Saturday, March 31, 2012

Sustainable Business Conference 2012

Ok, so here I am with all this time on my hands feeling the need to do something to keep up to speed with my career. How sick is that, right? Ha ; ) So a few weeks ago, I spent a morning perusing the handy-dandy internets to see what was going on around town in the world of sustainability. Perhaps I could find a lecture in English somewhere? Paris seems to be great when it comes to public seminars. Then I ran across something called the Sustainable Business Conference hosted by one of the local business schools which seemed pretty cool. Little did I know, this school, HEC Paris, is one of the most prestigious in the country. A random Chicagoan I met there (who, btw, has a wife from Elgin...seriously, how small IS this world anyways?!) told me that this was the place where all the CEOs of the country send their kids to take over their businesses...or as a French friend told me, something equivalent to Harvard Business School. Whoa. Ok. And impressed I was. The campus, located about 5km from Versailles, was nestled amongst a refreshing amount of nature with a fair amount of sustainable design in mind. I gave it all a thumbs up.

Not going to lie, I was a bit apprehensive about going to this, not knowing anyone, and not really knowing where the bus from Paris was dropping me off. But in the end, I was definitely glad I made the leap. It was kinda fun to get all dressed up, wear the badge of Architect (didn't see many archies there at all) and wander the halls randomly meeting people. Ok, that last part was actually kind of awkward, but those I did meet all had their own interesting story to tell and ranged from everyone from business students to bankers to sustainable technology investors.

The conference, itself, was all about "Enabling the Positive City" which was split into three different tracks you could choose from: Clean Technology, Infrastructure, and Social Business. I decided to choose one from each and attended discussion panels on:

1) How to Reduce Consumption in the Smart City
2) How to Generalize Smart Mobility
3) How to Develop Short Food Cycles

Though I didn't personally know any of the speakers (except our very own Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar), I knew everyone there had some high level of participation on whole concept of sustainability (owner of SNCF, VP of IBM France, etc., etc.); and that, in itself, was pretty exciting. To see what the leaders of today's companies are actually doing to move towards smarter, greener cities and to get the chance to hear points of views from a larger perspective of the movement was pretty cool. It's nice to be reminded once in awhile that there's more to sustainability than just buildings and neighborhood developments; it's in every aspect of our life, business, and economy. Yeah, yeah, obvious, right? But again, refreshing to hear different sides of the story and other problems out there needing to be solved besides 'what LEED rating are we going for."

Fortunately, the majority of the conference was in English, though they did say the opening and closing speeches would most likely be in French. They had the option of putting on headphones in which a live translation would be done, but I thought, hell, this is good practice for me. And plus, I would stand out less like a random foreigner attendee if I didn't have one of those things on my head. I will say, the opening speech went pretty well. Maybe the guy was using easy words or speaking slowly? I don't know. But I fell into this daze listening to the words and their rhythm and swore I understood a good 75% of everything. I was so proud of myself for not taking those damn headphones........ 

9 hours later, it was time for the closing speeches, and again, I thought to myself, no headphones for me. It was a disaster. My understanding dropped to about 10%. I was exhausted. These guys spoke so fast. The crowd would laugh. I'd stare out in a daze. Oooof. I couldn't tell you anything about what they said. The morning episode felt like a smooth ride down the river with only a few bumps along the way. Now I felt like the the smooth flow changed abruptly to rapids and I was drowning......Damn. Should have taken the headphones. By this point, I didn't really care if I stood out or not. I was just to hop back on that bus and head back to Paris.

And soon the final clap came, and I booked it right to bus where I instantly fell asleep. And to finally make it home an hour later with dinner made and wine served, I though, yeah, I think I really do need to attend more of these ; )

See here for some videos from the Conference

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Legal At Last!

A few weeks ago, as I was too busy writing about Ireland, I FINALLY had my appointment with OFII, the immigration office. After 4 months of waiting, and miscommunication, and them losing my file, etc, etc, I was finally called in to get that stupid little stamp in my passport saying I was legal to be here as a long-term visitor. I was so nervous heading out that day, for I knew anything dealing with French Admin was not going to be easy and/or pretty. Luckily, I had spent almost 2 hours the night before getting all my documents in order and making sure I'd translated the instructions of what to bring before coming. Thankfully, I caught on that you can pay your visa tax online and print out a receipt to show you've purchased this 'stamp.' The document clearly stated, 'buy this online, or at a local Tobac (corner bar).' The latter seemed fishy, so I bought the damn thing online, and that was that. Done. This wasn't so hard.

