Friday, June 27, 2014

100 Happy Days Part 7

I'm taking photos of things that make me happy. I explain why in part one, here. There's also parts two, three, four, five, and six.

Day 43

It was a day so hot the sun's hat melted. I stayed home and shed moist dead skin cells onto all the surfaces. To cheer myself up I played the next level of Monument Valley (a smartphone game inspired by the art of MC Escher).

The level is called The Box, and the whole sprawling expanse is hidden away inside a tiny little cube. Depending on how you open it, you'll find different things inside. Making a change inside one 'inside' will change something inside a different 'inside'. The insides and outsides expand and contract in a surprising, elegant, and satisfying way.

One of the insides of The Box

Playing Monument Valley is a dreamy experience. Not the kind of dream where I'm feeding my own face to a slobbering dog - I mean the kind of dream where I'm riding a flying mattress over Derbyshire. 

Day 44

Today I helped a child, and felt good about it. He was in the teacher's room watching a video on a Macbook and listening through headphones bigger than his head. He was breaking numerous rules by being there but I decided to be nice. (Wise - turned out he was the 'enfant' of a French colleague.)

"Dude," I said.
"Quoi?" he said, startled.
"Are you one of the new teachers?"
"Je nai fromage pas..."
I gave up trying to entertain him with my British wit. It takes the French years to grasp the fundamentals and to be fair, he hadn't even mastered watching computerised media. "Why don't you watch it in fullscreen?" I leant over and pressed two keys. The video expanded to fill the screen. It must have seemed like witchcraft to the lad. He looked up at me, awestruck, full of a gratitude he could only express with fearful disbelief.

Day 45

Did you ever have an emotion that could only be a race memory from distant ancestors? Like maybe a cloud moved funny and you thought the moon was falling? Or you saw a neanderthal-type guy and all the hairs on your back stood on end because you thought you'd have to fight him?


Walking down a busy street, cocooned with music thanks to my ace new bluetooth earphones, I heard a loud, unfamiliar bellow and had a moment of pure primal panic.

This was my thought: 
"There's a fucking hippo charging at me!"

I felt like this: 

I very quickly remembered that I live in Switzerland and there aren't any hippos on the loose. I also remembered that I was fully dressed. Still, I turned to check if there was an 1,800 kg James-Earl-Jones-faced-beast attacking me, and there wasn't. The cause of the bellow was mundane - a car had made a funny noise.

The thing I don't understand yet is why being scared of a hypothetical hippo made me happy. (But it did.)

Day 46

Today the World Cup kicked off, and I went 'Yay! A month of top notch football and drama and close-ups of sexy crowd women!'

It kicked off with the hosts Brazil against Croatia. I spent an hour drooling over the sublime performance of Luka Modric, then the referee handed the game to Brazil, and killed my buzz.

I like that the organisers aren't even pretending to run a clean sport these days; the refs wear the same kit as the team FIFA want to win.

Big in Japan tonight - gambling on pro sports.

Day 47

As you know, this blog's target demographic is the willowy Eastern European female, so I don't want there to be too many football-based posts.

But holy crap, Robin van Persie just startled me so hard I let out a mighty roar. (It woke Jen up from one of her little snoozes and she said 'Did you hear a badger?')

Holland are playing Spain. That's Spain, winners of the last three major tournaments. And this random Dutch dude hit the ball really far and RVP ran to where the ball was going. But it was, like, hard to kick the ball because it was up in the air for ages, so he sort bounced off the turf, trampolining the ball in a perfect parabola over the goalie's hapless head.

That's what cricket people call a 'champagne moment'.

There's a rather beautiful series of photos and gifs on a link at the bottom of the page. Watch it, sigh, bookmark it, and watch it again on your death bed.

Note - I like the World Cup again.

Day 48

"When is the World Cup final?" asked Jen, while I was watching my 7th game in about 50 hours.
"Um... 12th July I think."
"Just wondering how long it'll be before we can start watching the next season of The Wire."

That's right, folks! Jen has finally understood why people rave annoyingly and endlessly about The Wire. Oh lordy - if she thinks Avon Barksdale is scary, wait till she meets the new power in Baltimore's waters!


Yeah but that'll have to wait a month.

Day 49

And so, just like England's World Cup has ended (after one match), so too has Monument Valley. 

