Archive for Travel

Simplicity

Les Très Riches Heures du Duc du Berry

Les Très Riches Heures du Duc du Berry

I spent the month of July this year in Paris. In summer, Paris is very exciting with the Fête de la Bastille parade, the Bal des Pompiers, the Tour de France, and many other festivals all happening simultaneously. The city crackles with excitement. Yet with two thousand years of history, what is a little missing in the summer sun are Paris’s subtler sides.

I have a deep love for the quietude and timelessness of Medieval thought. I’ve always admired the multi-panel manuscript Les Très Riches Heures du Duc du Berry for its depiction of simple life…and that blue, blue sky that seems to bear witness to a timelessness now so rare. Part of the book depicts everyday life throughout the year (it’s a book of hours afterall). What I never knew was that in the October panel, the castle is a real one and that it still exists—in part. It is the original Louvre.

Over the centuries this old castle, with its many ardoise turrets, was gradually erased and replaced by successive regimes bent on modernizing it and putting their stamp on it. But in 1989 when excavations were made to build the Carrousel du Louvre (the pyramid), the original Louvre was rediscovered.

One bright and hot day, I followed the self-guided tour that takes you down to the foundations and origins of the Louvre. On the walking tour, you can now walk through the original moat and the substructure of the walls and donjon (keep). There’s nothing much else remaining, just simple stonework, yet my eyes set these stones high against that azure Medieval sky. And stared.

Upstairs, the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, and a thousand other art treasures awaited, and yet I stood mesmerized by these unadorned stones. It’s not what you’re looking at so much as what it evokes.

A Week of Writing, April 30 to May 6

This has been another epic week of writing for me, although some of it won’t appear online just yet. For example, I just wrote an article for Magazine Azur, but its awaiting translation to French so it won’t be published for a few more weeks.

On May 2, 2012, I attended the BCTIA Techbrew event where it was announced that Webtech Wireless was nominated for the Adoption of Technology award. I pre-wrote this blog about the event to which I updated and added photos later that night to be ready for its scheduled release at 5:40 am PST (early enough for eastern readers).

 

Webtech WirelessI found out that the agency that looks after Webtech Wireless’ news releases particularly mentioned the quality of the Quadrant Manager Mobile news release I wrote. I haven’t been writing a lot of their news releases, so that’s great to hear.

 

Magazine AzurStay tuned for an article in Magazine Azur (it’s written and submitted, but not yet published). Two Canadians—one English; one French—experience the trials and triumphs of travelling in the south of France. I wrote the English and my friend and fellow traveller, Sylvie Soucis, is translating it into French. “Où est le &#@* train.”

 

Celebrating Mental Health Week: May 7-13, 2012 describes the loopholes private insurers use to elude quite valid claims from people who pay for private insurance.

 

 

May is the Month of Motor Safety is another timely blog post based on a recent news release from the Vancouver Police Department’s announcement that it will be targeting dangerous drivers in May. I go on to warn of the dangers of entirely trusting one’s accident claim to an ICBC Adjuster. AS a public entity doing the work of a private insurer, ICBC is in an ongoing conflict of interest with every claim it settles.

I wrote an article called, Long-Term Disability Claims: A Cross-Country Check, which highlights stories across Canada affecting those with long-term disabilities. I didn’t know there was a Rick Hansen coin?

A One-Float Parade

Yesterday, I came upon a one-float parade making its way through afternoon traffic in downtown Menton, France. It appeared to have no fixed direction (although it led us to the beach with its seaside restaurants and shops). For me, it represented a lively example of what a small group of people—about five in this case—can do to bring playfulness and happiness to a city.

One-float parade - Menton

Living life like a whole parade sounds expensive, and excessive; like a one-man parade, lonely and perhaps lunatic; but a one-float parade with close friends—just right.
Happy holidays friends,
Jason

Complaining 101 – How to Get Results

Here's what I'd hoped for...

Did you ever notice how optimism can turn to disappointment and then to anger? Yesterday as I was playing in the sun with several semi-feral kittens, I let my mind wander and I suddenly observed the distinct thresholds that brought me to lodge a complaint at my hotel.

