Meeting Jonathan Harris

One photo a day until I meet Jonathan Harris


(after Bill Drummond)

Say Goodbye to Iceland
Dedicated to everyone who helped and supported me during this endeavour.

Somewhere in Iceland, early in the morning and when the sun is shining, find a hillside with distant rocks.

Start climbing the hillside with the goal of touching one of the rocks.

Decide it would be good to build a stone circle near the distant rocks and bury something treasured in the middle of that circle. Turn back and find something treasured.

Start climbing again and realise about halfway up that it would be better to take your shoes off as the undergrowth is soft.

Continue climbing in bare feet. Be careful of hidden rocks!

Touch the rocks that were once distant. Take some photos. Look at the view. Take some photos. Build a stone circle somewhere appropriate. Take photos. Bury the treasured object in the middle of the circle being careful not to disturb what's there too much. Take some photos.

Say goodbye.

Write down what you actually did (it may differ significantly from the above).

Look out at the view and reflect an instant longer.

Go home. On the way down, have faith that you'll remember where you left your shoes.

19th June

This story started in Paris with a 27 year old movie whose name I could hardly pronounce, and it ends in Iceland, 104 days later with the same 27 year old movie whose name now rolls off my tongue with ease.

After a long drive into the midnight sun, I arrived in Siglufjörđur early. Considering all the things that could have gone wrong (alien abductions, recently erupted volcano's or even the simple fact that Jonathan Harris might be out of town for the day), it seemed I had the odds clearly stacked against me. The realisation I was already in dire breach of some fundamental laws of probability made me very nervous. With a pounding heart and trembling fingers I opened my computer at the only internet cafe in Iceland's most northerly town, wondering if there had been a response to the email I had sent just before my plane had taken off from Paris. Crossing my fingers, my toes and offering silent prayers to all the saints and gods I could bring to mind I saw a blessed line in my inbox that read "Jonathan Harris" and clicked on it.

He was in town!

He said we could meet that evening after he had finished working. So if I could just avoid the UFO's and falling ash for a few more hours I would be all set to start writing my first TED talk: "What can go right: rethinking the laws of probability".

In the hours that remained before our meeting, I busied myself with the task of reading every single Jonathan Harris journal entry that I might have missed - I didn't want to risk wasting any of his time by asking redundant questions. The hours flew by and I got myself to the appointed place at the appointed time: 6pm at a rather breezy but pleasant harbour-side café. I stared into the wind and tried to remain calm. I felt like I was ready to make history.

Luckily just before he arrived I got talking to some curious Icelandic tourists, this masked my nerves as before I could worry about it any more, he quite casually strolled up and smiled.

We shook hands as the laws of probability turned a foundation-shaking blind eye. History (as far as I was concerned) had been made.

After offering several profuse, but genuinely heartfelt thank you's, I launched into the very longwinded explanation of why I had come to see him.

Miraculously he tolerated my rambling telling of the tale and even gracefully accepted my gift of the still unopened envelope containing 1/20,000th of a $20,000 photograph which was cut into pieces by Bill Drummond. We laughed about the strange fact that here I was, giving him what (I hoped) was a tiny piece of a photograph once taken by Richard Long of a stone circle constructed possibly not too far from where we were sitting. That photograph had journeyed to London, been bought for $20,000 by Bill Drummond and then been cut-up into 20,000 tiny pieces, one of which was sent to me in Paris and had now finally found its way back to Iceland.

After this colossal just-40kms-south-of-the-arctic-circle ice was broken, we had a great conversation in which I asked him a good many questions about himself, his family and his work. We went walking and had some food, talking all of the time except for a brief moment spent listening to birds. I even got to explain my feelings about the last space shuttle launch and how I thought it would be important to see it.

Finally it was getting late and I thought it best that I hit the road to tackle the long drive before my flight back to Paris the next evening. I felt good driving up the hill and out of town until suddenly I remembered I hadn't even asked about the film - Koyaanisqatsi - the one he supposedly carries with him in a blue leather case wherever he goes. It was my scepticism of that seemingly preposterous notion that had started this whole complicated ball rolling, and I hadn't even bothered to check if he was really telling the truth! After a moment of terribly gut-wrenching indecision I decided it was too important. I would have to turn back and risk disturbing Jonathan Harris one last time.

So if you believe a photo, here it is.

Yes, he still carries the film with him everywhere he goes - he even carried it to Siglufjörđur, the most northern town in Iceland, just 40kms south of the arctic circle. For historical accuracy however it should be noted that the blue leather case has been replaced by a black vinyl one that was given to him by his mother. Well I guess you can't have everything.

The moral of the story?

