As I was leaving the hostel in Copenhagen, the Aussie staff asked me where I was going. He was also a traveler, working in Denmark for a few months before taking off to his next European destination. I told him that I was going back to Frankfurt, holiday is over and back into the office tomorrow. His response and last words to me were “keep living the dream.”
I am living the dream.
I have a well paying and interesting job working with good people, I live in a comfortable city with great friends, I have an awesome apartment in a very convenient part of town, and I live in the greatest continent in the world for travel and culture.
But dreams scare me sometimes, because they might come true.
Don’t worry, I have more dreams, but it’s probably best to keep some of them as dreams, because what happens when you reach the end of the road?
(If you have not watched Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, I recommend not reading this post)
There is a reason why we don’t write stories beyond the end of the movies. We like to think that the hero, having been (re)united with the love of his life after overcoming incredible circumstances, will get married and merrily remain so. We like to think that the world saved from the brink of destruction will forever be in peace and prosperity. We want to believe in happily ever after.
I love Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. I actually came across Before Sunset first when I was living in Paris three years ago. I didn’t expect much from the movie description but fell in love with the movie quickly. In the age of high budget movies with large casts, extensive special effects, and overcomplicated stories with oversimplified realities, Before Sunset was an incredibly welcome change.
After discovering Before Sunset, I of course watched Before Sunrise as soon as possible. It may be that as a single expat living in Europe, the subject matter resonated with me. Who wouldn’t want an evening/afternoon to change how they see the rest of their lives?
Besides the elegant execution of creating a movie with mostly dialogue between two characters set in a short timespan, I love the fact that the movies are set in real time, spaced nine years apart (why they didn’t bother to wait ten years is a mystery to me).
So when Before Midnight came out in the theaters, I saw it as soon as possible. The movie had the same qualities as the previous two movies: beautifully crafted dialogue with few rich characters. I liked the movie. I want to love the movie but there is something that’s eating me away, both with what the movie represents and how it ends.
Because I watched Before Sunset before Before Sunrise, I never enjoyed the suspense of wondering if Jesse and Céline will ever reunite as they promised in the movie. While I know a lot of people did not like the unresolved ending, I loved how Before Sunset ended with Jesse listening to Céline as the camera faded to black. When so many movies end positively and conclusively, it was a beautifully ambiguous ending.
It’s not that I let my imagination go wild and started envisioning what happened to the two protagonists after the credit roll. In both movies, there was comfort in knowing that there was a future, that there is a story in which their lives could unfold in so many ways.
In the first fifteen minutes of Before Midnight, that beautiful ambiguity was destroyed (I avoided any previews or film descriptions before watching the movie). To be fair, Before Sunset did the same to Before Sunrise as well, but this felt different. It was the story after the happily ever after: marriage, kids, holiday in Greece, etc. The beginning of Before Midnight is already what we wanted to happen after Before Sunset.
To be honest, this all caught me by surprise. I thought the movie was going to be about meeting nine years later with their lives having progressed independently, but then I realized that would be too similar to Before Sunset. I’m pretty sure my expression actually looked like the emoticon during the scene when Jesse enters the car and the camera pans to the back seat to show the twins.
The movie itself was wonderful with elegant dialogue, especially the scene where the group is eating dinner under the setting sun. However, The fight that ensues with it’s gritty execution was too real. At points, it was painful to watch. This was the love that developed over eighteen years, from that chance meeting on the train to Vienna in 1995. Do we really want to taint it with what is all too real? Can’t we at least keep our imaginations purer?
The ambiguous ending, like the previous films didn’t help either. In the previous films we were left to question if the two will ever get together. Now we are left to question if the two will split up.
I hope they will make another sequel in the series. It’s not that I’m hoping for something more conclusive, but something more hopeful. I have no idea how a sequel would be set, reconciliation? (After nine years?) Peace of old age? (Probably too early?) Death of either character? (Too extreme?) Reminiscence? (Set in Vienna again?)
The series have surprised many times in the past, so I have faith that I will be surprised again. I just hope that Before Midnight won’t be the last of the series.
One day while traveling in Belfast with my mother back in August, we took a full day tour with Paddy Campbell’s Black Cab Tours where the man himself showed us around Belfast and the North Antrim coastline. It was definitely not a cheap tour, not something I can afford if I was traveling alone.
The tour was split in two parts, the first through West Belfast which was the epicenter and hotbed of the Irish conflict, better known as “The Troubles.” The second part of the tour was outside of Belfast to some of the more touristic and famous sites such as the Giant’s Causeway and Bushmills Distillery.
