this blog is dead!

Yup, another blog down.  Fortunately, I think the next blog will be a bit longer-lived.

Blog from the bike trip this summer : biketotheearth.org

Blog from after the bike trip : fearlesstost.blogspot.com

See y'all there!


europe of the east

Ancient tunnels ring
With wind on stone, and beers sing,
With kings on the throne.

Okay, so I didn't actually cheers with any royalty this week.

I did, though, go on vacation.  ;)

A long time ago, in a distant land (by which I mean "Poland," if you subscribe to the rumours of such a place), I was on a train from Oświęcim to Kraków.  I met a few kids from Croatia and we socialised.  Later, one of them (Igor Canadi) and I became friends on Facebook.  It was fine; one of those encounters that's nice to remember on occasion.

Almost a year later, I find myself with a week of vacation and am pointed to an ingenious $30 flight from Geneva to Split, which is in southern Croatia.  Igor lives in Zagreb, which is a 5-hour, $30 bus ride away.  He says it's okay if I stay with him, and that he'll even show me around.  The flight back home is poorly timed... but, lo!  A flight from Budapest to Geneva at a reasonable time is just another $30!  What a deal, kids.  I go.

Patrick, my former roommate in the Llama School, is in the process of his own grand Europe tour: a hitchhiking, dumpster-diving, sleeping-in-parks whirlwind from Geneva to Zagreb and back.  Not my thing, but to each his own.  Anyway, cheap flights are convenient for everyone!  Not to mention that the fact that I have an accomplice ensures that my mom won't have a heart attack every time she thinks about me.  :)  Hi, Mom.

Adventure, go!

We land in Split, which is an adorable town most of the way down the Croatian coastline.  It's about 19h40 when our plane touches down, so it's getting... well, dark.  We did a poor job on our bus research: the next reasonable bus to Zagreb doesn't leave until 23h30 and doesn't arrive until about 5h30.  But that's okay!  This is a city I'd never been to before, either, and the chance to eat some Dalmatian food (the Dalmatian Islands are right there!  RIGHT THERE!!) and adjust to the crazy-looking local language is something I jump at.  We smell the Adriatic Sea and walk along the harbour.  I think the last time I smelled salt water was my summer at Google, which is more than a year and a half ago now.  It's very refreshing!

We had some pizza at a local pizzeria (of note: the "American pizza" at this restaurant featured French fries and bacon as toppings) and searched out some Croatian beer to tide us over for the bus ride.  A couple days prior, in Geneva, I had stumbled across a beer called Ožujsko that claimed to be Croatian.  We were warned sternly against this beer during our time in Split.  "If you want beer, the red one!" cried the shopkeeper woman as we reached for the yellow cans we recognised.  Karlovačko was the correct drink around these parts.  So we drank some and sat on a park bench by the water for a while, watching crazy teenagers walk by.

The bus ride was looooooong, but I slept.  When we disembarked in Zagreb, I was totally confused about time and day and verging on sick (I guess it was allergies of some variety... dammit, Geneva!), plus my phone has been out of credit for weeks (I can still receive calls in Geneva, which is enough..) and Patrick's ran out when his parents called from the States (since I thought you could receive calls for free anywhere... shiiiii-...), so it was 6am on a Sunday morning when we happened to bump into a fellow sitting at a bus stop who let us use his phone to call Igor and get picked up.  Igor'd been out at a birthday party until we called him, so... we all slept until afternoon.

In the succeeding days, I learned a lot about Zagreb and Croatia in general.  Another of Igor's friends had a friend in town, so he played tourguide for a day and showed off the Old Town (both of them: Zagreb was two cities for a long time), his university, the Coffee Street (more on that later), and the government seats, as well as an amazing view of the skyline from a hill just outside town.  There were also some rusty cars and old buildings to poke around in.  He gave pointers on other things to do around town, including visiting Zagreb's lake (Jarun), sitting around drinking coffee, moving to another café and drinking more coffee, going to the Naïve Art museum, finding another coffee somewhere, and hanging out with him and his Uni friends.  We played poker (I killed), watched English movies subtitled in Croatian (egad, cannot read!), went to a local student bar, and tried our luck at a casino.

