Exploring a new home through social media

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

Two weeks from tomorrow, I’m moving to Washington, D.C. I signed my lease (I’ll be in the Petworth neighborhood of northwest D.C.), I’m reading POLITICO Pro’s articles and briefs as “homework” and I’m wading through my benefits paperwork.

I’m doing homework of another kind, too. Namely, the homework of getting acquainted with the city in which I’ll be living. Even though I’ve been to D.C. twice in the past month, I want to make sure I know what I’m getting into when I move. I’ve done the D.C. tourist thing, so travel guides won’t really help. For this mission, I turned to Twitter.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve added food trucks, restaurants, clubs, media, sports teams and figures to my TweetDeck, with a column reserved just for D.C. stuff. I think it’s working well — I’m getting familiar with the lay of the land and what it offers, even though I’m not even there yet. I’m hoping that once the move is permanent, I can use what I’ve learned about the city so far to make the most of it right from the start.

I recommend this strategy to anyone moving to a new city. Find people and places that interest you, and follow them. See if Foursquare offers a city badge for your area and what venues are listed. Map everything and get a good visual understanding of your area. Download mass transit apps. Check schedules for the local sports teams. Message people already in the city and ask their advice about what’s good. In other words, be proactive. You can get into a city before you actually get into a city.

In the meantime, enjoy this photo of the Lincoln Memorial, one of my last “tourist” shots of the city.

Paris: Day Four

Read about the first, second and third days in Paris.

Monday, our long weekend in Paris came to a close.

Lauren and I rode the Metro to Gare du Nord and stashed our bags in a locker, so they’d be safe and we wouldn’t have to carry them . We had breakfast — crepes, coffee and apple juice — at a cafe by the train station.

We spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon up in Monmarte, visiting the beautiful Sacre Coeur basilica, which is on a hill and can be seen from across the city, and walking around the district. We stopped outside the Moulin Rouge for photos.

We had heard about good flea and farmers markets in Marais, but unfortunately the ones in which we were interested were closed.

Our next stop was the area around the national opera. After taking photos of the building’s exterior (the interior of lovely also), we visited the Apple store for the free WiFi and got coffee at a very opulent Starbucks. We’re talking chandeliers, tiles ceilings, shiny metal fixtures. It was swank. I also dragged Lauren into the United Colors of Benetton and picked up my souvenir of the trip — a UCoB shirt with “Paris” on it. I have one from London, too. It may just be my new collection.

With the afternoon left to kill, we went back to the Eiffel Tower so Lauren could see it in the daylight. It was so cloudy out that going to the top would have been pointless, as the view would have been obscured, so we hung around down at the bottom, took photos and watched souvenir peddlers run away from the police. Good times.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We walked across the Seine to the Trocadero, a complex of gardens and museums. The complex has an impressive history in international affairs — the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed there in 1948, and it also housed the first headquarters of NATO.

Lauren and I had one last late lunch together in a restaurant off the Trocadero, before heading back to Gare du Nord. I set up shop in a cafe with a coffee and a croissant, waiting for my train depart. Lauren took an overground commuter train to Orly, from where she was flying back to Germany.

So there you have it. Four eventful days in Paris. Très bon, oui?

Paris: Day One

I apologize for not writing for the past couple of weeks. I’ve been suffering from a nasty head cold and have had a lot of schoolwork to complete before the break. I’m hoping I can make up for it now.

This past weekend, I went to Paris to meet up with my friend Lauren, who’s living in Düsseldorf as an au pair. We went to KU together and worked on the Kansan. Lauren had never been to Paris before; I hadn’t been since March 2007. The planning and navigation fell largely to me because I was more familiar with the city. I also had the honor of knowing more French vocabulary with which to butcher the language by attempting to speak it. It was quite an adventure and we had a lot of fun. Rather than write a novel describing it all at once, I’ve decided to devote one entry and one photo gallery to each day we were there. This is day one.

I left Canterbury very early in the morning, taking a commuter train to Ashford and its Eurostar terminal. I enjoyed a much-needed cup of coffee and a chocolate croissant at the station before boarding a train to Paris’ Gare du Nord terminal. Lauren arrived a couple of hours after I did, so I killed time by going across the street to a McDonald’s, where I used the restroom, got something to eat (don’t judge me; the cafes around the station are all terribly overpriced) and made use of the free WiFi to tell my friends and parents that I’d arrived safely.

