Thursday, December 31, 2009

travel madness

The Tuesday one week ago was the first day after the snowfalls. The disaster in innocent white had had days to blanket Hyde Park in beauty and dust the rolling fields of Sussex, as I would later see through the window of the Airbus that was taking me to Frankfurt on the first leg of my trip home for Christmas.

I went to the airport without apprehension. The worst was over. The storms had calmed, the snow stopped. Heathrow was running normally; no involuntary festivalgoers were camping in the terminal building when I got there. The great bazaar was busy, but not more so than can be expected at a time of receding recession.

The falling passenger numbers that accompanied the economic downturn had been good to the area around the bazaar. The demand for chairs that had burned hot in headier times had eased, convincing those running the airport to upgrade some of the narrow wooden contraptions with wider, more comfortable leather-upholstered versions. I sunk into on of those and dug into The New Yorker. Life was good.

Life deteriorated when my glance swept across one of the big screens announcing departure times and gate numbers. My flight was delayed by fifty minutes before it had even started, a gap that would widen over time to two hours. My layover in Frankfurt was ninety minutes. I saw the connecting flight depart into the cloud-covered sky already, but I had a few stories left to read and an untouched book in my carry-on. Surely I'd get home eventually.

I would have indeed missed the connection, had it not been delayed as well. Frankfurt had been closed in the morning owing to an unexpected snow encore, and everything was messed up. When I finally got to Dresden, I found out by how much. Half the luggage, including mine, that should have been on the plane wasn't. It was eventually delivered to my parents' front door three days later. Christmas had come and gone, and I had had nothing to wear outside the few items I bought hastily in between scouring for last-minute gifts. I kept my smile, thinking the return flight would go more smoothly.

Two days ago, a kid tempted by the devil's words of sweet paradise tried to blow up a transatlantic airliner. He had explosives stapled to his scrotum and the dexterity of a monkey drunk on fermented honey. Trying to detonate his balls, he fumbled and set his pants on fire. Another passenger quickly overwhelmed him, doused his crotch with beer and saved the lives of hundreds. Today, al-Qaida brags about this failure.

Also today, those responsible for airport security are in a heightened state of frazzled panic. As always, rather than addressing the problem, the goal seems to be creating an illusion of safety. The number of security checkpoints has been doubled overnight, but the procedure is still the same, archaic and illogical. Coats off, belts off, pockets empty, laptops out. The lot is x-rayed, as are the passengers. Plastic explosives concealed in private areas go undetected. The would-be mass-murderer from two days ago would have walked through either checkpoint I encountered this afternoon with impunity. Regular passengers, in contrast, have to endure lines as long as most faces, and a tense mood of incomprehension and anger. Nothing is gained.

It seems that in the current discussion, most use no more than half a brain when thinking how air travel can be made more secure. Whenever an incident happens or is prevented, the same ineffective safety measures are redoubled, and one of the tools the terrorists' tools, arbitrarily chosen, is banned. For a while everyone walked shoeless through security gates and up to now, no one's allowed to bring water aboard, though flacons with undefined content don't need to be placed in resealable transparent bags anymore. In response to the catastrophe that almost happened two days ago, some airlines are now prohibiting passengers from leaving their seats in the last hour of the flight, as if that was the only time to detonate a bomb.

There's no quick solution to this, and maybe none at the level of air travel security at all. Plastic explosives can be detected with the right (expensive) equipment, but those determined to kill will always find a way. As long as scatterbrains bent on ending their lives for maximum collateral damage are allowed to travel, incidents will happen. But with intelligence gathered globally and piling up in bulging databases, there's always a chance that even the most obvious candidate slips through unnoticed and unflagged and is not pulled out at security or earlier.

The fearful can stop traveling altogether. The paranoid can lock their doors and never leave the house. They would still be afraid and worrying. I had to get back to London and I boarded either flight without any concern. My seat neighbors didn't grope their groins or read Terror on the Airline for Dummies. They read newspapers, and so did I. Five hours after the first takeoff, I turned the key to my new apartment. All my luggage was with me and I was delighted to be back in London, back home.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

between the years

There's surely, deep inside the pile of verbosity that is this blog, already a post with this name. As I'm sitting in my mom's living room, cut off from the data of the world, I have no way of checking. But I know it's a fitting title. Between the years is frequently used in German to denote the time between Christmas and New Year's Day, when it feels like the old year has ended but the new one hasn't started yet. For a few precious days, time seems to stand still. Work has ended for the year, obligations have been met, errands run. All Christmas gifts have been handed over and received. Shops need not be visited in a while. Families, united for those few days after a year apart, spread big dinners over many hours, play board games like in the olden days, go on trips into the countryside, or soak up culture. Time is spent most leisurely and in utter peace. This time, between the years, is also commonly a time for contemplation and reflection, and contemplation and reflection were what drove me to write the lines that follow, to elucidate inchoate thoughts.

It started with a feeling I can't explain in words, a feeling of dramatic change that is nagging me. In the rational blurriness of my mind's eye, many things about me look different – in mysterious, transcendental, inexplicable ways. It's as if there were striking differences about me and deep inside that I'm just not able to pick up. If I learned more about myself, if I paid more attention, maybe I could put my finger to it. As it is, I have only a hunch that in the new year my life will not have much to do with my life so far. There's a smell in the air that tells me this, a smell that no one else notices.

Compared to twelve months ago, things look much the same on the outside (with the exception of the apartment that I changed only a week ago). My job hasn't changed at all. My interests are still the same. I hang out with the same people and enjoy doing the same things. London is as attractive to me as it has been from day one. I have a blast exploring the city, I take pictures, I go to concerts. I travel. I read and I write. I dream of writing more and better.

Looking back over this past year, I'm filled with gratefulness. I have done most of the things I had set out to do and some I hadn't. Of last year's New Year's resolutions, most (Again, not having the archive open in front of me, I'm guessing.) were filed in the Done box and those that haven't are of the kind that is likely to remain perpetually unaccomplished. The next year and the years to come, I could go on as I have been going, and it wouldn't hurt.

However, I've been feeling changes, the changes that I've mentioned earlier, over the last two months. A new kind of seriousness is trying to take hold of my mind. Up to now, I've always followed my fancy and always done what I felt like, at the spur of a moment. I have studied languages not because knowing them would be beneficial to me but because I liked the idea. I started teaching myself the recorder because my sister pressed the instrument in my hand, with the vague words, “You need a new challenge.” I've read two dozen books this year and written nearly 120 blog posts, all without following a grand plan. At work, I've been doing research, carving projects and changing directions according to what seemed right at the moment.

Lately, I've been thinking that this can't be the right approach anymore. My sister picked up my late grandfather's violin, abandoned when had died almost three decades ago, and had it fixed and refurbished and got a bow and took lessons. She wants to play a piece by Bruch that she likes a lot. It's a concrete challenge that got her started and will keep driving her. I play the recorder just for the hell of it. I don't get much pleasure out of it at the moment and I have no illusions of being good one day. Music is opening windows into an unknown world, and I'm learning mountains as I practice, but there's no goal to keep me focused. Now I'm wondering whether I should stop.

I also wonder why I keep attending Arabic classes. I will never speak the language and never be good enough for a decent conversation with even the most generous native. It's just too fiendishly difficult. I feel the urge to give it up – not because of the difficulty but because it's a dead-end road. The same goes for photography. I will always take picture on trips, to have something visual to go with dimming memories. I take good pictures, but I can't make the claim of being a great photographer. I don't have the creativity or the artistic eye to produce something outstanding. Should I chuck my camera?

Concerning the delicate topic of writing, the arguments can be laid out similarly. The abundance of nearly 120 posts this year translates into a good two-hundred hours at the keys of a computer, more than eight full days racking my brain for creative ways of putting words together, for smoothly flowing logic and convincing arguments, to put sense into thoughts that seemed lucid and bright only until they left the coziness of the unspoken. More than 70,000 words that scream, with voices that I can hear increasingly clearly and loudly, for a better treatment, for a higher destination than the scrap heap of written loquaciousness, the blogosphere. Must I stop?

As I do the things that I do for my enjoyment, I'd have to find something equally enjoyable to replace them with, but as I'm perpetually short of time, I would have to find replacements for only a fraction of the things I abandon. Like a closet before a move, I could clean out and simplify my leisure, and then maximize my pleasures by giving each one meaning.

Writing is the most meaningful occupation to which I devote my time outside work, and while I devote a courageous amount of time, I don't devote myself. I'm not serious about it (and wasn't honest enough to admit this before now), and I don't work on it. I write when inspiration strikes me, in little cowardly bursts of a thousand words or so, unrelated from one day to the next, floating in a vacuum of insolently disturbed silence. It's writing of the cheapest kind, cheaper than chips, of the kind that's discarded all over the internet. How can I be satisfied?

A new seriousness would define a different approach. It would force me to work hard and focus sharply, overcoming the tiredness of advanced nights, night after night, to craft something bigger than what you're reading, something good, something that can't be put together in an hour on an armchair. The ideas have long been there, born of years of unsteady life. I have been talking about Syria and I had promised myself to have a travelogue published by now, but nothing has come of it, absolutely nothing. I have the outlines of several fictional stories in my head, but can't find the strength to take them and mold them gently or pound them into shape. Blogging is much too easy and the poorest excuse for not writing: “But I AM writing – I'm blogging.”

So for the new year, I'll try to have the changes that have been welling up inside me shift my equilibrium of seriousness and fun towards the former. I've always been doing things spontaneously and without too much drama. I will continue to refuse agonizing about the consequences of future possibilities. When things happen, I'll see how they are and I'll deal with them. But I've also come to understand, at a deep, almost physical level, that some sort of strategy or game plan is important, that without a goal, a lot of pursuits are vain and wasteful, no matter how much pleasure they offer.

