Sunday, December 31, 2006

Bonne Annee!

After all the crazy travelling for the last 8 months, the last 2 weeks have been fairly peaceful and quiet. Waking up under the same roof everyday and having a semblance of a routine feels a bit weird, but not too unwelcome. It's taken a while but I've gotten used to now going to the same grocery stores, laundromat and checking email from home and not a cybercafe. Not using a French keyboard makes life much easier.

From next week, I'll start going to the university and start showing my face. I'm not required to do much while I'm there for 2 months - no teaching, no administrative duties, no seminars. Just one lecture sometime in February so I should be able to get back to doing research which I haven't gotten around to for a long time. Working from home and cafes is ok, but doesn't have any of the intensity which one has when sitting in an office.

Hmmmm, that's about it. Nothing too interesting has been happening for the last 2 weeks. The weather's been fairly gloomy for the last 2 weeks. But it does make taking pictures at night fun.









Happy new year to anyone who's reading this blog.

Monday, December 25, 2006

A quiet week

It's been a fairly quiet week since coming back from Barcelona. Since it's Xmas, it feels as if all of Paris has left town or is indoors and the only people one sees are tourists or homeless people. Most of the cafes and bars are closed or empty and it feels like a ghost town right now, especially as the area I live in isn't a very touristy area. Being the only one in a cafe which is normally quite busy, feels eery. I stocked up on food, drinks and movies almost like one did just before a big snowstorm was supposed to hit Boston.

Finally got an internet connection a few days ago and for a while it didn't work. I had to spend a day trying to call but got no response. Was dreading the prospect of spending this whole Xmas week with no internet access at home. Spent an hour the next day trying out various combinations of the login and password and had given up hope. Turned out that the cable guy scribbled the password in a hurry so a "v" looked like a "u". It took me a while to figure it out and when it worked it was quite a eureka moment. Almost felt like I'd cracked the password for a high security website and hacked through all their layers of security. Being able to surf under the same roof that I sleep in feels like the ultimate luxury.

I'm putting up some pictures from Barcelona. Have uploaded all the pictures to the pictures link on the right, plus a few pics of my studio. Here's the link if you're too lazy.


Pictures


And, here are some pictures.













Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Barcelona Diary

After the eventful train ride, I decided the next day I´d just walk around and explore it without a map or a guidebook. Unlike most of my other trips, I hadn´t read up much on Barcelona and I wasn´t carrying a guidebook. After the first day I realised the city was too spread out and too big to explore on foot. There are parts of the city which are like a traditional European city - compact and easy to explore on foot. That´s the Gothic Quarter and it´s a bit gentrified and touristy now. It´s not far from the beach so I can imagine it must be one of the most sought after neighbourhoods to live in. But after more than half a day of walking around I felt I´d had enough of walking.

The next day I decided to get a metro pass. Turns out that one can buy a city pass which includes unlimited rides on the metro as well as discounts at most of the major museums. That turned out to be a great way to explore the city. There are too many neighbourhoods spread out over the city to miss out on. The hostel I was staying in was right in the centre and next to a major intersection on the metro so getting around was very easy. A lot of the main attractions I was interested in are spread out over the city so walking and exploring would have been too tiring.

In terms of museums, there were a lot of fairly unique but touristy museums that I went to. The contemporary art museum was in a great location with a nice spacious building and a very minimal collection. Located in the cultural and University district it really stands out with its big white facade. That´s the kind of museum I enjoy. Also went to the Picasso and Gaudi museums which were a bit too crowded with tourists - like me. They weren´t too exciting but I liked the buildings.

Architecturally, I think Barcelona is one of the most beautiful cities I´ve ever seen. The old city with its traditional buildings, Gaudi´s modernist works spread out over the city and some crazy contemporary architecture have been meshed together in a very visually appealing way. Nothing seems to be out of place. The urban planners and architects spent about 20 years replanning the city and they´ve done a masterful job. The location is nice as well with the Mediterranean coast on one side and the mountains on the other side.

After a day of getting used to the scale and the sights of the city, I kept discovering small buildings, sculptures and installations all over the city. It was a bit like staring at a 3D hologram and being able to see through the facade after staring for a long time. Once you get the hang of the city almost any neighbourhood seems interesting.

There are a few walking tours of different parts of the city but I picked one neigbourhood at a time and decided to explore it at a leisurely pace. Sometimes I would be the only one walking down a wide boulevard, staring open-mouthed at an apartment building, which in any other city would be a work of art. I must have looked quite weird crossing streets and standing on top of benches to get a good angle for a library, a housing project or just a park. I took tonnes of pictures and will upload them soon.

Apart from the architecture, exploring Barcelona at night was fun. Though I went alone and didn´t know anyone there it was easy to hook up with people from the hostel and go out at night. In terms of food, Barcelona is a great bargain for cheap tourists like me. There are lots of places with a set menu for lunch and dinner which includes 2-3 courses plus wine for a reasonable price. Went out once to the University area to eat Tapas at a student cafe, a sports bar to watch a football game and to a raucous club on a Saturday night which stretched well into Sunday morning.

On the last night, I joined 5 people from my dorm room - 3 Irish nurses and 2 Aussie bartenders - to go to a Flamenco performance. Oz1 was pretty drunk before we got there and just before the performance started asked loudly "Is audience participation allowed?". It looked unlikely and we managed to restrain him. I could see Oz1 and Oz2 waiting for an amazingly hot woman in a short skirt to walk in. Oddly enough, a guy in a red shirt stepped in and kept dancing and touching himself all over. Shoulders drooped all over and Oz1 went for a leak and Oz2 decided to buy everyone a round of beers. By the time they both came back, there was a hot woman in a sexy skirt dancing. They missed out on a great performance and watching the singers and dancer was quite mesmirising. Ended up going out to a boring Irish bar later followed by a Jazz club. Got back to the hostel sometime at sunrise. It´s really easy to be out late at night in this city.

Woke up late the next day, headed to the beach and just sat in an empty beachfront cafe and read a book and enjoyed the sunny weather. Took a flight back to Paris which was uneventful except for the beginning where I forgot to take some toilet stuff out of my bag and got redflagged while checking in. Anyway, I'm back in Paris now.....back home.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Update from Barcelona

Reaching Barcelona didn't turn out to be as easy as I'd expected. I'd booked myself on the superfast TGV from Paris to Montpellier and then on another fast train from Montpellier to Barcelona. I was supposed to reach Barcelona around 9pm and had booked myself into a hostel in the centre of the city.

The train left Paris right on time and travelling first class, sipping a nice glass of wine, listening to my ipod and watching the French countryside unfold was fun. The train reached the Alps area within 2 hours and I was thinking of what to eat on the train from Montpellier to Barcelona and which book to read. Unfortunately, the train reached Montpellier 10 minutes late and the connecting train was leaving at any minute. There was also no other direct train to Barcelona for the rest of the day. That meant I had to do something again which I'd done twice over the last 3 weeks - sprint across the platforms and hope to make the connection. At least this time I was just carrying my small backpack and I wouldn't knock people over like last time.

I asked the conductor just before the train reached which platform to look for. He didn't know so I jumped off as soon as I could and looked for the first panel I could find. It said platform E and I ran down the steps and made a blind left turn hoping that would be the correct side. It was, but unfortunately by the time I reached the platform I could see the train pulling away. I guess making it 3 in a row was pushing my luck.

Went back to the information counter and tried to protest and ask for some compensation. One of them said go to Port Beau and change from there to Barcelona on the local train. Port Beau sounded a lot like Bordeaux, which was in the other direction. It didn't make sense to me and I kept saying - No, I want to go to Barcelona. Finally he printed out the ticket and I understood what he meant. The train to Port Beau was leaving in 3 minutes, so again I had to sprint. 2 in a day was enough, I thought, and I managed to get onto the train in time. It left within a couple of minutes of me boarding but stopped after 10 minutes. There was an announcement that there was work on the tracks and there would be an indefinite delay. I had a 20 minute wait in Port Beau to catch the Barcelona train, and the wait was about 40 minutes. That meant I would reach Port Beau around 9 at night and I wasn't sure if there was another train to Barcelona at that time of the night.

I asked the person in the next cubicle and she didn't sound too optimistic. She also said that Port Beau was a very remote small town on the border and it might not be too easy to find a cheap place to sleep. Anyway, the train started and I decided there was no point thinking too much about it till I reached. Since it was a local train, a lot of people got off within the next hour and after a while I was the only one in my coach. It felt a bit spooky as it was pitch dark outside and I had to strain my eyes to make sure I hadn't missed my stop. Walked across two empty coaches to find some other people.

