Holidays Visit to Marrakesh Morocco Part 1 of 3

For our six-day visit to Marrakesh (or Marrakech if you prefer) en famille, we stayed at the not-even-opened Beldi Country Club Hotel (+212 (0)624-38-3950), on the route to Amizmiz, in Chérifia just 6 kilometres outside of Marrakesh.  Founded by Jean-Dominique Leymarie, the hotel is charm personified with a magnificent rose garden, splendid views of the Atlas mountain range (on clear days at least) and an entire infrastructure built from scratch using only local artists and talent. There are also myriad little cozy rooms in which to go and lounge about.

Beldi Country Club, Marrakesh Morocco
If the pools are not heated (a tad chilly for the April climate) and the tennis pro was more of a tennis am (as in pro-amateur), the lunchtime scene at le Palmier Fou around the Beldi’s southern pool was very Marrakesh haute société. The rooms are well done with lovely little details (cushy towels, soft cotton sheets and local “green” shampoo and body cleanser). The kids took advantage of some pottery classes (although 100 dirham per child per hour was a rather steep rate) with a transplanted Chilean artist. We benefited from the clay tennis court that was “unveiled” the morning of our arrival.  A second court is under construction.

Every day, we went into Marrakesh, visiting the hotspots as identified in the “Guide du Routard” including the visit of the trilogy of sites: Museum of Marrakesh in a 19th century traditional mansion, the Ben Youssef Medersa Koranic school, and some antique latrines.

On the 12th century latrines, one can literally take a pass. Not wanting to take the piss out of the historic site, there is not much to see here. The latrine’s explanatory board itself is almost out of sight. The visit of the 16th century Koranic school, on the other hand, is very worthwhile, especially to see the mosaics and lovely latticework in the stone and wood. Schooling up to 900 students at one point, this medersa is the largest in North Africa.

The stroll through the Medina souk with the jabs, taunts and enticements of the veritable carpet sellers does not diminish in stress over time. If this was my third visit to Marrakesh, the harassment in the winding souk is no easier to deal with. Yet, the magical buzz and clamour on the Place Jemaâ El Fna is no less enchanting than before. Between the snake charmers, the imprisoned monkeys and the charlatan magicians, the experience is remarkable. I can only imagine the strong imprint on the children’s minds.

We were spoiled by being invited to dinner in an absolutely magnificent Riad just outside the walls of the Medina, west of Marrakesh. The grandeur of the open skies, the multiple coves hidden away in the many corners, the ex-harem’s quarters and exquisite kilims, not to mention the wonderful food, made for a most memorable evening.  (Thank you to our local hosts)

Okaimeden Ski Lift Morocco

We made a number day trips, too.  We hit the valley of Ourika on two occasions. The first was tempered by heavy fog and rain, so we scrambled home to find the sunshine decorating our Beldi temporary residence. On the second – and substantially more successful – visit, we hit the town of Ourika (views), Oukaimeden mountain (skiing) and the village of Ourtes (lunch). The standout experience was surely the chairlift up the Oukaimeden mountain (3,200 metres peak), situated just 75 kilometres from Marrakesh. It was April 12th and we saw some thirty or so Moroccans swishing through the slush in equipment dating back to the end of the 20th century. Most authentic. The chairlift (25 dirhams per person round trip) is operated by the “Office National de l’Eau Potable,” translated to the National Office of Drinking Water. The ticket (see left) warns you that, in the case of stoppage or temporary closing of the slopes, you have no recourse on your 25 dirhams. While extremely slow, the ride was peaceful and offered some great views on the way back down.  Hard to believe that in April, you can ski in Morocco, but we have unadulterated proof. Nonetheless, not much would have tempted us to rent the archaic equipment to struggle through the thickest, wettest snow you are likely to see.

We took the kids to the water park Oasiria (route d’Amizmiz), run by a man from Toulouse, to enjoy the local attraction along with a mixture of French and well-to-do Moroccans. On balance, there were not many people and there were certainly no lines for any of the rides. Oscar (12) enjoyed the “camel” ride, a booming water slide.  On the downside, the wave pool takes 15 minutes to generate its waves. Unless you know people, you can’t last much more than four hours, especially if the weather is not too warm (only one heated pool).

I will write again with a review of food (part 2) and some commentary on Morocco (part 3)!  Watch this space.  In the meantime, your comments are, as ever, welcome.

Airline Competition & Inflight Entertainment – How do they fare?

AIRLINE COMPETITION & INFLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT
ARE YOU ON BOARD?


