2008: My year in review

It’s been a while since I updated my personal blog with personal stuff — since April 2008, in fact — so I’m setting that right before 2009 has a chance to get started.

January – MarchMy trips to Washington DC, Ethiopia and Luxor during January and February were blogged in my last big catch-up post. I spent Easter with family in Belgium, where I blogged my early experiments with panoramic photography on my (now alas late) grandmother Mabi and my niece Amélie.

AprilI visited Paris twice in April, both times for work: Once to attend a preparatory conference on the “virtual” Shanghai Expo 2010, and once on an institutional retreat that involved a generous dollop of cultural activities. Here are some photos from the Musée D’Orsay taken on one such excursion.

Musée D’Orsay from above, Paris.parisorsay.jpg

Paris was simply charming — much less dirty and much more cosmopolitan than I remember it even a few years ago — and not just because it was spring. Rome, on the other hand, was creaking under a mass of tourists; I spent 4 hours there on a photo expedition during a layover on my way back to Cairo. You can see the result in this photo essay.

The Spanish Steps, Rome, looking down.romespanish.jpg

MayOops. A bout a pneumonia had me laid low in the Anglo-American Hospital in Zamalek for a few days, where I got myself an intravenous drip with some industrial-strength antibiotics. The nurses were lovely, veiled and only knew Arabic, so I was very eager to translate the English-language drug-administering instructions into universal sign language for them. As I had my laptop with 3G internet dongle at hand, I also made sure to Google every drug brand name within arm’s length. Just to be sure.

I also managed to use technology in novel ways to get a second opinion from James, my surgeon-friend in NYC. When I got the X-ray transparency of my lungs back I turned the desktop background of my MacBook Pro to bright white, put the transparency in front of it and took a 5MB photo with my Nokia N95.

Bottom right, in case you’re wondering where the problem was.pneumoniapix.jpg

I emailed that to James, who agreed it was a garden-variety lung infection and not some career-ending thing.

Oops #2 was the death of my MacBook Pro on May 20. I had everything backed up, but this certainly crimped my style. News to me was that there are no warranty repairs available for Macs in the Middle East — I’d have to wait until my return to Europe. I did find a temporary replacement MacBook while in Cairo, but my MacBook Pro would end up needing a new motherboard (twice!) and I wouldn’t see it work again properly until July. This led to a concerted effort to use web-based applications exclusively for a while, but I quickly found that the cloud can’t replace the desktop yet.

June-JulyLike last year, June means it is time to head for cooler climates than Cairo. This year, I summered in Berlin, as did Felix and Michelle from NYC, in addition to long-term Berliners Marc and Franzi. A critical mass of friends drew me there, in other words.

The city is the uncontested cultural capital of Europe, and green, and bike friendly, bohemian yet not (too) averse to business, cheap, tolerant, with wide sidewalks and outdoor cafés, buzzing with creativity… In short, large parts of it reminded me of NYC’s East Village circa 1997. For example, here is what you’ll find while walking down the street on midsummer day:

Another aspect of Berlin that reminded me of NYC is its sizable population of immigrants. The Euro 2008 Cup was on during my stay, and it led to several unlikely victories for Turkey. The joy by Turkish immigrants at Turkey’s last-minute victory over Croatia was overwhelming, and spilled out onto the streets.


In the next game, they lost to Germany, however.

I would have liked to stay longer in Berlin than the 4-week total I managed in the end, but was pleasantly distracted by…

Yianna and Eurof’s baptism of their son Leonidas in Athens, where I played the part of (godless) Greek-Orthodox godfather, followed by a week on Andros island doing precisely nothing except a spot of windsurfing and excursions to secluded bays. Bliss.

Pretending to pay attention to the priest. Also, it was about 40 degrees in the shade.leonidasbaptism.jpg

I got to Greece via Berlin’s beautiful Tempelhof Airport, flying out exactly 60 years to the day after the start of the Berlin Airlift. A few months later, the airport would close forever, so I got there early and took some photos.

The classic shot of Tempelhof Airport, with its open hangar.tempelhof.jpg

From Greece, I travelled to Cambridge to attend the wedding of Rhian and Andy, where I played official wedding photographer. The ceremony and party were held in a field beside the Cam river, where we all set up tents and partied long into the night.

Rhian and Andy atop Nooksak, their houseboat, during a fierce orange sunset.rhianandy.jpg

The second half of July was again spent productively in Berlin. The undisputed highlight was the visit of presidential candidate Barack Obama. I was there! Here’s proof:

AugustThe first week of August was spent in London visiting family and also visiting Google’s London HQ for a pow-wow with the Google geo-team and friends.

