Jim Letourneau's Blog

Investing, Technology, Travel, Geology, Music, Golf. I think that covers it.

Dinner in the Sky

Today we opted to go for a long walk that included checking out the shops connected to the subway in the base of our building. Two things grabbed me:

  1. A fish place with perfect looking oysters.
  2. A convenience store with an international beer selection that was mind blowing. 
 Yes please.

Yes please.

Our first destination was the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. Unfortunately it is closed on Mondays. It did look very serene from outside the fence. There was a noticeable cooling effect as we walked along its northern edge. We saw a thorough group of gardeners working on an area just outside the gates and it was inspiring to see them trim the foliage with rakes and small pruning shears. 



On our journey to the Harajuku district we ventured into a pachinko parlour. While I only heard one car horn honk today. The din inside this place more than made up for it. Even though they provided an instruction book at the door in several languages, including English, we were pretty clueless as how to play. My Uncle Ed somehow acquired an old pachinko machine in the 1970's and he left it in Peace River for us to play.  I enjoyed playing the simple version of the game. There was a lever and you shot small stainless steel balls up to the top of the game where they bounced down through a maze of brass pins. A ball falling into the right slot would reward you with more balls. Modern pachinko looks similar except you dial a knob to determine how forcefully to shoot the ball  AND there's a big video slot machine overlay behind the game. I put my money into the machine and I had no clue how to get anything to happen. The attendant was patient and helpful. Eventually some balls fell down into a rack. I had no idea how to start the game. The attendant gently took my hand and helped me turn the dial like I was a small child. Balls started moving and lights started flashing so I was mildly entertained. Julia was playing beside me and ran out of balls in a few minutes. I managed to hit some kind of strange jackpot. Julia returned my tray of balls to the counter and eventually we got our money back plus some candy. Getting the cash required a trip across the street to a tuck shop. 

The we headed towards the Harajuku district noted for extreme Japanese teen girl fashion trends. 

 Takeshita Street.

Takeshita Street.

Julie did not like the teen fashion of Takeshita Street one bit so we continued onwards into the grown up fashion area that had a pretty amazing roster of luxury item stores. We didn't go into very many but I was impressed with the unique architecture of each store. 

We took a taxi back to our hotel and regrouped for our big night out at the New York Grill at the top of the Park Hyatt Hotel. I've you've seen the movie, Lost in Translation, you've seen this place. We had a window seat and a lovely meal. 

 The New York Bar at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo.

The New York Bar at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo.

Breakfast in the Sky

We decided to have breakfast at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. It was a gorgeous hotel and the view was stunning (even from the men's room).

It was also strategically located next to my favourite skinny building on the corner of a big development and the Mitsukoshi department store and . I am now the proud owner of a fashionable ladies Issey Miyake silk jacket (for tax purposes).

 They did not sell out.

They did not sell out.

We then opted for the Mori Art Museum.

 Untitled by Jia Aili. 

Untitled by Jia Aili. 

The current exhibit is The Universe and Art which included first editions of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Issac Newton and On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. There were fossils and meteorites and a fascinating high magnification video of the bugs captured in an amber crystal (De-Extinction by Pierre Huyghe - you can see some of his test footage for a taste.)

We took a taxi back to our hotel and I actually heard someone honk their horn once, something that is extremely rare in Tokyo. It is also rare to hear anyone speak when riding in an elevator. There is something very calming about public civility. Nobody has tried to sell us anything apart from a smile and wave from a friendly person in front of a restaurant. There is no haggling over prices and there is no tipping.  I really like the quiet.


First Full Day in Tokyo

After landing at Narita we picked up our bags and whisked through customs. We managed to find the fast train into Tokyo courtesy of some solid directions from our amazing neighbour, Vicki, who was born in Japan.

Then we hopped into a spotless taxi with faux lace seat covers and a few minutes later we arrived at our hotel. The hotel is new and occupies Floors 30-36 of a glass office building. We havea stunning view of the Emperor's Palace and can see the Tokyo Skytree in the distance. Our spirit of adventure was starting to wane after being on the go for nearly 20 hours so we ate at the hotel. The view was amazing! Bed time was early.

