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.

Sunday, January 04, 2015


Over the last half year, to continue the previous post, my boss has changed, but my job and my situation in London have stayed pretty much the same.  When I walked into my new boss's office the other day, a bit out of the ordinary because there are no weekly meetings, and told him I'd quit, he wasn't surprised and he didn't suggest bargaining.  This is not the only reason that the decision will stand this time.  I'm as determined as I was last time, but this time, it's a decision Flucha and I made together.  In addition, the excuse of "just a few little things to finish up" is no more.  A paper of my work has been published and another has got positive reviews at last.  Projects never end, but my involvement has.  I'm out of here, and no one will notice a difference.

The facility where I work is stable, operating with minimal intervention.  Equipment that was defective for years is working again, procedures have been implemented to make the latest developments in crystallization methods available, as much as is possible with a limited budget.  Everything is working as it should.  It's a good time to leave.

It's a particular good time to leave because I've just signed a new contract, something different, geographically and topically.  I'll be leaving academia and the UK.  Nominally I'll still be a scientist but I'll be working for a company, and it's not biotech.  I'll be helping make equipment better and to get said equipment in the hands of researchers.  Sounds like flogging magazine subscriptions, but it isn't.  Or at least I think it isn't.  It will involve a fair bit of traveling, all over the world, if I understand things correctly, mostly to scientific conferences but possibly also to customers.  It will also involve building a lab to test the equipment, to find ways of using it to better effect or more efficiently.  The latter is where the scientific aspect lies.

The company is located in Switzerland, and living there has long been a dream of mine.  It's not just the mountains but also work that pays, public transport that works, order in anything that happens.  It will be a drastic change from London.  No more lifts that stop working whenever it rains, monthly scheduled emergency steam shutdowns and mild weather as a valid excuse for massive travel disruptions.  If it had been just me, I would have signed the contract in a second.  But Flucha was thrown off by the prospect of small-town life and rigid rules and regulations.

The fanaticism with rules and the happy adherence to them might come as a shock even to me, a normally law-abiding and organized German.  The Swiss take it to extremes.  On my journey to the interview I noticed that the biggest display board at Zurich airport did not advertise watches or financial services but the house rules, take your shoes off and don't spit on the carpet and things like that.  On the side of the train from the airport was a yellow sign warning that this was a self-check area.  At three percent unemployment, the absence of conductors is understandable, and it might be an economic necessity to ask passengers to check the validity of their own tickets.  The sign read further, "Please buy and validate your ticket before boarding the train.  A CHF 100 fee applies to those traveling without a ticket."  As there was no honesty box and no account details to facilitate a bank transfer in case you catch yourself without a ticket, I can only assume that no Swiss would ever be found in such a situation.

But it goes further.  In Switzerland, working on the day of the lord is banned to an extent that would cause Jewish fundamentalists to look twice.  Granted, you can drive a motorcar to your place of worship, but you can't do laundry or hang it up to dry, and you can't do gardening.  Don't even think about firing up the lawnmower.  For Flucha with her Latin sense of freedom and improvisation, this is bound to be a struggle.  Nevertheless, weighing the facts – those laid out before and those that haven't been revealed – we decided to go ahead with it.  We'll be saying Grüezi to Switzerland soon, first me then her.

Friday, January 02, 2015

leaving soon

With the stage set, in yesterday's post, for unexpected developments and posts largely at odds with their listless precursors, here's the story that really started it.  It happened a few months ago (and might thus not be appropriate for a blog post, but as the story unfolds, it will get more current).

In March one morning, I walked into my boss's office for our weekly meeting and bantered my way to an "I'll be gone by June" statement that didn't exactly go unnoticed.  "Is there anything I can do to change your mind", was her response, reassuring in the appreciation it conveyed for my work but entirely in vain.  I had made up my mind and hadn't come for bargaining.

There's a lot in my job it would be worth bargaining for:  a salary that's not pitiful, desk space somewhere quiet and less arctic, maybe even a proper office, more involvement with students, a career perspective that goes beyond the day-to-day, and stronger support from the administration for the facility I run.  All of this is frequently on my mind but because of more important things like my immediate future leads to no actions.  All it does is cause frustration.

That is not to say that I don't like my job.  I do.  Most of my efforts are targeted towards ensuring the smooth running of the biomolecular crystallography facility and I see with pleasure that things work well when before they were a big mess for the most part.  Besides, I enjoy a large degree of freedom and drive collaborative scientific endeavors when maintenance and administration are done.  There's a good vibe in the department and I am surrounded by great people.  After seven years, Imperial feels a bit like home, and yet I'm leaving.

