Last summer (2011), I had an opportunity to go to Europe and jumped at the chance: we went to Paris in celebration of my sister’s 16th birthday, and I stayed behind for a while longer and traveled around by train. I’ve had a draft post about it floating around for a while, and, well, now I’m finishing and posting it.
Week 1: Paris
A recurring theme during the trip was me spending lots of time walking. For example, one day I walked from the Jardin des Plantes to the Eiffel tower to the Arc de Triumph and back home… I enjoy walking, and I got an impression of the city by doing that.
One nice thing about Paris is that I can speak some (pronunciation – butchered) French, so I was able to communicate a bit.
Jardin des Plantes
The place I spent the most time was the Jardin des Plantes. It’s a giant garden with galleries (displaying some sort of natural science content) throughout it.
Some sections of the main garden were really pretty!
But there were special sections I liked more. The Jardin Alpin was amazing! The recreated sections of forest from different regions of the world so one could walk through and see things change!
The Grandes Serres, beautiful greenhouse gardens, were also amazing!
The Galerie de Paléontologie was also awesome!
Though some parts were pretty creepy… Yes, those are brains.
I went to the Louvre, though, not being a big fan of the traditional visual arts, I didn’t appreciate it as much as I think many would.
It was gigantic. I was surprised, having been told that it was huge in advance. I only spent half a day there, but I can see that one could easily spend weeks.
I went to see the Mona Lisa…
But I didn’t find it that impressive. In fact, I thought lots of the paintings I saw going to it were nicer.
The Egyptian stuff was pretty interesting.
Le Palais de la Découverte
At the Palais de la Découverte (similar to our science center), I was quite impressed by their mathematics displays.
I find it difficult to imagine us putting this sort of stuff on display when targeting the general populace. I was just generally impressed by the level of the content.
Yay, physical visualizations of math. I actually tried to talk with someone about this, but the museum staff sadly couldn’t find the right person. Though, in retrospect, my lack of mathematical/technical French vocabulary would’ve got really awkward really fast if they had.
Yeah, some of the stuff had Mathematica written all over it.
I was also really impressed with their optics displays (like boiling water with a parabolic mirror, but the pictures really didn’t turn out. My <$100 point and shoot really isn’t made for that sort of thing.
I went the the Jardin du Luxembourg, the garden of the French senate. I didn’t spend to long there because I quickly decided le Jardin des Plantes was nicer.
I went to the Arc de Triomphe, which was bigger than expected.
I visited the Musée de la Marine.
I visited the Eiffel Tower, but the pictures seem to have disappeared into the ether. I decided it wasn’t worth the wait to go up.
I also visited my friend Y-, who I met at hacklab.to, at his workshop. It was pretty neat.
Of course, I saw lots of other things. I spent a good day, every day, exploring the city. There was a lot more to see, though.
Week 2: Rome
This is where I parted ways with my family. They went back to Canada, and I went on to explore Europe by myself!
… I was terrified. I expected that in advance, and had told myself that it would be an opportunity for self-improvement. That was true, but it was still scary.
In any case, I’d really wanted to go to Athens but, in light of the unrest in Greece, I decided not to. Instead I decided to go to Rome.
I studied Latin for two years in high school, so I had very high expectations for Rome. I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, but what ever it was, to be brutally honest, it didn’t live up to them. It was still awesome, though!
I researched locations to stay in Rome in advance, but I didn’t book one. I took a night train from Paris to Roma Termini.
That was an experience in itself. There were four of us in the cabin, with varying languages of competency. I ended up speaking in English and French for a few hours — I couldn’t speak to one person at all, because we didn’t share any languages. One person was applying to a Masters program and I proof-read his application, which was in English, for mistakes.
I often feel distant when I talk to “normal” people: I just don’t have much in common with them and the gap is palpable. They want to talk about TV shows and I want to talk about homotopy groups or animal rights, or some such. But traveling gave us something in common and I think the language barriers made communication feel more meaningful.
We arrived in the morning (I think 10ish?) and I was really nervous about accommodations. So the first thing I did was sort those out. I’d drawn a map of the area near Roma Termini in advance and noted down promising hostels and hotels. The hostels were full and the cheapest accommodations I could find were at Hotel Cambridge which gave me a discount.
The day I arrived I went to a near by museum for the afternoon. There seem to be lots of small museums sprinkled around Rome.
It wasn’t as exciting as I might have expected it to be. Over the course of my stay, it was very rare that I was able to read Latin (on the rare occasion I saw it) — being able to read things that were written thousands of year ago would have been really neat, so this was disappointing . I think this was because of a combination of me not having studied Latin for 2 years at that point, lack of context, damaged text, and so forth.
The next day I went to the Colosseum and Forum. The Colosseum had a long line up, so I skipped going in in favor of going straight to the Forum.
In Latin class, we worked through the Oxford Latin Course, which game readings chronicling the life of the Roman poet Horace (Qiuntus) who began life as the son of a freedman but, because of his great talents, ended up going to Rome and studying with the children of Nobiles (and lived through Caesar’s assassination, fought for the Republic, and later became highly prominent in the Roman Empire, but turned down positions of power to pursue poetry — all in all, a remarkable life!). The relevance of this is that, to Quintus, at least in our stories, the Roman forum was a remarkable thing, with white marble buildings and so forth. I don’t know what I expected its ruins to be like, but, well, that wasn’t it. Perhaps it’s that I lack the archaeological and historical knowledge that one needs to appreciate it and wasn’t with someone more knowledgeable. Sort of like one needs mathematical maturity and sophistication to appreciate many things in math.
