Sunday, June 10, 2012

Paris with Ellie - Part 1, or, my time in Paris when I wasn't actually with Ellie

Ahhhh, Paris.  Usually, Paris is the first place that students studying in London go.  In fact, reading week, the seventh week of the semester where you don’t have classes in order to “catch up on your reading,” most of my fellow study abroad friends went to Paris for the week.  Having already been to Paris and knowing that I would spend a day in Paris as part of my April Eurotrip, I chose to go to Morocco instead.  Well, as fate would have it, our plans to go to Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day fell through and a good family friend of mine contacted me to let me know that she would be in Paris that weekend.  As a teacher, she got spring break off and was going to spend it in Germany with her family.  They were going to be out of town the first weekend of her spring break so she decided to spend a couple days in Paris before making her way to Germany.  She was only going to be there the 18th -20th but since I had classes I had to attend on the 20th, I decided to get myself to Paris on the 15th and spend a few days exploring Paris by myself before joining up with my friend. 

Thus, I found myself spending St. Patrick’s Day weekend in Paris.  Now, there are multiple options for traveling between London and Paris.  The most expensive but also most convenient option is surprisingly to take the Eurostar train.  When people think of backpacking around Europe, they always think of getting an inter-rail pass and traveling on the cheap around Europe.  England, for some reason, is not part of the Eurorail agreement between the various European train companies that lets students travel on the cheap.  Alas, the train between London and Paris can be really expensive if you don’t book well in advance and at off-peak times.   The next option is to take a flight, which actually isn’t that expensive.  If you go on one of the budget airlines, your ticket would definitely be less expensive than a last-minute ticket on a train, but then you have to deal with weight limits on checked bags and having to separate out all your liquids.  Since the train only takes 2.5 hours, the 1 hour flight between Paris and London ends up taking the same amount of time when you factor in check-in time and waiting for your bag at bag claim.  So, I decided to try and save some money by taking the cheapest option, a Eurolines coach ride for £44, or about $77 round trip.  When compared to the nearly £200 it would have cost me to take the train, it definitely seemed like the smart option!  My coach would leave London at 10:30 pm and arrive in Paris at 8 am.  Even though this was a significantly longer journey time than the train or a flight, I figured as long as I slept on the coach I wouldn’t really be missing out on anything and I was spending five days in Paris so I could afford to spend a little more time in transit. 

As fate would have it, I was meant to get off my coach at Charles de Gaulle, one of the world’s largest airports and certainly the most confusing airport I’ve ever been to.  I’ve now traveled through CDG three times and I honestly still have no clue what the hell is going on at that nightmare of an airport.  In London, I easily found the Victoria coach station as signs directed me all the way there.  And even if I hadn’t been able to follow the signs, there were plenty of people around working whom I could have asked.  At the London desk, I had to turn in my printed off confirmation and in return I received two tickets.  In the interest of saving money, (again) I decided to stay on the coach to the final stop, Galleni metro stop, bypassing the CDG stop, so that I could avoid paying the extra €10 airport to city metro fare.  It also saved me a lot of hassle by not having to lug my suitcase so far through the metro.  Anywho, my voyage there was completed without any problems and I arrived without difficulty at the metro stop closest to my hotel, Gare du l’Est without any significant confusion.

As you may recall, I arrived at around 8 in the morning, so I had the entire day to explore Paris.  I stopped by my hotel to drop off my luggage and I was off!  The first thing I wanted to do was go on the “Walk Dead Famous” self-guided walking tour that my awesome TimeOut Paris guidebook recommended.  This walk passed by many of the more famous Paris sites such as the Louvre, but it was really meant to show you the final resting places of some of the great intellectuals who have found their final resting place in Paris.  So, basically it included a couple cemeteries, which I guess is a little morbid, but a lot of these people, especially Voltaire, are some of my personal ideological idols and I really couldn’t possibly pass up the chance to pay my respects.  Parts of the walking tour were meant to be completed on a bike using the Vélib city bike hire but in case you haven’t noticed yet, I like doing things on the cheap so I figured I would just walk the whole thing.  What I didn’t realize is that the distance covered between some of these sites is actually much much further than I thought.  Starting my walk at 9 am, I didn’t finish until after 5 pm returning to my hotel by 6 pm absolutely exhausted.  It turned out to be a great way to orient myself to the city since my walk took me through at least seven or eight of Paris’s 20 “arrondisements” or quarters.  After navigating my way through all of that, I really felt confident in my grasp of the layout of the city. 

