Sunday, July 29, 2012


It's not that I'm suddenly getting sucked into the hype – for that I lack live TV – but it's the first weekend of the Olympics and some words are in order. I managed to watch the opening ceremony yesterday, one day later but in all its high-definition glory and uninterrupted by commercial breaks. My thanks go out to the BBC and to the license fee payers (who, as a reward for their financial sacrifice, get to watch live TV).

I can't remember watching an opening ceremony before. I might have, as a kid, but it didn't leave a lasting memory. This one might pass into oblivion as well, but that would be a shame. It was a remarkable show. The British are known to be quirky and to have their very own, rather different humor. It showed. If I had to give the ceremony a leitmotif in two sentences, it would be: This is who we are. Get on with it. (If I had to do it in one, I would replace the full stop with a semicolon.)

Some parts were odder than others. The hospital beds and the actual nurses and doctors dancing about in a celebration of the National Health Service – who came up with that? The NHS is a national treasure, much like the Queen, but what is it doing in an Olympic opening ceremony? Who in the world could connect with this? You might not, so I will enlighten you.

The NHS is the best health service I have encountered. Once you've registered with a local general practitioner, she'll see you and help you when something is wrong, within days in my experience. I don't remember ever showing my insurance card and I've certainly never paid a penny. Substantial sums are deducted from my salary every month, but when it matters, it's peace of mind. When you have to see a doctor, that's priceless.

With a wild mashup of the last few decades of popular culture, in movie and music, the show bit of the ceremony ended and the pageant of the nations started. I started ironing shirts and pants at this point, knowing that the parade would go on for hours and not offer the same density of visual excitement as the first part. Some things caught my attention nevertheless.

Never mind the chests, bare and oily, of many Pacific Islanders and the colorful kit of most Africans, the award for most outstanding dress must go to the Czech. They helped the British make fun of themselves – a national pastime and one of the overarching themes of the ceremony – by waltzing into the stadium in Wellingtons.

Much has been made of the fact that, for the first time ever, no team excludes women on the base of their gender. What was even more striking was that the majority of the teams were led by female competitors, though none waved the flag like Hoy the Hulk, with one hand and no effort. But even Chris Hoy couldn't top the Kenyan flag bearer, a white dude in front of an all-black team.

Friday, July 27, 2012

lighting the fire

This morning, listening to Radio 4, I was reminded of the second big event of the Olympics. This morning, at precisely twelve minutes past eight, all church bells in the country would be rung and everyone was asked to join in, be it with bicycle bells, neighbors' door bells or car horns.

The ringing of the bells had been the idea of Martin Creed, a Scottish artist who first rose to fame with the Turner Prize-winning (and, in my opinion, -discrediting) installation The lights going on and off, in which he periodically filled an empty room with light or, in other words, turned the lights on and off automatically. Since then, he has built a career and reputation on turning things on and off, for example by having runners sprint down the length of Tate Britain's Duveen Galleries in intervals. If you wonder what the point is, you should listen to Creed describe it. The inarticulateness of the artists is in perfect harmony with the vacuousness of his works. He has nothing to say and doesn't know how to say it. On the other hand, he knows how to turn things on and off, a skill perfectly suited to the ringing of bells, and his involvement promised a majestic sonic experience, London awash in music.

The first big event of the Olympics was supposed to be majestic and uplifting as well. Boris Johnson, the clown-mayor of London, saw in it "the contagion of joy". When the Olympic flame passed in front of my flat yesterday, families and resident business owners, shoppers and visitors, lined the street in anticipation, yearning for that vibe. A solitary chain of Olympic pennants in primary colors and pink fluttered above as the excitement built below. What happened then be best described as the kid sister of the Tour de France: copious security with flashing lights, a paucity of floats advertising sponsors and a runner that passed by in a flash. Instead of magic, I saw self-importance pushed to ridiculous levels. The only positive aspect was the thorough cleaning of the street before the torch relay. All the detritus of poverty had been swept away by an army of temporary council workers.

