Friday, July 28

A Jolly Good Time in England

It's really is like they say "there's no place like home". I've been at home for the past couple of days. Sorry I haven't posted earlier, but it's hard to do the computer when to get the internet you have to borrow the neighbor's wireless by holding up the laptop by the ceiling with one hand. As you know, I was in England for the final part of my trip.

To get to Paris, we had another 5 hour ride on the TGV. The part of the car in which we rode had four groups of four seats facing each other. There were 7 of us sitting in the two groups closer to the centre of the car. We were just hanging out and talking about leaving France and stuff, then this old French lady who was sitting facing me on the opposite side of the aisle next to the door got up and walked over to us. She asked us in French if any of us spoke French; we just looked at her. I can't tell what she said after that, but I could tell that it was something bad because she said it very angrily. She then turned around and sat back down. Jack referred to her as the b-word and the 8th person sitting with us, a Frenchman, laughed.

Normally, I try to be considerate and blend in where I am, but I don't think we cared because in another couple of hours, we'd be out of France for a while. Besides, whenever the sliding glass door, which happened to be next to her, opened, she got angry and flustered. Anywho, we nonchalently pulled into Paris, just another view of the Eiffel Tower. We had about 60 minutes to get to the opposite side of the city to the train station from which the Eurostar departs because our train was late. We hauled buns like a bakery truck down into the Metro and then nearly 20 stops later, up out again. To guarantee your seat, even with a ticket, you must get to the Eurostar at least a half an hour ahead of time because you go through British customs there at the train station. I think we made it with about 10 minutes left. Our final European train ride was uneventful. After leaving the station, the Paris very rapidly melted away into countryside within about 10 minutes. It was funny to hear the French conductor say "Chunnel Tunnel" on the speakers with a French accent. Before we went through, he'd announce in French and then English, after emerging, he spoke in English first.

It was glorious to be in England, once again. Looking out the windows, the cars were on the wrong side of the road, the landscape was green, and all of the signs were completely and instantly understandable. We arrived at the train station, not le gare, and did a little converting. I had it planned out and didn't have any euros to change, but with the student cards, the currency exchange places waive the flat cost of the exchange. I withdrew some money from the machine and got to fill my wallet with my favorite currency, the pound.

I had quite a different expierence, this time, with the pound. Before, I thought it had the coolest currency symbol, but now, I know, they really mean "pound of gold" because when you go, everything costs a ton of money, not in pounds, but in dollars. For instance, the admission to St. Paul's Cathedral was £8 for students, with the current exchange rate, that's more than $14! But it was worth it.

So, we went to the hostel and dropped off our luggage, measured in pounds, not kg. I certainly had enough of it. Then we ventured out to eat some sterotypical English food, fish and chips. After consulting the London book I had, which was infinity times better than Frommers (may you burn), we determined a fine chippery and set off. Ironically, we retraced our tube ride back to the train station, did a little walking and arrived. Fish and chips is awesome. For about £6 you get a big plate of fries and a big piece of delicious fried fish. We all were stuffed. Leave it to the Brits to figure out how to eat. We then wandered at night from Big Ben up past 10 Downing Street through Trafalgar Square up to Piccadilly Circus.

The next day, we set out to see the sights.

Big Ben, it's not as big as you imagine it
on the next block away from the river Thames (pronounced like the letter 'M' with a 'T' sound on the front and an 'S' on the end) is Westminster Abbey, started in 1066. It's neater than Notre Dame because in it is buried everyone who's anyone in British history. (Look out for the long lines and steep prices)
After a walk through the park, we arrived at Buckingham Palace, where the weather decided to start raining on us.
We scurried into the tube and rode it east to the centre of the city and stopped by St. Paul's Cathedral. Look out for the prices! I think it is pretty much the only building resembling an American capitol building in Europe. We climbed up the 500+ stairs to the top of the dome to look at the city. Here, down the hill and across Milenium Bridge, is the Globe Theatre to the left and the Tate Modern behind and to the right
St. Paul's from the front. Tuppence! Tuppence!
Walking towards the river, the dome of St. Paul's
We then went to the Tate Modern. It's an modern art museum. The nice thing about England is although the things cost an arm and 2 legs and an ear, all of the main museums are free. We walked in and viewed the art. Saddly (and I was hoping to give it the benefit of the doubt), it confirmed my theory that all modern "art" is crap. That's right, good art starts after the Renaissance, and ends with Picasso, Dali, Lichtenstein, and Worhol. Future people, if Blogger is still around, don't think we're all crazy because our art is. Art seems to be a reflection of the times and all modern art seems to be about out doing everyone else, hence giant chunks of metal scattered about the floor, a single neon light, a giant spinning mirror in a dark room, and canvases painted one solid color, like gray or pink. I've seen it all with my own eyes. You know, thinking about it; perhaps it does represent us, everyone trying to out do everyone else.

