Posted by: mariabro | March 18, 2013

The Luck of the Irish

ImageIt seems that this is the time of year when everyone claims to have a little Irish in them. Or at least they pretend they do, so they can celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by hitting the local pub and drinking a pint or two of Guinness.

On an average day about 5.5 million pints of Guinness are consumed. That more than doubles on St. Patrick’s day to about 13 million pints. That’s enough to fill more than three Olympic-sized swimming pools.

GuinessDrinking those millions of pints are millions of revelers who would be hard-pressed to actually explain why they are celebrating, even experts like pub owner Ellen Brown, who says, “I know St. Patrick was English and found God while a prisoner in Ireland so it sounds like a good excuse to drink Guinness all day to me.”

Boston pub owner Mary O’Connor has her own beliefs: “Patrick was the patron saint of Ireland and he couldn’t stand being good during Lent each year. So he finally said forget it. Let’s have a day right in the middle of Lent so we can drink.”

I was surprised by the fact that Tokyo holds a rather large parade in Omotesando every year to honor the famous Irish saint. In fact, it is the largest St. Patrick’s parade in Asia and the first one to be held each year in the northern hemisphere.

But wherever you celebrate your Irishness, you’ll need to know a few facts so that you can pass for Irish and be served your green beer.

● St. Patrick was not actually Irish. He was born in Britain and moved to Ireland, first as a captured slave and then as a bishop to spread the gospel of Christianity.

●  Although many people believe St. Patrick drove snakes out of Ireland, this is actually a myth. It is true that Ireland has no snakes, but this was more because of geography and the ice age than anything St. Patrick did. Some religious scholars believe the myth was a metaphor for driving out evil as St. Patrick spread his message of Christianity.

● For more than 40 years, the city of Chicago has been dyeing the Chicago River green for St. Patrick’s Day.  The river is colored using an eco-friendly powdered vegetable dye that takes several days to dissipate.

● St. Patrick’s “official” color is blue, not green. Green became associated with the holiday during the 19th century, and is supposedly worn by fairies and leprechauns (who also have nothing to do with St. Patrick).

Finally, you will need a toast to impress your friends as you tip your glass of green beer. Try this one: “May the winds of fortune sail you. May you sail a gentle sea. May it always be the other guy, who says ‘This drink’s on me.’ “

Posted by: mariabro | February 6, 2013

Rules of the Road

In my (just over) 50 years I have traveled to over 40 countries.  Each trip has been an education in geography, politics, religion, sociology, you name it – you learn it when you travel.

While I enjoy learning about the politics and economics of a country I also enjoy observing the everyday behavior.  In fact, I think the two are closely interwoven.  I have a theory that the driving patterns of a country reflect its political stability.

In many emerging economies the traffic is chaotic.  There are no lines and no rules, or if there are, no one follows them.  I remember a recent visit to Vietnam where we wanted to go out for dinner to a restaurant a short walk from our hotel.  We stood on the side of the road unable to cross.  A never-ending mass of motorcycles, bicycles and cars careened across the multi-lane boulevard.


We finally gave up, went back to our hotel and ordered room service. We later learned from our guide that you have to simply walk into the chaos and the drivers will swerve around you.  A bit unnerving at first but it did seem to work.

I enjoyed driving in Japan where almost everyone obeys the rules.


You know what to expect.  There are a lot of cars on the road but it is rarely chaotic. The drivers are as evolved as the economy.  My biggest fear was not other drivers, it was getting caught in a narrow, dead-end road and having to back my SUV up, while trying not to scrape the sides of my car. You know when you hear “further branches ahead” on the GPS it is not good.

I also learned about six hour traffic jams to go 30 km.  It seems many people in Japan choose to go the same place at the same time.  It only took me once to learn that lesson.


I recently moved to small town America.  The drivers are very orderly but there is a new dynamic that is confusing.  They are so polite they don’t actually obey the rules.  They slow down and let you turn in front of them.  This is very puzzling when you are new and don’t know the rules or when you are not sure if the other person is using “small-town polite” rules or regular driving rules.

My second theory is about politics and nightclubs.  This is a theory I studied many (many) years ago but I think it is still relevant today.


