We’re back (along with Shrien Dewani)

Yesterday was a pretty uneventful day. We spent the day in London.  I worked while the rest of the family slept (trying to catch up on the short night the previous night). Helen went out and did some shopping (she couldn’t let an opportunity go begging).

It was half-term in the UK and while that results in long queues at tourist attractions (such as Natural History Museum), it generally means a lot less traffic on the roads in London. We headed back to Heathrow at 6:30pm and while it would usually take an hour to drive there at that time of the evening, it only took us 40 minutes yesterday. It seemed liked Heathrow was a bit deserted as there were no lines to get through security even. Helen and Chloe did some more shopping in Terminal 5 and then it was onto our flight home.

The big news about the flight home was that we were sharing it with Shrien Dewani who is being extradited from the UK to stand trial for the murder of his wife in SA.  We never saw him on the plane (fortunately) and as we were first off in CT we also never saw him in CT airport either. But there were lots of people waiting to see him.  The airport staff were hanging around at the gate all waiting to catch a glimpse of him. When we exited into the arrivals hall there were also a lot of people waiting including TV cameras and reporters. Apparently his lawyers had requested no photos to be taken of his arrival – fat chance of that happening with everyone waiting armed with a Smartphone. These days there is no way of controlling that sort of thing as everyone has a camera in their pocket and can immediately upload the photo to the web.

The flight itself was pretty uneventful. I thought the service was quite good but Helen & Chloe complained that it was the worst service they have ever had on a flight. The air hostess clearly liked me more than them. Fortunately the movies had been updated on 1 April so there was a new selection to watch as I had watched everything I wanted to from the March selection.

Looking forward to being at home for a few days (only a few because we are away for a wedding this weekend).  Looking forward to home cooked meals. Looking forward to my own bed. Looking forward to driving my own car. I might even be looking forward to be back in the office tomorrow.

Until June/July ….

USA thoughts

ba loungeYesterday was our last day in the USA and New York. Helen went to meet an old school friend who she hadn’t seen in 25 years. The friend lives in the Upper East side and has a view of Central Park #highrent #doingwellforherself  The rest of us went in search of some breakfast at Grand Central station (again) and then Michael and I went to a golf store to browse around. I cannot believe how much cheaper golf things are in the US than in SA. New golf balls cost the same price as used ones in SA. We then headed to the NBA store on 5th Avenue so Michael could get an NBA shirt. By this point it was midday already and we had to pack and check out by 1:30pm. We took a cab to the airport and then waited out a few hours in the BA lounge at JFK airport.

Our flight to London left exactly on time and we landed 30 minutes early in London. We are now in our family flat in central London killing a few hours before our flight back home to Cape Town. So I have a little time for some musings on the US (as I usually do at the end of a trip) – here they are:

1. American’s are incredibly patriotic. They are so patriotic that the pressure to conform (with respect to patriotism) is immense. I don’t think they even realise it though. It is noticeable in how many American flags are flown outside of houses, shops, hotels, offices – in fact anywhere there is a space free. It is noticeable that they sing the National Anthem at any given opportunity (start of every baseball, basketball, football game). It is noticeable how they salute military at any given opportunity. If you don’t participate (even though I am from another country) then you are definitely frowned on. Their patriotism has now progressed to the level of ostracism in my view.

2. America is driven by commerce. The level of commercialism is at another whole level verses anywhere else in the world. There are strong economies in Europe (like Germany and United Kingdom) but quite honestly they don’t compare to America.  You can simply see how they are such a dominant force. Everything is bigger and better. Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a criticism – it is a simple reality. You can see why their economy has such an influence on the world economy.

3. American’s do provide great service. New Yorker’s are meant to grumpy but we didn’t meet too many of them. In fact I would say that I am reminded again how paltry service can be in other places in the World when comparing the service you get in the US. True you do pay for the service – tipping is pretty much mandatory in restaurants/taxis and is never less than 15% (and in NY it was often 18-20%) but you do generally get excellent service. The people are friendly and helpful. They really do come across as genuinely wanting to try and help you.

4. American TV is another whole experience. Besides the frequent advert breaks, there are the adverts themselves. In America comparative advertising is legal and in every bank of adverts you watch you will see at least one advert that does an open comparison with their competitors product and trashes it. Some are better than others. Some are quite subtle. For instance we watched a Lexus advert and the whole time it was showing a BMW but telling you how great a Lexus is! The best are the medicine/drug adverts. They tell you how wonderful the drug is and how they will solve all your problems. Then right at the end they have to (by law) mention the side effects of the drug. These are done at high speed so as to minimize the time taken and also in the hope you won’t understand or hear them all. They reel them off starting with the innocuous ones drowsiness, dizziness, dry mouth, skin rash and then move to the more serious such as kidney failure, liver failure, loss of sight.  In some cases you get the final one which ends like this “and in some cases even death”. Thanks – I will skip using that drug then!

