Saturday, November 21, 2015

Sammamish at Sunrise

DSC06937Delta called late last night to ask if I was aware that I’d left my passport on the plane.  It seems that the case slipped from my bag sometime during the overnight flight, and my usual survey of the seat and floor hadn’t noted the absence.  ‘second time in two months (the first was when my tablet got pinched in the Tokyo lounge): I need to be a bit more careful as I get up and move.  (Many thanks, too, to an honest ground crew).

Jet lag was in my favour, though, and clear highways meant that I drove down to SeaTac and back before the sun rose.  There was mist in the Sammamish Valley, cold air over warm peat, steel blue waters against a brilliant rose sky.  I pulled in for an early walk across the frosted fields and along the still river.

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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Weer op de weg

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On the road again, as Willie Nelson’s song goes, and so am I.

I’ve got a one-week / five-city tour on tap, spanning two continents from the UK to the Netherlands, Germany to the US.  It begins at the train station, as all good journeys do.  It also begins with the DLR down for maintenance, passengers filling the alternate-bus and wondering whether the diversion is cover for a security threat.

The events in Paris have unsettled people more than usual.  I think people make an easy equivalence between UK and French capitals: one a target, both a target.  This event, in particular, leaves an uneasy feeling that any innocent night out could end in tragedy.  Dinner discussions of What To Do lead to heated debates DSC06675 (1024x683)about immigration, then to meta-conversations about whether this is an appropriate topic for dinner.

And the signs in the subway are starting to feel a bit surreal.

For my part, I’ll stick to my keeping a low-profile life and avoid crowded public markets, stations, and events.  I favor some sort of sanctuary zones as an alternative to having migrants flow randomly across the Med and between unwelcoming train stations.

On immigration, I worry about the right-wing groups ramping up competing rhetoric, as they are in the US.   But the solutions from the left are too weak: quota systems to allocate refugees can only account for a fraction of those coming.  I think that the Schengen free-passage rules may soon be changed.  Geert Wilders is reasonably asking for a vote on the matter and Sweden is tightening its borders.

Finally, I don’t know how people can avoid talking about events once they buzz into someone’s smart phone, although turning off  the news during dinner is appropriate.  I disagree with those who feel that if it doesn’t affect them directly, they shouldn’t be bothered with it. is   feel like I need more than my usual precautions, but I can feel Europe stirring to protect itself.

DSC06681 (1024x679)London City Airport, and my flight  is delayed for two hours by gales over Amsterdam.  Everyone is checked in, sent back, checked in a second time, blowing eddies of families around the airport.  The hop over is finally, uneventful, I drop into the Netherlands, Christmas displays already lit across Schiphol.

Daily commuting by train between Maastricht and Dusseldorf makes no sense, the border crossing at Venlo always takes an extra hour each way because of the little spur route that connects the NS and DB systems.  I start searching for a rental car, and find one on Avis that is 95 euro for three days.  A steal.

The counter attendant tells me that they DSC06682 (669x1024)can’t beat the price: in fact, there are no cars for rental no matter what my computer says.  I place the order and watch my new booking pop up on their terminal.

Would you like an Upgrade to a bigger car?  Now there are extras; I’ll stay with what I have.  The clerks start an animated discussion in Dutch about the stupidity of computers and tourists, than smile and ask (in English) for my driver’s license. 

I give them my Dutch one and smile sweetly.  ‘Gotcha.

DSC06685 (1024x683)I’m actually given a lovely car, all the trimmings, and head south on the A2.  It’s been years since I used to do this regularly when I worked for Corporate.  The road is wider and faster than it was then, the construction projects around Utrecht and Eindhoven all completed.  To the south, though, the roads are closed for new projects, routing me an hour around to the east to arrive in Maastricht very late.

DSC06689 (672x1024)But Bert’s open, there’s a good Bier van de maand, and weather along the river is surprisingly warm.  The bicycles drift past, the conversations flow around me, it’s all familiar and personal again.

‘nice to have you home, offers the ober in Rantree, smiling. 

“Good to be back,” even if only for a few days.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Ai WeiWei at RA

DSC06626 (1024x683)Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has a major exhibition ongoing at the Royal Academy of the Arts through mid-December.  I really like his work, he has a quirky sense of humour and a creative twist of mind in his sculpture.  This exhibit is more political than others I’ve seen, deliberately critical of government policies and unforgiving of their mistakes.

It’s a popular show, we waited in line for over an hour, so book in advance if possible.

And an acknowledgement to the curators, who allowed non-flash photography throughout the exhibition. It’s too rare at major shows in London.

DSC06601 (1024x683)The eleven installations are all worth taking time to study and to understand the backstory.  The undulating brown landscape of ‘Straight’, filling Hall 3, is made from salvaged rebar.  A 2008 earthquake in Sichuan caused the collapse of  twenty schools, killing 5000 children.  Substandard construction was blamed, and the work is  witness to the corruption and memorial to the loss.

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Hall 11 holds a magnificent chandelier made from bicycles.  But there’s an irony in the use of Forever brand cycles, an everyday object now priced beyond the means of the people most likely to need it.  The ordinary is transformed to luxury, two ways.

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The Ton of Tea is composed of a solid cubic meter of compressed Pur Er blend of tea, ordinary reconstituted as art amidst crystal and ebony cubes.  His detention is depicted in half-sized dioramas, confinement that can only be viewed from similarly restricted perspectives.  Remnants of his studio, destroyed by the government as it opened.  Recreated vases, mirroring the antique version he destroyed.

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It’s a wonderful show, well worth an hours’ reflection.  Afterward, take time to cross the street to Fortnum & Mason, where the thoroughly contemporary, very serious Christmas displays are on exhibition. 

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I’ll do a bit of my shopping for friends in the US there, but it, too, stands in counterpoint to Ai Weiwei’s works.

If you can’t attend, the best guide to the works on show at the RA is here.