Monthly Archives: September 2011

There’s no denying it anymore

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It was only a few weeks ago that a friend of mine posted something on Facebook: “Just made jam from the plums in my garden, gotta love the fruits of the autumn!” (or something along those lines, my Swedish is still a bit shaky). I immediately replied, of course: “As long as the trees are still green, it is summer, I don’t care how cold it’s getting or how much fruit/mushrooms/nuts you collect!” (again, that was the intended message, whether the Swedish I threw together meant the same remains an open question).

But then autumn-themed posts appeared in my feed. And the trees actually started changing color (well… the leafs did). And I knew… there’s no denying it any longer.

Lund University Library in autumn. Photo by JanneM via Flickr.

It’s not like I have anything against autumn in particular. I don’t. I don’t have anything against any season. I don’t really have anything for any season either though, to be honest – the concept of a ‘favorite season’ is kind of alien to me. No – what I like most about seasons is the mere fact that they’re there. I would hate to live in a country which has summer all year round, or even only two seasons. It’s the changing of the seasons, the continuous dynamic of that vicious circle that keeps things interesting. I love the freshness of the green in spring, I love the abundance and smells of summer, I love the colors and tastes of autumn, and I love the serenity and quiet of winter. Granted, I generally long for one season when another one is still going on, but I’m working on that.

Still, this year, I’m not exactly looking forward to the changing of seasons. Autumn is not too bad, I guess, although a few extra degrees would never hurt, but the really bad part about autumn is that it is so, so close to winter. And I just. don’t. feel. like. winter.

Don’t get me wrong – wrapped in a fleece blanket, hot chocolate, coziness by the fire place, snow walks (I REALLY need to lose my snow angel-virginity this year), skiing: I get it, it’s great, it’s wonderful. But winter also means: dark. And here in Sweden, even though I can’t really complain as I’m as southern as it gets, there’s an awful lot of dark: at the winter solstice, the shortest day is around 7 hours long – or short, as you prefer – with the sun setting around 14h40. Last year I minimized the effects of this: objectively, Ghent only gets half an hour of daylight more, so that’s not too big of a deal, is it? But, since Ghent is not only located more south, but also more west, this translates in a Ghent sunset over a full hour later. And last year that mere hour of difference induced a full-on winter depression for me.

So no, I’m not really thrilled about the leafs falling and the temperatures dropping, the nights getting darker and the birds moving south. I know (better) what I’m up against this year, so I know what signs to look out for but still… I’m not looking forward to it.

 

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Quote on a Sungday

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The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.

— George Bernard Shaw

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The joys and quirks of language (or not)

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I’ve talked about my absolute love of languages on this blog before, so I’m sure the regular readers don’t need to be reminded of that. But just in case: I love language(s).

I love how the same word can mean something different entirely to different people. I love how it allows you to be creative – to make stories, jokes, connections. I adore how connotations and denotations can completely mess up a conversation. I find it absolutely fascinating that what seems absolute jibber jabber to one makes absolute sense to another, and I love the thrill of that moment where you succeed in expressing yourself with words you didn’t even know existed before.

Still, there is a part of me that clashes with that love sometimes. A perfectionist part.

See, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about learning languages, it’s that you shouldn’t be afraid to speak. Yes, you’ll make mistakes, and yes, you’ll be misunderstood on occasion, but that’s part of the deal, and the satisfaction of hearing yourself make less and less mistakes as you speak more and more, is one of the best things about learning a language – or anything, for that matter. But while I advocate that philosophy with a passion, I find that not only do I not put it into practice myself (I flee into English faster than you can say ‘jibber jabber’ when I’m supposed to talk Swedish), I don’t exactly encourage it in others, either. Strangely enough, this happens most often for English.

Exhibit A: today, one of our master students came to me with a ‘question’.

Yes, so, do you know centrifuge, because, I have LBG, yes, that is, 5000 g, but, unfortunately, centrifuge is booked until three, but still, I cannot use it, so I don’t know.

For the confused reader, this meant: I need a centrifuge at 5000g to spin down my LBG. The one I normally use was booked until three, but despite the fact that it is way after three, it is still in use, so I can’t use it. Do you know where I can find another centrifuge?

Frankly -and with all due respect-, it is exhausting.