I don’t mean to disparage it overly much. It was still neat to see.
Rome was ludicrously hot. The thing that really made it bearable were all these handy water fountains everywhere that one could use to refill water bottles.
Another day, I got up early and went to the Vatican Museum. I had to wait in line for several hours before going inside. On the inside was security, very reminiscent of airport security. Kind of ironic for God’s embassy on Earth.
I also had to pay to enter (again, irony). Thankfully, my age got me a reduced fee — paying the Vatican, in light of how it has handled child abuse, left me feeling a bit dirty.
In any case, the interior was beautiful, as expected. One particular sculpture reminded me of the glove sculpture at the entrance to the United Nations.
One of the more interesting things I saw were these map/painting things.
The many generations of the Popemobile:
I also went to the Sistine Chapel, but I couldn’t take pictures. You see, one is required to be silent and not take pictures in the Sistine Chapel, because it is Holy. This is enforced by guards loudly shouting at you… Again, irony, what’s that?
It’s funny. I have lots of pictures of things I saw in museums that seemed “important” at the time, but I really couldn’t care less about now. Conversely, there are lots of things that seemed really mundane at the time and that I didn’t take pictures of, but that are really vivid memories for me. For example, walking along the Tiber River on the way back from the Vatican Museum. I walked under a bridge and saw some litter, and the sort of thing I would expect when passing under a bridge in Toronto…
Perhaps there was some sort of ego component with me taking pictures of the things I thought I should be interested in, and those things being museums rather than the every day things around being in another city? Either way, I hope I’ve learned more about what things are worth taking pictures of… (Though I’m not very rigorous about carrying a camera now a days, so there are questions about what good it will do me…)
Week 3: Berlin
Next I went to Berlin to stay with my friend H- and his family — they were super awesome for hosting me.
I bought a ticket for Berlin at the Roma Termini station. The person I was speaking to didn’t have the best English and when they gave me a ticket for the Munich station, I thought that was a train station in Berlin. Yes, my European geography is somewhat embarrassing. I am now of the understanding that Roma Termini can’t sell tickets directly to Berlin for whatever reason, so they sent me to Munich where I could buy a new ticket and transfer.
In any case, I only found out that Munich wasn’t another station in Berlin shortly before leaving when I spoke to H-.
As it turned out, the German train system is amazing. Once I got on a train to Berlin in Munich, I was given a schedule with all the different stops and the time we would make them down to the minute… and we kept them. (When I got my ticket to go back to Paris, I learned that their transit system is so integrated you can buy tickets from the bus stop outside your house to Paris.)
I had some really interesting conversations again while on the train. I also spent a lot of time coding and wrote ucalc, my first real Haskell program.
I really liked Berlin. It was cleaner and tidier than Rome and Paris, I found. It also felt a bit more like home — I was struck by how similar the German country side was to that of Ontario.
I felt kind of obligated to visit a concentration camp while visiting Germany. It seems important to understand how monstrous Humans can be to each other.
I felt kind of bad for H- in his family that the first thing their guest wanted to see was one of the most horrible parts of their countries’ history… And I apologized for it. But it was something I needed to see. So H- and I went to Sachsenhausen.
The weather was suitably miserable.
A lot of it really wasn’t as upsetting as it ought to have been. Part of me expected to just find it horribly upsetting to be at such a place, but a lot of it felt way more normal than it should have. Part of that was that I didn’t have a lot of context and didn’t take the time to try and get it. And a lot of the time when I did understand what something was, it didn’t really seem real.
But there were a few points where the reality did sink in a little.
There wasn’t really any time when I felt I was anywhere near sufficiently upset for what I had observed. Human brains really aren’t good at grasping that sort of thing.
H- and I left and didn’t really talk for a while heading back.
Botanischer Garten Potsdam
H- and family also took me to the Potsdam botanical garden after hearing of my interest in botany.
The thing that really impressed me was the gigantic water lilies.
I also saw plants for a lot of fruits and spices that I hadn’t seen before. For example, figs!
c-base is one of those places everyone in the hackerspace world knows about. One of the earliest hackerspaces, their story is that a space ship crashed where Berlin is, and c-base is one of the few places where it is accessible.
I got permission to take some photos inside — it’s decorated like a spaceship! — but the interesting ones didn’t really turn out.
Museum für Naturkunde
I also went to Berlin’s natural history museum.
They had a very nice mineral collection.
I was amused to find samples from Ontario, Canada — though not very surprised, the Bancroft region, self-declared the mineral capital of North America, has tremendous geological diversity. In particular, I was amused by a corundum sample from Renfrew Ontario:
You see, I have a bunch of very similar samples that I collected at the Burgess Corundum Mine. The matrix is feldspar and the corundum crystals are opaque because of iron. (I used to collect minerals as a hobby.) Renfrew is about 80km away from the Burgess mine.
One of the most impressive thing I saw while in Berlin was the Pergamon Museum.
CCC / Other Hackerspaces
Speaking of famous hackerspaces, I also visited the CCC Berlin.
It reminded me a lot more of hacklab than the CCC did.
I also visited another Berlin hackerspace, the name of which I’ve forgotten, but also goes by the name “space agency”. (Initially I thought the person I was talking to really was from the German space agency!) They had this neat trick where they were laser cutting fabric.
And then I went back to Paris and home!