Thursday, December 24, 2015

world traveller

Unless you have the time to take the steamer across the Atlantic, going to Argentina involves a 14-hour plane ride – and unless you can afford business class, this promises to be painful.  In my first year at Dectris, I’ve done a few long flights – 12 hours to San Francisco and 12 hours to Hong Kong – to little detriment, and I felt ready for the challenge this year's Christmas vacation presented, but this story isn't about me.  I would be traveling with Flucha and our daughter, and keeping a six-month-old content over that time isn't easy even at home with room to play, a city to take a walk, and a comfy bed to sleep.  The prospect filled me with considerable trepidation.

To make this 24-hour-long story – the flight was supplemented with a trip to the airport, a hop to London, a short layover and a drive from the airport into the city – short, I needn’t have worried.  The little one turned out to be a natural traveler, not only accepting everything that was thrown at her throughout the journey, but also quite visibly enjoying it.  She slept a lot on the plane – with fewer interruptions than at home – and when she didn’t, she played, checked out fellow passengers and her surroundings, and destroyed with great pleasure every inflight magazine in reach.

We hadn’t made it easy for her.  Lufthansa serves the only direct direction connection between Frankfurt and Buenos Aires, and initially we had booked our tickets with them.  It could have been simple and comfortable, but Lufthansa is far from what it used to be.  The recurring pilot strikes and walkouts by cabin staff over the last few years are a reflection of a deeper malaise.  I'm in no position to diagnose problems, but I can see the symptoms.  Customer service and with it the customer experience has deteriorated dramatically and made the airline almost unrecognizable.

The first time I noticed this was when I left London last February.  I had organized my move in the tightest way possible, shipping a minimum of boxes, giving a way lots, and carrying the bare essentials.  These essentials were stowed in two large suitcases, and I had to pay dearly for having Lufthansa carry the second one.  Hard as it is to believe, I would have paid less, had I checked luggage with Ryanair.

Flucha and I booked our flights separately but at the same time.  Minutes later we called Lufthansa to reserve the special seats set aside for those traveling with infants.  These seats exist, the minion on the phone reassured us, but they can only be booked closer to the departure date and are only available for the person traveling with the infant.  Tapas was on Flucha's ticket.  I would have to pay to sit somewhere close, but there was no guarantee.  By the time we could book the family seat, all surrounding seats might already have been picked up by other travelers.

I was getting increasingly frustrated with the process that dragged out much longer than the previous paragraph indicates and was entirely futile.  When Flucha's booking was rejected because she didn't authorize the payment quickly enough, we took this as a sign.  We dumped Lufthansa and booked on British Airways instead.  Even with the cancelation fee added to it, the new ticket was cheaper than the original.  The drawback was the layover in London, which would increase travel time by a good four hours and complicate things quite a bit.  On the upside, Flucha was immediately assigned a seat with a baby bassinet and I was put right next to her.

Months passed and finally, this afternoon, we made our way to the airport.  We traveled with loads of luggage and retrospectively, this turned out to be the biggest problem.  But once everything was checked, our vacation started – even if it was restricted to a couple of comfortable chairs in the departure area at first.  We had got to the airport a good three hours early.

At the security circus we got treated to a Christmas special for no extra charge.  In Europe, liquids in carry-on luggage are allowed only in volumes of up to 100 ml, and you're only allowed to take up to five containers.  In Frankfurt, we got on the plane with a 1.5 liter bottle that didn't raise concerns.  "It's for the baby", we said, and all was good.

This didn't fly at Heathrow.  "Baby bottles only", the elderly lady at the security check said firmly.  We had plenty of them, but they were all empty.  "Can I just pour the water in, and we're good?" I asked.  "You didn't hear it from me", she responded, and a few minutes later we took the same amount of the same water through security and onto the plane.  It's evidently the now-empty plastic bottle that was the problem.  Thanks for making air travel safe.

The flights were uneventful.  Tapas was happy in the bassinet.  When she didn't sleep, she amused those around us with her good spirits.  At some point a flight attendant stopped by with a 'Future pilot' sticker, and I almost believed her.  Arrived in Buenos Aires, liberated from the jacket and trousers that winter cruelly forces on her, Tapas kicked her legs in the hot air in evident joy.  We knew then that she would enjoy the stay in Argentina even more than the flight there.  Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

religious rabies

Last Friday in Paris, three heavily armed gunmen were walking by as I sat in the Gare du Nord, waiting for a train whose platform, despite imminent departure, hadn't been announced yet.  People around me didn't pay them much attention.  To them, it was nothing out of the ordinary.  I tend to doubt the sense of deadly weapons in crowded spaces and gazed with some confusion, but I was also tired and not in the mood for internal debates.  I was on the way home from a workshop, a few hours away from the weekend.

It hadn't been the most pleasant visit to Paris.  The workshop was in the middle of nowhere, on a plateau far outside town, and I didn't set foot in the city.  The commuter train that took me there subnavigated the center, bypassing the Eiffel Tower, the islands in the Seine and the cafés of the Left Bank as if they didn't exist.  Underground and far from the light, I experienced a disturbing lack of civility.

Fare dodging is a Parisian tradition, and people breaking through ticket gates without paying is so common one doesn't have to wait to observe it.  It happens all the time.  And while everyone has to pay more for everyone who doesn't pay at all, it isn't such a big deal.  Much worse was the man who inhaled deeply from his cigarette before getting on the train, only to release the foul air inside.  Another man, a bit down and out but that's no excuse, urinated at a pillar right next to the platform, sending a flow of steaming piss washing against innocent feet.  Getting off at the Gare du Nord to change into the TGV, I was nearly pushed back into the commuter train by a crowd without the most basic manners.

Later that day, a gang of cold-blooded killers put things back into perspective.  Concerted attacks on a football stadium filled to capacity, a music hall, and packed cafés by weed-bearded cowards who rather die than answer for their crimes left 150 dead and a city in shock.  Football?  Music?  Cafés?  Why?

When Charlie Hebdo was attacked just ten months ago, some people said that "This is wrong but – they had it coming/they shouldn't have made fun of Islam/they were disrespectful".  These statements are nonsense and probably more dangerous than terror attacks to the world I live in and treasure because they threaten my freedom more than any deranged gun-wielding motherfucker.

After Friday's bloodbath, no one will speak like this.  The wanton killing of innocent people exposed the utter vacuousness of the terrorists.  There were no scores, however imaginary, to settle.  This was terror for terror's sake, murderous nihilism empty of demands.

After the attack on Charlie Hebdo's offices, the world stepped up to the challenge.  The circulation of the magazine increased by an order of magnitude.  The publishers were flooded with money, all donated so they could continue their irreverent work.  There's now an English edition to spread to joy even further.  A couple of sad terrorists had killed individuals but unwittingly launched a great advertisement campaign, with slogan, logo and all.  If they had survived their crime, they'd still be punching themselves for it.

I can only hope that this attack will have a similar effect.  The civilized world has thus far reacted with shameful hesitation and pathetic indecision to the outbreak of religious rabies in the Middle East.  Packs of deluded murderers are rampaging with impunity through large swaths of Syria and Iraq, raping and killing thousands.  If the terrorist attacks on Paris trigger a serious response, there will at least be one good aspect to the atrocity.  The world would not only become a safer place but a better one as well.

Like a rabid fox that behaves unpredictably, rabid religionists are capable of any atrocity.  There's no point debating them.  Like rabies or any other infectious disease, Islamic fundamentalism has to be fought with force, determination and persistence.  In campaigns against malaria, a scourge of humanity even more deadly than roaches from sandy wastelands, the generally accepted best strategy is aggressive protection – with nets impregnated to kill on contact.  No one would argue that we don't need to protect ourselves better.  But we also need to fight back.  Malaria was eradicated from Italy when swamps were drained and the breeding grounds of the disease vector eliminated.

A lot of the draining to eradicate terrorism must be done in Europe where the contagion persists.  Many terrorists have links to one particular neighborhood in Brussels, for example, and thousands have joined jihadist training camps from Europe.  But eventually, the unified response of civilization to the Paris attacks must focus on Syria, not only to rid the world of disease but also to bring peace to a people that's been brutalized for too long.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

inside and out

When I took up my current position at DECTRIS in March, I was confronted with copious travel from day zero.  Day one was Monday, 2 March, my first day at the new job.  One day before that, very early in the morning, I was on the way to the airport for my first assignment, a crystallography workshop in Athens, Georgia, that I later wrote about in an oblique blog post, the best way I could come up with of preserving souvenirs of work travels.

Oblique was the key ingredient in what has by now developed into a little series of posts.  They were written without artificial urgency or slavish adherence to schedule.  Not all trips were commemorated – even though that was my intention at the beginning.  Sometimes I was too busy or too lazy to write.  At other times, I couldn't find anything curious to associate with the trip, nothing that would make a good story.

I would have expected the most exotic destinations to be the best sources of material, but this hasn't happened.  The week in Taiwan passed without mention, though much happened that I wouldn't want to forget and even started to write up.  In contrast, a single night in Prague and a drive to Göttingen offered unexpected returns.  In this regard, business travel is like any other travel (and, incidentally, like the writing of this blog):  I enjoy it best when I don't know what will happen.

