Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

lingua franca

September 11, 2013

One thing I am missing now that I’m in Berkeley is the daily opportunity to bumble though the French language, so much so that I find myself wishing I could offer extra credit for the correct pronunciation of ‘Fourier’ in the lab class I’m facilitating. Questionably ethical, non?


Fleeing the physics building, I am met and taken aback by a familiar rush of staccato. Sure enough, out past the breezeway stands a figure, the source of the ruckus. The cellphone hand is glued to one ear while the other hand gesticulates wildly at the invisible listener. Sure enough, he is speaking Italian. I smirk and approach. But as I pass by, I’m thrown even farther off guard. He is very, very blonde, and very, very light-skinned. He doesn’t even have facial hair. Mind. Blown.

Paris by Nokia Phone

February 12, 2013


Le tour effiel. Every hour, it sparkles with a million flashbulbs (not pictured).

Because Paris is wonderful and iphones are silly. Nothing beats Nokia phone cameras in the City of Light.

Musee D'Orsay

Musee D’Orsay: this photograph might be illegal

Actually, I just forgot to bring my usual camera (a ‘vintage’ Canon Powershot 550 which I sat on and broke the preview screen of in 2009) …. to Paris. As the tgv flew (and I mean really flew) over the rolling, dusky farmland between Geneva and Paris, I realized with a sinking heart that it would be just me and my CERN issued Nokia. C’est la vie.


An obelisk made out of stuff that Napoleon plundered.

AL, my flatmate from the summer, was a most excellent hostess and dedicated tour guide. I saw more than I ever would have even known to see on my own, didn’t have to worry about getting lost on the metro, had a real (delicious) French dinner at a restaurant called ‘Il vino’ (ha!) and even got to hear a bit about the history and development of the city from a Parisian engineer (that would be AL).


Notre Dame de Paris

I had been in Notre Dame once before: the first, brief time I was in Paris we stumbled upon a free organ concert. But of course, once is never enough!


View out one of the clockfaces in Orsay. In Real Life, one could just make out Montmarte and Sacre Coeur in the distance.


Art lovers recline on the very mod furniture in Musee D’Orsay

By the way, if you ever find yourself in Paris and are a resident of the EU under the age of 26 you have simply to show your residence card and you can get into all museums and most attractions for free. Protip: If you have a Carte Français for the purpose and function of working at CERN (as I happened to have) this trick also applies. Imagine my glee walking in and out of Orsay and le Lourve as a French Resident, and getting to view some of the world’s art treasures, tout gratuit! Vive le France!


Approaching Place Voges, the prior residence for Victor Hugo!

“I love le Meré because you can just walk around and punch open doors and walk into historical buildings.” And, indeed, you can!


Walking under the metro

Paris is ‘like swiss cheese’ (Emmental! Not Gruyère!) full of holes containing trains and secrets and people.


Bonjour, and Welcome to the River Seine!

My Nokia phone did quite well by me and Paris. And to be honest, in the age of facebook, instagram (now owned by facebook), and internet oversharing, I was quite content to be armed with only my humble Nokia. Sometimes I feel we forget to see the world for our camera lenses, for our phones and tablets and even our DSLRs. Since I could hardly even see the tiny screen of my Nokia, you can bet I had plenty room to see all the rest.

thank you AL and family for the weekend in your beautiful city! I could not have asked for a more wonderful albeit whirlwind tour. Hopefully I will be back again someday!


January 5, 2013

American graduate school applications:

“Have you studied any foreign languages? If so, please list below.”

Oh heck yes I have!

Swiss graduate school applications:

“Mark your level of fluency in the following languages:”

Ermm… ouuuuui. Alors.

Le tour et la vie Genev/CERNois

July 21, 2012

Short stories, three posts in one, because it has been a while and because, porqoui pas?


Col de la Faucille, down the valley of the Valeserine through limestone tunnels and slender tree forests with curling roots, buttressing a verdant and invisible canyon before dropping at last down into Bellegarde. Bellegarde, industrial blocked Bellegarde, on the other side of the pass, Stage Finish, le arriveé. When I saw the tour in the mountains last year, the whole experience seemed larger than life itself: So much so that it warranted three gushing and fangirlish blog posts on the matter. Before then I had watched the tour on television every summer for almost as long as I could remember, and being there for the first time and in fact, being in the Alps for the first time was nothing short of, well, magic. But this year in Bellegarde, the scene was flooded with fans and everything happens faster that I can really parse. I did manage to cheer for my favorites: Allez pour Voeckler, the Frenchman with the German name, Hopp hopp for Jensie, who came in third, venga venga para Valverde, and Go Go for Cadel Evans, who, for the record, looked absolutely pissed. But the highligt of the day was that I mananged to scream HEEEEJA HEJA at the Sweeeede in the polkdot jersey, which is not something one gets to do often at the tour.

