Monthly Archives: February 2015

Oh, the Sights We Will See

DSC_0701Our winter break to the Portuguese island of Madeira quickly developed a routine. That’s not the first requirement you think of in a vacation but, as a parent, there are few things you appreciate more than routine. It’s a word that has transformed meaning from the mundane to “thank god we have a routine established or we’d all be nuts” territory. Welcome to the Wonder Years.

Our daily routine in Funchal began by tussling with the other tourists in the breakfast buffet (“the eggs are out, the eggs are out!”), immediately followed by a lengthy respite at the indoor swimming pool for Liam to show off his new skills. Going somewhere sunny only to head indoors to the pool did feel rather counterintuitive, but after sticking a toe in the chilly outdoor pool, I certainly wasn’t going to argue the point. The poolside loungers could wait for another day.

On that first day, it was with delight that we witnessed Liam confidently stride into the pool, floaty in hand, and promptly dog-paddle from one end to the other. Not being able to see his weekly hour of swimming after school, we had no idea whether his claimed swimming prowess was all talk or not. He’s no Michael Phelps yet, but he was paddling as well as any furry friend I’ve ever seen. It was a proud parent moment.DSC_0846

For three straight days after the morning swim, I wondered if we could select a good lunch in the midst of the old town. Funchal did not disappoint even once. A poor option was not to be found, and most were very good. The menu board convinced us to stop in at a little place called Espaco. Minus the lemon-faced waitress, it was an outstanding choice from the fish soup to sardines to meat. There really was some magic at work on this island.

All this great food was topped off by a recommended and excellent local favorite known as Arsenio’s. The staff was so accommodating that I think I literally could have asked them to grill my left shoe and it would have come out moist and tender with a smile. A touch of live Portuguese Fado music in the background made this restaurant about as locally-grounded as it comes.

Our usual routine was finally broken up by some additional sightseeing. We did a short ride around Funchal via electric tuk-tuk that included a stop at the castle above the city. Dating back to the 1700s, it offered a huge view of the whole area, from a rising green mountain on one side DSC_0723to a tide of pleasant orange-tiled roofs leading down to the harbor on the other.

We spent a day swinging to the western half of the island via minibus for a few breath-taking sights. Not for the faint of heart is the cliffside glass deck at Cabo Girao, where it feels like you are looking a mile downward at the rocky shore directly below your feet, suspended only by a thin pane of glass. We also drove across a mid-island plateau that sits at about 1,500 meters, high enough for the clouds to literally hang around you. I told Liam to open his mouth and swallow a little cloud. I think he’s still trying to figure out if DSC_0636that’s really true and, if so, does that mean the cloud is inside him now.

On the far northwestern end of the island are the natural lava pools at Porto Moniz, an interesting rock formation where the Atlantic waves pound the shore and fill the pools. It was a great cap to the trip to see more of the natural wonders of this charming island.

As we deDSC_0647parted Madeira at the end of this latest short adventure, it was nice to reflect on the days. We were filled with memories of lively exotic fruit, salted cod hanging to dry, colorfully painted doors, narrow stone alleys and even a rainbow stretching to the green hills. At this stage of life, it really is a wonderful treat to be able to enjoy family and fine meals and nature at a pace we all enjoy. While my photographic skills may not put anyone to shame, I know we will still be able to look back at these images in years to come and know how special these days really were. One can’t ask much more than that.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: There were countless good food moments, as you may already have noted, but one of the most interesting DSC_0627was trying a candied hibiscus flower. Unusual, but actually pretty good. That was a first… Flying on TAP Air Portugal was quite a pleasant surprise. They are a small airline, but still march out a snack and beverages even on short flights. We actually got into a mechanical delay before the second leg of our trip home, but TAP did updates every half hour and in the end drafted a plane from a sister operation to get us home. Any delay is painful, but this was a textbook example of how to minimize it. I wish the US carriers would buy the book and copy it… I was quite tempted to bring back a handful of avocados from Funchal. They really are that good. But I could just imagine the moment at airport security when the scanner showed a collection of small, firm pineapple-shaped objects in my luggage. I’m sure he has a lovely disposition, but I didn’t need to meet the grenade-disposal robot on this trip…

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A Little Fun in Funchal

I’m sure I’m talking to many chill-weary ears when I mention that February is the perfect time for a trip south and a good thaw. Anyone growing up in the northeast US or Canada has been conditioned to feel the pull of Florida and other warmer climes once winter has exerted its icy claws for a few months. Considering that, it feels a little odd that this is conditioning is lacking in my current surroundings in Spain. Winter getaways to warmer climes are rather a rarity in these parts.

