The ghost of my father lives in Silicon Valley

ghost ship[Father’s Day, 2015.  I added a few thoughts at the end.] Father’s Day.  A time to reflect on my Dad and the three years since he passed. You can read about that here.

About a year ago, I relocated from Prague to Silicon Valley.  One warm sunny afternoon, I was in the backyard chipping some golfs balls around with my son, and I had a powerful memory of my Dad.  One that has re-occurred many times since.

Many years ago, he told me how he almost moved our family to Silicon Valley in the early 1970’s.  Following his naval career, he was an executive in the aerospace & defense industry.  That industry was a huge part of Silicon Valley’s growth at the time.

Standing in my back yard, I imagined how happy he would have been here.  He loved golf; here you can play year round.  He loved sunny weather, probably because it was golf weather.  Plenty of that here.  He loved his industry; lots of innovation was happening here.

So what kept him from coming?  Probably what keeps many of us from pursuing our desires.  Other priorities.  The preferences of our spouses and partners. In his case, he had strong family ties to New England and Eastern Canada.  His wife (aka my Mom) was even more rooted in the East.

But the essential question remains: how can you know what makes you happy without change, experimentation, or exploration?

I’ve been fortunate to somehow do what my Dad didn’t (or wouldn’t) do.  My wife has been a willing partner in the adventure that led us from Boston to Prague.  And Prague to San Francisco.  I’d like to think we’ve been rewarded for the risk we took.

Maybe my Dad planted the seed for my eventual move here.  That would be cool.

UPDATE: it’s Father’s Day 2015.  Two years since I wrote this.  I’ve been working on my start-up for the last 2 years, in dogged pursuit of the Silicon Valley opportunity that’s a Siren Song for so many.  Including my Dad, who didn’t end up doing so.  One additional thought: without my wife’s support, none of my journey would be possible.  Even as we celebrate Father’s Day, we’re really celebrating the spouses behind the man.

Food is Travel, Travel is Food (part two in Tokyo)

Japan has been weighing on my mind lately for obvious reasons.  So why not write about Japan in Part Two of this series of posts?

Before I go there, I have to confess.  After writing the first post of this series, my wife asked me, “What about my cooking?  Don’t I rate in your memories of great meals?”  To which I replied, “Of course, honey.  But I was writing about travel and food.”  Being the clueless male that I am, little did I realize that I screwed up.  So, let the record state that my wife is indeed an accomplished and passionate cook.  Many of the best meals I have had were prepared by her.

On to the travel bit.

Unlike travels in North America where I can recall the exact names of many restaurants I’ve visited, I can’t do the same in Japan.  But I can recall specific meals for sure.

Probably the most memorable meals were two different kaiseki meals.  These are multi-course feasts.  You get a little of everything: a perfectly grilled portion of beef (kobe if you’re lucky and/or rich), the very freshest sashimi, delicate soups and more.  Every course is a revelation of simplicity and pleasure.

Kaiseki is a typical setting for business dinners, so in some regards the enjoyment of the meal is also a reflection of the relationship with the persons with whom you’re dining.  As a meal with someone you’ve just met, it can be a bit formal.  But with business friends, it can be thoroughly enjoyable.

One can’t mention Japan without talking about ramen.  It’s so plentiful, cheap and common as a lunch meal that you could dismiss its sublime nature; rich broth, toothsome noodles and just the right balance of ingredients.

If you’re my wife, the quest for great ramen outside Japan is approching an obsession.  Too bad she hasn’t been to Japan more often.  And ramen causes obsession in Japan too, as evidenced by the movie Tampopo.

Another memorable meal was a simple one.  I asked the concierge at the hotel to send me to a neighborhood sushi restaurant.  The type that would be small and catered to the residents.  My colleague led me to believe that he loved sushi too, though in retrospect his tastes were pretty limited.

We walked into a place with maybe two stand alone tables and took two of just eight seats at the sushi bar.  It was simple, almost rustic.

I ordered omakase style, where you place your trust in the chef to choose your food.  You are often richly rewarded.  The chef proceeded to present a series of fishes, many of which I hadn’t had before. Given how much sushi I’ve eaten over the years, this was an accomplishment in its own right.

The most surprising dish of the night was when the chef lit a small bunsen burner, and proceeded to grill a couple of oysters on the half shell.  Before serving, he drizzled a little bit of soy and maybe some rice wine vinegar.  The dish embodied Japanese food: fresh, simple.  Every ingredient contributes something, but only 2-4 ingredients are used in all.

I can’t wait to return.

A silver lining to the Japan earthquake?