I’d bought a Metro ticket in Ashford (a wise move, in hindsight), so, after stashing my duffel in a locker at the station, I hopped on and rode down the line to Cité, the stop on the main island in the middle of the Seine. This island has several shops and cafes, as well as the Palace of Justice, the city’s police headquarters and Notre Dame cathedral. I strolled through the gardens on the side of the cathedral and walked across the river. I bought batteries for my camera and located Shakespeare and Company bookstore, which I’d read about in The Independent. We had decided to try to find it.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Shakespeare and Company is a Beatnik-era bookstore packed with used books of all genres. Burroughs visited it to research Naked Lunch. The owner, George Whitman, lets writers stay and work if they want, free of charge, as long as they give him a photo and personal biography when they leave. Through the ages, these traveling writers became known as Tumbleweeds. According to the article, Whitman is 96 now, but still reads and still collects stories from traveling writers. The bookstore and its former owners/staff have connections to Ernest Hemingway, Allen Ginsberg, T.S. Eliot and James Joyce, among others.

After I located the bookstore, I went back to Gare du Nord to meet Lauren. By this time it was mid-afternoon, so we went back down to the island and went inside Notre Dame. After that we headed over to the bookstore.

Shakespeare and Company looks like someone’s bookshelf exploded in it. Books everywhere. The philosophy shelf has Hobbes, Locke, Sartre and Plato. The Beat writers and their contemporaries have a table in their honor — Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” and “The Bell Jar” and an anthology of Shakespeare’s poems, edited by Ted Hughes (aka Mr. Sylvia Plath). The wishing well in the middle of the floor (which used to be a heater, I believe) has coins strewn in it. Upstairs is a little cubby with a typewriter, a cot and a piano, along with more books and a children’s section. By the time we eventually left, I had selected a book — “The Maltese Falcon,” by Dashiell Hammett — to buy to commemorate the visit.

After that we headed down to the Denfert-Rocherau Metro stop, made use of McDonald’s WiFi again and then headed to the flat where we were staying. In summation, it was a lovely yet busy morning getting to Paris, and a lovely afternoon getting a feel for the city.

I’ll keep updating the blog with photos and stories about the other three days. Keep checking back!

How I would expand Foursquare

About a month ago, I wrote about how London could (and should) use Foursquare. I maintain that any or all of those suggestions would still be great. Today, Pew released a study saying that only about 4 percent of online users use location-based applications like Foursquare and Gowalla.

Tomorrow, I’m taking a mental-health adventure into London. At least two places I’m planning to visit — Hummingbird Bakery and Tsunami — I would not have known about had it not been for Foursquare. And that, I think sums up what Foursquare’s mission should be: helping people discover new places in their cities and giving them incentives to b adventurous.

So why do so few people use Foursquare and services like it? I’m a relative newcomer to Foursquare, but as someone who really enjoys using it and finds it addictive, here are a few suggestions on how to expand membership:

1. Move beyond New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Austin. Foursquare began in New York and obviously that’s where much of its infrastructure is, but if new users who aren’t from a major city see that few venues they frequent are listed or that all of the venues needed for a certain badge are located far away, they won’t want to join. It makes sense for brands like the Wall Street Journal or events like the Rally to Restore Sanity to have city-specific venues, but why should the Trainspotting badge be limited to San Francisco, or the Far Far Away badge be limited to above 59th St.? I ride trains all the time and I’m pretty far far away from home right now. Other badges that used to be city- or event-specific have since been opened to the general public; do that more.

2. Be more aggressive about weeding out duplicate venues. Cheating mayors’ days may be numbered, but that Starbucks on the corner is still listed as five different places, with five different mayors each getting 20 percent off their peppermint mochas (mmm … peppermint mochas). I also fail to see how each platform at King’s Cross needs its own venue listing.

3. Step up brand recruitment. There’s evidence that this is in the works, which is good. It’s not just about recruiting more companies or offering more deals. A lot of the issue is simple publicity — you can’t make use of deals that you don’t know about. I’d like to see a database or listing of businesses with specific Foursquare deals. Plenty of third-party sites offer this sort of thing, but there really should be an official listing. A decal in the window will only go so far. I’d also suggest inking more deals with tourism bureaus and universities.

4. Throw a bone to tip-writers. One of the cornerstone features of Foursquare — your ability to leave tips and advice for the people who come after you — goes unrewarded. Offer badges for 10+, 25+, 50+, 100+ and so on tips that you list. To prevent half-assed serial tipsters, necessitate that someone must have checked into that venue at least once before they’re allowed to leave a tip. Or go the Digg route and have users vote tips up or down depending on quality. If your tip gets a certain number of thumbs up, you get a one-time free drink or half-priced entry or a certain percentage off at that venue. This would give people incentive to leave numerous, quality tips and help solidify that part of the infrastructure. And because the tip would be voted up or down by fellow users, Domino’s couldn’t turn away your tipster reward if your tip said their pizza was, to quote Jon Stewart, a “#&*% disk.”

