Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Europe recap.

Last night, I got home from two weeks in France (and places close to it). I felt a recap was necessary.

1. Travelling there

Overnight flights suck. There's just no other way to say that. Unless you're some sort of wizard who can sleep sitting-up in an economy-class seat -- and, I assure you, you're probably not -- you're going to hate your body by the end of the flight, and for many hours afterwards.

The last couple of times I've done this, I've tried to tell my body, as soon as I get on the plane, that it's now on Europe time: We're taking off, and it's not 7pm, it's really 1am, and you should really get some sleep, guy. I tried doing that by having my eyes closed as much as possible, only really coming-to for the meal, and putting on headphones to listen to familiar albums on my iPod (I occasionally listen to music in bed, so I'm trying to duplicate the experience).

When we landed in Paris, I felt... meh, alright. I bought a SIM card for my phone, caught a train to Lille, got some lunch and killed some time in a mall before meeting the person I was renting the apartment from (via Airbnb, which is how I did all my accommodations).

2. Lille

It's a medium-sized city in the northeast of France, a stone's-throw from the Belgian border. The main reason I picked it was because of its proximity to Vimy, and the WW1 memorial site outside said town. There are two train stations a couple minutes' walk apart, separated by a shopping mall; one mostly handles local trains, the other takes the TGVs and Eurostar trains that go through the Channel tunnel to London.

I spent the first night and first proper, full day just middling-around and adjusting to the time change. My head was pretty scrambled, and ordering lunch at the mall -- at a busy take-away restaurant, with a big lineup, during the lunch rush, and my French was rusty as hell -- was a huge challenge on the day I landed.

Lille reminded me about how screwy European streets are. This may just be the case in the downtowns of all these cities, because they were laid-out centuries ago before cars and tourists and all that, but the very least you could do, Europe, is have some damn signs telling you what street you're seeing. Instead, they have these tiny little plaques, mounted on the wall of a building, telling you you're on Rue St-Hubbins or somesuch.

The big highlight of this part of my trip was the Vimy Ridge Memorial Site, which is just outside the town of Vimy, about an hour's train ride south of Lille. I plotted-out the walk from the train station to the memorial on Google Maps, and it told me the walk was about 90 minutes; I did it in about 65. And... wow. Just, wow. What a thing to see. I'm definitely not a rah-rah-military-dude kind of guy, but that site made me incredibly proud to be Canadian. If you're anywhere close, you've gotta go.

3. Luxembourg

I've always been interested in those tiny little countries in Europe that are weird little appendices and footnotes to ancient dynasties and empires. (I'd really like to visit St. Pierre and Miquelon, the last vestige of New France, just off the coast of Newfoundland.) Luxembourg is about the biggest of these places, I'd say.

My old university pal Duane met me at the train station; truth be told, we didn't really know each other directly at Waterloo, but we had some mutual friends in common and started bumping into each other in the past few years while travelling. He lives in Amsterdam these days, and had never been to Luxembourg before, so... why not?

(That actually became how I thought of the place, like a lame slogan for a tourism office. "Luxembourg: Why Not, Asshole?")

We walked from the station to the place I was staying, which took about a half-hour. Duane must be some sort of bike-sharing-service-ninja, because he noticed all kinds of spots where bikes were lined up; he got there the day before and had scoped-out the system already. It cost 1 to get a 7-day temporary membership, and all rides under 30 minutes were free; it wasn't far from my place (which had a bike-share place stupidly-close) to the downtown (spots everywhere), maybe 10 minutes, tops. So, instead of hoofing-it a half-hour every time, I punched in the code, grabbed a bike, and zipped down the street like a damn local.

The old downtown is nestled into the many curves of the local rivers, which have carved themselves beautiful, deep gorges through the sandstone. The local castle stands proudly and high on one riverbank; we stumbled into a military encampment hacked-into the hillside on the east side of the downtown and had a good look around. It's a pretty town, if a little sleepy.

Fortuitously, there was a music festival going on that weekend; world music on the Saturday, and rock on the Sunday. We caught a bit of a couple of shows on Saturday, but I was interested in seeing a band on Sunday (which described itself as "instrumental math-rock," which obviously caught my attention) called Mutiny on the Bounty. Duane had to split to go back to Amsterdam, but I watched Mutiny play; I wouldn't call it math-rock (as it was all in 4/4 time, far as I could tell), but it was definitely instrumental, and that ruled. Solid band, overall.

3. Geneva

A goal of mine was to stay out of Paris as much as possible on this trip. I spent a week there in 2001, and I found it to be cramped, dirty, packed full of tourists, and kitschy. I mean, I'm glad I saw the Eiffel Tower and the Mona Lisa and the Arc de Triomphe and all that, but... I always thought I'd like to see what the rest of France was like.