Anyway, after getting our minds blown by modernity, we decided to do something random and head east to Greenwich. It wouldn't be too remarkable except that's the point from which all of east and west are defined. After riding the subway, we went on the DLR, which was a little sketchy since we weren't sure if we had to buy tickets. We then found the park in Greenwich (pronounced GREN-itch) and walked up the hill to the Royal Observatory. Unfortunately, we arrived 5 minutes before it closed so we couldn't get in. But we found a spot where the prime meridian was marked on the ground and took the classic 'I'm standing in the east and west' pictures.
From the hill, looking northwest, downtown London is a couple of miles away
After that, we found another London food to eat, Sausage and Mash. It was really good, too. Two bratwurst served on mashed potatoes and brown gravey.

The next day, Sunday, we headed out to beat the crowds to the Tower of London. It's a midieval fortress started in the 11th century.
The White Tower, the central thing. Someone pointed out that the Tower of London isn't very tall, but then I made the point that the Eiffel Tower only has 3 floors, too.
Right behind (or is it in front of?) the Tower of London is the Tower Bridge. We walked across it
We then headed back to Trafalgar Square to go to the National Gallery, Britain's primier art gallery. We saw some good art, but unfortunately, the Van Gogh room was closed.
Piccadilly Circus by day
Later, we stopped by the British Museum and checked out the Rosetta Stone, which was used to decipher the ancient Egyptian's hierglyphics
Perhaps this is familiar?We went there.
I felt a little dorky. Oh, well it's the Beatles. The consant stream of tourists must be annoying for people that have to drive that road everyday.

On Monday, we hired a car and went on a Magical Mystery Tour (the trip of a lifetime). We ended up naming the car Winston. It was Ford Focus, with the steering wheel on the wrong side. We also gave ourselves English names. I was Nigel, we also had a Pembroke, a Judith, and one Reginald Q. Withersby.

After swinging by Windsor Castle, we went to Stonehenge.
Then we popped into the Roman Baths at Bath
Then, for no particular reason, we stopped by the ocean. Wales is on the horizon to the right. The tide was coming in and this river was flowing backwards.
then we swung by Oxford
The classic 'the steering wheel's on the wrong side!' picture. Reginald did all the driving because it was a stick shift, also one must be 21 in Europe to rent a car (25 in the US). I was the navigator. We did about 300 miles of driving total and made 3 right turns. Gas was about one pound per liter so it was the equivalent of about $6.50 per gallon, whereas in France, it was more like $4 per gallon.
On Tuesday, we flew back. It's about an hour from our stop to Heathrow on the Underground. It was about 23 stops, methinks. We made it out and got in line for Air India. A lady came around and pulled out the Chicago bound people. We then got to stand in the special 10 person Chicago line for an hour. Going over the list, my passport needed to be taken and run through some checks or something, which was a little unnerving. Eventually we made it; it helped that the plane had arrived late, it originated in India, stopped in England, and continued to the U.S. The flight back was way better than the flight over. I spoke a little to the guy next to me, he was coming to the U.S. for the first time to go to grad school in Missouri. I wished him luck. And finally, it's nice to be a citizen because at O'Hare, although all the counters were open, the foreigners' lines were huge, whereas there was a short line that moved quickly for citizens.

As my trip is over and I'm back to my normal, boring life, I see a few more posts on my travels in Europe. I then plan to take a break before starting again in September. From there I plan on bloging local UW and Madison events and news.

Friday, July 21

Well...

