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Thursday, 24 July 2014
Filed under Europe 2014,.

A ConCERNing Adventure

The coolest thing at CERN is, of course, me and Morgan.

so cool.

Nah, only joking. We are probably the only people in the history of ever to blow a railpass day on going to Geneva to see a physics lab's visitor centre, but it was so worth it.

CERN is the Centre European pour la Recherche Nucleaire. It sits literally on the border between Switzerland and France, although if you were going to say it was in a city, you'd choose Geneva, since on the French side there is just alps. CERN is actually the terminus of line 18 in the Geneva tram network, which means that for some lucky bastard their regular tram stop is basically the Large Hadron Collider.

At 1.9 degrees above absolute zero, the LHC is the actual coolest thing at CERN, and to be in proximity to it is sort of the main reason I went. The actual particle accelerator is 100m underground and as devoid of air as the vacuum of space, so you can't actually visit visit. You can hang out in the visitor's centre and do a pretty convincing approximation though.


The LHC is a seriously awesome bit of machinery, but how it works is pretty simple. It's basically a circle of magnets, attached to a particle gun. The magnets bend the stream of particles in a circle so that they smash into each other which creates conditions which are pretty close to how we think the big bang might have been.

This is the kicker. In order to create that kind of energy, you need your particles to have a lot of energy, and to give them a lot of energy you have to speed them up really, really fast. For that, you need a really, really, really big particle accelerator, and the bigger your particle accelerator is, the more precise everything has to be. That, to me, is the really impressive bit. The LHC is a machine that is capable of hitting a bullet with a smaller bullet while riding a horse blindfolded hitting a proton travelling at the speed of light with another proton also travelling at the speed of light from 27 kilometres away.

There's some other cool stuff lying around as well. They have a really neat science museum, with a particle tank that lets you see cosmic rays as they hit the atmosphere, and a demo stage where we watched a French man show off quantum levitation and make frozen yogurt.


(Truly, liquid nitrogen is a science demonstrator's best friend.)

Probably the highlight for me was the first web server, complete with 'DO NOT TURN OFF' sticker.

classic Tim.

(The Web - which unless you're doing something unauthorised with my blog backend - is the type of internet you're looking at right now. It was invented at CERN by a bloke called Tim as a way to more easily share scientific information. With a little bit of help from eduroam, I logged into the network that hosted the first website and sent some email and generally geeked out a little bit.

Also I may have bought another t-shirt. Oops.

They run tours where you get to go inside the facilities, but you have to book several months in advance, and we misses out by a few minutes when we tried. I wasn't going to bother coming, but everyone else declared they were going to Zurich or chilling by the lake or hiking or generally doing their own thing, and hey - if you're a physics fan in Switzerland, you don't spend the day looking at lakes and cuckoo clocks, you know? And I reckon, of the whole trip, it's easily one of the best decisions I've made.


Sunday, 20 July 2014
Filed under Europe 2014,.

A Spiel from Biel

Apparently I don't understand anything any more, because Switzerland doesn't make sense to me either. Although fortunately, this time it's a pleasant incomprehension rather than a sad one.

Switzerland is nice. There is no other word for it. The cars stop for you when you cross the road. The trains run perfectly on time. The people politely speak seemingly every language on the planet without grudge or judgement. There is just a general vibe of contentedness that wafts across the entire country.

(I really admire this kind of casual multilingualism, and it inspires me to want to learn more languages. It does, however, make conducting transactions something of a Frenglish-style mish-mash, which means that while inspiring, it's not actually the best place to practise. Maybe leave that for France.)

The last time I was somewhere this pleasant was in Annecy, which perhaps coincidentally is quite close to the Swiss border, albeit on the French side. I remember thinking that there must be some Hot Fuzz-esque council keeping the town so pretty, and I'm starting to think the same thing about the Swiss government. There's gotta be something going on here. Nowhere is this nice.


