Saturday, June 19, 2010

zweiter Samstag in Bonn

The main conference of the summer is done. This week, dozens of mathematicians from all over the world gathered to discuss their interest in flat surfaces (think of polygons from high-school geometry on steroids), foliations (think of layers piled on top of each other to fill up space in different ways), mapping classes (think of “how many different ways can I, or my kid, put clothes on, rightly or wrongly?”), expansion constants (think of how much a balloon stretches as it inflates), moduli spaces (think of how many different shapes a single kind of object—say, a rectangle or a person—can have), and many more topics. Believe it or not, these things are all related. And most of the talks were very good. It was well-paced, with only four lectures a day (I've been to some conferences with seven or eight!), and the organizers deserve a great deal of credit.

I would also count “living in Bonn” as a success so far. Let’s talk food for a moment. I’ve had my spargel (twice, once at home with lemon-butter sauce and once at a restaurant with hollandaise), and schnitzel, and pizza with schinken (ham), and currywurst, and… What’s that? You want to know what currywurst is? Well, I definitely plan to have more. It’s a bratwurst sausage served with curry powder and ketchup sauce. Also French fries (here, called “pommes”, as in “pommes frites”). And beer. Because the thing I’ve had more often than anything else, even strawberries, is beer. (I mention the strawberries because they’re my favorite fruit, they’re even more plenteous than spargel right now, and, ironically, they are called “erdbeeren” in German—“beer”, of course, being German for “berry”, since “bier” means “beer”. Now I want to see if I can find, or invent, beerbier.) My favorite beer to get here is weizen, which invariably comes in the largest (half-liter) size, and which I get to myself because Hannah doesn’t like wheat beer.

Anyway, back to the wurst. We made that lunch today after shopping at the Marktplatz, because there’s a popular currywurst stand right there. According to Wikipedia, it’s been around since the late 1940s, when ketchup and curry powder first arrived in Germany. It’s both amusing and yummy. Another import Germans seem to adore is ice cream. Soooo many gelaterias around. I’ve only indulged in that once. And the moment I really realized I was not in France (I know, you’d think the black-red-gold flags painted on everyone’s faces would give it away, wouldn’t you?) was when I tried to buy bread at 8:00 at night and all of the bakeries were closed. I guess at that time of night you should only being eating meat. Or ice cream. With beer in either case.

(Funny how being around another language will affect you. At the end of that last paragraph, I typed “schould” about three times before I got it right.)

One last food comment before moving on: we of course consumed lots of coffee during the conference. So once this morning arrived, the first thing I wanted to do was get coffee. We went to Einstein Kaffee, a coffeehouse I pass each morning on the way to the institute, which had intrigued me. Turns out to be a very American-style coffeehouse, a couple of steps up from Starbucks, not like a French café at all, with lots of seating inside and out, and hip background music. There are two Starbucks nearby, but we’ll probably go to Einstein while we’re here if we want that ambiance. In the meantime, biergartens it is!

In the middle of the week we went on a hike with several of the conference participants. One of the organizers, who has a bit of a reputation for leading people on far lengthier and more strenuous hikes than they expect, clarified that in his terminology this was just a “walk”. We covered about 10 km in all, and reached the top of Löwenburg in the Siebengebirge. This is very nearly the highest point in the area (one of the other peaks in the Siebengebirge is just a few meters higher), and the view was spectacular. Hannah spent most of the hike talking with other opera buffs, and together on top of the mountain they attempted to trace out the geography of Siegfried’s journey from Wagner’s Ring cycle among the valleys and other peaks below. They had hoped to visit the Drachenfels, where Siegfried was supposed to have slain a dragon, but since we didn't make it there they decided that the ruins of the castle we reached was the home of the dwarf Hagen. We could see the Drachenfels from our location, and there was also much discussion as to which mountaintop had held the sleeping Brünnhilde. (If you’ve heard Anna Russell’s summary of the ring cycle, you are probably fighting to withhold laughter by now. If you haven’t, you should. Or perhaps schould.) By the end of the trip, Hannah was lecturing on the sources and symbols of the Lord of the Rings, and getting quite an audience in the process. Male mathematicians, it appears, enjoy discussing culture with an intelligent, pretty woman.

A few other random things about this week… The country has had an up and a down thanks to the World Cup. On Sunday night, after their team defeated Australia 4-0, the streets were filled with cars and noise. Everyone became much more subdued yesterday when they lost to Serbia 0-1. But all of the restaurants and biergartens have several flat-screen TVs set up, and when any game is occurring, you can hear how it’s going from anywhere in town.

As we wandered around the market this morning, we were surprised by the activity in the Münsterplatz (just a couple hundred meters from the Marktplatz). Whereas last Saturday we found an artisanal fair full of sculpture and fountains, today there was Bonn’s “Energietag”, with all sorts of companies showcasing their products for conserving and preserving energy and water. There were a solar cooking demonstration, a couple of different kinds of solar panels (the first time I’d seen any up close), a system for funneling sunlight inside using something more like a periscope than a skylight, and that’s just the stuff I could figure out without reading German.

We still need to find some concerts to attend. I thought seeing a play might be another option; however, the nearby theatre is showing Der Fremde (L'Étranger) by Camus, in German, and I realized that apart from that sounding incredibly depressing, we’re not yet ready to see a play performed auf Deutsch. Going to be searching for organ and chamber recitals in the area.

So that’s a little about what’s going on here. I may post another, more mathematically focused entry for anyone interested in some of what went on in the lecture hall.

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