Religion

IT Consultants on the Road, Viva Roma! Edition

This post isn't about a single visit to Rome--it stretches from a visit in January through a visit just completed now in August.  And it won't be the last.  Several more visits are likely, as we work with this UN agency to implement Office 365.  Our (my) job: getting people to use some of the goodies that are in Office 365 besides email.

And I know it doesn't make things look any less romantic, but I'm not actually in Rome.  I'm in a business park about 10 miles outside the city.  So, it's not all cafe correcto and la vida dolce all the time.  That said, I've been to places much less desirable than this.  So read on for some quick hits across my trips so far...

January

This was a relatively last-minute trip.  I had convinced my boss that developing multiple, parallel relationships with a new customer, the World Food Programme, would be a good idea.  And when I volunteered to take a red-eye to Rome that sealed the deal.  So it has been a trip featuring one day of meetings and another Anthony Bourdain-style layover day in Rome.

Why is it, on boarding my British Airways flight, I want to stand up and apologize for America?

I’ve seen more nuns in a single day in Rome than I normally see in a year in the US.

Aah Europe; it’s all coming back to me.  I have to put my room key in the card slot to work the lights.  And it’s just as well I never figured out the TV.

I’m such a goof.  “I know, I’ll buy one item for Crystal for now, and another for her birthday!” Ya, except her birthday was LAST WEEK.

Walking to the Vatican, it strikes me that being ambassador to the Vatican has to be one of the cushiest jobs ever.

Second thought: it’s amazing to think how a religion started by a poor immigrant of Middle Eastern descent would grow to be such a wealthy power.  I don’t know if that’s amazing-good, or just amazing.

Seems like the route to salvation at one point was to sponsor the building of a church.

How often do you get to attend Mass in a church/basilica that dates (originally) from the 3rd Century?

Dinner cooked up by a friend’s son and his peers, here on a high-school exchange program.  Amazing to learn their perspective on the world.

The free smartphone at the hotel was such a cool thing.  Maps, restaurant reviews and all.

The new normal: armed police/national guard blocking off roads in front of tourist locations.

Tourist hawkers. Then—fake handbags. Now: selfie sticks and fidget spinners.

Who thought triangular buildings was a good idea? I’m constantly walking into corners.

You can go a long way with “please,” “thank you,” and “good day” in the local language.

Instructive to see how the Christians took over the Pantheon and made it into a church.  Turns out, if you want to preserve a building or architectural site, the trick is to turn it into a church.  Then the Church will look after it.  Your weekly collection dollars at work.

How deep is the River Tiber?

Why is the espresso here so damn good? And thanks, Mike, for your admonition that it’s only espresso after 9 AM.

Kind of fun to see Rome in the “low season.”  Seems more genuine, or maybe just less overrun with tourists.

Trump enacts his immigration ban while I’m out of the country. What a shit-show.  There’s a huge crowd to greet passengers arriving at SFO.  I’m a little embarrassed, thinking that I’m not part of the group this crowd is cheering for.  It does make me smile, though.

Jet lag is a cruel thing.

June

Here after a last-minute company decision to send me from Dublin (where I was vacationing with Crystal) to Rome.  Crystal is off to Holland for her company meetings, I go to Rome.  Mary kindly is watching Mona back home.  This whole co-traveling lifestyle is more disturbing than cool.

This hotel is very close to the customer, which is its saving grace.  There’s a painting of the hotel on the wall (kind of like an architect’s rendering) and the cars in the painting date the hotel to the 1960’s.  That and the 3-D picture of Marilyn Monroe.  I keep expecting Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack to show up at the bar.

Customer has decided they want me here all summer.  Um, I don’t think that’s going to work; looks like I'll be in Rome two weeks out of every month for the summer.  Expect a lot of Italian Christmas gifts this year.

July

One day after returning from vacation in Hawaii, I’m off to Rome.  This flight to DFW is the coldest I've ever experienced.  Maybe I just got used to Hawaiian weather.

Fun fact: they turn the temperature down because people tend to faint at high altitudes.  Now you know.

It’s interesting that in all these far-in-the-future Star Wars movies, the rebels are always dressed in clothes better suited for the 18th Century.

Landing at 9:15 AM and it’s straight to the customer for meetings all day.  I used to do this all the time in the 1990’s.  Now—not so exciting.

