Sunday, December 16, 2007

list of things

In the past month and a half, I have left two posts on this blog. I guess that's not how it's supposed to be. I apologize. The whole thing was started to make me write, to force me to elaborate my thoughts instead of just ruminating on them in my head.

Well, this was all easy in Grenoble, when I rode my bike a lot and was physically tired afterwards but not mentally. There was always the odd half hour or two to summarize the day. During my first months here in London, writing was no big issue either. So many things, so many new impressions, life to share and unique experiences. I was exuberant.

Now I'm tired. Not tired of London, of course. According to Samuel Johnson, the most famous English dictionarist, "when a man is tired of London he tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." No, I'm a little tired because of London (and all that life can afford). The buzz of the big city is taking its toll. The villager in me cannot help but be impressed and is longing for a few days of calm.

Christmas is around the corner. Three days from now, after yet another Christmas party and a night out with colleagues, I'll be going home to Dresden. I have purchased most presents already and might be able to avoid the last minute rush – unless my parents force me to go shopping with them to find something for me. For New Year's I might be in the mountains.

Up there, surrounded by snow and majestic peaks, I will surely be thinking back. These are the things I'll be missing most:

  • Millennium Bridge – Oh so beautiful, and leading to Southbank as an added benefit.
  • Southbank – The area south of the Thames between Tate Modern and the London Eye is always full of people walking by the river, buskers playing, performers giving their best, all against the backdrop of the National Theatre, the National Film Theatre, Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Bankside power station. It's the little bit of Paris of London.
  • Café Laville – My favorite little café is just off Edgware Road, straddling Regent's Canal. Hundreds of Iraqi kebab shops and four lane traffic are only meters away, but by the canal, a few feet below street level, it's a different world.
  • The Havelock Tavern – This little gastropub has always good food and a friendly crowd, and smashing cobalt blue tiles on the walls outside.
  • Regent's Canal – On a nice sunny day, walking by the canal from Camden Town all the way to Ladbrook Grove is a most unexpected pleasure.
  • Camden Town – I could spend days in the market area between the Camden Town tube stop and the Stables. The whole world and the world of arts are selling their wares here. For ravers, there's Cyberdog.
  • Holland Park – My favorite Park is much smaller and less well-known than Regent's Park, Hyde Park or Kensington Gardens, and certainly less crowded than Green Park and St. James's Park. It helps that the entrances are carefully hidden from the unsuspecting public. This park is an oasis, and only twenty minutes from home.

Why am I not spending the break here?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

ye olden days

My hood is a peculiar place. Shepherd's Bush is right next to Notting Hill, disconnected from its posh neighbor by nothing more than a busy road and a quiet railroad. But the bridge and the roundabout are like a warp hole between worlds. The Bush is cheaper, noisier, livelier, dirtier, and more colorful. It is also perennially up-and-coming, the new Notting Hill-in-waiting, if you will.

At the moment, a huge shopping center, ostensibly Europe's largest within city limits, is in its final months of construction. A new library will be part of the complex. One tube stop will be newly built and another substantially refurbished and updated. A new station will be built for the aforementioned railroad.

To the uninitiated, this might suggest vigorous economic ascension with its inevitable side effects: Starbucksation of this melting pot of cultures and the displacement of immigrants, exiles and guest workers of limited financial means to make room for City bankers, executives and fancy high-street stores.

Even if such a scenario exists in the dreams of the developers or the back of heads of the borough council members, it is highly unlikely to unfold in such dramatic terms. A keen reading of history cruelly invalidates the most ambitious hopes. I came across this by accident.

Today in the Guardian, I read a richly illustrated article about London maps. One, a tube map from the year 1908, grabbed my attention like no other. It showed the Hammersmith and City Line stop that is being built (rebuilt, we learn) these days and a District Line stop where the railway station will go. The Bush was a happening place a hundred years ago, no wonder with the Olympic Stadium and the grounds of the grand Franco-English Exhibition right around the corner. One could even take the tube directly to South Kensington, perfect for those working at recently opened Imperial College.

I don't bemoan that the District Line won't be extended to Shepherd's Bush (though I'd like it). I just want to point out that development is a curious beast. You never know what's going to happen. But with the Bush and its traditional identity, my gut feeling is that change will move only shyly.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

think same

There was, in the golden days of yore, a print advertisement campaign designed with the sole purpose of asserting that Apple still existed. Frugally designed, it featured, on a white background, assorted genii and the line "Think different". Nevermind the poor grammar, the line captured the mood at Apple at the time. They were the odd man out, fighting for their life in a market where their share was negligible. Simply by using a Mac, you were different.

Amazing what difference ten years can make. These days, Apple is the epitome of hip, everyone is in, drooling, buying, cuing up to get the latest gadgets. Tomorrow in the evening, shortly after six o'clock, the iPhone will go on sale in the UK. This afternoon already, devout Macolytes pitched their tents on Regent's St. to be the first tomorrow. The line will grow, thousands will want to be the same.

Similar craziness could be observed two weeks earlier when Leopard was unveiled, the fifth revision of Mac OSX. Back then also, people waited long hours to get their hands on software they could have ordered on the web and had delivered for free to their door just a bit later. I'm thinking, was the previous version really so atrocious and unusable that one can't wait a few extra days to have it upgraded?

The Apple lemmings aren't thinking, though. They're just following the call of the marketing department, getting high on announcements of Apple innovations like computers running on Intel chips, scroll mice (Whoa, why didn't anyone come up with that before?), shock-detecting hard-drives, and, just unveiled, multiple virtual desktops. I'm speechless.

I'm also the wrong person to poke fun. The day Leopard came out I had a chat with our IT guy. We prepared an order that went out after the weekend, and now I'm in possession (though not the proud owner) of a MacBook Pro. For the inveterate Mac hater that I am, this is an event so seminal it warrants two blog entries (in case you were wondering). But rest assured, I have survived six years of Mormonism with my soul intact. I will certainly not convert to Maconism. Same never appealed to me.

Christmas in November

Santa came early this year. Seven and a half weeks before the Holy Night, a big cardboard box was dumped on my desk this afternoon, just when I was about to meet a friend for coffee. Socially skilled as I am, I contained my excitement over the new MacBook Pro and had a chat and a brew, despite everyone in the lab bugging me when I left: "Aren't you gonna open it?"

When I came back, I did. I unpacked the silver star of the show, flat and slick but also heavy and with a large footprint, and the half dozen accessories that came with it, all spotless and white. I plugged the computer in, turned it on and fell immediately in love with the screen, wonderfully wide and bright.

I didn't start watching movies right away. Instead, I opened the handbook. "Congratulations. You and your MacBook Pro were made for each other." From what I know and have experienced, I have serious doubts. I'm a Mac skeptic on a good day and a Mac hater on a bad. The new laptop is probably not going to change that.

There is no right button on the touchpad. How do you navigate the web in the coffee shop, one hand on the cappuccino, the other on the laptop, and no mouse nearby? Short of cruising up to the arrow icon, there is only one way to go back. You have to activate two-finger tapping as secondary click. Works, but try mouse gestures with that.

There is also no delete key, only backspace. The enter key is one of the smallest on the keyboard, on mine anyway. Do Apple designers really use it that rarely? Strangely, there is another enter key just right of the space bar. What's it doing there? How did it get separated from his pal further up?

On the other hand, the back-lighting of the keyboard is lovely, putting to shame the lonely white diode above the screen of my ThinkPad. I also love the low noise level, almost silent with a barely audible hum of the fan. That's all I've noticed so far.

Why did I get the thing? Science – and in particular crystallography – can be done much more productively on a platform that combines hard-cord scientific computing traditionally done under UNIX and Linux with Microsoft and Adobe's office and image manipulation capabilities. As is only appropriate for a necessary tool, the lab paid for it. When a hard day's work is done, I get to play with it for free. That's what I call Christmas.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

unending days

Somewhere during the last two weeks I lost track of virtual life. My facebook adventures have come to a complete standstill not much more than three weeks after their celebrated beginning. What do people see in it? I haven't posted to my blog either. It not that nothing worth mentioning has happened. It's that so many things are happening that I don't find the time mentioning them.

My sister left town and vowed to come back. I can't blame her. How can ten days possibly give you more than a thoroughly unsatisfying glimpse of this magnificent town, an unfulfilled teaser that screams for more? The same feeling was experienced and voiced by two Italian friends of mine who spent the last few days exploring a town that continues to dress up in its finest.

Who would have thought November afternoons can be spend picnicking in the park – among hundreds doing the same. No one was braving the miserable cold. Incredibly and somewhat incredulously, everyone felt the gentle touch of sun on their faces, and some brave souls on recklessly exposed skin.

My guest left this morning, or rather I left them – at the airport at six. Redundant evidence that I'm not a morning person was given when I drove off following sign for "The West". I live in West London, but that's still East of Heathrow. Aided by thinning civilization and unfamiliar names, it still took me a good five minutes to notice my mistake while blasting away from the rising sun at seventy miles per hour.

Late in the afternoon, after another walk in St. James's Park, wonderfully lit by the low sun but noisily crowded with boisterous families feeding swans and squirrels, I went to Tate Britain to see the Turner Prize show. This retrospective assembled all the winners of Britain's most prestigious modern art award since its inception 23 years ago. The exhibition was as breathtaking in its depth as some of the pieces were stunning in their art.

I saw the first video art that ever captivated me, Gillian Wearing's "live group photograph" of some thirty police officers. They were asked to remain as still as possible for the sixty minutes of the shoot, but move and fidget with increasing discomfort. Nothing happens – in the most intense way.

