Thursday, December 23, 2010

Heathrow disaster

I arrive at terminal 1 with time to spare. The recent past has made me cautious. Last night I checked in despite an earlier scare when I was asked to call a service number because my request couldn't be processed. I had probably just tried too early. Later on I got an email telling me everything was ready now. In the morning, I printed my boarding pass and checked the Lufthansa and Heathrow airport websites again to see if there were any warnings or deteriorations of the situation. There weren't. My flight was going out, as scheduled, no worries.

Emerging from one of the tunnels that connects the tube station with the terminals I catch one brief glance of a surprisingly quiet interior, then of a barrier and a authoritative person in a yellow vest. "Where are you traveling today?" he asks. "Frankfurt", I reply, "Lufthansa". "Please step outside and walk along the terminal building to section K", he tells me, barring my way. I get out and walk in the indicated direction, picking my way past nervous throngs that cluster around the various entrances, a back and forth of travelers surrounded by piles of bags, all the way to the end of the huge squat building.

There I walk up to another barrier with the confidence of a seasoned traveler. I am checked in and have no business waiting around. I want to find a comfy chair and read the Economist, but my progress is blocked by another fluorescent yellow vest with outstretched arms and words of insult. "Please join the queue until your flight is called." It is less than two hours until the scheduled departure, but the terminal building, the warmth, the baggage-drop, the security check, the colors and lights of the airport shopping mall, are all off-limits. Knowing no better argument, I laugh and let my eyes wander.

Hundreds are standing in the cold, waiting, smoking, talking on their telephones, not moving anywhere. A light snow is falling, nothing to cover the ground and even less to evoke the festive spirit in anyone out here, but plenty enough to spread pain. Dozens of crowd control minions conspire to keep people in the cold – instead of helping with the luggage inside. Megaphones are wielded like status symbols but useful information is scarce. There are no signs of any sort. My fingers are starting to freeze.

I'm struck that there was no notice on the airport's website this morning, no warning saying, for example, We are still completely overwhelmed by snow that melted three days ago. We don't know how to handle the situation. Please dress warmly. We will make you wait outside. You will suffer if you decide to come more than one hour prior to departure, but you wouldn't do that, would you, you fool?

One of the main lines of fools emanates from between two marquees. I make my way over there to check things out, boldly ignoring the One Way. Exit Only sign. In England, not even the most hardened security guard can ignore an innocent "Excuse me", and I gain entrance without problems. In the tent are flimsy blue folding chairs, only insignificantly fewer than there are miserable creatures, huddled and shivering. It is cold inside, in spite of the hot air that's being blown in through wide pipes. But a single-walled tent does not deliver much in terms of thermal protection in the middle of winter.

From an area that looks as if it has seen heavy battle, hot drinks and soup are dispensed. As long as the portaloos function (remember that the terminal building is off-limits), one can at least keep warm from inside. Also on offer are a few sandwiches – possibly nutritious but more miserable looking than most of the stranded travelers –, telephones for making international calls, and internet-linked computers, all provided freely without asking. On the far side of the tent is a TV broadcasting news that no one is interested in. I still don't know when my flight will be called.

The entire operation is abysmally organized; the airport's strategy for overcoming the disaster that snow had caused four days ago is horrible. How can passengers that are checked in and ready to depart be made to wait for hours outside, in defiance of the freezing December air? It's almost as if a plan to deal with the situation had been drawn up a few days earlier and the persons responsible for updating the procedures in line with the developments on the ground had gone on vacation, possibly by air. But the execution is professional and most of the staff doing the poorly conceived work are friendly. There is no chaos and few complaints are voiced openly. Lines form in an orderly fashion. Passengers know that they mustn't grumble. Revolutions take place elsewhere.

On my way back from the tent I realize nevertheless how thin some nerves have been stretched, how close the situation is to exploding. An expecting father who has had to endure too much that morning and maybe in the days before accosts a yellow-vested official about the wait and the misery. "I'm told the tent is warm", says the official, probably not the wisest reply to the man's grievance. The man's face turns red, his veins trying to escape his neck, "I was in there; it is not. My wife five months pregnant and cold. Open the damn terminal." "Please wait until your flight is called. And don't raise your voice, sir." A tussle erupts but is quickly broken up by two of the official's more cool-headed colleagues. The man slouches back to the tent, epitomizing despair.

I was initially tempted to travel with hand luggage only, to avoid the chaos that had been reported over the preceding days. In the end, I decided against it; it couldn't possibly be that bad. Pulling my big blue duffel behind me, I had to accept that it was even worse. Worse than anything I've ever seen, worse than much I can imagine. The bright side is that everyone has to endure the misery, even those without luggage to check.

Just as I get back to section K, the place where I had first arrived an hour earlier, much warmer but with less of a story to tell, my flight is called. With a quick lateral movement I find myself near the start of a line that gets moving with a sudden competitive spirit. It doesn't get very far, but at least we're inside now and it's warm. Than the relief: "Anyone with boarding cards?" I raise my hand, jump what little queue there is in front of me, drop my bag off and am at the gate a little later. Here, peace reigns. The crowds and chaos are left behind outside.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

out in the wild

Last night I woke up several times, my otherwise peaceful sleep interrupted by the steady ping-pong of water dripping off the rain gutter of my roof. This morning, when I opened my eyes wide enough to see, I realized that it wasn't a cautious rain that had fallen but the temperature that had risen. All the snow on the roofs had melted and most of it in the streets. The sidewalks had turned from glassy ice rinks to be navigated with studded boot only to slushy messes best avoided.

I couldn't avoid them; I had to walk to work. But over the course of the day, the temperature stayed above freezing and the thawing continued. It was even accelerated by one of those instantly recognizable London drizzles, more a slowly condensing mist than true precipitation. When I walked home at night, the sidewalks were clear.

Listening to the news, I get the feeling that I live in a bubble, in a paradise of clemency that has no relation to the meteorological misery that's suffocating the world around me. The Met Office, Britain's national weather service, is still warning of severe weather conditions and cautions that arctic air will stay with use until Boxing Day. (I don't know when that it, but assume it's the day the after-Christmas sales begin and the British don their padded gloves to fight for their right to consume austerity away.) Heathrow Airport declared, proudly and with the intense urgency of a Herculean task that will be accomplished come what may, that work was now underway to clear the southern runway of snow and ice.

More likely than my own protective bubble is an outside world of ineptness and preemptive capitulation. Heathrow, for example, was shut down by snow on Friday and remained closed over the weekend, corralling eager travelers into makeshift camps on the terminal floors and into tents outside. They are now beginning to clear the second runway, three days after the last snow, while thousands are still waiting to commence their trips into the sun or the arms of their families.

It is curious that the UK is home to the only airports in Europe that cannot seem to handle snow quickly and professionally. It is obvious that right now disruptions cause the greatest damage and are most visible. Christmas traffic forces airports and airlines to operate at capacity. But this is no excuse. There are some systemic problems that need to be addressed. In their quest to maximize profits, airport operators have done what business school curricula tell them to: cut costs and increase efficiencies. However, when an operation is run at close to maximal efficiency, there is no slack in the system when something goes wrong. One little glitch causes three related procedures to slow down or come to a halt, and the catastrophe takes off from there. In no time, a chain reaction of unforeseen effects causes the whole system to freeze up. Now it takes ages to unravel and restart operations because everything is interlinked, dependent on everything else to move properly. Meanwhile, countless victims have spent the third night out at a nonfunctional airport, turning into something not unlike refugee camp in the high mountains of Afghanistan.

It seems to me that there is no way to force airport to have enough equipment and powerful enough procedures to deal with chaos. How much is enough? How would a government decide? But the government could demand a tax from the airport for every hour it is closed out of schedule. This would make it financially sensible to take the necessary precautions to keep the airports open.

It is now nearly midnight. There's nothing left to thaw in my neighborhood, and the southern runway is operational again (though closed for the night). It is officially one degree Celsius, just above freezing, and not expected to get much colder for the next few days. Light snow is forecast, but the big freeze has for now been vanquished. On Thursday, I'm flying to Germany – from Heathrow. In this knowledge, I'll sleep peacefully tonight.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

looking back

It's snowing. Again. Outside my window, fluffy flakes are whipped at an aggressive angle, all but obscuring the illuminated Christmas tree the council has somehow attached to the estate across the street. Ten minutes ago, it was dark like late afternoon because of the low-hanging clouds, but now it has brightened up. All surfaces are covered in a fresh white.

Gatwick Airport is closed again, for about the fifth time this winter, a season that only started a month ago, a season that, calendarically, hasn't started at all. Winter solstice is on Tuesday. I don't have to travel until Thursday, but it was another Thursday, two weeks ago, that my plans were disrupted before they even started for the first time ever. I had to postpone going to Lisbon for a week. Next week, a delay won't do. Christmas Eve is the night after I'm scheduled to travel. If I can't depart that day, I won't go at all. But I'm not traveling through Gatwick, and Heathrow is not nearly as susceptible to disruption.

It would be nice to stay in London for Christmas and the quiet days until New Year's. Christmas Day in particular is special here. The tube and buses aren't running, and neither are the DLR or any trains. The city is nearly motionless, the only time of the year. Peace doesn't last the entire day, but the morning of the 25th when the British are recovering, in their beds, from the excesses of the night before, the city is empty, as if deserted. I've never experienced this.

Family is important for me, though, and I don't wish to stay away from them for Christmas, for what would be the first time in seven years. In fact, I've only stayed away from home two times despite living an ocean away for many years and abroad for more than a decade. Three times may be a charm, but it doesn't have to be this years.

On the other hand, I could use the time. In Germany, surrounded by family and close to old friends, with a schedule busy with concerts, visits and fun, I have no time for myself. That's not the point at Christmas, I know, but I could use some downtime. I could sit back in a comfortable chair, with a pot of hot tea and some gingerbread, and think about the year that was and the year that will come.