There’s a lounge singer in the hotel bar performing a rendition of Peter Frampton’s Baby I Love Your Way.  (Hear it here) Can’t say I expected to hear that.

Walking along local roads after work to get in my 10,000 steps (I’m a slave to FitBit’s social engineering).  There’s no shoulder and lots of traffic so it’s a more exciting experience than I had expected. 

After my previous faux pas flinging spaghetti sauce on my customer host, I’ve learned to stick with risotto when we go out to lunch.

More walking after work, along a new route.  The nature preserve along this route is appealing, but there also seem to be slums nearby.  It’s a little disturbing.

The vendors with their fresh fruits and vegetables at Campo dei Fiori make me miss my garden.

The Borghese Gardens are only green on the map, at least in the summer. 

26,000 steps?!  Even I was complaining about how much I was walking. 

If the chef asks you if you'd like a dish he makes for himself, always answer "yes!" Sicilian roasted sea bass at Da Claudia.  Spectacular.

Excursion to the Isole Pontine.  I was a little disturbed when the tour guide led us in prayer to ask for a safe journey. 

Swimming in the Mediterranean (technically, the Tyrrhenian) Sea feels good on a hot day.

Aperitivo of prosecco, cheese and olives under a fig tree along a trail.  Simple pleasures are the best; even the locals are jealous.

Find the hotel on Google maps and pull up the address to show the taxi driver.  I thought that was pretty clever.

Four straight nights of Ristorante Verde Smeraldo.  I like the food, but you can’t eat any place four nights in a row without it getting a little tiresome. 

That said, it’s been entertaining to see the visitors from China out with the local Huawei staff each Monday night.  And the Italian version of America’s Funniest Home Videos translates well in any language.

Here’s a picture of the revolving door on the way into the office.  Apparently, they’ve had to warn people not to attempt to play soccer while in the revolving door.

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I got a kick out of these corner meeting areas.  Still, I’m not sure they’ve got the concept right.

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The pace of the day revolves around coffee.  Coffee in the morning, coffee after lunch, coffee in the afternoon.  Good thing each dose is just a sip or two.

A handy tip: first you pay, then take the receipt over to the espresso counter to get your cup.

One advantage of the time zone difference: I’m aware of Donald Trump’s tweets when they happen, instead of three hours afterwards. 

Sitting on the Piazza della Rotunda watching the crowds outside the Pantheon and listening to an opera singer in the distance.  You can’t ask for much more.

August

Seeing the "no smoking" sign on the plane makes me wonder: does anyone allow smoking on airlines anymore?

A380—very nice experience in "economy plus". First time I had to descend a jet ramp getting off of an airplane.

Yoga pants as travel attire: thumbs up or down?

The British version of Master Chef is quite different from the US version.  The Brits just can't bring themselves to be as loud and obnoxious as Gordon Ramsey.

Speaking of which:  your restaurant in Heathrow STILL isn't open.  I can't wait forever, Gordon!

UPDATE: Now open. Review forthcoming.

I have to wonder who actually shops at these high-end stores in airports.

Fresh buffalo mozzarella from Naples for a group snack.  La dolce vita.

Every day I check in with the receptionist at the hotel breakfast buffet; I give her my name and room number.  Every day she checks the list, finding neither my name nor my room number.  Every day she smiles and says, “OK, go ahead!”

While in the cab on my way to Rome’s city center, I’m reminded of Michael Callahan’s advice: never look out the front windshield.

There is a line three blocks long to get into the Pantheon.  Welcome tourists!

It was refreshing to visit some of the lesser-traveled parts of Rome today.  There were times I was all alone visiting the sites.

Rome is one place where a knowledge of Latin can come in handy.

I think I’ve climbed at least three of the seven hills this city was founded on.

The Baths of Diocletian are enormous.  Still, I’ll take flush toilets and running water in my house any day.

It’s clear to me that Rome has the same problem as Athens: where do we put all these antiquities?

This morning there is a trail of blood leading down the hotel stairs.  I feel like I’m walking through a crime scene.

I’ve learned enough Italian to know that the panhandler I turned down was not saying nice things about me.

Mass at the Basilica San Giovanni Laterano.  Built by the Pope before there was a St. Peter’s.  Stealing the giant doors for the church was a nice touch.  Kind of weird knowing that the skulls of Sts. Peter and Paul are in those gold sculptures over the Altar.