 A typical Tokyo taxi.

A typical Tokyo taxi.

I woke up pre-sunrise which is rare for me. However, it was perfect because the Tsukiji Fish Market is an early morning place. The closer we got to it, the more uncomfortably busy it became. Dozens of turret trucks circle the inner market which is surrounded by market stalls and small sushi stands that seat no more than 10-15 people. There was a massive line for the more popular places so we decided to move away from them towards some of the more friendly quieter places. 

Being hangry is a symptom of jet lag. It was great to see the sun rise. It was great to get to the market in the morning. However, we weren't capable of basic decision making.  In spite of being in one of the worlds largest fish markets, we had a hard time choosing a sushi place that was just right. Some had big line ups, some were just full,  but we didn't want to wait. Others had photos of things Julia didn't feel like eating (and for a while she was not wanting to have fish for breakfast). 

One of my travel mottos is ABC - Always be Charging! While WiFi is everywhere in Tokyo, free WiFi is not and there are often hurdles (like providing your passport info) to setting up accounts. I pre-ordered a WiFi egg on the advice of Andy Richter via twitter.

I also ordered a portable charger to keep the WiFi egg going all day. I also have a portable charger for my iPhone. You can't play Pokemon go without one. You also can't be wandering around a strange city for 12 hours without one either. I like using Google Maps to navigate but if my battery dies, I'm going to have to look at the map and that is a conspicuous thing to do in the modern era. People are going to gawk at the lost Luddite couple with their tree killing guidebooks and paper maps. Navigating is hard enough when a wave of jet lag rears its ugly head. 

We managed to navigate from the Tsujiki Fish Market to the Ginza shopping district pretty easily. Most of the fancy stores stores don't open until 10-11AM  so we were there early. The streets were quite and uncrowded. The luxury market in Tokyo appears soft. 

After a light lunch of sushi (two meals in a row!) in a nice department store, we opted for a Hop on bus tour. It was good to see some different areas of Tokyo. Serious architecture and numerous small footprint tallish (~7 stories) buildings no doubt built on a piece of land that didn't become part of a property package. We basically went from the east side of the Imperial Palace out to the Tokyo Skytree and back.

 The entire block, except for this building, is a big construction project.

The entire block, except for this building, is a big construction project.

 The Tokyo Skytree.

The Tokyo Skytree.

We were tired and thirsty after from being in the open air on a sunny low 30°s day so we took a break at a Starbucks. This is where my ABC strategy paid off as I was able to find a fun restaurant called Andy's Shin Hinomoto that was only 9 minutes away. It was located under train tracks, and had good food. They served big mugs of beer and lots of seafood, including King Crab. Horribly behaved children fathered by expats were running around and plates were crashing at the adjacent table. Across the narrow dining area, a large gathering of what I made out to be British wrestlers gathered. A loud graphic description of someone's neck injury and instant relief after treatment provided some entertainment. As I was cracking my fifth piece of crab, Julia pointed out that "this is a place for eating, not dining". I had no rebuttal as my mouth was full of delectably sweet crab meat. Adjacent to Andy's were a bunch of people smoking and drinking beer on the street, all from vending machines. Julia walked briskly past so I wasn't able to get many photos. We opted to walk back to the hotel on the pathway around the Imperial Palace. It was full of runners but otherwise quiet and safe. I heard more crickets than sirens and in spite of being close to 6 lane roads. I like the quiet.

 Andy picked a low ceiling venue for his eating establishment.

Andy picked a low ceiling venue for his eating establishment.

It is Sunday morning here and we're off for another day of adventures.

Calgary to Tokyo

I pack better than I used to. Under 40lbs for two weeks. I still don't finish packing until about an hour before the start of the journey. I even toyed with using carry on only but I try to be in sync with my wife. She knows that she can usually negotiate an option on 10-20% of my bag. I will sigh and roll my eyes but she's a wicked negotiator and I like to go with the flow. Neither of us want a dreaded airport check-in repack on the floor in front of a long line of passengers. I did pack a pair of hiking boots and a pair of blue jeans that I could do without.  I was zippers closed at 10:25AM because we agreed that we should leave the condo at 10:30AM.

