Wednesday, 14 April 2010


Mid-February is the climax of the Karneval season in Germany. It starts on the 11th of November at 11:11 and is immediately suspended until after Advent but it only really gets going in the final week. The Köln and Düsseldorf region is the main area of Karneval in Germany and despite it not being an official holiday most businesses are closed for several days.
I had been repeatedly warned that the whole area goes totally 'crazy' and 'descends into chaos' at this time, drinking, singing, dancing, dressing-up and going to parades etc. This sounded to me like the most cringe-inducing, organised 'fun' and a microcosm of everything I hate. It turns out that I'm not alone and many locals choose to escape on holidays. However one must not judge (well, not before trying it) and so I decided to go with Michael (a local and veteran Karneval goer), Aris, Karen and Ralph to the biggest parade in Köln on Rosenmontag.

Snow sticking to the telescope Deep  snow on the road to the observatory

Our plans were nearly scuppered when we were given observing time over the weekend but we organised around it. As it happened it snowed almost the entire time and so we could not observe due to snow sticking to the dish. Ralph and I nearly got stuck at the telescope and had to drive through deep, drifting snow back to Bonn.
On the Monday Michael (dressed as a clown) hobbled into the station having slipped on ice and hurt his ankle. Despite the pain he still wanted to go and see the parade. Karen had painted her face but Aris, Ralph and I remained steadfastly undecorated.

Aris, Karen, Ralph and Michael on the way to Karneval The  parade

The train was full of people dressed up and Köln was thronging with costumed Germans shouting "Kölle Alaaf!", the traditional local-dialect greeting at this time. We made our way to the parade route and joined the crowd. The parade had tens of floats (often with political themes), marching bands etc. From the floats people were throwing candy and flowers into the crowd, the crowd egged them on by shouting for more. Everyone was drinking, singing (to truly awful marching band music), eating candy and enjoying themselves immensely. The crowd was also very well behaved (as drunken mobs go) and there were plenty of families.

The parade A  marching band

After the parade we had some beers in bar nearby and listened to some more bad music before getting an U-Bahn back to Bad Godesberg. It was a rather sorry sight seeing Michael limping back home in his clown costume.
In the end I think the 'craziness' that I had been warned about was much over exaggerated. It was really just a few days of carnival and partying, the only thing that makes it crazy is that it's in Germany. Of course the next day everyone was back to studiously ignoring each other. I'm glad I went but I'm not sure I'll be back next year.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010


Back at the end of January I went to the Gravitational Wave Data Analysis Workshop meeting in Rome. I was invited to give a talk about pulsar timing arrays to an audience made of largely LIGO/VIRGO and LISA people.
It was snowing as I wheeled my bag through the deserted streets of Bad Godesberg at 6am but it was sunny (if not actually warm) when I eventually arrived in Rome. After I found my hotel went out to take a few photos. I made my way to the Coliseum, I've been there before but it was a long time ago. Coming from the city centre you would think that you could see it for miles but I walked for ages with no sign of it. I was just wondering if I was going in the right direction, when I turned a corner and there it was!

The Coliseum The  Moon through an arch in the Coliseum

The meeting was interesting. The LIGO/VIRGO and LISA people have a great deal over overlap with the pulsar people but they come at it from a totally different angle. As one of the few pulsar people I gave a general review of the pulsar side of things. It's nice to see the interest the pulsar work gets now.

A Roman sending an SMS Through  an arch in the Coliseum

Unlike most conferences I didn't know most of the attendees but I met up with a few colleagues who I hadn't seen in a while and we had some dinners in town. The conference dinner itself was excellent. The restaurant had picturesque views of the city and the Vatican and the food was spectacular.

The  Coliseum and the Arch of Constantine The  Basilica of Santa Francesca Romana

Before I left I went and had a look at the Roman Forum and some of the other sites in the vicinity. Unfortunately the weather all week was pretty miserable with overcast skies and drizzle. Still it stopped long enough for a quick tour.

The  Roman Forum Foro di Augusto

Then I was back on the aeroplane to Düsseldorf (because there wasn't a flight to Köln) followed by a train ride home to Bad Godesberg where it was still snowing.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010


A couple of weeks after the Cardiff trip Mum and Dad came over to visit me and do a bit of shopping at the famous weihnachtsmarkts in the region. My flat was not really in a state suitable to have guests but luckily Pickfords had eventually found and delivered my mattress so they has somewhere to sleep. We went to the weihnachtsmarkts in Köln, Bonn and the little one in Bad Godesberg. There are several in Köln and we went to the main three. They were huge and so busy that you could hardly move. The one in Bonn was our favourite, large enough to have everything but not nearly so busy.
I had a couple of weeks off over Christmas. I had planed on driving back in time for Mum and Dad's party. Nick was visiting which was nice because I hadn't been able to see him when I visited Cardiff. Despite the snow I made it to Calais in good time. I then spent four hours waiting to board a train. The knock on effect of the Eurostar failures had thrown the Eurotunnel car service into chaos and they didn't seem to have any extra staff to deal with the backlog.
When I made it to the UK it took me another six hours just to get to Oxford. There seemed to be no good reason for the problem. It wasn't snowing, there was very little snow on the ground and it was warm enough that ice wasn't a problem. Despite the mild conditions I spent 90 mins on the M40 in first gear at one stage. I eventually arrived at 2300 just as everyone was leaving! AJ had to abandon his car and walk home having spent seven hours to go a mile.

