Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Leaving Paris

Unfortunately, it's time to leave. For the 3rd time in less than 12 months I'm leaving a place which has felt like home. I was so comfortable here and it's hard to believe that it was only 3 months. The only reassuring part is that due to a bureaucratic screwup, I have the option of coming back for another 2-3 month stint later this year.

Am taking the Eurostar to London and will be there for 4 days and in spite of being unemployed and no job in hand, have quite a few things to do while I'm there - attend a seminar, meet my former advisor, figure out possible job options after Rio, get the final visa stamped and, of course, hang out with friends - a lot of whom have moved to London in the last 2-3 years.

For the next 2 months, I'll be back on the road travelling a lot till I reach Rio sometime in early May. I have enough clothes to last me for a week and only 2-3 books. As a result, my backpack is now considerably lighter than it was when I left Regensburg so travelling will be easier.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The adda mentality

A year ago, I happened to be at the right place at the right time. I was a student in Boston, finishing up my Phd, and lived close to Harvard Square. Though I wasn't a student at Harvard, I'd gone regularly to their seminars for almost 5 years. Last year, I was lucky enough to attend a once-in-a-lifetime semester EV organized by BM, who in my opinion is one of the most influential mathematicians of the last 50 years.

BM felt there was a connection between 2 seemingly different areas of mathematics and called every expert in the two areas. They flew in from Europe, Asia and North America and it was quite mindblowing to see them all for a whole semester, giving lectures and working intensely in follow-up seminars. Some gave courses, some gave a lecture series and some just a short talk. It was like a 4 month conference and the intensity didn't slip throughout.

There was a small group in that very distinguished gathering which had a very significant presence. The whole semester had been split up into two to explore the connections. One of the two areas, (p-adic Langlands if you're curious) has been influenced heavily by a bunch of number theorists from Paris. They all came in April (apart from a few who came earlier) and there was intense curiousity about what they did.

What I found very amusing about them was how they all stuck together. In every lecture, they sat together at the back, talking and whispering in spite of other eminent mathematicians giving lectures. A few times I ended up sitting close to them, and couldn't understand their behaviour. It had nothing to do with lack of respect for the speaker, insecurity about their English (they're all fluent) or arrogance.

I've now spent almost 3 months in one of the many maths departments in Paris and observed them pretty closely. I've attended a few seminars outside the campus I'm in and in almost everyone I've gone to I've found the behaviour similar. I gave a talk in one of the seminars 2 weeks ago and didn't find the constant whispers annoying. It's something I've gotten used to now. There's a word for it in India (or at least in the north).


Adda (to me) means a bunch of friends who've known each other for a long time and feel comfortable only in each other's presence. They could be anywhere but the moment they see each other, they congregate together and tend to ignore the whole world. They tend to have a common meeting place (which is generally called the Adda or hangout) which is the centre of the world for them.

In my time in the US, I rarely came across such a place or group of friends. It was common for grad students to hang out in someone's office or meet at a particular cafe or bar, but it was fairly temporary. A few years at most, and then everyone moved on and once in a while one sees a few of them. But it's never the same as the original hangout which for an outsider can be a very boring place.

I guess I had an adda when I was an undergraduate in Delhi, but that was in a different decade and everyone's moved on to different places. My office in Brandeis had the feel of an adda, especially as I had a small fridge, a couch and a coffee-machine. But again, that was for a few years and when I went back for a few days in September, the whole character of that small office had changed.

My twin, on the other hand, has the quintessential adda. His entire clique moved from their undergrad institute in Ahmedabad to Delhi, and they all congregate in his studio almost everyday. I've known them for almost as long as he has, and each I'm back in Delhi I feel more comfortable with them than the few remaining friends I have from high school or college in Delhi. I know their background, the kind of work they do and also all the gossip. It's a comfortable place and group of people and though I'm the only non-designer in the group I don't feel like an outsider.

Paris is a place where an adda mentality seems quite common. I'd remarked to my host JT in the University about this, and he agreed. He has his own clique in the maths dept, though they're much younger and it's more work related. He said it's a common Parisian thing especially as almost all of them studied in Paris and have spent most of their academic life based in Paris.

