Friday, October 31, 2008

Anybody out there?

Hello all,
I know there are people out there who actually read this blog. I really love getting feedback, like when I run into Marie-Laure, or Jerome mentions something, or when Haitham sends a comment.
Don't feel you actually have to find something to say, but now that the Followers feature works for this blog (and not just for Pink Rabbit Abroad), you can click on the new "Fellow Adventurers" box and sign up as a subscriber. I get to know who's reading; you get notified whenever I make a new post.


Oh, my gosh, I just got a raise! 10.04 a month! I promise - I won't blow it all at once.

With centimes left over, I can get two large jars of Nutella. Or somewhat less than 2 gallons of gas. Or 12 stamps for the US. Or three medium bags of catfood (I don't get the large ones because the cats really don't like it when it gets stale, so we compromise - they would like a fresh bag, or a fresh cow or whatever, every day). Or pizza & beer. Or about six days of phone service.
Alright for getting out my daily sarcasm blast. It just builds up inside me, and then even a minor thing will come along to set it off, like yet another request for $5 from the Obama campaign, or a picture of SP looking more like a sitcom character than a real person. Like a geyser blowing off pressure, out it comes. I am actually very happy that my salary attempts to keep up with inflation. I wonder if 10.04 will do it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Pirates of Indianapolis

What? I'm the only person in the blogspot-o-sphere who's a fan of Hog Eye Navvy???
Go now to their website and discover!
The best acoustic, shanty-singing, eyepatch-wearing, ale-slugging band ever! And if you're very very good, maybe, perhaps, if he's in the mood for it, Dimitry will play the Star Wars theme for you on his bagpipes. Or they'll sing about the dead horse. Or about missing body parts.
And those of you over Indy way, get thee to the Aristocrat, where the band usually plays on Saturdays.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Dissertation Angst

It's true: Finishing your project and writing the dissertation are not as hard as getting your jury together. At least in France.

Now, I know there are millions of graduate students out there who are just beginning to work themselves into tornados of outrage - how can anything be more difficult than writing this **%$£!!! dissertation. Go attack a trailer park in Kansas, dears, the French jury is the supreme test. (Let's just say that Kansas is spared today only because this blog is not widely read among graduate students. They are not supposed to have the time.)

Let's take the UCLA School of Medicine as our standard American University. Over there, you need four or five people, with a minimum of two from outside your department and at least two who are full professors. Ucla is a big place. Swarming with professors. Swarming with departments, too. You or your boss call up a few friends, and there you are. The calender might make you hunt around a little, but not much. You go over to the Registrar. Hi, howya doing. Is that acid-free paper you have there? Yeah, ok, you can go. Just fill out this form and pay that fee.

Here, the jury itself is the test. Forget all those long days in the lab, that was just to soften you up for the real test of perserverance in the face of adversity.

You need a certain number of grosse pointures (big shoe sizes). And you need a certain number of people from outside. But Outside not just your department: outside your university, and around here that means Way Outta Town.

So fine. I start looking around, and there's a Breast Cancer Guy in Lyon and a Circadian Rhythm Guy in Paris, both of whom have big feet. With me and my boss and a local Microarray Guy, two of whom have big feet, that sounds perfect.

Now for the calender. Marie-Laure is about finished writing, and before the end of the semester is looking good. It looks real good because that means she doesn't have to register for an extra semester just to defend her dissertation. Bad news: Lyon Guy can't make it. Good news: the person he suggested as a replacement is available - Lyon Girl is in. She has regular-sized feet, but that's ok because we're still above the 50% grosse pointure line. Bad news: Paris Guy can't make it before February. Good news: he has an interested colleague. Bad news: the colleague can't make it either. More Bad news: this particular juror needs to be an expert in something that is not at all my field, so I don't know anybody at all to call next. Good news: I run into a different colleague and he knows some people. Bad news: those guys don't feel right outside their own domains (is truth not universal?? Who cares if flies don't get breast cancer??). Good news: they know still other people. Bad news: the other people don't have big enough feet.
!!! interrupting this blog post for an important message from the Obama campaign!!!
Last chance to get a Limited Edition Car Magnet for your $10 contribution!
Remember Al Gore and his double-digit lead in October '00! We must keep spending! $30 and we'll send you the fabulous Obama-Biden T-shirt!

