Thursday, June 16, 2011

Backpacking Through Europe - Check

For the last 18 days, as is often the case on longer vacations, my understanding of time has slowly ceased to exist in the form that we are so accustomed - instead of hours, days, and weeks the progression of time seems defined instead by tours, meals and cities. What’s next? Where do I have to be? What can’t be missed? It’s the nature of traveling the way we have for the last two and a half weeks. Into and out of town in a day or two. Never settled. Never really relaxed. Never really time to press pause. And in that sense, this here hobby of jotting down our experiences has served to be a great way to build in some time for thought and ongoing reflection. I look forward in the future to revisiting this travelogue and remembering the experience…

I write now from the flight home just an hour away from Philadelphia caught between thoughts of reflection and anticipation for the next leg of the journey. While in Nice, I learned that I’ll be working in Norwalk, Conn. for the next 8 months beginning July 5th. Less than just three weeks away, it’s not my nature to worry or grow anxious and while traveling cross-continent it was easy to compartmentalize minor details (i.e. finding an apt) to the recesses of thought, procrastinating until post-vaca processing. Between sentences and key strokes I can sense, ever so slightly, some anxiety creep into my subconscious. I’m sure it will all work out…it usually does.

The working life seems like a long time ago…and it was. Come July it will have been 14 months between paychecks and as much as I’d like to think I’d enjoy traveling the way I have for another couple of months or years (as some I’ve come across in hostel lobbies have), I’m sure I couldn’t handle it. It’s time to go home…time for a new routine. For 8 months anyway…

But let’s not get all crazy and jump in too soon. First things first - Family reunion this weekend. Then, a vacation from the vacation as they say…and a flight to Jamaica one week from today to spend 6 days in the Blue Mountains with Em while on her service project.

This was an outstanding trip that I was incredibly lucky to enjoy with some great people and friends (esp grateful for Mattyboy‘s company). Looking forward to retelling the documented and undocumented stories over a beer with friends and family.

Signing off on Eurotrip 2011 from the descent in to PHL…

Observations Part Duex

- Gotta get me a pair of lace-less Chuck Taylor’s. They are omnipresent throughout Europe. We saw a pair of laced flat footed sandals in the Chuck Taylor design this week…Awesome.

- Gotta make sure never to get me a par of green pants. They too are everywhere. A loud green. A look at this ridiculously goofy outfit that I’m wearing kind of a green. Men and Women alike.

- Facebook has drastically altered the sightseeing experience…and not for the better. Look, I get it. You’re all in a beautiful part of the world and you want documentation to either remind you of the memory later in life or to bring envy to your friends or family of all the cool places you’ve been…that’s always been a part of the deal…if that’s a crime, guilty as charged. But now? Now that every train stop presents a new opportunity to change your profile picture…it’s not enough to stop the flow of foot traffic for a picture next to the Emperor’s old castle. Nope. You have to make sure it’s a goooood picture. “Oh quick lemme see how it looks! Lemme see! Oh No! I need another one…”. I have little patience for people who insist on multiple takes of the solo picture.

- Men are totally cool with donning the Dolce and Gabana murse slung over a shoulder…totally cool with it. (imagine a shrill, high pitched, Jerry Seinfeld voice) “It’s a European carry-all!!!”

- The other day in Prague we were talking about just how different cities and cultures can be within and throughout a continent much smaller than our own country. “How different it is than what we‘re familiar with in the States”, we mused …and then Chase starting telling stories at dinner of growing up in Montana…and we had to take it all back.

- The public make out!!! It knows no bounds…From Prague to Vienna, we witnessed a couple making out the whole way while some poor girl had to sit directly opposite and facing them just 2 ft away. Walking the streets of Vienna, a couple without a care in the world for the bustle around them that accompanies a crowd of people after the pedestrian light turns green - they just stood there sucking face through the duration of the green light they were just waiting for. Where’s the decency? Where’s the shame???


Rolled into Vienna (all three of us all sitting comfortably on our own seats) at 3:30 after a 5 hour ride from Prague. By the time we figured out the local metro system, we arrived at the hostel a little after 5pm and checked in to find the best accommodations thus far on the trip. Think less a hostel room and more a hotel room. No TV. No Phone. But two single beds, space to walk within the room, a couch even, and most unusual of all, a fully functioning shower with sufficient water pressure. Indeed, the lap of backpacking luxury.

It was a nice evening and we did some exploring that afternoon. A labyrinth of streets, circles, and alleys once again made navigation a challenge at the onset but soon enough we gathered some semblance of awareness. Vienna is a beautiful city situated right on the Danube river with a small canal of the major waterway running through its city center. Parks, fountains and public squares fill in the gaps between impressive and attention grabbing buildings scattered throughout the relatively compact center ring of the city. Museums, a city library, grand cathedrals, concert halls and opera houses. Vienna is, and apparently has long been, a hub for fine arts. Some guy named Wolfgang was born down the road in Salzburg but lived most of his life here in Vienna…as did many other accomplished and celebrated musicians, artists, and other world renowned intellectuals. Lots of students toting violin cases on the metro. Though hard to get an honest “read” in just 48 hours, there seemed an air of sophistication on the streets of this capital city…Or maybe it was the absence of a giant penis costume roaming the public squares that just made it seem that way…either way, both during the afternoon and later that evening we enjoyed walking the streets and felt the same sense of security as we had earlier in Munich. That evening (Monday) we went out for some schnitzel and wandered the lonely streets of the city for about an hour afterwards. It was strangely quiet. Most stores closed. Not many on the sidewalks. We came to learn the following day that it was a holiday with most businesses closed…

The following day Jay, Chase and I met up with Sean and Lauren (whose travel plans yet again intersected with our own) down in town and planned the day’s itinerary. We would take a walking tour with the aid of an outlined tourist map before venturing out near the river for lunch and finishing the day back in the center ring with a tour of the Imperial Palace. As it turns out, not much going on out near the river…other than some commercial activity on the waterway itself, we searched high and low before finally finding a café on the water. The weather from the previous afternoon had carried over into Tuesday producing an afternoon of blue sky and warm temps. After lunch, it was back into to the heart of the city aboard the subway (an intuitive and easy system) for a tour of the Habsburg Palace. Bypassing the guided tour of the family’s silver collection, we followed the tours of Empress SiSi’s life and the apartments of the royal family. The history lesson was interesting and mildly entertaining though I can’t figure out why good ol’ SiSi draws such attention…In fact, I thought her story - that of a young woman turned empress who quickly grew disenchanted with both her responsibility and the celebrity accompanying it while instead traveling the continent and gratuitously indulging in the excesses of royal life (3 hr hair combing sessions daily???)…all before a tragic death at the hands of a knife wielding assassin - well, it just seemed to lack the kind of impact or significance that we were expecting. Nevertheless, a stroll through a different era while allowing the imagination to run with thoughts of life within the walls of a palace. Following the sightseeing, we concluded the afternoon roaming the aisles of the Vienna street market over near the Universitat.

That evening the group rendezvoused again at the heart of the city near the base of St Stephansplatz, an imposing gothic-style Roman Catholic cathedral, for a glass of wine and some wasabi hummus purchased earlier that afternoon from the street market. From the informal happy hour at the steps of a fountain, we followed the recommendation of our hotel’s manager - the restaurant where Mozart himself ate his schnitzel regularly. Holy Schnitzel! That’s some damn good Weiner. For Desert, Apple Strudel from a corner bakery on the way home.

The next day was a travel day. Our flight was scheduled to depart at 2:10 pm from Vienna to Barcelona where I would lay over for just the night before continuing on to Philadelphia Thursday thus leaving Jay with Chase (and his speedo) on the beaches of the Mediterranean. However, before catching our train to the airport, we were back to Stephansplatz for a tour of its catacombs. Creeeeeepy. There’s a small chapel down there and a cemetery for some important heads of the church - Bishops and stuff…I gotta believe that’s pretty standard for catacombs of a prominent and important catholic church. But then, down through another tunnel we’re led to the collection of rooms built to house the skeletons of Vienna’s dead. Among them, 800+ or so who were inflicted with the Black Plague back in the late 18th century. Yea, so you might think as we did going in, that the stories of the guide would give color to a tourist’s imagination for what it must’ve been like to work the halls of these crypts tending the facilities and transporting the bones from room to room. Imagination not necessary. I think we were all equally surprised and creeped-out to see the piles of decayed bones and skulls in the steel-barred rooms…chills down the spine!!

Though leaving many sights and sounds unseen and unheard, we liked Vienna and could understand why it’s thought so highly of by the kinds of people who rank cities on quality of life.

Europe Trip 2011 drawing to a close for ya boy…one more stab at Barcelona and it’s back to life…baaaaaack to reality.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Finally in Prague but with 75% of the group exhausted, we made our way to the hostel and crashed for about an hour. After a short power nap, we rose, rallied, and set out to explore a beautiful city lined with cobblestone streets and adorned by unique and distinctive buildings. Prague, as a former capitol to the Holy Roman Empire, has been physically spared the destruction we’ve heard about and seen rebuilt throughout our travels. It is a rare metropolis in the heart of Europe that, by and large, has avoided the kind of bombing so typical elsewhere on the continent during the last century of modern warfare. The architecture is an eclectic mix of Gothic, Neo Classical and Baroque styles among others…and I’d gladly explain to you the defining characteristics of each but in the name of brevity (and not a lack of education in art history, of course) I will spare you the pain and instead direct your attention to a forthcoming facebook album…

Prague, as did Vienna days later, proved a difficult city to establish one’s bearings. Tight streets and small alleyways labeled in a foreign and unfamiliar language displayed on a cluttered map resulted in many a 4-man conference at the intersection of an unexpected cross street. It was easy to get lost and such occurrences became routine when venturing “outside the wire” of our hostel. In most cases, we would (eventually) manage to find our way but it didn‘t come naturally. After some aimless wandering following that nap and shower, we settled in for dinner on our first night a bar not far from the hostel. It was a recommendation of our reception desk and after the “Tapas” disaster of Barcelona, we ate nary a meal without such a suggestion from a local. We asked for a place with authentic Czech food and instead received a rather Americanized sports-bar-esque joint with a menu listing palatable but mostly cross cultural mainstays - burgers, tandori chicken, spaghetti, etc. - and a couple of German dishes we’d become familiar with. The meal was satisfying enough and though not delivering the cultural experienced we’d hoped for, it was cheap which was a welcomed departure from the trend during our 2 day stay here.

