Thursday, March 27, 2008

Keepin' it Real

I'm sitting on the grass under the shade of a eucalyptus tree on the Stanford University campus watching the joggers go by while I wait for a taxi to the airport. Work brought me to Palo Alto less than 48 hours after my return from Spain. It's a tight meeting schedule, but its not a bad way to ease back in to the work thing after a week away.

The whole superficial hollywood / Beverly Hills thing aside, the California culture is distinct and something to be admired. Relaxed, but not sleepy. Classy, but not pretentious. Expressive, but not in your face. They keep it real here. 

Yesterday we were transported by an Israeli cab driver who might have enjoyed a successful career as a comedian - in another lifetime. Instead, his life took him through a career with the Israeli government, then to Washington DC (for reasons he chose to exclude), and ultimately to California. He has a regular morning gig driving handicapped kids to school. If there is anything in this world that could help fill a life that has been hampered by a disability, it might be the gift of laughter. I have no doubt that this dude is a major donor. He had a gift. A cross between Cheech, Tom de Louise and Ray Romano, he had the right combination to reduce a van full of stuffed suits to a giggling machine.

On our way to dinner, we stopped for a coffee at what looked to be a credible coffee shop. The blue-haired, black-fingernailed Barista didn't have that in-your-face-caffiene-fueled-starbucks-enthusiasm, which might have been our first clue that coffee wasn't really her thing. But the real giveaway was when she asked us for instructions on how to use the coffee machine. Direct quote: 'which button should I push? I've never used this thing before'. The best part was that she wasn't even phased by the fact that she was employed at a coffee shop and lacking the expertise to make coffee. In fact, she seemed bewildered by the request, leaving us feeling silly for having asked in the first place. 

Walking down University Drive this morning, we were passed by a guy on a skateboard who rolled right into a store. Turned out to be a skateboard store, so I suppose it is not that unusual. But how about this - facebook headquarters were right next door. Just a modest little sign, in lower case letters, on a simple glass facade, next door to a skate shop.
They keeps it real in California.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Holidays are too short

I took it easy on the vacation blogging during the last 48 hours of our trip. It wasn't for lack of interesting experiences - quite the opposite. Fortunately, Erik has done a fine job documenting these experiences on his blog. If you've got a minute or two, check out his posts on the last 2 days of our trip.
Now it's back to work.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Discovering Mecca

It isn't difficult to find good riding here. With only a few simple turns, the buttery strip of asphalt extending from the front door of our bed and breakfast twists up to a peak that is visible from our patio. It is called Rocacorba and seems to be popular with the local two-wheelers. Vehicular traffic is low and respectful and the views are excellent. The climb went on for 14 kilometres, with grades predominantly varying between 7 and 10 percent. Erik caught up to a rider from Girona and they battled it out up the hill, while I plugged along a little ways back. Turns out that the guy was in Calgary in 1998 to mountain bike in the World Police and Fire Games. Not a bad starting discussion point in an accidental meeting of two strangers meeting.

We still had energy to burn after conquering Rococorba, so we headed north through a national park. Every pedal stroke reinforced why cyclists from around the world make the pilgrimage to this is Road Cycling Mecca.

As we headed in to Girona for dinner, we stopped at a wine store at the side of the road. It sells wine from the barrel and people were walking in with empty gallon-sized water jugs, to be filled straight from the barrel. Oh man, I love this place. We picked up a few bottles (a gallon is a bit much, even for me) and some fresh almonds and dried figs (available from bulk bins). I love that its possible to actually taste when an almond is fresh.

Dinner was in old town Girona. There's a lot of shopping available down there and some fancy dining. It was worth the visit - but I'm glad to be staying just outside of town where the kick ass riding starts where the driveway ends.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Rain in Spain

The rain in Spain may fall mainly on the plains, but it also falls in the hills outside of Girona. Erik sent his warm riding clothes home, thinking that it was going to be warm and dry down here, so I lent him my wind jacket for our evening ride in the rain. His arms stretched a few inches beyond the length of the sleeves and his chest pushed outward on the zipper, giving away that the jacket was borrowed. When it is cold and rainy, fahsion takes a back seat.

Right from the doorstep of our bed and breakfast are beautiful rolling roads with very little traffic. We are staying at a restored 13th century benedictine monestary-turned-bed and breakfast located just outside of Girona. The place is owned by a nice English couple who resurrected it from ruins five years ago. They've got a friendly black lab named Jazz whose hips are exhausted from a lifetime of swinging. It fits the setting - laid back and semi-retired.

We went into Banyoles for dinner, only to discover that the restaurant selection was slim. It was pouring rain, so we ducked into an asian tapas bar - the closest thing we could find to real food. When we arrived back at our room, we were still a little hungry. Erik and I had some snacks laying around, but were careful not to fill up on the wrong things. My Spanish isn't great, but I think I can understand the meaning of the following label from the package of prunes:

'Contienen mucha fibra, facilitan el transito intenstinal'.

