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 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.


Monday, October 16, 2006


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


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.