In words that are deliberately obfuscated, this means that I will write less to write more, that I'll do less to do more, that I might give up certain privileges I treasure to win infinitely amplified happiness, and that I'll consider arriving where before traveling seemed the only option. Without the immobility of the past few days and the undisturbed hours of contemplation, I would have no idea how eagerly I'm looking forward to the new year.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

hits and misses

This afternoon at five o'clock, I parked the van I had rented for a day in the parking lot behind the local superstore. I took a long, deep breath of relief, open the door and stepped into a frigid December afternoon. After an all-out frenzy that lasted two days and thanks to a pair of priceless hands, my move was done.

The weekend of moving had started early on Saturday with a few hours behind a convulsively hissing Kärcher that soaked my carpets with a yellow fluorescing detergent, rinsed them thoroughly and then sucked them dry, more or less. I was initially disappointed that the biggest stains remained on the carpet, but the waste water from the Kärcher was black, so the cleaning clearly had had the desired effect.

The distance between the two apartments was less than three miles, but as the roads were busy with panicking Christmas shoppers, I started driving stuff to my new place only when the stores were about to close on Saturday. By one in the morning, the last box had been moved and the last bit of bulky furniture hauled up to the second floor. Not too bad, considering that the first box had only been filled on Friday. Today, I finished up, cleaning the old apartment and bringing it to a state that will make the landlord proud – a bit worn in some corners but in others undeniably cleaner than when I moved in.

I walked away from the van briskly, along a busy street and into the night. Fifteen minutes later, I entered the second Caffe Nero of Hammersmith, somewhat out of the way east of the tube station and much less crowded than the other one to the west. It's a nice place to hang out. I got a cappuccino and a piece of chocolate cake and slumped down in one of their comfortable leather chairs, stretching my legs and letting my drive rest – for what seemed like the first time in months.

My thoughts were free to contemplate the ramifications of the move. Quickly after deciding on the place, I had had second thoughts. It was bigger, for sure, and not on the ground floor, but it also seemed in a worse shape than my previous flat. Would it turn out to be a bad move, owing to the haste and hurry with which I had pulled it off, I was wondering.

Today, things had cleared up. I'm not going to regret the move, and I'm going to love the new apartment. I'm excited about a new neighborhood that's so much livelier than the old one and better connected by public transport. I'm going to miss Central line – the fastest and most reliable in London, the one that let me down only once – but having five tube stops less than a ten-minute walk away will make up for the loss – and I'll have a direct bus to college for the days it rains too much for walking.

Oh, that reminds me of the many miserable days I've spent cumulative hours at the bus stop waiting for the 49 that never came. Whenever the weather was too horrid for riding my bike, I'd walk the fifteen minutes to the Green, getting so thoroughly soaked that I might as well have ridding my bike, and position myself at the bus stop watching all those other buses go by, a 31, a 260, a C1 – Should I take this for the longer trip to South Kensington or wait it out until the 49 comes sidling around the glass edge of the Westfield? – another 31, another 260, and still no 49. On Monday, I'll take the 49 one last time when I do the inventory and return the keys. After that, no more wasting time at the bus stop. I'm so excited.

I'm not going to miss the Arabic grocery stores that I had initially been enthusiastic about. Their brightly lit, colorful fruit and vegetable displays were always mortally disappointing, the produce frequently old and sometimes rotten. Their sales people gave the impression of passionately hating infidels and objecting to having to serve them. Seeing their hateful faces was funny at first but got old quickly. Once I discovered the Waitrose inside the newly opened Westfield, there was no going back. Their employees were cheerfully friendly and their victuals fresh.

I'm not going to miss the Polish store either, though their dark, heavy full-grain bread was a treat that I never tired of. It easily topped the loaves at Forrest the Baker. But there's German bakery only ten minutes from my new flat, on the way to college. I have great hopes for it.

My hopes are not very high for finding a place like the Westfield in Fulham, and I'll miss it. Normally, I would find it odd to mourn the loss of a shopping center, but the shiny new mega-mall was a precious addition to my neighborhood. Plenty of shopping opportunities, coffee shops, and comfy chairs with free wireless. Not a bad place to hang out for a few hours, working on a story or a post and watching the crowds.

I'll miss the Nepalese Tandoori restaurant around the corner and the Damascene and the Northern Thai restaurants further up the road, as much for the food as for the memories. But I'll make new memories in a new neighborhood, and I'll find new great restaurants. I've already seen a Taiwanese grill that looks very promising.

The street I lived on was rather busy, leading traffic to the motorway and cop cars and ambulances to the rough council estate nearby. But for all the noise, the street was entirely residential. The new street is mixed residential/commercial, with flats sitting on top of ground-floor shops. There's a grocery store just across the street and a coffee shop next to it. Next door, there's a kebab shop and a barber. It will feel like living in a city, and I'm thrilled.

Of course I could just be imagining things. What do I know what my hood looks like around the next corner? My coffee finished, I pushed my chair back from the low table in front of my and get up, ready to head back into the winter cold outside and stroll to my new home. Let's see what kind of unexpected treasure I find on the way.

Friday, December 18, 2009

getting moving

Today was my last proper day in my present apartment. I'm lying in bed, it's dark, and everything feels as it should. Were I to switch on the lights, however, the situation would look different. Boxes are scattered about, shelves have come off walls, and closets are empty. I have started to move out.

A few days ago, I picked up the key to the new apartment, but I'm only paying rent from Monday, the same day that I have to hand over the key to my current place. This good timing didn't originate in my new landlord's generosity. Rather, I had complained about the soiled carpets and requested a deep cleaning. I had got five days' free rent instead. Financially, that was good deal, but it brought with it the potential that I would hate my new place from the beginning, hate it with the bitter passion that I reserve for grime and dirt.

To be honest, I wasn't sure how dirty the carpet really was. I remember it struck me during the viewing, and I made a mental note to petition for cleaning. For fear of confirming my early devastating assessment, I've been reluctant to reenter my new apartment, but today I couldn't put it off any longer. After all, I needed to get going with the move. There are only two days left.

This afternoon then, after a rather short day at work – everyone is in Christmas mode already and doesn't think of working – I walked over to my new apartment for another quick look. On the way, I saw an equipment rental place and it hit me that, instead of resigning myself to the situation, I could just clean the carpets while the flat was still empty.

Reserving an industrial carpet cleaner for a few hours tomorrow lifted my spirits substantially. Now I really couldn't wait to get to my new place and take it in, without a hurried agent breathing down my neck. I unlocked the door next to a mobile phone shop, strode down an endless hallway to the rear of the building, took the stairs up to the second floor, and was momentarily confused.

How many floors does a seven-story building have? It depends on where you are. In the US, it would have seven floors, as it should. In Britain, the building would only rise to the sixth floor, as the ground floor and the first floor are two different levels. I live in Britain, but (attempt to) write American English. I will live right above the ground floor. Is that clear?

I turned the key in my door, opened it and entered another endless hallway, parallel to the one below but pointing, from my very subjective point of view, in the opposite direction. The hallway, covered with blue carpet, led to a living room, also covered with blue carpet. I looked left, I looked right; I was baffled and relieved.

The carpet didn't look nearly as bad as I had remembered. It was in need of a thorough shampooing, but there was nothing, no spots or major stains, that would resist the effort and make the flat painful to inhabit. In fact, I was already moving in mentally. The speakers would go into the two corners left and right of the big white wall that would serve as a projection screen, the bookshelf into a third, the dining table into the last. The beds needs rotating and the kitchen rearranging. The move has officially started.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

travel the world

This afternoon, our lab celebrated Christmas. We went to a posh restaurant for a nice lunch of Japanese-inspired French cuisine, colorful constructs of food artfully arranged on large plates. The boss paid for the wine. When all were full and happy, having entered the state of bliss that comes with good food and abundant alcohol, we started distributing the presents. In our lab, that's a serious affair.

Everyone brings something funky valued five pound, wraps it in neutral aluminum foil, and chucks it on a big heap. Then we start throwing dice. Whoever has a one or a six takes a gift. When the heap in the middle of the table has dwindled to nothing, the throwing of the dice continues, and it's still the six and the one that matter. If luck is with you and you get either of these numbers, you can lovingly steal someone else's gift. Whatever you have in front of you when time runs out, announced by a piercing lab timer, is yours. In contrast to the year before, I was left with a gift at the end and eagerly unwrapped it. It was a Tim Burton DVD.

The disk was not what made this a memorable evening for me. I hadn't come for the giving. After all, gifts with meaning aren't carelessly thrown on a pile right before a mad dash for possessions starts. Someone must put them in your hand, his or her eyes conveying a sense of significance, or they're just an acquisition, a thing.

Instead, what I really appreciated about this afternoon was the opportunity to hang out with colleagues in more informal ways that normally. After the restaurant, most of the lab went for drinks to a local pub, and it was there that we could catch up on all the conversation that we never hold when we go for lunch between experiments or for quick beers after work. The Christmas party offers more time, ten hours of hanging out.

I found myself talking to a colleague who had grown up near the border between Wales and England. Not much to talk about, you might think, but I remembered Bruce Chatwin's On The Black Hill, which I had read less than a year ago. This book describes inconsequential farm life in the rural void between Wales and England in the most vivid and captivating way possible. The English language is elevated to a divine means of communication. Each word chosen with the utmost care, the novel becomes a shrine to writing. There's hardly a plot and not much happens overall, but that which does is described most clearly and breathtakingly.

My friend didn't know Bruce Chatwin. This gave me the opportunity to pontificate on the virtues of the greatest travel writer ever, and laud his mastery of words and story lines. Halfway through my soliloquy, it occurred to me that I wasn't really the right person to do that. Never having read the ground-breaking and paradigm-shifting In Patagonia, On The Black Hill was my only reference. It's not even travel writing, but it was enough to get us started.

