Friday, June 9, 2017

Blonde in Taipei

Hi friends, it's me again, reporting on my first week in Taiwan :)

Taipei is not a beautiful city. Most of the buildings are dirty concrete blocks that would do Soviet Moscow proud. The roads are either cramped and sidewalk-less, with stores spilling into the street and mopeds trying to murder the civilians, or huge and loud and impossible to walk along because of the diesel fumes. But in the back streets, there are random thick crops of flower-smelling, bird-sounding trees, and a sense of humble, connected life that I haven't really felt in Western cities - people chatting in their garages/tire stores, kids doing homework in the family restaurant after closing, a woman burning ghost money (I think) in the road. People are out being part of the world late at night. Except for the mopeds, it feels very safe to walk around.

(those birds are like duck-sized btw, kinda weird to see them roosting)

I have a small apartment to myself, in a quieter outlying part of the city. It's kitchenless and a little lonely, but clean after some scrubbing and refreshingly cold. The process of getting the AC fixed was kind of amusing - over the course of two days, three or four different people came, stood on my bed, pointed a remote at the ceiling, determined that the thing wasn't working, mumbled something in Chinese, and left to call the next person. Anyway, works now. I'm right outside a big market, a bus stop, two bakeries, and two 7-Elevens (which are everywhere) where I buy two-liter water bottles and try not to think about the amount of plastic I'm consuming. It's a thirty-minute walk to work - and for when it's too hot (which will probably be most days), there's a clean and fast subway and an extensive, cheap bus network. Interestingly, all the buses are run by different companies, and there are a lot of almost identical routes.

(bakery breakfasts)

I get stared at constantly, especially by old people and kids. There's no hostility in this; if anything, people are extra-friendly to me because I'm a foreigner. A lot of strangers have gone out of their way to show me around, despite us having a shared vocabulary of maybe three words) and the old man at the fruit store went and knocked on all the melons to pick out the ripest one for me. For ordering food, pointing and saying xie-xie has been working out all right. Funnest language experience so far was at a blues dance lesson I went to last night - one instructor didn't speak English, but the other one thought I was a fascinating phenomenon and kept hugging me. Luckily, language comprehension isn't totally necessary for a dance lesson. Of the three guys in the class, two thought it was double-high-fives cool to be dancing with such an exotic partner, and one was clearly pretty uncomfortable. This seems about the ratio of attitudes in the general population.

In a way, it's kind of liberating to stick out so much. I know that I'll be forgiven for small etiquette violations (like failing to face away from the aisle when standing on a bus), and I care less about getting my hair or outfit right (yes, Pond, I do in general have aspirations for my hair). However I look, it's going to be way different from everyone else, and presumably people will be paying attention to my sheer whiteness rather than anything else anyway...

Work is good. So far, I've been playing with these cool deep learning models called generative adversarial networks - yesterday I semi-successfully used them to invent new Pokemon. My coworkers are friendly and speak reasonable English, and some of them really want to practice and ask about the U.S. Some of the exchanges have been pretty amusing; they were told in advance that I am A Russian (cough), so my first day there were some semi-serious questions about vodka and street fighting. (Mind you, they [or at least this particular guy] don't consider Taiwanese-Americans to be Taiwanese.) Multiculturalism is definitely much less of a thing here - everyone is surprised that I can use chopsticks, and I think they still that don't believe me that yes, I knew the difference between Taiwan and Thailand before coming here. Standards of appropriate workplace humor are different - a lot of "Haha, Zach's so old", "How come you're so fat if you don't like sugar?" or "What are you looking for? Must be a girlfriend!" This threw me for a bit of a loop my first day - I thought my mentor was hitting on me, which would have made for a hella awkward summer, but I think my standards were just not calibrated for Taiwan. My office has an excellent tradition of afternoon tea, wherein three days a week tofu pudding, milk tea (not called boba here, btw), or hot buns magically appear on your desk.


The Taiwanese seriously know how to cook (the restaurant owners do, anyway). The flavors aren't always super-strong, but even the subtler things are beautifully seasoned and texturally balanced... the oyster omelette I had at a little night market today almost made me cry. Korean food is very popular, and there's a Japanese and Indian presence. Otherwise it's a lot of little restaurants that sell Taiwanese noodles or dumplings or other delicious things, and $6 would be a pretty expensive meal (generally, it's $3-4). Among younger Taiwanese, it's very common to eat out (or have instant noodles from 7-Eleven, if that's more your jam) for all meals, since it's so inexpensive and most apartments don't have kitchens. My mentor was surprised that I ate my parents' cooking growing up.

(I think I am doing the thing you're not supposed to with chopsticks here)

I was worried about being lonely, but with friendly coworkers, Facebook language exchange, and Ju and Liz on the other side of the city, I think it'll be OK. And with great food and nature yet to be explored, this is shaping up to be a good summer :)

plz bloj ya'll! <3

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!