I spent the first week of September at a conference in Padova, Italy, only maybe 30 minutes by train from Venice. We didn’t get a lot of time to look around, but we were able to take the day before the conference started to visit Venice, jet-lagged and all.
The day started off a bit less than stellar: the train we’d hoped to catch didn’t show. There was some problem — what exactly wasn’t clear — but they just skipped one scheduled stop. So we lost one day. Still, we were able to spend maybe 6-7 hours strolling the streets.
We only made two stops, at the Guggenheim museum and the National Academy, I believe. Both were interesting, but neither was my cup of tea. The Guggenheim, a collection of Peggy Guggenheim’s, who lived some time in Venice, was essentially entirely modern art (Picasso, Giro, Warhol, etc). Not something I get into all that much. The National Academy, though, was exactly the opposite: many famous Italian religious paintings. I’ve never been in a place with so many depictions of Jesus. It was a bit overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time. I did enjoy a couple of depictions of hell and there were a couple of somewhat impressionist paintings of landscapes and rural scenes that I liked the best. But, overall, it was again not for me.
We spent the rest of the day just wandering the streets, just observing the city. We tried to get away from the main streets, finding the small side paths, exploring the intimacy of the city (so much so that we overheard one teenage girl in a pretty heated argument with her mom from their apartment above the street).
At one point the jet lag hit us and we found a bar and just hung out for a while, watching the tourists pass by and, at one point, a water-borne ambulance stopped just next to where we were sitting. Thinking about it, it made perfect sense that a city like Venice would need emergency services that went by water, but it wasn’t something that, well, I had thought about before.
Venice is a really enchanting city. I really liked how the city is connected via the waterways, that the roads are secondary. It is certainly a city where you couldn’t drive anywhere; it is the ultimate pedestrian city. There were plazas all over the place, filled with restaurants. There were shops all over as well, selling paper, masks, food, and other specialty items. And, of course, there were tourists. Many of them. But not so many that it was annoying, at least not to another tourist.
I would definitely like to return and spend maybe a little more time there, a couple of days rather than just a few hours. Seeing how it is one of my wife’s favorite cities, I’m sure that such an opportunity will come along some day.
After the news of the crashes of the planes going from Brazil to France and from France to Comoros, it seems one should be greatful whenever their flight arrives at its destination and that “minor” inconveniences that result in “just” delays are not so important in the big scheme of things. And that is probably true. But, when we returned from Idaho to Santa Fe via Las Vegas, our delay in Vegas was so bizzare that I feel it is worth sharing.
We were on a direct flight between Boise and Albuquerque, stopping in Vegas but we didn’t have to get off. We got there a little early because of favorable winds, I think, but when we landed, our gate was “broken” (that was the word they used) which caused a delay as they found us another gate. That took maybe 15 minutes or so. At the new gate, they unloaded the Vegas passengers and loaded up a full plane of people flying to Albuquerque and beyond.
And now the, to me, really bizarre part. We just stayed there, for nearly two hours, at the gate, just waiting. For what? No one said for maybe one hour, when they finally explained it to us. It seems that they are doing construction at the airport in Vegas, so the number of runways is reduced. It also seems that, depending on the wind direction, either one or the other of the two runways in service are used. Originally, we were to use one runway, which was fine, but then the wind shifted and we were then supposed to use the other runway. But, that runway has less clearance — it heads into some mountains — so the plane needs to be more powerful than on the other runway. Our plane, fully loaded, didn’t have the power to safely clear the mountains — it was overweight. So, they unloaded passengers who were only going through Albuquerque and about 2000 pounds of fuel. This took about 2 hours total. All of this was complicated, somehow, by the temperature, which was 110 F.
Through all of this, the flight crew was great. One of the pilots explained this to us, for which I was very greatful (I much rather be informed about what is going on than be kept in the dark) and one of the flight attendants even ran back to the concourse to get us some fresh milk for our daughter (who, incidentally, did very well considering she was cramped in the plane for an extra 2 hours). So, I really commend the crew.
What I don’t understand is the company and the airport. It seems to me that in a place like Vegas, this can’t be a rare occurance, that it gets hot, that the wind shifts, and that a flight is oversold and is at full capacity. And yet it took 2 hours to diagnose and fix the situation? It just doesn’t make sense to me. I wonder how often this does happen and if it always takes this long for them to fix the problem.
After the conference in Beijing, I flew to Perth, Australia, to visit a collaborator. This guy, Nigel, had recently visited us and we are trying to get some joint work going on nuclear waste forms, materials for storing nuclear waste. He had just moved from Sydney to Perth, which is a shorter hop from Beijing, so that was convenient. Even more so, there are other Uberuagas actually living in the Perth area. They are from my dad’s home town of Munitibar, and grew up in a house just across the way from my dad. Having a name like Uberuaga, they are likely related, likely distant cousins, but I haven’t quite figured out what the relationship actually is. In any case, it was another nice convenience of flying to Perth.