Taxis in Calgary have really upped their game. Yellow Taxi has an app. If you call them on your landline they'll automatically recognize your address and ask if that is where you want to be picked up. They also give you an approximate ETA. They're also supporting a local charity that is plastered all over their cars. Uber has got their attention. I hope our taxi driver will be allowed the freedom to choose which business model he participates in.

Not many people who fly business class will blog about it. It would hurt their brand. It is not a "man of the people experience". The business check-in line must have had 6 people ahead of us. The economy class line was shorter! A temporary breakdown in the class system.

We backed out of the line and asked for assistance we were whisked away to a small office with 3 desks where they rapidly checked us in. I was expecting sighs and eye rolling but they were fast and friendly. I think we had a brief taste of what the Super Elite travellers take for granted.

We also have Nexus cards which got us into a security station with no one in front of us. It is worth the mild inconvenience to get a Nexus card. The single most useful piece of advice I have for travellers is get a Nexus card.

I'm a happy pod person on this trip. The front of the plane is a wonderland of comforts. The seats recline and offer a massage option. I had a great time trying all the buttons out. Food and wine and snacks are generously offered. My wife is also happy.

 Julia catching up on her reading.

Julia catching up on her reading.

I opt for the Japanese meal and receive a wonderful array of appetizers with at least 20 different ingredients (mushrooms, flavoured gelatin, tofu, shrimp with grapefruit, tuna, tiny cubes of pork?). If something is foul tasting it will only be a small morsel. The highlight for me was two thin strips of lightly pickled carrot that were perfectly tied together in a reef knot (the only knot I remember from Boy Scouts).

Micro veggie fly tying. Who thought of this? 

 Micro carrot sticks tied together by a reef knot. Chopstick holder for scale.

Micro carrot sticks tied together by a reef knot. Chopstick holder for scale.

Unfortunately, a boozy seemingly consequence free lunch near Calgary is the equivalent of getting tipsy at 7:00AM in Japan. I'm not against day drinking but I find it effortless to avoid alcohol in the 3AM-11AM time slot. I start my nap before they dim the cabin lights. I wake up groggy with a mild headache. Suddenly it's 9:00AM Friday morning (in Japan). Time for coffee and water and a trip to a bathroom that has a window in it! I see a glacier below.

My Spotify synchronization to my iPad was not a success. I don't know why. My guess is I tried to download too many songs at once. However there's plenty of content on my iPad including a list of juicy magazines on Texture. I really enjoy reading on airplanes.

We are flying near Amchitka. When I was 8 years old I remember seeing protest signs in Edmonton about stopping Amchitka. I could barely pronounce it. I didn't know where it was. Once I learned about nuclear testing I was all for stopping Amchitka. Yesterday I saw an interesting headline 7 Nuclear Test Sites You Can Visit Today. All that worrying for nothing. Wait, aren't we flying over Russian airspace?

Later I read a disaster porn New Yorker article about how the Alaskan Inupiat way of life is being threatened by climate change (warming). I choose to ignore the doomsayers. Will the glaciers come back? Most likely, and soon according to most geologists. "Soon" on the geologic time scale could be a few thousand years. It is currently fashionable to imagine what the world will be like when the glaciers are all gone. The other side of the coin is that most geologists believe that many northern cities were covered by a mile of ice during the last ice age and we're due for another one to start "soon". It cuts both ways. 

On Vancouver Real Estate - Remain Calm - All is Well!

I'm not an expert on Vancouver Real Estate but I hear things. I wanted to learn more. Especially after a  "no evidence of housing bubble" report from Mortgage Professionals Canada was released. Talk about a red flag.