I remember going to clubs in Paris, London, New York and Toronto. The lineup procedure went like this: in Paris, you had to be invited in by the locals, in London, you had to know someone from high society, in New York you had to stand out from the crowd, in Toronto you just had to lineup.  It all makes sense.

I encourage you to come up with your own theories on your next trip.  Education and travel are life-long adventures. As St. Augustine says, “The world is a book and those who do not travel, read only a page.”

Save on your hotel -

Posted by: mariabro | January 24, 2013

Necessity is the mother of invention

50350781d73a7c1bI have my daughter to thank for my latest invention.  Or rather my daughter’s lack of interest in managing her finances.  As she started to earn money as a model we started to question her more about it.

Having two financial parents is not easy for a teenager.  Her dad tried.  He sent her spreadsheets to use that would make the financial statements of a large bank seem simple.  I tried.  I pestered and nagged her about her income and her somewhat large expenditures.  The former financial advisor in me reminded her to save for retirement.

It all fell on deaf ears as she texted, facebooked and instagrammed her way through her day.

Suddenly, I had an epiphany.  What if tracking her income and expenses was as easy and fun as tagging her friends in a picture? What if she could do it all on her iphone while she waited at her auditions? I wanted to create a tool that would help her take control of her career and finances.

So, I set to work on an app.  As you may or may not imagine, developing an app is not as easy as it sounds.  One day, I will devote an entire post to it  but suffice it to say, I could not have done it all, by myself.

Here is a brief synopsis of the steps I went through:

Do a thorough search (or have a lawyer do one) to ensure your name and concept are unique

Register an LLC, limited liability corporation – so that all earnings (and losses…) and liability would flow through the company.

Set up a corporate bank account, to deposit said earnings into. Obtain an Employer Identification Number for the IRS, so aforemetioned earnings can be taxed appropriately.

Find an amazing app developer to turn your vision into code reality. (I can recommend one if you are interested)

Source funding for development – creating a sophisticated, complex app takes time and money.

Spend 5-6 months in development, defining and refining your vision.  I think I spent more time with my app developer (in my pyjamas, on skype) than I did with my husband in those 5 months.

Set up a website to support the app and to help brand your product.

Create a social media, networking and marketing plan for the app.

Submit to Apple for approval.


Get Approval!


Celebrate with a glass (or two) of wine and write a blog post!

iModel is now available on itunes.  Coming soon, iGig  for musicians and iAmNotASalaryMan for freelancers.

Posted by: mariabro | January 16, 2013

Anti-Aging Elixir

On Monday many young Japanese people celebrated Coming of Age day. I remember when we first moved to Japan in early January 2006 we were thrilled to see the kimono-clad parade of debutantes entering adulthood. They seemed full of energy and beauty, looking forward to all life has to offer.

With Coming of Age day behind us, and our own coming of age even further behind us, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on aging, or rather our desire not to and how to avoid it if possible.

While there are many books written on the topic of aging I am going to suggest one anti-aging trick you may not have thought of – it’s not drinking Acai juice or Green drinks – while that also may help. It’s not complicated but it does require some effort.

I think one of the secrets to staying young is keeping up with technology.

Technology changes at the speed of light and if we don’t do a little exercise everyday we can get left behind. Very quickly. I’ve noticed it with myself and other family members. I especially noticed it with my 90-year-old mother who did try to keep up and was skyping and emailing until the end. It kept her in touch with her grandchildren and kept her relevant. She even had us set up a Facebook account for her. Although she didn’t have many “friends” as none of her peers were on Facebook. Her desire to continue to learn new things kept her current and her mind active.

I try to keep up with the latest social media sites and spend too much of my time texting, blogging, facebooking, instagramming, tweeting and pinning on Pinterest. But I do feel I’m better able to understand many current events because of it. I am also better able to communicate with my teenage daughter.


However, I am still behind at updating my Mac, and syncing my iPhone and iPad. Apparently, I missed a few upgrades on my computer and I am now light years behind. My computer concierge recommended a new computer rather than trying to bring this five year-old dinosaur up to standard.
I love the way technology keeps making our lives easier. I click on a date in an email and it gets entered on my calendar and the location is mapped out for you. It is seamless.