Then there were Anish Kapoor's gigantic cups, covered in dark blue pigment and hung up on the wall with their open end facing the viewer. Looking at them was like taking a visual plunge in uncharted waters – and drowning inevitably, for there was a point in the cup where the eye could make out neither color nor texture. The blue became black, the walls invisible, and the cup bottomless.

My third favorite was the iconic Mother and Child, Divided (used to advertise the show). The rather formal title was probably chosen for effect, forgoing the tell-all directness of "Cow and Calf, Cut in Half", but that's what it was. Four large glass tanks house a cow and her baby, each cut in half and preserved in formaldehyde and silicon. Walking through the cow halves was spooky and the piece itself brilliantly irreverent.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


The genome sequencing pioneer Craig Venter apparently went out to make an artificial bug, piecing genes together in the lab and stuffing them into a lipid shell. The synthetic bacterium will be called Mycobacterium laboratorium. I haven't read much about this and don't want to comment. Despite this, the story deserves a post because Channel 4 interviewed Venter the other day and showed a little piece on the evening news.

How is this relevant? And how do I know this, deprived as I am of a TV? Well, Venter was interviewed because he is giving a talk at Imperial tonight, and the TV crew came to the College to get some local voices to contribute thoughts. No, they didn't ask me, they interviewed my boss, but I managed a fleeting cameo appearance in the final clip (see minute 1:15). Fame and fortune are surely not far off now.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

shut up

Two days ago I commented on the infuriating but also sad story of James Watson whose brain has gone mushier than an overripe banana. I suggested he shut up and go home, but he is still talking. Here is what he had to say on Friday.

"I can certainly understand why people, reading those words, have reacted in the ways they have." – "To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief."

He is a lifelong scientist and yet has statements published that stand on no scientific basis whatsoever. This is inexcusable. The defense that he made a mistake does not cut it. Someone who has been standing in the limelight and had his ideas in public scrutiny for many decades must be expected to mind his words – at least when microphones are pointed at him. For me, only two explanations are possible: he is either stupid or inept.

In either case, he is ill-suited for his job, which happens to be Chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. CSHL agrees and has suspended him from his post. Following which Watson went home. Now if he could just keep his mouth shut as well...

Thursday, October 18, 2007

mr hyde

The ink is barely dry on the articles announcing this year's Nobel Prizewinners when a previous winner is making big waves, stunning the world with shockingly ill-chosen words and signs of deteriorating mental well-being. Dr. James Watson won a Nobel Prize for his prediction of the molecular structure of DNA when he was only 34. He's been in the limelight ever since, nearing half a century. He has given as many interviews as anyone, and his words can be taken at face value. No interpretation necessary.

The other day, he came to London to promote his latest book, a patronizing pseudo-scientific biography. One of his talks was to take place at the Dana Centre this week, barely three minutes from where I work. When I called to reserve tickets, the friendly receptionist told me that I was too late already. Today on the news I hear that his talk has been canceled. What happened?

To paraphrase Watson, blacks are dumb, blame their genes. That's not only bad for Africa, just look at the mess, but also for those foolish enough to employ them in civilized Western societies.

Watson is a complete idiot, obviously. He's not trying to stir constructive controversy because what he says lacks any basis. It is true that blacks in Africa or Aborigenees are less intelligent by Western definition. They live in very different, oftentimes sadly deprived, environments and have no reason to conform in any way to Western definitions. Plus, how do you stimulate and develop your brain when you fight with malnutrition, infectious diseases and marauding bands of warriors? It is stupid to even try to compare.

On the other hand, to my knowledge there is no rigorously controled study that shows that a black kid and a white kid growing up in the same environment, with the same education and stimulation, equal nutrition and affection will show any difference in cognitive abilities or intellect. And as long as that isn't shown – I doubt it will – they are the same.

Of course, there are differences between races. How could it be that appearance should be the only distinguishing criterion? Millennia of evolution have had an effect. But studying them will take more than watching TV and pulling hypotheses out of thin air, and it's not clear that simple picture of superiority and inferiority could be drawn. In a world where putting people at a disadvantage because of racial prejudice and flawed mental models is commonplace, in a world where ignorant discrimination exists all too much, words should be chose with much more care, especially by those with an audience.

What's the next thing Watson will lend his famous voice to? Intelligent design? Alchemy? The revenge of the Tooth Fairy? Shut up and go home, doc.

ready for business

Last night I went to an information session one of the business schools here organized on their Master's and evening programs. I don't know much about business. So when I talked to the organizer while having a coffee before the event, I obviously asked the wrong question.

"What's the audience you expect for this event?" I asked. "Are you doing market research?" was her response, and she frowned at me with what could only be called cold suspicion. I had to admit that it's my job to do research, and that I hail from Imperial, but as a biochemist I'm no competition. In the end, she lightened up, and even make a joke during her introductory speech referring to our little conversation.

Sitting in the lecture hall, I'm felt reminded of why I don't like be in a business environment. While I like the topic and find it interesting, sometimes rivetingly so, people are often extremely uptight and full of themselves. Of course, the session itself was a powerful sales pitch but not too annoying. There was some factual information in it, and I learned something.

Much to my delight, things turned for the better at the drinks reception afterwards. Beer, wine, almonds, and a dozen of fascinating people to talk to. Students with a passion.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


The other day, I signed up with facebook. This is my first adventure in virtual sociability. I resisted friendster, mySpace and Hi5, the latter despite multiple invites. I thought that I know my friends and don't need affirmation in the form of "I'm friends with you" tags.

I think I was right. Facebook is silly. It lets you feel like you connect with people by shot-gunning status updates and assembling lists of two gazillion friends. I prefer a long email or, a dramatic change over the past, an even longer phone call. Or just come over and stay in my spare bed for the weekend.

With facebook I have the impression of being back in high-school, exchanging pledges of friendship and trying to be cool. I was never cool.

On the other hand, finding people you once knew is cool. So maybe facebook is not about friends but about staying connected with acquaintances, and they're only called friends to make people feel better? Maybe in a week or two I'll get it. Wanna be my friend?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

speak out

The New York Times, newly free for all on-line, including their fabulous archives, summarized neatly and with lots of links to background stories the crude incompetence and pervading ineptness with which the American Administration has handled, or rather mishandled and botched, Iraq. It asked why all this is known and yet no one is held responsible, no one is asked for justification, and no one has to stand trial.

How come the American people is quiet about this? If what happened is shameful, letting it continue is even more so.

Friday, October 12, 2007


The Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine to Mario Capecchi (go Utes!) and two other blokes who knocked mice out (or rather genes in them), that's something I'm stoked about. These three guys developed methods that are used everywhere in the study of the processes of life, disease and death.

About the Chemistry and Physics Prizes I cannot say much. Apparently my miniPod and my latest investment, a 160GB drive for my laptop, benefit from it. And equally apparently, processes of industrial chemistry are so much more efficient and clean thanks to improved surface catalysis. So be it.

About Doris Lessing I won't say a thing. I haven't read her books. Some commentators say she's no John Updike or Philip Roth.

What I can do, today on Friday, is shake my head over the Peace Prize for Al Gore. Whose idea was that? I mean, come on, this guy is kind of responsible for the mess in Iraq and the concurrent resurgence of al Qaida by losing an unlosable election to George Bush. Without his incompetence on the campaign trail, the excesses of the current American administration wouldn't throw the world in disarray.

So he made a movie about global warming. Big effing deal. It was a summary of the known, and while it started a discussion, it didn't really contribute anything to it.

On the other hand – and on the bright side – there is no danger anymore that Al Gore will run for president again. Americans would never elect anyone so spectacularly endorsed by the international community.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

color of dumb

I noticed that I haven't used this space for ranting in quite a while. So here it goes:

The other day I saw an advertisement in the tube telling the habitually comatose commuter audience that recycling a water bottle instead of throwing it out gains enough energy to power a living room lamp for six hours. Or some such thing. I don't remember the numbers. I was half asleep myself.

The advertisement was for some plastic bottle maker trying to restyle itself as environmentally responsible. The characteristic I would have picked is devious because they didn't tell how much energy is saved by not buying a plastic bottle in the first place.

Anyway, this advertisement was only the second worst I've seen recently. The uncontested number one is, well, one, a company that's out to save the world, one wasteful plastic water bottle after another. The industry must really be hurting if they resort to such hyperbolic bullshit.

What is scary is that this pretending to be responsible has really taken off. Everyone is green these days, everyone is hugging trees and being good. Unsuspecting citizens are being dumbed into believing that powering your car with corn-derived ethanol does the environment good. Budget airlines all over Europe fight global warming by buying more planes and LiveEarth... I don't have to say anything about LiveEarth, do I? The color green has gone through a profound change in meaning lately.

I ride my bike to work, but only because it's fastest. If a Hummer H1 would get me there quicker, I might consider it. I drink tap water because I already carry enough when I go shopping. I don't own a car because I don't need one, and I liberally fly across Europe in search of old friends and a good time. I care for the environment, but please don't call me green. Not these days anyway.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

et toi, thomas?

Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist with a convincing solution for every problem in the world, is my favorite anti-hero. Most of the time, I disagree with what he has to say. He is too sure about his ways, too convinced of his genius, and too confident of the infallibility of his points. He is pedantic, patronizing and pontificating. Often, he is wrong.

But he does his homework most of the time, he researches before he writes, his opinions are invariably entangled with facts. I like to argue, and it's hard to argue with someone who seems to have the facts on his side. I am forced to read, question and research for myself. Keeps my mind on its toes and me informed on current affairs.

In the one Thomas Friedman book I own, a collection of columns spanning the weeks leading up to and the months after 9/11 (*), he claims that he is free to say whatever he wants. His editor advises only on linguistic and stylistic questions. Or not at all, as it turns out. His latest, about the dark machinations of Toyota lobbying, has a title that makes anyone who is only remotely linguistically inclined wince with pain. Not only is it grammatically incorrect, but what's the point of using French when talking about a Japanese automaker?

