European Tour Part 1: Germany

In September, I had to go to Europe for work to attend the Multiscale Modeling of Materials conference in Freiburg, Germany. Freiburg is in the southwest corner of Germany, near the border with both France and Switzerland. The conference was held in the University. It was my first trip to Germany and it was very interesting. Freiburg, I don’t believe, is very representative of Germany. It wasn’t damage as much during the two wars and so still has some of the old Europe feel to it. Many of the streets are cobblestone, and there is a little ditch that runs along them, creating a little stream that runs through the city.

The Freiburg cathedral was amazing, one of the most ornate cathedrals I’ve visited. It was covered with gargoyles, which was both very interesting and, from the churches I’ve seen, fairly unique. The cathedral was also covered in various carvings. Some looked intentional, but others looked like graffiti, though they weren’t people’s names, but seemed to be diagrams of some sort. In the mornings, the locals set up a farmers’ market around the cathedral, which was very nice.

The conference itself was great. It was one of the best ones I’ve been to, as there was a lot of content that was interesting and useful to me. The conference organizers took us on an excursion to some local vineyards. We tasted some German wines, which were good. I’m no wine connoisseur, but I enjoyed the wines. We then visited another city which had another cathedral, though it was no where near as ornate as Freiburg’s. It did have some interesting frescos depicting heaven and hell that were uncovered during a restoration.

After finishing the conference, I was to meet with some collaboraters in England the following week. I took advantage of the free weekend to visit my family in Euskadi.

European Tour Part 2: Euskadi

After finishing up in Germany, I took a couple of days to visit Euskadi to see my dad’s family. It was only a couple of days, but any chance I can get to visit Euskadi is always worth it. As I flew in, I had a wonderful view of the Basque coast. The picture is of the coast around Donostia, the city I lived in when I studied Basque and Spanish. My cousin Ander picked me up from the airport and took me to the town of my dad, Munitibar.
Almost immediately upon landing, I met up with a good friend, Jon, and he took me to the fiesta in Aulesti. Aulesti is a small town near Munitibar, but I understand that its fiesta is quite well known, especially for the region. My dad remembers walking to the fiesta from Munitibar. I must be a lazy American, since I couldn’t imagine walking through the mountains from Munitibar to Aulesti. One thing that has changed since the time of my dad is the music. The headlining act at the fiesta was Gatibu, who are a hard rock band. In the Basque Country, music comes in typically two flavors: folk or hard rock/heavy metal. Gatibu was very good, especially live. I need to try to find a CD of theirs to check them out more.

We were in Aulesti until 4 AM. If you haven’t been to a Basque fiesta, you typically hop from bar to bar, getting a little bit of beer (called a zurito) or a little bit of wine. Just enough to wet your whistle, before moving on to the next bar. And you do this all night. The plaza of Aulesti was full of people, hopping bars and listening to the music. I ran into my cousin Amaia there as well. I can’t imagine living in the town during the fiesta; it would be impossible to sleep, the music was so loud!

I spent Saturday relaxing before continuing on the fiesta at Aulesti on Sunday. The flavor was completely different on Sunday. We drove to Aulesti and then hiked up to a little valley at the foot of a hermitage. There, a couple of bars were set up and people mingled and drank. There was a little dancing and an irintzi contest. There was also a small demonstration. It seems that the main political point made these days in the demonstrations is to get Basque prisoners closer to home so that their families can more easily visit them. I think that was the point of the demonstration. It was a very calm event, with people just gathering and waving their ikurrinas.

After Aulesti, it was time to visit with family and then head on to the next stop: England.

European Tour Part 3: England

The third leg of my trip to Europe took me to England, specifically Cambridge and London. My colleague had done a postdoc in Cambridge and wanted to see it again, so he arranged for us to give a talk at the school. We spent some time wandering around the city. Unfortunately, most of the colleges were closed as it was the week students were returning. So, we didn’t get to see, for example, the statue of Newton in Trinity College.

