Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Just So You Don't Think This Is All Play And No Work

Yep, there it is, the depressing little tunnel where we spent the better part of the last two weeks. Pretty glamorous, huh? I apparently missed the day when the more notable winners from the film festival in Cannes dropped by, but not to worry. There's so much glitz and high society in my line of work that it's nice to occasionally take a break from it. We get to do more science that way.
So there you have it. A train tunnel dug through a mountain side in the 1800's, long since abandoned, is now a center for scientific research. In fact, this little tunnel in the south near Montpellier is being used to confirm data from a large Underground Nuclear Repository Research Facility in the east of France. I have worked at both sites and must admit that even though the large site in the east is much more interesting from a scientific standpoint, this site is much closer to Montpellier, so it wins. (Still don't get it about Montpellier? I'm telling you, just go there!)
Each day in the tunnel, our group of merry Frenchmen (and me - not so merry, not so French) would go about installing equipment deep into the ground. It's a rather unique site, because the rock is very similar to the rock where the French Nuclear Agency is proposing to store spent fuel (radioactive waste) deep in the ground. Since this tunnel was constructed well over a hundred years ago, and it goes through the heart of a mountain, it provides an unparalleled opportunity to study the long term effects of excavations on this geologic material at great depths. This work will have a direct influence on the regulatory acceptance of the proposed site in the east of France.
And so, our crew does its best to shake off the influence of the ample red wine from the previous evening, and focus on the importance of the task at hand. You can tell from the picture, by how we're all bent over a table (click on the picture to enlarge, you'll see), that we're having a little trouble focusing on this particular day. Ce n'est pas une problem, however, as there will most certainly be more wine each and every evening, ensuring that we will maintain a sort of equilibrium that will enable us to be, if nothing else, consistent. It will also ensure that my "16 Rule" remains a distant memory until I return to a land where we can't afford to have a beautiful bottle of red on the table each lunch and dinner.

Friday, February 23, 2007

I Want To Live In Montpellier

I want to live in Montpellier.
If you've been there, you know what I'm talking about.
If you haven't, go.

(Feb 12)

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Driving Me Crazy in Pau

Famous for its fetes and bullfights, Pau exudes a Spanish flavor unique to France. It boasts an enviable location near the Spanish border, with equally short travel distances to beaches in the west, and mountains to the east. It's a veritable playground for the outdoor enthusiast, and to think if it weren't for my company's addiction to QHSE (Quality Health Safety and Environment for those of you not familiar with useless corporate acronyms) policies, I would never have had the opportunity to stroll along Pau's expansive "Boulevard des Pyrenees".

You see, before I can rent a car in a foreign country, the makers of draconian policies who inhabit our QHSE department feel it necessary for me to take a driving test. A test in Canada will not suffice, so before I can begin my work in France, they insist that I pass a driving exam in France - not just any exam, but one carried out by an internal, company trained examiner.
Our upcoming job is located in a remote area in the south of France near Montpellier, accessible only by car. Therefore, in order to carry out my job, I need to rent a car. Before I can rent the car, I have to find the nearest company driver training center, and prove to them that I know what side of the road to drive on, how to survive in roundabouts, and that red means stop. Lucky for me, that training center happens to be in Pau.

Arriving in Pau a day prior to the test provided me with a wonderful opportunity to stroll the streets of the old town, which is perched high on a bluff above the Gave de Pau River. The Boulevard des Pyrenees spans the length of the bluff, from the elegant Chateau de Pau (pictured below) to the Palais Beaumont (which cleverly contains the local casino, without spoiling the skyline). Along the boulevard are numerous cafes and restaurants. On sunny days, such as the day I was fortunate enough to be there, the cafes set out beach chairs to lure in the pedestrians for a glass of Jurancon, a local white wine that can be enjoyed sweet or dry. Needless to say, I spent the afternoon doing an in-depth study into which was superior. With a glow on my face and a smile in my belly, I headed to the hotel well after dark to prepare for my driving exam.

Corporate bureaucracy - it can drive you crazy, but hey, you can occasionally steer it in a direction you want to go.

(Feb 4, 2007)

French Training

Ah the SNCF (French Rail Service). So reliable you can set your watch by it. I’m currently on the TGV (Bullet Train) from Montpellier to Paris. A ride on one of these trains is worth the airfare to France alone. They literally fly along the countryside at a modest 300 km/h, yet they’re so smooth you’d hardly know you were moving (save for the blur of countryside out your window). And the facilities are first class; lots of legroom, comfortable seats that recline, a good sized table and, of course, a restaurant/ bar car.

Several years ago I rented a car in Paris and was pleasantly surprised when I got to the lot and saw a brand new BMW in my space. I hit the “peage” (high speed motorway) and was soon barreling down the road with the pedal to the metal, quite confident that I was the fastest human on the planet. My confidence was short lived. Not far out of Paris the motorway paralleled some train tracks. That was my first real encounter with the TGV, and it was a brief one. The train passed me so quickly I may as well have been moving backwards. As it disappeared into the distance ahead of me, I eased off on the gas and slowed to the posted speed limit of 130 km/h. No point in getting a speeding ticket for going backwards, I surmised.

Fast rail service is now common throughout Europe, everywhere except the British Isles, that is. This is no more obvious than on the “Eurostar”, high speed rail service between Paris and London through the “chunnel”. If traveling to the UK, the journey begins with a sprint to the English Channel that’s over before the taste of cafĂ© et croissant has left your mouth. As the train plunges into the darkness of the chunnel, it slows slightly due to the grade of the tracks. The welcome sight of daylight is about the only positive aspect of arriving in England by rail. Your first thought is that the train must already be arriving in London, as it is proceeding at a pathetic crawl. Not only that, but your drink is spilling all over the table in front of you. The tracks in Britain are so old that the trains bounce around on them, and therefore are unable to reach a reasonable traveling speed. As a result, the entire UK leg of the Eurostar is completed at an embarrassingly archaic rate.

(Feb. 14, 2007)

Viva La France! (or, The 16 Rule Goes To Hell)

(Feb 5, 2007)
Greetings from France!
For the next month or so I’ll be on a business trip in France and the Middle East.
Business travel is both a blessing and a curse. It’s wonderful to be able to get around and see the world, but at the same time, your time is not your own, and your days tend to be filled with meetings, trains and airports. When the trip is over, staid hotels and bored service industry workers dominate your memories…
Feeling sorry for me yet? I didn’t think so.
However, there is one other negative aspect of this type of travel to which I’m sure you can relate - YOU CAN”T BRING ANYONE WITH YOU! This truly is a shame because there are sights and experiences worth sharing.
This is where the Digglings come into play. It's as close as I can come to bringing YOU with me. For the next few weeks I’ll be updating the blog as often as possible with pictures, stories and thoughts from France, Saudi Arabia and Dubai. So, buckle up and come along!
(You'll notice that some of the blog dates don't match my journal entry dates. All I can say about that is good luck finding an Internet connection in rural France. Oh yeah, and there's that bit about actually having to work, as well...)