On the other hand, the revelation (to me anyway – not a topic I necessarily care about) of Toyota's lobbying efforts and speculation that it's all a ploy to steer the Big Three towards bankruptcy faster is quite interesting.

(*)  Just the other day, he was sort of looking back on 9/11 and calling desperately (and in a uniquely self-flagellating way) for Americans to look forward. More power to him, in that case.

ps.  And how cool is the New York Times jiffy that, upon double clicking of a word, pops up a window with a vast dictionary entry of that word. Click yourself smart.

Monday, September 24, 2007

pidgeon power

Yesterday, I rode my bike to the Queen's to see how London Freewheel would turn out. This event promised to promote city cycling and tried to get everyone on his or her bike on this sunny day that Sunday was. A number of roads were closed along the Houses of Parliament and the Embankment, and Londoners were encouraged to find out how cool cycling is. The roundabout outside Buckingham Palace and nearby St James's Park were the hub of all.

While I passed underneath Wellington Arch in my approach, I could already tell that coming wasn't a good idea. Too many people. Congestion. Stuck. I did the loop anyway, and then headed to Trafalgar Square. I had no special business to do, just wanted to buy something to read and hang out in a coffee shop, to read and watch. There's a lot to watch on the streets of London.

What I didn't see, in my infinite ignorance, was the drama of the day, reported today on BBC news. The pigeons are starving. Apparently, the no-feeding rules are being enforced, and the pigeons go hungry. Good, I think, they'll go someplace else or cut their flock down to sustainable size. Bad, even catastrophic, says The Pigeon Action Group. What the hell, ask I.

Why do sewer rats with wings deserve loving attention and special care? All across town, everything is done to control this pest. So why should they have carte blanche on Trafalgar Square to shit happily and spread disease? I'm not even talking about human misery and starvation in Africa. Feed the pigeons – how much more vain can one be?

Friday, September 21, 2007

river of opportunity

Today I skipped lab most of the day. I stopped by early in the morning (no witnesses besides the cleaner, a kind and most diligent Nigerian), around lunchtime and late in the afternoon, just in time for some birthday donuts. The rest of the day, I attended the eagerly anticipated Source Event, a science career fair organized by the friendly folks at

It was the first time they've done something like that, and there were times, in the weeks leading up to it, when it showed. They were probably overwhelmed with the reaction. Over a thousand people signed up. At some point they asked for re-confirmation of attendance, combined with the opportunity to shell out ten pounds for the coffee breaks. I did both, but three days ago I received an email claiming I hadn't re-registered and telling me to "NOT attend The Source Event". I've just started a new job and am quite happy with it, so I didn't mind too much, but the ten pounds were bugging me. I went anyway.

At the door, I got my badge with no questions asked, and later tea and biscuits. I could have got an information packet from Pfizer as well, but that wasn't what I had come for. I was more interested in the talks. Going with the fluid theme of the event, three streams of talks were offered, one primarily for Ph.D. students, the other for post-docs eager to stay in research and the third offering career alternatives.

After getting stranded in the wrong room in the morning, I was in the bench-to-business section in the afternoon, and I was treated to some fine talks, covering intellectual property, finance and policy development. I learned of an opportunity I had never thought of before, something that seems to fit my skills, talents and interests perfectly. A clear alternative to my present career has budded, and I know in my heart that it's a viable option. Let's not name names at this points because the last two times I decided with my heart, the result was disastrous. But I'm mildly excited.

Back in the lab I briefly scanned job ads in that particular field. For the fourth or fifth, I was the near-perfect match, with only one qualification missing. I know what I'll do this fall. If nothing else, it will get my brain exercised and my body out of the cold rain. And who knows, maybe my professional life will start flowing in a different direction at some point.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

the world

Every time chance strikes and things work out as if there was a guiding force I'm left wondering how many times chance doesn't strike, and how many things I miss but not really because I'm not aware.

The other day in the lab I make tea, and while the water is heating up, I glance at the newspaper someone has carelessly tossed next to the kettle. I read something about the upcoming mayoral election. Should be entertaining with Ken and Boris running. Everyone else will be extras. I guess, in the end even Boris will be just an extra, but I digress. What caught my eye was the statement that EU and Commonwealth nationals will be eligible to vote, providing they are registered to do so.

A week or two earlier, I had found a letter from the Council inviting me to do just that. Thinking (correctly) that I'm not British and (incorrectly, as it turns out) that elections are none of my business, I didn't even open the letter. I tossed it onto the ever-growing pile of orphan letters in the hallway, and that was it. (We get mail for a good dozen people who don't live here anymore. It adds up.)

When I came home tonight, I dug deep into the pile and indeed, the letter was still there. Opening it, I found out that, while it might be my right to vote, it is my obligation to register. Penalties for refuseniks were not detailed, but canvassers and admonitory calls promised. I dutifully filled in the form and sent it off.

I could have done this by phone. There was even a number for foreigners, with-pick-your language options. And mighty curious these options were. Arabic and Somali I can understand. There's a ton of them around and many, Somalis especially, had other priorities than learning English before coming here – like surviving perpetual tribal warfare, for example. Serbian and Albanian I can accept also. There's not too many of them around, and it could be argued that the world would be a better place if they took English classes together instead of violently arguing over whose territorial rights are holier, but I admit they've gone through hard times. But what is it with Italian and French? How did these make it into the list? What's their excuse?

No one apart from asylum seekers has an excuse for not speaking the language of the country they live in. This is not accepted wisdom in the UK. When I got my National Insurance numbers today, a Romanian construction worker was sitting next to me. All he could do was say his name, gesticulate wildly and point at a calendar to indicate dates. Will he get permission to work? Well, if he does he will contribute to London's being the great, colorful, cosmopolitan city it is. Mulţumesc.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

live is live

The other day I got a text message from Orange telling me that my DSL had come live. A reason to celebrate, after being cut off from the world for the better part of two months? Not yet, as the modem they promised to send was still missing. I was a bit worried how the package would make it though the mail slot that chokes on anything larger than a postcard it seems.

My worries proved unfounded. Last night my neighbor, her wet hair held high with a towel, knocked on my door and handed me a package she had received in my name a bit earlier. In it was the long-awaited Livebox. I plugged it in and hooked my computer up. Configuration was a snap. Communication now occurs through thin air. I'm back online.

The following hours flew by faster then the internet hit my browser. I had some serious planning to do for London Open House, an annual event that lets the interested public see, for free, architecturally significant structures of all sorts, many of which are normally closed. I had already missed out on the most spectacular buildings like the Swiss Re tower and the London Eye. Those require prebooking for which I had been late. But with over 600 objects to pick from, the challenge wasn't so much finding something interesting, but minimizing the time spent traveling.

That's done now. Let's live the city.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


So Osama published another video the other day. I haven't seen it, and I'm not interested, but I heard that he is advising Americans to renounce democracy and convert to Islam. Besides the fact that statement two is completely non sequitur to the first, there is some bizarre development here.

First, you fly a couple of planes into tall buildings killing almost 3000 people, then you ask those still alive to join your party. I'm not sure there has ever been a colder dead start.

One really has to wonder about bin Laden. What happened to the devoted jihadist bound on sending Americans to hell. Now he's asking them to dance Kumbaya with him? It's bullshit. Just imagine: The day the last American converts to Islam and the entire country steps forward to receive the blessing of the big Bin, the fellow leans back in his chair, kicks back his head, has a good laugh and the says: Just kidding guys. You're all gonna die.

Maybe he's gone senile. Living the last three years in a damp, dark cave somewhere in the mountains of Stoneagistan didn't help his disposition. Now he's dreaming of peace and love. I wonder whether he'll be in the video dressed up in a tie-dyed shirt and wearing flowers in his hair instead of the usual towel.

Who can take him seriously? He's just like any other hobo living under the Third Street overpass and has about as much to say. The hobo doesn't get airtime to disseminate his drunken nonsense. Why does bin Laden? Think about it, but be aware that you're thinking about the wrong question. The right question is why thousands still draw inspiration from such a clown and kill themselves and others for his delusions.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

steeple-chasing dinner

Last night was mom's last in London. Something special was in order to celebrate two great weeks of vacation – and the imminent return of calm to my apartment. We decided to follow TimeOUT's advice and eat at Sushi-Hiro, apparently one of the best in London. The restaurant is far out in Ealing, in West London, and also far from expensive. Another contrast to overrated Soho kitchens: no risk of being polonium-poisoned.

Exactly as it should have, the evening turned out very nice, but getting there was like running a steeple-chase with skirts on. It started with the tube's maintenance workers going on strike at 6pm. Consequently, all but three lines shut down. Taking into account that three million take the tube every day, you can imagine that a strike has an effect similar to jamming a log into an ant hill. Chaos and pandemonium, in other words.

Riding my bike home, I was struck by traffic (though luckily not by a car). I've never seen so many vehicles in the streets. Most were sitting idly, waiting for the hundreds in front to move. The bus we took out to Ealing was packed like the proverbial can of sardines. I didn't mind so much. Loads of cute sardines were squeezed in along with us. A feast for the eyes as an aperitif. Maybe I should take public transportation more often.

In Ealing, we missed the right stop because I wasn't totally sure where the restaurant was. I noticed it by the road when the bus had just left the stop. The restaurant didn't look open. When we had walked back from the next stop, it turned out to be closed for summer vacation. "We apologize for the inconvenience."

This being London, there is no dearth of restaurants, no matter what out-of-the-way borough you happen to be in. Walking back the high street the bus had brought us up we passed half a dozen before settling on Siam Royal Orchid. I haven't had Thai in a while, mom likes it, and I was hungry. We walked in before the BYO sign registered. When the waitress asked us if we had brought a bottle as they were only offering soft drinks and tea, we stayed anyway – and ordered jasmine tea that was constantly being replenished over the course of the meal.