As the competition for airline passenger dollars is only going to get worse — between higher oil costs, personnel issues & union negotiations, terrorism threats, ecological considerations [not to mention economic crisis] — you wonder how most of the companies in the airline industry are going to get through this. In many regards, the question is whether the airline companies have kept a keen eye on customer satisfaction? For myself, there are five key criteria (in order):

  • time/direct flight
  • cost
  • comfort
  • food & amenities
  • service

The first two criteria have the benefit of being quantitative. The last three are subjective and certainly vary within a company’s fleet, much less between the competitors. So, on what basis should airlines be competing?

Although the US market remains the most active in terms of volume (see here for the Worldmapper by number of flights by country), the margins are clearly under tremendous pressure and there seems to be little value creation by the US companies. The hub system, security hassles and unpredictable weather make travelling in the US already quite the burden. But, on top of that, the US airline companies seem to be in a negative spiral of cutting costs, eliminating frills and, as a consequence, taking the fun out of flying — particularly for domestic flights. It would seem that the US airlines are bent on competing on cutting of costs, which unfortunately means too many grumpy personnel and unhappy passengers.

Looking at Europe, you only have to think of the exits of SwissAir (now Swiss Intl Airlines) and Sabena (now Brussels Airlines and 45% owned by Lufthansa), the continuing tribulations at Alitalia and the massively splintered market (with each country having its own network of companies) to know that there is going to have to be a further shakeout. Moreover, the frills and pleasures of flying on European carriers isn’t particularly thrilling either. And, if the high speed train network becomes more commonplace, there will be evermore competition on the ground. But, for now, I am going to compare the experiences inflight.

To illustrate the difference in offer for two international flights with a similar duration (6 hours), I have made a few comparative snapshots of life in the cabin (economy class that is) for two different routes, with a focus on the inflight entertainment.

First [above], there is Air France (for which I am generally a big fan). On this route from Paris to Boston (26 Jun 2008), they offered a dingy inflight entertainment — with no personal screen (left – you get to see where it might be) on the flight (7 hours in broad day light). What you get is the ‘ole pathetically small and distant general screen (to the right). The good news? You are encouraged to read or rest…On the flight back from New York to Paris, the plane was equipped with a [very small} personal screen, but on the West-to-East flight, you are only interested in sleep.

Now taking look at another international flight of a similar distance, Paris to Dubai with Emirates Airline; the story is radically different. The personal screen (pictured to the right) comes with masses of choice. The touch screen is very user friendly (I blogged about this before — see here). And, even the booklet announcing the inflight entertainment is interesting to read. It comes with an informative music anthology (scanned below)…

What is even more startling is when you start to compare Emirates Economy Class and Air France Business Class. On the left, you see the Air France business class experience, Paris to New York. The screen is stationed on the back of the seat in front of you which, good news/bad news, is quite a distance. And, on the right above, you see the Emirates’ economy class entertainment system. The screen is touchscreen (better functionality), bigger and, as you can see with the seat number (28A), is entirely personalized. You might say it’s a small detail. First, details count. Secondly, I feel it is a huge difference because it is what I want in a long flight. Kudos for knowing your customer.

The truth is, however, the level of comfort, service and amenities absolutely depends on the route you are on. Some routes — for the very same airline — are better equipped than others. The problem with such “variation” is that, as a passenger, you no longer can trust the brand you are choosing. And, in terms of comparing one airline with another, unless you have the option of taking different airlines on the same route, you and I are systematically evaluating apples and oranges. So, there remains plenty of confusion out there and, to the extent that timing and cost remain top considerations, the “fluffy stuff” all too often takes a backseat.

All this to say, all things are not created equal in the airline industry. And, with the stiffening of competition, the economic crisis and inflexible cost structures, you have to imagine that the market forces will not be kindly for the airline companies that have taken the fun out of flying for both cabin staff and passengers. In another post to come, I am going to look at the advertising campaigns as a looking glass into the strategies employed by winning and losing airlines. Watch this space. In the meantime, please give me your feedback!

The future of Mainstream Media in today’s world of citizen journalism…

Why the decline of traditional Main Stream Media?

Down Arrow - The Downward Spiral of Mainstream MediaWhy the decline of Mainstream Media? This question has been argued and tossed around in many a media organization’s board room over the course of the last five years. Clearly, for news organizations in particular, time is running out to find a solution that will allow the economics to work.

