Monday, 30 April 2012

lecture away from lecture

I had promised, as recently as earlier today, to return from my travel-induced interregnum from book reviews, to flooding this blog with apologetically late accounts of my reading habits. However, after very little thought (as is my wont for these entries), I've decided against that. Instead, I shall be taking a positive view. I was able, or chose, to devote countless column inches in the last month or two to my activities outside the cover of a book, but this is not so much a reflection of what I have been doing instead of reading, as of what I have been doing as well. Indeed, as has been the case in the past when I've travelled, I've probably read as much or more as I would otherwise have. Anyway, the absence of reviews is a good thing - it indicates that I have things happening in my life that take a higher priority than reading and blogging about reading :)

In fact, though, I must begin my now-traditional catchup with some books read before my departure. Back in January, for the first time in a long time, I visited the library, and came away with an armful of books to read. The last of these, as it turned out, was Cormac McCarthy's The Road. My first foray into McCarthy had been All The Pretty Horses, back in 2009, and enjoyed it, but the Road was a very different book. Not different in that I didn't like it - I think on the balance that I did - but the writing is starkly different, stripped back to a bare minimum, to match the world being described. To be honest, its almost not a book you like so much as appreciate - the story is tough and at times uncompromising, and at times so can be the reading experience, but I thought it was worth it.

Ok, so it wasn't the last book from the library. That honour, dubious though it may be, goes to the wonderful Terry Pratchett, and Unseen Academicals. I was recently trying to sell Pratchett's work to someone who, though a fan of satire, was strongly averse to fantasy writing. My argument was essentially that his writing, that is, his mastery of the English language, takes a back seat to no currently working author I could name, and though I failed to make my case successfully, I hold that to be true. This is in strong evidence in Unseen Academicals, in which he weaves his familiar world of the university with that of the origin/codification of soccer, the story of Romeo and Juliet, and of the acceptance of the outsider. None of the threads ever becomes heavy, but they each come through clearly and coherently, and all with beautiful prose and replete with the anecdotes and wordplay that will be his hallmark when his writing career soon, regrettably, comes to a close (or so I have heard).

Before leaving to go overseas, I found myself in between the end of my lease and settlement on my new abode, and having the pleasure of spending a week with my friends Paul and Juli. Juli is quite the collector of books, and being without one, I took it upon myself to scour her shelves for something recognisable that I could be sure to finish in what was a busy week. My eyes fell upon Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, and it ticked all those boxes, as well as the more important one of being good! Its a scifi classic, I suppose, though its really more dystopian, in the style of 1984 or Brave New World, than hard scifi (the distinction could be argued, obviously). The central character is a fireman in a world in which that role has become one not of putting fires out, but of starting them, in order to destroy books, which are banned. As the story progresses, the fireman first rebels against and then flees the regime.

Having left for my trip, I avoided reading for a little while, knowing that I had a lot of work reading/reviewing/proofreading to do, and knowing my tendency to read voraciously while travelling. I succumbed eventually though, once getting to Rennes, and stayed dystopian, reading Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale. This is another famous dystopia, in which the central character is a handmaid, a woman given over to the sole purpose of bearing children in a society in which women have been stripped of all rights to property, work or self-determination generally. I have to say, though, that it didn't stack up to Fahrenheit or the other dystopian works I've read. The character is thinly and difficult to understand at times, and the worldbuilding is also unconvincing - perhaps it resonates more in societies in which fundamentalist religions - be they Muslim, Christian or otherwise - are more present than in Australia. For these and other reasons, I wasn't particularly moved by it.

For my last in this instalment, I went back to my base. I had watched the TV adaptation last year of George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones with great pleasure, and needed little provocation to grab a copy of the book from which its drawn. This is classic fantasy - great fat 1000-page tomes with lots of characters, taking part in dramatic action in a vividly drawn world undergoing great change. It has maps at the front! What I really like, though, is that its meaty - the characters are as stark (pun not intended) and gritty as the world in which they live, and Martin doesn't let the fantastic elements get in the way of the story - it is typically people and steel that decides characters' fates, not magic or dragons (though that will change at some point). It also avoids stereotypes all over the place - there is no Eddings-style Messiah story here - and he isn't afraid to let characters die when circumstances dictate that they will die. I have a copy of the second, and barring a Wheel-Of-Time style burnout (8000 pages of my life I will never get back!), I anticipate continuing to read the series as it evolves, until I don't enjoy it any more.

