Saturday, February 23, 2013

Three Pictures

Food of the Gods
I got peanut butter and jelly for my birthday! And have eaten at least one sandwich a day pretty much every day since. Oh beautiful delicious pb&j...

It hasn't rained for about a week, which is like a small miracle here. The past couple days have been bitterly cold, but earlier in the week it was almost not cold, so I took the opportunity of walking home and skipping the packed tram ride. So nice to see the sun again, even if it was fairly brief. 

Not very deceptive carpet
 So I've mentioned that the grad students all go grab lunch together in the cafeteria everyday. Well, we sit in pretty much the same area everyday, except one day this week it was really full and we sat on the other side. And it was then that I noticed this delightful little absurdity. Half of the eating area is your usual ugly pattern designed to hide as much as possible; the other half is rustic wood planks. Both are carpet. I can just imagine the sales pitch, "You get the look of wood flooring, but without having to actually put in wood flooring! Just imagine all the money you'll save, and no one will ever notice!"

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

15 of my Favorite Travel Related Books

Ok, I think I need to preface this by saying I play fast and loose with the label 'travel related'. I imagine that very few of these (if any) would make a normal list of "travel books". This list is also almost entirely composed of fictional books. From my point of view, literally every fictional book worth reading is a "travel book" in the sense that it transports you to another place or time. So in coming up with this list I focused more on books that involved the main character doing some travelling, not just the reader. This list is also presented in the order in which they came to my mind, not with any relationship to their merit. It's also not anywhere close to an exclusive list. These are just the first fifteen I could think of, and I'm sure that the second I put this out, I will think of more.

  1. The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois. This remains one of my all time favorite books. A retired teacher sets off for a long ambling journey by balloon and unexpectedly discovers a small mysterious island. 
  2. Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. Despite some inaccurate stereotypes of foreign countries, a really fun read. On a bet, an Englishman and his French valet set off to make it around the world in under 80 days. 
  3. Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis. While I could have very easily put the whole Chronicles of Narnia series on the list, I picked this one out as being the most emblematically travel related of the group. In this book, the younger two Pevensie children and their cousin join Caspian on a sea voyage to the ends of the earth. 
  4. Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien. Again, I could have easily listed all of Tolkien's books but for me this is the one I think of when I think of a long journey. Anyway, Frodo Baggins is a hobbit who unexpectedly comes into possession of a very powerful ring and he and his friends undertake a long journey. 
  5. Weslandia by Paul Fleischman. To be honest, this one's a bit of a stretch, but considering that I still remember this book so many years later, it must be good. Wesley cultivates a weed in his backyard that eventually leads to him creating his own civilization, Weslandia. (Ok, so he doesn't actually go anywhere, but there are interesting things in your own backyard if you care to look). 
  6. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I've read this in both English and French (though I believe the original language is Portuguese) and loved it both times. A shepherd boy goes to Egypt in search of treasure. Basic message: your dreams are worth working for. 
  7. Abarat by Clive Barker. A really good fantasy series, and apparently he's got two more to go too. Great artwork on top of it. Basically, a girl from a small town runs away and then gets transported to a magical archipelago. 
  8. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. The ultimate classic pirate story: A small boy finds a pirate's treasure map and sets off to find it, but not everyone on board the ship has good intentions. 
  9. The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards (yes the actress).  Three kids set out with an eccentric professor to find the last of a magical species. Although the wholesomeness of the book is sometimes borderline nauseating, the imagery is really beautiful. 
  10. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. I feel bad that I'm doubling up on an author, but the books couldn't be more different. In this one, a professor of marine biology (interesting how many of these adventures happen to professors) becomes the prisoner of the mysterious Captain Nemo aboard his extraordinary submarine, the Nautilus. 
  11. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. If you've only ever seen a movie version, do yourself a favor and read the book. As you probably know, a little boy is the lucky finder of a golden ticket permitting him entry to a mysterious chocolate factory. Again, this one's a little bit of a stretch from a travel perspective, but I would argue that Willy Wonka's chocolate factory is an entirely different world. Also, did you know that Roald Dahl wrote the initial screenplay for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which was based on a book by Ian Fleming, the same guy who invented James Bond?
  12. Murder on the Orient Express by Agathie Christie. Ok, this one is probably the biggest stretch on the list in that the plot has very little to do with traveling, but this is the book that made me fall in love with sleeping car trains. Someday it is my dream to take the Orient Express across Europe like Hercule Poirot, but alas it is far out of my price range. Instead, I will content myself with reading about his adventures aboard the Orient Express when a fellow passenger is murdered during the night. The murderer must still be on the train, but who is it?
  13. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. When I read it in high school, it wasn't my favorite, but it's grown on me over time. Marlow tells the story of how he came to be captain of a boat carrying ivory down the Congo River. Not a happy story, but also not a very long one.
  14. Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I read this about three years ago and fell in love, and that is why I will never see the movie. Basically, an Indian boy gets stranded in a life boat with a tiger in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. 
  15. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. When we had to read this for summer reading one year in high school, I remember a lot of my friends very strongly, even vehemently, disliking this book, mostly because they abhorred the main character. The book is a nonfictional account of Christopher McCandless who drops out of society to hitchhike all over the place and live in the wilderness. He eventually died in Alaska. Most of my friends couldn't stand him; they felt he was reckless, stubborn, overly confident, and hypocritical. I don't really disagree with that, but for me, the book was far less about McCandless than about Krakauer. The book follows his journey to find out what happened to McCandless, not McCandless' journey, and his change of heart regarding McCandless. It's definitely worth reading. 
What are your favorite travel reads? Think I left something out? Let me know!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Mid Year Meeting Weekend

