Saturday, March 31, 2007

swap not your bike

In summer of 1999, after having survived the foothills of the Wasatch on a Trek 990 mountain bike for a year, I brought my old Cannondale road bike over from Germany. It wasn't easy. First, I had to fight with the lady who checked me in in Dresden and all but refused the box because it had not been declared in advance. Then I had to find the box at Schiphol airport and convince the next lady to put it on the transatlantic flight. Less than two months after arriving in Utah, the bike was stolen on campus despite being looked to solid support.

I spent an entire Saturday checking out all pawn shops in town, but the bike was irretrievable. I can't recall the date, but it must have been pretty close to exactly seven years ago that I bought my current road bike. A bike swap was organized by the Utah National Guard where I hoped to find replacement. Before leaving the house, I had announced to my roommate, much to his irritation because he had his own ideas about bikes, that I would return with another Cannondale.

Upon entering the swap, my eyes immediately fell on her. What a beauty. Fair-skinned and blue-eyed, she didn't have to hide behind anyone. There was no paint to cover her flawless skin, just naked aluminum gleaming in the cold light of the neons. Not a gram too much, all muscle, all power. Even the pedals, coveted Speedplays, were trimmed to a minimum. I saw her and had made my decision, but before I could take possession, I had to endure an excruciating half hour ogling her from afar while two dudes were laying their dirty hands on her, lifting her up appreciatively, checking the shifting. I was circling like a hawk in the summer sky, and a split second after the two dudes had walked off, I was there, grabbed the frame and never let to – while spending the next two hours walking around among rows of bikes and piles of merchandise trying to find another deal. When I got home at night, I put the bike into the living room so my roommate had to notice it when he returned.

Ever since, the bike has made me look good and I've been good to her – taking her on rides in pretty cool places and keeping her out of the rain for the most part. Nevertheless, over the years, time has taken its toll. The smooth skin of the frame is spoiled with wrinkles, rashes of corrosion, scratches and dings. The bright blue accents have long faded to grey. Even though she creaks and moans on steep climbs sometimes, I love her just like on our first ride. We are together like an old couple, knowing each other, appreciating the other's qualities, excusing flaws, having a good time, eating step climbs for lunch.

So it was with some trepidation and mixed feelings that I went to a bourse aux vélo, a bike swap, this morning. Would I be struck and taken away by a fresh beauty? Would I have to demote Silver to commuter beater? My worries were unfounded. Even though I was among the first to enter the swap and there was a fair number of road bikes for sale, not a single one posed a serious challenge to a long-standing relationship. I'll replace my bike when it cracks and breaks in half. Until then, a lot of mountains remain to be climbed.

Friday, March 30, 2007

monday is ok

Today was the day I wanted to make a decision about my future. I have received a "conditional offer" from a research institution whose identity is as yet mostly unrevealed to the world at large. Conditional in this context means I have to fill in a few forms declaring my legal eligibility to work in the UK and my mental fitness to do so. In case you were wondering, I'll wisely keep the doubts about point two to myself.

I went home early from work so I could call future boss for one last inquiry about contract details. (Inquiry with stress on the first syllable and i's as in ink and not stress on the second i sounding like eye, obviously.) I missed the better part of a bash celebrating a colleague's latest publication and got soaked in cold rain trying to make it home before future boss leaves office. Though time was on my side, one hour of it, boss was gone when I called.

What can I do? Over the years, I have come to be known as an inveterate procrastinator. Now even fate cannot ignore this. Monday will be a fine day to call future boss, I guess. I'll make sure to take my headset to lab so I can use skype and obviate the no-international-calls restriction.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

a box full of memories

Yesterday I found a note in my mailbox telling me that the mailman hadn't been able to squeeze a package underneath my door. I expected the conspiracy that has been smoldering for a while, mostly unperceived, to finally unfold on my doorstep. I wasn't ready for what actually happened.

This afternoon, I went to the post office and picked up a parcel from my ex-girlfriend. I walked the few steps back home to my apartment with a small but rather heavy cardboard box, certain that memories would spill out as soon as I opened it, overwhelming me and knocking me out.

And indeed, the box contained all the material things that still connect me to her. CDs I had liked, DVDs I had bought used at Hollywood, a pair of pajamas, two books, some gifts. There were no pictures. It was always me who took them, and I have them all.

