Sunday, December 28, 2008

St Andrews

Hello all,
I'm not travelling much these days (nothing on the schedule until March), so here's another from the Pre-Blog Archives.

I can’t believe I missed the airport shuttle this morning. What was I thinking? Just strolling down the hill, I figured I had plenty of time. Time enough to stop for a pain au chocolate if I passed a bakery open already. The shuttle leaves the bus station at 5:45, and it’s only 5:30.
Hey, what’s that van going the other way?
At the bus station two minutes later - yeah, shuttle to the airport, leaving at 5:30. what had I been thinking?? And I could have caught it too, with a little hustle.
My flight is at 6:35, but how to get there? There’s not a taxi in sight. The city is nearly deserted at this time of the morning. I could phone for a taxi, but it takes ages for one to actually show up. Ah, the train station! There should be taxis at the train station.
And so there are. Three. Three nice, empty taxis. Zero taxi drivers in sight. In the station, out again, nobody seems to be interested in a fare. So I go inside again and shout TAXI! Surprisingly loudly. My experience of shouting usually involves a barely audible squeak. This time I get it out, and it echos in the tall space of the station where the train to Paris is just about to leave.
My shout seems to have provoked nothing. I go outside again, starting to panic. How much time do I have left before they close check-in? Three guys with cigarettes stroll out of the station. I ask one - où sont les taxis ? And he kind of smiles and laughs at my anguish. They’re the drivers, the three of them. Let them have their breakfast in peace.
It’s a small town. Ten minutes later I’m paying my 15€ and hurrying into the airport. They’re not even boarding my flight yet. I’ve got plenty of time - a technical problem means we’re 20 minutes late. Take a breath.
And next time, get out of the house ten minutes earlier.

On the bus to into Edinburgh I’m struck with a sense of urgency to get outside immediately and go walk around. The sun is out and it’s low on the horizon already and the day is wasting away. But the imminent disappearance of the sun is an illusion. It’s being so far north in January. Really, it’s only noon. This is the best it gets for sun here.
Yes, noon and I’m famished. The roasted vegetable and cream cheese sandwich served on the plane ranked among the nastiest airline food experiences ever. Even the bread was inedible. In the food court in the mall next to the train station I decide on a baked potato stuffed with chicken tikka. Mmmm. Fresh and hot and spicy.
As I’m tucking in, I think - what if my train to Leuchars is leaving even now, and there isn’t another one for hours? That would suck. That would be me sacrificing daylight on the coast for a tasty and appreciated but quite ordinary lunch. I finish up and go over to the station proper. Next train in 45 minutes. Ok. Note to self: discover that first next time and eat in peace.
Leuchars is very small. It has a medieval church at its center, set in a brilliantly sunlit lawn with old tombstones standing about. That’s about it. Most everything else is 20th century. It’s neat and clean and nice, with a fish & chip & pizza shop, a single grocery, and lots and lots and lots of middle-class housing. Plus a couple of old mansions cozy behind their high walls.
The sign for cars says the nature reserve and beach are 3.5km that way. I can’t seem to find a footpath, though I remember from my internet research that the coastal trail around here actually follows the road. So I go down the road.
It’s pretty, and green except for the trees. The town quickly fades for farmland. I pass an old manor house. They have three pheasants hanging together from a tree, like something from a novel. I liked the pheasants I saw from the train better, even if I couldn’t get so close, or watch them for as long as I wanted.
More farmland, flat, large fields. My feet are slipping in my boots, walking along the asphalt. The shoulder is too soggy and overgrown for walking. I should put on another pair of socks, or turn back. I’ll have blisters at this rate, and the big hiking day (cross my fingers it doesn’t rain much) is tomorrow. The countryside here, with no view of the sea forthcoming, is really rather boring, so I turn back and catch the bus to St Andrews.
Now the sun really is getting low. I’ve got about an hour of light left, so it’s off to explore the town before finding my hotel. Much as my backpack is getting heavy, four of five weather reports predicted rain for tomorrow, and I’d like to get out in the sun while I can.
I glorified Leuchars by calling it a town. St. Andrews is a town. It has a lot to brag about, too - oldest university, oldest & most famous golf course, biggest cathedral of its time (now in ruins), maybe some other stuff too but the rerun the Big Three so often I can’t think of what the others are. Ruined castles, of course, but everyone’s got ruined castles.
It’s sale season in Scotland today, and I do peek into windows along the high street. If those prices were in euros I still wouldn’t be impressed. But with a pound to 1.5 euros, even stuff on sale is incredibly expensive. 70% off! It’d better be!
Happily, I come to the end of the street and catch a glimpse of something tall and old in the distance. That’s more like it. All around are very old buildings, usually three stories, shops on the bottom, homes on top; larger buildings for the university, some very impressive, all in a massively stony gothic style. Except for a few. Except for the 20th century steel and glass and concrete boxes plopped here and there like alien spaceships. Thank goodness there aren’t very many of them.
The old tall thing turns out to be the remains of the cathedral. I have just time for a few pictures before it’s too dark. As I said, when it was built it was the largest cathedral in Scotland. Its footprint is huge. You could practically fit central Leuchars inside. But it didn’t last long. Protestantism arrived and put an end to local popery. For centuries the cathedral was used as a convenient quarry, and I’m surprised that so much of it is left (though it isn’t much), until I consider that perhaps you really could build the entire high street from a structure this massive, and still have bits left over.

