Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Dreaming of ice

There is an ice rink outside the Civic Centre.

When I get onto the bus, I notice a tiny old lady looking at the young ones having fun. Her happy smile hints of a special night, years before, when she and a dashing young lad similarly frolicked on the ice. At least, I hope so.

As the bus moves away, she keeps staring at the same spot, her fond smile starts to decay, passing through a not quite pleasant grin to merely shriveled lips and tired face.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008


In preparation for my Christmas trip to the continent (does that mean I'm currently on the incontinent part of Europe?), I'm running around - deciding where to go, organising accommodation, how to get the most out of my rail pass and how to exploit my friends to the maximum, with them feeling exploited.

I am also trying to force myself to organise many of the rooms we'll be staying in in German. After all, I used to know something - at least that's what the university, specifically Herr Annas, believed.

So I've made the following strategic decisions:
  1. Avoid difficult words (obvious, but useful)
  2. Write short emails. This allows me to ignore the gaping void in my knowledge about the form an email should take. And fewer words mean fewer mistakes. I suspect my current form might however be regarded as hasty, too familiar, impersonal, or not suitably respectful.
  3. If they offer an online form you can fill in - use it!
  4. Use dictionaries. I have installed a German-English dictionary on my computer, a German spell checker for Firefox and have two online dictionaries for dealing with those difficult phrases. But is it enough?
  5. Ignore questions I don't understand - if they really want the answer they will rephrase in the their next email.
  6. Ignore questions I understand but don't know how to answer - if I keep ignoring a question, they have to eventually give me a list with 4 options. Then I'll pick the one with the longest word in it, because it shows I can handle words with more than 4 syllables.
  7. Always refer to "us". Then I can use the infinitive form of the verb, without worrying about vowel changes (because they are the worst).
  8. Avoid tenses. The present tense is manageable and simple future can be used to show off (werden + infitiv), but all others are really unnecessary.
Due to a small violation of Rule 8, I now find myself frantically searching for an example of the subjunctive. Specifically "If we were running late, I would let you know."

I still suspect that I will arrive at the station, negotiate with the bus driver using hand signals, get off at the right stop, then search around to find my hosts. They will greet me, invite me inside and wish me a Merry Christmas. I will just stare at them. Confused, uncomprehending.

Sprechen Sie Englisch?

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Hammond's Passage

What does "committing a nuisance" entail?

Friday, 5 December 2008


The dryer leaves my laundry crackling with static. I keep expecting a lightning bolt when I open my sock drawer.

Thursday, 4 December 2008


There is something disappointingly commercial about recreating a German Christmas market, complete with real Germans, in the city center. By displaying a selection of premium wares and very careful control of the stalls, a centuries-old tradition is further sterilized for our shopping pleasure.

I should however confess that the glühwein and bratwurst were enticing. And the stall with würste from all over Germany was definitely impressive.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Feels like...

"Cold, grey, grim and damp" the weatherman called it.  It's probably the coldest day yet, the kind of weather I came expecting. But hadn't seen much of. So I added a layer of thermal underwear (that made me look like a cast member from Arende) and went out to buy groceries.  At least it wasn't raining.

When I stepped out of the International Store an hour later, the rain had arrived.  I hid in my jacket and consoled myself with a samoosa.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Tag cloud

As the number of tags increases, some of my secondary interests start showing.

Sunday, 23 November 2008


Some days feel like summer, with bright light and mild temperatures.  Some days are winter, with driving rain and a grim gray sky. 

Autumn is almost overlooked, just measured by the ever increasing amount of leaves on the ground.

Girl on the bus

Igloos have always fascinated me.  Using ice to keep you warm.  I love the contradiction.

Two stops before the university, a girl with an igloo cake gets onto the bus.  Lumps of marzipan shaped into rough bricks, stacked to form a low mound with a small entrance.  Icing sugar provides a dusting of fresh snow.  

A little snowman rolls around on the tray as the bus shakes and rattles.

I think we should all build our own igloos now.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Remember remember

The Secret Seven was my first Enid Blyton experience. And they had the best Bonfire Nights. So when I saw a little boy out begging "A penny for the Guy", a long forgotten memory of bonfires and fireworks and politically dubious celebrations was stirred up again.

The whole week around the 5th of November was marked with sporadic fireworks from all sides. I went looking for the celebrations on a wet Saturday night.

Wandering around the streets of Bitterne Park in driving rain, I found myself almost close enough to see, yet still too far away. Loud crackers and fireworks sporadically lit the sky only to be pushed back down by the wind and rain. And the exciting smell of burning wood stayed with me the whole time.

The world is in my kitchen

Pork chops come from Germany. Just like lemons come from Spain, brie from France, wine from Australia and lamb probably too. Avocados are from South Africa and cheddar is from Wales.

