Friday, October 30, 2009

project 3

I am a terrorist. I tried to bring transcontinental airliners crashing to the ground, accepting the hundredfold death of innocent people without blinking. I boarded a plane with weapons of mass destruction in my pockets, explosives of unfathomable power. It would have been enough to wipe the confidence off the face of a flight marshal, enough to blow a manhole into the fuselage of a 747 or rip a wing off in mid-flight.

I'm a terrorist, and no matter what crazy positive spin you put to it, I won't turn into a heroic freedom fighter, saving his tortured people from the yoke of an imperial oppressor or blood-thirsty dictator. I am a cold-hearted, nihilistic, self-denying criminal, a man with no morals or values. Total destruction is my goal.

I'm too dangerous to mention and unaware of the threat I pose. By being concealed from my own awareness, the violence within me is amplified out of control. Even if Hillary Clinton had taken to my nuts with a pair of burning pliers, I would not have betrayed my cause or leaked the identity of my fellow-jihadis. I would have vehemently denied the existence of a plot, even if authorities had made me dangle, feet up, from a rusty nail and whipped my naked back with a cat-o-nine-tails.

In my devious plan, there were no co-conspirators. I was acting alone. You might call it cowardly. You might call it brave. But truth be told, it was accidental, and I realized only upon my return to London what risk I had posed to international aviation. It took emptying my backpack to see what mortal danger I had been transporting.

Three months ago, I spent a hilarious three days in Lake Placid, New York. I rode a bike through the woods and hung out with friends. After one particularly grim morning of rain and mud, I purchased three Clif Shots that were on sale and promptly forgot about them.

Because of the explosive potential inherent in all liquids, gels and pastes, Clif Shots need to be declared at the airport and placed in resealable transparent plastic bags. This slipped my mind and, to my infinite relief when I found them in my luggage much later, escaped the scrutiny of the security screener.

Today, I booked a flight to Dresden for 23 Apr. I also put my name down for the marathon taking places there two days later. It will be my third marathon, and, in contrast to the two before – miserable failures both of them – I will run it in under three hours. I promise. Solemnly. I won't take a vacation before May of next year. No trip to Turkey at Easter or to Paris. The beginning of next year will be filled with focus and dedication and hours spent in the park running. I have a goal to work towards. The project is called three.

If I fail (mark my words), I will stuff my body of a loser into a t-shirt that says "most pathetic lard-ass ever to slog across this planet", but I don't think it will come that far. The omens are good and the numbers aligned. Three Clif Shots will carry me to glory in my third marathon, to a time of under three hours.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


Lo was, according to the New Yorker, this indisputable beacon of authority, this inexhaustible source of trivia, my personal holy book of miscellanea, the content of the first message ever exchanged between two computers. This was forty years ago today. The message was supposed to read login, but the network crashed somewhere between the transmission of the second and the third byte.

Forty years is a bloody long in most people's lives, but in technology it's an eternity, comprising several cycles of obsolescence and rebirth. Still, every time I care to look, I'm amazed and lost for words to see how far we've come. These days, the internet is ubiquitous, pervasive and instantaneous. To no one's surprise, this post continuous after its auspicious first word, for a word it is, as if that were the normal course of things.

Also taken for granted these days is to video chat with friends or telephone them, listen to the radio, live or from a deep chest of archived treasures, watch TV or entire movies, all over the internet. None of this raises an eyebrow.

My eyebrows were raised this evening when I got home and found an envelope in the mail, addressed to the "resident" of my flat but in contrast to all the other junk mail I toss without even noticing its provenience endorsed by hand. My curiosity was tickled as I read that a mysterious visitor has missed me this afternoon at 2:47pm. He or she assured me that he'd be back (or she) but didn't say for what purpose.

I took the letter in with me and opened it over dinner – bronze-die tortiliogni and tomato and chili sauce as I had had only a measly sandwich for lunch – and was astonished and disappointed to find yet another message from the TV Licensing Authority. These guys' misdirected persistence is quite annoying and would be truly exasperating if it were my money they were wasting.

You see, in the UK, you need to pay a quarterly fee to operate a TV set legally. The fee, it its opulent entirety, goes to the BBC to ensure quality programming, to every viewer's benefit, I think. The commercial stations, which don't receive handouts, have to up their quality to compete with the BBC. Consequently, British TV has an excellent reputation.

As I don't have a TV, I don't know if that's deserved, but I do know that I resent the relentless attention by the Licensing Authority. I'm not serious in my anger, though, because every now and then, I turn to the iPlayer. This little bit of web 2.0, its development funded by the licensing fee, offers select programs after they've been shown on TV. It's brilliant, much better than TV. I can watch what I want when I want to, and I'm under no obligation to pay a thing. And thanks to the work of forty years, all shows stream in high quality and without interruptions. Happy birthday, internet.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

people watching

On this Sunday afternoon late in October, I expected dullness, greyness and more than a hint of mist in the air. If English weather is still to be relied on, it should be drizzling nearly constantly. Not enough precipitation to be called rain but, frustratingly, enough to be thoroughly soaked and cold to the bones within minutes.

