Monday, May 28, 2007

time travel

After a bit more procrastination that absolutely necessary, I finally rented a truck and booked a spot on a Channel ferry today. In July I'll be going to London, taking all my measly belongings with me. Since I've lived in a nearly completely furnished apartment for the last two years, I could have almost made do with a regular passenger van, stuffed to the brim like when I brought my books, clothes, bikes, and stereo over from Germany.

I decided on a moving truck for two reasons: a while back I bought a mattress that I don't want to part with because it has been good to my aging body, and I want to take as much wine with me as possible to help me sweeten my memories of France. Now I'm waiting for the big wine sale.

Today was a public holiday where the public was obliged to work. I don't entirely understand the concept of this so-called Day of Solidarity, but apparently the money saved by people working on a public holiday will go to benefit the frail and elderly. Good, I didn't have to work myself, but I could see the effect this concept had on those who did while shopping in the local grocery store. I had never in my life seen anyone move groceries by the scanner with less enthusiasm and speed. Every – item – was – picked – up – with – great – care – and – after – a – short – pause – scanned.

How fast will life be in England? Hard to say from a distance, but if the ferry is any indicator, much faster. According to the timetable, I will arrive in Dover exactly five minutes before departing from Boulogne. And I won't stop once I get there.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

digging deep

I found myself digging in the trash today grinning wildly. This occurred towards nine at night, and I was in the lab. The excitement of doing science had come over me more strongly than in quite a while.

In my projects I haven't been too terribly successful in Grenoble. In particular, in one, I've been battling the same problems for a year now. It's no fun trying to overcome the same issues over and over again. There were times for optimism, and there were even times for cheerfulness. But in the end, I always had to conclude that I didn't get much farther, and that the major break-through had still not happened. It dragged me down. Add the upcoming end of my contract here and the move to London with all its prospects to the mix, and it's easy to see that I've been struggling to maintain my motivation as much as I have been to solve scientific problems. In fact, struggling to maintain motivation doesn't help solving scientific problems, to say the least.

So it was with much joy that I noticed late tonight that instead of solving one problem (finally, as I thought) I identified another, totally unexpected, baffling, surprising. Also challenging – and motivating. I had to go through the trash to dig out tubes I had thrown out hours earlier because the answer to this new problem might just lie in the contents of these tubes. This is science for you.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

the baby with the bathwater

For all those who don't know it, here's a confession. I have a talent for foolishness. I just rediscovered it, and this time I even surprised myself. I've been reading Le Monde for three months now and past issues and other assorted magazine work hard at making a mess of my kitchen table. When I can't stand it anymore, when I need room to put a plate, I take all the old paper and put it on a chair, and later, when I remember, I take the stack down and dump it into the recycling bin.

Somewhere among all the newspapers is my French–German dictionary, easily recognizable because of its bright yellow color. Lately, though, I've been wondering where it is exactly. I've just finished "Faire l'amour", a short novel by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, that reads like one long poem. It seemed to me that this was the best-written French I've ever come across. Even though some of the finely composed phrases and succulent words made repeated appearances, most were just in one place – in the right place. The book tasted good.

That was my lay opinion, anyway. I couldn't verify and didn't understand half of the really cute sounding words because I didn't find my dictionary. It dawned on me today that I must have absentmindedly put it on the stack of old newpapers, added more paper to the stack to submerge the aggressive yellow, and thrown the whole lot into the big green bin.

Of the more than twenty dictionaries that I own, this was the only one I consulted regularly. I'm back to reading English novels now.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

truth at last

Centrally organized and officially sanctioned doping has been integral to professional cycling for too long. Good legs alone are apparently not enough to climb roads that rise almost vertically towards the barren peaks of the high Alps or Pyrenees. Or at least not enough to be the first getting up there. And while the first sentence was an exaggeration, doping has not been fought seriously by those that make the rules. Basso found a new team, ditto Hamilton. The officials indulge in harsh words and no actions.

