Julian E. Barnes is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. He’s based in Brussels, where he covers European security. Before moderating a Zócalo conversation with NPR Morning Edition host David Greene about Russia—“Is Russia America’s Biggest Foreign Threat?”—Barnes talked in the Zócalo green room about smart watches, Belgium’s bad coffee, and shifting the focus of his career from toys to national security.
You’re based in Brussels. How are the waffles?
The waffles are excellent. Curiously, there’s no maple syrup. They’re sweet waffles, so you don’t really need the syrup, but I still miss it.
How did you first get interested in covering national security?
I was covering toys and soap on September 11, 2001. On September 10, toys and soap were kind of exciting. After, they felt a little off point.
What’s on your desk at work?
I have an extraordinarily messy desk. I have pushed out the person to my left and taken over two desks with my stuff. Most of it is pretty uninteresting, but in addition to my two cell phones, I do have two landlines—one Brussels number and one Washington number.
What do you miss most about America when you’re away?
Coffee. Can I tell how you good the coffee is here in Los Angeles? L.A. can do a truly fantastic cup of coffee. The coffee in Belgium is horrible.
What’s one thing someone who grew up on the West Coast doesn’t understand about Maine?
In a Maine winter, you can get some really, really solid snow, which means you can have some really bad, monotonous food—really get down to the root vegetables. You in California do not understand how blessed you are with your vegetables. On the other hand, Maine’s ocean produces much better seafood than yours.
What makes you nervous?
I’m very nervous about being late. It’s the whole missing-deadlines thing.
Where was your favorite place to hang out in Cambridge while you were at Harvard?
I hung out at the Harvard Crimson way too much. But Pinocchio’s Pizza was truly a great place to get a piece of pizza.
You’re wearing a smart watch. What do you think of it?
This is the parting gift of my friends. I used to have a watch that would buzz with every email I got. With this one, I can tell it whose messages I want to see. So I wasn’t a fan of them before, but am now.
What’s the last great piece of advice someone gave you?
Sometimes when you’re working on a project—could be a news story, or some other thing—forces may conspire for it not to come out in the exact way you had in mind. But there was a moment in that process when it was totally fun and exciting, so you go back and hold onto that moment of perfection, and use that to motivate yourself for the next thing.
If you could interview any living person tomorrow, who would it be?
I’m totally fascinated by Vladimir Putin. I would love to sit down with him. It’s so much of a performance with him that I’m worried I’d waste this interview wish, but he’s so fascinating I couldn’t resist.