We're staying with Ben's step dad in a place called Biel, which is famous for clock making and not an awful lot else, it seems. Paul is really cool, and does the same kind of super-secret work that Ben does, and has many, many travel stories to share. Also, he bought us some remarkably tasty Swiss beer, which is a good way to win anyone's affection.

We also collected Brittany, after a very minor fiasco that involved her staying in an airport overnight, but she's back with us now and will be until we fly off home from Paris in about a week.


Okay, let's address that elephant in the room. Yes, we are flying Malaysia airlines. No, we were (obviously, I would hope) not on the flight. Our flight home will be routed around the area, and we are currently in Switzerland, which is probably just about the safest place in the world. We are, and have been, travelling entirely by train while inside Europe.

I don't have the time or the inclination right now to talk about any deteriorating political situations beyond the extent to which they impact my travel plans, so I'm gonna leave it at that.


Biel is on a lake, called Lac Bienne or der Bielsee, depending on whether you speak French or Swiss German. We spent most of yesterday down there, alternating between swimming, napping, and taking photos of how beautiful Switzerland was.

30-odd degrees and swimming was not what I expected from Switzerland, but I'll be damned if I won't take it.

We dined on cheese tonight, between a fairly easy walk into town and a much more difficult one back. Brittany was quite insistent that fondue did not constitute a real meal, and Paul was equally adamant that it did, and it was in fact what Swiss peasants would eat to get them through the long winter months. I think I fall somewhere between them - I think it was an excellent meal, very filling, probably reasonably nutritious provided you can digest lactose, and came with vegetables (ie, submerged onion chunks) and carbs (unlimited chunky bread).

That said, not sure I'd eat it tomorrow night.


Saturday, 19 July 2014
Filed under Europe 2014,.

Grand Theft Gondola

I don't know what to make of Venice.

Venice is a maze. The streets are labyrinthine and windy, and so narrow that you can barely see to the end, and so high that even if there were landmarks you wouldn't be able to see them. You end up following a sequence of signs - some official-looking, some basically graffiti, towards landmarks which may or nay not be there in the most roundabout route possible. To put it bluntly, you have no idea where you are.

Venice apparently exists entirely to sell you things. There were so many shops. So many. And not the kind of shops you would expect to see in a city, like... I dunno, supermarkets and locksmiths and computer shops. These were all leather and lollies and venetian glass jewellery. Which you don't really notice - it just feels slightly off somehow - and then it suddenly throws you off and makes you reevaluate the last hour of your life as basically windows shopping. The worst part is that I can't buy any of it, because the things that I liked were wallets and pens, and I have those things already, with addee bonus sentimental value. I mean, I guess that's a good thing, since it saved me money, but still.

Venice is literally entirely populated by tourists. It's like a city-sized museum. Wait, no. It's like Disneyland. Or that one town in America which is owned entirely by Disney as a pseudo replica of Small Town America. It doesn't quite feel like the real thing, even though technically it is.

Here is my question, then: who lives in all these houses?

Venice is the place where that one bit of Casino Royale was filmed. I remembered this when I saw the not-actually-that-uncommon coincidence of one of those water taxis going past a building with one of those giant photograph scaffolding facades.

Venice is also in Assassins Creed. I remembered this when we walked into St Mark's Square, and Morgan said, "This is the Doge's palace. At least I think so, it's where he was when I killed him." I'm surprised the aren't selling T-shirts.

For a place that's in popular culture a lot, it doesn't actually have that many landmarks. Venice is all about the gondolas and the canals and the concept that the entire city is sinking, and that impression gets more and more watered down (no pun intended) the more people walk through it.

There are some lion statues outside St. Mark's. I never got to sit on the Trafalgar Square lions, so I was determined to sit on these ones. And I would have done it too, if it weren't for this meddling kid:

The maze doesn't make any more sense from up high. We climbed the Campanile in St. Mark's square - well, I say climbed. We wanted to climb. We were all psyched and ready to climb. And then they put us in the lift. The bloody cheek!

