Friday, January 28, 2011

in passing

Late in January of 1999, I bought my first computer. It was a Sony Vaio, a laptop of course. I knew I wanted one when I saw the first advertisement in a United Airlines inflight magazine. So slick, so beautiful, so advanced. Beauty came at a price, though, payable in dollars and performance. I agonized long and hard about how to compromise. In the end, I chose a computer that wasn't quite as thin as I would have liked but powerful enough and affordable on a graduate student stipend. I went to an auction site, now long defunct, made one bid, won, and hoped for the best. Given that I write this post from that computer, it's fair to say that the best has come to pass.

The computer claimed to be refurbished. There's still a tag on the back to prove it. But much to my delight it was brand new, untouched by greasy hands, unfondled. Perhaps half a year behind the bleeding edge of technology, but still one of very few at that time to have a DVD drive. It became thus my first home entertainment system. As it didn't have a network port, I had to buy an external card to do the job. Wireless only appeared several years later.

The computer ran a rotation of operating systems until progress came to a halt in 2004 with Red Hat 9. I had almost got through graduate school when the limitations of my beloved machine became too crippling. That's when a ThinkPad entered my life, redefining slick, cool and powerful. The ThinkPad is gone now. It lasted only six years, replaced in its waning days by a Macbook Pro, a tool for serious work. Lighter stuff quite literally, is the domain of my little Eee.

There was no reason to blow the dust off the Vaio and put it back on the lap, but last night it happened. I guess I just wanted to see how it was doing. I booted it up, logged on, fired up StarOffice and started writing what's now turning into a post, as if time had stood still. The computer is still a looker. It's reasonably thin, the screen is bright and fills the lid almost entirely. It's also almost completely silent; there probably isn't enough power in the old CPU to drive the fan.

Office works like on the first day, but most websites are off-limits because of flash or complex javascript applications that the old browser can't handle. I like it because it keeps me focused. It is as if the wider internet didn't exist. Maybe I'll upgrade it to a typewriter for general writing. In any case, happy 12th birthday, faithful companion!

Sony Vaio

Saturday, January 22, 2011

eat better

It doesn't happen very often that I find myself agreeing completely and wholeheartedly with someone. I almost always find a hair in the soup of someone's argument. That's why I was knocked out of socks the other day following a talk that took place at the London School of Economics and Political Science. I agreed with everything that was said.

The talk was advertised as a reading by Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of Eating Animals, on the occasion of his latest book's release as paperback, but it wasn't a straightforward reading, with quotes and examples from the work. It was a conversational interview undertaken by a rather smitten presenter, in the course of which some of the cardinal points in the book were discussed. This format worked to the subject's advantage because the author is quite a jovial guy and the conversation flowed naturally.

The book (which I haven't read) deals with the author's long and tortuous conversion to vegetarianism and explores the issues faced by him on the way. You might wonder why I care. I love a good steak and am certainly not a vegetarian. But I don't eat much meat these days, and this development has come through my own series of explorations and considerations. The arguments Foer used in the talk are very much in line with my own.

Meat consumption has become a controversial topic recently, and the arguments usually bandied about are animal welfare, concern for the environment and health considerations. To be honest, when I'm hungry, I couldn't care less about any of those. I believe that when I eat well, I automatically eat healthy, and the environment is far away when my stomach grumbles. And animals? Well, like Foer, I’m no animal lover. There's a different line of thought that I find far more persuasive.

I eat less meat because I like meat. On the dinner table, I'm not fighting for a better farming system, I don't want to save the world, and I don't particularly like animals. What I want is to eat the best food available. Most of what masquerades as meat on supermarket shelves these days is crap, because of how it was produced, cheaply and with utter disregard for the animals. This is the biggest issue I have with meat.

Getting good meat requires, first and foremost, doing away with factory farming. This would preclude a large number of environmental problems, assuage all but the most rabid animal liberators and be good for the farmers themselves. It would also be extremely costly. With big factories, with efficiency, with animals packed like Lego blocks in their cages, comes cheapness. Some say we can’t afford it any other way. They are right, but not as they think. What we can’t afford, because it’s bad for the animals, bad for the world and bad for us, is to continue the lifestyle we’re living. Cheapness is not good. Meat every day is not necessary. And eating one top-quality steak a month while otherwise following a vegetarian diet has great potential for savings.

