30 June 2015

Go east and down

The Thursdaynighters tend to keep to themselves, but this week we'd liaise with some easterners, looking for a lost stope. It was supposed to be somewhere near Abergele.

The easterners would head up ahead of us. When we were all there and kitted up we set off, and found them quite quickly. Time to go search!

We went to a gunnis, and checked if it lead anywhere. It didn't! Then we checked a cliff for possible entrances. Nothing! But then Ali, one of the easterners, called on modern technology. He knew of a website that had directions. And with the help of that site we finally found what we were looking for. An adit with a tight entrance!

Exploring the gunnis 

Dave, who is of modest stature, tried first. He struggled. I then tried too; he said his ribcage was the biggest issue, and mine may be smaller. And indeed: I slid through like an eel! It might have been the angle I chose, though. I scampered in; it seemed to go! There seemed to be a way down, and it went on further than I wanted to venture without getting the rest. I came back. And now the tone was set, and more people came through.

We explored the way down (didn't go) and ended up at the far end. It actually didn't go further than I had seen! Unless one was suicidal and willing to free-climb a wall of deads. Not my cup of tea.

By that time David had made it through, and wanted to document the occasion for the broken men. He sent me partway up that wall (I was OK with going that far) to light up the higher bits. But when the pictures were taken we headed back. Not much more to see here!

We had cake; the easterners had brought some (and, more importantly, fresh coffee!), and, of course, Mick had managed to get us some too. He had brought it to Phil, and David and I had stopped off on the way to pick it up. Intricate logistics for some cake! Which was a liberal design. Oh dear. But even though we had to deal with all that cake (some of which anatomically correct) we set off early-ish. I was home a quarter to eleven! My kind of trip!

The stope was narrow, high and inclined

Me precariously lighting up the ceiling. All pics by David. 

28 June 2015

Back to Welsh

I did two exams in two weeks. I tried to revise a bit before both. And then, almost immediately afterwards, I went on fieldwork. That's a case of long working days and little time for other things. It also is a rather English business; I overlapped with our Welsh geophysicist for only an evening, and some of the support staff speak Welsh, but I didn't see much of them. The one I spoke with most was one of those who scared me off (accidentally, hopefully) during earlier attempts of communicating in Welsh, and once scared off I struggle to return to try again. So altogether, I didn't speak Welsh for the entire week. Nor did I read any. I don't think I've had a week like that since I started!

When I got back I saw Jenny again, and I had to get back to speed. Amazing how quickly you lose your skills if you don't practice. Luckily things immediately sped up; I told her that I thought I'd register for the A level exam. These are only done in summer, and I have only one summer left on my contract. This might have to be it! She thought I could do it. So far she's never been proven wrong. But she told me that you have to do some project of speaking 20 hours of Welsh with someone, and make a portfolio of the project. You also have to read two books, and they have to be approved of.

I'd better get started soon! I will have some time on the boat for reading. I might as well bring A level-approved books. There was a list. By sheer coincidence, I would do a pub quiz for Welsh learners the next day, and she would be there, so she would bring all the paperwork.

The quiz was fun; I went with Marjan, and we had a good time. Our team was a bit too big, with people on the edges struggling to keep up with the middle, but well, there are worse things. And I saw Jenny, who had forgot all the stuff she would bring. Oh dear! We agreed on meeting again the next day. This way I'm getting back into it rather fast! And the next day I did get the information booklet on the exam, and a booklet with next year's courses (she figures I should not only do the one I'm doing but the next one up at the same time). The first booklet had the reading list, but also the contact details of the person you'd have to get permission from if you wanted to read something else. Time to trawl through the choices; I could still order stuff and have it before departure!

In all that rigour there was one drawback; I had lost one of my main practicing partners. I try to practice underground, and Phil is my main ad hoc tutor. And he had crashed his car, and wouldn't venture underground for a while. That that affects my Welsh is a trifle compared to what it did to his current quality of life, but still. On the boat I wouldn't see him anyway, and I hope that once I'm back on land again, he joins us again, albeit only for calm and responsible trips.

Anyway. It will have to be written Welsh for a while! The ordered books are coming in. Fun to be had!
What's come in so far

25 June 2015

Holiday trouble - already

Last year, I went from a new job to EGU to fieldwork in Laugharne to the cruise to teaching in no time. There wasn't any real opportunity for holidays. Many of my years pass that way. This year, I wouldn't have to prepare for any teaching. Time to seize the opportunity to just go away!

In Norway I had had great fun with glaciers, and had added some Swiss fun to that a few years later. My first thought was to add to that, but I found out that glacier courses and/or hikes tend to be short; I would need as much travelling time to get to a glacier and back as I would have on top of it. That sounded tedious! I checked Norway, Iceland and Greenland. And then I realised I could just as well go to Greenland to walk on rock instead of ice. Greenland was on my wish list either way around! So during Easter I spent quite some time trawling through sites of mountain guide organisations and the likes. And after I had picked one I spent most of a Saturday booking flights and accommodation; the trip would start on Iceland, and I would have to get there, and spend several nights. I felt really good about it; the boring stuff had been done! Now the anticipation could start. But that was not how things panned out.