My cunning plan was to dash over to the Westfield and pitch up in one of the many coffee bars overlooking the immense street-like corridors that recall sidewalk cafés but don't suffer from the wrath of the elements. I wanted to observe the bustle that's inevitable in a shopping mall and see if I could make out some memorable characters and put their idiosyncrasies into a funny little post of no particular significance. It was meant to be an exercise in writing and a bit of comfort to those of my readers who get restless during periods of blog silence.

When I stepped out of my flat and onto a road that's usually notable only for its bleakness, I saw my plan shattered in all its intricacy. Leaving the house, I entered a beautiful day, one that would not tolerate time needlessly spent inside. The switch back from daylight savings time might mark the passing of summer more clearly than the official start of fall a month earlier does, but no one seemed to have notified the sun. It shone brilliantly and with enough force to keep any autumnal chill subdued.

Truth be told, I wasn't surprised. It was laziness not fear of wetness that had kept me inside earlier. Today was the continuation of a glorious weekend, with sun, voluptuous clouds and a special light that made me regret not bringing my camera. It was fall at its best, with angelic atmospheric conditions supplemented by turning leaves ruffled by a soft breeze. Happy people ambled through the streets without worry or aim. The usual mad Londonian rush had been suspended for one day only.

In a display of my trademark decision-making rigidity, I walked over to the Westfield anyway but once inside couldn't stay there for long. I don't know what it is, but despite the airiness of the vast main concourse, I felt oppressed and stifled. Maybe it was the filtered, artificial air. Maybe it was the lack of a refreshing breeze. Whatever it was, it forced me back out into the light, back to the life of the street.

At the exit of the mall, at the interface between the corporate virtual world of the Westfield and the grit of Shepherd's Bush is a café whose opening, two months ago, had filled me with great expectations. Beyond its awful name of Cap'uccino, there was a lot of potential. The design was clean, modern and relaxed. Small tables with comfortable-looking chairs covered two floors, eschewing any discernible pattern. A battery of shiny espresso machines was parked behind a long bar stocked with Italian pastries. Everywhere were stacks of books, all written in the same language and provided for those eager to enjoy Italo Calvino or Primo Levi in the original. I don't read Italian easily but I saw myself become regular.

That was before I entered the place for the first time. The coffee was good and the cornetto delightful, but I don't expect a host to meet me when I enter a coffee shop, and show me to a table. I also don't need a menu that's bigger than said table. Where am I going to put my Eee? And where does my coffee go? Is this really the kind of hangout where I can stay of hours, lingering over coffee while catching up on a week of news in the paper? After that first visit, I haven't returned and today, I wasn't in the mood either.

Instead, I went the few extra yards to the Green with its collection of coffee shops, a wild mixture of corporate and family-run. Whatever their differences, they all share the view across the Green, potentially pleasing but continually obstructed by double-decker buses pulling by in slow motion. I got my macchiato and spread The Times out but got distracted by what happened between me and the buses before I could dig into the first story.

Humongous African ladies paraded by, carrying entire safaris on their colorful throws. Tough kids with gigantic sparkling ghetto pins in their ears marched by stiffly. There was a tall Thai girl with impossibly long legs whose only bit of clothing was a bright little something negligently slung around her hips. For a brief moment, she walked next to an identity under wraps, oblivious to the contrast. Hidden underneath copious layers of impenetrable black cloth and only revealed by two arms dangling from the largely globular shape, hovered a woman as crass in her obscurity as the Thai girl was in her exposedness. Neither provoked more than passing glances.

Nor did the Persian gentleman endlessly fiddling with his scarf, trying to pull it over his ears in a way that didn't immediately suggest a purpose. Temporarily blindfolding himself he almost banged into a ginger-haired member of one of the regional tribes, who lead an unconspicuous existence in London. It took me half a year until I met the first specimen out in the streets.

London is such an effortlessly colorful mixture of people of such differences in appearance and behavior that any alien landing his craft in Hyde Park could simply climb out, walk down the street and blend in with the crowd. Maybe they are here already. The four dudes in thongs above bright-blue diving suits that made their way slowly from the tube station could have come from another planet. These guys actually did get a few stares but only those of the inquisitive kind, people wondering what they were up to and then getting on with their business.

