Archive for May, 2010

Cradle of Democracy: Day 3 of 3 in Athens

May 31, 2010 - 4:59 pm 1 Comment

May 23, 2010
Day 3 of 3 in Athens, Greece

Grace and I awoke early to pack, check out, and visit the National Archaeology Museum. Once again, we arrived far before the crowd – the museum felt as if it were exclusively for our own private tour! (My good planning and tendency to naturally awake at the crack of dawn this weekend certainly paid off.)

Along the way, we had a tasty cheese pie and two versions of Spanakopita. A few pictures below of some of our culinary delights are below! Alas, I love Greek food, the culture, and the history – an admiration since childhood now further reinforced.

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The National Archaeology Museum really exhausted me – we saw so many great treasures that by the end, my head felt flooded with newfound facts about the artifacts. A few highlights are described below, along with some pictures.

1. Death Mask of Agamemnon: Found in 1876 by Heinrich Schliemann in the royal shaft graves at Mycenae, the mask is believed to belong to the legendary Greek leader Agamemnon!  Granted, the authenticity of the mask has been challenged, but what an amazing piece of artwork in it of itself!

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2. Statue of Zeus (Poseidon?): The debate over whether the statue represents Poseidon or Zeus hinges on the lost thunderbolt or trident held in the right hand. I’m under the opinion that it makes much more sense that the statue is of Zeus as no one holds a trident that particular way.

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3. Statues of Kouroi: These sculptures of youth are used to represent the god Apollo. We saw so many of monumental scale!

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4. Ancient Amphorae and Vessels: Depicting scenes from ancient mythology, we saw so many beautiful vessels and containers!

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Here’s a picture of Grace with a Statue of Dionysius (dedicated to my dearest father who delights in the revelries associated with him).

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Grace and I then went back to Monastiraki Square to experience the famed Athens Sunday flea market and for me to enjoy a 2-euro soulvaki from one of the most adored stands. The souvlaki was so tasty – fresh meat grilled to perfect with ripe tomatoes and onions on a warm pita. I devoured it happily despite not being hungry at all!

The flea market is a bit overwhelming to the point at which I did not feel particularly inclined to buy anything. Grace and I crawled along the packed streets, evading the street sellers hawking everything imaginable, from fake I-pods to broken used electronics. We finally arrived Kerameikos, the ancient cemetery of Athens – the exact place where Pericles delivered his funeral oration in 431 BC that captured the patriotic sentiment of most Athenians at the height of the city. (Check out this site for a translation). Below is a picture of Kerameikos.

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We found it too hot under the direct sunlight so we left Kerameikos and walked to Thisio Park and then further south on Apostolou Pavlou to Filopappou Hill, an area of great historical significance and natural beauty. Notably, we saw:

1.    Hill of the Pynx: To imagine that on this very hill, the Athenian democratic assembly officially gathered to discuss matters of grave importance to the state. Any citizen could speak at the meetings of the ekklesia and once the deliberations were completed, the council proposals were voted upon requiring a quorum of 6,000 citizens to satisfy the majority. In fact, historians estimate that the Pynx had enough standing room for as many as 20,000 citizens! In fact, it was exactly at the Pnyx that famous speakers such as Demosthenes, Aristides, Themistocles, and Pericles addressed the assembly, marking this otherwise unassuming site one of the fundamental birthplaces of democracy. Notably, as a debater myself, I want to point out that here on this very hill, Demosthenes delivered his famous Third Philippic in 341 BC before the Athenian Assembly – one of the best known speeches, which you can read here.

2.    Prison of Socrates: Although unlikely, popular tradition says that this is where Socrates was held and where he was forced to drink the hemlock which killed him. (Even if this is not true, it’s still wonderful to imagine!) Nevertheless, this site did indeed hold prisoners of the state during the ancient times, and more recently, during WW2, the caves were used to hide treasures from the Acropolis and the National Archaeological Museum.

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3.    View of the Acropolis: In climbing upwards to Filopappou Monument, we had a beautiful view of the Acropolis! Under a perfect blue sky, Grace and I took some magnificent pictures and ruminated over the majestic view.

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A bit overheated, we trudged our way into Plaka to rest at a café for the next two hours, sharing an iced chocolate a delectable almond cake with ice cream, swathed in honey. (We opted for snacks today rather than proper meals!) Grace and I bought some matching jewelry and a few gifts before taking the metro to collect our stored bags at the hotel before heading off to the airport.