Flying from Beijing to Perth, I had a stop in Hong Kong. I didn’t get to see anything of Hong Kong, but did have a panic in the airport as I couldn’t find a piece of equipment I was supposed to have on me. I really was in a cold sweat, as the last thing I wanted to do was lose government property, especially with all the negativity we’ve had recently about that kind of thing. Fortunately, I found it, but not without more that a few moments of true panic.
Nigel got me a place to stay very close to the water. The photos are from near my room. Perth is separated by a river and I was on the side opposite down town. A great view! Unfortunately, I had caught a cold in Beijing, so I wasn’t the most adventurous explorer during my time in Australia. But, I did get together with the Uberuaga clan — two brothers and their families — who treated me to a great Aussie barbie. That was on Sunday.
On Monday and Tuesday, Nigel and I discussed work we’d been doing and some new directions we could take the collaboration. We have, in my opinion, some really good ideas; now we just need to convince a funding agency. One night, I went to dinner with Nigel and some colleagues of his. I had a sampler plate, which had a number of things, including kangaroo. I can’t really say it had much of a distinctive taste, but it didn’t taste bad either. I guess in some parts of Australia, kangaroos are like we think of armadillos in Texas.
Wednesday, I took some time to do some shopping. I wanted to get Lisa an opal, so I searched for a shop. It took me a while to find something, especially as they tend to open a bit later — 10 — so I had a bit of a walk. I was also looking for some souvenir boomerangs, but didn’t find anything I really liked. The lady at the opal shop was pretty sweet, though I also thing she was in full saleswoman mode. She told me how great a deal I was getting and how the young American sailors who came through were always so polite and such. In the end, I think I did get a pretty good deal, as foreigners who are taking opals out of the country don’t have to pay tax and she gave me an extra discount off the sticker price. Not entirely sure why, but I was happy to get it.
That night I flew to Sydney. The next day, I was supposed to meet with some folks from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization, sort of Australia’s version of us. Karl, my host there, picked me up at the airport, which was an adventure in itself as he lost track of his car in the parking garage. But, we soon were on our way. The hotel they put me up in there was on the beach, a famous surfing beach that I forget the name of. The next day, I got a tour of ANSTO and met a lot of good people. I gave a seminar there (and in Perth too, actually) on the work we are doing. I think there is some potential for new collaborations with these guys. That night, Thursday, we had dinner at Karl’s place.
Friday, I walked around the beach near the hotel. I never made it to downtown Sydney. I was still feeling the effects of the cold a bit so didn’t venture too far. But, I saw a lot of kids, young kids, trying to catch some waves, learning to surf. That was cool.
About mid-day, I got on a plane and came home, after about two weeks away. As the plane was passing over Sydney, I snapped the photo at right. You can see the Sydney Opera House there. Sydney looks like a cool city. I’ll have to go back. But, it was good to get home, back to my family. Two weeks is getting to be a long time to be away from home.
It’s been a bit quiet around here lately, primarily due to life and work getting in the way. Work has included a couple of trips in the last few months which have made posting on the blog a bit difficult, trips to China, Australia, and Boston. I meant to post my thoughts on my Eastern travels months ago, in October when I went, but I just haven’t gotten to it until now. Hopefully, I remember enough to have something to say here.
I went to Beijing for a week for a conference (on Computer Simulations of Radiation Effects in Solids — COSIRES) and then to Australia for a week as well to visit a colleague there. I’ll write a second post on Australia; first, Beijing.
So, I went to Beijing for a scientific conference, so most of the week was spent working (listening to talks and giving a few myself) so I didn’t see as much of China as I would have liked. I left the US on a Friday and arrived in Beijing on Saturday. I went with a postdoc that is working with me who is from China, and his father — along with a few of his friends — picked us up. They drove us around Tiananmen Square and then took us to dinner, where I had the first of several Peking Ducks for the week. Part of the meal also included duck heart (which I neglected to try) and what was Mao’s favorite dish, pork braised in brown sauce. In reality, it seemed like pork fat, so I only tried a small piece. This was probably the oddest thing I tried while in China, including the frog we ate the next day.
