Saturday, July 31, 2010


Bikes have landed, thousands of them; they're all over town. With their distinct bi-color paint job of light and dark blue, they're hard to miss. Their swan neck frame recalls lady cyclists' dreams of the early 20th century, yet the bikes are brand new – and for everyone, not just the female aristocracy of yore. They are the vanguard of the Cycle Hire scheme that was rolled out yesterday. Nearly five thousand bikes have been docked to about 300 newly built stations all over the central part of the capital, roughly covering zone 1 of the London Underground system. More are on their way, both bikes and docking stations.

The bikes can be hired, at first by registered users only but later by anyone fancying a cruise through town, in the simplest possible way. Insert your key into the dock if you're a registered user or a credit card otherwise, pull the bike out and off you go. Don't forget to adjust the seat before you pedal off – and don't leave your key or card behind. When you don't need the bike any more, dock it to the nearest station, anywhere in central London. The system is designed to encourage quick direct trips. Usage fees, which are waived for registered users for the first half hour, climb steeply after thirty minutes and quickly become prohibitive. You wouldn't want to take a bike out for a Sunday in Richmond Park, but for a one-way trip from work into town (or to the station if you're a commuter) they're perfect.

Overall, there is real enthusiasm about Cycle Hire. The Evening Standard spends two pages every day interviewing early adopters and highlighting the benefits of the scheme. It will put more cycles on the road, increasing the strength in numbers that's the most effective safety feature cyclists have, and more people on bikes. It will slow down traffic, ease the strain on public transport and change the face of the city a little bit. It will give the streets back to Londoners. The ease and low cost of use might nudge people to give bikes a try and help them see that despite being a frantic metropolis, London is not a scary place to ride.

The hype has worked; the bikes are being used. On the first day of operation, some stations looked raided of bikes, with only one two remaining, whereas others were jam packed. It's all part of the continuous redistribution that will see the bikes ebb and flow through the capital. As I have a bike already and live outside the zone covered by the system, I was doubtful about Cycle Hire at first. But I was won over by the idea of having a ride ready wherever, whenever, and signed up a few days ago. Earlier this week, I got my key in the mail (though I haven't hired a bike yet).

Walking home from the shard on Kensington High Street that houses one of the nicer Caffè Neros, I'm having second thoughts. There are plenty of docking stations just off the high street, but in the side streets, I'm walking block after block without encountering one. If I'm going into an area I don't know, how will I find one? There are surely nifty applications for smartphones, but what about old-school communicators? Will we have to memorize the whole system map?

These are the question that come to my mind, but there are apparently other, more serious issues. It turns out that the reason for the bikes' color is Barclays. The bank shelled out 25 million pounds to help finance the system (and put its name on it). When the first bikes appeared in their docking stations, an ill-defined group of "anti-war protestors" defaced them with cans of black spray paint. Barclays also "funds cluster bombs and radioactive material that causes birth defects", claim the protesters. But even if there were sense in these illogic words, how does breaking bikes promote world peace or hurt Barclays? I guess smashing the windows of bank branches takes more courage than the protesters have.

In an entirely unrelated story, two supercars in a matching monochromatic paint job of a blue roughly halfway between the two bicycle blues were spotted outside Harrods the other day. Their swooshing shapes and roaring engines recall gearheads' dreams of now, yet the cars, a Koenigsegg CCXR and a Lamborghini Murciélago LP670-4, are for certain members of the al-Thani familiy only. Though the al-Thanis, the rulers of Qatar, are the proud new owner of Harrods, having bought the little store off Mohamed al-Fayed a few months ago, they have no special parking prerogatives next to their new property. The two cars, worth over 1.5 million pounds between them, were promptly clamped by an eager traffic warden. If the Cycle Hire key released them, I'd cruise over in a second.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

spoiled for choice

Years ago, too many to count, when I was a lad of ambition and promise and still warmed the benches at the not entirely obscure high school I attended, I found myself in a confusion that would occur again and again over the years that have passed since then. I wasn't quite sure what to do with myself.

