Saturday, November 29, 2008

On Production

Here are some pictures from the production I was on a couple weeks ago.

This is Minnerbio, Italy (taken during rush hour)...
This is the parking lot of the warehouse where we shot (also, why I fear the robot uprising)...
This is what I do for a living ("I need a chef, a cake, and some bulldozers, please.")...
This is craft services Minnerbio-style...
This is the closest I will ever get to seeing an AT-AT walker...

Friday, November 28, 2008

How to Watch American TV Abroad

Disappointed that I can't get The Office or 30 Rock, and a little paranoid that I won't be able to watch Lost when Season 5 starts in January, I began digging around for answers. With the help of a couple friends, I've found some pretty cool solutions that don't include waiting for the DVD boxed sets.

My friend Tom recommended But I found like many US-based sites (including and Pandora) Hulu  doesn't stream outside America. But there is a free security program called Hotspot Shield that's meant to shield your IP address from hackers, that also keeps sites from recognizing that you're logging in from outside the US. As long as you're running Hotspot Shield, you're given the benefit of the doubt, and it's assumed you're watching from inside the US.

Another tool is Slingbox, which we don't have but sounds pretty cool. (A couple of my expat friends use Slingbox to watch college football.) Basically, you hook up a laptop to your cable network back in the States, and Slingbox lets you watch whatever's appearing on that station on your overseas computer. The only prerequisites are a spare computer to serve as the base, and a friend or family member in the States who will keep that computer and the dish or cable hooked up for you.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving Weekend!

Or as we call it in Switzerland, Thursday and Friday. (Expat celebration on Saturday.)

At least the shopping centers in Geneva won't be overcrowded Friday morning.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

New production tradition

A friend of mine recently told me whenever he travels, the first thing he does when he checks into his hotel room is take out the hotel stationery and write a letter to his college-aged son. Now his son has a growing collection of unique letters from around the world.

I thought this was such a great idea. So while I was in Minerbio, Italy last week, I wrote a letter to my mom.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Will You Be My TV Guide?

After 5 months, we got our TV set up. It feels like a ridiculous luxury - something we almost shouldn't have - like a gold-plated sink or federal bailout.

Flipping through the channels I found CNN, CSI in Italian, yoga and South Park in German, MTV in French, and Al Jazeera.

I started to program my DVR. It's set to record Heroes. I know Lost isn't on until February, and I'm not sure when BSG picks up for its final season, but I know it's not for a while.

Here's my problem: Even though we get CNBC Europe, my DVR can't find any matches for The Office, 30 Rock or SNL. I can't imagine than CNBC wouldn't be airing these shows.

I've got a theory: It's the week before Thanksgiving, and these shows are in reruns. In a week or so I'll be able to search them, find them, and hit the "record season" button.

Can anyone out there confirm or crush this idea?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Another Atypical Production

I should mention that as atypical as my Italian shoot was, it was nothing like my first commercial with Y&R Chicago where we were still writing scripts the night before the shoot. We’d selected the director. We’d flown to New York. We’d gone through two days of callbacks at the talent agency. And we’d had the prepro. But the client had killed so many scripts, we were still writing them.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Thunder on the Plains?

After day one of production in Minerbio, Italy (i.e., middle-of-nowhere with great pasta), I did what any American would do: I went back to my hotel room and watched CNN.

That's when I learned that the Seattle Supersonics are now the Oklahoma City Thunder. When did this happen? What's up Seattle? Too rainy to support your team? Boy, do I really feel disconnected.

(Trivial side note: In college, a friend and I spent an otherwise productive workday emailing back and forth trying to determine which NBA team name contained the most syllables. Tied for second with 7 syllables each were the Seattle Supersonics, and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Oklahoma City Thunder pulls the team ahead by one syllable. Sorry, Minnesota. But the undisputed champs of length are the deca-syllabic Philadelphia 76'ers.)

