Tuesday, July 28, 2009

falling water

I once read that in the early days of Grand Canyon tourism, visitors were made to wear paper bags over their heads on their first walk up to the edge. With no idea of the scale of the hole in the ground in front of them, they were completely overwhelmed when they opened their eyes and were engulfed by it. During my first visit, nearly ten years ago, I wasn't too impressed. I knew roughly what to expect. The Grand is huge, deep and mind-bogglingly wide, but it's also static, and pictures convey that pretty well. They don't convey the numbers, but neither do our eyes. How much deeper looks a mile compared to half a mile?

So many superlatives are associated with the Grand Canyon that for me, the visit was positively disappointing. I should have hiked down and experienced the depth with my calves. Maybe my judgment would have been different. As it was, I stood at the South Rim wondering what all the fuzz was about. Sure, the canyon is amazing. The colors are splendid and the vastness is staggering, but I had expected that. That, and a little more, and it was the little more that was missing. Since then, I've been cautious in my enthusiasm for big-name sights.

Over the last ten days, I've visited Niagara Falls three times. My first approach was from the Canadian side, cutting through the gaudy madness of Niagara Falls, Ontario, in a coach chartered by the organizers of the conference I was attending. We had a bit more than two hours to spend, not a whole lot even for a casual visit. The Maiden of the Mist ride took us to the heaving cauldron at the foot of the Horseshoe Falls. There, the boat just sat, rocking back and forth with great effort. The falls thundered down on us on three sides. The boat's engines were going full bore, but only just matched the force of the water coming from above.

We were engulfed in a constantly changing stream of water, sometimes a fine translucent mist, sometimes a torrential downpour. In the quieter moments, I managed to take a few quick shots. In the moments of thunder, I screamed at the thrill, as did everyone else. The ride is well worth the fee, and looking at the falls from the far cliff or walking through the little bit of Vegas that is the town of Niagara Falls only killed time in comparison.

Ten days later I was back. Coming up the river from the pretty town of Niagara by the Lake, I decided to forgo the Canadian side and cross over to the US. On the American side, proximal to the falls, at times almost on and under them, I spend last night and today being absolutely amazed. Contrary to what you might believe, Niagara Falls is not overhyped. It is, in contrast, one of those very special places that don't promise anything they can't deliver.

There are three parts to the falls. The American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls, on the US side, are separated by tiny Luna Island. The two falls receive 10% of the water of Niagara River. The other 90% go to the Horseshoe Falls, on the border between the US and Canada. The single best place to experience all three falls is Goat Island, which divides the waters coming down the river. Looking upstream from its tail end, the mighty Niagara seems almost calm. There are a few rapids but the water mostly seems to lie like a thick dark layer of glass.

Walk downstream on either side of the island and you'll see mighty rapids. These are especially impressive on the left side, facing Canada. The river looks distinctly whitewater, something you'd have a blast taking a raft down. But something's wrong in this picture. Mountain streams are not normally 300 meters wide. And if you let your glance go further downstream yet, you see a telling line on the water were the river ends in a cloud of white drops wafting about, driven left and right by the wind. At times, the cloud comes up high and thick enough to obscure the casinos and hotels on the Candian side. It's from the bottom of the Horseshoe Falls that the cloud rises.

Walking further downstream, always just a few feet from the gushing river and not much above the water level, you'll eventually reach the edge. At this point, the full glory of the Horseshoe Falls is to your left, all 750 meters of it. During a summer day, 2.5 million liters of water rush over the lip of the cliff every second. A quick guesstimate on the fly leads me to believe that that's nearly an ocean per year. In any case, it's a lot and much more than can be conveyed in words. The viewpoint is almost within reach of the bulging sheet of water that constantly throws itself over the edge.