The conference I attended the last couple of days didn't promise much in this regard.  It was in Germany, down south in an area that's beautiful but also rather familiar to me, and the program, fixed from 8:30 in the morning to 11 at night, left little room for serendipity or imagination.  On the train to Munich I started thinking about the dominating topic of discussion in Germany these days, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants, and my strange lack of reaction to it.  To form an opinion, which I currently don't have, I'd need to organize my thoughts, which I do best by writing them down.

I didn't get very far.  Checked into the conference hotel by Lake Tegernsee, the misery of the world faded away as if killed, suffocated by the luxury that surrounded me, a luxury that was so profound that it was hard for me to grasp – and that it occupied all my mental faculties trying to.  The bathroom, generally a good proxy of a hotel's quality, was cladded in slabs of marble half an inch thick, like a hammam of Oriental royalty.  The fittings were golden, the floor heated and the bathtub immense.  The shower was ensuite, its own marble-clad room with a frosted-glass door.  The toilet was in yet another room.  Navigating this almost required a map.

In the corridor leading into the room were enough closets to store the necessities for a prolonged stay.  I was reminded of the grand residences where Europe's wealthy of the early twentieth century would spent entire summers in decadence, like Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain or Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice.  There was no ironing board – guests apparently have their shirts ironed here – but a pillow menu that included such wholesome choices as millet chaff and horsehair stuffing.

It was all a bit much, and it became positively absurd when contrasted with arrival centers hastily erected in high school gyms and hospital basements where groups of refugees spend their days in enforced idleness, surrounded by plastic sheeting that provides little space and no privacy, a poor environment to turn desperate hopes into a modest future.  Then came the evening, and housekeeping returned to my room to bring new towels and prepare the bed for the night, removing the bedspread, fluffing the duvet, and parking the slippers for their job the next morning.

Hotel management would probably argue that luxury is the little details.  The TV magazine was always opened on the correct page.  The first morning at breakfast, it wasn't the buffet that struck me most, incredible though it was, but a low cabinet in the lobby I had missed earlier when returning from a jog along the lake.  On it, fresh towels, water bottles, apples and granola bars waited for those whom the run had left in a better shape, their vision less dulled by exhaustion than mine.

But luxury is not the little details.  True luxury is big – it's time, and of that I didn't have any during my stay.  At the far end of the circular driveway in front of the hotel, RS series Audis, outrageous vehicles including a station wagon with a Lamborghini engine, were waiting to be taken for a spin around the lake by hotel guests.  I didn’t find out whether this offer applied to us bulk-rate spongers as well.  There wouldn't have been time anyway.  Of the spa in the basement, I saw pictures only.

On the train back to Zurich where I'm writing these lines, the situation is different.  I feel calm and relaxed, resting at last after an intense two days of work.  As it happens, I have two more long train rides lined up this week.  Maybe I'll even find the time to make up my mind about the topics that are really important at the moment.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

around London

A sizable portion of Monday morning's flights into Heathrow had been canceled.  There was no traffic from France at all, and Holland was suffering as well.  My Swiss service was waved through, but only just.  The pilot took a nap when we started our descent and let the machines take over.  Ten minutes later, an automatic landing brought the plane down on British soil, more smoothly than most experienced operators.  It was impossible to tell where we were.  The world was greyed out.

I was delighted.  My arrival couldn't have been timed any better.  For my first journey back to the UK, nine months after closing a door on a stay of more than seven years, I got the weather that the country is infamous for the world over – weather that, coincidentally, I experienced only very infrequently while living in London.  It has been mentioned before in these pages that London's reputation for thick fog rests of coal-fired furnaces whose soot helped condense the moisture in the air.

Through the ages up to the fifties, fog was all the rage.  There was no winter without, and maybe not even a month, consistency that shaped opinions globally.  This changed only with the passing of the Clean Air Act in 1956.  Heating switched to electricity or gas, the use of coal was discontinued, and the fog disappeared.  The weather remained dismal, but global warming changed that as well.  Over the last two decades or so, London has shifted south climatically, to the pleasure of Londoners in general and the wine growers in Surrey, Sussex and Kent in particular.  The south of England is now sunny, clear and mild.

On Monday morning, it looked quite different.  The sun was nowhere to be seen and neither was the sky.  Whether there was much fog on the ground on the drive west from the airport was actively debated.  I saw the motorway ahead just fine and nothing left and right, but there isn't anything of note left or right anyway.  When Slough and Reading are announced, it's best to focus on the road and let them pass like minor nuisances.  Still, some drivers were confused and switched their fog lights on, blinding traffic behind.  I turned my high beams on to fight back, and shot towards Diamond for meetings.

When you live in London, everything outside the M25 (an easy topographical boundary) or out of reach by the Underground doesn't really exist – with the possible exception of Brighton for a day by the beach.  The passionate debate about Scottish independence didn't reach haughty Londoners for whom the only independence worth debating is the independence of the city.  Let the rest be all Scotland.

My stay this week put me in the opposite position.  I didn't get closer to London than the M25, on which I quarter-orbited in a little plastic Fiat.  Nevertheless, it was a trip filled with memories.  Diamond, already mentioned a few paragraphs up, is where I spent many nights collecting diffraction data on the crystals that popped up left and right during the tail end of my tenure at Imperial.

Cambridge was the other destination of this trip, another place I've visited a few times, most recently after I had taken over the X-ray facility at Imperial and needed to scout good operating practices.  This time, I revisited one of the institutes I had seen back then, but the most vivid memories didn't relate to that.  They arose in the hotel, which was as English as my flat had been.  In the bathroom, the floor was warped, a cord dangling from the ceiling switched on the lights, and the loo wouldn't flush the poo.  The only disappointment was the faucet, which was able to mix hot and cold water instead of dispensing it separately, as is tradition.

Getting to Cambridge could have been a pleasant hour on the train, had the line between Oxford and Cambridge not been axed in 1967 by car-centric modernizers with rather foggy vision.  Instead, it was a painful two-hour drive through almost Californian traffic.  Throughout, I never caught a glimpse of London.  Just as the rest of the country is invisible to Londoners, London was invisible to me.  The fog had little to do with this.  For the most part, the M25 runs in a wide trench that cannot possibly be natural but would be a mightily impressive civil engineering project if it weren't.  Does London still exist?  It will take another trip to tell.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

orange sofa

The idea of lugging an orange sofa up a mountain in the Swiss Alps and riding it back down is a strange one even to me – and I have ridden a bed down Third Avenue in Salt Lake City, its tiny caster wheels burning hot by the end of it.  I was helping a friend move into the duplex we would share, and using the bed to carry us sounded more sensible than doing it the other way around, traffic and baffled residents notwithstanding.

On Friday, in a feeble attempt to recreate the race Flucha and I had done a few years back, I drove from Zurich to Montreux to meet my former flat mate Sean who was on the train from Grenoble.  More closely matching the drama of a genuine Top Gear challenge this time, I parked the rented Renault only minutes before my friend stepped off the train, just early enough to be the first on the platform.

Montreux is surely nice, even when the jazz doesn't play.  The town sits by Lake Geneva and oozes French charm, despite being Swiss.  Away from the water, mountains towered thousands of feet above it, their tops dissolving into the haze of fall.  It must be a fine place to spend time away from work, linger in cafés all afternoon or amble along the lakeshore promenade.  Lots of people probably did exactly that.  We chucked Sean's enormous Europe-in-a-week bag into the car and drove off without much looking left or right.  We had set our sights elsewhere.

It was the first time we've seen each other in more than six years.  The previous time we had met in Lake Placid, for memories as much as for convenience.  Sean lived in Massachusetts back then and I was on a conference-sponsored road trip in Canada.  Lake Placid minimized driving for both of us.  We camped by a lake, excavated stories and rode mountain bikes through the woods.  This time, the plan was much the same, except that we traded the canvas cabin of six years ago for a hotel on the south-facing slope of the upper Rhone valley, just below the mountain resort of Crans Montana.

Checking out the town upon our arrival, we happened upon a bike shop full of serious kit.  The owner, friendly, talkative and, it turned out later, full of hot air, filled us in on the place.  Crans is more hard core than anything you've ridden before, he warned.  This is where the first mountain bike world cup was held, and the trails live to tell the tale.  Suitably impressed, we went for a Marmotte, the local beer, at the Bar au Lac, to catch up and gather our wits.

The next morning, at breakfast, I was still debating the sense of renting downhill bikes.  Why not go for an easy cross-country ride, a bit of climbing, a bit of descending, lots of single track with great views and assured survival at the end?  Sean had other ideas, and shortly thereafter we stood at the base of the Cry d'Er lift.  We had rented enduro bikes, bought day passes for the lift and proceeded to go up the mountain and hurl ourselves back down repeatedly, the bikes inserted between us and the ground.  It was madness.

I'm not one for downhills.  Back in Utah, Sean and I could climb for hours, he always slightly behind me but never letting go.  Every ten minutes or so I would test the waters with a little show of force.  The breathing in my neck got a bit harder but stayed close.  The clanking and creaking of his aching bike were the soundtrack to endless suffering.  Up on the hill, the tables turned.  Now Sean was leading, but I could never keep up.  I would chicken out quickly and roll down without much drive.  I lost a few races this way.

This time was different because this time, there was the sofa.  Bright orange, with more travel than a national sales rep and so plush that I failed to register discomfort even after 13,000 feet of descending, it was entirely different from anything I've ever ridden.  The tires stuck to the ground no matter how loose, the yardstick of a handlebar made steering a snap, and huge disk brakes brought the wildest madness to a quick stop if necessary.  The result:  I was having an absolute blast.  Four red runs later, we went for black.

