Category Archives: USA

The Alps from a plane window

Sometimes travel days are their own stories.

Hello from Baltimore!

I’ve been here since Saturday night, for a work junket conference, and I will write something about the place, I promise! But for now, I have enough to say just about the trip over here…

Let’s start with a moment of triumph that will make sense to everyone who’s ever had to get by in a language they’re less-than-fluent in. Normally, when I check in for a flight in Italy, what happens is I say “Buongiorno”, hand over my non-Italian passport, and the person working at the desk replies, “And what is your final destination today ma’am?” But on Saturday, something different happened, for the first time ever: the check-in guy asked if it were ok to speak Italian, I said, “ok”, and off we went.

That sounds like the dumbest moment of triumph when I write it down (and there’s no shortage of Italian people who have done business transactions in English while in Australia!) But considering how often I’ve encountered Italian customer service people who switch to English because of my Australian accent, I’m going to assume I said buongiorno really really well that day.

After that minor ego-boost of a start to the day, the flight looked like it might be a disaster. It was a day time transatlantic flight, I was surrounded by a group of early-20s guys going on a trip to Miami, and American Airlines seemed to think it was ok to put us all on a plane without any personal entertainment systems to keep these early-20s guys occupied. (90’s time warp!) The main screen was showing The Good Dinosaur, to which they said various things that helped me expand my vocabulary of Italian swear words.

But American Airlines had one secret weapon: a 60-ish Italian guy working in the cabin crew, who managed to charm every single Italian person on the flight. He had the kids giving him hi-5s, the adults chuckling at his commentary on the American food on board, and the guys around me absolutely entranced — by doing card tricks and cup-and-ball tricks and making napkins appear from their ears. I wish I had thought to get a photo of these guys, wide-eyed and leaning out of their seats to see which card would appear. It was brilliant.

Landing in Miami, passport control was barely-contained madness. The US now has automatic passport reading machines. Like the rest of the world! Except, unlike the rest of the world, everyone — US citizens, too — has to go through the machine and then line up to talk to a person like they’ve always had to. No-one I spoke to had an explanation of how this was going to make Immigration run faster.

Also slightly inexplicable: when I finally did get to an Immigration officer, he and I ended up having a great old chat about a documentary he’d watched about the physics of light and general relativity — never mind the hundreds of people waiting in line behind me. What was confusing though is that I’ve never ever encountered a friendly Immigration officer anywhere in the world, especially not in the US, which made me suspicious the whole thing was an attempt to poke holes in my claim I was going to a physics conference. Never in my life have I so nervously said, “Yeah, general relativity is really fascinating, isn’t it?”

"Sailboat Refugees Arrive" from Life Magazine, 1946

That time my great-great uncle was an illegal immigrant and the West actually responded quite well. (Eventually.)

I’m going to cheat at blogging today and tell a story that isn’t new, and that didn’t actually happen to me, but it’s a good story and it’s a true story and I think you’ll find it interesting. So come gather round and Aunty Zoe will tell you a tale…

Our story starts in 1946, in Sweden, where there were two Estonian brothers, having an argument. We don’t know what exactly they were arguing about, but tradition tells us that it went something like:
“We should get out of Europe, before it all falls to the Soviets.”
“I know, I’ll sail this 38-foot sloop to America. Come with me!”
“You have got to be joking, there is no way I’m going to try and cross the Atlantic in that. Are you crazy? You’re a small-time fisherman in the Gulf of Finland, not a sea captain.”

And the (perhaps more safety-minded) brother ended up taking his family to Australia, in, you know, a real ship. His daughters live there to this day; one of them is my Oma.

As for the crazy brother… Well, until a few years ago the family of the brother who went to Australia only knew vaguely what had happened — that his boat had arrived and his family had settled in the US. But with so many newspaper archives online, it occured to one of them (full credit: my Mum) to have a look and see if anything had been written, maybe in the local newspaper of the city they’d ended up in.

In fact, the story didn’t even need searching in small-town newspaper archives, it appeard in Life magazine, September 23, 1946, an article about a subsequent boatload of refugees. Here we find the dramatic twist that the Estonian boats and their passengers had been denied entry to the US and were “in custody of immigration authorities pending further study.”