5. American company telephone numbers are also a great tradition. They have toll free numbers starting with 1-800.  Then instead of numbers many company’s have managed to come up with innovative words following that (which translate to numbers on a keypad obviously) so that you can easily remember the number. I had to phone for a refund for our aborted train trip and of course the number to call was 1-800-USA-RAIL. All the hotels have numbers like 1-800-HILTON and 1-800-MARRIOT. But the best ones we came across on the trip were 1-800-BAD-DRUG (advertised by a lawyer on TV if you have taken a particular drug that caused boys to have breasts developed) and 1-800-COP-SHOT (to report information on a shooting of a cop obviously). I could think of a few good ones for SA like 1-800-NKANDLA (when you want a home security upgrade to be done) or 1-800-PISTORIUS (to report an accidental shooting).

6. America is a great place for a holiday. It is easy to get around. Helen even commented on how easy it was to drive (they have nice wide roads). There are taxis everywhere. They are flights to anywhere. Don’t use the trains though! It is easy to do things. They speak English (even though most times it is with an amusing accent). There is a lot to do, whatever your interests are. You can go to museums, shop, experience history, shop, eat out, shop, enjoy the scenery & sights, shop, see a show, shop, be entertained, shop. You will never be bored. There really is something for everyone in the shops.

I’ll do one more post tomorrow when we get home. Until then from an overcast London …

Union Station & Statue of Liberty

grand centralThe walls at this hotel are paper thin and unfortunately we have a family with a baby staying next door to us. Fortunately they eventually went out or managed to quieten the child this morning and we could get back to sleep.

We went for breakfast at Grand Central Station. Grand Central Station is the 24th most visited tourist attraction in NY (according to TripAdvisor). There are numerous shops but also a lot of eating places as well as a fresh produce market (which really was quite impressive). We ended up having breakfast at Junior’s. Helen had Googled where to get the best NY cheesecake and the answer was Junior’s.  Apparently even if you ask a NY cabbie where to go they will take you to Union station and say Junior’s. So not only did we have breakfast at Junior’s but Helen and Chloe got their piece of NY Cheesecake as well (they didn’t eat it until later but statue of libertyboth were suitably impressed). Grand Central Station is an impressive building. The ceiling depicts the constellations.

After breakfast we wondered around Union Station, took the now mandatory family selfie and then ended up in the Apple Store.  The store takes up the East Concourse and is quite strange as there is really no door you can see it in the photo on the far side just above the staircase). You can’t really lock anything and so I wondered whether the store is open 24 hours or what they do. Of course you can guess what Helen and Chloe did again!

Michael and I then went down to Pier 83 to catch a Circle Line cruise around Manhatten Island.  Chloe & Helen didn’t ‘feel like’ seeing the Statue of Liberty or the boat ride (#losers #lame). You get a great view of the Manhatten skyline including views of Empire State Building, the new World Trade Centre No 1, Ellis Island, Governors Island and of course Staten Island. It was freezing cold outside though and both Michael and I reckoned we could have been blown off the boat because of the strength of the wind. On the way back the taxi driver stopped over a pedestrian crossing to have an argument with a guy walking across the road with his young son. The guy shouted at the taxi driver for almost running them over. The taxi driver took offense at that and started yelling baM&Mck at him #NYcabdrivers!

Helen and Chloe meanwhile were touring the shops again. At M&M World (yes – seriously) they got to see their own version of Statue of Liberty. They also ‘ran into’ a Scottish Parade which closed off a whole lot of midtown streets. paradeApparently they did go into Saks 5th Avenue this time and found a fur coat that they were both amazed about how it felt. Price tag – $36 000!

Dinner tonight was the first time I had visited an American Chain restaurant on this trip. We went to TGI Fridays for our last dinner in the US as tomorrow we start heading home.  We had wanted to go to a steakhouse but the famous ones like Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse, Smith & Wolensky, Mortons etc all cost $50 and upwards for a steak and we just couldn’t bring ourselves to spend that when we could all eat out in Cape Town for the same cost.

I need to blog about some of the American specific things like their TV adverts, patriotism, telephone numbers etc but will do that in one of the next few blogs. Until tomorrow …

P, H, M & C

New York, New York

rockefellerAfter all the travel issues yesterday it was decided we would get up late today. We had breakfast at a local deli which cost us a fraction of what it would have cost us for one breakfast in the hotel (breakfast in the hotel costs $42). Semi-final T20 World Cup today and Michael headed off to watch the Indian innings with Daniel (cousin). We came back to the hotel and I watched it streaming from the hotel room. Unfortunately SA weren’t good enough to get through to the final.

