Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Iran explained

I was sitting down to write a friend an email and, since she had mentioned it in hers, penning my thoughts on the recent presidential election in Iran. When I reached the fifth paragraph and more came to me, I realized that I was running the risk of fatally boring my friend. As you, the kind-hearted readers of this blog, have put up with much worse (i.e. much longer) in the past, I thought I'd just spread it out in front of you and refer my friend to the permalink. Here you go.

I think the story of the Iranian election fraud has been enormously (and quite irresponsibly) blown out of any proportion. Some guy won the election with a landslide, two thirds against one third, or something like that. The difference in votes was more than ten million, explained by a turnout of 85% in a big country. If there was fraud, even if eight million votes have been stolen, the result would still stand.

Why the protests then and the chaos, why the sacrifices that citizens in Tehran make when they demonstrate? And why the unanimity of the protest? I think the country is divided more than the US ever was. I'm simplifying, but I think all the poor people from the villages voted for candidate A, while the aspiring urban elite voted for candidate M. A won and M's supporters are upset. They talk to their friends, and no one seems to support A. Who voted for this guy, they wonder. Given that Iran's democracy was never the strongest, they suspect the worst. They feel cheated and dive deep into conspiracies. And they vent their anger. They know twitter and blogger, they have cell phones and broadband and can organize protest marches with ease. They can also communicate with the world and just happen to hold their marches where international journalists are, in the capital city of Tehran.

Seemingly out of nowhere, chaos breaks out, to the massive bafflement of the religious and political rulers. One night they celebrate victory with lamb shanks oozing flavor, steaming green tea and pious virgins dancing to the sound of the Oud, the next morning they get up and see the streets clogged with shouting youths.

There probably was some fraud. In the days leading up to the election, the polls were so unambiguously in favor of candidate M, that the establishment saw finagling with the numbers as their only way of exiting unscathed. The morning after the election, they could have said, 'Sorry, guys, the percentages are not quite what was reported', made some modification and everyone would probably have gone home.

However, when you run a country in God's stead like the fatwa-wielding geezer with the black turban and long bushy beard does, public admission of errors, faults or sins is not an option. You have to grit your teeth and rely on the goons you have patrolling the streets to keep order. If you hit them hard enough, even the most stubborn demonstrators will finally go home.

This is what seems to be happening now. After two weeks of globally reported, supported and honestly felt hope, the country is slipping back into its rut of oppression and forlornness. That's how the world and a third of Iranians see it. Two thirds of the population, however, are delighted that their voice had been heard, that the right guy had won, and that finally normalcy has returned and they can go about their business as usual, earning money for their families and struggling to make ends meet.

into obstacles

In stark contrast to yesterday's celebration of the free and unrestricted walk is a book that I finished reading just after submitting last night's post. In Palestinian Walks, the human rights lawyer Raja Shehadeh confesses his love for the hills of the West Bank and chronicles some of his favorite walks, taken over several decades. Anywhere in Western Europe or in North America, this would just be another quaint book of countryside – there's a hill, here a tree that was already old when the author was young and here a pub where the beer always tastes best right after the village church chimes four times in the afternoon.

This being Palestine, the walks described by Shedadeh don't conform to the standards of the civilized world. The walker is not free to go where it draws him. A straight line of ten miles that features in some of Richard Long's walks is out of the question. In the hills around Ramallah, the walker is not king. He is slave to sad political realities. The encroachment of Israeli settlements closes trail after trail. Roads are paved where cyclamen used to bloom, and Palestinians are blocked from accessing places where they used to roam for centuries.

Shedadeh details this development with energetic passion. Each of the chronologically ordered chapters feels more suffocating. Each walk offers less freedom and more oppression. The loving observations of geographical and botanical beauty recede into the background of the narrative, displaced by geopolitical considerations and the brutality of history.

