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.