The power of so many moments over five years, memories of good times and bad, hits me, and suddenly the abstractness of a year of growing distance becomes concrete. It's over – there's nothing left. I'm sitting on my sofa, putting the disks in their place, browsing through the books, not having much else to do but remember. Because remember I always will. I refuse to forget, though I pay, as Ricky Nelson is reminding me on my stereo, with a heart full of tears.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


Sometime tonight, while I was sleeping peacefully, all clocks here made the big leap from winter to summer. Daylight savings time started. In France, as in Germany, it's called summer time, which is a much more appropriate term.

Last Sunday, I rode the Col de Quatre Seigneurs, my first timid adventure into the mountains this year. A little more than 550 meters elevation gain at a little less than 7% average gradient proved challenging at the beginning of the season, but it was sunny, warm and a very enjoyable ride. A day later, the temperature had dropped dramatically and snow was raining down on Grenoble, melting a few instants before hitting the ground. Yesterday, it was still cold. Dark-grey clouds hung low above the valley, relieving themselves every now and then.

Today was a gorgeous day. As if weather had somehow heard about the change of time, the sun shone and the temperatures were balmy. I rode the Col de Quatre Seigneurs, my favorite easy climb, once again and continued into the valley of the Drac. At the end of the descent, going about 60 km/h, I almost hit a steel barrier some jokester had erected. With a mouthful of curses I came to a halt and looked into the confused faces of four yahoos in yellow vests. What's going on here?

They didn't make themselves clear to me, or maybe I wasn't really paying attention to what they told me with four foreign tongues and much gesticulation. I decided to understand that it was ok for me to continue as long as I stick to the right margin of the road.

My head bent over the bars I settle into a routine, slowly picking up speed when I'm rudely interrupted once again. A character screams at me from the other side of the road: "Toute la largeur! Toute la largeur!" The whole width? What the hell? I look up and bunnyhop my bike across the ditch and into the field in one smooth move. At the same moment, a multi-colored peloton is flying by, as if the finish line was right around the corner. The centipede on wheels is indeed monopolizing the entire road.

I remember pictures of Jalabert, one sad bloody mess, after he was taken out by an overly ambitious photographer and then steamrolled by the field. The guy looked like he had just stepped on a land mine, and he had moved in the same direction as the peloton. I'm glad I made the jump across the ditch just in time. Who's racing in March anyway?

The rest of the ride was uneventful. Just enjoying the sun and sweet dreams of summer, really.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

a clearing in the jungle

After having nimbly navigated the medical and therapeutic adventures my maladroitness (maladresse for those who don't like to mangle the original) caused me, I was bracing for what I thought would be the real challenge – bushwhacking the impenetrable thicket that is the Social Security administration in order to get reimbursed for my expenses. I have to say that I was none to keen. First, because I like my life simple and second, because my expenses had been ridiculously low.

The hospital where I had my tendon sutured kept sending me bills asking for puny amounts: 6.30, 13.30, 13.03 (I'm not making this up!) and 7.57. I paid, and the case was closed for me. Then came Alain, the kinesitherapist. He politely asked for 214.20 euros (even that's a bargain for 15 sessions) but promised I would be reimbursed automatically by my health and secondary insurances. I was mildly skeptical, especially since I didn't remember having ever told him my secondary insurance information. He didn't even give me a receipt, so I had to believe.

Today, not two weeks after I paid Alain, I found two money transfers in my checking account, numbers that didn't make sense to me but added up to, you guess it already, exactly 214.20 euros. To say I was floored is to put it mildly. Should this reimbursement system actually work, and work this painlessly?

I went to our secretary to ask her what I would have to do to be reimbursed for hospital fees. Not having to know the trivialities (it's my insurance, after all) of life is a prerogative all foreigners enjoy, and I milk it for all it's worth. The secretary told me to stuff the receipts into an envelope, write the name of the insurance on it, and place it into the institute's internal mail box. Someone would come pick it up and send it in. Music in my ears! Is this still the same country universally (and not just globally) notorious for its Kafkaesque bureaucracy? What bureaucracy?