Anywho, along my walk, I passed by many well-known Paris landmarks such as the Jardin du Tuileries. 

 And the Louvre

Before embarking on my discovery of some of Paris’s hidden treasures.  Along the way, I stumbled upon this statue of Molière, the Shakespeare of the French language, even though it wasn’t specifically listed in the description of my route.  It was so refreshing to find such a marvelous memorial to one of the greatest authors of all time and to not see a single other tourist.  A simple five minute walk away the Louvre awaits, the mecca of all tourists, which has completely sold out to over-commercialization and foreign influence and is constantly abuzz with the flashes of hundreds of cameras.  I quite preferred this quiet spot, sitting by myself, reveling in the greatness of Molière desperately hoping that some of his prodigious talent would grace my own writing (don’t hold your breath for this one though; I am still an engineer after all). 

Next up, I stopped by the Comedie Français to see the actual remains of Molière which are supposed to be contained within a statue inside the front hall.  The Comedie is also supposed to hold Voltaire’s brain in some kind of statue in their museum.  Unfortunately, the Comedie was closed for construction work and I wasn’t able to enter.  I was proud of myself, however, since I was able to use my French to ask a lady sitting at a desk in a side entrance if I could see the main entrance and understand her response. 

Next up, I crossed from the right bank to the left bank, by way of the Ile de la Cité, crossing paths with Notre Dame along the way.

I also walked through the area around the Sorbonne University which is a very interesting area in its own right.  As student areas tend to be, it is a very liberal part of the city and is often home to protests.  Walking through the streets I saw many congregations of students and plenty of revolutionary posters everywhere. 

My destination was the Panthéon, however, which is the final resting place of Voltaire’s body minus a few organs which have been distributed throughout various museums and memorials.  The Panthéon was originally supposed to be a church, but during the French Revolution the revolutionaries redubbed it to be “Aux Grandes Hommes la Partie Reconnaissants,” or “To the Great Men the Party Knew.”  Thus, the Panthéon is now the final resting place of many of the French Enlightenment’s greatest writers, philosophers, and mathematicians.  I really really wanted to go inside the Panthéon, but I hadn’t even reached the half-way point of my walking tour and the sun was sinking in the sky informing me that I needed to start spending less time aimlessly meandering, gazing, and appreciating and more time getting from point A to point B.  So, I told myself I’d skip the Panthéon today, and come back in a couple days when Ellie arrived thinking she would probably enjoy the area too. 

I skipped out on visiting a church around the corner from the Panthéon because it was out of the way for my next destination and the remains that it contains weren’t of particular ideological importance to me.  Thus, I zig-zagged my way across the left bank, cutting through the Jardin du Luxembourg which was really quite beautiful.  The weather was fantastic so I couldn’t resist sitting down for a few minutes to soak up a bit of the beloved sunshine which I have so dearly missed in London.  Not long after, I stumbled upon the gorgeous church Saint-Sulpice and had to walk through.  The sheer number of beautiful churches in Europe never ceases to amaze me since in America most churches are pretty average looking buildings with a few rare exceptions. 

My next stop was to admire the École Militaire before continuing along the long walk to the Trocadéro for the amazing view of the Eiffel Tower.

By the time I got to this point, I was so exhausted from all that walking I couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel.  I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the room; I had quite low expectations since it was one of the cheapest single rooms I could find online.    

