Friday, December 27, 2013

Trips and trips

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It's the end of the year and all the students in the town go home. Which leaves the town empty. Luckily two of my friends M&M are making a trip through the region.

They pick me up and for Christmas, we head to Strasbourg, self proclaimed "Christmas Capital".

The whole town is lit up. Unlike other towns, the Christmas market is not confined to one square. It's spread all over town. The whole vibe is very different from what I've experienced before. We walk around, and then as evening approaches, we head to a friends house for the dinner.

Unlike the previous year, this time we are mostly adults and teenagers. Basically everyone knows that Santa is guilty of breaking and entering and such behavior is not to be rewarded with milk and cookies. The conversations range over multiple topics, in multiple languages. Lots of fine wine and fine food is tasted. Finally, late after the presents have been exchanged, we head out to Freiburg where our long trip is just about to begin.

But right now, we just want to crash into bed. Next destinations and more travel later.

Monday, November 11, 2013

My legs hurt

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Too many weekends went by without me doing much. I'd plan hikes and/or slackline sessions but bad weather or just low turnout messed them up. I lose my fitness level quite quickly (and take ages to get it back) and it had been at respectable levels due all that touch rugby, slacklining and cycling happening in the last few months of my "job hunting" phase. I didn't want to lose it all.

But weather ended up being routinely bad, especially on the weekends when someone planned a hike; and on weekends where I just planned  lazy activities like a small picnic with slackline and petanque, it ended being exceptionally good.  Eventually another long weekend rolled by and a friend randomly suggested going bicycling. So that's what we did today.

The terrain was mostly flat, along the river and canals. But now that I don't live in the sunny south, this "good weather day" turned out to be foggy and cold, with maximum temperatures of about 7 C. Thankfully, warm clothing was employed in anticipation. In fact, some speculate that too much warm clothing may have been used, resulting in sweating, possibly leading to more cold being sensed. (yes I know this sentence is written weirdly.) 
Typical small town on an autumn day - cold, grey and empty.

Yes, I know that one is supposed to dress for warmer weather but when one hasn't dressed for activities done in sub 10 C weather (except skiing), one routinely over/under-estimates the warming capabilities of one's clothing. Case in point - the bonnet vis-a-vis the scarf. Bonnet pretended to not be there, while Mr Scarf was busy playing the over-achiever.

Long periods of pseudo-solo cycling (I was the unfit one in the group) lead to lots of contemplation. A recurring thought being how difficult it is to motivate the few people I know to do something (other than the approximately 4-5 people who do show up). As I passed by a guy dressed in military-ish clothing (think camouflage fatigues) standing by the banks waiting to hook a fish, I remembered a surplus store I'd seen in the town center. I remember thinking that that would be a good place to look for light, warm winter clothes, or just plain good hiking stuff. I never went there again... I realized that most of the places (cool or otherwise) I found out about, and many of the people I got to know, in the first month here have been forgotten. It's as if everything I discover in beginning is scratch work, and I got rid of it before starting on the actual work. And this isn't the first place this has happened to me. Food for thought sometime...


The bike ride "mid-point" was a town (pic above) about 30 km along our route... but only 12 km away from home by the difficult route. Our way to here had been flat, but the 12 km back included getting over a small hill. around 150 m to climb and descend after 30 km of bicycling for an unfit guy is quite a lot to ask. I didn't do it all ... I walked some portions. But thankfully, I didn't hold up the other guys for too long. Overall, it was fun.
Let's hope that next time, even if it's cold, it is at least a bit more sunny.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Number 100

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As I prepared to document things and post updates I realized this post will be the 100th one published. Seems like a big deal... and in a way it's strange that it has taken me so long to write 100 posts. Anyway, here go some updates.

This post was initially supposed to be titled facebook (or something playing on that theme). I've switched off my account on facebook since July and it seems I've suddenly "switched off" my friends. A few friends still keep in touch - chats, emails, phones etc - but the number of people I'm in touch with and who know what's happening has gone down drastically. It seems like most people do not know the concept of emails or random phone calls/texts.

