Tag Archives: new york

New York City “ballet” : Nutcracker

I went to see the famous New York City Ballet Nutcracker last night. I’ve seen this show once before, back in 2007, and I left feeling unsatisfied then and I did again yesterday.

It’s not that the show isn’t worth seeing – it’s a great spectacle – but there are some major flaws when compared to the Nutcracker as generally performed by European ballet companies.

In short, the problem for me is that I go to the ballet to enjoy the music and dance, to see some fantastic dancers, great choreography and incredible live music. But the Balanchine Nutcracker is essentially a Christmas show for children that skips over major plot points within the ‘Nutcracker and the Mouse King’ story leaving it as essentially a disjointed series of skits – nice to look at, but not very satisfying if you came to the theatre expecting to see some ballet.

Of course there is some dancing, for example the pas de deux in the second act just before the apotheosis, but this dance is usually enjoyed by Clara and the Nutcracker. In the New York version a couple takes the dance with no explanation as to who they are.

The Royal Ballet in London use the 1984 Peter Wright version of the Nutcracker choreography, but Wright himself drew heavily on the much earlier staging from London, which had in turn come directly from the Imperial Russian Ballet.

In short, the role of Drosselmeyer is explained, the family connection to the Nutcracker is explained, the main characters actually dance – they are not cast as children who just watch the other dancers perform. It’s a proper ballet with a wonderful score and there is even an epilogue drawing the various threads of the story together.

The NYCB production is a nice little Christmas show and they must make an absolute fortune staging it every December – it has been produced in this format for almost 50 years now. But if you are a ballet fan and expect to be watching some great dance then it might be wise to save your cash for another show – there are Broadway shows with more dance than this.

Beautiful Concentration

Photo by Pat McDonald licensed under Creative Commons

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Do you trust online vacation rental sites like HomeAway.com?

I’m going to New York next month. As there are three of us travelling and we are staying in town for four nights I thought I would book an apartment, rather than two hotel rooms.

I checked out homeaway.com because I met their UK sales director a while ago and I remember thinking that I should try their service sometime.

They have hundreds of great places all over the world and I was spoiled for choice looking at the map of Manhattan – eventually deciding on a 2-bed apartment on 50th street. I sent my details to the owner and he confirmed that it was available on the dates I needed.

He sent me an invoice via PayPal and I paid it immediately – $1370 – not a small amount, but certainly cheaper than 2 decent hotel rooms in midtown Manhattan for 4 nights.

After paying, I immediately emailed the property owner to ask for the exact address, what time I could arrive and all that basic check-in stuff. He never responded. Five days later I tried calling. The number was a dud.

So I emailed again, but I started worrying. What if this guy has just stiffed me for over a thousand dollars? I still need to book a place to stay in New York whatever happens with this guy!

So I filed a complaint with HomeAway. Typically their customer service team promised to get back to me “in a few days”… is that acceptable from any customer service team today? I’m in the hole for over a grand and I just have to sit tight and wait.

Fortunately, PayPal were very helpful and have reassured me that even if this guy has stolen from me, they will underwrite the loss. In short, they have a dispute resolution centre where I can contact the person I sent money to. Usually they would allow a week to see if the person responds. After that week, PayPal would get directly involved in the chase and if another 10 days passes with no resolution then PayPal will reverse the transaction.

That still feels like a long time to wait, given the amount and given that in a couple of weeks I need a place to stay. PayPal agreed and said that because of the amount involved, they would waive the usual 7 day wait and they will get immediately involved in chasing the funds.

So I’m shell-shocked because of the experience. This was my great welcome to HomeAway.com… the best I can hope for is that I have a property owner who forgets to reply to email and doesn’t have a working phone – it was all a misunderstanding. The worst is that my money has gone, but will be refunded in 10 days.

And if I know this will be resolved one way or the other in 10 days that still gives me about a week to find a place to stay in New York – but you can bet it won’t be on HomeAway this time, or any time in future.

Manhattan Panorama

Could the New York Marathon still help the Sandy relief effort?

So the New York City marathon has been cancelled by Mayor Bloomberg. Of course it’s the right decision, but it should have been made earlier. If there are still bodies being pulled from wreckage then a major sporting event is just a distraction from the relief effort.

If the relief operation was a little further along the track then this could have been a great opportunity to see the city pull together around a major sporting event – to show the world that New Yorkers really can pull together and recover from any adverse situation. But the situation is obvious – while some TV cameras would be following runners along the streets, others in the media would be pointing out the ongoing relief effort and suggesting that 40,000 fit people with an entire Sunday free might want to do something more useful than just jogging around the city.

So the decision is right, but in all the debate I have seen so far, nobody has mentioned that the marathon itself is an enormous fundraiser for many charities. It’s not 40,000 middle-class folk just taking a stroll – many of those people have trained all year, setting the marathon as an enormous personal challenge that has allowed them to raise sponsorship and support for a chosen charity.

