Monday, June 30, 2008


Because of my laziness, I missed out on a really nice post. On Wednesday, I went to to The Famous 3 Kings, a pub that's much more famous than the eponymous three kings. Germany played Turkey for the semifinals of the Eurocup. There was only one lonely Turk around, getting his hopes up every now and then but going home all sad in the end.

It was a great night. The pub was full of Germans, most of them dressed in white and their faces painted black, red and yellow. We fit right in. In fact, my huge flag made me stand out a little. The game was a blast, emotions going back and forth, songs sung and countless plastic cups of beer consumed. When Lahm scored the winner in the 90th minute, beer was in the air, cheers could be heard a few blocks down, and everyone present was happy – except the one lonely Turk mentioned earlier.

The cheering inside continued while the ref blew his whistle one final time and while the Chancellor gave an interview commenting on the performance of the Mannschaft that had made her jump in her seat with excitement, very un-Chancellor-like. After that, when the TV was muted and silly songs played, the crowds emptied onto the street in front of the pub where a surreal scene unfolded.

Would you have thought it possible that Germans dance in the streets of London, waving flags and singing in German as if they were on the Fanmeile in Berlin? Drivers got a bit aggravated when they were blocked for too long but were rather forgiving most of the time. The most hilarious sight was that of Germans jumping onto the road with their backs to traffic, stupidly dangerous but understandable, if you're used driving on the right.

As I said, if I weren't so lazy I could have turned that Wednesday night into a fine post. I missed that opportunity. Tonight, there is not much to say. We were in front of The Famous 3 Kings at 7:30, but the pub was full and they wouldn't let anyone in who didn't have a stamp on his hand already. We went to another pub that was considerably quieter. The beer was ok, and we didn't have to suffer too much Spanish celebrating in the end.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

wrong sides

The plan only formed this week, but it was great. I was looking forward to a weekend in Devon and Cornwall. A friend currently working in Northern Ireland but about to return to his country of origin had booked a flight to visit London one last time, and I had rented a car. The weather forecast was perfect, predicting sunshine and temperatures for the beach.

On my way home from work today, I received a confused text from my friend telling me about a missing reservation and asking for his reference number. As I had my computer on my back, I could sit down between streams of rush-hour traffic in the middle of Kensington High St. to browse through saved emails. His was there, and I texted the confirmation number back. All seemed good.

Except is wasn't. What neither he nor I had noticed was that he had booked the flight for the last weekend in July not June. Changing it to right now would have been prohibitively expensive. He decided to stay in Belfast – never mind the rain there.

I decided to go ahead with the rented car anyway, going out to Heathrow tonight to pick it up. It's been a few months since I've driven here, and though I should have known I wasn't ready for the profound shock driving on the wrong side of the road still gives me. Everything is wrong.

It starts inside the car. The shift stick is on the wrong side, as is the hand brake. The middle rear-view mirror hangs to left. Out of habit, I look to the right, but all I see is the A column of the vehicle, and something is missing.

It continues on the outside. The proportions of the car are all messed up. I have got used to oncoming traffic passing me on the right side, but must it really be close enough to touch? I'm used to cars extending by a meter on my right side (the passenger side if you drive on the right). Here, there's just a door. In contrast, the car goes on forever on the left. On the short drive home I had two incredibly close encounters, on with a taxi and the other – truly scary – with a big red bus.

Returned home from the airport I'm thinking that maybe it wasn't cost that kept my friend from coming here. Maybe it was good old-fashioned sense. The streets of Belfast might be dreary on a rainy weekend, but they're surely safer than the roads of England when I'm driving.

Friday, June 20, 2008

normal Germans

Last night, I flew to Germany to visit my sister in Hamburg. I was looking forward to a relaxed weekend in the best country of all and a Friday night in front of the big screen. As I had planned it, Germany was to play its quarter final that night. I didn't predict the Mannschaft would lose to Croatia and not win its group, but that's what happened. So they already played on Thursday, at the exact time I was sitting in a plane.

When I turned my cell phone back on after arriving Lübeck, my sister had sent me a text informing me of Germany's win over Portugal, but that's something I couldn't have missed even without her tellig me. At midnight in Hamburg, an hour and a half after the game, people were still celebrating in the streets. Many were burqa'd up in immense sheets of black, red and gold or had their faces painted in the same colors. Convoys of cars with little flags fluttering on their roofs were circling the main station, honking incessantly. People were singing "Deutschland, Deutschland" with happiness in their faces. We had just beat Portugal, a team that was highly rated despite never having won anything, and it felt like 2006 all over again.

