Friday, June 25, 2004

I just returned yesterday afternoon from the conference in Copenhagen. I slept some ten hours last night, but even with that, I'm sufficiently out of it that I'm about useless for any technical work. So this seems like a good time to write about the trip.

The route from SFO to Copenhagen consisted of a long flight over the pole from SFO to Paris, a mad dash across Charles de Gaulle airport, and a shorter flight from Paris to Copenhagen. We made it across the airport in time, but our luggage did not. Other American travelers we ran into had the same problem; I guess the heightened security at de Gaulle caused some issues. Air France gave us a kit of toiletries and a t-shirt (with the Air France logo on the sleeve). After we checked in at the hotel, we wandered around central Copenhagen looking for places that sell socks. There were many of them, but none were open. The closest we got was a 7-11, which was open but which (oddly enough) didn't sell socks.

I saw a lot of 7-11 stores in Copenhagen, actually. They were more tightly concentrated than I'd ever have imagined -- coming out of the Copenhagen central train station, for instances, there are two 7-11s visible, spaced a short city block apart. There are at least two others in an additional two block radius. One of the ones next to the train station saved me on the trip back: I needed 25 kroners to pay the station fare, but only had a 20 kroner coin. It was around 4:30 am, but one of the 7-11 stores was open. So I'm willing to forgive them for not having socks.

A lot of things about the city reminded me of New England -- of Boston, perhaps. The plant life was similar in color and shape, and there were a lot of brick buildings in a reasonably familiar architectural style. Of course, the Danish train system (the DSB) is much nicer than the T, and Copenhagen is much more bike-oriented than any place here. Many of the roads have three height levels: there is the road for motor vehicles, a step, the road for bicycles, another step, and the sidewalk. There is a system of bikes for free use around the city center, and other bikes are parked everywhere. Of course, the bikes are often not locked to anything; I suppose cycle theft is less of a problem there.

All the Danes I encountered spoke fluent English. One of the conference speakers, a Scot, joked that he spoke with a heavier accent than any of the Danes he'd met -- and he was right. At least half the television stations played English-language programming: mostly American programs, though some were from the BBC. I only had language trouble in Denmark at the train ticket vending machine the one time I tried to use it, though when I was alone I was sometimes addressed in Danish initially (it never happened when I was walking with Rajesh, the other Berkeley grad student at the conference). The Danish greeting hej sounds the same as the English hi, so in at least one exchange (where I was buying a magazine), I don't think the gentleman behind the counter didn't realize I spoke no Danish until I said thank you at the end. At dinner one evening, one of the gentleman with whom I was eating, a professor from the Netherlands, pointed out that there are only a few million speakers of Danish, and that the total combined population of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark is somewhat less than the population of New York. So a lot of the entertainment media is never translated from English (and American English, at that).

The Eurocup 2004 competition was everywhere. The Denmark-Sweden match took place on the night of the conference dinner, and as we walked from the train station to our hotel before the dinner, we passed many people in red Danish soccer shirts heading the other way. There was also one brave soul dressed in Sweden's blue and yellow, with Swedish flags painted on each cheek. They were all going to see the game projected on the side of one of the buildings in central Copenhagen. Those of us in the dinner were kept posted, too -- people had their cell phones set to receive bulletins every time there was a goal, and they kept running to the microphone on the stage to let us know about it (the final score was 2-2). We also heard the scores from the Italy-vs-Bulgaria game from representatives of those countries. And in the insomniac hours when we watched a little television, the commercials constantly referred to soccer. There was also a really catchy music video for the Danish team, which I wish I could find now.

Night lasted from around 10:30 at night to around 3:30 in the morning, and between the daylight and the jet lag, I didn't sleep much. I was also hungry a lot. Danish bread and cheese are outstanding, and I ate a lot of bread, cheese, and meat (and sometimes fish). I didn't live exclusively on a diet of bread, meat, and cheese, but in retrospect it seems pretty close. Otherwise, I had French food a couple times (and was impressed), a pizza-and-salad buffet once (much like Pizza Hut), and a Turkish buffet once (which was warm, filling, and otherwise mediocre). But I probably ate fewer fruits and vegetables during my entire stay than I sometimes eat in a single day here. When I came back, the first thing I did after showering and getting my hair cut was to walk to the Berkeley farmer's market and buy fresh produce: heirloom tomatoes, a cucumber, string beans, and a lettuce mix. Winnie visited yesterday evening, and while she was here, she poked at my ribs and said You lost weight! Maybe Atkins does work. I thought she was exaggerating, but while walking around Berkeley today, I noticed that my pants were a little on the loose side, and my shirt kept coming untucked. So perhaps she was right.

