Sunday, May 27, 2012


Next weekend, our fair queen is celebrating 60 years on the throne. The government is rewarding me and everyone else in the UK with an extra day off work. The Economist reckons this will depress second-quarter economic growth by half a percentage point, but no one is overly concerned. The extra bank holiday is scheduled for Tuesday, to align with the late-May bank holiday that was postponed to the first Monday of June. The resulting weekend is four days long.

Monarchists and traditionalists are excited about the prospect of a party the like of which this country hasn't seen since the queen's coronation in 1952. Even the Silver Jubilee wasn't much of an event, and today only the footbridges along Hungerford Bridge and the guided walk in Hyde Park remind of it. But this year, with the public as sick of doom and gloom, of austerity and economic demise as it must have been a short few years after the second world war, the craving for celebration is strong.

The Jubilee weekend will be defined by bunting in red, white and blue, street parties where entire neighborhoods will gather to share tea, biscuits and Britishness, and by a flotilla seven and a half miles in length going down the Thames, one boat carrying the queen and 1000 more with celebrators. There will be fireworks and even a flame-spitting dragon. Two million spectators are expected to line the river and watch the pageant, many flying in for the occasion.

The monarchy is riding high in public opinion, though it is a curious beast. The kingdom doesn't have a king, for one. This never fails to crack me up. The queen herself is dignified and elegant, but these two attributes suffice to define her reign. No actions of hers will be remembered, nor any speeches. Everyone loves the queen, but she's just a puppet, the free will that she might have never a match for the obligations she's under. I wonder how the queen feels about that.

At the beginning of each legislative session, Parliament is formally opened by the queen. She is the head of state of the UK and gives, among much pomp and ceremony, a speech outlining the policies that "my government", as she has to put it, will implement. It is a sad spectacle, an assertion of power that serves no one. For what the queen says has been written and handed to her by the government. She is just a parliamentary intern for the day, a voice without will. Though protocol forbids it, the government should introduce the speech with the honest words "My queen will read out our policies".

The spectacle looks miserable to me and rather demeaning. I wouldn't read anyone's words out but my own, but the queen has no say. She has duties to perform and expectations to rise to. She does it with dignity and elegance, but there can't possibly be any excitement or enthusiasm. Is there a person behind the facade at all?

A highly praised exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery assembles six decades worth of royal portraits. Given my reluctance to pay for art in London, the city of free museums, I haven't seen the exhibition and have to make do with reviews and examples published in newspapers and on the web. There's general agreement that one has never had such a good look at the queen, from all sides and through the times. All we see, however, is the queen as a concept.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

big game

Yesterday, late in the afternoon, as I had settled into an uncomfortable upright position in front of my music stand and was trying, for the first time in months, to tickle tunes from my recorder, strange dissonances insinuated themselves through the dilapidated windows of my living room. It wasn't the number 28 bus picking up passengers, its 9-liter engine rumbling in anger at the delay. There is nothing insinuating about that sound, which grabs my windows and rattles them with resonance. What I heard was more subtle – and a bit disconcerting. It sounded vaguely like singing.

But who would sing on North End Road? I put my instrument down and went to the window - and stared at a heaving sea of blue, masses of middle-aged men, most with shorn heads and the kind of body – bulky and bloated – that years of merciless ale consumption grant, marching south in unison. Their rhythmic chanting turned the street into a surrogate stadium as they, Chelsea FC fans without fail, worked themselves into a frenzy before watching the game.

What I saw surprised me, not the very fact but the extent. I had been reminded of the Champions League final that would take place that evening and was the cause of the commotion by a flyer the Council has sent me a few days earlier. In it, residents living near Stamford Bridge were advised that a victory parade would widely disrupt traffic on Sunday in the event that Chelsea win the game the night before. I had been warned.

And yet, the crowds surprised me. After all, the game was played in Munich, not in London. The stadium down the road was closed for the night; there was no public viewing. What was everyone doing here? Chelsea is the epitome of a soulless oligarch's toy, driven by virtually unlimited quantities of money and vanity, a vehicle to mop up its owner's excess millions rather than a club with tradition and concerns for loyal fans. How could anyone identify? To my astonishment, the fans were flocking to the area. Imbued with expectation, a spirit of community and hope, they were coming to watch the game in pubs within shouting distance of their home ground.

From my window I could see that The Goose, an old favorite with cheap beer and elderly regulars, was filled to capacity already. Two dozen punters cued outside in the hope that those inside would get bored and make space for them. The crowd was more numerous and more excited than during the last World Cup, even when England played. I went out to see how things were even closer to the stadium.