I also had my own private bathroom which I hadn’t expected but was very welcome.  Everything seemed like a normal hotel until the next morning when I left the lady at reception asked me to leave my key with her.  Now, I have since discovered that this is considered normal in parts of the world such as Mexico and France, but at the time I was really freaked out.  I asked the lady, how am I going to get my key back that night. She assured me that someone would be at the desk 24 hours, but that wasn’t my real concern.  I complained that anyone off the street could come and ask for my key and gain access into my room potentially stealing all my stuff, or worse.  She laughed off my concerns as ridiculous saying that she would recognize me and wouldn’t let anyone else have my key.  Still, I was skeptical.  Sure enough, that night when I got back, there was a different person who I had never seen before sitting at the desk.  I asked for my room key and he handed it over, no ID check or anything.  Maybe it’s just really American of me to feel nervous about something like that, but what the heck that’s still the sketchiest room key situation I’ve ever found myself in.  Thankfully, none of my stuff was stolen and I never found a rapist in my room, so I guess it’s safe enough.  It still creeps me out though. 

Anywho, on my second day, I slept in and took my time getting ready in the morning.  I started out the day returning to the Trocadero, where I had finished my day before.  The nearby Passy cemetery was my first stop.  This cemetery is the final resting place of Debussy and many of Paris’s finest.  The tombs themselves are all beautiful.  Many families have built entire mini-chapel mausoleums where several generations have found their final resting place.  The ground is elevated and has a beautiful view of the city.  I was surprised to see that the funeral is still in use with graves dated as recently as 2011.  Not surprisingly these were all within generations old family mausoleums; I can’t even imagine how expensive it would be to buy into that cemetery now.  Next up I walked to the Maison de Balzac (author of the Comedie Humaine, Eugenie Grandet, Cyrano de Bergerac and other such greats) only to be sorely disappointed to find it under construction. 

My next destination was the Wine Museum which proved surprisingly difficult to find.  It’s tucked away at the end of a dead end street accessed only by other dead end streets resulting in me spending a lot more time walking than was strictly necessary.  I was quite pleased when I did find it though.  I was especially proud when I walked in and talked to the guy at the front desk in French.  He even handed me a French audio guide until I politely asked if I could have one in English.  I was so proud of myself for speaking French!  Each time I talked to someone, I got a little more confident and I remembered a little bit more.  The museum itself was also pretty cool.  They had lots of artifacts from wine makers of old and different shaped wine glasses from throughout the ages.  You may be surprised to find out that the “stemmed” wine glasses are a fairly recent invention in wine drinking history.  At the end of the visit, I got to taste a glass of a French wine.  I wish he had told me more about the region, the grapes, and how it was made, but alas, it was still a pretty good tasting wine.  It was definitely worth the visit!

At this point, I’ve tasted a fairly broad range of wines.  I’ve made it my personal mission to learn as much as I can about wine while in Europe.  The crazy thing is, the more I learn about it, the more I realize that I don’t know anything about wine!   I still feel overwhelmed reading a wine list or walking into a wine store.  There are simply too many appellations, varietals and production techniques for me to ever possibly learn all of them.  So, when I look at a wine list, I can recognize the few that I’ve tasted before, but it always seems like there’s 10 that I haven’t even heard of!  I’m always searching for new appellations and varietals to try out.  I’ve found it easier to pick out which wines I don’t like, and I can say with certainty that I don’t like wines from the Pouilly Fumé region in France.  Describing what I like is significantly more difficult.  In Spain, the waiter recommended a wine that was fabulous.  But since the waiter picked it out off the list, I have no idea which region it came from.  Generally speaking, I’ve come to the realization that a cheap bottle of French or Italian wine is always better than a cheap bottle of Australian wine.  But, for some unfortunate reason, Australian wine is always cheapest in London so I keep drinking it even though I’m not particularly enamored with it.  I’m definitely going to start looking for more Spanish wine because it’s generally cheaper than French and Italian wine being less renowned for wine but of similar quality. 