I felt the need to get on with my business as well. While my coffee had cooled down and turned limp, my newspaper had remained untouched and my Eee never left its bag. The sun was still out but only just hanging on with vanishing power. Soon it would sink, taking with it an afternoon that had appeared so brilliant but whose essence I had quite miserably failed to capture and preserve in words.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

eager praise

This afternoon, during a prolonged break in my work when I was waiting for an enzyme to nibble away at the protein I'm studying, I went out to mail a little package to my sister containing a DVD with vacation photos that she has so far only seen on the miserable little screen of my brilliant little Eee. On the way back from the post office, I decided to pay a visit to the long-neglected Oxfam store.

The other day, on the way to lunch with coworkers, the shelves were being reorganizing. Books were scattered about in a state of such chaos that maximum entropy had clearly been reached. I wasn't presumptuous enough to expect to find anything, and I didn't go in. Add my recent vacation to that, and it has been a good four weeks since my setting foot into this most beloved of bookstores.

This afternoon, I went in. The shelves were orderly filled with the kind of eclectic selection that I'm used to and always looking forward to. There are some regulars like Alexander McCall Smith and Stephen Fry, but it's between them that I search, in the dark recesses where the treasures are hidden, the unassuming volumes that nevertheless stay for a day at best before finding a new home, the Chatwins, Capotes, Kureishis, and Steinbecks.

Today I made a catch whose true caliber was only revealed tonight when I dug deeper and deeper into it, eagerly turning page upon page. I had heard of The Reluctant Fundamentalist before. This book was hard to miss, always prominently displayed right near the entrance of each Waterstone's and with a title to invite speculation and stir interest. Plus it was shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize, with all the fanfare and publicity that this entailed. I had long been curious about it; today it was looking at me from a lower shelf and a second later it was mine.

As there was still a bit of time before my experiment needed my attention, I stopped by at Cafe Deco for a late lunch of cappuccino and a croissant aux amandes and read the first chapter in one breath. The book is slim and manageable. Its 200 pages make it a novella according to the blurb on the back cover, but the words are so big and the lines so far apart that one could be forgiven for calling it a humongous short story.

The writing is exquisite. It drew me in while I waited for my cappuccino to cool down to a drinkable temperature, and it swallowed me whole later at home. Changez, the protagonist and narrator, grew up in Pakistan, went to the US to get a degree from Princeton and started work at a consultancy. Surprisingly, we find him now back in Pakistan, sitting in a tea house in Lahore, where he tells a silent and rather mysterious American guest the story of his life in one epic uninterrupted soliloquacious dialog.

The story hinges on 9/11. Before that day, Changez happily and ambitiously followed what he saw as his destiny. Achieving, succeeding, integrating, and becoming more American every day. The terrorist attacks on America change everything, mostly because Changez realizes what's been hidden or suppressed deep inside him, his allegiances and his ties. His family is in Pakistan and his love and concern are with his country at a time when India is parading its army at the shared (or rather contested) border. The ostentatious indifference of the American government towards the brewing conflict drives him to question the validity of working in and for that country.

From a New Year's trip back to Pakistan he returns with a sprouting beard and even more doubts about his place in life. There is a haunting paragraph where Changez ponders the irony that the plane he's on is full of the brightest and fittest, the young elite in the making. While their country is on the verge of war, they all leave for comfortable lives in the US.

And so, as nothing really happens outside Changez's mind, things are coming undone. He abandons a consulting project in Chile that he was assigned to, is kicked out by his company and subsequently forced, by way of not meeting the employment requirements of his visa, to leave the US. Throughout all this, and until the very fitting ending of the novella, the suspense rises continuously but nearly silently. I found myself gripping the lean volume with a vigor I normally reserve for my bars when riding to work, and I was surprised when I noticed that. Not much happens until the end, and lots remains barely implied or entirely unsaid, but the mood of slow disenchantment in light of perceived injustices and inequities is masterfully captured, and the conflict builds densely and relentlessly.

I realize that my review gives the impression that the book is vitriolically anti-American, putting blame for all evils in the world on American actions. This is only because of my own ineptness with words, and I apologize. Mohsin Hamid, the author, is infinitely more accomplished and succeeds in painting a subtly nuanced picture. The truth in world politics is often in the beholder's eye. Hamid's great accomplishment is explaining credibly how Changez changes his point of view, how he discovers and develops his Pakistani identity, and how he slowly radicalizes. Even in the complete absence of religion as a mediating factor, such transitions appear not only possible but also nothing out of the ordinary.

With its meticulously composed sentences and intensely focused progress through the pages that grips the reader mercilessly but without overt climaxes or rushes, the book could best be described as a sort of parable, the dissection of a westernized, moderate Muslim's brain to show its undoing, at least from a western point of view. There is much more to think about in the book than there are sentences, but it's not a brainy book. It's simply fun to read, and it is so far the only book to appear on my lists of books I acquired and books I finished reading on the same day.