From a supply perspective, the proliferation of choice and the democratization of media Masses of Dots -- the proliferation of media outletsplatforms have rendered the “space” extremely congested. There is a niche for everything and, unfortunately, one could argue that the objectivity of “serious” and researched news is becoming a niche as well. The ability for serious news organizations such as NPR, the BBC or CNN to maintain worldwide coverage, much less afford overseas news bureaus, is virtually a luxury of the past. Consequently, the number of in-depth investigations has been declining in quantity and in quality.

From the perspective of the consumer, over the course of the last 20-30 years, the sources of information have been corrupted either by overt financial concerns and objectives, or by the lowest common denominator style salesmanship (epitomized by the ‘entertainment’ of News of the World and other such rags). This 2001 article from LA Times offers a good recap [proof enough that the subject has been around].

So what are the main issues?

Certainly, the internet has played a role in unfurling the problem. The democratization of journalism is, to my mind, just a reaction to the lack of the right offer. Consumers, pressured for time, have largely rejected standard hour programming. In virtually Don't Trust Corporate Mediaevery household, the television is competing against the computer, much less the IPOD — although the radio seems to be holding its own. In the realm of news, consumers today are looking for customized information, in byte sizes. For many, the relationship of a consumer with his or her local news team is visceral. The consumer is looking for some form of connection – because the news is feeding the psyche, helping to rationalize events around him or herself. There is, in this relationship, an inherent wish to believe it is truthful — i.e. that the news is authentic. And I would argue that the problem of news organizations can be quickly related to the problem of established brands: how to stay authentic, flexible, customized and in touch with its [mass] consumer? As Noam Chomsky says in his article “What makes Mainstream Mainstream?“, media organizations have typically relegated the consumer to be passive. He writes, the consumers’ “…job is to be ‘spectators,’ not ‘participants.'” So, too, say many brands.

For news organizations, it strikes me that the main question is: What is news for?

Local Culture. Today, it seems that news has reduced itself in large part to a form of entertainment, completely hamstrung by viewer ratings. By extension, news is feeding water cooler talk: sports results, weather forecasts (hardly news) and local sensational events. News organizations are intrinsically local and their bias on news reports is strongly linked to the local point of view such that, with a worldwide satellite dish in your home, you can find two widely different sides to many of the international stories [when/if they are covered, that is].

Learning. If encouraging reading (and writing) were part of the objective of news and printed media, then why has the standard of Reading & Writingwriting plummeted (you can find English mistakes on the front page of any major reputable newspaper, including the Financial Times virtually daily).

Advancement. If, more nobly, the goal of news is the advancement of society, then it would seem that the mass majority of people are tuning out. The case is still made that, by having the coverage of certain genocidal regimes, enough international outcry will mobilize an international intervention. In this regard, from a western standpoint, “serious” news is more or less a portal of democracy.

Ted Turner said, in one of his typically brazen interviews, that such information and news is important. Unfortunately, he used weather as the perfect example (and not only is weather not news, it is highly speculative) since, with this information you can know whether to wear a raincoat, etc. Not exactly newsworthy news or 100% accurate.

Turner also cited in this video (which I will endeavour to post when I find it on YouTube), that news coverage helped to uncover Hitler. However, news neither uncovered Hitler, nor helped to sway or stop him. And, news coverage has not helped the continuing carnage and tyranny in many African countries. Propaganda, on the other hand, plays a whole other role in this type of context.

No doubt that Turner is a great philanthropist and was a business titan. Where Turner’s vision has taken on a whole new meaning today, he said back in this late 1970s interview, that “we all can learn from each other.” This notion of collaboration is highly interesting in today’s context of citizen journalism and web 2.0. Maybe we just have to learn from each other.

If, as some say, news is the first day of writing history… sports and weather have no place in that frame. The important notion for news organizations to grasp is that they need to provide meaning. News should be able to connect and interact with its audience. Of course, news needs to be pertinent and researched. But, above all, news should have sense. Sense to help progress our society. Sense, such that its viewers learn and grow. The BBC (and NPR) have this component in their genes — but typical
ly have been too stand-off to interface with its audience. So, the big news agencies are going to have to learn to lose some control, engage with their audience (i.e. work with citizen journalists) and in the meantime focus on providing a meaningful message. Over time, what will matter is not the quantity of people watching the BBC (although that is a critical part of the economic equation today), but on the quality of the people watching: the opinion leaders, the community heads, the bloggers and godfathers of viral messages… Clearly, the new media department at the BBC is making headway and, once the dust settles, hopefully, they and enough of the “serious” stations can find their place in providing meaningful, sensible and objective news for what is, now, a worldwide audience.

