Corsica and Paris (August 2006)

August 30, 2006

2006-08-14

I set out from JFK on the 12th (which, along with the 13th, was yesterday). The airport didn't suffer from the insecurity (though there were some embarrassed looking guys with rifles and flak jackets) so much as the incompetence. They checked me in as the wrong person. Amazing. Plus Air France has my names reversed on my ticket. However, I did make it in.

Adria showed up at the gate for the same flight from JFK to Nice, and we wangled a pair of exit row seats together. Richard will be pleased to know that the pressure point system works beautifully. My internal clock was very precisely set to Corsican from landing.

Nice to Ajaccio was in a tiny little plane. There's a reason: there's barely enough area to put an airport at all on the coast, much less a big one. Corsica, however, is breathtaking. It's scrubby, and rises sharply in peaks. The coasts are sandy rather than rocky, so the towns cling wherever they want and sprawl spaciously over the hillsides.

Adria and I arrived at about 13:00 Corsica time, and quickly nucleated three other Cargese students from the same flight into our group. We had eight hours until our transfer from the airport at Ajaccio to Cargese, but that's fine: the Ajaccio airport is next door to the public beach. All five of us loaded our luggage on a pushcart, and pushed it out on to the beach.

Over the course of the day we swam, several of us walked over into Ajaccio (which was entirely closed on a Sunday afternoon), and we added three more people to our group. By the time we headed back for transfer there were eight people's luggage attached to the push cart, and we were well on the way to being a major traffic hazard.

Finally the bus arrived, and five of us played frisbee in the parking lot until we were roady to load. Then we drove for an hour through the countryside as the sun went down, and they finally deposited us at our dwellings with instructions to be at the institute tomorrow morning at ten till nine. I did stay up to go get some dinner at a restaurant (some fish, rice, and a stuffed tomato...not fabulous, nothing really worth writing about).

I'm staying in a lovely little studio apartment by myself. It has a bed, a bathroom, a small kitchen, and a dining table. But what more do I need? Anyway, it's fairly spacious, and very quiet. I am having trouble with mosquitos, though. Apparently they exist here.

Cargese isn't large, but it sprawls. There are basically three streets which run along contours, and everything spreads along them. It has an unusually large number of hotels and restaurants, but Corsica is a tourist resort.

I didn't realize I had to turn the boiler on last night, so I had a very efficient cold shower this morning. Then I unpacked, picked up some brioche from the supermarch?©, and hiked out to the institute: first along the road, then through the scrub.

The institute is a series of low buildings, a few rooms, and a kitchen/cafeteria. We get lunch here each day. Today it was pork roast, some kind of dumpling, salad, a wedge of cheese, and a stupendous peach. We're on our own for dinner and breakfast.

The schedule is an hour of lecture, followed by half an hour break, another hour of lecture, lunch, and then we're free until 5PM, when we get a coffee break followed by an hour of lecture. Apparently we need a break between the intense lazing of siesta and thinking. Intense, eh? The two talks I've heard so far have been excellent. The speakers give series of three or four lectures. The first is on molecular machines, and the old Japanese professor teaching it is finally telling me all those details about proteins that none of the biologists would ever mention. The second was talking about chemotaxis in E. coli, plus he had an enormous amount of interesting and random information on tap.

I'm off home for a while, perhaps to explore a bit before buying stuff for dinner from the supermarket after siesta is over.

2006-08-14

After I wrote yesterday, I headed home and took a walk. As everyone knows, this indicates the beginning of strange things. I certainly revised my opinion of Corsica.

My building is at the end of a little bit of a street. This street continues on as a dirty path with a sign indicating that it leads to the Plage Peru, the beach in the next cove over. The path was lined with ruined gates of what must once have been homes, set into a continuous stone fence. Finally I came to an opening which must have been a pasture, with a small trail leading across it, and set out across it. The trail wended down to the water, then essentially vanished. I turned along the coast towards Cargese, and began a two hour hike over cliff faces covered in scrubby thorn plants, dense pine forests, and chasms of rock. Generally I went around the latter. In the one case when there was no path around, it was gratifying that I can still climb well enough to descend, cross, and ascend a fifty foot chasm.

I finally connected to a trail again, which quickly grew in size and led me back into town. I wandered through empty streets before meeting a family and confirming that this was indeed Cargese, and that my home was just a block or so up. I think I must have worried them, sweaty and scratched from the thorn bushes.

Corsica consists largely of a very coarse grained granite with bits of quartz about a centimeter on a side strewn through it. The grain of the rock runs at a very steep angle, sometimes as much as sixty degrees from horizontal. Most of the coast consists of cliffs carved from this, with humps of rock specking the water at the bottom. The beaches I spoke of are obviously deposited against such walls in deep coves.

Also, this isn't untouched Nature. It's a ruin. Every foot of this place has been modified by human hands. The deepest wilds have stone walls and traces of terraces and stone work. I can only assume the island has largely been abandoned, and may have had a higher population in the past than now.

I got back, washed myself briefly. I might have showered, but I still have no hot water, as the boiler appears to be broken. After a brief trip to the supermarket, I headed back to the institute for the afternoon lecture. Afterwards there was a "welcome party." Eight of us headed out from there to the town, grabbed a watermelon from someone's apartment, and sat on the jetty of the harbor to eat it. After this, we went back up into the town and had a late dinner. It was a fun group, largely German, but with one French Swiss, a Spanish, and an Indian. Most of the group was tri or quatralingual, so we wandered in out of English, French, and German.

August 15, 2006

This morning, I still had no hot water, so I contented myself with a cold sponge bath, and made my morning run to the grocery store. I must say, I enjoy having fresh brioche for breakfast. The girls next door say their stove works, so I'm to knock on their door if I want hot water for tea.

We had a talk on the physical characteristics of F1-ATPase, which is a high speed rotary motor made of a couple of proteins. It rotates in three jumps of 120 degrees. Under optimal conditions the mean velocity for a rotation is over 120,000rpm, and the group in question couldn't measure the instantaneous velocity of each jump, it was so fast.

Our second talk was a detailed discussion of the flagellum of E. coli: its assembly, how it operates, and some nice history including the fact that Taylor, the great hydrodynamicist, at one point built a wind up model spermatazoa, which he released to swim in treakle. He is quoted as saying it was great because you could lick the apparatus clean when you finished.

After this, we sat down to lunch, which consisted of salad, a zuchini quiche, ham, plums, and bread and cheese. The cheese today was something soft and definitely of sheep's milk, but tasty. After this I ran back to the town to get my bathing suit.

Most of us spent the afternoon on the beach by the institute, alternately swimming and drying on the sand. I've never before been in salt water so clean that you could swim underwater with your eyes open without discomfort. I ended up having a nice chat with Uri Alon from the Weizmann institute, who is giving the current set of afternoon lectures. Melanie, a Swiss girl who is among my favorite of the people here, unfortunately left early after being stung by a jellyfish. Nothing serious, thankfully. The jellyfish here merely hurt a lot, then quickly fade.

At some point we started migrating back from the beach. I took a shower at the institute, the first hot water I've felt in days, then we had our pre-class coffee break, where most of us drank fruit juice and water, and I made a deal to use the girls' kitchen next door in exchange for feeding them dinner (they do the dishes).

Then at 5PM, Uri gave a talk in which he summarized the current, rather messy state of knowledge about genetic networks. He actually contented me, stickler and curmudgeon that I am, and it turns out to be nice stuff. It also gave me a funny idea for a piece of mathematics about mutagenesis screens: does random mutagenesis select for the discovery of certain network motifs?