We started talking about traveling. It would seem that I have done well this year, seeing Syria, Paris, Ontario and Quebec. But traveling is not about seeing places. Traveling is about meeting people. Even in that regard, I haven't done too badly. Syria in particular was a blast.

However, Syria was also a point on my trajectory away from down-to-earth traveling. The dust and heat of the desert, inevitable in the Middle East, is liable to send even the lowest-key traveler on the search for luxurious accommodation. A day without water or shade is enough to drive even the hardiest individual into the interchangeable blandness of an air-conditioned five-star hotel. I nearly succumbed, and the thought alone made me sick because five-star luxury is not what I aspire to. I'm looking for conversations and interactions with locals in villages. I found that on my holiday, but not to the extent than I had hoped for.

My labmate outlined an alternative reality, closer to my dreams. He had gone to Morocco a few years ago, spending several months traveling around, moving from city to city and into the mountains, following obscure attractions and sudden inspirations. He had a pack on his back and desire burning hot in his heart. He stayed in hostels mentioned in guidebooks or in rooms offered by strangers. He met more friends he knew he had. He lost plenty a penny following professed friendliness that concealed fraud but collected priceless memories from encounters with locals that valued hospitality, a good conversation and mint tea on the porch. I envied his experience.

I also told him I'd do a similar thing this spring. When my marathon is done and over with and I'm not a slave to my goals anymore, I'll hop onto a flight down to Andalusia. Marrakesh will be my goal and a quick glance on the map my only preparation. There must be some buses down to the Straight of Gibraltar, there must be a ferry across, there must be trains to Casablanca and further to Marrakesh. I will take two weeks and the best travel companion of all and go on an adventure unlike any I've done in a good ten years. My notebook, a camera and a backpack full of essentials will be all that's needed to sustain me. I'm so excited. Bruce Chatwin once said that life is a journey that takes place on foot. It's time for me to reclaim that.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


On Friday, Stephen Curry, a professor at Imperial College and avid blogger on Nature Network turned projectionist. He invited students, staff and friends for a screening of the film Naturally Obsessed, an hour-long documentary of the development of three graduate students in Larry Shapiro's lab at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City.

The film is one of the few that dive into the murky waters of lab life and show it how it is, accurately but in an amusing and entertaining way. The daily struggle of the three students, with their projects but also the ramifications of their decision to start grad school in the first place, are depicted vividly, and both resonated with me. I still remember the days when the degree was the only light at the end of a dark tunnel, when the only thing that kept me going was the insight that if I quit, I'd walk away with nothing.

What's more, I still work in a structural biology lab like Shapiro's, and what makes life hard for the film's protagonists makes life hard for me as well. Things don't work most of the time. Constructs have to be recreated slightly differently, crystallization conditions modified, instrument settings tweaked – all in the hope of overcoming the string of failures stretching on for too long. When you're after a structure, there's really not much on the way that can be passed off as a result and not much that can be shown for the effort.

The filmmakers' idea of a scientist are in the film's title. One has to be obsessed to be successful is the implied message. Without obsession, one will sooner or later find alternative outlets for one's talents and energy. Academic science may be hugely attractive for its freedom and the congeniality of most participants, but it's also forbidding for poor remuneration and cruel pressure. One must push ahead single-mindedly and without respite, to stave off the competition and advance one's career. Most great discoveries are made outside the lab – because great scientists are maniacs that think of science continuously and never let go. They're in it with passion and with obsession.

I'm doubtful that I'm filled with the same passion, that I strive obsessively, and I'm unsure whether I've got what it takes to succeed in the lab. On the other hand, I enjoy my work immensely. The implicit creative aspect of choosing a baffling question and then prying an answer from it with whatever tool seems appropriate (and with those that don't if nothing else is left) is extremely gratifying. The rush of discovery when a vexing problem seems one step closer to being solved is exhilarating. It's hard to really want to do anything else, to mount a credible campaign aimed at a job outside academia.

The movie's expounding of the (frequently hidden) beauty of doing science had a profound effect on me, but one that I can't really put in words. The film hadn't emptied buckets of motivation over me. I hadn't seen role models that I couldn't wait to emulate. In fact, the dropping out of academic science of two of the movie's protagonists made me rather contemplative. But I walked back to the lab with an optimistic bounce after the showing, and I approached my bench with renewed verve. Some important discovery was waiting for me, patiently sitting in the dark and resisting my efforts only to draw the best out of me.

When I was finally done with the last experiment, the clock nearing nine, I took the tube over to Piccadilly Circus and ambled down to the Royal Academy of Arts where the doors of the Anish Kapoor exhibition were being readied for their final closure. Bypassing a winding line of hopeful prospective visitors, I squeezed in, picking up a ticket booked over the phone. It was almost midnight when I left, filled with visual excess and out of breath. A long day had finally come to an end.

On the bus home, I let the hours pass through my mind again. I don't think I'm obsessed, but I relish intensity. Living a full life is unfortunately unlikely to turn me into a successful scientist. But it's fun, and what better reason can there be to keep going?

Tuesday, December 08, 2009


After long weeks of thoughtful deliberation and contemplation of the ramifications of what I have said, I'm taking the opportunity of the public exposure that this blog affords me to recant an earlier statement. I might carry little packets of gel in transatlantic airliners, but I am not a terrorist.

I had said it in jest and no one took me seriously. The MI5 hasn't paid me a visit, and I haven't been expelled from the Queen's bosom. However, in other activities, which didn't even involve transgressions of the law, I have, by association, been suspected of being a terrorist. Allow me shed some light on the issue.

Over the last years, London has grown increasingly paranoid of an imminent terrorist attack. It seemed that with every day the catastrophe of 2005 receded into the past, the alert level increased on the official danger-o-meter. In a sad way, this great city felt like a one-horse town trying to increase its self-esteem by masochistically overestimating its vulnerability. The most normal and innocuous behaviors were suddenly deemed unacceptable as they carried imagined dangers.

London is the destination of over fifteen million visitors each year; yet one of the prime occupations of tourists, photography, became associated with the devil. Central London is a gigantic carpet of sights, attractions and stimuli, but those trying to capture the visual splendor were often approached by police, stopped and questioned – under a particularly harsh and sweeping section of the Counter Terrorism Act.

The aggressiveness against photographers has not only baffled tourists but especially annoyed locals passionate of the shutterbox. While I haven't been at the receiving end of any police idiocy, I've listened to plenty of aggrieved complaining when meeting with fellow photographers. Thinking of oppressed countries like Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, I've been wondering how far people are happy to relinquish their freedom to gain an illusion of security.

Not too far, apparently. The stories of harassment and intimidation have become so common that the situation has become untenable. The other day, even the BBC took note, and the issue exploded. A few days later, a directive was sent to the chief constables of England and Wales's 43 police forces, instructing them not to abuse the provisions in the Counter Terrorism Act and not to give photographers and unduly hard time, as revealed by The Independent.

A good year after Google finished photographing the entire city to near-atomic detail and put all the photos online, someone has finally realized that a tourist with a digicam is no more of a danger than a granny with a cell phone. It is good to see that, for once, reason has prevailed.

Sunday, December 06, 2009


Today was the second Sunday of Advent, but I nearly missed it, missed it as much as I had missed the first. Time as defined by others passes me by, and for me, there is no Christmastime until there's Christmas and I'm in Germany with my family. Here in London, I do my work and live my life, and don't see much outside that.

There is too much to my life already; more, it seems, than I can juggle without dropping bits. At the moment, nearly all energy outside work is devoted to finding an apartment. In two and a half weeks, I'll be homeless. I face the prospect of selling the Big Issue in front the Shepherd's Bush Station, frightening if it weren't for the temporary escape of a flight to Germany to celebrate Christmas and forget about the bridge that's waiting for me, for me to sleep underneath.

I don't want to sleep rough. It's cold, wet and miserable inside a cardboard box, even when it's generously stuffed with the Evening Standard, which has recently changed its distribution model to give-away-for-free. Before, after and, increasingly, while at work, I scour aggregators of rental properties for flats new to the market that might live up to my lofty standards.

I have seen nearly a dozen properties. Some were atrocious, others simply not right. Some were nice but in the wrong place or in the wrong price bracket. I've had to tell all those hard-working agents that drove me around with hope in their eyes that I won't submit an offer because I will only say yes when I know the place is right. That hasn't happened yet.

Outside of looking for apartments, my head is submerged in words. Books wanting to be read haunt me like ghosts, and my blog starts snarling at me when I don't add a post at least once a week. I've been silent for twelve days, and I haven't read a single page. The worst is that I don't really know why.

The apartment hunt, for all its terrifying urgency, doesn't take up much of my nights. I'm aware that Christmas is coming up, but I have no obligations. I need to buy no presents nor write cards. No particular problem worries me, and yet... Convoluted thoughts stream from my head in twisted strands, leading nowhere but clogging the system.

I feel the need to clean my brain, rediscovering priorities and recovering strength that seems to have been lost under crossing layers of possibilities, options and contingencies. When everything happens at the same time, nothing gets done. It's even worse when all that's happening are the distant promises of opportunities.

Last week, a friend from the old days came to visit me. We had shared a room in a sheltered dormitory when we both attended high school nearly two decades ago. Our lives have diverged over the years, but we had stayed in contact. I was curious to see how we would get along and looking forwards to a few days filled with diversions and fun.

The first two days, despite hanging out in pubs, chatting and reminiscing together, I wasn't quite present. My mind was still musing pointlessly about, as far as I could tell, nothing in particular and distracting me greatly. By now, though, I have regained control.

We spent today in town, going to a concert at lunchtime and then enjoying the long shadows of the December sun in Regent's Park. It was a day for fun's sake with no musing, thinking or contemplating. Back home at night, I rescued the Räuchermann from its silk paper-covered cardboard box where it sleeps throughout the year, lit an incense cone and two candles, and started the festive season. Nothing on my mind for now.

