Thursday, May 27, 2010


I have done enough in the last week and a half to write about ten blog entries, but that's not going to happen, so I'll try to squish things into just this one measly (but VERY LONG) entry. First, here's a summary of my "state of being" right now:

I am ELATED because I successfully submitted my Russian visa application this morning and will be issued a visa on June 7th and can fly to Moscow on June 8th. There was only one minor glitch - the consulate official made me fill out an additional application in German (exactly the same as my application in English, but with German questions, hmmm...) and submit both applications. I was happy to do it. In fact, I was so desperate to get the visa that I probably would have licked his shoes if he had asked me to.

I am EXHAUSTED from all the traveling. I was in 4 different new places over the course of ~8 days and am wiped out from all the movement. I was beginning to feel like I'm too old for this kind of travel (yuck, I hate pulling the age card), but I think the real reason for the excessive exhaustion is that the travel was mostly "work"-related and not my usual touristing.

I am SICK, which is no surprise because of all the travel and sleep deprivation (and perhaps some alcohol-drinking :). What pushed me over the edge was that on my first day back in Leipzig (Tuesday) I couldn't resist an invitation to pub quiz night at McCormack's, which got me drunk and kept me out late. But I won a Guinness t-shirt, so it was definitely worth it. For the next three days you will find me in bed in said t-shirt.

But most of all, I am OVERWHELMED by all of the things I've done and seen in the last week and a half, the new places I've been, but mostly by the new people I've met and the new information they've given me, especially regarding future research/career directions. I'll be processing this information for some time to come.

Now for pictures from my travels. Each place really deserves its own blog write-up, but I can only muster up mini-blurbs for now.

First, Italia. You can find Bologna in the center of Italy, in the northern part of the country.

Bologna is a bustling Italian city with lots to see, but I spent most of my time in a monastery on a mountaintop perched above Bologna. This is because the course on culture and genomics was held in a building that is part of a former monastery.

Here's a view from atop the mountain:

And a fresco in the monastery church:

And here's proof that I was in the center of Bologna for a bit. The main piazza during the day...

and at night:

While I got to indulge in scrumptious pasta, gelato, and wine, it was mostly a "work" trip. Lots of networking and thinking about solving interdisciplinary problems in genetics and linguistics.

From Bologna I flew to the Netherlands to visit the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen. Besides meeting cool people with whom I conjured up new research ideas, I don't have much to report and even less to show (that is, no pictures -- sorry). But I can at least show you where Nijmegen is on a map (it's in the east, close to the German border).

On Friday afternoon I took a train from Nijmegen to Amsterdam. Amsterdam is full of bikes, tourists, and canals. I was only there for about 12 hours, but I tried to make the most of it by renting a bike at the train station and biking around the city, stopping briefly near the Red Light District for this photo:

There was no time for scandalous activities during my 12 hours in Amsterdam. Not that I'd blog about it, if there were :)

Finally, I ended up in Mainz and the surrounding areas of Rhineland for the weekend (via train from Amsterdam to Mainz Saturday morning). You can find Mainz on the map near the little airplane by Frankfurt, in the southwestern corner of the country.

In Mainz, I visited my friend Verena, who I met traveling in 2008. Verena, her fiancé and her parents were absolutely amazing hosts. They took me to local wineries in Rhineland (Germany's wine country), on a tour of Mainz (which is one of the oldest cities in Germany, settled initially by the Romans!), and on a hike + boat ride in the Rhine gorge area.

In Mainz:

At the Gröhl winery:

Excursion around the Rhine Gorge near Rüdesheim:

OK, am I allowed to rest for a few days now?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

en route to Bologna

Right now I’m sitting on the floor by the doors of train on my way to the Frankfurt airport. I failed to make a seat reservation on the train (a gamble which hasn’t left me seat-less until today). Anyway, it’s not so bad because it’s one of the fancy intercity express trains (=clean).

Yesterday I had to deal with credit card fraud – unpleasant no matter what, but particularly unpleasant from abroad. The funny part is that the illicit activity was for charges at the iTunes store in the amounts of $39, $1, and $1. Now, if you were commiting credit card fraud, wouldn’t you try for something bigger? At least a couple hundred dollars in iTunes purchases?

Anyway, I’m headed to Italy for the first time since 2001. Hard to believe it’s been that long. I’m going somewhere I’ve never been before – Bologna. Sadly my summer of Italian lessons back in 2001 didn’t stick and I couldn’t even remember how to say, “Do you speak English?” until I looked it up on Wikitravel (Parla inglese?). I’m going there for a short course in Genomic and Cultural Evolution of Humans. Then I’ll go to the Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen (Netherlands) Wednesday evening to give a presentation on Thursday, then I’ll be in Amsterdam Friday, then Mainz (Germany) Saturday through Monday, and finally back to Leipzig Monday evening. No need to get back on Sunday: Monday is one of the many German holidays in May… Whitsun-something-or-other.

I’ll try to blog and upload some pics of new places this week, but it depends on my access to the Internets.

For now, here’s a picture of something else that’s returning to Italy after a long hiatus: my trusty backpack. Some of you might remember it from trips we’ve taken abroad together. It’s hard to believe I still use it after all these years.

p.s. Just after writing this the train got really really full with lots of people like me who didn't have seat reservations and so I got to sit curled up in a ball on the floor for 3 hours on the way to the airport... but I survived! ;)

p.p.s. What I'm actually doing right now is sitting in a cafe in the Frankfurt airport. My flight to Bologna was canceled, so I have some extra time. Don't freak out, they re-routed me on another flight that leaves 45 minutes later than the canceled flight. Now I'm connecting in Rome Fiumicino. I might just get nostalgic...

p.p.p.s. The flight was not canceled because of Iceland's volcano. There was some sort of plane malfunction.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Please remind me: why do I want to go to Russia?

For a Kafka-esque experience in the 21st century, just visit a Russian consulate. (If you're a little rusty on Kafka references, basically Kafka's work described situations that are the epitome of endless mazes of pointless and futile bureaucracy; in other words: a Russian embassy.)

I was initially very pleased to find out that there is a Russian consulate in Leipzig, which means that I don't have to travel to the Russian embassy in Berlin to take care of my Russian visa. But I should have know that things wouldn't be so easy. I've already visited the consulate here in Leipzig twice, and have made zero headway in getting my visa to go to Russia on June 1st. And things aren't getting any easier. Here, let me try to describe my unfathomably convoluted situation. I'll do so by way of a list of the mistakes that I have made, which somehow seems the most appropriate format.

Mistake #1: I am an American (try really hard not to be an American if you want to visit Russia)

Mistake #2: I am an American trying to get a Russian visa in Germany, a country where I don't have residency

Mistake #3: I do not have an official residency permit to reside in Germany in my passport (because Americans do not NEED a residency permit to stay in Germany less than 3 months)

Mistake #4: I made plans to go to Italy and then the Netherlands next week, which requires that I have my passport for traveling (and thus cannot leave it with the office here in Leipzig to get registered in Germany until May 25th... why May 25th? See mistake #5)

Mistake #5: I am visiting Germany in May, which is jam-packed full of German holidays that cause government offices to be closed not just on the holiday itself, but sometimes also on days surrounding the holiday. Therefore I have to wait to get my passport invitation on a day when I am both in Germany AND it is not a holiday -- a pair of circumstances which do not cosmically align until May 25th...

Could you follow all of this? No? Well good, because neither could I, apparently.

So, enough with the details, what's the bottom line?

I'm not going to make it to Russia by June 1st.

There's almost no way this will be possible. I cannot even start my visa process until May 25th at the absolute earliest. And if all goes well on that date, it will be a minimum of 1 week before I actually obtain the visa. It's a good thing haven't bought a plane ticket yet. I suspected there would be complications even earlier, which is not insubstantially related to the fact that I did not receive my invitation to even start the Russian visa process until last Wednesday.

It's worth mentioning here (though not particularly comforting to me) that the process for entering the US can be just as complicated (if not more so, depending on where you are from), which some of the people I've met here have told me.

Sorry, no pictures in this post.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

My Week, in Reverse

Saturday, May 8th: Dresden

Yesterday I was a slacker tourist in the lovely town of Dresden. I had no guidebook, no map – not even a sense of what one would want to see in Dresden – when I arrived at Dresden’s main station around 2 pm. Since it was a pleasant, sunny but not-too-hot Saturday, I took the opportunity to wander around an unfamiliar city.

This cute little map from a 2006 NY Times article depicts quite nicely how Dresden makes me feel.

By far the most memorable landmark is the church Frauenkirche (rebuilt after being destroyed for the most part in the war):

But my favorite part of Dresden is off the map – a neighborhood up in the NE corner called Äußere Neustadt (“Outer New City”) which is the seemingly trendiest part of the city. I happened upon such fun finds as the Kunsthof Passage – a series of connecting courtyards designed by artists and occupied by cute boutiques and restaurants - and Alaunpark, where I rested and observed picnicking, Frisbee-playing, and Bachelorette-partying. And where I also tried to take an artsy picture:

Wednesday, May 5th: My Talk on Linguistics & Genetics

For me the big, defining event of last week was my presentation on the research I came to the Max Planck Institute to do. While the presentation itself went well and I got fairly good feedback, I was nevertheless exhausted after the stress of preparing and delivering a talk to an intimidating audience.

Oh, and what work did I present on? Well, as a Slavic linguist I’ve been especially interested in a few particular questions, such as: how did the Slavic languages come to be spoken over most of Eastern Europe? And, how and why did the Slavic languages change in the course of their expansion? I’ve relied mostly on linguistic, as well as some cultural historical, information to explore these problems. But recently I’ve started looking at how genetics research can help improve our understanding of the history of human populations. I myself don’t do the genetics research, but I’m instead trying to understand the field as best as possible to develop future research collaborations.

But I won’t bore you with any more details about this. At least for now. ☺

Sunday, May 2nd: Artists’ Colony in Leipzig

Wow. Leipzig is home to some nifty modern art movements that I am not qualified to say much about. What I can say is that I was blown away by the sheer size of the “artists’ colony” at the old cotton mill, or Spinnerei, on the western edge of the city.

As I said, an old cotton mill – no smaller than a city block – was converted into dozens of artists’ studios and workspaces. I was lucky enough to be here during their open house weekend on May 1st-2nd, where I was overwhelmed by the art and the interest in art here in Leipzig.

Here are some pictures of modern art & citizens interested in modern art:

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Very Hamburger Weekend

A week has already passed since I was in Hamburg, so it's high time I blogged about it. To answer the question I know is eating away at you -- yes, the American [ahem] delicacy hamburger has its origins in Hamburg. Well, at least the city is its namesake. Hamburger in German is either a noun or adjective meaning someone or something from Hamburg, and seems to have entered English (according to OED) from a dish called hamburger steak, which was shortened to hamburger and refers to what is now a very American and not very German culinary item.

But enough about hamburgers, since I didn't eat any in Hamburg anyway.

Some of Hamburg's more notable attractions include the harbor on the river Elbe. It's one of the biggest ports in Europe and keeps Hamburg a big, busy, and economically prosperous place.

The up-and-coming Warehouse District (Speicherstadt) is further evidence of Hamburg's prosperity:

But Hamburg's not just business. It knows how to have fun too. A Saturday night out in Reeperbahn - Hamburg's red light district - confirmed this for me (though no pictures survived the night that I am willing to post in this blog... mainly because they are very very blurry...)

But my hands-down favorite part of the city was the Sternschanze area. It reminds me a bit of the nice parts of the Mission in San Francisco. Lots of cute places to eat and get coffee. And a big park, sort of like Dolores Park, where people sit outside with their dogs and tattoos and enjoy the sunny weather.

My camera was on some funny setting so Rike and I look a bit like angels, but here we are in the park:

Since returning from Hamburg I've mostly been either working on my presentation for Wednesday or procrastinating. So back to work for a few more days, then... I'll update you on my impending trips to Bologna, Nijmegen (Netherlands), and more!