Monday, September 3, 2012

Hello Cambridge! July 2nd 2012

On July 2nd I said goodbye to Jocelyn and took the Cambridge express from King's Cross station (stopping by Platform 9 3/4!).  About 45 minutes later, I caught a taxi from the station to go to Babraham, a hamlet about a 10 minute drive south of Cambridge (it still has a Cambridge post code), where I would be doing an internship for the next 6 weeks. 

The first thing I saw was the incredible 19th century manor house ("The Hall") that houses the Babraham Institute administration.  Near the institute are a few blocks of houses built for employees and students, where I rented a room for the summer.  It looks a bit like Privet Drive but the surrounding area is charmingly rural and it was about a 5 minute walk to work.  There were even sheep in the field behind the lab!

The Babraham Institute.

My internship involved immunology lab work, researching the differing roles of PI3K isoforms, under the supervision of Dr. Klaus Okkenhaug in the Laboratory of Lymophocyte Signalling and Development.  The Babraham Institute is an independent life sciences research facility, although the PhD students studying at the institute are registered as graduate students at the University of Cambridge.

I was really looking forward to learning new laboratory techniques this summer and getting back into the lab, having done lab research the two previous summers in Calgary.  I was also looking forward to exploring Cambridge and hitting up the London Olympics!  Stay tuned for photos and adventures.

Hello England! June 27th 2012

June 27th: exams are done, my bags are packed, I'm ready to head to England to start my summer internship!

With all my luggage, the best way to get across the English channel was to take the Eurostar (no luggage charges!).  This was about as fast as flying, as well.  I had a train ticket booked from Lyon to Lille, in northern France, then from Lille to London St. Pancras on the Eurostar.

Almost missed my train because the cleaning lady inspecting my room showed up 30 minutes late and was taking forever!  I just made it on my train, but didn't have time to print my ticket at the station.  I had a confirmation showing I had paid and the date and seat and everything, but the conductor told me I'd have to buy a new ticket and get it refunded at my transfer in Lille. When I got to Lille the ticket lady told me they couldn't refund my ticket, and I would have to mail it in to get my money back.  I sent in my tickets and receipts but they didn't refund me 50$ of the ticket!

The Eurostar was a really cool way to travel.  You show up about 20 minutes early to do a passport check, and it's just like a normal train, if a bit comfier.  The journey through the Chunnel takes about 20 minutes. 

Carrying all of my luggage (I was also bringing my sheet and pillow etc. with me, so quite a lot of stuff) on the tube to my hostel was a bit of a challenge, but Londoners of all ages were so kind as to offer to help me carry them a ways. 

I wasn't starting my internship for a week, so my friend Jocelyn (who I'd traveled central / eastern Europe with) and I were going to spend a week in London.  We stayed at the St. Christopher's in Hammersmith, which was nice in general, over a fun pub, but was a bit far from the city centre and we spotted some termites in the shower and dorm areas! At about 12$ a night though it was a steal for London, and the St. Christopher hostels are generally pretty nice. 

More London stories and photos to come!

Au revoir Lyon - June 27 2012

Well, after an incredible year in Lyon, it's time to say au revoir and move on to new adventures.  It's been an amazing year, and I've really enjoyed getting to know people from all over the world.  There have been some ups and downs (the French university system is much different than what I'm used to back home, for example), but this has truly been the experience of a lifetime.  I've learned so much about living in another country, working with people from different backgrounds, overcoming language and cultural barriers, how to travel with only a tiny backpack for two weeks, trying new things, and of course chemical engineering.  Educational experiences abroad can really provide another dimension to an engineering education, especially considering the ever-increasing international nature of engineering.

I'm especially grateful for all of the opportunities to travel and explore many other cultures.  A big thank you to Queen's University Chemical Engineering, the Emil Nenniger International Exchange Scholarship in Chemical Engineering, and the Centennial International Exchange Endowment Fund that helped make it possible. 

I will definitely miss 3€ wines, the amazing selection of cheeses, medieval downtowns, (usually) efficient public transit,  French (a beautiful language, despite the intricacies of proper grammar), amazing museums, warm weather, and especially the friends who made it so special. 

