Thursday, December 31, 2009

travel madness

The Tuesday one week ago was the first day after the snowfalls. The disaster in innocent white had had days to blanket Hyde Park in beauty and dust the rolling fields of Sussex, as I would later see through the window of the Airbus that was taking me to Frankfurt on the first leg of my trip home for Christmas.

I went to the airport without apprehension. The worst was over. The storms had calmed, the snow stopped. Heathrow was running normally; no involuntary festivalgoers were camping in the terminal building when I got there. The great bazaar was busy, but not more so than can be expected at a time of receding recession.

The falling passenger numbers that accompanied the economic downturn had been good to the area around the bazaar. The demand for chairs that had burned hot in headier times had eased, convincing those running the airport to upgrade some of the narrow wooden contraptions with wider, more comfortable leather-upholstered versions. I sunk into on of those and dug into The New Yorker. Life was good.

Life deteriorated when my glance swept across one of the big screens announcing departure times and gate numbers. My flight was delayed by fifty minutes before it had even started, a gap that would widen over time to two hours. My layover in Frankfurt was ninety minutes. I saw the connecting flight depart into the cloud-covered sky already, but I had a few stories left to read and an untouched book in my carry-on. Surely I'd get home eventually.

I would have indeed missed the connection, had it not been delayed as well. Frankfurt had been closed in the morning owing to an unexpected snow encore, and everything was messed up. When I finally got to Dresden, I found out by how much. Half the luggage, including mine, that should have been on the plane wasn't. It was eventually delivered to my parents' front door three days later. Christmas had come and gone, and I had had nothing to wear outside the few items I bought hastily in between scouring for last-minute gifts. I kept my smile, thinking the return flight would go more smoothly.

Two days ago, a kid tempted by the devil's words of sweet paradise tried to blow up a transatlantic airliner. He had explosives stapled to his scrotum and the dexterity of a monkey drunk on fermented honey. Trying to detonate his balls, he fumbled and set his pants on fire. Another passenger quickly overwhelmed him, doused his crotch with beer and saved the lives of hundreds. Today, al-Qaida brags about this failure.

Also today, those responsible for airport security are in a heightened state of frazzled panic. As always, rather than addressing the problem, the goal seems to be creating an illusion of safety. The number of security checkpoints has been doubled overnight, but the procedure is still the same, archaic and illogical. Coats off, belts off, pockets empty, laptops out. The lot is x-rayed, as are the passengers. Plastic explosives concealed in private areas go undetected. The would-be mass-murderer from two days ago would have walked through either checkpoint I encountered this afternoon with impunity. Regular passengers, in contrast, have to endure lines as long as most faces, and a tense mood of incomprehension and anger. Nothing is gained.

It seems that in the current discussion, most use no more than half a brain when thinking how air travel can be made more secure. Whenever an incident happens or is prevented, the same ineffective safety measures are redoubled, and one of the tools the terrorists' tools, arbitrarily chosen, is banned. For a while everyone walked shoeless through security gates and up to now, no one's allowed to bring water aboard, though flacons with undefined content don't need to be placed in resealable transparent bags anymore. In response to the catastrophe that almost happened two days ago, some airlines are now prohibiting passengers from leaving their seats in the last hour of the flight, as if that was the only time to detonate a bomb.

There's no quick solution to this, and maybe none at the level of air travel security at all. Plastic explosives can be detected with the right (expensive) equipment, but those determined to kill will always find a way. As long as scatterbrains bent on ending their lives for maximum collateral damage are allowed to travel, incidents will happen. But with intelligence gathered globally and piling up in bulging databases, there's always a chance that even the most obvious candidate slips through unnoticed and unflagged and is not pulled out at security or earlier.

