Monday, December 31, 2007

Paris to the Moon

I haven't done any traveling since my last adventure returning from California, so I don't have any new restaurant reviews, but I didn't want to let the year slip away without some final thoughts. And since so much of this blog has been about Paris, I thought I would finish 2007 with the book I'm reading, Paris to the Moon, a collection of New Yorker articles and other essays by Adam Gopnik, an American who moved to Paris with his family from 1995 to 2000. (The copy I have in front of me belongs to John S., one of the founders of my company, who lent it to John R., another founder who moved to Paris for six months this year, before coming back to become CEO again in a story that will have to be told someplace else. It was John R. I went to the Bistrot du Dôme with in May.)

To be brief, Gopnik captures, at least in part, the magic of being in Paris for an American. The fact that I was depressed there thirteen years ago doesn't mean that I don't love the city. To be melodramatic, Paris is a bit like the girl you had a crush on but only went out with once; the crush never complete goes away.

Some Americans look for the romantic Paris of the late nineteenth century, or of photographs by Robert Doisneau. Not I. I always liked the things about Paris that seemed more modern than, or just different from, the U.S., like the subdued electronic music that Europeans use to set off the advertisements or the weather from the rest of the newscast. It's a difference I had never read about before this book. For example:
There is a separate language of appliance design in France ... Things are smaller, but they are also much quieter and more streamlined. ... They are all slim, white, molded, with the buttons and lights neatly small, rectangular, and inset into the white plastic. The hulking, growling American appliances we had at home ... all were solid, vast and seemed to imply survivalism. You could go cruising in them. The French appliances, with their blinking lights and set-back press buttons on the front, imply sociability and connection.
Throughout the book there are moments like that, which capture not just what it is like to live in Paris, but what it is like to be an American knowing that you are only in Paris for a short time and will never, ever be a true Parisian. There are the obligatory articles about French food and cooking, but they include a portrait of Alice Waters and California Cuisine as good as any I have ever read. ("Over time, an obsession with sex and drugs slid imperceptibly into an obsession with children and food.") The author even cooked seven-hour lamb for Alice - if I recall correctly, the same dish that my friend Jay ordered in Wajda during my trip in October. And then there are the hilarious analyses of the differences between American and French attitudes, like the substitution of the American fact-checker with the French "theory-checker" ("Just someone to make sure that your premises agree with your conclusions, that there aren't any obvious errors of logic in your argument, that all your allusions flow together in a coherent stream.")

I'm sure there are other books on the topic, and better ones no doubt. But this is the book that I happened to read, and I give it 2 stars.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Year in Review

La Farine - 3 stars
Solano Ave., Berkeley, California

I woke up this morning in Berkeley, California, my favorite town in the whole world (I stayed with my friends Robert and Jenni and saw their 2-month-old son Evan, and also so my friends Ori and Lori, and their daughters Hannah and Ruby). For breakfast I stopped at La Farine on Solano Avenue in North Berkeley for a morning bun, perhaps the best breakfast pastry in the world (the other competitor would be a good croissant au beurre in France) - the top is light and fluffy, the bottom is dense and sweet, and I can never figure out which one I like more. Then I drove to the airport for my last flight of the year, back home to Amherst, Massachusetts.

Every year I keep track of every trip I take. Yes, I know it's a bit obsessive. This year I flew 48 times (if there's a layover, I count both legs together as one; but round-trips count as two) on nine airlines through 21 airports in three countries (the US, the UK, and France). I spent 38% of my work days away from home. (If I leave one morning at a reasonable hour and come home the next day at a reasonable hour, that counts as only one day away, but if I leave at 6 am and come home at midnight the next day, that counts as two - really I'm measuring time spent away from my family.) I flew to California 10 times for work (11 if you count the time I went while on vacation, but took my daughter into the office to explain our financials to a potential investor for two hours, while she played on the floor), including four weeks in a row in July when I was filling in as our financial forecaster.

This is considerably down from some earlier years. 2003 was the toughest, when I flew 107 times (more than twice a week), spent 62% of my work days away from home, spent 17 hours per week in transit, and ate 16% of my meals in airports or on airplanes. (I used to keep more statistics.) That was the year I was launching our first customer project in southwest Michigan. And then there was 2002, when I spent essentially every other week in California.