One fun way to explore different wines is to go to Whole Foods in London where they have a wine bar that’s like a soda fountain.  Basically, they have about 20 different bottles of wine in a glass case hooked up to a dispensing machine.  You can grab a glass from the rack on, then insert your whole foods wine bar card, then push the button to dispense however much wine you want.  The smallest option is a 25 mL which is just barely enough to taste the wine, but it’s great because it’s really cheap.  Sometimes I’ll put £15 on my card and try upwards of 10 different wines that would be way more expensive if I were to buy a full sized glass of each.  The point is, I have been making the most of my time in Europe to try as many different wines as possible!

Well, to get back on the subject of Paris, my final stop of the day was the Monet museum.  This little treasure is something I found recommended in my guidebook.  Compared to the more famous Paris art museums, it is pretty small, but that didn't mean the collection was at all lacking!  The name is slightly misleading as there all kinds of amazing impressionist art works housed there by many artists other than Monet.  In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the beautiful art and bought a print to bring home.  

When I returned home to the hotel, I made use of the free wifi to check Facebook, and to my surprise, I saw a post from Ellie.  She had posted that she was already at the airport and that she was excited to be on her way to Europe.  "On her way to Europe? I didn't think she was coming until Sunday," I thought to myself.  So, I checked the copy of her itinerary that she had sent me, and sure enough, she left St. Louis on Friday night to arrive Saturday morning.  Thank goodness she had posted about her departure on Facebook!  Otherwise I would have had no idea that she was actually arriving on Saturday.  And with that revelation, I went to sleep prepared to wake up early in the morning to meet Ellie at Gare du Nord.

And since this post is already quite long, that's it for this one!  All of my Paris adventures with Ellie will be covered in Part 2 yet to come.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Back in the States

Hello All!

I made it home safely!  I had four giant suitcases and a carry on, but somehow I managed to get all my stuff out of my dorm and home to the USA!  I know I never finished writing all my travel posts, but that's what I have this summer for!  I will be spending this summer at home in St. Louis dedicating all my time to building rockets for LDRS, scrapbooking my journey, and finishing my blog!  I have a full two months before I go back to Los Angeles for my junior year, so I'm giving myself a strict deadline.  In the mean time, stay tuned as I hope to start punching out posts!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Trojans in London

Hello All!

I had a pretty exciting day in London today watching the Trojan Marching Band play in Trafalgar Square!  All I can say is, I CAN'T WAIT UNTIL FOOTBALL SEASON!!!  Fight on!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Dublin, Liverpool, procrastinating and a bit of Studying

I'm starting this post with the requisite apology for not posting...but I have been out and about quite a bit lately! I've realized that I only have a month left in London, so I'm trying to get out and see everything that I have left on my list to see!  On top of that, I just spent the weekend in Dublin!  I've wanted to visit Ireland since the beginning of the year and since it's so close I can't believe it took me so long to get there.  It was just Kelsey and I on this trip and we had a lot of fun exploring at our own pace and just taking it easy.

In other news, this being my last month in London and all has brought on a bit of a return to reality since I have my first exam tomorrow.  The UK system heavily emphasizes exams and most of them count for 70% of my overall course grade.  Yuck.  They are also SUPER strict about the rules during exams.  You're not even allowed to bring bags/notes/anything other than pencils and erasers into the exam room.  It's kind of annoying if you want to bring your cell phone, you have to leave it in a ziplock bag at the front of the room.  And, if your cell phone rings during an exam, it can result in immediate failure of the exam.  What's also super annoying about exams in the UK, is that since they are so strict about the seating arrangements, all exams have to take place in lecture halls and apparently this university doesn't have enough lecture halls to host all the exams on campus.  Therefore, ALL of my exams take place off campus.  And I don't just mean walk across the street off campus, I mean I have to take the tube to get to my exam location.  Since it's off campus, I want to bring my cell phone with me, but it's such a hassle to have to jump through all their stupid hoops just so I can have my phone with me.

