Monday, May 29, 2006

War is Murder

While now being in the US, I was inevitably confronted with the fact that this country is in a war against Iraq. The news of the massacre in Haditha emerged into the public news during the past few days. Shamefully only half a year after it had "happened". But I am not surprised. Being a soldier is being a murderer. Soldiers are paid to murder other people, and destroy other people's property. It is only a small step from murdering someone who has a weapon (the "enemy soldier") to murdering the people around those "enemies", civilians. Numerous wars in the past have shown this relation, and one would think that humans have learned this by now. But no, nothing will ever be learned from history, despite the History Channel's extensive programs about World War 2 and the Nazis. The direct responsibility of this latest massacre (and all the other ones in Iraq which are still not uncovered, due to the diligent cover-up work of the soldiers involved and their superiours) lies of course with those who commit these artrocities. But the ultimate responsibility is with the US government, who started this war very consciously. And indirectly, the responsibility lies also with all of those morons who supported that war in the beginning.

In March 2003, at the beginning of the US military action, when I drove with my Caddy through Thousand Oaks, there were trees lined with yellow ribbons, "in support of our troops". At a road intersection, a group of young people waved flags and held "patriotic" banners, cheering to each one who drove by, asking them to honk in support for the war. I was very tempted to stop and argue with them - but they were so fanatic and brain-washed that it would have been pointless.

It was at that time that I decided to leave this country, and began looking for a job opportunity abroad. It just seemed to be unbearable, to live in that climate of "pre-emptive obedience" as exercised by the media who hyped that war with trumpets and fanfares in their daily reporting on TV. At that time, more than 70% of the US population supported the war.

Now this support has been diminished, as has the support for the criminal gang running the US government since 2000. This is at least some positive sign, but now it is too late. A country has been destroyed, at least 38,000 civilians have been killed as a consequence of this war (see Iraq Body Count), cultural heritage has been damaged, destroyed, infrastructure of a whole country has been demolished, seeds for a civil war have been spread, and a breeding ground for new terrorism has been established. From all points of view, this war was a failure.

And it was a crime. Those who initiated it, who defrauded the UN with their false and constructed proves of "Weapons of Mass Destruction", who lied to the American People, who pushed forward the going to war, those should be punished for "High Treason". They caused damage to the US, to humanity, to the world. Because starting a war is starting the (legalised) murder, and it is quite a hypocracy to then be shocked about the non-legalised murders.

Comments to this rant are invited!

Friday, May 26, 2006

Organising the Relocation

One guy visits me in the morning, takes a test drive in the Caddy. Likes it a lot, but is a bit scared by the amount of work that would need to be done in order to bring it in top condition.

The weather this Friday is cloudy - gone is the Southern California blue sky, and it will remain cloudy for the next few days. The other business I need to take care is to organise the moving of the household goods. I had gotten quotes from several companies, and I had condensed them down to two international moving organisers. I call them, to discuss some of the issues regarding the schedule and organisation of the move. Need to decide what to move. Currently it looks as if I will have to get a 20 ft container. There are subtle differences of how these two companies plan to handle the moving, and I have to choose the one that appears more reliable. There have been horror stories about moving scams, and I am trying to avoid one.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Black Widow Spider

On the next morning, Thursday, the first action is to get my two vintage cars (1971 Plymouth Fury Custom Suburban Stationwagon and 1974 Caddilac Eldorado Convertible) moving again, after they had been standing since christmas, since I plan to sell them. As I try to start them, it appears that each of their batteries has died. I am able to jumpstart the Plymouth, but the Caddy starter does not crank the engine. And the battery of the Plymouth does not hold the charge - after a diagnosis at the Pep Boys shop, I need to buy a new battery.

As I check the engine of the Caddy and try to look at the radiator fluid, I see a spider sitting on the battery, close to where I was just trying to remove the radiator cap. It is - a black widow. The shiny black body, the long black legs, and the red cross on the underbelly are obvious indicators. I was luck that it had not bitten me - their bites "seldom cause death". As I try to remove the spider with a stick, it rushes down under the battery and hides there. In its web are many remains of what it has eaten... among them also another spider, probably its husband. There is a reason why this spider is called "black widow" ...