Even though this year’s winter in Barcelona, I’m told, is windier and colder than normal, there still isn’t a rush to sandy shores. For one thing, there really isn’t a “European version” of Florida or the Caribbean. It’s actually quite a haul to find beaches warm enough to work up a decent case of lobster skin.

Despite this, finding somewhere sunny was definitely on my mind a few weeks back when we started pondering getting out of town for a few days during Liam’s winter break. (I should mention that this is the first of two winter school breaks here, since every good holiday deserves another in the Spanish way of thinking.) But with hot not in the cards, we instead aimed for reasonably warm and interesting.

Off we went into the friendly skies last weekend via a couple of short flights to the Portuguese archipelago of Madeira. Thanks to the gulfstream, these islands enjoy a mild climate year round and at least a chance at seeing 70-degree weather in February. Not beach perfect, but certainly good for a relaxing break. And at $400/person for flight and five nights in a hotel, it also was feeling like good value.

We hopped on a local bus to depart the island airport and one big fact became apparent within minutes. The main island of Madeira is less of an island and more like one big cliff. Literally, there was not a piece of flat land in sight anywhere. Staring higher up the continuous hill, I spied some cows and couldn’t help but think of the end result should one go cow-tipping. The poor creatures wouldn’t stop rolling until landing with a splash in the Atlantic. That’s one hell of a way to tenderize beef.

After our late afternoon arrival, there wasn’t much left on the day’s agenda beyond finding a decent meal and settling in. I’ve always believed that these early moments are a great test of a destination. Can one roll the dice and find a good meal on a whim, or is the stage set for struggles ahead? Fortunately, we landed squarely on the former.

Faced with a line of restaurant choices, we took a chance on a place called O Dragoeiro for less than scientific reasons. The set menu looked fair, the setting was a rustic garden with lots of natural appeal and, to be honest, the old guy pitching the place out front wasn’t short on charm, although he was short on teeth. In fact, he was probably about 70% shorter on teeth than most of us. Some might suggest that’s a warning sign, but I instead focused on his ample paunch and decided if he could carry that weighEspetada_Stand_EspetadaSA_Export_002t despite being every dentist’s nightmare, the restaurant must be doing something right.

An hour later, sated with fresh seafood and the local specialty of meat on a two-foot skewer (known as an espetada), it was clear we had chosen well. It was an omen of things to come. Over the course of the next five days, not a bad meal was to be had. This island clearly had a love of food.

We centered the trip in Madeira’s capital city of Funchal, a welcoming hamlet of about 130,000 residents. It stretches out to newer sections, but the center is an old town of narrow streets, tiled sidewalks and historic buildings. In the midst of the old section is the local market, the perfect spot for those in search of tropical fruits and typical veggies.

I’m partial to an offshoot of passion fruit commonly known as a granadilla. It’s a hard-shelled, orange fruit filled with black seeds in a mucus-like covering. Writing that, I’m aware that the fruit’s appeal sounds about equal to soup made from my son’s boiled gym socks. Nonetheless, they are a quite tasty mix of sweet and sour, but often hard to find.

Madeira grows granadillas in abundance, but, more surprisingly, they also have a half dozen other variations on passion fruit that were new to me, with flavors varying from pineapple to banana to tomato. Wandering among the fruit stands, we met vendors who have the pitch down to a science, slicing up fruit and doling out samples in a fashion that would put Saturday morning at Costco to shame. Seriously, my dad would have hired any one of these guys to sell cars. They live by the rule that nobody gets away without a bag in hand!

