Saturday, June 29, 2013

end and beginning

Yesterday was my last day at work.  That had been the plan for a long time.  I was looking forward to saying good-bye, moving on, taking a new position with new challenges and giving my life the kick in the right direction that it has been waiting for.

As befits a last day, there were leaving-dos and words of farewell.  There were also unexpected good-luck and we'll-miss-you gestures that were as simple as they were touching.  On Thursday, the group went for drinks till late (by London working-day standards).  Yesterday, we had lunch together.  I enjoyed both a lot, particularly so since they were rather undeserved.

While I've talked about leaving London for about two years now, I'm not actually doing it.  I'm staying here, at least for the moment.  I've found a new job, but it's not exactly adventurously novel.  It's what I've been doing for the last half year besides my research.  Now I'll do it full time, leaving research to play a distant second fiddle, at least until it get the facility I'll be in charge of running smoothly.

Yesterday was my last day at work, but I'm not leaving.  On Monday, I'll be in a different lab but still at the same university.  I will be a different building but on the same floor as before and won't have to change my routine much.  I'll still press 5 in the elevator.  I'll even keep my old desk, in case I crave the company of so many years, and my locker, and I'll keep playing football with the same guys.

Not much is changing, in other words, but I feel a profound sadness, the sadness I've experienced many times before.  It is unquestionably the sadness of leaving, though it obviously can't be.  I can only interpret it as the sadness of not leaving, a much deeper pain because it doesn't come with the excitement of the new and the realization of dreams.

Monday will be my first day at work.  I will be doing a job that I've convinced myself over the years is the right kind of job for me, a job that matches my skills and inclinations and the visions that I have of myself much better than the slog of research.  It's a job where I can make a real difference quickly, sort things out and make my mark.  The alarm will sound sweet on Monday.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

recorded and live

A few years back, for my birthday or Christmas, my mom gave me a CD from the small French alpha label.  About the music she said "this is da bomb" (not her actual words) and that the CD had got rave reviews.  The man in the record store had also highly recommended it.  Plus, it had a cello on it and "you still like cello, don't you?"

I do like the cello but it took me a long time getting into the music.  It just didn't make any sense.  All of it was composed by Gabriel Fauré, but there were too many bits, and it all blended into a mush of medium grey.  There were two sonatas and a trio, interspersed without apparent justification with a handful of disconnected short pieces.

One reason I kept playing the CD is that it was recorded at MC2, the Maison de la Culture de Grenoble.  It is to my great regret that I never once attended a performance there when I lived in Grenoble.  I can't really explain why, except to say that it was a bit out of the way from where I lived and getting there would have taken two buses.  Getting back at night after a show would have been even more complicated.  With the recording, I can at least imagine being there.

Another reason I kept playing the CD is the clarinet in the last piece.  With time, this Trio in D minor (for piano, cello and clarinet) crystallized in my ears as the high point of the CD, rising above the rest, distinct, recognizable, and a pleasure to listen to again and again.  Have I mentioned that I like the clarinet?

This morning, I went to Wigmore Hall for yet another of their Sunday morning coffee concerts.  The clarinet trio that I've grown so fond of was on the program, performed by the same three musicians that play on my CD.  It was wonderful to hear the music unconstrained by poor speakers and a small room.  Let me try a few inept words of description:  Over three movements, the anguish of the clarinet and the serenity of the cello were distilled to their essence.  The last few bars created a heavenly clarity, an intense sense of peace that filled the hall and seemingly the entire world.  I was rapt.

Then the audience, excited way beyond their age, burst into wild applause.  A few curtain calls later, the performers sat down for an encore, a bit of Beethoven, lighthearted, joyous and in stark contrast to the tranquility that still lingered in my ears and mind.  I wished they hadn't done it.  I wished they had let me leave with the echo of Fauré.  Much like a coffee after a perfect meal, Beethoven spoiled the mood and the magic was gone.  Good thing I have the CD to return to.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


After the knife scare of ten day ago, I'm glad to report that things didn't turn out too bad. Garrad was back in his shop a few days later, almost as if nothing had happened. Something terrible had of course happened, and it was impossible to deny it. From what I could gather, the attacker had been caught but then quickly released. He was apparently mentally unstable, though I can't say how that's a justification for anything.

In my conversations with him, Garrad saw the positive side to this mess and appreciated the fact that nothing serious had happened to him. Notwithstanding the stitches he got and the scars he will keep, he was lucky. Physically, he'll be fine. Mentally, he seems to have suffered more. He keeps talking about moving on, about closing shop and leaving North End Road.

I can't blame him. You're rather exposed in a brightly lit internet café that's open late. But I don't think the street or the neighborhood is all that bad. London has much dodgier parts. What happened here was a freak incident that's by no means representative of the area. But if you're on the receiving end of casual violence, this matters little.

This post could end here, but speaking on the subject of what matters, I have to share an article I saw in the Daily Telegraph today (and don't ask how I came across it). The Telegraph is the newspaper for tweed-and-corduroy conservatives of a certain age. It's not a newspaper I ever buy. Yet the article that caught my eye is absolutely brilliant, not so much for its content, which is just a rehash of what's been published elsewhere but for its clever use of stock photographs.

The previously published information appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the U.S.A., a science weekly of considerable esteem, and concerned the correlation between male attractiveness and penile length. This is your tax money at work. The conclusion: Size matters. This is what the Telegraph highlights. But whose idea was it to illustrate the point with Condi's fierce face and a gesture that must surely be fortuitous?