But I see how it can get overwhelming. It can seem like it’s spiraling out of control, the home computer, the smart phone, the television, the camera, everything gets more and more complex. How many passwords do we need?


Technology is like music. You have your classics, your favorites, but you learn to appreciate the new stuff. I love classic rock but I realized there is some good new music, when I accidentally synced my iPhone with my daughter’s music library, much to her dismay.

So, enjoy your classics but keep up with the new “music” and perhaps you’ll recapture some of that energy and beauty of your own coming of age.

Posted by: mariabro | December 24, 2012

Windows to the Soul

I once went to a seminar about cross-cultural issues at my children’s school when we lived in Japan.  One of the more interesting things I learned was about the difference in communication styles, and I don’t mean a language gap.  I’m referring to the sunglasses versus facemask dilemma.


North Americans often sport large sunglasses when they are out, whether to ward off the bright sun or to look like a celebrity hiding from the paparazzi.  It is considered chic.

Japanese often sport facemasks when they are out, whether to ward off germs or to protect others from their germs.  It is considered polite.


What I didn’t realize is that Japanese find the sunglasses distracting and somewhat rude.  They think it hides the eyes and therefore reduces one’s ability to communicate.  On the other hand, many North Americans have difficulty holding a conversation with someone wearing a facemask.  The inability to see the mouth is distracting and considered somewhat rude.

I began to see how my habit of wearing large sunglasses in the schoolyard could be misinterpreted as not wanting to engage with my fellow parents.  Meanwhile their attempts to hold a conversation with me while wearing facemasks felt equally as confusing.

As I studied this phenomenon in more detail I noticed other things to support this theory.

I found a similar issue with texting and emoticons.  While North American emoticons focus on the mouth, the ubiquitous smiley face for example, :), Japanese ones focus on the eyes, using the pointy brackets.

Emoticons are a pictorial representation of a facial expression using punctuation marks, numbers and letters.  They are usually written to express a person’s feelings or mood.  The word Emoticon comes from the combination of the words emotion and icon according to Wikipedia.

Japanese emoticons are known as kaomoji, a combination of the Japanese word for face “kao” and for emoticon “emoji”.  Here are some examples.

ヽ(*⌒∇⌒*)ノ、 ( ^_^)/

I have to admit I received many texts from my Japanese friends that I had a hard time understanding.

In an article on, Japanese scholar Masaki Yuki says in Japan, people tend to look to the eyes for emotional cues, whereas Americans tend to look to the mouth.  He believes this could be because the Japanese, when in the presence of others, try to suppress their emotions more than Americans do.

“After seeing the difference between American and Japanese emoticons, it dawned on me that the faces looked exactly like typical American and Japanese smiles”.

Understanding the nuances of non-verbal communication is difficult in the best of times but adding in cultural differences makes it that much more complicated.  Just something to keep in mind the next time you head out wearing your shades/facemask and texting smiley faces to your friends.

Rakuten Ichiba Japan is the largest shopping site in Japan, with thousands of merchants and millions of products.

The Donna Karan Company

Posted by: mariabro | November 27, 2012

American Idol



Election 2012 was my first election in America. Not that I was allowed to participate, but even as a bystander it was wildly entertaining. I felt like I was watching gold medal athletes perform at the Olympics while sitting on the couch eating a donut.










I was truly impressed by the machinery that goes into an election in what is the world’s second largest democracy, after India. In a country of over 300 million people, just under half of them manage to vote in a relatively orderly fashion and produce results in about half a day.

The reality show — I mean the televised election coverage — was as well-produced as any Oscar night telecast or American Idol finale, complete with dynamic graphics, music scores and choreographed interviews. But did you know that American Idol finales can generate more votes than the presidential election? (Perhaps it’s because people can vote as many times as they want on American Idol.)

They even managed to wrap the election up just after 11 p.m., so they could return to their previously scheduled programming without too much disruption. I think they knew that if too many people missed a rerun of Storage Wars or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo they might have a civil insurrection on their hands.






But democracy in action is impressive. Linda Roberts Singh, who recently returned to her home state of Minnesota after living in Japan, told me: “My window looked out on the steady stream of people as they parked and walked to the church to vote. It was a spectacular parade of democracy all day — young and old, people in wheelchairs, people with strollers.”

