The best things in life are near

I just came back from a sort of really stupid back and forth on 6 eurostars in the space of a week…but the friends i got to see again, the meals i got to eat and the events I attended made this a really beautiful week, with the real satisfaction of just traveling by train. The level of exhaustion is really quite different than if i had taken planes.

I hardly had any internet access, haven’t opened my rss reader in weeks and generally enjoying doing some real thinking about my current adventure. I need to do this more often.

I hope you’ll excuse me for the lack of new content, in light of this…I’ll come up with something witty soon, I swear!

Sugar-coated city: the real Singapore

I’m writing this, half thinking I should probably wait to leave the country.

Walking through Singapore, you cannot but wonder who really lives here. Impeccable streets (and I really mean impeccable, not a single piece of rubbish on any lawn or anywhere), very little public space or street benches, ads on the telly about parental planning, and an airconed shopping mall at every corner. The shops are owned by business owners like the best money lender in Singapore, bankers, law offices, etc.

A friend of mine called it “the most american city in Asia” and I think that’s probably true in the 1984 sense of the word America.

The Wikipedia page is strangely absent of any political history section and Google reeks of not so happy reports on what the situation might be like and how people have been taught to feel about it. I met a few people this weekend who went to jail or had been arrested for what seemed like quite foolish reasons.

All slightly unsettling. I leave tomorrow evening.

If you’re going to San Francisco…


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A by-product of traveling so much as a child was that I ended up learning English in an American schoolin Kuwait and have never been able to shake off the middle of the road accent that came with it. This makes for interesting conversations with bewildered Americans who can’t believe I’m Canadian and that my mother tongue is actually French. Perhaps that’s what I resent the most when I travel to the US: I can blend in so perfectly. I’m used to sticking out like a sore thumb in Europe and there’s something nice about that, it keeps me eager to learn about local flavours and let them rub off on me.

I’m also the first to admit that I greet everything American with an unhealthy dose of cynicism which would explain why an 8 day trip to San Francisco wasn’t exactly something I was looking forward to (11h flight from London, argh). Everyone around me, especially Matt, has always been a big fan claiming that SF and NYC “weren’t like the rest of America” and were much more European. In hindsight, I would have settled for “nice” instead and let the city impress me on its own for what it was. Here are a few random suggestions of things you might not have accounted for:

1. IT GETS COLD
“Due to its sharp topography and maritime influences, San Francisco exhibits a multitude of distinct microclimates. “

There’s a little phenomenon called fog that somehow people forget to mention. Huge and fluffy fog rolling down from the top of the city’s hills downward, lowering the temperature dramatically in mid-afternoon. Doesn’t matter if it’s mid-July, it’ll get cold, trust me. Bring layers.

2. RENT A CAR
The city is essentially made to be driven through, most blocks being quite short and interrupted by 4 lane, 2 way streets, making the number of interactions with cars quite frequent. Biking isn’t out of the question, but the rolling hills are really steep, so a car comes in handy if you want to see more than your neighbourhood. If you don’t rent a car, expect to spend your time hailing taxis or mostly looking for them. Ever since we used this chauffeur service in Dubai, we have become self proclaimed experts at hailing and directing taxis. Having the exact address of where you’re going to helps as taxi drivers don’t need to know the city very well to get a license and you’ll get the odd n00b who will charge you 40 dollars because he got lost.

3. DON’T STAY DOWNTOWN
“Nestled between successful commercial areas and high priced residential areas, parts of the Tenderloin have historically resisted gentrification, maintaining a seedy character and reputation for crime.”

Unlike most cities, the area which one might assume is the most touristy, is adjacent to a poverty and crime ridden area that will make any Parisian suburban ghetto look like a walk in the park. Stay in Hayes Valley or in the Mission.

4. GET A COMPLETE MAP OF THE CITY
Somewhat related to the point above, the city’s downtown area is actually not the most interesting, and the nice walkable parts of the city are a little more southward.

5. GET A COFFEE AND CHECK YOUR EMAIL
This is of course the best wifi-friendly place by far but be prepared to have to sit in a caffé to have access to it. Not that many consumption-free environments in general. Some cities are good at public space (benches, parks, etc), this isn’t one of them.

6. DON’T LOOK FOR ONE STYLE
From winding streets, 40 degree hills, silli cake-like art-deco mansions and refurbished cinemas, this city has been influenced by many an earthquake, fire and economic ups and downs, making every street a different and totally unexpected experience.