Marc Cohodes had the most rational comments (From Vice - July 5)

But here's what you know for sure: you know China has capital controls on—they restrict their citizens from pulling more than $50,000 out of the country. So when a college girl buys a $31 million place in Vancouver—who has no income, who can't answer questions about what her father does for a living, who can't answer questions about where she gets the money—you know the Chinese don't want this going on. They're pissed about capital flight into YVR. Toronto as well. At any point in time, the Chinese can crack down on people, on Canada—they can do whatever behind the scenes to make it end abruptly. Without warning or notice... At some point a cool mind should say, "Hey, why don't we just have open disclosure of who owns all these properties?" That's a real solution.

The Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) has been reluctant to track suspicious transactions as requested by the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada or FINTRAC. 

CREA has not hesitated to push back against regulations it deems to be too onerous. In its most recent annual report, it credits “three years of sustained lobbying” for significantly reducing the administrative “burden” of FINTRAC requirements. (see Real estate group peeved over email asking for ‘suspicious’ records just hours after gunman stormed Parliament.).

The train kept a rollin' until this June when the Province of B.C. took away the Real Estate Council of B.C.'s right to self-regulation. This basically meant that the real estate industry in British Columbia could not be trusted to manage itself (even with a reduced administrative burden).

There's no Vancouver housing bubble IF we assume that Chinese money will flow into the market UNIMPEDED, FOREVER. However, on the Canadian side of the Pacific all three levels of government are finally starting to pay attention and putting resources into enforcing existing laws as well as considering policies that will discourage real estate speculation. Across the pond, China is also irritated by obvious violations of their strict currency regulations. 

There is not going to be an easy fix. It won't end well. The ripples will be felt throughout the country, including the Canadian stock market. The individual stories collected below are pieces of a very big elephant in the collective Canadian living room.

It is a slow motion train wreck but for now, remain calm, all is well. 



Time to Cash Out? Is the Vancouver Real Estate Market heading for another crash? 


Great Canadian real estate crash of 2013


February 22 - Infographic: Vancouver Real Estate Mania

March 10 - ‘We’re not realtors!’ Former ‘wholesaler’ reveals hidden dark side of Vancouver’s red-hot real estate market

May 9 - China is buying Canada: Inside the new real estate frenzy

 June 29 - Mortgage Professionals Canada says there's no evidence of housing bubble

June 29 - B.C. real estate reform: What you need to know

July 5 - Meet the Wall Street Short Seller Betting Against Canadian Real Estate

July 8 - Vancouver Real Estate May Already Be Crashing: Stats

July 15 - CRA leak about crackdown on B.C. real estate tax cheats heats debate


Chip Diller says remain calm, all is well.

Pop a Top - Beer Can Evolutionary Endpoint in Sight

The evolution of the beer can has been ongoing since 1935. As humans evolved to be lazy and stupid,  the ring-tab design began to be phased out in 1975, after injuries were caused by people swallowing the metal tabs.

 From - http://westerndigs.org/ring-tab-beer-cans-are-now-officially-historic-artifacts/

From - http://westerndigs.org/ring-tab-beer-cans-are-now-officially-historic-artifacts/

I ran across what must be close to the evolutionary endpoint of beer cans at Calgary's Royal Canadian Legion #1 recently. The entire top of the can pulls off!  An added bonus was that the beer inside was from Big Rock.

It turns out that Big Rock is using Crown Holdings' (formerly Crown Cork and Seall) new 360 End® can.  I'm sure there's a correlation between the size of the hole in the top of the can and beer consumption so why wouldn't a brewer embrace this amazing new aluminum can tech? 

The bartender pointed out that her patrons were consistently spilling the contents of these cans as the night wore on. This unintended consequence is probably doing most of their patrons a favour. I know that I usually don't derive any extra benefit from my last beer of the night. Once I'm awesome, there really isn't anywhere to go but downhill!

As awesome as the 360 End® can is, John Kaiser envisions an even better world where ironic "fancy cans" for hipsters are made from hydro-formed Al-Sc alloy cans. A little bit of scandium goes a long way.

Something to think about the next time you pop-a-top!

Paris Sirens

In many ways, my experience of the Paris Attacks was the same as the rest of the world’s, except for the sirens. Julia and I had gone out for a nice dinner a few blocks away from our rented apartment. It was our last evening in Paris, but not our last evening together. Normally I wouldn’t need to add any clarification. I now know that the Paris Attacks were happening as we were walking back from dinner. I stopped to take a photo of a golf bag that had been converted into a planter at 9:44PM. Paris is full of surprises.


