Sunday, May 26, 2013

high up

Bayern beat Dortmund in the Champions League last night.  They were a bit better.  They scored one more goal.  There's nothing to argue with.  Even disregarding the game, the win is deserved.  If you make it to the final three times in four years and beat Barcelona 7:0 on aggregate in the run for the win as Bayern did, you have a good claim to being the best in Europe.  For the manager who's leaving the team in mildly dodgy circumstances after this season, it must have been the sweetest victory.

The game was all right.  It started out extremely nervous, with both team highly respectful of each other and didn't gain any measure of playfulness or levity until deep into the second half when the first and then, shortly afterwards, the second goal fell.  The last twenty minutes were exciting, with quite a few hairy moments.

In a break with tradition, I didn't go to the Famous 3 Kings or The Goose to watch the game.  Instead I headed up to the Kensington Roof Gardens, a venue high up above Kensington High Street on the roof of the Derry & Toms building.  This former department store, with ambitions as high as they were absurd, sports three distinct formal gardens around a central hospitality area that together cover one-and-a-half acres of roof.  The department store has long vanished; the gardens remain.

They are not normally associated with such plebeian pleasures as the public viewing of football.  During the day, locals and tourists in the know can gain access to these gardens for free and hang out among flowers, trees, ponds, ducks, and even flamigoes, relaxing in lawn chairs and forgetting about the madness six floors down where the Gap and Marks & Spencer flog their wares, commuters flood towards the tube station and traffic soils the air.  At night, the gardens are turned into one of London's more unusual night clubs.

Last night, an association of Germans in London had rented the space for a few hours, letting us mingle almost exclusively among compatriots and watch the game in style.  This being Kensington, style came with prices to match:  20 quid to get in, twice that for a round of five drinks (one of them a coke), ten pounds for a burger from the grill.

It's not a place I'm likely to return to, but it was fun to be there.  When the game was over and a DJ took over, we stayed on, chatting in the Moorish garden.  The drinks kept coming despite the cost.  After all, five people equals five rounds.  The conversations were all in German, something that I don't get much of these days.  Though I write in English and probably speak English better than German by now, German is my first language and speaking it touches different nerves.  Debating regional differences in usage is suddenly not a philological exercise but a question of identity.

I've long maintained that moving back to Germany as such doesn't appeal to me.  I'm not whatever the opposite of a xenophobe is, but there are too many advantages to being a foreigner.  Regardless, the move it drawing closer; it's probably going to happen early in July.  Last night, I got an unexpected buzz about it.  Maybe being among Germans isn't so bad after all.

When we left, late for a pub but much too early for a night club, the Kensington jet set was just arriving, jostling for positions in the line that was forming by the entrance downstairs.  Even deep pockets and sharp smiles were no match for the bouncers in black.  We felt as if we were giving something up by leaving.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


In September of 2000, if memory serves me right, I went to Mexico for the first time. It could have been in 1999 or 2001, but I don't think so. 2000 sounds about right. My sister lived there for a couple of months on an internship and I turned the benefits of a local contact and company on the road into a week's vacation. It almost ended badly before it even began.

I had been working hard in the weeks leading up to the trip, as graduate students do, racing to the airport pretty much straight from the bench. I'm making up the details because it's been so long but I clearly remember a layover somewhere in California and the thought that maybe I should have reminded my sister of my flight information. I had sent her everything weeks earlier, but there were no emails or phone calls after that. Had she written it down? This was the time before ubiquitous internet and smartphones – or indeed a cell phone for me. And it was a time when I still believed that every bit of information need only be transmitted once.

In León, after an unchaperoned walk across the tarmac, from the plane to the little terminal building in the distance, I picked up the car I had rented but my copilot, essential when mapless in unfamiliar surroundings, was nowhere to be seen. I test-drove the Tsuru around the airport parking lot, getting worried with the sinking sun. I had no address or telephone number, and no peso for the night.

My sister was there with an international student organization. Out of options, I hit the road towards town trying to find a university. The story would normally continue here. It's a good one. I'm laughing as I'm writing this, recalling episodes and encounters. But this post is not about the trip to Mexico. It's about Yahoo! Mail, which was down when I finally rustled up a computer after a few longs shots had hit the target.

To say I was shocked is putting it mildly. I had been with Yahoo!, the first web mail of note, for two-and-a-half years and never been disappointed. Email was my last hope, and Yahoo! let me down. This story, which turned out well thanks to a few late strikes of good luck, came to my mind when I was checking a reservation the other day.

mail down
Yahoo Mail! going down

Yahoo! Mail was unavailable for a little while only. What came afterwards is much worse. The content of some emails disappeared from my inbox. The header was still there, the placeholder saying that there was an email, but clicking it didn't open it. Instead I got the following window:

mail down
Emails getting lost

Now I know that one doesn't use Yahoo! for anything serious and I admit that this is only my spam-ads-and-other-random-stuff account. But, being an early adopter and all, I'm rather fond of it, and I would like it to work. Essential flight information that remained concealed added a certain spice to my feelings about this.

This all happened last week. I took the screen shots, including the one with the proposed solution – of mind-boggling complexity – that's not reproduced here, with the thought in mind of turning this into a post. I was going to bitch about Yahoo! and how they keep getting worse though that's hardly possible when out of nowhere, their only services that's any good, Flickr, is going big.

I've been putting photos on Flickr since early 2006. I liked their interface and their focus. No social networking, no location services, just photography. I've always been too cheap to go Pro. The most recent 200 photos that were visible on the free account were enough for me. But today, Flickr totally changed the game, unlocking all accounts and giving every user 1 TB of free storage. All photos I've ever uploaded are accessible again, way back to Istanbul seven years ago. Way to go!