While the second part of the tour was my original intended destination, the first part of the tour turned out to be much more interesting. Paddy, a man somewhere between his mid-fifties and mid-sixties, has been driving his cab for over twenty-eight years, through The Troubles years. He took us to both the Protestant (Loyalists, loyal to Britain) and Catholic (Republicans, wants a united Ireland) neighborhoods stopping at the different murals painted on the side of houses and walls.
This may seem like one of those tours where the tour guide shares his personal experiences through troubled times, but it’s not. Paddy’s goal is to present the conflict as neutral as possible since he believes that the uninitiated mind can easily be persuaded to believe in one good and one evil. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” he said.
Paddy didn’t share his origins until the tour was nearly over and he kept the tour as factual as possible, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t emotional. The conflict is very much part of his identity as it is with the city. With the way he carried himself and the tattoos on his arms, I also got the sense that at some point in the past, he was more involved in The Troubles than the average bystander, but I could be very wrong about this point.
If you imagine Belfast to be a war-torn city with derelict buildings and other scars of conflict, imagine again. While I’m sure there’s been plenty of repairs and improvements since the 1998 peace treaty, this is no ghetto. Walking around the city is perfectly safe during daylight hours and outside of few out of place walls and gates, this city is like anywhere else in Europe. You wouldn’t believe that the generic looking and fully functioning Europa Hotel is the most bombed hotel in the world or that car bombs regularly lined the sides of the downtown streets. Places like Rio de Janeiro and Lima felt much more dangerous than Belfast.
Back to Paddy.
At some points in the tour the conversations seemed less like talking to a tour guide and more like listening to an old man reminiscing back on his life. He talked about why the conflict inevitably started (organized discrimination) and what could be done to prevent more future violence (better integration and impartial education), all of course his own opinions. While reflecting upon the changes that happened, he stated something very memorable to me: “I think my kids have had a better starting point in life than I did” (this is not the exact quote as I don’t remember it verbatim).
Have you left the world a better place than you found it?
Of course most of you, like myself, are nowhere near the end of your lives to answer this question, but maybe it’s something we want to think about as we carry on.
Throughout most of human history, very little changed, and we affected very little. Generations after generations lived very similarly. We now live in a world of rapid change and unparalleled capabilities. We can now leave permanent effects on the global environment. We’ve built increasingly complex financial institutions to borrow from our future selves. Never have we had so much power to affect the starting point of generations of people that will follow us.
While asking this question to an individual is interesting, the real difference is when we ask the question to generations of people of a certain country, ethnicity, or the world. Have the people who come before us left the world a better place for us? Will we leave the world a better place for those that follow?
The question isn’t just environmental or economical. It’s also political, cultural, philosophical, and ideological too. For example, multiple generations of Europeans have left their societies in wreckages after devastating wars, but they’ve also left a culture of resilience and an appreciation for peace that have become the ground work for where Europe stands today. Generations of Americans have left the notion of the American dream and the unparalleled optimism that results from it, but the hypercompetitiveness and the lack of appreciation for social security/solidarity may actually be harmful these days.
Sometimes I feel that our generation in the developed world are at a handicap. We will be dealing with the environmental and financial damages that’s becoming more apparent while living with the unreasonable expectation of continual economic growth in an increasingly competitive global world. Simultaneously, we are burdened with nostalgic messages of how the past used to be better than the present, something I would argue is a fairly new phenomenon. Someday I may write more on this matter as the idea of intergenerational conflict has been looming in my mind as I read about youth unemployment in Europe and the increasing cost and burden of healthcare.
We don’t have to leave a better world than we found it. Unless you believe in karma and reincarnation, once we are gone, we are gone for good and the problems will be someone else’s. We can be selfish all we want, but somewhere in human history we developed the ability to be selfless and have empathy for each other, even amidst the bloody conflict of The Troubles. Let’s not just live by each other, but also by those that are following us.
Thanks for the food for though Paddy.
Paddy: If you somehow managed to find your way to my little blog and this post, and I got it completely wrong, let me know and I’ll make changes.
What if the success of restaurants really depended on the context in which people come?
When I travel, I use TripAdvisor to look for restaurants and things to do. I am also a Yelper, reviewing restaurants and whatever else I feel. I’ve recently been noticing a rating discrepancy between Yelp and TripAdvisor. There are restaurants that are ranked highly on TripAdvisor that aren’t well reviewed on Yelp, and the vice versa.
What determines the success of restaurants anyway? The obvious answers is the quality of food and service, but according to cartoonist and restauranteur Scott Adams, that’s not the case at all:
Many people pointed out that the quality of your food and service determine the size of your restaurant business. I used to think that too. To my surprise, those two factors are surprisingly far down the list, at least in my local area.
