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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in James' LiveJournal:

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Sunday, November 27th, 2005
2:48 pm
And I'm back. Three painful months followed up by perhaps the most excruciating and humiliating scholastic experience I've ever had, but I survived. Somehow. In the Physics Department of UW, the comprehensive exam consists of nine questions, three from each of the three examiners, on topics related (however vaguely) to your field of study. In my case, I study ordered fluids under confinement using the SFA and, possibly, X-Ray diffraction at some point in the future. So, the three topics given to me to study were Liquid Crystals, X-Ray Diffraction, and Intermolecular & Surface Forces. An hour before the oral exam, they put you in a room for an hour to look over the questions and write out whatever notes you think you'll need (no reference materials, of course), and then the examiners come in, along with two moderators (to make sure everything runs smoothly). The student chooses which of the nine questions they'd like to start with, and then once it's done they're required to run through the rest of the questions in order, #1 through #9 (less the starter question). Invariably, the student will get stuck in various places, and if they're lucky, the examiners (who have the answers for all questions in front of them) will help the student with vague hints. The second they need to do actually do any of the work for the student, he or she has failed the question (but still has to answer it! Or admit defeat and ask if the examiners would be gracious enough to let him or her move on. As I said, humiliating.)

I'm embarrassed to say I got stuck on pretty much every question at some point, even the easy ones. The worst part was, it usually wasn't the conceptual parts or the tougher calculations that messed me up, it was the basic stuff! I stood paralyzed with fear while doing two very simple integrations (after having gone through a more difficult one without a problem) for what seemed like several minutes, even though the answer was in each case sitting right there in my head! While doing a simple X-Ray spacing calculation, I blanked and wrote down the wrong answer for a simple dot product. Honestly, it must have looked like I slept through my entire first year of university to those guys. But, to my luck, I managed to persevere through seven of the questions, getting them all right eventually (with much help from the examiners). When I was about to start on the eighth, one I knew the answer to very well (derive the structure factor from the scattering cross section), one of the moderators stopped me and asked everyone else if they were satisfied with my performance. They said yes, and suddenly I was free to go! Which is, in retrospect, a good thing, considering I had (and still have) no idea how to solve the last question. Not a good way to end an exam.

But it's done! Seven questions in an hour and forty-nine minutes, about as slow and painful as they come; I think had I been asked to continue through to the ninth question I would have set some sort of record! And so hopefully I'll have some more time in the months ahead to update more often. For now, though, I'm still in the midst of recuperation, which involves dishes, laundry, and mandatory phone calls from family to find out whether I'm still alive. I'm crossing my fingers that I'll be able to write again soon!
Thursday, July 21st, 2005
7:23 am
Crazy from the heat
I've been out of commission for the last few weeks for two reasons: First, a string of stressful events have taken up pretty much all of my free time (committee meeting last Tuesday, a poster presentation last night, and another presentation next Monday), and second, the heat. I've never been able to handle heat very well, and it's been positively miserable in this part of the world since mid to late June. Every morning I'd come in to school, a twenty-five minute walk from home, and well before the worst of it, and I'd be drenched in sweat. Clothes soaked through, sometimes dizzy from the loss of fluids, and dreading the end of the day when I'd have to head back home again. Honestly, on the worst days the air quality got so bad it felt as though I was breathing through a spare tire, and I haven't had two nights of decent sleep in a row for more than a month now. It irks me that we're not allowed to have air conditioning here without a doctor's note (and if you do, they'll charge you $150 a month plus utilities to have it). I feel as though I've lost the entire last month, and it could be easily fixed easily and without extra cost to the university (if they charge extra for the electricity consumption), but it's policy, and policy is much more important than the comfort and well-being of the students.

Anyway, sorry for the rant but I haven't been able to think straight for some time now. Once this next presentation's out of the way I'll be around more often regardless of the heat. Hope everyone's doing well!
Tuesday, June 28th, 2005
7:19 am
We came within a few minutes of getting half the afternoon off yesterday. We had a blackout, the second one in about three months, and for fifteen or twenty minutes everyone in the lab stood in the hall, chatting and surmising what might be the problem. I still don't know the extent of the power loss, but however large it was, the power came back on just as we were toying with the idea of leaving. Just our luck.

All right, let's get this book list underway (we're still in 2004!). We'll buzz through the next few, starting with Gertrude by Hermann Hesse, my first book by him and, unfortunately, almost entirely forgettable. I found it wordy and barren of interesting ideas to latch onto, but as it's one of Hesse's earliest works, I'm confident this isn't indicative of how I'll feel about him once I get to his more famous works.

Ann Radcliffe came up next, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, interesting in places but for the most part overly dense and inconsequential. Following that was Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom and Other Writings by the Marquis de Sade. There was some overlap here with the last book by him, but most of the material was new and, admittedly, shocking. The man has his reputation for a reason. I'm amazed how he's able to go on page after page with the explicit and lurid details, to the point of tedium. Is that a fault with his writing? Part of me would say yes, but I do remember being amazed at how desensitized I'd become to the subject matter over the space of a few hundred pages, and to be able to do that so effectively is, to me, no small achievement. If that was his intention, I'd have to say his writings are a tremendous success.