I realised yesterday how the maths dept I'm in has its own adda. Almost all the young CNRS number theorists in the recent past have chosen this particular dept to be attached to (that's why I wrongly thought getting CNRS wasn't hard). JT teaches a course every Wednesday for 4 hours with a break in between for lunch. It's meant for his Phd students but I go for it along with a couple of other younger postdocs. It's an intense day as the class continues informally through lunch and the coffee/tea we get right after the marathon 4 hr class is over. But strangely, I don't feel too exhausted at the end of it as I feel familiar with most of the people in that group. The number theory seminar is on Fridays and each week a few of JT's former students show up from the other campuses for the talk, stay on for lunch and then continue talking well after lunch in the corridor or common room. Since they all have permanent positions in Paris and feel no need to move, it's unlikely to change. I can picture these guys in about 10-15 years time, still meeting every week and talking.

Addas exist everywhere I'm sure but in India and the US, most people I knew hardly ever stayed on in the same city throughout. Work, education and other factors contribute to people moving a lot. Since Paris is pretty much the centre of everything in France, there's no real need to move out as is the insecurity of the French of not speaking French. And with the amazing public transport and reasonable cost of living, people don't commute or drive too far everyday. Sitting in a cafe and hanging out with friends, taking the same train to work or the University or living fairly close to each makes it easier.

A month before I came to Paris, I didn't know a single person I could hope to stay with while looking for a flat. I thought of staying in a hostel while looking for a place and thought that since I was going to be here for just 3 months, I'd probably only hang out with people from the maths dept. It turned out to be completely different.

I'd met B in Toronto 3 years ago at a summer school and he was a student in Strasbourg at that point. I sent him a random email in September thinking I'd go there at some point for a few days to meet him. Turned out he's now a school-teacher in Paris and offered to let me stay with him and his girlfriend while I looked for a place. Since they moved from Strasbourg less than a year ago some of their friends have come as well and live not too far away. For the ones in Strasbourg, B&M's flat is the adda for all of them when they're in Paris. The first few days that I was staying with them there were about 6 of us sleeping at their flat one weekend but it felt fine. Very quickly, I became part of that clique and I've felt incredibly comfortable with all of them. Language is a bit of a barrier but when both sides are willing to make an effort, it's not too bad. Every time we all got out for dinner or someone cooks at their flat, it stretches on for at least 2-3 hours and nobody seems to be in a rush to leave.

I guess I've been lucky to become an outside member of a couple of small cliques so soon, but that's probably the biggest reason I've felt so comfortable here.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Public transport

Had a few friends visiting me this weekend, from Munich and Vienna. I'd visited them 5-6 months ago and stayed with them and explored their cities. Like most European cities, they both have good public transport but somehow the system in Paris feels like it's on a different scale. Since all 3 of them were interested in exploring Paris, we spent a lot of time on the metro getting around the different neighbourhoods. There were a few things I'd noticed earlier but since these friends were around, I realised what makes the Paris metro system so good.

There are about 14 different metro lines which run through Paris, but there's no real centre for the metro lines to intersect in. Almost all 14 lines meet all the other lines at some point. There's no system of east-west or north-south. It's a crazy mesh of lines and it's incredibly dense. I don't think I've ever had to walk for more than 5 minutes to find a metro stop within the city. For almost 3 months now, I've crisscrossed different parts of the city for various reasons, and I don't think I've ever had to change more than once. That means it's pretty easy to guess how long it's going to take from place to another and also makes it less tiring. I don't know who the main planner of the metro was and if they employed some kind of algorithm to see how many lines are needed to make sure you only change once, but they did an excellent job. Each time I sit on a different line, I can count up to at least 10 different lines that it connects with, sometimes more than once.

The city of Paris is enclosed by a ring road and has an oval shape. That means the metro map actually resembles the city map. So, even if you're in Paris for the first time, you can figure out which part of the city you're in. This is in stark contrast to every other metro I've used, where figuring out how to get around by the metro is easy, but leaves you completely lost about the scale and orientation of the city. In other cities, there are times I've completely misjudged how far metro stations are, or on different occasions changed trains when I could have just walked. All metro stations are equipped with the main metro and suburban rail map, a bigger map of the city with the major landmarks and more detailed ones of the immediate neighbourhood. I have a map of Paris, but it's something I hardly carry with me while getting around.

Getting around Paris is fast and easy. I haven't gotten around to using buses, which are generally a better way of seeing a city, but the metro doesn't leave me feeling disoriented. And, unlike the price hikes in New York, London and Boston, the metro prices have remained unchanged since I last visited 5 years ago.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Moving to Rio

Well, not immediately but in a few months. I heard back from IMPA in Rio and they've offered me a visiting position for a few months in the summer (or winter depending on the hemisphere). I plan to be there for about 2 months from early May to early July. It's an unpaid position but they've offered to give me an office, with access to everything in the institute and a flat (maybe not free, but it should be cheaper than Paris). In return, I'll give a series of lectures while I'm there.