There are many people at my company who travel much, much more than I do. There are the implementation consultants who spend four days every week at a client site, every week of the year (except for vacations). Some of them even go on long-term assignments to places like Russia and New Zealand. There are the Australians, who travel regularly to Singapore, Indonesia, Korea, and Japan. There is the head of international operations, who alternates between home in Australia and our European offices in London, Paris, and Munich. And there is our CEO, who lives in Boston and runs a company based in California with customers and prospects on every inhabited continent.

On the whole, I don't like traveling. It's physically tiring, especially in the business world where you do so much flying in the early morning or the evening to maximize meeting time. It's bad for your sleep, especially staying in hotels with soft mattresses or erratic heating and cooling systems. It's terrible for the environment - my share of my airplanes' carbon emissions this year will be 10 to 20 times the emissions generated by my little Chevy Prizm. As readers of this blog know, you eat enough mediocre food for a lifetime, especially if you don't eat land animals. And most importantly, it keeps you away from your family.

But there are a few modestly redeeming characteristics. I get to visit friends I would never see otherwise. Occasionally I get to eat at Berthillon. I get to escape the New England winter for an occasional few days in California. And sometimes an airplane flight, or even a long car drive, can offer a brief moment of peace and relaxation.

With that in mind, here are my unsolicited, random, and unprioritized travel tips:

  • Take advantage of being disconnected. Don't use a BlackBerry. Don't check email on your layover; let it wait until you get home. If you get home in the evening, let it wait until the morning.
  • iPod.
  • Stock up on episodes of This American Life ( for car trips or plane flights. You can get the podcast for free, or you can buy any episode for about a dollar (both in iTunes). We spend so much of our lives in our own narrow little worlds, most of which revolve around our jobs. This American Life reminds you that you are part of a much larger world of lots and lots of different and interesting people.
  • Read books, not newspapers or magazines. Periodicals make you feel like you're just barely keeping up; every day or week there's a new one to read. Books are more interesting and fulfilling.
  • If you go someplace interesting, give yourself an extra day or a few extra hours to look around. Do it after your work is done, or the time will just get sucked up preparing for your meeting.
  • If you're in a place with good restaurants, go eat someplace nice. (Search for "[city name] best restaurants" in Google, and you're likely to find a magazine with a list.)
  • Skip breakfast and sleep fifteen minutes more.
  • Carry your own tea bags.
  • Look up old friends in the places you visit. Seeing someone you haven't seen in years can make for any amount of travel hassles. (They can also tell you where to eat.)
  • Help out other travelers, like single mothers with infants and tons of stuff. Swap your aisle seat for a middle seat so a family can sit together. It will make you feel happier.
  • Sleep when you can.

I composed the above while on my first leg, from San Francisco to Chicago. On landing at O'Hare, I learned that my flight to Hartford was canceled, the next flight to Hartford was canceled, and I had been rebooked at 6.30 am tomorrow. There were no flights home via Washington, Charlotte, Pittsburgh, or Philadelphia, and while I was talking to the rep the 6.30 was canceled, so I rebooked at 1.20 pm tomorrow. Then I called back and switched to a flight this evening to White Plains and booked a one-way rental car to Hartford. But when I got up from booking the rental car the White Plains flight had been canceled, so now I'm on the 1.20 again.

So make that 39% of work days away from home.


The 1.20 actually left on schedule, but when I landed in Hartford my car was buried in snow, with the wheels trapped in 18-inch snowdrifts and about ten feet of unplowed snow to cover (in reverse) before reaching the plowed aisle in the parking lot. It took over half an hour of digging, with an ice scraper, no less, and would probably have taken another half hour were it not for two nice people who helped push the car over the unplowed snow. Alex would say it was karma, because on the flight from San Francisco to Chicago I helped a woman with her bags because she was traveling with a baby.

Then it started snowing, and halfway home I pulled over because the freeway was too dangerous. Luckily it stopped within an hour or so and I was able to make it home around 8.15 pm. And that really is it for traveling this year.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

New York, New York

Aquavit - 3 stars
65 E 55th St.

