Chronicles of a writer abroad


London, land of reversals

This post is a little late, seeing as it’s now nearly two months since we visited London, back in early November. I feel I have to tell you about it while it’s still 2012, or else I’ll be breaching some kind of tacit timely-blogging agreement.

Since there’s not much time left in the year, though, I’ll be brief. Brief-ish. Brief for me.

So, in brief, during our three-day sojourn I found London to be a place of many enjoyable reversals. I’m not just talking about the fact that they drive on the opposite side of the street that we’re used to, though these signs painted on the ground at pedestrian crossings did prevent me from being struck and killed on several occasions:


Thanks for saving my hide, signs.

But no. The roads are just the beginning; a surface (ha) indication of the huge differences a person will make note of, especially if that person has been living in a somewhat — shall we say — buttoned-up country for the past two years.

First, British humour can make anything, even routine security procedures, fun. “Hope you left your heroin at home today,” quipped a smiling security officer as he processed my bag for drugs at the airport. Rest of Europe, take note: The exchange was pleasant and I was given the (reasonable) benefit of the doubt by a person who was doing their job correctly.

Another glaring reversal is that in London, you pay to see the churches, but the museums are free.

Despite my vow of brevity, I feel compelled to repeat: Churches have paid admission; museums are free. As a result, we admired the cathedrals from the outside and spent our days museum-hopping. And the museums were so great we felt compelled to donate to them. See how it works?

Also, strangely, it was a church (St. Paul’s) and not any of the museums we went to, that was equipped with a revolving door.

Come and go, all ye faithful.

Come and go, all ye faithful.

In London, unlike certain cities that I might happen to reside in, there are many good things you can buy. You can buy reasonably-priced books. You can buy brown sugar. You can buy jeans that are exactly the right length (I could, anyway). You can buy good, imaginative kinds of cereal like mini-wheats with apricot jam flavouring. You can buy common drugs like painkillers without having to endure an agonizing conversation with a gatekeeper pharmacist. The paradox here (wait…is it a paradox? I don’t know, but I’m going with it) is that if I lived in London the health foods-store staff, the tailor, and the chemist would all speak English, but I wouldn’t even need to visit them.

Finally, the food in London was really quite good, contrary to expectations. (A clever marketing trick devised by a British restaurant board? “I tell you what we’ll do, we’ll spread the rumour that the food here is terrible. Then they’ll come with low expectations and it will all seem stellar by contrast!”)

The biggest reversal of all is that London, a place I’d never felt especially drawn to or interested in, now ranks among my favourite cities. I can’t wait to return sometime, with an empty (even of my heroin) suitcase.

More photos below!

A beautiful museum facade.

One museum’s beautiful facade.

Hyde park, complete with idyllic trio of horse-riders.

Hyde park, complete with idyllic horse-riding trio.

Stelian made me take this, explaining, "it's funny 'cause there are other kinds of birds in there too."

In Hyde Park, Stelian made me take this, explaining, “It’s funny ’cause there are other kinds of birds there too.”

Obligatory London photo #1

Obligatory London photo #1

Obligatory London photo #2

Obligatory London photo #2

Obligatory London photo #3

Obligatory London photo #3

The Tower of London was really cool. I just didn't have time to tell you about it.

The Tower of London was really cool. I’m sorry I didn’t have time to tell you about it.

Except there was some gnarly torture and animal-cruelty stuff that went down.

There was some gnarly torture and animal-cruelty stuff that went down there, though.

34-inch chest? Forget it!

Pfft! Get out of here with that 34-inch chest!

What catches my eye here are the garbage bags on the street. How I've missed that.

What draws my eye here are the garbage bags on the street. How I missed that.




It seems to happen every year at around this time: time speeds up for me. Poof, and weeks disappear; it’s late November, and then suddenly it’s the week before Christmas. Very strange. I don’t know what happens to those weeks. Are they appropriated by elves?

