Sunday, September 29, 2013

history walk

When the Olympic and Paralympic jamboree was over, a little more than a year ago, one of the things that I was most excited about was the Olympic Park.  Half a decade of decontamination, regeneration and construction had turned a no-man's-land of crumbling warehouses, disused factories and abundant pollution into the bucolic dream of idealized Britishness of the opening ceremony.

What for decades used to be derelict land surrounded by leaden canals and busy A roads and cross-sected by railway lines, was turned in parkland with green hills and wildflowers – if that's the right term – meticulously chosen to ensure joyful colors throughout the year.  It was a huge project, and in the end it would be handed over to Londoners as new public park.

I had thought handover would be shortly after the last Paralympians had left, after the rubbish scattered by the crowds had been cleaned up and security fences and temporary venues torn down.  When talk was of summer 2013, I was baffled.  Why would it take so long?

When summer 2013 came, the first bit of park, christened Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, was indeed opened to a restless public, but it was only a small area, a tenth of the total maybe.  The question of why it takes so long rings even louder.  Today I tried to find out.

I took the DLR to Pudding Mill Lane, a station surrounded by hoardings, constructions sites, railway arches and a pumping station.  It's not immediately obvious why anyone would want to get off there.  The sign to the View Tube gives the answer.  View Tube is a heap of half a dozen bright yellow shipping containers that house a visitor and education center and a small café.  It used to be the best place to see the Olympic stadium rise during construction.

I don't quite remember when I was here last time.  It was some weeks or a few months before the Olympics.  Now, the site looked much the same at first glance.  The stadium is there and the Orbit, and acres of construction.  I walked down the Greenway as I had done before.  The ten-foot fences of unscalable mesh that provided security during the Games were still there, as was the tunnel for safe access to the stadium.  In the distance were housing developments but next to the path were construction sites and rubble fields.

The Greenway is built on top of the Northern Outfall Sewer, the main conduit for raw sewage out of central London.  Not the most pleasant thing to contemplate, but there's no smell and what goes on underneath the path stays mostly invisible.  The exception is where the sewer crosses the River Lea.  By that point, I had dropped onto the towpath, which, like the river, passes underneath the sewer.  Ahead, I could see two pipes, three feet in diameter, old, corroded and dark.  Beyond, massive chunks of riveted iron, the pride of Victorian engineering, allowed the effluent of millions to slowly slush to the treatment plant.  A black sign informed that the structure was built in 1863 (and not exactly kept up to date).  I ducked my head and scurried into the gloom, thirty feet of crossing but at least there was no dribble.

On the other side, ignoring the stadium on the right, it looked much as it must have before the Olympics.  (Check out the photos here, especially the sixth.  Taken in 2007, they show what I saw today.)  Old locks and rotting narrowboats spoke of better times.  Some warehouses sat empty; others had been given new life by the cultured underground, canal sides turned into café terraces.  One had a big yellow sign advertising a German deli.

German delis are rare in London.  There are two in Richmond, one of which bakes excellent bread.  They've been there for decades and sell things they've always sold, products from the west.  This one was different, full of things I connect with emotionally.  There were Spreewald gherkins, Dr. Quendt biscuits, Born mustard, and pasta from Riesa.  It was a bit of a homecoming for me, but as always in such places, the prices were horrifying.  The owner, East German thirty miles down the river from me, told me he cries when he puts beer on the shelf.  The price he has to charge after the supplier and Her Majesty have taken their cut is physically painful.

With mustard, gherkins and a bread, I continued my walk.  Footbridges crossed the canal, so new that they weren't even open yet.  Then there was a sign to the park.  It pointed towards a busy roundabout, but I could see the curved roof of the velodrome in the distance and approached.

The park is small and hemmed in by access roads to the Olympic-size shopping center and railroads, but it's been creatively laid out and landscaped with great aspiration.  The waterway that passes through it, part of the River Lea/Lee Navigation network, got reed beds, artificial marshes and irregular shores, and meanders out of view like a natural river, though it quite clearly isn't.

There are amazing playgrounds for kids, a non-profit café run by a disability charity and viewpoints up on the hill.  There isn't much to see yet, but once construction is finished and the extensions are added – and connected with footpaths like everywhere in London – this will be a lovely place.  On the other hand, the bespoke landscaping will take great effort to maintain.  Some parts already look rather worn, though this could be a result of the unusually warm and dry summer.