Monday, October 19, 2009

art confusion

"Art is the re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical values-judgments." This sentence jumped at me before I had even reached the first chapter of the latest addition to my collection of sadly unread books. It starts the introduction to Atlas Shrugged and was said by the author Ayn Rand to preclude any literary interpretation of or search for meaning in her fictional works.

The introduction proceeds to quote at length from Rand's notebooks, giving away the punchlines and, as the creator of the introduction warns, spoiling the book for those who haven't read it. To me, that does not seem a sensible way of composing an introduction. Or is Atlas Shrugged restricted to devoted followers that know the book by heart already? In that case, it seems pointless to me to issue yet another edition.

Enough of such contradictions already. Chance had it that the first sentence, reproduced above, was the book's way of telling me, Read me not! Do your homework first. One thing after another. And the book is right, of course. Something has been churning in my head that needs to be ladled out and presented in a satisfying way before I can ask my brain to cook up something else.

Yesterday, I went to Tate Modern to see a major exhibition that had just opened. Pop Life is a retrospective on Pop Art, starting with Andy Warhol in the late 60s and then meandering in unpredictable ways to the present, and to Japan.

The exhibition is quite amazing. I wasn't so sure of that when I left it Sunday night, but now I can see the point and the power. In ten brilliantly different rooms, one very different from the next, artists were presented as they were or liked to see themselves. There was quite a bit of the Tate's signature pretentious rubbish in the introductory panels, but overall the pieces were mostly free to speak to the audience. Controversy about art and commerce, about selling out and buying in, was left to the viewer to resolve.

One room was designed to look like Keith Haring's Pop Shop in SoHo. His cartoon figures were painted on walls, floor and ceiling as if it were one gigantic canvas, music was blasting from concealed speakers, and from a hole in the wall one could buy t-shirts and buttons. Inside a paying exhibition in London's preeminent modern art museum, to make that clear.

Another room was dedicated to the show that was the short-lived marriage between Jeff Koons (of balloon animal and animal balloon fame) and Cicciolina (of adult movie and Italian parliament fame). Like two others, this room was restricted to the above-18-year-olds. Koons and Cicciolina were shown/showed themselves copulating enthusiastically. The action was captured from all angles and in a cheerful Barbiesque plasticness that belied the medical attention to detail.

It was in that room that the idea for the current post took hold. You have to wonder – and I certainly did, not for the first time, by the way – what is art. Never mind the very first sentence of this post, to me this question is not at all answered. Not that it matters. I'm inclined to say that the more interesting question is, Who makes art.

It is not the creator because then we'd all be artists because everyone re-creates reality according to some values or judgments, to beat that first statement one last time. I write, you sing under the shower, he prunes hedges, she repaints the living room. None of this is generally considered art, and the reason for this is that no authority has elevated it to the status of art.

My favorite example is the story of the Brazilian tropicalist who was so upset with the arts establishment that he submitted the skin of a pig as his entry for the annual Salon. He reasoned that what he had done was clearly not art, but the system was so rotten and false that it would accept his submission thereby exposing its own degeneration most powerfully.

Surprise, surprise: His 'sculpture' was rejected on the grounds that it wasn't art. If the story ended here, no one would remember it. But in 2005, I saw a Tropicalism exhibition in the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art in which the pigskin featured prominently. It had become art – contrary to the express intention of the creator/artist.

Another vantage point of who makes art was presented in another room at the Tate. It was a video of two people having sex, for one slow-moving hour. How is this art? Well, the artist in question asked her agent if he could find her a collector willing to pay for a video of her having sex with that collector. A collector was found, the video shot and five copies produced. These are now considered art.

But does prostitution become art just because a self-proclaimed arts collector pays for it? You really have to wonder. And I do, I still do. I haven't come to a conclusion but have a least let my thoughts go freely and get out of my head. Though no questions are answered, I can now, with the respects that is due, approach the first chapter of Atlas Shrugged.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

shopping for memories

This afternoon, I found myself strolling through the London suburb of Southall, out in the fringes of town. Though still safely inside the collar strung by the M25, this was farther out than I would normally venture, even on a sunny summer day with a picnic lined up in a fresh green park.

Today it was sunny, but not particularly warm, and the parks did certainly not look inviting. The ground was wet – not from straightforward rain but a curiously persisting moistness in the air redolent of Halloween, November and the closing of the year.

I was walking down the high street, muscling my way through dense throngs of colorful people. It was Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, one of the brightest days in the calendar of anyone with subcontinental inclinations, affections or traditions. People were out in their finest suits and saris, buying sweets, lamps and firecrackers from the small shops that lines the street.

