Monday, November 13, 2006

Andre's American Chronicles - June 2000

Greetings to all

Thursday, January 13, 2000

A flimsy sun tries bravely to break through a thin layer of high clouds and low lying mist. The earth is frozen solidly from freezing-rain, and below 0 °C/32 °F temperatures the past 2 days, and the 1 to 4 inches of snow forecasted for tonight will not make matters any better.

What a difference a hemisphere make? From Cape Town to Kentucky in 24 hours

It felt like just a few moments ago that we, everyday, woke to near 30 °C/86 °F temperatures, and I could count the number of less-pleasant days on 1 finger. And the few drops of rain and gale force wind the day before Christmas were a God-sent to cool Cape Town for a bit. We returned to the US to experience the winter’s first storm in Kentucky. Morning temperatures are now around -15 °C/5 °F and the past few days our maximum has never reached zero °C/32 °F.

Return to the Rainbow Nation (the southern tip of Africa version)

WAOH!!! What a trip? We needed a vacation upon our return. They say those kind of vacations are good vacations. To all the people in South Africa that made our vacation one of our most memorable, a BIG, THANK YOU. Without you the vacation just would not have been such a joyful time. A special thanks to Jacques for his wheels.

The 18 days in South Africa were just too short. We never even had time to visit the beach or Kirstenbosch. But we got to visit the Waterfront (too commercial and too expensive as always) and with some family members, the Franschhoek and Stellenbosch wine route. Being a wine lover I loved these wine routes for not onbly the tastings but also the beauty of the lanscape. We started off with a breakfast at the Wimpy on the N1, and then on to Franchhoek. Our first stop was at Cape Chamonix. I really like their Chardonnays for its very woody and butter flavors. We spent some time in the dorp, browsing through goods from flea market vendors and then on to L'Ormarins, one of the Cape's most beautiful estates and one of the oldest (since 1694). From Franschhoek we took the R310 (Helshoogte Pass) past Boschendal and Pniel to Stellenbosch. With a roundabout way we got to Delheim Estate. Their tasting room with its spiderwebs and dungeon feeling is a must. Standing on the terrace of the restaurant, on a clear day, one can see Table Mountain. From there we drove through Stellenbosch to Middelvlei, back to the outskirts of town to Blaauklippen and Rust-en-Vrede. On our way back to Cape Town we stopped at Zevenwacht, bought a picnic basket and enjoyed a late lunch on the lawn in front of the manor house. I came back to the US with 4 cases of wine. Luckily customs gave me no problems because it was all for personal consumption. We are allowed to bring in two cases of wine per adult.

We took a car trip around Campsbay to the “Republic” of Houtbay, visited the Mariner's Wharf, bought Snoek for a braai that evening and ate fish and chips at Snoekies. On the day that we visited the Waterfront, we experienced a boat trip to Robben Island, although we did not go ashore, and on December 30th we went up Table Mountain with the aerial cableway to witness one of the millennium’s last sunsets. We ate far too much boerewors, biltong and food in general, but what the heck, you only live once. If you do it right, then once should be enough. But both Monica and I feel we had not spent enough time with friends or family, even though we were with family or friends everyday of the vacation. Some friends I did not get to see at all, especially the x-Plessey crowd, due to bad planning on my side. And I am still pinching myself for that. But in general it was an excellent trip. It was just so good to be there again, to experience good Afrikaner hospitality again, to listen to Afrikaans again, and to spend time with family and friends again.

The Land of the Rising Sun

Wednesday, March 8, 2000.
Just did some laundry and I am now eating in a Japanese restaurant on the 1st floor of the hotel where I’m staying during my visit to Osaka. Sitting at the bar, I’m watching the kitchen staff, visible through a glass partitioning, preparing food. I ordered chop-suey soup, shredded beef with peppers, rice with vegetables, and a bottle of red wine. Total cost, around 10,000 Yen/$100.

I feel very awkward here in Japan, because I rarely see any Westerners. Everywhere I go people stare at me as if I’m from Mars. Maybe it is just this area of Osaka where I’m staying. Now and then I here “Americano” and then I know I am being discussed. Whether I was from America of not, it seems they call anyone with European features Americano. But I’m not complaining. The people here are very friendly and offer to help where they can. If they can’t speak English they try to find someone who can speak some broken English.

But let me start at the beginning. On Friday, February 27, I left home for Osaka via Lexington and Detroit, to attend an Advance Management course at our overseas training center, affectionately known as “Hirakata Prison”, because of its location in Hirakata, a north-western suburb of Osaka. The training course was during the first week of my stay here. The second week I visited various factories and also our world head office to look at IT systems and just generally meet various people.