Afterward, I drug myself home through rural France, up and over the pass into Pays de Gex, because as I have learned the hard way a few times: One Does Not Simply Roll Out of Bellegarde. I’m not sure how I got tricked into doing over 100k on my mountain bike on the road, but somehow it happened. It often does.


I’m uncertain as to what kind of parallel universe I am in, now that I am apparently chic enough to stand on street corners in Genève in the company of three Parisians and a horde of friendly Polonaise. But despite all odds, this seems to be my current reality. Nevertheless, I accept it and stand on the corner on this warm but rainy Swiss evening, trying to engross myself in the mental exercise of pretending I can speak French. It’s not easy, because truth be told I don’t speak French and even just the Europe-south-of-Copenhagen mindset is still not something that comes to me completely naturally. One of the smiling Poles is distractedly swirling her glass around this cobbled street in Medieval Geneva, flooded in golden lamplight; it’s the kind of place that apparently bores Parisians and Poles but makes Americans swoon. It is booooring here, she whines. We will go to the party of the summer students, yes? Ve ‘ave a car, so porqoui pas?

Once at CERN, le soireé de summerstudent resurrects vivid memories of the only middle school dance I ever attended before I promptly decided that wasn’t my scene. At the very least, it smells a bit like it: socks and vodka. We appear to be in something like a gym (at least it smells like it) located behind one of the hostel buildings and soon enough, my friend whispers in my ear. She says: See, there are the boys with big hair and bad tshirts who’ve never danced before in their lives. Surely, they are failing about, maybe some of them are or soon will be a bit sick with alcohol. If the party has any redeeming feature, it is that watching budding physicists dance is somewhat amusing. What this scene mostly glaringly lacks in comparison with my horrid middle school memories is the presence of the coiffed Orange County elite; the ones who arrived in limousines while my friends and I arrived (or didn’t arrive at all) by bike, bus, or minivan. But seeing as this is not Orange County and is instead an empty building in a particle physics lab in semirural SwitzaFrance*, it should come as no surprise, and really, I don’t miss them. As the music achieves a level terrible I have never experienced prior, I notice that above the ‘bar’ there is a whiteboard that lists the prices of drinks as ‘uncertain’ and quotes Heisenberg. CERN: It is a special place.

Le Soireé de summerstudent, I don’t think I will be back.


I’m standing at the computer when hear a loud noise. Never a good situation. My colleague, who is arranging water cooling lines, looks over at me. What was that? I ask, as his eyes inflate to the size of M12 washers. It was a splash. I toss him some paper towels and quickly negotiate my way around the experiment to check on the bakeout controllers. I curse out loud: An entire controller had shorted out. I guess the breaker tripping must have been audible , because the powers that be run down from upstairs and after a few minutes with the multimeter deduce that, while it’s not clear exactly what happened, something shorted to ground. We, the two of us who know exactly what happened, just stand there exchanging nervous glances. I can’t take it. Well, I say, slowly, there was water.


*I am coining this term.

Correction: Money Manager

May 29, 2012

Fear not, dear reader: I have survived the last 24 hours and I am not chained  in a dungeon somewhere beneath the fortuneteller’s secret castle in Evian, nor am I locked the Geneva Fire Department’s cell in the crypt of Catedral Saint Pierre, a place reserved for people who ne parle pas Français. In reality these places do not exist, I hope. It turns out that my landlady is remarkably understanding regarding la machine lavage, we haven’t heard a peep from the fortuneteller, and the firemen (regrettably?) have not returned.

