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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Brussels and Belgium

After our stay in Holland, we headed over to Belgium. We had arranged our tickets ahead of time for the train through to Brussels from Amsterdam, which had turned out to be a little more complicated than we had anticipated. The problem lay in the fact that the Canadians had been intelligent about their travelling expenses and had organised themselves passes for the whole of Europe. In contrast, the South Africans had arrived with no clue what to do and a strong hope that Europe worked in much the same way home did. Thus, we had to organise separate tickets for the two nationalities.

In a way, it was easier for the Africans because we just had to buy our tickets straight out, whereas the Canadians had to make bookings for the one train, but not pay while paying for the second train. The whole process was smoothed over by the very cheery and, for lack of a better term that doesn't conjure as many images of fat old men with white beards in red suites, jolly ticket lady.

The actual morning of our departure was exciting to say the least. We arrived at the main station to discover that the train we were supposed to take through to Brussels was no longer running and thus, we were to take an new train through to a small town to catch our connecting train.

Lacking any alternative option, we decided to catch the train to the hamlet-in-the-middle-of-nowhere. We were a bit early for that train and so decided to each go and get ourselves some breakfast before the train left. We took it in turns to find food and return to the platform to guard our luggage while the next expedition went for their food. As it turned out, our expeditions took longer than expected and we almost didn't catch the train in time!

The ride out of Amsterdam was uneventful. We arrived at our destination station and disembarked from our train. We waited for a good half hour on the station platform for our train to arrive. It was a surprisingly miserable day and rather chilly, so the wait felt very long! Eventually, one of our number decided that the cold was too much and retreated to the toasty saftey of the station building itself. She returned shortly thereafter to announce that our connection train had been cancelled as well!

At this point we decided to retire to the building as well and wait for the next one to come through. We did so and settled down in one of the restaurants to just take a break. After a while, we went to catch our train which, miraculously, wasn't cancelled. We were on our way to Brussels!

In Brussels we stayed at a small but fantastic Bed and Breakfast called the Lught en Light Bed and Breakfast. It's a family operated place which is really charming! After checking in and dumping our luggage, all except one headed out together into Brussels.

Our first port of call was the European Union centre. We saw several of the EU buildings, including the EU parliment, none of which were particularly interesting. We then went in search of the Natural history museum of Brussels, famous for some of the fossils which they have on display. As it turned out, we'd arrived on a Monday, the only day that the museum is closed. So we opted to find other tourist traps instead and return to the museum the next day instead.

It was still relatively early in the day at this stage, and so we had a lot of the day left to do our exploring. We decided to use our more financially-friendly feet than the metro to get around. As one can imagine, this means you get hungry eventually. This was our problem.

We had managed to induce that feeling of being absolutely famished in the middle of a district in Brussels entirely devoid of anything edible!

So we decided to try and navigate our way out of this doldrum and find food...

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Europe: Amsterdam and Holland

So, given that it is a beautiful, sunny, typical South African Sunday afternoon and I am recovering from eating WAY too much of my grandmothers awesome cooking, I've decided to take the time to write about my amazing trip to Europe! I apologise about how few photos I'll post with this, but the blogger photo thingy just drives me my patience only can cope with about 5 at the most...

The trip started on Thursday the 13th (not nearly as ominous as if it had been a Friday...) of August. I was on my way to Europe to attend the International Ethology Conference, in Rennes, France. We call what we do Ethology because that just sounds way more cool than just saying, 'We watch animals and try figure out what they are doing...'

For financial reasons (being a student does suck sometimes) I had booked myself onto an Egypt Air flight to Amsterdam, my first port of call. Saving the money on my flight with Egypt Air did however mean that I had to spend 5 hours in Cairo, wafting around the airport. It wasn't all that bad and, honestly, the only thing that really struck me about Cairo, was just how flat and desolate it was! I know what you're thinking...'Luke, don't be such a dumbass! It's in the middle of the desert! What were you expecting?! A tropical paradise?!'

Honestly, I don't know what it was that I'd expected to see when I got there. But somehow, it still came as a surprise when I looked out onto the runways and the airport grounds and saw nothing.

I then flew through to Amsterdam from Cairo. Cairo was like the alps in comparison to Amsterdam! I've never been somewhere so flat in all my life! It's just bizarre! Johannesburg is quite a hilly city. We are built on a range of hills which run east-west through the city, so a little gradient isn't anything strange for us. However, a lack of gradient is...

I arrived in Amsterdam feeling that terrified excitement that can only be understood when one is arriving in a country you've never been to. I'd been very smart about my travelling and had printed out a map of where my hotel was and had gotten a bus number off the hotel web-page so that I would have no trouble getting from the airport to my hotel. Once out of the airport, I found my bus-stop almost immediately, and waited all of a minute for my bus to pull up. I got onto the bus and after having a brief but pleasant chat with the driver, in English, moved to the back of the bus to take a seat.

A word of caution to would-be travelers: if you are attending a conference, don't take your poster with you unless you have one of those nifty architect-drawing-carrier-tube-over-the-shoulder thingys. Otherwise it just gets VERY irritating and cumbersome! But, sitting in the back of the bus, trying not to let my poster tube wallop people as they walked past, I could feel myself beginning to relax. It was a pleasant feeling to think, 'For the next few weeks, you don't have any responsibilities, other than staying awake in talks during the conference'.

After about 45min of riding the bus, we were well into Amsterdam and I began to wonder where my stop was. I got a little more worried when I noticed that the next two stops were the last on the line and neither were my street. So I scuttled to the front of the bus and asked the driver, who in very friendly tones and grinning from ear to ear assured me that I was very much on the right bus and that the next was my stop. I figured, who would know better than the guy who drives the bus every day? As it turned out, I'd probably have been better off getting directions from a pot-plant...

I dismounted the bus and thanked the driver, gleefully ignorant to the true nature of my predicament. He had suggested that I walk a few streets down in order to find my hotel, which I dutifully did. As I walked through the very busy area in which I was again, trying not to injure the local populous with my poster tube, I began to suspect that I wasn't where I needed to be.

Eventually, in a display of behaviour most un-befitting my sex, I asked for directions. In truth, I was a little terrified to ask the locals for directions and so sought out the first hotel with a Union Jack hanging outside it. I managed to find one with ease and, trying not to sound too nervous, asked the woman behind the front desk how I got to my hotel. She was very accommodating and kindly pointed out that my hotel was in fact, on the opposite side of the city.

After she suggested a bus to take, I returned to the bus stop to wait and pray that I was heading in the right direction. Another note to would-be travellers: If you are taking a backpack, ensure that it doesn't protrude too far off your back. Standing on a narrow island in the middle of a busy road waiting for a bus, you'd be amazed how many cars have near-misses with the pack on your back. Obviously the poster-tube hellbent on drawing blood by nightfall didn't help much either...

As it turned out, I was catching the correct bus (Thank you SO much reception-girl from Amsterdam!!) and eventually walked into the reception area of my hotel, grinning the triumphant grin of the moron who took the wrong bus, but everything is okay now. After checking in and learning the room number of the friends I was meeting up with there, I headed off to my room to ditch my stuff. The room, which was not bad at all, was a welcome sight and after unloading my baggage, I went in search of my associates.

I got to their room and knocked on the door. There was no response. So I knocked again. Nothing. Just as I was about to give up I heard the clacking of the door being unlatched from inside. As the door was cracked open, I gazed into an entirely unfamiliar face. After exchanging greetings, I apologised for disturbing her, obviously at the wrong room, and left. A little confused, I returned to reception to check on the room number. The receptionist assured me that I had been at the correct door and suggested that I try again.

I returned to the door and knocked again. This time, the response was almost immediate and again, an unfamiliar face appeared on the other side of the portal. This time I thought to ask if my friends were there. As it turned out, they were and the 'unfamiliar face' was in fact one of the people we were going to be travelling around with for the next two weeks.

A little rosy faced and sheepish, I entered the room to see how the others had fared on their arrivals. As it turned out, not one of us had managed to get to the hotel without getting terribly lost! That might have had something to do with the fact that the map and instructions I had used, I had passed on to all the others to aid their navigation, but I prefer to think that it was just rotten luck...

Amsterdam was amazing though! I don't think I've enjoyed a city quite as much as I did Amsterdam! No...wait...I'm lying. London was awesome, but Amsterdam came very close! We did so much! We went to the Anne Frank house (an amazing, but humbling experience), the 'Our Lord in the Attic' church, the red-light district, several amazing parks, the Van Gogh museum and a Holland-in-a-Day tour with the craziest woman I've ever met as our tour guide (Seriously, she was either severely unstable, or very high and given that it was Amsterdam, it could have gone either way...).