I had got nervous as when I booked, the trip wasn't guaranteed yet. And no confirmation had come in in the meantime. After my trip to the Netherlands I mailed them again to ask how things were looking. Good, they said. They would say that, wouldn't they?

While I was in Laugharne I got the feared email; the trip had been cancelled. Shit! Could I change any of my bookings? In Laugharne I could do little; I spend about 12 hours a day either in the field or in our lab, where I tend to get zero phone and/or internet signal. Elsewhere it was a little better, but I decided to wait until I would be back.

The last time I had a proper holiday was two years ago, in Scotland with my sister, which only had three takers, so that one had almost been cancelled... and now this time things landed just on the wrong side of this line!

Few days were left between Laugharne and cruise, but the first few were tainted by checking reservations, phoning airlines and travel organisers, emailing insurance companies, phoning airlines again, phoning airlines again, phoning travel organisers again, doing a renewed trawl on internet for accommodation, and all that shit which costs a lot of time, a lot of money, and a lot of frustration, which I had tried to avoid. Oh well. It will work out in the end! And I know this was an incident and organised travel doesn't have to be such a pain, but still, I'm not very encouraged in this revolutionary plan of actually having a proper, elaborate holiday... by the time you have finally managed to book it you need two!

Will I get to see this this summer? Pic by Hgrobe

23 June 2015

Laugharne, a year on

Last year it was being thrown in the deep. This year I was ready.

Two months into my job here in Wales I went to the 3rd year student fieldwork in Laugharne, south Wales. It is a two week event during which the students spend each day studying another aspect of the estuary. They may do CTD measurements on the tidal river one day, understand the processes going on at the beaches the other day, survey the whole estuary in to see at what speed it gets filled in by sand the day after, etcetera. One of these days they go out and sample a surface transect of modern foraminifera samples, and then later that day study the assemblages in the lab. That day is associated with James, but he had asked me (already during the job interview) if I would be willing to join, were I to be given the job. He wanted to go on holiday during the second half of the fieldwork, and needed someone to take his place. Well, modern salt marsh foraminifera assemblages, that's right up my street! So I had said I was willing indeed. I didn't worry about the taxonomy, but of course there is more to a fieldwork than that.

When we got there I realised I would have to give a general lecture in the field, on this site, and on the whole process of palaeoenvironmental reconstruction. And then another one on forams and their applications. And I had to oversee the coring of the fossil core, of which the students would have to interpret the fossil foraminifera assemblages. I had no idea what the students would do with the core, or with the foam data. It was a steep learning curve.

This year I would clearly start better prepared. I would kick off, and a week in James would appear, and he would take over. I was confident, but also a bit apprehensive, as our improvised lab is very small, and this year we would have very many students. We would have six students most days, and then the lab is rather full. The only ways to get to a student with a question tend to be clambering over furniture or through a window. But I would have assistance! Our former student Zoe (she had just finished her masters) who had been with us on the ship last year would come to help out. Great! Even though that would mean even more people in the lab...

My first job was to get there; I drove a minibus with five students south. When I got there I had to unpack all the boxes and turn their contents into our lab. The next day would be a doddle; just a walk during which someone else did the talking. I had done that day the previous time, but it was good to jog my memory. I can refer to that during my own field lectures. And that day also has a lot of hilarious tidal creek crossing. So I went along!

Students overlooking Pendine Beach

Laugharne castle (difficult to avoid adding a picture of it)

The next day the proper work started. I had a full lot! This time, though, the field part of the trip was nicer; I had changed the exam a bit, taking questions out I found silly, and adding some I found interesting. This time my talk was less a copy of James' and more an inspired lecture. Went well!

After lunch the students analyse their samples; that takes forever. Last year we had had several 14 hour working days, albeit with a one hour break. This year started well; the students needed less than 12 hours! And they were rather nice and enthusiastic. And every evening, all the staff come together for dinner, and tend to discuss what they think of the students they have had during the day. Everybody came back with good stories! This was clearly a good year, albeit somewhat busy. And something else I liked is that I had taught many of them already earlier in the year; people are nicer if you know them!

There were some more improvements; we had a microscope-with-camera setup, which was great for being able to point particular features of the forams out to students. It worked a treat! And I had streamlined the sample preparation a bit; some of it was probably a relic of earlier times and had lost its significance.

Student taking a sand flat sample

Working hard

The next day was even better. Nice and fast students. They needed even less time than the previous lot; I forgot if it was this lot or the next, but one of them managed in ten hours! And the second day batch not only brought tea bags, milk and sugar, but even left some for the students of the next day. It's a lovely bunch. The last batch that I had to do were rather varied; all nice, but one was incredibly fast, and two others very slow, leading to an old-fashioned 12-hour day. And that was with the fast ones helping out the slow ones (which again was very nice).