Reached Port Beau around 9 at night and as I got off there was a train attendant shouting - Espania, Espania - and making a running gesture. I started running and assumed there was still one more train for Barcelona. I couldn't understand what she was saying but I noticed one other guy running with me. I just asked him Barcelona and he nodded and we sprinted across the bridge and I just followed him. Managed to get onto the train in the nick of time. I wasn't even sure where it was headed till they made an announcement that it was an overnight train headed to the northern coast of Spain via Barcelona. Anyway, I breathed a sigh of relief and closed my eyes and dozed off.

Reached Barcelona around midnight and realised that I'd left the printout with the address, directions and confirmation code of the hostel on one of the trains. I remembered the metro station so I got off at Passaeig de Gracia and wandered around hoping to find it. Since it was Friday night the place was alive with people going in and out of bars and clubs. After almost 20 minutes of aimless wandering I walked into a hotel and asked for directions to the hostel. I was looking for Hostel Centric Point and he told me the directions for Hostel Centric which seemed much further away.

Since I didn't have a map with me I just followed his directions and reached Hostel Centric which looked very shady compared to the description and pictures. The attendant didn't speak a word of English and was asleep. So much for the great location and 24 hour reception I thought. He checked a piece of paper with names handwritten and said I didn't have a reservation. I felt there was something wrong so I managed to convince him to let me use the internet and check my email. Realised I was in the wrong hostel but managed to the find the address of the correct hostel. Reached there around 1 at night, instead of 9pm.

Spent most of today walking around central Barcelona. Walked a lot and my feet are aching so I decided to head back to the hostel, take a nap and then head out later tonight to explore some of the nightlife with some of the people in my dorm.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

A holiday within a holiday

I'm off to Barcelona tomorrow for 4 days. Can't really say it's a holiday as Paris has been mainly a holiday so far. I have one last trip left on my railpass which expires next week so I've decided to go down to Barcelona. The weather in Paris is a bit cold and wet so the sun and beach in Barcelona will be a nice change. Initially I'd toyed with the idea of heading all the way down to Morocco by ferry but the Moroccan Consulate was being very tough about giving me a visa. Somehow, after dealing with the US, UK and Schengen visa people I thought the Moroccan visa would be a breeze. I ran out of steam to deal with one more visa and after seeing my studio decided to chill out in Paris instead.

It's been 2 weeks in Paris now and after a long time I've started to feel like I live somewhere rather than feeling like a visitor. I spend most of the morning and afternoon at home trying to reawaken brain cells which haven't been used in a long time - after Amsterdam, a lot of them were killed. Working with no pressure to graduate or apply for jobs (sent off a huge bunch 2 weeks ago), no studio to hunt for and no more visas to worry about is fun. Post lunch I head off for a long, aimless walk to explore the city and then settle down at a cafe and try to waste more time.

Rather than join a language course, I realised it's faster and cheaper to get a tutor so in the evening I meet my tutor at some cafe. We've been picking out different neighbourhoods every 3-4 days so I've been seeing Paris in a very relaxed way. It amazes me how many people actually sit in these cafes just reading, smoking or talking. Some just sit and stare at the people walking by. What do they do for a living, I keep thinking?

Anyway, will be back in 4-5 days so will post after getting back.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Notes from Paris

1) The area I live in has a large number of cybercafes. Since I don't have a net connection at home yet I've been going to the one opposite my building. Interestingly enough, it's always busy and full of people of African origin. Each cyber cafe also has phone booths. Yes, the kind one had in India till recently. There are lots of posters advertising cheap calls to Africa but none for the US. I had to call my brother recently and ended up using one of the phone booths. Felt odd speaking from inside a wooden enclosure and a guy sitting outside with a meter saying how much the call was going to cost.

2) Maybe after so many years of living in the US I got used to American style kitchens and grocery stores - basically big shops and kitchens. The kitchen in my studio is tiny and can barely fit one person. But after a week of living here it seems the right size. There are no huge supermarkets in the neighbourhood. Only small shops individually selling cheese, vegetables and bread. But the quality and choice is quite amazing. One of the cliched images of Parisians I've always had is of them walking back home with a piece of bread in their hands. I do that everyday now and it seems almost natural.

3) The shop I got my cellphone from is run by 2 Pakistanis. They were both speaking in Punjabi to each other while I was browsing. Their assistant (looked like he was fresh off the boat) messed up something and the owner let forth a torrent of abuses in crude Punjabi. To his next customer he switched to fluent French impressing on him the virtues of the latest Nokia model. As languages go, Punjabi and French are as far apart as I can imagine. Listening to the shop owner switch from abusive and colloquial Punjabi to smooth talking French was quite amusing.

4) When I was staying at B and M's place, they asked me what I wanted for breakfast. They described something to which I said "Oh, French toast". They looked puzzled but it turns out there is no specific name for it. Nor is a French press called a French press. It's just a coffee machine.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Montmartre Diary

It's now been more than 7 months of constantly moving around and living out of a backpack. Last night I counted about 35 different places that I'd slept in over the 7 months. After staying in other people's houses and hostels, having a place of my own feels great. I plan to stay here for 3 months but after travelling constantly it's a welcome break.

The owner of my studio is an architect who's spending a year travelling in Chile. As a result the place is completely furnished with everything that I could need. It's in great condition and the space is perfect for one person. My backpacks occupy a small corner in the closet and I feel like I just returned to civilisation. The neighbourhood is great and I love wandering around aimlessly. Montmartre was famous for it's history as an artists' enclave and also for the movie Amelie. I live in the less chic part of Montmartre and though it's less than 10 minutes to Sacre Couer there's a big difference in the areas. There are tonnes of African and Asian restaurants and grocery stores and after the whiteness of Bavaria it's nice to not get stared at and fit in with the very diverse group of people here.

Started taking French lessons from yesterday and I'm determined to not feel out of place here. I visited Paris 5 years ago for about a week and stayed with a friend of my parents in a very upscale area. After being overwhelmed by the beauty and grandeur of Paris for the first few days, I have to admit I got a bit bored. I didn't speak French, didn't have any friends or friends of friends to call or meet, very little money and not much of an idea of Paris beyond the main tourist attractions. It's been barely a week here but completely different from the previous trip.

And if anyone of you is interested in visiting Paris between now and March 1st, just let me know and show up. It's my turn to be the host.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Update from Paris

I literally ran away from Germany. At Cologne, I had to change trains and in 2 minutes I had to sprint across the platforms to get on to the Paris train. With one backpack in front and another one in the back, I pushed a lot of people on the way but managed to hop on the train just in time. The French travel in style - at least in first class. Great food was served throughout along with some nice wine and nibbling on some cheese and sipping wine, watching the countryside and dreaming about Paris was a nice feeling.

B was at the station to meet me and it felt funny to meet after more than 3 years. His girlfriend, M, had cooked a great meal and we were up for a while chatting and catching up. My backpacks occupied a prominent part of their living room but they have guests all the time and they didn't care much. I've been here for 4 days now and in that period they've had 4 other guests stay over. It's been fun, sitting up till late eating, drinking and talking. Their house is in a chaotic state because of all the guests and we've all gone out a lot but nothing seems to faze them.

Woke up early on Friday and had lined up 5 appointments to see studios in different parts of the city. I'd visited Paris about 5 years ago but saw it like a tourist. This time, I explored a lot of neighbourhoods I hadn't seen earlier and it was fun to walk around and see how close the grocery store, the subway station, etc were from the flat. A couple of them were too far, one a bit shady (the girl who was subletting it was doing it because she couldn't pay the rent) and another one was too smelly.

The maths dept had put me in touch with an agent who was German. Went to his office and he looked like a hippy with long hair, an unkempt beard and colourful clothes. It was a remarkably old fashioned office, with paper cards, a typewriter, post-its and old maps lying around. He told me he didn't like Germany because it was too white and he loved Paris for its diversity. Almost wondered if he'd read my blog. When I said I'm from India, he smiled and said he visited it in the 60s as a flower-power teenager and spent a year living with other hippies. Said he can't imagine how much it must have changed since then. He took me to the studio and along the way pointed out things about the city and the neighbourhood. It was in the Montmartre area and it was easily the nicest, cheapest and cleanest place I'd seen. Decided to take it the next day and will be moving in on Monday.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Leaving Regensburg

I'm leaving Regensburg in a few hours and cannot to wait to get out of here. Never in my life have I been exposed to a culture and a group of people who were so inhospitable and unfriendly.

