Friday, 17 October 2014

Lavasa: corporate dream, ghost town, or both?

One of the utopian type advertising posters in Lavasa, branding courtesy of Landor from what I read.
While in India, I had an unexpected and pretty amazing opportunity to visit a city called Lavasa, situated in the Western Ghats, between Mumbai and Pune, though technically closer to Pune. I was staying with friends in Pune and friends of theirs involved with the local branch of the British Business Group were visiting Lavasa in preparation for the Christmas Gala event they were organising in the city's conference centre.

My friends in Pune had mentioned to me a new city on the way from Mumbai airport after I’d landed but I hadn’t really understood what they meant at the time. I hadn’t done any research and didn’t have any particular expectations. I was just told it was a brand new city project, initiated by an extremely wealthy building and property company, though apparently almost devoid of inhabitants. 

 We drove to the Ghats, a chain of old mountains reduced to almost hills running all along the Southwestern coast of India, several quite famous and popular British colonial hill stations are around there. The weather, quite clear in Pune, started clouding over as soon we arrived in the Ghats, and as we drove up in altitude we were quickly and completely in the clouds and mist. After a little over two hours of fast driving (double the speed most Indians drive at), nothing was around but a single quite recently built windy road. We finally arrived to a large portal or gate built over the road with a guardian in the front. It was raining and grey, I didn’t envy the guy's job on that day. We waited for some other people to meet us just beyond the gate and I took advantage of a lull in the rain to go to a panorama point, indicated as such by a handy sign though interestingly there wasn’t any parking space for a car to stop nearby.

The city view in the valley from the entrance, I thought it was a just a bad day until I was told half the year was like this.
I could barely see the town at the bottom of the valley for the clouds and mist, built around a lake. They had also built chalets a little higher from the lake on the hill sides. A few other buildings seemed to be still in construction. I was told people visited for the weekend like they did the other Hill Stations, though was told this was  also meant to be a stand alone city and they intended to attract education institutions and then students, and then people to purchase all these properties. I asked how students who don’t typically have that much cash would travel to this empty ghost town given there wasn’t any public transport. It was definitely far from the train lines, and a bus would take hours from the nearest large city.
The mostly empty houses along the lake
And more houses and structures being built everywhere.
 We drove down to the conference and events centre where I found out Accor Hotels was managing this whole venture, their logo was around the deserted exhibition centre, and their brands were present elsewhere, such as the Hotel Mercure we had lunch at.

The whole place was being drenched in downpours every few minutes while we were there. One of the employees told us this particular valley received the highest rainfall of India and it rained for 5-6 months non stop every year, often more than that. 

The exhibition centre looked both brand new and overused. I supposed the wear and tear of the rain might be to blame for the sorry state of the chairs in the conference rooms.

I asked how many people actually lived in the hundreds of apartments I could see along the lake, and was told it was perhaps two hundred. I spotted less than a dozen occupied apartments from clothes drying, furniture, or curtains. I still suspect most of those are the builders who I could see working on new structures nearby. A parking lot and more apartments, apparently.

Close up on the Lavasa International Conference Centre.
Before leaving, we went to the visitor’s centre where we admired posters touting Lavasa as the free eco city of the future. Nothing looked particularly eco or sustainable as far as I could see. They gave us a video presentation of the plans for the whole valley, we were told this was the first of seven future towns in the complex of Lavasa through a well crafted 3D animation flying over the valley, each new town would be specialised in a branch of industry, and that this was the first city in India entirely created, developed, and managed by a corporation.

I felt we were all listening to a talk about the beauty of the emperor’s new clothes.

As we left under more rain and grey, I couldn’t help but think of several blog posts I’d seen with photos of similar ghost towns in China, and that in the real world, building it doesn’t mean they’ll come - at all. 

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Beers & Bollywood: My first weekend in India

Independence Brewing Co. brand new 1,000L brewhouse
My first weekend in India can be conveniently summed up into an alliteration, though fortunately there is more to it than that. I landed in Mumbai on a Friday morning expecting to immediately experience the crazy India everybody had been telling me about as soon as I walk out of customs. You know the idea; I pictured hundreds of people waiting on other hundreds of passengers walking out with me, being solicited by numerous taxi drivers or tourist touts, etc. Instead, the brand new T2 International terminal opened about 6 months ago was close to empty. My good friends Sangita and Richard came to pick me up at the airport and we were off to Pune where they live, a fast growing business and tech hub a few hours from Mumbai.

On the Saturday they asked me what I wanted to do and I quickly remembered reading up about the craft beer revolution coming to India with a few different microbreweries and brewpubs, one of which had recently opened in Pune, Independence Brewing Company. I particularly remembered the photos looked amazing and they feature Greg Koch from Stone Brewing as a Chief Advisor and co-founder, and whether you like Stone or not you can deny he’s a pretty big deal for beer geeks.

The place looks as stunning in real life as in on the photos, really big bar and restaurant area, large brewery section with a gleaming new 1,000L brewhouse and 9 fermentation tanks imported from the US, impressive material!