Aquavit is, according to New York Magazine, the 9th-best restaurant in New York City. (New York Magazine isn't a particularly trustworthy source, but Aquavit also got 3 stars (out of 4 - almost no one gets 4) from the New York Times. As such, Aquavit is also precisely the kind of restaurant I couldn't afford to eat at when I lived in New York from 1997 to 1999. Although I wasn't as poor as I had been when I lived in Paris, a first-year McKinsey associate's salary ($90,000 back then; probably at least $160,000 now) didn't go as far as you might think, especially not in Manhattan. Of New York's 101 best restaurants (again according to New York Magazine), I believe I only ate at two (maybe three) while I lived there. (Of course, many of the 101 didn't exist eight years ago.)

So on Tuesday, after a midtown sales call in the morning, the team and I went to Aquavit for lunch and had a great time. An aquavit is basically a flavored Swedish vodka. Susan and I each had the raspberry lime ginger, which was long on raspberry but generally pleasant; John had the pear, which was delicious; and Corbett had the mango lime chili, which had far too much chili pepper to be enjoyable. The food was mainly nouveau Swedish and American with an emphasis on mouth-popping flavors. I had a long, thin lobster roll wrapped in what looked like a moo shu pancake, topped with tiny baby cilantro leaves that were more pungent than any cilantro I had ever had, and tiny flecks of bacon (I didn't realize it came with bacon, and yes I ate it). Each piece of bacon was about one millimeter square, and there were only about six of them, but you could taste them distinctly next to the lobster and cilantro. I also had hot smoked trout, which was as tender as sushi, and a mainstream but delicious pear tart with apple ice cream.

And the sales call went well, so we were all in a good mood. We had very little time to prepare, so we came up with a plan, avoided a last-minute crunch, and stuck to the plan during the meeting. One of the keys to happiness is doing things that you like doing, and people like doing things they are good at. I'm good at my job (most of it, at least). It's not the world's most interesting job, but that's something.

Thursday, December 06, 2007


I'm just back from a short business trip to visit one customer and to make one sales call. I flew from Hartford to Louisville, had an all-day meeting in Louisville on Tuesday, flew to New York on Tuesday night, went to a sales call Wednesday afternoon, took the train to my parents' house, where I stayed Wednesday night, and drove home on Thursday.

My meals went something like this:
  • Monday lunch: Two Kit-Kats in the car on the way to the airport, then a slice of really bad pizza at the aptly named Last Resort in the United/US Airways concourse of the Hartford airport. The Last Resort is one of the few holdovers from the bad old days of airport food - unappetizing, unhealthy, overpriced, and generally dismal.
  • Monday dinner: A grilled cheese sandwich and Cajun fries from Five Guys in the DC airport. Five Guys looks like the East Coast version of In-N-Out (the best burger chain in the world), with a cheerful assembly line of people making burgers to order, and where the "grilled cheese" is just a cheeseburger without the burger. I had mine with tomato and fried onions, and it came off the griddle dripping with some kind of grease, but it was absolutely delicious. The fries were dusted with some kind of reddish seasoning, and they were yummy too. But note the absence of any vegetables all day.
  • Tuesday lunch: Cheese, tomato, and lettuce sandwich from the buffet at the customer meeting, a characterless pasta salad, and a bag of potato chips. There are some places where it's harder to be a vegetarian than others.
  • Tuesday dinner: A "Caprese" (apparently pronounced "caprice") sandwich at Quizno's in the Louisville airport while waiting for a much-delayed flight to New York. I've found that if you add hot peppers to any toasted cheese on bread, you can generally eat it.
On Monday night I slept in a Courtyard by Marriott that was fine in all respects, except that the thermostat didn't work, so I had a choice between constant heat or no heat on a sub-freezing night. Many people say the most important thing in a hotel room is the bathroom. For me, it's a distant third, at best. First is the bed. And second is the heating or cooling system, because you also don't want one that wakes you up every time it turns on at night.

On Tuesday night, after landing at LaGuardia at 11.45 pm, I slept on the couch of a college roommate in his apartment in Manhattan. Curtis has lived in the same apartment for about fifteen years (I lived in the same building for two years in the late 1990s), even though he now works for a hedge fund. That's one of the things I like about Curtis. And his alcohol collection, although I didn't find the collection of high-end Scotch until the morning. So instead I had Southern Comfort on the rocks while I looked out his windows at the skyline.

I can't be done with travel soon enough.