I came here under an exchange program between Brandeis and Regensburg. Earlier this year, 2 other people from Brandeis came here - an Australian and an American, both white. One of them was a student and put up in a great dorm in the heart of the old town, and the other one was a visiting lecturer (like me) and put up in a very nice flat. They were invited to people's homes in the countryside, taken out by the math dept and generally treated in a warm and friendly manner. They didn't speak German before they came here and language wasn't a barrier.

Before I came, I knew at least 10 people in the University because of the exchange program. They all visited Brandeis for a year each (spread out over the 5 years I was there) and I regularly went out with them, invited them to my house and told them about things to do in Boston. I kept in touch with some of them and generally considered them to be friends.

It's been 2 months since I came here and not once was I invited to somebody's house for a drink, a meal or even a get-together. There were a couple of drinking binges with M and a couple of raucous football matches with D. I was put up in an awful dorm, far from the university and the old town, with no phone and no internet access. There were occasions when I asked some of the people I knew from earlier, about plans for the weekend but got no response. They all go home for the weekend and a couple of times I asked (or hinted) about coming along. Some vague excuses were given - a fragile aunt, a paranoid mother, my parents don't speak English or maybe next week. I thought I knew them well enough to say I had nothing to do, was feeling lonely and bored, but it didn't help.

I tried to fit in out here. I spent a couple of months learning German, got a bike to be able to get around and didn't complain about the food - bread and sausages. I tried to make my lectures accessible to students and faculty and put in a lot of work into each lecture by trying to keep them at the same standard or style as the average lecture in the math dept. Heck, I even attended math seminars in German. I explored the countryside on my bike, went to soccer matches and travelled to places in and around Bavaria. Somehow, it didn't make any difference to how I was treated. The cops assumed I was an illegal alien on a stolen bike, bouncers didn't want to let me in to clubs, the faculty couldn't be bothered to treat me like they treated other visitors and most of the students I knew from earlier acted as if they hardly knew me. Had it not been for M (who's half American) and D (who's East German), my time here would have been even worse.

This wasn't my first time in Europe nor was it the first time I'd spent more than a few days in one place. Vienna was one of the best times I've had (and Germans claim Austria is racist) and in 2 weeks there, I was welcomed by people I had never met earlier. I didn't expect the kind of hospitality I'd get in India or other places in the third world but the unfriendliness was something I wasn't prepared for.

Germans take strong exception to being called racist. It's associated with mass murders and riots. Treating people of different races in an unequal manner probably has some German equivalent. I don't care to know what it is.

Anyway, Paris beckons and I hope never to come back to this part of the world. And this time, I'm disabling comments.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Frankfurt-Amsterdam

Woke up at 5 on Thursday to get ready and head out to the train station. The French consulate was open only from 9 to 12, so I had to get there as early as possible. By train, Frankfurt is about 3 hours from R'burg and the earliest I could get there was 930 or so, which included a very tight 5 minute window to change trains at Nuremberg. I took a train at 620 and narrowly missed a connecting train at Nuremberg. Had to sprint across the station and followed a co-passenger who was also heading to Frankfurt. Managed to get on the 735 departure to Frankfurt literally 30 seconds before it was leaving. Since I'm not under 26 the only railpass I could buy (bought it last month at Munich) was a first class train pass. Compared to my current living conditions travelling first class seemed like a huge extravagance. In hindsight, it was a great thing to buy as it gave me the flexibility to stop at Frankfurt on my way to Amsterdam, and avoiding the hassle of booking tickets 2-3 weeks in advance.

Reached Frankfurt around 930 and the French consulate didn't look too far on the map I'd printed out. Frankfurt's a weird city. It's the financial capital of Europe and it feels a lot like the downtown area of an American city. It took me a while to get to the consulate and had to walk along roads which were almost like a freeway. Anyway, walked into the visa section around 10 and was soon joined by a Romanian couple. I'd decided to stay quiet about my residency status and had a plan B in case she kicked up a fuss. I also realised that my health insurance is only valid till January (it was a 6 month travel insurance) but decided to write on the form that it was valid till July, hoping she wouldn't ask for the papers. That was the first lie.

When my turn came, the visa officer looked at all my papers and then pointed out that my German visa was expiring in a few weeks. She spoke only French or German so it was again hard to communicate. Earlier in the week I'd talked to her colleage (in English) about an appointment and she'd mentioned she wouldn't be around as she was going on holiday, so I'd better be prepared for her colleage who didn't speak English. She got a bit agitated about the residency factor, so I decided to pull out plan B.

I lied (for the second time).

I told her I'd spoken to her colleage (remembered her name) on Monday, and talked to her about the situation. She'd said it was fine and should be able to apply for it from Frankfurt. The visa officer looked a bit confused, then remembered I'd called earlier and tried speaking to her in broken German, and then went out. She came back with a document and started to highlight it. Uh-Oh, I thought. She's going to show me the rule book in English and say, I'm not eligible to apply. Couldn't think of a plan C. Suddenly, she turned and went out again.

The Romanian couple was getting curious and asked me what was up. When I told them the situation, they shook their heads and said this was their third visit to the French consulate over a trivial issue. They didn't seem too optimistic about my chances and I was trying to figure out what to do.

The door opened and she came back with all my papers, smiled and said "It's OK". I was a bit shocked and very relieved she didn't call my bluff. Managed to get my visa in another 10 minutes, gave the Romanian couple a wink, and walked out to catch the train to Amsterdam. Had a couple of hours to kill so walked around downtown Frankfurt taking pictures.

Caught the Amsterdam bound train around 1 and turned out M was on the same train (obviously in second class). Met him for a beer but stayed in first class and just felt happy at getting a big headache out of the way. Reached Amsterdam around 5 pm and headed straight to the hostel to meet D, who was severely jetlagged after his flight from New York. His childhood friend from Istanbul, S, showed up soon and we all headed out straight to a coffeeshop.

Amsterdam passed by in a (purple) haze. The four of us had no agenda, no plans and no major sights to see. We walked from a coffee shop to a bar to a cafe to a coffeeshop to another bar. Walked around a lot in Amsterdam and since we were staying in the heart of the city it was easy to get around. I'd visted Amsterdam 4 years ago, and felt comfortable walking around. It's an easy to city to get oriented with because it's small and has canals running all over the city. It's particularly pretty at night.



Went to the Rijks museum once to catch an exhibition. Since it was under renovation, it was a small exhibition. They had a very simple but powerful memorial for Theo van gogh, called Scream. Apparently, as his killers were attacking him, he screamed loudly.



Got back today around 6 after a long journey. The train got delayed and this time I travelled in second class as M insisted on it. I kept bugging him about how this was a big sacrifice, thought second class wasn't too different. For someone my size, legroom doesn't make any difference. Feels weird to be back, especially as I know I'm moving to Paris in 4 days. Now that the visa's been sorted out I'm heading directly from here on Thursday.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Some more notes from Regensburg

1) A couple of weeks when I'd gone to Munich to watch a football game, one of the subway lines got delayed. I couldn't understand the message being flashed. My friend told me it was because they'd found an unexploded bomb along one of the tracks. This was a bomb from WW-II. Apparently, it's not uncommon for them to be found and last year a couple of people died on the Autobahn because their car drove over a bomb. Scary, isn't it?

2) On a bike ride through the countryside last month, I was passing through a small village and noticed something weird. There were two kids playing basketball in their backyard. It wasn't just basketball. They were dressed like American teenagers and had some loud hip-hop in the background. Somehow, I'd expected to see soccer playing kids in the heartland. I wonder if they talk like them as well, ending every sentence like a question.

3) For my morning shot of espresso, there's a nice coffeeshop between the maths and physics dept. It's fairly common to see people from either dept sitting around and talking. Because it occupies an important point in the space between math and physics, it's called ...... Einstein.

4) Leaving for Frankfurt at 6 in the morning tomorrow to apply for my French visa. Hopefully, it'll work out. Heading off to Amsterdam from there for 4 days to meet up with D who's flying in from New York and will be joined by his childhood friend from Istanbul. I know it's Thanksgiving, so instead of eating a Turkey, I'll hang out with a couple of Turks (and M from R'burg who's also coming).

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The power of Youtube

George Allen finished his career and lost the Senate for the Republicans.

John Kerry finished his chances as a Presidential candidate.

Now, Kramer (Michael Richards) of Seinfeld finished his standing as the most lovable, eccentric TV character I'd ever seen. To all Seinfeld fans - remember the episode where Seinfeld gets heckled at a comedy club, and then he returns to heckle her back?