Anyway, here’s a few things from lately:

Stelian’s TEDx talk became available online, which let us relive the great experience of the day in October where we spent the full day at Zürich’s TV studios for the conference. The illustrious (yet highly modest!) speaker wouldn’t want me to discuss his achievement at length, but if you’re in the group that still doesn’t get what he does but are curious, watching the 11-minute talk below might help. And I would like to share that while the final product looks pretty effortless, A LOT of work goes into giving one of these talks. You do endless script revisions; you do rehearsals in front of speaking coaches and TED-people; you do stage-familiarization; you do microphone-fitting; you have to submit to hair and makeup. Then you have to face the lights and the cameras and the 500-person crowd. I’m thankful to have experienced this without, y’know, having to directly experience it.

May I also recommend one other talk from that day? It’s the one below, by Charles Eugster. The title — Why Bodybuilding at 93 is A Great Idea — may be enough to hook you. Yes, he’s a 93 year-old bodybuilder. He’s also a funny and inspiring speaker whose talk earned a standing ovation that day. Stelian had the good fortune to go onstage right after him — needless to say, the crowd was warmed up.

And but so moving on: my newest author crush is David Foster Wallace. First I read a book of his essays, which was so excellent that I then immediately decided to wade into the 1,100-page behemoth that is Infinite Jest. I am not a very quick reader — I expect it will take me many weeks to get through. But I’m enjoying each and every moment spent reading it. I look forward to being able to discuss it with a couple others who I know are reading it also, and I may post about it here as it eats up a significant number of my waking hours.

Of course, lately our attention has also been captured by the news from the US, and the sadness and anger and polemic spurred by it. I have opinions, but no desire to add more fuel to the fires.

Instead, I’ll leave you with a song from an album that I’ve had on repeat for a few days. It feels to me like a fitting antidote for a sped-up, confusing, emotional time (also, an antidote to the fact that the “Gangnam style” video — which I refuse to link to — has perplexingly been named the most successful of all youtube-time. Yes, I will try to propagandize good, meaningful music!).

Happy lead-up to the holidays, everyone.


Spam-filter poetry: My magnificent goods

I’ve said before that I like to find writerly inspiration outside of books: in things like rap music and spoken word poetry and radio programs. I like words (like this guy!) and I love when they’re used in playful and unusual ways.

There are a lot of words on the internet, but it’s not often that I surf into ones that really surprise and delight. But as it turns out, I’ve been sitting on a goldmine: my spam filter. Behold, a verse-comment recently nearly thwarted out of existence:

Magnificent goods from you, man. I have to take into account your stuff previous and you’re just too great. I actually like what you have obtained right here, really like what you’re stating and the best way in which you say it. You make it enjoyable and you continue to take care to say it sensible. I cant wait to read far more from you.

I don’t know what combination of computer-generation or botched language learning leads to this comment, but gosh, it’s good. Can you imagine a story-length version of this guy? I can, but unfortunately I’m not good enough to write it. And to think he squanders this talent, spending his days promoting his Viagra-site or some such.

Any good catch in your filters, fellow bloggers?


Winter(ish) in Zürich

There are some enjoyable things about being in Zürich at this time of year, as I recently alluded to. The lights. The Christmas markets. The stands selling heisse maroni and glühwein (roasted chestnuts and hot mulled wine; I love how both of these things smell). The arguments held on Facebook between expats of different nations concerning whether a brisky day in early December can be fairly called “a winter day” (are you militant about the Solstice definition?). The exclamations of adults who come from other, warmer lands and are just beginning to experience winter (“but it actually HURTS!”).

And my favourite thing: the clear, crisp days when the forests surrounding the city are  freshly dusted with snow, so that it feels like we’re inhabiting a giant sugar bowl. The heavy and ever-present clouds only add to the dreaminess of the skyline. I tried to capture what I’m talking about after my German class today. Remember the pictures of Zürich in fall? The two below are taken from the same spot on ETH’s Polyterrasse. Enjoy, and tell me: what’s great about winter (or “winter” as it might be until Dec. 21st) where you live?