Saturday, February 25, 2006

something in the air

Another weekend has come and for once, no rain or snow is expected to fall hard on my ambitions. The sky is forcast to be cloudy, which leaves room for sunshine to make an unexpected appearance every now and then. The temperature is predicted to scratch the ten-degree mark, making for nice riding, although far for perfect, to be honest.

I was still sitting on my kitchen table wasting time long after a breakfast of Gasconian espresso and oven-warm croissants from the bakery next door when the sun shone through the window for the first time. As if this was the final kick that I needed I bundled up, straddled my old Cannondale and rode into the haze. Because hazy it was indeed, with an inversion sitting heavily over the city, reminding me of winter days in Salt Lake when the only clean air could be found up in the ski resorts. How the sun had made it through the milky, translucent waft of pollution remained mysterious. Maybe it was just my mind playing tricks on me, working hard to get me out of my chair, because I never saw the sun again.

Anyway, the ride was uneventful and not very inspiring until I reached the town of Claix, a sleepy suburb south of Grenoble. I passed what looked like a city park when I noticed two big fires blazing in plain view. A large patch of grass was being burned and a big pile of wet leaves, and a busy looking person was tending to it all. Shortly thereafter, I saw more fires in backyards and gardens. It is not the first time that I'm struck by the nefarious habit of freely burning stuff in open fires. But today I was outraged. Is it really necessary to pick one of the worst days in terms of air quality to add to it? The smoke hung low and visible just above the road. It acridly settled on my tongue before, inevitably, filling my lungs. What are the health benefits of inhaling soot and incompletely oxidized organics? Why does this shit need to be trapped near where people live and, as it happens, ride their bikes?

One thing led to another and I was soon contemplating the poor sense of environmental protection that the French seem to have. Recycling is in its infancy and less common than even in Salt Lake. People are infatuated with their cars, and to many it would never occur to use a bike to go places, even in a city as flat as Grenoble or, as I read the other day, notoriously congested Paris.

But maybe it's my calling to educate and explain. Maybe I'm the purveyor of progress. Still on my bike, I was composing a letter to send to the mayor of Claix, bringing him the light of sensible environmental policies. After reading about French politics for nine months now, I was getting really excited about trying my bullshitting skills in French.

Monday, February 20, 2006


This morning I had to give a talk in lab, recapitulating a workshop that I attended almost half a year ago. I hardly remembered anything, and only started preparing the presentation last night at ten. Against all odds, the talk went well, and I managed to fill three quarters of an hour will words that seemed to make sense to the audience. calls this winging it.

As a reward, and because the forcast rain was nowhere to be seen, I left lab shortly after three to go on a quick afternoon ride. It was the perfect day, especially considering it's the middle of February. The temperature hit double digits (Celsius scale) for the first time this year, the sun was shining as if it wanted to melt all the snow up in the mountains today, and clouds left over from yesterday's storm gave the sky a dramatic appearance.

Since I hadn't ridden in about a month, was ecstatic to be back on my bike. A good tailwind was pushing me out of town, and soon I was dancing up the Col de Quatre Seigneurs as if the road was flat. Endorphins had silenced all the pain molecules that normally run up and down my legs banging pots and pans, or whatever it is they do to cause me misery. As soon as the gradient picked up, I zoned. With a wild grin all over my face I followed the band of blacktop right in front of me. On my left I could see dark trees, mostly brown and grey, trying to recover from the winter that had interrupted their lives, while on the other side a magnificient valley opened up. In the distance, the snow-covered peaks of the Alps were reflecting the afternoon sun that was shining strongly. The Taillefer, a most impressive giant with bald, flat faces glistened light, white and bright. It seemed transparent behind the dark olive of the coniferous slopes to its feet.

I was flowing and hardly noticed the climb. No car disturbed me peace. For thirty endless minutes, I was all by myself. Only the hurried humming of my chain and the hissing of my breath reminded me that I was on my bike. Ah, the bliss of road riding. Finally, I reached the top. The col is just 787 meters, but that's 550 meters higher than where I started out from, or 1800 feet for the metrically challenged.

On the way down, on the other side, faded cheers on the pavement were visible from last year's Dauphiné. By now, it had got noticeably darker and colder. The clouds weren't just remnants of storms in the past, they were charged for action. It was time to head back. I had hardly taken my helmet off at home when rain began to beat down onto the roads of Grenoble still busy with rush-hour traffic.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

cartoons part two

Isn't it ironic that cartoons that are deemed deeply offensive for criticizing, by means of satire and a sharp pen, the connection between Islam and violence are protested by an apoplectic mob clearly demonstrating to the world, by means of Molotov cocktails and storming of embassies, a connection between Islam and violence? I understand that the honor of the prophet must be restored, but it is clear to me that the current approach is deeply flawed, even malicious.