Deep into the afternoon, my body was trembling from exhaustion and anticipation.  Wrong mindset!  I walked the first hairy section, but then recovered confidence and got back on.  Halfway down, I had found my groove and was reminiscing of how my Fuel back in Utah compared (full suspension but not a sofa) when the trail suddenly got worse, with sharp rocks sticking out, narrow and not exactly straight.  I did the first part all right but lost focus.  My mind wandered back to when Sean and I explored Moab on steel hard tails and how I cleared nosedive hill when preriding the 24 Hours of Moab and then failing to do so three times during the race.  I was in similar territory now, though on a very different bike.

Awash in memories, I didn't realized that the trail had got even steeper, with more of a turn and bigger rocks.  This was now way beyond my abilities, but I was too deep in thought to react.  Fear tried to catch my attention but failed.  By the time reality reconnected, I had made it through most of it.  Adrenalin then got me through the rest before I could formulate an escape strategy.  Another corner, and Sean was waiting by the side of the trail, looking at me with incredulity.  Instead of limping out bloodied and broken, the bike in pieces and my clothes in shreds, I blasted out with a grin on my face.  Hysteric laughter precluded his question of whether I'd ridden this.

Shortly before five, we had to return the sofas.  Sean's got similar kit in his garage, but for me it was a sad farewell.  I would have happily taken the Kona Process 153 home with me.  There was room in the Renault but they had kept my ID.  I might buy my own for next summer, not necessarily orange but plush, comfy and hilarious.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

turning pages

It's been a while since this blog has been updated with any sort of regularity. It could have been considered dead. Yet there are apparently still people out there who patiently wait for new posts and read them promptly. For them as much as for myself, my vague efforts will continue. I've been all over the place, mentally and physically, over the past half year, with excuses for silence that seemed sufficient when I didn't think about them hard enough. But it was just laziness.

As a stark reminder of this laziness, the annual summary of books I read in the previous year is published in October this year, not in February or March as in the past. With this delay it's impossible to say whether what's about to be written has any connection with what I perceived when I read these books. Many of the corresponding memories have been supplanted by more recent ones.

Because I kept a list I know that I read 18 books. I think I bought a fair number more. At least it felt like it when I moved to Switzerland in March. My library constituted a good half of what I shipped, by weight.

  • Mr Phillips by John Lanchester – Mr Phillips is dissatisfied with his life and, on a whim, decides to drop out for an afternoon. He ambles through London, pointlessly.
  • Landesbühne by Siegfried Lenz – I've read plenty of Lenz novels and I've always liked their peace and quiet pacing. This one might be no different but it seemed a bit inconsequential.
  • Stories by Tobias Wolff – This books came thanks to an episode of the New Yorker fiction podcast where Akhil Sharma praised Wolff's frightening intensity. I can't remember a single story, which means, at the very least, that none stood out.
  • Viva South America! by Oliver Balch – This travelogue is cleverly set up. Each country visited gets its own chapter, each focused on what Balch identifies as the peculiarity of that country. It's a nice change from the ordinary Riding in Che's Tracks and quite illuminating, though the writing was sometimes a bit too one-sided.
  • American Wild by GRANTA – A GRANTA collection is always worth my money. You never know what you get but can count on quality, in whatever guise. These stories and assays show the US as it's rarely seen in the news.
  • The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro – In the first chapter, when the main character has a 15-minute conversation with the butler in the lift to the third floor, I almost put the book down for good. I should have done it; it would have preserved weeks of my life. But I struggled on through time that expands, space that contracts and sense that's always absent. It's vaguely Kafkaesque, and I still haven't made up my mind whether it's great or a stinking pile of bull.
  • The Island of the Colour-Blind by Oliver Sachs – Sachs, the recently deceased practicing neurologist, travels to the South Pacific to explore medical curiosities, the congenitally color blind people on Pingelap and sufferers from lytico bodig on Guam. The writing is clear, the stories are riveting and the digressions always spot on. Great book!
  • Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami – Murakami is a superstar, but this book isn't much. Cortazar achieved the gradual inversion of reality and imagination in The Night Face Up much more breathtakingly.
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – The story of a Nigerian getting a foot into America, becoming famous of sorts, returning home and getting the boy, against all odds, is dissatisfying for its Disneyesque happy-endiness for everyone involved.
  • The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño – The adventures of the visceral realists in Mexico City and a road trip that's possibly a quest for a beautiful girl frame endless snippets of pseudo-biographical ramblings that are, it seems to be the theme of this year's selection, entirely pointless. I skipped the middle part.
  • Best American Short Stories 2008 – Too long ago; don't remember.
  • The Periodic Table by Primo Levi – Ever since encountering Bear Meat in the New Yorker, I've had Levi high on my list. In this moving memoir, Levi takes chemical elements as anchor points for events, behaviors and characters. It's nothing short of brilliant, the best thing I've ever read about chemistry, and I studied it in college.
  • Bruce Chatwin by Nicholas Shakespeare – If I were more of a loner or more selfish, I would like to be like Chatwin, traveling the world on a whim, pompously full of myself, with a hurried curiosity for everything and a knack for writing. There's a nomad inside me as well, but it's not a solitary one.
  • On the Eve by Ivan Turgenev – Turgenev was a favorite of Bruce Chatwin's. He was impressed by the finely drawn characters. Maybe Turgenev is a writer's writer. I'm not a writer and I didn't like the book too much, though for being an old tale it had a nice flow.
  • Letters from London by Julian Barnes – These collected columns from The New Yorker (a common theme in my literary preferences) give a highly subjective history of the UK from 1990 to 1995. There's even a bit of chess in it.
  • Tales of Ordinary Madness by Charles Bukowski – A riot of a book, absolutely hilarious. The tribulations of a failed writer/poet who finds that drugs, sex, booze and betting on horses are all fine stimulants for his literary ambitions.
  • Die Brücke im Dschungel by B. Travens – An publishing oddity. A book written sometime in the 1930s and then forgotten, it was published in the 60s and languished on my mom's book shelf until I rescued it. Now it's back.
  • Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer – This is my book of the year - and it was the first one I read. Foer goes out to win the US Memory Championships and describes his training (interspersed with scientific and personal digressions) with such confidence that I tried some of the approaches myself. It is indeed possible to remember 20-item lists for weeks or months, but it is not easy.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

better times

Prague is not what it used to be.  There are still Tatra trams in their proper red livery for old time's sake, and houses outside the immediate center of town haven't been spiffed up like those around Old Town Square, but most of what the visitor sees is shiny and new.  Hordes of foreigners descend on Prague, attracted by cheap beer, a medieval silhouette of fractal towers with turrets, spires and spikes repeating at every magnification, and wonderfully restored Art Nouveau decadence.  There are cafés with five-meter ceilings and heavy crystal chandeliers where other cities have the exchangeability of coffee shop franchises.  Hotel breakfast becomes impossible to justify.

Arriving at the airport, the first thing one notices is the striking clarity of the directions into town.  Joining those traveling on a limited budget, I was faced with a bus and two successive underground rides that might have disheartened me elsewhere.  In Prague last night, on the way from Lund via Copenhagen to a former Bohemian silver mining town, I quickly spotted signs detailing the travel options, two bus lines that promised to take me to the end of either of two underground lines.  On one of those, it was only a few stops into the heart of the city.  Machines stood by to convert paper with numbers on it or virtual accounts into tickets.  The correct fare, irrespective of journey and comprising both bus and underground, was obtained by pressing the biggest button on the screen.  It didn't take more than two minutes to understand and sort out.

Prague's underground is not particularly old but it didn't age well at the beginning.  From one of my rare or indeed imagined trips to the town as a child I remember an alluring dilapidation, a decrepitude that held stories of the past and adventures to come.  The dull trains bounced along their tracks with unnecessary elasticity, the escalators were rickety and stretched into the distance, and the stations were dim.  It was enough to color a child's imagination.  How things have changed!  The escalators are still incomprehensibly long, but the stations are bright and follow a corporate scheme that makes them indistinguishable one from the other.  The trains are spotlessly clean and quiet; the journey passes in a snap.

That night on the underground I fell into a philosophical mood.  I started pondering how things change for the better and whether it's always worth it.  Visiting the Czech Republic generates in me a feeling of coming home.  I've never lived here and my family connection (geographic, not ethnic) is tenuous, but regular visits during my childhood have made the place a part of my own.  As an adolescent, I got the first taste of freedom when three friends from high school and I cycled through the Czech part of what was then still Czechoslovakia on our way down to Hungary.  The facilitators of these three weeks of freedom – bicycles and supportive parents – have shaped me for live, but so has the experience itself and the shapes and colors of the country.

But it goes back further than that.  In Kutna Hora, where I am attending a conference, grass grows wild at the edges of town and in those parts where UNESCO money hasn't restored a picture book of medieval past.  Tired houses covered in decades of grime crumble slowly to the ground, their blind windows surveying slow change and no progress.  Paths wind through overgrown backyards and out into the woods, with no destination but for adventurous kids.  There's little traffic in the streets.  Pensioners in donated jackets run their errands morosely but light up with joy and stop to chat when they encounter their own.