This became much more apparent on my birthday. A Facebook birthday results in around a hundred or so notifications with messages from all the world over. Without facebook reminding people to wish me, this year ended up being noticeably calmer. In addition, me being in a new city now meant that as yet, none of the friends I have made here know when my birthday is. I wasn't complaining much, I like calm birthdays too and I didn't feel like celebrating much this year.

What FB has done though, is that it provided me a place where I could make amusing and/or witty remarks and get instant "likes" from my group of friends. Without that, these days my amusing remarks are sent to just a couple of my friends via chat messages. The blog feels like something substantial where I should write seriously when I have something of substance to post. Ah well, I'll figure it out sometime.
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My geek levels have gone through the roof. I got genuinely excited to buy myself a RaspberryPi which I then used to serve as my media center, connected to the nice hi-def TV included in my rent.

My external hard disk crashed. Crashed hard. I lost a lot of data. I have a second disk serving as a back up, but I realized the severity over days. My first concern was for all the photos. I realized I had lost all photos from 2013. I eventually found photos taken post May 2013, realizing that all raw images (and non-processed photos) from my January trip were lost. Then I realized all my work done during my MS thesis and my Bachelor's thesis was lost. I do have the final reports/papers stored at multiple places, but the programs and files seem to be lost.

That prompted me to (a) get a new external hard disk and (b) start looking to replace my 6 year old laptop.

I'm typing this from my new machine, currently running Gentoo which I installed all by myself over the last 40 hours while doing other stuff. Having already configured ssh and screen before, I could get all installation done while I was at work, checking in periodically to see how far the installation had progressed. Darktable works blazingly fast, the fan doesn't kick in when I start watching Youtube videos and I have a battery life longer than an hour.

(Note to self: compile NetworkManager with the USE flags -dhcpcd dhclient, and disable the n channel. That will solve your wifi problems.)

On to other things now...

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Dispatches

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I generally remark that this is a small town, but it's "centre" is much larger than that of Antibes and the zone of fun activities is spread out over a larger area. Still walk-able, but the good network of buses and trams is helpful.

And loads more French being spoken all the time. I always mentioned that in France, people always assume that you speak French when they strike a conversation with you. They ignore all the other hints - the lost look on face, the obviously different facial features etc. Probably a good thing (one could almost say that they don't stereotype, but that would be blatantly wrong).

Pissaladière here has fish in it. I'm sorry, but I lived in the region where Pissaladiere was invented (or so I was told) and there, it is a strictly vegetarian onion pie/pizza. It's the same bloody (small-ish) country and you shouldn't get the basics wrong. (Err on further investigation, I find that anchovies do end up on it... but honestly, I'd never seen it before!)

So many parks in town. It's great and I went around excited thinking I could easily set up a slackline but it turns out that it's not allowed in any of the parks in the city. As I spent some hours grumbling and complaining to myself, I realized that I'd ever put the slackline in parks before. We always set it up in open areas (though, inside the city) with trees. It's kinda hard to find such a spot here. But a few weeks of roaming around has had me finding a couple of spots.

I mentioned to about a dozen people that this place is well connected to major cities. It's easy to head to a big city or to RyanAir destination (there are multiple in a radius of 300 km), to which my friends replied, "Are you so eager to get out of that city?"

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Des fromages

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Short post, nothing major to report here.

As I sit and attend a workshop purely in French, I marvel at how quickly my French has improved in the last 4 months. I go through entire days at work not speaking English. Then I look at the slide, I see the speaker saying that they need to collect all the info, with the words "des fromages, des fromages" in parenthesis.

Apparently, pie charts are also called Camemberts in French.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Le move and first impressions

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I'm off... I left the region I'd grown to love. I left behind the great friends I've made, promising them I'd visit soon. I will visit soon (especially since half my stuff is still there). A long train ride later, I was here with my bags deposited at my CS host (I would move to a temp house in a day). Here's some thoughts on the whole new place:

- The bisous situation: The number is the same, but we start on a different side. Or maybe we were supposed to start lightly touching the right cheek first anyway and I was doing it all wrong before. In any case, many potentially awkward situations keep arising.

- Weather: I was warned big time about the weather. But rain and cold in May-end/June hit it home. And then I was told that last winter it got down to -20 C. I'm afraid now.

- Crowds: So so empty. Quiet streets. Now, don't get me wrong. There are people on streets and there is traffic too. But I just spent a few years in the Côte d'Azur and left it at a time when we had started to brace ourselves, because the "Tourists are coming". The contrast hits you (same with weather).

- Cars: A nice little surprise is to see how most cars are in good condition. CdA is famous for having shitty old cars in their shitty, scratched, dented state (if you pull your eyes off the fancy new Ferrari that zoomed past). Here, cars are shiny, gleaming and undented. Also, loads more VW and BMWs. So many more BMWs that it is turning into a joke.

- Language: Errr.... lesser chances of being able to survive with just English. In fact, most of my interactions have been in French. I hear very little English being spoken. Sigh.

- Streets: Cleaner streets... but damn, someone needs to look after their dogs. So much dog-poo in some areas. Though on a positive note, this place does not stink.

It's a great city to walk around. It's small and if one has the time (and inclination), one could walk around the whole city and easily see all the sights. I used the bus only for transporting my luggage and the tram when I was running late to meet up with a friend. Otherwise, walking and bicycling are the way to go. This also means that I'll probably postpone my car-buying plans to when I really need it :).

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Moving, Updates etc

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I did a little math the other day and realized that this current place is the apartment I've lived longest in... if I discount the one where I grew up in India. Three years and four months of living in a spacious house, close to the beach with cool neighbours who were never bothered by the noise (or whose houses were much too far to be bothered by it).

This realization was triggered by the fact that I'm moving places. I first moved into the big city, closer to some friends and closer to where "stuff keeps happening". Moving out of my comfort zone but into another one with a different set of people. It gave rise to boatloads of stuff that needs to be taken care of - address change, junk control, repacking, souvenir re-evaluation etc.

Following the small move, I got a job... which entailed me making a bigger move further north. The decision to move was finalized pretty quickly. I sorta-kinda figured I would move. But rental contract, visa and other issues came together to have me move within a week of accepting the job offer. Suddenly I had accounts to close, taxes to file, apartments to hunt for, and parties to arrange to say appropriate goodbyes. And the weekend in between was also a tournament weekend for the Touch Rugby I play (we ended up in the second place).

So now, here I am, semi-moved into a new town up north, looking for a decent apartment to move in. I'll post updates here soon - I'm back again in a new town with no friends (and loads of friends online, which means I'll be always tempted to stay home and online and "keep in touch"). I'll try to post shorter and post more frequently. No promises though...

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Trip tech

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This post is merely a laundry list of basic techy stuff I thought of before going on a trip... and how I ended up using it.

I went on my trip wondering how I could keep up with my internet needs. I have an Android smartphone and Android tablet for connectivity, and a Kindle. I didn't want to lug my laptop around - it's heavy, 5 years old and my only "computer". I wasn't keen on taking my smartphone as it barely lasts 1 whole day if I use it as a smartphone. I managed to revive an old brick phone (yay Nokia) with week-long lasting batteries, but couldn't find a charger for it.

Other than having a bigger screen to work with, the tablet I have (a lost-cost no-name model) doesn't offer much advantages over my phone. But the 7 inch screen does make the idea of typing something long-ish or viewing webpages, checking email etc more pleasing. However, it has the same problems as the smartphone - if I use it, I have worry about making sure it's charged. The Kindle lets me have my books (along with a backup of important documents) and lets me not worry about batteries or charging.

