Iceland pt 2: Out and about

Horses and Glaciers

The real holiday part of our trip started on Sunday, with our first tour, the Horses and Glaciers tour together with Diana Maynard, who also wrote a blog post about the horse trip 🙂 At 08:15, we were picked up from our hotel (where we were moving to that day) and we were driven to the Eld Hestar stables and hotel. It’s a huge stable with about 200 horses if I remember correctly. Luckily they also had plenty of waterproofs for us, because it was really wet when we got there, but it cleared up pretty much as soon as we started riding. Icelandic horses have developed two extra gaits over ‘normal’ horses, namely the tölt and skeið. We only did the tölt which is a four step gait. Apparently it’s handier on rocky surfaces than normal trotting, although we stayed on pretty even ground. I’m not sure if I would be able to hold a glass of water without spilling during the tölt, but perhaps that’s me. Or the saddle, since Icelandic horses seem to have another feature, which is that they inhale a lot of air, which makes it hard to get the girdle tight enough. We fastened the girdle before we left the stables, then stopped again, but towards the end of the ride I was noticing that my saddle was shifting a bit and indeed it was pretty loose when I took it off. Oh well. Adds to the adventure. Next time, I’ll bring my own waterproofs and a sports bra, just in case.

After lunch (which included a fabulous roasted pepper soup), we were picked up by Islandic Mountain Guides for our glacier tour. On the way to the Sólheimajökull glacier we first made a stop at the Skógafoss waterfall, which is 62 metres tall and the water just comes down with ridiculous strength. After we fitted our crampons, we drove on through the lands that Eyjafjallajökull had covered in ashes in 2010. The glacier walk was seriously the awesomest thing about our trip. Our guide (I’m afraid I forgot his name) was really laidback, happy to answer our questions and tell us about the landscape. After every little bend or bump there was yet another awesome sight in the form of a crazy crevice, glacial stream, funky ice formation or simply a gorgeous view of the surrounding mountains framed by the ice we were standing on. After about two hours, which included a lot of fun with ice axes, drinking from a glacier stream (got to work the arms too there), running into some more LREC people and about 100 photos it was time to go to the van again. Which was just about perfect because it started raining then. Any given weather pattern doesn’t last that long in Iceland anyway, so when we got to the Seljalandsfoss waterfall half an hour later, it was dry-ish again. The cool thing about this waterfall is that you can walk behind it (which will get you wet again, but that was OK, since it was the last stop of the day). It’s really super amazing to see a waterfall from the other side.

In Reykjavik, we ended our day with a lovely dinner at Vegamot, a fancy bistro where I had a perfectly cooked horse fillet steak accompanied by a glass of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon. I couldn’t think of a better way to end the day.

The Golden Circle

The Golden Circle is a pretty popular tour, but it does really include some of the main highlights of southern Iceland. We thought about it a bit and then decided to go for a tour bus affair instead of renting a car and driving ourselves to a) see something on the way and b) not get lost. So on Monday morning, we were picked up by a little van again in front of our hotel after which we changed to a full blown big tour bus together with lots of old people. Our first stop was a tomato greenhouse, where we got an explanation of how they grow tomatoes in an organic but high-tech manner in Iceland. We also sampled some of their fabulous tomato soup (we thought it was too early for the bloody mary’s) and we picked up some BBQ sauce that we still need to try out. We then went to the Strokkur Geysir in the Geysir area.  It’s really pretty amazing how the landscape is formed there and of course how every 6-8 minutes a whole lot of hot water shoots up from the earth. The colours and the sulphur smell only make it more surreal.

We had about an hour and a half on our own near the Geysir, so we climbed the little hill just near the geysir to get a view from higher up, which was pretty magnificent.

Just before the bus left we had lunch at the little café in the visitor’s centre and browsed around the shop. Interestingly enough they were also selling wolf fur (I had already spotted rabbit fur hats in Reykjavik. Apparently fur isn’t a no-no in Iceland).