 Sharp timing: the tide coming in there and then

In between all the forams I managed to get a few runs in. I had been scouting the area a bit, and found some of the back roads rather good for running. One morning we even went with four people! Lots of runners this time. One of them was our local sports hero Suzie, who last year had been in training for  the European rafting championships. European! Blimey. This year she was training for an iron man event. She doesn't do things by half. Soon two of the ladies (it had accidentally been a female-only run) had to turn back. But I kept up! That boosted my confidence. And the route was great too, thanks to Suzie also being less of a Luddite. I just run about a bit in a trial-and-error fashion, but she immediately came up with a handy app and had a circular route planned literally in seconds. Spiffing! We decided to do that route again.

Another perk of Laugharne is the cooking; staff take turns, and tend to cook to an amazing standard. And that is good for everybody, but best for the micropal group; we tend to be pretty much the only ones having lunch in the chalet park, so we can eat all the leftovers! It was an excellent year again.

After four days of assemblage counting my time was up. That night, James would appear, and take over. He was amazed by our new set-up. I think he'll enjoy his part of the field trip! I drove home tired but satisfied. Maybe again next year?

Another first: cattle on our route to the salt marsh

21 June 2015

Deep into a lead mine

Paul was going to show some new mine explorers around in a local lead mine, and I thought I might join. Exams were over, Laugharne and cruise were looming, so I might now have a small window of some relaxed mine enjoyment before I would be above ground for a while.

Paul, David and I drove to Llanrwst where we met Chris. The idea had been he'd take his son Ethan along, but he had been misbehaving and grounded, so it would be Chris alone. At the mine itself we also found Edwyn. Off we went!

Chris didn't do SRT, so we would have to stay on the same level. We pottered in, took it easy, looked at stuff, even tried some tiny little side tours you can do by clambering into the stope, clambering past a few ore chutes, and then clamber down the next suitable one. After a while we reached the ladderway up the flat rods, we went up there. By then it was time for a brew, but we decided to do the flat rods first. We heard voices when we were in the shaft the flat rods lead to; I said to David it would be hilarious if we would find Linden there, given that when I was at the bottom of this very ladderway in November 2014 I had bumped into that very chap.

The voices didn't approach, so we figured they may be waiting for us; we went back. To find Linden. Funny! We exchanged some smalltalk and we were off. We were looking for a good lunch spot, but found nothing for a while. In the end we came to the series of collapses I had only been to once before finding anything good. We decided to just settle for the junction behind the collapses for lunch. Paul's stove was put to good use!

After (late) lunch we went on, past the ore chute deviation trolley thing, and beyond. We found another ladderway up I'd never up; it was great! It went all the way to the top. After coming down we soon reached the end of the drive. But a ladder lead up a level; we had a look. It went into a stope of which the false floor had come away. The end for us! It was getting late. We also had to see Mick. We turned back.

The ore chute deviation thingy

More ore chutes

We moved back rather quickly, and came out in the sultry weather. That it was already 6PM didn't stop the men from wanting to see the hole into which Parc drains. It was 7PM before we were back at the cars and I had Mick on the phone. We said goodbye to Chris; he'll sure be back! Edwyn also went home, while we aimed for Blaenau.

We got some fast food and went to Mick's. He looked spiffing! Which was even the more remarkable when he told us that when, during a check-up at hospital, he had been ordered to not move and get mentally ready for a helicopter trip to a specialist clinic, he hadn't been on the brink of paralysis as I had thought, but of death. Oh dear. Now he was happily pottering around. He's making amazing progress! He had been given the OK to start driving again soon, and that way his action radius will increase. We should do some Thursday Night surface trips he can join!

Of course I was home later than I would have wanted to, but it had been nice to see Parc all the way to the far end. And it had been good to see Mick!

19 June 2015

Last exam

I had missed the opportunity to do the beginner's Welsh exam in January, as I would have had to register in summer, and I had found out too late. That wouldn't happen to me again! As soon as registration opened I registered for the next opportunity to do it. And while I was at it, I registered for the next one too. I mean, I could easily do the beginners' one now, in six months I should be able to do the next one up too. And then I registered for the next one up from there, the GCSE, not because I thought I would be ready but because my tutor Jenny thought I would be, and because I didn't want to miss out in case I indeed would turn out to be able to pass it.

By the time the exams approached I ditched the beginners' one; that would really be a waste of time. Too easy! And I felt good about the GCSE, so there wasn't that much pressure on me for the other one, the Sylfaen exam. That was why I had gone underground the night before. My efforts to lug David out of that mine resulted in me being home at midnight (the mind reels thinking how late it could have been if I hadn't done any lugging), which wasn't very good preparation. I woke up with a bit of a headache. Then I got the news of Phil's accident just before the start.

The exam started with reading; I find that the easiest. I was done in 10 minutes, while we had 40 minutes for it. Then we did writing, which I was confident about as well. Not very exciting topics; I wrote a farewell letter to an imaginary friend and a newspaper article about learning Welsh. Then we did the lsitening part; I am confident I did that flawlessly. Then the written part was over; I now had some 2 hours for lunch.

I decided to first have a kip in the grass. I was knackered! I then bought some apples as I was running out, and then I did some reading for work. No use preparing for the oral part! That would have to be improvised.