Come think of it, I might start now. Snow is crashing down like an avalanche, suffocating London in a white that the city doesn't recognize. There is no point going out shopping for gifts or trying to get tickets for a show I'd like to see before it's time to leave for home. Instead, let me muse about some of the things that epitomize last year.

  • Day of the Year – Of the pleasures that merit public retelling, it was the Oberelbe-Marathon in April that provided the best kicks and will prove the most memorable. I cracked the three hours and booked my spot in next year's London Marathon. The race itself was only painful during the last 45 minutes. The portion in the middle, a good hour and a half, was pure bliss. I was scraping very close my physical limits, which were off-limits, that day, to the vast majority of racers in that marathon.
  • Book of the Year – In due time, and as there is each year, there will be a summary of the books I've read in the past twelve months, but one stood out and deserves highlighting right now. From Beirut to Jerusalem is twenty years old and has, for a book that's primarily political in scope, aged incredibly well. Thomas Friedman, now the New York Times's most annoyingly wiseacre and verbally incontinent commentator on current affairs, was once a Middle East correspondent and bureau chief with a keen interest in history and geopolitics. He was in Beirut when Israel invaded Lebanon and in Jerusalem when the intifada broke out. His observations and commentary are priceless, and absolutely gripping.
  • Record of the Year – At the airport on the way to Colorado a couple of months ago, I scooped up the Beatles' Blue Album, the second half of their post-fractum Best-Of. These two CDs showcase the unlimited creativity and bold avant-gardism of the Beatles, a variety that's all the more surprising considering that the two disks cover only three-and-a-half years of recording. (Did you know the Beatles existed for just a little over seven years?)
  • Discovery of the Year – 2010 wasn't the greatest year in terms of traveling. I didn't go to any exotic places or ventured off the beaten path. The countries I added to my list of Placed Visited were Spain and Portugal, hardly secret destinations. And yet, San Sebastian and the Basque Country were a revelation. The north coast of Spain is beautiful: The beaches are flawless, wide and warm; the mountains, high and rugged, appear to be made for biking; the food tastes divine and is consumed in joyful conviviality; and people are friendly and relaxed. If there were any jobs there, I'd try to make a move.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

sounds of sadness

From somewhere around the next corner, a cheerless serenade wafts down the alley, laments of past injustices, of loves lost and chances turned sour. The presentation is a throttled wail interrupted and refreshed every dozen bars by a quiet staccato of oppressed syllables that unleash the force that grows in suffering. The singing is sparsely accompanied on a warm guitar. Fado fills the night.

I have just come down from the youthful hipness of Bairro Alto. Lisbon's upper hood is the place to be on a Friday night, full of trendy bars and colorful drinks, but when I was strolling through the cobbled streets at nine, they were still nearly deserted and rather peaceful. The only signs of life came from dark characters that stepped from their hiding places at irregular intervals and pressed little sachets of brown herbs into my face, the dried content rustling as they extended their arms. "Hashish, hashish", they whispered with aggressive urgency.

Whether they made any deals I didn't see, but I was sufficiently spooked that I didn't enter any of the countless venues of entertainment and diversion, for fear of getting trapped in an opium den or an illegal club with exorbitant door charges that are only revealed once the first innocuous beer has been consumed. Taking the Santa Justa elevator, a distinguished piece of antique furniture suspended inside a hundred-foot tall metal cage, down to Baixa, I was now decidedly hungry and on the look for a restaurant.

I make my way to where I suppose the music, but it's hard to localize the source of it in the frequently cross-sected streets, even when the blare of traffic is far. Then, turning behind the majestic theater, I see the man that sings and plays.

Emaciated and worn, he looks like someone who has known hard times, maybe slept rough. His appearance is grubby, his leather jacket broken and stained. Under his grimy hat, curly hair sprouts with impunity, the mixture of grey and white that can signify wisdom and sophistication. Here, it merely reflects the man's age.

He sits on an upturned drawer, leaning against the wall of an old building of a shade of purple that was once popular for evening gowns. The building is covered generously in the veneer of decay, windows dull and shutters unhinged. In front of the man is a portable amplifier and on his knees his guitar. The case is open on the pavement in front of him. A few coins twinkle inside.

The man's voice is mesmerizing, a baritone of liquid emotion, full of sorrow and pain. His entire body sings. The chest and shoulders rock involuntarily; the throat bulges and falls as he ululates. When the rush of quick syllables provides relief from the built-up of anguish, his lips move rapidly like a rapper's. He bends over the microphone and lets passion seep out, staring into the distance of his own tragic past, no eyes for his audience.

The audience doesn't seem to have much of an ear for him either. In a dense throng, they crowd around a door exactly opposite from the musician's improvised stage. The door opens into a hole in the wall, revealing space for not more than two customers. Left and right, ceiling-high glass cases hold hundreds of bottles of red liquid. A slow-moving grandfather who looks as if he would prefer his retirement over manning the till in the middle of the night, sells ginja by the cup, at a euro a shot, to be consumed in the street. You buy, pay and exit, drink in hand. Ginjinha Sem Rival, the black-and-gold sign over the door proudly proclaims.

Ginja, unrivaled or not, is the local brandy, made from and sometimes with cherries. It's pleasing to taste but apparently so toxic that even the most foolish kids don't dare to get wasted on it, never mind the cheapness of the ride. Some fancy places sell ginja in edible chocolate cups, potentially to soften the effect, but here the booze comes in flimsy plastic ones. This is a low-key operation and it shows in the clientèle.

It is a crowd of mostly middle-aged locals, with some younger ones and the odd tourist thrown in for variety, standing in groups of two or three. Cautiously sipping their drinks they're chatting with friends or just enjoy the night. The music provides a background without which the atmosphere wouldn't be the same. I buy one shot and get two little cherries in it, the fruity avalanche inside in the bottle contained by crafty application of the stopper, and linger.

The spot is precious, a bit of unspoiled authenticity in a city that had to make certain sacrifices in return for visitors' euros. The music blends with the brandy, the history of the buildings, and the mellow night to evoke nothing but Lisbon. It is also a brilliant example of economic symbiosis: the combination of music and drink must be the original recipe for merriment. After half an hour, I let the last drops of ginja scrape down my throat and start to walk, maybe stagger, down a street that almost immediately explodes in tacky tourist restaurants with garish lights and budget meals.

Two blocks down, the lights are dimmer and the languages fewer. Pushing open a glass door that's obscured my menu options pasted against it from the inside on paper tablecloths, I step into a tiny patch of a restaurant, a mom-and-pop operation on minimal space. A row of tables lines the left wall, a bar and, behind a makeshift separation, the kitchen the other. Long fluorescent tubes provide a harsh light; the decoration is minimal. A calendar from 1964 would have been just fine. It didn't look as if much had changed. Instead, there were three aquariums full of tropical fish happy they weren't on the menu.

The owner waits the tables and pours the drinks. I guess his wife is cooking, though I never see her. But when I order, the man sticks his head into the narrow door to the kitchen and shouts my choices. He then retraces his steps to the bar and pours another beer. While I eat, he goes to the entrance door repeatedly, opens it and sticks his head out for a while, possibly scouring the surroundings for potential customers. Bigger restaurants employ touts to drag tourists inside, ignoring the feeble protestations of people that should know better but won't resist because they're on a vacation and that's how things are. But my host always comes back alone.

The meal finished and the bill settled, I step out into a night that is nearly half-over. In the narrow lane are a good dozen cars, one behind the other like pearls on a string, parked against the wall with meticulously care and apparently in complete disregard for the law. Earlier, my multitasking waiter would have told me had I asked, a police van had come by, almost unnoticed, its occupants proceeding to clamp the right front wheel of every single car in the street.

When the drivers find out the next morning, exasperated cries of foul will undoubtedly rip through the calm neighborhood. But right now, as I am making my way back to the hotel, the night is peacefully quiet. There is only the faint echo of fado leaking sadly from the other end of the street.

Friday, December 10, 2010


It was still freezing when I left London. Night-time temperatures hadn't risen above zero in a good ten days. There hadn't been any snow in a while, but the platforms at the Gatwick railway station were still covered in it here and there. I was looking forward to getting off the plane in Lisbon and stepping into a subtropical winter that has a touch of spring to it but feels infinitely sweeter because of the contrast. Lisbon was supposed to be 15 degrees warmer than London.

I had experienced spring in December once before, when two friends and I went to San Diego in 2002. We landed on a Friday afternoon, the air light with sunshine and the smell of hibiscus. After dropping our bags off at the hotel, we headed straight for the decadence of the gas lantern district, drowning a couple of pitchers of margaritas before the sun had time to set. I should have turned the December trip to the south into a tradition back then, but it took me eight years to repeat it.

When I did it, it wasn't quite the same. I arrived late; it was already dark outside. While it was warm, it had also rained in the afternoon, and the tarmac glistened with reflections of the night. Even at midnight, as I walked home from an unexpectedly delightful dinner of baby octopus over potatoes, washed down with beers for cheap, a soft drizzle was going and the sidewalks, mosaics in black and white, shone bright and fresh.

Back in San Diego all those years ago, we had set our radius of exploration quite wide, driving to Spanish missions, along the coast to La Jolla, and into the mountains, simply because the part of town that's interesting to visitors is rather constrained and quickly gives way to hostile Californian sprawl. The car we had rented turned out to be an absolute necessity, even for the few days we were there.

We also needed it because one of my friends, Andrej, had an appointment at a strip mall a dozen miles out, completely and typically inaccessible without a car. Andrej was the proud owner and an extremely capable player of a Dell'Arte, a jazz guitar of the kind Django Reinhardt had used for his magic. The instrument was listed at four grand, but Andrej had scooped it up for change when a local shop went out of business. Now he wanted to ask Alain, master guitar-builder and proprietor of Dell'Arte, what it would take to add a pick-up for an amplifier to his instrument.

