Well, the weekend is over. Yes, ok, it was over yesterday, when I had a decent chance to recoup after the long drive of the night before and also to make a lovely stew - some of you may be surprised to learn that I've been doing quite a bit of cooking in my time here.
This afternoon, apart from updating this thing and catching up on some email (5 days away; that hasn't happened very often in the last . . . 7 years . . .), I'm getting an NSERC application ready. Given my track record (0 for whatever) with them, it's not the most exciting of tasks, but I have to apply anyway. Who knows, maybe they will like me more with an MSc and some submitted publications.
And just when you thought things were calming down here, Dad arrives tonight for a visit of a week and a half or so.
Well, I suppose it is time to close the chapter of my life that involves the nefarious Randy. It is now one year since that rainy night in Saskatoon, which marks the end of the claim perioid as far as the super-helpful SGI people are concerned.
I have a pictures in the gallery showcasing our first stop of the day, the massive Sagrada Familia cathedral. You can go up about 70-80m in the tower, but there are not many pictures from up there, as I was not in a terribly great state at the time (really, I felt quite close to the edge an awful lot of the time) . . . shades of Chichen-Itza in Mexico (yes, yes Taylor, we can all hear you).
We had driven in to Barcelona using the fastest route, which heads mostly East and then cuts South into Spain. This has the slight disadvantage that all of the roads used are toll highways. For the return trip, we decided to pass through Andorra, a tiny country in the Pyrenees between Spain and France.
There was some disagreement as to the best direction to head out of Barcelona, and we were short an actual road map for Spain. This turned out well, however, in that our wrong turn ended us up in Montserrat, a great mountain view (see the pictures).
We continued to wend our way North West and finally found the highway up to Andorra. This stretch includes several tunnels, some a few kilometres long. You also are still in Catalonia, as we were reminded when we arrived just after the national police had cleared the roadway of a group of demonstrators (maybe 50 or so?) with big Catalonia flags. A few minutes later, we were two cars behind a car that hit a girl who was crying with her friends on the side of the road. It was time for us to get out of Spain.
Andorra is also part of what used to be Catalonia, and in fact the official language is Catalan, though a lot of Spanish is spoken in the South end, and a lot of French in the North end. They use Euros as currency, but are not an actual EU member, and as such are not subject to the same tax laws. As a result, Andorra has become a bit of a shopping mall (there are a few big ones on the side of the main road) and tourist destination for its cheap goods, including booze and perfume. We took advantage of this and grabbed some gazoil at about two-thirds the French price.
We were also hungry, and stopped in at a small village near the border. They were having a medieval festival that evening, and we bought cheese crepes at one of the little stalls while made-up soldiers marched around and performers wowed the many onlookers in the blocked off street. We realised on our way out of town, however, that there was a long drive ahead to Bordeaux, and so we grabbed some Burger King (go ahead, hate me, but I had a craving and it was fast and open).
The road out of Andorra and up through the French side of the Pyranees was dark, windy, and not very crowded. It is on this part of the trip that I really fell in love with our car. It had no trouble whipping around corners and keeping a decent speed as we drove off into the night. I didn't feel quite as confident as the locals that occasionally passed me, but following them made it feel more like a rally car race anyway.
Coming out of the mountains in France, we hit some dense fog and slow roads for about an hour, and still had hours to go until home. So Bri grabbed some sleep (he had to work in the morning), and I steered us back to Bordeaux for about 2am.
As it turns out, Munich is quite far away from the West coast of France, so our Oktoberfest plans are looking a bit unlikely. We were going to go this past weekend, but instead consoled ourselves by heading to Barcelona, Spain.
One motivation for this particular choice of destination was to see an old friend from high school, Josef, who I recently learned had moved to Barcelona. He was kind enough to take us on a walking tour of the city, despite the fact that it turned out to be the "only rainy day of the year in Barcelona".
The typical Spanish night out, as we are told, starts with drinks/snacks after work, dinner around 10-11pm, then hitting a club until 6am and then possibly an after-club until 11am. Our gracious hosts were happy to accompany us on such an evening.
