Monday, April 25, 2011

Of pulpo and parties and all things Galician

Edit: In the end the door to door time from Santiago to Munich yesterday was 13 hours, an average speed of 80 miles. Thankfully the pulpo in my bag neither defrosted nor did the ice-packs which I'd wrapped it in, making it look quite convincingly like an octopus in a suicide vest, set off any security alarms.


I have a five hour wait here in Barcelona in between my flights from Santiago and onto Munich where I'll be getting home late tonight. I've been in Iberia for around a week but it feels like far longer. It's been interesting to see Santiago from a very different perspective to that which I used to see it from when it was my home, and in fact I'm able to appreciate it a great deal more as a tourist. It's not a secret that I'm a fan of larger cities, and Santiago always felt pretty limited in many ways, and especially in its cuisine. Though I remain convinced that Galicia has some of the best seafood in the world, there are only so many times that one can eat octopus cooked in the same way, the only variation being in the quantities of salt and paprika before tiring of it. In terms of a city to live in I'm hugely enjoying Munich, the variety of food on offer is world class, the museums are truly spectacular (I went a couple of weeks back to the Alte Pinakothek where there's the most impressive collection of Rubens I've ever seen) and having one of the largest gardens in the world running through the centre is a great luxury which is only going to get better as the weather improves. However, on going back to Santiago this time, able to see the city without the foreshadowing thoughts of having to stay there for many more months gave it a new perspective and freshness.

On the day I arrived in Santiago, having risen at 4 am and having been traveling for the past 12 hours I came straight into the department and gave a talk. I'd spent some of the previous week experimenting with hand drawing slides and then scanning them into the computer, then playing with them in Keynote and had come up with a few ways of illustrating my last paper which I thought should come across pretty well. Unfortunately I only got four slides in before the computer froze and I had to give the rest of the talk on the blackboard, in the absence of slides. This was fine in the end, though thankfully a friend in the audience gave extremely useful feedback on my blackboard technique (which hasn't been exercised very much).

The next day, Saturday, as normal, I got dressed up in my Celtic Monk's robes, my sandals and headed out to the park in the middle of Santiago. I got a few looks, but not as many as the lady in the roman dress that I was walking with. We got to the park and were soon greeted by a crowd sporting everything from gowns and cloaks, to tunics, crowns and kilts. A funny sight though this must have been, this wasn't in aid of accurate historical reinactment, but part of the wedding of a couple of friends from Columbia and Galicia. We'd been requested to dress in traditional Celtic dress, and somehow a monk's robe was the only thing that could be found to fit me.

The wedding itself was a little out of Santiago in a former stables and now restaurant called O Fogar de Santiso, a truly rustic setting for the event. This place is known for the queimada which is held there every week and involves the chanting of ancient incantations over a cauldron of flaming alcohol with coffee beans and sugar. The brew itself is incredibly strong, but the combination of sugar, caffeine and alcohol gives you quite the kick.

The time spent partying was an interesting cultural experience, given that most of the participants were very definitely Galician Galicians. Songs were sung in Gallego and the gaita and drums pumped out the rhythms of local tunes. It was a lot of fun, but as a non-Galician speaker it wasn't easy to join in with this part of the party. I find also that the contrast between my Englishness and the Spanish fiesta ideal is sometimes a stark one and these cultural differences push me even more to an extreme. It's an interesting distinction which I'd like to know how to overcome - drinking more seems to be most people's solution, but somehow it's not something that I feel so comfortable with. Anyway, despite all this, partying with old friends was a lot of fun.

I never had much of an interest in Galician (the language) while living in Santiago, given that I struggled enough with the Spanish, but on returning I can see how rewarding it would be to speak a minority language in a relatively closed and protective culture. Though I can already understand Galician and Portuguese (at least as spoken by Brazilians and Mozambiquanos) I can't string a sentence together in either. As long as I kept up the Spanish actively, learning a variation on the same theme should be pretty enjoyable. Anyway, given that I'm flailing around with German and concentrating on the Chinese at the moment, the task of learning another Iberian language is going to have to wait for now.

