Tuesday, March 31, 2009

growing up

Over the last few months, ever since I've wrested it from the tight grip of my sister's hands, I've been reading a book about growing up. I was intrigued from the first moment I saw it, when I glanced upon its cartoonish cover and funny title back in October when I spent a weekend in Germany. The book is called When I'm Big and purports to be a self-help manual for those stuck in the void between adolescence and adulthood.

It also claimed, on the front cover, to be a companion for those stylish fellows sporting messenger bags, and as such it was only natural that my sister had bought it the moments she saw it on some discounter's shelf. She is the proud owner of several such bags. One is even customizable with individual flaps that you can buy for more money I'd ever spend on an entire bag in a hip boutique in a hip part of Berlin. The flaps are made from disused marquees, reclaimed driftwood, shredded LP covers and similar altars of individuality.

I own two messenger bags myself, but there is nothing chic or dashing about them. They have a collective age of fifteen years and are nothing more than protective pouches for two of my laptops, their design reduced to black simplicity and soft padding. Since the arrival of the Eee, they've spend most of their time in a dark corner of my living room, nearly invisible because of the low contrast. The Eee itself disappears into any little bag at hand, most often the small backpack that I carry through town.

While I didn't feel addressed by the title of the book, its topic spoke to me with vehemence. Deep inside, further down now than four years ago – and that's probably a good sign – I long to be the student I used to be. The life free of any responsibility that I used to lead, beholden solely to my desires and to the degree I had to finish, was utterly enjoyable but can obviously not last. I've been called doctor for more than four years now, and students don't necessarily see a peer in me anymore. They come to ask for advice.

How to handle this transition is a tricky question. How do you avoid turning into what you despised your parent's generation (if not your parents) for? This was the kind of quandary that went through my head during the two weeks I spent in Germany around Christmas when, removed from the craze of London and most conventional excitement, I entered a deeply contemplative mood. It was only natural that I would beseech my sister to give me the book. She has, after all, a full three years ahead of her until reaching the age that I already carry heavy on my shoulders.

It turned out that my sister had bought the book for a reason. She wanted to read it herself and see if there was anything in it that would help her on the crooked and ill-signposted road that is life. She was ahead of me. In October, she kept the book to herself but in December, I found it under the Christmas tree and have been steadily advancing through the chapters.

The book is quite funny. Each chapter takes an item customarily found in fashionable bags and encourages the reader to discard it. The iPod, a can of Red Bull, condoms, a toothbrush, chewing gum, CK1, a macbook, all have to go. I don't usually carry any of this, but the reasons given for chucking each were quite perspicacious and well-argued and inevitably converged on the admonition to grow up to an adult individuality, to graduate, if you will, from the infantile fallacy of self, so succinctly expressed in first law of fashion: "If people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other." (frequently attributed to Eric Hoffer)

I had approached the book with some trepidation. I feel sometimes lost in time, long left but not arrived yet. But once I had understood the thrust of the book, I became calm and confident. So what if I don't have a presentable, permanent apartment? So what if I see my life in a state of flux? So what if my job is temporary and without a clear (in the sense of inevitable) career trajectory? So what if I'm not married with kids yet?

The main counsel of the book was to "become yourself". If that's the answer to all the questions that I've always been too lazy to ask, then I have no reason to worry. I'm there already. I am myself. I don't have a functioning household and don't own my apartment because (at the moment) I don't care to. My peers offer guidance or are elicit hilarity, depending on their actions, but I'm unable to feel a pressure to fit it.

I'm not a kid anymore. I might not have grown up yet but I've certainly not grown old either. I have achieved plenty and I have build an existence that I'm proud of and that makes me happy. I'm far from hovering in an asphyxiating void. The next steps on the way will surely come, once the time is right. I'm not afraid, nor am I anxious. My life is good, and I don't need a book to tell me what to do.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


A while ago, an article appeared in Times Higher Education that talked at length about the behavioral patterns that are encouraged in academy. The conclusion was put right at the beginning: "If you're an academic, you had better be obsessive." Many great discoveries in the past were made by highly unsociable, difficult people who worked determinedly and single-mindedly on the topic that had, at some point in the past, caught their interest and never let go.

I was thrown off by that early conclusion. I don't consider myself obsessive, and I certainly don't need anyone telling me I can't make a good scientist. I want to make it how I am, without digging myself into a dark hole and barreling on hard in one direction only. But how am I?

Today, I left my house sometime in the afternoon, after any hope of a good day had dissipated beyond any doubt, and rode my bike to Imperial. I had some work lined up that I wanted to kick-start before the the new week comes along. There is a student in the lab that takes way more of my time than was envisioned initially or is justifiable. It's his fault because he makes such good progress that there's always new things to teach him. I'm not complaining, incidentally.

The main reason for going to Imperial was that I need to steel my legs for the marathon I might do at the end of April. The final decision is still out – I might surrender to the sloth that comfortably lives inside of me and do the half-marathon only. In any case, I have to train a little.

I took my bike up to my office, turned my computer on and checked the weather. It was just as cold as it had felt riding in – when it was also drizzling. I read a paper, aligned some sequences and kept my eyes firmly on the big window to my right. All of a sudden, the sun made a surprise appearance. I changed and went out, going after the first thirty-kilometer run of the year.