Snarling tongues of settlements project into what used to be open space, eating up more and more vital land until the present inhabitants are squeezed out and suffocated. The inexorability of the development is frightening. Where is this going to lead? Shedadeh has no answers, but with his deep sorrow he offers a perspective that is rarely heard in political discussions about the Middle East, a point of view that deserves to enter the argument.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

just walking

Four weeks ago, a big survey of Richard Long's works opened at Tate Britain. Today I found the time to get down there and saw the most awesome exhibition in a long time. I'm not sure I'll be able to verbalize my impressions or rationalize my delight, but I can say one thing clearly and unambiguously. If you are anywhere near London before September, go see this show.

Richard Long is a most curious artist whose talent it is, by his own admission, "to walk across a moor". The fellow is an avid walker, doing small things like crossing the heaths near his native Bristol or big things like crossing Britain south to north in a dozen days, always on foot and always by himself. On the way, he manipulates nature in simple ways and documents that with his camera. He might put down a rock circle or produce scuff marks in a meadow. Some of these pictures hang in the exhibition but they are only a small part of it.

The bigger part is devoted to creative documentation. Some frames show the walks Long took as they appeared on the map but completely removed from their context. All you see is pencil lines on drawing paper. In other pieces are little arrows that indicate the wind speed at a given point during a walk, drawn at the geographic location where that wind direction was observed but, again, without the underlying map. A third type of artwork is a kind of minimalistic traveling poetry. Between the title and the details of the walk (approximate date and the time it took to cover the distance) are lines of words. These can be things he saw every ten miles or one sound for each day of a longer walk or forces that keep him going.

A beautiful example of this unexpected poetry is his Engadine walk that includes "one full moon" and "two thunderstorms", recounts observations in leaps and bounds, over "seventeen mountain passes" and "one hundred and eight stones added to a summit cairn", all the way to "countless stars" and "the infinity of space". The is no photo and no map, only letters on the wall and the magic that flows from them. The large capitals, sans-serif, black on white, couldn't be more minimal, and yet they are infinitely evocative.

I found the exhibition so powerful because it mostly happens in the mind of the visitor. The walls of the gallery are mostly bare but the space is filled with infinite possibilities, amplified by the thoughts of the beholder. I was filled with memories of walks I've taken and dreams of those I haven't. This was nothing concrete, I didn't have a sense of place or time, but I could imagine being in any of the photos. I could have climbed the mountain passes or seen the beauty in rock formations because this simple yet profound beauty is everywhere. For me, the experience was almost spiritual.

As much of the power of the exhibition derives from its simplicity, it is a classic case of “I could do this”, but you probably can't. First off, there is masterful artistry in all of the objects exhibited. The simple black-and-white photograph of a patch of flattened grass in an expanse of a fine dusting of snow, for example, is beautifully composed with the artist's backpack carefully thrown next to where his tent was pitched the night before. There is nothing random there. Then there is an abundance of creativity that permeates all works. Despite being highly similar in their conception – a walk from A to B for the most part – they're all different. They all have a different focus, an new idea behind them, something innovative.

As I ambled from room to room, awe-struck, reading the details under each documented walk, the number of days spent walking and the number of miles covered, the devil of reality started nagging me. I couldn't help wondering what kept the artist occupied. What kept him from getting bored? He's not in it for the sights, not to meet people, not to watch wildlife, or to take pictures. Some of his walks were so epic, in excess of forty miles a day for weeks, that he must have been near exhaustion. What kept him going? And what was going on in his head? Did he wish for the walk to be over? Did he long for his sofa? Was he imagining things? Talking to himself? Running his iPod dry?

There are some answers towards the exit, but they are more mystifying than illuminating. Richard Long finds two pleasures in walking, "the intellectual pleasure of original ideas and the physical pleasure of realizing them". That doesn't give anything away. Neither does a list of nouns he associates with his walks – independence, eating, a campsite at night. In the end, there is probably no point. The walk is the goal and the result stunning.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

two journeys

In high school, sometime in the second-to-last year, we had to read The Catcher in the Rye in English class. Our teacher was new to the school and novel, his approach hip and creative. He did everything differently, brought his guitar and his harmonica, and played the song of the day. We reacted with delight initially but grew tired fast, for reasons no one can now recall. It wasn't all that it was cracked up to be was probably what it was, and if you put one-and-a-half dozen jaded teenagers that want nothing more than the day to finish and school to stay behind when they shoot off into the dreams of their youth, coolness in a drab classroom can only be uncool.