Unfortunately I am a little behind on my posting, as usual, so please forgive the lateness of this update. The weekend before last was our Mid Year Meeting for the Fulbrighters. Sidenote: since the Fulbright offers grants and english teaching assistantships to US students, recent graduates or doctoral students, as well as funding a teaching exchange program, and grants to researchers, 'Fulbrighter' is by far the most comprehensive and general term available.

 Anyway, the mid year meeting was to start Sunday evening, so I decided to get in to Paris that morning and have a little fun. It happened to be the first Sunday of the month which of course I took advantage of. I started with the Musee des Arts et Metiers, which generally covers the history of science and technology. I was very glad I got out at the Arts et Metiers metro stop, because they got fairly creative with its decor:

Metro Arts et Metiers

Very steampunk

Outside the museum was one of the castings from the prototype mold for the Statue of Liberty. There are two or three of these around Paris, and they're very popular picture locations. I had to wait a good ten minutes for a particularly enthusiastic set of parents to finish photographing their particularly unenthusiastic toddler with the statue. He was looking like he desperately wanted a nap and a meltdown was impending. 


The museum itself was really nice; their collection of scientific revolution-era scientific instruments was especially impressive. I wandered around in nerdy bliss for quite some time, and I encourage any fellow scientists to go check it out. However, it would be a good visit for a non-science person too. They have a large collection of small building models showing how different buildings were constructed, before the dawn of modern machinery. The museum also includes a chapel that now houses a giant pendulum and a collection of old cars. Definitely recommend it. Also, it was probably the emptiest museum I have ever yet visited in Paris so if you're getting sick of being trampled over by crowds of tourists, this is a happy escape.

My next stop was the Musee Cluny, the museum of medieval art. I loved this one for a couple reasons. First, they let everyone see the special exhibit for free too. The museums are required to be free the first Sunday of the month, but that really only applies to the permanent exhibits. The museums are allowed to do whatever they want with their special or temporary exhibits. For example, when I was at the Musee d'Orsay, they chose to include the Impressionisme et la Mode exhibit, but the Musee des Arts et Metiers kept its usual pricing for its Robot exhibit. So I was happy to get to explore the temporary exhibit on ancient games. They had games dating from the days of Babylon, early chess sets, and very very very old sets of cards. Secondly, it was not too large. Some museums can just be over whelming in size, but the Musee Cluny was a good size to enjoy the medieval paintings, stained glass, tapestries without growing bored.

