Sunday, October 28, 2012

Really Funny

So while we were playing Just Dance, it was my turn with one of the guys and of course neither of us wanted to pick a song. Nobody ever wants to pick a song; nobody wants to be responsible for whatever terrible song you end up dancing to. So the guy looks at me and makes a motion to do Rock Paper Scissors, and he goes (in english), "You know this game?"

Yes. Yes, I would say I am vaguely familiar with Rock Paper Scissors. Our cultures aren't that different. We do have Rock Paper Scissors in the United States.

Everyday Life in France

Been a while since I last posted, sorry about that. It's one of those things where I kept thinking, 'oh but I just posted three in a row'. And now it's ten days later. Oopsie.

I still have a cough, but my cold is getting better. Otherwise I'm pretty good, getting settled in Caen. Last weekend while I was still very much feeling under the weather I forced myself outdoors to go get lunch (yay boulangeries!) and get some french reading material. I first tried a used bookstore. Now generally speaking, I like used bookstores. They're a great place to get cheap reading material. This particular bookstore overwhelmed me. It was physically tiny, and literally crammed with books. Floor to ceiling bookshelves double layered with books, with piles of books on tables (with boxes of books beneath) filling every square inch. You can then go up the world's tightest spiral staircase to another floor equally filled to the brim with books. I love books, but this was beginning to feel like an episode of "Hoarders: Buried Alive". I literally had to be careful where I stepped for fear of accidentally stepping on a book. Plus, there wasn't really any readily identifiable organisation system. I managed to find an Agatha Christie book before giving up entirely. It's a nice bookstore, but I don't think I can handle going back for a while.

To sooth the soul a little, I then went to Fnac. {I pronounce it fuh-nak, God only knows how you are supposed to say it}. Fnac is like a cross between Best Buy and Barnes and Noble, and happily for me their bookstore section is very well labeled and organized. I ended up choosing "Raison et sentiments" (Sense and Sensibility) by Jane Austen and "Le Seigneur des Anneaux: La Communaute de l'Anneau" (Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring) by J. R. R. Tolkien. I read Sense and Sensibility in high school and hated it. It wasn't until I later saw the movie version that I felt the book was worth anything at all. By the way if you haven't seen that movie, with Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman et al, go watch it now. So many great actors and an awesome movie. It's one of my favorite movies, and when I saw the book sitting on the shelf I decided to give it another go. I've started it and I now remember why I didn't like it the first time. Marianne is a moron, and Colonel Brandon deserves so much better. I'm a huge Tolkien fan and it just sort of jumped into my hands. They had a whole display of them. With the first Hobbit movie coming soon, I imagine they're hoping for a jump in sales. Side note: who else is super duper excited?

I love the people I work with. The other grad students are really nice and super chill. We all go to lunch together everyday, followed by coffee together everyday. While drinking their coffee they like to do the crossword together and I live in hope that one day I may be able to contribute. Anyway, we all went out wednesday night for a drink which was great. It was nice to hang out with everybody. My french was not super strong because I had a hard time hearing people, which only serves to make the language barrier worse, but it was fun all the same. Friday night one of the girls invited a few of us over. We watched tv, which was cool for me because I don't have one. They have this show called "Le Petit Journal" which is kind of like The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, so that was fun. Then we played Just Dance 3 on her wii, which was especially fun because none of us are good dancers.

This weekend has largely been me bumming around in my apartment. It rains here a lot, and that makes me just want to curl up with a blanket. Hence the reading material. Yeah. So that's pretty much life here for me. Questions? Comments? Let me know.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

No Voice

Have you ever lost your voice?

I've done it before. I'm not talking about 'oh I have a bad sore throat and I sound like a blues singer', I mean really absolutely no ability to produce sound with your vocal cords. For me, it usually involves a combination of being a bit under the weather (an expression by the way which the French do not understand at all), and sustained yelling/screaming/cheering. For example, in high school I had a sore throat one weekend when we had a football game on Friday night followed by an all day competition on Saturday. It took almost a week for my voice to fully recover. This time however there was no screaming involved. My sore throat wasn't even that bad actually. Tuesday morning I had the mildest of mild coughs. I took some Dayquil and forgot about it. Wednesday I couldn't make a sound. Today was not any better. Oh yes, I've been keep up with all the usual remedies: hot tea, gargling with salt water, drinking plenty of fluids, staying away from dairy products, sucking cough drops, but the reality is that all you can really do is wait for your vocal cords to heal.