Vegetarians miss the point. They are (or at least used to be – this might be changing) often fanatic, insisting on never eating meat and vilifying anyone who so much as swallows a mosquito on a hike in the woods. They would love nothing more than to have everyone follow their lead, but you don't change people's ways by preaching from the high horse. Foer gets this when he says that it's impossible to convert half of the world to vegetarianism but much easier to cut half of the meat-based meals. I think quality is the way to get there.

If people had a clearer idea of what they're consuming when they eat wings from Chicken Cottage or get the minced meat at the grocer for a pound a pound, the falafel stands would suddenly see a surge in popularity and turnips become a hot commodity. Maybe one should require fast-food joints and supermarkets to put a photo of right before the kill onto the packs, as is done with cigarettes in Brazil.

The good thing is that with meat you almost have the certainty that if it's expensive, it's good. It's not (yet) like organic or health food that has turned from hype to fad and you have the hardest time cutting through the jungle of marketing gibberish. If the origin of a steak is mentioned on the package and you can trace the farmer, it's probably good stuff.

Lots of food for thought, especially for those that still eat crap meat on a daily basis. So why don't you invest an hour and listen to the talk, which is available for download. Then think about what you eat, make a few adjustments, and eat better.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

hello from Berlin

Half a year ago, a bombshell exploded on bookshelves all over Germany. Thilo Sarrazin, a former finance senator of Berlin and at that time member of the Executive Board of the Deutsche Bundesbank, published a book outlining his grim vision for Germany's future. The book was harshly titled Germany Does Away With Itself. It's based on the observation that while the German population is shrinking overall, there's one group that's increasing in numbers: immigrants of various Muslim origins, mostly Turkish and Arabic, and their descendants. Statistics show that this group of people is poorly integrated into society and educated below average. Sarrazin's fear is that their rise in numbers will have a detrimental impact on Germany, changing the country and the dominant culture to grave consequences.

When the book came out, a firestorm of controversy swept through newspapers and TV stations. Everyone had something to say. Initially, it was mostly politicians, traditional pundits and others accustomed to making public statements. For the most part, they rejected Sarazin's ideas and often attacked him, accusing him of stupidity, racism, even fascism. Over the following few weeks, however, the tone changed. Essays were written in his defense, emphasizing local contexts of many points he had made and splaying out some of the statistics' crueler points. Such essays would have been impossible to publish before the book. It was as if a little book had single-handedly shifted the political debate. But calling it a little book is distorting reality. Sold at over 1.2 million copies, it is currently the fourth-strongest selling book on and has become the biggest-selling non-fiction book in Germany since World War 2. That's what the papers report, and I doubt that more books sold before that.

My dad had quickly bought a copy. Over Christmas, my resourceful sister saw it on his shelf and took it with her, even before he could read it. But Sarazin keeps the book in the news; there's no avoiding it. A few weeks ago, my dad went to a reading in a capacity-packed hall of 2500, each happily paying €12.50 to hear to man tell them what they could read themselves. At the signing after the reading, my dad bought another copy. My sister is coming to London in a few weeks, and thus I'll be finally exposed to the book as well.

The other day, Thilo Sarrazin was at the center of the BBC World Service's World Have Your Say, which is available on the iPlayer. It worth the hour on the radio, if only to judge whether you'd like to read more about the subject. Once you get over the thick German accents that permeate the show, it's quite interesting. There are arguments supporting and attacking his theses and a level-headed moderator.

The problem with the radio debate, as with popular discourse in general, is that all too frequently people try to challenge statistics with examples. That won't work because it is in the nature of statistics that they are outliers. This dialectic fumbling didn't further the causes of those angry with the book. On the other hand, Sarrazin didn't exactly further his own cause by the pugnacious way in which he answered some of the questions (never mind his avuncular voice).

But the furthering of causes isn't what this discussion is about. It's about the freeing of ideas and the opening of minds. It's about exchanging opinions and about suggesting novel ways of thinking about facts and phenomena that have been left undisturbed for too long. Maybe solutions to some of the migration-related problems that Germany faces will arise from this discussions. Maybe everyone should read the book.

