Joho the Blog » travel

April 26, 2014

I [heart] Amsterdam

I’m in Amsterdam for The Next Web conference, along with a number of other Americans. And we all can’t understand why Amsterdam is so often treated as a second-tier city for Americans visiting Europe. London, Paris, and Rome make it into the top tier. Amsterdam is to often an “if-we-have-time” city. Ridiculous.

Part of it is perhaps due to Amsterdam’s reputation for drugs and hookers. To this day if I say that I’m going to Amsterdam, people make the puffing on a joint gesture and grin. Now that it’s cheaper just to fly to Denver, maybe we’ll be spared the implication that Amsterdam’s main attraction is the opportunity to smoke weed. I smell more pot being smoked in Cambridge, Mass. than I do in Amsterdam.

There are many cities I love, but there is none I more look forward to visiting than Amsterdam.

It is physically a gorgeous city. Every corner there’s another sight you never want to forget.

It is big but walkable.

The museums are amazing. I spent a couple of hours in the Rijks Museum this afternoon and I’ll come back the next time I’m here and the time after that. If you love Van Gogh or Rembrandt or …

Rembrandt's The Jewish Bride

Frans Hals

But mainly there are the Dutch. They are great to do business with because they’re straightforward and rational. And they’re great to hang out with because they’re warm, funny, and a little bit crazy.

Then there’s the food. Well, let’s move on.

If you ask me for recommendations for cities to visit in Europe, Amsterdam will be in the topmost cluster without a doubt.

Note: Today is King’s Day. The entire population is out on the streets, wearing orange, eating various fried foods, drinking beer, and enjoying being together. (I did all of those things except for the beer.) We don’t have days like this in America. And altough it’s not exactly my idea of fun, it’s fun watching the Dutch have fun.

amsterdam text sculpture

King's Day crowd

King's Day bozos

[6:30pm: The street festival has turned into an all-city frat party. That's a lot of drunken people.]

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March 25, 2014

Four people fainted on my flight, plus a Larry David moment

Four people fainted on my flight from Munich to Boston last night. That’s not normal.

The person immediately across the aisle from me was #4. We were beginning our descent when I heard the sound of a coconut hitting the floor. He had tumbled out of his seat and was passed out cold in the aisle. I yelled, “Help! Help!” and before I could get unbuckled, he had been surrounded by a couple of other passengers, some flight attendants, and then by two passengers who the attendants apparently recognized as doctors. After about a minute, he came to and said he felt fine, but they made him continue to lie down, and held his legs up. They also took his blood pressure (which was apparently slightly high) and put a bag of ice on his wrist. After a few minutes, they returned him to his seat, and he said he felt fine. He chatted with the person next to him, and I checked in on him too; he made no mention of being diabetic or having any other condition that might have cause his fainting.

“He’s the fourth on this flight,” the attendant said to the person next to me.

Not normal.

Earlier I had been in the little prep area waiting for a bathroom when I took the opportunity to mention to an attendant that my TV monitor was barely working, and that they should write it up for someone to look at after we landed. She offered to look at it now, but I said that I was just suggesting that she write it up. My point is that I was being the opposite of demanding.

As we were talking, a call light went on, and another attendant told the one I was talking with that there was a medical emergency. My attendant said, “I can’t talk now. There’s an emergency.” “I said, of course! Go go!” She went to help, but a third attendant started acting as if I were insisting on continuing to talk about my stupid TV problem while a passenger was in medical distress. The more I tried to explain that I wasn’t even asking for anything be done during the flight, the more the third attendant insisted that I was trying to place my needs before those of the passenger who had just keeled. With just one more twist — say a passenger I had earlier offended overhearing the conversation and assuming I was being a self-centered a-hole — we would have had a pretty good episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Pretty, pretty good.