The fearful can stop traveling altogether. The paranoid can lock their doors and never leave the house. They would still be afraid and worrying. I had to get back to London and I boarded either flight without any concern. My seat neighbors didn't grope their groins or read Terror on the Airline for Dummies. They read newspapers, and so did I. Five hours after the first takeoff, I turned the key to my new apartment. All my luggage was with me and I was delighted to be back in London, back home.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

between the years

There's surely, deep inside the pile of verbosity that is this blog, already a post with this name. As I'm sitting in my mom's living room, cut off from the data of the world, I have no way of checking. But I know it's a fitting title. Between the years is frequently used in German to denote the time between Christmas and New Year's Day, when it feels like the old year has ended but the new one hasn't started yet. For a few precious days, time seems to stand still. Work has ended for the year, obligations have been met, errands run. All Christmas gifts have been handed over and received. Shops need not be visited in a while. Families, united for those few days after a year apart, spread big dinners over many hours, play board games like in the olden days, go on trips into the countryside, or soak up culture. Time is spent most leisurely and in utter peace. This time, between the years, is also commonly a time for contemplation and reflection, and contemplation and reflection were what drove me to write the lines that follow, to elucidate inchoate thoughts.

It started with a feeling I can't explain in words, a feeling of dramatic change that is nagging me. In the rational blurriness of my mind's eye, many things about me look different – in mysterious, transcendental, inexplicable ways. It's as if there were striking differences about me and deep inside that I'm just not able to pick up. If I learned more about myself, if I paid more attention, maybe I could put my finger to it. As it is, I have only a hunch that in the new year my life will not have much to do with my life so far. There's a smell in the air that tells me this, a smell that no one else notices.

Compared to twelve months ago, things look much the same on the outside (with the exception of the apartment that I changed only a week ago). My job hasn't changed at all. My interests are still the same. I hang out with the same people and enjoy doing the same things. London is as attractive to me as it has been from day one. I have a blast exploring the city, I take pictures, I go to concerts. I travel. I read and I write. I dream of writing more and better.

Looking back over this past year, I'm filled with gratefulness. I have done most of the things I had set out to do and some I hadn't. Of last year's New Year's resolutions, most (Again, not having the archive open in front of me, I'm guessing.) were filed in the Done box and those that haven't are of the kind that is likely to remain perpetually unaccomplished. The next year and the years to come, I could go on as I have been going, and it wouldn't hurt.

However, I've been feeling changes, the changes that I've mentioned earlier, over the last two months. A new kind of seriousness is trying to take hold of my mind. Up to now, I've always followed my fancy and always done what I felt like, at the spur of a moment. I have studied languages not because knowing them would be beneficial to me but because I liked the idea. I started teaching myself the recorder because my sister pressed the instrument in my hand, with the vague words, “You need a new challenge.” I've read two dozen books this year and written nearly 120 blog posts, all without following a grand plan. At work, I've been doing research, carving projects and changing directions according to what seemed right at the moment.

Lately, I've been thinking that this can't be the right approach anymore. My sister picked up my late grandfather's violin, abandoned when had died almost three decades ago, and had it fixed and refurbished and got a bow and took lessons. She wants to play a piece by Bruch that she likes a lot. It's a concrete challenge that got her started and will keep driving her. I play the recorder just for the hell of it. I don't get much pleasure out of it at the moment and I have no illusions of being good one day. Music is opening windows into an unknown world, and I'm learning mountains as I practice, but there's no goal to keep me focused. Now I'm wondering whether I should stop.

I also wonder why I keep attending Arabic classes. I will never speak the language and never be good enough for a decent conversation with even the most generous native. It's just too fiendishly difficult. I feel the urge to give it up – not because of the difficulty but because it's a dead-end road. The same goes for photography. I will always take picture on trips, to have something visual to go with dimming memories. I take good pictures, but I can't make the claim of being a great photographer. I don't have the creativity or the artistic eye to produce something outstanding. Should I chuck my camera?

Concerning the delicate topic of writing, the arguments can be laid out similarly. The abundance of nearly 120 posts this year translates into a good two-hundred hours at the keys of a computer, more than eight full days racking my brain for creative ways of putting words together, for smoothly flowing logic and convincing arguments, to put sense into thoughts that seemed lucid and bright only until they left the coziness of the unspoken. More than 70,000 words that scream, with voices that I can hear increasingly clearly and loudly, for a better treatment, for a higher destination than the scrap heap of written loquaciousness, the blogosphere. Must I stop?

As I do the things that I do for my enjoyment, I'd have to find something equally enjoyable to replace them with, but as I'm perpetually short of time, I would have to find replacements for only a fraction of the things I abandon. Like a closet before a move, I could clean out and simplify my leisure, and then maximize my pleasures by giving each one meaning.