Monday, March 19, 2007

cross-cultural communication

Tonight is first time in a long time that I'm happy to have a TV. Pulp Fiction is on, probably the movie I've seen the most times of all, far ahead of Salt Lake City Punk, Auberge Espagnole and Crash. The difference today is that the film is dubbed in French.

This makes indeed for a hilarious experience. I didn't understand everything, but given that I know most lines by heart I was able to pick up a few words and expand my slang vocabulary. Butch said with a French accent is just too hilarious. Why does every name have to be frenchified here?

There were a few disconcerting aspects also. Jules' delivering his Ezekiel 25:17 doesn't have the same intensity when dubbed. Acting includes speaking as well. Fabienne doesn't have her cute accent. Everyone already speaks French. There is no Zed's dead, baby, Zed's dead. And I didn't get the joke with the three tomatoes. T'es tout rouge was the punch line.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

green and opaque

Tonight, at the end of a leisurely weekend, warm and sunny and not even spring yet, I decided to look at my energy consumption. Everyone and his dog professes to be considered about this these days, but that's not why I'm looking as well.

I have two other reasons. First, I want to keep myself from getting too smug about not having a car, riding my bike to work every day even when I rains, and not heating my apartment much – I'm also sitting in a plane about once a month. What's the offset? Second, I moved in exactly two years ago, which simplifies the gas and electricity consumption calculations.

I've used about 1200kWh of electricity and 3100kWh of gas since moving in. The English site Climate Care calculates this to produce about 0.55t of CO2 per year. In France I get three quarters of my electricity from nuclear power, which avoids CO2 emissions but opens a completely different can of worms. The jury is still out, as far as I can tell.

According to the same Carbon Calculator, the 35 flights I took in the last twelve months produced about another three to four tons of CO2. How do I account for layovers? I didn't feel like adding every leg of every flight. What about half-empty planes? The number is necessarily very approximate. It doesn't sound a whole lot, and it's certainly better than in 2005 when I went to the US four times.

If you don't mind some random number magic, Best Foot Forward will calculate your ecological footprint based on recycling and meat eating habits. Severe hocus pocus alert! If everyone lived like me, we would need 2.5 planets. But does everyone really want to live like me?

Now that the long-promised rain is finally falling on Grenoble, washing dusty air and dirty streets clean, I still have no good feeling on how much I'm hurting the planet. I guess as long as I'm sitting in my apartment in a thick woolen sweater I can justify flying south every now and then.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


I had some people over for dinner tonight – had been a while. When I arrived home at the agreed time and, being German, not one minute early, half of the guests were already camping at my front door. What did I get a cell phone for, people? At the precise moment I opened the door to let the first half in, the second half of the guests arrived as well.

The best thing about the dinner was that the guests did the cooking. I went to the living room and played DJ while the action unfolded in the kitchen. My Venezuelan friends cooked arapas, their traditional dish, something they normally eat every morning, day and evening. I have been exposed to South American cuisine, empanadas, alfajores and rodizio, but arapas was news to me.

It turned out to be the hundred and second variation on corn flower goo cooked in a skillet. The finished product was so thick one could slice it in half and stuff it with omelette, salad, cheese and salty creme. I guess meat would have worked as well if we had had any. It was delicious.

After dessert and coffee, we remembered the pastries that were still in the fridge. Anyone who has lived in France knows the stupefying inadequacy of the word pastries to describe the sweet delights one can buy at the pâtisserie. Once you remember you have them, you will eat them, no matter how full you are already. We were enjoying ourselves royally. To top it off, I even got the chance to break open my bottle of Herradura Añejo that I had been looking forward to sharing for a long time.

A little correction: The arapas are actually called arepas.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

extreme make-over

With cup of Japanese green tea that curiously smells a bit like fish and a plate of cookies in front of me, I surf to the New Yorker web site for some entertaining writing. I almost fall from my chair because I don't recognize their site. It used to be so easy. Five or six links sent you to the stories from the latest issue that were available on the web. The rest wasn't.

Now, I see about a gazillion links, to articles from the last half year it seems, to animations, podcasts, slide shows, cartoons, events, and Paris Hilton's latest sex video. I don't care. I don't want to see all this chaos. The New Yorker's website was the pinnacle of clarity in a tumultuous world, but now it has given in.

I'll probably get used to it. I remember I hated the new design when the Economist got a make-over. Now I only find it mildly annoying. Why is it so hard to present content clearly?