Most of the killing was already over. All I  knew then was that there wasn’t the normal break between the sirens... but it was Friday night in Paris.

Back in our apartment, I saw a news piece about “Shootout at Paris Restaurant Leaves Several Dead” in my Facebook feed. This was just after 11PM. I quickly put together an email letting our families know that we were OK. Julia had just gone to bed and I thought to ask her if there was anyone I should add to the send list.

Of course shortly thereafter there was more news. Facebooks’s Safety Check feature magically popped up allowing me to notify friends that I was safe. Next came phone calls, emails and text messages. There were more sirens. When sirens equal victims they take on a deeper meaning. Twitter messages started popping up about contacting the Canadian Embassy. I sent them an email. We were as safe as we could possibly be but every noise took on meaning. It was obvious that the some Parisians were not obeying any curfew. Sleep was fitful but soon there was a bird calling and the noise of a garbage truck. It was a relief.

I am impressed how politicians, actors and musicians are able to get in front of these events. We must do more. We must do less. Stay human. Kill humans. Shows are cancelled. The show must go on. 

I’m just a traveller. I did not see any blood. I heard sirens until 2AM.




Packing for a 3 Month Trip - Part 2

The emperor's new clothes are probably made of Merino wool. It is impossible to look up travel clothing and not see raging endorsements for undergarments made out of this amazing natural material.  The people selling these pricy undergarments make wide ranging claims. A Merino wool t-shirt will keep you warm, it will keep you cool and it will never smell of body odour. One clerk told me that she wore her t-shirt for a week. "Oh it didn't smell as fresh after a week but it wasn't a bad smell. It just smelled off. I just needed to air it out."  Some people can do 30km day hikes in flip flops and not sweat. I'm not one of those people so I had more realistic expectations.  

A nice pair of wool socks really does make a difference and they wash easily in the sink. My half price Merino wool t-shirt is not immune to body odour but it is holding up well. Wool dries quickly which can be a consideration when travelling in cooler climates.

My view on body odor has become more liberal and accepting. If someone else smells like a gym locker, it means that I'm probably not too badly. My acceptable level of personal hygiene is lower. I don't need to impress anyone. I'm not getting stared at. All good.

Julia and I have both noticed that individual items don't seem to smell bad in the suitcase but the barely detectable odours are additive and noticeable when a larger pile of laundry accumulates.

Here's an excerpt from an interview with the bass player for The Waterboys on how he handles packing for a long trip.

So, how does a traveling rock star pack for the road?

“I take one medium-size suitcase, two to three pairs of jeans, and as much underwear and socks as I can stuff in it,” Hood said. “You have to be careful about taking anything heavy.”

Getting laundry done on the road can be difficult because the band is on the move almost daily. He also said it can be expensive.

“It costs a lot of money to get laundry done in a hotel,” he said. “We have someone in the crew who will take it and get it done. You just hope you get all your socks back.”


So far I haven't had any laundry done by a hotel but I am keep that option open.  Sending things out has its own set of risks. Since I needed a suit and a blazer to accompany my wife to nice places, I opted for fewer socks and shorts. On a longer trip, hand washing becomes an integral part of keeping the volume of luggage manageable. Shower gel seems to work pretty well as a detergent as long as the volume of laundry doesn't get too large. This week I had to plug up the shower drain and do some stomping around in 5cm of water to agitate a large batch of laundry. After it dried on the deck it smelled better than before so I'm considering my foot stomping method a success.

Packing for a 3 Month Trip - Part 1

The travel clothing industry is large and growing. There are no shortage of travel vests and travel pants with numerous pockets and sub-pockets to store money, supplies and electronic devices along with  "conduit systems" for all the wires. I still can't operate all the compartments in my travel wallet. I'm dumping change on airport floors while looking for my boarding pass. It is just a matter of time before I lose my passport while paying for an ice cream.