I’m currently reading “Great Physicists” and it is amazing the scientific history that happened at Cambridge. Many of the great scientists of all time spent cosiderable portions of their careers at Cambridge. It was amazing to walk around the same streets that they had strolled around, even if we didn’t get to go in. Everywhere I turned there were old buildings that must have been there since the time of Newton. What little I could see of the colleges was spectacular: huge green yards, magnificent chapels, and incredible buildings. We went into King’s Chapel as it was open. The grandeur of the chapel was amazing. And even more amazing was the fact that there was more imagery associated with the English royalty than with Christianity: the roses, the lions and greyhounds, and the portices. I definitely have to return when I can see the colleges themselves.

Just to give some idea of the historic significance of Cambridge, Kurt and I went to a bar called, I believe, the Eagle’s Nest. It is famous because they had uncovered a bunch of writing on the ceiling written American pilots during WWII. However, it is also the place where Watson and Crickk had their “eureka” moment on the structure of DNA. Pretty damn cool.
After Cambridge, we went to London to meet with some collaborators at Imperial College and Loughborough University. So, we spent most of the rest of the week working. But, our host, Robin, did take us to down town London in the evening. We spent a night of touring the sites as well as hitting a few pubs.

This always annoys Robin, but I don’t find British beers as flavorful as their American counterparts. For example, American IPAs are much better, to me, than British bitters. Even though the Brits invented the IPA, it seems that the Americans perfected them, at least for my palette. I don’t find that British bitters are all that, well, bitter. They don’t have much hoppy flavor.

Anyways, we hit China town for a great dinner one night. And another evening, Robin treated us to BBQ, which was very good. And that was the end of the trip. It was pretty uneventful returning to the US. There was a small snafu with the planes. When we got to Gatwick, our flight had been cancelled. Fortunately, we were able to get on other (but separate) flights. In the end, that was fine as I some how got upgraded to business class. So no complaints.

San Francisco

Earlier this week, I was in San Francisco for the American Chemical Society meeting, which was held downtown, in the Moscone Center. On the last day, I took a bit of time for myself to wander around and see a little bit of the city. I am a book buff, and so I searched out some book stores. I started my day by finding a comic book store, Things From Another World. There is only one comic book store in Santa Fe, and they tend to have a smaller selection. TFAW had a good selection of graphic novels/trade paperbacks, which is what I buy as they are just easier to put on a bookshelf. I ended up getting The Freshmen and Powers Vol 5: Anarchy. Powers has been a great series so far, and The Freshmen looks very entertaining.

I then headed to a couple of bookstores around Market Street, Cody’s Books and Stacey’s Bookstore. Both specialize in new books. I tend to look for a few different but consistent things whenever I find a new bookstore: Science and Basque books. Neither had any books on Basques I could find, and the Science selection was ok, but not great. Both stores were pleasant, but didn’t quite satisfy my book cravings.

So, I headed down Sansome Street toward a Basque restaurant — more on that later. I was in the mood for some coffee, which is easy to find in downtown SF — as long as you want Starbucks. There literally seems to be a Starbucks on every other corner. I did find something else, though, a place called Morning Brew Coffee and Tea. I got my standard vanilla latte and they did a good job. It wasn’t overly sweet or bitter. Very nice coffee.

I continued down Sansome until it met Columbus and right about there I ran into the San Francisco Brewing Company. I noticed it because it was the only building that had steam coming out of a pipe on the side. I had their Shanghai Pale Ale, which was very good. Not too hoppy (though I tend to like hoppy beer), so it was a little lighter than most IPAs. And the atmosphere reminded me of the College Inn Pub and Big Time in Seattle, with a wood decor that was a bit worn. Highly recommended. I got a souvenir glass to remember the occasion.

