Multicultural Toronto

These are just some quick observations from my first trip to Canada’s most populous city.

This is a photo I shot from a building in Chinatown.

I was amazed at how many different cultural groups call Toronto home. As I visited the city I was frequently reminded of places I lived in Europe and Asia.

My first night in Toronto, I went to a place called WVRST near the corner of King Street West and Portland Street in the fashion district.

Based on the name, I assumed I might be able to score a German-style sausage and maybe even a German beer. I was not disappointed. They had German beer on tap and lots of different sausages to choose from.

The beer was a real-deal, imported German wheat beer (Weiss bier or Hefeweizen) that I often drank when I lived in Germany.

The sausage, on the other hand, wasn’t really true to my experience with sausage in Germany, but it was still pretty tasty. They had lots of different kinds of sausages to choose from, including wild game and exotic meats.

I was with my family, so we sampled three different sausages. We tried the Oktoberfest sausage, the duck sausage and the rabbit sausage. My favorite was the rabbit. We also tried their pretzels (not half bad, but not really shaped like pretzels) and their French fries cooked in duck fat (pretty darn good).

The restaurant had communal bench seating like lots of causal eateries in Germany, which was fun. I did notice that I was a couple of decades older, with less facial hair and fewer tattoos, than the average patron or staff member.

The second night in Toronto, I found a Japanese ramen shop with probably the best ramen I have had outside of Japan.

I tried the tonkotsu ramen, which has a broth made by simmering pork bones for hours. I produced a video about ramen when I lived in Japan (about 10 years ago) that gives a glimpse into the process of making tonkotsu ramen (skip to 5 minutes and 10 seconds if you just want to see the tonkotsu ramen part).  The ramen at Sansotei was pretty close to what I remember from Japan.

I also got a chance to visit Toronto’s Chinatown.

I visited a shopping center, Chinatown Centre, that housed almost exclusively Chinese-speaking businesses with imported products.  Walking through the building, I had to keep reminding myself I was in North America and not somewhere in Asia.  There was a food court in the basement with an incredible variety of East and Southeast Asian food options, but I held out for dim sum at the Sky Dragon restaurant on the third floor.  I have eaten dim sum in mainland China and Taiwan and these were pretty legit.

There weren’t enough meals in the day to sample all of the different food options available.  In addition to Chinese/Taiwanese and Japanese businesses, I noticed lots of Vietnamese and Korean restaurants and stores.  I didn’t even get a chance to visit the parts of town known for Indian cuisine and culture, so I guess I’ll need to take another trip to Toronto soon.

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Here’s a Vietnamese restaurant sign that looks like street art


Speaking of street art…

Toronto has some of the best street art I have seen.  They even have an entire alley dedicated to it:


Here’s a gallery with some of the great street art I saw in Graffiti Alley and throughout the city:

Toronto is an amazing city with an amazing mix of culture.  It is worth a visit.



My fellow Americans: America is already pretty great

We don’t need to make America great again because America never stopped being great.

We can’t live in the past or move backwards out of a flawed sense of nostalgia for an America that can only be seen through rose-colored glasses.

“We, the people” must move ever forward as we strive to become a “more perfect union.”

America is the undisputed leader of the world in many areas, but a follower in other areas – and that’s okay.

The United States of America is not perfect
. No nation is, was, or will ever be perfect.

We can’t allow ourselves to be defined by fear, anger or hate.

Humility, accurate self-reflection, good-faith intent and measured self-confidence are the hallmarks of mature, stable people – and nations.

A great nation isn’t a bully and isn’t run by bullies. 

A great nation isn’t motivated by fear, anger or hate.

A great nation doesn’t intentionally seek profit at the expense of weaker, poorer nations.

America faces two roads that diverge – two roads that lead to very different futures.

History is a quiet, patient teacher that will let us learn a lesson the hard way.

Before we willingly chose a path of anger or populism, we should look at the history of the many failed nations and empires that made similar choices for similar reasons.

We should never forget that ideas have consequences.