My extensive research has led me to the the biggest breakthrough in travel clothing is... wait for it... putting the pockets on the inside (as seen on Shark Tank and Kickstarter). Instead of looking like a lost fly fisherman on the plane, now you can look like a drug smuggler with subtle rectangular outlines on your body that are barely visible to the untrained eye. Just because it looks like you are wearing body armor doesn't mean that your iPhone can stop a bullet (but it might). If your office can't afford to rent sumo suits for team building, you can get by with a couple of borrowed travel vests with the inside or outside pockets filled with bubble wrap. 

These modern miracles of textile development and design are all the rage in Silicon Valley and I think they might work well at a Las Vegas convention where you don't want to lose a briefcase or pack. You won't find a single negative blog post about them. Any blogger who was sent one of these travel garments for review thinks that they're game changers.

However, they won't store two liters of bottled water for a day hike or two pairs of shoes during an emergency airport luggage weight rebalancing so I opted for my day pack. My buddy Mike's day pack dates back to 1980 and it still looks great. Mine is a bit newer but it has been around the world. 



The Asti Randomizer

I tend to default to geographical landmarks when I'm in unfamiliar territory. I can often do quite well just knowing where the mountains are and where the water is. Uphill vs. downhill is often all you need to know. Unless you're on the outskirts of Asti.

This monster intersection ensures that any knowledge about the lay of the land becomes irrelevant. We usually encountered at least 3 forks and a toll gate before finding out we were going the wrong direction. 

Catalan Independence Rally

We arrived in Barcelona the night before the National Day of Catalonia holiday. I didn't think much of it apart from wondering if there would be museum or restaurant closures involved. Julia and I did a long city walk and encountered hundreds of people flying the Catalan flag. 

Hundreds of thousands of supporters gather for Catalan independence rally

Many were headed to a very large peaceful demonstration that included all ages. If there is strong opposition to Catalan independence I didn't detect a whiff of it on the streets. I don't think I've seen a Spanish flag here. I did see a persistent surveillance helicopter presence that got on my nerves. I can't imagine what that the demonstrators were thinking but it all went down peacefully.

Road Trip Castell'Alfero-Genoa Return

In theory, the trip from Castell'Alfero to Genoa can be done in 90 minutes. We took a wrong turn at Alba (querque) and got off the Autostrade and it took some effort to get back on it. As a cultural note we did manage to see a stretch of road with Nigerian prostitutes out in the noon day sun. It was surreal. Imagine driving from Sylvan Lake to Drayton Valley and seeing a working girl instead of a mailbox at every minor road intersection or culvert crossing. It wasn't the best of Italy and it definitely wasn't in the shadows.

Fortunately, Julia navigated us back onto a 110 km/h road until. Since we were approaching hour two of our 90 minute journey, we had to make a pit stop at a rest stop. Very similar to a North American truck stop but the food was prettier. How do we make ham and cheese taste meh?

Eventually We rolled into Genoa through a series of tunnels and bridges and worked our way down to the seaside. Our destination was the Grand Hotel Savoia which was located opposite the train station. It is reminiscent of the Grand Budapest Hotel in terms of color and the interiors. We eventually gave up on our paper map after driving 10 minutes on the equivalent of Genoa's Gardiner Expressway. We got off the elevated road and booted up our Google Maps and backtracked for 15 minutes. We didn't feel too ambitious but hit up the stunning rooftop bar after unpacking. We had a great view of the harbour.

Wednesday morning we were up in time to catch the free hotel breakfast and ambitiously take public transportation to scenic Portofino. The train stop we needed was Santa Margherita Ligure. On route, we were asked to present our tickets. It turns out that we had not validated them. This led us to be fined by a train official for 5 Euros each. Julia insisted on paying her share by collecting all of her loose change. She can be very "stick it to the man" sometimes.

We had a lovely afternoon in Portofino.  Some massive yachts were moored in the harbour leading to what I like to call "yacht pollution." Don't get me wrong, I'd love to hang out on one of these monsters but they are a bit large for Portofino.

 Yacht pollution in Portofino.

Yacht pollution in Portofino.