At this point I'd gotten to the end of the year with only two books that stood out as being Book of the Year material (20 000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Complete Novels of George Orwell), a relatively lean and middling selection compared to the year before. Then, in December, I was fortunate enough to pick Jennie Gerhardt, by Theodore Dreiser. I'd read Sister Carrie back in 1997 and, to my complete surprise, it became one of my favourite novels of all time. I had great expectations for the present story, and was not disappointed in the slightest. Dreiser is (as far as I can tell) unique in his detached, reserved style, his novels stripped of just enough excess to leave the readers to draw their own conclusions as to what he's trying to say through his characters. He's not afraid to let his story speak for itself, and he does it very well. His characters are not perfect and don't pretend to be; on the contrary, it's through their mistakes and their weaknesses that he draws us into the story.

I'd continue (or at least edit the last paragraph so it makes more sense) but I'm late for school and so must run. I hope everyone's doing well!
Monday, June 27th, 2005
7:25 am
I've finally been given the word from my supervisor: I'm going to need a committee meeting ASAP, something I've been dreading for months but knew had to come soon, since we have to meet so they can let me know what subjects to study for for my qualifying exam. He mentioned this Friday afternoon, and I conveniently forgot to write to the grad secretary to schedule a meeting the rest of the afternoon, to buy myself a little more time. I'm hoping it'll be after the long weekend so I'll have it to prepare, but at the same time, there always seems to be something that gets scheduled right after a long weekend, which can't help but ruin it, and I'm beginning to resent it!

Booklist: I think I'm going to have to shorten these descriptions even more than I have been, just to catch up. Next on the list was Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island, which I enjoyed (who can't enjoy a good 'stranded on a desert island' story?), but which was a bit of a letdown after reading the first half of the story, 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea, which fascinated me endlessly. There seemed to be less imagination this time around, more discussion of how to survive rather than descriptions of exploration of the island. I'm embarrassed to say part of me deep down was let down when I realized there would be no giant animal-monsters like in the movie adaptation I enjoyed as a child. I'm sure it's cheesy as hell, but still, when it's an early memory, that doesn't matter much, right?

We rocket ahead a century in sci fi history to John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids. This was the second book of his that I've read, the first one being way back in grade nine English class, The Chrysalids. I enjoyed that one, and found this one just as entertaining. Nothing like an apocalyptic tale of humanity being taken over by vegetables to raise the spirits! Well written, a little contrived in places, but interesting all the way through.

H. Rider Haggard's next, with Jess, a fairly middle of the road story about which I have little to say. I'm finding Haggard's skills at writing romance to be somewhat lacking (his early stuff, anyway), and am looking forward to getting to some of his later works which, I hope, will be more flavourful.

And now, off I go to school to seal my fate and book a committee meeting. Wish me luck!
Thursday, June 23rd, 2005
7:24 am
It's been a busy week, both at school and at home. Anne spent much of her time with last minute preparations for her trip, and on Tuesday afternoon she hopped on the airporter and spent the next twenty-two hours or so making it to her first stop, Berlin. I woke up at 3:15 in the morning the night of her flight, worrying about whether she was all right. I knew she'd be landing around 4:00 and so, since I couldn't sleep, I spent the next hour wondering if she'd phone in a panic once she was on the ground, and figuring out the train schedule for her from Frankfurt to Berlin online. Little did I know, not only was she doing fine, she was living in the lap of luxury! After switching her seat with a little girl who wanted to be with her mother (who was sitting beside Anne), the flight attendant whisked her away to first class, where she was able to spread out over a full aisle, and was tempted with wine, sugared pears, brie, french bread and crepes with ice cream. She made her changeovers smoothly and wound up in Berlin before I thought it was even possible to, and, according to her email, she is now staying in a pension that looks like an art gallery, in a room overlooking a cobbled street lined with numerous cute little shops. The only thing she doesn't have now is food; every restaurant and food shop in the area sells nothing but meat, and so she's anticipating nursing a juice box for dinner. I'm looking forward to a phone call today to get a complete report, but for now, I'm off to school!
Wednesday, June 15th, 2005
7:21 am
Day 7: Amsterdam to Utrecht, to Maastricht and back to Amsterdam
On the advice of my friend, Pauline, who had stayed in the Netherlands a few years completing her doctorate, we decide to spend our last full day seeing two other cities, Utrecht and Maastricht. The former is the home of the country’s tallest church tower, the Dom Tower (112 m). Unfortunately we don’t have much luck with our timing and so miss the English speaking tour, the only way we know of to gain access to the top. We do, though, see the rest of the church, a wide street away from the tower. The separation of the two was the result of a hurricane in the 17th century that leveled a broad section of the church, virtually the entire nave. It lay in partial ruins until just recently, when the gaping hole was bricked up (in fact, one entire side of the current structure is modern brickwork). The transformation has been a miraculous one, with the church today being beautiful both inside and out. We spend our time not only within the chapel, but also playing in the courtyard, which we find to be entirely deserted, and in full bloom.