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March 23, 2014

[wef] Web Tourism

I’m at the first Web Economy Forum, in Cesena, Italy. It is, unfortunately, terribly under-attended, which is a shame since the first session I’ve gone to was quite good. But it’s being webcast, so we can hope that there are people listening who are not in the room.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Note that because of the translation, these notes are especially rough and choppy.

The first speaker is Prof Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt from the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute in Germany. Chinese travel is increasing: 1 out of ten world travelers are from China. The Net and online media are highly significant to travelers figuring out where to go. Some celebrities who blog when they travel have 50M followers. The biggest online travel agency has recently changed its characterization from online to mobile travel agency. It’s social media, not Web sites, that get people interested; people want to hear from their social group. China already has twice as many people online as the US does.

He takes the local area as an example. He suggests that for a town like Cesena, the customers are not the busloads of travelers but those who have been around Italy, and are looking to move from sightseeing to experience. A single tourist who discovers a local shop can drive more visitors, but a new deal (about which he cannot yet speak) lets a visitor set up an online shop in China through which the Chinese can buy from the Italian shop. [Nice combination of the social, personal, and mercantile.] He gives an example of a Chinese film star driving lots of traffic to a Tasmanian stuffed bear.

The next speaker, Aurkene Alzua-Sorzabal, says that international markets have grown remarkably, but how much has that benefited local regions? We need new anaytics “to support the intelligent monitoring of visitors, in order to anticipate and improve their performance,” so that we can get new insights in complex industries such as the “hospitality field.” Behind all this is Big Data, but that’s just the raw material. How can we use this data for our businesses?

She talks about some tools her group has developed. First they use Big Data to explore pricing. Every 24 hours, they crawl the data on accommodation prices — 12,000 hotels in Spain, 14K in France, etc. They can then ask question such as what is the average rate for 3 star hotels in Bilbao on a given day, or what is the most economical hotel in Paris for Easter. They can forecast pricing for special events in a locality and its surroundings. They can see the weekend effect in Ireland and across countries. They can see the effect of availability on price. She gives more examples and asks how we can better use the digital world to understand the physical world?

Q: People only trust user-generated content that comes from other travelers.

Q: Italy is the 8th destination for travel in the world. Tourism accounts for 10% of the Italian GDP. We need to find the next big way that tourists book their travel. TripAdvisor is an example of how tourism is changing. Tourism is not just about finding a hotel. And Air Bnb, too.

Wolfgang: When the Chinese come to Venice, they’re looking for Marco Polo. Aside from the airport, there’s nothing there. So, they’ve learned through social media that there’s nothing there about Marco Polo, so they stay away. The Chinese are proud that their culture came to Italy. You should be catering to this need.

Q: We have a great UNESCO heritage in this country. What shoud we do?


Q: Maybe cultural goods aren’t the way to sell tourism in emerging countries. In China, Marco Polo is unknown. Young people in America know Rome only because they’ve played Assassin’s Creed. They know our cars and clothes, not our culture. Culture works in a few countries.


A: Wolfgang: That’s not entirely true. It depends on the segments. Marco Polo is taught as part of Chinese history as bringing Chinese culture to Europe. When we surveyed younger Chinese people, Italy is seen as the home of beautiful men, maybe from the statue of David and soccer players. For travel to Europe the main attraction is blue skies, no pollution.


A: Aurkene: People go somewhere because they have a narrative, perhaps from history of movies. But now they lack narratives. These narratives tell them what they’re looking for in a place. It’s not about places but about narratives.


A: Wolfgang: Yes. Cesena has been the home of three Popes. It’s not about history but about power. This is an image you can build on. This place has inspired people to become powerful.


Q: We can’t sell our homes as a product or as an experience. The relation between the people who come and the people who host are the real opportunity and the next big thing: peer to peer. If you get too many people, you lose the relationships.

Q: We should be demanding open data about tourism.

Q: Are we still welcoming?