Given our train issues going to Portofino, we were both nervous about returning to Genoa. We made sure to validate our tickets but we ended up rushing onto a train that was headed for Milan. Some of the crazy thoughts that Julia and I shared included:

  • Is the train non-stop? What if it doesn't stop at Genoa!
  • Is the train going in the right direction?
  • Are we in the right class of rail car?

Given that our hotel was right across from the main train station in Genoa, our odds were pretty good that things would work out, and they did. 

The next day we had to drive home and there was some tension between driver and navigator upon leaving our hotel. Consider driving the Pacific Coast Highway vs. the 101 and you'll get the nature of our conflict. I chose the slow road along the Italian Riviera instead of  taking the Autostrade but we hadn't really discussed exactly how we would be getting to Savona. The coastline was gorgeous and every rock beach was dotted with colorful umbrellas. I'm glad we took the long way. My navigator was as well... eventually.

At Savona we headed upland and drove past some major industrial locations including a town that first made explosives and then color film (Ferrania) and a little bit further along a steel town (it looks black on Google Earth). The further upland we went, the fewer people we saw to the point of it being almost eerie. Eventually we started seeing hazelnut trees and eventually vineyards and soon we were back in populated territory. We made it home without incident. 

 Find the steel mill...

Find the steel mill...

What I love about the English version of Google Maps is that it pronounces all the Italian road names incorrectly, just the way I would. It works pretty well.


Grape Harvest!

We made a point of returning to the Relais and Chateaux hotel at San Maurizio and enjoyed three nights there. The service was wonderful and the views from the property were stunning in all directions. I got a little obsessed about the grape harvest. There were tractors on the road with wagons full of grapes. It was awesome!

Wednesday Market in Asti

We are only a 15 minute drive from Asti (but it wasn't a 15 minute drive the first time we visited). Wednesday and Saturday's are Asti Market days and we made a point of getting up "early" so we wouldn't miss the noon closing. Parking was not a given as the market is well attended but I scored a spot right beside the Campo Del Palio. The market was large and featured lots of cheese, meat and local produce. Peppers were especially abundant and could be bought by the case. The were a bit larger and less uniform than the North American ones. We scooped up as much as we could carry and took it home to make lunch and a few subsequent meals. I've been making a lazy version of ratatouille, where the vegetables are not cooked separately. I'll have to dig in and find out what kind of difference that might make at some future date. For now, the goodness of the market completely overshadows any preparation issues.

Road Trip Monforte d'Alba

Today we put our 5-speed Fiat Panda through it's paces on the twisty roads of Piemonte. Our mission was to check out some of the scenic villages south of Alba. My wife, Julia, played the role of navigator. The smaller the village, the smaller the sign so we had a few cases of backtracking but it didn't matter because we are on holidays after all. We stumbled across a sign for a Relais and Chateaux hotel that has a restaurant with one Michelin star. We decided to check it out and we were delighted that we did. San Maurizio is located on top of a hill in what was previously a monastery. The road to the place winds between lush steeply terraced vineyards (see the Google Earth screenshot below for a look at the hill hugging road). I wasn't planning to visit a fancy place today so I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt (surprise!) but we were warmly welcomed and had a great lunch there. We have a few gaps in our lengthy itinerary but Julia made sure to fill one of them with a longer stay here. She's an amazing planner who somehow can keep a year's worth of dates straight in her head. She's not "Rain Man" about it but she's sharp. After lunch we drove to Monforte d'Alba and then found a straight road to take us home. I only turned on Google Maps once while we were trying to get out of Alba. 


The views were amazing.  


My Encounters with Simon McBurney

My first encounter with Simon McBurney happened earlier this year in Los Angeles. Julia and I had driven from the San Ysidro Ranch near Santa Barbara to LAX that morning to drop off Tyler, Jenn and the baby Izzy. Julia wanted to do a bit of shopping on Wilshire Boulevard so we parked the car and I went to a caffieneplex on a triangular piece of land at the intersection of Wilshire and Santa Monica. This location has a Starbucks AND a Teavana. All my options were covered. 

