Category Archives: daily life

Artie Aardvark Navigates to Noordwijk

Per tradition of this blog, my experiences last week at the Dutch astronomers conference is handed off to the mascot of my project, Artie Aardvark.  Take it away, Artie!

Last week I was very excited, as it was time to meet up with all my good friends in Dutch astronomy at the NAC, the annual Dutch astronomers conference.  Hooray!  NAC is in a different place every year, and this year it was in Noordwijk, which is near Amsterdam in the middle of the area famous for tulip fields in spring.  Because it’s not that far from Yvette’s apartment in Amsterdam- Google Maps said it would take two hours of bicycling- but a bit of a hassle to get to with public transportation, I decided to go to the conference by bicycle.  I hope the Astrobites poster is secure enough for the ride!

20140528-113528-41728372.jpg

20140528-113527-41727794.jpg

During the ride I discovered this is a very pretty part of Holland, and in fact probably the area people imagine when they think of when they think of the Dutch countryside.  There were lots of bicycle trails everywhere, and canals, and even flower fields!

20140528-113529-41729695.jpg

There are also a lot of little roadside stands like this in this part of Holland, at the end of the driveways for the farms.  You can buy flowers directly from the farmers by putting money in the little box on the side, which I thought was really cool.

20140528-113528-41728741.jpg

Finally after two and a half hours of biking- I guess Google Maps doesn’t take into account the fact that aardvarks can’t pedal as fast as humans*- I made it to the conference, poster and all!  Hooray!

* or, you know, Artie’s photographer for the occasion isn’t up for Google Maps estimates when stopping often for photos… -YC

20140528-113529-41729101.jpg

I must say, the NAC is a very good conference to attend if you are learning all about astronomy like me and are curious about many things.  This is because it is small with about 200 scientists and students this year, and you can learn about a lot of different topics.  My favorite talks were about a young pulsar who had a companion that might be another pulsar, and the discovery of an extrasolar planet with rings over four hundred times bigger than those of Saturn.  That’s more than the distance from the Sun to Venus!  Amazing!

When the talks were done, though, it was time to have fun with all my astronomer friends!  First we found a geocache next to the hotel disguised to look like a log next to a tree…

20140528-113843-41923739.jpg

And then because we were near the beach, we went there to enjoy the spring sunshine!

20140528-113530-41730279.jpg

Afterwards, I was really hungry and decided to have a snack…

20140528-113530-41730634.jpg

And got up my energy for the bowling competition later that night!  My friend Dario even won a prize for having one of the best bowling scores!

20140528-113531-41731208.jpg

 

This was also my least favorite part of the conference, though, because while Yvette stopped paying attention to me for a few minutes I was aardvark-napped by some other astronomers!  Luckily I was found and safe the whole time, but it was scary!

Anyway, at the end of the conference, it was time to cycle back to Amsterdam.  This time I took a different route, along the sand dunes by the North Sea.  It’s probably the most isolated area I’ve seen in Holland… and also the hilliest!  It might not look like much, but the bike is a single speed so some of those dunes felt steep!

20140528-113531-41731539.jpg

I was also surprised at one point to see a lot of antennas poking out of the dunes, and discover a huge radio listening station!  Apparently it was used to receive signals when the Dutch still had colonies in the East Indies and other far away places, and also by the Germans in World War 2 to listen for their U-boats.  You can pick up all sorts of far away signals when next to the ocean due to special conditions there.20140528-113532-41732796.jpg

Finally, after the dunes I turned in towards Haarlem to catch the train home from there- you can bike all the way back to Amsterdam, of course, but that ride is not very interesting and I was getting a little tired by this point.  There was still a lot to see though, because between the North Sea and Haarlem a lot of rich Dutch merchants hundreds of years ago built country houses.  A lot of them look like palaces to me!  This was the view of Elswout, which I found when a little lost on the bicycle path.  It is very neat how in Holland even when you get lost you find the nicest, prettiest places…

20140528-113532-41732173.jpg

Finally, when I got home, I went straight to my bookshelf for a nice long nap.  NAC is good, but left me NACered by the end of it!

