Monday, November 23, 2009

Giving Up the Quilted Community

Technology's making it easier than ever to build a patchwork Christian community of friends and mentors from the past. But effective faith requires a present context, so in this age of transience, we've got to overcome our fear of new faces.

Sometimes I drive home from work earlier than usual or go in a little late. The latter happens much more often than the former, as my wife can attest, but either way the result is the same when the context changes: The world looks different.

In the thick of winter, I've grown accustomed to darkness on my 6:30 p.m. commute, so darting home during sunlight hours sometimes reveals a food shop or a tire repair center that I've passed each day but never noticed. On those days I feel like a foreigner in my own apartment complex. Everyone who gets off work at 5 is out and about, grabbing mail, walking dogs, taking strolls, even moving in.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ending the Drought - 1 New Post, 2 New Songs

Wow. This blog has been fallow for way too long. A few months ago I posted on Twitter the fact that I should probably remove the word "blogger" from my profile in an effort toward truthfulness. The truth is, today marks a terrible inverted milestone that really hurts what little credibility I had as a blogger in the first place: It has been long three months since the last post here.

There is some good news in all this for the few folks out there who are into my music. My absence from the blogosphere hasn't been totally unproductive. Amid my ongoing work as a reporter and trips to South Korea, Maine, Costa Rica, Texas and Mississippi, I've been able to grind out two new songs.

Well, I say "new," but again, I should be truthful. It's evident by the subject matter of these songs that they were written quite awhile ago, but their journey from pen to paper to performance to recording has moved at a snail's pace. They both deal with times before I was married. Katy and I just celebrated our two-year anniversary in June, which should give you a clue as to how long it's been since I laid down some new tracks.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

How to Navigate Seoul's Metro System

I might as well have been looking at the control panel for a NASA space shuttle when I stared down a subway kiosk on the outskirts of Washington D.C.

It didn't take much to confuse me at this point. On Wednesday, a 13-hour flight had brought me home from South Korea. On Thursday, we packed up and left Atlanta for D.C. During the all-night drive, my jet lag was an advantage: The 2 a.m. to 7 a.m. shift? No problem.

But now it was Friday. Sleep-deprivation had caught up with me. And if the fatigue wasn't enough to muddle my brain, the puzzle of buttons, fare charts, digital instructions, money receptacles and receipt dispensers on the D.C. metro kiosk finished the job.

I wasn't the only one struggling. At 10 a.m., travelers were already pouring into town for Fourth of July celebrations. Everyone who arrived at the Greenbelt station needed instructions, and they looked haplessly to a lone attendant who, judging by his palpably annoyed state, had spent his entire morning dealing with ignorant tourists.

In the end, I left with two tickets in hand, one each for my wife and me, but the process wasn't easy. First I had to find the reduced holiday rate on the chart above the kiosk. Then I had to select a pass or single fare card. Next I had to choose the quantity of fare cards and the value of each. The machine's configuration was mind-numbing. With no automation, I had to add up the total fare in my head. And there were no numbered buttons. The fare simply started at $20.00, and I had to use what looked like a white plastic light switch to toggle all the way down to $4.70.

At this point, I really began to miss South Korea.

Compared to D.C.'s, the metro system in Seoul is a breath of fresh air. English is available at all kiosks, most of which have bright, intuitive touchscreens that make the ticket-buying process quite simple. In Korea, I could recheck the destination on my map, write down some notes, buy the ticket, retrieve my change and head to the turnstile faster than I could figure out how to simply work the machine in Washington.

Of course, your ability to navigate any subway will be directly related to prior experience. If you've never negotiated the pulsating, bullish crowds, the labyrinthine tunnels, the oft-confounding ticketing systems, your first time will likely be more of a crash course than a joyride. I've ridden subways in Hong Kong, Paris, Shanghai, D.C. and Atlanta, and the experience undoubtedly helped me in Seoul.

With more preparation, Korea would've been even easier, so I'm offering a few words of advice for those who might be planning a trip. I'm no expert, so more experienced folks, please feel free to correct or augment what follows.

Getting on

Seoul proper has nearly 11 million people, and the city claims that about half South Korea's population - more than 24 million - live in or commute to its metro area. Those numbers prove that the moving around this city will mean trial by fire for the first-time subway rider.

It sounds simple, but I've found that half the battle is knowing where you're going and being prepared. I recommend grabbing a metro map at the airport and studying the 10 lines during the hour-long bus ride into Seoul from the airport in Incheon. That way you'll at least have an idea how to hit the ground running upon arriving at the hotel. I really don't have any tips on how to best read a subway map. It's mostly just instinct, experience and most importantly, attention to detail.

Find the nearest subway station to your hotel. Any will do, but if you're at a confluence of different lines, consulting a map first could help you pick a line with a quicker route to your final stop.

With your destination in mind, stroll up to the kiosk. If you're an English speaker, you'll have no problem seeing the ENG button at the bottom of the screen, a stark sight in a sea of Korean. I'm assuming if you're reading this you're an English speaker, but just note that Korean and English are the only two languages offered at the kiosks. I saw some Japanese girls and a Chinese couple having to use English to select their destination on the digital screen, although the paper map I got from the airport listed stops in Chinese and Japanese.

After you select English, you'll have to choose what type of fare you want. I chose "single journey" every time, although if I were staying longer I could've loaded up a T-money card. Even buying single fares, the metro is considerably cheaper than in most American cities. It cost me just a little more than a dollar for a one-way fare that allowed me to traverse the city.

Once you've tapped a ticket type, many of the most popular stops will flash up on the screen. If yours doesn't appear, click the letter(s) the stop's name begins with, and an alphabetical list will come up. You're not bound to this particular stop if you change your mind during the ride. The machine just uses your stop to calculate your fare. If you disembark at a different destination, make a visit to the clearly labeled "fare adjustment machine" to pay what you owe or get your change, whatever the case may be.

Note also that your fare will include a 500-won deposit to cover the cost of the orange metro card in case you don't return it. After you get off, make sure to take your card to the "Deposit Refund Device." Slide it into the slot, and take the 500-won coin that drops down into the coin return. While 500 won doesn't seem like much - it's less than USD $0.50 - the cost adds up after double-digit subway rides. Get in the habit of getting your deposit back, and it won't be a problem.

Finding Direction

After scanning your newly acquired orange fare card and passing through the turnstile, the next order of business is to figure out which way to go. This is crunch time. Deciding which train will mean the difference between being late or on time. It's tough at first, because the Seoul metro maps and signs don't give you cardinal directions like east or west. They list a smattering of stops pointed toward each of the lines moving in opposite directions.

I devised a sort of scheme to deal with this. The ideal situation is to see your stop on the sign, but that won't happen if you're transferring down the line or getting off at a lesser-known stop. This is another reason it's important to have a map handy. You'll have to match the unfamiliar words on the sign with the unfamiliar words on the map to see which ones correlate with the direction of your final stop. This is one of the toughest parts of navigating the metro, as the choice between one direction and another often must be made in a split second with people rushing, tones blaring and doors sliding shut. Not to mention that the names on the signs, though transliterated, can sometimes begin to look and sound the same to foreign eyes and ears.

And now to my non-foolproof system: I quickly check my destination on my map and scan for the next and last stops in that direction. I also look for any potential landmarks in between. Stadiums, shopping districts, universities and tourist sites all generally make the cut.

