Once a year, in December, the Laboratoire d'Océanographie de Villefranche holds a day-long internal seminar, in a different venue each year, during which representatives of different parts of the lab present outlines of their recent work. It's intended to help keep everyone abreast of what everyone else is doing and to make sure new students get introduced, visitors find out what's going on, etc. In 2004, though, so many people were away at meetings or on cruises, that the seminar was postponed until 20 January 2005, with the lucky result that we got to attend.
This year, the seminar was held at the Hotel Nikaia in Nice, just a couple of blocks from the main train station. All the main streets in Nice are torn up right now, because a system of tramways is being installed, so the plan--designed to simplify life and eliminate parking problems--was for everyone from the Villefranche side to assemble at the Villefranche train station for the 7-minute train ride to Nice. But of course, the railway workers chose that day for a one-day work action (i.e., strike), and many of the bus drivers went out in sympathy. Fortunately, the strike was announced in advance, so alternative plans could be made. In our case, we drove to downtown Villefranche, where Laurence picked us up on a designated street corner and drove us over the "col de Villefranche" (the pass between Mounts Boron and Alban, which separate Villefranche from Nice--a route on which I lost count of switchbacks both going up and coming back down) to the apartment of Marie-Em, a coworker at the lab. There we dropped off Laurence's car and rendezvoused with Marie-Do, another coworker who lived nearby, and all five of us were driven to the hotel by Marie-Em (I didn't know there were French cars that sat five) through the ravaged streets of the construction-ridden city. We all chipped in to pay for her parking. We almost missed the opening ceremonies because traffice was badly snarled--it seems everyone else was trying to drive somewhere, too, because (dope-slap to the forehead) the trains weren't running.
We made it on time, though, and discovered on arrival, along with everyone else at the seminar, that this was not the best-organized hotel around. Of the six rest-room stalls available, two (one whole ladies room) were out of order and locked (but not so labeled, so it took a while to figure out), two had burned-out lights (and French stalls are entirely enclosed, so they were pitch dark inside with the doors closed), two had no paper, and the one fully functional stall with paper and light was in the rest room without paper towels or a hand dryer. At the first coffee break, someone enterprisingly bagged a whole stack of paper napkins off the cookie table and moved them to the restroom.
But that was the worst of it. The auditorium was lovely and had large, wide, high-backed, plush chairs, and the projection and acoustics were fine. Of course, the usual foo-feraw ensued over changing laptops for each speaker's talk, but fortunately an extremely savvy grad student was in attendance who was always able to straighten it out (practical jokers frightened the last speaker by telling him that student had left during the last coffee break).
Speakers ranged from the extremely senior to the first-semester-grad-student, and the topics ranged widely--at least according to the director. To my eye, they ranged mostly from using plankton dynamics to predict ocean color to using ocean color to predict plankton dynamics. Yes, I know, they both sound like good candidates for the Golden Fleece award, but it would be very good to be able to predict, e.g., how much CO2 a piece of ocean could soak up, just from its color in sattelite photos. The paper I found the most interesting was the one by David's office mate, a grad student who's analyzing the stomach contents of blue petrels that nest on Kerguelen. You can recognize what a petrel has eaten recently by looking at the undigested remains, but she's figuring out what they were eating the previous week (i.e., at the beginning of a 10-day foraging flight), and therefore where they were, from the molecular composition of the residual oils stored in their stomachs (to be taken home and fed to their chicks) after the prey is digested. Apparently, during breeding season, their lives are compromises between 3-day foraging flights (which maximize chick survival) and 10-day foraging flights (which maximize adult survival, because they can go far enough to acquire better prey).
Anyway, the sit-down lunch at the hotel was good but not great. First course: tricolor vegetable terrine with salad, cucumber slices, tomato slices, onion slices, olive-onion salsa, and a toast spread with tapenade. Second course: Cod filet topped with a coarse paste of dried tomatoes and a cream sauce, rice pilaf, and an artichoke heart stuffed with shredded zucchini and cheese. Dessert: Chocolate ganache cake. Water, red wine, and rosé ad lib.
After the seminar was closed at 5 p.m., with the triumphal announcement that LOV optics scientist André Morel had just become the second European ever to receive ASLO's Lifetime Achievement Award, the time came to reverse the car-pool process to get home, but life couldn't be that simple, of course. Marie-Em had to leave at 3 p.m. to take delivery at the airport of a set of plankton samples packed in dry ice (plankton is definitely a recurring theme at the LOV, which is why Laurence, the only one who works on benthos, is delighted to have a kindred spirit like David come to visit), so after the seminar, Laurence, David, and I caught the no. 7 bus for a round-about but pleasantly scenic ride back to Marie-Em's apartment to pick up Laurence's car.
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