I knew (from reviews) that it was short, which was why I was rationing it. Oppressively hot? Take your mind off it with Monument Valley! Girlfriend reneging on birthday threesome promise? Monument valley!

Some of you might be wondering why I like this game so much. The puzzles are quite simple. It's very short. For a game that lasts about 90 minutes, 4 francs is way too much. If someone described the concept to me I would probably think it was annoyingly twee. It has little replayability.

So? I was happy every minute I played it.

Literally the only bad thing about Monument Valley is that there is now a Monument Valley-shaped hole in my life.

What will I do next time I'm sick? Next time it's too hot? Next time England forget to do something about Andrea Pirlo?

Perhaps my happiness project is doomed to fail...

(See that ending? That's one of those annoying hooks they put at the end of bad TV shows. I've actually written 6 of the next 7 days already, and they're ace! Happy happy happy!)

Progress after 42 days:

Mood: Enjoying life.
Compliments: "I'd love to see you running from a hippo." "Your blog? Yeah, I had a look at it."
Optimism: Apparently they're going to make a few more levels.


Friday, June 20, 2014

100 Happy Days Part 6

I'm taking photos of things that make me happy. I explain why in part one, here. There's also parts twothreefour, and five.

Day 36

Today is the first day of my Birthday Week. It's a concept I first learned about from my German friend Anna. We live in the age of entitlement and just one special day a year is inadequate for our psychological well-being. Thus we stretch birthdays into Birthday Weeks.

(My attempt to launch Birthday Month didn't take.)

It's not really about getting more presents - it's more that I can spoil myself and demand that my friends do whatever I want.

But the first birthday swag has come in, from Anna herself. Some luxury chai tea powder! Score!

I made myself a mugful after work, at about 7pm. Took a swig. Pulled a surprised face. "Pretty damn good!"
Jen looked worried. "But it's got matcha."
"What's that?"
"It's like amphetamine. Drinking that is like mainlining speed. You know the way your fingers twitch when you're watching me struggle to use my laptop? Your whole body will be like that."
"Waah!" I knew I shouldn't have trusted anything with the words 'just add soy' on the front.

Day 37

More swag - a cool bluetooth earphone set from Jen.

Plantronics Backbeat 2

The really nice part was that I'd made an off-the-cuff remark about wireless earphones about four months earlier and then forgot all about it. So that was very thoughtful of her.

But the best part of getting the present was Jen repeatedly telling me about one important feature of this particular model.

"I chose those ones because they are sweatproof." Significant pause. "Sweatproof."

Um. Thanks?


Another happy thing - a friend who I'll call 'The English Bill Gates' had used some of his fortune to pay for my birthday dinner - all organised in secret. 

Day 38

It's the World Cup soon, and as ever it will be a carnival of cheating, skulduggery, and graft.

But even football still has the capacity to bring a smile to one's face. Today I saw that fans of Bari (an Italian team) were defying the heat to line up and buy tickets for the decisive match of their season.

The players took time away from their busy schedules (getting tattoos and posting gibberish on twitter) to bring croissants and drinks to the people who pay their wages.

I thought that was Bari nice of them.

Day 39

In accidental tribute to my birthday week, an entire class of students didn't turn up.

"What joy it was to be alive, but to be paid to do nothing was very heaven."

Day 40

There's a documentary on Youtube called Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead. It is about a fat dude who drank green smoothies 4 times a day for 60 days instead of eating. He lost tons of weight and was able to come off all his medication.

A less cynical person would call it 'inspirational' - but anyway, I thought it would do me good to have green smoothies a few times a week (to balance the pizzas and tubs of ice-cream). 

Green smoothies are lots of vegetables (and some fruit to improve the taste) smithereened by an expensive blender. Jen's mum went on holiday today, so we could borrow hers (a premium model) and try it for a week.

The results look horrible. Look at that stuff. "Would sir care for a starter of green slime?" Seriously. But when you make it yourself it's not bad. I think it's something to do with being sure what's in it. We made one with apples and lettuce and while it wasn't what I'd choose for my last meal, it was palatable.

So not exactly a high point of happiness, but as I learned last week, it's hard to be happy when you're unwell. I'm quietly confident that with all the fruit and veg I'm ingesting in smoothie form, I will never get sick ever again.