The unmarked workshop was in the far corner of a nondescript mall, hidden among Asian take-outs and garish dime stores and normally closed on weekends. But our presence had been announced, and Alain had come in especially for us. That is, he had come in for Andrej who was burdened by what he perceived as a great honor. To avoid bothering the master unduly, Andrej asked us to stay in the car while he nipped in to discuss some technical details. It would take a few minutes only. I am eternally grateful that my other friend and I insisted we'd go in with him, promising to sit and listen quietly.

Despite his renown as a guitar builder – Ry Cooder has apparently bought from him – Alain was a genial type and in no great hurry to get business done. Andrej and he started talking about music and guitars, their passion palpable and infectious. Alain explained the process of guitar making and walked us through the room where the wood panels dry and the unfinished instruments hang to cure their glue. With a guitar taking between 60 and 70 hours to finish, his workshop produced between 3 and 4 per week. Alan said that only three out of every ten instruments turns out truly great. They will be played a lot and play out quickly. He much preferred the ones that are simply good because they can be pretty much played forever, becoming one with the musician over time.

After the theory came some practice. Discussing the merits of each, Andrej and Alain played a handful of guitars, producing inspired solos and improvised duets – until Alain opened an old scratched case. Silence fell and awe transcended the small room. The guitar inside was a Selmer from early 1900s, a priceless rarity, one of the few that Reinhardt had played that survive. Alain was trying to duplicate the design of this old piece of art, hoping to reproduce the traditional quality with new materials and methods of production. He handed it to Andrej. "You wanna play?" Andrej trembled when he took hold of the Selmer, the same guitar that his musical hero had played many decades ago. He caressed it for a few moments and took a deep breath before delicately plucking the strings, suddenly all alone in a world of bliss.

I don't have a guitar with me or any appointments that might end in magic. I also don't have a car. But I have a public transport pass and a city guide, the two essential ingredients to discover the charms of Lisbon. What's even better, there's no trace of rain anymore, and I don't have to wear a jacket.

Thursday, December 09, 2010


A week and a half ago, a good friend bailed out on me. We were meant to take a trip together, to get away for the weekend, to fly to a land neither of us knew, but my friend got out of the bargain at the last moment. I can't blame him, and I feel more for him than I commiserate with myself because he didn't do it maliciously. He didn't even do it voluntarily. Here's what happened.

On Sunday nearly two weeks ago, my friend was on his way to the railway station, hot in pursuit of important business. He was crossing town on a swift clip and would have made the train he was shooting for, had it not been for the season. It was winter and the sidewalks were icy. In sight of the station already and slowing down, my friend slipped on the approach and fell. He got up no problem and it didn't hurt to bad, but when he tried to take a step he nearly collapsed again. Fire burned madly in his ankle.

On Monday he sent me a text, saying he was in the university medical center, with a triple fracture in his foot, unable to walk, immobilized for weeks. He wouldn't be flying to Lisbon to visit collaborators, a long-planned two-week stay whose academic seriousness I was supposed to break during the weekend that was just around the corner.

I decided to go without him even though I couldn't find a replacement sidekick on such short notice. Then the first storm of the season struck London, and Gatwick, the most fragile airport in Europe, shut down for three days because of the cold and the snow, two features of winter that come, with depressing regularity, as a complete shock to everyone in the transportation business here and cause chaos all over England. My flight was canceled.

The same snow and freezing temperatures that had thrown my plans in disarray made me change my flights to dates precisely one week later, and change the hotel reservation, never mind the charges. I could have asked the airline for a refund and canceled the hotel, but I was sick of the cold and greedy for warmth and tossed common sense aside.

I also felt it my duty to help out Portugal in a tough situation. Taxpayers in the European Union, I among them, had to bail out the Greek half a year ago and the Irish last month. The specters of financial ruin haven't been silenced in the south and the northwest of Europe, but they have been muted. But like a hydra that grows new heads whenever you chop off existing ones, the possibility of financial catastrophe is now growing in the southwest. Portugal is going down, it says all over the news.

The near-bankruptcy of Greece was explained with general laziness, with three-month vacations on sunny islands and retirement at 52, with a royal lifestyle inexplicably based on exporting a few barrels of olive oil and assorted produce. Ireland was going to the dogs, they said, because the twin brothers of credit inflation and house price explosion had driven the entire country to spend many times the amount they could ever recover by selling whiskey, stout and butter. Portugal's problems, in contrast, haven't found simple populist explanations yet.

If any hypotheses about what's wrong with Portugal have been put forth, I haven't seen them. But I don't need them either, to be honest, because the solution will always be the same: Bring money into the country until the sinking galleon of public finances has been stabilized and put on course to prosperity again. During this long weekend in Lisbon, I will do my share by eating out and drinking, seeing monuments and castles, and sleeping like a king. It certainly beats seeing my taxes increased to contain the contagion and fend off doom, yet again.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

out in the snow

It's freezing outside, as if the whole of England were one big ice chest. Frost lies thick on hedges and heavy on bald country trees. Relentless snow has converted innocent hills, beloved in gentler times by walkers and horse-back riders, into amorphous heaps of endless, featureless whiteness. The horizon bleeds into the distance of the landscape without apology or explanation, the hazy sky a natural extension of the snowy ground.

Bridleways trace ominously through the virgin land, their darkness a memory of a few warmer days last week when melting snow disappeared into the ground. The black mud that flourished briefly is now frozen solid and no danger to shoes and trouser legs.

The sun sits low and is sinking fast; winter solstice is only a few days away. The lazy rays are long, coming as they do from way behind the horizon, and paint the warmth of great photographs into brambles and copses, a warmth that can be seen but not felt. The cold bites.

We got off the train at Guildford a good two hours earlier, certain of our destination but in complete cloudy ignorance of how to get there. Navigating of the downtown maze of high street and labyrinthine shopping center ate precious daylight time but was aided by countless signposts for the bus station. It was in vain; there were no buses on Sundays. Consultation of a large-scale map of the region at the local Waterstone's gave us two options for walking, both away from the main roads and rather straightforward: Long straight segments connected by ninety-degree turns at obvious places. We set out when the sun waned already.

The silence is nearly complete. There are no ramblers or berry pickers. All gatherers of mushrooms and chestnuts have retired to cozy spots around the hearth, warm to the bone, enjoying the fruits of their excursions in the bountiful fall. There are no animals either. Birds have long made the journey to the south. Those hardy creatures that habitually stay are nowhere to be seen. The might have found hollows in tree trunks to keep them out of the elements or protected spaces in barns and under slate roofs. Rodents and small mammals, invariant companions on summer hikes through rural Surrey, are all holed up deep underneath the snow, in caves or burrows that are their only shot at surviving. Wherever we look, we're really the only ones out here.

The last turn, according to the map sketched hastily in our brains, takes us onto a gently sloping footpath that would be a riot on a mountain bike, even in the cold. Gracefully decaying leaves cover treacherous roots most insidiously. To the left and the right, rusty soil banks high, killing the view but also the icy wind. At the foot of the hill, a farm comes into view, horses in woolly trousers standing sullenly on frozen fields. Visibility has dropped to the next hedge.

The path opens into an access road, slippery slush piled in its center and melted snow flooding its tracks. This must be the last part of the walk. And indeed, five minutes later Watts Gallery announces its ongoing refurbishment and a sign indicates the chapel that we've come to see, Watts' mortuary chapel, a gem of Italianate architecture and design that's so over the top inside that it would be criminal not to visit it.

The highlight of afternoon, though, is the tea room at the gallery, open despite the work being done to the adjacent building. It's warm inside, the tea is hot, and the cakes are tasty. Time moves as we rest. The sun completes its short foray into the winter sky, and darkness falls. The fog is drawing closer as well. It will, once we step out into the night, cover our eyes with a eerie veil and conspire with the darkness and the muted sounds of the countryside to turn the walk back into an experience of supreme spookiness.

Paths lose themselves in voids of space and time. Nonexisting creatures make alien sounds, impossible to place or trace. The wind rustles the brittle branches of sleeping trees and builds soundscapes of scariness. Specters hover just out of sight, a few feet away. Working each other into a frenzy of fear and foreboding, we involuntarily start to believe in ghosts and work frantically to fend them off.

Suddenly sounds, coming from behind, quick footsteps, their bearer invisible but approaching fast. Is it the slasher of Surrey or a boar with daggerlike fangs? We see nothing but step aside, behind a doom-laden oak tree, just in case. Abruptly, splashes of neon green pop from the darkness, bopping in the rhythm of a fast-paced run. A jogger, more out of place in this nocturnal ice world than werewolves or gigantic vampire bats, waves by cheerfully. The reality of Guildford, civilization, and the train back to London can't be far.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

taking a leak

Today is one of these common occasions when I sit down in front of my computer with only the vaguest idea of what I want to write about and let creativity and spontaneity take over. Usually, when I have a pretty good outline of the post to come, it takes hours to mature the piece into something that can be unchained. Much to my chagrin, starting out clueless is often better.

Today I am clueless. I only know that the post will focus on the recent waterfall of WikiLeaks that is being frantically mopped up by radio stations and newspapers up and down the country and, with much amplification, redispensed over a public that can hardly escape. I'm sick of it. I can't take any more revelations that are blown up to sound as if they come from God itself. I'm sick of hearing WikiLeaks mentioned. But despite the exposure, I'm not sure what to think of WikiLeaks itself.

WikiLeaks made its name in April of this year with the release of video footage taken from an US Army helicopter that showed the gunning down of persons in the street, to put it most simply and generally. With bits and pieces of their equipment scattered all over, two of the victims were later identified as a Reuters photographers. The video caused outraged worldwide, mostly because it seemed at first glance as if the soldiers were carelessly shooting unarmed civilians.

