Sunday, January 15, 2017

This post is mostly about food (but then so is my life)

I decided to visit Lyon this weekend, it being so nearby, and one of France's biggest cities and its supposed gastronomic capital. We got out of "work" at 10 AM on Friday,  so I got on a train through the snowy countryside and was in Lyon by lunchtime. Said lunch was at Les Halles Paul Bocuses, which is the upscale, expensive covered market - I had a sandwich with Spanish ham, manchego, and a tomato confit in good olive oil (think Maggie's bruschetta, upgraded). The market itself reminded me a lot of the one in Tel Aviv where we spent a lot of time last January. I think there was a shooting there not long ago. 

The afternoon was eh; partially because it was hailing, but mostly because I was stressed out about where I was going to sleep - I had a couchsurf lined up with what sounded like a nice family in the suburbs, except then they didn't answer any of my messages. So I hiked up a hill to a hostel and asked for a bed. The place turned out to be super nice - check out my 5€ breakfast: [photos later, laziness and tech issues]

And I made friends! My bunkmates were a Chilean psychology student and an Australian elementary-school teacher, both travelling Europe post-breakup. We went out for dinner together and eventually found the restaurant recommended by the hostel receptionist. Good traditional Lyonnais food, we think - not quite a bouchon (one of the 20-ish officially recognized authentic Lyonais restaurants), but close. The Chilean and I both decide to order andouillette - just a kind of sausage, right? And Lyon is famous for its meats.

The thing looks pretty good when it lands on the table. Then I poke it with a fork and it falls into small rubbery pieces. Doesn't taste like much, but the mustard sauce is all right. Then slowly a strange smell becomes evident... the rubberiness becomes nastier... the stench becomes stronger and distinctly sewer-like... Soon enough, the Chilean is holding her sweater over her mouth and beginning to gag. Meanwhile, the Australian is morosely pouring ketchup over her foie gras, which is bizarrely paired with gingerbread.

I breathed through my mouth and somehow got through two-thirds of my andouillette before I reaized exactly how gross it was. Later Googling revealed that the thing is stuffed with pig colon, which explains the uniquely fecal odor. But apparently there are whole associations of andouillette fans - to each his own, I suppose.

On Saturday, the sun came out and I got to see the prettier parts of the city. Old Lyon is touristy, but in an actually really nice kind of way. I visited a bookshop with a cave basement and an enormous volume of old choral scores, and a toy store where I learned how music boxes work (never really thought about it before, but it's a clever little system - there are tiny metal tines of different lengths, and as the cylinder turns little bumps hit the tines of the right pitches.) I spent a while talking to not one, but two old ceramics masters; one told me sadly about how the craft is dying out because young people don't care whether they buy cheap machine-produced plates, or artworks that arise as a collaboration between man and earth. 

Probably the coolest experience of the trip was the Museum of Movies and Miniatures that I stumbled across in an alley of the Old Town. The first few floors were filled with hundreds of props, sets, and costumes, as well as exhibits about the filmmaking process. The props are unbelievably realistic and detailed; sharing a small dark room with a moving ten-foot-tall Alien Queen was definitely creepy. The top floor was dedicated to miniature rooms: luxury kitchens, decrepit apartments, prisons and abandoned theaters, in soulful and extraordinarily lifelike 1/12th scale renditions. Throughout the museum - especially with the miniatures, but also with the special effects props - I wondered why these things aren't considered high art. They certainly require extraordinary skill to produce, and it seems to me that they provide just as much opportunity for creative expression as traditional painting or sculpture. Art museums are full of moody paintings of Parisian restaurants; why not the same thing in 3D?

After a fish and ships at the James Joyce Pub with Oscar Wilde hanging over my head, I hiked up to the hilltop cathedral that looks down over the city. Along the way, I climbed in the ruins of a massive two-thousand-year-old amphitheater. I sat through a mass at the church. I didn't understand much of the service, but the music was beautiful. Bean, I wish you'd been there to explain what was going on. For example, who all the different people were - there were two priests (?) who led the spoken portions, both in green robes and one also with a pink skullcap; then there was a young man dressed casually who led the singing, a women who talked briefly about current events, and a couple of others... And everyone somehow seemed to know when to stand up and sit down.

I went back down the hill, and since I had a couple of hours till my BlaBlaCar I ended up walking across the outskirts of the city to the little half-suburban commune where I caught my ride. The interesting and beautiful parts of the city seem to be limited to the historic section by and between the two rivers; the rest is pretty standard apartment buildings and offices. I feel like I got to know the city pretty well after walking twenty miles in two days.

