Monday, June 30, 2008

The Best Way to Learn

They say the best way to learn is to involve yourself in something, so to learn the sport of cricket I invested in a 10-pound copy of Brian Lara Cricket 2007 for the old Xbox 360. Actually go out and play cricket? Perish the thought. A video game of cricket? Heck yeah!

Cricket seems like a great game in theory, much like baseball is a great game. It's the kind of game you enjoy watching live, having a chat with your friends and a beer and some unhealthy food and sitting out in the sun and generally enjoying yourself. Cricket seems like this (except a game can take five days). Plus it's subtle. It seems like a sport of subtlety. Kind of like the Go of sports, if you will. Complex and incomprehensible to the observer.

I haven't taken it out of its wrapper yet, but I'm looking forward to some quality time learning how to play the most mysterious of sports.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Islington's Finest

I debated whether to post this but I will want a record of it later, so here goes.

Last night I roll back to the flat about 7:15. We're on the third floor of our complex, and the stairs are outside although covered by a roof. I'm taking the steps two at a time, glad to be home and eager to play some Lego Indiana Jones.

Sitting on the top step of the final flight of stairs is a homeless guy. This isn't a terribly uncommon sight, there are a couple of them who hang out in our stairwell from time to time although it's very intermittant and they always seem to leave afer a few minutes. But this isn't one of those guys, and he's just kind of sitting there with a hood pulled over his face, kind of leaning forward and sleeping. I say 'excuse me' as I step around him, no response. I ask him if he's alright. No response.

I go inside, lock the door, and call the police. It's a non-emergency - more than anything I'd just rather have the cops come and let this guy know that our stairwell is not a good place to crash - so they say they'll send someone as soon as they can. That was about 7:20.

At 10:30, Liz comes home. The guy hasn't moved. In fact, he looks pretty much exactly like he did before. The cops call and apologize for not showing up yet. They tell me they'll be on their way. Our security gate is locked, and our door is double-locked, just in case.

Around 11, I hear our two female neighbors come home. I assume they are OK because their security gate closes; it's a distinctive sound. I check and he's still out there, hasn't moved.

I've got yet another cold (go London air quality) so I wake up at around 4:00 AM and can't get back to sleep. I check and our friend is still outside. I give the police another call, and tell the operator that he hasn't moved a bit and I'm a little worried he might not be OK.

The operator asks if he's still breathing.

I tell her I guess so, I didn't go out and check.

She asks me to go out and check.

Now think about that for a moment. The police are asking me to go at the very minimum wake someone up who doesn't have any other place to stay. Add to that he may have a mental illness, be on some kind of illegal substance, or both. And they want me to check his vitals.

Isn't that why the police exist? So I don't actually have to check the vitals on some guy who's camped out on my porch?

I go back to bed and by the time I'm up at 7 AM, he's gone. When I'm in the shower the cops show up 12 hours after they were initially called, and say that they'll let the night patrol know to check the complex. Fair enough.

Obviously the guy was OK (he got out of there somehow), but the whole experience was a little surreal. I know the cops have better things to do than chase homeless people out of stairwells, but 12 hours is a little ludicrous. As was, I feel, the request that I go outside and check to see if the guy's OK.

Welcome to the big city I guess.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Solstice at the 'Henge

My coworker Simon suggested a trip to Stonehenge for the Summer Solstice, which is cool because it's a massive gathering of some 25,000 neo-Pagans, hippies, New Age travelers, partygoers and people looking for a good time, punks, Goths, and people who just want to see what's going on. It's also one of the four days each year when the National Trust allows people to walk up to the stones, touch them, stand among them and experience them as people used to do. It's often taken for granted but until early last century Stonehenge was actually in danger of collapsing and being damaged; previous landowners used to let tourists chip pieces off rocks and some of the lintels had collapsed.

When you go as a tourist today you're confined to a paved, circular track that sits about a hundred feet away from the circle. In other words, you never get close enough to actually get a real sense of why Stonehenge is so significant. It's one thing to hear a guided tour tell you about it from a hundred feet away; it's quite another to stand between massive stone pillars with a stone lintel over your head and try to fathom why neolithic people would have dragged the things 40 miles at a time when there were no such thing as iron weapons and armor. Why? How? The thing is no one knows. It's still not entirely certain why Stonehenge was built. It seems to have been a sacred site used for a variety of reasons and by a variety of people, but why was it created originally? We don't know.