In the meantime, you're stranded. For anyone who's been in this situation, it's infuriating. You don't realize how much you use your voice. Even if you cut out all the meaningless jibber jabber, you still need to do quite a bit of talking to go through your day. But the chit chat is important too. When you're used to talking with friends over lunch or wherever, it's hard to be deprived of that social interaction. Sure you can listen, but you can't take part in the conversation. In high school I carried around a miniature whiteboard to help me get through some of the little stuff during the day, but it certainly wasn't a replacement for the ability to speak. It's frustrating to listen and be unable to contribute, to have something to say and not be able to say it. Sometimes that's what it's like to be in a foreign country. You have no choice but to be silent. Everyone around you is talking and carrying on, but you're living with a mute button. Your ability to communicate is limited and conversation is difficult and slow. It can frustrating and infuriating, because you're used to talking. It will get better, you'll get your voice back, but all you can do for the moment is wait it out.

CrisTech 2012

Before I even arrived, Dr. Martin (my boss) invited me to go along with her and another CRISMAT researcher to a small conference on crystal growth and crystallography. Since they were having a poster session, I was asked to make a poster on some of the work I had done at USC to present. I give myself three points of credit on the poster: 1) I did it in French, which is no easy task as scientific vocabulary is somewhat particular; 2) I was able to talk to multiple people about my poster in French; and 3) it was my first poster, ever, and I did it all by myself. I had two major failings though. I forgot Travel Rule #1. I assumed that because we do something one way in the US, people in other countries probably do it the same way. I made a horizontal poster; they make vertical posters. Oops. Second failing: I used a dictionary for specialized terminology instead of asking an expert. Scientific vocab, like the jargon of pretty much any discipline, is very specific. When we speak in general, we often use different words interchangeably even if their exact means are not the same. You can't do that with field-specific jargon, which is why using a dictionary is just not a wise decision. However, I consoled myself with the fact that everyone told me the errors were minor and I noticed that some of the posters done in English (for use at international meetings) had faults too.

CrisTech was really cool though! It was held in Carry-le-Rouet, which is near Marseille in the south of France, right on the Mediterranean coast. At first I was a little shy, because I didn't know anyone, apart from  Dr. Martin and Jean-Michel, but everyone was very friendly. I ended up sitting with the same people at most of the meals and actually participated in some of the conversation. There were a lot of lectures though. At most conferences, you pick and choose which sessions you want to attend based on your interests, but since this was such a small group (only about 100 people) it would have been rude to not listen to someone's talk. I'll admit that once of twice I may or may not have pulled out my book to read just a little. Who can resist a murder mystery?

It was absolutely a beautiful location. They could not have picked a better spot. The sun was shining and the sea was blue. Eat your heart out:

Look! It's the Mediterranean!

All those lucky people who get to live here...

The view from my hotel window...jealous? 

How beautiful is this??

So blue!

So sunny!
For someone who has spent the last two weeks in cloudy, cold, drizzly weather, the sun and sea were especially welcome sights. The wind kept it from being really warm, but it was warmer. And I'll take that.

Fete de la Science!

First, a so-so picture of me (and the sash!) at Crismat, where I do research. Crystallography and Materials Science: Cris + Mat = CRISMAT. Not my best picture, but they can't all be gems. This weekend I went to the Fete de la Science (science festival) in Caen. It's hosted by Relais d'Sciences, and it has booths set up by  grad students, researchers, and science enthusiasts from a variety of labs and local organizations. 

As you can see, it was held a large warehouse and there were plenty of people. Since it wasn't on any bus routes, the organizers got a local tour boat to taxi people from the dock downtown to the exhibit hall a little ways down the canal, free of charge. They also struck a deal with a food truck who parked themselves right in front of the building to sell delicious sausages on bagettes, aka hotdogs. 

One of the best chemistry exhibits was this one where kids could come up and do an extraction. You had your choice of a few different things, but the most popular choice was banana.

These people didn't have a lot of visitors (math booths usually don't), but I personally liked their set up because people so often turn to snowflakes to demonstrate fractals in nature. It was nice to see someone use something living.

The archaeologists were a very popular booth, but these two little boys decided the dismantling the "dinosaur skeleton" would be more fun than putting it together.

These jelly fish were actually part of the Titanic exhibit, but I like jelly fish so I took their picture even though the booth really wasn't about them.

One of the most popular groups, and I think one of the most well done, was actually a group of statisticians. I never heard what they were modeling, but their model involved a complex marble set up which they used to demonstrate the difference between the experimental results (with the marbles) and the simulated results done on the computer. {In case you're wondering, the difference is that the computer ran thousands more simulations than they did experiments.} The kids loved watching the marbles go down the shoots, and the adults learned a little about statistics and the importance of having a large sample size.