5. Expand the number of badges more often. I have 17 right now. Excluding badges that I won’t be able to get because of a one-time event or because I’m not in that city (see point #1) and any “surprise” holiday badges like the Halloween badge from last week, I have the potential to earn maybe 8-10 more in the next few months. Keep them coming and keep them fresh. Badges are a powerful psychological reward (trust me, I know), but keep them novel.

There you have it. I suspect that the vast majority of Foursquare’s problem — if indeed it has one — is lack of inclusiveness. It’s a fine line between being open to enough people and being too open. A lot of the perks are attractive precisely because so few people have them. But that’s a balance Foursquare must strike if it hopes to get beyond that 4 percent.

I’m not Canadian

Not counting the United States, I’ve been to thirteen different countries, the vast majority of them in Europe. And I remember, before setting out on my travels, reading and hearing the same vein of advice: Pretend to be Canadian. Tell people you’re from Toronto, or sew a Canadian flag on your backpack.

The obvious accent discrepancies aside — I don’t have a Canadian accent; that’d be like someone from London pretending to be from Ireland in another country — I’ve never done this and never would and never will.

Why?

I strive to be a “good American” while abroad. I read menus and signs in the native language, using a phrasebook if necessary. I try to converse in the native language, however badly (you oughta hear my French, sacre bleu). I try to be quiet and respectful and never push or shove or take photos where it’s verboten (tourist group in the Vatican, looking at you). I eat the local food if company permits. In short, I like to think of myself as a model traveler.

And why should Canada, God bless it, be the beneficiary of that good behavior?

It occurred to me that if all the well-behaved Americans masqueraded as Canadians while abroad to avoid anti-Americanism, and all the hubristic Americans, the loud, rude, pushy types that you do find in every country, were “out and proud,” so to speak, then of course foreigners would have a negative opinion of American travelers. All or most of the good examples are pretending to be from another country! More than that, I’m now curious as to how much of the stereotypical Canadian “good will” is down to well-behaved Americans passing themselves off as Canadian as much as it’s down to actual Canadians.

When someone asks me where I’m from, I tell them I’m American and leave it at that, or, if they inquire further (the ones who know that life exists outside of New York and Los Angeles are my favorite), I tell them I’m from Kansas City and “it’s right in the middle.” Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal are destinations, not hometowns. I’d never pass off as a Montrealer anyway (again, the French). I then behave myself and act courteous and try to give them a good impression of Americans. And if they ask if I voted for George W. Bush, I can honestly tell them no — I was too young to vote then anyway.

So, my fellow American travelers, don’t hide behind the maple leaf. If enough of us act like “good Americans” instead of “ugly Americans,” we won’t need to pretend to be our friendly northern neighbors.

Bodiam Castle and Rye

On Saturday, I went on a day trip with the university chaplaincy (I’ve been attending Anglican services on Sundays) to Bodiam Castle and the small town of Rye, both in East Sussex.

The castle was built in 1385 by Sir Edward Dalyngrigge (that’s a mouthful), who served King Edward III and received permission to build the castle from King Richard II. Its intended purpose was to stave off a French invasion during the Hundred Years War. The castle itself was built with an artificial moat and was the seat of the feudal Bodiam Manor.

Its owners seem to have had a bit of rotten luck over the years. Dalyngrigge himself died in combat on a knightly campaign, and its next owner, Sir Thomas Lewknor, made the mistake of supporting the Lancastrians during the Wars of the Roses. King Richard III confiscated the castle, although the Lewknors eventually got it back when King Henry VII took over.

During the English Civil War, its owner was John Tufton, who was a Royalist. Another owner on the wrong side of the victors, Tufton had to turn the castle over in the face of heavy taxation. The castle was torn apart, and passed down to Lord Curzon, who tried to fix it up and gave it to the National Trust in 1925. The castle is mostly ruins inside, but has a remarkably intact exterior.

Not too far away is the town of Rye, sitting up on a hill. Back when it was founded, the sea came much farther inland, and the town’s position on the hill kept it from getting washed out. The village is very attractive, with cobbled streets and a wide variety of tea houses, antique shops, cottages and cafes.