Out of tradition, the German team wins until they're in the final, no matter how poorly they play in the games leading up to the big one. For many years, starting some time after the Wunder of Bern in 1954, Germans took their team for granted – or worse. When I grew up, it was almost good form to disparage it. Every kid supported a different team. In 1992, for example, mine was Denmark.

All this changed with the World Cup two years ago. The pressure of the outside world was felt, the expectation of pride, patriotism, and party. Germans love to do things right, so being perfect hosts was as much a challenge as anything else. At the same time, enough time had passed to not look at the own country exclusively through the lens of a war lost and unspeakable atrocities committed.

The difference to before was almost shocking. I visited Frankfurt for the Argentina game, and I didn't recognize my country, what with people dancing in the streets, hugging each other, celebrating publicly and exulting over their team. I'm happy about this. Maybe Germany is turning into a normal country in some ways.

The next test now facing the Germans is how they can handle playing Turkey – and with this I don't mean the team. There can be no doubt that we'll eat the Turks for lunch and crave much more for dinner next Sunday for the final. No, what really makes this interesting are the many Turks and Turkish-Germans living in Germany. They make up close to 10% of the population, and how the two groups, the black-red-gold and the red-and-white will interact and handle each other might be another eye opener and will speak volumes about the country. I wish I could see this live on some big screen in a park, but I'll be back in London.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

black man in a white house

From what I've heard, Barack Obama racked up the nomination today. He's gonna be the Democratic Party's candidate for the presidential election this fall. I'm all excited about this. I think he (in contrast to Hillary Clinton) is in the race for the right reasons. He wants to make a difference.

While there is no doubt a difference has already been made, the question is if that's gonna be enough. I like Obama, and I think he could contribute constructively to the current political debate. Sometimes he is the debate, especially when it comes to questions of race.

What's up with this bloke's being black? His mom is as white as mine. I'd say that whoever calls Barack Obama a black guy is a sexist because he's nefariously denigrating his mom's contribution. He's as white-washed a Midwesterner as anyone. He could be Bob Dylan if he knew how to sing. Even if he couldn't, he's still not black. Of course, racism has never been characterized by sophistication and complexity. It's one look, one judgment, and that's it. It's usually wrong, also.

On the other hand, for all my admiration of Obama, I can't help but doubt his qualifications. If I were an American – I'm not and happy about it – who would I vote for? It might just be that a country at war needs a soldier at the helm, someone who (in contrast to the incumbent) doesn't take battle as lightly as a drunk fratboy might. I'm not living in the US anymore, but I'm still interested in discussing the topic. Drop me a line.

best of times

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. That was one of the questions of the Biochemistry Department's Quiz Night tonight. Which book starts with this line? As I had heard it mentioned on the BBC the other day, I knew for sure it was A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. We got a point for this question, though none of us had read the book. Even so, we didn't win Quiz Night. We ended up somewhere at the bottom of the first third. For me, that is not nearly enough. I see myself as a winner, and whenever I don't come out on top, I hate it. Even if it's only a meaningless quiz night where limitless beer should get everyone in a good mood, and I took advantage of the offerings.

I was reminded by the question that reading Dickens has been high on my list for a long time. Unfortunately, I have never seen any of his books at the Oxfam bookstore, and I don't feel like spending tens of pounds for old writing. I might just have to pay a visit to the library.

Coming back to Quiz Night. My favorite question was the one about the name of the Utah ski resort that Robert Redford owns and named. That was easy. I remember an unbelievable day with Sean there. Fog dense enough to send all pansies packing and enough snow for faceshots till closing time. How lovely it was to drop into the absolute invisibility of Bishop's Bowl! I would do a few turns and then stop, momentarily panicked, screaming Sean, until I heard him reply just five feet away, and we'd continue drowning in powder until the resort closed at 4:30. Sundance!

Monday, June 02, 2008

smoke signals

When I lived in Utah I really enjoyed the generally smoke-free restaurants, bars and clubs, and in those six years I developed into a militant smoke hater. Consequently, life was tough in France, where people smoked in cafes and bars (though not in restaurants). The absolute worst was Germany where people smoked left and right and one used to come home after a night out smelling like a burning landfill.