The Ride

So you're through the sliding doors, out of the stifling heat that hangs in the subway corridors and into the quiet, air-conditioned comfort of the train. And hopefully you've picked the train moving in the right direction.

Now what? If it's not crowded, slide into a seat, but be sure not to take one of those designated for the elderly.

Once you're seated, the ride is pretty easy. Just don't expect many people to talk to you. I had a few benevolent souls speak to me, but mostly I just kept to myself. Others will be doing the same. For the most part, everyone will be engrossed in whatever content their cell phone is feeding them at the time: TV, texting, conversation, Web surfing. It's all on the table. And the people who aren't engaging in one of those activities are holding the phone in their hand, poised to pounce at the next chance for conversation.

Memorize your stop and its corresponding number, and you can chill a little, especially if it's a long way away. Announcements in English and Korean, along with a festive little recorded song, warn passengers as each stop approaches. It's smooth sailing from here, but keep checking the maps as you pass each stop. Leaving mental breadcrumbs will help build a map in your head that will make this process easy to replicate on the way back.

Getting out

Getting out of the subway isn't hard. Mostly you just follow the signs that say "Way Out" in English.

But picking the right way can be tricky. Subway stops often double as underground crosswalks. Exits are numbered, and each one will usually spit you out on one of the four corners created by intersection. The key again is to know ahead of time which way you need to walk once you get above ground. If you know that as well as the appropriate road to follow, convenient maps on the wall will help you find your way.

Other issues:

1. Dealing with crowds - Like most Asian countries, the violent crime rate in Korea is pretty low. But just because you likely won't get mugged, don't assume that you won't get robbed. Without being paranoid, be aware that valuables are called such for a reason. Take care of them. Keep bags in front of you, and watch out when the crowds really begin to press in.

2. Entertainment - There are actually lots of things to do on the subway if you're creative. My favorite? Watch people. Also you can watch TV on the phone of the person sitting next to you. Read or take notes. Study your map. Notice the personalities of the different subway stops. Count the number of people talking on cell phones.

There's always the occasional alms-seeking entertainer, too. At one stop, I saw a South American guy playing an assortment of flutes from the Andes and selling his CDs. On one train, a blind man walked through with an outstretched hand, playing "Take it to the Lord in Prayer" on a harmonica.

3. More Resources - This isn't the definitive guide. The Korea Tourism Web site has some great information that I haven't covered. More resources are linked below:

-Apps with maps - Seoul metro on your iPhone or iPod touch
-Interactive map with all major Korean cities' metro lines
-Click the Seoul metro map above to see a full-size version

Video of Andean flute player:

Anybody out there got any words of wisdom, disagreements to add?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Uighur Watching

The world's spotlight is now on China's wild northwest, where ethnic tensions came to a head last week in a conflict that left nearly 200 dead and thousands injured in the city of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province.

The tragic events have given me some clarity. While backpacking through the region in summer 2006, I was detained and interrogated five different times by police. With another example of the region's volatility, I have a little bit better idea why.

Xinjiang is the ancestral homeland of nearly 10 million Uighurs, Turkic-speaking Muslims who make up about half of the region's population. Although the province is officially known as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, the minority Uighurs have expressed resentment over increasing Han encroachment on what they see as their territory, known as East Turkestan to those bold enough to promote the region's autonomy.

The Han Chinese have been migrating into Xinjiang over the last several years to seize opportunities in the resource-rich region. The central government has enacted policies and programs encouraging this westward expansion, some say in an effort to dilute Uighur influence and exert more control over the region. The Han are China's largest ethnic group, making up about 90 percent of the country's population. Uighurs have complained that the benefits of economic development in the province - which makes up about a sixth of China's landmass - haven't been fairly shared.

China has had more than a few reminders that Xinjiang is a stick of dynamite waiting to be lit. Last year, two of Uighur assailants ambushed a Chinese police unit in the border town of Kashgar, killing 16 a month before the Beijing Olympic Games. (News reports called into question the validity of the official account)

Last week's spark occurred when a group of Uighurs - some put the number at nearly 1,000 - gathered to express dissatisfaction for Chinese government inaction in the killing of two Uighur workers by Han Chinese during a brawl at a factory in faraway Guangdong province. The Urumqi protests grew violent when Chinese police tried to disperse the crowd.

After the Uighurs ran wild, thousands of Han sought revenge and took to the streets with sticks, knives and other implements. When the dust settled, more than 180 people were dead, most of them Han, according to Chinese government propaganda. Uighur activists claim that hundreds of Uighurs were shot and killed during the police backlash. The Chinese government has not confirmed that, nor will it. The latest figures put the number arrested for their roles in the riots at 1,400, and some are reporting that Uighur men are being rooted from their homes.

The Chinese government would like nothing more than to pin this on "separatist" elements. In fact, foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang has already blamed Rebiya Kadeer, the world's foremost Uighur activist, for fomenting the unrest. Last year, during the assault on the Chinese police patrol, the government played the "terrorist" card, saying that those who committed the acts must've been Islamic extremists.

Perhaps because of their Islamic beliefs and relative obscurity, the Uighurs' cause has not been celebrated as heartily as that of Tibetans and other oppressed peoples. The Chinese government says that it gives Uighurs ample opportunities. Uighurs feel disenfranchised. I have to say that if not for my experiences in Xinjiang, I might be tempted to believe the Xinhua (Chinese state media) version of events.

But this conflict runs pretty deep, and it has a political root, as most so-called "ethnic" conflicts do. The Qing dynasty conquered Xinjiang in the 1870s, and since then the Uighurs have mounted a variety of struggles - bombings, shootings, rebellions and demonstrations - to shirk Chinese rule. In the 1940s, they succeeded for five short years, when the East Turkestan Republic blossomed as the Communist and Nationalist forces were battling for control of the mainland. When Mao Ze Dong came to power in 1949, he sent the People's Liberation Army to bring the western provinces back under Chinese control. The Uighurs submitted without a fight.

The Chinese government issued a report in 2002 blaming Uighurs for 200 separate terrorist incidents during the first few years of 21st century. The claim was made the year after 9/11, when President Bush laid down America's "for-us-or-against-us" gauntlet with regard to the fight against terrorism. China quickly sided with the U.S., stating its commitment to quelling terrorist activities within its borders. But some think that China’s claim of allegiance to the U.S.-led war against terror is a façade meant to legitimize the brutal suppression of anti-Chinese sentiments in Xinjiang. When Uighur prisoners got out of the Guantanamo Bay prison facilities last month, the U.S. would not repatriate them to China for fear they would be killed or harassed. Instead, the small Pacific island nation of Palau and the Atlantic island of Bermuda took the Uighurs in, with much backlash from their populations.

The bottom line in all this is that the Chinese government wants economic control of the northwest. The Uighurs want more autonomy, less encroachment. It's sad to say, but despite the best efforts for cultural understanding on both sides, these ideologies clash and will inevitably result in friction in the future, much like the tumultuous 20th century. Let's just hope subsequent struggles won't be as fierce as last week's.

More resources:

My recent article on Coke's new bottling plant in Xinjiang

See also: A View of Pre-Olympic Tensions in Xinjiang

Monday, June 08, 2009

Daily Bread Deja Vu

A third short story from one of my Asia mission trips has been posted on the International Mission Board's East Asia field blog.

