Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Rampant in Italy

Buon Giorno, and warmest seasonal greetings from Milan, where the good news is that I’ve just spent a lovely few days with the Sister and Brother-in-Law in Courmayeur, a nice little resort nestled in the shadows of the Italian Alps, some two hours away from the city. The bad news, however, is that I’ve managed somehow to blow apart my useless Toshiba Satellite laptop, which had helped me stay connected with the real world over much of the past week, but which now greets me with the dreaded BLUE error screen.

I’ve got no blinking idea what went wrong, and repair is possible only when I get back to London. There, I face the prospect of finding out that I've lost all the data I have inside my hard drive, plus the likelihood of also losing hundreds of pounds in repair bills, not to mention the loss of the laptop for quite a few days.

Here’s neither the time nor place to get philosophical about whether we’re too dependent on modern technology. Fact is, I do rely quite a bit on the laptop, especially in my current life as a student. And now, I cannot but feel quite irritated, concerned and even a wee bit miserable about what’s happened…

Things had turned out pretty nice earlier. I took a seven-hour scenic train ride from Munich to Milan some days back, traversing through Austria, after which I managed to link up successfully with the Sister and Brother-in-Law to begin a holiday together. It was extremely nice to be back with family once again.

Courmayeur is a ski resort in Italy's Valle d'Aosta region, sited just next to the French border at an altitude of about 1200m. And while there was no snow while we were there – we had brilliant skies and calm winds instead – we managed to chill out quite a bit, helped considerably by the good food - La Maison de Filippo was heavenly! - quiet atmosphere and wonderful mountain views.

Heading up from the village of La Palud to about 3400m at Punta Helbronner on board a series of cable car rides, way past the snow line, we managed to get a good view of Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest peak. The famous Matterhorn was also rather close by, near the village of Breuil-Cervina, where we encountered quite a few skiers on the mountain piste. We didn’t do any skiing, but it was rather relaxing to get out onto the snow, nonetheless.

So we’re in Milan now – city of high fashion (think Dolce and Gabbana, Valentino, Versace et al), high art, gelato, the scaffolded Milan Cathedral, the monumental Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, and Leonardo da Vinci’s monumental Last Supper. There's much to see, definitely.

At the same time, one is clearly aware that the year’s coming steadily to an end, and I’m reminded of both the pains and pleasures that I’ve witnessed this year. I give thanks for what I have. It's been a rich twelve months. But I guess I remain too much of a grounded realist, as always, to want to invest too much hope, too much expectations, even, in 2007. We’ll take each day, each week and month as they come, savouring every moment, looking ahead to what might come.

For now, Dear Readers, thank you for following me through these past few months in London and elsewhere. Thank you for your encouraging words, your thoughtful attention. Let me wish everyone a wonderful New Year and a Happy 2007. I treasure all these friendships tremendously. And I’ll certainly be in touch again upon my return to London.

Meanwhile, here are a few nice images from the past couple of days with which to end this most fulfilling year : )

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Das Musik von Juli

Returning to Germany, one of the other little pleasures I had was being able to do some heavy channel surfing back in the hotel. And I certainly don't mean the infamous German soft core porno that comes on late at night, although there was quite a bit of it. Heh.

Instead, stumbling upon a music channel, I was introduced to this German pop group, Juli (July), who have just released their second studio album, Ein Neuer Tag (A New Day). And, I must say, the music's pretty good! The two hit singles so far are Dieses Leben (This Life) and the wonderfully uplifting Wir Beide (We Both/The Two of Us) - a sweet ode to friendship - which was issued only in October. Check out their music videos on YouTube here and here.

Lead singer Eva Briegel turned blonde for Ein Neuer Tag. But in their first album, Es Ist Juli (It Is July) she had a darker mane and distinctive facial piercings. But the music's just as good. At some parts, her singing even reminds me vaguely of Avril Lavigne. But go judge for yourselves. Catch the music videos for earlier hits Perfekte Welle (Perfect Wave) and Geile Zeit (Awesome Time). Lyrics and helpful translations provided here and here respectively.

This is one band which I shall certainly track keenly in the coming years!

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Art In Munich

This is an image of The Mandrill - a work by German expressionist artist Franz Marc which I’m familiar with. This very staid opening line does not, however, adequately convey the total sense of wonder and surprise that came across me when I stumbled upon it in Munich’s Pinakothek der Moderne – the city’s main showcase for modern and contemporary art. I stood there, almost mesmerized, looking intently at the rich colours, and a torrent of thoughts poured forth.