Our next stop was Gulfoss, the Golden Falls (and the little sign by the waterfall said that no-one knows why they are called that). Again this was a truly magnificent sight. Apparently about 6000 ship containers of water come down there every second. In times of floods, this can increase tenfold. The water comes down at such speed and force that lots of it is sprayed back up again, so it’s impossible to see the bottom. We walked around and like everyone else took lots and lots of pictures.

Our last stop was Þingvellir national park, where two tectonic plates meet and what used to be the site of the Icelandic parliament. It has a pretty amazing lake in the middle. Sadly, we weren’t allowed to really walk around on our own (I actually got called back by the guide when I wanted to climb down a few rocks to see a little pond with super clear water from up close). The guide did have interesting stories to tell about how people in Iceland came to believe in trolls and fairies as he was pointing out ‘faces’ in the rocks and telling us that the place can get rather foggy. I can totally imagine that the place can feel pretty haunted. The fun thing about the tectonic plates is that they’re partly above ground so you can see them. Also, Iceland is getting a few cm wider every year because of them moving apart. Kind of a useless factoid, but still.

Since we still had quite a few Icelandic Kronur left, we decided to go for a really nice dinner, so we ended up at Fishmarket, or Fiskmarkaðurinn as it’s called in Icelandic. That was a super fabulous restaurant. I had some whale for starters, which came in a sushi like manner (it tasted kind of like tuna, but meatier) and Paul had mussels steamed with local beer that came in a bowl that looked like it was covered in fog (it was hot water poured over seaweed). I then had blue ling with a fancy curry and peanuts (very interesting and tasty combination) while Paul had the monkfish with an Italian style sauce. We then shared a cheesecake and a crumble cake, but the cheesecake was the clear winner here, not sure if I ever had any better. A marvellous ending to a marvellous trip!

Iceland Pt1: Around Reykjavík

A few weeks ago, the Language Resources and Evaluation Conference (LREC 2014) took place in Reykjavik, Iceland and I was lucky enough to get to go there 🙂

To find out more about my professional activities, check out the NewsReader page, this post is really about the extracurricular activities 🙂

I arrived in Reykjavik on Monday May 26. I first went to find my colleagues at Harpa conference centre, they had arrived a day earlier and already checked in to our Airbnb apartment. This was my first time with Airbnb and I must say I really really liked it. The apartment we had was quite affordable, spacious, and had a nice kitchen with handy basics such as tea and herbs and spices. The conference was pretty hectic so being able to have breakfast at home or just chill out in a homely kitchen with the cat was a nice break. The first evening, we just walked up the main street and had dinner at a little Balkan and Mediterranean meze place called Balkanika.

On Tuesday, I didn’t go to any of the workshops but chose to adjust to the environment. I first went for a swim at the Sundhöllin swimming pool. This is the oldest swimming pool in Reykjavik (1937) and it is designed by the same person who designed the Hallgrímskirkja, city architect Guðjón Samúelsson. The pool is one of the cleanest I’ve been to, also not much (if any?) chlorine, perhaps because they make you shower without your bathing suit before entering and provide shampoo to wash your hair and other vital parts (as designated on an informative poster in the shower area). The main indoor pool is just your regular 5-lane 25m pool, although way less busy than the pool here in Amsterdam. I reckon because most people just went for the awesome hot tubs on the sun deck (not that there was any sun) heated by natural hot spring water. Really nice way to relax after my 62 laps. It was also fun talking to the locals, and a German lady who was in Reykjavik as a stage manager to a play. Oh and the opening hours are quite generous too: 6:30 til 22:00, it’s 6ooISK to get in there, or €3.90, pretty much what entrance to a pool in Amsterdam costs, except they don’t have the hot tubs ;). You can also rent towels, should you have forgotten yours.

