Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Why I Will Never (Again) Own a BlackBerry

Now there’s an unusual post, considering the fact that over the last three years I have been writing about travel, Mark Knopfler concerts and general musings, often to readers’ dismay.

I purchased my first (and only) BlackBerry back in March 2009. That was about 3 years too late—I had always wanted to be email-available from the road, partly due to my occupation. So, on March 2009, I finally kissed my old 2G phone goodbye and decided to promote myself to a BlackBerry Bold 9000, switching carriers along the way (from Telus to Rogers, as I prefer GSM technology over CDMA/TDMA, mostly due to the ability to switch SIM cards when I travel).

I remember I was thrilled with my new purchase. Being able to communicate with the world while not sitting in front of my laptop… that was a new thing. With time, I came to realize that owning a smartphone is, essentially, owning an ad-hoc brain extension. Whatever information you wanted to have, at any point of time—you could have by virtue of hitting a few keys on the BlackBerry’s keyboard.

Also, I used to live in Waterloo, Ontario for about 8 years. Coincidentally, that is where Research in Motion—BlackBerry’s maker—is headquartered. In fact, RIM is one of Waterloo’s biggest employers: they own huge real estate in the city of Waterloo, hiring countless students on co-op terms (thereby contributing to Waterloo’s economy while reducing their products’ quality. What can you do. You always get what you pay for, and when you pay $11/hour for a student to resolve bugs in your operating system, you’re bound to fail) and carry the reputation of a great company to work for.

Two years and a half later, though, I am sitting in front of my computer, my BlackBerry lays down upon the desk looking as useless as it can be, and writing a blog post about why I am unlikely to ever own a BlackBerry again. Might be surprising to some, as I have been an avid BlackBerry user & advocate since the day I purchased one.

But the time comes when you just can’t take it any more, and the time has come. I thought maybe I should write something up, as food for thought for whoever is considering (or will be considering) buying a BlackBerry. Some lessons I had learned and disappointments I had experienced.

The Operating System

The first problem I have with BlackBerry is the company’s (RIM’s) policy and tradition of keeping their operating system (“BlackBerry OS”) up to date and bug-free. The BlackBerry OS is certainly not bug-free, and I certainly am not expecting it to be bug-free; but it just seems to me that the company doesn’t do enough in order to make its operating system stable.

Due to strange agreements between BlackBerry and mobile carriers—an agreement that end-users end up suffering from the most—the process of introducing fixes to the operating system is very complex, resulting in updates being available on an annual, or semi-annual basis at most. Each operating system version fixes a few issues and introduces new ones.

One of the issues that made me decide to get rid of my BlackBerry is a strange memory leak that started manifesting itself after I upgraded my operating system about one year ago. I have to reboot my phone once a day in order to keep it alive, and that is regardless of the number of applications I have installed on it. The operating system simply fails to clean after itself, resulting in the handset becoming unresponsive as the day goes by until you have to reboot it, or it reboots itself.

Now, who do you turn to when you have a problem like that? nobody. There really is no convenient way to report a problem and have it fixed. Call RIM? forget it. Prepare yourself for a long and expensive process of troubleshooting. Ask people online? sure, that’s free… as long as your time is worth nothing.

People seem to be reporting similar issues in online forums, but really nothing is being done to resolve operating system glitches. The only “solution” for one’s misery is to upgrade their phone, as new phones support newer operating systems. Well, that’s a very clever way for RIM to make money, I suppose.

BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS)

For a BlackBerry device to connect to the Internet—be it for email retrieval or web surfing—all communications must go through special servers. In layman’s terms: between your device and the universe of the Internet, there exists a “middleman”. Every data packet that leaves your BlackBerry, has to go through BlackBerry’s servers (hence, the “middleman”) before reaching its destination, and the same holds for the response you get from that destination.

One of the benefits of this “middleman” (at least that’s how RIM is marketing itself) is that the group of servers compresses data on-the-fly, thereby reducing the amount of data that is being transferred over the air. That’s why, with a BlackBerry, you can do much more with 1 megabyte of data than what you can do with another device (such as an iPhone).

That used to be a very important selling point. Data transport used to be very expensive a few years ago, but not anymore. Today, for example with Rogers, you can’t possibly get a data package that includes less than 500MB of data, and it costs pennies to get more data allotment.

So now that data is relatively cheap, other factors come into play that demonstrate that requiring that “middleman” is a huge pain the butt.


For a period of a few days in October 2011, BlackBerry users worldwide were left in the dark following a technical problem with RIM’s central servers. Apparently RIM wasn’t (and perhaps still isn’t) very serious about its infrastructure backup strategies, so a glitch in one data center made most BlackBerries in the world become as useful as bricks.

RIM’s response, as a company, was extremely disappointing. For days, it didn’t communicate about the problem at all, leaving users further in the dark with respect to what’s going on. When it was all over, they decided to reward people with $100 credit towards purchasing BlackBerry applications—an outrageous form of compensation, given the fact that BlackBerry’s applications are too expensive to begin with, plus they’re worth of shit.

It simply doesn’t make sense to have a “middleman” for data transport when it provides very little benefit while subjecting you to severe outage risks.


Here comes the really big pain, which is, for the most part, responsible for my decision to leave the BlackBerry world once and for all.

In order to connect to the Internet, BlackBerry users must have access to BIS servers (those “middlemen” I had mentioned above). Right now, they get BIS access through their mobile providers—for example, I get mine through Rogers.

Now lets say that you own a BlackBerry device and you need to get roaming. You get on an airplane, and nine hours later arrive at The Netherlands. You turn on your BlackBerry.

From there on, you are no longer on your local network (Rogers in my case). You are a guest on a different network (in The Netherlands, for example, KPN, Vodafone and T-Mobile are very popular).

Thereafter—regardless of the phone you use, not just a BlackBerry—you are subject to roaming rates on everything you do with your phone. The rates you’re paying are predetermined by your mobile carrier at home and are divided between voice rates (calls you make), text rates (for SMS messages you send and/or receive) and data rates (per kilobyte of data being sent by your phone and received by it). You can purchase all sorts of “roaming packages” from your mobile carrier at home, to sweeten the pill; but still we’re talking about a lot of money.

For example, consider Rogers in Canada. If you don’t get any data roaming package, you will pay 3 cents per kilobyte of data usage. That’s $30 per megabyte. My monthly usage is about 80 MB; that amounts to about $2,400 a month. With data roaming packages, prices drop by as much as 80%, so the $2,400 can be lowered to $480. This still is a lot of money.

So now comes the fun part. The savvy traveller might say—heck, I’m in Europe; I’ll just go ahead and buy a local SIM card, put it in my BlackBerry, top it up (using a pre-paid payment scheme) and there I go, surfing the net in local rates.

And therein lies the problem. The vast majority of mobile carriers internationally, while being very happy to provide you with a SIM card that has data functionality on it, will be unable to provide you with access to their BIS servers (the “middlemen”), unless you sign a contract with them. Why? because the mobile carrier’s BIS servers cost them money and they can’t come up with a pre-paid pricing model that will make it effective for them.

The only company I found that will provide you with BIS access on a pre-paid basis is Orange in the UK. That, however, is only useful if you travel in the UK. Anywhere else, you’re screwed.

If, instead of a BlackBerry, you get a smartphone that doesn’t require a “middleman”, then you’re home free. You save hundreds of dollars on roaming fees, and are welcome to surf the net through your phone in local rates.

So, apparently this issue has been bothering people for ages. RIM listened, and a few years ago they came up with a plan to resolve the issue. Instead of subscribers having to be hosted on mobile carriers’ BIS servers, the subscribers will be able to get BIS services directly from RIM. In such a scheme, you don’t need any favour from the foreign mobile carrier in order to get onto their BIS servers; all you need is data connectivity, and your pre-existing account with RIM will ensure you get BIS access everywhere.

Sounds fantastic… however RIM, to this day, hasn’t done ANYTHING about it. That goes in line with RIM’s ongoing policy of completely ignoring their customers’ needs.

RIM started as a company that caters to businesses; the first BlackBerries were used in the corporate market, and only after iPhone started wreaking havoc in the consumer market, RIM decided to show some presence outside the corporate world. They have failed, and they are still failing—not only because of being technologically behind (which they certainly are. Compare the latest iPhone and the latest BlackBerry), but mostly because RIM hasn’t fully adopted the “consumer” thinking yet.


BlackBerry App world.

An operating system providing the facilities to create mediocre applications at most. And the next generation (QNX) may only shine due to its ability to run Android applications… using an emulator.

Need I say more?

Goodbye RIM. It’s been nice… to an extent. I’m moving to Android.


Friday, October 21, 2011

Concert Day (Last One, for Me): Ahoy, Rotterdam, The Netherlands (October 21, 2011)

It does feel a little strange waking up for the last concert for me in a Mark Knopfler tour, which isn’t the last one for Mark & the band as well. It’s been quite a while since this band performed without me in the audience.