Finally, the time came for the oral part. I didn't do excessively well I think, but hey, good enough for Sylfaen. So no I can only wait for the results to come in. They are expected in August. Hopefully, early August!

16 June 2015

Bad night

It didn't start out bad at all! It was a beautiful evening, and we were heading for a mine I didn't know. We gathered on a lay-by, changed, and headed up the hill to look for the entrance. And we soon found several! In addition to a lovely view. We picked a promising-looking hole and rigged it up. I went down first; I found a small stope with a pitch leading further down, with most of the rigging in place. I thought we had no rope with us other than the one I had come down on, so I thought that was it, but it wasn't; the tail end of our rope reached all the way to the bottom of that second pitch. And while I was scampering around underground Phil had arrived with another rope. So we rigged that pitch too!

The view from the hilltop

 The woods had been rearranged since any of us had been here previously

Before that happened I had a sneaky look in a side passage; it had pretty drippies, and it lead along another stope of which the false floors had collapsed.

When I came back David had rigged the second pitch. Soon he was down, and confirmed there was a way out from there; we could make this a through trip. Small complication was that either we would have to re-rig the top pitch as a pull-through (not easy in this situation) or someone would have to walk back up and retrieve the rope.

I came down too. Next down would be Brian. I had just scampered out of a hole back towards David when Brian shouted a warning. David said "maybe stay where you are for now"; the warning had related to rocks falling. Unfortunately, where I was happened to actually be in their path, and I had an unpleasant (though solidly undramatic) encounter with one of them. I decided to go back down the hole for now...

A bit later most of us were down, and it was clear we would have to retrieve the rope. I was keen on not being home too late (as usual) so I said I'd go out, get the rope, and meet the others at the exit. I went out with Brian, as he lives in the Wirral and has a long trip home, and was thinking the same as me. I went up the hill where beautiful pink evening skies flaunted their stuff, and tried to pull the rope up and roll it up neatly while keeping off the midges. That wasn't working! I tucked the messy tangle under my arm and walked back to the adit. There I had a second attempt. I hoped by then the others would have appeared, but they hadn't. I decided to go back in and speed things up. Brian decided to not wait and go back to the cars.

Pink skies

Gratuitous selfie

I went in, and soon saw light. I found the men at another pitch down we could do. What most of them would do was their decision, but David was my passenger so I could not leave without him. I had warned him in advance I would have another Welsh exam the next morning and wouldn't want to make it a late night, but that tends not to be enough. Such trips are full of people who vent good intentions of early nights at the start of the trip, but who get carried away and end up lingering like there's no tomorrow. I tend to stick with my opinions, so I started to pull David's sleeve with my catchphrase "can we go home now?". Some exchange of opinions followed. Fortunately, that exchange did have the desired result. We headed for the exit.

There was cake, courtesy of Mick who due to his physical state could not he there, but which hadn't stopped him from supplying baked stuff, and I knew I could not whisk David home without enjoying such. Finally we could leave. The end of a successful trip. But the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the Thursday Nighters.

The next morning, minutes before the Welsh exam, I got an ominous email from David. It just asked me to call him ASAP. Oh dear. I did, and he told me Phil had had an accident on the way back from our mine trip. No! We were still coping with Mick only just having escaped death and paralysis and having a full-time job revalidating for the coming months, while he recovered from heavy back surgery, and now we had Phil in hospital. How long would he be out of the running? Hopefully not long! And there even was a member of the club I had never met because of a traffic accident. He had not only got seriously injured, but had also caused the accident, landing him in prison. It could well be all three men would resurface around the same time; we might have to schedule some easy trips for our damaged friends! Clearly, if you want to be a mine explorer and stay safe, then don't come out of the mine! Inside you might just sustain a small dent due to a fallen rock, but in the outside world you risk leg and back! I hope all men are back to immaculate health soon...

15 June 2015

Other side of the coastal path

Go east, young woman! I told myself. I normally go for a longish run in thew weekend, and I had spent several weekends running clockwise along the northwest coast of Anglesey, along the Coastal path. But I was tired and a bit stressed and I decided to stay a bit closer to home this time. Less driving time! I decided to go on from where I had left off a long time ago, on the east coast.

It was beautiful. It had looked like I had had the best of the path when I stopped last time, but that clearly wasn't true! I had a great run, even though I sometimes lost the path and ended up inland. But a coastal path tends not to be hard to find back. It was sunny, and there were amazing cliffs! It was a good run. My appreciation for Anglesey is still growing...

Wales as an abstract painting

Quiet bays

Happy selfie

Dramatic cliff

Tourist brochure beach

Liverpool Bay (that Anglesey oversees) is a busy shipping route

14 June 2015

Mystical body

Only after I read this book I realised this year, 2015, is Kellendonk Year. I'm not sure anyone has told the anglophones; I don't think this man's work has been translated into English. But feel free to read on. 

When I bought this book I didn't know anything about it other than that it rang a bell. Good enough reason; if I've heard of it it it must be a classic, mustn't it? And in hindsight it is even rather classical, with the author even having a year of his own and all that. 

