zzzzzzzHusband. Drummer. Marketing, Sales and Customer Service Specialist. Music and Art Collector. Road Cyclist. Volunteer. Traveler. bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbb Amateur Photographer. Media/News/Coffee Junkie. Hockey Fan.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

I Heart: Reflection and Respect in New York

Sandra and I have traveled to NYC every year since 2008. Even though we often find ourselves in Lower Manhattan for a walk around Battery Park (not to mention the obligatory shopping trip to retail shrine, Century 21), we have never visited the 9/11 memorial. We have our reasons, of course, and chief among them is a desire to pay our respects far away from long, snaking lineups of tourists waiting in 90F heat. We also steer clear of the even more annoying hucksters that ply the area, hawking September 11th souvenirs, like maps, T-shirts and other memorabilia. 9/11 has already been marketed to death and we see the result everyday: we have watched the creation and implementation of myriad new security systems, institutions and practices; we are forced to adhere to stupid rules and regulations in airports (as if Osama bin Laden is alive and well and hiding in our toothpaste); we are implored to 'remember' by purchasing all sorts of commemorative crap sold on television; and what's left of our privacy bends over in the name of national security. Thanks, Osama. And Rummy. And Wolfy. And that Dick Cheney. 

We remember that morning in 2001 all too well; even though we watched it unfold on TV we now have a very clear and personal appreciation of how that event forever changed our favourite city - and our friends & family who call New York home. We knew we would one day remember and reflect in our own way at Ground Zero; we simply were never in any great hurry.

As yesterday was our last day in NYC and since we happened to be in the area (Century 21...mea culpa), we decided to finally visit the Pools of Reflection. Line-ups are now a thing of the past, thankfully, as passes and security screening are no longer required. Besides, you can look down on the pools from the surrounding office buildings as well as the observation deck of the new One World Trade Center. The pools are massive square waterfalls situated on the footprints of what were the North and South towers of the WTC. The names of the dead are engraved around the perimeter of each pool. As expected, there were many visitors lost in deep and emotional reflection in the park-like setting. I found the pools to be both haunting and disturbing. If this was the intent, the designers succeeded: the water pours down from all 4 sides, then flows - or rather drains - into a large square void in the centre of each pool, falling into a black, unseen nothingness. Into forever. Gone.

Many believe that the full story of 9/11 must be viewed through the prism of US foreign policy. I tend to agree, although I also believe indoctrinated and unreasonable douche bags flying planes into the Twin Towers at the behest of other indoctrinated and unreasonable douche bags is a pretty shitty and cowardly way to make your point. It's 'dirty pool', as they say - the dirtiest, really - and many innocent people died during that game. Sorry you bozos, but you failed spectacularly (see marketing of 9/11, above). There are those as well who will point to the suffering and death that stains our world, and that 3000 lives are nothing compared to the tens of thousands who die unnecessarily every day. It's a spurious argument and insensitive in the extreme. One is too many, anywhere, in any circumstance. 

Our visit was not about politics. It was about the names engraved on the edges of the pools. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers; wives, partners, husbands, sons and daughters. They went to work one day and fell into a black unseen nothingness. Into forever. Gone. I hold them responsible for nothing more than being in the right place at the worst possible time. Choose: burn to death or jump to death. Hell's oceans are a contaminated slurry of confused politics and twisted ideology. 

As we wandered around the pools, checking out the very international collection of names, scattered among the reverential were groups of seemingly brainless tourists posing - yes, posing - in front of the pools like they were at the goddam Eiffel Tower or Empire State Building ('is this my good side?' No. Your good side is behind you, just below your waist). I mean, like, seriously. There they were, in what is essentially a public cemetery, getting into position and smiling for the cameras, smartphones and tablets. Imagine: the 9/11 memorial site as bucket list item to be ticked off the been-there-done-that check box. I know: Sandra and I were tourists, too, and my righteous indignation may come off as more than a little hypocritical. So be it. I took no photos and stared at the black void. 