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Alas, has it been just three days? I feel as if I have been in Greece for weeks! Each day passes so meaningful – no hour wasted, whether we’re enjoying beautiful ancient sites, making a new discovery, or simply cherishing our sister time together. For Grace and me, Athens is only a tantalizing glimpse of our future journeys to come. Next time, we’ll go to the islands and see the natural beauty of the Mediterranean, along with other ruins of ancient city-states. I am particularly interested in visiting Crete.

As we leave Pericles’s city, I feel a resounding sense of contentment. We not only saw the sights, but for a short time, we lived as Athenians live! I must one day return, next time with my dear parents, especially my dad who would have cherished this trip beyond words.

Reliving the Ancient Past: Day 2 of 3 in Athens

May 30, 2010 - 10:48 am 1 Comment

May 22, 2010
Day 2 of 3 in Athens, Greece

Check out my Greece album here for full pictures of our adventures.

We did so many things today that it is truly impossible to recount in great detail. As a student of a European Union University, I got in free everywhere. I woke Grace up early so that we could arrive at the Acropolis far before the throngs. The weather suited us greatly – fresh breeze and blue skies making the steady ascent to the Acropolis pleasant and relaxed. On the climb, we saw the dramatic Odeon of Herodes Atticus and spectacular views of the sprawling city below.

[Here is a picture of the Odeon of Herodes Atticus - built in 161 AD with a capacity of 5,000! Even today, plays are staged here.]

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After passing the temple to Athena Nike and the Temple to Hephaestus, the magnum opus of the Golden Age of Athens – the Parthenon – stood before us, imposing in all regards despite the passage of more than 2,500 years!

Below are a few highlights a short description of some of the beautiful temples and sacred structures that we viewed on the Acropolis, along with some photos and videos.

1.    Erechtheion

Although the Parthenon was the most impressive monument of the Acropoolis, the Erechtheion was one of the most sacred. According to legend, it was here that Poseidon struck the ground with his trident and that Athena produced the olive tree. By choosing the olive tree as the most useful gifts, Athens became the city of Athena. The Erechtheion is famous for the Caryatids, which you can see in the picture!

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2.    Temple to Athena Nike

Nike means “victory” in Greek and Athena was worshipped in this form. Designed by Callicrates, the temple was built of Pentelic marble about 400 BC. We later saw some o the beautiful relief sculptures removed from the temple at the Acropolis museum, including a beautiful sculpture of Athena Nike fastening her sandal.

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3.    Parthenon

Parthenon means “Virgin’s Apartment”, and it is the largest Doric temple ever completed in Greece. We later saw a video at the Acropolis Museum explaining the stories and design behind the 92 metopes, 33 statues, and all the friezes that circled the entire perimeter of the Acropolis. During the ancient times, the Parthenon had a dual purpose – to house the great statue of Athena commissioned by Pericles and to serve as the new treasury. The temple is truly magnificent beyond words – from the metopes depicting the Gods fighting the giants to the Athenians battling the Amazons under the leadership of Theseus, not a single bit of the Parthenon was undecorated. The view of the Parthenon is glorious and truly awe-inspiring, carved indelibly into my memory. The weather was so perfect – the pictures look nearly surreal (and Grace is a good photographer!)

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4.    View of the City

The Acropolis towers above the rest of Athens, so the view that we had was truly amazing beyond words. You can see everything, from the Monument on Filopappou Hill to the distant horizon of the sea.

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We descended just when the crowds began to arrive – honestly, I felt that this morning, Grace and I had the sacred Acropolis all to ourselves! We then went to the Museum of the Acropolis, a recently constructed modern glass building housing some of the greatest remaining treasuries.

What an extraordinary museum! We saw so many beautiful sculptures and preserved reliefs from the Acropolis, including the original Caryatids, lots of korai, and adornments preserved from the buildings, and a 360 explanation of the tiles from the Parthenon. Notably, the Greeks are very embittered about the Elgin marbles (and rightfully so). They already have set aside a special place to display the metopes and barely contained their great distress and frustration by referring to the “violent looting” of the Parthenon by Lord Elgin on multiple occasions in the museum.

Taking a break, Grace and I enjoyed a relaxing Greek coffee, iced chocolate, and traditional cream pastry on the terrace of the Museum (once again beating the crowds), the Acropolis in our view.