So what's the judgement? I liked it! I'm still pondering  what it has told me, and that is a good thing. It is a tale of an unusual and initially very spread-out family; the father, his adult daughter who has left home to train as a physician, and his adult son who has become an art critic in New York. At the beginning of the book the daughter returns home; she seems to have a penchant for dating the wrong men, getting herself into trouble and returning to her father, who seems to have a tactic of convincing her she is of little worth, thereby keeping her close. 

Later on, the son comes home too; he had a boyfriend who was a gigolo, in New York, in the eighties. Does it surprise anyone he contracts a disease? The medical costs inspire the son to start some dodgy speculative trade in art in order to make an easy buck. Later on, his boyfriend dies, and the ground gets a bit too hot under his feet, so he comes back too. He isn't that warmly welcomed back. 

The book explores (at least) the place in the world we have if we let go of the traditional anchors like reproduction and religion. One has to find one's own way. Money, love, art and charity are all being weighed in a style I found pleasant.

So why is 2015 Kellendonk year? He died 25 years ago, of AIDS. This book was his last. Now is the time to reflect on this way too short career, and on how this book is still relevant in our day. I think the main question has not lost any of its validity!

12 June 2015

Fifty in Caernarfon

On Friday I asked my Dutch colleague Jaco, who occupies the office opposite me, if he wasn't coming to the CNS party. He wasn't; he said he had visitors. The next day would be his birthday, and not just any birthday; he would turn 50! I pretended to suddenly remember that was the case, and congratulated him. I felt a bit bad; I'm such a con artist. Of course I knew that! I'd been roped in to his surprise birthday dinner. But I couldn't let on, of course...

The next day I had a Welsh exam preparation class in Bangor. I figured I wouldn't feel like first biking home, and then to Caernarfon; better go straight there. I'd need a lot of time to get there, as it was a very windy day, even by Welsh standards! And of course I had to head straight in the direction the wind was coming from. And I didn't want to arrived too smelly. And I didn't think sitting in a Caernarfon pub, reading a bit, would be such an unpleasant way of spending some excess time. So I set off! There is a cycling route all the way from Bangor to Caernarfon, so it would be nice and low on traffic. This route largely follows an abandoned railway, and is indeed very scenic. 

It looks like a green and pleasant land!

The strait was a bit choppy

I had about an hour left. I thought I'd just drink a beer in a quiet corner in the restaurant, but that was naive; it would only open at six, which was the time we'd booked our table. I retreated to a nearby pub and had a nice time. Then I headed back, six sharp! 

The pub I waited in

Blas (taste in Welsh), the restaurant of choice, which is built against the city wall

Shouldn't they make this street a pedestrian area? 

It had clearly opened a bit earlier. Everybody else was already there! Time to kiss the party animal and his wife, and be introduced to the others, which I didn't know yet. The others were his aforementioned two guests from the Netherlands, and a couple consisting of a Fleming and a Welshwoman. This meant we had 7 English speakers, 7 Dutch speakers (the Welsh lady had her Dutch GCSE), and 5 Welsh speakers of sorts. An interesting blend!

It turned out that when Jaco realised there was one person still missing he figured that person was probably me. But before that my fakery the day before had worked! I must say, being openly festive in sunny Caernarfon is better than faking lukewarm enthusiasm in a gloomy office. The restaurant turned out to be really nice! The food was really good. I had horse radish soup as a starter, and lamb rump as a main course. It was spiffing! The others had similarly spiffing dishes. And the mood was befitting the occasion.

When we were done we got the bill unsollicited; our table was needed for the next bunch of people. That's OK; we could just go to the pub. We went again to the Anglesey Arms for another drink. By then the wind had died down, the clouds had vanished, and it was a beautiful calm evening. It was great to walk along the strait! And a post dinner drink is always nice. 

View from the front door of the Anglesey Arms

One drink was enough, though, for us moderate people. We dispersed again. Time for me to bike back! Even though it was 21:45 it would be light for quite a distance. And now knowing the way and not stopping for pictures I was a lot faster. I only managed to miss my junction, which lead me to make a 4.5 km detour, but hey ho. A good night for me anyway; hopefully an even better one for Jaco!

10 June 2015

Above-ground week with beer in the sun

I flew home on Tuesday. I would do my big Welsh exam on Wednesday. Then I would go underground again on Thursday. I would probably be tired on Friday. But it didn't work out that way! Except the being tired.
I came back to find the Thursday trip moved to Friday. That day was our College of Natural Sciences Grad School Summer Party! Is that important? Not particularly; it's just a bit of boozing in the botanical garden with colleagues. But, in a way, it is; I'm still on a mission to make my life more sociable, and colleagues matter. I wanted to go! And I was very aware that that party would allow me to be home early, while an underground trip never does. And the day after I would have another exam prep class from 9.30 on, immediately followed by a longish bike ride to Caernarfon, for Jaco's birthday. I could do with a bit of rest! And having been gone for a week, the sheer bulk of work that needed to be done before the cruise collapsed heavily on my shoulders. So on Thursday night I just worked until late. And on Friday I did go to the CNS GS SP (to be a bit more concise). I was home by 18:30. Good work! Maybe not spectacular, but maybe a combination of hard work and a relaxing Friday were quite what was needed. The underground will wait until next week!