A bit farther to the right is the entrance to the Cave of the Wind, a walk on wooden planks at the foot of the Bridal Veil Falls. Much like the Maiden of the mist, this is money well spent. You get a plastic raincoat and sandals and the chance to walk very nearly underneath a massive waterfall – and you will get wet. The platform closet to the falling waters is called Hurricane Deck, another example of how marketing can't outdo nature. Standing on the deck is the closest anyone can come to experiencing a hurricane safely. Water is all around you. It drops from 160 feet only gigantic boulders right next to the banister. It roars, it surges, it pounds, and it screams. It soaks you mercilessly with its spray. It displaces air that sweeps like a tropical storm. It is unbelievable, and quite indescribable.

But the best part of the visit is yet to come. Back up on Goat Island, a quaintly arched stone bridge takes the visitor to tiny Luna Island, crossing what looks like a peaceful side arm of the river. After the bridge, it's only a few more steps to the railing. The roar of the rapids and the falls are always audible, but now, it gets louder with every step. Standing at the railing, the American Falls are to your right. To your left, what looked like a tranquil tributary encounters an edge and, unceremoniously, drops, becoming the Bridal Veil Falls in the process. Now lean over the railing. The roar becomes deafening. You are sandwiched, almost within touching distance, by two major waterfalls, and before you is the abyss.

Awesome, this most American of words, doesn't give it justice, even though it's the only word that manages, on occasion, to penetrate the noise. Awesome is on everyone's lips, and awe widens all eyes. Mouths agape, people stare at what they see, but their minds don't register it. This experience is out of this world, and there's only one way it could possibly be made better. Next time you're there, approach Luna Island with your eyes closed.

getting in

Last night I entered the US after a prolonged absence of more than three years, crossing Rainbow Bridge in full view of the American Falls, the evening sun coloring the mist golden. Just showing my passport was not enough. I had to pull off to the side and enter the main Border Patrol building like any other asylum seeker, illegal immigrant, and non-Western tourist. There were a few of them there already, waiting to have their case heard and, possibly, denied.

Barely arrived and with no time for the TV that's the only bit of entertainment in a drab room, I hear my name and country called. While I walk towards the open door into the interrogation chamber, I feel big black eyes in brown faces staring at me dejectedly, asking, why you, why not us, we were here first. Blessing my adopted fatherland, the country that adopted me nineteen years ago without my ever asking, I follow the officer into the adjacent room and sit down on the last chair.

Approaching the border I had wondered what it would take to cross, given that I'm not holding a visa anymore. Canada just let me in. The US was a bit more formal, but not by much. I have to answer innocuous questions about when I have last been here, what I am doing, where I'll be staying and for how long. This small talk is just the warm-up for one serious question. The officer sits up straight, looks me in the eye and asks, What have been doing in Syria?

Oops, a visa and a stamp from an axis-of-evil country surely catches their eyes. Is that reason enough for a denial? I stammer, truthfully but nervous in the face of mean-looking authority, that I was just visiting for a couple of days, tell about my Jordanian friends from graduate school, and wonder how this will continue.

It doesn't. The officer hands me a little survey with yes/no questions about previous criminal and terrorist activities, about attempts to wrest children from Americans who possessed their custody, about visa denials and unlawful entries. I answer in the negative, pay six dollars, get a stamp, and am admitted to the US. The Empire State welcomes me.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

famous sons

Leaning back in the tub of the Yorkville hotel that closes the loop of my Canada road trip, in a bathroom that's only slightly smaller than my London apartment, I relax to the tunes of Bach that quickly sooth me into a state of semianimation. Appropriately, Glenn Gould, this most unconventional pianist that drives thick layers of musical brilliance from my iPod, was from Toronto, was in fact the city's most famous citizen.

Today, a music school, a recording studio and a foundation bear his name, but there's precious little to satisfy a musical pilgrim or even as casually devoted tourist. Gould Street is so short is doesn't even require an East/West specifier, and there's is nothing on it to explain the name. There is no plaque full of history, and the only statue on its sides is of the founder of Ryerson University, an institution of muted prestige whose campus extends north and south of the street.

To the befuddlement of my cotravelers, I kept returning to the street in search of some evidence of its namesake. I kept crossing the street looking at every exposed wall and into every alley, I searched out nooks and concealed recesses to find some evidence of acknowledgment. It was in vain. There was nothing.