On my 1,000th Geocache

Profile for Andromeda321

A little over four years ago, while killing time before class in my M.Sc. days in Cleveland, I was looking around for new apps for my iPhone and remembered a thing I’d heard about called geocaching.  It was the idea that a person would hide a box somewhere (the geocache) and upload the GPS coordinates to the Internet, and then other people would find them in a bit of a scavenger hunt.  It was an idea that I found interesting when I first heard of it in college, but a GPS was too pricey for me as a student (and I had no car, making me a lot less mobile) so I promptly forgot about it.  But a search that day revealed that in the smartphone era one could go geocaching via a smartphone’s GPS, and there was even a free app, and hey there are a lot of these things around Cleveland!

I promptly went out that weekend to start finding a few of these things and the rest is history, as it turns out geocaching is a great thing to do when searching for an adventure.  The thrill of the hunt aside (and occasional swag to trade), they tend to be hidden in interesting locations that someone wants to bring you to, so a little research before traveling to an area on popular geocaches there rarely disappoints.  So far geocaching has taken me to extraordinary viewpoints from Italy to Tanzania…

IMG_2173girl-at-ngorongoro

Re Teodorico, Verona and NgoroNgoro- A Big African Caldera Continue reading

2013 in Review

Screen Shot 2013-12-16 at 2.15.38 PM

Screen Shot 2013-12-16 at 2.15.20 PM

I found a neat website that lets you map out your travels as you can see above, and I put in everywhere I have spent a night in the past year to see how it looked.  Ye gods, I am tired just looking at it, but you don’t exactly know how things will turn out when they start…

A few notes:

- Most of my farthest-flung travels to the US were dictated in some part by my sister’s wedding this past summer.  Presumably she will only ever do this once, so I was more than happy to earn an elite airline status for this!

- If this year had a travel theme, it is somehow this year evolved into a year of exploring the Mediterranean.  I wasn’t planning on it, but I can pinpoint exactly when this happened: back in February I went to Lisbon on a cheap weekend fare after a breakup, and it turned out despite the dreary northern winter in the Netherlands it was sunny and 15C (~50s F) in Portugal.  Sunshine and scenery is good medicine for a soul trying to sort itself out, and it occurred to me then that southern Europe is a rather nice place to get to know. A combination of a godawful spring and work commitments finally ensured I kept going back to the Mare Nostrum.  Can’t complain!

- Similarly, as the Artie Aardvark posts show, it turns out astronomers travel a fair bit and this year work sent me to Belgium, Greece, the Canary Islands, and within the Netherlands.  It’s really hard to complain when your job decides to give you essentially a tour of European vacation spots for a decent part of the fall, but not all locations were equally exciting and it starts to get tiring when you’re away for the third week within two months (for a slog to the northern Netherlands in November, no less- vacation tours only last so long).

To writ, travel for work is almost always more interesting than working where you normally do, but it should not be confused with an actual holiday because you tend to arrive home exhausted.  Especially when your schedule is suddenly on a 7am-4pm sleep cycle during an observing run!

- Also, I should mention that back in the very first days of 2013 I went for a wonderful few days down to Moab, where I began collecting US National Park stamps (because this is clearly a good hobby to start when you no longer live in the US).  Despite a locational handicap I managed to get 29 stamps in four regions of the US this year, which sounds really impressive until you visit Washington DC and realize 16 of those stamps are from all the various memorials (and 6 from the various Boston National Historical sites).  Still, on the list of “incredibly geeky travel hobbies” I’d say I’m doing pretty well there!