Travel Wrap

I had been doing so well with my reports on my trip through Europe, with 6 blog posts directly about it and another which was pretty strongly linked. Today, though, I'm abandoning what hopes I may have had of fully documenting the trip, with a hastily compiled summary of a time period which probably represents almost half of the time I was away.

I've already blogged about my weekend in Rennes and, like the weekend, much of the week that followed was spent in similar vain, in that it was a revisitation of my old life in Rennes.

My days were spent at Beaulieu, working with my old team. I say my old team, but times have moved on since I was there. Jean-Marc has moved up in the world, to be director of the laboratory, and Benoit B has moved into his role as team leader. There are a few more permanent researchers now - Benoit B, Benoit C, Olivier, Arnaud, Johann, Gerson and Noël (off the top of my head) - and it seems like a lot more doctoral students. The project as a whole faces an important year ahead, as the old project comes to an end and they prepare a proposal (or proposals) for new directions.

In the evenings I mostly hung out with M, who came over to visit on Monday. I had really been looking forward to showing her "my town", and some of the things I really like about it, but it was a very vague ambition, and I'm not sure to what extent it was met. We tried a range of crêperies and restaurants, including some that I'd frequented in the past. We met Nono - by chance, actually - for an apero, and had dinner with the Benoits. We tried a few new things too (new to me as well), most noticeably some really delicious macaroons from a chocolatier which I'd often walked past but never walked into. Oddly, we only went for one run, but it was a good one, along the canal

On the Friday we took a train, then a taxi, then a plane, then a bus, in order to get ourselves to Hammersmith, as I made a return to London (the previous visits having been 2003, 2004 and 2007, I think) for the trip's one week of true vacation (on my part - M was back to work).

Saturday was largely given to the Boat Race, the annual rowing 8s competition between Oxford and Cambridge along the Thames, in no small part because the house in which I was graciously hosted was ideally placed to watch the event. Being just a few yards from the river, and with a rooftop view giving both up and down the stretches graced by the boats, had lead to a call - well made if not well heeded - for a barbecue to celebrate. It was impressive to see just how many people turn out to watch, and with what enthusiasm they do so. I was on the light blues for the day, courtesy of my cousin's involvement in a few instalments, many years ago now.

In the end, the race itself was equal parts spectacle and debacle. About 2/3 of the way through the race, with Oxford perhaps ahead by a nose and well placed in light of the remaining bends, a swimmer emerged directly in front of the Oxford boat, and both crews were instructed to stop rowing. The guy, an Australian purportedly demonstrating against elitism, was unharmed, but what followed was a curious half hour in which the boats moved back up the river to eventually restart from just before where the incident had occurred. After the restart, a clash of oars left Oxford one blade down, which allowed Cambridge to cruise ahead to a comfortable win.

What was perhaps more curious about the event, to me at least, was the nature of the crowds. In the evening, hours after the official proceedings had mutely wound down, we headed to a local pub for a pint. What we found was a curious mix of would-be toffs (though I remain unconvinced that they weren't regular punters wearing velvet jackets out of irony) and others who fit to a T the drunken stereotype of the drunken English soccer fan, people who I would never have thought of as being interested in such a historically elitist event.

A week in London would, to someone else, represent an enormous opportunity for tourism, but I made little of it, really. I got to a few attractions - a morning in the national gallery, a lunchtime concert at St Martin-in-the-Field (Piazzola!), an afternoon at the Victoria & Albert - but left rather more unattended. I did manage a very pleasant day travelling out by train to Moreton-in-Marsh to see some family friends - whose acquaintance I was long overdue to make - for what turned out to be a very enjoyable and affable lunch.

What I spent most of the week doing, in reality, was running and reading. I managed 4 runs: one out to Richmond Park and back along the Tow Path, one past Craven Cottage down to Putney Bridge and back, a third down past Barnes and Chiswick Bridges and almost to Kew Bridge, and another short one to Mortlake, for a coffee, before coming back again along the Tow Path. I suspect that over the journey, I played the role of anchor to M&T, who were both in training for much longer (some would say preposterously long) events, and were clearly much fitter than I was.