We then went out walking. We headed West to the Rockefeller Center.  It covers 19 buildings and 22 acres. It is one of New York’s top tourist sites. There is an ice rink which operates throughout winter. It is still in operation and given how cold it is today I am not surprised. Numerous famous companies have their headoffices in the complex including NewsCorp, Time, McGraw-Hill.  It did also house Lehmann-Brothers – the infamous financial company which went bankrupt in the financial crisis.

carriageWe then headed up 5th Avenue toward Central Park. You walk past every famous store you could imagine including Gucci, Cartier, Versace etc. Fortunately we walked past them all on not into any of them. I was amazed that we even managed to walk past (and not into) Sacs 5th Avenue as well. We passed Trump Tower, the De Beers store and numerous famous buildings and hotels including Park Plaza Hotel (where they filmed Home Alone 2). When we got to the bottom of Central Park Helen got very excited when she saw the Horse carriages and so we had to take one for a ride through Central Park. The driver spoke with a typical NY accent (sounds like Janice from Friends). He pointed out the apartment buildings that are the homes of Lady Gaga; Tony Bennett, Bono, Placido Domingo, Diana Ross, Yoko Ono and others. Diana Ross bought her apartment 35 years ago for $3m and it is now worth $100m #goodinvestment

central parkThe ride took us through Central Park, past the ice rink and the zoo where Madagascar was filmed.  We looked out for Gloria, Melman, Alex et al but unfortunately we didn’t see them. I would have preferred spotting them than knowing where Lady Gaga lives! We then walked back down 5th Avenue again and went in to the Apple Store. It has to be the biggest and busiest Apple store I have ever been in. While they had the standard Apple items they also had some other interesting things like a skin for your car which repels bullets. I wonder how many of thhot dogose they sell! #bizarre Helen and Chloe also very maturely went around setting the alarms on countdowns on all the iPads and turning up the volumes to full #didntstaytohearthenoise

On the way back to hotel we stopped for a Hot Dog at one of the iconic NY hot dog stands. Nice hot dog but probably also the most expensive one I have ever had. Had to be done though when you’re in NY – do as the New Yorkers do. Quick stop also at Starbucks for a coffee to warm up with. In the interim Michael had also made it back safely.

911 memorialLate afternoon we headed out to Ground Zero. Pretty bad traffic and an even worse taxi driver. I thought we were going to have an accident at least 8 or 9 times. It would have helped if he hadn’t driven with only one hand on the steering wheel and the other on his iPhone (and at some points no hands on the steering wheel). We did get there (amazingly) without an accident. Fortunately because of the weather there were no lines at all to get into the 911 Memorial. Lots of security though to see two fountains and 3000 names engraved around the fountains. Not sure that the security is warranted. They give you tickets to get in and then ask to see them on 4 separate occasions. Not sure what that is all about. Given I was in the air coming into America on 9/11 I have some personal interest in the Memorial and it was nice to see it even though we almost froze to death see it.

We had planned to go from there to Chinatown for dinner. We started walking because taxi’s were in short supply and eventually one came past and it took us the last mile to get there. We ended up eating at one of the local Chinese restaurants. Very authentic and very good. Also quite reasonably priced. It took us another 10 minutes or so of standing in the freezing cold and rain to get a taxi back to the hotel. We hope the weather improves tomorrow so that we can actually see the Statue of Liberty.

New York here we come

laguardiaLast day of conference. Trying to put that out of my mind. Seriously not a good conference at all. Either I am getting old or seriously was the worst conference I have ever attended. Might be both. Glad that is behind me. Unfortunately not a successful travel day though for us. Helen and Chloe had no trouble though. Flight left late but still arrived 20 minutes early. All the US airlines build in massive margins into their timetables so that they can show they were still on time. Michael and I had an altogether different experience.

We got to Union Station for our 1pm train, bought some lunch and settled in to wait for boarding only to hear it announced that our train was cancelled. We went to ticketing and were reissued with the 2:02pm train and at about 1:45pm they said it was delay to 2:30pm. Massive number of people. No trains arriving or leaving at all. I realised major problem somewhere. We Googled flights to NYC and saw lots of expensive options. At 2:05pm when they changed the departure to unknown time, I figured time to head for the airport.