Now for the interesting part: they have been open for over 6 months and haven’t brewed a single drop of beer yet. They don’t have the license to brew alcohol yet, they’ve apparently been stuck with administrative issues, and according to what I’ve heard that may also mean someone is waiting for, or negotiating a baksheesh – or as Darshan Jariwala’s character Vivek in Million Dollar Arm says “it’s not a bribe, we just bypass the system” (I watched it on the plane over, cute film). From a few other conversations I’ve had, this seems to be a regular feature for anyone trying to build a new business venture in India, and the same reasons Adi from the late Jungle Beer told me he opened in Singapore rather than India.

We still had a lovely evening, the food was delicious and we sampled some nice draft beer from Gateway Brewery in Mumbai. According to what the guys said at IBC, they should be ready to start brewing at the end of September, I wish them all the best!

On Sunday we were invited to the opening of a new bar in Pune, a new business launched by the brother of Bollywood superstar and Miss World 2000, Priyanka Chopra. I of course had no idea who my friend Sangita was talking about and had to look Priyanka up on Wikipedia. I find it always really interesting to wake up to the fact that a country of 1.2 Billion people has a whole huge set of interests and media fascinations I barely know anything about.

At first I thought the evening wasn’t really my kind of thing, a bit too elite, and then started getting interested for the same reason, as a pretty awesome opportunity to mingle with Pune’s high and mighty – plus free drinks! I ended up having a lot of fun, danced, and joined in the crowd of raving fans taking pictures when Priyanka showed up. By the end of the evening it was getting a little decadent, bartenders putting the whole bar on fire, serving spirits poured directly from the bottles to people's mouths.

It’s also interesting to me as I’m not a huge fan of any celebrities; I was also hoping to learn something by joining in. I participated in a game she launched to give out gifts: this white guy here jumped the highest and got a gift from Priyanka herself. I’m not sure I understand any more the fan phenomenon after the experience, though I knew the contents of the gift were meaningless, what really mattered is I had one from Priyanka and the look on people’s faces because of it was impressive.

I also just read this really interesting piece about Bollywood fans turning on to a journalist, which sheds a little more light on the phenomenon. I think they’re pretty crazy; of course nothing wrong with loving a genre, an artist, a movie, whatever – but once the amount of significance invested in it becomes fanaticism, it also becomes scary.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Good bye Singapore

I'm about to board my flight to India and I finally have a few minutes to write this, not sure I'll have time to properly do it justice, I may add more later on.

I flew in to Singapore on the 3rd of September 2012, and started working at Saatchi & Saatchi on the 5th, exactly two years ago. Everything fell into place perfectly in my first few weeks in Singapore and it felt right; the first apartment I visited had everything I wanted in features, price, and in short walking distance from the office. I wasn't too sure how much I would like Singapore though fortunately it all turned out great. I've had a fantastic experience, made great friends, started home brewing beer, had way too much food and craft beers and regained all the weight I'd lost while traveling before landing in the Lion City.

Thank you everyone who made this experience so special, my flight is boarding so it's time to look ahead to new adventures!

Friday, 29 August 2014

And now for something completely different

Image credit: Wonderlane 
A few changes are coming up around here, and I have been looking forward to writing about it here; today is my last day working with POSSIBLE Singapore. Unfortunately the new role is not working out for me and after much consideration and hesitation I have chosen to resign, and I am also leaving Singapore next week.

I am going to be rushing next week to get everything ready and it is going even faster than I thought, I'm flying off to India for a month in a week's time. I am going to spend a month in India, first visiting friends in Pune near Mumbai and then I'll go wander somewhere I can keep writing and think about the next steps. I am most probably coming back to Europe, as much as I've enjoyed Asia and living so close to the Equator, I also miss being closer to home and my family. I'm not certain where I'm going to end up just yet but I'm definitely going to take a couple of months to focus on writing and thinking of a few different options for future work and living location, maybe back to London, maybe Amsterdam, maybe Paris, maybe somewhere else.

It's a lazy excuse (but I'll stick with it for now anyways) with everything going on relating to finishing work, starting to organise moving and the handing off of my apartment, and various drinks and farewells with friends, I've been off my writing plans published in the past post. I held it for three weeks and then it all started falling apart - I'm still writing every week and tallying my word count but I've not kept up the equivalent of 500 words per day after the first three weeks, so I definitely haven't upgraded to a 1,000 words per days either... I'm finishing work today and will update my writing plans, and focusing a lot more on writing after I've left Singapore.

In the meantime it is still a great exercise so far, I have been writing random musings for word count, memories of travels, descriptions of my favourite walks in Paris and London, some paragraphs of fiction from sudden ideas, and I also spend time writing in preparation for a classic tabletop role playing game session I ran with friends a few weeks ago, which was awesome fun! I'd forgotten how much time it took to prepare on one hand, and how much fun it was on another! I think everyone had a fantastic afternoon. I'm not preparing another one for when I'll catch up with some old friends in Paris in October.

I still can't really believe I'm about to leave Singapore, I'll probably write a different good-bye post about that next week. I am equally excited about creating something different and a new blank page in my life, and while I'll miss my friends in Singapore I'm looking forward to seeing many friends back in Europe!