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Nuremberg

Went to Nuremberg yesterday to watch another Bundesliga soccer game. The Bayern match was a bit disappointing, especially the intensity of the game and the passion of the fans. Apparently, Bayern wins almost every year and it's expensive to watch games in Munich so the fans aren't the loudest ones around. Nuremberg was going to be different according to D, the postdoc who went with me yesterday.

D's from East Germany and on the train to Nuremberg, it was quite fascinating listening to his stories about what it was like to grow up in East Germany at the height of the cold war. Apparently, before the wall came down, food was so heavily rationed that he'd never eaten an orange in his life, bananas once in two weeks. Travelling was forbidden and the eastern part of Berlin was dominated by the wall. After the wall came down, some of his school teachers vanished, some were apparently spies on the run and some just ran to West Germany as soon as they could. Nobody knew what was happening. Two days after the historic day, he and his friends (who were about 80 km from the border) decided to drive across to the western side and apparently there was a traffic jam which started right outside their house.

Anyway, we reached Nuremberg around 1030, and the game was at 330, so we had time to walk around and explore the old town. Unlike Regensburg, Nuremberg was heavily bombed and then rebuilt, so it's an interesting place to explore. Most of the architecture is similar to the old buildings, but it has some houses which resemble gingerbread houses - because Nuremberg is famous for its gingerbread.





The stadium isn't too far from the main town centre, and the fans had already congregated near the station. 3 hours before the match it was packed with loud groups with beer (I still find it hard to get over how it's legal to walk around with an open bottle of beer) and rival fan groups chanting at each other. Reached the stadium an hour or so before the match and it filled up quickly.

Nuremberg is in the middle of the table, and so was the opposing team. Neither of them had a hope of winning the title, but the fans were amazingly passionate. The game was intense and it went back and forth. For the entire second half everyone was on their feet, chanting away and singing loudly. The game was tied at 2-2 and when Nuremberg scored the winner with 5 mins to go, the place went wild.



The partying continued after the match got over, in the train, all the way to the old town where every bar and pub got filled up with hysterical fans. It amazed me how much a simple win meant to the fans.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

French Bureaucracy

I haven't yet reached Paris but somehow the French bureaucracy has pissed me off a lot already. I wasted a whole day yesterday because of their ineptness.

I have a bit of a problem regarding my residency status - basically, I'm not a resident anywhere (homeless). Being a student in the US meant visas were easy to get. Having an Indian passport, no money, no real job and no base makes getting visas very hard. But I've learnt to deal with lots of different types of visa officers over the last year by being, let's say, creative.

In May, I applied for a UK visa, 2 days after my graduation. I was flying back to Delhi on a oneway ticket (at that time I didn't know about the Germany position I'm on) but had decided to stop in London on the way back. Since my advisor had moved to London and I didn't have much of an idea about where I was moving to after Boston, I thought it would be good to get at least a tourist visa to the UK and hang out there and stay with some friends. This was my third UK visa, so I was hoping the visa officer wouldn't notice anything wrong. I went to the New York consulate (a day after a harrowing experience where I got a parking ticket, had to go to a towing garage and then banged into a car while driving a rented car) for my appointment. Being a bit bold I'd decided to apply for a 5 year multiple entry visa, even though my flight back to Delhi was in about 10 days. My I-20 (the most important document for every foreign student) said clearly I was supposed to graduate by May 31, 2006 (that I did was a minor miracle). Somehow, he didn't notice that. Roughly a year ago, I'd travelled outside the country and had a signature valid till July, 2006. That's what he saw. Then, he asked if I was just going to India for the summer holidays and then coming back, just stopping in London for a few days. I just nodded, and decided not to be too honest. Since it was my third visa, he just stamped it and gave a me 5 year multiple entry visa. I let out a deep sigh of relief. Had he noticed I had graduated, he could have denied me a visa on the grounds that I don't live in the US anymore. Anyway, it worked out.

Once I was back in Delhi, I went and applied for a German visa. After a 5 hour wait in horrible July heat (inspite of an online appointment), I went in with all my documents. Since I hadn't closed my bank account in Boston, the visa officer assumed I still lived in the US and said I couldn't apply for it from Delhi. I had to show her what I didn't show the UK visa officer - my degree and a letter of graduation. Finally, after a bit of a debate she let me apply for it from Delhi though I had to spend a week or two getting some other documents to get the visa.

A few days after that, I applied for a US visa, since I was going back to the US for a workshop and some talks. For occupation, I wrote visiting lecturer at Regensburg. The visa officer first said I should apply for it from Germany but I told him I was moving there after the US trip. He didn't notice that it was just a month long position which I was stretching out for 2 months (and had no clear plans after that). He was more curious about why I left Boston for a place like Regensburg. The next day I had a 10 yr multiple entry visa.

For the French visa, I've been thinking about how to overcome the residency factor. They have a consulate in Munich and on their website it said Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9 to 12 were the times to apply. I first called up the consulate but the guy spoke only French or German. Our conversation went like this,

(Me in bad German) "I am from India. I want visa. I go to France for mathematics research. I come next week to Munich."

(Him) "Yes, Yes. Good."

I decided it was best to just show up and see if I could somehow get another visa, without being too honest. Munich is a little less than 2 hours by train from Regensburg. So I woke up early and just managed to jump onto the 7 am train. Reached the consulate around 9 am armed with all kinds of documents and possible scenarios to deal with. The first thing I noticed was that public hours on Wednesday were from 1:30 to 3:30. That's not what the website said (which again was in either French or German). I rang a bell, but the guy said (I think it was the same guy) "No public now. Come 1:30".

I had about 4 hours to kill so I decided to head over to J's flat, which wasn't too far away. He knew I was coming at some point so I had breakfast at his place, pottered around in his neighbourhood, had lunch and then headed back to the consulate. Walked in at 1:35 and said "Visa" to the guy behind the window. He said "No visa". I asked why and he said, recent policy change meant, I have to go all the way to Frankfurt. I felt like punching him.

I said "Internet says yes visa in Munich".

He shouted back "Only in Frankfurt. Go to Frankfurt."

I just turned and left. Missed the 1:44 train back R'burg by 1 minute. I could see the train leaving just as I reached the platform. Not my day.

Got back and checked out the website for the Frankfurt consulate. It said appointments are compulsory so I sent an email. No reply for a whole day. So I asked the guy next to my office to call up the consulate to make sure there's no communication break this time. The phone number from their website didn't work. Did a google search and found a different website with numbers of all kinds of consulates. Called up one of those numbers and the guy said their visa office is closed for the next two days (I couldn't figure out why) and I should call back on Monday.

French bureaucracy will require more creativity and effort than I imagined.

Monday, November 13, 2006

videos

Some videos from the match last week.

Opening.



Just missed.



Hannover fans.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

FC Bayern

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a postdoc about German football and he turned out to be a huge football fan. A considerable part of his student days were spent following a couple of football teams all over Germany and he still goes to watch football games. I told him I'd love to watch a Bundesliga match sometime and he said getting tickets for a Bayern Munich match were impossible. Every game of theirs is sold out and they have a huge fan following out here in Bavaria. Anyway, after lunch he suddenly popped into my office and said he checked on the web and they were a few tickets available for a match in November. Obviously, I jumped at the chance and they weren't too expensive considering it's Bayern Munich.

We went yesterday to watch it and the stadium itself is stunning. From the outside, it looks like a spaceship. The outer skeleton is made of some weird material which can be lit up in different colours depending on the colour of the team playing on the day. Because of the world cup all the stadia were modernised but I wasn't prepared to see something like this.



Since it's a very modern stadium, the walk from the subway to the entrance to the seat were all very well planned. It was sold out (about 65 thousand people) but there was no rush, no pushing and it didn't feel like one was going to watch a soccer game. The seats weren't too bad and one feels incredibly close to the field as there's no running track in between. I walked all around the stadium and from every angle one felt close to the action.



The atmosphere somehow wasn't as crazy as I'd expected though. It's mainly because the Bayern supporters are very used to winning. Bayern's won the league almost every year for the last 10 years. It was the Hannover fans sitting in the section above us who were very loud and added to the noise. Hannover's last in the league and everyone expected a rout by Bayern, but surprisingly Hannover held on to a slim lead and won.

What surprised me was how fast the game went. Watching a football game on TV can be a bit tedious at times but this was great to watch. It wasn't the most exciting game and I got the impression Bayern took it too lightly, but watching the players pass, run and head with such ease was interesting. The only time I watched a football match in India was around 1988, when PSV Eindhoven came to play the Indian XI. We lost 8-0 in that match even though PSV was playing their second eleven. This one was reasonably evenly matched and after Bayern conceded a goal, it picked up in intensity.