Pillaging small shops in Pakistan that display Western advertizements and devastating the lives of dozens of owners and their families, devout Muslims in all likelihood, is a shame to Islam. The same holds true for killing Christians and burning their churches and businesses in northern Nigeria. Offering an eleven million euro bounty for the beheading of the cartoonists instead of investing the money in water purification equipment, a hospital and infrastructure, as happened in Uttar Pradesh, is a disgrace to any religion. Deterring, by creating an atmosphere of fear and hatred in Beirut, adventurous tourists who were just starting to come back since last year's Cedar revolution and depriving restaurants, cafés and hotels of revenue is an insult to all righteous Lebanese. And lastly, nothing of what is currently going on in Iran, where the resident über-nutcase is spewing vitriol while people in the streets are chanting his praise, could possibly be construed to be promoting the glory of Islam.

On the other hand, signs of hope emerge. The network of Democratic Muslims demonstrates in Copenhagen against the burning of Danish flags. Pakistani authorities call for restrained and moderation. Protesters in London are not demanding the extermination of Europe and the death of all infidels anymore. An Italian minister steps down for being a complete idiot.

But this hope is feeble as long as religious fervor is corrupted by rabid fanatics. The public in Muslim countries needs to step forward visibly and forcefully and repossess their faith. They alone hold the key to restoring the honor of the prophet and Islam, which have taken such a savage beating over the last few weeks.

Thursday, February 09, 2006


When I moved to Grenoble, there was rumor that the city's airport, originally built for the 1968 Olympics but all but dormant ever since, was about to be resuscitated, kissed from its sleep of decades by the inescapable arrival of budget airlines. Every other little airport in Europe would be just a few euros and even fewer hours away. Progress has indeed been made over the last year. London, Bristol, Stockholm and Warsaw are now closer to home than even Paris, never mind the TGV. Just before Christmas, Rome was added to the growing list of destinations.

I happened across blu-express's web page today, which tells of incredible deals from Grenoble to Rome. If you fly in March, they ask for as little as five euros, one way. Intrigued, I looked a little closer. Besides the inescapable taxes, they also add a fuel surcharge of sixteen euros each way. And while I'm all in favor of fueling the plane before jumping over the Alps, it would seem to me fair business to include that cost in the advertized price of the ticket.

And if it's not, I'm left wondering why Alitalia, which bussed me to Chicago the other day for about €350 excluding taxes, didn't advertize their offer as "€90* (*plus 300% fuel surcharge)".

Thursday, February 02, 2006

pol sci 101

The latest hottest news in Europe took four months to fully come to speed. I'm not quite sure if it has made it across the Atlantic (where most readers of this blog live) so I'll join the chorus and add my two cents.

In September, a Danish daily published a bunch of cartoons showing Mohammed, the prophet according to Islam. The project was launched when a publisher couldn't find an illustrator for a book on Islam because of fear of retribution if anything shown was deemed inappropriated. The main point of the cartoons, that self-censorship is not acceptable in Western Europe, was explained in the accompanying article. The increasingly vitriolic outrage that has erupted (or rather oozed - considering the time it took to reach cruising altitude) shows that the newspaper got it all right.

It also shows that some citizens of Europe have a lot to learn about how Western society works. Some say the cartoons are unacceptable because picturing Mohammed is not allowed by the Koran. There are some fine countries where the Koran is law, but Denmark is not one of them. Others are calling for the Danish government to condemn the newspaper for publishing the cartoons. Again, an idea that would fly like a hot-air ballon in Saudi Arabia or Iran. Thankfully doesn't work like this around here.

What the reactions to the cartoons - death threats, flag burning, boycotts of Danish products, a siege to the EU's office in Palestine, threats of violence - show is that radical fundamental Islamists with their predisposition to violence and their inability to communicate, argue and discuss according to accepted standards need to be taken very seriously if not tackled forcefully to maintain peace in Europe and prevent the rise of blind hatred against average Muslims.

The cartoons are shown on the website of the Brussels Journal, together with articles, comments and discussion. And yes, I'm very angry.

poser friends

The other day Gianpiero left the lab to go back to Italy where his wive and a very uncertain future were waiting for him. He unloaded heaps of pasta on me, we went for pizza and sangria after that, and the next morning he took off in his boxy Fiat.

Today in the lab I found more goodies that he had left for me. Cans of beans, a few bottles of wine, tea, and other victuals. I am not happy because a good friend has just left.

"Only posers die" is what Stevo sobbed after Heroin Bob had died of an overdose. I am thinking "only poser friends leave", and I feel a little bit like Stevo myself. But I know that I have also left plenty of friends behind in my endless peregrinations. The world is a village, and that's not always a good thing.