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If you’ve been there you’ll know this, and if you’re not there yet you’ll likely find out – the strange and revealing compulsion which besets you once you become a parent to evaluate how your little prince or princess is fairing in comparison to his or her peers.

The early equivalent to “my son has just graduated from Harvard med” vs. “my daughter flunked a horticulture alternative therapy course at Yuma technical college”, parents’ psychological obligation (and I’m not excluding myself) to compare their little one to the other kids in an age group can be disturbing, amusing or just slightly bizarre if you think about it at length.

What starts “innocuously” enough with sentences like: “did you hear that the  Lowenstein’s daughter already poops solids at 8 weeks” (or in even more extreme cases “…doesn’t excrete miconium at 2 days”) rapidly becomes an overdone semi-obsessive noting of anything that your child may be “behind” on, whether it’s crawling, eating with utensils, teething etc., accompanied with the overanxious fretting whether this indicates any developmental lag or “should we think of getting help”.

Too much of this and you may find yourself at the pediatrician asking whether “it’s a serious developmental lag” that your child doesn’t yet wash his or her hands alone while the neighbors’ has done it when he/she was 13 months(!). Time to take a step back and relax.

Been there? Have similar experiences? Do share…

And now for something completely different – a “top list”, and one that I shall enjoy putting out there: my top 25 songs of all time! (quiver like you care, people – I’m doing this for me as much as for educating the world on what good musical taste is…). Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a music fanatic, and I’ve never actually sorted out what are my absolute faves. So here goes…

I did this not off the top of my head, but rather by scouring my iTunes music list systematically – though some would say the first method would have been a better reflection of what I really think rather than a rationalized consideration. Well, I’d rather do it scientifically 🙂

  1. Dire Straits – Sultans of Swing
  2. Is it Mark Knoplfer’s solid guitar? That warm bass sound? The understated overall theme? All of the above? I don’t know, but after all the ifs and buts this emerged top of the pile. Not avant-garde, not fancy, not awe inspiring, but just good, solid rock. Perhaps it’s me getting older that has softened my taste, perhaps not.

    Funnily enough, this a song I really didn’t like all that much when I first heard it all those years ago. Used to think it really lacks a chorus (duh). However, with time it has become such a staple in my playlist, that it easily tops my “most played” songs. Even more impressive is that it just does not get old or worn out (see “Stairway”, below).

  3. Beatles – Strawberry Fields Forever
  4. How the heck does one choose the best Beatles’ song? Very difficult. Thinking it over, Strawberry Fields shows them at their best: both a great song, including many experimental and innovative elements, and the wonderful execution which rides through all their work.  Makes me feel a bit sad for not having been around when stuff like this was released.

  5. Radiohead – Exit Music (For A Film)
  6. Even without having watched the movie for which this was written (“William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” from 1996), this song just bursts with emotion, anger, tension and resentment, bubbling throughout the soft first verses and escalating until erupting wonderfully…all of these make for one amazing song. Gives me shivers every time.

  7. Neil Young – Cortez the Killer (Live/ Weld)
  8. To borrow an appropriate adjective from Almost Famous: Incendiary. Raw, powerful, unpolished sound, highlighting a great song.

  9. Nirvana – Smells like Teen Spirit
  10. I really don’t need to add much for anyone who was musically aware to any degree in the 90’s…a true modern classic. Loud. Full of angst. Uniquely powerful. Makes you want to break something and feel good about it.

  11. Leonard Cohen – Famous Blue Raincoat
  12. While there are many LC songs I like, this one I find particularly captivating: a perfect combination of sadness, love, betrayal. It gives me a feeling of a cold, rainy New York day, despite the fact that I’ve never lived there. It’s like watching a dark, bittersweet romantic movie – in 5 minutes and 13 seconds. The fact that this is not one of his “bigger” songs (e.g. Suzanne, Dance me to the end of love etc.) only makes it more special.