We must not forget how we earned our current place in the world – by standing up for our best principles, by fighting hate at home and abroad, by welcoming huddled masses who yearn to be free and by valuing the inalienable equality of all humanity.

Many of us are understandably frustrated and angry with the political shenanigans that have plagued our system in recent years, but we can’t succumb to our baser instincts in the moment to support a cure that will very likely be worse than the disease.

Which is more difficult, life in Asia or Europe?

Comparing the experience of adjusting to different cultures for an American living abroad

I have a pretty cool job.

Well, I suppose the job itself isn’t all that interesting or special, but the opportunities it affords me are pretty cool, at least.

You see, I work for an organization with offices all over the world and what I do is in demand at basically every location; so, I have had the chance to move around and experience living in a few different places around the world. I spent a couple of years living in Seoul, Korea, a couple of years living near Tokyo, Japan, and I moved to Stuttgart, Germany with my family in the early autumn of 2013.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when we moved to Germany from Japan.  It’s difficult to articulate. On one hand, because my native U.S. culture has so much more in common historically with European culture than it does with Asian culture, I expected that adjusting to Germany would be much easier than adjusting to Northeast Asia. On the other hand, having experienced fairly significant culture shock in both Korea and Japan almost immediately after arrival, I was expecting at least some level of culture shock when I arrived in Germany.

Since it is difficult to describe the difference in magnitude of culture shock experienced by an American in Asia vs. Europe, here is an attempt to provide a visual example:

Japanese sign: imagine you're a native English-speaker, you don't know Japanese, you just moved to Japan and you have to accurately relay to someone the exact meaning of this sign. You might get in the ballpark, but the specific details would be lost on you, right?  Even after studying written Japanese for two years, I can only read parts of this sign.  It says, "Please don't throw trash, dirt or sediment here. Kanazawa Prefecture, Sagamihara City civil engineering office."
Japanese sign: imagine you’re a native English-speaker, you don’t know Japanese, you just moved to Japan and you have to accurately relay to someone the exact meaning of this sign. You might get in the ballpark, but the specific details would be lost on you, right? Even after studying written Japanese for years, I can only read parts of this sign. It says something like, “Please don’t throw trash, dirt or sediment here. Kanagawa Prefecture, Sagamihara City civil engineering office.”
German sign: imagine you're a native English-speaker, you don't know German, you just moved to Germany and you have to relay the exact meaning of this sign to someone.  You'd probably be able to get the main objective of this sign, even if you didn't get the entire meaning.  This sign says "Playground for children under 12 years-old.  Use only with the approval of the legal guardian and at your own risk. The Mayor."
German sign: imagine you’re a native English-speaker, you don’t know German, you just moved to Germany and you have to relay the exact meaning of this sign to someone. You’d probably be able to get the main objective of this sign, even if you didn’t get the entire meaning. This sign says “Playground for children under 12 years-old. Use only with the approval of the legal guardian and at your own risk. The Mayor.”

See what I mean?
When you get off of the plane in Asia as a native English-speaker (assuming you haven’t first learned to read and write the local language), you are immediately smacked in the face with the reality that you are essentially illiterate.  You can’t read anything unless there is a translation made available to you.  You can take a guess at what something means if you’ve got some sort of visual aid, but forget about even trying to read the text without years of study.

In continental western Europe everything is written using Roman characters and there are usually some word similarities (e.g., für/for, unter/under, und/and, etc.), which makes getting around a little bit easier, even when you’ve just arrived in the country and can’t really read or speak the language.

The difference in difficulty decoding the meaning of the signs above is a good analogy for the difference in difficulty adjusting to the overall cultural differences.  European culture is much closer to American culture than is Japanese or Korean culture, but each present significant challenges for someone with little study or background.

The ways that Northeast Asia differs from the United States are numerous and obvious, but in some ways I found life in Japan and Korea to be much more like America than Europe. For example, in Korea and Japan many businesses are open 7 days per week and many businesses (e.g., convenience stores and restaurants) operate 24 hours per day. The pace of life is generally fast and access to goods and services is fairly consistent.