The coming home that I experience is thus to a time as much as to a place.  Less has changed in the Czech Republic than in Germany.  Especially in small towns away from tourists' itineraries, things often look as I remember them from the past.  They surely don't look as they used to, and if I were to travel back to my childhood, I'd probably be shocked, but memory is a devious friend.  On the train into town, I saw a small lake with little wooden cabins around it and lots of wilderness instead of second homes with tall fences.  Melancholy rose within me.  This is how I want my daughter to grow up, I thought, until I realized that it weren't material limitations and the lack of development that made my childhood a good one, but my friends and what we did together.  Luckily, these things are universal.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015


The heat has subsided, the sun is low in the sky.  A gentle breeze is waving in from the balcony.  I turn off the stereo, put the book aside, close the AirBook, then measure the length of the silent room with pointless steps.  The room hasn't changed much.  The in-laws are sitting downstairs, staying in contact with home while nothing is happening here.  Flucha's in a car somewhere, driving to the store for groceries and drinks, three days overdue.  My beer is getting warm.

The months leading up to this weekend were eventful at work and quiet otherwise.  Biology took its course without drama or complications, shaping up a belly where there was none before and rounding it into a fine sphere of just the right size.  Periodic poking from inside gives evidence of new life – which does not want to materialize.

I've lived on the edge these last few weeks, a bag with all necessities with me at all times, always ready to leave at a phone call or text.  There was little rest, but the weekly journeys home and rare work-related travels occurred at a level of peace I had not known before.  I tend to get pangs of alarm when the train starts moving or I hop onto a bus.  Do I have my ticket, my wallet, passport, keys?  With everything in place in the bag, traveling was relaxed and joyful.

Last Friday, I returned to Heidelberg with the tranquility of the seasoned traveler.  There was no rush, no phone call to precipitate panic, not even the need to leave work early, and my travel wallet held all the necessary documents.  I leaned back on the train, had a beer and a soup, and read a few sections of an abandoned newspaper until the journey was over.  I arrived as always, and everything was as always.

The weekend that followed, a.k.a. due date and day plus one, we spent hiking the Odenwald – as much as that's possible with a party that includes two retirees and a woman ready to pop.  An hour on the Philosophers' Way and a hike down from Königstuhl are more than what old wives will tell you brings about labor, but Flucha, her belly bopping sideways, enjoyed the action and didn't slow down once.

The doctor didn't have anything helpful to say this morning.  Things are going all right, but they're not going anywhere, or at least not anywhere soon.  We were given a grace period of a week before more drastic action is considered.  I'm wondering what to do now.  I could go back to work to save my vacation days, at the cost of fretting so much that I couldn't work and risking a mad dash back to Heidelberg, possibly missing the delivery.  Or I stay here and fret without work to distract me until the inevitable happens.  Whenever it happens.

Monday, June 01, 2015


The other day in the stairwell, the neighbor approached me with turmoil in her eyes.  "Is your girlfriend pregnant?" she asked.  "Yes", I said, climbing the stairs past her.  What a weird question, I thought.  It's only two weeks to go and there's no way to hide it.  But the neighbor wasn't done.  "Please keep it quiet in the evenings", she said.  "I need to get up early.  I work a lot."

What an odd request.  It's not like we're throwing a party.  But the neighbor is one for odd requests.  Sometime I think she's got mental issues, and if she doesn't take her pills, all sorts of weirdness spill out of her.  She's rung our bell and knocked the door in the middle of the night as if the house were on fire, while we were one floor higher, quietly watching TV.  When I answered the door, she'd repaired to her flat.  She gets worked up about flushed toilets and the extractor fan in our bathroom.  We try to keep things to a minimum to avoid unnecessarily bothering her, but some things need to be done.  Loud crying, for example, needs to be done when you're a baby.

I turned around and looked the neighbor in the eyes.  "Have you made plans yet?" I asked.  "It's going to be a nightmare, unbearable, World War III."  This last one quoted her from an earlier discussion.  "Your peace is gone, I'm afraid.  The screaming will pierce your ears.  You can forget about sleep for months."  Her look turned frantic; she gaped at me.  "I'm lucky I don't live here", I continued.  "You'd better find someplace else too."

The conversation could have transpired just like this.  She's the kind of person that kills all pity and empathy in me.  But she's also an entirely different kind of person.

The other day, when Flucha was ankle-deep in disaster after the washing machine flooded the basement with black suds, she came down with rags and a bucket to help, on her own volition, concerned and friendly like the perfect neighbor.  The baby wasn't mentioned.

Monday, May 18, 2015

train of thought

This morning, the unionized drivers of Germany's national railway announced they'd go on strike for what's the ninth time in the past six months.  The strikes are quickly becoming routine for everyone not reliant on the railway, but next weekend's action kicks things up a notch:  The strike will be open-ended.  It will also be – and here's some continuity – about nothing at all.  When the train drivers announced their most recent strike this morning, what they didn't announce was what they're striking for.

It is quite clearly not about money.  This would be easy to understand and easier to communicate.  I'm sure it would also be easy to negotiate, and strike would be nothing more than a distant memory at this point. But it's not as easy as that.  The strike isn't about anything obvious; the reasons are never mentioned when the strike is discussed.

In the depth of the dark web I read something about two competing unions that represent railway workers.  One unites the drivers, the other's open to all.  As far as I understand it, the train drivers union fights for the right to represent all railway workers, whether they want it or not – a dog fight on the back of passengers.  If that's true, I'd like to punch every union official in the face, and every striking train driver as well because that's not only abusive but also deluded on so many levels that it's hard to decide where to start.

Maybe like this: If it's about fair representation of all railway workers, would a merger of the two unions not be the most powerful step?  If this has been tried and failed, the strike would be about procedural incompetence, and it should more appropriately be directed against the train drivers union itself.  The head of the union should step down for ineptitude and negligence.

But maybe the merger has been tried and failed not because of ineptitude but because the other union didn't want it.  Their voice is not heard in any of the discussions, though it should be them who decide whether they want to be represented by another group.  Otherwise it'd just be like some distant relative waltzing into your life, claiming a right to represent you as if you were a juvenile delinquent in need of guidance – and disrupting everyone else's life in the process.

Here's a geopolitical metaphor for the same situation:  Imagine you're a hapless and harmless country, known mostly for tractors, oligarchs and corruption.  Your biggest neighbor and historic rival decides it's for your best if it henceforth represented you on the global political stage.  You have a differing opinion, but your neighbor has bigger tanks.  And anyway, no one's asking you.

Even I wouldn't ask, were it not for the disproportionate misery these strikes cause.  Where there's no message, there's all the more need, it seems, to bring it across forcefully.  I'm baffled this is legal at all.  If the janitorial staff at Frankfurt airport were to go on strike, not for a well-deserved pay increase but to bolster their claim to represent, from now on, all the newsagents and bakery outlet workers at the airport, people might shake their heads.  If they, to underscore their seriousness, sat down on the tarmac and blocked all flight traffic, they'd be taken away quickly.  Why is no one taking away the leadership of the train drivers union?

For reasons that are not altogether pleasant and certainly outside my control, I have to go to Dresden this weekend.  By some quirk of scheduling, both possible Swiss flights are already fully booked.  There aren't even any seats left in business class.  The overnight train is nearly fully booked, too.  No beds or cots remain.  This morning, hours before the announcement of the latest strike, I purchased one of the last sleeper-seats.  I am not exactly looking forward to the journey, but I'm even less looking forward to having my plans foiled by some idiotic power game between imbeciles.

Thursday, May 14, 2015


It was oddly fitting that the New Yorker I bought on my most recent transatlantic journey carried a story on the Californian drought.  I was on my way to San Francisco and looking for some context.  Work trips of a few days only don't usually offer much in that regard, but the New Yorker delivered.

California has been in a drought the last four years.  Growing cities battle with profligate agriculture for decreasing resources.  There's little snow in the Sierras and it doesn't rain.  Water tables sink, wetlands run dry, rivers silt up.  Coastal cities and farming communities alike fear for the future, but vested interests and hard lobbying on both sides make finding a solution difficult.

Introducing hot air into a situation where cold rain is needed, SFO has put huge posters into their restrooms alerting passengers that "California is in a drought.  SFO's faucets save 30% more water".  No point of reference is given.  Thirty per cent more than what?  Might the faucets just save 30% water, and marketing thought the message would be more convincing with excess verbosity?

In any case, the entire airport managed to save 14% of water over the past seven years, as another huge poster claimed without any embarrassment or contrition.  The marketing department was probably relieved to have found anything positive at all, but 14% isn't a whole lot if a near-total lack of rain is the situation.  Fourteen percent over seven years is less than a percent and a half each year.

Where is water wasted?  In California, that's a question that's easy to answer but whose answers are hard.  Average water consumption in the state has decreased by 50% recently, which shows that the problem is being taken seriously and that great efforts are being made.  On the other hand, average water consumption is still twice as high as in central Europe.

The easiest place for cuts is also the hardest.  The most lavish waster of water is agriculture.  Despite employing only 3% of Californian workers and contributing a mere 2% of the state's economic output, agriculture uses 80% of its water.  For historic reasons, water is not a commodity but a right, unmetered.  Driving along Highway 1 north from Halfmoon Bay, I saw fields being irrigated in the heat of the afternoon.  I'd be surprised if more than half of the sprayed water escaped evaporation and hit the ground to nourish the plants.  But where no one is counting and no one is charged, waste is a rampant.  Similarly, the San Joaquin valley is still happily growing grass for export to China.  Grass!  In a drought!