Right from the get-go, it was a hard decision for me to make. There were a few factors involved in the decision; and to those of you who still consider “money” to be the primary barrier to cross, let me assure you that “money” wasn’t a factor. I’ll just say that, attending this entire, relatively short 33-concerts tour would force me to make sacrifices that I am not in the position to make as it might have adverse impact on many things down the road.

Rotterdam isn’t too far from Delft—about 15 minutes by train. The concert was scheduled to start at 7:30pm. Knowing in advance that that would be the last concert for me in the tour, I opted (along with Jeroen) at a general admission ticket so we knew we should be there early.

Nobody was into the idea of working too hard, then. Left shortly past noon to a local restaurant in Delft, figuring that lunch is going to be the last main meal for the day. A local festival was taking place in Delft’s city centre.


This cart you see above is quite the Dutch feat. It’s called “Draaiorgel”—basically, a street organ which traditionally is being powered by turning a wheel, but nowadays is mostly electronic.

Draaiorgel in Delft, The Netherlands.

Don’t ask me why—that I don’t know myself; perhaps a psychologist could tell—but when I travel, I exhibit a slightly different personality than when I am at home. One big difference is, that when I travel, I tend to strike conversations with strangers much, much for frequently. When I travel, much of the shyness is left somewhere in Canada’s airports for me to pick up when I come back. For some reason, when I travel I feel more liberated than when I am at home—very strange especially considering the fact that I live in Vancouver, which certainly is of the more “liberated” (spirit-wise) cities I ever had the pleasure to step in.

When you strike up conversations with strangers in foreign countries, you can learn a lot about people and cultures. It’s amazing how much you can learn about a place just by listening to people talking and paying close attention to the most miniscule body language.

And what I found out in The Netherlands is something rather strange. It happened, many times before, when I would approach someone, start talking and very shortly after you realize how other people, even not being any part of the ongoing conversation, begin listening. Not just listening, but evidently talking with others about the very fact that you went up to someone and struck a conversation.

You then turn and look at these other people; sometimes they look back at you and smile, sometimes they look away as if being ashamed of something.

Later, when conversation somehow fades away, other people around approach you and start talking to you. It’s just as if you have unlocked some door that people were “secretly” waiting to be opened by someone else. That someone is you.

By actually striking up a conversation with someone you have never met in your life, you suddenly become an item of interest. Why is that? having discussed that in depth with Jeroen (who happens to be Dutch, which helps getting at interesting conclusions), it turns out that the Dutch people aren’t very well known for their tendency to walk up to strangers and talk to them unless they have a very good reason to do it.

This is in total and sharp contrast to most places in Canada I had been to, and I should tell you that I’ve seen more of it than perhaps 99% of Canadians. In Canada, talking to complete strangers is not considered an unusual act—in fact, it happens quite often, so often that you can’t avoid doing it yourself even if you came from a country where such actions are frowned upon (try striking up a conversation with strangers in Israel; see how far you get).

There’s obviously no “good” and “bad” here. I am just a visitor in this beautiful continent and this sweet green country of The Netherlands, so the best I can do is speak on my own behalf. I’m wondering what it is in the common Dutch mentality that prevents them from stepping up and talk to strangers. Is it being afraid of violating other people’s personal space? What is it that they’re trying to avoid? What is it that they’re scared of? Or is it the altogether lack of desire or interest in talking to strangers and communicating with new people?

The distance between Delft to Rotterdam Centraal—Rotterdam’s central train station—is about 12 minutes by train. Rotterdam Centraal is one of the most important and busiest train stations in The Netherlands; many international trains pass through this station that serves as a hub to most local trains as well. You can reach pretty much anywhere in The Netherlands by hopping on a train, tram or metro line in this stations.

The station has been going through extreme renovations over the last few years—renovations that are expected to end some time during this decade.


Rotterdam’s metro station is some impressive giant piece of construction—very well lit and signed, tourist-friendly—much unlike, say, Antwerp’s.


It was an easy 10 minutes ride to the Ahoy.

The Ahoy is Rotterdam’s premier sporting arena. Other than sporting events, this arena also hosts concerts. Red Hot Chili Peppers performed here just a few days ago; Tina Turner, Iron Maiden, Alanis Morissette—these and many others have performed in this venue over the years. Mark Knopfler’s band played here a few times before, the last time being during 2008’s Shangri La tour. During 2010’s Get Lucky tour, the Ahoy was going through renovation which may be the reason why all three concerts of the band that year were done in Amsterdam’s Heineken Music Hall.

Early entry (ahead of the public) was provided for this concert. Instructions called for gathering in a specific place by 6:00pm, then to be led to the arena before the doors are opened for the general public. Signage in the area wasn’t very conclusive as to where it was exactly that we were supposed to be waiting, or what is going to happen.

We arrived at the agreed-upon location for early entry, and found it to be like this:


That is, pretty empty (that’s a few bagged sandwiches you see there, as well as Jeroen’s jacket). Well, not much can go wrong here.


Later on, Ingrid showed up, coming back from a nearby restaurant. People started showing up shortly after, and continued to accumulate until 5:45pm.

Now there’s something that prompts anxiety in people when it comes to general admission shows, especially for people like myself who aren’t exactly the type of people to elbow their way anywhere. I have had my share of troubling general admission concerts during last year’s tour and let me tell you, I’m more than willing to acknowledge that I’m not the type to fight over my place in non-existent line-ups.

Some of the Canadian politeness must have sunk into me over the years; put a typical Canadian in such general admission shows in Europe, and you got yourself a pretty anxious individual. We simply don’t like being crowded and we don’t like to fight each other, or race each other, for the purpose of being another inch closer to some guys playing instruments on stage.

In some places, people take these things very seriously and it’s not very hard to reach a point where things get out of control and all you need is just one idiot to start a fist fight. Not my cup of tea.

Nobody really tried to keep track of who arrived first. Sure, when the first few people arrive, it’s easy; but when there’s 100 or so people there, people who arrive later take advantage of the mess that is already ensuing and, from there on, it’s the law of the jungle: the strongest survives, the rudest prevails.

The big doors were open and we were all let into a chamber for yet another waiting area, where we were left to stand for another half an hour or so until the sign has been given and an attendant led us to the arena’s door. I was happened to be the third one to enter, after some asshole elbowed me as we were entering; luckily he was about twice my age so my revenge involved showing him some dust as I went blazing through the Ahoy’s dark space.

I wasn’t very far from spending the night in hospital, though. As I gained top speed, I suddenly realized that there’s some metal construct running through the arena, apparently to cover some cables but effectively looks like—and acts like—a speed bump. I realized the existence of this obstacle in the last millisecond and was able to skip it with only hurting my toe. Thank you, Mr. Engineer McAssholeson, for this brilliant design.

A few seconds later I was already seated with my back to the stage, my legs spread out (that’s “general admission concerts 101” for you) and trying to evaluate the damage inflicted upon my toe. Not much.

People kept coming, until the doors were opened for the general public when scores of people came running inside at once. Within less than a minute, it was all over. Now all that was left was to wait.

Nature called for a short restroom visit about 30 minutes before the concert’s commencement. Now that’s the routine I probably hate the most. When you’re in a general admission concert, occupying prime real-estate, you have to carefully plan your restroom visit. Remember: leaving prime real-estate is easy, but getting back there can be tricky. Everybody wants to see you get the fuck out, nobody wants to let you in.

Took me some 5 minutes of self-convincing that there’s no way in hell I can survive this concert on a full bladder, and then I decided to make my way out in the worst method possible—walking in 90 degrees to the stage, cutting through the audience straight up.

In retrospect, there’s a problem with this approach. For a successful comeback, it is vital that the same people who you came across on your way out—will be the same ones you encounter on your way in later. People (at least in The Netherlands. I’m not entirely convinced this would work in Italy or Spain) are more likely to let you pass through if they can remember you going past them on your way out.

Therefore, it makes (again, in retrospect) much more sense to do it differently: rather than cutting through the audience in 90 degrees to the stage, you should first go sideways to the very edge of the stage, and then off to your business. That’s simply because you’re bound to meet exactly the same people on your way in, as on your way out.

Anyway, getting back to my prime real-estate wasn’t too hard (although I did have to circumvent a few people who miraculously lost their hearing when I asked them to move aside a little) but I realize that, had I done that 5-10 minutes later, I’d never make it to the stage.

So, to summarize:

  • Finalize all restroom visits at least 30 minutes before the show.
  • Go sideways to the edge of the stage, then out.

Remember this and you should be fine… in most cases.

7:30pm arrived, the lights went out and there it was—the last show for me, for this tour.

So after the Paris show, the band went to Antwerp for some mediocre audience attendance which was, well, annoying. It was good to be in Rotterdam in that respect: the Dutch audience is quite the lively one, plus Mark and the band have a firm fan base in this country. I couldn’t have imagined a better way to bid this tour goodbye, than standing in the front row of such an ecstatic & supportive audience.

