Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Belfast, Northern Ireland, is not the most glamorous place. Conflict between Catholics and Protestants, between Loyalists and Republicans, between Ulster and Ireland has been simmering for decades, occasionally burning at the surface in hot flames. In the 80s, there weren't many days without bombings, demonstrations, paramilitary strikes and police action, or at least red-headed shoutings – spittle flying, veins bulging and all – across the walls separating hostile neighborhoods.

Belfast is more, if you dig deeper, though the associations are not necessarily much better. In the early 1900s, some of the largest shipyards operated on the edge of town, at the mouth of the River Lagan. It was here, at Harland and Wolff, that the RMS Titanic was launched in 1912, to eventually catastrophic consequences despite futuristically advanced technologies in the boat. Engineering glory was again pursued in the 80s, in a factory outside Belfast that rose from fields and pastures thanks to generous business development incentives. John DeLorean dreamed of building his own cars after leaving General Motors, and took the bait. Despite much enthusiasm, the De Lorean DMC-12 was the only vehicle ever to roll from the assembly line in Dunmurry. By the time the car starred in Back to the Future, its production had long ended. The manufacturer was bust and the factory had been shut down.

This was the past. Now, industrial production has nearly vanished from Northern Ireland. People work in services or government jobs, or they draw benefits. It's not a particularly wealthy part of the UK, but at least it has calmed down politically. Most mainstream parties have forsworn violence and work hard to bring communities together, deep chasms of distrust notwithstanding. Attacks and politically motivated murders still happen, but most violence is casual these days, as when youths torch cars and taunt the police because it beats yet another night in front of the telly.

The nights were quiet when I was in Belfast last weekend. A friend of mine was getting married, across cultures and across religions. He had washed ashore three years earlier, a bag full of broken dreams and disappointed hopes his only baggage. Now he is the happy member of a large and very jovial Irish family and realizes that we he had considered broken dreams were in fact nothing more than the tribulations that characterize life.

The wedding took place in a Catholic church and had all the garnish of a Catholic wedding, with lots of praying and praising of the Lord. It was also a very solemn, almost regal, ceremony whose dignity was only briefly challenged when I was called to deliver a prayer for the newly-wed's happy future in front of the assembled friends and family. Chosen by the groom as one of five to speak, I felt tremendously honored but also slightly bemused. I agreed with the words I was asked to say, but it wasn't clear to me why I shouldn't say them straight into the couple's faces but use an imaginary third party as an intermediary instead.

Anyway, if I felt slightly out-of-place, the groom's mother must have truly experienced a journey to mars and back. It was the first time that she had been to Europe and her first time in a Christian church of any sort. With her traditional dark robe and beige headscarf, she wasn't someone habitually seen in this house of worship. But if there's a God, there's only one, and how you pray to it doesn't matter. So maybe she was fine, despite the visual incongruity. After all, her eldest son was getting married.

The day after the celebration, I was treated to some of the background behind the drab facade of dirty brickwork, fading paint and littered strip mall parking lots that characterize some of the outskirts of Belfast. My friend drove me through the western fringes of town. In some of the more deprived areas, feelings of belonging and betrayal still run strong, and history is a continuous guide. The past must never been forgotten. Community and enemy are very clearly defined, and blaringly displayed on murals and with flags. Much remains of the wall that separates the Republican Falls Road from the Unionist Shankhill, and barbed wire tops many a fence. The heavy steel gates are still there, though there open now, and in places the barrier almost looks like the Berlin Wall's little sister. Hard to imagine that people in the developed world still get worked up, to the point of hate and violence, about questions of nationality, religion and inequities of the past.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

morning news

On Sundays, I sometimes leave my house before anything has happened. The scrap-furniture recycling places across the street that, despite the bold sign over the door promising Antiques, offer trash unfit to be touched with an unprotected hand but oddly fitting for the neighborhood are still closed when I make my way to the Co-op store just down the road. Even the Arabic grocers haven't put their disturbing displays of wooden yams, warty cucumbers and mushy tomatoes before the eyes of their peculiarly discriminating clientele. The street is as quiet as this busy street can be, and the sidewalks are deserted.