As I was about to graduate from high school, I had to decided on college and, this being Germany, on a subject of the ensuing studies. Undeclared wouldn't do, even for the first semester. I had to pick a major. The state helped me out, as he did all seniors of that year, by providing a ominously dark green softcover that professed to contain information on any field of study and on any major available at any university in the entire country. To my knowledge, the book ran to 700 pages – and I went through it.

A sharp pencil in my hand I went through it, crossing out options I felt sure I wouldn't like. Rocket scientist, catholic priest, applied mathematician, or exercise physiologist all faced the ax. Engineering, teaching, performing – all not my cup of tea. In the end, much to my surprise, exactly one field remained. After a year of avoiding the compulsory military service I went to Jena to study biochemistry.

I wish I could say that I haven't looked back, but that's not exactly true. Passion can't be generated from rationally ruling out the impossible, and there have been times when progress has been a slog. I don't deny that it has been a pleasant journey overall, taking me to three different countries, getting me the degree I had pursued, and paying all the bills on the way. But most of the time, the question of why has remained unanswered.

Today, I'm not asking anymore. Instead, I look back and put the blame – if there is blame to be put – squarely onto the excess of options. It wasn't that the green manual was too thick – it was that everything in it sounded plausible and within my reach. I was so confused about the future back then that I even went to see a career counselor, not a common sight back then. When he told me I could do anything, I wished I hadn't wasted a half hour that could have just as well been spent playing football.

I also wish I hadn't wasted the last half hour composing these rambling first five paragraphs. Details of my secondary education and the ramifications of studying a little green book have no bearing on the topic I feel compelled to share today, a topic that came up for discussion at a Chinese dim sum place the other day when one of my friends decided to order the DVD box set of a TV series he liked. His girlfriend, maybe more practically minded, had already taken her smartphone to her favorite file-sharing platform and nearly started leeching bytes when he got all upset. He didn't mind the illegality of the activity, but he felt his memories devalued by downloading. He remembered the days when he saved for a CD and was thrilled when he finally bought it. It got a special place on his shelf. It meant something, and even years later, he'd be able to recall where he bought it and what he felt when he listened to it for the first time on his humble stereo.

This buzz is gone, and so is the meaning. The more you own, the more it averages to grey noise. It is only scarcity that creates excitement while all choice does is breed boredom. With Spotify on the desktop, who is still titillated by music? If I can think of it, I can listen to it, but before I manage to put the name into the search field, I've thought of something else already.

With the world at my fingertips, thanks to a winning combination of passport and dosh, visiting places is down to chance rather than any long held aching. I want to see it all, and the reason I can't is down to time more than anything else. What a difference to when I grew up when all adventurous youth dreamed of Romania, the most exotic destination it might be possible to visit.

The only category where I don't denounce choice is books. I like to see my bookcase full, broken spines recalling hours spent in stimulating company. There is no waste here; I'm returning the books one by one to the charity shop where I bought them. Until then, it's not as if I were spending hours standing in front of it in a contemplative mood, considering the next book to read. Most books on the shelves are read, and the few that aren't form a neat stack on the right side, about chest-high, within easy reach. Time to go back to them before the lights go off.

Monday, July 26, 2010

three years

It's been three years now that I've lived in London. Time has passed as quickly as time tends to pass when you're doing something else but waiting for it to pass. Three years is not the world, but it's not nothing either. Three years is substantial time. How about a look back?

This blog is a good place to start – or the only one if you don't have access to my email archive or secret diary. I suggest the obvious: July 2007. What I find most amazing is the enthusiasm and excitement I felt when I moved to London. At the time, this was the only possible reaction to the mind-boggling scale of the city, the only way of coping with the difference to sleepy Grenoble or Salt Lake City, the towns that came before.

Now I've got settled and London is my home. I don't walk around mouth agape anymore. (Only tourists' heads turn at the extraordinary here.) I navigate the maze of craziness with nimble confidence. The novelty of the place has worn thin, and that worries me a bit. London doesn't stand still; it's a city that undergoes continuous and unconscious redefinition. Many aspects of the city are so different from what they looked three years ago, they could be a different city altogether.

The East has developed beyond belief. The area that will house the 2012 Summer Olympics was just a post-industrial wasteland veined with canals. Now it's a fenced-off construction site nearing completion with countless sparkling businesses sprouting in the immediate vicinity.

