. Except that according to our guide – and one should never fully trust a guide in this touristy an area – there were actually three simultaneous volcanos that flooded the area with ash and lava millions of years ago.

I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a little bit of miscommunication here between geologists and the tourist industry. I mean, think about the word “simultaneous”. For type A people like me, it’s got a pretty clear meaning. At exactly the same moment (define it as the time taken for an atom to change state, a hummingbird’s wings to flag; whatever nano-scale small increment of time you want…), two or more identical things need to be happening.

Now imagine you’re a geologist. You spend your time wondering how a four billion year old rock evolved and most things take millions of years to occur. Unless your one of those adrenaline junkies who studies volcanos and earthquakes, it’s likely that in your entire career you’re going to see nothing happen. All the action has either occurred in the past or is set for the future. That continental drift ain’t fast enough for you to observe. On any given day, it’s the academic equivalent of watching paint dry.

So maybe, just maybe, when the geologists talk about “simultaneous” volcanos they really meant that three volcanos, only separated by a few hundred thousand years, formed the valley. I mean, they could be forgiven for getting carried away in the excitement of a few things happening in less than a few million years and calling it “simultaneous”. In the grand scheme of four billion years of volcanos blowing apart and reforming the earth, that’s a pretty inconsequential error.

But I digress; it’s just one thought that ran through my head as we were in the bus riding from site to site.

And there’s a lot to see in Cappadocia.

Let’s start with those thousands of Star Wars-style (despite any protestations by your guides, none of it was filmed in Turkey) rock-carved dwellings that are ubiquitous. Some have even been converted into hotels:

Cave Dwellings at Goreme Open-Air Museum

Cave Dwellings Near Goreme Open-Air Museum

Cave Dwellings Near Goreme Open-Air Museum

These were built by early Christians; when anyone invaded, they would rush underground to various cities they had built. The area is literally pocked with multi-layered underground cities. At Derinkuyu you can go eight floors undergound and explore countless booby traps. Interestingly, no one knows how they disposed of their bodily wastes…

There are also vast crumbling castles. The ruins of Cavusin were used from the 9th century until the Ottomans. Erosion gradually pulled down the mountain’s facade and revealed all the dwellings there:

Old Dwellings in Cavusin

And the similarly ruined castle of Uchisar looks like a failed cross between Mont St. Michel and Kowloon Walled City:

Uchisar Castle  

It also happens to have one of the best views of the area…

View from Uchasir Castle

…and the view from the neighbouring Cafe at Argos is one of the best views you’ll ever find in a cafe (if I could afford it, I’d stay at the associated Argos In; mindblowing place).

View from Cafe at Argos In Cappadocia

The region also abounds with numerous stream-filled canyons, almost all of which can be hiked. It’s fun to descend from the dusty plains into the tree-lined bottoms. At some points you actually have to hike narrowly through ancient hacked-out caves or water-eroded tunnels. Also, beware that nothing is marked clearly; you occasionally come to cliffs and have to backtrack:

Goreme Open-Air Museum

Ihlara Valley

Pigeon Valley

Finally, since Cappadocia was once covered in water and composed of different layers of sediment, the rocks have eroded at different rates and left some pretty incredible – and almost unbelievable – shapes behind:

Balanced Rocks

Rock structures

3.

Those early settlers were mostly Christians who excelled at creating churches. There are hundreds of them; when some of them break, the Turkish authorities don’t even bother to fix them or seal them from the elements:

Cave Dwellings Near Goreme Open-Air Museum

The earliest recorded cave paintings come from the 9th century and are fairly simple:

Inside church

However, over the next two centuries they got increasingly sophisticated:

Church at Goreme Open-Air Museum

When the Muslims came, they began a process of gradual assimilation and slowly exercised their power over the locals. Since Muslims aren’t allowed to worships idols, Christians weren’t allowed to paint eyes on their saints:

Church in Ihlara Valley

What did these people do to survive? Farming was pretty common – and you can see it pretty much unaltered from how it was likely practiced then (the following photo is actually an orchard amongst many dwellings and rocks):

Orchard and field

But the real money was in dovecotes. This is a polite way of saying that the locals earned their keep by collecting bird shit. They would create caves that contained numerous alcoves for pigeons and then brick them in:

Dovecote in Pigeon Valley

Drawing on Cave Dwellings Near Goreme Open-Air Museum

The red paint apparently attracted the pigeons; once a year they would go in and collect all the guano. Erosion gives the casual tourist a sense of what the alcoves looked like:

Dovecotes

Nowadays it is all tourism, all the time. In fact, the main city – Goreme – is literally built out of the old dwellings (as are Uchasir and Cavusin):

Goreme

4.

If you look at all the photos above, you may noticed the complete and utter absence of horses. This would be of no consequence, except that, curiously, “Cappadocia” means “land of beautiful horses”.

If you go on a group tour of the many sites, remember this, as eventually you will be taken to a jeweler to watch onyx be carved (as a prelude to shopping!). This trinket will then be offered to the first person who can recite the meaning of Cappadocia.