Upon finishing the museum, we headed to the beautiful old quarters of Plaka, the well-preserved heart of the city. The streets teem with al fresco dining, cafes, souvenir and craft shops! We ate a tasty meal at the Taverna Vizantina and then headed off to the ruins again to the Theatre of Dionysus, supposedly the very location of the birth of drama! Below is a picture of Grace with her souvlaki lunch!

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Theatre of Dionysus

The Theatre of Dionysus was a major open-air theatre in Athens, where plays were performed at festivals in honor of the god Dionysus. Politicians would sponsor dramas by writers such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, with some light relief provided by the comedies of Aristophanes. People congregated here from all over Attica to celebrate! The reliefs at the rear end of the stage depict the exploits of Dionysus and the two hunched up guys are the worshippers of the mythical Selinos, the father of the satyrs and Dionysus’s mentors!

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Temple of Olympian Zeus

Before heading to the Agora, we walked to the Temple of Olympian Zeus (please ignore the fact that in my video, I said Athena Zeus!) We passed Hadrian’s arch on the way with the famous inscription: To the west is Pericles’s City; to the east marks Hadrian’s City. Construction of this temple began in the 6th century BC during the rule of the Athenian tyrants, who envisaged building the greatest temple in the ancient world, but it was not completed until the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century AD. The temple’s glory was shortlived, as it fell into disuse after being pillaged in a barbarian invasion in the 3rd century AD. Never repaired, the once magnificent temple has been in ruins ever sense – a desolate beauty nevertheless.

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Grace and I then wound our way down Areius Pagos to the Ancient Agora! We saw so many wonderful landmarks and areas of great civic and political significance, including some of the following:

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1.    Stoa of Attalos

One of the most impressive stoa in the Athenian Agora, this covered walkway was built by and named after King Attalos II of Pergamon who ruled between 159 BC and 138 BC. Basically, King Attalos gifted Athens with this structure for the education that he received in the city. Now, the building houses the Agora Museum, with a collection of artifacts from the site.

2.    Temple of Hephaestus

The temple on the western edge of the Agora was surrounded by foundries and metalwork shops, and was dedicated accordingly to the God of the Forge. As one of the first buildings of Pericles’ rebuilding program, this temple is one of the best preserved Doric temples in all of the Greece!

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In the Agora, we also saw so many other impressive statues, from the Senate meeting building to the Odeon of Atticus and the Stoa of the Giants. As the focal point of the administrative, commercial, political, and social activity of Athens, all roads led to the Agora. I could just imagine Socrates here, expounding his philosophy as ancient Athenians gathered to discuss, debate, and ruminate about modern issues of the time.

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It’s truly hard to capture the degree of my feelings of wonder, exhilaration, excitement, and awe. The buildings have long fallen, but in my mind – distinctly from the magnitude of the foundations and sheer size of the Agora – I could imagine life as it must have once been!

Grace and I then exited on Adrianou Street, where we found a café with a stunning sight of the Acropolis. Relishing a tasty traditional meal with a perfect view of the Acropolis, we took a leisurely 2.5 hour dinner at dusk. Greece is rather inexpensive – we ate two mains followed by kataifi with ice cream for only 22 euros!

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Satiated, we took to wandering the various streets of Monastiraki and Plaka, waiting for the illumination o the Acropolis. Going back to Dionysiou Arepagitou, we absorbed the magical sight of the Acropolis bathed in soft yellow light, comfortable in the warm night weather. Fully satisfied, we headed back to the hotel.

A few comments that I want to make about our experience in Greece.

1. Despite our busy day and hikes around town, we feel so relaxed, in tune with the local attitude. Greeks spend a lot of time socializing at cafes and eating out with friends and family, and Grace and I are delighted to share this tradition. Everyone is so friendly! The locals often introduce themselves to us, shake hands, and welcome us to Athens!

2. Traveling with Grace is so much fun! From meandering along the ruins (a massive area) to trinket shopping, my dear sister and I joke and make merry. Grace is the perfect traveling partner – with her, I can relax and be myself, and she doesn’t complain if I wake her up at the crack of dawn to make sure that we get a move on.

3. I have massacred every pronunciation and word, as you can see in the videos. Greek letters are very misleading because it all seems so familiar (our math notation now a functional alphabet), but at the same time, so different! Pronunciation is difficult and I forget words I’ve learned left and right…thus, please ignore all the misinformed words I’ve used in my videos!