This photo was taken on a Sunday afternoon in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan
This photo was taken on a Sunday afternoon in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan

In continental western Europe almost nothing ever really stays open late and pretty much everything is closed on Sundays (except some bars and restaurants). You can pretty much forget about easily finding late night munchies anywhere in Germany and you can forget about doing pretty much anything even remotely consumer-oriented on Sundays.

Oh, by the way, I would not recommend sharing that observation with your European acquaintances, unless you enjoy experiencing the condescension of others. Many Europeans are very proud that everything is closed on Sundays.  They will often quite happily (and smugly) let you know that Europeans have life all figured out and anyone wanting to do anything consumer-oriented on Sundays, or late at night, is pitiful and misled. In my experience, most Europeans believe that Sundays should be exclusively reserved for enjoying nature, dining alfresco, drinking to excess and/or chatting endlessly about how culturally deficient those poor, ignorant Americans can be.

Love of Nature
Don’t get me wrong, in my experience both Japanese and Korean people love nature and do a pretty good job preserving nice green spaces, but I’m not sure anybody protects green spaces to the same extent as they do in Germany.

In Asia housing density is high and private land spaces are small out of necessity.  There is limited space for housing because of the population density per square meter, so sprawl is kept to a minimum.  In Germany, housing density is also high and private land spaces are also small, but not for the same reasons.  Population density is not nearly as high as in Asia, but Germans love their public green spaces and go to great lengths to protect them.

This green space is a few minutes walk from my fairly densely populated residential neighborhood.
This green space is a few minutes walk from my fairly densely populated residential neighborhood.

I could prattle on for many hundred more words on this subject, but I’ll save more for another post. It is probably obvious, but I have found that living for a year or two in a place with a different language and different customs than your native culture can be wonderful at times and terrible at others. Adjusting to a new culture can be challenging, but it is also rewarding.

So, which is more difficult (for a dumb American), adjusting to life in Asia or Europe?  In my opinion, they’re about equal.  For me, adjusting to life in Asia was difficult because it is was so different from my native culture, but adjusting to life in Europe has also been difficult because the similarities have  had a way of masking the differences right up until I do something really dumb and embarrassing.


Iconic monks: German beer label design, part 2

MonkBeers - 1 (2)It seems that one of the most popular and frequently chosen icons of good, German brewing is a happy monk. On a quest to learn as much as I can about the many, many different German beers available while living in Germany, I have noticed that the image of a friendly, smiling monk — usually hoisting aloft some type of beer-filled container — adorns a surprisingly large percentage of the German beer labels I have seen while wandering through numerous German Getränkemärkte (beverage markets). A little bit of Internet research helped me gain an understanding of why Germans often equate monks with good beer.

According to the Drunken History web site, the earliest beer brewing in Europe was done in individual homes, which allowed for a huge variance in the style and quality of home brews.  Monasteries started brewing as a way to pay taxes, remain self-sufficient and serve their communities. Monks dedicated time and effort to learn how to brew and were able to significantly increase the quality of beer.  Monasteries across Europe were supplying good beer to their communities during the middle ages and beyond.

That long history and reputation of monks as brewers of good beer has definitely contributed to the iconography used on many German beer labels. Below is a gallery with scans of the beer labels I have collected that feature monks.

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Looking back on my totally insane school bus project


In early 2005 I was surfing the web when I stumbled upon a random website about a guy who converted an old, yellow school bus into a motorhome. I was intrigued. The project was cheap, creative and a little bit crazy — all words that could be used to describe me.

Later, while driving near my neighborhood in the Nashville, TN area, I noticed a used school bus for sale at a very reasonable price.  After a quick mechanical check and test drive, I was the proud owner of an old, yellow school bus of my own.  I immediately began the process of converting the bus into a recreational vehicle.

This shot was taken the day I got the bus, March 15, 2005. I couldn’t wait to start removing some of the junk that I hated. The old, rusty school bus mirrors and windows were the first of many things to come off.

Believe it or not, there are lots of people who have converted school busses into all sorts of things. School bus conversions are collectively called “Skoolies” around the Internet. I liked the name, but wanted to personalize the idea a bit, so I decided to call ours the Skewly. To complete my conversion project I creatively “borrowed” ideas from lots of people and even came up with a few ideas of my own.