The event was definitely geared towards the kiddos, but I loved it all the same. They had a great variety of fields and the turn out seemed good. I wish every city had a Science festival! Can you imagine what that could be like in a big city like Atlanta? Forget DragonCon (or whatever it's called), let's have ScienceCon.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Sunday Morning Market

A postdoc in the lab who just arrived a month ago from India gave me the heads up for this one. Every Sunday in the center of town is a huge open air market, and if you happen to be in Caen on a Sunday morning, I highly suggest you go. It's several blocks long, stretching from the church in the town center all the way to the harbor, so you really can't miss it. I happened to enter right next to a crepe stand, so I got a nutella crepe and munched as I meandered. 

The Main Church (St.Pierre, I believe)

They sell everything. I mean everything. I defy even Walmart to have such a variety. You can buy clothes: used, new, sweatsuits, designer jackets, kids, babies, adults. You can get scarves, jewelry, make-up, shoes, purses.  You can find all kinds of food, be it produce, cheese, meat, or sausages. They have books, cds, and dvds. They have street food vendors selling everything from crepes to moroccan food. They have electronics, kids toys, gutter systems, and leather goods. If you want it, you can buy it. 

Just as wonderful as wandering through the maze of stalls looking at all the wares is flowing with the crowd watching all the people. I'm a great people watcher, and this was like going to the beach or the state fair. You get all walks of life. Parents scolding small children to watch where they are going, high school girls rifling through the box of nail polish for the perfect shade, little old ladies haggling over the price of apples. There were also some furrier visitors to the market. Quite a few dogs walked by me, kept on a cautiously short leash, noses hopefully scanning the ground for anything that might have been fortuitously dropped. In the crowded areas the little dogs get scooped up into the owners' arms, but the big dogs, like the many german shepherds, simply muscled their way through the forest of legs. I could have wandered among the stalls all day, but I think some of those dogs would've been happy to just sit in front of the deli stand. 

I did move on however, up to the Caen castle. The fortress there had existed for some time, probably originating as just the fortified walls of the city. 

Entrance to the castle
View from the ramparts

Interesting design feature, presumably for a canon? 

However when William Duke of Normandy (who later conquered England) decided to make Caen his officially home base, he built himself a nice little palace. At the time, all that really constituted was a banquet hall, private apartments, and a chapel (because who wants to go to church with regular people?). This is all that's left of his 'castle':

William the Conqueror's Castle
 The banquet hall is the 'building' in the foreground, which probably also housed his private apartments on the upper floor. The 'building' in the background is the chapel, which actually survived up until WWII when it was bombed into its present state. The hall was gone long before that, almost certainly taken down when they built a new one. His son was the first to build a proper castle in the true meaning of the word, with a keep and a high wall with round towers at each corner. You can see what's rest of it:

The Caen Castle
This one was a hate crime. The French Revolutionaries hated all things royal, and they pulled it down basically by hand. They didn't quite finish so we can still see parts of it, like what you see above, as well as this gate thing (below).

Gate thing
Pretty interesting, even if there's not much left. I also popped into the Normandy museum on the castle grounds, and the Fine Arts Museum, also on the castle grounds. On the first Sunday of every month all the museums are free. Free happens to be my favorite price, so I certainly wasn't going to say no to a little cultural lesson. The Normands as it turns out are basically an agriculture people. They had several miniatures of farms from various centuries set up so you could see how things changed over time, and they had a nice exhibit of cattle raising and an interesting map of racehorse versus plow horse breeding by area. Normandy is also known for its lace. The royals of France decided at some point that making lace would be a good gig for the farmers to do during the evening and the slow times of year, and consequently sent up some merchants with supplies and patterns. It turns out they were right, because Normandy quickly became one of the lace capitals of Europe, until the Industrial Revolution. Once lace could be quickly and easily made by machine it was no longer a luxury item and business dropped off. 

The art museum was also nice. It wasn't very large, so you could wander through the whole thing and come out feeling cultured and still have enough energy to go about your day. They had a nice collection of 17th/18th/19th century stuff, the usual beautiful landscapes and portraits that I'm personally drawn to. I like landscapes for the same reasons that I enjoy travelling: you get to see some place new and different. Portraits are fun because you get to people-watch without feeling awkward for staring. They also had a collection of 20th century art which I did not enjoy as much. It just doesn't seem to represent the same quality of work, and much of it isn't very beautiful either. If you're going to make an ugly canvas, at least make a poignant ugly canvas. There was a statue (entitled "Student") in the garden outside that I think really captures my feelings about some of the modern art. 

