Monday, August 30, 2010

fire burning

Life, in my opinion and experience, is a continuous procession of events and incidents, of decisions opening new ways and advances into the unknown. This might sound trivial and obvious if you don't think much about it but it's true and quite deep. There's more to life than just hanging on and staying for the ride. There must always be an active motion. If your dreams are dead, if you don't know where you're going, if you don't aspire to anything or work hard towards getting somewhere, you're not really alive anymore.

Over the years, I've moved from place to place, driven by desire for education, novelty, the unknown, advancement, a career – a handy number of goals that hover blurrily in the distance and change shape when I get closer, always more subtly to be recognizable but in the end undeniably. When I realized that the novelty had worn off or the education was depleted or the career imagined, I found a way to move on, to a place that offered similar prospects to a naive traveler as the one before, but with a fresh perspective and renewed excitement.

Times flows in one way only and years have passed. Salt Lake succeeded Jena and Grenoble was followed by London. And still I have my sight set at the Fata Morgana that keeps shifting at the horizon, forever elusive in its precise delineation. The thrill comes from trying hard to get closer, from the pursuit of the undefinable. Satisfaction in life, for me, is every little effort that takes me closer, as far as I can tell, to the point of convergence, to the target of intention, however poorly described that might be and however ephemeral.

The other day I got back from San Sebastian, city by the beach, between the sea and the mountains, in the north of Spain but not in Spain in its self-image. This list of attributes is long and diverse enough to arouse my curiosity even if I hadn't had such a blast there, and it's making me consider my options.

London has been my home for the past three years and the howling madness of the city is becoming routine. The tingling is burning in my toes again, telling me in no uncertain terms that it is time to move on. The fields have been ploughed and the seeds sown. The growth has been tended to with care and the upcoming harvest evaluated for its richness. There are aspects in my work that still burn hot with excitement and the promise of gold, but there are others that lie fallow, having fallen aside in moments of distraction.

In spite of habit and method working their invidious grind, I have been subdued in spirit for lack of options. San Sebastian has changed that. Why not Spain? (Never mind that I was in the Basque Country.) People were nice, the coast and the mountains beautiful and the food extraordinary. What can be wrong with red wine and pickled octopus for price of a slice of old bread? I really enjoyed the week I spent there, so much that I'm toying with the idea of going there for a while. Or at least I'm entertaining the possibility to see what might happen.

San Sebastian is as idyllic as a city can be. It sits by a large circular bay with wide beaches that are perfect for swimming and playing in the waves. Against my natural predisposition I went into the water every day. Clear, warm and free from critters, it was nearly perfect. Pamplona – where the bulls are run in July – and Bilbao – with the beautiful monstrosity of the Guggenheim – are nearby.

The region might not possess much in terms of ethnic diversity. The cultural breadth cannot hold a candle to the daily fireworks that's London. The weather – sunny and hot for the entire week we were there – must have been an anomaly if the lush meadows and deep green forests mean anything. But the positive characteristics have burned their mark into my cortex.

Even more so as I'm getting increasingly sick of London (still the center of the universe and the greatest city on earth, that goes without saying). The lack of nature is part of it: no cycling, not mountain biking, no hiking and the like. But worse is the large gap between rich and poor that creates all sorts of mind-boggling contrasts and disparities and that gives the city a face that is as ugly as it is elemental.

A flat in a new development on the south side of Hyde Park has just sold for 140 million pounds ($200,000,000 for one apartment!!), to some filthy rich dude far away. Such purchases, with the objective of gaining financially from house price inflation, keep driving prices and rents for ordinary flats up, to an extent that average workers cannot afford anything decent and something that's not even close to decent can be rented out for a small fortune. Median for an average two-bedroom apartment is as much as the median salary after tax.

And as with salaries, there's a huge spread in the quality of dwellings. Surrounding the glitter of restored Georgian semis and the luxury of spacious lofts are old flats that haven't been remodeled in decades, in streets that are noisy and messy. The facades of most houses are depressing to look at, with crumbling brickwork, blind windows, peeling paint, and windows of another era. (Inside it's frequently just as bad, with prehistoric plumbing and an electrical system unfit for wiring of the bathrooms.)