Grass has largely disappeared from the campus of Stanford University where I went for a run one morning before giving a talk at a workshop.  It still gave the impression of being green, but underneath the shrubbery, there was nothing but dust.  It hadn't rained in a while, and the sprinklers weren't asked to compensate.  A friend I visited in San Francisco claimed with the black humor of the powerless that the drought had been good for the weather.  Since she had moved there two years earlier, it's been sunny most of the time and even the fog wasn't as bad as everyone had warned.

This last comment reminded me of London and the rain, whose connection has become much looser in the last decade or two.  Some blame this on global climate change.  Maybe that's at fault in California as well.  One alternative explanation, a few years of extreme weather, is much easier to contemplate, but it could also be another, a reversion to the mean, the end of a century or so of exceptionally wet weather, as some studies suggest.  T.C. Boyle's novel A Friend of the Earth, which I didn't much like five years ago, might yet turn out to be prescient.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


The book I'm reading at the moment, Sechseläuten, got me onto the football metaphor of the title.  It's soaked with this stuff.  The sections are called First Half and Second Half.  I've progressed all the way to Extra Time by now.  But the book isn't about football, and I didn't buy it in the mistaken belief that it was.  I bought it, during a layover in Mannheim on my way back to Heidelberg last weekend, because it had it big red sticker on it proclaiming it to be the number one bestseller in Switzerland and because of its title.  I want to learn about the Swiss from it.

Sechseläuten is a public holiday of long tradition in Zürich that took place last Monday but passed me by nearly completely.  I live in Aargau, the neighboring canton, and had to work that day.  Then, on the bus back home, I read that the Böögg had lasted for twenty minutes and that summer would be miserable.  I was as clueless as you probably are reading this.  What's the Böögg, and what does it have to do with summer?

The book, a crime story set in Zürich, enlightened me in as much as its first major scene is the burning of the Böögg during the Sechseläuten ceremony.  I learned that Sechseläuten initially celebrated the beginning of summertime when the workday would end at the ringing of the six-o'clock-bells and not at nightfall as in winter.  The Böögg is a cardboard effigy of winter, in the shape of a snowman, its head filled with explosives.  To chase out winter and celebrate the arrival of spring, the Böögg is burned on a big pyre near the shore of Lake Zürich.  Originally separate, these two events are now conflated. 

The time it takes for the cracker in the Böögg's head to explode foretells the quality of summer.  A quick explosion means a hot and dry summer.  The average over the last half-century is 16 minutes.  I didn't check how the numbers correlated with the weather.  I haven't written much over the last month and a half either.  Too busy.  The new job is different from the old one and takes some getting used to.  It's the first time I work for a company.  The contrast to academia is striking.  You know the cliché of the cog in the wheel.  That's what I am.

In all my previous jobs, I was working for myself, doing my own projects, with failures and success depending primarily on myself and eventually coming to rest on my shoulders.  This is not to discount the contributions of others or to deny that science is collaborative.  It's just to say that at the end of the day, everyone is responsible for himself.  If you don't get your projects published, you're not going anywhere.

Except into industry, possibly.  In a company, your interests are not the primary driver of your work.  There's a strategy and objectives and milestones and a lot of novel lingo.  There are different departments that work towards shared goals, with continuous interdependence.  I still organize my day (around frequent meetings) and prioritize and come up with things to do, but I can't kick back and read the internet anymore because someone else depends on my work.  It's rather exhausting.

It's ok when I do things I know, when I process data or think about crystallography.  But most of the time, the things I'm dealing with are totally foreign to me.  When I changed labs before, I would start contributing almost immediately – ideas, jokes, nonsense.  The science was a bit different, but I had read up on it, and the environment was familiar.  Biochemistry is biochemistry.

At the new jobs, it's different, and I'm rather quiet, trying to ease in without anyone noticing that I haven't got a clue.  What do I know about integrated circuits and their readout logic, or the finer details of memory management?  And what about ptychography?  How am I supposed to highlight the advantages our detectors offer in such experiments when I can't even pronounce the technique?  There's so much learning to do, I could spend all day reading and listening to experts.

I used listen to podcasts while walking home from work in London.  I tried this on the bus here.  My commute takes the same time, but I am not the same.  In the mornings, hours before I would roll out of bed in London, I'm not awake enough to hang on to spoken words.  Even the Bugle is too much sometimes.  In the evenings, I'm just zoning, dinner and the sofa on my mind.

Tomorrow I'll find out how well I've adjusted. It's halfway through my probation period (though without a halftime break) and I have a meeting with my boss to discuss my performance so far.  I think I've been doing all right, but I'm curious to know what he thinks – and criticizes.

Monday, March 23, 2015


Among the many expenses that I would have considered absurd half a year ago but which have now started to take chunks out of my monthly budget, a car would be by far the biggest.  It hasn't happened yet.  I consider privately owned cars a bit of an anachronism, something like a relic from the last century.  It is hard to see how they contribute to efficient or even pleasant travel these days.  I have a bicycle to get to work, buses around town, a car rented by the hour for quick dashes, longer rentals for road trips, the train for middle distances, and the plane to see the world.  This list is too long already; where would my own car fit into this?

The reason I'm considering the purchase at all is the same that drives all the other unexpected purchases.  The reason doesn't yet exist in this world, but its or rather her, to let the cat out of the bag, imminent arrival is getting Flucha and me into shopping like never before.  The need for clothes, furniture, tools and care products has taken me to websites whose existence I didn't know of this time last year.  And what's up with pink?

The car is not exactly a need, but because I work in Switzerland and Flucha lives and works in Germany, there will be a moment in the next three months when I'll want to be in Heidelberg double-quick.  I could take the train, which I do every weekend, but last weekend's experience had made me reconsider my smugness about cars.

On Friday, my train to Basel ground to a halt in a village of no import.  The announcement of a passenger incident promised no good.  The local train out of the adjacent platform had been canceled.  Another train pulled into the station ten minutes later, but it only took us to the next town, Rheinfelden, famous for its brewery, and then stopped.  Railway traffic had been suspended between Rheinfelden and Basel.

Outside the station, yellow buses were waiting to take us to Basel, but that was not an option for me.  The journey would have taken too long for me to make my connection.  Luckily, I overheard a woman in the same predicament, on her way to Germany like me.  She had the same idea that had come to me – go to the other Basel station and gain ten minutes in the process.  We shared a taxi whose morose driver promised nothing but drove like a champion, insisting throughout that we wouldn't make it.  A good many Swiss Francs later, I stood on the platform a few seconds before the train rolled in.

This being Switzerland, such a disturbance must be a rare exception, I thought.  But when I arrived in Basel on my way back from Heidelberg on Sunday, I found that the train to Baden was canceled, with no reason given.  A rail replacement bus was advertised, but it didn't go all the way.  "What's wrong with this country?", I wanted to ask the man in the information kiosk, but he was just doing his job and I settled for "How can I get to Baden or Brugg?" instead.

We spent precious time discussing whether I needed to go to Baden or to Brugg before he put my final destination, a village halfway between the two, into his computer and printed an alternative connection for me.  With a "Good luck!" that was as full of encouragement as it was of doubt, he sent me off to the ticket machine and on the race to the platform.  When the train left the station three minutes later, I was on it.  Nevertheless, to the question of how I'll get to the hospital when new life emerges, I must now also add whether I'd like to avoid weekly travel dramas.  Could a car be the answer?

I haven't thought about cars in years.  But, and this is the main motivation for this post, when I flew to Hannover last week to show my new employer’s logo at a conference in Göttingen, a rental car was waiting for me at the airport to take me there.  The car was brand-new, with only 10 kilometers on the clock.  Another only was the number of cylinders.  There were only three.

Three-cylinder vehicles have become popular in Europe as a way to achieve legally mandated fuel economy goals.  It’s a valid strategy; the fuel consumption numbers that emerge from standardized tests are impressive.  Still, these cars achieve the uneconomically high speeds that are only permitted in Germany.  On motorways, the consumer feels no downside.  In cities, however, the story is quite different.

Off the stoplight, the three cylinders propelled our Citroën C3 forward with the desperate intensity and high-pitch noise of a Formula 1-homologated lawn mower.  More than once, we inadvertently caused terminal panic in people crossing the street far ahead of us.  Surveying the situation from the safety of the other side, their look changed to one of utter incomprehension when failing to square the vicious noise with our speed, which was perfectly compatible with safe conduct in a pedestrianized urban environment.

It was fun to drive that car, but only in a momentary way.  Later I will come to realize that having a car sit around in the driveway while I cycle to work is rather wasteful.  I will also come to realize that I don’t want to have to drive for three hours at the end of an exhausting week at work.  The train is so much nicer, no matter what.  And when Flucha does the Kate halfway through June, I just have to cross my fingers and hope I’ll make it on time to see the head of the heir appear.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Waffle House

Four days into my new job and almost back from the first assignment, in one of the darker recesses of Charles de Gaulle, almost ready to board the plane that would take me to Zurich, I was wondering how best to keep memories of the travels (or possibly travails) that will pile up hard and fast this year.  Trinkets were the first thing to come to mind, something local but useless, entirely uncreative and prone to accumulation and dust collection.  Not a good idea.  Better would be something marginally less useless, T-shirts for example, but what UGA in Athens, Georgia, where I spent the past two days, offered, didn't pass my taste test.