When I first saw my room, I just laughed. It was like a student dormitory, but it didn’t matter. This hotel serves the French school where I’m learning French, so there are a lot of twenty-something students around and the atmosphere is decidedly informal. But when informal crossed the line into incompetent, the problems started mounting:

  • I asked to have my shower fixed three times with no action from management.
  • Although I’d been promised a WIFI connection (a necessity for staying in connection with my Vancouver clients), it frequently didn’t work or the connection was so slow it was like being thrown back into distant 1994.
  • With no notice, the management of the hotel tore apart the ceiling in the corridor leading to my room, leaving wires and dangling lights in the way.
  • While I expected a certain amount of partying, it didn’t occur to me that some students would selfishly party all night long on a school night at the expense of sleep for everybody less inclined to party (and then miss classes themselves the next day to catch up on sleep).
  • My room was close to the shared kitchen where noisy students tended to gather and in addition to the noise, a night’s partying left our shared kitchen (already laughably inadequate) filthy—a cochonnerie in fact.
Castel Arabel has clearly seen better days

...Here's what I got.

A few years ago, before I learned how truly counterproductive complaining can be, I think I actually thought complaint was an effective communication tool. When I realized this was not the case, I resolved never to complain again. Now, this untenable situation was backing me into a corner. As a readied myself for class, I pondered the most effective way to complain so that my grievances would be heard and acted upon.

Here’s what I decided:

  • No matter how justified, nobody likes a complainer. When stating the grievance, avoid whining. Whining is a fast ticket to abdicate your power. Instead, clearly explain the problem and the solution you expect to see.
  • Document your complaint. Make sure your facts are straight before you complain, then you don’t find yourself on the defensive.
  • Give people receiving an out—an opportunity to be right; otherwise, they may become defensive.

When I arrived at the school, I sat down with administrator. I simply said I had a problem with Castel Arabel (my hotel) and held up my iPhone with pictures of the filthy kitchen and the disemboweled ceiling. I described my attempts to get my shower fixed and my lack of sleep resulting from the all-night partiers. I then explained my concerns about my friend, Sylvie, coming from Quebec and whether if the problems were not resolved could we expect to be reimbursed should we move to a different hotel? I only used strong words where when he tried to excuse the state of the hotel. I simply said, “No more excuses”. He then offered to call the hotel and speak with its manager.

When I returned to the hotel, my shower was fixed and the manager explained to me that because of the work in the hallway, he’d be moving me to their “de luxe” accommodations for the duration of my stay. I let him save face (it’s much easier for him to apologize for moving me because of the repair work in the hallway than my lengthy list of other complaints). I courteously thanked him for thinking of me and finding me a different room.

après la tempête

Après la tempête - wellbeing restored

All is well now. I can feel my optimism begin to return. I conveyed that I wasn’t going to fly into a rage, I am not a complainer, and I expect results if I do lodge a complaint.

 

Learning French with Dignity

Here’s an excerpt from my travel journal. It doesn’t really fit the business angle I’d intended for this blog, but hey, this is where the humour’s coming from so I’m going with it.

Yesterday, I headed up to Vence (a mountain town close to the coast). There’s a lovely old town there but I really went to have tea with the friends of parents of a friend of mine in Vancouver. How do you like that for 6 degrees of separation? I was concerned that they might be a little French and formal, especially the parents of my friend, who’s but 30, is quite formal—almost regal in his ways. But his parent weren’t and neither were the hosts and it wasn’t long before we all sitting in the study drinking coffee and eating homemade orange merengue (oranges courtesy of the neighbour’s orange trees) and having a roaringly fun time.

The hosts are both visual artists and art collectors so their home is a veritable gallery. Helen is English born, but has lived in the Cote d’Azur since her teens and her husband, Joe, a witty Sicilian has a genius for tending the conversation with word play and other trickery like it was a fire. When I left, my stomach hurt I’d been laughing so hard.

This contrasted strongly with my experience at the French school where I’ve been studying. Maybe, in the greater scheme of things, I’ll conclude that coming here was a really bad idea, but for now, I’m adapting myself to the situation as I go. It’s a little bizarre for me as everybody is about 20 to 25 years younger and not nearly as amusing as the crowd in Vence, who is about 20 years older (okay, maybe 15).