If this would have been in Dutch, I would have probably given him a big smile because Dutch is not an easy language, and at least he’s trying, right? Now that it is in English though, I can’t help but shout in my head – How long have you been studying English for? There’s something called grammar, use it! Make a sentence! How am I supposed to know what you mean with keywords only? And although I am well aware that a) not everyone is gifted for languages and b) English is so much easier for me simply because my mother tongue is in the same language group, I cringe and shiver and shudder whenever certain people talk to me because their definition of ‘a sentence’ seems miles away from mine.

It makes me feel like a bitch, because I know I have no right to judge them in the first place. So when I saw the following animation of (a part of) an article by Stephen Fry on language, I couldn’t help but smile (the text is quite long, but absolutely worth the read if you have the time!). Because maybe, just maybe, their “wrong” use of the English language is simple creativity, a re-invention of rules and words. And when I really, truly love language and everything you can do with it, I should be thrilled, not annoyed, when people explore other ways to convey their story, right?

Just another evening among scientists

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One of the things I love about my life in Sweden, is the fact that I’m surrounded by academics almost 24/7. This by all means doesn’t imply that my friends and family back home are stupid, but there is just something about scientists and their sense of humor that makes a conversation that little bit more challenging. So yesterday, during the post-symposium free pizza-bar, I wrote down some of the jewels that made us crack up, but might have had any non-scientist in the company frown their eye-brows.

  • One of the PhD-students wanted another piece of pizza and although she preferred a Napolitana pizza that was on the next table, she settled for a Margarita that sat on our table because “the distance-to-taste ratio was more favorable” for the latter.
  • Another PhD student is Serbian, and we were joking on how former Yugoslavia seemed to keep falling apart, with new countries separating every year: “the half-life of Serbia is shorter than that of beryllium-8”.
    (in reference to radio-active decay) 
  • Our oldest professor has volunteered to be a mammalian cell-donor to anyone who finds him should he drop dead in the lab. One condition: he is to be second author on the paper when any results coming from his cells are published.
    (a number of groups in our lab use mammalian cells for experimentations. everyone who has contributed to a scientific discovery, gets a mention as an ‘author’ when the discovery is published – the higher in the author ranking, the higher the contribution was)
Rattler Wooden Puzzle

Image by dump9x via Flickr

  • We have a series of these little wooden brain teasers in our coffee rooms. When one of the guys finally managed to put one together, he exclaimed: “I conquered entropy!”.
    (entropy, in its simplest explanation, is a measure for the degree of chaos and solving a puzzle creates order from chaos.)
  • One student was talking about a former teacher of his, who was apparently very… curvy… . They had determined an estimation of her actual weight, not by putting her on a scale, but by studying the bending of the light caused by her body.
    (Einstein predicted that objects of large enough mass can bend light – this is used in astronomy to calculate masses for planets etc.)

The light-bending effects of a black hole.

Quote on a Sungday

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The Mad Hatter: Have I gone mad?
Alice: I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.

— Alice in Wonderland

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I spy with my public eye

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Back home, I’m very protective about this blog – there is only a handful of people that know about it, generally because they stumbled upon it by accident, and I have literally asked them not to read (I can only hope they actually complied…). Here, however, I tend to be more sloppy, although most times I can deflect questions “oh, but that’s my Dutch blog, you wouldn’t understand it anyway”.

Right before summer, however, we were having a bbq with some friends. It was just a cosy, comfy afternoon, and as we were talking, something slipped – I’m not even sure what it was anymore, but it was clear to everyone that I’d written and published a non-fictional text in English.

You have to give us the link!

Ehm… how about no?

Needless to say, a lively discussion ensued. Why would I refuse to give the link? Why couldn’t they read something that was already out there anyways, open for everyone to read? How could I expect something that I posted on the Internet to remain private anyway?

They have a point, of course. It’s not like I break taboos here – I don’t talk about my sex life, I rarely discuss very personal things, I don’t bash my friends/coworkers, … in fact, I think there is little to no content to be found on this blog that I haven’t told anyone before, that I would get into trouble for or that I would be ashamed to admit that I wrote. There is nothing to hide here – so why do I insist on doing just that?

Because they might not like what they see – and it scares me shitless.

I can go to a public sauna, and I won’t even bother to wrap a towel around me when I leave the cabin to go shower. I will be surrounded by hundreds of strangers, men and women, and I won’t care in the least. Like what you see? Nice, thank you. Don’t like it? There’s a skinnier/rounder/bigger-breasted/better-whatever-you-want girl right over there, kindly re-direct your attention.
But now if I would go to the sauna with, let’s say, my dad, now that would be… awkward (and yes, that happened.).