Anyway, that was a really cool trip that finally gave me some of that omg-France adrenaline. On the Grenoble front, things haven't been that exciting. We've been sitting/napping in the back of a lot of classrooms, with a couple of brief moments of meaningful student interaction. We also toured a clean room, which the MechE's found exciting but I didn't really, and went to a hockey game with kids from our host families, which was a fun excursion. I'll be leaving for Geneva on Saturday. Feels like I've been here more than a week and a half by now.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Salut de Grenoble

(Posting without pics because I gave up on trying to get Blogger to play nice with my phone... might update later)

I've been in Grenoble for most of a week now. The city's beautifully situated - it's surrounded on all sides by the foothills of the Alps and then the mountains themselves, whose (abnormally not-very, actually) snowy mountaintops stick out bizzarrely over a layer of clouds. The city itself is fairly modern by French standards, with lots of stately cement buildings, bakeries, pharmacies, clothing stores, troops of heavily armed soldiers for security, and, oddly enough, giant Calder sculptures. This one outside the train station looks almost identical to our own Big Sail.

There's a very convenient tram system, for which I got an unlimited monthly pass for 20€. Thus my impression of the city is heavily biased by the streets that the tram happens to run through on the way from my host family's house.

The highlights of the city so far have been the art museum and La
Bastille. The museum is a light-filled building in front of the mountains that's currently hosting a huge Kandinsky exhibit, mostly borrowed from the Centre Pompidou in Paris. I'm not quite sure what the point is of having so many Kandinsky works, because they're all kind of the same, but lots of fun anyway. I also saw the 20th century collection, which is great - very diverse, with a lot of names I don't know, but arranged in a coherent and appealing fashion. I got to watch a tour guide discuss Chagall with a group of super-excited French five-year-olds, which was kind of the cutest thing ever. 

La Bastille is the 19th century fort on the hill towering over the town. There's a funicular up to the top, aptly known as "The Eggs", but I hiked up the impressive trail network instead. Gorgeous views, spiral-staircase towers, and a creepy old escape tunnel that's probably the most silent place I've ever been.

I'm living with a very nice family slightly out of the city. The mom is British and the dad French; the kids are 14, 16, and 18, and the cats are white, fluffy, and occasionally scratchy. I've mostly been home in the evenings, reading the huge but fascinating book on Israeli history that I've been slogging through for the last two months. I brought my host family a copy of Set, and then it turned out that the mom and son are both colorblind... awks. The daughters seem to be enjoying the game, though. We've had some fun dinners; yesterday we had raclette, which is the French answer to hot pot. Everybody grabs a pile of cheese slices (which are made of actual cheese rather than plastic, because France), charcuterie, boiled potatoes, and tiny sweet pickles. Then you put a cheese slice in your own tiny little pan which goes in a special tabletop broiler; once the cheese is melted, you pour it onto your potato-meat-pickle mound, consume, and repeat until you reach food coma. Which happens quickly.

Giant piles of melted cheese seem to be a theme here. I took the train to Annecy on Saturday and ordered a "corziflette" for lunch, after trying and failing to get the waiter to explain what it was. Turns out to be a dish of ham, and little bits of some unidentifiable white fat, melted in a vat of pungent cheese. Pretty tasty, but not quite health food (though there was a damn good salad on the side. Also damn good bread, because, again, France). I also had the trademark alpine vin chaud, which is kind of like hot sangria with cinnamon except much tastier than that description makes it sound. Annecy itself is quaint, colorful, and painfully touristy - but the lake is beautiful, and would be an amazing place to swim in the summer. The town also features some moderately interesting museums in a very cold castle, loads of Russian tourists, some nice galleries with friendly owners, overpriced shops with unfriendly owners, and a Boston Cafe.

The "teaching" so far has been basically nonexistent. We spent our two days last week hanging around the nanotech-research-cross-high-school-outreach center and nodding as the staff ran around pontificating in French about some lab equipment. There was also this one old teacher dude whose mission for the afternoon seemed to be to touch my arm and back as many times as possible, and another who explained physics to his students through such helpful examples as "when your mother does the dishes" and "now, the girls will know this one, how does an iron work?". Today, we're actually in a school, but it doesn't seem like anyone has the faintest clue what we're supposed to be doing. As I write this, I'm tapping on my phone in a corner of a classroom while my one teammate reads and the other makes friends with students (I did not get enough sleep last night to socialize in French). All that said, most of the school and nanotech-center staff have been super friendly and welcoming, albeit confused about what they're supposed to do with us, and we've been getting some quality French immersion. We also spent an hour last Friday advising a team that's presenting a science project at an event in Singapore, so we got a little bit of feeling useful. 

I haven't had much so far of that overwhelming sense of "oh my god I'm in Europe and everything is beautiful and amazing"  - maybe because of the mediocre and time-consuming professional side, maybe because I'm acclimated (and slightly jaded?) after my freshman summer in Paris. But it is nice being here, and I want to take advantage of the nature and mountains more. Also looking forward to travelling in Italy afterwards, with a friend and then family - it'll be good to have more free time to explore and relax.

