Sunday, March 30, 2008

airports, movies, london

Just before I left London for Istanbul, the Queen was bullied into ceremoniously opening the shiny new terminal 5 at Heathrow aiport. Her advisors must have told her about glorious architecture, global importance and national pride. As BAA, the company that runs Heathrow, apparently forgot to install baggage-transporting conveyor belts, pride quickly turned into embarrassment and shame. For the last week or so, flights have been canceled because luggage couldn't be transported, people were stranded or severely delayed, and everyone who isn't British and wasn't flying through the airport had a good laugh. They should let someone else do the big projects.

I flew through Heathrow last Thursday, in the middle of the disaster. Luckily for me, the crisis only affected British Airways. Their flight from Istanbul that day was delayed by more than four hours. I flew Swiss, landed on time, and got to the end of an ungodly passport-control queue within two minutes, ready to get upset about the length. But then things moved swiftly. I waited for about ten minutes and got to the tube stop underneath the terminal in another three, picking my bag up on the way without even stopping. Twenty minutes after touchdown, I sat in the train home. My fasted-ever exit from an airport happened in what some call the world's worst. Goes to show that luck strikes in the most unexpected places.

Addendum to the earlier Istanbul post: Tempted by tickets at a third of what they cost in London and subtitles instead of dubbing, I went to see "No Country For Old Man" one night. The movie was very intense, extremely slow-moving but unrelentingly gripping. Before I babble too much – and much has been written about this movie already – let me just say that I clutched my armrest frequently while watching and walked away deeply impressed. I'm not sure I'd call it a masterpiece but it's certainly a very good movie, artful and crude in similar measures, and likely different from what you've seen before.

The screenplay was adapted from a Cormac McCarthy novel, though some might say butchered. Apparently, only one or two monologs were left from the book when the Coen brothers were done rewriting, which is all the better because the one McCarthy I started reading, Blood Meridian, didn't really leave me awake all night. In fact, I had to return it to the library before I was done with it.

In London, sun has been doing the tango with rain this weekend, and clouds, tempestuous gusts and clear blue sky have all been competing for people's attention. Yesterday, it was miserable, and the 153rd Cambridge-Oxford rowing race, also known as The Boat Race, took place in the worst rain. Normally, a quarter million people watch at the banks of the Thames. Even given how crazy the English are for eccentric sports events, I can't imagine that that many would have braved the elements this time around.

Today's forecast was just as bad as yesterday's, but the weather was lovely. I took my dad to Hyde Park and around South Kensington and let him wander freely in the general direction of Westminster when I've had enough of sightseeing and his repetitious jokes and stories. At home, sweet dates from Istanbul put me back into a sunny mood.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


Wishing everyone a Happy Easter I'm almost a week late. My excuse could be that I've just come back from nine days in and around Istanbul. Turkey being a Muslim country, Easter isn't celebrated. The excuse would be extremely poor, of course, since I went down there because of Easter in the first place. The UK frames Easter weekend with two public holidays, and Imperial was so kind as to add two more. Here are a few first impressions from the trip.

This was my second time in Istanbul, and of course I was comparing. Curiously, what I expected to change – the first impression, construction, new buildings – hasn't. The city looked and felt the same. On the other hand what I didn't – the tourist-trapping crookedness of Turks in and around restaurants and shops – has. The situation has improved a lot, and it is much easier and more pleasant to walk around Sultanahmet or Istiklal, the two places where tourists tend to congregate, without being constantly barraged by people dragging you into a restaurant or dingy club or hawking their wares in you face. Unfortunately, that didn't keep me from getting screwed badly on one occasion.

Hagia Sophia is still mind-bendingly beautiful. I remember it as the most amazing building I have ever beheld and been awed by and came filled with glowing memories that I was eager to relive. We got in, and I was disappointed for a few moments. The thing looks kind of run down, with paint coming off and walls crumbling here and there. While I was still trying to come to terms with that, the cathedral started to work its magic. The longer I looked at the beautiful decoration, the stained-glass windows, the warm colors of the walls that are tickled to glow golden by the sun coming in from everywhere; the longer I stood there staring at the dome hovering, as it has for close to 1500 years, 180 feet above the ground; the longer the sounds of hundreds of visitors were melting into one ancient hum, the more I was enthralled. Dazzle was being thrown at me from all sides and I just stood there, mouth agape, stupefied, speechless, soaking it up. When the guards made their rounds with their brooms, sweeping those out that had lingered too long, I was still there, not willing to leave this magnificent place.