We ended the day quietly, digesting our great adventures thoughtfully. Grace remarked to me that it feels as if we’ve been in Athens for more than a week. I agree with her – we’ve both packed in so much, yet at the same time, relaxed, leisure with an active itinerary – the Mediterranean mindset. Good life, good food, good company!

Was I student at Oxford just 48 hours ago?

Arriving in Athens: Day 1 of 3

May 29, 2010 - 1:39 pm 1 Comment

May 21, 2010
Day 1 of 3 in Athens, Greece


(I’m backdating all my entries, so I’ll be posting my experiences in Athens with Grace! While returning to London by plane, I recorded all my thoughts in a journal, so the following is an unabridged version of my reflections. With my dearest little sister here with me in Oxford, I have a great excuse to travel and enjoy life as fully as possible – classes…a trivial forfeit for the pursuit of adventure!)

A whirlwind trip to Athens in 3 days! From my childhood, I already loved Athens and Greek culture from the mythology stories I relished and the tales of Odysseus and Pericles that my father would recount. To see everything in person – from the Acropolis and the Parthenon to the ancient Agora and the temple to Olympian Zeus – I felt an overwhelming sense of awe and wonder. Three days seems like a short time, yet I felt so assimilated. We met friendly locals everywhere, explored the city to great familiarity, and lived the pace of life as ancient Athenians once must have, indulging in tasty Greek dishes and treats, making a pilgrimage to sacred sites, and participating in the colorful marketplace exchange!

Recounting all our discoveries, inside jokes, and adventures is impossible, so I will just point out the highlights by each day. Alas, my dear sister and I often found ourselves exclaiming, “If only dad were here!” So indeed, let this journal entry be a way for my dear father to vicariously experience our journey.

To view my full album of photos, please visit my website at this following link:
http://www.joycemeng.com/photos/greece2010/album

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We left bright and early (~4:30 AM) for Gatwick, my evening M&A class a worthy sacrifice to the Gods of Olympus! The flight actually terrified me – we encountered some abnormal turbulence due to chaotic wind over the Mediterranean. Without Grace by my side, my heart may have pounded out of my throat!

Upon arriving, we easily navigated the modern and convenient metro system of Athens to arrive at our hotel, located right next to Omonia Station. (The joke is that the new metro system is so efficient that Greeks are accidentally showing up for work on time!) We dropped off our stuff and then took a meandering walk down Athinas and Ailou Street to find some food and absorb the city scene.

[A butcher basically walked into a picture I was taking of Grace! Greeks are so friendly – jumping in to introduce themselves and offering directions before I even ask!]

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First, we passed by the central marketplace where we saw butchers hawk all sorts of meats, and vegetables & fruit vendors loudly pushing their fresh produce – a collision of activity and color. Athens, unlike the manicured town of St. Gallen and even Oxford, is a chaotic disarray of activity – people taking to the streets from all ages and backgrounds, stores and cafes buzzing with life, even far into the late hours. We walked all the way to Monastiraki Square, where we ate at a local tavern, ravenous from our journey. Bellies full with Greek salad, moussaka, chicken, and yogurt & honey, we wandered into the main plaza, pausing to share a sweet desert (a crème-filled, pretzel shaped pastry coated with sesame seeds) and to peruse the many souvenir shops lining the square.

[Here are a few pictures of the food that we enjoyed! Greek food is really amazing - lots of fresh flavors and olive oil.]

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Notably, we saw our first glimpse of the Acropolis against the setting sun – extraordinarily breath-taking in its scale and strategic location overlooking the city! Rather worn from our travels, we walked back on Stadiou and passed Syntagma (Parliament Square). Even though Syntagma was the location of the riots just a week prior, the peaceful square was so relaxed that I can’t imagine it being a site of great political discord, as locals enjoyed their coffee al-fresco and tourists snapped pictures of the changing of the guard.

On our way back to the hotel, we then passed Hadrian’s Library, Klafthmonos Square, the Central Bank of Greece (another source of great discontent in the country), the National Historical Museum, among other sights. I fell asleep at the equivalent of 7 PM British time, but alas, was exhausted.

[Below is a picture of Grace in front of the Parliament building!]

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Week 3 – Trinity Term

May 19, 2010 - 6:09 am 1 Comment

Alas, I must have lost all my work ethic completely. It’s now fourth week – the midpoint of Trinity Term – and I have yet to do any substantial revision or reading on my own, other than completing the (very few) mandatory assignments for class. I figure it must be a combination of the beautiful spring weather, the excitement of Grace’s impending visit, the relative ease of our elective courses compared to our core courses, and the many exciting events around Oxford and travels I’ve planned!