Production Notes

I just returned from my first production since coming to Geneva. Not surprisingly, it was one of the most atypical. Key differences between this and almost any other shoot I’ve been on:
  • Instead of an agency producer, there was me and my partner.
  • Instead of bidding the project, the client’s preferred production company was assigned to us. (Fortunately, they’re a good group of people.)
  • Instead of a carefully planned schedule, the client informed us when we’d be able to shoot and chose the location for us.
  • Instead of taking the plane to LA or New York, it was driving six hours to Bologna.
  • Instead of English being spoken on the set, it was English, French and Italian.
  • Instead of a breakfast burrito from craft services, it was croissants and muesli at the hotel.
The shoot date and location were mandated by the client, the former coming just four days before the shoot. This led to these continued points of difference:
  • No talent search.
  • No prepro.
  • No wardrobe check.
  • No shooting boards (that we saw, anyway).
  • No editor search. (We lucked out and got a great one, though.)
  • No account people from the agency on the set.
  • No client on the set.
  • And lastly, due to short notice and scheduling, the director we’d been working with was replaced with another. We first learned this when we met the new director the night before the shoot. (Fortunately, we lucked out again. He was a good one.)
But the best difference between this shoot and any other I’ve ever been on was my partner and I receiving a text message from my CEO the morning of the shoot saying “Good luck today.”

Sunday, November 16, 2008

On production

Leaving for production in Italy. Looking forward to that. Back on Wednesday night.

At Y&R Chicago, we had a client based in Italy who mandated all production be in the home country. It was tough to get good work sold, but the assigned team always knew they'd at least be getting a nice Italian trip out of it.

The one time I was assigned to it, the Italian government has just passed a law to protect children under 12 by making it illegal for them to work at all (our spot was very family-centric, and we had to have kids). Of course, the government realized the law was too extreme and they repealed it. But not in time for our shoot.

We discussed shooting in Buenos Aires because it looks European. Prague and Lugano, Switzerland were also options. The script had been through so many client revisions there was no way it was going on my reel. But as long as my passport was getting stamped, I could live with it.

We ended up shooting in LA.

I love LA. I love staying in Santa Monica. I love Shutters and La Merigot. I love appetizers at the Little Door, crunchy french toast at the Broadway Deli, cocoa at the Novel Cafe, animal style at In-N-Out Burger and bringing my family along so we can hit Disneyland on the weekend.

But if you tell me I'm going to Buenos Aires, Prague or Lugano, and then say I'm going to LA? Sorry. That's a bummer.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Speaking Frengarian

I was a Mormon missionary in Budapest, Hungary. I lived there for two years, and despite being out a decade out of daily practice, I still speak Hungarian fairly well. It’s not a very useful language out side of Hungary and certain areas of Cleveland, but it sure makes learning French seem easier.

Problem is, I still throw in Hungarian words when I’m trying speak French. The most frequent violations occur when I confuse the currencies. I mean to ask for francs and I ask for forints, and the cashiers look at me like I’ve got a second nose.

I also say “jo” a lot, which is Hungarian for “good.” If you’re speaking to someone in Hungarian, you can pepper the conversation with “jo…jo…jo…” as in, “I see…Uh-huh…Right…” But when someone’s speaking French to me, I find myself instinctively saying, “jo…jo…jo…” And because it’s pronounced “yo,” I’m sure I come across as an American gangsta wannabe saying, “Yo…Yo, my French hommie…Yo…”

At least it goes both ways. The other day someone asked me to speak some Hungarian so they could hear what it sounded like. I began speaking and started throwing in French words on accident.

I’m not sure if that’s progress, or just utter confusion.

Friday, November 14, 2008

99 bottles of apple juice on the wall.

Have I mentioned that apple juice here is normally carbonated?

It is.

Which is why I have accidentally bought beer twice.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

"I pledge a what?"