By the time The Catcher was whipped out, most had long yelled a mental 'no, thanks' to the teaching methods employed in English class, and then it got worse. With the book a long list of questions and assignments was thrown at us. Characterize Holden. Define his language. Collect typical expressions. Di-da-do, this and that. It was enough to suck the last little bit of desire to follow the class (or maybe even read the book) from us students.

Even though I liked school overall and didn't have anything against the new teacher or his methods, I didn't finish reading the book. I didn't find anything in it that I could connect to. The language was strange to me and the hero's behavior bewildering. For me, school was important, and though I preferred playing football in the afternoon or drinking beer at night, I went with a clear goal of achievement and success.

Three years ago, after this scholastic success had first taken me to college, then to grad school in Utah, and finally spat me out in a forlorn town in the French Alps, I rediscovered the book. The municipal library of Grenoble had a small but respectable selection of international original-language books, among them J.D. Salinger's magnum opus, which I took home with me not expecting much.

Reading it was a mad experience. With every page the book sucked me in deeper until it read me as I had intended to read it. Every page swallowed me completely, words staccatos dashing in front of my eyes faster than I could possible follow. I listened to the sounds of my feelings, felt the juvenile despair of the main character, absorbed his immature hate for the world. Each night until I finished the book, I went to sleep in New York City, dozing off to the sound of the crazy characters and the unbelievable language.

The book is slim, just shy of 300 pages, and yet it is immense. Holden Caulfield runs through a few frantic days in New York in search of life and purpose. There's no stopping and no sleep. When the book ends, no conclusion is reached, but everything is said. A minuscule fragment of one inconsequential person's journey through life is the message, and every reader the interpreter of untold mysteries.

A while ago, I purchased a book that has a similarly hallowed standing in the literary canon of America. On the Road had been high on my list for a long time, and when I finally plucked a tattered copy from the narrow shelves of the local Oxfam store, I was stoked and dived right in. I started with enthusiasm, but my great expectations were quickly shattered, and it took me several months to finally turn the last page. There was even a moment of shock tonight when I read the last line and liked it and thought this was a good way of ending it. On the next page, Part Five started, an epilogue that no one asked for nor needed.

The book is not bad, and I certainly appreciate the maniacal writing that crescendoes towards the end with wild intensity, but it just goes on forever. As The Catcher, it stands at just under 300 pages and there's nothing substantial in it – it's all metaphors and imagination and possibilities. But while The Catcher exhausts itself with one explosive journey of a few days and packs episodes of deep meaning for those who can decipher them, On the Road goes on and on. It starts, returns, then starts again, and repeats the whole thing all over again.

I've learned from The Catcher in the Rye, more than from any other book, that the age and personal situation of the reader matter as much as the book. They must match for the experience to be momentous. With The Catcher, I got it wrong once and perfectly right the second time around. Will I read On the Road again, or have I missed my chance already?

Friday, June 19, 2009


When I visited my sister last week, I saw a sticker over her roommate's bathroom mirror that I found quite funny. It said, "A whole closet full of nothing to wear", describing, as I understand it, the drama every fashion-conscious woman faces when going out. Tomorrow, I'll face a similar drama. I'm invited to a friend's wedding, and I have nothing to wear. And while my closet is full of clothes, most of them are good for the lab and the park only. They're old and worn, and there's nothing remotely formal. A few months ago I threw out my only sports coat because it looked like I had wrestled it off the hobo roughing it in front of Hammersmith tube station.

I had known of this wedding for weeks and of the deplorable state of my wardrobe for much longer, yet I had not taken action. Chronic shoppophobia is what holds me back. Now, the afternoon before my colleague's big day, I couldn't delay it any further. I left work early to dedicate a few hours to the Westfield, the huge shopping mall, all shiny and new, right next to where I live.