The first lap was hard. My stomach was empty and I felt out of energy. I slugged along without much enthusiasm, ready to throw in the towel. Returned to the Albert Memorial, my legs were ready for a break. I blamed it on the visual cue – I inevitably end my runs there – and soldiered on.

To my delight, the going got better with every step. I worked myself into the zone and mentally prepared for the full run. Without an iPod, I was alone with my brain, but that's usually good company. We were debating what keeps me going, and obsession is what come up quickly. Why am I running when I could sit in a café reading a book or visit a museum? I put something in my mind and follow that plan with considerable determination.

Maybe I am obsessive. My mental dialog took me to the Oxfam store that I visit every week. Nearly every time, I leave it with a book in hand. My New Year's resolution had been to finish reading more books than I acquire. At the moment, I'm way behind schedule. The score is 9:4 against, and I'm still out to get more. This compulsive behavior must be a manifestation of my obsessiveness.

I don't think I'm pathologically obsessive, though. When I saw old Albert for the third time this afternoon – after the start and the ten-kilometer mark – I called it a day. The temperature had sunk into territory whose memory causes trauma to my fingers. They were cold and hurting.

The hot shower at Imperial gave my extremities their life back, and a big bowl of granola helped my legs along the road to recuperation. I could have gone home. I could have gone to Café Deco and finished a book. I could have even cruised down to Tate Britain for a quick look at the crazy Altermodern exhibition.

All would have made sense, and I did none. I stayed in the lab for another two hours, cascading through the hollow tubes of electron density on my screen as if they were water slides in an amusement park. The protein, invisible to the naked eye, had assumed a clear and unambiguous shape. It's structure lay bare before me.

I twiddled with side chains and added ligands, working myself into a state of euphoria related to revealing the unknown. The protein whose structure I'm unraveling has been bothering several post-docs for three years now. Tossing the net wide, talking to experts all over the globe and taking unconventional approaches, we might have finally pinned it down. The praise may need to go to obsession.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


I love the New Yorker and I adore those who publish there. I've found so much great material in it, coming at me from corners where I would have never looked. Transvestites in Omaha, a gigantic tapestry at the Moma, a Californian origami aficionado who turned his hobby into a lucrative consulting business. How do you know what's interesting if you don't read voraciously and with complete disregard for the topic? If it's in the New Yorker, it's good. There is too much of a good thing, though. The New Yorker is great precisely because it is so varied, so incongruous and unapologetically non-sequitur. Much of this freshness is lost when sorted and bundled into books 300 pages fat.

At the moment, I'm reading David Sedaris's When you are engulfed in flames, a collection of short stories, most of which were first published in the New Yorker. Halfway through the book I stumbled across The Waiting Room, a hilarious tale I first read two-and-a-half years ago. I was rolling on the floor with laughter back then. Now, I'm barely raising the corners of my lips in an attempt to smile. My senses were blunted by page after page of highly similar prose. It feels like I got to know the author a little bit, but that's not what I expect of good writing. The story should speak to me, not the writer. Collections only work when the short stories in them were written by different people.

That short stories can quickly grow old was new to me. I had no idea. What I already knew is that one shouldn't give a New Yorker writer time enough to write an entire book, unless that writer happens to be Truman Capote. And if they had had enough time and even managed to published their prolific writings, one should steer clear of them. They find something worth writing about and instead of putting the final full stop after seven or eight pages, they just ramble on. They make their point, over and over again, with repetitious examples and complete disregard of potential conflicting ideas, tunnel-visioned into ignorance.

This I learned the hard way, and the mark should be left in my brain. But when I saw an immaculate copy of Blink at the Oxfam store the other day, I couldn't help it. I did it again, despite my best intentions, picked up the book and, to my great surprise and delight, breezed through it with utter enjoyment.

At first glance, this book strictly follows protocol. A incredible, maybe even counter-intuitive, hypothesis is put forward and supported with countless examples. The books mentioned above leave it at that. Example follows superfluous example, probably in the misguided believe anything can be proven by repetition. The reader is kept entertained by the strength of the writing and the depth of the research, but is not intellectually engaged.

Malcolm Gladwell's latest book is satisfyingly different. After the initial case studies and examples, counterpoints are being presented, caveats opened and concessions made. The point of the book is the power of the subconscious. Our mind makes decisions and judgments long before we are aware of it. We are sometimes fooled by these intuitions but more often tremendously helped. We know things without knowing them and react quickly to stressful situations without being able to give reasons afterwards. The books looks at various aspects of these mind games, suggests ways of exploiting or at least controlling them and of minimizing their shortcomings. Nowhere in the book is there a cure-all. There is no magic. All insights are described in their context and with the warning attached that things might be different in a different context. The reader is encouraged to make use of his brain and evaluate the words in front of him. This is no pseudo-scientifc lulaby but educational entertainment of the finest kind.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

taking a pounding

A BBC story jumped at me from my screen today that forced me to write a post whose idea had laid dormant for several months. This post had first been cooked up in the closing days of last year, scheduled for publication on the infamous day that the once-mighty pound would reach parity with the relentlessly climbing euro. Against the odds, this day still hasn't come.