I'm sad that I'm missing out on the LMF IAP adventures. Ya'll better keep the blog and GroupMe updated, and have an awesome time!

Monday, September 5, 2016

Lo que voy a extrañar de Chile (part 2)

In my previous post I wrote about the 6 things I will miss about Chile. Well, that's not all! Here's my final blogpost of the summer, since it's not Reg Day yet!

7. Greetings and partings with cheek-to-cheek kisses. And it's always just one kiss, and always between girls and guys and girls. Guys and guys greet each other with a simple handshake or bro hug or a cool hand shake along with "Que te pasa weon!" Anyway, the American hello's seem cold and impersonal to me now  - it is so much more natural to greet someone with a kiss on the cheek. (In reality the lips barely touch the cheek but you get the gist).

8. Completos. Chilean completos make American hot dogs cry in shame. In fact there is an entire Youtube series about a Chilean guy who decides to put an end to the shameful state of "hot dogs" in the US, it's called Gringolandia. Not sure yet if he has any success.

9. Regular outdoors swing dancing during the winter. Chileans swing dance outdoors even in the winter! Granted, the winter is more like a chilly summer, but there is an outdoor swing dance happening in Santiago pretty much every week, in the most quaint and gorgeous locations. And, the swing dancing community is extremely friendly and quite diverse - I met several immigrants from rather far-off countries who are lindy hop regulars.

10. Winter like winter in California. It's great. The coldest was around late June/mid-July (mid-50's in the day and high 40's at night), with August becoming nice and warm, like a spring. I love the inception that is winter in this country. :)

11. Crashing parties like it's an old hobby. It's very easy to crash parties in Chile because everyone is (a) already too drunk to notice (b) very friendly and (c) interested in us, tourist-looking individuals (d) some combination of the previous three. We've crashed multiple parties on our apartment roof, a high-end lawn party at a fancy house, a private karaoke party at a club at 3AM, random apartment parties...the list goes on.

12. My new friends. :)  

Our final celebration the day before we left back home! (PC: Martín Andrés Barraza Cabezas)
My new lovely friends from Venezuela, Chile, Kazakhstan, and Chile (left to right). (PC: Martín Andrés Barraza Cabezas)
13. Things baked in choclo (corn). Everything. 

Pastel de choclo!
14. La gente tranquila. That is, everyone here in Chile is super chill. No one hurries to eat lunch to make it to some Very Important Meeting, no one places their work over their health, no one ditches plans with their friends in order to finish some work they have been putting off. People have priorities, and these priorities have themselves, their family and their friends in first place. Everything else, of course, is also important, but no need to stress about it. Tranquilo, my friends. :)

15. Our awesome students. The students we mentored in IYPT Chile ( , the physics tournament I organized in Santiago, were one of the best parts of the experience. They were extremely intelligent and curious, and very excited about working on experimental science. Their company made trading a summer for a winter very much worth it. :)

Team NSF (No Sabemos Física!) during the first Physics Fight!
Me, Galym '16, Tanya '19 and the bronze medalists! 
Me, Galym '16, and the silver medalist team :) 

Me and CEC, the gold medalist team!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Travels in the second half of the summer

Salut la Maison!

Since the summer is coming to a close soon, I thought I ought to make a final post to tell about some trips and other things I’ve done lately.

To begin, outside of weekend travels, my times has been spent doing math work mostly, which is great.  I probably described my work a bit before, so it’s a continuation of that.  Progress has been slow, which is sort of to be expected, but I have learned many things.

I just got back from a wonderful visit to Heidelberg, Germany where Lotta has just started her PhD work!  It was great to see Lotta, and SamSasha’sJLabPartner was also able to come down from Hamburg to sightsee with us.  So Lotta guided us around the old part of town (Heidelberg is one of the few cities which was relatively unharmed by WWII, so it actually has older buildings), through the Schloss (the castle/palace looming over the city), to an absolutely top-notch vegetarian restaurant, an Aldi Süd, and more.  The main highlights of the trip were getting to see Lotta and Sam, experiencing Germany a bit, seeing the great views of Heidelberg from the Schloss, attending an organ concert, and going to Mass at an unexpectedly beautiful church.   I didn’t document the trip as well as I should have via photos, unfortunately, but here are some:
Jesuitenkirche–the unexpectedly beautiful church where I went to Mass in Heidelberg
Graffiti'd prison cell for misbehaving students
Took a train up the mountain only to find that it was too misty to see the town.
Oh well, I thought the mist was pretty cool itself.