The restaurant was a modest family operation. After we had ordered, I deemed it wise to inquire whether credit cards would be accepted. Negative, only cash and checks. My fifteen pounds wouldn't get me very far. I slipped out for a moment in search of an ATM.

This was found quickly at a gas station, oops, I mean petrol station, right next door, but fate hadn't thrown its last stick between my legs. The ATM just sat there blinking, refusing any card approaching its dark toothless mouth. The grocery store inside the station didn't offer cash-back on debit cards. Anything else wouldn't have gone with the theme. I spent the next fifteen minutes running up and down the street before finding an ATM that worked and gave me money.

When I was back in the restaurant, the fishcake starters were cold. They were tasty anyway, as were the main dishes. I had picked Gaeng Massamam, a dish I always relished at Thai Siam in Salt Lake. Once again, it was excellent. But how can something with potatoes not be good?

Taking advantage of a mild September night, we forewent the bus. Walking leisurely down Uxbridge Road, we were back home after less than an hour. London is much smaller than one thinks. It just appears huge because motorized traffic is moving at a snail's pace. Especially with tube strikes.

Monday, September 03, 2007

bespoke words

One of the many little things I've noticed since moving to the Island is that the natives speak a strange kind of language. In print, most looks like English. Spoken, it's a different story. Pronunciation can be incredibly mangled, and I have oftentimes a hard time understanding what is going on.

It's worst on the phone. When I called British Telecom to get a landline, the bloke on the other end repeatedly asked me if I wanted a bisic lane. What kind of lane? I don't need a lane. It took me a while to figure out that he was offering the basic line, which I took.

Pronunciation is only part of the problem. You bounce the sounds around in your head a little, and things will eventually fall into place and become comprehensible. Words are a different story. Most probably know about the whimsies dear to English tongues like lorry, carriage, trolley, aluminium. But it goes deeper.

Take 'bespoke'. What could it mean? Knowing that it is the past participle of bespeak doesn't really help. In fact, nothing really helps besides knowing that the words means custom-made, used in particular with reference to clothes. Why you can't just say custom-made is beyond me, and don't go to your tailer asking him to bespeak a new pair of pants for you. I doubt that would work.

Another word is 'to busk', which describes an activity that is even more common around here than the word. It means, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, 'to play music or perform entertainment in a public place, usually while soliciting money'. Buskers are in the tube, at Southbank and all over Covent Garden. Often, they're lame, but sometimes deserving of my pound.

Something completely different is rhyming slang, a way of speaking that developed in Cockney in East London. Here, words are substituted with mates that rhyme. If you want to get fancy, you substitute with a phrase and drop the bit that actually rhymes. Sounds cryptic? It is. An easy example would be to call the football score 2:2 a 'Desmond', after the South African arch-bishop Desmond Tutu. 'Hello me old china' is even less obvious. China is short for china plate and rhymes with mate. 'Hello my mate.' There you go.

Living in West London, I haven't consciously encountered rhyming slang yet. What I encounter every day in the streets are people not speaking English at all. I hear Polish, Arabic, Hindi, and whatever it is Sikh speak. I've come to London to be back in a place where I understand people and can easily participate in conversations, but then I walk around the Bush and feel more foreign than in France. Fortunately enough, this changes as quickly as I open my mouth, because everyone understands me and I understand them – with a little effort. And I get to enjoy the incredible diversity.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

back in anger

About a year and a half ago, a good friend of mine and I started a political fight about a highly charged issue. But even before starting to scream and hurl insults at each other, we decided that the other was a complete asshole and not worth talking to. That's what you get when your friends are far away. The argument was silly and not worth risking a friendship, but I was not man enough to admit that to him, and neither was he.

A few months ago, we started talking again. It had really got too silly. Now he has come to work in the UK, and this weekend he came down to London. What a jolly good time we had. On Saturday, we went to Seaford, a small town by the Channel coast about 70 miles from London. Seaford is a family resort, quiet, relaxing and mighty impressive thanks to chalk cliffs that start just east of town. We hiked for hours putting our noses in the wind – and later our toes into the slowly approaching high tide. It was the first time that I had seen the tide move in.

The only downside to the trip was the drive. Due to the strong gravitational pull that's particular to big conurbations, it took more than two hours to get there. Next time I'll take the train.

At night, we walked around Shepherd's Bush a bit. My friend acted the local and introduced me to the Somali grocer and Moroccan pastry chef. I benefited from his background when he translated all the Arabic shop signs to me. Looks like there were no hidden "Infidels will have their throats slashed" messages. It's a nice neighborhood.

He also made me aware of a Lebanese bakery called Zeit & Zaatar. Zeit, he said, means oil. It is not surprising that the Spaniards call their oil aceite. Maybe they got the word from the Moors. But what about the Italians? Did anyone ever hear of oil turning into vinegar (aceito) or, scientifically, acetic acid? If you don't think I'm a geek for finding linguistics cool, your might find a dozen other reasons.

Sunday we did Notting Hill Carnival, Kensington Gardens and Kensington the neighborhood. Utter and unbelievable craziness, calm leisure and posh life, respectively. Too much for one post, as always since I've moved to London. I'm surprised I still find time to sleep.

cake and a ride

If my friend stays long enough at his current job in Northern Ireland, I might go up there one weekend, now that I've learned that it's better to look forward in glee than back in anger.

Monday, August 20, 2007

same old

Another weekend and, as if London didn't have much to offer, I went back to places I had already been. I started Saturday with Portobello Market, the world's largest regularly held street market. Starting near Notting Hill Gate, you can first buy tons of antiques, then old and new clothes, then fruits and vegetables, and finally assorted useless stuff. Like every weekend, thousands of people took to the streets. It was a quiet morning.

portobello road

Not by any sane standards, but apparently in comparison to the Notting Hill Carnival that will take place next weekend. Carnival in August, carnival in London? Indeed. NHC is the largest of its kind outside of Rio. Initially started by immigrants asserting their rights against and splendidly getting in the face of violent racists in the late sixties, early seventies, it is now a celebration of everyone and everything. Thousands of colorful floats with beats thumping and people jumping move infinitely slowly down narrow streets clogged with dancing spectators.

Sounds like something better seen on TV? Maybe. Anyway, what the show is really famous for is the battle of the steel bands. Steel drums give the carnival its Caribbean sound, and the best steel drummers congregate for it. In an insider's guide book to London I had read that one week before the carnival a steel drum powwow takes place in a local park. We were there Saturday afternoon, but the drummers were not.


Sunday's skies looked threatening, and the forecast predicted rain. Since I had just got my Tate + Guest membership we decided to see some Dalí. We weren't the only ones, but thanks to my card we bypassed the lines - and the ticket booth. The best part of the exhibition was an animated movie Dalí had envisioned with Disney. Dalí only did the initial drawings and storyboard. Now, sixty years later, it was finished thank to some creative computer wizardry. Very distinctively Dalí. Also fantastic were a set of photographs by Philippe Halsman that are collected in the book Dalí's Mustache. Hilariously nuts. What about the paintings? The Persistence of Memory was there, as was the Metamorphosis of Narcissus, but overall the show couldn't compete with the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Back out on the south bank of the Thames, the rain had failed to materialize. We walked towards the Golden Jubilee Bridge, just as I had done three weeks earlier. It was so different. There's always so much to do. A street festival with dancing and singing, presented by old folks. The World Press Photo Award exhibition for free. Street performers beneath the Eye. Designer shops in Oxo Tower wharf. I picked up a handful of flyers for various symphony orchestras. One event that struck me takes place on London Open House weekend. Too much for one life.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

leaning back

With my flat as full of furniture as I can bear and almost all of the shelves having found their places at the wall, it's time to kick back and enjoy a leisurely evening or two. What's going on? How is London?

Full of contrasts, more than anything else. Next to average people getting by and distressed folks scrounging for their next meal is unbelievable wealth, shamelessly flaunted. My neighborhood sports a large market and lots of little shops, most selling household goods, furniture or clothes, inevitably cheap. Immigrants are everywhere. The vendors already recognize me as a regular. The few white faces are easy to remember. This is not upscale. However, it takes only three minutes on my bike and I see Porsches parked at the side of the road, and ten minutes into my morning commute I usually pass the first Lamborghini, Maserati or Rolls. The area around Imperial College might just be the world's largest Mercedes showroom.

Consequently, you can live in style. The other day I saw a 200-square-meter penthouse at Hans Crescent for rent. Right behind Harrods, perfect for watching all the Saudis spending US oil money. Priced to go at five thousand pounds per week. At the other end of the spectrum, the beer at Imperial costs less than two pounds for a (British) pint, cheaper than anywhere outside Germany or the Czech Republic, and Forrest's bread is a steal at less than a pound. Shopping around is key.

Somewhat non sequitur, the contrasts continue on the radio. BBC2 is a pretty eclectic station (though far from hip). Every hour, their music changes, and even within a show, they fill the range. I know that I tend to be impressed by radio that's new to me. I immediately fell in love with K-BER 101 and (of course) X96 when I moved to Utah, but that crush only lasted a few weeks. Then I noticed that the music wasn't any better or any more diverse than what I was used to but just different and all the sad repetitive same after a while. My hopes are still alive that the Beeb might be another kind of radio.

One step back. Let's not get too excited. My plans do not include sitting at home listening to the radio like an old geezer. Isn't there life music in this town? I'll update on that soon.

Friday, August 10, 2007

stop and go

It could be so easy, and I always imagine it is. But when one moves, there are inevitably hurdles. Procedures that should be straightforward are very complicated, and other potentially difficult issues are resolved in no time.

