Archive for December, 2008

My steely new Turkish friends

Monday, December 15th, 2008

Istanbul is a huge commercial center, with clusters of shops all selling similar items. Istanbul08-690.jpgThe area around my hotel is characterized by musical instrument stores–dozens of them, selling all sorts of traditional and electronic instruments. Nearby is a section with dozens of stores selling light fixtures, from huge chandeliers down to small high-tech LED fixtures. This morning, I started in the light district, went thru an electrical supply area, filled with specialty shops, some selling bulbs, some selling circuit breakers, and some selling switches. As I went further down the hill, I found myself in an increasingly lower rent district.

Istanbul08-698.jpgAfter going thru an area of plumbing supply stores, I ended up in a hardware district. Again, most of the stores were hugely specialized. This tiny district of the city is a rabbit warren of little shops, crammed between the waterfront and one of the roads. A few of the bigger stores had multiple clerks, all wearing matching vests, but most of them were 1-2 person shops, often with the owner standing out front. Some of them were chatting with friends, often drinking cups of sweet tea, delivered on a steel tray by a nearby cafe.


I’ve never seen so many specialized tool and hardware shops before. Down one little alley there would be a couple of guys selling small wheels, like you’d use in a shop or on carts. Another store would be selling chain. The closer they got to the water, the more nautical they became, with shops specializing in anchors, marine fixtures, block and tackles, floats, and little brass things for boats.


In an area with stores selling paint brushes and masking tape, there were a couple of small shops selling powdered dye, both in bulk and also in plastic bags. Another grimy little shop nearby was selling all sorts of solvents in cans, presumably including linseed oil, so you could make your own paintIstanbul08-711.jpg.

I saw shops selling pneumatic and hydraulic valves, gear motors, cutting bits for lathes and milling machines, micrometers, roller burnishers, nuts, bolts and all kinds of fasteners.

It was nice to spend some time seeing what people actually did for a living, and not constantly being accosted with “Hey, want to look at some rugs!” I don’t think I met anyone who spoke English. I’d hold up the camera and gesture, and most of them were keen to have their picture taken, either amused at the strange foreigner, or flattered that someone from outside their community, let alone outside their country, would be interested in what they were doing. 3 people gave me their card and indicated that they’d like copies of the picture, which I will take care of when I get home. Only one person out and out refused to let me take his picture, but he indicated that I should go next door and take a shot of the neighboring merchant.

(An Istanbul photo page will be uploaded to as soon as I can process all my shots.)

Turkey for dinner, and breakfast and lunch

Sunday, December 14th, 2008

Istanbul08-581-Edit.jpgTurkey is a very friendly country. Today I met over 10 people, all of whom sought me out, and said that they wanted to be my friend. They all made it VERY clear that they didn’t want to sell me anything. They just wanted to be my friend. And help guide me.

It started first thing in the morning when a shoe shine guy walked past me, dropping one of his brushes. What are you supposed to do? I picked it up and ran after him, and then he wanted to shine my shoes. My suede Merrill/Hush Puppies.

I walked from my hotel, which is across the Golden Horn, is right next to the Galata Tower, which was left behind by the Italians about 500 years ago. I watched some people fish, I took some pictures, I looked into the train station, which is very quiet, and I kept walking until I reached Hagia Sophia.

Istanbul08-302.jpgBuilt as a Christian cathedral 1400 years ago by the Byzantines, the huge dome and much of the structure is still original. When the Turks took it over, they plastered over the mosaics and erected some minarets. They must have decided that it would make a better tourist attraction than mosque–there certainly are plenty of mosques to choose from–it is now a museum. Much of the original mosaic is still extent, plastered over when the facility was converted to serve Islamic purposes.

Istanbul08-364.jpgI spent almost 3 hours in the Archeology Museum. Filled with stunning artworks from dozens of ancient cultures, it was too much for a single visit.

Nobody who has heard me do a speech on information would be surprised that I took a beeline for an exhibit on early writing, to look at cuneiform and early signature stamps, but before reaching it, I was held spellbound by a section of tiles from the Ishtar gate of Babylon.

The Alexander Sarcophagus, the most spectacular of a number of items recovered from a Phoenician site in Sidon, is worth the trip all by itself.


After the museum, I went to the Blue Mosque. Then I wandered around for a while, found a greasy spoon for a Doner Kabab, and then I wandered around until it got dark enough for some night shots, after which, I was pooped, and I took another harrowing cab ride back to my hotel. This is one of those countries where the locals don’t think the money is worth anything it if is ripped, which seems to happen a lot, because I had 2 bills missing corners. It took me 10 minutes to convince the cabby that he wasn’t going to get any dollars or euros from me–he could take the Turkish money I had, or he could come into the hotel with me and we could discuss it. He took the bills I had.