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Word count training challenge

Calvin & Hobbes, Bill Watterson

This is something I hadn't thought about for a little while and hadn't given much energy or intention to in years either; one of my dreams in life is write a novel. I spent a while reading some advice for writing and there seems to be a general consensus that the best way to become a writer is to actually write.

I was probably hoping my novel would just be delivered at the door by Amazon, or at least that some nefarious supernatural being might show up and offer me a Faustian deal, but neither of those seem to be happening so I might just have to do the work myself.

Given my slob-like tendencies, I have been lazy with my writing - how often I update my blog being a case in point (and/or I can also be too busy with other important stuff like watching TV shows or making/drinking beer), I'm putting together a training regime and making some commitments about how much I'll be writing. And I'm telling people as well as writing it in my blog so I don't laze out of it and even if I happen to slip, this way I'll have friends reminding me by asking how I'm doing with my writing projects.

This takes us to NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, which happens in November. For those who haven't heard of it, it first started as a community initiative to encourage more people to practice creative writing and a group of people supporting each other with their writing projects. Now it is also a non profit organisation and they have several creative writing initiatives in addition to NaNoWriMo

The main goal is pretty straightforward: write a 50,000 word 'novel' between the 1st to the 30th of November. I added quotes to novel given I understand the main goal to be quantity rather than quality, nobody checks what you write, it's all about the word count to practice writing in quantity. Apparently the 50k goal represents about a small novel like The Great Gatsby and is theoretically possible to achieve while also having a full time job.

According to the website 341,375 people participated in 2012 from all around the globe, it has become quite popular. I first heard about NaNoWriMo at a Barcamp in London a few years ago, someone told us about their experience of participating and spending way too much time with the support groups, and nowhere near enough time actually writing.

There are also quite a few people with divided opinions about NaNoWriMo, but the way I see it, I need to get up to speed and force myself to train to up my word count, once I'm more comfortable with that, then I can worry about quality and re-writing something to get a finished novel. This reminded me of a story, apparently first published in a book called Art & Fear and I've seen several mentions of since, but I haven't identified the actual source, so while I like the story I'm not totally certain it is true.

In short, it is the story of a ceramics teacher who split his classroom in two as an experiment, telling one half they would all be graded on quantity: the more pots they did, the better grade they would get. He told the second half they would be judged on quality: one clay pot would be sufficient to get a top grade, as long as it was perfect.

You can already imagine the results: the pots of the quantity group were if a higher quality standard than the second group because they had a lot more practice and given they didn't worry about quality, ended up learning more from their mistakes as they went. The quality group spent a lot of time pondering about the meaning of perfection but didn't get any better at pottery (Whether they got better as philosophers, the story doesn't say).

I see participating in NaNoWriMo the same way, and I'm setting a training regime I'd like to share with you.

Writing 50,000 words of a new novel or story in November 2014 means writing an average of 1,667 words per day. I'm nowhere near that kind of volume so I'll start with getting up to speed first.

I'm setting myself a few rules:

  1. I'll measure my daily word count and tally weekly and monthly numbers
  2. This is what can go towards my daily word count:
    • Writing about myself, my life, my travels, in a biography or journal style - this is to warm up as it were, apparently writing about what you know is a recurring piece of advice and I imagine if I get stuck with a story, writing about myself would be easier to make my word count in the beginning
    • Writing for a novel or short story
    • Writing a blog post
    • Posts or articles I might write for other publications
  3. I can postpone word count for a day or a few, as long as I'm up to date by the end of each week (if I don't do that it's a fail and I'll work out how to catch up in the following week)
From today to the Sunday 16th August I commit to writing at least 500 words per day (3,500 / week) and up to 100% in biography style.

From 17th August 2014 to 13th September I'll increase to 1,000 / day (7,000 words / week) and up to 50% in biography style - this is so I start forcing myself to write more fiction stories.

From 14th September 2014 to 18th October  I'll increase to 1,500 / day (10,500 words / week) and up to 50% 
in biography style.

From 19th October to 31st October I commit to writing at least 1,800 / day (12,600 words per week) and up to 25% in biography style.

Then on the 1st of November I will begin a new novel for NaNoWriMo, meaning I'll write an average of 1,667 words per day and an overall goal of 50,000 until 30th November.

I'll re-evaluate how things are going and wether I need any more or different rules. After November, I'll evaluate how well I've done and what the next phase should be about in the overall novel writing project.

If you see me, or contact me, please don't hesitate asking how I'm doing with the writing challenge!

PS: By my own rules, this blog post counts against my daily writing, adding 1,095 words to my daily word count!

PPS: I realise after publishing that my word count for NaNoWriMo naïvely divides the 50k by goal by the number of days and that even to write a completely unfinished pile of crap it might still require more than 1,667 words written per day. I will revise this in a few weeks, seeing how the training goes.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Saturday Streaming #2

It's a day late but in any case here are my favourite videos from the past week.

At the Cannes advertising event, or rather festival of creativity as it is now called, apparently the most awarded campaign this year celebrates some of the basest greedy human behaviours in a desperate plea for attention. And apparently it worked out well for them. I don't like it. Particularly that it's about Christmas, and it's a time of year I love to spend with loved ones and sharing moments where I don't behave like a selfish spoiled brat.

