22 December 2008

Feeling Foggy

I haven't written in awhile. Lot's of reasons for that.

I've been really busy - spent the week before last in Madrid, first attending CONEXT, then taking the weekend to explore w/ Linda. It was a really excellent time, perhaps at some point I'll write a post about it. I got to see my advisors for the first time in half-a-year and spend some time with each of them, which was really nice. Linda and I were welcomed by a very warm Madrid Jewish community, and we slept, wandered, ate great food, and just generally enjoyed being with each other somewhere new. It was our first trip since we've arrive in Europe. Really low key. Which I needed b/c the rest of the time I've been working - at least as much as I can which goes to the second reason.

I've been ill. I really haven't felt well since leaving India. I've done two rounds of antibiotics - first for my fever illness and then more recently for Bronchitis. I'm now a bit better, but still a couple of weeks later am not very strong. Just took a flu vaccine which I think wiped me out further, but at least that's one less thing I'm likely to catch. My immune system neads a rest. Being ill of course means that I'm generally less productive, end up working fewer hours, and can't excersize. All of which tends to add to my stress level which leads to reason three.

I've been stressed. I spent my time in India really opening up to new experiences, going with the flow, staying incredibly engaged, and just not worrying. It was amazing, transformative, and I'm so proud of myself. But as with all things elastic, if you stretch your personality radically, there tends to be a bit of bounce back. Since I've gotten here, I've been worried (about work, future, money, health), distracted, and generally down. That's not to say, I'm not happy to be here, but just that it hasn't been easy and luck hasn't been with me. Although more truthfully, I left myself open to much of the "bad-luck" - worrying isn't good for the immune system and not paying attention to the task at hand made it possible for the laundry machine to break. Oh, the epilogue there is that I'm listening to the new machine whirl away and do my laundry. I had to replace the machine. The total damage to my wallet was 425 EUR (about two-and-a-half times the high end estimate from the fellow in the store). At the time the unexpected expense freaked me out. The truth is, I was being an idiot. It was not pleasant to have to spend the money, but it wasn't nearly worth the amount of emotional energy I lost on it.

I've been foggy. I just haven't been focusing well. Not on my work and not on being in-the-moment. That of course is wrapped up in all of the above. But also I've been trying to figure out what this whole trip means. What I want to do in the future. Whether I'm good at what I'm doing. Whether I'm living my life in the most meaningful way that I can. And I've only just started to take the time I need to quiet my mind and let some of this play out.

I've been a bit socially disconnected. Oddly we've had a harder time making friends here than in India. We've also travelled much less, which enhances the feeling of isolation. Thankfully my colleagues at Thomson are a wonderful bunch and likewise for Linda's classmates at pastry school. We've also had the company of my friend Jen and her husband David. But aside from that we haven't really connected here. I tried going to the nearby shul. No one was unfriendly.
Many shook my hand and said "shabbat shalom", but not a single person, including the Rabbi asked me what my name was or where I was from. This was accentuated when we visited Madrid where the first words out of the Rabbi's mouth upon seeing us was an invitation in hebrew to stick around and join a shabbat dinner for 20-30 somethings (the security guard had previously let us know about this when we first showed up).

I'm also down at the moment, b/c I received two paper rejections this week. So both disappointment and additional work should I resubmit. Mostly because rejection is rejection. Never a fun feeling.

So right now I'm trying to find my way out of all this and get back on track. It will probably be slow, although I'm so looking forward to the arrival of my brother and Mia this Thursday. It will be so good to see them! I'm also trying to be more focused on the moment and engaged with whatever it is that I'm doing. Trying to let go of worries and think more about process and less about result. I'll keep you posted on how it goes.

30 November 2008

Thanksgiving in Paris

This was the second Thanksgiving that Linda and I have spent outside of the US (the first was two years ago, when we visited her father in Hungary). Now probably the main thing about Thanksgiving outside of the US which may come as a surprise to many of my countrymen, is well that it isn't the most celebrated of holidays ;-) Seriously, I recently did a little looking online - it seems that at best, less than one out of every five Americans even holds a passport for foreign travel, much less has traveled abroad. I think if there was one thing that would be most helpful in guiding the US towards better foreign policy and interaction with the world, it would be getting more Americans abroad. The best (and perhaps only) way to really begin to understand the way the rest of the world functions, lives, and sees things, is to actually go there (and there are so many places to go). Of course there is one caveat - you actually have to be there, staying at a resort or going on a cruise where you keep yourself segregated from the local population isn't really traveling - it's more like experiencing a live-slideshow with nice weather. Anyway, I'll now return to Thanksgiving.

This meant that Linda and I were absolutely thrilled to be invited to such a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner. One of my friends from college, Jen (you may have seen her mentioned several posts back when I first came through Paris), married a fantastic Parisian fellow, David and is currently in town. Well it turns out David's cousin, Michael (might be misspelling this), is going out with an American girl, Lindsey, and they decided to make a Thanksgiving meal, to which we were then graciously extended an invitation.

It really was one of the most Thanksgivingy meals, I've ever been to - mostly because of the inspiring efforts of Lindsey and Jen. You see they didn't just make a Thanksgiving meal; they brought Thanksgiving with them across the Atlantic!

In her luggage, Lindsey brought all manner of Thanksgiving decoration (a banner, shiny Thanksgiving sparkles for the table, etc.), Stoufers stuffing, cranberries for the sauce, and some other foodstuffs as well! Jen wowed us even more. She brought an entire Turkey (free range & organic) in her suitcase, along with fall squashes and other somesuch. I'm not a carnivore, but I was pretty blown away by the effort (not to mention the risk - I mean what do you say to the customs officer if they question you about this one?).

So we ended up gathered around a table with all of the fixings, from cranberry sauce to American pie for dessert, with a group of 20-something American expats and Parisians having a lovely time. The company was great, the food fantastic, and after being out of the States for the longest stretch in my life (around half a year now - I've done a lot of traveling, just not very long-term) it was really nice to be celebrating the most American of holidays the way it should be celebrated - with large table full of great food surrounded by new friends and old!

22 November 2008

The Lighter Side of Presidential Transitioning

I've not been posting much lately. Mostly that's because I've been sick (apparently, it's Bronchitis - so far the antibiotics have not made much impact) and generally a bit down (been thinking about all the mistakes I've made in the recent and not-so-recent past), a little bit because I've been busy with other stuff. And of course, there's always inertia. I think we would perhaps had been better off in Sir Issac Newton hadn't invented the damn thing ;-)

Anyway, in between naps (I've been sleeping most of the day since that appears to be my body's main desire at the moment), I figured I'd put up a brief post of two amusing post-election tidbits, both passed forward to me by my wife, Linda.

The first is a video clip of our now-lame-duck President. Usually lame-duckness means that the President loses much of his influence over the legislative process and other matters that lie outside of the sole purvue of the executive. However, this is the first time I've seen it translate into major public snubbing by practically everyone at a major world-leader's conference (the G20 summit). It was pretty telling, Bush even started slouching his head and shoulders towards the end, before forcibly straightening himself up. Almost enough to make me feel sorry for the guy. Emphasis here goes on almost.

The second tidbit is a rather amusing piece of graphics design that takes a popular Israeli snack Bamaba and renames Obamaba, purportedly in honor of the new US President. Now I'm pretty sure this isn't real, given that an artist's name and email address are on the bottom left hand corner. I'm guessing this fellow is probably the one who made it (it would be pretty low to pass this sort of thing off as one's own work) - he's got a page up at http://mochito.deviantart.com/ I have to say it's really quite good, especially when you compare it against the original from the
Osem Corporation's English website.

He's even managed to turn the somewhat creepy (at least in my opinion) "Bamba baby" into a chocolaty-good Obama baby. Not sure whether I'm tickled or disturbed. Linda sent me this one from jcarrot the pioneering Jewish food blog.

16 November 2008

Chief Justice Roberts Knows Law, Doesn't Know Math OR The Difference Between Polynomial and Exponential

In yesterday's New York Times online, I read the recent news that the Supreme Court Rules for Navy in Sonar Case. For those of you who aren't familiar with the case: environmental groups challenged the legality of the Navy to conduct training excersizes using mid-range SONAR (an underwater object detection and localization method that uses pulses of sound) while aquatic mammals were in the vicinity (and some other circumstances).