IMPA has a spectacular location. It's on top of a hill, on the edge of a forest and very close to one of the world's most famous beaches, Ipanema. Here are some pics of the institute. Of course, the fact that it's in Rio makes it even more exciting. The Rio marathon is in the end of June and it's been almost a year since my last one, so I'm itching to get back to running. One of the problems of living in Paris is the lack of open spaces to go running, but once I get out of here, I'll try getting back into shape. 4 months is enough time to train for it.

After I leave Paris at the end of February, I'll spend 2 weeks in Venezuela, about 5-6 weeks watching the cricket world cup in the Caribbean till the end of April, and then head down towards Rio after spending some time in the Amazon rainforest.

I had a visitor from Delhi last week and this week 3 friends from Munich and Vienna are showing up. It's fun to be the host for a change. If anyone wants to visit Rio while I'm there, you're welcome. I should have a nice place to stay in.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Some thoughts from Paris

There are two things which I noticed in my time in Paris, which never struck me the first time I came here. That time I came for 6 days, like a wide-eyed tourist awestruck by the grandeur and beauty of Paris. It's been more than 2 months here, and since I've been "living" here, it's been a different experience - especially regarding food and race.

- Race

There's a huge African population in Paris, and like one encounters South Asians in London, Hispanics in California, it's Africans here. The area I live in is largely African, though a short walk away from the more gentrified Montmartre area. What amazes me is how comfortable they feel. A large number of them continue wearing clothes which I presume they wear back in Africa, but nobody seems to care. It's pretty common to see a big group walk into the metro, talking loudly, wearing clothes completely different from everyone else, and nobody seems to find it weird. Somehow GAP and Benetton haven't affected their sense of fashion, and it's nice to see them walking around wearing whatever they feel like.

The other thing I noticed, which I hardly saw in the US, is the large number of inter-racial couples and groups of friends. Seeing a Black person cuddling up with a white partner in a cafe seems pretty normal, as is seeing a bunch of mixed students in the university hanging out together joking around. It helps that universities are free. Somehow, I never saw such free and open mixing of races anywhere in the US. It wasn't too segregated there and Asian students and professionals mixed fairly well but blacks and hispanics weren't that visible in most places.

Maybe it's because Africans are the largest minority and there aren't as many Hispanics and Asians, and also the fact that I haven't seen anything outside Paris and its suburbs. It's far more relaxed here and I don't get the impression that an African feels out of place anywhere. Their football team is actually quite a just reflection of how comfortable the French (or at least Parisians) are with Africans in their midst. I noticed the diversity the first time I came but never noticed how comfortable everyone feels.

- Food

I found the story a bit dismaying. Banning street food in Delhi is one of the most unjust and stupid acts I've read about. Food is something Parisians are religious about, and although the restaurants aren't as diverse as in a big US city, the quality is simply amazing.

There are quite a few McDonald's and Starbucks outlets in Paris, and they seem to be reasonably busy. I remember reading about how Parisians were stoning the first McDonalds but somehow they've accepted its presence. What's interesting is the one near Notre Dame has a small creperie next to it. And next to the Starbucks are about 2-3 other cafes. All of them are busy, and I guess it's a good example of how free markets should work. Banning a particular kind of food, because it doesn't taste good or is unhygienic is stupid. The same judges should be sent to Paris and shown how food is made.

What makes the food so great is the rawness. The average Crepe maker never wears gloves and has no problems wiping his brow and then rolling the crepe. It's the same in all the food markets, and there are tonnes of them everywhere. Fresh fruits and vegetables can be found everywhere, within walking distance of every neighbourhood, as well as small boulangeries, patisseries, fromageries and boutcheries. If you buy anything from there, there's no obsession with hygiene nor are things packaged excessively. Some of the markets seem as dirty as chaotic as one would encounter in India. There are big supermarkets, but like the McDonalds and small creperie, they seem to being doing alright inspite of each other's presence next to each other.