Back on the train, this time to Maastricht. We’re very pleasantly surprised upon entering the city, especially after crossing the bridge spanning the River Maas, which divides the city more or less into an Old and New Section. But as I mentioned before, Anne and I are having trouble timing our day, and so we spend the first half of our afternoon running to find the cave system we’d heard about on the outskirts of town, before the last English-speaking tour ends. At one point, well after getting completely lost despite our map and a thousand useless road signs, we reach a busy street overlooked by traffic lights that are wholly and utterly incomprehensible to the average pedestrian (the average foreign pedestrian, at any rate). There are three settings to the lights, none of them giving a clue as to what they might represent--I’m assuming one means Walk, another Don’t Walk, and the third Take Your Best Shot, but none of these seem to have any affect on the cars that pass, other than to vary the velocities at which they would run down pedestrians should they dare to cross. There are two rather nondescript buttons at the corner for each direction; one of them must mean I’d Like to Cross but I’m at a loss to explain what the other might be for, or which was which. At any rate, Anne and I stand at the corner for several minutes, watching the kaleidoscope of lights and pressing the buttons at random trying to figure out what pattern would make the cars stop. Finally, feeling brave and getting fed up, we look for a break in traffic and launch ourselves across the street, directly into the waiting arms of a constable with a limited sense of humour. We had crossed in front of a police station. After a stern lecture, throughout which we attempt to plead our ignorance through dull and confused looks, shrugs and random interjections of meaningless Dutch words that prove we have no idea what is going on whatsoever, he lets us go and we dash off in the direction of the caves.

Two rain showers and one Mother of All Hills later, we arrive at one of the two publicized cave entrances holding tours with less than five minutes to spare. Unfortunately, we’re at the ‘Dutch’ entrance, and so end up being in the wrong place at the right time. We console ourselves by picking a random direction and taking a walk through the countryside, feeding a horse by the roadside (we have named him Roberto), exploring an abandoned WWII underground army base carved out of the hill, stopping by a petting zoo to feed goats and see turkeys, peacocks and a few birds we’ve never seen before, buying ice cream (and a putrid-tasting yogurt drink) from a neighbourhood grocery store, and then wandering back through the center of town as the day winds down.

At this point Mother Nature starts getting serious, and our umpteenth rain shower of the weeks sends us scrambling through the cobbled streets and to the closest church, which has every entrance locked and sealed except for a tiny side door that’s only slightly ajar. As it turns out, although the place is closed to the general public for the day, there is a little old lady sitting just inside the door, waiting for a school group that’s scheduled to come in after hours. She invites us in to take a look on our own, and so we wander amongst the pews and altarpieces enjoying our private show; the lights are mostly off and so the chapel is predominantly lit by votive candles and the occasional lightning strike outside. This, we decide, is the best way to see a church, bar none. After we’re done the lady at the door gives us a little description of the stonework (only half of it is limestone, protected from the elements by a shell of another harder stone), as though practicing for her upcoming school group, and we thank her profusely for the privilege and the experience before braving the elements once again, retreating to the River Maas once again, stopping for a spell at a McDonald’s with a bathroom that looks as though it was designed by Stanley Kubrick, and then on to the train station. We arrive back at Amsterdam after dark, exhausted by ready to rise early to catch our train to Germany.

Previous Day
Monday, June 6th, 2005
7:27 am
I am downright cranky today. It was a busy weekend (didn't even have time to eat lunch until after 8:00 last night), and last night was far too hot to get any real sleeping done (and when we finally did, a thunder storm swept through and woke us up several times over the span of a couple of hours) which had me debating whether or not to call in sick this morning. Of course, being spineless and straight-laced, I didn't. So instead of taking a Personal Day today, I will go to work and whine until everyone else wishes they had. That is my plan.

I am a geek. For those of you who don't know this (and how could you not?), I'm an avid D&D player (avid, not obsessed, although at times Anne might beg to differ). I've been running a Play-by-Email campaign for more than four years now, and while the game is extremely enjoyable, it's fallen upon hard times in the last year because some of the players have had to drop out for one reason or another, leaving us without a decent number of people. I've recently been trying to advertise (the cut message below is the most recent incarnation of the ads going out), and have now put out the invitation to five different large communities, available to maybe 2500 people, and so far, after more than a week, I've gotten no responses. Not one. Am I doing something wrong? Looking at several 'how to set up a PBEM campaign, I'm told you'll have to beat people off with a stick when after these ads out! It's getting frustrating, that after all the work I've put into this, and after seeing how positive a reaction players have to it when they actually try it (those that play it refuse to move back to traditional format, which I think is a ringing endorsement), there's no one out there that's willing to give it a shot. Bah.

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Monday, May 30th, 2005
7:23 am
I've really shot myself in the foot this time.

I thought writing up my travel journal from two years ago would be a good way to keep in contact and get in the practise of writing again during a time where I have nothing much to say, but I'm now deeply in a wanderlust funk. I'm desperate to just take off to Amsterdam, or Budapest, or anywhere other than here, and its unbearably frustrating to think that I'm stuck here in Waterloo suburbia for another three years at the very least. It doesn't help that I have to watch my bank account dwindle to nothingness as my money pours into a degree I'm entirely indifferent about. And it doesn't help that Anne'll be leaving in about three weeks to go on a European adventure on her own. Living vicariously won't do it this time--I need to travel!