The few who’ve been to my apartment in Singapore would perhaps recognize The Mandrill from a large framed poster of the same work that hangs in my living room. Yes, it's pretty obvious - I’m definitely a fan of Franz Marc. I began learning more about him when I was in the US a few years back, and it was there that I managed to obtain a large reproduction of The Mandrill. Something about the sheer exuberance of the painting seized me immediately. It is a work I see each day back home, reminding me of a certain place, a certain time, even a certain someone... Yet nothing can really prepare you when you cast your eyes upon the real thing.

Franz Marc is known mainly as a painter of animals, especially horses. He dreamt of a better, ideal world, and saw in animals potent symbols of purity and even abstraction, typically rendering them in vivid, aggressive colours. Marc is also celebrated, together with fellow artist Wassily Kandinsky, as one of the founders of the short-lived Blue Rider artistic movment of the early 20th century. But his promising career was halted with the outbreak of the First World War. Fighting on the German side, Marc was killed in action in 1916.

The Pinakothek der Moderne also featured a wide-ranging retrospective of the work of American artist Dan Flavin. Not acquainted with Flavin? He’s the guy who sticks a normal fluorescent tube on the wall and then calls it art. Surely anyone can do that? But ever since Marcel Duchamps produced an ordinary urinal and declared it art, we’ve seen the movement of everyday items into the previously hallowed halls of high culture. And certainly, Flavin staked the claim to be the first and possibly only person to work exclusively with fluorescent lighting. It's an innovative move. To be properly appreciated, art depends on light. Here's art that itself generates light.

And to be fair to Flavin, this was the first occasion I’ve had to view so many of his works in one setting, and quite a few of them were rather appealing. There is a certain allure in the luminosity, although I’m hard pressed to describe it properly. Nonetheless, here are a few examples:

Besides Franz Marc and Dan Flavin, the Pinakothek der Moderne showcased a good selection of works from 20th century German artists, such as Beckmann, Kirchner, Beuys and Baselitz. There were also examples from the wider world, including Magritte, Miro, Braque and Dali. All in all, a very satisfying place.

Apart from the Pinakothek der Moderne, I also visited during this trip to Munich the nearby Neue Pinakothek, which presents art from the 18th century until the early 20th century, and also the Haus der Kunst (House of Art). It’s located in a former Fascist building at the edge of the Englishes Garten – Munich’s largest public park. Formerly the House of German Art, where examples of state sanctioned art were exhibited, it’s since been transformed into a much more liberal and welcoming institution. Were they still around, the Nazis might have condemned the displays there as degenerate art. But Germany has, as they say, come a long way since. It's become a very different country, and I was certainly happy to have returned this time round.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Rampant in Munich

I’m in Munich right now. The weather’s freezing, and the days are at their shortest of the year. But the sun’s been shining, despite the forecast for snow, and the atmosphere on the streets of the old town centre is definitely one of excitement and anticipation in the lead up to Christmas.

Munich. I can hardly think of another city whose very name conjures up so many meanings. Four spring to mind. First, there’s the Munich that gave rise to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. Indeed, the German Führer considered München to be the spiritual home of the Third Reich. Areas such as Königsplatz, close to the museum district, still bear many buildings associated with Nazism, although those unfamiliar with their history may walk by oblivious to the sinister events of three generations ago.

Second, there’s also Munich as the shorthand for appeasement. To scream Munich, as many politicians in English-speaking world have done since, is to charge the other side with spineless kowtowing before assorted contemporary dictators. Hapless British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich, proclaiming “Peace in our time.” But of course, war was to break out barely a year later. I visited the very building where the Munich Agreement was concluded. Today, it serves as an innocent music and performing arts college.

Third, many also think of Munich as the site of the Munich Massacre. Thanks to Steven Spielberg’s movie, this episode from recent history has been raised in popular consciousness. We recall how eleven Israeli athletes were murdered during the 1972 Summer Olympics, and also how the Tel Aviv government dispatched special hit squads later to track down the individual terrorist perpetrators.

Yet, despite the dark history, there’s a fourth meaning to Munich – one which is decidedly more positive and uplifting, and which parallels the stunning development of Germany since the Second World War. For Munich and Bavaria represent the stereotypical outsider’s view of Germany. This is a complex country, with many regional differences. Yet, think Germany, and up pops images of BMWs and beer gardens and fairytale castles and men in lederhosen.

For me, Munich means all these things. And it signifies something else as well. For Munich was my first stop in Germany after I began learning the language in university some time back. Yes, we had hundreds of hours of lessons in the classroom. We practised our verb endings and memorized the noun genders. But nothing could beat the experience of being immersed zum ersten Mal in einer deutschspächigen Stadt (in a German-speaking city for the first time).