In a couple of hours we'll be leaving Toulouse. For me, it is a sad thing and a happy thing because we're going to London and then home. Late in the afternoon today, we're taking the Eurostar in the Chunnel to get to England where we'll be finally ditching our euros for pounds! I hope to blog some more from London but that would require wireless internet, which I hope our hostel has. Bye for now.

Wednesday, July 19

The Heat's On

I hear it's getting pretty hot in the US. Things are starting to heat up over here, too. It was the hottest day in quite a while in Britain today. It's been in the upper 90's here, 100 yesterday on the Atlantic side, for the last couple of days and a forecast of 102 for Friday. Luckily, we're leaving on Friday for England where it's supposed to be in the low 80's to 70's by the weekend. Since I've been over here, I have definitely gained a new appreciation for trees because they make shade.

A Nice Weekend in Monaco

I've been meaning to write for the past few days, but as tomorrow is the last day in Toulouse, there has been plenty of work to do. On Monday a final presentation to work on, Tuesday, statics problems, tomorrow a final. It's coming down to the end and it came fast. I'm blogging now as a break, a little later and some more studying. Then on Friday morning we're taking the train to Paris to get on the Eurostar that goes to London. I think we're all looking forward to that.

Last weekend, after seeing the Tour de France on Friday, early Saturday morning, right after midnight, we got on the sleeper train to Nice. It was the sleeper seats, not the couchets, luckily. I managed to drift off to sleep. A few hours later I was awoken by the screams of a little kid who, from this point on, will be referred to as 'it'. It started crying, no, wailing, "mama" at about 3 am. Instead of being considerate and picking it up and walking to the noise area at the end of the car behind the soundproof sliding doors (they were sitting just a few rows from it), its parent(s) just tried hushing it. Finally, after at least 5 minutes of this and after everyone who had previously been asleep was ripped from their slumbers, it quited down.

After that episode, I wasn't able to get back to sleep. Oh, well. France at night looks pretty much the same as the U.S. at night: black darkness interspaced with orange lights every so often. We then arrived at Nice at about 9 am, if I remember correctly. After waiting in the train station for a little while a person got her railpass, we went out to find the hostel. The 'Hotel Trocadero' was a block over and a block down. We dropped off our bags and then ventured out to find some lunch.

Nice is located in the extreme southeastern corner of France next to Italy and about 325 miles east of Toulouse. Its main attraction is the ocean so the town is very touristy. We walked around the downtown looking for some food. The buildings didn't look out of the ordinary for southern France. There were more Asian restaurants in Nice than I've seen in the rest of the places to which we've traveled. After wandering around for a while, we finally found a restaurant with decent prices. It happened to be German-themed.

After our meal, we headed back to the hostel to get ready to go to the beach. It was quite hot out, especially in the sun. We made it to the beach. Nice is on a giant bay with the whole boardwalk thing. The beach is four miles long. I was surprised to see that the beach was rocky. For the most part, the stones were as big as a hand but they were well weathered. As it turned out, a rocky beach wasn't that bad. One doesn't get covered in sand, just a little chalky, but it's hard to sleep because it's very lumpy.


After spending the afternoon at the beach, we headed back toward the hostel. We stopped a block away from our place at a nice little Chineese restaurant for dinner. The whole time we were there, we were half of the guy's business. I felt bad for him because it was a nice restaurant and the food was good. We gave him a big tip.

We then walked the several hundred yards back down by the ocean. It was getting dark and things were really starting to get going. There was one band playing some kind of accordian/maritime/rock music and another hundred yards down, there was big band dance music. We walked for a while to the end of the beach. In the middle of Nice's coast, there is a big rocky hill. There used to be a castle, but it was destroyed and now is a garden.

a monument in the side of the hill

Most of the people stayed on the beach part, so the sidewalk became nearly empty and darker. The ocean is a little creepy at night. You can hear it slosh and lap down there, but all you can see is darkness. I guess it's strange because one's senses aren't all detecting the same thing. It's kind of similar to that green ketchup they sold a few years ago. You taste and feel ketchup, but it's green! On the other side was the harbor. We walked around that, past the big yachts and the cruise ship docks, and up the hill out of town. The road wound up the side of nearly a cliff next to the ocean. There were houses on the side of the hill above the ocean. Eventually, after walking quite a ways (past a seaside restuarant where the reccomended dish that costs 80 euros), in the direction of Monaco, we stopped to look at the map in a bus stop. We weren't anywhere near it so we turned around and headed back. We took different roads and I got back first.