I wanted to buy a couple of souvenirs for friends and family and so the next day we went to a shopping mall, a bit far from our hotel (well, we had to take a taxi to get there, so it wasn’t within walking distance is all I really know). It was pretty push, very upscale. I was looking for a small piece of jade for my daughter, nothing very fancy. So, we looked at the various displays from seemingly different companies. We settled on one eventually, looking at the various pieces. Immediately, the prices jumped out at me. I was looking for a simple piece, a piece shaped like a donut and not much bigger than a quarter. The cheapest piece like this was maybe $500, though most were at least $1000 and some as high as $10,000 or more. The price of a car! With the help of my postdoc’s dad, the lady behind the counter searched in a bin she had underneath and found, eventually, after a bit of searching, a piece that was about $100. The whole store was like this, filled with luxury goods such as watches and perfumes that I couldn’t imagine buying. I quickly realized that China is actually a very capitalistic society, regardless of the form of government it has. It was also clear that there must be a huge disparity between those who have and those who do not, as the average farmer from the country-side likely couldn’t afford the $100 piece I’d just purchased, much less the other pieces that were clearly out of my reach.
After that, the rest of our week was spent attending the conference, which was, overall, quite good. These conferences are primarily an opportunity to meet with colleagues and collaborators from around the world on a semi-regular basis, to get an update on what they are working on, and to potentially establish new collaborations. As I go to more and more of these, and I see the same people each time, I enjoy them more and more. Each night was spent in the hotel bar, which had a pool table. We stayed until the wee hours of the night, drinking beers and challenging each other to games of pool, usually broken up by country (the Yanks vs the Brits, the Finns vs the Yanks, and so on). We then had to get up between 6 and 7 the next morning to make the next round of talks. This got harder and harder as the week went on.
The conference was held at Beihang University, which was a pretty big campus. It was odd in that there were lots of younger kids also on campus, playing ball and such on the fields. The most memorable part to me was the bicycle parking lot, as this epitomized everything you hear about China. While there are a lot of cars on the road (and it is amazing to me that there aren’t accidents every block), there are still a lot of bikes on the road. They dodge and weave amongst the cars, seemingly taking their lives in their hands with every turn.
As with most of these conferences, there was an outing. And, in China, there is no bigger draw than the Great Wall. We spent a couple of hours there (once you catch a bus at noon to get there, spend nearly 2 hours on the road to the Great Wall, and then have to be back for dinner, it doesn’t leave a lot of time). We all scattered our separate ways, exploring the Wall in our own ways. I went off with my postdoc, just hiking as far as we could in our 2 hours. We hiked up about 45 minutes, pushing ourselves a bit (which, in my case, isn’t saying a whole lot since I’m not in the best of shape). It was a spectacular view. But, it was also amazing how crowded the whole thing was. Some places, the pathway was only one person wide, but two rows of people were trying to push past one another. And they weren’t polite about it. It was still amazing, however, to think about the effort that went into building the Wall, and how many people died during its construction. Supposedly, when someone died, they just tossed the body over the side and kept working.
The last day of the week, Friday, the conference ended after half a day and some of us decided to go to the Forbidden City. Now, this was impressive. The City is immense and no photo can do it justice. We spent the afternoon just traversing from one end to the other, checking out the various side buildings and gardens and such. But, there were so many buildings, so many parts to the City. My understanding is that the City was built to house the Emperor and his 1000 concubines. The only other men allowed were eunics, to ensure that the concubines were not sullied by any man besides the Emperor. Anyways, the buildings were being refinished, prettied-up, so to speak. It made it feel a bit more like a tourist trap, like it was being Disneyfied just a bit. Even so, it was still such an amazing place. Amazing that such a place could be built for one man.
The next day, I flew to Australia. But, I will write about that another day.
I forgot to mention maybe the most “memorable” part of my trip to Boston. Our flight out, back home, left at 7AM (well, really, closer to 8AM, but I read the itinerary wrong and we got up early to get there for a 7AM flight). So, I got up at 4:30AM to meet Chris at his hotel and catch a taxi to the airport. At the same time, a guy was delivering the morning paper and had his truck parked in the roadway in front of the hotel. The taxi guy pulled up next to the truck and I got in on the side next to the truck. As I was getting in, and the door was open, the truck pulled away. The door of the taxi caught on the truck and was damn near ripped off its hinges. I pulled it shut with a slam, and it seemed to close. So, off we went.
But, when we got to the airport, the taxi driver looked over the door and, clearly, there was some damage. The door didn’t open or close very cleanly.
I felt pretty guilty. But, at the same time, I didn’t feel it was all my fault. I felt both the taxi driver and the truck driver were at fault, at least partially.
The taxi driver wanted us to just give him some money to pay for the damages. Feeling as guilty as I was, I wasn’t at all sure what to do and, compounded with the early hour, I was not being very coherent or helpful. Fortunately, Chris told him we wouldn’t just give him cash, but if he gave us a phone number, we’d do what we could when we got home. The guy didn’t want to give us a number, it was cash or nothing. So, we left without doing anything.
I felt bad, but didn’t know what else to do.