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.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

fact and fiction

If you're at all into literature, the annual New Yorker debut fiction issue is a must read. Last week it was this time of the year again, and the New Yorker website brims with good stories. I was most impressed with Sweetheart Sorrow by David Hoon Kim. I would have liked the story anyway, I guess, because it has many of the things I like in stories, lives banging into each other in a foreign country, guys and girls confused about where they come from and where they should go, and authenticity in all thoughts (except the expired student visa right at the beginning – Europeans don't need that anymore).

It's not just one good but two great stories, unconnected if you look at them from afar and yet lightly interwoven on many levels. The reader will intuitively know which of the narrative strands the writer is really passionate about but is held in gently tickling suspense up until the last paragraph.

There is baloney theoretical physics waiting to be translated from French to English on one side and a disturbed Japanese girl locked up in her dorm room on the other. The narrator should be navigating these two worlds guided by his heart but goes astray tragically.

Done reading, I was left slightly depressed, not just because of tender love that ended catastrophically but also because I could never hope to write so beautifully.


Talking about recently published articles I cannot go without mentioning the Economist. In a radical break with a tradition that calls for the preeminence of economic and political topics, it's science that takes center stage this week. RNA made it to the cover of this venerable magazine. Go figure. The accompanying article summarizes without goofs obvious to the non-specialist the current state of RNA research and the confusion that reigns in this field that is still at its inception. Despite its merits, I would discommend bragging at next cocktail party you go to with the knowledge you gained from reading the article. Rather go to your local university library and read Nature or Science News & Views pieces to get the facts.

Monday, June 18, 2007

cheat to win

When I opened my mailbox this morning, I found an envelope that had come over from the US. In it was a little gift that make me laugh a lot, a bright yellow elastic wristband. However, in contrast to similar bracelet I already own, this one didn't say LiveStrong, but Cheat to Win. I put it on right away and pushed my bike out on the street. The smile lingered in my face for a while but transformed into a tired grimace once I found myself, yet again, on the steep road up the Col de Porte where no one handed me blood bags or syringes full of stimulants.

I haven't followed professional cycling at all this year. I'm sick of doping and how everyone pretends it is not happening. Those that step forward with their stories of EPO, growth hormones and what not are presented as individually responsible outlaws by the cycling establishment. I'm not so mad at cyclists for taking all the stuff. It's not cheating if everyone does it, and they're only fucking up their own health.

As I like my health as it is, I'll stick with the concept of living strong. And for winning, I believe in suffering not cheating. But thanks for the bracelet anyway, Brian.

Saturday, June 16, 2007


Have I mentioned that the Col de Porte is my favorite climb? According to my notes, I've done it about 15 times in the last year and a half, and then a few more times in my first year here. I clearly remember the first time in the spring of 2005. It was harder than anything I'd done before, but conquering it primed me for my best summer of cycling. I have never been in better shape.

I'm far from that glorious state this year, but I'm still hopeful to unsloth myself for the Dolomites marathon, two weeks from tomorrow. Since I haven't ridden at all in the two weeks since the Challenge Dauphiné, I felt drastic measures were necessary. So today I decided to test my mettle against the Col de Porte, just this climb, nothing else, going as hard as I could, my personal mountain time trial if you will.

The climb gains 1073 meters over 15.3 kilometers, for an average gradient of exactly seven per cent. I felt sluggish at the bottom but felt better with every turn in the road, working myself into the zone. My brain had bitten into the climb like a pitbull terrier and wasn't gonna let go. The pain in lung and legs faded away like details on the roadside. I reached the pass an instant after my right calf locked up with a cramp, after exactly 54 minutes and 22 seconds.

With this ride I could rest assured of calm ride in two weeks if the marathon only included one or two climbs. It has about seven, though, and my biggest weakness is endurance. Maybe I shouldn't just hammer up the same climb over and over again, getting high on numbers, but do a few more hundred-mile rides to get my legs to understand the concept of distance.

Friday, June 15, 2007


Wednesday was my last day in lab. Yesterday, I went nevertheless because there were still a few things to be done – mostly getting those started who will take over the project. Today, I went to the lab once more, but it was not for work.