Friday, January 14, 2011

will of the people

Just about six years ago, I was between jobs. Or, rather, I would have been between jobs, had I had a job or the prospect of one. As it is, I'm still shooting for my first job. To state it more accurately: Just about six years ago, I was between being a student and being a post-doc. Being a student isn't much and being a post-doc is even less. So you would think that being between the two is the nadir of one's life.

Not at all. I just had graduated and was waiting for my next boss to say, "Hello, I'm ready for you. Come over when you're ready." Until that happened, I was on vacation. I stayed at my mom's apartment in Germany, chillaxing for the most part. But soon enough the roof threatened to collapse on my head that's so used to the wide skies of freedom. Sitting there all day making corrections to my thesis, no, make this dissertation, that the thesis editor in her assiduousness and zealous attention to detail had required, drove me nuts after a few days. I needed a break, a break from the break that I was already on.

The internet came to my help. Browsing some last-minute travel sites, I found a trip to Malta: flights, a week in a hotel and two meals a day for less than 200 euros. I locked it in without thinking. It was truly last minute: Departure was the next morning at six. I didn't have a clear idea where Malta was exactly, or what there was to see. At three in the afternoon, right after the booking, I strolled to the one bookseller in town and bought the one guide to the island they had. I read it on the plane the next morning.

The trip was great. Malta is an amazing mix of Arabic and European culture, with medieval urbanity, rusty shipbuilding and mighty fortifications. The Knights of St. John have their headquarters there, on a fortress that the intrepid tourist can explore with impunity. Only the central structures, the inhabited part, are off-limits. I also had a blast on a 125cc motorcycle, which I rented for a pittance and without showing a license that I didn't have. My first brush with left-hand traffic almost cost me my life.

Back in Germany, my post-doc had still not been sorted out. Money was supposed to gush in from the European Union but dark forces deep inside the administration conspired to muddle the source. My new boss sounded desperate. I went back to the same last-minute travel site and booked a trip to Tunisia. It was a bit more expensive but the deal was still hard to beat, such a steal that I almost felt bad for taking advantage. Departure was the next morning at six. Just like two weeks earlier, I went down to the only bookseller in town and bought the only guide on the country.

Were it not for this filler sentence, the paragraph would start just like the one earlier. The trip was great. My sister was with me and we had a blast, almost unqualified, traveling from Sousse to all towns within easy reach by public transport, meeting locals, getting lost in the souqs and awed by the history. One day we rented a car, and the first thing I did was drive into a one-way street the wrong way around. I've never thrown a faster youee.

But not everything was sweet in Tunisia. I my travel piece, I observed that

not everything is fine and dandy. As the Economist put it bluntly: "It's easy for Tunisia to look good between Libya and Algeria." The press is far from free, and political opposition barely exists and is hardly tolerated. The president for the past 15 years puts more nines into election results than communist regimes used to. He had sacked the president for the 30 years prior and founder of the nation, Habib Bourguiba, when that guy showed increasingly self-aggrandizing tendencies. Now the current president is accused of the same sin. Tunisia has an ever-present police force of 130000. Vehicles can be stopped and searched on any roundabout, which keeps the population under tight control.

Tunisia was certainly not a free country, but it seemed content. Signs of nascent prosperity were everywhere: little French cars abounded in the streets, large French supermarkets brought western wares and values, and parents sent their kids to colleges and universities in the hope they would one day go to France and get a good job. The country was calm and appeared settled in its ways.

It came as a bit of a surprise when, on my way to Manchester last week, I read in Le Monde about street protests and clashes between demonstrators. Front page news in France but all but ignored in England. This evening, everyone's talking about Tunisia. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, dictator for the past twenty-three years, has been given the boot and has left the country. It was the first time that an Arab leader has been ousted by the will of the people. It took less than one month.

I find this amazing for two reasons. One is the sheer impotence of the dictator. Ben Ali has been oppressing Tunisia for almost a quarter century, but the first time the pressure builds from below, he just bolts. Maybe he diverted billions of aid dollars into Swiss accounts and just can't be bothered to do crisis, but maybe he's just a mouse. This was no military coup. Students with rocks in their hands and fire in their hearts sent the strongman packing.