Writing is the most meaningful occupation to which I devote my time outside work, and while I devote a courageous amount of time, I don't devote myself. I'm not serious about it (and wasn't honest enough to admit this before now), and I don't work on it. I write when inspiration strikes me, in little cowardly bursts of a thousand words or so, unrelated from one day to the next, floating in a vacuum of insolently disturbed silence. It's writing of the cheapest kind, cheaper than chips, of the kind that's discarded all over the internet. How can I be satisfied?

A new seriousness would define a different approach. It would force me to work hard and focus sharply, overcoming the tiredness of advanced nights, night after night, to craft something bigger than what you're reading, something good, something that can't be put together in an hour on an armchair. The ideas have long been there, born of years of unsteady life. I have been talking about Syria and I had promised myself to have a travelogue published by now, but nothing has come of it, absolutely nothing. I have the outlines of several fictional stories in my head, but can't find the strength to take them and mold them gently or pound them into shape. Blogging is much too easy and the poorest excuse for not writing: “But I AM writing – I'm blogging.”

So for the new year, I'll try to have the changes that have been welling up inside me shift my equilibrium of seriousness and fun towards the former. I've always been doing things spontaneously and without too much drama. I will continue to refuse agonizing about the consequences of future possibilities. When things happen, I'll see how they are and I'll deal with them. But I've also come to understand, at a deep, almost physical level, that some sort of strategy or game plan is important, that without a goal, a lot of pursuits are vain and wasteful, no matter how much pleasure they offer.

In words that are deliberately obfuscated, this means that I will write less to write more, that I'll do less to do more, that I might give up certain privileges I treasure to win infinitely amplified happiness, and that I'll consider arriving where before traveling seemed the only option. Without the immobility of the past few days and the undisturbed hours of contemplation, I would have no idea how eagerly I'm looking forward to the new year.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

hits and misses

This afternoon at five o'clock, I parked the van I had rented for a day in the parking lot behind the local superstore. I took a long, deep breath of relief, open the door and stepped into a frigid December afternoon. After an all-out frenzy that lasted two days and thanks to a pair of priceless hands, my move was done.

The weekend of moving had started early on Saturday with a few hours behind a convulsively hissing Kärcher that soaked my carpets with a yellow fluorescing detergent, rinsed them thoroughly and then sucked them dry, more or less. I was initially disappointed that the biggest stains remained on the carpet, but the waste water from the Kärcher was black, so the cleaning clearly had had the desired effect.

The distance between the two apartments was less than three miles, but as the roads were busy with panicking Christmas shoppers, I started driving stuff to my new place only when the stores were about to close on Saturday. By one in the morning, the last box had been moved and the last bit of bulky furniture hauled up to the second floor. Not too bad, considering that the first box had only been filled on Friday. Today, I finished up, cleaning the old apartment and bringing it to a state that will make the landlord proud – a bit worn in some corners but in others undeniably cleaner than when I moved in.

I walked away from the van briskly, along a busy street and into the night. Fifteen minutes later, I entered the second Caffe Nero of Hammersmith, somewhat out of the way east of the tube station and much less crowded than the other one to the west. It's a nice place to hang out. I got a cappuccino and a piece of chocolate cake and slumped down in one of their comfortable leather chairs, stretching my legs and letting my drive rest – for what seemed like the first time in months.

My thoughts were free to contemplate the ramifications of the move. Quickly after deciding on the place, I had had second thoughts. It was bigger, for sure, and not on the ground floor, but it also seemed in a worse shape than my previous flat. Would it turn out to be a bad move, owing to the haste and hurry with which I had pulled it off, I was wondering.

Today, things had cleared up. I'm not going to regret the move, and I'm going to love the new apartment. I'm excited about a new neighborhood that's so much livelier than the old one and better connected by public transport. I'm going to miss Central line – the fastest and most reliable in London, the one that let me down only once – but having five tube stops less than a ten-minute walk away will make up for the loss – and I'll have a direct bus to college for the days it rains too much for walking.

Oh, that reminds me of the many miserable days I've spent cumulative hours at the bus stop waiting for the 49 that never came. Whenever the weather was too horrid for riding my bike, I'd walk the fifteen minutes to the Green, getting so thoroughly soaked that I might as well have ridding my bike, and position myself at the bus stop watching all those other buses go by, a 31, a 260, a C1 – Should I take this for the longer trip to South Kensington or wait it out until the 49 comes sidling around the glass edge of the Westfield? – another 31, another 260, and still no 49. On Monday, I'll take the 49 one last time when I do the inventory and return the keys. After that, no more wasting time at the bus stop. I'm so excited.