In the London marathon over 80% of the runners are doing it just to raise cash for good causes. New York is not quite at that level of charity runners yet, but let’s just do some sums.

Most charities will ask a runner to get a minimum amount… $2,500 to $3,000 is common for New York. So if 80% of the 40,000 New York runners are raising at least $3,000 then that is almost $100m being raised for charity from a single race. It could even be more if you assume that most runners will be raising more than the minimum expected.

The way it works is that the charities buy a guaranteed place in the race – they have to pay up front for a place and many charities will buy dozens or even hundreds of places. Then by ensuring runners get a minimum amount, the charity can ensure they raise a lot more than the places cost. Everyone wins.

If the race is now cancelled then what happens to all the money pledged by people who were supporting the runners?

One obvious answer here is to refund the charities all the money they invested in buying places in the race and to then ask runners to divert all the funds they would have raised from the race into the relief effort instead of their chosen charity.

That could put $100m on tap almost overnight and would ensure that cancelling the marathon still created something worthwhile for the city. It’s difficult though – many choose a charity to support for very personal reasons and some might feel that if they have gone to the effort of raising the cash then they should have some say in where it goes.

Will it happen?

I don’t know if the Mayor and the marathon organisers can get organised fast enough to make it work, but they need to make some fast decisions, because after the dust settles, hundreds of charities will be asking about their missing millions if nothing is done.

New York City Marathon

Photo by Young Yun licensed under Creative Commons

Is it really so strange to leave work at 5.30pm?

I once moved job from a French financial services company to an American one – Société Générale to Sanford Bernstein. My new boss was based in New York and he used to endlessly mock the holidays we were given by our employers in Europe.

After one particularly “hilarious” episode talking to him about holidays, I reminded him that I had moved from a job where I had annual leave of 30 days to his company where I was only permitted 20 – and that was the absolute minimum allowed under EU law. He claimed that I should be grateful because in New York he gets a week off for Christmas and a week off in the summer for a family vacation.

I never even wanted to move from a French company to an American one. The bank was reducing headcount by 50% (in London) and I was offered a job in Paris, Bangalore, or half my annual salary to leave the firm. So I took the money, left, and was in the new job within weeks.

This macho work culture also prevailed in the London office of Bernstein. I would get my work done and head off home at about 5.30pm most days. I almost always had to listen to colleagues calling out jibes such as “…going home now? Part-time or what?”

Frankly it never bothered me. I was getting paid more than the guys calling out and boasting about their long hours – who is the fool when you are putting in more hours for less cash? And looking back now, I know that spending long evenings at the office would never have made me any happier. Why do people do it?

I started thinking about my former employer when I read the breathless reports that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg leaves the office at 5.30pm each day so she can enjoy dinner with her family each evening. The way it is reported makes it appear unusual for American office-based employees to leave work before 8pm – and assuming they might spend an hour getting home, then having dinner, it means that for most people it is normal to not enjoy any free time after work . The day is just commute then work then commute then eat then bed.

I work with clients now who respond to emails 24/7, schedule calls when they are on family holidays, and never seem able to switch off. Has it really got so bad that employees are now expected to be walking around DisneyWorld with their family and yet still taking calls from the office? This really happened on a conference call I participated in recently – with the guy at Disney trying to focus on work and keep his kids busy at the same time. What a multi-tasking dad!

I realise that in a tough economic climate people are scared and will do whatever they can to appear invaluable to the company, but why don’t employers switch the emphasis on what they expect of people to the output and value rather than time? If the employee is clear on what is expected for them to be judged successful in their job then the emphasis can be shifted away from long hours appearing to be impressive – if you know you are delivering for the company then you can feel comfortable heading home to see the family.

Of course, many people fear the idea that they might be judged on results rather than just time and apparent effort. It means that the less successful members of the team cannot hide their inability just by working 12-hour days when others can achieve more in 8 hours.

But while America – and the world in general – focuses on long hours as the key to remaining in a job, expect family problems and mental health issues to soar. If only companies learned to measure employees by what they achieve, rather than the hours they spend achieving.

Only psychiatrists benefit from the present approach, and I bet they get home in time for dinner with the kids.

Sunbathing?

Photo by David Reid licensed under Creative Commons

Feeling safe in Brazil

One thing that people from the UK often ask me is whether it is safe to live in Brazil. The image most foreigners have of living here is of the favelas… in particular the international success of the film City of God didn’t help very much.

At face value, the crime statistics are much higher than Britain and the police in São Paulo alone shoot someone dead everyday, but on a day-today basis I don’t feel any unease living here.