Most of the afternoon was spent with one of my students in a coffee shop where the first Norah Jones CD was on repeat. We managed to finish our demo after about the 4th repetition of the CD. After some chillin’ at our airbnb apartment reading a travel guide, I decided to try to find the Kringlan shopping centre and go to a big supermarket there called ‘Hagkaup‘. Kringlan was alright, quite like shopping centres you find in the US and stuff. Also lots of chains that we have in the Netherlands too. Although I did discover my new favourite shop: Tiger (and the Internets told me that they have a shop in Amsterdam too!). I bought the awesomest notebook sleeve there for less than 10 euros, I’m a happy camper 🙂

The supermarket was quite interesting too. I like hanging around in supermarkets and seeing what kind of local foodstuffs they have. In Iceland there is a lot of cured fish (which smells despite being packaged in plastic) and frozen bread. They also have a huge organic food section, where I scored some nice chocolate. Most of it is more expensive than in mainland Europe, although it is a bit difficult to figure out as there is some math involved (1000ISK is about €6.50). I did find Euroshopper oatmeal, which was 109 ISK (€0.70) and which I get for  €0.41 here. Anyway, I found some apples, ingredients for pasta, the aforementioned chocolate and some deodorant because mine had exploded all over my toiletries on the flight in and we were good for a nice home cooked meal. Without a glass of wine though, as the state off-license had already closed.

On my way back I strolled through the Klambrátun where people were practicing their fly-fishing technique on the grass (makes sense I guess) and playing football in big balloons. The cool thing I found about Iceland is that the weather isn’t amazing (3 out of 5 days there is rain) but they are quite outdoorsy, so you’ll also see terraces to sit out and lots of nice parks with cool things to see.

Wednesday was the first day of the conference. I didn’t have to present myself so I could just enjoy lots talks, which I did, all the way up until 19:20 when they ended. Then for some reason we had to wait until 20:00 for the reception to start, but there were lots of people I hadn’t seen in a while to hang out with. The reception was pretty awesome. Really nice food and a little jazz combo playing in the background. After the reception, a little group formed and we meant to go out to the Lebowski bar, since it was still light outside anyway. Sadly they had a private party going on, so we ended up in the karaoke bar. We found that karaoke in Reykjavik is a bit unorganised. You can request songs, but they will play requests in a random order without announcing which song will come up. If you hear your song, you need to run to the stage and grab the mike. If someone is already there, they can sing your song, or if the second mike is still available you and your friends can sing the same song independently of the other person(s) singing it. It’s all OK. At the end of the evening everyone will be up or around the stage (or on the floor) singing along to everything.

Thursday was a long day at the conference, since I was co-presenting one of my posters during the last poster session which was supposed to end at 19:20. However, lots of people were interested in our stuff (which is awesome!) so we didn’t get done until around 20:00. I dropped off my poster and laptop at home, grabbed my bikini and then walked all the way to the other end of town to hang out with a crew that had an even better Airbnb apartment that contained a hot tub. And a porcelain tiger and the bust of a nun on a column. Weirdness. I made it back to my place around midnight where Paul had just arrived from the airport to spend a few days traipsing around Iceland.

On Friday morning, we managed to make it to the keynote (OK, missed the beginning, but got the cool stuff, and that’s with stopping in town on the way for coffee). In the morning I got to co-present another poster, which also garnered a lot of attention so we were quite busy answering questions and listening to suggestions there too. After lunch, I sat in on a session in which a paper on which I was a co-author got presented and where there were some more super interesting talks on hip hop and narrative structure (only the latter is really relative to my work ;)). I skipped all the formal closing stuff to go drop off my stuff and grab my bikini again, because the conference dinner would take place at the Blue Lagoon with an optional pre-dinner swim session.