Lisa Jardine, who also recently returned to the United States after several years abroad said, “This election day, my first in America in many years, I am thankful for the right to vote — to have a choice.”

While Americans value the right to vote, many were not enamored with the results. The country is clearly divided, almost exactly in half.

I asked Massachusetts native and small business owner Doug Karo why he looked so glum the morning after the election. He said he was concerned about the direction he thinks America is taking. He feels the contributions of entrepreneurs are not as valued as they once were.

“The American middle class comes from entrepreneurs. They are the people who make a country run. But if you take away their ambition, you take away their spirit. They roll the dice four or five times in their lives, they take risks and work hard. They employ people.”

While America was evenly divided on the election, the rest of the world was squarely in the Obama camp. But there was one town that was particularly pleased with the Obama victory. According to a Nov 7 AP report, a local official of the town says the Obama victory will help them continue to build and grow. The re-election means more opportunity to capitalize on their shared name. It even held a beach party to celebrate the re-election. Its name? Obama, Japan.

Rakuten Ichiba Japan is the largest shopping site in Japan, with thousands of merchants and millions of products.

Posted by: mariabro | October 20, 2012

My IQ, Interesting Quotient

I’m afraid I’m losing my interesting and exotic quotient, gained entirely on my pre-during-post life abroad.

In the beginning our friends at home thought we were adventurous and maybe a little crazy for heading off to a new life in Tokyo with two babies and a not-so-happy pre-teen in tow.

Then our visits home during our seven years in Tokyo ensured we always had great cocktail party conversation.

“Yes, there really are Harajuku girls, capsule hotels and love hotels, slurping is considered a good thing, trains run on time and they’re rarely as crowded as they’re purported to be, the sun does indeed rise very early, there are vending machines on every corner with every sort of convenience you could imagine, and the list goes on while your interesting quotient rises.

Then when you leave Tokyo you have a good year of stories and guarantees of being the exotic new friend wherever you move to. It was my daughter who warned me about the potential life-span of the post-Japan cool factor. She left Japan for college the year before we did. She told me how it was great in the beginning to introduce yourself as the new girl from Japan. Often followed by the “you don’t look Japanese line.”  But after her first year she began to feel a bit silly saying, “I just moved here from Japan. Well, actually it was a year ago.”

SO last year.

It made me realize that by now most of our friends back home have heard most of our stories. Fortunately we moved to a new city where we still have a shelf life for our stories and right now are still new and interesting. But I feel time running out. I’m trying to figure out a plan to earn some new interesting and exotic stripes. As my husband says, move up or move out.

But for now I’m happy to rave about Japan and our life in Tokyo for at least another six months and I’m looking forward to the Christmas cocktail party circuit (while I still have something interesting to say).

Posted by: mariabro | September 26, 2012

Manicures and the Eurozone crisis

I love reading the news and then actually living it. For example, we have all been reading about the European financial crisis. The somewhat offensive acronym PIIGS – refers to countries who have been suffering financial difficulties – Portugal, Ireland and now Italy, Greece, and Spain. Apparently they have some issues, much like a first year university student does when they realize that new credit card has to be repaid at some point.

I like to assume the southern European nations are just suffering the fallout of the global financial crisis. It’s not their fault. But I’m actually in Italy right now and experiencing the crunch. Let’s bring it down to the LCD ( lowest common denominator), the manicure. (I’ll give you my night club/political theory later)

I tried to book a manicure on a Monday at 5:00. You would think I asked them to give me the keys to the Pope’s bedroom. “Alora, Maria, scuze but no time for manicure today-a. We close-a at 6:00.”
Milan, the business epicenter of Italy seems to close at 6:00…and many places are closed all day Monday as well.

I couldn’t help but reminisce about my days in the ultra-convenient Tokyo. I wanted my hair done at 11:00pm, before I hit the clubs? No problem. Champagne brought in courtesy of the Bar next door. No problem. You need a dress shirt for work because you didn’t make it home last night? No problem. You can buy a cup of sake and an iPhone charger at the corner store. Europe needs to learn a little about convenience. I’m not talking about having big box stores in every suburb. I’m talking about giving people what they need. When they need it. Every country has their niche. Japan has a combini on every corner, Canada has a bank on every corner, America has drive-through donut stores, Italy has great cafes, if only globalization allowed us to have a country with great combinis/banks/donuts and coffee on every corner! Utopia.