I’ve made a few trips back to Germany since those young undergraduate days, including a wonderful tour of Berlin just last year. But it sure is good to be back in Munich. The familiar sights are still there, as I remembered. The Hauptbahnhof train station. The Marienplatz and the famous twin green onion domes of the Frauenkirche. Even the various Doner Kebab stalls. Memories of the past - thoughts of when I last was here - fill my head, as I walk down the streets, trying to keep warm, taking in the sights and sounds afresh.

New to me, certainly, were the ancient Baroque churches of Munich, which I neglected to visit previously. There was the stately Michaelskirche, the gorgeously decorated Asamkirche, the landmark Frauenkirche, and the huge Theatinerkirche. But there was no climbing of the church tower. Instead, I headed up the viewing tower of the Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall), where one could take in an impressive view of this obviously prosperous city.

If anything, this is one of the best times in the year to be in Munich. Germany is famous for its magical Christmas markets – die Christkindlmärkte – and each December brings Munich’s Christmas market out to the streets. Hundreds of stalls are erected around the Marienplatz and surrounding alleys, selling all manner of seasonal goodies, including a large number of stands serving mugs of warm Glühwein.

This is, of course, an excellent segue for me to outline my culinary experience of Munich over the past couple of days. German cuisine ain’t considered high cuisine, which suits me fine. So I dug in happily to an assortment to wursts, savoured a kartoffelnsalat (potato salad), tasted a crepe mit schinken und käse (ham and cheese), and tried for the first time a Reiberdatschi – a deep fried potato hash that came with cool apple sauce. Yum.

But an unfortunate meal was had at the local Burger King’s. I was hungry and didn’t want to walk too far. So I redeemed myself later with a visit to the Spatenhof along Neuhauserstrasse, where I had the Bauernschmaus. What’s that? Think of it as a Bavarian BaoGarLiao, with servings of boiled bacon, roast port, sausage, sauerkraut, dumplings and potatoes. Double Yum.

So, while I continue my digestion process and rue the obvious loss over the years of my German-language abilities, here’s a selection of delectable images taken over the past couple of days.

Monday, December 18, 2006

In the Company of the Blue Men

Yesterday, Sunday, found me back in London and at a performance by the Blue Man Group, along with someone from class. It was a decidedly bizarre and weird afternoon, yet totally enjoyable.

I first encountered the Blue Man Group in Boston about five years back, was immediately seized by their act. I resolved then to catch them in action again. Many questions spring to mind. Who are the Blue Men, and why are they blue? Where did they come from? Why don’t they speak? Why do they always appear to depend on the approval of each other? And, if you’ve attended their performances, like I have, you’d also ask yourself this: What’s with the kitchen towel pulling at the end of the show? What could it mean?

Hmmmmm. Much of what the Blue Men get up to may have little apparent logic. Just sit back and enjoy the colours and the noise. But if you think harder, you’d realize that parts of it are actually a subtle satire at modern life. Why else would they present something as meaningless as a Rock Concert Instruction Manual – which outlines a list of ostensible steps one should follow at a typical rock concert? And with their childlike naivety, they often reveal starkly many of the pretences we take for granted in daily living.

And finally, let me add that the Blue Man music is absolutely fantastic. Heavy percussion, deep basses, and PVC piping. Now, who could have imagined that? Check out the video of "I Feel Love" here.

Show Me The Monet

Well, I’ve just achieved a little dream of mine, which was to head to Paris to check out two particular museums that I had longed to visit. And so, accompanied by the Singapore Doctor, we took a daytrip this past Saturday to the City of Lights, where it rained the entire day. The weather was sullen and miserable. But never mind. I had come in search of Monet’s famed waterlilies. And I certainly didn’t leave disappointed.

Claude Monet is probably one of the most accessible artists from one of the most accessible periods in Western painting – Impressionism – the movement which emerged from France in the second half of the 19th century. Those who dislike Monet’s artistry probably do so because much of his work have become so popularized that they’ve attained the status of commercial kitsch. Not something for snooty sophisticates, perhaps.

But to malign Monet would be to disregard the revolution in art which he helped to foment, and to discount the sublime nature of his own artistic development. For there is more than just one Monet. There is the younger Monet of the 1870s and 1880s, who created attractive landscapes around places such as Argenteuil, his home for some years, along the coast, and also in Paris. But there is also the later Monet of the 20th century, more serious and intense, during the period of modernism. The Monet of contemporary art. And it was works by this Monet that had brought me this day to Paris.