We also learned not to drink Karlovačko.  Ever.  Ožujsko is the only way to go in Zagreb. It's brewed there.

Croatia is super laid back, and even according to Croatians, everyone there is lazy.  The cafés were always full of people dreamily watching the world go by.  It wasn't a bad lazy, though... it was... nice.  :)  A meandering through the botanical gardens, a nap on a hill in a city park, a picnic, a trip to the lake, some coffee here or there... I loved it.  And all the Croatians I spoke to were super friendly and kind.  I sort of expected "Eastern Europe" when I visited, but Zagreb at least was really westernized, and everyone spoke English and was eager to help a lost American girl.

I had to get to Hungary to catch my flight home, and Igor was heading that way for a programming contest he and a few of his peers had won a spot in.  The train from Zagreb to Budapest was just another (gasp!  the symmetry!) $30, which is totally reasonable.  Patrick decided to come, too, since he didn't have anything to do for a while and hadn't been satisfied with his last trip to Budapest.

Hungary basically spent several days kicking the shit out of me in various ways.  Well, every "really Hungarian" thing I tried did, anyway.  We'll start with the stuff that was pleasant first, though.

The hostel Patrick and I stayed in (Igor and his pals were being funded by their school, so they got a fancy place in a hotel) was ADORABLE.  AGHHHHHHH.  If you go to Budapest, STAY THERE.  It's just called Art Hostel.  It's basically a converted flat, and there are just 9 beds (5 in one room, 4 in the other), so it's not unreasonable to get to know other people staying there.

Budapest is almost absurdly gorgeous.  I am actually, in fact, shocked that more people don't go on and on about it: it's basically Paris, but everything is about 20% as expensive.  Maybe less.  We bought a 2L bottle of beer for about $1.50.  The buildings are old and stately, the bridges are sweeping and wonderful, and the culture can certainly be felt through the tourism.  There weren't, in fact, that many tourists.  It was amazing.

Most hilarious thing: Signs.  Especially signs about money.  The Hungarian currency is the forint (roughly 200 forints to a US dollar), and that is abbreviated ft.  This leads to amusing confusions, for instance when a taxi cab company advertises 150ft/km.  Hahahahah!

Things I really loved: the Parliament building (although we didn't make it inside... entry is only free for EU residents, which Patrick is not), the view from the Citadel (didn't go in, but from atop the hill there one can see everything on both sides of the beautiful blue Danube), the Budapest History Museum (Saturday is Student Day, so you can get in free!  Lots of the exhibits are only in Hungarian, but just having the chance to explore parts of the Royal Palace is great), the coffee (an adorable café about 100m south of the roundabout at the Budapest tunnel was my favourite place), the moustaches (amazing!), foosball (which is apparently "the sport" to play in Hungarian bars, and to which I was challenged during a stint in one), the cemetery (Budapest's cemetery is probably the creepiest I've ever been to.  It's basically situated in a forest, and seeing graves intermixed and overgrown with trees and vines and bushes is HELLA SCARY.), and the prices.  :)  I believe that for food, drinks, lodging, and entertainment, I spent south of $150 for 5 days, which is pretty damn okay.

So what's Hungarian that kicked my ass?  Well, what do you think of when you think of Hungary?  Traditional Hungarian liquor, goulash, and saunas, am I right?

On traditional Hungarian liquor: it's called Unicum, and it's the devil.  Patrick and I got tipped off that this was what was drunk around those parts, and so we each bought a half litre of the stuff.  Let me tell you that that's a terrible idea: it's 80 proof and it tastes like chewing on a cedar plank.  Of note: it is intended to be taken as a chilled shot after dinner as a digestif.  DO NOT DRINK IT LIKE WE DID.

On goulash: This is actually not what you think it is.  Goulash is a soup.  The real Hungarian thing is called pörkölt, and it's basically a pile of meat and fat mixed with some potato noodles.  I am a pansy little vegetarian girl in general, but I do like trying local cuisine when the opportunity presents itself, so I decided to go for this. As you may be able to imagine, the results were none too pleasant.  I did get through a whole bowl and keep it down, though, so I'm proud of that.  Of note: after eating this, it is super important to sit the hell still and drink a coffee or beer so that it can settle in your poor stomach.  I promise it helps.

On saunas: The last day in Budapest, we went to a Hungarian bath.  The complex was situated in a building that was of... well, schizophrenic architectural style.  Whatever, that's fine.  In the centre, there are two large pools: one regular swimming pool and one thermal bath.  This is nice.  There are also stands peddling freshly-squeezed orange juice for 250ft.  But, lo!  There are also labyrinths of baths inside to be swum in!  They range in temperature from 16 degrees (Celsius, or 60 degrees F) to 40 degrees (104 in F).  And.  Saunas.  The saunas ranged from 45 degrees (113 F) to 100 degrees (212 F).  That 100 degree sauna?  Kicked my ass.  All the way out the fucking door.  But just outside, there was an ice machine where people stood around and smeared ice on their bodies after emerging from the sweltering heat.  Did you know saunas smell like licorice?

p.s. all photos are in my new Picasa page: http://picasaweb.google.com/valkyrie.savage


of ash and ahs

On the long way down,
The screaming girl approaches
Rocks and dam, she thinks.

Hello, friends!

This weekend I had the chance to do the world's highest fixed-point bungee jump without guide ropes.

Remember that scene from the opening of Goldeneye? Yeah. So that's the Verzasca dam in Switzerland (near Lucerno, in the southeastern--Italian--part of the country). It's about 4 and a half hours from Geneva by car.

Julius and Malte (my dear Jugger friends from last summer!) came down to visit me and to pile me and some of my coworkers into cars to make the drive. Five of us plunked 195CHF onto the counter and strapped into bungee gear. YOU CAN FUCKING DO THIS STUNT.

The dam is 220m high, and it's slightly concave, so the bouncing and such doesn't actually bring you anywhere close to the wall or the ground.  But it's a helluva long drop: 7 seconds of free fall before the rope catches you for your first bounce.  And what a bounce it is.

I was trying to come up with some epic clothing to wear for the jump, and Julius suggested that I put on a bikini and a pair of swimming goggles and dive off.  I desperately wanted to, and in fact wore the bikini up to the top of the dam and had the goggles around my neck (does anyone else type "googles" instead of "goggles" when not entirely focused?), but it was too cold and windy for me to manage that, so I went, instead, in a dress.  If I can't be James Bond, I can damn well be a Bond girl.  With a few extra square metres of fabric.  :P

So, about the jump!  I had called dibs on going first out of our group, and everything happened fast.  I guess dozens of people do this every day, and the Trekking.ch people (the website for the jump is here) are an efficient machine.  I had no sooner told them that I wanted to jump than I was given a form ("I am doing this at my own risk"), weighed, put into a suit, tied to a cable, and out on a tiny two-foot-by-one-foot platform looking down.  For those of you who are lazy with math, 220 metres is about two and a half football fields.  Seriously high.

I am a little girl at heart, and this terrified me quite a lot.  Skydiving wasn't this scary, in fact; I guess because that ground thing isn't so imminently visible from 13000 ft.  Anyway, they gave a countdown for the jump as soon as they saw that I had my, er, sea legs.  They had informed me beforehand that it's not just about falling off the platform, but more about jumping as far as you can towards your photographing friends several metres away.  So I pushed off, and almost as soon as my feet left the platform I began screaming like a ninny.  A really happy ninny, but a ninny.  According to the video, I then tucked my feet in and performed a front flip; the bungee cord trailing from my feet formed into a nice spiral behind me.

The echoes of my shrieks off the sides of the big concrete dam were awesome.  I imagined the people in the town at the mouth of the valley could hear them as I bounced wildly at the end of the cord, watching my shadow stretch and slip across the warped and stained concrete surface not too far away.

After getting all bounced out, I pulled a few of the ropes I was attached to and got into a horizontal position (so that I was no longer letting all my blood settle in my brain) and reached my hand out so the operators above could see.  They lowered a big hook to me, which I clipped into my harness, and pulled me up.  And that was that.  :)

We called my mom afterwards.

Me: Hi, Mom.
Mom: Hi, Valie Girl!
Me: So, I have some...
Mom: Where are you?
Me: Switzerland.  I have some news.
Mom: Okay?
Me: I'm (haha, guys, don't point that camera in my face) I'm pregnant.
Mom: !
Me: No, I just bungee jumped off a 200 metre high dam.  Is that better?
Mom: No, um, maybe, um...

Also, Italian Switzerland is gorgeous.  Now that it's spring, there were flowers everywhere and... well, it was awesome.  Piotr has pictures on his Picasa page.

Now, about that ash cloud.  The Eyjafjallajökull (pronounced kind of like "Ey, I forgot la yogurt;" thanks, NYT) volcano is Iceland is spitting crud everywhere, and it's closing airports in Europe like nobody's business.  I even read today that the easternmost airport in Canada has begun cancelling flights due to the ash threat.  From what I understand, there's basically a cloud of glass in the atmosphere, and people seem to think that that would be bad for planes.  Seems reasonable to me.  It sucks for a lot of reasons (my bosses are trapped in Boston, I might not get to go on my Croatian vacation this weekend, Patrick barely made it here and had to hitchhike from Barcelona, I don't know if it will clear in time for me to get home at the end of my stay here, it's costing airlines millions of dollars a day, etc.), but I'm excited that it's cutting down carbon emissions.  TAKE THAT, GLOBAL WARMING.

Except that now scientists think that the volcano is melting a nearby glacier that has been keeping another volcano dormant.  Could be a chain reaction, they're saying.  In the meantime, I guess I'll just stick to bike riding.

Additionally, this weekend saw some adventures related to Jugger and Freebording: my coworker Victor's put up a bunch of photos from both (and other stuff) on his Flickr page, but here are some I like in particular:



Sit, sit and type, type,
All day long in my chair.  Bah!
Let's go get ice cream!

My friend Victor pointed me at a comic strip called Nemi (Wikipedia article), which comes from Norway and is about a hilarious Goth girl.  I read this one just now, and sometimes I feel like this is what I do to the poor dudes in my office:


lake to lake (aka fml)

The rolling hills in
Rural France make for lovely
Scenes and my sad legs.
I like lakes. They're so peaceful and calm: the water just floating around and minding its own business, people milling about and enjoying grassy or sandy lakesides (especially on a warm day like this one), ... So I jumped at the chance to go to Annecy, France, with two other coworkers, namely Hugo and Piotr. It has a lovely lake and a gorgeous old town, and it's basically a composite built of all the things that Americans think about when they think of "romantic Europe." Except the Eiffel Tower. It didn't have that.
But there's this funny thing about lakes. They tend to form in low areas. That generally means that two lakes that aren't connected are separated by something like.. well, like a high area. In this case, it was a very high hill. I just did a map on mapmyride.com and it informs me that we climbed a total of 1210m over our 130-ish km bike ride. That's a shitload of climbing. The woman at the restaurant we went to in Annecy didn't believe that we had come from Geneva.
We did get a late start (about 11:30 we left from Genève), but we got back shortly after sunset. Not too shabby. That includes an hour or so spent in Annecy touristing through the old town and stuffing our faces with as many calories as possible (in the form of pizza and pasta and ice cream).
All in all, the French countryside was really beautiful. Unfortunately, France isn't so friendly to cyclists as Switzerland is; they don't have many bike lanes (we had to settle for the shoulder of small highways), and they lack open stops with fresh water. We were honked at and stuff several times, but Piotr taught me some curse words in Polish, so that was okay.
I now have a sunburn on my back like the ones I used to get when I had long hair that I left braided all the time: burn everywhere except for a nice white strip down the middle of my back where my racer-cut top sat.  Lovely.

Oh, and a map of the ride: Lake to Lake.

easter skiing

At twenty-one, I'm
Invincible!  Just ask the
Piste that my face smashed.

Some of my coworkers and I headed off to the mountains for Easter weekend: a tiny little town called Bourg St. Pierre.  It's about 2.5 or 3 hours from CERN, and it's adorable!  We got a great deal (about 30CHF/person/night) on an apartment that we could all share.  There was a kitchen and a dining room/living room downstairs, then up a spiral staircase sat two bedrooms and the bathroom, and lofted over one of the bedrooms was another couple beds.  The place was full of homey charm.  In the living room we had an old-school radio (like the one my grandparents have!  It lives in a box large enough that it is a piece of furniture rather than a gadget, and it has a record player, but we had no records.), and between the living room and the kitchen were several windows that could be opened so that we were never more than normal-voice-level apart in the downstairs.

Not to mention that the town itself was about 300 people, and at the time we went it was just a little way above the rapidly-receding snowline.  Spring's a-comin'.  Just outside town there were some semi-wild trails leading up into the Alps, and they were populated with a constant flow of cross-country skiiers.  Victor and I went for a hike up there one day, and when we saw some strange chimneys poking up out of the mountainside he explained to me the Swiss military strategy of "piss off to the mountains and cripple the infrastructure for your captors."  Seems like a reasonable enough idea.  :p

As you may have guessed from the blog post title, we did, indeed, go skiing!  I only wound up going once, for reasons which I will explain.  But the place where we went was called Verbier, and it's apparently a haven for too-rich English people trying to get in their last ski weekend before the season's out.  I listened to a couple bantering about their friend who had come to the area, intending to buy an apartment or two to rent, and fell in love and bought two houses instead.  And about their experiences gambling where they lost £250,000 or so.  In a day.  Ugh.

The day after we arrived, we all woke up early and headed over to the slopes (about an hour by car), paid our 66CHF for day passes (and I paid 60CHF more for a snowboard + boots + insurance), cried a little about how absurdly expensive that was, and set off on a telecabine.  It was a gorgeous, sunny day, and we had a lot of fun playing around in the snow.  Victor and Roman and I went off-piste, which was pretty exciting for me since it was only my second time snowboarding, and I discovered that going off-piste on a snowboard is way easier than staying on, if only for the fact that it's much easier to brake.  That, and if you fall, the snow around you is powdery and nice instead of hard and icy.

After lunch, Roman and I headed off together, and by that time the slopes were starting to get even icier as the sunlight and skiers melted the top layer and the layers underneath refroze it.  I was coming down a slope towards Roman when I caught the toe edge of my board on an ice clump and immediately pitched forward onto my face.  Then I continued going forward, my spine bending and my board flipping over my head, until I came to a breathless rest on my back.

Within seconds there were other snowboarders at my side speaking frantic English and French and asking me if I was okay.  Mysteriously, I was.  Teeth intact.  Nose not broken.  Nothing bleeding.  Board okay.  I never got it diagnosed, but in the following days I had sort of hazy thoughts, and I'm quite convinced that I was experiencing my first concussion.  No matter.  I finished out the day and learned a lot about snowboarding.

In the following days, we played a lot of cards (poker, mostly) and Diablo II (oh, those were the days).  The weather wasn't always nice for skiing, so we also spent Easter Sunday afternoon going down to Italy for a nice dinner and some touristing.  So now I guess I've been to Italy.  :)

Anyway,  it was a good weekend, if expensive and concussion-inducing.  I like these kids.  :D


this is how the end of the world looks

Hairs fly, speed of light,
Crunch crunch crunch through huge machines.
Science is reborn!

http://twitter.com/cern (Henning notes that inside the 10 minutes around the first collision, CERN on twitter gained 4000+ followers)
http://webcast.cern.ch/lhcfirstphysics/ (the main webcast is really slow right now due to high demand ;))

At around 13:00 today (Geneva time), the LHC recorded its first collisions at 7TeV!
Happy physicists

Pretty events
Woohoo, us!