The other is the power of the street. It's not only that they kicked out the dictator. More important is that no one dared to stand in their way. The authorities must have felt a high level of discontent in the population that was probably extending deep into the ubiquitous police forces and decided it was wise to watch from the sidelines. Ben Ali had to go. There should be a lesson in this for other peoples who feel the whip of authority a bit too strongly. Last Sunday's Le Monde also reported about riots in Algeria. Is President Bouteflika shopping for a little chalet in Switzerland already?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


For reasons I'm not entirely sure of – nostalgia, self-loathing, boredom, the search for the Holy Grail – I went through some of my older posts, pre-London mostly. I was surprised. The character of this blog has really changed. The posts used to deal with what happened to me, immediately and direct. With eyes of curiosity, I walked through life and noticed a ton of interesting little things that I thought worth sharing, little snippets of five hundred words at most. Now, most posts deal with what's happening around me, stories related from a safe distance. Plus, everything is drawn out beyond anyone's patience.

I don't know what's going on, but I want to get back. This, or I'm going to close shop to refocus my attention or reprioritize my life. So far, I'm undecided, which is a situation that's not exactly foreign to me. To fill the void until the dice fall one way or another and to sprinkle the spice of contrast onto a blog that's getting duller by the minute, here is (painfully incongruously) my list of ten things that make life better:

  1. a good book on a bad day.
  2. a European passport, which opens many doors, but not those into Algeria.
  3. a USB stick, preferably with a copy of said passport on it, just in case.
  4. a card that opens ATMs wherever one find oneself penniless in the world.
  5. speaking in tongues and pretending to speak in tongues, the latter being by far more challenging.
  6. a Gore-Tex jacket in inclement weather.
  7. a Rocky Mountain on a rocky mountain (or in a dusty desert or on a muddy slope).
  8. having a drink outside on a warm evening, just after the sun has set, legs still soft from riding.
  9. sitting no matter where in the world, capturing moments in a Moleskine, a traveler's most faithful companion.
  10. electric blue hair, providing there is hair.

Anything to add? What do you think?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

looking in from outside

In my life, I haven't seen much luxury, and neither do I have a craving for it. The first 15 years I spent sheltered behind the impenetrable iron curtain which very effectively kept any items of luxury out of the country and from the collective awareness of the populace. When the curtain became penetrable and fell in one swift motion, material desires were brought to the country with equal precipitousness, but by then I had already been immunized against blatant consumption.

I have never spent leisurely weeks in a resort in the South Sea, nor have I owned sports cars, yachts or second homes. I don't eat caviar, abalone or bluefin, and can count my nights in five-star hotels – in the Middle East where they were surprisingly affordable – on the fingers of one hand. I have never flown business, let alone first class, and I've been in the first-class compartment of a train only twice.

The first time was in France, returning to Grenoble from Paris. The advance fare in first was only a fraction dearer than a regular second class ticket. The value was similar, too. I couldn't see much of a difference in the ride. It was bumpy and wicked fast. There were no free drinks or newspapers. In stark contrast, my second first-class experience was memorable, as nice as it was unexpected.

With a friend I was traveling from Rome to Florence on a second-class ticket but without a reservation. We entered a car that looked too nice to be for us and indeed, there was a big 1 on the door. We got into the next car, which was marked with a 2. It looked as nice as the first and we were unsure, but with the train starting to move, we sat down and enjoyed the ride. Only when the conductor approached to check the tickets did it occur to us that the 2 counted the car not the class, which was still first. It took a joint rush of innocent smiles, wild gesticulation and ignorance of the language to keep us in our seats.

This morning, I boarded a train to go up to Manchester for a friend's wedding. Manchester would be playing Liverpool in the FA Cup later that day and the train was full of supporters, clad in the traditional red (of either team). Beer was the refreshment of choice, flags flew with scant regard for passengers absorbed in books or conversations, and passionate discussions flared combustiously.