I'm still working on sorting out my thousands and thousands of photos and putting together new blog articles, which I'll be posting over the next few months as they are ready.  I'm hoping to have it all done my Christmas (fingers crossed).  Stay tuned for updates about adventures in Italy, the Netherlands during Queen's Day, France with the family, Geneva, Ireland, Scotland, The Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London and the London Olympics, and my summer internship in England! 


Friday, May 18, 2012

Czech Republic: Prague

Prague is the most beautiful and interesting city in Europe, in my opinion, and I think it's seriously underrated in terms of tourism potential.  For the novice traveler, London, Paris and Rome are good places to visit your first time to Europe, but my ideal itinerary for a two week European vacation would include Munich, Vienna, Prague and maybe Budapest if you have time. 

Prague ("Praha") is the capital of the Czech Republic, and is home to about 1 million people.  It has a fascinating architectural history that covers every period from the Middle Ages to the Baroque opulence of the Austrian occupation, to Neo-classicism, Cubism, Art Deco, Modernism and Stalinism (ick), which one of the things that make me like it so much.  You could spend days wandering the cobblestoned streets of the Hradčany, Malá Strana, Židovská, Staré Mesto and Nové Mesto neighborhoods, on either side of the Vltava River that bisects the city.   In the late Middle Ages, Prague's position at the crossroads of Europe made it one of the most important cities in Europe, bigger than either Paris or London.  Its importance was diminished somewhat after Austria annexed Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), however native and Austrian nobles built fabulous palaces in the city that are art museums, hotels or embassies today. 

The first thing I like to do in a new city is go on the New Europe pay-what-you can walking tour.  The most interesting area historically extends from Wenceslas Square to the Staré Mesto, and across the Charles bridge to the castle.  Even this is too much to do in one tour, so we just stuck to the east bank of the Vltava which still took three hours.  Prague Castle on the west bank is so big it gets its own blog post.

At the heart of Staré Mesto, or Old Town, is a vast town square called the Staromestské Námestí.  I don't pretend to be able to pronounce any of this!  Czech is part of the Slavic linguistic group, and is mutually intelligible in reading and speech with Slovakian, and to a lesser extent, Polish.  Staré Mesto, for example, is also the world for Old Town in Polish. 

 Staromestské Námestí (Old Town Square).

Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, Old Town Square.  The front of the church is blocked by a row of houses; you have to pass through a small passageway into a courtyard to get in.  It's hard to tell from the photo but the Gothic spires are uneven in size.

Old Town Square is beautifully lit up at night.

The Astronomical Clock on the left.  In the background is Old Town Square.  There are houses hiding the entrance to Our Lady Before Tyn.

The Old Town Hall.  All that remains today is the tower, which features the famous Astronomical clock on one side.  The rest of it was destroyed in the bombings in WWII.  You can see that the rest of the red wall on the right has been blown away - you can still see the left side of the window frames. 

Old Town Hall.

The Astronomical Clock is a marvel of medieval engineering, and is the oldest astronomical clock in the world that is still functioning.  Built in the 14th century, it features two clock faces: one to tell the time and one to tell the date (using saint's names, not numbers like we do now).  It used to be that you named your baby after the saint who's day he was born on.  Today this isn't always followed but many families still name their children from one of the names on the "list" - that have a saint's day.  You end up having two birthdays - one is the day you were born and the other is the day of the saint you were named after.  They have this in France as well, where your actual birthday is your "anniversaire" (anniversary) and your saint's day is your "fête" (party): you get twice the presents (although I think the anniversaire is more important)!  I was at a friend's birthday a while back and I wished him "bonne fête", like we did in Canada at school.  He corrected me and told me it was his "anniversaire".  We used to sing "bonne fête à toi..." to the tune of the Happy Birthday song in school, but in France they're sing "bonne anniversaire".  

The Astronomical Clock.  Time on the top, date on the bottom.  

The clock that tells you the date used to be very useful back in the Middle Ages, when instead of writing "March 14th" for example, you would write "Saint [Insert Name Here]'s Day".  The clock has 365 names around the circle, so you really have to squint to be able to read it at all! Almost nobody knows how to read the time clock - apparently instructions on how to decipher it are floating around the internet but they're still quite complicated.  Tourists gather to watch the dance of the wooden figures above the clock every hour, and a trumpeter plays a little tune from the top of the tower.  The spectacle is little underwhelming but for something made in the Middle Ages it's quite impressive.  

The Astronomical Clock.  See what I mean about it being a  bit more complicated than the average clock?

The setting sun glints off the gold detail of the Astronomical clock.

Our tour guide told us of the ingenious inventor who designed the clock.  After he installed it he would spend his evenings in his chamber, scribbling new designs.  The mayor of Prague thought he was designing an even better clock for another city, and in a jealous rage had his eyes gouged out.  He was actually designing improvements to the Astronomical clock!  After he was blinded  he reached in to the mechanism and pulled out a bolt, stopping the clock.  It took centuries for someone to figure out how to get it to work again.

The town square is encircled by architectural gems spanning hundreds of years.  My favorite house ever faces on to this square, featuring an elaborate painting of St. Wenceslas on horseback:

Storch House, with a painting of St. Wenceslas.  Old Town Square.  St. Wenceslas is the patron saint of the Czech Republic.  He was a medieval king of Bohemia (part of the current Czech Republic) who was murdered by his brother, the aptly named Boleslav the Cruel.  He is remembered today in the Christmas Carol "Good King Wenceslas".

One of the more interesting buildings in the Old Down is the House of the Black Madonna.  Until only a few hundred years ago, most people couldn't read, so it wouldn't make much sense having street signs that spelled out the name of the street.  Instead, houses on the street corner would often have a little statue hanging from the wall or carved into a little recess, about 8 ft. off the ground.  This house, for example, had a sculpture called "The Black Madonna".  So your address would be something like "the third house to the right of the House of the Black Madonna".  Today the building is one of the most famous Cubist (early 20th century) buildings in Prague, with a lovely café inside. 

The House of the Black Madonna (Cubist architecture).  You can see the Black Madonna in the bottom right hand corner.

Jocelyn enjoying a cup of coffee in the Cubist café in the House of the Black Madonna.

One of the most architecturally interesting spots in Prague is at the Powder Gate, at the entrance of the city.  This intersection is bordered by Medieval Gothic, Modernist, Stalinist and Art Nouveau buildings, on on each corner.  When you spin around, it's like you're watching a timeline of the architectural evolution of Europe. All of this traveling has made me wish I know more about architecture.  When I get home I'm planning on reading more about it, although it's hard to know where to start!

The Powder Gate, where they used to store gunpowder, is the last remaining piece of the city wall that used to surround the Old Town.

The Medieval Powder Gate.

The Art Nouveau Municipal House, a popular concert venue

Modernist building at the intersection.

The Stalinist-era National Bank.

The Jewish District is remarkably well-preserved, given the Nazi occupation of the city in the Second World War.  This was because Hitler intended to turn it into a museum of the "extinct race".  For ages the Jewish people of Prague were only allowed to live in this area, so there are six synagogues in this small neighbourhood.  

The Spanish Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter.  The Moorish architecture is reminiscent of the Alhambra palace in Spain, hence the name "Spanish" Synagogue.  This area was the centre of the Sephardic community (Jews from Morocco and Spain), who lived strictly apart from the Ashkenzi (European) Jews in the Middle Ages.

The Old-New Synagogue, built in 1270, is the oldest synagogue in Europe.  It has survived fires, pogroms, the slum clearances of the 19th century and the Nazi occupation.  It's attic is said to be the resting place of the Golem, an animated being made out of clay, brought to life by Rabbi Loew in the 16th century to defends the Jews of Prague against anti-Semetic attacks and persecutions.  At the time, the Emperor was trying to expel the Jews from Prague, but after several violent killings of Gentiles attributed to the Golem, spreading fear throughout the city, the Emperor begged Rabbi Loew to destroy it and promised to let the Jews stay in Prague.  As the story goes, the Rabbi deactivated the Golem, and he stayed in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue until he was needed again.  During WWII, a Nazi agent intrigued by the story went up to the attic to investigate, and was never seen again.

The Old-New Synagogue.  You can see the lower clock face is in Hebrew.  The "Golem" is said to live in the attic.

During WWII, most of Prague's Jewish population was deported to the town of Terezín (the original inhabitants were expelled).  The Nazis used this as an example to show the rest of the world that they were simply relocating the Jews of the occupied territories to their own villages, and that this town was a gift to them.  In reality it was a concentration camp, and many of the prisoners were deported to death camps.  

The Pinkas Synagogue now serves as a memorial to the 80 000 Czech Jews who went missing in the Holocaust, all of who's names are inscribed on the walls.  There is a haunting display of children's artwork from the Terezín camp.  One of the women deported to the camp had gone to one of the most prestigious art schools in Germany, and was a firm believer in art therapy for children.  In the camp, she had them draw a picture of something that scared them, and told them to "tear it up, it's gone".  She then had them draw a picture of something that made them happy, and got them to sign their names.  These drawings are the only evidence that some of these children ever existed; the Nazis were very effective at wiping out any trace of a person they wanted to erase: birth records, school reports etc.  The art teacher saved all of the drawings in a suitcase, that survived the war and became part of the memorial.  What's especially haunting about these drawings by the children in the concentration camp is that they are of things that make them happy, when we know their lives would have been miserable and most of them didn't survive.  As for the art teacher, when her husband was taken to Auschwitz she volunteered to be on the next shipment.  Her husband survived; she didn't.

There are only four Jewish cemeteries in the world that are adjacent to a synagogue, in Prague, Krakow, Budapest, and in either Israel or the US, I can't remember which.  Incidentally, I have been to 3/4 (although I'm not Jewish).  The Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague is very interesting as it is about 3 or 4 meters above street level.  This is because the bodies here are buried 12 layers deep.  Founded in the 15th century, it was in continuous use for 300 years.  Because the cemetery was not allowed to expand, they simply added more dirt and buried people on top of each other, which led to the ground being several meters higher than the adjacent areas.  According to Jewish law, graves and tombstones cannot be destroyed, so when a new layer had to be added, the old tombstones were taken out, more dirt was added, and they were put back in.  There are an estimated 12,000 tombstones presently visible, and up to 100,000 people are buried in this small area.

The Old Jewish Cemetery, next to the Klausen Synagogue. You can see the tombstones behind the fence are one story above ground level. 

Franz Kafka is perhaps one of the best known Jewish residents of Prague. The author of several books (The Trial) and short stories, the word kafkaesque has come to mean "characteristic or reminiscent of the oppressive or nightmarish qualities of Franz Kafka's fictional world".  During his lifetime, he only published a few short stories, and when he died in 1924, he expressly asked his executor to destroy all of this papers.   Thankfully for literature, his wishes were ignored and his books were published.  It was rather hard however, to decipher the order of his writings, as he would start a notebook halfway through, write from the back to the front of the notebook, and his stories were either missing whole chapters or he stopped writing mid-sentence.  Some of them were smuggled out of the country in a suitcase by his executor when he fled to Palestine in 1939.  The rest, some 20 notebooks secretly preserved by his lover after his death, were confiscated by the Gestapo in 1933 and have never been seen since.

Statue of Franz Kafka in 1933.

Although the Czechoslovakia (post-1993 = Slovakia + the Czech Republic, after they peacefully split due to differences over the new post-communism constitution in the "Velvet Divorce") was communist for 50 years and was part of the Warsaw Pact, there were several uprisings against the oppressive government and the Soviet influence in their domestic affairs.  Officially, it was the USSR that liberated Czechoslovakia in 1945, although in reality it was the Czech Resistance that drove out the Nazis, the day before the Soviets arrived.  The American army had freed the western city of Plzen (as in Pilsner beer) which is only a few hours from Prague, so the people of Prague figured the Americans would drive the Nazis out of their city the next day.  The never came.  Little did the Czechs know that it had already been decided who would liberate what (the division of Europe by the Iron Curtain), and the Soviets had been granted the right to liberate Prague.  The Czechs decided to drive the Nazis out on their own, and succeeded.  The signal to begin the uprising was delivered when the radio announcer (who was forced to broadcast in German) started his morning show by saying the date half in German, half in Czech. They threw a huge party that night, and when the Red Army arrived the next day, their commanders were very angry the Czechs hadn't waited for them to arrive before celebrating.  As our guide explained, it went a little like this:

Czech Resistance: "What are you guys doing here? You're a little late for the party!"

Red Army: "We're here to liberate you!"

Czech Resistance: "But we already got rid of the Nazis on our own!"

Red Army: "You don't understand.  WE'RE HERE TO LIBERATE YOU"

And they would go on to "liberate" the Czechs for another 50 years.

One of the most famous uprisings is recorded in the history books as the Prague Spring. In 1968, Alexander Dubček was elected the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, and instituted numerous reforms to liberalize society at a time when Czechoslovakia, like the other Warsaw Pact countries, was essentially a puppet state of the USSR.  His proposed increases in freedom of the press and the decentralization of administrative authority were called "communism with a human face".  The USSR didn't like these new reforms, so the armies of the other Warsaw Pact countries (Bulgaria, Hungary, East Germany, Poland, Romania, the USSR) were ordered to invade.  The Czechs succeeded in stymieing their efforts to occupy Prague by changing the name of every village, town and city to "Dubček".  When the armies would reach a new town they would ask a local where they were, and they would tell them they were in Dubček.  "But we just left Dubček!".  This delayed the advance of the armies on Prague for a few days.  When they finally arrived, they found that all of the street signs (by this time the city had progressed from statues to written street signs!) had been defaced and were now illegible, so their maps were useless.  The occupation was met mainly by non-violent protests and several self-immolations (lighting yourself on fire as a sign of protest).  

In the spring of 1969, the year after the Prague Spring, Czechoslovakia defeated the USSR in a match at the World Hockey Championships.  During the Communist Era, Czechoslovakia had one of the best hockey teams in the world and games against the Soviets were perceived as a form of protest.  Half a million people took to the streets to celebrate, especially in Wenceslas Square, the largest square in Prague and the centre of most protests.  Soviet agents stirred up the crowd, resulting in the ransacking of the Soviet Aeroflot (airline) office, nobody knows who was really behind this.  This led to another crackdown on the moderates left in the Communist establishment by the Soviet, who were expelled from the party.  The Czech Republic would remain under the fist of the USSR until 1989.

Wenceslas Square, with the statue of King Wenceslas in the centre. 

Wenceslas Square, from the other direction.  The domed building is the National Museum. 

An interesting museum to visit in Prague is the Museum of Communism.  It's located in the same building as a casino and is next door to McDonald's, so after learning about the evils of communism you can go enjoy the evils of capitalism  right next door!  The museum is set up to show you what normal life was like during the communist era, with workshops, schools, shops, and homes set up.  

I loved the sign next to the time cards.  "Timely arrival to work deals the decisive blow against the American aggressors!"  

Before WWII, Czechoslovakia was a democratic country.  After the conversion to communism in 1945, the government was highly suspect of the top athletes from the old regime, and held new "tryouts" for the national teams, effectively cutting out all the old athletes.  They suspected they would be poor role models for the youth as they would hold on to their old ideals.  I also found the "second currency" rather intriguing.  As in other communist countries, there were always shortages of products in stores, especially luxury items like bluejeans, laundry soap and bras.  The legal "second currency" could buy you these luxury items at a special store, and could be obtained by exchanging foreign currency.  It was nominally supposed to be worth the same as the normal currency but would be sold on the black market for about 10x more.  So, for example, a prostitute would be paid in American dollars by a visiting businessman and could use that to buy makeup or jeans or some other luxury. 

Some of the posters they had a museum had some pretty amusing catchphrases:

"You couldn't buy laundry soap, but you could get your brain washed!"
"They would have burned their bras in the '60s like their western sisters except they couldn't buy them in the store!"

I also enjoyed the posters they had around the city advertising for the museum:

This statue has replaced the giant statue of Stalin that used to stand here.  It's a metronome: every stroke forward represents the progress since the fall of communism and every stroke backwards represents the losses sustained during the 50 years of oppression.

The Charles Bridge (Karluv Most) over the Vltava river is one of the most iconic bridges in the world, and my favorite bridge. Built for Charles IV by Peter Parler in 1357, during Bohemia's golden age, it was the only bridge crossing the Vltava until 1741, nearly 400 years later. It is very long, wide, and has Gothic gate towers at either end.  Dozens of evocative statues of saints that have been added over the centuries, line the edges.  At any time of day this is a lovely place for a stroll, and in the evening it's beautifully lit by lanterns along the sides.  The bridge connects the Old Town to Malá Strana (Little Quarter) and Prague Castle.

The Charles Bridge. 

The Charles Bridge in the foreground, with Prague Castle behind (everything on the hill).  Prague Castle is the biggest castle in the world (570 metres in length and an average of about 130 metres wide), hence it merits its own blog article.


 The Charles Bridge.

 Charles Bridge.  You can see Prague Castle on the left in the distance.

 Prague Castle (all of the buildings on the hill), seen from the Charles Bridge.

Statue on Charles Bridge.

Unusual statue:  note the handcuffs up top and the prisoners struggling to escape the prison.

 Boat on the Vltava, flying the Czech flag.

 View from Charles Bridge.


An interesting building worth visiting near Prague Castle is the Strahov Monastery, which has arguably one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. Founded in 1140 by the Premonstratensian order, it once rivaled Prague Castle in size.  It managed to avoid being dissolved in 1783 by declaring itself an educational institution, by virtue of its two remarkable libraries. The monks were finally driven out by the Communists in the 50s, but after the 1989 Velvet Revolution the monks have since returned.  We even saw some while we were there! My favorite of the two baroque libraries is the Philosophical Hall, which has a fresco on the ceiling depicting mankind's quest for truth. The other is the Theological Hall, which has some impressive 17th century astronomical globes.

The Strahov Monastery.  In the foreground is a small vineyard.

The monastery is on a hill, and has a fantastic view of the city below. 

Strahov Monastery.

The Philosophical Hall.

The Theological Hall.

The hallway between the two libraries - impressive in it's own right. 


Near the river, we stumbled across a wall that had been covered in beautiful graffiti.  The top layer looked quite recent. 

 I think this would be considered the "art" type of graffiti.  It's very inspiring in person, and we had lots of fun appreciating the individual tags and trying to figure them out. 

After a long day exploring the city in the cold, we had a warm meal of pork, the staple meat of the central European diet.  Very filling!

I found Prague a very clean, livable city with a reasonable standard of living.  In fact, our guide had visited Prague and on the plane back to the US she and her husband both decided it would be a cool place to live, so they moved to Prague for a few years.  Most things cost about the same as they do in Canada, which means less than in most places in Europe.  One Canadian dollar is worth about 20 Czech korunas (crowns).  However, if the Czech Republic joins the eurozone like Slovakia, prices will probably go up significantly.   

The rest of the photographs are random photos taken around the city. Many are centuries-old palaces, some of which have been turned into embassies. There's such a huge range of architectural styles, spanning a thousand years.  I could spend days walking around this city just admiring the buildings.  As a side note for those interested in visiting Prague, one place I would have like to have visited near Prague if we had time is Kutna Hora.  It has a spectacular cathedral, and is also known for the "Bone Church" which is lined completely with, well, human bones.

In Wenceslas Square.

The Estates Theatre. This is where the premiere of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni was performed. Prague was his favorite city.

Canal in Malá Strana.

In many parts of Europe couples engrave a lock with their initials and lock it to a bridge on their wedding day, tossing the key into the water.  I've seen this in places as far apart as Paris, Helsinki and Prague.

The National Theatre. The gilded fence up top was glowing in the setting sun.