And that building across the street? Oh, that’s the Pope’s chapel.  Huh.  Well, it is small by comparison I suppose.  But Scala Santa, the 28 steps? The sign is very clear: you must ascend on your knees.  On marble stairs.  That’s more devotion than I can muster.  Plus the sign off to one side, reminding the devoted that 28 steps will get you an indulgence, but for the forgiveness of sins you still have to go to confession.  No shortcuts!

Take what I said about Dublin: you can't walk a block in Dublin without passing by a pub.  Now substitute “Rome” for “Dublin” and “church” for “pub” and it’s the same.  You don’t notice all the churches at first… until the top of each hour when all the bells ring.

Reggio di Calabria.  Reminds me of LA and the San Fernando Valley, except that the ocean is right there.  Very dry. Very hot.

Here’s a handy tip.  Be sure, when you purchase an airline ticket, that you enter your name EXACTLY as it appears on your passport.  Otherwise, you’ll have to change your ticket; that was an expensive mistake to make.

Banking, leveling off and lining up the runway when the plane is already so close to the ground and the mountains are right there.  You’d think we were on a small prop plane landing in Maui, not a passenger jet.  This pilot is good.

Handy hint: Italians leave for the beach (or the mountains) during the last half of August.  It starts with Ferragosto (August 15th) (also Latin for “hotter than hell in August").  So unless you’re headed to the beach or the mountains, don’t expect to find much that’s open.

So on that note: relying on Rick Steve’s, Yelp or Google to find a good local restaurant doesn’t work when all the locals are gone.  Santo Trastevere, we’ll have to meet some other time.

Here’s another random display of beauty in Trastevere.  And yes, that’s a man filling a water jug.

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Step inside the door, and this unassuming restaurant shows you this.

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When I travel my wife buys things.  The longer I’m gone, the more expensive the purchase.  Now I’m hearing something about property in Hawaii. Time to get home!

At Fiumicino airport, the parking spots reserved for dropping off passengers are labeled “Kiss and Go.” Because Italy.

Why is it that flying North and South seems to take forever?

Ciao, Roma. And thanks for all the rughetta.


The Urge to Create Meaning

I have been reading (slowly; I'm still on chapter one) a book about the origins of modern Mexican culture. It's fresh hamburger for culture geeks like me. The author was discussing how the Mexicans had created a pantheon of gods, which they used in part to make sense of their world. 

Side note: Don't go all Marvin Harris critique on me. I'm not saying Mexicans or anyone else "invented" a cosmology in order to explain their world. Maybe they did this purposely; maybe it just happened. The point is, however it happened, it seemed to work.

If you're the average citizen of Mexico and Central America, with no formal education, no literacy, forced to work for someone else and/or pay them tribute (or die) it makes sense that you'd want a way to make sense of your life. Even just the activities we now see as part of daily geology, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, were scary and required some explanation. So, there arose a belief system that said (for instance) that there were all these gods, who didn't care that much about you and could fuck up your life if they chose to. If you placated them, they might not bother you; then again, they might anyway (this was one of the differences between native beliefs and the Christian beliefs of the invading Spaniards.) The populace dealt with changing beliefs and circumstances by inventing or promoting new gods and demoting others. (This is akin to my notion of "culture as an adaptive system" that was my Great Thought at Stanford. Whether it really was a great thought or just the result of too many beers is an ongoing question.)

All of the above would be stock anthropology fare, except for an "aha" moment I had at work soon after starting the book. I was in a meeting with one of our product partners. They had been trying for some time to reinvent themselves, and they wanted to come and explain what the new company was all about.

Our CTO and I sat down and listened as they pulled out their PowerPoint slides and started explaining how the world had changed. That's when it struck me: these people had to describe a reality in order to make sense of the actions they were now taking. Absent that explained (and, for them, hopefully convincing) point of view, their changes might not make any sense.

Thinking back over my years spent explaining product roadmaps and strategy positions, across hundreds of PowerPoint presentations (thankfully, a rare occurrence for me lately) it all made sense. To enact a new reality (for you, your country, your company) you first had to answer the question, "why?" Why do this? Why not keep doing what you've been doing? What is the rationale for change?

Having seen these slides in a new light, I started noticing how common these kinds of presentations and stories are. "Let me explain why, before I explain what."

The problem with these explanations, the problem with religious and cultural world views, is that they are but one interpretation of events. How many other interpretations are there, leading to how many different prescriptions for action? The book I was reading was all about the world view of the Conquistadores compared to that of the indigenous peoples. One set of observable events, two interpretations, two courses of action.