When I interviewed for my current position, early in 2007, the pound stood at €1.54. London was an eye-wateringly expensive city. Rent would be at least three times what it was in Grenoble. Any piece of electronics, any gadget I could think of desiring was substantially cheaper in the US. Once I started working here, I held my money tight and enlisted friends as couriers for major purchases. In contrast, traveling abroad was a royal pleasure.

Things have changed since then. The pound has hobbled from one low to another bottoming out at €1.02 just after Christmas before recovering somewhat. It remains stronger than the euro, and relative to my pay, London is still expensive. However, for visitors with paychecks in the right currency, the city is become a shopping and dining paradise. There have never been so many good deals in one place. Conversely, carriers of sterling suffer a dramatic loss of purchasing power outside our little island. What is it with seven-pound pieces of cake in Paris, and four-pound teas?

The falling pound has nearly universally been hailed as a boon to the British economy. Exports, it was reasoned, would become cheaper, giving businesses thus engaged a much needed boost. Our fine government was quick to enact policies to block any reappreciation of the currency. Interest rates on pound-denominated deposits were all but abolished. The Bank of England started an ambitious money printing scheme.

This seems highly misguided to me, and I fear that I, together with the rest of the country, will have to pay for it. Exports might in theory benefit from the cheap pound, but what does the UK actually export? What do you buy that's made in Britain? There might be gin, whiskey and the Mini, but they don't compete on price and are thus to a certain extent immune to exchange rate fluctuations. The sad truth is that the UK doesn't produce much. The economic prosperity of the last decade was based primarily on financial shenanigans and house price inflation. Both are coming undone, and much wealth is exposed as illusion. Hard times lie ahead.

On the other hand, a lot of stuff is imported – clothes, cars, and computers for example. These things are now so cheap here compared to other economic areas that their prices have only one way to go, up. I bought my wide-angle lens and my eeePC here because I couldn't get it cheaper in any other easily accessible country. Bargains abound.

While it lasts, we should enjoy the fact that inflation is scant. There is certainly no risk at all of deflation. The numbers are so low at the moment because oil, metals and food prices collapsed last year after being driven into a bubble by panicking crowds in 2007. If you look at the longer term, it all averages out, and there is no reason to worry.

No reason to worry about deflation. In the other direction, the dangers are real. As the pound is today worth only two thirds of what it was two years ago and international markets operate in dollars, increases in commodity prices will hit the UK doubly hard.

Prices are already inching up again. Today, news was released by Office of National Statistics that the UK has been struck, seemingly out of nowhere, by a sudden bout of inflation in the month of February. Most experts saw their predictions invalidated. They were quick and insisting in pointing out that this represents just a hiccup on the inevitable downward slide. They were also patently wrong. Get rid of your pounds while they're still worth something, before they are wiped out by the dual scourge of inflation and depreciation.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


Today was yet another brilliant day, concluding the first spring weekend of 2009 in style. It was warm and sunny, and there was hardly a cloud in the sky. People took to the outdoors in droves. In London, this means the parks for the most part. Regents Park, Primrose Hill and the Heath in the north, Greenwich in the southeast, Richmond in the southwest, and Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Green Park and St. James's Park in the center are where people gather when it's nice outside.

Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens also happen to be where I go running. Imperial is just a five minute walk away. As they provide me with showers and a convenient place to store my clothes, that's where I go even on a weekend. On weekdays, running is peaceful. There are the ubiquitous tourists feeding those abominable grey squirrels, forlorn bums sleeping a few hours of futility away and office workers out for lunch, but the crowds are not overwhelming. Runners form a substantial minority and progress is easy unless you do intervals at the pond where fearless geese and mighty swans block your path with no respect for the supreme ruler of the animal kingdom.

Not having done intervals this year, I have so far avoided the audacious avians. I'm still building the base, circling the two contiguous parks at the periphery or going for the pretzel loop – once around the parks and then around the Serpentine. The pretzel is precisely 10k, and I had done it twice already this week. Today, I wanted more.

As usual, I started at the Albert Memorial. Already from afar, I could see crowds, attracted by the fine weather, the soft green grass studded with daffodils, and the trees laden with blossoms. The run turned out to be the most challenging of the year, and distance didn't have much to do with it.

Throughout, I had to dodge cyclists and duck cameras, held at arm's length and swung erratically by enchanted tourists. I had to hurdle over wayward toddlers chasing balls or each other and clear dogs' leashes without attracting the attention of playful canines. The entire length of the Serpentine is a playground of boastful skaters whose favorite activities are going backwards and doing unpredictable pirouettes, quite literally in your face. Narrowly avoiding collisions I made it to the other end in one piece.

There, I slalomed through thickets of pensioners and got momentarily stuck in the viscosity of a collective Sunday afternoon stroll. There were hardly ten meters of straight running, and I was out for 20k. It was a good run, though. Afterwards, I was exhausted and my legs felt slightly wobbly walking back to take a shower, but I could realistically see myself do a long race.

Still at Imperial, sitting at my desk munching the mandatory post-run müsli, I booked a flight to Dresden for the last weekend in April. That's when the Oberelbe-Marathon is staged, the race I did last year, with painful and lasting consequences. As registration closes only days before the event, I can decide on the spot whether I want to go the full distance or do a pansy half marathon. I'll race again in the beautiful setting of the Elbe river valley, and I'm really looking forward to it.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

walking home

Today I left work early. The week had been full of work and I felt like I had done my share. Outside the sun shone more brightly and with more strength than it should in the middle of March. Before it set, before the temperature would fall as night commenced, I went on a little walk, away from work and into the weekend if you will.

