Sunday, January 28, 2007

Notes from a Paris maths department

Before I came to Paris, I was very, very excited. It wasn't just the thought of living in a great city like Paris, it was also the chance to talk to and work with some of the best mathematicians in the world. Paris is one of the great centres of the mathematics world - along with Boston and Cambridge/London and Tokyo/Kyoto. Historically, Germany was the place but post WWII, their influence in the maths world has declined.

The average American university is always very busy. The professors and postdocs have heavy teaching loads, grading and administrative tasks along with the research they do. While most professors are very informal and receptive to talking, you can see the stress on their faces and somehow that attitude trickles down to the postdocs and phd students. Professors in the US also move constantly till they get tenure and it's normal for a tenured professor to have been in 3-4 different universities till they settle down in one place. Even after that it's pretty common for them to move around. In between juggling teaching, grading, administration, travelling for conferences and research it's nowhere close to the cushy, comfortable life non-academics consider it to be - even though mathematicians don't need anything more than a pen and paper to do their work. My experience in Germany wasn't too different, though considering how obsessed Germans are with rules, even a beach bum would look busy.

When I came here I wasn't too sure of what I was supposed to do. My host had said I should come in 2-3 times a week, try talking to some other people and give a talk while I'm here. I thought he was trying to understate things and make things sound laidback. My office window faces the physics department and I can look into a lab and it's a bit scary how hard they work. They're all in before I come in and there till I leave. Apart from a brief lunch break they all seem to sit there plugging away with their machines and computers.

The maths dept is on a different wavelength though.

It's now the end of January, and I still hear people saying "Bonne Annee (Happy new year)" in the corridors. That says a lot about how often they see each other. Lunch is an incredibly relaxed affair. There's no regular time or group that goes for lunch. There are people who arrive daily around lunch time and then proceed for a relaxed, leisurely lunch which takes at least an hour. There's very little stress I see, and after 5 there aren't too many people around in the dept. It's very common to see a bunch of professors, sitting in the common room sipping coffee and talking to each other - not just about maths. There was a postdoc I was trying to meet but was told that he hasn't been spotted for the last 2-3 months, and nobody seemed to think it unusual. One postdoc comes in each day only around lunchtime and pushes off around 5 to play with his string quartet.

Seminar talks are interesting. In the US, there's room for spillover time, but talks generally tend to have a fixed length, and every talk I gave over the last year tended to be of the same duration. In Germany, the faculty looked suprised if I didn't send an email on time about the exact time (5:00 or 5:10), location and length of the lecture. Out here, there's a regular time but no time limit. Talks range from 30 mins to almost 3 hours and when I asked about how long I should speak for next month, they all looked surprised.

The department in terms of people is huge for a maths department - about 40-50 fulltime tenured faculty members. Most of have done outstanding research and when I came here, I expected to see an incredibly busy and tense place. I couldn't figure out how these guys could do research of the highest quality, have all the time in the world to do whatever they feel like and also keep travelling for all kinds of conferences. The answer is simple.


CNRS is a national organisation which funds research in the basic sciences. At a young age (you have to be under 30 I think), you can apply to CNRS for a position. If you get it, for the rest of your life you're a salaried government employee with all possible benefits and have no obligations to teach. Assuming you do good research you keep getting promoted, but it's a permanent position. It doesn't pay well, but after 2 months here I've realised you don't need too much to have a comfortable life here. It's quite amazing, how happy and relaxed the whole CNRS lot is. It's obviously not easy to get but an equivalent position in the US would involve competition of a different magnitude. The salaries in a comparable position in the US are also of a different magnitude though.

The French though have a nice system. Rather than funding only superstars, they fund a much larger bunch of potential superstars. For the rest of their life, these people are free to do whatever they want. They can work from home, cafes or not work at all. But the quality of research they churn out is exceptional. Mathematics is one area where capitalism and free markets don't have the edge.

Last week I went to the Institut Henri Poincare to attend some lectures given by people who'd been awarded the National Medal of Science. The speaker I was interested in listening was sitting in the audience with 4-5 of his friends. I recognized all of them as they'd come to Boston last year for a special program, and they're all bigshots. While in Boston, they all sat in a group and behaved like kids, talking and giggling, irrespective of who was lecturing. Their behaviour wasn't too different in Paris, except one of them got up, accepted a prestigious award and went on to give a great lecture. That was followed by some of the best food and wine that I've ever had, and they all sat around again just chatting away and sipping their wine and nibbling on their food.

The next time I see someone sitting in a cafe staring into blank space, I'd be tempted to ask him if he's a CNRS person. It's possible he could be a bum, but it's also possible he could be the next Sartre or Serre.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Visa update

Went to the Venezuelan consulate today. Their website didn't have much information and didn't even have a form. Since French and EU nationals don't need a visa, it's obviously not a big issue with them. Unfortunately, India's not in the list of countries which don't require visas.