Yesterday, it randomly occurred to me that when (and if) we decide to move back to the States, our children will be able to speak fluent French. But they are likely going to be unable to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

I thought about getting a flag so we could practice saying it each morning. But then I realized that would be kind of weird. Much weirder than having to memorize those 31 words as a teenager.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Meeting Place

One of the very first assignments I was given at Y&R Geneva was to help update the Baboo Airlines meeting point in the Geneva Airport.

Our initial idea was pretty grand. Having spent time at GVA, it was apparent the people waiting for their loved ones to come through customs were a captive audience begging for some diversion.

One of the walls featured a manifesto on why Baboo makes a difference. There were little pieces of copy scattered all over the board that were whimsical little discoveries that demonstrated the care Baboo gave its customers. And we had the entire board painted in Baboo red to make it really stand out. The initial idea was well-received.

Then we learned that the meeting place was going to be dismantled by December, and that to paint it all red, each board would have to be individually dismantled, and they didn't have a the budget for something of that scale and could we do something a little simpler?

I had a lot of heart for the original idea. But considering this is only going to be up for another few weeks, I guess I can't Baboo for being practical.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

McSwiss Burgers

With rare exceptions, I avoid going to McDonald's outside of America. I want to experience a foreign culture, not McHegemony.

But the McDonald's in Switzerland are currently running a promotion called Semaines Suisse (Swiss Weeks), and they're featuring a different burger each week with uniquely Swiss ingredients.

There's the McSpeck, the McGruyere, and the McEmmental.

So far, I've only had the McEmmental, which I liked quite a bit. With the large fries it wasn't an entirely foreign experience. But at least it wasn't the same kind of Big Mac I could have picked up in Chicago.

Two impressions about the McEmmental:
  1. The cheese makes all the difference. It tastes nothing like a McDonald's hamburger, and is therefore consumable guilt-free. I could almost convince myself that it was homemade.
  2. This would be a complete failure in the States. 
More reviews to come. I can't wait for the McGruyere.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Queen's English As A Second Language

All of our clients are international. And almost all of them advertise in English. But I've learned that it's English English. Not American English. So program becomes programme. Color becomes colour. And z becomes zed. (Not that you use zeds very much because realize is realise, sterilize is sterilise, etc.)

As if learning French weren't enough.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

I've heard from even more American expat friends that their coworkers are congratulating them on the Obama victory. It seems that Europeans simply assume that all Americans wanted Obama to win.

When you're following the election of a foreign nation, I think the story is drastically simplified.

How foreigners see McCain: He is in the same party as George Bush and he wants the war in Iraq to keep going. He's old and used to be a soldier or something like that. He also has a running mate who's really religious who used to live in the forest and shoot bears.

How foreigners see Obama: He is a black man (no one uses "African American" here), and he wants to fix everything George W. Bush messed up. He wants to end the war in Iraq. He smiles a lot and even took time to visit Europe, so he must care about us.

No one considers the economy or taxes. And forget about things like constitutional amendments, and gay rights. I can almost guarantee no one in Switzerland thinks "Obama won? That's great because he's pro-choice and wants to reform health care."

When Viktor Yushchenko was running for president in Ukraine, didn't you want him to win just because he dissented from Russian control and his opponents poisoned him and his face turned blue and you wanted to see him overcome that adversity? That was their story simplified for us.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Swiss Are Watching

My coworkers are congratulating me today. No one asks if I'm Republican or Democrat, who I voted for or if I voted. They just congratulate me and say, "You must be very excited."

On my way to lunch, I saw a couple of Obama stickers in the street. Wish I had my camera with me. It's amazing to realize the scope of yesterday's election. Even in Geneva, there's a palpable excitement, though I'm sure it's nothing like Grant Park will be later today.

Globally, I'm certain more people were rooting for an Obama win. I wonder what the mood would have been had McCain pulled one out.

Election Night As Viewed from Six Hours Ahead

Being six hours ahead of the earliest polls to close, I figured I'd be up refreshing the browser on every half hour anyway, so why not enjoy myself?

