Monday, February 27, 2006


The photo might be deceiving. But no, I didn’t travel to Torino this weekend. I went to Lausanne (pronounced Loh-Zahn), the home of the International Olympics Committee and therefore also home to a museum and park dedicated to the games.
Lausanne is really pretty and probably would have been more beautiful if the sun was shining. Unfortunately, the clouds stuck around all day, hiding the view of the surrounding mountains. The city is only about a half hour train ride from Geneva and sits right on the lake. It’s also very hilly; I heard some people compare it to San Francisco. I’ve never been there, so I can’t be the judge on that one. However, I did my fair share of climbing cobblestone streets and stairs, especially in the city’s Old Town. I stopped by the city’s castle and cathedral, which is the biggest one in Switzerland. Interesting fact: Since the Middle Ages a watchman sits at the top of the tower and calls out the hours at night. The tradition started because the town was made of wood and would frequently burn down and the watchman would be on the lookout for the fires. Lausanne still has a watchman take the post every night.
On the way home I stopped at Manor, the local department store. They were having a sale on chocolate so I bought a lot for souvenirs. The place was jammed. I know I’ve said it before, but Swiss people really do love their chocolate.
My other adventure this weekend: laundry. Armed with coins, detergent and my French-English dictionary, I headed downstairs to my complex’s laundry room. The machines are like none I’ve ever seen. On one side of the machine are 13 options corresponding with a dial, 13. All of which have a description written in French. I tried to translate a few and finally chose the cheapest one with the temperature I wanted (40 Celsius). I open the soap bin and there are three different compartments and I have no clue which one to put my detergent in. I hope for the best, put a bit of soap in each compartment and press the start button. Luckily, ended up with what I think were clean clothes. They smell clean at least.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Fondue and city photos

These are photos from my first weekend in Geneva taken by Althea's friend Andrzej. We walked around the city and stopped for a fondue dinner. I suppose I'm in deep thought in the last picture.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Random foreign thoughts

I’ve been here now for a little longer than two weeks. It definitely feels longer than that. But sometimes I still have to remind myself that I’m actually living by myself in a foreign country. Here are some of my thoughts and observations about Geneva, the lab and everything else around here:

  • French-speaking people really do use the phrase “super” a lot. Only they pronounce it “soup-pear” with a big exclamation mark at the end. When people are talking really fast it’s one of the only words I can pick out of the conversation.

  • It’s ATLAS week at CERN, which means that many of the international collaborators are here for the week. So far, I’ve run into a few people I knew or just recognized from Fermilab. It’s a really strange feeling to connect a face to somewhere thousands of miles away. And it makes it even more difficult to remember their names.

  • I went to a different grocery store last night and bought some veggie burgers, the first I’ve seen since I’ve been here. Veggie products aren’t nearly as popular as they are in the states and even more expensive. So this was quite a find!

  • There are four English-speaking channels on local TV: CNN World, BBC, BBC Prime and some sports channel that has been showing the Olympics with British commentary. Many of the other channels air American shows dubbed over in French. The funniest I’ve seen is “Friends.” Joey’s mouth moves and a second later comes a voice that is definitely not his.

  • It’s pretty much assumed that after you eat lunch, you sit back down and have a coffee or tea and some type of chocolate.

  • Lots of people ski (the mountains are everywhere). Therefore lots of people die skiing. The number of skiing fatalities in the Geneva area alone last weekend was five.

  • The standard of living is extremely high. Housing is expensive, food is expensive, movie tickets are expensive, you get the idea.

  • Despite the stereotype that Swiss people are really healthy, I beg to differ. It’s true that people here look healthy. Most are skinny or average weight, and I’m yet to see someone I’d label as obese. But so many people smoke, and they smoke everywhere, all the time.