Seeing many people jumping and moving clearly does something to the band, Mark included. Mark has been in a very good mood so far this tour, and it seems like Rotterdam brought his good mood to a new peak. I can hardly recall such a vivid, smiling, active Mark Knopfler over the 130+ concerts I have attended.

Everybody played brilliantly in Rotterdam making this concert equal, in quality and overall experience, to the Paris concert, rendering them both as memorable experiences.

Why Aye Man started the show. Typically in this song, Mark shines during the solo parts before and after the last verse. This time, the solo involved playing some interesting harmonies only rarely before heard (by yours truly). One could sense that Mark is in “experimentation mode”, and coming up with such harmonies “on the fly” isn’t very easy, especially when you intend the outcome to be pleasing to the ear. And it was.

Same strategy was taken during Hill Farmer’s Blues. Pleasant harmonies, plus, this time, Mark has been witnessed working extensively on his Gibson’s highest frets, conquering pretty much whatever the Gibson’s neck had to offer with respect to pitch. At times during this solo, it was so good and brilliant that band members started smiling. I, myself, was so impressed with what was going on that, for a few seconds, I shut my eyes just to be able to absorb everything. If there was one recording-worthy Hill Farmer’s Blues so far for this tour, Rotterdam’s must have been the one.

Corned Beef City reappeared on the set list, as well as Privateering which is now an inseparable staple of the show. The next highlight was Marbletown’s jam session when the entire band seemed as if they were going ape-shit over something. All inhibitions were left somewhere between Antwerp and Rotterdam and what we got was a jam session that blew minds away. Not just ours, but also the band’s.

Typically, after an unusually outstanding Marbletown jam session, Mark holds the lower B♭ and vibrates it for a few seconds before signalling the band for the final G5 strike; this time, it was held for ages, extracting notable smiles from the band and loud laughter from the audience, followed by a warm, hearty smile by Mark himself who proceeded to strike that G5 and conclude a brilliant Marbletown performance.

Speedway at Nazareth and So Far Away concluded one of this tour’s best concerts (so far; unfortunately I won’t be witnessing the rest of the concerts) leaving the audience in complete awe.


As Rotterdam is so close to Delft by train, Jeroen and I were initially in the idea of staying for Bob Dylan’s concert. You know, this being the last concert experience this year and all.

That, however, has changed after the band’s concert. I was so overwhelmed, that I decided that there is no way I’m going to let overly loud music ruin it for me. Unsurprisingly, others (Jeroen and Ingrid included) shared the same opinion. We simply decided to leave about 10 minutes before Bob Dylan’s concert.

The looks we got were… well… implying a huge deal of surprise. It’s very unusual to see a group of people, who were holding the most precious pieces of real-estate in the arena, simply turning around and leaving the hall after the opening act, not to return. We offered our prime space to whoever was happy enough to take it.

On my way out sifting through the masses, someone asked me if I’m really leaving, joking that if I go to the restroom, he won’t let me go back to my spot. I replied that I have no intention to return, and got an extremely surprised look in return.

Well, what can I say. It was a brilliant show—a perfect way for me to end my share of the tour.

Went for some drinks with Ingrid in the pub located right inside the Ahoy. A few others joined us shortly after; we left the premises minutes after Bob Dylan’s show concluded.

Quick subway ride to Rotterdam Central, and as we were about to board the train back to Delft, it was announced that there was a “collision” (read: suicide) on the tracks between Schiedam Centrum and Delft so the train is going to stop in Schiedam, where busses will await the passengers to drive everybody to Delft so they can continue their journey. A mild annoyance but nothing to cry about.

Back at Jeroen’s apartment, a good cup of tea went down smoothly, followed by a good night sleep.

I will be staying in Delft until Sunday afternoon when I will be taking a flight back to paradise—that is, the city of Vancouver. You know that you’re happy where you live, when you look forward to go back home after taking a vacation.

Well, this was a short run through Europe for me, attending a few shows of what I still think is the best musicians’ line-up active today. It’s been a pleasure meeting old friends as well as new people; hopefully you found my experiences interesting. Who knows, if there’s a next tour, we might run into each other again.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

From Paris to Delft & Concert Day: Sportpaleis, Antwerp, Belgium (October 18-19, 2011)

Being it raining in Paris on Tuesday’s afternoon, I gave up my plans for an afternoon walk and decided to arrive at Paris’ Gare du Nord earlier than later. My train was scheduled to leave at 6:25pm; it’s two metro lines from the hotel, in rush hour, so I figured I’d rather avoid taking risks.

Rush hour in Paris’ metro system can be harsh. The French people—and the same holds for many other European countries—aren’t as protective of their own (and others’) personal space. Torontonians—forget about the crowdedness of your subway lines; Vancouverites—consider the Canada Line and the Sky Train as paradise. In here, people smash into each other in the metro lines, until the doors fail to close, which is when the last one who attempted entry is being ejected while cursing the world.

That explains the slight sense of anxiety I got, when I realized that I’m carrying a big backpack on my back, and a small one on the front. How the heck am I going to get myself onto such a packed train? For the direction I needed, trains arrived at the frequency of once every minute or two, and still there were loads of people on the platform.

Miraculously, as the next train arrived, I found myself standing facing the door of a relatively “spaced out” carriage. Shoved myself in and felt blessed to be alive.

Off the M8, hopped on the M4, two stations to Gare du Nord and left the metro area. Gare du Nord is a big train station, and just as much as it is big, it is busy. It was rush hour, and billions of people seemed to know exactly where they’re headed to—except myself. Trying to follow the signs to the Intercity Trains section, I ended up walking in a loop. I then realized that a sign with an arrow pointing down means “go straight”, and not “go down the stairs”.


Arrived at the train station two minutes before the departure of the 5:25pm train. For a second I thought about boarding it instead of my train (which was scheduled for one hour later), then I decided I’m not in the mood of rushing everything so I stayed for tea in one of the cafe’s around.

People. People. And more people. Everywhere you look, you see people. Then you think your eyes have just discovered a spot without any people in it, so you stare… and then there’s people there too.

So many people. This city is very, very busy.

Twenty minutes to departure, I decided to board the train. That may sound odd to you but this is one of the things you learn once you almost get burnt. Depending on the country you’re in and the train you take, these trains can be long. Very long. The Thalys train (which is a fast train) leaving Paris and terminating in Amsterdam (with stops along the way) is actually composed of two trains chained together; at some stop along the way (I think in Brussels), the two trains become separated and each one goes its own way.

It took me about 4 minutes just to walk to the carriage I was assigned to (typically, fast trains operate on reserved seating basis; you can’t possibly board the train unless you have a seat reserved. Sometimes, the booking of the ticket is a separate transaction than the seat reservation, which tends to be confusing. In short, make sure you know what you’re doing), and it was raining. Arrived soaking wet, and squeezed my ass onto the seat. A particularly lovely lady was seated next to me; of course I took every opportunity I had to make her feel sorry for it. To the front, a mother and a daughter who later on made a few attempts to teach me Dutch, to no avail.

At some point past Brussels, the announcer went on the airwaves and announced that due to a “collision” on the track between Antwerp and Rotterdam, the train will be diverted to Utrecht so may people on board kindly make alternate travel plans. The “collision” ended up being a collision between a huge train to a human who opted at terminating their life.

Apparently, these occurrences are not uncommon in The Netherlands. Apparently it is not that hard, for those who really lost any interest in continuing to live, to cross the fences in various locations along The Netherlands’ vast railway network, and throw themselves onto an approaching train. As sad as such occurrences are, each such unfortunate meeting between flesh, bones & metal ends up in wreaking havoc along public transportation lines.

If you happen to be on the train that hit a person, the train halts and you are not allowed to leave the train until railway clean-up, as well as full investigation, is completed. That can take hours. At the meantime, other trains become diverted to neighbouring stations, and sometimes—that is, if the transport authorities are kind enough—busses are summoned to help.

Anyway, I really didn’t mind the delay too much. I was surrounded by interesting conversation partners so it’d be very hard to bring me to a point of suffering; my only problem was that I was growing very tired as it’s been very tiring couple of days in France.

Eventually, we all arrived at Utrecht each went their own way. My next task was to get to the train that will take me from Utrecht to Den Haag (well, that’s “The Hague” for those of us who care not for Dutch), and then take another train from Den Haag to Delft.

As I arrived at the platform, armed with two backpacks, I had nothing better to do so I commenced with people-watching. That ended up with finding yet another interesting conversation partner for the ride. Turns out to be a PhD for finances, studying in Tilburg and she is absolutely convinced she was able to resolve some complex financial / mathematical / optimization problem I’ve been fighting with, concerning optimal methods for investment portfolio rebalancing with constraints upon selling (if you don’t immediately understand what I’m talking about, don’t try re-reading; it won’t help).

I’ll believe it when I see it.