Juan waiting for me to bike back to Anglesey at the end of the party

09 June 2015

The Big Exam

It went well, I think I passed! Which means I might get my GCSE in August, like my tutor Jenny had predicted! And I know it's dangerous to make such statements before the results are in, but I just have a good feeling about this.

On a beautiful day I biked to the language centre, and went to the indicated room. It didn't look big enough! But this was only where we gathered. The language in there was Welsh; everybody was keen to get into the right mood for the exam. One man was worried; he was the only man! That would change, but in the end there were four women for every man in the lecture room. Weird!

After a while we were picked up and guided to where the written part would take place. We did the reading exercise, and the "fill the gaps"; after a toilet break we also did the listening test. I am certain I did the reading flawlessly; I didn't do so with the gaps. I at least got a plural wrong, and a conjunction of a preposition. Oh well. With the listening I was alright; there was a question which mentioned an interviewer, but I didn't recognise the word as such and guessed it meant "contemporary". Easy mistake! And there was a question where the answer clearly was "the new treatment for diabetes that was developed would not become generally available for another five years" (but then in Welsh) but I didn't know what "treatment" was and hadn't caught the word. I went for "medical stuff"; no idea how many points you get for that. But I'm confident about the rest.

After another toilet break we did the writing part. We had to choose from several topics for a 100 word text, and then fill in a form about our work of about 150 words. For the first part I nominated my neighbour for " best neighbour in Wales". A rather imaginary neighbour, that is; it's a language exercise, not an interview, and talking nonsense is encouraged. I bulshitted my way through the other task as well; it asked for what my job title was. I don't know what "postdoctoral research officer" is in Welsh so I went for "soldier". And what quite often happens when I do these writing exercises happened now too; within no time I was slagging off the Tories. It's good to have a theme!

Then it was lunchtime. I sat in the sun, on the grass in front of the building. And then it was time to go in for the oral part. We got a list of topics about which we would have to talk with an examiner. I picked the statement "learning another language is easy"; we got 20 minutes to prepare. Then we were called; I got an examiner I didn't previously know. She was nice! She started with some smalltalk to let me get used to her, and then we started. The actual examination conversation is recorded, like the one you have to do in April with a non-tutor.

We started talking about language learning, evidently; I have plenty to say about the topic. But after five minutes the "general" part started; she started asking me general questions. Stuff I couldn't prepare for, other than that you can see questions like "where do you work" and "when did you come to Wales" coming from a mile away. And I was aware of all sorts of hesitations, missing words, dodged yes/no questions, failed mutations, but altogether we had a nice chat! And then it was over.

Next week I have the next exam; the lower level one, but of which Jenny says it's actually harder; I think it will be fun! And then in August the results will come in...

08 June 2015

Visiting family

In recent years, I have been hesitatingly seeing my family a bit more. I've been living abroad for yonks, if I come back to the Netherlands I tend to be short of time so I have to be selective in who I see, and my family is a bit of an odd one. The family (on my father's side) are all descendants of my grandfather, who came to the Netherlands in the interbellum. This boils down to my dad, his two brothers, their offspring (two generations of it), and the significant others of all of these. And to start with; none of those who remember this grandfather liked him. He wasn't the most popular of fathers. And in the later generations there is some trouble too. I have spent a lot of the time since leaving home trying to find a place for myself in the world on  my own, but now I'm starting to look back. Maybe because I'm turning into an old fart; maybe because I'm now so certain in myself I can take the trouble with the warmth. And maybe my sister telling me off helped too.

We had had two Christmas dinners with cousins in the past years, and this year I intended to add my sister's birthday to that, and the annual family day. And this year, these would be really close together. Two birds with one stone! I initially hesitated a bit; I would have the big Welshexam immediately afterwards, and the Netherlands aren't the best place to prepare, but one needs to have one's priorities straight. I would just have to make do with the preparation I managed to get beforehand! So I booked tickets.

After applying for the passport I went, as I tend to do, to my mum. She is the odd one out in this story; I have been keeping in touch with her a lot more than with any of my other relatives. She doesn't travel anymore, so if Muhamad doesn't come to the mountain, the mountain comes to Muhamad. I tend to dedicate a day to her alone, and then use her place as a base camp for my travels. That way I spread the visit out a bit; I am always keen to see her soon, but it's nice to later be able to keep her updated on my trip as it unfolds as well. 

The city moat near where my mother lives. It even featured a swimming roe deer during my stay!

She's not been excessively mobile for years now, but this time, for the first time, she suddenly also struggled to hear me, and forgot things. That's new, and I was here only some five months ago! Oh dear. And now with first the student fieldwork looming, and then the cruise, and then hopefully a holiday, I won't be back any time soon.

