Tuesday, January 29, 2008

vive la credit union

I'm running through life on half a scatterbrain most of the time. For the most part, I get by, but sometimes I have to struggle. Today was one of those days when the struggle was rewarded.

Over the last few months, emails had been hitting my inbox reminding me of unread bank statements. Every time they arrived, I tried to download them, dutifully. My efforts were forever foiled, though.

The system wouldn't let me log on because it didn't recognize my password as correct. When I got it so far as to send me a new password to the email address associated with the account, I would subsequently get stuck in a thicket of security questions, the correct answers to which I could never recall.

As the account I'm talking about dates back to when I was in Utah and is perennially hibernating, basically just serving as a backup in case I need an American credit card, I didn't pay it much mind. Despite the constant devaluation of the dollar, some money was still left on the account, though slowly trickling down to nothing.

Today I noticed that my debit card was about to be renewed, and that I needed to change the address for its delivery. To do that, access to my account was of the essence, but being 6000 miles away, I can't just walk into the nearest branch. I called in, and Ashley helped me out before I could even fully stumble through explaining the problem. Upon hearing my account number, birthday, social security number, and mom's maiden name, she reset my password and disabled the security questions. When I had logged back on, the first time in half a year, I did not only find the missed statements, but every single one dating back to early 2001. I love my credit union.

On the other hand, it makes you wonder about identity theft, doesn't it?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

running vs. cycling

I've been out jogging three to four time a week since I started this nonsense fourteen days ago. It's not my first foray into running. In September 2006, still in Grenoble, I got so fed up with cycling that I decided I needed a change. I took out my virgin Sauconys that had been collecting dust even since I bought them nine months earlier, and paced up and down the Isère. The next day I was a wreck. This lasted for about a week. I tried again and that time, the suffering only lasted five days. Progress, but painfully slow. Just when I was getting into the groove, I cut my thumb and was out for the year. And that was that.

This time around, things are going much more smoothly. I'm in no pain after a run, and my legs don't complain if I take them out again. I easily do the Hyde Park loops in under thirty minutes. I am fast.

That was my state of mind this morning anyway. Then, around lunchtime, I went out with two colleagues for a run of exactly 10k. These guys wanted to know where they were standing, never mind the early season. Both have done marathons before. They are fast.

I have my heart rate monitor to keep me from going unhealthily fast, but it's beeping was no match for two nutcases on strong legs. I went into red one third into the run and never looked back. Two thirds through, I had to let them go, and with my heart and lungs screaming for respite, I scrambled on for another 3k, hanging on for dear life. In the end, I was happy with my time but not with my performance, and not at all with the concept of running. Whose idea was this anyway?

While running has the edge over cycling in terms of time and costs, cycling will always be my favorite because:

  • You can sit down while you do it.
  • You can shift down when it gets hard.
  • You can let it rip when the road goes down.
  • You can eat and drink when you want because you carry everything with you.

To pacify the devil in my head who's trying to talk me out of running, I'll go to the gym tomorrow for an hour of spinning, but on Friday I'll surely be back in the park.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


It's been long since I've had Mexican, Argentine and Costa Rican roommates, but all this time it has bothered me that I never benefited more from their company. They could have taught me perfect Spanish in these years, if I had just made the effort. Unfortunately, it never went further than watching Brazilian soap operas, helpfully dubbed in Spanish. And while watching soaps operas, with their trivial subjects and basic dialogs, is probably the best way of picking up a language, it wasn't enough for me, mainly for lack of practice. I was lazy, and thus always spoke English with my friends.

This morning, I set out on another unspoken resolution. I had registered for an intensive Spanish class and went for the first time. All traces of laziness stayed behind when I rushed from my sumptuous breakfast because the course started at 10. For the next five hours, thankfully interrupted by a lunch break, I immersed myself in a language that I understand pretty well but can speak hardly at all. Due to a profound lack of formal training, I have no notion of grammar and no active vocabulary. Due to an equally profound lack of practice, I cannot say but the simplest things.

The class was good, the other students fun, the teacher motivating and passionate, and we all spoke a lot – often more than one at a time in a display of chaotic exuberance. I'll make sure to practice throughout the week, and I'll surely go back there next Saturday.

On the way home after the class, I stopped at my favorite baker's, Forrest. It was just about four, but he had run out of most of its wares, polishing the shelves and getting ready to close for the weekend. I got one of the last breads there were, a Split Tin (whatever that is), for all of 85 pence.

Whatever it was, it was delicious. What's more, it went perfectly with Irish butter and Manchego cheese. I finished my snack with an apple from Aquitaine and, with food as simple and good as this I couldn't help but think I was back in France. With it came the realization that it's significantly simpler to learn Spanish than French. This time, I'll stick to it.

Monday, January 14, 2008

way to go

It's been a while in the making, but it finally happened. It was too obvious I wouldn't be totally satisfied sitting on my bright blue sofa on long weekends or trying to figure out why all the stuff that hangs at the walls of Tate Modern is considered art. A life less physical is not what I'm after.

This weekend, I went to Hyde Park on both days. I did the same loop, around the park, twice each day. My heart rate monitor made sure I didn't get too excited about speed by beeping in a most annoying way every time my pulse got above what the watch considered a sensible value. It worked marvelously. Neither of the four loops deviated from the average 30 minutes by more than 45 seconds. Incredible, and a good way of building a foundation for more sustained running.