The first figure eight on the ground level did raise my spirits. I went into a few shops and saw a few suits I liked and a few jackets I could combine with any of the many khakis I own. None of the sizes matched my body, and I left each shop empty-handed, but I did so in an optimistic mood.

At some point, I entered the House of Fraser, mainly to recharge in their café, which splendidly overlooks the plaza framed by the entrances to the shopping center and the train and the tube stations. People enter and exit constantly, buses come and go every minute, and there is great bustle. Watching this human anthill from two floors up, with a cappuccino and a lemon cheese cake handy, is quite an experience, very soothing in its distance.

When I got there, the café had just closed. The tables were being wiped for the night and the curtains drawn. I turned around and saw a sign to the menswear department – in a store I had never entered before. I gave it a chance, saw a bunch of blazers I liked and was spotted by Ebenezer who, in spite of his name, had a cheerful disposition and was happy to help. He was also, by virtue of being one entire head shorter than me, truly empathetic to the difficulties I face when shopping. I never find the right size. Everything is always too big.

Not here. Ebenezer found the right size, it fit, and it looked good. I was happy, and ready to make a purchase. But instead of just taking my money, Ebenezer had me apply for a store card ("Get 10% off extra."), which, in a lengthy process of divulging information that should better remain private, turned into a credit card. I went along, not only without complaints, but eagerly because no one had offered me a credit card in the UK, and I could really do with one. Had I known what would come, I would have slapped down my humble debit card as fast as possible, grabbed the blazer and made for the exit.

Instead, while I signed the card application form, the fire alarm erupted in a fierce wail. That meant evacuation, orderly overall, though there were moments approaching panic. There was no time to hand over my money, and the the blazer stayed by the till while everyone left the store.

I came back half an hour later, after having finally found nourishments in one of the surprisingly few coffee shops in the mall. Ebenezer was still there, as were my blazer-to-be and my credit card application form. The form had my signature on it already and the blazer, I noticed with considerable shock, a squiggle created when the pen was dropped right before the evacuation. A short but spirited discussion ensued about the seriousness of the blemish, the extra discount it would take to make me still buy it, and alternative locations of availability of an unspoiled item. "We have one at our Oxford Street store." With the wedding only half a day away, a trek across town was out of the question.

Annoyed about wasted time and opportunity, I hurried on. The entire upper level of the mall remained to be explored. I got to a suit store where I found yet another sports coat I liked. I tried it on. It felt ok, but a bit loose. I was confused, and lost without an expert style guide by my side. That's where Waleed the overbubbling salesperson came into play, all smiles and professional exuberance. "This is fantastic. You look great in it. Fits perfectly. Awesome." I wasn't convinced but I needed a jacket.

I got in line to pay but was rescued, in a way, by Prakash, another salesperson who descended on me with his helpfulness when it was almost too late. When Waleed wasn't looking, I posed the same question about the suit. It seemed ok to him, but when I pressed him about the size, he wiggled my shoulders and checked my waist and declared I needed to go to an expensive gym. He deplored he didn't have any smaller sizes and didn't know where to send me. I didn't know either. After three hours in the mall, I had exhausted all the options. I have a wedding to attend tomorrow, and I still have nothing to wear.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

on twitter

A few weeks ago I signed up for Twitter. This might not be news worth telling and yet I do. It is my impression that blogging and twittering go hand in hand, and that bloggers are generally expected to twitter as well. To me, the connection has never been clear and it still isn't. The reason I signed up was not to broadcast short sentences to the world, and my status updates, all two of them, reflect that.

The first says something like "b5foan is on twitter". I typed it to test my account right after signing up to the London School of Economics' twitter feed, which announces the exact time of first availability of tickets to public lectures held there. LSE has the most spectacular line-up of speakers in the fields of economics, politics and philosophy, and most talks, though free, require tickets, which sell out quickly.

Recordings of the talks can be downloaded in full a fews days after each event, so not much is lost if you don't go – except you can't ask brilliant questions to kick-start your career as a think tanker like Ayaan Hirsi Ali did in the Netherlands. I can easily imagine working at a think tank, yet I've never attended any of the LSE talks. They're quite a ways away and I'm inevitably too late for the tickets, despite being updated by twitter.