Next up (familywise) was my dad and stepmum. I would travel with them to the family day in the deep south (one of my uncles lives as good as in Belgium), and we'd have to leave early, so I wanted to get there the day before. When I came in they immediately pulled open the booze cupboard. I shocked them by indicating I wanted a cup of tea and then bed. That youth of today! doesn't know how to have a good time.

The next morning we set off. We would go kayakking on the river Meuse. The day before my father had said "I trust you did tell your uncle you'd be coming?"; that startled me a bit. Eh, well, eh, no! Forgot. Would there be enough vessels? In the morning my father phoned his brother and fortunately this wouldn't be a problem. And my forgetfulness resulted in a nice surprise.

We drove down. And I really mean "we"! My father invited me to drive, in spite of me now being a solid left-driver. I accepted that challenge. An except for me sometimes vaguely fondling the left door instead of grasping the (for me) strangely placed gear stick all went well. And in the old days I figured driving to Belgium was far, but eight years abroad have changed my idea of distance.

We were greeted by my uncle Karel and his wife. They hadn't changed a thing since I last saw them. And later the other brother, Dick, arrived with his girlfriend, and four out of the six of the lower generation. And then three significant others and six children. And a dog. Not complete, but I don't think that will ever happen; this was a good crowd! And it was good to see everybody. Three people I had never met; several were an enormous amount smaller the last time I'd seen them.

We had a chat and some food, and then we went kayakwards. The weather looked a bit menacing! Oh dear. It took a while to distribute everybody over the various vessels; I ended up in a double kayak with my cousin. She didn't trust the weather, and suggested we race to the drop-off point, and hasten to the pub. Aye aye, cap'n! We were off. But not fast enough; soon it started to rain. And not a little bit; it rained cats and dogs. It was such a torrent it was hilarious. And when we thought it was getting better it got worse again. When finally the clouds vanished we saw signs of being near the end. We just drifted along for a bit, enjoying this much improved weather. It was a nice opportunity for some quiet talk. Such a big gathering of people doesn't offer much of that! Still nattering we saw we were actually there; we just only recognised it looking back. We landed.

Getting sorted

Rivalry with my sister and her younger son

My cousin Femke, my captain, enjoying the lovely weather

It's sunny again, and the raft arrives

Soon the other kayaks and canoes appeared too. But we had a raft too! That would take a while. They had a heavy vessel which also suffered from the upstream-heading winds. When it appeared many were glad to be able to go to Karel's comfortable house again.

We sang for my sister who would have her birthday two days later, and had cake and dinner. It was all very snug! But it was a long drive back, and the youngest kid was only four years old, so it was time to leave again. Next year I'll try to be there again!

Celebrating my sister

That night I went back to my mother. I had some quiet time until it was time to head to my sister's house for her birthday party. She had told me the only people I'd know there were our and her husband's parents, but when I approached the house I saw a much younger, but still familiar face. One of my sister's old school friends! I hadn't seen her in almost twenty years, but she was still exactly the same. That was a nice surprise! And later all sorts of other people arrived, but my sister had sent me a who's who so I could keep track of all these new faces. It was nice! Maybe next year again, as well? Depending a bit on how the two events are timed!

I stayed over. This involved finding a rather top-heavy pink horse balloon on my bed; the perks of borrowing your niece's bed. The next morning I had to pick up the passport, rather early. When I got up only Abe was awake; I rustled up some breakfast, and asked Abe to open the back door for me. Shortly before it was time to leave the adults appeared too. I gave their sleepy shapes a hug and off I was.

The last chapter was for my mother again! We went cheese-buying, and even bought a TV. My mother is turning digital. And we sat in the sun with a glass of beer or wine and some of her neighbours. Very nice! Hopefully I'll be back in September!

07 June 2015

Long visit to the Netherlands

On a Wednesday afternoon I stood on Schiphol airport, and my passport was applied for. Time to venture into the hinterland! I had to stay for quite a while since passport-making takes a while, so I had time to see some people, but on the other hand, I also had had to take more days off work that I had wanted, and I had an exam looming. So my plan had been: see some friends, enjoy that, but refrain not from sitting in a corner once in a while and either read scientific literature or practice my Welsh. And so I set off! And of course I would see family too; a whole lot of it in fact, but I’ll poor that into a separate blog post.

I would spend an afternoon with Monique, and that evening have dinner with Floor, and spend the next day with Roelof. This turned into a philosophical time. We might all be either almost-forty or fortysomething, but we're not necessarily people that get things right from the start. Monique was pondering her relationship, and her approach to other people in general; Roelof was pondering the whole world in ways that made my head spin, and Floor makes my head spin whatever he does, and makes me ponder choices.

Walking along 't IJ after dinner with Floor

But there was some simple entertainment too. With Monique I had a nice Belgian beer in an ancient pub with a flirtatious pub cat, and with Roelof I went for a nice walk in barely charted Amsterdam territory. And we went to the movies in the new film museum. Very nice! And between Monique and Floor I popped into the Amsterdam library; when I left Amsterdam, it was still in a building on the Prinsengracht, but in the meantime it had moved. I don't live there anymore but I was glad I could do something about the omission of not having been to their current location.