There are about a dozen pubs between my flat and Stamford Bridge, a half-mile walk. All of them were full. All of them had spill-over lined up outside. By the Fulham Broadway tube station, police had their hands full already. People started dancing in the street when they weren't looking. The mood was of giddy anticipation. Chelsea had never won the Champions League before, nor its precursor, the European Cup. But they had kicked out Barcelona, and now everything seemed possible.

Watching the game didn't seem easily possible. I started walking away from the epicenter but had to stray far. There were more pubs with blue crowds by their doors. The Wheatsheaf appeared quieter but charged 10 quid on the door. Dark blinds over its windows ensured that no one could watch from outside. My hope at this point was The Fest, a Bavarian-themed beerhouse and, Chelsea played Bayern, natural gathering of enemy forces.

I counted myself among the enemies. While I detest Bayern for their money-driven self-importance, I detest Chelsea 100 time more, for their money-driven self-importance is 100 times worse. So while I didn't care who won and I wasn't emotionally involved in any way, I wanted Bayern to win. But the message at the door, convincingly conveyed by no fewer than four bulky bouncers, was, "Sorry, mate, we're fully booked". I had to march on.

A quarter hour later I arrived at Putney Bridge where the strain on the public infrastructure – and in particular the public houses – had eased noticeably. Just as the game started, I settled by the bar of a reclaimed assembly hall with loads of character but insufficient quantities of beer (They ran dry in the middle of the second half.) and started watching.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

may already

It's the middle of May, and it's still the greatest April of all. When I was a kid, Aprils were always exemplary. The weather changed hourly, it rained, then the sun came out, it was windy and tropical, miserable and brilliant – almost every day and sometimes at the same time. There wasn't much to like about the continual rain, especially if we wanted to play football in the park, but the variety kept our attention and the spectacle of change was often magnificent when watched from inside.

Since I left Germany, Aprils have become a distant memory. I know and will never forget what the month is supposed to be like, but I haven't experienced one since. In Utah, except for frequent snowstorms in winter, it was always sunny. In Grenoble, it was similar, though less dry. In London, the weather comes in discrete blocks of substantial length. Sometimes, the quintessential light drizzle hangs in the air for weeks. Then the sun shines for weeks as if England had gone on vacation to the Costa del Sol. In Winter, there are long weeks of skies so grey even the clouds aren't visible.

This is how it used to be, but the latest block of weather, fine and dry, ended a good four weeks ago when the Met Office declared a drought after two years of no rain, more or less. As soon as they did, things changed, which is how it always is, without fail. When it's warm for two days, a heat wave is declared, ensuring that the following weekend will be cold and drab. When the Met Office issued a severe cold weather warning this February, the mildest winter on record followed the few bitterly cold days. It's as if the weather follows the Met Office's predictions and sets out to spite them.

Consequently, there hasn't been a dry day since the drought was declared. What has replaced the dryness isn't just rain, though. There hasn't been a day without sun, either. Both sun and rain do their job with vigor and in fierce competition. In other words, it's been a perfect April. I have to schedule my walk home carefully to fit them between downpours. I have even modified my route to pass by the most grocery stores possible, so that I can step in (and buy dinner) when the rain hits hard. It is rare indeed that I get home without food.

The April weather shows no sign of letting up. My Yahoo! widget keeps showing me all meteorological pictograms in the book. The rain is chasing the sun like a cat its own tail. And yet, it's not April anymore. It's May and despite having run out of contract, I'm still here. In an impressive display of last-minute paper-pushing, an extension was approved that will keep me employed and, indirectly, in my flat and with food on the table until the next step is taken. But despite the wonderful weather, entertaining and full of memories, I can't wait to move on.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

traveling in style

In his book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Paul Theroux retraces an epic trip taken 25 years earlier when he set out from London to travel overland to Tokyo and back, a loop that roped in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Indochina on the way out and Siberia on the way back. The journey is described with wonderful vibrancy in The Great Railway Bazaar. I finished reading this book a few weeks ago and couldn't ward off a feeling of deep nostalgia. For all the lively encounters and authentic details, the book described a long-forgotten past. They just don't do railways like this anymore.