What baffled me for a while were two bridges across the river/canal.  They were far too wide for a little park, wide enough for four-lane traffic.  Then it occurred to me that they weren't built for a little park that will accommodate hundreds but for Games visited by millions.  Downsizing is why the park couldn't be opened earlier.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

new acoustic dimension

During one of the periodic lab cleanup sessions that I enjoy because I like throwing things out and reducing clutter, my eyes fell on a box towards the bottom of an ignored shelf, the abandoned property of an investigator who had long left College.  Dust blurred most labels but I could read quite clearly three capital letters inside a black square.  This is why I had never given the box a second look before.  NAD is an originally British manufacturer of audio equipment with no place at all in a biochemistry lab.

I had always assumed there was some random junk in that box and ignored it, but when I wiped the dust off and opened it now, an integrated amplifier appeared, causing mystification all around.  There were no speakers or input source and no trace of ownership.  It was decided that I should carry the box home to test the content.

I bought my stereo late in high school, probably more out of a desire to impress than from audiophile inclinations, but once I had it, I took it seriously.  Half a year in, I got rid of the tape deck and went CD-only when most of my friends didn't even own a CD player.  This severely limited my exposure to music – I could afford a disc only ever other month – and kept the teenage institution of the mix tape from me, but I got hooked on good sound.

When I swapped my Sony for the NAD, the effect was immediate.  The music sounded much more open, much clearer, alive.  Instead of coming from the speakers, it filled the room.  It was an epiphany.  My system was all I could afford as a student.  I've been reluctant to upgrade because I doubted I'd be able to hear the difference to something truly HiFi.  Now I know better.

I dropped onto the sofa, closed my eyes and let the music flow through me.  It was a different game.  North End Road isn't exactly the place for quiet enjoyment – unless you're deaf and get a kick out of ambulances passing in rapid succession – but here I was contemplating a new pair of speakers to go with the amp.

It is ironic that as recorded music has become ubiquitous, the quality of its playback has dramatically decreased.  Just take the kids on the bus playing the latest hit through the speakers of their phones.  My grandma would have sent her first gramophone straight back, had it sounded like this, and vowed never to listen to music outside a concert hall again.

Headphones have become tokens of trendiness, a visibly worn membership card to the club of the cool kids but also a display of conspicuous consumption.  White shone brightly when the iPod was new.  Now red is the color.  The headphones have grown in size and price but it's still style over substance.

I have all my music on mp3, which is fine for traveling or to drown out the noise of equipment at work, but when I want to listen to something that matters, I turn to CDs.  Maybe I should also get a new CD player to max out the sound?  It was while entertaining these thoughts – nonsensical because I won't buy anything into the geographic uncertainty of my present life – that I was rudely awoken.

The left speaker started crackling, then fading, handing over the dissonance to its mate where it stayed for a while and then returned.  It sounded as if a connection were failing, corroded contacts or some audio circuit warped by oxidation or dust.  I swapped the speaker cables, cranked up the volume, cleaned the connectors – the sound came and went.  One moment it was sublime, then it faded and grated.  Instead of taking music to a new dimension, a tired and exhausted NAD 314 is now cluttering up my living room.

Thursday, September 19, 2013


On Sunday, another general election is held in Germany. In the rag that's handed out daily in front of London tube stations, I read that the election will be "the most important for Europe in decades". This is utter nonsense. Any conceivable outcome – and there are at least four – will retain the status quo. Economic policy will continue as before, in the country as well as in Europe. The only changes will be symbolic.

Germany is run by either of two (and occasionally both) parties in various coalitions. Which party has the upper hand doesn't matter one bit. There aren't dramatic differences between them. Both parties support higher taxes and promote suffering as the path to happiness as if this were the Vatican. This would be of little concern to foreigners, but Germany has shared economic pain generously and incubated fertile ground in southern Europe.

The thing is, the German insistence on austerity is not going to stop. As long as there are studies out there claiming that even Greeks, whose nominal wealth is inflated by random piles of brick deposited on various Mediterranean beaches, are wealthier than Germans and stories of grandfathers buried in the yard surrounding the pile of bricks because it was their favorite place in the world – and the continued transfer of a monthly state pension is an unfortunate oversight, a fluke that no one noticed, honestly – public opinion will not shift away from austerity no matter who wins the election. And since the media love this kind of story, public opinion will not shift, period.

Yesterday, I received a pale grey envelope marked Official containing two smaller envelopes, one bright red, the other pastel blue. I had been waiting for this letter. In a perfect world, it would have arrived much earlier. But when you live abroad and your mom does the right thing and takes summer off to travel, there's no one back home that could tell you your number on the electoral roll, which your hometown sends to your registered address. This number being required to request a ballot for absentee voting, my hands were tied while the countdown ran.

I would have had all the time in the world to watch the news, read editorials and follow debates to educate myself on the various party's stands on the pressing issues of the day, but there wasn't much noise. There wasn't disagreement and there weren't discussions. This was, it seems to me, not so much because everyone agreed but because no one cared. Slaughter of civilians in Syria, an economy on continued life support, energy costs that are the highest in Europe by far – I don't know what this election is about.