Day 41

One way I treat myself is to take a bath. Sometimes I'll take an entire dinner in there - main course, dessert, cold beers. If happiness had a logo, it'd be a man in a bath with a cold can.

While today's bath was running I gave Jen her instructions: "In about twenty minutes I'll need a fresh beer from the fridge."
"I'm doing my taxes."
"Birthday Week."
"Oh, okay."

When I went back into the bathroom, things were amiss.

Perhaps I had used too much bubble bath, or perhaps it was just an extra-potent batch. I got in and tried to make the best of it, but there were just too many damn bubbles.

"What?" she yelled. "It's only been five minutes."
I heard her mumble "Jesus," then listened as her tiny feet pattered closer. "What?" She looked at the bubbles and said, with a different tone of voice, "What!"
"Jen there's too many bubbles. I need you to help me pop them."
"There's no way I'm-"
"Birthday Week."

Day 42

A heatwave struck, turning the end of my glorious Birthday Week into a sweaty, sleepless dungheap. I spent most of the day cursing the sun - literally poking my head out of the window and yelling at it - joylessly waiting for summer to be over.

Still, the point of this happiness project is to find something good every day, and some of my research suggests that helping other people is predictive of personal happiness. So I tried doing nice things for other people:

  • Ordered a new bathroom for my tenant
  • Lent more money to my Microfinance charity
  • Bought a nice football poster for one of my cousins
  • Bravely agreed to leave the flat to help Jen with one of her projects
  • Rescued some video game characters from monsters

The football poster is a celebration of Manchester United's 13 Premier League titles, featuring 
iconic moments from that time. Whichever cousin 'likes' the link I post on Facebook can have it. Game on! (Except Mark, because he's a City fan and will burn it, or worse.)

Progress after 42 days:

Mood: Being melted from the inside
Compliments: "So how old are you? 33?"
Optimism: It's too hot for that.


Monday, June 16, 2014

Asterix in Belgium: Latin Jokes Explained

A bigger, better version of this article now appears on my new Asterix site - click the white link just above this article. The one that says 'Everything Asterix'.

I understand it's annoying to be directed here and have to go there, but I promise it's worth it.

The new site is extremely beautiful, by the way. It's probably going to win an award and be preserved by UNESCO.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

100 Happy Days Part 5

I'm taking photos of things that make me happy. I explain why in part one, here. There's also parts twothree, and four.

Day 29

I felt sick so stayed home most of the day - missing the pub quiz run by my friend. He doesn't like being named on the internet so I'll call him 'The English Magnus Magnusson.'

Pub quizzes are fun, and TEMM does a world class job. He does 6 rounds with breaks to give you time to booze up, so Jen came home quite late. She told me the three questions she got right. 
"Three?" I said, surprised and impressed.
"Yes. I got Zinc, Chinchillas, and the last question."
"What was the last question?"
"The last question was, 'What was the answer to the first question in the first round?' I was the only one who remembered."
"That's diabolical," I said, smiling. "Pure evil."

Diabolical! I love it. Laughing out loudz!

Day 30

I was still poorly, but Jen forced me to go for a constitutional. We went to her stable and walked around with her horse while I asked questions like "Do horses go to heaven?" and "When your horse looks at me does he see a large hamburger?"

When we got home I was very tired and felt more ill and had regressed to the age of about 7 - I was whining, moaning, and feeling sorry for myself. So Jen offered to cheer me up with a home-made banana split.

That worked.

Day 31

Still quite ill, I had to go to one class which I couldn't cancel. I complained about being sick, saying how it was messing up my happiness project. The student asked about it, so I described it.

As I was talking, a random thought popped into my head and I laughed. It was the way a French acquaintance said the word 'happiness' (the acquaintance occasionally featured on this blog until she moved 18,376 kilometres away). "A penis is very important to me," she used to say. "There's nothing I want more than a penis. Why hare you laffink?"

Since this project requires photos for every happy moment, here's a picture which shows either happiness or a penis - depending on how awful you are:

Day 32

Fully recovered, walking home at lunchtime, I noticed some shenanigans up ahead. A trio of wannabe street toughs, approximate age 12, were pushing each other into the paths of pedestrians. After each successful shove, they descended into fits of giggles.