As I work around the battery, I am carefully watching where the spider is. When I lift the battery out, I see that it is sitting on it at the side of it. So at least I got it out of the engine, and now I can continue to install the new battery. With the new battery installed, the engine starts immediately. I top up oil and transmission fluid, but then I see that some gasoline is dripping out of two cracked hoses at the underside of the engine. It takes me a while to get to there, but finally I am able to replace these hoses with new pieces. Now the Caddy is ready, and I take a short ride around the block. Feels great, in the warm California sun! Maybe I should not sell the car afterall, and take it to the UK?

The Plymouth runs well - there is a slight engine exhaust noise, due to a missing gasket at the thermostat, but otherwise it is ok. Now that both cars are running ok, I can arrange visits by the potential buyers who have already contacted me.

1974 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible. Posted by Picasa

1971 Plymouth Fury Custom Suburban Station Wagon. Posted by Picasa

Arrival in Los Angeles

It actually feels somehow good to be in the US again. The relaxed attitude of the people, the knowledge to be within a gigantic country, borders are far away.

Flight 309 is still waiting for additional connecting passengers, so we take off 20 minutes late.

The Boeing 757-200 makes a relatively dated and worn impression. Seat 1A - I had that only a few times so far. First class upgrade - that was worth the stopover in Minneapolis! Due to the policies of the Northwest Airlines Elite Miles program, I only can get complimentary automatic upgrades to first class within the US. So it is always beneficial to stop first somewhere on the US East Coast, then take another flight to the West coast which then is eligible for such an upgrade. That also removes the need to sit in those airplane chairs for such a long time - I appreciate the opportunity to get up finally after 8 hours or so, and walk around in an airport. If the stay in Minneapolis had been longer, I could have gone to the "Mall of America", the largest shopping center in the US. A gigantic complex of stores, all within one building, with an aquarium in the basement, and with a roller coaster through the central hall. I had been there once in 2000, with my work colleages, during a business trip - it was quite interesting.

I realise that in the main cabin of the flight (economy class) now they even have to pay for the peanuts! How I am glad to fly now first class. The dinners in the first class of Northwest Airlines have in the past been quite good - sometimes even famous chefs had "designed" the dinner as it was being served to the guests. But a little let-down is that the white wine that I asked for, was served in a plastic cup. A few years ago they would have brought a real wine glass... but at least the plastic cop never gets emtpy - as soon as I take a sip, the flight attendant comes and tops it up again. That is not bad :) but I have to watch it - I will have to drive later tonight a rental car on the LA freeways....

After take-off, we actually get the drinks in real glasses - also a nice little perk of the First Class cabin. But now the jet lag and the long sleepless time finally gets to me, and I doze off. As I open my eyes again, it is already night, we are flying over the Mojave desert, half an hour away form the Los Angeles airport. And I had missed my dinner! But the friendly flight attendant asks me if I still want it, so he brings it, and in 10 minutes I finished it, just as we are already on the
approach to LA.

The endless sea of lights of the Los Angeles Basin is always a great sight during the approach. The whole area is about 80 km wide and 160 km long,
stretching eastward from the coast into the San Bernardino valley. The freeways are busy as always, even now at 22:00. But no traffic jam, as I can see - the chains of yellow lights move fast through the road grid.

After landing, on my way to get the luggage, I suddenly hear somebody calling my name. Halluzination through tiredness? No, there is Peggy and a few youngsters! I had not seen them since last August - they just had come back from Washington DC. And there is John Porter, our team leader of the SciAutonics DARPA Grand Challenge team! What a nice surprise - they had been in Washington DC for the new DARPA Grand Challenge conference. They offer me a ride to Thousand Oaks, but I need to get my rental car, since I will need it in the next days.

The baggage claim in the Los Angeles Airport (LAX) Terminal 2 is chaotic as always. The screen gives a list which carousel has the baggage of which flight. But as always, this is pure fantasy. I have to walk around to each carousel, to see where my suitcase is. Eventually it arrives.

