Not exactly the end

December 11, 2009 at 2:15 am (*)

I’m on my flight home.  (Seriously.  Technology is awesome!)  I still have lots more to go back and fill in, but the next few weeks will be dedicated to thesis “fun” and spending time with everyone I’ve missed,  so only expect little bits here and there.

For anybody keeping track, I did finally find creme brulee done right, at Relais de L’Entrecote.

One bizarre tidbit for the road:  there is a campaign against the eating of horses.  It didn’t occur to me that such a campaign was necessary.  In any case, I haven’t really looked too carefully at the webpage, which I discovered via an ad on the metro.


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Canterbury — totally worth the trip

December 2, 2009 at 10:03 pm (figuring stuff out, food, language, math, touristy, transportation)

Yesterday, I took a trip to England to give a colloquium talk at the University of Kent, and I had a really fantastic time.  I got to spend the morning chatting about math with the guy who invited me.  Then, at lunch time, we just made our way down the hall knocking on doors and ended up with a group of about eight (friendly!) people and headed over to the little cafeteria right near by.  (Okay, one regret:  I should have gotten “jacket potatoes”, which as far as I can tell is just a baked potato with some elaborate or not toppings.  Instead I had some pasta.  It was good, just not very English.)

From campus, you can see Canterbury Cathedral, which is apparently the mother of Anglican churches.  I saw it lit up later that night, while walking around town before dinner, and then I visited inside this morning.  It’s enormous and Gothic, so of course I loved it, even though I thought the price (7 pounds or so?) was a bit insane.  (Well, okay, I’m never pleased about being charged to see a church at all.)

I took a taxi to campus from the train station, since I wasn’t really sure how far it was.  The taxi was designed really well, I think.  It was sort of minivan sized.  The back seat was normal, and then there were two rear-facing seats which folded up.  This means it’s super easy to get into the car, even with bags, but there’s still plenty of seating.

Anyway, I feel like my talk went really well.  The audience seemed pleased that they were expected to participate, and they were totally good sports.  People asked good questions, and I think I gave good answers.  At tea afterwards, several small groups seemed to be discussing problems and ideas related to my talk, so I felt especially good then.

A surprising number of people were *really* wowed by the tablet.  Apparently their big lecture courses are now bigger than before, and they’re being taught in rooms without blackboards.  So, they have to use computers, and although there is a system set up with a tablet in the room, it apparently quite frustrating to use.  Part of this is the fact that it’s a shared system, and it’s pretty much guaranteed that various settings will get changed in the time between one lecture and the next.

I have yet to get a free computer for all the free advertising I do for Thinkpads (and no, I’m not holding my breath), but I did get an offer of cookies on my train ride home.  Some random guy was impressed by the computer and asked a few questions and then later offered me cookies when he was having a snack.

Speaking of the train, I thought the Eurostar was great.  It was roughly $150 round trip, which is high for European train standards, but it is an express train running between two of the most expensive cities in the world, so I guess that’s what you expect?  The cool thing is that it has power outlets, and they alternate by rows — half are English plugs, and half are continental Europe.  It’s also exciting that most of the signs include Dutch, since there is also a Eurostar route between London and Belgium, I think.  In case you are unaware, I’ve had a semester of Dutch, which is enough to get me excited when I see signs and can sort of figure them out.  I guess it also helps to have an English translation right there :)  But that is not the point!  The point is that I can recognize Dutch and sort of read it.  Sometimes.  Back to business — the regional English trains were also quite nice.

After tea was some more chatting about math, and then we walked to town to drop my stuff off, have a little tour of Canterbury at night (decorated for Christmas), and then dinner.  We ate at The Goods Shed, which is an organic market during the day and a restaurant at night.  (It might also be a restaurant during the day.)  I thought it was really nice. I had bream with tiny shrimps and lemon, served with potatoes and sweet potatoes.  That is, in fact, the way to win my heart.  Multiple kinds of delicious potatoes.  I also had a pear-lime-mint juice blend that was awesome, and we had red wine that I thought was actually pretty good.  (Normally I won’t drink red wine, but this one was sweeter than usual, I guess?)  And some yummy soft whole wheat bread with good butter.