Today was my "pot de depart", a few hours of farewell party with colleagues and friends. I went to the grocery store for cider, beer, juice, cakes, cookies and the like, made my world-famous baba ghanoush, and a colleague contributed her world-famous (here I'm not exaggerating) tiramisu. To commemorate the occasion, the rain that had beaten down on the city all morning stopped and the sun heated the air up.

I am not leaving Grenoble with a heavy heart. I'm ready to leave, and it's about time. But I know that, looking back, I'll be melancholic and I will miss many things. Even though it didn't translate much into out-of-lab activities, people were truly kind and very funny. And how can you beat a farewell card that reads: "ti aspetto per la prossima danza"?

Another thing I'll miss is ice cream. Germany has great ice cream parlors (inevitably run by Italians) and of course Italy does. Up to today, I was disappointed in this regard with Grenoble, but tonight I found a little hole in the wall selling 91 flavors. This is ninety-one. If you have a hard time coming up with 91 fruits to put into the ice cream, you wouldn't be alone. In fact, the ice cream makers don't restrict themselves to fruits.

We bought a cone with tomato and bergamot and one with lavender and plain old blackberry. It was an experience way up on the bizarre list. Tomato ice cream tastes a bit like frozen tomato soup or gazpacho, if you're into that kind of stuff. Bergamot was like licking frozen Earl Grey tea, except that it tasted strong than fresh Earl Grey leaves ever smell. You'd never find tea that tastes a tenth that strong. The weirdest, however, was the lavender. If you've ever eaten a bar of soap straight from the freezer, you know what I'm talking about. If not, I advise you to go with blackberry, a rather traditional flavor. I'm not saying any of this tasted bad. Far from it. I'll go back and try more flavors, but I have to admit that it was very, very different.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


Today I figured out how to get German audio on my TV. I'm only here for another month, but I'm happy. It only works with arte, the French-German station, but that's the only channel that shows interesting movies, at a rate of one every other month. The few times I wanted to see a German movie, I had to suffer through French dubbing. Today I finally got it right.

What I saw was Sophie Scholl. Go see this movie. There is nothing more I need to say.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

home game

I've just returned from Bochum, Germany, where I've stayed at a friend's for three days. The trip was unique. In contrast to earlier travels to Germany, I took the train this time. Flights were a bit too expensive, and the train connection I discovered suprised me with its simplicity and relative quickness. First, the TGV to Paris, there an anachronistic transfer from one station to another, then Thalys through Belgium to Köln, and from there to Bochum with the ICE. About ten hours door to door and the benefit of breathing Paris for an hour.

I can't help writing about the TGV, especially compared to the ICE. Whereas the German train floats silently, seemingly at rest, betraying not a hint of the mind-boggling speeds it's moving at, the French train brags with its strength, moving jerkily as if it were too powerful to just go straight. Comfort is secondary, nothing but speed matters. The train is second to none in this respect.

One could imagine an old but reliable truck that is suddenly connected to a nuclear power station with its unlimited energy. Protesting at first, then hopping a bit in its rails, the train slowly gains speed, gaining more and more of it, never stopping. Finally, it's whipping through the flat countryside with the brute force of a stray rocket. One can't even look out of the windows for fear of nausea. Cars rolling parallel to the tracks seem to be parked on the highway, and the black and white spots of cattle melt into a gray fog hardly visible against the blurry green of French pastures, meadows and hills. Paris is reached in no time.

A few hours later I was in Bochum. The first item on my visitor's program was Wuppertal, famous for its railway running suspended above the river for a good ten miles. It was built from steel and not much else a hundred years ago – when the area was famous for steel and not much else. This Sunday, it wasn't running, though, for no apparent reason. As a backup, we decided to visit Villa Hügel. With close to 270 rooms extending over 90,000 square feet, the dwelling, set in a lovely and expansive English garden, used to be the Krupp family resdience. The immensity alone stunned my senses.

The Villa would have been the pride of any nobleman. Its interior is entirely decorated in dark wood. The barrel-shaped roof high above the large ballroom admits plenty of natural light and recalls major train stations, those cathedrals of industrialization at the tail end of the 19th century. I read this as glorification of industry, but here as everywhere else, everything is in wood. The disconnect between the material and the appearance was striking. Herr Krupp must have been mighty sick of all the iron and steel his factories were pumping out and wanted nothing of that sort in his home.