It's been three years since I went on a mission trip in that part of the world, but God has kept the memories fresh. I hope to continue putting down on paper (or blogs, as the case may be) all the amazing experiences He's allowed me to have.

Click here to check out the story about meeting a friendly face while walking through a rainforest park in southern China.

This post will link you to the other two stories the East Asia blog has published, as well as a chronological list of entries from my 2006 trip.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Lessons from the First Swedish Woman to Climb Everest

It's a rare privilege to talk to some who's summited Everest, rarer still to meet someone that has some superlative attached to their feats on the mountain.

Renata Chlumska, a renowned 36-year-old Swedish adventurer, became the first woman from her country ever to reach the roof of the world in 1999. She was slated to come speak in Georgia two weeks after my Sweden trip, and I was going to interview her in Malmo.

She was headed to Hungary the next day and couldn't make it to meet me, so we spoke by phone instead.

Though Everest is her claim to fame, I found out that her speech was actually going to cover her Around America Adventure in 2005-06, when she kayaked and biked around the perimeter of the lower 48 states. This year is the 10th anniversary of her initial Everest summit, and it's now "old news," she joked.

Adventurers have to tout their accomplishments. It's how they make their living, whether they're motivational speakers whose value is in their unique perspective or expedition leaders who need to brand themselves as trusted guides for extreme outdoor trips. (Chlumska is both.)

What struck me as I talked to her is how she believes that challenges on the mountain are similar to those we face in life, without the blistering cold, physical exhaustion, struggle for oxygen and altitude sickness, of course.

"For me, being tired, going through hardship, when it's painful, your body hurts and you're drained mentally and physically, that's not the reason to turn back. That's just part of the challenge," she told me.

That was so refreshing for my American ears to hear. Our culture worships comfort and ease and values convenience, not discipline.

For Chlumska, overcoming hardship - valuing the destination over the discomfort in getting there - is part of gaining a new perspective that sets you above the crowd.

"You just get a different view when you climb a mountain or hill or tree," she said. " You just get to see a different angle."

It's the same way in faith.

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. -Jesus, Luke 9:23.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

A Southerner in South Sweden

I know I keep saying this, but for someone whose international travel experience is mainly in China, it's really easy to become mesmerized by Europe. That sounds almost counter intuitive, because some would argue that the culture in Europe is so similar to the U.S.

Here's what I mean, though. China's a vast country, almost a continent in its own right, just like the United States. I've traversed it from east to west, examining all kinds of cultures in interior provinces and border regions. But no matter how exotic the locale or how many miles I travel, I'm always in the same country.

Contrast that with Europe, where nations rub elbows with each other. Especially with the EU's paper-thin borders, you can cross with hardly any indication that you've left one country and entered another.

That was my feeling when my Sweden-bound train crossed the Oresund, the strait that separates Sweden and Denmark. Since a bridge linked the two sides about a decade ago, the southern region of Sweden, called Skane, has become tied to Copenhagen's metropolitan area. It makes sense economically, considering the fact that Stockholm is six or seven hours away by train or car.

A Day in Malmo

My first stop was the capital of Skane, a city called Malmo. It has a quarter-million people and lies right on the Oresund. My host, whom I had just contacted on Skype that Sunday morning, would meet me at the Malmo South station. From Copenhagen's center, it was only 15-20 minutes away.

Nils Eric Svensson, an economic development official with quite possibly the most Scandinavian name ever, stood with the hint of a smile on his face as I disembarked. A tall man with piercing blue eyes and some of the biggest hands you've ever seen, I had met him at our office in Georgia over a year ago. We didn't realize it until we finally saw each other. He helped me stuff my bags into his Volvo wagon, which along with the Saab wagon could compete for the title of Sweden's flagship vehicle.

He took me on a driving tour of Malmo. If Nils could be believed, the city was being transformed by an emphasis on the knowledge economy, logistics and environmental technologies. We passed a huge new IKEA facility, a new subway tunnel under construction and a 50,000-seat sports arena on our way to downtown.

As we drove, Nils gave me an abridged look at Malmo's nearly 1,000-year history. The city was established in the 1100s, when what is now southern Sweden was a part of the Danish kingdom. Malmo was originally called "Elbow" because of the shape of the nearby harbor. It has a long maritime history that led to its ascension as a shipbuilding center with a thriving wharf industry earlier in the 20th century. When the construction of ships moved largely to places like South Korea, some of Malmo's large wharfs closed down, leaving thousands jobless and the city with an identity crisis. For Malmo, it was a fork in the road, and from the tale that Nils was spinning, the city chose the right direction. "I've been working in and close to this area for all my time, but I have never experienced a development like we have now," he said.

Many of the wharf buildings, steel factories and old buildings now house companies that make devices for steering ships, clean technology applications, animation for mobile phones and other products that represent an about-face from the city's industrial history. As if to cap the transition, in 2001 construction began on the Turning Torso, a lonely 55-story skyscraper with a unique twisting design. It towers over the harbor and the shorter buildings around it. The Torso replaced the huge Kockums crane that stood as the city's iconic structure in the harbor during the wharf days. On a clear day Nils said it could be seen from 100 kilometers away. Along with the jobs, it too was shipped to South Korea in 2002, symbolizing a clean break with the past.

Where Are They Hiding?

If Malmo had 250,000 people, I wondered where they were hiding. It was a cool, overcast, blustery Sunday, so I assumed many people might be at church or staying indoors. The city was quiet with no semblance of hustle or bustle. Over lunch, Nils said the lack of activity had more to do with the season than religious fervor. In a land dotted with centuries-old churches and universities, not many people make a weekly habit of attending services, he said. It was the beginning of April, and everyone was waiting for the weather to fully change. Then they'd be out in force, walking along the water and taking advantage of the shift from harsh winter to temperate spring.

After lunch in Malmo, Nils drove me up to Lund, an old town with a huge university with a strong research sector that has attracted many high-tech companies. On the way, the green landscape impressed me. We were close to a relatively large city, but the four-lane highway still felt remote. Unlike in America, Sweden doesn't allow billboards to dot every piece of pasture land along the side of the road. We occasionally passed giant, white wind turbines.

Nils said that Malmo residents joke that their Danish friends on the other side of the Oresund strait never get any sunsets because they're facing east. After lunch, Nils and I had about five more hours until darkness fell. I didn't want to take too much of his time, so we went to his downtown office to conduct a video interview I'd put on my company's Web site.

I was talking to him about his region's plans for the upcoming Swedish Entrepreneurial Days conference in Savannah. Tragically, two weeks later, Nils was killed when a truck hit him while he was crossing a street in Savannah. The day before his death, Nils told me at the conference that he was enjoying a sort of vacation in Georgia's oldest city. It was his fifth visit. There was no way of knowing that my interview with him in Malmo would be his last media appearance.

I left Malmo with a deep respect for Nils, enriched by his Swedish brand of Southern Hospitality. With no real benefit for himself, he had taken three hours out of his day off to show a nosey reporter around his city. For me, he turned what could've been a wasted day into an opportunity.

On to Vaxjo

Nils dropped me off a Malmo's train station, a beautiful old brick building that looked and felt similar to the one in Copenhagen. An army of bicycles were parked outside, and gulls fluttered around the structure, which stood in stark red contrast to the bright blue sky. Nils told me Danish architecture had inspired many of the structures in Malmo, and the town hall proved him right. It was situated on a square and looked like a smaller model of the one in Copenhagen.