Just down the street from the SF Brewing Company, I found a cool bookstore, City Lights Books. It is one of those stores where the bookshelves are shoved in every corner and books are everywhere. It reminded me of a smaller scale Elliot Bay Bookstore in Seattle. They had a good diversity and selection of books and I found two that I picked up: Great Physicists and Time of the Rabies. The first describes the lives and work of 30 famous physicists and the second is by Robert Laxalt, probably the greatest Basque-American author. This short novella is supposed to be about a rabies epidemic that hits a Basque sheep-rancher. It should be interesting. Any book fans in SF should check out City Lights Books.
I continued on down Columbus towards my goal, which was right around Union and Columbus. That was the Iluna Basque restaurant and it’s spin-off Eguna Basque. These names mean “Basque Night” and “Basque Day”. Accordingly, Eguna Basque is a cafe specializing in sandwiches and is open from 7AM to 5PM. I stopped by there first for a late lunch and had the Stuffed Croissant, which was a croissant sandwich with ham and swiss. It was warmed and served with a small side salad. It was very reasonably priced ($5.50), especially compared to the paninis we were getting in Union Square. The decor is a little spartan, but still very nice. Some of the tables are made from old wine barrels, which is pretty cool. And there were photographs on the wall as well.

I walked off some of the sandwich before heading to Iluna Basque for a small dinner. It’s decor is a bit more elegant, reflecting the night-time crowd it draws. I had a beer, some Marinated Lamb Skewers with Rosemary, and a selection of Basque Cheeses with Membrillo, for $20 exactly (plus tax and tip). The lamb was very good; the rosemary really added to the flavor. And the cheeses were excellent. That, with some bread, was a very filling dinner. I ate at the bar, though there were a number of tables for two plus a family-style table in the center of the room. None of the meals, though, are family style. They are all either tapas or individual entres. They had some variants on Basque staples, such as squid in its own ink (on Spanish rice), piquillo peppers stuff with cod, and various fish dishes. People who eat seafood would do well here, and there seemed to be enough purely vegetarian choices for those who eat neither seafood nor meat.

Afterwards, I headed back to my hotel along Powell Street. I stopped in a Borders, just to hang out for a moment, but didn’t see anything that really caught my eye. Overall, though, it was an excellent day spent exploring some of the city. I had no real disappointments in any of the places I stopped. And the views of San Francisco down the rolling streets are always incredible.

Like ants…

I just went to Richland, WA, for the second time in two months, both times for work (visiting PNNL). Last time, it was for a conference and, for an excursion, the organizers took us to some wineries. I was pleasantly surprised by the area. I had visited a couple of times when I went to school in Seattle and was always struck by how remote it was. But, the area seems more pleasant to me than it did back then. A few of us walked along the river to a restaurant called Anthony’s. The walk was very nice. They’ve done a great job of making the river walk very nice, with lots of parks and apartments and such along the way. And the wineries were good too. I’m no expert, as my wife can tell you, so don’t take my word on the quality of the wines, but to my taste, they were good.

My brother and his family live in (relatively) nearby Pullman and my best friend Bob and his family live in Moscow, so it always nice to visit them during these trips to Richland. Dave and Shelley’s twins are growing up fast and Bob and Rhonda’s son, Owen, is now mobile and getting into everyting. It was a great visit. And I think I got Bob addicted to Fullmetal Alchemist. 🙂

One thing I’m always struck by when flying around is how, no matter where I am, it seems that the landscape I’m flying over is just covered with the marks of human activity. Whether the cities or the rural farming areas, it seems we’ve marked every square inch of the planet. In some ways, it is always very interesting to see the “colonies” we, as humans, have made everywhere; it’s like watching ants from high above. But, I’m always a little saddened too by how everywhere I look from the sky is covered in the markings of human activity. There are rodes through the mountains, fields in any open space, and subdivisions everywhere. I guess this is just part of progress and growth. But it always strikes me when I’m looking down at how we’re like ants, covering every inch we can.

Blah, blah, blah… I've got the blahs.

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