Saturday, December 10, 2011

Kerst af de Maas–Maastricht Markets

I look forward to the Christmas markets each year: they flower across major cities in Europe in lights, foods, music, and drink.  The gluhwijn flows, the skaters crow the ice, the Skywheels twirl.  It’s good fun in the weeks leading up to Christmas and on through New Year’s.

Last year, Maastricht put on a  spectacular show, with venues spread out across the town.  Kerst aan de Maas was held outside my windows, convenient for hot krakauer sausages and fragrant mulled wine.  I pushed things in England to get back to Maastricht ahead of the holidays so that I could enjoy the festival again this year.  But this year, the apron along the river was dark except for an avant-garde piece of street art, a movie showing black and white prison scenes with a howling operatic accompaniment.

‘no joke.


The Christmas Market, such as it was, filled half the Vrijthof square – in earlier years it filled the area.  The Skywheel still glowed against the churches, but the Christmas shop was gone; the stands still served potato cakes and oliebollen but the rides and crowds were gone.  The SMS Christmas tree, changing colors with a text message, was still in the Mossae Center, but sponsored by MacDnalds.   The whole effect was shrunken and spare, not too well attended and missing the noise and laughter of earlier years.


I’m not sure what happened to the festival.  Merchants shrugged and blamed high prices; friends shrugged and said that the prior year’s venues had been excessive.  Who really needs two ice rinks?  The recession, the euro crises, the moves to cut taxes, balance budgets, and shrink services may be biting even here.


Still, it’s unfortunate.  The small-government anti-tax folks are quick to aim at municipal excess, and fireworks displays, libraries, Christmas festivals, and park maintenance is the obvious place to cut.  But it also cuts to a communities pride and cohesion, the communal traditions and shared services that gather people together and mark the seasons.

Their loss diminishes us.

In much of North America and Europe, the holiday retail experience has become one that is devoid of imagination or any sense of giving back to the consumer.  It smacks of miserliness and spending freezes…its more about Merry Cuts-mas than Happy Christmas.   -- Tyler Brule for the FT

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A bit of a rough crossing

Work done in England, it was time to catch up with end-of-year work in the Netherlands, drop in on language classes, and take a break at the Christmas Markets.  The bags were packed, appointments in place, the car fully fueled.  At 6:30 am, I pulled out from Cambridge to catch the early ferry.  BBC4 was starting to sound warnings about a major windstorm battering Scotland that could spread to the Channel by mid-afternoon, but I sounded like I could beat it.

The winds were rising as I crested the hill and descended into Dover.  The check-in agent advised that boats were already running an hour late (at 10 in the morning), and that it would be a bit bouncy on the way over.  I gulped a Dramamine and joined the queue.

Our boat appeared  and turned, struggling to angle into the docks despite being inside the breakwalls. Tugs hustled around the enclosure to keep boats separated and to nudge them into place.  Even at dock, there was a perceptible sway to the deck.  Everyone found a table with a good view of the horizon and settled in: there were no queues for the cafĂ©.

The pitching started in earnest as we cleared the harbor.  The captain angled well south so that the wind was a bit more head-on, minimizing the roll a bit.  Spray crested the bows and splashed over the third-story panoramic windows.  The crew closed the children’s play area.

We were well over two hours completing the run to Dunkirk – a bit better once we were into the lee of the northern French coast, but not a great crossing.  But they did complete the run: later boardings weren’t so lucky.

It’s hard to know the best means to get between England and the Netherlands at this time of year: fog closes airports, storms interrupt ferries, ice stops trains.  It’s just a time to schedule a bit loosely and stay flexible.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What were they thinking?

what-were-you-thinkingA long trip back from the US – lots of time to get some sleep, catch up with emails, do a little reading, maybe watch a movie.   The flight was direct Chicago – Heathrow, good in most respects except for having left from Gatwick. This required me to close the loop back to Terminal South on the only transport available, National Express.  £24 for the one-hour, one-way trip; preceded by a one hour delay in the all-concrete Heathrow Central Bus Station, complete with intermittent fire alarms.

What was I thinking when I booked that open loop (besides the few dollars saved)?