The only thing I can say is it happened. There was no trickery, fudgery or license taken in the telling of this story. Google's blog history and those who have followed it from the beginning can attest to that. When I started, I had no connection whatsoever to Jonathan Harris, other than an interest in his work and a few bizarre synchronicities. Maybe it just re-affirms that the world is indeed small. Or maybe it shows that chance, coincidence and synchronicity are gandhi-like rebels engaged in a huge civil-disobediance protest against our conventional laws of probability.

Although so far I only have one solitary point of data to back this finding, as my friend Anna Branford reminded me, there could be two scientific reactions to the discovery of a flying pig - one could say: "clearly, I need to rethink my understanding of pigs"; or one could say: "this is of no consequence until 100 such pigs can be found".

And that's about as far as I want to push my luck with morals and the laws of probability for the moment. I don't know what any of this has to do with stolen bikes, stolen roses or stolen blessings but we'll have to leave that for another time.

Its sad when a good story has to end, but its important that they do. In one lifetime there are surely only a finite number of stories that can be lived or appreciated by any one person. If this story didn't end, how would we leave room or time for others which are perhaps more important?

If nothing else, Craig Venter has basically rubbed our noses in the fact that stories are the stuff of life. So whether or not you consider yourself good at it, we are all tellers of stories - even if that story is as simple as part of your mother's jumbled up with part your father's plus few adventures of your own thrown in for good measure.

So the up-side of ending this story here is that it leaves room for the telling of the most important story of all: the one that you write.

"Sure, O.K.", I hear you saying, "but what about Cape Canaveral and the last space shuttle launch? You still haven't got to that, have you?"

Great coincidences might be able to twist and bend the laws of probability, but I can't escape the superstition that it would be unwise to push things too far.

Do you feel like going to Florida?

If I can get a visa sorted out, maybe I'll see you there.

18th June

There's one little story I haven't told yet. Its about what was printed in our yearbook at the end of high-school.

At the back of the book, everyone had a photo with a caption underneath predicting what that person might be doing in 10 years time. It was mainly a chance for the editor's to joke and poke fun at people by suggesting things like "Joe Bloggs: Secret agent on her majesty's service" or "Jim Jones: International fashion icon".

In my case, the caption read: "Abducted by Aliens".

I have a terrible fear of predictions, even those ones that are made as jokes. No matter how un-serious they are, somehow they seem to hang around our necks and lurk in dusty hard-to-reach corners of our sub-conscious. Although I have never wished for, or actively sought out to fulfill this abduction prophecy, walking around in Iceland's wilderness makes me think it has never been closer to coming true.

This land is beautifully alien. It feels like walking over the surface of Mars, but with air you can breathe and water that's sweet to drink. The only thing that's missing are the bright lights and the little green men, but maybe that's why there is all this talk about auroras and Huldufólk.

I came Iceland hoping to meet Jonathan Harris. He often talks about aliens and even his past desire to be abducted, a strange coincidence which makes me even more unsettled. But high-school prophecy and foreign landscape fears aside, I think there is another reason why I'm feeling a constantly present tingle of anxiety.

Here I am, travelled to the edge of the known world and seemingly one step away from doing what I set out to do, yet I'm besieged by an endless list of doubts, fears and apprehensions which make my stomach churn.

What if I don't meet him?
What if I do meet him?
What will I say to him?
What will happen afterward?

This last one is the strangest. Having come so far, its as if I'm in mortal fear that the story might actually be coming to end.

But I guess all stories have to end somehow. For my sake, I hope its not going to be an ending as dramatic as this extra-terrestrial Icelandic landscape could so easily support, and yet I also hope its not going to be a ending that's bland and completely devoid of meaning.

So maybe there shouldn't be an ending?

This possibility seems even more nightmarish to contemplate - what if I get to Siglufjörđur and its like a rainbow, whose end keeps moving to be forever just out of reach?

But how dare I speculate about endings when I still have so many more miles to travel and so many choices to make!

Until its time, I guess I'll have to just keep quiet, stay humble and have faith that if-ever and whatever kind of ending tomorrow brings, I can accept it with grace.

16th June

No more wasting time. 
Hoping that things will work out.
All my fingers crossed.

15th June

Waiting for the moon again (which was there, but too shy) I found this* instead. 
*Henry IV remixed by JC/DC

14th June

Landscape #3

13th June

Then suddenly you realise that the moment you're living is just as unique as it is unforgettable. 

12th June


11th June

"The better part of valour is discretion, in the which better part I have saved my life."* 

I could have posted a pretty picture of a cow eating grass in the mountains but it would have said nothing about my own foolishness. 

I wanted a taste of the glory that comes from overcoming one of nature's obstacles, but in the process I turned a magical day into a nightmare. 

