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Monday, 25 August 2014
Filed under Europe 2014,.

The Last Post

Well, this is awkward. Been back for almost a month, and still haven't finished the travel blog. Oops. Okay. Let's do this.

(Thursday)

Paris is built on a series of tunnels. Actually, since they were originally quarries, I guess you could say that it's technically also built from those tunnels. In about the s, the cemeteries around the city started leaking dead people into basements, and so they emptied them into the tunnels. They call these the catacombs, and you can visit them.

So we did. We had to get up ridiculously early and catch the Metro with all the commuters and get there an hour before it opened so that we were reasonably near the front of a queue that would eventually stretch around the block and back past the entrance again, but we did.

I'm not actually sure I'd seen a real human skull before this. Especially not from a human who lived in the last few hundred years, and I'd certainly never walked down a corridor made of them before. The effect was eerie.

Dem Bones.

I think a huge amount of that is intentional. The catacombs were at one point just a big ol' tunnel full of bones, but at some point a French bloke decided to romanticise them a bit, and set about carefully tiling them and insetting them with pillars and altars and slabs inscribed with memento mori style poetry. It's the difference between an essentially hygiene-driven disposal of bodies, and a temple to the concept of death. Or, I guess, a bit like the difference between a morgue and a graveyard. Between, for want of more sophisticated words, creepy and spooky.

"Stop. This is the empire of the dead."

I thoroughly enjoyed it. Pretty much the only downside was the audioguides. Nothing against these particular ones - they were very well-produced and informative. I just almost wish that I hadn't known quite so much about what I was looking at. There's a certain pleasure in stumbling on something and wondering first, then understanding, rather than having understanding injected into your earholes as you walk.

We spent the afternoon after that in Montmartre, the famously artsy part of town. If the 'mont' didn't clue you in, Montmartre is on a hill, and it meant quite a lot of walking was involed to get there. The result, however, was worth it. Wait, no, not the view. I meant this:

We really need to get this scanned.

Because you gotta have a charicature done in Montmartre, right?

Jess and Morgan took themselves off to a date at this point, while Grace and I took Ben to see the Eiffel tower. Somehow he had made it an entire week in Paris without seeing the tower up close, merely as a tower-y smear on the horizon.

Despite what the signs in the metro say, the best station to get off at for the Eiffel Tower is Trocadero. This is because when you get off, you can't actually see it - you're behind some impressive-looking building, and there's nary a tower in sight. And then you walk around the corner, and there it is towering over you.

This accident of architecture prompted the following response from Ben:

Ben: "Holy butts! That's an Eiffel Tower!"

Which just by itself I think was worth the wait.

We did the thing that everyone does when you see the Eiffel tower. You wander down, sort of gawking up at it, until you're right underneath, and suddenly this world-famous monument turns into a really intricate bit of engineering surrounded by street vendors selling copies of it on a keychain. Then you wander back a bit, and find a crepe stand, and buy very overpriced nutella crepes while every so often turning around to look at the tower again, because it's something that's so famous, and so surprisingly big, and, well, holy butts, it's the Eiffel Tower, right?

(I'm not sure that that's actually the canonical way to see the Tower, but it sure seems like it should be.)

Holy butts!

I had a bit of a moment walking back up the stairs. We were coming to the end of the trip, and there's something about seeing something so iconic, not for the first time, but possibly the last time (at least for a while), and I was suddenly very conscious of it. I don't usually get sentimental about views, but just this once, I stood there and for a bit and just drank it in.

(Friday)

Friday was our last day in France, and we pretty much spent it at Versailles. I've learned on this trip that I get a bit crabby if I don't have breakfast, and I think it's fair to extrapolate that to everyone else too. Especially coupled with a very early morning and a train trip that made us woozy but wasn't quite enough to send us to sleep, and a queue that seemed to stretch forever to actually get inside.

What we ended up doing was taking a walk through the gardens, grabbing a bite to eat, and spending a couple of hours relaxing and napping next to the lake. I got wonderfully, gloriously sunburnt, in a way that no weaksauce winter sunshine in Perth could possibly match, and hired a rowboat for a while.

Grass Man

(There's a story about how I went up to the rowboat hire guy and, after opening with a perfectly accented French 'bonjour', blanked on the word for 'boat' and then said in perfectly accented Australian English, "One boat please", much to the dismay of the Frenchman at the counter. But Grace tells it better, you should ask her.)

I, row-boat.

As for the palace, it was... opulent. In a way that only aristocracy can manage. I'm not actually a huge fan of having every surface covered in ornately carved ostentatiously gold-leafed squiggles and, if I'm honest, I got pretty tired of being pulled along with a current of other tourists. With the exception of the Hall of Mirrors, which was amazing, and has 'x was here' graffiti from before I was born (which I think is pretty cool), the inside of the palace was a bit of a wash for me, I think. I would rather have spent more time exploring the gardens, which were just as fascinating, but much less crowded and much less expensive.

That evening, Jess took us out to dinner at possibly the Frenchest French restaurant in Paris. It was delicious - 'specially the foie gras, which I know is bad but oh my gosh - and gave us all a bit of a chance to look back on the trip. We played favourites (I believe a list exists somewhere, which I'll stick in a comment) and aired some greivances, and it was a really pleasant way to wrap up the trip.

The last supper

===

So what did I think?

I now know that I have the basic competence to travel, on my own, for five weeks, on the other side of the world, on my own dime. Not that I didn't think I could, but having the experience to back that up is satisfying.

I learned that holidaying with mates is just as much of an exercise in compromise as holidaying with your dad. And that's okay, as long as everyone knows that going in.

I discovered that you can get a decent impression of a country in just a couple of days, but if that impression makes you want to stay then you'll never want to leave.

I got properly, properly drunk, for the first time in my life, and while I have no particular desire to do it again, I can't think of a better place to have done it than Dublin.

I also saw a musical for the first time in my life, and while I have no particular desire to do it again, I can't think of a better place to have done it than London.

I travelled lighter than last time, and had a much easier time dealing with my luggage, and next time I'll probably take even less. That said;

I really, really enjoy writing - and publishing - about where I go. It roots me in the place I am, and makes me notice details, and gets me thinking about my experience, and then forges all of that into a narrative rather than a series of disparate memories. And doing all that on a smartphone, as gratifying as it is to travel light, is really bloody difficult. Next time I'm taking a laptop.

I found a part of myself that really enjoys just shamelessly being a tourist, despite the rest of me's utter disdain for it, and I actually don't think it's that incompatible with also wanting an authentic experience.

I learned a lot about how I think about art, and culture, and history, and where it is that the roots of the society I grew up in actually came from.

I discovered that visiting places you've already been with new people can be just as interesting as visiting new places. And that places you never thought you'd enjoy, or that you thought you already knew, can be transformed by someone else's perspective. And that having other people's plans differ from your own can take you places you'd never even think to go on your own.

And that sometimes, it's not where you go that matters. It's who goes there with you.

Thanks for reading.

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Thursday, 31 July 2014
Filed under Europe 2014,.

Art

It's here that, true to my subject matter, I have to diverge from a strictly linear story.

There is a lot of art in Paris. A lot. And it is spread across many, many galleries. We managed to visit a few of them, and this is what I thought when we did.

Centre Pompidou (Monday)

I think my favourite thing about the Pompidou is the building itself. You can see all of its insides, and with those massive air vents, it sort of looks like a giant wind instrument that at any moment might start belching an enormous melody out across Paris.

The coolest bit of art - as opposed to architecture - I saw was this:

squiggly thing

I have no idea why. I think it's the colours. Close second was a series of spherical objects arranged in order of size, culimating with an orange juice trailer with its indicators on:

spheres

The Pompidou's thing is modern art. My thing is not modern art. Frankly, I think a lot of it is kind of pretentious and trying too hard to be meta. I think, specifically, that asking 'what is art' in your art stopped being fascinating to ask basically immediately after Marcel Duchamp stuck a urinal on a wall. The Pompidou centre actually does pretty well on this front, at least by my book - there was only one thing that really pissed me off.

nail

You can't really see, but it was a single nail, banged about a centimetre into a bit of wood, and stuck on a big blank wall. I don't care how famous or whatever that piece might be, or how uncultured it makes me, but I think that's pretentious and stupid. Unfortunately, as much as I hate to admit it, this had the effect of actually making me think about what I like in art, and that line of thought sort of came to dominate how I was approaching the rest of the art galleries we visited.

Dammit.

Musee Rodin (Tuesday)

By far the highlight of the Musee Rodin was the gardens, and the story of how the museum came to be a museum.

Basically - and take this with a grain of salt, because I am remembering translated French here - Rodin spent a significant part of his career becoming famous, and the once he was, proceeded to gift his entire now very prestigious collection of works to the French state. He did this on one condition - that they be housed in a hotel which Rodin very much enjoyed, but didn't actually own. Only after a protracted fight with French bureaucracy and his eventual death did the hotel finally become the Musee Rodin.