  • People speak multiple languages here. French, German and Italian are spoken in different regions of the country and there are people who can speak some or all of those in addition to English. It makes me feel dumb and really jealous.
  • Monday, February 20, 2006

    Bern and bears

    On Saturday I took the train to Bern, the Swiss capital about an hour and a half ride northeast of Geneva. The ride itself was beautiful, providing a great view of Lake Geneva, the countryside -- where patches of farmland line the hills -- and the ever-present mountains in the background. Like the city bus system, the rail is clean and efficient. My only fear was that I’d board the wrong car and end up in Italy or somewhere equally far.
    Bern is a really great city. It’s a peninsula surrounded by a river, which restrains it to quite a small area and makes it really easy to navigate on foot. The buildings are beautiful with storefronts on the bottom and living spaces on the top. Every block or so down the main streets are ornate water fountains. Bern is in the German-speaking part of the country and seems to be influenced a lot by that. There’s a giant cuckoo clock in the middle of the town, and brown gingerbread-looking houses with smoke pluming from their chimneys are scattered about. There also were lots of street vendors selling the biggest pretzels I’ve ever seen. It amazes me how such a small country can have such vastly different regions.
    I stopped by the Einstein Haus, a museum made of the flat he once lived in while working at the patent office in Bern. I guess I can’t get away from physics! The museum itself, which is filled with lots of old belongings of Einstein, wasn’t really worth the 6 francs admission, but it was still interesting.
    From the train station, Bern expands downhill. At the end of the peninsula and across a bridge are the bear pits. The bear is Bern’s mascot, so they keep four or five of them in these pits kind of like a zoo. Visitors can buy bags of fruit to toss down to them and I guess they sometimes do tricks for the food. They didn’t do any tricks when I was there; they just looked really sad. Their living space is pretty small and I felt kind of guilty for staring at them.
    The city also has lots of shopping and a huge market with fresh food and various trinkets was set up in the main square. I also took a walk around the Parliament building. Although I’ve never been to the White House, I can imagine that the atmosphere there is much different from the Swiss capital. I didn’t see one security guard.

    Tuesday, February 14, 2006

    Parlez-vous anglais?

    I find myself using this phrase really often. At the lab, most people speak English well. Off site, however, is another story. And since my French is limited to “hello,” “thank you” and the days of the week, communicating has been my biggest challenge associated with living here. After I’ve used up my signature greeting, “bonjour,” there’s not much else I can do. So if a person I’m passing on the street or stuck in an elevator with continues to talk, I just smile and nod, hoping they’re not telling me something important. Also, I fully embrace gestures when trying to ask a store clerk a question. A lot can be accomplished with a quick game of charades. I must look ridiculous, though.
    I imagine I’ve come across as “the dumb American” quite a few times. For instance, during my first bus ride to the lab last week. I bought my ticket at the stop and walked up to the front of the bus as it pulled up. Expecting the driver to open the door and take my ticket, I waited. And waited. And the door stayed closed. I look inside to get the attention of the driver and find that he’s looking right back at me. I make a gesture to open the doors and then I see it -- a red button with opposite arrow symbols positioned next to the door. I look down the sidewalk to see that the other people waiting at the stop are already on board and realize that the button is to let yourself in. By this time, the driver has opened the door himself and I walk on, give him a quick smile and feel my face flush red all the way to my seat.
    Another surprise came in the grocery store. I walked to a small shop down the street from my apartment and felt proud of myself for figuring out how to use the electronic scale next to the fruit. When you place the food on the machine and punch in a specialized code, out comes a price sticker to give to the cashier. But when checking out, the cashier picked the bananas I selected, pointing to the sticker and talking quickly in what I can only assume was French. I don’t know the code I entered, but it must have been for something expensive, because the price tag said 10 francs instead of the about 3 francs it was worth.
    There are a lot of little differences like this. Things to get used to. Keys with rounded edges, blinds positioned on the outside of windows, elevators made to fit three people and basements with doors the width of a vault. But in the big picture, life goes on in pretty much the same way it does at home.


    Attached are some photos from my first weekend in Geneva. The first is the view from my room, on the fifth floor. The Jura mountains are in the background and I believe the buildings are part of CERN. The second is from inside the city, on the waterfront.