Strangely though, even as I returned home physically and mentally defeated, I knew if I had taken any other course of action I would have felt somehow dissatisfied. 

Should one always turn back within the limits of comfort, or is it good to sometimes stretch into less hospitable realms? 

For my own sake, I hope in the future I can learn to better discern exactly how far it is from ease and safety that I'm straying.

*Falstaff justifying the counterfeiting of his own death in Shakespeare's Henry IV Part I

10th June

Up here, people live everyday in the shadows of giants
It's something I imagine I would find very hard to get used to.

9th June

In the atelier of Henri Guérin, where over just a few short hours some kind of magic transformed the unknown into the familiar.*

*Avec des très grands remerciements a toute sa famille.
Lux aeterna luceat eum.

8th June

Outside moving fast, inside moving slowly

7th June

Debate has been raging between Ben, Sarah and I about whether Steve Jobs' latest baby is a step in the right direction for humanity.

Arguments against it tend to revolve around valid questions like "do we really need another electronic gadget?" and "wouldn't we be better off just living simpler lives?". Also worrying are the reports of suicides and horrible working conditions at the Foxconn factory.

While I would agree that those as privileged as myself could certainly do with less of the things we imagine we need, I have a tendancy to defend the iPad. I think an affordable device capable of running Google Earth is perhaps even more justifiable than cheap accessible books.

What's more, the iPad supports blogging, in my opinion an essential ingredient in any evolution of democracy.

If Nike agreed to give every one of their sweatshop workers a pair of the sneakers they were making, it might not change the world. If however Steve Jobs agreed to give every Foxconn assembly line worker an iPad (and an unfettered internet connection), just imagine what might happen.

6th June

Gandhi or Che Guevara?

Passing by on my way to a job, I wondered whom these girls having fun in front of the Opéra Garnier would have preferred. It was clear they were all pretty enamoured with the lucky guy in the middle, whatever his ideals. As I was to discover later however, the happy situation that the smiling tambourine player occupies is just the start of his good fortune.

When the sculpture created by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux was first installed in 1867 there was public outcry and calls for its removal. Fathers refused to take their wives and children to an establishment that seemed to endorse such scandalous imagery. Bizarrely, it was the young girls of the Opera's ballet company who first came to the rescue, organising and signing a petition in the sculpture's defence.

Two years later though, the debate was still raging and the sculpture was badly vandalised when someone threw a pot of black ink over it. Napoleon III was just about to order it removed when the Franco-Prussian War broke out. Paris subsequently fell to the German's who obviously didn't have a huge problem with it. By the time things got back to normal I guess the Parisians had either grown used to it, or forgotten what they were so upset about.

I can't work out whether a tambourine is closer to a rifle or a walking stick, but maybe the moral of the story is that when it comes to survival, chance plays a much more important role than ideals.

5th June

When life moves fast, it's hard to stay focussed.

4th June

The Raft of the Medusa.

I have been fascinated by this painting ever since I discovered it through one of the most interesting Wikipedia pages of all time: Incidents of Cannibalism.

As horrible and terrifying as these stories are, when people are forced into such dire circumstances its as if an incredibly truthful mirror is held up to humanity.

The story of the Medusa follows the classic "survival of the fittest" plot that most of us accept as "nature's way". After the ship was wrecked, the 150 passengers on the unstable raft were left to drift when captain decided to cut the tow ropes. Seeing that they had been abandoned, panic took hold on the raft, fights broke out and the weak were thrown overboard or eaten by the strong. Ten days later when the raft was spotted by a passing boat, only 15 people remained.

It would be frightening to think that this example is humanity's only response to a situation of scarce resources, especially when today's media is so fond of reminding us about how little drinkable water and arable land we have left. But the Medusa is only one story of cannibalism. Luckily, we live in an age where we can easily learn about others like that of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571.

Unlike the story of the Medusa which is trapped in the past, some of UAF Flight 571's survivors (like Robert Canessa) are are still alive today. They are living proof that humanity (and therefore nature) has other ways of responding to scarcity. UAF Flight 571 is testament that "survival of the fittest" is not the only option.

If I could live a thousand lives, one of them would be as a painter. Sarah and Irene have both told me that a canvas on the scale and with the mastery of Gericault's would be a massively time-consuming and expensive undertaking, but it wouldn't matter: I would have my whole life to paint the UAF Flight 571 with enough beauty to have it hang in the Louvre right beside Le Radeau de la Méduse.

You never know when life might cut you adrift. If it were to happen to me, I would feel much more at ease if my crew-mates had seen both paintings.

3rd June

Of course after what I wrote yesterday, images of Che haunted me all day long.

After I took this photo I decided to explain to Laurence (the bouquiniste who's store it was) why I felt it necessary to defy Che's blatant request.