Anyway, that once again demonstrated to me how dynamic and surprising life can be. Things happen to you when you do this kind of frantic travel: trains collide with people (or other objects), getting delayed; you sometimes lose your way here or there. But sometimes, even when things look bleak, good things can come out of it. Seriously, the best you can do when things seem to be falling apart is just accept it, smile and try to make the best out of the situation. When you’re in a situation when the only way is up—don’t bother looking down. You already know what’s in there: nothing. Look up instead. It’s pretty much the most sensible thing you can do.

Arrived very late at Delft’s train station. For whatever reason—even though I’ve been in this place so many times before—I couldn’t quite recall how to get from the train station to Jeroen’s place, given that it was dark and everything. My stupid BlackBerry’s GPS decided to die on me, so a 5 minutes walk ended up taking 25 minutes to complete, including repeated attempts and pleas on my behalf for the GPS to start working again. It did. I was saved.

I was relieved. No more sleeping in hotels this time around; I’m going to be staying at the same place for a few nights in a row. Good to be on solid ground again.

Jeroen, my good friend from The Netherlands who everyone who’s been reading my blogs is surely aware of his existence, works in a company comprised of people who are much like him: polite, and very smart. Apparently, though, the week before, there was something else that was common to all of those genius folks working together—they were all sick like stray dogs with some sort of a virus. Apparently brains that are smart enough to predict the water levels along The Netherlands’ shoreline weren’t smart enough to conclude that perhaps the best way to cope with illness is simply to stay at home.

(I’m kidding. They’re nice people. I’m sure nothing was done on purpose)

Anyway, I was greeted by an extremely sick Jeroen whose voice suddenly much resembled that of one, Bob Dylan. I think I’m onto something.

The following day was the day of the Antwerp concert. Nothing out of the ordinary. A short lovely lunch in Jeroen’s workplace, where I usually come across interesting things. So you probably all already know that the nice Dutch people are well in the habit of populating bread with strange materials. How about this?


This is a chicken satay spread. Yes. You know that dish you sometimes order in Thai restaurants? Good. Now instead of it being served warm, think of it being served cold; and instead of it being served on rice or noodles, think of it being spread onto a slice of bread.

Does it make any sense to you?

To me it doesn’t. I was astonished. Puzzled, I asked—“what’s next? a fillet mignon spread?”, only to be presented with another spread titled “American Fillet”, which supposedly is exactly what I was “looking for”.


A couple of hours later, we went to the train station to catch the train to Antwerp—some one hour and a half away from Delft, connecting in Rotterdam (which is where all bloody Dutch trains connect).

If you ask a Dutch person “how do we know that we crossed the border from The Netherlands to Belgium?”, the reply will be something along the line of “it’s when things start looking grey, boring, depressing and cold”. Is it? Well, perhaps. I can see how one would reach that conclusion. Not too long after we crossed the virtual border to Belgium, I fell asleep.

When Douglas Adams’ “Life, the Universe and Everything” was being published in the USA, it couldn’t pass censorship due to certain swearwords appearing in the text. There is a short paragraph in the book discussing the “most offensive word in the universe”: the original text had the word “Fuck” there, but in order to pass censorship in the USA, Adams chose to replace it with the word “Belgium”.

This country doesn’t seem to be receiving much credit from the world, lets put it that way.

On February 2011, Belgium broke the world record for a sovereign state not having a functioning elected government—a record that was previously held by Iraq. Something strange is going on in this country.

Arriving at Antwerp’s central station, the first thing you notify about it is that it is big. How big? Really big. It spans four levels—two of them underground—serving local, inter-city and international trains. Train travellers in Europe are very likely to pass through this station when crossing western Europe in any direction.

Just as this train station is big, it is also beautiful. Newsweek has rated this train station to be the “4th greatest train station in the world” back in 2009. Do a “Google Images” search on it; you won’t regret it.

Still, something was missing in this station. It’s called “life”. It was about rush hour, and the station was almost empty of people, which gave it all kind of an eerie look. It was also strange to find out that, during what one would deem to be “rush hour”, there’s no working information booth whatsoever. Signage being confusing at times, we decided to go for a bite before finding out for sure how to get to the venue (we had a general idea).

Stepping into a deli in the train station, I got the very same feeling about Antwerp as I got last time I was here, one year ago. It appears to be… how to call it… lifeless. Perhaps I got this feeling because a day prior I was in one of the world’s most liveliest cities—Paris; but still, I couldn’t avoid that feeling. You get that feeling just looking at people’s faces. There’s a great deal of depression there. Tiredness. Exhaustion. Greyness. People seem to be out of place, quiet, shy. Looking down. As if attempting to not be seen.

Boring, too. Apparently, people in the deli were so bored out of their asses, that when Jeroen asked them what’s the best way to get from the central train station to the venue, it sparked a discussion (between the deli’s workers and a few locals who happened to be dining there) that lasted more than half an hour about the best way to get there. And it’s not like there’s a million of ways to do the trip; as the crow flies, the distance between the station and the venue is 3km. Walking fast, that’s a 40 minutes walk. But still, the very presentation of such troubling puzzle appeared to have injected life into people.

Bah. I missed Paris.

Trying to find our way to the tram (which is also called “metro” there) through confusing signage, we finally made it to the correct platform, only to find that the “subway” (or “tram”) consists basically on one small carriage that, had it not contained people, you’d be 100% convinced that it is used to transport goats from one field to another. More depressing carriages I have only seen in Poland last year, where I had the pleasure of being transported in a metal box that looked more suitable for transporting the manure of horses with balance problems, than humans.

As it was close to show time, it was crowded as hell, too. It’s about 5 minutes tram ride that feel like 50; eventually, we arrived at a station so conveniently named “Sport” and were happy to be ejected of this cattle transporter. The venue, Sportpaleis, was right there.

Last year, the tour made a stop in Antwerp and performed in a venue called “Lotto Arena”. This time, the venue was the Sportpaleis; that explains my astonishment when I existed the train station and found out that, what the heck, that’s exactly where the concert took place last year. Turns out that the Lotto Arena and the Sportpaleis are adjacent to each other. The Sportpaleis is the bigger one.

The venue’s reception area was far from being inviting. First of all it was jam-packed with people smelling of beer, and with beer smelling of people. Toilets on the premises are not free—that’s €0.40 per visit. Well, it is a sports arena after all so expecting much more would probably be a mistake anyway.

Tickets: 5th row all the way to the left. Bummer. Lane & Katrina, my friends from Flagstaff, Arizona were there too after having taken the train from Paris. Now there’s an interesting couple for you, sharing an amazing life story, brilliant people I’m always happy to see. In Paris, Katrina promised to provide me with a tasty gift in Antwerp. She did.

So there’s this guy named Pierre Hermé. I have never heard of him before and therefore should feel ashamed. This guy is a French pastry chef who is extremely famous for his macaroons. According to Wikipedia, the French Vogue magazine described him as the “Picasso of Pastry”. Katrina, then, thought that it would be a great idea to provide me with a sample of this guy’s macaroons—a thought that was very much called for. This sweetheart carried a macaroon for me all the way from Paris.

Right from the first bite, you feel that macaroons should, by law, be standardized for greater size. At least premium macaroons as this one. It was so good. Just so good, feeling as if exactly twelve angels are dancing inside your mouth. I am therefore deeply indebted to this wonderful couple, and will, obviously, pay a visit to this guy’s pastry shop next time I’m in Paris.

The concert started at 8:00pm. As the last train from Antwerp back to Delft was scheduled for 10:00pm, we already knew we’re not going to stay for Bob Dylan’s show.

Well we obviously weren’t in Paris anymore. Even though the performance, by itself, was very good featuring further elaborations of songs all of which have been played before—one thing was sorely missing and it was the audience. I’m not sure how many people were there in the audience during the Antwerp concert—well, it’s a large venue and not many empty seats were left unoccupied—but, audience-wise, it was as if the audience wasn’t there. Again, I might have had that impression because two nights prior I was a part of the best audience so far, in Paris.

The audience in Antwerp seemed to be reserved and not much responding to the great performance they were witnessing. I would attribute this to the general atmosphere you get when you spend time in Belgium… some sort of indifference. It seemed to be very hard to excite these people with anything, at least that’s the impression I got.

Set-list-wise, no surprises there. Privateering was the only unreleased song to be played, Brothers in Arms and Speedway at Nazareth switched places and, as customary these days, So Far Away ended the show. Exciting solos during Hill Farmers Blues—I have to say, way too exciting for the audience that had the privilege to witness them. The only times when the audience seemed to have wielded noises close to being interesting were at the beginning of Brothers in Arms and the end of Speedway at Nazareth. Well thanks Belgium.

As soon as the encore was done, we stormed out of the venue. Nobody wanted to miss the train back to Delft, as it would mean spending a night in this lonely city.

Arriving back to Antwerp Centraal by tram, we had to actually leave the station and re-enter it. Bizarre design, I’d say: from the metro, you’re ejected to the station’s parking lot, then have to find your way (through insane signage) back to the station after practically exiting it. Upon re-entry, I looked around and then I figured something interesting about this place.