I arrived here the Saturday and was met by a Japanese colleague at the airport, who after a 90 minute ride of near non stop traffic jams, delivered me at my destination. The Sunday morning I met another American during breakfast who told me that he was going out to explore the city. I asked if I could tag along. He was to meet some Japanese colleagues from their mother division here, but he welcomed another English speaking person on the trip. Once at the train station we met another Panasonic employee from Britain, another course attendee, and he asked to tag along too. Why not? One big happy family, no idea where we are all going. We eventually ended up at Osaka Castle (pictured left) , which was originally built some 400-500 years ago, but demolished several times during different wars within Japan, and the last time by Allied forces during World War II. The castle was beautifully rebuilt, surrounded by gardens, very thick, high walls and finally by a moat. Now dry.

The business course was about strategic decision making and an indoctrination of Matsushita’s business philosophy. 25 persons attended the course from all over the world – USA, UK, Poland, Germany, Italy, France, Costa Rica, Mexico, Singapore and Malaysia. ‘n Lekker sak deurmekaar lekkers. A bag of mixed candy! The course was intense, with long hours (9 AM to 9 PM), and some lecturers difficult to understand (the English heavily coated with Japanese.) That did not leave much time for socializing with colleagues from other nations. The late night beer drinking in the lounge, around a vending machine, was restricted to 3 Brits, 3 Germans and me, talking about soccer, life and anything else that came to mind.

After the course ended the Friday afternoon I went to stay in the Osaka Plaza Hotel for a week. I am sure I was the only Westerner in the hotel, because I never saw another. The next day, Saturday, a Japanese colleague took me shopping. I would have like a sightseeing tour, but it was raining cats and dogs that day. So we went to a massive mall, 8 stories high, some of it underground, with so many tentacles in all directions an octopus would feel embarrassed that it was outdone for legs. Thereafter we browsed a 3-mile long narrow, covered “road” with shops on both sides. Lunch was at a restaurant where we had to grill our own beef, thinly sliced, with teriyaki sauce and with many side dishes. Very interesting concept! I indulged far too much on the teriyaki and suffered the next day. I didn’t do a lot of shopping. The only things reasonably priced in Japan are train tickets and food at small restaurants. The food in Japan, or the food I was exposed to, I have to admit, was excellent.

The next day, Sunday, was certainly the highlight of my trip. Two colleagues escorted me to Kyoto, an ancient city and capital of Japan for more than a thousand years, before the capital was moved to Tokyo. For a history buff like me, Kyoto was magnificent. We walk through ancient gardens and many narrow streets. First we visited Ninna-ji, also called the Omuro Palace (pictured right). I went into the temple, shoeless, beautifully decorated with massive wooded pillars, weaved cloth and what I presume was gold. From there we walked to Ryoan-ji, a world famous rock-and-gravel garden and then to Rokuon-ji, the Golden Pavilion. And finally on to, what I call the red temple, Kamowakeikazuchi-jinja (pictured left). This was quite a walk and along the many roads I met three geishas in traditional dress in a park. And had my picture taken with them. My colleagues were rather taken aback that I would be seen with these girls on a photo. My video and still camera was working overtime. It was a rather long walk back to the train station after all day’s walking and we were all rather tired and my feet were burning. A few blocks from the train station we stop to have an early dinner/late lunch, it was about 3:30 PM, at a quaint, very stylist, family-managed restaurant, which served some excellent dishes. The train trip back to Osaka took about an hour. Magnificent city! Well worth a return visit.

Service, in general, here in Japan is fantastic. Everywhere you go they want to provide the best. And no tips. “Japanese culture!” I was told. They see it as an insult to be tipped. In the USA and in SA the service is generally poor and a tip is seen as a given. No, let me correct myself, one is seen as stingy and rude if one doesn’t tip. No matter how bad the service. As if “…be glad I was here to serve you!” How vain!

One evening 2 colleagues took me to a Thai restaurant, serving a mixture of Korean, Thai and Japanese food in Japanese style. I should not be calling it a restaurant, but rather one of the thousands of tiny local bars. A classic “hole in a wall.” Eventually there were 10 customers and it was crowded. All sitting at a half moon counter, watching the proprietor and her daughter, preparing the food on the other side of the counter. It turned out the best evening of my whole trip. There we were 10 men, all regular customers except me. It was cozy, noisy, and full of the aroma of the different foods. In true Asian style, as many as 10 different types of food were offered in small quantities. There were lots of laughs and many misunderstandings. The electronic Japanese/English calculator worked overtime, but still did not eliminate misunderstandings. They offered me Sake and some weird smelling liquor that is drunk with hot water and a Japanese apricot in it. I had some sake, but refuse the liquor. I stuck to beer. In general, for fear of an upset stomach, I stayed away from weird drinks and big portions of raw fish, although I enjoyed a few portions of sushi.

