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Down under

This October, Paul and I had the opportunity to go to Australia. Well, we could have always gone I guess, but this time we had a very good reason, which was the International Semantic Web Conference taking place in Sydney, and we always like mixing work and sightseeing.

It fit best in our schedules to go the week before the conference, so we mid-October we left our apartment in the care of our usual house sitters and traded in rainy autumn Amsterdam for sunny spring Australia. Sydney is bloody far away though. Our journey there was the worst I’ve experienced so far, which was solely because of the changeover at Denpasar, Bali. I’m all OK with paying for a visa when I get into a country, but having to do it for a transfer is just ridiculous. And of course you can only pay cash, and the information provision is just super bad, then you get flooded by taxi drivers, but we didn’t want to exit the airport, you have to check in again, then pay some more for airport taxes, go through security again, have my water bottle taken away, and on top of that we didn’t get airmiles for the second leg of our journey to Sydney because it was on a non-code shared partner. Why did KLM allow me to book that flight through them in the first place? Anyway, we made it to Sydney, the weather was nice and soon the horrendous flight was just a distant memory (it also helped that on the way back we flew via Kuala Lumpur which was a much nicer experience).

We first stayed a few days in Sydney, and we found a little hotel in Bondi. Walking distance from Bondi beach, which is where we went first. We strolled around the beach for a bit, and the market, then I splurged some one a new wetsuit (I had thrown out my 6-year-old 3/2 a few weeks before after noticing it did not keep me warm anymore at all) and then we had a little nap at the hotel. Later in the afternoon, we walked to Bondi junction, our first of the huge shopping centres that the Australians can’t seem to get enough of and we had nice burgers at Grill’d Healthy Burgers (a chain).

The next day we went into full-tourist mode and we visited the Sydney Wildlife Zoo and the Sydney Aquarium. I was more impressed with the Wildlife Zoo (maybe because of the awesome staff scaring the wits out of Paul with a spider). We saw koalas, a super huge crocodile, and encountered our new favourite animal: the wombat. In the evening, we had some really awesome Thai food at 99 Thai, just around the corner from our hotel.

The next day, we picked up our rental and headed out north to Newcastle for some surf and wine. We stayed at Backpackers by the beach, which is a super chill hostel at a great location: walking distance to the beach and surrounded by specialty coffee for Paul (he said that there was even just too much good coffee around).

I found out a few things during my time in and around the water in Australia. My idea of a 1ft wave is very different from what the Australians classify as a 1ft wave. Also, the strength of the waves is nothing like what I’ve experienced before, so I got tumbled around quite a bit, but I also caught some nice rides on the board lent to me (and waxed!) by the owner of the hostel. I also took off over some rocks, so I’m proud of myself there. Funny thing, the first day I went surfing I went to Nobby’s beach, and had a nice morning there. In the afternoon, the lifeguard flags were gone, and they were replaced by a little sign saying “Shark sighted keep out”. Hmm, I think you kind of don’t really want to think about that, but we do share the sea with them.

One of the coolest things from our trip was the wine tour we did in Hunter valley. We decided not to drive up there ourselves but we booked a tour, which was a good idea. The guy driving us around knew his way and picked 4 very diverse wineries. This wine tasting business is hard work; at 10:30 we were doing our first wine tasting at Mount Pleasant wines, followed by wine and cheese tasting at McGuigan’s, after which we broke for lunch. These first two wineries were fairly fancy, and in particular at the first one they really explained us stuff about what to pay attention to, and how to go about the tasting. After lunch we first went to a ’boutique’ winery, Lambloch Estate, which just had the coolest building ever. Even though the winery is quite new, their vines are pretty old, and their wines were really, really nice. The last winery we went to was Kevin Sobels, yet super different again, as this is a family run winery, with a different price range, and a more at-home feel, and yet again very different wines. After tasting 39 wines that day, it was very quiet in the van on the way back to Newcastle :).

