My European Awakening

I just returned from 7 days in Europe. Thanks to LinkedIn Answers, I probably saved $1,000 on airfare on this trip by taking the advice of some of my connections who are more experienced last-minute travellers. (I’ve joked that with all this great advice, I could publish an ebook on last minute European travel and probably sell it for $10 on our ebook site.)

Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, said in his excellent podcast from Stanford University last month that he hopes LinkedIn Answers becomes the first truly useful Answers service online. He told about asking a question (took him 2 minutes) and getting 26 answers, 18 of which were very helpful.

My experience was similarly helpful. I asked about 200 of my 600 LinkedIn connections how to get a cheap last-minute flight to Europe. I got 37 responses, most of them were very helpful. (One told me jokingly to pretend there was a funeral in the family and get the bereaved family discount. Another said I could be a courier and fly for free.)

From these answers, I learned of about 10 online travel sites that I had previously not used. SideStep.com was the most useful on my trip. (Venere.com, an Italian site, turned out to be the most useful for booking last minute hotels in Paris and London.)

I booked a flight on Air France two days before leaving for Europe, for $980 round trip from LAX to Rome, with a stop in Paris at CDG (Charles De Gaulle) airport. (Air France serves great food, by the way.) After Rome, I fly one-way to London, got a hotel downtown for 69 pounds per night, then on Saturday morning flew round trip to Dublin on British Airways for under US$200. Rather than fly back to Rome, I took the Eurostar train from London to Paris, and arrived in Paris Sunday night. I think it was US$229. My hotel was across the street from the Gare du Nord station and cost only 60 Euros.

So all in all, the travel costs weren’t so bad, considering the last-minute planning. What adds up was the cost of transportation within each city (taxis, metro) and the cost of food, which was surprisingly high.

But the trip itself gave me a sweet taste for world travel. I grew up with a very tiny reality map (see my Connect magazine article titled “Expanding Your Reality Map” in March 2006.) But it has been expanding every year. And especially now.

Reading Russian literature in high school, I dreamed of travelling, and meeting with the kinds of fascinating souls that Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky described in 19th century Russia. Their characters had great depth, education, and were master conversationalists. My favorite novel of all time, Brothers Karamazov, explains human nature better than any other book I have ever read. I wanted to be Alyosha.

So in college, I studied International Relations, which soon led to my talking a Russian class and then switching my major to Russian. I loved the language and the culture and the history of Russia. After graduation I went to DC looking for a job. I applied with the NSA and started undergoing their 6-8 month long background check process. But I never ended up interviewing with them. Instead, I started working at Folio, my brother’s search engine company.

For the last 19 years I’ve been in various high tech startups. But I’ve had a latent interest in world history, international affairs, foreign languages, and cultures and religions of the world. That interest has grown lately as my reading list has started including more books about the flat world we live in, and the economic booms in China and India.

But nothing has opened my eyes and piqued my interest in world affairs like my recent trip to Europe. Though my entire trip was business focused, I was able to visit several historic sites in Rome, including the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and the Vatican Museums which includes the famous Sistine Chapel, and in London, and in Dublin I saw the Book of Kells, created by Irish monks in 800 AD, and walked through the library at Trinity College, the largest library in Ireland, with more than 4 million volumes, including 200,000 very old tomes in one great hall. (Wikipedia says that the Jedi library in Star Wars may have been modeled after this great library.) Years ago I read “How the Irish Saved Civilization.” Now I must re-read it, after having seen these historic artifacts.

I had some excellent ideas for a mobile application for history travellers, which would be built for worldhistory.com, which is likely to become part of World Vital Records in the future. (History and genealogy are really inseparably connected.)

I couldn’t stop considering that Utah, where I was born and raised, was settled by the Mormon pioneers (including my ancestors and my wife’s) started in 1847–just 160 years ago. While most of the places I visited have recorded history going back at least 10-15 times that far back.

More importantly, on this trip I met many wonderful people. Genealogy is a great subject to start any conversation with, because everyone has some knowledge of where there family came from, and how they fit into the world. My discussions with people from England, Ireland, Poland, Italy, and France were very enlightening, albeit sometimes rather depressing. Life is hard in many countries. Many people aren’t having children because they can’t afford to. They have to live in big cities where costs of living are so high, that they don’t know how they can possibly have a family. And it is important to face the realities of what people around the world actually think of the U.S. More than one European told me that the US was exporting materialism to all the world through its media, and causing people to be disatisfied with anything except a fast-paced materialistic, hedonistic lifestyle. (Coming home to a ton of billboards, radio and TV commercials, and seeing how everything in the US centers around selling stuff, I see their point.) And of course, most people strongly oppose the war in Iraq.