Decorations on the Christmas tree Jet enjoying a sunbeam

We had the big family Christmas as usual. Things seemed little rushed this year because we've all been very busy, particularly Mum and Dad who have had major work done to the house. We were ready by Christmas day, just!
For the new year break Nick and Ceri had organised a rental cottage near Malmesbury. Doug was there as well as Lynsey and Andy, who I hadn't met before. We had a very nice time just eating, drinking, playing games and visiting the very good local pub. It was a very relaxing week and just what I needed.
I managed to get out of the UK just before the real snow arrived and brought the country to a standstill. Thankfully my trip home was much easier than my trip to the UK.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Back to the UK

We had PULSE@Parkes session from Cardiff in December. Rob was in the UK following the dotAstromony conference. He decided to take advantage of the both of us being in Europe and ran our first international session. It was run at and in collaboration with Cardiff University and involved students from the local schools.
My trip to Cardiff was the first long drive in my new car which I had bought just a few weeks earlier. It's a Volvo, what a surprise! I'm very pleased with it. It eats up the mile, sorry kilometres, on the autobahns, is quick enough that I can overtake safely on the crazy German roads and is surprisingly frugal. I drove through Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France before taking the tunnel to the UK. Once on the other side I had to concentrate hard to drive on the left. I was finding it hard going before I stopped off at Doug's for a quick pit-stop. It was just a flying visit but it was great to catch up for a bit. By the time I left I felt infinitely better and the rest of the drive was easy.

My new car

The PULSE@Parkes session went well and I think the students enjoyed it. We has a bit of local press too (albeit rather inaccurate). It was nice to meet up with Rob again and catch up with the latest gossip from down-under. It was also a good excuse to visit the family. Despite passing right by Nick and Ceri the timing meant I couldn't pop in, a shame but we knew we'd be meeting up at Christmas.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

My things arrive at last

My things from Australia were eventually delivered in November but not before the removal company had lost three of my boxes. One of them included my entire DVD, CD and software collection so I was not best pleased. Initially they just sent me an insurance claim form but I harassed both the Australian and UK ends until they eventually found my things in the warehouse in the UK.

The double-trailer truck couldn't park The rental van eventually arrives

On the day they were to deliver they turned up in a huge double trailer truck and were surprised when they couldn't find anywhere to park. This was particularly annoying as I'd paid for them to use a smaller transfer vehicle. They disappeared and returned eight hours later in a rental van. Apparently they'd been doing the transfer in lay-bys and kept being moved on by the police. They'd also managed to lose my mattress by this point but all the other boxes were there. It's not exactly the professional service I'd hope for.

The van being unloaded Some of the boxes ready to be unpacked

I've since finished unpacking and there doesn't appear to be anything missing. Unfortunately there has been damage to the furniture due to very poor packing and handling. I made an insurance claim which they eventually approved, but not before they'd managed to make a mess of that too. The incompetence is staggering!
The damage is annoying but it's a relief to have all my things again and have the flat sorted out and feeling like home.

Moving into Bad Godesberg

After a few of weeks of flat hunting here (back in September) I managed to find a nice place in Bad Godesberg, according to Wikipedia 'the posh part of Bonn'. When Bonn was the capital of Germany this was the area where most of the embassies were. It's a short train ride from the centre of Bonn so it's very conveniently positioned. Also Aris and Michael live just down the road.

The view from my balcony (taken recently in the snow) A view of the Godesgerg through the snow (taken recently)

When flats in Germany are described as unfurnished they really mean it, no lights or kitchen, just wires and pipes! Luckily there is a toilet and bath but that's about it. I made a massive Ikea order and had them deliver all the parts for my kitchen. I decided to save a bit of money and install it myself. It took me a whole day and I nearly destroyed my back in the process of lifting and cutting the worktop. In the end though it all has gone together pretty well and it was actually quite satisfying.
I had a lot of furniture coming from Australia so I had to wait for useful things like my bed to arrive. I have a new sofa so I only had to spend a couple of weeks on Norbert's airbed (borrowed by most of the new pulsar group when they arrive in Bonn) before moving onto the sofa.
It didn't take long to get the internet and TV sorted out so despite the lack of furniture things were comfortable, if a little sparse.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

A trip to Besançon (from a while ago)

Well, it's been ages since I last updated this blog. Things have been very busy here and I haven't had time but now I'm going to try to fill in some of the blanks. Back in October I went off to a conference in Besançon. We drove down from Bonn and it was a nice change to be able to go to a conference without having to get on an aeroplane.

A view of the roofs of Besançon The transit observatory in Besançon

It was a very useful meeting, it brought me up to speed on the projects here and I think a lot of progress was made. I knew almost everyone at the meeting and it was great to catch up with a lot of folks I've not seen since in years. The food was great with lots of good cheese at every meal, not a good place for those who are lactose intolerant!

A view of the roofs of Besançon The transit telescope in Besançon

The town itself is set in the ox-bow of a river and is full of beautiful old buildings. It used to be a centre for the watch industry until the advent of quartz clocks. The conference was held opposite the historic transit telescope used for timekeeping and testing of mechanical chronometers. They organised guided tours of the telescope and the Musée du Temps in town as well as a spectacular conference dinner.