Since I wasn't too sure if I would get a visa or not, I didn't want to buy a ticket and then realise I couldn't go. Also, wasn't sure about where to fly out from and where and when to fly to back. I want to keep the South America trip open ended, so I used the AA website to book a ticket and keep it on hold for 24 hours. The nice thing about that is that the printout looks exactly like the receipt of a confirmed ticket, with a confirmation code, seat numbers, etc. It requires some careful reading to notice that it says HOLD and not PURCHASED.

The consulate is in the 16th district, where most of the other consulates and embassies are located. Headed there armed with all my documents and walked in. The 2 officers there didn't speak English, and when I asked about applying for a visa they asked for my residency permit. Obviously, I didn't have it so they said I couldn't apply for it from Paris and I should go back to India.

I'd anticipated such a situation and went ready with an excuse. I lied to them and said that I had a job in London and that I was moving there in June. I showed her my UK visa and somehow she didn't notice that it was a tourist visa. Showed her other documents of my positions in Germany and France, so somehow she believed that I was actually employed and had been travelling in Germany and France on important research related work.

She couldn't understand why I was going to Venezuela in the middle of all this. I told her about some close friends who'd moved back there and wanted me to be there for their wedding (not true at all). Then I smiled and said I've always dreamed of travelling in Venezuela (not entirely true). Since they didn't look like they were going to deny it outright, I tried to be friendly and innocent. I was told to wait and she called up her supervisor and there was a very animated conversation, between the two officers and the supervisor which I couldn't follow at all.

Finally, they gave me a form to fill out and asked for all my documents. Thankfully, they didn't ask for a bank statement. My Boston account is now dangerously close to zero and I still haven't been paid in Paris (and probably won't be paid till I leave). Had she seen my current financial status, she would have probably denied it as I doubt if I can afford to pay for even my ticket.

Anyway, it worked out and I have to go back next week to pick it up. I don't think anyone's ever walked out of that consulate so happy. I'm thinking of pushing my luck and applying for a Brazillian visa from here as well. Still have to buy tickets as I'm planning to leave in a little over a month, but that's something which I'll put off till I see what the Brazillian consulate says.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Bank account

The last week was full of running around in circles trying to do one simple thing - open a bank account. In order to get paid, I have to have a French bank account. But there were a few problems - I don't have residency, an EU passport and am here for just 3 months. There is a way around it but it involved a lot of things - getting a birth certificate, photocopies and attestations of some documents, proof of rent, etc. After that, the professor who's my host had to call a special number and they sent him the link to a website where I had to fill out an online form (in French, so I made a lot of mistakes).

After submitting it, I got an email with some membership no. With that number and all my documents, I had to head out to the southern edge of Paris to meet with someone who's in charge of foreign researchers. She checked my documents, called up someone else and set up an appointment with a bank official in the centre of Paris. Headed there later in the day, and she politely told me that their computers weren't working, so I had to come the next day.

Went the next day, and after making copies of all my documents, asking a few questions, I was given a couple of papers. One of them had a long number which was my account number and another one had a set of coupons. Apparently, each time I make a deposit or withdraw cash I need to use those coupons. I asked about a debit card and checkbook, but was told since I was here for just 3 months I wasn't entitled to one. To withdraw or deposit any money, I have to go all the way to the main branch, between 9 and 12, 4 days a week, and do any transaction. I can't check my balance online, or do anything electronically.

I was glad to at least have an account, but when I went back to the University (which is the northern suburbs), I was told to get an advance on my salary I have to write a check to the University, and then they give me a check which I'll deposit. Unfortunately, I don't have a check book. So, I have to go to the main branch, give them 2 days notice and get a banker's check.

One would think I was back in the 1950s living under a communist regime.

I'm sharing an office with JR, a prof from Michigan, who's been visiting Paris for the last 30 years and has spent about a quarter of his life in various mathematics departments of Paris. He laughed when I told him all this, and said things haven't changed since he first came. Since he's been coming regularly, he's kept his French account open so things appear in his account a month or two after he's left. He uses that surplus for his next trip, so he's worked out the system. He also has electronic copies of every document (and its translation) in his computer, so he's avoided any hassles that way - which are worse if you visit for more than 3 months.

In fact, since he's been paying taxes, etc he's now eligible for social security benefits and free health care. Considering the dire situation of health care in the US, he's gotten some medical checkups in France (which are almost free) and gotten cheaper drugs from the US. The first time that he came, he didn't get paid for well over a month. After realising he couldn't solve the bureaucracy, he walked into the chairman's office and said "If I don't get paid, I don't have money for food". He got paid within a week. Food is one thing the French respect.