I guess the other big one was watching people pose with The Thinker. It's a relatively easy one to do, and the pedestal they put it on is almost-but-not-quite a bench, so it makes me wonder if imitating the pose and thereby coming to some kind of meditative state by proxy is sort of the point.

I hope so, because that makes Grace's statue imitations across Europe into legitimate engagement with art, which is pretty funny.

Musee d'Orsay

Walking around the d'Orsay for me was kind of an exercise in finding something that I really liked and preferably that I haven't seen before, and making generalisations about what I like in art from there. Seeing a lot of art in a short period of time seems to have made me concerned about having a defined 'taste' in art. On some level I'm aware this is kind of pointless, because I'm not informed enough about art to give anything I like a name - I like what I like, and trying to define that set in terms of anything other than the fact that I like it isn't really useful to anybody. Especially me, since I'll still have to look at something to decide if it fits my criteria, but I might as well just look at it and decided if I like it, right?

Anyway.

I really dug some sculptures by this guy called Francois Pompon. From what I can gather, the one that really grabbed me was his most famous one, The Polar Bear. Which looks like this:

polar bear

I seriously sat and stared at this for about ten minutes. I think the only adjective that really suits it is 'majestic'. Seriously. Check out all its majesty.

The other one was, inexplicably, this one - The ascension of Poilu. I have no idea what it's about, but I find trying to figure out what it's about fascinating.

So here is the part where I generalise. There are two things, I think, which really matter to me in a bit of art. Actually, three. The first is that it has to be visually interesting. It's got to look cool and make me want to look at it in the first place. Generally, for me at least, that means it's brightly coloured rather than murky, and clean rather than fuzzy, and detailed rather than vague. Although, obviously, there are exceptions.

The second thing is that it has to either have cool subject matter, or cool execution. So either it depicts something that I find inspiring or evocative or thought provoking, or it's executed with skill that leaves me kind of awestruck. In the first category we have The Polar Bear. In the second, The Ascension. And to a certain extent, one of the three can make up for the others - this is where the abstract piece from the Pompidou comes in, I guess.

There's probably more to it than that, but that's enough to satisfy my need to categorise things.

L'Orangerie (Wednesday)

Another building with a cool story. This one used to be a greenhouse for growing oranges.

The big one here is Monet's water lilies. They are big. Much bigger than I was expecting. Kind of the opposite of the Mona Lisa in that respect. They fill entire walls. Oddly, they panorama into one image really well. I wonder if that was intentional.

Maybe the reason they're so big is so that you can look at them from further away. Because they definitely look better from further away. I know, I checked. I may have kind of made an idiot of myself in the process by trying to pace out distances and spinning on the spot like a cowboy in a gunfight, but that is neither here nor there.

(Reader question: Does this, like imitating statues, also count as legitimate engagement with art? Discuss.)

The ideal distance is about 10 metres away, which is approximately two-thirds the width of the rooms they're in. Which means that, ironically, the one you're best off looking at from any given point in the room is not the one that you're closest to, it's the one on the opposite side of the room to you.

I can't help but see these paintings through the lens (no pun intended) of the fact that Monet went blind later in his life. I know the impressionism thing has its own reasons and was entirely intentional, but that's still what I thought. Apparently other people think that too, because Grace and Jess both made comments along the lines of "it's like I'm looking across a room into a window of how the universe looks without my contacts in." Oddly, Grace liked this feeling, and Jess, if I recall, was not overly fond of it. Feel free to correct me, but take from that what you will.

The Louvre

title

This was an experiment in themed visits, in choosing the subset of the Louvre that you want to experience, rather than trying to see everything.

I don't know about anyone else, but I can only look at so much art before I... well, get bored. I get art fatigue. So the theme I chose for this visit was initially "not art". It eventually expanded to be "Oriental Mediterranean in the Late Roman Empire" - basically, Egypt and thereabouts under Roman rule.

I really enjoyed this visit. It was nice to be able to stand and read the French. It was nice to find a section of stuff that pretty much just appealed to me, and wander alone. It was nice to find something away from the crowds thronging around the Mona Lisa.

exhibition

It was neat to find Roman-style paintings preserved by adopted Egyptian bural customs, and to see Egyptian gods adopted as official patrons of the Empire. I think we sometimes forget that mixing of cultures isn't exactly something new.

dead face

It was neat to see stuff that's this impossibly old, and wasn't necessarily chosen to be preserved. It's cool to see fragments of everyday life. It's fascinating and frustrating to see writing, different people's handwriting, in a language that nobody spoke for thousands of years.

writing hall

It's fun to see things that you understand, like being able to look at a black-figure and a red-figure vase and name them and say that they were from different periods, without reading the sign. It's fun to read the sign, and find out you were right.