At the school today, I was compelled to join in with our class to sing Jingle Bells in six languages for the faculty. I was the only male singing as all the other classmates were girls. I thought, “how much more humiliating is this going to get?” I’d just bite down on it and endure, and in the end it really wasn’t that bad as everyone was laughing and nobody was really listening to the quality of the music. Just festive fun. Who’s the formal one here?

If the courses weren’t so good, I’d probably complain about the hostel where I’m housed—it’s quite a dump. I’ve been waiting for five days to have my shower fixed, the shared kitchen is filthy and very run down, and the internet barely works at all.

But now my French is so improved I’m comfortably ordering food in restaurants, asking people for directions, and exchanging pleasantries with a high degree of efficiency. Although, today on my walk downtown, I had to go to the washroom really badly and finally simply walked into a cafe to ask to use their WC. In my urgency, all I could come out with was, “Je dois faire les toilettes”, which either doesn’t mean anything at all, or roughly translates into “me make do-do”. Whatever I said, the owner gave me a dead metallic look and just said, “Allez”, which I took to mean “just do your business”, not “get out”.

Using Dropbox on the iPhone

Travel is always fraught with unexpected challenges and my experience is that a small oversight can cartwheel into a major breakdown when in a different country trying to use unfamiliar technologies. Take for example, the train in France.

I reserved my train passage on the TGV from Paris to Antibes with little difficulty, and it was only at the last step—literally—that everything suddenly went very, very wrong.

I had become comfortable with the manual doors on the Paris Metro, but the doors on the TGV were a new adventure. And while I’m on the subject of the Paris Metro, the iPhone app for it is called, “Le Metro Parisien”, and it’s one of the best apps around (if you’re comfortable with directions in French), particularly because it works as well offline as on. You simply enter your start and finish station and it walks you through the steps to get there.

When the train stopped at Antibes—a whistle mere stop—I pressed the button to open the door and nothing happened. In my halting French, I asked several old French ladies on the train trying to open the door, but we couldn’t open it. Two minutes later, then train departed Antibes with me still on it bound for Nice.

In Nice, I was able to catch a train back to Antibes, but I’d missed my pickup. This is when another small problem became a large one. I’m missed my pickup in Antibes by this time, so I opened Dropbox on my iPhone to check the hotel information and, to my horror, the confirmation files weren’t viewable.

I was using Dropbox on my iPhone to read PDF versions of bookings and other travel information. I’d never checked, but files only open in Dropbox offline, if they’re been viewed online. I hadn’t bothered to get roaming wifi or a European phone account, so I found I couldn’t even read my hotel information. Fortunately, I could boot  up my laptop in the train station and read the files there offline. It’s always good to have multiple failsafes and lots of redundancy.

I told myself not to panic—even when I thought I’d have to book into another hotel for my first night in Antibes—and in the end, panic wouldn’t have helped. The entire ordeal lasted no more than 1 1/2 hours, including the little trip to Nice and back.

Braving Paris—by Bicycle (Part I)

Ever since George Gershwin penned his rhapsody to Paris, An American in Paris, with its car horns and street chaos vividly set to music, we’ve believed that Paris would not be the place for a non-Parisian to drive, much less cycle. Fast forward to the 21st century with the environment and the economy spinning out of control, and cycling here looks much more attractive. Gone is the traffic chaos—wrong. It’s still there, perhaps more so, but now there are many more advantages to the drawbacks for experienced urban cyclists.

Cycling in Paris – Are You Ready?

If you find Vancouver cycling harrowing, this article is not for you. This article is for the intrepid cyclist who’d like to experience the City of Lights using the lightest for of transport—the bicycle. Here, I’ll describe how to use Velib’, the city-wide bicycle service that is easy to use (with a few tips I learned) and very, very cheap.

Velib’ introduced a municipal service a few years ago that has become popular with Parisians. You’ll see the distinctive solid-built cyclists used by everyone—business men, shoppers, students, lovers, and intrepid tourists like me.