I didn't notice any of this. I was secluded in the relative shelter of a first-class carriage, wondering why it was crowded, why people were standing, why some didn't get a reservation despite shelling out for railroad luxury. The lad I approached on the way from the station, clad in a dark suit and with the same invitation in his hand that I had in mine, told me the reason for the crowding of the train and later served as a knowledgeable interpreter of a ceremony that would otherwise have made little sense to me.

My friend hails from a very traditional and firm Jewish family, and her parents organized the wedding in strict adherence to ritual and rules. There were numerous rabbis in attendance and many more orthodox suits and black fedoras. Everyone wore a kippa. Before the ceremony started, men were invited to share a glass of whiskey in a side room, but only if their heads were covered in respect of God. That I didn't own a kippa didn't hold me back. Commemorative skullcaps, red like the kosher Côtes du Rhône that would later be served and with the wedding details inscribed on the inside, were handed out to unprepared guests and made a magnificent souvenir.

The ceremony itself followed sacred customs to the dot, as my guide explained to me. Underneath the canopy symbolizing their new shared home, the bride circumambulated the groom seven times, inspecting him or weaving a tight cocoon of possession or simply doing footwork in order to get the guy, and accepted the ring slid halfway down her strong finger by a rabbi who held up a glass of wine. In front of two official witnesses and incomprehensible to everyone, a contract was solemnly read in Aramaic by a religious authority who could make sense of it. No one I asked understood it, though some claimed there was a passage about twenty goats in it, the price to pay by the groom to renege on the marital vow. If that's valid during a probation period only or for all eternity – infinity, as the math-affine groom would later insist – I don't know and no one told me.

Seven blessings were then spoken by assorted honoraries, straight from the Talmud and free of any adaptation. The groom responded by sipping the wine and broke, all done, the glass with a ferocious stomp. The congregation erupted in cheers of well-wishing. The smashing of the glass commemorates the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, a reminder that no joy is absolute, but also, with tenuous logic, a symbol of the irreversibility of marriage. Much as broken glass cannot be unbroken, a marriage cannot be undone. Or at least it shouldn't. Good luck to the happy couple. "Mazel tov", everyone shouted.

We retired into one of the side rooms to light refreshments and more whiskey, while the married couple were led to another room to have time to discover each other. In more innocent times, this was the moment of physical truth. Now the moments alone probably helped them process and eventually shed a bit of the gravity and seriousness of the ceremony. The rest of the afternoon would be lighter.

It started with dancing. Ignoring the laden tables, nearly everyone rushed near the stage to romp. "You'll like it", my knowledgeable friend had said, "but man and woman will probably dance separately." Indeed they did, and not only that. Women were sequestered in an enclosure made of two-meter-tall dividing walls. At some point, the mother of the bride came over to chide some men who had climbed the stairs to the stage to get a better view of the men's dancing and to take pictures. This also gave them a theoretical and partial view of the women's pen, which was utterly unacceptable. The dance was much like the stomp that a Syrian friend of mine had always enacted during parties in Salt Lake. The boundless energy of complete happiness created ecstasy, legs flailing, coats flying, and kippas hanging on for dear life.

After the dancing, the wedding became any old wedding – in a good way: food, chats and speeches filled the rest of the afternoon. With a punctuality that even I found peculiar, the whole affair ended a little before six. I changed from my jacket into a warm winter coat and hurried back to the station. A few minutes later and I sat in the Pendolino back to London. The football fans were either still celebrating in the local pubs (one of the red teams won) or had already returned. The car was empty and quiet. The train was faster than the one out and made me feel queasy with its bold leaning into curves for maximum speed. I had a comfortable seat and service was great: Drinks and newspapers and free wireless, and time for me to research the finer point of the ceremony that hadn't revealed themselves to me. But I never figured out what the point of the whiskey was.

Monday, January 10, 2011

crystal ball

The other day, the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (proudly?) published a report entitled The World in 2050 that predicted the global economic development of the next forty years. From the sensational but stupefyingly brainless title of the report, one would expect the author to be a provincial moneylender with ill-founded global ambitions. In fact, HSBC is already a global powerhouse, but its status has obviously not imbued it with sense or reason. It's not that the report is preposterous or hubristic. It's plain and simple a big load of crap.