It only took about 20 minutes for my train to arrive. I boarded and sat down facing east, the direction I would ride for two hours before reaching my next destination.

Vaxjo has branded itself as the "greenest city in Europe." The city takes pride in its quest to totally eliminate CO2 emissions, an effort it began in the mid-1990s. At least according to government leaders, its environmental focus really started long before that, when city officials decided in the late 1960s to clean up its polluted lakes.

While Vaxjo has failed to meet its ambitious CO2 reduction goals, it has reduced emissions by more than 30 percent since the early 1990s. The key to that has been the use of renewable energy sources to provide more than 90 percent of the heating energy. Like Georgia, Sweden has a wealth of forestry resources that it's trying to monetize further as nations form new policies toward green energy.

If you like nightlife, Vaxjo is probably not your place. Maybe it's just Sundays, but when I stepped out of my hotel at 9 p.m., there were very few downtown establishments open. I tried to resist being a fat American, but the choices for dinner were limited to a McDonald's and a questionable pizza place. I went with the tried-and-true golden arches and then retired to the hotel.

The next day was a flash of green. A Vaxjo university professor picked me up at the hotel and drove me around for awhile, showing me the advances the city has made in building environmentally friendly apartments and houses made almost entirely from timber that boasts elevated insulation capabilities that reduce the need for heating in winter.

We then went to the school and did video interviews about possible collaboration between Vaxjo University and the Savannah College of Art & Design. A publisher of an environmental magazine came in to talk to me about partnering with our international business news Web site. I then visited a company that makes kits to transform gas-powered cars into flex-fuel vehicles. Finally, I went to city hall, where Vaxjo's executive mayor laid out reason that his city has become so green-conscious: To create jobs, boost quality of life, and help Vaxjo make its name known on the international stage.

Vaxjo is more than just green energy, though. There'll soon be a glass museum showing off the city's history as a glass/crystal capital. There are great shops, a museum dedicated to the Swedish mass migration to America, and of course, some old churches and buildings. Not to mention that I was now in Smaland, the birthplace of Ingvar Kamprad's IKEA, the furniture giant that has swept the world.

I ate a quick dinner and headed back to the train station. My two-day whirlwind tour of southern Sweden was over almost as soon as it had begun. It was two hours back to the Danish capital. I grabbed a scarce room at a hotel near the Copenhagen central station. My first European tour ended the next day.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Photos - Doors of Denmark

Denmark is the door to Scandinavia from the European continent. Here's a sampling of the doors that grace historical buildings around Copenhagen:

The gate to Tivoli. It was closed for renovations on the day I was there.The door to the country at Kastrup Airport.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

24 Hours in Copenhagen

I didn't have long to make my mark on Denmark, so I started early. My flight landed in Copenhagen, the capital, around 10 a.m. I was still a little tired from getting to Charles de Gaulle airport at just after 6 to catch my early flight from Paris.

I read the Wall Street Journal (in a very airplane-friendly tabloid format) for most of the two-hour flight, but I looked out the window in time to see wind turbines standing starkly in the Copenhagen harbor, their crisp white contrasting with the blue of the sea. I wasn't even on the ground, and the city was already starting to live up to its reputation as a hub for alternative energy.

Denmark was not my destination. It was merely a way point, a place to pass through en route to Sweden, but I was excited. There was no way I was going to let a new country go to waste.

Lakes were everywhere reflecting the light of the late morning, and the land was awash in green and blue. Touchdown was smooth. Kastrup Airport was nice, clean and very modern. The first sign that greeted me when I exited the terminal said "Wi-fi Zone." This validated something else I had heard, that Denmark is one of the most wired countries in the world and one of the top places for information technology.

I didn't have to wait long to try out the country's IT infrastructure. After grabbing my bags, I walked to an electronic kiosk to book a train ticket into the city.

Luckily the instructions were in English as well as Danish. A British lady was struggling with the machine when I came up. I tried it out and had no problem until I entered my credit card. The transaction looked like it was going to clear until the screen asked for a PIN. I had never used a PIN with that credit card in the U.S., but the machine would not be reasoned with. I used my debit card instead and felt lucky that I had brought it with me. This wasn't the last time the PIN problem would crop up.

I had no problem finding the right train. It wasn't too crowded when I hopped on. No one made eye contact. A short American guy was making out with his tall, blonde Scandinavian girlfriend the whole way to the central station, Kobenhavn H. My giant red suitcase impeded movement; otherwise I would've turned away. Their public affection displays made me a part sick, part homesick. I'd been away from my wife for a week, the longest time we'd been apart since we married nearly two years ago.

The central station is a large brick building just across a street called Bernsdorffsgade from the famous Tivoli Gardens. It had a McDonald's and other restaurants and shops, but like the airport, the train station was a bit more quaint than you'd expect from a capital city. Of course, Denmark only has 5.4 million people and Copenhagen less than half that, so the whole place, while undoubtedly cosmopolitan and far from sleepy, has a refreshingly laid-back feel.

Come to think of it, while Paris has the (some say) ghastly 59-floor Montparnasse Tower as its lonely modern skyscraper, I couldn't find one in the Danish capital. That's not to say it's not a modern city, but it is free what some would call tall architectural sins that most shiny new western metropolises have committed in the name of progress and population density.

I took a left out of the train station's main entrance and traced Tivoli's eastern edge. An information sign led me to a tourist center on the corner of Bernsdorffsgade and Vesterbrogade, where I nabbed a map. I'd booked my hotel the night before but hadn't bothered to get directions, partly because I'm lazy, and partly because I knew finding it would force me to be resourceful. (Of course, it's hard to be adventurous for long when you're rolling a 45-lb. piece of luggage over cobblestone streets.)

The map led me to the Radhuspladsen (town hall square). After just a few minutes of walking, I looked up to see my aptly named hotel, The Square, overlooking the sprawling paved plaza that spread out in front of the Radhus, the beautiful old town hall.

I claimed my room at the hotel. The nice blonde attendant told me someone had left me a message at the front desk. This made me feel important, and more than that, relieved. A representative from the Danish Energy Agency would meet me for an interview in about half an hour. I love traveling, but doing so alone and without a context honestly isn't very fulfilling. This interview would give me a job to do and a friendly face to help me make sense of this new city.

While I awaited Peter's arrival, I settled into my tiny room overlooking the square. I hooked the ethernet cable into my computer to start using the first truly free Internet I'd encountered in Europe. I gave myself a mental pat on the back for choosing a netbook that had an ethernet port despite temptations to go with a cheaper model without one.

I pulled up Skype and called another interview prospect, a businessman who had spent five years in Georgia as head of Denmark's trade commission here. He was beginning a weeklong vacation from work, but instead of traveling to exotic locales, he was spending it working on the garden behind his 100-year-old yellow cottage. I tried to tell him I wouldn't trouble him, but he insisted I come for coffee. In half an hour, I had already made two appointments.

I met Peter downstairs. I expected an older man, but I got a tall, thin Dane who looked to be in his late twenties and spoke perfect English with a slight British tinge. He downplayed his English, saying he needed to polish it if he ever wanted a job at the EU. He had hard eyes and features. His brown hair had slight waves. We went for a quick lunch at an artisan sandwich place that showed me Danish food might give the French a little competition. The busy clerk wouldn't accept my American card. "Only Danish," she said in a disapproving tone. I was embarrassed as my new friend had to pick up the 50-kroner (about $10) tab.

