30 October 2009

Better culture

Lots of culture to be enjoyed is good! And there are many possibilities here in Plymouth. But only culture still leaves something to be desired. What improves most pleasures in life? Indeed: Germans!

Any research institute that takes itself seriously has Germans. And that's a good thing. Imagine life without them. That would be boring and difficult! And so far everywhere I went there always has been a steady supply. In Amsterdam, on the Marion Dufresne, in Cambridge, in Tromsø... but here things looked bleak. We had Veit, but he went off to become a serious ogling-the-EU-from-the-outside scientist in Germany. And theoretically we had Till, some private-security-scientist, but he was abroad. People spoke highly of his cultural interests. And his readiness to share these with likeminded folks! So I looked forward to his return.

And return he did. The first thing I did was invite him along to Hiroshima Mon Amour. And he accepted! So on a warm october night we did not have to go far to enjoy this icon. It was shown on the campus. Free of charge to those affiliated with the university. The newest flashiest building here houses what is called "peninsula arts", and they provide movies, music, dance, lectures, whatnot... lots of interesting stuff! My job requires me to restlessly run all around Europe, and soon enough also beyond, but in the intervals I have here I don't have to be bored.
And I also discovered a psychological German in the restaurant. Who knows, maybe he could be convinced to lighten up life when Till runs away to his faraway field area, which is rather imminent.

And here I know there's some long distance Germans with whom I can share my thoughts! Maybe some even have seen the movie too. It's one of those that has to sink in! A strange blend of petty human weakness and greater thoughts. And a portrait of a time that for me already is history.

28 October 2009


Yesterday I should have roamed a void! And here I should have spoken of my exploits in the underground realm. But alas, another dark inhospitable realm claimed my attention. My stomach. I ate something wrong some time ago and I still feel miserable. So instead of in a muddy cave I spent my evening in my bed. And the void appears here. Stay tuned; hopefully next week I can spin tales on my postponed debut!

26 October 2009

Reading addiction

Survival of the fittest. Those living in England are not fit for an outdoor activities addiction. The outdoor is too disappointing. In spite of its disappointing local library, however, Plymouth is excellent for a reading addiction. Drizzly weather and cozy houses! Pensive old churches strewn around town to get one in the right atmosphere. And indeed, as soon as I got here it hit me hard. And that's a good thing. It is satisfying and it builds general knowledge!

The brass skull simply must pose for all pile-of-books still lifes, here with the last few books I read, except the library specimens...

I read myself silly from the beginning. I read Lord Jim (Joseph Conrad), Joe Speedboot (Tommy Wieringa), the politics of international crisis escalation - decision making under pressure (Stuart Robinson), Shalimar the Clown (Salman Rushdie), the House of Borgia (Christopher Hibbert), Atomised (Michel Houellebecq), and I'm reading War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy).

I'm a bit of a self-centred xenophobe, and I tend to not be overly interested in warm, distant cultures, but Shalimar the Clown grabbed me. I can recommend it to anyone! Houellebecq I had to read as he, sort of, is the Michael Haneke of literature. The Borgia book left not much intact of the general myth of the poisoning murderous Lucrezia Borgia, but it was interesting too. But the book revealed that the author had also written about the English: I should get my hands on some of that! Maybe then I may start to understand the people that surround me. And then my attack of reading addiction would really pay off!

PS I realised later I had also read Ray Mears' Bushcraft Survival, but that book has so many pictures you read it in no time at all...


These Brits have one things well figured out: tea! It is completely socially acceptable to drink buckets of it. Every day. I like.

And it's everywhere! Dave, the half sea level and half human geography PhD student, once asked Veit if he wanted to go and have a brew. A brew, that sounds like stuff from a brewery, so Veit the German thought he was invited for a beer. But no, a brew is tea! It brews.
Maria gave me tea for my housewarming party, and it came in a package that both illustrates the above, and features a figurine with which I have no difficulty at all identifying.