I grabbed a meal at a nearby restaurant, and I’m watching the Falcons and Buccs on TV. What a small world. Tomorrow is Topkapi Palace and the Bazaar, and then to a different hotel tomorrow night where we’ll be doing the business meeting on Tuesday.Istanbu08-428-31la.jpg

Unfurling the Tannenbaum

Saturday, December 13th, 2008

Tannenbaum08-3.jpgBefore leaving on my trip, I had to perform one last ritual, the ceremonial unfurling of the Tannenbaum, which is a purely male task in my household. I used to think that it took a lot of effort to purchase and ‘plant’ a natural Christmas tree. I remember my dad struggling with the tree and a flimsy sheet metal holder, made out of red & green sheet metal. It had 3 screws to hold and center the tree, and he used to put pennies between the ends of the screws and the tree to keep them from just boring right thru the tree. We had a similar holder when first married, but when I found a heavy welded steel holder at a shopping mall gadget shop, I bought it, intending it to be a lifetime purchase. It still took between 30 and 120 minutes of fussing with saws, hatchets, and acetylene torches, usually in a constant downpour that was just a bit to warm to freeze, at least until it was under your collar.

Moving to Europe, and renting our dwelling, we decided that artificial would be most appropriate. I guess we’ve gotten our money’s worth out of the current tree, which I’ve just spent over an hour straightening. The tree is made from a central stalk with a bunch of brushes hanging off it from wires. Once you’ve found it in the garage, taking it out of the box (last year, we bought a special bag for it), and putting it together is about a 5 minute task. Then you start preening and straightening the branches. This is when you start wondering if a real tree wouldn’t be less work. Its a trade off between the sticky sap and pleasant smell of a real tree, and the straightening and increasingly moldy whiffy smell of the Fuller brush tree. I should borrow one of those pine tree scent gidgets that all cabbies have hanging from their rear view mirror (some are pine, many are vanilla, and a lot of them are just something abstract and stinky to compensate for the loss of tobacco privileges).

Listening to the recording of a recent NFL game, just to get me into an American mood, I started in on the lights, which is another male responsibility. Christmas lights used to be big hunky fiddly things that were so expensive you’d repair every year. Now they are delicate little fiddly things that break even more often, but aren’t worth repairing. Like the tree, they come from China, so they are probably unhealthy to eat. Light strings don’t just plug into the wall any more–they plug into a 24v wall wart. This means that you not only have to find the lights, but you also have to figure out where your son put the transformers. Even though he’s at college in the States, he still managed to hide them before leaving, using them for his Chinese-themed (again) 18th birthday party. The market seems to have standardized on a common voltage and plug, so the good news is that you don’t need the transformer that came with the light string your wife wants to use. I managed to get about 80% of the lights working on a string of incandescent bulbs, and all the lights were burning on an incredibly blue LED-based string.

If I’m Hungary, It Must Be Tuesday

Friday, December 12th, 2008

I arrived at Ferihegy in the late afternoon, but it was already dark, and flurrying snow. By the time I reached the hotel, there were several inches of slush on the pavement. I checked in, hung up my suit, and phoned into a conference call on my Blackberry. My co-worker, Carsten, phoned in from a cafe which turned out to be about 5 minutes walk.

After the call, I went outside to take pictures and synch up with Carsten. He decided that even though I was wearing my newest pair of give-a-speech-and-meet-with-customers-in-a-tie shoes, which are leather soled, Carsten talked me into taking a circuitous route that maximized exposure to puddles, snow, and water. We went into a restaurant and I perversely ordered ‘spicy pork’ (did the Spanish borrow the word ‘pikante’ from the Magyars, sort of like the Austrians borrowed ‘Paradeiser’ for tomato and ‘Kren’ for ‘Meerretich’?).Budapest08-11.jpg

Giving speeches, even in a business context, is essentially show biz. An effective presenter is picking up cues from the audience, ensuring that they are grokking the message and tuned in. Yesterday’s crowd just seemed to be in a different place. Hungarian is a fiendishly complex language, spoken by a relatively small group of 10,000,000 people. As is the case in the Netherlands and Finland, this encourages multi-lingualism, and you can reliably expect anyone with a tie and a budget to have a useful working understanding of English. In spite of this, I just didn’t feel like the audience was with me. I wasn’t getting my audience cues, and I had to generate energy and excitement instead of pulling it from the audience.

