Monday, December 23, 2013

10 Most Impressive People at the WPC

Through a progression of fortuitous circumstances, I was invited to the World Policy Conference in Monaco this December. The World Policy Conference is a gathering  of policymakers, academics, journalists and other thought leaders to talk about the problems that face the world, focusing on global governance. From my understanding, it's a rather informal event where some pretty important people get together to discuss cool stuff with other pretty important people. I'm not an important person, but I got to go.

Rather than recount my experiences during my weekend in Monaco, I decided to share my personal list of the most impressive people I heard or talked to during the conference.

1. Jim Hoagland
If the conference were to have an award titled "Winner of the Conference," Jim Hoagland would have won it. By far my favorite speaker, Hoagland drew up his decades of service as a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post to both moderate a discussion as well as speak on the final panel on general global issues. I had a chance to speak with him in between sessions about a whole range of issues, including his opinions about Jeff Bezos' purchase of the post and he only became more impressive in my eyes.

2. Stephen Breyer
One of the last people you expect to see at an international relations conference in Monaco is a judge. Judges focus on the laws and issues of their own countries, and previously I would have told you that this would probably force the judges of our highest court to be almost less knowledgeable of issues beyond our borders. US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer not only dominated a panel on international law, he did so in fluent French. I got a case of the fan-boys and had to shake his hand after, stammering that I was proud how Americans like him represent my county. 

3. HRH Prince Turki Al-Faisal
While living in Washington, I found that Americans who talk about foreign affairs like to stereotype the worldviews of others based on their countries. Maybe everyone does this. I'm not sure what stereotypes Prince Turki Al-Faisal broke for me in Monaco, but his opinions on the Syrian civil war, Iran, Israel,  and Saudi Arabia's refusal of a security council seat were all fascinating to me. The one-time Director General of Saudi Arabia's intelligence agency and Ambassador to both the US and the UK made sure to continually mention that he was not attending the conference in any official capacity.

4. Meir Sheetrit
A currently sitting member of the Israeli Knesset, Meir Sheetrit is the kind of realist, truth-speaking politician that I don't always like, but always respect and find indispensable.

5. Tidjane Thiam
An Ivorian businessman who impressed everyone with his intelligence, excitement and wit. What I liked about him was that he wasn't in business in Africa just because he thought it would help Africa. He was in business in Africa because he saw a great opportunity there, and I personally think that this is the type of perspective that will be needed to help truly develop sub-Saharan Africa. Nothing against aid agencies, but private business has so much more potential to help Africans help themselves than any amount of donations or foreign government-funded infrastructure projects.

6. David Rosen
Rabbi Rosen is the former Chief Rabbi of Ireland and will destroy all your stereotypes of rabbis, or of religious figures in general. Outspoken and excited to almost an overwhelming degree, Rosen is not just impressive but very interesting. See for yourself:

Maybe my favorite speaker during the finance sessions, John Lipsky is the former acting director of the IMF and has a great handle on banking's role in the most recent crisis and the regulation that is trying to prevent another such crisis from happening again but is at the same time slowing the recovery. He also is currently a visiting professor at SAIS - man, do I feel special!

8. Bartholomew I's Assistant
Bartholomew I is the Patriarch of Constantinople and one of the world's great religious leaders. We had the honor to hear him speak, but I unfortunately was distracted by his assistant, whose main job seemed to be to keep the Patriarch's hat unwrinked every two minutes. It might seem kind of silly, but it was actually really impressive.

Although it sounds a bit like nepotism to put her on the list given the fact that she went to grad school with me, I pretty sure that a lot of people at the conference would agree with me that Chidiogo is one of the most impressive people they've ever met. In addition to being terrifyingly smart and well-spoken, Chidiogo is also a lot of fun to be around. Oh, also she fluently speaks English, French, German, Chinese, Italian, Spanish and Igbo and switches between them with ease.

A French economist who according to some "should" have been the next president of the European Central Bank rather than Mario Draghi. He currently serves on the Executive Board of the European Central Bank and he really knows his stuff. Unlike many academics who talk about the European project, I got the feeling that he not only felt that the Eurozone could make Europe a better place, but that he had a lot of good ideas on how it could do so.

Most of the sessions from the conference can be viewed here. If you want to see my small brush with fame, go to Plenary Session 10 and skip to 28:03.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Nice without Puns

Rather than stay in a hotel in Monaco like the rich person I'm not, I elected for a hostel in Nice, France while I attended the World Policy Conference.

Southern France is beautiful, and the last time I was in the Côte d'Azur I had a very similar impression. I flew into France a day before the conference so I had a bit of time to wander Nice. I imagine that this city is bustling in the summer with full beaches and full restaurants. A chilly winter night on the Promenade des Anglais suited me, but apparently not many of Nice's inhabitants.