Such was the case with my apartment. I found it reasonably quickly and with little effort. The three days looking hard don't really count in the grand scheme of things. And take the whole move from France to the UK. Nothing could have gone smoother.

On the other hand, I still have no bank card. I have at last an account – and money in it. But how do I get it back out? I don't have a telephone line either. After calling British Telecom throughout the week, I'm ready to give up. No matter what I do, I always end up on hold. This afternoon, I took advantage of their offer to call me back. This worked, suprisingly, but then the lady asked me for my number. When I said, I didn't have one, that's why I'm calling, I'd like to connect a landline, I was back on hold.

Maybe it wouldn't even be so bad without the landline. My cell phone serves me very well indeed. But how about broadband internet, and how about international calls? How about receiving international calls. All three are disproportionately more expensive with a cell phone. I have to keep pestering them – and wasting my time in the process.

Talking about time, how much of it can one spend at IKEA? I went last night to the one near Wembley, open till midnight on weekdays. After three hours of browsing, I hadn't even come to the end of their showrooms. I haphazardly took a few things I thought I needed but, more importantly, went home with a better impression of what kind of furniture is available, what I could put into my bathroom, living room and kitchen, what colors and shapes exist, and what the dimensions of a few interesting pieces are. I had looked at everything in the catalog before, but seeing it in three dimensions and touching and feeling can't be beat. Now I'll have to go back tomorrow or on Sunday and really splurge. Then I have one week to put everything together and up, and to clean before mom gets here.

What about leisurely weekends, you might ask? Well, at least we had a three-hour lunch in Covent Garden today. That will have to do for the moment.

Monday, August 06, 2007


Still no internet at home, so no convential subject-oriented blog that is updated whenever something worthwhile comes up. Instead I summarize the last few days in a hodgepodge manner. Lots of stuff for one post!

The kitchen

Went to Habitat yesterday, a French furniture and decorations store, bravely modernist and not cheap. Their summer clearance worked in my favor, and I got all the dishes I needed in colors I liked, 81 pounds in all (price, not weight). I paid 38. This will be the first time I own entire sets not random assortments of plates and bowls. And none is chipped. Does that mean I'm getting old? At least the bowls don't match the dinner plates, nor the side plates the mugs. Now my kitchen only needs a shelf, then it's done. I love it already.

The house

What's far from done is the bathroom. I'll go to IKEA today to see if they can help me out. I also need to get lamp shades. You wouldn't believe what the landlord left hanging on the ceiling. Old, tattered and torn, and dirty. Apart from that, the apartment is really coming together nicely. The sofa arrived on Friday. Yesterday morning, I managed to stash away all of my belongings, most after taking them out of their boxes. Now, with the sun shining through the kitchen window and the first espresso in my new cups, I have to say I love it.

The parks

On my way to Habitat, I found myself in Holland Park. You have to know that London takes pride in its parks. It claims to be Europe's greenest capital. I was ready to poke cruel fun. Some cities have a few parks, others a stunning natural setting with mountains, coastline or green hills. My derision was premature. While the parks don't compare to the Alps in their splendor, they are lovely in their own right, calm and relaxing, yet full of life, filled with picnickers and footballers, promenaders and sunbathers when the weather is good. And the weather here is getting better by the day, thanks to global warming. Even the paltry triangle of Shepherd's Bush Green, surrounded by roads busy with buses, taxis and stop-and-go rush-hour traffic, mercilessly surrounded by noise and pollution, gets a different feeling once you set foot on it. Grass, trees, people at play or at rest, and the city out there gently fading away. I love it.

The Bush

Shepherd's Bush is my new hood. It's far from fancy but not far from fanciness. Notting Hill is just down the road, and some say the Bush is facing the same fate. So far, it has resisted gentrification. Immigrants and expatriates from dozens of countries call this area their home. Life is pulsating at all hours. The streets are littered with trash most nights and lined with the most diverse shops and restaurants. There is an Indian tandoori grill, a Caribbean take-away, a Polish delicatessen, and an Arabic nut roaster. And those are literally just the first four businesses when I get out of the house. I love it.

The baker

One thing that I was curious about when moving the London was whether I'd find a good baker for my daily fix of bread, or whether I'd have to go back to baking my own. In the US, I did just that. In France, the bread was good enough that I wouldn't claim I could do it better. I wasn't sure about England. Imagine my delight when I saw Forrest the Baker, just across the street from the nut roaster, a small artisanal bakery with dense, varied breads and reasonable prices. Every time I walk by I'm tempted to shout: "Bake, Forrest. Bake!" For breakfast, I love their raisin walnut bread.

The paper & the town

Yesterday, I bought a Guardian, apparently the daily specifically written for me, the skeptical intellectualist. But what am I to do with 244 pages? I might as well read the internet all over again. And I haven't even mentioned the 100-page next-week's events guide that tumbled to the floor when I lifted the bundle. No matter how much action you seek in London, there will always be vastly more events you miss than you catch. This is truly one of the most happening places one can imagine. I love the energy and the vibe of it.

The beer

I've been to a few pubs sampling the local fare. With all due respect to the master brewers, I can't remember drinking equally revulsive concoctions in a very long time. Mind you, Utah beer is mostly bad, French beer is mostly bad, but some beers here are utterly disgusting. So Friday evening when we went to Imperial College Student Union for a drink, I chose Carlsberg. I paid two pounds per English pint, subsidized by the College and was rewarded with a fresh taste, much to my liking. I also got to sit on a delightful lawn among about a hundred like-minded students and staff, hanging out after a week of work. The French weren't into that kind of stuff, but I love it.

The bikes

One of the conversations we had on the lawn was about cycling to work. You might imagine it suicidal in London, with all the traffic and pollution, but it's not that bad. If you ride early in the morning, say before eight, air quality is still good from the night. Also, since the tube bombings two years ago and the extension of the congestion charge zone this February, the number of bike commuters has increased dramatically. Kensington High St sometimes looks like a critical mass event. There is strength in numbers, and you will be seen. Cyclists are also encouraged to move up to the traffic light at red, to be see by drivers. This gives us a head start every time the light changes and annoys the hell out of those poor souls waiting behind. I love that the question of owning a car never even comes up.

The cars

Not all are lucky enough to find satisfaction in something else but cars. On my way to work, I pass Kensington Gardens Hotel, five-star poshness and a magnet for wealth. In their driveway, I have seen a pimped-up orange Land Rover, a white Lamborghini and a race-ready silver Carrera, all with Dubai plates. That's the nouveaux riches. Besides that, there are plenty of Maseratis, Porsches, Bentleys and Daimlers with English plates in the streets. It cracks me up to see old Rolls-Royces parks carelessly in front of homes where the owner clearly thinks nothing of it. Probably had the car for a decade or two and loves it.

The conclusion

I've been here for a good ten days. In some ways I've settled in. My apartment is almost presentable, and work has started. I have not yet signed up for gas, telephone or internet, and I have not seen much of the city. But I can already say that it's not that bad after all.


This post was written Sunday morning. In the course of the day, I made it as far as Wimbledon but never got to Ikea. Wimbledon has a few nice high street stores, though, and an entirely unexpected Tchibo, and I bought some things I didn't need. My bathroom is still a disaster, and I have no table.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

just wrong

The other day I moved in. The apartment is full of boxes, some still full while others have emptied their content all over the living room floor, and I don't have internet yet. That's why this post is a bit late and the next might not be immediately following.

My boxes, mattress, sofa and all those little things that never made it into a box had been in temporary storage for a week. To get them out, I rented a truck, which was a challenge in itself. Saturday afternoon, after I had signed the lease, all rental agencies had already closed for the weekend. On Monday, they were open but wanted a proof of address for renting to me.

With some flexibility, this problem was sorted out, and Monday night saw me all ready to move. Driving on the left is not overwhelmingly confusing. One basically goes with the flow and doesn't do anything creative like intuitively picking a lane. In intersections and roundabouts one has to constantly remind oneself not to head into oncoming traffic.

To make things really interesting, my little truck had the steering wheel on the right side and stick for the stick shift on the left. I'm used to these implements having their proper place, opposite from what I found them to be this time around. Driving felt not unlike being stuck in a parallel universe. Imagine trying to shift with the window crank. And then the inverted left-right proportions.

Everyone who drives knows that there is about half a meter of car to his left and judges distances with it. My truck extended by a meter and a half. Navigating narrow streets I came close to grating the cars parked on the left more than just once. And turns! And parking! Ooolala. At first I laughed madly at the incongruity of it all, but after less ten minutes I was sweating away. It was exhausting, and I was so happy to leave the truck later that night – without a scratch. Now I'll be stuck in my apartment for a while trying to make it nice before mom comes to visit.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

tate, what else?

Leaving my troglodyte friend behind, I went out to explore my town this morning. The sky was full of the grey clouds of doom, so I only rode my bike to my apartment to pick up my camera and not across town. This was probably all for the better as I didn't have to drag the bike around everywhere I went – plus the weather rewarded my faintheartedness with brilliant sunshine and no rain whatsoever.

I went to Petticoat Lane and Spitalfields markets first, seeing, hearing, smelling but buying nothing. Later, drifting around, I walked by the remnants of the Roman city walls. They have a curious history in that they were forgotten for most of the recent past because they were hidden out of sight until the Germans cleared the houses built on top of them when they bombed London in 1940, not exactly to cheers from archaeologists or residents.

From the walls it was only a little walk to St. Paul's Cathedral and from there across Millennium Bridge to Tate Modern. I guess that was my goal all along. I love the weightless elegance of the bridge, the river below and the views across London's waterfront. Of course I couldn't help entering the Tate, despite the sun blazing outside. I just can't pass by a modern art museum.

