Monday, July 27, 2009


There are lots of swifts in Aix. They fly very close to our terrace in the evenings. We originally thought they were swallows, but then we realized they were martinet, or swifts.

It makes us think of watching the swifts on Ken and Jill's roof deck with a champagne cocktail (champagne with a bitters-soaked sugar cube -- try it, it's delicious, but it was Jill's recipe and I can't remember the name). Sigh.

Here's a video (quality isn't great because it's night and taken with our camera). You can see and hear how close they fly in toward the terrace.

They're pretty cool to watch because they fly really fast and very close to the windows on the street side of our apartment too. What I would love is to have a video of them flying up into the roof tiles. There's no stopping to land on the gutter and then stepping in, or even (apparently) slowing down. They just fly right in.

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Bastille Day

(Last) Tuesday was le Quatorze Juillet (the 14th of July), which is la Fête Nationale of France. As is common for many holidays that occur mid-week, lots of people chose to faire le pont or, litterally, "make the bridge" between the weekend and the mid-week holiday so they took off Monday too. The lab was a ghost town.

Although it isn't exactly the same thing, (even though both do mark the birth of the nation) le Quatorze Juillet (not called "Bastille Day" by the French even though it commemorates the holiday that commemorates the storming of the Bastille), sort of feels like the 4th of July.

To take advantage of our day off, James and I went on an excursion to the Lac Sainte-Croix du Verdon via Moustiers-Sainte-Marie with other students from the program through which James is taking French classes. We had thought this would be an excellent day full of French speaking. However, somehow, only the American college students (plus one Belgian and one Brazilian) went. And they spoke English all day. Maybe that was why it felt like the 4th?

Here's Moustiers-Sainte-Marie from above.

The town is famous for its faïence, and has been since the 17th century when Louis XIV requisitioned all the gold and silver in the kingdom and had it melted down to finance foreign wars. The story goes that he replaced what he had taken with faïence from Moustiers.

There was a revitalization of the faïence tradition in the 1920s and there are lots of workshops where you can see it and buy it. But instead of looking at faïence, we went on a little hike up the side of the hill past the Grotto of Mary Magdalene to the Chapelle Notre Dame de Beauvoir.

There have been chapels of sorts here since the 5th century -- even the great Charlemagne built one in the 9th century -- but most of the current Notre Dame de Beauvoir wasn't built until the 12th century, with some restorations in the 1500s.

Here's the wooden door, which dates from the Renaissance.

Inside it was so dark you couldn't see a thing, not really even the gold on the altar. But with a slow shutter speed ...

This chapel has been a pilgrimage site since the 1600s when parents brought their still-born children here to be resuscitated, just long enough to be baptized. Then, according to the informational plaque, the children were buried in the cemetery.

Then we went to the Lac Saint-Croix du Verdon.

Lac Saint-Croix is an artificial lake formed in the early 70s when the national electric company built a dam at the end of the Verdon Gorge. It was, as most dams are, somewhat controversial and included the swallowing-up of a 12th century town called Les Salles sur Verdon. You can see some photos of the last days of the town here. Apparently, only a few vestiges of the old town were moved before the town was razed.

But the lake is really nice.

We had sandwiches in the town of Saint Croix (above the lake). We missed out on a lake-view by about a minute. (The little girl in the green shirt and her parents beat us to it!)

And then went down to the beach to swim.

On the way back, we stopped by one of the many gigantic lavender fields in the area. Even without those power lines in the background, this picture really wouldn't do it justice. The lavender actually looked much brighter than this.

The minute we got out of the bus, we could smell it. It was great.

And no national holiday is complete with out fireworks! It's no Farleigh Road in UA on the 4th, but here's a sample of the Aixois fireworks from our terrasse. By not seeing the whole spectacle, you aren't missing much: they were only blue (liberté), white (égalité) and red (fraternité).

Monday, July 13, 2009

New work digs!

When we first got here, the Laboratoire Parole et Langage occupied the fourth and fifth floors of a wing at La Fac (the University).

Here's James in his office in front of his super high-powered computer with gigantic monitor.

Here's the view from his office window at mid-day:

And in the afternoon:

It's a beautiful view. But what you probably didn't notice, because you were so distracted by the warm light of the setting sun and the pretty hills in the distance, is the state of the building.

It's falling apart.

Take a closer look at that second photo. See the buildings in the foreground? The tile siding is falling off everywhere. There are actually courtyards you can't go into because there's a risk of getting hit by a tile. And here's one courtyard where they've put up metal nets to catch falling tiles.

I didn't take that last one. It's part of a series of photos (multiple, unknown photographers) that was put into a powerpoint and disseminated during the recent series of strikes.

The inside of the fac isn't any better. For example, the heat didn't work in the offices. Some of the radiators, although not the one in James' office (which still didn't work) looked like this (from the same series of photos):

Wires just hang from the ceiling, next to stalactites from some unidentified leak (from that same series of photos):

I'm not even going to show you pictures of the bathrooms. No toilet seats, and no soap, no paper towels or hand dryers.

You can see some more photos here. The photos were taken between 2005 and 2009. Even the older ones are accurate reflections of what things look like.

The lab was supposed to move to the new space in September. And then in December. And then in January. And then finally, in February, the new space opened. It was officially inaugurated on May 25th.

It's really nice.

James has a desk in le open space, or "open space" area for postdocs and visiting researchers. As you can sort of tell from this picture, looking up at the back of James' head, postdocs are on a higher level than the visiting researchers (like me).

The area is sort of like an attic, but a nice, finished attic on the second floor of the building. It has a bunch of new, really nice machines at nice desks. It even has skylights (as you can make out above James in the photo) with high-tech shades within the storm window so you can get some shade when the afternoon sun is too intense.

Here's James at his new desk.

As it turns out, I too will be a postdoc in the fall. A real, full-time, paid one. Normally, this would mean that I'd get to move up to the postdoc area of le open space ... except that the only available desk up there is sort of facing James (to his right as he looks at his computer) and the lab thinks that's too close. (Too much making eyes at your workmates or something!) So instead I'll be in le open space in the other building. Pictures to follow, when I actually have a desk ... or a few months later when I post about it.

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