04 March, 2006

Does it ever stop snowing here?

It has snowed every day since I've arrived, a light, gentle snow that drifts lazily from the sky. Today being Saturday, there's nothing going on with the conference, so I went for a long walk around the area. I returned with bread, salami, two cans of fruit, and a bottle of water. I had been looking for a restaurant or café, but the supermarket Billa did just fine. Interesting that in Austria, as in Italy, one pays extra for the shopping bag. Here it was 0.19€ (about 23¢). I think one also pays for the bag in Russia, but I'm not sure.

If anyone tells you that everyone in Europe understands English, you have my authorization to laugh in their face. It's true that it's common for people here to speak another language, but I've met at least as many people who don't speak English as those who do. I'm staying near a university with at least one research institute that attract students from the world over; it would be reasonable to conclude that this is an even higher proportion than one might find in other parts of Europe. Indeed, the few with conversational skill in English appear to be students of the university, or else associated with it in some other way. Anyone else — hah!

This isn't a complaint about Austria,mind; I won't blame the Austrians for not learning English when I haven't bothered to learn any more German than Farsteien sie English? (I'll bet I've spelled that as badly as I pronounce it.) I'm scowling metaphorically instead at all those American know-it-alls who speak glowingly (or frustratedly) of visiting Austria, or Germany, or France, etc., and never finding the opportunity to practice their German, or French, etc., because everyone there — "and I mean, everyone!" — replies in English. Bah! Surely I don't have any more talent for meeting ordinary folk than they. I'll have to remember to thank the dean of the College, who suggested to me that I not take these reports too seriously. Thanks to him, I at least bothered to learn Verstehen sie Deutsch? (Thanks to FreeTranslation.com, now I know how it's written, too!)

I mentioned that there are students from all over Europe here, and beyond. Sometimes I can make out people speaking in Italian; at other times, I hear them speaking to each other in heavily-accented English. I've picked up some Spanish here and there, and naturally there are Chinese students here as well. I haven't heard anyone speaking Russian yet, but I have seen a number of Slavic name tags on the doors. There are only two significant differences between this school and N.C. State: (1) all the buildings have names ending in gebäude (anyone know what that means?), and (2) it actually snows here — and every day, too! (Yes, I'm exaggerating the similarities.)

Yesterday's workshop was good. The SALSA Project started it off again (I think). They became more interesting as time progressed. During one of the breaks, I took the opportunity to speak to one member of that group and ask a few questions about a famous algorithm he developed. There are a lot of misconceptions about the algorithm — there are a lot of misconceptions about a lot of topics in the theory of Gröbner bases. I had been rereading his paper the day before, and I had both clarified some misconceptions of my own, then acquired a few more. He managed to clarify my new misconceptions, and give me some new insight that I hadn't picked up on at all. It's always good to get to the source!

I hate to admit it, but I walked away trembling. It's difficult to approach people who don't know me, even more so when I regard them highly. I asked myself jokingly if this was like a teenage girl who had just spoken with her rock star idol... For the first time in my life, I felt sympathy for such girls. ;-) But only briefly. :-)

Another interesting conversation, with a Dutch mathematician, had absolutely nothing to do with mathematics. I overheard him discussing the pros and cons of beetroot syrup on pancakes; he noticed the looked of astonishment on my face — I had never heard of, much less imagined, beetroot syrup — and it went on from there. Cane sugar is fairly expensive in Northern Europe, or so I understood from him, whereas beetroot is easy to grow. A certain kind of beetroot contains a lot of sugar, and the Dutch grow a lot of it and then refine it to obtain sugar.

When I told him that we Americans get our pancake syrup from maple trees, mostly in Canada, he asked me how they make the syrup from the tree. "As I understand it, they poke a hole in the tree, and collect the sap that pours out," I explained. I hope that was correct; I've seen lots of pictures of pails hanging from maple trees, so that was my understanding.

One of the more pleasant aspects of Computer Algebra get-togethers is the sense of the universality of mathematics. Beside the French, the Dutch, and the Austrians, our particular workshop was also peopled by Germans, Russians, Italians, Canadians, Britons, and Chinese. There were other nationalities, too, but I haven't picked up on all of them.

I finished the salami; I was hungry, and besides, I have no refrigerator where I can store it. Plenty of bread is left over. Now I just have to figure out what I'm going to do Sunday. I found a church today, but no Mass times were posted. I don't get that.

I also found a Kingdom Hall (?) of Jehovah's Witnesses, but it's not like I'm about to visit them.


Elliot said...

I bet the teenage girls feel quite similarly about their celebrities - but at least you didn't scream and faint when you met your idol!

Yes, it is "Kingdom Hall." (I was raised as one of Jehovah's Witnesses). Now I'm wondering how that translates into German...

jack perry said...

Now I'm wondering how that translates into German...

I was going to tell you, but I haven't had a chance to walk by it again, and to tell the truth, I'm not sure I want to until Saturday. It was too cold yesterday for such a walk, and typically the days are filled.