My second tweet notified the world that I'm using Moblin on my Eee. This was true at the time, when I ran Moblin off a stick and had to do something to test the wireless connection and the build-in social networking setup. All worked fine, though I didn't like the look and feel of the operating system and never installed it. The status update will nevertheless remain for the foreseeable future. It won't change because I don't see the point of twitter, though it other day, walking to the gate to catch my plane to Berlin, it nearly came to me.

"Heathrow Terminal 5 is not all that it's cracked up to be" was what I felt like saying. Looking at it through the tired eyes of an early morning rise and willfully ignorant of all the hype that surrounded its opening, I saw just another airport terminal. It might look nice and airy, and it certainly is clean and efficient, but so are many other airports in the world. Compared to the other terminals at Heathrow, Five is certainly as many steps forward, but taking the other terminals as standard doesn't say much.

However, the terminal made enough of an impression on me that I thought about working my thoughts into a blog post. But after endless wanderings through the tax-free section in search of a last-minute gift for my uncle, I gave up. There was no context, there was no story, there was nothing to tell. As I purchased overpriced biscuits from the Harrods outlet, I realized that no context, no story and nothing to tell is exactly what Twitter is. Why is it so big then?

TIME purports to solve that mystery in last week's issue. The author rambles cursorily about how Twitter facilitates instantaneous communication, how it connects people more directly than email or the telephone, how it can pull a most diverse audience into a discussion. The last point was nicely illustrated by some obscure future of education conference that became big after the participants twittered away while discussing in a subdued conference room. Before the day was over, comments and suggestions from across the world were pouring in.

This sounded cool, but at the moment, 90% of tweets are apparently generated by 10% of the users, mostly narcissistic celebrities stroking their vanity who have nothing to say, no story and no context. Most tweets are superficial, pointless blurbs, and I really don't see what I would gain from following any, or posting myself. The constant updates, more frantic than the blogs' I follow, require the state of permanent distraction that I fight each day on my desk. I can't read something new every thirty seconds and keep working efficiently, and I don't want to assault my brain with ever more vacuous information.

The biggest flaw of all, though, is that you have to be connected to some sort of device to transmit your thoughts. Mine usually well up when I've just disconnected my computer or turned off my phone, or when I'm walking through an airport and typing a message is the last thing I want to do. It would be much better if I could beam a thought directly from my brain to Twitter and from there, less directly, in the heads of my contacts. I'm thinking what Twitter needs to really kick ass is a direct brain interface. That's also what my latest tweet says, though I had to type it myself.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

change of pace

I've kept the posts flowing at a solid rate for more than half a year now. Must have started last September. Now things have suddenly slowed down, so much that they have almost come to a halt. The previous post, about my high-school reunion, was the only one in two weeks, and it was premeditated. I knew I would write about it before I stepped on the plane to Germany, and I had the first sentences in my head way before I actually took to the keyboard. Does that still count as blogging?

On the other hand, does it still count as blogging if you put down ten thousand words a month, like I did in May? With such an amount of writing, should I not direct myself towards more serious outlets? Shouldn't I wring creative juices from my brain and cook up plots and put characters to paper?

This won't happen here, but at least I've come to the realization that my posts are too long. While I haven't reached a state of daily epic like Willem Buiter yet, I've caught myself rambling too many times – and I envy those who manage to express thoughts crisply and concisely. Much work remains to be done for me, but this post, all of 217 words, is a first step.

Monday, June 08, 2009


The other night, I went to my first high-school reunion ever. It has been very nearly fifteen years since I graduated, leaving with the degree I had hoped and sometimes worked for from a school a few dozen miles from where I had grown up and my parents still live. How much the degree has helped me along I can't say but, if nothing else, it has never posed an obstacle in my long journey through higher education.

It was because of stops I'd taken along this journey, because of the migratory lifestyle I have assumed, that I had never been able to attend a reunion before. From Salt Lake, it was impossible to fly over for a night and from Grenoble it was massively inconvenient. From London, the journey took a few hours only and didn't cost the world. Add to this my sister's birthday a few days hence and a matching number of vacation days that I still had lying around, and I had all the ingredients for a lovely trip. I had been looking forward to this for a while.