As I was there in the afternoon, it was only a party in the making, not the party in progress that I had come to see. My camera, excited to do some street photography after such a long time, stayed in its bag and didn't get a chance to show off its skills. My fingers were truly relieved about this because they could stay inside themselves, buried in the warmth of my pockets.

It would have been an uneventful afternoon, entirely devoid of anything worth reporting, had I not stopped at the local Lidl before boarding the bus back to the Bush. For those who don't know it, Lidl is a German chain of hard discounters, selling a small range of mostly own-brand food items at cut-throat prices.

In Germany, there are a handful of these chains, and they define the grocery market. Small, cheap (not necessarily in a good way), messy, and powerful are words that come to mind. While there are other kinds of grocery stores in the country, enormous boxes at the peripheries of towns and posh traders with immaculately presented selections, nothing says more about the way Germans like to shop than the fact that Wal-Mart entered the market, was beaten badly, and left in a hurry. Twice. They were too expensive, too big, too confusing.

At Lidl, cardboard boxes are haphazardly strewn in the narrow aisles, goods spilling from them in anger. The customer must dig up the product he desires and match it to the price tag stuck to some shelf above. This is not my way of shopping. Also at Lidl, employees are treated despicably, without much respect or consideration. This is not my way of doing business. And yet, I entered the store.

I needed cheap TP, simple as that, but found a world I thought I had left behind a decade ago when I left Germany. Lidl has been trading in the UK for fifteen years, but it has adapted to the market in only the most paltry of ways. Many products are the same you can buy in Germany. Many products are even named and labeled in German. Their prices might endear them to the local shoppers, but their indifference of the costumers won't.

I wandered through the aisles, prudently avoiding the littering junk, and saw, on shelf after cluttered shelf, things that brought back memories. Yogurts we used to have in the fridge, juices we used to drink, chocolate I used to buy when I needed a cheap fix. I also saw the cornerstones of a honeyed Christmas: Lebkuchen, jelly-filled hearts, Dominosteine, and racks upon racks of Stollen. It's too early in the year for me to buy any of this, but come December I'll be back, and for the first time in countless years, I'll go into Advent abundantly supplied with the treats that defined the sweetest days of my childhood.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

sun in Germany

Here's a bit of moaning that was supposed to be aired together with the inaugural rant of the week last Friday. But then Mr. President took too much space. So here it goes. A few days late and out of sequence but not yet out of time.

Der Spiegel, the German newsweekly with the worst online edition (colorful in topic, addictive in pulse, but oftentimes painfully poorly written and researched), put an article online last week describing the mess our previous government bequeathed upon us, the people. I voted, by the way, so I have something to say on the topic. I am the people. (Remind me to write about that one as well! I can't believe it's been 20 years.)

Anyway, our previous government – which did not even include the Green Party – tried to turn Germany into the world leader in solar technology. Nothing bad about that, except how it was done. Consumers were financially encouraged to put photovoltaic installations onto their roofs. The utilities were required to purchase any excess power that was generated for an inflated rate (five times the going rate for conventional power at the moment), guaranteed for decades, which the whole country pays for by way of higher overall rates. The cost is expected in the tens of billions of euros.

If this were for environmental benefit, it might be ok. But it's not. In Germany, it rains a lot and clouds prevail a good share of the time. There's not nearly as much sun as in some other place, like Syria, where I've just been. What happened is that Germany cornered the world market for solar panels, bought them nearly as fast as the Chinese could make them and sent prices skyward for what was left. The Syrians and other feeble but sunny economies were out in the cold. Green power was too expensive for them, even though they could produce it efficiently and wouldn't struggle over years to recover the energy that was spent to make the panels in the first place. In the right place, solar power is green. In Germany, it is nonsense.

And yet, photovoltaic cells continue to be seen as a panacea for clear energy and energy independence. That's probably because they are easy to market. Every concerned customer can allay his guilt about flying to Palma for a weekend in the sun or getting this big new T.V. by bolting three solar panels to his roof. All problems solved. But no, no, no, they're not.

Solar power must first of all be generated where there's sun. Middle East, Arabia, Africa, Spain, to name some places around here. How would Hans benefit? Have the German utilities invest where the sun shines and then bring the electricity back, wrapped up in fat DC cables. The plans are in the drawers, ready to go.

In fact, I just read that Desertec is going to launch this year, aspiring to supply electrical power generated in concentrated solar power plants to Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. The technology is much different from solar panels and certainly worth learning about. It's been working for nearly 25 years in the Mojave Desert and for a while in Spain. I'd have nothing to moan if this project took off.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

fox testicles

For many years now, I've been on a mission. I haven't pursued it relentlessly or even with any sort of dedication, but whenever the chance to advance the mission presented itself, I eagerly took it. And while the mission is far from completed, I've added some important pieces to it during my recent stay in Syria.