Istanbul has two covered markets with long tradition. Is it heresy to say that the famous Grand Bazaar is not all that it's made up to be? Sure, it's impressive by its sheer size, and you can find close to anything, but it's dominated by well-organized gold and lamps shops and lacks bustle and Oriental flair. It gets busier outside where the market continues, unofficially and uncovered, and if you think about it you must admit that the entire city is really one big bazaar. I really love the other historic market place, though. At the Egyptian Bazaar, dense throngs of locals and tourists mingle to buy spices, Turkish Delight, dates, cheese, tea, olives, dried fruits, and a thousand and one other delicacies. Just outside is Mehmet Efendi's shop. The aromatic smell of freshly roasted beans draws a long line of patient customers eager to buy what is reported to be the best Turkish coffee. I'll find out just how good it is once I've bought my own cezve.

I took this holiday with a Jordanian friend of mine who got mosqued out rather quickly. So instead of doing the tourist in Istanbul, we decided to go to Bursa, the capital of the Ottoman empire before Mehmet II took Constantinople in 1453. It was also the end of the Silk Road from China and is still famous for its silk production. There were more mosques, and my friend had to suffer through my never-ending questions about calligraphy and "what does this squiggle mean?" and the like, but we also saw fine wooden Ottoman houses, peaceful burial sites for the sultans, the bazaar and the silk market.

The silk market deserves its own paragraph just because silk scarves are so cheap and so ubiquitous. You can buy them in Camden Town as well as in any high-street store. They are shiny and somewhat soft to the touch. Big deal. Well, the silk market in Bursa sells the real stuff. Infinitely light, transparent in places and incredibly thin in others, adorned by fine traditional patterns, the merchandise here was something else altogether. Mom will be very happy once she puts her hand on what I got her.

There are a ton more things to tell but I don't have the time now and can't organize my thoughts, especially after a flight where a two-months old baby, screaming mercilessly, sat in the chair diagonally behind me. His piercing and untiring organ was a foot and a half from my left ear deafening me to any other sounds in the world, blinding me to the book I tried to ready and finally feeding my head with fantasies about human sirens being fed to voracious aircraft jet engines. I'm ready for a vacation now – and envying my friend who went down to the antique Antioch near the Syrian border for another two days. I'll be back at work tomorrow.

Monday, March 17, 2008


Despite having a hundred pages of a coworker's master's thesis to proof-read, I could not help but be distracted by an article in the Economist comparing London and Paris. I was powerless once I saw the two photographs anchoring the article, showing my favorite view in either city, over the Thames from Tate Modern on one side and across the Seine towards the back of Notre Dame on the other. I remember one December day on my first visit to Paris ten years ago when the warm light of the waning afternoon sun painted the Cathedral in exactly the same soft golden. But why did they pick such a drab picture of the Millennium Bridge? My sister took a better one. She doesn't pick up a camera more than twice a year, but she's got the eye of an artist.

I would have loved to do a mash-up with the article, adding my comments into the text and showing it here, but I have no idea how to do that without running afoul of copyright issues. So I'll just post a few lines with my corresponding thoughts.

"An estimated 200,000 French people now live in London, serving coffee or trading derivatives; waiting lists groan at the Lycée Français in South Kensington." Imperial College is in South Kensington, not far from the Lycée Français, and French are everywhere. However, the baristas in the coffee shops are usually Eastern European.

"These days, there is nothing particularly British about London, bar its tolerance of chaos." It is in fact hard to find Brits. This place is so international and removed from the country whose capital it is that it could really be anywhere. It's a world city.

"London's restaurant pioneers had no gastronomic tradition to uphold." According to tradition, food in England sucks. In reality, food in London rocks. People speak 150 languages here and cook in as many ways. The variety is staggering and the quality often stunning.