Monday, November 30, 2009

cooking science

I was digging in the dark underneath the desks in the office, threading category-five cables around table legs, splicing them into thick braids and plugging them into the battery of jacks in the wall in an attempt to stop the networking from not working when a sudden commotion of feet almost hurt me fatally. Chairs were pushed back simultaneously, and people leapt up and ran off, chattering agitatedly. After diligently connecting the last cable, I resurfaced with a questioning look on my face. The lab had gone for a talk, I was informed by one who had stayed behind, on cooking.

Any other day, this answer would have completely mystified me. It's not as if Imperial had much to do with gastronomy. But today, upon hearing seemingly incongruous words, understanding clicked in my head. The talk in question was given by Hervé This, director of the molecular gastronomy group at AgroParisTech and developer of some of the crucial concepts of molecular cooking. I had booked two tickets for the talk a fortnight earlier. Now just five minutes remained to make it across to the auditorium.

When I got there, it was nearly packed to capacity. Professor This was obviously popular. I had never heard his name before but I had encountered the term molecular cooking, in reference to two acclaimed restaurants – The Fat Duck a few leagues outside of London and El Bulli on a deserted stretch of the Costa Brava – and their way of whipping up culinary wizardry. I had mostly been skeptical and had gone to the talk to see what was behind the hype.

Hervé This had set out, in the 1980s, to discover and understand the processes at the interface of chemistry and physics that take place when a dead cow is transformed into a juicy steak or an egg into an omelette, or when milk, sugar and flower join hands to create a cake. In the process, and over the years, he had learned how to modify seemingly pedestrian systems to create the most startling effects.

The talk was a Powerpoint presentation generously interspersed with practical demonstrations that were live-cast onto the big screen behind the podium and workbench. This whipped egg whites up with water to create voluminous foams, but he wasn't a pastry chef. He was a scientist, a devoted physical chemist full of questions. What determines the maximal volume one egg white can be whipped up to? What happens if you use orange juice instead of water? Or coffee? What if you heat the foam in a microwave?

He demonstrated the last one. The water bubbles trapped in the foam come to a boil. Evaporation causes the foam to expand; heat causes it to solidify. After fifteen seconds, he knocked from his beaker a fluffy cylinder that wouldn't taste like much but could be the carrier for anything, the above-mentioned orange juice, for example. More can be done with eggs, all to answer the question, What if? Whip them up with oil and heat them, fry them and uncook them with a strong reducing agent, or poach them in alcohol.

The last experiment was done with laboratory-grade ethanol, but any strong liquor would do. This claimed to be using Scotch Whisky, which was oddly fitting given that it was St. Andrew's Day, the Scottish national holiday. Outside the fair island of Great Britain, it has probably not registered, and it doesn't matter, but Scotland aspires to be an independent nation. Breaking free from from the yoke of England is the goal of the Scottish National Party, the strongest party in the Scottish Parliament.

My opinion matters even less than Scottish independence, but I'm all for it. It would make a bunch of funny-speaking people very happy, and the only difference for me to notice would be a lighter tax bill. And if the import of Scotch Whisky were suddenly taxed, I'd buy the Irish variety and could poach an egg just the same.

The ovular overture set the stage nicely. The experiments could be admired by people without any scientific background. However, This insisted that this was not fun. He kept posing questions, the answers to which he happily admitted not knowing, and made the audience think. Why do we cook, why do we cook the way we cook, and how could we prepare food differently for maximized taste and texture? More chemistry and physics are needed to contemplate these questions than you would ever imagine.

Take a dish that a famous chef and friend of This's cooked, smoked salmon with grapefruit jelly. The salmon smells but the jelly tastes. How to give the dish the taste of smoked salmon but the fresh smell of grapefruit? This kind of reengineering is called molecular cooking. Taken to the extreme, it means extracting exactly and only the desired flavors and recombining them with appropriate carriers to give bite and shape. This is what's happening at The Fat Duck and El Bulli, if I understand correctly.

I won't find out soon because I don't have a reservation for either restaurant, but I am motivated to try my luck with foamy eggs infused with foreign flavors. I hope to have a microwave, which I'd need to give these dishes structure, in the kitchen of my new apartment. Of course, I'd have to find an apartment first. Good thing the network is back up.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

hunting house

Two weeks ago, I sent notice that I would vacate my apartment right before Christmas. The decision took shape when increasingly desperate appeals for necessary maintenance and upgrades of the apartment were met with something worse than a deaf ear. For months I heard sweet words of projects just about to start, and would I just be a little bit more patient?

My patience had run out. The flat is still nearly as nice as when I moved in, but it also still has the same flaws, notably broken windows and poor thermal insulation. In addition, increasing amounts of humidity have recently crept in, threatening not only wallpapers and carpets, but also my clothes and electronics. With the landlord refusing to take action, I had to.

For about a week now, I've been on top of the rental market in the W12 and W14 postcodes. The experience hasn't been in the least satisfactory. I have called a number of agencies and viewed a handful of properties. They were all advertised, without fail, as spacious, nice, and good value for money. All were disappointments.

On Thursday I caught a brief glance of a one-bedroom at the tail end of fashionable Portobello Road. The tenants hadn't left yet and clearly resented the invasion of their privacy. The agent was aware of this and very considerate. We didn't spend more then thirty seconds in the flat. This probably made the tenants happy, but didn't give me much time to look around. The only impression I could form was that I was being rushed. I chucked the property off my list before I even left it, about 27 seconds into the viewing.

On Friday I saw two more places, on one of which I had pinned high hopes. It was in a desirable area, dating back to Edwardian times when building standards were considerably higher than during the Victoria period that preceded it. In Victorian times, London's urban poor were moved from the slums they inhabited to quickly constructed cheap hovels meant to last for a few decades. They stand to this day, a hundred and twenty years on, their decrepitude only poorly concealed under thick layers of heavy paint.

The Edwardian building I rode up to looked nice, the agent drove up in a Mercedes, and there was space to park my bike. I was ecstatic. When the door was unlocked and opened, I entered the paradise that had formed in my imagination – and was rudely yanked from my dreams. The kitchen was relatively large but old. Someone had shoved a sagging sofabed next to the fridge to create the illusion of a living room. Where I would put a painting or some art acquired on my travels hung the boiler. A generous storage closet was filled wall-to-wall with a mattress. This was the bedroom. The surface area of the entire apartment was hardly more than twenty square meters. My disappointment was almost physically painful. Wincing audibly, I left. I ran.

And yet, what I had just seen was nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing was obviously broken or rotten. Spacious accommodation is rare. Kitchens turned to living rooms, deceptively called open-space kitchen reception areas, are quite common. I have my own ideas, though. I don't want to see dirty dishes when I kick back to watch a movie, or hear laundry slosh around the washing machine. I also need space for books, clothes and stuff accumulated over the years. I fear that it's going to be a tough slog to find the right place.

Hope comes from an encounter I had three weeks ago, while I was still only toying with the idea of terminating my lease. I wanted to see what was out there, get an impression of what could be expected in case I make the jump, and saw two apartments. One was on the second floor of an Edwardian building in a quiet side street. Large and empty, it was nearing the end of thorough overhaul. The carpet was brand-new. The kitchen had just been redone and contained all new appliances.

It was clear to me that I had a good deal before me. What kept me from putting a hold deposit down there and then were the cracked windows and the lack of furniture. That, and the fact that I was holding the lease to another flat. Now it feels like something of a missed opportunity. With less than four weeks to go, would another brilliant place please come up?

Friday, November 27, 2009

ethics in words

Over the last two years, I've been quite happy to amble to the Oxfam bookstore about once a week, to check out their latest arrivals, and I've been a good customer. Of the twenty-one books I've acquired this year, a full seventeen have been handed to me in return for a small donation (and several have found their way back onto the same shelves after I was done reading them).

Oxfam is unlike other bookstores in many ways. It is run by a recognized and respected charity and sells books people donate. Each store is small – with the exception of the flagship in Marylebone – and carries a very limited and totally random selection, which for me is part of the appeal.

Of course it's nice to get what looks like a brand new copy of a recent bestselling paperback for two pounds, three pounds at most. Of course it's pleasant to do good while you spend, sending pounds down to Africa to help people endure the atrocities of tribal warfare or the famines caused by corrupt governments just a bit longer.

But before the altruistic and thus highly satisfying action of handing over the money that I'm not going to miss comes the thrill of discovery. My eyes expertly scan shelves they have seen countless times, looking for a difference, a spine that wasn't there the week before, a name imprinted on the to-read list in my head.

Never has shopping felt so good, and I could have easily turned my brain off and settled into the bliss of smug self-righteousness. But I can't help thinking – and I like to write – and I made a disturbing connection. It occurred to me that buying books second-hand is not much different from downloading music illegally or copying chapters from a friend. The unsurpassable prices come at the cost of no compensation for either creators or publishers. How ethical is that?

There are a hundred arguments that this is no problem. Buying new is no necessity. The capitalist system might be dependent on excessive and ever-increasing consumption, but that doesn't mean everyone is forced to buy in. There's nothing healthier than people giving away things they don't need anymore, and a business model based on the facilitation of redistribution is a natural extension of that attitude. Looked at it philosophically, books, like ideas, should travel and spread.

And yet, quite a few arguments can be made against the Oxfam stores. With their volunteers and the free stock they drive commercial second-hand book sellers out of business. They also, eventually, reward need and not ability by siphoning money from writers into the bottomless financial bogs of humanitarian aid.