(Aside: I am so glad I did Classics. So, so glad.)

It's pretty remarkable that some of this stuff even exists, and even more remarkable the lengths we go to to preserve our past. I mean seriously - how the hell do you preserve and move a floor mosaic the size of a house? I find the whole process fascinating. I think I might have enjoyed archaeology.

mosaic

I don't know which Louvre I'll see next time, but this time, this Louvre, was pretty damn cool.

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Sunday, 27 July 2014
Filed under Europe 2014,.

La Vie En Jess

(Tuesday)

Jess has been living here in Paris for the last six months, doing a semester abroad at Sciences Politique. And today she took us on a bit of a crawl of her haunts from the last six months.

Sciences Po
We started our crawl at the university itself, which was pretty neat. If you're familiar with Notre Dame in Fremantle, Sciences Po is similar. It's spread out across a couple of buildings which, except for the signs out the front that indicate otherwise, is indistinguishable from a bunch of typical French style street-lining buildings.

We stood between the entry hall and the library on just another stretch of street, and poled our heads inside before Jess decided that, since semester was over, exploring the university on the inside would probably be frowned upon by the guy at the security desk. It was still really cool to see where Jess has been - theoretically, at least - spending the last couple of months.

Lili's Brownies
This hot chocolate was sometimes the only thing that got me through Friday morning classes. And I actually really liked my Friday morning class.
- Jess, 2014.

choc shop interior

This is a shop that is just around the corner from Sciences Po, and while it ostensibly sells baked goods, Jess pretty accurately told us that the real draw card was the hot chocolate. Served the proper European way, from a vat of gluggy liquid chocolate, burning hot, milk optional.

They only had three cups left, so we did end up having to have it with milk. That's probably a good thing though, since it turned out Jess had a few more liquid experiences left to show us.

O'Neil
A pub slash microbrewery with giant copper kegs inside the door and a the best cool-but-pubby interior decoration I've seen since... well, the pub slash microbrewery in Ireland, actually. Something about them must just attract good decor.

Jess was something of a regular here too, responding to the new waiter with, "Huh, I don't recognise him, he must be new," and bearing greetings-by-proxy for the bartender from a fellow exchange student. She was also able to recommend the house beers, which came in dark, amber, blond, and "red berries". The red berries was the one we all tried, and Jess' favourite too I think. It tasted like a very reasonable beer, to which someone had added, obviously, red berries. The result was sweet, but not too sweet, and both alarmingly drinkable and alarmingly pink.

I would have liked to have another one, but happy hour was over, and we were off.

"The Asian Fusion Place"
While not exactly French cuisine, this place did very good pan Asian cuisine. The concept of 'fusion' did seem to confuse Ben a bit, who was rather distressed at the haphazard combination of Japanese and Chinese dish names on the menu. The English wasn't so brilliant either, which I guess is what you get going through two layers of non-native languages.

chiken and wegtables

While linguistically sub-par, the food was excellent, and pretty much exactly what you would expect when a twenty-something student offers to show you their hangouts in a city. Sometimes it's nice to stop experiencing the culture as a whole, and try experiencing someone else's experience of it. This wasn't a restaurant where a visitor would go, but it was one where a student would go, which made it it's own brand of authentic. If that makes sense.

Anyway, I feel the speed with which Jess made her choice, barely glancing at the menu, and the enthusiasm with which she dug into the veggies in her green curry, were probably the best example of that we had all night.

Drinking by the Seine
One of the less classy parts of the evening, but also one of the most fun, and again, I reckon one of the studentiest. This consisted of buying a bottle of French champagne - I think it may have been Veuve, even - and drinking it straight from the bottle while sitting by the river bank within spitting distance of Notre Dame.

Highlights include Grace's game of 'sweet or sour' waving at passing cruise boats, and Ben's first champagne cork pop.

judgement

Much judgement.

Shakespeare and co
I think this is one of the most famous bookstores in the world, and it's also kind of a haven for English-speaking exchange students, judging from the please-take-one ads for English lessons and flat shares on the pin-up board.