A: Wolfgang: It’s not enough to say the customer is king without knowing that you have to greet the Japanese man first and the woman all the way at the end, whereas in China it’s a matter of hierarchy, not gender. So you can’t be welcoming without training.

Wolfgang: The broadest segment isn’t nation but language. If you want peer to peer, you have to share a language. And it’s probably going to turn out to be English.

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March 22, 2014

Biblioteca Malatestiana – The world’s oldest public library

I’m in Cesena, Italy for the first holding of the Web Economic Forum. Because I’m only here for a day, I didn’t bother to look up the local attractions until I arrived this afternoon. At TripAdvisor, the #1 Attraction is the Biblioteca Malatestiana, so I walked there. (It turns out the WEF is in the adjoining building.)

The 400-year-old Biblioteca lays claim to being the world’s oldest public library. And it’s worth a visit, although the tour is in Italian, which I listened to attentively with my 1% Italian comprehension that consists almost entirely of false cognates and pizza toppings. Nevertheless, you can get the gist that this is a damn old library, that it’s got some very old books, including one from the 11th century, and that it was managed jointly by a monastery and the city government. (The intricate doors to the reading room require a key from each to be unlocked.)

The reading room looks like a chapel. There are two rows of pews that turn out to be reading desks designed for people to stand at. The books are stored underneath, like prayer books in a church, except they’re not and they’re chained to the shelf. The books on the right side of the chapel are religious, and the ones on the left are civic and classics. (The Greek classics are Latin translations.) The collection of 353 books includes seven Jewish works.

Reading room
Photo by Ivano Giovannini, from here

Reading room
Photo by Ivano Giovannini, from here

Then you are taken into the Pope Pius VII’s library, a well-lit room with 15th century music books on display. They are nicely illuminated. There’s also a small display of small books, including one that they claim is the smallest that is legible without a magnifier. I couldn’t read it, but my eyesight isn’t as good as it never was.

Chorale books
Photo by Sally Zuckerman, from here

I wish they had shown us more of the Library, but you can hear very old voices there, and they’re mainly saying, “Printed books are going to kill reading! Everyone’s a reader now! You don’t need any special skills or training. And the books are so much uglier than they were in my day. Hey you kids, get off of my fiefdom!”

 


The Wikipedia article isn’t very good. There’s better info on this Consortium of European Research Libraries page, and this Travel Through History page by Sally Zuckerman. (The photos are from Sally’s post.)

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August 5, 2013

A very good day in NYC

I love Boston, where I live, but NYC on a good day is beyond words.

Here is one very good day in New York, with my wife.

Sunday:

  • Amtrak to New York.

  • Library Hotel. Friendly, guest-centric, non-obsequious, relatively mid-priced, well-placed hotel. (I did much better on price by going to the hotel’s site.)

  • Walk 30 blocks up 5th Ave., 10 of them in Central Park

  • Frick Collection. Such an intensity of awesomeness. God bless the robber barons!

  • Dinner at Candle Cafe: hearty vegan food

  • Mediocre movie.(Pacific Rim. Yes, I know.)

  • Back to the hotel for a drink outside.

And, what the heck, here’s Monday:

It does not get better than this. I am very lucky.

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June 23, 2013

Top, oh, 14 ways to tell you’re in a hip hotel

  1. It’s named a letter, a number, a letter or number spelled out as a word, or has some completely generic name, like “Hotel.”

  2. The entire staff at the reception desk put together weighs less than one standard American.

  3. Color in the lobby is taken as an affront to style.

  4. The minibar only has liquors you’ve never heard of, except for the beer which is Bud.

  5. Your room’s waste basket is so well-hidden that you don’t discover it until Day Three.

  6. They would rather let the shower flood the bathroom floor than put in a shower curtain or frosted door.

  7. There’s a full-length mirror in the shower.

  8. There’s a window to the outside in the shower. (Not only have I been in that hotel, but the window was frosted up to waist level. Holy sexist voyeurism, Batman!)