This Lacoste video on the other hand, is gorgeous - quite the opposite and a beautiful film to boot.

John Oliver keeps kicking ass in his new weekly news show, and HBO publishes whole segments on Youtube which is awesome:

13/07/2014 Update: I haven't updated this segment last week or yesterday. I think I'll drop the idea, still considering. I was thinking it might make for easy blogging, which may be true but it's also lazy blogging. I'll think about it and post another update by end of July on the topic.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Saturday Streaming #1

Happy summer solstice everyone! I just realised I spent most of the longest day of the year working on a video edit for an upcoming podcast project I'm working on. Oh well. I diverge, anyways the point here is I'm starting a new series of simple posts, with a little alliteration for title and the videos I've enjoyed watching the most in the past week.

First up, I don't exactly know how I missed this campaign when it first came out in 2012 but in any case if ever you haven't seen this fantastic ad for Southern Comfort, check it out:

By far one of the best I've seen in a while, and the music excellent too. I actually have all the ads running in loops on my projector screen as I'm writing this. The others in the series are great too, you can watch them over on their Youtube channel. I believe we can thank W+K for those. I wonder if selling more Southern Comfort. They did keep with the campaign since 2012 so I guess it must be.

Next, I was just catching up with John Oliver's new show on HBO Last Week Tonight, there are several brilliant segments available on Youtube, and amongst the ones I watched a special mention of serious laughing out loud action goes to this special letter from POM Wonderful, the makers of the pomegranate juice, which I also know for being the title sponsors of Morgan Spurlock's documentary The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. I still haven't tried the juice but seeing this I'm not sure I want to...

It is the Cannes Lions international advertising festival at the moment, so I reviewed some of the advertising work from the past year the industry press is saying will probably win awards, I had seen quite a few though this one I hadn't and is really compelling. A bit offbeat and an original, inspiring way of communicating a public service announcement:

I'll finish with the pretty amazing new OK GO music video, mind blowing once again. This time they are playing with optical illusions in a huge warehouse:

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Reverse engineering the Gillette Manscaping video

In my last post, I wrote about the idea of celebrating the bottom of the ad barrel with a series of posts. Yesterday I spent some time looking for a number of ads, wondering where to find these ads and how to evaluate what would be worth writing about while struggling to keep my eyes open watching one boring ad after another. In hindsight perhaps not the best use of two hours of free weekend time...

This made me think of a slightly different approach because there's no hope for any kind of objectivity in this exercise. I'll primarily try to keep note of ads I'm shown in Youtube pre-rolls that bore or irritate me, and I'll talk about them in the blog while attempting to recreate the creative brief that could have led to the creation of the ad. Of course everything I'll be writing in these kinds of posts is humorous parody (hopefully, mostly).

Without further ado, let's talk about this series of Gillette videos. I was shown this one in pre-roll:

I was not too happy to watch this ad again, but in the spirit and intention of benefiting the rest of humanity with marketing pseudo-science, I did anyways. I still remember being shown this ad on Youtube, of course while trying to watch another ad. They use the first five seconds before users can skip the ad effectively to capture the male users' attention, like blasting full fog lights from the speeding Gillette road train to the unsuspecting stag quietly crossing the road.

'Hey guys, I know there's a lot of rumours out there flying around about body-trimming' - 3 seconds in.

The poor target is hooked. As a naive consumer the questions immediately come to mind: Who is this guy and why does he look bare chested? Is he in a shower? Why is he talking to me like I'm his friend? Am I friends with this guy? Am I in the bathroom with him? Are there really rumours flying around about body-trimming? Should I know about them? Am I out of the loop? Why does he look so creepy?

The paralysis and horror shape up for the following few seconds. I don't skip the ad, I just viscerally need to understand why this person wants to tell me about chest shaving so badly. And maybe there's something I should know about it. We're at 15 seconds in the video. My finger is ready to click the skip button on my mouse but I can't seem to. 18 seconds. Now he's caressing his chest hair. This is really weird. His goatee is weird too. He's basically just taken a whole minute pretending to teach me something but telling me I can use shaving gel and start shaving / trimming under the shower. I'm pretty sure I knew that. I stopped before the end of the long video the first time, but the memory will be there forever and I would like to share it with you.

Let's analyse it a bit further, we'll go through the usual steps and imagine what the creative brief might have looked like. The creative brief is the document that usually leads to the advertising idea and execution for an ad like this one, it typically has the following elements:

Business context and objective:

While Gillette are usually content with getting the male audience excited about their new products by borrowing visual tropes from high end luxury and sports car adverts, this time they would like to create a meaningful and lasting personal connection with the guys. Plus they need to sell a huge bunch of trimmers, and if more men shaved more hair in more places, they would obviously buy more blades.

Target audience:

Men, ideally of the young Millennial variety but we'll talk about 18-45 years old to be on the safe side. Most of them shave, and even bearded hipsters trim. Plus a recent survey mentioned in Cosmopolitan states that 95% of men now 'manscape' so it is widely known and accepted.

Audience insight:

Given 95% of young men already manscape, the leftover 5% probably need help to figure it out. Also men really appreciate being told how to do stuff like shaving, many would like the idea of a shaving companion with them in the bathroom.