Still fighting the lethargy of the day’s events but unable to justify an early surrender on a Saturday night in Prague, we walked off our meal along the Vltava river in the direction of Karlovy Lazne. Judging by the number of mid-20-something groups (mostly male) we saw strolling the streets throughout the afternoon in coordinated outfits and costumes, it appeared that what Atlantic City was to Vegas, in many ways Prague was to Amsterdam - the default for bachelor/bachelorette parties on the opposite side of a continent. A perfectly suitable, albeit second tier, alternative to Europe’s own Sin City. It became pretty blindingly obvious when some drunk dude in a costume resembling a uniquely male organ went singing through the streets of the city center with his boys hysterically laughing from close by. After having visited it for ourselves, we knew exactly where each of the bachelors/bachlorettes were destined - the bar/club of Karlovy Lazne located not far from the center of the city on a corner adjacent to the river. For all that we missed in culture at dinner we more than made up for at Karlovy Lazne. 5 stories each with a different theme. Techno, Classics, “Black Music” (political correctness clearly a priority…), Dancing, and finally, at the top - “Chill Out”. Some floors were completely dark; some lit from below with florescent tiles. Some floors had balconies to a lower level and some had stages. One floor had smoked pumped through the vents and another poles that served as props. In each, a DJ with a noise canceling headset worn on one ear; the other around his neck. It was extreme. It was intense. Too much for us to blend in. We settled on the Chill Out floor which proved an inaccurate name and instead should have been called something like, “Break Dance Innovation“… Nonetheless, we sipped our beers and took in the cultural experience from a seat on the couch. After an hour or two we worked our way back down to the ground level, stopping at each level to pass through. It was pretty f’in crazy but it was not for us. We exited at about 1am just as it started to really fill up and marveled at the line of hundreds waiting to get in…

The next morning we woke reasonably early and made it over to the Old Town Square for the free walking tour. Nothing, of course, comes free and though treated to a interesting and entertaining tour of the Old Town, the tour was not without a full slate of commercials for other tours (that weren’t free) put on by the hosting company. The weather that morning was miserable but tolerable and just as I was lamenting that the rain and clouds had followed me all over Europe, the clouds parted after lunch and produced a gorgeous afternoon. One that we used to visit the Prague castle on a hill overlooking the city from across the river. There were some neat views and it seemed to be an interesting - and still active - locale of city governing but we declined the paid tour. On the way back to town, we crossed the landmark Charles Bridge. The equivalent of Las Rambla in Barcelona, nothing but street vendors and tourists in the heart of the holiday season. We took in the crowds and watched the sun set from an outdoor bar just below the famous clock town in town…finally some nice weather.

Later that evening and acting on another recommendation from a different source, we had a good meal in town before detouring on the way home to an Irish Pub off the main town square - the Dubliner. Decent live music with a patron delivering the Don McLean encore - American Pie - just before the band shut it down and we walked it home from there.

Prague was an interesting city with a unique vibe and energy. We enjoyed our stay but I think it safe to say 2 days were plenty. In the morning, we’d be losing Matt to his return flight home and we’d continue south to Vienna - Home of the Weiner Schnitzel and Apple Strudel…

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Nap On The Train

Soooo about that nap on the train to Prague from Munich…For the first time since arriving in Barcelona this was to be a reasonable inter-city ride of just 6 hours without having to make a SINGLE connection. On paper it was a no-brainer and a perfect time for at least - AT LEAST - a solid 4 hour nap…and as a result of such perfect “planning“, though departing on the morning’s first train the next day, no need for the anticipation of a strenuous travel day to dampen the spirits of a last night in a great city…Munich and it’s wide assortment of the world’s best hops could (and eventually would) keep us engaged until closing time. That was, of course, how it appeared on paper...

In practice…well…that would be a different story. The alarm went off when it should have. We (Chase, Jay and Matt) were a little slow moving but out the door and to the train station (breakfast and all) with 5 minutes to spare (about 4 more than we had on our train to Munich). We thought we were fine...we THOUGHT we were early. As we boarded, we noticed right away a different alignment to this train. It was the first regional train (of about 15) that I’ve boarded not have any open air seating. Every seat in every car was in a private room with each sitting 5 or 6 seats. At first, it seemed a much preferred way to travel. Though jam packed, the four of us and our bulky luggage eventually found a car at the end with an empty room all to our selves. 6 seats - 3 and 3 - facing each other. We settled in quickly. Feet up. Seats reclined. The best stories from the night before (Did Opes accidentally drop or intentionally spike that pint glass at the end of the night??? We‘ll never know) Ear phones in. Book in hand. We were each asleep by the second stop. Best laid plans…

It took us all a second to register the message. The door to that plush, private, quiet train car of ours swung open at the third stop from Munich as a little blond German dude in a conductor’s outfit rose his voice to repeat his instructions for a second time. “Going to Prague? Must change car. Need to move.” Huh? We need to move? I thought there were no connections before Munich? “There aren‘t. But the last two cars are not continuing from here. You need to move. Now.” With sleep rubbed out of the eyes and backpacks back on, the 4 man caravan of dehydrated Americans set off to confirm what we already knew to be true…the plan is totally f’ed. Room to room. Car to Car. All the way to the end. Occasionally an empty seat supporting overflow of luggage but hardly that empty, private, quiet room that we now longed for…After the futile search for privacy, we were back on the platform eye-to-sleepy eye with our little blond friend. “There are no seats left. Where do we sit?” He looked back, shrugged his shoulders, and smirked before letting out a most insincere apology …Okaaaaaay…No time for the name calling and threats that we each had ready to jump from our tongues. Whistles were signaling departure. We get back on the illogically shortened train. The overflow crowds now lining each aisle without room to spare. We’re caught between a rock and a… correction - we’re caught between the stored road bikes and the water closet sitting on a very…hard place. We lower to the floor and reality begins to set in - 5 more hours of feeling every bump on this dirty, cold, metal floor . 5 more hours of a lingering odor permeating from the WC. 5 more hours of a verrrrry lonnnnng train ride. There’s just no way. I don’t know about you guys, but I can’t do this. I’m back strolling the aisles. This time looking for any empty seat. Nothing in the first car. Nothing in the second. Finally!!! In a first class car, an empty seat in a 5 seater. Anyone sitting here? Nope? Great, thanks very much. It was an oasis of soft, wide, reclining seats and I was immediately welcomed into the car by a family of 4. A warm and hospitable family from India vacationing throughout Europe. We talked of the different cities, cultures and experiences enjoyed throughout our various and different travels. I answered questions about the States. They about India. An extra sandwich was generously prepared with the ingredients they packed for lunch. The white chocolate candies - delicious. The juice - thirst quenching. The plan - back on track.

With a full stomach and perfect quiet, I slept for some time soon after lunch. When I awoke a couple of hours later, I figured I’d better check on my boys. Still in the same spot. Jay looked ready to kill me…or himself. Wasn’t sure. They told me how they had come to look for me and found me comfortably asleep with crumbs on my chest. How they had tried to sleep themselves only to be rudely interrupted with other passengers stepping on them or young kids screaming in their ear. They were tired, dirty and hungry…and laughed pretty freaking hard when I confessed to the good life in first class. A scene from Seinfeld.

We survived - Ok, they survived - the trip and we pulled into to Prague 6 hours from Munich at around 3pm…just like it looked on paper.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


Brolst!!! In a word, the perfect summary of our 2 ½ day stay in the capital and cultural center of Bavaria. It means “cheers’ in German…and represents one of the three words that I‘ve come to learn - the other two? Danka (Thank you) and Milst (Milk). After about a 6 hour travel from Interlaken, Jay and I pulled into Munich at about 2pm on Wed afternoon. We soon checked into and settled down at the next hostel. We waited for fresh legs from the states. Matty Boy pulled into town about an hour or two later and we took to the streets for a self guided tour. The hostel was not far from the train station and the walk to Marienplatz (public square at the center of the city) was only about 20 minutes...what to do…what to do…hmmm, well, we might as well go see what the Hofbrauhaus looks like, right? So this is the Hofbrauhaus, huh? Giant square beer hall with big ol’ wooden tables everywhere over which men and women throughout were clinking and spilling their liters of the royal brew. We sat out at the beer garden in the center and enjoyed our first afternoon in Munich the way it was meant to be enjoyed…with a liter of the dark and a giant pretzel. The self guided tour didn’t get very far but hey, it was time for a real beer…

That evening, on a tip from our hostel’s bartender, we visited the Augustiner Brew House for an authentic German meal of brat, kraut, potatoes and pig knuckle. Pig knuckle - who knew? A German delicacy. Excellent meal. Good Value. Finally, a satisfying authentic meal that didn’t drain the wallet. I think I could get used to life in Germany…

The next day we met at city center and welcomed Team Openlander to the trip. Mike and Chrissy met us down in the city center and together, as a group of 5, we embarked on our bike tour of Munich. Mike’s Famous Bike Tour. As Will, our Texan tour guide, proudly proclaimed, “The best thing going in Munich for 17 years now”…big personality. If he weren’t form Texas, you might think he was on drugs. Nice way to see the city and some interesting stuff on the tour. Roughly 70% of the city was in total ruins following the War but there has been much time and effort expended to restore the city to it’s pre-war state. It is a beautiful city with lots of character and reasonably manageable. About 1.4 million people and 140k police officers. 10-1 ratio. The second safest city (Bern, Swtiz) in all of Europe.

That night, after many failed attempts were made to find a less touristy restaurant, we were back at the Hofbrauhaus for dinner and a liter. After dinner it was off to the Landhaus - a corner bar right across from the Mike’s Bike Tour…not far. Interesting interior décor. The room was a long and narrow one with a bar stretching out almost two thirds of the full distance before opening in the back to a circular room suitable for not more than just a handful of tables. But the most distinctive feature (and the coolest) was the living tree growing on the end of the bar closest to the door. It’s trunk served to anchor the bar on one side while it’s branches and vines stretched up along the low ceiling throughout the bar area with Bavarian hops hanging down to tickle the brows of its thirsty patrons. Cool place. Having already walked the same route back to the hostel 4 or 5 times in just a day and a half, Mattyboy determined (with a little encouragement from his roommates) that it was time to change it up a little. Instead of following the cobblestone path that led arrrround the fountain welcoming visitors to the square of Marienplatz, he takes the more direct and refreshing path through the fountain. Good photo-op.