As so often, there are many sides to this story. I've decided to rediscover the one that's less familiar to me. This weekend, I'll break with tradition and buy a book in a regular bookstore. Good thing Foyles offers 15% off.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

more sleep

A zombie is traversing town, dragging his heavy body through narrow lanes full of tribesmen billowing to the sounds of the shopping dance. He staggers down an alley with stiff legs, as if walking on stilts. His gaze is firmly directed at an infinity that is eclipsed by the urban landscape. He is a world of one, oblivious of the bustle of heated commercial activity, a mechanic man in a soup of floppy toys.

I notice him when he bounces into a flock of elderly ladies with silver hair and shopping bags of nauseating fluorescent beige. I raise my head and look through the foggy windows of a cozy teahouse when I hear the dull chatter of subdued anger, an emotion that the British are masterfully adept at expressing stealthily. A scene of minor mayhem unfolds outside.

After smashing into the first two ladies and nearly spilling them onto the wet cobbles, the zombie just marches on, not noticing the hot hisses of reproach behind him. A few moments later, he is gone, engulfed by the Sunday-afternoon crowd that fills the space between the shops to either side most efficiently. The physics are bewildering.

Crowd displacement is a science that is poorly understood and incompletely reconciled with the fundamental laws of nature. The motions of individuals in a sea of people cannot be modeled and the ramifications of two streams of people on collision course cannot be predicted. Immobile object add another level of complexity. Outside the coffee shop remains the gaggle of lady shoppers, bewailing the cruel attack they have fallen victim to. While they are still collecting themselves in a way that, again, only the British are capable of, the crowd sweeps them up and washes them away, towards the lights of Regent Street.

Darkness set in hours ago, swallowing the skies overcast with sadness, but it is not night yet. Star-shaped nets weaved from points of light stretch between the buildings on either side of the street. A constant blue twinkle dribbles sluggishly from the swaying meshes, replacing distant stars invisible behind invisible clouds.

Darkness has contracted the space above the pre-Christmas rush. Façades are lit to the third floor at most, and beyond the carpet of light that blankets Regent Street, the void of space remains unseen. The town has been compacted into two dimensions, oppressing anyone who attempts to walk with his head held high.

I look up again. The zombie is still there, but the window is different this time. Warm clothes for the Scottish gentry are draped over boxes of sienna and ochre. I'm outside, looking in and realize that I stare at my reflection. The zombie is me. Cold, wet, cross-eyed and dead-tired, I've been erring through Central London for the past hour and a half. I've been looking for a coffee shop to warm up and for a quick nap, but all tables were occupied and all seats taken.

Now I'm left with Tartan vests and cardigans. Suddenly, a 94 screeches to a halt next to me, yanking me from my textile reverie. With a terminal effort, all that I'm capable of today, I climb aboard, struggle upstairs and slouch into a seat. My head, already unconscious, bangs against the window with a thud. While the bus takes me west, I dream of sleep.

Friday, November 20, 2009

early morning

My alarm rang at 7 this morning, loudly, but not piercingly enough to cut through the thick layer of sleep shrouding me from the world outside my dreams. Nearly an hour later, I jumped out of bed in a mad frenzy of the body, though my mind was still suffused with soporific lethargy. I hopped on my bike and rode to College to meet a friend for a writer's breakfast.

Note that I said writer's breakfast, not writers' breakfast. My friend is not only astonishingly skilled with the pen but also a rich reservoir of creativity from which the most unexpected thoughts spring freely. She had just come back from a creative nonfiction writing workshop and was eager to put some of the strategies for increasing output and productivity suggested there into practice.

Ours was a variation on the theme of morning pages. Traditionally, one would sit down every morning and write two or three pages of random stuff, not with the intent of publishing but simply as an exercise. Like a fictional diary or a rough blog that no one will ever read. I guess the idea is to write profusely about anything that comes up and to collect material that might later come in handy when penning larger pieces. Creating your own source material, in a way.

This is quite a bit different from how I use the blog, though quiet similar to what I had initially intended. The blog was supposed to be a writer's laboratory, an incubator for originality and an immediate workshop for the training of my paltry skills. Write often, quickly and spontaneously was to be the motto. Improvement will inevitably come with practice.

I write often and sometimes spontaneously but never quickly. It takes me as long to edit a post as it takes to write it in the first place. The reason is that I write for an audience, though I'm loth to admit it and never planned to. Over the years, the only change I've noticed in my writing is that it's become more prolix, with a-thousand-page posts nothing out of the ordinary. Something clearly went wrong. I took this morning as a change for redress.

The problem is that I am not very creative. Sitting down behind the bluish screen hovering above my coffee, I chose the most straightforward and predictable topic conceivable. Staring into eternity beyond the white wall of the library café didn't inspire my imagination to run circles around reality. But at least it got me to writing, out of the blue, with no preformed thoughts in my head, in less than thirty minutes, a few paragraphs that I'm not afraid of showing. That's surely worth getting up early for.

on my way out

When I opened the door to my apartment this evening, a smell of cold, wet leaves greeted me. There's nothing wrong with such a smell on an autumnal walk through Holland Park, on an early Sunday morning before the sun rises above the mansions flanking the park's eastern boundary. But the wet slap hit me while pushing my bike into my bedroom, to its place of shelter for the night. My apartment is rather damp, with tendency to become positively dank when it's rainy outside.

It didn't rain, and yet the smell was there, fed by moisture creeping through floorboards sitting directly on the cold ground below. When I had moved into the apartment, two and a half years ago, all had seemed fine. The first winter was ok, besides some rather cool nights. During my second winter I noticed a drastic deterioration in the habitability of my residence. There's no point drawing out all the details. Suffice it to say that I vowed not to spend another winter here.

I've had all the time in the world to take the appropriate steps. Months upon months have passed, but I am still here. Early in the summer I contacted my agency to ask what it would take to end the lease and see how they would react. They didn't. They just told me. I was surprised. I had assumed the efflux of people cause by the recession and the return of migrant workers to their home countries had turned a highly dynamic place like London into a buyers market.

It had. A month after my initial call the agent called back to wonder that he still hadn't received my notice. I told him I was still wavering, whereupon he asked why I wanted to move out and what it would take to change my mind. We reached an agreement quickly and settled on a decrease in rent of nearly ten per cent. I figured that some extra money in my pocket wouldn't be all that bad, and winter was still far off. I was also happy to stay because I was about to leave for North America for three weeks and my lease would have ended during that time. With the renewal signed, I could sleep (and travel) without worries.

Over the last six weeks, summer has turned into a mild fall. I'm still happy about the money I'm saving each month on a very competitive rent. But I'm also upset that my concerns about windswept windows and moist walls haven't been answered, and I'm remembering my vow. Not only that, I've actually acted on it. This Tuesday, somewhat on the spur of the moment, I gave notice of my desire the end the tenancy agreement. The decision was a bit rushed because a month hence on that day, I'd be leaving for Christmas in Germany. It was literally my last chance.

I wasn't sure whether it had been the right decision. Moving is always a pain. It's not so much the leaving of a space I have grown fond of and become familiar with – I'm too much of a drifter to care about this – but rather the physical pain of moving all my stuff. Then there is the struggle of finding an apartment I like in an area that's convenient for cycling to work. And there is the substantial financial burden of a new deposit, a higher rent in all likelihood, and potentially overlapping leases. Should I have stayed on and braved the conditions?

When I opened the door to my apartment this evening, and a smell of cold, wet leaves greeted me, I grinned broadly and my spirits rose. It became blatantly obvious that I had done the right thing. I was filled with happiness at the thought of getting out of this damn place and finding something nicer, dryer, warmer, fresher. Now I just have to start looking.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

meat on the plate

A few weeks ago, Lord Stern, an authority on climate change, caused quite a stir in the land of our beloved Queen when he lectured royal subjects and the rest of the world in an interview with the Times: "Meat is a wasteful use of water and creates a lot of greenhouse gases. It puts enormous pressure on the world’s resources. A vegetarian diet is better." People were up in arms. The government wants to take our meat away.

That's nonsense, of course. Lord Stern didn't speak as a government authority, and he probably doesn't want to take anyone's meat away. I'm convinced he wanted to cause some controversy and get people to think about what he considers an important subject. He was successful. I've followed his cue and been doing some thinking.

My first conclusion was that meat is tasty. I didn't have to think much about this. A life with a steak from Santa Maria del Sur is better than a vegetarian life, no matter what. Sushi from Hiro or Kiraku in Ealing can elevate spirits more than the most creatively prepared turnip. Whale carpaccio and reindeer filet in Norway or andouillette in France – vegetarians have no idea of what they're missing.

They knew what they're getting, though: a ride on the moral high horse. I've been on the receiving end of many a lecture on pointlessly suffering animals and detrimental effects of trans-fatty acids on human health. Now a new weapon has been added to the vegetarians' arsenal. Eating meat destroys our planet.

A lot of people thought that was taking it a bit far and came out forcefully to denounce Lord Stern's pronouncements and defeat the vilification of a diet that contains meat. The strategy employed by most commentators was that it's not the meat, it's the industrial way of producing it. With this I can agree, but only to an extent.

In the New York Times, the opinion of a "lawyer and livestock rancher" was published who found vegetarians just as guilty of heating the planet by eating soybeans grown on large swathes of land that used to be Amazonian rain forest – the same kind of soybeans that cows eat in much larger quantities, while belching and farting methane, so they can become a steak. I don't think this argument sticks. Another point was that everyone could just get meat from small farms that raise livestock in traditional ways that are not nearly as bad for the environment.

It's worthwhile putting a little farm with happy cows and pigs and a bunch of chattering chickens fluttering about the yard before your mind's eye. The farmer has a personal connection with each animal. He provides for them, feeds them and shelters them, and when their time has come he kills them most humanely. Idyllic, isn't it? Now picture McDonalds, selling millions of burgers each day. (Americans alone eat three cheeseburgers a week on average.) Will all that meat ever come from non-industrialized farms? Will fast-food chains and their customers be willing to pay what it costs to raise livestock slowly, ethically and in keeping with the environment?