Spitalfields Market has lots its soul and most appeal after a recent refurbish- and embellishment. It's the good fortune of the area that The Old Truman Brewery, just a few minutes away, more than makes up for the loss. Camden Town Market (recently domesticated and defanged) and Portobello Road (all but committed to the same fate) have no sidekick. They anchor their area and draw thousands. But their quirkiness is gone; their creativity and wackiness are driven out. The tourists will keep coming for a few years but their numbers will shrink as they see through the bland commercialization of what used to be defining features of London's allure.

All over town, construction is still going strong. Landlords spruce up their properties (just not the one I'm in), developers pull glass and steel into the sky, and the Tate is expanding both of their galleries. Ignore a neighborhood for a few months and you're unlikely to remember you've ever been there when you return. The same amnesia can befall you just outside your door when another quiet restaurant has been replace by a new one, bright yellow sign and all. I don't even want to know what Shepherd's Bush look like now, seven months after I've moved away.

London is dynamic, London changes, London renews itself – which makes it all the more worrying that I'm sliding into some ill-defined been-there, seen-that attitude. While the thrill is far from gone, it's certainly been a bit dulled, and other ideas and temptations tickle my imagination. Is it age that's driving me to more peaceful quarters, to quieter pastures? Maybe. But maybe it's just that I'm getting restless, that three years is enough time spent in one place.

Friday, July 23, 2010

the right gate

Down by 15%. That was the striking number reported by the Evening Standard the other day. The decrease happened over the course of one eventful year, from 2008 to 2009. Fifteen per cent isn't small beer, either. It translates to ten million and describes the number of trips abroad residents of the UK declined to make from one year to the next.

The random snippet of statistics comes to mind as I sit in the departure lounge of Heathrow terminal 1, waiting for my flight to Dresden to be called. Around me are people, the usual airport crowd: ragged travelers; exhausted tourists; business people with smart suits, silver cuff links and black laptop cases; and families with children whose energies are only just contained. None of this is new; none of it surprises. I have seen it a dozen times before. At an airport traveling is always the same. And yet, things are a bit different from what they used to be.

The change began when the financial crisis opened the floodgates of doom. As the economy turned sour, traveling improved greatly. The crowds thinned considerably, sometimes even reaching numbers for which the airports were actually designed. Check-in kiosks became available without a wait and lines at and security checks shriveled to nothing. Frankfurt and Heathrow, mad zoos both of them, used to operate several notches beyond their capacity for years. Now they can comfortably with passenger traffic and have a smile to spare. Even in the posher waiting areas, there are usually seats available. There is air to breath; the air from the neighbor doesn't burn through one's skin.

Lufthansa reinstated direct flights to Dresden a couple of months ago and I should be delighted because I'm on one, but the flight is delayed. I'm sitting in a red faux-leather chair with a good view of the screen announcing the departure gates. Next to my flight, there a gaping hole of ignorance. The only number defines the expected delay: substantial but I don't mind the wait. For an airport, Heathrow is not all that bad – especially considering its abysmal reputation. And since it serves plenty of passengers despite the downturn, there's always something to see.

A gaggle of Middle Eastern ladies, disguised in uniformly black cloaks that are distinguished only by discreet labels of luxury fashion designers, mingle ebulliently with the two attendants running the supercar raffle, debating whether to buy one or more of the 20-pounds tickets. The raffle is apparently closing tomorrow; the red Ferrari California could be in the lucky winner's driveway by Monday. But would they even be allowed to drive where they are going?

As I debate this question, weighing their youthful excitement against the pious blackness of their shrouds, a blood-curdling noise erupts somewhere behind my left shoulder. The unlikely source of this industrial sound halfway between a sharp jangle and a fat roar is an elderly gentleman with a bulbous stomach who is evidently enjoying his afternoon nap a bit too much. My head is not the only one that turns his way and I can see amused smiles but also discharges of annoyance in the faces around me. Announcements of flight status updates are not particularly intrusive here. I'm afraid the sleeper will be badly disappointed when he wakes to find his plane long departed.