The Co-op store is open, I nip in and quickly load up on yogurt, milk, butter and Apple juice from Kent, the usual things to enrich a breakfast of strong coffee and home-baked bread slightly stale after a few days on the shelf. Before I pay, I pass the enormous rack from which the Sunday papers, the true religion of this free-thinking country, gush. No weekend would be complete without them, read leisurely and over the course of the day in a pub, over a pint and a roast, and with friends. Heavier in weight than in price by three pounds to two, they are the mandatory accompaniment of every shopper leaving the store early in the morning.

I scan the front pages, surveying the goodies designed to attract custom. There are two-for-one coupons, student recipe books (It's back-to-school, apparently.), a compilation of brightly colored autumn leaves of the English countryside and a box of free chocolate at Sainsburys, but there isn't what I'm always looking for, a DVD. I scored Sleepy Hollow earlier this year and, in a particularly lucid moment, The Graduate. If you haven't seen this movie on a ten-foot screen with the glorious light of the sixties flooding your room, you haven't really seen it. This morning, there is nothing comparable.

In fact, the newspapers' marketing folk seem to think people will grab their rags just for the content. The headlines are double-bold, and countless pieces of analysis, opinion and dissent are advertised just below. The focus of all verbal efforts is inevitably the same. There is only one topic this morning, and it's the reason I am curiously unresponsive to the temptation of newsprint. The Pope is in town.

I don't care much about the Pope; he has no bearing on my life. I deny the claim, made by some historians with a skewed vision, that the previous one had great influence on the coming down of the Berlin Wall. (As little as Reagan is closer to the truth, if you ask me, but do you?) When the current Pope was elected, the largest and most obnoxious German broadsheet ran the unforgettable We are Pope! line on the front page the next morning, celebrating the austere bishop's penultimate promotion with the same childlike enthusiasm with which they'd have celebrated a World Cup win. The country duly felt elated, but the exuberance subsided a few hours later when the brain kicked back in. It didn't matter.

And it still doesn't, except the guy is impossible to avoid. On Thursday, he came to Edinburgh to have tea with the Queen. Next he got sucked into London where he choked traffic with two processions that attracted worshipers and protesters who ululated with equal fervor. Today he's reading mass in Birmingham, and the papers are analyzing his every word and step.

There are devout Catholics that praise the old man for visionary leadership and spiritual guidance. There are humanists grudgingly acknowledging the Catholic Church's tireless charity work. Affirming atheists denounce the waste of tax-payers' money on a religious figure's proselytizing trip, and victim support groups and lawyers demand accountability and punishment for the sexual abuse of children that has been condoned by the Church hierarchy for decades. Thrown in for good measure are the comedians that try their luck at blasphemy but fail. The concept just doesn't exist here.

None of this is new, and none deserves special attention right now. Just because the Pope goes traveling doesn't turn any of these topics into news. I don't want to read about this, and neither do you, presumably. Sorry!

Friday, September 10, 2010


By a curious coincidence, last night marked not only the beginning of Rosh Hashanah but also the end of Ramadan. The Jewish New Year and the Muslim Breaking of the Fast don't normally fall on the same day; they have no reason to do so. The Islamic calendar is purely lunar. Its events advance, with respect to the solar calendar used in the West, by twelve days a year. The Jewish calendar is more complicated, a funky mix of solar and lunar elements, with an entire leap month thrown in every once in a while to keep the high holidays in their seasons. Ramadan travels through the Gregorian calendar in a journey that takes 33 years, but Rosh Hashanah is always in early fall.

By an even curiouser coincidence and for no other reason than the inexorable passing of time, both holy days fall neatly beside the ninth anniversary of the airborne terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Killing nearly 3000, these attacks were perpetrated by a gang of mentally deranged Arabs wielding box cutters (literally – to commandeer the planes) and copies of the Koran (figuratively – to justify their actions). The connection was made by the terrorists, but the link is tenuous: Most people agree that the Koran cannot be used as a manual for mass murder unless you start reading with a pathologically warped mind. But some don't.

In Florida, a nominally Christian pastor is organizing a Koran burning to commemorate September 11, 2001. Of Eid al-Fitr he, in all likelihood, knows nothing, but he can't be ignorant of the reactions his bonfire will cause. A set of cartoons lampooning the Islamic prophet Mohamed that were published in an obscure Danish newspaper five years ago drove (a small but savage minority of) Muslims worldwide to violence – after the existence of the cartoons was publicized by hate-mongering populists months later. Some Muslims do quite obviously enjoy taking offense and showing it.