Hanover had never won in Munich and after they won the fans behind me went crazy and I managed to make a few videos while I was there. Have to figure out a way to upload videos onto blogger. Any suggestions anyone?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Math in German

For the last week, I've tried going to a few seminars in the math dept. The first one that I showed up for was in German. I didn't realise that it was not in English and after it started it was too rude to get up and leave. What struck me though was how well organized the lecture was. Not just the first one, almost all of them. Even if they're in German, they were fairly comprehensible especially as all the formulae were written very clearly. What helps a lot is the pauses in the middle of the lecture. Too often, math lectures go at a pace which is too fast for almost everyone. Since the lecturer has to take a wet mop kind of thing, then dry it with a windscreen wiper thingie, it takes up a fair amount of time. But that's the ideal point to ask questions, rather than interrupt the speaker. It's been interesting observing how clear and precise most of the lectures have been. I still have a hard time understanding them, but I seem to be getting the hang of it. Anyway, since a lot of the math terms one uses originated in German, there's quite a bit of overlap in the terminology.

And I've also learnt the German equivalent for "I don't know", "Good question" and "Let me think about it". Incredibly useful terms for any lecturer.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

No outsiders, please

I was refused entry at a club last night. It wasn't the first time it's happened out here but it's soured the whole Regensburg experience for me.

I've been partying a lot for the last week with M and his Bavarian friends. Last week, his dorm had a huge party. There were at least 1000 people there and it was a mad, mad party. Even though I felt horribly old compared to all the students there, I had a great time. I was also the only non-white person out there and I got stared at a lot, though considering how provincial and small minded this place is, it didn't affect me. I was told on many occasions by many students that I was the first Indian they'd met or seen. Considering how many places Indians have settled in, it shows how remote this place is.

On Saturday, I met up with M and some of his other friends and after a lot of bar hopping, I was very drunk by midnight. We headed out to a club and I was in a good mood, speaking bad German in a deliberate Indian accent to make everyone laugh. Maybe I was a bit too loud, but we weren't allowed in. I don't remember much of what happened that night, but I remember after being refused at a second club, I snapped, cursed the bouncer and just left. M and his friends couldn't see where I went and after walking very aimlessly through the streets of R'burg trying to not get too angry, I reached home at 5 in the morning. Woke up in the afternoon, hungover and called up M. He said we weren't allowed in because I was too drunk - something I half believed.

Last night, J from Munich showed up and 6 of us went to some other dorm party and then headed out to the old town. It's especially lively and all of them kept talking about how lively and fun Regensburg is with its high density of bars and cafes. With its very well preserved old town, cobbled streets and cosy cafes it is a fun place to walk around at night with lots of people flitting in and out of all the bars and clubs. They're very proud of Bavaria and Regensburg and I kept nodding along. Then, we went to another club and this time I was completely sober, stood quietly behind them in a big crowd. As we were getting in, the bouncer looked at me, stopped us and said something I couldn't understand. I could see everyone's face drop and they didn't even bother arguing. Apparently, he said no foreigners. It felt weird, and this time I didn't snap, curse or do anything. Just shrugged my shoulders and said let's get something to eat at the closest Lebanese Doner Kebap joint.

I've decided not to remind M and his friends, or the faculty about this. When I told the faculty about the ticket I got for riding my bike without a light, I could see them squirm, as it only happens to foreigners. It hasn't affected me much and since I know I'm here for just another month, I don't want to put a label on everyone from Bavaria because of a couple of jerks. Discrimination on the basis of race, caste, religion, etc happens everywhere I guess but somehow I'd never encountered something so blatant.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Moving to Paris

I'm moving to the University of Paris next month as a postdoc to work with JT. It came out of the blue but for me it's almost the chance of a lifetime. My Regensburg stint is till November 30th and after that my plans were very vague. The German/Schengen visa that I came on expires on Dec 16th and I didn't have money to last me beyond December. I'd been thinking of moving to London, staying with a friend and looking for a job outside academia. My position in Paris is initially from Jan 1st to March 1st but it can be extended. After I leave Regensburg, I'll travel a bit and then move to Paris by mid-December. The way this position came about was quite interesting.

In February this year, BM organized a very special semester at Harvard called eigenvarieties. BM is among the most influential and famous mathematicians in the world and in the opening lecture, he gave a very inspirational talk, about how this was almost a once in a lifetime moment and how he wished he could be a student all over again. The two other occasions he felt the same way were among the most radical and pathbreaking in the history of math (Grothendieck's theory of schemes and Langland's conjectures). BM decided to invite every expert in 2 seemingly different areas of math to explore the connections which he felt existed. I was in my last semester of my PhD and sitting at home and typing up my thesis. I lived close to Harvard so I decided to go there everyday for this semester. It was easily the most mindblowing semester I've ever been part of. Every big name I'd heard of (or not heard of till then) came and gave a series of lectures, a course or a seminar. There would be 2-4 lectures, follow up seminars and lots of informal discussions everyday. The lectures would be packed with mathematicans from the Boston area and outside, as everyone wanted to know what was happening. It was also obvious that as far as number theory goes BM was the godfather of the whole area.

JT was the first speaker of the semester and talked about developing a general theory. He'd proved a major result in this direction, and somehow I felt my thesis fit into the picture. I hadn't finished writing it and was too scared of approaching him about it till I had defended it and written it up (that was another dramatic story). My thesis involved extending the results of KB, who was visiting from London. JT led a big contingent of mathematicians based in Paris, who had all proved major theorems and it was obvious that the Paris group had a number of results which were going to change this whole area. The fact that they still do their math in French (and we all have to suffer by translating their results) shows how good and arrogant they are - unlike unfortunately the Germans, who seem to now suffer from an inferiority complex compared to their heydays a century ago. KB found my result reasonably interesting (he was on my committee and almost flunked me) and a day before my thesis defense, decided to talk about it in his lecture. I wasn't there as I was busy preparing for my defense but a friend of mine was in the audience. KB turned to BM in the audience and started talking about my work, how it verified something that BM had talked about. Then he asked him point blank "Do you think it agrees with your worldview? If not, I'll just flunk him tomorrow". BM thought for a while, and then said yes. My friend B, in the audience was ready to call me in case BM said no, and say run away, it's all over. Somehow, after a very intense and gruelling period, I survived and passed.

In August, I went to California for a workshop and then gave a couple of lectures. After one of my lectures, I met a postdoc and was asking him about postdoc positions in Europe. He told me about the European Number Theory network and how they have money for short term visitors. My advisor FD had moved to London by then, so I decided to stop in London in September and talk to him. He told me to write to JT and ask about a position. I needed to start on a new research topic, so after I reached Germany I emailed KB in London and asked him about extending my thesis to what JT had talked about. KB sent me some suggestions, which I thought about, and then emailed JT about the kind of problem I wanted to work on. After a bit of emailing back and forth, he wrote back and invited me to visit Paris and join the Paris node of the European number theory group.

I feel scared and excited about the move. Obviously, I jumped at the chance and though I have to now apply for my 4th visa in 5 months, look for a studio and move again, I can't wait to get there.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

more notes from regensburg

1) I noticed a weird tendency among a lot of Germans. They like to walk with hiking poles. Hiking poles are definitely useful while walking up steep hills for the extra support but it's funny seeing people walk in a flat town like Regensburg with hiking poles. Apparently, a hiking company once had too many extra skiing/hiking poles and started a campaign to promote healthy and safe walking (isn't walking safe anyway?) with poles. Somehow, the fad caught on and now it's very common to see people walking fast with these poles in each hand. It's called Nordic walking.

2) While taking a leak at a bar a few weeks ago, I noticed a funny thing in the urinal. There was a small plastic goal in the urinal. Not just mine, but in everyone of them. The idea is to get drunk football fans to aim and pee. I actually started laughing when I saw it and had to control myself surrounded by big Germans all around. Some of the other bars even have a goalkeeper whose body bobs back and forth if you aim at him. Definitely makes it fun to pee.

3) Beer is a big part of the life out here. The dorms have vending machines and it's very cheap. You can actually go to a supermarket and buy individual bottles of beer, though you have to put down a deposit. For some of the cheap ones, if you return three bottles you can get a free bottle of beer back. So it's pretty common to see a few bums walking around collecting beer. It's also legal to walk and drink with a bottle in your hand. A couple of days ago, I was eating pizza with a friend and we each bought a beer. We were running a bit late to meet some other people, so we just decided to walk out and drink beer along the way. I felt like a deranged alcoholic. Walking and drinking a beer is fine. Riding a bike without a light is not.