My travel guide says that they seriously overcharge you at the Blue Lagoon, but that in this case it’s worth it. I wholeheartedly agree. When we got to the Blue Lagoon, it was raining and super windy. So you get inside, change into your bathing suit in the warm locker rooms. Take it off again at the showers. Throw a lot of conditioner in your hair and then you run outside, like this:

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But the water is so lovely! The floor is rocky but with a fine layer of sand or volcanic dust or whatever. In the corners are ‘mud stations’ where you can spoon up some mud to put on your face. Don’t face the wind when you have that stuff on your face though because it will blow in your face. There are also some steam baths and saunas. Then the guys who look like astronauts (because it’s raining) will come and tell you you have to get out, which is weird because it’s still light. But since we were getting a bit peckish we complied. We then took over the restaurant where there was some excellent sushi again, as well as lots of other bits and nibbles I didn’t recognise. I did recognise the chocolate fountain though and hung out in its vicinity for a fair part of the night 😉

On Saturday, we decided to take it easy, so we slept in until about 10 and hung around Reykjavik. We found a really nice coffee place called Reykjavik roasters (their hot chocolate was also very nice). I then slept some more in the afternoon before we had a quick dinner at the Chuck Norris Grill (Laugavegur 30). Just fast food, but it’s a fun place.

 

Surf trippin’ around Europe

This spring I got to make two surf trips (kind of). The first was to San Sebastián in combination with a project meeting (the perks of being a researcher), the second with a bunch of awesome ladies that I got to travel to England with last year.

San Sebastián was, as always, a great little escape for a few days. I got quite lucky that it was warm and sunny, because the weeks before the weather had been dreadful. When I was there though (early April) it was even nice to surf without gloves (I so hate gloves). It was quite windy though so I did wear my cap every now and then. I rented a board at the Pukas surf shop, which is just really nice. They’re right on the boulevard by Zurriola beach and you can swap the board whenever you need something bigger or smaller. I started out with a 6’4″ shortboard, but that was just really too small for me, so I went back and got a 7’0″ banana (it was yellow). As they closed early on Sunday, I got to keep the board at my hotel overnight. On Monday morning the waves were pretty OK. In the afternoon I traipsed around town for a bit, read a magazine and did a bit of prep for the meeting, and checked into my apartment where I would be staying for the meeting (I was staying at a hotel closer to Zurriola the first few days). The apartment was pretty awesome too, had a great view of La Concha, and I managed to check in using my rather basic (but improving) Spanish skills. In the evening the waves were super small. But I did get to trade in my board again for just the awesomest pink flowery Walden Magic Model. It was super sweet. And I got to catch a lot of waves. I did have to book it back to the central square to meet my colleagues for an informal tapas dinner, which meant being guided through the nicest places to eat the awesomest stuff that tourists normally don’t know to ask for.

Sunrise over La Concha

Sunrise over La Concha

The next night, we had a big dinner and cider tasting at one of the cider houses in the hills just outside Donostia. Another proper treat. Life is good in Spain.

Actually it’s pretty good on the whole Iberian peninsula, as early May I got to spend a week in sunny Portugal. With the 5 surf buddies, we rented a lovely apartment in Sagres for a week, two cars and a bunch of longboards. Pretty sweet! I was happy I could go though because the week before the trip I had some weird swollen head. I woke up on Sunday morning May 1 with a head like a balloon, and a super sore skin on my neck. I first got some antibiotics but that didn’t work (so no bacterial infection), so a couple of days later I went to the GP again and got some antihistamines and some cream. She said it was supposed to start working in a couple of hours, but it didn’t quite, go down. With daily naps and an icepack on my cheek it did start going down on Friday. My skin was still a bit flaky when I got to Schiphol, but I didn’t scare anyone too badly 🙂

