Archive for August, 2014

Portland Film Festival this week

The second annual Portland Film Festival began yesterday (August 26) and continues through September 1, with a fantastic smorgasbord of feature films, short films, panel discussions; workshops for filmmakers, writers, and actors; and opportunities for networking, scattered all over downtown Portland.

I will be moderating a panel discussion on Saturday (1:30-3:00 at the 5th Avenue Cinema) on “Science Fiction, Film and Technology” with Ted Chiang, Daniel H. Wilson, and more! I’ll also be attending as many of the writing workshops as I can manage. It’s a busy schedule.

Other program items of interest to the science fiction community include the films Time Lapse, Rover, and Wizard’s Way (the last one is FREE) and Lessons Learned & 28th Anniversary Screening of Labyrinth with a Q&A with Toby Froud.

Hope to see some of you there!

London days 6-9, Toronto, and home

Tue 8/19 – London

Step count: 11,702

Awake 7:57 just before 8:00 alarm. Breakfast (yogurt and muesli) with Lise Eisenberg. Packed up. Twitter DM from Mary Robinette Kowal: coffee? But, alas, it didn’t pan out. Checked out, called for cab. Settled in for 20-minute wait, but then a cab pulled up so we canceled the first. Great view on cab ride of Shard beyond Tower of London.

The Arosfa hotel (it’s a Welsh word meaning “a place to stay”) has a lovely sitting room and friendly staff; the room is tiny but clean and well-furbished. (Yes, autocorrect, I did mean “furbished” and not “furnished.” Look it up.) Twin beds, alas, and a bathroom like what an airplane lavatory would be if it had a shower. There were two pull-cords in the bathroom, presumably one being the light and the other being that alarm cord placed in European bathrooms for the purpose of embarrassing American tourists. I went downstairs and asked which was which. “They’re both lights — no alarm cords here. If you get in trouble, just scream.”

Lay down for a nap, didn’t sleep but did rest for a bit. Went out to explore the neighborhood and find lunch. Many options, settled on Reynolds for a chicken and mango wrap and a corn and quinoa salad (sadly loaded with avocado). Back to the room with a stop at Waterstones across the street for the last Iain Banks book, The Quarry (which had not been available at the con, as the only new-book dealer had foolishly stocked only Banks’s SF). Grabbed our coats and headed back out to the British Museum (it’s free!). Saw mummies, Mesopotamian tile, Sutton Hoo grave goods, Phil Foglio, Cheryl Morgan. Flagging then, went to Tea and Tattle across the street for tea and a scone (flat white and walnut cake for me).

After tea, wanted to grab a Time Out to find out what was on. Stopped into 3 newsagents, 2 tube stations (packed with rush-hour commuters), and a bookstore looking for a copy, with no luck. In fact, no one even knew what it was until Waterstones, where I learned that it’s now a free paper which comes out late Tuesday or early Wednesday. The guys who were offering the Evening Standard to every incoming tube passenger today will probably have it tomorrow.

Back to room, did some online research on museums and theatre for the next couple of days. Realized about 8:00 that we really needed dinner. Went out to restaurant Olivelli for pizza, split a quattro stagione pizza and an insalata di pollo, which were ordered with some slight difficulty. We did not anticipate having as many language issues in England as we have been having (most of the staff at the Aloft were Eastern European, I think). After dinner, came straight home. Plan for tomorrow: TKTS in the morning, then John Soane’s Museum, then hopefully a play in the evening. Some futzing with luggage, electric plugs, and email. To sleep 11:00.

Wed 8/20 – London

Step count: 10,555

Awake 3:00 but got back to sleep eventually. Awake again 8:00. Really good breakfast spread including kippers, marmite, and any number of cooked-to-order options as well as all the usual stuff. I don’t usually eat fried eggs, but in this place it’s “the thing with eyes” so I ordered and ate them with gusto. (By this I refer to an incident in Japan in which I ate “the thing with eyes” which was in my bento. For some reason I will happily eat things in other countries which I would not touch at home, either before or after the trip.) Our host has a dry sense of humor, stating straight-faced that the options for toast were white, brown, and burnt. I think we did hold our own even before coffee. Among the breakfast offerings was a tray of ham-and-cheese croissants. Younger-me would have snagged one of them to have for lunch, but today-me would rather spend money and have a sit-down lunch than lug the thing around all day.

First stop of the day: Leicester Square for TKTS. Spent about a half-hour in line and snagged half-price tickets for our first choice: Jeeves & Wooster. Proceeded from there to Sir John Soane’s Museum. An impressive, rather insane collection of artworks, mostly stone and plaster Classical sculptures and decorative elements but including an Egyptian sarcophagus and hundreds of paintings, assembled by an architect of the late 1700s and early 1800s and displayed in his home almost exactly as it was when he died. It’s free, but they only let in a limited number of people at a time, and no photography is allowed. This intriguing museum also included a temporary exhibition about London and Paris immediately after the fall of Napoleon, very much of interest to me for my novel researches. I bought the catalog of that one.

Lunch at a Thai place nearby called Thiwanya. From there I went to the Hunterian Museum, just a couple of blocks away, while Kate went shopping. The Hunterian is inside the Royal College of Surgeons, and you have to don a badge and pass through a security checkpoint to find it, but it’s free. It consists of a collection of anatomical specimens (animal, human, and a few plants — some normal, many pathological), the story of the museum itself, and the history of anatomy and medicine, especially surgery and the teaching thereof. Exhibits include the complete skeleton of the “Irish Giant” Charles Byrne, Winston Churchill’s dentures, and a cast of Jonathan Swift’s cranial cavity, as well as many other famous and noteworthy specimens. I’m glad I didn’t try to bring Kate to this. Upstairs, focusing specifically on surgery including videos of modern procedures, was a little too disturbing even for me. All in all I spent nearly three hours there.

Met up with Kate back at the hotel, then back out again for dinner before the show. Wound up at Pods, a healthy/organic fast food place. Mostly a lunch joint, they were sold out of everything except the red and green Thai chicken curry so we had one of each. Quite nice, especially with the multicolored rice. That was quick so we had time to kill before the play. Wandered down to Trafalgar Square and admired the art and architecture on display, also the street performers (including an Irish sidewalk-chalk-artist-slash-bagpiper, an energetic Spiderman impersonator, and a contortionist). The play, Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, was very silly fun. The production was structured as a play-within-a-play presented by Wooster, with the help of Jeeves and one other actor, another butler. The two butlers played all the parts except Bertie and also provided the sets and props, sometimes to hilarious effect. Very reminiscent of the play The 39 Steps.

Not a lot of photos today, just about everywhere we went had a no-photos policy. Back home by 10:30, to bed 11:45.

Thu 8/21 – London

Step count: 10,337

Awake 8:00. Skipped the hot breakfast in favor of shredded wheat (which, it turned out, had fruit inside), yogurt, and a little slice of quiche (which, it turned out, was room temperature). Odd.

Courtauld Gallery featured a magnificent collection of masterpieces, especially Impressionists. We shared the space with a gaggle of students from nearby Kings College; the students were annoying but the lecturer pointed out some interesting things about the paintings. A really excellent museum.

Wandered the Strand in search of lunch. Wound up at Birley, a high-end sandwich shop, where most of the clientele was clearly lawyers from the nearby law courts. Proceeded from there to the Victoria & Albert museum, trekking down an astonishingly long underground passage from the tube station to the museum. Once inside, passed an amazing collection of sculptures just on the way to the bathroom. Special exhibit “Disobedient Objects,” about artifacts produced by protest movements, was thought-provoking and well-curated, but crowded. Ran out of spoons shortly after that, took the bus home, fell over. When we woke up it was time to leave for the Tun (London fandom pub meet, rescheduled to this Thursday for a post-Worldcon gathering of the clans). Spent most of the time smoffing with Alison & Steve, Steve & Giulia, and Martin Easterbrook, along with others less well known to me. Couldn’t take the noise and still had to pack before tomorrow’s flight, so bailed by 8:00 (with many fine people just arriving, alas). Back at hotel, arranged for a cab, wrote some postcards, and made an early night of it.

I often wish I lived in a bigger city with more big-city amenities, but London and Paris do take a lot of energy to deal with. I suppose it wouldn’t be so bad if it were my own city and more familiar. I’m ready to go home now.

Fri 8/22 – London-Toronto

Step count: 10,061

Awake just before 6:00 alarm. Packed up, had breakfast, checked out. Cab to airport arrived right on time, delivered us to Heathrow with no issues. Terminal uncrowded at 9am, found no lines at all either to check in or for security (admittedly we used the Business Class line for both — obtained with miles — but I didn’t observe any crowding in the other lines either). Long hike to Air Canada business class lounge. Settled in there for an hour, wrote a blog post about the last couple of days in Mechelen and the first day in London. Boarded plane (again no line, thanks to Business Class), got settled in. Flight was uneventful. Food more than decent (main course: seared cod with a chunky tomato coulis) but the cheese course was pathetic by La Cahudiere standards. Seat a very nice lie-flat pod, though at one point, late in the flight, it refused to sit back up again and the flight attendant had to reboot it, saying something about “we can only do this once per flight or it overheats,” after which I was reluctant to lay it down again. Slept about an hour, otherwise did a bunch of reading, didn’t even look at the on-demand video screen.

Huge crowds at Toronto airport but reasonably well managed, except for complete lack of signage of how to get out of baggage claim area. No issues with customs, except that we stood in the wrong line for passport control (they served us anyway, thank you polite Canadians). Ran into Colin Hinz and Catherine Crockett in baggage claim; apparently they’d been on the same flight. Long trek to Terminal Link train to our on-airport hotel, then had some difficulty finding it from the train terminal (it wasn’t far, but there was a signage failure for the last bit). The ALT hotel is reminiscent of the Aloft in its stark modernity, but the room is about as big as our last 3 rooms put together and has two double beds, a tub, a closet, towel racks, drawers, and washcloths, huzzah. Toronto is 75 degrees and humid, the warmest weather we’ve seen since Paris. Worked on blog for a bit.