Only today did I learn about the park bench outside the CSB recording studios, but the incessant and incredibly violent rain kept me from going there and checking things out, and maybe even having my photo taken with the metal man. I'm left with his music and the realization that a little bit of preparation would have gone a long way.

Another famous artist who has gone unacknowledged for too long has recently made a splash. Banksy is a graffiti virtuoso of carefully guarded identity of whom not much more is know than his youth in Bristol. Ever since honing his skills with the spray can, he has been putting his ironic stenciled images on every possible wall from Bristol to London to Palestine and back.

Like every serious sprayer's, his works are frequently painted over or scraped off walls by concerned authorities. Bristol led the way. Up to a year ago, not a single Banksy could be found within the city limits. Then came the in-your-face mural at a sexual health clinic, which somehow changed the city's minds. A month ago, out of nowhere, Banksy was given the keys to Bristol Museum and told to do as he pleased. The result has caused a mad frenzy, a gold rush to tickets more spirited than the museum seems to be able to handle. I'm not a fan of crowds, but I'll make the trip anyway, sometime in August before the show ends. I wouldn't want to miss another artist I admire.

Friday, July 24, 2009

too much rain

Ask any Ontarian about the weather these days and you're bound to get a disappointed, almost tired shake of heads for an answer. The province is supposed to be hot, sunny and humid in summer, but this year things are different. Rain has been falling in sheets, not every day but frequently enough that even the farmers have more water than they can use. The rivers, lakes and reservoirs are full.

We have had our share of relentless precipitation, though mostly while on the road. While that wasn't too pleasant for the driver, it didn't keep us from enjoying our vacation. In Toronto, Montréal and Québec City we were blessed with sunshine strong and temperatures high enough to make my companion complain and seek shelter in dark basements.

Our drive to Ottawa yesterday was a continuation of this theme. Wet and dark grey on the road, increasingly bright and then sunny while visiting the city. Not a single drop fell on our heads while we strolled through the capital of Canada, about which I cannot write with any sort of enthusiasm. The waterfront (again!) is very nice. It's kept natural and doesn't even need a cement factory to look good, but the positive things end there. The rest is plenty of faux-historic government buildings and some boring glass and steel.

Oh, and the Rideau Canal, a waterway that some megalomaniac engineer had thousands of laborers blast and dig through the virtual impenetrability of the Canadian Shield, is quite a sight. It starts (or ends) at the Ottawa River with a series of half a dozen locks that carry fairly large boats up (or down) an elevation of nearly twenty meters by the force of water alone.

From Ottawa we made our way up north through increasingly smaller towns that were all lively and surprisingly charming. To me as a German it is entirely incomprehensible to see a mere tick on the map, a crossroads of a few thousand inhabitants like Arnprior, have a vibrant main street with shops, restaurants, places of entertainment, beauty salons, coffee rosteries and businesses devoted to ethical trade. How are there possibly enough consumers to keep things going? If Canada is anything like the US, prosperity and growth rest on the twin pillars of house price inflation and excessive consumption. House values impart an impression of wealth, which people spend liberally – and locally because it's convenient. Businesses in town benefit and so does, by way of sales and corporate taxes, the town. Maybe we should try this in Germany.

After spending a night in a rotten motel that didn't quite fit in with the overall rosy picture I had formed of the little town, we continued west towards Algonquin Provincial Park for our first glimpse of what Canada is really famous for: nature, the great outdoors, scenery, lakes, and woods. The country is huge, and there isn't much civilization between the cities, most of which are near the border with the US. Between the cities we visited, we drove for hours along dense forests or sluggish rivers. But the land was completely flat and without much appeal. I began to think that Canada was overrated.

Today, I was disabused. Even though Ontario is probably not the prettiest province – it doesn't have mountains, for example – there are places of great beauty. Algonquin, the first area to be protected by order of the government, is such a place. It has rolling hills densely studded with the widest variety of trees I've ever seen in one place. Ten percent of its surface is covered in water. There are more than a thousand miles of canoe trails (inevitably involving portages to get from lake to lake). Moose, bears and wolves thrive.