Single-minded message:

Gillette is men's friendly manscaping confidant.


- Perhaps a series of videos, like on Youtube, there are plenty of 'how to' videos
- Feature creepy guys inviting the unsuspecting watcher in their shower
- These could be actually pretty useful and informative videos for those who have questions about manscaping, but we'd like to make sure we remove useful information from the video in order to amp up the personal connection opportunities. For example, some men might have legitimate questions about shaving with or against the grain; do not answer those or provide an opinion. It's a trap.
- Ensure the media plan reaches people at strange times. If advertising on Youtube, no frequency cap required.

I'll finish with my actual opinion about the ad and a question. Overall I think there might be a decent idea in there somewhere but it's badly executed. I started watching a few other videos in the series and didn't find them any better.

I find the guys featured creepy, is it me or do others think that too?

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Scraping the bottom of the ad barrel: a new series of posts

Image credit: midiman

I haven't wrote about advertising for a while, and given I'd like to ramp up activity around here I thought it would be a good idea to come up with a new series of blog posts, something I could write about on a weekly basis perhaps.

It is pretty commonly accepted that 99% of ads are pretty boring, bad, run of the mill, etc. Just turn your TV on and see for yourself. Or walk outside and notice billboards, read a magazine, or pay attention to banners online. There is a lot of industry press and awards for the 1% of good work out there, so that's covered, but what about the wide majority of ads that allow admen to eat and pay bills every month? And what about the 1% at the other end of the spectrum, the very worst stuff, the boring bottom of the ad barrel? Sure the catastrophes get some press, like really stupidly offensive stuff, but how about the mind-numbingly mundane..? 

I feel not enough is written about bad ads and bad practices. Well actually, there are typically a few posts every year about the worst ads. I just want to write about it, I think it could be fun. So this upcoming series of posts aims to celebrate or at least provide some online coverage for the worst and most boring ad campaigns out there. Some of my commentary might be insightful, but don't hope for too much of that.

Of course given 99% of ads are pretty bad to start with, where do you find the really boring ones? It is going to be pretty subjective. Plus I work in advertising too so I might have to be slightly careful... (Perhaps a good time to remind everyone that this blog is personal and doesn't represent the views of my employer). 

This is one of the main reasons I'm starting with an opening post, if you have suggestions or ideas as to how or where to find these ads please tell me in the comments. In my experience and given I don't watch TV, Youtube pre-rolls are decent place to start - I'll pay more attention. If I keep at it properly, there could be some kind of small competition for vote for the worst ads... Maybe Ads of the World can help too? I'll be doing some more research.

If you have more ideas, please keep in touch in the comments, or Twitter, or you can send me an email via Thanks!

Sunday, 8 June 2014

My Travel Bug

Image Credit: 'Wandering' by Hasna Lahmini
Image Credit: 'Wandering' by Hasna Lahmini

In the past couple of weeks since a friend of mine sent me this post about what it is to have the travel bug (in French, 'Le virus du voyage') I've been giving some thought as to why I travel, what I enjoy about it, and what this supposed bug is all about.

To start with, I haven't really considered myself a great traveler until only recently. I'm not sure if it's because I always meet people who have traveled more than I have while travelling, or if I just hadn't really thought about myself in this way - I mean by that I've just been thinking that traveling the way I have is a pretty normal thing to do. Checking my TripAdvisor Facebook app, I've traveled to 27 countries, about 17% of the world. You might know I spent 18 months traveling in Asia and over a year of that time trying out the digital nomad thing. I have also been on a few 1-2 month long trips before. The fact is my family and friends think of me as a great traveler. According to a recent survey, the average Briton has traveled to 7 countries. I'm not British, but I think I can agree I'm not average either, at least when it comes to travel.

So there, I'm a traveler.

There are several aspects of being a traveler I can write about, I'll spread that over a few different posts. I'd like to talk about the urge first, it's one way to talk about how it starts.

Travel bug is an interesting term in itself, taken literally it implies the traveler is not responsible for his wanting to wander, only the victim of a greater force at play, so strong it is compared with a disease or a virus. I don't think there is such a thing as not being entirely responsible for wanting to go travel, however the analogy is pretty good. It feels like a longing, wanting to drop everything and just go, seeing with my own eyes the landscape hiding beyond the horizon even though I intellectually know that the proverbial grass isn't actually any greener over there than it is here.

How did I catch this travel bug then? I'm not sure, but you could say I grew up in the right terrain: my parents left their own countries and traveled to different ones to live and work, I have too as a child, so I have an international background. I remember reading somewhere that children who grow up with an international background and travel are more likely to do the same as adults.

I've always loved reading, from the moment I learned I was reading 2-3 times more than school assignments asked for. I day dream a lot, and over think almost everything. My favourite books are science-fiction, fantasy, and travel journals - stories about exploring imagined worlds or our own. I know these things are related, without necessarily providing a specific reason.

I remember collecting post cards from various places as a teenager, they decorated the walls of my bedroom. I preferred them over posters of any movies or bands I liked. It may have started even earlier, though it makes me think of a story, probably the closest explanation I have right now.