Normally I ride my bike. Only when the rain is pouring from the clouds with more vigor than water streams from my shower head do I take the bus. In the fifteen months that I've been here, I have walked only twice, once when I was too drunk to venture into traffic and too afraid of falling asleep sitting down and the other time when snow brought London to a complete halt. The walk takes fifty minutes when I storm ahead and that's the main reason I don't do it more often.

There are big advantages to walking, if you go at a gentle pace. You can take in your surroundings much more than when you weave through dense traffic on your bike, paying close attention to what's happening on the road. When you walk, you notice things: a new, enticing restaurant, a flyer for a show that's advertised nowhere else, flowers of the most curious pink growing on a window sill, and a shop running a going-out-of-business sale with unbelievable bargains.

When I walk, I'm not flying by on my way home, pressed by the desire to arrive. The journey becomes a destination in itself. I become free to stop at a whim, unencumbered by a bike I'd have to lock and a helmet I'd have to carry. I can observe people, look into shop windows, and follow traffic with more than my survival on my mind. I can step into the Oxfam to see if they have any new books or into Caffè Nero for a macchiato. Don't try having coffee on your bike.

On the bike, I'm on the main road. I'm geared for speed and I take the fast lane. On foot, I can wander off into side streets and enter neighborhoods that are charming precisely because they see so little traffic. I can saunter down narrow streets with Japanese cherries in full bloom. Daffodils are painting lawns yellow, and birds flutter about. Did you know wild parakeets live in Hyde Park? I discovered them the other day when looking for an explanation for the ear-splitting noise coming from the oak trees.

I wish I lived close enough to Imperial that my commute could happen on foot every day. Alas, I don't. I ride my bike. But today, I took the liberty of strolling into Kensington and down the high street. I had been looking forward to it but I had no idea how much fun I was going to have. You can look forward to this story but will have to wait a little. Today, I'm taking it leisurely.

Friday, March 20, 2009


After much dithering, Google Maps started their Street View service in the UK today. In other countries, Google's maps have long been enhanced by panoramic photographs of the surroundings. Like so many things, it all started in the US, but a bunch of European countries, Japan and Australia quickly followed.

I first heard about Street View, and maybe that's a sign of how fast I'm falling behind of what's hip and new, when choosing a hotel in Paris three weeks ago. Click on the little leaning man, I was advised, and see for yourself. I was stunned by what I saw. The photos were clear and nearly perfectly continuous, the virtual reality of an entire city on the little screen in front of me. The hotel was in a much nicer neighborhood that I had feared, and it looked really good.

As of today, immersive photography of London is on the web as well. When I checked it out a minute ago, the first thing I looked for was where I live. I typed the postcode into the search field and virtually walked down the street to get to the right door. As I got closer, the façades started to look familiar. Then came my number, and what I saw was not my living room window, but a giant red bus.

my home

I don't live in a bus, and when I saw the iconic double-decker obscuring my apartment, I was disappointed at first, but also laughing with incredulity. There are not too many buses going down my road. There was just one route when Google took the photos last summer, which translates into four or five vehicles an hour. What are the chances to catch one on a drive-by shoot?

On the incontestable upside, I won't have to worry about another step towards the complete erosion of my privacy for now, and burglars will be forced turn a blind eye. Thus it is with a feeling of serenity that browse through galleries like this.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

hard times

My friend and I spent a day on the town today. We started with what we thought would be a quiet hour at the museum. When we got there we quickly realized that, uncharacteristically, noise and crowds would surround us. The Darwin exhibition was sold out for the day. In front of the dinosaur rooms, hundreds of unruly kids barely held in check by their anxious parents were waiting for their turn to have a look at heaps of bones, most of them replicas.

Neither of this bothered us too much. Our destination was the Wildlife Photographer of the Year show. I had seen last year's exhibition with the same friend. Back then, we had got to the museum less than an hour before it closed. The time had not been nearly enough to enjoy all the spectacular shots, but it was very peaceful and a truly inspiriting experience. Today, we had all the time in the world but dearly payed for this privilege. The exhibition hall was full of people.

We had to muscle through throngs of visitors, straining our necks to catch glances of the photos' descriptions. Nature's majesty as shown on dozens of brilliant photos was thus juxtaposed with teeming urbanity and the urgency of modern life – in a way a fitting metaphor for our times. Smaller animals and delicate flora appeared particularly vulnerable in this contrast. How can you avoid protective reflexes in such a situation and not vow to do all you can to conserve what grows and lives on our planet? Despite the clamor and deafening shuffling of feet, I walked away uplifted and inspired.

My friend hadn't come to London for inspiration, though. He wanted to get his village out of his head for a weekend and told me, when I had asked him of his plans for the weekend, that he wanted to hit as many bars as possible. Thus we proceeded in the general direction of touristic London and immersed ourselves deeper in the crowds. In Covent Garden, we found the first pub we liked, not overly full and with a big screen showing the Scotland vs. Ireland rugby game. Two hours and one pub later, the game was over, Ireland had prevailed, and our immediate thirst for beer was quenched. We were hungry.