But first, something arty. We met up with Berta and her friend at a photography exhibit at one of the many, many art galleries in Barcelona. The exhibit was really cool, featuring photography from all parts of the 20th century, including some haunting shots from the various wars. Maybe Bri can remember the name of the guy who's work was on display, but I cannot. The art gallery is right by the fountain where I took many pictures, which we checked out while killing time before dinner.
Drinks before dinner were at a football (soccer) club that you have to ring down at street level to let you in (the door is not marked as such, just found between a couple of outdoor restaurants). This is for the purposes of their liquor license or something, as they are a private club. Not too private, as upstairs we discovered a big table of girls with a couple of their moms all down from England.
Time for dinner. We wandered around many tiny streets and alleys trying to find a place that both looked promising in terms of food and had some space to accomodate our group of five. We stumbled upon a little place around one corner that would take us after about a 20 minute wait, but we could spend that at the bar next door.
This bar was empty at the early hour of 10:30pm, but we were assured it would fill up. The place was decorated with a Catalonia, revoluion now! kind of theme, including a big seperatist flag on the wall. For a while, it was just us sipping on wine and Coke (it's not bad - don't worry Ben, the Coke was an improvement for this wine) while Brian and Josef played some foosball (Brian won, but Joe had to deal with a broken defender I affectionately called "Warren" and a slow, sieve-like keeper I affectionately called "Max"). Then, the place picked up when a group of kids who couldn't have been more that about 14 came in (there are no restrictions on ages as such). They demonstrated why the bar might put a "Please don't do drugs in here" (in Spanish, maybe Catalonian) sign up by visiting the bathroom one or two at a time and coming out checking their noses and snorting.
Dinner was good. I had a regional dish, basically a certain kind of sausage. The waitress was sharp enough that after a brief intial order would speak to Bri and I in English and the rest of the table in Catalonian.
It was still a bit early (1am) when we were done eating, so we made a quick stop by the apartment to change and drop off our daypack. The club we were headed to, The Palerma, had "old people" there until about 2am, and then young people would come in and take there place. This sounded a bit weird, but whatever, we would see.
The club is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and from what I could tell (as if I really know much about this), it was kept similar to its original style. A balcony wound all the way around the room, with a bar on the top floor of course, and the main floor had a big dance floor with tables to the side (used earlier in the evening for dinner). With the huge chandelier in the middle and lots of red velvet around, you could eaisly imagine some sort of turn-of-the-century (you know which one I mean) ball being held there.
The 2am prediction was a bit short, I suppose because the older crowd was having such a great time with the live band that performed a combination of local favourites and some international hits ("Lady Marmalade", anyone?). Anyway, at about 2:30am or so, the band packed up, and there was a crew setting up DJ equipment and a big projection screen on stage. Some piped music played, and this is where the crowd really changed; within a couple of songs, the average age of the place must have dropped 20 years. It had filled up even more by the time the DJ started (3am now?), and it was dancing, dancing, dancing.
We left exhausted around 5:30am so that Berta's friend could catch the first train home and the rest of us could go pass out back at the apartment, which we reached around 6:30am.
Now we have a car.
I told a number of people about this, but just as a refresher, the French car manufacturers Renault and Peugeot have a short-term (two weeks to a year) lease program for tourists. It takes advantage of a tax loophole, whereby the tourists get a brand new car, fully covered by insurance, for less than the price of renting, and the car company gets to sell the car as used when it comes back to them, at what must be a substantially reduced price do to the lower tax on used cars.
I say it must be substantially reduced because you have essentially zero-deductible no-fault insurance on these things. Nicki, who you may recall goes to a school with many other international students in France, knows a girl who's gone through three cars . . .
Anyway, I picked up our Renault Clio yesterday. Our only requirements were that it should have a diesel engine to save on gas costs, so we are essentially getting their cheapest diesel car. Which is true, but every other aspect of the car exceeded expectations. I was expecting a bare-bones (tape player and heater) three-door (that would be a "two-door hatchback" in North American terms), and instead, due to availability, we ended up with a well-loaded (cd-player, air-conditioning, power everything) five-door. Pictures to follow.
In another victory for internationalisation, you can hear, blaring from the radios of other cars or your own (more on that later) around Bordeaux, a wide selection of 50 Cent, including the wildly popular P.I.M.P. in all its unedited glory.