On the 20th, we went back to Sydney. After checking in to our hotel and dropping off our car, we took a walk through the Royal Botanic Gardens, popped into the Art Gallery of New South Wales and then did a tour of the Sydney Opera House which happend to celebrate its 40th anniversary on exactly that day. The building is just so amazing, and to find out more about how it was built and the puzzles the engineers had to solve was really cool. So we took loads and loads of pictures. On the way back to our hotel, we stopped at a Korean BBQ restaurant recommended by my Lonely Planet guide. Often such recommendations are a bit tacky, but we tend to get lucky, and this was also definitely one of those nights. I’d never had Korean BBQ, but Paul had and he said this was pretty authentic, although I could also tell from us being the only non-Asian people in the room. We got there pretty early, and people were queuing up by the time we left.

That was kind of the end of our holiday in Australia as the next day the conference started. At least the workshops. On Monday I co-chaired both the Linked Science and DeRiVE workshops. On Tuesday, I gave a talk at the university. On Wednesday I presented our poster during the poster session, on Thursday during the dinner I got to sing with the Linked Jammers (Someone had come up with the fantastic idea to put together a band for the occasion, there are some super talented musicians among the Semantic Webbers, who helped me get over at least a little bit of my stage fright there. It was just heaps of fun to make music with others, the fact that there was an audience didn’t matter so much, funny that is). On Saturday it was time to go home again, tired, but with lots of new experiences and a desire to see more of this lovely country someday. Australia, I will be back.

Check out the pics at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/merpel/sets/72157637833560216/

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New apartment!

firstdinner
Although our apartment in the docklands was quite nice, after four years we thought this year that it was time to move. The main reason was that our apartment was furnished, which was super handy when we moved in, but over time we (OK, mostly me) were thinking it would be nice to get our own furniture. Stuff like a bookcase big enough for our book-buying-addiction (although I’m reading fiction on my iPad mostly now).

Anyway, one evening in March after a swim session I was biking back home along the Ringdijk and I saw a bilboard about a new apartment building being built. After looking it up at home, I sorted out the registration forms and all the attachments (most housing corporations in the Netherlands want to know a lot about you, even when you sign up) so we could sign up when the registration opened the next weekend.

A few weeks later we heard that we got one of the apartments, and even better our first choice! I enthusiastically started buying moving boxes and packed some stuff, of course I packed the first 6 boxes way in advance and then got sidetracked and the last week before the move in September we still needed to pack everything else, but I guess that’s just how these things go. To be honest, for not having any furniture, we have a lot of crap. Anyway, September 19, we got the keys, after which we spent a few days painting, and on September 25 we moved in! Kudos to Paul for doing moving all the boxes, while I was at work, although I did help with the heavier things in the evening.

firstguest

The first few days we slept on our sofa bed in the living room. We even had our first guest (my brother Hans) who slept on an air mattress on the 27th and who brought us a table (which is a very handy thing to have). That weekend we also bought a bed (quite handy too) which took me ages to assemble, but is sooo nice. We’re still not quite sorted out, some lamps and curtains are for example still missing. But we have one super awesome Hollywood studio light (courtesy of Paul) and bin bags taped to the window also keep out the light (my excuse is that I haven’t found the right blinds yet because our windows are just huge!). But as the dinner parties that we have had prove, the kitchen is very well equipped (finally an oven that fits my madeleine form, and an XL dishwasher!).

It’s a good home.

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Surfing in Portugal (2x)

Our summer holidays this year were a bit of a last minute arrangement. Initially we had wanted to do a big trip to Australia in autumn, but due to teaching constraints, we couldn’t take off more than two weeks then. So we decided to take a few weeks off in July and go someplace nice. I didn’t really realise how much I needed that until just before. Even though I’d been out of the office quite a bit already this year, most of the trips were not exactly the height of relaxation.

So we settled for two weeks in Portugal. For a change of scenery we decided to try out the Algarve and we found a fabulous base for our surf and food explorations at the Jah-Shaka surf villa. The villa itself is just awesome, we had a nice double bedroom (bummer we couldn’t keep the door open because of the bugs, but one can’t have it all), there is a pool, a hot tub, a volley ball pitch, a nice kitchen, a chill living room, awesome barbecue parties and pancakes for breakfast.