Whether this is what really happens is anyone's guess. The video starts in the middle of the action; it's impossible to say what led to it. WikiLeaks doesn't tell, and doesn't say why. Did they get a longer version that approached completeness? Why weren't the photographers identified as members of the press? Where did the unmarked van come from that drove into the scene, ostensibly to evacuate the survivors? If the video showed anything clearly, it was the fact that war is muddy and complex and impossible to judge from a single piece of evidence, no matter how visual.

After this leak came the Afghan War Diary and the Iraq war logs, both of which exposed examples of questionable behavior of troops in either war, but also listed names of local civilians that helped the US military administrations. They were praised and condemned in nearly equal measure because of this. It was said that lives were put in danger because of the release, though to say that the actions described in the leaks had put lives in danger (and cost countless lives) is probably closer to the truth. The messenger can't be blamed.

Revealing the identities of translators and drivers is harder to justify. These were honorable citizens that had taken their jobs because they needed the money or because they believed in the future of their country as designed by the United States. They were now targets of elements of the insurgency, unjustified by their actions. On the other hand, the moral case for collaborating with an occupying force is rather thin, I would think.

Last week the Fourth Great Leak was issued, and what a bore it was by comparison. A quarter million missives, send to the mothership from embassies around the globe, exposed American diplomats as broadly complying with common stereotypes: dismissive, snide, and condescending. Maybe that's why they made such a splash internationally. But are they worth precious news time? Does anyone need to be reminded that Berlusconi is a brainless philanderer and Putin the godfather of Russia?

The impact of this most recent flood of words is bound to be minimal. All governments have received very similar cables from their own embassy staff. Featuring in the released material is thus not a cause of diplomatic disgruntlement. In contrast, not featuring is because it shows the lack of importance of the absentee. If there is any damage, it's that international politics and diplomacy is demoted to the level of celebrity gossip. A blurry picture of a star in a compromising situation published in the free newspaper confirms celebrity.

In light of that, the buzz around the latest leak is rather disingenuous. On the other hand, classified information, i.e. state secrets have been exposed. These leaks must be plugged. It was apparently one single person that handed all the data to WikiLeaks. How come that person had so much access? What was his motivation? Here, some tough questions have to be answered. WikiLeaks should be thanked for pointing out flaws in the system.

Instead WikiLeaks draws heaps of criticism and aggression. It is perhaps understandable that WikiLeak's webspace host in the US terminated their contract because its servers received such a fury of denial-of-service attacks that it threatened to corrupt other websites' operations. More bizarrely, Paypal has cut WikiLeak's account, ostensibly because its "payment service cannot be used for any activities that encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in illegal activity". I find it very frightening when a payment processing company steps into the judiciary realm and decides what is illegal and what is not. It should be mentioned that WikiLeaks has never (to my knowledge) hacked into any computers to obtain information.

In some ways I'm very much in favor of the concept of WikiLeaks, of free information and transparency. It's a clearinghouse for whistleblowers, a blind rush of air forcing potentially incriminating material from secrecy and the danger of forgetting. Consider that the architects of the Enron failure, Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, met justice only because the inner workings of their fraudulent operation were exposed in emails made available to prosecutors.

I'm tempted to say that targeted leaks are good and avalanches just noise. But who would do the editing? Why would I or anyone trust WikiLeaks to be impartial and free and open? And who says editing hasn't already been done to color the leaks to make a certain point? Julian Assange, the head and mouthpiece of Wikileaks, doesn't provide much comfort in that regard. With Swedish courts going after him because of allegations of sexual assault, one would think it in the spirit of freedom and transparency if he stepped forward to answer these charges and clear his name.

The reason for setting up WikiLeaks was initially to expose "oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations." Not cooperating with the judicial system of Sweden doesn't fit into that list without some major contortions, and that's why I'm left with a bad feeling in my mouth.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

winter surprises

When I opened the curtains this morning, I was in for a bit of a surprise. It had been cold for a week, unseasonably cold, so cold in fact that parts of the Grand Union Canal are frozen over, and the Serpentine doesn't call for a dive either. It had been cold but dry. This morning, there was snow.

Snow didn't exactly pile outside my window but it lay there in undeniable quantities. It covered the roofs of the estate across the street and had pulled white hoods over the cars parked below my windows. It wasn't exactly a winter wonderland, but an inner-city simulacrum of sorts. Beholding it made me happy, but I feared the ramifications.

Yesterday already, Gatwick, the UK's second busiest airport, had remained shut because of severe weather conditions, as winter is invariably referred to. I didn't expect it to be any different today. After three years in London I have learned that there are only two classes of reactions to the annual recurrence of winter.

The first is honest surprise combined with a complete lack of preparedness. Sub-zero temperatures and frozen precipitation never fail to utterly shock those whose businesses should attune them to the weather. Trains stop running because of ice on rails; airports shut down because there are no snowplows; roads remain impassable because rock salt wasn't ordered or the equipment to distribute it broke or the dude to drive it lies in his bed after twisting his ankle on the way home from the pub after watching Chelsea have their asses kicked yet again.

The public outcry, in that inimitable self-deprecating way of the English, erupts while the chaos is absolute, demanding improvements to the situation, accountability, and preparation for next year. Mayors, railroad bosses, transportation undersecretaries and stand-up comedians take to the mike to assuage the public, to confess that the level of snow is unprecedented, and to show that bold steps have been taken: Ambulances in London were fitted with special winter tires.

This ping-pong of expected incompetence and pointless outrage amused me royally during my first three winters here: a great spectacle and impossible to avoid. Winter hits southern England only one or two weeks out of the year, and people who've been here longer than me remember extended periods without any snow. It would be foolish to be permanently prepared for the worst, and financially irresponsible. Much cheaper to just get on with it.

The second reaction is not as easy to spot as the first but just as prevalent. People expect clement conditions every day of the year and are blind to evidence to the contrary. They drive just the same on a sloping icy road with two inches of snow on it as they would on a country drive in June. They see every delayed commuter train as proof that the Empire is falling. As much as I like to ridicule the inadequacy of the response to snow and ice, I can see that there are ice and snow. I expect sidewalks to be slippery, crossings treacherous, and transportation under strain.

You can't have it both ways. You either go for the initially cheap solution of considering proper winter conditions freak events. This will make for occasions of suffering that can be truly horrible for some. Or you take winter seriously as a season and take it into account during annual spending and improvement reviews. But if you want trains running through blizzards as they do in Norway and Switzerland, you'll have to put down some serious cash. Winter came early this year; there's plenty of time to weigh the options.

Monday, November 29, 2010

worst of

Yesterday I got a bit side-tracked. An excellent 2000 Saint Julien helped loosen my brain and lubricate my writing. I didn't stop much for fact-checking or to find ludicrous synonyms, and I certainly didn't bother to write with the subject in mind that I had earlier set myself. The bail-out of Ireland was only meant to provide the backdrop to a banking horror story that I've gone through recently. Instead of tagging this onto a post that looked, though the haze of a good red wine, as if it could stand on its own, I decided to dedicate another post to the topic of incompetent companies and their place in the modern economy. You will find that it connects smoothly with what I wrote yesterday.

The eponymous bad bank of the previous post is Santander. This originally Spanish bank had entered the British market quite a while ago, mostly unnoticed. About a year ago, they introduced their brand name to retail customers and have since been trying quite hard to increase their market share, aggressively advertising deals that often sound too good to be true.

I was caught in their close-meshed net at the beginning of this year when shopping for a suit. I was about to pay when the shop assistant offered me a store card, complete with MasterCard and Santander logos and twenty percent off my first purchase. As I said yes, thick smoke seeped in from womens' wear and a ear-piercing fire alarm went off. I should have taken this as a warning, but I came back half an hour later to sign the card application. The suit I left on the hanger; it had a hole in it.

The credit card was much worse. It came with a credit limit that wouldn't get me through a week if I had to spend all my salary on it. It has frequently failed me, sometimes on the sharp gravel of far-off lands, when one large transaction (like a flight) prevented another (like a car rental deposit). If the card were just useless, I could simply use another, but it has recently assaulted me with customer service that's so spectacularly poor that it amounts to abuse, and that's harder to stomach.

My credit card account is linked to my bank account, so that each month's balance is always paid in full. Last month, this didn't work. There was no explanation and no apology. In contrast, I had to call Santander twice to make the payment, and then again to get the late payment fees and interest charged canceled that the bank had quickly slapped onto my account to punish me for their blunders - all the while I was receiving threatening letters concerning my alleged non-payment.

I shouldn't have been surprised. Santander really is that bad. Surveys done by the consumer finance information and discussion website have repeated ranked Santander as the worst by far. In line with this, my letter of complaint has gone unanswered. Now I'm really glad I didn't sign up for their current account, a very poor deal indeed despite the £100 sign-up bonus and 5% interest on balances up to £2,500 for the first year.

In the same league as Santander plays Hertz, another unapologetic bottom feeder. I've written about this before, and there's not much to add. Hertz's rates are second to none in Europe, but the customer's experience couldn't be worse. It pays to pay a bit more. I will certainly not rent with Hertz again.

The third company that has shocked me with its incompetence and lacking focus on the customer is eBay. I hadn't used them in a while. With their fees going up every few months, there didn't seem to be a need. In London, gumtree does a decent job of matching sellers and potential buyers. But I was in the market for a little radio to complement my hifi stack and there's an unlimited supply on eBay. I made the single bid on a Technics that I could pick up halfway across town. All was good.