Somewhere in Thailand, a lone Canadian cheers . . .
I updated the log today with stuff from the last couple of weeks. I don't have a good method of adding pictures just yet, but hopefully Bri and I will cook up some system soon. In the meantime, he has added a few in his log.
I also sent out a mass email today, with a brief update and mainly to point people here. If you didn't get it, email me and I've apologize profusely and put you on the list in future.
I have added a new category, Europe, which should contain all my posts in Europe regardless of other category (I'm sure the finnicky among you will alert me if I miss something). So you can click on that link on the right, or on the September 2003 link, to catch up. New entries will of course show up on the main page.
Again, the post date reflects the date something happened, as opposed to when I posted it, so if you notice that you haven't seen anything new for two weeks despite the post dates, that is why.
Tomorrow, Brian and I gain new mobility as we pick up our brand new Renault Clio for road trip purposes.
I tried a new internet cafe today and was not especially impressed (the
trials I face . . . ). The connexion went down at one point, but the main
issue was that I couldn't switch the keyboard to English. I know some of
you have written me on foreign keyboards, and complained about various
discrepancies, but I have to say that the French keyboard is really quite
bad. At the least, this is a country at a severe technological
disadvantage in the interet age since you have to hold the Shift key to
make a period symbol. Symbols in the top row do not require a Shift
(numbers do instead). The left and right parentheses are also about six
keys apart, probably a handicap to any French programming in Scheme or
other Lisp derivatives. And before I leave this topic, I don't know what
would ever encourage anyone to switch the letters "q" and "a", taking "a"
from the home row and putting "q" there. There, I said it.
My other main surprise at the behaviour of what you might call an old
civilization is the unfortunate doggie doo situation, which will be the
subject of a future entry.
France, as it turns out, is a decent-sized country. Feeling a bit tired
and ready to head back to Bordeaux, I passed up seeing more of Switzerland
(Montreux in particular had been recommended) and then, upon reaching
Lyon, found out that the last train to Bordeaux was around 3pm, getting in
around midnight, except for night trains. I was working within the
constraints of the my rail pass (this was the last "day" of use for this
particular pass), and so decided to head home on the fastest route: a
seven-hour train through the middle of France, heading roughly due West
from Lyon to Bordeaux.
Of course, seven hours by train doesn't get you very far if you leave
from, say, Vancouver, but then it is still seven hours. It was pretty
quiet after the first couple of hours (I think I saw one or two people who
went the whole way with me), so I caught up on some sleep and also some
math (my contribution to these papers . . .). The countryside was also nice to look at, I guess. :)
Due to a train delay, I was unable to reach Bri before getting back, so I
cleaned up, wandered around a bit (Bordeaux is much busier on weekend
nights with all these students back) and settled into bed relatively early
(midnight on a Saturday - gasp) with the new comforter acquired during my
time away (thanks Nicki!), which smelled of the incense that ended up
packed in the same bag.
As many of you know, I am a fan of the United Nations. I admit that there
is a long way to go in terms of global unity, but you have to start
Two and a half years ago, I was able to visit the UN headquarters in New
York with Brian. Maybe I'll try to dig up the picture from that one to
make a companion to the one I now have from me in Geneva.
Geneva is home to most of the offices of the UN and its various branches.
In some sense, New York is where the public stuff is taken care of
(General Assembly, Security Council meetings), while the Geneva component
is where most of the work gets done. Conferences for world health and
human rights are routinely held here, as is the disarmament committee of
the UN (they meet in quite a room - see the pictures). My supervisor and
I played hooky from the conference and went to take the public tour in the
If you're visiting, there is a huge park that you cannot enter (it is for
delegates to the UN only), and you have to walk all around it to get to
the entrance. This isn't a big deal; at least you get a view of the park
during the tour.
I will not speculate too much here on the future of the UN in light of
recent events in Iraq, but I would say that despite conflicts in the
Security Council in particular, there is no reason to abandon hope. As
the tour guide informed us, the UN is all about the long view; the
convention of childrens' rights took over thrity years to be completed,
but now there is a (more or less) global concensus on the rights of
children. That doesn't mean that there are no problems for children of
the world, but consider that a hundred years ago no concept of such rights
existed in this ubiquitous a form. It's a start . . . and even
Switzerland is a member as of last year (in fact, all nations now are
except for the Vatican).