Books. I believe next up on my list was Wilkie Collins' The Dead Secret. A bit tame as far as his mysteries go, and a little far-fetched, but enjoyable to read nonetheless and in all likelihood a nice lead-in to his more celebrated novel, The Woman in White which, if we shift ahead to today, I'll be starting during my lunch this afternoon.

Finally, finally, after sitting on my shelves untouched for more than half a decade, the Marquis de Sade's books were picked at random and I had the pleasure to read his The Misfortunes of Virtue and Other Early Tales. I'm still surprised at how talented a writer de Sade can be; his work is undoubtedly spotty, he gets caught up in lurid details too often for many of his readers, I think, but when he gets down to crafting a story, he's just as good as any of the great French writers, even Hugo, and clearly puts a lot of thought into what he says. Unfortunately, his early stuff is a little too tame for what I was expecting, but otherwise I was very pleased with what I read.

And then, there's Shakespeare. This is the point where I dug the hole I'm still trying to get out of to this day; I'm trying to go through fifty pages a day, and the tiny font in the Complete Works volume I own makes it impossible to do so without using up four or five hours in the process. I won't comment on the plays here, both because they were all typically great Shakespeare, and also because I had to go through them so quickly I don't feel I'm qualified to do so. For the record, though, the plays were Twelfth Night and Richard II, and alongside them I finished off all of Shakespeare's poetical works.

The one-two punch to my fifty page a day rule was finished up by Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. I loved the way it started out, with the protagonist, Hans Castorp, arriving in the tiny Alpine town of Davos-Platz and getting acquainted with the locals. Mann's style, though, wore on me after a while; page after page of philosophical ramblings, all to be read at breakneck speed to complete the fifty necessary, made my head spin and I can't say I took away as much from the narrative as I would have like to. The more down-to-earth sections of the book, where Mann goes on at length on medicine, was very interesting and easy enough to follow.

Time for school! More on this later.
Sunday, May 29th, 2005
1:13 pm
Day 6: Amsterdam
Rain, like prostitution and drugs, runs rampant in Amsterdam. We were spared somewhat over our first two days here, by having showers rather than a steady flow, but today we have no such luck. The day is spent dashing from shelter to shelter to get to our sites of interest and is started with a steaming appelflap for each of us to warm our stomachs. We manage to see:

i) Anne Frank’s House, where hundreds of tourists clamour through cramped and sometimes claustrophobic rooms to view memorabilia, placards explaining the layout of the building, and the occasional video describing Anne’s time spent there. I don’t find the place overwhelming, though; there are too many people crowding the rooms and chatting amongst themselves to give that emotional sucker punch I’m hoping for. Still, it’s to be expected, what with the popularity of the shrine.

ii) Rembrandt’s House, an interesting stop, more so, strangely, for the house itself than for its most famous inhabitants. It’s a magnificent and lavishly decorated domicile that ultimately sent Rembrandt into debt, forcing him to sell his impressive collection of esoterica that has since been meticulously recreated by the museum.

iii) The Sex Museum, for which no details need be provided here (I’ll leave them to your imagination). In general, though, a thorough and unabashed portrayal of porn through the ages. Very interesting and impressive, and tended by a kindly old gentleman who waves with pride at you as you leave!

iv) The Rijksmuseum; there’s not nearly enough time before closing for us to see the entire museum, even with a briskly-paced walk through its many halls. We’re forced to stick to the central gallery containing Flemish art, highlighted by Rembrandt’s enormous masterpiece, The Night Watch, as well as a few side galleries. Oddly, half our time is spent in the lobby deciphering the giant wall of stained glass overlooking the gift shop! But from what we’re able to see, it’s obvious that a further trip will have to include a more complete tour of the museum.

The most interesting sight on our trip to the latter museum: several walk-downs lining the roads of the downtown area, that we first mistook for openings to pedestrian tunnels under busy streets, but which turn out (we think) to be open urinals, in frequent use by the locals. Is this common to other cities in the Netherlands (or Europe, for that matter)? Or a peculiarity of Amsterdam? The question remains unanswered.

[Edit: After scouring the Internet for some mention of these public toilets and finding no mention whatsoever, I’m left to wonder whether they are, in fact, pissoirs at all. Which leaves me wondering what their real purpose might be, and why did we keep seeing men peeing in them?]

Previous Day
Tuesday, May 24th, 2005
7:33 am
Day 5: Lille to Amsterdam
With the strike over, we’re now free to escape to Amsterdam only a day behind schedule (I say schedule, but this is not really the case, since most of this trip is to be made up as we go along). We step off the train, and after scouring the station for coin-operated phones (they’re almost all card-operated phones these days), we decide we’ll have more luck looking around outside. Within seconds of doing so we’re swept up by one of the many local hotel/hostel shills, who guides us through the sea of people to the booking desk of his hotel. Within a few minutes we’re spreading out in our new quarters, a stone’s throw from the Red Light District, a couple of floors above a bar and right beside a terrace crawling with pigeons that were constantly (and violently) on the make.