Friday, March 09, 2007


If there's one thing I regret, now that I am in no position anymore to regret my complete and utter failure to move rhythmically on a dance floor, it's my inability to appreciate poetry. I just don't get it.

The New Yorker, my Bible of big city sophistication, gives me stories I devour and cartoons I laugh about heartily. It also prints poems. Every now and then I try to read one. I inevitably stop before the last line has met my eyes. There's nothing in them for me.

Imagine my surprise – and that's really too weak a word – when I discovered blog poetry today. While searching for images of drunken monkeys on google (I was preparing lab meeting for Monday and wanted to succinctly summarize my progress.), I came across Gwadzilla's blog. I found no drunken monkeys, but ragged phrases that appear half finished but have beauty in them and a translucent swing. Here are two examples of what I mean, thoughts about coming home after work and another about sorting photos. Really, they're about nothing at all, but I feel art in them, and I like it. I call them poetry.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

the healer

The two last weeks have been intersprinkled with little appointments left and right, hardly a night to myself, no time to go grocery shopping, and I don't have a bread maker anymore. I went to Germany for all of two days. Imagine a hurried weekend sandwiched between two festinate weeks. Next week shall be calmer. Alain has let me free.

Astute readers of this blog will remember Alain as my kinesitherapist. A month after I had slashed a tendon in my left thumb and shortly after my cast had been removed, I was looking to act on a referral I had got from the surgeon. I imagined some lovely lady fresh from wherever kinesitherapists go to school with soft hands, a pretty face and a radiating smile taking good care of me.

Reason clashed with this vision. Beauty is no valid criterion for picking a therapist. The only thing that matters is proximity. I compiled a list of practices ordered by increasing distance from my apartment. Alain was the first one I called and he had room. The walk over is about a minute.

The previous paragraphs indicates that I didn't go with high expectations. What good could it really do? My first visit augmented my doubts. A few cents worth of electricity pulsating through my hand and fifteen minutes of perfunctory massage were not gonna close the cut that was still gaping in the middle of a double scar.

Or were they? I like the scientific approach, and in this case I have no blank to compare my results to, but the therapy worked wonders. Five sessions into the 20-session program, the scar had receded into the surrounding skin and only five of the 14 holes left by the surgeon's needle remained visible. I started to be able to move my thumb normally. Despite being profoundly skeptical at first, I benefited enormously from this therapy. You can rule out the placebo effect. Alain knows his job.

On Tuesday, he decided this would be my last week. We haven't run the full course recommended by the surgeon, but my hand works like new, and I've got other things to do. Like running through life in a rush.

Friday, March 02, 2007

mental models

When one thinks of France, two things inevitably come to mind, wine and cheese. This is a gross simplification and a generalization that's far from the truth. To learn what France is really like, I go to the Alliance Française. There, caring volunteers show us clueless foreigners the light and help us break down mental models and erase unjustified prejudice.

The topic of tonight's event, an annual highlight of the calender, eagerly anticipated each year by those who have been around for a while, was "Pain, Vins et Fromages de France".

And while the title didn't do anything to wipe out stereotypes, the evening did. While feasting on Camembert and Brie, Tomme de Savoie and Fourme d'Ambert, Sainte-Maure and Crottin de Chavignol and gulping down one glass of wine after another, each specifically chosen to best complement the cheese on the plate, I was busily talking to a Saudi.

In my many years in the US I had learned, only by hearsay, never by personal experience, that Saudis and Kuwaitis were a despicable lot. Oil money coming out of their ears, they are driving big Mercedeses around campus, looking down upon everyone who wasn't at least half as rich as they were.

I have a problem with this. If anyone shows off in front of me, I show him the door. Boasting is something I don't need. You are what you are, not what you have.

That's why it was such a satisfying experience talking to Khaled. He might own a Mercedes. I don't know. His dad might own an oil well. I don't care. Because he was a kind fellow and good to talk to. And he laughed when I told him what I had thought when I found out he was Saudi. It's something he had heard before many time and is profoundly sick of.

Down the drain goes the generalization of snobbish Saudis. The erasure of the image of Columbia as drug-infested hell is a whole other story. Too bad this is already the end of tonight's post.