4) Regensburg is a very provincial university. In the US it was very common to meet someone who always remarked (upon hearing that one was from India), "Oh yeah, I know some Indians." Good for you! There's a billion of us, chances of you knowing a few aren't that low. But I heard a new one 2 days ago. When I told someone I'm from India, she thought for a bit, then said "Last year I went to France, and I saw a lot of Indians."

5) I started lecturing yesterday and found that the sliding blackboards are German sized. Pushing and pulling the boards was a task in itself, but Germans like to erase the boards, not with a duster, but as they would clean the windshield of a car. A wet mop kind of thing followed by the rubber dryer. Since I write a lot while lecturing I had to do this over and over again. It keeps the boards very clean, but it gave me a bit of a workout.

6) Since the semester started it's become pretty lively. The fall colours are in full bloom these days and my office has a nice view.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Berlin

Berlin stunned me. I was there for barely 4 days but I don't think I've ever been to a city which had me completely mesmerised. The architecture in Berlin was something I'd heard about but wasn't prepared for the craziness and the scale of things. It's a city which is reinventing itself and the urban planners of that city must be among the most daring in the world.

It's unlike most European cities. There is no real centre to it, nor does it have the old world charm one associates with other European cities. Walking around Berlin felt like walking through a huge exhibition of contemporary and modern architecture. Every 10 minutes one could see a very modern building, a sculpture or a crazy addition to an old structure. It sounds chaotic but somehow it seems to make sense. Then at night, it feels like a different city with a lot of the buildings lit up with a combination of lights. Some of them look like products designed for a high-end catalog of modern architecture.

Berlin's a weird city considering it's the biggest German city. It's the centre for politics and culture. The engineering, automobile, insurance, finance, TV and other industries are all based in different German cities. Somehow Berlin became a hotspot for a lot of new art and music and most of it has happened in the last 10 years. Post unification, the authorities are trying to make a big statement and even though I was there for a short time, it made a huge impression on me. I didn't explore much of the nightlife as it seems to be a city where you need to know about all the bars and clubs. Maybe next time, I'll go slightly better prepared.

I went crazy taking pictures and can't figure out which ones to upload to the blog. So, I'd much rather put a link to the whole album.

Berlin

Monday, October 16, 2006

Kelheilm

I went on a long bike ride yesterday. Actually, it was my first really long bike trip but I hadn't planned it like that. I had a bike in Boston but used it only for getting around in the city and never for a long ride. Boston had some decent bike trails but somehow I never got around to it.

After my Walhalla trip, someone told me about Beifriengshalle - the counterpart to Walhalla. It's another place with a nice view of the valley and nearby there's supposed to be a monastery where monks have been brewing beer for almost 1000 years. It was in the other direction along the Danube and supposed to be worth a visit. He mumbled something about it being 20-25 km away from Regensburg and as it was a nice day I decided to head out there.

The bike ride started off well and within 15 minutes I was biking through rural Bavaria. The bike trails are well maintained with good signage and since it was a Sunday there were a lot of bikers and walkers along the trail. Every 20 mins or so, there's a small village with a beer garden, cafe or even a town with a market. I left around noon, so there a lot of people were enjoying their lunch and beer after church. Biking through the villages and along the Danube, seeing small towns is a lot of fun.



The ride turned out to be much, much longer than I thought. I realised later that it was 20km or so along the highway, not along the river. This was something which didn't occur to me and I thought that Kelheilm, the village at the base of Beifreingshalle, was just a bit further away. At some point, I'd been biking for almost 2 hours, stopped at a village and asked for Kelheilm. One of them shook his head, and said at least another 10-15 km. I went on and on, and realised soon that a mountain bike isn't ideal for such a long ride. After almost two and a half hours, I could finally see Befreiungshalle, and with the fall colours in the backgroun (not in full bloom yet), it was a nice sight.



The last stretch, from the village to the top, was a killer. It was only 2-3 km but a steep incline and I had to get off my bike and start walking. It took me a long time to get up there and I was huffing and puffing by the time I reached the top. The building wasn't that impressive but the view was nice (sounds familiar, doesn't it?).



I pottered around for an hour, taking pictures and got a bit stiff, after such a long ride. Asked about the boat back to Regensburg, and one of the information guys replied that I'd missed the last boat back. He said there was a train station about 10 km away but wasn't too sure when the last train to R'burg was. It was almost 4 pm, so I had to decide where I should go the other way to catch the train or bike all the way back. Decided to bike back and calculated I would be back home just before sundown. Had to forego a trip to the monastery and the brewery. Next time.

Biking down the steep hill was a great thrill though. I don't think I've ever been on a bike so fast and since there was no traffic, and there were sharp bends, I had a nice time whizzing down and making sharp turns. It was invigorating and the first hour of biking went by in a rush. The next 2 hours were quite a drag especially as it became colder and I started to get stiff. Made a brief pit stop to get some water. Somehow, Europeans always give aerated water when you ask for water. It's nowhere as refreshing and actually made me a bit queasy on the way back. Whatever happened to normal water? Anyway, the nice thing about biking back in the evening was to see a nice sunset over the valley.



I made it back to R'burg at close to 7pm. I got very stiff during the last hour and biked very slowly. Had a nice beer and doner kebap in the old town, and it felt so good. Went back to my office and using googlemaps pedometer measured the distance from home to university to kelheilm and back. Realised I'd biked about 90 km! That's easily the longest bike ride I've ever done and I woke up this morning fairly stiff.

Anyway, I'm off to Berlin on Wednesday for 4-5 days. Will update the blog once I'm back.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Notes from Regensburg

1) Germans tend to be fairly formal. Compared to the average American university, it feels a bit weird. Professors are very, very senior and regarded with great respect. Getting to be a professor means going through a lengthy and trying period called habilitacion. Postdocs are basically assistants to a senior professor. A bit like being their RA and TA together. A professor has assistants, students and visitors and it's entirely up to his/her discretion who he/she wants. Their titles are Herr Professor Doctor XYZ. Can't call them just XYZ especially if you're a student. Herr is the basic requirement while addressing them. My official title is Herr Doctor Pande. Feels nice compared to Hey Dude, though I miss that informal and friendly atmosphere.

2) Regensburg is a fairly provincial university. Almost all the German students I've come across are from Bavaria and from within an hour or two at most. When asked about where they're from they give very precise directions - 45 km from the north, 70 km to the southeast, 80 km to the west. Since their families live so close they all tend to go home for the weekend. That means the bars/cafes are busy mostly during the week and on the weekends things are fairly quiet. All of them love to quote their favourite statistic - Regensburg has the highest density of bar/cafes in all of Germany. Knowing their precision for everything I don't think it's an exaggeration. The old town is especially lively.

3) I went to Munich yesterday to buy myself a eurail pass. I'm off to Berlin next week, Amsterdam at the end of november and then probably Spain in December so I figured a railpass makes more sense. I hate flying especially because of all the security and waiting and the closest airport from Regensburg is in Munich, almost 2 hours away. There's something called a Bavarian pass. 5 people can travel for 25 euros in all of Bavaria for a whole day - much cheaper than buying a single ticket. So going to Munich (it's in Bavaria) is cheap and easy. Just buy a Bayern ticket and wait near the ticket machine. Though I felt a bit shady hanging around the platform and ticket machine muttering the code word "Bayern ticket". Getting to Munich was easy but coming back to Regensburg required more standing and looking around. I felt like I was peddling drugs. The cops didn't care though.

4) I've been pleasantly surprised by the attention paid to recycling and saving power out here. Computers are switched off (not left on standby) and all the lights in the halls automatically switch off if there's no activity for too long.
Every campus cafe/canteen insists on serving food or coffee in reusable dishes. In fact, everyone has to put down a bit of a deposit in case there's some damage. There are lots of recycling bins everywhere and it feels reassuring not to throw away perfectly reusable items in the trash. Even a simple cup of coffee on campus is served in a normal coffee mug, not a paper cup. In the US, after a quick meal on campus or a coffee I used to feel like I was personally responsible for half an acre of the rainforest vanishing.