Everything seems to be under control, though it has been brought to my attention that I have committed yet another unfortunate misunderstanding* involving French. Gerant de Fortunes, does not mean fortuneteller. It means money manager. In hindsight, this makes infinite sense here, in the City of Banks (and Rainbows). Allow me to explain how I arrived at ‘fortuneteller,’ and maybe you’ll forgive me. I saw ‘gerant,’ and thought gerund, as in the term for the verb form, you know, the -ing in English. I believe the term has a root in Latin** which has something to do with undertaking an action. In my mind these things combined to reach the conclusion ‘fortuneteller,’ and it stuck. I passed by his door everyday for two months, absolutely certain that behind that door lived a diviner, when in fact, the man is more interested in dividends. Although, being fair, for a good deal of the world, money and fate are inextricably intertwined–on an emotional level, at any rate.

the daily saga regrets the error.

However, this realization does make it all the more hilarious that the decor in the man’s apartment was so, so fortuneteller-appropriate. Sometimes, Real Life is just too good to be true. Le sigh.


*One must misunderstand in order to understand. Words I live by.

**Full disclosure: I don’t read Latin. I just used to study English. Corwinna, Latinist extraordinaire, are you out there?

Pompier-Feu, Pamplemousse

May 28, 2012

I could write here about Saturday, about the Grand Colombier, about the Most Difficult Ride I’ve Ever Done (based on pure statistics. Emotionally there have been rides far more difficult). And I will. But for now, instead, I will write again about Swiss firemen. More on cycling later.


A blurry figure appears in the peephole of my front door. I’m in the flat alone, this being Pentecost weekend my landlady and flatmate are away. I’m a little startled to hear the doorbell ring. Nonetheless, I answer the door to find a thin, elderly man in a pistachio-green bathrobe. His eyes are a clouded blue, either from age or from having having just awoken; His white is hair tousled, probably for similar reasons. He looks disconcerted.

Bonjour, he begins speaking to me in French. Of course, I can’t really understand, but I know what he’s talking about.* He is saying that he’s the downstairs neighbor, and there’s water leaking through his ceiling. My stomach drops four stories and hits the ground.

Puis-je regarde…ton salle de bain? He asks. Can I have a look in your bathroom?

Oui, entreé. Yes, come in.

He follows me to the bathroom. I open the door and am greeted by a pool of ankle-deep water. How did I not hear the leak? I touch the water and a mild shock runs up my arm; For some reason, the pool is carrying a charge. He sees me draw my hand away. Est-il chaud? he asks. Is it hot?

Non non non…erm…electrique? I reply. Ne touchez pas…

His worry seems to increase and in a whirl of French which I cannot parse but can somehow miraculously understand, he bids me to come see the mess in his apartment. As follow him down to the third floor, it dawns one me that he is the resident of the apartment bearing the Gerant de Fortunes, Expert (Expert Fortuneteller) plaque that I have passed by in wonder every day for nearly two months. I am about to enter the fortunteller’s apartment, at last.

Once inside, I’m struck by the fact that every horizontal surface is covered by an oriental tapestry and every vertical surface is covered in indigo hued wallpaper; the place is absolutely saturated in detail. I haven’t the energy to take it all in, though I wish I did. And yes, there is water dripping from his ceiling, though it is not as bad as I feared. His wife, with a face kind like a turtle’s, seems less like a fortuneteller’s wife than I would have imagined. She is standing staring up at the drops, hands on her hips. She smiles at me and seems to be a good sport about the whole ordeal whilst I apologize profusely. Il pleut, I say, in a somewhat vain attempt at levity. She smiles encore.

Mr. Fortuneteller, however is only slightly amused and is trying to tell me that he wants to call someone. Given that I’m at the point in my French book where one learns things like the names of fruits and vegetables, all I hear is: Je vais appeller le pamplemousse. Meaning, “I am going to call the grapefruit.” My neighbor, the fortuneteller, wants to call the grapefuit. I am fully aware that this is not possibly correct, and whatever he’s saying doesn’t sound exactly like pamplemousse anyway. I am at a loss for ideas.

Oui? I answer, half-heartedly. Pas compri… I utter, but it’s too late.

I return to my apartment, don rubber gloves and rubber soled shoes, begin to bail the water into my bathtub with a pot, and manage to stop up the leaky joint in the floor that is causing the fortuneteller so much grief.

A scare ten minutes later, there are three rather massive humans standing at my open door. I stop bailing water, rush to the entry and on the shirts of these humans I read the words: Pompier-Feu. Upon seeing it written I understand immediately. Pompier-Feu, pamplemousse. Ah, oui, there was my grapefruit. Except he isn’t a grapefruit, he’s a Fire fighter. Pompier-Feu. Bonjour, says the grapefruit. Bon. Jour. My neighbor called the fire department on my washing machine.