As I understand things, their main argument was that these tremendous pulses of sound cause damage to marine mammals (much like someone setting off a firecracker right next to your ear, possibly multiple times in a row) that could potentially result in outcomes such as failure to reproduce, beaching, and death, being that these mammal rely strongly on their ability to hear in order to figure out where they are going.

Meanwhile the Navy argued that (1) it doesn't hurt the marine mammals so much and (2) national security is more important. While lower courts put a hold on the Navy's ability to conduct exercises while the mammals where nearby (agreeing with the environmentalists), our Supreme Court ruled that courts should not second guess the military, or at least not overmuch.

I honestly don't know all of the details of precisely how often the restriction the environmentalists argued were called for by the National Environmental Policy Act and other statutes. Although, my bias is to guess that the Navy probably could have managed to conduct their exercises under these constraints. However one part of the majority opinion text authored by Chief Justice Roberts floored me for both it's lack of precision and misleading nature.

Quoting the aforementioned NY Times article:
Chief Justice Roberts took issue with both restrictions. The Navy had agreed to shut down its sonar if marine mammals were sighted within 200 yards. The appeals court’s requirement that it increase the zone to 2,200 yards, Chief Justice Roberts said, would “expand the surface area of the shutdown zone by a factor of over 100,” given “the exponential relationship between radius length and surface area.”

Now our Chief Justice may be a brilliant legal mind, but he could use a primer in college math 101. The relationship between surface area (A) and radius length (r) on a plane is actually:


(where pi is approx 3.14 and ^2 denotes the operation of taking a number and multiplying it by itself - e.g. 5^2 = 5 * 5 = 25). This relationship is what is know as a polynomial relationship, this one in particular being of degree 2.

What this means in plain English is that as the minimum legal distance allowed between the Navy ships and the aquatic mammals for Navy SONAR use increases, the amount of potential area in which a mammal can show up and disrupt exercises (shutdown zone) grows increasingly faster.

And what the Chief Justice wrote is that this increase is not polynomial, but rather exponential, which is a whole different ball game in terms of fast as can be seen by the graph above. Namely exponential growth works essentially like a doubling process. If that were true in this case, of every single yard increase in distance, the size of the shutdown zone area would double! After a 100 yard increase or so, the shutdown zone's size would far exceed the surface area of the earth (and possibly the milky way, I'm not going to bother checking on this). Anyway, it really gets my goat - particularly given how precise with their language these Justices are supposed to be (I mean for the past 50 years at least, folks have been arguing whether the 2nd Amendment protects your right to a semi-automatic based on the presence and positioning of a comma)!

But mathematical correctness aside, there's a rhetorical issue here that bothers me. Yes, by increasing the distance at which the Navy needs to be away from an aquatic mammal (which is the right way to argue the restriction since the level of the sound is related directly to how far you are from its source), you increase the shutdown area by a larger factor (in geek-speak we call this super-linear). So ten times as far means 100 times more shutdown zone. So what?

The rate of growth, be it linear, polynomial, or exponential only matters if you are presupposing that there is a growth process in the first place. If the assumption is that if the envionmentalists win then they immediately go back to court demanding an even larger safety distance be imposed, and that if they've won once they will win again, then I guess I see how the rate of growth matters. But otherwise, it's empty rhetoric.

The only real issues are (1) what distance won't cause damage to our aquatic friends (2,200 meters claimed by the environmentalists), (2) what the physical size of the shutdown zone will be in order to accomodate that (just around 5 square miles according to my calculation), and (3) whether that is compatible with our national security interest (my guess being yes, given that there is something like 20,000,000 times that amount of oceanic surface area today). The geometric properties relating distance and surface area matter only insofar as they allow us to calculate the value in (2) from the value in (1). Aside from that the relationship really doesn't provide any insight or value into the decision making process. The only other use you could find is a rhetorical one: "look at how quick this function grows, giving up more than one yard for one yard is a bad deal". It sounds good, but has no intelligence to back it up.

So to summarize: Chief Justice Roberts' opinion was both factually incorrect, being ignorant of basic college math, and misleading as well, using mathematical relationships to make a point that was essentially a non-sequitur (10 times increase in distance = 100 times increase in area) to the real question (If 2200 meters is needed for the safety of marine life and that implies a 5 square mile shutdown zone: can a 5 square mile shutdown zone be compatible with our national security interests?).

14 November 2008

Washing Machine Woes

One of the nice things about our apartment in France is that it has a washing machine. Back in the States, we have to walk down the hallway to use the machine, which is with many folks, some of whom don't leave the machines and driers in a clean state after use, and others of whom will pull your stuff out and dump it on the dirty machine tops if you are more than a minute late to pull your clothing out (plus the machines never run according to time so it is nigh well impossible to get there on time - you are either early or late). And this is pretty good for a student apartment living - the folks living in the building next door have to come to our building and then go upstairs to do their laundry, which has got to be an awful pain.

In India we didn't do our own laundry. It was taken away, done for us, and eventually returned folded. The problem was that it wasn't done particularly well. Several times, items were washed in such a way that colors bled unto one another, ruining a couple of my shirts. Moreover, even when this didn't happen, the clothing was often returned not fully dried and smelled moldy.

So getting to have our own washing machine has been such a pleasure. That is until this past Thursday evening. You see, here in France things are smaller and use less power. The clothing is mostly air-dried (dryers being energy hogs). And one of the innovations they've made are really small, yet efficient top-loading washers (they've got these in Israel also). Traditional top loaders have a cylinder which rotates along a vertical axis, which makes sense since it's sort of difficult to put clothing in through the wall of the cylinder. But these aren't efficient water or energy wise. So often side-loading washers are used instead, which lets the cylinder rotate along the horizontal access. The problem with these is that they take up too much space. So where both space and efficiency are at a premium, a new design was introduced that allows the cylinder to rotate along the horizontal access which still top-loading, namely but putting a set of metal doors into the cylinder that must be latched together before starting the machine. This is the type we have, a Whirlpool AWA6094 to be precise.

Therein lies the problem. Thursday night, tiredly I almost certainly forgot to latch these together before closing the top lid (yes, I know - a properly designed piece of equipment wouldn't allow the top lid to close unless the cylinder was locked). I pressed the on button and shortly heard very unpleasant noises. I shut the washing machine off and found that the cylinder had rotated down, dragging the doors with it, and thereby jamming further movement. It was pretty upsetting - I mean how the hell should forgetting one step and pressing a button result in significant damage to the machine (in but a moment - it's not like the machine was making complaining sounds which I ignored for an hour and then found repeated movement had caused the damage), requiring an expensive repair visit! It's a frigging washing machine, not an automotive vehicle for G-d's sake!

But the damage was done, and after looking at the machine and poking about, I concluded that even with my mild engineering background, I wasn't going to fix this without more effort than the cost of a repairman (I'd have to buy the right tools, somehow find a servicing manual, spend a couple of hours working on the thing, and then cross my fingers that I hadn't screwed it up worse). I was really upset. I didn't sleep well. Thankfully, at least Linda was really understanding.

So in the morning I asked around the office if anyone had encountered similar problems (they hadn't), then called my landlordess. She was pretty useless on this one, telling me she couldn't do anything about it, and that I could contact Darty (an appliance seller/servicer) and see about getting it repaired. Wasn't so much her content (I should arrange for repair) as her presentation - a big part of what got my goat is that she said "well the machine is new" and shortly after told me it was out of warrantee. I then asked how long the warrantee ran, she told me 3 years. So I of course said "but didn't you say it was new?" to which she replied "it is new, it is rarely used". Now I know English isn't her first language, but she speaks it reasonably well and I have trouble she doesn't know that "new" and "like-new" are two very different things.

But either way the bottom line was the same and I found myself in Darty where I met a nice fellow who spoke a good English. He told me that once this sort of thing happend it was really difficult to get unstuck without professional help and gave me the repair number. While there I also inspected the machines and found two items of interest: (1) the new ones don't close unless the cylinder locks (wouldn't have had that problem with a truly new machine) and (2) they all had two protruding pieces of plastic that kept the cylinder from turning unless it was closed. The other thing that I found out was that while unpleasantly expensive (just having the repairman visit will be 60-70 EUR) I probably wasn't in for an inordinate amount of financial pain (he said he'd have trouble believing the repair would be more than 100 EUR on top of that) so I'm probably in the hole for 100 to 200 EUR b/c of a stupid mistake and bad luck.