The following day, Friday, the three of us boarded a train for the town of Dachau and walked a tour of the concentration camp that afternoon. A sobering experience to say the least. Dachau was around for 12 years spanning the full reign of the Third Reich’s rule. Important to see the grounds - the barracks, the bunker, the crematory, the gas chambers - and hear the stories but impossible to ever really truly understand it... Our tour guide, Ricky, was a dude from Canada who spoke with a British accent. He was living in Munich studying to be a professor and possessed a well researched expertise in Nazi propaganda. A smart and knowledgeable guy, Ricky and his tour made for an educational afternoon. On the train back to Munich Ricky sold us (well, ok, sold me) on a pub crawl for that afternoon that he owns and runs. I, in turn, sold the rest of the group…a group that now included the three of us, Mike and Chrissy, as well as Sean and Lauren (from earlier in Nice) and my man Chase Gill (an ND classmate who will be us for the next week).

The pub crawl begins with our boy Ricky ringing a bell, standing atop the bar, and giving the speech of a man who’s been drinking all afternoon...and off we go…at the first stop Ricky welcomes all challengers to a liter chugging contest (which he loses but finishes). Before we leave bar #1, it’s clear that the same guy that was leading us around Munich’s first concentration camp just a couple of hours ago….the same guy that riddled us Americans with guilt for knowing about the Holocaust long before we admitted to it….the same guy that demanded the utmost respect and reverence on the grounds of Dachau…is… a…total freakin drunk. Mixed reviews on the pub crawl and some questions about its leadership but by the end of it, I think it’s safe to say that everyone drank plenty of beer and had a good time . Following the last stop on the crawl we found ourselves at the same hostel bar from which we started - Euro Youth Hostel - and it just so happened to be karaoke night. Opes got up and sang “Sweet Child of Mine” with his wife providing backup signing and air guitar support….Mike Oopenlader - not surprisingly, the unanimous MVP of the evening. Late night. 9am train. Eh, no prob….we’ll just sleep on the train…Brolst to Munchen!!!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Pleasantville, Switzerland

Interlaken, Switzerland - Small village town in the heart of the Alps located between two lakes - Thunersee and Brienzersee. One of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Got into town around 8 pm where I met up with Jaybird, my traveling mate for the balance of the trip. After a lonnnnng day of trains, I enjoyed a nice stroll through town marveling at the magnificent backdrop. Jay and I then enjoyed some libations down in the beer garden on the ground floor of our hostel - the famous (infamous) Ballmers Herberger. After a beer or two and some catching up, the beer garden closed just as we were recruited to join a bunch of college kids who were playing drinking games around a long table. I must say, during our two day stay, even I felt a bit old (poor Jay)…just as we expected and you kinda just had to go with it!

Next day - bright blue sky and a brilliant early morning sun. I was back to the train station by 7am to book our trip to Munich before getting on a bus for our “extreme” excursion. If you’ve never experienced Interlaken you might, like me, be unaware of the duality that the word canyon can have - both noun AND verb. If you have enough curiosity (substitute stupidity if you like) and close to about 200 big ones, you too could leave Interlaken with a more thorough understanding of this. And so it was that at 8am on Tuesday morning, Jay and I set out to learn for ourselves the manifestation of the word’s use as a verb...

Our guides were both native English speaking guys from opposite hemispheres. Stan - a big ol’ dude with a long pony tail, an easy smile and a South African accent. Steve - a little, jacked dude from London who’s spends his winters in New Zealand and has a giant, purple scar running up the left side of his face from the eye to the temple counterbalanced by other permanent scars and indentations on his right side. “Steve, how’d you get that scar, dude?” He answers, “Para-gliding accident”. Right. Sure it was. And a “canyoning accident” for your para-gliding clients who ask the same question? After a brief intro, we geared up - full wetsuit, life jacket, helmet, shoes, etc - and headed up the mountain. After about an hour’s drive into the alps, and on the side of some big mountain, Stan pulled the van over to the side of the road. “OK, it’s go time. Let’s move!”. Huh? Where are we going? Stan, you must be confused dude. Maybe you’ve made a wrong turn or something. There’s nothing here but a 150 meter drop into a stream of glacier water and sharp rocks…kinda looks like a… Oh God…it’s a canyon. 2 minutes later they are going over the rules of how to rappel down the side of a mountain. Strap in. One hand on the rope; the other out for balance. Lean back. Back horizontal to the ground. Feet perpendicular to the wall. It’s easy. Just start walking down the side of the wall as if it were the ground. Don’t screw up though. Because, as Steve promised, “You will not survive this fall”. Thanks Steeeeeve for those useful words of caution. We had a group of 9. Jay and I were the 8th and 9th to go. A couple of steps down, it starts to get a little easier. They let more slack in the rope and you’re forced to go a little faster. 150 meters is further than you think. Halfway in with building confidence, I look down. Bad idea. Instant vertigo. Whatever confidence that was building just evaporated. Miraculously, everyone makes it down without incident. Once in the canyon, it’s about an hour of jumping from ledges, sliding down rocks, climbing up moss-covered walls and doing other crazy Man v Nature stuff. The water temp makes Mem Day in NJ’s Atlantic Ocean feel like bath water. I think he said somewhere around 40 degrees. Instantly numbing the moment your hands and face hit the surface. Refreshing. Invigorating. Stupid cold. At first, some smaller jumps and slides. Then some larger ones. The hairiest part - climbing halfway up a wall to make the 35 ft jump into a pool of water. “Make sure you hit the target. If you miss… it will hurt”. At some point during the second half of this thing, we’re told to stop and wait for everyone to catch up. Then we get a minute’s tutorial on zip-lining. “We’ll tie you in. Hold on to the rope. Sit back. Slide forward. And let go when I tell you to. It’s a special knot that will release you into the pool below as soon as you drop it. If you go too early or too late, it won’t be good. Let go when I say LET GO. Got it?” No problem. I went first. Awesome. Next guy - no problem. Third guy….Stan yells, “Let Go!”…he lets go…nothing happens. He keeps sliding. Toward the wall. Faulty knot. Stan engages the safety rope and stops the kid from sliding into the wall. Both guides now shouting instructions as he dangles from the zip line. After some nervous fidgeting, he wrangles loose and drops into the pool…never good to see an “Oh Shit“ look in the eyes of your guide. After emerging from the canyon without any injuries in the group, someone retrieved the van for a picnic of beer, bread and cheese. A thrilling experience and a great time. Overpriced? Yes. But a memory that will not be soon forgotten. To canyon - verb. Got it.

That afternoon Jay and I took a hike up to some water falls near a neighboring village of Wilderswil. Later, we ate some dinner at a place right around the corner. Pretty low-key night for us on second night at Balmers. Early morning for travel to Munich…


Day 7 - Travel Day. Train departs Nice - 5:58; Train arrives in Interlaken - 19:50. Best scenery so far. Don’t expect it to be topped. Not much to write about. Some observations thus far:

- A Razor (mini scooter) is a perfectly acceptable mode of transportation for full grown men.

- There is no place too public for an all out 10 minute make-out session. The park, the bar, the train station. I’m talking full tongue, wide-range groping and rolling around in the grass kind of makin out…right there in the middle of the freakin park! Aint pretty…

- Capri pants and jean jackets are in…for straight men in France.
No “God Bless You” after a sneeze.

- In Hotel Paradis’s (second hostel in Nice) public area bathroom there is a picture of an animated pile of crap holding a sign that reads, “please keep toilet clean”. Didn’t see beyond the words until my third trip. Ridiculous.

More to come as they hit me the rest of the way…

Parlez-vous français?

Nice, France - The unofficial capital of the French Riviera. Pop ~ 400k. Very popular destination for Europe’s holiday season (These people take vacation for months - not weeks - at a time). It’s genealogy dates back to Ancient Greece where it was first established by the Greeks as an important trading route on the Mediterranean. That was sometime a couple hundred years BC. Then the Romans came along and in their quest to control the alps discovered the benefits that this little puppy had to offer soooo, naturally, they wanted it for their own. There was, apparently, a fair amount of back and forth through the years - seesawing between an independent municipality and a territory of Italy. In 1860 following the second Italian War of Independence (w/ Austria), Nice was awarded as compensation to France’s King Napoleon III for offering his assistance (imagine that - France coming to the aid of somebody ELSE) on the field of battle. A bone of contention for the Italians who still regarded the city as a national interest and even occupied it during WWII. As a result, today it enjoys a native culture that blends both French and Italian and welcomes many others from around the world.

Arrived in Nice on Thursday evening after a lonnnng day of making connections along the French coast - Figueres, Montpellier, Marseille. Anxious to be both at my destination and in a town with some friends, I had no shame in playing third wheel for the next day and half with Mr. and Mrs. Quirke - Sean and Lauren (brief bio’s - Sean from Minneapolis; Lauren from Chicago. Met at big Chi-town Hedge fund. Continued romance through MBA school. Now engaged and thrilled about the burden of a third wheel in the French Riviera). So Thursday night, the three of us went out for some pizza on a street in the famed “Old Town”, as they call it. This particular street is probably better characterized as somewhat of a tourist trap as there are maybe 30-40 restaurants lining a pedestrian-only alleyway; each with outdoor dining rooms. I’d say 32 of the 35 were pretty damn homogenous - Italian umbrellas offering almost identical menus mixing in some French cuisine. Pizza and wine - good by me. After dinner, it was back to the hostel for a good sleep. First true hostel experience with dormitory-style living. Stayed here two days without so much as an introduction to any of the 5 roommates. Like ships passing in the night.

