Saturday, April 28, 2007


I went to a Mauritian restaurant today for the first time. It's right around the corner from where I live and has been tempting me ever since I moved in. Tonight I finally had company willing to give it a try.

The atmosphere inside was perfect, with tropical island design but nothing over the top. The waitress was friendly and send us home with a bag full of black beans and two bottles of salsa, which she had bought in Mexico. (No, I didn't get the connection either.) The food, unfortunately, was only good. Nothing like you could have pulled the seat from underneath my butt and I wouldn't have noticed because I was too absorbed in my meal.

What can I say, it was a splendid evening anyway. My friends kept teaching me Spanish. (Again, the connection with France or the Mauritian restaurant is not immediately obvious.) I went home finally starting to get the difference between estar and ser. The two sentences that drove the message home were: "Tu eres linda" and "Tu estas linda", sentences that might even come in handy in Barcelona. See you in two weeks.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

a mountain of a challenge

For a few weeks now, I've been on the waiting list to ride the Dolomites Marathon with Team Adidas. Today I learned that I'm in. As the event has long been booked out, I should be excited, and I am. But at the same time, I am also a little scared.

This will be by far the most serious bike ride I've ever done. I could explain ornately, but let me just give you the numbers. In the course of not even 140km, more than 4000 vertical meters have to be climbed. For about seven hours, I will be going up (mostly) and down (for brief raging intervals) almost exclusively. There should be no more than a few flat minutes here and there, and while I have done longer rides, I have never climbed that much in one day. I'm not even sure it's easily possible around here.

In order to find out what is possible, in terms of climbing and in terms of my climbing it, I did the Great Loop of the Chartreuse last week, a ride I've been dreaming and hallucinating about ever since arriving here in Grenoble two years ago. While the Chartreuse, covered with trees throughout, looks like a mellow mountain and is certainly not known for insane climbs, it has steep uphills, and plenty of them. But the real challenge is mental. At some point one has to descend into the center of the mountain range, and there is no easy way out except climbing up. I should say practical, not easy, because easy it wasn't.

The last climb before committing, ie. descending into the pit, is more than 9% steep, which means the rest of the way is one long suffer fest. Only an icecream sundae in St. Pierre de Chartreuse, right before the final ascent, gave me the energy to survive. After 110km I had climbed almost 3000 vertical meters. I was delirious and more exhausted than I'd been in a long time – and still miles away from what the Dolomites will be like.

The marathon is still two months away. Maybe I'll have to train with focus, something I've always got away without. I'll certainly have to ride a lot to get into better shape.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

looking in from the outside

Two months ago I subscribed to Le Monde, the most prestigious French daily, also the most serious and most self-consciously intellectual. It's not that I'm going to the café to be seen with it. I just wanted to follow the election campaign, and I don't like TV. Le Monde offered me a three-month teaser subscription, and I had myself teased.

For more than fifty days now I've been drowning in newsprint, too many pages and too much content. It's incredible how dense this paper is. Debates are raging daily, pundits argue, spokespeople pimp their candidates and diss the others, and opinions fly across the spectrum, left to right and back again.

All this time, the discussion stays firmly in the context of France and this-is-the-way-things-are-done-here. I've come to find this very tiring and have to admit, at the end of a long day, I prefer opinions and suggestions traveling from afar. Only foreign news analyses give me the feeling that I'm seeing clearly. Yesterday, it was Die Zeit that satisfied my curiosity, today the New Yorker.

Did I mention that I apparently most closely resemble Frédéric Nihous, a hunter/gatherer straight from the dark ages? Anyway.

Friday, April 20, 2007

read more

It took me about four years to get a membership to the Salt Lake City Public Library, if I remember correctly. This is about the same time, counting from my arrival there, that it took the town to build a modern, beautiful library. I didn't go often, but always with joy, and read more there than I ended up checking out.

Today, I finally signed up for the Grenoble Municipal Library system, after two years in town and with only three months to go. But I want to read Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy before I go to Florence in two weeks, and I don't feel like buying the book. While the library doesn't have the English original, the German translation was available in the international branch.

