Thursday, July 26, 2007

Montreal Circa 2004

Fermicat suggested I write about the crazy times we have at physics conferences. (Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about the other wonderful suggestions. I will need a little time for them.) While there have been times like what she described on her blog where we meet up with other groups (I vaguely remember 2 Russian physicists and a bottle of sake in Los Angeles…) the best times have just been with the people in my group. I am lucky enough to work with people who are genuinely fun to travel with and can thankfully see the humor in the eccentricities that tend to plague physicists. Especially when they congregate in droves. You can hear some crazy stuff at these places and see some major social dysfunctions. But that’s cool, it’s part of who we are. You see people frantically writing out calculations on envelopes, scrap papers or Kleenexes and you hear some of the absolute worst presenters of your life at these conferences. You see people dressed in three-piece suits, people in jeans and sandals. You even see some interesting mixtures of the two. You see men with ponytails, people with tattoos, piercings. Hippies and Einstein look-a-likes (though often they don’t intend to…). You also see plenty of people dressed in preppy or trendy clothes. I tend to stick with the slacks-and-blouse look which puts me about smack dab in the middle. But you know what? There is very little judgment or ostracizing. Unless you are presenting your idea for a perpetual motion machine. Then you are a physics leper.

But what I want to write about today is my first and still favorite APS conference in Montreal, March 2004. I went with Jeff and James from the lab. The three of us along with a few other grad students were very close and I look back on that time as one of the best times in my life. Those were the days when we still had Randy. Before Jeff punked out on us and before James showed me his true colors.

To save money, we flew into Burlington, Vermont and drove across the border to Quebec. The money we saved on the flight we put towards staying at the conference hotel, still the nicest hotel I think I’ve ever stayed in. It was the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth in downtown Montreal and because I was the only girl I got a room to myself. It was bliss. Ironically I remember very little of the actual conference except that my talk went well and Dr. Hari was proud.

We did a little sightseeing in Montreal, mostly driving along the St. Lawrence and stopping at local pubs. The last night though, we really did it right. We first went to a Montreal Canadiens game where Jeff spent the whole time teaching us the intricacies of hockey (yeah, I still don’t get it) and met some really nice locals who told us the story of the “Habs”. Then we hit the pubs. James to this day has the highest alcohol tolerance of anyone I have ever met in my life. And he looks like a total geek, which makes him a hoot to go out with. The very first bar we went to was a small brewery and of course Jeff and I sampled the local microbrews. James, going great guns right out of the gates ordered the special- 5 shots of Jagermeister, which undoubtedly was meant as a special for a table to share. He lined them up on the bar and downed them one by one with most of the patrons watching in disbelief. It gave him a buzz roughly equal to what Jeff and I had after two beers. The night proceeded in similar fashion, going from bar to bar sampling local specialties and meeting beautiful French Canadians. Damn, I have never seen a city full of such good-looking people as Montreal. I remember going to one bar that had live music- a Bon Jovi cover band that people were going crazy over. After every song the crowd would shout “Vive le Bon Jovi!” It was awesome.

By the time last call was drawing near at our fourth or fifth stop, we had moved on to tequila shots and I was swooning over that bar’s singer, not really listening as James reminisced about him and his then-girlfriend. Jeff was trying to pick up some girl by deriving the Lorentz factor on a napkin. After closing we stopped for a midnight snack at a local pizza by the slice place where I boldly broke out my college French skills. We barely beat the sun back to the hotel and managed four hours sleep before we had to get up and catch our flight back to Tampa.

Needless to say, all three of us woke up still incredibly inebriated from the previous night’s exploits. Even though it was tempting to sleep later, we gave ourselves four hours before our flight left: two hours to get to the airport, two hours to get checked in. I crawled in the back seat and passed out again on the drive across the border. I awoke to a tense conversation between Jeff and James. Apparently James the navigator had missed a turn somewhere and now we were lost. We decided to drive “along the hypotenuse” rather than turn around and make two turns. Not anticipating how much winding the back roads of Quebec did, we then got severely lost. On the positive side, the scenery in those small border towns was amazing.

We found our way to the border, only to get stopped by customs. Why were we crossing the border in a town so off the beaten path? They were quite suspicious of us hooligans and searched the car and our luggage. We had to fill out claims forms, which James was unable to do due his continued alcohol impairment. After getting dirty looks from the border patrol, he confessed to being still drunk from the last night and we had to promise not to let him drive. Then they told us how to get back on the interstate.

By this time we were severely pressing our departure time. Jeff was doing 80 mph on the Vermont interstate, only to get pulled over by a state trooper. Everything that could go wrong did. By some act of heaven we didn’t get a ticket. Jeff was calm and told the truth while I sat terrified in the back seat. The trooper was understanding, gave us directions for the rest of the way and told us if we drove the speed limit we’d still make out flight. He was lying but didn’t want us trying to make our flight- he already knew it was too late.

We continued to barrel down the highway until we came to am impasse where we took yet another wrong turn. It was at this time, like a surgeon who knows she has lost a patient I declared, “It’s over.” We all knew it. It was time to give up, be safe and just get to the airport in one piece. When we finally got there, our flight was loooong gone but the lady at the counter was nice enough not to charge us for new flights. I will never forget that. Unfortunately, there weren’t any flights to Tampa for two days. She ended up putting us on an evening flight to DC and a connection to Miami the following day. We checked our bags and left James by the baggage carousel where he passed out (despite all the bustle and the frequent beeping from incoming luggage). Jeff and I spent the day roaming around downtown Burlington. It was fantastic. Such a beautiful, vibrant town. We ate off our hangovers at an amazing diner and went to collect James from his bench.

We spent that night at a hotel in DC hanging out with a former grad student that had moved there a couple years earlier. I didn’t know him before that night but he was really cool. The next morning we flew into Miami, rented a car and drove the four hours back to Tampa in a very quiet, tense car. But if a tense car was the worst that came of that epic journey home from Canada, then I stand by my claim when I say I was pretty lucky to be traveling with those guys.

Reminiscing like that makes me realize just how much has changed since that now legendary trip. However, it takes maturity to go through what we have and still look back fondly on all those good times, independent of the hurt that is to come.


e.b. said...

First - I love the fun with physicists stories. They crack me up.

Second - I concur wholeheartedly, the whole area is just beautiful. Glad you enjoyed it.

Beth said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it as well. I hate not knowing where I'm going though. Describes my whole RI vacation.

fermicat said...

Yup, you'll never see a weirder bunch of people than at an APS meeting.

That night out sounds like such a zany time! The whole getting lost and it taking two more days to get home is just icing on the cake. I'd hate to think what the border folks would do to you these days. They don't have much of a sense of humor.

In graduate school, PDM used to spend time at University of Toronto working on experiments with another group of nuclear guys. He'd go out to the bars in the evenings and had a great time. He has a few stories from that era... Bottom line - Canada seems to be a fun place for science geeks to congregate and hang out.

Hot4Teacha said...

I want to party with you guys!