Free cookies, brownies, fruit baskets and tons of lemonade: the president of Stanford University hosts several receptions for new incoming students at his private residence. I visited the one for graduate (Master's and Ph.D. level) students, and met a few fellow Belgians and another guy named Joachim, from Paris. Most of the people were in some kind of electrical engineering or computer science study, the fields that Stanford is famous for. Anyway, perhaps a nice idea for rectors of universities in Belgium? Regarding setting, it will be difficult though to do better than the garden of Hoover House.
Another nice thing about the climate, by the way: outdoor concerts are possible and frequent. Last thursday there was one organized by my lab, called "Transitions". Some music by the "big names" in electroacoustic music was being performed (John Chowning, Max Mathews, ...), and the fun part was that these people were actually present in person. An 8-channel surround sound system with another 4 subwoofers were installed around the courtyard of the lab. The audience was in the middle, picknicking on the grass. Picture underneath, taken in the dark unfortunately, but it gives an idea: the computer program that was used to perform "Skeletons in the closet" by Mark Applebaum was projected on a big screen.
In general, bike paths are very rare in the US, and bikes are equally rare. Luckily, the situation in California, around Palo Alto in particular, is better: roughly 20% of all roads is equipped with a separate bike path. Apparently, that's already enough to be nominated 'bicycle friendly community'. Compared to the average Belgian city, it is however pitiful. Most bikepaths are actually the gutter next to which a white line has been drawn, and more often than not they are concurrently used as parking spots for cars.
Cars do the strangest things when they encounter a bike - no driver here has ever learnt how to share the road with anything else than other cars or trucks. Drivers will look out for other cars and pedestrians, but will never look out for bikes when opening car doors, parking, turning,... which forces cyclists to drive in an extremely defensive way.
If there is no bike path, a bike is considered a vehicle, and even when there is a bike path, bikes must act like cars and sometimes ride in between all the cars. Especially choosing lanes if you want to change direction is a difficult undertaking: you cannot keep to the right side of the road if you want to go left, because cars are allowed to turn right through a red sign. You're expected as cyclist to behave as car and choose the right lane for turning, so the only legal solution is: leave the bike lane, and try to get on the car lane that is used for traffic straight through or to the left. This can get tricky...
It's no wonder that every cyclist here wears a helmet when driving a bike, because collisions with cars are very common. But also with other cyclists: many of the cyclists on campus have never been on a bicycle before and I've seen people doing the craziest things on bikes already, which does not really contribute to road safety in general.
Another rule that is significantly different: if there is a normal road intersection with 4 roads, the general rule is that the car that arrives first has the right of way (not the one coming from the right side, unless they arrive at the same time). To make that a little safer, a lot of intersections have stop signs on all roads. Which means that, whatever direction a car comes from, it has to come to a full stop before leaving. Things get very unclear when even 2 cars arrive at the same time at an intersection, because instead one direction having generally the right of way and the other having generally to yield, now both cars stop and then have to figure out which one can leave first. If then at the same time other traffic arrives or there are more cars wanting to cross the intersection, it gets even more confusing. There are many intersections here, and at everyone of them you'll see cars stopped, figuring out who is going over the intersection first.
Concerning road and traffic planning, they could learn a significant deal from Belgium. But to end with a positive note: in parks and nature reserves, they are often jogging tracks or pedestrian paths which can also be used by bikes, and with this scenery and climate it's definitely worth jumping on a bike:
I know the Cheesecake Factory mainly through The Big Bang Theory comedy series. The chain really exists though and is known for its restaurants decorated like small palaces and giant-sized portions of anything you order. The menu is enormous and no normal person can finish all that they serve (by that I mean: order a normal salad, you get a bowl the size of which is normally used to prepare salads for 6 people in).
On University Avenue in Palo Alto I recently went to get a slice of their famed cheesecake, out of curiosity. Cheesecake is an amazingly heavy dessert, the slice I got was not that big but I did not eat for the rest of the day. Calorie-count for one slice: about 1100 (which is almost half of what you need each day). And that was the classic cheesecake, they also have them with chocolate, caramel, fudge, even Snickers inside...
I was given a tour of the Knoll building yesterday - it will be my office for the months to come. There is not really office space in there - students come in and out, sit wherever they want, can attend any class, etc. Basically you just do whatever you want, sit wherever you want, and can use whatever you need as long as for the expensive stuff, you make reservations first.
The CCRMA has about 4 recording studios, an almost anechoic chamber, a concert hall with surround sound and a nice Yamaha disklavier piano, an electronics lab with enough soldering irons and copper wire for a large class, a classroom with the necessary computers, most of them equipped with firewire audio interfaces to connect whatever sensor, microphone or instrument to it, and, very important: a lounge on the top floor that looks out over the hills on one side, and the campus on the other side - the Knoll is probably the highest located building on campus.