We filled up on wine instead.


Our friends, Nick and Lori, are generously hosting us at their apartment in Barcelona. Their flat is impressive - modest but spacious and well situated on a side street in an older part of town. It is adjacent to a fresh food market that seems to carry everything one might need to get by, including a lot of whole foods, like whole rabbits with the heads still on (the hacking sound of a butcher knife forms a steady beat as you walk through). The flat is within walking distance of a train station that is equipped to take people anywhere in the city - including the main train terminal, which then goes anywhere in the country.
Nick is here completing his MBA program at IESE. He took us for a bicycle tour up to the IESE campus - it's beautiful. I'm sure that the Bear Stearns situation hits fresh MBA grads harder than almost any other segment of the population (other than, say, Bear Stearns employees), but I can't imagine there are too many people here regretting having spent a year and a half of their life studying in Barcelona.

The rest of our bike tour took us up a hill overlooking the city. As one might expect, there is a church at the top. As one might not expect, there is a ferris wheel right beside it. Neither was of particular interest to me as I was more interested in taking in the view, which spans the rosy coloured city below, framed by the ocean on one side and greenery on the others.

Barcelona seems like a good place to get around by bike. Traffic is slow enough that it is probably faster by bike anyway. Plus, there's a grid system and, even though it isn't numbered, that's always helpful for navigation. Watch out for scooters!

Dinner starts at 9:00pm, so we started with some drinks and tapas. Calgary needs a good tapas bar. A real one, not just deep fried garbage. Olives, hams, cheese, fish, bread. Alcohol. How hard is that?

Then, we stopped for a bottle of wine on a patio in front of a church. That was eventually followed that with dinner at a neat hole in the wall restaurant that had a 'lay down' dinner setting as one 'seating' option. Food was great. Atmosphere was unique.
I really like that every restaurant, and almost every store for that matter, seems to be a boutique. Character matters, and there seems to be a lot of it here. Barcelona is a very cool city.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Magical Mystery Tour

I was on my own today - and still without a map - so, I decided to use my intuition as my tour guide. If I could, I'd give myself a pretty good tip for the quality of the tour that I took myself on. I used my instincts to guide me. Erik is not so fond of this method. He would rather use a 'map' or some other 'credible' means of navigation.

I saw all of the typical landmarks - Buckingham Palace + armory, the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, etc. Heading east along the Thames, I got a good glimpse of some inner city London neighborhoods. I'm impressed by the number of inner city parks in this city. I still struggled to find a congruent bike path, but I did find that my instincts guided me in a reasonably good direction. Plus, the weather conditions were better suited for cycling - it wasn't raining today (ie. I wasn't cold and wet or preoccupied with slippery manholes). London isn't so bad for cyclists afterall - as long as don't have any single specific destination in mind.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Wheely Good Tour of London

Eager to get the blood flowing and to see a bit of London, Erik found us a cycling route online. It apparently looked very simple - out and back, essentially on the same road. This had appeal because it would eliminate the need to take a map and would minimize the risk of getting lost. These were important qualities, since it was cold, windy and raining from the moment we stepped outside.

The start was easy: cut through Hyde Park, which was right behind our hotel. The rest was not so easy. At a small enough scale, I suppose any route can look like it follows a single road. We discovered that, at 1:1, this route was a lot more complicated than we had anticipated. Sometimes we were certain that we were on the right road, other times we were not. Not that it mattered, since it felt like we were always going the wrong way. I'm not sure either of us really adjusted to the backward flow of traffic.

We didn't really see any of the usual London tourist attractions, but eventually found ourselves in some sort of ethnic quarter. Signs were in another language, the smell of falafels was abundant, and I felt like I was dressed rather provocatively in my long sleeved jacket and spandex pants. It was nifty to ride through this part of town because, as far as I know, we don't have anything like it in calgary. Then again, I rarely wander east of Deerfoot Trail.

As we headed back to the hotel, we caught up to a Ferarri. The poor guy obviously blew the bank on the car because he couldn't even afford jeans without holes in the knees. He also apparently couldn't afford a good muffler - his car was loud enough to set off the alarms of the cars that he passed as he gassed it out of every stop light.

I wouldn't describe London as a bike friendly city - but I would still recommend the bicycle as a means of seeing the city. My best piece of advice would be to bring a map. The city doesn't follow the grid system, number system...or any street organization system for that matter. And the traffic goes the wrong way. You need all of the help you can get.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

How to lose 15 pounds before lunch

Arrived at the Mandarin Oriental this morning fresh as a daisy after not sleeping a wink on the flight over. It was nice to be allowed to check in at 8:00am, instead of being told to come back in six hours. It was also nice to be offered coffee in a pretty china cup and to be escorted up to our room by the italian kid that checked us in. This is a nice hotel. Probably the nicest I've stayed at.