In just the last week since my return from the St. Gallen Symposium (itself a transformative and meaningful experience, completely worth the week of missed class), so many exciting events have occurred, albeit little related to my academic experience. I’ll enumerate two of the highlights below.

Desmond Tutu at the Sheldonian Theatre – I got tickets to see Desmond Tutu speak at the Sheldonian Theatre – below is a video that I captured, although the sound quality is not great.  Despite his age, I found him surprisingly funny and extremely animated; the hard experiences of overcoming apartheid did not leave him embittered, but rather idealistic and believing in the ability to solve even the most seemingly intractable problems. He is a storyteller at heart, acting out stories in different voices and engaging in exaggerated gestures to convey a particular impression. He spoke without reserve, criticizing Israel’s shirking of international law, sheltered by the “penitent west”.  He pointed out that the truth commission reveals that you and I – ordinary human beings – are capable of atrocities. A human being can go to church, have a close family, and live a normal life, yet can also dehumanize and do extraordinarily cruel things to others – a “banality of evil” resulting from the existent social structures and norms in place. I found his speech a rousing call to action, an urge for all young people to lose all cynicism and idealistically defend and pursue justice in the world.

Rhodes Ball 2010 – The theme of “fairy tale” coincided wonderfully with the beautifully maintained gardens in perfect spring weather. Having missed a lot of Rhodes House social events the last term given the unfortunate MFE timetable, I really enjoyed meeting my friends and catching up. Once in a while, I find it fun to dress up in black tie and partake in these uniquely Oxford formal celebrations. Black tie events happen with relative frequency here, but as you can imagine, very rarely in the States, prom being perhaps the first and last opportunity for many Americans! I wore a dress that my mother had picked out for me during my Easter Vacation and followed my sister’s guidance on hair and make-up. Below are a few pictures and a video from the ball!

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Grace arrives tomorrow (Thursday), bright and early in the morning. Needless to say, I am so excited that I can barely concentrate on doing anything productive, be it homework, Givology, YouthBank, or any of my other obligations. We’re going to leave for Athens on Friday, and I’ve planned a slew of fun activities from watching the Royal Shakespeare Company’s rendition of Romeo and Juliet in Stratford upon Avon to a weekend trip to Edinburgh. As I’ll be leaving Oxford pretty much as soon as my exams end, I won’t have a time to travel – so I’m taking advantage now!

My exam scores came out just yesterday. To my relief, I did much better than I had expected (alas, I conclude that figuring out the elusive Oxford grading system is impossible)! The positive results just reinforce a conviction that even though I will travel and enjoy myself (perhaps significantly more than I ought to and certainly much more than my fellow students), that I should still manage my workload effectively and just push through for good results until the end. I recognize that it will be hard, in light of my busy travel schedule, but certainly still achievable!

Recap of the 40th St. Gallen Symposium

May 10, 2010 - 6:48 pm 2 Comments

What a week! Disregarding my classes for a week, I attended the St. Gallen Symposium in St. Gallen, Switzerland. What a truly extraordinary event, especially given my passion for the topic this year, “Entrepreneurs: Agents of Change”! There were approximately 200 students selected to attend, all post-graduate students – half selected through the essay competition and the remaining half recommended through the “Knowledge Pool”. I really enjoyed meeting my peers – all demonstrated a keen interest in entrepreneurship, and the vast majority started their own enterprises, with a considerable number launching successful businesses before the age of 15! As a social entrepreneur myself, I made so many wonderful connections and enjoyed hearing the advice and insights of my global peers, hailing from over 35 countries.

The remaining 500 attendees comprised global business leaders, from Victor Chu, Chairman of First Eastern Investment Group, to Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach, Vice Chairman of Goldman Sachs International. In fact, during the conference, it was really hard to find someone who was not highly senior in their professional field!  Just from chatting, I learned and absorbed so much – debated different concepts and reflected on the various plenary and work sessions.

There’s almost too much to write – I can’t possibly describe every session and my own thoughts for each. Thankfully, the symposium had a highly professional media team working constantly to take video footage and photos, now available online at this link. I’ll just point out some highlights.

I’m not going to post pictures since I think the Symposium photography album did a much better job than I could ever do!