I had never rented from Advantage Rent-a-Car. They had offered quite a low rate - $23 per day for a midsize car. Their facilities are quite away from the airport - it almost takes 15 minutes with the shuttle bus. The clerk offers me upgrades and all kinds of insurances, but I decline and stay at my low rate.

Then driving for another hour on the freeways to Thousand Oaks. Up north the 405, then westward along the 101. It is almost midnight when I arrive in Thousand Oaks.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Clouds in the evening, after take-off from Minneapolis. Posted by Picasa

Flying Again

This was a short night. Before I went to London, I had made a few rudimentary preparations for this next trip, but the bulk of stuff still had to be done. After I arrived in the Kirkstall Brewery at 22:30, I quickly unpacked my small baggage and began sorting the things I needed to take with me. After midnight I realised that it would be good to do some laundry - fortunately the dryer works very well, and at 3:00 everything was ready. Then a short sleep, and I get up at 6:00 for the final preparations.

The taxi picks me up at 8:00, and then I spend a bit of time at the Leeds-Bradford-Airport business lounge. A rainy morning in Leeds, but as we take off, there is one of those sunny spells that are so frequently here. Rain also in Amsterdam, as I wait for my connecting flight. A very nice KLM business lounge - finally I am getting something for my Platinum Elite flying status! Free champagne, and a very nice noodle salad from the buffet. Then I board the Northwest Airlines flight 55 to Minneapolis. I have been on this flight already several times in the past. A quite dated DC-10 flies here. Unfortunately I did not get a window seat this time, just an isle seat in the center block.

This trip had been just spontaneously being decided two weeks ago, as the air fare was available at an acceptable price.

My US green card had been expired a month ago, but I had applied for a new one over the internet. Still, I expected some difficulties at the Immigration office at Minneapolis airport. I had inquired earlier at the US Consulate in London per phone how to proceed - and was told I should have a documentation that I had been last time in the US within 180 days. So I brought with me my old receipts from the flight I had done over Christmas. The officer is very friendly, but they obviously do not have this case very often. He sends me to another office, where they look up in their computers my filing status. And indeed, they find my filing that I had done just about 5 weeks ago. They still look a bit worried that they might do something that would be againts the regulations... but then they let me pass. Very friendly, no problem, a bit hesitating since this seems quite unusual... especially because I will be in the US only for a few days, and at my next reentry I still will not have a valid green card... but they let me go.

Once again I am at the Minneapolis airport where I had been quite often in the past years. This is one of the hubs of Northwest Airlines, and since I was always taking them for business trips to the East Coast, I ended up here quite often. I expect to meet accidentally some of my former colleagues, since they often do have business at the East Coast, and also often have a stopover here. Nice relaxed atmosphere in the main lobby where all the stores are. I visit Wilsons Leather, my favorite - I often have found some useful travel accessoirs here that I had seen nowhere else. And right, also this time I find ssomething for what I was looking for already for a long time: a sholder pad for one of my bags, to avoid it sliding down when I wear it.

I head to the Northwest Business Lounge again, to have a few more free goodies before I continue on my last leg of this trip. Great - here is even free wireless access - so I can upload this latest blog entry. And so I wait for the boarding call to the last trip leg - flight NW309 to Los Angeles.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

A Day in London

Originally I wanted to get up early in the morning, to walk around and check out the neighborhood. However, I woke up quite tired, and decided to take it easy. A brief stroll around the hotel, just before the meeting. The rain had stopped, as predicted - the sky was clear and blue. The meeting place is just around the corner. Just three people participate in this workshop - this gives an excellent opportunity to interact with the speaker, who had a lot of experience in the European research funding domain. From 9:00 - 16:30 goes the meeting, with interesting discussions.

Near Bedford Square, where the workshop took place. Posted by Picasa
Then I have 3 more hours to spend before my train goes back. I decide to walk down the street towards Trafalgar Square, to visit the National Gallery. The street seems kind of narrow for such a large city, feels a bit cramped - I had imagined wider avenues. Very lively, many pedestrians walk on the sidewalks, sit in cafes. I walk along, with my small digital bag, my laptop bag, and the rolling luggage overnight-luggage bag - feels a bit clumsy among the fast moving crowd.