Ullrich, Basso, Landis, Armstrong – who thinks these guys were clean? Who thinks asthma is a good indicator for a future cycling champion? I don't, and yet many cyclists carry prescriptions for asthma, legally take drugs that increase breathing efficiency and do I don't know what else. Steroids are often part of the mix.

While the aforementioned cyclists, all champions one way or another, keep a wall of silence between what they might know and what the public would like to know, this wall, seemingly impenetrable so far, is beginning to crumble. Today, Christian Henn, a former Team Telekom cyclist and German national champion in 1996, admitted to systematic doping during his professional career. Less than a day earlier, Bert Dietz who used to race for the same team, admitted to the same misdeeds.

I'm reading these news with hope and the expectation that more athletes come clean – literally. Once this happens and the officials own up to the dark past, the future will be brighter. I might be naïf, but I believe in legs and will to conquer mountains, and I want to enjoy professional cycling again after the time-out I'm taking this season.

Sunday, May 20, 2007


Last night, I finished Infidel. It was about three when I turned the lights off – what a gripping read. I was also very angry.

The book is the personal story of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali woman who, after a loveless childhood (to put it very mildly), came to Holland at the age of 20 claiming refugee status to escape an arranged and forced marriage, and to assert her independence. She was accepted, found her way around, studied political science, became a citizen, fell away from Islam, and became a member of Parliament. In 2004 she and Theo van Gogh made the short film "Submission Part 1", which resulted in Theo's getting killed and Holland's being thrown into near chaos. For her security, she was hidden for two months and a half. A bit more than a year later, when the book was almost finished, her citizenship was revoked but later reinstalled, she resigned from Parliament, and left for the US to work at the American Enterprise Institute. Surely stuff for a book, but that's not even the main story.

The main story is the oppression of Muslim women, back where Hirsi Ali grew up but also in Holland, where African Muslim immigrants often seem to live the way they used to – outside Western society and in disregard of Western values. The descriptions are stark. Husbands who are almost universally evil, mean, and violent. They are completely unaware of the fact that their wife is a person, an individual, a partner. A man would be a good husband if he doesn't beat his wife, this is what the author's girlfriends hoped for growing up. A sad world where a decent man is a precious commodity.

Where Hirsi Ali grew up, violence was everywhere, in the streets but also in the home. The unifying theme of her childhood was brainless brutality, one group against another, and men against women. People are organized in clans, and diversions and differences between them are the defining principles of identity. Violence, utterly pointless and to no one's benefit, is always present.

In the smaller scheme of things, I was born on the wrong side of the fence. But I have not suffered much hardship from it, and the fence came down when I was only 14, opening a world of opportunity. In the larger scheme of things, thankfully, I was born safely on the right side of the fence. The fence that separates Africa from the rest of the world, and madness from reason, poverty from wealth, life from death. This is what the book doesn't tire of pointing out. Sadly, the fence isn't coming down and opportunity will continue to elude most Africans.

For all the horrors of Hirsi Ali's childhood, of civil war, of fleeing violence and the most wretched conditions, the most shocking paragraphs of the book describe the author's and her sister's genital mutilation, a process whose enormity the more neutral terms excision and infibulation are utterly inadequate to describe. The author has suffered a violation so atrocious, brutal, and painful, painful even to read, that it is almost beyond my imagination. I am strangely thankful for the graphic description because up to now I no clear idea what the procedure entailed. But more so I am speechless that anyone would consider this wise or necessary. It surely takes a sick, brain-washed mind empty of independent thought and a heart empty of compassion and tenderness to advocate or perform such an operation.

The first two thirds of the book are all personal account and analysis, but the last third calls for action. It is a long, angry rant against the excesses of literally read Islam. It is about liberating women, encouraging them not to submit, imploring them to stand up against inequities and for their freedom. Hirsi Ali is passionately outraged, and it is a pleasure to read. She has a reason for her anger and fights for a cause. She wants to abolish sharia and set Muslims women free.

While I might not agree that a self-proclaimed infidel is the right person to bring about change in Islam – just for not having credibility – I praise her courageous and persistent battle. "Submission Part 1" has become a different, more important film for me.