The next morning brought with it plans for a day trip out to Monaco. Just a 30 minute train ride away, Monaco, yet another in a string of beautiful vacation towns along the Riviera, plays host to Formula One’s biggest race every year - the Grand Prix. The stands, signs, and racing pits all still lingered just a week and a half after this year’s race. We made our way up to the famous Monte Carlo Casino and gawked at the lineup of cars in the valet line - Ferrari’s, Rolls, Mazeratti, etc. From there, up to the Prince’s (Albert I think) castle atop the cliff. Not much to the castle but a cute and quiet town surrounding it with souvenir shops and a grand cathedral. Unknown to me before, Monaco is not technically considered to be a part of (though militarily protected by) France. It enjoys its own sovereignty and independence…technically speaking. And it is with such independence that they enforce famously low tax rates and instill a “business friendly” climate that, together, has spurned a reputation akin to that of the Cayman Islands. “A shady place in the sun,” as Lauren‘s travel book put it. We stopped for lunch on the way down from the palace and splurged for gelato before catching the train back to Nice. After a regroup at the hostel, I met the lovebirds later in the afternoon for a brown bagged happy hour at the beach…romantic don’t ya think? A very pleasant evening - clear and warm. The three of us, again, had some dinner and afterwards hit up an Irish Pub in town with live music. The next morning, Sean and Lauren flee to Rome for a little privacy with plans to meet up again with the group in Munich and Vienna later in the trip.

Day 3 in Nice - transfer day. Next stop - Hotel Paradis. Wake up, pack up, and down to the lobby for breakfast and wifi. Enter address in to Google Maps - 1 Rue de Paradis. 6.2 km away? Too far to walk. OK, looks like the tram will get me close. Within maybe 6 or 7 blocks. Should be easy enough to walk from there. On the short tram ride , something looks a little off on this map (one that I picked up from the train station). Why are all of the roads that lead to Rue de Paradis zig-zagged and not square like the rest of the town? Hmmmm….my stop. Time to get off. I set out in the direction of Rue de Paradis following this here trusty map. Everything going swimmingly and then….it becomes abundantly clear why the roads on the map are not at normal right angles - yep, straight uphill (you‘re all probably thinking “Well Duuuuuuhh!” but it never crossed my mind). I set out for about an hour hike up the road…following the map the whole way. Right turn. Left turn. Right turn. A steeper incline with each change of direction. A times, a 4 to 5 story stair climbs. Lugging 50 lbs on my back the whole way. Sweating like a pig. Almost there. Man, this is a little more secluded that I expected. Haven’t seen a car go by since about halfway up. There it is - street sign that reads: “Rue de Paradis” with an arrow pointing up. One more climb and a right turn. Okaaaaay….made it. Now, where is this thing? 1 Rue de Paradis, right? Pull out the paperwork. Yep, 1 Rue de Paradis. But there is no 1 Rue de Paradis!!! The street numbers start at 2. Check the paperwork again. I must be going crazy. Fine, let me call and see where exactly they are. After Barcelona, I won’t be surprised that there’s no sign outside the hostel broadcasting its whereabouts. Dial the number and press “Send” from my new international cell phone. No dialing. Just a Spanish-speaking operator saying something that I can’t understand. GREAT! Ok, now what? Back down to the previous turn. Like I said, not many cars passing by. Eventually a guy comes whizzing by on a scooter to witness something completely out of place and must have noticed the look of total confusion upon the face of what we might call back at home a “Benny”. Mercifully, he pulls over, backs his bike up and drops the kickstand. “Bonjoure!” “Bonjoure”. And that’s about as far as the constructive verbal communication went. It soon became very apparent that he didn’t speak a lick of English and I not a lick of French. It was clear he was here to happily help however he could. After a minute of back and forth with nothing but head shaking and shoulder shrugging from both parties, I finally point to the address on the paperwork. 1 Rue de Paradis, 0600 Nice. “Ahhhhh”. His eyes go wide with recognition. He points to Nice and starts on about something or another. I think he’s trying to tell me I’m in the wrong place. Oh, is this little town halfway up the freakin Alps is not a part of Nice? I motion to the ground around me and ask, “Nice? Is this Nice?” “Yessss, this is Nice.” WTF. I point to the street sign above my head pointing in the direction of Rue de Paradis. He’s now confused. Again, he points to the address on the paperwork and then points back down the hill. OK, I don’t know where the hell I am right now but it’s clear that it aint anywhere close to Hotel Paradis. He accurately interprets my body language at this realization. The thought of walking allll the way back down was just too much to bear! He motions for me to come to his bike. What a nice guy….but there is NO WAY I’m fitting on that thing with this damn backpack. Just then, a small car goes honking by. Of course, the scooter guy knows the driver and motions him to pull over. They go back and forth. The man in the car appears just as pleasant and just as English-speaking as his buddy on the scooter. The passenger door flies open, he clears the seat and they both motion for me to get in. Sanity check - I have no idea who these guys are or what they’re saying but I’m pretttty sure this isn’t’ a plot to harvest my organs…pretty sure…I climb in. He smiled a bunch and after a couple unsuccessful tries at communication, we rode down the mountain in quiet and without incident. He kindly let me off back at the tram stop. All organs still where they belong. Back to square 1. Phone still not working. I board the train and head back to the hostel convinced that ONCE AGAIN I am the victim of an online scheme. Exhausted and drained, I return to Hotel Andares to inquire and about any rooms for the night. “Room es impossible for tonight”. Let’s try this again. I sit down in the very same kitchen I had just a few hours earlier and pull up the internet. This time bypassing Google maps and going straight to Hotel Paradis’s website. I follow the link to “directions”. There are, apparently, TWO streets on the map of Nice with the name Rue de Paradis. The one that I found and the other - a pedestrian-only street in the heart of town. “A twelve minute walk” from the train station. You have to be shitting me. What an idiot!!

Once finally settled in at the new hostel, I took a quick shower and then headed back to the train station for an afternoon trip out to Cannes. Didn‘t know much of Cannes other than that an international film festival was held here once a year…in May. Just missed it. Great beaches at Cannes. They even had sand (Nice - a beach of rocks). Walked around town, down the promenade, and up to the castle for a better view. Lots of fancy hotels and flashy money…not necessarily quite my speed but the beaches were great. I could hang here for a day or two if this were a different trip with a less ambitious itinerary. Back to Nice later in the evening for a quiet night and a good sleep.

My final day in Nice was a Nice (impressive I held off this long?) and quiet one. Made it to Basillica de Notre Dame for an 11am Mass. Pretty church with history dating back to the 12 century. Felt like what an authentic medieval church should. I then walked down to the beach and sat to admire the approaching storm. Streaks of lighting and dark black clouds on the horizon. I decided to wait out my plan to visit a village on the outskirts of town to see if this thing was coming our way. Sure enough, in about 20 minutes it was squarely upon us. A full blown Nor’Easter on the Southern coast of France and I, with turkey panini, beer and my book, was perfectly content to take it all in under the cover of an awning at a waterfront café. The storm may have lasted a full hour and steady rain continued for another two. I eventually braved the elements and made it back to the hostel to wait it out. Finally, at around 6pm, the sun broke and produced a gorgeous afternoon and evening. On this, my 6th day of vacation and the last on the Mediterranean coast, I figured it was time to finally take a swim. A rock beach I’ll never get used to but the water? The water was splendid. Cool and clean, it was exactly what I was hoping for…and about 10 degrees warmer than the Atlantic Ocean was just the week before. I sat by the beach afterwards to take in what was left of the day’s sun before heading back for a shower. The next day would bring an early wakeup call and a 5:56 train out of Nice with connections at Marseille, Lyon, Geneva, and Bern before eventually getting into Interlaken 13 hours later.

Tuna Does Europe

This whole blog thing started as a way to remember some of the best stories from my year in South Bend….and now, a week after graduation, I suppose the proper thing to do would be to dedicate a whole entry to some kind of reflective, one-of-the-best-experiences-of-my-life, yada yada yada kind of a thing. Ah well, yes maybe, at some point, I’ll come back to wrap up the whole ND thing. But for right now? No time for any of that reflection crap…only time to live in the moment...

And at this very moment? Coming to you live errr, correction - on tape delay - from somewhere in the northeast corner of Espana, on board a train traveling east from Bacelona to Montepellier. Landed in Barcelona Tuesday morning circa 10:30am after a pretty brutal transcontinental flight from Philly that packaged a 2.5hr delay with a crying - no screaming - baby two rows back. Glad to be finally on the ground, I was ready to find destination numero uno. Instructions seemed clear - take airport bus to Urgell, address 538 on city’s major throughway, the name - Rambla’s Home Hostel. No problemo, right? Wrong. Two stops after Urgell, I realize this here bus don’t stop at every stop unless the passenger rings the bell - DUH!!! Got it. Ring bell = get off bus. Steep learning curve for ya boy. After walking past the entrance maybe 8 times (It‘s gotta be here somewhere!!!) and now fully convinced to have been victimized by an internet scam, finnnnnalllly from down the block I see a couple of younger dudes wearing packbacks ring a door bell somewhere between #‘s 534 and 540.…ah, of course - the second level! Sure enough, on the call pad next to a big ol’ nondescript wooden door, “Rambla’s Home”. I, too ring the bell and a second or two later Hugo greets me at the door to show me in and get me all set up in my room. Bacelona - 2; McEvily - 0.

Tired from a long flight but anxious to make the most of a short stay in Barcelona, I showered and hit the streets…a self-guided walking tour of the touristy La Rambla - a wide, scenic, tree-lined street running from a pier on the Med Sea up toward the center of the city. I’d guess it’s about ¾ of a mile long with shops, restaurants, and souvenir stands lining both sides while street vendors hit you up for whatever flying, singing, flashing, sure-to-break in your hotel room toys they have these days. I may look, act, and think like a total tourist but surely I am no sucker for the crap-toting street vendor….famous last words….after a couple of hours aimless ambling, I head back to hostel for quick nap. That quick nap quickly changes to long nap and I wake at 8pm to rain outside my window. Without time or patience for rain, I dress, grab poncho and head back to La Rambla to find dinner. Instructions from Hugo - find an alley off the main drag for food better and cheaper than what‘s on La Rambla. Got it, Hugo. On my walk back to La Rambla, the drizzle evolves to a steady rain before fully maturing with a total downpour. Cheap poncho proves insufficient. “Hey - street vendor kid, how much for the umbrella?” “5 Euro.” “No way, I’ll give you 3.” “How bout 4?” “Fine.“ It’s continuing to pour and I’m now on the verge of total jean saturation. I give 10 euro. He hands back 5 while hopelessly searching in his suddenly short pocket for that extra buck…shocker, he has no change. “Whatever, just gimme the umbrella”. Barcelona -3; McEvily - 0. Eventually, with soaked socks and tired legs, I stumble in one of the few corner bistros that actually has patrons…a nice enough, authentic enough looking place for a decent meal and a beer. I retreat to Home for the evening resolved to end the shutout tomorrow.