The Floridian pastor has taken that into account. He probably has a rational justification for his planned action should anyone ask, but what he really intends, deep inside, is to show the irrationality of the Muslim community. His one little fire will be amplified into thousands of rabid protestations, burnings of flags, calls for boycott and torchings of embassies. And the world looks on and sees, and the press reports that it is clear: Muslims cannot be trusted.

He plays an easy game. Whenever Islam is questioned or its symbols ridiculed, enough monkeys climb down from their trees and pick up sticks, stones and flints to wreak havoc in their habitats and impart fear in observers half a world away – the reaction as much in the name of religion as the initial provocation was, and as little in spirit. The essence of religion – as I dimly remember from my upbringing – lies in compassion and brotherly love, not in fires and violence. It would seem to me that Eid al-Fit, Rosh Hashanah and 9/11 provide a fine excuse to think about that.

Monday, September 06, 2010

driving the world

For a short time in life, just about three years if I remember correctly, I was the proud owner of a car. It was a dull grey Passat wagon that moved at the speed of a badly worn three-seater sofa, sold to me by a hick up Emigration Canyon who was strangely fascinated with "this little car". It was spacious enough for my needs, holding me, my bike, a large blue cooler and a 12-CD changer in comfortable harmony wherever I went in my exploring the West. The comfort was only broken once – when I parked the car in the woods to sleep in it before the race at Brian Head. The rear seats folded flat to create a bed just long enough for me to stretch out diagonally, but the windows didn't keep the cold out. I nearly froze to death on the Fourth of July.

I liked the car but never loved it. In quiet Sugarhouse, it was always parked with its doors unlocked and windows rolled down. When the fall winds stripped the big maple tree in front of our house naked, the rejected leaves found a new home in my car. I didn't mind their presence; the car was not a showpiece. So little, in fact, that I never washed it and only ever cleaned it out when the layer of dust and dried mud was too deep to operate the pedals.

I didn't love the car and didn't treat it like a treasure. I hated maintenance and deplored every dollar I had to put into it (and there were many). Maybe that's why it went belly up on me, the blown head gaskets finally too leaky for any sort of power to be generated. It took me home from southern Utah before it succumbed to lethal injuries, so I can't deny its loyalty, but with this car died the concept of car ownership in me.

I survived the last year in Utah by strategically moving into a pad right next to the grocery store, riding my bike to work, and getting friends give me rides from the coffee shop home. In Grenoble, I rode my bike everywhere, and when I had suffered up all the passes and bombed down all the descents, I joined a car club that helped me extend my range. L'Alpe d'Huez was suddenly doable in a few hours only. I got the pleasure of driving and the flexibility of a car without any of the hassle and little of the cost. No taxes, no inspections, no repairs, no oil change, no insurance. Just a brand new car whenever I need one.

In London, I've rejoined a car club but wouldn't miss it if I didn't have it. The tube and buses get me anywhere more quickly. But I travel more than in Grenoble and rent cars more than ever before. If you've been wondering where this story is headed, here it is: It so happened that I needed a vehicle to go to the car race I wrote about earlier.

On Saturday morning, before leaving for the airport, I booked an economy car through Expedia. The deal was good, even though there wasn't much scrounging for the best bargain involved. I picked the car up a few hours later and returned it the next day just outside the thirty-minute grace period, after having spent a good hour trying to find a gas station near the impenetrable maze that's Heathrow Airport. On the receipt, I saw that I was charged an extra day.

I had rented with Hertz, a company that I always associated with the top end of the market. In the US, Hertz was better than Budget, Avis, Thrifty or Enterprise, and more expensive. In Europe, the situation might be a bit different. Over the last four months I've rented with Hertz four times, and never through their web site directly. It was always a price comparison service that sent me there. And while the rates were reasonable, the vehicles didn't always live up to my car-less expectations.

In Tours I rented a shiny Clio for four days and paid less than a hundred pounds, insurance and one-way fee included. Despite my best efforts on the wheel, the little diesel didn't need a gas station until the very end, running dry after way more than 700 miles. One week later in Jordan, Hertz dished up a Korean-made Chevrolet that had seen better days, many of them. The car was old and worn out, with wobbly wheels, soft steering and poor brakes. Going 60 mph on a highway felt super-scary, the beater bouncing and swaying with a purpose that I could hardly control.