There are several pedestrian-zone side streets, looking quite inviting to stroll along. At some point I arbitrarily turn to the right. End up in a small park, Hogarth's Park. Very relaxed atmosphere, people sit on benches, doves cover the ground.

Street in London. Posted by Picasa
I follow the sign for "National Gallery". My goal: to see Turner's painting "Rain, Steam, and Speed". Of course the museum entrance that I chose is the one furthest away from the Turner collection... so I haste through several grandious rooms, with treasures of paintings. The gallery closes in 30 minutes, so I do not have very much time. And there it is - the painting that I have seen more than 20 years ago in school text books. A message from 1845. A train. The painting preempting impressionism, with its fuzzy appearance.

I walk further around, through the impressionistic gallery. Several Monets, Manets, Gauguins, Cezannes. Paintings that I only have seen on book covers, are just hanging around here. Monets Lilies in a pond, with the curved bridge. On the way out more masterpieces, Gainsborough, Canalletto, paintings that I have seen on many occasions in prints, are here actual as the originals. I definitely should spend longer here next time.

"Rain, Steam, and Speed" by Turner, in the National Gallery. The fuzziness is only partially from my unsteady hand, holding the camera: the painting really is quite fuzzy. Posted by Picasa
As I leave the building, there is no steam nor speed, but only rain. The blue sky has disappeared, and gray rain pours down. But as I head out, it stops, and a few minutes later the sky is blue as it was before. That is English weather at its best.

Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery, and St. Martin in the Fields after the rain. Posted by Picasa

Fountain on Trafalgar Square. Posted by Picasa

View towards "Big Ben" from Trafalgar Square. Posted by Picasa
From Leicester Square I take the "tube" (Picadilly line) to Kings Cross station, a bit early, just in case there would be a delay. The train back to Leeds leaves on time, and I have some more time to finish reports that are due for my work. I had spent just over 24 hours in London - my first visit there.

The gorgeous hall of Kings Cross Station, before I depart back to Leeds. Posted by Picasa

I arrive back in Leeds at 21:50. It rains, so I take a taxi to Leeds Met where my car is parked. Then I drive home. Now I have to pack again, as 12 hours from now I will be again travelling - will sit once again in an airplane, leaving Leeds.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Travel to London

A few weeks ago, an email had come, announcing a workshop on how to form and manage a European research consortium. Since this topic is of great interest to me, I signed up for it. And so I was bound to travel to London, to take part in this one-day workshop on 23. May.

From Leeds Met, I take the free city bus to the train station.
It is still raining slightly, otherwise I would have walked to the station.
The train has already arrived, I walk around and take a few pictures.
As I enter the coach E where my reserved seat is, many people already have taken their seat. My seat is at a 4-group, 2 facing each other, at the window. I squeeze into my place. These seats are narrower than in an air plane! I start unpacking the food I just bought: a delicious sandwich from Burger King, with fries and diet coke, and start having my dinner, watched by envious eyes around.

For the first time I am leaving Leeds on a long-distance train. As the train rolls out exactly at the scheduled departure time at 17:05, it passes the houses along the canal; I can look inside, see the lights in the rooms of Whitehall Waterfront, as the train accelerates.

Arrival at Kings Cross train station. Posted by Picasa
This is the route the terrorists took on July 7, 2005, when they went from Leeds to London to explode the subway. As I arrive at Kings Cross train station, this fact slowly sinks in. Walking through the grandious arrival hall, I imagine how these guys came here together, then separated into different subways and exploded their bombs. I slowly walk around, walk out of the station. This is my very first visit to London. Light rain falls down. A busy square in front of the station, somewhat colorful despite the gray rain. I get my subway ticket (3 pounds - quite expensive for a single short ride!), and walk down the narrow stairs into the underground.

