Sunday, February 24, 2008

free coffee

Once more, a good friend of mine came over for the weekend. Living in a one-horse town outside of Belfast, Northern Ireland, he is perpetually deprived of the enjoyments of yuppie life in the big city, and he's all too aware of it. When the pain becomes unbearable, he hops into a plane and crashes in London. A weekend of fun is guaranteed for both of us.

This time around, he had rented a car and on Saturday, we drove to Oxford, forty miles from London. Ignorant of the attractions of the city, we just enjoyed the charms of its cuteness. It's full of old limestone houses with a forest of spires and chimneys and façades laced with carved-stone spouts and unique ornaments. Many of these building belong to one or another of the colleges of Oxford University.

Traffic is seriously restricted in town. People walk, and bikes are parked everywhere. There is a small river when you can row, though people had other things in mind in February. Coffee, for example. We found the Queen's Lane Coffee House, according to legend (though not Wikipedia) the first place in Europe to serve this novel concoction so beloved by the Ottomans. I had tea, the traditional way with scones and clotted cream. A treat I should indulge in more often.

At night, back in London, we went to a Spanish bar to some DJ's birthday party, to drink and be merry – and to speak Spanish. This latter part worked well enough to connect with some guys to go to another bar when the first one closed, a hybrid between a night club and a hang-out. Five pounds got us beautiful people, happy bartenders and joyful music. By time we left, a few Tanqueray tonics and spins on the dance floor later and thoroughly exhausted, the last tube had long returned to the depot.

As we were near Oxford Street, there was no reason to worry. Even in the middle of the night, buses run to all places at the rate of three an hour. It was easy to see why. Oxford Street looked like a mid-size town's center on a Sunday afternoon. It was full of people walking in every which direction, coming out of clubs or going to the next party. Fast-food places were open at every corner and bus stops full of night-owls. Close your eyes and the illusion was perfect. It was warmer than it should be on a February afternoon. It was 3:30. We decided to forgo the bus and walk home, across Oxford Circus, along Marble Arch and Hyde Park, through Notting Hill and by Holland Park. An hour later, we were in Shepherd's Bush and collapsed in our beds shortly thereafter.

Despite this nocturnal action, the most memorable moment of the weekend had developed earlier during the day, just when we beheld Radcliff Camera and the adjacent Bodleian Library. My friends looks at me and ask: "Andreas, did we ever pay in the coffee shop?" Well, we hadn't. We had just got up and proceeded to amble through idyllic Oxford for half an hour. Afraid that the police were already canvassing town for two disgraceful bilks, we scurried back. We avoided the SWAT team and got back to the coffee shop unnoticed and unstopped. The guy who had served us was delighted to see us again and present us with the bill. He laughed the whole story off, as – to tell the truth – we had on our way back there.

Always pay for your coffee, my friends.

Monday, February 18, 2008

classic weekend

Now that my friend has gone back to the US, I have a bit more time to reflect what happened during the last nine days. One thing was clear all along: He was damn lucky. In the middle of February he had all of one cloudy day – the others were sunny with bright blue sky – and did not encounter a single rain drop. Even though it was a bit cold the last few days, the first half of his stay was warm enough to leave the jacket at home.

My friend racked up a total of nine classical music concerts in as many days, days that included two packed with scientific talks, meetings and interviews. My final tally was six, also more than I've ever heard in a span of not even two weeks. As befits a well-written dramatic curve, the last day, Sunday, gave us the two best concerts of the lot.

But it was a day of frantic chases and hardly a minute of calm outside the concert halls. All started badly when my friend reminded me at breakfast that the concert would start half an hour earlier than I had thought. We jumped up at once, ran to the tube station, made the train (ok, not difficult with them running every three minutes) and got there just on time.

There was just enough time to get tickets – except there weren't any tickets, only an ominous "Sold Out" sign next to the line still lingering at the box office. While we were still contemplating the situation, a lady approached us with two spare tickets, which we quickly and gladly bought off here. Middle seats, seventh row, it couldn't get much better, except if we could actually take our seats, but the doors remained closed. Belatedly, we figured out that we had got the start time wrong and the concert would not start for another half hour. Good thing we were there early, though, because otherwise we wouldn't have got the tickets.

A little while later, we were treated to the precision, passion and energy of the Jerusalem Quartet, celebrating Beethoven and Ravel. It was a stunning performance, even for someone who like me doesn't know much about classical music. The quality of the interpretation was too obvious.

After the concert and the glass of sherry you get a the bar for handing in your ticket, we headed over to Brick Lane. This has traditionally been the place where Bangladeshi community is strongest, but recently, a lot of effort has been put into refurbishing some of the adjacent warehouses and the landmark Truman brewery. Now, there are lots of galleries, quick little restaurant, vintage clothes shops, arts and crafts markets and tons of people. At night, coffee shops turn into clubs, bars amp up the tunes, and the Rough Trade record store houses gigs. I wish it weren't so far from where I live, otherwise I'd go there more often.