Villa Hügel is definitely worth a visit, but no one would travel to Bochum for it. Neither did I. The event that had triggered my trip took place in the stadium, home to the local soccer team, one day later when the stadium was home to the local hero, singer Herbert Grönemeyer. After two major shows in Gelsenkirchen, only 15 minutes away, the previous two nights, Monday night was a more intimate concert in front of only 25000, apparently in the smallest venue of his current tour.

For me, it was by far the largest concert I've been to, and I enjoyed it a lot. We had a great spot about ten meters from the stage, protected by a fence from the rest of the crowd. The atmosphere was ecstatic, but no one pushed too hard, and the weather held. The rain clouds that had been sitting menacingly over the town earlier in the day disappeared when the opening act came on stage, and everyone starting singing, bopping and dancing with delight. In the end, however, people were a bit upset because Herbert played Bochum, his ode to the city, only once, despite untiring calls for more. The fireworks didn't make up for it, nor could the local radio station that played the song about five times in the two hours after the show.

Today I came back to Grenoble the same way I went. I had a bit more time in Paris and found a great bakery right outside the Gare du Nord. Go buy a bread at Moisan if you're around. Thirty minutes later I was at the Gare du Lyon wondering why in French stations the platforms are only announced ten minutes before departure of the train. It makes for great chaos in front of the screens. But that's just one little inconvenience was has to endure if one wants to travel at the speed of TGV.

Friday, June 08, 2007


It's almost a week ago today that I suffered through the Challenge Dauphiné. Over the days since that memorable Saturday, my hands slowly lost their numbness, and I started to be able to grab things with force. I was a bit surprised how slow progress was, but reassured by the fact that there was progress. That seemed to stop yesterday, though. In the pinky half of either hand, ants kept running up and down the fingers, as the French would say. I was getting worried.

This afternoon, my labmates who are infinitely more practical than I am suggested I go see a doctor instead of having my hands slowly rot from the inside. I had nothing better to do and made the trek to the emergency room, for the second time in half a year now. By the time I got there, I had worked myself into frenzied anxiety and reproached myself for not going earlier, fearing dire consequences. I was shocked when they just sent me away, coldheartedly. Go see a general practitioner was the advice I got.

This I did. At 3pm, I managed to get an appointment with the first doctor I called for later that very same day. Today is Friday, and evidently not everyone in France slacks.

The doctor I went to was the same that had given me the medical certificate required to enter the Challenge Dauphiné. So he was in a way responsible for my frozen hands. When he saw them, he wasn't very concerned. It will go away eventually, he assured me, but wrote me a referral to some sort of a specialist anyway. He also casually diagnosed me with Raynaud's syndrome, which I have suspected for a long time of being responsible for the tingling and strange discolorations my hands suffer from when it's cold, and gave me a prescription. Five minutes later I entered a pharmacy for the first time in twelve years or so.

This post is not about the pharmacy but about Raynaud's syndrome, a curious affliction that no one really knows the cause of. Doctors call this idiopathic, "a high-flown term to conceal ignorance" according to Stedman's Medical Dictionary. On one end of the treatment scale, go figure, is wearing warm clothes around your extremities. Obvious, but I didn't do this at the Challenge Dauphiné. On the other end is apparently amputation. I try to avoid this by sticking to the middle and taking vasodilatory drugs – and also wearing gloves in bed, just in case.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

massive misery

The bottom line is, today was the most miserable day of my life, bar none. It was worse than heartbreak, worse than blizzards in Snowbird or Park City, worse than prelims. Those with time at their hands are invited to read on; but be warned that the following paragraphs are drenched in lachrymosity and self-pity, besides the ubiquitous rain.

This morning at a quarter to six when I woke up, my worst fears that yesterday's weather forecast had sowed had come true. It was still raining outside. I put on plenty of layers, put more into my backpack, remembered to take my neoprene shoe covers and, a sign of increasing despair, even took my LiveStrong wristband along. Its violent yellow on my wrist would remind me that if Lance can survive cancer, I can survive the Challenge Dauphine.