All stayed good until I noticed cheap Wee remotes and remembered the kind of tricks I've always wanted to play with my MacBook. Presentations in style, for example. I bought one now, but it never arrived. Worse, the transaction disappeared from my list of items won/purchased. Serious eBay flaw, I thought. I contacted them but never heard back. Luckily, I found a record of the transaction on my paypal account and could trace the seller. His recent feedback is horrible. My mistake for not checking but eBay's for not closing the account and protecting its members.

I'm not the only one to have opened a case against this seller, and yet his store is still accessible. It is quite obvious that eBay doesn't care. When I opened the case, I received an email stating that resolution of the problem couldn't be expected within another ten days and that, in effect, the guys at eBay were hard at work waiting for the issue to go away. Getting out of the way is great when things go well between seller and buyer, but when there are problems, there'd better be someone to contact. Try to contact eBay. All you can do is put one of a number of approved questions into a form. They say you can call them too, but they won't tell you the number. Stay away from eBay!

Santander, Hertz and eBay are the worst companies I had the misfortune of doing business with in the past year. If any of them went under, it would be a reason to celebrate. I would be happy, and the nation would be better off. Fingers crossed.

Astute readers of this blog (and I don't think I have any of another kind) will wonder why Ryanair doesn't feature in this worst-of list. They are, after all, Europe's most offensive airline, and I flew with them earlier this year. True enough, but at least Ryanair is honest about it. They don't pretend to like their customers. They hate them and screw them openly. They're in a different category altogether, having the same effect on a budget traveler as a whip does on a masochist. You know what you get with Ryanair and that it will hurt, but with Santander, Hertz and eBay, people might still have illusions. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

bad bank

Last week I bailed out Ireland. I forked over the promise of 300 pounds, to be taken from my paychecks in the form of increased taxes over the next few years. No one asked me if I wanted to help those portrayed in the media as our Irish brethren, our closest neighbors and most intimate economic connection.

Had I been consulted, I would have said no. It's not the Irish government or the Republic of Ireland as such that is in need of money that has suddenly stopped sprouting from trees, but the uninhibited consumer-citizens of that country and the profligate banks. The citizen, as always, are getting a properly raw deal in the proceedings. State employees of all sorts (including researchers at public universities) are seeing their salaries slashed. Values of houses, a sure-fire investment if there ever was one if you were to believe mortgage banks and lazy governments, have come down to sustainable levels. Unemployment has trebled and most Irish can't even afford a horse or two anymore. None of this came as a surprise to anyone looking at the numbers with sober eyes. Not many did, though, least of all the Irish banks.

Irish banks lent half the planet's money to finance spurious investments in a tiny republic. Their portfolios reached several times the entire GDP of the country. Yet no one saw anything wrong. On the contrary. Foreign banks were all to happy to collude in the construction of the mighty pyramid of Celtic prosperity. German banks are invested up to their ears and so are the British. But in contrast to Irish citizens, foreign banks have a strong lobby and have, for this reason only, avoided any sort of financial haircut.

If I understand the bail-out correctly, it makes sure that foreign investments in Ireland and in Irish banks are guaranteed. In other words, tax-payers' money is nearly directly transferred into the vaults of institutions that exhibited the most egregious kind of financial mismanagement and that managed risk more poorly than the winners of the annual Darwin awards. Why do I support this stunning ineptitude?

It is always systemic risk that is cited as a reason for ever-increasing financial sacrifices by governments and, ultimately, tax-payers. This poor excuse ignores the fact that systemic risk is only increased by concerted support for failing institutions. The only future-proof way would be to trim the losers and systematically cut them down to a size where they can be dismantled safely, with the same care but also the same determination you would use for disarming an unexploded World War II bomb.

What really riles me about this bail-out business is that it's done in the name of capitalism. I grew up in socialism, maybe communism depending on the particulars of your dictionary, and I can attest to the fact that the current economic system is better. And I want it to stay that way. In my book, one of the defining factors of capitalism is that failing enterprises make way for more successful competitors by withering and then going bust. This is not the case in many branches of industry and service.

Left and right, established names are being propped up in the name of, what? I don't want to know! If a company fails, it must go. If it's a big airline, there are ten new ones eager to take the place and provide better service to customers. If it's a Jurassic car company, there are plenty of competitors to put their vehicles in showrooms worldwide. And if a bank has invested poorly and wasted its business, it must go. Life will go on and, most importantly, capitalism will.

Friday, November 26, 2010


The third exercise heaped upon me at the Creative Writing workshop related to food, with specific emphasis on the cultural aspects of preparing food, the influences of hygiene, religion and ritual, and how my identity relates to this. What I came up with, incubating in my brain for a few day before being written down in a frantic twenty-minute effort right before the course, has nothing to do with this at all. It missed the point almost completely, but I think it's quite nice anyway.

Burton stepped out into the yard. It was about time: The sun was setting and Mrs. Burton was getting anxious. He surveyed the scene with the eyes of an expert. On the patch of sand towards the left, Tyler and Ben were fooling around. Heads slouched forward, they were engaged in a kind of friendly battle, an exercise of strength and skill. Thrusting back and forth and kicking their heels, they threw up clouds of dust into the wind.

There was no ball. It wasn't clear what their game was about. Burton laughed it off. They were young and having fun. Not a worry in the world.

He called to the older one but there was no reaction. As he approached, they retreated. The ensuing game of dodge took them to the farthest corner of the year where the hedge met the shed. It was there that Burton managed to grab Taylor and, furious batting of wings notwithstanding, twist the turkey's neck in one swift motion.

Inside the house, Mrs. Burton was shaking her head. She agreed that a new approach to food was necessary, but eating only those animals whose first name you know seemed a bit radical to her.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

lesson learned

Whenever I feel particularly angry at something stupid, and that's a situation I frequently find myself in when air-traveling, I slip my noise-canceling earphones deep into my auditory canal and crank up the funk. Let's get retarded is my tune of choice, a powerful palliative that mellows anger into ironic despair. As every rising anger eventually demands to be weaponized, it is much better to be desperate in an airport than angry.

For those who use their brains for the custom production of rational thoughts, it's very hard these days not to be angry, especially at airports. The nonsense that's being performed on the well-lit stage of the security theater is enough to make you cringe even when the Peas work their magic on the drums of your ear. But switching off is not an option. Your safety depends on sorting the useful from the useless, on cutting through endless announcements and procedures to follow those few ones that will actually help in an emergency.

What's the most important thing to do on a plane? Buckle up tightly? Fold the tray table upright? Know a flotation device from an oxygen mask? All nonsense. The only thing that matters is that you know where the emergency exits are. This is where you want to go when things go wrong, even if a developing panic pushes the other way or if thick smoke blocks your vision. Next time you fly, make a strong mental note of where you'd get off.

Another thing is important, on the plane and on the ground. This is alertness. Look around from time to time to see if anyone behaves suspiciously. Most unsuccessful airline terror plots were foiled by alert passengers. Remember flight 93, the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber? Security played only a minor role. Don't trust your life on security. A few glances left and right go a long way towards a safe arrival.

The introduction of porno scanners and loving pat-downs across the US is an example to the contrary, another fold in the dense curtain of obfuscation that's drawn over airport security, another measure that is (quite literally) impressive to look at but quite ineffective. The response to it on the internet was intense; cyberspace is awash in blog posts, articles and news videos commenting on various ridiculous or hilarious aspects of the show being staged. Most are redundant (as is most of the web).

What I recommend you read is a piece of investigative journalism from The Atlantic. Take the quarter hour and read Jeff Goldberg's exposé. I promise that you won't believe your eyes. When you're done, buy a copy of Elephunk, have a safe flight, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 20, 2010


It is more than twelve years since I left Germany and I have given up hope of ever returning. That's not to say that I wouldn't like to, but if I found a job there and moved, it wouldn't really be returning. After such a long time, it would more realistically be another largely unknown country. But that's ok, that's been the story of my life so far, and I'm happy with it. I have no urge to buy a house and tie myself down. Life is a journey, after all. Like all journeys, life leaves imprints, memories, friends, experiences and treasured moments as it passes. The balance between going back to these memories and moving forward is the spice of life, the fire that drives and moves.

When I moved to the US in the summer of 1998, it was my first time on a plane, and I was absolutely clueless – in retrospect even more so than I realized at the time. When I got off the plane at Salt Lake (International) Airport, I had finished my third flight segment and felt seasoned and accomplished. My friend (another thing I didn't know at the time) Sean had come to pick me up but was outmaneuvered by my exuberance. While I was already at the luggage carousel, steeling myself for an epic tug-of-war with my 90-pound suitcase, Sean was still at the gate (those were innocent times), eying weary travelers and guessing who might be me. The one he finally approached because 'he looked German', had, coincidence of coincidences, my first name but wasn't me. I had won the battle with the blue monster by the time Sean ambled in from airside with a slight worry, and somehow we met.

The first person I met at work was Frank, then an experienced post-doc, who was an important scientific guiding light for me. He supervised my first rotation and quickly became a friend, though he occupied a strange place in the hierarchy that seniority builds. He was married with a little boy and too old to be a mate to hang out with but too young to be considered a father figure. I guess I saw him as my favorite uncle, my dad's much younger brother. He tended to pay for the coffees we shared at least two mornings a week, and set the drab hospital cafeteria ablaze with his stories full of adventure and exaggeration, excitement and outrage.

Yesterday, Frank came to London, with his wive and (now two) kids. They won't stay with me, but I'm excited to see them, spend time with them, and show them around. We visited the British Museum today and quickly split up. The family, mostly the kids, had an agenda, things to see, attractions to tick off. They grabbed a map and took off. Frank and I took a more leisurely pace. That wasn't owing to the attention with which we studied to exhibits – I don't recall one thing we saw beside the Lewis chessmen, one of my favorites in the collection – but because of all the catching up we had to do. It's been so many years!