At Faro we got our rental cars, and I got to drive a really nice van which we rented from Zitcars, a local place and they’re awesome! We didn’t have to pay or register additional drivers and they were pretty cool about us sand into it (although we did try to clean it).  On the way to Sagres, we took the motor way, which was quite nice, although I didn’t realise the van had 6 gears. But we used those the other days ;). On Saturday it was first quite the undertaking to find some suitable longboards as most surf shops mostly rent out soft tops. Luckily we secured four boards for Saturday from two different shops and found some lovely waves at Cordoama. The next day, we traded in one of the boards we didn’t like and I picked up a nicer board from Jah-Shaka (the 9’2″ NSP I also surfed in November). We traipsed around several beaches on the south shore and set out to find the ‘secret’ point break (Ponta Ruiva) to no avail so we ended up at Cordoama again. The next day we first went to the market and bought some fish and then met up with a local for a little surf lesson, who also helped us find the point break and helped us position ourselves for the take-off (above a big flat rock that is only 2ft under water, only mildly nerve racking but a wonderful experience). The location was amazing. On the way back, Suzanne, Marieke and I went for a few sunset waves at teeny but beautiful Beliche where we got to put the afternoon’s tips into practice in slightly less challenging conditions. The rest of the week we also surfed at Mareta, Beliche again, and I even managed to get my bum out of bed for a dawn session at Zavial one day. The sunrise was beautiful, although I’m so not a morning person! Zavial changed a lot since last year btw, the storm washed all the sand away so there is not much beach left, it’s also not quite my favourite spot, but everyone has their own preferences. We had some really fabulous food at a lovely little place called Mum’s in Sagres, as well as some great home cooked meals at our apartment (I lit the BBQ!).

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The last two days, there was a lot of wind on the west coast, but it wasn’t really coming around the bend to the south coast, so we had to find a slightly sheltered spot. We found this at Arrifana, which I hadn’t been to yet. It’s a really gorgeous beach too. Again much less sand than last year apparently. We ended our holiday on the beach officially with a lovely lunch overlooking the beach after a great last surf session together. On the drive back to the airport we took the slower local route because we wouldn’t be able to pay the tolls (which are to be paid 48 hours  after using the motor way at the post office, which obviously wasn’t going to happen.). Anyway, we had time for a little ice-cream break on the way, and still made it on time, returned the car without a dent, and happily got back to Amsterdam with a tan and lots of new happy memories.

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Winter

This year wasn’t a real winter in NL to be honest, we only had a few days below 0 and no snow. This was fine by me as snow does tend to interfere with getting around Amsterdam a bit and I had a lot of getting round to do. First of all, I was co-teaching a course, so it’s kind of nice to be on time for the students 😉

There was also a trip to Luxembourg, for our project review. According to Google maps it’s about a 4-hour drive, and even though it’s only about an hour’s flight, with getting to and from the airport, that sort of is almost 4 hours too. So one Sunday in February, I set out with two colleagues to Luxembourg city. They did give me an upgrade on the car so we had this massive SUV. I’m never getting an SUV again, the thing just sucks up petrol like I don’t know what..too much anyway. Although it was quite comfy, and had a decent sound system. We started off in Luxembourg by a test drive for the review, naturally we had just gotten started and then they decided to do a fire drill, so we all had to pack our stuff, get out of the building and then try to find our way in again. At least it happened during the rehearsal and not the actual review. Although someone lost in the maze that is the EU buildings did exit through the fire exit during our review resulting in about 10 minutes of a nasty siren next to our room. Luckily the reviewers didn’t mind and we got to carry on and got some pretty good results out. Sadly partying in Luxembourg is a bit difficult, partly because half the team had to travel back already, and for those left the pubs closed at midnight. Oh well…

I did get to see some of winter though, as I went snowboarding with my brother, sister-in-law and two other friends. Like last time, Frank and Joyce sorted out the trip, so all I had to do was pack my bag and get in the car with them, pretty awesome! We actually went to the same apartment as last time, near Zell-am-See, although we did go out to see a few more different ski areas this time. Last time we hung out mostly around Zell-am-See and Kaprun, this time we also got to go to Kitzbühl, Saalbach Hinterglemm and Flachauwinkl. I did start off a wee bit too enthusiastic on the first day, fell on my bum, and was happy I could borrow some crash pants the next few days. It was also a good choice to get a snowboard lesson one day with an instructor who could also tell me the difference in stance between surfing and snowboarding, that really helped my turns a lot. It was however quite warm already (OK it was the first week of March) so the slopes were getting a bit bad as the day progressed and the sun gained strength. This only meant that we had to take off our warm jackets and sit in the sun whilst sipping aperol spritz. Sucks to be us 😉

An American Christmas holiday

We’ve been super lucky the past few years that we’ve been able to go to Florida for the Christmas holidays and this year was no different. However, we did decide to shake things up a bit by stopping in Atlanta for a few days to nurse our jetlags and just to see the town. And we did quite a bit of touristy sightseeing thingies!