Fortunately Washington Reagan Airport is right near the city centre and so we headed there.  Called my SA travel agent (8:10pm in SA) and she booked us a flight while we were heading for the airport. Not cheap at $410 per seat but only other option was a 4-hour drive up to NYC and I didn’t really fancy that.  I highly commend the travel agent (Harvey World based at Steenberg) for answering my call at 8:10pm and booking me a flight at that time as well. That’s what I call customer service! Our flight pushed back at exactly 4pm (the scheduled departure time) and we arrived in NYC at 5:10pm. Just checked and our trtimes squareain has still not left Union Station. #reallygooddecision

On the flight up I was reminded again how patriotic Americans are. They announced as we pushed back that there were a number of US military on the plane and everyone burst into applause. Seriously?! I almost felt embarrassed not to be applauding. I had an emergency exit row and they did a separate safety briefing for the people sitting in those rows. The steward waited for us all to be watching him. One guy was on his cellphone and he to him “don’t worry, we will all wait until you are finished, take your time” #sarcasm #whocaresaboutthecustomer

As it turned out half the plane were actually on the train and made the same decision. Person sitting next to Michael, people sitting both sides of me. Who suggested that taking the train was a good idea?! Won’t consider that again. Someone said it was a train accident, another person said an electrical fault, another that the wires had gotten crossed. No communication from Amtrak so there were definitely wires crossed just not sure whose wires.michael rose

The approaching into LaGuardia airport was amazing, We flew right around the Manhatten skyline. Unfortunately I was in an aisle seat so I didn’t get to photograph it. Taxi from the airport and we were finally reunited with Helen and Chloe at our midtown hotel (Intercontinental Barclay). Nice hotel. Small rooms but that is what you expect in midtown Manhatten. We met up for dinner with Daniel (my nephew who is studying at NYU) and after dinner we walked to Times Square. Chloe photo-bombed about 20 different pictures/selfies. Some random stranger (#goodlookingyounglady) walked up to Michael and gave him a rose. She said some stranger had given it to her. Michael tried passing it on to two middle aged ladies who rejected him. Rose went into the trash. I love Times Square. People everywhere. Biggest screens you can ever see.

New York is vibrant and always on the go. High rise buildings everywhere. Constant whistling (even now at 10:30pm) from the hotels for taxis. Looking forward to the next few days here.


It’s Game Time

Forget the conference – highlight of the day was going to watch an NBA game.  Long conference day made worthwhile by the end of day entertainment. Day started at 6:30am for me – that after getting to bed well after midnight last night. I don’t feel like I had enough sleep. I had to get up then because I had to read a document before my 7:15am telecon with the UK office. The conference started at 8am today as well so I hardly had time to get to breakfast before the first session. The first session was a CEO Q&A panel and was probably the best session so far of the conference. Some good items to think about and some thoughtful answers from the CEOs on the panel #quiteimpressed

The only other valuable session today was another plenary session on Uncertainty. Clever guy called Paul Embrechts – Maths professor at ETH Zurich. ETH is quite an impressive educational institution as it has produced 21 Nobel prize winners – the most famous being Albert Einstein who was both a student and a professor there. He demonstrated one very clever mathematical concept in about 5 minutes. I won’t bore you with the details but I will impress a certain Maths 1 student with it when I get back to CT.

verizonBut let’s be honest, the highlight of the day was the basketball game – Washington Wizards vs Boston Celtics.  I’ve never been to a basketball game before. It was thoroughly entertaining though. The game started at 7pm. 7 of us (6 from Gen Re and Michael) went together. We took the metro which has a stop right next to the Verizon Centre where the game was played. Very convenient and we will in our seats by 6:30pm after leaving the hotel at 6pm. The first challenge was getting some food. There was another whole language on the boards of the food places. It was in English but words in combination that I had no idea what we might end up with. We needed an American with us to translate.

They really do hype up the game, pump up the music before it gets underway. Noise, noise and more noise.  Louder, louder, louder, make some noise comes blaring though the speakers. After the mandatory saluting of the military and singing of the national anthem the game got underway. We had great seats with a good view of the court. Fortunately Michael was with us because the rest of us didn’t know the rules and he at least could explain what was going on. I got a running commentary and all my questions answered. Who knows if what he told me was correct but it seemed to make sense.