I ended up taking all three along on my trip. Along with their charging cables. I also had my Canon 1000D, but took only the 50mm (f/1.8) lens and no camera bag. I was packing for Ryan Air, I needed to make my bag appear as small as I could. I got a 16Gb card for the camera, and also packed in my USB hard disk to let me backup my photos. It turned out to be a lot of gear. I wasn't actually planning on being a travel journalist;  I just wanted to be sure I could access all the stuff I use.

I have already set up a ssh server on my laptop, and I got the tablet and my phone running and able to connect to it. Ah, the joys of terminal emulators, ssh and so on! (Now I also have a UPnP server so I can watch my movies on the tablet while lying on my bed.... laziness is cool, but I digress.) I bought a USB-OTG plug to try and see if I could connect my external hard drive to the tablet, but it didn't work.

In the end, the set up was really cool. Although to transfer pictures from my camera to the hdd, I needed to borrow a laptop. I realized that when it comes to tablets, the low-cost android stuff is a a very bad choice to have to depend on. I was more confident of running things off my phone rather than the tablet. But the tablet made watching movies and browsing easy on the eye. The kindle was my friend during plane/bus travels. From the reviews I see, and the android version I use on my phone, I am extremely tempted to get the Nexus tablets and use it when traveling. I can't stress enough how great it is to read comics/graphic novels on a 7 inch tablet screen (I was re-reading Watchmen).  It's easy to lie on the bed and read stuff, and the screen is big enough to sit in an airport terminal and watch videos on it.

I'm slowly investing in decent gear - backpacks, shoes, sleeping bags, travel suited equipment. It's expensive, but I managed to pack a lot of stuff in a comparatively non-big bag. Next on the list is to make sure I've good winter wear, but since winter is a long time away, I can hold off on it.
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Been mostly off blogging and it turns out harder to write when getting back into it. Hope to pick up again, write better and write about less boring stuff.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

And where my unplanned plans fail

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Pretty much the whole point of visiting Barcelona for sight-seeing is to see Gaudi's work and I head to the Sagrada Familia. At the end of my 2 hour slow visit/walk, my camera memory is almost full. Mind is sufficiently blown. I walk around more, go past Casa Batllo and La Pedrera and realize I must get the new memory card in before I enter either of those. I mean, who goes to those places and does not take a photo? I change plans (I'm walking around the city alone, so it's no big deal), stop by hostel and eat and head towards the Parc Guell.

Barcelona is an interesting and simple town to navigate. It's laid out in a rectangular grid and there is one street running diagonally (helpfully named Diagonal), and if you seem to be walking downhill, you are walking to the sea. It takes approximately 30 seconds to get your bearings if you have a map and can read street signs. The Parc is located on a hill (the one from which all streets head to the sea) and it offers a great panoramic view of the city. It also has more Gaudi architecture. At this point of time I'm going giddy on Gaudi (yes I planned this joke long time ago). As I head back in the evening, I realize I'm catching a cold. I shrug it off and head out at night with the hostel staff again. This time it's more of a dance-y place, which gets me bored. Everyone seems to be there to get drunk and dance and I head back to the hostel. Unfortunately it's cold and raining.

I'm loading up on my dose of wifi when a troika of French who I'd met the previous day stumble back into the hostel too. They want to continue their party and the hostel receptionist joins in too. We joke and drink around till late night, and I get a sneaking suspicion that my cold is gonna worsen. I sleep in the next day, lazily visit Casa Batllo and grudgingly walk around the Gothic neighbourhood. I decide to give the "experience non-touristy food" ideas a toss and load up on greasy chicken burgers and fries. It's my last evening in Barcelona, and I'm wheez-coughing. We play cards in the common room, watch the Banksy documentary and I drink loads of tea.