Day 2 - better day. With some help from Hugo, I set an aggressive itinerary and got to it at about mid morning. The rain had passed. This day - Wednesday - a beeeeeeautiful day. Not a cloud in the sky. Got off train (GREAT metro system) at day’s first attraction…Oh, what’s this coliseum-looking thing with people standing on top taking pictures? Must be some historic Spanish arena…I head to the desk out front eager to learn more about it’s interesting history. “Can I have a brochure?” The woman looks surprised and confused. I try again, this time pointing to the brochures on her desk. She skeptically hands one over. I open it as I walk through the doors. The brochure has no history of some great Spanish sporting arena as I was expecting. It does, however, have coupons for face moisturizer. And that historic-looking arena? A brand new modern mall with a car-giveaway promo in the lobby. Nice. Good thing I took two pictures of this place outside just a second ago…Stay focused, buddy. Don’t stray from the plan. First stop - Fira de Barcelona-Montjuic. On this particular day, it’s a museum hosting some kind of carbon-emissions conference. Neat building. Great views from of the city.

Next stop - the Olympic village and stadium. Situated on a picturesque landscape that overlooks the city on one side and green countryside that eventually gives way to the Mediterranean on the other. It’s a shame this stuff just goes to waste after 18 days of use….Back on the train. Next stop - Parc Guell. Lonnnng hike up to the top but toootalllly worth it. Even better views of the city from atop the top the mountain where the peak is marked by a cross rooted in the ground. On the trek down, beautiful gardens and more interesting architecture…a bright flashy monument in the shape of a dragon-snake right next to a plain looking house that this guy Guidi (some artist or something) lived in...idk, people seemed interested. Boy, wish I could take some pictures to show you guys…but, alas, the borrowed camera I was using had a battery life of single digit minutes and the only good pictures I got were of a damn mall! Be not too concerned though, by day’s end I’d found another battery and have the situation rectified for many more pictures to come. Now, where was I…Oh, right, the gardens and stuff. Take my word for it - a must-see in Barcelona.

Mid afternoon. Back to the metro. Red line to changeover for Blue line. Blue line to Green. 20 minutes later, pesto - Sagrada Familia. Easy. Huuuge church designed by again this guy Guadi. Huuuuge freakin church (technically I suppose it‘s a minor basillica…as designated by Pope Benedict anyway). In fact, it didn’t feel much like a church at all, really. From the outside, visitors are immediately alerted to first, it’s sheer size. Something like 170 meters high. Then, it’s impossible not stand in awe at the incredible detail of the various facades and bell towers - each with some important meaning...kinda forget all that stuff. Once inside, again - the size. Big, huge, open spaces and incredibly high ceiling, lots of columns coming down from that ceiling. Apparently, this dude Guadi had a thing for nature and all these columns were meant to represent trees in a forest…and all the other designs, in some way or another, are supposed resemble some distinct facet of nature. Some really deep stuff. Maybe too deep for a guy who’s wondering how Dirk shot the ball in game one. Annnnyway, after close to 150 years (ground first broken 1866), this thing still aint done!! 3 cranes surrounding it and a full crew working on hoisting and moving steel around. Turns, out this guy Guadi died a tragic death in some kind of accident only like 40 years into this project and they’ve been workin on it ever since. Some estimate that it’ll be done in 2026. OK, sure, there was some damage to the thing and a minor pause during the Spanish Civil War and yea they may not have been working round the clock for 150 years straight, but still! 150 yrs later, not done??? This dude was clearly a big thinker…but it seems to me he coulda done used maybe a dose or two more of some pragmatic thought...with respect to this particular project anyway. Lemme give an example - lots of bleachers surrounding the cathedral from the second level. Enough for a choir of 1,000...and who, might you ask, gets to listen to the kind of beautiful song that can only come from 1,000 strong? All of, oh I don’t know, say the 50 parishioners who might be in attendance. There can’t be more than 10 pews (and albeit hundreds of folding chairs behind them for tourists) laid out before the alter. Segrada Familia - definitely a must-see. A piece of architecture designed and partially erected by a true genius. But, I don’t know…I can’t say, like many others who‘ve recommended it, that it was my favorite place in the city. I just had a hard time imagining actual prayer in this “Basilica”.

After Sengrada Familia, it’s off to another round of sightseeing on the other side of town - Arc de Triomf, Parc de Ciutadella, and a walk by the Picasso Museum. A glorious day. People everywhere taking in the weather. Running, jogging, laying out in the park. It’s close to about 5pm when I finally make it down to the beach. Shoes off, toes in the sand and a walk down the coast - North to South. Volleyball, weightlifting, beach bars at every block, and believe it or not, even surfers waiting for the right wave. Having only ever visited the Tuscan coast in Italy, I knew the Mediterranean to be no less tame than a lake and was shocked to see waves rolling in that broke a couple of buoys out. Cool beach. More than I expected.

With this, just my second and final night (for the time being) in Barcelona, I wanted to enjoy a real authentic Tapas dinner and a glass of Sangria. Home to shower and right back to La Rambla to find some place to eat. Terrrrrrible idea. I fell for every trap in the book. Went to the most touristy part of town. Was lured into an all you can eat “special” at a reasonable price. I signed up for whatever the “Tapas” meal was that day - a laundry list of things that sounded great on a menu…and you’re saying I get to have as much as I want of each dish on this list? Sounds too good to be true…and, sure enough, it was. The 20 dishes I was supposed to receive were served in rounds of 4 or 5. The bland, right-out-of-the-freezer chicken wings in the second round had me beginning to think this might not be the authentic experience I had hoped for. Dining by myself, I had with me the latest SI to page through as I waited…and waited…and waited. Without exaggeration, 45 minutes had passed from the time they took the second round dishes away. It was clear they had forgotten about me. By the time I finally picked my head and made eye contact with my waiter, it was obvious that he had completely forgotten about me. In haste, he rushed over and with an update, “Cinco minutos, no problemo”. Cinquenta minutos after the one, out comes round three - two different varieties of cold anchovies, a cold dish of octopus, a week attempt at vegetables, and a cold quiche dish. I had one bite of the octopus and quish. Didn’t touch either anchovy dish and I was done. I SURRENDER!!! Got up, went to pay the bill at the register. “Tell me what I owe ya…” My waiter notices the quick departure and rushes over to snatch the bill from the girl working the counter. “No food; just drink. I don’t charge you for food, OK?”. Just when I thought this couldn’t get annnnnnny worse…you go and toooootallllly redeem yourself!!! I pay the bill and head out…Holy Crap - 10 Euro ($14) for the Sangria!

Great sightseeing. Not so great dining experiences. Es O-K. I’ll give it another try on the way back. It has to be better…right?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Not A Game…We Talkin Bout Practice

With all due respect to Dennis Green, Jim Mora, Bobby Knight and the others who’ve cemented their place on the TOP 10 Best Ever sports soundbytes, nothing beats my man A.I. And this recent recollection of the Answer’s best post game rant comes with my reflections from the weekend of the Blue & Gold game. Sure, I’ve flipped by the televised versions of other big-time spring football games… sure, I’ve always thought it was a bigger waste of time than whatever PBA or Professional Billiards event that could otherwise be on… and sure, I’ve always thought: “What kinda die hard obsessed fan you gotta be to waste a spring Saturday afternoon going to one of this things?”…but these were just the thoughts of a skeptic without any personal experience. And now, after participating myself, I get it. Well, I get why people show up anyway. The best part of any college football game is obvious (the tailgating) and so why wait 40 weeks from the end of a season until the beginning of the next when you could offer a perfectly reasonable excuse for throwing another massive outdoor party at the midway point…all the while stirring up a little WSSAQ chatter (Who-Should-Start-At-QB) 4 ½ months before any meaningful snaps? I mean how else are Cubs (or Mets) fans supposed to spend the spring?

The weekend got off to a good start on Thursday as I joined 52 other MBA’s who were bussed up to the Four Winds Casino and Resort – an Indian reservation about 45 minutes from South Bend. After about 3.5 hours of finding the lowest min-bet blackjack and craps tables, I walked out up $4 with a sore palm from too many wind-up high fives. Admittedly, the high-five per $1 of winnings ratio was a bit excessive. A nice little change of pace and, as it turned out, some good “low cost” fun.

But the real football weekend festivities didn’t get going until Friday. Starting with the “Bald and the Beautiful” fundraiser at 2 – a chance to feel good about drinking a beer and watching dudes (and one very brave law school chick) shave their heads in the name of raising $$ for cancer. From there it’s off to the McCloskey business plan competition where finalists in start-up mode present to a full crowd of their peers, professors, and a panel of angel investors (the “Irish Angels”) for a chance at real money. I think it’s close to 100k to the winner. Some really good ideas – an app for alumni networking took home the cake with an MBA-laden team coming in second proposing an efficiency enhancing attachment to wind turbines promising to add 17% more production (idk, the engineer sounded like a pretty smart dude).