The other activity for the week was reading. I borrowed up a book on arrival in London, from one of my absent hosts, and an iPad during the week, and alternated during the week of reading the former while at "home base", and the latter while out and about. I have since finished one, and will soon finish the latter, but I will leave a discussion of the merits of these and other books to another post. It is quite likely that, with my return to Australia, this blog will return to its regular programming of apologetically delayed book reviews. Still, hopefully this travel diary has served as an amusing distraction

Monday, 23 April 2012

It was the best of rides, it was the worst of rides

About 18 months ago I posted my initial impressions of CityCycle, Brisbane's beleaguered public bike hire scheme. At the time I doubted whether I would use the scheme much, despite my year-long subscription, and that doubt proved more prophetic than I could have imagined. That day and its two rides wound up being the sum total of my use of the scheme over 12 months - hardly good value for my $60 subscription. It simply was never convenient. Any time I was at ease carrying a helmet around, it was possible and preferable to take my own bike.

By contrast, coming back to my very verbose travel diary, on the Saturday of my week in Rennes, I found myself needing to get out to Brequigny to watch a basketball game, and I decided that I would give the Rennes bike hire scheme, Le Velo Star, a try. I signed up for a 7-day subscription, for 5 euros (a shade under A$7 at the moment), and a few minutes later, armed with a code, I was able to roll out past the station on my new steed.

I ended up riding every day I was in Rennes, so at 14 trips for $7, it certainly yielded better value for me than my CityCycle subscription. The bikes themselves bear a strong resemblance to the CityCycle offerings - heavy, fairly low, 3 gears, but fairly serviceable provided you stuck to reasonable terrain. The Rennes bikes, though, are considerably older, and it shows. I had a number of bikes with technical issues - slipping drive train, only one gear, a wonky pedal - but for the kinds of journeys I was making, it wasn't much of an issue, and if it had been, I could easily have stopped at an intervening station and transferred to another.

The experience of riding along without a helmet was disconcerting at first. Even while I was living in France, I always rode with a helmet, and if I were to live there again, I would do so again. I quickly got comfortable riding without one, though. The relatively slow pace encouraged by the bikes at hand make it a little safer, I think, and the roads are well suited to cyclists, with ample cycle lanes of generous width, and no conflict with parked cars. At no time during the week (admittedly a small sample) did I feel at all endangered by the cars.

Tempting as it is to consider this as a vote for a revision of helmet laws, the link between cyclist safety and driver attitudes, traffic conditions and bike lane availability and quality makes it a very complicated question. I remain undecided. One way or another, though, public bike hire in Rennes has it all over public bike hire in Brisbane.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

return to Rennes III

From Berlin it was on to Rennes. Friday afternoon was spent with Jacques in Potsdam shopping, successfully, for toys for his children and, unsuccessfully, an iPad for me. From there we caught a train and a bus to Tegel airport, where we had a drink before saying goodbye, as I boarded my plane for Paris and he awaited his to Luxembourg.

Landing at Paris-Orly, I caught a taxi to Montparnasse. It was the first time I'd caught a taxi in Paris, and I was impressed at how fast it was; I had anticipated much more congestion and, to be honest, expense. Anyway, I got to the station in good time to retrieve my TGV ticket, but unfortunately, the SNCF machines still refuse to accept Australian credit cards, so I was forced to board the train ticketless. It was very full, with quite a few people standing, without tickets but without seat reservations, while I sat a little sheepishly with a seat reservation but no ticket. When I alerted the controller to my situation, he seemed unperturbed, and said that when he returned, I could buy a ticket and reclaim my original purchase at a later date, which sounded pretty reasonable. I never saw him again.

By the time I got to Rennes, I was pretty tired, and grateful to be staying in a hotel near the station. Or so I thought - despite my fairly firm protestations, the hotel had no reservation of my booking. Later, looking at my booking statement, I read to my chagrin, that I had in fact only booked from the following night. Nonetheless, they found me a room, which although tiny was a welcome sight at the end of a long day of trains, planes and automobiles.

Were I more disciplined, or had I not been two weeks on the road already, I would have risen early and gotten myself to the marché des lices, Rennes' most impressive tourist attraction. Being who and were I was, though, I took the alternate path of lying in late, and wandering into town only after midday to have some lunch - galette-cidre-crêpes, bien sûr! - and along the way suss out some options for laundry. Following that I spent the bulk of the afternoon in a laundromat, reading my book and waiting on machines. It took me back to my first months in my apartment in St-Thérèse, before I bought a washing machine, when so many weekend afternoons incorporated similar trips to a different (and, to be honest, a more pleasant) laundromat, often with a novel. There are worse ways to pass the time, to be honest, if the book is good enough.

