Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Routine

The Last Resort - 0 stars
Hartford airport (BDL)

Waffle House - 2 stars
All over the South

Panera - 1 star
Your friendly local strip mall

Musashi - 0 stars
Detroit airport (DTW)

One week the JW Marriott in Copacabana, the next week (after a short break) ... the Comfort Inn in Birmingham, Alabama, after eating a disgusting piece of pizza (barely any tomato sauce, slightly sour-tasting cheese that had none of the properties of mozzarella) in the Hartford airport for dinner.

This blog is mainly about travel, and business travel in particular. In airports, you see happy couples, tired families with too much equipment, lost-looking kids on their first trips alone ... and then you see neatly dressed, single people with computer bags and expensive-looking carry-on suitcases, walking directly to wherever they are going, usually checking their Blackberries or looking for power outlets - that's us (or "that's we," which I believe is actually correct).

And the typical business trip is not to Rio, or Paris, or any of those fun places - it's to Birmingham, Alabama, and it goes something like this:

  • 5 pm (Eastern): Arrive at airport. Go up and down escalator with 1-year-old daughter who just came home on a flight from visiting her cousins for a week. (OK, that's not typical.)
  • 6.30: Aforementioned disgusting piece of pizza.
  • 11 pm (Central): Arrive at Birmingham, by way of Charlotte. Take bus to rental car, which turns out to be a hulking Jeep Patriot. Drive 3 miles to Comfort Inn, where the bed is mushy and the heating/cooling system is too loud - but it could be a lot worse.
  • 12 midnight: Check email.
  • 12.30 am: Go to sleep.
  • 8.30 am: Wake up and get ready for meeting. (Note the eight hours of sleep!)
  • 9.30: Breakfast at Waffle House!!! (Grilled cheese instead of egg and cheese - because of something I read in Michael Pollan's book - and a double order of hash browns. Yummy.)
  • 11.00: Pick up colleague at airport. Drive to prospective client's neighborhood, which is a sprawling mass of strip malls just like thousands of others all over the country. Eat lunch at Panera (tomato soup and Greek salad) because of the free wireless Internet access.
  • 12.30: Arrive at prospect. Do meeting. Talk about company and product for 19,378th time.
  • 4.30: Arrive back at Birmingham airport for a 5.05 flight.
  • 8.30 pm (Eastern): Dinner at Musashi in the Detroit airport (cold, rock-solid vegetable sushi and a limp, greasy, characterless vegetarian egg roll - and a banana).
  • 11.00: Arrive at Hartford airport and drive home. Check email. Play with dog.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Breaking News

Euromad discovers why croissants au beurre are so much better than croissants ordinaires (which are now, apparently, in a perversion of the French language, called croissants a la nature)! Click here for the shocking answer!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Copacabana in the Rain

Fasano al Mare - 2 stars
Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro

Fagulha - 1 stars
Rua Santa Clara 18, Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro

In many ways, I am a very fortunate person. You know those articles about jet-setting executives who get to go to exotic places and stay in nice hotels? Well, that's me ... if only a tiny bit. At home I drive a 1999 Chevy Prizm, I wear the same suits I bought 11 years ago when I started my first job, and most of my trips are to places like Louisville, Birmingham (Alabama, not England), and Gainesville. But this week I got to come to Rio de Janeiro, the kind of city that many people dream about but few Americans ever get to visit.

I got to live a little bit of "the life:" I stayed in the J. W. Marriott hotel on Copacabana Beach, which is one of the most expensive hotels I've ever stayed in in my entire life (including McKinsey), the others being in London and Moscow. The first night, our host took us out to dinner in his BMW 540 - which would be unremarkable, except that it was the first time in my life that I rode in an armored vehicle with bulletproof glass. We went to Fasano al Mare, one of the best restaurants in Rio, and the most expensive restaurant I've eaten at since I went to Bouley back in 2004 (the lobster, for example, was about $100 US). Unfortunately, it was a restaurant that specializes in seafood, and I considered using the excuse that I didn't want to insult our host by not eating seafood, but in the end I had gnocchi with tomato sauce and tiny cubes of breaded and fried eggplant, which was pretty good (the eggplant was much better than it sounds) and was only $35 or so. I also had a decent tomato-basil-mozzarella salad, and an unexceptional lemon pie ($14). The prices, of course, are partly due to the collapse of the dollar, which now buys about 1.7 reais, or less than half what it used to.