Following a happy hour meeting at the corner pub, it was time to walk over for the unveiling of “THE Shirt”. You wanna talk about a waste of time? THIS was RI-DIC-U-LOUS. A THREE HOUR (!!) “ceremony” to celebrate and drum up excitement about a freakin t-shirt… for an 8-5 team! And I suppose it’s time I explained the weekend’s weather – cold, windy and raining from Friday afternoon until Sunday morning. So here we were - a couple of losers standing outside, in the pouring rain, listening to one drawn out speech after another just so that we can be among the first to see this year’s design for a t-shirt that will eventually be obsolete in just a couple of months…all before actually going in and buying the thing for about 5x its cost. Marketing-driven fan-targeted blatant exploitation. That’s what this is. I know somewhere up there's a group of aliens huddled around in the mother ship looking down at this scene scratching their heads thinking, “I thought Earth might be tougher. We’ll have these morons brainwashed by Tuesday”. Coach Kelly must’ve received strict instructions to talk for at least 2 full minutes because the guy was reeeeally struggling….”Uh…what else can I say about this just…uh…this just awesome new design?” Alright coach, unless you’re going to give us some controversial sound bytes on your thoughts about who will start at QB, then just PLEEEEASE put the mic down and drop the cover on this damn t-shirt already. But no, this test of true fandom just won’t end. Next up, an intro to this season’s first string leprechaun….awesome. Dude, it’s 45 degrees and raining sideways. No more speeches, chanting, clapping, dancing, or whatever else leprechauns do these days. Nothing against your carefully honed craft but I’ve already invested 30 minutes into this “experience” and I’m not leaving until I see this freakin thing. Finally, a hush comes over the crowd (there were a couple hundred other geeks there with us) as “THE shirt” is unveiled…drum roll please: Duke Blue? Really? Well, I’m not sure that makes a whole lotta sense but I do like the Four Horsemen tribute. From cutting-edge efficiency enhancing green energy technology to 3hr rain soaked t-shirt celebrations, you can really have it all here on Blue/Gold weekend in South Bend…

Thankful to be running for cover with the peace of mind that a box has been checked on the bucket list (things that are worse than being beaten to death with bucket), I swing by and pick up Em on my way to the Stepan center for RCAND. This year’s matchup was a highly touted one and looked to pit two well-balanced and capable teams against one another with an “electric” atmosphere (snicker) and a “charged” crowd (snicker) in attendance. It proved to be can’t miss entertainment. Oh, right, guess I should mention what RCAND stands for – Robotics Competition At Notre Dame…Duh. So yea, this year’s competition – just your everyday run-of-the-mill robot football game; ‘cept it’s definitely not everyday run-of-the-mill kind of stuff. As the brochure points out, “RCAND is the first effort at collegiate robotics football anywhere”. Where you at Ivy League? Nerds. Having never been to an RCAND before and going strictly off the promotional email circled around campus, I was expecting some kind of crazy R2D2 stuff with life-sized robots calling audibles at the line and running hitch-n-go hot routes to beat single coverage on the outside after picking up the blitzing safety…OK, in truth I guess I really didn’t have much by way of expectations other than seeing something that was totally cool and built by people with IQ’s equal to some multiple of my own. So back to the ‘bots….think less Terminator; more suped-up remote-control toy car. These things were like little boxes on wheels controlled by their creators holding remotes on the sidelines. So how does it work? Tackling – each robot has a light atop its body controlled by a protected sensor that measures how rapidly the robot accelerates and decelerates. A quick change from the former to the latter (think D End robot colliding with RB robot) – light turns blue and pesto: you’ve got yourself a “tackle” (none of this "Was his knee really down crap"). The Skill Players – Sleepy Jim, QB (uses infrared and sonar to locate open receivers. SEE PICTURE); Knute Robotne, RB (Can scoop up a bouncing football); Ocho Blinko, WR (emits infrared and ultrasound to be located – a la a Twitter account for the real Ocho)…hey, you think the color guy (yes, they had a play-by-play and color guy) could explain what “infrared” means to the MBA’s in the crowd??? The point system rewards extra points for completed forward passes. And, of course, it’s Blue vs. Gold. An awesome event that totally made up for the whole t-shirt disaster. It’s all put on by the senior engineering majors who’ve apparently spent the better part of the semester constructing and designing these robots before drilling them on the practice field. The students are invested in winning and have clearly invited lots of their friends for the home field (court? whatever) advantage. Standing room only. It’s an intense game that produces its fair share of fumbles, sacks, 50yd TD runs, and yes, blown calls by the men in stripes. Seriously, the officials blew a couple of calls. I think I’ve got the Engineering School’s PhD project for next semester…can you sayyy, on-field robot replay??? Who won, you ask? Anyone who showed up. But who walked away with the MVP? That was unanimous – #99 Adam Tinateiri. The kicker. This thing uses compressed air to launch the ball as high as the ceiling (which it hit on one occasion - a point of contention for his coach) and as far as the full length of the field. His counterpart, The Death Star, couldn’t help but watch with feelings of jealousy and inadequacy. Well done, engineers. Well done indeed.

After a restful Friday night, we’re up nice and early Saturday morning. Precious tailgating minutes are not to be wasted on sleep when our swan song parking lot party is awaitin. In spite of temps in the low 40’s and constant rain, our classmates show up in full force providing some tented protection and ample supplies to last the day. Before you know it, it’s already 2:30. I guess we should go in and check out the game…right? We get in, find the restroom, and get to our regular seats at about midway point in the first quarter. What were we thinking??? It’s still raining. Not many people here. No beer. And who really goes to practice anyway? Cue the video: We stayed for one play before heading back to the tent. I mean, “How the hell can I make (our) team better by practicing?!?!”

After the game it’s back to the crib to see if the outdoor backyard party is still going strong in my backyard (described earlier in the week by an undergrad as “the only day Notre Dame actually feels like a state school”). We pull up from around the corner and all of sudden hundreds of under-dressed and over-saturated 19-21 year olds are fleeing for coverage. Not from the cops or from the loser old heads coming from the actual game; they run from the pouring rain. We get home just in time to catch the end of the party and see about 50 kegs spread out amid the sea of red solo cups now littering our unpopulated yard. Whoa, wait a minute…this keg still has some beer in it. What else is a guy supposed to do? We haaaad to rescue it in from the rain. After a couple of hours at home with our “found” beer, the night concludes where all tail-gating, football watching, post-game partying Saturday’s should – The Backer. Good times, long day. In bed by midnight.

Sunday afternoon I find myself at the gym trying to sweat out a still lingering hangover. A dude in a straight brimmed backwards hat and fingerless gloves walks by sporting his latest purchase – THE (blue) Shirt...but already just two days later, with a personalized touch - cut without the sleeves. Some things about the spring football weekend were great (Robot Football/tailgating/Free beer). Some things, not so much (THE Shirt/that guy and his red solo cup in my backyard).

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Transfer Day

At the departing gate in the Beijing airport and tracking the score of the Louisville/ND Big East semifinal game. ND up a couple early but boarding time interrupts…a 2hr flight later ND in Shanghai learns that ND in NY gave back a 14 pt second half lead and lost down the stretch…bummer. Silver lining – plenty of rest for the big dance. Everything goes surprisingly on schedule and we land in Shanghai Saturday afternoon (after a week in Beijing), find our tour guides, get our luggage (no lost baggage) and hop on the bus to the hotel (much better traveling with the group and translators). Beijing is the capital of China and has a history as an economic and cultural hub that dates back hundreds of years. Its size is significant – a population almost triple that of NYC and buildings separated by congested roadways for as far as the eye can see. Very charming in its undeniably strong roots to the Chinese culture but tough to wrap your arms around in just a week…and, aside from its ever-expanding waste line, nothing all that distinctive about the city’s physical appearance. On the bus ride from the Shanghai airport we immediately see some similarities and differences.

For starters, the fear of death as a passenger in a tour bus is just as poignant and the rules of the road are no less “liberal” than they were in Beijing…you quickly re-learn to only look out the side windows unless you find near collisions with nitrogen transporting trucks exciting. But the view from those side windows reveals a city with a unique and immediately recognizable skyline that projects a markedly more modern feel…and more modern it certainly is. Defined by huge buildings, new-age architecture and carefully planned infrastructure, its history will tell the story of a small fishing village turned major metropolis and financial center of the Eastern World. Its location is ideal for a booming international economy – on the eastern coast of the China Sea and the Yangtze River – and with the opening of the ports to foreign trade in the 1842 (as set forth in the treaty ending the First Opium War with Britain…more on this later), it was soon a major economic center. With the rise of the Communist Party in the middle part of the 20th century, the economic growth of the city was severely stunted and it wasn’t until the opening of the Chinese economy (post-Mao) in 1990 that it again emerged as an international hub…hence, the more modern feel. With skyscrapers and high rise hotels/apartments dotting the sky, the two most attention-grabbing structures are the Oriental Pearl TV Tower (a thick-poled, pointy, antennae-like thing with two big red sparkling balls splitting it into thirds…or, as the Chinese see it, “a picture of twin dragons playing with pearls “) and the Shanghai World Financial Center (101 stories boasting the highest observation deck and hotel in the world). Most of these building are no more than a couple years (WFC 2009) or decades old.

Our first day in the new city allowed for a couple hours of rest and familiarization with the hotel – a 6 month new Marriot Courtyard. Nice place; OK location not close (or far) from much. Later in the evening we had a group dinner at a restaurant in an older village with classic Chinese architecture and a bustling street market that overlooks a network of small ponds and streams. After dinner it’s off to the riverfront for a riverboat cruise to take in the sights of the city. The night was both clear and mild enough (and the beer affordable enough) to enjoy the views from the top deck…a nice way to get acquainted with the place. Before heading back to the hotel, the bus makes a stop at Xin Tian Di, the city’s bar district, to let off those looking for some night life. Great spot. We saddled up at an upstairs bar in the Paulaner (where the house brew is served in liters; not pints) and enjoyed some good ol’ German beer. Without responsibility until 10am the following morning, we had plenty of fun...

Day 2

Breakfast was lights out, again. Most anything you could want served on the buffet – a dangerous situation conducive to the development of glutinous habits (i.e. bread pudding topped with vanilla and chocolate sauce as the main course with sides of dumplings, donuts, and peanut butter stuffed crepes). 10 am and time for a bus tour of the city. We return to the same part of town (obviously a favorite for tourists) and take a guided walking tour through the beautiful YuYuan garden. The garden was built by an officer in Ming Dynasty – a place for his parents to live comfortably in old age (not too shabby of a retirement home…pays to have a son in with the Mings). Nice weather and peaceful afternoon. On the walk from the park to the bus we are constantly bombarded with more opportunity to burn our yuan – Mont Blanc pens, fake watches, etc. For the most part nothing of great interest. We are instructed that the best way to handle these pesky “street vendors” is a simple response in mandarin – “booyah” (translation - NO)...turned out to be too juicy not to be obnoxious. 52 of us walking through the park calling up our best late 90’s Stuart Scott – “Sir, Rolex Watch? Best Price. Just for you” hmmm…how about, “BOOOOOYAHHH!”.