Peter and I ducked out of the small shop and took our sandwiches to a bench near one of the city's many canals, just around the corner from the Danish parliament building. We talked about biofuels and climate change, and how Denmark is trying to add to its alternative energy portfolio. The country already generates a fifth of its electric power through wind energy. This December Copenhagen will host what some are calling the new Kyoto, the U.N. Conference on Climate Change.

After a nice interview, I hit the ATM to pay Peter back and get cash for my cab ride out to the suburbs. Peter left me with a Serbian taxi driver who'd been in Copenhagen for 20 years. The ride was only 15 minutes, but it cost me the equivalent of $25, a ridiculously high price for someone who's traveled mostly in China, where cab fares seem to be cheaper than the cost of the gas that propelled the vehicle to your destination. I made a mental note to take the bus or train back to the center of town.

I arrived at Kent's home about 20 minutes after 3. His wife saw the cab drop me off and met me at the front gate. She led me to the backyard, past a few apple trees, some berry bushes and across lush green grass to a patio where Kent was sitting. The coffee in the carafe was still hot even though I was 20 minutes late. He poured me some, and we began talking. He asked me how our publication was doing and gave me a detailed description of Atlanta as an international city and what the state of Georgia needs to do to attract more global businesses.

Afterward, he took me back to the city and dropped me off at the hotel. With the appointments over, it was time to explore. I walked out toward Norrebro, an area of the city the tourist map told me had thriving ethnic populations and a lot of antiques. It sounded like a place to get my cultural fix while finding a great souvenir for my wife.

Heading north, I crossed over a canal that Kent said used to be a moat a thousand years ago when Copenhagen was a fortress. When I stopped to take some pictures of the giant swans in the water, a Romanian lady came up to chat with me. Miruna was carrying her baby in front of her in a sling. She was married to a Dane, but she couldn't speak Danish and he couldn't speak Romanian. They communicate in English. A sad soul, she seemed amused to have a foreigner to speak frankly with about the difficulties of Danish life. The place is tough for foreigners. Some say it's difficult to even get a cell phone contract there without citizenship. Miruna had been jumping through hoops in hopes of gaining citizenship, but the process was taking its toll on their family. She was looking forward to a trip to her homeland to visit relatives.

We parted, and I walked forever looking for a place to eat. South Asians offered kebabs. Middle Easterners sold vegetables at streetside stands. A surprising amount of Seven Elevens tempted me with convenience store goodies. Trendy bars and pubs attracted local crowds. I passed all these up, thinking I'd find something better and more affordable. Food is expensive in Denmark. Beers are upwards of $8 and a good meal can set you back $30 easily. To put it in perspective, know that value meals at the Copenhagen's trendy McDonald's cost $10-$13. I wanted to marry atmosphere with affordability, but it didn't look promising.

I stopped at a candy store for a psychological boost and that high that comes with consuming way too many Swedish fish and strips of sour candy. The stash (I bought it by the pound) lasted until I crossed over the moat and back to the central shopping district. I found a pub offering a a real hamburger, Coca-Cola and fries for $16, a steal compared to Burger King's $13 meal.

After a lonely meal capping a long day, I screwed up the exchange rate and gave the waitress an $8 tip, equivalent to 50 percent of the cost of the meal. At that point I knew it was time to go to bed. Sweden was just across the Oresund, the body of water that separates the two countries. Another country was just one bridge away.

Photos: City scenes, from top to bottom: The old Town Hall building, Tivoli entrance, Copenhagen canal, Danish doors.

Video below: Get a good glimpse of the front of the central train station in my video explaining that Tivoli is closed:

Friday, May 15, 2009

Home Sweet Hotel - European vs. American Lodging

Appreciating American convenience after eight nights in seven European hotels

The hours of ironing, the meticulous folding, the careful closure of the suitcase and the cautious slide of the zipper: None of it mattered. When I pulled my suits, shirts and slacks out of the giant red bag I'd brought to Europe, it was clear that I'd need drastic measures to smooth out these pesky wrinkles.

An iron! I thought. My boss was paying more than a hundred dollars for this cramped room in France; certainly they would offer the courtesy of such a mundane device.

I slid open the door to the room's makeshift closet, and they were all there - the whole array of hotel laundry tools - suit hangers with clips, a bar to hang ties on, a full-length mirror. Still, though, no iron.

But I did see something intriguing. It looked like some sort of black, vertically rectangular George Foreman grill mounted on the wall. Its brown cord was loosely attached to an electrical outlet that didn't have the third hole for the grounding prong. I looked at the device quizzically, opening and closing it like the jaws of a toothless, plastic alligator's mouth. The red button on top begged to be pushed. Next to it, I read the words, "Trouser press."

It turns out that the device was pretty intuitive. You slide a pant leg through, fold the press into place, lock it and press the red button. It begins to breathe heat to both sides until your pants become like the buns of a panini being toasted. At least in my hotels in France, Denmark and Sweden, the trouser press gave off enough heat to give that few blissful seconds of leg warmth after putting on the pants, but not enough to actually remove many wrinkles.

And then you have the more obvious problem of what to do now that you have semi-presentable pants and a shirt that looks like it's been through a war. The trouser press is a limited tool, and try as often and as awkwardly as I might, it just wasn't made for pressing shirts.

The trouser press wasn't my only issue with European hotels. In an eight-day trip across France, Denmark and Sweden, I stayed in seven different hotels. It became clear that those frequented by our European friends are not always endowed with the same inalienable conveniences that a lot of American hotels promise.

Take the bathrooms, for instance. Call me lazy, but after a shower I don't enjoy having to walk back down the hallway toward the entryway to go to the bathroom. That's right, my American readers. The toilet in some French hotels is kept in an entirely separate room from the shower, sink and tub. Imagine a coat closet to your left as you walk into your foyer. Now imagine there's a toilet in it. That's just how it is, without the coat rack, of course. And just like a coat closet, there inevitably is no fan in this little restroom. (After all my travels to China, you'd think I'd be grateful for any toilet you can actually rest your behind on, but I digress.)

There are in Europe, however, two separate settings for toilet flushing - a big button and a small one on the wall - which I did find very useful. As a lazy environmentalist, I'm a bit sad that somehow this effortless water-saving adaptation hasn't made its way to the States on a broader scale.

The inconveniences in the Euro hotels didn't end in the bathroom, though, and some nifty flushing gadget couldn't blind me to other shortcomings. After I finished showering, I'd want to chat with my wife. Without a cell phone, I'd use Skype to call home. Skype requires the Internet, so I generally had to either buy three hours of connection for a decent 10-euro price or get gouged for one hour at five euros. This would've been OK at five-star hotels, but everyone knows - well, at least the owners of Quality, Comfort and LaQuinta Inns do - that inexpensive hotels should have free Internet. That's just the way the world should work.

Because of my indignance, I'd refuse the one-hour trap and get suckered into spending three hours talking, twittering, reading and writing. Then I'd need to sleep, which brings me to my next beef with European hotels:

They have no alarm clocks.

People who know me know that alarm clocks are No. 4 on my version of Maslow's hierarchy of needs - food, clothing, shelter, and alarms to remind me to wake up and go after all of the above.