After the event, the audience feedback was positive, but it was a tiring 24 hours. Carsten and I took a cab back to the airport, where we ended up in separate terminals. Although my ticket was coach, I spend enough time with BA that they give me lounge access, a privilege that becomes almost obsessively important when you are spending so much time in airports. Budapest’s lounge turned out to be comfortable, although the food could be better. It was better than the lounge in Prague, which only provides olives and crackers. In the Barcelona BA lounge you can make a sort of Frequent Flier Gorp by mixing peanuts with pretzels. They’ve got olives, too. The airport in Zurich, Kloten (a name that means ‘testicles’ in Dutch) has been moving upscale, and the new BA lounge, although in an obscure location, at least offers champagne. Its nice to sit back, sip on some bubbly, and relax before you hop back into the cattle car and hope that the guy behind you will not spend the entire flight sticking his knees into your back.Budapest08-78.jpg

At this point, I’m making one more trip this year. Carsten and I are doing a 3-city, 3-day tour of Istanbul, Athens, and Tel Aviv. Instead of doing 1 pitch each, we are doing 3 each. Whee! I’m looking forward to exploring a whole new series of small lounges–assuming we can get access. Most of the week, we have so little time we’ll be lucky to be in an airport long enough to even find a lounge, but we’ve got over 2 hours of layover in Larnaca. I wonder if they have more than one kind of olive.

Chasing St Nick in Switzerland

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

On December 5, St. Nicholas day eve, Elizabeth and I went to the Swiss town of Küssnacht to attend a uniquely Swiss sort of Christmas celebration. Referred to as the Klausjagen, or Nicholas Chase, it is a parade involving 1000 noisy Swiss guys in the pitch dark. The lights go out, and the parade is led by a team of whip crackers. A bull whip makes a huge amount of noise, and 20 of them, cracking in near unison, are almost deafening. Whip cracking ceremonies, are a tradition in most of the alpine region (extra credit for anyone who can tell me the Tyrolean word for this–I think it starts with a ‘schn’.), probably dating back to various versions of the Wild Hunt folk myth.

Luzern08-644.jpgAfter the whips, the parade quiets down a bit as a hundreds of men slowly swirl around wearing huge illuminated hats, called Iffelen. Shaped like bishops’ mitres, they are gorgeously decorated with colored paper or plastic, and are lit from the inside by candles. Many of the Iffelen have a design on the front that looks like stained glass, while the back may portray a cathedral. A few youngsters had sort of training Iffelen that were only a bit more than a foot tall, maybe not quite as big as a real mitre. Most of the hats were very large, 4-5 feet high, and needed to be carefully supported both on top of the head, and with outstretched arms. A few very large and beautiful hats brought applause from the crowd.

After the parade, we stopped to examine some of the Iffelen while the wearers rested up for the second running of the Klaus. The very largest of the hats were illuminated by 9 candles. I chatted up one of the participants, who all design and make their own hats, and ask him how long it took him. 500 hours. Wow.


It takes quite a while for all of the Iffelen to swing past. They are followed by Sammichlaus, who looks a lot like a bishop himself. Sammi is attended by 4 men in black robes and black face who are referred to as Schmutzlis (Krampus in Austria). Another folk tradition that has some relationship to the Wild Hunt, 2 Schmutzlis are pictured here a day later, in front of our Luzern hotel, where the lights were much better. You can just barely see the bundle of sticks that one of them is carrying.

This is followed by a band playing the traditional Klaus song, a cloyingly simple 1-bar melody that only consists of three notes. It kind of sticks in your brain, after you’ve heard a couple hundred untuned stanzas.

Luzern08-405.jpgThe next part of the parade consists of groups of men slowly walking in unison, ringing large steel bells called trycheln that are hammered out of steel, making for a relatively light bell (given that it is the size of a bowling ball bag), with a somewhat unpleasant sounding clang. You know how some harsh instruments are smoothed out when a lot of them play together, like bagpipes or violins? Well, in this case, the opposite happens.

Pictured here while walking to the parade, before the lights were extinguished, trycheln ringers have to affect a very stilted, Frankenstinian sort of walk in order to strike in unison. It makes for a very eery effect. As shown here, many of these guys were smoking some sort of long skinny things.

The Klausjagen finally ends with a procession of men blowing a simple 3-note pattern on cow horns (a ‘U’ in morse code, dot dot daaaaash). Most of the cow horns seemed to have some sort of double reed inside them, so they sounded more like huge party favors, and not so much like hunting horns.

Many of the participants refresh themselves between the two runnings of Chlaus, and after the second and final run, the party moves to the local gues houses.

The guys below had nothing to do with the parade, but were also part of the Christmas experience in Luzern, playing at the Christchindlimarkt in front of our hotel. Teutonic Christmas markets are a great tradition, with lots of handmade gifts, and lots of gluhwein, raclette, and heissi marroni.Luzern08-1291.jpg