My corner boulangerie worker knows I live 2 mins from there and gives me my bread with a small piece of paper wrapped around it. Since I live on my own, my intake of fruits, vegetables and meat is small, and I prefer to pick up small amounts every other day than head to a huge supermarket and stock up for 2 weeks. It's possible to pick up 2 or 3 types of fruits, some vegetables and pay the guy who's standing outside talking to his friend, in cash, without getting a receipt or a bag. If my French was better, I could try haggling, but I find things so cheap after the US, that I don't care. Inspite of the lack of attention paid to hygiene, I haven't had any health problems.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Another week, another visa, another story

Went to the Brazillian consulate last week to apply for a visa. After getting a CARICOM and Venezuelan visa, I was pretty sure it would work out. I did go with a plan in case things went wrong. Thankfully, they spoke English so it was easy to communicate.

I decided to make another booking without buying a ticket. This time it was a multicity ticket, Paris to Caracas to Rio to London. After looking through the documents, the guy was nodding away till he noticed my French visa expires around the time I leave Paris. Since I don't have a residency permit, he seemed confused. I told him I was planning to move to London for a job, which confused him even more. Showed him the Venezuelan visa and said they didn't have a problem, so he looked clueless about what to do. He called up his superior, who came down, looked at my papers and asked why I was going to Brazil. It was time for plan B.

I said I was going to work with a professor at IMPA in Rio, but out of my own pocket. Since I'm here as a researcher I said the same project I'm working on, has a group in Rio (not true as there is no real project or group in my case), and wanted to spend a month or two in Rio. I mentioned IMPA is a world class institute (true) and it would help a lot to get a Brazillian collaborator. That made her happy, and she looked through everything and told me to come back today with some other papers from the University.

Went again today, and things went smoothly. They remembered me, and after 5 mins of looking through all the papers, said "Excellent, very good." Never heard that from a visa officer. Have to go back next week to pick it up.

That finishes off the visa hassles I had. The final step is to go to London at the end of the month and get the CARICOM visa stamped, and then in less than a month I'll be off. Haven't bought any tickets yet, but have decided I'll buy a one-way ticket to Caracas and keep it open ended. Might end up going all the way down to Buenos Aires and fly back from there, or might just rent a flat in Rio for a couple of months and see if I can get an office at IMPA and do some work while I'm there.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Smoking ban

I didn't realise till I read about it here on BBC that a smoking ban is being enforced in Paris. For the last two months, I've spent a huge amount of time in different cafes out here. Can't say that I've explored a lot of the arts, the nightlife or the sights, but the one thing I've done a lot of in Paris, is sit in cafes.

When I was in Boston, a significant chunk of my thesis was done sitting in various cafes (or coffeeshops). I work better with noise in the background, so cafes suit me fine if I want to sit for a few hours and do something specific. They're also a nice break from working from either home or an office. There were quite a few people like me (mainly students) who did the same thing, so it was pretty common to see people sitting in a coffeeshop, reading or working on their computers.

What those cafes lacked were people sitting around, doing nothing or people meeting for a coffee, a drink or a smoke. Cafes are such an inherent part of Paris, that they're everywhere one goes. I normally leave the University around 5, and depending on how I feel, I pick some neighbourhood and head out to a cafe with some stuff to read. It's interesting to notice the different characters in the cafes and the customers who frequent these places, especially as most of them are there straight after work. I found out recently that there's a law in Paris which says that if you order anything, then they can't force you to order anything else or leave for the next 2 hours. That kind of law is perfect for me and a huge number of Parisians, for whom a cafe is place where they feel free to do whatever they feel like.

I grew up in a family of smokers and through college and grad school, had a bunch of friends who smoked. Though I don't smoke, hanging around smokers is completely normal for me. In the US, smokers are complete outcasts, and I didn't mind accompanying smoker friends or housemates to their smoking spots to continue a conversation or just give them company and waste some time.

In Paris, I love the fact that people smoke inside cafes. Since cafes sell alcohol and tobacco, it's normal to see people show up after work (if they work!) and buy some wine/beer and cigarettes and just talk to the bartender. I guess most people have their neighbourhood cafes to hang out in and feel comfortable walking in and just talking to the bartender. There's no loud music or big screen TVs, just a lot of chatter which makes these cafes so homey.

The ban is initially for workplaces, and apparently will hit a lot of other places soon, except places which sell tobacco. I guess I'm in a minority among non-smokers, but as long as they keep a reasonable number of cafes as places for smokers, I'll keep going there. That's where one is more likely to see people sitting around nothing, which makes me very comfortable.

I should add that I leave at the end of the month, so I don't think I'll notice the effects of the ban in cafes.