Every day we would be driven to the beach, surfed the day away, had lunch on the beach (home cooked by the house staff) and in the evening we would hang out at the villa watching movies or went to the little town. Everything one could need on a holiday. Check out our pics at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/merpel/sets/72157637047899883/

It was so good that I decided to go back for a short trip in November too :). The nice thing about Europe is that everything is so close, so I flew out late Thursday afternoon, surfed Friday (3 sessions), Saturday, Sunday and Monday morning, flew back in the evening and I was back in the office on Tuesday.

Life is good.

The benefits of being an academic: travelling for work!

Early this year, I moved from working on a national project to working on (bigger) European funded project. Most of my day-to-day work hasn’t changed much, I’m still a postdoc, happily trying to solve puzzles, only we’re trying to tackle problems on a slightly bigger scale and for several different languages. Being in an EU project means you are collaborating within a greater consortium that is formed with other institutions/companies within the EU. Whilst we email and Skype a lot, we also sometimes have to meet physically, just because that’s easier. Enter bonus travel! This year I’ve been lucky to visit all our partners: which meant a trip to San Sebastian in April (and of course I’d booked a few days extra for some surf), a trip to Liverpool in June (and got to meet up with friends from around there again) and a trip to Trento in October (where we somehow ended up a the restaurant where I had dinner in 2006 too, the same guy is still running it).

I’ve also been very lucky to have been able to travel to Sofia in Bulgaria for the ACL conference and to Sydney for the ISWC conference this year. I wonder what this year’s travel will bring 🙂

Learning how to swim and becoming a lifeguard

Ever since a surf instructor in Newquay told me that surf instructors also need to be able to swim 400m in 8 minutes, I was intrigued by this. That was 2006. This year, a couple of my surf mates and I took the plunge and did the lifeguard and surf instructor’s course. Although you could do it in the Netherlands, we decided to go do it in Newquay, and make a trip out of it. Together with a few other surfer girls, who didn’t want to do the course but did want to explore the awesome surf in Cornwall, we drove off on May 5 for a week in the chilly British waters.

But first, the prep. I am a fairly decent swimmer, but all I was ever taught was the breaststroke. I can keep that up for ages, but it’s not exactly fast. So in January, I started going to the “stroke improvement” session at “De Mirandabad” in Amsterdam. These sessions are awesome, the instructor broke down the stroke into its parts, had us practice just the legs, or just the arms, or just the breathing and gave individual feedback. After a few weeks, I started to get the hang of it and started with a training schedule that would build up to 400m (going from 50m stretches with a few minutes rest in between to an uninterrupted 400m). Whilst splashing around in the pool 3 times a week (and it was still going to be tight to make it) I noticed that I really really liked swimming, and it was a fun thing to do before work, it really cleared my head (so I actually kept it up, although I do take it a bit easier now). I also needed to eat more, and better. And I quit drinking alcohol just because I really wanted to make it. Some weeks I also trained with my mates, and we exchanged recipes for super foods (which got me onto swapping out some oatmeal for quinoa in my morning porridge, yummy!). I also swam on trips. So when I was in Spain for work, I made a trip to the Zarautz municipal pool and the San Sebastian municipal pool (the Zarautz one is nicer). I also swam in Paris at the Piscine Pontoise, a pool from the 30s where your changing cabin is also your locker, and you need to remember the number and after your swim session the pool attendant will open it up again for you. Funny thing is that that pool is 33m, which totally messed up my sense of distance.

Now, back to the trip.  We found a nice six-person cottage by the beach that would take us (most places don’t take group bookings, which is kind of understandable given the Newquay nightlife, but still annoying). Every morning we would walk down to the beach for our course and at 5 walk back up again. Completely knackered. It was tough, it was also cold, but it was also a really great experience. We did lots of theory about the beach and potential hazards, first aid, practices CPR on dummies of various sizes and we did water sessions. The first day started with a little fitness test called “run-swim-run”, we also did a relay race with a rescue board (lose the board and you have to do 10 push-ups, the losing team had to do 10 push-ups and 10 sit-ups, which was us), and we learnt to do tube rescues. The next few days we refined our tube rescues and got to learn board rescues. In the evenings, we had to do our homework (learning the phone alphabet, hand signals (great fun at the dining table), first aid stuff…).