It becomes too dark for photography, so I make for my hotel. My host for Monday’s meeting has a deal with this place, and he’d better because I could never afford it on my own. Or I could, just, but it would bother me as being too wasteful.
This place is luxurious. St. Andrews is the home of golf, and the people who travel to Scotland on golf vacations are not usually budget travelers like me. My hotel is the number-two golf hotel in town (number one being an enormous castle-like affair that I have no urge to set foot in it’s so hideous). Golf decor is everywhere. The Big Golf Course is just out the back.
I have a sitting room. I have bath salts. I have cookies and tea things. The towels are the thick, oversized ones I buy for myself, and they smell fresh - not of mildew or the burnt smell of a too-hot dryer. Perhaps if I knew a little better about better hotels I’d be not so impressed, but it’s the nicest I’ve ever stayed in. I have the Sir Anthony Room, number nineteen, decorated with photos of Sir Anthony teeing off, Sir Anthony meeting the Prime Minister on the green, Sir Anthony in various golf and golf-related activities.
After a hot bath and a bit of BBC tv while I unpack and settle in, I wander around the hotel, just to see. It has class, and grandeur, but both, it appears, are a little passed. I visit the reading room, with its huge windows looking out at Castle Golf or whatever it’s called, and out over the bay, and am glad there’s nobody there reading because the floor, under a nice carpet, hasn’t been refinished in who knows how many centuries. There’s a whole topo map under this carpet, with hills and valleys and mountain ranges, and they all make the most interesting creaking noises when you step on them. I peek into the bar, and the restaurant, and I can’t do so discretely because I am announced at every step. You could play tunes with this floor.
The restaurant is a little too Old Money for me, very starched and formal; I didn’t bring clothes for that. The bar, though, is inviting. High ceilings, windows overlooking the bay, no smoke (no people), deep comfy armchairs. I could sip a small glass of something over ice there. Easily.
But I don’t. I’m off for an evening stroll along the seaside perimeter of the town, which will take me past the illuminated castle ruins and the cathedral again. It’s not nearly as cold as I thought it would be from the weather reports, which is nice. The castle is almost as ruined as the cathedral. Monday morning I’ll take the scheduled tour and find out why.
At one vantage point along the rocky shore I pause to listen to the surf, which is quite loud. But there aren’t any waves. It’s just the rocks breaking up the passing swells. From here I can see the castle and cathedral both. And I realize the religious structure was bigger. Or at least it was longer. I suppose the more squarish castle would win for square footage, but add in the grounds, and the cathedral wins hands down.
It’s almost too bad they’ve lit the cathedral. The moon is full tonight and shining ferociously over the sea. It would be beautiful to see the ruins lit only from this celestial source.
The town was lively with shoppers the afternoon, but now they have all gone in somewhere. Perhaps it is still too early for dinner at a quarter to eight. Thinking of dinner. Earlier there were many shops open for sandwiches and coffee and pastries, and it was looking like the college-town third of St. Andrews would contribute casual, cheap dining possibilities.
But now, walking down the quiet streets on a Saturday night, I can get Chinese or pizza to go, or have something fried in a smoke-filled bar, or I can go into a nice restaurant with fresh flowers and multiple wine glasses. Alas, when I try a couple of the more reasonable-looking establishments, they’re all booked up. They’re half empty still, but every last table is reserved.
Eventually I discover a huge restaurant serving the usual burgers and pseudo-mexican and a variety of ‘international’ things that has room. Lots of room; so much that it makes me wonder if people know something I don’t. but it’s this or take-out.
I was hoping for a nice local brew, but all they have is Guinness and a selection of continental lagers. The thing that’s in vogue now is wine by the glass. A ‘small’ glass is 175 ml, and a ‘large’ is much bigger. They’re serious about this wine - a standard glass in France is 125 ml of liquid, no matter the size of the container.
Not in the mood for wine, I order an MGD (my god, ordering American beer in Scotland. For shame! But all the pubs are full of smoke and all the good restaurants are full. What’s a girl to do?) and a steak, rare.
They take a very long time with my food, such that even with lots of writing to occupy me, my beer is about gone by the time it arrives. Ahh, at last. How long does it take to make a rare steak, anyway?
I think they just forgot it there on the grill while somebody went on break. This thing is shoe leather. It isn’t even pink inside, let along bleeding. And the mushrooms it’s topped with have seen better days. The pepper sauce, however, is excellent, so I amuse myself with peppersauce fries while trying to catch somebody’s, anybody’s attention so I can send this back.
It takes a while. People have come in and filled the place a bit. It’s not exactly full, but it no longer has that emptiness that shouts -Everybody else knows better- any more.
Once I do flag down my waiter, (I actually have to stand up to get his attention; waving my arms as if I had an urgent correct answer has no effect but to make other diners look at me strangely), my evening is transformed. He whisks my plate away like a good boy. A moment later the manager approaches, tsking, oh, my, that was truly horrible that steak, I don’t know what happened. We’re making you another; may I bring you a complimentary beverage?
Um, a glass of red wine would be nice. The merlot looks good.
The manager would really like to bring me the large, tankard size, but I insist on “small”. That will be fine. Honest.
It is in fact a very nice Merlot, and I regret my earlier vote for beer. It just seemed like a beer night. And I am informed that 10 % has been taken off my bill, too. That’s fair, though I hadn’t expected more than the complementary wine and a new, properly cooked steak. Though they see me writing, then looking around, then writing. Could be I’m a reviewer.
The replacement steak is excellent. It’s obviously larger and thicker, and it is rare. My fries have been replaced with fresh, hot ones, my mushrooms are new and nice. Everybody wants to know if it’s okay. Yes, it’s very nice. Yes, honestly. And the idea of dessert is tempting, but I’m stuffed. Couldn’t eat another bite. Afterward I weave my way back to the hotel. 175 ml is “small”? Not for wine.

Breakfast is in the dining room, and included in my rate, so I indulge. There’s a continental buffet with very tasty pastries, and hot things are ordered from the kitchen instead of being preserved on steam tables. I order porridge and coffee, and have pastry and yogurt while I’m waiting for slow-cooking oats. When it does come it’s delicious, but the sky has been lightening for some time now over the sea, and I want to get outside as early as possible. So half a bowl is enough.
It’s slightly cloudy out, and the walks and lawns are covered with frost, but it doesn’t feel too cold out. Though maybe that’s just because I’m dressed for minus ten and it’s all of zero. A few people are jogging, but once I’m away from town and the hotels I don’t see anyone for hours. The castle is all golden in the pre-dawn light, and the tide is way, way out.
With predictions of rain today and fair weather on Monday sticking in my head, I decide to take advantage of this fine morning by seeing as much of the coast and countryside as I can before scurrying back to shelter when it starts to cloud over. I can see the town of St Andrews in more depth on Monday morning.
And it is a wonderfully clear morning. The sun isn’t up yet, there are some pink clouds over the sea, and there isn’t much wind. Perfect.
Most of the coast is rocky, but there are a few stretches of beach. There are the cleverly named “West Beach” and “East Beach”, and here’s “Seaside Award Beach”. Seaside Award is the dog beach. Or maybe they all are, but only this one has dogs on it just now. I’m the only person without a dog. Not that there are all that many people or dogs out on this Sunday morning. It makes me reflect that the streets of St Andrews are scrupulously free of dog poo. As it is on this beach, in fact, at least so far.
At the southern end of the beach the Fife Coast Trail climbs up onto the bluff overlooking the shoreline all the way around to the Forth of Firth, across from Edinburgh. I’ll be doing miles 60 to 65 of the Coastal Path today, weather permitting. What I’d love to do is get all the way to the town of Crail, but I’m not sure how far that is, and even less sure there’d be bus service back to St Andrews if necessary.
Come to think of it, there’s probably nothing at all at the village of Boarhill, my turning around point. No lunch, in particular. Darn. I should have filled a little ziplock with those delicious apple-filled pastries at breakfast, and snagged a couple oranges. Whatever. I’ve got three orange tootsie pops if need be.
The path is sometimes up on the bluff, sometimes down on the rocky shore. It starts off skirting a mobile home park, abandoned for the season. Beyond that is a construction zone, extending for many acres. So far they’ve torn everything up into a vast area of bare dirt, but nothing is being built. They’re laying some large pipe down. Maybe it’s yet another golf course. To go with the one right next door, and the one on the other side of the road.
It’s pretty windy topside, but a few people are out golfing anyway. The club house is a modern building, square, with glass all around. Some distance away is a very big hotel, done in a very boring 1950’s reform-school style and painted a sort of ochre yellow. Definitely don’t want to go there. On one of the seaside greens a man is taking two children out for a Sunday morning walk. The boy, about three, is sniveling and bawling for his mummy. The girl, about six, is putting up a good show. She’d rather not be out here in the gale force wind, but she’ll not be a baby.
The view is great. To the south, shockingly green golf lands roll to the cliffs, which tumble down to a black rocky apron around the land, and then the calm blue sea. To the north St. Andrews is in sunlight, with the land edge curving past it in inlets and headlands until it fades over the horizon. The sky is half clouds, half sun, nothing very threatening.
Between the golf course in use and the one under construction is a field for cows, and their territory extends down to the water where the trail is. They like the trail too, and they’ve made it a muddy mess, sinking up to their bovine ankles. There are only a dozen or so, huge placid animals that let hikers go by without worry but for their boots.
For all there’s little to say about the coast, which is pretty but not spectacularly so, I do manage to take two rolls of film. I should start a special album just for rocks, the way I have one for trains and another for cows and one for famous landmarks under scaffolding. That would be a nice evening project when I’m between knitting projects.
Eventually the trail leaves the waterside and cuts across to the village of Boarhill. There are sheep in a fallow field, making a wonderfully subtle study in shades of brown and texture. Nobody much is about in the village. There’s no shop, not even a closed one. Just a quiet, closely packed cluster of houses out in the countryside.
I didn’t print out the next section of map, and with no signage in Boarhill it’s unclear how far it is to Crail, where there’s a harbor full of colorful little boats that figure largely on the local postcards. Nor is it obvious that the trail heads back to the water soon - it seems to be heading off into the interior, which is quite monotonous in the January cold. Probably 5 miles on the road, as many as ten on the trail.
I vaguely recall Crail being ten road miles from St Andrews, so a round trip there is a bit much for a Sunday with no guarantee of bus service. I probably said that before, but when you’re hiking along with just your thoughts and the pretty stones and the odd cow, things tend to go around in brain circles.
As I turn around I notice a bank of much darker clouds to the west, reminding me of another reason to not stay out too long. It may well start to rain soon. Though not just yet.
More people are outside on my way back. The golf course is busier, and I pass eight other hikers, mostly in pairs. Small boats are coming around to check buoys that are now in deep enough water to approach. The tide has come in, Far In.
And it’s probably going to be a very high tide, considering the moon is full.
This reminds me that there might be a hitch ahead. Coming south there was at one point a sign saying that the trail was often cut off by the high tide and that hikers should wait for it to go out again. There didn’t appear to be a convenient way around by scaling the unstable bluff, either, and the rude footholds hacked into the gentler but slick hillside farther back didn’t seem to offer a great alternative to waiting. It looked more like a good place for a fall and a soaking.
I’d thought about all that rather idly a few hours ago, with a good many yards between me and the water. And then I’d gone on to other musings and the trail up topside, and forgotten. The tide isn’t at its highest yet. The algae on the rocks and the flotsam limit attest to that. But how much time do I have? Where exactly was that place, with its crescent of sandy beach between jagged tongues of rock pointing to Scandinavia?
I remember taking a picture of a particularly nice black stone with a thin purple vein across it, and finding the perfect spot for a pee right about there. But was it past the cows? I think so. Past the cows and before the view of the hideous golf hotel/reform school. So it must be soon.
Well, not that soon, but the passage is still dry, the narrow strip that is left. Most of the landscape of fantastic rock formations and pools has been transformed into sea, with tiny islands.