I could keep the stubs of the embarkation cards.  I used to do that way back when they were still made of heavy paper, handed to you upon check-in.  Now they're displayed on smart phones.  Not a good souvenir either.  There were a few other options, but I rejected them all.  Instead,  I'll write a little something, pointless but subjective, about all the places I'll visit for work.  I'll label the category out of office.

If there's one thing that encapsulates Georgia, from the narrow perspective through the window of the airport shuttle, an hour and a half of darkness on the way to Athens and a bit more than that on a foggy day back to the airport, it's Waffle HouseWaffle House is Georgia.

You might argue it's peaches.  That's what the state marketing department tries to communicate, but the only peaches I saw were syrupy halves scooped from a tin, served during one of the coffee breaks of the workshop I attended.  They didn't make an impact among the chunks of pineapple and mango.  Waffle House, in contrast, stood out.

Waffle House was everywhere, at every freeway exit and at every highway intersection.  There were a few scattered about the suburbs of Athens as well.  I half expected to see them on license plates, glorified as if they were Idaho potatoes, but there it was peaches.  Everywhere else, it was Waffle House, and everywhere it looked the same, rather elegant in a minimalist-modernist way.

The restaurants were all based on elongated rectangular footprints, built from brick without embellishment but with a panoramic glass front pulled around one of the corners.  Inside one could see hanging from the ceiling a long line of regularly spaced spheres that cast a light like lemon yogurt.  Against the back wall was the kitchen.  The diners sat by the window, a bit like Hopper's Night Hawks but without the curves.

What exactly Waffle House is I didn't bother to find out.  My guess is fast-food franchise.  This was America, after all.  On the other hand, it's rather un-American to understate your assets in the bright world of neon advertisement, and I doubt the House sells only waffles.  That, by the way, would also be un-American.  Waffles are Belgian, or at least the thing the Belgians are most mocked for.  Georgia seems to be a confused state.

Maybe I just misunderstood it, because there was some consistency:  The Belgian theme continued at the bar.  The local Terrapin Brewery made available a few fruity ales that were better left alone and a concoction that even the bartender could only describe as interesting, the ominous inflection in his voice indicating that this was no regular beer.

I have dramatically changed my attitude towards beer over the last year.  Before I went to Brugge in June, I drank only Pilsener, the bitterer the better.  Then I was faced with the madness the Belgians put into bottles (and then pour into a thousand distinct glasses), and redefined my world.  What I wouldn't call beer came in a wealth of flavors that it would have been a shame not to explore.  In Brugge, I discovered Achel, had my first proper Lambic, a geuze that tasted like sparkling citric acid, and an Ingelmunster Kasteel Donker that weighed in at 11%.

In the bar in Athens, memories of Brugge coming back to me, I choose the "interesting" Liquid Bliss two nights in a row, a black beer that tasted strongly of dark chocolate and peanut butter.  It was rich as a meal and not to everyone's liking.  Sitting with me, another German, his taste buds more traditionally attuned, drank it only reluctantly.  I put my feet up next to the fire and marveled at the weirdness of the world.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

going south

Tomorrow, my career as a detectorist will begin.  Tonight, fashionably late and enveloped by the darkness of a painful farewell, I hopped onto the train to Basel.  Thanks to the poster with schematics of every long-distance train from that platform, I had waited in the right place and got straight into the restaurant car, the best aspect of railroad travel.  Before the train had even left the station, I had ordered dinner and a beer.

Dining on the train is a pleasure from a different age.  Sitting on a proper table with a white tablecloth, a meal served on a porcelain plate and eaten with silverware, beer in a glass, and space for arms and legs – this degree of luxury can be achieved in the air only at irresponsible financial expense.  On the train it is within the reach of even those not traveling on expenses.  I opened the Borges purchased in Mannheim and waited for my order.  The train rolled through the night.

The man at the neighboring table wolfed down a bowl of chili con carne in a manner that belied his appearance.  He was tall and lean – and, in brown nylon pants and orange sneakers, dressed in the way of those who value their physical shape over the elegance of their appearance.  When he was done with his chili, he ordered rolls and Nutella in a curious two-two-three ratio.  I leaned back and glanced around, securing the beer against the kicking of the train.

In improv comedy and other jocular banter, there's a rule for the maximization of humor:  Never dissent.  Whatever the other person says or asks, agree and take it from there, inflating the ridiculousness of the initial proposal if possible.  Social interactions follow a similar paradigm; they are fueled by agreement.  When my neighbor stated with interrogative inflection that the car was rather hot, my reply that I didn't find it disagreeable at all killed our nascent conversation at once.  At this point, my meal arrived.

My neighbor wasn't fazed.  He picked up the telephone to speak to what I deduced to be his nutritionist, a late-night call out of the ordinary made necessary by his binging.  The conversation was brief and cordial, but not all was good.  My neighbor seemed thrown off-balance by words or actions unseen.  He pulled a book from his bag, leaned over to show me the cover of it, big and blue, and opened a page for me to inspect.  Sections were highlighted in neon yellow, the entire page glowed.  Then he stood up and pontificated, for everyone in the restaurant car to hear, about the tribulations of a recovering alcoholic, starting with the fact there is no such thing as a recovering alcoholic.

Alcohol never loosens its grip.  Its memory sits in your brain, ready to come back and bit at every opportunity.  And even if you're strong, even if you drink water when your neighbor enjoys a cold beer, the obsession within you might get out, making you pig out on carbs as if they were vodka-colas.  He wasn't embarrassed in the least about his performance or his confessions.  He was used to speaking up from countless AA meetings.  I was less experienced and not sure how to react.  I nodded and asked a couple of hushed questions but felt a bit out of place.  In Freiburg he got off, saying goodbye as if we had just chatted about the weather for five minutes.  The train continued south for another half hour.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Swiss German

Approached from the north, Switzerland looks a lot like Germany.  It's not as close as Austria, which came into its own only 150 years ago, but still, Switzerland shows more similarities with Germany at first glance than differences.  Radio, TV and street signs are in German, trains leave from platforms shown in the timetable, thus avoiding the scrum when they are finally announced, five minutes before departure, at Victoria Station or Gare de Lyon, and bakers sell tasty bread that the locals proceed to have for dinner with cheese and cold cuts.  To a German, it looks as if it could double for home.

The Swiss would probably disagree.  They are known for their independence and the pride they take in their idiosyncrasies.  Their love of local specialties and a good meal out couldn't be further from the German cheap-is-good mentality.  What they speak among themselves is probably more distant from German than Dutch and certainly more than Yiddish.  It is entirely incomprehensible to me.

The border region is intertwined to such a degree that it's hard to discern what's one country and what's the other.  On my trip to my future home this morning, I had to change trains in Basel.  Basel is in Switzerland, but one of its train station is on German territory.  I hopped onto another train that noisily rumpled along and up the thinning Rhine, on the German side.  I was in Germany all the way until the last regional train, a commuter towards Zurich, but the border patrol checked passports before Basel already.

Plenty of Germans work in Switzerland but reside on the German side, never mind the suffocating taxes and mandatory insurances in Germany.  Cheap rent and money saved on groceries make up for that.  The Swiss, in contrast, come to Germany to have their cars repaired or their teeth.  The recent revaluation of the Franc has only intensified that.  To foreigners, prices in Switzerland are extortionate.  Paying the largest coin in common circulation for a double espresso is all right in the EU and a bargain in the US, but if that coin is worth nearly five euros, it hurts.

Once I've lived in Switzerland for any amount of time – I presume a few days will suffice – the differences between Germany and Switzerland will come into focus.  But for now I cling to what I read in Swiss Watching,  a collaborator's parting gift in which an Englishman describes his impressions after living in the country for a few years.  Almost every time he contrasts Switzerland with England, I feel at home – because I've contrasted Germany with England in the same way.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

last day

On Monday, the population of London rose to its highest value in history, 8.615 million.  On Tuesday, it was one fewer.  I jumped onto a plane towards the continent and was gone.  As the plane rose over my former home, I felt relieved, probably mostly due to the dissipation of the tension of previous day.  When East London came into view and then, increasingly distantly, the Thames Estuary, a pinch of loss spiced my farewell, but my heart wasn't heavy.

The day before had been exhausting.  I didn't do much all day, but I had never been so tense over such a long time.  I'm not one to grind teeth, but when I sat in the pub at the end of the day with the last Doom Bar in front of me, my jaws hurt.

In the morning, I carried a third of a metric ton of belongings down to the ground floor and stored them in the hallway that is the building's fire escape.  Collection was promised to take place between 9 and 5:30.  That window was a bit wide for my taste.  Around ten, I called the local office of the shipment company to see how they were getting on with the job.  The lady was responsive to my predicament but of little help.  I'd like to have the collection time narrowed down a little because I have no food in the house and need to step out to eat, I explained.  She said 1 to 4 but there was doubt in her voice.

In the morning I had to stay in the flat anyway.  I needed to finish cleaning kitchen and bathroom.  According to the gospel of Perl, laziness is a virtue.  The desire to minimize work makes one efficient, leading to better code and a better life.  I see the value of laziness, but my philosophy is procrastination.  Doing things the last minute avoids unnecessary work.  Something done prematurely might be superseded or become obsolete.  Something done when it's due is done at the right time.  The later one starts with a task, the less time it takes to finish it, simply because more time isn't available.