Taking the train into London is always a profoundly dispiriting experience, and it's not because of the peculiarities of British Rail. Rows upon rows of crooked, dirty terraces in varying states of dilapidation decry the depravity that calls London home. Beholding this bleakness with eyes that had just got used to modern tenements in clean streets, to a city surrounded by mountains and the sea, to effervescent street cafés instead of thick-necked pubs, the discrepancy exploded in my awareness and a realization filled my vision: The fire is still burning, and it's time to move on. Gotta find a goal and a place to shoot for it.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

any gripes

Nearly a year ago I purported to get into the habit of venting publicly. I even introduced tags to the blog to make the rants stand out. If you click the corresponding filter, you will find a good dozen posts, not a whole lot for more than ten months, especially as most contain nothing more than an angry thought here or there. The initial idea, in contrast, was to go over the week and highlight the nonsense that had inexorably accumulated. That my rants have been scarce is not owed to a more sensibly spinning world. Rather, I have mellowed with age and grown indifferent to the more pedestrian absurdities of life. Things are a little different tonight – not my age, but the level of inanity in the public discourse. I can't hold on to myself and have to revisit the format as originally planned.

To start from the top, President Obama's counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, expressed the naive wish that Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the Libyan who was convicted for blowing up Pan Am flight 103 and killing 270 people in the process but freed a year ago under mysterious circumstances by Scottish authorities, should return to prison. Brennan apparently expressed this wish in front of the world press, but he might as well have written a letter to Santa Claus or talked to the Tooth Fairy. What are the chances?

The British government, concerning the same issue, used the lugubrious adjectives of "tasteless, offensive and deeply insensitive", though curiously enough not to describe the actions of said shallow-water Scottish authorities a year ago. No, they warned Libya not to overdo the anniversary celebrations for the terrorist. Maybe the guy shouldn't have gone free in the first place?

What authority do the Scots have, anyway, you might ask, to put a convicted terrorist back into business? This is where it gets very muddy. In short, al-Megrahi claimed to be dying and the authorities (there they go again) thought it would be a nice gesture to let him enjoy the autumn of his life by a pool in sunny Tripoli. I'm not sure if they do that to all of their prisoners or only to top-terrorists. But I would ask for a transfer to Edinburgh, should I ever have to go to jail.

More important than its treatment of prisoners, at least in the context of this post, is the question of what Scotland is politically. To me, it's the land north of England famous for throat-cutting whisky (good) and ear-splitting music (bad). I always thought they were a province of the UK, but some up there think higher of themselves and imagine a glorious nation. They have a parliament whose members have extracted concession of from the Union and returned ridicule. They still send deputies to Westminster, mostly to siphon off the money to survive, which they would be hard-pressed to do on their own. Up to three months ago, the UK was even run by a Scot, believe it or not, but this nonsense is over now.

The United Kingdom is dear to the heart of many English, probably because they like the idea of ruling of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and equally vilified by many in the provinces. The Scottish are most eager to become independent, though such talk is not often heard down here in the heart of the Union.

That's why it was with so much pleasure that I listened to Any Questions tonight. The show covers all the topics broached above, includes an animated debate about the merits of Scotland as such, and fills the rest of the barely fifty minutes with heated discussion of the other news of the week: A religious community's plan for a cultural center encounters vitriolic opposition; Ummah, the Community of Believers, sits mostly idly as their brethren are swept off their land by an angrily swollen river; and the leaders of two small communities between the desert and the sea agree to meet to bring each other up to speed on why they can't live peacefully together.

You can hear it all here, and I encourage you to do so. It is refreshing.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

off the boat

London is full of antipodeans. Some special visa agreement lets them live and work in the UK for up to two years. Not surprisingly, most that come choose London. They pile up in tight flatshares to save money, which is then spent on partying and traveling Europe. In town, they are most visible in a chain of pubs that caters to their tastes and during Australia and Waitangi Days, when they swarm on the streets dressed in nothing but national flags and whiffs of alcohol, ignoring generally frigid temperatures.

They even have their own magazine, the bizarrely named TNT. It was in this magazine that I saw an advertisement for the Liberal Party of Australia. A general election is coming up, and among their campaign promises was the curious stop the boats.