As I was running just on time to the appointment, I remembered I didn't have any cash, but I thought, no time to stop at an ATM...and what will I need cash for anyways at this stupid appointment? I've already bought my 'stamp,' right? As I was finally called up to the desk, I nervously brought out my folder of docs with my mind racing a million miles a second hoping I could understand everything the guy asked for (dressed intimidatingly in a suit, tie, and an ever-so-french annoyed look). The first few transactions went smoothly. Then he asked for the 'timbre' (stamp). Haha, got it right here! bam. But no, he wanted something else. I thought...there's nothing else! My french turned to shit. I didn't understand, panicked, then asked in English. I've never seen someone role their eyes so much at me my entire life. I wanted to cry. He said, No, you have to go to the Tobac, buy €9 worth of stamps to put with this receipt. If you buy it online, it's less money, and you need to pay more in stamps. WTF?!? How the hell were you supposed to know that? And so I headed out with tail between my legs hating everything French, looking for this damn Tobac. This could all be a huge joke for all I knew, but I really didn't have any other option. Ahhh, and of course, there was the big sign in the Tobac saying, "Cash only". F! Ahhhh, now I had to find an ATM, and of course you can never find one when you want one. I felt like time was ticking like a bomb where soon the French patience would simply blow up and I'd miss my chance. 

OK, so I bought the stupid stamps, slapped the most fake grin ever on my face, and practiced in my head  my most utterly sincere apology to say to the suit guy about the mix-up.  (I later learned I wasn't the only one in the waiting room that day who had to do the same as me). After admitting my defeat, the suit guy all of a sudden acted so nice. blahhh. He took my stamps, and literally stuck them to the print out I'd given him earlier. What? It wasn't even being used to mail anything. Just F'ing charge €9 more online if that's what it takes. Sheesh! He told to me enter the next room for my doctor's appointment and as I opened the door, I gasped as I saw about 60 other people ahead of me....this was going to be a long day.

I plopped down and began the wait. Luckily, I had another American across from me with the same appointment time, so we instantly became friends over complaining about the whole situation.  People of all races, genders, and age where in the waiting room that day, I'm sure with all their own stories to tell. And here I was again, one of the many, (over 8 years later in the same sort of situation I thought I'd never again be a part of), waiting with a ton of expats willing to jump through the hoops to be able to enjoy a slice of La Vie Français.... Ah, name was called. Into the exam room to take an eye test, get weighed, etc. etc., then shuffled into the next room for chest x-rays. Back to the waiting room to wait for the X-rays. Ah, name called again. Here's the X-rays. My friend and I joked that this is all probably just a show, that these x-rays are probably all the same image just handed out like fliers. More waiting. Ah, name called again. Now it was time for a personal interview with another doctor about vaccination history. Thank god this part was in English! Back to the waiting room. Ah, name called, now you must go to THIS waiting room. Back to the first room with the suit guy. At this point the place was going to close in 30 min. and my heart sank as I saw at least 20 people ahead of me.....'Ooooh, if they even ask us to come back tomorrow!' friend and I whined....By the time I was called to suit-guy's desk, it was 15 past closing time, and you could see the antsy-ness in his face; he wanted to get the hell outa there just as much as we did. He was in a good mood this time, though, asked for my passport, and brought out a shiny new sticker to put in my book. Then STAMP, smile, and voila! Merci à vous! 

Four more hours of hoop-jumping outa the way. I busted outa the place so fast with a sense of relief. Legal,, if only we could say the same for Adam.....

Monday, March 26, 2012

A Perfectly French Day Indeed

Last weekend, Adam and I combined another language exchange meet-up with wine tasting. Having gone to the 'Friends-of-Wine' meet-up just a few days prior, we were informed and given tickets to this huge expo happening at the edge of town where hundreds of independent vintners come to showcase their local 'brews.' We asked Cécile, our new French friend, if she'd like to join.

We first met in a neighboring cafe to talk a bit of french before battling the crowds, and conversation quickly turned towards the recent attacks in Toulouse. This hit close to home with Cécile considering she is a tried and true Toulousian with a mother's who's a school teacher. Ironically, talking with one of the local vintners later that day, we found out that this woman's daughter is a nurse who was there to stitch up one of the militia men who was shot. It's a crazy small world, indeed, and this topic is on everyone's mind right now, especially since it's so close to election time. Apparently the train bombings in Madrid that happened back in 2004 (yep, last time I was here) happened days before the election and completely changed its outcome. France is wondering if it will do the same for them as well.