Not surprisingly, I walked out with a sack overflowing with passion fruit, mango and bananas. It was only based on sheer weight that I skipped the fresh avocados, which were so big they looked like a steroid experiment gone wrong but tasted like green perfection. I did make up for that miss by ordering avocado with vinaigrette as a dinner appetizer on three occasions. The Madeirans should export this concept, because it really is a terrific starter.

Madeira_WineAlong with the abundant exotic fruits, Madeira is also famous for local wine. It’s pretty common for restaurants here to give a small sample of the local vino as a welcome when you enter. I’m not nearly as big a fan of the Madeira wine as I am of Port, but it is an interesting taste and the bottles with simple white stenciling look tailor-made for display on a home bar.

I’ve long been a believer that Portugal is vastly underrated for both its eating and drinking options, and Madeira quickly gave me plenty of reasons to back up this belief. More to come in my next post, but safe to say that the choice of Madeira for a winter trip was not causing any heartburn even if it wasn’t a beach break.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: One other nice thing about Funchal is the fact that things are open regular hours, including Sundays, as opposed to the hit or miss opening hours in Spain. Trying to buy something on Sunday even in Barcelona is a needle in a haystack experience, with one minor exception being bread. It’s somehow ironic that bakers are the only ones who can’t get Sunday off… It’s a little disconcerting to start a vacation sitting on the tarmac knowing that your tight connection time is getting tighter by the minute thanks to a mysterious delay. Thankfully, airlines now pad travel times to allow for airport congestion and other issues, meaning leaving late often still means arriving on time. Of course, this does raise the question, when you do depart on time, how come you don’t arrive early? Along with luggage, airlines seem to have mastered making extra time disappear also. Cue the Twilight Zone music…

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An Oldie But A Goodie

Biting into a tender and warm piece of local sausage, one eye transfixed by a just-filled glass of cava on the table in front of me, I couldn’t help but think that life really doesn’t get much better than this. Oh, did I mention it was 10 a.m. It’s never too early for a little tipple in Spain.

Life is different here in so many ways, not the least of which is having the time to explore and discover. The traditional tourist sights are must-sees, but we are very fortunate to be on a journey that also allows us a chance to seek out the heart of the city where the locals live, shop, mingle and eat. In many ways, that’s the best part. As I started my day off at a tiny local restaurant with a sausage snack served just as it had been for decades, I knew this was an experience worth savoring.

Barcelona, like most Spanish cities, are not homogenous, but instead alive with diverse neighborhoods. It’s one of the most interesting differences, compared to the US or Canada, that these neighborhoods are filled with a preponderance of small, local businesses. Even in a cosmopolitan city like Barcelona, small independent stores are the lifeblood of supply for the residents.

Think about your own neighborhood. There probably is a small dry cleaner and a garage. Many of the local restaurants will be independent, along with a handful of other stores around them. But, in general, a big portion of daily needs are serviced by major stores. Groceries come from large supermarkets, clothes from the mall and everyday staples from Target and Costco. It’s a much different picture in Spain.

I recently read one report claiming 80% of businesses in Spain are family-owned and in total produce 70% of the country’s GDP. I’m not sure if those numbers are dead-on, but just looking around certainly seems to back it up. Small business is the engine here.

At times, this does make finding things a tad difficult. I may have yelled “my kingdom for a Home Depot” on an occasion or two, but it is heartwarming to walk into a small store and be greeted by the smell of freshly baked bread, or see the owner behind the counter showing off today’s catch of fish. I was actually startled the first time I picked up a bun in a supermarket to find it still warm. Shopping small and local is not a trend here; it’s simply the way it is.

There’s been a great concern for these small businesses of late thanks to the government ending a 20-year-old law that tied rent increases to the very low annual inflation rate. The effect has been artificially low rents in some popular areas, which helped small businesses to survive. Critics have screamed loudly that anywhere from 20,000 to 55,000 small businesses will disappear without rent controls, replaced by international chains willing to pay higher rents.

Biting into a sausage that is as much living history as it is breakfast, I’m saddened by the thought that this business could be one of those casualties. Experiencing these family-run shops is one of the most vivid parts of the picture of “Old Europe” in my mind. That said, I’m not sure I completely buy into the sky is falling claims of the critics, especially since many of these spaces are small and not suitable for the feared international chains.