Barcelona – Some sites, restaurants & factoids

Culinary delights in Barcelona.

Barcelona is wondrous city offering an architectural feast at every corner, with a mixture of buildings dating back to the Roman times (down in the Gothic part of town) all the way through to contemporary masterpieces (Modernisme Route featuring the famous architects Domènech i Montaner, Antoni Gaudi, etc…). The Palau Montaner, (photo on left) on Calle Mallorca, is a perfect example. Inside (no photos allowed because it is now a Catalan government building), there is a dominating stone staircase, complete with fantastic animal sculptures and wood carvings. A worthwhile visit (5E) if you can speak Castellano or Catalan!

Aside from the beautiful architecture, Barcelona also offers a host of wonderful restaurants. On the one hand, there are many modern-styled restaurants (Tragaluz, Acontraluz, Bestial, allBarcelona restaurant Botafumeiro outside by the same owner…) that provide fusion or Catalan dishes in trendy settings. Meanwhile, there are also many traditional restaurants with grand style decorations.

Barcelona restaurant Botafumeiro insideThe standout address is Botafumeiro (photos), a seafood lover’s paradise, located at El Gran de Gracia, 81 (+34 932 184 230). Lining the walls on the right, in front of the bar, is the wall of fame, with oodles of celebrity shots (Alan Alda, Calista Flockhart to name just a couple). The highlight (and discovery) of the menu: the percebes (“goose barnacle” in English or pollicipia cornucopia for the real aficionados). The espardenyes a la plancha (grilled sea cucumbers) were a little too chewy. A divine little wine, the Rioja Marques de Campo Noble Crianza 2004. Also to note the wonderful service of José.

Another fine establishment with a Franco-Catalan menu and off the beaten path, is La Venta, situated in Placa Doctor Andreu (+34 93 212 64 55), on the mountain Tibidabo. Great panoramic city views available if you step into the smokey Mirablau bar on the other side of the street. (Spain has yet to go smokeless in restaurants and bars). And, while I didn’t get a chance to taste, another great address is the 7 Portes, Plaza Isabel II, 14, a classic address, down near the port area in the Gothic part of town.

Just as there are many hip restaurants, there has been a mushrooming of hip hotels too (stayed at Hotel 987 on Calle Mallorca where the rooms are VERY modern and the door barely opens without touching the bed). It is worth mentioning, on the other hand, the beautiful and classic Casa Fuster, 132, Paseo de la Gracia +34 902-202 345. The story of this hotel/building is rather singular as the owner built the magnificent building in 1908 out of sheer love for his wife, but then ran out of money. So be it. The building remained and was relatively recently turned into the beautiful 5* hotel.

My visit to Barcelona also coincided with the Barcelona Marathon 2008, March 2nd, which was the marathon in Spain with the most ever runners (about 100,000). The runners were graced with perfect weather: sunny but not too hot.

Some other factoids that a visitor to Barcelona might be interested in knowing:

The city boasts a population of 1.4 million intra muros and 4 million people including the outskirts.

In the 19th century, the city was reorganized into stylized squares with parallel streets, originally designed to have family houses on the sawed off corners allowing for gardens and pleasant open spaces. All the streets going across town are named after (past or present) countries, while all streets going down to the sea are named after people.

The famed La Rambla (meaning “dead river” in arabic) avenue, is now awash in pickpockets (virtually everyone mentioned the risks). The highlight visit was the open air (if covered) Boqueria market, where your eyes will delight in the food displays. Watch out for the scary looking butchers (they have a tendency to show absolutely every part of the lamb and bull…). And you can have wonderful tapas at any number of the little stalls. My choice was El Quim.

Barcelona Plaza EspanaMeanwhile, Barcelona continues to struggle with its water. Mid March and the Barcelona water reserves are down to just 20% which is a real drama ahead of summer. The water problem did not dissuade the authorities from continuing the fountain entertainment at Plaza Espana’s (aka Plaça d’Espanya) Fountain de Montjuic. See here on YouTube. Beware: it only starts at 7pm on weekends (Friday-Sunday). Best to be down below to watch.

Egypt – Holiday on the Nile

Egyptian Holidays on the NileMy wife and I just spent a most memorable week in Egypt, on the famed Nile. Thanks to my mother who hoofed it over from the States to watch over our children, we were afforded a romantic getaway. The visit, organized through Club Med (CM), was part hotel, part cruise. It started and ended in Luxor (we did not want to go to Cairo), but included a day-trip down to Abu Simbel in the south.