Actually, the same thought washed up on the plane during the in-flight-entertainments: Glee! Live! The Movie! 3D!  I’ve watched a few episodes of the show on other flights, and found them oscillating between tolerable social comedy and overwrought teen angst, compelling or unwatchable.  glee_3dUnfortunately, the movie veered towards the later: a cacophony of anthems to self confidence and set pieces highlighting cast members.  Entirely self-absorbed, overwhelmingly superficial.

The show features a disabled character, Artie, who competently  tooled through the concert sets in his wheelchair.  The “What were they thinking?” moment came in a dream sequence, when Artie aspired to be a dancer.  Rising from his wheelchair, he joined a troupe of dancers wheeling and shuffling across the stage.

This seems like a terrible idea on so many levels.  In a show that is so frankly aspirational, should the disabled character reveal that he is played by a fully functional actor?  That he aspires to be a dancer?  That he has failed to embrace his own inner Gleek?

It seems like a breach of the ‘fourth wall’ that has to be jarring to fans of the show.  If fans embrace the idea that everyone is beautiful (in their own way), does Artie’s artifice bring the whole construct into question?

I sank into a podcast, the 100th episode of This Week in Traveltravel-bloggerOrdinarily an entertaining compilation of travel stories and tips, this was a live broadcast from a travel convention, featuring an assortment of travel bloggers and podcasters.

The “What were they thinking?” theme was why marketing people didn’t treat travel bloggers with the same respect as “mommy bloggers”.   The ideal would be to travel the world, receiving payola from destination resorts, tour companies, and manufacturers of travel gear.  Yet the meme was slow to catch on with companies: what could be done?

The answer was publicity.  Travel bloggers needed to network better, sell themselves (and their products) more aggressively, track their performance more transparently.  It was all about endorsements, page hits, and publicity.  They shared tips on how to become a paid speaker at key conventions (“otherwise, why attend at all”), how to create a hook (“I can learn the language in 30 days!”), and how to find compelling products (“It purifies water no matter who’s been swimming in it.”).

I hadn’t realized how aggressively (and shamelessly) people run social media accounts simply to gather an audience and sell them something.  Years ago I saw a fascinating presentation by creative people from publicity firm Saatchi, describing how they created ads designed to demolish reputations of opposing politicians.  This struck me the same way, an ethics-free hour dedicated to deception.  Why would you want to publicize that?

In either case, I think it comes down to authenticity, whether asking you to root for Artie overcoming his handicap or an essayist telling about their journeys.  When the curtain is pulled back and the character is revealed to be an actor or salesman, isn’t trust lost?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Accelerating into the holidays

December is going to be a little insane…

In part, it’s a natural consequence of the holiday – a couple of weeks off with family at the end of the month, returning at New Year’s.

In part, it’s a natural consequence of business rhythms – closing a development phase, opening a fundraising round, organizing timelines, contractors, and budgets for the new year.

And, in part, it’s what I want - taking in the Christmas markets and spending seasonal time with friends in Maastricht and Cambridge.  From Christmas choral concerts in Cambridge to Gluhwijn in the Vrijthof, it’s a special time of year and filled with events that I don’t want to miss.

And so the schedule fills.  This week, it’s a quick trip to Chicago to organize a clinical trial for the spring.  Waiting until January would delay the whole study by a month, but hard fundraising deadlines mean that we need to push forward.  So it was that I boarded Aer Lingus today for a one-day trip to the Windy City, fingers crossed as a major storm swept east after dumping a foot of snow on my parents in Boulder.

It was the first time on the airline – intensely green but clean and modern.  I caught up with budgets, reports and back episodes of Blue Bloods as the plane pushed through 120 mph headwinds, arriving 2 hours late at O’Hare.  I think that we were barely moving forward at times: the little airplane icon crawled across the map.  At least the trip home should be equally accelerated.

So, then, back in Cambridge Tuesday for Meerkats and Avatars, the pitch event at St John’s Innovation, then the ferry to Maastricht on Thursday.  Back to Cambridge Tuesday for a Board Meeting Wednesday, another on Thursday, to my parent’s house on Friday, Seattle on Sunday.

‘tis the season!