Anti-American messages abound in Geneva. From the simple "F**K BUSH"
graffiti to the more subtle "Les skinheads ne sont pas tous des Nazis",
this is a town with something to say. Sadly, I did not have my camera
around when I saw all of these choice bits. I think my favourite, in
terms of "you probably wouldn't see this at home", would be a red
and black poster with an American flag and a picture of G. W. Bush's head on
it, with a crosshairs over his face and the caption "I have a dream."
It's more anti-American sentiment than I've seen in Bordeaux, anyway, but I
don't know how Joe Q. Frenchman feels about the whole situation (though one can make a guess from the news, which may or may not be more useful than the news at home).
Geneva is an expensive place to eat if you are a Canadian. The Swiss
Franc (remember, they are non-EU) is almost exactly the same value as the
Canadian dollar, but the prices are high compared to similar items in Canada (I'd guess roughly 50% to 100% more). Of course, all the places you can eat seem quite nice (they are variations on the sidewalk cafe/restarant theme, of course), and the meals we had were quite good.
We ended up a couple of times, at least for beer, at the Cafe des Amis, located right near our hotel in Carouge.
This evening, the City of Geneva held a reception for those attending the conference. It was located at the Science History museum on the banks of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva). Wine (and probbaly some other drinks) and many little sandwiches were served.
One feature of the museum is that it houses some of the original
equipment from the record-setting experiment of Sturm and Colladon on Lac
Léman that measured the speed of sound in water to a much greater
degree of accuracy than before. Their motivations were not simply for the
good of science; they were attacking a prize problem set forth by the
French Académie des Sciences in Paris. The setup was clever, even
if crude by today's standards: one boat supported a large submerged bell
the would be struck at the same time as a flare was lit to signal the
start time to the other boat some 13km away. The other boat was equipped
with a timer (with a quarter-second accuracy) and a "hydrophone",
essentially a tube with a sounding chamber on the end that was held in the
water facing the sound source.
As the conference did not start until 2pm on the first day, we had some time to wander around Geneva.
Our first stop was a big city park that commemorates the Reformation - Calvin spent most of his time in Geneva - and includes the wall of the fathers of the Reformation as seen below, as well as a museum on the subject at the other end of the park.
Next, it was up the hill to see the Église St. André, which has a great view of Geneva (if you go up in the tower, which we couldn't).
Following that, the waterfront, and the Jet d'Eau, which shoots up to NNNm in the air.
The rest of the tour was dotted with clock towers of various kinds, and we eventually hit a place for donairs before getting to the conference (on time, no less).
After a late brunch (see picture), it was decided that the best plan was
to drive into Paris early so that we might see a sight or two before I had
to get to the train station. What followed was a great driving tour where
we would stop and go around the major roundabouts several times for photo
The high speed train runs most of the way from Paris to Geneva, so the
trip only takes 3.5 hours. I read the little bit about Geneva available
in my travel guide, and otherwise whiled away the travel time. Not much
was open at the train station when I got in around 10pm, but I did find a
bank machine that would give me a 50 Swiss Franc bill (no 20s at this
machine; perhaps an indicator of what spending is like?), a store where I
could buy a no-too-expensive sandwich and drink (hooray) and as a
consequence also obtain change for the tram (a real plus). As promised,
then tram went right to the little hotel in Carouge (techincally not
Geneva, it's a town to the South that grew and was eventually added to
what one might call "Greater Geneva").
I will wait to see what Erin writes for this experience, but the plan this day was to visit the Loire Valley, home of many famous old French chateaux. Our mission: to see the "biggest, best" chateau in all of France.
Erin and I hoofed it to the train station with our large backpacks and
made it in time for our morning train. The three-hour ride was uneventful
as we spent almost all of it sleeping.
The Paris metro is quite impressive. At least on the new lines, it struck
me as a bit cleaner than the New York subway, the only thing I've tried in
comparison. This might be a bit unfair, as it probably depends which line
you take and which stations you visit; in fact, Erin found a pretty nasty
pay toilet in one of stations on our way.