On Wednesday morning, we did the swim test. And I was 10 seconds too slow :(. (Luckily I got to redo it in the Netherlands on June 2 and then I passed it. I don’t think I was ever more nervous before a test in my life, or so relieved afterwards. It was a horrible test though, after one lap one of my goggles filled up with water and I also lost my swim cap halfway, but I kept swimming and hey, I made it! ). I did pass all the other things though, which was good. So on Friday night, we went out for drinks with the other participants of the course, who were all brits and who will all outdrink you. But they were all fun to hang out with.

We couldn’t stay out too late though, because on Saturday and Sunday we were attending the surf instructor’s course. The surf instructor’s course is peanuts compared to the lifeguarding course. We learnt to do lesson plans, spot descriptions and did a lesson in which our fellow students were beginner surfers (give people a coloured rashy, a soft top and have them play in the whitewater and everyone looks like a beginner ;)). I only didn’t pass the surf assessment, on Saturday the waves were crazy and half of us didn’t even get through, and on Sunday it was still bigger than what I’m used to and basically after the entire week lifeguard training my arms just weren’t cooperating as much as I wanted to. So now I just need to get some decent video material of me surfing and get that graded after which I need to do an internship with a surf school.

Maybe something to aim for in 2014 🙂

 

2013 Goal: Climb Snowdon

Coming from a flat country, I’ve always been fascinated by hills and mountains (and rocks, because we don’t have those either). Not that I’m a super enthusiastic climber, but it’s just a fun thing to be outdoors and get to a vantage point where you can see lots. Anyway, for some reason, Snowdon was on my list, perhaps because my English friends said it was quite doable and Wales is just a fun place to hang out. Also, one of our English friends now happens to live near Snowdon, so a trip was easy to plan, and as a bonus mum came along too!

So we flew into Manchester airport one Thursday morning, rented a car and drove to Anglesey, more specifically to the place with the super long Welsh name: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch 🙂 The sun came out, and we went for a walk on the beach. One of my surf mates happens to have a holiday home on Anglesey so after my morning swim session (more on the swimming in the next post), we went up to Rhosneigr where mum and Dave went out for a walk, while Jilly and I first went for a surf session, and then a stand-up paddle board session (my arms were like spaghettis afterwards).

On Saturday, we decided to go up to Snowdon. It was a beautiful day! We didn’t rush up (apparently people run up as well, but that’s just crazy, as are the mountain bikers going up). There was still some snow near the top, and as it was a clear day, the views were just magnificent! At the top I ate a bag of salt and vinegar crisps and after we got down we treated ourselves to some hot chocolate at Pete’s eats.

On Sunday, it was time to go back again. On the way to the airport we traipsed around Conwy for a little bit, which has a huge castle and some cute little shops. We only made it just in time for our flight (my fault) but thankfully my silver status got us on on time.

We’ve already started planning this year’s trip: Hay-on-Wye, this time also with my sister!

Holiday!

Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m a firm believer in holidays. In the Summer of 2012, we decided to take the entire month of August off and do a three-week European road trip. Highly recommended!

The first few days of August we spent just relaxing and sorting stuff out. I had already tested the tent, so that was good. I also picked up a new surfboard just a few days before the holiday, so on August 3, we were all good to go! We picked up our car at the airport in the morning, it turned out to be a 2-month old Volvo estate, with all the gadget (satnav, leather seats, iPod connector, you name it, it had it). We first stopped at my parents for a day or so, to pick up some more camping essentials such as a cooking hob and say hi to everyone in the south. On the 5th, we set out to our first stop, Paris where we would hang out with Paul’s parents for a few days. Just as we crossed the border with France, I realised we had left our rain jackets at home. Well, it’s a summer holiday after all, let’s hope for nice weather…

Kudos to Paul for getting us to Paris safely, and also getting us into (and out of) without any harm done to the nice new car. Paris was splendid, as always. We had a wonderful time skipping the Louvre and d’Orsay queues with Paul’s parents (tip: buy tickets in advance at FNAC!) and sampling some fabulous food (new discovery: L’Apibo in Rue Tiquetonne, in the 2ieme arrondissement, really really awesome food).