Everyone milled outside for a little while before someone finally took the initiative and led a significant portion of the school off to dinner. We ate at the same place I've eaten at the past two nights, but from the reports of other restaurants, I suspect it may be the best place in town (not a high recommendation, I'm afraid). My table had about half of the little group I've settled into (Wolfram, a German working on cytokinesis in Dresden; Melanie, the Swiss girl I mentioned, who does single molecule spectroscopy with an AFM; the others were at another table, and I imagine I'll talk about them later).

We talked about this and that, and planned a trip across the cove to the north and out the long spit of land there to an old Genovese watchtower. There's supposed to be a path, so it may not be as bad as my trek through the wilds. However, after dinner, we ended up walking to the top of the hill here, which is also topped with a watchtower (which I promptly climbed). It'll be fine: they all hike as well as I do. There are vague plans for an outing across the island for a longer hike on Saturday.

This is the end of my day: I left the others as I passed my apartment. I need to get to sleep at a reasonable hour tonight.

2006-08-16

It's been a long and exciting day. I got up about 7:30, ran to the supermarket, ate my brioche, took my shower stuff to the institute, did my pa kua warmups, and then showered. The morning talks were on linear motors (myosin and kinesin), and the E. coli chemotaxis system.

We had a decent lunch: lamb stew with mushrooms and olives on pasta, a cheese quiche that was a bit rich and not sufficiently salty for my taste, bread and a sheep cheese that was too strong for me, and a good peach. Then Wolfram, Melanie, and I headed out, back through town, down to the next cove (la Plague Peru), and out the peninsula on the far side which sports an old Genovese guard tower on the end.

Most of the walk was past expensive and tacky looking villas, but we finally found signs pointing out to the peninsula (presqu'ile in French; Halbinsel in German), which apparently is a popular place to go around here. And here I thought we would be hacking through the bush. Obviously my walk on Monday was even weirder than I thought.

We perched on a rock at the end and watched the ocean for a while, then went and took a swim in the little rocky cove on the far side. It was colder and saltier than the bay in front of the institute, but the rocks were fun to swim around. Then the others changed and I dried on a rock briefly (I'm just wearing my swimming trunks at this point) and walked back to the institute for our evening lecture.

One thing I particularly enjoyed was that we barely talked the whole way: now and then a snatch of conversation, but mostly just comfortable silence.

Uri Alon gave a good performance this evening: mathematical models for Drosophila development and rigorous principles for and approaches to robustness in biological models. Then I ended up playing volleyball for a couple hours. We used a row of chairs as the net, scratched lines in the dirt, and even at one point played theorists vs. experimentalists. As a mathematician/experimentalist, I played as a theorist. Amazingly, I was actually passing good at it.

Everyone starting heading back to town, to go out to dinner and whatever. I moved at my usual pace, was far ahead, and took my stuff home...only to find that my gas was working! The hot water heater is running now, and I cooked myself tortellini al pomodoro. What a relief to eat my own cooking again! Now I can start having people over, as well. Other people are starting to plan their cooking, so we may have some dinner parties. The problem is that the institute tends to cluster in enormous groups, so you have to be cautious or end up trying to feed twenty people.

I'm spending a quiet evening putting things in order, making some tea, and I still haven't written any of the code I'm supposed to be producing. Ah well.

2006-06-17

This morning I did my pa kua warmups here, and had a shower that wasn't freezing cold. It was luxurious. I bought some pork chops and zucchini and my morning brioche from the supermarket, then ran off to the institute.

The same fellow who was talking about F1-ATPase tried to talk about thermodynamics of molecular motors, which really didn't turn out well. Thermodynamics doesn't apply. You can fix it intuitively in your head if you know statistical mechanics, but if you're doing that it's far less confusing just to go straight to the statistical method and drop the thermodynamic approach entirely.

Uri gave a lecture in the morning on the evolution of gene networks. First he discussed optimality and an experiment to measure evolution of fitness in E. coli's lac operon, complete with lovely data. Then he turned to the question of why biological networks are modular, and showed that if you switch at short intervals between two related tasks in the evolution, the system will modularize what is common between them (at least for sufficiently close tasks). Interestingly, he's a part time actor as well, and brings that to his lecturing.

Lunch today was roast sides of chicken, carrots, salad, bread and cheese, and nectarines. Then I went to ground in the computer room and did a little programming like a good boy. I emerged a bit early, practiced pa kua for a few minutes, then got something to drink at coffee break.

The afternoon lecture was an hour on the structure of viruses: continuum mechanics models to explain and classify the structures from small icosahedra to the big conical forms of HIV. Then we all trouped outside for a poster session. I ended up having some nice chats with folks, including trying to explain what pa kua was to someone.

I ended up attached to a group heading out for dinner, but they were going to the same place I've eaten three times now, and I abandoned them to go cook porkchops at home, which are now on the stove.

2006-07-18

Quiet day: slept in a bit, so didn't have time to do my warmups (and was very stiff because of it for the first half of the day), had morning lectures on actin structure in the cilia of hair cells in the inner ear, and more on viruses. Then lunch: some kind of white fish, rice, salad, bread and cheese.

I went and worked for a couple hours until I had fully digested, then went for a pleasant swim from the beach by the institute. It is a little worrying that I'm the only one who seems to understand swimming in pairs and keeping an eye out for everyone else. The waves were up, though, so I got to body surf a bit. There were three silly guys out in their wetsuits with their surfboards. The waves weren't nearly big enough for that, and the water was warm.

Our evening lecture was the final one by Howard Berg, where he rambled about theoretical approaches to chemotaxis in E. coli for about forty five minutes, and then we all adjourned to mill outside. Several of us started a scheme to cook dinner together, which then morphed into the entire institute meeting on the beach for bread and cheese. At this point Melanie and I both gave up on it and fled. She went home, I assume. I had my leftover pork chop and zucchini from last night, and started making a list of things to do in Paris.

2006-07-19

Part of the institute went for an excursion by boat today. I got up, did a little pa kua, got my breakfast and bread, cheese, and fruit for lunch, then headed down to the harbor. The rest of our group showed up steadily, and finally the boat came in from Ajaccio. It wasn't a charming vessel, just one of the big power boats that travel between towns on the Mediterranean coast. Incidentally, I'm disturbed by the fact that the right and green lights on the harbor seem to be backwards: the red is on your left as you enter the marina!

Many of us quickly took over most of the open bow and remained there while they took us to see rocks and sea caves...and rocks and sea caves...and rocks and sea caves...

...though there were some rather interesting rocks, one of which looked like a dragon coming out of the rock and going back in the way a dolphin does in water when running. But on the whole they were just rocks and sea caves...

...until at last they dropped us off in a tiny town called Girolata. Today, Girolata has very little to recommend it. Indeed, the nicest part of Girolata is leaving Girolata. It nestles in a fertile valley fronting on a fine natural harbour, surrounded on all sides with very serious mountains. No road runs into the town. This means that you come and go by boat, or by one of the two footpaths that wind away over the ridges in both directions.

It's much more interesting from an historical perspective. First, this coast was not unattended. The two Genovese watch towers I have visited this week are part of a long string of them. I assume they were constructed to watch out for Moorish pirates. The peninsula that closes off the harbour at Girolata has an old castle atop the end (now privately owned and not accessible to the public). The houses of the town are built on the ridge leading back from the peninsula, and the alluvial soil that stretches for about half a kilometer back from the beach is currently a mix of gardens and cow pasture. Considering that essentially all cheese on this island is from goats or sheep, cows are something of a marvel. All this makes me think that this was at one point a rich town.