Anyway, we ascended the Campanile in St Mark's square, and apart from the Grand Canal swirling its way through the centre of the city like Nutella through gelato, there isn't any obvious organising principle. At least Florence is roughly like a grid, even if it is a skewed, ancient grid. Venice is just chaos.

This is probably because the place is really, really old. As Morgan put it: "I like how the structural foundation for this city is basically just more city."

Much like in Dublin, which is similarly disorganised in its urban planning (or lack thereof), where despite fires and demolitions the property lines remained the same, I suspect the routes of streets and canals in Venice are constrained by the need to build them on solid land. You can't just bulldoze a building because you want a new street, because there's bridges and all kinds of other stuff you have to keep in place. Thus, I'd guess that Venice looks much the same today as it did at pretty much any point in it's history.

We took a water bus back from the square, which is at the opposite end of the maze from the train. The water bus was fascinating, cause it had all the trappings of a Metro - the line map, the fare gates, the whole deal - but it was just a biggish boat that drove down the canal. It was actually loads of fun, in a weird way. I'm really glad we did it.

Venice makes a bit more sense from the water, and is a lot more pleasant and authentic somehow. Everything is basically linear - the Grand Canal is the trunk, and all the branches come off that. The public transport and pretty much all the essential city traffic use the canal. The complexity of the interior streets disappears. And it all has waterfacing entrances. Venice really does have canals where there should be roads, and they function like roads, and the city is patterned around that assumption. The footpaths, while pleasant to wander, are entirely incidental.

There was some back and forth over whether Venice was sinking, or whether the sea level was rising, and between these two, how long Venice has left. The answer appears to be both. It's built on centuries old wooden piles, but they aren't the problem - it's the water they started extracting from the local aquifer in the 60s. They banned wells, and now the subsidence has stopped (they think) - only to be replaced by rising sea levels. So the short answer is that nobody really knows. I think the idea that Venice will one day vanish into the depths might be one of the driving factors of this colossal tourist engine.

Venice has not degraded as gracefully as Florence, despite both being capitals of the renaissance. Florence has maintained its integrity, and found a place in the modern world as a university town and a storehouse of culture. Venice has sort of become a tourist trap, grinding money out of people by pouring them through a maze. It's not the mysterious city I imagined. It's just a mysterious-city themed theme-park come shopping centre. It's a little bit sad, really.

Still, at least I saw it before it sank, right?


Wednesday, 16 July 2014
Filed under Europe 2014,.


We finally, finally got to Florence.

I would tell you about Milan, ecxept that nothing really happened there except a night in an Escher-esque hostel and some pretty amazing pizza, followed by yet another dash for yet another train.

I have, in fact, been to Florence before.

It's strange to be back. It's strange to be wearing t-shirts instead of scarves. It's strange to be with friends instead of family. It's strange to be not-quite-familiar, but not-quite-foreign. It's strange to want to see the same things you saw last time, but with new people.

It's strange to stand in a queue for something you were able to just walk into last time.

It's strange to arrive into a train station you swore you never wanted to see again in your life.

It's strange to have a totally different reaction to the same place.

I took the opportunity to re-enact a photo from my first time in Florence while I'm here.



Although admittedly, it was mostly an excuse to have another gelato.

Mmm. Gelato

I really love Italy, and I think it's the food that does it. Food is pretty high up on my list of cultural stuff to appreciate, and despite a brief dalliance with Thai, I think I can safely say that Italian has always been my favourite food.

And while Florence is a really, really beautiful city, possibly one of my favourite cities in the world, I've been here before. I have climbed the Duomo, I have seen the David, and I have seen the Ponte Vecchio.

(Actually, a quick aside on that. Florence really is beautiful. The Duomo is majestic and intricate and colourful without being.. . well, gaudy. The Ponte Vecchio is organic the way buildings should be - grown naturally, but as buildings, not designed to look like they were carved out of bones. Give me Florence over Barcelona any day.)

My travelling companions have not, though, and while I could and maybe should go and find some new and interesting stuff, they haven't done the basics yet, and so I get to see the basics again too.

