Archive for the ‘true stories’ Category

Oh, SoCal: Ferrari, Ferrari

May 6, 2013

Update: My finger has returned to normal size after a few days of on and off icing and antihistamine. I believe it is time for me to accept the fact that I may be slightly allergic to bees. ANYWAY… a tale from the Southland, as the weathercasters say. 


I’m in the bike lane at a stoplight on Pacific Coast Highway (not the part that is on fire) when in what seems like a freak accident of probability, two Ferrari convertibles, identical models but different colors (one white, one off-white…I know, diversity) pull up to the same stoplight. You’d think they’d just rolled out of the same dealership, but  they don’t appear to caravaning, if such a word can be used to describe Ferraris. While this is nonetheless a coincidence, it is no probabilistic anomaly: I’m riding by an affluent neighborhood and Kobe Bryant’s address would prove it. One stoplight, two Ferraris. It’s not Monaco, but it is Newport Coast.

In the white car is a likewise white-haired gentleman and his visored and sunglassed little wife. Behind the wheel of the off-white car, a few lanes over, I can just make out a polo shirt, big, expensive shades, and a luminous spray tan. Every other driver must be staring at them (I sure am) as they acknowledge each other with sauve, rich guy nods. Spray Tan breaks the silence with an inevitable rev of his engine/manhood.

“Can you take off?” Spray Tan hollers devilishly across several lanes of poor blokes in regular cars between engine revs.

“What?” yells White Hair, either because he is hard of hearing or because Spray Tan cannot restrain his fervent revving.

“CAN YOU TAKE OFF?” He yells again, this time like he means it. White Hair, I’m sure, gets the message, but he’s smarter than that and as such, he plays dumb.

“Oh, take off? I’m not sure…” he waves one hand in the air to demonstrate his uncertainty. “I’m not sure what that means, take off,” says the man behind the wheel of a sports car that costs more than the average house. Riiiiiight.

But it’s too late: the light changes and White Hair accelerates evenly forward like a regular car. Spray Tan, not to be outdone by safety and good sense, is hot on the gas. His Ferrari roars forward with a great acceleration (Aha! “take off!”), weaving between regular cars to the front of the pack until nothing but the blue sky and open road lie before him.

Until of course, the next stoplight, half a mile down the road.

Avoid the apiary

April 29, 2013

As you probably could’ve predicted, I’ve fallen behind on my weekly post pledge. For shame. I realized this evening I was behind, and meant to write something. But I just can’t. Don’t worry, I have a pretty amusing excuse. I was stung by a bee this morning on the index finger of my left hand, and as such said finger is now approximately 1.5 times it’s original size. I’ll have you know that this is the second time I’ve been stung in the last week; ’tis the season, else I’m just quite unlucky or smell floral or am unusually inclined to invade bee habitats. First it was the back of my leg, now the cursed  finger.  Essentially, this is not fun for me nor for the bees. I swell up and they apparently die afterwards. I mean no harm to you, bees. Now please, stop targeting me; that finger can’t take much more abuse.

Long story short: I am dutifully relaying all of this sorry information to you with out the use of my swollen, itching (except in the tip, yay damaged nerve endings!), cursed left index finger. It’s about as far as I feel like going for now.

So for now, a cheerful, bee-less photo of spring blossoms. A tôt!


Drama, Drama: Grad School Whining

April 13, 2013

Content warning: Usage of the first person to relate a tale of First World Problems, self absorbed rambling. You don’t have to read it.


Photo Courtesy of the first week of my freshman year

I just finished up with my final and arguably most important graduate school visit.

On Tuesday I dove up to Berkeley, stayed at a friend’s place, and biked to Leconte in the morning. Just as I did for nearly four years as an undergraduate, I locked my bike in the racks between Leconte and Birge Halls and walked up the stairs instead of taking the elevator. It all felt extremely familiar.

As an undergradute I had in general a fantastic but also somewhat difficult time in the Physics department at Berkeley. Largely this was my fault: I didn’t know what I wanted, and at Berkeley, in order to get what you want, you have to ask for it. Fight for it even. I didn’t officially join the Physics department until my third year (think: post the birth of this blog), around the same time I realized how much I enjoyed working in a lab. At that point, a randomly assigned faculty adviser sat me down in his office and told me point blank that I could not go to grad school with the experience I had. He was probably right. It was in that moment I that I knew finally what I wanted, and that I had to work doubly hard to get it. I wanted to be an experimental physicist, or at least give it a try.

