Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Winter School 2011

Whew. Last week was our Winter School/Reunion, and most of my classmates who spent their first semester in Uppsala came to visit. Everyone gave a 30 minute lecture on an evolutionary topic of choice, and we spent the rest of the time just hanging out. It was completely exhausting! They have been on vacation since Dec 22 and so were bored and ready to do tons of stuff, whereas we've been in class and have all sort of hit a wall with classes, and in particular the class we're taking right now, so we were all tired... But we had a good time, kept up with those spring chickens, and are all now sick again :) Class bug round 3.This time people are losing voices. Squeaky!

Anyway. I gave a lecture on how diseases and their distributions may change with climate change. Really interesting stuff, and I may (fingers crossed!) have an awesome research project on a related research project in Montpellier!

A French classmate stayed with me for the week. She had a lot of trouble understanding my English, and told me I spoke very quickly (which I know and was trying not to do). We eventually started speaking French, and at one point in the conversation she looked at me and said "Oh, I get it. You just always talk fast, no matter what language." Hehe oops. But she also said my French was very good, giving me hope for myself in France! I really want to become fluent.

I also went ice skating again! It's been years, but it came back quickly, and I didn't fall once! Whoa. I was skating nice and fast, but you know, not really feeling up to pirouettes. My triple axle was lovely though.

We also finally climbed the church tower, and in a rare sunny moment to boot! I had been meaning to do so since August, and am glad we got a chance before leaving town. Now I need to check out the recently-reopened modern art museum, which is quite random for a town in a conservative area to have, but I hear it's very good!

I have to move out of my dorm this weekend, and will be crashing at a friend's place until I leave next Friday (to spend a night in Amsterdam and then catch a Saturday morning train to France). French visa? Check. Ticket to France? Check. Mentally in France? Check. Actually in France? Umm. Packed for France? .........

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Brussels again and the Eye of Doom

I was just thinking that it has been a quiet week here, but it really hasn't!

Tuesday I had to go to Brussels to apply for my French student visa. Yeah, the Netherlands decided last year that they didn't feel like processing the applications anymore and handed us off to an embassy in the next country over... And I know everyone thinks that everything in Europe is close together, but I live in the very northern part of the Netherlands, and I'm far from EVERYTHING. It takes me 2.5 hours and at least two trains to get to Amsterdam. So going to Brussels is a 5.5 hour one-way adventure. And, since our appointment was on a  Tuesday at 11am, I got to leave at 5:46 in the morning! Yikes. But I like riding trains, and had a lot to read, so it was fine. I reached the embassy, waited just a few minutes, handed in my documents, and was told I'd be emailed when the visa was ready (11 hours in a train for 20 minutes in the embassy). Given that I head to France in 3 weeks, I was hoping it was soon! It took us forever to get the appointment in the first place, which is why we had to cut it so close. You can only call the embassy for visa questions from 2:30-3:30, weekdays except Wednesday. We did that for nearly a month, with constant busy signals. So, folks, when doing anything with an embassy, I recommend immediately bombarding them through every communication channel you have, making frequent use of the word URGENT. Yes, in all caps. The way we finally got through was an URGENT email.

After my time in the embassy, I met a friend who lives near Brussels for lunch. In Belgium, there are only sales in the stores twice a year (January and July to get rid of winter and summer clothes, respectively), so when they say sale, it means nearly everything is at least 50% off! It would have been great if I didn't have to move soon and am already worried about carrying everything I have... Too bad. I did get some fun stuff from Yves Rocher though. Yes, I am a girl. After my friend had to go back to work, I wandered around Brussels for a few hours. I have to say, it's not really a city I'd recommend making any special effort to visit. It's got only a few tourist attractions, and I didn't find them particularly amazing. I'm sure there are fun museums, but just for wandering around, it's not a great spot.

Then Wednesday. Urg Wednesday. I sort of hit a breaking point on Wednesday. We're taking a class right now that is on a pretty specific topic (Modeling/theoretical biology if that means anything to you) which involves a lot of math and very specific formulas. I am good at math and don't have a problem with it. This area of biology, however, is pretty specialized and very few people will go into it, so it's strange to me that we're spending 7 weeks, 9-5 every day on it. You know quickly whether you like it or not/whether you think about biology that way. And I think most of us do not. And we've had enough.

There are also several aspects of my program I'm not happy with still (like the fact that the people here in Groningen, who are still in class full time, have to give a 30 minute presentation at our winter school next week, whereas the people who are coming in from Uppsala, who have been done with their classes for a month, can chose whether to do so or not, or even whether to attend). And other things not worth going into. It's not well set up or "fair"- I know, nothing's fair, but this is silly. The people in Uppsala get a huge break from classes regardless of where they're going for the next semester. And people going to Munich can chose to start in March, April or May. I, going from Groningen to Montpellier, get exactly one week to move and then immediately start classes. Break? No? Ok, that's fine, I' sure I didn't want one anyway. And I know Master's programs aren't supposed to be full of breaks, but I'm annoyed that some of my classmates are getting four months off (still on scholarship of course).