Today I've been invited to Louise's for tea. Does that mean she'll make me tea? Probably, though that's not really the point. Tea is dinner. That's one of these things in which the Dutch are above average sensible on a European scale: we invite people over for food. And then we give them food. The English invite them for tea, and then they mean food. The Norwegians invite them for "midday", but it won't be at the middle of the day, and they, again, mean food. Confusing!

What I had for "tea" yesterday: brussels sprouts! Sold in a way I had never seen in the Netherlands. And that while we identify with them (or their smell) so much!

Louise by the way is a strange Brit: she does not drink tea. At all. Rob and Wil were more classic Brits: when all the local supermarkets only sold fruit tea and green tea and herbal tea and all sorts of things a Brit does not recognise as tea you could see them get restless...

So far I havent't been thrown out of the country for drinking most of my hot water without having put a tea bag in... but who knows, maybe two years is enough to convert from hot water to a proper brew! And maybe by then I'll also routinely refer do dinner as "tea"...

25 October 2009

Kayakking - everything is different

When I came back from Portugal I found a letter of welcome from the kayak club, and a membership pass. Most of the letter was dedicated to rules and regulations. Nevertheless, I decided to have my debut at the first opportunity. Saturday!
There was going to be a "recreational kayak trip". That sounded modest. And one should leave something to look forward to, so this sounded like a good start. I showed up in good time. I was cordially welcomed into the very well-organised and well-equipped club. What a difference! I could have known. But my brain can't keep up with all the differences.
As I had never touched a river kayak before I decided to try one.

I launched myself, and faffed around for a bit, getting familiar with the kayak. Impossible! These river things go all over the place. A stroke on the right and you swerve off to the left, a stroke on the left and you swerve off to the right.
We launched ourselves among the other equiment of the water sports centre
There was a very stiff breeze, and at sea in front of the town there was a rowing competition going on, so we decided to in the opposite direction: up the river. And that sounds boring, but we went with the wind in our back, and that means that the wind and the waves continuously take the bum of your kayak and twist it off course. I ended up making a few strokes and then having to break, as by propelling myself I could no longer correct for the wind-induced veering off of my vessel. It's a tiring way of kayakking. But somhow tagged along.
The 19th-century, autumnal surroundings provided a fine decor
We went up to Saltram Park, and decided to turn, and to have a break on a nearby beach. It was one where many people go to let their dogs play in the water, so before long we were encircled by exhilirated dogs that flew past, over, and through our kayaks. Many people conjured jars of homemade delicacies out of the minute storage space of the river kayaks (strangely enough most people had chosen these, though sea kayaks were avaliable as well, which probably means one quickly gets the hang of it) and started to offer them to their fellow leisuremen.
People stretching their legs during the break. The gentleman who can be seen still sitting in his kayak has no need for such trivialities: he does not possess legs.

Of course this beach had its own shipwreck. In spite of their exaggerated level of organisedness the English do not bother to clear their waters of wrecks. Every beach seems to need to have at least one, and some have countless many; I should one day make a trip along a whole bunch of them and make a picture documentary...

Kayakking against the wind was much easier! It is not such an issue to go straight. This made it also easier to chat up with people; with the wind in the back I was a difficult conversation partner as I lurched into all kinds of unforeseen directions all the time, and that was solved now. It's a nice bunch of chatty people! There was no adventure in this trip, but it was much more social than any trip I'd ever done in Norway.
Wrestling against the wind does take quite some power, of course, but that was taken into account: we went onto a nearby lake for yet another break. The stock of homebaked flapjacks, brownies and whatnots turned out not to even nearly have been exhausted. The ladies decided to play a prank on me, and tried to convince me I had to do the "Club's swimming test". To their disappointment I did not buy it for a second. The sun had come out in the meantime, and it was a good day!
After the second break we went back to where we had started, but decided to go a bit further still, and peek around the corner of the breakwater, to check how hostile the sea really was, and if we could get a bit of a view on the rowing race. But the sea was fairly hostile and the boats sped past in the distance, so we turned. For a last time I had to cope with the games wind and waves played with me, and then we were back.
I had thought of bringing my dry suit, and a book, and my camera, but I had not thought of the possibilities of things like showers, so I just took the suit off and went, still damp and smelly, to the pub belonging to the water sports centre. Of course I was the first. Soon, however, others showed up, and I spent quite a while chatting up to all sorts of lovely people that I otherwise would not have met. I think I can get used to this!
Somewhere soon I also want to try whitewatering. The club expects people to be able to transport their own material, so as long as I don't have a car that might prove a challenge, but I'll see what I can do. To be continued!