But anyways, back to happier thoughts....As we sipped our coffees, one of Cécile's friend, Charles, decided to join... So now were were a happy group of four. And more good practice for Adam and I as we tried to decipher the discussions between those two. Mind you, both are simply stellar in their English, and it always surprises me just how much they know. When Charles can spit out quotes from 'Full Metal Jacket', you know he's paid a bit of attention to American culture. 

We all then headed to the expo and each received a glass for tasting. We then started wandering down the aisles trying to determine where to stop, but there was honestly soooo many vendors (maybe around 500?) and so many different regions and wine varieties that it was a bit intimidating and overwhelming. It was good to have our Frenchies with us to guide us a bit (we decided to stick to wines made in the south near Toulouse), but I think even they were a bit uncertain of how to approach all this. After a couple of hours of pushing through more and more people, we decided to ditch this, and get outside to enjoy the warm summery day. 

Cécile explains the locations of the regions to us.

Be safe, kids. Breathalyze before driving ; )

Too early to really go home and too early to really settle in at a restaurant for grub, we (minus Charles) headed towards the Canal St. Martin near Republic. (If any of you have ever seen 'Amelie,' it's where she goes to skip stones). The banks were PACKED with hundreds of Parisians (unlike this photo I yanked) eating, drinking, and simply enjoying life; we decided to do the same. We bought some food and bubbly for a picnic, reused our tasting glasses, and hung out until after sundown stumbling through conversation both in French and English about life, love, and plans for the future. Definitely a superb French day, indeed.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Banff Mountain Film Fest

Banff Mountain Film Fest World Tour

Yes folks, that time has come and gone once again for the Banff Mountain Film Fest. For those of you unfamiliar, this is an international film fest that was started back in the 70s in Banff, Alberta. Each year about 300 short to long films focusing mainly on the great outdoors and crazy adventure sports are submitted, viewed and judged. Around 60 of the top are then viewed at the fest, then a few from those are chosen to hit the road and make the world tour to over 300 cities. For the past 4 years, Adam and I (well, me the past three), have been attending this event in Chicago, and every time we leave, we feel this great sense of inspiration to go climb a mountain, pop a tent, or just go hug a tree. The films are always beautifully done. 

This year, we decided to keep this part of our yearly routine as we found it coming to Paris (last week). Again, a great experience and an awesome event, but just a bit different than the previous years being in sweet home chicago. For one, everything was presented in French, and whoever the speaker was, he spoke the most jumbled French I've ever heard. Ah, and just when you're starting to feel confidence understanding the language, along comes this guy. I think I got about 10% of what he was trying to say : ( But fortunately, the films were all in English and had French subtitles, so that in itself was awesome practice. I felt better about myself when I could at least read most of the subtitles : )

Then there was the crowd. Let's just say compared to the earthier folks of chi city in their fleeces, KEENs and REI gear, most of then entire crowd looked like every other dressed-up Parisian. Yes, they'd probably all come straight from the office, but hell, so did all the chicagoans, ha. Despite the few differences, the evening was still a great time with some incredible views. See below for some clips.

Urban Skiiing (video):

The All.I.Can clip was definitely one of my faves and such a teaser. They only showed a snippet of the entire film including this video that had won the award for best feature film, best mountain film, best this best that, best, best, best.....I'm almost tempted to buy the DVD just to see the rest. So artfully done, fun soundtrack, and a fresh new look to film.

Slacklining- an obscure sport created from an obscure sport. 

Check out 'Sketchy Andy' as he proves he's either getting crazier or just more genius. I had no idea this sport was even becoming as extreme as it is. I thought slacklining was simply a bunch of climbers just hanging out walkin across some rope to kill time, build some strength....or similarly, what my brother brings for us to do on family vacations for us to kill time, ha. Guess it's time to step up our game.

Flying Sherpas: Hanuman Airlines 
You know, it's about time they made a film complimenting the sherpas who climb Everest. Especially these guys who came up with the idea to form 'Hanuman Airlines', the first 'airline' ever to fly over the mountain once they summited. The film follows the story of two Sherpa climbers/paragliders who decide to climb the mountain, then take the easy way down. Genius.