Tonight, the flame will reach the Olympic stadium and, culminating a quaint and bucolic opening ceremony, the cauldron will be lit. Tomorrow, the games will properly begin. But even though we're constantly being badgered into patriotism and enthusiasm, doubtful voices remain. The most recent bad news is the heat – never mind that rain would have really screwed with the show. Pollution levels have rising so much in London that athletes are not expected to be able to perform at their peak. I could feel the pain as I weaved across the Gloucester Road crossing, cutting through the hot exhaust of buses that should run on hydrogen and cars that shouldn't be in the city at all. The heat has now subsided and the next days are forecast to be properly English, cooler and wet. May the rain wash the dirt from the air.

Beside the weather (which one can't control anyway), the biggest headache of the organizers was transport. How would a system that runs at capacity most of the time cope with a million extra journeys? Early signs indicate that the worries were misplaced. Far from being afflicted with the contagion of joy, many people, residents and city breakers alike, have chosen to stay away from London during the Olympics. Colleagues of mine who commute to work have reported eerily quite trains. Hotels are far from fully booked. The bug has yet to catch on.

This morning, I was doing my best to catch the bug. I wanted to feel the bells around me. But it was still too early. Had I left home when the anchor reminded the nation of what was to come, I would have been locked away in the white noise of the lab when Big Ben set off three minutes of clatter. So I slowed my breakfast down to a crawl. Bread was buttered assiduously and jam spread most meticulously, with millimeter accuracy until I left at five to eight. Somewhere between Earl's Court and the Olympic lane at Cromwell Road, the minute hand hit the twelve, but I couldn't tell. There was no sound. I had my ears open and was receptive to even the faintest toll. But there was nothing. In the middle of London, the Olympics were going entirely unnoticed.

Friday, July 20, 2012

second person

Munich is the second biggest airport in Germany though Terminal 1, unmarked and anonymous, feels like Rodez or Innsbruck – gate, passport control, exit door with hardly an escalator in between and surely no lengthy moving walkway. Budget airlines don't pay for the fancy terminal, nor do they for gate access if they don't have to, dropping you off on the tarmac just out of sight of the airport facilities. A bus takes you to the terminal, and once you're there, you're out again.

It could be anywhere. There's a nameless city shuttle and countless signs giving directions to parking lots – not what you're looking for. Public transport is not advertised, nor is the direction of the main airport building. The sun shines harmlessly as you wander up and down along exit doors that open silently as you walk by. This could go on for hours, to no effect. You turn around and reenter the building.

There's a coffee shop, trying to be hip but abandoned of trade and prospects, and signs to Area B, C and F, though it wouldn't make the slightest change to you if someone came and swapped the letters. There's nothing. Inside you rises doubt whether the plane dropped you off at the right place. These things go wrong, don't they? After all, the staff had to get up earlier then you and be even tireder. More tired than it takes to make up wonky comparatives. Tired enough to mistake Munich for Nuremberg.

You wonder where you are. The words on the few existing signs aren't incomprehensible, but that's hardly reassuring. It doesn't exactly narrow down the location. Germanic or Romance writing wouldn't jar, especially in the stupor of the early morning, and maybe the writing is English, the lingua franca of our age.

Then you take the ramp to the lower level that you haven't noticed before. There's more anonymity and empty space. It feels like a mega-church where everyone knows his way or, if not, is guided by god. You discover a map, sufficiently out of place to make it's discovery an occasion. You find yourself at the periphery of the airport, not far from uncharted territories.

A few minutes on fast moving conveyors and you're in familiar surroundings. The central plaza of MUC is remarkable: drugstore, bakery, brewery, beer garden – everything the weary traveler might need. There's also a battery of ticket machines for suburban rail, sadly undersized. In front of each machine, buttons are pushed in confusion. Half a dozen people wait for progress, but that's unlikely to happen.

Munich has the world's most complicated transport system. Suburban trains, underground trains, trams and buses cut through zones and rings and spaces and areas. Tickets can be bought by any parameter. Two large files are available online, showing what looks like the same map at different levels of magnification. Either map can be zoomed to silly levels with no gain in usability. Ever more detail appears, an infinity of gradations. The grid radiates from the center, each stop and connections crisply drawn, but what ticket is optimal for a set of journeys remains forever hidden. There is no sense to any of this and no advice on what to get.