Up in Lans, things didn't look quite as bad as in town. The temperature was close to 10 degrees, and it only drizzled lightly – conditions at the optimistic end of yesterday's forecast, and it was still very early. I decided to leave my thick jacket in the car.

We started at 8:30, and so did the rain. It wouldn't stop for five hours. I didn't know this at that point, obviously, and I was still excited. It wasn't too cold, my legs felt good, and the group I was in moved briskly. After two hours, we had covered 60k.

That's when the suffering started. The first serious mountain rose up into the clouds, and the temperature dropped with every switchback in the road. At the top, I was as wet as a mouse in an aquarium and nearly shivering from the cold. Things got much worse on the 15k descent. My arms started shaking so badly I could hardly steer my bike straight, and my eyes were hurting from the unrelenting assault of raindrops at 60km/h. To top things off, my front brake pads were on their way out. The rear pair had already been filed down to the metal after the first 45k.

At the aid station at the bottom of the descent, I thankfully grabbed a cup of steaming hot tea, immediately spilling half of it over my shaking hands – not a bad thing actually, warmed them up for a moment – and pondered my options. I had close to 70k to go, and I was at the lowest point of the course. A mighty pass lay ahead, but my legs were screaming sofa. I must have been a sorrowful sight. As it happened, an angel flew by and saved my life. A course marshal walked up to me, asked if everything was ok, said that someone had left his rain jacket on another aid station, and asked me if I would be interested in carrying it back to Lans. He even helped me put it on, or rather, put it on, because my stiff fingers were not up to the task of fiddling with sleeves and zippers.

To make a long story short, and the 70 remaining kilometers were indeed incredible long, I made it, I came through, I arrived after seven and a half hours (seven hours riding time according to my bike computer), and even got my hot lunch right before they closed shop. It was a struggle that I was at one point determined to lose (I didn't see the LiveStrong wristband underneath the rain jacket.), but then I didn't find another aid station where a sag wagon would open its door for me, and I didn't want to wait by the side of the road. The going was painful, and I was going painfully slowly. And I was damn cold. Under no circumstances would I have finished the course without this extra rain jacket. Back in Lans, the temperature was still just a nick below 10 degrees.

If you're not calling me an idiot for riding 180k in the wet cold, I readily will. However, looking back from the comfort of my sofa, with the pain a thing of the past and only my palms and the tips of my fingers still numb, I recognize that that's what stories are made from. What a great day it was!

Friday, June 01, 2007

good teeth and bad weather

With my life in Grenoble shortly running out, more and more missed opportunities manifest themselves, or near misses. Thinking about London the other day, it came to me as a smart idea to get my eyes and teeth checked before I have to pay pounds for that.

I went to see an ophthalmologist on Wednesday, and was very disappointed afterwards. I had to pay fifty euros – normally, seeing the doctor costs 21 here. There were no space-age gadgets to measure my vision, just old-fashioned lenses and a slide projector. And the guy told me my vision hadn't really deteriorated from what my current glasses, eleven years old and still hanging on, were made to correct. I should have at least considered laser surgery – if I had done this earlier and time left for an operation.

Today, I went to the dentist, about the third time in the last ten years. Against all tradition, I arrived with a hint of unease. My teeth are all natural, and none is missing (the only part of my body to be unequivocally proud of, in a way), but lately I've felt an occasional but piercing pain while chewing hard.

I explained the symptoms after the dentist's assistant had recovered from the jolt of beauty that gazing into my mouth inevitably gave her. She looked again, checked my bite, filed a bit off the surface of a tooth or two, but claimed she could find nothing wrong. You don't even have tartar, she exclaimed before letting me go. I left relieved – and happy.

My happiness quickly morphed into apprehension and later full-blown anxiety when I checked the weather forecast for Lans-en-Vercors. Rain on and off and the mercury oscillating between five and fifteen degrees C. Normally I wouldn't care, but tomorrow I'm registered to participate in the Challenge Dauphiné, a bike race-like event of 180km that takes place around Lans, up in the Vercors massif.

The forecast makes me tremble in anticipation. I'm a wimp at heart and like to cycle in the sun. I hate the cold. But I also do what I've started, and tomorrow I'll grit my teeth and brave the elements.