Hotel has no restaurant to speak of and there’s nothing in the vicinity (airport is reachable by train but is pretty much a food desert) so we opted for a 15-minute walk to Zet’s Drive-Inn, supposed to have good Greek food. Airport/industrial roadways were actively pedestrian-hostile and under construction to boot, but we did eventually manage to make our way to Zet’s without being run over. We each ordered a peameal bacon sandwich (a Toronto specialty and something of a guilty pleasure of mine). Not exactly cuisine, but definitely tasty. After eating, not sure what to do with our trays. Spotted some other trays left on a table nearby and had the following exchange: “We decided one big pile was better than one little pile, and rather than pick theirs up we decided to set ours down.” “And we had another peameal bacon sandwich that couldn’t be beat, and didn’t get up until the next morning when we all had to go to the airport.” “Remember the airport? Whole damn thing’s about the airport…” Nearly midnight London time and running on one hour’s sleep we were getting kind of punchy. Back at hotel, posted another blog post covering through the end of the Worldcon. Fell over around 8:00.

Sat 8/23 – Toronto-Seattle-Portland

Step count: 7,476

Awake around 3:00, but got back to sleep. Woke to alarm 6:00. Washed up, packed up, checked out. Did not buy anything from the little shop in the lobby (that’s what this place offers for breakfast), assuming that the Air Canada business class lounge would provide breakfast. This proved to be a mistake.

Terminal Link train to terminal. Took a bit of searching to find the right place to check in. Checked in our bags with the assurance they’d be checked through to Portland, but once they were tagged we had to drag them through Customs ourselves. First time using Global Entry for passport control into USA. Security person at Global Entry line said we would need our Global Entry cards. This didn’t match my understanding, and Kate didn’t have hers, but security person let us in anyway. Card was not needed, just passport and fingerprints, but the UI on the Global Entry kiosk could use some work. Getting a little cranky by this point. Next came security. We dropped our bags on the belt and then went to the priority security line. But, alas, I had the dreaded “SSSS” on my boarding pass indicating I’d been randomly selected for special security search. Not even Global Entry plus TSA Pre-Check plus Business Class will get you out of that. So I stood for a long time in a line that wasn’t moving at all, then took off my shoes, took everything out of my pockets, handed over my boarding pass, took my computer out of its sleeve, got my computer and bag swabbed for explosives, walked through a metal detector, walked through the metal detector again without my belt (oops), had my choice of getting patted down or standing in the X-ray scanner (took the scanner because it’s quicker), waited nervously for my boarding pass to be returned as they seemed to have forgotten that bit, then put everything back where it had been. Getting really cranky by now. Long, long walk to our gate. By now it had gotten too late to hit the business class lounge, so we bought some fruit-and-nut bars at the little shop near our gate and that was our breakfast.

Five-hour flight to Seattle in business class was fine, big comfy seats and a very nice real breakfast (omelette, sausage with a fruit compote, potatoes, yogurt, pretty good coffee). Back in the day, not everyone could afford to fly but the service was lots better. Today travel is cheap and uncomfortable, but you can still get the kind of service everyone used to get if you can pay for it. So basically they’ve bolted the Economy Class section onto what used to be the whole plane. Slept some and read some on the flight. Lovely view of Seattle on the way in.

On landing in Seattle, checked my email and found a message sent right after we took off, saying that our Seattle-Portland flight was canceled. After getting inside, trekked down to Customer Service desk to resolve the situation. Good news! Friendly United agent rebooked us on an Alaska flight leaving half an hour earlier than our canceled United one. Now all we had to do was rely on United to transfer our bags from Air Canada to Alaska in 45 minutes. Agent acknowledged that this was kind of iffy and instructed us to check with Alaska if the bags didn’t appear. Picked up a sandwich from Wolfgang Puck on the way to the Alaska gate and split that for lunch.

Uneventful flight to Portland. “Pointy trees! Pointy trees!” Good to be home. Something about the air, the quality of the light, is different here from where we’ve been. Surprised to find only a few bags on the carrousel, the plane wasn’t that small. Alas, none of them were ours. Alaska baggage agent said they’d most likely be on the next flight and would be delivered to us at home, also gave us certificates for 2500 frequent flyer miles each for our trouble. As we had no bags to shlep, took light rail and bus home.

Arrived home about 1pm, house is fine, huge pile of mail. Bleared about the house for the rest of the afternoon; sorted mail pile; cleared out TiVo; Kate went to the store for some groceries. Bags arrived 6pm, yay. Tried to watch Dr Who premiere but was falling asleep and had to give up halfway through. To bed 9pm.

Sun 8/24 – Portland

Awoke 1am, then 5am, got up for a few hours then back to bed, finally got up and dressed 10:30am. Went to farmers’ market, where God told us to make ratatouille. Okay, we are really home now.

And now… the last photos from the trip

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There was a painting of Mary Robinette Kowal in the sitting room of our London hotel

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The room was not large

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Typical view of the mummies room in the British Museum

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Is this the first of the Muffler Men?

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Reconstruction of the famous Sutton Hoo helmet

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This fabulous umbrella shop (est’d. 1830) was right near our hotel

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Londoners will carry damn near anything on a bicycle

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View of Big Ben and the lions of Nelson’s Column from Trafalgar Square. Not shown: giant blue chicken.

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Vicent van Gogh with bandaged ear at the Courtauld Gallery

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Riot shields in the form of books, from the Disobedient Objects exhibit at the V&A

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For some reason this sculpture at the V&A caught my fancy

FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE TRIP: The theme of this trip has been spending time with friends; only the week in Paris was by ourselves. I am pleased and honored to be able to hang out with the many excellent people whose company I shared in Normandy, Belgium, and London. Food was a highlight, with some of the best meals being very simple, classic French dishes — like steak frites, crepes, and grilled duck breast — done perfectly (but, with all the walking, I gained only two pounds in four weeks). I will probably never forget the startled eyes of the skinned rabbit at the farm market in St. Hilaire, though I wish I could. It was delicous, though. Though we did hit the Louvre and the British Museum briefly, we spent more time in secondary museums, notably the Carnavalet in Paris and Courtauld Gallery, which were very memorable. Here at the end of the trip, I am so jet-lagged and bone-weary that I feel a bit sick, or perhaps stoned, but I’d do it all again — though if we could arrange it so that the Worldcon wasn’t at the end of the trip that might have been better. I’m already thinking about where we’ll go next.

London days 2-5

Fri 8/15 – London

Step count: 8,976

Awake 7:30 before 8:00 alarm. Had a breakfast never seen before in human history: Greek yogurt and Cocoa Puffs — an experiment that will not be repeated. Thinking about the fact that I would have to speak for 15 minutes solo about Orphan Black, decided to write up some notes for it; this took about an hour. Wandered exhibit hall for a bit; had lunch with Vylar Kaftan. Orphan Black presentation went well, I think (did get several compliments on it later in the con). Talked with Nancy McClure after the panel, and made a lunch date for tomorrow. Ran into Kate, used my drink chit from panel just past to get her a glass of milk from the green room to thin out her mango lassi from lunch. Went with her to very interesting “Scientists Without Borders” panel, then a nap, from which I awoke in time for the 2-person play “Mastermind” (though Kate elected to stay in bed longer). The play was rather good, though I’m not sure whether or not I liked the ambiguous ending (is that irony?). Brief chat with Lettie Prell on way to next panel “Imagining Fantasy Lands: The Status Quo Does Not Need Worldbuilding,” which was a good panel though it didn’t cover any new ground for me. Headed for art show after that, but it was just closing.

Hung out in fan village hoping for a bite to eat before the SFWA reception but Catherine Crockett got the last dish of noodles from the China worldcon bid, alas. Talked with her and Amy Thomson for a bit before heading off to the reception. The path to the reception involved walking through an enormous, completely empty hall, climbing three flights of stairs, and walking down a ridiculously long corridor (with occasional views into an even larger hall containing a bouncy castle and some kind of maze) before reaching an anonymous conference room. Food consisted of about 4 varieties of crispy snacks, but there were plenty of good people (many of whom I hadn’t yet seen at the con, including Carl (Charlie) Allery, Cat Sparks, and Ken Brady) and it wasn’t dark, overcrowded, or too noisy.

After the reception, we trekked back to the Fan Village for our 9pm dinner rendezvous with Fran Wilde at the TARDIS. I talked with Charlie Jane Anders while waiting for Fran. She showed up with some friends of hers I hadn’t met before, or not much (I didn’t get their names, but I did get their Twitter handles: @amergina, @zanjan, @ELBlackEdits, and @KgElfland2ndCuz) and we trudged the ExCeL Centre’s 900-meter length* to a Chinese restaurant nearby. This was the first time in days I’ve been outside of the convention center and hotel at all, though apparently we were still on convention center property. The restaurant was having a big party with karaoke and we figured we wouldn’t get in, but decided to ask; the waiter said he’d check, then vanished. We were just about ready to give up and leave when he appeared from around the corner of the building and said yes, they’d seat us in a banquet room. He led us around back, through a gate, down some stairs, and through twisting corridors to a small but nicely-appointed room. The waitress did not seem pleased to see us, and the sound of rattling mah jongg tiles came to us from another room nearby, but once we ordered the food came remarkably quickly and was very good. Excellent conversation too.

After dinner we spotted the Tor UK party on the terrace of the bar next door and decided to crash it. Kate bailed but I stuck around until I was chilled through. To bed around 1am.

* While looking that figure up I discovered that ExCeL’s peculiar capitalization is because it stands for Exhibition Centre London. Which means that whether you call it ExCeL London or ExCeL Centre you’re being redundant. Also, it’s owned by the Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company.

Sat 8/16 – London

Step count: 8,366

Awake 7:30 before 8:00 alarm. Dawdled a bit getting down to breakfast and had some trouble finding a table. A big difference in crowd level between 8:20 (half full) and 8:50 (line out the door). Didn’t want to wait in the line for hot food, so had yogurt and muesli for breakfast.