She was happy that I took the time to justify my disobedience and told me I could keep the photo. In my haste not to overstay my welcome, I almost forgot to ask her the most important question. Running back to where she was basking in the timid parisian sun, I asked her from between the two, which one she preferred.

"I'm for Gandhi without a doubt," she replied firmly, and then added with a sigh "but my husband is crazy for Che Guevara".

While Mr. Guevara continued to reprimand me with menacing looks from every postcard stand and bookshop, Bapu G was nowhere to be seen.

I guess he had better things to be doing.

2nd June

Gandhi's Girlfriend.

When I asked Sarah "Who do you prefer: Gandhi or Che Guevara?", she laughed and reached into her bag to show me the background image she had recently put on her phone. Christiana and Nathalie, to whom I had asked the question previously had also given this same answer.

Although it would be hasty to draw conclusions with such a small sample size, I was a quite surprised.  These women's unanimous preference for the morals and actions of "a man of peace" goes against the impressions I get from our modern media. If Gandhi is what women want, why is he not painted as the epitome of the modern sex symbol. Why do beautiful women continue to co-star alongside gun toting and death dealing Brad Pitt's and Robert Downey Jr.'s (the latter for example being the clear preference of my 17 year old niece).

I tried to explain to Christiana that (speaking from my own point of view) the actions of men are in a large part motivated by the impression we think women will have of us. I suggested that she should somehow try to use her significant influence to change the way men bahave. She shook her head sadly and told me she didn't believe that you can change somebody's opinion. I was crushed.

If it is impossible to change someone's opinion, what hope do we have for a future that's any different to our past?

1st June

Jean-Yves is my favourite teacher at school.

Even when I ask him difficult questions like "how do I avoid becoming more of an intellectual and less of a musician?", he has a response.

"To get out of your head", he told me, "you have to play what you feel in your gut." However he cautioned: "the only way you can do this convincingly is if you are playing the kind of music that your heart wants to hear."

31st May

Collybia dryophila look pretty but are dangerous to eat.*

If only books could be like mushrooms: being able to judge them by their covers might save us a lot of time and heartache.

*According to Veronique and Mathieu

30th May

"The amazing thing is when you wake up and you're still dreaming."* 

29th May

"Dans une anarchie parfaite"* 
(Castanea sativa - inside and out)
*Remerciements à Roland

28th May

Although I wouldn't like to have been stung, it felt good to be sharing.

27th May

Lapis lazuli,  cinnabarmalachite, and orpiment: four naturally occurring minerals transported from the four corners of the globe.

Jean-Michel crushes portions of these and combines them with binding agents to create pigments of different colours. He uses these pigments to create his own paintings and to restore ancient tibetan thangkas.

He told me about the Chinese philosophy of calligraphy - the process of dipping the pinceau into the black void of ink and then creating order out of this chaos with a brush-stroke.

Last week Craig Venter announced that he had succeeded in his attempt to create synthetic life. From the perspective of a computer engineer, I find it difficult to communicate the significance of this event.

Venter dipped his robotic brush into an unordered chaos of four 'elements' (adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine) and then wrote a bio-chemical poem that lives and reproduces in the same way that we do.

Admittedly I don't watch much television or read many newspapers, but why did I only stumble upon this announcement by chance?  Why were there so many empty seats at the press conference?

I guess we can't be bothered to rethink philosophy when we have such shiny new toys to play with.

26th May

After discussing politics for some time with Michel Godin des Mers, I asked if I could take his photo.

"Well, you're on a bike" he said.

Thinking I had missed something in the translation, I asked again if it would be OK.

"What are you still asking permission for?" he replied, sounding a bit annoyed.

"Permission?", he continued, "You must understand that learning to be a good photographer is like learning to be good thief."

"Oh" I said, thinking I might be starting to understand.

25th May

Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel seems small and far away. 

24th May

Reading and washing dishes is about all I seem to have time for these days, but which activity is more worthwhile?

Competing for my attention between a sink full dirty of pots and pans are a bevy of interesting authors, one of which happens to have another curious name: Riane Eisler.

I am enjoying reading her book The Real Wealth of Nations possibly because it appears to be a serious, credible and well researched version of my own essay about love. My Aunt (who gave me the book) will be happy to know that as early as the second chapter, Eisler puts her finger on possibly the hottest issue concerning every household, that is: "who did the dishes last?"

Skeptics beware, this seemingly unimportant arguing point of domestic politics has the potential to change the world. Following Eisler's tip, I was able to find proof that even the United Nations, the IMF and the World Bank consider dish-washing to be an important global consideration.