That's where I directed my steps this afternoon. I was a bit disappointed by the opening hours (only two per day!) and also by the size of the facility and the breadth of its selection, but when you're new to something, it's exciting no matter what, and I had soon found interesting picks to take home besides the tome that I had come for.

Since I had nothing better to do I stayed and read what seemed interesting. In Die Zeit, a weekly whose in-depth articles I appreciate when I'm traveling but for which I have no time otherwise, I found an article that judges as harshly as I did the dismal dozen running for president here in France. One memorable sentence points out all "are united by a oftentimes blatant ignorance of economic questions".

Maybe they should all go get a library membership and start reading up on society, economics and politics before dancing on tables and clowning for attention. France would probably be better off for it.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


This morning I came home at seven thirty. It has been quite a while since I've been out that late. In fact, the last time I clearly remember coming home to the rising sun was after watching one of the epic Utah Jazz – Chicago Bulls battles on the big screen when I was still in Germany. There must have been more recent occasions, but then, I guess, when you get home at such an hour, you usually don't remember much afterwards.

I had been to a triple header birthday party last night, which, in keeping with fine college traditions, only started at ten. People drank and smoked merrily but started leaving around two or three. To me that's when the conversations became interesting. I stayed, and time flew by. At some point, I found myself walking through the quiet streets of Grenoble with the last hold-outs – a French, four English and another German.

We came by a bakery that is oftentimes claimed to have the best croissants in town. I have to admit that I prefer my pâtisserie around the corner, but it's hard to argue when you're hungry at 5:45 on a Sunday morning. Half a block down, underneath the railroad tracks, the France that rises early was putting up the first booths of the farmer's market.

We came to a bar that was open – whether still or already I can't say – and went in. The English had a dozen oysters, bar food in France. The rest tested coffee's power of keeping us awake. Judging from the ruckus we raised inside the bar, it worked passably, but it wasn't enough for everyone to find to full strength. I, for one, started making up words, and was ridiculated for it. Good morning, everyone.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

twelve monkeys

The infinite monkey theorem states that, given enough time, a monkey who's randomly hacking on a typewriter will produce almost certainly any given sequence of characters, be it the complete works of William Shakespeare, the Bible, or the operation manual of a microwave oven. The more monkeys one has, the less time it takes to get the desired result. Curiously, here in France it will take twelve monkeys less than two weeks to determine the next president. More curiously yet, it will be one of them.

I'm exaggerating a bit for effect. The number of candidates will be whittled down to two not one during the first round of the presidential election in two weeks, but this much is true: The official campaign is only two weeks short, and about the candidates, without exception, one can only shake one's head.

Of the twelve, there's one hunter-gatherer who speaks with such a thick accent that he is incomprehensible to me. There's a forceful worker who mumbles to himself. There's a thirty-some-year old hard core communist whose contribution to society so far has been distributing mail every morning, except for frequent strike days. There's a lady who has run in every presidential election since Napoleon III's defeat against Prussia kicked off the Third Republic in 1870. She's proud to be the factory worker's tireless advocate – never mind that factory workers are increasingly rare in our post-industrial society. There's the peasant who wants to finally do away with globalization. These days he's busy denouncing Europe while at the same time claiming higher farm subsidies – from Europe. He's got a criminal record for having bulldozed a McDonald's franchise in 1996. Three more candidates make eight who are talked about at length these days thanks to a law guaranteeing every candidate equal exposure but whose names no one will mention once the votes are counted.

The four that complete the dozen are being taken more seriously by the electorate, though it's often hard to tell why. The two forerunners, Sego and Sarko, from the left and the right, respectively, surprise the public and each other by frequently attacking the same topic with the same ideas – or lack thereof. On a recent day both could be heard decrying the strength of the euro and the cost of gas to commuters. Not many ask questions or take offense at this nonsense.

On the far right is Le Pen who wants migrants out but Germans in. In an interview he suggested that the Nazi occupation wasn't so bad after all. I doubt he's finding a majority with this opinion.