I don't think so, and that's one of the crucial points of the discussion. The industrial production of meat might contribute to global warming, but changing that takes much more than saying, close the factories. There would be much less meat around, and prices would rise significantly. Add to that the fact that the number of meat eaters is actually increasing globally (owing to increased prosperity in developing countries), and it becomes clear that, as so often, change must begin in the head.

People must become aware of the consequences of eating a three-quid chicken or two burgers for two bucks. No one needs to become a vegetarian, but everyone should look at his or her meat consumption and decide whether it's sustainable and morally defensible. If behavioral change comes from these ruminations, Lord Stern is to be saluted.

It would be a rather vacuous post if all I did were copy articles from across the internet and regurgitate opinions. Lo and behold, there is some substance. Sometime this year, way before the current controversy erupted, I stopped eating chicken, mainly because most chicken tastes like the misery the birds endure in their caged hell-on-earth. How is it possible to raise a chicken on what the carcasses fetch in the stores later? I can imagine the living conditions. I can imagine them vividly by eating the chicken. It's in the taste, and it was the taste that made me abandon it.

This happened quite naturally, a decision stemming from a gut feeling, my taste imposing its will. But drenched by recent waves of public discussion, I've made another premature New Year's resolution. The first came to light nearly three weeks ago and concerned training with passion and running fast. Today's resolution concerns meat. Starting in 2010, I will only eat good meat from happy animals. I will stay away from chicken unless the bird was hand-raised by a loving farmer in Bresse, and I won't touch pigs from factories. That implies that I will eat vegetarian at the Imperial cafeteria until they convince me that they get their meat from sustainable sources. That also means asking for the provenience of meat at restaurants and maybe cooking more at home.

I questioned my eating habits for the first time in 2003, after reading Fast Food Nation, an eye-opening book. Interspersed between the gore and graphic violence of the slaughterhouses were inspiring episodes of ranchers lovingly grass-feeding their animals and deeply caring for them. Some ranches had websites with live-streams from their barns, so potential customers could verify the proper treatment of the animals. (They couldn't pick their favorite cow, though.)

When I, sufficiently enthusiastic about a farm in Park City that was mentioned in the book, went down to Wild Oats on Fourth South and inquired about grass-fed farm-raised beef, the guy behind the meat counter just stared at me blankly, and my enthusiasm waned (but I turned into a flexitarian). Now, six years and several green, organic and ethical hypes later, I'm sure that Whole Foods sells some fine steaks from hand-fed cows. They might not come cheap, but that's the point. Eat better, eat less, and pay the same. Save the planet by doing something good to yourself. Time to get my own high horse to joust the vegetarians from theirs.

Monday, November 09, 2009

glory night

Winter has come suddenly. The weekend was fine; it was even sunny on Saturday. But today, a harsh cold befell this town. After riding my bike home from work, I was frozen to the bone, my fingers numb and my chest paralyzed. Despite the physical pain, the cold is only superficial. My heart is warm with impossible memories, stories of a lifetime compressed into a few months. Twenty years ago today, the Wall came down.

It was the most important day of my life, it changed everything, and I, like every other East German, remember it as if it were only yesterday. With my family, I was sitting in front of the TV, following the evening news peter out to make way for one of the American action series that had recently arrived on our little black-and-white screen. The A-Team or Knight Rider or some such glorious monument of TV entertainment.

Our TV was tuned to RTL, a private West German station which, like any other West German station, East Germans weren't allowed to watch. Independent of the rules, in the Elbe valley where I lived we weren't able to watch them in the first place, shielded as we were from reception by the steep hills to either side of the river. However, around Easter of 1989, a huge parabolic antenna appeared mysteriously on top of the tallest building of our neighborhood. Henceforth, thanks to cables that were presciently laid when the building were constructed, a good 15,000 people could watch three officially illegal stations in all clarity, and countless kids would attend their Ideology and Interpretation of History classes in school with intellectual ammunition that their teachers didn't have and certainly didn't approve of. The installation of this satellite dish is my personal crucial moment because it showed clearly that things were not only changing but falling apart. A totalitarian system that can't keep its citizens' sources of information and thus opinions under tight control is doomed to fail.

RTL Aktuell, the news show, became our window to a new world, our voice of freedom, telling us about the storming of the embassies in Prague and Warsaw and about the cutting down of the Iron Curtain in Hungary. It told us about heroic demonstrations in Leipzig, swelling in numbers and courage every week, and about the official 40th birthday celebrations of our republic where the awkward guest of honor, Michail Gorbachev, received bold chants for help from dissidents that had crept into the parade.

Here's an aspect of recent history that's easily overlooked: Throughout its existence, East Germany was beholden to the Soviet Union. That huge country was always the model to emulate, its ideology pure and strong, its achievements breathtaking. It legitimized and protected our government and helped oppress dissent, sometimes brutally and sometimes subtly.

In the late 80s, the tables were slowly turning. Criticism was encouraged in Moscow, whereas East Berlin preached ideological austerity. Like Catholics sneering at the Pope for his leniency in questions of doctrine and faith, the East German regime turned away from its Soviet brother and defender for its lack of dogmatic rigor.

But the more East Germany withdrew officially, the more East Germans looked east for guidance and reassurance. The Soviet Union was omnipresent militarily, and the dissidents' only hope was that it wouldn't use its power, that it would avoid another 1953, 1956 or 1968. Gorbachev gave signals that Germans were on their own, that he wouldn't interfere. What precipitated the fall of the wall was thus the determination of the East Germans encouraged by the vision of Gorbachev. There were no other major players.

But we're not quite there yet in this story. It's still 1988. Like many others, my parents had subscribed to the Soviet monthly Sputnik that enjoyed a brief period of popularity because of its critical discussions of politics and bold reinterpretations of history that was uncontested before and whose questioning would get you jailed. When Sputnik was unceremoniously banned (in our country only), all the more people started asking questions.

Not only that. People started meeting, forming what were considered subversive groups whose only purpose it was to fill the official name of East Germany with life. While the west ridiculed the "so-called German Democratic Republic", East Germans started living it. In the chaotic months of 1989, one phrase stood above all. "We are the people." No slogan was more powerful, nothing united people more. Sick of decades of deceitful tyranny, people went on the streets to demand their voices be heard.

It brewed mightily in the little country. Demonstrations had spread to all major cities. The government had closed the last remaining borders for fear of an exodus. Suddenly all other socialist countries were off-limits. The situation became so ludicrous that only a sudden eruption could shake things free. On November 9th 1989, that day had come, and the blast, thank goodness, was peaceful.

The story is well known. The legendary press conference with its careless announcement, the unintentional promise of the freedom of travel, has been revisited a million times. East Germans could now get visas for travel abroad without having to meet preconditions. But where do you get a visa on a Thursday night? Hundreds went straight to the border, then thousands, and at some point the guards couldn't hold the masses back anymore. A human flood had forced a wall open that had stood for nearly thirty years and that had, just a few months earlier, seemed eternally impenetrable.

I remember the first time my grandmother was allowed to travel to West Germany. When she came back, after the gifts had been handed out and the shine of colors and smells elated our mood, my mom said pensively to us kids: "I don't think I will ever see this Wall gone, but I hope you will, some day." This was in 1988.

A year later, we were all sitting in front of the TV, watching the news with some attention but mostly looking forward to the Hoff when suddenly a live ticker appeared at the bottom of the screen, the first time we had ever seen such a thing. The borders are open, it said. At the same time, in my memory at least, the Scorpions started singing Wind of Change (though that song didn't come out for another year), and nothing was as it had been.

Friday, November 06, 2009

fire in the sky

At work today, I was oscillating between the bench and my desk, doing some cloning here and some modeling there. It was a good day, a little bit of this, a little bit of that, just as science should be. In the late afternoon, a succession of emails between me and a scientist in Sweden regarding some materials that we would like to give a try sucked me in.

I had to think about a bold model that this guy had presented and assess the likelihoods that different possible experimental strategies might succeed. It got dark; the office emptied. I had another tea and kept scratching my head, twiddling pencils forgetfully and tapping frantically on my keyboard – letter, letter, letter, backspace, backspace, backspace – but at some point it was time to go home.

Stepping out of the building, I was hit by an entirely unexpected flood of cold rain water. This morning, it had been nice. I was unprepared and quickly soaked, my jeans clinging heavily to my legs and impeding my movements. The ride could have been utterly sordid. It wasn't. Already on the home stretch racing straight west, I noticed the sky rip open and the rain stop. In front of me and above erupted, seemingly out of nowhere, a magnificent fireworks display, explosions of bright blue and sparkling silver.

The fireworks celebrated Guy Fawkes Night, but they were one day late. I hadn't been. Yesterday after work, I had trekked out to Lewes, a small town in Sussex near the English Channel seaside that's famous for Guy Fawkes Night parades and bonfires. It pulls off a show of such renown that it can hardly handle the crowds. This year, outside visitors were strongly discouraged from coming.

This didn't faze me. I left work at a reasonable hour and dove into the tube system with everyone else, thinking that Lewes can't be worse than this. Rush hour in London is crazy and positively invigorating as long as you're not forced to endure it every day. I've frequently talked about the energy that this town exudes. Underground, it's particularly palpable. Like a standing wave, it remains on platforms while people bounce around madly, appearing or leaving, getting on trains or alighting.

Nearly every person is in an invisible personal cocoon, reading a book precariously wedged between the shoulders of neighbors or sequestered under headphones administering music, language classes or the latest economic news as podcasts. This behavior is upheld while traveling on escalators, waiting on the platform and being squished in a train. Once the doors open, some people hatch from their cocoon, dashing off towards the stairs in an effort to minimize the time spent commuting.