19 October 2009

Portugal: post fieldwork

Iwoke up far too early, and I was still exhausted. So I just doodled around a bit until the men came up with a plan to go to Sines, a somewhat bigger town further north, in order to try to find proper tea (we found none in our own village!), as two Brits will not survive without it, and perhaps find some internet access, and whatever else we would stumble across. Sines did not have much to our liking, so we went east, to Santiago do Cacem, which had both medieval fortifications and Roman ruins. Nice! And a large supermarket outside town even had acceptable tea.

Impenetrable and scorched

Nowadays there was not much more inside these walls than a cemetery

Very Portuguese: Roman ruins beside cork oaks

We tried the internet thing again on the way back. No success! Maybe the internet café is only open in the tourist season. So we went home. Where I dropped in my bed and did not come out before Rob was almost done with dinner. And after dinner I read some over a cup of tea and went straight back to bed. Terrible how much work in the heat can wear you out!
The next day was already better. I did not get out of bed before ten. Our plan was to go to town, check the internet café at an earlier hour than before, and if it would be open they could leave me there. If it would not, they would drive me back, and themselves go to the beach. It became option 2. So I got a nice quiet shadowy day with a laptop to blog on, Tori Amos on the speakers, and Tolstoy as a backup if I needed a break. Good! I got quite some work done too, shamelessly singing to the iPod. And then the men came back. Our cue to start the BBQ that was intended to mark our last day.
The next morning the stress and fatigue had apparently risen high, and the packing, loading, cleaning and leaving did not happen in the spirit that characterized most of the rest of the trip. But we got on our way. And rather uneventfully we reached a camping site just north of Valladolid, where we had a relaxing evening. And by now we have reached the ferry, where internet access is readily available for purchase. And I can conclude this tale of the scorching marshes. Tomorrow we'll have to drive back to Plymouth and then it’s over.
It was not easy, but it was fun (most of it), and I learned a lot. Such a difference already with Iceland! Iceland is paradise, while Portugal is hell, but beside that when we walked onto that marsh in Iceland I never had consciously seen one before. And we had Roland who knows everything. So I was some sort of an observant yak there. And in Portugal I was the second most experienced swamp specialist. Wil sometimes left quite crucial decisions to me. And it was really hard (for me at least) to work in these climatologic circumstances, but I’ll go home, knowing I’m ready for the fieldworks to follow. Which might be drizzly and chilly and whatnot, but I think they will be easier. Wear swamp boots, skiing trousers, goretex jacket, and stay cool.

And I got familiar with cars with the gear box on the wrong side, Rob taught me both cricket and butchering chickens, I now have quite an idea of what Portugal is like, and I survived what felt like the Sahara. Now back to drizzly England and learn tons of other things! And prepare for the next marsh on the Isle of Wight!

18 October 2009

Portugal part III

I slept crap. I shared my bedroom with a noisy gnat, when I managed to sleep I was woken up coughing due to a dry throat, when I was trying to sleep I kept on seeing myself surveying the salt marsh. I was woken u from the first decent stretch of sleep when Wil started clanking and stomping thorough the house. This was not going to be my day.

The morning was trying everything to improve my mood

We were going to take some more surface samples along Transect I, some bonus samples (don’t ask), and somewhere when it was convenient we were going to fill up the pit made for the monoliths. Somewhere along the line, synchronous with scorching sun and rapidly rising water, we encountered an evidently ill-timed communication problem, but we managed to solve it.