About Bayrou, the twelfth candidate, one can't say much. He just seems to stand there surrounded by mayhem and madness trying to project calm and sense. He's a quiet man, and about his ideas or how he's going to realize them not much is known. That's a valid strategy in this campaign, but it doesn't lend much hope to the immediate future of the country.

I'm glad it's not my civic duty to vote in this election.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

spiral eggy

Last Saturday – so long ago that it doesn't really belong into a blog anymore, a medium that's all about now – last Saturday, anyway, I went to the post office for the second time that week to pick up a delivery. This one I had been made to expect for a long time. It had been referred to only as "the conspiracy", and I was asked to volunteer my home address to be able to participate in it (if that's what one does with conspiracies).

The conspiratory shipment consisted of two items, one in a clear plastic bag, the other handed over just so. Both turned out to be gigantic styrofoam fried eggs, about a foot in diameter with yolks outsizing a tennis ball. On the eggs where the Whitbys' signatures. What's up with this?

happy Easter

After doing some research on the web (i.e. googling), I found out. The two eggs, together with 298 very similar fellows, were created by a friend of mine who goes by the name of Dude and his kids, to be scattered (the eggs, not the kids) in the Salt Flats of Western Utah and be turned into an art project. The Spiral Eggy resulted from this outpour of creativity and craziness. In its incongruous beauty and ephemeral existence, it reminds me of Christo's The Gates in Central Park, which has long fascinated me. (Did you see this, GC?)

Something beautiful is created, a lucky few see it, then it is destroyed. True art doesn't hang in museums, but is lost forever. The Gates lasted for two weeks, and only stunning drawings remind of it. The Spiral Eggy lasted for all of one afternoon, and only a few eggs remain. They're still mostly in the Dude's garage, but being sent out into the world.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

bring out the imp

This is a post that I've been wanting to write for a long time, about something that's been in the making for a while. After a last short negotiation session concerning the optimal length of my unemployment this summer, I have sold my body and soul to Imperial College where I'll start slaving towards the end of July of this year. I will be an Imp.

The lab, Paul Freemont's, is excellent, the environment was stimulating when I visited, and I have the feeling that I'm honestly wanted and that I will contribute there. About the financial aspects I can say nothing yet. I'll have to live in London to see how much one needs to survive. But I got the assurance that the salary will last through at least three quarters of the month.

Why did I not go back to Germany as I have wanted? Well, lack of options, maybe, though that could be paraphrased as lack of looking hard. There were two interesting things where the timing just wasn't right. But in the end it boils down to my desire to remain a foreigner. There are too many benefits associated with it. Off to England, for a change.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

the namesake

In the package a got last week was a book that I'd been keen on reading for a while. I had ordered it at a present for a person who turned out to already have the book. She now sent me her original copy (since it's not kind to give gifts back), and I started reading it almost immediately. The book, "The Namesake" by Jhumpra Lahiri, tells the story of the son of Bengali immigrants to the US who is trying to find his way and identity within the cultural mess that is his life.

The idea behind the story promises heated father-son discussions, falling out and reconciliation, cross-cultural misunderstandings, and insightful meanderings. My expectations high, I was initially bitterly disappointed. The novel flows smoothly, pleasant to read but uninspired, straightforward like the biography of the man who did nothing, and just as exciting. Drama, plot twists, stunning moments, even narratory detail are painfully missing.

Many years ago, I had read excerpts of The Namesake in a New Yorker debut fiction issue and was fascinated. Now, halfway through the book I dismissed it as a misguided attempt to turn a short story into a novel for the greater selling potential. I'm glad I continued reading, because everything changes with the death of the main character's father, to which a full 10% of the book is devoted.

After this unfortunate event, apparently more important than the emigration itself, the plot thickens, emotions run high and low, misery makes way for happiness, and good things turn bad. A mood of hopeful sadness permeates the pages like thinly concealed longing for a present that could have been. At the end, not much is as one would have predicted at the beginning, and the reader puts the book down only to stay with it in thoughts. Unfinished strands of narrative need untangling, conclusions must be imagined, possible endings dreamed up.

A satisfying read, after all (and now also a movie).