 C.A.R.C.A.    Canadian Avalanche Rescue Cat Association

Ok, This mockumentary about avalanche rescue cats was by far the most hilarious, but unfortunately, you can only see the intro on their website. Seeing that someone put so much time into the website made me believe it actually might be a real thing...had me fooled for a sec. 

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Land 'O Ire: Part IV

Ok, it's about time to wrap up all this Ireland stuff, but we have just a few more highlights to share....

Putting a close to the Burren, we made our way north along the coast until we hit Galway. Galway's a huge university town and packed with tons of cafes, restaurants, pubs, and music venues, and despite it being the third largest city in the country, we thankfully found it not overwhelmed with chain establishments and kitch tourist shops. The downtown felt relatively small and hometown with a good, lively vibe. Being day 6 of traveling and touring, we weren't feeling quite as lively; aimlessly wandering and doing not too much sounded a-okay to both of us. After a lunch of clam chowder, brown bread, and an irish coffee, Adam I meandered the streets and found ourselves at a bookshop buying some reads about Celtic legends and folklore. Yeah, that guy in Doolin certainly pricked our ears; we were fascinated with the history of all this stuff. Holing up in, first, a cafe, then a pub, we lost ourselves within our ghost stories and mythology, coffee, then guinness (Cider for me, of course ; ) It was great to have some solid chill time, but then you're instantly snapped out of this dreamy reading daze when the pub starts playing Garth Brooks. Wha?!

On the River Walk-view to Galway Cathedral
Galway Cathedral

The following day we hopped back in the car to check out the ever-so talked about Connemerra National Park just a few hours out of town. Instantly, the coastal landscape turned into rocky scruff that lead up to Connemerra's vast mountain peaks. Seriously, we had probably seen every possible landscape on this trip! Of course, being down-season, most things were closed (even the visitor's center?!), but we were able to stop for a few hours at the acclaimed Kylemore Abbey. We were expecting more monastic ruins, but this, in fact, was actually some rich guy's fairytale retreat, that after years of abandonment and disrepair, was finally taken over by the nuns, turned into a school, and restored for tours. It was said that this rich fella was on honeymoon with his wife sometime back in the 1800s, and they simply fell in love with the area. They bought the property, tore down the original lodge, then built and elaborate mansion and garden. After the wife's death, he then had a mini cathedral built on site in her memory. Absolutely gorgeous (yes, this all seemed like a perfect place for a wedding...but probably a bit outa the question ; )

 View across lake

View from the Abbey to the lake

Boating seemed to be a favorite pastime here. 
Numerous docks in ruins were found scattered about the lake (left)

A small slice of the gardens...JUST beginning to bloom (right)

 One of only a few of the numerous surviving greenhouses 
(these are the places that all the ladies would come hang out in 
during the winter for some sun)

 Garden Shed

 Miniature Cathedral

The following day we made our way back to Dublin hitting up ONE last tourist site, the ruins at Clonmacnoise. Now this stuff was SUPER old (we're talking back to the 6th Century) with a bit more religious history compared to our fairytale abbey. And crazy enough, the sun stayed out just long enough for us to wander the grounds photograph the place, but as we headed for the car and decided we'd had enough of site seeing for one trip, it started to rain, and we hopped back in the car. It still amazes me that the total time from coast to coast takes about the same time as a trip from Chicago to Champaign. 

 Clonmacnoise Ruins

Structures dating back to the 10th Century
Landscape on our drive back

Our last night in Dublin turned out to be a pleasantly chill evening as we met up with one of Adam's old co-workers who recently moved to Dublin for a project he's engineering. We were sad to hear that we were missing his wife's arrival by a mere couple days as it would have been nice to have her in the conversation about moving abroad, the comparison of our lives, and what the future held for us all. Guess it was just comforting to know that not too far off, there's another couple out there just like us experiencing this crazy transition. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Land 'O Ire: Part III