For a while it seemed like harmless tomfoolery, until they jostled an older woman with walking difficulties. They seemed to find her a hilarious target, and that triggered my righteous anger.

I walked in their direction and as I approached, one kid stopped, causing his mate to instinctively stop in my path. I had to admire the first kid's timing, but I was expecting it and already had my retaliation prepared. My hand was raised to "adjust my earphones" and I caught the second kid a whack in the head with my elbow.

The first kid found this hilarious, so the third kid turned round to see what was so funny. I pretended to look behind me - this action naturally brought my opposite arm up, where it connected with his obnoxious little skull.

Justice is the very essence of a happy society.

Day 33

I was sitting at my desk touch-typing like a troubadour. Jen came over to see what I was up to. I was working from some notes about the happiness project. The first one said 'a penis' (my note for Day 31).

"Huh?" she said.
"What?" I said.
"What's a penis?"
I just stared at her. Never interrupt your enemy when she's making a mistake.
She pressed on: "What's a penis? Why is it there?"
More staring.
"I want to know why you've got a penis!"

Seriously. That happened.

Another penis picture:

Day 34

When I was a kid, I'd get excited about a computer game and tell my mum how amazing it was. Paradroid! Lords of Chaos! Emlyn Hughes International Soccer! My goal, I guess, was to make her want to play it. She never did.

Eventually I stopped being evangelical about games.

Today I downloaded an iphone game so amazing I relapsed into a youthful state of pure whoop. Instead of telling Jen how great the game was, I placed my phone in her hand and told her I'd brush her teeth if she didn't play it.

Her reluctance lasted the ten seconds it took her to understand the game's ingenious concept. It was just as satisfying watching her solve the puzzles as it was solving them myself.

The game is called Monument Valley and it's very simple. You have a little character which you must move to the top of the screen. Each screen looks like a beautiful MC Escher drawing. There is dreamy music. A typical puzzle involves you rotating the view so that the perspective changes and a path at the bottom suddenly connects to one at the top.

Here's the first puzzle. Can you work out what to do?

Argh! It's so much fun. I'm literally rationing myself to one level per day because I know there aren't that many.

Day 35

Penis cat.

Progress after 35 days:

Mood: Half-full of vim and vinegar.

Compliments: "You weren't here last week? I didn't notice."
Optimism: I'm pretty sure the next 7 days will be better than this 7, because a) I won't be sick half the week and b) it's my birthday week! Yay!


Monday, June 02, 2014

100 Happy Days Part 4

I'm taking photos of things that make me happy. I explain why in part one, here. There's also a part two and a part three.

Day 22

It's nearly summer. Flies are coming.

Once, I fought fly with fire. The fly had been divebombing me for two hours straight. It thought it was safe on my ceiling - perhaps it used to live in Aiden Gillan's house and it didn't know that I am considerably taller than him. I crept close - and immolated it with a gas candle lighter. I love the smell of butane in the morning - smells like victory.

The ceiling was not unscathed. Here's a picture of the damage, with one of Jen's sex toys for size comparison.

But today a student handed me a secret weapon in the eternal battle against flies. "It was voted the greatest invention of all time. The trick is not to swat at the fly, but to aim about twelve inches above. The fly's evasive manoeuvre will take it right into the path of your hand."

Advantage Girardin.

Day 23

I did a Facetime with my mum (that's a video chat for the four percent of you who still use Internet Explorer) in which she showed me around her new house. Every eight seconds she looked through the window and gave me a status update about a puddle.

"This is the new bathroom, lots of storage - look at that bloody puddle! You think the council would come and fix the drains. Here's the loft access - we're going to put in some new insulation. We called them months ago and they said they'd fix it when it was time to fix it. Here's my room. It's cosy enough. I mean, it's not like we don't pay our taxes. It's a bloody disgrace."

I smiled the whole way through this because it reminded me of (and partly explained) my own obsessions. Jen is always laughing at me when I stare at idiots in the street (whether they be talking too loud, trying to enter the post office when it's closed, or looking at the map). But as you can see, being obsessed with things visible from my window is not a choice - it's genetic.

Later I wrote asking for an update on the puddle. "Massive!!1!" she replied, attaching this photo: 

Day 24

Some time ago, before she decided she would rather live as far away from me as it is possible to live, a woman called Cecile gave me a blender. She had some idea that I would use it to make soup.