My first sight of London, after arrival at Kings Cross station. Somewhat colorful, despite the gray rain: red kiosk, blue building, green trees. Posted by Picasa

Narrow hallways, somewhat antiquated, similar to the New York subway. Several lines meet here at Kings Cross. I know what I am supposed to take - the Picadilly line towards West. It is quite easy to find the way, despite the slightly confusing labyrinth of hallways and stairs, everything is quite well marked, with maps and line depictions everywhere. I find my train and enter. Again, an uneasy feeling. I look at everyone in the train, to judge if someone loosk suspicious. But they are all "normal", whatever that actually means. I myself obstained this time of wearing my ear microphones for 3D audio recordings that I usually have, so as not to create suspicion myself. Keep all my equipment hidden, the GPS, the computer, the camera, the cabling. Change to another train line after 2 stations. Then I get out at Tottenham Court Road. I try to orient myself - where is here north? where are the street signs? I see a sign to the "British Museum" - that is the right direction. The hotel is just 2 minutes walk from the subway station.
When I searched for a close-by hotel to the meeting location, I found this St. Gilles - with 700 beds the largest hotel in the UK. That sounds just right - so I booked a room. At the check-in, there is Billy the trainee. His most uttered phrase is "I am very sorry sir". There is no non-smoker room anymore. There is no room at a higher floor. The breakfast is not included. There is no internet or WiFi. And he makes a mistake in programming the key. "My apologies for the wait". But I am patient. Billy will learn eventually.

I drop my stuff in the room and head out for a short walk. It keeps raining. I find a Saintsbury supermarket for buying some food and drink. Don't feel going alone to one of these nice looking restaurants in the area. Is quite a nice location, this Bedford. Quiet side streets, with lots of shops nearby on the busy main streets.

But I head back to the hotel, to complete the assignment markings - done after midnight. I have to email Alan tomorrow the final results so he can pass these on to the students.

View from my hotel room. Posted by Picasa

More Assessment Work

In the past days, the weather in Leeds has been as one would expect it from England: gray and rainy. This was, however, for the first time since I have moved to the UK that the weather was bad for a long duration - so far it always had been changing very fast.

But this was good - so I did not have any temptation this past weekend to do one of these excursions, but I stayed at home and marked student assignments, all Saturday and Sunday. This was for Computer-Based Graphics, Individual Project, and Production Project. And today at work, again a pile of assignments came in...

But in one hour from now, I will sit in a train to London. I will have to take a bunch of these assignments with me, to mark them tonight in the hotel there.

Friday, May 19, 2006

End of Student Year

This is the time of the year when for students at Leeds Metropolitan University the spring semester ends. For me, this means work in marking the student assignments. So I spent the whole of last Sunday marking the 35 assignments of the course "Computer-Based Applications". And since then, I went through these assignments one more time, to ensure that I applied the same consistent standards at all submissions. For the comping weekend, I will do the marking for "Computer-Based Graphics", and I still have to mark the students' Individual Projects and the Production Projects. This is actually quite fun, to see how students have progresed and have applied their learned skills in these projects.

The marking scheme is a bit weird: the mark is given as a percentage between 0% and 100%. The final mark is classified as the following: below 40% failed, 40-50$ 3rd, 50-60% 2.2, 60-70% 2.1, and above 70% a 1st. This gives only quite a narrow range between a failed and a first - there is only a 30% difference. That means, a straight linear scale cannot be applied. 50% is considered to be average. above 70% is considered to be exceptionally good. Rarely anyone is supposed to get over 80%. This means that I cannot just give points for the tasks, and if they are all fulfilled that would be 100% - this is not how it is done here. I devised now a few schemes for a hopefully fair assessment, giving "basic" points for general fulfilment of the tasks, and then giving "bonus points" for things that exceed the standard task fulfilment. Now these just need to be normalised so that they correspond fairly to the aplied scale... is not so easy.

Monday and Tuesday were the presentations of the students' Production Projects. Each group presented in timeslots of 20 minutes their work, ranging from CDs, DVDs, web sites, to robotic musical instruments. And on Wednesday and Thursday, these products were presented at the Innovation North Showcase. At the reception on Wednesday evening, there were many guests, visiting these demonstrations and exhibitions.