I got home and looked at the machine again. It turns out that it did have the two prong safety mechanism, have being the operative word in that sentence. In my mind there are two possibilities: (1) the plastic got old and brittle and snapped quickly to my misfortune and (2) they were broken off previously (my landlordess did mention that one of her previous subtentant had some problem with the doors). I'm very curious to see if the broken pieces of the safety mechanism are in the machine (imply option 1 more likely) or absent (implying option 2 with almost certainty) on Monday when the repairman comes.

I'll follow up with a short post to let you know how it works out, or maybe just put something in the comments.

10 November 2008


The latter part of this past Sunday took us past an outdoor pet market. One of the first animals we encountered there was a friendly, charismatic, and personable rodent. I guessed it was a Chinchilla, which I have confirmed after checking wikipedia. The video should make clear why I'm bothering with a post about this.

09 November 2008

Yerba Maté

This week, along with really starting to settle into to work at Thomson (as opposed to really actually get much work done (okay I did get lots done, but I don't yet feel truly productive) which is my aspiration for this week) I had a new experience.

Fabio a half Argentinian, half Italian member of my lab kindly introduced me to Yerba Maté. Another new (to me) legal psychoactive drug. Yes, for those Coffee and Chocolate users out there, you too are psychoactive drug users, get over it and move on with your lives.

I had only had maté via a fairly lame "iced tea" variety beverage, which wasn't particularly tasty or impressive. However, I knew that maté was the beverage of choice in Brazil for filling there the same ecological niche in the world of human ingestibles as that occupied by coffee in the West and tea in the East. It turns out I only knew half. Yerba apparently is the hot beverage of choice in Argentina, eastern Paraguay, western Uruguay and southern Brazil. Moreover, while many of it's psychoactive properties are similiar to those of it's beverage cousins, it appears that yerba maté has a superior chemical profile insofar as it increases attentivness to a greater degree than tea (which I've always found quite mild) without the jitteriness induced by coffee.

Of course everything has its tradeoffs and maté is a finicky drink. As Fabio showed me, to make yerba maté properly one first has to loosely pack the yerba herb into a cup (preferably with a gourd shape) into which a special spoon (essentially a straw with a slotted spoonlike bottom). Then hot, but not boiling, water needs to be slowly poured into the herb. The water cannot be poured to fast as it needs to slowly seep into the spaces between the herb particles. If poured too fast the herb will become blocked and little and inferior beverage will result (ditto for using too much water). If the water isn't hot enough, you won't get the enjoyable warm that I at least associate with a good cup of tea, and if it's too hot it will burn the beverage resulting in a very bitter brew.

To drink, you sip through the spoon/straw (otherwise known as a bomba) and then slowly refill your cup with more warm/hot water. It's a fun ritual to share with friends and fairly relaxing in and of itself (I tend to drink my tea compulsively while reading the news, which defeats half the purpose of taking some time to drink a hot soothing beverage). Also while the setup takes quite awhile, once the cup is ready, one can make many washes of drink from the same packed cup (you can probably use a prepared cup of yerba every day for a week before it's time to clean and repack)

I enjoyed drinking maté. I liked the preparation, the taste was a bit strong/bitter and takes some getting used to. I also felt a mild increase in alertness while at the same time felt quite mellow. Of course this could be due to a million other factors including the placebo effect. Nonetheless it was neat and I'll probably add yerba to my collection of drinkables.

So the pros of maté:
  • nice psychoactive properties
  • fun parephenelia
  • soothing preperation ritual
  • can reuse the herb for many washes
the cons:
  • not as tasty as tea, although far better than coffee (yes I don't like coffee, I try it every chance I get, but I still think even the best coffee tastes like a cross been funky chocolate and burnt cigarettes - okay maybe not that bad, but you get the idea)
  • easy to muck up and a bit finicky
  • somewhat difficult to find in many places (both paraphernalia and herb)

08 November 2008

We Did It! (Mostly)

Obama won! And the Dems now have majorities in the Senate (albeit not Filibuster proof), House, and US Governorships! I'm really happy and so are the folks here in France (at least 85% of them) as you can see below. On Wednesday morning I went around the office toasting Obama with a bottle of Cidre Brut (hard cider). Then in the afternoon the lab head broke out the Champagne for another toast with guests.

And Prop 2 passed in California - which makes me truly happy and will improve the lives of millions of farm animal. After spending most of my life being mocked for my belief that animal suffering is an important and valid concern, Americans finally seem to be coming around to the idea (the French though treat vegetarians the way Americans did 20 years ago).

I got almost everything out of this election that I wanted. Although I guess it's a law of the universe you can't get everything you want. Still it really stinks that a bunch of bigotry against gays, dressed up as ballot measures, passed in several states - the most prominent of which was California's Prop 8. The whole thing makes me sad and angry. It's also quite fascinating to me that the Mormon church LDS has put so much effort into defending "traditional marriage" - given that they are a group that had to flee the US, in part, because their marriage arrangements were rejected by greater US society!

I believe in equality - if two given people (say Joe and Mary) have the right to join in a union to live their lives together, gaining both societal recognition, and a variety of benefits big and small in doing so - I see no reason why the legality of that union should be based on one particular combination of sexual genetalia. I'm no lawyer, but it definitely has the stink of an "equal rights" violation - I mean have a century after the civil rights movement we've still effectively got separate water fountains (which is what I'd call a civil union) - that is when gays even get a water fountain in my analogy.

It also gets my goat that so many anti-gay advocates (particularly the evangelicals) make this seem like a linguistic concern 'we are fighting against the re-definition of marriage from time immemorial as the union between one man and one woman' or some other such intellectually dishonest tripe. Have you read the Bible lately? How many wives did Jacob have? It wasn't "one man and one woman". But really if it's just a language issue, let's throw legal marriage out the window and have everyone get civil unions. Then marriages (which seem in this view to be a religious or quasi-religious institution) can stay where they belong in a society with a church-state separation (namely in church, synagogue, or mosque) and civil benefits, rights, etc. can be guided by a completely secular institution. But that probably won't ever happen.

Also I was a bit sad that my friend Roy Simon lost his bid to unseat Republican State Senator Skelos, the third most senior Republican in State government. Have to say, I'm a natural skeptic - Roy was running a seriously uphill battle - but I really admire him for doing it!

So in sum, I'm terribly excited to see what Obama and the D-crats do in the next couple of years. Hopefully it will be magic that will make everything better - but more realistically they'll just stop screwing things up and institute some mild improvements. Either way, I'll be happier and sleep easier knowing our country is out of hands proven to be incompetent and into ones that think "reality-based decision making" is a valid way of governing! This is still just the beginning of the fight to improve things (like in Obama's speach - 'continually striving to perfect our union'), but I'm feeling hopeful - like it actually might be a begining. I guess we'll see where things go.

04 November 2008

Watch the Election Live!

I've spent my entire adult voting life being continually frustrated that my candidate never wins. G-d, I hope Obama wins b/c I don't want this to be the third presidential election that ends with me crying.

02 November 2008

Who I Voted For

Of all the elections I've lived through, this one definitely seems to be the one that has people the most riled up. I've been slightly surprised at how many folks from back in the States have asked me if I've made sure to vote (yes) and pleasantly taken aback by the interest the people in the countries I've visited have taken in the US election and whom I'm voting for (Obama - Biden). In the past when I've walked through international border control the kind of questions I've gotten have been "why are you coming? how long are you staying?" whereas the last time I passed a checkpoint the question was "Obama or McCain?"

People in the countries I've visited are excited, curious, and extremely interested in the US elections and US politics in general. And for those of you knee jerkers who think all non US folks are for Obama and against McCain, well it's simply not the case. Lots of them just aren't sure what they think and some are outright scared of Obama. But having said that, I'll admit most of the folks I come across are really excited that the US may have a change of heart and leadership (I for the one do agree with the implicit assumption here that McCain won't be much of a change), inspired by Obama's message, and impressed that a man of color looks likely to be elected to the presidency.

While every person has their own unique opinion, I've found generalizations can be made. So I'll give you my very brief, unscientific, not-terribly-in-depth, and admittedly biased by-the-country impressions.