The surrounding of Antwerp Centraal, in the dark, is the perfect location for filming a murder scene. There’s everything: extremely high ceilings; dark, grey colours; vast emptiness; buildings and business around the station, looking as if they’re just waiting to be demolished.



So empty.

Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. I was happy to be back in The Netherlands.

Late night sleep after popping some Bob Dylan tunes on Jeroen’s stereo, and off I woke up ready for the last concert (for me) in the tour—this time, close to “home”: Rotterdam, some 15 minutes train ride from Delft.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Concert Day: Palais Omnisport de Paris‐Bercy & Half Day Off, Paris, France (October 17-18, 2011)

(This is a very long post. A lot has happened in Paris)

Having consumed the monthly amount of sugar & carbohydrates over the course of fourteen hours, falling asleep was far from being easy, and almost as hard as staying asleep. The 36 hours I spent in Lille have been the most gastronomically-enjoyable hours I have had in months, and I was thankful for it while the enjoyment lasted… but once I realized I’m failing to fall asleep, I started cursing myself for being such a moron.

My train was booked for 10:00am sharp, taking the TGV fast train to Paris—about one hour ride. The reason I had booked it that was was that I wanted to spend as much time in Paris as I could—which also explains why my train out of Paris (back to Delft, The Netherlands) is scheduled to leave at 6:30pm on the day before the Antwerp concert.

My short stay in Paris during the last tour has been one of the most enjoyable periods, much due to the fact that I was accompanied by a strange, yet hilarious, fellow who goes by the name Elian. I was looking forward to be in Paris again, then. Quickly checked out of the hotel in Lille, featuring a superbly, unbelievably rude & senseless receptionist, left my backpack there so I can once again pay a visit to a nearby Paul patisserie for a quick croissant.

It was good.

Back to the hotel, picked up my backpack, crossed the road and boarded the TGV train, which left precisely on time. First class, comfortable seat and within an hour I arrived to Gare du Nord.

Welcome to Paris.

The city of Paris is not just a big city. More than it is an accumulation of a huge mass of people, it is, first and foremost, a symbol which carries a wide variety of connotations with it. Paris to Europe is what New-York is to the USA: one of a kind, in more ways than one. Many more ways.

There is everything in this city. Really, everything. For everyone. Each and every type of visitor(s)—be it a solo traveller, a group of friends, families—can easily spend a couple of weeks in this city before beginning to feel as if the city has exhausted itself. Architecture; brilliant parks; monuments; museums; culture to no visible end; and, of course, restaurants offering any sort of food you can imagine—and when I say “any sort of food”, I really mean any sort of food.

In Paris—much as in France as a whole—dining in restaurants usually addresses a different need in one’s life, than it does in, say, North America. While of course exceptions exist, the vast majority of North Americans go to restaurants for the purpose of eating and/or drinking. In France, restaurants are an experience. Sure, you can find places that will cater to your stomach only (I’m talking about French equivalents to chains such as Kelsey’s in Canada or The Spaghetti Factory in the USA); these are referred to as “fast food” places. “Acceptable”. Places such as McDonald’s are regarded with an incredible sense of disrespect and mockery, for a good reason—for similar prices, you can get much better meals elsewhere. That explains why you’re very unlikely to encounter dozens of McDonald’s or Subway in Paris (or France as a whole); they simply are not needed.

While you can find any sort of food here, the French cuisine really isn’t for everyone. Not because it is ugly or distasteful, but mostly because what different people have in mind when they think about a “meal”, and what they end up getting. If you step into a French restaurant when you’re starving and head straight into the main course, you are extremely likely to become disappointed, not because the food isn’t good but because it didn’t address your body’s primary need, which is to become full and quickly. In French restaurants, portions are relatively small and cater not to your stomach, but mostly to your brain. Instead of putting time into thinking how to serve a lot of food with acceptable taste, the French prefer to put emphasis on quality, texture and delicate flavours (sometimes so delicate that you need to work hard to process).

It is food to enjoy and savour, rather than to become full of. Therefore, here’s a tip: if you’re starving and planning on going to a French restaurant, don’t jump right into the main course but start with a starter first, or consume some tasty breads beforehand (most restaurants serve bread and dips as an accompaniment to your meal).

There’s one more thing I feel some strong desire to write about, and it is the stereotype often associated with French people, with respect to their manners, specifically towards people who don’t speak French and happen to find themselves lost in a country where English isn’t quite practiced.

How many times have you heard stories of a friend or an acquaintance of yours, approaching a local in France, speaking English and getting a “cold shoulder”? I’ll allow myself to assume that the answer is “yes, I have heard that before”. Such stories, over the years, contributed to the stereotype about the French being arrogant, rude and merciless.

Having been raised in a country with common mentality similar to that of the French, and having lived almost one third of my life in Canada (which is the other extreme), I should say that I find this stereotype misleading, and more importantly—unfair towards the French people. And I will explain.

The English language isn’t much promoted in France. The French language, more than just means for communication between humans, is also a symbol. It’s an entire culture. The French people are proud of their culture, their values and their language: this is not to say that they underestimate or undervalue other languages (such as English).

When you approach a local in France, while wearing a distraught face, and start talking to them in English as if you’re assuming that they can speak the language, the shrug you get in response is not a shrug of arrogance. I take it as unfair and inappropriate, to interpret this as arrogance; yet, having this being done to me a few times, I can see why so many people make that prejudice. If you pay close attention to their faces and their body language, you are bound to discover that this is not arrogance, but instead the sense that they really can’t help you or don’t know how to help you.

OK, so they don’t fall on their knees with pleas for you to understand them (using body language) and why they can’t help you; but that’s not because they are rude. They are simply being honest and straightforward.

Besides, between us… rather than considering the French to be rude, it is much easier for me to identify with the proposition that Canadians and Americans are, more often than not, over-polite.

What I have found is this: if you approach a local with a smile (rather than a frown) and first ask them if they speak English (even just asking “English?”), you are very unlikely to get a shrug back. They will definitely try to help you as much as they can; sometimes, they won’t be able to but you still won’t feel as if you’re being ignored or pushed away.

At least it works for me, and I know that it has nothing to do with my smile, or my charm; both are known to have offended before.

Socially speaking, my time in France has been the best so far in this trip, simply because I know a lot of people, ever since the last tour. The evening in Paris topped it all, really; as it shortly will be revealed.

About a month ago, a charming lady I was working with (well, now that we don’t work together, I am in the liberty of stating such a fact) handed me a bunch of unused metro tickets (if you’re reading this—thank you, Amandine) which were put into some good use by yours truly.

As soon as I arrived in Paris’ Gare du Nord, I took the metro to the hotel—hopped on the M4 to Strasburg-Saint Denis and then changed to the M8 towards Daumesnil, a short walk from the hotel—Grand Hotel D’ore Bercy, located about 15 minutes walk from the Palais Omnisport where the concert was going to take place. It was too early for checking in, though; left all bags there and hopped across the street for the nearest restaurant. One of those so-called “fast food” brasseries, that surpass North American outlets of most chains with respect to quality and taste; some steak and salad and I was good to go.


The surroundings:

Around Daumesnil’s metro station

Back at the hotel for check-in and quick setup. Not bad. Well, hotels in Paris are expensive (mine was a 3-star hotel—definitely acceptable—for the price of €111 per night. Prices become extremely stupid once you jump on the 4-star wagon, and I dare you look at prices of 5-star hotels in the city centre. You will feel weakness in your knees) so I consider myself being lucky with this one. Small room, but comfortable enough for a one night stay.

As writing is often my first priority, I spent the next hour or so completing the previous post, even though the weather was excellent outside. It is such times—that is, spending time writing instead of going out and enjoying brilliant weather—that I realize how important writing is to me. Anyway, it was already close to 3:30pm when I finished writing and uploading my post. Got everything I need for a city stroll and stormed out of the hotel.

That was more or less exactly when Nelly (should you choose to read on, you’re bound to encounter Nelly again, in some strange context) sent me a text message saying she’s in town. I first met Nelly last year—a cute, funny, compassionate (and slightly, just slightly, strange, but in a good way) lady—as I was crisscrossing Europe following this band, and we remained in contact ever since. We agreed to meet at the venue and spend the afternoon together until show time.

Was good meeting with Nelly again. Off to a nearby cafe and before we knew it we were basking at Paris’ brilliant sun, seated in a cafe just outside the venue.


Caught up with what’s going on with life until I saw two familiar figures getting out of the Bercy station. These were Katrina and Lane, a couple of avid travellers I had met in the USA last year and remained in touch with ever since. Wonderful couple, can’t possibly say enough good things about them.

Time came to collect our tickets. Contrary to last year, this time everything worked perfectly with absolutely no mess at all. Tickets been collected, we went out for some fresh air when more familiar people came by and joined us—Vincent, Brigitte, Marithe, Marco to name a few. Definitely a social highlight of the tour.

Quite frankly I was a bit humbled to find out that most of them remembered my name, and I certainly am happy to find out that last year’s excursion contributed something to their lives, through writing, in much the same way that it contributed to mine.