Then on Thursday night, the End-of-the-Year party of Innovation North at the Leeds Met Bar in Civic Quarter provided an opportunity to chat with students in a relaxed atmosphere. Of course, what was on most students' mind were their markings - but I kept quiet and did not reveal any. Next Monday I will be done with the marking - and will give feedback to the students.

And then the summer term starts, with time to develop research activities and pursue external networking. Busy times are ahead.

Monday, May 15, 2006

After a weekend of rain, a little bit of sun comes through on Monday evening. (Picture taken with my mobile phone, therefore the grainy quality) Posted by Picasa

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Concert in Leeds Town Hall

This Saturday, one of the last concerts of the Leeds International Concert Season took place. I really have enjoyed this season, attended many great concerts. This one today, the Budapest Symphony Orchestra under conductor Tamás Vásáry played four "war-horses" of concert pieces, that is very well known popular music which did not pose any risk of the audience not being receptive. The Leeds Town hall only had a few empty seats, it was almost fully booked.

The term "war" would apply to the first piece in a bit of a negative sense: Liszt's "Les Preludes" is a wonderful music as its own, but it has in my mind a negative connection: the joyous victorious fanfare theme that appears twice in it, was used from 1941-1945 in the German Wochenschau (weekly news reel) as the introductory "theme music" of the war against the Soviet Union. And since I have been very interested in history, this music theme creates in me an uneasiness, whenever I hear it. Poor Liszt - had he only known what his music had been abused for...

The 2nd piece in the concert program was the "Cello Concerto" by Antonin Dvorak, one of my all-time favorites. I never had heard it in a live concert before, I only knew quite well since the early 1990s the recording with Cellist Mischa Maisky and the Israel Philharmonic. When cellist Nina Kotova started to play her solo after the orchestral introduction, it seemed as if the acoustic properties of the Leeds Town Hall were not really supporting the sound of a cello - compared to the orchestra, her Stradivarius cello sounded a bit faint and had trouble to stand out on its own. However, the brilliant and emotional play by Nina was shining through anyway. Once I got used to the quieter than expected sound, it was a pleasure to listen to her phrasing, the vibrato, the wonderful singing music written by Dvorak for this instrument. At some times, the orchestra had a hard time to catch up to her interpretation.

During the break, a CD was sold with a recording of that Cello concerto (with the Philharmonic Orchestra under Andrew Litton), and Nina did sign the CD and concert programs. I briefly mentioned to her my interest in computer music and the integration of human artists with synthesizers - maybe there could be a joint work some time in the future...?

After the break another popular piece: Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite No. 1. I knew this piece quite well, during my days in high school I had played some of it on piano in a transcription. The part "In the Hall of the Mountain King" was one of my more successful computer-synthesizer-based MIDI renditions back in 1999.

Then the last piece was Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite". I never had heard this piece in a live performance, but I knew it very well since more than 25 years. A splendid work, colorful, dynamic, with quiet and melancholic parts, and then with outbursts of energy. The orchestra translated the score very well into sound, and the conductor did his part on energizing the orchestra with intense gestures.

After the performance, three encores were given, the last one from Dvorak's Slavic Dances. In 1981 I had played this piece with my music teacher, on 4-handed piano. And in the years after that, I had also played it with my grandmother on her piano, when her hands were still a bit more flexible than now.

A great concert evening, with many memories for me back in time!

Saturday, May 13, 2006

After the Cello Concerto in Leeds Town Hall. Orchestra is below, the big organ is in the back. (The picture was taken with mobile phone - apology for low quality). Posted by Picasa

Thursday, May 11, 2006

An evening in the pub

Tonight I met with Falk, an German architect from Berlin whom I met a few weeks ago at a Vernissage. We went to the "Headingely Taps", where we sat outside in the "beer garden / car park" and had a pint (or two). A very interesting guy, with lots of real-life stories to tell. A great positive attitude - he really likes it here in Leeds / Britain. His favorite expression that he kept saying: "Sooo geil!" (you have to find the translation for this yourself).