Although it was called a hotel, I booked it on a hostel website. I still can't decide which one it is. It's called a hotel and has two stars, according to the French ministry of so and so sign, yet only a hostel would have four beds in one. I guess there are just some mysteries not worth thinking about.

In France all of the hotels have a certain number of stars, awarded by some kind of government thing. Each hotel has a plaque next to its door with how many stars it has, ranging from 1 to 4. The hotels even advertise the number of stars they have on their big signs. Walking around Nice, it's funny because some hotels have a star on their sign covered, others have empty space awaiting a star.

On Sunday, after sleeping later that usual, we got up and dressed up (a little), for we were going to Monaco. Monaco is that tiny country on the side of a hill with the casino in Monte Carlo. We took the train to get there. After a short, less than half an hour, ride, we pulled into the Monaco train station. Quite expected, it was nice. The walls were more than bare concrete and there were ample escalators. We ascended to the top; the train station is built into a valley in the side of the mountain.

We emerged to daylight. Walking around, we quickly discovered that Monaco is literally built on the side of a mountain. All 481.9 acres of it. It is quite steep and the buildings are built into the side of the hill. Nearly 40,000 people live in a narrow strip less than 2 miles long.

the train station is the thing in the middle looking in the opposite direction from the previous picture
We walked down the hill. It is so steep that Monaco has public elevators. Although maybe it's because they've got so much money. We ended up at the intersection of some roads that looked like the main roads and decided to go up the Rock of Monaco to the castle. The rock is the oldest part of the country.

some views of Monaco from the path up the rock
looking east
you can tell where the boundaries are by where the tall buildings stop
We made it up to the top. There was a castle type thing and a bunch of tourist shops. We didn't go in the castle because Frommers only gave it one star. We think we saw the changing of the guard.

I guess I just now realized that I didn't get a good picture of it. But you get the idea. We got dressed up to look good for Monaco, but it was insanely hot. Luckily, I wore shorts. We had been expecting a giant air conditioned glass dome over their country. Just because it's Monaco. We walked around a little trying to find the way to the gardens from the palace. We tried the signs but they went in a dead end so we gave up and walked down by the harbor.

There was the usual flock of tourists surrounding the very expensive parked cars. And a slushy in a plastic cup cost about $4, whereas I can get a huge one in the huge cup at a gas station for $1.50 at home. Just now I was trying to figure out a way to describe how big the cup was, but I can only think of sizes in terms of liters. I remember how much a cup is, though, I think. Oh and the gallon; just think of a milk jug. I still think of temperatures in F, and weights in pounds, but I think in both miles/feet and km/meters. Time is the same except it's 24 hour time. I like 24 hours better. And the ground floor is floor 0 over here. My room is on the French 5th floor whereas in America I'd be on the 6th, I think (it's getting fuzzy).

The path of the Grand Prix winds along next to the harbor and then in the tunnel. We walked along its route by the harbor. There were big expensive yachts, most of which seemed to be flying the British flag, and a cruise ship or two. We gave up trying to find something to do, so we continued on to the casino. We walked past the famous one, the Monte Carlo casino, I think it's called. There's a total of three casinos in Monaco, I'm pretty sure. We found/went to the one that doesn't have a charge to get in the door. I was told that it was tiny by Las Vegas standards. The tables wouldn't be open until later in the afternoon so we walked over to the slot machines. After watching other people play, I surrended 5 euros to the one armed bandit.

We left, walked down the corridor, and sat watching the sea. They taught me how to play blackjack and we got in some practice. We then went back by the harbor to have some lunch. Besides Chinese food and fast food, the most consistent thing to eat in Europe is pizza. All of the restaurants serve it the same way: uncut on a big plate, thin crust style. Also the price isn't bad, it seems like in Europe, a normal casual meal at a sit-down restaurant is going to cost you at least 10 euros, I would say between 10 and 15, with the pizza and a drink at the low end of that spectrum. On the bright side, for the most part, a service charge is included in the price, so there's no need to tip, although tipping varies by region. For instance, in Germany: round your bill up to a nice number, France & Spain: no tip, Austria: 5-10%, Swiss: very little.