India: The average person on the street here tended to know the least about politics, although the educated knew a lot and had fairly strong opinions. With all of the bombings going on there and the Muslim/Hindu tensions there is quite significant concern with terrorism, Islamic militant groups, etc. As in most places, this tends to push the fulcrum towards a more positive view of aggressive/militant US policies and support of both Bush and McCain (by proxy). The perception of toughness and strength resonates strongly in the culture, although the better educated tend to dismiss the implicit premise that [ toughness/militancy = actually having a positive effect towards stopping terrorism ]. I'll admit though, I've come to the belief that being able to reject this emotionally appealing notion is one of the contemporary hallmarks of an ordered, logical mind - or for those of you who are geeks, a second order Turing test (the first order test being something that indicates capacity for written language and use of tools). Now this isn't too say that I don't think there aren't valid arguments for supporting specific military actions taken in specific countries (although I may strenuously disagree with said arguments), but it is to say that I complete reject the notion that being "tough" without regard to whom the toughness is directed against, nor without regard to whether such "tough actions" have any likelihood of succeeding or being sustained, is, in one word, assinine - and to the highest order.
But I digress.

Along with the Indians, there were many foreign travelers that we met. In particular, I had a very animated conversation in Coorg with a very nice Colombian couple with whom we became friends. We spent about 2 or 3 hours talking about US politics - they were really upset with their own country's leadership and thought about the same as I of Bush: namely that his actions and leadership have been disasterous. We also spent quite awhile talking about US funding of what essentially is civil war in Colombia. I've got much to say about this, but will keep my comments (relatively) short:
  1. US polititians are far too eager to declare "war" on problems than actually understand those problems
  2. we haven't won anything we've declared war on in far too long (be it drugs, poverty, illiteracy, terrorism, or crime
  3. we have injured lots of people (our own who languish in jails at rates far exceeding on a per-capita basis any other country in the world and who die in pointless wars abroad and of poor medical care since we'd rather spend money fighting "wars" than paying doctors properly, and those of our neighbors who are killed in civil wars our dollars fund and by the societal disorder our invasions engender - not to metion those accidentally killed by our bombs) and have little to show for it.
  4. Consequently, we really ought to consider trying a different tactic.
That's in a nutshell why I support Obama over McCain. McCain's a war hero and has done some impressive stuff. But aside from making himself a serious sellout over the past couple of years, and demonstrating such terribly bad judgment as to pick a VP who seems to be a female version of W (but even less informed, experienced, intelligent, and knee-jerk - which I previously hadn't considered within the realm of likelihood) when he'd be the oldest president elected, a recent cancer survivor, and of potentially damaged health from his long stay in the Hanoi Hilton: I think McCain is basically more of the same old failed policies. I tend to believe Obama might be different. And even if he isn't, honestly all I want from a US president at this point is that he (or she) doesn't do anything to screw things up further. World peace, universal healthcare, riches for all - all these would be bonuses for me. I'd be happy if we just took the time to obtain a UN resolution before invading any more countries.
Damn, I've digressed again.

Anyway, to sum it up: in India ill-educated people loved Bush, but were intrigued by Obama. Better educated people tended to prefer Obama to McCain (although not always). Most of the foreigners we met were very pro Obama.

Israel: Here the mix was similar to India, although it tended to divide down the same lines as general Israeli politics. Leftists tended to be open to Obama and Rightists tended to go for McCain. Most of the American Israelis I hung out with were strongly for Obama (and sent their ballots in). However, whereas the uneducated in India were likely to be impressed with Obama, in Israel at least one I met asked me "didn't I think he was dangerous?". When I asked why, I was told "because he's a Muslim". I explained that "No, Obama isn't a Muslim, actually he's a Christian and a fairly observant one" (I didn't bother following this up with the question "so what if he was a Muslim though?" which while more directly attacking the deeper prejudice underlying that statement, was something I simply didn't think would be productive or for which I'd have the energy). He wouldn't accept my explanation telling me, "but his father... I've heard Obama is a Muslim". I then told him that people will tell any lie they like if they think it will help their cause and other people will repeat it, simply because people like repeating crap and hardly ever check to see if what they've been told is true. He was wavering on this, so I followed up by bringing up an example that hit close to home - blood libel. I said, "plenty of people say that Jew's drink Christian baby blood and also make matzah out of it, no connection to reality whatsoever, but it doesn't stop them from saying it. Same here." I think that may have convinced him.

France: Not terribly interesting politics-wise. Everyone here (with whom I've interacted) hates Bush's guts, and supports Obama openly and loudly. Politically, it's just like being home in NY! So I get lot's of props for my answer to the oft posed question: "you're American! who are you voting for?" In my first day or two here, I snapped the picture above of an Obama-Biden sign hanging from an apartment in my neighborhood of Butte Aux Calle. Today the vendor pictured below gave us free food for our response (said he would have released the dogs if we had said McCain) although I think he was mostly trying to make a sale. He was successful. Later on after having a wonderful vegetarian brunch at La Victoire Supreme du Coeur we even saw Obama boxer shorts!

So now you know something about my thoughts on US politics and the adventures we've had traveling during this unusual and exciting election season. It's cool when the border guards are more interested in which candidate you are voting for than how long you'll be staying and whether it's business or pleasure ;-)

Post Script (P.S.): I forgot to mention that the attitudes Linda experienced in Italy mirror those we've found in France. Apparently, she needed a cab and the folks there were only willing to call one for her after she confirmed that she was voting Obama! (although, all such comments we've encountered have been light-hearted and good-natured - I highly doubt Linda would have been denied help calling the cab if she had claimed to be a McCain supporter)

26 October 2008

What I Did Today

  1. Do laundry (already running)
  2. Assess kitchen and determine what I need to buy
    1. cookware
    2. foodstuffs
  3. Start Kashering Kitchen
  4. Go to the nearby cheapo supermarket to by more Avocados (on sale 4 for 1 EUR!)
  5. Go to the Kosher Butcher for
    1. Kosher cheese and other foodstuffs at Ki Tov II Kosher Market
    2. Learn about the nearby Jewish community - Meet Jewish Expat
  6. Stroll Through Farmer's Market and Buy Some of Everything!
  7. Go to Chinatown for
    1. Cookware
    2. Groceries
    3. Sightseeing
  8. Have lunch Wolf down a baguette w/ some kosher Guda
  9. Fold up laundry and begin figuring out where all my clothing should go
  10. Do likewise for electronics and other miscellaneous stuff
  11. Meet up w/ Ariane
    1. Paperwork
    2. Payment
    3. Hot water
    4. Additional Apt. Info
  12. Nap
  13. Have dinner w/ Jen & David at Tayelet - delicious!
  14. Computer Stuff and Prepare for Work Tomorrow (gather paperwork, etc.)
  15. Have a bath, tea, and get a goodnight's sleep

What I'm Doing Today

I just spent more time than was perhaps advisable writing about Cholent. Can't quite explain why I did, but sometimes my typing-hands just run away with me. I always say "I'd write a book, if only I had something worth saying, but the problem is that I don't really have anything that worthwhile". I mean what great insights do I really possess that someone else hasn't already shared with the world? The nice thing about blogs is that they don't have that barrier of quality. So I can spew all the crap I want. Which is probably less-than-productive, but at least has the benefits that my great-grandchildren will know something about me (if I'm fortunate enough to have them and the server doesn't die and lose all of my posts).

Right at the moment, I'm sitting in my comfy bed, in my comfy apartment, feeling somewhere between great and really-ill. I'm finding it very difficult to believe that tomorrow is my first day at my last-and-final internship before returning to Columbia. And thus, quite likely, my last-and-final internship ever (since I don't think they call them internships anymore once you've got a Doctorate - I think the word then is job). I'm also not terribly happy that I'm still feeling sick, since I haven't really every gotten completely well from the illness from which I was suffering when I first arrived in Paris, and it appears to be trying to stage a comeback. Slightly comforting though, was the effect a cup of hot samurai tea (which I bought in the shuk in Israel).

So I'm not feeling too badly. Would like a hot shower though and something is up with the hot water - hasn't been working since before Shabbos :-(

But I do need to get myself up and about, b/c I've been told things close early here on Sunday (if they are open in the first place). So know I'll take a moment to lay out what I need to do today:

  1. Do laundry (already running)
  2. Assess kitchen and determine what I need to buy
    1. cookware
    2. foodstuffs
  3. Go to the nearby cheapo supermarket to by more Avocados (on sale 4 for 1 EUR!)
  4. Go to Chinatown for
    1. Cookware
    2. Groceries
    3. Sightseeing
  5. Go to the Kosher Butcher for
    1. Kosher cheese and other foodstuffs
    2. Learn about the nearby Jewish community
  6. Have lunch
  7. Fold up laundry and begin figuring out where all my clothing should go
  8. Do likewise for electronics and other miscellaneous stuff
  9. Eat
  10. Meet up w/ Ariane
    1. Paperwork
    2. Payment
    3. Hot water
    4. Additional Apt. Info
  11. Nap
  12. Computer Stuff and Prepare for Work Tomorrow (gather paperwork, etc.)
  13. Have dinner w/ Jen & David
  14. Have a bath, tea, and get a goodnight's sleep
Hopefully this covers everything b/c frankly I'm a little overwhelmed!