The first day of our “discovery” holidays, we were quick to understand that this would not be a typical Club Med experience. The Club Med hotel hosted no more than perhaps 150 people. The CM village was closer to a hamlet and, aside from a reasonably nice pool, offered very few of the typical amenities we had become accustomed to experiencing at a Club Med. In our very average rooms, the mattresses on the beds were okay, but the pillows were more like sponges on steroids. Two other notable facts: the Chef de Village, for the first time in our 6 CM excursions, was a woman; and there were very few children.

Part of the “Ramses II” tour group, we were met by our stalwart guide, Ashraf, bright and early on Sunday. Our first destination was the Luxor Museum. This museum had the benefit of being inside as, despite having chosen an autumnal month, the weather was between 35C and 42C every day.

The guide gave our group the catchy name of “Les Sportifs” which didn’t sit particularly welFelucca on the Nilel with most of us – evidently few of us in the group were of the sporty variety and this was not supposed to be a sporting event. That said, battling the heat and the wordiness of our guide became another form of sport. In the meantime, we identified a few interesting faces in our group. It was a rather unlikely group, filled with a number of solitary voyagers, a gang of three male friends, a family of four and two other couples. Picking our way through the group, we ended up forging a wonderfully quixotic sub-group of nine people with whom we shared every meal from the Tuesday evening onward. Among the initial observations about the people at our table, the couples had also come for a “romantic” break, sans enfants. Most of the single people we came across on the tour were women with one notable exception who happened to be part of our group of 9. And he was the type of character that Agatha Christie might have conjured up in the sequel to her first book on the Nile, helped no doubt by the fact that this character as a Belgian.

On the Sunday afternoon (our first full day), we visited the magnificent Karnak site. Thus began our discovery of the ancient Egyptian ruins, the hieroglyphics and the massive scale that were to become familiar throughout the remainder of our excursions. That afternoon, we visited the Luxor Temple ruins. It was only at this time that I came to understand that I would not be visiting any pyramids, as they all are located in and around Cairo, which was not part of this trip.

Our first dinner we managed to meet a couple of other interesting characters, notably one sparkly redhead, who was a self-proclaimed woman of the night (owner of three night clubs in the Paris outskirts). Clearly enamored with Egyptology, this lady (R.) was on her twelfth visit to this very same Luxor Club Med. A lady friend, M., at the same table appeared to have accompanied her. However, their association was somewhat clandestine and utilitarian. M., a Corsican, was also heavily immersed in Egyptology and, via some of R’s “inside connections,” was plotting a secret trip into the heart of Nubia (a female version of Marlow in the Heart of Darkness?). All rather appropriate scenery for a cruise on the mysterious Nile.

After dinner, Yendi and I retired to our room where we watched the BBC news and discovered that Tut Ankh Amon’s (aka Toot) mummified body had just been unveiled and was now on public display for the first time in its history. The BBC news report was not very clear as to where the mummy was laid, all the more confusing considering King Tut’s treasures (at least those not in London) lie in the Cairo Museum.

The following morning, with what began to feel like a customary early wake-up (we’re talking 6Tutankhamun Mummy a.m….nominally to avoid the crowds), we headed out for the Valley of the Kings, the famed burial site of King Tut Ankh Amon. En route, we were graced with the visit of the Colossus of Memnon, two 15-metre tall statues. Arriving at the Valley of the Kings, Ashraf gave us a horrendously elaborate introduction. Much to our chagrin, busloads of Japanese and other tourists (who had not gotten up as early as we had) started pouring into the tombs ahead of us. Yendi and I saw fit to break from the sportifs crowd and, in our first demonstration of rebellion against the oh-so-controlling guide, we chose to visit the tombs without further instruction. With our specially purchased King Tut Tomb tickets, we bee-lined it for Tomb #62, the last discovered tomb which had contained the grand majority of the original treasures upon its discovery.