How do you predict the next forty years? Answer: You don't. It's impossible. HSBC concedes that its economic projections are based on a "rather rosy scenario", but they're nothing of the sort. They're cerebral manure, based on nothing but hot air, and calling them economic predictions gives them credibility where none is due. What you and me very sensibly avoid reading is simply verbal pollution.

A thought experiment should make this clear. Imagine the world forty years ago, in 1970. Oil was cheap, Russia balanced the United States, former colonies were proudly becoming independent states, visions of prosperity hopefully repeated across the African continent. China was a communist backwaters in the midst of its Cultural Revolution. India didn't register with anyone. How's the world going to develop?

It is not the expected and likely events that define our future but the unpredictable disasters that strike out of nowhere, exploding in our faces with no one seeing them coming. The oil crisis put the Gulf countries on the map, the fall of the Berlin Wall rebalanced the world, a bunch of rabid Saudis started the war on terror, and the financial crisis showed how criminally incompetent banks, central, public and private, are. Not one of these events could have possibly been predicted in 1970. The HSBC prediction is also free of anything unexpected and thus free of any value.

Here's my recommendation to those publishing such rubbish and anyone at risk of taking it seriously: Grab a copy of the report, printed on non-glossy paper if possible, and The Black Swan the next time the urge for the loo overcomes you. Retire to the porcelain and read the book. When you're done with your business, mop up the damage with the report and flush it into oblivion, satisfied in the knowledge that it was not entirely without use after all.

Sadly, it is quite possible that HSBC did in fact not publish the report that forms the basis of this post. The blogosphere and newspaper sites feature references and rebroadcasts, but Googling doesn't reveal a primary source. PricewaterhouseCoopers might even have been the originator. Maybe the whole thing is a hoax. That would be unfortunate because everyone can see a bank cook up such nonsense.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Christmas revisited

In my life of thirty-odd years, I've spent Christmas away from home only twice. The first time was in 1998. In August that year I had started grad school in the US. I was on a scholarship that, for the sake of deepest cultural immersion, strongly discouraged traveling home before the two semesters were over. For the break, I rented a golden convertible and cruised up and down the southern Californian coast with a couple from the French overseas department of La Réunion. It didn't feel like Christmas for one moment. Though my parents sent me a couple of parcels with seasonal delicacies and I sent a parcel back from Utah, the sacred connection was broken.

The second Christmas away came during my last year in the US, at a time that was filled with interviews, conferences and trips, and too much time away already. I had gone to Europe the summer before and I planned on going again the following summer and then leaving the US for good. I couldn't justify spending the money – and I wanted the deep cultural immersion that I had studiously avoided thus far. I was not alone, but Christmas somehow managed to feel lonely anyway.

I've always maintained that for me, Christmas is above all family. By chance I realized on my way from London to Dresden that this is only part of it, one aspect of a more sweeping definition of the holiday. I had to change planes in Frankfurt. Nothing good can be said about this airport – it's truly as bad as they get, unfriendly, inefficient and slow – except the shelves with free papers that Lufthansa keeps generously stocked for their customers. In a reflex from times long gone, when I was still a regular train rider, I grabbed a Zeit, a broadsheet weekly that unfolds large like a living-room carpet. It's utterly unsuitable for economy class; it almost needs its own airspace. But it comes with a handy magazine of just the right size and format for the forty-five minute hop to Dresden, and the title story was quite fitting.

In a fine example of pointless philosophizing, the magazine presented forty questions dealing with the meaning and significance of Christmas but also etiquette. Most answers were provided by the magazine's editors and writers, but some came from external experts of various qualifications. The approach was light-hearted and somewhat self-deprecating, with humorous (but beautiful) illustrations illustrating some of the dilemmas. I got the feeling that the magazine thought if you need to ask these questions, you're beyond help, but it won't hurt answering them anyway.

And maybe something can even be gained. Though its current manifestation owes much to pagan and lateral cultural influences, Christmas is a Christian holiday at heart. This is often ignored, in Germany not any less than anywhere else. But Germany is a country based on Judeo-Christian values, that mentions God in the preamble of its constitution and is (currently) run by a Christian party (in coalition). It is fair to ask if there's anything Christian left in Christmas.