In the evening, I headed out to Bréquigny for a nostalgic evening watching the girls from Avenir de Rennes run around. Rather than catching the bus, as I might have back in the day, I bought myself a week-long subscription to the public bike hire scheme, and grabbed a dumpy but servicable little steed to roll down past the station, women's prison and familiar metro stops out to the edge of town. Since I left, the team had moved its games from the quaint but often cramped quarters of rue Papu out to the more capacious and more professional-feeling Salle Colette Besson (apparently a French sporting heroine from the Mexico Olympics).

Once there, I started looking around for Véronique, whom I was slated to meet there. She wasn't to be found, but while queueing for a ticket I found Soso, lingering outside with a kloppe (as is her wont), who was another on my list of people to say hello to. Eventually Véronique, Yann and Rosalie joined me, and we went inside to join a healthy crowd, including large and enthusiastic delegations from some small towns outside Rennes - Vezin-le-Coquet and, I think, La Chapelle-des-Fougeretz. I've always been impressed by Avenir's engagement with the youth basketball communities from these towns.

The game itself was entertaining for a little while. The Rennes girls outsized and outplayed their opponents fairly convincingly early on. Once the lead was built, the foot lifted a little, and the sting and interest went out of the game, as Rennes cruised to an easy victory by 20 or so points. Its a different team than the one I used to watch - only one player is still playing whom I had seen play previously, and they play under a new coach - but with some of the same characteristics. The two veterans - a guard and a centre - play an important leadership role in the structure of their game, but most of the players are very young.

At half-time and after the game I was able to catch up, with the Blancs, with Soso, and also with some other old friends - Sophie Brisson, Nono, and the now-very-pregnant Cecille. Still, it was difficult to escape the feeling that this was the life I used to lead, and that both my life and the club's have moved a long way since the days when these games were such an important part of my life. I'm not sure whether its sad or inevitable or a sign of progress, or all of those, but it remains a cherished part of my story.

Berlin wrap-up

Having been so energetic about blogging during the first week and half of my trip through Europe, it behooves me to finish off the story a little.

My original purpose for being in Berlin, other than establishing and reaffirming relationships with various other researchers, was to attend the DSAL workshop, where I was coauthor of a paper with some collaborators from Germany and Luxembourg. That was done by Tuesday, so in theory at least, I was a little more at my leisure for the rest of the week. In practice, it changed little; I wasn't presenting the paper anyway, and we in fact spent more of the week working on a paper submitted the following week.

During the DSAL workshop, in one of the duller talks (yes, there are dull talks at academic workshops - a shocking revelation, I know), when I wasn't plotting running tracks, I discovered that there was a concert in town on Wednesday night by the Shai Maestro Trio.

Shai Maestro is a young Israeli pianist who played on a couple of albums by Avishai Cohen, who has in recent years been probably my favourite jazz performer. Maestro's playing had really impressed me, and I have been looking forward to his new album (now released, in fact), so I was pretty excited at the prospect of being able to see him live. The gig was at 10pm in town, necessitating a train a little after 9, and upon inspection, the conference social event, a boat cruise, was scheduled in the programme to finish at 9, right next to the train station, so I figured I was all good.

The boat cruise was pretty good, out on the lake around which I had run earlier in the week. The company was also good - as I had been for much of the week, I surrounded myself with French-speakers - Jacques, Max, Jean-Marc (who came along for the Wednesday and Thursday morning), Phillipe from Nice and Joerg from Montreal. We had some really interesting discussions, about French politics, Swiss ice-skating, and Dan Simmons novels, and the time passed quickly.

By around 8:45pm, though, I was getting antsy - the boat showed no sign of returning to port, and time was marching on. Time continued its march, and by around 9:30pm, still not ashore, I had resigned myself to missing not only the start of the gig, but most of it. We ended up getting back to shore a little after 10pm, and with a 15 minute wait for a train, I decided that the game was lost, and headed dejectedly back to my hotel.

I felt particularly guilty at missing the concert as I had boasted over Skype to Paul, another Avishai devotee and Shai Maestro admirer, about going to the gig, and telling him I had been in Berlin and still missed it was an unappealing prospect.

As much as I had a good time on the boat cruise, I'd still rather have seen the gig.