Mine isn't anywhere close. Not even the gate has been revealed. This kind of unjustified secrecy annoys me more than the raucous snorer. How hard can it be to set a gate an hour before departure? Quite hard, it seems; Heathrow is not the only place operating outside the laws of order and regularity. In France, every train station creates a cauldron of chaos every day. Trains follow schedules that don't vary for months and arrive at times known with certainly way in advance. There are only a limited number of platforms to choose and yet, matching one with the other is never achieved more than ten minutes before departure, at which point a breakneck drag race of frantic travelers kicks off, defying health-and-safety considerations at regular half-hour intervals.

A multiply delayed train held the ticket to my first proper conversation in French, way back in 1998 in Marseille. Returning from a week of rock climbing in the beautiful Calanques, I was half-sleeping in a dusty alcove when a rush of life stranded to my feet like a beached whale. Bags dropped to the ground, followed by the men who held them. A bearded migrant, clothed in charity surplus but in possession of a sleeper ticket to Strasbourg, inquired about the curiously shaped metal-and-string contraptions hanging from my backpack. I was more than mildly surprised when I discovered in me the words to reply to his question and outright stunned when I kept our conversation going until, twenty minutes later, a mighty jolt brought the beached whale back to life and people to their feet. The train would leave from platform 3.

My plane will leave from gate 49. A sign to my left indicates the direction and warns of a fifteen-minute walk. From the Harrod's outlet and the WH Smith, people with pleasant anticipation in their eyes emerge. There is no rush, but a trickle turns into a stream as more and more passengers hear the news and follow the sign. I fold up my newspaper and grab my pack. Thirty-five minutes until departure.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

the right time

One of my favorite scenes in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 2001 movie Amélie shows the film's protagonist, the world's greatest philanthrope by the word's original meaning, hurrying through the grimy Gare de l'Est. Amélie is hot on the heels of the mystery man that haunts the photo-machines of Paris, but the good girl that she is she has the time to stop for a beggar despondently leaning against a dark wall. She gets her wallet out to drop the old man a franc, but he parries her gesture with a line that goes a long way toward explaining France: "Sorry Madam, I don't work on Sundays." In France, even vagabonds take the weekend off. Think about what this kind of self-image implies.

The scene is neither a cinematic distortion of reality nor a manifestation of the bizarreness of France. It's a reflection of how a substantial number of Europeans deal with hardships. Depending on your political leanings you'll call it keeping your dignity or ignoring reality, but you can't deny that such behavior exists. On my way back from Germany this afternoon, I was reminded of just how entrenched it is.

One of the pleasures of flying Lufthansa is the generous selection of free newspapers at the departure gate. In a habit developed when I took regular long train trips, I grabbed a Zeit, a massive broadsheet weekly that weighs a good pound and unfolds to more than a meter. It cannot be read in the confines of economy class but shrinks to nothing, with insightful comments, well-reasoned opinions and in-depth reporting, the time before take-off and after landing.

What caught my eyes this week, though, was non of the above. In a story about the fragile economic situation in Greece was this brilliant sentence: "Many expect unrest in fall when the Greeks return from their vacations." Like the beggar in Amélie, the Greeks won't let their predicament come between them and a holiday.

How tough is it in Greece? How hard are the austerity measures, the economic downturn, the lay-offs and the increases in retirement age? I don't know; I've never been there. But I'm guessing that while things are serious from a European perspective, on a global scale they're overblown. People have houses, people have food. They are educated and have reason for optimism. Most importantly, they have a tradition of taking the summer months off and won't let the government or the economy take that from them. If the system has to be fought, it will have to wait until the people can make time.

There is precedence for such behavior, for time-managing labor strife and public unrest in seemingly incongruous ways. In France, temporarily unemployed part-time actors, night-club bouncers and musicians have been known to go on strike while they were unemployed. Hard times call for hard measures.

Friday, July 09, 2010

colors of success

When I sat down this evening to scribble some more nonsense, I skimmed over my output of the last half month and was mightily surprised at the strong presence of football. The topic features in every single one of the last five posts. I don't consider myself a football fan by any stretch of the word's meaning. I'm not fanatic about the sport, I don't watch league play and I don't care much about any team. But over the last twelve years I've developed an affection for my country that was totally foreign to me when I still lived there, and I've become ready to show my colors and support my country wherever I am out in the world.