Besides that, though, it was basically all work: 9 to 6 at the client's offices in Centro (downtown), a quick and mediocre dinner (pizza one night, a strange rectangular tomato-mozzarella crepe the next, and a grilled cheese sandwich in the airport the last), work in the hotel room until midnight, and then up at six the next day to work some more while looking out the window at the gorgeous, enormous, nearly-empty beach and the waves rolling in from the Atlantic. I even started drinking coffee again, not only because I needed it, but also because waiters kept bringing little cups of espresso into our conference room. Apparently it is impossible to have a meeting in Rio without coffee, and there was a camera in the room that they used to see when anyone might need one. (The whole executive floor is continuously surveyed by cameras, less for security than so the executives can be tracked down by their assistants easily.)

I had a list of exactly three things I wanted to do: (1) walk on the beach, (2) go to Corcovado or Sugarloaf (two famous hills around the city with great views), and (3) go to a soccer game at the Maracana - and I did exactly none of them, except a quick walk down to the water one night with my colleagues. There were not one but two soccer games at the Maracana on Wednesday night, one with Fluminese and one with Flamengo, and our hosts even found a set of VIP seats that we could have used, but I decided to work instead - one of those decisions that is easy to criticize, but meant the difference between 6 hours of sleep and 2 hours of sleep. I planned an extra day in Rio after our meetings, but it rained all day, and besides I had a conference call all afternoon.

The food overall was OK at best, due to a combination of not speaking the language and not eating animals. There are a bunch of kiosks right on the edge of the beach in Copacabana where you can get beer, snacks, or meals, but despite (or because of) the fantastic location the food seemed unremarkable. The highlight for vegetarians is probably the restaurants that sell food by weight, like Fagulha in Copacabana, where I had lunch the last day. There's a big buffet, and everything is the same price per kilogram, so you can pick whatever looks good. Unfortunately, most of what looks good has meat in it, and you have to do some guessing as well, but you can still make a decent meal out of black beans, rice, various potato dishes, and salads.

But I shouldn't complain, and I am glad I came, even though I'm about to get on a 9.5-hour flight in coach back to the U.S. All the people we met were incredibly friendly and welcoming, and did everything they could to make our stay enjoyable. I walked around downtown Rio and look out over the bay. I watched people playing beach soccer at night and making moves you rarely see in the U.S. I learned a tiny bit of Portuguese. And I drank a caipirinha (sugar cane liqueur, lime juice, and sugar - too sweet) at one of the shacks on the edge of the beach, even if it was in the rain.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

"Living Life Navigator Style"

(The title is a reference to a story by my friend Euromad.)

I'm in Rio de Janeiro this week, in a hotel overlooking the Copacabana beach. But I almost didn't make it here.

We planned this trip a few weeks ago, at the invitation of a possible client here in Rio. To get a visa you need a plane ticket and an invitation from a business in Brazil. On Friday, February 22 we got the faxed invitations and booked our plane tickets for Monday, March 10. We knew this would be tight for the visas, but we use an expediter - you send your application to them overnight, then they go to the consulate and hand it in, they pick up the application, and they send it back to you overnight. We collected our applications and passports and mailed them on Monday, February 25. We also asked them to use the San Francisco office, since we have had better luck there in the past.

The first problem was that the expediter claimed that we had to use the Chicago and Boston consulates, based on where we lived. On top of that, they don't have a Boston office, so they forwarded my application to another expediter. So we lost a few days there.

The next problem was the turnaround time of the consulate. The new expediter told us that it typically took 1-2 weeks to get a visa, which meant we had almost no chance of getting them in time to fly. The reason for this is that Brazil has a reciprocity law, according to which they treat applicants from any country the same way that country treats Brazilians. Since the United States is one of the worst countries at the world at processing visas (waits for Brazilians now are in the 3-4 month range), they take their time with our applications. (It could be worse; we could be from Spain.)

On Tuesday, March 4, we got a senior executive from our Brazilian hosts to call the Chicago and Brazilian consulates, and they said that we would get the visas in time. But by Friday, only the Chicago visas were done - not mine. We called the Boston consulate, the expediter called, and our hosts called, but no one could get a response.