The issue is productivity. Some people work long hours and don’t produce much. Other people seem to work fewer hours while producing more. The holy grail will be when we can all work fewer hours while still producing more. There is no easy solution. And no free lunch. Bringing it back to the LCD, if I want a manicure at 5:00 and you close at 6:00, it should be a no-brainer. But if I want a $10 manicure at midnight, this would not be a productive business opportunity…unless you are in Bangkok where you can get almost anything at almost any time.
Countries that don’t offer no-brainers will be left behind. But there needs to be a balance between convenience and productivity which allows citizens to achieve a work life balance. Whoever figures it out first, wins. And will have great nails in the process.

Posted by: mariabro | September 13, 2012

Living Life on the edge, now metaphorically versus literally.

I just noticed that I have not posted anything new since June. It’s been a crazy, busy few months and the reflective moments for writing were few and far between. I did manage to publish a few essays for the Japan Times, which I include in this post, as they will give you an idea of what I’ve been up to for the past few months, without me having to rehash it.

I usually feel the words of a story percolating in my head while I am lying in bed. The words come to me like the scent of coffee in the morning rising up the stairs from the kitchen. The thoughts flow in a warming and comforting way and I am eager to get to my computer or bedside journal and get them down. This story began in much the same way.

I recently went through the process of moving, one of the great stressors of life. Add in death and divorce and you have a triple play. That happened once many years ago. I was happy to see the end of that year. Getting back to the move – yes, we were moving and not just down the road, but across continents. It was going to be a big change in our lives; moving from the core of the most urban of all cities to the suburbs of America. But we love change. It shakes things up and keeps you growing and moving forward.

Living abroad allows you to develop an appreciation of many different cultures and countries. It gives you a subjective point of reference about everything from the funny English signs, to the food, to the beauty that may get overlooked by the locals. As a Canadian, moving to the United States was not going to be the culture shock of moving to Asia. But it was still a big change. I worried I may not even find anything to write about. But it’s been a week and I’m already sipping on the brew of new discoveries.

After completely relying on my GPS while driving in Japan for 7 years, I was worried that my brain-mapping skills may have become non-existent. I was pleased to find that they sputtered back to life when urged by necessity. I found I could navigate using my memory and occasionally, a map. Except for one day when I decided to take a leisurely drive around and challenge myself. However, after two hours of leisurely driving, I stopped at a coffee shop to get some caffeine and ask a police officer for directions.

This is how the exchange went. “Excuse me, could you tell me how to get to Hingham? I live in Hingham but can’t remember how to get there.”
To which the police officer smiled and politely gave me directions while secretly making a note to send out a bulletin to all the local memory-loss clinics to ask if they had lost any patients recently. I thanked him and happily explained that I had been driving for nearly two hours to find my way home. I then proceeded to drive away and missed the first right turn he had instructed me to take. I imagined him looking after me from his cruiser and thinking to himself, “No wonder you’ve been driving for two hours lady, you just missed the first turn!” I thought he may come after me in the cruiser with his lights flashing. He didn’t and eventually, I found my way home. Next week I may venture even further, but I’ll bring a coffee and a better map.

Biting the Big Apple – I just spent last weekend in New York, Tokyo’s jagged twin. After spending seven years in the concrete jungle of Tokyo I recently moved to small-town America. I was enjoying my suburban sprawl; that is sprawling on my chaise lounge in the comfort of my backyard.

But with my daughter a few hours away in the urban mecca of New York I decided to spend a weekend back in the jungle – and what a weekend it was. Luckily I am writing this on the train back to Boston, so you know I made the conscious decision to go home. But, it was a hard decision.

Waking up in the morning with a view of Times square, the Bloomberg stock ticker and two large neon Corona bottles was as comforting to me as the smell of cinnamon buns being baked in oven, or more likely, the smell of cinnamon from the Cinnabon store in the mall.

