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October 11th, 2011

Unfettered and alive

I have started posting entries at Tor.com, and the most recent one has just gone live, all about the past week’s big planetary sciences meeting in France. I have no need to repeat here what I wrote there. Instead, I will just fill in some of the more idiosyncratic moments of the trip. 

I flew from Rome to Paris Orly on Sunday, October 2; on the plane I ran into an Italian colleague also going to the meeting, and as she had grown up in French-speaking Africa (her parents worked for an international aid agency) she helped guide me through the airport, the bus to the TGV, and the mysteries of a French restaurant menu. At the TGV I was met by another Jesuit astronomer, JBK, himself Congolese and so also fluent in French. He had arranged for our quarters for the week with the Jesuit community in Nantes.

Only it turned out, once we got there, they didn’t have room for us. Instead, our contact, Patrice, arranged for us to stay at a retreat house run by nuns on the edge of town. I was not happy -- it looked like getting to the meeting would take an hour, via two buses and a tram. As it happened, the location was wonderfully quiet and the nuns very friendly; and the tram ride was much quicker than we expected. That all turned out well.

I was personally overwhelmed by the size of the meeting -- both the number of people and the number of posters. Once I could keep track of nearly everything happening in the field. About fifteen years ago I jettisoned any hope of following Mars but I still tried to follow everything else. Now even my own field of meteorites and small bodies is getting overwhelmed.

And being in France, where I have virtually no French, also kept me on a constant state of anxiety. I grew up getting through life by being able to talk my way out of trouble; living in Italy has humbled me, since my command of Italian is not nearly good enough for that. But in France, I can’t even tell when I am in trouble!

I also have a talent for finding the worst possible restaurant in any town. One evening I chose not to dine in what looked like a wonderful place for fear that dinner would last so long I would miss my last bus home; instead, two of us managed to find the worst Italian food east of the Atlantic. How can you mess up a pesto sauce on pasta? Overcook the past, of course; and add cream to the pesto. Serves me right for eating Italian in a French town. (I had hoped the waiter would at least understand Italian; when he didn’t, I should have immediately fled the place.)

The meeting was so packed that I only got to hear about the Gallery of the Machines, I never got to see it. I would have loved to have spent a couple of free days in Nantes after the meeting, visiting it and the Jules Verne museum. Instead, my Jesuit hosts whisked us away to a lovely retreat house on the Atlantic coast near Vennes. It was beautiful and quiet and mostly they left me alone; but it wasn’t my first choice.

They wanted us (JBK and me) to give a public presentation on Monday in Vennes. I pointed out that I have no French, whereas it is JBK’s first language, but they insisted I be part of it. JBK and I practiced our talk with the sisters in Nantes, and it seemed to go well; about two dozen people showed up in Vennes for the talk itself. Needless to say, JBK’s part went down fine and he did a good job (I assume) of translating what I had to say, but my role was totally superfluous. One more example of what drove me nuts with my French Jesuit colleague, Patrice -- he was so friendly, and trying so hard to make us feel at home, at so utterly clueless as to what I would really have wanted to do.

He was also unaware that today there was a train strike scheduled, the day JBK and I had TGV tickets back to Paris. He came to pick us this morning up an hour before the train was due to depart, then decided that the traffic was too heavy to get us to the station on time; instead, he dropped us off at the tram. (We could have walked there ourselves and spared him the drive out.) Fortunately, while two thirds of the trains today were cancelled, the one we were scheduled for was not. 

So this evening I am in Paris… tomorrow I visit museums, and Thursday fly back to Rome.


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