  9. Irregular furniture has sharp, shin-barking edges that are invisible at night.

  10. The pad of paper on the nightstand is made out of hemp and is accompanied by an old-fashioned pencil to encourage you to be authentic.

  11. The hotel restaurant (if there is one) only serves tiny, tiny food.

  12. If there is a concierge, and there probably isn’t, that person is called “city coach” or “wrangler,” or anything except “concierge.”

  13. If there is room service, the menu offers only kiddie food, but at adult prices: PB&J for $14, grilled American cheese on white bread for $18, and the mac ‘n’ cheese requires a credit check.

  14. The TV only gets ironic channels.

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November 1, 2012

Lazy impressions

I am in London as part of my stitched-together path home in the wake of Sandy, so yesterday afternoon I went for a walk and on a whim decided to duck into the National Gallery. (Free museums are so Open Access!)

I am ashamed that once again I gravitated to the Impressionists. I take it as due to a typical American’s lack of education about art. My taste is so conventional and so lazy. For example, my wife likes Medieval art in part because she knows the backstories of the religious scenes depicted, while I, on the other hand, know a handful of saints. (Hint: If he’s got arrows stuck in him, he’s St. Sebastian.) My ignorance keeps me from appreciating what I’m looking at, much less knowing enough about the history of art to perceive the telling differences in the portrayals. (Simon Schama’s Rembrandt’s Eyes is an astounding example of how knowing stuff helps to see things. (And here’s a rather snippy review of it [pdf] by one of the greatest art historians, E.H. Gombrich.))

The Impressionists are easy because you’re not looking at history or religion. You’re looking at looking. Although that’s not all. I also often have a strong desire to be in the place depicted, even though I’m not much of an outdoors guy. For whatever reason, I don’t have the same reaction to Renaissance landscapes or to the awestruck vistas of the American frontier. Those seem like a lot of work. I want to be on a blanket in Monet’s hayfield or sitting on a rock in Van Gogh’s meadow. It’s easy to like a painting of a place where you want to be, although in real life I’d last for about four minutes before checking my phone for email. So I guess the Impressionists get credit for making me desperate to be somewhere I wouldn’t actually like.

This is related to another aspect of the laziness I feel in my attraction to the Impressionists. They’re not taking commissions to commemorate ugly rich families or to paint a church with heroic scenes. They’re painting fields they don’t till, fruit they don’t pick, and gardens they don’t weed. The social Impressionists are at revels or performances, or watching ladies dry themselves. Of course many of these artists were thereby impoverished, at least for a while, but they were doing exactly what they wanted. So, laziness is the wrong word. Is “self-indulgent” any closer?

[Now for some backpedaling: Monet did a lot of weeding, but had a large staff of gardeners. Not all the scenes the Impressionists painted were happy. They were far from the only artists in history to paint for themselves and not for commissions. And I do understand that they were bravely asserting a human sensory aesthetic, which was not an easy or popular thing to do. So there goes my entire argument. Still, I feel lazy for being drawn to them.]


But screw it. The National Gallery has some beautiful, beautiful paintings. I found myself once again inevitably drawn to Monet. In this case, I was looking at a perfectly rendered painting of the beach at Le Havre, admiring how crisp and precise it was, even though many of the strokes are, well, impressionist. Yet it’s in hyper-focus. In fact, the sharpness of the mountain’s edge where it meets the sky is quite dramatic. It turns out the painting is by Monet. (The National Gallery has put these images on line. Thank you!!)


On the opposite wall, there’s a late Monet called “Water Lillies, Setting Sun,” which is much more vividly red than the online image appears. It shows lilies, the surface of the water, the water’s depth, a reflection of a willow tree, and the redness of a sunset. It took a moment to snap into focus, but when it did, I thought, “Wow. You really have to be a human to see this painting.” Send it in a space ship and aliens would never figure out what it’s a painting of. But if you are an earthling, it’s all there – earth, sky, water, life, surface and depth, reflection and shadow, days and nights. Everything except for humans of course. But we’re the ones who can paint this and see it.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I do not respond only to Impressionism. I also am moved by other artists easy to like. Rembrandt does it for me just about every time. The Renaissance Italians had a way with a brush and chisel. But no artists make me feel simultaneously as moved and lazy as the Impressionists.