After that, off to the bed and breakfast (Magnolia House), which was very charming.  I had my first bath in months, since I live in shower-only land at the moment, and it was heavenly.  There was even a heated towel rack.  I also had my first hot breakfast in months — eggs and toast and bacon and mushrooms and a tomato.  The tomato was odd; it was sliced in half and cooked.  But it was good.

For lunch today, I went to Pret a Manger; as far as I can tell, this is the cheapest way to eat something good while out in England.  It was my go-to place when I visited London several years ago.  Of course, when I visited London, I knew NO French whatsoever, and so I thought the name was really bizzare, and I was like, “Oh whatever, I guess that’s the British for you…”  Turns out that “pret a manger” means “ready to eat” in French.  Joke’s on me!

The really nice thing about Pret is that half a sandwich actually costs half as much as a full sandwich.  This means that you can pop in to get a snack easily, or better still, you can mix and match sandwich halves without paying a price premium.  Pret is also very green — a lot of organic stuff, free range chickens, easy recycling, etc.  And I like their yummy lemon cheesecake.

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tiny bits of French and my bad memory

November 30, 2009 at 3:52 pm (language)

I get tiny little bursts of joy when people act like I will understand what they’re saying in French.  (Sometimes it’s even true!)  I just got a quick note in French from the mother of the guy I’m renting an apartment from, since we need to meet for me to give her the rent.  Great fun.

Anyway, it reminds me of a story that I find pretty funny.  Two of my friends got married this summer in Baltimore, and the placecards were fairly personalized.  For example, some recent grads got to be doctor so-and-so.  Well, imagine my surpise and delight when I find that I am Mademoiselle Talaska.  Awesome, right?

So, I tell Sage, “Nice!  Did you do that?”  She informs me that Aaron took care of this bit.  So, I talk to him.  He tells me that in fact, that was how I filled out my reply card, and he just went along with it.  Honestly, I was astonished.  I guess I did it on a whim and then totally forgot.

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another milestone

November 30, 2009 at 1:10 pm (math)

This time tomorrow, I’ll be about to give my first colloquium talk (For you non-academics, this means that the audience is the entire math department, instead of just those mathematicians in my area.  Thus the talk will be more of a story, with fewer technical details and blah blah blah.)

It’s kind of exciting, but I am also somewhat nervous.  I am reasonably confident that the talk will go well, as I’ve spoken on this material many many times now, and I think it’ll be a fun talk.  But you never really know ahead of time what the audience will be like.  I enjoy giving really interactive talks, so I hope they’re game for playing along with me.

However, the thing that really has me anxious is the fact that I won’t arrive in town until a couple hours before my talks.  Eek.  Of course, that’s just how the scheduling made sense, but I am very paranoid about the possibility of missing my train (especially since my ticket is not exchangeable).  If something goes wrong, I might be able to fix it, but it will cost a lot of money.  Of course, I never screw these things up, partly because I worry so much.  I’ll likely be up at 5am tomorrow (even though I won’t need to leave until maybe 8am) because I won’t be able to sleep.

Anyway, speaking of trains!  I’m taking the Eurostar, the super-fast train between England and France (and Belgium, I guess?).  It will take just under 2 hours to get from Paris to my England stop, Ashford, which is some distance east of London.

I’m also hoping to learn some cool stuff while I’m there.  The guy who invited me (and some coauthors) have shown that my work on positivity in the Grassmannian has a surprising (to me) connection to quantum algebra and Poisson geometry.  I’ll be hanging around the day after my talk, so hopefully I will have some time to chat with people.

FYI, my Skype number is going to expire Dec 3, since I decided not to pay for another 3 months to get that last week.  But I’ll be available on the regular internet, and I’ll be home December 10!