I had finished taping up all the boxes only the night before.  I had hoovered the living room and the bedroom, but the rest was a disaster.  At noon, the property administrator was supposed to stop by to inspect the flat and give his verdict on the likely distribution of the deposit between me and the company.  In the half hour before noon, I started seeing real progress.  The bathroom came to life, the kitchen looked better.  With ten minutes to go, all was done.  It would have been a wasted ten minutes, except I had nothing else to do but wait.  And then the admin was two hours late.

Neither cleaning nor the admin had anything to do with my tension.  The tension came from the slow ticking of time and the immobility that this forced me into, waiting for something to happen while hoping that it hadn't happened yet.  The tension was then exacerbated by what I saw outside my front window.  North End Road runs a market every day except Sunday, with fruit & veg stalls all the way from the Lillie Road roundabout to St. John's Church.  With the stalls, wheelie bins, rogue parking and deliveries to local businesses, there's hardly any parking in the street during the day.  Where would the lorry fit?

I had booked the move on the cheap, through a third-party company that collects payment and then tenders the shipment to companies more suited to the task.  I was told that the driver would not carry a phone.  Be by the door at all times, I was warned.  If the driver cannot get to you, if the driver cannot park, I understood, he would abandon the collection.

My doorbell was broken, but I had left a note on the door with the request to bang hard and my phone number just in case.  Upstairs, I left my door open and got worried every time I turned the vacuum on or the hot water with its explosive boiler.  When the cleaning was done and the admin had come and gone, all that was left for me to was pace between door and window like a tiger in a cage.  Looking outside was not uplifting.  Parking spaces opened up from time to time, but only momentarily.  And with every minute that passed, I got more convinced that I had already missed the collection, that the driver had gone by and seen that there was no way of stopping in front of my building and just continued driving.  It was way past two, five hours into the initially specified collection period.

It got so late that I made peace with the failed collection attempt.  No need to get worked up, I told myself.  Won't change a thing.  Better come up with a plan B.  I dug up my car sharing membership card in case I'd needed a van to move the boxes myself.  It should be possible the next morning to find storage and leave the boxes there before rushing to the airport to fly out, I schemed, before running back to the window to not miss the collection lorry, should it drive by that very moment.  The fruit sellers were praising their produces by the price, as always.  A pound a bowl, a pound a bowl.

By three o'clock I couldn't take it anymore.  I went outside and stayed there.  It was cold, but there was no point staying inside.  I remained a tiger, pacing from the Goose along the bus stop next to it on one side of the road and back on the other in a neat rectangle, watching traffic, counting vans and buses but never getter further than one before abandoning the task due to preoccupations and fogginess of mind.  By half past three I was getting cold.  By four I started to shiver.  Then I got a call.

It was the driver, who had just driven by.  I directed him back and occupied a double parking spot that had mysteriously opened just a few moments earlier.  It was the only time during the day that this much space was available, and it was dearly needed.  When the driver arrived, he didn't do so in a van.  It wasn't a moving van either.  It was full-size lorry, and it barely fit into the spaced I had claimed.  I moved a wheelie bin into the road, which was half blocked by the parked truck.  Five minutes later the boxes were loaded and the driver on his way.  All worries fell off.  I needed a beer.

In the Goose, the late afternoon crowd was having a good time.  I got my last Doom Bar and joined two tiny octogenarian ladies who bantered and laughed, a wheelchair parked inconspicuously next to the table.  One table over, a rough-and-tumble couple, with stained clothes, wild hair and an acrid smell, were having their beers like everyone else.  Further back, three Chelsea fans in blue garb a few days away from the next game had their eyes on the TV screen that followed the inaction of the closing of the winter transfer window live.  The ubiquitous loner with a smartphone, a pensioner with white hair in this case, couldn't care less.  He stared at his little screen as if mesmerized.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

trust and consequences

An hour from now, I'll be out of work. With the end of January, my employment at Imperial ends. At almost the same time, my five-year tenancy at North End Road is coming to an end. Getting my life into boxes turned out less difficult than I had feared. I don't have all that much stuff after all, despite the best efforts of my friends who kept giving me leaving presents.

Getting rid of furniture took a while but wasn't all that difficult either. Some things I put on Gumtree. People then called me and offered not only to pick them up from my flat but also reward me monetarily for the privilege. That was good, but it didn't work for everything. Other things I put on Freecycle. This community might be rather small, despite even me heaving heard about it. My shoe rack and my stereo rack were picked up by the same person, about a week apart. I wonder if she'll react to the ads I've posted just now.

Much to my relief, the most difficult sell wasn't the sofa I had brought over from France. It was already broken when I bought it second-hand nearly ten years ago and then almost broke Flucha's back when we hauled it up the stairs to my flat. I dreaded the effort of getting rid of it, but a couple who had just moved into a flat were happy to give me a hand and then drive off with Klippan to make their new home homelier.

My dining table, solid wood and with four matching chairs, was more persistent. The ad languished on Gumtree for a good week with no response. Then, today, there were two expressions of interest. Heather was quicker and definitely more eager. She called, asked for my bank details, and five minutes later an amount matching the asking price showed up in my account. In return, I gave her my address and told her when to pick up the set.

The speed of the banking transaction should be enough to take my breath away, but what really stunned me was the trust this woman put in me. On Ebay, at least there's feedback. You can have some confidence that the person behind the ad is legitimate. With Gumtree, there's absolutely nothing. I could be a complete scam. There might be no table, or at least not at the address I gave.

And yet, this woman was ready to part with her money on nothing more than a phone conversation, nothing more than my word, essentially. In times when religiously confused nutters rampage through Paris to fight the pen with guns, it's most comforting to know that civilization has not died. Maybe I should buy Heather chocolates for being such a good neighbor.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

boxed up

With seven boxes filled, I can see the light.  I spent all day today transferring the nice things I own from their assigned places in my flat to the insides of large white cardboard boxes.  The pattern was always the same.  Some padding (blankets or sheets) for peace of mind, a thick layer of books as a foundation and random stuff to make volume.  Seven boxes are filled now.  I didn't write down precisely what I put where, which is going to come back to bite me, but at least I can now imagine an end to this process.  When the boxes were delivered earlier this week and I set the first one down on the carpet and started contemplating their eventual content, I almost started crying because it was too much.

How did I do it last time?  I don't remember the move Grenoble to London seven and a half years ago, except that I drove a van through France and then was blasted across the Channel by a supersonic ferry.  Or something like that, it's all been written down.  What hasn't been written down is how I packaged my stuff and what I took.  I remember that I gave a lot away, but I also rented a van and I filled it with junk.

Back then, I think, I just went to the ATAC grocery store and collected produce boxes that they didn't need anymore.  Into these boxes, I piled me stuff.  There was a box for shirts, a box for CDs, a bunch of boxes for books, and a box or two for khakis.  My stereo and speakers had their own boxes – how convenient.  The bike, mattress and furniture were piled on top.  It was easy.  By first approximation, I just threw everything I had into the van and drove off.

This time around, this won't do.  I'm not driving, even though a friend volunteered in case I needed company.  But it would be too much of a hassle.  I would have to get the van back to the UK and then fly to Germany.  Might as have someone else do the driving – and save money and time in the process.

This someone else is a company that does shared-load removals.  I'm supposed to fill the boxes they delivered, and they will come to pick them up when they're ready.  They will go on a lorry when there's space.  To Germany, this should only take a few days.  The catch is that I pay by the box.  Thus the task is not to put kitchen utensils into one box, socks into another and tools, easily retrievable, into a third.  The challenge is to fit 30 kg into each box, and mix and match heavy and light items to get away with the fewest boxes.

I ordered twelve boxes.  Filled to the brim, they will hold 360 kg.  This is a third of a ton.  How can one person have a third of a ton of possessions?  It makes me dizzy to even think about this.  I stupefies my mind that I will only stay below the limit if I, well, limit myself.  I'm not talking about the furniture, which is too big to go into the boxes anyway.  But Oxfam will take a special delivery of books, my clothes with make the poor in Africa happy – and destroy the local textile industry – and most small electrical appliances will go.  Even so, the first seven boxes are full already.  Each one of them weighs at least 28 kg.  Leaving room for error in the bathroom scale that I bought a few days ago, this is as far as I dared to go.  Now there are five empty boxes left – and so many things in my flat.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

radio four

When I started college, way back when, I purchased a CD radio to keep myself entertained.  Those were simpler times.  The mp3 algorithm had just seen the light of day, but it hadn't made music ubiquitous yet, and I didn't have a computer anyway.  Sitting in front of one at the university computing center for the first time, I was quickly foiled because I had never encountered a scroll bar before.  I had no idea how to get the content of the window I didn't see.

The CD radio was compact, white and had womanly curves, presaging the resurgence of Apple by style by a good five years.  It was beautiful, but I realized quickly that I didn't like radio all that much and that I'd like my CDs with proper sound.  A month of two after I bought it, the CD radio was on its way to the bin when I crammed my HiFi footprint stereo into my little dorm room.

The radio got a second lease on life when my grandmother's aging system died a few years later.  I was glad to part with it, and she happy to have music.  She even started buying CDs.