The main reason I wanted to do this little project was to have a hotel room on wheels that would allow my family to travel across the continent in style, for as little money as possible.

I bought the bus from a church and it looked as if it had been waiting to be purchased for quite a while since it had a nice coat of rust and mildew over every square inch. I wasn’t sure on first glance if the bus was going to be a keeper, but I jumped in, turned the key and the motor instantly started.  The engine and chassis were in good shape, so I overlooked some of the more glaring body problems.

I spent several months prepping the bus and removing anything I didn’t think I would need. I only wanted the empty shell of the bus, the engine and the drivetrain — everything else had to go.

I probably should have taken more pictures of this process, but I was having way too much “fun” doing it. What a pain! I estimated it would take me about a day to get all of the seats and other junk out of the beast. Three days later I was finished. Rusty bolts, creative aftermarket engineering and other interesting time wasters were a large part of the process.

I can tell you one thing, though. I don’t think any RV out there is built as tough as a school bus. This thing is steel EVERYWHERE. It is built like a tank. I pity the standard fiberglass and wood motorhome that tries to go head to head with this baby.

I used professional automotive paint and techniques to paint the bus and it actually looked pretty much like a factory paint job. With air conditioners, an auto-tracking direct broadcast TV satellite dish, an awning and tour bus mirrors, the bus looked quite different than the average old, yellow school bus. This photo was taken Sept. 3, 2005.

After months of engineering and tinkering, the final bus was ready to take on the road. For our first trip we had traveled through 5 states: Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky and Washington D.C. We traveled nearly 2500 miles.

We had the bus for a few years, but I decided to sell it to another bus conversion hobbyist after taking a job overseas.  It was an incredible project that I will always look back on with fondness.

The finished interior
The finished interior
The driver's seat
The driver’s seat

Driving in Japan

On the road to Mount Fuji in the Japanese countryside
On the road to Mount Fuji in the Japanese countryside

I lived in Japan for a total of four years; twice for two years each (2006-2008 and 2011-2013). I have said this before, and I’m sure in this blog I’ll say it many more times, living in a place really gives you the opportunity to see the little differences and come to appreciate them in a way that visiting a place doesn’t (warning: the “little differences” link does not go to G-rated content).

Foreign visitors to Japan don’t often get the opportunity to drive because the public transportation system is so good and urban areas are so dense that it is usually unnecessary to drive. Many Japanese citizens living in urban areas don’t even drive, but I think driving in Japan provides a perfect opportunity for foreign residents to see the little differences that abound there.

Driving in Japan can be pretty expensive when you consider gas, insurance, road taxes, maintenance, parking fees and other seemingly endless expenses. However, when you live in Japan with a family, driving is often the best way to see the countryside and experience a true slice of daily Japanese life. In my experience, driving a family of 5 isn’t much more expensive than regular public transportation fees for the whole family to go to the same places.

In this post I’ll just share a gallery of candid photos snapped when something interesting or unique to Japan presented itself.  Click the photos to read the full captions:

German beer packaging and label design, Part 1 of ?: Schönbuch Bräu

I am an American, but my job takes me to many different places around the world.  In the past 10 years or so I have been fortunate enough to live and work in a few different countries in Asia and Europe.  Living in a place gives you time to really learn about the little things you might miss during a shorter visit.

In the autumn of 2013, I relocated from the Tokyo, Japan area to the Stuttgart, Germany area. Since then I have been taking a self-led crash course in German (and European) beer label and packaging design. You see, I’m a bit of a graphic design nerd. I have worked in advertising, marketing and public relations for years, so I can’t help but pay attention to things like typefaces and color schemes in the designed world that is all around us.

Beginning what I hope will become a series of posts about the aesthetics, themes and styles of European beer packaging design, I have decided to start with labels from one of the breweries closest to where I currently live.  Below is a photo of some labels from Shönbuch Braumanufaktur:

Please forgive the bad iPhone shot, I didn’t have time to break out the lights and my good camera for this first beer design blog post. I’ll go into more detail on the labels (above) later, but first I want to compare and contrast German beer marketing and design with U.S. beer marketing and design. There are actually some interesting differences.