In any case, my mom returned home last Sunday, found the postcard from the city and send me my electoral roll number. Five clicks later I was much closer to fulfilling my civic duty, and last night I did it, putting a pair of Xs inside circles on the ballot paper that had tumbled from the big grey envelope together with the little ones. This morning, I recursively stuffed the little envelopes in the correct order, bought a stamp and sent my democratic right on its way. Three days away from election day, there's not much of a chance that the letter will make it back on time but, as illustrated above, it wouldn't make a difference anyway.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

old man

Beyond a certain age, it's essential to see your friends frequently. When you're young, time doesn't matter. It doesn't pass; it's just an abstract concept. I was for the longest time convinced that the best friends were the ones you saw the least. Can there be a stronger connection than with someone you only see ever year or two and still feel closely connected with?

I used this rationale to feel good (or at least not suicidally bad) about not seeing friends I had left behind in various corners of the world for months or years at a time. I knew that my friends would always be there for me – and I for them – whenever necessity or opportunity arose.

Tonight, I went for drinks with a former colleague, a friend I had worked with for years. Two years ago, after too many years in London, he took his family and went back home. Tonight, he was back for the first time, for just about a day.

It was good to see him again and to chat about how things had developed for him, how life is where's living it, how work is progressing and a career shaping up. He had missed fish and chips and was happy to dig in, never mind the pub we went to wasn't exactly haute cuisine. Fish and chips isn't haute cuisine anyway. It was good to catch up with him and hang out having fun.

The good times took a while. My first impression was one of mild shock. My friend had aged. He didn't look the kid he used to be. Wrinkles in his face, lines around his eyes, bits of grey in his hair, skin grooved by age – he probably looked as old as he was, but he didn't look the guy I remember.

The mild shock about my friend's appearance was followed by a much more profound shock, an eye-opener, a turning point possibly, a shock that hit home in the most painful way. If he looks like this to me after a couple of years, I must look the same to him. I couldn't deny the evidence in front of my eyes. I'm not immune to age – no matter how I burst about the football pitch – and time is gnawing down my edges.

I've always considered myself a kid, young at heart with a body to match. In grad school a senior student told me that it's downhill beyond 25. Another friends was petrified at the thought of turning 30. I've always laughed it off. Not anymore. It seems that forty is a turning point. Eternity is suddenly not a vehicle for debauchery anymore but a void that holds the unmentionable horrors of old age.

The post could end here but it would be odd. There's no connection to the start, and it's the sentiment expressed in the first paragraph that made me write all this. Tonight I realized that time isn't measured in minutes or hours or years but in the faces of your friends. I have to make sure to see my friends again before it all falls apart, and see them again and again to soften the blow of the passage of time.

Monday, September 02, 2013

another way

Visiting Paris with your son has good sides and bad sides. Not having a son, I wouldn't know, but I take the opportunity to imagine. I imagine a weekend that starts on Friday afternoon with a nice coffee in a rather busy place.

I was picked up by my son who had left work early and talked about a trip, leaving all detail unsaid. He steered me with gentle determination from one train station – of Harry Potter fame – to another, just across the street. My eyes were opened as we approached the gothic glory of St. Pancras but before I had the chance to comment or even be surprised, we were already through security and passport control and at the Caffè Nero that's apparently at the beginning of every trip to the continent – as the English are fond of calling it.

The journey passed in a blur; there wasn't much to see. The panoramic windows of the buffet car gave way to rural expanse on either side of the tunnel. If southern England is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, where does everyone live? When the dominant color changed from green to grey and the train slowed down, we were in Paris – unbelievably.

The train had stopped, we were disgorged, but I remained dazed. It was all a bit much. Looking left, looking right, first impressions engulfed me – sights, sounds, motions – but there was no time to process. We had arrived with delay and my son was pushing ahead with a purpose. I had no reason to doubt and no mind for it, and fifteen minutes later we stood in front of the hotel.

Traveling with your son is the easiest thing in the world: no responsibilities, no immediate expenses – not knowing we were going to Paris I hadn't even brought euros – nothing to see and nothing to miss. It's an exercise in trust and discovery, following a guide with an aversion to maps (men!). The weekend was sure to be packed with as much as is possible to pack in a weekend, the attractions rising left and right wherever we would go, too much to remember even for a nimbler minds.

Quiet time came during meals only, and that's why I was happy to sit in this little place in the Marais, carefully neglected for the full Bohemian experience and next to a park, airy and relaxed. It was the last night, and dinner was almost over. My son has just ordered a coffee and the check with it, though urgency was the last thing on the mind of either of us.