We set out from work at 4:00 on Friday, narrowly missing an all-office meeting, and took the train out to Salisbury where we caught the bus service to Stonehenge. We arrived at the monument around 8:30 and still had a couple of hours of daylight to get oriented. The center of the stones was the center of the action, with people gathered dancing, drumming, playing music, smoking and hanging out all around. The rain was intermittent but picked up towards the end of the night, but even the minor misery of the rain and cold didn't really dampen our spirits.

The night passed with dancing, walking around, talking, drinking and just enjoying the overall energy of the gathering. I'm certainly no pagan or even a religious person, but there is definitely a feeling of energetic togetherness when so many people are gathered and engaged in an activity like that. I will also admit that the stones themselves surprised me; they felt far warmer than I expected. The odd part? They were warm in patches. Other parts felt exactly like cold stones you'd expect to find in the middle of a rain-swept plain.

I honestly can't remember the last time I pulled an all-nighter, but I came through this one with flying colors (and slept the entire train ride back to London, then crashed when we got to the flat.) But it was an incredible experience. I'm still trying to sort what to make of it, but there is something remarkable about a lot of people getting together for a party like that, drinking, smoking, having fun and not hurting themselves or anyone else. That was what surprised me the most: no instances of violence or anything I would have associated with a bunch of people getting together and turning the censors off. In fact, I saw total strangers taking care of other people who needed an extra shoulder or two on the walk back to the bus.

If you're interested, here's my Twitter stream from the evening, as I was live-tweeting the entire thing.
    On train to Waterloo. Can't wait for a warm shower and sleep. about 10 hours ago from txt

    And there's sunrise but you wouldn't know it. about 12 hours ago from txt

    @simoncollister has disappeared into the stones, I'm enjoying sunrise just outside them. about 12 hours ago from txt in reply to simoncollister

    No sun but daylight. Rain picking up now. about 13 hours ago from txt

    Less than an hour till sunrise, packing up camp and heading into the middle of the Henge. about 13 hours ago from txt

    Getting awfully tired, an hour forty five to go. about 14 hours ago from txt

    Rain has turned from minor annoyance to cold wet miserable. about 14 hours ago from txt

    Two and a half hours and I'm struggling to stay awake. about 14 hours ago from txt

    3 hours to sunrise and someone just shot off a flare gun. about 15 hours ago from txt

    Thousands here now. Its a maze to get to our blanket. about 17 hours ago from txt

    Five hours to sunrise and doing great, about 17 hours ago from txt

    The rain keeps coming and going. Still haven't put my sweater on. Strong smell of skunk in the air. about 18 hours ago from txt

    The daylight has finally disappeared. The drums are getting louder. about 19 hours ago from txt

    Found a spot for the night not five feet from stone lintels. Only 7 hours to sunrise. about 19 hours ago from txt

    Its hard not to get caught up in the celebrating, I've got a huge smile on my face. about 19 hours ago from txt

    Standing in the center of the stones. It might just be me but they feel... warm. about 19 hours ago from txt

    Past securiry about to be in the stones. Hear pipes and drums. Light rain. about 19 hours ago from txt

    Hiking across Salisbury plain with hundreds if not thousands of others. Have my first sight of the stones. about 20 hours ago from txt

    On the bus on the way to the Henge, my fellow travellers include goths, hippies and @simoncollister about 20 hours ago from txt

    Noshing Thai before going to the Henge. about 22 hours ago from txt

    The AC on this train seems to be broken. :( about 23 hours ago from txt

    On a train to Salisbury to go to Stonehenge for the Solstice. Will be up all night! about 24 hours ago from txt
I think I may have to go back next year, or find another Solstice celebration. It was a great time.

Update: Simonski has an incredible picture from the event on his Flickr.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

British Humo(u)r

Overheard in the pub:

Q: Why did Diana cross the road?
A: She wasn't wearing her seat belt.