Today, the lack of a road has almost killed it. The beach is lined with little shacks purporting to be restaurants and souvenir shops. It's a scam on the part of the boat company: they bring you there, and if you weren't savvy enough to pack your lunch, you're stuck. The townsfolk still live up on the neighboring ridge, on a single dirt path that leads out of town and becomes the footpath in that direction. I'm not sure whether to be horrified at what it has become, or applaud the inhabitants for finding a clever way to keep it alive.

Our boat pulled up, at a slip just vacated by another such vessel, and was met by a browned old man in a swimsuit and a white captain's hat, who tied off our bow line and wandered off again. I later saw him riding in a cart pulled behind a four-wheeler to deliver bags from groceries to the house in town. We all piled off, and I immediately headed for the hills. Literally.

I got just out of town, and took a spur trail down to the water, where I found a rock beneath a scrubby olive tree to eat my baguette, sheep cheese, and peaches. Thence the main trail went straight along a contour, and suddenly turned as the land plunged back away from the sea. It was remarkable rounding that bend: it was quiet before, with just the sound of the sea, but within a meter or two, that entirely vanished and there was only the breeze through the scrub, and the occasional insect or bird. I wound along inland, where the soil became real, black dirt instead of sand or crushed rock (Corsica must never have had a dense population, or this would have all been terraced), and in places the path went through shady canopies of low growing trees. The white thorn bushes from the Cargese area were not in evidence. And if someone can tell me what makes spiral droppings, about six centimeters in diameter, I would appreciate it. We think it's pig.

I stopped after startling lizards a couple times and watched as they decided I wasn't actually a living, scary thing, and wandered on about their lizardly business (which largely consisted of changing their position on a rock). Finally I turned back.

Wolfram, Melanie, Tobias, and a couple others had gone the other direction. Melanie was the first person I saw of their group, and she had a grand cut over one eye. My immediate response was obviously, "What did you do?" Her response (verbatim, with a charming French accent) "Wolfram try to kill me." Of course, he hadn't: they were playing man-in-the-middle with a half full water bottle, and she missed the catch. Various of us had fun with this at Wolfram's expense for the rest of the evening. The boat left soon after and we looked at more rocks and sea caves...

...until we got to a nice area where they said we could swim. At this point I'm just wearing a bathing suit, a t-shirt, and sandals, so I was ready to go in about thirty seconds. The water was deep, at least six meters, and crystal clear. Once again, it didn't hurt your eyes to go underwater with them open, but Bjorne loaned me his goggles briefly at the end, and I really should have bought some before coming. With them the blur resolved into sea grass and fish and jellyfish (one of which stung me, dratted thing).

Then it was a straight shot back to Cargese. Wolfram started organizing a hiking trip tomorrow. He went off to work out details of renting a car, and I went home. I got half the features of the next release of my stackviewer image analysis software finished, and he showed up saying that we meet in front of the gas station (aka, the car rental place) at 8:30 in the morning, and we meet at a restaurant at 8:30 tonight to work out where we're going.

The restaurant was full, and the party had grown to thirteen people, so we set out down for the harbor, where we found a good place with a 15 euro prix fixe menu. In my case, half a lobster, then a stew of wild boar on noodles, and a piece of apple tart. All of it was good, and the lobster was especially so. By this time, it was time for me to vanish off to bed.

2006-08-20

Sunday morning, eleven of us met for the hike at the Hertz rental place/gas station at 8AM. We rented two Peugot boxy things and set out, with Wolfram driving the lead card, me navigating for him, and Melanie in the back telling me where I was navigating to. Between us we almost make a tourist.

The beautiful weather we had all week broke, and it was cloudy and rainy. We south, then inland, though several state parks, and discovered that Corsica has enormous populations of wild pigs, and possibly cows as well (not sure if they were actually wild). Apparently here anything fenced in is for the humans; the rest is pasture. There were exceptions, such as a spacious fenced area with several pigs, containing in addition a dining table and a car --- and no house in sight. I'm still puzzling over that one.

Finally we arrived at the end of the paved road on the way to the mountain we wanted to climb. The Germans weren't confident enough to drive up a rutted dirt road, poor dears, and we changed plans to a walking tour through the local villages.

We parked just outside of Albertacce at about 10:30, walked through it, were stared at by the lone dog standing mournfully in the street...and then I found a path! Yes, my friends, this time I dragged TEN PEOPLE with me as I went walkabout. I had great confidence, since our proposed route was a loop, and the path lay on the inside. With my advanced mathematical training, I knew that we would be fine.

We wandered back through the woods (inland, much of the island is wooded, with pine trees and what I think may be beech, but I don't know). We passed an old stone house --- perhaps a mill, but I didn't see anywhere for a wheel --- on the edge of a large stream. At some point we paused for lunch at a rock outcropping. At one point we startled a pig in the middle of the woods, which trotted off snorting in annoyance. I tried to slow down to everyone else's pace, and it hurt and I lost my footing a lot. Finally I just sped up and waited from time to time like I usually do.

At last, my topological arguments paid off and we reached the tiny village of Casamila on the far side of our loop. Melanie consulted the guide book (she's a mountaineering guide in the Swiss Alps as well as an atomic force microscopist, so we made her navigate), and directed us up the side of a mountain.

It had been mild in the woods: the rain stopped and started, but the trees were constant protection. There was no cover on the mountain. We passed bleached bones and old carcasses of pigs and horses on the way up the path. The wind whipped at us, destroying our footing. The rain lashed at us, and we pulled our raincoast tight, except for those who didn't bring them, and poor Pierre with his umbrella. We reached an area sheltered by rocks and paused because we had lost Wolfram, who had gone off to tack pictures. He finally appeared and we resumed the ascent.

In short, it was fabulous. Though in future, I must warn people that I hike with that if they bring me, it will rain, and they will do insane things.

We finally topped the ridge, under the stares of several cows and horses, for which we were the most exciting thing to happen all day, and started down the slope on the other side. We wandered down into another village. I don't know what it was called, but it put us back on the road to Albertacce and our cars.

We drove up one town and stopped for coffee and hot chocolate and to figure out what we were doing next. We decided to head back through the Gorge, a deep and dramatic chasm which runs from Evisa to the northwest to the coast at Porto/Portu (depending on whether you ask a normal Corsican or a separatist), head south at Porto, and stop in Piana.

I shan't try to describe the Gorge. It was amazing. I think several of the group got pictures of it, so you'll hopefully see them later. Between Porto and Piana, we stopped at the Calanche de Piana (calanche = cove or fjord) and watched as the sun sank. The distance headlands of the next bay were visible, and my mind seized immediately on one phrase: "purple Ithaca." In the evening haze, the island really did appear deep purple.

Piana is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. It was pretty, but not prettier than several other towns we saw today, like Ota perched on the side of the Gorge as it opened to plunge into the sea. We walked around a bit, and decided to go back to Cargese and cook. After a shower and some confusion, we all ended up at one apartment at 9PM for spaghetti al pomodoro, and some wild mushrooms Ben and Elzabeth had gathered while we were out. They were bitter and mushy, so I tried one and left them alone. It was a passable meal. Darius, who cooked, is a fairly skillful for a German. It felt like sitting at an alien banquet, though, watching all the Germans eating their spaghetti with a fork and spoon. They lift up spaghetti with the force, place it against the spoon, and twirl it there. The contention among them was whether it was correct to eat it off the fork or the spoon. It was a nice evening, which took place in three languages. I can actually understand more German than I thought. I went home to bed after dinner.