At first I thought they were opposing world trade, maybe because they didn't want to sell Australia's mineral wealth to China, but that didn't make too much sense. Then I realized their policy was against immigration, which is an even stranger strange position for liberals to take. But the strangest thing of all is to target Australians in London with this xenophobic nonsense. Haven't they come here on the rich world's equivalent of boats? Should we close our airports to them?

I don't hold this ad against TNT; they're just trying to run their business. In fact, I quite like the magazine. They are running a travel writing competition into which I've just entered my contribution. Read about the silence of Hama (taken from my trip to Syria last year) and click on the stars and spread the word if you like it.

Monday, August 09, 2010


This blog claims to contain an adulterated version of my private life, with bits missing and others added, primarily chosen to make a good story. No post is entirely made up, but none is free from elements of the spectrum between fiction and lies either. Take the post, ten days ago, about bike hire and supercars. The cars were clamped at Harrods and the cruisers can be picked up all over town, that much was true. But to me the bikes are still off-limits because I don't have a subscription yet.

This failure to ride is not my fault. Even before the service started, I was signed up on the web and tried valiantly to secure a subscription good for the year. But my debit card wasn't accepted and my credit card rejected. Multiple time, on consecutive days. It didn't make sense. I used the card in the store; there's nothing wrong with it. Trying for the fifth time, I was given a telephone number to call. Maybe the friendly folks at the call center could help me out.

I can't say they didn't try. They kept me on the phone for half an hours, trying to run my card through their system until their system crashed. When they called me back a while later they tried some more, but still failed. It sounded like a problem with the card – though, as I said, the card works in stores.

When I said earlier that there was nothing wrong with the card, I was lying. It's all but useless. In contrast to the US, it's rather difficult to get a credit card in the UK, and the first one one gets is usually rubbish. Mine has a credit limit of about a week's pay. I can't even rent a car with it because the deposit is beyond the limit. I tried to extend the limit online but was refused, which aggravated me enough to consider ditching the card altogether.

Thus I called the credit card customer service number, which presented me, after some number wrangling and obscure security questions, with an option I couldn't refuse. "If you want to close your account, press 3." By that time I had calmed down and only wanted to pay for my cycle hire membership and extend my credit limit, but it seemed to me that choosing option 3 would convey a sense of seriousness and urgency that wouldn't go unnoticed.

And so it happened. In less than a minute, I was talking to an actual person. Suffused by the anticipation of victory, I complained in a dramatic voice that I hadn't been happy with the card lately. Thinking my claimed dissatisfaction would elicit commercial interest, I asked for the account to be closed. After the inevitable, "What's wrong? I'm sure we can figure something out", I would then list my grievances.

That was my strategy, anyway, but the response I got stopped me dead in my tracks and left me speechless. "I see you're carrying a balance. How do you want to pay that off?", was the instantaneous reply. Customer retention is apparently not a core business value of Santander, the bank that issued my card.

I was shocked, mostly because I had seen the other extreme after leaving the US. I had already lived in France for a good year when I decided to drop my United Gold card because it didn't make sense to pay sixty bucks a year for a card I hardly ever used. The person I talked to when I wanted to close that account suggested, all salesman: "Why don't you change over to our Classic card, which is free?" He didn't mind that I lived in France and had no income in the US; he just wanted me to use his card and not a competitor's.

I still have that card and treasure it highly. The other day, its limit was raised to just a nick over ten grand. It's great for renting a car and has been a life safer on more than one occasion, and maybe it will get me onto the blue bikes as well, despite a dwindling balance on my American checking account and ridiculous currency exchange fees.

Friday, August 06, 2010


With the Thames eternally flowing past, London invites contemplation but doesn't easily give out conclusions. Like the river, the city is in continuous flux and changing all the time, from day to night, from summer to winter, and from one year to the next. Even the simple things run deeper than the shallow surface suggests.

Ask, for example, which way the Thames runs. To a simple person, the answer is similarly simple: Water runs down the hill. There's fine logic to this and a grave flaw: The gradient that the water follows doesn't need to be based on gravity. Pressure can drive water up the hill, and so can the brute force of a steam engine.