My heart is heavy over the destruction and loss of life in Japan following the earthquake;  Japan is one of my favorite places on earth.

However, there might be a (small) silver lining in the face of such bad news.  The massive capital expenditures required to re-build the country may help Japan reinvigorate economic growth in the face of many years of financial stasis.

I’m no expert, but it seems that Japan has been in an economic logjam for a while.  First, you have a personal savings rate that is very high relative to other G20 countries.  And that rate hasn’t fluctuated much despite the recessionary periods of the last 20 years.  Second, you have a very healthy population whose life expectancy is high and getting higher.  Third, you have a low birth rate.  Last, you have a country with an isolationist immigration policy.  The end result: Japan’s growth has stalled as a result of expensive labor and a shrinking workforce.  It can’t afford its lifestyle of circa 1985 that followed a long period of economic expansion.

The system is hamstrung in terms finding new incentives and sources of investment capital .  Many of the constraints in the system are self-imposed by the populace as consumers and voters.

Which is where the silver lining could come in.

The massive spending required to re-build infrastructure will be government-led.  And that government is going to quickly find that a blue-collar workforce in Japan is in scarce supply and/or very highly paid.  Which it cannot afford.

Thus, the situation may necessitate the need to import workers from other countries.  Unlike during periods of stasis where cultural norms have prevailed, this relaxation of immigration policy could be face-saving in the name of “rebuilding”.

Why would this be good?  If you examine any other G20 country, you will observe fewer structural barriers to bi-lateral trade and immigration.  In other words, inexpensive labor can flow into a country when the conditions warrant it such as high capital investment.  And Japan needs this labor to afford the bill that the catastrophe has levied.

One could argue it’s not a very efficient use of capital to pay for infrastructure that was already paid for and is in fine working condition.  But Japan needs a reason to break the stasis and constraints of the last 20 years.  It changed so rapidly in the 40 years since World War 2, and prospered mightily.  Another wave of change would help Japan re-calibrate in a world has changed a lot in the last 20 years and is more interdependent than ever.

Physically, an island.  Metaphorically, perhaps not for long.  Which could be good.

Food is Travel, Travel is Food (part one)

To me, food is perhaps the most significant manifestation of a culture.  What else has the potential to express a culture’s values three times a day, every day? And the consumption of food is highly ritualistic, an integral part of defining how families interact, how business is done, how communities function.

To test my assumption, I thought about all of the countries I have visited and my ability to recall memories of food.  It was easy.  So many memorable moments revolved around food.  In many cases, I could recall the precise dish and restaurant.

This post is the first in a series.  I’ll start with North America followed by Europe, Asia and the Caribbean in future posts.  Here’s a sampling:

New Orleans.  Oysters and 300 beers to choose from at Cooter Brown’s.  Pecan waffles at Camellia Grill.  Mac and cheese at Rocky & Carlo’s in Chalmette.  Barbeque shrimp at Pascal’s Manale.  Fried oyster po-boy at Mother’s.  Anything at Jazz Fest.  Muffuletta sandwich at Central Grocery.  A great meal at Herbsaint whose details I can’t remember.  With New Orleans, I could go on.

Boston.  This one’s tough as it’s my home town with too many memories to fit one blog entry.  That said, here’s a few.  Clam chowder at Legal Sea Foods.  Tasting menu at Radius.  Cannoli at Mike’s Pastry.  Fried clams at Woodman’s or The Clam Box.  Anything at Oleana.  Pizza at Emma’s.  Shrimp & grits at Hungry Mother.  Burgers at Barley’s.

San Francisco.  Crab cakes and broiled fish at Tadich Grill.  Anything Asian in downtown Mountain View.  Mongolian pork chops at Mustards Grill in Napa.  Cheap sushi and sake bombs at Miyake in Palo Alto.  Simple pasta dishes and sidewalk dining at a defunct Italian resto in Palo Alto whose name I can’t recall.

New York.  This one’s hard if only because my culinary adventures span 30 years.  Maybe the most memorable trip was my first, at age 13.  My older brother first exposed me to Thai food, sushi and Chinese in one weekend.  Thereafter:  Sugar Reef on Second Avenue for great, cheap Caribbean food in the East Village.  Brunch at Maxwell’s Plum.  Sushi at innumerable good places.  Aureole for some duck dish I can’t remember.  Henry’s End in Brooklyn Heights for exotic game on the grill.  Zarela for killer margaritas.  Gustavino’s for one of the more memorable settings ever: under the arches of the 59th Street Bridge.