I still need to figure out how dining at the university restaurants and residence halls works, because until now I've been paying way too much for what I eat - even at the local Safeway supermarket a large bread will set you back more than $4. For the same amount of money I had a large iced cafe mocha this afternoon, which was very welcome since the temperature reaches almost 30ºC every day. I bought it at CoHo, short for Coffee House, a small well-hidden bar in the Tresidder Union, which is the centre of a lot of student services. They also serve Stella from the tap, and regularly host jazz evenings, the first of which is to take place next weekend - I'm curious :)
Today is the introduction week for new students. Where last week was awfully quiet, now there were loads of nervous-looking new students trying to get around, and the same amount of parents and family accompanying them. The Stanford Daily has also restarted publishing and kicks off with a series of articles on the new academic year, the incoming students, and the budgeting problems of the university.
Some mornings I hear loud ticking sounds on the roof of my room, followed by shrieking and other noises. It's the squirrels that start fighting with the birds or something, I'm not sure. The squirrels are a brutal bunch - not afraid of anything it seems. This morning I found one outside my window, scurrying for food in the flowerbeds - I took a picture, the red eye effect makes it look like the squirrel from hell :)
Dexter, the cat, goes hunting after them, which already almost lead to a family disaster with a mother squirrel trying to defend her kids. But our landlady is all the more pleased, she considers the furry animals as the worst pest in her garden.
Craigslist came to my aid once more when trying to find a bike - I'm now the proud owner of a secondhand Trek 820 mountainbike, for a very fair price. I went to pick it up in the Mission district of San Francisco yesterday evening.
I have been puzzled last week why so many bikes were mountainbikes or racing bikes, and normal Dutch-type bikes were impossible to find. Having to climb a few of these streets on foot and later by bike, I realized that a mountainbike is an absolute necessity if you don't want to fall over. The view on top of the hill is worth the climb though. Going downhill afterwards is a lot of fun!
Now I've still not had the chance to go into the center of San Francisco... That's for later.
This weekend has been mostly a shopping weekend. Saturday morning I plotted a route through Palo Alto to pass by a few yard sales and garage sales in the neighbourhood. The ads were on Craigslist, Google Maps plotted the rest of the tour. The result was meager, I just scored a kitschy coffee mug that says "I love Palo Alto" for just 50 cents. Playing tourist can be fun sometimes.
On the Palo Alto flea market, at Palo Alto high school, I managed to buy a few old surge protectors and a small painted map of San Francisco to hang on the wall of my room. That market was worth the visit, it was rather large and there was quite a lot to see.
Saturday afternoon was filled with the concert that I mentioned earlier, ramen noodles, and the evening with the US Open semifinals and a night out at two bars in Palo Alto with my housemates (who are, by the way, all awesome). If I may recommend Gordon Biersch, a microbrewery annex small restaurant chain that brews their own range of beers. Their Märzen amber beer reminded me a little bit of De Koninck... Great beers I've also already had from Anchor, made in San Francisco and pleasingly spicy of taste.
Sunday our landlady Ming took us all by car to the farmer's market in Mountain View. The market itself was rather pricy but the food there was of good quality and locally grown. The Asian supermarket that we went to later later was a real discovery - I brought home a young coconut, some jujubes and a dragon fruit, something I had never seen. I left the strange and funny looking vegetables aside for the moment, that's for a later time to try. I got some Japanese tea and a collection of ramen to complete the trip, and had a few dumplings at the Chinese snackbar next to the supermarket.
The cheapest fruit, vegetables and bread we found however at a smaller shop called the Milk Pail. Though I had collected already a fair amount of food, I could not leave the cheap pomegranates like that and brought a few.
Together with the Asian pears , mandarins, lemons, and several other kind of citrus fruits that grow in our garden of which I still don't know what they actually are, this will most certainly make an interesting fruit salad.
When I went to the post office 2 days ago, I got approached by an undergrad from the Stanford Design Institute, working on a research project called "redesigning the Ramen Noodle Experience". Noodles are the favourite kind of fastfood here, it can be bought extremely cheap and relatively tasty in countless little restaurants (comparable to kebab back home in Antwerp) or just as the cheapest kind of instant food at supermarkets. Amused by the title, I sat down and got questioned for about 15 minutes about how much ramen I eat, whether I would like to change anything about it, whether I had ecological, economical, health-, etc. concerns about it... I do regularly eat instant noodles but the stuff you buy in Europe does not even come to the knees of what you can buy here, so I don't know if my answers were any useful to them. Anyway, I look forward to the results of this research project.
Incidentally, just a day later I was invited to a CCRMA long-distance concert, with people playing synchronized together in Italy, California and Montana. After that I went eating with 2 people at an excellent and cheap ramen restaurant on El Camino Real . Talking to them about what had happened to me the day before, they suggested that the Ramen Experience could be improved upon in several ways: having ramen every meal, having it for free and having it served by beautiful women. I could not agree more :)