Enjoy photos of the castle and village below.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Note: Just giving a big thanks to everyone who’s been reading The Canterbury Tales. October 2010 has been my most-viewed month so far, and it’s not even over yet!

How London can use Foursquare

Now that I’m able to successfully take my mobile crack, er, media addiction on the road (thanks to an iPod Touch and, I hope, an Android phone in the near future), I’ve become a major fan of Foursquare. What is Foursquare? Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember that not all of my friends are journalism/social media junkies, and most people probably aren’t familiar with it.

Think of it like Twitter on the move. Basically you “check in” at different venues to which you travel — shops, restaurants, bars, airports, train stations, landmarks, bus stops, churches, grocery stores, boutiques, shopping malls, a damn boat. Experience-wise, you get out of it what you put in — ideally you’ll leave tips and notes at places you’ve been, telling the people who arrive after you what to see, do or eat there. For instance, after having a stellar curry in Canterbury, I promptly listed a tip on the place’s Foursquare listing.

If you check into a place more times in the past 60 days than anyone else, you become the mayor, a post you hold until someone else boots you. You can see where your friends have been, and earn badges for various things, like checking into specific types of venues, checking into many different venues, or checking in a certain number of times.

If you use your imagination, the application is entrepreneurial gold. Several months ago, Gap and American Eagle (I believe) both offered discounts if you checked into their stores. Starbucks offers drink specials for its mayors. The mayor at a Wetherspoon pub in the UK gets 20 percent off his tab. It rewards brand loyalty and in turn, the venue receives your business, and your tips populate the venue’s Foursquare listing. Brands like Zagat, Bravo, The History Channel and the Wall Street Journal have their own special badges that you can earn if you follow them. To earn the Zagat badge, for example, you just need to check in at five different Zagat-rated restaurants.

But what about something such as, say, tourism?

Cities like New York, Chicago, Boston/Cambridge and San Francisco and even entire states like Pennsylvania have badges designed to give people incentives to explore them, like a scavenger hunt. As I was rooting around online looking for free WiFi hotspots in London (which I’m visiting tomorrow to see friends, woo), it occurred to me just how awesome a London-based collection of badges (both for tourists and people who actually live or work there) could be.

  • Check into 10 different Underground stations and get a Tube badge.
  • Hit 3+ musicals or other shows and get the West End badge.
  • 3+ gallery check-ins? Give ’em a Turner badge (a generic Warhol badge already exists for gallery check-ins).
  • Five words: “I’m on the London Eye.”
  • Hit Paddington, King’s Cross/St. Pancras, Waterloo, Victoria and Charing Cross and get a Rail Rider badge.
  • Multiple check-ins in the City gets you a Financial Whiz badge (I know WSJ does something similar for financial district check-ins in New York).
  • Check into 5+ castles or royal residences (not necessarily just in London) and earn a King/Queen for a Day badge.
  • 5+ churches, cathedrals or historical houses of worship, like St. Paul’s or Westminster Abbey, ought to be good for something … pious.
  • London pub crawl badge? Yes, please. Even better, narrow it down by the specific beer associated with each pub.
  • A Borough Hopper badge for visiting 5+ different boroughs, like Chelsea, Westminster, Camden and Southwark.
  • A Sloaner badge for checking into 3+ shops on Sloane Street, or Harrods.
  • The London 2012 badge is so obvious I’m not even going to elaborate.
  • 3+ museums should get you a Rosetta Stone badge.
  • Double-decker badge for 5+ check-ins on a bus.
  • There’s already a badge for checking in on or near a boat, but what about on or near the Thames?
  • Ultimate London badge for checking into 15+ predetermined landmarks (this would be an awesome scavenger hunt/travel itinerary thing).
  • London Nightlife badge for checking into 3+ predetermined bars or night clubs.
  • The Footie badge for checking into 3+ football matches.
  • Earn a Green London badge for visiting 3+ city parks.
  • Check in 5+ times while crossing the Thames and get a Bridge Too Far badge.
  • And this isn’t even counting event-specific badges for things like Fashion Week, the opening of Parliament, Wimbledon, general elections, Trafalgar Square rallies, major sporting events, the queen’s birthday and Guy Fawkes night.

I came up with 20 specific badges right off the top of my head. In addition to the badges, tangible rewards are also easy to figure out — check in on the Eye, get a discount on your next ticket. 15% off museum/gallery gift shops if you earn those badges. Discounted train fare, free entry to landmarks, store deals. So why isn’t anyone (the local government, Transport for London, a media group or someone) doing this already?

Do you really want the Yanks to have all the fun?