Obviously the food and service have to be good enough to support the price you charge. But most places achieve that goal. Around here, the restaurants with the best food, or even the best value, don’t have more business because of it. You think they do, but they don’t.
Locally, familiarity is the biggest predictor of success. Italian and Mexican themed restaurants are typically packed regardless of food or service. Everyone knows they can find something on the menu they will understand and enjoy. Indian and Thai restaurants are less familiar and they struggle no matter what they do right. My two favorite restaurants locally (Indian and Thai) are typically 75% empty.
The knee jerk response to the Yelp TripAdvisor discrepancy is to simply say “well, they are different kinds of people reviewing on each of the sites (locals vs travelers).” Are they really different people though? It wouldn’t be a surprise that the kind of people Yelping would be similar to the kind of people reviewing on TripAdvisor. Many people probably do both. So what’s different?
The context in which they arrive at the restaurant.
You can imagine that how you would rate a restaurant would be different if you’re traveling versus if you’re living right next to it. A boring ordinary French food may captivate the Minnesotans on holiday but would disappoint the Frenchman living down the street. Equally a family owned Spanish restaurant with really friendly owners would delight the locals while the Bostonians who don’t speak the language won’t think much of it. A restaurant for special occasions (e.g. table cloth and wine) would most likely garner extreme responses (love it or hate it) rather than the neighborhood diner. Date spots? Dive bars? Neighborhood mom&pop store? We all go to places under different contexts that vary significantly from occasion to occasion. Can we really say we can be impartial under such circumstances?
What does this mean for restaurants? Well, beyond controlling the quality of the food and service, restaurants also need to control the context in which people come and be able to match the expectations for it. Is going to be kind of restaurant where people come to celebrate? go for an adventure to discover something new? simply to just get food? (probably the most difficult context to deal with?)
To be able to control how people come to a restaurant can be a huge advantage for restaurants, because by the time someone walks through the front door, it’s possible that more than half his/her mind is made up.
(I’m sure one could semantically and statistically analyze Yelp or TripAdvisor to find evidence for this theory, and I wouldn’t be surprised if people are already doing it to start new restaurants)
Anyone else who watched Despicable Me 2 notice that the featured car looks like the Trabant?
I’m guessing most people outside of Germany in my generation and younger don’t know what the Trabant was (or how iconic it was). I highly suggest reading the Wikipedia article, but in short, it was a shitty little Eastern German car that became the symbol of centralized planning incompetencies.
There is a famous drawing on the Western side of the Berlin Wall depicting the “Trabi” breaking through.
In the movie, Gru and Lucy break out of the shopping mall driving the Trabi-wannabe (or super Trabi):
Nice little homage. Well done Illumination Entertainment. Well done.
(In trying to see if anyone else online noticed the connection, I came across TrabantForums.com. I swear, the internet has everything.)
I spent last weekend visiting a friend working at CERN and participating in a Ultimate Frisbee beach (by the lake) tournament hosted by the team from Geneva.
This is how my trip went:
- Germany -> Switzerland (Train from Frankfurt to Geneva)
- Switzerland -> France (My friend lives in France despite working on the Swiss side of CERN)
- France -> Switzerland -> France (The tournament was actually on the French side of Lake Geneva but I had to go through Geneva proper to get there)
- France -> Switzerland -> Germany (Back to Geneva before getting on a flight to Berlin for work)
In a span of three days, I crossed the French-Swiss border four times.
My friend crosses the border everyday to get to work. He make his income in Swiss francs but uses it in both euros and francs. Euros can be used readily in Geneva if you don’t mind unfavorable exchange rates being offered by the stores and machines (I didn’t withdraw any francs for this trip).
There is absolutely no language barrier at the border as French is the official language of the Canton of Geneva. There are more language barriers within Switzerland which has four official languages (French, German, Italian, Romansh). I’ve seen two Swiss people communicate in English. Imagine a white and an Asian American talking to each other in German because that’s the only language they share…
Switzerland is actually not a part of the EU, but they are a part of the Schengen Area which is why going through the border is seamless. I’m surprised this works since Switzerland has non-EU taxation and they have pretty much no control over the flow of goods.
So what is a border? The boundary between people? culture? language? currency? laws? With the EU, euro, and the Schengen area, all these boundaries have blurred. Driving across the continent one will see gradients rather than sharp lines of distinction.
Europe, with its viciously violent history, is going through the largest experiment in radical human collaboration which may become the model for human kind in the future. Not surprisingly, it’s going through its fair share of bumps and hiccups, but I hope it succeeds. The world is too beautiful for boundaries.