Tate Modern from Millennium Bridge

Dalí was the star of the special exhibit, but I wasn't ready to spend eleven pounds on half an hour of bliss, and I didn't want to stay inside much longer. So I constrained myself mostly to the book stores and gift shops. When I have a bank account, which should happen sometime next week, I'll get a Tate + Guest membership. Then special exhibits will be free for me and a guest. You'd better be ready for it when you visit.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

snafu, finally

This morning I took the tube up to Rayners Lane, a community in North London, to sign my lease. The agency has its office up there. Everything went smoothly, I handed over a wad of cash to pay the deposit and first month's rent, got a set of keys and left my cell phone. The missing phone I noticed while I had a second set of keys made at a corner shop, before even thinking about getting on the tube to go back. Lucky day?

Not quite. When I finally set foot in the apartment, after stopping for a few hours at Portobello Road market (yummie muffins and good ciabatta and a thousand other things – and a million tourists) and just in time for the furniture to be delivered, it was already to late to rent a truck. Around here, all van rental places close for the weekend Saturday afternoon. So I can't move in like I had planned. I'll have to annoy my troglodyte friend with my cheerful presence for another two days.

She's taking the blow like a true champion and even joined me in Hyde Park this afternoon for the Diaspora London Music Village Festival. In this event, a long-standing tradition, local bands from different ethnic communities play their music to a crowd that's even more diverse than the 16 bands over two days. Delightful.

Before going to the park, I went to retrieve my bike from storage. Not riding my bike is one thing. Not having a bike around is an entirely different thing, impossible to bear for me. As it turns out, riding on the left side of the road is surprisingly easy. Only sometimes do I drift to the other side, mostly when there's no traffic to guide me. Luckily, there is plenty of it, most of the time.

Friday, July 27, 2007

day two

The second day in the big city has come to an end. The sun has set and the clouds that couldn't decide all day whether they should just hang in the sky menacingly or dump their load on people in the streets have finally cleared. The weekend promises to be nice.

Work started yesterday. The contrast to my previous job was stark, as expected. I had my ID after less than five minutes, and it opens the right doors. No day-long pointless security sessions were required. My email address and network account had been ready from the day my contract was signed. When I connected for the first time I had half a dozen official emails from months ago. As long as things work, I won't complain about bizarre effects.

Back in the lab after the foray into administration, the first thing I was told was "Get the computer guy to order the laptop you want. Configure your dream, and you should have it in a week or two." I appreciate that kind of attitude. When doing science it's good not to encumbered by mundane inconveniences like budget limits. However, I happen to like my computer and don't see the need for another. So I went down to the department IT guy.

He started me asking in detail what computer I would like to have, laptop or workstation, Mac or PC. It took me a while to get through to him. He finally settled for a new screen, bigger than a small country, an external hard drive for back-ups, a handful of USB sticks, and the only thing I really need, a Kensington cable lock. Throughout the bargaining over necessary equipment, the man came over as extremely competent.

Next I walked over to the college IT guys to have my computer registered to the network. Here again, I was struck by more competence than I've seen in the last two years and a half. I didn't even completely understand all that was done to my black baby.

But I liked the end result. My computer was connected to the intranet and the leg of the desk on one side and to a monstrous screen on the other. To put the icing on the cake, by the time everything was done, it was time to go home.

So I unplugged everything, shouldered my back, grabbed an Italian ice-cream on the way, and strolled back to my friend's place. The weekend will be busy with the move and maybe a music festival in Hyde Park or the first night of Notting Hill Carnival.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

too much

Despite running the risk that this post will exceed all commonly accepted limits for blog entries, I want to mention a few of the things that kept me busy during the last two days.

Monday morning: Stacked boxes and so much more into truck, cleaned apartment, handed over keys. Drove up north with a friend. Picnic in style with good bread, cheese and ham – and yummie tomatoes – just after Lyon, followed by torrential rainfalls. The highway was literally covered with a layer of water a few centimeters deep. Especially exciting when tsunamis generated by passing trucks drown every last bit of visibility.

Dijon, Reims and endless plains. Dinner after about 800km. Downtown Amiens is neat, recently cityscaped and surprisingly bland. No one's in the streets because the rain is back with a vengeance. The old houses near the mighty Gothic cathedral, full of bars and restaurants are much nicer and livelier.

Hotel for the night in Le Touquet, the summer resort for smart Parisians in the early 1900s. No beach in sight but water everywhere. Our ark kept us dry.

Speedferry across the Channel. Now here's a company that deserves its name. We spent the 50-minute ride on deck with the boat doing 30 knots. Imagine sitting on the wing of an airplane that's about to take off. Never before have I felt speed so forcefully. I'd say Boulogne is worth a day-trip from London just for the thrill of the crossing.

England. Even though I'm not nauseated anymore by left-side traffic, my friend volunteered to drive the last bit into London. I call the agent. The apartment won't be ready before Saturday, and I can't drop my boxes off because the carpet hasn't been laid. Putting them in storage requires a recent utility bill. What the hell? If I had an apartment, I wouldn't need storage.

Another friend, a resident of London, promises to come to the rescue, but not before the end of the afternoon. Friend number one needs to go see her parents and organize the stuff she's going to take back to Grenoble tomorrow. I sent her off promising to join her when the truck is empty. "Just text me the address."

Now it's me navigating the urban jungle, steering an oversize van through dense traffic, focusing on going on the left side more than on crosswalks, lights or pedestrians. Before every turn, I'd start yelling "Left, left" at myself. It's hilarious.

Suddenly, I notice that my passport is still with my friend. Trying to call her, I notice that I don't have her UK number and she doesn't have mine. Up to yesterday, we communicated with our French cell phones. Mine doesn't work in the UK, though. How will I get her address? More stress than is healthy on a Tuesday afternoon. I find my friend's French number and text her with my UK phone. I hope she will check it. Coffee, please, and a dry shirt.

My friend finally sends me the address, the other friend helps me unload, and after driving madly for another 45 minutes, I'm rid of the truck. Another hour of tube and walking and I'm at my second friend's house where I immediately collapse on the sofa. Two days of insanity have just ended.

Note how I didn't mention last weekend at all. I was in Aachen for a good friend's wedding. I am glad I took the trip despite being stressed out with the move to London, and there are a ton of stories to tell. But it's too much for one day already.

Friday, July 20, 2007

one plus one

Today was my last full day in Grenoble. What I had expected was that parting would be difficult. What I didn't take into account is that July is probably the worst month for leaving because it's the best month for being here, unless you're a die-hard ski addict.

In France, summer starts, with odd German precision, on the 21st of June. That day, the last day of school for the departing high school students, is marked with omnipresent street music all night long - Fête de la musique, as it's called. The next weeks are usually warm, sunny and full of life. People go out, enjoy dinners on terraces and beers in (or rather in front of) one of the countless bars, or simply hang out in parks. Everyone hasn't left for their summer vacations yet. That will be in August when the town is deserted with an eerie feel of emptiness. In July, things are different.

Music is always playing, either in the streets during the day or in open air venues at night. Many free concerts are offered. A cumulation of sorts is July 14, the national holiday, where everyone and their kids go to the military parade in the morning, on a hike with picnic during the day, and have nice dinner followed by fireworks at night. The day ends with free concerts and dancing all around town.

This being a blog, I wanted to talk about happened today, but I felt I needed to set the stage first. July is good, it's fun, it's relaxing, and Grenoble is enjoyable. In other words, I'm getting nostalgic even before I have left town.

This morning I went to Jack Juliard, the best pâtisserie in town and less than a minute from where I live, one last time, getting my croissant and croissant aux abricots. I can still remember the first few months when getting these two words out just never worked and I twisted my tongue trying. I always got what I wanted, and the salesperson never smiled. She hasn't smiled once to this day even though I've become way more linguistically nimble.

Later in the day, I happened by the jardin de ville where some French hip-hop soul act was trying to get the masses from their heat-induced stupor. Impossible, it was way too hot.

Even later, when it had cooled down a bit, we went for dinner at Amphitryon, a small restaurant serving, according to mouth witnesses, the best ravioli this side of the Alps. It was yummie indeed and the mint tea at the end a nice addition, though not very Italian.

By now it was dark, but I wasn't ready for bed yet. There was one more thing on my list, an event I had been looking forward to ever since I found out about it. In the city garden, an open-air screening of "One for one" was shown. I didn't know anything about the movie, except that it was made by Jean-Luc Godard, the beacon of the Nouvelle Vague. What could be more French? What could be better for the last hours of my last day in France? Can one even think about understanding the French without understanding their movies first?

The film was even more appropriate than I had thought. "One for one" is the director's cut of "Sympathy for the Devil", Godard's odd mix of a documentary on the Rolling Stones' song and politico-philosophical skits whose meaning remained hidden behind a dense smokescreen of depth and nonsense I could not penetrate. But the music was great and the sound system capable. The film was also in English with French subtitles, giving a nice transition to the next period of my life.

Tomorrow, I'm going to Germany for a wedding, and on Monday I'm off to London. My next post will probably come from across the channel.

Monday, July 16, 2007

freedom is

This afternoon, as my apartment filled up, its inner space being voraciously taken by stuff that had safely been hidden in cupboards, shelves and closets for the last two years, as the ground was first tiled with countless cardboard boxes of various sizes and then littered with all the little things that somehow managed to get out of their drawers and cabinets and hadn't found the right box yet, I was contemplating freedom.

The move to England is entering its immediate pre-departure phase of panicked frenzy and I'm overwhelmed with matching some content with boxes and other with the trash can. How can one person have so much stuff? It's been many years that I've been refusing Christmas or birthday gifts from my parents for lack of space, desire and need. It's been many more years that I've been refusing to throw out things I don't need anymore but feel emotionally attached to.

