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.