When I was 15 years old, just before turning 16, I went to visit old friends of my parents in Long Island, near Oyster Bay if I remember correctly. They had two kids about my age I hadn't seen since I was 6 years old, before we moved to France. I didn't really have a good time during the trip. I was hanging out with the kids and their friends, it was ok but I don't remember really getting along with them. As a teenager, being part of the group is essential though, and I didn't really have anyone else to hang out with so I made efforts to be friendly.

Then something happened, I can't remember exactly what it was, but probably something barely interesting enough to make it in a daytime TV sitcom scenario. Something along the lines of being made the scapegoat for something that was said to someone and upset the whole group. Drama, shouting, and vague threats ensued, and basically it was made clear to me I was no longer welcome in the gang. Then on top of that I was told off be the father that night for not helping around the house (I was, or at least I thought I was) and had some weird speech about how I should be more sociable (again, I thought I was). He didn't let me call my parents after that when I asked, because it was too expensive.

Needless to say I was seriously upset. I went to my room, cried a while, I missed my friends and family back in France, and suddenly felt very far away from home. Then I thought about it all. I felt alone, and also like I was the only one I could count on to have anything else happen.

I wondered what I could do about it, what I wanted to do about it. I didn't want to be a victim of the situation.

I was only a few days away from the end of the trip, and I hadn't really seen anything of New York City, which was why I wanted to go in the first place. I had spent most of the time in Long Island so far. I looked at the train schedule, made a decision, and made a plan. I would get the hell out of that house and go visit Manhattan, I'd be solid and self-reliant, I didn't need any of those people. I didn't think exactly in those words, but thinking back they describe the way I was being pretty accurately. I spent the last few days of my trip taking an early train to Penn Station, about 90 minutes or so on the train, wander walking all around Manhattan, and taking a train back to Long Island at the end of the day.

I think that's the first time I experienced travelling on my own. It felt and still feels like a curious mix of contemplation, admiration and appreciation of my surroundings, feeling free, yet also melancholic.

These moments tend to be quite magical, and strangely they are also times my mind feels the quietest and most peaceful - particularly hours spent on a train or a bus watching the landscape go by, not thinking about much and thoroughly enjoying it. I always meet lots of great people while I travel though I'm not talking of these moments, I mean the times really spent alone.

It is also the traveler's feeling - at least mine - of being part of the world, seeing it with one's own eyes yet being somewhat separated from the societies and people traveled through, being some kind of sideline observer. It calms me, give me new perspectives, gives me new thoughts and ideas. I think Paul Theroux writes very well about this kind of feeling, I love his travel books. Sort of in this style Happy Isles of Oceania comes to mind.

I think this is what my traveling is about, craving and chasing these feelings and experiences, trying to maintain a balance between satisfying the travel bug without loosing myself to it entirely.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

What do you want to do when you grow up?

Metal Beard from The Lego Movie, voiced by Nick Offerman
There are a few different things that inspired this post, starting with the fact that the title is one of my favourite questions, I think about it regularly, and I had a few conversations with people I met about this recently, and with my mom while she was visiting. She reminded me I wanted to be a bus driver or a helicopter pilot when I was a kid, which I remembered about.

Growing up is a funny notion. I remember as a child thinking about it as a definite state, somewhere I and everyone else gets to be, basically grown ups. Now I'm a old enough that my younger self would consider me a grown up, I realised growing up doesn't stop. It's not definitive. Actually I think the only definite next stage is death, and given I don't believe in any kind of after life right now is really the only time I have to play with.

I also enjoy the question particularly because it's formulated like a question for children, and for me at least, it sends me back thinking of that time, what I wanted to do without any of the considerations or information that can limit thinking, it allows me to make up new plans or revisit ideas and dreams I had in the past.

I finally caught up with the LEGO Movie last week and really enjoyed it. I used to play a lot of LEGO when I was a kid and really I loved the way they weaved the way people play with the toys directly in the plot. Without spoiling the movie, think of the way you can build by following the instructions, and then create and build models from scratch. There are a some fantastic characters as well, I loved Metal Beard pictured above because of the way he's built up creatively using all sorts of seemingly random parts to make a whole that looks pretty awesome.

The question came back to me as it does, and as I was reminded of playing LEGO as a kid, though the characters in the movie and the journey they go on also made me ponder a slightly different version I don't think about as often: 'Who do I want to be when I grow up?'

Thinking in the area of being rather than doing can provide a new perspective, I recommend trying it out. It's not rocket science, it just takes a bit of time and writing down the thoughts on paper or screen to get them out of your head. Neither questions are fixed, the answers evolve over time with new experiences, and there are no right answers either.

Being a traveller and a wanderer is something I've been cultivating these past few years, for example. I'm spending some time thinking of all this these days and jotting some notes down.

I don't have any more answers for now, though I did come across this ad for Kona Brewing, I enjoyed the idea, particularly the last line:

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Travels with my mom

My mom has been visiting Asia for the first time, it's already coming to her last couple of days here so I thought I'd write something about it. Three of her children have spent some time in Asia in the past few years, she has been dreaming of coming, we have been talking about this trip for a little while, so I invited. May seemed a good time as there was two easily workable public holidays in a row where I thought I could take some time off as well.