With the water already being so high it was a challenge to move about on the marsh we completed Transect II. It had been a long field day. And it may have been the last! A proper evaluation would decide on that, but with a bit of luck we had done all there was to do.

Rob posing as Camel man

The marsh was seriously flooded, and we were positively boiling, by the time we were done, so we again jumped in the river, that by now flowed right over our entire marsh. That enabled me as well to retrieve all the flags marking our surface samples. Wading, jumping, and sloshing would also do the trick, but swimming is more fun. This time I did not have to restrict myself to the channels; I could swim right over most of our marsh. Fun!

Then we retired. Home, to get somewhat freshed up. The men wanted to go to the beach, and I had had enough or blazing heat, but it would be antisocial to not join them, and they promised me a deckchair and a parasol, and with that promise I agreed on going. I got a cool beer with it! And I planned to extract a kilo of bramble thorns from my skin, but it turned out that Rob liked such amateur-surgical activities, so I had them removed for me, and even by a charming young men. In that way a beach is quite acceptable.

On the way back we had to do some shopping. Wil thought it was a good idea to let me drive. I was, in my general state of exhaustion, not looking forward to it, but I acknowledged that as an independent swamp scientist you also have to be able to drive in unfavourable circumstances. And good drivers can park large cars that have the steering wheel on the wrong side, in busy shopping streets, after only a few hours of sleep, and many more of charring fieldwork, so I tried. It was not going very smooth, so I ended up having Wil scream angrily at me to make it even more trying, but in the end the car was parked, and later we got home with all the groceries we needed.

I was very tired, so I sat down to process the data of the day, saved it on a memory stick, gave it to Wil, and slapped my laptop shut, hoping to not have to deal with these data again. Rob had made excellent chilli, and after I had wrestled myself through the dishes I settled on the couch with a whisky. For the first time! So far it had generally been directly to bed after dinner, as we did not eat especially early, but had to rise early anyway. And I did not manage more than one snifter, but now the relaxing could start.

16 October 2009

Portugal part II

Ambiguity is unavoidable. Especially when it is highly unwanted. After our drilling day and during the consecutive data evaluation (after the beach- and blog-session) we had to untangle our sometimes elusive antics in the field. But we managed. Of course! We made some nice old school stratigraphic profiles, and decided on where the opus magnus of this fieldwork would be created. The monoliths! They would require the digging of a sizeable pit through the tough clays. Not a triviality in this climate.

Processing our achievements from the field

Our beds called early, due to the early hour at which we run into the field. I woke up due to Wil scurrying through the house in the precious pre-dawn minutes that were ticking away. When Rob didn’t I tried to wake him up by calling to him from the open stairs to his attic room. Twice! No effect. Later we resorted to playing punk, switching on the light in his room, and shouting again. Now it worked! This time the sun was up by the time we parked but well, one cannot be snappy early in the morning every day.


Rob and I cored in some areas that were soon to be flooded while Wil started with the pit. When we were done coring he already had a pit the size of a DDR open cast brown coal mine. The plan then was that he would just carry on while we cored in higher areas. That did not go as smoothly as it had done on lower ground. This involved a lot of twisted faces, flexing muscles, and jumping up and down on the attachable core handles. When we had one more core to go we had a look at how Wil was doing. Now he had extended the pit to the size of Meteor Crater. It was enough. We hammered in the tins, took them out, and retreated for elevenses.

At more than 30 degrees, mind you!

Refreshed, Wil dedicated himself to properly wrapping up the tins, and carrying them through the rising water (high water this day was going to be damn high!) to the beginning of the path, while we tried our last core. For this one we had to jump up and down for practically every centimetre down. We did not core deep. We had fun though. And then it was a wrap!

Wil was overheated due to the digging, so before climbing back to the car he jumped in the river. And I of course joined. Just for the heck of it I swam to the tidal channel that runs through our marsh. And I saw no reason not to swim in. Deep enough! I happily swam right through our transect. Because I could!

After some necessary shopping we set off for the beach. I mainly stayed in the shadows, reading about medieval popes and the likes, but I have to admit it was a nice beach.