Cholent-in-a-Can: It's Everywhere!

So I had an odd experience in Israel the week before last. My good friend Yair, with whom we were staying pulls out a can and says "look at what I've got. Cholent in a can!" To which I responded "huh?". It appears that they are now making Cholent in a can, convenient for any occasion: from intimate dinner parties to overseas jaunts.

Now for those of you who aren't familiar with cholent, or as it's known in the Sephardic Jewish world (and I believe the Talmud as well) as Chamin (a slightly different variation on the same theme), I will give you a brief explanation. In the olden days most Jews were quite poor, particularly in the Eastern European shtetl (village). This isn't to imply that most Jews today aren't poor, although at least in the US they often don't lack for food anymore (although there are exceptions particularly with the elderly which is why I believe unwieldy, high-overhead traditional Jewish charities like the UJA are still important and relevant since they are the ones who so often make initatives like JASA possible). Anyway back to my main point. The Jews were poor. So come the end of the week they needed something to eat for Shabbos that would be nutritional, palatable, and filling - that could be made from low quailty ingredients like old veggies, bits of meat, hardened beans, dirt and whatever else they could find (the last part about dirt was a joke, mostly). So they used the brilliant invention of Cholent: a stew into which everything could be put and cooked, continously for 24 - 36 hours straight until it had all become a nourishing stew with properties all its own. Plus since it's always on the fire, it can be kept warm without running into all sorts of technical Sabbath prohibitions about heating food. It als can be really quite good (and incidentally my friends Jen & David who are coming over tonight have offered to lend me their crock pot for the duration of my stay here in Paris, so I'll definitely be cooking up some Cholent while here if you want to try).

So now there is Cholent in a can. Seems a bit oxymornic to me, since Cholent is something that needs at least 18 hours of time to make - it's not the kind of food you'd think of as a microwave meal (except leftover cholent). But I can see the utility and Yair tells me it's not too bad. Apparently folks all over the world agree, because while I was in Le Marias (the touristy Jewish area of Paris) I was shocked to again see my new acquantaince, Mr. canned Cholent - he's everywhere!

Oh and for those meat-supramacist/veggie-haters/hardcore-Yavnehites (the Orthodox group at Columbia U. whose members seemed pretty opposed to my assertion that Cholent could be vegetarian) out there - guess what? Cholent in a can is vegetarian & parve no meat, but it's clearly callin' itself Cholent.

I was always really irritated by folks who claimed that Cholent "by definition requires meat, and if your's doesn't have meat you can't call it Cholent folks". Because (1) why do you need to deride someone else's cusine when it's made with care and love simply because no animals were killed in the process? And (2) they are idiots (or perhaps simply ignorant) - after all Cholent is simply whatever arises through stewing whatever you've got available for as long as advisable (perhaps a good deal longer) - my Cholent definitely fits that definition ;-)

24 October 2008

The View from Here

Just woke up for good, going to collect myself and meet my friend Jen in Le Marias for lunch and some wandering. Still very tired but slept really well, it's nice to have a real bed again.

I wanted to share the sunrise view I managed to capture with my broken (lcd doesn't work anymore) camera. Don't be too jealous though - I had to lean all the way out the window to get a clear shot. Still it's really fantastic.

23 October 2008

Settling In

So I've just had my first bath in over 4 months and for those of you who know what an avid bather I am, you know how big a deal that is! I'm laying/sitting in a huge comfy bed in my new apartment in Paris. I feel warm and cuddly and happy. Really, really tired as well [French lesson: je suis très fatiguée - I am very tired].

How did I get here you ask? Well when I last left you I had just met Idan Raichel at a stopover in Prague. So he got on his plane and an hour or so later, I got on mine.
The plane wasn't overfull so after we took off I wandered to the back and thought I'd take a nap on an empty row. Instead, I ended up talking with the French stewardesses for almost the entire flight. You see when they came by they asked me what I'd like to drink and I tried to answer in French. Haltingly. Okay actually barely comprehensibly. Somehow they were entirely charmed - perhaps akin to the way one is charmed by watching a newborn puppy stumble around and walk into a wall, falling on its hind legs and looking confused. But then, I give my French too much credit.

In any case they began teaching me more French, and eventually talking politics with me. It was really nice. I gave them my name and the blog address, perhaps they are even reading this. It was a nice intro to France. In generally, I've been pleasantly surprised at how welcoming and helpful people have been with my incipient and garbled attempts at French. I've also been pretty happy with the Pimsleur French lessons to which I'm listening. What I've learned from listening to about 4 hours of these lessons accounts for roughly 40% of the French I understand and 87% of the French I can actually speak. On the comprehension side, another 25% I got over the course of 4 French lessons back in April and subsequent work in the Barron's French textbook and the other 35% from knowledge of latin roots.

I took the Paris metro (first RER and then subway) to my new friend Ruth's house. She was intially an acquantaince of a friend (Marni) but was kind enough to let me crash on her couch for the evening since my apartment wasn't ready until afternoon. She's a lovely person and invited me back for Shabbat. I think I'll go, although the bed at my new place is temptingly comfortable (another thing I haven't really enjoyed except for one occasion in the past several months).

I could tell you more, but that covers most of the interesting stuff. I'm happy to finally be at a place I can really call my home, if only for 5 months :-) Night. Oh, one last thing - I've now got a working mobile, check my twitter posts for the # if you want to call me.

22 October 2008

Prague Airport: Apparently a Good Place to Meet Israeli Music Superstars

My trip to Paris was quite nice, albeit long (but that's what a student budget gets you). But I've found that sometimes having stopovers in random places can be quite interesting in and of themselves.

On this particular trip, I left Israel to head to France, the third and final location where I will be interning (faire stage). I was a bit sad to leave my friends and felt like I hadn't managed to have quite as much of a vacation as I would have liked (I also still managed to break my promise to myself to go to the Dead Sea, my third consecutive trip to Israel on which I've sinned in this manner). However, I was also really excited to be heading to France - both because of all the wonderful things I imagine France has in store for me (professionally, personally, culturaly, adventurally ;-) and because I am so excited to finally be living in my own apartment with just Linda and I, a real kitchen and no house boys living on beds outside our front door! I'm also really looking forward to luxuriating in the bath tonight; I haven't had bath since I left the States, almost half-a-year ago now.

So I got to Ben Gurion 2000 airport (construction completed 2004) without much event. Although there was minor event. Namely on our sherut (airport shuttle) there were 4 Israeli Arabs, I noticed this mostly in passing when I heard Arabic, although it was brought to the forefront of my attention when our sherut was stopped at the airport security gates, and they were asked to get off, remove their luggage, and undergo inspection. This took 15 minutes or so. And of course, the one true tourist on the sherut who just had to take a picture of everything, no matter how banal (this would be me in India ;-) decided it would be a good idea to snap a shot of the Arab passengers being escorted off the sherut by Israeli security. This obviously did not go over well with said security officers.

Some rapid apologizing and picture erasing ensued, although thankfully the tone stayed light after the initial angry response by one of the security guards (who I think may have initially thought the tourist was a peace provocetour or somesuch and was thus gearing up for a big and nasty argument). The Arab passengers were cleared and we all finally went on our way. Unlike Linda who tells me she was grilled as a potential terrorist, I was waved through security, bypassing even the pre-check-in luggage screening. I checked in, went through customs and got to see the airport. Boy is it different than the old Ben Gurion.

First off you enter through a gorgeous Jerusalem stone lined passageway whose wall is currently an exhibition of Israeli poster art (featured here is one I really liked of the generations intertwining).

Shortly afterward, I arrived in the main outbound waiting area of Ben Gurion. It was a circular space centered about a large skylight through whose edges water fell into a pool below. This structure was surrounded by really fancy (and comfy looking) leather chairs, a walkway, kiosks, another walking area and finally stores. It was really impressive. Free wifi was available throughout the entire airport and the kosher falafel wasn't bad, although it was fairly overpriced.