In the newer book, Paul Theroux confirms this, deploring the demise of the dining car. This was always his favored place on a train. It was there that he met the characters that enlivened his book, which would otherwise have been little more than a dull succession of place names and countries, soulless and repetitive. The dining car rescues the book and turns it into a fantastic read. Now it is on its way out, apparently because rail travelers are worried about their belongings and afraid of leaving their bags alone in their compartment.

This morning, I flew from London to a regional Austrian airport with nothing more than could fit into the soft sleeve of my Eee given shape by a book of appropriate dimensions: passport, MP3 player, cell phone, wallet, a Moleskine and a pen. The Eee itself stayed at home.

The trip didn't begin auspiciously. In the first rays of the morning sun gleamed an Airbus that, according to the captain who had mysteriously hijacked the PA system at the gate, had never been on a commercial flight. It had only been delivered from the factory the day before. Our flight was supposed to be the maiden voyage. However, the uselessly chirpy captain informed us, one of the doors had jammed and the machine was unusable. When problems happen with aircraft, it's usually with new ones, he claimed. We had to be ferried across the airfield to the South Terminal, where some old beater with functioning doors had fortuitously been located. We arrived at our destination nearly an hour late.

The delay, though compounded for me by a missed connection, couldn't throw my plans off. I was on the way to a job interview scheduled for that afternoon and arrived with enough time to spare a little for a walk around town. Austria is beautiful, with lush meadows, rugged mountains and a love of the rural architecture of the past. Some curious quirks and the adorable accent aside, it is also very close to Germany in its appearance and vibe, almost too close for comfort to me. Working there would almost be like coming home, I realized with a queasy feeling as I walked through the gate.

I was getting ahead of myself. I hadn't come to work, only to present myself for consideration. The three hours of interviews, a presentation followed by a friendly but intense grilling and the lab tour passed well, though everything started tense. The HR person in charge started with a professional stiffness that scared the hell out of me but surprised me with correctness and clarity. His 90-minute interrogation was tough but fair and free from meanness or spite. There were no questions of which color my wings would be if I were a butterfly, which areas my boss, if called, would say I should work on improving in, not even what five of my weaknesses are. What exactly they think about me I don't know yet, and the ramifications for Flucha remain entirely unexplored. But there's something to think about.

I could have used the time on the train back to the airport for exactly that, but traveled on a EuroCity, a type of train without the swishness and speed of the ICE but – at least in my case – a dining car separating the first- and second-class cars. When I noticed, I could almost hear Paul Theroux rejoice in the back of my head, and goad me on. I have never traveled in a dining car; it always seemed too decadent for a modest man like me. But that afternoon, someone else's memories of distance and adventure combined with my good spirits because of the interview and a sense of entitlement resulting from 13 hours awake already and seven more to go. I pulled the glass door open, entered and sank into a wonderfully deep brown leatherette chair by a panoramic window. A little while later, a glass of beer materialized in front of me and all the burden of traveling fell off. I let my eyes wander.

Delightfully cheap-looking wood-paneling covered the walls above the windows and on either end of the car, giving it a decidedly old-school appearance. There were twelve tables, some seating two, some seating four. All were dressed properly with heavy tablecloths and adorned with little white lamps hovering by the windows and only just above the surface of the table. The lamps were off; the day was still too young for artificial light. Instead, the glory of Austria passed by outside: meadows in full bloom, floral explosions in red, white and yellow; a whitewashed village church every two minutes, surrounded by picture-perfect hamlets of immaculate beauty; brown cows in herds so small they should properly be called flocks; and to either side the crests of the Austrian Alps rising in imposing grey.

Only a few tables in the dining car were occupied. There were two old ladies sipping their afternoon filter coffee with milk. A quartet of business travelers with laptops and cell phones shared beers and occasional boisterous banter. A group of lads fresh off their bikes refueled with chicken curry and rice. But there was no bar, and there was no mingling. Sociability would probably be asking too much on a train in Germanic lands.

In front of me, next to my beer, was the menu with a title – the train continued to Budapest – like the beginning of a postmodern poem. Ételek és italok it said, and that the beer cost less than I'd pay in a pub in London. The goulash soup and veal schnitzel made me regret not being hungry and dread the moment when I would be – probably later at the airport where I'd have to shell out twice for comparable fare.

Getting drowsy from the beer, I could better appreciate the leisurely pace at which the train trundled along. The mode of travel and the mood were in perfect synchronicity. I leaned back and enjoyed a luxury that seemed to come straight from the past. But about an hour in, I had reached my destination for that leg of the trip and had to get out. As I changed into the overground to the airport I wondered why anyone would travel any other way.