We had planned to do a long day hike to get a better idea of what being in nature means here, but when we crossed the park border, it started to drizzle, and the dark clouds all around us didn't fill us with the confidence necessary to set out on a big loop. We chose two little ones instead. The first, very educational, one led us through an environment created over the decades by beavers. We saw dams and artificial lakes with beaver lodges sticking out. We saw downstream lowlands where grass and shrubs were invading. We saw water lilies and a frog, but we didn't see a beaver. At least we stayed reasonably dry.

The second hike was awesome, and that was owed in part to the rain that started pouring like silly fifteen minutes after we had started. We walked along several boggy lakes and then straight through the middle of another. The boardwalk that kept us afloat was partly submerged in murky waters and seemed to drown deeper with every step we made. Crossing the water like Moses, hundreds of feet from (not very) dry ground, was a spooky experience, one that we couldn't have had, had the lake not been filled to the brim after weeks of excess rain.

We returned to the car full of vivid memories but soaked to the bones. My camera was damp despite my most protective instincts and my rain jacket dripping liquid like a fat sponge. Weighing twice as much as dry, it reminded me clearer than after any drizzly London day that it wanted to be thrown out and replaced with a new one. While changing into dry clothes, my friend and I spent a good ten minutes bickering about the conditions and exaggerating our misery. We are wimps, and even with a new jacket I'm sure I wouldn't enjoy canoeing or camping in the park all that much – at least as long as the summer was as nasty as this one.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

vignettes Québequoises

A part of my current summer vacation, the one right after the road trip through Ontario and Québec has just fallen through, and I'm not in the best of moods. But since we're having the first relaxed evening since touching down in Canada a week an a half earlier, I thought I sit down and summarize my impressions of Québec. So here it goes:

Montréal was our first encounter with Québec and, oh my, was I impressed. The town has some lovely parts. On the Plateau, near the Mont Royal, the major streets are filled with cafés, restaurants, bars and quirky shops. The sidewalks are full of people as if one were in Europe, and even strolling through residential back streets I didn't get the feeling that everyone passing by was staring at me to judge whether I was a dangerous criminal looking for a heist or a vagrant looking for trouble. Montréal is made for walking.

Montréal is also made for public transport. Four underground lines make is easy to get around quickly, and frequent buses crisscross the area between the métro stops. The majority of the people in the streets speak French but there are also many anglophones and almost everyone seems to understand both languages. I was wondering if there is another city in the world that is equally bilingual but couldn't cone up with one.

Montréal is technically an island – it is completely surrounded by water. How that came to pass geologically is another thing I don't know, but I can tell you that the effect is rather pleasant. The city's main waterfront is just off Old Montréal, a neighborhood that has been retouched nicely over the last decades. In contrast to less fortunate cities where gentrification has been driven to complete Disneylandification, where not a brick is original and most structures look like the shrink wrap has only been removed that same morning, Vieux Montréal and the waterfront are still visibly old. Windows are still rickety and walls crooked, and an enormous rusty ship is moored in full view in one of the docks.

But the best part about the waterfront is a gigantic ugly cement factory that sits on an island in the St. Lawrence, just off the shore. It is massive, it is hideous, and it blocks the view, but I totally loved it. Most places try to look the same these days, most try to be perfect and end up looking bland and interchangeable. The cement factory added a big dollop of past that was so real that you could touch it. It anchored the waterfront firmly in the context of the past and reminded everyone of what we owe our prosperity to – dirty, grimy industry.

Québec City is advertised as the only walled city in North American and as a place where you can forget that you are in America. It's true. The city is really different. The roads in the fortified part of town are narrow, twisted and studded with curbside cafés and restaurants. French is spoken universally. All buildings are old and full of history. A vibe of relaxed savoir-vivre lay in the air.