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Few Simple Reminders

1. Over here, you're the one with the accent.
2. Sometimes, girls will think your accent is sexy or cute.
3. Sometimes, they will tell you this.
4. When they do, be flattered. Don't say 'I didn't know I had an accent!' and think you're a paragon of wit.


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Insert They Might Be Giants Lyrics Here

Ablution Fountains, Blue Mosque
A typical conversation around our flat goes like this:

Me: Let's go somewhere.

Beautiful Competition: OK, where?

Me: I dunno, what's good on Last Minute?

BC: Here's a trip to Istanbul for dirt cheap.

Me: Hey, that's cool. Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine and later Ottoman empires? In Turkey? Why not.

And then we book tickets and go.

We didn't exactly time this trip perfectly since it was the weekend after a bank holiday weekend with miserable weather, but it worked out fine. We got up early on Friday and trundled out to Heathrow, boarded a plane and in about four hours were in Turkey.

This is significant for a lot of reasons for me. It was my first visit to a Muslim country. It's the furthest east I've ever been. And it was within spitting distance of another continent: Asia. Which brings the total of continents I haven't laid eyes on before to two, Australia and the cold one.

We planned the o'dark thirty flight so we could get in and have some time to get a feel for the city, since we realistically only had two and a half days to see anything. We made it to the Hippodrome, the chariot racing course built back when the city was the Greek colony of Byzantium, poked around a bit, and had a laid-back evening with delicious and amazing food.

Although I'm not sure we're conscious of it, we tend to fall into a nice rhythm when we travel: sleep in a bit, do most of our heavy touristing before lunch, eat a smallish meal, meander for a while, head back to the hotel, nap for a couple of hours, then have an enjoyable and relaxed evening. We weren't trying to cram as much sightseeing into our trip as possible this time around; it was intended to be relaxing and it was. If I sound defensive it's because we saw very little outside the main, top tourist attractions but that's OK.

Saturday was up early and hit the Grand Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar is basically the world's first indoor shopping mall: a large structure (really a series of structures) that house shops of various types, divided roughly by what they sell: carpets, jewelry, leather, clothes, and so forth. We found some artwork we liked, haggled and bargained for it, and ended up getting ripped off I'm sure but had a great time while we were at it.

Traversing this press of humanity and hitting the book bazaar and spice bazaars took most of our day. It's a very different environment, where there are no prices and it's even considered rude to accept the first price a shopkeeper tells you. Many of them spoke English but not all, so you have to resort to pointing, grunting, putting numbers into a calculator and so forth.

The next day we hit the tourist attractions (rather than the tourist traps), which are luckily clustered within about a mile of each other. The Blue Mosque was the first, an incredible huge mosque that takes its name from the blue tilework inside. It was built to attempt to rival the nearby Aya Sofia (or Hagia Sofia) and came pretty close. The Aya Sofia was completed in 567 and for nearly 1000 years was the largest and grandest Christian church in the world. It is huge on a scale difficult to imagine, especially considering it was built as Europe was slipping into the Dark Ages and is a marvel of architecture that hasn't been rivaled since.

Topkapi Palace was our next stop; at this point we were hungry and getting a bit tired and kind of missed some parts of it. The best summary I can think of is 'the Alhambra if it hadn't been allowed to go to pot,' although there was much more modern work at Topkapi since it was the seat of the Ottoman sultans until early in the last century.

Istanbul wasn't a narrative trip, even though I tried to create one above. It seemed to me very much about feeling: the warm sun, the Mediterranean air, the sound of the calls to prayer echoing from minarets across the city, the taste of Turkish tea and coffee, the smell of Turkish tobacco in nagrileh, shopkeepers trying to entice you in with outlandish questions or statements, and all of the things that make traveling so wonderful that you only start to notice when you're on the plane ride back.

Also, Istanbul was a very cat-friendly city. There were cats everywhere, obviously cared for. I'm not sure if this is because the cat is respected in Islam, or if it's a beneficial relationship to have them on pest patrol. Can someone enlighten me?

Edit: check out the pics on Flickr, including one of the Beautiful Competition in a headscarf.