Unexportables

I went to Hong Kong and Australia a few months ago and relished at the idea of bringing back “things”. When going to a foreign land, your wallet gets a little out of control and I looked forward to bringing back treasures from the east, like some Marco Polo in a dress with a credit card. I never thought it would turn out to be such a challenge.

As I walked through the markets of Hong Kong, staring at jade jewellery and Angry Birds paraphonalia, it occured to me that I could order everything on eBay or Amazon. The foreign land’s treasures have been globalised to a point of total consumer disinterest. The only thing that was left to consume was food and architecture.

Despite empires worth millions, it’s very hard to export a restaurant experience well. The coffee is still better in Italy, croissants more buttery yet flaky in Paris and in Hong Kong, the chinese buns fresh off of a tiny stall are more delicious than in any “Chinatown” I’ve ever visited. Maybe that’s the end of a global marketplace, when there’s nothing left to buy, when you go to a place just for the scenery and the food. No wonder the First World is obsessed with restaurant experiences, chefs and cookbooks, it might be all we have left to define ourselves.

The consumption of architecture is different but has a lasting impact on how we remember a place. I went up the Empire State Building one night with a friend and looked down onto the city, the landscape from above being as important to life there as life on the streets. I took pictures.

That’s why we keep taking pictures of places that have been photographed for a hundred years. Our picture is our way of saying “I was here too”. The picture has stopped having real meaning, it’s the act of pressing the button that acts as a reminder to remember.

In Apartamento, a wonderful magazine about people and their interiors, a antique store dealer was talking about the fact that American taste has become a bit “vanilla”. He said people didn’t want exotic things anymore, they didn’t want to be unique. They wanted to be like everyone else. Could it be that When you are drowning in a digital culture that says that social is everything then you might forget what makes you special? When Amazon and every ad banner online knows what you like, what happens if you forget what you like. Anti-consumption. A broken looking glass.

Kevin Slavin occasionally posts pictures of himself with a local newspaper and I think that’s exactly right. When you can be anywhere, you have to celebrate where you are right then and there. That’s luxury.

True affirmation of identity and uniqueness has become tricky when you are constantly forced into relationships with “friends”, Groupon deals and “other people also bought this” prompts. Perhaps travel and food, as sensorial experiences that one cannot share, will become even more prized than they are now.

Happy Monday!

Tiny Useful Things: MyTravelMaps

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Hackday today at RIG with James and Phil and I thought I’d share what I came up with.

I’ve been using Google MyMaps for about 4 years now, mapping out the cities I visit and live in with pins that often relate to food and culture. I share them a lot and most of them have been viewed by thousands of people. They do however feel like the lonely Google project noone cares about. I think there is so much they could do with it if anyone cared about the implications of those maps during a travel experience. They have the data, it’s only a question of layout and a little intelligence. So I thought I’d try designing what clicking “print” should give you.

I made a prototype last friday for a weekend trip to Paris which gave me some insights but made a cleaner version today. Pics of that on Flickr.

MyTravelMaps is the size of a Moleskine so it’s compact and you can fold it in half to fit into your pocket. Design for pockets is important as Russell said.

The first page has your travel details and the name of your hotel. Nothing else. You don’t need anything else if you’re a seasoned traveller anyway.

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The other pages have the description of the pins on one side of the page, tagged according to categories (food in yellow and culture in blue) and listed from North to South to match the map, so as you travel around you kind of know what you’re likely to bump into. It also allows you to make decisions about where you’re likely to end up looking for a place to eat versus visiting museums as those areas don’t often overlap (or shouldn’t if you’re on a budget).

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This isn’t about accuracy because travel is about the things you didn’t know about, the stuff people will tell you, the hand-written notes on those maps, the unplanned. It’s building in a little less accuracy than a directions map. It’s building in fun. This is also designed for the wanderings of walking around a city, not for someone who is looking for something specifically. They’ll use their phone for that. I used 3 pieces of paper all weekend, never once taking out a phone to check where we were. That’s kindof what I’d like this to be. Small, smart and useful.

Deep city

I was fortunate enough to attend the Microsoft Research Social Computing Symposium on “The City as a Platform” in fabulous NYC last week and thought i’d share my Ignite-style talk. This event and talk was an opportunity for me to do 4 things:

– talk about something that’s related to my design interests

– break the Ignite format (as I did with Interesting)

– Reflect on the current discourse around cities (more on that below)

– see friends and meet people I’d not had the opportunity to have a proper chat with before (nod to Christian, Aaron and Adam and Jennifer )

So I had a long hard think about the theme and decided that instead of doing what a lot of internet-types are doing which is to see the city from above (maps and all) or from below (infrastructure and all) or even the surface of it (advertising and LED walls), I was going to focus on what makes my experience of cities (having lived in large ones like Amsterdam, Paris, London, Milan, Montreal) unique and enjoyable. A user’s experience. I quickly realised that most of it had _nothing_ to do with anything technology related. You might argue that by not owning an iPhone (gasp!) I’m missing out. Perhaps, but I’m happy with what I found.

Wanting to highlight these aspects of cities, I did something I hadn’t done in a while: I wrote. I used to love writing fiction in school as a girl and this was a lot of fun. So it kindof ended up as a photo montage of sorts with a piece of text, probably because I’ve been watching La Jetée.

If you manage to guess the order of all the cities pictured, comment below and you win a plate.

Airports. Everything starts with an airport when you start with a city. Bergamo, Heathrow, Gatwick Schipol, JFK, Trudeau. All the same in some ways, all offering the same entry point to a city: a view from above. Sometimes you can see it as clearly as a google map, but often its at night, and it only reveals its glowing downtown, like woven by a moth with luminescent silk.