All this messing around trying to fill the jury for a December defence, and file-two-months-in-advance rule just swooped down on us. Forget December after the 15th (the last day my boss is available); that makes the day before yesterday the last day to file. Graduate School guy is cool, though, I'm sure he'll give us until Monday.

Yeah, like we're going to luck into a warm body with expertise in circadian rhythms and how they can hide all your interesting results because you never guessed that your favorite gene had anything to do with that so you didn't collect all your samples between 9:44 and 10:06 am on the seventh day of the menstrual cycle, all that and an HDR and nothing better to do on the 15th of December (or perhaps the 11th) than travel to Nowhereville France for a day of sitting around.

Perhaps Monday morning I'll have a miracle email waiting for me.
Otherwise it's back to the drawing board for a date in February.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Eating Experience

A mes lecteurs françaises - si vous trouvez c'est pas juste, faites des commentaires!

Dessert is eaten with a spoon. No matter what is being served, the only acceptable implement is the spoon, no matter how maladapted to the task.
Ice cream? Spoon. Good choice.
Cake? Spoon. Many different utensils work well with cake; the French choose the spoon. (But working well with utensils is a feature of cakes, not any particular versatility on the part of the utensils.)
Blueberry tart with a really hard crust? Spoon. And be careful about bite-sized bits of crust suddenly shooting across the table. No, you may not have a knife. If you suspect that a hard-crust tart is in the offing, discretely hide your cheese knife under a napkin or somewhere in order to remain properly armed.
Bunch of grapes? Spoon. Alright, most people do in fact leave the spoon on the table to eat their grapes. But you still get one.

Coffee. Coffee is served in demitasse cups. A single mug of coffee the size that certain friends of mine have for breakfast in the States, or a Grande at Starbucks, is enough to fill a half dozen of these little jokes. Mind you, there may be about the same amount of ground coffee involved in making these various cups - the french version is just squeezed into the smallest possible volume.
Another of the myriad coffee rules is that coffee at the end of dinner cannot be served with dessert. Verboten. I've been to some restaurants where, if you say so very clearly when ordering dessert that you want your coffee at the same time, they'll shake their heads in dismay over the sad American and serve it the way you want. But that's exceptional. Most places, even if you order coffee with dessert, they will serve your lemon tart with its spoon and bedrock crust, make the coffee, keep it there behind the counter until you have finished every last crumb of your tart, and then serve the now-cold coffee. If you try to trick them by pushing your tart to the side in the hopes they will bring your coffee after all, they will either not do it, or they'll forcibly take your tart away (often by scooping up the plate and placing it in a stack of used dishes such that you don't really want it back after all; if there's the whole table to clear they just do it by stacking your friend's dessert plate on top of yours), before setting down the coffee. You are in a dessert phase, or a coffee phase, but never both. You may keep your glass of wine come what may.

Beer. Beer shalt not be taken with a meal. No. You may have a beer, and you may have dinner, but a beer with dinner is just not done. Not even with sausages and fries, or pizza. Finish your beer and turn to a nice glass of wine with your meal.

The beer for dinner thing reminds me of being asked a few years ago if it was ok for teenagers to have a glass of wine at a restaurant dinner. Yes, young people are included in wine-drinking as part of the family dining experience, and that extends to restaurants (though you don't see many youngsters actually imbibing). In fact, I couldn't think of what the drinking age was in France. Turns out, there wasn't one. Any person of any age could purchase the alcoholic beverage of his or her choice at any supermarket. It's just that kids don't, usually, at least until recently. Just this year they passed a law saying you have to be at least 16 to buy booze.

That's enough on food. On to more serious issues. Maybe.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Foods of the Gods

I'm still messing around with the idea of "what's different here?", and the food is the easiest thing to get a handle on. So here's about some of the edibles. There's a lot more to say, of course, but I have to go home now and feed the cats.