Sunday, May 19, 2013


The first thing I noticed as I descended from Terminal 4, the gateway to obscurity at Heathrow, is engineering works. This is what defines London on weekends. Underground public transport shuts down in long stretches to facilitate the replacement of bits of track or signaling that have done their duty faithfully over decades. The tube has just celebrated its 150th anniversary, and some of the hardware hails from that initial period. There's a (potentially apocryphal) story that tube maintenance workers sometimes query the archives of the Science Museum to replace crucial bits of kit that have just failed.

This afternoon, the Piccadilly line existed in three separate segments that disconnected parts of London that don't have much to do with each other but I rather fancied as waymarkers on my final hop home. There was no direct train to London save the Heathrow Express, a ripoff for anyone who doesn't specifically want to go to the Paddington area. The tube from the airport didn't run beyond Northfields. The name already gives it away. This is not the place you want to be stranded.

I got off at Boston Manor where instructions were posted all over in black felt pen: Rail replacement buses were running to Ealing Common for connection with the District line, up and down the length of the Piccadilly line, serving all intermediate stops, and direct to Earl's Court for those with ambitions beyond. From Earl's Court, it's only a short walk home for me, and my backpack wasn't heavy.

Returning to civilization as I know it after four day in an exciting but rather unfamiliar place, the orderliness and regulation of London are striking. What looks like chaos and dysfunction when living through it is an example of sharp structure. All over Boston Manor were tube staff directing confused travelers, many coming in from abroad, some for the first time. Patiently they answered the same questions again and again, repeating for extra assurance what was already written down on big white boards at the tube stop exit. For buses to Earl's Court, cross the street. For buses to Ealing Common turn left. I crossed the street.

An orderly line, this most British of crowds, had already formed. The tourists, still dazed by airport security, joined in most naturally. Presently, a red double-decker arrived, and two manhandlers started triaging passengers by the heft of their luggage. Light goes up, heavy stays down. Two minutes later, the bus took off, running down the A4 without stopping until it got stuck in traffic at Earl's Court, pretty much right in front of the tube station. I brought my Oyster card up to date at the touch terminal and arrived at home ten minutes later.

Had the bus not been heated as if were still the middle of winter and not, as it happened, a most splendid summer day with sun insinuating itself through the clouds on occasion and the temperature reaching a toasty 15C when it did, I wouldn't even have broken a sweat.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

aide mémoire

In August 2001, I visited the White House.  This is what my sister claimed in a rambling discussion after the Sunday night crime drama that's mandatory TV watching in Germany.  I argued passionately with her.  It couldn't possibly be true.  I had no memory of this at all.

On Thursday, I had flown to Munich for a few days of escape, to get away from work and from the noise and dirt of the big city.  Munich is big in Germany, but it feels like a village, a village that has just been hosed down.  Everything is quiet, clean, in order.  My sister lives on the southern edge of town, near parks, the river and the zoo.  It's like a permanent vacation.

Every day, once the little one was fed and otherwise taken care of, we took off on a little excursion, on foot or by bike.  The destination was always the same and always different.  We followed recommendations in my sister's beer garden guide.

In Bavaria, beer gardens are institutions of quasi-religious significance.  Their design and mode of operation are strictly regulated by tradition.  Deviations are met with public disapproval and commercial defeat.  Beer gardens must be in the open, with large wooden benches along wooden tables under old chestnut trees.  There is self service and you are allowed (but not required – the grill is always on) to bring your own food to consume with the beer on tap.  There's always a play area for kids and plenty of bike parking.

In four days, we visited four beer gardens, one down the river, one up, one in a small forest nearby and the last one way down south near the Alps, at the foot of mountains as mighty as only mountains rising from a plain stretching endlessly in three directions can be.  This last one was part of a monastery and the beer came, as in so many beer gardens associated with monasteries, from the brewery on the premises, run by the monks in a dual effort to augment their finances and win the locals for their cause.

On the fifth day, spent in town, we stopped at a coffee shop that was only notable for its spaciousness – it was one of few places large enough to park a pram – and a tradition, barely established, seemed broken already, but it was rescued, a few hours later, at the airport.

Munich airport is not very big and rather quiet, much like the city.  Between the two terminals is an open-air plaza surrounded by shops on the ground level and offices and conference facilities higher up.  It looks like a real-estate developer's dream of urban renewal – artificial and soulless.  It would be absolutely dreadful anywhere else, but on an airport, it's a little bit of paradise:  open, with space to breathe and stretch your legs, and the real sounds of departing planes instead of the constant artificial hum of enclosed commercial spaces.

In one corner is a large beer garden that benefits from its own brewery, on-site, at the airport.  I don't know how much of a gimmick this is – I got a Hofbräu instead of their own – but it's pretty cool in any case.  I had an hour to kill and did what I hadn't done earlier, sitting down on a long wooden bench, ordering half a beer and half a hock, and enjoyed dinner.

Then I was thinking about the earlier conversation with my sister.  She had been right.  There was photographic evidence, white columns towering above a much younger version of myself.  I had completely forgotten and can still not recall any specifics.  It was at a time when security screening entailed little beyond a jovial "How you doing, folks?  Enjoy your stay."  Maybe the terrorist attacks three weeks later had purged my memory.

My sister knew because she had documented her semester abroad in a scrapbook of photos, tickets and maps.  I sometimes imagine my blog fulfilling a similar purpose, sorting memories even when I don't remember them.  But it's not the same.  Some of what's published here is distorted.  Much more isn't mentioned at all.  The blog is not comprehensive.  Memory should be.  Diary, anyone?