By the time we came back, things had started to get going and the tables were open. We headed to the 10 euro minimum bet; they had a 250 table. Dave and Mike played blackjack right away. They both got up, at least double what they started with (eventually losing it all). There was a guy at the end of the table who would pull out another 100 euro bill every couple of minutes. Eventually, I got in. Mike gave me 10 euros worth of chips for a 10 bill. Like lightning, I went above 21 right away with face cards. I left the game. After watching Dave and Mike lose their money, I felt inspired to try it again. The 100 euro guy was still there, other people would be pulling out 50's, I put a 10 on the table. The dealer said very sarcastically, in French, 'change for a...10'. In a flash the same thing happened again! I was done. Enjoy my 25 euros Monaco!

That was my first gambling expierence. In hindsight, gambling is a waste of money; if you buy overpriced stuff, at least you get something, with gambling, it just dissapears. I think the best business would be to open a casino. You don't even have to give any products or services, people show up expecting to be seperated with their money. Think about it, the casinos only do games for which they have the odds. I, personally, give props to Monaco. It's brilliant to run a country off of three casinos. I mean, they've got nothing else, yet they're extremely successful.

We found our way back to the train station and headed back to Nice to pick up our stuff from the hostel. After going to the grocery store, we had stocked up for the sleeper train home. Leaving Nice at 9 pm we'd arrive in Toulouse at 5 am on Monday. On the train, two Spanish guys sat behind Mike and I. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but, and this has happened at least 3 times so I can confidently draw a trend, the Spanish (people from Spain) talk loud; I know that generalization is usually reserved for the 'Stupid American Tourists'. Whereas Latin Americans talk very rapidly, the Spanish speak really loud even when they're sitting next to each other on a sleeper train and the lights are out. That's just my observation.

After a long train ride, we made it back and I jumped into my bed.

Friday, July 14

Happy Bastille Day!

Today is Bastille Day in France! It's the French holiday that corresponds with our Independence Day. French flags abound around.

Yesterday

We went on a technical and cultural visit. Bright and early we went to Latecoere. They are a company that makes airplane parts. Not the little things, but fuselage sections and airplane doors and half from their business comes from Airbus. If you played that Monty Python clip from a couple of posts down, you probably realized that Airbus isn't really like that rather Latecoere is. We had an hour of presentations, the first one was written in English and spoken in French. Both parts of the second were in French. It seems like the French do the opposite of everything that makes a good powerpoint. Good powerpoints are simple with small phrases that are grammaratically parallel and don't have giant charts or excessive copy. For some reason, every French company likes to present (on a single slide) the following information: all of the locations, how many employees they have in those locations, and what each place does, in addition to who runs them. They must like the bureaucracy.

After an hour of periodically nodding, they released us into the factory. It was much smaller than what the map in the slideshow looked like. In some parts, they were working on part of the cabin. In other parts, they were building the rear part of private jets. It was pretty interesting.

We then got on the bus again. There were a lot of sunflower fields. I fell asleep shortly after taking a picture of a sunflower field. In fact, I fell asleep everytime we got on the bus. All I know is that we were going west into the French region of Gascony.


We then had an extremely fancy lunch in a castle. Gascony is where fois gras, fattened duck liver, originated. The theme of the meal was duck. I didn't have any fois gras, although they served us some. I heard that it was slimey.



After the 2.5 hour lunch, we then went ot the Cistercian abbey of Flaran. It's pretty amazing to think about how old things are here in Europe. According to the tour guide, monks had been living here for more than 500 years before the French Revolution which happened in the 1790's. The monks had lived strict lives. They could only talk in a certain room and they prayed many times a day, even at 3 am. They used a water drip clock to keep track of time since they didn't have a light bulb to read the sundial in the middle of the night. I like their chuch. It was very plain on the inside. In fact, there was nothing; just the stone used to build it and small windows with plain glass. To me, that's how a church should be, although the cathedrals like Notre Dame are art and I'm glad they built them, because helping people to lead better lives is more important than building a pretty building.