Bananas come from a tropical country with a fair trade agreement - it is unlikely that they'll become a competitive threat to the banana growers in Kent. Or Spain, for that matter. And I don't think the country is a strong naval power either.

Back to the pork: after generations of careful in-breeding and genetic manipulation we have pretty chops. A pale pink with a thin rind. Each one as big as the palm of my hand, maybe even a little bit more. Maybe they add water to increase the weight? At least they're pretty.

I make some mash with British potatoes, along with mushrooms (the Netherlands), cherry tomatoes (Spain) and braised leeks (UK). The chops are smothered in Dijon mustard (produced in France, packed in the UK) and a sprinkling of thyme (somewhere near the Mediterranean?) and slowly fried in my pan from China.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Happy Halloween

Jack-o-Lanterns line the wall.  A spider patiently waits on the ceiling.

I squash between a drunk vampire and a tall viking woman to get to the bar.  A lively zombie is operating the taps.  One of the Ghostbusters is waiting for his drink.  Alex and his droogs are collecting empty glasses.  A mummy is shouting into his mobile, wrappings dirty with ooze picked up somewhere.
No angels are out tonight - the best is a lone butterfly with droopy wings and an empty pint glass.  The Catwoman is there, along with someone with a whip.  A little red devil is flirting with the man with a big sword.  A skeleton is playing guitar. 

Two more zombies are making out in a corner.  Apparently being undead doesn't dampen certain basic needs.  At least they're not infecting the living.   

I'm the academic who preys on his students.  

Alex and his zombie.

Doing things

Wade was overwhelmed by her accomplishments and rubbed his forehead.  Sarah said, 'You know, big brother, doing all this stuff isn't the big deal it seems like.'

'It isn't, is it?'

'You know Wade.  In a weird way I think doing things is easier than not doing things.'

All Families Are Psychotic - Douglas Coupland

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Tag cloud

I've been here a month now.   Not only doing the wow-I'm-in-another-country thing, but also reading.  

My tag cloud (courtesy of is beginning to highlight the main areas I'll be working with - market-based control, distributed robotics, auctions and satellites.  You can find me somewhere near the intersection of those spaces.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

The dangers of drinking small beer when hot


In the shadow of the cathedral, behind the Deanery we found a book exchange.    

It was late on a Sunday afternoon, two old gentlemen were shuffling their way through the boxes of books stacked in a small arched porch.  Old travel guides, Sidney Sheldon novels, paperback Shakespeare, a guide to the art of the Hermitage from 1976.  Printed signs indicated a recommended donation, which you dropped in through a slot in a door.  Only good intentions and your conscience to keep you honest. 

I traded a small contribution for an old "A New History of England".

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Woman at the bus stop

While I'm waiting for the bus outside Asda, a woman joins queue.  

Tallish, almost middle-aged.  But it is the hat you notice first - true Robin Hood style, feather included.  When she turns, there is a swirl of the long purple cape, the lower edge frayed from dragging on the ground.  A smallish stuffed silver dragon tries to crawl from her suitably medieval knapsack. 

The trendy 18-year-olds peer and giggle.

She gets on the bus with me, pays her fare, and disembarks at Portswood.

Friday, 26 September 2008


As I buy my last affordable bottle of wine for a while, the girl at the till tries to teach me a couple of words of isiZulu.

"unJani?" she asks. How are you?

I ask how I should reply. "Ngisaphila." I'm well.

A couple more words, bright smiles on either side.

I did not have the heart to tell her that I'm leaving.

Confession: I had to refer to wikipedia to get it right.

Friday, 12 September 2008


On my first day at work we all met in the boardroom. New employees, slightly nervous, excited, optimistic.

On the last day, we have tea and cake in the boardroom. They say how they will miss my contribution. I make a submissive two-sentence speech on how the people I worked with made it worthwhile. All carefully worded, no-one upsetting anyone else.

They give me a gift voucher.

Then we eat, mingle, chat. Say goodbye. I tell about my new adventure. Answer questions on where and how and what.

We disperse. The MD disappears without saying a word.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

In the beginning

I walked into the boss's office, smiled, asked if he had a moment, smiled again, closed the door and told him I am leaving. And smiled.

He leaned back in his chair, sighed and cursed. I smiled. He asked the usual where, what questions. I explained about the UK, about studying. He said it is a bad time on our project. I pretended not to smile. I knew. He sighed again. I pretended again. He complained that it seems to be the fate of the company to train young engineers for a year or two before they moved on. I wanted to jump up and down and shout and ask why he thought that happens. Instead I just nodded.

We made small talk. About whether I would return. He told how he would leave the country if he could, if his wife would. I refused to give up my hope, my naivety, my youth. I said I hoped to. He said he didn't think I would.

He thanked me for warning them well in advance of my departure. I knew I wouldn't really make a difference. I smiled.

I walked away. He remained seated.