So eventually I had to leave the wonders of Ben Gurion 2000 to fly to Prague which turned out to be quite interesting. The flight went smoothly and I got through customs equally so and then stopped at a duty-free store on my way to the gate.

What I found there was interesting - namely a row of different types of Absinthe , the green-colored liquour that is rumored to cause hallucinations and a trigger brilliant onset (in certain legends Van Gogh was purported to have drunk this before cutting off his ear) - the current CW is that it doesn't do much at all beyond alcohol.
Additionally they had Cannabis Vodka - which apparently is vodka flavored with Cannabis seeds (not psychoactive stuff since THC doesn't reside in seeds).
Both seemed like neat things to buy, but I decided to save my money and went to the gate.

That's where I met Idan Raichel, the man behind the Idan Raichel Project .
He was at the counter joking with the attendants, trying to make sure his luggage would get tranfered in time for his connecting flight. He started offering them CDs and then I thought to myself, what Israeli with rasta dreadlocks would be offering CDs except for Idan Raichel. So I asked him "Are you Idan Raichel?" to which he responded "Yes, you know who I am?". He seemed half suprised, and I assured him that "of course I knew him - he's an Israeli music superstar". He then offered me a CD to help get the baggage transfered to which I replied that I'd be happy to have the CD but couldn't guarantee that I'd be able to do anything helpful with the baggage. He had his concert manager give me a CD anyway :-) He also took a picture with me which you can see at the beginning of this post. For those of you who aren't familiar with his music, check out the link I posted above - it's really good stuff, which I've been enjoying while writing this post. Hopefully I'll get to enjoy another of his concerts in the not-too-far future (last one I saw was downtown at the Museum of Jewish Heritage with Linda and our friend Marni, a month or two before we left the States).

19 October 2008

Hampi B'Kitzur (in brief) or Elephant Blessings or Why I Haven't Written for Awhile

I know I haven't written in a while. It's not because I've lost my fondness for all of you. Rather I've been busy. Very busy.

In brief: I arrived in Israel. I was really very ill. I recovered partially. There was a paper deadline. I decided it was very important to try to make the deadline. I also decided to try and contact some Israeli researchers to network - I met some really nice folks at Tel Aviv University, Yuval Shavitt's research group. I managed to get the paper done right before the Succot holiday started. I was very, very tired, still a bit ill (relapsing to a certain extent actually) and hadn't really taken care of anything else (preparations for arriving in France, email, finances). Finally have mostly caught up, but am still really tired and discombobulated - and I leave Israel in only two more days and start work in a week. I'm excited for both but feel like I could really use a vacation. I'm out of it.

So I hope that excuses my lack of posts, and I have done some fun stuff here as well - I hope to tell you about it some time ;-)

But for now enjoy these two short videos, they were taken at the main temple in Hampi and should be relatively self explanatory.

Now I will go to bed.

09 October 2008

Yom Kippur in Jerusalem

Today, I celebrated my first Yom Kippur in Jerusalem. It was a wonderful experience. I'm not one much for Yom Kippur (which is the holiest day of the Jewish year) generally. The idea of a day in which the judgment of all creatures is sealed works for me - I think it's powerful and really internalize the main message of this sacred period between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, on which all creatures are judged and counted and Yom Kippur, 10 days later on which this judgement is sealed: namely that Teshuvah, Tefilah, U'Tzedaka Mavirin et Roah Ha'Gezarah - Repentance, Prayer/Introspection, and Acts of Loving Kindness/Charity remove evil from the decree. The ritual fasting (no food, no water for 25 hours or so) and all-day prayer marathon make sense to me. They just often don't reverberate.

I don't really enjoy long prayer services - I get bored, tired, detached. And fasting is never terribly fun. Mostly, I'm just sort of preoccupied with life - I've got lots to do, pulling myself entirely out of that is pretty much beyond where I am emotionally, and the exhaustion my body feels the day after a fast is never conducive to catching up. From what I understand though, that's pretty much the point of the whole thing, to take you entirely out of normalacy and make you focus on the fundamentals of existence. My problem is that most of the time that's basically a chore for me.

So spending Yom Kippur in Jerusalem was particularly nice. The entire city shuts down. Nothing is open. No cars drive down the street. There are people walking everywhere instead. Secular Israelis bike everywhere (apparently it's the day with the highest bicycle accident rate). Everything slows - I really liked it. In the evening we went to the shul where we had bought tickets (managed to get there for a couple of minutes over the two days of Rosh Hashanah, so it was good to be there for a full service). The davening (prayer) wasn't as stirring as Rosh Hashanah's had been, but it was still quite nice. There was a speech in between afternoon and evening prayers. I was pleased to follow most of it, even though it was all in Hebrew, then I dozed. During the evening prayer I prayed during the important parts, read Heschel's God In Search of Man (not sure how I feel about it yet - the writing is really stilted, and some of the ideas seem a bit presumptious/avoid key issues, but I think there's some stuff in there that I will find worthwhile), and joined back in whenever the singing grabbed me. As I walked home, I felt happy.

Today I slept until 9AM, slumbered (and talked with Linda) not wanting to go anywhere until noon, then fell back asleep until 3:30PM. I woke Linda and we dressed and decided to head to the Kotel (the Western Wall). We almost decided to go back to the shul for which we had tickets, but going to the holiest spot for Jews on the holiest day, at the holiest hour was too much of an opportunity to pass up - who knows when or if we will be back on this day whose prayer ends l'Shana Ha'baah B'Yerushalayim - Next year in Jerusalem?

We walked on what looked to be the shortest route on the map, but in fact took us deep into a valley from which we had to trek up a steep staircase to the Zion Gate to enter the old city. Linda was even weaker than I and we stopped to rest for 15 minutes. All-in-all the walk took us almost an hour.

As we approached the wall, travelers from all directions slowly came together like beads of water turning to streams, joining into a river that flowed to the Wall. No baggage x-ray today, only visual checks, and we were through into the plaza. Linda and I went to the separate sections for men and women, joining the Chovevai minyan. 10 men make up a traditional minyan (more modern strains of Judaism will use 10 adults or 10 men and 10 women) and at the Wall there were dozens of groups, each praying in it's own way - Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Chassidim, Misnagdim, Zionists, Orthodox Centrists, Jews from every part of the world and of every race. A uniformed border policeman with a rifle davened next to a young man in an orange sweatshirt reading "L$D". Brestlover chassdim with long payes davened with a pierced Israeli in shorts. Everywhere the sounds of prayer were heard in different accents, but the same words. The plaza itself was filled with Jews, praying and beyond them further away from the wall, simply watching those who prayed - perhaps to be part of it in a different way, perhaps out of curiousity, perhaps just waiting to hear the Shofar (Ram's horn) blown at the end of the day to signal the closing of the gates of repentance and end of the fast. I prayed, walked to the wall, meditated, walked back and forth to soak in the experience, accidentally walked right in front of a group as they began the prayer of the priests, and ran behind them to be included. My friend Yair, at whose apartment we are staying was there. I found him and we spoke. The prayers came to their conclusion as the moon rose over the Kotel. One after another the groups of prayers began to recite the Shema prayer and then sound the Shofar. One group blew and then another and then another - it was a beautiful, cachaphonious chaos. Yair and I left to beat the crowd. We grabbed a drink at the fountain and shared some of my chocolate. Linda met us at the water fountain bearing rugelach that she had grabbed from the stand set up by Lubavitch (and apparently founded by the State) and we headed home to get some more substantial food. It was the most meaningful Yom Kippur that I've had in awhile.

07 October 2008

Journeying: 10 hours in Paris

I arrived in France dead tired, but happy that I wasn't shivering or soaked anymore and excited to drop off my baggage and see our new apartment. I grabbed my luggage, got a cab and headed off to meet up with our soon-to-be landlordess Ariane at the apartment, 35 Rue De L'Esperance.

View Larger Map

It was a truly amazing ride. The contrast between the Indian subcontinent where I'd spent the last 3 months and France was so striking (and refreshing for me). I got into a beautiful cab. The music that played over the radio was smooth French jazz, no loud half-Hindi-half-English-half-Tamil bahngra. We drove at speeds (60+ mph/100+ kmh) I hadn't attained since I had left the states. The road was so smooth and all the cars simply moved in their separate lanes. Nothing was on the road except for the cars, no cows, goats, dogs, carts, people, donkeys, camels. No dust, potholes, contruction equipment. Just smooth asphalt and cleanly delinated lines with beautiful countryside passing by. The sun came in at that beautiful fall gold you only get at temperate latitudes. It was delicious. I dozed, comfortable in a way I hadn't been for months. I was back in the West.

Within 30 minutes I had reached my destination - a cobblestone street in a part of the city that seemed more like a village than a metropolis. So clean, so quiet, so quaint. Golden fall sunlight and a crisp fall morning chill in the air with heat wherever the sunlight fell directly. I left my luggage near the building's door and crossed the street to sit half in a sunny patch and just absorbed the Sunday morning calm. After about 10 minutes Ariane arrived and I got to meet the person with whom Linda had spent so much time making arrangements.

A brief detour to tell you how we came to be in touch: Linda had been working at the JCC of the Upper West Side. One of the several classes she taught was a mommy & me cooking class for 3-4 year olds. One of the mothers in this class became quite friendly with Linda, and happened to have close friends in Paris, whom I'm quite excited to meet at the end of this month. These friends were close friends with Ariane who is an actress and was also looking to rent her apartment right around the time we wanted to rent one. So things worked out in this fortuitous way they often do for me (I'm truly a blessed man) and we ended up agreeing to let the most lovely apartment from a person I discovered to be just a tremendous sweetheart. I would arrive in Paris before my internship without having to search frantically for an apartment or find interim housing. What was even more fortuitous was way back when I was booking tickets to Israel, it turned out I had a choice of a very short stopover from Bangalore-Paris to Paris-Israel or a 10 hour stopover. I really didn't want to stretch my trip out, I mean what was I going to do for 10 hours in Paris with all of my luggage? But I also didn't want to get stuck missing my connecting flight. So I opted grudgingly for the 10 hour stopover. I can't imagining it having worked out better. Because you see we subsequently discovered Ariane and made arrangements with her and I ended up being able to go see the apartment, meet her, drop off my luggage for storage in her basement, and put down our deposit! Not only that but freed of my luggage I could explore Paris a bit and wouldn't need to shlep it back-and-forth to Israel.

But things worked out even better than that for two reasons. It turns out Ariane is just the nicest person. And the apartment was really nice as well - it was a sunny duplex at the top of the building with floor to ceiling windows that opened completely unto what I'd describe as an-almost-balcony. A tiny refrigerator was more than offset by a real oven (oh how I've missed thee), a washing machine, and a real dishwasher! I loved the place, the only drawback being that the sole bathroom was upstairs through the master bedroom - it will make having guests a bit more difficult, but we are still looking forward to hosting. I don't have much French, but from the little I know the perfect word to describe her apartment is charmante. After making me tea at the apartment and showing me around the building (and waiting patiently while I took care of getting the Citibank customer service rep to manually set the permissions so I could take out enough money from the ATM), Ariane began showing me around the neighborhood - and what a lovely neighborhood it was. Then there was the second thing - my friend Jen who recently married a Parisian was in town visiting the in-laws for the chaggim. So she came and met us and we all walked around together. We passed quaint shops and cafes. Shops in Paris are fantastic - instead of simply going to a supermarket, they have specialty shops. You get your bread at the bread store, your cheese at the cheese store, your fruits and vegetables at the fruit and vegetable store. Heck right down the street from us we passed a store which sells only honey - all different honeyies (and for those of you who know my love of honey, you know how excited this made me ;-)

I really needed some new bacteria for my stomach and was also quite hungry so our first two stops were to grab a 4 pack of activa yogurt and my first French baguette (the above picture of Jen and Ariane is outside the Boulongerie where I bought the baguette - Jen is on the left, Ariane on the right)

At this point, Ariane had to go and get some of her own stuff done, but she very kindly invited me to come to Le Marias where she was staying if I wanted to take a nap or shower before heading back to the airport (did I mention how kind she was). Jen and I spent most of the next hour or so wandering about the neighborhood. We had a baguette in a quaint nearby park, where I made a shechianu (blessing on something new) on my first French baguette - it was delicious.

After this we walked over to the nearby freshwater spring. Yes that is correct, a freshwater spring. Paris has almost no heavy industry and very strict pollution laws, which means that this 600 meter-deep spring produces mineral water as high quality as anything you'll get in a bottle. The residents walk to the fountain fed by this spring and fill their bottles and jubs to drink - Ariane tells me she goes twice a week on the average. In fact this spring is such a good water producer that the oldest municipal pool in France was built right adjacent, fed by the spring water - I can't wait to go swimming there! The water was copious and quite tasty. I hadn't been able drink water that hadn't been filtered and UV'd for months and here I was drinking straight out of a fountain in the middle of Paris fed by the freshest of freshwater springs. I felt refreshed and cleansed (got a whole bunch of it on my face an up my nose - which helped clear out some of my terrible congestion).

I then took a moment to enjoy the artwork drawn along the a wall across the street. On the same plaza was a quaint little tent - Jen and I did a bit of exploring and found it to be a tent for children's puppet show (so cute). We wandered about for a little while longer and then headed towards the Place D'Italie where I would take the train to Le Marias (by the point I was feeling a bit feverish again, strained from carrying my heavy bag, and just generally in need of a break). I bit Jen adieu at the Metropolitan and had a quick trip to Le Marias (I like subways but will write about the Paris Metro some other time).

When I exited the train I was right on the Seine river. I was really wiped but had to see it. How beautiful it looked in the afternoon light. The day had gotten quite warm and I was a bit sweaty, but the picnicing people at the riverside looked like they were emininently comfortable. I decided I was really looking forward to living in Paris :-) Traveling is nice, but it is so wonderful to be able to live in a place and really absorb it. I made my way to the apartment where Ariane was staying.

The walk to the apartment was a bit circuitious - mainly because I took a wrong turn. But it was a fairly nice wrong turn as I got to walk straight through the center of Jewish Paris. What I found was that they are obsessed with falafel. I saw more kosher falafel places (with people lining up to eat) on that block than I've seen since I got to Israel (if this is an exaggeration, it's not a big one). when entering the area I stopped a group of orthodox teens and asked them where kosher pizza (pizza kasher) could be found. The girls were really nice and helpful (although they didn't seem too sure on the pizzeria's location) but the boy who was with them was actually quite rude saying "Bye bye" and pushing the girls down the street. I'm really hoping that this isn't indicative of what I should expect in future dealings with the French Jewish community.

By this point my shoulders were really hurting (my carry on bag was still quite heavy), I was feeling sicker again and terribly exhausted. Thankfully it was only a short walk further and I arrived at address Ariane had given me. Her friend's place was gorgeous - two fully stories, beautiful furniture, kitchen, and a roof garden with a small tropical tree. Walking on the roof I got to savor even more of the fall - it was quiet hot in the sun and the stones the sun touched were quite warm, but those in the shade had a deliciously chilly feeling.

As August ended and September came in, I had begun to feel the end of the summer and that inoxerable, melancholy and beautiful pull the fall has. Every fall in the North-East I soak in those transitional days - the color of the leaves, the crispness of the air, the amazing golden quality of the sunlight, the change in the ocean that I find so difficult to describe but so relish on my all-too-infrequent autumn visits to the shore. But none of this was in India, they don't even have a season called fall (nor one called spring) - the seasons there are winter, summer, and two monsoons. Perhaps there was the slightest hint of fall in the air in Bangalore, or more likely my mind grabbed unto the slight cooling of days as September came through as some tangible manifestation of the fall season that was coursing through my veins, even though I was so far from home - like a transplanted temperate tree dropping its leaves in sultry weather. But for one day in Paris I truly got to enjoy fall. It wasn't quite the fall of home, the warm gulf-stream current moderates Frances climate too much for that. But it was so close, and so wonderful. I would have been very sad to have a year without fall and this was really a gift. As Yom Kippur quickly approaches fall is in the air here in Israel as well, but it's nowhere near the same (although it's still nice), and by the time I return to Paris at the month's end, fall will have transitioned to its dying phase, fall in a minor key, with few leaves left and the summer heat but a memory. I am truly blessed that things little and big have worked out so well for me. I know this is a difficult and scary time, but I'm truly feeling hopeful. I think this year will be one sealed for the good, despite its difficult beginning and I wish you all to be sealed for the good.

Perhaps continuing now is anticlimactic but I want to finish my Paris story. After arriving, I was able to take a shower (which really helped the feverishness that was returning), neti for the first time in 3 months (ironic that the only place I couldn't use the nasal cleansing technique developed in India b/c the water quaility was so bad) to clean out my clogged sinuses and change into a clean set of clothes. After really taking my time in the bathroom, I had only 20 minutes to nap, but I took advantage of them - swallowing down another container of yogurt and lying my broken body down on a couch. The clock ticked in the background and a fly buzzed, but otherwise there was nothing but silence. Silence was another thing I had really missed - it doesn't really exist in India, except in the deep wildnerness (which is a different thing and also usually full of cricket buzzing and other animal noises). I dozed.

I woke, packed, had a spot of tea and Ariane took me to the Metropolitan and helped me get the right ticket. But that wasn't all. Gracious as ever, she accompanied me all the way to the train that would take me to the airport so I wouldn't get lost. I said goodbye, looking forward to returning. Then I jumped on the train and began my journey again.

The ride was a bit hot, filled with the noisy conversation of some African-French men sitting across from me (I'm not sure why he needed to yell everything he said, but I liked his accent at least - couldn't understand a thing). Sunlight slanted in and in a daze I watched the suburbs pass me by. I arrived at the aiport found my way to the check-in, waited and was on my way again, now to Israel - to see my friends (mainly Efrat and Yair) and be reunited with Linda. But I'll tell you about that in a later post.

Shanah Tovah, v'Gemar Chatimah Tovah - Happy New Year and may be be sealed [in the book of judgement] for the good.

Journeying: Bangalore to Paris

Note: this journey took place on the eve of Rosh Hashanah the Jewish New year - I left Bangalore at 10:30PM Saturday night, Sept. 27th and arrived in Jerusalem at 6:30AM on Monday morning, Sept. 29th - just about 12 hours before the start of the Rosh Hashanah. I took me over a week to recover from my illness enough to put out the first blog post!

In a trip of many difficult journies, traveling from Bangalore to Jerusalem may have just been the most difficult.

I began feeling ill towards the middle of last week but didn't get really sick until Friday night when I found my temprature had risen to 102F. That afternoon I had already felt pretty bad which made my last day at Microsoft Research somewhat more rushed than I would have liked (especially the goodbyes) as most of the day I had been moving in slow motion. However, I did manage to finish up many of the things I had hoped to and say goodbye to most of the folks I now miss. I was really privledged to be there, and to work with such a fantastic bunch of people as the MNS group led by my wonderful advisor Venkat.

Anyway I was pretty upset to be so sick and had difficultly sleeping, eating, packing - all of which were quite necessary actions as I was due to leave for the airport at 10:30PM, just a couple of hours after the Sabbath ended. But I perserved, and so did my fever, despite my taking two doses of antibotics I had secured that Thursday. So after Shabbos ended, I immediately called the lovely doctor I had seen, Priya Ravi, my colleague Ram's wife. Priya is exactly the type of doctor I like to see - clear, concentious, easy-going, willing to explain the whys and whats and answer the innumerable questions I always have. She was so helpful. She increased the dosage of my then-current course, prescribed backup antibiotics and several other goodies to bring down my fever and clear up my breathing, and arranged for all of these to be delivered to my apartment before I left. She really was a lifesaver!

I did manage to finish packing around 10:45PM a couple of minutes after my cab arrived. We stopped at MSR to drop off some books lent to me by my friend Chandan (a series of graphic novels on the life of the Buddha - very nice stuff) and many bags of donated goods (weight limit concerns precluded me bringing them on the plane) and we were off to the airport. I was sweaty and half-delirious w/ fever but quite proud of myself and rather sleepy.

We arrived at the airport, I bed farewell to the transport folks and walked in. Various skinny Indian men approached me. One waved a dirty yellow ID tag saying "Lufthasa? I help!" and attempted to paw the baggage cart out of my grip. I asked him if he would be taking me to the check-in counter and when he nodded, explained kindly that I could find it myself. Another fellow began jabbering at me "Come for wrapping! For safety and security". After some miscomunication I asked him if this was an extra paid service. When he nodded, I explained that I didn't at the moment need that service. Then finally there were no more people trying to grab me and I slowly rearranged my baggage and proceeded to the check-in line.

Check-in went uneventfully until my baggage was weighed. At that point things became less pleasant. You see, I was informed my baggage was 22kg overweight (apparently the allowance was 20kg split between two bags). This was more than I had hoped, especially since I had called ahead to my travel agent and inquired how much the weight overage fee would be (5 Euro per kg was the answer). 110 Euro is alot for an iterant student intern, but I figured I'd argue a bit and then suck it up. A wheedling sentence to ask if we could reduce the charged amount by a couple of kilos formed in my throat. The check-in attendant said overage would be 30 Euro per kilo. I choked. 30 Euros per kilo?! Is that some type of sick joke. No apparently this is simply Lufthansa policy now, or so I was told. Still not sure if I can believe it. A quick mental calculation said I now had one of two options: (a) pay $1000 for my baggage or (b) throw all of my stuff out into the airport garbage can. Since neither of these struck me as satisfactory I chose option (c), raise a ruckus (at least insomuch as one can half-delirious with 102F fever with clothing soaked through by sweat).

The check-in lady was up to the task.
That's tremendously high.
That's our policy.
I was told 5 Euro per kilo by the travel agent.
You were told wrong.
But I was told 5 Euro.
I'm sorry.
After some of this type of back-and-forth I asked to speak with a manager.
This is where luck began to favor me.

The fellow who came to the desk was a turbaned Sikh with a very pleasant manner. After assessing the situation he looked over my iternarary and concluded that since my ticket had been booked as a series of flights originating and terminating from New York, I was entitled to the US baggage allowance (23 kilo per bag!) and didn't need to pay an extra cent! What a relief - from $1000 bucks of overage fees to $0. The only hitch was that one of my bags was 26 kilo while the other was 18. I needed to move 3 kilo from the heavier bag. I thanked him profusely and rushed over to the weighing station. But try as I might, I was unable to cram an extra 3 kilo in the other bag... I was sweaty tired and nearing the end of my emotional resolve. But then I had an image of a thin young Indian man blathering at me "wrapping for safety and security".

Eureka. I shoved a bunch of extra items in between my bag and it's slipcover. Would have never held through the flight by itself. But with several layers of the shipping equivalent of saran wrap, loss would be a non-issue. I had the bag wrapped for 200 rupees ($3 and change) and returned to the counter truimphant.

The initial check-in lady was as dense as before. "Your luggage is still 42 kilo, you need to remove more items". "No", I told her. "I just needed to switch 3 kilo from the heavier bag to the lighter one". The manager was quick to correct her when we asked. I asked him if there was somewhere I could send a note praising his excellent service. He gave me two email addresses and his name, Pushppreet Singh Chandoke, which I took gladly and then finally proceeded to the boarding location (after taking a couple of moments to sit down and collect myself).

The next leg of the trip was very long, but not terribly remarkable. I continued running a high fever and felt pretty aweful. I dozed a bit, moved from position to position to ease my sore muscles and generally abided. I had gotten stuck in a middle seat, but I had nice neighbors on either side. After 10 hours of flying we finally arrived in Frankfurt, Germany.

My fever still hadn't broken but I had to go through customs. It's a good thing we had an hour-and-a-half stop over b/c the famed German efficiency I had heard about was nowhere to be seen. Frankfurt International had the very worst queuing I have ever seen in an airport (and I've seen lots of bad queuing in my time ;-) After almost an hour, I finally made it through and got on my plane to Paris.

Now by this point, I was pretty wiped out, but the plane was quite empty and I had a whole row to lay down in right near the bathroom. This was particularly good since my fever had just broken (I was so happy). But you see the same antibiotics that had finally started to wipe out the bacteria making me sick, had been much more effective and wiping out the commensular bacteria in my intestines that allowed me to absorb water. Thus to put it politely I had more than a bit of stomach upset, making proximity to the bathroom very valuable.

I had initially thought to put my journey entire in one single post, to really provide the feeling for how long a trip it was and how transitional. But while I had to do it that way, I'm starting to feel there is no reason for you to do so. Just read the posts back-to-back-to-back and you'll get the idea. So I'm stopping this post here and will continue with my arrival in France in the next post.