The mission began when a friend who is as infected by the travel bug as I am and, importantly, as eager a traveler in books and written words as me, forwarded me a travel essay by Eric Hansen. The piece appeared online at and described a most curious delicacy, orchid ice-cream, where the orchid does not just add flavor to the dessert but is an integral component. In Turkey and the Middle East, the tubers of a particular kind of orchid are ground into a powder that is the basis for an ice-cream unlike any other.

The orchid powder, in appearance similar to potato starch but containing rather different polysaccharides, is known by its Arabic name of sahlab (a bowdlerization of the Arabic term for fox testicles), which refers to the shape of the tubers before they are ground. I've never seen these tubers, not even in pictures, and I haven't touched a fox indecently. For all I know, the name could be completely bogus. But I like it.

I also like good ice-cream, and I was intrigued. Back then, I was doing my Ph.D. and far from testicular orchid tubers. The story remained in the back of my head, and only came knocking when a friend from high school and I went to Istanbul in March 2006.

It was cold, and sahlab was everywhere. Nearly every small snack shop and fast-food restaurant sold sahlab. What you got when buying it, however, wasn't ice-cream but a hot drink. Before leaving the city, I bought a pack of the powder in a little grocery store. Back home, I cooked it up, and the thick hot beverage was perfect for a cold night. Trying to make ice-cream from it, on the other hand, turned out to be a complete disaster.

In 2008, I went back to Istanbul. It was the same time of the year as the first trip, but it was much warmer – and I was with the friend who had originally sent me the link. One fine sunny day, we sailed over to the Anatolian side of town and walked through the neighborhoods of Kadıköy and Moda to find Ali Usta's ice-cream parlor. Eric Hansen had mentioned this as the best place for fox testicle ice-cream in Istanbul. Disappointingly, the ice-cream looked, felt and tasted like any old ice-cream.

A year and a half later, the mission that I had all but forgotten after the incident in Turkey came back knocking. I was walking through the main souq in Damascus when the crowd suddenly became double-dense. Two steps later I was stuck – right in from of the brightly lit window of Bakdash, Damascus's fabled ice-cream store, lauded in every guidebook as preparing Syria's best.

My jaw dropped when I saw white-clad employees pummeling something inside chilled receptacles with large wooden plungers. In ways I had never seen before but which were uncannily reminiscent of what Hansen had written about, they were preparing ice-cream, increasing its density and toughness with every thumping pound.

Once the cold mass had been sufficiently compacted, it was lifted onto the counter, with no protection from the Damascene heat besides the badly bullet-pierced roof of the souq. The ice-cream, however, had no time to melt. Four vendors scooped chunks off the main block as fast as they could, dipped them into a huge tray of chopped pistachios and dispensed servings the size of cricket balls into bowls and onto cones, which people were practically ripping from their hands. It was madness.

The ice-cream tasted different. There was an unusual solidity to it, and yet it was creamy. There seemed to be lumps of something inside, but they inevitably melted upon contact with an investigative tongue. It wasn't exactly what Hansen had described but getting closer.

Two weeks ago, I was back in Damascus and back at Bakdash. This time I managed to detect an element of chewiness in the ice-cream that I had missed earlier. Or maybe the makers had missed it. I noticed that the quality of the ice-cream fluctuated between visits. Owing to the extraordinary demand, the shop cannot produce the highest quality consistently. People are crazy about it anyway, but maybe the real deal is somewhere else?

Four days after leaving Damascus on our road trip, we got to the city of Hama, the fourth largest of Syria but rather smallish and very relaxed. It is famous for ancient but gigantic wooden wheels that used to distribute water from the river running through town to fields lying on higher plateaus.

Next to the al-Nuri Mosque is a small café that exists in no guidebook. After a series of fortuitous events, my sister and I found ourselves there, standing next to a Syrian we had met half an hour earlier and who now proceeded to buy us ice-cream at al-Qahef's. We walked away with a clear plastic drinking cup filled with a heavy paste, off-white and mottled with pistachio bits. What we didn't dare to hope confirmed the first taste: We held outstanding fox testicle ice-cream in our hands. It was very chewy, somewhat elastic, thick, and absolutely delicious. We had no idea how it had been prepared, though.

Upon returning to London, I read through Hansen's piece again and was excited to find that there is still more. We didn't need knife and for to eat our treat, and there was no way of stretching it into a jump rope. Five to ten centimeters was all we could get. I've also not seen the tubers themselves or studied a fox. The mission is thus still not accomplished, which is great. More traveling will be necessary.

This was probably the last post on the vacation. It defies the idea of a blog to rehash things that are weeks old. While I'll return to current events as they happen, I will also put something comprehensive together about the vacation, which will either go onto my homepage or, fingers crossed, an actual publication.