After going through the forty questions and answers and interpreting them in line with my own ideas, I've come to the conclusion that there isn't. Christmas is the strongest and longest-lasting tradition that glues us together as people. It is a pillar in the calendar, more significant as a point of orientation than the seasons because the seasons vary from year to year but Christmas is always Christmas. And it stands strong without religion.

Religion itself is nothing but rituals and traditions, a cultural convention upheld by certain groups through the centuries. I don't need that for Christmas. I don't celebrate the birth of Christ, I celebrate Christmas. Doing so doesn't empty the holiday of its meaning, it purifies it. It's pure ritual unadulterated by religion and unburdened by the presence of an imaginary being. Christmas is big enough without them.

Christmas is rituals that are set in stone for all eternity. Nothing is supposed to change. I don't like my mom’s questions of what I'd like to eat, do, get. It was always her responsibility to sort these things out, and in my mind this is how it should stay in all eternity. I don't want to get creative. All I want is arrive at home and do things as they've always been done.

The face of Christmas must be boring. I don't think an exciting holiday would cut it. I live in a world of constant excitement, unpredictability and change. The only thing that stays the same is Christmas, recurring every year with perfect monotony. Christmas is my oasis of calm, filled with the expected and the ordinary. I enjoy it tremendously. I open the door, drop my bag next to the sofa, hug my mom and leave the world to its own devices. For a week, nothing happens.

To devout Christians, Christmas is a time of miracles. I don't believe. If I ever did, I stopped long ago. But when I go to church on Christmas Eve – a family tradition that I don't want to miss – a miracle occurs, with unfailing regularity as if God had a hand in it. As I sit down in the uncomfortable wooden pew, as the church bells start ringing and then the organ playing the first hymn, time slows down and eventually halts. Frantic Advent, so full of work, parties and shopping, comes to an end and hands over to Christmastime, when time stands still. After church, imbued with the festive spirit, we walk home through fresh snow and the universe ceases to exist.

We sit down underneath the Christmas tree (which has in recent years unfortunately shrunk to a bunch of spruce boughs), light the candles, share gifts, eat and play. There is no TV, no radio, no telephone calls or internet, no visits of friends. The world is positively unhinged for a few days, no matter what happens out there. It has always been that way and, if I'm to ask, it always will. And no matter where I am in the world, I'll try my hardest to make it home.

Monday, January 03, 2011

reading 2010

Happy New Year, everyone. I hope 2011 will be a challenging and eventually satisfying year for all of you. In a break with tradition, this blog will continue as if there weren't a new year. There will be no talk of resolutions or changes, no hints of what's to come. I've done this in the past and nothing has ever come of it. What might happen this year is in my head and will stay there until it happens.

What's not only in my head is the new year itself whose start is, for this blog, an event of more than symbolic significance. Over the past twelve months, the two lists of books read and books acquired have grown progressively longer and started to crowd out other items on the page. It is time to summarize last year's literary adventures and clear the slate for more.

I've been good last year. I obtained, by purchase, gift or loan, 19 books. I have read, throughout the year, 21 and thus decreased my stack of unread books, which was threatening to dominate the shelf. In further relief to Billy, not all of the books I obtained are still in my possession: some have been given away, moved on or donated to the Oxfam.

I don't remember what is where, what I gave away and to whom, but I do remember the books I read. I made a list, after all. This list is repeated here with brief summaries, intended to serve as a reminder when my brain doesn't work so well anymore and to suggest material for when you get bored reading my blog.