Rush hour is a spectacle well worth watching, but I had a train to catch at Victoria, another cauldron of human bustle that I passed through rapidly, trying to keep up with the rush of experienced commuters. I made the train just in time.

In Lewes, it was hard to leave the station. People were everywhere. The narrow streets of the town were either barricaded off or totally crowded. Police and events stewards organized the human flow, in an impressively efficient way. We had no idea where we were going or what was going on. Nevertheless, after ten minutes of walking aimlessly and leisurely, we were in the main road just as the parade marched through.

And what a parade it was, unlike anything I've ever seen. It was part historical procession, part carnival, part infantry campaign, and it appeared out of nowhere. Not expecting it, we were shocked when ran into it and almost got burned. Walking up a hill towards flickering torches and loud shouts of excitement in a dense crowd, we caught glimpses of participants in historic costumes but had no time to appreciate them. We craned our necks only to see barrels of fire suddenly hurling in our direction.

In one delirious moment, the crowd in the street split, and each half hurtling onto the sidewalk with mild panic. Those that had waited patiently behind the curb were pushed into the walls behind them without much compassion. A few upset voices could be heard but most people took the madness stoically. The anarchy seemed to be an integral part of the event. As the parade passed by, people would venture onto the street to get a closer view, but soon enough another band of torch bearers would march by, wielding fire in people's faces and forcing them back like wild animals.

Guy Fawkes Night marks the foiled plot on the English Parliament by a bunch of Catholic conspirators, among them Mr. Fawkes, and is celebrated all over England. In Lewes, the commemoration is deeper than elsewhere because another troubling story enters the picture. During the reign of the catholic Queen Mary I. in the 1550s, seventeen protestants were burned on the stake for the heresy of their religious belief.

Not surprisingly, fire is the main theme of the night, and fireworks and bonfires are its culmination. There are a large number of bonfire societies in Lewes and the surrounding region of Sussex, and they constitute the parade. Each society is introduced by barrels of fire whose purpose it is to clear the way, and two or three giants carrying signs ablaze with the initials of the society. All participants wear historic costumes, the identities of which were steeped in tradition, no doubt, but entirely meaningless to me. I only noticed how eclectic the choices were – tons of smugglers, pirates of the Caribbean, Ottoman nobility, Native Americans, Mexican mariachi, and Mongolians. Most marchers carried torches. Each society also had at least one marching band desperately trying to be heard through the blasts of firecrackers, and a float with an effigy to be burned later in a huge bonfire outside of town. It was loud, chaotic and seemed completely uncontrolled.

However, the mood was restrained, if restrained craziness is possible. The English have a tendency to overdo parties, to binge drink on every occasion until they puke their brains out. Last night, there was nothing of this sort. People celebrated, people partied, people drank, but when the last train left for London, everyone lined up at the platform and went back home without as much as a bruise or a singed cheek. In town, the litter was already being swept up while fireworks were still shooting into the midnight sky. It was a great night out for everyone.

Monday, November 02, 2009


The last post sounded a bit strange and has elicited reactions of perplexity. Despite my attempt at humorous obfuscation, it was plain that the post was about running and about my decision to do the Oberelbe-Marathon yet again. That doesn't sound extraordinary and you might wonder why I come back to it, but the devil is in the details. Unaware, you have witnessed a seminal event.

I signed up for a sporting event six months in advance and vowed to train with all due seriousness. My running colleague in the lab reacted incredulously when I announced it to him. "That's ways away. That's not you. Are you sure about this?" To which I replied: "Mark your calendar, my friend. In preparation, we're running the Roding Valley Half Marathon together on 28 February."

He won't be the only one shaking his head in disbelief at my approach. Back in Salt Lake, I had a riding buddy who got perennially frustrated about my erratic behavior. When he went out to the gym or tortured his legs on the trainer on the porch, I would lounge on the sofa slurping buckets of Ben & Jerry's. Sometimes I wouldn't ride my bike for weeks, and yet when we went out into the mountains the next weekend, I would usually be able to keep up with him, much to his despair. Like everyone else, I needed to get into shape at the beginning of the season, but once arrived, I stayed there without effort and no matter what I did. My friend, in contrast, had to suffer for his good legs.

The previous two years, I took the same casual approach to the marathon. I ran in the park whenever I felt like it, without rhyme or reason and never when the weather was bad or too good, never when there were things going on in London or I had plans to go out. Last year, I ran less than 300 km before race day, and I didn't do intervals or anything that had the potential of hurting.

On the course, I was able to keep up with most but, crucially, not with my expectations, and that's the worst kind of failure I can imagine. I really don't care if I win the marathon or if I come in last. What I do care about is whether I achieve what I think I'm capable of. I know I can do three hours, but so far I haven't shown this. Twice I crossed the finish line in bitter disappointment.

This year, which is really next year but has already started for the purpose of bookkeeping, things will change. I'm encouraged by the uncontested fact that three times is a charm, but I'm also aware that charm will not be enough. Charm will need dedication and hard work to come through.

The seminal event that you have been witnessing is that this year, 2010, is the year that I jettison my habitual listlessness and convert to a philosophy of focused hard work. Surveying my adolescence and adulthood, I'm struck that I have hardly ever worked hard for a goal. Things tended to happen in ways that pleased me. With the marathon, I haven't been this lucky, but I'm determined to win – over my legs, over my sloth, over my laziness, and over general physical feebleness. To achieve this, I'll have to have a plan and stick to it. I have to build a base of endurance and sharpen the spikes of speed. I have to put my aspiration ahead of everything else. Whatever happens in the next half year is peripheral to big goal. Maybe this revolutionary attitude will diffuse into other aspects of my life. But if nothing else, it's going to push me to a marvelous marathon.

Friday, October 30, 2009

project 3

I am a terrorist. I tried to bring transcontinental airliners crashing to the ground, accepting the hundredfold death of innocent people without blinking. I boarded a plane with weapons of mass destruction in my pockets, explosives of unfathomable power. It would have been enough to wipe the confidence off the face of a flight marshal, enough to blow a manhole into the fuselage of a 747 or rip a wing off in mid-flight.

I'm a terrorist, and no matter what crazy positive spin you put to it, I won't turn into a heroic freedom fighter, saving his tortured people from the yoke of an imperial oppressor or blood-thirsty dictator. I am a cold-hearted, nihilistic, self-denying criminal, a man with no morals or values. Total destruction is my goal.

I'm too dangerous to mention and unaware of the threat I pose. By being concealed from my own awareness, the violence within me is amplified out of control. Even if Hillary Clinton had taken to my nuts with a pair of burning pliers, I would not have betrayed my cause or leaked the identity of my fellow-jihadis. I would have vehemently denied the existence of a plot, even if authorities had made me dangle, feet up, from a rusty nail and whipped my naked back with a cat-o-nine-tails.

In my devious plan, there were no co-conspirators. I was acting alone. You might call it cowardly. You might call it brave. But truth be told, it was accidental, and I realized only upon my return to London what risk I had posed to international aviation. It took emptying my backpack to see what mortal danger I had been transporting.

Three months ago, I spent a hilarious three days in Lake Placid, New York. I rode a bike through the woods and hung out with friends. After one particularly grim morning of rain and mud, I purchased three Clif Shots that were on sale and promptly forgot about them.

Because of the explosive potential inherent in all liquids, gels and pastes, Clif Shots need to be declared at the airport and placed in resealable transparent plastic bags. This slipped my mind and, to my infinite relief when I found them in my luggage much later, escaped the scrutiny of the security screener.

Today, I booked a flight to Dresden for 23 Apr. I also put my name down for the marathon taking places there two days later. It will be my third marathon, and, in contrast to the two before – miserable failures both of them – I will run it in under three hours. I promise. Solemnly. I won't take a vacation before May of next year. No trip to Turkey at Easter or to Paris. The beginning of next year will be filled with focus and dedication and hours spent in the park running. I have a goal to work towards. The project is called three.

If I fail (mark my words), I will stuff my body of a loser into a t-shirt that says "most pathetic lard-ass ever to slog across this planet", but I don't think it will come that far. The omens are good and the numbers aligned. Three Clif Shots will carry me to glory in my third marathon, to a time of under three hours.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


Lo was, according to the New Yorker, this indisputable beacon of authority, this inexhaustible source of trivia, my personal holy book of miscellanea, the content of the first message ever exchanged between two computers. This was forty years ago today. The message was supposed to read login, but the network crashed somewhere between the transmission of the second and the third byte.

Forty years is a bloody long in most people's lives, but in technology it's an eternity, comprising several cycles of obsolescence and rebirth. Still, every time I care to look, I'm amazed and lost for words to see how far we've come. These days, the internet is ubiquitous, pervasive and instantaneous. To no one's surprise, this post continuous after its auspicious first word, for a word it is, as if that were the normal course of things.

Also taken for granted these days is to video chat with friends or telephone them, listen to the radio, live or from a deep chest of archived treasures, watch TV or entire movies, all over the internet. None of this raises an eyebrow.

My eyebrows were raised this evening when I got home and found an envelope in the mail, addressed to the "resident" of my flat but in contrast to all the other junk mail I toss without even noticing its provenience endorsed by hand. My curiosity was tickled as I read that a mysterious visitor has missed me this afternoon at 2:47pm. He or she assured me that he'd be back (or she) but didn't say for what purpose.

I took the letter in with me and opened it over dinner – bronze-die tortiliogni and tomato and chili sauce as I had had only a measly sandwich for lunch – and was astonished and disappointed to find yet another message from the TV Licensing Authority. These guys' misdirected persistence is quite annoying and would be truly exasperating if it were my money they were wasting.

You see, in the UK, you need to pay a quarterly fee to operate a TV set legally. The fee, it its opulent entirety, goes to the BBC to ensure quality programming, to every viewer's benefit, I think. The commercial stations, which don't receive handouts, have to up their quality to compete with the BBC. Consequently, British TV has an excellent reputation.