Monet’s works can be found across many museums in around the world. He was a truly prolific artist. After years shuffling around parts of France, he finally settled in an estate in Giverny. The year was 1883. Monet was then aged forty-three, and he would spend the next forty-three years of his life there.

And it was in these later years that Monet began focusing, almost to the point of obsession, on painting waterlilies, or nymphéas – as they are known in French. The waterlilies were to be found right in his garden, in a pond which he enlarged, and over which he subsequently built a Japanese-styled footbridge, which was to feature in so many of his works. And it was in Paris where prime examples of the late Monet waterlilies are to be found.

The Musée Marmottan Monet is located in a quiet residential district to the west of the city, off the central tourist core. But what treasures it contains – reputedly the largest single collection of works by the great master, bequeathed in the 1960s by his son, Michel. Converted from a former residence, it contains many rooms featuring French decorative arts from the 19th century.

But I had little interest in them. Instead, I headed straight to a large lower level room. And there they all were. One could see representative works from all period of Monet’s output, including frames from famous series such as the Houses of Parliament and Rouen Cathedral. Plus, hanging right in front was the one that began it all – Impression, Soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise) from 1872, which had led an art critic to term it, derisively, as Impressionism.

But what drew me to the Marmottan, principally, were the many paintings of waterlilies which Monet executed – dazzling shades of colour, blue and purple, images of water merging with nature, reflections of the light, dizzying, alluring, and dream-like. There were a few images of his famous Japanese footbridge, but one could hardly discern it from the mass of colours on the canvas. Here, Monet was moving almost into abstraction, painting not simply a representation of what lay before him, but of what he perceived in his mind.

The visit to the Marmottan prepared me well for my next stop – the Musée de l’Orangerie. It’s a nondescript looking rectangular building – a former fruit conservatory – located right in the heart of town, next to the Seine in the Jardin des Tuileries. Yet how many could tell that contained within were examples of what I’d term the pinnacles of Monet’s artistic accomplishments – Les Grandes Décorations – or his monumental waterlily panels.

Stretched over two large oval rooms within the Orangerie are eight enormous canvasses of the nymphéas under different conditions. And when you stand in front of them, you cannot help but be captivated, sucked in by their transcendental power. For they overwhelm you. You cannot take in every detail in a single glance. It is all-embracing. It seizes your sense of wonder and awe. You have to step back, erasing all thoughts of a horizon, believing yourself to be looking at the water, with its shifting moods, subtle colours, and reflections of willows and tree trunks. In a word – breathtaking.

Monet spent his last years working fervently on these large panels, inspired by the waterlilies and garden pond at his Giverny home. Just after the end of the First World War, he bequeathed them to the French government, which undertook to display them at the Orangerie. There they’ve been for the past decades, and a massive restoration effort to the building which began in 2000 was finally completed earlier this year, allowing a new generation of visitors to marvel at these magnificent creations.

The stars of the Orangerie were, naturally, the Monet waterlilies. But the museum also offered a rather good range of works from the Impressionist period and after, including works from Renoir, Cezanne, Rosseau, Modigliani, Picasso, Matisse and Soutine. There was a large collection as well by Andre Derain, whose works I wasn’t too familiar with. I learnt later on that along with Matisse, he’s considered a leader of the Fauvist movement. They tended to use bright, brilliant colours, but I think those works by Derain on show at the Orangerie displayed a decidedly more Mannerist quality to them…

Finally, I can’t end this account, surely, without mentioning the inimitable Restaurant Chartier, where we grabbed a good lunch. It’s centrally located, on the Rue du Faubourg Montmartre, within walking distance of the Garnier Opera House. But how do I even begin to describe the marvellous setting and atmosphere of this historic Paris establishment? Here, at least, is a quick review from the Frommer’s guide.

We stepped of the sidewalk and into a small, open courtyard, where a steady line of locals had already formed, despite the rain. After minutes of waiting, we were ushered into this large and impressive room, packed with people – a scene that has probably remained unchanged for decades – and shown briskly to our tables. The menu for the day was dramatically brandished, and we both settled on the Pave de rumsteack au poivre frites, which turned out to be too bloody for my liking, accompanied by separate servings of sliced tomatoes, mushrooms, and a half bottle of a brilliant Bordeaux.

We left, satiated, amused as well by the exquisite Gallic nature of the restaurant, but with me thinking that I needed a good crepe to complete my gastronomic experience. I found it later that afternoon, as expected, from a crepe and waffle wagon parked outside the Jardin des Tuileries, facing the Place de la Concorde.