We pulled into Doolin as the sun was setting (yes, see the craziness of signs this navigator had to deal with along our entire trip, try figuring these out in the dark!) and checked in to one of the quaintest hostels I've ever been in. Situated akin to the Aille River, we were informed by a local living there that he'd helped out with the renovation and that this cottage was over 300 years old with the bridge leading to it, an extra 500yrs. This land had some serious history with a lot of overly superstitious folk as well. "The Irish," our friend told us, "especially the uneducated country folk, believed in a lot of spirits, fairies and things of the like to explain the unknown. For instance, if a house fell down, it was probably because you'd built it along a fairy path, and they didn't like it being there (try using THAT excuse, fellow archies, ha). Or, for the longest time, little boys would be dressed in girls' clothes until the age of 6 so that it would trick the fairies from stealing them. After age 6, boys were too old for the fairies to want them (or was this just a way for poor mothers to reuse clothing?)...or have you ever heard about the banshee....? " Our friend didn't seem to believe too heavily in ghosts, but he told us a creepy account of taking his dogs out for a walk near a graveyard and them stopping dead in their tracks, tail between their legs. "It was really weird," he said, "and when we got back to the house, they acted all skittish the rest of the night. I looked out the window to see what the hell they were growling about, and there was this dark figure just hanging out down the path. Then it was gone. The next day, my sister-in-law's father died of a heart attack...."  This guy was such a great storyteller, and as we sat by the fire in our little hostel he sucked us into a world of supernatural beliefs, pagan history, and the celtic demise. We could have listened for hours to that heavy accent.

Aille River Hostel: View fm our room & the 800 Year Old Bridge

Photoshoot: Adam vs. Cat

Doolin has only a couple pubs, and both that we tried are noted for their traditional music and awesome food. The first night we hit up O'Connors ready to finally hear some of the real stuff. Waiting for the show to begin, we had a chance to relax across from a warm fire with a pint and had fun watching the accordion player get hammered in the corner with friends. And dinner was all it had been talked up to be; we had some of the best smoked salmon and guinness beef stew we'd ever eaten. Around 9:30, the rest of the band entered the restaurant and plopped down at a corner table and started to play. Oh no, there's no standing around for these guys, because they're there ALL NIGHT. The bar got hopping, and everyone kept asking if we were in town for the music fest. HUH? Yeah, apparently we had JUST missed one of the largest trad festivals in Irland, Micho Russell Festival a music fest in Memorial M.Russell, a famed trad music artist who died on this very weekend (end of feb) back in 1994. Hmmm, who woulda known? But there were plenty back in the bar who'd been there the night before, up until 4am, just jigging away. An older white-haired bearded man walked in the bar and a gal we met from LA leaned over and said, "oh yeah, and that's the match-maker of the town..." just before the drunk accordion player came over to our table and yelled something at us completely incomprehensible. Sounded something along the lines of him dragging a case of wine somewhere, then he went over the a group of French sitting in the corner and called them a bunch of *&%!ers. It was definitely a WTF kind of moment : )

The next day we bundled up and headed out on a 6 hour hike up Blackhead Rock. Again, some of the craziest landscape I've ever been in with the land covered in stone walls, cows, and miles and miles of barren grikey rocks. Ringforts and cairns would pop up out of nowhere along the way and we would sit and ponder just how many 100s if not 1000s of years old this stuff was. Mind boggling. Reaching the top of the peak you would look out and see nothing but a barren wasteland of stone. This was the point that you really did feel alone; we never saw a single soul the entire day. At this point, we hadn't heard all the stories of the land from our friend at the hostel, but looking back now, I think I preferred it that way. He had mentioned that fairies were believed to live under old ring forts and any sort of odd land formation(dips, bumps, whatever...the landscape was nothing BUT these) and that there had been noted disappearances of individuals who sat in them. And where did we plop down for an icy lunch, trying to escape the nonstop wind blowing into our faces?... but a small ring fort located in a dip of the mountain. We were in serious fairy territory, indeed, and had no idea. Ignorance is bliss, ha. "Ah, the wind was a blowin at ya the entire time?" our friend said. "Ya know, people who are out alone in that for long periods tend to go mad. They start hearin' stuff. A friend o mine even though he heard the banshee screamin'." Great.

Ancient Ring Fort

Ancient Road (left) & Property Boundaries (right)

Grikey Landscape

Photoshoot: Adam vs. Cow (left)

End of the Hike Sunshine (right)

The following morning, we drug our exhausted bodies out of bed and hit the road to head up to Galway. Before leaving the beautiful Burren, we made one more stop to Fanore Beach. Again, God was on our side as He brought out the sun once again. And who says it rains all the time in Ireland ?

Boardwalk (left)
Granite Rock formations on the Beach (right)

Ahhh, beach to ourselves

Sand Dunes at Fanore (probably home of fairies, too ; )