In the United States, a few large breweries have a virtual choke-hold on the vast majority of the U.S. retail beer market. Even with the growth of craft beer breweries, very few big, corporate breweries command more than 70 percent of overall U.S. beer production and sales.  Their marketing and design is well conceived and slick, but doesn’t really offer a lot of variation and truly distinctive style (or flavor) among the major brands.

The craft beer movement in the United States has introduced lots of new ideas in beer brewing and, consequently, beer product packaging design. Many of those beers and designs are quite good, but some … not so much. The vast majority of craft beer design is about differentiation from the big beer companies and about looking forward, which can sometimes (not all of the time) leave brewing traditions (and good package design discipline) out of the mix.

The story in Europe is a bit different.  The sheer number of old-school, traditional breweries with long histories in their local communities and regions is almost overwhelming here in Germany.  According to Wikipedia there are more than 1200 German breweries producing about 5000 different brands.  Keep in mind, Germany is significantly smaller than the U.S. with a fraction of the population.

Big, corporate brewing companies do exist in Germany (e.g., Becks) and across Europe (e.g., Heineken), but they don’t control nearly the same percentage of the beer market in Germany as their big corporate counterparts do in the U.S.  Unlike in the States, large breweries in Germany represent only roughly 30 percent of the German beer market, according to the Aktion Gutes Bier website.

Unlike many U.S. craft brewers, the small, local German breweries don’t have the same need to position themselves as new and different to stand out from the big corporate breweries.  As a result, the beer product packaging and design of these small, local breweries include elements of old-school tradition while simultaneously incorporating some modern design sensibilities.

In a little less than two years, without really trying, I have managed to acquire hundreds of beer labels from across Germany and western Europe. In this blog I hope to show many examples of European beer packaging and label design and point out the traditional and modern elements.

If you look at the photo of the four different labels (above) from Shönbuch, you’ll see that they do have a basic design language and some modern elements. The one label that is markedly different is from a special Christmas beer (Weinachts means Christmas in German).  The labels are designed for big, half-liter, single-serving German beer bottles.  The big label goes around the fat part of the bottle and the smaller label runs down the neck of the bottle. If you look more closely at one of the labels, you’ll notice a modern twist on a very traditional idea:


See the shield-shaped icon with a dude holding the beer mug in one hand and a shotgun in the other?  That dude is an old-school German hunter (Jäger). There aren’t many more traditional archetypes in Germany. The Schönbuch is a big forest near the brewery that has had hunters tromping around in it for hundreds of years.  So, they take this old, traditional archetype and turn it into a modern icon representing their brewery.  I may be weird or extremely nerdy, but that’s cool to me.

There’s arguably no other celebration in modern western society linked to tradition more than Christmas. In their Weinachts bier, Schönbuch regresses their icon back to the archetype it represents, showing a rather jolly looking, Kris-Kringle-esque hunter holding their same beer and shotgun combination:


I personally love the idea.  I’m not loving some of their type choices in this one, but they can’t all be winners. Overall, the imagery and design works, for me at least.

German pronunciation tip:  when you see the vowels with the little dots over them (English speakers call them umlauts, but the Germans actually have different names for each vowel), they change the pronunciation.  For example, bräu, is pronounced kind of like “broy.” In Germany, Löwen Bräu is pronounced kind of like “Lew-ven Broy.” Those commercials from the 70s and 80s who pronounced it “low-en brow” were doing it wrong. What? I’m just saying…

The evolution of the Starbucks logo

The Original Starbucks Coffee in Seattle

For the last couple of days, I have been going through my bajillions (that’s a number, right?) of digital photos. I am working to update my personal travel and design blog here that I have neglected for years. I’m a bit overwhelmed by all of the photos and blog ideas that have presented themselves as a result.

I can’t think of any reasonable way to logically get through all of the photos and all of the topics, so I’m just trying to start from the oldest photos and work forward while also trying to fill categories with at least one or two relevant posts.