We arrive in the mid-afternoon, and the clouds overhead threaten imminent rain, so we don’t have a tremendous amount of time to explore before sundown. At one point we exit an alley and find, down the road to our left, a magnificent two-towered red brick structure dominating the streetscape catches our immediate attention. We’re drawn towards it, and on our way there it begins once again to downpour. Cursing our luck, we pick up our pace and hope that whatever the place is, it will be kind enough to allow us to shelter ourselves from the rain, if only for a short while. We arrive there and find out, to our infinite surprise and embarrassment, that the exquisite piece of architecture is in fact, the local mall. We hunt around for an hour (during which time I find a fancy little black notebook that now holds the narrative you’re reading), grab a bite to eat and then head back to the hotel to get ready for our foray into Amsterdam’s most famous tourist attraction.

Even with the foreknowledge of Amsterdam’s sex and drug policy, walking the streets near the Red Light District is quite an experience. People from all walks of life mix freely here, from the penniless junkie desperate for his next fix to the elderly affluent couples gingerly perusing the S&M boutiques. The streets are typically packed, slowing traffic to a crawl, to the point where one could listen in on the haggling between window queans and their customers, if only one spoke Dutch. Proprietors of sex clubs stand outside their establishments, sometimes whispering, sometimes shouting to passersby, offering ‘special deals’ in a variety of languages. In the background, reminiscent of the stereotypical New York City of the 70’s, pimps oversee their windows, talking casually amongst themselves but never taking their eyes off the action for very long.

The atmosphere here is somewhere between that of a giant party and a grocery store; there are generally two groups of people: those looking to procure their goods (be they carnal or pharmaceutical) and those here to enjoy the nightly show, reveling in the saturnalia.

Previous Day
Monday, May 23rd, 2005
11:18 am
Day 4: Lille
They shut Belgium down. Or, at least, that’s what we’re told at the information desk of the Lille train station when we arrive. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The night before, Anne and I were so very charmed by Lille that we were considering spending a full extra day there. The Old Section of town is lined with fancy boutiques and interesting little stores and bistros, and graced by more than one Town Square whose majesty and beauty can't help but take your breath away. Unfortunately for us, we arrived as a weekly market was closing down for the day, and we decided then and there that if we had the time at the end of the trip, we’d return to see it.

We spent the night in a budget hotel called L’Hôtel de France. The view from our window was gorgeous, but after having left the window open for the evening we learned too late that the city is not, in fact, run by people but by mosquitoes. By morning I had fully 25-30 bright red marks on hands, back and face, and was paranoid for several days afterward that I’d be thrown into quarantine for SARS, as sickly as I looked.

Have I told you about the facilities? The ‘shower’ consisted of a dingy old bathtub, approximately one and one-half foot in width, with a piddly little shower fixture attached to the side. There’s nothing like a shower wherein you’re crouched behind a curtain (to the room—a shower curtain would be far too luxurious!), spraying (and I use the term generously—trickling might be more appropriate) water over yourself, careful not to move for fear of rubbing up against centuries-old porcelain with the soothing hum of mosquitoes buzzing in your ears. No, there’s nothing like it. Thank God.

And now back to Day 4: As morning breaks, we discover to our chagrin that our plans have been foiled by the weather. It’s raining very heavily, with no sign of letting up, and after a miserable search for a beauty shop that, despite being ‘just around the corner from the hotel’ takes us a half hour to find, we get back to our hostel, soaked through and with three minutes until checkout. We have no choice but to collect our things and leave, dashing for the train station and searching for the next train to Amsterdam. We were told yesterday the train would be departing at 12:10, which would give us plenty of time to dry off and find lunch. There’s only one train leaving at that time, according to the Big Board of Departures, and since we have a stopover (at a town named Berchem) we aren’t alarmed that our particular platform doesn’t mention Amsterdam explicitly. We climb aboard our train, anxious to move on, and, as it turns out, oblivious to our situation. Two hours or so into our trip we ask an attendant if this is the stopover for Amsterdam. She gives us a horrified look and explains we’ve spent the last two hours traveling in the wrong direction.

Two stopovers and nearly three hours later we’re back in a mercifully shower-free Lille. Hobbling up to the information desk, we’re told in cryptic French: “You can’t go to Belgium today. They’re closed.” I kid you not. The following day we’ll learn (surprisingly, from another Ottawa couple who happened to sit down across from us on the train) that the Belgian train workers are on a one-day strike to protest something or other (to show that they mean business--apparently one day will do it...), but at the moment we have no idea what’s going on. We accept that we’re stranded for a second night in Lille, and to add salt to our wounds, as soon as we leave the station the heavens open up once again and we’re served another fine helping of torrential rain. We scramble around for the better part of an hour, trying to find a replacement hotel, and finally settle in the Floréal.

After we settle in, I head back out to rove the streets in search of a newspaper. Before long, I'm stopped by what I think is a petitioner, and am about to explain I'm a tourist (and so exempt from petitions) when she breaks into a spiel in broken English. I don’t catch much (I never do when a Francophone tries to “help me out” by throwing random English words into their sentences) but from what I understand, all the children of Boulogne will perish if I don’t help their cause immediately. Now, I won’t have that—-I can stand one or two children perishing, maybe a half dozen, but not a whole city full, that is where I draw the line—-and so I’m eager to hear what I have to do to help.

I’m told that for a contribution of only 1є80 I have a choice of two candy bars, one having a blue sticker (boys), the other a pink sticker (girls), but I’m assured both bars taste the same (and at this point I’m wondering why I’m being held up, in the pouring rain, having this particular triviality explained to me). I pull out my money and hand it over, envisioning scores of Bolognese waifs soon rejoicing as they hear of my largesse, when I’m brought back to Earth by the woman. She turns the bar over and shows me the stamp on the back: 8 euros, not 1.8 (apparently her English is not as polished as she’d hoped). It might be water on the brain or my attempts to avoid it, but I hastily pull out the correct amount, pay my extortion fee, grab my nougat bar and speed off without looking back. I can only hope that princely sum is spread out to include not only the children of Boulogne, but children in need everywhere. I am, indeed, a Samaritan.

Our evening is spent indoors because of the weather, trying our best to dry off and cracking the code that is the international phone directory. Next stop, Amsterdam.

Previous Day
10:11 am
Day 3: London to Lille
We bolt out of bed at 6:45, and run downstairs at 7:30 trying to catch an 8:41 train to Dover. We get outside and wander the streets nearby the hotel trying to find the right Tube entrance. We find it without much trouble. Normally the Circle Line seems to come every three minutes--we'd seen no end of them the previous day--but this time it takes about fifteen, being Sunday. I keep repeating, "I don't think we're going to make it," to Anne, and she keeps repeating, "Yes, we are." Lots of pacing and staring down the pitch-black tunnel, as though it'll improve our situation. Eventually, the train comes.

We get to Victoria Station at 8:35 with no idea which train to get on, no tickets for the train, and no money with which to buy them. "It's over," I tell Anne, "Relax, we have an hour to kill." As we walk across the station, I espy a bank machine to my right, a few dozen feet off and unoccupied. "We might just do this after all," I say, rushing over and pushing buttons frantically. "Go find what track we're on and meet me at the automated ticket counter!" Anne runs off and I finally get my money, then rush over to the vending machine, sorting out correct change as I go. All of a sudden Anne appears on my right. "Track one!" she yells and we manically punch more buttons to get our tickets. There's a time stamp on them, and one reads 8:41 while the other reads 8:42 (our train, recall, leaves at 8:41). "Go!" I yell, "Don't wait for me! Don't look back!" We make a mad dash back across the station, past people and turnstiles, pound the button opening one of the car doors of the train, and pile inside. The train leaves no more than thirty seconds later and we're on our way to Dover!

The occasional filling station and factory do little to mar the beauty of the English landscape, with its towns and country cottages nestled amongst a myriad of gently rolling hills of varying shades of green. I, however, find myself trapped outside a less breathtaking scene: the train's washroom, cylindrical, fully modern and equipped with two buttons reading 'Open' and 'Lock' outside the chamber. Curiously, to close the automatic sliding door one must press Open, and so I spend much of the two hour trip assisting people, nine out of ten of whom cannot figure this peculiarity out. The saddest of the lot, relieved at last to have figured out how to enter the washroom, forget to lock it, and so, because of the nearly constant flow of weak-bladdered souls passing by without checking the Occupied sign, I find myself face-to-face with a whole host of mortified passengers in varied states of undress, as the automatic door swings widely and slowly open to reveal them in all their glory, on their throne.

We arrive in Dover, get whisked onto a Courtesy Bus to the pier (with a gaggle of boisterous but friendly Australians), spend a half hour there eating lunch and then board a ferry (which costs us an astounding three quid apiece; the cheapest thing about Britain is leaving it!). We sit across from a row of gambling machines that beckon to us, especially when some of the locals get in on the action and seem to be winning their weight in coin; ten pounds later we decide games of chance aren't our thing.

When the ferry glides into port, a grating voice blares instructions on how to exit the ship over the loudspeaker, first in French and then in English, in a manner that can only be described as inscrutable. When it finishes, neither Anne nor myself have any idea where, when or how to leave (you’d think I’d have learned how by now, considering the exact same thing happened the last time I did the Dover-Calais crossing—at least this time I didn’t leave my pack with the ferry!). Following other people is useless, since every single other person on that ship drove aboard and so must leave by a different exit wholly inaccessible to us (a clearly marked one, I might add). Eventually, after virtually every other passenger has cleared off, we find ourselves behind another equally befuddled group of stragglers who are ushered off brusquely in French. One day, so help me, I will get it right.

When we enter Calais we find they’re holding a parade (not for us, I am told), and we enjoy another quick but delicious snack of French fries and mayonnaise before hopping on another train (we might have spent more time in town, had we not been informed of a fight going on that had just encompassed the entire downtown area); our plan had been to head up to Amsterdam right away, but it’s Sunday and the best we can do is Lille. Not a bad consolation, it turns out, as Lille is a wonderful and chic little stopover city that lies right on the main route to Amsterdam. They’d have to close all of Belgium down to prevent us from getting there bright and early the next morning, right?

Previous Day
Thursday, May 19th, 2005
7:55 am
I think this journal has become my proof that life for me has ground to a nauseating halt--not only is there nothing interesting to write about from my workday, but I don't get paid enough to do anything outside of work, either. Yesterday I discovered that, after weeks of preparations, the surfaces I created don't actually fit in my machine, which means I'll have to start from scratch. Luckily there wasn't any way for me to know any of this beforehand, so I'm not kicking myself over the setback.