Simon walked in with two female assistants in tow. He was wearing black. I recognize his face. After a quick look around at the filled Starbucks tables, he decides to leave. 

I Google images of character actors. I check IMDB lists. I can't figure out who this person is. Memory is fluid at my age. I can rattle off all the members of the E Street Band on a good day but only a couple of members of St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Newer memories are becoming harder to recall than older ones. 

The week before our trip to Edinburgh I see the face! I'm researching Edinburgh International Festival plays and the mystery character actor that I saw in LA was none other than established character actor Simon McBurney. I subsequently learned that he writes, produces, directs, and acts in film and theatre. He has an OBE. He appears in the latest Mission Impossible film. The trailer was released on the day I saw him in LA. Considering him a "character actor" was akin to thinking Wayne Gretzky was a professional ice hockey player. 

I celebrate my luck at solving my personal mystery by buying tickets to his play, The Encounter. A few weeks later we were in the audience where he gave an immensely innovative performance.

The next week, we attended Robert Lepage's 887. It is about memory. Just before the lights go down, Simon McBurney walks in and takes a seat on the aisle.  A patron gets up and introduces himself. It looks to me that Simon is not thrilled to be acting interested in this conversation on his day off. I make note of this and reconsider my celebrity selfie collection. In another section of the audience we recognize Obi Abili, who plays the Guard in Antigone, which we had seen the previous evening. 

At the end of the performance many people are standing and applauding. McBurney quickly leaves. We exit the theatre and see Obi chatting with a friend. His friend is wearing a shirt with labels on it.

Julia, strikes up a conversation with Obi and we share our impressions of The Encounter and 887. She asks what Obi what it is like to work with Juliette Binoche. He is diplomatic, but not effusive my wife notes later. The discussion is restricted because Obi's friend Joe hasn't yet seen The Encounter but intends to and it would be rude to spoil his experience. Joe is in a show called Labels.  He hands us cards which we politely accept even though we are leaving Edinburgh tomorrow (Since 887 and The Encounter are now sold out, you should see Labels instead, Obi Abilia and Emma Thompson recommend it). 

That evening, we saw the Daniel Sloss comedy show Dark. Sloss put on a great show and mentioned his flatmate Kai Humphries who we had seen during our first week in Edinburgh.

As we leave the theatre,  I recognize the face of an actor. It is Simon McBurney.


Just move your legs like you're running...

I am seeing an unexpected side of Edinburgh. The dawn exposes the excesses of the previous day's Fringe Festival.  Garbage and broken glass are commonplace but by 8AM it gets cleaned up. Normally I  wouldn't notice as I am not a morning person.

For a few days, I was.

Day 1 in Edinburgh had me hitting up a Starbucks before 7AM. Eventually Julia and I made our way to Arthur's Seat.  At 251m, it is in the hard walk/easy hike range for most people. There were a few steep sections with loose rocks. Julia fell on the way down.

"Jim! Jim!  I fell!"  

I was off taking a picture and Julia wasn't in it. I was completely oblivious which made things worse. All I could say was "I'm sorry, are you OK?" I'm not a 30 year old paramedic so there wasn't much I could do.

Day 2 I opted to go far a long walk BEFORE the coffee fix. Young people trundling off to work were passing me quickly but the streets were otherwise very quiet. I headed for Arthur's Seat for the second day in a row. I wanted to try a different path. The hill was mostly dotted with a few early morning runners. A few were sprinting past me and I kept praying that there wouldn't be a team blasting past me on the narrow steps.  I could hear heavy breathing and an American voice shouting encouragement. His charges were dying on the hill. They weren't even able to pass me (I suspect the trainer had already sprinted them into the puke zone). I kept climbing and heard Mr. Trainer say "keep going that's it, now just move your feet like you're running". 

This time I found Hutton's Outcrop which was a nice surprise. I noticed an old quarry and a strange vein projecting out of the ground.  I thought it odd that it hadn't been removed. It turned out that it was Hutton's Rock. Just 100m further along was Hutton's Section. Being a geologist, it was pretty special to see this spot.