A tale of two islands

In the week and a half I spent in England and Ireland, I learned that…

There’s no better place than Southbank on a clear night in London

Tower Bridge at night

The UK has consistently the best Indian food of any Western country. I’m partial to Tayyabs and Shampan on Brick Lane.

Welsh words make me smile

Say that three time fast

The Irish are known for amazing beer

Honestly, Guinness outside the UK tastes watered down

…delicious wild strawberries

The smaller, the sweeter

beautiful, haunting ruins

Muckross Abbey in Killarney

amazing bed & breakfasts
I can’t recommend Petra House in Galway or Friars Glen in Killarney enough.

The dogs of Friars Glen

gorgeous countryside

The Burren in County Clare

…did I mention gorgeous countryside?

Cliffs of Moher

The Irish are *not* known for efficiency

Yes, the other counter is closed

considerate pedestrians

Just another day in the countryside

or wide streets

No side mirrors were harmed in this trip

I want to go back so badly.

A weekend in Paris

There has been so much written about the “City of Love” that it’s not worth my writing up yet another trip summary or Guide to Paris. Yes, the Mona Lisa is a bit underwhelming. No, you cannot see the Eiffel Tower from everywhere. Yes, Versailles is expensive and crowded, but you should go anyway. Etc. Instead, I’ve written up some tips and unexpected discoveries from my trip that I hope will prove useful to any of you. If you are a frequent traveler, you might find something new. If it’s your first trip to Paris, you might be mistaken for a local.

Cannonball into a fountain at Versailles

The best things I ever ate in Paris are…

Ice cream – Parisians are very proud of their ice cream, and they have good reason to be. Go to Berthillon. Not to the dozens of ice cream shops that happen to sell their ice cream – go to the original location on Île Saint-Louis, the one with the longest line. This might be the only location where they serve “fraise des bois” (wild strawberry) flavor. You’ll pay a little extra for this one flavor, but it’s unbelievably worth it. Also, beware, Berthillon closes for most of August.

Falafel – I would not have found this if I hadn’t made a mistake of searching for “Jewish Quarter” when I meant “Latin Quarter”. The first result was called L’As du Fallafel with over 1000 positive reviews. Make your way to Rue des Rosiers, weaving between Vespas and carousing groups of Hasidics to this little eatery and get the Falafel Special. For around 5 EUR, you’ll get a magical concoction of falafel, eggplant and 3 kinds of pickled cabbage stuffed into a pita. I can now safely say – the best falafel I’ve ever had was in Paris.

Extra harissa, please!

Pot de Fer – This street, meaning “Iron Kettle” is near the Place Monge Metro stop and is absolutely packed with delicious, lively restaurants of all manners of cuisine, from French to Japanese to Italian and more.

Scallops at Chez Lena et Mimile

Some ways to save money are…

Eiffel Tower – Go to the East Pillar (Pillar Est) and take the stairs. Not only will it be cheaper, but there will be a shorter line, and the views while climbing inside one of the Tower’s legs are amazing. Don’t worry, you can still take an elevator between the 2nd and 3rd level.

Museum Pass – Only get this if you love museums and plan to go to more than four on a tight schedule. The only museum on this pass when it might have been worth it to skip a line was Saint Chapelle. Surprisingly, I got into the Louvre on a Saturday afternoon after only 10 minutes in line. Also, all museums are free on the 1st Sunday of each month, but beware the lines.

Metro tickets – The standard “single ride” ticket is misnamed. You can actually use your ticket (1.70 EUR within the city) as many times as you wish within a 1.5 hour period.

Do any of you have your own tips and discoveries to add to this list?

Next up: London!

Trying to get ahead in work or life? Eliminate this one phrase from your vocabulary

The advice in this post applies to your lives both inside and outside the office. It applies to all people, but especially to women, who tend to be guilty of using this phrase far more frequently than men do.

“I’m sorry.”

How many times a day do you say this phrase?

Now, how many times did you say this phrase when you were actually at fault? Unless you’re going through a particularly bad day, I predict this number to be a mere fraction of the total instances. Instead you have probably used this phrase when:

  • you don’t understand something
  • speaking up at a meeting
  • offering an idea
  • you bump into someone
  • someone else bumps into you
  • etc.

In which of these cases are you at fault? Unless you make a habit of purposefully running into people, it’s none of them! So why are we apologizing?

Never apologize unless it’s your fault

“I’m sorry” is a very powerful phrase when used to signify remorse and to ask for forgiveness after arguments. By using it out of this context, you at best weaken the power of the phrase and at worst prepare everybody to find you at fault.