My temporary single-mindedness must surely be tiring to follow, and I promise it will stop. The post in progress, coming at you with the unmitigated force of a Puyol header, will in fact be the last one on the subject. The reason is simple: The World Cup is over. Thick layers of tricolor face paint have been washed off, and my gigantic flag, a relic from darker times that is toxic to the touch and shows the scars of hastily excised circular coats of arms, lies neatly folded on the bottom shelf of my bedroom closet. The octopus was right; the dream is over. Germany is out.

It was a repetition of sorts of the team's effort of four years ago, when national enthusiasm carried the Mannschaft to an overall victory that was never in doubt while the players' bodies and legs were only good enough for a narrow loss in the semifinals. The reaction of the German press is repeating itself too. Only one day after the stunning collapse of the collective fantasy, the team is celebrated as the winner of the world's hearts.

Four years ago, that was probably true. Germany won more in that tournament than any other country and much more than it had expected when fighting to become the host nation. The face of Germany changed so dramatically in the three weeks of the World Cup that I hardly recognized my country when I visited for the quarter- and semifinals. Light-hearted happiness and open friendliness abounded where pessimism and gloomy suspicion traditionally reigned. All were family, foreigners were embraced, and everyone and everything were bedecked in black-red-and-yellow trim. After the narrow victory over Argentina, disorderly multitudes were dancing in the streets as if we were a tiny Caribbean nation that had just won its first international game ever.

Political pundits and frequent visitors alike didn't believe their eyes. Flags were everywhere, and people waved them proudly and with complete disregard of the associations to the past this normally evokes. The pennants became an expression of national joy that left the extreme left and the extreme right of the political spectrum unitedly aghast. The left had always cried wolf at any sign of national pride, lest the furies of war shall return. Now the right joined them by protesting what they considered the besoiling and belittling of the national colors. The reactionary negativism of these most unlikely bedfellows was so utterly out of touch with public spirit that it drove even more people to buy necklaces, temporary tattoos or bumper stickers in colors that had suddenly become fashionable.

After the group stage, the World Cup turned into some sort of Love Parade spill-over, a party that never slept. Pictures and video footage of the endless exuberance and cheerfulness that filled streets, parks and even stadiums where no games were played but giant screens erected were beamed into the world and changed the picture many had of Germans. More importantly, the German self-image was drastically and lastingly changed. The performance of the national team perfectly reflected that new mood with feel-good football.

Why should the national team's playing elicit the same response this time round? The change was made four years ago, and it has been sustained. Germans haven't retrenched into the caves of dolorous grumpiness. Flags are being waved most unthreateningly. The party is still on.

The major differences between the German 2006 and 2010 World Cup squads are age and origin. The team is young and liable to being thought of as representing the future, and it is multi-ethnic. Two of the core players were born in Poland; one has Turkish parents, another a Spanish mom and a third a Tunisian father. The most promising new striker, on the other hand, is called Müller – it doesn't get more German than that.

The attractive and successful style of playing of the German team has led a few commentators see in it the future of the country foretold. I've read suggestions of Germany as a model of integration, offering opportunities regardless of color or migratory background and developing pure talent.

I think such adulation is premature at best and maybe seriously misguided. The situation is much less rosy outside the elated realms of international ball-sport competitions. What does it really matter that an Anatolian hobbit is pulling the strings in midfield? Overall suspicion of the other is still great in Germany. Mosques are considered threats; citizen committees form to oppose and prevent their construction. CVs for most jobs require a passport photo, and a brown face doesn't increase an applicant's chances. Nor does a foreign-sounding name.

The situation might have improved over the last decade, simply because the forces of globalization are impossible to resist. Global mobility has changed the makeup of Germany, and conversations in English or Turkish are common in cafés and on the train. This has nothing to do with this year's World Cup, and the team doesn't reflect this. What it does reflect is the German Football Association's inclusive vision of success. I hope their model will be emulated by local authorities, enterprises and the wider society, even though the squad's progress to ultimate success was stopped by a mighty Spanish header.