"London can afford to be bold with its architecture, since its riverside skyline has none of the unbroken elegance of that of Paris." And yet, there are those who oppose skyscrapers and newfangled spiky glass buildings because of the unique view from Richmond towards St. Paul's, ten miles along the Thames. It's a flat city.

"His Vélib rent-a-bikes, available at 1,450 street corners across the capital, have been a huge hit." Just as they did in Paris, Ken Livingston wants to put for-hire bikes all over London. I'd be happy with a few more bike racks already.

" is the world's most expensive city..." Thanks for reminding me ;-) But then again, one gets used to it. It costs what it costs, and if people didn't have the money, they couldn't pay for it.

"The Underground's modernisation project has been a shambles, its financing a fiasco." The Underground's first line opened in 1863 and is still running today. In fact, it was such a success from the beginning that most lines are older than a century. It shows everywhere, and that the whole operation runs at all (and transports three billion people a year) never fails to amaze me. By the way, the financing fiasco of the modernization was due to atrocious management after privatization. No wonder the Economist touches upon this only cursorily.

"... a wave of stabbings and shootings of teenagers in poor areas." The number of kids killed by (and killing with) knives is truly shocking; there's always something in the news. As these incidents are restricted to some shady, no, make this highly dangerous, areas, there is not enough public pressure to tackle the issue seriously.

“When a man is tired of London, he can always go and have a three-star meal in Paris.” Or: If you're sick of the big, bustling city, you can always take the train to Paris for the weekend and relax.

Friday, March 14, 2008

words bright and brave

Over the years, it has been hard to avoid Salman Rushdie. Many moons have risen and sunk again since he rose to notoriety and fame. It was one book, The Satanic Verses, that made his name instantly recognizable.

That's how the story is told most of the time, and it is false. It was not by writing the book that Rushdie became famous and notorious. I hear that the book is good and it might have added to his oeuvre, but what turned him into a celebrity was the fatwa that Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran at the time, issued, calling on good Muslims everywhere to kill the heretic because he had soiled the name of the prophet, denigrated Islam and mortally offended followers of the true faith the world over.

Ever since this imbecile, offensively asinine decree was pronounced and repeated too many times, I was intrigued by the writer and the book. How can words be so powerful to drive people to make complete fools of themselves, to forget their human roots and to become animals, howling at the light much as wolves howl at the moon? I want that power, too. I want to have inflammatory thoughts and be able to put them down to paper in all their explosive power, for people to read them and get enraged.

Alas, nothing the like. I have filled paper and screen a thousand times in countless pathetic ways. But I don't give up, I keep writing and, just as importantly, I keep reading.

Today I went to the Oxfam charity bookstore to see if they had anything on Istanbul, the city I'll be spending Easter in. Not even close, sadly, but I found, and bought, for all of two pounds, Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie. Contrary to common belief, it was this book that put him on the map, never mind The Satanic Verses seven years later. It won him the 1981 Booker Prize, the highest literary award given out in the UK, and the Booker of Bookers in 1993. I'm on page 12 – the book started at nine – and I'm already enthralled. The ideas, the language, the joy! On Wednesday, I'll be traveling, first to the City Airport, then to Zürich and lastly to Istanbul. I hope I won't finish the book before.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Herr Doktor

Germany is a funny country. If you've never lived there, you'd never know, but you can get an idea from reading the news. Germany is mildly obsessed with titles. The monarchy was kicked out of the window in 1918. Those who used to fly high came crashing hard on the cobbles of the street. But to this day, you're supposed to pay respect to those of higher descent, by putting Graf in front of a count's name and Fürstin in front of a duchess's.

Titles are important in regular life too. If you are a professor, people will call you Herr Professor, and if you're a doctor, Herr Doktor. I have friends who had their title put onto their IDs and bank cards. Not when a new card was due; no, they expended effort to have their current cards changed. This all sounds a bit stuck up to me. I already find the UK ridiculous. The NatWest agent helping me open a bank account when I arrived was adamant about putting the Dr on my card. She actually yelled at me when I put Mr on the form.