About an hour prior to the show’s scheduled start time, I went ahead and entered the venue.


My seat—front row, quite at the center of things.

We all had some time to kill before the concert. Katrina & Lane introduced me to two folks who were handed free tickets to the show, courtesy of the couple’s kind soul. Turned out that one of them is a former Israeli now living in Paris, so it was quite the treat to spend some time speaking my mother tongue.

At some point, Nelly came by feeling a bit frustrated of her seat, at the left-hand side of the stage.

—“Maybe I can sit on you”, she said.

—“Maybe”, I replied.

—“But it may be a problem, my bottom is too big”.

I was trained in early childhood to never agree nor disagree with such comments, whether they are true or not (my opinion in this particular case is confidential). Regardless of what you say, you end up being in some sort of trouble.

—“Well we can give it a try”, I said.

So, a quick dry run has clearly demonstrated that it was, after all, feasible to divide the seat in two, horizontally. We made sure (of course) that this unique seating arrangement doesn’t interfere with the audience surrounding us. As I am taller, and there was enough chair-space to host both bottoms, we agreed that this would be our seating plan for the night.

(Some pictures of this arrangement have been taken by Lane, however they’re not in my disposal at the moment so you’ll have to use your imagination. Just don’t overuse it, though; it seriously was all platonic. At least for me)

Shortly after 8:00pm, the lights went out and the show started. Certain band members, Mark included, took notice of our unusual disposition and went on smiling. And then they played…

And they played very, very well.

So “how was the concert”, you may be asking. Well, this show broke a new record of awesomeness for this tour, despite a few mishaps here and there. I suppose it was a combination of a particularly enthusiastic audience, great venue and all band members appearing to be in quite the good mood.

What It Is was the concert’s opener this time around, and right from the beginning one could notice that Mark and the band receive—appreciatively—immense love from the audience. No longer could one pinpoint a distinction between those who came to see Mark & the band, and those who came to see Dylan, at least not from where I was seated.

Cleaning My Gun followed with full power as usual, rocking the Bercy’s roof off, including powerful solos and a small mishap towards the end. Recently Mark has been in the habit of moving quite often during the performance, exchanging all sorts of gestures with other band members; at the end of Cleaning My Gun, though, he appeared to have skipped his usual gesture to the band (well, at least towards Ian) and so poor Ian had to realize that the song is about to end in two seconds and improvise something. For the untrained ear—read: the ear that hasn’t heard this song played live multiple times—it was a non-issue.

We also had a wonderful rendition of Marbletown, arguably the best one in the tour so far and in line with the top Marbletown performances of last year’s tour. It just went really well, especially during the Marble-Jam section when band members delegated control to one another seamlessly (which is, really, one of the factors for determining the quality of a Marble-Jam). Had Nelly not been seated where she was, I’d definitely get up for a standing ovation.

The show proceeded top-notch quality all throughout. Haul Away for Home has been skipped (again), in favour of A Night in Summer Long Ago. The latter has been played exactly twice (out of 87. Or was it three times?) during the last tour—once in the USA (I believe it was in the second Los-Angeles show) and once in Europe—in Paris, making it a relatively rare song to be listening to played live.

Another high point in the evening was a certain twist during Song for Sonny Liston. Once the Mark-Glenn duo was done and it was time for the last verse, Mark proceeded to sing the last verse, hardly touching the guitar at all. The domination of his voice over the audible spectrum, with a rather minimal involvement of the guitar, made for a blessed twist in the song making the last verse sound deep, personal and dramatic. Interesting twist… making a song sound better by playing less guitar.

Audience was ecstatic throughout the show. Once Marbletown was over, people stormed towards the front (the all-so-pleasant Running of the Bulls). People from the back rows somehow found themselves leaning upon the rail (how the hell did they do that, I don’t know). The venue’s security staff had no chance to make people sit down again so they gave up without even trying. People who remained seated called upon those who stood to sit down, only to be yelled back at in some mean French tone that I could only interpret as “oh, just shut the hell up”. We all remained standing till the end of the show.

Speedway at Nazareth was up next, a song that isn’t of my favourites but clearly, yesterday, I was in minority. The audience went berserk as the song’s heavy part commenced—actually, so ecstatic that I doubt anybody noticed that something was missing. As Richard went to take the Gibson for his usual role in tearing the airspace with cranked-up Gibson tone set on the Treble pick-up position, he went ahead to strum it with full power, just to realize that no sound was emitted. Until the song’s end, attempts were made to fix the error to no avail; it wasn’t hard to notice that T.C, as well as Richard, were very surprised of the ordeal as everything seemed to be in place but still no sound. Still, the final A-chord strike of the song sent the audience flying in full rainbow colours to the sky: audience participation, taken to the extreme. Awesome.

The intermission before the encore gave T.C and others some time to track down the problem with Richard’s cabling setup. So Far Away started playing and the problem has been resolved about two seconds before it was time for Richard to strike his first B chord on the MK Stratocaster he was holding. Life’s back to normal; a sweet Dire Straits reminder for the audience and the show was over.

I will risk being thrown sharp objects at by devout Bob Dylan followers: as the concert was over, I knew that it would be very hard for Dylan to follow the spectacle we had just experienced. Mark and the band provided a concert that is an absolute nightmare to follow. Then again, I do appreciate the fact that I may be slightly biased.

Armed with earplugs, I re-acquired my seat (which was occupied by someone for the duration of the intermission between concerts) and was ready to watch Bob Dylan do his best to follow Mark’s set. Right from the beginning, it was obvious that a full vision of the stage would be impossible. People just stood there—that is, people whose original seats are not even close to the front—and refused to move. At some point, security staff arranged it so the left-hand half of the stage was where people were allowed to stand, and the right-hand side of the stage was seated only.

As I was almost at the very centre, I basically saw one half of the show… until things started getting uglier. Every now and then, another moron decided to test the consistence (or lack thereof) of the security staff’s definition of “half”, and came to stand past the middle of the stage. My repeated attempts to sway some of these people away have been answered by either complete ignorance, or some words in French I couldn’t make any sense of.

Asking security for any sort of assistance seemed to be futile. At some point, once I could no longer see much of the stage, I simply got up, shoved a punk who was standing right in my face aside, and elbowed my way to the front. They say “When in Rome, be a Roman” but most of the time I tried to avoid taking measures that I feel uncomfortable with; yet this time, I really had no choice. It was either that, or see absolutely nothing.

At that point, about three quarters into the show, the orchestra station was all up on their feet—not because Dylan’s show kicked ass, but mostly because you couldn’t see anything unless you stood.

Did I enjoy it? Not that much. I like some of Dylan’s songs, but when it comes to live performances… I will just say that I prefer to stick with Mark & the band, and much so.

Dylan’s concert ended at around 11:00pm and the masses were pouring outside onto the streets. Fortunately, it wasn’t raining. There’s a brasserie named “Spectacle” right outside the venue; Nelly agreed to join me in for a quick snack, a delicious goat-cheese-on-toast salad. A few AFMK members were there for a post-concert drink, nice to see them of course.

Salad was consumed with immense passion—time to go. Bid everybody farewell, walked Nelly to the nearest taxi stand and off I went on a 15 minutes walk back to my hotel.

What a great day, mostly thanks to the people I came in touch with. Thank you all.

Initially I was intending to spend my half day-off in Paris going to visit a few places recommended to me by… well, lets just leave it at “someone I know” as it will make everybody’s life simpler. Unfortunately though, I slept in—I had to, as the preceding day was so eventful.

I only left the hotel at around 10:30am, while finding out that Elian booked a restaurant for lunch at 1:00pm. Elian also recommended a patisserie named Angelina, located near Jardin des Tuileries. Took the metro there, about 20 minutes of an easy ride. Quite the impressive place (look at their website, see link earlier in this paragraph) that has a lot going for it.

Angelina has a “seated” part which is actually a tearoom, as well as an impressive display of desserts. The tearoom offers interesting meals for prices that I can only consider as “insanity”. If you don’t believe me, see their website. The cheapest breakfast goes for €20, however I should say that by the looks of it, it might as well be worth it. I would definitely give it a try, but it was 11:15am or so already, and knowing that lunch is due soon I decided to sustain my hunger.

Well, not really. Back to Angelina’s desserts display, I decided to go for a croissant, as well as what they call “their specialty”: “La Mont-Blanc”. The only reason I took it was that it was the only thing that looked as if it could be consumed while standing up.

It wasn’t that good, to be perfectly honest. I’ll try other things there, next time around.

Elian’s office is a short 10 minutes walk from Angelina. It wasn’t raining, so a short pleasant walk in Paris was definitely called for.


Was good to see Elian again. Well, this fellow knows his food, as I can vividly recall from my last visit to Paris, so I was looking forward to the upcoming feast. Once again, Elian didn’t fail to provide. Delicious cod fish rolled with some pastry… total bliss. While I didn’t take pictures of the main course (God knows why) but the desserts are here for your visual enjoyment; and we’ll start with “the thinking man”.