On the other hand, it also felt like all the tourist traps of Paris were packed inside the thick walls. Busloads of day trippers thronged alleyways stuffed with cheap oil paintings of the Château Frontenac and the Séminaire de Québec, bad street musicians played until you paid them to harass someone else, and caricaturists were like vultures with pencils. After a brisk walk covering most of the upper old town, I had only found the large boardwalk-like terrace overlooking the St. Lawrence charming. The rest – for the bin.

Luckily, we discovered later that Québec continues beyond its walls. Out there, there are similar cafés and restaurants and plenty of narrow streets but fewer tourists. It was on a walk through the back streets that we discovered the lovely waterfront that, just like Montréal's, has recently been redeveloped. Amazingly, it also has a cement factory that looks out of place and blocks the view but adds context and originality. Canada surely is different.

Monday, July 20, 2009

cutting through ugliness

A couple days ago, we started making our way east. Toronto was the US. Never mind what the Canadians say, Ontario is just another state, and Toronto could be anywhere. Tall buildings, lots of traffic and few people in the streets – even with the best peameal bacon sandwiches that's nothing to get excited about. We were happy to leave.

Halfway between Toronto and Montreal, though not exactly on the border dividing the anglophone Ontario from the francophone Quebec, is Kingston. We spent a night there because the town was massively advertised in the Rough Guide and a labmate of ours had promised to meet us for dinner. She had gone to college at Queen's University and was happy to visit friends and ex-colleagues after four years of London. We had read about eclectic, historic architecture and cruises to a thousand islands, and were eager to check things out.

Kingston is a college town. There's one main drag that's full of bars and restaurants, but all is deserted in summer. The students have gone home and hicks rule the town. The only people at the university that are around are the internationals that don't have enough money to fly home or those with a job over the summer. This is not the kind you would find in a bar. And regarding the highly praised architecture, we didn't really see what all the fuzz was about. There were a few buildings, and that was about it.

From Kingston we went to Montreal. The only thing that impeded our progress was the city of Cornwall. One of my travel mates was born in Cornwall, England, and was adamant about seeing the region's namesake in Canada. It wasn't worth the stop. Remington's pub gave us a good lunch and the bridge from the US was certainly worth a look (and I'll be very excited crossing it when I return from Lake Placid, New York, to Canada in a week and a bit), but besides that, there was nothing. Just like Soda Springs, Idaho, Cornwall, Ontario, is a place where you wonder how it survives. There is nothing there and no reason for anyone to live there. The drive along the St. Lawrence river was lovely, but where is economic viability?

About an hour after Cornwall, we entered the gravity field of Montreal. For all Quebec is praised, for all Quebec prides itself in its difference, the approach was more disappointing that I could put in words. The wide highway cut though seas of car dealerships and fast-food franchises. Mile upon mile of straight traveling. All around only hastily erected office buildings and warehouses that one doesn't want to grace with ones glance. On several occasions I felt compelled to roll down the window and scream, Ugly! at what I saw.

There was the interchange were we got lost because the maze of lanes that was visible to the left and right was just too frightening to keep one's eyes open. A tangle of concrete spaghetti hovered in multiple levels over some post-industrial wasteland, and we were in the midst of it. The design might have been swish at some remote point in the past, the lines might have looked dynamic, but after decade of relentless use, all appeal had fallen from the vast structure. Concrete was crumbling, rebar showed, and the surface of the road was much like a piste across the Siberian tundra. I was glad I didn't have to drive and closed my eyes.

My peace didn't last long. We lost our way and had to navigate urban traffic for a while. Thrown from one extreme into another, I was now very upset that I couldn't drive myself because a madhouse had opened all around us. Left, right, straight and stop – traffic moved in all ways at one and according to no discernible rules. Sadly for me and luckily for our designated driver, our detour into the wild lasted only a few minutes and ended when we got back to our highway as if guided by some higher force or an excellent navigator.

The chance to scream, Ugly!, presented itself once more when we crossed the St. Lawrence river. This waterway must have a glorious past. Evidence is visible everywhere, beginning with the mile-long riveted-steel bridges crossing it. Huge disused and slowly decaying cement factories, flour silos, decommissioned ocean vessels, and grimy docks all testify to a noisy past.