Unfortunately, the only way to get from Lille to Luxembourg was to change trains in Paris -- again, duelling stations, but this time with a 15-minute walk in between (which wasn't signed very well; I think I only found Gare de l'Est by accident). And a bunch of train ticket sites had Luxembourg to Geneva going through Paris as well... but the Germans (and their indispensible national train website) came to the rescue and showed that, nope, that wasn't really necessary, and so through the Swiss, I managed to only change trains in Basel, just inside the Swiss border. Success!

(Gah, I'm such a nerd. I enjoy all this planning way, way too much.)

And so, Geneva. Right away I could tell the place was different -- and not just because it doesn't use the euro, and just because holy fuck is everything goddamn expensive as hell. It just looked different... maybe a little cleaner, slightly more German (even though it's in the French part of the country), and definitely more international.

I was thinking a lot, when in Geneva, about how much like Toronto it looked, demographically -- tons of people from every imaginable background. So, in that way, it made things feel a little more like home. But, I would say that Toronto comes about its diversity a little more organically than Geneva, the home of diplomats, high finance, world-class science, and the like. Toronto's got some of that, of course, but a lot of people who come here are looking for a better life and maybe aren't quite as highfalutin' as someone who, say, transfers in from Lagos to become a CEO in Geneva.

The highlight of Geneva -- Genève to the locals -- was, of course, CERN. I'd faithfully checked the public tour part of CERN's website in the weeks leading up to the visit, and for a long time the booking part of their site was down. So, I sent them an email, asked if tours would be running, and got a reply that, yes, they would be, and keep checking back. You could book a tour two weeks ahead of the date you'd be visiting, so I counted off the days and marked my calendar.

Much to my surprise/dismay/annoyance/enragement, the day I visited the website, every tour group for the entire month of July was booked solid. Panicked, I emailed the same address from which I'd received my reassurance -- "You're not all booked, are you? I'm a physics teacher, dammit!" -- and the next morning I was assured that I was booked into the 11am tour on the 14th. A fist was definitely pumped at that point.

So, the day of the tour, I got to CERN stupidly early. There's a tram line that runs right to the place, and it's at the end of the line, so it was definitely great to hop on a tram that just said "CERN" on the front of it. The nerd in me (which is about 98% of me) was totally stoked. I chatted with some folks in front of the place who were also waiting for a tour -- this burnt-out ex-physicist dude from Edmonton, and this middle-aged guy and his son (who's headed off to Queen's this fall, in engineering) from London, Ontario of all places.

The tour was great. Our guide for the first two-thirds of the thing was a slightly scatterbrained physicist whose English wasn't great and didn't explain tricky concepts very well -- so, in short, he reminded me of the vast majority of my Waterloo profs. Fortunately, even though I'd opted for astrophysics instead of particle physics in my last year of my B.Sc, I was able to handle most of the technical stuff (a lot of it just described how whackin' huge the whole thing is).

Hilariously, the little 4-minute video clip he showed us at the very start... it didn't work terribly well. I chuckled to myself at the irony of the situation: a place full of physicists, where the Web was fucking invented, and a Quicktime movie kept cutting out in the middle of a PowerPoint presentation explaining CERN's origins and role in physics research today (or whatever the fuck equivalent of PowerPoint that Apple has, probably some dumb name like "Show" or "Slides" or "Magic Box" or something equally as goddamn stupid).

After that, we went across the road to the control room for the ATLAS project, which apparently is what gets shown on TV all the time, because it looks exactly as you'd imagine it: screens and physicists everywhere, crazy shit up projected up on the walls, schematic diagrams of amazing stuff, and so on. ATLAS looks at the particles that come out of the collisions of the Large Hadron Collider, and by putting the pieces together, you can figure out what existed for a split-second (e.g. Higgs boson candidates, of which there are several dozen by now, but they still have to keep going to get a better idea of its properties).

Then we hopped on a bus and crossed the border into France, as we toured the facility where all sorts of CERN stuff gets tested. The group split into two, and we got an Italian physicist who mumbled a lot ("I don't usually lead tour groups," he pointed out) and explained some nuts-and-bolts parts of the LHC that, well, made me glad I had a physics degree. But this is where I asked some good, nerdy questions about the thing, and I'm pretty sure I endeared myself to the Italian.

The rest of my time in Geneva was spent wandering around the shores of the lake -- Lake Geneva to you and me, Lac Léman to the locals -- and getting a tour of the UN's Geneva HQ (the other one is in New York). Fun stuff.