In what could be a textbook example of Massive Overkill, my bathroom is soon flooded not only with water, but with three Geneva City firemen. Apparently, they have nothing better to do than to go around answering calls about washing machines from Fortunetellers and hapless anglophones. All of them are at least twice my size and are wearing monstrous rubber boots. At once I am painfully aware of the fact that I am still in my pajamas, a which involve a (very comfortable but embarrasing) pair of purple leggings.*

I’m helpless as Les Pompiers Feu swarm the washing machine. One of them pulls out and hands me a busted rubber washer, the kind I’ve repaired numerous times on kitchen sinks, bathtubs, and pressurized 500 liter dewars of liquid Helium. About this point I realize I probably know more about how to fix this washing machine than these firemen do, seeing as appliance repair is not typically in their job description and, let’s be honest, experimental physics involves a good deal of glorified plumbing. Despite the Physics@Berk t-shirt I’m wearing, this fact is not entirely obvious to the firemen. I attempt to explain what happened and what I think went wrong. Le eau est sorti le port, peu-être la port n’est pas fermeé! When he begins correcting the gender of the nouns I’m attempting to use,** it becomes clear that this language barrier is insurmountable and he phones a supposedly English speaking colleague. We have a brief chat on the phone which is not very helpful to me, but the grapefruit seems satisfied when I hand him back his phone. He hangs up and says something presumably funny.

Rigole!” he says smiling. Now, this word I understand: Laugh! “It iz a jjoke!”

“Ha ha ha,” I reply, with only thinly veiled irony. My tone is translingual, and for once during this bizarre interaction all four of us reach a point of perfect understanding. A Joke, indeed. Now, the real laughter. He recommends I contact a technician and warns, finger waving included, Ne touchez pas la machine! Don’t touch ze Machine! D’accord. I promise them I won’t. We all wish one another Bon week-end and part ways. I sop up the rest of the water, change out of my purple leggings and bike to CERN, where the tale of my morning brings at least some mirth to our grim progress on far more complicated feats of plumbing

As soon as I get home the first thing I do, obviously, is touch the machine. I see that they’ve turned off the water and the power, and after a brief inspection I  ascertain that nothing is actually wrong and something must have been caught in the door during the wash, causing it to leak. I flip on the power, open the water valve and run a test cycle. Mercifully, the washing machine works properly. As of yet, there is no water on the floor and the fortuneteller has yet to return with further greivances.

However, seeing as I have no idea how much the Geneva fire department charges for house calls involving washing machines, nor how much damage fortuntellers claim for dripping ceilings…when my landlady gets home, I may be as good as dead. Pray for me, dear reader.


*Don’t judge.

**Dear Francophones: it is not our fault your language is so complex and aphonetic. Cut us some slack.

Sigue lloviendo…

April 22, 2012

My Spanish is like a large, dormant animal couched comfortably in the darkened recesses of my brain; it hasn’t been touched for roughly three years. A sad state of affairs, considering that over the course of a good third of my life, Spanish was taught to me by a lazy litany of incompetent high school teachers, my neighbors from Honduras and Guatemala, my friends from Mexico, a certain Mexican telenovla called “Más Sabe el Diablo,” and a certain band de la música rock de Guadalajara called Maná. Nowadays, with other languages taking priority, Spanish has to be drug out of me kicking and screaming, like child out of bed on the first day of school. Even once I finally find the right shapes in my mouth, all I can utter at first is a whispered, “tengo verguenza.” I have shame. Considering how severely my Spanish has regressed, truer words may have never been spoken.

Despite my verguenza, my Spanish has now officially been extracted from its dormancy, believe it or not, in the context of this sport called football.* Basically, in a strange turn of events involving the internet, mountain biking, and a healthy dose of  “why the heck not,” I ended up watching the FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid match with two Spaniards. Mind you, sitting between two Spaniards, each rooting for a different team. Yes. As you can imagine, within a few minutes I was well-acquainted with a new swear word or two.

Even barring the “American” label I often bear,** I really can manage to watch a game of football and enjoy it. And I do, once every four years. It’s called the World Cup Final, and in all honesty my participation in it is mostly an excercise in social and cultural literacy. Football is a pandora’s box I don’t particularly dare to open: the complicated rankings, the leagues, the fear- and awe-inspiring kind of devotion, the nationalism, the songs. It’s an intensity I have a hard time justifying or understanding, so mostly I let it be.