Anyway, Germany might not be as ridiculously self-important as Austria where about five dozen official professional titles are in current use, but things have to be correct. I think that's at the bottom of it. You worked hard for the title, you might as well use it. Bizarrely, you were only allowed to do that if you earned it in Germany (and now also the European Union, by extension). The Spiegel reports on the nonsensical story of American directors of Max-Planck-Institutes who were criminally investigated for posing as something they weren't, while they clearly were it, doctors.

Now, apparently, this ambiguity has been resolved, and even "Americans with a Ph.D. are now allowed to call themselves Dr. in Germany", as the Spiegel reports. It doesn't say anything about Germans with a Ph.D. from the US, though. Just to be on the safe side, I'll continue to be officially known as Herr Förster to my countrymen. I'm docandreas only on this blog.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

safety first

Last night, on my way to the Auberge bar and getting really close, I stepped out of the London Bridge tube station. Just one more street remained to be crossed. I dodged a bus making a precarious swing for the stop and two cyclist appearing out of the dark without so much as a warning when suddenly my head was hit by a most violent gale of wind. My head didn't care. It's firmly connected to my body, but my cap wasn't so lucky. With one ripping dash, it took off and sailed, or rather speedboated, into the night.

When I turned to follow it with my eyes, all I saw was a bus shelter, a splotch of light against a black background, populated by tired commuters. A split second later, the cap struck the glass back wall like an expertly planted squash ball. With a loud bang, it bounced off and around the shelter. The people waiting for the bus who had just been narrowly avoiding double decapitation just stared, shocked and speechless, their mouths agape and their eyes filled with terrified incomprehension. With my cap still flying far and fast, I didn't have time to apologize or explain the situation.

I dashed around the shelter and there it was, obstinately banging into the vast expanse of brick that is London Bridge Station, with effort but in vain. When I reached the wall, my cap finally settled down into the dust. It seemed to look up to me with perfect innocence when I picked it up, as if to say, wasn't me. Nevertheless, seeing my cap, bullet-like, strike at a little crowed was one of the scariest experiences I've had in the streets of London.

I've been lucky so far, I guess. The only time I came dangerously close to bodily harm was on my way to work one day. I was trailing a garbage truck on Kensington High St., getting ready to pass. To make sure one of these stealthy Priuses wasn't sneaking up on my, I briefly glanced over my shoulder. It was safe to go. When I looked back, the garbage truck was huge and in my face, ready to swallow me skin and bones. I came within inches of colliding and catapulting myself into its putrid load. It wouldn't have hurt so much but been disgusting and seriously embarrassing.

I had to think of this story when I saw this amazing movie produced by Transport for London to promote cycle safety. Being seen is all and well, but in a place like London, nothing beats being on your toes and watching out for yourself.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

another busy day

This weekend marks the fifth in a row where I would have liked to sit on the sofa but didn't. The first three, two friends traded places on my spare mattress. Last Sunday I did the half marathon. And before I go any further, let me add some words to what I already wrote about that day.

I had long gone home and started making rice-and-eggplant lunch when the last person to finish the race, well, finished. It took him exactly five hours and thirteen minutes. This is slightly slower than I would walk around London on a leisurely Sunday afternoon, if there ever were such a thing in my life. So this guy was slow, but he was the uncontested star of the race. He finished, took a deep breath, emptied a tankard of ale, and started signing autographs. What was the fuzz about? Well, Buster Martin, a plumber from north London, is 101 years old.

Now here's someone who really deserves a Sunday afternoon off, but Buster is not ready for retirement. In fact, he started working as a plumber three years ago because he was bored, newspapers say, and now he's training for the London Marathon. I'm far from envious that he got in and I didn't. I'm way too amazed at his effort.

That was last weekend. This weekend, one of the two friends that were kind enough to keep my company before the race came back, and once again my schedule was filled. We've just come back from a most delicious sushi dinner in Ealing, right next door to what is generally considered the best sushi in London. That place is also exceedingly small and frequently booked to saturation. Not having made a reservation, we didn't get a table. We weren't even asked to wait for an hour or two. We were told the restaurant was full, and that was it. Luckily, the other restaurant was larger, had a table (after a short wait at the bar), and offered sushi that couldn't have been much better, if you ask me.