The next day when I wake up, my eyes are red, I can't talk without doubling up into coughs and I suspect I'm running up a temperature. I check out of the hostel and head towards the airport to go to Palma. When I meet my host I in Mallorca I gesture-wheeze to her that I can't speak. We go to an art exhibition anyway but when I finally crash that night, I realize that my trip is heading to a mess. I'd gotten a call for a job interview when in Barcelona, and I have to ensure I get back home in time for it. My health means I should account for recovery days too.

I spend one entire day in bed in Palma, not enjoying the sun out there. Finally the second day, I venture out, walk around the town, visit more stuff and contemplate about how my trip should progress. I had decided to wing it once I reach Belgium, and try to head north. I had not booked any flights/trains/buses nor booked any hostels or contacted couchsurfers. I decide to cancel off Brussels/Belgium from my plans and decide to head straight home. Booking a last minute return from Palma turns out to cost lesser than booking a last minute return from Brussels. Late in the evening I book a flight to Barcelona - the thought of buying the ticket at the airport crosses my mind and feels strangely adventurous, even though I'm just heading back.

I reach Barcelona, and have 5 hours to kill before a night bus brings me back to France. My cold and wheeze make just want to sit somewhere, so I sit down at the Barcelona Sants station. Years ago, in school, I had to write an essay on "1 hour at the train station". I smile to myself, remembering how I had hated it, how I had no idea what to write and how angry I'd gotten at the unfairness of it all.  My parents and cousins still tease me about it, so I actually do spend some time observing people. A fight erupts between a security guy and traveler. I note with relief that this being Europe, the security guy doesn't have a gun. People stand and watch, and then move on to their trains, metros or buses. Shifts at the ticket desk change, the workers at the numerous fast-food joints dump out the trash the umpteenth time. I pull out my novel and read. Couple of hours later, I head out to the bus, grab a seat and settle in for the 12 hour long ride back home...

My "grand trip" around Europe will continue some other time.

Where I walk a lot in Spain

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It's 3 am in the morning, I've just been offered a place to crash by a group of Frenchmen (and Frenchwomen? ... or is the collective word just French?). They were intent on partying, and I was just tagging along. Finally they decide that it's time to head back to the apartment. The apartment is officially for 6 people, and they are 11. So, one extra person (me) doesn't really exacerbate the situation.

The next day, I leave early to Bilbao. S is there to pick me up and the initial plans were to visit Bilbao right away and head to S's place for lunch. But I'm too tired. We head to her home. Her parents have fixed the guest room up for me. I wash up and decide to walk around Getxo. Northern Spain is wonderful, green and the towns are totally unexpected from what I imagined them to be. The buildings aren't new, but they look "different" than the architecture one expects in Europe. We end up walking around a golf course, along cliffs overlooking the Atlantic (I guess this means I've visited the Atlantic on both sides now) and through different residential areas ... it's a 2 hour/10 km walk.

Later I walk around Getxo center, attend a birthday party and eat more good Spanish food. I notice that most people live in apartments - spacious ones - and kids (mid to late twenties are still kids, cos I refuse to grow up) don't automatically move out. The party moves to a pub when the hosts' parents come back but I head home to crash. Sunday, we walk around Bilbao and then Plentzia. Long walks and long conversations.

As I head to Santander to catch my plane to Barcelona, I relax. The Ryan Air staff has been chilled out about my bag sizes, and security has been sane. But at Santander, I see some people being pulled out of line to have bag sized. I panic but get stopped only by the security, who don't like me having my shaving razors (Yes, I thought carrying blades wouldn't be bad :P). The wikivoyage site has instructed me well how to cheaply get to Barcelona center, and train+metro+walk up to the hostel.