I spent election night in Geneva attending a James Bond double-feature with a couple friends. Casino Royale followed by the all-new Quantum of Solace. The first started at 9 pm, and I returned home a little after 2:00 am.

By then, the only news was that McCain had carried Kentucky and Obama won Vermont. Big surprises there.

Of course, now I'm operating on about 5 hours of sleep. But whatever.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

An Expat's Election Day Confessional

I waited too long to send in my absentee ballot.

One of the first things my wife and I did when we arrived in Switzerland was log onto and request our absentee ballots. But last week I called the U.S. consulate in Geneva to ask them when I could bring by my ballot and was told, “You’re a bit late for that.” (To add insult to injury, the guy who answered the phone didn’t even sound American. He was either
 French with an English accent or the other way around.)

He suggested I send my ballot by DHL or FedEx. I had wanted to use the consulate because postage is paid as long as it’s dropped off at a U.S. military base or branch of the U.S. embassy. But I was willing to do what it took to make sure my vote was counted.

Then I discovered that sending my ballot by courier would be 50 francs – about $45. While that’s a trivial price to pay for participating in democracy, two things occurred to me:

  1. I was voting with an Illinois ballot. Not exactly a battleground state
  2. Despite being united in all things, my wife and I voted for different candidates this year. So we effectively cancelled each other. (This is probably the Swiss neutrality taking its toll.)

If I lived in a battleground state, there would have been no question. But as it is, I decided not to pay $45 to have my wife and I cancel each other’s votes in Obama’s home state.

I was really sick about this for a day or two. And I’m embarrassed to the point that I consider lying every time a coworker asks if I’ve voted. But I’m more at ease airing my mistake., and vowing to send in my next ballot much, much earlier.

Go ahead. Call me a hypocrite. Call me ungrateful. Call me un-America. Just wire your 50 francs to my Swiss bank account when you do.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

They celebrate Halloween in Switzerland. Who knew?

I didn't expect Halloween to be observed in Switzerland. So I was surprised when special sections of the supermarket began featuring costumes, candy and decorations. (I didn't see much reflective tape, but that's because this country isn't so litigious.)

Friday night, we got a few trick-or-treaters. Not as many as in the suburbs of Chicago. But more than I would have imagined in the Alps. The costumes were pretty simple. When I brought out the candy, they seemed a bit greedier and more ravenous than American kids. But maybe that was just enthusiasm.

From what I understand, most Europeans think Halloween is more about scaring each other than about dressing up and getting candy. That seems odd until you realize the only information they get about Halloween in America is from horror movies. Jason and Freddy don't knock on doors and ask for Milk Duds. That's why a lot of our non-American friends thought it was weird that we were having a Halloween party at our church.

Three months ago, I was asked to be the chairman of our church's activities committee. I didn't realize exactly what was being asked of me. I learned later that it was a pretty huge deal because it tends to extend beyond the congregation and into the American expat community. Where else are World Health Organization and UN families going to celebrate if not at the Mormon chapel?

I began to feel like an intern who was asked to conduct a shareholder's meeting. Or maybe what Sarah Palin might feel like if McCain is elected and dies within the first 100 days.

But I had a lot of help. The party was cool. People had a nice time. All the kids had too much candy and not enough sleep. And isn't that really what Halloween's all about?

I kept with my unintended tradition of dressing as something creative that no one understands. Past efforts include "Relentless Passion" (shirt off with my entire upperbody painted red), and "Tooth Decay" (candy taped to my clothes that ended in a National Geographic-like feeding frenzy).

This year I tried going as a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon of myself. I tied strings to my arms, legs and waist and attached little Playmobil men to look like they were keeping me tethered.

A few people saw me and said, "Are you supposed to be Gulliver and the Liliputians?" Points to them for literacy. But that only lasted a few minutes before the strings and toys became too tangled for me to walk. Then I just gave up and went looking for a pair of scissors. Next year, maybe I'll just go as a Jedi like every other 35-year-old guy.