So, I got my Monet, and I got my crepe. The rain was awful. But my day in Paris turned out to be pretty nice indeed.

Travel Notes: The Channel Tunnel and the Eurostar have made travels from London to Paris ridiculously easy, with a day trip eminently within reason. We departed on a 0634 train from Waterloo station, and arrived in the Paris Gare du Nord at 1023, with an entire day ahead of us. A one hour time difference separates the two cites. Day passes for the Paris Metro are available conveniently at Waterloo.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Fleeting Thoughts on an Overcast Afternoon...

Coming to London for studies, I’m often struck, even if sub-consciously, by the differences between UCL and NUS, where I completed my first degree. Unlike some others I know, I didn’t get the privilege of an overseas education then. Is this, in a way, my own opportunity to experience what it feels like to be studying away from home, in an international environment?

It’s difficult to make a good comparison. I was much younger then. I’m the same person now, but things have changed much since. Circumstances have changed. I don’t know how I would have been, if I were here for three or four years of undergraduate studies. I guess it doesn’t really matter now. Let’s leave it at that.

It is rather invigourating to mix with such a wide circle of people here. In NUS, the situation was much more provincial, although I’m sure they’ve since enlarged their intake of foreign students. I welcome that entirely. It certainly helps to lift local students beyond any parochial worldview they might have.

The courses offered at my school also reflect a particular academic perspective reflective of Europe and the UK. There are master’s level programmes on Human Rights and on Democracy and Democratization. I can’t imagine NUS ever putting forward such courses.

Being here, I’ve also had a chance to look back at my other time living away from home. It’s a surreal feeling. My three years in Washington seem like another world entirely. I was in a different time, a different place, a different role, with different people and different priorities. Was I really there?

But now, I’m in London, student for a year, enjoying myself so far, yet conscious that this is yet another fleeting stage in a long journey that will often be marked as much by joy as by adversity. Things around us change, and the only constant we can hold onto, amidst the tumult and turmoil, is ourselves.

And Now Gastropubs

A gastropub is a relatively new concept in British dining. It refers to pubs which prefer to serve more than usual pub grub - such as fish and chips or pot pies – offering, instead, a selection of fine cuisine, yet within the confines of a traditional pub – noisy, smoky, and jolly. And I believe that some of the food at gastropubs are up there with the best that mainstream restaurants can offer.

My first foray into the food offered by gastropubs was on a Sunday afternoon some weeks back at the Perseverance, located on the quaintly-named Lamb's Conduit Street, near the hall. I had the roast beef. Nothing could have been more apt for Sunday lunch.

And just a couple of evenings ago, I found myself with the Singapore Doctor and the Canadian Couple at the Easton, one such gastropub about five minutes away from the hall, set on a corner street off Farringdon Road. Check out quick reviews here and here. The place was pretty busy, and we found ourselves perched on the bar counter. But never mind, the food certainly was impressive. And perhaps I was just very hungry – and greedy too.

So I had the roast lamb with potatoes and beans – prepared in a much more delectable way that this sentence makes it out to be – followed by a nice chocolate torte. They were good. I try my best, always. There’s so much in London for me to eat.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

At the Pub

At the Jeremy Bentham - that's where I've been hanging out every Tuesday lunchtime for the past eight or nine weeks this term. A group of us from class typically heads there together after enduring colletively through a two-hour long seminar. I think I've tried most of the items on the food menu, I think - the lasagne, the chicken tikka masala, the bangers and mash, the chicken burger, the pot pie, the salmon salad...
Yes, term's ending this week, and a few are already planning to fly home for their year end break tomorrow evening. Time's moving fast. For me, however, I'm planning to remain in London, and perhaps to saunter a wee bit around the continent.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Things I Miss...

I’ve not been in London for very long. A bare three months have passed, and I think I’ve settled in rather well. Certainly, I’ve got no real complaints about life here. Moreover, this isn’t the first time I’ve been living away from Singapore.

There are certain things that I’m happy to be far from. Yet, already there’re a few things about home which I do miss, little memories that sneak up on me every so often. And I’d pause, and a wistful feeling emerges, for it will be some time before I’m back.

Let’s see - what do I miss? Well…

I miss having breakfast with colleagues at Maxwell market, where I’d savour my mee siam, you char kway, and the usual cup of kopi peng.

I miss the Hoegaarden gatherings at the Union Bar, complete with sizzling fries and juicy wings.

I miss driving around in my Mazda 3, and I wonder who the new owner could be.

I miss the Straits Times Urban section on Thursdays and all the fashion tips.