Back in St Andrews my feet declare they’ve had enough. And it’s definitely time for a bite. Fortunately, the Scots are very big on eating in the middle of the afternoon, and at 2:30 lots of places are open for sandwiches and pastry and coffee, or wine if you’d prefer. I have a delicious sandwich with smoked salmon and greens and chutney, but the spiced apple crumble gets erased from the chalkboard while I’m waiting for my waitress to come ask me if I want some. The gingerbread is not good, alas.
I’ve wandered about enough for one day, and check out Brit TV once the sun goes down. They’ve got Deal or No Deal, a stupid game show we’ve got in France. The BBC does it slightly better by condensing it down to half an hour. The French wring an excruciating extra quarter hour out of the same thing. Better is a show where the brits got word of the annual Punkin Chuck contest in Delaware. In two days they cobbed together a centrifuge-based pumpkin thrower from old junk, including a bus engine and heavy iron scaffolding. They ship it over and take second place in their class (of 3), and have a grand old time of it.
I don’t search very hard for dinner. The pasta with salmon just up the street sounded good, so I don’t go any farther. I should have, alas. Then I try looking for some live music. Unlike nightlife I experienced in Ireland, there doesn’t seem to be much traditional live music on offer here in St Andrews. There might be some ascertainment bias on my part, because music was certainly going on in a number of bars, and bars these days are extra-full of smoke now that restaurants are strictly non-smoking, so I avoid the ones with unbreathable air. But I have been looking, all over town, in bars, and there just seems to be nothing but noisy modern stuff for the college crowd. Not what I’m looking for.
That’s fine. I’m happy to spend a quiet hour reading after dinner and turn in early. I didn’t speed-walk today, but I did go pretty far and it’s catching up with me. It’s raining lightly when I leave the restaurant. The wet weather has arrived at last, and it’s time to make use of the cheap fold-up umbrella I’ve been hauling everywhere.

In the morning it’s still raining and the tide is again way out to sea. The beach is huge. This morning’s plan was to stroll about photographing the town. I don’t much feel like getting my camera wet, so after coffee and porridge and a yogurt I go for a walk on the beach.
Almost as soon as I get out there, the rain tapers off to wet air. The beach is so flat there are pools 50 yards from the water. Shore birds and seagulls are having their breakfast. Two people jog, separately. Several others are walking their dogs. It’s quiet.
I work in the mud on my boots by playing chicken with the arriving wavelets. Water 3 inches deep is perfect, but any higher it’ll come in through the eyelets for the laces. So I go back and forth, back and forth like the little crowds of birds.
Back at the hotel there’s just time to change into decent clothes and take a turn around the now dry town before meeting up with my colleagues at noon. Most tempting are the cashmere or lambswool sweaters, 50 % off all over town. But the numbers lie. They only look affordable for such a beautiful item, until you do the math converting to euros.
So I tell myself - later. Let it stew a while, and if you really want it you can come back. Clever strategy. I find the post office and send my packet of cards, and take a few pictures of the beautiful old town, and it’s time to head back. And after that, I never really have time to hang around shopping.
And that’s it for the journal entry. My colleagues are a great bunch and I’m very pleased to meet them in this informal, 10 people around a table meeting (and dinner together, heavenly curry), where you really connect with people and discover each other. At big meetings I don’t get to know anybody at all.
Tuesday my boss decides he’d rather spend an extra hour hanging out at the airport, rather than taking our 2:30 taxi as planned, thus my wallet is spared a tour of the cashmere stores for good. I spend the time instead wandering about the airport, working off our copious and delicious buffet lunch.

Till next time!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Little Change

Should this blog have more photos?
Should I be able to blog from home?
So I'm gonna do it, I'm going digital. As soon as I get back home this weekend I'm cruising the online sales.
To help finance this new gadget habit, in the next few days you'll notice a small change to the look of the blog. I apologise for that. Initially I was dead against advertising on the blog; mostly by analogy to the ads that my so-very-ex boyfriend added to all his emails (he's my honey and he's trying to sell me crap as if I were some stranger???). But this isn't email, and I've found that the other blogs that I visit, if they have a discreet column of ads on one edge, I don't really care. Anyway, if it doesn't work out, I'll cancel them. Let me know if it bugs you!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


This is from my before-blog archives, but I thought you might enjoy it.