--- I realise that today is Salvatore Dali's 102. birthday. Just having been in Spain a few days ago, seeing some of his art, I silently say "cheers" to him.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Conference in Leeds

On Tuesday and Wednesday, there is a symposium held in Leeds, organised by Dr. Kia Ng from Leeds University: the 2nd ConGAS International Symposium on Gesture Interfaces for Multimedia Systems. Since this is in my area of research interest, I participated on Tuesday in the technical sessions held at The Venue at Leeds College of Music. This meeting was organised as part of the EU action Gesture Controlled Audio Systems (ConGAS). Interesting presentations were given, highlighting current efforts in this domain between technology and music. I got acquainted with other European researchers in this area and learned about their expertise.

In the evening, we went to a dinner at the Indian restaurant AAGRAH - very good food!

Monday, May 08, 2006

Student Individual Project Presentations

Today the level-3 BSc students in my tutorial group gave the presentations of their individual projects. Each presentation lasted 10 minutes, with additional 5 min Q&A. Overall the students did very well: I was amazed by how well they connected with the audience (well, the audience was only me and another assessor): they spoke freely without just reading their vugraphs, had good eye contact with us, and were well prepared. I guess, the UK education system places a high emphasis on such a self-confident presentation, and this is obviously sucessful.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Last day in Barcelona

This time I take it easy in the morning - I had already 3 early morning walks in the past days, so that should be enough, and instead I give myself a rest. Get up at a reasonable time, have breakfast with all the other tourists.

The ornamental East facade of Gaudi's cathedral Sagrada Familia. Posted by Picasa

At 10:15 I head for the Sagrada Familia cathedral. I want to go inside, see that masterpiece in detail. Take a subway this time - I have to be back at the hotel by 12:00 for checking out. The lines at the entrance are still short - later I expect them to be much longer. If one wants to pay 8 Euro for seeing a large construction area, then this is what you get. The western half of the cathedral is under heavy construction, 4 new towers have been built, 4 more are to come. The cathedral will have 12 towers, representing the 12 apostles. A starc contrast between the new western part, with its much stricter straight lines, and the older eastern part, with its overflowing ornaments. It is amazing and quite envigourating, to see how Gaudi ignored all academic rules for design and style, and did what he considered needed to be done. An amazing symbol of the free human spirit, devoted only to the individual sense for beauty.

View from one of the towers in Sagrada Familia over the city. Posted by Picasa

Inside the cathedral Sagrada Familia. Posted by Picasa

I check out from the hotel at 12:00.

Now there is some time until my flight which will leave at 17:40. I decide to visit the Dali museum in the city centre. This is not the famous museum in Figueres (1h 15 min away by a train ride) but is a smaller exhibition of an extensive collection of Dali's sketches, prints, drawings, and water color paintings. But none of the oil paintings is there, and this is a bit disappointing. The vivid colors are missing, the prints and drawings appear a bit faded. Still, it is a great pleasure to get sucked into the surrealism of Dali's phantasy, into these weird assoziations, carricaturistic sketches of deformed humans and animals. Exactly like the bad dream I had when I woke up this morning.

Outside of the museum I hear music and a slow drum beat. As I step out of the museum, still under the influence of the exhibition, the surrealism seems to continue: I look right into a procession of a group of women who walk slowly by, seem to carry jointly a small coffin covered with flowers. Two priests follow them. A music brass band plays slow and loud some sad march music. I realise that this is not a funeral, but simply a religious Sunday procession, and the "coffin" is just the wooden base of a statue of some woman saint. Still, after coming from Dali's art exibition, it feels not quite real. There are also old men, carrying some sort of big sticks, then there are old women dressed in black traditional costumes with some head gown. And other people carry flags. The procession stops in front of a hospital where the balconies on the first flor are covered with flags, and people there throw down flower petals. A strange ritual is done with that carried statue, it is moved forward, backwards, then sideways. Seems to be some sort of blessing. Posted by Picasa

In the "Bar del Pi"
 Posted by Picasa

Now I need some reality. I find it in the Iberian ham that I order in the "Bar del Pi", recommended by the waiter. A very nice little place, with paintings at the wall. Only later I find out that this bar actually has quite some significant history.

A last stroll along the Las Ramblas. Then I pick up my luggage and walk to the Placa de Catalunya, where I take an "Aerobus" to the airport. It is 14:50 as the bus leaves.