A few photos from the event:
Ana and Pablo's wedding
My usual Saturday garb:
Ana and Pablo's wedding
(on the most part) Galician revellers:
Ana and Pablo's wedding
Balkan dancers with Galician beats:
Ana and Pablo's wedding

and the happy couple:
Ana and Pablo's wedding

It took a couple of days to recover from the wedding and I was back in the office on the Monday, chatting with friends and former colleagues about various projects as the number of people in the department quickly diminished as Easter approached. On Wednesday I took the bus from Santiago down South into the North of Portugal to Braga, where a friend works and we've had project plans for a year or so now since we met last year in Buenos Aires. I was greeted at the bus stop with a bike and we cycled to the university a little outside the city centre and headed to a restaurant to indulge in Francesinha - I've suffered the wrath of the little French girl before and this time was no exception in terms of the barrage of calories which one is faced with. Blood sugar levels in chaos we went back to the department where I set myself up for another talk. I transferred my talk to another computer and got things set up in the seminar room before noticing that where the projector should have been hanging there were bare wires. Given the choice of hunting down another projector or just getting on with it I suggested that I scrap the original talk, and given that the audience was made up of non string theory experts I just gave a talk introducing the basic ideas of the calculations I'd been playing with and tried to steer things roughly towards the results of my last paper. There were plenty of good questions form the group who specialise in General relativity on the one hand and differential equations on the other, and I think that at least they got the basic idea which was all I could ask for.

After the talk we just had a couple of hours to set up our calculation and get things going before we would go our separate ways. Thankfully this was enough time to find all the right references and work out the angle of attack and the interesting questions to ask, so hopefully we've got things to a stage that we can now push things separately over the next couple of months. A meal of Bacalao in the evening, a local white wine and then a stroll into the city to watch the Easter parade which was putting on a pretty extensive set of bible re-enactments was enough to finish me off for the day and I collapsed into the hotel a little before midnight.

Back on the bus the next day after a quick stroll around the rather charming old town of Braga, and I was back in Spain before I knew it, heading on to catch up with old friends and relax a little for the weekend. On Thursday evening the rain was full on in Santiago and I left the flat, unusually for me without my camera. As the light changed and the last evening rays hit the churches with the background of heavy clouds, I realised that I'd probably made a mistake leaving my camera at home. Indeed the rainbow formed quickly and before I knew it we had the most spectacular double rainbow I'd ever seen. Something more interesting was happening though as below the first arc there were several other lines of red, an effect I'd read about, but never seen before.

The classic rainbow display can be calculated easily by looking at how light is reflected  and refracted through spheres. However, if the size of the droplets of water is small enough compared with the wavelength of the light, another effect takes over and the wave nature of light becomes important. As light is diffracted through similarly sized water droplets an interference pattern emerges and distorts the rainbow to give the so called supernumerary bows which were clearly visible on the display I was watching helplessly without my camera. I phoned home desperately to ask my friend to try and find my camera and take some photos for me. Thankfully she did just this, and these are the results:
 supernumerary rainbows
supernumerary rainbows

Anyway, this brings us up to Sunday and I'm sat back in the same cafe I was, last week, waiting for another flight and about to get back to the calculation which I've put on hold since leaving Germany. Once I'm back there are three projects which all need a lot of attention and will hopefully start to take form over the next few weeks.


Edit: now back in Munich and hoping to be able to find some food today given that my house is devoid of it and the shops are shut. For now I'm just going with caffeine and I'll see how long I can keep going with just this.

I have a full two weeks now in Munich before taking off again early next month to give a talk in Paris and then go on to a conference in Brussels straight after. The adventures continue...

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Back in Santiago

Time in Munich has been passing quickly but relatively uneventfully, the sunshine comes and goes and we have hints of summer between the cold snaps in which walks through the elegant streets of Schwabing and into the English garden are really lovely. I've been meeting a few new friends here and there but I'm keeping to myself a little more than I was in Spain, mostly in order to not drown in the various piles which are taking up the rest of my life, the three active projects are going pretty well, though on the language front I'm finding motivation a little hard with the German given how easy life is without it. I discovered the main university library a week or so ago though which looks like it may be my refuge in which I can't escape from the study.

Right now I'm back in Santiago after an exhausting day on the road yesterday - a 4.30 alarm clock followed by a 7am flight to Barcelona and then arriving in Santiago at 3pm, only to give a talk at 4pm. The talk itself was on my last paper and while I'd spent a long time getting the slides ready, the computer breaking down half way through meant that most of the talk was given on the black board. I still need a lot of practice with blackboard talks!

Today is a wonderful sunny day in Santiago and I'm about to head off to the wedding of a couple of good friends, a Colombian and a Galician. Hugely looking forward to seeing lots of good friends again! This will be a super-traditional Galician wedding and I'll be dressed up in something akin to a medieval monks outfit which could be interesting, given the soaring temperatures. Photos of me perspiring are likely to follow.

Next week I'm in the office here for a couple of days before popping down South to the university of Braga in Portugal where I'll be giving a talk (though I can't quite decide what it's going to be on as the group there isn't stringy so yesterday's talk would certainly not work). I'm also hoping to start a collaboration with a friend there as we've been discussing a possible calculation for a year or so now.

Anyway, that's where life is up to at the moment. After I get back to Munich I have a couple of weeks and then the annual silly-season begins with too many travels to even think about, but we'll cross that boarding gate when we come to it....