5) The department assembles for lunch at 12:30 everyday and then heads off to the Mensa (canteen). If you're even a minute or two late you know you missed the group. There's an Italian postdoc visiting the department and the poor guy has a hard time keeping to the schedule. Everyday after everyone's left the dept you can see the poor guy running from his office to catch up with us. He hates to eat alone and loves to talk. Problem is that when he talks he uses his hands, which means he stops eating. Everybody else finishes their meals at roughly the same time (feels like being in an army mess) and it's funny watching him gobble down his food as he can sense everyone else waiting for him to finish. He came 3 days after me and talks to me as if I've been in Regensburg for years - How do I get an internet connection, where can I get a light for my bike, Where can I buy an adaptor plug? He's shorter than me and his German is worse than mine, so he makes me feel almost...Bavarian.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Walhalla

Doesn't sound too German, does it? That's where I went on Sunday for a nice bike ride. It's called the Walhalla temple and is the German hall of fame and was modelled on the Parthenon in Athens. Regensburg is along the Danube and there's a nice bike trail and Walhalla is about 10-15 km east of town along the bike path.



The bike trail actually stretches all the way to Budapest and goes past Vienna as well. Sometime in the future, I'd love to go all the way but it's a bit too cold right now to go biking for too long. Also, an old mountain bike wouldn't be the best thing to take all the way. Saw a lot of other serious bikers along the way. Getting out of town was a bit of a hassle as following the various bike lanes was almost like driving on a highway and taking diferent exits. Thankfully, I didn't get a ticket for biking in the wrong lane!

Got a bit lost initially before asking for directions a couple of times. The nice thing about living in a small town (by Bavarian standards Regensburg is not small though) is that within 10 minutes one is out of the city and out biking in fairly rural areas. The weather was nice in the afternoon and biking along the Danube past picturesque German villages was fun. It was a Sunday so a lot of people were out on the bike trail and the parallel walking path.



The walk up to the temple wasn't too long and once you're on top of the hill, there are some great views of the Danube valley. It's a nice place to spend half the day soaking in the sun, reading a book and chatting with other visitors. Though on a sunday, it was a bit too crowded at times with some tour groups. The inside wasn't as impressive as it looks from far away. It's full of busts and statues of famous Germans. The view was nice though.



Maybe it's a Bavarian thing but even the maths department here is full of portraits of famous German mathematicians all along the corridors. It's slightly intimidating walking out of a room and seeing Gauss staring at you.

PS - I've updated my blog with a link to the site where I've managed to upload most of my photos. The link is on the right hand side of the page under the blog archive section.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Trouble with the cops - again

Earlier this year in May, my twin brother and I went on a roadtrip in the US. We rented a car and drove from Boston to New York to Chicago and back to Boston. Along the way we had a few adventures. In New York, I'd parked the car in a diplomat's spot (it looked ok at that time) and the car got towed. It had my laptop and passport in it and for a while I thought the car had been stolen because the cops couldn't locate it in their system. This was a day before my visa interview with the UK consulate and about 2 weeks before I was leaving the US for good. Leaving my laptop and passport (and my degree which I'd gotten 2 days earlier) in the car was probably the most stupid thing I've ever done. This was my twin's first visit to the US and he was thoroughly enjoying the experience of going to a police precinct, towing garage and all the cops. We managed to find the car and on the way back, I banged into a van while trying to park. Thankfully there was no damage and the van driver was very cool and said "Better my van than a BMW".

After that, I drove (didn't take the risk of letting my twin drive without a license) for about 15 hours with a 5 hour sleepover in a motel and just as we were entering Chicago, I got pulled over for speeding. It wasn't really speeding as I was driving at 70 mph. But this was near a toll booth and I was supposed to slow down to 55 mph and I guess the cop was just having a bad day. The car was also outside its supposed rental zone and for a while I thought he might notice that but he didn't.

Then, in August while driving around in Berkeley in my older brother's car, I got a parking ticket for having parked 5 minutes over the 2 hr limit. On the way back to LA the tire burst and I had to drive at 40 mph all the way. I wrote about it here.

I thought my days of cops and trouble were over now that I'm in Europe and am getting by with public transport and a bike. Germans are sticklers for rules and riding a bike involves more traffic sense than driving in most places in the world. There are strict lanes, signs and signals only for bikers. Walking on a bike lane is an offense as is biking in the wrong lane or street. Regensburg is a town best explored by bike and from my dorm room the University and the old town are about 10-15 mins by bike and it's along the Danube, so one can actually bike all the way to Budapest along the bike trail.

Last night, I was on my way to meet some friends in another dorm. It was dark and suddenly near a busy intersection a huge guy stood in my way and shouted "Halt". He turned out to be a cop and pointed at my light (which wasn't working) and said something in German. I played the innocent foreigner card but he wasn't amused and switched to English. Asked for my passport but I didn't have it on me (I think that's also a minor offense). Then he said biking without a light is an offense and growled at me "10 euros". He was at least a foot taller and wider than me and I quietly opened my wallet and gave it to him. He gave me a ticket, a warning and said till I got my light fixed I couldn't bike in the dark. Had to walk all the way to my friends' place which took much longer and felt very stupid walking on the pedestrian path with a bike. Met my friends and they all had a good laugh about it and kept showing the ticket to each other. Apparently, biking when drunk is an offense as well and your driving license can get revoked.

We polished off a bottle of vodka and hung around till late. Decided to head home and took the risk of biking home thinking they wouldn't catch me twice especially if I went slowly and kept a lookout for the cops. I was wrong. Halfway through, a car pulled up alongside and one of them held a flashing red sign to stop me. Two of them came out and made me prove it was my bike (by locking and unlocking it), looked at my driver's license and asked me some questions. I played the innocent foreigner better this time and one of them asked me how much I'd had to drink. Decided to say 3 beers (for a German that's not much) and one of them smelled my breath, shrugged his shoulders and said you shouldn't drink more than this. They were much nicer, told me to get it fixed (cheaper than a ticket apparently), asked for my address, occupation, etc and let me off with a warning.

I guess I should head out today and get the light fixed but considering I've had the bike for just 2 days, getting into trouble with the police so soon was a bit much.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The party's over

That's what it feels like right now after almost 5 months of travelling and visiting friends and family. It's been that long since I sat at a desk and had an office and a room to myself. Though the location and condition of the dorm was a big letdown. After staying in comfort in so many big cities, living in a dorm in a small town in Germany came as a bit of a shock.

I'd expected something similar but after the nonstop partying for the last 3 weeks sitting in the dorm room by myself felt eery. I had no internet connection, my laptop battery was almost dead, no adaptor for the German plugs, only 2 books (one in German and one in Hindi) which made reading a bit of a grind. The term at Regensburg starts in about 2 weeks and I'm staying in the international student/guest housing which is dead right now. Went out for a walk towards the old city but it was a Sunday and everthing was shut. To make matters worse I left my towel behind in Munich in a hungover state so I had to dry myself with a T-shirt after a shower. Today is German unification day so it's a national holiday and again, everything's shut.

Yesterday, I managed to get a few things done - buying an adaptor, a towel, getting a bicylcle for free (don't ask me how I got it), keys to the math dept and getting my computer registered. Getting my computer registered involved filling out a form online, printing it out, signing it and then delivering it to the computer dept. Then they'll take another 2 days to process it and approve it!

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Reached Regensburg

I've finally reached Regensburg and will be based out of here for the next 2 months. Haven't yet managed to check into my room yet as a friend of mine is going to show up with the keys in a few hours at the train station so I'm at the train station just killing time. Today is the last day I'll lug around my heavy backpack, some books and papers and my laptop as I'll either junk the laptop and papers once I'm done with my lectures or mail it to London.

The last 4 days went by in a bit of a blur. I spent 2 days in Salzburg, which is a beautiful small town in a very pretty location but also very touristy and boring. It's the home of Mozart and Red Bull and since it's Mozart's 250th anniversary the town is full of Mozart memorabillia, posters, etc. I spent a day walking all over the town and exploring the beautiful castle which overlooks the city. Apart from sightseeing there isn't too much else to do and by the evening it's a ghost town. The liveliest and cheapest place in town was actually the hostel I was staying in. Took lots of pictures and soon I'll update my blog with links to the pictures I've taken for the last few months.





Also went hiking in Unterzberg, about an hour outside Salzburg. It was a nice break from the crowds in Salzburg and the views were amazing. Had to change a couple of buses to get there but spent most of the day hiking without seeing a soul. Till I got to the top where a bunch of people had taken a cable car. The top of the mountain is a great place. On one side one see into the Austrian Alps (though it was covered by clouds mostly) and on the other side, one can look over the whole Salzburg valley.