A long walk through Soho with many unrewarding peers through restaurants' windows and onto their menus ended when we found a Thai restaurant that I had once tried to eat in but been sent away from. On a Saturday night they were fully booked and no one without a reservation would get a meal. Tonight again, I didn't have a reservation, but this time we were lucky. We got a nice table and, over divine starters and then a very tasty meal, observed substantial coming and going at the door. Lots of people were turned away empty-stomached, as the restaurant had filled up right after we got our table.

Before we called it a night, we stopped at Piccadilly Circus to watch the crowds. It was shortly before midnight and as busy as it could be. Hummer limos swooshed by and double-decker buses booked for private parties. Barely dressed hens traipsed from bar to bar, giggling foolishly. Tourist snapped pictures of the blinking lights. What struck me was that all day we had stomped through crowds, witnessed activity and energy, seen life pulse, and felt the heat. They say a recession is hitting the UK badly, but today I saw nothing of it. The city didn't feel one bit different. Let's hope it stays that way.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

girl's talk

Last night, a good friend came over from the village he lives in to spend a weekend in the big city. Excitement and diversion were on his mind. After meeting at the train station, we went for dinner at a Polish place. I had the best German meal outside of Germany and was struck by how culturally similar Poland and Germany are. Why do the two countries have such a hard time existing next to each other? It seems there is news of some sort of disagreement every other week, viciously played out in the media with mutual accusations and abuse. To me it always seem as if the Poles have gone postal and try desperately and ultimately futilely to punch above their weight. This assessment might be due to my German arrogance, and I don't put much credence to it. Most Poles I've met are nice, and the food tastes just like at home.

After dinner we went for a beer to one of the few pubs around the Green. Shepherd's Bush is a quiet neighborhood, dominated by ethnicities that eschew public drink and merriment. This shows in the kind of businesses that operate along the main roads. Most restaurants are halal and serve no beer. Grocery stores sell olives, dates and malt beverages. Only the convenience stores are full of alcoholic beverages. It's apparently ok to drink at home.

Shepherd's Bush is not Saudi Arabia or some other close-minded hell. Like all parts of London, every kind of person will find happiness. Some just have to look a little harder in some places. We had to look for the pub, but once inside all was good. The beer was cheap, the room smoke-free and the music joyful. Not having seen each other in more than half a year, we uncertainly started to poke into each other's private lives. With every glass we had, the questions became easier and the answers franker. When the bell rang last orders, we were in deep conversation about culture, the future, and how mistakes in the past are still haunting us, a conversation we kept during our walk home a little bit later. We had a lot to talk about.

The transition to my apartment was smooth. With green tea and Scotch whiskey on my coffee table and Dylan on the stereo, the mood was never broken. The conversation could only head in one direction. Girls were on our minds. Both of us have been badly burned in the past. My friend's reaction has been curious. When I knew him years ago, he was as international as anyone, covering the globe with his relationships. His home country was the last thing on his mind and he never tired of denouncing its flaws.

Now he has been in a series of romantic encounters with ladies from his own background. He manages to find them against the odds, after looking hard. He admitted that he finds talking to them very satisfying initially because the mutual understanding is almost intuitive. He's got a point. Nevertheless, I'm in great doubt about his approach and mildly shocked by the reversal of his preferences.

Were I to meet an East German girl, there would be a quick and natural rapport based on a shared past behind the Iron curtain, a history of deprivation that never felt like it, and unfounded but irrepressible nostalgia. Hours could be filled reliving the times gone by. But how could this be enough? Relationships must be about the future. A shared past can get you off a quick start, but so can a drunk night at a party or an introduction by a friend. In order to develop a deeper understanding, you need shared interests and a shared outlook, and these are entirely independent of your cultural background, as long as you keep an open mind and are willing to embrace the unknown and learn.

My friend seemed to agree with my objections – at least he looked very content, sitting in a comfy chair eating Malagasy chocolate – but he wasn't convinced. What has been driving him, subliminally as he admitted a bit later, was the question of marriage and the practical considerations around it. The convenience of having both families close by cannot be overestimated. I concur – and yet insist on my own approach of meeting anyone, from anywhere. The perfect girl might live half a world away. How could distance stand in the way of my happiness just because the flights to the in-laws are too expensive?

Out of whiskey and precariously low on chocolate, we suspended the discussion and retired for the night. My friend's goal for the weekend is to visits as many bars as possible. We shall have plenty of time to continue our debate besides, as was the plan in the first place, finding excitement and diversion.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Paris companion

Paris is much closer to London than is generally acknowledged. Traditionally, the two cities weren't even on the same map. A dark and brooding channel, full of cold salty water, served as a protective border to all things British. Beyond it loomed the unspeakable, uncivilized hordes that a gentleman would not dream of approaching. Each journey was an adventure, to be undertaken in the safety of an expeditionary corps.

Modern times have changed old truths dramatically and challenged treasured views. The train now takes less than two and a half hours. That's only a bit more than it takes to get to Liverpool or Leeds, two featureless cities halfway up the British island. The distance to Paris is greater, but it feels as if the island is never left. Traveling doesn't involve crossing the sea, and the channel remains forever out of sight. The train never leaves the safety of the land, even though this land is up to 75 meters below sea level. In short, Paris is just a hop away, perfect for quickly skipping town.