He winked, and said if I plan to come back to Paris regularly he can teach me more such tricks. Paris is almost a second home for him, and even though it's been less than two months here and in spite of all the hurdles one faces, I can see why he keeps coming back.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Back from Londres

Got back a few hours ago from London and it went by in a whirl. This was my third trip to London in the last 8 months so I didn't feel any particular excitement while going. The only thing I was looking forward to was the Eurostar train. Each time I've visited London, it's been on my way to or from Boston or Delhi. That basically means a tiring flight, a long wait at customs and immigration and then a long tube ride all the way to wherever I was staying. The last few times I've been staying with G, a friend from undergrad, and he lived on the other end of the tube line from Heathrow airport. Getting to his house was a huge task after such a long flight.

He recently moved to Canary Wharf, which is 10 mins from the London Eurostar station and I live about 10 mins from the Paris end. Door to door, it took me about 4 hours - including picking up my ticket and clearing customs and immigration. The train is incredibly fast, very comfortable, cheap (50 quid for a roundtrip) and going from the heart of London to Paris in less than 3 hours makes it fast and easier than a flight. I'll probably be back a couple of times next month and with the Eurostar it's a breeze.

My advisor moved to London last year and by some coincidence all three of my academic referees are based in London (interestingly enough one Jew, one Christian and one Muslim wrote letters for a Hindu). As a result a couple of students who were across the hall from my office in Brandeis are now in London, as are some other friends from undergrad days. Coming to London this time basically meant catching up with most of them (not the referees, this wasn't a math trip). 3 days in London became quite busy as a result. But sitting in a pub and being able to order beer and talk without any language problems was refreshing.

Getting a CARICOM visa turned out to be very easy. Since British nationals don't need a visa, the consulate was empty. There's one simple form, along with a fee and one photo required. That's it. No return ticket, hotel bookings, bank statements, etc. The consular officer was a bit confused with my application seeing the multiple addresses - a Boston address for my credit card, G's London address as my mailing address and the Paris address for employer's address. The passport was issued in Delhi, so he just stared at it, asked me "Where do you live, maan?". I just smiled and said "Wherever I can find a bed or an office". He didn't care and was nice enough to return my passport, so that I could head back to Paris.

Will have to go back in about 2 weeks to get it stamped on my passport, but in the meantime I have to get an additional booklet and hopefully finally open a bank account in Paris. After that, a Venezuelan visa and then I should be all set to move off to South America for 3-4 months.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Birth Certificate

Went to the Indian consulate 3 days ago to get a birth certificate. In order to open a bank account and get paid while here, it's necessary to have birth certificate in French. There's also a weird cycle where you can't get a work permit till you have a bank account and vice versa but there's a way around it. It's something the Dept here has dealt with for years.

The Indian consulate was very, very crowded. This was the first time I'd ever been to an Indian consulate for some work and it was interesting to note that 90% of the crowd consisted of French citizens applying for visas to India. There was a long queue and I made the mistake of standing in it initially. Then, an official came by and said "All Indian nationals proceed directly to window 1". I just smiled at all those standing and walked in.

It was a bit chaotic inside but I realised that a similar scene in a Govt Office in India would have been normal, and the officials seemed unperturbed. The main problem seemed to be that the space inside wasn't big enough to allow so many visa applicants. Most of the French visa seekers didn't know that they were supposed to carry proper documentation. One of them showed up with just her passport, and had no idea that a return ticket, a bank statement, proof of employment and a current address were necessary. Seeing a few of them get turned away for lack of proper documentation gave me a perverse pleasure.

Went back later in the evening to pick it up and there was an even longer queue of people waiting to collect their visas. Again, I went directly to the other counter and noticed a few glares for making my way through the crowded waiting room. One poor Indian guy was having problems as his passport hadn't been renewed and he had a flight to catch in 2 days. He made the mistake one should never make in a consulate - he lost his cool and started shouting. That pissed off the consular officer and he was told to come back later even though he had a flight to catch. I almost felt like giving him some advice but decided to stay out of it.

Leaving for London today and will apply for a CARICOM visa at the Barbados High Commission on Monday. Let's see how that goes. But after 4 months of being in non-English speaking countries, I can't wait to be back in a place where I can understand and read things without having to make an effort.

Monday, January 08, 2007


The adventures of Tintin were an indelible part of my childhood (and my brothers'). Apart from having read all of them thousands of times, a common pastime (and we still do it) was for my brothers and me to quiz each other on the books. Every character, every adventure, every location had to be committed to memory and minute details were asked at random between us - at breakfast, during school or in the middle of the night. I still like to read them whenever I find them to discover something new, and even in Paris I borrowed a bunch of them from B and reading them in French is a nice way to improve my vocabulary - esp as I know the context and rough English version of every blurb.