About a month before I moved to London, the UK decided to go smoke-free indoors, as if to welcome me warmly. I appreciated that gesture. Now, barely a year later, Germany and France have largely followed suit. I'm puzzled over why businesses have to be forced to go smoke-free. As my dad pointed out when he visited, bars can sell twice as much beer if they have non-smokers at the tables and smokers outside by the door.

When the ban of alcohol on the tube went into effect last night, I was reminded of a conversation I had with my sister a while back. She doesn't smoke, and she doesn't drink beer, but she likes to watch football in the stadium and gets aggravated every time drunks act obnoxious, piss in the bushes or puke on the pavement. She asks why we don't ban beer along with the cigarettes.

It's a good question, and we who like beer might get freaked out a little thinking about it. Because really, what's next in the nearly universal drive to expel vice from our lives and makes us all virtuous (and boring average). Fat, sugar and tobacco are already banned or vilified. Alcohol sounds like the next logical target to me.

If you take football games, violence is mediated by the anti-inhibitory properties of alcohol. If you take street parties, rowdy crowds are disinhibited for similar reasons. The ugly scenes one sees frequently outside pubs find their origin in alcohol as well. What's a smoker's innocent smoke against the evils of alcohol?

As much as I think this line of thought is idiotic, I have a hard time arguing against it convincingly. Of course, cigarettes kill, every single one a little more, whereas a little glass of red wine might have a salutary effect. Of course, you can stay away from drinks, but the smoke will get you. And of course it's not the consumption of alcohol that's causes trouble but drinking in excess. How do you keep one and prevent the other?

I don't have a solution, but I'm afraid that someone with no solution either but a clear idea of how things should be will take it upon him to rid us once and for all of another evil. Smoking has been shown off, alcohol might be next. I hope I'm not giving anyone ideas.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

impossible to resist

About a month ago, London got a new mayor, a retired circus clown by the name of Boris Johnson who became popular for his gaffes, brain-atrophied comments and bushy blond hair. He was a funny man who exuded an air or irreverence, but to eject the incumbent of eight years, a closet lefty without obvious flaws that would make him unelectable this time around, Johnson had to turn serious. His focus on crime and housing and his general promise of change for the better won him the election.

The post of Mayor of London might be prestigious – after all, you're nominally running the greatest city in the world, if not the universe – but it's not particularly powerful. Areas under the Mayor's control are transport, culture, policing and services, all of which call for gentle managing of the general chaos that drives London. One of the Mayor's first initiatives was prohibition. Boris Johnson banned drinking on public transport, on buses and the tube.

When I heard about this at first, I was skeptical. While there are plenty of drunk people taking the bus, especially Fridays and Saturdays when bars and clubs close, I have never encountered problems with drinking people. The initiative sounded very much like a symbolic gesture rather than an ingenious plot to reduce crime and make public transport more reliable, safer and pleasant. Plus, there was something seriously wrong the way it was publicized, with large posters everywhere announcing June 1 as the first day of a new, dry era.

To me, all these signs were screaming party. Go out on the night of May 31 and party like it's the last day of your lives! I suggested that much to my friends but should have known I wasn't the only one with that idea. First quietly, then out in the open, tens of thousands were checking social networking sites to learn details of underground parties on Saturday night. Although the invitations called for stylish dress and relaxed sophistication, the event was destined to be taken over by riotous kids intent on a binge.

Though I stayed away, I fell victim to the chaos that developed as the night neared its apex. Down in Great Portland St. station on my way home I was greeted by a dark train sitting immobile on the other platform. It was empty of people but filled with trash. Bottles and cans were everywhere, and the platform itself was littered as well. It looked like some lower-division football game had just finished.

Pretty soon, an announcement came that due to vandalism and passenger incidents, services had been suspended on the Circle Line. Later I learned that Liverpool St. was shut down because of dense crowds of partiers who wouldn't let any regular customers through. It was probably inevitable from the beginning that what had started as jolly bash would degenerate into a rowdy mess, with bottles broken, puke on platforms, trains damaged and staff abused. Dozens were apparently arrested.

In the aftermath, the BBC was wondering whether this was a party to celebrate the end of drinking on the tube or to protest it. To me it's clear it was neither because no one besides the Mayor cares about drinking on public transport. His change of law simply provided an opportunity to party too good to pass on, and he is to blame for putting up all these irresistible posters, reminding people that it's ok to drink on the tube. If he had just quietly changed the rules, no one would have cared.