I'm not going to miss the Arabic grocery stores that I had initially been enthusiastic about. Their brightly lit, colorful fruit and vegetable displays were always mortally disappointing, the produce frequently old and sometimes rotten. Their sales people gave the impression of passionately hating infidels and objecting to having to serve them. Seeing their hateful faces was funny at first but got old quickly. Once I discovered the Waitrose inside the newly opened Westfield, there was no going back. Their employees were cheerfully friendly and their victuals fresh.

I'm not going to miss the Polish store either, though their dark, heavy full-grain bread was a treat that I never tired of. It easily topped the loaves at Forrest the Baker. But there's German bakery only ten minutes from my new flat, on the way to college. I have great hopes for it.

My hopes are not very high for finding a place like the Westfield in Fulham, and I'll miss it. Normally, I would find it odd to mourn the loss of a shopping center, but the shiny new mega-mall was a precious addition to my neighborhood. Plenty of shopping opportunities, coffee shops, and comfy chairs with free wireless. Not a bad place to hang out for a few hours, working on a story or a post and watching the crowds.

I'll miss the Nepalese Tandoori restaurant around the corner and the Damascene and the Northern Thai restaurants further up the road, as much for the food as for the memories. But I'll make new memories in a new neighborhood, and I'll find new great restaurants. I've already seen a Taiwanese grill that looks very promising.

The street I lived on was rather busy, leading traffic to the motorway and cop cars and ambulances to the rough council estate nearby. But for all the noise, the street was entirely residential. The new street is mixed residential/commercial, with flats sitting on top of ground-floor shops. There's a grocery store just across the street and a coffee shop next to it. Next door, there's a kebab shop and a barber. It will feel like living in a city, and I'm thrilled.

Of course I could just be imagining things. What do I know what my hood looks like around the next corner? My coffee finished, I pushed my chair back from the low table in front of my and get up, ready to head back into the winter cold outside and stroll to my new home. Let's see what kind of unexpected treasure I find on the way.

Friday, December 18, 2009

getting moving

Today was my last proper day in my present apartment. I'm lying in bed, it's dark, and everything feels as it should. Were I to switch on the lights, however, the situation would look different. Boxes are scattered about, shelves have come off walls, and closets are empty. I have started to move out.

A few days ago, I picked up the key to the new apartment, but I'm only paying rent from Monday, the same day that I have to hand over the key to my current place. This good timing didn't originate in my new landlord's generosity. Rather, I had complained about the soiled carpets and requested a deep cleaning. I had got five days' free rent instead. Financially, that was good deal, but it brought with it the potential that I would hate my new place from the beginning, hate it with the bitter passion that I reserve for grime and dirt.

To be honest, I wasn't sure how dirty the carpet really was. I remember it struck me during the viewing, and I made a mental note to petition for cleaning. For fear of confirming my early devastating assessment, I've been reluctant to reenter my new apartment, but today I couldn't put it off any longer. After all, I needed to get going with the move. There are only two days left.

This afternoon then, after a rather short day at work – everyone is in Christmas mode already and doesn't think of working – I walked over to my new apartment for another quick look. On the way, I saw an equipment rental place and it hit me that, instead of resigning myself to the situation, I could just clean the carpets while the flat was still empty.

Reserving an industrial carpet cleaner for a few hours tomorrow lifted my spirits substantially. Now I really couldn't wait to get to my new place and take it in, without a hurried agent breathing down my neck. I unlocked the door next to a mobile phone shop, strode down an endless hallway to the rear of the building, took the stairs up to the second floor, and was momentarily confused.

How many floors does a seven-story building have? It depends on where you are. In the US, it would have seven floors, as it should. In Britain, the building would only rise to the sixth floor, as the ground floor and the first floor are two different levels. I live in Britain, but (attempt to) write American English. I will live right above the ground floor. Is that clear?

I turned the key in my door, opened it and entered another endless hallway, parallel to the one below but pointing, from my very subjective point of view, in the opposite direction. The hallway, covered with blue carpet, led to a living room, also covered with blue carpet. I looked left, I looked right; I was baffled and relieved.

The carpet didn't look nearly as bad as I had remembered. It was in need of a thorough shampooing, but there was nothing, no spots or major stains, that would resist the effort and make the flat painful to inhabit. In fact, I was already moving in mentally. The speakers would go into the two corners left and right of the big white wall that would serve as a projection screen, the bookshelf into a third, the dining table into the last. The beds needs rotating and the kitchen rearranging. The move has officially started.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

travel the world

This afternoon, our lab celebrated Christmas. We went to a posh restaurant for a nice lunch of Japanese-inspired French cuisine, colorful constructs of food artfully arranged on large plates. The boss paid for the wine. When all were full and happy, having entered the state of bliss that comes with good food and abundant alcohol, we started distributing the presents. In our lab, that's a serious affair.

Everyone brings something funky valued five pound, wraps it in neutral aluminum foil, and chucks it on a big heap. Then we start throwing dice. Whoever has a one or a six takes a gift. When the heap in the middle of the table has dwindled to nothing, the throwing of the dice continues, and it's still the six and the one that matter. If luck is with you and you get either of these numbers, you can lovingly steal someone else's gift. Whatever you have in front of you when time runs out, announced by a piercing lab timer, is yours. In contrast to the year before, I was left with a gift at the end and eagerly unwrapped it. It was a Tim Burton DVD.

The disk was not what made this a memorable evening for me. I hadn't come for the giving. After all, gifts with meaning aren't carelessly thrown on a pile right before a mad dash for possessions starts. Someone must put them in your hand, his or her eyes conveying a sense of significance, or they're just an acquisition, a thing.

Instead, what I really appreciated about this afternoon was the opportunity to hang out with colleagues in more informal ways that normally. After the restaurant, most of the lab went for drinks to a local pub, and it was there that we could catch up on all the conversation that we never hold when we go for lunch between experiments or for quick beers after work. The Christmas party offers more time, ten hours of hanging out.

I found myself talking to a colleague who had grown up near the border between Wales and England. Not much to talk about, you might think, but I remembered Bruce Chatwin's On The Black Hill, which I had read less than a year ago. This book describes inconsequential farm life in the rural void between Wales and England in the most vivid and captivating way possible. The English language is elevated to a divine means of communication. Each word chosen with the utmost care, the novel becomes a shrine to writing. There's hardly a plot and not much happens overall, but that which does is described most clearly and breathtakingly.

My friend didn't know Bruce Chatwin. This gave me the opportunity to pontificate on the virtues of the greatest travel writer ever, and laud his mastery of words and story lines. Halfway through my soliloquy, it occurred to me that I wasn't really the right person to do that. Never having read the ground-breaking and paradigm-shifting In Patagonia, On The Black Hill was my only reference. It's not even travel writing, but it was enough to get us started.

We started talking about traveling. It would seem that I have done well this year, seeing Syria, Paris, Ontario and Quebec. But traveling is not about seeing places. Traveling is about meeting people. Even in that regard, I haven't done too badly. Syria in particular was a blast.

However, Syria was also a point on my trajectory away from down-to-earth traveling. The dust and heat of the desert, inevitable in the Middle East, is liable to send even the lowest-key traveler on the search for luxurious accommodation. A day without water or shade is enough to drive even the hardiest individual into the interchangeable blandness of an air-conditioned five-star hotel. I nearly succumbed, and the thought alone made me sick because five-star luxury is not what I aspire to. I'm looking for conversations and interactions with locals in villages. I found that on my holiday, but not to the extent than I had hoped for.

My labmate outlined an alternative reality, closer to my dreams. He had gone to Morocco a few years ago, spending several months traveling around, moving from city to city and into the mountains, following obscure attractions and sudden inspirations. He had a pack on his back and desire burning hot in his heart. He stayed in hostels mentioned in guidebooks or in rooms offered by strangers. He met more friends he knew he had. He lost plenty a penny following professed friendliness that concealed fraud but collected priceless memories from encounters with locals that valued hospitality, a good conversation and mint tea on the porch. I envied his experience.

I also told him I'd do a similar thing this spring. When my marathon is done and over with and I'm not a slave to my goals anymore, I'll hop onto a flight down to Andalusia. Marrakesh will be my goal and a quick glance on the map my only preparation. There must be some buses down to the Straight of Gibraltar, there must be a ferry across, there must be trains to Casablanca and further to Marrakesh. I will take two weeks and the best travel companion of all and go on an adventure unlike any I've done in a good ten years. My notebook, a camera and a backpack full of essentials will be all that's needed to sustain me. I'm so excited. Bruce Chatwin once said that life is a journey that takes place on foot. It's time for me to reclaim that.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


On Friday, Stephen Curry, a professor at Imperial College and avid blogger on Nature Network turned projectionist. He invited students, staff and friends for a screening of the film Naturally Obsessed, an hour-long documentary of the development of three graduate students in Larry Shapiro's lab at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City.

The film is one of the few that dive into the murky waters of lab life and show it how it is, accurately but in an amusing and entertaining way. The daily struggle of the three students, with their projects but also the ramifications of their decision to start grad school in the first place, are depicted vividly, and both resonated with me. I still remember the days when the degree was the only light at the end of a dark tunnel, when the only thing that kept me going was the insight that if I quit, I'd walk away with nothing.

What's more, I still work in a structural biology lab like Shapiro's, and what makes life hard for the film's protagonists makes life hard for me as well. Things don't work most of the time. Constructs have to be recreated slightly differently, crystallization conditions modified, instrument settings tweaked – all in the hope of overcoming the string of failures stretching on for too long. When you're after a structure, there's really not much on the way that can be passed off as a result and not much that can be shown for the effort.

The filmmakers' idea of a scientist are in the film's title. One has to be obsessed to be successful is the implied message. Without obsession, one will sooner or later find alternative outlets for one's talents and energy. Academic science may be hugely attractive for its freedom and the congeniality of most participants, but it's also forbidding for poor remuneration and cruel pressure. One must push ahead single-mindedly and without respite, to stave off the competition and advance one's career. Most great discoveries are made outside the lab – because great scientists are maniacs that think of science continuously and never let go. They're in it with passion and with obsession.

I'm doubtful that I'm filled with the same passion, that I strive obsessively, and I'm unsure whether I've got what it takes to succeed in the lab. On the other hand, I enjoy my work immensely. The implicit creative aspect of choosing a baffling question and then prying an answer from it with whatever tool seems appropriate (and with those that don't if nothing else is left) is extremely gratifying. The rush of discovery when a vexing problem seems one step closer to being solved is exhilarating. It's hard to really want to do anything else, to mount a credible campaign aimed at a job outside academia.

The movie's expounding of the (frequently hidden) beauty of doing science had a profound effect on me, but one that I can't really put in words. The film hadn't emptied buckets of motivation over me. I hadn't seen role models that I couldn't wait to emulate. In fact, the dropping out of academic science of two of the movie's protagonists made me rather contemplative. But I walked back to the lab with an optimistic bounce after the showing, and I approached my bench with renewed verve. Some important discovery was waiting for me, patiently sitting in the dark and resisting my efforts only to draw the best out of me.

When I was finally done with the last experiment, the clock nearing nine, I took the tube over to Piccadilly Circus and ambled down to the Royal Academy of Arts where the doors of the Anish Kapoor exhibition were being readied for their final closure. Bypassing a winding line of hopeful prospective visitors, I squeezed in, picking up a ticket booked over the phone. It was almost midnight when I left, filled with visual excess and out of breath. A long day had finally come to an end.

On the bus home, I let the hours pass through my mind again. I don't think I'm obsessed, but I relish intensity. Living a full life is unfortunately unlikely to turn me into a successful scientist. But it's fun, and what better reason can there be to keep going?

Tuesday, December 08, 2009


After long weeks of thoughtful deliberation and contemplation of the ramifications of what I have said, I'm taking the opportunity of the public exposure that this blog affords me to recant an earlier statement. I might carry little packets of gel in transatlantic airliners, but I am not a terrorist.

I had said it in jest and no one took me seriously. The MI5 hasn't paid me a visit, and I haven't been expelled from the Queen's bosom. However, in other activities, which didn't even involve transgressions of the law, I have, by association, been suspected of being a terrorist. Allow me shed some light on the issue.