While in Boston, the Harvard coop was one of my favourite places. The amazing collection of books and the location always made it a convenient place to spend time between various things. The kids section in the basement had all the Tintin series (and others). Not too many people ventured into the kids' section so it was always possible to find a chair. Sitting in a quiet corner, reading them was a great way to relax.

5 years ago, I was in Brussels for a couple of days and I'd read about the Belgian comics museum in a travel guide. It had a big section on Herge - he lived in Brussels - and I spent a nice afternoon going through all the panels. The exhibition (I think it's permanent) was nicely documented - different panels displaying the different characters, disguises, animals, etc - and even had some original models. It was fairly quiet and apart from a group tour of 9-10 yr old kids, I was the only one around. I enjoyed it a lot but didn't come away too overwhelmed.

The Pompidou Centre in Paris is currently hosting a huge exhibition on Herge. Tintin was wildly popular in this part of the world, since it was initially in French, and the French love their graphic novels and comic books. It's the 100th anniversary of Herge's birth, and the Pompidou centre went all out for this exhibition. It opened 2 weeks ago and I'd avoided going because of all the long queues due to the school/university holidays.

Finally got around to going on Sunday night even though it was still crowded. This was the first time I'd been to an exhibition, where after spending 2-3 hours I decided I have to go back again - not just once, at least another 2-3 times. I don't think I've ever been to an exhibition or gallery where I've spent almost an hour just going through one panel. Each time I saw people at an art gallery, I always wondered how anyone could spend so much time looking at just one painting or panel. Sunday was the first I did something like that - looking at all those original sketches, with the scribbles on the side, the final published version next to it, and a small explanation.

The nicest thing about the exhibition is how it hasn't tried to show every possible document or model affiliated to Herge. The centrepiece of the exhibition is a small enclosure, where the panels consist of the original Blue Lotus pages. The Blue Lotus is considered to be his masterpiece and that was the first time Herge broke free of his alleged colonial views and worked really hard with Chang, a sculpture student in Brussels, to depict life in China. It's given a lot of emphasis as it was the most important project and period of his life.

I don't think anybody ever needs a reason to visit a city like Paris, especially for the first time, but if you're a Tintin fan this is your excuse.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Visa time

It turns out that the University was closed this week. Went on Tuesday, eager to get back to the math world after a month of lazing around in Paris, but realised this week is still part of the winter break. Walked up to the math office, saw it locked and couldn't see a soul in sight except for one security guard, who looked at me suspiciously. He told me to come back next week.

For the last month, I'd blissfully switched off from thinking about visa and passport formalities. My position (which somehow doesn't seem like it'll ever start) gets over on March 1st and my French visa expires a few days after that. After March 1st, my plan is to head off to South America for 3-4 months. The cricket world cup is in the Caribbean from the middle of March to April, and I want to go watch it till India gets knocked out - I'm not too optimistic about our chances.

I want to fly to Venezuela around March 1st, stay with some friends and travel around for 2 weeks and then take a boat to Trinidad. That's where the Indian team is based for the first round and it's less than an hour by boat from Venezuela. Once I'm there , I'll have to figure out a way to travel between different Caribbean islands following the Indian team till sometime in April. After that I want to head down to the Venezueal rainforests and into the Brazillian jungle and somehow reach Rio by sometime in the second half of May. From there, my plans depend on a lot of things - money, job situation and visas. I'm toying with the idea of applying for a short term position at IMPA in Rio or I might go all the way down to Argentina, travel around for a month and then head back to Europe. With an Indian passport, there are lots of visas which need to be worked out. To make things harder, my passport only has one page left. So I also need to renew my passport.

Since I was sitting at home for the last few days, I started calling up various consulates to figure out what to do. There's a single Caricom visa for all the Caribbean countries for the world cup, but is issued only in London (or a few other places outside Europe). I have to head to London next week to meet some friends and explore possibilities of defecting to the dark side. So, I've got an appointment scheduled for that time. They said it'll take about 2 weeks to issue the visa but agreed to return my passport after the appointment and I'll have to head back there to get it stamped on my passport. The Venezuelan consulate didn't answer the phone, so I'll have to go there in person sometime next week to see what obstacles they'll put up.

Called the Indian consulate and they want some kind of residency permit to renew my passport or get a new booklet. Didn't realise my own consulate would make things harder for me. Till I get a new booklet or a new passport, I can't apply for any new visas. Have to figure out a way to get either a residency permit here (which doesn't seem too likely) or sweet talk them into renewing my passport - or lie.

Sigh....the problems of trying to travel around the world with an Indian passport.