2006-08-21

The first lecture of the morning was ghastly. It was supposedly on actin dynamics, but in truth he just worked his way through some model problems in elasticity theory given a few assumptions. This could have been very interesting, but when you use a PowerPoint presentation consisting of framed boxes containing equations, and never define the quantities in them, it's really not. While I could follow it and understand what he was doing, I left two thirds of the way through.

The second lecture was by a biologist who has steadily become more and more physicsy over the past couple decades (apparently he spent a lot of time with Leibler). He gave a nice introduction to eukaryotic cell cycle. Then lunch of potatos au gratin and some kind of breaded chicken stuffed with cheese and ham. A couple hours of work on my increasingly horrendous MATLAB code, and a swim. Pia had borrowed Marta's goggles, and I tried them. We made a pact in the water to buy our own that afternoon.

Rockefeller's very own Jim Hudspeth, one of the world's most frighteningly thorough and organized speakers, gave the afternoon lecture introducing us to the ear. Then we all headed back into town. Pia and I bought our goggles, and had a chat with the fellow in the swim shop. Apparently they're quite proud of the institute around here.

I had my leftover tortellini at last, some bread and cheese, and a couple pieces of fruit, programmed a little more, read a bit, and went to sleep early. Apparently many folks went to a party which began (get this!) at 10:30 at night.

2006-08-22

I skipped the first talk this morning, as it was the same actin fellow again. I think he has delusions of a Landau & Lifshitz style, but he really just comes out Bourbakist. I stared in bewilderment and hatred at MATLAB for that time instead. The second talk was more on the cell cycle and self organization in microtubules. Apparently the combination of something to grab onto, microtubules, and appropriate molecular motors is enough to assemble mitotic spindles in the test tube.

Lunch today was cous cous with various things on it: a lamb and vegetable stew; something red and very peppery; roast chicken. That plus salad, a nice piece of cheese, and a nectarine, made one of the better lunches I've had here. I digested for an hour or so while loathing MATLAB before my keyboard, and finally went swimming. I now have another hour and a half to hate MATLAB some more before coffee break. I have ensconced myself at a shady table overlooking the bay with my computer.

Hudspeth gave an afternoon lecture on hair bundles, then I went back to town. I was bidden to show up at Marta and Melanie's flat with my electric mixer to help cook a big dinner at 8PM. I showed up, and about twelve of us produced an enormous amount of gesphatcho (sp?) and what I think of as frittatas with potatos and onions, but which the Spanish call tortillas. It was a nice evening. It ended with Melanie and I finishing the dishes while the rest chattered in the next room, then I slipped into the night and went home to bed.

2006-08-23

Did my warmups this morning, got my groceries, and wandered off to the institute at about 9:30. Again, skipped the first talk. I dealt with my email and enjoyed the weather until coffee break. The second talk went by, and lunch was stewed muscles and octopus on rice. I finished the programming for the next release of stackviewer: 0.3! I just need to clean up the code tree a bit. To celebrate, I went for a swim.

The afternoon lecture was more like a biology talk, which made me unhappy, but I passed my time making the feature list for stackviewer 0.4, and making notes on things I ought to try for segmentation, as this will be the first version that can actually be used to analyze data. (As you can tell, I'm very excited about this.)

I ended up with a group going out for dinner (I had invited Melanie over, but she begged off as having work she had to finish). There were seven of us, which meant we could actually all interact. I ended up sitting next to Suzanne, who is also going to Paris, reminds me of Cathy and Jackie, and is apparently going to be my museum buddy while we're both in that city. The Hotel Continentale does a good prix fixe menu: prosciutto and melon, an egg and sausage casserole of some kind, and a savory pastry for first course, a stew of veal on pasta and a slice of a vegetable lasagna for second course, and a dessert: a chestnet mousse, which was excellent. I had a very pleasant evening.

Some of the institute gathered in the park in front of my apartment to do improvisational theatre. I wandered out for a few minutes, then went off to bed.

2006-08-24

I did most of my laundry this morning, until I ran out of clothespins on the clothesline in the courtyard (three pairs of underwear short of clean -- not a big deal). Then I grabbed my brioche and set out for the institute. Jim Hudspeth gave me a lift, and I found myself there early.

The talk this morning was on endocytosis, and was well done. Then Hudspeth talked about frequency discrimination mechanisms, and we all went off to lunch: prosciutto and melon, some kind of lasagna, grapes, bread and cheese. Melanie, Suzanne, Wolfram, and I then walked back into town to clean our respective apartments, and Melanie and I to pack (we take the 9AM bus from Cargese to Ajaccio tomorrow). I got myself packed up to things like shampoo and toothpaste which I'll throw in in the morning. Then I came back and took a swim, and strolled around the institute while I dried.

The afternoon talk was more on cell-cell adhesions, and it was far too much like a biology talk for me to pay much attention, especially since I'd already heard a physics talk at Rockefeller on the subject. Afterwards we milled around until our farewell BBQ. Some played boules. I ended up looking through all the pictures Wolfram has taken while we were here with Melanie, Pia, and several other people.

The first course of the BBQ was cold cous cous made with vegetables and grilled sausages. Then it started to rain, and they brought out the second course: lamb chops, roasted potatos, and some kind of stewed vegetables. Corsican meat is very fatty, as I have found from the restaurants, lunch at the institute, and my own cooking.

Dessert was a pear tart and ice cream, and people broke out the liquor and turned on the music. I visited for a little longer, then grabbed my pack and vanished into the night. Apparently people were surprised: they have not learned my tendency to vanish without telling anyone.

The ascent through the brush with my little bicycle lamp as all my light was lovely: quiet, the small rustlings of Corsica at night, and the distant lights of the institute. I got home and went straight to bed. Unfortunately, my sleep was rather discontinuous since the mosquitos were out in force.

2006-08-25

I got up as usual, did my warmups, went to the supermarket and got my brioche and stuff for lunch, then finished packing. Then I went down the street to the bus stop in the roundabout, where we had six people at last for the public bus to Ajaccio. For the price of eight euro, we were driven through stunning countryside by a burly Corsican in a wifebeater who talked on his cellphone the whole time and had a relaxed attitude towards oncoming traffic.

From Ajaccio's ferry station, we took another bus (euro 4.50) to the airport where Stefan, Melanie, and I all sat until our respective flights left. I was glad I had brought my sandwiches and peaches. I tried to share, but no one was interested.

The flight was uneventful. I read some of Emma, and suddenly had this explosion of music in my head. I spent the rest of the flight staring blissfully into space while constructing a fugue in D major for solo violin based upon a charming melody that came to me, a D major passacaglia to follow it, and a few thoughts for a B minor movement with some sonic elements borrowed from Prokofiev's first violin and piano sonata, movement 1 to precede it. Even so I felt horribly dirty when I landed. Such are airplanes.

Getting from Orly into Paris is very easy: once you have managed to fight the crowd for your bag, you follow the signs for the RER B, buy your ticket, and take it to Gare du Nord. Then I transferred to the RER E and took that to Gard St. Lazare. I didn't come out of the subway quite where I expected, so I had to look at my map and figure out where I was, but then I walked unerringly the four blocks to my hotel.

The Hotel Langlois is gorgeous. I have a single room with a big wooden bed, an old fireplace done in turqoise and tan ceramic tiles with a mirror above it and a bust of a scantily clad woman on it. The walls have several other pictures. One is a tasteful impressionistic work of three ladies in early 20th century clothing out with their parasols in Paris. The other, over the bed, consists of a young lady in mid nineteenth century clothing halfway through the act of removing it. Amazingly for a Victorian, she apparently was wearing nothing but the outer dress: no underthings whatsoever. Ah well, it's France.