Surprised and confused, just like me
 Still, a worthy investment of time, and as I said, it was free. You just can't complain about free. I rounded out my day with a quick visit over to the former convent. It was founded by Queen Mathilde (William's wife). Their marriage was a little questionable, so to make up for it they each founded an abbey and kept the church well funded.
The church at the Abbaye aux Dames

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Welcome to France!

Hey! So I'm here, and have been for a week...and didn't post a thing. Oops. I will do better I promise.

I left the US Sunday afternoon and flew to la France. My flights weren't bad, but the guy next to me snored. Even when he was awake he kept sniffing and making snorting noises. I really just wanted to hand him a kleenex and be like "Go blow your nose!" Geez. Oh and the woman sitting in front of me leaned her seat back almost the whole way without even so much as looking behind to see if the person behind her (now folded up like a cheap beach chair) still had enough room. I think that should be illegal. I mean, HELLO? We're all cramped enough as it is, do you really think leaning your seat back another couple inches is going to help you? People can be so inconsiderate.

Well, anyway, I got to Paris and managed to get my luggage (whew! no lost luggage) over to the taxi line. A taxi is a bit luxurious for me, a poor student, but really there was just no way around it. I just have too much stuff. The taxi driver was super nice too. He chatted with me in french, and I was so proud of myself for being able to have a decent conversation in french. That's just a good way to start the day. And then I got to the hotel, which was very nice for only being 2 stars. I've heard horrible things about 2 star hotels in Europe, but this place was great. Small, and tucked away in a courtyard off the main road, clean and very nice. The receptionist even helped me get my luggage into my room, which was luckily on the first floor. The decor was a little interesting: a faux fur blanket on the bed and modern pink plastic chairs. Well whatever floats your boat I guess.

Then it was off to orientation! The orientation was just ok. There were a lot of speakers and different lectures, not all of which were pertinent to me, but on the other hand it was great to meet the other Fulbrighters. Everyone was so welcoming, and they were all very sympathetic about my very recent arrival. All day people kept coming up to me and asking me if I was alright or if I was too tired. It was sort of funny really. The reception was cool. It was held in this beautiful building, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the US Ambassador to France were there. It was awesome. The only downside was that the food went really fast. We visited a French art school as well, which was...interesting. They showed us some pictures of their recent work, some of which was cool, some of which I just didn't get. I like to think I'm fairly imaginative, but I just can't imagine what on earth some that was. Oh well. This is why I need more art.

Getting to Caen was really pretty simple. I took another taxi to the train station, and then managed to get on the train with a little help from some young guys who were also getting on my train. Then when I got off the train Christine was there to meet me and thank god. I don't know how I would have gotten my suitcases up and down the various stairs of the train station otherwise. My apartment is so nice. The building has an elevator, laundry facilities, and the linens get changed every two weeks. My little apartment is fantastic, and fully furnished. I'm not just talking bed, desk, chair, bureau. It has lamps, pots, pans, utensils, plates, all imaginable kitchen basics. Sigh. So wonderful. The pillow is a bit flat, so I may end up buying my own but for now it's fine. I had a little moment with my stove where I was like, why doesn't it work? But then the guy downstairs at the desk informed me that you have to turn on the timer too. He gave me this look like, wow this girl doesn't even know how to turn on a stove...but hey I got it going. Mmm pasta. Oh and I totally thought I would just have a pull out couch for a bed, but it's really more of a futon and those are way more comfy.

Lab has been great. Everyone has been really nice. There are a couple new grad students in the lab who just got here a couple days before me so I'm not the only newbie. They all seem impressed that I can speak french too. I don't know if everyone thought I didn't speak french or my french is just better than they thought it would be or what, but they all seem pretty happy with it. I can understand people mostly, but I have a hard time listening in group settings. Part of the problem I have to admit is just a lack of listening on my part. Listening takes a lot of effort so unless they're talking to me, I tend to zone out. Lunch is really the only hard part of the day because everyone's talking at once and they're all speaking really fast. Other than that though it's really going pretty well. I haven't had any safety training or anything yet so I'm not doing any research really. I have a stack of papers to read (in English, the international language of science) but that's about it.

Today I wandered about downtown for a bit, before it started raining too hard. They have a 2 euro store, sort of like the Dollar Store, where everything, absolutely everything, is two euros. I got a packet of sponges for washing dishes and this neat measuring cup that has pictures of different food groups and their names in french. I also popped in a charming little bookstore and bought an Agatha Christie book in french. La Plume Empoisonnee, or the poisoned quill, although it's english title is The Moving Finger. No better way to spend a rainy day than with a murder mystery and kinderbars.

My bed/futon

The desk (notice the lack of space between desk and bed)

My kitchenette. Look a microwave! 

My bathroom, actually larger than one I had at USC.