On Friday, I reached Munich and crashed at J's place. His brother had just flown in from Melbourne and M showed up on his way to Spain. It was the last weekend of Oktoberfest and the 4 of us went in with slightly low expectations. But we were pleasantly surprised and it was a great time. The place is huge and it resembles a huge carnival with a very festive atmosphere. A lot of people dress up in traditional Bavarian costumes and it's a mad, crazy place with at least half a million people walking around and sitting inside the beer tents. The funniest part is how everyone is there to get drunk and the minimum one can order is a litre of beer. There are live bands, ferris wheels and all kinds of crazy people walking around. To get inside a beer tent one has to get there at 9 in the morning! We managed to sneak in much later and the atmosphere inside is of a huge, huge party with people dancing on tables, walking around drunk and singing loud Bavarian songs and clinking their mugs every few minutes. We stayed till 11, when it closed and headed out to a few more bars afterwards. Got home around 2 and woke up the next morning very hungover. J's flat didn't have hot water that weekend so 4 of us went to someone else's flat across town to shower. Felt weird walking around Munich with a towel and a hangover. Spent most of Saturday exploring Munich with the two brothers.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Leaving Vienna

It's been about 10 days in Vienna and sadly time to move on to the next place. Am getting a ride to Salzburg tomorrow so will spend 2 days there doing some hiking in the Alps, then take a train to Munich and spend the weekend there. Oktoberfest is on so it should be quite crazy. Finally, on Sunday I'm getting another ride to Regensburg where I'll be based for the next 2 months.

The last 2 days were fairly quiet. Now that I'm very familiar with the city I spent most of my time walking around without a map, browsing a couple of bookstores and sitting and reading at a few cafes. The weather is perfect and nobody minds it if one spends 2-3 hours at a cafe just reading. It's also reassuring to see a lot of other young and middle-aged people spending a long time at a cafe, talking and reading. Having spent a lot of time in the city exploring and feeling comfortable here I felt very happy doing what I would have done in a place like Boston.

On Monday night, H took me to his favourite club, the Flex. That place lived up to all the hype I'd heard from him and somehow partying late on a Monday night felt great. The 2 unemployed doctors had no work or studying to get back to so we were there till 4 in the morning. Felt very hungover this morning and didn't wake up till it was time to get lunch.

I had a great time in Vienna and apart from the sightseeing, concerts and partying I really enjoyed meeting H's friends and family. It felt comfortable hanging out with all of them and I can see myself coming back here regularly and spending time with them again.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Burgenland

The last three day have been slightly overwhelming with a heady mix of traditional Austrian music, wine and food. A couple of concerts, some vineyards and some great homecooked food.

On Friday, H's parents had given us 2 tickets to go to the Musikverein for a concert. The whole family is involved with music and they have season tickets and a great pair of seats. It's also a very formal place and I had to out and buy a decent jacket and a pair of shoes. My hiking boots and T-shirts didn't quite fit in. It's one of the most famous concert halls in the world and the moment I walked in I was a bit open-mouthed. I managed to sneak in a picture before the concert started.



The concert was great though the elaborate chandeliers gave off a lot of heat and the last 20 minutes were a bit uncomfortable as slight movements and noises are frowned upon. Went out to a slightly upscale bar for a drink since we were both fairly well dressed. After the grungy underground bars and clubs this was a bit different.

Woke up a bit late on Saturday and we missed the train to Burgenland. Hung around in the train station and had a coffee and then caught the next one. Burgenland is the wine country of Austria and that's where his girlfriend and his parents live. Reached H's parents lovely house around noon and had a fabulous meal. I'd asked for traditional Austrian food and I couldn't stop eating. Relaxed in the house for a while and enjoyed the view.



Headed out to meet H's girlfriend C, who lives about an hour away and it's a nice drive through vineyards. It's the harvest season and there were a lot of grape-pickers all over. Picked her up and drove to a vineyard run by a family they've known for most of their life. Their son D now runs it and he studied with C in school so he gave me an extended tour of his winery. Explained all kinds of things in detail and then brought out about 10 different bottles. His family joined us soon and we spent about 2-3 hours just sipping wine and getting more and more drunk.



Drove back to C's house and had dinner and more wine. Hung around for a while and then drove to a weird event. It was the annual festival for the local arts. The art was pretty bad and the music even worse, so after an hour of sitting around we drove back and opened a couple more bottles. D and his sister came by around midnight and we were up till 3 drinking, smoking and fooling around on the piano. C is a professional pianist and after much coaxing sat down and played for everyone.

Woke up today around noon, hungover and hungry. Drove back to H's parents' house for the sunday lunch. Lazed around most of the afternoon and then headed out to another winery run by another childhood friend of theirs. Had a special drink called stürm, which one gets only for a few weeks in a year because of the harvest. It's the wine before the first fermentation and it tastes a lot like grape juice with some soda. Drove back to Vienna around 11 and since we were close to the border with Slovakia and Hungary saw signs for towns in those places. A big part of the vineyard is in Hungary but I couldn't go in. Unfortunately, an Indian passport doesn't allow such easy travel.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Vienna diary

It's been about 4 days in Vienna but I just love the place. My friend, H, stays in a great flat in the heart of the city. Everything is easy to explore on foot and the weather's been perfect.

My typical day starts off by waking up late around 10 and getting ready. Head out to the first district and then explore some of the museums. The whole museum quarter is a bit overwhelming and it took me a day to get over the grandeur of the place. In between , there are a few crazy looking modern buildings but somehow they don't spoil the ambience of the place.



After a lot of aimless walking, I usually end up finding some coffeehouse and sipping some strong coffee to wake myself up, read a book and munch on some great snacks. Street food is cheap in Vienna and I've taken a strong liking to schnitzel. It's a compact city and within a couple of days it was easy to figure out how to get around on foot. Since the weather's been perfect, the whole city is littered with open air cafes where one can sit for a long time without being disturbed. Also took the metro out to Schonbrun, a huge castle, which has a great view of the city if you walk up to the top of the hill.



During the day, I guess I've been doing the normal touristy things one does in a city like Vienna. At night, H has taken me to places I doubt I would have found on my own. A student lounge cum bar where I met a bunch of his friends who have all lived in and around Vienna all their lives. A small hole-in-the-wall eating place to meet his ex-girlfriend K, where we ate some great fladen. A quiet evening at home where 2 other people I knew from the math dept in Vienna showed up. A small shop cum gallery which sells stuff made by 2 designers from a century ago (wiener werkstatt). They were strongly influnced by Klimt and the exhibition was small but quite mindblowing. Another crazy bar with H's brother who stayed on till late even though he had to wake up 4 in the morning for a concert. The cliches about Vienna being a laidback city have been pretty true. Each night, all it's taken is another round of beer, or another bottle of wine for everyone to stay on till late even though it's the middle of the week and everyone, (except H and me) has a job.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Reached Vienna

It was a fairly long day (and typing on a German keyboard isn't easy) but I finally reached Vienna and Schengen land today. Got up around 7 in the morning and had to repack a lot of stuff as European airlines only allow one carry-on and one check-in bag. This meant my main backpack was stretched to the limit and and I was scared it might be overweight as I'd stuffed everything inside it. Left G's flat around 8 and after changing 2 trains reached Tottenham Hale for the Stansted express. My flight was around 11:15 and I reached the airport at 9:30 and felt I had enough time to get breakfast and buy a book. The check-in took ages though. My backpack weighed in at 19.7 kgs (My entire life's belongings plus a laptop) and though it was just under the 20 kg limit I had to go to the oversized baggage counter. Took a while to clear that and finally had to sprint through security to board my flight. I was flying Ryanair so there's no assigned seating so I got one of the worst seats on the plane. Slept througth the entire flight.

I flew into Graz (about 150 km outside Vienna) and C was supposed to pick me up but turned out that she couldn't as she had a recital so I had to take a train to the main Graz station and then another train to Vienna. This was my 5th train for the day but worth all the effort. It was one of the prettiest train rides I've ever taken and sipping a nice chilled beer, listening to my ipod and watching the Austrian countryside unfold in front was a great experience.




H was at the Hauptbanhopf to receive me and asked me immediately if I wanted to do something illegal. Couldn't figure out what he meant since the last time he and I had met we'd had a few crazy experiences in Toronto. Turned out the Vienna subway has no security and he doesn't pay for tickets - he gets caught twice a year which is still cheaper than buying passes. Reminded me of DTC buses in Delhi. Decided to stay legal (not for long though) and reached his flat around 7. It's right in the heart of Vienna and I can't wait to head out tomorrow and explore the city.

His brother M came by soon and we polished off quite a bit of wine and then headed out to one of their favourite bars - a cross between a lounge, bar and a cafe with a DJ. But a very comfortable place and they seemed to know a lot of people there. Hung out there till well past midnight and followed H in not paying for tickets on the Vienna metro. Let's see how long this will last.