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Musée Rodin

November 29, 2009 at 5:45 pm (*)

The Rodin Museum was one of my favorites, but I think the gardens are really the best part.  It’s only 1 euro for entrance to the gardens (6 for the museum).  The highlight for most people is probably The Thinker (Le Penseur), and he’s outside.

In case you are wondering, it is a little bit difficult to get this thinking pose just right.  Andra has evidence that I tried, but I haven’t seen it yet.

The museum has some really nice pieces too, but the stuff outside is what was most memorable for me.  You can also find a tiny thinker on the bronze casting of the Gates of Hell (La Porte de l’Enfer’) outside.  (You can also see the gates in plaster at the Musée d’Orsay.)

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art overflow

November 29, 2009 at 5:20 pm (*)

I was chastised a while back for declaring that I really didn’t have any interest in going to the Louvre.  “It’s the greatest art museum in the world!”  But the truth is, I am not an enormous fan of most art museums, and I find really big museums to be incredibly draining.  (It’s especially frustrating when you have to pay really big prices to get into really big museums, since there is no way you can really absorb more than a small fraction of what’s there.)  I think most art is pretty hideous and elementary school kids could make more attractive things to display, even if they have FAR less talent.  And it’s true that physical beauty is not exactly the point of a lot of art.  But without backstory, its hard to appreciate those things.  In a small gallery, it’s reasonable to have an idea of what you’re getting into.  I like that experience.  But the gigantic mall of art is just an absurd idea to me.  And I hate crowds of clueless, inefficient people.  So, no, I still don’t intend to go to the Louvre.  (You’re welcome to protest or try to convince me otherwise, but I’m warning you ahead of time that your chances aren’t good.)

It’s also true that in general, I like sculpture and architecture way better than say, painting.  (Especially portraits!  What a waste of space.)   This obviously affects my feelings about the museum experience.

Anyway, I got off track with my rant about museums.  When it comes to art, what I love about Paris is not the plethora of museums big and small.  It’s the fact that walking down the street, you feel like you are in a living, breathing art installation every day.  There’s at least one gorgeous building on every block.  Sculptures and fountains are everywhere.  You can’t help passing by tiny hidden parks and gardens.  The stores are creative with their window displays.  Restaurants have heavily used outdoor seating, where patrons are eating gorgeously plated food.  Every patisserie has tiny works of magic, in the form of dessert.  The people watching is amazing; I haven’t yet found a part of the city that isn’t bustling with activity.

I’m sure that the concentration of museums is a driving force behind this atmosphere.  But it’s the spillover that’s really remarkable.  Paris is a city that is alive and it’s a place where beauty is a regular part of everyday life.

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over the limit

November 29, 2009 at 4:46 pm (food)

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  I am a creature of habit.  It’s true that I am loving living within a block of an awesome patisserie and a handful of bakeries.  But it’s hard to eat inexpensively here; if I actually go to a restaurant, we’re talking 10 euros, bare minimum, and it’s more likely to be around 20, which translates to roughly $15-30.  Technically, yes, I can afford it… some of the time.  But it’s so hard to stomach, when I don’t exactly have a lot of confidence that the food will be really good.

Tack on the fact that my default food at home (Mexican)  isn’t an option here, and it’s no surprise that I’m totally homesick for culinary reasons.

It’s hard to say what I wouldn’t give right now for:

  • Tacos from Tios, Fiesta Mexicana, BTB, Monte Cristo (ok, cheating, because this is in Berkeley, but half my food cravings are from Berkeley, so you have to live with it), or even Taco Bell.
  • Chicken Shwarma from Jerusalem Garden.
  • Anything at Grizzly Peak, but especially the cheddar ale soup.
  • A Chicksilanti salad sandwich from Beezy’s.  Or the fancy french toasts.  Or a legitimate breakfast sandwich.
  • Multigrain Cheerios.
  • A hot sandwich that is actually good, instead of just something to keep you alive at lunchtime.  Think Gregoire or Pluto’s or <Ann Arbor must have somewhere good for sandwiches>.  (I may have found a suggestion for such a sandwich place in Paris, but it’s not open until Tuesday, when I’ll be in England, so I won’t be able to report back for bit.  Also, it’s going to cost some absurd amount for a *sandwich*.)