Later, we went for lunch in a nondescript sandwich place just outside the museum, and it was there that Frank showered me with Mexican salsa, handcrafted honey extracted from hives placed on the roof of the Salt Lake City Public Library, and a bottle of the finest Utah Whiskey. It was this last gift that really took my breath away. I'll have to redefine the word unexpected. Utah has plenty of breweries – a T-shirt that I retired with a heavy heart the other day because it had become too threadbare to wear kept reminding me of Eddie McStiff's as Utah's oldest legal one – but I didn't know it had a distillery.

It does. High West Distillery opened shop in Salt Lake in 2007, a couple of years after I had left. Earlier this year, they finished refurbishing a garage on historic Main St in Park City and moved their operation there, giving the word upmarket a whole new meaning. The opened a little ski-in saloon in the process and started selling their products outside the state boundaries. One bottle sits on my table now, a 16-year-old Rocky Mountain Rye. The fact that it's 13 years older than the distillery itself show that age isn't always what it seems to be. Keep on rocking!

Friday, November 19, 2010


I found the email below in my inbox this morning.

from paypal-nz
subject Your account has expired

This is your official notification from PayPal. Your account has expired. If you want to continue using our services, you have to renew your account right away. If not, your account will be limited and deleted.
To continue, visit our website:
and complete the renew form with your current information.

PayPal Account Review Dept.

I mean, seriously! How foolish are some people that it would be worth sending out emails like this? Paypal-NZ? From And a link, in plain text, to Are you kidding me?

Especially since Firefox can clearly see through the nonsense:

Thursday, November 18, 2010

making strides

Today was the fifth session in the year-long Creative Writing course I'm taking, and the third that I attended. Just like the first two, this one seemed more about post-structuralist philosophy and contemplations on identity than about writing. The tricks of the trade are not ladled out steaming hot from the cauldron of creative incubation as I had hoped. Sometimes, I sit and stare at the teacher and wonder what the hell I'm doing there.

These moments feels endless but they are brief. The class is not half as bad as it seems from a distance. All these pseudo-philosophical musings help define characters in the context of modern society, and the open the floor wide to discussions. Today, towards the end, we were asked to react to a photo by Eve Arnold, showing a new-born baby's fragile hand hanging on to her mother's left index finger as if it were the only life buoy on the Titanic. The background was black and featureless. What do you see?

My partner in this exercise, a recent mom, saw loss. A mother is never closer to her child than right after birth. She has to help him grow and steer him towards independence, losing a little bit of the little one every day. The baby is fragile but also strong. He grabs the outstretched finger with surprising power and won't let go. In contrast to what one might think, it is the baby who calls the shots.

I saw an idea – tenuous, blurry and ill-defined. Sometimes, anywhere, a scientist realizes that the thought currently bouncing around in the emptiness of his brain has the potential to develop into something concrete, something substantial, something important. At this point, and perhaps for quite a while after that, it is not clear what's really going on. But the incipient idea has taken hold and won't let go. It will take elaboration and nurturing of the crazy thought to realize its full potential, to fill the blank canvas of its existence with meaning.

One simple image of two hands touching, two radically different visions – and neither terribly literal. We didn't mention that the baby was only born minutes before the picture was taken. Does that mean we're creative? This week's assignment is food as ingrained in one's culture. Talk about non-sequiturs.

Below are the two previous assignments (once I upload them).


The Creative Writing workshop's second exercise was supposed to be a literary self-portrait but I had forgotten that particular detail before I committed the first word to the screen. Instead, I'm writing about identity, which is what we were talking about in the course.

Look at me! Throw me a glance. What do you see? Look at my face. Look again! What do you see? My identity? Are you sure?

Project your ideas and your preconceptions, your expectations and prejudice onto my skin, and you'll see them roll off like water on Teflon, little balls of mercury on a clean tiled floor. Paint my skin white or brown, yellow or black and watch it stay the same. My skin is mine; it glows from inside.

I dress like a bum, like a fop, like a frat boy, like a girl. I'm a chameleon of fashion before your eyes. You watch and you judge, yet you don't comprehend.

You can call me names and shelve me by categories. You can put a label on the tidy box of what you perceive and satisfy your curiosity, but your associations are yours, and I am mine. I run through the grip of your understanding like water, leaving the phantom pain of a missed opportunity.

My identity exists in your imagination only.

surreal self

As the first assignment in the Creative Writing course, we had to write a surrealist I am poem. I am not Salvador Dalí. Here is what I wrote. Please take into account that in contrast to the blog, which a fictionalization of my realize, these creative pieces are a realization of fiction.

I am the pain in the morning, the pale sun that holds the moment, a reflection of the night that emerges from cerebral memories. Thick feathers drown visions and cushion the shadows in the mist. A dream blinks, swerves and disappears, noisily.

I am a fallen silence, a frowning song of separation, prolonged instances of unspoken sadness. My brain runs liquid over rocky thoughts, gushing rapidly towards the reservoir of conscious sanity. Leaves fall limpidly and coat the past.

I am a distant interaction, a melting contact of unproven heft, the rancid smell of yesterday's clouds. The brown steam of parental love shrivels and fades, breaking coldly in its own time. Dark hands dissolve, and the unspoiled warmth of childhood cracks. A damp hope settles and retracts to a bed of dismay.

Tomorrow fades. I am tired.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


Yesterday, and I say this with only a few moments to spare, I went to Kings Place for the first time in ages. Astute readers of this post will remember that Kings Place is a concert and arts venue in the basement and atrium of the Guardian headquarters, and that it's great for intimate classical music events.

What you readers won't remember – simply because I haven't told you – is that Kinds Place does all sorts of other events as well. The Guardian, as well as Nature whose headquarters are just down the road, frequently delegate or invite speakers for political or scientific talks or panel discussions. Jazz is often on the musical menu, as is folk and world music.

Sometimes it seems as if Kings Place were trying too hard to broaden their appeal, to cover everything in a widely dispersed attempt to draw the cultured Londoner to their building that's shiny but nevertheless rather hidden in the morass behind King's Cross railway station. It's sometimes hard to tell where their focus lies.

But that can be a good thing. I like the concert hall with its coffered ceiling that seems to float on two dozen square posts of the lightest wood. The seats are comfortable, the wine selection at intermission is respectable, and the restaurant upstairs, slicing up happy cows from a farm in Northumberland, a special treat. With schedule as broad as it is, I can go to Kings Place no matter what musical mood I'm in.

Yesterday, and now that's two days ago already, I went to see Mali Latino, an effort by British Latin jazz pianist Alex Wilson. I didn't know the Latin jazz part of the equation when I bought the tickets. Mali Latino sounded reasonably close to Congo to Cuba, my reference for successful world music, and it would have a kora in it, played by Madou Sidiki Diabaté. (And how can you go wrong with a name like this?)

I was expecting a fusion of West African and Latin melodies and rhythms, the results swinging madly from gentle to riotous. However, the show, for most of its two hours, was nothing like what I had expected, and the fault lay with the jazz. On stage stood a jazz band garnished with Malian ornaments, playing loud Latin-influenced slow jazz with Malian accents.

As is bad tradition at Kings Place (and I had already forgotten about this), sound amplification was completely over the top. During the first song, getting increasingly frustrated, I was about to shout out that I couldn't hear the kora over the clamor of the damn drum kit when I realized that I could hear it loud and slightly distorted - from a speaker high above my right ear. However, this (sort of) relieve was only short-lived. When the piano kicked in, the kora was completely drowned out. And anyway, any mastery of instruments – and there was plenty – got drowned by a deluge of metallic drums.

It was a shame. The piano, the kora, the balafon, the congas, even the trombones were played with utmost virtuosity, but they didn't quite get the exposure they deserved. The singer, a colorful woman with a voice to wake up the dead, fought hardest to wrest the musical character from the drums. In the end, it felt as if she had succeeded. Encouraged by the wine consumed at intermission and maybe hungry for the experience they were promised, the audience rose from their seats and danced in the aisles. The singer, smiling broadly and swaying her body like an instrument, screamed her song with angry pleasure, relegating jazz to a dark corner of the stage. It was the best moment of the show, but it only came seconds before the curtain fell for good and it showed, once again, how an obvious opportunity for greatness can easily be missed.

Monday, November 08, 2010

creativity unlocked

The new semester stated a while back. I didn't care too much; I don't have to take classes or teach them. I see by the throngs of freshers crowding the hallways at Imperial and the sofas in the Library Café that the quiet of summer is over, but I could have guessed as much from the turning leaves, misty mornings and early nights.

For me, the new semester presented a dilemma. For nearly two years, I've attended evening classes teaching Arabic. I've made some progress, more than I would have considered possible, but precious little from a practical point of view. I know how to read and write, I recognize the odd cultural phrase, and I can surprise native speakers with a judiciously placed greeting or inquire of well-being, but I can't hold conversations, follow shows on the radio or read newspapers.

Would I waste more time on this and buy into another year of confusion and illumination in equal measure? My sister thought it would be a good idea. She told me she was very excited about our forthcoming trip to Syria, traveling the periphery of the country with possible excursion into Lebanon and, the epitome of off-the-beaten-path, Iraq, and that I should keep studying to help us get around safely. I didn't know anything of this trip – certainly I wasn't involved in any planning and in any case, knowledge of the language would probably be the least worry on it.

I signed up for creative writing instead, payed my dues and waited for the module to start. The overeager neophytes had already dispersed into confined lab spaces and coffee shops when the evening classes were kicked off, and I was starting my twelve-day residency in Colorado. I missed the first two sessions, but then, last week, the time had finally come. I stepped inside another unknown classroom for something that I couldn't explain or define. I didn't even know what to expect.

Creative writing. What does that mean? Is the emphasis on writing? Is it on creativity? Will the class teach technical aspects and skills, or will the focus be on exploring possibilities and discovering new horizons? Can creative writing be taught at all? Enough academic programs exist to give the impression that it's possible but skeptics remain unconvinced.