You see, these “refugees from Russian political domination” (as Life put it) did not have anywhere near the right documentation to migrate to the US. There was some back-and-forth, which can be summarized mostly as:
Estonians: We’re fleeing the USSR because we agree with you that it’s bad!
American authorities: But we didn’t mean for you to actually do that.
The situation also stirred up public opinion, including one Louise Hurlbutt de Wetter who wrote to the New York Times on September 14, 1946 (subscription required):

“I think there are times when orderly processes have to be dispensed with, and each group judged on its merits and its probable contributions as citizens of our country rather than what they posses in the form of offical documents.
[…] We surely can afford to be more generous and less strangled by red tape. Our country would not be the loser in admitting a group of human beings who have proved their courage and caliber in such a forceful manner.”

After a couple of months, the government accepted the appeal and visas were granted. Cynical me realizes they were well aware of the PR opportunities of accepting refugees from the USSR, but we’ll close the story instead with this rousing extract from an editorial in the New York Times (November 4, 1946, subscription required):

A Victory For Courage

The forty-eight Estonian refugees who wanted so much to live in a free country that they crossed the Atlantic last August and September in three tiny boats can breathe easily today. By Presidential Order they are not to be deported. Like some earlier refugees who crossed in a ship called the Mayflower, they can settle down, become citizens and grow up with the country. No one who admires courage and determination would have been satisfied if President Truman had decided otherwise.

[…] The human impulse can sometimes admirably replace the strict letter of the law. We can be happy that it has done so in this case, and we can confidently expect that this country will be enriched, so long as this Estonian strain holds out, by these adventurous arrivals.

And that, kids, is the story of how my great-great uncle was an illegal immigrant — a boat person, even — and yet somehow didn’t destroy the foundations or prosperity of the West and was even welcomed by the editors of a major newspaper.

Photo credit: Life magazine.

Edit to add: I only had a copy of the text I quoted here, I don’t actually have a NYT subscription, but rumour has it that the final quote was actually a quote from President Truman in a news article, not an editorial. If anyone has a subscription and wants to check that, I’d be happy to make a correction if needed.

Throwback Thursday: going west by train.

The first time I ever travelled by myself was like this.

It was the first year of my PhD, and I was in Colorado for a summer school. I was able to take a week of holidays after the school, and I decided to go to San Francisco, because a) famous and well-loved city and b) it was on my way home anyway.

I decided that flying there wouldn’t be enough of an adventure, so I booked a train ticket. I can’t really remember now whether that decision was driven more by naive enthusiasm (“a 35-hour train trip, how romantic!”) or stubbornness (“I refuse to fly even if it’s the obvious solution”) or cheapness (pro tip: if you book far enough in advance and don’t mind sleeping in a seat, you can travel darn cheap on Amtrak. I think I paid something like $80 for Denver-SF).

Whatever my reasoning, everyone I spoke to clearly thought it was a bit odd. At the summer school, one of the other attendees tried to talk me out of it:

“How far even is it?” she asked.

“They reckon about 35 hours.”

“You know that trains here aren’t nice like the ones in Europe?”

“I’ve never been to Europe,” I said.

I’ve read enough travel writing to know that here is where I should be describing the characters I met on the train, the late nights spent playing cards and drinking smuggled-aboard cheap whiskey with my fellow travellers.

Real life isn’t so much like travel writing. I read some physics papers. I listened to the “USA” playlist my sister had put on my mp3 player. I ate a lot of bbq-flavour roast almonds. I walked up and down the train to stretch my legs, trying to hold my breath for the whole length of the carriage that smelled like a broken train toilet. I dozed. To be honest, I don’t have many tales to tell from the trip – turns out my sense of adventure only goes far enough to get me on a long-distance train, and once I’m on there I’m my usual quiet self.

(The closest I came to a memorable story was in the middle of the Rockies, we’d stopped at a tiny station for a smoke break, and I figured I had time to buy a postcard from the station shop. “You’d better hurry back on the train,” the lady at the counter told me, “They’re serious about it only being a 10 minute stop.” I made back on the train just in time.)