Stuff which is just regular here but you have to make an effort in the States (I won't say there's anything you can't get in the States. I've lived in LA and I know you can get Everything. Even if it isn't allowed. I personally know a determined soul who risked the $40,000 fine at LAX to bring home an entire St. Nectaire cheese. She got pretty pale when she was chosen to have her bag searched, and with the cheese actually in sight its dirty-sock smell apparently said "nothing but bad laundry here", and the guard gave up & let her through. I tried that with some Bleu d'Auvergne going through Toronto once, but chickened out and ended up scarfing an unhealthy amount cheese at the customs window. If only I'd had a baguette handy.) These are my Top-4 of the moment:

Nutella. Oooohhh. I love nutella. I adore it. I eat it straight out of the jar. Sometimes when I have toast for dinner it's just an excuse to have someplace to put a lot of nutella. Every time I pass through the kitchen to let the cats in/out, it seems I stop for just a little, teeny spoonful of chocolate-hazelnut spread heaven. I know I'm not the only one, too. There are signs of serious nutella consumption right at work, where all the jars we use to hold stocks of eppendorf tubes are in fact used nutella jars.

Unpasteurized cheese. Yeah I know you can get unpasturized cheese in the states, but it isn't 'regular' cheese. Cheese dies when you pasturize it. It remains more or less cheesy, but the soul is gone. Thus any cheese worth buying here is raw-milk cheese with a whole panoply of microorganisms in it that together make the complex textures and flavors of french cheeses. And there is absolutely no health problem with that at all. The process from start to finish is tightly controlled to eliminate bugs that may make you sick. If there's a problem, there's a recall, just like in the USA, and I remember only one in the past 12 years.

Whole nutmeg. What's hard to find is ground nutmeg. What you do is buy whole nutmegs and a little scraper device that holds it and scrapes off just the amount of fresh nutmeg that you need. Definitely worth it - like the difference between freshly ground pepper and pepper that's been in a shaker can for two years.

Nearly raw steak. They call it "blue". Barely warm in the middle. If you're someplace where you know the beef is top-notch, a real delicacy. I've had steak Tartare several places, and I've learned you have to ask how they serve it. The classic has raw egg, onions, chopped pickles and such on the side. This one bar&restaurant I like for its other dishes and its Saturday afternoon rugby watching serves Tartare with the pickles and onions already mixed in. Ech. Didn't they know I always leave the pickles alone?

Stuff you can't get in the store here in Clermont-Ferrand (admittedly, Clermont is a backwater. You can get a lot of this stuff in Paris if you're willing to pay the price. Think 4 to 6 times what you'd pay Stateside.)
Poptarts. Yes, we could in fact tour the whole junkfood section of your average american grocery store and list every third item (just a few years ago it was every fifth item - they're catching up fast). But once in a while a Frosted Cinnamon poptart, hot from the toaster, is exactly what you need for breakfast. And in those hermetically sealed aluminum packets, you can keep them around for ages, until you need a little taste of home. Then, having eaten a pair, you remember, and you don't need another one for months.

Sour cream. In the rare mexican restaurants around, they put a dollop of fresh cream wherever you would normally use sour cream. Nooooo!!!!!! It's not so bad, sometimes, once you get used to it, depending on the dish. But they miss the point that sour cream is supposed to bring a touch of sourness to the dish. Random semi-liquid dairy products are no substitute. Try yogurt, or just leave this secondary condiment off altogether.

Hot Tamales ("A fat-free candy" essential to human life). They haven't even thought of Hot Tamales here. Cinnamon in candy? Cinnamon that is candy? When I pass my tin of Cinnamon Altoids around the lab, I do that with the assurance that exactly one person out of 15 will want one.

Pitted olives. Even on pizza, beware of pits. Although, since there are only three to five olives on any pizza said to come with olives, they are so special you will hardly fail to notice them and forget. Pitted cherries are missing too. They actually make cherry pie with whole cherries. I think I can attribute two of my broken teeth to french cherry pie. On the cherry end, they are learning. You can get cherry pitters, meant for making jam, really (could you imagine - leaving the pits in jam?), but catching on for other cherry delights. A pit or two escaped me when I made cherry jam this summer, alas, and I didn't realize until the blender started making odd noises and jerks. Most of the bits were successfully fished out, but enough little ones remain that I can't make gifts of cherry jam this year, and have to eat it myself rather carefully...

That's it for Cultural Differences today. Other subjects, such as universal heath care, free university access, direct voting, and the wearing of biking costumes (not just the shorts), may or may not be addressed in the future.