I walked in, late, rushed, and exhausted after a long day. I hadn't had lunch and hadn't even had time to grab a coffee and a muffin from the Library Café that sits halfway between Biochemistry and the Humanities, a precious location but the staff are slower than my usual progress through a blog post, and a line of prospective caffeinators, always coils through the atrium. I was fatigued and brainwarm when I took my seat.

The class was no workshop. There was a teacher and he was in control, flipping through the slides of his presentation with conviction and obsessively name-dropping literary terms, cultural movements and artistic icons of an earlier time. Do you know this? Does that ring a bell with you? Expressive, gesticulating, enthusiastic and slightly mad, his demeanor was a perfect match for his appearance: On his head, over a trimly cropped lawn of stubby hair, exploded a bewilderment of Rasta dreads. Later, when we got down to doing some work, he turned out to be pathologically positive and one-hundred-percent encouraging, and possibly a good teacher, though that's still too early to say.

The teacher is a self-proclaimed Surrealists, though that needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Dalí once remarked that the only difference between him and the Surrealists was that he was a surrealist. I love Dalí and I take his word for unshakable truth on this subject. No one else was able to show the beauty in madness quite as stunningly.

Let's say the teacher uses surrealism as a tool (which is to ignore that he also write surrealist poetry) to remove us students from the reality that we tend to cling to when writing. Creative writing is often fiction, and to get a hang of fiction it's crucial to let go of our experiences, of what we see and read daily. Fiction starts in the head, and is always new. Surrealism might just be a good first steps towards fiction.

We were asked to just write without much thinking and certainly without breaks, shooting for strange juxtapositions, warped images and metaphors that don't gel, the things I tend to avoid when writing because I want my writing to make sense. I guess what I took home from that first class is that writing doesn't always have to make sense. If it sounds good, if it has rhythm and color, the reader is likely to accept it.

Nonsense might make sense to the reader who's exposed to it and who tends to interpret, give meaning and see depth in incongruities, all because if the writer wrote it, there must have been a reason. After the reader has taken the first step of starting to read, it's more difficult to abandon the piece and admit defeat than to continue and try to cut through the contradictions and clashes. By reading, the reader accepts a certain authority in the author and is likely, at least initially, to blame any lack of understanding or feeling of elusiveness on himself and not the writer. I know that I read like this. Now I just have to learn how to write like this, too.

Friday, November 05, 2010

leaving the West

After twelve days of nearly uninterrupted work, with twelve-hour days following ten-hour days and only one afternoon off, I finished what I had come to Colorado to achieve – forty-five minutes before the deadline I had set for heading out of town and towards the Denver airport. It was a mad scramble.

There's no reason to relive the suffering or get fired up again at the sensation of glory because it wouldn't make sense to anyone but me. But let me tell you that it was a great feeling to put down the pipetman, hand the chocolate of gratitude to my colleagues for a week and a bit and a bottle of Black Bush to my host, and close the door behind me one last time.

The last and most important of reactions was still going when I left the lab. It was to be stopped and frozen that night and then sent to London by Overnight Express. There was nothing more I could do, nothing for me to contribute and certainly nothing to break.

Earlier in the week, my thesis adviser had come over from Utah to give a talk at CSU. This was entirely unrelated to my visit but afforded me a nice evening out chatting with my old boss and sharing a beer and a burger. Stories were swapped and anecdotes brought back to life, much to the delight of my host who was also my former boss's host for his talk and had to introduce him the next day. He did that by elaborating my former boss's character with the help of four telling maxims.

Of the four, I know three. The fourth was new to me. I don't recall ever hearing it, though I had read it in the book the lab had put together to commemorate former boss's 50th birthday a year ago. Three people quoted it as their favorite bit of advice. My boss was apparently fond of saying "Don't fuck up!"

As I was nearing the end of my project in Colorado, doing experiments that continued and completed a sequence of half a dozen experiments done in the days before, whittling down precious material with each inefficient step of the epic synthesis, the crude epithet assumed the shine of eternal wisdom. Every time I was about to mix solutions or inject samples into purification instruments, the three words lit up in my head, slowed me down for a second, and focused my mind with the ferociousness of large pliers. I didn't fuck up, and I traveled back in elation, exalted that I had done it.

Rolling down Prospect in the red Focus I had rented, I slowly left Fort Collins behind me, picking up speed only on the interstate. Behind me was a small town that seemed full of promise, low in the sky to my left were hundreds of clouds bunched against the intense blue infinity of the Midwest. On my right, beyond a wide sea of aspen trees burning out their fall colors, rose the Rockies, their bright caps of fresh snow taunting me with spite.

I had seen them every day, in the distance but magnified by sunshine, and I had seen the first snow reported on TV. I hadn't come closer to driving up than on my last day, sitting in my car with my work done. Angry French-Canadians screamed abuse from the speakers and Howard Stern invited me to do my thing, but I couldn't leave the freeway. My departure was less than three hours away and the airport not in sight yet.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

will do later

I was gonna finish this post quite a few days earlier, but after an enthusiastic start I didn't get very far. The first paragraph fell onto the page as if it were meant to be there, but in its wake a gaping void of thought opened and sucked in all the energy and creativity that I had at my disposal. It was a fitting sequence of events because what had got me excited in the first place was an article in the New Yorker about procrastination.

In it, James Surowiecki, the magazine's economy and finance writer and author of the bestseller The Wisdom of Crowds, reviews the recently published anthology on the subject, The Thief of Time. A hefty hardback with a price out of this time, it's not a book I'm likely to buy. But the review introduced a number of intriguing concepts and idea that I'm sure I would enjoy reading more about. A Christmas present, anyone? (But no, I wouldn't enjoy 300 pages that I know someone paid sixty bucks for.)

Some background and general blah-blah to start with: Procrastination, the delaying of inevitable tasks without rational justification, is painful and stupid – yet everyone does it. For every crucial item on a to-do list, there are at least a dozen distractions and mindless activities that intervene. Somehow they appear irresistible and are allocated a priority they don't deserve. And as the initial task was inevitable, getting it done after much procrastination causes great suffering, a painful hustle before it's too late, midnight-hour bouts of drowsy industry that are usually regretted.

I do this all the time. I prepare presentations at the last minute, at a time when I would rather sleep than assemble reaction pathways and remember minutiae of collaborators' publications. I remember the brainbone-breaking take-home exams in the first year of graduate school. All references were allowed – and the expectations correspondingly high. One biochemistry exam was due in class Monday morning at 9. I put the last keystroke to my questionable masterpiece at 8:15, with just enough time to get a coffee before I collapsed, in good company, in the auditorium. I don't remember this, but I probably spent most of the preceding weekend out riding the Wasatch.

When I took Arabic, the last two years, I would remember fifteen minutes before each week's kick-off that I had homework to do. In the panic that ensued, I couldn't even recall how to write my name, let alone ask a Lebanese fishmonger for directions to the nearest World Heritage Site. And every fall I put off booking my Christmas flight back to Germany until I have to pay more than the dilapidated plane is worth. (Ahem, this actually reminds me of something...)

So far, so bad. If my tedious rambling has driven you from the computer and into the outstretched arms of pending duties (doing the dishes or paying the electricity bill), I'd have done a good job. You would feel the warmth of aprocrastination – but you would also miss the interesting part of this post, nicked from the New Yorker but worth reading if you don't want to make the trip to a few sheets of Big Apple.

By procrastinating you and me act in what is ultimately against our best interests. We're going to have to pay for it, and we know it. So how come we can usually not overcome it? Some of the assays in the anthology in questions go some of the way towards answering this puzzling question. Others suggest how this behavior can be avoided or at least contained, and throw up theories to explain and maybe even justify it.

I don't want to repeat all the points made by Surowiecki, especially since I didn't read the book and don't have anything original to contribute, but some ideas deserve mentioning. There is the divided self, for example. It's a mild form of schizophrenia, if I understand this correctly, an inherent in almost all of us. At every point of decision, the hedonist and the utilitarian in us are battling it out. Will we do work no? Will we enjoy? Unless we're Lance Armstrong, the hedonist usually wins and the utilitarian has to catch up later, and maybe there's not even a point fighting.

But maybe there is, and if so the key is willpower. According to scientific studies, will can be trained, rather like a muscle. And rather like pumping iron, training one's will probably takes dedication and stamina. For the feebler-minded, there are tools, instruments to cut out distractions and short-term attractions. There's a small script for download that cuts the network upon request, guaranteeing up to eight hours of uninterrupted work. Or you can chain yourself to your desk much like Odysseus had himself chained to the mast of his ship to hear the Sirens without losing himself.

I don't have much willpower and I suffer great regrets. But I still wouldn't go out of my way and restrain myself from temptations. I rather sit on my desk, imagining websites I'd visit if I weren't working so hard and feeling, with a physical force, the power of my developing will. Two hours later, my writing hasn't progressed much but I feel pride in not having giving in to the cheap temptations of procrastination. I have simply wasted my time.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


A few weeks ago, I had visitors from Germany, a high-school classmate of mine and his family. A highlight of their trip, by their own admission, was an extended tour of the institute I work in. They had never been inside a scientific laboratory and were quite excited by all the instruments, chemicals, noises and messy benches.

They were less impressed with the office area, despite the 3D screen that I fired up in their honor, spinning proteins until they nearly smashed into their faces. My friend liked the graphics, but he didn't like the desks. We researchers sit shoulder to shoulder, working on desks that are big enough for a laptop and a massive screen with no space to spare. My friend thought it worse than cubicles.

I told him about my previous job in France. I worked in an office shared with on other person, with enough space for more stuff than I use daily and a stunning view of the Vercors mountains. I hated that office. It was one floor up from the main lab and moving from the bench to the desk involved climbing two flights of stairs and crossing three sets of doors. With the thoughts on the transfers I could have written half a dozen research proposals.