As I steeple-chased through my apartment in search of the next logical thing to pack, the thing I surely won't need in the next six days, I thought a thought only smug Westerners can think: Freedom is being free from possessions. If by magic half of my stuff disappeared, I'd be a happier man (after a long phase of deep sadness).

I was reminded of what freedom really is at the theater tonight. Persepolis was showing, the artsy animated feature that won the audience's cheers and the Jury Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival. It tells the story of an outspoken girl growing up in Iran and living through the Islamic revolution, a war, an unhappy few years in Vienna, a return to Iran, this suffocating, brutal, and deluded country, and final emigration. It's a funny sad movie, beautifully drawn in sparsely colored black and white with minimalistic grace, full of subtle moments, touching and stirring.

What I'm saying is go see this movie if it comes to a theater near you. But what I really want to say is freedom is not having some buffoon whirl a gun at you, telling you what do to, stunning nonsense most of the time. Freedom is thinking, speaking, doing without fear. Freedom is life. I know all this, but right now, it's a dozen big cardboard boxes, half of them full and the other half empty, and three corresponding rooms, that are on my mind. Will someone free me of this mess?

Friday, July 13, 2007

sad happy

This morning I went to the market. The market is held Fridays through Sundays, from early in the morning to right before noon. I had never gone on a Friday before. It's quite different from the usual weekend days. Fewer stands, and much fewer customers. I had all time in the world to contemplate the offerings: figs, peaches, apricots, nectarines, apples, melons, green beans, potatoes, and berries of all sorts.

Going to the market makes me happy. Good live begins with good food, and the market is full of it. Besides the fruits and vegetables there are also cheeses, meat and sausages, milk and eggs, juices and jams, wine and lots more. Most of it was grown and harvested in France, and some right around the corner.

On the market today, I was a little sad as well. This was very likely my last trip to the market in Grenoble. Next weekend I'll be in Germany for a wedding, and after that I might do my grocery shopping at the Whole Foods market on Kensington High Street (an American chain trying to sell good food in Europe – a decidedly weird concept, one that would certainly not work in France and probably not in Germany either, though it might in the UK) or with the immigrants on Uxbridge Road. Both might be nice but won't compare to the acres of freshness that I have here.

The emotional roller coaster will continue tonight when I have people over to celebrate my farewell and my upcoming birthday. Two home-made cakes have been promised, together with lots of wine and beer and the inevitable baba ghannoush. It will be good to have my friends around, but it will also be sad to know that it will be the last time. Happy sadness, or something.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

enough already

After seeing three more apartments yesterday, the world looks a bit clearer now than it did before. At the first place, probably less than twenty minutes on foot from where I will work, I was so impressed that I almost signed. It must have been the exhaustion from the day before because it wasn't really that nice, apart from the location.

The last place on Saturday was bipolar. A large living room and small bedroom, both freshly painted and waiting for new carpet on one side. An ancient bathroom and a kitchen that looked like someone had regularly performed religious slaughterings in it on the other. The best and the worst, combined with a neglected backyard, a similar little front porch, and reasonable rent. The agent said he might be able to convince the developing company to spring for a new kitchen and bathroom. If he does, I'll take the apartment. If not, I have nothing because I stopped looking after that, and I'm not ready to do more.

Well, too bad, but I'm done with it for now. I can't no more. My friend offered me to crash at her place – even with my stuff if I pare it down to the bare essentials. Does anyone need a sofa?

This morning we took the tube out to Camden town, the famous street market that's on every tourist guide's top-ten list. It was there that I had bought my last pair of dress shoes, three years ago. To make it sound less bad, I didn't go entirely without buying shoes in the intervening years. I got a pair each of sandals, running and cycling shoes. I own two pairs of dress shoes, one brown, one black. How much more does one person need? Zilch was what the salesperson apparently thought. After I had given him a shoe I liked, already the right size, he came back with a sad look on his face and the damning words, I can't find the other half of the pair. Well, I'll be back in the store before another three years are over.

I didn't go entirely without spending money, though, because I found a shirt with a design that I had seen on a poster in a store in Barcelona two months ago. Back then, the store was closed and I was left looking at the poster through the window. Now, everything was open, and I bought the shirt, surely more useful than the poster, especially since I don't have an apartment yet.

my latest shirt

All this happened before we really hit the market. What a crazy place it is. One could fill books just describing the stalls and their offerings that cover the range of the imaginable. You can buy all sorts (and I mean all possibly imaginable sorts) of shoes, shirts, jackets, arts, crafts, music, furniture – just imagine it and you'll find it, while walking through crowded little alleyways, into converted industrial buildings and along the canal. Oh so lovely.

After eating at what resembled an international food festival more than a food court, we walked along Regent's canal for nearly two hours, surrounded by green and water, calm and relaxing, light years away from the busy city. Tea (we're in England, after all) and cheese cake at Café Laville refreshed us and prepared us for the last bit, along Little Venice to Paddington station from where the tube took us home. Throughout all this, the sun shone radiantly, and London summer presented its finest side. I'm going back to Grenoble tomorrow, but I haven't got nearly enough of London yet.

Friday, July 06, 2007

the end of day two

It's Friday afternoon. I've now been calling people, following online rental boards, and running through London for a good 48 hours. I am near-death exhausted. But I don't have a place to live yet.

In the morning I looked at a shared flat. There was so little space that I'll probably have to scrap the idea of sharing to save entirely. I simply have too much stuff – even if I sell me sofa and my mattress. But the guy offering the flatshare was good to talk to, very friendly and funny. I got so drawn into chatting that I almost missed my next appointment, which was with what must be London's poshest average joe real estate agency. All over town, they've got modern styled offices full of extremely smart looking furniture and matching agents. I was taken from apartment to apartment in a little Mini and, not surprisingly, everything I was shown was outside my budget.

I might still break down and submit an offer for one incredibly stylish studio apartment that was, besides the ludicrous rent, entirely without flaw. The kitchen had everything, fridge and freezer, washer and dryer, even a dishwasher, entirely useless for just one person. Everything had just been redone and tastefully and sparingly filled with design furniture. Wouldn't it be fair to reward myself for the last two years' frugality with something extravagant for a year or two?

The problem is that I'm really a cheapskate at heart, and this is more of a problem in London than anyone who has never looked for a home here can possibly appreciate. I've seen dumps, and I was asked to pay a thousand pounds per month. I've seen one very nice place with a bathroom in need of work and a unique kitchen setup. It could be mine for eleven hundred pounds. The best value was a tiny studio for about eight hundred pounds. This is the third option that I'm seriously contemplating.

A mere three possibilities, all far from perfect. With the sun setting and another beautiful though very windy day coming to an end, this doesn't sound a whole lot to me, especially considering I contacted about forty people, have my ear burn hot with telephonitis, and saw a good dozen places. With every person I call, with every message I leave, with every screen full of offers that burns into my retina, I get a little more depressed and doubtful about the whole operation.

I'm burned out enough to say I'll need to make a decision by the end of tomorrow, be it to sign something or to defer the search to when I get here in two weeks. I don't have the strength to spend Sunday chasing luck and stressing all day. For once I want to enjoy London at daylight – and not just at night in the gastropub. Which reminds me, my host has just come home from work. What's for dinner, and where?

Thursday, July 05, 2007

nuts, nuts, nuts

This morning I flew to London to find me an apartment. The trip started as good as possible. The flight arrived early, and ten minutes before scheduled touchdown I already sat in the Stansted Express into town. There the chaos started, big city chaos, London chaos, and it wouldn't end till the end of the day.

I had to change tubes at Bank, which involved, unbeknownst to me, a mile-long underground hike that ended at the Monument station. Halfway through the subterranean maze I lost confidence I'd ever see the light of day again, and when I was finally spat out to the ground, I was in the wrong place. A short overground train ride, illegal with the ticket I had purchased but luckily gone unpunished, took me to Olympia where a friend had kindly offered to take me up for a few days.

Right upon arriving, I started making phone calls and setting up appointments. Two were for the same day, and so I left the apartment hardly half an hour after arriving. The first apartment I saw was near Uxbridge Road – in walking distance of but striking contrast to quiet, residential Olympia – a lively, multicultural neighborhood with tons of halal butchers, tiny grocery stores, fruit markets, coffee shops, pubs, and a large triangular green space amidst crazy traffic.

This was London in a nutshell and a area where I'd love to live. Unfortunately, the apartment didn't live up to anyone's lowest standards. It was large with a nice terrace but run down and unkempt. I didn't say yes right away, and I don't think I will.

The second place I saw was the total opposite. It was in leafy Southfields near Wimbledon in a quiet, middle-class residential street. The house belonged to an elderly Greek lady who I didn't see. I talked to one of her nephews who lives in one of the rooms, as does another nephew. Two more rooms, one of which I was interested in, are rented out. Does this sound like a weird setup? The house was in prime condition with a beautiful little backyard, but I can't imagine living there – basically as an appendix to an established band of people.

In the course of the evening, I made a few more phone calls, set up appointments, and wrote down more numbers. My days will be filled, but going around I'll get a first non-tourist impression of London, my new home. If you're wondering what's so triply nuts about all this, check out this fantastic offer for a one-bedroom apartment. PW means per week, and a pound weighs in at two dollars. Anyone want to sponsor me?

Monday, July 02, 2007

big mess

For lack of time and coherent thoughts but in order to keep a memory anyway, here an erratic summary of the last few days. From Zurich, my friend and I drove to Imst, 50km from Innsbruck, Austria. It's a little town that's not too attractive, but it's in the Alps, so it's beautiful no matter what. We stayed in a bed and breakfast and hiked and rode bikes every day. I took it easy on the bike, and that was fine with my buddy who hadn't been on a road bike in about two years. The climb to the Hahntennjoch, about 12km averaging 8% started right on our front door. Off the bike, we road the Alpine Coaster twice, 3.5km of roller coaster down the mountain, truly hilarious – and exhausting if you work the turns to go really fast.