For the river, these options are irrelevant, and yet there's more that meets a cursory glance. The Thames is a tidal river, one of the most elevated in the world. There's no competing with the Bay of Fundy (between Nova Scotia and New Bunswick) where the difference between low and high tide is a hardly believable 55 feet or the Severn Estuary (between England and Wales) where the tidal rise is close to 50 feet. But the Thames isn't exactly lying low, and for a waterway traversing a major metropolis, the numbers are baffling: Outside the Houses of Parliament, there are 25 feet between low and high water, each reached twice a day.

The tides do more than just go up and down: The alter the character of the riverfront with confusing irregularity. As the time of high tide shifts by an hour each day, areas near the river change in appearance all the time. Sometimes the sublime Millennium Bridge barely rises from the tired waters; sometimes it stands up as if on stilts. Sometimes brown waves lap on Southbank; sometimes the intrepid relax on thin slivers of silty beach, far below at the foot of the flood wall.

With these aquatic goings on, I was wondering what was actually going on. How do the tides get into London? The North Sea is a good 40 miles away. There are two possibilities, and I have been in heated discussions arguing the merits of either theory. The rising sea could push the water up the river. Or it could merely block its flow, its rising water level creating an barrier to prevent the river's emptying into the Channel. To put it simpler, and more dramatic: Which way does the Thames flow? Does the sea push upriver into London, or does everything come to a total standstill as the river hits the rising sea?

Wouldn't it be the coolest story if I had set out to answer this question by submerging myself in the chilly floods and feeling for myself the force of the mighty river. I could have taken this blog to a new level, had I transnavigated the fluid band by the power of my flapping arms and legs. Alas, I didn't. I've never even stuck my toe inside. But the other day, the feat was achieved nevertheless, and my question answered.

On one of the last nights of July, Matthew Parris, a 60-year-old newspaper columnist for The Times and former conservative politician, did the feat I was thinking of. Flouting common sense and positively endangering himself, he hopped into the quiet river of the night at Rotherhithe and went for the blinking torch a friend had placed on his apartment's balcony. It was a pioneering stunt, though not as literally groundbreaking as what had taken place a good 180 years earlier.

In the early 1800s, the father-and-son team of Marc Isambard and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, oddly named but renowned as giants of civil engineering, proposed the first tunnels underneath navigable rivers, and in London they put their plan into execution. Simultaneously digging with blunt shovels and stabilizing the developing hole with a wooden scaffold, they made their way from Rotherhithe to Wapping, slowly, laboriously and extremely miserably. As the bed of the Thames is not hard rock but soft clay and quicksand, liquid kept seeping into the building site without respite. Back then, the Thames was little more than an enormous open sewer; the workers were literally shoveling shit. Finished and lined with shiny glazed bricks, the tunnel provided an eerie underground promenade for Victorian aristocrats.

How times have changed. These days, Overground trains run through the tunnel at a rate of eight an hour, hardly slowing down to honor the daring feat. The water above has improved dramatically. The feces are long gone, and pollution has eased as heavy manufacturing has disappeared from English shores. Sea horses now roam the Thames Estuary, salmon make their way upriver, and sometimes a stray whale makes the river his home.

All this was good for Mr Parris, who could enter the water without a hazmat wetsuit and savor the exquisite quietness of the early-morning river with all his senses. It didn't help him with his navigation, though. He ended up three quarters of a mile upriver, swept along haplessly by a tidal current that he had seriously miscalculated. He emerged on the other bank coated in mud like a sow in heat, but he had proved a point. The sea does indeed push mightily into the river.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

literary memories

When I was little, in my early teenage years, I discovered the powers of deduction when I read the first Sherlock Holmes story. I don't know which one it was and how I came across it, but I got hooked. Shortly thereafter I discovered the local library.

In its catalog, though very rarely on its shelves, was a Sherlock Holmes omnibus in five volumes. For months I must have come every week to see if another volume was available to borrow. From those early adventures in a historical, fictional and at that time utterly unattainable London, I recall Hansom cabs, the Strand and trips to the countryside. My personal version of the myth of London was born. (What strikes me now is that the Underground never featured.)

After finishing high-school I worked as a driver for a charity for a year. Rides came and went, and there was much spare time. I learned French from a CD course and started reading books in English. The international bookstore in Dresden had a Penguin edition of Sherlock Holmes; I dove straight in and read through it in a snap. The book was an even bigger delight than the German translation I had read earlier and opened my eyes to the joys of language.