With eating sushi, going to pubs and hanging out listening to Tchaikovsky and Dylan while drinking tequila, life could be flowing smoothly. Problem is that I'm still taking the Spanish class. This kills half of the Saturday, makes my brain hurt and effectively prevents me from relaxing. As much as I like the class, and as much as I benefit from it, I don't think I'll continue with it after the current session. I want to travel some weekends and maybe spend a leisurely afternoon in a coffee shop in a foreign land – or on a friend's sofa.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

the power of music

Going to classical music concerts became a bit of a habit when my Iranian friend was here a few weeks ago. He is deep into music and dragged me to six concerts in ten days. Outside that musical week, I go to concerts only very rarely. However, here in London one is in the enviable position of going to a concert because one likes the music or the artist – and not because one likes to listen to music that night, as might be the case in places less richly endowed with venues and orchestras.

Last night I went to Queen Elizabeth Hall to hear the London Philharmonic Orchestra play Shostakovitch's Seventh, also known as 'Leningrad', a symphony that I've been interested in for a long time. To find out what to expect, I had got a CD last Sunday, a recording of the National Symphony Orchestra directed by Mstislav Rostropovic. The first movement made my speakers jump on the shelf and my neighbors in their easy-chairs. And yet, I knew nothing.

The concert was spectacular. The hall in its immensity was reverberating during the crescendo and the finale. It was an utterly physical experience that is as impossible to describe as it is to convey in recorded form. I'm not only talking about the pathetic radio alarm that my iPod docks to or the decent full-size stereo in my living. No, even half-a-million dollar high-end systems will fail miserably where an orchestra of close to one hundred play their hearts out. The power, the intensity and the richness of the music can only be done justice live.

On my way back on the tube, I seriously considered destroying the CD I had just bought. Instead, what I did when I got home was note the date and place of the concert on the disk. The next time I immerse myself in it, ears ensconced in the buckets of headphones, memories will overwhelm me, and my neighbors won't even know.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

halfway there

Sometime this past week, a coworker told me about the Roding Valley Half Marathon that he planned to do this weekend. He finished his inspirational speech with these ill-chosen words: "You're gonna run, aren't you?" Of course I wasn't, was my response. I'm not a runner, I'm just slowly getting ready for a marathon. The week was cold, and the weekend didn't promise to be any better. Kick-off was nine o'clock, a time when I tend to just be waking up on a Sunday morning. Three valid reasons to chicken out.

And yet, my radio went off at 6:30. I had a quick breakfast, packed my stuff and walked to the tube. Three quarters of an hour of sitting on my butt would get me to the start. That's indeed an opportunity too good to pass on. My timing wasn't brilliant. I arrived pretty late, just in time to register, get my number and relieve myself of the great fear lingering in my bowels. Short of a little duathlon ages ago, I have never done a race on foot.

I had no idea what to expect but my Polar to pace me. The plan was thus: First third easy at 80% max. Second third finding my groove and approaching 85% max. Last third all out, as hard as I dare. As sensible as the plan was, it fell apart the moment we were sent off. My heart rate shot up into red and never looked back. The average over the entire race was 87% max. Not surprisingly, this translated into a decent time, just a nick below 1:25 and narrowly meeting the target I'd set. Still, the whole experience was a bit weird.

It wasn't painful, it didn't hurt, and I wasn't miserable. The sun shone and it was warm. My friend complained about the howling winds that killed him on the downhills, but I felt the whole experience was as close to lounging in a spa getting a Thai massage as you're likely to get without lying down. The second big lap was a bit frustrating as I saw runners ahead of me that I just couldn't manage to come closer to, but as no one passed me outside the first ten minutes I must have been doing all right.

Besides the exercise and the early start into a beautiful day, the morning was most useful for giving me an idea of what racing is like and how my body reacts. The conclusions are: First, I can run beyond 85% maximal heart rate and not break down instantly. Second, I must avoid excessive drinking during the race because it kills my pace. Third, I need to become stronger mentally to stick to runners that are faster than I am, especially towards the end. But what's most important, today gave me the confidence that I can do the marathon (at the end of April) in a good time. I now feel comfortable announcing to the world that any finish with a three in the front would be a complete disaster for me.