Elian’s dessert contained extremely thinly cut dried apple.


The following magic trick, aimed at having the apple’s slice inflate, didn’t seem to work.


Delicious meal—thanks Elian!—and filling to the point that, from there on, I couldn’t really do anything useful anymore. My intention to complete this blog post in Elian’s building (it was raining outside so a walk was out of the question) didn’t end up working out, as I was staring at the screen not being able to do anything except digest the wonders I have let into my stomach just thirty minutes prior.

Before I was able to fully recover, it was already time to go back to the hotel, pick up my backpack and head back to Gare du Nord, to take the train back to The Netherlands, where I will be spending the rest of my trip until Sunday (making day trips to Antwerp and Rotterdam to catch the shows).

Signing off this blog post while in Jeroen’s apartment in Delft. Got here quite late and it’s time for bed.

I already miss France.


Monday, October 17, 2011

Day Off & Concert Day: Zénith Arena, Lille, France (October 15-16, 2011)

Imagine you’re in a small hotel room in a foreign land. Small. So small that you can hear your breaths echoing. So small it makes prisoners in Saint Quentin feel very good about themselves. So small that it’d make Richard Bennett miss his days in Nottingham.

The room isn’t very clean: the carpets have apparently not been vacuumed (or washed) since the first World War, the bathroom’s floor appears to be torn apart beneath the semi-plastic material they covered it with for attempting to convey some sort of an acceptable appearance.

You lay down to sleep. Your eyes are shut but you’re feeling some tickling sensation on your feet, then up your legs. Ecstatic, you get up, turn the light on, pull the blanket off but you see absolutely nothing walking on you. The sensation goes away, but it returns as soon as you turn the lights off again.

You’re thinking to yourself, “that’s it. It must be bedbugs or something”. But no, no bites. Just a tickling sensation all over your body, and that sensation intensifies the more you think about it.

Know the feeling? Oh, you don’t? So it might as well be just me losing my mind. Anyway, that’s how I lost about an hour of sleep. I don’t know what made me fall asleep eventually, but I did, and luckily so—as I was expecting quite the hectic travel day from Bournemouth to Lille.

Getting from Bournemouth to Lille requires you to take a train from Bournemouth to London, then get to London’s St. Pancras International train station, and then take the Eurostar to Lille. As the Eurostar is an international train, you have to go through a process similar to the one you take when you board an aircraft. Your luggage is screened; security checks; then passport control (by the UK authorities. Interestingly enough, there’s no passport control to go through once you get in France. I seem to recall it used to be the other way around). Arriving at Lille, you have to turn your watch one hour forward. The entire process—from the time you board the train in Bournemouth to the time you arrive in Lille takes about seven hours, assuming you’re allowing for enough gap in London, say 3.5 hours (total train travel time is about 3.5 hours).

I was therefore not very willing to start the day. Upon waking up, I looked through the window and was amazed to discover no clouds at all, whatsoever, in the sky. Packed everything within a few minutes, checked out of this horrid hotel which I will never see again, and went outside. Crossed the road and enjoyed a beautiful view of Bournemouth’s beaches.


It was sunny, but a bit chilly. If I had an extra hour just to sit there and breathe, I would; but it was 9:00am already—about an hour to departure, and I haven’t had breakfast yet—so I had to bid the good view goodbye and walk back to the train station.

Across the train station, there’s a small plaza featuring a gym, a McDonald’s (how smart) and a small cafe. One mediocre sandwich and two sips of horrendous coffee later, went to the platform and waited for the train which arrived just on time.

Two minutes into departure, as the coach I was on was already populated by extremely noisy and obnoxious people, one of the attendants bothered to announce to us all that, to her surprise (she has just found out), there are no functioning toilets on this train. I should tell you that the train had 5 coaches in it. Now to remind you, I had a bit of coffee before departing. Fortunately, the coffee was so disgusting that I couldn’t consume more than a couple of sips of it.

Sure, I can carry two hours like this. No problem.

Until the train stopped somewhere along the way, between two stations. “We’re in a traffic jam” the attendant called. Fantastic. And I thought that the reason we have trains around to begin with was to avoid traffic jams altogether.

These are exactly the times when you thank yourself for allowing some good “safety interval” between connecting trains. Unless this train is delayed by an hour and a half, I should still be able to make it. We ended up arriving at London’s Waterloo station about 10 minutes late; the entire train unloaded itself into the toilets and I once again found myself roaming around Britain’s busiest train station, in terms of passenger throughput: London Waterloo.

After spending a few days in small cities in the UK, arriving to London can be a bit overwhelming. It can, and it was. No more tired faces; no more feeling as if the country is populated exclusively by the elderly. You’re suddenly swept in a sea of people, and you can’t possibly position yourself anywhere in the station in a way that will not disrupt others—especially in sunny, warm days as yesterday (I suppose such brilliant days are quite rare in UK’s Octobers).

I was good on times so I decided to wander around the station. The London Eye is practically across the street from the station, and so is Westminster Bridge which isn’t quite the unknown tourist location either. I decided to cross the bridge and enjoy the view, before taking the Tube to St. Pancras International.

Crossing the bridge typically doesn’t take more than three minutes of continuous walk. Yesterday, however, it was different as the weather was so good that it seemed that no London resident opted at staying at home. The bridge offers wide sidewalks on both sides, however both of them were almost entirely static as shady, not-quite-trustworthy people were challenging innocent passer-byers with all sorts of tricks, mainly involving finding small items underneath ever-moving boxes.


I got tired of the masses and was craving the peace and quiet of St. Pancras International (I have been there a few times before) so I decided to take the Tube. At last, after a few times in London, I had the common sense to actually go ahead and buy the Oyster Card. This card actually guaranteed that you always end up paying the lowest public transportation fare, given all sorts of parameters (such as number of rides per day). My advice: if you’re going to be exploring London even for a day, don’t even think about doing it by individually paying for each trip, or buying individual passes. Get yourself an Oyster Card.

Jubilee Line for one station to Green Park, then the Victoria Line to King’s Cross—St. Pancras International… about 20 minutes and I was there. Finally, peace. Great lunch, check in, passport control and all I had to do was just wait.

Everything going according to schedule, boarding went on smooth and I found myself in an half-empty coach. Laptop plugged to A/C outlet—done; BlackBerry recharging through USB cable—done. All set.

Until a small girl seated right behind me started kicking my seat, which prompted me to start writing my thoughts about where this society is going (maybe I’ll publish it some day). Shortly later, the Eurostar started moving in immense speed; not much time passed before we were all cruising through the English Channel, and shortly later, we arrived at Lille-Europe train station.

Welcome to France.

So the first thing I noticed once I departed the train and went on my way towards my hotel—a mere 5-6 minutes walk—was that we’re certainly not in rural England anymore. You suddenly feel a great sense of… well, how should I call it… “life”. Things seem colourful again.

From Lille-Europe, which is the train station mainly used by Eurostar for international travel, to Lille-Flandres, which is Lille’s central train station, it takes about 5 minutes to walk. The hotel I was staying in, Hotel Balladins, was literally across the street from the train station, which initially raised a few concerns as hotels near central train stations aren’t known to be very pleasant. Then again, reviews that I had read implied that this hotel is something worthy of staying in, so I tried to keep my mood elevated and see where things are going.

I was, actually, quite impressed. 3-stars hotel in such a location, surprisingly very quiet, for about €50 a night—seemed like a bargain (well, I did book it a few months in advance). Very clean rooms, comfortable bed, fantastic location—what else could one ask for.

Hunger hit hard; quick set-up, unloaded everything I had on me and stormed out of the room in a quest for something to eat. The receptionist told me that I should be looking around the Opera House which is about 2-3 minutes walk away, so I left the hotel and started walking there.

A smile took over my entire face immediately as I left the hotel and started walking towards the city centre. This is a gorgeous city.

This restaurant—“Les 3 Brasseurs”—seemed very familiar until I realized that this same chain also exists in Canada. Look closely to the left of the restaurant’s sign; you’ll see a vertical sign saying Hotel Balladins—that’s the hotel I was staying at.


Kept on walking, taking shots from around me.


Then I reached the city centre.


I mentioned, in one (or more) of my previous posts, Barry Schwartz’s book “The Paradox of Choice”, which does wonders to explain to its lucky readers how easily can a large variety make one’s life miserable. You get to understand the immense truth in it, once you realize that you’re starving and there are literally dozens of restaurants around you to choose from (and when I say “around you”, I mean within 2-3 minutes walk radius). I walked and walked around, encountering plenty of restaurants with all sorts of menus (mostly in French, of which I couldn’t make sense of whatsoever) but couldn’t quite figure out which it is that I want to enter.


After trying out a few places—all being completely full (well, it was Saturday night), I ended up at “Les 3 Brasseurs” by my hotel. Good chunks of beef, as well as this lovely dessert.


Up to my hotel room…


And I decided that that’s it. I’m in France; tomorrow will be food day.