To the driver, the beauty of the city is almost completely hidden. We would find out about the Plateau Mont Royal, about the Parc Olympique, about Vieux Montreal and the countless charms of a beautiful and incredibly inviting city only later. When we approached our hotel, all we saw was yet more ugliness. In a neighborhood that wouldn't look out of place in the banlieues of Paris, with slim apartment blocks rising towards the sun and blocking it most of the day, was our shelter for two nights. The Sandman Hotel is just another high rise and wouldn't deserve a second look, were it not for the Metro stop that's only two minutes away. We returned to sleep in our room and spend the rest of our time, all of our waking hours if you care to count, exploring a lovely city that deserves its own post.

Monday, July 13, 2009

first few days

Sitting in a lounge chair outside my room at the conference center, my feet high up on a banister separating the large deck from a small artificial lake the color of a peak bog with a continuously running water fountain in the middle whose main function seems to be to outcompete the drone of the highway in the far distance, I'm reflecting on the journey so far.

I flew Air India to Toronto and, in a clear proof of my arrogant Western attitudes, I expected the worst: rickety equipment, noisy passengers, unreliability. My suspicions were confirmed on the first front. The Boeing 777 was old. It seemed to hail from an era when 777s hadn't even been in existence. It could have been the first prototype. The flight nevertheless was pleasant. It started with a huge gin and tonic. The two big shots, two cans of tonic and load of ice proved almost too much to balance on the little tray in front of me, but the drink I proceeded to mix and enjoy over the next half hour was tasty.

It also put me in the mood to chat up my seat neighbor, something I had never done before on a plane. She was of Bengali origin but had grown up in Guelph, just an hour outside of Toronto, and was a well of information. I had more ideas of what to do on our first night in town than I would have after reading the Rough Guide back to back.

The passengers on the plane were mostly Indian, which is somewhat curious on a flight from London to Toronto, but the flight didn't unravel like a Hindi movie as I had feared, and no one sung and danced in the aisles. After getting out of London an hour late, we were even arrived on time.

We struggled a bit to find our hotel, located in the heart of downtown but nevertheless out of reach for us while we dragged our luggage through wide streets that always led in the wrong direction. Eventually, we arrived, dropped our stuff, took a shower, and set out to explore an area of Toronto that was highly recommended by my fellow traveler up in the sky. Go to the north-west, she had said. Walk through China Town and then through Greece until you get to Little Italy. We did, and we had dinner in a good restaurant in a lively neighborhood with bookshops and art galleries that stayed open late and lots of folks out in the streets heading for a party or a club.

Most of the nightbirds' outfits were quite a bit over the top, as if the bearers were desperate that a more subdued style would be taken as evidence of their provinciality. As it is so often, the harder you try, the dumber you look, and the effect was the exact opposite, but it gave us something to talk about while we strolled along happening streets and enjoyed the night.

The next day was in strong contrast to the night before. The streets were deserted and, lined by office and condominium high rises, not very attractive. They were also too wide – too American – to make walking appealing. The sun was out and the day nearly perfect, but I failed to see the attraction of the town.

Now, as I sit on the deck in the chilly morning air that doesn't seem to promise a summer day, the sun has come out a second time. I don't feel jet-lagged anymore but invigorated and full of energy. I have to hurry to head for breakfast because the talks start in half an hour.

Thursday, July 09, 2009


The sound of the piano wafts across the room. I lounge in my chair like a wet bag of beans. Relaxing is not what I'm doing, though it might look like it. I'd rather call it floating in and out of consciousness, hammered after an intensely brutal week at work. My eyes open and close to the tune of the music, which alternatingly fills me with energy and saps it from me.

Not that there is much to sap. A week of getting up before seven has taken its toll. Last weekend I got an email from the boss asking for a progress report on a project that hasn't been on my mind in a while. Reading her email I realized that I still hadn't prepared a poster for the conference I'm going to on Saturday. The sad truth was I had nothing to present.