As I don't have a TV, I don't know if that's deserved, but I do know that I resent the relentless attention by the Licensing Authority. I'm not serious in my anger, though, because every now and then, I turn to the iPlayer. This little bit of web 2.0, its development funded by the licensing fee, offers select programs after they've been shown on TV. It's brilliant, much better than TV. I can watch what I want when I want to, and I'm under no obligation to pay a thing. And thanks to the work of forty years, all shows stream in high quality and without interruptions. Happy birthday, internet.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

people watching

On this Sunday afternoon late in October, I expected dullness, greyness and more than a hint of mist in the air. If English weather is still to be relied on, it should be drizzling nearly constantly. Not enough precipitation to be called rain but, frustratingly, enough to be thoroughly soaked and cold to the bones within minutes.

My cunning plan was to dash over to the Westfield and pitch up in one of the many coffee bars overlooking the immense street-like corridors that recall sidewalk cafés but don't suffer from the wrath of the elements. I wanted to observe the bustle that's inevitable in a shopping mall and see if I could make out some memorable characters and put their idiosyncrasies into a funny little post of no particular significance. It was meant to be an exercise in writing and a bit of comfort to those of my readers who get restless during periods of blog silence.

When I stepped out of my flat and onto a road that's usually notable only for its bleakness, I saw my plan shattered in all its intricacy. Leaving the house, I entered a beautiful day, one that would not tolerate time needlessly spent inside. The switch back from daylight savings time might mark the passing of summer more clearly than the official start of fall a month earlier does, but no one seemed to have notified the sun. It shone brilliantly and with enough force to keep any autumnal chill subdued.

Truth be told, I wasn't surprised. It was laziness not fear of wetness that had kept me inside earlier. Today was the continuation of a glorious weekend, with sun, voluptuous clouds and a special light that made me regret not bringing my camera. It was fall at its best, with angelic atmospheric conditions supplemented by turning leaves ruffled by a soft breeze. Happy people ambled through the streets without worry or aim. The usual mad Londonian rush had been suspended for one day only.

In a display of my trademark decision-making rigidity, I walked over to the Westfield anyway but once inside couldn't stay there for long. I don't know what it is, but despite the airiness of the vast main concourse, I felt oppressed and stifled. Maybe it was the filtered, artificial air. Maybe it was the lack of a refreshing breeze. Whatever it was, it forced me back out into the light, back to the life of the street.

At the exit of the mall, at the interface between the corporate virtual world of the Westfield and the grit of Shepherd's Bush is a café whose opening, two months ago, had filled me with great expectations. Beyond its awful name of Cap'uccino, there was a lot of potential. The design was clean, modern and relaxed. Small tables with comfortable-looking chairs covered two floors, eschewing any discernible pattern. A battery of shiny espresso machines was parked behind a long bar stocked with Italian pastries. Everywhere were stacks of books, all written in the same language and provided for those eager to enjoy Italo Calvino or Primo Levi in the original. I don't read Italian easily but I saw myself become regular.

That was before I entered the place for the first time. The coffee was good and the cornetto delightful, but I don't expect a host to meet me when I enter a coffee shop, and show me to a table. I also don't need a menu that's bigger than said table. Where am I going to put my Eee? And where does my coffee go? Is this really the kind of hangout where I can stay of hours, lingering over coffee while catching up on a week of news in the paper? After that first visit, I haven't returned and today, I wasn't in the mood either.

Instead, I went the few extra yards to the Green with its collection of coffee shops, a wild mixture of corporate and family-run. Whatever their differences, they all share the view across the Green, potentially pleasing but continually obstructed by double-decker buses pulling by in slow motion. I got my macchiato and spread The Times out but got distracted by what happened between me and the buses before I could dig into the first story.

Humongous African ladies paraded by, carrying entire safaris on their colorful throws. Tough kids with gigantic sparkling ghetto pins in their ears marched by stiffly. There was a tall Thai girl with impossibly long legs whose only bit of clothing was a bright little something negligently slung around her hips. For a brief moment, she walked next to an identity under wraps, oblivious to the contrast. Hidden underneath copious layers of impenetrable black cloth and only revealed by two arms dangling from the largely globular shape, hovered a woman as crass in her obscurity as the Thai girl was in her exposedness. Neither provoked more than passing glances.

Nor did the Persian gentleman endlessly fiddling with his scarf, trying to pull it over his ears in a way that didn't immediately suggest a purpose. Temporarily blindfolding himself he almost banged into a ginger-haired member of one of the regional tribes, who lead an unconspicuous existence in London. It took me half a year until I met the first specimen out in the streets.

London is such an effortlessly colorful mixture of people of such differences in appearance and behavior that any alien landing his craft in Hyde Park could simply climb out, walk down the street and blend in with the crowd. Maybe they are here already. The four dudes in thongs above bright-blue diving suits that made their way slowly from the tube station could have come from another planet. These guys actually did get a few stares but only those of the inquisitive kind, people wondering what they were up to and then getting on with their business.

I felt the need to get on with my business as well. While my coffee had cooled down and turned limp, my newspaper had remained untouched and my Eee never left its bag. The sun was still out but only just hanging on with vanishing power. Soon it would sink, taking with it an afternoon that had appeared so brilliant but whose essence I had quite miserably failed to capture and preserve in words.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

eager praise

This afternoon, during a prolonged break in my work when I was waiting for an enzyme to nibble away at the protein I'm studying, I went out to mail a little package to my sister containing a DVD with vacation photos that she has so far only seen on the miserable little screen of my brilliant little Eee. On the way back from the post office, I decided to pay a visit to the long-neglected Oxfam store.

The other day, on the way to lunch with coworkers, the shelves were being reorganizing. Books were scattered about in a state of such chaos that maximum entropy had clearly been reached. I wasn't presumptuous enough to expect to find anything, and I didn't go in. Add my recent vacation to that, and it has been a good four weeks since my setting foot into this most beloved of bookstores.

This afternoon, I went in. The shelves were orderly filled with the kind of eclectic selection that I'm used to and always looking forward to. There are some regulars like Alexander McCall Smith and Stephen Fry, but it's between them that I search, in the dark recesses where the treasures are hidden, the unassuming volumes that nevertheless stay for a day at best before finding a new home, the Chatwins, Capotes, Kureishis, and Steinbecks.

Today I made a catch whose true caliber was only revealed tonight when I dug deeper and deeper into it, eagerly turning page upon page. I had heard of The Reluctant Fundamentalist before. This book was hard to miss, always prominently displayed right near the entrance of each Waterstone's and with a title to invite speculation and stir interest. Plus it was shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize, with all the fanfare and publicity that this entailed. I had long been curious about it; today it was looking at me from a lower shelf and a second later it was mine.

As there was still a bit of time before my experiment needed my attention, I stopped by at Cafe Deco for a late lunch of cappuccino and a croissant aux amandes and read the first chapter in one breath. The book is slim and manageable. Its 200 pages make it a novella according to the blurb on the back cover, but the words are so big and the lines so far apart that one could be forgiven for calling it a humongous short story.

The writing is exquisite. It drew me in while I waited for my cappuccino to cool down to a drinkable temperature, and it swallowed me whole later at home. Changez, the protagonist and narrator, grew up in Pakistan, went to the US to get a degree from Princeton and started work at a consultancy. Surprisingly, we find him now back in Pakistan, sitting in a tea house in Lahore, where he tells a silent and rather mysterious American guest the story of his life in one epic uninterrupted soliloquacious dialog.

The story hinges on 9/11. Before that day, Changez happily and ambitiously followed what he saw as his destiny. Achieving, succeeding, integrating, and becoming more American every day. The terrorist attacks on America change everything, mostly because Changez realizes what's been hidden or suppressed deep inside him, his allegiances and his ties. His family is in Pakistan and his love and concern are with his country at a time when India is parading its army at the shared (or rather contested) border. The ostentatious indifference of the American government towards the brewing conflict drives him to question the validity of working in and for that country.

From a New Year's trip back to Pakistan he returns with a sprouting beard and even more doubts about his place in life. There is a haunting paragraph where Changez ponders the irony that the plane he's on is full of the brightest and fittest, the young elite in the making. While their country is on the verge of war, they all leave for comfortable lives in the US.

And so, as nothing really happens outside Changez's mind, things are coming undone. He abandons a consulting project in Chile that he was assigned to, is kicked out by his company and subsequently forced, by way of not meeting the employment requirements of his visa, to leave the US. Throughout all this, and until the very fitting ending of the novella, the suspense rises continuously but nearly silently. I found myself gripping the lean volume with a vigor I normally reserve for my bars when riding to work, and I was surprised when I noticed that. Not much happens until the end, and lots remains barely implied or entirely unsaid, but the mood of slow disenchantment in light of perceived injustices and inequities is masterfully captured, and the conflict builds densely and relentlessly.

I realize that my review gives the impression that the book is vitriolically anti-American, putting blame for all evils in the world on American actions. This is only because of my own ineptness with words, and I apologize. Mohsin Hamid, the author, is infinitely more accomplished and succeeds in painting a subtly nuanced picture. The truth in world politics is often in the beholder's eye. Hamid's great accomplishment is explaining credibly how Changez changes his point of view, how he discovers and develops his Pakistani identity, and how he slowly radicalizes. Even in the complete absence of religion as a mediating factor, such transitions appear not only possible but also nothing out of the ordinary.

With its meticulously composed sentences and intensely focused progress through the pages that grips the reader mercilessly but without overt climaxes or rushes, the book could best be described as a sort of parable, the dissection of a westernized, moderate Muslim's brain to show its undoing, at least from a western point of view. There is much more to think about in the book than there are sentences, but it's not a brainy book. It's simply fun to read, and it is so far the only book to appear on my lists of books I acquired and books I finished reading on the same day.