The journey was epic in telling but easy and painless in reality. Every transfer was smooth and not a single means of transportation delayed. From my house, I walked a bit, took a bus, then the tube, strolled through an airport, flew for a couple of hours, strolled through another airport and took another bus before two successive trains finally took me to Riesa, the town where I used to go to high school. There, five minutes after getting off the train, I caught one of only three buses of the day going to a quaint village a few kilometers outside town where we were meeting at a restaurant that was ours for the night. I was the first to arrive; there was no one else around. A waitress assured me that I had come to the right place and served me a coffee. I threw my traveling coat behind me and let my thoughts wander.

Rolling into the station half an hour earlier, as I had done so many times as an adolescent, had brought back heaps of memories. The riveted-steel bridge and the view across the river, with the large grain silo as a dominant and highly incongruous landmark, were as I remembered them. At this point, change was still hidden from view. When the train came to a halt, I lifted my heavy bag onto the platform and then down and up the stairs, exactly as I used to. I trundled my duffel through the small station building that seemed to hail from another era. The déjà vu had an almost physical force. The station had been refurbished since I had regularly passed through it, but with modest means only. With only little imagination, I could see the past.

From the station, it used to be a laborious fifteen-minute walk along an industrial dinosaur, a steel plant that had stood through forty years of socialism with not much maintenance and no economic improvements. The dust and grime of heavy industry used to lie on what was left of the original coat of paint. Through the years that I was a student there, the steel plant closed down and was dismantled. The area was then cleaned up and turned into a business park, offering space and infrastructure for companies brave enough to invest in the east of Germany. Wide asphalt roads cut through vast stretches of optimistic lawns, but businesses were slow in coming at first.

Quite a few have arrived now, a fusion of industry and innovation. The town is far from the glory of its heyday, both in numbers of inhabitants and economic activity, but it's also clean, quiet, and rather inviting in its own way. It lies along a river that's been turned from an environmental disaster into a habitat of beavers and fishes, with green banks of unrestrained wilderness. A look outside the window, at fat happy trees and the mist of a rainy afternoon, brought me back to reality. Across the parking lot hurried a hunched figure, the dark coat pulled over his head in an attempt to keep dry. My first classmate was arriving, though it couldn't tell who he was from the distance.

In the two minutes between spotting him and his entering the ballroom of the restaurant, my heart accelerated and anticipation built up. I am still in contact with those who were my friends in school and I know what they are up to. With them I get along in the most natural way, even after being apart for years. However, in a class of nearly eighty, the majority were nothing more than fellow students, casual friends for the sake of school spirit and relaxed interactions. No strong bond had formed between me and them, and it was them that I was interested in finding out about, and a bit worried. Bragging is one of the character traits I truly detest, and I went to Riesa apprehensive that this comes natural at school reunions.

I needn't have worried. The first to walk in turned out to be a judge, and he was cool. He had not been a friend of mine; I didn't even recall his name when we shook hands, but we had a good chat about this and that and comfortably covered the twenty minutes until the next two guys arrived. With them I was friends, and the conversation took off. I switched from coffee to beer and the party started.

We ate, drank more beer, turned to tequila and gin & tonics, and the hours passed effortlessly. There were no awkward moments, it was all smiles and laughter. It was great to reconnect, especially with those that I had had contact by email only. It was good to see how we all share attitudes and values and how no one has had his or her character twisted by the intervening years. Now I'm looking forward to seeing some of my old friends more frequently, by visiting them or having them visit me in London. I don't want to wait until the next reunion to see them again.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

right to vote

This morning I voted in the European election. I walked to the nearest Church of God branch, five minutes from my home, where the polling station was located, showed my polling card and was handed a ballot, a meter-long sheet of paper in a calming hue of pastel green, folded more expertly than an origami rhinoceros.

