Oo la la?

Another reason the summer has been so busy is because of work travel. I just got back last week from a 10 day trip to London and France for a conference on Radiation Effects in Insulators (REI) held in Caen, France. We went to London first to meet with collaborators there who were also going to the REI conference. There were three of us who went from Los Alamos: Kurt, Chris and myself. We stayed in the Kennsington area, very near the Earl’s Court metro stop. After meeting with our London colleagues, the next day we headed south, first to Portsmouth where we caught the ferry to Caen.

The ferry was very nice (on the way out, anyways). It wasn’t too crowded and, while it was a slow mode of transport, it was nice to be able to walk around, get some food and drink (there was a bar on board) and play ping pong. I pretty much sucked at ping pong, but the last game I played, I eeked out a victory (more due to my opponent choking than any real skill on my part). The photo is the sunset from the boat over the water.

The conference was held at the University of Caen, which wasn’t the prettiest thing to look at. It was heavily bombed and essentially destroyed during WWII and had been rebuilt in the 50s or 60s. As such, it had that very functional, boxy look to it. No style to the buildings at all. The cafeteria, though, was very nice. It was very cool to get fresh omelets.

And the conference itself was fine. I gave a talk on the last day, which isn’t the best day to give a talk. I’d much prefer to give a talk early in the week. First, people who might be interested in your work can find you and talk to you about it. And, you don’t have to fret all week about the talk, you just get it out of the way. Then you don’t feel so bad as you enjoy the evenings during the week.

Speaking of enjoying ourselves, the food overall was very good. Not only the cafeteria, but also the local restaurants. One night, we went to a Basque Bistro. While no one there was Basque (except me, perhaps), the food was very good. I had squid in its own ink, another guy had grilled sardines, and everyone was happy. Another night, we went out to the B&B that Kurt was staying at and had a very nice meal. I had a special local menu in which every course was paired with a local cider (the region, Normandy, is known for its ciders). It started off with duck meatballs, went on to pork filets, had an intermediate course of local cheeses, and ended with dessert (which I can’t remember at this moment).

The drink, on the other hand, wasn’t quite as good. I tend to be a beer guy, and France isn’t known for their beer. While I do enjoy cider, and the local cider was good, the beer was just average. The bars had this gimic to make up for it, something they called the “girafe”: a tall column of beer (2.5 liters) with a pour spout at the bottom so you can take the 2.5 liters to your table. Not that it made the beer taste better, but it made it more fun to drink it.

The most notable thing about Caen is the church steeples that fill the city line. And they are all nearly identical, again, a consequence of the bombing: all of the churches were rebuilt after the war. William the Conquerer, who conquered much of Britain from Normandy, is buried in one of the churches, the Men’s Abbey. His wife is buried on the other side of town in the Women’s Abbey. Interesting how the sexes were separated like that.

Caen is very close to the D-Day beaches and, after the conference finished, we spent an afternoon exploring the American Cemetary. It would have been nice to have more time to see the others, but even that much was worth it. Around 9000 Americans died during the Normandy invasion, and you get a sense of that cost in human life by visiting the cemetary. It is amazing to think that almost 3 times as many Americans died during that invasion than have died in Iraq. Maybe that says something about war becoming just a little bit humane (though, that doesn’t consider the cost in Iraqi life). There is a little museum there too, trying to give a sense of how difficult the task of taking those beaches was. Not that I’m in any kind of shape, but just hiking around the hills surrounding the beach winded me slightly. I can’t imagine trying to take the beach and the hills, carrying a bunch of equipment and being shot at.

Afterwards, we took the ferry back, though this time it wasn’t nearly so pleasant. It was full of families with kids, who were screaming their heads off, and parents who were yelling at their kids to stop screaming. But, we survived and made it back to London, where there was a metro strike, so we had to deal with that. The next day, we had some meetings with collaborators at Imperial College. That night, we were all exhausted from the travel, so we just grabbed some dinner at a local pub and called it a night. The next day, we flew home.

The photo is from the airplane as we flew home. I’m always struck with how much of the earth we humans have marked. It seems that there isn’t even a square inch of land we haven’t done something with. From an airplane-eye-view, it is rare to pass over any spot big enough to not have any obvious signs of human activity. I’m both amazed by what we have done and appalled by it as well.

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