  • Pre-session with the Leaders of Tomorrow: Lots of fun! I enjoyed meeting everyone and participating in lively interactive discussions with my peers. For example, we had a very interesting panel discussion about entrepreneurship and failure. The next day, I did a treasure hunt in St. Gallen, sponsored by PricewaterhouseCooopers. Surprisingly, our team placed first! We started off the day in the Kantonsratssaal, the townhall for all the local elected officials. Lots of photos from our day can be found here.

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  • BBC Global Debate with Peter Day – With Professor Kishore Mahbubani representing government (Dean of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Service, Singapore’s Former Permanent Representative to the UN), Faisel Rahman (Founder of Fair Finance) representing social entrepreneurship, Mark Medish ( Carnegie Institute) representing academia, and Gautam Thapar representing big business, I enjoyed hearing a lively and provocative debate about the best way to make an impact. I was selected to be on the student panel, so I got interviewed by Peter Day to share my own opinions, a bit controversial given my own decision to work in large business despite my background in social enterprise and advocacy. Later, Professor Kishore Mahbubani had his own keynote session, which I truly enjoyed – he’s incredibly well-spoken, and although I do not agree with his views (he tends to lump all countries into “Asia” and uses the Singaporean model – clearly an anomaly by many standards – as a representative example of “Asia”), I found them nevertheless incredibly interesting.
  • Successful Social Entrepreneurship Comes from Successful Entrepreneurs: This session provided an opportunity to engage with Mohmad Shafik Gabr, Founding Chairman and Managing Director of ARTOC, one of the largest investment and development groups in the Middle East. I found it fascinating since Mr. Gabr seemed to conflate corporate social responsibility with social enterprise, engendering a lively debate about definitions.
  • Family Business Panel: The former Chairman of Peugeot, CEO of Jacobs Chocolate, Chairman of BASF, and Founder of RPG Enterprises discussed family-run businesses compared to publically listed corporations. I’m not quite sure whether I believe that family-run businesses have a long-term value orientation compared to their counterparts, but it was nevertheless really interesting to hear the opinions of inheritors of family dynasties. There’s a Chinese saying, “never over three generations” – yet, family-run businesses have persisted for hundreds of years. The audience challenged the concept of meritocracy, transparency, entrepreneurship, and retaining/attracting outside talent for family-run businesses. Coming from a family background such as mine, I can hardly imagine being born into a family whose identity is inextricably linked to  a company!
  • Morten Lund, Venture Capitalist – Famous for his investment in Skype, Morrten Lund is a highly unconventional investor. His presentation certainly was polemic for its risqué content (copious swearing and rather inappropriate, but hilarious videos). He kept everyone on their seat with his humorous and frank discussion about entrepreneurship, risk, his own investment philosophy, and current state of bankruptcy after burning through 50 million euros.
  • The State is Not Enough – I truly enjoyed this panel, despite the requisite political equivocation. The panelists included Doris Leuthard, President of the Swiss Confederation, Christine Lagarde, Minister of Economic Affairs of France, and Sheika Lubna bint Khalid Al Qasimi, the Trade Minister of the UAE. Three powerful women leading their countries’ economic systems! The overall sentiment of the attendees, the majority European, was very negative, reflecting a crisis of confidence in the west, fomented by a great fear of the rise of the east and a general feeling of loss of competitiveness and uncertainty in the face of the disaster in Greece.
  • Nightcap with Victor Chu – A select group of 15 students were chosen to participate in this event, spanning 10:30 PM to past midnight! Victor Chu is the Chairman of First Eastern Investment Group, heavily involved in the development of the Hong Kong capital markets and the current Chinese financial system. As a lawyer and entrepreneur, he’s contributed greatly to financial sector development and deepening! I found him incredibly insightful and well-spoken, albeit his views differ substantially from my own. Notably, I just enjoyed the really comfortable environment and the chance to ask lots of questions to fuel my own intellectual curiosity, from the savings glut from Asia to managing investments in the absence of rule of law!
  • Professor Niall Furguson – An Oxford man indeed, despite his position as a professor at Harvard. I enjoyed this talk about the origins of the current crisis and the development of the world economic system from a historical perspective, beginning from the industrial revolution to today. Professor Furguson agrees with the consensus that by 2027, China will exceed the US as the largest economy in the world. Actually, I found that in general, the vast majority of sessions incorporated a debate about the future of Europe in light of the rise of China, India, and the East. There certainly was a lot of trepidation…actually, in speaking with some of the current business leaders of today, I discovered some elements of racism and irrational fear.
  • Herman Mashaba of South Africa, Founder of “Black Like Me” Products – I found his message really inspiring, about the importance of breaking through stereotypes and bridging racial differences to work in partnership to take advantage of current Black Economic Empowerment policies to spur entrepreneurship in South Africa. Mashaba’s story is particularly extraordinary – he founded his company in the early 1980s, a time of extremely limited opportunities for the black majority of South Africa, yet harbors little resentment and retains a very open mind about the importance of constructive engagement and partnership with the white minority and international investment community. Surprisingly, the moderator, on the other hand, had a much more radical view and was much more critical about white and foreign involvement in the running of African businesses.
  • Panel Discussion on the Future Decades: Lord Giddens, Mati Kochavi (CEO of a large security firm), Dr. Notker Wolf (Catholic clergyman), and Jason George (prior winner of the essay competition) participated in a debate that concentrated mainly on climate change. I found the audience questions particularly fascinating – I never realized how climate change topped the list of greatest concerns, not because the issue is not important, but because the urgency (in my own humble opinion) appears negligible compared to issues of terrorism, fundamentalism, poverty eradication, and development. Given the intrinsic problems of collective action and the tragedy of the commons, the panel couldn’t come up with any actionable solution, but rather concentrated on the problem, which I did not find particularly enlightening.
  • Patrouille Suisse – Can you imagine? For two days, the official Swiss air aerobatics team flew F/A-18 planes over the conference site, executing complex visual maneuvers and stunts for an exclusive demonstration for all the conference attendees! I was truly amazing – imagine hurtling in the air at thousands of kilometers per hour, but maintaining only 3 meters between each plane! I really wanted to show my father – he loves planes, and would have truly loved the breathtakingly daring display!