4. Grenoble

As mentioned before, the main reason I took this trip was to see the other side of France... and Grenoble was perfect for that. It's filled with tourists during ski season, as it's close to the French Alps, but during the summer it's very down-to-earth and not very touristy at all.

Problem is, it can get hot as fuck in that part of France in the summertime, and it certainly did. When the train rolled into Grenoble and I saw a clock/thermometer dealie on some business tell me it was 36 degrees at about 12:30pm, I was not a happy camper. I was unhappier still when I noticed the apartment in which I was staying did not have a fan (and certainly didn't have air conditioning).

I like having things to accomplish on every day of a vacation. It might be a simple, small thing -- I remember on one day in Galway, Ireland, my goal was to see this old stone bridge over a tributary of the River Corrib (it was delightful, for the record) -- but when I get to check that thing off my list, it's satisfying. So, my goal for the next day (after visiting the excellent Museum of the Resistance and Deportation, which told the heroic tale of the resistance to German occupation in WW2, and the tragic way some locals disappeared to concentration camps) was to buy a fan.

Seeing famous landmarks and whatnot is fun, but I find it really interesting to see what everyday life is like for people. What do their supermarkets look like inside? How would you go about your day? Do the stores close for lunch? (In Grenoble, a lot of them do.) So, I schlepped it out to an average mall on the edge of town, checked out a couple of stores, and ponied-up around €40 to make my life more bearable for the next few days. (I asked the person from whom I was renting an apartment in Lyon if there was a fan there; indeed there was not.)

Grenoble was great. It's full of history; I went to a couple of museums that had artifacts dating back to the Roman era and even beyond (to prehistoric settlement about 11,000 years ago), and of course the more recent, more depressing history in WW2. But what I liked most about it was that there were very few people in stores that spoke English -- and even when I spoke French with an English accent (I did this on purpose, lest someone think I was entirely fluent and then they'd go off at rocket-speed), very rarely did anyone flip into English, like they did most anywhere else, and especially in Geneva.

It's very humbling when you don't speak the local language. I'm used to being a pretty articulate and verbose person, but when every interaction with anyone else involves careful planning of what you're going to say, and then some strenuous interpretation and parsing-out of what they said, and then thinking hard about how you're going to reply... it really makes you (a.) improve your French skills, and (b.) appreciate how hard it is for non-English speakers to go about their daily lives in a place like Toronto.
In addition, if they don't use the exact word you were expecting them to use, but something a little different but related to it, that really throws you for a loop. This is a written example, but a good one... I used my iPod Touch to connect to the internet, and when I'd sign out of my Gmail account, it told me first "Please wait..." in English, then would flip to the local language based on what country I was and told me the same thing. In Luxembourgish it had something I totally didn't recognize, in Switzerland it said "Bitte wärten" which I somewhat recognized ("bitte" is a reply to "danke schön," and ">wärten" is close enough to "wait" that I pieced it together)... but in French it said "Veuillez patienter" instead of "Attendez SVP" or somesuch. I mean, I can figure out what "patienter" is, but it wasn't what I was expecting at all, and so you think, "Whoa, what? Alright, let me sort through this." But to do it in real-time in the middle of a conversation, man, that's tricky.

In the end, I enjoyed Grenoble a lot. It's surrounded on three sides by hills, which means every picture you take looks like a postcard.

5. Lyon

I only stayed two nights in Lyon, and the first was basically a chance for me to regroup and chill out. Luckily, I found a pub around the corner with a decent beer selection, free wifi (pronounced "wee-fee"), and delicious pizza, so I plugged away at my fourth book of the trip and hit the sack early.

The full day in Lyon was lovely. Again, it dated back to Roman times, and they built their city on the top of a big hill beside the Rhône; they also built a couple of amphitheatres which were excavated a few decades ago, which are used for a summer concert series (Björk was playing there that night, but I had to turn-in early to catch an early train the next morning, and plus it was sold out, and plus I'm not sure if I could stand an entire concert's worth of her). I checked out the old town (much more overtly touristy there than any other city I saw), took a few more pictures, and called it a day.

By the time I hit Lyon, I knew I was on the home stretch, and just kinda wanted to get back to Canada. It was a relief knowing the end was in sight... because travelling is fun and all, but coming home is great, too.

6. Travelling home

Got up at 6:30, was on a subway at 7:30, caught a 9:00 train to CDG, flew out at 14:45... then the clock rolled back six hours. Landed in Montreal at 16:00, landed in Toronto at 20:00, got home at about 21:30. (Twenty-four hour clocks are handy sometimes.) Since I went to bed around midnight, I'd been up for about 24 hours straight. I felt tired, but almost too tired to go to bed, if that makes any sense. But I slept like a baby and felt like a million bucks this morning.

I think I'm Europe'd-out for a while, though.

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