Saturday, June 08, 2013

too close to home

I was on the phone last night when a commotion arose outside.  I contemplated dividing my attention but the conversation quickly won out.  When the shouting got too intense and then sirens added to the noise, I took my computer to the bedroom, which faces away from the road, and heard nothing more.  Hours later, before calling it a night, I threw a curious glance out the front.

A police van was parked directly underneath my window and two Astras across the street.  North End Road was blocked to all traffic, even foot traffic.  Cops manning the cordons up and down the road prevented drunks from staggering onto the scene and diverted traffic into side streets.  A 28 bus was parked at the side of the road, hazard lights flashing, while a smaller 391 made an apprehensive three-point turn and went back towards Fulham.

A narrow lane was open from up the road to The Goose.  This was one-way only, to let people leave.  But even at midnight, the pub was still heaving, an anomaly in the ghostly street, depopulated and eerily quiet.  Whenever the door opened, music was thumping into the night where police officers contemplated their options.  Something serious had happened.

I remembered a story of a friend in another big city. She saw an explosion from her window and, being in tune with technology, took to Twitter for answers. In less than five minutes, the mystery was no more.  I forgot the details but it was an accident, not an attack.

My Twitter account has lain dormant since I opened it a few years back, but last night it rose to the occasion.  Googling (if that's what you do on Twitter) the various possible keywords, I learned not only that José Mourinho, the Chelsea manager for the next half year, had had breakfast at The Goose a few days back, but also that a man had been stabbed multiple times in my street.

twitter news
News from home

This is not the first time I've come close to violent crime, but this time was the closest so far, and certainly the closest I ever want to be.  The stabbing took place in the internet café below my flat.  Had I not been on the phone, I might have heard the victim's cries.

In London stabbings are intolerably common, but the chances of being run over by a garbage truck are probably still higher.  I'm not losing my head or start feeling unsafe.  A freak incident like this has no bearing on my life.  For the victim, the story is different, but last night, I could only guess.

This morning, the lights were on in the internet café, but the door was locked.  The shutters were up, but there was no one there.  The place looked hastily abandoned.  I feared the worst for the owner, whom I'm friendly with, but there was no one I could ask.

This afternoon, when I came back from a day in town (Genesis – highly recommended!), I was relieved to see Garrad in his shop, but he didn't look good:  exhausted, worn out and much older than I know him.  He had been stabbed six times last night – here, here, here and here, he pointed up his left side with a tired gesture – while cleaning his shop.  For this horror he was in great shape, standing tall like a hero as he told the story, though his face was stiff with pain.

From up in my flat a few minutes later, I could see him walk off with a friend, slowly, with hesitation in each step and agony in his body, but with determination and the will to return.  As he passed by, neighboring business owners stepped from their stores for well wishes and encouragement.  As shouts reverberated from the market – 3 pound a box, 3 pound a box – and traffic pushed down the road relentlessly, he disappeared into the crowd.

Get well soon!

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

matters of taste

Germany doesn't usually come to mind when one thinks of gastronomic delights. Yet for me, one of the great pleasures of going to my home country is always eating. So many things I love are made and sold in the right way only in that country. Last weekend in Heidelberg, I had plenty of time to sample the riches.

  • Germany is full of bakeries. This is good when you want to buy bread. Germans love bread so much that every supermarket has a bakery associated with it. Only very few people buy the factory bread that the store itself sells.
  • Very many people, in contrast, get up a bit early on Saturday and Sunday to walk down to the nearest bakery, which is usually not more than a few minutes away, and buy fresh rolls for breakfast. Some bakeries open only for the morning rush on Sundays.
  • Besides the bakeries that bake breads and similar items, there are pastry shops, which emphasize the cake-and-sweets aspect of baking. The cakes can be amazing!
  • Germany has American-style coffee shops for the hip crowd but I much prefer old-school cafés. The older the clientele and the more out-of-date the decor, the better. The best of these cafés are part of the above-mentioned pastry shops. We went to one in Neustadt that looked so painfully unhip, I could see only one reason why people would patronize it, great cakes. I wasn't disappointed.
  • Italian migrants have opened a million gelaterias. Every town center has plenty of them and people eat ice cream all the time. There's nothing that says summer more convincingly than a cone of lemon freshness, especially if it pours buckets.

You can tell already that I had a sweet weekend, but there was more.

  • On the trip back to the airport and then at the airport itself, I realized that most of the little stalls and shops where you buy snacks sell sandwiches of fresh bread rolls filled with cheese, cold cuts, salami or ham. Tasty and healthy, though no one would buy them for the second reason.
  • Another fine thing to do with a bread roll is slap a pickled herring, a slice of gherkin and a good serving of raw onion in it. Do it in the morning and sell it as Fischbrötchen in the afternoon. They're best when they're stewed for hours in their own juices.
  • Besides the stalls selling freshly made sandwiches, there are those grilling sausages over charcoal. Every region has its own sausages, but the best (from Thüringen!) are available everywhere.
  • With a sausage, nothing is better than a cold beer. In Germany, you can have that anywhere – in the University cafeteria, in the market square next to the church, in a garden by the river, and on any domestic Lufthansa flight. Prosit!
  • May is spargel season, which extends far into June this year because of the dreary weather. White asparagus is everywhere, for sale in roadside stalls and on special menus in every restaurant. Cooked the same day it was picked it is a heavenly treat.
None of the above involves supermarkets, which tend to be dismal experiences. Food prices are the lowest in Europe, but the quality often reflects that and the presentation is dreadful. You scour what you need from cartons strewn about. Price is king. Other variables don't enter the equation.