Then it was time for my big summer project: Panoramic Sweden — wherein I rented a car and drove right around Sweden in 17 days and 5,300 kms, making panoramas, processing them and posting one daily to the Panoramic Sweden blog, for the Swedish Institute. In the five years I had lived in Stockholm, I had never ventured much outside the city. Sweden, it turns out, is a revelation:

Click and drag to look around. Read more about this panorama.

The blog got great feedback, and the daily routine proved to be quite the photographic learning experience. I drove through every part of the country, all the way up to Kiruna and down to Ystad and to both Öland and Gotland. It was exhausting but oh so worth it.

SeptemberSeptember began with a trip back to Washington DC, where I had been invited by the US Library of Congress to speak to federal librarians about “Public Diplomacy and the 3D Web — The view from Sweden”. Here are my slides on Google Docs:

It was also a chance to catch up with good friends whom I hadn’t seen since… way back in January!

By the time I got back to Cairo around mid September, the recent frenetic pace caught up with me and I got a relapse of the ol’ pneumonia. I decided to get treatment in Sweden this time — fortunately a regular course of antibiotics sufficed.

October-NovemberMy beloved grandmother Mabi died in Early October, so I went to the funeral on the way to Shanghai for a week, where I was part of a fact-finding mission for the Swedish Institute to find out what it takes to set up a localized website in China. With more Chinese online in 2008 than any other nationality, Sweden has decided to prioritize the Chinese web as a medium for its public diplomacy; now we just need to figure out how to do that.

Shanghai impressed with its drive and energy and — comparing now to Cairo — cleanliness and wealth. There is no doubting that Shanghai is placing itself in the running to be the “new” New York. I took some photos during the trip.

Yuyuan Garden, Shanghaishanghai.jpg

The rest of October and much of November were spent in Egypt — finally. Flatmate Ilona had organized a scholarly conference on “Intercultural contacts in the Ancient Mediterranean” and a related exhibition at the Egyptian Museum on “Ancient Egypt in the Mediterranean”, so I helped out by taking photos — of the conference and of the exhibition opening. In return I got to sit in on some very interesting presentations by famous Egyptologists:-)

Egypt’s antiquities Supremo Zahi Hawass (r)zahi.jpg

One weekend early in November I headed to Alexandria for the first time, and spent 48 hours exploring the city and taking photos. Alexandria is a lovely town, open to the Mediterranean and all the clean breezes that brings, laid back and untainted by large influxes of tourists. The new Alexandrian library impressed, but the highlight was very much wandering through the souk, engaging the merchants with my bad Arabic in the hope of getting their picture. Here is the resulting photo essay.

Night scene in Alexandria.alexandria.jpg

DecemberDecember kicked off with a truly amazing and unique trip through Middle Egypt. I spent a week tagging along with Ilona and her master’s students in Egyptology from the universities of Leiden and Leuven on a study trip of archaeological sites in the region. This is an area not often visited by tourists, and many of the sites are off-limits to non-archaeologists.

We had a bus and driver at our disposition, so each day we headed out — with police escort — to places that were once the jewels in the crown of the oldest and longest-lasting great civilization in the history of mankind — Hermopolis, Beni Hassan, Akoris, Abydos, Tuna el Gebel, Asyut, el Hawawish, Akhetaten… The confidence and artistic genius evident in the ancient Egyptians’ tomb murals and temple inscriptions are a wonderful thing to behold.

Alien V: The Tombs of Asyutasyuttomb.jpg

I shot regular photos, but also brought along my panorama gear, and took a series of 360-degree panoramas as well.

I had a GPS unit with me during the trip, so in the weeks after I got back I collected all my photos, panoramas and GPS track into a file for downloading and viewing in Google Earth. I also wrote up how I made the file on Ogle Earth. The idea was to make the trip come alive in ways that a traditional trip report can’t.

Since I had some vacation days left, I flew to Aswan for a long weekend of sightseeing. As of November, individual travellers no longer need to be part of a convoy or organized tour group between Luxor and Aswan, so I rented a car and driver and threw the temples of Kom Ombo and Edfu into the bargain. Photos.

Aswan from the dunes.aswan.jpg

Christmas was spent with family in Belgium, catching up on the gossip and getting my three-year old niece Amélie up to date on the latest technological advances:

I also managed to break a rib in the final weeks of 2008, in a scenario that involved socks, a slippery surface and a non-compliant sofa, but it is healing nicely, thanks. Finally, New Year’s was spent back in Cairo with friends.

Now, what excitement will 2009 bring?

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