As much as I want these businesses to stick around, I struggle with the idea of the government putting price controls in place that dictate to an owner how much they can charge. It feels similar to rent controlled apartments in New York. While the original intention to help those in need may have been good, such controls seem to end up being abused or creating false economies. Any business should be able to stand on its own. It’s not a simple question.

My short but moving moment with the sausage this past week came as part of a food walk in one of Barcelona’s oldest and most charming barrios, Gracia. Organized by a new company called Devour Barcelona, it brought us to nine of these long-established family businesses that make neighborhoods special. It was one of the best experiences we have had so far in the city.

After breakfast, we wandered deeper into the narrow streets of the old district to find a local market. Every neighborhood in Barcelona has these covered markets where anywhere from one to a few dozen food merchants sell their wares daily. Our stop included fresh olives and a sampling of local cheese.

Next up was a visit to try some of the best extra virgin Spanish olive oils, where I was surprised to learn that Spain is the world’s biggest producer of olive oil, even exporting olives to countries such as Italy to be processed and bottled as local. Then we had a quick lesson in hand-making the local staple of pan con tomate (bread with tomato). No lie; this makes every meal better.

Homemade pastries from a famous Syrian immigrant fed our late morning sweet cravings, followed by a taste of locally-made vermouth (which is becoming quite a fad here). The added bonus of an impromptu serenade by a local in the tiny tavern was not officially part of the tour, but definitely made the day. Some homemade meatballs and, finally, a one-of-a-kind sweet and coffee topped off our little adventure.

It was the type of walk that only happens in the heart of big cities, at small shops often frequented only by locals and often sought by visitors. It speaks to why getting lost in the city can be great and why preserving such old traditions are desirable for so many of us.

I walked away from our tour sated with good samples, knowing I had a handful more places to revisit in future when a craving for these time-tested dishes demands an answer. The world is a much more interesting place as long as outposts such as these are in it. I’m not sure what’s the key to helping them maintain, but if nothing else I’ll do my part by supporting them whenever I can. My stomach will allow no less.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: I wrote before how promotions and marketing are not only different here, but far less in evidence. It’s not nearly as overt as in the US. That said, I stumbled on an interesting one last weekend. One of the supermarket chains here posted on Facebook that certain locations would match your purchase up to €100 with gift certificates on Saturday. With so much less emphasis on electronic communications here, I wondered if word would get out at all. Well, it did. We arrived at the market late morning to discover a checkout line nearly 40 people deep, and with an average age hovering around Social Security eligibility. Who says the mature crowd isn’t online? We joined the cattle, waited patiently and eventually packed up a cart of goods and received a stack of corresponding certificates. Like most offers here, details tend to be a little sketchy on the front end. Add in the language barrier and I’m often not quite sure if I’m earning a bonus or signing up for the ham of the month club. In this case, the vouchers have to be used one at a time for €10 off €30. It was a nice win, although as a marketer I’m at a bit of a loss how handing out €100 worth of chits to a whole day’s worth of customers adds up. Another Spanish mystery that I need to work through, I guess.

 

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Don’t Use the “S” Word

As my five-year-old reminds me, you really shouldn’t use the “S” word. I was a little mystified the first time he stressed this to me, and my mind immediately scanning backwards to see if I had let slip a certain obscenity within his earshot. But it soon became apparent that he really was referring to different “S” word: stupid. It got me thinking that there are a lot of pretty choice words that begin with “S.”

The one that sprang to mind as I arose from slumber yesterday was surprised. In fact, I’ll even dial that up a notch to stupefied. After moving to Barcelona, the last thing I expected to see out the window even in the wee hours was snow, but there it was in all its shiny glory on top of a nearby car just as the day’s first rays of light shone down. This not only was an “S” word, but a four letter one!DSC_0612

I’m told it’s been three years since any of the white stuff has appeared in these parts, so I guess we should consider this a treat. Thank you very much, but I’ll take a cookie instead. The only thing that made the snow more palpable was the look on my wife’s face when I informed her of its arrival. Not wanting to get out of bed until spring. Priceless!