The weather improved steadily from the afternoon in Zurich. It rained on and off but more rarely with every passing day. On Saturday, I was hopeful as I drove into the sun and across the Alps into Italy. My hope wasn't betrayed – the weekend ended up perfect, sunny, day and reasonably warm.

Since the debacle at the Challenge Dauphiné I've been dreading a cold Dolomites Marathon. So when we left our hotel at 5:15 to cruise down 5km into the village where the start was, I was mentally freezing already. It took me a while to figure out that it wasn't that cold after all. My hands worked almost normally. Once in Alta Badia, the size of this event became apparent. I had no idea how many 8500 cyclist are. Well, it took me about 25 minutes to cross the start line and I had to muscle my way through people for the first three climbs. After that, it became possible to go my own pace.

I enjoyed the crowd, I enjoyed looking up the climbs and discerning the road by the slowly bopping band of colorful helmets winding endlessly. You couldn't look around too much though because you had to watch everyone around you and in particular the bike in front of you. The margin of error was never more than five centimeters during the first two hours. The descents were wild also because there were so many people flying through narrow turns all at the same time but even more so because of vastly different capabilities. Some people didn't seem to move at all. Racing mountain bike I found out that I'm the worst downhiller in the world, but on Sunday, I literally passed several hundred people on the way down. I gained twenty places on the last descent to the finish line...

Overall, I benefited enormously from all the people because it kept me from starting to fast (though not from dying later) and it practically washed me up the early passes effortlessly. The first three climbs around the Sella group, Pordoi, Sella and Gardena (Campolongo doesn't really count) – fantastic! The Sella group is a spectacular sight with its sheer cliffs rising into the young morning sky.

I still felt great at the base of Giau, but there, on the most difficult climb of the day, I had to pay the price for not eating right. I ate too many gels too early, my stomach got all glued up by the goo, and when I needed it, I couldn't stuff anything into my throat. I slowed down to a standstill close to the top of Giao, I even stopped, trying to throw up to get my stomach ready to accept more nutrition. It was in vain. On the next climb, I could finally convince myself to eat half a banana, and things worked better after that, but by then I had probably lost twenty minutes. In the end, I finished with a good time but with legs that were not completely exhausted. Room for improvement if I was to do it again. Certainly not next year, though. London doesn't have the topology to train for this kind of event.

The drive home today showed me how lucky we all were this weekend. It rained, it poured, and sometimes it came down so hard I couldn't see ten meters. Snow was forecast for midweek on the mountains around Alta Badia. I don't have to worry about this. All I had to worry was to get myself home safely, which I did, but it was almost more of a workout than yesterday's ride. That's why this post is all mangled up. Sorry. Maybe more (and clearer) later, and maybe some pictures also. Good night.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

better days ahead

This morning I took off for Switzerland. The plan was to see a friend in Zürich, ride our bikes around the lake for an hour or two, and enjoy a night on the town. The next morning we'd be going to Austria for three more days of leisurely cycling, and after that I'd go to Italy for the real deal, the Maratona dles Dolomites.

To make it all work, I went to the station to pick up a rental car. I had reserved an Audi A3 Sportsback, the car I would want to have if I ever need one. First bad news of the day, I was downgraded to a 1 series BMW. Anyhow, the bike still fit in, and the car moved smoothly.

Once on the autoroute, I shifted up to sixth, put the cruise control to 130, and almost fell asleep for lack of distractions. What kept me awake for a while was the second bad news of the day, rain, and dealing with it by trying to figure out how set the wiper to intervals. Why does a wiper switch need seven positions, five buttons, and three ways of moving the lever? And why does none of this get me intervals? I finally found a button that said A, hit it and got intervals. I was so excited that I almost missed how the wiper picked up speed in synch with the rain and then stopped when the rain did, automagically. Now I could really fall asleep.

Except the vehicle was a bit uncomfortable. As in a sports car, one sat close to the ground, but the steering wheel is high up in the air. When changing lanes I always missed the signaling lever and tripped the cruise control hidden in the second lever, slightly lower on the left side, instead.

After a bit more than four hours, I got to Zürich. When my friend and I got ready to ride, I noticed – third and gravest bad news of the day – that the left pedal on my bike had locked up and wouldn't spin around his axis anymore. Two hours and one (futile) trip to the bike store later, the problem was solved. After disassembling the pedal, removing one roll from the bearings and replacing it with copious amounts of a viscous yellow grease not unlike peach jam, it seemed to be in fine working order again. And if bad news come in threes, this is all there is, and it's gonna be good from now.

Monday, June 25, 2007

the smoke clears

I'm still wavering. Obviously not about whether I should go to London or not. I will. But about whether it's going to be good or not. I'm careful with my enthusiasm this time. As the saying goes, once burned, twice shy. I came to Grenoble with expectations higher than the Taillefer, this most majestic peak. Not all were met, to put it mildly.

If nothing else, London is going to be different. It's hard to see in what way it couldn't. I'm doubtful about many aspects, I'm terrified by some, and I try not to get too excited. Things might turn out less than perfect, and perfection is the bar that everything is measured against.

Scientifically, I should be home free. I've convinced my new boss that I'm a rock star, and I'm absolutely convinced that the lab is a perfect match for me, that I'm joining a dynamic and enthusiastic group of people ready to do world-class science – at a top tier institution. You're not imperial for nothing.

What's less clear is everything else, everything that matters – life. Will things turn out better than here, will I feel home, will I party like it's 1999? Impossible to tell, and completely pointless to philosophize about. What I already know for a fact, though, is that I'll go out more than I did here. London's pubs will be smoke free from July 1st. Can it get any better?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

rolling low

For my farewell, the lab had given me a gift certificate for a sports store. I've been wanting inline skates for a long time. Now with my faithful bike approaching retirement with more speed and determination than it descends the steepest cols, I thought this the perfect opportunity. In the end, the store where I bought the skates and the store that was marked on the certificate didn't match, but I couldn't let a good deal pass me by. And the skates are way cool.

When I was a kid, I regularly went ice skating on the frozen carp ponds near where we lived. I was never good at it, but it was fun. The only experience I had on inline skates was one good hour eight years ago in Germany. I had done well buying protection.

This afternoon friends called asking whether I wanted to go with them to a lake, about ten kilometers from Grenoble. They were riding their bikes. I was foolish enough to take my skates. Oh, how painful it was, how difficult. Oh how klutzy I moved, and there was no way of shifting down when the bike path rose to a bridge or something.

At the lake, when we finally made it, I was more exhausted than after the 130-km bike ride yesterday, and completely soaked with sweat. We paid the entrance, dumped our stuff in the grass, hopped into the water – and left half an hour later because it started raining and the sky didn't look like it was gonna stop anytime soon.

For the blisters on my feet and the fatigue in my legs, I dreaded the moment of putting the boots back on, but it wasn't as bad as I had feared. The ride home seemed to go by much quicker than the trip out. With newly found confidence (and skill?), I even elbowed my way through traffic once back on the streets of Grenoble. But I highly doubt that I'll actually use the rollers for commuting in London, as I had imagined in the first fit of excitement after buying them.

Saturday, June 23, 2007


Last night, I went to Lyon for the fourth annual Y Salsa festival. A Venezolano, eager to see Oscar d'León, Venezuela's salsa legend and the main act of the night, instigated the trip, and two Colombianos joined in. I went in the hope that a few hours of non-stop salsa would finally help me get the rhythm in my blood. Also, it was a lovely summer night, I had nothing better to do, and someone had to drive.

The festival took place on Île Barbe, a small island in the Saône that has the good fortune of not being a wildlife sanctuary. I'm sure that in the course of the four hours of music, sometimes thudding, sometimes screeching, but always loud enough to split ears, any non-human life was extirpated by the sheer level of the volume and by thousands of feet stomping rhythmically.

Y Salsa stretches over three days, but Friday night was basically just the opening concerts. A D.J. played up until the show started at 9pm, and there were arts and crafts vendors and food and drinks stands, but the space didn't fill up much before the live acts came on.

The first show was a collaboration between Eddy K and The Clan, and it was The Clan that kicked off the night. The eight musicians purport to play salsaton, something I had never heard of before and would describe as pumped-up, no, make that WAY PUMPED-UP, son. The original rhythm had been distilled to its essence, three guys sang and danced, and the beats shot through the roof. The screens of the huge bass speakers pulsated two inches with every exploding sound wave, forcing my ear drums deep into my brain.

At some point, not any calmer than before, one guy started wailing a pathetic Cuban love song, and a few moments later Eddy K entered the stage and started rapping. You could hardly imagine three more different ways of musical expression, and yet it all fit as one. Eddy and his two buddies took over with music somewhere between reggeaton and Orishas style Cuban hip hop. Absolutely fantastic.

After two hours of the most violent noise possible, Oscar d'León and his 14-man orchestra came on stage, lending their overboiling energy to Cuban classics, South American rhythms, and mariachi music. Now the predominantly Latin crowd, mostly Colombians, Venezuelans and Cubans, went totally nuts, pushing and shoving, salsaing on mere square feet of thick mud, and screaming in ecstasy every time their country was named. Oscar worked his orchestra with the fury of a raging animal, extracting soli from everyone on every instrument, playing musical chairs with his musicians. The climax was reached when four guys were made taking turns on the drums and never missed one beat.

By one, the show was over. It was absolutely not what I had expected. I had come to salsa and did not, but I got so much more instead: three concerts in one and a quick trip to South America. All for the small price of temporary deafness.