It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegone. Or maybe not; I don’t know. It has been a supercharged September in Clermont-Ferrand. A new class to prepare and teach, students with their oral presentations, deadlines for abstracts and manuscripts, meetings. It’s been one thing after another for the past six weeks. I need a breather, because October will be just the same.
Today: meeting in Paris. Not until two, so the eight o’clock train gives me plenty of time for lunch. The problem is the cats. Natalie came in like a good girl this morning, but Pandemonium and Sienne did not. Normally Pan is at my window bright and early, eager for catfood and the possibility of a spot of milk. Sienne hangs around with him or sticks close to home, but this morning I call them and even go looking for them, but no grey swirly tiger cats appear. I’m going to miss my train if I don’t get going. They’ve spent the day outside before. I’ll just call Olivier and have him let them in tonight after work. They’ll be fine. A bit peckish, but maybe that’ll teach ‘em.

Full train today. There should be a rule about train travel: everybody has to bathe first and wear clean clothes. The man next to me is just bearable, but only just. At least he’s not a smoker, with his clothes and hair all saturated with tobacco stink. And he’s not my summer student Pierre L., who seemed never to have learned about toothpaste. No, I really shouldn’t complain too much, as I myself have occasionally taken a train, usually at the end of a weekend, in a less than savory state. Home from Langeac, for instance, after a day’s hike. Sometimes you can’t really help being less than daisy-fresh.
After my usual lunch at the usual place – pasta gratinee at the Vesuvio, across from the station, I go early to the meeting because Rue Tolbiac is a long street and I don’t know which end of it number 101 is at. No matter, it’s a nice day and I could use a bit of a walk after sitting still all morning barely able to cross and uncross my legs. The FLNCC building turns out to be in a kind of neighborhood so common in Paris: 19th and 20th century boring. Concrete. Graffiti, boarded up shops. A piece of the Sorbonne University, falling to pieces. But there are three – three! – open Vietnamese restaurants. And two closed ones. But Mmmmmm, next time this particular meeting comes around I’ll be lunching over here. Who knew?
But the next meeting if this series will be in Montpellier, we decide, since everybody will be down there for the big genetics bash in January anyway. We decide to have a dinner meeting, at a place our southern colleagues know well.
In a flurry of understated efficiency, we end early. Now how often does that happen?

So early in fact, that I have hopes of catching an early train to Le Havre, but it isn’t to be. There’s no good metro route from here to the Gare St Lazare on the north side of Paris. There’s a bus, stopping just a few blocks over, though of course we have to deal with crossing the heart of the city just as rush hour starts to build up. What’s more, the first bus to come along isn’t even going all the way to the station. Whatever. I have until 6:40, and I picked up my ticket before lunch so there’s not even that to mess with.
Outside St Lazare in the large square there’s a little fair going on. Dozens of little booths of products from India and Peru and Pakistan and Senegal. Jewelry and pashminas (I’ve got such a collection of scarves already, but it’s hard to resist!) and cookies and baby clothes and food cooking in the last aisle. Ah, that smells wonderful! I’m tempted in a hundred ways, but in the end I think of the weight my bag will have on my way home Saturday even if I add nothing at all, and I resist. If this is still going on on my way home, I just might…
Again the train is filled to the last seat. Many places have a little yellow card stuck into a slot above the window, indicating reservations. People throw their stuff on the overhead rack and sit down. Other people come and say a word and the early people get up, collect their stuff and leave so that the process can begin again. Apparently all of the reservations are showing up, like me, and that’s unusual.

It’s 6:40, and two hours to Le Havre. This is practically a commuter train. People are reading, doing crosswords, sleeping. It’s quiet but for the significant rail noise of an old train. My seatmate has his cellphone out on his fold-down tray as if he’s expecting a Big Call any second. He has the window but instead of looking out, he dozes. I think, if he doesn’t appreciate it, he should let me have it. Not that there’s much to see just now in the lame outskirts of Paris, but later there will be countryside. Towns. Fields of cows. Castles maybe.
Sigh, no castles. Not any that can be seen from the train, at least, and not much countryside, either. Why do they line the railway with trees and thick bushes? We bored travelers don’t get to see anything at all!
The train empties out at Rouen, in spite of most of the little yellow tickets saying Paris-Le Havre. Why would you pay for a ticket all the way to Le Havre and then get off the train ¾ of the way there? Curious.
I have the window now. Now that there’s nothing to see but my reflection against the dark.
At the end of the line I stop to call Olivier. I get his machine. I hope he gets the message not too late.

I’ve read that Le Havre is not worth seeing. Thoroughly destroyed in WWII, it’s all 20th century concrete now. That one can see the main cathedral from all over town is considered ‘unfortunate’ by Lonely Planet.
The area right around the station is typical train-station run down, but I look among the hotels along the main street. My train out is at 8am, and I don’t want to have to rush in the morning.
Here’s a chain-hotel advertising rooms at 39 euros a night. Nobody responds to the bell, though. I hang around and notice that only four rooms in the whole place go for that price. Another ring, a little patience, still nobody, I’m out the door.
Next there are rooms for 35, but the ‘complet’ sign is out. Then it’s up the block off the station square. Above a narrow walkway blinks ‘Hotel’. One star, but I sneak a peek down the walk and it’s nicely landscaped, opening onto a small courtyard with a two-part stairway sweeping elegantly up to the entrance. A modest, family-run place holding out against the impersonal cookie-cutter chains. I like that, and I like the price even more.
Up in the room, however, I wonder if I shouldn’t try to get my money back and keep looking. Immediately it smells of smoke. A point for the chains - you can usually get a non-smoking room these days. I can probably live with this if I cover the pillow with my spare shirt, and avoid hugging the covers up to my chin. The floor is uneven, but I just won’t go barefoot. The door has been damaged around the lock, which has been replaced and appears to work fine. The bed, well, what did I expect for 25 a night? Why didn’t the clerk at the other place answer the damned bell?
Finally I decide that I won’t ask to get my money back, which is on my credit card so I won’t be sure the transaction is annulled until I actually don’t get billed for it and if I do it’ll be too late; I’ll just stay in a dive one last time. Last time I did this, I swore I would give it up.

Outside looking for dinner I’m hoping for Chinese (all I really want is a large bowl of soup) but all there is is kabob take-out or eat with plastic forks in smoky, grungy, you don’t want to know places, plus one brasserie.
This brasserie has got to be the best-lit restaurant in all of France. It’s blindingly bright. It’s like a warning for all the shadow-loving, kebab-eating people to Stay Out, and an invitation for tired, civilization-seeking travelers with unfortunately early trains to find haven.
The food is indifferent, the music Hotel California, but I linger and finish my wine because I don’t savor a late evening walk just here and my room is not worth going back to until I’m ready to sleep.

It’s not a comfortable night, and I’m still tired when the phone rings at 7. Already? It’s dark out.
I’m on vacation here – it’s not right to get up just as early as ever.
But I have an 8:10 train to Fécamp. Le Havre being just a place to crash, I don’t want to lose any time; I'd rather be seeing the small-town coast, and walking along the beach to the sound of breakers and seagulls. That’s the fun part.
Fécamp is bigger than I imagined. On the map, and in my Lonely Planet that must date to the early 90’s at best, it’s this really small town, barely more than a village. But Fécamp turns out to be quite substantial, though not less nice for all that. It has its touristy side, with a row of beachfront hotels mostly closed for the season, and an equal row of restaurants and high-end clothing stores along the pleasure port. And its summer-home side, with vacation homes on the slopes and spots with a view, is also mostly vacated for the season. Hey, with the ‘season’ so obviously over, why do I still have to pay the high-season rate for my room? Because it’s Sept 30, not Oct 1.