As I settle up there, free and unlimited wifi appears. I sprawl out on the bean bags in he common room, chatting with other travellers in the hostel, surfing the net. It's evening so I just wander around the Gracia neighbourhood and later we head out with the hostel staff to a shot bar where almost each shot involves alcohol, fire and magic. (Seriously, if you visit Barcelona, stay at Sant Jordi Hostels, they are great!) Later plans include people heading to a disco/club, which isn't my thing, so some of us head back before long, making plans to sight-see together the next day.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Travel conversations

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In the span of 4 days, I've managed to have multiple long conversations. I'm enjoying this.. I'm less concerned about visiting the museums and the sights of the city. It's probably because I planned my trip to begin with meeting friends.
I've passed through Marseille a couple of times, never managing to stay more than a couple of hours... or if I did stay, I had some pressing work to be done. I got touristy things done, thankfully not alone. I'd friends for company, friends who acted as guides. I saw the familiar sights and discussed nuclear energy with G (me trying to convince him why it is not a bad thing) and arranged marriages and related stuff with A (in this case me being uncomfortable with the idea as time progresses and him not so much).
In Paris, I was barely a tourist - I'd planned to see the louvre but laziness, cold weather and catching up with friends meant that went on a backburner. I did see the château de Versailles (damn is that thing huge) and the pantheon (stereotypical pic of Foucoult's pendulum taken). But I'll take away my conversations with O and Y, O explaining why he wants a death penalty and me disagreeing and him giving me enough food for thought, and Y and me complaining to each other about the sad lives of us PhD students.
The weather got worse in Paris, my face, fingers and toes froze and it started snowing the minute boarding was announced for my flight out. The flight waited the snow out, eventually being 2 hours late. I had a a bus to catch at midnight, from Santander to Bilbao which I missed. At the Santander airport I realised that the only way to the city was a taxi. I happened to hear a group of people talking on French and who looked my age. I asked them if I could share the taxi with them and that eventually ended up with them offering me a place to crash for the night. Not much conversations but they were 11, out to party for a weekend in Spain and they felt a 12th person in the apartment would not do much harm.. Thanks guys.... That saved me from freezing on the street.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Defense and later

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It's done. I have a PhD now. Feels strange but not that different. Knowing that this will be the last time I'll ever be a student and that this is a degree that says you are the expert puts whole load of different pressure. The few days leading up to the day of the thesis defense were some the most nerve wracking in a long  time.

But on the day itself, I calmed down. I'd spent the previous day mucking around, reading articles, watching tv - generally destressing. And in the final mock presentation (late night, in pyjamas) I made fewer errors, and finished in time. So the defense went well. I was suited up. The jury showed up, we chatted amiably, I was given 40 minutes to present and I managed to have everything said in 39 minutes.

The questions lasted about an hour - my friends watching felt that I was given a hard time. But these were questions I'd expected, and I was strangely confident answering them. In fact, I remember actually smiling a couple of times when I was asked a few questions. I honestly felt I was given a gentle treatment.

So it's done. I have the degree now. And now I'm officially a शिक्षित बेकार. I'm looking for work now... the experience of research tired me out and I feel it's time to work in a company and let go any ideas of academic life. My visa gives me 6 months to look for a job. EU magic means I can travel through EU without much hassle, while post-holiday travel deals means I can do it cheaply.

The plan is to start off with a backpack to Paris and then Spain... and head to Brussels. That's about 15 days of the trip. After that I'll slow down and try to travel by train, bus or car-sharing and head north. I'll be traveling alone, but visiting friends, or bunking in hostels or with couchsurfers. It's something I've wanted to do (noted here), and my experience in Mexico tells me that I will get tired of it. But I want to see how long I can go (mentally and financially) and try to get a little bit of randomness back.

I'll probably blog it. Or probably not. I don't know what I'll "learn" or "discover". I do know that I will most likely end up in the growing population of people who hate Ryan Air. And I don't know if I'll be hit by culture shock multiple times.  Though now, I have English and French to help me communicate when I'm lost.

The laptop will stay home. I've rigged it up so I can ssh in from my phone or tablet. At least I can update my resume "on the go" (I'm also looking for a job, remember?)  and/or back up pictures to there. Let's see how it goes...