That said, I like to think I'm a relatively savvy traveler, so I realize that it's ultimately my fault if I don't have an alarm clock that will wake me up. I actually have two that I accidentally left at home. The blame is all mine, I admit.

That didn't change the fact that in Sweden and Denmark I had to stuff my Timex watch into my ear canal to make sure that its measly alarm took the edge off of the sleep before the automated wakeup call came from a muted phone came at the programmed time.

Contrast this with my experience in Savannah, Ga., during a business trip two weeks after returning from Sweden. Not only did I have an alarm clock with two separate alarms, noise settings and snooze buttons, but I also had a personalized wakeup call from the clerk at the front desk. When I didn't answer on the first try, she called back to make sure I was awake, and she even acted cheerful about it! I couldn't believe it.

This post isn't intended to rag on European hotels. I had a great time listening to the nightlife out my window at the aptly named Square hotel on Copenhagen's old city. I had an even better time getting to know the joys of the coffee offered as part of a "city breakfast" at the bar in a Parisian Novotel.

As Bill Bryson so humorously showed me in "I'm a Stranger Here Myself," a collection of essays on returning to the U.S. after 20 years in the U.K., America is a wonderful land, but our excessive quest for convenience doesn't always make the most sense if we look at it with fresh eyes.

Then again, as my wife would say, why would we be looking introspectively our habits when we could be watching the Hallmark Channel on our American hotel's wall-mounted flatscreen?

A serious tip: If you're traveling in Europe, especially Denmark, make sure you have at least one credit card that is PIN-activated. I've never used a PIN on my Visa in America, but they demanded one when I was buying train tickets and hotel rooms. Good thing I had my debit card too. Anyone have any thoughts on whether there's a way to get around the PIN requirement in these places?

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Living Watermelons - An East Asia Missions Story

A short story from one of my China mission trips appeared on the International Mission Board's East Asia field blog today.

On a backpacking expedition in 2005, a travel companion and I shared some watermelons and a poignant 15 minutes with a peasant family at a roadside hut. Without speaking our language, they communicated hospitality to us, even though we were strangers intruding on their land.

I pray that their kindness returns to them in the form of eternal life through the Gospel. Read the story here.

See all my blog entries from that trip here.

Photo: We left a gospel VCD on this well, the water god's doorstep.

Monday, April 20, 2009

My Music Featured on

I'm not a professional musician. I don't make money by playing my guitar and singing. I don't even proclaim to be that good at the music I do make. But, if I'm going to make it, I'd really like someone to hear it. A mute musician is no good to anyone.

I guess a bad musician could be worse than a mute, but I'd like to think I'm not that terrible. Apparently YUDU doesn't think so either, to my surprise.

YUDU is a service that allows artists, writers, musicians and publications to publish digital content in a variety of forms on the Internet, saving trees and presenting a new option for people and organizations anxious to share their content with the world without the upfront costs and hassles of creating a print product (or a CD, in my case).

I'm using it as a digital repository for my music, so people can see what it's about and download it if they want to. YUDU wants to market the fact that their service can be used for musicians, so they've featured my library on their homepage.

To see my library and hear songs from "Middle Country," an album I created to raise money for a China mission trip, go to and click the "featured library," the middle square in the green box at right.

If I can ever get some time, the sequel will be coming out.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Magical Dry Cleaning Every Guy Should Know About

When I graduated from college, my business attire consisted of a hand-me-down navy blazer, a few pairs of khakis in various shades and brown leather shoes that didn't even match the color of my tattered belt. I had no versatility in my dressier wardrobe. I'd look the same on the day a family member died as I would if a friend was getting married or if I was going for a job interview.

Somehow, I guess because special occasions are also usually one-time occurrences, I was able to stretch the utility of this default get-up. Rarely would I see extended family frequently enough for them to recall that I wore the same outfit on the previous occasion. And job interviews and graduations were different arenas entirely. They were short, and the bit players and settings always changed.

Because I wasn't in a fraternity or business association and participated in few extracurricular activities (besides video games, intramural sports, leading Bible studies and playing my guitar), in the fashion category I had little need for more than a pair of flip-flops and a staggering array of t-shirts and jeans during my time at university.

But all that changed on the day I wore my trusty job interview/funeral/wedding/graduation outfit to meet with my first prospective full-time employer. With my safety-pinned gold buttons holding my polyester blazer in place and khakis furtively covering the white tube socks coming out of my coffee-colored suede shoes, I sat before the woman I'd replace and the man who'd become my boss. A few weeks later they hired me as an international business reporter.

The thing about being a business reporter is that you have to go to events and venues where international business is being conducted. Often, that includes lunches and dinners at swanky restaurants or hotels where safety-pinned clothes are frowned upon, to say the least. Another thing is that you often meet with sharp-looking businesspeople and diplomats who might not give the time of day to someone who looks like they've just shuffled in from off the street.

My problem was deeper still, compounded by the fact that as a reporter, you're expected to build a community, a network of sources and friends that help you feel the pulse of what's going on in your area of coverage. If I wore the same thing to event after event, certainly people would begin to notice.

To make a long story short, I'll tell you that I had to buy suits, more suits than I ever wanted to waste - I mean, spend - money on. I have a black suit, a brown suit, a gray suit, a navy suit, another gray suit and a seersucker suit. I got extremely good deals on all these, but it was still an expense I hadn't foreseen. Graduating college, I thought I was finally going to begin making real money. That part was true, but it turns out that life seems to demand a lot more from you if you're married with a relatively nice apartment and a car payment (at least more than when you were living with five other guys and drove a busted-up, but paid-off, Volvo station wagon).

Aside from the fact that I'd rather see life lived solely in t-shirts, what really annoys me about suits, or just dressing up in general, is that I can't use the washing machine to clean my nice clothes. So on top of all I spent to buy clothes made of high-quality fabrics, I keep pouring money into them just to keep them looking presentable. You'd think that the relationship between price and convenience would be correlative, not inverse, like with microwaves.

I've never liked dry cleaning. I went to the drive-thru cleaners quite often with my mom when I was young. She'd always pull the massive load through her window and employ my help in draping a huge bundle of wire hangers over those tiny hooks that hang down from the ceiling above the back seat. We'd get the clothes home and store them in closets until the next special occasion, when I'd pull them out to discover, to my horror, that the shirts had been starched. I'd soon be walking around like I was stuffed in a shirt-shaped cardboard box.

This childhood aversion hasn't gone away, and it's worse now because I'm the one that's footing the bill for the madness and having to waste time during my day to go to shady, drab dry cleaning establishments, where prices are obscured and aesthetics are totally sacrificed on the altar of cruel efficiency.

So imagine my delight and surprise when, as we were rushing to get ready for a funeral visitation, Katy revealed to me that there was a product that could totally eliminate this hassle. It's called Dryel. It comes with this magical bag, in which you place up to four of your suit jackets or pants, skirts or other non-machine-washable articles of clothing. Along with the clothing, you throw in the secret ingredient, an equally magical "ULTRA cleaning cloth." Toss the sack in the dryer and let it tumble around for a half hour, and voila, the clothes come out looking just as good as if you'd lugged a massive laundry basket a few miles and dropped it off with your favorite reclusive dry cleaner, who would hide the clothes for a period of two to four days, at which point you'd return to pay the ransom and set them free.