  13. Gerry & the Pacemakers – You’ll Never Walk Alone
  14. Not much to say – no serious Liverpool fan can leave this one out of his top 10. So many memories, so much emotion. 25/05/2005 😛

  15. Pink Floyd – Shine On You Crazy Diamond
  16. Now there are a few following songs which sit tightly on the line between absolutely awesome all-time classics and overdone, over-quoted, over-yapped-about clichés.  This is one of them. It is PF at it’s best – an atmospheric, melodic, huge piece (in two parts!) featuring a great topic (what could be better than a tribute to your lead singer who’s gone mad?) and fantastic guitar and keyboard sections. The word “classic” was penned for this type of song, and for the one following it.

  17. Led Zeppelin – Stairway to Heaven
  18. Writing many words would be in vain here – those who think it’s a classic despite everything will agree; those who think it’s the most horrible music cliché will not. Despite not being able to listen to this song very frequently due to extreme overuse during my teens and 20’s, every time it still comes on it’s still an amazing piece of rock music. There are many LZ songs which I love, but amazingly, despite everything that’s been thrown at it this one still rules.

  19. Muse – New Born
  20. In many ways the new possessor of what PF and LZ had, Muse is bombastic, loud, angst-ridden enough to make you feel unpleasant and just rocks like shit.  This is a song in which everything just works, bringing together a lot of what makes this band so big.

  21. Doors – The End: another classic favourite, not least because it features in Apocalypse Now which I love. Psychedelic, totally stoned and out-there, but ambient, atmospheric and dark – dragging you into the trip these guys had when writing this (not a good one I imagine).The Doors at their most profound and complete ability.
  22. Janis Joplin – Me and Bobby McGee: recorded by Janis Joplin a few days before her death, and her only #1 single, this is a simple and wonderful piece of blues/rock music.
  23. Jimi Hendrix – All along the watchtower: an iconic piece of the one of the original guitar hero’s musical legacy. A contributing factor is this song’s unforgettable appearance in one of my favourite movies (it all ties together, you see…), Withnail and I.
  24. Metallica – Dyers Eve: Metallica at their peak, before the went all pop and soggy. Raw, powerful, totally angst-filled feeling and lyrics, exactly as it should be.
  25. Radiohead – There There (The Boney King Of Nowhere): Radiohead at one of the closest songs to being a bona-fide chart hit. Not overly complicated, but superbly executed, rhythmic, and wonderfully catchy.
  26. Bob Marley – Punky Reggae Party: beyond all the rasta and weed jive, which is what people in the west so often identify with Jamaican music, Marley was a tremendous musician. Once one peels away the scent of MJ and the superficial one-love-let’s-get-together-and-feel-alright singles, one can discover a body of work which rivals any American or British musician of recent decades in its quality, inventiveness, and great musicianship. And the lesser known songs are where the real gems lie, not in the “greatest hits’ catalog.
  27. Leonard Cohen – Le Chant des Partisans: a song which I liked so much it made me want to learn French. And now I actually am, funnily enough – and can understand the lyrics. Yay.
  28. Jethro Tull – Heavy Horses: ah, JT and prog rock, music of my youth. This is one of those songs that flies me straight back to high school, and is one of the best which came from the veteran British group. A combination of strong folk elements, an earthy, “nature” theme and lyrics, and violins and electric guitar. Folk/rock at its best, though some may argue whether this category is apt for JT.
  29. Sting – Englishman in NY: Nothing Like the Sun is my favourite Sting album – he was really at his creative and musical peak IMO, and the musical style he showed was (and still, amazingly, is) so fresh – and EINY, while a bit poppy, is a wonderful song. Light, atmospheric, imbued with jazz influences, it really ties well with the lyrics and message. The no. 2 song in here was the title track, which is equally wonderful but with a much darker feel – not much between these two.
  30. Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody: another one of the mega-classics, not much needs to be added about this song, which is quintessential Queen – melodic, powerful, bombastic at times and understated at others, and features Freddy Mercury’s singing and Brian May’s guitar – what else can you ask for. Above all – it rocks! 🙂
  31. Rolling stones – Satisfaction: and yet another classic, this time a very early one. Beyond the historical significance this song has (came at #2 on Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest songs list), the vibrancy, the youthful exuberant and down-with-the-old attitude emanating from the lyrics, and of course the unforgettable guitar riff make this a song not to be left out from any rock lover’s list.
  32. Chuck Berry – Johnny B. Goode: a classic among rock’n’roll classics, one of the first great rock hits – while this is very evident in the lyrics and music, it just goes to prove what an immense talent Check Berry had.
  33. Simon and Garfunkel – America: many are the more popular and successful Simon and Garfunkel songs, and many of these defined the 60’s generation. This one I like more because it’s not one of the more played, more profound-in-meaning or more pompous. It’s low key, but the topic of searching for America together with S&G’s trademark melodic harmony, full of youth and naivety, makes for a wonderful song.
  34. Louis Armstrong – What a Wonderful World: another oldie, but one so warm, soft and mushy than in the right circumstances you just cannot avoid going all *whimper* and soft at the knees. On a particularly cynical or nasty day I may view it as horribly kitsch, but those are far and few between…
  35. David Bowie – Space Oddity: Bowie is a strange one with me, I really think the songs are great, and this one is monumental, but they somehow don’t speak that much to me personally. Still, a place on the list is well deserved. I’m sure Bowie will be appreciative 🙂