My brother Morgan and his wife, who have lived in Laos, apparently told her she would experience a culture shock, though I suspected otherwise. You see my mom is so accepting of just about everything and everyone that I didn't think she could easily be shocked by much.

Of course Singapore first is pretty easy, it's all super modern and organised. Mom met all my friends and we spent time sampling a bunch of local foods. We have had some amazing dinners, nice walks around town, and she has been spending time amazed at the size and number of malls, she's trying to get her head around why they are so many shopping malls with the same brand name shops. I gave up trying to understand that a while ago, it's not particularly my forte.

Next we went to Bali, and stayed a few days in Ubud. I thought she would be interested in the crunchy granola way of life over there, we hung out at the Yoga Barn and she even went for the Sunday morning Ecstatic Dance session, also one of the main weekly expat social gatherings apparently. A day visiting temples, time walking around Ubud and rice paddies, touristy Balinese dance show, trying various organic and/or vegetarian cafés, we had a lovely time. We ended the trip in style spending the last night in Seminyak, with lovely sunset cocktails at the W.

After that we spent a few days in Siem Reap, Cambodia, to visit the Angkor temples. A friend highly recommended a guide and I'm glad to say he was exceptional. If ever you plan to visit the Angkor temples, a good guide is recommended and he was fantastic. He was passionate about the history of his country, the architecture and stories about the temples, he knew the ways in and around the temples that most tourists and guides don't use to avoid the crowds, and every time I thought I was getting bored of seeing temples he would surprise me and keep things fascinating; this could be with a story about Cambodia, a specific feature in a temple, a walk in the forest to arrive at our destination, etc. We also had fabulous food, and he organised a couple of experiences off the beaten tourist tracks, like a visit to a Buddhist monastery on a hill overlooking a lake for sunrise chants and a blessing.

It has been great to spend this time and share these moments with my mom, as well as sharing my love for travel and discovering new places, people, and food with her. It's very different from seeing the family over a Christmas holiday for example. At times it was a bit strange to spend so much time with my mom as an adult, though also special given we talked about stuff I often had no idea about, like stories from her youth, old friends of hers, her parents, etc. I can only recommend you do something a little bit different with one or both of your parents at some point, something that pulls you both our of your usual comfort zones, I'm sure you'll find out brand new stuff you couldn't imagine about your parents, and probably about yourself as well.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

New experiences: Patron of the arts

Image credit: Sue Beatrice
I came across a few of artist Sue Beatrice's pocket watch sculptures online via an article online with some photos, and found them really beautiful. Susan specialises in creating Earth-friendly pieces of art exclusively made with natural or recycled elements.

As I understand it, most of her work using natural elements tends be ephemeral, such as with these sand or pumpkin sculptures:
Sand Sculpt USA - NY Aquarium sand sculpture on Coney Island 

And then there are the recycled pieces, this is from her Facebook Page, All Natural Arts:
"All Natural Arts is a celebration of nature in the form of jewelry and other fun and whimsical items. Using sea glass, stones and other natural elements as well as vintage watches, jewelry pieces, and found objects to create one of a kind treasures for you to enjoy or to give as gifts."

This kind of intricate miniature sculpture also happens to be one of my favourite forms of arts, I find them really fascinating. I think the minutiae, skill level, and intricacy involved are mind-blowing.

In this style, there are some really nice pieces in V&A Museum collection in London (miniature ivory sculptures in particular, if memory serves), and the most incredible I've seen are all in the Imperial Palace Museum in Taipei. Their collection is extensive, for example this insanely detailed sculpture carved into a 1 1/2 inch long olive pit:

So in the spirit of doing either random or simply trying on new things to keep life interesting, on impulse I contacted Susan to find out more about her work. After exchanging a few emails and finding out how she creates these kinds of unique pieces on commission, and thinking to myself I've never done anything like this, I commissioned a pocket watch sculpture for myself.

I'm looking forward to seeing the results and of course will share them with you once I have it!

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Book review: Belle de Neige

Image Credit: Ellen Wallace
I just finished reading Belle de Neige and thoroughly enjoyed it. I came across this story quite randomly while checking out what was going on, read a few of the blog posts, decided to buy the book and devoured it in a couple of evenings. I think it's actually the first time I write a book review on here - mostly lazily copied over from the Amazon review I posted anyways.

I always love crazy stories of the underbelly kind, like Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, or David Koenig's Mouse Tales, and this one is no exception. Life beyond the dronish grayscale cookie cutter lives some are still told is the right way to do things holds so many more fascinating colours and flavours; usually for the best, though sadly sometimes for the worst.

It's a delightfully written story of this kind Belle takes the us on, managing a delicate yet surprisingly well balanced act of bittersweet memories, elated dreameries, gutter elegance, and barking in the face of danger madness.

It made me think about my nephew Keanu quite a lot, reading the epilogue reminding me I can barely read lyrics of or listen to Pink Floyd anymore. Even though it was one of my very favourite bands, I well up almost every time I hear or think about the band now.

It made me think of the travel worlds I've been part of and their underbellies; populated with different variety of interesting locals, backpackers, holidaymakers, scuba divers, tropical island bums, freelancing nomads, and random weirdoes around Asia, parts of South America, and Tanzania. I think I've been one or all of those types at one points or another.