In this context – Do I really have to say that? – sustained running covers exactly 42.195 km. The London Marathon is a very exclusive event. If you don't already have an excellent finish time from another marathon, you have to put your application into a lottery, where the chance of winning is slim. I didn't even try to be among the 40,000 that are allowed to participate. Instead, a minute ago, I signed up for the Oberelbe Marathon, a much smaller affair held at the end of April that runs down the river Elbe towards the beautiful city of Dresden, Germany.

This also happens to be where I'm from, as everyone must know by now. Thus I get a trip back home that begins with great suffering and ends in the caring arms of mom. If only British Airways would allow me to book the flight. Somehow my card isn't accepted.

In any case, I have now a goal that will hopefully provide enough motivation to keep me going as energetically as I have started. I have just about fifteen weeks to teach my old legs new tricks.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

back on track

What a long slog it has been. About six months ago, after riding old faithful one last time – around the Dolomites, as it were – I stopped nearly all physical activity apart from breathing. Since moving to London, I don't think I've got my heart rate above 80 even once. Let me, for the sake of argument, ignore the numerous indoor soccer sessions, as that much fun can't possibly count as exercise.

In any case, the other day I signed up for the Imperial gym. It's the first time in a good ten years that I submit to the will of cold, heartless machines. Frankly, I hate gyms, but I have a goal. It's not for losing weight, and I don't believe getting sweaty and smelly will score me more dates. No, certain events are staged in April that might require my full physical fitness. For that reason I endured an hour of circuit training on Tuesday, the first in what might be a series of sessions if I keep my motivation high.

It was only 24 hours later that things were taken to a whole other level. The sun, shining mildly on central London, saw me jog the periphery of Hyde Park. A seasoned long-distance runner colleague from lab had managed to pry me from my desk, and for half an hour I got to see the park in a new light, savoring this oasis of green, light and air in the heart of the city.

Now my calves are decidedly sore, but I've started the course towards reinventing myself as a runner. As with so many nascent projects, I'm all excited and thrilled to go. I hope that, in a break with tradition, the sparks won't fizzle prematurely like so many times before. Keep on running.

Sunday, January 06, 2008


As every year, I started 2008 with no resolutions whatsoever. A recent personality test confirmed I was a spontaneous person, and I'd like to keep it that way. But here are a few thoughts that could have been developed into resolutions if I were such inclined.

  • Run a marathon. – That's obvious, isn't it, given that I won't do any epic bike rides this year? The question is which one, where to run, and when to start training.
  • See a new country. – Last year was pretty poor with only Spain and Ireland added to the list, and even those not really because I only saw Barcelona and Dublin. Traveling and experiencing the unknown rock.
  • Write more. – There are so many things going on in my life, and my hard drive is full of fragments, situations and ideas. Why don't I find the motivation to turn some of them into a finished product? Grenoble seemed better for my creativity. Maybe it was the stillness.
  • Learn Spanish. – Arabic might be more appropriate given the neighborhood I live in, but I wouldn't want to set goals so high I can't even see let alone hope of ever reaching them. Knowing languages is good.
  • Find a job in Germany. – I love London, and I don't want to leave, so maybe this wouldn't make it into this year's resolutions anyway, but the day will come that I'll want to leave, and what could be better than going to Germany? Many things are wrong with the country but many more are just right. Every time I return from abroad, I'm convinced this is the most nearly perfect country in the world. Are there any openings in Munich for 2010?
  • Live happily. – This should be a the top of the list, but it's too self-evident, and the only interesting aspect is a question: How far do you go to live the dream? How stubborn should you be pursuing what you want, or how ruthless if the answer to the first seems too easy. I'm stubborn like no other, but I'm far from ruthless. Where's the balance? What am I talking about? I won't tell, but hell is this issue rolling around in my head...

Finally, here's something from the we're-not-there-yet department. Will optimism and courage beat cynicism and convention in 2008?

between the years

I spent the last two weeks and a half in Dresden with my family. Most of the time passed quietly; the recent loss of a family member is still on everybody's mind. Being home was enjoyable nevertheless. Germany is a lovely place, things happen as they are supposed to, stores sell what I like, and trains run fast and on time, mostly.

In contrast to London, it was cold. So cold, in fact, that the lakes around Château Moritzburg were frozen over, covered with a thick layer of ice. To my surprise, I found a brand spanking new pair of ice skates in our basement that looked like they were made for me. No one remembered how they got there, but since my mom and sister were equally equipped, nothing could keep us from reviving the old family tradition of going ice skating. I was lucky to have practiced in London only a week earlier – and the first time in ten years. I moved with some aptitude. My mom didn't show her age at all, and my sister impressed everybody with what she has learned playing hockey in a second division team. We had a blast the first time around.

The second day was a bit scarier since it was after the first cold night after a few warm days and we weren't sure how strong the ice would be. We were also the only ones on the lake and only ventured out with some trepidation. But all was good and we had fun.

For New Year's I met friends from college. We partied in a town not far from where we went to college, a town with no reputation or renown outside city limits and probably not much within either. We were told, however, that the city center would be one big bash on December 31st. After some drinks and tasty, tasty baked pork, we walked there. It was close to midnight.

We had got really close to the market when we came by a big screen at the side of a building, which showed a German TV station. They were counting down the seconds, three, two, one, and then it was 2008. We ran a bit further towards the market, but everything was eerily quite, so we decided to open our champagne there and then and start the new year. While drinking, all by our lonely selves, we heard shouting from a thousands lungs coming from the market, three, two, one, 2008, and the masses erupted in cheers. This is how we missed the new year twice.

Now I'm back in London, the sun's shining, and another year has taken over. May it be peaceful and free of disaster. And may you all be healthy and surrounded by friends. Happy 2008!