I have been to Paris on half a dozen occasions, but the four days last weekend were only my second multi-night stay there. There is much to discover, but at the same time I feel I know the city already. I have certainly my preferred neighborhoods, places I return to each time, where I know my way around without a map. This approach is easy and reassuring, but it keeps most of the secrets of the city locked from me. This time around I went for the unknown to some extent. I discovered new areas and refreshed my memory of those first seen during my first stay, eleven years ago.

Our hotel was in easy walking distance of our arrival station, the Gare du Nord, in the direction of the city center. The location couldn't have been better. A cursory glance at the map had filled me with some trepidation. The Moulin Rouge and Pigalle are not too far away and I expected a seedy area that would discourage nocturnal strolls. To our relief, the neighborhood turned out perfectly respectable, and we never felt unease out in the streets.

As every stay in Paris should, ours commenced with a random walk from the hotel to the Seine islands. After a breakfast of croissant and coffee at a little bakery, we happened upon Notre Dame des Victoires, an inconspicuous church that impressed on the inside with walls tiled in their entirety with thousands of little stone tablets. Each tablet was donated by someone whose prayers had been answered. One could believe for a moment that there was no suffering left in the world.

Of the two Seine islands, I much prefer Île Saint-Louis. While the crowds besiege Notre Dame on the neighboring Île de la Cité, I walk among century-old buildings now inhabited by galleries, specialty shops and bakeries. History left marks on every wall. They would be too obscure were it not for more and more explanatory plaques - and the best Paris book of all, now sadly out of print.

The Eiffel Tower is one place where I can tolerate crowds. The best time to be up there is at sunset, but it pays to arrive early. On foot is the best way to get up, but the stairs close when it gets dark. While the jolting elevators convey a sensation of being in a different time, the impression is more intense with one's feet on the iron steps, seeing the structure narrow as one ascends.

If one sunset is spent on the Eiffel tower, another must be by Sacré-Cœur. The view is stunning, but the area doesn't invite staying. The stairs in front of the basilica are populated by the same youthful crowd also sitting on the Spanish Steps in Rome or at the foot of the Palau Nacional in Barcelona. We hastily avoided Place du Tertre with its vulturous portrait painters and corny restaurants and descended the stairs on the opposite side. In no time we found ourselves isolated from tourists, in an area of Montmartre were locals dine and students hang out in bars.

Speaking of dining, the Latin Quarter is full of restaurants, but they cater almost exclusively to package tourists. Three course meals are cheap and miles from fine dining. I had snails for the first time and enjoyed the meal, but the area is better visited during the day, when the quirky shops and venerable coffee houses faintly recall the days when rebellion was preached and a better world conjured in smokey debates.

The Champs-Élysées is another landmark of Paris that's vastly overrated. It's just a wide boulevard with lots of shops, and most of these shops can be found in any other metropolis. The Parisian has long been drained from this avenue. At the end is the Arc de Triomphe, which climbed to a top spot of my personal favorites list but only because I experienced circumnavigating it behind the wheel of a nimble vehicle.

Paris is richly endowed with wonderful museums. I have visited the Museé d'Orsay and the Louvre and I would gently discourage others from following in my steps. Both are too big for a comprehensive visit. You will leave drained and exhausted. The collections in both are stunning, but can only be appreciated during multiple visits, each focusing on a particular topic. Much better for time-strapped tourists are special exhibits, for example in the Grand Palais or the Centre Pompidou. Or pick a smaller museum to begin with. Picasso and Rodin come to mind.

At the end of the day, what characterizes Paris is not the big sights (besides the Eiffel Tower) but the little things. Walking along Haussmannian buildings with no particular destination, stopping for coffee in a dimly lit bar that hasn't changed in decades, carrying a baguette to breathe the fragrant smell, letting time pass among the statues of the Tuileries, all these are pleasures that would justify an infinitely more arduous trek than the comfortable ride in a high-speed train. Good things in life are simple.

And bad thing that I didn't manage to squeeze the Institute of the Arab World into this post. This cultural center next to the Seine and in sight of Notre Dame houses a library, auditoriums, exhibitions, crafts shops and a posh ninth-floor restaurant. The roof terrace is open to anyone and a great place to take a breather and enjoy the view.

Monday, March 09, 2009

taste of madness

We've covered nearly a hundred kilometers in the last fifty minutes. The last part of the drive is almost done. The motorway A13 ends and spills streams of little cars onto the Boulevard Periphérique. We turn left, heading east. More than two hours remain until the departure of the train, and we're almost there, but the worst might very well still be ahead of us. I'm not thanking any deity yet. The Periphérique is notorious for congestion.

For the moment, traffic flows at a sensible pace. The Eiffel Tower comes into view, breathtaking underneath a brooding storm cloud that's surrounded by the brilliant light of the dusk. At the feet of the mighty tower stretches the expanse of the City of Lights where I've just spent four magnificent days. It's getting dark.

In the opposite way, cars go at a snail's pace, but in our direction the sailing is smooth. We had started our return to Paris quite early, in anticipation of delays en route. Our train would be the last of the day, and for all my love of this city, I didn't want to miss it and spend another night here. Better be early than sorry, I thought. All was going according to plan.