We made it back to Toulouse and then I had bread and cheese for dinner. I like how the French eat: big, long lunch and a small dinner. I haven't looked at my schedule for next year in a while, but I think I'll try to continue eating that way. I'm not sure how it'll work though. Opposite of the U.S., in France, they'd probably sooner sell baby-in-a-can than bread and cheese that come sliced. Bread is so cheap here, ranging from .5 to 2 euros for a loaf. Most wine goes for .80 to about 10 euros here. Ah, France.

After dinner we headed down to the Capitole on rumors of a concert. A stage was set up and music was being played. There were about 5 singer/dancers singing/dancing with a band. I thought it was a little strange that they were doing American music on Bastille Day eve. They did a long string of songs (in English!), the quintessential American pop music hits including: Pretty Woman, the Grease songs which transitioned into Happy Days, then some love songs and some other stuff I can't remember right now, including the song from Moulin Rouge, which I thought was weird because some parts of it are in French. They then did a bit of a costume change and did some 80's movie theme songs, then some superhero movie songs ending with Ghostbusters! If it had been in the U.S., it would have been rather cheesey, but it was cool in France. I wonder if they know exactly what they were singing in most of the songs? After a longer break, they changed genres to latin type dance music, the whole time being MC'ed by a guy who looked like the French Jay Leno.

Today

Today we went back to Carcasonne to watch the Tour de France. The race is three weeks long and in July. Today they were going about 200 km from the mountains in Spain to Carcasonne. We left here at noon and arrived by one, execting the riders to make it to town by about 4 or 5. Upon exiting the train station, we knew not where the race went through the city. We walked the first block, past a festival and found that the road had barriers on both sides. From the markings, we could tell that the end was to the right, about half a kilometer.

The path of the race went through the town like the letter 'U'. It went counterclockwise with the the train station at the bottom center and the finish line at the top right. We walked up and around. I had brought my flag with me so I wore it. We had lunch and then went to find a spot. We settled on the inside of the last turn, about 300 meters before the finish line. As time went by, it became exponentially more crowded. Walking around, I saw two Union Jacks, three Austrailian flags (one about 10 yards away), both a Scottish and an English flag, a Norway flag, and a contingent of Danes. As far as I could tell, I was the only one with an American flag. I felt bad about showing it because it is the biggest of the French holidays today, but, oh well, it's the Tour de France.

Me in my free hat. Yes, my head is huge so it wouldn't fit. No, it's not a purse, it's the CNES bag, besides it's European.

le Finish Line

Starting about 90 minutes before the riders came through, they closed off the points at which people could cross the course. Then it was like a strange parade, all the floats were different vehicles from all the advertisers. They gave out tons of free stuff, thrown at me were hats, small beach balls, and candy, among other things. When the Haribo people came by, I waved the flag hoping that they seen an American and then try to injure him by pelting him from a moving car with candy. It didn't work. Eventually, after about an hour of burning my feet because I wore flip flops, it got cloudy. Also the parade thinned out, as the riders approached.



It started to sprinkle. Finally, the tv cameramen attended to their cameras and three helicopters appeared in the sky. Two or three riders came by then it was about 5 minutes before the pack came through. Yesterday, an American won the segment so he was wearing the yellow jersey. I saw him stuck in the pack. Traditionally, the French try extra hard on Bastille Day, but it wasn't a French victory today.

We then ran over to the stage where they handed out the awards. We followed the crowd and ended up jumping a fence into the press area in front of it. It then downpoured as we headed back to the train station to leave.

I won't be posting until Monday because we're leaving in a couple of hours to go to Nice on Saturday and then Monaco on Sunday.

Wednesday, July 12

Pictures from Madrid

As promised. (you can click on a picture to get a bigger view)

The beach at the Atlantic
The Spanish landscape, I would have taken more pictures, but the glare was terrible.
The Museo Prado
The Mayor's office in Madrid, I think
Plaza Mayor, they were setting up for something
Outside the Museo Reina Sofia
the big church across the way from the palace
inside that church
a random street in Madrid
the front of the palace
the Throne Room
out the back of the palace
the collection in the Amoury, in the palace
the big monument in the big park
the Plaza de la Cibeles, I think
the Opera House
the Palacio de Communacaciones
a building on the Gran Via
scroll down to the second post below this one for the story