Ok, I lied a little. I did take a number of photos but the only images I shot were of the gleaming new One World Trade Center standing tall, or, as a good friend remarked today, raised like a giant middle finger with a message to those that would see it, too, knocked down. I never saw the original Twin Towers in person; like many millions, I only saw them fall. The images I took today are my way of celebrating fresh, powerful and iconic architecture, while keeping alive the spirit of the original towers - and the people who worked and died there.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Frite To Be Tried: My Belgian Spin

My last few hours of 2+ weeks in Belgium. This has definitely been a trip to remember, full of terrific memories and unique experiences that I will savour for quite some time.

The Belgians are great hosts. It's not that they go out of their way to provide a warm welcome or great customer service. It is simply the way things are done; there is no 'phoning it in' over here. Not doing great work is simply unthinkable. That alone, I think, is what will resonate longest: the lack of pretence and a profound lack of attitude (OK, I came across a couple of D.B.'s and was snubbed by the greatest cyclist in history, Eddy Merckx - he can be rather cantankerous - but really that was it). Most interestingly, the concepts of 'who you are' or what one's 'status' is comes across as quite insignificant. "What do you do?", often one of the first questions asked upon being introduced back home, may come up in conversation here but much, much later. It's considered a rude lead off, actually. Better evaluations by local standards (or by any standard, in my view): Are you a good person? Respectful? Do good work no matter what that work is? From my experience anyway, these are paramount attributes in Belgium. It certainly shows in the treatment of guests, clients and the way Belgians interact with friends and family, and it is on display on roads and highways. Think of that, Vancouver: a country full of keen and courteous motorists. 

I covered Belgium's rich cycling tradition here the other day so at the risk of repeating myself all I'll say is this: cycling is to Belgium what hockey is at home. In fact, I would suggest it is even more tightly woven into the collective fabric. Even though most Canadians tune in and watch hockey, not many actually play either casually or as part of league. And you certainly don't see many seniors out there back-checking. 

Oh, yes...there's the beer. I've never been much for beer, preferring stiff drinks made with bourbon, scotch, rye, vodka...you get the idea. During my time here, however, I have not had a single cocktail, nor have they been missed. Triple Karmeliet is my new favourite drink, all 8.6% of it, a beer introduced to me by a helpful waiter in Oudenaarde. All hail to the monks that indulged in developing this other (more interesting and fun?) faith.

Of course, many of my observations are not unique to Belgium or Belgians. Over the last 16 days, however, I have taken keen notice of what I have experienced and it really has been very impressive - and humbling. I have witnessed and learned much (I hope) and intend to bring some of this exceptional hospitality and thoughtfulness home with me. I owe that to everyone who made this trip so extraordinary.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Hubs and Spokes

Ever since my first trip overseas in late 1989, I have always loved travelling in Europe. I am enthralled by the architecture, the art, the countrysides, the myriad cultural complexities within such tight geography. Since I am a road cycling enthusiast, Europe has held another fascination for me: the world of professional cycling.

For many North Americans, it was a certain Texan with huge talent, a Lone-Star sized ego, and a large dose of performance-enhancing mean-spiritedness who brought road cycling into their world. Still, it was Europe where Lance Armstrong (and American Greg Lemond back in the 1980's) really got rolling and where all pro cyclists first earn their name and reputation. It is also where the biggest stars enjoy the most fame and it has been this way since the invention of the bicycle. Nowhere is this love more intense or more obsessive than in Belgium. The Italians (pioneers in today's standard road bike technology) will protest loudly. The French will likely go on strike. Fine. Belgium has cycling woven deep into its cultural fabric, and it courses through their collective bloodstream. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in Flanders. Weekdays and weekends, in rain, mud, brutal and biting cold winds, on pavement  or on the cobbles, you see Flandrians out riding. They can be solo or on group rides with their local teammates; or, like most Belgians, just heading to work or some other destination. After all, it's only rain.