In Bilbao a few months later, I'm upgraded to an Astra. Not bad for thirty pounds a day, I think. But the car has 90,000 kilometers on the clock, more than I've ever seen on any rental, and starts smelling funny when I drive up to the Balcón de Guipúzcoa. When smoke rises from the hood, I turn around as gently as I can and coast down back to the sea. At San Sebastian airport I don't get an apology but a new car. I'm being re-downgraded, but at least there's no more smoke.

The latest in a continuous series of Hertz rentals took place in London on Saturday, the fourth stop in the fourth country. I got a Fiesta Zetec S that instantly turned me into an irresponsible teenager, accelerating, passing and speeding as if fines were certificates worth a frame and a license dispensable. So much fun in such a cute little package! The fun only lasted 24 hours and 34 minutes when, late by a bit, I'm charged a second day. In contrast to what I got, I think I deserve medallion status and an explanation of where Hertz sees itself in the market. I'll call tomorrow to check – and to get reimbursed and maybe score a gift card for my troubles.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

day at the races

For a member of the English upper classes, there is no doubt, no need to disambiguate. If you're going to the races, it's too see horses. Ascot might be more famous for millinery than equine delights these days, but the horses started it all, they are at the center of it, and they're the reason everyone dons the silly hats.

On the other side of the social gamut is greyhound racing, a low-cost alternative to the posh people's pleasure. It might be a simple idea, but it's hilarious to watch: Beautiful dogs – not always entirely sure of what's going on – chase a stuffed rabbit on a rail down a racetrack. In the stands, thousands follow the spectacle with a passion that's normally reserved for a Chelsea-ManU match, eat junk food galore and bet away their inheritance.

Yesterday afternoon, after a week in Dresden, I touched down at Heathrow and picked up a Fiesta in fashionable white. The brilliant little car was a sporty Zetec S model that rocked the road and impressed the kids at the drive-thru with squealing tires and mighty jumps forward at the lights. Fittingly enough, I was on the way to the races, though neither horses nor dogs were on my mind.

A family connection who works as a motorsports journalist had procured tickets for the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters at Brands Hatch, complete with paddock access and Volkswagen hospitality. Clueless but excited, I drove to the gate on Saturday night, called my local contact and got picked up by a suit in a fat Touareg who ferried me to the party tent that wasn't quite heaving yet. It was just about seven and dinner was still on.

Enough time to sample all the delights later, tables were cleared from the area in front of the stage. Kids with pimples got enormous silverware for squeezing the most out of overclocked Sciroccos, and some old guys iPods for showing. Those guys were billed as motorsports legends, and they were the focus of the night, but before they could rock, legends of another kind were taking over the stage.

I forgot about the winners and the speeches as soon as The Upbeat Beatles took to their instruments. This unapologetic tribute band pushed accurate impersonation to the limits. Everyone can do stringy moptop wigs, but it takes a bit of guts to put the original logo on the drumkit – Sir Paul might personally chase after you for trademark infringement.

What had me completely transfixed, however, were the looks of the musicians. Old and podgy, they didn't make the least effort to emulate their heroes as they exist in everyone's mind's eye or memory. No, these guys looked exactly what the Beatles would look like had they continued their journey of uninhibited and mutually reinforced drug and alcohol excesses uninterrupted by death or assassination. I wasn't alone in my reaction to this kind of visual inverse time travel. Most of the audience must have been as mesmerized as I was, and the band's countless appeals for the first courageous couple to hit the dance floor went unanswered.

All changed when the legends of the racecar stepped up to lend their seasoned voices in support of the optical illusion on the stage. When an impromptu karaoke of Help! kicked off, I was swept aside by a surging crowd in a mad dash to the front. Elbows jostled but quickly found their way: stretched out and in the air. Dozens of cell phones and digicams were hovering above bopping heads to capture the occasion and preserve it for eternity, giving the performance the treatment it must have surely deserved. A glow of childlike joy lit every face.

I looked on with bafflement and suspicion. The four legends that had caused such a frenzy in the in-crowd didn't look much different from the four legends that had been working the instruments for a good twenty minutes before their luck changed. I blame it on my eyes, unfamiliar as they are with any sort of racing that's not done personally and self-propelled.

I returned to the track this morning to start my education in the arts of track-bound power and speed, but fell short of graduating. The roar of the DTM cars has be heard to be believed. My ears still ring, and that's all I can say.