I realized I am an urban person. It is great when you get a clue as to who you really are, because, at 50, I am still figuring this out. Figuring out who you really are is a luxury. Many people, including myself, spend most of their time just trying to survive, pay the bills and have a little fun in between. I admire people who are lucky enough to know who they are at a young age. For me it’s been a longer process, or what could be called being a late bloomer. But we all evolve as the waves of time and experience erode us into softer-edged beings. I am still trying to decide between the social urbanite and the laid-back suburban dweller. But this weekend pushed me closer to the urbanite side of things.

I felt comforted by the closeness of humanity, of knowing that there were about one million people outside my door, maybe ready to mug me but at least they were there. I realized I felt more nervous in the suburbs where I look into the blackness of my sprawling backyard. I remember one night in Tokyo lying on my son’s bed reading to him and looking out to a bunch of tall, well-lit buildings. I felt so safe. My weekend in New York also confirmed my belief that people like to be near other people. Or at least most people like to be near most other people. Tokyo and New York are global twins for a reason. They unite souls who want to feel the grit of concrete and the energy of humanity at their door. They are global twins but just like any siblings they have differences. We will look at those differences next time.

And so it goes. With my move I was worried that my blog would no longer be appropriate. But I realized that living on the edge can also be a metaphor. I may no longer actually be perched above the intersection of three volatile tectonic plates. I am on the other side of the world, but I still want to live life on the edge. Whether it means re-energizing with jaunts to New York or documenting the career of my fashionista daughter. I will keep trying to provide my perspective on things and continue to try to live fully and, as Thoreau would say, to live deep and suck all the marrow out of life.

Posted by: mariabro | June 5, 2012

Two Countries, Four Seasons

On the surface, Canada and Japan do not seem to have much in common.  Canada is the second-largest landmass in the world, about 25 times the size of Japan with only one-quarter of the population.  Canada is often stereotyped as cold and snowy while Japan has more of a tropical image.   Yet, over the past seven years as a Canadian living in Japan I have grown to see more similarities than differences.  Polite, clean, friendly, and peaceful, are some of the words used to describe both cultures.

One of the more interesting things I discovered is that we both have an appreciation of a climate with four distinct seasons.  The weather in spring and fall is quite similar, while Canadian winters are harsher, and Japanese summers are more extreme. Each country offers celebrations surrounding the change from winter to spring to summer to fall.

Canadians have time-honored traditions celebrating the change of the seasons, similar to the Japanese.  Having just enjoyed my seventh sakura season in Japan I continue to be inspired by the way this tiny flower transforms a nation from stoicism to unbridled joy and silliness.  The sake may have something to do with it.

I remember my first Hanami picnic in Yoyogi park; sitting (shivering) on blue plastic sheets, drinking and looking up at the trees.  It felt like a Grateful Dead concert without the music.

But then I realized Canadians have a similar rite of passage celebrating the end of a long, cold winter.  We call it “May Two-Four”, the 24th of May long weekend.  Historically, it was the birthday of Queen Victoria and as a monarchy we are supposed to celebrate the Queen’s birthday.  Actually, I think we just chose this particular weekend to shed our winter clothes and open up the cottage for the summer.  Many Canadians also like to drink beer at this time.  In Canada beer is sold in cases of 24.  Hence, it became known as the “May Two-Four” weekend.  Canadians drive up north to the cottage, sit (shivering) on the dock of the bay, drinking beer and looking at the water. Just like the sake-sakura celebrations.  See how much we have in common?

We also enjoy beautiful fall colors in Canada. Just like the Japanese Koyo and Momiji-viewing festivals, we look forward to our maple leaf splendor from September onwards.  This is usually accompanied by the closing of the cottage for the winter, and the celebration of Thanksgiving in October.  Generally, we switch from beer to Canadian Club rye and ginger ale as it gets colder.

While we have many similarities we also have differences.  The Japanese appreciation of the seasons extends to their diet. The concept of Shun, or the seasonality of food exemplifies this.  The freshness and deliberate use of particular ingredients during specific times of the year is a quality I have grown to love and appreciate.

Here’s to our similarities and our differences. I’ll drink to that!

published in Japan Times Shukan ST June 1, 2012

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