Cobblestone lanes wind lazily through the Flanders countryside connecting quaint towns and pretty villages; during a race, however, these cute paths become treacherous, often separating winners from painfully scraped and, quite often, broken competition. Many of these routes are as famous and pivotal to the sport of cycling as Wimbledon, Daytona, or the Montreal Forum (RIP) are to tennis, racing and hockey. The cobbled hills (bergs) are legendary and during Spring Classic season (March to mid April) the biggest crowds gather to cheer their heroes upward. Paddestraat (above), Oude - or old - Kwaremont (below), The Paterberg, The Kemmelberg, The Koppenberg; these scary beasts, while not nearly as long still evoke the same reverence as the high mountains of the Tour de France. Try walking up one on a rainy, muddy day and then imagine racing up 4 or more on skinny wheels, jostling for position with 150+ cyclists riding flat out at up to 45km/h for hours in the wet and wind.

The world's greatest professional cyclist by far is the Belgian legend, Eddy Merckx. He won 525 major races between this late 1960's and '70's. If you count all of Lance Armstrong's premier wins (even those recently stricken from the record), they tally below 100. In addition to his wins in all major Tours, Merckx won countless Classics titles, including the daddy of them all, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, or Tour of Flanders. More recently, Belgian heroes include Tom Boonen, who is arguably the biggest star, along with local lads Stijn Devolder, Sep Vanmarcke, Stijn Vandenbergh and others. Tom was injured in a recent crash and while I'm sorry for his injury, I'm selfishly bummed he is not racing while I'm in Belgium. Nicknamed Spartacus, another local favourite is Fabian Cancellara, a human piston. In Canadian terms, these cycling stars are Belgium's Crosby, Stamkos, Voracek, Price and Ovechkin. Cancellara is Swiss but the respect he has earned on the cobbles in East and West Flanders gives him honorary citizenship in Flanders; so large is his reputation there is actually a room (a shrine, really) dedicated to him in the Ronde Van Vlaanderen Museum in Oudenaarde. According to the proprietor of my hotel just outside town, Cancellara has the determination and sensibility of a Flandrian. Sadly, he broke two vertebrae last Friday on the cobbles of Flanders (I took the photo below of him - and his custom-painted bicycle - merely two hours before that fateful moment). His 2015 Classics campaign - indeed, most of his season - is thrown into doubt. So it goes in professional road cycling - and on the cobbles. 

What about Canadians in the pro peloton? Until recently, Steve Bauer, the Canadian powerhouse from the 1980s was our most decorated hero. More recently, Victoria's Ryder Hesjedal (yes, Ryder....his name is the Joe Strummer of cycling) won the 2012 Giro de Italia (Tour of Italy), a 3 week stage race many believe is harder to win than the Tour de France. He is the only Canadian to ever win a Grand Tour, a massive feat of skill and endurance that most Tim Hortons drinkers missed, unaware and therefore unable to appreciate its difficulty - and prestige. Langley's Svein Tuft rides for Australia's Orica Greenedge team. A real 'hard man' of the pro peloton, he always finishes even the toughest races. More famous souls will quit when in a 'spot of bother' but Tuft will rarely, if ever, 'abandon'. He is a brilliant time trialist, and if it were not for a flat tire near the finish in 2008, he would have won the World Championship. Still, he took silver. Again, a huge yet all but invisible win for Canada. Other top Canadian pros include Tuft's teammate Christian Meier, French Team Ag2r's Hugo Houle, the bearded guy below - note tiny Canadian flag on the top tube by his right knee (he shook my hand prior to the race 'E3 Harelbeke' upon learning I was from Vancouver), and Team Europcar's Antoine Duchesne. And we cannot leave out the great careers of women pros like Clara Hughes and the Canadian legend Alyson Sydor, as we focus on up and comers like Leah Kirchmann and Joelle Numainville. Unfortunately, like the men their herculean efforts are rarely, if ever, celebrated in Canadian media. Which takes me back to why I came to Belgium.

The culture around cycling here runs very deep. It was wonderful to witness one woman, easily in her late '60', all geared out in her rain booties, logo'd jersey, tights, shorts and arm warmers, riding a very light and very expensive road bike tackling the cobbled climbs with her husband and their local club. Until I experienced first hand last week's horrendous weather, cold and wet that no hot shower could thaw, I really had little appreciation of just how dedicated and resilient Belgian cycling fans really are. They will happily suffer for hours in awful weather just to cheer on their favourites who whizz by in a split second and are gone. They then gather in local pubs, cafes and community halls to watch the rest of the race on the big screen, quaffing sponsored beer in branded glasses, debating the merits of such and such rider or team, eyes glued to massive screens. It may be about the teams and cyclists and the media which extols - or eviscerates - them, but it all revolves around the fans, exemplified by the 2 cute Belgians below. They know.

Belgian cycling culture: like their beer, it is strong and impossible to resist.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

More beer, please!

After leaving Garden in the City, I went in search of my rental car. Kurt (B&B owner) mentioned that Hertz was "quite far away"; I have learned that Belgian concepts of proximity differ slightly from those of North Americans. Walking is the best way to discover new places and Gent did not disappoint. Needing to be in Oudenaarde for 3 or 4 pm, my car quest took priority. Nevertheless, rather than take a bus I traded the beaten path for the canals less traveled - by visitors. Gent did not disappoint. It is lovely. Smitten by the calming scenery, cute bridges, grassy riverbanks and gorgeous riverfront homes (I have long appreciated European aesthetics), I actually traveled past my destination by 10 or 15 minutes. "Quite far away" passed very quickly. Here are a few first impression images:

After taking possession of my wee but spirited Hyundai, I was on my way to Oudenaarde. My accommodation in Oudenaarde is not quite in Oudenaarde (ODEN-ardeh). Off the highway about 10 minutes north, Hotel Moriaanshooft (view from my room, and that of the restaurant entrance, are below) would not be out of place in the Alberta Rockies. Indeed, the menu would appeal to a great many Albertans; let's just say it does not cater to vegetarians. That is, right now. After some marketing consultations with owner Joris, that may well change - all about revenue streams, no? Nevertheless, on my first evening, Joris, who owns the hotel with his wife, delivered a lovely Ni├žoise salad to my table, along with some excellent Belgian beer and thoroughly enjoyable conversation. So far, I have found Belgian hospitality and customer service to be exceptional. The beer, too, has been terrific. I'm not really a beer guy, but let's just say I've not even considered bourbon since arriving. 

Like so many people I have met this week, Joris is engaging, very knowledgeable and incredibly passionate about the best things Flanders has to offer, especially beer, hospitality and, of course, cycling. He really wants clients to feel the warmth often lacking at more sterile, modern properties. Knowing my lack of experience when it comes to Belgian beer, Joris had me try some fabulous local brews high in alcohol content and equally rich in flavour. After he provided some background on brewing, I feel that I'm enjoying beer while savouring a rich history. It is no wonder Hotel Moriaanshooft is favoured by Belgian pro cycling teams and many companies doing business in the area. On the topic of locale, here are a few images taken around Oudenaarde:

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

There Once Was A Young Man from Ghent....

I've been waiting, like, for-ever for an opportuniy to employ my favorite naughty limerick. This first post from Belgium needed a title; I simply could not resist. 

Day one in Ghent (Gent). I stayed up last night until 10:00 pm local time (1pm at home) after being up since 7:30 Sunday morning. With perhaps an hour or two of dozing on the 9 hour flight to London, another hour to Brussels and 1 more by train to Ghent, it was a long day. 