What kept my thoughts company was the view out the window. Seeing the train stretch behind my car as we wound back and forward on our way into the Rockies. Following streams through mountain valleys. Coming out the other side into Utah, with the sun setting over impossible rock formations. Waking up in Nevada and pulling into a station that was little more than a shelter to mark where the road and the railway briefly met. Watching the landscape slowly become more human-friendly as we made our way into forests and farmland in California. At some point in California we were re-routed due to track work, onto a line that was only ever used for freight. Seeing road-less sunny wooded valleys that only freight train crews got to see? Pretty special.

Would I do the trip again? In a heartbeat, although recent sofa-sleeping-induced neck pain makes me wonder if I’d spring for a sleeper these days. I also wonder if I’d be more out-going a second time around? I do regret not having struck up a conversation with the woman across the aisle from me, if nothing else because I’d love to know where she got her amazing knee-high lace up boots. Certainly I’d be sure to bring more varied snacks with me. But now I can say I’ve been on plenty of the nice trains in Europe, but I’ll never forget my ridiculous-stubborn-naive train trip across half a continent.

Grand Canyon, November 2011

Another “where was Zoe?” post. This time, a tale of surprise, disappointment, and triumph… ;)

When I’d arrived in Phoenix, Arizona the week before, it had been so hot I’d immediately gone and bought a pair of flip flops to wear instead of shoes. And here I was, seven days later and only a few hundred miles away, trying not to slip on the ice at the edge of the Grand Canyon and regretting not having  pair of serious winter boots. Yeah: it turns out that the south rim of the Grand Canyon, being around 7000 feet (2000m) above sea level, does actually get cold. As in, snow and ice and everything:

Not what I'd planned.

None of the photos on the official website looked like this.

To make matters worse, the rim of the canyon was at approximately cloud-level, so visibility was only a few metres. Huddling in an enclosed lookout for warmth, I read a sign that showed me all the things I could have seen on the opposite rim of the canyon, and felt a twinge of envy when I overheard the couple nearby talking about the rim-to-rim hiking trip they’d made the year before. Hiking was out of the question that day, since all the trails into the canyon had turned into a gloriously slippery mix of mud and ice.

Since I’d already paid for my non-refundable room in a nearby hotel that night (yeah, shouldn’t have booked that without checking a weather forecast first), I decided to stick around and drink expensive bad hot chocolate at the cafeteria and hope that the clouds lifted. Which they did, sort of:

Something that's not grey or white!

Something that’s not grey or white! 5 minutes later, the cloud was covering this again.

In the end, I called it an early day and headed back to Tusayan to warm up with a serving of kitsch-mexican from the restaurant across the road from my hotel, and to drown my touristic disappointments in a slightly flourescent margarita.

I’m tempted to leave the story here, as a cautionary tale about checking weather forecasts before making travel plans, but the next morning, I woke up with the sun streaming through the gap in the curtains. Of course the day I had to get back to Phoenix to catch my flight was going to be glorious. I rushed through breakfast so I could get back to the Canyon as fast as possible. I only got an hour there, but it was totally worth it:


There really is a canyon there.

Austin, Texas, March 2011

I thought I’d write a few “catch-up” posts between when I last regularly updated here and the blog revival. Maybe I should rename the blog “where was Zoe in 2011/2012?”

View to downtown Austin from the footbridge near South Lamar Blvd.

View to downtown Austin across the lake (apparently it’s a lake? it looked a lot like a river to me…?)

I made the mistake of going to Austin without a car. It’s got this reputation of being a crazy, left-wing (read: less right-wing) town, so I figured it would be like New Orleans or San Fransisco, where getting around without a car is feasible or even preferable. Yeah, not so much. I dunno. Maybe if I was really into bars I’d have been more excited by my car-free few days in Austin, but as it was, it turns out that most of the things I would have enjoyed doing involve being able to drive out of town.