Admittedly, buried on page 542 of the enormous document describing the UN's System of National Accounts, issues of household harmony still have a lot of progress to make before they are considered to be as important as a nation's Gross Domestic Product. However the few paragraphs on the subject do contain some real gems like the following:

"The question of valuing household services produced for own consumption is interesting in its own right.... The basic question in valuing the time spent on household services is whether to use the opportunity cost of the person performing the task or a comparator cost. Both of these present difficulties. The opportunity cost seems appealing because application of economic theory suggests that somebody capable of earning more money than the comparator would indeed earn the extra money and pay somebody else to undertake the household tasks. But this is clearly not what happens in practice."

Clearly. From a mathematical and monetary perspective, it doesn't seem to make sense: Why not find a cheap nanny (or a robot) to raise your children while you spend your time more "valuably" earning more money than the person (or nation) next to you? I sincerely hope that any would-be economist can see how this one little statement puts their work, and the game of making more money than the next person (or nation) clearly into perspective. If they are still having trouble understanding this, might I suggest they ask their mother to explain it to them.

Which is more worthwhile? I would love to write more on the subject, but the increasing trail of ants leading toward my sink is telling me that my time might be better spent elsewhere right now.

23rd May

An unlikely trinity: Gary Vaynerchuk, Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche and Rick Ross.

You might not think these three guys have too much in common, but following events over the last few days, I'm having trouble telling them apart.

It all started a few months back when I discovered that the TED conference for 2010 had already happened. Hoping to be able to discover the next Jonathan Harris before hearing about it from somebody else, I decided to look at their site. It didn't seem like the 2010 talks were posted yet, but there was a title that took my fancy - a talk by Gary Vaynerchuk (another difficult to pronounce name that frankly would have been easier to just ignore). Out of curiosity, I clicked on the link but found I was only able to watch about 5 minutes of the talk. While entertaining as a hyperbolic example of over-the-top American motivational speaking (so unforgettably caricatured in the opening scenes of Little Miss Sunshine), after just a short time his hyperactive delivery began to grate on my nerves and I had to switch off.

In the days that followed however, I found that I couldn't switch off. Something that Gary had said kept coming back into my head: "Stop crying and just keep hustling. 'Hustle' is the most important word... ever!" This would usually be followed by a mental rendition of the opening bars of Rick Ross' 2007 summer hit "Everyday I'm Hustling". Rick Ross?! What does he have to do with any of this apart from writing a catchy song? Granted, the particular hustling that Rick raps about seems to involve moving large amounts of cocaine across international borders but nonetheless I seemed to be able to relate with the "hustling" I was doing in my own life. It made me think just how universally human the activity of "hustling" is. It doesn't seem to matter if you are a farmer growing food for your family to eat, a Siberian Yupik melting ice for drinking water or a high flying wall street stock broker, it seems everyone can share and exchange tales of hustling.

Life went on with Gary's words and Rick Ross' song becoming a quiet accompaniment to most things I did. Then just a few days ago, an unexpected event brought these themes back to the fore of my attention. P.A.'s mother encouraged us to attend a lecture by another guy who's name I couldn't pronounce, remember or spell. Apparently he was the 19 year old re-incarnation of a very enlightened tibetan buddhist teacher. Again, I went along out of curiosity and for the opportunity to ogle a real-life golden-child or "chosen-one". The lecture was amusing and accessible at first. Kalu Rinpoche (as I later learnt how to spell) still spoke like any teenager, often mumbling and using the work "like" a lot. His rambling monologue was inspiring in that it made you think "well if that's what it takes to be an enlightened chosen-one, surely anyone could have a crack". But suddenly a lot of what he was talking about started to sound familiar. He began to express a contradiction which I've always had trouble with. He said "Don't envy me. Don't wish that you were in my place, being loved and adulated by all these people, because its very hard work. At times I wish there were 5 chosen-ones so that we could share the work and I would have a least a little time to practice meditation!" To me it sounded bizarre, he had been telling us for over an hour already how one can be happy, how all one has to do is practice the "dharma", and yet here he was admitting that he was unhappy and overworked. This paradox grated on me until I recalled that Gary Veynerchuk had something very similar.

Thinking I might have been on to something, after Kalu Rinpoche had finally finished talking I raced home and watched Gary Veynerchuk again - this time right through until the end. It seemed incredible, one was talking about karma and the other was talking about business and money, and yet the talks were virtually identical. Both stressed that one shouldn't envy them, that one should care and show compassion for people and perhaps most importantly both stressed the importance of hustling (in Kalu Rinpoche's words "hustling everyday" was about the personal struggle to "practice dharma").

So what is the moral of the story? That between a buddhist, a business man and a star of gangster rap one can find enlightenment? I don't know, but maybe the next time I see a hard-to-pronounce name I should ready myself for the unexpected.