Going down the shaft, we were unaccompanied. As it turned out, we found ourselves entirely alone (with a guard on hand) for what felt like a completely private visit with King Tut, a 19-year-old boy at his death, with
little to say for his reign, but made famous for allowing the world to discover the true treasures that accompany a Pharaoh into the afterlife. As I was departing, the guide subtly indicated that for 10 Egyptian Pounds (1.5 euros), I could take an illicit photo of the mummy. By respect, I decided not to take this photo; but I wonder if I will come to regret that “grace.” Right, a photo, courtesy of a Chinese supplier Xinhua. One can see that the Ancient Egyptian mummifying techniques were remarkable in their effectiveness.We visited the allotted three other tombs (Ramses IV, III and Taousert & Sethnakht). Then we visited the Valley of the Nobles and the exquisite Ramoses tomb (because the rock was harder, the details in the sculptures were more minute and precious). We also saw a couple of tombs of Artisans (a notch below the nobles and still given more significant burial rites) in Deir el-Medina and rounded out the action-packed and exhausting morning with a visit of the enormous, 3-tiered Al Deir Al-Bahari temple.

HieroglyphicsOur one-day trip to Abu Simbel was entirely incredible. Abu SimbelThe UNESCO supported feat, in 1959-1960, to transplant the two magnificent temples (right) up 60 metres and back another 200 metres into a manmade hill, is a credit to modern engineering, just as much as the site itself is a credit to ancient ingenuity. A visit well-worth making.

The remainder of the week was filled with far fewer excursions, some leisurely cruising and numerous fun meals with our gang of nine. Other sites visited included the magnificent Philae Temple (transplanted from a submerged islet… scroll down to check out the ‘artist’ rendering here of how it might have been in its heyday), a side-trip to the new Nubia museum in Aswan, Edfu Temple, Kom-Ombo Temple and, last but not least, the exquisite Dendara Temple.

Among the odd observations I came to make during this week in Egypt, I note the following:- All the tourist buses keep their motors running while waiting for their passengers to visit the site. Aside from the waste of petrol, the odor was very off-putting. Not very ecolo.

– On the other hand, virtually every car we passed contained multiple passengers (to the point of overloading…including animals). Car-pooling on speed (literally, as all codes of the road were disregarded). Traffic conditions are hazardous. Speed limits are optional. High beams are rare. As is respecting red lights.

– Leaving Abu Simbel on the flight back to Aswan, the pilot took off before the instructions (how to fasten seat belt, etc.) were finished.

– The bloody pigeons that defecate all over my car in Paris had migrated southeast over the last month, and were now omnipresent at the ruins, doing undue damage to the ancient structures.

– The women in the street were virtually all veiled. There were more women with the full chador than unveiled women.

– Entering museums, or crossing the multiple cruise ships (to gain access to our own), there were metal detectors that went off systematically. I was never body searched, except once at the airport, with the most cursory of body checks (a one-two-tap-okay).

– We were given the riot act as far as watching out for thieves. That said, we also know it is improper to call an Arab a robber… a cute dilemma. Since we had the pleasure to take a round- trip domestic flight, as well as the return to Paris (from Luxor), we were able to understand the Egyptian definition of the “worldwide” security measures at airports. Essentially, the signage is basically the same, except that all liquids pass; putting cosmetics into the small ziplock is at best discretionary.

To close out this post, I leave you with a few statements that our Egyptian guide made, that were borderline outrageous, if not humourous:

– there was no slavery in Egypt before the Greeks arrived (4th century BC)

– the word ‘castle’ in English comes from a similar sounding word in ancient Egyptian

– the word “Amun” is rooted in every religion (i.e. amen)

– he claimed to be Christian, yet he did not have the Christian cross tattooed on his wrist (like all Copts). I would like to say that it was a cop-out, rather than a copt-out. More likely, just a way to diffuse any questions.

Anyway, a magnificent week filled with discoveries of a magnificent old civilisation, a random and wonderful set of new acquaintances and, upon our return, two well spoiled children (thanks Morsan and Cyril). Amun.

England downs Australia 12-10 at RWC Quarters

The first quarter finals match-up of the RWC 2007 between Australia and England has just ended with an absolutely stunning 12-10 win for England. This match reminds me why I love rugby and truly lets me feel patriotic for the Rose of England. Following the game alone in Paris meant that my only outlet was twitter and sms. But Twitter doesn’t exactly allow a conversation to ensue.

The emotion that I experienced in the 2nd half was very intense, an intensity that is missing in so many sports games I watch. Pure gutting it out. And the late game misses-by-inches by both Wilkinson and Mortlock absolutely kept me holding my breath.

I must admit that I had written this game off. The chances that Australia would let England beat them again… seemed obscenely unlikely. The warmer weather eliminated the “fault of the rain loss” in 2003. This was a game won on defence and by the scrum in particular, with several lost rucks and set scrums for Australia. England only conceded 5 penalties to 9 against Australia. Possession was basically evenly split, with equal occupation in the opponent’s 22m.