Flash forward a few years, to this Wednesday, when I found myself  in the same building where I once sat down with that adviser. Except this time, I was in the company of 50 or so admitted prospective graduate students, I myself among them. As much as the setting was familiar, the context was surreal.

I am fully aware that I have been offered the opportunity of a lifetime to return to Berkeley for graduate school. I am in a position where I get to study and do physics for at least the next five to six years at one of the best institutions in the world. I am ecstatic, grateful, and humbled all at once.


I have been fortunate enough to receive offers* from other schools (see: Real America) and I’ve put a lot of thought into each of them, even visited most of them. At the moment there are two places left for me in this process of choosing: Berkeley of course, and University of British Columbia.

As a budding theorist in the Berkeley hallway asked me somewhat condescendingly the other day: What the heck is at British Columbia? Well, for one thing, the Canadian national laboratory for particle physics. Add to that students and professors who I got along with surprisingly well, who were friendly and welcoming instead of intimidating or pedantic, a diverse, strong research program, and at least one experiment and adviser I am very much interested in. On top of that add the awesome city of Vancouver and all the mountains and islands and bald eagles and totem poles that Beautiful British Columbia has to offer, and UBC becomes quite an enticing ticket. Just typing those last two sentences makes my indecisive brain do backflips.

Why am I hung up on Berkeley, then? Is it just because Berkeley was always what I had hoped for? Because I want a sort of ‘second chance’ in Berkeley Physics? Because I know that “Berkeley” is practically a brand name on my future resumé? Because it is a place I love and know? Or, is it because I know I would have a rigorous and quality education, the opportunities at Berkeley are practically limitless, there are projects I am interested in within the department, and I know it would be the challenge of a lifetime? I am not sure which of these reasons are valid.

I’ve gotten a lot of advice from a lot of people. I’ve spoken to professors, current students, former students, students in different departments, friends, family, the dogs, and to myself, aloud, in the car. Advice helps, but what I do know that this is a choice only I can make.

I’m certainly being meticulous about it: Choosing the school you do your PhD at is essentially selecting not only your pool of potential advisers and where you will spend a decent chunk of your life, but also the word you will have next to your name for the rest of your career. Maybe that is why this so daunting and difficult for me. I’ve come to the melodramatic yet inescapable maxim that this choice effects the trajectory of my life in ways that I cannot know or understand.

So, even though I know there is no wrong decision at this point, I can’t simulate the outcome of either option. I can’t make an educated guess. My situation now (on the brink of Physics grad school) is so vastly different from where I was at the end of high school (intended English Major) and as such I don’t entirely trust my own intuitions about my future. My interests and goals evolve constantly. In this sense, does my decision even matter? I know this is not supposed to be philosophical, but in typical fashion, it seems to be getting there. I think I would be happy in either place. I can’t make a wrong decision. Or can I?

What I know is this: Berkeley, as an academic and social community, is probably the place I have felt most at home. It is a thriving international research environment, and a politically active campus where I find myself constantly in impressive company. What I also know is that it by living different in places, mostly outside of the US for the last three years, I have gone through so much personal and academic growth which I would not have experienced in the same way had I stayed in Berkeley. I know that sounds a lot like feelgood hippie bullshit, but it’s the true kind of feelgood hippie bullshit. At least I believe it. Vancouver would be yet a new experience, yet a new world to found, explore, and never quite conquer.

I have two more days to decide. I feel filled with a strange kind of energy. It is time for this to be settled. Oj, what do I do?


*For the record, I also had a lot of rejections. But, who cares?

synvinkel, eurobatman

July 25, 2012

It’s 22.00 hours in the CERN main auditorium, yes, the one were they announced that Neutrinos are are not faster than light and that the Higgs is real. Batman Begins is playing on the big screen. You see, here at le European Center for Nuclear Research, it’s summer student movie night, and when we get to the bit of dialogue that goes a bit like this:

Server: Mr. Wayne, the pools are only decorative, and your friends don’t have bathing attire.

(Bruce Wayne looks over at the decorative pool in the restaurant. His two supermodelesque female friends are bathing, conceivably nude, in it.)

Bruce (nonchalantly): Ah, yeah… they are European.

At once, the room, full of young people from all corners of this continent, explodes in laughter and applause.

🙂 🙂

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.