And one more thing: I have a table at a comfortable height with incredibly comfortable chairs at it. They have leather on the seats that doesn't crumple in weird ways. And they're the right height. And they support just your lower back, not your upper back. Did I mention that I love them and want to take them home with me?

After a shower (my bathroom seems positively sybaritic, all gleaming tile and good water pressure and hot water on demand), I felt about as human as I ever manage, given that I'm not, and went and dealt with my email, then went walkabout through my little corner of Paris here.

The center of this little area is the Place d'Estienne d'Orves. L'Eglise de la Trinite takes up the north side, and eight streets radiate off from it. The Hotel Langlois is about twenty meters down Rue St. Lazare to the east. To the west is what looks like an expensive shopping district. Between the lateness of the hour (almost 8PM) and the month (Paris is empty in August), most things were closed. I finally settled on a place called Restaurant Royal Trinite across from the church. I can't recommend it. My French accent isn't particularly melodious, but that is no call to try to speak English to me, and offer me an English menu. Indeed, it makes it very difficult when I'm listening for French and I get English.

I had their fifteen euro fixed price menu: tomatos, mozarella, and lettuce, supposedly with basil (they used dried basil bits sprinkled over the top, and the mozarella bore almost but not entirely no resemblance to cheese), a piece of plain whitefish in a cream sauce with white rice which was competently done. They even gave me a basket of bread in which one of the four pieces was obviously yesterday morning's bread! It was hard as a rock. And then they screwed up my bill.

However, despite this, I like what I have seen so far of Paris. It's very pretty. And I have a plan: I will eat lunch in little holes in the wall in the districts I visit, and either have bread and cheese in my room, or get takeaway from the Chinese tavola calda down the street (which actually looks pretty good).

I have now retired to my room for the evening. When I look out my window, I see buildings in the dark, but no lights. There's no one there. It's very strange.

2006-08-26

This morning I enjoyed my beautiful shower again, then went for a stroll in the early morning rain. I ended up having breakfast at the hotel, which is plentiful and reasonably priced for what you get, but I think I'll just go for a cup of tea and a brioche at a cafe tomorrow.

My first stop when I set out for the day was the Gare St. Lazare to buy a Carte Musee Monuments (museum admission pass). The nice lady there informed me that they didn't have any more. I didn't lose heart, as they are available at the Louvre as well. I walked from there along the Boulevard Haussman to the Arc de Triomphe. The Arc is big and stone and square, and anyone who spends any time looking at it is missing a treat, for when you turn around you are treated to one of the most lovely urban avenues I have ever had the pleasure to see, the Champs-Elysees. The avenue has four lanes of traffic in the middle, and then about the same width of side walk with a double row of trees on either side. And it's extremely clean, but most of Paris is, thanks to the endless labor of a lot of people who you see out sweeping and scrubbing all day.

I strolled down this -- and stopped briefly in the Virgin Megastore, where I found a recording of the Four Season by Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante for six euro -- until I reached the Jardin des Tuilleries. Essentially, the Champs-Elysees opens out on both sides and the new space is filled with flower beds. The trees on the sidewalk by the street thicken. Benches become more common.

On the far side of the Jardin des Tuilleries is the Place de Concorde, with its obelisk. I think it best described as a desert of cobblestone which you must cross before you reach the Louvre. I was stopped by a couple of Italians who wanted to know how to reache the Madelaine, but otherwise trudged across that great plain of stone, dotted here and there with a fountain or large Egyptian artifact, in solitude.

After I passed through the gates into the gardens before the Louvre, I settled into one of the provided reclining chairs by the first pool in relief, and enjoyed a few minutes rest before pushing on until the Pei pyramid came in sight. At this point I ducked down a stairwall into the Carousel de Louvre.

The Carousel de Louvre is the posh, subterranean shopping mall attached to the musem. Why is Fred, curmudgeon par excellence, diving into a world of clothes and jewelry stores? Because down there they sell that coveted item, the Carte Musee Monuments. For forty five euro, they give me a little pile of paper that, for the next for days, allows me to skip all lines and enter essentially every museum and monument in Paris merely by waving it in the general direction of anyone who looks like they might want a ticket from me.

I soon had proof of its power when I crossed Pont des Arts, recrossed Pont Neuf, and found myself at Sainte-Chapelle. The line stretched halfway around the chapel. After confirming that I could with the young lady keeping the line in order, I strolled past everyone, ducked around the barriers, and was immediately waved into the chapel.

I can best describe Sainte-Chapelle by saying that it is a wave of stained glass with a roof levitating above it. The light is simply incredible. I took a seat and just stared for a while. Next to me was a young lady alternating between squinting at the windows and reading some large block of text about them. Then she got her camera out. I just don't understand: why read about these things? Why take pictures when you can buy a much better one taken under ideal conditions downstairs? Why not just look at the thing itself?

After Saint-Chapelle, I headed northeast into the Marais in search of lunch. On the way I found a shop called Orphee (closed until August 29, unfortunately) which sells old instruments. I'll have to stop by again when it reopens. The Marais has much smaller, more winding streets, and unlike the rest of the city, most everything there is open in August. I wandered in and out, looking here and there, until I found a place on a corner of two tiny streets called Les Philosophes.

An old French waiter who didn't even try to use English with me handed me a menu, the upshot of which (for the cultivated reader) was that you could have the plat du jour with either the soup du jour, the entree du jour, or the dessert du jour. I settled upon the soup du jour and the plat du jour, with no idea as to what they might be. I was surrounded by gay couples vacationing, who really didn't seem to understand this approach to dining out, and who speak no French whatsoever, who provided amusement for me as I ate.

And so for twenty euro, I got a bowl of pea soup, a place of roast chicken, a stuffed tomato, stewed vegetables, a basket of bread, and a bottle of water. I elected not to stay for tea and dessert because I had seen a delectable looking patisserie on the way which rejoiced in the name of 'Le Passion du Bon Pain.'

In this patisserie, I decided I wasn't really interested in dessert, and just wanted a baguette of bread. However, there were a couple people ahead of me, and the girl working in the shop was perhaps a bit scatterbrained and not entirely together, so ten minutes later I she finally asks me what I want, and the entire line behind me bursts out laughing when I say, "just a baguette." Poor thing, she looked horribly flustered. It was good bread, though, even for France, and all the tarts and sweets were extremely tempting.

I stopped in a little paperie on the way back south and had a quick chat with its owner, before heading south of the Seine to the Musee Cluny. Once again my little card empowered me to walk in without any hassle.

There is a fair amount of stuff in the Musee Cluny. As with all medieval collections, there are endless small objects, but unless you're studying the personal accoutrements and personal rituals of the period, they're not really interesting. However, the museum has a huge number of tapestries, topped off by the lady with the unicorn tapestries, six panels hanging in a room of their own. Each consists of a red background of flowers and animals (particularly bunnies, those "perpetual symbols of fertility" as Kenneth Clarke called them), an island of green upon which is a lady with trees on both sides of her, a lion on her right, and a unicorn on her left. From this simple basis you get six major works: one with the lady standing before an arming pavillion with the lion and unicorn holding open the tent flaps; standing with one hand upraised, attended by a maid, while the lion and unicorn, caped, hold her banners aloft on lances; playing a portative organ as her maid pumps, and the two beasts still bearing the banners sit entranced with eyes downcast; seated with a mirror held up to show the unicorn its face as it rests its forelegs on her lap, and the lion gazing the other way with an amused expression; the lady braiding something from a basket her maid holds while the two beasts, now bearing her arms on shields, hold the banners aloft once more; the lady herself standing majestically and bearing her banner while the two animals with their shields gaze adoringly upon her. It's also a different lady in each panel.