And that’s how it goes in the blogosphere. There’s a whole lot of strangers passing by your writing, most of whom just glance and move on, while others actually like what they see and strike up a conversation, i.e. they comment or subscribe. You get the occasional side eye or disrespectful look, but there is always the excuse: they don’t even know me, what do they care, and what right do they have to judge me anyways?

That changes when people you actually know are added to the equation.

Because at the end of the day, I’m proud of my writing, I’m proud of what I’ve put out there – if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have published it in the first place. And while obviously I don’t want to obligate my friends/family to read my blog, if I give them the link I will expect them to read it. And I will expect feedback. So imagine -just imagine- that they don’t like it. That they find my writing boring, or pompous, or just completely pointless. Imagine they just don’t care. Either of two options will then happen: 1. they will lie to me or 2. they will tell me straight up my writing sucks. And that I won’t be able to brush that off the way I could with the (fairly) anonymous comments before.

I’m not sure I’m willing to take that risk (yet).

Quote on a Sungday

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If a trainstation is where the train stops, what’s a workstation?

— ~Author Unknown

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Locking love

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There is something about traveling by train that I find very relaxing – I can spend hours just looking out of the window, watching the landscapes change, getting little glimpses of the lives of people living close to the railway. And while I often say I take the plane as easily as I take a train (making a habit of long-distance relationships tends to have that effect), I still find flying much more stressful. Getting to the airport, checking in, security, boarding, getting out, hoping your luggage comes through, … I am never completely at ease until my bags and I have arrived at my destination. Obviously, taking the train can also cause stress, especially when you accidentally take a regional train instead of the direct train, reducing the transfer time from 32 minutes to… well, zero, but since that has never happened to me (eh…), and since I am pretty sure I would be lucky enough for the connection to be delayed by a minute allowing me to still catch it (I was born lucky, I swear), I would argue that is totally beside the point here.

When traveling by train you generally don’t get the nicest impression of the cities and towns you go through: back alley’s, abandoned cars and fridges and a lot of graffiti are most often among the highlights. Not so in Cologne, where you get a beautiful view of the Cathedral when you enter the train station, and you get to cross the Hohenzollern Bridge.

The Hohenzollernbrücke crossing the Rhein rive...

Image via Wikipedia

I don’t get easily impressed by bridges: Sweden is connected to Denmark by the Øresundsbron, a combined twin-track railway and dual carriageway bridge-tunnel almost 8 kms in length, and Cologne’s simple river-crossing construction almost appears plain and bland in comparison. There is however, something that the Hohenzollern bridge can boast, that only few other bridges can.

Padlocks.

More specifically, love padlocks.

Love padlocks at the Hohenzollernbrücke in Cologne

Image via Wikipedia

In the summer of 2008, these love locks have started to appear on the pedestrian bridge. Lovers, friends and families alike, affix locks to the metal grid of the bridge to symbolize their love for each other. I’ve only been able to see the multitude of locks from behind a train window, but here you can find several close-up pictures of individual locks, some of which have been engraved with the names of the lovers or were decorated by hand.

The phenomenon is not new, but has had a boost a few years back after the best-selling novel “I want you” by Federico Moccia (anyone read it? or even heard of it?) featured a couple young lovers doing just that at the Ponte Milvia in Rome. The craze spread quickly, and love locks now hang from bridges in Paris, Seoul, Moscow, and many other cities. They are not without controversy, however, since they are considered an ‘eyesore’ by many city officials. Only last week, the city of Venice decided on a massive clean-up campaign of the city’s bridges, including the Ponte dell’Accademia and the Ponte Rialto, because the rusting locks were damaging the age-old stones of the bridge.

To be fair, I think it’s cute – I’m a hopeless romantic and although I would never do it myself, there is something endearing about the idea of ‘locking your love’, on a bridge in particular, which by definition connects two places that were separated before. And while I understand the locks may actually damage the bridge and can thus be regarded as vandalism, there is always a middle way : in Rome special railings were erected when the lamp posts on the Ponte Milvia threatened to collapse under the weight of the padlocks. No doubt the street vendors selling padlocks and the many café’s that have recently opened in the neighborhood preferred this to a padlock-ban…