The owner of the B&B (Garden in the City), Kurt, greeted me at 8:30pm. A gracious and very welcoming host of a perfectly appointed - and by then greatly appreciated - accommodation, he gave me the largest suite (check out the images - some 'B&B'!) and, after offering a few vegetarian suggestions, left me to find my dinner. This is the university quarter of Ghent and the streets are quite busy with walkers and cyclists. Unlike those I will watch race this week and next, these attractive riders are bundled in fashionable outfits as they glide by in the chilly night on Dutch-style bikes. Love it. 

I found a Greek restaurant in the area, had a decent vegetarian moussaka, came back and crashed. I awoke 4 hours later. WTF? Of course. The dreaded lag. I managed to eke out 3.5 more hours and here I am. This place is fabulous. Pity I am only staying the one evening before the adventure really begins. 

If ever in Ghent, Garden in the City is a must place to stay. Kurt and his husband (he's in S. France managing their other hotel) have a lovely B&B that has exceeded every expectation. Their two kittens are terrific; one is named Tommy, which as many of my friends know, is a name that holds much significance for me! Here are a few images of my room, as well as Kurt's home where breakfast is served. Garden in the City, indeed. Please note the bed looked way better before I slept in it. This is my feeble attempt to recreate the crisp look. You'll get the idea. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Back Seat Driving: Launching the Cadillac CT6

On Oscar night, Cadillac launched their new campaign; clearly, the hope is we (OK, the next generation of luxury consumers) consider their brand cool. This is not really news: for some time now, Cadillac has made it clear they want us to re-evaluate our impression of them. That in itself is uncool to me. 

Cleverly launched during the Academy Awards, the spot is beautifully shot in Soho (Cadillac's new home), around Manhattan, and Brooklyn. We are challenged to "Dare Greatly", as Cadillac has done (presumably) with this new brand refresh, and just like the game-changing Americans featured in the commercial: Steve Wozniak, Jason Wu, and (how timely!) filmmaker Richard Linklater. That's some country club your Caddy just pulled up to. 

Of course, daring greatly drives the world forward, risk of failure be damned. Cadillac failed for decades, but not in the focused pursuit of life changing events or technologies. Instead, it made ponderous beasts too often piloted by believers of 'you are what you drive'. It also failed masterfully in recent advertisements directed, it seemed, not to thoughtful, discerning, and hip millennials but to arrogant douche-a-holics. The agency responsible for those hard starts was recently dropped at the curb. 

The objective for Cadillac then, is appealing in a meaningful, memorable way to consumers too young to remember land-barge Caddy's. Naturally, the tagline 'not your father's - or grandfather's - Cadillac' would have undermined the reinvention. I like the new direction but I am uncomfortable with the predictability. The problem for me is this 'new' engagement concept is already a tired theme. The tone or message is similar to Facebook's recent 'Our Friends' promotion; indeed, like the often imitated Man on a Horse campaign that brilliantly and successfully rescued Old Spice from your father's - or grandfather's - shaving kit, it seems every agency wants to recreate the latest winning concept. I can understand the motivation: in 30 seconds, Old Spice, that forgotten, totally uncool brand, arrived unexpectedly and instantly became super cool; the commercial delivered an influential impression that still resonates. Dare greatly, indeed.

Old Spice set the bar on re-setting brand perception and as we know, consumer perceptions are key. Heineken, for example, manages to beat all other beer brands with clever TV spots that are well crafted and smart, making a statement without missing the point. Their ads blow me away. They make me laugh. They don't tour me around a brooding Manhattan to prove their Soho cred. Feh. (Moving to Southern California would have made much more sense, Cadillac: a game-changing location with a car-centric culture and myriad opportunities to market a luxury brand. I realize Lincoln tried but they gave up. Remember: Dare Greatly.) 

So much more could have been done to re-engineer my impression of Cadillac. Want to be really cool? Want to 'Dare Greatly'? Dare to be original.