VIVE LE GERMAN XMAS MARKET

Nobody does Xmas markets like the Germans.

We try and go to a different German city each year usually about mid-December (Frankfurt in 2007, Heidelberg in 2008, Stuttgart in 2009), as it is a wonderful way to get into the Xmas mood. The French in Alsace (north-east France) on the German border come a close second but they are a blend of Franco/German culture anyway, and the Xmas markets around Bordeaux are pretty ordinary with most stalls selling cheap carvings and trinkets from North Africa rather than anything to do with Xmas or winter or good taste.

The German blend of centuries of Xmas market tradition (Stuttgart’s is over 300 years old), freezing cold, snow, the abundance of hot and heavy winter foods and accompanying hot toddies, and their commitment to the theatre of it all makes for wonderful combinations to pleasure the senses.

This year we decided on Munich, mainly because we could get direct flights there from Toulouse, and because apart from some rushed business visits during my time with SAP, I had never really spent any time there.

It was a good choice … it snowed the three days that we were there and the markets were delightful. The main market around Marienplatz was large, colourful and buzzy with great food selections from hot fried-as-you wait potato pancakes with apple sauce to wonderful hot bread and turkey twirls to the largest selection of grilled, fried, roasted, boiled hot finger licking meats that one could hope for. As well as the ubiquitous Gluehwein, there were also hot honeyed mead stands, and variations of hot whiskey and flaming brandy drinks, and the whole city is suffused with the scent of vanilla and cinnamon.

The most exciting and memorable market, as Munich has over 20 different ones, was the medieval one just near Odeonsplatz, with authentic looking rough-cut timber huts and the vendors all dressed as medieval peasants, including a fresh, hot, smoked fish seller, the smoker being a large barrel over a roaring wood fire … the smell alone was worth the visit, and the smoked salmon was wonderful … it actually made me question some of my criticisms of German food that I have made over the last 20 years.
I have now decided that Bavarian food is a delight, and considerably better than what I was used to mainly around Heidelberg, which is significantly less interesting and varied. We had dinner in different traditional Bavarian “meat and potato beer houses” which were excellent for both food and service, in particular Spatenhaus near the Opera. Their crispy skinned pork in a brown beer sauce served with red cabbage and potato dumplings was perfect in every way.

What really made it all very special was the festive mood, bon homie and wonderful party mood that permeates the place. The whole city lights up with decorations and explodes with music, such as a daily concert from the town hall balcony. There was even an ancient mechanical moose who sang Tannenbaum and other Xmas songs, with surrounding onlookers all loudly joining in. Despite the crowds in the evening, particularly at the food and drink stalls, the attitude was one of politeness, good humour, fun and friendliness.

Many Germans look down on and would love to get rid of Bavaria, despite it being the richest state, as to foreigners it is synonymous with all the clichés about Germany being just about Oktoberfest, beer, oompah-oompah bands and Lederhosen, and many Germans I have spoken to would gladly give it to Austria as they don’t see Bavarians as being true Germans anyway. The Germans tell a joke about a man in Munich who goes to the doctor for a check-up. The doctor tells him that he will also need a blood sample, urine and stool sample, and a semen sample to be able to run further tests, so the Bavarian just hands over his Lederhosen.

If nobody wants Bavaria, I would gladly have them become part of France … they would definitely liven up the place and we could do with a few more mountains and lakes.

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HO HO HO

“There is a remarkable breakdown of taste and intelligence at Christmastime. Mature, responsible grown men wear neckties made of holly leaves and drink alcoholic beverages with raw egg yolks and cottage cheese in them.” ~P.J. O’Rourke

In our family when it comes to Xmas, nothing succeeds like excess. I haven’t quite gotten to the holly leaf neckties, and am not a great fan of eggnog, but I have embraced the fact that our house fills up with unusual and varied decorations, including one Santa that dances and sings “jingle bells” loudly in response to a hand clap or any loud noise. He scares the hell out of the dogs as he responds to any bark in his vicinity, and if our Jack Russell (Dottie) was a metre taller she would rip the singing Santa apart …
I know how she feels, as after about 2 days I am tempted to do it myself and to blame it on the dogs, but I am sure that my wife would compare the teeth marks.


Our tiny village hangs out its 4 Xmas lights down our one street, which for a village of 300 inhabitants is the equivalent of the lights on the main strip in Las Vegas, and which drain the power supply for surrounding cottages.

It has also taken me a while to get used to the Northern Hemisphere winter Xmas, as for most of my life Xmas meant the beach, picnics and air conditioning. Here it is thermals, gum-boots, woolly hats and log fires. By Xmas most residents of Europe have covered themselves in sheep fat and sewn themselves into their underwear for the winter.

This year, as ever, Europe is covered in snow. Airports are closed, trains aren’t running, and roads are a hazard. This actually happens every year, but when it does come everyone is shocked, as though it was a once in a lifetime occurrence. The UK always runs out of grit for de-icing the roads, and every year has to place an emergency order for sand to be shipped in from Egypt. The M25 London ring road motorway (and at most times the world’s longest car park) becomes an extension of the Sahara, without the good weather and without the easy mobility.

We have had our first snow flurries in South-west France, but not yet heavy enough to disrupt the daily baguette home deliveries. The posties have switched from motor scooters to vans to be able to cope with the mountains of Xmas cards, despite the growing acceptance of e-cards, and so have added to the dangers on the roads (see “Vive le French Driver” posted on Nov 15, 2010), and all over France pigs and dogs are limbering up noses in readiness for the truffle season (see “Vive le Truffe” posted 25 July, 2010). Geese with enlarged livers in Perigord are starting to look decidedly nervous, as are husbands who haven’t yet bought the gifts for their wife, knowing full well that the cost of the gift will be in inverse proportion to the number of days left before Xmas day. To be on the safe side of fiscal responsibility married men should do all their Xmas shopping in January, keeping in mind that it is not easy to keep things hidden, and remember where you hid them, for 11 months.

All in all, a fairly standard holiday season.

I hope you all have a wonderful Xmas and New Year, and that all your wildest dreams are realised in 2011. May your Xmas gifts be useful and welcome, or at least exchangeable, and your clothes continue to fit after the excesses of the holiday period. May all your new year’s resolutions become reality, or at least be not remembered by those that you have told, and in the words of Bob Dylan “May you stay forever young”.

FAKING INTEGRITY

It is known that one of the most critical characteristics of any successful business executive is “integrity” and so once you can fake that, you have it made.

But it is one characteristic that can’t be faked, and as Evelle J. Younger (Attorney General California 1971-79) said “If you have integrity – nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity -nothing else matters”.

Webster’s dictionary defines integrity as a “… firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values”.

I prefer defining integrity as “What you believe is what you say is what you do”, and while this is easy to say, it does appear to be difficult for some people to understand.

Many executives do not appear to have accepted that no matter what they say, people in their organisation will mostly focus on their behaviours rather than their verbal positioning. It is not enough to just believe that if they say it, so it shall be. For example, no matter how much a CEO puts “The customer is number 1” in his speeches or his mission/vision/values statements, if he regularly avoids customers and complains regularly and vocally about customer issues, his organisation will understand that the CEO has little real concern for customer relationships and this will then influence the culture of the whole company.

The reality is that everyone watches every move that senior people make in any organisation, and tailor their behaviours accordingly, in the belief that this is what’s expected of them … after all, if that’s the way that senior people act, then so should they. This is particularly true of new hires into the company who generally try very hard to belong, and will therefore emulate behaviours that they see around them.

This was brought home to me with one board (that I worked with on some individual executive coaching), where the underlying behaviour was antagonistic and confrontational, and yet the board members were surprised that there was a major lack of co-operation between different parts of the organisation. After all “teamwork” was a key element of their printed and laminated values statement card which was ceremoniously handed out to every new hire at induction. Board members would be relatively civil to each other face to face, but would bad mouth each other to their subordinates (and to me) outside the boardroom. As a result, no matter how much or how regularly they talked about teamwork, it was not part of their belief system nor was it part of their behaviour patterns, and yet there was this belief that as long as they kept talking about it, it would automatically become reality. They were very surprised, and disbelieving, when I told them that the behaviour of the board itself was the problem. The CEO vehemently disagreed with my findings and ultimately decided to bring in someone like Mckinsey and Company to give them the real answers as to why things were not working. I hope it helps them as I have always believed that the definition of a consultant is someone who knows 120 ways to make love, but doesn’t have a girlfriend.

People will quite often confuse integrity with honesty. I have always seen one of the major differences being the fact that honesty is what you tell everyone else, whereas integrity is what you tell yourself, so integrity involves living and acting within your own personal belief systems.

President Bill Clinton tried to convince the world that he was being honest when he said “I did not have sex with that woman” by trying to redefine which acts the word “sex” actually included, and so under his specific definition he may have not been dishonest, but he certainly showed very little integrity.

By Bob McNeely, The White House, via Wikimedia Commons

As Albert Camus says “Integrity has no need of rules”.
It needs no rationalising as it is just based on the fact that actions speak louder than words, and that ultimately we will all be measured by what we do, rather than by what we have told the world about ourselves.

New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

LIFE IS FULL OF RISK

Taking calculated risk is a key part of life in general, and business specifically.

I don’t mean risk associated with gambling whether this is on horse-racing, greyhounds or visiting casinos. These represent emotional risk taking, and whilst it is fun to occasionally have a day at the races (I still love the whole pomp and buzz of Ascot), or an evening at a blackjack table (which has the best odds for the gambler versus the house), it is important to remember that the house always wins in the end.

As WC Fields said « Horse sense is good judgement which keeps horses from betting on people ».

In the personal context we take risk at every step in our lives starting with how and who we choose as friends, who we choose for a life partner, what job we do, where we choose to live, and where we invest our time and money.

As risk taking is such an integral part of our lives, we could expect that we would become skilled at it just through constant experience, but the reality is that most people are quite poor at it, and rather than take calculated, well thought out risk decisions, are driven more by emotions and by circumstance as opportunity knocks at our door, or will just procrastinate for longer than the decision deserves.

When it comes to investment decisions people tend to overlook the maxim that « if it looks too good to be true then it probably is », hence the success of super-swindlers like Bernie Madoff, who managed to extract billions of dollars from unwary investors in the largest ponzi scheme ever.

By U.S. Department of Justice via Wikimedia Commons

In the same way, despite it being a seemingly obvious scam, many people have been taken in by the promise of sudden riches coming out of Ghana and/or Nigeria on the death of a wealthy government official who just happened to have hidden tens of millions of dollars before his untimely death, now just waiting to be gathered in by any investor daring enough to provide his banking details to a previously unknown benefactor in that country who has just happened to have found you via email … what a great opportunity !

Notwithstanding the scams, risk is just about weighing up the pros and cons of the many opportunities in front of us, and using our experience and decision making criteria to pick a particular path to follow.

Many people can spend years agonising over a specific decision, and some will never make it, yet I believe that most times the decision that we take is less important than what we do after taking the decision.

If we assume that we are all intelligent, deductive people (at least the readers of this blog), then when faced with deciding between a number of available options, it is unlikely that any of the final shortlist are totally unworkable anyway.

I have found that the success of the chosen path is more often based on our commitment to the decision taken rather than which decision to take. For example a young woman who decides to marry Fred rather than George, and commits herself fully to the Fred decision has significantly more chance of success in life than had she decided on Fred but spent the rest of her life wondering how her life could have panned out had she chosen George.

In the same way, I have found that business decisions that may be a 70% fit at the start, that are driven by people with passion and commitment, have a significantly better chance of succeeding than forcing a 90% solution onto someone who doesn’t really believe in it. It is one of the reasons that « top down » decisions often don’t work as well as collaborative ones that involve the key stakeholders, and why in most instances managers should overcome their need to override an enthusiastic and workable idea from subordinates with their own. Giving people freedom to act (and make mistakes) means greater commitment to the decisions taken and hence greater chances of success.

I believe that we should try to spend less time worrying over what to do, and more time making sure that we are committed to what we are doing, by focussing on making it the right decision and on its succesful execution.

As Amelia Earhart said « The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity ».

By en:User:Bzuk uploaded it to wikipedia, User:Alaniaris re-uploaded it to Commons.(Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

PLEASE REMOVE YOUR SHOES

I am starting to wonder whether anyone really understands how to design and implement airport security checks in ways that ensure that they work yet don’t overly inconvenience the passengers, and has enough global consistancy that we all believe that it makes sense.

As stated in the AAP (Associated Press), London on 28th October 2010 …

« European officials accused the United States of imposing unnecessary and overly intrusive air travel security measures, calling on the Obama administration Wednesday to re-examine policies ranging from X-raying shoes to online security checks for Europeans.
The crux of the issue is every traveler’s question of how much security is sufficient and how much delay is tolerable – and whether it’s time for a review of security measures that have accumulated in the years since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. »

The debate flared a day after British Airways Chairman Martin Broughton accused the U.S. of demanding “completely redundant” security checks at airports, such as removing shoes and separate examinations of laptop computers.
Europe should not have to “kowtow to the Americans every time they want something done” to beef up security on U.S.-bound flights, Broughton said.

It all seems to be so ad hoc as to be incomprehensible.

It starts at the high end of the scale at Atlanta airport where one has to go through X-ray and screening processes to actually be allowed to leave the airport, as though one would have tried to smuggle explosives onto an aircaraft, across oceans and international boundaries just to try and bomb Elton John’s home. The other end of the scale are internal flights in New Zealand where they have no security screening process at all of passengers who are boarding flights on aircraft of 90 seats or less, I guess in the belief that these puddle jumpers would not be attractive to terrorists, and anyway who would want to terrorise middle-earth other than Orcs and Trolls.

By Nick Gray from Atlanta, GA, USA (Airport Security) (CC-BY-SA-2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

In Europe every airport has it’s own interpretation, some asking you to remove your shoes (I am always amazed at how many people wear socks with large holes), some not trusting wrist watches, some insisting on removal of trouser belts, some wanting PCs removed from bags for separate screening, some wanting the plastic bag of toiletries separately displayed and others not … the inconsistancy is amazing.

I once had a pair of nail clippers confiscated at Gatwick airport in London in case I had thoughts of hijacking the aircraft by threatening the pilot with a bad manicure, have had a 100 ml plastic bottle of shampoo taken away at Bordeaux airport because it didn’t have a label, as though 100 ml plastic bottles with labels were safer, and at Heathrow I was asked to remove a small metal pin from my tie that I always use to stop it from flopping around, just in case it had been tipped in curare.

We seem to be leaving these decisions, and interpretations, to people with little education and minimal on the job training, but with significantly more power than one should accord them.

The web site for Airline and Aviation jobs outlines airport security screening job requirements as …

« These are entry-level jobs, requiring only a high school diploma. All training is provided on the job, although most new hires will have to take a 12-hour instructional class. »

I feel so much more secure in the knowledge that « most » (note that not all) have had 12 hours of instruction, which I am sure is mainly on « how to puff up with importance and look threatening ».

Just to wind it all up another notch, airports around the world are now installing insulated cabinets that will house full body X-Ray machines that are not only precise enough to be able to detect hidden explosives, but will also be able to determine the religion of male travellers.

I see this as totally the wrong approach.

Instead, I believe that every passenger should be asked to step into a bomb-proof cabinet, where technology is used to detonate any explosive devices, plastics, contraband etc that are secreted anywhere on the body. That would at least make any would be terrorist think twice about hiding things in his underwear, and give us all global consistancy, without having to rely on the arbitrary décisions of the feeble-minded in positions of power at airports.

GOD SAVE THE EURO

A recent headline in the Times of London trumpeted “An €85 Billion bailout for the Irish Government from the International Monetary Fund and Europe has been settled”.

It got me wondering about the fact that, apart from Greece, the four sickest countries in the Eurozone are Ireland, Italy, Spain and Portugal which are all Catholic countries, and whether this was just another case of Catholics coming into a relationship inadequately protected.

By Nserrano (Own work) (CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL), from Wikimedia Commons

Humour aside, the Euro does appear to be struggling somewhat.The major hedge funds are betting against it, as recently reported in the Financial Times:

“Traders and hedge funds have bet nearly $8bn (€5.9bn) against the euro, amassing the biggest ever short position in the single currency on fears of a Eurozone debt crisis. It suggests investors are losing confidence in the single currency’s ability to withstand any contagion from Greece’s budget problems to other European countries.”

As someone living in France (and with a 10 year residency card just renewed), I love the idea of a United Europe, the ability to cross borders at will and to not have to carry a wad of francs, drachmas, lire, guilder, pesetas, deutschmarks etc with me every time I move about, but I have to admit that I am wondering about whether it can survive. So far we have only had to deal with rescuing some of the smaller Euro members, but Spain which is the 4th largest economy in Europe is starting to look pretty shaky.

By This photo (C) Lars Aronsson (Own work, see page for license), from Wikimedia Commons

The Wall Street Journal on September 16th, 2010 highlighted the housing crisis as one of the critical economic challenges facing Spain.

“Some 1.5 million unfinished, unsold or unwanted residential units stand scattered across the country, products of a still-deflating housing bubble that threatens to undermine Spain’s broader economy for years to come. It is the hangover after an epic fiesta, a period Spaniards now refer to as “cuando pensábamos que éramos ricos”—”when we thought we were rich.”

By comparison Ireland is estimated to have about 250,000 vacant properties.

The tab for the Greece bailout was about €110 billion, and now Ireland is an additional €85 billion. How can Europe afford to bail out a larger economy such as Spain? As one economist put it “Too big to fail is one thing, too big to bail is another”.

The survival of the euro appears to not anymore be just something that the British Euroskeptics are crowing about, but also something that is being pondered by economic analysts and in global trading rooms. The question seems to boil down to whether Germany has the stomach to keep bailing out Eurozone failing economies, even with the €750 billion rescue fund that has been established, as there is still argument over how it will actually work in practice and whether it has actually bought us all anything more than just some breathing space.

The other issue is whether the countries bailed out can actually service their debt, as to date there are not great signs that they have either the ability or the courage to reign in their budget deficits.

In Greece tax evasion is the national sport and has been raised to Olympic levels.

As the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year:

“Greece has one apparently simple option for reining in a budget deficit that has roiled financial markets: Clamp down on widespread tax evasion, which costs the country an estimated €15 billion ($20.5 billion) a year, an amount that would pay off a big chunk of the budget deficit.”

The Greek Government has introduced austerity measures but some seem to have relatively little real impact other than to gain some popularity with the masses, like a new tax on luxury goods such as cars over €30,000 and yachts, which is estimated to raise about €100 million, which is just a spit in the Adriatic. They haven’t yet really tackled some of the tougher issues like the fact that public sector workers get an additional 2 months pay annually.

How does the Greek economy survive when it has to service debt interest that alone represents about 7-8% of GDP? Its only choice may be to default on its sovereign bonds, withdraw from the European monetary union and revive and devalue the drachma. It would probably be the best cure for Greece, but may be the beginning of the end of the current Eurozone maybe bringing it down to a German-French currency only.

James Joseph Jacques Tissot (Public domain), from Wikimedia Commons

On the other hand, there is a story about a French person who is revived from cryogenic suspension in the year 2110. His first questions are about what has changed in France over the last 100 years. He is told that everything is wonderful. The retirement age is still 62, English is the national language, life expectancy is 200 as most illnesses have been eradicated, France is the leading rugby nation in the world (well it is a joke), and a baguette costs just 100 Rupees.

By Engineer09 (Own work) (CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFD), from Wikimedia Commons

By India (NobbiP) (Public domain), from Wikimedia Commons

I WANT IT TODAY

We live in a world of instant communications, where global trends happen overnight rather than taking months and years to develop. (See « The Pesto Effect » posted 22 July 2010).

In fashion for example, everywhere in the world (from Australia to Zanzibar where I have seen it personally) male teenagers seemingly overnight adopted the « pants falling off » way of wearing their jeans, based on the prison look after the removal of inmates’ belts, leaving their trousers to struggle between gravity and decency.

In the same way, we have built a belief that everything in life should be as instant as refreshing a screen on broadband, and so in western nations we have built a culture of the need for instant gratification in all aspects of our lives.

The idea that wieight loss and control should be based on sensible diet and regular exercise has been replaced with the search for an instant cure for obesity. The internet is full of instant weight loss remedies. Pills that will immediately shed fat, no matter what you eat, are now touted as a realistic answer to weight contriol, and I am sure have also fuelled significant share price increases in companies that manufacture incontinence pads, as the body disposes of all this fat through the only outlet available. I am surprised that McDonalds hasn’t realised the marketing impact of including one of these pills with every burger, or just grinding them into their meat patties.

I once saw a young couple in a mall in the US, who together would have tipped the scales at over 300 kilograms (660 lbs), wearing identical t-shirts with the Nike « Just do it » slogan emblazoned in giant letters. They had obviously embraced this slogan when it came to devouring anything that was edible within their reach, but that was OK in their minds as I am sure that they would have believed that soon they would have access to a miracle weight loss cure that worked while they slept, or ate.

Steven Wright (US comedian) had a similar encounter as he describes « I saw a woman wearing a sweatshirt with Guess on it. I said, Thyroid problem? »

By Guess (Own work) Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Liposuction has become the most popular form of cosmetic surgery, being added to the hens night as one of the must-haves for any young bride-to-be, just to be able to squeeze into a wedding dress 2 sizes smaller than normal.

© Photographer - James C. Mutter / Plastic Surgeon Vishal Kapoor, MD / {{{License}}}, via Wikimedia Commons

It seems to be the same attitude when it comes to wealth creation.

The idea that you work hard and well and take some prudent financial steps along the way, like buying a home and adding value over time, has been replaced by the IPO.

The belief is that all you have to do is join (or found) the right company at the right time and wait for it to list and then you can retire to the Bahamas or Monaco or some other tax haven to watch the sun set over your beachfront property. We only need to look at how many people have done this in companies like Microsoft, or at the founder of Facebook, and then we can all believe that it is possible.

Would that it was this easy !!!!

Unfortunately for most people it is also improbable, because while we all know of people who have actually achieved this almost instant wealth, the numbers are really very small, in the same way as are the number of people who win massive jackpots in national loteries, and the people who wake up one morning having miraculously shed excess weight overnight.

It means that instead of focussing on values like hard work, diligence, commitment and excellence in how we live our lives, many are building lives based on hope, and hope is never much of a strategy for success.

We have also just seen this same need for immediate returns in the US mid-term elections. Whatever you feel about the Obama presidency, no matter whether you are a Democrat, Republican or a tea-partiy supporter, there seems to be a belief that because things have not changed overnight then something must be wrong.

I realise that there are other issues with the Obama administration, but it still seems to me to be incredibly naïve to believe that any US President can effectively change the direction of a behemoth like the US in just 2 years, particularly after 8 years of GW Bush, in the same way that it is naïve at best to believe that a magic diet pill can, in just a few weeks, change the effects of 20 or 30 years of eating too much high-calorie high-fat food.

I am a great believer in change but, even for those of us who want everything to happen in real time, this obsession, with receiving everything that we desire instantly, seems to be getting seriously out of hand.