I miss being a slob on my couch, devouring DVDs and bags of chips.

I miss the sounds and smells of a strong tropical shower.

I miss swimming in the pool under a sunny blue sky.

I miss the casual safety of jogging at any hour.

I miss having cheap cinema seats too, and

I miss my cat, I really do...


Sunday, December 10, 2006

Pizza and its Impact on International Relations

This has been an abysmal weekend. The weather's dreary and the mood's dismal. And I’ve been at my desk for hours on end, working on my International Relations essay, due the following Thursday. It ain't easy. Despite copious amounts of coffee and generous helpings of chocolate, there’s been little inspiration. The sublime and sweet sounds of J S Bach, which usually weave a magical tapestry around my mind, have instead consigned me perilously close to unconsciousness.

So let’s liven up this blog post with more references to restaurants and food. For I took a good break yesternight and headed out to the Hampstead area for dinner. Fratelli la Bufala's the name of the place, which had come highly recommended. Apparently, it’s a spin-off from an actual Italian-based operation, and the gentleman who served us came with the requisite continental accent to charm/con the three of us gathered there.

We had a cheese salad, followed by a potato and eggplant starter – does calling it aubergine make it sound cooler? – and then two nicely-prepared pizzas – one with cheese, and other with sausage bits. Banish all thoughts of American-styled pizzas with everything on top. Instead, these were thin, irregular and austere looking products, though surprisingly scrumptious. And when accompanied by a bottle of the house red wine, one does become a wee bit more generous in spirit.

The verdict? Do check it out, if you’re in Hampstead or North London. But if you’re elsewhere and are dying for some good pizza or pasta, I’m sure there are many more Italian restaurants around.

Saturday, December 09, 2006


After the sound and fury of the UN simulation session, we headed to a nearby Wagamama outlet for dinner. Yes, finally, this was my chance to check out the one restaurant chain at which half of all Londoners appear to have frequented previously.

What is it with Wagamama? Why has it received so much attention over the past few years? Is it really popular? Or it is more hype than substance? Started in the early 1990s, it’s basically a no nonsense place offering British-influenced pan-Asian and Japanese fare. No reservations are taken. Diner are seated at large tables, and can often find themselves rubbing bums with total strangers. Food is served quickly.

I guess it could be seen by some as pretty trendy, chic, modern – and here’s the dreaded word – exotic. The food was certainly rather alright. Here's the menu. I had a nice giant bowl of chilli chicken ramen, plus a few glasses of the house wine. And so the tummy was quite pleased.

Yet I don’t think I’d want to return for a second helping. First, it ain’t that spankingly great. Second, there’s still so much more food in London to taste. Third, it’s a rather noisy place, and doesn’t provide a conducive environment at all for conversation.

So, the question is - what comes after Wagamama? Benihana?

Friday, December 08, 2006

This Afternoon on Tavistock Square

Security Council Fails in North Korea Sanctions Bid

Filed Friday, 08 December 2006 18.10 EST

By Rampant I. London

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The United Nations Security Council failed today to pass a resolution condemning North Korea for its plans to launch a second nuclear test, following a double veto by the United States and the United Kingdom of a joint Chinese-Russian proposal.

The Sino-Russian text had called for global censure of the North Korean moves, and the implementation of fresh sanctions. It sought the immediate return of Pyongyang to the stalled Six Party Talks, and also provided for the appointment of a special UN envoy to maintain communications with the hermit regime.

Most of the non-permanent members of the Security Council had been prepared to support the Sino-Russian text, which also included an amendment by France calling for the holding of multilateral talks to discuss global nuclear disarmament. The US and UK, however, were unwilling to accept that stipulation.

Today’s emergency session came after the announcement on 20 November 2006 by North Korea of its intentions to conduct a second nuclear test, despite mounting international pressure. Earlier, following its first nuclear test on October 9, the UN Security Council had unanimously passed Resolution 1718, which paved the way for a series of sanctions against the government in Pyongyang.

Diplomats and political leaders from the 15 member Council worked for hours on weak coffee and dry cookies but failed to reach a consensus on the right language for the resolution.

Commenting on the day’s dramatic developments, the Russian ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin said, “Naturally, we’re very disappointed by the intransigence of the Americans and the British. We believed we had tabled a very good draft text, and it received wide support from many other council delegations.”

“The international community has not been well served by the unilateralist actions of the US and UK,” he added.

John Bolton, the outgoing US ambassador to the UN was not immediately available for comment. Neither was Emyr Jones Parry, his British counterpart.