On a different note, the food was amazing! From the delicious lunch at Candela Restaurant sponsored by the Official Swiss Tourism Agency and the scrumptious served dinner at the Einstein Hotel to the International Buffet on the closing night to the seemingly unlimited snacks, chocolate, sandwiches, and finger food they provided, I truly enjoyed eating lots of new dishes I’ve never seen, many of them Swiss and German delicacies. The food truly was extraordinary, extremely tasty and in copious quantities! Now, my only concern is whether I can fit into my dress in time for the Rhodes Ball this Saturday.

I enjoyed the opportunity to ask questions and really challenge the conventional underlying assumptions. The majority of the people I met were genuinely interested in dialogue – an inter-generational mix of current and future leaders eager to discuss solutions to global problems. Alas, what a world that we live in! How can we tackle global problems in an increasingly integrated world when no global sovereign power or agency exists to coordinate collective action? Without coordinated action, externalities persist – no longer do countries exist in isolation, rather their policies substantially affect the global community, yet they do not necessarily bear the full cost of their decisions.

The conference concluded on Friday with a tremendous celebratory international buffet dinner and party in the central marquee, truly lavish in every regard. I heard from a conference organizer that they spent more than 5 million dollars putting together the conference, not surprising given the quality of all the facilities and the professionalism of the organization. Everything was coordinated perfectly – down to the last detail – and the facilities, food, service, and event-coordination top-notch in every regard.

On Saturday and Sunday, I had some free time to explore the city. I met up with a few conference attendees from Oxford to wander around the quaint streets of St. Gallen, including a visit to the famous Abbey Library, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the oldest library in all of Europe! We also climbed up the hill to enjoy the bucolic mountain and lake scenes from the south side of St. Gallen. Alas, Switzerland, nestled in the Alps, is truly beautiful. Below is a  picture of very pretty old city square outside of the Cathedral.

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My hosts (Bettina, Nicole, and Markus) were really kind to met (picture below) – they maintained an immaculate apartment, beautifully furnished, bright, and spacious. Before leaving for Oxford, we had lunch together and discussed life in St. Gallen, the Swiss education system, and their future aspirations!

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Alas, what a wonderful trip! The only hitch in my entire week was my travel back to Oxford – my easyjet flight got cancelled due to the Ash cloud (well, that’s the ‘official’ reason but I suspect that easyjet was just trying to cancel that flight for economic reasons), so I ended up booking a list minute British Airways flight with the help of the conference organizers.