(I'm trying really hard not to sound casual or whiny about this.)

It's cool though. I am looking at this mostly as a chance to relax a little bit, without trying to take in every single detail. That, and eat a lot of gelato.

Plus, I get to pretend to be an expert, which is always fun. The podcasts about Brunelleschi's dome I listened to in 2010 make me sound super knowledgeable about that, for example. Sometimes I wonder if maybe I should be a tour guide. I mean, I basically sort of am? Hmm.

Technology has moved on a bit since 2010. For example, Audioguides are much more common now, whereas the first time I was here I had to download my own as podcasts before I got there. There's also free WiFi pretty much across the city, which I wouldn't have noticed before anyway because my phone was crap, but more likely didn't actually exist. We bought tickets to the dome while standing in the queue, and then scanned a phone screen to get in. Four years ago that was science fiction-level, or at least wanky businessman-level, and certainly not student backpacker-level.

It also gave us the novelty of being able to fairly accurately spot our apartment from the top of the dome. That was pretty cool.


This also marks the second time this pair of shoes has done the 300-odd steps to the top of the Duomo, which considering they are 4 years old, is quite the achievement.

We went out for Steak Fiorentina for dinner. I can't remember whether I did that with Dad or not, but in a hitherto unseen fit of manliness the three guys declared that tonight we would dine on steak, and proceded to order a kilogram of the stuff for about forty euros. I am not usually a rare steak guy, and steak fiorentina is a very rare style, and this was very rare steak - but it was also incredibly good steak. It was a little intimidating to start off with, but once we got going we kind of wished we'd ordered more. I'm not sure I would have it every night, but I'm glad we got it once.


Tomorrow, we're taking the train to Venice for the day, and I'm bothering to say this because I think this marks the first, and very possibly last, time since I left that this blog is actually up to date.

Venice is gonna be awesome, and I am psyched. Not that Florence wasn't. It is amazing, and there is so much cool stuff here (capital of the renaissance, doncha know), and coming here twice makes me want to come again more next time I go to Europe, rather than less. It's a nice chance to decompress, and get some blogging out of the way, and acting like I own the place is quite a lot of fun.

Revisiting cities - pretty cool, would do again.


Tuesday, 15 July 2014
Filed under Europe 2014,.

Break it down


So there we were, minding our own business on the third train out of five. We'd just struck up a conversation with Mike, a tour guide in charge of shepherding 38 retirees through Europe's train network. He had presumably come out to see why a bunch of ragged looking youths were camped in the luggage compartment.

(We were camped there because we had about five minutes to make a transfer between a regional train from Lyon and the TGV to Milan. We didn't have time to make a reservation, and there were no seats. Hence, camping in the luggage compartment. I cannot recommend standing room on a TGV less, in case you were wondering.)

We had stopped in a little town on the French-Italian border called Modane, and while charming, tiny border towns are not usually serviced by the fastest high-speed train in the world. It transpired that this was the real reason Mike had moved vaguely forward from his flock, so he could intercept a conductor and ask why.

This was our first hint that something might be wrong.

Without much warning at all, everything in the train switched off. Including, concerningly, the doors, lights, and air conditioning.

This was the second hint that something might be wrong.

The third hint that there was something weong was when not the friendly conductor who had promised to find us seats, but the train driver, began walking down the corridor alternating between French, Italian, and very broken English, telling everyone that there was something wrong, and that we would need to get off the train, and that buses would be here in "maybe one hower" to take us the rest of the way to Milan.

It was theb explained to us as we got off the train that the engine had, in fact, caught on fire.

Needless to say, we missed our connections. There are worse places to be stuck, though, and worse bus trips to take.

(As Grace put it on the phone to the travel insurance guy, "We have been stranded in a beautiful part of the world and forced against our will to take a scenic bus trip to the fashion capital of Italy." Surprisingly, he said we had a pretty strong case for claiming tonight's acommodation.)

So that was a bit of an adventure.


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