World attention had been focused on today’s session, with the unexpected presence of Chairman Kim Jong-Il at the debate, who made a few unexpected but incomprehensible interventions into the proceedings. The reclusive North Korean leader is understood to have made very few journeys beyond Asia.

US President George W. Bush also attended the session, although it was not known if both leaders met at the sidelines.

Diplomats at the United Nations said that it was unlikely the Security Council would reconvene soon to discuss the North Korean situation. “Unless North Korea proceeds with an actual second test, it seems likely that the international community will now just sit back passively,” said a senior Western official who requested anonymity.

"We're all awaiting the big bang," he lamented.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Snow Patrol

If I lay here
If I just lay here
Would you lie with me
And just forget the world?

Go ahead. Call me a late starter, for I don’t mind. Because I’ve only just really discovered the music of Snow Patrol. Where have I been all along? They’re simply, truly amazing.

As everyone except me knows, Snow Patrol emerged as an independent rock band out of Scotland and Northern Ireland in the mid 1990s, and came to prominence later with wonderful albums such as Final Straw and also Eyes Open, issued earlier this year. I don’t think frontman Gary Lightbody’s anything spectacular to look at – skinny and forgettable – but his lyrics, a snatch of which open this post, does strike a particular resonance with many.

I had only been vaguely familiar with the band, but got the good chance recently to listen to a selection of their hits, and to catch one of their concerts on TV. My favorite tracks? Well, like many, I guess, they would have to be Spitting Games ("Ooo ooo ooo ooo"), Chasing Cars, Open Your Eyes, Chocolate, plus the brilliant Run, which has the potential to become a true classic anthem.

Great music. Keep ‘em coming.

PS – Thanks, Hot Mama!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Where Are All The Brits?

Is it too early for regrets? For one lament I think I’ll have, when I look back eventually at my year here in London, is that I didn’t actually get to meet many native-born locals. And that would be a shame.

I’d like to think I’ve made quite a few good friends already. But my class of just over 50 is overwhelming international. There are precious few from the UK, and they number, I would reckon, only about 10-15 percent of the cohort, although I’ve been very fortunate to befriend two lovely English ladies – one from Manchester, and the other from Dorset.

Why the low UK representation? Aren’t the British keen on studying International Public Policy as well? I’m sure they do. But I think UCL – like all other universities – would prefer international over local or EU students, as they get to charge a full overseas tuition rate. They make more money in that way. And as a result, the variety of accents one gets to hear on campus is amazing. Rarely do I chance upon a distinctive local lilt.

And back at Goodenough, the overwhelming majority of members are international students too, with huge contingents from North America, Europe and the Commonwealth. Not many Brits around. Yet given my routine so far, I’ve not had much of a chance to venture beyond the comfort zones of school and the hall.

But I don’t think things would be vastly different elsewhere. For this is the reality of life in London. The diversity of this city is staggering, and there’s a very high foreign born population. You find them everywhere, and they add to the colour and richness of the city. For instance, head into a typical London pub, and you’d find that the guy behind the counter speaks with a Polish accent. London may formally represent the United Kingdom, but it is in no way representative of the UK.

The country continues to grapple with issues of identity. For now, the established view is to conceive of the UK as a modern, multi-racial, immigrant-based nation state. This isn’t mere spin. I’ve already met a small selection of individuals who consider themselves thoroughly British, even though they have foreign roots. There’s a Pole in one my classes who wss born here to Polish parents. There’s another who’s Russian, but has lived here for more than half her life, and a third who’s Swedish, but had settled in the UK at a very young age with her family. They retain the ability to speak their native tongues, but chat with them, and nothing betrays any hint of their foreign origins.

London is exciting. London is exhilarating. London is cool. London derives much of its raw appeal from the presence here of the world’s finest. But London is not Britain. And it would be a mistake to think it so. To appreciate the full richness of the this country, we need to step out of the M25, out of London, and into the various counties and shires, the market towns and the industrial cities, the valleys and the hills, to meet the many millions who do not live in London. Only then, I think, can anyone claim to have experienced the real Britain.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Heavy Dinner Didn't Help

So this is what I’ll be working on for the next few days:

“Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of employing a Pigouvian tax, as opposed to conventional ‘Command-and-Control” regulation, to controlling polluting emissions.”

My head’s already hurting. Anyone wants to help me out here?

Back at the College

Goodenough College held a forum this evening for members to raise suggestions and feedback with senior College staff. Not that I actually attended the session. I was too busy with work. But I guess the I had nothing in particular to raise. The charitable side of me thinks that, so far, my experience here has been pretty good. No real gripes. The cynical side of me, however, would like to call for lower rentals, an attached bathroom, and better food in the dining hall. But I don't think these moves are possible at all. At least not now. In this, I'm a severe realist.