More on the rest of my adventures later! For now, gaze in wonder at the amazing photos...
A house opposite one of the very large parks of Amsterdam. Who wouldn't like to live there...?
A water feature near the Van Gogh museum. The panels in the middle are concertinaed metal sheets with pieces of different images on the side of each fold, meaning that the image changes, depending on which direction you look at it from! Clever! And, in the background, you can see the word 'Amsterdam'; it was another artwork.
I think this is a fantastic store! Whoever came up with the idea to market lies to children is a genius!
What would Holland be without clogs? Eh? I mean, look at the variety! They even had 'Hello Kitty' clogs!
Rotterdam (I think...)! The architecture was amazing! It's a little odd to think that you can go about the city by car...or boat...

Friday, September 18, 2009

10 things about me

I've been tagged by Helen for this one. It requires that I list 10 random things about myself and then pass on the task to three others. So, Athena, Tom and Hanna, you're next!

  1. I love chocolate, but hate chocolate-flavoured foods. Having said that, I'll never turn down a decently sized (read: enormous) slice of black forest cake.
  2. I write and produce my own music in my spare time. I might even post some on this here blog some time!
  3. I can speak three languages, which isn't all that much in my circle of friends, but I think it's quite nifty!
  4. I can't drink tequila. I just can't...bad experience.
  5. I taught medic students this year, and now I honestly fear for the fate of our species. How can you possibly be that thick?!
  6. I really want to visit the USA! I don't really know why, I just do. Arizona looks amazing and all the national forests look stunning! Also, if Universal Studios and Disneyland are anything like EuroDisney, I am SOLD!
  7. I did a personality test recently and found out that I am apparently abnormally expedient. I then had to go look up the word in a dictionary...
  8. I am considerably more reclusive than people think. I just force myself to be social to compensate.
  9. Despite having studied my butt off for the last 18 years, I plan to find myself a simple menial job once I get my PhD.
  10. I love dinosaurs! I've been fascinated by them ever since I was a little kid and for some reason, the obsession has persisted. Which reminds me...I need to bring my dinosaur to decorate my desk at varsity...

Thursday, September 17, 2009

It's ON!

So, having been challenged to the task by Eebee (sorta...) I too have decided to find out what significance my birthday has for the human race in general. Thus I am about to do a search for 15 February. Here goes...



Well, Eebee, it appears that disaster follows in my wake too.

  • 1898 - USS Maine exploded and sank in Havanna harbour, killing 260 people.
  • 1933 - Giuseppe Angara tried to kill Franklin D. Roosevelt, shot at him, missed and instead killed Chicago mayor, Anton J. Cermak.
  • 1942 - Singapore fell to the Japanese after the British surrendered, resulting in the capture of 80 000 prisoners of war and the start of the Sook Ching massacre.
  • 1961 - Sabena flight 548 crashed in Belguim, resulting in the deaths of the entire United States figure skating team, their coaches and families; 73 deaths in total.
  • 1970 - A Dominican DC9 plummetted from the heavens and crashed into the sea during take-off from Santo Domingo; 102 dead.
  • 1982 - An oceanic oil rig, Ocean Ranger, sank during a storm off Newfoundland, killing 84.

On the plus side though:

  • 1764 - St. Louis, Missouri was established! While this means little to me, I'm sure many of you St. Louis'ians are rather chuffed! ;)
  • 1879 - American President Rutherford B. Hayes signed a bill that permitted female attorneys to argue cases before the Supreme Court of the United States. Go women-folk!
  • 1971 - Decimalisation of British coinage was completed on Decimal Day. Yay for the Brits! They finally saw the light and converted to a LOGICAL decimal system! 10 points!
  • 2003 - The worlds biggest peace protest action against the Iraq war took place in over 600 cities worldwide involving an estimated 8 million to 30 million people taking part!
  • 2005 - Youtube was launched in the United States! Where would we be without it!! :D

Famous people...?

  • Ice-T!
  • Jane Seymour!
  • Matt Groening!
  • Birdman! (not too proud of that one...)
  • Toto (An italian who was really Italy...)
  • A whole stack of other folks who might be famous...somewhere...but I know nothing about.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

If only my brain would listen to itself!!!

I've recently taken up two new exercise programs. The first is weight training. It's not exactly a new program as I've been doing it with my friends over the last 6 months or so, but now, it's early in the morning. VERY early. Like, 05:45 early...

Herein lies a problem. As with this morning, I often wake up in time, or early (gasp!) and that little motivational speaker in my brain starts wispering, 'Go on, get up! You are expected to go and you know that you will enjoy it! Even if it hurts a little, the effects are great and you will have all the energy for the rest of the day!'

Unfortunately, that's about when the much larger couch-potato in my brain yells, 'Screw that! It's warm, you're sleepy, tired; just go back to sleep!'

Generally, the potato wins...

None the less, I still manage to get some training in on most days which I really do enjoy! I'm amazed at just how much I like it! I used to HATE training and did it more as a chance to see friends than to exercise, but now, I'm totally into it! It's odd. Especially when you think that I'm not a particularly physical person and spent most of my high school career trying to dodge sports events and the gym teacher who invariably was looking for one more to add to the swimming team (Thanks Mr. made high school such a blast...).

The other program I've taken up is running. Not of the Flash Gordon, blur around the block, kind. More of the, jog-around-the-park-and-hope-your-lungs-don't-decide-to-evacuate-your-body kind. I've been forced to take it up after my bicycle's front wheel has started generating punctures which I can't seem to identify the cause of.

I'm a big cycling fan! It's such fun! I once cycled from Johannesburg to George; a distance of about 1163+ km. We did it over 10 days and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life! But I can't do running. I loath running! It's horrible!!!

Or at least, it used to be...

Now, as with weight training, I'm really enjoying it! Which is very odd! I know though that if I stop, that'll be it! So I'm trying to keep at it every day! You should try it! It's great!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

I'm so screwed...

Over the last few months I have had to do a great deal of teaching. Specifically, I've been teaching the medic students on the topic of metabolism and digestion. The lecturing went as well as could be expected given the circumstances (having all your work on your laptop stolen a week prior to you starting your lecturing does tend to hamper your teaching somewhat...), and luckily for me, the section has been completed, freeing me from the responsibility of shaping young (albeit empty) minds.

The first of my problems I noticed on Tuesday, when the medics class wrote a test. I started marking the test and was horrified! They have absolutely NO CLUE what is going on in my section! My first instinct was to think, 'Oh no! I'm such a bad teacher!' but I then thought to myself, 'Wait, this is university! They are all adults! If they have a problem they can track me down for help or look it up in a text book! It's not like I'm completely unapproachable (as far as I know...maybe I smell faintly of eggs...?) and I'm on campus ALL THE TIME!!'

I also received confirmation, via Facebook, from one of my students that I had indeed taught them well and that, in his opinion, it is entirely their own fault if they are doing badly in the test. AMEN!!!

As an aside, it's a little weird being contacted, and friended, by one of your students on Facebook. Luckily for me, I'm not closer to 50 yrs old, which would have made the whole thing very awkward...

The other thing that is worrying me is that I have to now supervise the practical that is associated with my section of work. Normally this wouldn't phase me in the least, but the problem is that this practical requires of me that I explain how to do a chemistry procedure that I have not done in at least the last 7 years!! So, understandably, I'm a little freaked out...

I'm going to scan through the memo and hopefully find something that I can use to fool people into believing that I know what I'm talking about...when I don't. Otherwise, there's always google...

Thursday, September 3, 2009


Hi faithful followers of me!

I have returned! And I come bearing presents! For most people anyway...unfortunately, a student budget does limit one's present-buying abilities.

So, I've been away from my blog for AGES now and here comes the barrage of excuses:

  1. My life was completely thrown upside down by the robbery incident that happened about two months ago and I am still running to catch up with that. I also have yet to have my emotional breakdown that accompanies most peoples assault/robbery experiences in South Africa, which is a little worrying. I hope it doesn't happen somewhere public...that would be embarrassing...
  2. I've had to prepare a poster for the conference in France. This was made extra-difficult because of the above as I had to try and scramble together all the little shreds I could of a project I'd once had.
  3. I experienced a serious social upheaval just prior to my leaving for the conference. This, upsetting in its own right, seriously threw me off when it came to getting things ready for the conference as well. I'm one of those unfortunate people who battle to concentrate on work when their personal life is falling apart.
  4. I had to attend said conference in France. That's where I've been for the last three weeks. But more on that later...

But, I'm back! And VERY glad to be home! As much fun as scuttling around Europe for three weeks is, the attitude of the Parisians totally ruined it for me, so I ended up being more than happy to leave and come home.

P.S. A certain individual in our department is REALLY ticking me off. He coordinates the exams for the medics and just prior to my leaving for the conference, amid all the stress of preparing for that, he started insisting that I send him all my quesitons for the medic exams at the end of the year. I, somehow, managed to throw a few together and email them to him; not all of the required work, but part of it. So today, having been away for three weeks, I ran into him and immediately appologised for the lack of work-handing-in-ness. He then, very nonchalantly, tells me that he's not worried as he's had other things to do and couldn't be bothered to look at 'that stuff of yours' yet...if murder were not criminal and morally questionable, he would not live to see another day...