Friday, October 09, 2009

war and peace

Skimming over what has seen the light of the day during the last few months, I realized the other day that this blog has become way too positive, almost cheerful. This is not against my nature – I see no point in being anything but an optimist – but against my culture and traditions. Being German it lies in my blood to criticize, find fault, take exception and be grumpy.

To give this aspect of my personality room for expression, I decided to launch a special section on the blog called Collected Moanings that has nothing to do with anything and will tend to contain random irritations collected over the week, things I heard on the radio or read on the internet, things that annoyed me. There will be no fixed schedule and no topical consistency. The rants will be published al gusto, whenever I feel enough madness has transpired in the world that the floodgates can be left shut no longer for fear of their bursting.

The trigger for this decision, it is not hard to conjecture, was today's announcement that this year's Nobel Peace Prize goes to Barack Obama. I immediately went to the Nobel Foundation's archives to see if any other Commander in Chief of an army at war had received the Nobel Peace Prize. It is not common, and it seems that ending wars is a better qualification for this prize than waging them. Mikhail Gorbachev got his prize one year after pulling out of Afghanistan.

The prize, a major global recognition, is even more baffling when you imagine that three years ago the recipient was an obscure and junior US senator whose main concern was (rightly so) the economic well-being of a undistinguished Midwestern state. Since then, his most visible achievement has been a brilliant Presidential campaign, for which he has already been amply rewarded – with the office he sought and near universal adulation.

Since then, he has tried hard to prevent the U.S. economy from collapsing and given a few inspiring speeches here and there. He has a dream that one day we will live in a world without nuclear weapons, but this dream is shared by billions who'll never see any recognition. More damagingly, he is the only U.S. President in living memory to adjourn a meeting with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders without a joint declaration, without at at least giving the impression of caring about peace in the Middle East. What was the prize for, exactly?

Apparently it was for having grand ideas and visions, but that's not what prizes are usually handed out for. They're for recognizing achievers not dreamers. For visions and ideas, to help them come true, there are grants. This is, by the way and not at all unrelated, how research is done.

Scientists see unsolved problems and come up with ways to tackle them. They write grant proposals (their humble way of giving eloquent speeches) and, with some luck, a funding agency gives money to support the work in the scientists' labs. Years or decades later, when results have been published and generally accepted by the scientific community, prizes are given to those who had the right ideas, a steady hand with the experiments and the iron will to persist.

Earlier this week, and this is where this little digression finds its target, the Nobel Prizes for Medicine, Physics, and Chemistry were announced, all for work done long ago and safely established as monumental. I'm especially happy that Venki Ramakrishnan, a kind and humble fellow and a most brilliant scientist, shares the chemistry prize for his work on the bacterial ribosome. My work uses the same method and approach, so it's nice to hear it talked about on the radio, but it's even nicer to know, from interacting with him at the University of Utah and later at conferences and meetings, that there could hardly be a more deserving winner than Venki.

Coming back to the main thread of the post, Barack Obama is not deserving of a prize yet and, as President of the United States of America, doesn't not need funds or recognition to drive his vision. He has the tax dollars of the world's largest economy, the foreign reserves of the world's second largest, by PPP, and the ear of all the world leaders to help him see his plans come to fruition. Once he has achieved half of what he aspires to, he would be the bookmakers' favorite for any prize. Lexington, at The Economist, is reminded by this massively premature prize of a line from a movie, "Applauding the tenor for clearing his throat". Like him, I'm eager to hear the song.

This inaugural post turned out to be a bit more single-focused than I had hoped (and there was no space to write about the folly of subsidizing solar power generation in Germany, which came up on the news today). You can look at it as a pilot. That's why it got it's own title. The next items in this series will be shorter, more mosaic and hopefully even angrier.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

traveller's tales

I was going to write this on the plane. I had my little Eee all charged and on my lap and nearly five hours ahead of me to write down my first impression while they were still reasonably fresh. My plans were foiled the night before already when violent stomach turmoil kept me from having a restful night. On the flight, I was so exhausted and droopy that I couldn't do more than watch the in-flight entertainment like a vegetable in a slow cooker. While Angles and Demons bored me to death, my guts kept churning and my limbs felt powerless.

Now, several hours after arriving in London, things are looking up a bit. Shopping in a real supermarket felt strangely invigorating. I bought cardamom, a required ingredient for good Turkish coffee. Now I just need to go to the local souq to get a mortar and pestle. Then I'll be able to make coffee like the Syrians do. But hang on for a second. That doesn't sound right. While food and drink were good on our trip, it was really history and the people that shone.