But it's been interesting living here. The College, I seem to recall someone telling me, models itself on the Oxbridge collegiate system of residency. Accordingly, it does maintain certain aspirations to grandeur. It has, after all, played host to HM The Queen regularly over the past years. And next February, it's planning to hold a series of formal faculty dinners. I'm slated to attend the dinner dedicated to members and scholars in the humanities, and have been tasked with recommending a lecturer from UCL to be an official dinner guest.

We've each also been issued a protocol advice sheet for the dinner. I love this bit - "Please do not sit down until grace is complete. During the course of the meal make sure that you speak to those people seated on each side of you an indeed across the table. Do not confine your conversation to your own guest. This is a formal dinner so please do not leave the table during the meal to speak with friends or to go to the washroom, and ask your guest also to remain seated."

Such excruciating detail. What can I say? Wah piang eh.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

A Detour Into Wiltshire

I just love ancient cathedrals and churches. Whenever I’m abroad, it thrills me immensely to be able to step into one of these majestic monuments to faith, and to learn more about the history and the art and the architecture behind each structure. England is home to many great cathedrals, and apart from those in London, I had the good fortune on earlier visits to check out those in York, Canterbury, Ely, and then most recently, Winchester. Most of them were built during the medieval era, in a Norman or Gothic style, over an extended period of time. This past weekend in the countryside gave me the perfect opportunity to visit the nearby Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire.

What’s so striking about it? Architecturally, it is well known for having the tallest spire of any church in England. It does present a pretty striking and dramatic picture. Those who are familiar with the landscapes of John Constable may also find it recognizable, as he painted the cathedral several times over a few years. Check out examples here, here and here.

The interior of the cathedral was impressive, as expected. The main structure was erected within 38 years – a blink of an eye in medieval cathedral building terms – and as such, one single architectural style dominates – Early English Gothic. I entered just in time to join a guided tour session, and was able amazed to learn how shallow the foundations of the cathedral were – a mere four feet. Pretty amazing.

A little other nugget about Salisbury Cathedral; housed inside the elegant Chapter House, which sits next to the cloisters, is one of only four surviving original copies of the Magna Carta. Yes, this was the seminal document from 1215 which forms the basis for the later Anglo-American conceptions of limited government and individual rights. Composed in Latin, it served as an agreement between King John and a group of barons who had opposed various aspects of his rule.

Later the day, we swung northwards toward Stonehenge. The approach towards this prehistoric attraction was very impressive. I had been to Stonehenge twice before, but it was exciting once again to see in front of oneself the huge circle of boulders – silhouetted against the setting sun. We stood there, pondering the central questions – Who built Stonehenge? And how they did erect it? Was it built, in fact, by seven foot tall aliens with two heads who preferred human flesh over roast lamb? Such are the mysteries of the past.

A Weekend in Hampshire

It was a very good idea which someone from class had – to rent a weekend cottage in the countryside for us to chill out, to enjoy each other’s company, to get out of London to see more of England, and generally, to have a good time. I was very glad that I joined them. For me, it was neat getting behind the wheel again – I had rented a Ford Focus from the Avis outlet near Euston Station – and we set off eagerly for the little village of West Tytherley, where the cottage was located.

Heading beyond the M25 orbital road around London, the scenery becomes rapidly rural, and images of the green and pleasant land start appearing, as three lane motorways give way to single-lane country roads. With a bit of difficulty and some false turns, we reached the cottage late on Friday afternoon.

This used to be an old dairy and probably a milking shed, but had since been converted as a guest house. It was nicely furnished, with full heating and lighting. But it was an unfamiliar place, nonetheless, shrouded in darkness at night, with strong winds blowing. Perfect conditions for all the ghost stories to emerge. And we did tell quite a few.

Some from my class have exceptional culinary skills, and I had a very good pasta dinner on Friday, followed by spicy vegetable and bean soup with potatoes the following evening, plus, I should add, one of the most delectable home-made apple pies as well. I can’t cook to save my life. I can only eat. But eating is something I do very well.

We spent quite a bit of time indoors. At this time of the year, the sky begins to darken before 4.00pm. We were well stocked with drinks and chips and had fun playing different games, and just chatting. Soon, each of us will leave for our respective Christmas break, and the next time we gather in such a big group may well be in the new year. I had loads of fun, and looking back, I think we all did. Here are some happy images from the weekend: