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.

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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/

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.

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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.

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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!