Amusingly, there is a children's book from these tapestries in the museum gift shop. They were also playing the piece we used for Baroque dance warmups at Oberlin last summer on the stereo.

At this point, I intended to head swiftly back north, but I found the bookstores on Place St. Michel, and I bought a bag of books. I am weak, I know, but at the same time I essentially finished the shopping I wanted to do in Paris.

After I dropped my stuff at home, I went to the supermarket on the far side of Gare St. Lazare and got cheese, salami, fruit, and cookies to go with my baguette from 'Passion du Bon Pain,' then went to the Galleries Lafayette to buy tickets for the early music concerts in Sainte-Chapelle. My museum pass availed me not, but my student ID got my half off the tickets. I also looked around the men's clothing section. Does anyone actually pay a hundred and fifty euros for a pair of slacks? If they are, they're damned fools. And there were a lot of them in the store. Some of them were in the tow of women, which just makes them weak fools rather than damned ones.

I came home and spent the evening working on stackviewer. I had to rewrite the display system again to move forwards, and that took the evening, but now it can detect edges in stacks of images and display them properly. It seems like with each release, the actual features that the user can see seem little and not too hard, but it involves a major rewrite of some underlying subsystem to make them trivial. This is the first software project I have engineered through multiple releases like this, so perhaps this is normal. At least I had good music and a nice picnic dinner to console myself for having to suffer from MATLAB.

2006-08-27

I slept in this morning: it was 8AM before I got up. However, I was up late talking with my family, so I needed the sleep. I had a pear and the rest of yesterday's baguette with honey I brought from Corsica for breakfast, then mustered myself and headed out.

My route today wasn't nearly so well defined or picturesque as yesterday. I walked northwest, turned here, found myself on the Boulevard Voltaire at some point, and turned from there south into the Marais, that center of my life in Paris. I wound in and out of the streets, glancing in windows, until I finally reached Les Philosophes from the north. I continued south, and walked east along the Seine for a while.

Paris has a highway along much of the north bank of the Seine, sunken from the main street level. However, on Sunday they close it to cars, and it's full of bikers, rollerbladers, joggers, and the occasional walker like me. There's an idea for New York to borrow: close FDR drive on Sunday and let the rest of us actually use that wasted space for a change.

I went as far as the Jardin des Plants on the south bank. The riverside there has little ampitheatres set into it, in which you see little activites: I saw a man teaching a woman to tango; I saw two people doing pole standing meditation while a woman watched them indulgently. At last I turned back and wandered back into the Marais by way of the Place de la Bastille.

Finding good places to eat in Paris is a balancing act. You want to be well into the center of the city, but at the same time far from any monument, just in the dense twisting streets. However, if you go too far from one monument, you reach the zone of influence of another. The trick is knowing when to stop.

Today I judged it just right. From the Place de la Bastille I went down two major streets, turned on a smaller street, which wound to an intersection that wasn't even topologically homeomorphic to two streets intersecting at right angles. A few steps north of this I found a blackboard declaring 'Restaurant Ouvert' in front of a door with no obvious restaurant in sight.

I looked at the posted menu, which basically said the price for the fixed menu of entree, plat, and dessert, and peered in the door. The room behind had an upright piano and a couple of post-impressionist pantings, and a low passing leading back. In the distance I could see a restaurant. The impression from there was of a place that looked like La Grotta in Cortona (for those readers familiar with that lovely little place).

So I walked through the passage to the restaurant named 'Un Piano sur le Trottoir' (I kid you not). They had a recording of a piano playing things like Greensleeves and Vieuxtemps' Tarantelle. There was one burly, gray haired guy leaning on the bar, and one couple eating.

Before I go further, the decor: half the walls, the ones on the right and rear of the restaurant from the entrance, were the bare stone of the building. The other two were drywall, and painted an astonishing shade of purple. The lighting was from two chandaliers hung from the wooden beams, but between them was set a small disco ball and two spotlights which pointed at an eye catching multicolored curtain. There was no floorshow while I was there, but I think in the evening there may be.

Be that as it may, they really knew their business. I had a classically and skillfully prepared lunch of onion soup, boeuf bourgignon, and fondant du chocolat with a cup of tea. Everything was excellent, including the service. They even played the game about the bill at the end quite well.

For those not familiar, it is customary in good European restaurants for the waiters too be there exactly when you need them all the way through the meal, until it is time to get the bill, when they will play hard to get. (If you're in a rush, you ask with it with your coffee.) By this point in the meal, a young waiter had joined the old guy, and he played the game consumately well, managing to clear and reset the table next to me quickly and subtly enough while I was finishing off my tea to escape me. I then alternated between leaning against the wall and dozing and keeping a wary eye out for him for the next twenty minutes. I think they knew they were playing against an expert trained in the brutal schools of Italy, because he managed to be far easier on the other people in the restaurant. (The French are much calmer -- in Italy our most extreme match was with a waiter who came flying out of a stairwell on one side of the room and landed almost to the door on the other side on his regular rounds.)

After I came in, the restaurant steadily filled to about half capacity. There was a French family of four next to me whose two daughters were apparently vegetarian, because they had long discussions with the old guy about how to prepare dishes (uppity little gits). There was a British couple in the corner, and a couple I had run across earlier in the day in my walk, a Chinese man and French woman (who looked something like Dorothy Kolomeisky) with their daughter.

At long last I triumphed, and paid my bill. Then I set out south to the Seine again, and west west towards the Musee d'Orsay. My all powerful museum card could not save me from a line here, but it put me into a much shorter one. Security checks take time, and my little piece of paper is impotent against them.

The Orsay was a train station turned into a museum. It's also a positive labyrinth of stairs and catwalks. The main platform where you enter has assorted French painting on the ground floor, and on the terraces above visiting exhibits on the sides, and three major Rodin sculptures on the end facing the door: the Gates of Hell, the Balzac, and a figure of many unhappy, contorted people.

The visiting exhibit now is Rodin and Carrieres (a friend of his and a painter who worked in shadows of grey and brown). They apparently extracted odd deals from each other. Rodin agreed to be painted if he got to take moulds of Carrieres' face and hands after he died (they had the moulds -- what worn and capable looking hands they are). They agreed to give the other three pieces of their work. I'm not sure what Carrieres gave Rodin (most of his work was of mothers and children or the female nude), but Rodin gave Carrieres three of his most blatantly sensual (even erotic in the case of the Peche) works. The exhibit had some text about how it was because they were still appropriate to their shared quest for the meaning of creativitiy and the discovery of the female form or something. French is a remarkable language. You can't write these things in English. It was, however, absurd enough not to make it into the catalogue.

Carriere is an extremely good painter. Why haven't I heard of him before? He is obviously as much a dead end in the history of art as Debussy was in music, but also like him...what a dead end! Three works in particular caught my eye: Le Contemplateur, areclining figure looking up at moon and stars; Dormeurs au pied de la meule, a landscape of cliff and valley under a night sky with sleeping figures in the foreground; La Nature, which I note with sorrow is not in the catalogue, a bust of a woman with head thrown back and to the side -- but this only appears subtly as you stare at it for several minutes, and it steadily draws you in just as the best Impressionists do.

I also went up to see the Impressionist collection, but in so doing I rediscovered the state known as 'museum rage': I believe looking at Impressionists requires at least five minutes of staring from a distance of between three and five meters depending on the picture, with corrected vision. My slight astigmatism doesn't blend the pigment the same way as distance does, so I don't get as good an effect by standing closer without my glasses. However, most of the human prefers to flit past the painting at a distance of one foot, and look for about thirty seconds. It is thus almost impossible to look at anything in a crowded gallery.