For totally eliminating this process and doing so at a fraction of the cost of normal dry cleaning, Dryel is my new best friend. It's one thing that all guys should know about but I assume very few do.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Luscious Lyon

A rapid dessert tour of Lyon's old district

My trip to France's second-largest city was a business trip, so I didn't exactly have time to delve into all of its culinary offerings. And the trip really snuck up on me as far as scheduling goes, so I didn't have time to be a good reporter and do the research on where to find the most authentic morsels to chow down on.

Good thing our press handlers had both lived in Lyon for awhile.

Shortly after our first few meetings and interviews, we killed some time by stopping at an authentic French ice cream shop called Nardone Rene on Quai de Bondy on the west bank of the Saone River. I opted for two scoops (one each of blackberry and praline) in a cone, but there were numerous other tubs my taste buds were begging me to dive into. And besides ice cream, there were waffles smothered in powdered sugar, crepes and other sweet delights. If we had more time, I would've gained at least five pounds.

The next day, knowing that we had two hours in the morning to walk around, I deliberately skipped breakfast at the hotel. That way, I'd have all the more reason to stuff myself with offerings from local pastry shops. With so many pastries, tarts, artisan chocolates and baked goods to choose from, our guide helped me narrow it down to an eclaire (authentic French) and a tarte de praline (authentically Lyon).

Watch me try to force down my eclaire here:

Travel Snapshots: Silk Shop in Lyon, France

When we only had a few hours to get souvenirs for our wives, our guide took my boss and me to an old-style silk shop west of the Saone in the older part of Lyon.

I couldn't fork over the 70 euros for the authentic, hand-loomed scarf I wanted, but I did get a cultural experience out of it. Check out the video here, and photos are below:

Marketing ploy or true story? This guy said silk has been in his family for generations.

Weights hanging below to balance the loom.

Who knows how much spin we were getting from him, but the shop owner says he makes scarves for famous brands like Hermes.

Looking out from workshop to the sales floor.

Spools are to the weaver what paint is to the painter.

Lyon: The Liveable France

During my recent trip to France, one of the businessmen we interviewed had an interesting outlook on French-American relations.

He pointed to the long history of collaboration between our two countries, which extends back to the birth of both of the modern democracies during the late 1700s. Though the early part of this millennium saw a strain in the relationship due to disagreements on how to handle the War on Terror (think "freedom fries"), our leaders are now cordial and our people have a mutual respect for each other, he said.

"We admire your way of doing business, your productivity and innovation, and I think you admire our culture and way of life," he said.

I think there's some truth to this. Paris' cultural treasures took me aback. Literally, there was history around every corner, and I enjoyed the cafe culture and the way that people live their lives in the city's sidewalk transparency. But I grew up in a relatively small town in Georgia, and it was hard to imagine myself permanently embracing the way of life in a metro area inhabited by more than 10 million people.

Like any modern city, Paris has an inherent need to function, and function isn't always glamorous. Logistics is not for luxury. It's a business of utility, and that was sorely evident on the dingy subway trains that ferried me past thousands of graffiti-ridden walls throughout the capital city. Coming in from the airport on a line known as the RER, I could've been in any large city in the world, not the sterilized Paris of travel brochures and wine advertisements.

My boss and I took a fast train (the TGV) out of Paris to France's second-largest city on our third day in country. In Lyon, which has about 1.4 million people in its metro area, I found a more liveable France, and one that has aims to become even more liveable in the near future with beautification projects near the rivers and numerous developments throughout the city.

It's amazing how much you can learn about a place in a day. Thanks to fearless press attaches provided for us by Lyon's chamber of commerce, we witnessed one of France's famous protests, conducted five interviews, shopped for souvenirs, took a trip to an ice cream parlor, met the city's socialist mayor, attended an evening concert and ate some delicious meals into a period of a little more than 24 hours.

Throughout the journey, we rode in four or five different cars, weaving in and out of traffic and dodging road blocks the police had set up to accommodate demonstrators showing their distaste for a national measure to cut funding for early childhood education. Riding around with people who know a city is a great way to learn a place. Here's the two-minute description of the picture I got as Lyon whirred past the car window:

-Situated on two rivers, the Rhone and the Saone. The north-to-south-running rivers are the lifeblood of the city and are essential landmarks for orienting oneself while moving about the city. At the southern end, they come together at a point known (appropriately enough) as the confluence. The sliver land in between is called the Presqu’île.

-Lumiere brothers lived in Lyon and were among the world's first filmmakers.

-Numerous restaurants, city renowned for its gastronomic offerings. Bouchon is a local way of cooking that relies heavily on meats. Supposedly only 20 official bouchon restaurants, but many claim the label. Bouchon literally means "cork" in French.

-Silk industry found up on "the hill," a mountainside overlooking downtown. We visited a silk shop in the old city. Along the banks of the Saone lie buildings from Renaissance-period Lyon, which look lighter and more Dutch than the heavier French architecture throughout the rest of the city.

-St. John cathedral built originally in 12th century and has an iconic rose window and a functioning astronomical clock that was built in the 13oos.

-License plates with No. 69 are Lyon plates. Paris is 75.

Of course there was more, but like I said, we spent only one night there. I think much of my positive experience in Lyon was due to the people. One of our handlers was a 31-year-old French girl with an Italian dad and a Russian husband. Her two-year-old son loves Lionel Richie. Our other guide was a 21-year-old intern who loves to cook and has researched Atlanta for a project she completed on the impact of art exhibitions on communities. She specializes in urban planning.

It was sad to leave them at the train station, but now I know that Lyon should definitely be on my list if I get to return to France. When we arrived back in Paris, we had dinner, then lights out. There were planes to catch in the morning. Denmark and Sweden awaited me.

Watch me suffering in Lyon for my job:

And here's a quick shot of St. John's cathedral:

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Rough France Videos

I hope to polish a few of these and edit them more completely, but here are some rough France videos taken with my digital camera and uploaded to my new YouTube channel. Check out here some scenes from Paris and Lyon. Posts from Copenhagen, Denmark as well as cities in Sweden forthcoming.

Eiffel Tower: A Tall Order

After our Louvre adventure and visits to Notre Dame cathedral and Luxembourg gardens, we settled down at a corner cafe, where my dinner consisted of a roast duck garnished with Brussels sprouts and bathed in a delicious sauce. According to my boss, who lived in France during two different eras of his life, sauces are where French chefs shine. I could now taste why.

The day was nearing its end, and after just over 12 hours in country, I'd checked many of Paris' main historical sites off my list. We had arrived at 6 a.m. and walking became our chosen method of staying awake and shrugging off jet lag.

I learned a few things during those thousands of steps. Paris is a beautifully gray capital city. The architecture is heavy and a bit cold, and the monuments are plentiful. It was only April and the place was already crawling with tour groups - students from Barcelona, Asians with money to spend, a few intrepid backpackers. Long barges carried guests up and down the Seine. Buds were just appearing on the trees. Girls in painted-on jeans and high boots hit the shops, smoldering cigarettes firmly in hand. Spring was right around the corner. My boss, the France veteran, said we arrived just a bit too early to see the city in its full bloom.

But the cultural scene wasn't dormant. Music was everywhere. On a late night metro train, a guy across from me restrung his classical guitar and serenaded me half the ride home, his fingers nonchalantly flying up and down the fretboard at impossible speeds. When I transferred trains, a troupe of accordions took me the rest of the way. At the Eiffel Tower, breakdancers held an impromptu meet, and a guitarist and drummer earned their keep by crooning for the crowd. The French capital, I learned, melds old-world charm with modern flavor, two ingredients that often mix in just the right proportions in popular cities worldwide.