Back in March, when this story unfolded, I was mentally on my way out, had packed my bags in my mind already.  The weekend before my resignation, I had started clearing out my flat.  First to go were items of absolutely no use to me.  A hand mixer I'd inherited when a friend had left London, mom's old laptop, minor parts of my stereo, a spare steam iron – all freecycled to a new owner.  I felt liberated and ready to throw myself into the next stage, gumtreeing those possession that others might see value in, furniture mostly.

I want to move back to continental Europe, and I want to make the move simply and in one go.  At one point, I contemplated renting a van and driving across, as I had done from Grenoble seven years earlier.  But then I'd have to get the van back to the UK and it'd all be more complicated than necessary.  Instead, it will be boxes.  Boxes that a company delivers to my flat where I stuff them with whatever fits.  At a later date, the boxes will be picked up and delivered to their destination, a new home in Germany or wherever.  There will be no room for a sofa or a mattress or even Billy, the habitat of my books over the last decade.  The dining table will stay behind, as will the shelf on which my projector currently thrones.  No matter how much I get rid of stuff, I'll still be ten times as loaded as the world's average, and a hundred times as loaded as the bottom half.

With these thoughts in mind I prepared myself for departure – for about a week.  In those seven days, Flucha and I had a few deep discussions and hard-fought arguments.  The surprising conclusion was that I would stay in London.  We agreed that it would be silly for me to quit with no job lined up.  Why give up something less than optimal for something with no benefits besides proximity?  Why not try to finish up various collaborative projects, get results published and leave when the balance of for and against is a bit more on the for side?

I wasn't entirely convinced.  Did I mention that I was ready to leave?  So I did what I do best – I dithered my way to a solution.  Two weekly meetings later, my boss asked if I had properly considered the ramifications of what she felt was a bad decision, and whether I was still sure I'd want to leave.  This was the clue I needed.  I sent an email to HR and unresigned.  And I'm still in London.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

back to London

This blog is comatose.  The entire last year passed in fewer posts than two average months in 2009, my most loquacious year.  There hasn't been anything new since August.  The problem was one of motivation.  I didn't see a point in writing.  It's not that nothing has happened, but London has worn off a bit.  The excitement of the first few years is gone, and the stories, outside traveling, that I felt like sharing often turned out variations on a theme developed earlier, and I left them unpublished.  Routine and repetition had set in.  Away from London, distractions blurred my mind and shifted my focus, pressing questions of career and life.  These things are now getting sorted – for reasons that will be revealed over the next few posts.  But before I start with a story that developed more than half a year ago when I resigned from my job, let me get back to London.

On the first day of the new year, I'm returning to London for the last time.  Thanks to the limitations of bank holiday travel, I was forced to take Ryanair, fly into Stansted and take an Easybus into town, three names that evoke cheap in the worst way, dearly paid discomfort mitigated by no cheerfulness at all.  The ridiculous clapping upon landing was sustained by only half a dozen hands and died quickly.  Normally, Flucha travels like this when she comes to London, and I pick her up at Baker St.

Tonight our reversal of roles was incomplete.  When I alit at Baker St., she wasn't there to pick me up at the bus stop.  There was no one to ride in the front of the 74 bus with me, past the Chess Store and into town; no one to point out the sights as if I were a first-visiting tourist – Harrods, Hyde Park Corner, the Hilton Hotel – the running joke of so many, and so many too few, visits.

It is clear already that this year will be different.  For one, I had made a conscious and clear new year's resolution.  It was one resolution only, one short phrase, but it was enormous in its circumstances and frighteningly world-shattering, at least regarding my own world.  Before I say more, look, on the right there's Winter Wonderland, its blinking and blaring in brutal contrast to the true winter wonderland where Flucha and I had spent Christmas.  The Black Forest was covered deep in fresh powder, with quiet towns and magical forests.

There's nothing magical about arriving in London, unless it's the first time.  Most outer boroughs of London are truly depressing.  For me, tonight meant one last time through rows of cellulitic houses with splotched and stained façades, businesses with spelling mistakes in their neon signs and sad betting shops.  One last time through the world's most expensive deprivation.

In Central London the glow of Christmas prevailed, with ambitious shoppers on Oxford Street and tasteful lights down Sloan Street.  Then the French flavor of South Kensington gave way to the Chicken Cottage in Earl's Court, and ten minutes later I was back home.  I pulled the contract that had been promised to me by email from my mailbox, and signed it.  Happy New Year all around!