Also rans – those who didn’t make it but are still worth mentioning:

  • Beatles – Yesterday;  In My Life
  • Led Zeppelin – Moby Dick
  • Beach Boys – Good Vibrations
  • Beastie Boys – Sabotage
  • Billy Joel – NY state of mind
  • Bob Dylan – Hurricane
  • Boston – More Than a Feeling
  • Springsteen – The River
  • Coldplay – Clocks
  • Creedence Clearwater Revival – Bad Moon Rising
  • Deep Purple – Smoke on the water
  • Dire Straits – Telegraph Road
  • Eagles – Hotel California
  • Frank Sinatra – My Way
  • John Lee Hooker – The Healer
  • John Lennon – Imagine
  • Johnny Cash – Ghost Riders in the Sky
  • Kansas – Dust in the Wind
  • Little Peggy March – I will Follow Him
  • Paul Simon – Hearts and Bones
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7NoOhmVMac

1 year birthday

It’s been a year since Romi was born. Amazing how quickly, and at the same time how slowly, this year went by…

So what have we had over the last 12 months?

A very steep learning curve.

Months of sleep deprivation and chronic tiredness.

Diapers, poo and all that.

Much less free time. So much added responsibility.


…and on the other hand…

Watching her grow from a 3 kilo, totally helpless baby into a toddler who can almost walk on her own.

Real enjoyment of seeing a personality form: great curiosity, humor, sadness, joy and grumpiness.

The wonderful, unfiltered and completely honest smile that greets you when she sees you first in the morning or after picking her up from the nanny.

The wonderful laugh. Sometimes spontaneous, even better when you bring it about.

Peaceful, beautiful moments of closeness when she rests her head on your chest and gently falls asleep.

Watching her charm the pants off people with a single smile.

The great interaction with family, friends and even strangers….


…what’s the balance?

In the early months it was pretty torturous, and I have many friends who are now becoming parents for the first time from whom I hear the same sounds of suffering we made when suddenly arriving in baby-land. However, the emergence of a wonderful, adventurous little person from the cocoon of the baby (and, of course, a steadily improving sleep cycle) has turned it to a great experience. Not an easy one, not a comfortable one, but still one that I wouldn’t miss if I went back 21 months ago.

The two capitals of European politics. Two prominent cities where decisions are taken that influence life across the continent. Two governmental hubs between which a small army of politicians and bureaucrats shift to and fro (almost) continuously.