Velib’s Usability Challenges

Setting up a pass at the Velib’ stop near my hotel turned out to be very difficult, and it wasn’t a language difficulty. After several attempts to understand its lexicon, I finally asked a very helpful Parisian who, not understanding it himself, called Velib’ headquarters and we finally got it working. There are several design flaws that make it hard to use. This is what I found:

  • Velib’ is designed for local users who buy year-long passes. One can buy a one-day or six-day pass, but it’s very difficult—even locals can’t figure it out.
  • The self-serve kiosk by the bikes has input on one side and a screen with directions on the other. This means you have to jump around to follow its logic.
  • The other language options don’t carry through, so even when I started in English, the machine seems to forget my language choice and part way through, revert to French. In the end, I gave up on English and used the French. At least it’s consistent.
  • The procedure times out too quickly. After keying my way through five screens, I’m presented with a policy screen to read (in French), which times out before I through it. I have to start again.
  • Occasionally, it just doesn’t work for any apparent reason. I learned a lot about patience with this machine.

Taking a Bicycle

My suggestion is that you buy your pass on their web site. It’s easy to use. You can buy a six-day or one-day pass and it provides you with the code you’ll need to sign out a bicycle. Armed with a code, the kiosk is very easy to use (really):

  1. Enter the code it provided.
  2. Enter the four-character passcode you set up on the web site.
  3. Accept responsibility for the bicycle. Press V which stands of valider, not voila! as I’d imagined.
  4. Enter the number of the bicycle you want (I always start by checking a bicycle’s tires and brakes and memorizing the number of the one I prefer. In Velib’ parlance, a broken bicycle is identified by turning the seat backwards).
  5. Press the button at the stand of the selected bicycle and pull it back—hard. Sometimes they’re sticky.
  6. Allez! Remember, your first half hour is free so off you go.

Getting around Paris

As I stated earlier, cycling in Paris is not for the faint of heart, but take heart, it is very doable. Here are some tips that I learned to stay safe.

  • The first time you take a bicycle, make navigation and cycling your first priority. Save sightseeing until you get more comfortable. For me, it took a couple of days.
  • Follow the rules of the road. Don’t run red lights and so forth. In Paris, you don’t know what direction traffic comes from (scooters out of alleyways, trucks parked on the bike path—it’s madness.
  • Some one-way streets (but not all) allow cyclist to cycle against the traffic (watch for sauf cyclists – except cyclists) on the one-way signs.
  • Parisians tend to follow the spirit of the law, rather than us who follow the letter of the law. This is why you’ll sometimes see motorcyclists on sidewalks and trucks parked on the cycle routes. Other than going a half block up a one-way street that doesn’t permit cyclists to do so, I was pretty strict with the laws.
  • Part of the chaos of Paris streets comes from motor cycles and scooters. They fly around you and force their way in at any opportunity. As a cyclist, you need to be almost as aggressive if you want to get anywhere. This doesn’t contradict my previous obey-all-laws commandment. Paris drivers are a lot more aggressive—it’s expected. If you’re too timid, you’ll be out of flow with the traffic and Paris traffic is all about flow—that’s what the spirit of the law is about.

The bells on the Velib’ bicycles are a joke—nobody could possibly hear you. Be prepared to call out in French. Here’s my cycling vocabulary:

  • Pardon – please make room for me or sorry for what I just did.
  • Attendez! – Wait! I’m coming through
  • Attention! – Watch out!
  • Merci – Thanks

Next post…Velib’ in Paris II

Securing your iPhone (and self) on the road

A few days ago, I was enjoying un petit-déjeuner in a café at Place Stravinsky (Beaubourg beside The Pompidou Centre), when a group of six 12-year-old Roma (gypsy) girls tried to steal my iPhone. It’s a common trick they use, which usually catches the tourists—like me—off guard.

The girls all came together in a rush into the cafe holding documents for us to read. At first I thought they were soliciting for some charity and I said “no”—three times. What I didn’t notice with the girl at my table—who was very agressive—was that she’d moved the paper over my iPhone I’d just placed on the table. While I was looking her in the eyes, she snatched my phone from under the paper. After they’d left, I looked down and couldn’t remember if my phone had been on the table or still in my jacket. Fortunately, I noticed quickly enough and, with the help of two waiters, we caught two of the girls and called the police. Eventually, we all went for a ride across town to L’hotel de Police.

I have my iPhone back in my hands and have taken extra caution to ensure that, if it falls into the wrong hands, the data is protected:

iPhone settingsWhen my iPhone was snatched, the security was turned off. I’d turned it off while taking photos in Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. I don’t want to say how much valuable information was on my iPhone, but it was pretty much tantamount to stealing my wallet. I’ve now turned on the Passcode Lock and I manually lock the phone even while I’m holding it. Otherwise, it’s buried deep in my pocket unless I specifically need it for something.