After breakfast, back to the room to update yesterday’s notes and blog my Orphan Black write-up, then headed out to the con. Voted in site selection; toured art show. Artist Grace Goldeen Ogawa told me her mother said to tell me how much she liked my story “Pupa” on StarShipSofa. Browsing the exhibit hall, I witnessed Charlie Stross fail his saving throw vs. Shiny — twice in less than a minute! Talked in dealers’ room and fan village with Fran Myman, Gail Carriger, Anne Leckie, Foz Meadows and others. Waited for Nancy for lunch but she was a no-show (I later learned that she was delayed by train issue) so I wandered down the Boulevard and wound up having chicken tikka masala with Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch, and John Chu. The Boulevard, with its fast-food counters and shared seating, is soulless but actually functions well, like the Coffee Garden in the Columbia River Red Lion of sainted memory; you can easily see and join parties of your friends (and, unlike the Coffee Garden, this doesn’t mess up the service).

After lunch I moderated panel “The Province of All Mankind” featuring former cosmonaut Anatolii Artsebarskii. This panel was in one of the larger rooms and was about half-full (because of the large number of attendees, almost every program item I attended or appeared on was full or nearly so, but this one was a last-minute addition to the schedule and didn’t appear in the printed program). If moderating the average panel is like herding cats, moderating this one was more like driving a 40-mule team. I’ve never had to deal with a translator before… wow, what a challenge. Whenever Anatolii had the floor he would speak for about a paragraph, which took several minutes with the translation. With that, and considering that most of the audience was probably there specifically to see him, I structured the conversation around him, extracting questions from his statements to pass to the other panelists before handing the ball back to him. We were also fortunate to have a 15-year-old British young woman on the panel, who provided an interesting and remarkably hard-headed perspective on the topic question “what drives us to pursue our childhood dreams of space?”

From there I went straight to my kaffeeklatsch, which I was surprised to find had 8 people signed up (out of a maximum of 9), none of whom I already knew other than Lynne Ann. I think I gave good value for money. Hung out in dealers’ room for a bit after that, then realized it was time for a nap. But back at the room I faffed around with notes, email, etc. and had just gotten around to lying down when Kate showed up for a nap as well. Woke up just in time to head off to a book launch where we were to meet up with Maureen Speller and Paul Kincaid for dinner. It was in the same space as the SFWA reception but even further down the long long corridor (why??? All the rooms are the same and none of the ones we passed seemed to be in use). Socialized there with a variety of Brits including Dave Langford, Joseph Nicholas, and Judith Hanna while waiting for Maureen to get out of a panel.

Eventually we headed off from there with the intention of going until we found something edible and eating it. Settled on Lebanese restaurant Reem Al Bawadi — at least that was what Yelp called it and what it said on the plates, though the signage outside called it something else. Long wait to be seated, but it smelled great and had been recommended by Giulia de Cesare so we stuck it out. Once we were seated and ordered, the food arrived very quickly and was absolutely delicious. The four of us shared falafel, ful, fattoush, and 2 orders of the grilled kafta and it left us pleasantly full. We also all tried a refreshing salted yogurt drink called ayran. At the end of the meal they brought us perfect little bites of baklava. Delightful conversation too.

Paul and Maureen bailed as we passed their hotel on the way back to the con, having had a long day. Heading for a play called Hallucinating Shakespeare, we ran into Ctein who was heading the same way, and caught up with each other as we walked the half-mile length of the ExCeL. By the time we got to the other end we realized we were pretty knackered as well and decided to make an early night of it. Back to the room 9:30, to bed by 11.

Sun 8/17 – London

Step count: 6,665

Awake 7:00 before 7:30 alarm (it’s a gift, I guess) for our 8:00 breakfast appointment with Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden. We talked about our travels and great museums we have known, and they shared with us the news that they would be Guests of Honor for the Kansas City Worldcon (just a few minutes before the official announcement). After breakfast I spent an hour looking at the day’s program and decided not to blow off the con.

The first panel I attended was “On The Blogs: Bloggers Discuss Their Roles in the World of YA.” Looking for book blogs? Google “book blogs” — your readers will too, and the first ones you see there are the popular ones, the ones your readers will also see first. They do come and go rather frequently. “The Internet is taking up the slack in our high school educational system” — review blogs show kids how to consider a text and write persuasively in a way they are not even allowed to in school. When sending books for review to book bloggers, read the guidelines, be direct and honest, don’t oversell yourself, be nice, have an introductory paragraph about yourself and the book, don’t include manuscript in initial email (unless guidelines say so), say thank you, be flexible about submission times (send as far in advance as possible), start chatting with bloggers on Twitter or the comments in their blogs to find out who’s who and what they’re interested in, offer a guest blog post if the blog is open to that. Blog tours aren’t that useful unless you’re Holly Black; interviews are better. Look for bloggers who are entertaining and insightful. Don’t argue with reviews, or request that a bad review be taken down. Remember that bloggers talk to each other, and to publishers.

Next I stood in line for the hall to open for big panel “Iain M. Banks, Writer and Professional.” Panelists’ anecdotes made me even more sorry I never met Banks or even saw him speak. “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

Unfortunately I had to leave the Banks panel early, because I was appearing on the next one: “Should We Trash The Planet on the Way to the Stars?” Moderator Hayden Trenholm and panelist Paul Abell introduced themselves as Canadian; I claimed to be “Canadian in spirit.” They both agreed that the premise of the panel was silly; I stated (as a joke) that I would be taking the devil’s advocate approach and arguing in favor of trashing the planet. Paul told me to turn in my almost-a-Canadian card. The premise of the panel was indeed silly, and no one actually advocated trashing the planet; we spent the panel talking about motivations and priorities for space travel and what costs (financial, environmental, etc.) we’d be willing to pay as a society for it. Greg Benford: “Those who do not learn the lessons of statistics are doomed to become one.” Full house, good panel.

Had lunch in the Boulevard (chicken sandwich) with Jim Kelly, Rick Wilber, Michael Blumlein, and Michael Swanwick (another Kansas City GoH, as it happens). Attended the Clarion West party in the fan village; visited the creepy-crawlies in the exhibit hall (I mean a display of insects, not the dealers). The Girl Genius radio play was tons of fun and I recommend it highly. After that, ran into Jo Walton on the Boulevard and wound up having tea with her and Michael Swanwick. She compared the Chicago Worldcon hotel to a brain with a stroke; workarounds are required. Of course it’s actually two brains forcibly joined together (now there’s a story idea…). Later Cory Doctorow joined us. Me: mostly listening.

Dinner arrangements were… complicated… but eventually we wound up with Kate Schaefer and Glenn Hackney at the same Chinese place as Friday (this time at a table right by the door) and had a perfectly decent meal. For some reason at this con the cat-herding around arranging meals was much more difficult than even the usual Worldcon. Still, we did manage to have at least decent food with good friends at most every meal. Though not, today, with another Kansas City GoH.

Back to the con in time to catch most of the Hugos. Very pleased with the results; ceremony was pretty good too. Afterwards, Mary Robinette Kowal was a class act as usual, showing up in the Fan Village and taking pictures of people holding her Hugo. To bed about midnight.

Mon 8/18 – London

Step count: 10,241

Awake 7:15 before 8:00 alarm. Joined Lise Eisenberg and Alan Stewart (Australian) at breakfast (yogurt and muesli). After breakfast, blew off con in favor of Docklands Museum. Ran into Amanda Baker on DLR, already heading home from the con. The museum had many excellent exhibits, many of which were relevant to my next novel; we only did half of it before lunch time.

Walked around Canary Wharf looking for lunch but everything we saw was too plastic (but still, the place looks great considering it was completely destroyed by the Daleks just a few years ago.) so we got back on the DLR and took it back to the museum for Tale of India near there, which Kate had found on Yelp earlier. We were the only people in the restaurant, never a good sign, but the food, when it came, was excellent: pumpkin curry with lamb; garlic dhal; okra; lemon rice; naan. After lunch, Kate went back for the second half of the museum, while I returned to the con (despite a hang-up on the DLR). Exhibits and dealers were already closed down, but the fan village and program continued. I talked with Jeffrey Carver on the Boulevard and Dave Clements in the green room (having popped in to use my one remaining drink chit).

I headed for the “Ruling Party” panel (Charlie Stross), but the line was clearly too long to fit in the room so I bailed for “The Scientific Culture” (Dave Clements), which I enjoyed greatly. “I don’t see my job as looking for Truth, I see it as building models that fit the data better and better.” — “This business of knowing more than most people about something can lead to arrogance.” “*cough*surgeons*cough*” “*cough*physicists*cough*” — Scientists work within multiple cultures (academia, industry, government, medicine, military, etc.) so what is “science culture” anyway? It’s a kind of matrix. Industry is actually more cooperative and less cutthroat than academia, which tends to pit individual researchers against each other (as opposed to industry, which tends to have teams working toward a common goal). — Science offers an occasional “I am the first person in human history to see this” experience which is unique and addictive. Geologist: “I can touch a billion-year-old rock and feel myself a very small part of a very big story.” Astrophysicist: “I can’t touch them, but I can look at some very old things.” Other astrophysicist: “My things are older than your rocks.”

Next panel was “How Space Missions Happen,” which was largely anecdotes, and of course plenty of puns from Jordin Kare. “It’s the end of the world… con.” — Space funding is “politics first, finance second, science and engineering third;” “everything comes from luck and personal contacts.” — NASA wanted to do everything “faster, better, cheaper” but engineers know it’s “pick two one.” — Geoff Landis worked on an instrument to make fuel on Mars but the mission was canceled when Mars Polar Lander, based on the same design, failed. The spaceframe did eventually fly (under the name Phoenix) but all the science instruments were scraped off and replaced by new ones. Geoff got a T-shirt: “My spacecraft went to Mars and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.” — “NASA is a collection of fiefdoms, each with its own budget — it’s amazing how little the director actually controls.” — The “Triana” mission was initiated by VP Al Gore and was mothballed for 12 years after Gore lost in 2000. It’s now scheduled to launch (under a new name) in 2015 but nobody’s left who knows how it works and it all has to be reverse-engineered. — There’s a revolution happening now with 10cm “cubesats” which can be piggybacked on other missions effectively free… “but there’s no such thing as a free launch.” Cubesats cost less than the Xerox bill for big satellites, meaning that failure isn’t a disaster. “In the computer industry, failure is not an option… it comes bundled with the software.” Most cubesats are built by students, who work cheap or free. — It’s extremely difficult to launch a satellite to orbit a gas giant’s moon. The Europa Clipper mission has been repurposed as a Jupiter mission with Europa flybys because it’s so much easier to do it that way. — It takes ~5 years to develop a satellite, 10-30 years for a major mission (e.g. space telescope).