All of this had led me to a new way of viewing these kinds of stories. I like to ask myself not just "why" but "why this point of view?". It also made me realize that, for all our trappings of modernity, in some ways we're not very different than our pre-literate ancestors.

Culture, for the win!


We Have All Been Here Before

Department of Obscure References

The media feed after the ISIS attacks in Paris had a familiar feel to me.  People seeking answers. People seeking revenge. People seeking solutions. People feeling like their story was being overlooked.

  • What about the massacre in Beirut? Mali? Kenya?
  • Ban the refugees!
  • It's all ___'s fault!
  • More wiretaps!
  • More drone strikes!
  • Bomb Raqqa!

And on and on.

I remember, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, a similar dialogue.  It was mostly carried out via email then, but the flow was the same.  People were hurt. They were afraid. They needed to make sense of something that made no sense at all.  And I remember, as I read the back-and-forth, thinking that we needed to cut each other some slack.  Someone took the conversation too far down the patriotism road for your liking.  OK, you disagree, but have a little patience and understanding.  You don't have to agree to feel their pain.

I've spent a good part of the last few weeks in LA, where the media is obsessed with the shootings in San Bernardino.  Maybe this is because it's a hot story.  I think it's also because people are hurting.  How could this happen to us?

Overlay the silly season that is the run-up to Presidential primaries and you have a recipe for extreme "look at me" views as candidates vie for attention and media coverage.  These stories further stir the pot, as people debate the talking points on their merits, or debate whether the points have any merit at all.

Through all of this, I suggest attaching a human face to the group you want to address.  Think about your Muslim friend, your relative who works in government.  Think about families you see that are struggling to find a safe place to live.  Would you say the same things to their face?  Maybe that should be the test.

 


When Love Wins

Last week was a momentous week, especially with the Supreme Court affirming the constitutionality of same-sex marriage.  I happened to be driving past the Facebook campus on Friday, and noticed that their "like" sign had been covered in the rainbow-colored gay pride background.

Twitter no doubt went crazy (I stayed away) but when I checked in to Facebook there were scores of posts celebrating the news, and lots of people changing their profile photos to include a gay pride background.  As I said in my Facebook post, I thought this was a big day for America.

I also noticed what was missing: reaction from those who didn't favor the idea of same-sex marriage.  Some of these friends are prolific posters, so I knew it wasn't because they had nothing to say.  More likely, they were holding off.  This got me thinking that it might help to explain my position on the matter.

First off, living in the San Francisco area, we're used to "live and let live" being the dominant ethos.  It can be easy to forget that what seems normal here is far from normal in many other places.

Second, my happiness had to do with empathy for the gay and lesbian friends and co-workers I've known over the years.  Seeing someone have to avoid sharing their personal life for fear of rejection or retribution just seemed like a terrible way to live.  For me, this ruling was about being able to say, "this is who I am!"  I couldn't be happier knowing that this roadblock to living a genuine life had been removed.

I have friends who object to homosexuality on religious grounds.  I get that, and I'm not here to change their minds.  I don't think the Supreme Court ruling threatens their beliefs.  Freedom of religion is a strong value in our country.  What you choose to believe about others, as a result of your religious beliefs, is up to you.

I also think there are those that equate marriage to a religious institution and event.  It is that, but that's not the "marriage" that is in question here.  I focus on the ability to obtain a marriage certificate--a legal document from the government.  This ruling doesn't mean that churches are now going to be obligated to conduct wedding ceremonies for people living a life those churches don't believe in.  I had the opportunity to get married in a church, and the religious leaders made it clear what was required of me (and my spouse) for that to happen.  It was in essence a business transaction:  you do this for us, we do that for you.  Even the fact that I belonged to the church didn't grant me any special privileges in that regard.

Having just finished reading a book about the struggle for ensuring voting rights for black Americans, I see this ruling in that context.  This was a great victory, but the struggle to grant equal rights to those whose sexual preferences are different than my own is a struggle that continues.

I'm not into culture wars.  I don't celebrate the unhappiness of anyone who thinks this ruling is wrong.  I'm glad I have friends with diverse opinions; it makes like more interesting.  I don't expect to convince anyone to think differently about the same-sex marriage ruling after reading this.  I do hope they'll have a different understanding.