On the 9th of August, Paul’s parents went up north to visit some friends in Hamburg, while we went south, all the way into Basque country. Originally I had wanted to stay close to San Sebastian, but as the campsites near the sea were already full when we booked, we ended up in Mundaka. Which was really quite far away from Paris. Luckily the roads are super nice (OK, you pay a fortune in tolls, but it’s worth it). Since Paul had driven there, I set up the tent (easy-peasy) after which we walked down to the little village to explore and find some food. Mundaka is really super small, but really nice though.

We spent most of our days relaxing in the little town, taking walks, reading books, surfing a bit (the waves weren’t amazing, but it was still nice to try out my new board), eating tapas….you know, the good life. We also took a trip to Bilbao, which was very cool, although lots of shops were closed because it was a Sunday.

On August 16, we went back north again, destination Contis-Plage, with an afternoon stopover in San Sebastian. San Sebastian is just the nicest little town ever, lots to see, lots to eat, and only a short ride from the French border. Contis-Plage is one of the few less spoiled French beach towns, where we stayed at a huge but quite nice campsite. Our spot was quite big and there was shade. Most mornings, I went out for a little surf (as the winds tend to be offshore in the mornings and turning to onshore in the afternoon) and on the way back I would meet up with Paul in the little town for breakfast. There was just the most amazing bakery in town, where you could look into the area where the loveliest baguettes were made. The interesting thing is (maybe that’s the normal way of doing it but I never knew) was that they use cloth that is folded in a sort of wavey pattern to shape the loaves.

We hung out around the beach, rented a tandem and biked through the woods to the next town over (Cap de l’Homy, which is even smaller than Contis-Plage) where we took a splash in the ocean (of course staying right in front of the lifeguards, you don’t mess with those in France, actually, you also don’t mess with the ocean there, one morning I sort of got caught in a rip, and it was  a long paddle back to the beach, but I stayed calm and the heli didn’t have to lift me out, as it did with less lucky people most other days, phew!). We also visited Bordeaux, which took ages to get to because of a traffic jam due to roadworks. Fabulous town, only waay to hot, maybe a place to plan a city trip to sometime in the future.

Foodwise, this part of the trip was very different from our week in Spain, no tapas, but some super awesome salads at this nice beach bar whilst watching the sunset (they had a DJ who would play some heavy classical music to accompany the sun sinking into the ocean, and everyone would applaud when it disappeared, funky but cool experience).

We also barbecued on the beach in Mimizan. Mimizan is only 15km from Contis-Plage and it’s the place where I first encountered surfing in 2004, so when we were nearby I just wanted to pop over. To be honest, I hardly recognised it. When I was there, there was maybe one ATM, and some streets weren’t really paved and it was quite small. Now there was a huge big boulevard, filled with families, lots of wafel stands. Good thing we didn’t stay there, although some shops were still there. And the beach was still good 🙂

On August 22, we packed up our tent again and headed to Brittany, to a little place called St. Cast-le-Guildo. This place is sort of halfway between Contis-Plage and the Netherlands, it’s near Le Mont Saint Michel and I had a really awesome holiday there with my parents when I was about 16. The town hadn’t changed much, neither had the campsite. The Brittany coast is really gorgeous, lots of little bays, dramatic cliffs, lots of little fishing towns and the accompanying hearty food that keeps everyone going. My new favourite are the buckwheat pancakes (“galettes bretonnes”) that come piled up with lettuce, eggs, sausage or whatever else you would like really. We also visited a little restaurant where everything was cooked on a big charcoal fire in the restaurant, very cool (it was called Le P’tit Breizh).

One of the highlights of our holiday was our trip to Mont Saint Michel, the little island off the coast of Normandy with the big monastery from which it lends its name. It’s a true engineering feat, considering people have been living there for over a millennium. Even though it was summer, the winds coming from the sea and just the general humidity make it not a very friendly place. Easy to defend though. The narrow little streets, even though littered with tourists and souvenir shops really give you a hint of what old towns really used to look like. If you have a chance to go there, really do, you won’t regret it.

We also hung around St. Malo (also some awesome fortifications), shopped at one of those fabulous big French supermarkets, and on the morning of our departure, I also got a last little surf session in. After the surf session we visited one of the awesome French bakeries to buy some baguettes to take home to my parents for dinner that night.

More pics at:

Road Trip Part I
Road Trip Part II
Road Trip Part III
Road Trip Part IV