 


I had dinner with Suw , and it turns out that we both admire the Paul Delaroche painting The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, so I thought I’d put in the link to it.

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June 17, 2012

Amsterdam in three museums

I love Amsterdam so much. I know the residents have their complaints — including that tourists love it too much — but it is such a physically beautiful city, and so full of life. So, I’m very happy to have 2 days here between jobs.

Over the past 1.5 days, I have done nothing but walk, so long as you include walking through museums as walking.

My first walk brought me to the Van Gogh museum first, but on a Saturday afternoon the line stretched down the block, so I went to the Rijksmuseum instead. This is, of course, the grand museum of Amsterdam, but it has reduced and concentrated its exhibitions while it undergoes what feels like 30 years of renovation. Your €14 gets you into about a dozen rooms of works by Dutch masters. Despite the intensity of the art, and the fact that I generally get tired after about a dozen rooms in a museum, it felt a bit small.

Still, there are many stunners there. I am a sucker for Rembrandt, so I was happy. In fact, I’ve found that I’m gotten more and more awestruck by painting as I’ve gotten older. I think that’s due in part to my not feeling shallow for being moved by technique. I used to think that admiring a painter’s technique is like admiring a violinist because she plays real fast. Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations awakened me to Bach (re-awakened me, perhaps) which I grew to love both for Bach’s moving outside of the form to express himself and for Gould’s ability to do the same because of his unbelievable virtuosity. These notes, so difficult to conceive together, so impossible to play that way! I’ve come to think that technique is not a trick played on art. (Open Source Goldberg Variations here.)

And Rembrandt’s technique is so stunning. I am one of those guys who peers up close and then steps back and then steps forward again. (Yes, I try to stay out of people’s way.) I like to see how it looked to the artist and how the artist had to imagine how it would look to the viewer. I spent a good amount of time in the Rijksmuseum in front of Rembrandt’s portrait of Maria Trip admiring how he painted the lace and the dozens of pearls. He does pearls so well! But then I’d step back to see that slightly uncomfortable face. Is she someone who struggles with trying to look natural, or does she just not have a lot of naturalness to express? And then: How the hell did he paint that?

I was surprised to find myself spending a long time in front of the Wedding portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix von der Laen. It’s by Frans Hals, an artist I usually don’t respond to. But I was pretty much overcome by it. The newlyweds are relaxing in front of some treees and bushes, with the formal building and fountain in the distance. She’s got her arm on his shoulder and he’s leaning back with one hand in his shirt (symbolizing fidelity, the notes say). They are so clearly in love, yet still two distinct people. And of the two, she’s got the clearest view of the situation — and the situation is going to be full of happy mischief.

(Thank you, Rijksmuseum, for posting the paintings online.)

I then went to Rembrandt’s House. I was there with my family 10-15 years ago when it was undergoing renovation, and I was a little disappointed in how it came out. The first time I was there, in the 1970s, I remember having a strong sense of the size of the house. The renovation removes the sense of the house’s original boundaries, although the stairs remain damn narrow. For 10€ you can see the reconstructed kitchen (which is interesting in a diorama sort of way), demonstrations of how he printed etchings and how he mixed paint, lots of contemporary paintings, and a room full of his exquisite, tiny etchings.

This morning I went back to the Van Gogh museum. It opens at 10am on Sundays, and by 10:30am there was already a short line. The entrance fee is 14€. I have to say that I was a little disappointed, although it was still well worth the visit. Most of the iconic Van Gogh’s are in other collections, although you’ll certainly find some here. I’d guess that about half of the pictures are not by Van Gogh; some provide interesting context (the precursors section was helpful) and some are in special exhibits that don’t have too much to do with Van Gogh; the current exhibit is on the Symbolists, which the museum interprets quite broadly.