The afternoon involved a lot of walking around. I have a number of pictures to post, with the theme being "Erin and Nicki tour Paris." I am very excited to see the Louvre from the inside next time I am in town.
Supper was had at a great little Indian restaurant in the Indian sectio of
town. We got there quite early (6pm - no respectable restaurant opens
until 7pm or later), but were ready to just sit down, so we took the offer
of free drinks in exchange for waiting a while before being able to order.
The food was certainly worth the wait.
I don't remember much of Fontainebleau as we got there in the dark, but
I'm sure it's quite nice. It was great to see Nicki again (I haven't
spent more than a couple hours with her in the last two years), and we
stayed up late drinking some of the local cider.
I leave it to Erin to describe the Bordeaux tour. You may be interested
in some pictures here; I'll get mine up eventually.
I slept through the night, finally, after only a couple hours of nap
yesterday. That was after my first sampling of our new cereal,
Frosties Choco, a version of Frosted Flakes (it has the
tiger and everthing) with a chocolate coating. Roughly half of the
available cereals in the supermarket here are chocolate-based, whereas I
would say that back home about half the cereals are just sugary. Like
alcoholic beverages, this cereal has its chocolate content listed as 9%.
So you can get fairly jacked up on this stuff (mind you, we're not coffee
drinkers), but it was at the cost of yesterday's mid-morning crash. I'm
expecting to develop a tolerance by the end of the month.
Around noon, I am picking up Erin at the train station. I haven't really
seen much in the way of touristy sights in Bordeaux, but I"m expecting
we'll get some in today.
I've been having trouble getting my sleeping schedule right . . . sleeping
during the day, waking up around 5am with no chance of getting back to
sleep. When I think about it, I guess I have been hitting a number of
time zones recently. A month ago, I was in Halifax, followed by Saskatoon
for a week, BC for a week, and now here.
Today's wine purchase, at a whopping 3.50E, has given us a new frontrunner
in the cheap wine contest (we've been managing a bottle per day so far).
The supermarket has an extensive selection in the sub-4 Euro range.
Brian had the clever idea to order the empty bottles on the shelf so that
we know which ones we like best.
Tonight was laundry night, mostly for Bri, but I got a few things cleaned
in preparation for my week away in Switzerland. We're prety sure that we
read the sign correctly, that the place closed at 22h, but the woman who
worked there came in around 21h, cleaned up, and told us that it was ok we
stayed, even though it was supposed to close at 9 (?), but would we mind
making sure the door was closed firmly behind us so it would be locked up.
I suppose we look like a couple of trustworthy foreigners or something,
but this is not a scene I would expect to see played out in any city in
North America . . . maybe a small town, though I suppose this area has a
bit of a small town feel in the way the shops are all modest in size.
So, here's the plan.
Hang out in Bordeaux this week. Try to figure out where I am in this
city. Possibly even have Erin visit later in the week.
Head to Paris on the weekend to see Nicki and boot around there.
Next week, I'm off to Geneva, Switzerland for a conference commemorating
Sturm's bicentennary. It actually lasts from Monday until Friday (school
starts a bit later in the fall here, so I guess people can make that sort
of scheduling). I will be meeting up with my supervisor and taking in the
two-part conference; some history of Sturm's life and work, followed by
more of a proper Sturm-Liouville Theory conference.
For me, this day began somewhere over the Atlantic as I lost several hours
on route to Paris. I wasn't able to sleep much on the flight, unlike my
medicated American seat companion. The pair of us were lucky to get moved
from a squished pair of seats right beside the bathroom at the far back to
the first row of three middle seats (right behind the final row of four
middle seats, which kept getting banged by the meal cart). I got some
reading done, passed out occaisionally, and enjoyed the free wine, which
they kept serving until it got late and most people were sleeping (don't
ask me how).
I was a bit disappointed in French customs upon arrival. I had a whole
convincing story explaining how, yes, I wasn't leaving for about five
months, but I wouldn't be in France the whole time, so I won't need a
proper visa. But the guy just took my passport, filed away the card I had
filled out saying I was a "student" and "tourist", and handed me back my
passport. I didn't have to say anything. Oh well. Maybe they want
Canadians moving there, looking for work on tourist visas, then returning
to steal French jobs. As some of my friends will attest, this is much
harder to accomplish in North America.