I hadn't thought of it in a long time, but now I'm also thinking I should learn to ski. I've only really been skiing once, when I was like 10 years old for a 3 week school trip so it doesn't even count by now. I wonder if I could be any good / enjoy it.

Sure, we're probably not talking about high brow literary prizes here, but it spoke to me, made me laugh, and moved me. If you like any of those things in life or at least in a book, I highly recommend you take a peek in the world of the Chalet Bitch.

Belle de Neige mérite son nom, unique et magnifique, tout comme un simple flocon.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Belated summary of 2013 and hello 2014

The famous Singapore Chilli Crab! The kind of reason for a few of my extra kilos.

I obviously haven't been writing much of anything here last year, though I did write about a few things I wanted to achieve in 2013 so coming up to April 2014, it's about time I write an update.

1. Context

I talked about consolidation, and I feel that was definitely done. I wasn't sure what it meant then, still not exactly sure what it means now, but I feel like it was a good to time to stop and take stock, which is done now.

I installed a few things to turn my spacious living room into an awesome cinema room - new HD projector and sweet speakers. My flat has become the main hangout for friends, and many chilled movie nights. It's nice to have a place to call my own again, I've been enjoying the creature comforts of home. I've made a great group of friends and a bunch more acquaintances to hang out with.

I threw a couple of big parties, Halloween in particular was pretty insane - over 60 people there and the cops came round to shut it down. Some of the Singaporeans there couldn't believe it, they'd never seen a house party like that (I don't think they'd ever attended a cool house party before). I dressed as a Bavarian beer maid and was serving beer to guests poured out of big fake breasts - corny but great fun. Sweetly decadent, at least by Singapore standards anyways.

I exceeded my money saving target for last year which is pretty cool, and I didn't have to particularly deprive myself of anything which is cool too. On the other hand I mostly failed at any kind health improvements or weight loss, I kept on my line of eating & drinking too much while not exercising much. I'll come back to that.

Work-wise it has been a really interesting year, learned a lot about business in Asia, won an Effie award, won a big piece of new business, learned to work on new industry categories, etc.

Now it's probably time for some change after a relatively quiet year - not sure what yet, I'll keep in touch when there are new news on that front.

2. New things to learn and new places to go

I said it was about time I learned how to drive. I've been saying that for a while, and I'll keep saying it for a while longer... The progress has been feeble. I signed for driving school back in August 2013. Found out it takes about 2 months in advance to book anything. I've booked to take my basic theory test twice, and didn't study at all. The third time was this morning and I didn't go. I was reading a more interesting book about yeast biology over the weekend. I might actually bother with the drivers license the day I actually really need it. 

About yeast biology, my main new thing from last year is home brewing beer. I'm having a blast doing that, I've progressed and I can make a pretty decent drinkable brew now. I want to get better at it and I've been investing in a few bits and pieces. I brewed my latest batch a week ago, which is going to be a vanilla bourbon oatmeal stout. It's already pretty tasty, the vanilla is soaking in there for another week before I bottle it up. I've also joined a group of home brewers in Singapore to learn from other people, bought a few books, and I'm participating in a beer tasting workshop at the moment.

I did an Arduino weekend workshop last year, so that idea was done as well. I got the whole basic kit and played around with it a little. It was a really interesting (and geeky) weekend and I'm glad I learned more about it, though I haven't done much with it since.

My little brother's birthday back in the South of France was awesome - fantastic party of fun debauchery wit the whole family. I didn't go visit many places in the area, I spent more time with the family and a little time helping my sister with her vines. She ended up being the first winemaker in France to crowd-fund a portion of the money she needed to get started, she even got some local press out of it I tasted her first wines over Christmas and they're really good - very proud of her.

Less travels last year but I still had an awesome time for cherry blossom in Japan, joined a fantastic party with loads of locals, foreigners, travellers, and expats for a huge Hanami (cherry blossom viewing party, basically getting trashed in the park under the cherry trees - crucial tradition in Japan) in Yoyogi Park, Tokyo. I also visited my friend Simon in Sabah, Borneo for a weekend, and did some business travelling round Southeast Asia. I also went to Bali and the Gili Islands for a few days, which was pretty sweet.

3. All fun, not so much practice

This last thing I'd mentioned was this silly idea to exercise. I went running a few times after I wrote it, and a few more times about mid-way through the year, but that's about it.

More craft beer bars have been opening in Singapore, I'm brewing the stuff myself, and the food here is just too good and varied to not indulge. I've made some awesome restaurant discoveries in all sorts of styles and cuisines, from close to fine dining to street food and tiny hole in the wall type places.

I did go to a few concerts, and a few more this year as well which is cool - the best thing is to spot some awesome musicians that Singaporeans wouldn't necessarily know about, in which tickets are generally cheap. I went to see Steve Vai a few weeks ago - one of  the best gigs I've been to in a very long time. 

Gaming we did occasionally with some friends, the odd board game night a few times last year which was cool.

Altogether pretty cool year in 2013, I've learned to appreciate Singapore and discover some cool things beneath the surface. Onwards and upwards for this year!