We say “I’m sorry” because we want to avoid people criticizing us for a bad idea or for thinking ill of us. And it works. Saying “I’m sorry” is the equivalent of saying “Don’t hurt me” and few people are soulless enough to ignore that plea.

But then what reason do they have to like or admire your idea? You’ve already warned them in advance not to be disappointed. Your credibility as the confident and smart person that you actually are is lost.

We – especially women – must change this perception. There has been much literature about the income and achievement gap between men and women – but we cannot claim our equal rights in the workplace until we stop selling ourselves short.

Here a couple of steps to start eliminating this phrase from your vocabulary.

1) Identify your self-deprecating phrase. “I’m sorry” is the most common one, but here are some similar and equally undesirable variations:

  • “This may be a stupid question but…
  • “We may have already already covered this but…
  • “I wanted to say real quick…
  • “I kind of think that…

Pick just one phrase. It will be tempting to try to stop them all at once, but you want to maximize your chance at success.

2) Determine 3 situations when you’re most likely to say this phrase. Mine were: in meetings, in the gym locker room and on the phone

3) For the first couple days, don’t actively try and change your behavior. Start by making notes of how often you say your phrase in these situations and whether there are any triggers in common. Do you say it most often in meetings with your colleagues or only when your boss is present? Figuring out your triggers will make changing your behavior much easier.

4) Now do whatever works for you to consciously stop saying the phrase. For some, telling someone else about your goal holds you accountable. Others need to put a post-it note on their computer screen. Others pay a dollar every time they slip up. Pick the method that works best for you. And be patient, changing any ingrained habit takes about a month, so don’t beat yourself up if you slip up along the way.

It’s hard to comprehend at first how small changes in your language can make such a difference in how others perceive you, but I can attest to it from personal experience. Showing others only your best and most confident self builds your reputation in their minds, and the rewards just compound over time.

So put only your best self forward! And send me your stories if you’ve applied this advice successfully in your life. Especially if something amazing has come from it.

Recipe: Mapo Tofu

Mapo tofu, a staple of Chinese restaurants and now one of my favorite dishes to cook. It’s quick, simple and the perfect comfort food for a chilly evening. There’s a lot of room for experimentation, especially in adjusting the amount of cayenne to change the spice level. This recipe is set to medium spiciness.

The recipe below is a frankenchild of AllRecipes and Epicurious.

Makes 3-4 servings

1/2 lb ground pork (95% lean)
5 tbsp dry sherry (or cooking wine)

1 tbsp fermented black beans, rinsed and mashed (might be called “Salted black beans“)
1 tbsp chili garlic sauce (I ❤ garlic and use almost double this)
2 tsp cayenne pepper
4 tbsp soy sauce
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp of ginger, minced

1 package (1 lb) of firm tofu, drained and cut into cubes
3 tbsp of canola oil
1 cup frozen green peas
1/2 cup chicken broth

2 tsp sesame oil
1/2 – 1 tsp Szechuan peppercorn powder
3 tbsp chopped scallions

1. Combine ground pork and sherry in a small bowl and set aside.
2. Combine black beans, chili garlic sauce, cayenne pepper, soy sauce, garlic and ginger in another small bowl and set aside.
3. Bring a medium saucepan of water to a light simmer. Slide tofu into water and maintain at a light simmer for 5-7 minutes as you stir-fry other ingredients. Pre-poaching the tofu this way makes sure that it is tender in the final dish.
4. Heat a wok over high heat until hot (can substitute a skillet) and swirl the canola oil to coat the cooking surface evenly. Stir-fry pork until evenly brown, breaking up clumps as needed. Stir in black bean mixture, peas and pre-poached tofu. Pour in chicken broth and bring to a light boil. Keep stir-frying until it looks ready to eat.
5. Serve topped with sesame oil, Szechuan peppercorn powder and chopped scallions.

Dinner is served

Doodle 4 Google a.k.a best day to be a Googler

On May 4, 2011, online voting for the 4th year of the Doodle 4 Google contest started. Out of a whopping 107,000 submissions, there were now 40 regional finalists, each with a chance to have their doodle featured on the Google homepage for one day.

On that day, I had the pleasure of flying to the school of Victoria Ta, one of the lucky winners, and congratulating her in front of her entire school in an unforgettable assembly.

Click here to watch a video of the happiest girl in the world: http://abclocal.go.com/wpvi/video?id=8112281

What was different about presenting to 400 middle school students versus 400 adults? Both groups loved being entertained with demos, with the students far more enthusiastic about audience participation.