P.S. This is actually the second time I was in Switzerland this year. Few months ago I was in the German border town of Konstanz. This is what the border looked like:
Quite a stark contrast from the Israeli – Jordanian border.
Or how to sell while talking shit about your product.
The following commercial is for the Finnish Salmiakki Ice Cream.
If you have any close Finnish friends, you’ve probably tried Salmiakki, one of the foulest, most disgusting candies you could come across in your life. Foreigners hate them, Finns love them, and they know it, which is why this advert works brilliantly; it tickles at the Finnish national pride while introducing a new variant to the ammonium chloride flavoring they enjoy so much.
The above video clip was introduced to me by a colleague, and it reminded me of another iconic Japanese commercial from the 90s:
You probably understood nothing of that, but to simply translate, the man chugs the product being advertised and proclaims “ahhh, DISGUSTING! One more!” Then the narrator states that it’s good for health and free samples are available.
As you could already guess, the product, Aojiru (literally translates to blue juice as the antiquated use of the word blue includes vegetation) is being sold for health purposes, not something you would serve at a party or make cocktails out of. Japanese people believe that a certain level of suffering and patience must accompany something good, which makes this commercial works. Furthermore, the commercial became so iconic that the entire category of the vegetable based health drinks rose from niche to mainstream. It was also used as “penalties” or “punishment” in Japanese game shows (I’m sure you know something about that).
So how else could denigrating a product be used to advertise the product? I’m sure having Americans eat and comment on vegemite/marmite would hearten the national psyche of Aussies and Brits. Could having smug yuppies talk about how boring Windows is sell the operating system to the “rest of us?” Can women talking about the bitterness of a beer cater to the sense of manliness in men?
Any ideas? Any other examples you know of?
Sometime last year, I posted a question to my Facebook friends on what their national anthem is and should be. I started by offering my own country:
The real national anthem:
What I believe should be the national anthem, a song closer to the hearts of many Japanese people, Kyu Sakamoto – Ue O Muite Arukou (mysteriously translated as Sukiyaki in the west):
And the rest from my friends around the world:
The real national anthem:
Edith Piaf – Non, je ne regrette rien:
The real national anthem:
Lordi – Hard Rock Hallelujah (Eurovision Song Contest Winner):
GG Caravan – On se hienoo
The real national anthem:
Iron Maiden – These Colours Don’t Run:
The real national anthem:
The Streets – The Irony of it all
Hulk Hogan – Real American
Team America – America fuck yeah
Pete Seeger – This Land is Your Land
The real national anthem:
Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet – Having an Average Weekend
The real national anthem:
Men at Work – Down Under
The real national anthem:
Ich liebe deutsche Land
The real national anthem:
Co nhung nguoi Anh
The real national anthem:
Dan Spataru – Drumurile noastre toate:
O-Zone – Dragostea Din Tei
The real national anthem:
DumDum Boys – Splitter Pine
11 countries and 17 suggestions, some really really terrible ones. This is in no way representative of the sentiments of those from the respective countries but rather a reflection on how messed up (some of) my friends are. Any new suggestions welcome in the comments.
P.S. I had to switch some of the video as they were blocked in Germany by GEMA or were no longer available.
Few weeks ago I learned that yoghurt can be home made, and really simply. One just needs to mix a little bit of yoghurt with milk and put it in a magic French yoghurt machine that looks like…
for 12+ hours. I don’t think the machine has to be French either.
A week or so after learning this marvelous fact, my friend who owns such a magical French machine and I experimented with different yoghurt flavors ranging from standard to bizarre:
We ended up making six flavors and the results were mixed but overall good:
Banana: Our baseline flavor, just as expected and just as tasty.
Red Fruit Jam: Any jam works pretty well and this one performed marvelously.
Green tea: From Green tea powder with sugar included. The bitterness of the green tea was a bit too strong and off putting.
Canned Lychee: Chopped the fruit and included the sweet syrup. Surprisingly the flavor and sweetness got overwhelmed by the sourness of the yoghurt, and the lychee really couldn’t be tasted.
Ginger Honey: The ginger was infused in the yoghurt while being processed and removed later. When tasted, the pleasant sweetness of the honey is followed up with the slight spiciness of the ginger which in no way is bad, but somewhat peculiar. I can imagine this recipe being perfected and being served in a fancy modern French restaurant as one of the elements of a dessert platter.