Ruins of a building in the Schloss

The world's largest wine barrel that had been filled with wine at some point
Gate of Alte Brücke, the main bridge across the Neckar

The weekend before going to visit Lotta, I made a mini pilgrimage to Namur and Beauraing on the Assumption (August 15).  It was actually my first big day-trip by myself, having previously been accompanied to many Belgian cities by the other MISTI Belgium people (typically including Nancy of course!). Namur turned out to be one of my favorite cities so far, with its massive citadel on the hill, awesome Cathedral, beautiful parks, etc.  If you go, be sure to walk up the hill towards the citadel and explore the whole structure–they have lots of helpful historical signs throughout the citadel and the city as a whole.  Everything is quite walkable too.  Here are some Namur photos:
That same day, I spent a couple hours in Beauraing, where in the 1930s, there was an apparition of the Virgin Mary to some kids.  Since the Assumption is a big Marian feast day, it was cool to check it out, see the huge crowds by the sanctuary (note that Beauraing is town similar in size to the one I grew up in with around 8000 people, so pretty small), and pray.  I also managed to meet some cool people who were doing the same sort of mini pilgrimage as I was.  There was a Belgian priest, who had spent time in Ann Arbor, MI in the 80s and had all kinds of funny stories to tell, and then there was an Irishman who is one of the few people who works in the Irish consulate in Brussels.  As a warning, there’s almost nothing else notable in the city except the sanctuary.

View over the city next to Namur
Beautiful park in Namur

Before my trip to Namur/Beauraing, some MISTI Belgium people visited Brussels during the flower carpet display, which happens in the Grand Place every other year.  They have a massive display of flowers arranged into patterns so that it looks like a huge colorfully patterned carpet.

Flower carpet

Nancy eating a Belgian waffle

And before that: I went to SWEDEN!!!!!  My friend Erik, who was an exchange student from Sweden at my high school, organized a trip for me.  I flew from Brussels to Stockholm, took the night train to Umeå (way up in northern Sweden), then Erik and his grandpa and great uncle drove to the place where a ferry takes you to the island Norrbyskär.  Poor Erik had a big family emergency, so he couldn’t stay to hang out with me after the first day or two I was there; however, he had asked the YMCA camp on the island (where he usually works in the summers) if I could “kula,” which is their term for volunteer-working on the camp in exchange for food and a bed.  So, for 3-4 days, I got to help do miscellaneous things on the camp: tightening the rocks on the rock-climbing wall, participating in team-building and leadership activities, cleaning stuff, etc.


Looking out to the sea from Norrbyskär
The building on the campsite which houses the ledar rum where one eats mackor
My friend Erik, probably lecturing me about American politics
and complaining that he can't vote in the upcoming U.S. election.
Ship ruins on Norrbyskär
"Cliffs" on the campsite looking out to the sea
Math building at the University of Umeå

But of course, in the evenings, the group of camp leaders and volunteers would have fun by sailing, singing songs around a campfire, eating mackor (for our purposes, just grilled cheese sandwiches, but we cooked them in little griddle things which were like waffle-makers but flat).  I had a great time, needless to say!  Practicing Swedish, meeting really nice, fun Swedish people, etc.  I hope it won’t be boring if I talk about some of the cool people I met.  First, there were two current students at the University of Umeå, Ellen and Philip, who work on the camp being in charge of the high ropes course, the rock-climbing wall, and things like that.  They are both going to be middle or high school math teachers, so we talked about math a bit (in English though–I guess their math classes are often in English).  They were a lot of fun to be around though and were super helpful with allowing me to practice my Swedish on them.  Super nice pair.   The many other camp leaders and volunteers were awesome too, but I spent less time with the others than I spent with Ellen and Philip, who sort of took me under their wing when Erik left.

I also had the pleasure of meeting the cook:  the grandfatherly Ralf, an old man who makes good food and always wears a hat that says, “BOSS.”  He sometimes hangs out with the camp leaders to make jokes in his deep voice and thick (northern?) accent, which I was only occasionally able to understand.  He is such a happy sort of guy, too.  When asked what his favorite part of that day at camp had been (after a day of leadership/team-bonding activities when there was a large transition from one group of camp leaders to the next), he said something like, “That I woke up again,” or something like that (but in Swedish, of course, so like “att jag vaknade igen i morse”).  That was perhaps not the best explanation, but the point was that he was happy to be alive!

KFUM Camp Leaders for third part of the summer
Ralf is wearing his usual hat
Ellen and Philip are directly to Ralf's right (our left)

Naturally, all the Swedes asked about the upcoming presidential election, and knew way more than me or the average American.  The Socialist party happens to be especially strong in the north, so obviously they all expressed their sadness that Bernie Sanders hadn’t won the nomination.

Overall, I found it unbelievably cool to be isolated from society, experiencing true Swedish culture and having a relaxing time.  Sweden is awesome!