So I woke up Monday morning not sure if I was going to Rio. My flight left the Hartford airport at 4.10 pm, which meant I had to leave home by 2.30. At 12.30 we found out that the visa had been processed and someone needed to pick it up. We told the expediter to pick it up and then got a courier to deliver it to my house. But because of traffic in Boston, there wasn't time to make it to my house by 2.30, so we then arranged to meet at the Hartford airport, outside the Delta ticketing area. Finally the courier pulled up at 3.40, half an hour before takeoff, and he handed me my passport with my shiny, new, 5-year, multiple-entry Brazilian visa.

The only problem was that when I arrived at the airport I found out that my flight to Atlanta was canceled, and Delta claimed there was no other way to get to Rio that night. (All the flights are overnight, so I would have had to wait 24 hours.) So I called our travel agent, who said there were seats on a United flight through Dulles, and then I convinced the Delta person to put me on that flight instead. (Because it was a last-minute, one-way booking, the cash value of the ticket was over $4,000, although I don't know how money changes hands between airlines.) I walked over to United, checked in, went to security, and got pulled aside for additional screening. (That's what happens when you have a last-minute, one-way ticket.) Then I strolled onto my plane with a few minutes to spare, flew to Dulles, flew to Rio (after upgrading my seat), got a shoeshine in the airport, and took a taxi to the aforementioned hotel on Copacabana beach.

After all the flights I've done, I can say honestly that, like the Navigator but unlike Euromad, I was completely calm throughout the whole experience, even while waiting to see if I would get my passport in time. You do the best you can, and if things don't work out, they don't work out. Which, of course, applies to most of life.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Home Away from Home

Zachary's - 1 star
Solano Ave., Berkeley, California
College Avenue, Oakland, California

I've lived in Berkeley (or the Oakland hills, which are basically the same thing) for nine out of the last eighteen years - 1990-97 (except for a year in Paris), in grad school, 1999-2001 while working at McKinsey and Ariba, and 2005-06 while my wife was on sabbatical at UC Berkeley - and I've visited many times over the last several years while visiting my company's headquarters in the Bay Area. As I and many other people have noted, Berkeley has perhaps the best food of any place in the world, from the produce selection at Berkeley Bowl and Monterey Market, through the cheese selection at the Cheese Board and the coffee at Peet's, to the landmark of California cuisine, Chez Panisse (which, unfortunately, was not so good the last two times I went).

But the pizza, I've finally decided, is only pretty good. The most popular place is undoubtedly Zachary's, a pseudo-Chicago-style place with stuffed pizzas. Zachary's was my favorite in the early 1990s, and the way I remember it it was always packed and the pizza was always great, from the crust to the spicy tomato sauce. In the mid-nineties, though, I shifted allegiance to Cheese Board Pizza, perhaps the epitome of California-style ("fru-fru," in the words of one of my co-workers) pizza. Cheese Board only makes one type of pizza per day - say, red onions, corn, mozzarella, feta, cilantro, and lemon juice - and people line up down the block for it. Finally, when I moved back in 2005 I decided that the Cheese Board was decidedly hit-or-miss, and my favorite became Gioia, a New York-style place (although not as good as some of the New York pizzerias) with a very thin, slightly blackened crust and a comparatively traditional set of toppings.

As both of my loyal readers know, though, I make my restaurants selections based on sentimental value, so this week I went to Zachary's and got a large, stuffed spinach and mushroom to take to dinner at my friends Jenni and Robert's house. The restaurants was only about two-thirds full, the crust seemed pedestrian, and the tomato sauce seemed to have lost its bite. It was still good, but the sad part was I couldn't remember what all the fuss was about.

But it was still nice to be in Berkeley, where it was almost warm outside in the evening, and you could smell the jasmine flowers (at least, that's what they smell like) that I will always associate with California. And it was nice to go the office, skip a meeting to shoot baskets with friends, catch up with people I haven't seen in months, meet new people at the office happy hour, and generally feel like I had a normal job in a normal office. It's hard to be away from home - where, my wife's text message said, my daughter has started jumping - but California is my home away from home.