During that panel Kate and I decided (via text message) to order carry-out from the fabulous Lebanese restaurant and take it into the fan village where Donya White, with her broken kneecap, was encamped. When we called the restaurant to place our order, they insisted on a phone number but then were apparently unable to comprehend Kate’s US cell phone number when she gave it. Apart from the problems of the international prefix, I figured that they just couldn’t understand a number stated in groups of three, three, and four digits — I took the phone from Kate and gave them the digits in pairs, and they accepted that. I know that I have great difficulty comprehending a phone number when it’s stated European-style in pairs (or, even worse, as two-digit numbers e.g. “seventeen” instead of “one seven”).

Ran back to room for coat, cash, and phone charger, as my phone was getting very low on juice, then met Kate at panel “How Do You Divide a Railroad?” States leave archaeological marks in societies when they join, and when they break… you still can’t take a bus across the Daneline. (NB: I have Googled on this term and come up empty. Farah, if you’re reading this, can you explain?) Every national border in Europe is a tide-mark of the ebb and flow of empires. Don’t forget that governments exist at multiple levels (nation, department, county, city). When a state breaks up, who gets the existing embassies? Who pays the pensions? [It was at this point, halfway through the panel, that I realized that the unstated subtext of this panel about “what happens when nations break up” is the open question of Scottish independence.] Revolutions don’t happen when things are really bad; they happen when things have been bad and have gotten a bit better. In Adam Roberts’s novel Salt the big societal problem starts with a custody battle over a child. Infrastructure is always a big issue when countries divide. If Scotland becomes an independent EU country they won’t be able to charge English students more to attend Scottish universities, which they are permitted to do now. Irish people can vote in British elections and enter Britain without passports not out of friendliness but because Britain didn’t want to recognize Ireland’s independence. (This scattered write-up makes the panel, which was brilliant, seem much less coherent than it was. I blame end-of-con brain.)

After the panel, we hiked down to the Lebanese restaurant. We had some worries about our order, given the confusion about the phone number, but it was waiting for us (along with a restaurant-full of fans). Dragged it back to the fan village and a very grateful Allen and Donya (who seemed remarkably chipper). Had a nice dinner with them and some of their friends. One last pass around the fan village. Met Lynne Ann, Sarah a Goodman, and Juan and Elise on the way out. Back to the hotel by 9. A good end to the con.

And now… photos!

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For you are crunchy and good with ketchup

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These signs were in every bathroom. Who cares if a wall gets slippery when wet?

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Charlie Stross blows his saving throw vs. Shiny

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Don’t mess with li’l Cap’n America

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The Fan Village. Note the group posing for a photo in front of the TARDIS, which includes Deadpool, a Jawa, a Stormtrooper, and Batman

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I had a poster in the Exhibits Hall

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This vast, empty airplane hangar was only the first stage in the route to the SFWA reception

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Phil Foglio gives the audience (playing air pirates) their line in the Girl Genius Radio Play

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Yes, I am a big geek

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They called this the “party tree,” possibly because it looks as though it has partied too hard

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This, believe it or not, is a Smart Car — a quarter-mouse-fart engine with the styling of a 500hp Jaguar

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Proclamation outside the former warehouse which now houses the Docklands Museum. They don’t write ’em like that any more.

IMG 1690The Boulevard after the con was over. You’ll have to imagine these chairs crowded with fans.

Belgium days 6-7, London day 1

Tue 8/12 – Mechelen

Step count: 13,658

Awake 7:15 ahead of 7:30 alarm. We were joined for breakfast today by Lynne Ann and Roelof’s friends Irina and Sara, then got out the door by 9:30. Caught a bus to the train station (even I can recognize “you can’t miss it” in Dutch), then a train to Brussels.

In Brussels we got rather lost coming out of the station, but did eventually manage to find the Beaux Arts museum. It’s actually 4 museums: Magritte, Old Masters, Fin de Siecle, and Modern. We bought a combo ticket and started with the Magritte, which provided an excellent overview of the man and his work, with many well-known paintings. I did have trouble following the text, which tended to the poetic (not too surprising given Magritte’s surrealism and fascination with the relationship between art and language).

After Magritte it was time for lunch. The museum restaurant was too expensive, the museum cafe seemed understaffed (long line of people awaiting service) so we headed for the nearby Comics Cafe, but ended up at Sushi Shop next door to that. Not the best sushi ever, but it was grab-and-go convenient.

Back to the museum after lunch for the Old Masters (Breugels, Rembrandt, et al were cool, but all in all rather dark and brown and featured far too many dreary Crucifixions) and Fin de Siecle (much more to my taste than the Old Masters, including paintings full of life, some dynamite Art Noveau furniture, and at last I’ve met James Ensor, Belgium’s famous painter). Also in the Old Masters gallery for some reason: a series of modern bronze self-portrait busts with added horns, delightfully whimsical. After that we were very low on spoons. Had hoped to hit comics museum but simply didn’t have the energy, so headed home. Did stop in a little shop near the station in hopes of some 1958 World’s Fair memorabilia but came up dry.

Took the train back to Mechelen. Stopped at a couple of book shops on the way home from the station, finding a few items, then took Lynne Ann and Roelof to a nice dinner at restaurant Puro. I had carrot soup to start, then “Mechelse koekoek” (translated into English as “Malines cuckoo,” it’s a local bird which, well, tastes like chicken, but was deliciously prepared with an onion cream sauce, broad beans, and potatoes au gratin) and ice cream with advocaat for dessert. After dinner, came home and the cats actually deigned to show themselves, even to be petted a bit. Had hoped to do more than one museum today but, in effect, we did do three. Hope to have enough time tomorrow to see the comics museum before the train to London. To bed about 11:00, after a glimpse of the near-perigee near-full moon.

Wed 8/13 – Mechelen-Brussels-London

Step count: 7,888

Awake 8:30 or so, though Kate slept poorly and didn’t wake up until nearly 9:30. Breakfast, wrapped up St. Michael for travel, gathered divots, packed, checked around for any left-behind stuff, said goodbye to Roelof; Lynne Ann accompanied us to Brussels. By the time we got our bags squared away in a locker it was 12:45. We had about 2 hours until we wanted to check in, not really enough time for the comics museum, alas. Lunch of panini at Cafe Antonio near the station, not bad (it was down the street from the place we were heading for, which was closed for vacation). Nothing much in the vicinity of the station, so went back inside. Bought chocolates and a waffle, retrieved bags, went to check in — sorry, too early, come back at 3. Sat on a bench in the plaza for half an hour, then came back. Some American arguing with some Brit in the line, also screaming babies. Lynne Ann stuck around until we got through the first passport check. Half an hour to get through passport control and security, then 15 minutes in the waiting room before boarding at 3:45 for a 4:00 train — “Welcome aboard the Snowpiercer, I mean Eurostar.” Weird not to have seatbelts and safety lecture after all that.

Swift, smooth 2-hour journey to St. Pancras station. Massive rush-hour crowds and an unanticipated change of trains meant that getting from there to our hotel (Aloft) took 3 trains and an hour and a half. Then Kate had to bail from the front desk due to a scent cannon nearby, leaving me to cope with checkin and all the luggage. I kind of lost it.

Room is nice, close to elevator, very modern, plenty of outlets, on the small side (but much bigger than the last 2 weeks!). After checking in, wandered over to convention center and registered; program ops was closed for the night, though. Ran into some fans but didn’t have the brain for conversation. Went back to the room to put our feet up for a bit. After perusing program book for a short time (did not fall asleep, I swear) looked up and realized it was already 7:50, or 8:50 Paris time. No wonder we were hungry and brainless. Decided on hotel restaurant for dinner, but they couldn’t seat us until 8:30. Checked out bar and other options nearby and realized that was our best option. When 8:30 came it took a while to be seated. I had a very bad feeling about this, but the food didn’t actually take all that long to arrive and was actually really good: Irish stew for me, chicken curry for Kate. Can’t believe how wiped I was after a day whose main activity was just a 2-hour train ride. Fell over hard 10:00.

Thu 8/14 – London

Step count: 7,400

Awake 6:00 with a hard bar of sunlight shining into my eyes, as I didn’t get the blackout curtain quite closed. Also: room has not a single drawer, no shelves to speak of, only a short closet with 6 hangers (on a bar with slots for 5). Out of bed 7:30 to beat the crowd at breakfast. Very nice breakfast spread, full range of options including yogurt, fruit, cereals, breads and pastries, and the usual cooked options. Had egg, sausage, hash browns, and mushrooms (“will there be mushrooms at breakfast?”) just to remind myself where I am. Still very weary; maybe doing a Worldcon after three weeks of European travel was a mistake. Back to room, sync’d photos, blogged schedule, etc. Tried to put money on Oyster card via website but this proved unworkable due to credit card hassles. Off to con!

No one knew where program participant packet pickup was, but I did find it eventually (it was on the far side of the blocks-long line for registration — sure am glad we registered Wednesday night!). No program participant ribbons, though; they were held up at Customs and didn’t arrive until the second day of the con. Two-sided badges were a great idea (name is visible even if badge flips around) but the back-of-badge program sticker obscured it, so I stuck that on my name tent instead. Talked in green room with Todd McCaffrey, Bud Sparhawk, et al before my 11:00 panel “Reimagining Families.” Surprisingly, we had a packed house. Turns out there were only 6 panels at that hour, all in small rooms, so all were packed, but it was still a nice surprise. Panel was pretty low-energy — I tried to engage the other panelists in actual conversation but the bait was not taken — but all in all a success I think. Talked with Jed and a couple of audience members for a while afterward.

Lunch in “Boulevard” (convention center food court) of adequate lamb rogan josh with Tom Becker and several Brits slightly known to me. Hung out in Fan Village for a while, had a very nice talk with some local physicist in the Exhibits Hall about dark energy. Attended first half-hour of a panel on “The Joy of Sex” (for which GoH Chris Foss did the illustrations) but got a tweet from CE Murphy — whom I had not met before but a mutual friend had suggested via Twitter “you’re both at the convention, you should meet” and she was available now — so I bailed (couldn’t hear anyway, why don’t people use the damn microphones) and met her in the Fan Village bar. Learned that a TARDIS makes an excellent rendezvous point. Had a nice chat with her and several other Irish fans.