First stop: South City Kitchen, for what better way to celebrate being in the US again than buttermilk fried chicken? It was awesome! Just waay too much, but nothing new there. Our hotel (the Artmore) was super conveniently located right by a metro stop and the High Museum of Art (more on that later). It was super cold the day we arrived in Atlanta btw.

Luckily the next day the weather was sunny and even a wee bit warm so we decided to walk to Downtown. We passed Margaret Mitchell’s house and made a brief stop at Starbucks where I had instant oatmeal for the first time in my life (not bad for fast food) and then we happily traipsed along Peachtree Street until we hit Baker Street and eventually World of Coca Cola. I used to drink coke quite a bit, but I kind of gave up on it after my stint in LA (not a high-fructose corn syrup fan) but it’s still awesome to see the museum/experience/whatever-you-want-to-call-it. The bit about the ‘secret recipe’ was a bit tacky, but the bottling factory is pretty nifty, as are the ads, and the memorabilia. It’s a strong brand and it’s quite entertaining where they came from. We also absolutely loved trying out the different drinks that Coca Cola sells in different markets. Some of them are super sweet, some of them are funky coloured and others are quite tart. All of them carbonated which makes your stomach a bit bloated. Time to get some fresh air! Luckily there’s a nice park nearby.

After trying to find a nice lunch place, Paul thought it would be a good idea to try Buckhead, a more fancy area, where indeed we found some super nice food at Yebo (I had a bobotie bread bowl, yummy!). Apparently the idea was that you ordered several ‘small dishes’, one was plenty. I also got a new pair of Vans (since I’d left my ancient Vans with lots of holes in them in Australia). But the day wasn’t over yet because we had also picked up some tickets to that night’s Atlanta Hawks vs the LA Lakers basketball match. I’m not a huge basketball fan, but it’s was a good way of staying awake, and it is kind of a party to go to these kind of things in the US. Also, we’d never seen the Lakers play in LA, and I a basketball game was the only one of the ‘American sports’ games that I hadn’t seen live yet. I think Atlanta won, but we didn’t really care so much.

The next day we went for a slightly different kind of entertainment by visiting the High Museum of Art which has a pretty awesome collection of all sorts of things but our favourite was the modern and contemporary art collection. After that, I convinced Paul that the Trader Joe’s was ‘just around the corner’ so we set out to walk there, but it turned out the Piedmont park is pretty big, so it was a slightly longer walk than anticipated. However, I did get to score several bags of chillied mango (if anyone knows where to get them in NL, I’d be much obliged) and we got to sit in the sun afterwards as the weather had improved quite a bit. Then, in the evening it was already time to find an even warmer place, namely Pensacola Florida!!!

We had a really fabulous two weeks in the sun there, got to hang out with Paul’s friends, surfed a bit, partied a bit, had lovely food, and we even got to stay out at Margaritavilla one night (Christmas present from Paul’s parents). We had been there for lunch before, but the rooms are super nice too. And I got to walk into the shower with my surfboard, which is always a bonus. Paul also bought some water repellent trousers made of recycled plastic bottles and of course had to try them out in the sea ;).

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We also got to visit Bellingrath Gardens, a bit estate in Alabama which has some of the coolest christmas light shows ever. On the way there we also stopped at Fairhope, a cutesy little town on Mobile Bay. It was quite hard to find the town centre, but our search was rewarded with some lovely little shops to browse. On New Year’s Eve we decided to try out Pensacola’s nightlife, which started with the Symphony in the main theatre, from which we descended into less high culture via World of Beers and a food truck to the Pelican Drop in the main square, which was good fun (and much nicer to do in a warm place such as Florida than out in the Dutch cold). It was an excellent way to start 2014 🙂

 

 

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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!

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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.

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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 🙂