When I first arrived, I was endlessly surprised by the amount of security people use to feel safe. Windows have steel bars, shops and banks have armed guards, every police officer is armed, car showrooms offer bullet-proofing as an option…

It all becomes normal through osmosis, but I still question the need for all this security. It would be nice to see a house with a garden, rather than a steel cage “protecting” the residents.

As this Reuters article states, there is an obsession with security in Brazil, but there are also some encouraging signs. The murder rate in New Orleans is five times that of São Paulo and bank robberies across the entire country dropped from over 3,000 a decade ago to 343 last year.

The Reuters article points out some anecdotal evidence, such as people freely using devices such as iPhones on a bus, something unthinkable just a few years ago. In many ways the freedom to use expensive devices such as a smartphone, laptop computer or iPod in public now feels just as it would in any other major city.

Would you walk around an unfamiliar street in New York or London late at night with your senses dulled by music from an iPod and gazing into the GPS-powered map on your iPhone? It’s pretty much the same here these days.

I was with my wife in a local bar the other day and she was telling the bar owner about our plans to move to the coast. Not just for the beach, but also because a smaller town would be safer than the city. He said he can only remember hearing of one robbery in the entire neighbourhood this year so how do we define ‘safer’ than that?

Maybe he just wanted to keep us as good customers. We are the only customers at his bar that run a slate with credit, paying him advance rather than him chasing us to settle the bill, but he sounded genuine.

As with city life anywhere, you can be a victim of crime through sheer bad luck, but most of the time you make your own luck through choices about how much wealth, gadgets, and jewellry  you display.

São Paulo may well have more crime then London, but I’m not scared to ride the bus or walk down the street. I still get unnerved by all the armed guards at banks though. If I am ever nearby when a bank robbery kicks off then I’ll be more scared of the guards than the criminals…

Hob nob robber strikes again

9/11 Memories

I don’t have a thrilling or exciting memory of 9/11. It fact the banality of the what happened to me is almost striking giving the significance of what happened.

I was working for the French bank Société Générale in London at the time. On that day I was out of the office in Knightsbridge at a hotel on a management training course. I remember thinking how useless the course was as I had asked questions of the trainer like ‘how do I improve teamwork when my team is based in 9 different countries on time-zones from Tokyo to New York?’ and the trainer was only qualified to train people who were working directly with their staff. None of the other managers on the training course had to manage anyone in another country, so I just sat there – bored – on a day away from the office.

By the afternoon, a few people were getting text messages to say that something was happening in New York. This was before anyone could access the Internet on phones. It was before wi-fi was available everywhere. We were locked in a training room with only a vague idea that something big was happening outside.

When someone got a text message saying one of the towers was down, our trainer said that we should carry on the course for the full afternoon because our companies had all invested a lot of money and would not want to waste it.

We carried on for a bit longer, but everyone wanted to leave early to find out what was going on. I really had no idea until I got home later in the afternoon and switched on the TV to watch the images of the attacks repeating on a loop.

Our trainer was being conscientious, but he had preferred we sit there talking about how to hire and fire people rather than witnessing one of the major events of the new century.

I had a team working for me in the WTC complex. Not in towers 1 or 2, but across the square from there. I was frantically calling them to find if they were all OK, but the phone lines in New York were overloaded and many cellular radio towers had been destroyed along with the twin towers – so cell phone coverage was very patchy.

I did eventually get through to the guy who ran our technology systems in New York. I had a bizarre conversation as I walked my dog in my local park in lovely evening sunshine and talked to him in New York about how he ran from the office to his home and wife… only a couple of miles, but in complete chaos.

We had very good disaster plans in place. My responsibility was the banks connection to the stock exchange. The next morning we had our systems up and running in another office. We were ready to trade, but the stock exchange had been closed.

It was a day when everything felt paralysed – even for those of us not in the USA. I had never imagined a mainland attack within the USA and the events that were created by that one day are still shaping our history now. It was hard to imagine such iconic buildings were there one morning and 90 minutes later were gone – I had been to the top of those towers several times and enjoyed a beer up there in a space that no longer existed.

For me though, it was a day of strange memories. Meaningless to most, but worth remembering here for my own sake. One day I might not remember the sheer terror in the voices I was talking to in New York that day and the paradox of me throwing a ball for the dog as I talked.

World Trade Center - New York City, New York / ニューヨークシティ (ニューヨーク)

No mosque at Ground Zero

This video – amongst others – has caused a stir on YouTube.

A lot of Americans clearly have an issue distinguishing between Islam as a faith and the terrorists who attacked the USA on 9/11. Take a look at this comment on CNN: “It would be a terrible mistake to destroy a 154-year-old building in order to build a monument to terrorism,” one woman said.

There are nearly 2m muslims who are also citizens of the USA. If I was one of them I would be asking why there is such a negative view of them from the general population – or at least the vocal population.