Quandary of the day: do I buy an umbrella. I left mine at home quite deliberately. It’s a yard-long, non-folding model, and I tend to leave it places as soon as I don’t need it over my head. A great umbrella, but a burden. My last folding umbrella I was fully justified in throwing into the nearest trash bin.
The weather fits and starts here on the coast. A few drops, starts to look serious, then nothing, back to the sullen grey sky.
Nix on the umbrella. Not only do I not see any obvious place to buy one, but the wind right on the beach would make one impractical.
After wandering around the port a while I decide to head east along the coast. Only you can’t, along the water: there’s no beach that way. So what about higher up. On the bluff. Question is how to get there, but I find the GR21 trail marks at last. Takes me right up to the old abbey overlooking the town and the sea. Most of the complex is a hotel and restaurant now, both rather out of my range. The church is still a church, more just a chapel, and bizarrely there’s a grill keeping casual visitors out except for mass. It's rare to not have access to churches in France. Much of the rest is falling into ruin.
Just seaward of the abbey complex is a military installation, quite small but with a large communications tower brandishing all sorts of dishes and antennae and what have you. It’s an odd complement to the architecture of the abbey-hotel.
Just beyond that, when you don’t think there should be anything more, is an assortment of WWII blochaus, torn up and gutted now, installed by the Germans in 1940. What a place. Each gun emplacement has a great vacationers’ view, naturally. Sheep are grazing among the ruins, as is a small fat pony. The sheep seem quite used to people wandering around their eating grounds, though they don’t let me get too close. There’s a particular brown one with magnificent horns that I can’t get quite the right camera angle on. He keeps turning his butt to me and moving away. The pony, on the other hand, probably associates people with sweets and headscratching, so it crops grass closer and closer to me until its brown eye entirely fills my viewfinder. Well, with the zoom on full.

Eventually I have company, another person come to gaze wistfully out to sea. We nod in greetings, and I move off through the blackberry patches to see some of the other German ruins and look over Fécamp and the cliffs curving away west. There’s a good width of beach for some hundreds of yards, so walking that direction should get me down to the water. And there’s a town down the coast I might be able to reach, though the water looks like it comes right up to the cliffs in spots.
I toy with following the GR21 east a while, to see if it will take me to picturesque villages and dramatic views over the rocky beach. It probably will do that, but it doesn’t do it in the first half hour, which is filled with grey skies and fallow fields and a huge pit of construction work with a crane and all. So I go back. Some day I should hike the GR21 from Dieppe to Le Havre.

Walking along the beach in Normandy is fun, and it demands effort and attention. In places it’s made from stones from pebble-sized to fist-sized, piled so deep you can’t tell how deep. This part of the beach makes a wonderful noise. If you get near enough the water, when the waves go out and all the stones clatter against each other by the millions it sounds like applause. And then the waves come crashing back in, foaming, sinking into the rocks and pulling them out to sea again. All this is punctuated with occasional cries from the gulls flying by.
Farther on, the rocks get bigger and you have to pay more attention to how you put your feet. They’re pretty rocks, in white and grey with surprising patches of blue. Chunks of sandstone are multicolored yellow and orange and nearly red. And they sparkle, uncovered by the receding tide and kept wet by the determined drizzle. I pocket one, and keep changing it when I find a better one. Whichever one I take I know that as soon as it dries it won’t look anything like it does now, and I’ll wonder why I’m hauling some stupid rock around.
The cliffs are truly impressive up close. From far away you get an idea that they have some kind of horizontal striping. As they do. Between layers of chalky white, regular and quite parallel to the ground, there are thin bands of glossy black-grey rock, something itself laid down in layers that give an interesting banding to the dark layers. This thinner layer wears away less easily than the white sandstone, so it sticks out in chunks, but it’s brittle and flakes away under the slightest blow, leaving a smooth new surface.
Up high, the cliffs look nearly white, but near the bottom, probably as high as the tide ever gets, they’re stained bright yellow-orange. Every mile or so there’s been a piece of cliff broken off that’s lying still in heaps of rubble that interrupt the sweeping line of the beach. The waves are slowly taking the debris away, dissolving the while limestone and leaving the darker smooth round hard stones behind.
The tide goes way, way out, leaving a plain of rocky tide pools behind, filled with seaweed and shellfish and anemonies. Two people with buckets are out at the waterline, collecting, bent over to the work. One is accompanied by a large white dog jumping and playing in the edge of the surf.

It’s so quiet, but there’s a lot to listen to. The tide is so far out now that the waves are a low background grumble. Seagulls heading busily somewhere talk among themselves. And suddenly it sounds like somebody left a shower going. It’s the cliff. It’s leaking. Huge growths of moss cover the leakage and act like a great sponge overhanging the beach. The water comes right out the bottom, making it rain below all the time, 24-7.
I can’t see it all the time because of the thick clouds, but I know there’s a town up ahead. Yport, I think it is, according to the map, but it might be some smaller, unmentioned village. 14km by road, and I don’t think I’ll get there today. Slogging through these rocks is slow going. Some day: Dieppe to Le Havre on foot.
On the way back toward Fécamp there’s a break in the wall where they’ve put a stairway and then a paved path to the top-end. I don’t see a village name anywhere, but there’s a friendly-looking auberge and restaurant, not doing any obvious business today, and a boarded-up church, and farther on fields of corn and cattle. Several houses are in the middle of restoration, the radios turned up to compete with the sounds of sawing and electric drills.
Here’s the GR21 again. Back to town on paved and semi-paved roads takes a fraction of the time that walking along the beach would.
Exploring Fécamp is quickly done. For such a large place it doesn’t have many shops. There are ruins of a castle from William the Conquerer’s day, though you’re not allowed to go play there. The two very large churches are cold and dank. Restoration projects are underway at the cathedral. That makes me wonder, as usual, why the church finds fit to pour so many millions into keeping up these (admittedly impressive) dinosaurs if its real mission is to help people. Don’t get me started on that. The bigger buildings all belong to the French state anyway, and are kept up with public money. Time for a shower and dinner.
Fécamp to me is very English-looking. It’s the brick and stone rowhouses, mostly, making a solid façade of homes from one streetcorner to the next. Elsewhere in France you’d see a lot more variation in the decoration, if not the style, of these housefronts, but here they’ve left the local stone to show through the brick outlines on every house. It’s a nice effect, working with the glossy dark stone as well as the lighter colors quarried nearby, but overall it becomes somber and dreary. Though that impression may be due partly to the weather today. Curtains in windows are uniformly white. Doors are mostly proudly carved wood stained dark, rather than painted bright colors.
That’s in the center or town, the mostly 19th century part. The houses with flower-filled yards ranged all up the hillsides are modern, with light colors and big picture windows.
On my way to one of several seafood places along the port, I stop in a particular bar to buy a couple of postcards. I stopped in earlier, attracted by some oversized panoramics that are quite pretty, but bought nothing at the time. I was on my way to my beach walk, and they would have gotten terribly beat up in my sack with my camera gear and my rocks. The fat old guy behind the counter was rather insulted, though, that I would come in, paw through his postcard collection, even pick two, and then put them back and leave without spending a centime.
With my bright red scarf and oversized leather jacket, he might remember me now. See, monsieur. I’m buying your postcards. Just later. I had thought to get my cards and then spend some time over a kir, writing them, as it is somewhat early for dinner. But the nasty smoke of French cigarettes drives me back outside.