Anko (Sweet Red Bean Paste): Anyone who has lived in Japan or tried its confectionary probably has experienced anko, the sweat paste made from azuki beans (and lots of sugar). The sweetness of the Anko perfectly balanced out the sourness of the yoghurt in a delicious East meets West combination. Unfortunately the anko I found was the pure paste kind which didn’t leave much for the texture. I can imagine anko with some of the beans still present will make this recipe even better (to be tried next).
Like many experiments, there were failures and there were successes. However, the discovery of the Anko Yoghurt made the entire experience more than worth it. We will also definitely try again in the future, any suggestions for recipes?
Bonus picture, random yoghurt liquor I found in Japan. It tasted… pretty unique.
Almost nine years ago when I backpacked around Eastern and Central Europe, I ranked all the cities I visited, and Frankfurt ranked at the bottom of 17 cities. At the time I wrote:
“While there is a small square in the center of town with historic architecture, it’s rebuilt post WWII and cheesy, something you expect to be made from plastic and presented in Disney Land. The rest of the city is pretty ugly and non descript reminding me of all the cities I will be driving through in couple days.” (I was driving from Texas to California after the trip)
So when I accepted the offer from Panasonic to work in Frankfurt, it was ironic to say the least.
Now that I’ve been here for over a year and a half, I’m starting to appreciate how fantastic this city is.
This probably comes at a surprise to most people who haven’t lived here. I’ve met many people who have taken business trips to Frankfurt and hated it. Germans in general don’t like Frankfurt either, because, well, it’s not very German. The city was almost completely destroyed during WWII and the subsequent construction rush led to a rather drab concrete cityscape. The skyscraper skyline, really the only one in Germany, is enchanting but unappreciated by Germans who mostly prefer smaller medieval towns and villages or historic cities.
So what makes Frankfurt so fantastic?
To start off, it’s the perfect size. With a city population of 705,000 and a metropolitan population of 5.8 million (includes Darmstadt, Mainz, Offenbach, Wiesbaden, and more), there are enough things happening without it being too massive like Tokyo, London, or Paris where traversing the city can be rather time consuming. The public transportation system in Frankfurt is also one of the best in the world and would be flawless if not for Deutsche Bahn’s inability to stay on schedule.
Frankfurt is also a very international city with nearly 25% of the residents being foreign. Many multinational corporations have their offices in the Frankfurt region (like my company) and as a result, there is a lively expat and restaurant scene. Some of the best African food I’ve had were in Frankfurt, and good Japanese food is only few minutes away on the subway. Unlike most other parts of Germany, English is very well understood in Frankfurt (making me even lazier in learning German) for those who are linguistically challenged.
Frankfurt airport is one of the big four airports in Europe, and unlike Charles de Gaulle in Paris or Heathrow in London, it’s very close to the city. As Frankfurt is located in the center of Europe (the geographic center of the EU is supposed 40km east in a small town called Gelnhausen), most European cities are within four hours flight time and as the 11th busiest airport in the world (3rd within Europe), you can pretty much get a direct flight to most major cities in the world. Furthermore, within four hours, you can take a train to many major European cities such as Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Munich, Zurich, Brussels, Hamburg.
Frankfurt itself is not a top-tier tourist destination with the aforementioned architecture and the lack of unique tourist highlights. It definitely pales in comparison to Paris, Berlin, or Rome, but it does have a fantastic museum scene and a really kitschy Apple Wine Tram (borderline tourist trap). However, many of the top German tourist destinations are easily accessible from Frankfurt by car or train. Most of Germany is within four hours of public transport and destinations like Heidelberg, Cologne, Würzburg (the northern tip of the Romantic Road), and the Middle Rhine can be comfortably done on a day trip.
The weather in Frankfurt is no paradise, and the winters can be tough with long nights and some snow though it’s not as extreme as Stockholm, Copenhagen, Helsinki, or Reykjavik. On the flip side, the summers are fantastic with warm temperatures, moderate humidity, sunshine, and long days. The people really know how to enjoy the summers, flocking to the Main river for picnics or throwing festivals almost on a weekly basis. The wine region of Germany is close to Frankfurt and many summertime wine festivals can be easily day tripped.
Lastly, Germans consider Frankfurt to be very expensive, but compared to places like Paris, New York, Munich, or London, rent is affordable and compared to places like Oslo, Helsinki, or Amsterdam, groceries and eating out is cheap. You can have a fantastic meal for two with wine for under thirty euros in Frankfurt.
After reading this, you’re probably not surprised that in 2012, Mercer ranked Frankfurt to be the 7th best city in their quality of living survey. It’s really a great place to live… oh, and they have a fantastic Ultimate Frisbee team, but of course I’m not biased or anything…