In my search for bloggable (that’s a word, right?) photos, I stumbled upon a photo (above) that I took in Seattle when I visited the original Starbucks location back in 2009. I actually like the old logo, not because it is a testament to good design (it really isn’t), and not because of the mermaid’s exposed boobs (c’mon, people).  I just think it has a funky kind of character that, I suspect, matches the vibe and culture of the early company. Apparently, that old logo actually caused a bit of controversy back in the day.

The logo has been through lots of different iterations over the years.  Now it has reached the point where it can join companies like Apple, Nike, and McDonalds who don’t even need to put their name anywhere near their logo anymore.  Well, would you look at that, they removed their name from their logo in 2011:

This image came from the Starbucks website with the caption: “The Siren and Her Many Ways, From a 16th century woodcut to today”

Here’s another image from the Starbucks site showing the evolution of their logo on their cups:


See more about their logo over the years on their website.


Remembering Nashville, 10 years later

The Nashville Skyline back in 2004, taken with my first DSLR camera, a Canon Digital Rebel using a 30 second exposure.  It was taken from near the Titans football stadium across the river
The Nashville Skyline back in 2004, taken with my first DSLR camera, a Canon Digital Rebel using a 30 second exposure. It was taken from near the Titans football stadium across the river

I lived in Nashville, Tennessee for nearly 10 years (1996 – 2005).  It was the first time my wife and I had ever moved relatively far away from our core family and friends to set out on a new adventure.  Two of my three daughters were born in Nashville (all three were conceived there … wink, wink).

I just realized that it has now been 10 years since I lived there.  I look back on our time there with fond memories, but I am also keenly aware that you can never go back because things change.  The world just keeps on spinning.  Life must go on.  We all move forward in time, whether we like it or not.

Since leaving Nashville I have taken my family with me all around the world. I’m happy and fulfilled by the experiences we have gained and wouldn’t change a thing, but sometimes I look back on Nashville with fondness and a strange longing for something that I know I can never get back.

You know what I mean?


For example, we had a really nice house that was kind of out in the country, but still relatively close to civilization.  For most of our time there, the view from our front yard (pictured above) was a bucolic scene of cattle grazing on the rolling, green hills. The closest structure was a barn off in the distance.

In 2004 the land owner sold the property to a developer and within a few years that bucolic scene became a picture of dense suburban sprawl. We could see roofs, fences, people’s porches and gas grills within 10 feet of our front fence.  We still had 5 acres out back, but the beauty, peace and serenity were just gone somehow.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against progress, I’m totally in support of the American dream. I’m not mad, just disappointed that the reality of the universe is that nothing good comes without some bad.  There are always pros and cons to any progress or change. The people in those McMansions are probably thrilled to live on those beautiful, rolling hills and are benefitting from the rich soil that keeps their lawns so green (from all of the years of cow poop).  It was just a shame that our little slice of paradise was gone … so we sold out and moved on.

Here are a few photos depicting our life in our little house in the country a decade ago:


“Semper Gumby,” Always Flexible

“Semper Gumby,” Always Flexible

One of the interesting catch phrases I learned while working as a civilian employee of the U.S. Army is “Semper Gumby,” which means, “Always Flexible.”  It is used as a tongue-in-cheek war cry when something inexplicable occurs to necessitate an abrupt course adjustment or change in plans.  I’ve learned that it is a very valuable personal philosophy for the workplace.  As I go through the daily process of accomplishing my designated mission it has become clear to me that I must endeavor to remain flexible, if for nothing else to retain my own sanity. As I am presented with an especially challenging circumstance (or person), I find it comforting to invoke those simple words and change my attitude.

I have a job to do.  If I can remain flexible and open to possibilities, I can navigate any difficulties that arise while maintaining a reasonably pleasant outlook.

As I go forward and deal with a particularly prickly co-worker or a inordinately intricate mandatory procedure I remind myself that I must always remain flexible.

So, like Frank Costanza’s cry of “serenity now” from the TV sitcom Seinfeld, I chant “Semper Gumby” and press on…