Halifax.  Clearwater for freshly cooked lobsters to take home and make lobster rolls.  Lots of meals cooked at my Mom’s house.  In fact, she probably wouldn’t want me to speak of anything in Halifax that she didn’t cook.

Toronto.  Bouillabaisse with grilled seafood at Pronto, long defunct.  I would literally go there every trip to Toronto in the early 90’s.  And that was a lot of times.  Bistro 990 for duck confit and celebrity sightings during the film festival.

Montreal.  Schwartz’s for smoked meat sandwiches.  Bagels at Fairmount.  Though I can’t profess a love for their wood-fired oven flavor and texture, they certainly differ from New York style.

Washington, DC.  Sushi Taro for some of the best Japanese cuisine I’ve had outside of Japan.  Also the place I first tasted unfiltered sake.  Yum.  I suppose it helps to be located near the Japanese embassy.  Restaurant Nora before the Clintons even got there.

Other cities with great food but foggy memories:  Chicago.  Portland, Maine.  Seattle.  Los Angeles.  Vancouver.

Stay tuned for future installments elsewhere in the world.

The Christmas that was – then wasn’t – then was

Beyond the need to vent about the experience my family and I just had, I suppose I write this in empathy for the thousands of other families who suffered a similar fate this week.

Of course, I’m writing about the epic failure of the European airline system, and the untold numbers of families who weren’t reunited on either side of the Atlantic for Christmas as a result.

Our journey to North America was intended to start with a flight to Heathrow from Prague last Monday.  Then a non-stop flight on Tuesday morning to Halifax, Canada.

The reality: our flight to London was cancelled.  We managed, thanks to a resourceful travel agent, to fly to London Luton that night on “WizzAir”.  A Hungarian airline that clearly has no plans to serve North America given the term “wizz” stands for, well, having a pee.

A $100 taxi ride later and we were nicely ensconced in our Heathrow hotel.  The lobby of which looked like a refugee camp; dozens of dazed and confused travelers milling about wondering whether they were going anywhere.  And surely some of whom had been there since the Friday before, when all of this mess broke out.

Come Tuesday morning, our flight to Halifax had been cancelled.  We waited all day to hear from the travel agent about alternatives.  As in, any desitination in Eastern Canada or Northeast U.S.  Zippo. Nada. Nul.  Air Canada said the earliest available flight to Canada would be December 30th.

Meanwhile, we were looking for another hotel for the night.  The one we were in would gladly put us up another night at double the cost.  My son wanted to stay; he couldn’t get enough of jumping between twin beds in his adjacent room to ours.

So, another $100 taxi ride to a more distant outpost hotel from Heathrow.

By Tuesday afternoon, hope was lost and it was more a question of whether we could even get back to Prague.

Tuesday night we decided that living well is the best revenge.  And hopped a train into London for a great curry meal and some relief from the four walls of a hotel room.  On the ride back, a friendly train-mate charmed our son.  It’s these random encounters with interesting people that make travel worthwhile.

Wednesday morning arrived with a 5am wake-up call and a trip to London City Airport.  We had secured a flight to Amsterdam, with a connection 6 hours later to Prague.

Another $100 taxi ride later, and we arrived at the airport.  If the hotel lobby at Heathrow was like a refugee camp, then the scene at this airport was like the evacuation of Saigon.  Thousands of distressed refuguees travelers queued up in the cold outside the terminal, unsure of how & when they could enter and check in.

An hour after we arrived, the police showed up in force.  Somebody wisely surmised that with this many people, and this little coordination of the queues, something nasty could occur.

2 hours later, we reached the check-in counter.  Bags piling up in heaps.  Children crying (including my own).  Airline employees busily conferring, trying to figure out what to do in the face of utter, systemic break-down.

Once aboard the plane, the captain announces that bags had been loaded for passengers not on board.  A major security no-no.  2 hours later, every bag was finally accounted for.

The rest of the day was mostly without incident.  We spotted some cots and blankets in use at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam.  More signs of the European air travel melt-down.

On arrival in Prague that night, we simply assumed our 4 checked bags were lost, perhaps forever.  Miraculously, 3 bags arrived and only a child’s car seat was missing.

So it was the Christmas that wasn’t.  But the story ends on a better note.  As expast are wont to do, we have invited some friends for Christmas dinner, secured a frssh turkey to cook, a couple of magnums of nice Italian wine, and many other delicacies.

Christmas might not have come off to plan, but the company of friends in a foreign land and the comfort of good food will soften the disappointment of missing one’s family.

May the thousand of others so affected this week be as lucky as us.  God speed!