Most of the time I loved the food here. Fish and rice seems to be the staple foods here. Fish of all sorts are consumed. Let me rather say seafood. Because everything from the sea is eaten here: from mackerel to swordfish, from lobster and all kinds of shellfishes, to jellyfish and octopus, and shrimps and prawns. Rice is eaten 3 times a day. At breakfast it is served with fish, green salad, and many other things. Real Japanese food taste and smell much different than the western version presented in the USA. And then there is Japanese tea. Unsweetened, without milk and mostly green in color. Tea is always served at the beginning of the meal. Much like water is served in the USA. I have always liked the green version served in the USA and I also like it in Japan. Never strong, rather weak, but just palatable. In general I developed a healthy respect for Japanese chefs and their food. It reflects a fine sense of taste and a good knowledge of what goes together. Also, the presentation of one dish at a time allows for experiencing individual taste and enjoyment without mixing of tastes and foods.

In summary, the Japanese are a very friendly and helpful nation. They dress very smartly. Men are almost always in suit and tie, and women dress very stylish. Many times food is presented lukewarm, but they drink their sake hot (same temperature as the stomach they say). They say yes to everything, but it only means, yes I’ve heard you, and don’t necessarily mean I agree with you or that it is acceptable. They drive their bicycles on the pavements (walkways), but possess great skills in hardly ever hitting pedestrians. Jaywalking is never seen, they all cross the street at pedestrian crossings. Traffic is a real problem. Trains run on time and are mostly crowded. The country is very clean and customer service is excellent. I have thoroughly enjoyed my trip here. A truly different world experience. This is the first and hopefully not my last trip to Japan.

Upon my return to the USA, Monica came to pick me up at the airport. I was totally bushed. The 20-hour trip was exhausting. But I was in for a surprise? At home colleagues and friends gave me a surprised 40th birthday party. The kind that you walk into a dark room and upon switching the light on you get the fright of your life as they all shout “SURPRISE!!!” Well, being a party animal…most of the time, I employed my second breath and enjoy the rest of the evening as best as I could, way into the wee hours of the morning.

My travels aren’t over yet. You’ll swear I’m a traveling salesman these days. We are in the process of opening another factory south of the border, in Mexico. During June I’ll be visiting Reynosa & Monterrey in Mexico, the first of probably many visits, to go and see how other American companies that ventured there, do business. It’s going to be one of my babies for the rest of this year. The plant must be operational by April 2001. But I rather go now, early spring, than in the middle of summer when 110 °F/43 °C is the norm.

In and Around Kentucky
Other Newsbits

April - June, 2000.
Recently I have been promoted and all of IT is now reporting to me. It also means a company car. Because Monica will be driving the car most of the time, and she really wanted a Mazda Miata (MX5), but a 2-seater sports car isn’t allowed as a company car, we settled on a silver colored Pontiac Grand Prix GT. We decided to sell our trusted Mercury, the one that got us over the Rocky Mountains at 15 miles per hour, and brought us all the way from the west coast to central Kentucky, and also to sell our Dodge Van. We are doing a lot of landscaping in our yard a truck has become very necessary. So for myself, I bought a Dodge Ram Pickup 1500 Quad Cab V8. A fire red one!

Two weeks ago our town was in uproar and the whole southwest portion of town, which includes our factory and the kids’ school, had to be evacuated due to a chemical fire in a cargo train’s box car. 650 tons of sulfur got in contact with water due to a leakage and caused a smoldering time bomb, ready to go off anytime. Luckily this didn’t happen and we went back to work the next day again.

Three days ago the Wild Turkey Distillery (makers of top class Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky) in Lawrenceburg (just down the road from us) lost one of its warehouses due to a fire. The bourbon ran into the Kentucky River, which runs through the distillery, and which feeds the water processing plant next door, resulting in a major water problem for the town. All water was cut off for 2 days. Wow, open the faucet and out come whisky & water, already mixed.

This is the last week of the school year for the kids. Two and a half months of summer vacation are lying ahead. During the vacation the boys and I will be roughing it for a long weekend. I promised them we would go primitive-camping near one of the many lakes in Kentucky or in the Daniel Boone forest. Sleep under the starts by night, exploring walking trails by day, and live on US Army rations. Giam can't wait, but how Lamar will cope it is still a mystery.

Well, it has taken some time writing this, and well over due in sending it. But with us being busy with “life”, kids, trying to create a garden from nothing, etc., time flies.

From Danville, Kentucky…Cheers.

André, Monica, kids & cats.