As far as my exam tomorrow, I feel fairly prepared for it.  It's annoying that we aren't allowed to use programmable calculators, so my beloved TI-89 will have to stay at home.  Thankfully a friend of mine has one of those regular, old-fashioned, non-graphing calculators (I mean, who uses those?!) because I certainly don't and I wouldn't walk into an exam without a calculator.  The real disappointment in not being able to use my own calculator is that I'm not familiar with the location of the buttons and features on this other calculator so it takes longer to solve problems using it.  Plus, it's not capable of doing integrals and derivatives so I have no way of checking my work.

My opinion on calculator use has always been that if it's available in the real world, it should be available on the exam.  I mean, I understand the motivation behind not letting us use calculators.  I actually forgot about 90% of all I learned about how to integrate since I have a calculator that's capable of doing it for me.  The result is that I had to relearn a lot of the basic calculus concepts since I've long since forgotten them.  Preventing us from using calculators thus requires us to remember all those old calculus concepts.  As an engineering school, however, I don't think they are doing us any favors but not teaching us how to effectively use the latest in industry standard tools.  When we graduate and enter industry, our employers will expect us to know how to use Mathematica, Matlab, Excel, and TI-89s to speed up our work.  Students who have been forced to take exams without calculators all their lives will therefore be at a disadvantage in industry since they will have to familiarize themselves with these tools in able to keep pace with other employees.

The second main reason professors say they don't let students use calculators on exams is that it makes the exam too easy.  This assumes that having a calculator on an exam instantly makes that exam easy.  That is completely false, however, as the difficult part of an exam isn't solving the integral, but rather using creativity and problem solving skills to come up with which integral to solve.  This is the fundamental difference between human intelligence and computer intelligence; and coincidentally why computer intelligence is still years away from matching the intelligence of a human.  Humans are able to figure out solutions real world problems because humans can think abstractly.  A human can translate a word problem or a diagram into an equation.  There isn't a calculator in the world that can do that.  And quite frankly, that is what makes exams difficult.  The difficulty of the exam comes from how creative your equation must be, not how difficult it is to solve the equation.  As an analogy, think of a game of solitaire.  The difficult part is in the beginning when you still have a bunch of unknown cards face down.  Once all the cards are facing upwards, you know the game is won no matter how many cards are still left in the deck up top.  This is how it is with a real engineering problem.  All the ingenuity comes at the beginning when you are figuring out which variables go where and how to pair them together.  Then, once you have everything in the right order in the right equation, you know you've "won," even though you don't have the final numerical solution yet.  A calculator can only help you after you've already "won" the problem.  You tell the calculator which equation to solve, not the other way around.  Thus, using a calculator on an exam simply speeds up the part of the game where you already know you've won, you just haven't put all the cards on the aces yet.  Thus, a calculator could never make a problem "easier," in the same way that the auto-complete function at the end of a solitaire game doesn't make the game any easier.  So, if a professor is saying that using a calculator would make an exam easy, the exam was already easy in the first place.  In that case, the exam should be harder.

So, the point of that digression was to explain why it annoys me that they won't let us use calculators on our exams.  Solving integrals without a calculator is very straightforward and tedious, and quite frankly I was tested on that in high school.  I don't see why I need to be tested on it again.  Thankfully, USC is more forward thinking in their calculator usage, and therefore TI-89s are encouraged.  That way the professors are testing us on our ability to problem solve rather than our ability to do high school algebra.

After tomorrow's exam, I have exams on the 25th, 28th, and 29th, then my dad's coming to London to visit!  So I don't really have much time for any more traveling.  To celebrate finishing my first exam, I'm going to Liverpool for just one night since I've been wanting to go for a while but haven't gotten a chance to yet and that's the only time I could squeeze it in before leaving.  So, that means that Ireland was the last country new I visited on this trip!  That brings my grand total of countries visited to 20!  Not bad for 5 months.  I'm definitely going to miss all the traveling when I get back to the States, but maybe I'll be able to take a few trips this summer!  I'm already thinking about going to Washington D.C. and Minneapolis, so we'll have to wait and see what works out.

Well, what started out as a really quick why I haven't been posting post turned into a really long rambling post.  Clearly I need to work on being more concise.  But, now I need to get back to studying.  Expect more to come when I need more breaks from studying!