22 May

Radis de Lilas. 

21st May

One of Forty-Four? 

20th May


19th May

Blessed be Civil Disobedience

18th May

I just can't get Aaron Koblin out of my head.
I wonder what Jonathan Harris and Bill Drummond would think?

17th May

Are all books created equal?

My Aunt recently told me about an online bookstore called Better World Books. As their name suggests, they have the admirable goal of creating a better world by supporting literacy programs from the sale of new and used books.

Intrigued, I went straight to their website and, ever the social economist, was fascinated to read about their "triple bottom line" where they state:

"Of course, our greatest contribution of all is finding homes for books. We've even heard horror stories about librarians dumping unwanted tomes down a well at midnight because they couldn't find a good home for them."

The vivid image of that troubled librarian at witching hour got me to thinking. What if the books she (I'd rather imagine a woman, but this is just personal preference) were committing to a dark and watery grave were last seasons' catalogues from IKEA or back issues of an atrocious tabloid rag? Would it really be possible to find a good home for these "books"?
Maybe you would like to imagine the ill-fated tomes were copies of Mein Kampf - would that make what she was doing "less wrong"?

It seems impossible to escape the conclusion that leaving some 10-year-old Wisconsin telephone directories at the bottom of the well might make more sense than trying to find them a good home in a far-flung african village, but the ramifications are terrifying.

From the outside, all books are pretty much the same, just a bunch of pages bound between two covers. How is it possible then, that the mere choice and ordering of these words can make one book seem more worthy of preserving than another?

I wonder which books the librarian did actually throw down the well on that fateful night? In the eerie light of a full moon we might not be able to tell whether she was throwing copies of the Bible or copies of the Qur'an, but should that make a difference?

By the way, if anyone is interested I have a copy of the 2008 Yellow Pages - free to a good home, offer stands until midnight.

16th May

Blondin and Gypsy.
Serving up the best merguez in Sarcelles.

15th May

A promising sign

14th May

In between the horrible business of saying goodbye to things I love, I decided to check up on what was happening over at NASA.

Incredibly, it happened to be just 2 hours before the last ever launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-132).

Pretty-much riveted, I watched the whole of the launch process, from when the astronauts last wave goodbye on the tarmac to when they are flying around the earth at more than 15,000 miles per hour.

In the press conference afterwards, lots of people asked questions about whether this would really be the last mission for Atlantis. "Well, yes", they responded, "but if someone were to ask us to fly again, we could be ready."

I was comforted to realise that its not only me that has trouble saying goodbye.

13th May

La fête du pain.

A couple of years ago someone asked me what I liked most about France. Grappling for a coherent answer amongst all the competing responses I jumped on the first one that seemed reasonable. Hesitantly I replied "Well, there's the bread."

The person's subsequent raucous laughter after this seemingly banal reply made me regret that I didn't come up with something more poetic. But thinking back to it now, I'm not so ashamed.

Admittedly it was at the height of my love affair with the bread from my local baker, Christian Vabret. At that time I was so fond his bageutte de tradition, I even had him autograph a postcard for me. The postcard is now stuck to my wall and each time I read what he wrote ("... un souvenir de Paris et du BON PAIN") I think back to the simple response I made to that difficult question.

Today however I was reminded of that story for another reason. Outside the grand church on another grey day I stumbled upon La Fête du Pain.

All the metiers surrounding bread and baking were on display and the place was full of bustling boulangers who were all busy churning out an incredible array of pastry delights. Not only did I learn about how my beloved baguettes were made, but I discovered the story of the other ingredients essential to the operation of a boulangerie. These read like a list of the other things I most like about France: butter, milk, cheese and sugar.*

I was surprised to learn that this last one (a very personal favourite - all praise the sugarlord!), is actually grown and manufactured in France via the Sugar Beet. Particularly charming was a poster depicting the history of French sugar production. It included a small picture showing a modern satellite guided tractor. I marvelled at the knack the French seem to have for humanising even the most alarming of our technological advances.

As the bakers continued their work, the sun showed no sign of breaking through the thick grey clouds. Although I might not be able to count weather among them, I was happy to realise that there are quite a few other things besides the bread that I most like about France.

12th May

The magic in a name.

Anne-Marie told me the name of this flower as I was admiring it, but with my goldfish-like memory, it was promptly forgotten. Later when I wanted to find out more, without the name, I was lost.

I knew there was a "v" in it somewhere, so I searched for french flowers starting with "v", hoping that a picture or a phrase might jog my memory. Alas, even my most advanced searches (seasonal period, geographic location, etc) proved fruitless.

Anne-Marie had shown me paintings and sketches featuring the flower, so I knew it was popular and well-known. However without a memory of how to call it, all this world of knowledge and stories was blocked from me.