All of this aside, it’s a good time watching the game, even if the air is a bit tense. Soon enough however, I make the inevitable mistake: I chime into a Spanish conversation, in English awkwardly, and the word is out. I can follow them. From here on, the evening is bilingual. For me this development is half mortifying (am I really this bad at Spanish now? Really?) and half enthralling (speaking another language, no matter how poorly, is always a rush). For the Spaniards, it’s pure amusement. Real Madrid wins, Barcelona commiserates and looks forward to the next game. Oh, no, it’s not over yet.

Nor is the battle over for me, and as the tests of Spanish competency and random trivia questions (hint: if the question is something like “Who is the best at such-and-such,” the answer is always “España.”) continue, I discover I have something I didn’t know I had. Namely: An accent. I offer transcriptive proof:

Spanish Guy: ¿(blah blah blah)…está fferrado?

Me: Um, ¿que dijiste?

SG: Fferrado.

Me: No conozco esa palabra…

SG: Oh my god! Fferr. Raad. O. Fferrado!

Me: ¿Ferrado? (my mind sends me to Latin, to the Periodic table, to Iron, ferromagnetism…What is he talking about?)

SG: Si, como abierto y más tarde fferrado.

Me: Oh my god. You mean cerrado! Cerr. Aad. O. Cerrado. Closed…a frances se dice ferme. ¿No?

SG: Oui. Oh my god. Cerrado. (He speaks as if he’s spitting out a spoiled piece of food). No. Ffferrado. Jesus, do want to espeak eSpanish or do you want to espeak Mexican?

Me: …ferrado…. (and silence. But I’m thinking: Dios mio, I think I’d rather speak Mexican.)

Oh, and yet another Pandora’s box I don’t particularly dare to open!


* I’m not calling it “football” because I want to sound holier-than-thou. Allow me to explain. In the US there are two types of people who actually call “soccer” football: 1. People who actually like football (ie. 90% foreigners/immigrants) and 2. Hipsters who want to seem more enlightened than the rest. God forbid I should slip into the second category. I am calling it football because that is the convention here, and I must live with it.

**I can often avoid this by pulling the Swedish card, but that gets tiring.

*** Note: Given theme of Espain Espanish, this was written with AV in mind, who among other things likes blog shoutouts. Woohoo!

Cyrogenic, and Salève

April 13, 2012

My blood has thinned, and I’m sure of it.

Coming to California from Sweden, I thought I had conquered being cold. In California yes, it rains, but you can be assured of sun within in a matter of days (or hours). Not just patchwork sun, either, no. In California, you expect it to come on full power, explosive, rapturous, unyielding. It’s the kind of sun that makes budded trees pop before March and makes them wilt by June. In California, I shunned jackets, I slept with the windows open, I rode my bike while wearing short sleeves and short fingered gloves.

In Switzerland, a pause in the rain finds our team enjoying the daily espresso out of doors.  Sitting at that table in the middle of sodden Europe, I begin to sense that either my blood or my jacket is too thin. It’s not even the kind of cold you feel in your bones, I think, it’s just normal cold. Someone remarks that I look like I am freezing. I most certainly am, but of course I grit my teeth and reply:

“I am not cold.” I don’t know what it is that’s in me that has always made me feel I need to prove that I can endure low temperatures. Possibly it’s the uncomfortable truth that really, I can’t. But I won’t swallow that, no: I will freeze until my blood rethickens.

In my defense, it really isn’t warm: On these last few mornings as I ride to CERN, I’ve taken a look back at our local massif. Le Salève is a marvelous color-changing upheaval of glacially carved sediment, but these few mornings, it has been graced by a delicate layer of snow. Something I’ve never before seen on Le Salève. By my evening commute, if enough light is left to see the Salève, the snow is gone, to be regenerated, by this  sorcery called ‘weather’ come dawn.