Overwhelmed by numbers and words, you take a step back, giving up your spot in the line. Lack of sleep and too much information don't go together well. You're a bit dizzy when a blond girl comes into focus. She looks at you with mild suspicion: "Do you need a ticket into Munich? I bought this day pass earlier." You strike a bargain, half-price of what a proper ticket might have cost, more or less.

You take an escalator down. The train is waiting. You find a seat and sink down, stupefied. Three quarters of an hour to go. You open The New Yorker that you've started on the plane and go back to Juno Diaz's latest exhortation that has been messing with your language so much already. Homies and sucias and second-person narration – all the gimmicks in the book, but powerful stuff nonetheless. The train starts moving noiselessly. It is half past nine in the morning. The weekend can begin.

Monday, July 16, 2012

olympic sprit

I've avoided it for as long as possible. I've closed my eyes and my ears and refused to acknowledge what has been building up. But this past weekend, something snapped. Maybe I woke up. Maybe I looked around me. The Olympics are in London. I am not excited.

I'm not much of a spectator sports person. I would not go into a stadium to see people run laps or dash down a track a sixteenth of a mile long, and I would certainly not pay for it. The Tour de France is the only sport I've seen live in the last ten years outside events I've participated in, like football, running and cycling. Football is the only thing I watch on TV. Whether there are Olympics or not makes no difference to my life.

Except it does. London is a big city, 8 million people by the latest count, but the two weeks of sports days can be felt everywhere, and the ramifications aren't pleasant. The venues are largely concentrated in the east of town but scattered throughout. Athletes, officials and spectators will shuttle around, clogging roads and putting strain on a public transport system that already runs at capacity. I have received several flyers warning me that bus routes will be altered, tube stations exit only, and roads blocked.

On my way to work, I walk by Earl's Court. In normal times, this is a dull conference center where trade shows like the Service Desk & IT Support Show and the Great British Beer Festival are held. During the Olympics, it will be the venue of the volleyball tournament. Pedestrian flows to and from Earl's Court tube station will be tightly regulated. I hope I'll be able to walk as I always do, even though I go against the flow of the crowds both in the mornings and in the evenings.

I hope but I don't bet I will. Some roads that I have to cross on my way to work provide Olympic routes, express lanes that are off-limits to regular traffic. Crossing them will be severely restricted. I will still make it to work with only minimal aggravation, but distant tube commuters won't be so lucky. People are advised to work from home and stay away from public transport during the Games. A recording to that effect by Boris the Clown, mayor of London, is currently played in all commuter rail stations across town.

Imperial is next to Hyde Park where the triathlon and marathon swimming will be held and the marathon, race walking and road cycling finish. Some days will be completely mad. All days will be at least a bit mad because the Japanese and Swiss Olympic teams reside in Imperial student halls. Every morning, the Senior Common Room will open late to Imperial staff so that the athletes can have their breakfasts in peace. Will they be served the usual fare, full English with tepid drip coffee?

Travel and breakfast will be minor inconveniences. Security looks like a big fiasco. G4S, the company that got the quarter-billion-pound (!!) contract for providing guards and screeners failed spectacularly. Fewer than two weeks before the opening ceremony it came to light that they were 3500 staff short. Soldiers, some just returned from tours in Afghanistan, were quickly drafted to fill the gaps. Yesterday, I saw the first platoon march through St. James's Park, nothing Olympian about their camouflage uniforms and lithified faces. But they were eerily in tune with other security arrangements.

These must be the most heavily militarized games ever. Air defense missiles have been installed on top of a residential tower block near the Olympic Park and on four further sites in London. Near Greenwich the Royal Navy's largest vessel has been moored for the last month and a half – to protect the equestrian events in the park at the expense of spooking the horses.

I could go on. But there's bright side. Today it was revealed that the Olympic torch will pass just outside my living room next Thursday, on the penultimate day of the relay. I won't have to jostle for space or get wet from never-ending rain to watch it. With a pillow under my arm I will lean out of my window and soak up the excitement. Let the Games begin!