For all of you back home, I’m sure you are tossing around such complimentary terms as wuss and softy in answer to my news that a few flakes appeared on these Mediterranean shores. Okay, I’ll take that bullet, but it was a bit of a shock to the system. And let me point out that I didn’t have the benefit of climbing into my toasty automobile with a mega cup of joe and healthy dose of sensible NPR chatter for the trip to school. Liam and I braved the dreaded Angli hill as we do every day. The brisk wind is just about the only thing that can make my five-year-old chatterbox silent for more than a few seconds at a time. At least, he was silent until we came upon some of his classmates, when a jarring barrage of verbal explosions including SNOW, the bus hit a car, there’s flakes in my hair and it smells cold could make your head swim.

There is no match for the spontaneous enthusiasm of five-year-olds. It should be bottled and sold. It’s simple and pure and overflowing with good intentions. So after a morning of experiencing this, its all the tougher to slip into the day’s headlines and see the world needs more than just a bottle of this good, but probably a big honking shot also.

So even though I watched a Lewis Black special the other day and feel well-fueled to get my rant on, I have promised my wife to try and be on my best behavior and avoid throwing around the “S” word with abandon. But it’s not easy with some of the words spewing from supposedly savvy politicians of late. The media loves a good ugly, but nary a spin is needed when public figures stand up and make statements such as vaccinations should be voluntary or some people who have been vaccinated have mental disorders. What next? Some people who have been vaccinated are also left-handed. Sounds like similar causation to me.

It’s a little scary to listen to an elected official defend actions that have such obvious negative consequences for other people. In the same vein of scary, add to this news that came out of Wyoming this week. I won’t get on a full rant about guns since not everyone shares my view, but I am having trouble understanding how elected officials could pass legislation that specially repeals the gun-free status of schools. Really? Does anyone need to have a firearm while picking up their kid from elementary or at a football game. This new bill even goes so far as to allow weapons to be brought into the state legislature. Hey guys, I got news for you. A lot of people really don’t like politicians. And you want to arm them during meetings?

I can’t understand this anymore than I can understand the mom who thought it made sense to carry a handgun into Wal-Mart and ended up being shot by her five-year-old. Or the couple who decided a vacation was the ideal time to have a handgun in mommy’s purse, and both ended up being shot by their three-year-old. Anyone want to fault me for marching out the “S” word yet?

Not to sound too sanctimonious here, but it seems the world is going a little crazy. Need proof? How about the growing trend of tattooing eyeballs. That’s not a typo. This is a thing. Not a smart thing, but a thing.

But I do hate to leave people on a down note, so I will wrap up this rant with a something a little more positive, and further proof that karma just might be a thing, also. In Germany, a neo-Nazi demonstration was cancelled this week when the organizers boarded a train in the wrong direction and completely missed the town where the demonstration was to be held. There you have it, folks. That’s using the “S” for good.

 

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Just Call Me Lemming

What’s that old adage: If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump off too? Okay, no cliff jumping today but I am going to do my best lemming impersonation and weigh in on the Super Bowl ads. Hey, everybody’s doing it!

Now, I have to admit I didn’t actually watch the Super Bowl. Even though a number of websites promised me live coverage, the thought of a 12:30 a.m. kickoff just wasn’t working me. If I haven’t managed to stay up for a 1 a.m. Bruins game yet, then football isn’t making the cut. This is one big drawback of being 4,000 miles to the east of the action. In other words, I’m cheating a little here and using web postings of the leaked ads to get on my soapbox.

I was saying to someone not long ago, from a business perspective, I find it fascinating how far and how fast McDonald’s has fallen. Literally, just months ago, investing pundits were still expounding that McDonald’s was a stock market juggernaut and deserved your dollars. Fortunately, I wasn’t buying it. It mere weeks they have suddenly been tarred as an out-of-touch dinosaur and had their CEO walked. Let’s be clear, I’m not rooting for them, since, after all, they serve industrial crap that could kill you. But I am going to give them props for their Super Bowl spot. I never really got the Lovin’ It campaign (and the numbers say the public didn’t either), but this iteration is much closer to a feel good. McDonald’s hard challenge now is to enact the paying with love theme in-store for the next couple of weeks for a true public feel good and PR win. It’s a huge gamble to think that tens of thousands of front-line, underpaid staff will play nice and back up the campaign. I’m not sure I’m hopeful of the ending that’s coming here.