Years passed.  I went to the US, graduated, and moved to France.  My grandmother had upgraded to something more sophisticated that could, inexplicably, play DVDs.  I took the CD radio back but didn't use it much.  French radio didn't agree with me, and for music I had the stereo.  Then I moved to the UK.

It was at that point, when the little sound cloud was almost twelve years old, that it started to shine.  Sitting in my kitchen atop the fridge, it was and still is, playing Radio 4 for me in the morning and when I get back home from work.

From looking at the program, you'd think that Radio 4 couldn't be more boring.  It's full of news and talk and reports from Parliament.  It's politically correct, ostentatiously impartial and painfully inclusive, catering to a zoo of disenfranchised minorities, like the blind, women and gardeners.

Maybe I've grown old, but I don't mind the slowness of the programs.  And I positively enjoy the quirkiness   Racing tips, any one?  The shipping forecast?  The self-deprecation and the feeling that everyone is a big family because most programs have run for decades, the voices of the anchors engrained in the audience. The replacement of a retiring morning show host with someone new a while back wasa jolting experience, like bumping into a stranger of menacing conduct in a dark alley.

I don't think it's too much to say that Radio 4 is the soul of Britain, more essential to the nation than the Queen.  Radio 4 is such an integral part of society that if Radio 4's Today program is silent for three mornings in a row (and superiors on land can't be reached), commanders of the Trident submarines are instructed to bring out the nukes and strike for there must have surely been a murderous attack on Britain.

I take a pass at the Archers, though some say it was only to broadcast this "everyday story of country folk" that the BBC was established in the first place and that everything else   Doctor Who, Top Gear, various talent shows, you name it   is afterthoughts, but listen to almost anything else.

Used to listen, anyway.  My time in the UK is now coming to a definite end.  With the move only weeks away, it was time to say goodbye.  I put the CD radio on Freecycle and handed it over, earlier this evening, to a recently arrived immigrant with a colorful clothes and a patchy command of the English language.  He could do worse than listening to Radio 4.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

last walk

On my now officially third-to-last Sunday in London today, I went on my last London walk.  The last weekend will be filled with the packing of moving boxes and the shifting of the chunky stuff I haven't been able to sell or freecycle.  (Anyone in need of a sofa?)  By the end of it, I might collapse, but the flat will be empty and clean, ready to be handed over the next day when also, if everything goes according to plan, my boxes will be picked up and shipped out.  Next weekend I'll meet with friends to say good-bye.  So today was the last walk.

Initially I had planned to go from Limehouse by the Thames to the Olympic Park because I like the area along the Lee navigation, with the locks and the mill and the canal intertwined with the tidal river.  When the sun's out, this is a blissful walk, out in what feels like the countryside (shaped to serve the city) but with the towers of Canary Wharf looming close.  For some reason, I went to Greenwich instead.  There was no excuse; the tube was running just fine.  I think what took me to Greenwich was the chance to see something new while at the same time saying good-bye to an area I've visited so many times.

Royal Greenwich is famous for the zero meridian and the observatory where accurate global time keeping was developed.  The observatory sits on the high point of a lovely park, a proper English garden.  At its foot is the Maritime Museum, free and recently expanded, and the Old Naval College.  Then there's the tea clipper Cutty Sark, badly damaged in a fire a few years back but since restored and now floating on a glass pedestal, with a café underneath.  There's so much to see and do, one afternoon doesn't do it justice.  In my years in London, I've gone to the observatory half a dozen times.  The story of marine chronometry is too fascinating and between visits, I always forget the details.

Today, I didn't stray from town though.  After a quick diversion across the market, posh and wholesome, with organic sausages next to vegan raw food, with hand painted t-shirts and cosmetics made with "no noxious chemicals" at all, I gave in to my fondness for murky waters.  I dropped down to the river where the tide ran high.  My walk began here, on the Thames Path, heading downriver.

By some measure, I was circling the Isle of Dogs.  To my left, across the heavy river, rose the steel and glass of condominium complexes and the skyscraping headquarters of financial institutions.  Traces of industry and trade have largely been obliterated.  Heritage is provided involuntarily, by council housing built in the dirty bricks of a grim past, but it's dwarfed by the storage facilities of international property investors' wealth, i.e. shiny flats lying empty.  This doesn't interest me much.

It was good then that by another measure, and by my intention, I was circling the Greenwich peninsula.  To my right, in touching distance, were what was left of decades of shipbuilding, gun making, oil milling and the twining of submarine cables.  The site had been so successful that no one asked about consequences.  Men came home black and the earth and water died, but negative externalities were considered academic curiosities.  When most factories closed in the 60s and 70s, a wasteland remained.  Environmental regeneration and economic redevelopment has been ongoing for nearly 20 years.

It was a cold and grey day, and the path was often muddy.  I had walked to North Greenwich three years ago and much of the abandoned industrial structures that I saw back then are now gone.  It was quite striking.  Lots of housing developments under construction and more where they've just broken ground.  The Amylum starch refinery, which was quite imposing three years ago, is now completely gone.  This place will be unrecognizable in another three to five years, unless a meltdown of the London property market kills off these projects.

The part down the river from North Greenwich was new to me.  This being the other side of the same peninsula, it was more of the same – barbed-wire fences and rotting hoardings, tumble-down sheds of mysterious purpose and construction sites displacing ruined industry.  I was quite elated by the beauty.  On the other side of the river was now the massive Tate & Lyle factory with its slightly desperate "Save Our Sugar" banner, which demands, on an acre of tarp hanging off the side of the office building, "a fair deal for cane refiners".

I passed the Thames Barrier, which I have still not seen in action, and continued towards Woolwich.  Here I was on familiar ground again, having dragged my mom along this section many years ago.  The warehouses, repair shops and fading industrial ventures looked unchanged.  Back then we crossed underneath the Thames in the Woolwich foot tunnel, which is much longer than its Greenwich counterpart and rather spooky.  This time I came to take the ferry.

The ferry runs above the tunnel, connecting the same points on either side of the river.  That may sound superfluous, but the ferry carries cars as well as people.  It's kept alive by a perennial lack of infrastructure funding.  There are no bridges east of London, except the motorway, which is a toll road.  The ferry is free.  The top deck quickly filled with cars, but the passenger space downstairs remained empty.  The ride across took less than ten minutes.  I had forgotten how unimaginably grim the other side was, run down, deprived, too sad even for me.  I hurried to King George V, hopped in a DLR for possibly the last time, and rode back home.

Friday, January 09, 2015

freedom to offend

You know my opinion.  The freedom to offend shall always prevail over the freedom from offense.  This topic has been aired here before.  I haven't much to add, but in light of recent events I had to sit down to write again what needs to be written.

If you don't like what someone says, you have two options: Argue your point to convince the other or don't listen.  If you don't like what a book is about, don't read it.  Think a film will offend you?  Don't watch it.  Cartoons mock your prophet?  Have faith that god "is about to gather hypocrites and infidels in Hell together".  (Verily, I've taken this straight from the book itself.)  Violence is never an appropriate response to words, images, song or music.

Violence and Islam have entered a dangerous alliance.  That's the kind of sentence that flows off smoothly after Wednesday's horror.  Islam is an easy target because it's so vast, diverse and decentralized.  It's also an obvious target because some Islamic countries are rigidly illiberal and gangs terrorizing Syria, Nigeria and Libya in its name are all over the news.  To some it even seems a valid target because many of the grimmer atrocities over the last decade or two have been committed by Muslims.

But what makes someone a Muslim?  My tenuous understanding of the underpinnings of Islam don't permit me to answer this question with any sort of confidence, but I think it has something to do with submitting to the word of the Quran and announcing to the world that there is no god but god and Muhammed is his prophet.  Anyone can do that, and more than 1.5 billion have.  Most live peaceful lives, like you and me.  Alarmingly, some have their brains pulped with nihilism.  They fly into parched backwaters of the planet, learn the operation of assault weaponry, and then go mad on defenseless targets.

When two savages did exactly that in Paris the other day, spraying bullets without restraint and then blaming their god, there was no one to contradict them.  In Islam, there is no central authority on questions of faith, no one with the power to excommunicate.  The murderers' words stand.  They are presented everywhere as Islamists.  The only thing this does is conflate, in the public's mind, Islam and senseless violence.

The Paris attack was not about Islam.  It was mindless, deranged, void.  The enormity of the crime is numbing, but past terror attacks have caused the death of even more innocent victims.  What truly shocks me is what the violence was in response to: A bunch of cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo, a niche magazine with a run of 60,000.  Imagine how good the cartoonists must have been, the power they drew from their little pens.  As if this were the dark ages, four of them were killed because their scribblings displeased.

Charlie Hebdo has a history of causing offense.  This is not surprising.  It's  a satirical magazine.  The day it stopped  causing offense, it would lose its raison d'être.  This reason to exist, it is important to point out, was given to the magazine and any publication of similar bent, by the French people.  Their constitution puts the highest value on freedom of speech.  Charlie Hebdo has a constitutional obligation to cause offense.  By killing a dozen cartoonists, journalists and policemen, the nihilists didn't attack the magazine.  They attacked the French constitution and thus the French people.

To express solidarity, many publications have designed covers celebrating the superiority of the pen over barbarity.  The Economist's shows a defiant fist (which looks as if it had been borrowed from Black Power) holding a bloody pencil.  I would like to write something equally poignant, but I am feeble with the pen.  My affirmation will have to suffice: This blog is designed and expected to offend.  Je suis Charlie.