So, what’s next?  Well I took the liberty of filling out the rest of the year’s route back to the US for Christmas (NPS stamp #30 should be picked up within the week at Cape Canaveral!)- a country that I’ve noticed somehow slid into more “a place I used to live” status than “home” when I wasn’t paying attention, but that sentiment is complex and outside the realm of this post.  Beyond that, well, nothing’s booked yet.  I have some checks from recent writing that I’m determined to spend on a nice spring break scuba diving because it’s really awesome to realize you made enough money writing to go on a diving trip.  I have realized that the summer after next will not exist for me because my thesis will be due, so I really need to spend some time on a good adventure during this one to someplace and am looking at my options.  And I know a large reason I wanted to live in Europe in the first place is how the list of nice places to visit is never-ending (Krakow! Norway! Porto! Nuremberg!), so no reason to assume that list will not be tackled.

Wishing a wonderful Merry Christmas and Happy 2014 to all who stumble across this corner of cyberspace.  Adventures are never as fun when you keep them to yourself, and it has been wonderful to share mine with you!

An Impromptu Dinner Party

amsterdam-twilight

So.  Earlier tonight I was working rather late- I typically meet with my adviser Tuesday mornings, so Mondays never seem to end when I want them to- so by the time I cycled home via the grocery store it was 8:45pm.  As I was gathering my things a young Dutchman approached me and said something I didn’t catch, I responded with my best “sorry, mijn Nederlands is niet goot,” and he switched to English with one of the more unusual things I’ve been asked lately.

“Sorry, but my friends and I are at the restaurant next door, and we’ve ordered too much food.  So we were looking for someone to join us for dinner to share it- might you be interested in joining us?”

Now when getting home from work near 9pm on Monday night things in my world are often more uninteresting than I’d prefer, and the following came to my mind:

1) Said Dutchman did not appear, at first glance, to be a serial killer,

2) I know the restaurant in question- it’s a few doors down, so nothing crazy is going to happen there, and

3) Most important, it is 8:45pm and I have yet to start making dinner and have nothing else going on besides catching up on TV shows, so why not say yes anyway?

“Give me ten minutes,” I promised- I had ice cream to put in the freezer and flowers to put into water first- and then headed down to the cafe to meet Stijn, Liz, and Mihkel for the first time and have dinner with them.  They were students who worked in the cafe part-time, and what a dinner it was: samples of the kitchen’s best, from venison steak to salmon quiche to horsemeat brisket, with several matching beers to each little sample, all while discussing our various travels and studies and adventures.  They were delighted because they had someone new to hear their stories and had always wanted to try randomly inviting someone to dinner, I was delighted because a lonely late night had turned into something extraordinary, and we all parted with exchanged hugs and phone numbers and promises to do it again in the future. (It’s funny, I think, how this will be a good memory even if it ends with an “and then we never met again” or an “and then we stayed friends for decades in the future.”)

Cheers to ordinary nights becoming extraordinary ones- and may I never become a woman whose first reaction to such an invitation is to turn it down.

So, tell me: would you have said yes to an impromptu dinner party like I did?  Or invited someone like this yourself?

Amsterdam, Two Years In

amsterdam-canal-viewIt is a rather incredible thing to stop and think how I moved to Amsterdam two years ago.  In many ways two years is a long time: long enough to graduate from a beginning PhD student in your department to a senior one, to learn the rhythm of the seasons at a European latitude where sunset times range from 4pm to 11pm, to master the chaotic intimacy of an Amsterdam bicycle commute.  Two years of living somewhere is plenty of time to move twice, try a long distance relationship, learn enough Dutch to realize you know what people are discussing at the next table, learn how to do improv comedy, learn all the shortcuts and secret haunts, know the one place in town that sells chocolate syrup, and a myriad of other things you deal with in daily life but only learn with experience.

In the past two years I have visited about 20 countries.  How, dear reader, did that happen? (Ok, there is an answer: mainly weekends and an expert manipulation of short distances and cheap fares from a major center of European transport. But geez, that’s quite a few.)