The ride to the airport takes 35 minutes. The queue for the counter is already there; I decide quickly to buy something to drink - the weather has been quite warm. When I return, the queue has tripled - I did not think that so many people would fly to Leeds! But I get my window seat, and arrive in the evening back in Leeds. A very memorable trip is over.

Day trip to Montserrat

On Saturday morning I walk again for one hour in the old quarter of Barcelona, then have breakfast with Graham. He will take off already today, so his schedule does not allow large excursions. But I intend to visit that rugged mountain that I had seen on the first day here: Montserrat. The evening before, I got very good travel instructions from Antonio, one of the local organisers. He actually got married there, and is very excited about this place - recommends the visit warmly.

First I take a subway to Placa Espagna, then there I would buy the train ticket for Montserrat. At one of the counters for buying tickets, I want to ask where exactly to buy the train ticket. This train is not a subway, but belongs to a different company. After she is done with the talk on her mobile phone which took a few minutes, she tells me I have to get the ticket at a vending machine further down. I walk further along the tunnel, then there is a stand with a guy, advertising the trip to Montserrat. Can I buy a ticket from him? No; instead he hands me a brochure with the train schedule, then encircles there the train I need to take and the type of ticket. Tells me I should ask one of the officials next to the ticket machine to help me. Sounds ok. I go there, the official is busy at one opened vending machine, fixing something at the interior of that machine. I cannot disturb him now, he waves to the machine where the tickets should be bought. Well, ok, I can do that myself also. Press the touch screen button for language selection. No reaction. Press again, does not work, I press some of the other buttons, they work ok. Well, so I have to do this in Spanish. Ok, I identify my ticket type, and I am able to select the right ticket, based on the price. Some strange abbreviations, A.i.T., Montserrat, but I guess it will be all right. There is a 50 Euro note pictured on the machine. I am glad because the only cash I have are two 50 Euro notes. I put one in, it comes back out. In again, comes out. Try the other one, the same. Put them in the slot in different orientation, nothing... This machine does not like 50 Euro notes. Now I am in trouble. But there is also the possibility to select a credit card purchase. Ok, I put the card in. Everything appears in Spanish on the screen. I think it wants to know my pin number... so I enter it. Then something else, I think if I want a receipt. I press OK. Some printing is going on, then my ticket comes out, and a receipt too.

Ok, that worked well.

I board the train. Is a narrow-gauge system that covers a significant network of trains from Barcelona. The first 15 minutes it goes through a tunnel, across the city. Then it emerges into the suburbs of Barcelona, heading further West. In about one hour the train arrives at the bottom of the Montserrat mountain. Then I switch trains and hop into the waiting cog train, "Cremarella". In 25 minutes it climbs the steep incline up to the spectatularly located Montserrat monestary. I walk around, take another funiculare up to the Sant Joan area. Gorgeous view over the area, up to the basin of Barcelona in the distance.

I walk around on these rocks. Climbers make it up all the way to the peaks.

I visit the Montserrat museum. A small collection of paintings. Among the famous ones (Picasso, Dali, Monet) are several ones that are completely unknown to me (I am a bit of a moron when it comes to paintings): Ramon Alsina (1826-1894) with landscapes, Joan Roig Soler (1852-1909) with Spanish houses, Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) with landscapes and towns, Santiago Rusinol (1861-1931) with towns and cities, Dario de Regoyos (1857-1913) with cities and landscapes, Ramon Casas (1866-1932) with faces of people, Joaquim Mir (1873-1940) with colorful impressionistic / expressionistic paintings, Isidre Nonell (1873-1911) with women who all look away. Quite fascinating. Especially one painter catches my attention: the Russian Olga Sacharoff (1889-1967) with her paintings of very intense colors. I buy a book with the the complete catalog of the museum so I could view these paintings later at home again.

I return around 18:00 to Barcelona, walk from Expagna where the Exposition area is, to my hotel. After a nap - I got quite tired - I go out for a last evening stroll, through the busy and buzzling streets of the Barcelona center. Am not hungry today, so I skip the tapas dinner.