Also make sure to remember that speed is more than accuracy here as your judge is not a native English speaker. If you, as I did, should yell “land of many horses” or something similar you’re likely to win. And then you, like me, will be the proud owner of an improperly finished paperweight.

If one of you kind readers gets it for Christmas, please enjoy your handmade souvenir, created by a Turkish master who has spent his life – just as his father and grandfather – perfecting the art of turning raw rock into emotion. I’m sure you’ll love it.

5.

Cappadocia is a fantastic place and here are a couple more photos to close:

Panorama

Pigeon Valley

View from Uchasir Castle

Panorama

Istanbul

Istanbul. The chaos of 13 million lives. A city bursting at the seams and simultaneously thriving. A place where you cannot escape over 2,000 years of history – nor would you want to. Where the East literally meets the West but it feels more like modern meets ancient. A fantastic place to spend a few days.

1.

A bit about the city. Founded by Greeks but developed by the Romans (most notably, they left the Hagia Sophia) whose Constantine made it the new capital of the empire. Inherited by the Byzantines who built it into the largest city of world. Conquered by the Ottomans; it took 100 years to recover. Now ruled by Turks, it has exploded in population (from 680,000 in 1927 to 1,000,000 around 1950 to 13,000,000 or so today) as waves of first Ottoman refugees and then poor Turks flooded the city seeking safety and economic opportunity.

Each of these rulers have left their fingerprints on the city; most obvious are the great monuments left by each. More subtle are the neighbourhoods. This is not really a city proper, but a series of mini-cities.

There’s modern and hip Begolyu; Muslim women sip wine in restaurants, head scarves are rare and the boutiques all have well labeled prices. There’s a modern art gallery with world class pieces. Movies are filmed. But don’t think it’s all Western decadence – in the alleys off Istiklal you’re as likely to find people playing backgammon, drinking tea and smoking a hookah as you are to find people drinking beer and cavorting.

Richard Wentworth - False Ceiling (Istanbul Modern)

Action! (Filmshoot)

In ancient Fatih, the crowded, narrow medieval streets are packed with open-faced stores hawking everything (negotiate furiously!), businesses shut for an hour at midday when the mosques overflow and nary a woman isn’t wearing a head scarf.

Street scene in Fatih  

Street in Sultanmet

And then there’s the entire Asian shore, where well planned neighbourhoods abound with people simply living their lives and trying to create a better life for their children; the glass-walled buildings of multinationals border its many highways.

The city proper is incredibly colourful, bursting with it:

View from Galata Bridge

Fruit juice stand

Spices

Curiously though, the locals seem to only wear dark colours. You can observe this as, on the weekend, you can conceivably walk the many kilometers from the Grand Bazaar down to the Galata Bridge via the Spice Market and then over to Istiklal and eventually Taksim square and spend the entire time in a crowd of thousands:

Grand Bazaar

Street in Sultanmet

Spice Market

Crowds under Galata Bridge

Men Fishing on Galata Bridge

Perhaps the dark clothes reflect the huzzun (melancholy) that Orhan Pamuk believes hangs over this city (his book, Istanbul, is required reading before visiting the city).

Interestingly, none of the photos above capture the feel of this city. This is a city of interfaces and thresholds. The joy of the city is walking the streets and, in the string of a few hundred meters, finding yourself careening from the lighting to hardware to clothing to outdoor equipment to banking districts. Along the way the streets buzz with deliverymen lugging hundred of pounds of goods and runners delivering tea or food. Men loiter smoking furiously. And when you turn corners you never know what you’re going to see: wild dogs and cats, laundry hanging from a second floor window, an old woman or man teleported from the 1700s disappearing into a closing door or the sudden appearance of a mosque or hammam or cobblestoned alley. You have a constant feeling that things are happening that you cannot understand and all of it is ruled by some sort on unknown code.

Deliveryman

Laundry Hanging Over Street

Entrance to Mosque

2.

The past 90 years have been confusing for Istanbul. The empire collapsed and the city was ignored and began to decay. Then it’s population grew faster than anyone could imagine. The net result is that the city is undergoing massive change. The city used to be almost entirely wooden; you can still see this in some of the older neighbourhoods like Fatih. It can feel like going back in time:

Wooden house in Fatih

Many of these buildings were torched in the 1950s in a spree that would have brought a tear to the eye of a 1970’s Bronx slumlord. However, you can still find many that have been restored:

Modern wooden building

The burgeoning population meant that an incredible number of new buildings needed to be built. The older parts of the city went from two storeys to six overnight and the one-horse-wide streets are now clogged with some of the worst traffic in the world; if you hate horns, beware where you walk.

Also, many of these were built on the cheap and are now being torn down. Scenes like this are everywhere:

Collapsed building  

The city is reinventing itself in six to eight storey standards of glass, steel, plaster and terra cotta.

3.