Finally when the hour of day was a bit more respectable I was able to call her and discover the magic word, the open sesame, the key.


Now the door was opened. I typed the special letters (in their correct order) into Google and all my questions were answered. It indeed seemed like magic.

A lot of people have written about the power, magic and mystery related to names and naming things. I'm sure that my cousin Tim once told me that the buddhists have a lot of theories on the subject, but allow me to offer the more banal and perhaps obvious perspective of a computer engineer.

If we imagine the 6 billion linguistically capable brains on the planet form a kind of database (the sum total of human knowledge), a name is what we call a 'key'. That is, a name can be used to access and retrieve relevant information from the collective human database. For example, if in a room full of people I ask the question "Is anyone in here from Paris?", the recognition of the magic name/word "Paris" by somebody might cause them to say "Yes!" (or "Oui!" depending on the person that responds). By then conversing with that person, I might be able to find out, ahead of time, important information crucial to my survival (e.g. "What can one eat there?"). If I had forgotten the magic word, this advantageous knowledge would lost to me.

In recent times, with the invention of writing and other forms of preserving human language, the size of this database has drastically expanded. It not only includes the 6 billion currently living brains, but countless others that have since ceased to function: those of our ancestors. If in their time they bothered to record some of their favourite names, now with the help of machines like dictionaries, libraries and Google we can reveal their magic even after the person is no longer around. This might provide inspiration to some - if you learn a new name whose magic you feel is valuable, now might be the time preserve it, if not for you, then for the generations that might follow.

But who wants to be stuck inside preserving names all day? The Pivoine itself (or more universally Paeonia suffruticosa) doesn't care what we call it, and besides, the magic conjured by its name is only a fraction of what it has to offer. It has many more mysteries waiting to be revealed, but only to those who are out there seeing it, touching it and smelling it.

11th May

Me and Bennelong.

His story is probably the closest we have to a real-life case of alien abduction.

Kidnapped in 1789 by Arthur Phillip, Bennelong was kept in shackles at Government house as part of a plan to 'befriend' the natives. After 5 months Bennelong had so impressed his captors with his integration of the alien language and habits that they decided to remove the chains around his feet. Free to move again, Bennelong immediately escaped back to his land and family.

Governor Phillip was upset by this apparently failed attempt at 'diplomacy' and spent a considerable time searching for his escaped abductee. It was only after Phillip recieved a ritual spear through his collarbone that relations were able resume. Subsequently, Phillip and Bennelong became rather good friends, and in 1792 Bennelong even agreed to sail with Phillip (in his space-ship) back to England.

On the home planet of the aliens, Bennelong initially made quite an impact. He was presented to King George III (take me to your leader!) and even famously kissed the hand of the prime-minister's daughter. However two years later and after the death of his young friend and travelling companion Yemmerrawanyea, Bennelong began to long for his family and homeland.

Sadly, after making the 8-month journey back, Bennelong's return was far from triumphant. Although happy to be lodged in the illustrious quarters of Government House, he found that his former wife had been taken by another tribesman whom subsequently speared him in the back. Stuck in a lonely place between two very different cultures, he took to drinking. His frequent violent outbursts and shouted threats also alienated him from his european compatriots. In an impossible position, he eventually abandoned completely the european way of life and went back to living with his people. The cultural bridge was closed.

Even though circumstances between Bennelong and I are very different I can't help but compare our two stories. Its been six years since I came to France. Unlike Bennelong, I didn't get presented to any kings and unfortunately Mr. Sarkozy doesn't have a daughter. However, just like Bennelong, I'm now longing for home.

But will a similar fate await me on my return to Australia? Like Bennelong, will I learn the hard way that cultural exchanges don't always finish like the fun adventures they start out as being?

Jonathan Harris says "experience is the only way to learn" and he's probably right. I'm going to have to board that ship and find out what happens for myself, but in the meantime, it certainly doesn't hurt to be a little more prepared.

Aliens and abductions aside, to what ever degree our stories are similar, here's thanks to Bennelong and SBS for the heads up.

10th May

A grand church even on a grey day.

9th May

"One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

For John, Anna, Annie and Flavia.

7th May

Le Combat du Centaure by Gustave Crauck (1827 - 1905)

Passing through the courtyard of the town hall on other business, I almost didn't take a photo. It was just another sculpture and believe me, in this town there are thousands them. I guess I was just curious about the girl, and wondered which one - the horse-man or the strangler - ended up taking her home.

My search for an answer turned up much more story than I bargained for.

I imagine carving something similar out of rock is not the easiest thing to do, but I was shocked to first discover that it actually took the Gustave 30 years to get the job done right. It was then amusing to hear the story behind the figure of the strangler: a real-life Prussian strongman called Eugen Sandow.