Over the last years, London has grown increasingly paranoid of an imminent terrorist attack. It seemed that with every day the catastrophe of 2005 receded into the past, the alert level increased on the official danger-o-meter. In a sad way, this great city felt like a one-horse town trying to increase its self-esteem by masochistically overestimating its vulnerability. The most normal and innocuous behaviors were suddenly deemed unacceptable as they carried imagined dangers.

London is the destination of over fifteen million visitors each year; yet one of the prime occupations of tourists, photography, became associated with the devil. Central London is a gigantic carpet of sights, attractions and stimuli, but those trying to capture the visual splendor were often approached by police, stopped and questioned – under a particularly harsh and sweeping section of the Counter Terrorism Act.

The aggressiveness against photographers has not only baffled tourists but especially annoyed locals passionate of the shutterbox. While I haven't been at the receiving end of any police idiocy, I've listened to plenty of aggrieved complaining when meeting with fellow photographers. Thinking of oppressed countries like Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, I've been wondering how far people are happy to relinquish their freedom to gain an illusion of security.

Not too far, apparently. The stories of harassment and intimidation have become so common that the situation has become untenable. The other day, even the BBC took note, and the issue exploded. A few days later, a directive was sent to the chief constables of England and Wales's 43 police forces, instructing them not to abuse the provisions in the Counter Terrorism Act and not to give photographers and unduly hard time, as revealed by The Independent.

A good year after Google finished photographing the entire city to near-atomic detail and put all the photos online, someone has finally realized that a tourist with a digicam is no more of a danger than a granny with a cell phone. It is good to see that, for once, reason has prevailed.

Sunday, December 06, 2009


Today was the second Sunday of Advent, but I nearly missed it, missed it as much as I had missed the first. Time as defined by others passes me by, and for me, there is no Christmastime until there's Christmas and I'm in Germany with my family. Here in London, I do my work and live my life, and don't see much outside that.

There is too much to my life already; more, it seems, than I can juggle without dropping bits. At the moment, nearly all energy outside work is devoted to finding an apartment. In two and a half weeks, I'll be homeless. I face the prospect of selling the Big Issue in front the Shepherd's Bush Station, frightening if it weren't for the temporary escape of a flight to Germany to celebrate Christmas and forget about the bridge that's waiting for me, for me to sleep underneath.

I don't want to sleep rough. It's cold, wet and miserable inside a cardboard box, even when it's generously stuffed with the Evening Standard, which has recently changed its distribution model to give-away-for-free. Before, after and, increasingly, while at work, I scour aggregators of rental properties for flats new to the market that might live up to my lofty standards.

I have seen nearly a dozen properties. Some were atrocious, others simply not right. Some were nice but in the wrong place or in the wrong price bracket. I've had to tell all those hard-working agents that drove me around with hope in their eyes that I won't submit an offer because I will only say yes when I know the place is right. That hasn't happened yet.

Outside of looking for apartments, my head is submerged in words. Books wanting to be read haunt me like ghosts, and my blog starts snarling at me when I don't add a post at least once a week. I've been silent for twelve days, and I haven't read a single page. The worst is that I don't really know why.

The apartment hunt, for all its terrifying urgency, doesn't take up much of my nights. I'm aware that Christmas is coming up, but I have no obligations. I need to buy no presents nor write cards. No particular problem worries me, and yet... Convoluted thoughts stream from my head in twisted strands, leading nowhere but clogging the system.

I feel the need to clean my brain, rediscovering priorities and recovering strength that seems to have been lost under crossing layers of possibilities, options and contingencies. When everything happens at the same time, nothing gets done. It's even worse when all that's happening are the distant promises of opportunities.

Last week, a friend from the old days came to visit me. We had shared a room in a sheltered dormitory when we both attended high school nearly two decades ago. Our lives have diverged over the years, but we had stayed in contact. I was curious to see how we would get along and looking forwards to a few days filled with diversions and fun.

The first two days, despite hanging out in pubs, chatting and reminiscing together, I wasn't quite present. My mind was still musing pointlessly about, as far as I could tell, nothing in particular and distracting me greatly. By now, though, I have regained control.

We spent today in town, going to a concert at lunchtime and then enjoying the long shadows of the December sun in Regent's Park. It was a day for fun's sake with no musing, thinking or contemplating. Back home at night, I rescued the Räuchermann from its silk paper-covered cardboard box where it sleeps throughout the year, lit an incense cone and two candles, and started the festive season. Nothing on my mind for now.