Le Salève. I rode up it, at last. On Easter sunday, after attending an unadorned, French-Language Calvinist mass in St Pierre Cathedral, I got on my bike and rode towards the massif. Eventually found my way up. I climbed forever and then some, but when I reached Col de Les Coisettes I turned around and there were the Alps: a symphonic panorama in ascending indigo shades accented in broad and beaming shields of white yellow snow. Once in the small village of Les Croisettes, I found myself in a familiar setting: the tail end of an amateur road race. A man loading a Cervelo onto a roof rack sized me and my old mountain bike up before uttering a ‘Bonjour.’ I smiled back but was more fascinated by the emaciated young racers, their faces clean-shaven, lean, and strangely apelike; their fiercely luminous eyes peering out of the back windows of small cars. I tailed them down the mountain. On the switchbacks my hands froze to the bars and my mirth froze in my chest to be released in a burst of laughter at the sight of early blooming raps blossoms and a train of thought: Raspar, skåne, vår. Vår! Spring!

I did, in fact, speak Swedish with a physically present, living person today. Well, he spoke Finlandsvenska and I probably spoke a little Skånska, but that hardly matters. It’s wonderful feeling in the mouth, to speak a language that one can still hear the sounds of, a language that is not so disenchanting as the international and purely functional brand of English* that is, for the most part, my default operating mode.

Here’s to hoping that speaking a Nordic language will act as a blood thickener, and we can all get on with our lives.


*My matter-of-fact German flatmate has expressed to me that “English is so simple,” I believe he meant sparse, incomplete, exiguous, limited.  He went on: “You can’t really say everything.” Ahh, yes (such it is with any language) but that is only because you don’t know all of the words!

the jetlag diaries

March 30, 2012

Jetlag from Europe to California is a beautiful thing: you wake up at four in the morning, bright-eyed and bushy-taled, and sit at the kitchen table eating cereal. Yes! Indeed, there is cereal, you realize, because you’re in America. God Bless.

Jetlag from California to Europe, however, leaves you dead-tired during all your waking hours, forgetting to eat at CERN and not having time to go to the silly French supermarket before it closes at 7 PM, living exclusively off of smuggled cliff bars for two days straight (true story), and blogging about it from your depressing and smelly hostel room at 3 in the morning before you collapse again in exhaustion just as it’s time to wake up.

All that being said: Have you ever built a bike out of a box at Geneva airport while some of the wealthiest people in the world mosey on by on their way to glitzy Alpine slopes, skis and designer luggage in tow? I have. It’s quite the experience. It takes about half an hour, will earn you a good deal of interested but aloof glances, and it makes you feel like somewhat of a badass. Badass, that is, until you don’t know what to do with the cardboard bike box and decide to carry it awkwardly in one arm (bike in the other) down the airport stairway to the left luggage desk in the train station. Barring all those confused stares from Swiss businessmen ascending on the adjacent escalator, this was my plan of action.

Soon enough, however, I realize that I don’t know how to say “Can you throw this away please?” in French, and so when I reach the desk  I simply push the box toward the left luggage man and say “trash?” Poor guy is taken aback, clearly not understanding.* As luck would have it, I am saved by a blond youngster, maybe the left luggage man’s apprentice, who approaches from behind the counter, looks me in the eyes and nods. “Oui, trash,” he says. He is of the generation that has been raised on the internet and therefore, understands English, at least to some degree. We stand there for a second in mutual understanding before he takes the bike box from me and starts walking toward the back door. “trash,” he says again. “Merci Beaucoup!” say I.

Exiting the airport and riding toward CERN and the snowcapped Jura, I have no regrets. I have my own bike, in Geneva. It’s rolling so smoothly beneath me that I just have to smile. I’ve waited a while for this moment. And besides, no longer am I subject to the whims of the bus, maybe now I can fit in some grocery shopping before Carrefour closes.


For the record, “trash” in French is les déchets.

tales from the Road: LA to Geneve

March 29, 2012

Reporting live from St Genis Pouilly, France. Indeed, it is 3 AM here, and this blogpost is brought to you courtesy of JetLag. Don’t expect anything coherent.

Also, compare to last time.

LAX >> Philedelphia

Interesting t shirts I saw on this flight:

“I ain’t afraid a no ghost”

“i (heart) hot moms”

“US Armed forces: Sinking our teeth into the Middle East” (accompanied by a graphic of an angry, cartoon commando duck…?!?!)

Number of people reading “Hunger Games”: Only 2, surprisingly.

A middle-aged woman sitting behind me decides to impose her life philosophy on the college-aged girl sitting next to her. Souls to be molded. It’s interesting for a while, but I tune out at: “You see there, are many levels of consciousness…”

Philadelphia >> Brussels

I cannot sleep on airplanes. Even when I’m lucky enough not to have anyone sitting next to me.