During the afternoon we were offered an optional cultural event. Today’s event: a tour of a water village on the outskirts of the city where the Chinese gondola navigates windy, narrow waterways in an old fishing community. It promised to be the Venice of China. Great marketing. Six to a boat and a Chinese man pushing from the back…the water tour lasted all of about 15 minutes and covered maybe a quarter of a mile. Venice it wasn’t but quaint and enjoyable? Sure. The water was lined with restaurants, shops, and food stands. It was its own little mini-economy fueled by the rows of tourist buses parked in the parking lot (each, I’m sure, selling “Venice of China”). Despite feeling a little ripped off, we enjoyed the opportunity to relax and buy some cheap souvenirs for friends and family at home. After 2 hours of making our own little contribution to local business, we met back at the dock for a walk to the buses. A handful of little old ladies (LOL’s) pushing yet another product. No taller than 4’3 with grey hair, lots of wrinkles and the smile of a grandma, these LOL’s would approach each of us holding two handfuls of bags filled halfway with water and live goldfish…speaking only Chinese. It was clear they were “selling” these fish but we couldn’t understand…what were a bunch of tourists going to do with a goldfish in a bag out on the outskirts of Shanghai? The LOL’s, handicapped by the language barrier, acted out what exactly it was they are selling. The pitch was to buy the fish only to then set them free in the river beneath the dock on which they were conducting their business. Soooo, let me get this straight – All you LOL’s sit here throughout the day catching these goldfish…you then imprison them in a jail of plastic and go about selling them to animal-obsessed American tourists who purchase their freedom….well, temporary freedom anyway, before releasing them back into the very same river that you’ve caught them from and plan to soon catch again in hopes of selling to the next group of suckers??? OK, got it… An MBA-style lesson in effective use of “renewable natural resources”.

Day 3

Company visit in the morning to Ford in the financial district. Brand new building in a business park of other brand new buildings and right across the street from the Shanghai Stock Exchange. We heard from the CFO of Ford’s China operations (an American expat). A refreshing presentation that left out the sales pitch and company overview (rightfully assuming his audience to understand that Ford manufactures and finances cars) and instead focused on the differences of actually doing business in China. The opportunities, the struggles, the interplay with a controlling government. A common theme heard throughout the two weeks was the emphasis on joint ventures in the placement of foreign investment. Each industry seems to have its own idiosyncrasies but generally speaking, capital investment by foreign companies is mandated to be done so via a joint venture and then restricted such that a foreign company can have no more than 50% ownership and must share at least 50% with Chinese partners. Our presenter talked about their process for seeking out these important partnerships and subsequently structuring the deals in a way that it makes sense for all involved (board control, management concessions, etc.). Good presentation and a short bus ride followed by an afternoon off. With rain threatening, we visited the well-respected (or so they say) Shanghai Aquarium. It was…eh, it was alright. Nothing exotic enough to warrant a visit on a day with any sun. Nice walk through town from the financial district to the aquarium. Not one piece of trash on the ground…the cleanest city I’ve ever seen.

Best part of Day 3 was the post-dinner entertainment. A trip to the Shanghai Acrobat Show… what incredible athletes. Impossible to put into words. What would we do without youtube? .

Day 4

A day with two scheduled company visits that saw plenty of time on the bus. GE in the morning and Microsoft in the afternoon separated by a Dim Sum lunch featuring the Fun Zing Yu (deep fried smoked fish) – a Shanghainese specialty. Not bad…still tough to get used to bones in everything. It is perfectly acceptable per the local culture to spit the bones out on the table …just too unnatural for most of us. Following lunch we take a ride out to Microsoft’s China HQ’s…as we approach we notice a big corporate office building home to a company called Wicresoft….Wicresoft? I guess that whole knock-off thing knows no bounds, huh? We later come to learn Wicre was a joint venture with Micro and recently spun off as its own.

Last night for lots of folks in Shanghai and it just so happens to be Emily’s birthday. A big group out to celebrate at a Mexican joint – a special on tequila and Corona. Some USC undergrads come in some time around 11ish…too many dudes dancing on the bar…it was getting a little weird. No complaints when they leave. The night ends across the street at a karaoke bar. Bad music. Good times. Cheap transportation - 20 minute cab ride home = 30 yuan or about $4.50…a guy could get used to THAT!

Day 5

A program wrap-up in the morning followed by a group lunch and then dismissal. The educational aspect of the trip was punctuated by a panel discussion with a Hungarian consultant, an Australian investment banker, and a former Chinese diplomat turned Fortune 10 company president. Thoughtful and engaging discussion with each presenting a unique perspective on business in China and its evolution during the last two decades. Final thoughts from our faculty/professor leaders and it’s then back to the buffet line for the second time in as many hours.

With our afternoon free and a flight to Hong Kong not leaving until the next morning, we visited the World Financial Center and wanted to see for ourselves what the view looked like from 1,600 ft. Before stepping onto the elevator, there was a quick video showing changes to the Shanghai skyline over the last 100 years juxtaposed alongside those of NYC and Tokyo. For the first 80 years Tokyo and NYC show gradual growth stretching higher and higher while Shanghai remains relatively undeveloped in comparison…in the final 20 years, Shanghai finds the magic beanstalk beans and catches up very quickly to the other two. Evidence to the fact that with a country of 1.4B people, when they set their mind to doing something, China can really get it done and get it done fast. We take a ridiculously short 94 floor elevator ride and step out to a fully enclosed lower deck before taking an escalator and another short elevator ride up to the 97th and 100th floors. Magnificent views from the peak…and a window through the floor that allows a birds-eye view straight to the ground…it was enough to make even those with the mildest fear of heights get a little (or a lot) dizzy. Standing atop this, the second largest building in the world protruding out from the skyline of a city below that represents tremendous wealth and opportunity for so many, it was hard not to think of it as a target...a feeling that’s hard to explain and admittedly comes without much thought; it just kinda hits you all of a sudden…I suppose it’s the scars of a uniquely American wound that just won’t ever fully heal nor be forgotten. Having never visited the top floors of the WTC, I now find myself at the top of a modern day WTC of the East trying to shake the thought of a plane someday flying into the side of this tremendous building…thoughts that I soon dismiss as those of an imagination run wild. We ride back down to the 1st floor, ears popping along the way, and hail a taxi to our hotel to pack and get some rest for the early morning ahead. Emily turns to me in the cab and asks something to the effect of, “Any idea who China’s fiercest enemies are?” and it’s clear that the feeling up there was more palpable than I thought. I answer that I have no idea and we discuss the words of a panelist from the morning who briefly commented that the focus of the Chinese government has always been and continues to be largely internal. Our quick answer – or rather hypothesis – to her question is that by not confronting world issues (say, in the Middle East, for example) in the same way that the States have, the threats that Americans feel on a regular basis are just not the same here. A thought soon to be reinforced days later when the UN approves a No Fly Zone in the airspace over Libya as China publically “expresses regret over military actions in Libya”, citing its respect for Libya’s sovereignty. Clearly, a different approach to foreign policy…stand by and watch while the bully beats up the little kid for his lunch money or step in and do something about it albeit after a couple of haymakers have been thrown…better late than never.

Low-key night. Flight to Hong Kong in the morning.



The phrase “culture shock” takes on a whole new meaning after stepping off a 14 hour flight from Chicago to Beijing…and though it wasn’t immediately evident, it did not take long to realize that the Far East is more than just a geographical descriptor; it’s also about as far from everyday life that it can get in one of the world’s largest cities. Customs was a breeze. Luggage claim, no problem. Emily and I were arriving a day earlier than our classmates and we had clear instructions to accept no less than 200 RMB/Yuan (~$30) for a taxi ride to our hotel. After collecting our bags in and among a crowd of other English speaking fellow Americans, we walk briskly to the taxi stand and wait in an orderly and fast-moving line before receiving a nod from the uniformed attendant controlling what seemed like an unending flow of yellow & green Hyundai Elantra’s. We take to the cab assigned and ask our driver if he speaks English…a naïve question; he looks utterly confused. Em points to the printed address of the hotel but all we get in reply is a shaking head and a smile. Okayyyy. We try a different cab but same outcome. Three cabbies looking at our printout shaking their heads and talking amongst themselves….Uhhhh, maybe we should’ve just come with the rest of the group a day later. Then, out of nowhere, an English speaking driver comes up and says, “Yea, I know that. No problem. 400 Yuan” No way. 200. ”300” OK, 250. Upon hearing the OK, he immediately grabs a bag at starts racing off to the dark garage. What the hell? Where is he going? Where’s his taxi cab? And why is he running off with our luggage?!?! Something just seems off here. With two good legs, Em runs him down, snatches back the suitcase and we’re back where we started - standing still with luggage at our sides in a sea of yellow and green Elantra’s whizzing by. Finnnnally, we tracked down a guy who knew where to go and accepted our offer of 200 Yuan…which, as it turned out was likely a very generous offer for local standards but still a relatively cheap 30 minute cab ride to the hotel. After an 18 hr door-to-door trip with limited sleep, we were both beat and fought back the sleep to get some overpriced average food from a corner restaurant. Not exactly an inspiring first impression but no matter, the subtleties were lost on these weary travelers anyway.

After some rest, we enjoyed a delicious breakfast buffet replete with both Asian and American breakfast favorites – scrambled eggs, omelets built to order, sausage/bacon, dumplings, fried rice, meat on a stick, watermelon, pastries, etc…finally, a great meal…and one that has since become daily routine at each stop along the way. The Chinese know how to do breakfast. Day 2 we transferred to the Novotel Hotel down the street where the rest of the group would join us later in the day. We took a self-guided tour of the local surroundings, found a great lunch and started to absorb some of the culture. At a local street market we saw all kinds of “delicacies” – Fried scorpion & spider (a whole new kind of meat-on-a-stick) and bottled “snake wine” (dead venomous snakes submerged in white wine to offer added flavor…smelled more like cheap tequila than anything in the wine family). We noticed other differences too – some subtle; some not so much. In the States, our pedestrians have certain rights – even in NYC, the most aggressive drivers yield to pedestrians possessing the right-of-way. In the cities of China, I’m convinced the hospitals have a Pedestrian Ward that keeps the patient flow constant. In the States the lines on the road carry some meaning and a car’s blinker is typically used as intended. In China, despite a similar network of broken and solid white lines, it’s a total free-for-all; signals optional, horns necessary. In the States, our toddlers wear diapers; in Mainland China, the tykes run around with giant holes in their pants (a street corner for the unexpected). In the States, staring is rude and might get you beat up. In China, a blonde haired blue eyed Westerner with a giant boot on his foot = rubber-necking delay. It’s just a little different…

Day 3

The MBA group visits a power technology company in the morning – ABB – to hear a presentation from a Finnish expat and take a tour of the factory. Nothing earth-shattering; a mild intro to business in China. A 2hr bus ride in the afternoon takes us to the outskirts of Beijing where we have a chance to experience the greatness of a very popular wall…you might have heard of it…very cool. The most current version of the wall (it’s been built and rebuilt by various dynasties during the past 2k+ years) stretches over 5,000 miles with a height close to 30 ft tall. The Ming dynasty invested years to construct it during the late 1500’s to early 1600’s, sacrificing over 1M workers (now buried beneath the wall) along the way. Built to ward off the invading Mongolians from the North, the wall now doubles as a common tourist attraction and, apparently, site for late night teenage raves. For as impressive as the sight of the physical structure was and as interesting as the history behind it is, the best part of the day had to be the toboggan ride from the top of the mountain to the bottom. Video documentation complements of Nick Schubert - A lot of fun.