Fighting the war against terror by blowing air up your shirt

Just went through 2 “secondary security” checks at San Francisco airport today and got introduced to this delightful contraption.

“To collect microscopic particles for analysis, the EntryScan3 takes advantage of a natural upward airflow around the body called the “human convection plume.” By not using forced airflow from a fan-which stirs up dust and other contaminants-cleaner samples are collected.”

What this means is that you walk into this box with glass doors on one end and without warning they will spray you with air quickly and at every angle. Not only is it really scary and unexpected, but you also get the added pleasure of having it blow your shirt upwards… not usually what you’re looking for from a security device.

Gotta love the US.

Feeling safe in airports

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Coming back from a trip to Israel reminded me about what it used to be like to commute to and from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the 90s when I was young. There’s lot of stuff about sur and sousveillance and much digital ink has been spilt on the subject of security and fear, but airport interactions in 2008 either make you feel safe, afraid, frustrated or bored. From the long cues at Heathrow where you really feel you are wasting your time and might never see your luggage again, to the other end of the spectrum, embodied by my experience with  El Al.

The whole thing started because I was late. The truth is I hate flying long-haul as I get completely bored and usually drive Matt insane after a few hours. Living and traveling around Europe, I never usually have to deal with that particular issue as most flight last under 2 hours. A glorified bus.

After a number of poor timing and transportation decisions around London, I showed up at the El Al counter an hour before the flight. I immediately knew I was in trouble as the young assistants (one seemed to be about 19) started questioning me quite thouroughly: “Where are you going in Israel”, “Who do you know there”, “How long have you known them”, “Where did you study”, “What do you do”. This didnt feel like anything you’d get out of the Ryanair staff. The young women (there were 3 of them at that point) were looking at me quite intently as if they had already made up their mind that I was a danger to their airline and by extention, their country. There was absolutely no agressive behaviour, the tone of voice was not raised, but the suspicion lay under the surface. They then proceeded to put my luggage (I hadn’t checked in at that point you must remember) through an x-ray machine larger than your average kitchen. Something in my laptop bag disturbed one of the young women and she asked for it to be scanned at least 5 other times. My check-in luggage was then carefully put on a table, as one of the other young women proceeded to ask me more questions about where I had lived and tell me a bit about her own travel, opened, all carefully packed items removed one by one, inspected and swabbed for explosives.

I settled into a state I can only describe as submissive as my future clearly lay in their hands.

They then proceeded to tell me that my hand luggage would be waiting for me at the gate (this implied they didnt want me to add anything to it before I got into the plane) and that I had to get to the gate as fast as possible (ie “run Alex run”) because the flight was leaving soon. So with little other than my passport, boarding pass and iPod, I sprinted through El Al’s dedicated security line guarded by a policeman (soldier?) holding a machine gun.
I ran like my life depended on it across the terminal only to get to the gate and have to go through body search and x-ray all over again. At that point it was clear the flight had been delayed, so panting and coughing, I relaxed at last.
I guess at the time I booked my tickets, I had wanted to make it a more authentic experience and never thought I would get in the plane with respect for a country and a company I had never encountered before. Safety and security at it’s most literal level.

Shalom

I’m in Tel Aviv. My nose is sun-burnt. It’s warm all the time. First vacation since backpacking in Spain in 2003 which was also the last time I went for a swim in the sea. Yes, yes, 4 days isn’t exactly long enough, but I take what I can get.
Note to self: should do this more often.

6 Things to remember once you move to London

1. London doesn’t want you here, which is why the weather is always shit. It’s your job to carry an umbrella at ALL TIMES. Even on those sunny-looking days. It’s a trick, don’t lt it get you.

2. Always remember to comment on how shit the weather is, it’ll make you agreeable to the locals.

3. If you’re Canadian, when accused of being American, enjoy those few moments of embarrassment the person will go through, while finding a reason they really loooove Canada and have been skiing there once.

4. London still doesn’t want you here, which is why it’ll try driving you off the sidewalk by put half of its inhabitants in your way on Oxford Street. You need to develop an equally agressive and fast pace and directional skills usually required for video games.

5. Alcohol is social glue here. If you don’t want to become a functional alcoholic, and antisocial, make sure to pay for the next round, but leave enough in your glass to not end up drinking at everyone’s pace. (Remember, glasses are larger here as well so when they serve you a “large glass” of wine, that’s actually a quarter of a bottle.)

6. You are here  because you WANT to be here, not because the quality of life is high, believe me it isn’t .