Friday, 20 March 2009

Wales is NOT in England...

I learned at least one thing while I was in the UK. When Kristen and I got off the train from London to Swansea (Wales), we took a taxi to the B&B, and had quite a character for a cab driver. His first words to us were, "So where in Canada you from?" Of course, we politely informed him that we were American, though we could understand wanting to be careful (ever tried calling a Canadian "American"? Try it, results may vary). But he promptly told us that he knew that, he just always tries to piss people off, 'cause when he goes to the States, he always gets, "So Wales... where in England is that?" Big no-no, apparently. He also informed us, since it was a big Rugby weekend, that American Football is for pussies. So that's settled. The cab ride was only like 5 minutes, but this dude tried as hard as he could to piss us off. Didn't work - Kristen and I are imperturbable.

Anyway, after nearly a week spent in Paris, we took the train through the Chunnel from Paris to London. There I gave my talk to the physics group at King's College, London, which went quite well. We also got a chance to see some good friends from New York that had moved to London, who we hadn't seen in ages. That was really nice. We did a few things around town, including going to the British Museum (which is far and away the coolest museum I've ever been to) and walking around Soho and Chelsea and what-have-you. At some point, we took a train to Wales, where I gave a talk at Swansea University. Also went reasonably well. I can't say that Swansea was the most exciting town, though the people were friendly. Kristen felt right at home, too - apparently Swansea is bizarrely similar to the Bronx. No Italian food, though.

Now we're back in SA, finally having finished this month-long trip. It was totally exhausting, emotionally and physically, but overall I think it went really well. Highlights?
  1. The winter school at CERN was really nice - I was especially impressed with the series of lectures given by Samir Mathur on black holes in string theory. Here's a link to his webpage, where he has a pdf giving an explanation and extensive list of questions regarding the topic. I really felt like it reaffirmed my hope for string theory as a physically interesting topic. There's been a lot of negative press lately, e.g., here and here, in the public media as well as with a lot of people in my department at UCT, and it's kind of gotten me down. I really felt like this work on black holes is so dramatic, it makes a significant case for string theory regardless of all the rest of the crap. I really want to give a series of seminars at UCT on the topic to give people a positive view of the subject at some point. If I do, maybe I'll give a summary here.
  2. The visit to University of Amsterdam was really nice. The department is really a pleasure, the people are really nice, and I got some great feedback on my work there (which has significantly improved the research).
  3. Paris was certainly the largest highlight. See previous blog entry.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

My Summer Vacation

On my summer vacation, I went to Paris for the first time. It was fabulous.

After my talk in Amsterdam, Kristen and I decided to take a break. I mean, conference in Geneva, working in the Netherlands... what a difficult life! So we took the TGV train from Amsterdam to Paris for a 4 day, 3 night vacation in the city. I have to say, I had my reservations - I have heard quite a bit about the rudeness of Parisians, and I wasn't sure what to expect. But, contrary to such prejudices, the French were probably the most polite people of the whole trip. Of course, it absolutely must have helped that I did try to use my rudimentary French throughout our stay there... but that was NOT a given, since it was entirely possible anyone would have been horrified by the massacre of their language. Regardless, as our time in Paris continued, more and more of the French I should have learned in Montreal (where I lived for five years) came back to me. And it was actually great fun to try and remember how to speak. And I like to think I impressed the hell out of Kristen (who doesn't speak a word).

What did I like best about the capital of France? Almost certainly the Latin Quarter and St. Germain. It's the area also on the Rive Gauche, or Left Bank of the Seine river, where the Sorbonne is located. So it was fairly student-y, and although the tourists had also found it (how dare they!), it was still a remarkably delightful place to just walk around. Which is what we mostly did for all the 4 days. We also saw most of the requisite tourist attractions, most notably the Louvre (I didn't get all the hoo-hah about the Mona Lisa), the Eiffel Tower (which was phenomenal), and the Notre Dame. We also took in the Musee D'Orsay (which was really a cool art museum located in an old train station) and the Sacre Coeur cathedral (which was unmanageably touristy - we had to hightail it out of there before one of us had a nervous breakdown). But most importantly, since we were staying in Montmartre, we managed to find the grocery store from Amelie. Kristen was certainly delighted.

Overall, I was extremely impressed with Paris. I would definitely go back there. Actually, I have the feeling that a large part of my enchantment with the city was just that I miss New York. Cape Town is a nice little city, but it's nothing like NYC - same with Geneva and Amsterdam. Paris was the first huge metropolitan city I've been in for a while, and it definitely made me slightly homesick. Although London doesn't quite do the same thing for me, so perhaps there's more to Paris than that...