So I get to learn history and meet people. I’m in heaven really. I’m a former humanities major now working in a high-tech business (online world genealogy) that requires me to travel to many different countries of the world. In each country, I must learn its history and politics to determine when governments started keeping records, what kinds of records they kept, and where they are preserved now. I must also understand the religious histories and cultures of each country, since so many records of births, deaths and marriages were created and kept for religious reasons. I get to revitalize my knowledge of Spanish and Russian, and start studying bits and pieces of French, Italian, German, and hopefully Mandarin and Arabic as well. I’m planning to buy a mobile translation device soon, probably a high-end Franklin Publisher dictionary that handles 400,000 phrases and also supports audio. I know I’ll never have time to really learn these things, but a little exposure to them is extremely interesting nonetheless.

Besides my Blackberry, which worked nicely in Europe (I called T-Mobile on the way to the airport last week and they took care of it all in a few minutes), the most useful tools I had were LinkedIn.com, which enabled me to set up some last minute meetings, and Wikipedia, which basically enlightened me about every place I went, and all the things I saw. What a marvelous invention for travellers!

My dream is to travel with a Blackberry 8800 (with its GPS and Google Maps integration) and have a fully-functional mobile version of LinkedIn, and a mobile version of Sidestep so that I can plan trips on the fly (I usually procrastinate trip planning, but then while I’m there I want to make the most of it). I also want a business version of Dodgeball, so that I can find out if anyone that I’m connected to is also in the area. I may need to try out Twitter, since it’s getting so much positive buzz. (In fact, the Financial Times had it on the first page last Friday or Saturday as the next big thing from Silicon Valley–they called it miniblogging.) Perhaps it will be a helpful tool to let people contact me when I’m travelling… this would sort of be a pull approach to getting meetings, rather than a push approach. Finally, I need a database of all the LDS Family History Centers on my Blackberry, as well as a Genealogists Address Book, so that wherever I travel I’m seconds away from finding out where any local repositories or societies are. (Oh, and the Blackberry should support all the functionality of the Franklin device I described above. I don’t want to have to carry multiple devices.)

If I were young and without responsibilities, perhaps I’d take off and travel the world for the next year, visiting nearly every country, and just running World Vital Records from wherever I happen to be. As it stands, I’m currently planning a week a month for a multi-country trip. I guess I’ll see if I have the stamina to pull this off, and if it continues to make business sense to do so.

So…if you happen to be highly involved with genealogical records anywhere in the world, and would like to see if partnership makes sense between you and your organization and World Vital Records, please let me know. I don’t mind last minute trips, since my LinkedIn friends have shown me how to pull them off.

5 Comments

  1. I absolutely loved this posting- It makes me want to explore the world even more. Any possibilities world vital records will be hiring people to do stuff like you described like researching governments and countries?

  2. Paul, check out the budget airlines such as Ryanair the next time you come to Europe – sometimes all you pay are the taxes and charges, the flight is free or a penny.

    Another tip is that return tickets on Eurostar are often cheaper than single tickets – just tear up the return half.

    Rick Cartwright picked up your comments about materialism, but then appeared to equate materialism with capitalism – but they’re not the same thing. He also implies that the economic arguments support the UK adopting the Euro – they don’t. With most of the EU adopting the Euro the UK gets most of the benefits without any of the – very substantial – costs. As a result we have lower unemployment and higher growth than the Eurozone, and a currency that’s more stable than either the Euro or the dollar.

    I shall be interested to see how your latest venture (FamilyLink) progresses as to some extent it complements what we’re doing at LostCousins, the site I founded.

  3. Invention Answers » My European Awakening

    […] Original post by Paul Allen: Internet Entrepreneur Filed under Invention by Permalink • Print • Email • Comment […]

  4. Rick Cartwright

    Paul,
    I enjoyed reading about your experience in Europe. I travel to Europe a couple times a year and always enjoy every new experience. I enjoy the history and the architectural beauty.

    What you heard about the US ‘exporting materialism to all the world’ is in line with some of the comments I have heard. Capitalism is not globally appreciated. I was talking to someone in the UK and suggested that not adopting the Euro was not the best decision for the UK. She disagreed of course. I understand her point but it was not based on economics. While I bleed capitalism, I certainly value the cultural differences and opinions of those in other parts of the world.

    Rick Cartwright
    http://www.linkedin.com/in/rickcartwright

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *