14 April, 2009

Athens in brief

Filed under: Europe by Joel @ 12:44 am, 14 April 2009.

View of Athens from Lykavitos Hill

On arrival in Athens last Monday, weary from 24 hours in travel, I was faced with a round of poker and lost. Don’t use EuroChange. I thought I was being careful, and even made calculations on my computer before approaching the counter. But they take advantage of the tired and naive. I bid low, they pushed me up to a higher bid, and I was sold a deal I didn’t need: too much money; too much commission (foolishly absent from my accounts); and a guarantee of the same rate and no charges to exchange up to 30% of it back, when there was no chance I’d spend 70%. So really I was just conned. And as I exited the airport to get a bus ticket, there was Piraeus Bank with a better rate. So said a recently-skimmed finance textbook: banks can always offer better rates; they exchange much larger quantities in one go. Again, don’t use EuroChange.

So I spent the week trying to spend money, but the opportunity didn’t arise. The hotel was pre-paid and fed me each morning. Lunches were provided at the conference (I survived on salads and bread). James shouted me dinner on the first night; the conference had a cocktail dinner on the second (identical to the lunches), and a banquet on the third (different chef, but similar salads); and Itamar, an Israeli student with British sponsorship wouldn’t suffer the indignity of me paying for my own dinner on Thursday night. (Note that the vegetarian situation isn’t as harsh as suggested by My Big Fat Greek Wedding: some Greeks avoid meat a couple of days a week for religious reasons, there are spinach pastries, etc. But there’s still a lack of all-vegetarian venues and even fresh fruit, despite the orange trees standing in public squares.)

Train station madnessAthens' Sefaradi synagogue Friday night and Saturday lunch with a Chabad couple were free meals, but I hoped to bring a 20 Euro donation to synagogue as shabbat was entering. Close to shabbat, I was ready to hop off the metro at Thission Station when the train drove right past it, seemingly closed off for some time already. I had to change trains and go back. The sun was on the verge of setting as I left Monastiraki Station, so I had to dump the cash according to shabbat rules. I hope it found its way into good hands.

Despite my loss, I enjoyed Shabbat, the Greek traditions, the company and the cooked food that it brought. And stunning weather, in which I walked around all afternoon wherever I could go without a ticket. I saved the ticketed places for Sunday.

The National Archaeological MuseumInside the National Archaeological Museum And yet when I turned up to buy a ticket when the National Archaeological Museum opened at 8:30 on Sunday morning, they let me in for free, because it was the first Sunday in April. Even the ticket I’d already bought for the Acropolis was useless, as they would let me enter gratis. Not surprisingly, by the time I got back to EuroChange at the airport, I’d only spent 56% of my cash, and that was some effort.

A view of Athens through the Temple of HephaestusPhilopappos Monument, Acropolis and Lykavitos Hill The archaeology of Athens is wonderful, both its larger preserved monuments and ruined capitals, and the huge collections of smaller artefacts spanning thousands of years of art. While its ancient temples and chambers of democracy are something to behold, for tourists they are essentially the city’s beginning and its end, especially as almost everything worth visiting closes by 3pm out of peak season. It was the first city I’ve travelled in where I’ve been tempted to leave for the airport early, for lack of anything better to do.

Like all cities, it does have its secrets, those places just a little off the beaten track that are cheaper and just as rewarding as the traditional traps. The view from the Hill of MusesA pleasantly empty Monastiraki Square In particular, I enjoyed the Philopappos Hill (or Hill of Muses), and the view it gave in all directions, to the sea and to the hills. Starting out before everyone else turns up is also key: the sites close early, but they tend to open at 8 or 8:30, at which time you don’t need to push people out of the way just to get some quiet time with a statute of Hermes for a photo.

So I’m glad I wasn’t hanging around in Athens for much longer than needed to see it, but next time I hit the Agaean Peninsula, I’ll hope to spend more time on islands, at Delphi, Olympia, Thessaloniki, etc. Maybe by then they’ll have caught up with the world in smoking bans, and perhaps by then I’ll be wiser with my finances.

2 April, 2009

Talking syntax at Syntagma

Filed under: Europe,Student life by Joel @ 6:28 pm, 2 April 2009.

I’m in Athens for a week. It’s the shortest trip I’ve ever made out of Australia, with a day’s padding on either side for travel. I’m here for the 12th Conference of the European Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics, a small mouthful, like many titles of the papers being presented here.

Conferences are all about communication and learning, but I feel like the main thing I’m learning is how to attend conferences. My supervisor considers that having spent a lot of money to get here, we should make sure we see as much of the conference as possible. Other people seem to think, that having spent so much to get here, one should make sure to see as much of the city as possible. It’s a matter of learning to know which sessions to take off and get out to see the city. And I’m apparently a slow learner, and have seen almost nothing of it, which means I’ll be cramming it into the next three days.

And then there’s the idea that once I’ve travelled halfway across the world, I should at least stay here for a little longer than a week. I was bound by two major concerts last week and Pesach (which I enjoy spending with my family in Sydney) next week, but I still feel guilty to be hopping back on a jet so soon.

And of course I could do with learning a little better how to present a paper. I gave my presentaton on Analysing Wikipedia and Gold-Standard Corpora for NER Training yesterday afternoon. Having gone over-time in my practice runs, I cut it down a little on stage. Apparently too much. The session chair didn’t need to hold up a single warning sign. Still, it left more time for questions, which showed people were interested, and I’ve had many compliments on an interesting presentation. I also need to work on fluency a little, but my supervisor tells me I’m much improved…

The learning curve’s a little steep. There are many PhD students here who seem to be becoming naturals at conference-going. Soon by me?

PS: I’m not really doing much on syntax myself; nor is the conference actually at Syntagma Square, the focal point of modern Athens…
PPS: Typed on my new MacBook.

18 May, 2007

Going to Manchester

Filed under: Europe by Joel @ 4:02 pm, 18 May 2007.

I don’t like writing about when I do stupid things, but sometimes I feel disloyal to what readers I have if I don’t. I have a couple of English friends who volunteered with me and the Hineni group in Karmiel in 2002. But both are now up in Manchester, rather than in London. So I have been trying to decide for many weeks whether it would be worthwhile going up to Manchester to see them and spend shabbat with them. They certainly couldn’t come down; it is exam time, and Heather has a three-month old baby (and a husband to take care of). But I hadn’t seen them in years, and when you’ve already come this far around the world, there’s no small amound of money that should stop you going a little further to spend time with people you love. (more…)

14 May, 2007

A horrible day and chateaux

Filed under: Europe,Weather by Joel @ 7:22 pm, 14 May 2007.

Today was a horrible day, as far as being a tourist goes. I had set aside the day to actually leave Paris and head to Versailles, seeing as until yesterday I was getting by on a weekly pass for the Paris metro and bus system. But the day started late, and the weather was looking poor (but it had done the same the past few days without a big problem). IMG_6583outIMG_6577out When I got off the RER train and walked to the famous Chateau, it was undergoing restoration works, so large portions of the building itself were covered in scaffolding. Then I found out that the building was closed on Mondays (well how was I supposed to know?), and although there was plenty to do just wandering around the enormous gardens as well as Marie Antoinette’s dominions, I was a little annoyed with myself. And before long my camera decided to break, so some of the stunning scenes I did eventually see (although it was pouring by then), might have to be found on Google Images instead of At least, while the day was horrible, it only cost 5.40 Euros! (more…)

13 May, 2007

Kosher in Paris

Filed under: Europe,Food by Joel @ 5:24 pm, 13 May 2007.

It may surprise some to know that Paris has more than twice as many kosher restaurants than Manhattan (or Brooklyn or Long Island for that matter; according to, at least), despite having many less Jews in the neighbourhood. The French are known for their good food and their appetites for good food, so it’s not entirely surprising. But it also comes at French prices, so I haven’t had the opportunity to sample too much French kosher cuisine (the 4-Euro falafel wasn’t bad, though). Of course, many make the same mistake as with kosher restaurants around the world and are afflicted by not offering the quality of food and service expected from non-kosher equivalents. (more…)

12 May, 2007

A new European flavour

Filed under: Europe by Joel @ 8:53 pm, 12 May 2007.

IMG_5287outIMG_5239outDespite not really being ready to pack up and go, I’ve found myself in Europe for the last nearly two weeks: for one night in London, then a few days in the Netherlands, and now (by the time this blog gets posted), Paris. It’s an entirely different world to North America in some ways, and on the other hand it’s just strange to have my life in bags and be travelling again (minus the 20kg possibly on a ship by now to Sydney, and the random objects that didn’t make the cut and stayed in Montreal). Each time before I venture to a new city, I have a strange fear that I’m not going to enjoy it, or I won’t make the effort to do so, or it’s not going to work out, and all I want to go is get to somewhere I know. Once I get going though, it’s great fun. (more…)

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