However, to be fair on Austin, I would seriously consider going back with a car if I was in the area again: the lake is quite beautiful and good for walking along; I seriously spent half a morning in the Whole Foods flagship store which makes me hungry just remembering it; it’s easy enough to get a decent coffee, which is not to be underestimated in the US; the hostel I stayed in managed to be clean and not noisy at night and friendly; and I had an AMAZING Korean-Mexican fusion burrito from a van near the State Capitol, the calories from which I think I finally burnt off last week.

Miscellaneous notes

  • We were talking at lunch the other day how ‘bistecca alla fiorentina’ has to be rare – nowhere with a self-respecting chef would ask you how you’d like it done. I was reminded of the fact that in Australia, hamburgers are just hamburgers, even at hipster burger places, but this isn’t the case in Texas. Which lead to conversations along the lines of “I’ll have the burger, please.” “Sure, how would you like it?” “Uh, with a patty in a bun and some sauces and maybe vegetables– oh, that’s not what you’re asking, is it?”
  • People who write about these sorts of things say that a few weeks/months into being in a foreign country you start to notice everything that’s wrong with it. I seem to have avoided this so far, until making hot cross buns this afternoon. I’m okay with having to make my own because they aren’t sold in the shops. I’m okay with the language barrier that means I’m not entirely sure I have strong flour and I nearly bought bicarb rather than yeast. I’m okay with not being in my own kitchen and having no way to accurately measure quantities. What I’m not okay with is not being able to find mixed peel pieces without cherries included. I just spent fifteen minutes trying to separate the orange citrus-y bits from the bright red/green cherry bits. Dear Italy, when you don’t have normal mixed peel in the baking section at the supermarket, you are DOING IT WRONG and you should be ASHAMED of yourself, regards, Zoe.
  • A week from now and I’ll be in Glasgow. Tme flies!

Dallas to Austin by Amtrak

If you don’t have a car, there are three ways to get from Dallas to Austin: fly, greyhound or take the train. I decided flying was out because I feel ridiculous flying such a short distance (~300 km). I wasn’t sure I was up for the kahrazy adventures every reckons you get on the greyhound, so train it was.

Turns out it’s also the cheapest way to go, at least if you buy a ticket in advance. Which you may as well do, because there’s only 1 train per day so it’s not like you need any flexibility. (Yes, people from countries with developed passenger rail infrastructure, that’s right. One. Per day.)

It’s also the slowest way to go, taking well over twice as long as the ‘hound. As in, 6-7 hours. For 300 km. But on the plus side, the seats are massive, with heaps of legroom and proper leg rests, and you do feel very dignified crawling along through the country side in the late afternoon, with views like this:

In fact, having previously travelled by rail from Denver to SF (scheduled time: 35 hours; actual time: more like 40), the 7-ish hours for Dallas to Austin positively flew by, and before I knew it I’d arrived in Austin. Which I really must write about soon, so that this blog gets to Italy while I’m still here.


Apparently Perth has been called ‘Dallas by the sea’. I can see where that’s coming from, though I’d say it as ‘Dallas is Perth without the amazing beaches’. That is to say, it’s pleasant enough, it seems like it would be an ok place to live if you had friends there, it’s also rather sprawling and not busy at all.

I was there for 6 days for a conference. Timewise, the number 1 place I went to was the convention centre, number 2 was my hotel bed, and number 3 was hanging out with other physics people, mostly in restaurants and bars. Including a bar with a taxidermied animal head wearing a hat:

It was disconcerting sitting eating a burger and drinking iced tea with that guy next to me.

Of course, one of the things Dallas is known for is the shooting of JFK. The Sixth Floor Museum is all about “the assassination and legacy of President John F. Kennedy”. I though the part about the “legacy” (ie: a bunch of people saying why they thought Kennedy was important/inspirational) would have been better served by a more in-depth look at the historical background — various themes such as the Cold War and Kennedy wanting to promote American ideals via peaceful means were mentioned, but there wasn’t much analysis. That said, it was a fun way to spend an afternoon when the thought of more physics talks was just too much.

Anyway, to finish with an amusing anecdote: Towards the end of the week, I got a cab back from a bar one night. I mentioned to the driver that I was at a conference. He said, “Oh, you’re a physician — no wait, a physicist!” I guess he’d driven a lot of conference-goers around that week.