There are some very early drawings and paintings where you see Van Gogh mastering technique the way a future master would. And I enjoyed as well the Parisian paintings, from before Van Gogh left for Arles. There’s a painting that is composed like a Dutch landscape, except the earth-based portion is of Paris rendered almost like the undergrowth he was painting towards the end of his sanity.

There are fewer in the familiar Starry Night style where you wonder what the hell drug he was on, but that’s ok with me since I tend to prefer the ones where the brushstroke reveal more about the subject than about Van Gogh’s subjective state. And there are some gorgeous ones. As seems especially the case with Van Gogh, the reproductions can utterly suppress the beauty of the originals, so I was startled to see how rich the sky is in The Yellow House. It gives such a sense of a small yellow building sitting in an infinitely deep universe. (My idiosyncratic reaction was: Heidegger was right, at least for this painting: Earth and world, gods and mortals, all at their intersection.) (Thank you. Van Gogh Museum, for not only posting your paintings, but letting us zoom in on them.)

Some of the non-Van Gogh works are also pretty great. I loved a Monet vista of Monaco from a turn in the road, and a hilarious Mondrian sun-over-the-sea painting that the legend says he intended not to be ridiculous but to capture some Theosophical truth.

Anyway, it was well worth going to. But do try to find a time when it isn’t jam-packed; it was often hard to get to see the paintings instead of the backs of the heads of other visitors.

Damn tourists!

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June 13, 2012

My inner voice

As I have mentioned before, I have what I think is particularly strong inner narrator, especially when I’m alone. I’ve always attributed this to my proclivities towards writing, since my narrator drafts and often redrafts descriptions of what I’m experiencing. It’s either that or I’m a little schizo. Or both.

I am today at the beginning of a three week trip, during which I will be spending a fair bit of time alone. My inner narrator has already kicked in, and here’s the thing: It’s now Mike and Tom Eat Snacks.

I have to say it’s a little disconcerting having two of them. Not for me it isn’t. But it is for me. I’ll tell you exactly why: It’s because your inner Mike and Tom include an internalized Mike and Tom, so you have a little fractal regression thing going on that’s got to be a little upsetting. Yes, that’s true; it’s because I’m a people person. Whereas I’m just a person person. Exactly right.

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April 25, 2012

A pleasant experience with the TSA

They say the way to succeed as a blogger is to use shocking headlines. Now you have mine.

And it’s true. This morning at the Seattle airport, I had a very pleasant experience going through Securty, and no, I am not referring to an especially loving pat-down. Because I am a Special Person, I got to go through the new TSA Pre screening…”pre” as in “pre-check.” (BTW, does the “pre-” really add anything in the word “pre-approved”?) They put you onto an extra-specially short line — you get pulled out of the First Class line to go on a yet-shorter line. There they tell you to keep your belt and shoes on, keep your laptop in your bag, leave the change in your pocket, and please feel free to keep your spring jacket on. They do want the cellphone to come out of your pocket. And then they put you through a plain old scanner that doesn’t take nude pictures of you and post them on the Internet on a Tranny Grannies page (a long story).

I was able to register for the TSA Pre program because I’d already gone through a pretty extensive screening to become part of the Global Entry program. The Global Entry program lets me go through Customs at some airports by sticking my head into a vending machine. I signed up for that program after getting a security clearance from the feds. If you are part of Global Entry, registering for the TSA Pre program just takes a quick trip to the Web. If you’re not, there’s some other process.

So, for Special People like me, the TSA Pre program is great. But it’s hardly a scalable solution. And, yes, I do feel like a traitor to species when I go on that specially short line. Still: It’s a specially short line! I’m only human!

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