My favorite setup is the exact opposite. I want to have a little space next to my bench, just enough to unfold my MacBook and look up papers or protocols and write emails when reactions are incubating. This is how it was in Utah when I did my PhD, but in Europe such an arrangement can't be found. It probably has to do with overly ambitious health-and-safety regulations.

The lab I'm visiting in Colorado is run as a tight ship. There are a few rudimentary desks, some shared computers that people can use if they have no experiments to run, but the rest of the space is devoted to the practical aspects of the business. Experiments are running in every corner and on every available surface, and the scientists are always right there, in the middle of the action.

The dense environment exudes intensity. The excitement and enthusiasms of my temporary colleagues are infectious. I'm rekindling my own excitement for science. It helps that I'm learning new things, that I'm doing experiments of the kind I've never done before, and that I'm as busy as I was in graduate school. It also helps that Fort Collins is not London and I'm not living in perpetual fear of missing the action out in town.

Lastly, it helps that I'm here for only ten days and working on a very tight schedule. It feels a little bit like graduate school, but in contrast to that interminable slog, my tenure here will end come November. Maybe that's a good thing. But maybe my present enjoyment reveals something deeper, a discord between where I am and where I want to be.

Friday, October 22, 2010


After a hiatus of nearly six years, I'm back in the US working. I haven't changed jobs; I'm still at Imperial. But I was sent to Fort Collins, CO, to pick up some skills that the lab back in London desperately needs. After a ten-hour flight across seven time zones, I spent nine hours in the lab today as if I had never left.

I didn't do my thesis in Colorado, but it felt a bit like coming home. (I even ran into a former classmate.) The lab is small but has the same laid-back intensity about it like my degree lab did. People don't wear lab coats but t-shirts they got as freebies ages ago. They have desks right next to their benches. They come in early and stay late and know how to pass the time in-between. The biggest draw of the departmental seminar this afternoon were the cold Odells. Even the speaker couldn't resist and punctuated his declamations with regular sips.

Reminiscing isn't the point of this trip. I came for work and won't relent until I've learned and produced what I've made the trip for. But there's the odd minute here and there that I look left or right, and what I see fills me with joy and dismay at the same time. I would love to come back and live here again. I would hate to come back and live here.

Fort Collins is spacious and airy. The houses are low and the front yards wide. The streets were laid out, with a sort of Messianic forethought, so that a Suburban towing a trailer with two quad-bikes can do a U-turn without having to negotiate inches. This is not a place made for walking. But the historic center, roughly four blocks by three, a bit narrower by design and full of quirky little shops and fun restaurants, is busy with pedestrians and cyclists.

Quirkiness and littleness are quickly lost away from the center. In fact, it seems that vast space between urban compactness and rural backwardness is one gigantic stripmall, an uninterrupted chain of colorfully and brightly advertised chain stores, providers of culinary monotony, and drive-through financial institutions. What is it with the American fascination for uniformity? When did individualism get lost?

I pondered these questions not just on my drive to campus but also during lunch. The student union refectory looks like the food court of a shopping center that has fallen on hard times. Under harsh neon lighting, a handful of fast-food outlets promise satiation and happiness, and the world's greatest immigrant nation is reduced to Taco Bell and Panda Express.

Had it not been for lunch, my lunch break would have been awesome. The day was gorgeous. The trees were aflame with fall colors, but the sun blasted as if summer had never ended. I wish I could have stretched out on a lawn just out of sight of the lab and dreamed the day away. The thin mountain air was crisp and fresh and felt much warmer than it was.

When I finished work in the evening, things had changed. The sun was gone and with it the warmth of the day. Because the Rockies rise just west of town, the sun disappears behind them long before it gets dark. As I left the lab, the sky still glowed brightly but the city was already plunged into the shadow of the night.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

whizzed by

I shouldn't laugh. I really shouldn't. It shows the scabby character of a contemptible person, but I can't help it: I'm laughing my cold heart out. Last night, a G-Wiz slammed into a wall near Cricklewood and neatly broke in two. I'm only laughing about the vehicle. For the driver who lost her life in the crash, I feel sorrow. There is no need to ridicule her for driving a thing that deserves nothing but scorn.

I am not Clarkson, the rambunctious presenter of Top Gear, but like him I know a good car when I see one, and I certainly know a crap car when I see one. The G-Wiz is a crap car. It's a cheaply made box that flouts the most basic safety standards. It moves at the speed and comfort level of an old bicycle, but takes up much more space and resources. People call it green. Some would even go as far as to hail it as a revolution. To me, it's revolting.

Reading the newspaper today, I learned that the G-Wiz isn't even a car. It's classified as a quadricycle – and yet it is allowed on London roads. It's exempt of congestion charge and parking fees and is allowed to recharge, at Imperial at least, its battery for free. All of this because of a warped understanding of what environmental consciousness is.

Let me explain. It's good for the environment (and for your wallet and ultimately happiness) if you do more with less. The G-Wiz doesn't do that. It's the exact opposite. It does less with more. It puts a cardboard box on wheels where wheels would suffice. It's in the way where others would like to go. It is ugly and useless. And yet, people who should know better drive it around, their faces contorted in forced smiles designed to convey smugness and mask the pain the box undoubtedly is to drive.

May the sad loss of a human life give these people the impetus to think and reconsider. Take a bike or take the tube, and if you need to drive, take a car.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

musical journey

When I was twelve years old, I bought my first radio. I had saved for a year; electronics weren't cheap where I grew up. The radio was a small grey brick with a telescopic antenna and a tinny speaker. I loved it. Every Thursday night I stashed it underneath my pillow, set the volume as low as possible, lay down in my bed and secretly listened to the charts, way past bedtime. I discovered East-German rock and alternative tunes that I would now pay dearly to re-experience.

From there on, my taste in music developed predictably – off the mainstream but away from any sort of experimentation. I did punk and Queen and The Doors, and had no idea what else there was. The first time my eyes were really opened to what music could do was when my then-girlfriend gave me Congo to Cuba, which is one of my all-time favorites. It started an unhealthy habit of buying every Putumayo CD I got my hands on, an addiction that was only broken four years later when I test-listened to two in the store and didn't think much of either. I haven't bought another one since.

Putumayo opened my ears to the world of music, quite literally, but Congo to Cuba did more. It showed me what can happen when music is transplanted from one culture into another and how the fusion of different musical understandings makes the tunes more interesting. The fusion can be facilitated by trade (even as contemptible as the slave trade), by war or simply by proximity.

Geographical nearness and cultural interchange are the forces behind Radio Tarifa. When I got that CD a few months ago, I didn't think much of it at first. It was just another recording of North African music with a slight hint of fusion to it. Only on the third listening did I realized that the lyrics were sung in Spanish not Arabic as I had assumed, and my appreciation changed. I can't wait to see Tarifa, the harbor town in the south of Andalucía that's close enough to Morocco to receive radio signals from across the Strait of Gibraltar.

The name Gibraltar, by the way, is a bastardization of the Arabic term Jebel Tariq, which means Tariq's mountain and refers to Tariq ibn-Ziyad, the Berber conqueror who, in 711, crossed the 14 kilometers of salty water between Africa and Europe and proceeded to turn the Iberian peninsula from a benighted medieval jungle into a prospering haven of civilization. People started washing and life expectancy rose by ten years. Maybe that's why the Arabic name for the Strait is Bab az-Zakat, the Gate of Charity.

From the other side of the Straight, from Algeria, comes Rachid Taha, the drunken master of Rai. A few months ago he shook the Royal Festival Hall in its foundations and brought the house to its feet. For Rock the Casbah, it was a wild homecoming. Blending North African and Western influences is one thing, but the main act was supported by Vieux Farka Touré, and thus Malian melodies were thrown into the mix as a third ingredient. When Taha and Touré manned the stage together, the sounds they cooked up, drawing deep from their respective histories, traditions and musical identities, were for eternity.

Ali Farke Touré was a bigger star in Mali than his son, Vieux Farka, now is. Before he passed away four years ago, he recorded a killer album with his compatriot Toumani Diabaté, pairing his clarity on the guitar with Diabaté's technical brilliance on the kora. The result is sublime, and also a bit haunting, given vocals full of sadness and melancholy. When that record was made, I had no idea what a kora is. I only found out two years ago when a visibly unsettled street musician in Bristol drew incredible melodies from his 21-stringed instrument despite his frozen fingers.

Kora player in Bristol

The kora deserves a bigger exposure, and maybe that's coming. Diabaté and a bunch of other Malian musicians finally made the trip to Cuba that was foiled thirteen years ago when they were supposed to record some crazy off-the-beaten-path project that an American producer had come up with. Legend has it that their passports got lost or tangled up in Caribbean bureaucracy. When the Malians didn't travel, the producers recruited the aging luminaries of Cuban son to fill the gap. The result, the Buena Vista Social Club, brought world music into the mainstream and late fame to some amazing musicians.

For all its success, I never liked Buena Vista much. It is too simple, too straightforward, free of surprises, twists or unexpected turns. Would Diabaté et al. be able to remedy that by adding the spice of distance and difference? I had high hopes for Afrocubism, the collaboration between them and some of the remaining members of the Buena Vista Social Club that has just come out. Mali to Cuba, I was thinking, and imagining greatness.

I was disappointed; the record is lousy. It purls along placidly, the tunes flow smoothly, and the solos show what the musicians are capable of. But there is no excitement, no zest. The differences are allowed to exist, but they don't react to create something special. And despite the incantations of all participants that their hearts were driving them, that they discovered spiritual brothers they didn't know they had, the music sounds too much like business. I've only listened to the CD twice, but it appears to me as a missed opportunity.