The single most impressive sight we saw was the Krak des Chevaliers, a marvelously preserved crusader castle. This is truly the mother of all castles and after visiting it, no other castles will hold much interest. We spent nearly four hours exploring the humongous structure, lower castle, upper castle, towers, terraces, roofs, galleries – all parts were accessible to visitors. There weren't any barriers to hold you back or banisters to guide you along. Simply by stepping close to the edge of a high defensive wall, one could make the visit as exciting and dangerous as one liked.

Palmyra, the famed ruined city in the desert, was another stop on our way. Its extent is staggering and walking around the vast terrain is very evocative, but I thought the place wasn't all that it's cracked up to be. I haven't seen many ruined cities, but this wasn't my favorite. The Roman city of Dougga in Tunisia packs a much stronger punch in a smaller space. There, it really feels like walking through a city that might be alive if the parts above hip level weren't missing.

We got around these places by car. Against the express advice of a Syrian friend of mine, I rented a car, and I'm glad I didn't miss out on the experience of driving in Syria. My friend said driving was very dangerous. My guidebook, on the other hand, claimed it wasn't any worse than in Italy and went on to describe it as chaotic and courteous – and that's exactly what it was. There are no rules on the streets of Syria (besides the red light, which is as holy as the word of the prophet). People drive as fast as they can and push and shove skillfully. Frequently, there's not much more than the width of a postcard between two vehicles. That's the chaotic part.

The courteous part is that everyone is aware of the lack of rules and the need to make up. Driver are always ready to pull back to let another vehicle cut in. They drive into the ditch to let cars pass against oncoming traffic on a winding two-lane road. Words don't do it justice, but let me assure you that driving in this madness was positively hilarious. Traffic is only dense and crazy in the cities and on motorways, however. On smaller roads and out in the desert, there's hardly anyone around. For me the biggest challenge was driving into Aleppo, Syria's biggest city, at rush hour to return the car. We had no knowledge of the town and only a poor map and the silhouette of the mighty citadel to guide us, but we made it right on time and without much grief.

Aleppo is a much nicer city than Damascus. It has several very distinct neighborhoods that are worth exploring, most with their networks of narrow lanes and maze-like alleyways. History is alive in this city that prides itself in being continuously inhabited since the dawn of time or just a bit after that. But there are also appealing modern areas that are not far from the old town and can easily be reached on foot. Aleppo sees more tourists than Damascus. Busloads are dumped in front of the citadel and can be seen marching through the main souq or the Ummayad Mosque. The numbers are minuscule compared to Italy or Turkey but surprised me nevertheless. Last year in Damascus, I felt like the only foreigner in town. Maybe the country is waking up to its possibilities.

That would be good. What I haven't mentioned at all yet are the people of Syria. I don't think that I've ever met so many friendly, generous, curious and simply kind people (with the possible exception of Romania). We were invited for tea and for lunch. People we had barely met bought us fruits at the markets and covered our taxi ride back to the hotel. Children in the street would inevitably stare and say 'Hello' or 'Welcome', the word you're bound to hear most often in Syria. Adults would only look with curiosity, but when I waved at them or said Salaam Aleikum, their faces would light up in an explosion of joy. They would return the greeting, wave, laugh, and often ask us to stay for tea. Often kids approached us with the single goal of finding out where we were from and what we were doing. They would talk to us for five or ten minutes and then saunter off.

From Aleppo and after ten days in Syria we flew to Amman to spend three days in Jordan, mostly because my sister wanted to see Petra. I had gone last year but was happy to go again. Petra is an amazing place. Once you start contemplating the effort it took to chisel all these structures into the rock, you despair at the insignificance at your own existence. From Petra we were off to the Dead Sea, which I had very much regretted missing last year. Floating in brine while the sun beats upon you, tanning but not burning you because of the protective layer that forever hovers over this salty lake, is a unique experience. Owing to all the dissolved salt, the water has a high viscosity. It is almost slimy. Waves break only reluctantly and air bubbles pop slowly. Entire rocks are covered in crusts of salt – under water. The water is really nearly saturated in salt, and a swimmer bobs like a cork in a bowl of champagne.

We went back to Amman to return the car, and this time it wasn't the traffic per se that made things difficult for us. It was the weather. The Middle East is completely dry from June to September. Fall sees the start of precipitation, and when we entered the city, the first storm of the season went down. It didn't look too bad, but as Amman is built on quite a few steep hills, all the water was funneled into town down the roads. In the downtown area, a good six inches of muddy filth, carrying the dust of the summer months, was sloshing along the streets, making crossings on dry foot impossible for pedestrians and driving challenging. It was also, though I didn't appreciate that at the time, a harbinger of things to come for me. My vacation is over, and the sun is gone. London greeted me with rain and more clouds than I would possibly see in Syria in a year. Back to normal.