Colline du Chateau at night.

Friday morning I wandered up to the castle that once defended Nice. An interesting fact about Nice is that it was once part of the Kingdom of Savoy, which went on to unite Italy in the nineteenth century. The local dialect of the area, Niçard, seemed to be a cross between Italian and French - super fascinating. I didn't hear any of it.

Unfortunately for Nice, its strong fortress didn't protect it in the end. It was betrayed by its own countrymen. In 1860, Cavour gave Nice to Napoleon III in exchange for French military support against Austria. Nice has been French ever since.

While wandering the fortress, I ran into a girl from the hostel, an Australian named Sophie. We chatted about France and wandered the streets of Nice, which had started to pick up with Christmas season traffic.

The rest of the weekend I didn't have much time to do anything in the city except sleep*, but I'd like to return to Nice some summer, walk the Promenade des Anglais and experience the city in its full summer glory.

*After the conference ended on Sunday, Sebastian, Ben and I had a short city adventure with an American girl we met at the hostel in which we visited a dubious-looking establishment where a woman asked me to buy her a drink and was incredulous when I told her that I didn't have any money. For additional stories about Niçois hi-jinks you'll need to ask yours truly.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Colds of Gorgonio

The storm came out of nowhere. A sunny day had become grey, and gusts of wind began to blow flurries of snow in every direction. It would have been a beautiful sight through the window of a warm cabin, but we were 10,000 feet high and the only hikers attempting to summit Southern California's highest peak, Mount San Gorgonio. Although we were only a mile from the peak, we made the decision to turn back. That decision probably saved us, as it dumped four feet of snow on us for the rest of the day. We awoke the next morning with only an inch or two of our tent peeking out above the fresh snowfall. With all the trails covered by deep drifts, we struggled to make it down to the trailhead; all thoughts of making the summit were abandoned. It was December 2004.

Nine years later, I still enjoy reminiscing with my buddy Duncan and his brother Andrew about our surprise snowbound trip and failed attempt at summiting San Gorgonio. About how it might have gone better if we had brought snowshoes in addition to crampons. About how it might have gone much much worse if we had made a mistake, gotten lost, or gotten hurt. But in nine years, we haven't gone back together.

This winter I tried my luck on San Gorgonio with my friend Colin. We've camped together a few times and we both found that we had some free time in San Diego this December. I've been up to the peak a few times in the summer, but it's snowy and cold enough that the mountain isn't as popular in the winter. The temperature was also predicted to drop into the single digits at night. After stopping by the ranger station, we found we were one of two parties on the mountain that week. Lucky for us, the other party had gone up a day or two before and we used their footprints to follow the trail up the mountain switchbacks. Also lucky for us, there had been recent snowfall, but nothing like the storm I had seen in 2004, so the snow had actually melted on a lot of the sun-facing slopes.

The way up was pretty tough with altitude, cold and recent snow slowing us down. By the time we stopped for lunch, we realized we would not be able to make the summit and be able to get back down to a campsite before nightfall. We parlayed that disappointment into a nice relaxing lunch on a fallen tree, watching the winter sun travel toward its early western terminus. We spent the afternoon pitching camp, hanging a bear bag and exploring a frozen waterfall.


The campsite that night held a mystery. When we arrived, there was already a tent set up in a protected clearing under a tree. We yelled out hellos but quickly realized no one was there. As dusk settled, we began to wonder where the tent's inhabitant was. Upon closer inspection, the camp looked like it hadn't been used in a day or two, but some cooking gear had been left out as if the camper had expected to return shortly. Was it a base camp for a climber? Had the camper gotten hurt or lost? Were they inside the tent, unable to call for help? By the time we had eaten dinner and climbed into our sleeping bags to cope with the night's below freezing temperatures, the mystery had not been solved and no one had returned to the camp.

We broke camp very quickly the next morning, as 15 degrees isn't super comfortable to stand around in. Snow wasn't super deep and we made good time back down the mountain with our snowshoes on. Halfway back down we ran into a dude hiking up with very little gear. "You don't happen to be the owner of a green tent up at High Creek?" I asked.


He was. Apparently his story outdid my 2004 blizzard and our 2013 too cold to keep going stories: He and his buddy had set up camp at High Creek and then took a day hike up to the peak. However, on the way down they attempted to take a shortcut and got lost. They spent the night in freezing temperatures with nothing more than what they had on their backs, risking hypothermia if they stopped and risking injury if they didn't. Their experience was so harrowing that they went straight down the mountain the next morning and checked into a hotel in town. They were just coming up now to collect their gear.

Mystery solved, but wow, what a disaster!

Colin and I had a pretty enjoyable time and a lot of pleasant conversation on our two-day backpack. But we hadn't reached the peak. You've won again Winter Gorgonio, but I'll be back.