Instead of doing work, I had spent the weeks leading up to last weekend hoping I would get away without a poster. Boss reminded me that I was mistaken if I thought so. No poster, no trip to Canada. Fair enough, I had to admit, but I still didn't see what I could fill a piece of paper the size of an average London flat with. I have got no results in the two years I've been here.

Boss suggested I combine two impossible things into a nice little task for the week. Sort out the project she wanted more money for and fill the poster with the results that I would undoubtedly unearth. I was skeptical but had to do something. Just fretting and procrastinating wouldn't do the trick.

I went through old data, data that two others had despaired on, data abandoned on countless hard disks and DVDs over the years. Earlier, I had spent quite a bit of quality time with some of the datasets myself, and could feel my colleagues' pain.

Since that frustrating first encounter, I had shared my dismay with some of the wizards of crystallography, scientists who know so much more than me that it's sad to even think about. But talking about them opened my eyes to new possibilities, suggested new ways of treating the data and tickling meaning from them. Since Monday I've been busy doing that, making better progress than I had hoped, turning spots on an image into numbers in a file and then tubes of virtual chicken wire on my screen, into which I modeled protein with ease.

The problem isn't solved, and I'm not sure it can be. The twinkle of excitement that flared up in boss's eyes when I gave her the latest update today might be premature – or simply delusive. But by the end of the day, I had cleared two giant boulders that were chained to my legs and dragged me down. The poster is printed now, one day ahead of schedule, and a few paragraphs of report have been written. For tomorrow, I just have to keep my focus and finish all the things that need doing before departure. If I managed to raise from chair, I could even start packing.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

eat right

In the summer of 1993, when still languishing in high school but between terms, a friend and I hopped on our bikes and set out to touch the westernmost part of the French hexagon. Looking at the map beforehand, we assumed it would have to be somewhere in Brittany, though the exact point eluded us. We just set out and and went, speculating someone would be able to direct us when we got closer.

What we didn't know at this point was that France is not the U.S. The biggest, greatest, best and most is not always signposted. In Brittany, two spiky pieces of land jut westward into the Atlantic Ocean, both appearing to try hard to outcompete the other. From our road map, it was impossible to tell on which one could cycles farther to the west. The many Offices de Tourisme that we entered to disambiguate this point were of absolutely no help. The friendly representatives inside just stared at us when we inquired and showed us the nice church in their village or the municipal campground.

As distance was our gospel and speed our dream, we didn't stop for the church, and even the campgrounds didn't distract us. That was a luxury in which we indulged every three days only. We rarely visited official attractions, and the Office de Tourisme wasn't really a destination either. For the most part, we got off our bikes only when we needed food, during the day or at night before heading for the nearest pasture on which to pitch the tent.

One evening, we made it to the Petit Casino just in time. After we had stocked up on baguettes, cheese, yogurts and ice cream, the proprietor of the little store locked the door behind us and closed for the day. While we were balancing our loads and getting our bikes ready, he cleaned up and threw out food that was about to go bad, fruits that wouldn't survive a warm summer night. They fell right before our feet like manna from heaven. Some looked a bit dodgy but most were of perfect ripeness. I have never had juicier cantaloupes.

This sweet story was dragged from a rarely visited part of my memory upon reading an article in last weekend's Financial Times Magazine that detailed the wastefulness of the modern food industry. It's a disturbing read and a topic that deserves more attention than it's getting. Had you asked me about food waste before this weekend, I would have told you about a campaign here in the U.K. raising awareness of the amount of food that is thrown out by households. I would have also told you that people are idiots for throwing things out, and that I nearly always eat everything that's in my fridge. As I learned this weekend, it's not so much about me not throwing things out. It's about the system.

It's about grocery stores having shelves fully stocked with perishable produce minutes before they close. Customers expect that. I expect that. I clearly remember my shock walking through a half-empty Tesco in February when the delivery trucks got stuck in snow that had fallen knee-deep. It's convenient to always be able to buy anything, but the dark side to this comfort is waste. When shelves are full, lots of things are not sold. Before they go bad, they're thrown out.