The movie talk continued yesterday, but took a turn for the weird. We spent at least an hour arguing over which movie's better, The Matrix or The Bicycle Thief (because those two films just naturally beg comparison!), and I imagine the debate will continue today. Or maybe I should steer towards some other pair: Army of Darkness vs. The 400 Blows? The Usual Suspects vs. Un chien andalou? The possibilities are endless!

No time for books today--off to sign a lease!
Wednesday, May 18th, 2005
7:24 am
Yesterday was a whole lot of nothing. I spent the morning putting together the SFA with the new configuration while trying desperately to get the DVD's Stefan burned (the ones with instructions on how to put together the SFA) to play on any of the computers in our lab. No luck. Every decoder I can find out there either costs money or doesn't actually work, and the computer I'd normally resort to, the one that actually will play my DVD's, Sarah's laptop, wasn't available because she was sick yesterday. Not only that, but I lost part of the afternoon when she called in and asked me to do her experiments for her.

Billy, Johnathon and myself wound up discussing favourite films--the last conversational bastion of the truly socially challenged, I know--but the chat hit a snag when I asked what their favourite romance movie of all time was. They both immediately shifted into typical 'guy' mode and trashed the genre while failing to come up with a single candidate. After five or ten minutes of pressing, Billy came up with When Harry Met Sally a suitably safe film to mention, and Johnathon instantly jumped to that film as his own choice as well. I don't know what I was expecting, though; for a 'favourite movie from the 70's' I got as a response from Billy (half-jokingly), "I don't watch movies from the 70's--I don't like black and white."

All right, seeing as nothing interesting happened at all yesterday, I'll move on to books (what was I saying before about last bastions?): Next up on the list was E.M. Forster's The Longest Journey. I could make a sarcastic comment about how the title was an apt description of the novel itself, but instead I'll move on to the next book, Two Years Before the Mast, by Henry Richard Dana, Jr. A very interesting read about life at sea from the perspective of an outsider (at least at first). Dana decided to give up his life as a Harvard law school student and sign up on a merchant ship traveling from Boston to California by way of Cape Horn. The story was meant in part to warn the youth of his day away from becoming sailors by its harsh descriptions of the sea and the brutal life of a seaman, but wound up doing exactly the opposite apparently. A nice alternative to the standard adventure novels out there, and worth a read if you can find it.

School calls again. More of the same tomorrow (I hope)!
Tuesday, May 17th, 2005
7:35 am
Apparently my grease-rubbing and gauge-reading have finally paid off: after more than a year of the evaporator not working properly, yesterday I just turned it on and miraculously, it worked flawlessly! Okay, not the most exciting bit of news, but this particular monkey had been dry-humping my back for longer than I can remember, and I wasn't expecting it to work at all when it did (I'm not used to success!). My reward, of course, was that I got to spend more time than usual sticking that pin into that rock I was mentioning before--all afternoon, to be exact--but this time I had a shred of optimism doing it.

So, books. There are a lot of them, so I may as well skip through them quickly and over several posts so as not to bore you to death all at once. After Aksakov, way back in October, there was Stendhal's The Red and the Black. I was worried about this one, after having read Love a few years back and not enjoying it as much as I'd like. It read more like an overblown essay, though, and this was the first fiction I'd read of him. I was pleasantly surprised, particularly at the beginning, where it read like Hugo, to an extent, but about halfway through the story got a little bogged down in religion and dogma. That was its intention, admittedly, and it's my own fault for valuing style over content, but it's also not a huge knock against the book; it's well-written, interesting and certainly worth a read.

Next up: Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, another first for me as far as authors are concerned. I've been offered countless widely-varying opinions on Fitzgerald over the years; you either love this guy or you hate him (who else can you say that about? Conrad? Kerouac? No other names spring to mind, at the moment), so I wasn't sure which category I'd fall into. Maybe it wasn't the best starter book of his to read, but I fell distinctly in the middle. The story wasn't very compelling to me, didn't make me think, didn't overwhelm me with description or dialogue, and this is surprising considering literature was a central focus of the book. That usually catches my interest--I'm always interested in hearing what authors have to say about their fellow craftsmen--but in this case all I can do is shrug and hope the next Fitzgerald book will do a little more to move me than this one did.

Time for school! More update tomorrow, hopefully...
Monday, May 16th, 2005
7:37 am
Morning thoughts
Today I am going to spend my time rubbing grease on a ring and trying to keep a gauge from jumping from 55 to 80. My entire morning will likely be taken up stabbing rock with a pin to see how thin a slice I can cleave from it. Honestly. The entire morning. And you wonder why I have so much trouble updating with anything interesting these days! But aside from the extremely dry and repetitive nature of the work, I have to admit that, as unlikely as it seems, what I'm doing is real science. The only thing holding it back from being satisfying (well, aside from the incessant obstacles and my supervisor browbeating me over things I can't prevent) is the fact that I'm still so ignorant of the field as compared to everyone else out there. It seems everyone publishing these days, everyone with an SFA (the equipment I use) is doing wonderfully new and innovate things, adopting techniques that will prove theories I've never heard of, while I sit around and spend my time getting things to work. I have little time to actually read, absorb the material and consider how I might make an impact. It's not nearly as overwhelming a situation as when I was working in NMR--that has to be the largest and most top heavy field (in terms of brainpower) out there--but I'm still feeling enormously inadequate.
Saturday, May 14th, 2005
1:54 pm
I've been tagged! Many thanks to duhbigman for giving me something to write about!