We set out in the morning to compare reality with the beautiful Impressionist paintings we had seen a day earlier in the gigantic Musée d'Orsay. Monet, whose creative output fills several rooms in this converted train station, retreated to Normandy in the final decades of his life. There he devoted his life to recreating in his garden the colors and moods he liked to immortalize on canvas. After drawing inspiration from nature in his early years, he later found joy in shaping and idealizing it.

His house and garden are a museum these days and a major tourist attraction. More parking spots than the village of Giverny counts inhabitants attest to that. When we arrived, on a cold but brightly sunny morning, an eerie silence hovered over the dissipating mist. The car parks lay deserted. Besides a few dogs barking behind wooden fences, no sign of human habitation was evident. The numerous restaurants were dormant and the souvenir shops abandoned in neglect. Monet's house itself was locked, and there was no way into the garden. A sign by the door gave the mystery's solutions. The village hibernates until April.

Poor preparation on our part – we could have found out about opening hours before coming – turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The village was relaxing, and we were free to wander it, studying ancient fieldstone walls, peering into deserted galleries and, most importantly breath fresh air. We had nothing on our agenda and felt no hurry. A day of quiet nothingness was a perfect respite from busy urban life, be it in London or in Paris.

At the other end of the long village stood the church in whose cemetery Claude Monet has found his final rest. This is another peaceful place, well worth half an hour or so. The site also houses a well-presented Royal Air Force memorial and several graves of local dignitaries that are infinitely more boastful and glorious than the hamlet's most famous son's.

Memories of these quiet hours are going through my head as I turn off the Péripherique at Porte Maillot, following a blue sign for a gas station. Off the motorway, the city encroaches upon us immediately. Lights break the flow every few hundred meters. People cross, mopeds weave, and buses and taxis ping-pong in and out of their own lanes with bold disregard for inferior traffic. While my eyes and driving pattern still adjust to the new conditions, the entrance to the gas station, invidiously sharing space with an underground parking garage, flies by. The moment it's gone, I forget about it because ahead of me, pale grey against a sky of the deep magenta rises the Arc de Triomphe. I'm heading for it, straight into the black hole that is the Place d'Étoile roundabout.

For a moment, an old stories flushes through my memory. Friends went to Paris years ago and got stuck in the roundabout. They found themselves in the central circle and didn't see a way of getting out without crashing into what looked to them like continuous traffic. Circumnavigating the great arch half a dozen times, they had visions of starving to death before mustering the courage to break out.

This fate is now upon me, but what strikes me is not trepidation or fear but a jolt of energy. Heading into the insanity, I find myself laughing madly. More fun can't be had at a steering wheel. Craziness is glorified on six cross-intersecting lanes devoid of any rules. Cars go at right angles to each other, buses block the way, scooters seem to celebrate suicide while rushing left and right of pulsating traffic. I do two rounds and see no accident. The game seems to be to come as close to death as possible but getting out unscathed and with the slimmest of margins. One can almost imagine a god, sitting on top of the arch, grasping after the most reckless drivers, marked for damnation. Every time, though, swerving erratically, they're out of reach and gone into the darkness.

No two vehicles ever go in the same direction. Eight major roads radiate from the roundabout and traffic surges into them out in random pulses. Sometimes the priority is with them in the circle, sometimes those joining from outside yield. There is no rhyme or reason. The square's sobriquet étoile (star) is only fitting because supernova in the process of exploding would be a bit cumbersome.

The peace of rural France seems light-years away – and I have the time of my life. To make the moment last (and because I don't really remember what road I have come from) I do the circle again and again. Four times around, my head is getting dizzy. My focus slackens and my vision blurs. It's time to head for an exit, any exit. When we finally reach the Gare du Nord and leave the car with the rental agency, adrenaline is still rushing through my veins. Good-night, Paris. It's time to head back to my city.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

radio star

When I lived in Utah the local radio station would switch to the BBC World Service at midnight. After a brief period of static silence, the resounding boom of Big Ben would signal the temporary take-over of the English. Next, the solemn voice of the anchor, so different from anything on US airwaves, would announce the time. It was always five o'clock, and I would hear the morning news before going to bed. There was considerable magic to the setup, as close to time travel as possible.

The BBC, not only the source of nocturnal news in foreign lands but also the world's largest broadcaster, calls London its home. The Television Centre is located less than half a mile from where I live. When I moved in, one of the first things I heard about were tours at the BBC, the major attraction my neighborhood has to offer, but only yesterday did I, at long last, exploit this proximity and visit the BBC for recession-busting free entertainment.

It was only fair, given that I don't own a TV, that I had got tickets to a radio show. Counterpoint is advertised as a humorous classical music quiz, and even though I had never heard of it, I was considerably excited and very curious. I had never been inside a radio station or witnessed the making of show. What would it be like? Would there be stage hands with cardboard signs telling the audience when to hoot, holler or cheer. Would applause be mandatory and laughter on cue? Or would it be a boring geezer show proceeding in near silence?

To gain entrance to the building, we had to go through security gates identical to those at an airport – belts, watches and cell phones to be removed for x-raying. Then each of us got a little sticker that identified us as part of the inventory for the next two hours and a half. We made our way through dark and utterly featureless corridors until we came to a small room with a bar but not enough chairs for everyone. We were told to wait for an hour, and the drinks weren't free. The evening didn't promise to hold much fun.