In conclusion, what a transformative week in all regards! I made lots of new friends and contacts for Givology and YouthBank, with whom I will definitely stay in touch. For me, the greatest pleasure of the conference was to engage in purely intellectual debate and discussion – to transcend the details of memorizing schoolwork to consider the big issues and trends sharing our future.

A Visit to Bristol

May 2, 2010 - 7:36 am 2 Comments

Oxford welcomes the first of May with a dramatic, clamorous celebration at 6 AM in front of Magdalen tower. The choir, perched precariously at the top, sang for 10 minutes to an eager (and rather drunken) crowd below to welcome the start of Spring. Since Shaan is from Magdalen College, I had one of the best views from the interior quad of the college! The police closed the main road to cars, so the eager merrymaking completely flooded the streets. Below is a video of the cheerful mayhem after the short ceremony!

To take advantage of an early start to the day, we went to Bristol, home of the SS Great Britain. Although not necessarily the most picturesque town, there were still so many interesting sights to see and visit. Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of the most ingenious engineers of the early 19th century, resided in Bristol, leaving a legacy of steamships, railways, and bridges. As a man of great imagination, he created the Great Western Railway, designed the first propeller-driven transatlantic steamship, constructed the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge spanning over 700 feet, and ultimately revolutionized public transportation and modern engineering. His presence in Bristol is particularly strong – wherever we went, we saw remnants of his impact.

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Below are a few videos and pictures of the city of Bristol. Walking from the Train Station, we passed St. Mary Redcliffe Church, the highly manicured Victoria Park, the city center, the harbor walk, town hall, and the Cathedral. The harbor is really pleasant – not particularly large, but welcoming with its brightly painted buildings and the orderliness of the arrangement. The Cathedral, situated on a wide open green lawn, has such a beautiful façade!

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Then, we walked up the hill on the west side of the city to the Georgian House, belonging to John Pinney, a wealthy slave plantation owner and sugar merchant. Although the Georgian House was considered modest for a wealthy merchant, it felt truly lavish indeed. In particular, I learned a lot about the impact of the slave trade in Great Britain.

Afterward, we went to the main site of Bristol University, before visiting the Bristol City and Natural History Museum. I really enjoyed the eclectic museum, containing everything from a collection of pianos and stuffed wild animals to Egyptian mummies and sea dinosaurs. There was just so much to marvel at, particularly for a dinosaur enthusiast like me.

We then went down the hill to visit the Red Lodge, another famous historical site. With its magnificent Tudor rooms and 400 years of complex history, we unraveled a lot of the history, from its role as a luxurious mansion of Sir John Younge, a wealthy merchant, during Elizabethan times to a reform school for girls in the mid to late 1800s.In the back of the lodge, there was a “wigwam” belonging to the Bristol Savages – no, not a spots club, but a 100-year old gentleman’s artists collective, where members gather to indulge in art, music, and intellectual debate.  Most of the members appear to be far past retirement age, enjoying each other’s company during their twilight years and pursuing art together.

We then ate a tasty lunch near the University before heading to southwest side of the city to view the SS Great Britain, one of the most famous attractions in England. What an amazing museum! Launched in 1845 in Bristol, the SS Great Britain transformed the nature of sea-travel as a revolutionary passenger steamship designed by Isambard Kingdom, utilizing a steel rather than a wood hull. I found the presentation of the ship particularly meaningful – they dry docked the ship, but made it appear to be floating on water. Visitors hence had the chance to go “beneath” the surface to view the hull, and then passed through a wonderful museum explaining the 90 year history of the ship from its transatlantic travels and role in British immigration to Australia to its final resting place as a floating warehouse in the Falkland Islands. We then had a chance to go abroad the ship and see for ourselves the accommodation of the first class, second class, and steerage (third class) passengers, while hearing detailed stories and excerpts from letters collected in a narrative audio-guide.

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I had such an amazing time exploring the artifacts and reading the stories! It’s really amazing to think that passengers would spend nearly two months abroad a very cramped ship to make the journey to Australia’s newly discovered gold fields. Likewise, the differences in third and first class were particularly intriguing – first class passengers were privy to the best food and the finest dancing and entertainment, while the steerage passengers were stuffed in cramped quarters, confined to limited space.

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After the SS Great Britain, we walked back to the Bristol city center for a tasty dinner at a Japanese restaurant, before taking the train back to Oxford and arriving home comfortably at 8:30 PM. What a wonderful way to celebrate May Day!