Does this need a caption?

The evening was for logging, profiling, planning, eating amazing curry, and retiring ever earlier. Another, possibly decisive day to come...

Of course it was Rob producing this culinary highlight

13 October 2009

Portugal part I

N=2, r2=1. Salt marsh fieldwork means getting up early! So far. My alarm went off 4.45, and 5.45 I arrived at the university, rather sweaty and smelly due to the large bag. In the dark an even darker shadow loomed: the rental car. By 6 we moved, and without any problems we made it to the ferry, which left Portsmouth at 11. And late in the afternoon we were already at the Isle of Wight. Which is several kilometres ahead. Amazing progress! We spent several hours cruising around, searching for someone who allegedly had fallen out of a kayak. Fruitlessly.

The boat just speeded up after the searching was abandoned, and while I slept like a log we sped towards Spain, where we arrived in the drizzle. And then the epic road trip from northern Spain to southern Portugal kicked off. The weather got warmer and dryer soon. We drove over quiet highways. I had a try too. Not very difficult, really! We had a British car, so you don’t have the view you normally have, but these Spanish roads are rather uneventful. And not everybody speeds, so you even get to overtake people. Late in the day, though, I had to negotiate some elusive roundabouts, with two men telling me where to go in ways I did not always found very straightforward, which went wrong, and after some of these issues I got so stressed I stalled the engine repeatedly at the only busy roundabout in the far surroundings. Wil took over, and drove us to a campsite we found on the satnav. Just before dark we pitched the tents. Rob chose to sleep in the car. Something he reconsidered after triggering the alarm 3 times in a row.

I expected to boil out of the tent early in the morning. But no! I woke up in a fog cloud. Wil made coffee, we packed our stuff, and off we went. Drove out of the fog and into the sun. We had breakfast at some restaurant near the road. Good coffee, good toast, in the sun. Now that’s the life. Rob, better known as Tigger by then, enjoyed the playground. And the onwards.

Thanks to the description of the landlord we found the rented accommodation. I was immediately pleased: it had a charming tomcat lingering around in the near neighbourhood. He was in for a flirt. As soon as we acquired the keys we concluded it was a nice place, and we distributed the bedrooms. The orange one for me! We unloaded the car; it is hard to believe how much junk one may need for a saltmarsh fieldwork. Coring equipment, 2 sets of surveying equipment, boxes full of sample pots, surface sample cutters, trowels, measuring tapes, radios, gloves, and who knows what more. We then run through a supermarket, had a sandwich, and off we went to Faro. Rob stayed behind to cook supper, while Wil and I went to pick up Emily, the last-minute research student. We were somewhat late, and the satnav sent us over the obscurest inland roads, and Wil didn’t want to keep the lady waiting so he kicked our Galaxy through inland Portugal at breakneck speed. We survived, and shortly after ten in the night we we all together, seated for an amazing dinner concocted by Rob the Chef. And then it was really time for bed.
The first day in the field we first set off to look for some benchmarky towery thingamajigs that would aid our surveying. Did not find them though. Then off to the marsh! We found a reasonable looking path, clambered down, gooed around to the marsh, and had a look around. A hot marsh! Literally. As this marsh looked fondled with we had a look around at some neighbouring ones too. The river, Rio Mira, is littered with them.
A general impression of the surroundings, with strolling scientists

The marsh!

Rooting around to get a first impression

We disturbed many of these cuties in our work

We picked a shadowgenic cork oak for lunch. I could not resist and climbed in. I knew Rob would not be able to resist either. Nor could Emily. Wil could. Easily. A good breeze up in that tree! We needed that in the soaring heat. In (and below) the tree we also let the imagery of sex and violence sink in that had been burnt on our retinas. Walking around we hadcome across a pair of praying mantises. And everybody knows what these are famous for. But we saw it happen in fron of our eyes. A struggle, a wrestle, the male managing to have his way, yet after about a minute the lady starting to much up his arm by means of an appetizer, and then chewing up his whole head starting with an eye. Cruel, but fascinating.