But anyway.  Since most of you likely don’t know, the reason two years is a particularly noteworthy thing to mention is it means I am halfway through my time in Amsterdam because my contract is for four years total, and they are fairly strict about making you graduate on time in the Netherlands (you might extend a few months, but that’s it).  If I can tell you anything about the coming two years compared to the last two it’s it will be dominated less by exploring life abroad and more with “OMG I need to write a thesis,” as my friends who have done it seem to all disappear for at least six months when preparing to submit.  But there’s a reason getting a doctorate in astrophysics is supposed to be hard, right? As a final note, in honor of this halfway through my time in Amsterdam occasion, I thought I’d take a moment to answer the three most common questions I get from people who want to know how things are going.  In no particular order: Continue reading

The Trials and Tribulations of Bluey the Bicycle

dutch-bicycleThis is Bluey the Bicycle.  Bluey and I first became acquainted the week when I first moved to Amsterdam and ended up purchasing her at the giant Albert Cuyp Market (which I have promptly never returned to since).  Bluey is a good old classic Dutch oma fiets- literally “grandma’s bicycle”- which is the name given to these sorts of cruiser bicycles in the Netherlands.

Now Bluey has been a great bicycle, and it is really not her fault that she got me as an owner as I tend to not be the best caretaker… and I don’t just mean the memorable first few days when I tried to remember how to use a pedal break for the first time since I was ten, or the many rust spots on the frame from hitting her with the heavy bicycle lock during parking (the picture above is a rather old one).  No, so far the following things have happened to me since I’ve been a Dutch bicycle owner, in roughly chronological order:

- The first trial was a few weeks after I’d arrived in the country and after returning to Amsterdam Centraal from a train journey I noticed my bicycle was missing and no longer parked where I had left it.  On the one hand a stolen bicycle is mildly exciting because it’s one of those things everyone must allegedly have happen to them in order to be a real Amsterdammer, on the other hand Bluey and I had only known each other few weeks and it was upsetting to think of our relationship getting cut short.

Luckily it turned out Bluey was not stolen by a crack addict who promptly threw her into the canal but rather the city, who routinely clears out all the bicycles parked illegally in front of the station (the problem is legal parking is often chock-full with abandoned bicycles, so if you’re running late like I was cycling there isn’t a great idea if you want to find a spot).  When this happens they take your bike to the bicycle depot and you have to go retrieve it and pay a 10 Euro fine, but the real punishment is losing a half day of your life going out into the middle of nowhere on a bus that rarely runs to a place presumably many people would want to go.  And the depot itself might as well be renamed “Where Bikes Go To Die,” as they’re required to keep all abandoned and illegally parked bicycles in Amsterdam for six months in case someone comes to fetch theirs, but most are never claimed-amsterdam-bicycle-depotLuckily Bluey and I were quickly reunited, and got the hell out of there!

- Moving along, Bluey has also gotten a flat tire twice.  This is a fairly normal thing in this country of course, but the first flat tire was due to a thumb tack that was lying in the middle of a road, and it was mysteriously near a bicycle shop that agreed to quickly fix the flat, so I never quite shook off wondering if there was a sinister motive for there being a thumb tack in the middle of the road in the first place.

- Speaking of sinister motives… last month when I moved I spent the first two weeks parking Bluey in front of my new house along with all the other bikes that were there.  After two weeks Bluey’s back tire had once again gone flat, but not due to a puncture- somehow the air had just been released.  Which would’ve been a weird minor thing, except for the part where the very same thing happened just two days later.

Now the first time you take a bike to the shop with a tire like this they just look at you funny, the second time they ask you if you have a problem with your neighbor.  Turns out someone in my subdivided old canal house started a personal vendetta to have bicycles no longer parked in front of our place, and poor Bluey got caught in the crossfire.  Bluey now gets parked down the street, but my Dutch friends all found the entire affair hilarious because I live in one of the nicest, safest areas of the city (the last time something violent happened it was when some Germans marched through with uniforms and guns), and I still managed to get into a turf war which I promptly lost.

- The final transgression against Bluey happened just last week, when I did something very stupid and lost my spare bicycle key which I kept meaning to make a copy of ever since I lost the first one but never had.  In the walk from down the street to my apartment which is maybe 100 meters of road.  Let’s just say people are not always very attentive on the final stretch home when it’s late at night.