The sounds. Police sirens, shouting in a market, ambulances, arguing, honking, pigeons, church bells, the sound of a kiss, a pair of high hells on the pavement, the muffled sound of boots through snow or leaves.

Time. The time it takes to have a shower, order coffee, take the underground, metropolitana, subway, train, bus. Waiting there, with some music in your ears perhaps to kill the time, the boredom, chop it off in 3 mn slices. The time to walk your daughter to school, check your email, see a movie, eat a meal with a friend, walk the dog in the park.

The hip place to be, the right café, the right exhibition, the right pub, apperitivo, the right time to get there, 8pm, 10pm, 1am, 3am. The way to order a cocktail, stampot, koffie verkiert, flat white, the right clothes, the right skinny jeans, the right look. Feeling hip, seeing others recognise it.

Fall in love in the subway, in a gallery, in a bar. So much lust and dreams clashing, bumping into each other. The parties, friends gossiping, people jogging at 5am, on Christmas day even, making everyone jealous, old couples ignoring each other at a restaurant.

Sitting in the same café, or maybe a different one. Eavesdropping people talking about their mother, their latest vacation, their aspirations, complaints, gossip, criticism.

Layers of sounds, stories, histories that melt, meet, separate again, never quite belonging to each other.

All the people that make up a city. If no one lived here, would it still earn that title?

Manhattan, Un Americano a Roma, Paris je t’aime, Love Actually, Gotham City, Blade Runner, you’re in a city because you want to be in love. You’re in love with it, with what it could be, with what it isn’t quite. It loves you, rejects you, elevates you, helps you, pushes you forward or away, supports you, allows you to live, to work, to survive, to thrive, to go places, to move on elsewhere, to stay there forever.

The city and its ins and outs. In it, under a roof, in a museum, a factory, an apartment building, a council estate. People stacked on top of each other, never more than 3m apart.The patina of the out, the graffiti, the architecture, the heights of it.

The city where everyone is from everywhere else. It’s constantly trying to be what those people want from a home, made up of foreign words, made up of nostalgia of where they came from and where they are now. Could be anywhere but its here, a patchwork that makes no sense, that doesn’t belong to one time, but every year and every decade is written in brick, in cement, in iron, in wires.

The view. Always the view. You own the city and it owns you. The birds constantly watching over you.

Lights, signage, flickering.I am in a city that I don’t know but recognise. Yellow, blues, greens, black, white, movement, music playing next door. Posters, ads, all telling me what I should care about right now. I glance away, ignoring the glow of information, I’m too busy crossing the street.

Walking. Sense of scale, sense of how long it takes me to get to the end of the block, the end of the line, the end of town. When does the city stop exactly? When there is less? How much less? How much more? I’m going everywhere, and nowhere. Slow things down by walking. Let the scale hit me, look up. Look at how tall it all feels.

Know where you live and where to eat

In order to force myself in taking a vacation, (the last time was 2003 which involved a trip backpacking in Spain with my best friend at the time. Unfortunately our friendship never recovered but that’s another story.) I’ve been wasting time trying to find the good places to enjoy significantly fantastic food in the UK. So I’ve essentially been hand-Googling the references from a weekend special edition of the Independant that I simply can’t find online. My intention is to mash it up with the Guardian’s special on Summer Pubs that was published that same weekend. Funnily enough none of this is actually linked or geo-located. I’m pretty sure there’s a much geekier and efficient way of doing this, but it kills the time in the nicest of ways…

Enjoy!


View Les carnets d’Alexandra: UK foodie & drink guide in a larger map

After the Lunch

Lovely poem by Wendy Cope I read in the Underground the other day.

On Waterloo Bridge, where we said our goodbyes,
the weather conditions bring tears to my eyes.
I wipe them away with a black woolly glove
And try not to notice I’ve fallen in love.

On Waterloo Bridge I am trying to think:
This is nothing. you’re high on the charm and the drink.
But the juke-box inside me is playing a song
That says something different. And when was it wrong?

On Waterloo Bridge with the wind in my hair
I am tempted to skip. You’re a fool. I don’t care.
the head does its best but the heart is the boss-
I admit it before I am halfway across.

Viva Italia!

So I'm italian now

One way to level up in European immigration as a foreigner is to have an italian parent (my father in this case) as since the mid 90s Italy recognises citizenship for people with parents or grandparents who were born in Italy. This now means I am pretty much free to live in Europe for the rest of my life if I wanted to which makes me extremely happy and makes customs a total breeze as opposed to a semi frantic experience peppered with little white lies.

Traveltag or how we thought of mapping in 2005

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I dusted this off of the old Ivrea archives and thought of posting it as the plethora of mapping services and geo locative stuff these days still doesn’t seem to have addressed some of the thoughts that Didier and I were having over the spring of 2005.

The idea was simple: if you’re a tourist, you want to build your own map of the city based on your experience and the experiences of people you’re more likely to agree with. Who are those people? Maybe they’re friends, but most likely they’re strangers…how old are they? I’m probably less likely to agree with what a 20 year old finds cool in terms of restaurants than someone in their 30s. Are there any cool events in town that people have taken pics of? What is near me? What is far away? How could I be excited about seeing something based on random pictures taken today or yesterday? What do people mean when they mean Soho or Greenwich? What are the limits of that space? Can I build my own map? My own experience?

Of course at the time, we thought you’d have a “tag” in different venues that would have signed up to a listing service and for each place I tagged, I’d simply swipe my card over this tag….all thoughts rendered useless with the iPhone. The rest are still a set of ideas that are valid and I hope someone explores them further.

PS: All design was made by Didier Hilhost, CSS guru extraordinaire, I worked on the concept idea and wireframes.