It got much better once we were ushered into the Radio Theatre, the main venue for music and speech programs. On the stage were two tables, one for three contestants in the quiz and the other for the host, Paul Gambaccini, a judge and arbiter, and a scorekeeper. Before the show started, the producer told us to be ourselves, to clap when something deserved it, to laugh when something was funny, and to pay good attention to the scorekeeper whose job is also was to trigger applause from us on occasions when it was deemed essential.

When the three contestants, an elderly lady and two gentlemen, settled into their chairs, it became clear we'd have a good time. All three looked like caricatures, like friendless hermits with unappreciated talents. The guy who eventually won, a self-described artists, had the appearance of a gnome from the woods. His speech was marginal, as if he conversed only with animals and some lucky plants.

The lights dimmed, the Counterpoint theme played, the host greeted the nation to wild cheers from the audience, and then the show started. It might not sound like it, but it was funny, and we laughed a lot. Most questions were about classical music, but broad musical knowledge was required for high scores. In one sections, Woody Guthrie was the answer to a question, and Pete Seeger was in the next, followed by Odetta.

This was not a live show, and there were a lot of little snafus. They were funnier than anything the candidates said, but will be gone in the final version. When the judge intervened, questions had to be repeated. Sometimes the producer, linked by radio to the scorekeeper, made a contestant repeat an answer. The host exploited all interruptions to entertain the audience.

At the end of the recording was a little break, after which the whole thing started again. Another episode, taped right after the first. I liked the format and was eager to continue. While I hardly ever guessed an answer right, I heard a lot of music worth checking out. For this, to write down the titles and broaden my musical horizon, I'll make sure to tune in when the show airs, sometime before then end of March. I also like to find out whether my boisterous laugh was edited out.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

running wild

I frequently find myself surprised when reading through a just completed post. I set out to say one thing, somewhere along the way the post takes control and runs off into an unexpected direction. I'm in control of the words but not of their meaning. Yesterday, I got so enchanted with the music and the contrast between two performances that I didn't even mention what nagged me in the first half of the concert I attended and what gnawed on me during intermission.

In the seats directly behind mine sat a young family whose child couldn't have been older than four or five. He might have been annoyed with the show; he was certainly greatly bored and voiced his dissatisfaction with a piercing squawk. He didn't see a thing and didn't want to be where his parents had dragged him. The main points of his tirade were marked by violent kicks in the backrest of the seat in front of his – which happened to be mine. The parents tried to shut him up. His mom whispered admonitions off the top of her lung, loud enough for everyone to appreciate that she was whispering in a effort not to disturb anyone.

I wasn't angry with the kid. When I was his age or even twice his age, I despised classical music and I would have hated my parents for making me sit through an entire concert and behave properly. I understood his frustration but couldn't muster much sympathy for his parents. Their actions seemed misguided and highly disrespectful to me. Given the age of the kid, it was too late to turn him into a boy genius. They might have rather let him enjoy Shaun the Sheep on the Disney Channel and us, the paying audience, an undisturbed classical music concert. On the other hand, with the recession biting ever harder, who can blame folks for taking advantage of a deal? The extra ticket must have been significantly cheaper than a few hours of baby-sitting.

Even without the commotion from behind, the concert would not have been an undiluted pleasure. Next to me – is that what you get for scrimping on tickets? – sat an old lady that appeared to approach the last moments of her life. Her breath gashed heavily through obstructed nostrils, affecting the sounds of a muffled stream train. Every now and then, she grunted excess air through her mouth, drowning the quieter passages of the music.

I felt a sense of relief when getting off my seat for intermission and stepping into the atrium, but the comfort was short-lived. The jazz trio that had eased us into an evening of music when we had arrived was still playing. Later, I found out that they were the renowned Spitz Jazz Collective that had recently taken up residence at Kings Place. But halfway through an august piano concert they seemed wildly out of place and it required some effort, over a glass of wine and some fine chocolates, to fade the discordant tones from our perception. Returning to the hall a few minutes later, we picked different seats, away from earlier and all disturbances, and enjoyed the rest of the night as uncompromised pleasure.

Curiously, this post isn't about the concert at all. It is about running, and I only manage to post it because that's what I'm not doing. The Roding Valley Half Marathon takes place today. At the time of the start, at nine in the morning, I sat down on my dining table for a breakfast of champions: Grapefruit, creme caramel, fresh rolls with jam and honey, and strong black coffee.

Like last year, a coworker had asked me whether I would compete in the race, and like last year, I was ill-prepared, but this year was even worse than last. Most of February was miserably cold and some days were completely snowed out. I didn't get out half as much as necessary to get into any sort of decent shape. When my friend asked me on Tuesday, I tested my fitness on ten miles in the park, but felt my legs' stinging disapproval a day later.

Even so, I could have easily finished the race. A half marathon is not that long. But a race is for racing and not for slogging along. For me to reach my limits, I have to build a base first. There is no reason to get up at 6:30 and traverse London on an empty tube if I can get the same effect later during the day, when it's warmer, by running in the park. Fueled by excuses and suddenly not feeling all the bad about my pathetic self anymore after an hour of therapeutic self-delusion, I shall now make my way to Kensington Gardens. The sun is out.