Brussels airport is large, efficient, hypermodern, and for some reason inundated with advertisements from energy/oil companies (“Europe: Fueled on Norwegian Gas. Statoil”). Also, there are chocolates and many women wearing expensive-looking pairs of boots.

Brussels >> Geneva Airport

In which I discover that my French is better but still sucks. Goodbye, social competency. I’ll miss you.

Also: Mont Blanc from the air, always a crowd-pleaser.

Geneva Airport >> CERN

Fortunately for me, the Geneva airport is well-practiced in transporting sports equipment: It is, after all, one of the premier ski destinations in the world. As I stand by the sport equipment baggage carousel waiting for my cardboard bike box to appear,  I find myself in a circle of Swedes who are talking jovially and with the kind of assurance that only comes with having a ‘secret language’ to speak in pubic. I just stand there, silent smiling. My bike shows up, unharmed, and it’s a piece of cake to cart it over to left luggage, and get on the bus.

Once at CERN, however, the real fun begins. I manage to convince the woman at the front desk to give me a visitor pass and I decide to leave my luggage at our office before going about procuring my access card. As I’m walking up the hill, the wheels on my rolling luggage begin to collapse. It must be clear that I’m having a rough time, because one of the many CERN vans whizzing by honks at me. You think I don’t know that I look like an idiot? It doesn’t help that my luggage is pink. God, why do I have pink luggage? Oh right, it was cheap. Cheap. Pretty soon the wheels have almost totally collapsed and I’m loudly dragging my pink luggage through the world’s premier Particle Physics research facility. I’m soon rescued however: Someone takes pity on me and I’m offered a ride to my building in a CERN van.

Only a few people are in the office, they’re working quietly. I’m greeted by a few short “hellos” and friendly smiles. It’s like I never left. It seems longer ago that I was in Berkeley than when I was last at CERN. It’s unsettling. I make it to the users office in time to get my access card, but am missing a form. C’est la vie.  I’ll have to wait until tomorrow.

CERN >> St. Genis Hostel

I wait ten minutes for the bus, only for it to discover that it is full and there’s really, really no room for me and my giant, decrepit suitcase. I wait 30 minutes for the next bus, and almost fall asleep sitting on the bench, having not slept for something like 30 hours. I’m nearing my personal record (36) and it’s not a good thing.

When it arrives I get on, and am subsequently blockaded from the door by a mom, her stroller, and her three other children. I miss the stop at the hostel because I am falling asleep, even while standing up. At the next stop I attempt to get off bus, but when I pull on the plastic expandable roller handle (you know what I mean, right?) to my luggage, it snaps unceremoniously off. I spend a few moments staring dumbfounded at it, during which time I miss also the next bus stop. the bus lurches to a start, and a guy who obviously works at CERN (oh yeah, there’s a type) catches my lugguage as it’s about to topple. His shirt says “—– High School, Class of 2005.” He’s American. God bless you, sir. I utter an exasperated “thank you,” he smiles and hands it over as the bus begins to slow down again. I gather my embarrassingly uncontrollable belongings and get off the bus. I leave the suitcase on the curb and dramatically stuff the detached handle into the nearby, tiny French trashcan. I roll drag the suitcase across the street and down a block to the next bus stop and wait, again.

I make it, at last, to the St. Genis Hostel only to discover that my room is on the sixth floor et n’y il a pas de ascensuer. No elevator. I lug the bag up each flight, just as the wiring is beginning to bust from the seems. I still have no idea what I’m going to do about this problem. I’m already having nightmares about how much it is going to cost me to buy a new luggage in Geneva.

My (temporary) room in St. Genis is very basic and smells like some sort of cleaning solvent. It takes me a good five minutes to figure out how to open the window, but when I do I can see the Jura and I have to smile despite it all. I want to wash my hands in the washbasin, but when I turn on the faucet the water sprays out at remarkably high pressure and at remarkably high temperature. My pants are doused. Hot showers, indeed. I’m so tired the world is starting to swim before my eyes.

I usually don’t cry during real life (usually only during movies, books, and emotional pieces of music) but here, I get pretty close. I change my pants, sit down on the simple, yellow-sheeted bed and think: What in the hell am I doing here, really?

I don’t know. But here I am. Here we go, guys.