Inside the library

Taking the ferry to Noord with Roelof

Last but not least I had dinner with Henco and Maaike. And they said what Roelof (in a slightly less philosophic mood) had said too: it would be good to have another zomphop (swamphike). We hadn’t had one in spring as had been a plan, due to teaching commitments, and the autumn before had been worse. So no hop for too long! As soon as the dust has settled I am going to email around.

It was good to see friends. I hope to see them again, on home ground, in Autumn! In what we have much of:beautiful nature. But I got some of Amsterdam's culture to keep me going!

04 June 2015

Quest for a passport

How do you know you need a new passport? When you have some work trip coming up which requires your passport to be valid for 6 months! This is certain to occur 5 months before your passport expires. The previous time it was AGU in San Francisco which sent me to another country to pursue a document of identification, and this time it's the upcoming cruise. And the previous time that other country was sensu lato; I went from England to Wales. This time I went a bit further; I came to the passport desk on Schiphol.

Getting there did come with a challenge; I had a flat tyre on my way to the airport. Luckily I tend to make sure I have a bit of a margin, so I just got out the spare wheel (a bit faster than the previous time, though) and still made it on time. And the plane wasn't delayed either. So far all well!

Not an ideal sight on the way to the airport

I had booked my appointment 2 hours after touching down; I figured I would still be able to make it even if a bit of fog or such like would get in the way. As there had been no fog I popped by immediately to see if maybe they could sort me out now. They couldn't as they were just changing shifts, but they were willing to check my pictures. They were not approved of! Too bad; I liked them. David had made them; it's handy to know photographers. But the Schiphol people decided  couldn't see enough of my ears. So while they changed shift I had new ones made. Not as good, but with more ear! I knew I would miss some detail in that extensive document on passport picture requirements. Anyway. The rest of the stuff I had had to bring was OK.

No left ear! Oh dear. 

With the new pics I came back, and then all was sorted rather soon. Time to book an appointment for collecting the next specimen. I was hoping to do that on the day I would fly back. But no! They didn't have any appointments left. It had to be Monday morning, 8:10AM. Earlier was possible too, but nothing else was available. Well, 8:10 AM then! Not ideal but a lot better than having to fly in another time.

Picking up the new passport went smoothly. It even looks alright, even with the new pic. And this time it's even valid for ten years! That will save me some hassle. And my prediction is that I'll be going on some important trip in nine years and seven months...

03 June 2015

New building: now with a door!

It was a year ago that I started to wax lyrically about the progress made with our new building. Little did I suspect I would still be blogging about building work a year on. The last time I blogged about it things were still moving. But then a long period followed where it took  keen eye to see any progress. There was lots of painting, taking the paint off, and painting again, and digging holes, filling them up again, and then digging holes again.

It wasn't very pleasant. The digging holes tended to require road drills; the bedrock there is very hard. Nobody likes a road drill next to their office. And all the faffing and pootling required (apparently) many vehicles, frequently reversing; the endless beep beep beep beep that makes has driven many people up the wall too.

What I specifically didn't like about then endless building work was that the builders only left a very narrow path to the building the labs are in. They fenced everything else off. Sometimes the path was so narrow you almost had to go sideways; the fences sometimes sagged a lot too, so you had to go sideways at an angle. When it's just you you have to transport that's OK, but it often isn't. A large part of my work involves lugging core sections from the cold store down at the shore to the labs and back. The reasonable way to do that is on a trolley; the buggers are heavy! But no way that fits. As soon as these fences are gone I can finally stop molesting my back carrying the cores, and just cart them around. I can't wait!
The narrow path to the building with the labs in it

The entrance with the doors

Seen from the road

There seems to be a big penalty for the school/university if the building doesn't get taken into use soon, so now things have started to move again. Paths to then entrances started appearing. And suddenly the building acquired a door! That really made it look almost finished. I really hope the noise stops, the area is opened to all, and life can take its normal course at the School of Ocean Sciences. Finally!

01 June 2015


Earthquakes in Nepal, Earthquakes in Kent... It's not comparable. But they were both in the news, and they are more in the forefront of everybody's mind than they usually are. And now even more!

I was just sitting in the office, doing normal office work, when suddenly the building shook. My first thought was a heavy vehicle thundering past. But it was too much! It had to be an Earthquake. I've never felt one before!

The whole corridor erupted in excitement - or should I say, all the geologists in the corridor erupted with excitement. My biologist neighbour didn't seem to care, the physical oceanographer further along hadn't noticed... but me, Jaco the sedimentologist in the opposite office, his geophysicist neighbour and Martin the coastal sediment dynamics man were scampering all over the place, looking for data from the nearest seismological station, which turns out to be the local nuclear power plant. Which we found!

So what was it? It was a quake of 3 on the Richter Scale, its epicentre was just offshore at the western mouth of the Menai Strait, and the quake originated from a depth of 6km. Spiffing! It must have been the same forces that created the much heavier 1984 quake, which features in one of my lectures. It doesn't look like it was the exact same fault, as our epicentre was further north, but it is the same fault system. Geology in action!