Our lunch tree in the mid distance

The praying mantises in their fatal struggle

Not too late we went to town. We needed food and internet. We found both. And then we went home. We processed the first preliminary samples, that would tell us to what height on the marsh the forams could be found. We found forams. Big smug bastards. Emily’s first forams! I think she’s hooked now.

Rooting around in another marsh

Our appartment came with an outside foram sieving shower!

The next day would be the big hard field day. Let’s get as much as possible done while Emily was still here! We carried two surveyors down, and coring equipment. And some other bits and bobs. The first thing Wil and I did was place the GPS over the benchmark the Portuguese had left. We wanted to measure that ourselves, to be certain. In 4 hours that would tell us its exact horizontal and vertical position. Rob and Emily set off coring and describing. That’s hard work! I dug some profile for a possible monolith, but we discarded that position. Too low on the marsh. And then it was lunchtime.

The GPS standing there like an alien space craft

The transect we laid out

Wil and Rob in conclave

Rob had given me a beautiful tattoo!

Coring is hard work

Describing a core
There are only so many people that can core at the same time. Four is not working. So after my pit Wil advised me to go find a good spot for having lunch. In the shadow, of course! It was ridiculously hot. Probably over 30 degrees. I was struggling. Rob, Wil and Emily like these things. But I found a place in the shade, changed into swimming gear and jumped into the river. Needed that! It involved some dodging of jellyfish (it is a tidal river) but it was good.
After lunch I coped with the lethal heat while we surveyed a transect. And when that was done we peeled Rob and Emily from the corer and went back to the car. We just had enough energy to do some “band pictures” and then we were of. Beerwards! And beachwards. I was mainly interested in the former but I was a minority. So within no time Rob was bouncing around in the sea and on the beach while I was enjoying a cold beer. Later Rob even explained cricket to me. It starts to make sense.

Tigger in the sea. He appears glad.

I´m certainly glad here.

One home I immediately set out to make dinner. What was more impressive was that Emily, dressed in a bikini, a T-shirt and a pink towel, did not bother to have a shower or even change, but started to sieve samples and have a look at them. Before dinner was ready we knew where the samples became barren.

After dinner we evaluated our results, and made a plan for the day after. We would run into the marsh, take the surface samples, and run back again. And then drive Emily to the airport. And so we did! We sampled like a good old well-oiled war machine. And that’s more special than when we did that in Iceland: Wil and Roland had been there before, and done such things together several times. Here Wil was in a new marsh with people he knew for about a month, a week, and a day, respectively. But we pulled it off very well.

Wil engaged in his fafourite activity: accounting

I was very glad to retire into a airconditioned car afterwards and play the part of DJ while Wil drove. And drive all the way back, adequately cooled, while outside it was way over 30 degrees. It went well! From only having driven north of the arctic circle to through half southern Portugal, half of which on motorways, is quite a difference, and from time to time somewhat unnerving, but exactly the practice I need. That night we made pizzas, and went to bed early, after making a plan on to how to proceed the next day. We would get up earlier in order to escape the blistering heat! Or, at least, escape some of it.

And it worked! We got up in the dark, had breakfast, and parked the car while the sun peeped over the hills. We started in the blissful cool! And we worked well. We drilled the marsh into smithereens to find a good place for taking the monolith. Not easy! At many places disconcerting sand showed up. But we were not discouraged. And drilled and drilled while the sun rose in tune with the water. We had elevenses under the trees, drilled some more, surveyed our new transect and called it a day. Wisely so. The surveyor turns out to have a thermometer embedded. It indicated 30 degrees immediately after we had pulled it out of its insulated case that had been standing in the shadow. We were glad to go home.

The sun appearing over the horizon at the start of our field day

Elevenses break underneath the trees

Rob caringly removes thorn from Wil´s hand

And then it was time to enjoy things like a tea, the beach (I skipped: not a beach type), the internet cafe (we found it, but it was closed! So this blogpost comes, again, from the tourist information) and then the supermarket. And then we´ll compile our results so far and make plans for tomorrow...