Awkward times at the RSA Conference

I was at the RSA Conference in London this week.  As a recently-departed employee of the company that hosts the conference, it was a bit awkward.  On the one hand, these people were my colleagues and friends.  It was great to see them and have a beer.

On the other hand, both I and they have moved on.  Lots has changed at RSA since I left, so their recent history is divergent.  And I’m working in a market sector mostly unrelated to theirs, so there’s fewer shared business topics to talk about.

Perhaps the most awkward bit was trying to strike a balance between being friendly and not spending too much time lingering.  I don’t know about you, but in the past I’ve encountered ex-employees at conferences where you get the sense that their lingering equals longing.  As if they regretted leaving your company and yearned for the good old days.

I’m completely at peace with my choices.  I wouldn’t trade my time at RSA for anything, nor would I second guess my move to a new & exciting company where I’m constantly challenged and learning new things.  But I certainly miss my friends.

There is a slightly antique word “gadfly” that comes to mind.  Seems apropos, at least the annoying bit.  As in, don’t be a gadfly at the RSA Conference.

The feeling of illiteracy

What does it feel like to be illiterate?  You and I will never know, given I wrote this and you’re now reading it.  But I might have gotten a view into that world.

During my recent trip back to the United States, I realized how relaxed I was.  I didn’t have to pay constant attention; everything felt so familiar.  I also realized how much of my relaxation was due to comfort with the language, both verbal and written.

Understand that the road sign “Mass Pike” means Massachusetts Turnpike, and that a “turnpike” is a type of highway?  No problem.  Order just what I want in a restaurant (“hold the onions”)?  No problem.

It was that lack of stress that made me realize the constant stress I’ve been feeling by living in a land with a different language.

The Czech language, being a Slavic language, has very few shared words with English.  Unlike Romance languages that have many words with common origin to English.  Hence, I can order a meal in Spain, France or Italy and probably get what I want.  Sausage = “saucisson” in French.  But sausage = “uzeniny” in Czech?  Not so much.

Steve Martin had a stand-up comedy routine in the 70’s where he talked about ordering an omelet in another country, only to get a shoe with melted cheese on it.  Exactly.

If you look past the fact that many people in the Czech Republic can speak English with me, I’m otherwise functionally illiterate there.  How do illiterates cope?  You learn to copy.  Using visual memory alone I can now get places.  But I’m missing so much meaning in communication with others. On a couple of occasions, I looked at loitering teenagers and felt paranoid about whether they’re making fun of me.  I’ll never know.

Stress.  Paranoia.  Ineffective communication.  Imagine how an illiterate person feels.

Illiteracy is a scourge.  It begets poverty.  And ignorance.  And we all know that poverty and ignorance are breeding grounds for much of the behaviors we dislike in the human condition.

Sure, people cope with illiteracy.  Periodically, you read inspiring stories of illiterate, millionaire entrepreneurs.  Yes, they beat the odds and their triumph over adversity makes us feel good.  But the odds they beat are gigantic.  For every person who succeeds despite being illiterate, surely millions of others do not.

You cope.  But you don’t prosper.

Relocation as a Kafka novel?

Ennui.  Self-loathing.  Moral terpitude.  Feelings you get from reading a Kafka novel?  Nope.  All by-products of trying to re-locate.

Some favorite experiences to date:

1. Applying for an expatriate bank account with Wells Fargo.  I spend 20 minutes online supplying reams of personal details for me and my wife.  At the end of the process, the web site says, “Congratulations, you have successfully completed Step 1.  Please proceed to Step 2 by downloading and filling out this form.”  Form 2 asks for the same information.

2. Immigration.  I’m speaking to a colleague about the status of my work papers.  “We’ll get that started when you get here.”  My response, “I’m arriving on a one-way ticket with two suitcases and a cat in a crate.  Do you think they will ask any questions?”

3. Post office box back in the States. My wife sets one up, but it can’t be finalized without my visit to the post office,showing a passport and another photo i.d.  I get there and the clerk says, “Oh, that wasn’t really necessary.  I guess I can take a quick look at your driver’s license.”  Which he does.  Then proceeds to do nothing with it.

4. Health insurance.  With two weeks between jobs, I need to extend my old employer’s benefits using “COBRA”.  I ask my HR person if I can arrange this in advance.  “No.  You will get an application in the mail a few weeks after you leave.  You can retro-actively apply for coverage.”  Try telling that to the dentist as their invoice gets rejected.  Or, try to get re-imbursed for out-of-pocket expenses.

All of this reminded me of the Onion video about “Franz Kafka International Airport” in Prague.  Enjoy: http://www.theonion.com/video/pragues-franz-kafka-international-named-worlds-mos,14321/