    Monday, February 13, 2006

    Weekend in Geneva

    I explored the city a bit this weekend.
    On Saturday I took the bus into Geneva, about a 20-minute ride from my apartment. Like many European cities, mass transit here really is easy. I walked around the streets near the main bus station for a while before heading down to the waterfront. It’s really unlike any other city I’ve been in. The buildings are old and stately, designer stores line many of the streets and there’s even a Starbucks (jam-packed with people, of course). But it’s surprisingly quiet. Most stores close their doors in the early evening on Saturday and don’t open them back up until Monday. I doubt you’d find that in New York. It’s also really clean. The phone booths are spotless, hardly any litter to be seen and the water is so clear. The scenery really is nice with a river dividing the city in half and mountains looming in the background. You can also tell that Rolex and banks rule this place. You pass a watch shop or a bank at least every block.
    On Sunday, I walked around the oldest part of town, which has cobblestone roads, steep hills and at least one building dating back to the 1100s. A neutral country, Switzerland wasn’t attacked during WWII and most of its buildings are original. For dinner I had cheese fondue at a restaurant that juts out into the river. The view was wonderful and so was the food.
    I’ll post pictures soon.

    Friday, February 10, 2006


    I’m here.
    Between settling into a new apartment, a new job and a new country, it’s been a pretty hectic few days. CERN is huge, much larger than I expected. Although I didn’t really know what to expect. I read Dan Brown’s “Angels and Demons” the week before I left to get some insight into the faraway place I heard about during meetings and lunchroom chitchat at Fermilab. Then I found out that like the book’s storyline, many of the lab’s physical descriptions were fictional as well. My office is technically in Meyrin, Switzerland. The site extends outward from here and across the border into France. And the 27 km tunnel that’ll be used for the LHC (a new particle accelerator that’s supposed to start up next year) covers all kinds of land. I took a tour of one of the LHC’s detectors, ATLAS, which was really cool. It’s 100 meters underground and still being put together. It looks like some of the other detectors I’ve seen, but on an even larger scale. The number of parts needed for these things always amazes me. The guide I was with described it as a big onion, which I think is a pretty good metaphor.
    My apartment is in a high-rise building surrounded by a lot of other housing but not much else. From my room I can see one of the local mountain ranges, called the Jura, I think, and CERN. I share the place with Althea, a Jamaican woman who’s been here for nearly six years. She’s nice, but a bit strange. She’s very picky about keeping things super clean, and wishes people would wash their hands more often. I got a mini lecture on hand washing after coming back from the grocery store yesterday and forgetting to make a stop at the sink first. “You wouldn’t believe the things they do out there,” she said. The word “there” meaning Geneva. I’m not sure what those “things” are and how they could possibly be worse than anywhere else. I’ll let you know if I find out when I venture into the city this weekend.

    Saturday, February 04, 2006

    Superbowl XL

    Detroit cleans up nicely. I was impressed the last two nights when I went downtown and found a city much different from the one I grew up with. The streets were clean and filled shoulder to shoulder with people, the buildings were illuminated with red, blue and white lights and police officers and event volunteers were good-natured and smiley. All for Sunday's big game and the madness that surrounds it. I had a really good time watching ice skating, tasting samples of food from local restaurants, walking through the many tents of souvenirs and just getting into the spirit of things. My only hope is that the improvements made can be maintained and built upon when the spotlight is turned off. It would be nice to live so close to a good city.

    Wednesday, February 01, 2006

    Horned ambition

    I was de-cluttering my room today when I came across an "All about me" booklet I made in Kindergarten. Here are some of my answers to a favorite things questionnaire (as translated by 5-year-old me to one of the teacher's aides):
    Toy: Barbie dolls
    Food: noodles
    Place: Greek town with cheese on fire
    I want to be: a unicorn
    I always laugh when I think about my first job choice. I'm not sure who or what convinced me that it was not only possible to be an animal when I grew up, but a fictional one at that. I guess it speaks for a vivid imagination. It didn't take long before I turned my sights to a more feasible career: ballet. Then teaching, following by writing and then this, whatever this is.
    Just thought I'd share.
    On another note, only six days until I leave for Switzerland. I've been trying to tie up lots of loose ends lately, which include: filing taxes (still unsuccessful after spending two hours attempting to file online), teaching myself French (I can count up to 10, recite the days of the week and say a couple phrases - lots of room for improvement), read up on European travel, get traveler's checks and a small amount of Euros and Swiss Francs, and, the biggest challenge of all, pack three months of clothes and belongings into two suitcases.