However, one is the capital of a (somewhat divided) nation, the other only the 6th largest French town, with just under a quarter of the population of its larger sister EU capital.

brussels grand placeWe spent over two years in Brussels, and have been in Strasbourg for nearly 6 months now. If I can say anything, it’s that these two places are very different. And it’s not just the French vs. the Belgians. It’s also the weather. The different size of these two cities. The region. The lifestyle. All make for two cities which are supposedly at the center of what is “European” but are completely different when experienced in-depth.strasbourg cathedral

Starting with the people: while French is the predominant spoken language in both cities, the cosmopolitan feel is much greater in Brussels due to the large international community living there (EU, NATO, Multinational corporations). Many more people speak English (also due to the Flemish population, the majority of which learn the language at school and watch un-dubbed television), and seem more tolerant to non-French speakers. In France, as it is well known, if you do not parler Francais you’re in trouble.

A related issue is the work ethic. While I’ve heard many complaints from friends in Belgium regarding the lethargy of the administrative system in that country, the French system is on a whole other level. The combination of a self-nurturing bureaucracy and and a mass of ridiculously inefficient, professionally stagnant and indifferent clerks leads to a woeful experience for everyone trying to get any administrative service. Not that getting a carte de sejour in Brussels was a bed of roses, but here they’ve made red tape an art form. Each clerk is responsible for filling in a line in the form, there’s a separatfrance-strasbourg-30e clerk for moving the form from one clerk to the other, and if one of them is missing then nothing gets done. Work hours amount to a staggering 3-4 per day, when lunch and breaks are taken into account.  All in all, there’s beauty in the the way this has been perfected, administrative inefficiency as a successful meme. “The horror, the horror” indeed.

Personally, the lack of substantial industry in the area (the main sources of employment here seem to be tourism, the university, and of course the EU institutions) is a drawback which means I have to work in Belgium – yes, drive there every week.

However, there are two factors that more than make up for these drawbacks : the weather, which is miles better than that in Belgium (warmer, much more sunshine and less rainy days), and the region in which the town is located, which is just stunning. Situated on the Rhine, between the Vosges mountains to the west, nestled by picturesque wine-growing villages, and the black forest in Germany to the east (cuckoo clocks and all), I can hardly think of a more varied, beautiful or pastoral region to live in. Atomium

Moreover, Strasbourg being a small city has definite perks – such as the wonderful rarity of traffic jams, the peace and quiet (I really don’t miss the incessant sirens going up and down avenue Louise), and the ease by which we can pop across the Rhine and visit another country…

Finally, the city itself is beautiful and charming. Anyone who has had a chance to wander around the Grand Ile will testify to this. The old town of Brussels has nothing on this place, it’s really a joy.

So, the verdict then: Strasbourg wins on points. Despite the sometime annoying tendencies of the locals, despite the horrendous bureaucracy, it’s a great place to live.

European Parliament Strasbourg



“It’s a funny thing about comin’ home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You’ll realize what’s changed is you.” – The curious case of Benjamin Button

home-sweet-home

I’ve just come back from a couple of weeks vacation back home.  Going back, having not been for over a year, brought a similar feeling to mind as the one described above, a feeling which I’ve encountered previously when visiting (albeit to lesser degrees).  I’ve spent four years in the UK and it’s been over two on this stay in Europe, and thus this is not new…perhaps going back with my baby daughter has made things more pronounced.

I feel that the quote above does not represent well the feelings I experience at home: as another well-known movie mentioned, it’s the little, subtle, differences.  The majority of things always remain the same, but some small changes occur – to the house, to the area, but most of all, to the people.

People grow. People change. People age. That is the nature of things. And as time goes on and these changes accumulate, there will come a visit when I will catch myself asking “what happened to the home I knew?”

That is not to say that visiting, seeing family and friends, is less enjoyable. This remains wonderful, especially watching the interaction the little one has with everyone.  But sooner or later you’re left wondering what happened, where did the place I left behind those years ago disappear? Of course, had we been there the same changes would occur – with the permanent presence diluting their visibility.

So, what’s the point? I guess there is none. Just observing that life goes on, whether you’re there to observe it happening or not…