I was feeling very chilly then (I guess they turned the air conditioning on) and the rain had let up, so dashed back to the hotel to put on another layer. Ran into Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, Terri Windling, and Mr. Terri Windling. Also Patrick and Teresa, just arrived after being greatly delayed by traffic. Tried to help Teresa get to her panel on time but there was little I could do to help, so I left her in the hands of a member of the Nights Watch (no, really). Met up with members of Book View Cafe for an early dinner, wound up in Boulevard again. Had a baked potato with chili, again adequate, along with cider (which no one else in the party had managed to locate). Back to Fan Village, talked with Cory Doctorow, Lisa Hayes, and others. Corey recently did a year-long Imagineering fellowship; among other things, he said that Paris Disney has problems with different “line cultures” (“the Italians’ is more of a scrum”) which explains the mess we encountered in the line at Pirates of the Caribbean. Presupported Helsinki in 2017 and got a T-shirt.

Off to Retro Hugos with Kate. Sat with Flick and, briefly, with Farah Mendelsohn. Mary Robinette’s outfit and hair were fabulous, but her opening number seemed off for some reason, as though she couldn’t hear the orchestra. First Fandom awards were all presented by one deathly dull presenter who went on and on in a monotone without looking up. Some of the recipients weren’t much better. Endless, tedious. Realized I didn’t care who won the Retro Hugos and bailed.

Back to Fan Village, talked with Alan Baum (Donya, having broken her kneecap in the Tube on the first day, had just gotten out of surgery), Jack Foy, Paul Cornell, and others, met up with Kate for “I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue.” It was fun and much of it was comprehensible to non-Brits. Back to the room by 11, wrote up these notes (remembered more than I thought I would!). To bed before midnight.

And now, a few photos

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Street scene in Brussels

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One of Mechelen’s selection of fine book shops

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Our last view of Mechelen’s Grote Markt

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Our first view of the Aloft hotel

Why you should be watching Orphan Black

One of my program items at the Worldcon was “Why Aren’t You Watching…”, a series of panels in which fans of various current TV series were invited to advocate for 15 minutes each about why you should be watching their favorite shows. I did the session on Orphan Black. Here’s what I said.

Orphan Black is the story of con artist Sarah Manning, played by Tatiana Maslany. A young woman with a troubled past, a pretty messed-up present, and not much hope for the future, she is an orphan and a single mother whose seven-year-old daughter Kira is currently being raised by her foster mother. She also has a FABulous foster brother, Felix, an artist and rent-boy who is a hoot and a half. One terrible day, when everything in Sarah’s life is going wrong, she sees something unbelievable: a woman on a railway platform who looks exactly like her. Before Sarah can approach her, the woman slips off her jacket and shoes, sets down her purse, and steps in front of an oncoming train. Stunned by this inexplicable occurrence, she picks up the dead woman’s purse and finds inside a ready-made escape route from her miserable life: she will adopt the dead woman’s identity and claim that the corpse on the tracks is her.

Sarah intends to clear out Beth’s bank account and hit the road with Kira and Felix, but it’ll take time to get that much money in cash, so she finds herself having to occupy the dead woman’s shoes, job, and life for longer than she’d planned. But playing someone else isn’t easy, especially when the dead woman, Beth Childs, is a police detective. Working with limited information, Sarah finds herself trapped in a web of lies to Beth’s partner Art Bell and boyfriend Paul, while Sarah’s abusive, drug-dealing ex-boyfriend “Vic the Dick” becomes unexpectedly morose over Sarah’s death and insists that Felix, who is in on the scam, help with a big public memorial service.

Sarah finds herself rapidly switching identities and accents (Sarah is English, Beth Canadian) as she tries to manage her relationships with Art, Paul, Felix, Vic, Kira, and her foster mother Mrs. S without anyone but Felix finding out about the scam. She particularly doesn’t want Kira to learn that her mother is supposedly dead. But the late Beth had two mobile phones: one is connected to her public life as a cop, and the other keeps buzzing with cryptic messages from some stranger who insists on meeting her. Beth also has a safe deposit box with information on several apparently unconnected women. And Beth is under investigation for having shot a civilian, in a situation that reeks of conspiracy.

Then things get really complicated, as the mysterious message-leaver slips into Beth’s car. Her name is Katja, she’s German… and she too looks exactly like Sarah. WTF?

Before long Sarah finds herself investigating — and possibly embroiled in — a conspiracy involving a biotech corporation, a scientific-slash-social movement called Neolution (led by Dr. Aldous Leekie, played by Max Headroom star Matt Frewer), a scary religious cult, and a secret military project. She meets several more young women who look like her: dreadlocked bisexual grad student Cosima, uptight soccer mom Alison, unstable Ukranian assassin Helena, corporate shark Rachel, and who knows how many more might be lurking out there.

And it’s those clones, all played by Tatiana Maslany, that really make Orphan Black worth watching. Genetically identical, all the same age, but raised in different countries under different circumstances, each of them is a distinct individual with unique speech patterns, mannerisms, and reactions. Maslany, with the help of brilliant but unobtrusive special effects, makes you completely believe in these different human beings, and the many scenes in which she portrays one clone pretending to be another are some of the finest acting I’ve ever seen on television. A scene near the end of season 2 in which most of the clones participate in a dance party is a fabulous, wordless paragon of acting and filmmaking genius. Sarah’s joyous hip-hop, Cosima’s dreamy glide, Alison’s contained shuffle, and Helena’s frenetic thrash are perfect demonstrations of the characters and the actress’s complete understanding of them from the cellular level on up. The fact that Tatiana Maslany has never even been nominated for an Emmy should be a felony.

Many of the other characters, including Leekie, Mrs. S, the fabulous Felix, and even Vic the Dick — who manages to be sympathetic and completely despicable at the same time — are also excellent, and they inhabit a variety of worlds: seedy dance clubs, frightening religious cults, university biotech laboratories, corporate office suites, and, most frightening of all, the suburbs of Toronto. The creators keep the extremely complex plot spinning along at high speed, and you have to pay close attention to keep the players straight, but they play fair with the viewer — though there are plenty of surprises, all the pieces are right there in plain sight. The music, too, is excellent — atmospheric, modern, and kicky. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent show, carefully crafted and brilliantly executed.

It’s also real science fiction, of a type rarely seen on television — one in which the science and the fiction are inseparable and both are important. This is the story of a bunch of believable human beings whose lives are deeply affected by a fictional but highly plausible technology. The science is sometimes a bit hand-wavy, but it’s good enough for this non-biologist, and the varied reactions of the characters, their organizations, and the larger society to this technological change are well-thought-out and seem realistic, though sometimes extreme.

Orphan Black is a hell of a ride. There are two seasons so far, each with a satisfying arc, and you really have to watch the episodes in order. My suggestion is to space them out, giving yourself a chance to consider the implications of each episode and anticipate future developments before watching the next, but I suspect that once you start you’ll binge until they’re all gone and you’ll be left anxiously anticipating season 3 with the rest of us.

I’ll leave you with one caveat: there were some developments at the end of season 2 that make me question whether the show can keep this performance up for another season. But the creators have done such a good job so far that I have hope that they’ll be able to continue the streak. We’ll have to see. In the world of Orphan Black, the only constant is change.

My LonCon3 Schedule

  • Thursday, 14 August, 11am-12pm: Reimagining Families in Capital Suite 2 (Level 3) with Jed Hartman, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Laura Lam, and Cherry Potts

    In a 2013 column for, Alex Dally MacFarlane called for a greater diversity in the way SF and fantasy represent families, pointing out that in the real world, “People of all sexualities and genders join together in twos, threes, or more. Family-strong friendships, auntie networks, global families… The ways we live together are endless.” Which stories centre non-normative family structures? What are the challenges of doing this in an SF context, and what are the advantages? How does representing a wider range of family types change the stories that are told?

  • Friday, 15 August, 12-1pm: What Do You Mean You Don’t Watch … Orphan Black, Grimm or The Returned in Capital Suite 17 (Level 3) with Mark Slater, Jeanne Beckwith, and Maura McHugh

    Once upon a time, a fan of genre television could watch everything. Back in the 20th century, the number of SF or fantasy shows running at any given time were in the low single figures. But here in 2014 we’re now drowning in content – and much as it is impossible to read every SF book published, it is becoming increasingly difficult to watch every genre TV series (even with the ability to stream seasons or binge on boxsets) – so we have to decide, and often gamble, on which shows we will give our precious time to. In the first of our ‘What Do You Mean You Don’t Watch’ sessions, advocates for ‘Orphan Black’, ‘Grimm’ and ‘The Returned’, will each have 15 minutes to convince an audience that these are the shows you should be choosing.

  • Saturday, 16 August, 1:30-3pm: “The Province of All Mankind” in Capital Suite 7+12 (Level 3) with cosmonaut Anatolii Artsebarskii, Karen Furlong, Emma J. King, and Mary Turzillo

    This program item is a late addition and does not appear in the printed program. Come see me moderate a panel with an actual Russian cosmonaut!

    For many of us, space holds an endless fascination: we strive to explore the cosmos through scientific research, through our dreams and imaginations in fiction, and by travelling into space itself. Our panel of scientists, writers, and space travellers discuss the ways they were driven to explore our “childhood dream of the sky”, and what might be next for human spaceflight in literature, in science, and in our future.

  • Saturday, 16 August, 3-4pm: Kaffeeklatsch

    Come have coffee and ask me anything!

  • Sunday, 17 August, 12-1:30pm: Should We Trash the Planet on the Way to the Stars? in Capital Suite 5 (Level 3) with Hayden Trenholm, Gregory Benford, Mark Charan Newton, and Paul Abell

    The development and deployment of technologies that would allow mass migration to other planets and stars can pose major threats to the ecology of the Earth – launching nuclear pulse rockets from the ground for example. If this is the only way to expand into space, should we do it? And to what extent do these arguments apply to other technological developments?

Belgium days 3-5

Sat 8/9 – Mechelen

Step count: 12,749

Awake 9ish, I think; breakfast of Greek yogurt with fresh local blueberries and muesli. Today was our day to explore Mechelen. Started with the Saturday morning market in Grote Markt: the whole town square and several subsidiary squares all filled with stands selling vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, bread, pastries, clothing, and cheap consumer goods of all types. Roelof said it was a little underpopulated because of the summer holidays, but it seemed to be hopping to me. Picked up some herring and a few other things, hit the post office, then we went off in separate directions. I went back to the house, where I saw one of the cats (Skip, I think; she hissed at me) and I picked up a Mechelen walking tour booklet Roelof had offered. Followed the booklet (Streetwise Mechelen, very well written and full of interesting tidbits) from the Grote Markt to picturesque streets, several churches, and palatial buildings. Took plenty of pictures. Passed at least one and possibly two wedding parties, including the celebrants coming up the aisle at St Rumbold’s Cathedral as I was heading down (I beat a hasty retreat as soon as I realized what was happening). Managed to buy a hartenwafel (little heart-shaped waffle) for a snack and some chocolates for a gift, using a horrific mishmosh of German, English, and a little mangled Dutch.

Back to house for lunch: herring for everyone else, ham sandwich for me. After lunch Roelof, Kate, and I went back to a couple of churches I’d spotted in the morning that weren’t open to visitors yet, including the interesting informative sign that replaces the taken-away-for-renovations statue of “Jesus at the Mount of Olives” at Klapgat (“here, let me show you something that isn’t there”), then walked along the boardwalk by the river. We spotted an exhibit about the Cavalcade procession held here once every 25 years (the last one was in 2013). The Cavalcade costumes were hung up on racks in such a way that it looked more like a shop as an exhibit — kind of strange.

Back home for dinner with Lynne Ann and Roelof and their friends Freddy and Mies. Full spread of language skills: me with almost no Dutch, Kate with some Dutch, American-born Lynne Ann with very strong Dutch, Netherlands-born Roelof with very strong English, Flemish Mies with good English, Flemish Freddy with very little English (and a nearly impenetrable Flemish accent). Nonetheless, we managed to have good conversation over a tasty dinner, prepared by Lynne Ann and Roelof, of teriyaki chicken skewers, chirashi sushi, and a seaweed salad. After dinner we all went across the street for ice cream and more conversation. To bed around 11:00, I think.

Sun 8/10 – Mechelen

Step count: 10,473

Awake around 8:00. With Kate still asleep, read Facebook on my phone for a bit until Lynne Ann posted a comment: “Hey, Mister Awake-Enough-to-Like-This-Post! Loving spouse has just gone to the bakery for breakfast”. I took the hint and got up.

Yogurt and blueberries for breakfast, plus fresh pastries from the bakery. Today we decided to go to Brussels and meet up with Lynne Ann there after her aikido. Roelof walked with us to the station and made sure we got on the right train.

Took the tram to Atomium from the Brussels train station (wanting to hit it in the morning, as rain was forecast for the afternoon). Extremely cool! I’ve wanted to see it since I don’t know when. Found a huge line for tickets, but decided to stand in it anyway, even though the rain started while we were waiting. The first thing we encountered after the turnstile was a photographer and some poor sap dressed as Spirou. Unlike the usual “stand in front of this green screen so we can photoshop you into a picture of the thing you just visited in real life” that’s so common these days, this photographer was active and engaged as he snapped us with Spirou and separately.

The first part of the Atomium visit (first two spheres) is an exhibit about the Atomium itself and the 1958 World’s Fair, pretty intriguing. Next (three spheres) was an art installation of sound and light, also cool. The final sphere is where the Amazing Racers slept, usually only open to children. The remaining spheres are not open to the public, except for the panoramic view and schmantzy restaurant in the top sphere. On the way back down to ground level the escalator suddenly stopped and we had to hoof it the rest of the way. Once back down to ground level we found an hour-long line for the elevator to the top, so decided not to bother, especially as it was raining. But the photo of me and Kate turned out great so we bought a print and a keychain (sadly, the two shots with Spirou didn’t turn out as well). Bought a few postcards and other souvenirs.

Lynne Ann texted from the central station and we decided to rendezvous with her there for lunch. She took us to her favorite coffee shop near the station, called Arcadi. My tart of soybeans, leeks, and chicken was absolutely delish, Kate’s sandwich less so. Most everyone we encountered in Brussels speaks French, I’m able to communicate again!

Not enough spoons or time for a museum, and it was raining hard, so we decided to walk to Galerie St. Hubert right next door. This was a long, bright, glass-enclosed shopping street (one of several connected galleries) full of high-end chocolatiers, bookstores, art galleries, knickknack shops, etc. We ended up at Brussels’s Grote Markt (like Mechelen’s on gold-plated steroids) and had a drink at Lynne Ann’s favorite brasserie on the market square, Le Roy d’Espagne (The King of Spain). Interior somewhat reminiscent of The Leaky Cauldron at Universal Studios, amusingly cheeky waiter. Back to Mechelen by train, picked up Roelof at home, went to Turkish restaurant De Hete Patat (The Hot Potato) for dinner. Back home by 8, sync’d photos, sat and wrote up my notes. Had hoped to do more in Brussels today, maybe we will go back there another day rather than Ghent or Antwerp as planned. Or maybe not; life’s full of choices. To bed about 11.

Mon 8/11 – Mechelen

Step count: 11,323

Awake 7:30. Breakfast of yogurt and pain au chocolat; out the door by 9, determined to get an earlier start on the day than yesterday. Train to Antwerp. Antwerp Central station pretty amazing, though we learned later it had been built with the proceeds from slave labor. The zoo next door had some great mosaics at the entrance.

Went back into station for transit tickets, caught tram to St. Carolus church, then got off that tram and back on the one in the right direction. Church very very Baroque, with intriguing open confessionals with life-sized carved angels. Also a saint holding his own de-headed head in his hands (the actual saint’s skull, I think — definitely a sacred relic of some sort). He was St. Justus, patron saint of headaches, I shit you not. Outside the church, enjoyed the peace and quiet of Conscienceplein (named for author Hendrik Conscience, whose statue overlooks the square from the old main library which is also named after him).

Walked to cathedral, but decided not to stand in line and pay admission to see the paintings within, as it was nearly lunch time. Admired buildings in Grote Markt and several other squares. Every town we’ve visited in Belgium seems to be trying to out-Grote the others’ Grote Markts. Rejected several lunch options before settling on bar 7 Schraken. Touristy, spendy, multilingual menu, but plenty of locals as well, and the food looked good and was. I had stoemp, a traditional Flemish dish of mashed potatoes, sausage, bacon, and gravy. Not healthy and I shouldn’t have eaten it all, but I was sorry to see the end of it. Kate had moules frites, also very good.

Visited Het Steen (“dinky but photogenic castle” near the river). Popped into several book shops and other such. Then I noted cafe “De Kleine Tunnel” and wondered… what tunnel? Google Maps showed a tunnel under the river nearby, but only visible at high magnification. Pedestrian tunnel? I walked to a nearby building that looked a bit like the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel building seen in Men in Black. It was indeed the entrance to a pedestrian tunnel, with interesting tile work and neat old wooden escalators inside. Score!

Did a bit more shopping, and was amenable for more, but we both realized we were running low on spoons and decided to head home before hitting the wall for a change. Tram to train to bus to home. (De Lign (tram) and SNCB (train) iPhone apps extremely helpful in getting around.) Got home, fell over. Woke to a delicious dinner of rabbit simmered in cherry beer, mashed potatoes, and green beans, again prepared by Roelof. After dinner and conversation (largely about the history of Japan), wrote postcards and blogged.

And now… more photos!

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Saturday morning market in Mechelen’s Grote Markt square

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These guys are on a house in Mechelen called, for some strange reason, the House of the Three Devils

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Cavalcade costume exhibit (or possibly sale)

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Kate and Roelof on the Dijle River boardwalk

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My first view of the Atomium!

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And then I got to see it for real!

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Dramatic close-up

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Inside the atom!

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Galerie St. Hubert (Kate in red hat)

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Charming French bookstore inside Galerie St. Hubert

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These guys were on a building in the Grote Markt in Brussels

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Inside Le Roy d’Espagne

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Antwerp train station

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Mosaic at the entrance of the Antwerp zoo

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Equestrian statues are usually more, um, equestrian, and not so much camel (also: note the faces on the base)

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The Antwerp train station also houses the post/telephone office

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This is one of the little side chapels of St. Carolus; the main church is even more baroque

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Conscienceplein, right outside St. Carolus

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The peak of Antwerp city hall, just visible over other roofs

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Antwerp city hall, with the flags of all nations. Pride was either last weekend or next weekend, we think

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This picture just makes me smile

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“Hey! You forgot your rope!”

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31.57 meters below ground, at St. Anna Pedestrian Tunnel

Normandy days 5-7, Belgium days 1-2

Mon 8/4 – St. Martin-de-Landelles

Step count: 3,674

Awake 8:30. Breakfast: half an almond croissant, yogurt, coffee. Talk with Mad, Juan, Greer, Ellen. Jonathan Strahan and daughter Sophie arrived. Off to St. Jacques with Ellen for lunch; after considering several options, had lunch at Hotel St. Jacques. Delicious tender grilled pork chop for me, Kate had a salad with duck gizzards. Ellen’s aperitif arrived in a glass labeled “Suze,” the name of the protagonist in her novel Green Glass Sea, which she determined she must have. To my amazement, despite her limited French she got the owner to give it to her for free. After lunch, stopped at a magazine shop and a post office before heading home. Had intended to visit a market in the afternoon, but Kate decided she’d rather take a swim. I blogged while she did that, and took care of some writing business (about which more later). Dinner was chicken and sausages, prepared by Mad, with a salad on the side and packaged baba au rhum for dessert. After dinner, a game of anagrams and much hilarity. To bed about midnight.

Tue 8/5 – St. Martin-de-Landelles

Step count: 7,182

Awake 8:00. Breakfast of coffee, yogurt, and half an almond croissant; I’m really getting to like plain yogurt. Off to Mont St. Michel then with Pat and Greer! Stopped in Ducey on the way, for the Tuesday market there. Almost didn’t spot it; if we hadn’t seen the fair last time (same place) we would most likely have missed it. Wandered the market, picked up some sausages, nectarines, and prunes, and talked with the vendor from whom we’d bought the rabbits and chickens the other day (she didn’t remember us at first, but eventually did after Kate reminded her of how she’d passed up on a chicken so that one of her regulars could have it). It became clear to me that the vendors make a circuit of the markets each week.

Continued on toward the Mont, with fabulous views from several stops along the way. Parked in the lot and took the free shuttle along the causeway to a construction zone where the parking lot we parked in 24 years ago (!) used to be — they’re renovating extensively. The Mont itself was extremely crowded and touristy but still very, very cool; took tons of photos. Took an early lunch to avoid crowds. Mere Poulard has taken over most of the restaurants on the mont; our lunch wasn’t spectacular but perfectly adequate. I had croque monsieur (first time this trip), cider, a cappuccino (didn’t order it, exactly, but it was welcome), and a bite of Kate’s gaufre au chocolat. The line to get into the abbey itself was too long to bother with, but we did find a glow-in-the-dark St. Michael at a souvenir shop, also some kounig amann and a cider bowl with Alex’s prenom (no Isobels, alas). Back home, fell over.

Dinner, prepared by Ellen, was roast pork, bow tie noodles, and leftover green beans. For dessert Scott cut up some pain au chocolat, which was resourceful but reminded me a bit of the moment in The Sparrow when they used the shuttle for a short trip, consuming the fuel they needed to get home: very nice, but what will we have for breakfast?. Much industry gossip of a particularly catty and entertaining stripe; a hilarious game of Anomia; to bed around midnight.

Wed 8/6 – St. Martin-de-Landelles–Rouen

Step count: 2,019

Awake 8ish. Breakfast of yogurt, two half-croissants I found at the bottom of the bag, and coffee. Packed up, stripped beds, said our goodbyes, hit the road by 10. Tried 3 times to buy gas before finding a station whose pump would take my credit card (first one denied the card; second one had no card reader, door was unlocked, but no staff visible; third one finally worked).

Kate had made lunch reservations at restaurant La Petite France in tiny Surdon, and we found it without too much difficulty, arriving just after our 12:30 reservation. Absolutely fabulous entree of coquilles st. jacques on a bed of leeks. Main dish, veal with mushroom sauce, accompanied by frites and vegetables, very nice but not so wow. The entrees have been the stars of the trip, culinarily speaking. The only other people in the restaurant (whose staff appeared to consist of the waitress and the chef, likely husband and wife) were a happy multigenerational party of 12-14 which we think might have been celebrating the very recent birth of the youngest present. Credit card didn’t work, paid cash.

After lunch we headed off toward Belgium, planning to take the toll road to Roen and find lodging at some chain hotel on the far side of it. Toll plaza also refused my credit card, and Kate’s, but another card of mine did eventually work.

Rouen doesn’t have a ring road; the only way past it is to go through town. This proved stressful and confusing. Eventually we found ourselves on the far side of town and pulled off in Isneauville (“is no ville”) to find a restaurant and reconnoiter, but the town was too small to sport a restaurant, cafe, or even parking lot. But on the way into town Kate had spotted an Ibis (chain hotel) which claimed to be open despite construction, and as neither Google Maps nor TripAdvisor showed any hotels on our route ahead we doubled back to it. The entrance to the parking lot was restricted by construction to half a lane off a busy traffic circle, but after a couple of nerve-wracking tries we did eventually manage to get inside. The place was sterile and characterless but cheap, clean, and HERE. Free wifi too. We took the bird in the hand and checked in. Credit card did work here, not sure what’s up with it. Not the way I’d choose to select a place to stay but all in all it’s okay.

After settling into our room, I called the credit card company (using Skype) and after a brief conversation was told my card had been “adjusted” and there’d be no more problems. We did tell them before we left that we’d be traveling….

Looked online, found a nice restaurant nearby, called to make sure they were open; they weren’t, but recommended another: Le Cheval Rouge. Called them and made a reservation for 7:00 when they opened. Survived the traffic circle. We were not the first to arrive; there was a small family with a loud baby (it did quiet down eventually). As we ordered and ate the place filled up. Only one server visible, busy but not panicked. Food very good: appetizer of melon with porto, main course of turkey with camembert sauce, side of pureed carrots (very light and fresh), dessert an amazingly light ile flottant (floating island: baked meringue floating in a custard sauce).

Back to the hotel, survived the traffic circle again, one more time and we’ll be okay. Looked into visiting Waterloo on the way to Brussels. It is on the way, and the museum, films, and panorama sound like they’d be worth a visit, but the day will be full enough (3.5 solid hours of driving plus returning the car) that it’s probably unreasonable to cram it in, so decided not to. To bed around 11:00.

Thu 8/7 – Rouen-Brussels-Mechelen

Step count: 6,059

Awake 8ish. Pretty good spread of breakfast options, actually, though all packaged. After checking out, headed for a boulangerie in nearby Quincampoix for the 3rd-best brioche in France. Alas, it was closed for vacation (one of the hazards of visiting France in August). Sign in window said nearest available bakery was nearby Casino mini-mart, not an acceptable substitute. Alas.

Hit the road at 10, Google said it was a 3.5 hour drive, add an hour for lunch, so texted Lynne Anne (who had very generously volunteered to meet us in Brussels) that we’d be there no earlier than 14:30. On the road many people honked at me; sometimes I even knew why. I’m sure I confused people by being a black Audi doing 20 km/h below the speed limit.

Stopped in Amiens at the “Pole Jules Verne” (that’s what it said on the water tower — turns out to be a business park) in hopes of a bookstore and lunch. Took a bit of flailing to find the bookstore, located in a strip mall. Sadly the “librarie” turned out to have no books at all, only trashy magazines. Also in the mall was Paul, a chain bakery, which provided a decent roast beef sandwich and pastries for lunch. Also a Giant Casino grocery store, where we picked up some French beer and wine to take to Lynne Ann and Roelof as a hostess gift. Talked with a man in the wine aisle: what part of France are we in, and are there any local wines he could recommend? Turns out we were in Picardy, which doesn’t really produce wine, but we found something from the north of France that sounded good.

Drove on a ways, stopped in Peronne in hopes of a map of Brussels and maybe to see the “Historial de la Grande Guerre,” whatever that was. The local papeterie was closed until 3, but the Historial turned out to be a fine museum of WWI, so we stopped in for a brief visit. Just as we left the museum, about 2:00, Lynne Ann texted to say she had just arrived at the station in Brussels. But we were still over 2 hours away! Apparently we had failed to communicate that 14:30 was our earliest possible arrival time. Sent her an apologetic text and resolved to make the best possible time. Naturally we hit a terrible traffic jam around Valencienne. Texted Lynne Ann “stuck in traffic, no ETA, go on home and we’ll meet you there” but she said she didn’t mind waiting.

Worked around traffic jam on side roads and made our way into Belgium. Stopped at a rest area just past the Belgian border for a bathroom break, Brussels map, stroopwaffels, and a cold drink. Lynne Ann texted that she’d figured out where we would be returning the car. It was like having an advance spy!

Many subtle changes in highway furniture and signage showed that we were no longer in France. Then we passed from French-speaking into Dutch-speaking Belgium and the language changed too — “Bruxelles” changed to “Brusel” and the “don’t text and run into the car ahead” billboards changed from “Bip Bip Boom Boom” to “Beep Beep Boum Boum.”

Driving through Brussels, even with a map, was a challenge. We didn’t know the local rules or customs and couldn’t find the street signs. Eventually we did make it to the train station and, thanks to Lynne Ann’s hint, the car park where we’d be dropping our car (tiny tiny Europcar logo on the big QPark sign). At the parking entrance, I pushed the green button for a ticket and got only a display with two lines of rapidly-flashing text in French and Dutch that didn’t make any sense. Tried inserting a credit card but that didn’t do it either. With a line of drivers building up behind me, I pushed the little “i” button on the ticket machine and, eventually, got a voice who spoke English. He said the machine was out of paper and that I should use another lane. Thanks a lot, guys. Kate got out and waved the other drivers off so we could back up and try the other lane.

Finally got into the garage and made our way down to level -5. We wouldn’t have known what to do if we hadn’t picked the car up in a similar situation. Two bored teenagers there gave the car a quick once-over and directed us up the elevator to the office. At the top of elevator, we found ourselves in the huge Brussels train station, with no sign of any Europcar office. Set Kate down with the bags and ran off to find it. Finally did find it, turned in paperwork, no problems, au revoir.

Back to Kate, who went off to try to find Lynne Ann, meeting with almost immediate success. Lynne Ann then proceeded to help us with our luggage, show us which train to catch, get us tickets with her pass, shepherd us onto the train, show us where to get off, buy us bus passes, get us onto the right bus and off again, and let us into her lovely home (built 1650!). There we found that Roelof had fixed us a delicious Flemish stew. Roelof also went out for frites and provided a green salad. For dessert, fab gelato from the ice creamery across the street.

To bed 11ish, completely exhausted but very happy and grateful to be here.

Fri 8/8 – Mechelen

Step count: 5,439

Awake 6:30; dozed off and on until nearly 9. Breakfast of pastries, sheep and goat yogurt, cheese, bread, coffee, then chatted with Lynne Ann and Roelof and their friend Elina who popped by to pick up some stuff. After that, went out with Roelof in the drizzle to the local farm market (very small today). Lynne Ann joined us as we continued to the grocery store, vegetable market, cheese shop, meat market, bakery, and clothing store, picking up what we needed for breakfast and lunch, seeing the local sights and culture, and getting a bit oriented (though I’m still not very oriented). Back home for a nice lunch of sandwiches, then fell over hard for a long nap.

In the afternoon, dealt with email, caught up on notes, blogged a bit. Then we chatted with our hosts about a variety of topics, including languages and travels, over perry, cheese, and apples. Dinner, again provided by Roelof, was grilled duck breast, red cabbage with apples, and lovely roast potatoes. They are completely spoiling us.

After dinner, I sat with Lynne Ann while she worked on her Japanese calligraphy. I asked her “if you please, draw me a sheep” and she drew the kanji for “sheep.”