We met up with Will and went for a walk. It was still early enough that the streets were relatively quiet. We walked until we found a place that looked good for breakfast and each ordered a simple breakfast. Coffee, a couple of eggs and some toast for three people is apparently worth £45 in London. Yikes.

We strolled down to the Museum of Natural History, a place that I'd been wanting to see for some time. It is easily the most beautiful building I've ever seen. The archives were good too - though, what was on display to the public was not as impressive as in the museum in Natural History Museum in New York City. Nature produces some pretty awesome stuff.

It was good that we accomplished something in the morning, as we ended up napping for the rest of the day. Just as well that we did - I'm not sure we could have afforded to have lunch!

Friday, March 14, 2008


Erik was in New York City for work this week, so I started my vacation early and met up with him in the Big Apple for the last few days of the week. While he was busy listening to client presentations, I was 'busy' relaxing and cycling - and New York in March is wonderful for cycling.

It was good to get out, but what I was most excited about for the trip was a private dinner being hosted by Erik's firm at the United Nations. cool is that! I have to admit to having a mild fascination with the United Nations.

From the outside, the UN buildings don't stand out from an architectural perspective. Instead, the long row of flags representing the member countries that lines the street in front is what marks that this is a place at which some important matters are discussed.
I'd seen news coverage of the interior of the main discussion room that seats all of the member countries. Other than that, I wasn't sure what to expect. My assumption was that it was going to be tastefully swanky inside; refined and well kept. The stream of town cars exiting the property supported that assumption.

I was wrong - and, in retrospect, I am glad for that. From the duct tape patches on the stucco ceiling, to the broken toilet paper holder in the bathroom, to the dated and deteriorating seats in the gallery - there were plenty of signs that making the place swanky was not a priority. I would describe the facility as 'adequate', which seems appropriate for an institution that has aspired to combat some of the worlds greatest challenges. When deciding whether to renovate functional bathrooms or combat hunger, I'm glad they chose the latter.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Just Another Manic Monday

I negotiate my way through a mob of commuters as I step off the ctrain. Descending the platform, I discover that there are now two different people trying to shove a useless free daily paper in my face. I respect that they are just doing their job, I just wish it didn't involve suddenly jetting their paper-laden arm out horizontally in front of me like a gate at a parking garage so that I'm forced to modify my direction to avoid contact. It makes me want to do several things, but reading the paper isn't one of them.

I cut through the lobby of the Hyatt on my way to work. I do this every morning, because it makes me feel like I'm on vacation. I like so many aspects of it. Approaching the front door, the cute doorman smiles and says hello. He's been growing his hair out; I approve. He knows I don't want assistance with the door, but he always gestures a willingness to help me anyway. On the other side of the door, the curly haired concierge guy, who is a little too metrosexual to be hetrosexual, gives me the familiar 'hello nod'. He's been a fixture at the hotel for at least as long as I've worked at KERN - going on seven years.

This is my morning routine, but today is a little different. I can hear a BEEENG BEEENG BEEENG sound through my earphones and realize that the firealarm is sounding. To drown out the distraction, I turn up the volume on my ipod to the point that my ears tingle, just a bit. I appear to be no more concerned by this glaring signal of danger than anyone else that I pass. The collective calm gives me comfort. I continue to walk through the lobby at my 'vacation pace'.

In a split second of clarity, it occurs to me how dangerous this is. I don't consider myself to be particularly perceptive, but I also try to pick up on imporant signals. I hope that my immunity to fire alarms is not a good proxy for my immunity to other important signals.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Killing Birds

This was the sixth weekend in the last six months that didn't involve me spending most of my time in the office. It was great to have some time away from the office. And, it was the nicest weekend we've had since early-October in terms of weather! Unfortunately, I barely spent any time at home or outside. I started a course at the University this weekend. It will eat up three more of my weekends before the end of June. Don't get me wrong, I'm excited about it. It's just that sometimes it's just hard to fit everything in. So, it's important to make the most of what you have. 

It's Sunday night, I'm at home, I'm not working, Erik is home too...and I'm trying to make the most of the opportunity. How's this for killing two (or three) birds with one stone: 
- relaxing / engaging in blog therapy
- fully utilizing this internet connection for which we pay full price and barely have a chance to use
- spending time with Erik, while he gets acquainted with his new macbook. 

For anyone that knows how I feel about birds, they should appreciate just how gratifying it is for me to knock off more than one at a time. (having said that, I actually like the 'birds' that I'm knocking off tonight). 

Entertaining on so many levels.