1)Total number of books owned?
Good lord. I wouldn't even be able to hazard a decent guess on the total book front: very roughly, I'd guess 1400 to 1800. The classics are better documented: 779 of them, with only about thirty of those purchased/received in the last four years (I'm curbing my obsession!)

2) The last book I bought?
A second edition (1902--published the same year as the first edition) of A Daughter of the Snows, by Jack London (the same picture as shown in the link, except bluish-grey, not red).

3) The last book I read?
I'm reading two books simultaneously at the moment: Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary and The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon. If you count what I'm reading for school, the book in this case would be Intermolecular and Surface Forces With Applications to Colloidal and Biological Systems, by Jacob Israelachvili (the world leader in this area and a very nice man--I've spoken to him on the phone!).

4) 5 books that mean a lot to me?
Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo (favourite novel of all time)
Thus Spake Zarathustra, by Friedrich Nietzsche (changed the way I see the world and the way I think)
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien (reminds me of childhood--the positive aspects)
The Oxford English Dictionary (a veritable orgasm of wordy goodness)
The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain (reminds me of backpacking across Europe)

5) Tag 5 people and have them fill this out on their ljs:
Thursday, May 12th, 2005
8:34 pm
I'm finally getting into a summer mindset now that the classes and teaching are done. Having evenings and weekends more or less free is a wonderful thing, even when you're as antisocial as I am. Anne and I have just come back from a dinner with Simon and Sarah; we've been catsitting for them whenever they go away, and they go away surprisingly often for people who are as shackled by their salary as we are (almost), and so this was their way to say thanks.

Look at my icon! This picture ran in the local paper a few months back; it's an alpaca, and both Anne and I agree that he looks distinctly Amish. He also looks very cute and happy, and so needed to be on display, if only for today. Can you tell I have very little to say?

You might be wondering why I haven't written about books yet here. There's a reason, and that reason is laziness. I've scribbled out a list of the books, but it's downstairs and retrieving it would involve me leaving a toasty warm couch, so the update might just take a while.
Monday, May 9th, 2005
8:35 pm
I've been cursed with good health. Sometime last May or June I came down with the sniffles and was ordered home by Stefan to avoid contaminating the lab. I didn't feel especially sick, and never would have missed work if he hadn't done this, but I went home anyway and had a day off. Since then I've had countless days where I've felt tired and rundown, but I've yet to have a day where I've been sick sick, and I don't have the spine to take one of those 'mental health' days that have become so popular. As a result, I haven't missed a day of work, and I resent it. Everyone else in the office has taken several days off over the last year, waves of cold and flu and other illnesses have swept through the lab, the building, the city, and I try my best to hang around anyone that looks on death's door, but so far, bupkis. The germs won't take. Is it too much to ask for a lousy touch of food poisoning so I can take a day off?
Sunday, May 8th, 2005
12:25 pm
And finally, after four months of stress and academic insecurity, the first phase of this degree is finally over. Before I say anything more, I'd like to thank everyone on my Friends list for not giving up on me; this leave of absence was a necessary one, and there'll likely be another extended leave come September, a few months before my comprehensive exam, but for the time being, I hope to post regularly. If I do disappear for any length of time without explanation in the next few months, though, feel free to send a snide comment my way--I probably deserve it!

This is becoming a painfully recurrent observation, but despite the lengthy absence, I can't think of much of anything that would make for an interesting post at the moment. I've been studying since January, and my spare time (there must have been spare time at some point) has been spent keeping myself sane reading newspapers, doing crosswords, and the sort of activities that aren't very worthy of comment. Some noteworthy events:

i) Anne and I went on a weekend trip to Ottawa back in February, right at the tail-end of Winterlude, to skate on the canal and revisit some of our old haunts. We stayed in the haunted Jail Hostel there, whose rooms left something to be desired but whose friendliness and atmosphere made up for the uncomfortable bed. We talk about returning to Ottawa when our degrees are done, and it's tough to visit there knowing it'll only be for a few days. We'd love to go back next year, but unfortunately finances are very tight and I don't think it'll be feasible, not for a long while anyway.

ii) My classes for this last term went fairly well; the Condensed Matter course was very interesting but there was too much time spent with students presenting and not enough time actually learning (I never really learn anything when other students present--I'm too busy worrying about my own presentation or about whether they're doing better than I've done). Electromagnetism was brutal; we were given a little over two weeks to complete each assignment, and it actually took a full two weeks, working full time, evening and weekends, to complete them. I turned in one of the worst performances in the class on the midterm, despite studying for more than a week, but then (hopefully) redeemed myself on the final. I say hopefully because we haven't received our marks yet, and although I finished the exam with confidence and my answers agreed with classmates, you never really know. I'm just glad it's over.

iii) Books. I'd be remiss if I didn't at least list the books I've read in the last, what is it, eight months, but I know those aren't very exciting posts (even on my own sliding scale), so I'll leave it to another post that you can easily skip over.

Anne and I are about to head out for groceries now, but I'll try to write again soon with more of the update. Until then!
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