And now, more photos

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Door of the mairie in St. Jacques, I think

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Jonathan, Greer, and Mad in the kitchen

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Lovely produce at the market in Doucey

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Greer takes a photo of Mont St. Michel

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I took one too

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We are here!

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Arrow slits continue to perform effectively the same function today

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Pat at lunch, with the abbey spire visible above

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People walking on the tide flats below the Mount

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Many a seagull is to be seen

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This metal track brings up materials for renovation. It sits atop a stone structure used for a similar purpose in previous centuries

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Beautiful old buildings in every direction

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Even from the parking lot, it’s amazing

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Ellen talks to the cows. Sometimes they answer

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Mad, Ellen, Mike, Elise, Bear…

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…Scott, Pat…

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…and us

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Coquilles St. Jacques, yum

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One of the sights of Mechelen

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Another of the sights of Mechelen

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Mechelen city hall, I think

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View from our bedroom window

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The second-floor staircase is so steep it cannot be descended facing forwards — you must face the stairs and do kind of a grapevine step to get around the corner. This was code in 1650

Travel makes you stupid

When I woke up yesterday I could read and write, and ask questions and understand the answers. Today, not so much.

One of the pleasures of travel is practicing a foreign language, which I enjoyed greatly during our time in France. But now we’re in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium, and I get to have a different adventure: attempting to communicate despite not speaking a word of the local lingo.

Admittedly, in this case I’m not that severely handicapped. Our generous hosts, Roelof and Lynne Ann, are a native speaker and longstanding inhabitant respectively; Kate has studied Dutch in the past; and between my knowledge of German and some previous exposure to Dutch I can puzzle out much of the signage and a little of the spoken language. But my ability to produce Flemish is essentially nil, so I’ve been doing a lot of smiling and nodding.

One thing I’ve discovered on this trip is that the techniques we learned from Rick Steves’ Europe through the Back Door thirty (!) years ago are no longer as useful as they were then, because so many transactions have been automated. Gesture, mime, and pointing don’t help at all when you’re trying to get something (money, bus tickets, gasoline, parking, tolls) from a machine with a schmancy audio-video interface. On the other hand, some of those machines now have instructions in English — in fact, a few of them switch to English immediately upon insertion of a US credit card. But the translation is often weak, and frequently includes bits of untranslated local language like rum-soaked raisins in the cake. It’s a mixed bag.

The bottom line, though, is that one of the big reasons I travel is to have different experiences and stretch my mind, and working in a culture where I don’t speak the language is a big part of that. So vive la difference! *

* I wanted to put that in Dutch, but I couldn’t figure out how. Which only goes to show.

Normandy days 1-4

Thu 7/31 – St. Martin-de-Landelles (cont’d)

After blogging, identified the regular beeping noise that sounded like a dying smoke alarm as a tiny toad in a crack in the wall outside, and watched the Scary Ham video. To bed about midnight-ish.

Fri 8/1 – St. Martin-de-Landelles

Step count: 4,882

Awake 9-ish. Breakfast of yogurt, muesli, and half a pain au chocolat, then a run to St. Hilaire for groceries. A detour due to construction led us to a little farm market where we got vegetables, chickens, and a rabbit (with eyes, ew). Then we walked through centre ville, stopping at the boulangerie (bread and pastries), epicerie (vegetables), papeterie (3×5 cards, colored pencils, postcards, map), and bank (cash). On the way back to the car, I swerved back to the farm market for a couple of sausage baguettes hot off the grill for our lunch. Then to Carrefour (big commercial supermarket) for everything else on the list. Greeted upon our return as conquering heroes. Ellen: “best lunch ever”. Bear: “oh hello, bunny innards”.

After lunch, sat around and read for a while. Was going to take a nap when Kate popped up: let’s take Juan to town for some cider and wine, and see some menhirs on the way. So we did that. Even a tiny mini-mart in Goron has excellent produce and a good selection of wines and local ciders. We were afraid of being late for dinner, but when we arrived we found the chickens were being very uncooperative and dinner was going to be late. Took a nap. After that, still awaiting the chickens, we had a first course of bread and cheese on the terrace and talked about superheroes, including a discussion of the relative patheticness of Aquaman and J’onn J’onzz. Elise’s chair self-destructed, apparently the third to do so, so we moved the table to a flatter spot to try to prevent further such disasters (don’t ask me how this is supposed to work). We also tried to figure out what that amazing cheese from last Wednesday’s market day was (the person who bought it didn’t get the name and it wasn’t anything obvious), but not even posting a photo and query to Twitter was able to resolve the question. What this world needs is a “what’s that cheese” app (“Cheezam”?). Back inside for more reading, then a second course of artichokes. At last the chickens appeared — they were delicious — along with some amazing roast potatoes. After dinner, we played Anagrams with the Bananagrams tiles, and Anomia with Kate’s hand-drawn deck: a silly success. More writerly chat; to bed about 1am.

Sat 8/2 – St. Martin-de-Landelles

Step count: 2,442

Awake 7:45, then back to bed until 9:30. Breakfast of corn flakes and coffee. Quiet morning of practicalities: caught up on email, checked phone messages back home, paid credit cards, etc. Drove out under lowering skies in the vague direction of St. Jacques for lunch, but wound up in Ducey, lured by sight of street fair and smell of grilling. Wandered flea market for a bit, settled on very Breton creperie Ty Breizh.

To explain this next bit I need to haul out an anecdote from a previous trip. On our first trip to France we had some andouille sausages which were incredibly delicious. A few days later we saw “andouillette” on the menu and ordered it, despite the waitress’s dubious expression — we assured her that we had eaten and enjoyed it before. Well, this turned out to be a mistake, and it took quite a while with phrasebooks to figure out how to say “you were right, we shouldn’t have ordered this, please take it away and bring us something edible.” We came away from that incident remembering that, of andouille and andouillette, one was delicious and the other… wasn’t… but we could never remember which was which. Both are made from parts of the pig not usually served in the States.

So, anyway, we saw andouille crepes on the menu at Ty Breizh and I decided to order them. We did try asking the waitress (who was definitely Breton, not Normand) and she assured us that andouille and andouillette (shiver and headshake) were very different things. Well, when my andouille crepe came… it was a bit more like pig innards than I’d hoped. So I guess our one delicious andouille was a fluke. I wouldn’t order that again, but unlike the andouillette I did finish it.

As we finished our lunch the deluge began, a real duck-drowner. It had slackened somewhat by the time we were ready to leave the restaurant, but was still coming down pretty hard. Fortunately we had brought coats and rain hats. “Bon courage” said one woman to me as we headed out into the downpour. We made it to the car only half-soaked-through and headed back to La Cahudiere. On the way home we passed through a town with a wedding in progress, many horns honking, and one car decorated with hot pink plastic penises. Back home, where it had no more than drizzled, I hung up my pants to dry and talked with Ellen about WWII and whether the USA would really have tried to invade Japan if not for the A-bomb (Ellen says the war was, in effect, already over by then and that the main audience for the bomb was the Russians). We also put up a load of laundry, knowing it might take days to dry.

Lazy afternoon. Elise bought a whole box of medals at some thrift shop and was quietly slipping them to people to present to Ellen on any excuse. Pretty soon everyone was giving medals to anyone for anything. Dinner, prepared by Bear (who received a medal for it): rabbit stroganoff, noodles, green beans, with macarons and other assorted sweets for dessert. Le yum. Much industry gossip over dinner, as all of the non-SF people have departed. A brief skinny dip, in which I did not participate because brrr, and then Elise brought out her ukulele. To bed ~1am to the sound of people drunkenly singing “Alleluia” (the only song Ellen can play on the ukulele, though she owns 5 of them) over and over.

Sun 8/3 – St. Martin-de-Landelles

Step count: 5,901

Awake 9:00. Breakfast of coffee, pain au chocolat, yogurt, then off to Utah Beach. Stopped for lunch at pizzeria Le Union in Villedieu-les-Poeles, where Kate had moules frites and I had a Moroccan pizza (merguez sausage, gyro meat, chickpeas, etc.). Not the best crust ever, but tasty. Also picked up some pastries at the boulangerie in town. Utah Beach had a fine museum of the Normandy invasion, including a B-26 bomber and an excellent introductory film. On the way back we stopped in Coutances to see the cathedral, and also spotted an open Carrefour grocery, where we picked up some cheese as requested and also a few other things. Had enormous difficulty getting out of Coutances, but eventually instinct led me to a place where we could see the sign for “toutes directions” and we escaped. Discovered when we arrived home that Mike & Rachel had failed to find a grocery open on Sunday, so our cheese was very welcome. Dinner was a soup made from leftover chicken and rabbit by Mike and was delicious. Pat Murphy, Madeleine Robins, and Greer Gilman joined us. Light conversation after dinner, while Kate & I cleaned up. To bed around 10:00.

And now, the photos

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Dolmen de la Contrie, a Neolithic corridor tomb

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Kate snapped me taking the above picture, while Juan looks on

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A bowl of cider, the traditional Normand tipple

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La deluge

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Bunny skull! With bonus dead dragonfly

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Rachel, Ellen, and Juan at breakfast

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Ellen plays “Allelulia” on Elise’s Fluke uke

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These hay-bale guys are everywhere: “31 August, Festival of the Land and Rurality.” I am guessing that “JA 50” means Jeunesse Agricole — young farmers, aka 4-H — of department 50

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Town square of Villedieu-les-Poeles, where we had lunch

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Utah Beach museum. Utah Beach was originally code-named Oregon, but was renamed for unknown reasons

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Before the invasion, carrier pigeons were parachuted behind the lines, together with a bag of feed and instructions: 1. Feed pigeon. 2. Fill out questionnaire about what the Germans are doing in your area. Print neatly. 3. Roll questionnaire tightly and insert in cylinder. 4. Attach cylinder to pigeon’s leg as shown. 5. Release pigeon. TELL NO ONE.

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Kilometer zero on the Way of Liberty, commemorating the march of the Americans from the Normandy beaches in 1944

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Plaque on Utah Beach memorializing Dwight Eisenhower

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One of the marvelous stained-glass windows at the cathedral in Coutances