Sunday, July 08, 2012

outside the park

The Serpentine Gallery is a small art space in Kensington Gardens that is run with an expert mind and the vision for making a splash. The exhibitions change frequently, are to the point and cost nothing to see. But it is the annual architectural commission that makes this place special. Every year, a practice is invited to design and install a pavilion next to the gallery that will provide space for visitors to relax, have a tea and contemplate the connections between art and architecture.

The commission has been run since 2000. At the beginning, only architects that hadn't worked in Britain before could be selected. This stipulation seems to have been relaxed this year, when Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron were asked to perform. Ai Weiwei has indeed not built anything in Britain, but he's an artist rather than an architect, despite his involvement with the Olympic Stadium in Beijing. Herzog & de Meuron, of course, created Tate Modern and are currently overseeing its expansion. Could it be that appointing this partnership served to send a reminder to the Chinese government of Ai Weiwei's standing in the art world?

Political considerations apart, I had reasons to be apprehensive about this year's pavilion. It was an excavated structure, an artificial cave, not exactly the first thing you'd associate with park and summer. As I approached the pavilion, I only saw its roof, a flat circular disk just about a meter off the ground that rain had turned into a reflection pool. The space below was dark. Rough shapes were all I could make out. I descended a few steps and exited the park. It felt a bit like stepping into a neglected pedestrian tunnel underneath a large railway station, solitary bulbs on the ceiling given a dim, rather localized light. Dullness and drabness engulfed me.

All around was nothing but concrete, the coarse mix of cement and rough pebbles that I remember from my childhood when city centers built or spiffed up in the 60s and 70s were clad and decorated with it. There is nothing pretty about the material. It looks like something unsuccessfully designed to look like granite, a cheap substitute, decoration intended to appear noble and elegant but with the opposite effect. Dreadful.

It was raining. Underneath the disk, a few dozen visitors were huddled in a grim underworld, mere silhouettes against the dark background. Quick first glances confirmed my suspicions about the design, but as I looked more closely, my perception changed. People appeared joyfully out of synch with the dreariness of their immediate surroundings, chatting, picnicking, having coffee from the stall just outside, or reading the newspaper the Serpentine hands out for free thanks to its media sponsor. Kids were bouncing about, screeching with bliss. On concrete, I wondered?

I had read that archaeology was a theme of the pavilion. Remnants of the previous eleven structures were apparently incorporated into the design. Foot-high walls crisscrossed the ground like foundations. The pillars and wall segments, twelve in total, that held the roof also referenced past pavilions. There was no repetition and no symmetry. Little stools stood here and there, solid, massive and wider at the top than at the bottom. Made from concrete, they were accidents waiting to happen, tipping over and crushing visitors' toes.

The previous big Ai Weiwei presence in town, the hundred million porcelain sunflower seeds on the floor of Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, had to be fenced off despite the intentions of the artist because the walking and playing of the gallery visitors on them during the first two days had produced enough dust to give everyone potter's rot. Where was Health & Safety? The pavilion had been open for more than a month.

I sat down on a stool, and suddenly it all made sense. The stool was made from cork, as was the entire pavilion. Cork covered all surfaces, and the mock foundation walls were cork as well. The cork looked like bargain-basement concrete, but was slightly springy and a pleasure to sit on. And while it continued to rain outside, the cozy cove was dry and warm.

With the help of the weather, Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron have created an absolute masterpiece, spot on. In the heat of a real summer, it would be unbearably oppressive, but during the current wash-out, record-rainy already and predicted to get worse, the Serpentine Pavilion might just be the best place to be outside in London.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

recent walks

A huge weight fell off my shoulder. I walked out of the featureless office building and into a summer afternoon in Paris. I had just finished the oral part of the interview for a job that had taken me to Paris once before already. The process, with its frightening formality and insistence on the French language, had been drawn out. It had kept my brain engaged for months and my level of preoccupation slightly but steadily elevated. Now it was over. I could saunter off into the sunshine.