But no dispatch on Istanbul would be complete without a few comments on its monuments. The sultan used Topkapi Palace to make it clear that Istanbul was an Ottoman city and there were no more Romans or Byzantines to be found.

Prince's Room

Sultan's Reception Room

Baghdad Palace

Carvings at Topkapi Palace

And the Hagia Sophia stands as a testament to Roman engineering combined with the clash of cultures:

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

The Grand Bazaar is literally a city within a city, with every store beneath a covered arch. You can wonder aimlessly and quickly lose your sense of direction as there are no ways to see way to see any of the city’s landmarks:

Wendy in Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazaar

And then there are the ubiquitous mosques. They are everywhere, piercing the sky with their minarets while their stones plays tricks with the setting sun.

Istanbul panorama

Mosque

Entrance to mosque

The sound of the call to prayer in Istanbul is haunting. Within minutes of each other, dozens (hundred? thousands?) of cries start to ululate over the sky. And within a few minutes it is all gone and it as if it never happened.

You could spend a month visiting the monuments of Istanbul (aqueducts, old city walls, fortresses…) but one additional one that should be on every visitor’s list is the cistern. If it looks vaguely familiar, it may be because Sean Connery rowed across it in From Russia With Love.

Cisterns

4.

For mild hapnophobes (fear of being touched) like myself, Istanbul can present some surprising issues. My first situation occurred when I went to get my hair cut. The actual hair cutting part was fine – no different from what I’m used to everywhere else I’ve had my hair cut. However, I learned that in Istanbul your haircut isn’t done simply because your hair is cut.

The barbershop consisted of two men. A young artiste who cut hair and an older man whose sole purpose seemed to be to make tea (it’s everywhere here and the national drink). However, his real job became obvious once the last strand was cut.

Through a series of grunts and gestures he directed me to lean over into a wash basin where steaming water had been surreptitiously running. He was soon lathering up my hair and running his firm old man hands across my scalp. Then down my face. A gentle poke in the eyes. A rub of the temples and cheeks. This was getting very awkward.

He then dried me off, but we were not done. My entire head – not just my scalp – was massaged. Then he worked his way down my neck and into the shoulders. Most people would enjoy this; I was trying not to squirm in my seat.

Still not done! He found time to slather me in first moisturizer, then aftershave and finally hair gel.

My hair was cut. I smelled nice. And my worst fears have been realized.

The other scenario I faced was going for a hammam: a Turkish bath. I found out that it basically involves you lying prostate, face down on a slab in a co-ed room with a piece of towel wedged between your butt cheeks while a man sits on the back of your knees and pounds your flesh. Not my idea of fun so I settled for a nice steam in the sauna instead.

5.

Turks are insanely patriotic people (or at least, their government is). Everywhere you go it is flags, flags, flags – and pictures of Attaturk.

Flags and mosque

Flags and Kirik Aqueduct

Attaturk sign and Turkish Flag

In fact, you if you sit in a hotel that overlooks the city, you can pass your time trying to count all the massive Turkish flags that dot the skyline; they’re those massive flags that are normally only found in North America on car dealership lots at the edge of the city or next to a highway. They’re second only to the mosque minarets in defining the skyline. And they flap beautifully in the morning air.

6.

The Turks love al fresco dining so cafes and open air restaurants abound. If you wander enough, you’ll eventually find a place where grape vines have been strung across a cobblestone street and tables and chairs brought out.

Al Fresco Dining

But if unsurpassed quality is your goal, you will need to hunt a little further. One suggestion (thanks Jascha!) is Develi. The sign above the door says “Kebabs & Baklava” and they do not disappoint. They’re also set in one of the cutest locations possible: a square surrounded by wooden houses and fishmongers.

Terbiyeli Sis (Spicy Shish Kebab) at Develi

Baklava at Develi

And no visit would be complete without a visit to Ciya Sofrasi. The New Yorker did a 10,000 word article on them in the 2009 food issue; at the time I thought it bordered on hagiography but having eaten there, I now understand it was not.

The experience is incredible. The restaurant is on the Asian side of the city, so you need to take a ferry to Kadikoy. From there, you need to wander the poorly marked pedestrian streets (one of the few grievances you can lodge against this city), through food and fish markets and past deceptively similarly named restaurants until you find it.

You then serve yourself a vegetable plate. Normally, self service is inversely proportional to the quality of the food, but it’s the opposite here. This mezze plate is one of the best things I’ve ever had, and it was all vegetarian:

Salad at Ciya Sofrasi

To order a main, you walk up to a chef who is keeping a dozen pots of various home-style dishes cooking. You order what you want (Icli Kofte – Turkish stuffed meatball, falafel, and lamb meatballs in a mint and pomegranate sauce for us) and it is brought to your table a few minutes later.

Turkish Meatball at Ciya Sofrasi

Falafel at Ciya Sofrasi

This was easily one of the five best meals I’ve had on our travels and it came with the added benefit of being incredibly cheap for Istanbul. Don’t go to Istanbul – and you need to come here – without a visit.