Also on Wednesday, long story short, my right eye decided to mysteriously become badly scratched. I was already upset and then spent the evening/night in miserable pain. Lovely. I ended up having to go to the hospital Thursday morning (since that's apparently what you have to do when you have an eye problem and don't have an appointment with a normal doctor). So very strange, this Dutch health care system. The hospital was fine though actually. I just have to wear my glasses for a month and put in drops. I haven't left the house in glasses since I was probably 10, so it's been interesting. Anyway, the eye seems to be getting a lot better, but if you have any control over such things, I'd really recommend not scratching your eye. Or going to the doctor i the Netherlands. My German professor told me that he and his German friends still all go to German doctors!

Happily though, on Thursday we found out our visas were approved and that another classmate was already going to Brussels and so could pick them up for us (oh yeah, you have to go back to Brussels to pick up your visa once it's ready).

There is a huge music festival in town right now. We were very excited about it until we realized that tickets had gone on sale 2 months ago and sold out in 15 minutes... There have been some free shows at a record store, a coffee place, and in the main market square, so I've seen a few things. It's also, however, been absolutely pouring, and by the evening, when these shows are, I tend to have a tired eye and a glasses headache.

Hehe, I'm a mess, guys! And now I'm spending all weekend working on a presentation. Blerg. I like the topic, but am struggling with focus and motivation. Soon (Tuesday) it'll be over! Next week is our winter school, so it will be fun to hang out with some of the other students from Uppsala we haven't seen much. And most of the week is student lectures, with some free time so we can hang out, which will be a nice change from modeling the change in X strategy over time in a environment where Y strategy is common...

3 weeks from today I move to France!!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

School (was) out for Christmas! And Russian Orthodox Christmas.

After my trip to Sweden, it was only a short while until we were free for the holidays! As I've mentioned, the Dutch don't take a lot of time off (students here get 5 weeks off a year versus the 5 months Germans get). That plus the fact that Christmas isn't a big deal here made it tough for us to convince our teachers that we really wanted a decent break. They wanted to have class on December 23rd, which would have left many of us worldwide internationals getting home on Christmas day! We finally prevailed and class ended on the 22nd (small victory, yes). So I grabbed a plane ticket and headed off!

Being home was awesome. The Netherlands and I are not a good match in several respects, so I was really  ready to get away for a while, and seeing my family and friends was amazing. I missed everyone so much! But being home was perfect. I arrived late the 23rd and so was around for last minute shopping on the 24th, Christmas day, and plenty of (slightly after) Christmas baking and candymaking. I also got to watch bowl games, eat at my favorite restaurants, and spend time with the boyfriend that I am now back to dating. I even got to play in the snow! I've gotten plenty of snow in the Netherlands so was in no desperate need, but it was cool to be home for the first snow on Christmas in 130 years. I also got to drive a car again, call people whenever I wanted without worrying about the time zone, and get all the things I've discovered Europe doesn't have. It really was a great break. No rest at all, with running between everyone I wanted to see and spend time with, but I wouldn't have done it any differently given a chance! But if someone wants to give me a chance, I'll take another 10 days at home... It went so quickly, I can hardly believe I'm already back in the Netherlands.

Only for a month though! February 5th I move to south France! I am so very excited about that. I think France, French language (which I know) and culture, and a Mediterranean climate will suit me much better.

And I think I will find myself leaving before I know it! This month is going to go quickly. We have a winter school in a few weeks, where most of the students from my program who spent their first semester in Sweden are coming to visit us for a week of a bit of school and a lot of hanging out. Then there will be packing, enjoying a last meal in my favorite places here, and off I go!

We've already had a nice big group dinner since we got back. Russian orthodox Christmas is January 7th, so my two RO classmates had a Christmas Eve dinner on Thursday where we ate typical Ukrainian and Serbian food, which was delicious. For dessert, everyone brought something sweet from home. That meant a lot of candy and several liqueurs. We were all unbelievably full and sugared-up by the time we left early the next morning :)

I also tried a Balkan restaurant Friday (RO Christmas) night, with two Serbians and a Macedonian as my guides. It was amazing. We got two excellent types of salad, a Serbian chardonnay, an enormous plate of several types of meat, fried potatoes, and something the name of which I do not remember but was minced meat and rice wrapped in a sour cabbage leaf (apparently the winter version of stuffed grape leaves). It was a really excellent meal! And even with five hungry people, we have several meals worth of leftover meat. Mmm. I think we'll be heading there again before leaving town!

Even the weather is being a bit more friendly--it was 50 degrees here today, vaguely sunny, and only rained part of the day! I think I am warm climate ruined and may forever be destined to live at low latitudes... I have certainly learned that I need a higher proportion of sunny days than the Netherlands can provide! We'll see. I am learning more and more about what I like and don't like. I hope to have a good idea by the time I'm done with this program!