Except there was not much sun – the highrise across the street was brightly lit but the black sky framing it spoke of impending rain – and I was in no state to saunter. A walnut-sized blister had grown over the last few days on the ball of my right foot, between the second and the third toe, making walking almost impossible. I had hobbled to the station in the morning, and hobbling was all I was going to do.

The day would be much different from Sunday when I had developed the blister in the first place. Flucha had been in town and, as has become tradition over the months, we were out to make the most of the time we had together. We had started by going to Dulwich to spot evidence of Stik who had left street art based on pieces in the local picture gallery in a few places across town. When we had found them, we were halfway along a walk suggested in that most magnificent of local guides, Walking Village London. We did the second half as well and finished it off with cake and coffee at the Dulwich Picture Gallery café.

That was the first half of the day. After the walk, we took train and tube to North Greenwich where a couple of new attractions have opened to the public. The first is a walk/climb across a Himalayan bridge stretched over the spiky tarp of the Millennium Dome. Spending 22 quid requires a reservation but you'll get training with the biners and the rope and nearly an hour to bounce around on the blue elastic and have your hair tousled by the wind. Fun for city dwellers that have never seen rock.

The second attraction had been my reason for coming. A handful of swish helical towers have recently been stuck into the mud of the Thames. Cables were then strung across them and gondolas attached. In the spirit of a ski lift but without snow, they now ferry passengers from one largely abandoned side of the river to the other. Despite the cable car's integration into the public transport system, complete with a short line on the iconic map its own color (1) and the possibility of taking the ride with a simple touch of one's Oyster, this is clearly built for tourists. The special fare of £3.60 attests to that, as does the fact that no Londoner would think of traveling between North Greenwich and the Royal Victoria Dock.

It's a tourist trap in other words. In yet other words, it's awesome. The ride is breathtaking, though much too fast, and the view fantastic. Unlike the the London Eye with its I've-seen-it-on-TV vistas, the cable car lets you see the Thames barrier, the shiny towers of the Docklands, docks in various states of dereliction, the Olympic stadium and observation tower, and the river in a part that is rarely seen by tourists. If you come to London, you must take the Emirates Air Line, as it is officially called.

Our walk continued on the other side where regeneration has turned wharves into housing and a devastated wasteland into a huge conference center. Highlights for me where the dozen decommissioned cargo cranes lining the dock and the bridge crossing it. The bridge doesn't look like much, just two vertical towers and a straight span, all right angles, boring. But it was built with the possibility of a future upgrade to a transporter bridge, which deserves high praise for quirkiness. Plus, from on top, directly in the flight path, one can wonderfully experience the power of the aircraft taking off from City Airport, less than a mile away. Shame it's not a busier airport.

By the time we were on our way home, we had four hurting feet and one blister on its way. When it grew bigger, over the next few days, I took measures, the trip to Paris in mind: I consulted a dictionary. "Ampoule" I would say in response to the possible question of why I was walking so funny. But when I was asked into the meeting room to stand in front of the jury no one cared. The interview was all business.

Going through the questions of the past five years that were posted on the organization's web site, I had identified what looked like a consensus and duly prepared for that. In my practice talks, I clocked in at four minutes. Not too bad for a five-minute presentation, I thought. I always speak slower and with more stuffing than when I practice. Nevertheless, I prepared a riposte in case a member of the jury didn't like my brevity: I'm not a man of baroque decoration, I would have said, but I needn't have worried. Just three quarters through, I was rudely stopped and told my time was up.

Thirty minutes of questions followed. Some I could answer; with others I felt a bit lost. It's hard to make sense with a vocabulary of 150 and grammar that goes down the drain when nervousness runs high. But it went all right overall. I was stumped only once when one jury member asked about ticks. I know they can be a vector for Lyme disease but couldn't really see how this was relevant for the job or even how it fit into the question the guy had asked. When he rephrased his question, I realized he wasn't talking about "les tiques" (the ticks) but rather "l'éthique" (the ethics). It's pronounced the same but made much more sense. Shortly after that the interview was over, and I was out in the street hobbling towards the rain.

(1) Or rather the color of Emirates, the sponsor.