astro will

short for astronomy william o balmer ;~)

first time out of the country

in which I travel to "across the pond" for astronomy conferences and enjoy the summer sun

This summer I was afforded the opportunity to travel out of the country for the first time in my life. Earlier this spring I signed up to attend two conferences related to my specific division of astronomy research, In the Spirit of Lyot ’22 and Coolstars #21. I packed my bags, dropped my kitty off with her godparents, and set off from the airport with my suction-sealed ma sk in hand.

I had a quick flight from Baltimore to JFK airport, and then steeled myself for a grueling flight to Amsterdam. For some reason, the institute scheduled my flight to arrive in the Netherlands at 6am on Monday, when the conference was scheduled to begin the same day at 9am.

Arrival in Leiden, the Netherlands. View down the canal from outside my hotel.

I had a loopy first day, taking a taxi (for an outrageous price, but I couldn’t wait for the train) from Amsterdam to my hotel in Leiden. Arriving at around 7:15am, I checked into my hotel and left my suitcase, and went to get some caffeine and pick up my poster, which I had sent ahead to be printed a few blocks away from the conference venue. I got a matcha lattee and a limoncello cannoli from a cafe, where I bumped into a few grad students who recognized me as a conference goer by my poster tube, and waited til the printer’s opened.

First “breakfast” abroad: caffeine and sugar

Poster in its titular tube, I set off towards the conference venue where I encountered two (recently made) collaborators (turned conference organizers for the week) outside giving lost scientists like me directions into the building. I got my badge and met some friends also arriving early, and went upstairs to set up my poster in the poster room.

My poster spot at In The Spirit of Lyot ’22, presenting some of my work using the GRAVITY instrument on the VLTI to study the atmospheres of substellar objects and exoplanets. I am wearing a ditto-embroidered shirt under my blazer.

I ended up meeting a bunch of my collaborators, who I had become acquainted with virtually, in the flesh over the course of my week in Leiden. That was probably the best part of the conference. It was exciting to be around people who all study similar things and who are all experts in the stuff I’m interested in. It was also nice to be able to see my undergraduate advisors Kate and Kim and reconnect with friends from the Five Colleges who were in attendance.

My PhD advisor Laurent managed to make it out to Lyot for a few days, and helped introduce me to some of his friends/colleagues. I felt a bit awkward there on my own, so Laurent’s arrival was a welcome change of pace. Even if he had to leave early, he helped me feel more confident in what I was presenting. The summer evenings are so long in the Netherlands, and I remember having a dinner outside that lasted until 10:30 while it was still light out!

A candid photo (thanks to conference organizer Nienke) of Laurent introducing me to Gael Chavin and Lucie Leboulleux. Two people I was too scared to introduce myself to, but really hoping to meet!

I was mega-jet-lagged my first few days in Leiden, so I got to wake up fairly early each day and roam around the city. I visited Leiden Castle, a cute bakery, and a nice cafe!

A selfie at Leiden Castle
The gate into the castle
A caffeinated beverage atop my notebook at the cafe

I spent a fair amount of time exploring, just wandering around the city while the weather was nice. I found my way to the botanical gardens and to the old Leiden Observatory (now law school offices).

Selfie outside the old observatory
River through Leiden

Eventually, though, my time in Leiden came to a close, and I had to prepare to journey down to France for my second conference. The train ride to Paris was smooth, and I caught a taxi from the Gare du Nord to the Gare Montparnasse. I narrowly avoided being left in Montparnasse and walked the length of the train to my seat, and the first leg of that trainride seemed to progress smoothly as we wound our way down the French countryside.

Tragedy struck then, 30 minutes outside of Bordeaux, when there was a bump, and then the train came to a halt, and then the AC shut off, and we realized we were slowly losing power in the train. I struggled to try and google translate what was being said by the conductors over the intercom, and am not sure to this day whether we hit a ram on the tracks, blew a fuse, or we blew a fuse because we hit a ram. Minutes turned to hours like molasses as we slowly sweated ourselves through in the middle of the summer afternoon in this tube of death. I fell into a deep state of despair, but like in an ironically cool and detached way.

I eventually asked my seat neighbor if they spoke English and could tell me what was going on, and picking up on it, the rowdy french teenagers in the seats over took me under their wing, interrogating me about my american-ness and translating the conductor’s announcements for my provincial one-language brain. When they would lapse back into rapid french, and realize they had left me out, they would sometimes say “oui oui baguette” comedically and look apologetic.

We eventually were led off the train, into the grasses along the track, and across the rails to another half-full train that took us back to Bordeaux, where we caught a train to Toulouse. I can’t thank those french teens enough for their emotional support that evening. I won’t forget the absolute beauty of the night sky during that walk across the rails that evening though. In the middle of the countryside, with bright city lights obscured by hills, the stars were vibrant and pure.

the river through toulouse

I managed to make it to Toulouse, my destination, early Sunday morning, and taxi’d to my hotel. From there, I got myself situated and rested up after my exhausting train experience, and took some time to explore the surrounds before tucking into bed.

the moon over some buildings

I hated the 3 hours of Paris I experienced, but Toulouse really was an incredible city, so much so that I skipped large portions of the conference I was attending just to hang out and explore. I realized that trying to attend two conferences back to back was not a good idea, about two days into the second conference. Instead of overexerting myself, I just hung out.

they have some good froggin’ food in france, and if the institute is paying per diem, you know i’m gonna taste it

I got to meet some cool people in person and explore a new place, which was probably far more enriching than the talks I missed. To my credit, I made sure to attend the talks and discussions that were most pertinent to my work, and did my due diligence meeting the people I felt like I needed to meet.

many fun stickers in the alleys of the city – did you know that ho chi min, vietnamese revolutionary leader, was a key agitator in the founding of the PCF?

I also had the opportunity to share my research to a broader audience at Coolstars than I did at Lyot, because I was given a talk slot at one of the substellar object splinter sessions. I got a lot of positive feedback on my talk, and met some interesting collaborators.

my title side
and my conclusions

my last day in france, I took a day trip to the Pic du Midi observatory in the pyrenees. I returned down the mountain and flew home the next day without much pomp or circumstance. overall, my first time visiting another country (two, even) was really positive. it reminded me how hostile the design of american life is, but also how similar protestant countries like the netherlands are to america. i loved my time in the south of france, and i loved the beer i had in both countries. at the end of the day though, i was very glad to return home to my kitty and my own bed. here’s to the next adventure. until then, clear skies.


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