At the airport, I obtained another expensive sandwich and settled in at the train station (conveniently located in the airport) for a few hours before my train to Bordeaux. My prospects for communication bode well: the woman who helps me with my train ticket is surprised to be dealing with me in French.
Taking a bench (these would fill up later in the afternoon), I was reading for a little while until a young woman and an older man sat down in the remaining two seats. They were speking in English, and once they had a chance to rest, I asked where they were from. Of course, they are visiting Europe from Saskatchewan (no wonder their English accent did not sound in any way exotic to me), passing through Paris en route to a famous pilgrimage route in Spain.
As for the train, I can definitely recommend against cars that allow smoking. It is a place not for those who want to smoke in their seats, but also for people from other cars who want to drop in to smoke. Three hours of that is pretty ugly . . . I will avoid such spots in future.
Bri picked me up at the train station in Bordeaux, and took me to our loft apartment. We drank some wine and went for dinner after the sun went down (a great view . . . should be on his web log). The dinner was excellent, particularly the mussels I ordered. Walking through Bordeaux is interesting for me . . . the route we took was one of the popular pedestrian roads near downtown, with shops on the main floor and apartments for two or three floors above (as it turns out, most of the city is like this, except sometimes there are residences on the main floor).
So, overall, the traveling part went pretty well, and since the French government doesn't seem to care, who knows when I'll leave?
After watching American Beauty to stay awake all night and mess
with my internal clock, I stole out of Michal's place in Vancouver at
5:45am. The previous night had involved some, but not too much, booze
(Ritchie and Chris' school-girl/greaser/biker party - I got a drawn-on
tattoo of a heart with a knife through it that said "MOM"), so I was in
decent shape to begin this journey (it's not like I was hitching up the
chuckwagon to ride out to the East coast or something).
I had a separate flight from Vancouver to Toronto on Air Canada's Tango.
Not the best flight experience . . . it's not appreciably cheaper, but is
really, completely without frills. Fortunately, I had brought an
expensive airport sandwich with me to tide me over. No wonder people are
always so excited to be on Westjet flights when I talk to them. I am a
long-time supporter of Westjet, but it just didn't work into my schedule
I made it to the Toronto airport with baggage and self intact. I met Joe
from Winnipeg on the shuttle from Terminal 2 (where, incidentally, I have
spent almost all of my time in Toronto over the years) to Terminal 1. I
would have grabbed food and a beer with him, but instead ended up waiting
over an hour in line due to late-arriving Italians (the line for the Paris
flight was the same as an earlier flight for Milan).
Security notes: Apparently I no longer set off metal detectors now that I
am without magnetic insoles (never added any to my new boots), and my belt
is somehow less metallic than before. Plastic knives, which I couldn't
bring through security in Saskatoon for Thanksgiving, 2001 are available
in the boarding area with my meal, as well as on my international flight.
I bought an expensive but fairly tasty airport pizza at the "Infield
Terminal" (you take a bus there from Terminal 1; it's a building with just
a bunch of boarding areas) from a nice Indian lady who had just finished
serving three middle-aged busybody flight attendant women who demonstrated
pretty much all the feared T.O. stereotypes in a short couple of minutes
(rude to server, catty, wouldn't even bring coffee over to one another
when it was ready) . . . anyway it left a bad impression, especially
considering they were AC flight attendants (not on my flight, as it
Reading material: Avoiding the possible lefty trifecta of Naomi Klein's
No Logo, Michael Moore's Stupid White Men and a collection
of post-9/11 Noam Chomsky essays (I've already read much of the latter two
online), I opted instead for Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of
Human Societies by Jared Diamond and How The Universe Got Its
Spots by cosmologist Janna Levin.
On the plane, I met a pediatrician named Nick from California. He was
surprised that I was from Canada because I "sound American", which is
further support for my theory that Western Canadians have a nearly
identical accent to West Coast Americans, even all the way down
California (extreme surfer dudes excepted).