Also, every time I buy cheese here, it totally smells up my refrigerator, despite tasting really good.  Annoying.

Anyway, I do love Paris, but I think I would love it a lot more in chunks of about 2 weeks, instead of 3 months.  It’s not just the food; it’s that being away from all of my people for so long is pretty depressing.

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November 22, 2009 at 8:44 pm (touristy)

While Andra was here, we managed to hit every scam in the book.  I feel like there are at least three major ones, but I can only remember two — the “dropped” gold ring and the friendship bracelet.

Of course, there’s also the swarm of dudes trying to sell you tiny Eiffel towers.  Only one euro!  But we learned that you can get a better deal.  One guy offered us three for a euro.  (Turns out, we didn’t want three tiny Eiffel towers any more than we wanted a single one.)

And then there are the beggars who start out like they want to ask you for directions or something, but really just want to snag your attention to ask for money.

Back to the big ones.  Apparently a common scam is that somebody will pick up a ring off the ground, ask if it’s yours, magically notice that there is some indication that it is a real gold ring, and then offer to sell it to you for some ridiculously low price.  Now, this just sounds absurd to me, so even though I’d read about it in various places, I didn’t think it was real.  Ha.  Then this guy on the bridge to Orsay who looked like he was approaching us stooped down, pretended to pick up something that he’d clearly been holding all along, and started to say something.  We cut him off with a smirk before he got to anything elaborate.

The real kicker is the friendship bracelet guy.  In this one, somebody manages to tie a friendship bracelet onto you and then guilt you into paying for it.  This time, near the Sacre Coeur, I see a guy with a friendship bracelet in his hand, and he’s reaching out for my hand.  I yank it away and say no fairly politely, but he keeps approaching, so I gave him a much more emphatic no.  I don’t think it was quite yelling, but he didn’t like this one bit, and went off on me: “You don’t have to yell!  …  Just be yourself!”

Andra found this hilarious.  Apparently he doesn’t know that being myself includes yelling at guys who can’t take no for an answer the first time.

It’s not the only time some guy has gotten all huffy about me not giving him the time of day, so to speak.  It’s fairly upsetting that they think this is okay.  Seriously?  When you are a stranger approaching a woman, especially at night, you do NOT give her a hard time if she tells you to back off.  No fucking way.

Which is not to say that this is standard at all.  I mean, I think I’ve only experienced it from the creepy street scammers.  In general, the French seem very polite and respectful of personal space, and they are not intrusive and they don’t get all in your face.

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Cimetière du Père-Lachaise

November 21, 2009 at 12:06 am (touristy)

This cemetery is amazing.  It makes me think of a ghost town where the people are smaller than us and don’t require mansions.

During our visit, we took a break at some point, and we were sitting on a bench, babbling away in English.  Some girls come up to us and ask “Excuse me, do you speak English?”, which I found to be hilariously valley girl-esque.  Anyway, they wanted directions to Jim Morrison’s grave, which we were able to give them, even though they were somewhat confused about how the landmarks in our guidebook map were numbered differently than the official cemetery map.

Anyway, I’ll let you see for yourself.  Fall seems to be exactly the right time to visit.  The dead leaves rustling around add that perfect touch to the ambiance.

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Bois de Vincennes

November 20, 2009 at 11:48 pm (touristy)

I got to see some gorgeous swans up close a while back in the Bois de Vincennes.  They just swam beside me as I walked along the river.

Here’s me that day, against a striking background of red leaves.

And here is the super-cool island in the park.

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