Bud’s lost puppy was the latest entry in the long series of heart-tugging animal ads by the brewer. After so many, these ads should be worn out and have exhausted the sentimentality, and this one definitely swings a long way in that direction. But, I have to admit, I still like them. And with most of America falling in the dog lovers camp, I know I’m not alone. It’s almost impossible not to win with this. I’m not convinced it will sell any beer, but happy to have seen it.

BMW’s spot with Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel was well written and fun, although the mention of twerking at the end swung it waaaay too far to the creepy side. Funny thing is, if the car is as good as suggested, seems like it could sell itself better than any celeb. Dove’s dad ad was also another heart-tugger, but I’m still a sucker for those.

The Lexus Feel Some Noise ad felt like they don’t have a clue who is the market for the vehicle. The demo and the music just doesn’t in-sync, at least to how I see it. That said, the Lexus RC ad was cool and the car looked incredible. In the same vein, Toyota’s How Great I Am was inspirational and interesting. I wonder if the link to the car/brand is strong enough to make a difference, but I’m 100% behind ads with such positivity and diversity. Props to them.

Eat24’s ad with Snoop Dog and Gilbert Gottfried was silly and fun. These are two characters easy to dislike, but this ad will work. Web traffic will come and it’ll resonate as money well spent for a young brand. And I loved Newcastle poking fun at advertising with its Band of Brands spot. Look for this to get tried again with a fresh twist. Wix also had a very funny and creative spot with the unique businesses of former athletes. That’s also a nice win for a young brand.

I couldn’t be more tired of people who are famous just for being famous, so as much as I like how T-Mobile keeps shaking up the messy cell industry, I personally would avoid the brand solely for a horrible ad featuring someone not worth naming.

The snickers ad was kind of fun, retro and memorable, but it’s tough to see how it ups the brand. I give it a near-miss. Grubhub’s knockout burrito undoubtedly had most guys laughing out loud. How can that be anything but a victory? Guarantee this will get lots of follow up views online. And the Avocados from Mexico spot might have been the most creative slant of any ad I saw, and pretty cool. A plus for them. I’m not sure I get the economics of industry ads like this, but when you think about the long-term success of campaigns such as Got Milk, it’s tough to argue with their existence. Could this be the start of another legacy?

GoDaddy has gone from ads guaranteed to offend half the population to one of the most sedate ads in the mix. Oh, and by the way, this ad will probably still offend half the population since it seems to say that work is more important than life. Signal from the ref: wide and to the right.

I have just one word for the Fiat Blue Pill ad: hysterical. This is what advertising creativity is all about, making an ad everyone remembers. Among insurance companies, even if they had made a lousy ad, Esurance would still win by including Walter White thanks to all the fans hungry for more Breaking Bad. But it wasn’t lousy, it’s a great ad in a messy category where it’s all about oddball ads and not the product. Oh, and Nationwide with a ad talking about dying kids. Do I need to say more? Who possibly thought this was a good idea?

I enjoyed seeing a nice story in the Microsoft Brilliant Bus ad. The world needs a lot more stories like this filling the airwaves. The hard part is, I don’t think consumers buy that Microsoft is empowering people, so there’s a bit of a disconnect here. And was anyone else creeped out by the Dreaming With Jeff spot? I don’t want to go there. Ever.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: I read a remarkable story online the other day about the president of Uruguay picking up a hitchhiker in his beat-up old car. They call him the poor president because he donates 90% of his salary and lives like an ordinary guy, refusing the presidential palace and its perks. I think he’s my new hero. He even has a three-legged dog! Imagine what kind of world we would live in if all politicians had such a strong sense of self-sacrifice and community-building. Imagine, indeed…

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