The Eiffel Tower, I found is somewhere between the old and new. I admittedly knew little about the structure before I learned that I'd be going to France, but the 300-meter tower's story is interesting. In a city with very few highrises, the iron structure is audacious in size and substance. We could see its tip from our hotel, but it was a long walk, and we visited it up close on our second day in country, after a full day of meetings and interviews.

If there's one thing the French have a flair for, it's spectacle, my boss said. When he lived in Paris in the late 1980s, a festival was held where they planted wheat along the Champs Elysees. Years before that, France had set up a table that spanned the entire country, and everyone had shared a meal, he said.

But it seems, from my brief experience, that achievement in France comes without a fair share of grumbling by certain factions.

The Eiffel Tower, it seems, was no different. Like the Beijing Olympics of 2008, it faced a tall order in satisfying the home team while showing off Paris' charms to the world. It was built in the late 1889 for the Universal Exposition in Paris after Barcelona rejected Gustave Eiffel's plans to construct it there on the grounds that it didn't fit the city's style. French artists also protested the construction, thinking it would be an eyesore that would detract from the city's aesthetics. Originally, it was built to last only 20 years, and instead of inciting romance and stirring French nationalism, its initial purpose was to be an airborne science lab where Eiffel could observe wind movements and take physics measurements.

Now, utility has given way to culture, and what began as a controversial project is the unanimous symbol of France throughout the world.

Paris seems to have a propensity toward controversial landmarks. The Montparnasse Tower, a bland highrise that can be seen from all over town. is still considered a bad move, as was the glass pyramid structure that now all but defines the Louvre. They're all still standing, undaunted by the initial protests and vindicated by time and popularity.

I first saw the Eiffel Tower from the Trocadero district looking southeast. I rounded a corner and was rewarded with the low murmur of happy voices and a breathtaking full view. From there, we descended the hill and walked through the tower's underbelly and out on the Champ des Mars, where we branched out to find our next dinner.

The next day, we'd leave the capital and travel to Lyon.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Mona Lisa: My Louvre Private Tour

She stared at me with those dark brown eyes, and I couldn't resist. I had to look back. There were only four people in the room. Three of us were men, and we were all staring. Her hands were folded daintily, right over left, as she sat, still and picturesque, holding us captive with her gaze. Perfectly proportioned, she had her hair parted in front, and she let it flow down to her shoulders. Her lips looked soft to the touch. She was the pure portrait of beauty, and her expression held a hint of mystery.

All that separated us was a tinted gray piece of glass, and though she held my eyes for a long time, I couldn't reach out and touch her. I wouldn't want to smudge one of the greatest works of art in the world.

I'm not being figurative. I was staring at the Mona Lisa, the masterpiece by Leonardo Da Vinci, which is on permanent display at the Musee du Louvre in Paris.

I must admit, I'm no art connoisseur, but there is something about that painting that tantalizes in the same way that a beautiful, snow-capped mountain range draws you up toward the summit. Maybe it's the fact that it's one of the most recognizable works of art known to man. Maybe it really is the transcendence of Leonardo's artistry. Either way, I was feeling extremely fortunate to be standing before it, especially when on a Tuesday when the museum was closed.

The Louvre is arguably the greatest museum in the world. I had heard this, but having never been to Europe, I really had no reference against which to test such a huge claim. After visiting Paris, I still don't have an empirical measuring stick, but seeing the sprawl of the museum campus and strolling its halls, I can't see how it can have any rivals.

My private Louvre tour started when my boss and I, jet-lagged and without a cell phone, showed up at the Louvre armed only with a vague e-mail referral to a press contact, a few pitiful digital cameras, and clothes that we had been wearing for more than 24 hours straight. We'd been through a lot. Our flight was almost nine hours, and we'd taken a dirty, graffiti-ridden ride into the city on the metro. Commuters glared at me the whole way when they noticed my 45-lb. suitcase taking up a valuable seat.

Due to some poor planning, the hotel we spent nearly two hours finding was not the same where we had a reservation. After that saga, we took the metro to the Arc de Triomphe and took the long walk from there down the Avenue des Champs Elysees to the Louvre, my feet aching all the way.

After a true Parisian cafe lunch, my head was pounding and my body protesting as I tried to push through the jet lag. We crept into the administrative offices of the Louvre and sat down in a small room that once housed the man who tended the horses when the majestic building served as a castle.

A press aide came and led us down into the catacombs, passing us off to another girl, who led us across the complex to the dark office of the head of the sculpture department. After a 15-minute interview, one of our handlers whisked us off to show us a new exhibition of Egyptian art, which focuses on how the pharaohs prepared for the afterlife. I thought this would be the extent of our tour, but as we were walking out, our handler (the fourth since we arrived) said, "Would you like to see anything else?"

Seriously? A better question would've been, "What don't you want to see?" We had only been in a few rooms. Thousands of sculptures, paintings, reliefs, pieces of pottery and other artworks awaited our ooo's and aaah's. Where to begin?

The handler must've noticed the dumbfounded look on my face as I considered the boundless options. He offered a superb suggestion: "How about Italian art?" Like I said, I'm no connoisseur, but that sounded good to me. Suddenly I wasn't so tired anymore.

We followed the signs to the Mona Lisa, where I noticed that her majesty is not in her size. It's actually a relatively small painting, especially juxtaposed with some of the other artworks in the room where it is displayed. Opposite her small portrait, a larger-than-life painting occupies a massive wall. Beyond that lies a cavernous hallway where an endless procession of legendary works awaits. I counted more than five Leonardos during our brief walkthrough, and there were countless others, marked by Italian names that better-educated folks surely would've recognized.

On the way down, we walked quickly past the Winged Victory of Samothrace, a famous 2,300-year-old sculpture from Ancient Greece, and we stopped in on another Greek all-star, the Venus de Milo. I felt a bit sacrilegious in that I didn't know much about any of the beautiful works that surrounded me and couldn't exactly tell you why they were considered masterpieces.

We passed through more hallways before emerging back out in the entry area beneath the museum's iconic glass pyramid. With a bit more spring in our step, my boss and I said our goodbyes with the handlers and continued our tour of Paris, shaking our heads at the access that journalism can give.

Watch an exhausted Trevor talk about the experience in the video below:

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Being Agreeable in French

I speak no French. It's a definite flaw when traveling in France, I know. I hate being that guy who knows absolutely zilch of the language, the one that asks for an English menu and responds with blank stares to the waiter's questions.

But I've been traveling with French speakers and I've learned a few things. I might not be able to say them, but I can hear them in conversation. The French language is quite elegant and soft, even in the most common speech. Here are a few ways to be agreeable in French:

-Voila - French people actually say this word - and really often. That surprised me. I always thought it was just something we hijacked. It usually denotes completion, just like we tend to use it in English, something like "There it is" or "It's done." It can also mean, "Here he comes," "The car has arrived," "He answered the phone," or a million different other things.

-D'accord - Interchangeable with OK, but it sounds a lot more fancy to me.

-C'est bon -It's good; we're ready; it's satisfactory.

Photo taken just a few days ago. Copyright Trevor Williams 2009.