Now the real issue here is what on Earth do you do when facing a formidable Dutch bicycle lock and no way to unlock it, but very much in need of your mechanical stallion? (Fun fact: the Dutch word fiets for bicycle is thought by linguists to come from an abbreviation for a German phrase for “mechanical horse.”) Consultation with a mechanic on duty at a nearby bicycle shop and the fact that I hadn’t actually locked Bluey to a bike rack, just the front weel to the frame, meant I was advised to steal my own bicycle and bring it over (and because he thought I was cute he agreed to cut the lock off for free if I bought a new one there).  I just had to awkwardly bring the thing a few blocks over from the current position to the shop.

By the way, it turns out I now know why bike theft is so common in the Netherlands- even when it’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon and you are stealing your own bicycle by carrying it several blocks, not one person will bother to stop and ask what on Earth it is you’re doing!

So goes the life and times of my experience as a Dutch bicycle owner- I’m not sure if I’m a particularly good one, but Bluey has yet to complain personally about her situation.  I will say though that at each of these stages someone has told me “don’t worry, you’re not a real Amsterdammer until that happens anyway!”, and based on the other bicycle related mishaps two things still need to happen to me.

The first is at some point I need to get my wheel stuck in the tram tracks and fall over.  If this is the price to pay I refuse to ever become a real citizen of this city, as that just sounds far too painful.

The second is Bluey needs to be stolen for real, and I never see her again.  I hope this never happens either- we’ve just had too many memorable experiences together!

 

 

 

On the Lives I Left Behind

washington-dc-weekend

Fun in the Florida sun aside, the real reason I went to the USA last week was for my sister’s bachelorette party in Washington DC.  She’s getting married this summer, and used to live there many years, so 14 ladies enjoying a night on the town was the inevitable idea.

It all went well- a lovely time was had by all, although the cherry trees are slightly late this year we found one to take the above picture under (sis is in middle, one of her friends on the left), and I more than doubled my NPS stamp collection with all the monuments and memorials in town.  However there was one feeling in me that was very strong and always becomes a bit more noticeable each time I return to the US these days: the feeling that you are staring into the face of the lives you could have lived.

I suspect this is not a unique feeling to the average expatriate, and it doesn’t mean I am not proud of the life I forged abroad.  But Washington DC is a wonderful city with a culture that I understand intimately well- baseball! brunch! IPAs!- and it’s one thing to step off the treadmill and reject where you live and another thing to come back to visit and realize everything is still going on at home without you.  And much as I think it must be great to live there and am jealous for my sister that she did, I will never live in Washington DC in my 20s because I am busy working on my doctorate a hair before I turn thirty (the Dutch system dictates I get four years of funding, so my contract states I will finish September 2015).  I know everyone’s reaction is to say you can always live there later, and that’s true, but you always have places affect you differently based on the stage of life for when you’re living there.  Just like how my now-retired parents love Florida but I can’t understand its real appeal at 27, or how I want to return to New Zealand and reflect on what it was like during my first solo adventures there, or a myriad of other places you revisit and realize they might have not changed much but you certainly did.

Once again, I love Amsterdam and I love what I’m doing with my life, but I am a woman forever plagued by the lives I chose not to live.  Usually when I vocalize this people laugh- don’t I realize I’ve done more already than most people ever manage?- which always strikes me as odd because I don’t mind what other people do, I care about what I do.  And my life happens to be ordered in “what would you regret most if you never did it?” priority levels, plus a firm belief in how you cannot waste unique skills and situations when you have them, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have some regrets for the paths you never chose.

(At this point someone will point out I am still 27, so there is time enough to do many interesting things.  While true in many ways at this point I will counter that you lack imagination, as I once worked out the time commitments for all the things I want to do and it was several lifetimes without factoring in any serendipity.)

I’m sure everyone feels pangs like this on occasion as part of the human condition, and the only people who leave life without regrets must have been very dull ones, so I will stop philosophizing now on it.  But I do think such a perspective on the choices you’ve made versus the ones you didn’t are much more acute when you leave your comfort zone for the big world beyond, and return to glimpse into the parallel universe of the lives you left behind.