Third, the tapestries of the Lady and the Unicorn. These are some of the best preserved tapestries the world has. Most tapestries that you see in castles are faded beauties; you can see the work that went into them, but the colors are washed out. These still have all their original vibrancy and it's such a breath of fresh air to see tapestries in all their glory. Beyond that, they are just beautiful. I rag on modern art from time to time, but if modern art moves other people the way these move me, then I won't say another word. Such beautiful works!

The lady puts her necklace in the box held by her servant

The lady plays the organ

The mid year meeting started with a dinner for everyone Sunday evening and it was so nice to see everyone again after so long. Some of the other girls from out of town and I stayed up chatting in the hotel for a bit, but otherwise Sunday evening was fairly quiet. Monday we had a surprise guest speaker, and I bet you could guess all day and never think of it: Dr. Jill Biden. Needless to say, we were all very excited; after all, it's not often the wife of the Vice President of the United States comes to speak to you. She did not stay long, having a very full schedule, but she made a point of coming around and shaking everyone's hand. The rest of the day was spent in discussing our projects and how things were going. Less exciting, but more practical. 

Afterward, a group of us went out for drinks, but then ended up splitting. The Fulbrighters living in Paris had other things to do, so I and the other girls from out of town went for a walk and ended up by the Eiffel Tower. We had a great dinner that night too: risotto that was just to die for. 

All lit up and no where to go

Tuesday was a half day for the meeting and they scheduled a cultural outing for us: a tour of the French Senate. I have previously visited the Luxembourg gardens, which are beautiful in the summer, but I had no idea what the Palace of Luxembourg was. I honestly thought it was just a pretty building; who knew it was actually put to good use? Well, ok, 'good use' is probably dependent on your point of view, but the palace is the home of the French senate. It's a beautiful building, having once been a royal palace (Mary de Medici thought the Louvre was too drafty).

The library for the Senate

I chose to take a side trip to Chartres before heading home. Chartres is about an hour from Paris and well worth the visit. It has a sort of 'bigger on the inside' magic; on the outside, it's obviously not a small cathedral, but it doesn't seem all that extraordinary until you get inside. The size, particularly the width, of the church is just staggering.

some really cool looking doors?

The middle section of the nave

mid-1100s stained glass windows

The scale is so hard to convey 

Circles are Prophets,
squares are Kings of Juda

Statue of the Assumption, 1700s

The renovated section

Veil of the Virgin Mary

This ladies and gentlemen is the veil of the Virgin Mary, according to the sign. Also according to the sign, scientific testing has verified that it is in fact a piece of fabric dating from the 1st century and of Middle Eastern origin. Obviously there's no way to prove a relic is what it's supposed to be, but if nothing else, that is one really old piece of fabric.

Cool stairs leading to a small chapel

The difference between
the renovated white walls,
and the unrenovated gray kings

Those windows are actually very colorful,
but the light is just too strong.

North Rose Window

The front (symmetry is so over-rated)

The first cathedral was built in the 4th century, with additions in the 6th century. The Duke of Aquitaine apparently didn't like the existing the cathedral because he had it destroyed in 743. Only a few archaeological remains are left from the earliest building stages. They built another cathedral directly over the previous one. Then in the 11th century they added the Romanesque crypt, which is the longest in all of France. Then in 1194 a huge fire destroyed large parts of the cathedral. Most of the front of the church, the right steeple, and some of the stained glass were saved, but the rest was rebuilt. The rose window on the front, the kings gallery, and in fact the entire rest of the church were built by 1230. Part of the left tower had been built, but the gothic steeple on the clocktower was not done until about 300 years later.

The gothic clock tower

I have no idea what this building is

It was a really beautiful cathedral, but I would love to see it when they finish their current round of renovations. They've been working for about a year already, and it's amazing the difference it makes. They will continue for another three years or so. It would be so amazing to see it completed and restored to its former glory. It can be so hard to imagine what these places would have looked like when they were new, but when you look at the renovated sections of Chartres, you get a tiny glimpse into what the medieval people would have seen.

A really good weekend all in all, but I'll confess I was happy to make this past weekend a lazy one.