However, they have a large case of Degas sculpture, mostly of dancers. I must say, as much as I like his painting, I like his sculpture better. His dancer sculptures give me an idea for a study, for they seem the distillation of the transformation from a line to a human form: when a human aligns herself to an Platonic line, this is the shape that emerges. I suspect the mathematics is lovely.

Speaking of mathematics, in a quirky fit of pique I stood at 3m from Pissarro's 'Port-Morly (le lavoir)' and wrote down about once a second for several minutes the number of people standing between it and me. The data set is as follows (though I warn you the time is no more accurate than I can do by invoking my mental metronome): 2 2 3 4 2 2 1 0 1 1 2 2 2 4 5 5 6 1 1 1 0 0 0 0 1 1 1 2 1 0 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 2 3 0 0 2 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 3 0 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 1 0 1 1 2 3 4 2 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 1 1 1 0 0 1 1 1 3 1 1 1 1 1 2 1 1 1 1 0 0 0 0 1 1 1 1 1 2 1 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 2 2 4 3 3 3 4 3 4 4 4 1 2 2 2 5 4 5 3 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 1 1 1 3 2 2 1 3 2 1 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 1 0 1 2 2 1 2 3 4 3 3 2 1 0 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 3 1 2 1 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 2 0 1 0 1 0 1 0 0 1 0 0 1 0 0 4 5 4 3 3 0 0 1 0 0 1 0 0 1 1 2 2 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 2 3 5 6 1 1 1 1 0 0 0 0 2 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 2 2 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 3 0 0 0 1 0 3 3 1 4 2 1 1 2 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 2 2 1 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 0 0 1 0 1 0 0 0 1 2 3 5 3 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 4 1 1 1 0 0 2 2 1 2 2 3 3 4 2 3 3 3 4 3 4 4 4 4 4 5 5 5 5 5 4 4 5 3 0 1 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 1 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 4 3 4 3 1 1 1 2 1 1 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 2 2 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 2 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 2 2 3 3 2 2 1 0 0 0 0 1 1 1 1 2 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 2 2 2 2 0 1 1 0 0 0 1 2 3 2 2 0 0 0 0 2 2 2 0 0 1 1 0 1 1 1 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 1 2 1 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

There, about nine minutes of data. All my quantitative friends can play with that for a while. I'll get around to analyzing it at some point.

It was a quarter after five by the time I left the Musee d'Orsay, so I abandoned the idea of going to my hotel before the concert at Sainte-Chapelle this evening. Instead, I walked along the Seine, stopped and ate half a loaf of bread, and then wandered through Place St.-Michel, and stopped for a hot chocolate. Somewhere in that wandering I ended up buying an old book on yachting at one of the stalls along the Seine for babo, for I think it will amuse him, and at 1.50 euros, I think the amusement not too expensive.

At last I got in line at about 6:30, and met a young couple from San Francisco, who were just about to start college and were in Europe visiting relatives (hers in Leipzig and Berlin; his in Paris). They were nice children. I also ran in to Robyn, our lecturer on viruses at the Cargese school, and we had a nice chat during the intervals in and after the concert.

The concerts are unfortunately a tourist thing. The group consisted of three violins, a viola, a cello, a harpsichord, and an archlute. They played Pachelbel's Canon (please, no, not again!), Vivaldi's variations on La Folia, and the four seasons. Of the players, the harpsichordist and the lady who played the solo parts in the seasons were the only obviously serious Baroque players. The others used a quasi-modern technique. The solo violinist was obviously a Kuijkan student, and still fully in his technique of never touching the chin to the instrument. She was good, but there were problems.

First, the chapel has a long reverb, and loves bass notes. They did not take this into account. The harpsichord must play almost rediculously staccato, and the cello needs to leave spaces in his legato lines, or they just make a muddy sound that drowns out everything. Similarly, all the lines which the violins try to articulate modestly need to played fully spiccato or sautille. The choice of music was simply inappropriate. French music of the period would have suited much better, or any of the massive repertoire of northern German church music, which was written for such spaces. They also played with the instruments tuned in perfect fifths, against a harpsichord tuned to I don't know what, which meant that a lot of things were out of tune. Unfortunate, but there it is. It was still lovely to sit in Ste.-Chapelle and listen to music.

I walked back in the gatheirng dusk. In the gateway between the inner and outer courts of the Louvre I paused and listened to a cellist much better than the people I had just paid to here play the Bach fifth cello suite. I ate a piece of chocolate the restaurant had given me with my tea and I had stashed away. I watched the sun set over Pei pyramid. It was lovely. When the cellist switched to Saint-Saens, I gave him a euro and went on my way.

Pei's pyramid deserves a few words here. Pei is an architect second to most. In fact, as an architect, he's lousy. But I think he is an artist of genius, and just needs a good engineer to keep him in check. What lunatic would think that putting a giant glass pyramid in the middle of an 18th century courtyard is a good idea? The funny thing is that it was a stroke of genius. In pictures it looks absurd and stupid, but in person it somehow seems absolutely right. If I envision the court without it, or with some trite Baroque fountain in the middle, it seems lacking.

I left the Louvre, and proceeded up the Avenue de l'Opera once more to home. I downed most of the rest of my bread, cheese, and salami, most of the rest of my fruit, and my cookies, then settled in for the night. The family called to see how things were going. Emma leaves for college tomorrow! Very exciting.

2006-08-28

Suzanne called this morning and we agreed to meet at Place d'Anvers at the base of Montmartre at 10:00. I left shortly, which was a problem because it was closer than I thought and I was there an hour early. Suzanne was there at about 10, and had neglected rain gear. She was soaked.

She bought an umbrella, and we went wandering over Montmartre. We went in Sacre Coeur, which was very pretty. We dodged the tourist traps and the Frenchmen offering to draw caricatures of us, and the Africans trying to braid us bracelets. Montmartre has a really touristy part around Sacre Coeur, and the rest of it is a charming residential area that feels like a rural hill town.

At about 11, we decided it was time to move on, and started towards the Marais looking for lunch. Along the way we found a sweet shop. I couldn't resist the caramel with hazelnuts, and I was wise to cave in to temptation.

A little farther, not quite into the Marais, and far from any tourist attraction, we passed a bar with a chalkboard out front advertising a 12 euro lunch menu of two courses with a quarter of wine. My Ross family restaurant intuition sat up and noticed, and we stopped.

It was the neighborhood cafe. Everyone else who came in greeted the ladies at the bar by name, chatted about their concerns, and wandered idly in and out. They fed us a salad of lettuce and tomato and toast with hot goat cheese on it, then a duck leg with vegetables. I actually drank wine with my meal (it came with a quarter of wine, as I said), then they served me a nice cup of Earl Gray tea. It was a relief to get good tea. Most places here just give you Lipton. And all this cost us 14.50 euro.

We ended up going into Galleries Lafayette, and then wandering down the Avenue de l'Opera to the Louvre. Our destination was the Orangerie, but Suzanne had to stop and take pictures. I was reminded of why I don't like to travel with people who tote cameras but aren't serious photographers. Wolfram was fine, because when he wanted to stop and take a picture of something, I was usually perfectly content to stand there and look at it for as long as may be. The random photo clickers are troublesome, because they'll take pictures of anything. "Stop, I want to take a picture." "Of what?" "The street sign." "But it's a street sign line ten thousand others in this city."