To the contrary, I want to shout, but who am I to spill the mood? Urgency is not just on my mind, it's at the risk of tipping over into an acute frenzy. Our tickets warn that check-in closes thirty minutes before departure. That mark has just been passed, and we're nowhere near the station. I finish my coffee, grab what little change there is from a rather big bill and then my backpack and my mom and start flying down the street. I imagine a boulevard just ahead, a wide street that runs straight up to the Gare du Nord. With a cab, we should be fine, but flagging one down, once arrived on Beaumarchais, proves impossible. They're either occupied or blind to tourists. When the recreated art nouveau of a Metro stop appears ahead of us, we dive into it, relinquishing all control to a force majeur that at first doesn't seem to be on our side.

The ticket machine speaks my language but doesn't understand my needs. I press buttons in vain at first and then in panic. There is no ticket for anxious minutes, until a station agent helps as if this were London. On the platform, the departure board shows a big five, more minutes than we have – and we have to change at République. It seems impossible; we're doomed to a costly rebooking and potentially an equally costly extra night in Paris. But giving up is cheating, and so we run as the orange arrows indicate and hop into a number 5 towards Bobigny just as the doors close.

Three stops later: Gare du Nord. A mad dash from the second subterranean level all the way to the Eurostar departure hall in the mezzanine ensues, a race towards the finished line just ahead of the broom wagon. Good thing I've done this before and don't have to look left or right. We scramble up escalators and wave at uniformed staff in the distance, triggering a response of shrill encouragement: "Une minute", the check-in lady calls, "une minute". We get our tickets stamped, our passports scanned and our luggage checked, passing a few less able travelers in the process. My mom looks at me with the elation of a challenge squashed and pants: "We're not the last ones!"

Indeed, as we sink into our seats there are still two ticks on the clock. For a moment I wonder where I could have used them better. Maybe I should have enjoyed my crème brûlée with more abandon? On the other hand, I've probably pushed luck hard enough already. My mom, still gasping from the unexpected steeplechase, will never forget what it means to travel with her son. Missing the train wouldn't have improved the experience.

one way of telling

Many people have written about traveling with relatives. I have added to the pile in disconnected bits and bobs in posts every now and then, mostly in the form of reminiscences, but I haven't written much about traveling with my mom.

This weekend, we were in Paris. I've been there a good half-dozen times. For her, it was a first. It was also a birthday present, and I had lined up attractions she would want to visit, mostly places I had seen before – not because I've seen it all but because the things I've seen are the only ones I know and can find without a map, places like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Champs Elysées, Notre Dame and St. Germain des Prés.

Saturday, we climbed up to Sacré Cœur, a place best avoided but you have to see it once. The church is like a huge white turtle. Hardly anyone bothers to enter. Hardly anyone even sees it, faces pointing towards town, though the view is much worse than from the Eiffel Tower, except you can see the Eiffel Tower. On the stairs at the feet of the church sit hordes of exchange students and the international gap-year jet set, overdosing on drinks and noise and asking their neighbors to remind them once more whether they're in Barcelona or in Rome. It all looks and feels the same.

To the left of Sacré Cœur is the Place du Tertre, the habitat of limners of the quick pencil that whip up portraits nearly as aggressively as they whip up business. Around the action are restaurants with menus in many languages and food that's bad in all of them. We were quick to climb back down to the Boulevard de Rochechouart, ready to call it a night I thought, but my mom had other ideas.

"Can we go to Pigalle?" she asked, and all of a sudden we were in uncharted waters. I had a vague idea in my mind that Pigalle was just down the road, and that's where we went. The neighborhood became seedier as we progressed and singularly focused on entertainment of the anatomical and human biological sort. Neon Xs appeared everywhere and shops with toys and dress for the enhanced enjoyment of copulation. My mom was delighted at first but then a bit disappointed. The window displays and signs were too tame by today's standards, she thought.

And indeed, Boulevard de Clichy looked stricken, punched in the gut by free porn on the internet. While many Xs still glowed in orange and red, and adult-only baths and live shows promised excitement beyond the power of a screen, other letters had gone dark. The OL ES Pigalle missed an F and an I. The Red Mill (how unenticing the name sounds translated) had a line at the entrance so long it needed to be chopped into bits to prevent visitors from waiting in the face of people eating in streetside restaurants, but other than that, the mood was subdued. The only two hookers we saw were crouching in a doorway as if in hiding.

Twenty minutes later we were back at our hotel (the New Hotel Lafayette, which I'm happy to advertise here for its comfort, quiet and good value). Sunday was upon us, but that's something for another post because the tables will be turned. It won't be traveling with my mom anymore but she with her son, an entirely different story.