  • From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman – In an earlier post, I called this my favorite book of the year. Even if it's not as much a standout as that title makes it sound, it's still a great read. Immediate and fresh, though it's 20 years old. Political writing doesn't get much better. Plus, it's funny.
  • The Alleys of Marrakesh by Peter Mayne – The author, an aspiring novelist, went to Marrakesh at the end of the second world war to write his book. He was an expatriate before the word was invented, renting rooms from the locals and living the life. While every other westerner was a colonialist, he tried to integrate. A treasure!
  • Geographical Excursions in London by Hugh J. Gayler – The handout by a Canadian geography professor for his annual class trip to London go chronologically through the history of urban planning and design. It made me discover parts of my town I didn't know and see others with different eyes.
  • Orchid Fever by Eric Hansen – Shortly after arriving in London, I purchased an orchid with violent pink flowers. It has now grown buds again, for the second time, in spite of my largely absent care. The people in Orchid Fever, in contrast to me, are positively (and maybe pathologically) nuts about their plants. Hilarious.
  • The Kingdom by the Sea and World's End by Paul Theroux – A circumnavigation, primarily on foot, of the British Isles in a time of austerity and distant war (1982, not 2010) by the greatest contemporary travel writer, plus a small collection of short stories. World's End is a neighborhood a short walk from where I live.
  • The Songlines and In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin – Of these two, The Songlines is by far the stronger. Chatwin reveals the culture of the Australian Aborigines, their maps drawn by song, and their oral histories. Utterly captivating. In Patagonia is just a trip by comparison.
  • Arabia Through the Looking Glass by Jonathan Raban – As any example of well-aged travel writing, this books takes you on a journey not only through space but also through time, to place you will never be able to visit. Here it's the quaint fishing village of Dubai or the crumbling labyrinth of mud of Sana'a. Brilliant.
  • The Best American Travel Writing 2003 – Great writing, sometimes happy, sometimes painful. The disappearance of large mammals from Africa or of the Aral Sea from the map might just make you cry.
  • Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? by Thomas Kohnstamm – The author left a good job in Manhattan to cover the northeast of Brazil for Lonely Planet. How do you do that in seven weeks? After reading this book, you will use travel guides rather skeptically.
  • A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens – Many more can quote the first line of this novel (It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ...) than have read it. That's justified. Dickens is revered in the UK, but his writing lacks lightness. In this novel, almost every character returns at a later point, giving meaning to the earlier appearance and linking everything, as if the world consisted of two dozen people only.
  • A Friend of the Earth by T. Coraghessan Boyle – The man with the impossible name writes for The New Yorker, but this dystopian vision of a world brought to its knees by climate change is not very convincing.
  • Midnight All Day and The Black Album by Hanif Kureishi – A collection of stories and a short novel by my favorite London boy (thanks to the energetic Buddha of Suburbia). Neither is very good.
  • Atemschaukel by Herta Müller – The novel by the winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature tells of a young ethnic German from Transylvania who is sent by the Russians (who were then our Soviet friends and protectors) to a labor camp in the Ukraine. The story is dire and harrowing, but the telling is light, almost belittling. Brutality upon unspeakable brutality is heaped upon the protagonist, who just marches on, not feeling much. Maybe that's the only way of dealing with such a topic, especially if it's personally close to you, but I didn't like it too much. In contrast, I very much liked the technical aspects of the writing, especially the constant creation of (very German) compound words (the "breath swing" of the title, for example). They wouldn't stand much of a chance of surviving translation, unfortunately.
  • The Black Swan by Nicholas Nassim Taleb – A Wall Street trader and hedge fund manager who retired to a position of academic philosophy and pure thinking. Nice if you can afford it. Even better if what you produce is worth the time (and lost income) you put into it. This book will make you see news and financial predictions in a different light. Great!
  • Le passé simple by Driss Chraïbi – Autobiographical Moroccan coming-of-age story from the times when paternal authority was absolute. Probably important in its historical context, and full of shocking detail, but no Catcher in the Rye.
  • A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian by Marina Lewycka – The title grabbed my attention. The first twenty pages were hilarious. Then, over the next 300 pages, it fizzled out.
  • Wir waren jung und unbekümmert by Laurent Fignon – The two-time Tour de France winner (and one-time eight-second loser) died last summer of cancer. This autobiography retraces his career with humor, open words and honest admissions, be it the use of recreational drugs or the refusal of industrial doping.
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig – This should be required reading for every graduate student. Hell, it should be required reading for everyone. Read it now!

After going through these books, taking them from the shelf to refamiliarize myself with them, I'm surprised to see that I actually don't have all that many books left unread. There are a few, and some are heavy. As it's the new year, I made a separate pile with those that I will, for various reasons, attempt to read: The Finkler Question, Les Bienveillantes, Wie der Stahl gehärtet wurde, and Der Turm. Now there's a New Year's resolution after all.