And it was.

And painfully so.

OK so here is the thing about France and food. French people love their food. The French cuisine is considered by many to be the best in the world (I’m more in favour of the Italian cuisine, but I’d definitely be happy with French meals any time), and one of the things they take great pride in is their desserts.

So, I decided to go on a little quest. Woke up early morning and went on to explore. Armed with a camera, I was looking for sweets.

The first place I came across is Meert, which was a pity because I sort-of intended it to be the last place to go to, as it is quite the landmark for those with the sweet tooth. I sufficed with an exterior picture and moved on.


Getting a bit lost at the city centre, I saw this nice establishment. It’s called “Paul”, and as I learned later, it’s not just a store but actually a chain. They are everywhere. So I stopped by and asked for a croissant.

Great way to start a day: consuming a croissant before any sort of breakfast.


I left the store holding the croissant in my hand. About 20 seconds later, it was all gone. It was actually so good that I couldn’t walk and eat it at the same time. It was all consumed within one meter radius of the store’s entrance. Just gone.

Facing Paul, I noticed this nice store.


Approaching, I encountered this.


Now that’s a call for challenge. I mean, you see something like this, you just have to enter the store, regardless of whether the store is open for business or not. Luckily (for the store’s owner), it was open.

I should say that all pictures from the interiors of the stores were taken after requesting permission from the store’s owner (or attendant)

How about those macaroons (spelled “macarons” in French)?


And these?


They also sell breads.


I spent about 10 minutes inspecting everything they had to offer—and, as you can see, we’re talking about quite the selection. Opted at a croissant (yes, another one) as well as another “puffy cake” which was wrapped in a box and later consumed with much love in the hotel room (see below for the “before” picture).


Being stunned by the celebration of tastes and flavours, I stormed out of the hotel room once again, trying to avoid thoughts of sweets by taking pictures of a gorgeous city centre in even more gorgeous weather.


Perfect time for getting some sun, so I spent about an hour over coffee in this nice terrace.


And then, I felt I was ready.

I was ready to go and explore new dimensions.

I was ready to take on myself the great responsibility (and accompanying pleasure) of stepping into the shrine.

I took upon me the quest to bring to you, my people, the blessing.

I went to Meert.

The first thing you notice about Meert is the people who are constantly outside the store looking at the display window. There are often more people outside the store, gazing at the window and drooling, than people inside the store—that’s because prices here are not cheap. Most of the delicacies shown here go for about €5-6 a piece.


I then took the courage and went inside. Asked for permission and took a few shots…


… As well as a video.

Meert’s desserts on display.

What’s special about Meert, comparing to other locations I stepped into, is that these guys exercise extreme attention to detail when they design their desserts. Of course, it’s all relative; even the crappiest desserts store here would seem like heaven to the outsider.

20 minutes later I was able to decide that I’m going for a cheesecake and some other chocolate-based cake. Wrapped it up for later and went back to the hotel for a short rest before the concert.

The Zénith Arena is located about 5 minutes walk south-east from the hotel I was staying at. The city centre is a few minutes walk west, so that was new unchartered territory for me. A bit of a shady walk, I should say; but still, the Novotel hotel is located at that stretch so I’m wondering how bad can that area really be.

One of the best ways to know that you’re close to the concert’s venue is when you’re encountering scalpers. Scalping is illegal in France but, just like many other French laws, this one serves as a mere recommendation, a “rule of thumb”.


Arrived at the venue and immediately met Laurent, a nice fellow with whom I stayed in touch with since the last tour. Was good meeting with him at last and catch up, as he was introducing me to this venue.

At the front, there were a few lines that looked quite like what you might expect bull stalls to look like—the stalls that hold the bulls at bay before the wooden door opens and the bull rages into the arena. There weren’t many people there when I arrived, maybe a hundred or so.


The ticket office, shown in the picture above to the very right, was closed. That would royally suck for people who bought general admission tickets for venue pick-up, as such people would miss the chance being in the front (at least theoretically. As you shall see soon, there always are “creative solutions”). The way this venue is organized is that the floor is general admission, standing only, and there are terraces at the second and third floors for seated guests. As always, I opted at the seated option so I was certainly in no rush.


Elian, Arnaud and David, a trio whom I had met during the last tour (I still recall the awesome wine, cheese and Stratocaster eve in Elian’s place), drove from Paris and showed up shortly after. There we were, the five of us, waiting for the doors to open so we decided to go have a drink and a snack nearby. Beers for everyone except myself (I had coffee. I rarely drink alcohol; there needs to be an extremely special occasion for that to happen), some French fries (well, over there they’re simply called “Fries”) and back to the venue. While we were away, people kept arriving and now there were some sizeable queues everywhere.


Brigitte and Marithe were both there, good to see them both as well. We all lined up waiting for the ticketing office to open… well, as much as you can call it “line up”. This is not Canada. For an illustration what a French line-up looks like, refer to the picture below.


A typical Canadian encountering this would probably freak out and crawl back to his hotel. Line-ups appear to be deprecated in France to the same extent that they’re worshipped in Canada. In Canada, a line-up is where people want to be. It’s where they feel that they’re doing something right, something proper. Something polite. Yes, even in the French-speaking provinces. But in France…

Shortly after 7:00pm, an attendant called the audience in line to stay calm and enter the venue slowly and not rush anywhere. Two minutes later, the gates opened and absolutely nobody followed any plea for peaceful entry. Well, it wasn’t as aggressive as in Spain or in The Netherlands (the latter might sound a surprise. The Dutch are indeed polite and orderly people, but when the time comes to race towards the stage in general admission concert… they’re different) but still it was nothing I’d ever wish to take a part of.

The initial instructions for those who picked up their tickets (or bought tickets) at the ticketing office were to grab their ticket and then join the regular queue, effectively being the last ones to enter. That would suck the sweat of many perspiring horses for people who were there to pick up tickets for general admission. Not to worry, though. Some barrier has been moved and suddenly a new way existed to enter the arena.

My seat, once more, failed to impress me or anybody. First row on the terrace, to the right—right in front of the stage’s left-hand speakers. Contrary to Bournemouth though, sound was surprisingly good, even in that location.


One of the things that were fascinating for me to learn last year as I watched 87 concerts in 21 different countries, was audiences’ behaviour and reception of the band. So, another proof for us not being in England anymore was the audience—by far, the most receptive audience so far this tour (not such a big deal, considering the fact that we have been mostly in the UK so far). I couldn’t help but smiling as I witnessed the great love being poured onto this band by this very receptive audience—it is truly heart-warming, even if you’re not a member of the band.

I recall the French, Italian and Spanish audiences being the most receptive audiences, with the Italian & Spanish ones bordering on insanity sometimes (depending on the area. The more south you go, the more likely you are to encounter the seeds of audience insanity).

And with this, folks, comes good performance. There is no way around it. With all due respect to this band—and some of you may have already understood the level of respect I have towards this band—they are not, and they can not, decouple their level of performance from the warmth of audience welcome.

What It Is opened the show, allowing the Lille audience to well demonstrate that we’re now in a warmer, more receptive place. Cleaning My Gun followed, rocking as usual except for a period of about 10-15 seconds when Ian Thomas had to play the drums with one hand, using the other to properly fit his earpiece. Unless you were looking at him at that time, you wouldn’t have noticed.

Corned Beef City is back in the game, spreading rock n’ roll dust all over the arena using three chords (C, F, G), one of which dominates about %98 of the song. Together with an excellent performance of Privateering, these were the two unreleased songs of the evening—Haul Away for Home being left out (insert an extremely sad face here). For pretty much everybody’s enjoyment, Speedway at Nazareth made a comeback. That is—everybody’s enjoyment but mine. Sorry, I just am not a huge fan of this particular song. Never was, unlikely to ever be. Shoot me.

So Far Away was the only Dire Straits song to be played, and concluded the show at around 9:15pm. Great show. Post-concert shoots follow.


Some convincing having been done, I decided to pop some earplugs and stay for Bob Dylan’s performance. At the end of Mark’s set, I went for a breath of fresh air around the venue.


How about this. They serve crepes and Belgian waffles at the venue. Now how’s that instead of a hotdog.


Went back inside a few moments after Bob’s set commenced. Sorry to say but… no. I just can’t bring myself to the state of enjoying this show. Bob’s band is great, featuring top players but for me, vocals count a lot and even with earplugs in place I just couldn’t take it much further than 5-6 songs, at which point I got up and left the arena.

Back in my hotel, I decided I was starving. Some Shawarma from a nearby hole-in-the-wall did much to fix it (well, I was eating like a pig the entire day, so might as well finish it like a pig), and so did the two Meert desserts that were left. At 11:30pm, I was after dinner involving Shawarma and two brilliant cakes. It was then when I realized the immense level of insanity of the food I had been eating all day. Felt really bad, and had immense trouble falling asleep.

Woke up this morning feeling like a dead horse after severe trouble staying asleep.

Signing off this post from my hotel room in Paris.