I trudged over to the three-sided plywood cubicle that stood in for a voting booth, unfolded the paper artwork in my hand and grabbed the stubby pencil that was attached to a little desk with a piece of string. I was about to make my cross in the right place when something felt wrong. This election, like any that I've ever participated in, is supposed to be free and secret, and here I was standing in a cubicle that was open to the world, at least to the world assembled behind me.

I turned around to check things out. As I had come early there weren't any other voters around. There was only a long table with the four members of the election commission whose job it was to ensure a smooth running of the day's proceedings. These four, two women and two men, were a rough cross-section of the borough's demographics. Two white guys, one clearly English the other possibly of Eastern European origin, were beautifully complemented by an elderly black female and a young Somali with a pious-looking headscarf. Eight eyes were pointed at me with expectation.

I turned back, towards the little desk board with its dangling pencil, my shoulders the only barrier between my right to vote secretly and the world at large. I remembered voting booths with curtains, flimsy, for sure, and destined for the bin at the end of the day but positively opaque. It was empowering to pull the curtain behind my back to exercise my democratic right without interference.

This morning, I was standing in plain view. When I heard another citizen enter the polling station, I took the advantage of what I imagined to be the election committee's momentary distraction and quickly put the pencil to paper, making a mark of two intersecting lines next to the name of the party I had chosen the night before.

Not having a TV and not reading newspapers much, I'm somewhat disconnected from the world of advertisements, commercial and political. Throughout the campaign, however long it went on for, I had received only one solicitation for my vote. It was a poorly targeted effort of political supplication by the United Kingdom Independence Party, a fiercely anti-European outfit that participates in this election with the sole goal of getting this country out of Europe.

It baffles me that someone would doubt the benefits of European integration. My current and previous jobs being two of them, they are blatantly obvious to me. But numerous are those who see things differently. When the previous European election was held in the blissful year of 2004, UKIP was the third most successful British party. Will it come to this again? Surely no one can be ignorant enough to support British isolation in the current economic climate where the fall in trade and transnational economic synergism is one of the most detrimental factors of the global recession. Surely? The numbers will be out on Sunday.

You guessed correctly that I didn't vote for UKIP. Who did I vote for? The night before the election, I asked myself a related but much more fundamental question. Who can I vote for? Who is running? From the news on the radio, I know that there are three major parties in the UK, Labor, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Either one of the first two has always run the country. The third is weighed down by a reputation of highly original and sometimes impractical thinking, ill-suited to the successful practice of politics.

Because of their notoriety and ostracization by the civilized parts of society, I was also aware of the British National Party who wants to kick foreigners out of the country and can therefore not expect my vote. Having applied for my consideration, the UKIP was also in my sphere of awareness. That makes it five. On the BBC I learned that a grand total of nearly two dozen parties, ranging from the staid to the nutty, have fielded candidates somewhere in the UK. I also learned that most parties are obscure for a good reason. Wai D, for example, promises that "if elected, candidates will undertake at their own expense the creation of an internet site where people can express their opinions." That's a fine thing, but does anyone need a party for that?

What does anyone need parties for anyway, I was wondering as I folded the ballot paper up, dropped it into the box and left the polling station. And what are elections for? Most people don't make election decisions rationally, oftentimes voting in near complete ignorance of the contents of their chosen party's program and sometimes in open defiance of their true preferences. I know this because I have done this myself.

Four years ago, before the last German general election, I made use of a web application developed by the country's major news magazine that asked a few dozen political questions and collected my answers. In the end, parties were ranked by how well their programs matched my preferences as expressed in my answers. One party stood out of a sea of others with similar scores. I voted for one of the others because I didn't think the one would represent me well. It won anyway.

This year, even though I'm not voting in Germany, I gave the elect-o-mat another try. It suggested another party, one that I had never seriously considered before but one whose rough equivalent in the UK I've found uncannily appealing ever since I've lived here. I don't know what they stand for or what they would do if they won – certainly not setting up a website for people to express their opinion and certainly not clubbing foreigners out of this country – but I gave them my vote. In the end, one party will win and the two dozen others will gracefully accept defeat, and this is the essence of democracy as I see it. Great thing it is.