Monday, July 05, 2010

fits and starts

About two months ago, just a few days after finishing the Oberelbe-Marathon for the third time, I went to Ethos, the Imperial sports center, to play football with some mates. They're from Portugal, Germany and a handful of other countries, depending on the day, and most know what they're doing. It's always good fun. That day was good fun as well, but it didn't end like it. I tackled an opponent with all my uncoordinated might, lunging at him from the depth of our half, from a distance that couldn't possibly be considered safe.

It wasn't safe. As I slammed into the winger and crushed him against the wall of the gym, I twisted my ankle more badly than ever before. The pain shot through my leg and into my brain in less than a second. A fell to the ground like a dead cow and landed on my face. My hands were clutching my ankle to no avail. Swelling set in within minutes and increased visibly while I hobbled off the field with a face contorted in agony. My ankle turned black. Somehow I made it back to the lab without fainting and continued working, but I had to keep my foot in the ice box. And once the adrenaline and endorphines had done their duty and been washed from my blood stream, a dismal misery set in that would keep me immobile and largely incapacitated for the better part of a week.

For the longest time the swelling didn't recede, but when I went to see a doctor the other day because I got increasingly convinced that I had ripped something important in the mechanics of the ankle, she didn't even touch my foot. One look and my description of the incident were enough for her to claim that everything just needed a bit more time but would be all right eventually. All right, she said, it would be unless I went back to playing football.

I don't fancy myself much on my footballing skills. I know that I'm fast, even at my advanced age, and that I can go after the ball with much heart. I'm not short of goals on an inspired day, but most of my tackles end in anger. My arms are flailing and my legs kick viciously but without much direction. I'm much better off on the sofa watching the sport than on the pitch playing it.

Watching it I've being doing copiously over the last three weeks, though I've strayed from my sofa. As I don't have a TV at home, I had to make my way to the pub, as far away as right across the street, to see the games of the World Cup. I've seen many games and I've drunk a lot of beer. It was a good time, especially with the breathtaking playing of black-red-gold, and sitting on a bar stool sipping tepid Doom Bar was exactly the right kind of activity for a severely handicapped guy that still trying to keep a connection with the world of sports.

On Saturday, Germany routed Argentina like no German team has ever routed any team of world renown, certainly not within the last twenty years. My painted face soaked with the sweat of competitive cheering but its proud colors still clearly visible, I sauntered home after the game, each step a bounce that nearly ejected me from terrestrial orbit. I was relishing my life as a passive athlete, winning every game and having a drink at the same time.

Good times are not made to last. Germany will play Spain on Wednesday, and no one will remember England or Argentina after that game. And I might not remember the days of blissful leisure much longer either. They already seem like a dreamworld. On Saturday, I received my good-for-age entry form for the 2011 London Marathon. Hundreds of thousands of bog-standard Sunday-afternoon racers vie for a number. Sometime in early May names can be entered in the entry lottery. When 120,000 requests have been received, the lottery closes. Every sixth is lucky and gets a spot in the following year's marathon. The unlucky ones can sign up with a charity and are required to raise significant funds, after making a substantial donation. I happened to be fast enough to meet the consideration criteria of the organizing committee, and got a number for nothing. It's 32383.

I am excited, I have to admit. The London Marathon is something special; there's not many like it in the world. 35,000 crazies undertake the 42 kilometers. A handful finishes in better than 2:10hr. They earn their living with their feet, and it's not a bad one either. There is no question of my finishing tenth, as I did in Dresden earlier this year. Triple digitis is probably a more realistic goal. But then I don't tend to set my goals according to the competition. My goal is always my own. It was so when I tried to break the three hours, and it will be next year.

Let's say, just for the sake of having a number out there, that I'll run the damn thing in under 2:50hr. That will be impossible without some serious training, and without some early-season benchmarks. (A 1:19 half marathon, anyone?) In contrast to the three years before, next year I'll start the season in the fall before. Good thing the swelling in my ankle has almost disappeared. It's time to dust off the trainers and take to the Thames path – after the World Cup.