In the restaurant down the block, too, they seem to have never heard of the ‘Evin’ law forbidding smoking in public buildings, in effect five years now. But it’s early for dinner, as I said, and nobody’s lit up yet. The smokers dine later, at about the time I’m starting dessert.
I learn something new at dinner. I know when you eat a potful of mussels it’s usual to use your fingers. I’ve always used one hand to pick up a mussel and then a fork in the other to detach it from the shell for eating, because I find bringing the shell to my mouth too messy. But aha, the people at the next table don’t use a fork, they use an empty shell as a pincer. That works pretty well, and has the advantage of transporting some of the tasty bouillion, with its herbs and onions, to the mouth as well. Good idea.
Saturday starts out partly cloudy. I could kick something – if only we’d had this weather yesterday! There’s not sun all the time, but enough to wait for and appreciate. And the clouds there are aren’t as big and dark-making, and they especially don’t leak. My hat and jacket are still damp from yesterday. My train is at ten, and my bag newly charged with a couple of rocks and a bottle of that local product, Benedictine, so I linger over my coffee instead of hauling that around in a rush trying to see something new. A turn around the port in the sun is enough.
Our train back to Le Havre is another of those delightful one-car jobs, spanking new and almost empty. Our driver is a young woman in a red and white striped t-shirt who jokes with the ticket controller in the cab. My ticket says I have to descend at Bréauté and wait almost an hour for the connection to Le Havre, but this train seems to be going all the way to Le Havre itself. Odd.
I consider staying on, maybe catching an early train to Paris, and then an early train home. Or I can see Bréauté for 48 minutes.

Bréauté is a two-horse town in the middle of corn and dairy Normandy. The only reason it has a station is because of the rail spur heading to Fécamp and the tourist coast off the Paris-Le Havre line. There’s one Hotel-Restaurant, serving a seasonal traveling clientele, closed just now. And then cows, fields of yellow mustard, manor houses overlooking farm complexes built up over centuries. It’s a pleasant walk around.
The next train arrives and my delight fades. Not a nice, sparkly one-car from Fécamp and spots local, but the big one from Paris. The kind with the grey and mint-green interior, and windows that haven’t been washed in a decade. Oh, well.

We pull in to Le Havre at 11:18, and I notice there’s a train for Paris at noon. I could go early, or I could lunch here and take my train at 2. I don’t especially feel like picnicking on a crowded, stinky train like the one I just quit, so I decide to go see a bit of Le Havre.
I catch a bus downtown, which is only a few stops away, and get off when we come to the beach front. It’s a wide, rocky beach. Much broader than at Fécamp but with the same fist-sized stones worn smooth, as deep as you could dig down. And there’s wind here. Very strong wind. Out and about, walking their dogs or their children, are the regulars who don’t seem to notice. I do, so I go wander about town in search of lunch.
While it’s true that Le Havre is not a very interesting place architecturally, and it does have a series of really awful concrete apartment blocks in the center, it’s not all that bad. It has some nice parks, good bus service, and it’s clean and well-kept, at least around here. It does lack for restaurants, alas, except for on-the-beach tourist traps, and takeaway kebabs around the station. I do eventually find a place and have a very nice salad and salmon filet. No time for dessert, gotta get back to my train.
It’s an icky old train, I can see that from here. Lined up across the beginning of the quay are six train agents, not allowing anyone on early. With fifteen minutes to go we’re allowed forward, but to pass them we have to show our tickets. Security, hmmm. You can do that when there’s only one train leaving in the next half hour. Just try it in Paris; the SNCF would go broke hiring enough agents.
Underway, I see it really is a secure train. A pack of three uniformed and armed soldiers pass up and down the aisle. I recall that yesterday morning waiting for my 8:10 there was a soldier with a dog checking out the tracks rather seriously I wonder what’s going on or maybe in a port city they do this all the time so that nothing will go on.
Here’s Bréauté again. This morning I stood in that field and watched an earlier version of this train go by. And Rouen, and eventually Paris, the metro, Gare de Lyon. I look into an early departure to Clermont, but there’s nothing left but seats in smoking or first class. The extra thirty euros isn’t worth it, so I sit around in a café, nursing a kir. It’ll be a long trip home, but I’ve got all day Sunday to hang around doing nothing but petting the cats.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Exam Fun

Ten minutes of nine, and there are 19 bright and eager masters students already present to take their Oncogenetics exam. (I attribute ‘bright’ and ‘eager’ as givens. In fact, these kids are on their 5th exam of the week and most of them look quite fried in the brain.) Most of them are even seated, alternate seats only, thank you, with their pencil cases out and their binders full of notes ready. And we’re talking serious pencil cases. You thought you saw pencil cases in second grade when you were just discovering them - these pencil cases never shrank down to whatever chewed Ticonderoga made it into your pocket in high school; these pencil cases have grown into Serious Big Person pencil/pen/eraser collections. Fountain pen, black pen, red pen, blue pen, green pen, black-red-blue-green all-in-one pen, white-out pen: the minimal collection.

The last student slides into her place at 8:57, and they are allowed to start. Two hours of Scientific Adventure! For a minute I consider taking the exam myself, just to see how long it takes and how hard it is, but then reason gets the better of me. I’ll be doing this exam 20 times over during the holiday break for their grades. One more time just for warmup? Nahhhh.

I’ll just work on my holiday cards. And then I’ll just do these diabolical sudokus. And then, uh, stare at the ceiling. And then try to learn the rest of their names by matching faces to their ID cards. The guys are all easy. Guys looks don’t change much in one semester. Half the girls are easy to match up, but the others, I swear that’s not them. Not one of them has a crazed smile or big hair today. And they’re all wearing grey, or black, or blue, or some combination. Very dreary colors today. Not a red shirt or a green sweater in sight. No yellow, no white, no pink, no orange. The somber dress adds to the somber atmosphere.

I’d love to get up and get a coffee or hot chocolate from the machine in the hall, but it seems so unfair to come back in here with that, the warm scent filling the air. I can have cocoa, and you can’t...

Thinking of drinkage (“Beverages” is out. “Drinkage”, like its companion “snackage” is in. No matter what the spellchecker says.), the bottled water mania seems to have taken a break today. Not a single bottle of Volvic or Cristalline or Evian or Comtrex to be seen. Last year there was a bottle on every table. Two people have snacks. Make that one. The other just has difficult gum.

It would be quiet in here were it not for all the pens clacking. 20 students means about 60 pens are in use. They each have a main pen. Then there’s a pen of a different color, for emphasis. They’re taught to do that somewhere, they must be! Some have pens of different different colors, for different categories of emphasis. Or they may just like to make their pages pretty. Plus the white-out pen. A handy thing. Just try reading through lots of cross-outs. So that’s three or more. Then some of them have an array of highlighters, and I see that they’re even taking the time to highlight the test paper. One guy, he’s got two highlight colors on his test. Hmm. Whatever works. But anyway, with all those pens, and only one pen in hand at any one time, there’s quite a clacking of pens as they’re capped, put down, sorted through, uncapped... A pen frenzy.

The students are allowed to have notes with them, and a French-English dictionary (the exam paper is in English). I don’t see anybody using their dictionary. They shouldn’t really need it. Technical terms won’t be in there anyway. For all the notes they’ve brought, only a couple of people consult them. There are guys with huge binders, all tabbed and organized; not one of the big binders gets opened. Perhaps if you have too much stuff there to help you, there isn’t time to sort through it to find the one thing that’s really useful.