wizrdsThe game is made up of 4 quarters of 12 minutes each. 48 minutes of game time. But it took 2 hours 10 minutes to complete the whole game. The rest of the time is consumed by time outs (called by either side), fouls and quarter breaks. No boredom though as in every break (whether it be a time out or between quarters) there is other entertainment laid on. Cheerleaders (almost as good as the Bulls Babes), fan participation, interviews and my personal favourite – the Dance Cam. Loud music played and people get up and dance and make a general fool of themselves until they settle on one bloke who is making the ultimate fool of himself and declare him to be the Dance Cam winner. Chick-fil-A (a fast food chain) also offered a free chicken sandwich to everyone in the Stadium if the opposing team missed two consecutive free throws during the game. That got the fans booing every free throw the opponents made but unfortunately for us they never missed two consecutively the whole night.

cheerleadersIt is another whole sub-culture watching a game like this. I couldn’t possibly describe everything that goes on. If you’re in America and can get to a basketball game I would highly recommend you do.  It was quite an entertaining evening. Oh … I forgot to mention the game itself. Washington Wizards dominated right from the start.  Within 2 minutes they had a lead of about 9 points and they never surrender that for the rest of the game and in fact they stretched the lead considerably in the 3rd quarter to about 30 points. An easy win for Washington Wizards and with the win they qualify for the NBA play-offs for the first time in 7 years. So an important game for them.

We ended the day with another trip to Baskin Robbins for ice creams. Just a half-day of conference left … finally! What did Helen & Chloe do today – maybe some more shopping I would guess.  They did drive back from Johnson City to Knoxville and Helen commented on how easy it was to drive in the US (wide roads) and how much she liked the rental car – Ford Focus (#noappreciationforcars). We should (transportation all going well) meet up again tomorrow.

More from Washington

sunrise over washington2 more days of conference to go. Not sure I am going to make it. Someone rescue me. Today started with a session that the first speaker was introduced from Turkey and we were told it was her first ever presentation. Unfortunately I could tell. Then it was followed by a presentation that promised to be interesting but after about 7 minutes she said she was finished and sat down.  I thought she was just doing the introduction still. Then the next session involved three of our competitors talking about nothing for an hour and half. Seriously … someone put me out of my misery!

Fortunately it was only a half day of conference today. The afternoon was off to do some sightseeing and the weather was good as you can see from the sunrise photo from our hotel room. Michael and I did the Old Town Trolley tour.  It takes you past all the sights of Washington (and you can jump on and off at various stops but we didn’t – we just sat and enjoyed the ride).

WW2 memorialWhat strikes me about Washington is there are a lot of monuments, a lot of memorials from the various wars Americans have fought and died in, a lot of museums, a lot of government departments. I reckon no one does anything else here but work in one of those places (or in a hotel or restaurant). I don’t think I have actually seen an office building except the government ones.  All of the museums, monuments, government buildings are very impressive and a lot of thought clearly has gone into the building and positioning of them.  Nothing haphazard. For instance, the statue on top of the Capitol Building is called Lady Freedom. Freedom faces east so that ‘the sun never sets on Freedom’. The WW II memorial has 4000 gold stars which represent the 400 000 Americans who lost their lives in WWII.  The whole city (or at least the Mall) are like that. Quite impressed by the planning of it especially since a lot of this was laid out in the 1800s. The other thing I found out for the first time today was that every 4 years they paint either a blue or red line (representing Democratic or Republican) down the whole of Pennsylvania Avenue from the place where the President is inaugurated (Capitol Hill) to his (there have been no her’s yet) residence (the White House). The blue was wearing thin already even though there are a few more years to go for Obama.

falloutThe round trip took just under 2 hours and really gave us a good perspective of the city and it’s layout. But we were reminded about how paranoid (or maybe it is organised) Americans are. While waiting to catch the trolley tour we were standing next to the Department of Agriculture building and on the side of the building was the plaque on the left. Never seen that in any other major city in the world. At least we know where to go if someone drops a nuclear bomb in Washington DC over the next few days (oops .. that’s probably got the FBI/CIA/Department of Homeland Security all watching me electronically now).

You might be asking what H&C are up to.  Only thing I know is that we just kept getting photos of various things that Helen either thinks we should be buying (and we shouldn’t) or she thinks are very funny (like the range of Martha Stewart pet clothes). She seems to be enjoying herself much more than I am at the conference.

Tonight I had a client dinner.  We invited our clients from South Africa and the UK to join us for dinner at a restaurant in DC. It was a very popular restaurant and so we could only get access to the private dining area at 8:30pm and so it was a late dinner.  I only just got back to the hotel at just before midnight (#longday). Our SA marketing people booked the restaurant. It was a Greek/Lebanese restaurant called Zaytinya (www.zayinya.com).  No American items not even the wine.  Only Greek, Lebanese and Israeli wines on the list. I went with Lebanese. The red wine was better than the white but both were quite drinkable. Given it is 12:15am and Michael is already snoring behind me, I reckon it is time for bed!