I have two apps that are good even if I hadn’t used the OS settings to lock it.

The first is called Find iPhone, which allows me to find (on a map), lock, and even wipe all data remotely using a web browswer. It is native to the iPhone interface, but you need an iCloud account set up to work it properly.

My iPhone foundHad I not acted more quickly, I could have used a computer to log in, find my iPhone on a map, and hopefully send the police to retrieve it. At right is a screen shot of my iPhone found using a web interface. It remains to be seen whether police could do anything with this information as it only points to the building in which there are at least 25 apartments.

I also downloaded the highly recommended paid app, My Folder, which I thought would be more useful, but I think it’s designed for deceitful couples intent on hiding information from each other. Even the icon is designed to look like a private folder to lure your jealous partner into opening it—upon which it takes a photo of the intruder and sends its coordinates.

My Folder doubles the functions of Find iPhone in other respects so I don’t think this one’s necessary—at least not for me.

Now, I’m much more careful with my phone and I also have a money belt. It’s not that Paris is unsafe or that I’m paranoid; it’s just that I’ve realized how disadvantaged I’d be trying to manage without these key items so far from home.

Yesterday, while enjoying the view of the Eiffel Tower from the Grande Palais (a popular tourist hang out), a dark eyed woman offered me a gold ring she “found” at my feet. I didn’t accept it at first, but when I did, she immediately began asking me for money “un peu pour manger” she begged. I turned the tables on her by asking a passing couple if they were the owners of the ring and they, knowing better, turned on her. Wahoo, I’m getting street wise in Paris.

Five In-The-Cloud Tools for the Successful Corporate Blogger

In preparation for my new life as an itinerant corporate web writer, blogging my way through Europe, I need to ensure that I have all my cloud resources in place before I leave. Fortunately, I have a plethora of tools that help me keep track of information, track my time and expenses, stay on top of writing trends, and so forth.

Here are my top-five cloud tools:

Dropbox Store your files where you can retrieve them from anywhere. You can also invite others to share specified folders and work on files with no need to upload or download files. A must for anyone on the move.
Evernote This is similar to Dropbox except that instead of saving entire files, it allows you to save key pieces of information. I use Evernote because it syncs effortlessly with Awesome Note on my iPhone so I can check travel arrangements or simply drop in thoughts for later.
Mint.com Aggregate all your finance information into one place. This doesn’t allow you to conduct transactions; it’s designed to help you if you have multiple accounts or credit cards so you can get an overview of all transactions. I use this on a daily basis to check that all is well.
CMOS The Chicago Manual of Style online is a great resource for writers. It provides all the information you’ll need for grammar, word usage, styles, citations, and more.
Visual Thesaurus I use this excellent resource to help me brainstorm words visually. Enter a word and it shows homonyms, synonyms, antonyms…the works as a branched infographic that you can click through until you find just the right word.

 

3 Steps to Planning Your Corporate Blog

In my first post on this subject, I described how I re-organized my life to become a world traipsing corporate blogger. It’s forward looking as I haven’t flown the coop yet, but soon I will be in France writing for my clients back here in Vancouver. How is this possible? Research, planning, communication.

I need to get up to speed on disability claims and liability in an area where I know little. How am I going to do it? Here is what I’ve learned so far:

  1. Get connected – there are lots of online resources I can draw from. For example, LinkedIn has great groups on the very subject I’m suddenly interested in—legal blogging. I’ve joined a few groups and I’m reading the content and making notes about what I find.
  2. Get organized – this is no place to be disorganized. I’ve used my standard timetracking software to track my time and plan ahead. I use Excel, but you can try Billing Boss, because it also allows you to invoice your clients.
  3. Set up subject matter alerts – there are a few questions here, but what you need are some keywords that you can use to create some effective news alerts in Google. When you know the best words (I’ll blog about that soon), go to Google News and enter them. At the bottom of the results screen, click Create an email alert for [your keywords] and follow the prompts.

Lest this blog get to be too dry, here’s an inspiring quote for all concerned: “Cherish your visions and your dreams as they are the children of your soul; the blueprints of your ultimate achievements.”
— Napoleon Hill