It's about suppliers shipping first-class items only and chucking everything inferior because it's not worth their time. It's about 'best before', 'sell by' and 'display until' dates confusing consumers.

But most of all, it's about sustainability. The way we shop for victuals has a global effect in these globalized times. Economists know that food prices are related across continents, while ecologists worry that demand here leads to agricultural expansion with all its side effects there. A more efficient distribution of food would alleviate quite a few problems in this world. The merchant at the Petit Casino who saw us eat the fruits he had binned would probably agree. Our win wasn't his loss. He threw us a delighted Bonne Soirée before taking off into the night.

Monday, July 06, 2009

end of the day

Got up early and went out for rolls. My kitchen looked like it had been raided and I needed to eat. Most of Goldhawk Road was still sleeping. The shutters of the countless shops were drawn shut. Even most of the after-hours convenience stores were closed. Only the bakery was open, and the warm smell of freshly baked bread guided the way.

The first part of the day, after breakfast, was spent running around the neighborhood for food and a haircut, cleaning and working at home, and ticking to-dos of the ever-growing list. I was out of breath when I finally set out on my way to the center of town, a journey of leaps and bounds, in buses and on foot, through parks and along high streets. In Kensington, I shopped like there was no yesterday, as if my closet weren't full, as if, if you insist, I weren't in serious need of some fresh cloth over my shoulders. The day was already a success when I left the last store before the commercial restraint of Kensington Gardens and beyond.

Another bus took me to Royal Albert Hall, two stops away and a welcome relief for my feet. Next to the round temple of popular high culture is the Royal College of Art where I wanted to see the Graduate Summer Show. Illustrations, architecture, industrial design, fashion, and art from science – there were hundreds of pieces in a riotous jumble. Colors, sounds, smells and motions assaulted my senses and spun my head. I didn't find serenity like I like to do in art galleries, and was driven on by the madness.

Nothing wild or crazy, however, can compare to the rush of Oxford Street when the shops are open. I got off yet another bus at Marble Arch and started making my way through the crowds that flailed impressive bunches of shopping bags about them as if there had never been a recession. I straightened my shoulders and put my weight forward, cutting through the mess with blunt determination but waning forces. Sometimes I had to step on the street, synchronizing my speed with the never-ending string of buses, because there was simply no room on the sidewalk.

I entered some more stores and surprised myself with the ease with which I parted with the money in my wallet. My backpack grew increasingly heavy, and at one point I even carried a plastic shopping back myself. That was not a good idea, though, because it got immediately entangled in many-legged counter-traffic. I veered to the side wall of an unoccupied office block, gave my pack a solid pounding, and stuffed in what had been out. There was room for more. I wanted more, and kept going. The hours passed.

The sun was still out but sitting low in the western sky, mottling the clouds with bright orange highlights, when I finally got back home. The day had been as crazy as this town is. I drank the madness in with big gulps and had exhausted myself. Now it was time to kick back and recharge, take the Sunday for what it's made, enjoy the weekend the traditional way.

I dropped into one of my enormous blue easy chairs, flung the slippers off my feet, and hit the play button on my stereo's remote. The positive energy of vigorously struck piano keys rose from the speakers on my shelf, and a curious sort of calm filled the room, not exactly peaceful but relaxing. The world beyond my living room ceased to exist, the heat of the day and the noise from the road disappeared under the vibrations and harmonies of the piano and the occasional soft humming of Glenn Gould.

I've been listening to his masterful playing for a few weeks now, ever since I found his Goldberg Variations on Spotify. Now I've purchased his recording of Bach's French Suites, and I'm listening myself into a trance. Some critics disparage his playing as robotic tone twinkling, but I like the transparency of the sound and the clarity of each note, the surgical precision with which he plays. If there's one thing I mind, it's that it took me so long to discover this giant of music.

But now that I have I'm happy to end each day with him. I already forgot what I did today. Nothing special, I guess, just a regular Sunday.