Friday, May 18, 2007


I've been thinking about retirement lately. It's not that I'm old enough to get ready for it, but I'm not young enough anymore to ignore preparing. Maybe I shouldn't worry, but it keeps bugging me a little. I've accrued a handful of years of rights in Germany, and now a bit more than two fat years in France. I bet they are incompatible, and I'll lose one or the other in the end. The five years in the US did me nothing, and the next five years in the UK might not either. Although Imperial sent me a big, confusing brochure professing to explain their retirement benefits scheme, I'll probably need every penny I earn just to survive. Should I invest in the Russian construction market and hope it takes off like nuts and I'll be rich in ten/fifteen years?

So many questions, and only one thing is for sure. I'll retire from cycling after the Dolomites marathon this July. I kind of semi-retired last fall but restarted because, well, because not cycling around Grenoble is like not drinking wine in France. I'm currently preparing for the marathon – even got a medical certificate today that will let me participate in the Challenge Dauphiné in two weeks as preparation – but once I'm in London, I'll use the bike for commuting – that's all. Maybe I'll take up running, maybe inline skating, maybe couch surfing. Maybe I'll get a membership to the Tate and spend all weekends in the gallery. That sounds even better than couch surfing.

Anyway, today I rode my bike with shaky legs and a hungry stomach. I did 115km with a few intermediate climbs and I kept wondering why I was so hungry. I ate two pounds of oatmeal before leaving, and yet that wasn't enough. Friends tell me I've lost wait. That's not true according to my bathroom scale, but I must look it. So the ride wasn't exceptionally pleasant, but at least it was sunny. The two days before I went out in the pouring rain, against better judgment and against ancient tradition. But man, the Dolomites marathon sure looks frightening.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

temperature rising

While the first few days back to the daily routine have been a shocking contrast in every possible way to the two sunny weeks of vacation I just finished, I'm nevertheless in a good mood. I'm on the current job for another month and a half (and the last half might just be vacation days left over), and I'm slowly getting into the London mindset. I found out that the move is going to be much less painful than I anticipated (and the thousand pounds I get will cover all of it). Up to the channel coast it's only a ten hour drive. I'll rent a van to fit all my stuff, drive up one Monday in July, take the ferry the next day, drive into London, unpack my stuff, help a friend put her stuff into the van, and hand her the keys to the van. It will then be up to her to drive the thing back down to Grenoble. I'll be done without much effort.

An important question is where I'll put my stuff once it's out of the van. Is there an apartment waiting for me? So far, no, and this question has been preoccupying me a bit. I'll be paid reasonably, but rent is outrageous, three times what I pay now will be a good deal. Today I discovered Gumtree, which, together with Craig's list, should give me enough offers to find the perfect place. In the first week of July, I'll probably fly out to go apartment hunting.

For financial reasons (and to keep my sanity) I might decide to live a bit outside of London. This afternoon, I remembered what I did when I was looking for a new place in Salt Lake. I took an area map and drew a number of concentric circles around the building I worked in. Within the circle corresponding to a three-mile radius I ended up finding a new home. London being bigger, more expensive, but also significantly flatter than Salt Lake, I might go with an eight-mile radius. That's cyclable on a daily basis. I better go get a London map to start planning.

Sunday, May 13, 2007


A short sign of life after this two-week hiatus. I wasn't sick but away from the job and computers, thankfully. Low-cost airlines took me to Berlin, Barcelona, and then Rome. How lovely it was. Three very different cities.

Berlin is everything one can imaging, touristic sights and neighborhood parks with chaste Turkish families pick-nicking next to nude sun bathers.

Barcelona is a party town for the 20 to 30-year old, and maybe a bit beyond – I had fun too. It is also surprisingly clean for the amount of partying that goes on and has a stunning seaside with beaches, cafes, joggers, and inviting water. I hopped in twice.

The highlight of the trip was Rome. What a beautiful city! What better place for an evening stroll than the dilapidated lanes of Trastevere? I was so sad when I got back to my apartment that really doesn't correspond to my ideas of beauty or nice living. In two months I'll go to London, and I'll try to upgrade.