It's pretty great. Not sure if I'd rank it above Waterstones, but it's definitely on par. I already have a bunch of books weighing my bag down though, so I resisted the temptation to buy anything.

I did play the piano though! I was a bit nervous, and a bit shaky, so it wasn't my best performance. Plus, the appropriate piece (from Amelie) was just not coming to me. I didn't feel like mucking around trying to figure it out like a plonker though, so I played Still Alive instead. Slightly less appropriate, but I think still geeky enough for a book shop. That's something I think I can brag about to raise my booknerd cred - "I've played the piano in Shakespeare and Co." Too cool.

La Cavern
On our official tour, this little joint was swapped out and replaced with buying champagne to drink by the river, but Jess took us here the next night instead. It's - surprise surprise - a dingy nightclub come cocktail bar, with a four hour long happy hour which gets you three euro cocktails of your choice.

I don't think I've had cocktails before - never more than one, at any rate, and I'm not sure I ever will again. Too sugary, too boozy-tasting, and they go straight to your head. I made this my chance to try a couple of the more exotic ones that I'd never even touch otherwise, because what the hell, right? Anyway - and I promise this is the only time I will ever write this sentence, in any context - here is a photo of me having sex on the beach.

sex on the beach

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Sunday, 27 July 2014
Filed under Europe 2014,.

Dinner at the Tower

(Monday)

There are 342 steps from the first floor to the second, and when you get there, this is what you see:

view

A couple of days ago in Italy, Grace told me I should save Monday night. I am a sucker for mysteries, and so I naturally spent the intervening time trying to wheedle it out of her. To her credit, she gave absolutely nothing away, although possibly that's because my "interrogation tactics" consist of "occasionally asking when you least expect it in the hope that you will answer", and "begging".

I didn't find out until we were on the metro, all dressed up in ties and heels, through a clever ruse I like to call 'let's play twenty questions'. It only took me three:

Me: Is it dinner?
Grace: Yes.
Me: Is it a famous restaurant?
Grace: The restaurant isn't, I don't think.
Me: ...is it in something famous?
Grace: Yes.
Me: ...is it the Eiffel Tower?
Grace: (sheepishly) Yes.

For some reason Grace thought I would find this cheesy and lame. Which, I guess, it sort of is, but it's also the sort of experience you don't mind doing while wholeheartedly enjoying said cheesiness.

selfie

I've got to say, I never in my life expected to be having dinner on the Eiffel tower, but that's sort of what happened.

The whole experience was pretty surreal. We got to walk past all the queues into one of the legs, to a lift that's more like a cable car, which brought us up to the first cross-bar looking platform section. We walked across a transparent bit of floor, over to the restaurant, where a snooty French Maitre 'd directed us to our table. They brought us two glasses of champagne, but before we could start drinking them we were swooped upon by the house photographer, who looked like Leonardo DiCaprio and insists on taking about a dozen photos, in various increasingly ridiculous poses.

professional photo

A waiter came and took our order, and what followed is one of the best meals I've ever had. We started with champagne, naturellement, and proceded through three very French courses of seafood bisque, cod with truffle sauce, and probably my favourite, dessert:

dessert 1

dessert 1

We stuck around for a while after dessert, just talking and finishing off the free bread and water, but eventually we had to scram. Turns out the place does three services a night, and we had to be done by 8:15. So we scrambled out, back onto the open, windswept plaza that is the first floor.

If you're on the first floor of the Eiffel tower, you might as well climb up to the second, right? So that's what we did. Climb, that is. Due to a quirk of lift arrangement you can't actually get from the first level to the second without going to the ground first. So Grace ditched the heels, and up we went.

I think we felt and looked at little out of place in our tie and nice dress among the crowds of tourists and school kids, but it sure made for some excellent photos.

grace

We skipped the top floor, because it was queued all the way around, and the ticket office wasn't actually open. We grabbed the stairs down instead - all the way down, in fact.

And then we took a meandering Metro trip back to the flat, by way of a little cafe around the corner which opened a bottle of gin for a single gin and tonic, and a whole tub of ice cream for one milkshake. Oops.

And that was it. I don't want to examine it any closer, even though that's usually how I approach these things, because I don't want to get cynical about what was a wonderful evening out, despite - or maybe even because of - it being totally cheesy. It was a cool experience, which I'm really glad I got to share with someone, and that I will remember probably for the rest of my life.

And I think I'll leave it at that.

Eiffel Tower at night

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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.

lies.

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.

ooh.

(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.

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