After an unfortunate detour because I forgot what side of the Place de la Concorde the Orangerie is on -- we crossed and recrossed the cobblestone waste -- we got in the (empty) preserved line, presented our all powerful passes, and were duly admitted.

The Orangerie reopened in May. It has two primary exhibits. Downstairs are a hallway plus several rooms of nice Impressionist paintings. Upstairs are two oval chambers with the walls covered by panels Monet painted of his garden at Cevigny. Each room has four panels, of water lillies and the reflections of trees and clouds in the water. The rest of the room is entirely off white, and they have an oval bench in the center where you can settle down and look for a good long time.

They also use natural light for these rooms. There is a skylight in the cieling, with a mesh below it to diffuse the light and prevent direct sunlight from damaging the paintings.

We left at about closing time, and agreed I would go to Suzanne's to cook dinner. She would get bread, olive oil, and the like, and I would pick up particular ingredients to cook. I ended up getting a cabbage and some chicken breasts. Apparently Parisians don't use rosemary or basil, and the quality of vegetables in the supermarkets is about what I would expect from a low end store in America. No wonder they're all short and stumpy.

I produced a decent dinner, and we put my laundry on in the washer/dryer in her flat. It took a long, long time. At about 11:30 I finally went home, and sometime during the night it switched over to drying and produced clean laundry the next morning.

2006-08-29

Today I went to Chartres. For some of you, that's entry enough. For the rest, I'll elaborate. I went over to Suzanne's apartment by Les Halles and we took the M4 line south to Montparnasse, and from there the 12:15 train to Chartres. We intended to take a train an hour and a half earlier, but got delayed at ticket machines and that kind of thing, which we hadn't allowed for in our planning.

We ate a lunch of bread, cheese, cold cuts, and fruit on the train, got off in Chartres, hiked the couple of blocks to the cathedral, and spent a couple hours within. Then we got a coffee (well, hot chocolate in my case), went back in for a bit, missed the train we intended to take back, and caught the next one an hour later. Twenty five trains a day run between Chartres and Paris, so it's not a problem if you miss one.

What can I say about Chartres? The stained glass is still filthy, but they now have workmen on the outside starting to repair pieces of it. The western entrance appears to have been newly restored. And even in its decrepit state, it's still magical. Imagine, perhaps, a an ancient forest with the tree trunks made of stone, and the canopy a gothic arch. Multicolored light shines through this canopy in the great stained glass windows. And you come to a corner and look across a great gap in the trees to the rosary windows high above, which glow like gems even on a cloudy day.

Walk into the depths of the forest, and you find a long curving wall, covered in carvings of scenes, the figures lifelike and immediate, and all frozen in stone. Even a plant, with its stem and fine leaves stretching up from its pot, held forever motionless.

It doesn't really work. I'll stop trying.

We got back to Paris about 6:30. Montparnasse is a jungle of passages, and you can't even put your faith in topology since it is three dimensional. Essentially, you pick a sign and follow it as it reappears. If every you deviate from that sign, you are lost. To aid you in sticking with it, they have slideways. At one point we came to a large hallway with four slideways. The ones on the outside were labelled 'Confortable 3km/h.' The ones in the middle were experimental 9km/h ones. You stepped onto a bed of rollers, which accelerate you before putting you on the belt. It gave me visions of Heinlein's 'The Roads Must Roll,' but it was a lot of fun. I think it was also safer than the normal ones because with the roller beds you couldn't get stuck in the ends where the belt goes under.

I hopped off the subway at St. Michel to go to another concert at Ste.-Chapelle. Last time, you may recall, I was displeased, and so I didn't hold out much hope. I couldn't have been more wrong.

The concert consisted of the four major Mozart flute quartets, played on period instruments, but a group that understood how to manage the hall. I could see their technique: they were playing rediculously staccato, spending most of their time with the bow off the string, and the rest were long, connected lines. In the last one, the No.1 in D major, K.285, in the second movement I almost cried: the flute's line soared through the space and the sun faded from the stained glass. At the end we clapped hard, and got an encore. The flutist played Debussy's Syrinx, which really benefits from such a space where she can leave notes hanging in the hall while she has moved on to others.

I made my way over to Suzanne's apartment where Darius, David, Suzanne, and I were going to have dinner. It was a bit dramatic, but Suzanne produced an edible pasta and salads, and we talked until about a quarter after ten, when we set out -- them for a walk, me for home. Unfortunately, we didn't go the way I was used to, got turned around, and I ended up having to double back and come by an odd route back to the hotel. But at least I have my clean laundry. The underwear situation was still fine today, but was about to turn dire tomorrow morning.

2006-08-30

Dave and Suzanne agreed last night to meet me at the Louvre at 9:00. I got there early, like I always do, went ahead and got in line, figuring they would join me there when they arrived, and when the Louvre finally opened at 9:15, there was no sign of them. The line shuffled forward. When I reached the front at 9:20, I got out, walked down the line to make sure they weren't in it, and struck out on my own. I remember why travelling with most people is so annoying now. Simple things like sitting on a bench out front of the building so the other person can find you apparently aren't obvious.

I walked west, crossed the Seine, and spent the morning in the Musee de Rodin, which is the nicest one I've been to in Paris. There are two buildings, the old chapel and the main house, and French gardens with sculpture in them -- including the Gates d'Enfer and Rodin's sculpture of Balzac -- all around. The chapel has the temporary exhibition room, but it was unfortunately closed today. The main house is a large, airy building with high cielings and enormous windows. Whoever curates the museum does an extremely good job: the sculptures were all placed so that you could easily see all sides of them, they weren't crowded together, the the text on the placards, when it existed at all, was actually worth reading! In some rooms the windows were open, and in all of them most of the lighting was from the sun. I far prefer this, though it's probably impractical for anything but a sculpture museum (bronze doesn't much care if it's light or dark).

I wandered back through town rather circuitously, up to my hotel for a moment, down l'Avenue de l'Opera and Rue de Petits-Champs, Rue de Etienne-Marcel, and finally into the Marais and to Les Philosophes for lunch again. L'entree et le plat du jour today brought me a tower with potato salad in a green sauce at the base, with several sauteed shrimp on top of it, and baby greens scattered above, then a couple of breaded pork ribs, and mashed sweet potatos with chanterelle mushrooms and snow peas. Today I got some tea, and they don't serve Lipton. The waiter brought me a lovely Earl Gray.

I wandered down the street to Passion du Bon Pain again, and bought myself a strawberry tart for dessert after my dinner tonight. Farther down, the instrument shop, Orphee, which I noted several days ago was open. I spent an hour or so in there playing violins.

I made my way back along the Seine, browsing through the book stalls. I was strong and did not buy anything. Then I made the walk back up the Avenue de l'Opera again, bought a napoleon in the patisserie by the hotel, and returned to my room for a while.

After a nap and a little reading, I went to the Louvre. I wandered through the Italian and Flemish galleries. I saw the Mona Lisa (there were a couple paintings in the main gallery that were better). I walked past endless, enormous, mediocre pictures. The Louvre appears to have been assembled on the basis of what could be wrested from everyone, but with little eye to taste. The French can't complain about Americans wanting everything huge and in vast quantities. They started it. The most aesthetically pleasing part of my visit were a couple of marble statues by a fellow who appears to have been obsessed with carving pretty, nude young women being attacked by venomous creatures, and walking up the spiral staircase under Pei's pyramid to leave.

I paid my bill at the hotel, ate some bread and cheese, and went to bed. Here ends the account.


Fred Ross
August 2006
New York, NY


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Nonfiction Fiction
Into the Sciences Monologue: A Comedy of Telepathy