Day 4

Company visits to Lenovo and TopNew in the morning and afternoon. Lenovo is a big time PC manufacturer who bought out IBM’s PC business a couple of years back. Though a Chinese company, very much a western feel. A light tour of a factory with very favorable working conditions followed by a presentation from a smooth-talking, high-rising, verrrry self-assured and relatively young American born VP. It felt like an investor presentation full of aggressive revenue projections, subtle competitor bashing, and a barrage of rhetorical questions – “How long do you think I’ve been in China? Siiixxx years.” “Who has the largest market share in PC’s in China? (pause for effect) That’s right, Lenovo does”. “ Who’s the coolest, smartest dude working for the best company in the world? Yep, I am.” Ok, I made the last one up…but you get the point. After lunch, we head to TopNew, an apparel manufacturing company on the outskirts of the city. THIS is the kind of factory that you typically imagine when you think Chinese manufacturing. We sat through a 20 minute commercial in Chinese with English subtitles that bragged about, among other things, TopNew’s superiority in clothing manufacturing and the compliments from Mao Zedong decades ago, “Chairman Mao commends the TopNew comrades for their quality and flatness of product”. We are then led on a tour by the plant manager where we see an assembly line of women cutting, dyeing, sewing, and stitching fabric. Then on to stamping logos and ironing the finished product before folding and storing for shipment. Their focus is unbroken even by 60 strangers touring their facility and snapping photos all along the way – we learn they are paid by piece and thus any distraction is a lost opportunity. Difficult for us all to imagine making a career in this way. The last stop on the tour is the living quarters. An old dormitory that sleeps 8 to a room. Privacy - a notion foreign to any of these girls. Following the tour, an opportunity for Q&A with the plant manager via a translator. Easy ones to start: “How do you compete internationally?” “Who are your customers?” Then some tougher ones, “How much do the factory workers make?” “How many hours do they work?” The answers just didn’t add up. Wages above the Beijing average. 8-5 workdays with an hour lunch. You could hear muffled responses of disbelief throughout the room (ahem-bullshit). Feeling the rising temperature, the plant manager looks at the watch and communicates through the translator that time is up for questions…an interesting and eye-opening experience all around. According to our local guide, TopNew is a factory with some of the very best working conditions in China. It is where the government officials allow foreign visitors to tour... as the guide put it, a 10-out-of-10 for relative factory conditions. Though hard to relate to these migrant girls’ experiences and living conditions, China is a manufacturing country and these jobs are filled under whatever the conditions may be for a reason – it is still a better option than the poverty of the rural villages from which they’ve come.

Day 5

Group visit to a school set up and run by an NGO established by a couple of charitable local Chinese businessmen. The school is called the Fuping Development Institute and is designed to recruit women from the poor and rural countryside looking for better wages in the city…aspirations that typically find other migrant workers in a factory similar to TopNew (or, more likely, drastically worse). The school trains these women to be nannies for the well-heeled of Beijing. Ages range from 16 to 40+ years old. We toured their training facilities and saw their schooling in action – practice with the ironing board, practice in the kitchen, practice with raising young kids. The plan is to train these women for 9-12 months and then set them up with families in the city looking for live-in help. It appeared to be a far more favorable situation to the conditions observed the day before and by and large the girls/women all looked to be genuinely happy and excited about their opportunity. In the afternoon, we were commissioned to provide some consultative services and offer ideas to help recruit more women from the poorest provinces and establish a greater sense of identity for the almuns of the program. We were then asked to step out to the playground for a couple rounds of “eagle and the hens” (I’d have to show you) and “duck, duck, goose”…a bit strange, but kinda fun.

We got back to the hotel relatively early and took to the famous errr infamous “Silk Market” – a 6 story utopia for anyone who enjoys a bargain and loves to negotiate for it. A different set of goods on each floor. Level 1 – shoes, handbags, and luggage; 2 – coats and apparel; 3 – silk ties & scarves, custom suits; 4 – electronics; 5 – random trinkets; 6 – pearls, jewelry, sunglasses. Everything cheap knock-off’s. North Face jackets - $20. Louis Vutton handbags - $15. Silk ties - $2. Rolex Watches - $10. iPhones - $20. And these prices are not the listed prices….no, these are the average prices reported by the group. It’s all set up so that the consumer must walk through a path no wider than 10 feet and lined with booths on either side measuring about 10ft by 10ft – an intimate area for product evaluation and price negotiation. You see, in the states as consumers we are largely price takers – a price is given and we can then elect to purchase or not. In the Silk Market, the consumer is a price maker. A typical walk down level three will go something like this: The sales pitch from the booth attendant, “Hello. You look familiar. Yes, I remember you! You want coat? Come here, have a look. Best quality. Best price.”, First time here but OK, let me take a look. Yea, this one does look nice. Giorgio Armani? Hmmm… “What’s the price on this one?” As the woman reaches for her calculator (the medium through which EVERY negation is communicated), she starts with the complements, “You…you very handsome man. Very tall. Sexy man”. Well, thank you… “This coat, this quality, usually for 2500 Yuan (7-1 Yuan/Dollar conversion), but for you? Special price, 2200 Yuan ($300+)” as she types the number in the calculator. “2200? That’s way too much…nevermind” Hurriedly she counters by handing the calculator to you and asking for your price. After a handful of observations, you know to start low. You type 50 into the calculator. She sees and stops. Looks up to you with hands on hips and a “Come on, you’ve got to be kidding me” look. She types in 2000. Now you react with the same look and counter with 75. She snatches back the calc and gets down to business, “Serious price now…Final offer. 1500” $225 bucks for a cheap, knock-off coat? No way. You shake your head and turn to walk away….3 steps later she grabs your arm and pulls you back in. “Ok, Ok, for you I go this price” 1000 ($150). You type 100. Her reply, “Come onnnn…You killin’ me!!!”. She types 800. You type 120. She gets frustrated and calls it off. You start to walk away. This time a bit further. 3 full steps out of the booth and down the aisle. “OK OK OK Come back….Final price” 400. Your response, “YOUUUU killin’ MEEE!!!” You type 150. She goes to 300. You go 175. She goes 280. You give up and walk away…this time for good. 5 booths away, you hear a familiar voice now shouting out, “FINE. It’s yours”. You go back and pay 175. Without fail, the same exercise is repeated – almost verbatim – each time you find something that may pique your interest. Thrilling and fun at first, you take the kill back to the group and compare prices. If you’re lower, you feel great. Higher by even 5 Yuan (about 80 cents) and you feel ripped off. By the second or third purchase, the novelty has worn off. A headache sets in and patience runs thin. Time to give it up. You take your purchases home and immediately notice the glaring defects previously unnoticed during the intense negotiations and quickly realize why a $300 real jacket cost you just $25. The lesson here – Negotiation is a part of the culture…it never hurts to try. Restaurants, bars, taxi cabs – more times than not, it’s worth a shot.

Day 6

No company visits. Just a tour of Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. Tiananmen Sq is the largest of its kind in the world with over 400k sq feet of open space…well, controlled open space anyway. The square is fenced off and all visitors must flow through two gates located on opposite sides with security checkpoints (gov’t has some serious control issues). It is surrounded by imposing government buildings on 3 sides and the outermost wall of Forbidden City on the 4th. Still used today as a place where the people congregate for celebrations and to hear government officials address the country. Google it someday and read about its history. It is also the infamous site of a seemingly contemporary trend – a 1989 peaceful protest turned terribly violent as the army opened fire killing 100’s of its own citizens. Just don’t Google it here. The internet will pretend as though there’s been a “connection failure”. Impressive in its sheer size alone.

The Forbidden City. “A vast complex of halls, temples and housing, which make up the former residence of the ancient emperors…the Imperial palace is said to contain 9,999 rooms” (from our guide book). Some nice digs, dude. Close to 1,000 different buildings. Built in just 14 years in the early 1400’s by the Ming dynasty and then occupied by the Qing dynasty, this is where the emperor both lived and governed (in two separate buildings separated by enormous inner walls, of course). Our guide, Michael, takes us through the history and stories of life within these walls hundreds of years ago. A giant square within the walls for which to pay daily respect to the ruling emperor – a side for officials; a side for the army. Very strict rules. Should you, by chance, wake up a little groggy and end up on the wrong side, a sign of disrespect punishable by beheading (10 weeks of class in the same room and I still occasionally walk into the wrong door interrupting an ongoing lecture…wouldn’t have lasted 1 day in Imperial China). Michael then sheds some light on why there are so many damn rooms. Sure, the Emperor allowed his wife to live in his home…she just had to share the place with 3,000 other concubines (sex slaves) and they all needed a room to live in. He then pointed out that what with the concubines and rice wine (85% alcohol) and all, an emperor’s life span averaged just about 35 years. Wow, talk about hard to relate to…how long ago did you say this was? The Qing dynasty was finally kicked out in 1912? Holy crap, that’s just 100 years ago!!! An unending labyrinth of hallways, rooms and corridors each possessing their own story. Lots of pictures.

In the afternoon, Emily and I took a self-guided tour of the Temple of Heaven. Located not far from T Square and the Forbidden City in the southeastern part of central Beijing, this equally impressive site was built as part of the same project in the early 1400’s by the Ming dynasty. For the most part, it’s a giant temple with a pair of halls on either side settled at the top of a hill with great views of the city. It served as a place for the “Son of Heaven” (as the emperors liked to think of themselves) to take care of earthly matters such as offering up sacrifices and praying to the gods for plentiful harvests. Again, really interesting stuff all around. Next day - transfer to Shanghai.