Toward the end, there is some riffling through the notes. They have to integrate the results of the test paper into a model, and they should have sketches of this model somewhere in there... I don’t know how much it really helps to have the notes. Perhaps some of them score an extra point from having just the right schema at hand. Probably not more than that. From some of the exams I’ve graded, I’d swear the student pulled out a schema that was just a little bit off the subject, and copied it instead of building his own schema from the data at hand. So that would be negative points; maybe it evens out.

A couple of times I’m caught napping, er, doing suduku, and miss a student in need of an extra blank page. I’m supposed to hand them around instead of making people get up and disrupt their train of thought. They started out with two blanks (they’re double-pages folded in half to make 4 pages of writing space each), which is enough for about two-thirds of the class. One person finishes on a single sheet.

And that’s it.
Fold up your sheets; don’t forget to put your name on Each One.
Hey, I mean it; time is up.
Stop that writing. Stoppit. Give me that.
But I’m nice. I let everyone finish a sentence or two. Sometimes I get exams cut off in mid

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

H-index Mania

Science is becoming ever more scientific. A whole new industry has sprung up - that of keeping track of the productivity of individual scientists or groups or departments. The Citation Index has been around for ages, where you can look up who’s citing a given paper. Then came Impact Factors, which measure in a single number the quality of a journal (by the number of times the articles published there are cited elsewhere, and when). Now, not spanking new but just coming onto my Things to Pay Attention To horizon, the H-index.

As a journal can be reduced to one IF number (who doubts that a paper in Nature, or Cell, has more impact than one in the International Journal of Modest but Reliable Results, but can - and should - we express this in a single dimension?), so can a person.

My H-index today is 9.
My boss’s is 27, my grad school mentor’s 32; colleagues just out of their post-docs score around 4.

What’s in the 9? It’s a mix of how many papers I published in the past n years, and how many times they’ve been cited. I’m not sure how the quality of the journals figures in, if it does. It should, since a couple of recent papers have had to pass a reasonably high bar to get through, but they’re too new to have appeared in the references of a next wave of papers. And what about the quality of the journals publishing the papers citing my papers? Does a single big paper in a big journal give my H as much bang as a whole slew of notes in rags nobody reads or will ever cite? Where is the balance there? If somebody cites my paper to say it’s wrong, does that still give me a boost? (Yes, it does.) And what of the positioning of authors - does it even count to be on a paper listed 7th of 20 authors (and if so, how much versus being first?)

When people first started tossing H-indices around, it was kind of like joining Facebook. For the first couple of weeks or months you sign up all your friends who are willing, you post a new ‘status’ every day, you’re constantly checking to see if somebody has left you a note, or a joke, or a link, and you’re constantly sending them yourself.
Then you calm down. You go back to normal life and wean yourself off connection addiction to a normal, noninvasive, level. Everybody knows you can’t really assess a person’s scientific productivity with a single number, no matter how many factors go into calculating it. So it’s more from curiosity that we look people up. If I want to evaluate the cv of a potential post-doc, I read it; I note the subjects, the journals, the number of co-authors. I don’t let the H-index say it all.

The problem with the system is, some people are starting to let the H-index say it all. Granting agencies, who receive hundreds or even thousands of applications for a limited pot of funding: they have to separate the grain from the chaff somehow, and an easy first round is a simple H-cutoff. Ditto for job applicants when there are many. Even Masters students looking for labs to do their projects, not knowing how else to evaluate potential hosts, have been known to rank the lab heads by H and go down the list. Never mind that the most exciting, dynamic team may just be too young to have accumulated a big H. Never mind personal interest in subject matter or getting along with one’s colleagues. Never mind working in a specialized field whose journals are simply modest in the IF ranks.

So that’s where I am today. We’ve had a great year in the lab, turning out more than half again as many clinical results this year than last, only that stuff doesn’t make it into many papers. I’ve got great ideas (I like to think, and my boss agrees), and an efficient team, and lots of new equipment. But with an H-index of 9, the INCa won’t even read the abstract of my grant application. Can’t even get in the door.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Just let it be known

... that I did some grocery shopping last night without a list, and failed to forget a single item. I did go home without one, but they just didn't have any of those. Not my fault.

Just thought you all should know.

Or maybe I haven't posted anything in a week because I'm too swamped to spend the time and I just had to say something to reconfirm that I exist. And it's fun to color the words.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Dissertation Angst, continued

So the whole defending in December thing fell through. No way to find a second reporter with expertise in the field we need who was also available the one day open for the whole end of the year. Mission impossible.
Let's shop around for a date in February. Francis said that February was good for him, and I hope he's not ticked at our frantic attempts to replace him in our December folly. February is good for me, and it's good for Marie-Laure. Aside from having to enroll for another semester at the university, that is. An extra 500+ euros for the delay is annoying but we're kind of stuck with it.
Let's hope the academic vacation schedule doesn't get in our way, though. The French do love their time off, and there's a two week chunk of February given over to winter break where everybody goes skiing or off to seek a little sun. And it's not the same two weeks all over the country, they divvy the place up into three sections and the 2-weeks overlap a week for each. Work around that trying to gather people up. It could be great because nobody has meetings then. Or it could be disastrous because they're off to the slopes to break a leg.
I send out a feeler for the first two weeks of February. Sylvie: OK for the first week. Pierre: OK. Yves-Jean: OK. Me: OK. Marie-Laure: OK. Francis: no response.
Awwwww, Francis! come on, talk to me.
Lets get Fabrice in here to go over the revisions of this paper, and while we're at it, he knows Francis well, we'll get him on the phone. I hate phoning, especially in French. Fabrice is great at phoning. Francis was his idea in the first place.
So we call up Francis and there he is, and he's very happy to come see this defence in the second half of February. First half, no can do.
We were so close.
But I jot down the four days in the second half of February that Francis is available, and off we go again for a round of scheduling. You good for the 18th? Yeah, I'm good. How about the 18th? OK fine. Y-J around on the 18th? No problem. Marie-Laure's good. Then I can't reach Pierre. rrrrrrr nailbiting gnashing of teeth. You don't get a day nailed down instantly it gets away from you when you're waiting for feedback. And I gotta go, on my way to Paris and on vacation for three weeks. Sylvie will take over (another Sylvie, our own admin assistant Sylvie) and coordinate everything.
Couple days later, check the gmail, YEA!!!! PIERRE IS GO FOR FEBRUARY 18!!!! Break out the champagne; we have graduation in sight!

Okay, it was way better in person.