It's not that Doyle was a master of the written word. He was a master storyteller full of invention and imagination. But his stories dated from a different age, and the language showed it. Victorian English fascinated me with its closer ties to German, with numbers where the tens come before the units (as they do in Arabic, oddly enough) and curiously inverted verbal constructions.

Reading made me think about linguistics without being aware of it. The only thing I realized at the time is that I had a lot of fun with the books. At some point, Holmes and Dr. Watson stepped out of the pulpy pages and became close acquaintances, almost friends. I knew exactly what they would look or be like.

Maybe that's the reason that I've never – honestly, never – seen a Sherlock Holmes movie or TV series. One look at the screenshot in the TV guide or a glance at the trailer would tell me that the two protagonists had nothing in common with the two men I adored. The latest big-screen hit was Guy Ritchie's effort, hilarious and breathtakingly over the top, but why did he cast Watson as Holmes and Holmes as Watson? And why would I watch such half-cooked nonsense?

I didn't, but then along came the BBC. Last week they started a three-episode mini-series that transpose the adventures of the greatest of all detectives into modern-day London, black cabs, text messages, Chinese take-out and all. The casting looked all right, but then there is no point arguing authenticity when the action is translated a hundred years into the future.

At the danger of displacing painstakingly constructed mental landscapes with quickly moving pictures, I sat down and broke with a tradition: I watched Sherlock Holmes on screen. I've now watched the second part; it can't be that bad. And it isn't: The action moves rapidly, there are great one-liners, the maestro and his side-kick are acceptable, and some of the supporting characters positively hilarious. The science of deduction can be seen at work.

There's one more episode to come, and I will watch it. And yet, and yet – I can't get wholly enthusiastic about the show. It seems that they started with the concept, with the set, with the supporting cast, and some of the jokes. Into this framework they lowered Holmes and Watson to solve cases that betray poor logic and come along as if tagged on when the rest was done, as if by afterthought. This Apple-esque form over function, with plenty of eye-candy but little substance that holds up to scrutiny, is turning the structure of the books on its head and makes a mockery of the narrative brilliance that Doyle possessed. The films are completely different from the stories, but maybe that's precisely why I can stand them. They won't displace any treasured memories, acquired decades ago.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

fly away

Some light entertainment today. Don't expect too much. In September two friends of mine are getting married in recently resuscitated Belfast, and though it's only a stone's throw away, I decided on the plane to get there. Throwing a stone into a city with a dark history of sectarian violence just didn't sound like a good idea. Especially right now that the violence has made a comeback among disaffected youth in search of early-evening entertainment that gives more kicks than an Xbox 3D.

I went for the plane and commenced the stroll across the overloaded and underperforming websites of a dozen budget airlines to find the best deal, the best compromise of time and money. Here's what flybe had to offer:

Which one would you take? The return flight offered similar choices:

Not only doesn't it cost anything, you also don't have to feel bad about burning the planet, as the following graphic explains:

This is the kind of chart that graces fridges, TVs and cars in their respective showrooms and advertises their environmental consciousness to the caring public. Buying something with a green A is like hugging a tree. Except here it's not the pollution levels that are primarily highlighted, but the acoustic impact. And what do the numbers below mean? What are seven kilograms of local air?

Maybe this greenwashing can be excused these days. It's what the consumer craves. What came next is to be expected from budget airlines but can never be excused.

The taxes and charges are ok. What can you do? The airports want to survive as well. And note how, in a touching move, the seat is free. Overall the ticket is still cheap, but what is it about an eight-pounds debit card charge, a charge that would increase by 25% were I to pay by credit card? What can be the possible reason that this charge is levied for each person even if only one booking is made? Did I just feel someone nestle my wallet from my back pocket?

Truth be told, I didn't. It was my imagination, a bad day dream of sorts. Because when I had entered all my details and clicked confirm, my purchase was denied with an irremediable error. (Imagine the disgruntled Indian call-center-wallah dealing with error code: Unknown in the middle of his night. Helpful? I don't think so.)

How do I get to Belfast now? And don't suggest the stone. I might throw that at flybe instead.