But what about the girl?

Well, apparently her name is Hippodamia. She comes from the Greek Mythology which from what I gather is an incredibly complex and detailed set of stories involving all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures and events. Think the entire oeuvre of Days of our Lives but with horse-men and demi-gods thrown in.

The trouble depicted in the sculpture takes place at Hippodamia's wedding bash. The horse-men had all been invited to the party, but they weren't used to drinking wine. After one glass too many, Eurytion (the horse-man in the scultpture) jumped up and grabbed Hippodamia in an attempt to beat Pirithous (Hippodamia's lucky man) to the bedroom. Before things got too out of hand, Pirithous' best-mate and prize-fighter Theseus (a.k.a. the strangler) stepped in and put a stop to the commotion. After cutting off his nose and ears for good measure, they sent Eurytion trotting home to sleep it all off.

So neither guy in the sculpture ended up getting the girl. Their wedding photos might have been ruined, but Hippodamia and Pirithous obviously got over it as they went on to have a star of a child whom they named Polypoites.

After snapping the photo of this statue I continued about my business on an otherwise typical grey and slightly cold day in Paris. Before I got home, I probably passed by at least 20 other similar sculptures. It was great to learn that Hippodamia's story ended well, but it makes shiver slightly to think that every other statue in this town might have a similarly incredible tale to tell.

6th May

Riding past their shop window I saw that Moschino had really hit the nail on the head.

The detail of window display was fantastic, right down to the bank-like poster which read "Love is Free.* *Terms and conditions should not apply."

It reminded me of the poem,  The Value of A Smile at Christmas, which I quoted in the 3rd part of that series on Love.

Just between us, the poem wasn't actually sent to me in an email. I'm hesitant to admit it, but I actually discovered it while secretly reading Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. I could tell you a long story explaining why exactly I was reading that, but lets keep it short and just say that I got sucked in by the advertising on the front which claimed it was the most sold book in history.

Anyway, the reason I brought all this up is that one freezing, snow-laden morning about 6 months ago I wound up in the photocopy room of a small university just outside of Paris. Stuck to one of the walls of the poky, machine-filled bureau I noticed what looked to be a word for word french translation of the poem stating that it was written by a Mr. Raoul Follereau. This struck me as odd because I distinctly remember that in Dale Carnegie's book, the poem was credited to anonymous. I made a mental note to investigate this discrepancy, imagining it could be another case like the song Autumn Leaves which I once mistakenly and very embarrassingly asserted was an English song later translated into French. Coming out of the photocopy room and into the freezing air however, I promptly forgot about everything except getting home and turning the heater on.

Today, seeing Moschino's amusing bank-notes and wondering what the "1" printed on them might signify I thought back to The Value of a Smile and finally decided to investigate. I first discovered that some people credit the poem a Mr. Frank Irving Fletcher - a mysterious copywriter who apparently made a lot of money in the 1930's on the premise that "The aim of modern advertising is not to make people think, but to save them the trouble and effort of thinking". Obviously he saved himself a bit of thinking if the French are correct. They claim that the poem was written in 1920 by a 17 year old Raoul Follereau.

If you don't read french, Raoul Follereau is a rather amazing character who apparently dedicated his life to fighting social injustice, misery, fanaticism and the selfishness of the rich and powerful. His first book in which the poem Un Sourire (A Smile) appears was called the Livre d'Amour (yes, published when he was just 17). Even at such an early age Follereau already had very strong opinions on his understanding of the Hidden Economny of Love. Translating from the webpage of his foundation he wrote:

Living is helping others to live.
One must create other happinesses in order for one to be happy.

In a later work (Une bataille pas comme les autres, 1964) he writes:

Civilisation is not numbers or force or money.
Civilisation is the patient, passionate and obstinate desire that on the earth there will be less injustice, less pain and less suffering.
Civilisation is to love one another.

Since the Livre d'Amour is out of print, I can't verify easily whether Un Sourire does actually appear in it, and so can't be sure of whether he, Mr. Fletcher or Mr. Carnegie are right, but I certainly know whom I'd rather believe.

I wonder if the estate of Mr. Follereau are aware that Simon & Schuster are continuing to reprint an uncredited version of his poem in "the most sold book in history"?

And by the way, yes, I did ask at Moschino if they were giving away or selling their their "banknotes". Apparently access to the window display is locked by a key that no one in the shop possesses. Even though I was disappointed that I didn't walk away with a souvenir, I was somewhat comforted by the fact that even in the most chic of Paris boutiques, Love isn't for sale.

5th May

Saying goodbye to Paris was never going to be easy.

4th May

Home sweet home.
(But not for much longer).