"Who's been to Disneyworld?"

(l-r) Alicia, Mrs Kirsch, Victoria, Asst Principal Stout, Principal Kircher, me

Conquering your fear: Tips for public speaking

UPDATE: The video of my speech is now available!

A Gallup poll of American adults listed public speaking as the #2 most common fear. Snakes hit #1 – any tips for conquering that fear are not going to come from me. For most of us, we’ll encounter public speaking situations much more often, even if they don’t always look like this:

The same techniques to master an audience this size can be used to keep the attention of your 3-person team. In either situation, you’ll have the same percentage of people distracted, tired or playing with their cell phones – you’ll also have the same potential to capture their interest and give them an experience that will stick in their minds long after you’ve finished speaking.

There are a million and one tips for public speaking out there – I will share the two that I found most useful for my experience speaking at the press event launch of Google for Nonprofits (G4NP) to a 200-person audience that I did not know.

  • Put yourself in the moment: As with roller coasters, job interviews and skydiving, the anticipation is the worst (or best) part of public speaking. At the G4NP event, a series of engineering directors and nonprofit CEOs took the stage for over an hour as I stood backstage, feeling more and more like the butterflies were going to punch a hole in my stomach. I was in no shape to get up on the stage.

    The solution is to force your mind into the moment so you have no chance to dwell on your worries. There are many ways to do this, some people listen to music, others repeat tongue twisters, others play games – I look at pictures of cute animals online. Not only does this wipe worries from my mind, I end up taking the stage with a huge smile on my face.
  • Give the audience a reason to listen: The amount of time since the beginning of an event is directly proportional to the percentage of your audience that will be on their mobile phones when you take the stage. My speech took place well over the event’s halfway point – not a good starting point. There are two reasons that will focus your audience’s attention on you and keep it there:

    1) It’s all about them. This was my intro at the G4NP event:

    “I am honored to be speaking before you today. The technologies I am about to demonstrate have the power to multiply your organization’s impact on the world. I challenge you to think big – because with mobile phones, we are entering a whole new era of technology.”

    A selected mix of flattery, relevance and accountability that the audience do more than just listen – captured their full attention before securing it with…

    2) Show don’t tell. Preferably pretty things. There’s a reason keynotes begin with high-budget video reels and why the massive screens behind Steve Jobs project images of the latest shiny product and not his face. The audience loves watching things, especially amazing things. I was very fortunate to be giving a speech on mobile innovations – the topic is made for awe-inducing demos. In my 10-minute speech, I spoke for roughly 2 minutes and let the phone be the star of the other 8 minutes.

    Composing an email with Voice Actions

    I knew that I had succeeded when after I had composed this email simply by speaking, a woman got up from her seat to take a picture of the screen.

Class dismissed. Now go conquer that fear!

Full video of my speech: Audience member stands up at 6:00

Snowboarding vs Skiing

I’ve been on sporadic snowboarding trips over the past 3 years. I’ve managed to get to a point of relative comfort on blues and willingness to go on blacks with the understanding that I’ll probably falling leaf all the way down.

Given that I had lot of learning left to go on snowboarding, going skiing for the first time seemed like an odd decision. But thanks to over 12 feet of new powder to break falls and a very patient boyfriend, I decided to give it a shot.

The verdict:

Snowboarding Skiing
Less gear
Looking cool
Double black: no problem
Quick & easy recoveries after falls
Chance of wrist injury (bad in tech)
Flat runs are evil
Getting off lifts the hardest part
Going on toe edge against every bodily instinct
More gear
Looking slightly-less-cool
Double black: shitshitshitshit
Look absolutely ridiculous after falls
Chance of knee injury
Flat runs conquered with poles
Just stand up off the lift
What edge?

If you’re brand new to both, your choices are pretty even. You should go with whatever sport more of your friends like as that means more travel buddies and free tips.

There’s one major exception that changes the equation: if you’re like me and have snowboarded for awhile, skiing will seem SO easy.

Last weekend at Kirkwood, I tried skiing for the first time and went down a black with parallel skis my first afternoon. All of the practice I’d had balancing on alternate edges of a board made skis seem like the most stable, predictable platforms in the world. And if you imagine that your feet are still on a board and must stay a fixed distance apart, you’ll keep your skis parallel in no time. I’ll need to take a few lessons to shake out some bad skiing habits, and afterwards… well, who says you need to choose just one?