The cheese-slicer at the hotel's morning buffet was a marvelous thing. The cheese sat on a horizontal platform, alongside a bar that served as a stop. Through the center of the platform was a threaded post, and from the top of the post there extended a long crank handle, with a slicing wire stretched below it. Turning the handle pushed the wire through the block of cheese, and simultaneously turned the threaded post so that the platform -- and thus the cheese -- moved up a notch. So the slices came out at just the right thickness. And there were several different varieties of bread to go with the cheese, from a soft, nutty multi-grain bread to a dense pumpernickel loaf. It was good.

The conference itself was quite interesting. I'm glad I spoke on the first day, when everyone was fresh. The technical sessions started early (~9) and ended late (~7), so even the most enthusiastic were starting to flag by the end. There were a few outstanding presentations, a few terrible presentations, and a lot of interesting presentations somewhere between. The very worst presenters spoke in a mumbling monotone and used foils with print that would try those with the best of eyesight. I've decided that I'm not one of those with the best of eyesight, even with my glasses taken into account. I believe I ought to get my prescription updated. Rajesh and I skipped out on the morning sessions during the last day, in order to see Copenhagen, but otherwise I did go to the presentations, even if I ended up scribbling observations about my own favorite equations during some of the not-so-good presentations.

The conference dinner on Tuesday took place at Det Ny Teater, which I imagine means something like the new theatre. The meal was very good, with an appetizer, main course, dessert, and coffee with cookies, all spread out over five hours. There were also five wine courses: champagne with strawberries while we milled around in the foyer, a white wine with the appetizer, a red wine with the main meal, a dessert wine, and cognac after the coffee. I tried a sip of the white wine, but that was about as far as I got -- I'm told all the wines were quite good (and that Danish beer is justifiably famous as well), but I still can't seem to make it past the scent. Ah, well. The food was good, and so was the coffee. Also, there were performances of some violin pieces and songs from some German operettas, and I enjoyed both -- somewhat to my surprise, since I usually don't care for opera music.

I've lost much of the rest of the chronology of the trip already. I have mental snapshots of the Buddha Bar, which shared a wall with a church; of American Indians performing in one of the main square; of looking across another square to see a street flanked by a 7-11 on one side and a Chinese restaurant on the other, with old brick buildings rising above each and a spire rising in the background; of getting lost on a walk from the DTU campus back to the Lyngby train station; and of many interesting conversations. But those snapshots are already all out of order.

The trip back felt much like the trip there. I left the hotel early, so that even after back-tracking to a 7-11 so I could get change for the train -- thank heaven for 7-11 -- I was at the airport in plenty of time. I again rushed through Charles de Gaulle, this time accompanied by a Danish tourist also going to San Francisco, who asked if he could tag along since he was unfamiliar with the airport. We made it across the airport quickly enough, but spent a long time in the line for security. Everyone else was in the same boat, though, so the flight departed late. There was additional confusion from several families who had arranged to sit together, but were accidentally reseated apart. The flight attendants did what they could -- I exchanged my seat for another aisle seat so that a mother and child could sit together -- but I still think a few of the passengers came away very unhappy with Air France. Still the winds were favorable, and so we arrived in SFO nearly on time. My baggage made it back with me this time, and the rest of the trip was mostly uneventful.

Somewhat to my surprise, I wasn't ever initially addressed in English while I was in Charles de Gaulle, or while I was between Paris and the States. I surely felt like a confused American, and I'm told that the gait, garb, and mannerisms make Americans easy to identify. But the Air France check-in attendant, the stewardesses, the security attendants, the guy I sat next to, and one pour soul who seemed to be lost in the airport, all addressed me in French (at least at first), and gave me French-language forms to fill out. I was also addressed twice in German, once in passing through the airport, and once by the woman sitting next to me on the plane (naturally enough, since she spoke but little English, and knew even less French than I). I helped her fill out the customs form -- they'd given me the French version and her the English version, much to our respective confusion -- and the visa exemption form, which was written in French, but was simple enough for me to interpret. Her English was only slightly better than my German, but we were able to communicate well enough by a combination of the two languages, and she was grateful for the help.

And now I'm sitting in familiar surroundings, sipping tea and looking at a pair of plants. I think I probably ought to water them now, poor things.

  • Currently drinking: Jasmine downy pearl green tea