This was a truly exhilarating match up, with a fully surprising result, but, to my reckoning well deserved. Now to see if France can replicate this evening against the Blacks!

See BBC report and RWC 2007 on the match.

A couple of blogs that have commented:
Someone caught the BBC with a little error 129-10, Signs of Emergence
From down under, Global Warming Watch, with gentlemanly wishes to England.

P.S. What curious timing for Gordon Browne to call off an early election!

Rugby World Cup 2007 – Opening Round

I was fortunate enough to attend the France versus Argentina match last night (Rugby World Cup 2007) and was flabbergasted by the host’s performance. The 17-12 victory by the Argentne Pumas was well merited. Despite a French pack that, contrary to the weight inferiority, dominated the scrums and line outs, the game was lost by the backs where the French three-quarters were taken by assault by repeated up-and-unders. Poor receptions and scattered responses made for a poor sight. And, the Argentine pack constantly wrecked havoc on the French set plays. Not least, the Puma tackling was merciless.

So much for the grand opening.

Today, Saturday, saw the Kiwi All Blacks and Aussie wallabies maul, if not massacre, their minnow rivals (Italy and Japan respectively). At 72-14 and 91-3, the scores ressembled cricket scores (granted there are only ten wickets).

The English victory over the USA at 28-10 is a difficult one for me…my split loyalties — brought up in Blighty, I have always supported the English team. But, as an American, haven’t had much opportunity to support a US team — much less at the World Cup.

I would have expected a mauling much the Southern Hemisphere teams did to their Northern foe. Maybe the historical rapprochement between the UK and US makes it difficult for the Limeys want to crush the Yanks? In any event, a more than respectable outing for the Americans. Given a few different quirks and bounces, the game might even have been closer.

Between the French loss, the English middling performance and the NZ and Australian dominance, it’s hard not to call the latter victors in waiting.

Yet, it’s a long tournament. Seven weeks. Injuries, weather and fitness may yet influence the results. Here’s to the occasional upset. At least it keeps things exciting.

A few blogs on the France v Argentina match:
22 drop out
Angie from down under

Now that’s tennis. Wimbledon 2007 Men’s Final.

Even though I don’t have Canal+ (cable station in France), I was able to read the score line via BBC Sports Live and watch the end on a miniature screen. What a match. Federer found the resources to overcome his clay nemesis to make it his 5th consecutive Wimbledon crown…in front of the phenomenal (and resuscitated) Borg. Federer managed to win 7-6 4-6 7-6 2-6 6-2, after a fortnight dominated by bad weather. Break out the Pimm’s. The rivalry between Rafa and Roger has just ratcheted up another notch. What I liked about this match was the evident emotion that Roger has curled up inside of this stoic Swiss man and how he managed to find the strength within…as opposed to deflated Roland Garros final. Proof that it is not just genius that has taken him to these heights.

How To Club Meditate

The Dial ’07 Summer Holidays, Club Meditation — Part 1 of 3.

After 5 times at a Club Med, I think we are now officially veteran ‘Gentils Membres’ (guests). Yes, admitting that we (2 adults, 2 kids) enjoy Club Med comes with all sorts of stigmas, but that suits us fine. Here is the yin & yang recipe we have found that works for us: Take 2 weeks off (minimum). Go to exotic (read: ‘new’) location. Spend first week at Club Med for sports, rest and resourcing. Then spend the following week visiting the real country in a rental car.

Following on the success of our ’06 Spring holidays in Brazil using that very formula (Club Med Las Pedras then a visit to Rio*), these last two weeks, we went to Turkey. The first week was spent at the 4-trident Club Med Palmiye, near Antalya, on the southern coast. The second week we visited the magical Cappadocia region in central Turkey.

In Part 1 of the Dial Summer Holidays journal, there are four things I feel like addressing regarding our experience at Club Med Palmiye.

(1) Club Med** is, in general, a great way to change your horizons and meet different personalities, families and cultures. But, for the timid, the good news is that your openness to meeting people is basically the limit to the opportunities; although having alternative languages is a big plus. Also, you need to choose carefully which Club Med and at what part of the year you go. If not, you can find yourself in one or other ghetto, more or less diversified, more or less foreign.