It's a great place to get lost, and this is exactly what we did. By the time we had finished lunch, we realized we didn't have all that much time left to make it to Royal Festival Hall for the finale of Daniel Barenboim's Beethoven piano sonata series. Trying to get somewhere fast on a weekend is doomed to failure because of inevitable tube construction. Lines are closed, shortened, or delayed. We tried anyway, making a dash to Liverpool St., getting lost briefly in our search for the Circle Line, which apparently didn't run, changing travel plans in mid-air, sprinting through the maze that's the Bank-Monument interchange, and finally alighting at Embankment. We already had our tickets, and three minutes remained, but also a bridge to cross. It took us five, and the door to the auditorium was closed in our faces. There went the first sonata of the afternoon.

We were lucky that we didn't miss the last though, number 32, which was spectacular. Seeing Barenboim play, how he effortlessly gets the sounds from the piano, how he palpably fills the hall with a few little notes during the quieter parts, how the moment of silence after the performance is an integral part of the performance, all this is world-class and truly amazing. Afterwards, we stepped out onto the Southbank esplanade elated but calm, ready to enjoy the rest of the afternoon and the imminent sunset. Madness had stopped.

Except it hadn't really because just as I was getting my camera warmed up for the early evening shots, we ran into a friend from Belfast who just happened to be in town, doing the same walk at the same time as us. What are the chances?

Suddenly, all started anew. We had stories to swap and places to see. We covered another five miles running around London before we ended in night in a fine Persian restaurant, not far at all from home. And at some point, finally and thankfully, this Sunday ended, and rest got its chance.

By the way, the new camera is absolutely lovely.

sunset over the Thames

More to come on flickr.

Monday, February 11, 2008

no worries

Another beautiful day, filled with music, sun, walks in the park, more sun, more parks, and finally more music. Why can not all February weekends be like this, sunny and warm, with the harbingers of spring in plain sight. Flowers are coming out and some trees are sprouting fresh green buds. The grass in the parks invites to sit and just enjoy.

We went to Camden today. We had to. I wanted to see how damaged the market was after the big fire yesterday. Well, doesn't appear like such big deal after all. The area around the locks is closed of and looks pretty mangled. But all around, it was almost business as usual, except it wasn't so busy. The shops in the Stables were all open, though some had no electricity, and candles lit the way. Cyberdog was untouched. Within a few weeks, I'd guess, everything will be rebuild and look as before. Just a little accident, after all.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

london's burning

Wow, what an eventful day. And what a beautiful day it was. The sun was shining, there wasn't a cloud in the sky and it was almost warm enough to forgo the jacket. Lovely.

Yesterday, a friend of mine arrived from the US. Picking him up at a tube stop halfway between the airport and my apartment made me miss a Thai dinner that I was promised would be spectacular. In all likelihood, the little gem of a restaurant will continue to exist, giving me the opportunity to go some other time. In any case, my friend came loaded with goodies that more than made up for any missed dinner.

I finally got my digital SLR. After reading Ansel Adams, studying his pictures and learning about pre-visualization and light in all its incarnations, I now feel ready to do some real photography. I'm not going to compete with anyone or aspire to anything, but I now have the theoretical background to do good things and a tool that won't stand in my way. If the results are disappointing I can console myself with a glass of the finest tequila, as my friend also brought a bottle of Herradura Añejo.

The reason for his visit, besides scouting labs for post-doctoral employment opportunities and getting a little feel for London life, is musical. Over the span of two-and-a-half short weeks and in eight concerts, Daniel Barenboim is performing all 32 of Beethoven's piano sonatas. My friend got tickets for four nights, and got me two as well. He's a classical music junkie.

Tonight was the first concert he went to, by himself. Knowing that they're open till ten on Saturdays, I headed for Tate Modern, just ten minutes down the river, to see the recently opened Juan Muñoz exhibition. I had first heard about this guy's funny and funky sculptures of little men when I was in Grenoble, where he was also honored by an exhibit. I didn't go then, but this time nothing held me back.

The highlight of the show, a true gem, was a room full of 100 little man, Chinese-looking and all colored in the same hue of grey, wearing the same Mao-inspired suit, and having the same ridiculously happy facial expression. They're feet weren't visible. They seemed to stand on their ankle bones, happily so, in groups of various sizes, seemingly engaged in conversations, following imaginary street performances, or looking at friends that weren't there.

The visitor was invited to wander around, mingle and become, momentarily, part of a happily arguing group, a long lost friend, the topic of great interest of a bunch of laughing men, or an outsider trying to figure out what was going on inside a large circle of people. Nothing did go on, of course. There were all just statues, standing still and silent, but in the most animated of ways. I could have wandered in marveled much longer. Having done enough walking for the day and with time running out, I headed back to meet my friend at Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Back home we learned that our destination for tomorrow afternoon, after the matinée at Wigmore Hall, Camden Market, was burning. As there have been heated discussions about the future of the market for a while, with big developers craving the area and plans for big-name retail being drawn, I'm wondering if there wasn't malice at the root of the fire that apparently started in a little t-shirt shop. With a bit of The Clash in the stereo (see the title of this post, in case I'm being obscure), I'm wallowing in conspiracy theory, at least until tomorrow, when our schedule, slightly tuned to fit reality, will keep us busy until late at night again.