Monday, April 20, 2009

My Music Featured on YUDU.com

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 www.yudu.com 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’├«le.

-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.

Paris - Not Enough Words

Paris is a conundrum. It's trouble for the writer. So big, consuming, sprawling and impressive yet simple and refined, it's really hard to nail down with just one description. Countless books have tried, praising it's charms as a romantic travel destination as well as its educational value in being an open book of a cityscape.

Being there for three days, I saw a lot of the city, but it just feels sacrilegious to try to cover it in a blog entry. That's like summing up New York City with a post card of the Empire State Building. Any two-dimensional picture my words conjure up will be like a fleeting image on a digital camera.

So I'm not going to try to be your eyes and ears here, but I will give you a taste of some of the things I noticed about the cultural, fashion and commercial capital. Remember, I'm speaking here from the perspective of an awed tourist, not the avid traveler who's going to show the ropes of how to get around.

You can't always trust the movies, but they hit Paris' cafe culture on the dot. I saw one drive-thru on the outskirts of town - it was a McDonald's, mind you - but for the most part, there seems to be a sit-down cafe with a nice ambience on every corner. Unlike my part of America, where free-standing chain restaurants dominate many areas, you can walk most any street in Paris an expensive but delicious place to relax and eat. My boss and I dropped into about four different cafes. I can't complain about any of them.

At the same time though, France is not all glitz and glamour. Paris has astounding historical beauty, but that beauty still rests in the middle of a thriving modern city. That means graffiti, dirty metro systems, poor air quality at times and a general lack of the polish that suburban Americans might not expect.

But any dissatisfaction fades away the monuments reveal themselves. I never took a day of European history class, but I was stunned by the height of the Eiffel Tower, the breadth of the Louvre, the stout mass of the Arc du Triomphe and the mystical beauty of Notre Dame. I'm sure it's even more fascinating when you're not lacking in culture like me. I don't think I've ever given France due respect for its contributions to the world.

Cars are an interesting phenomenon in Paris. They're extremely tiny and apparently must be one of about five or six brands: Peugeot, Citroen, Fiat, Smart Car or Mercedes. With their cars, the Parisians who actually drive seem to value the utility of their vehicle in a cramped city over ostentatious displays of wealth that characterize many of the big cars in America.

I could go on, but there's more to come, so I'll leave now with some bullet points on travel logistics:

-Trains - RER from airport to city is long, especially when you arrive at 6 a.m. and disgruntled commuters are mad that you put your 40-lb. suitcase in one of the seats.

-Metro - Don't expect luxury from the Metro. It has one purpose, to move people, and it does that quite well, unless you're unluckly like me and happen to come at a time when they're renovating one stop you need and closed the other.

-Hotels - Maybe it's because we got set up by a government agency, but Parisian hotels are extremely expensive.

-Internet - Get acquainted with the city's wireless networks to avoid paying 5 euros per hour in the hotels. I wasn't educated on that, and I suffered. Not very many of the cafes seemed to be wireless ready, and plus I had little time to surf.

-People - France is a country of a little more than 60 million people. It gets 84 million tourists a year. The French people were extremely nice and helpful to us. I don't know how they have the patience after seeing people from all over the world trampling on their turf.

-American Abduction? I saw extremely few Americans. Global financial crisis, anyone?

-Weather - During winter, Paris is gray and dark. Spring is coming soon, as evidenced by the nice weather we witnessed.

-Take a spouse or significant other - It's lonely in a foreign city with no one to talk to.

All photos Copyright Trevor Williams 2009.

From top: First visit to the tower; Notre Dame from the inside; Seine River at evening