(2) The daily rhythm of a Club Med is yours to manage. From ‘fa niente’ to ‘burn out.’ Of course, if you don’t take advantage of the facilities and activities, you can feel that you didn’t maximize your “all inclusive” package. We are, for example, unfailing fans of the after-dinner spectacle (entertaining and diverse, usually GO-only shows). Observing other families and interfacing with other people stimulates and provokes comparisons. Lounging around and meditating on your own state of affairs (life, family, work…) is a primary pastime. On this trip, out of the blocks [almost before, in fact, it was on the plane to Anatalya], we met a family from Angers with a matching set of kids. What we revel in is new encounters and textural, meaty conversations. This is what I like to call Club Meditating. This visit to Palmiye we had our most stimulating chats with two GOs. Francois, the barman, is also a Biologist doing his dissertation on the effects of the climate on corals. And, discussing with Younes, the young cost controller, we branched out solving some of the world’s problems.

3) Notwithstanding the generally great service (and the valiant, omnipresent Chef de Village, Vincenzo) at Palmiye, I was taken for a ride not once, but twice. First, at the tennis courts, by Ali, a Russo/English speaking Turk, and then at the reception, by, Bertrand, a young man from southern France. The common denominator was straight out lying. Not just once, but repetitively. The fascinating thing was that, to be doubly sure I had understood correctly their statement, I would make them repeat their lie, either in another language (Russian with Ali) or simply in French.*** It is curious to consider how a company (or at least “CM Village”) culture can breed this style of treating a customer. [Note to reader: please comment!].

Secondly, it is fascinating to observe how the human being (regardless of culture) reacts when backed into a corner. Both individuals just dumbly repeated, word for word, my re-statement of the “facts” as they had been presented to me. Fortunately, in both cases, we avoided a diplomatic incident. It left me thinking, however, that either I have an imprint on my forehead asking me to be taken for a ride or that Club Med favors the “système D” (aka devious manoeuvrings). I am left hoping it is the latter. But, that’s not a compelling conclusion for Club Medon’tlikesuchbehavior.

4) Finally, I must confess that the upgrading of the Club Med bedroom facilities (and of the standard of a 4 trident in general) was a big plus (compared to our prior experiences). Nicer and bigger beds, bigger rooms, and [small] flat screen TV were notable features. The air conditioning, which may also be part of the upgrade generally speaking, was a lifesaver considering the 40-50C degree weather we experienced for 6 out of the 7 days at Palmiye. It softened what could have been a wicked experience.

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*Thanks go to An for her wonderful hospitality along with the charming Leonardo.

**Other than a couple of Turkish copies (a 3* Hotel Olbios near Mersin and 5* Utopia World in Alanya about which I will discuss in part 2), we have never tried a comparably priced competitive product to Club Med, so we could say broadly all similar types of ‘all inclusive’ destination packages. But I suspect CM develops a superior personnel.

***Despite an entirely blank reservation sheet for the tennis courts, Ali (speaking in Russian) refused to give me the shaded, centre court on the pretext it was reserved for kids’ Mini Club. I switched to English to confirm what he said. As he was re-explaining this to me, in English, he turned to two other approaching [French] customers. Speaking no French, Ali stumbled, so I offered to translate from French into Russian. They merely asked for the same court I had been looking to reserve. Then, to my surprise, he gave it to them. I was offered another court, which I accepted but not without letting off a little steam.
In the case of Bertrand, regarding our departure from the resort, he explained to me that we would not be able to take a bus (to the airport) as all the [four] buses leaving in the late afternoon were totally full. After confirming this statement to me and later to my wife, en noir et blanc, several times with a careless and nasty attitude, we took another approach in the name of a charming GO Adriaan and got us four places on a half empty bus.

BMI beats BMW

I don’t know about you but health, healthy eating and keeping my weight down are [at least] a daily consideration. It’s a topic that far outstrips male banter about cars or critical comments about politics. It may be on par with the weather for its frequency, but it is dramatically more important [and sometimes more urgent]. In France, its context is generally around food and the wonderful tradition of the French meal. But in France, like much of Europe, the rates of obese and overweight people has been spiraling upward toward the [awful] US rates.

In a recent Daily Telegraph article entitled “Soaring obesity rate ‘will cause cancer time bomb‘” I was reminded to evaluate my own Body Mass Index (BMI). And despite recent [kind] comments from people saying “but you are thin,” my BMI indicates that I am overweight (by 5 pounds). And even being overweight (not obese) is enough to provoke all those bad diseases that one doesn’t believe one is going to get.

Someone once said to me that driving a BMW is good for safety. I am not at all convinced. But, I am definitely promoting that a low BMI is safer than my driving a BMW. I am an Audi man myself, but BMI remains the focus.