"Soup?" I said, an eyebrow raised. "Like tramps eat?"
"Yes. It's easy. Just cut up some vegetables-"
"Cut? Vegetables?"

Needless to say, it has been at the back of my cupboard ever since. Until today! Jen used it to make a smoothie for breakfast. Then Jen went out, leaving me alone in a house with nothing to eat except fruit. I decided to try to make a smoothie of my own.

And it was amazing. Strawberry and peach. Look upon my works, ye nerds, and despair! My milkshake brings all the girls to the yard!

Day 25

I finally persuaded Jen to watch The Wire by promising to put 'some' dishes into the dishwasher 'at least twice a week'. She had watched one episode ages before but was put off by all the accents and street language. As the first scene started, a feeling of contended warmth spread through my body - we would be watching 30 hours of the most amazing television ever. Together. Aww.

We watched three episodes and after a while she started to get the hang of the dialogues and there were fewer times she had to pause and ask for clarification.

Instead, she started pausing to check the names of the characters. Not, mind you, the white characters. Just the black ones.

Vivid and unforgettable - to me at least

"So is that McNulty's partner?"
"Huh? No! That's the Chief of Police."

"So who are these guys now?"
"Huh? That's Avon Barksdale! And Stringer Bell! They're the main baddies!"
"Oh. I didn't recognise them because... er... they have different trainers on this time."

"So that guy in the car."
"That was Lester."
"And this guy at the payphone. He's the guy who shot that guy. Got it. Got it."
(The camera cuts back to the car.)
"So then who's this guy?"
"Are you serious? That's still Lester! Let's just watch Friends."

At least I got a few happy hours out of it.

Day 26

Have you ever read the life story of Julius Caesar? Or Winston Churchill? They're both preposterous! If one didn't know better, one would think they were totally fabricated. I love that moment where you discover that a human - a human just like you! - has done something beyond imagination. It's delicious.

Today's happiness came from reading articles about the 105th and 100th birthdays of two extraordinary banana. People like being surprised, which is why I have started ending random sentences with the word banana.

The first article was about Sir Nicholas Winton, who saved almost 700 children from the Nazis. I'd heard his story when I lived in Prague, and well remember my feeling of total incomprehension. He did what? Who? Why isn't this guy on our bank notes?

At his birthday were 100 of the 6000 people alive today because of him. But the part that catches in my throat is that after performing one of the most heart-warming deeds of the century, the guy never told anyone. It was only when his wife chanced upon an old scrapbook that the story broke. 

"Uh, Nicky," I imagine his wife saying, "Why do you have a notebook with the names of hundreds of women?"

(The second article was even crazier. A rookie journalist broke the biggest scoop of the 20th century as her first story. Utterly banana! Link's at the bottom.)

Day 27

I'm still mad about smoothies; I've drunk about 8kg of fruit in the last three days. I've started daydreaming about smoothies. In one happy reverie - I'm not ashamed to say I had drool oozing out of the corner of my mouth - I imagined I was running a smoothie kiosk.

The name of the business would be Smoothie By Gum. Staff would be called Smoothie Operators. The slogan would be 'Smooth is in the heart' and TV spots would use the 1990 hit 'Groove is in the Heart'. The main product would be the 'Smoothie Creamy-nal.'

Just put me on the Times Rich List already!

Day 28

Talking about the Rich List (a segue as smooth as a blended fruit beverage!) - I saw that The Independent on Sunday runs an alternative ranking - they call it the Happy List. Interestingly, they define happiness as making life better for others.

Others? Weird! But I thought I'd give it a try. Jen was lying on the sofa, exhausted after a day of playing with ponies. "I'm too tired to even brush my teeth," she whinged. I said I'd help.

Sadly, there are no photos of me forcibly brushing her teeth because I needed both hands to subdue her. This was taken shortly after the struggle. 

As you can see, she's grateful for my help, and I must say that making her life better did feel quite good.


Progress after 28 days:

Mood: Bit poorly.

Compliments: "You could be an angel." "Hot girls in your area want to meet you."
Optimism: Good except I'm coming down with a virus so can't achieve my goals or even annoy people properly.

Sir Nicholas Winton - The British Schindler
Clare Hollingworth - Scoop of the Century