Dumb Blogspot Function

Yes, the latest post is here, after the one with the pictures.
Blogspot puts them up in the order you started to work on them, not the order in which they were published, and to get them in order I would have to copy the text to a new post and delete the old one. Which wouldn't be a problem if Blogspot could simply remember all the color and italics and paragraph breaks in there. But nooooooo.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

last pictures

Hello all. I'll explain later, but I know a couple of you are waiting to see the remaining vacation pictures. There aren't many without a certain plush toy in them - those will be over at Pink Rabbit Abroad in a day or two. The weather was poor and night falls early this time of year. I do promise to transcribe the rest of my journal entry by the end of the week. Before it gets too old!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Vacation with Darrell, part the last

Brain exercise: all the photographs in the last post will be mentioned. Up to you to match them to this text as you like.
And now... to take up where I left off...
On our walk around Paris Tuesday evening, the Louvre is lit up as usual, but they've added a wheel of filters that turns around, giving the glass and girder structure slowly changing colors. And the giant Ferris Wheel has been set up. This year it is all in white, with fake white trees in front and a shack for toffee peanuts, roast chestnuts, and souvenirs off to the side.
Let's eat French food tonight. Being here in France, after all. We vow to stop for fondue if we see it offered, or tartiflette which our mouths watered over but we didn't get to in Clermont. Those are both regional dishes, though, and we'd rather not wander around in the cold for too long. We're not picky. Parisian French is often edible.
There's a place just a block from the hotel where we can have yet another round of duck, including salad with gizzards. D is a big fan of gizzards done right, and I guess the French do them right. Even I will happily down salade aux gesiers (though if there's salade au saumon fumé on offer, there's no contest). How do they do it? Keep them from getting tough and dry? D thinks they might be steamed.
Tuesday is quiet for dinner out. We have the place to ourselves until after 9, when a party of the owner's friends arrives. The art on the walls is original, and mostly for sale, so when the bored owner sees us looking he comes over and tells us all, all about the artist. It's good food, all the way through the chocolate ganach cake for dessert.
There aren't many people at breakfast, but they all turn and laugh when I set the heavy glass jar of Nutella down with a clack on our table. I didn't mean to set it down quite so hard, really. I wasn't trying to make a statement. Life is better with Nutella. On bread, on croissants, on waffles. The dull breakfast fare comes to life. Accompanied by plenty of coffee.
This morning we have a mission: find and photograph an old Master lock that has been attached to one of the gates at Park Monceau since the early 1980's. Motorcycle thieves did not succeed in stealing the bike, but they did damage the lock beyond all function. - And - it's so tough it's still there.
It's still there because the city of Paris doesn't spend any effort removing old, useless locks from various gates and fences. They litter parks all across the city, in the thousands. The readers of Locksmithing Today just don't know that.
But it's a mission all the same so here we go. While riding the Metro, we decide to start at the first gate we come to, and to continue around clockwise in a scientific and systematic manner until we have found it or gone all the way around. There's the park, with its high, spike-topped fence and its elaborate gates. The very first gate has three locks, two of which are City locks in nightly gate-closing use. The other is some german thing. Staying outside the park we turn right.
More gates, more locks. City is popular, and not just with the city. Bjorn. That german company whose name I forget. Two-thirds are holding something safe - a bicycle, a scooter, a motorcycle; but a full third hold nothing. Some have chains, some chains wrapped in plastic, some just huge hasps. Some new, some old, some ancient and beaten. None are Masters. If we had a digital camera we'd make a catalog. Never fear: they will all still be here next year when I'll have one.
None of the locks have paint on them - apparently the city painters are careful to respect the abandoned locks whenever they come around for the fence.
Around to the fourth and last major gate, and there it is! A long-hasp, combination Master lock, very beaten and worn. Maurice poses with the find. We take its portrait. We take turns touching it. Yep. There it is, as promised.
D is satisfied. He's a big fan of locks and keys, and every time we pass a key store he stops and looks around. Too bad all the really unusual ones are very expensive!
All over town there are posters for a "Courtesans" exposition at some museum, and here it is, right in a little building abutting the park. And what do we have but a group of schoolchildren being shepherded inside. Um, All About Courtesans for second-graders?
We are in France.
It's a museum of Asian art & history, and in front are bronze dog statues that are kind of neat. One has its mouth open, full of teeth, so we go for a Maurice Moment. That gets the interest of the security guard inside, who has by now finished with the herd of children. That would have been fine on its own, but then Darrell notices that the hollow bronze dog has a hatch on the back. And he opens it. Hey, put that back! We're being watched! But no, it's really cool to look inside, and now the guard comes to the door and shakes his finger menacingly, and D doesn't put the lid down, and the guy starts to come out, so D finally gives in and we leave.

Completing our circuit of the park, it's time to figure out what to do with the rest of the day.

Museums? Nah

Art & architecture? Nah

Shopping? Nah
We could go see some other town not too far, like Riems or Rouen, but that turns out to be too expensive just for a day trip to someplace we're not super keen on anyway.
There's the Chantilly castle, but we've done a lot of castles.
So off the Science Park with its Exploratorium it is.
We take the metro out there, and walk around the extensive grounds for a while. The place is huge, though it looks so outsized because there are a meer handful of people putzing around in a space built to amuse thousands. It's probably packed in the summer. In the park there are lots of things to climb on, all chained off now, off limits. The kiosks are all closed, no ambulant pastry sellers or carts of knicknacks. Empty.
We take a likely direction in search of lunch, but find nothing. Back toward the metro station there were a couple of iffy places where we might risk a sandwich - aside from the Science Park this is a fairly depressed and scuzzy part of Paris, full of graffiti and debris. We get lucky and happen across a little bar & resto that's doing a cracking business. Today's specials: spaghetti bolognaise, braised beef with carrots, various combinations of couscous. The steak with blue cheese sause and fried potatos at the next table looks delicious, but I've been having a lot of steak so I go for the spaghetti. Mistake. D has the beef and carrots, which are a hit.
The Exploratorium is huge. Many sections are closed as they turn over the temporary exhibits, but just the part that's open is many times the size of the H Fleet in San Diego. Today's Special Exhibit is "Tout sur le Zizi", which translates to "All about the Penis", targeted to the 9-12 year old crowd. It's a separate ticket, and we pass. The entire afternoon goes by without our being able to mess with all the stuff there is to see and mess with. Optics, space, acoustics, city planning, electricity, engines, we don't even get to the mathematics part, or see the genetics exhibit. There's just too much, and it's time to go to the Imax theater in its mirrored sphere for our movie.
We passed up a film on Monsters of the Deep in favor of Fly Me to the Moon, in 3-D. It's an animated thing about some flies that tag along on the Apollo 11 mission. The 3-D effects are great, but What were they thinking?? This is a science park, and the science in the film gets an F. Flies wearing space helmets not attached to anything. Flies with two arms, two legs. What's more characteristic of a fly than it's compound eyes? Just to cite some more blatant examples. Going to the moon is so interesting and cool in itself it doesn't have to be made dumb to appeal to grade-schoolers. And the story. OMG. They should distribute airsick bags with the show.
The Exploratorium closed while we were in the theater. I'll have to come back some day and see the rest of it.
One last French dinner. Crèpes this time, savory then sweet, and cider. Ohhhhh, that homemade caramel! For late evening entertainment, we take a tour of the Metro. Most of the stations on line 1 are decorated in interesting ways, and line 6 is mostly above ground, allowing us to see what holiday lights are up and to peek into people's apartments as we trundle by, plus where it crosses the river the 6 has a great view of the Eiffel Tower. The 1 and 6 cross twice, at either end of the interesting part of line 1, a very convenient loop. At this time of the evening (it's not "night" in France until either midnight or you've gone to bed) there aren't too many people riding the trains, but not so few you get nervous about the ones there are. It takes about an hour and fifteen plus the round trip on the 12 to get to Montmartre, and then we're done with Paris.
In the morning we say our Happy Thansgivings and our goodbyes at the airport. Darrell gets home without any problems, and that's it for the vacation. See you again in May!