a Double Stuf update: Weeks 6 + 7

The past couple weeks have been busy. We officially started our UniGe classes last week and they have been keeping us occupied; because of this, I didn’t get around to posting a weekly update last week. To compensate, in today’s post I summarize my last two weeks in Geneva, which includes a day trip to Zürich and meeting lots of Swiss students!

Week 6

On Monday, I gave my muon presentation to our computing class! I think it went well and it was a huge relief to have that project finished.

We had our first quantum mechanics lecture on Tuesday. At orientation, we were warned that despite the 10:00 scheduled start time, the professor probably wouldn’t show up until 10:15. Sure enough, we Americans were the only people in the classroom until 10:00 when the Swiss students filed in and took their seats. Our professor wandered in about ten minutes later and we didn’t begin for another five—just as we had been promised.

The lecture itself wasn’t too bad, probably in part because we had learned a lot of the material already. In accordance with Swiss law, the professor taught in French, but he spoke slowly (maybe due to his Dutch heritage), which we all appreciated. I had my French-English translation app on hand the entire time and learned a few new French words for technical terms. The Swiss students, for the most part, were also very welcoming. So far the class seems easy enough, but that’s certainly going to change once we start learning new material.

One unexpected aspect of Swiss classes is the hourly break. We were given a “petite pause” in our French class every day but I didn’t realize it is also observed in more formal university classes, too. Sure enough, on the hour, we break for 15 minutes of socializing and/or lining up to buy CHF 0.80 coffee from the coffee vending machine. (We need these in America.) These 15 minute breaks have proven to be a blessing for me. They allow me to go to the bathroom, stand up, and stretch out. Our break-less lectures in Boston are never more than an hour and a half so I can see why this is necessary here with their two-hour blocks (though a few of my 1.5-hour classes could definitely have benefited from a break in the middle.)

By Wednesday, though, all the novelty of Swiss classes had worn off for me. Physics is difficult, French is difficult, and learning physics in French is remarkably worse. While most of the material we’ve covered so far has been review, I am nervous about confronting the new and more advanced material that awaits.

Friday’s delicious dinner.
On Thursday, Dan and I made one of our best dinners yet: pan-fried chicken with green beans, mushrooms, and oven-roasted potato wedges. The potatoes’ long cook time was well worth the wait.

I went to CERN on Friday and made a lot of progress on my project. That night, Dan and I reprised our dinner from the night before, replacing the chicken with steak. Cheap champagne made it the classiest meal we’ve cooked ourselves so far. It was absolutely delicious.




The National Museum of Switzerland (Landesmuseum).
On Saturday, Dan and I took a day-trip to Zürich! We left relatively late, arriving around 13:00. After eating lunch at Platzspitz, a small park close to the train station, we went to the Swiss History Museum, called Landesmuseum. The exhibits we explored were a little disorganized and sometimes I couldn’t quite tell what we were looking at, but it was probably the most technologically-advanced museum I’ve ever visited! One exhibit featured four “books” with real pages that were “touch-screen” (for lack of better term), almost like an upgraded LeapPad. The entire museum was replete with high-quality projections and displays.

The Swiss Archaeology exhibit topped them all. When we entered, we were greeted with an array of pedestals in a hallway. Each was dimly illuminated by a single light that would, upon approach, gradually increase in intensity so we could read the plaques and clearly see the artifact in the case. On a wall in the next room were large floor-to-ceiling display cases with sliding monitors in front. To learn about a particular artifact in the case, we could slide the monitor in front of it. The monitor was like a magnifying glass and an information placard in one: upon tapping the image of the artifact projected on the screen, we were presented with information about the object, like material, date of origin, etc.

The sliding monitor is just to the right of the person in white, shown projecting an artifact from the case behind it. [credit]
The hall of dimly-lit pedestals; the one all the way on the left has been illuminated. [credit]
While I found some of the content of the museum to be rather dry, there is no questioning the hard work and attention to detail that went into the design of the museum. We only blocked a couple hours to explore it, but we could have wandered in there for much longer.

The elusive Grossmunster… (next time!)
But we really wanted to get to the Grossmünster church. We had hoped to climb to the top of the enormous bell towers and enjoy Zürich from above. Alas, when we got there, we found out that the bell tower in fact closes at 16:30, and our 16:27 arrival didn’t quite cut it. I was pretty devastated; looks like we’ll have to go back!

For the rest of our time in Zürich, we walked along the lake and admired the beauty of the city. It was a lovely day, with clear skies and just a slight chill in the air. Zürich locals evidently thought so, too, because every sidewalk cafe was seated to capacity and countless people were dangling their feet at the water’s edge, watching the sun set and feeding the ubiquitous water fowl.

After admiring Lake Zürich for a while, Dan and I went to find dinner. Like in Bern, we were frustrated to discover how expensive a meal was here. Eventually, we found a small Swiss restaurant with dishes averaging CHF 20 each (the best we could find). We tried the Zürich specialty: Zürcher Geschnetzeltes, a dish made with chopped veal and mushroom sauce, served with rösti.

Afterward, we walked around the night-washed city for a little bit before catching a train back to Geneva. The three-hour ride was broken up by a surprise train-switch at Lausanne; we were informed that there was too much traffic on the tracks so we would have to catch another train that was already heading to Geneva. After traveling one stop on that train, we were unexpectedly joined by Natalie, Mina, and Katie, who had all been on a train home from Luzern that day but had been similarly booted from two trains already. Happily, we were all able to stay put for the rest of our journey to Geneva after that.


I spent Sunday desperately trying to figure out our first E&M problem set. Not only is this subject difficult conceptually, but the homework assignments are in French, so I spend a lot of time copy-and-pasting the problems into Google Translate just to find that what we need to do was never actually taught to us in lecture. Such is the life of a physics student.

Geneva’s famous Jet d’eau on a lovely Sunday afternoon.
Once I’d had enough of that, Dan and I went for a walk to enjoy the supremely beautiful Sunday. We also walked out to the Jet d’eau for the first time!

“Spring break” for the internship students started this weekend. Our dorm began emptying out on Friday as their finals finished up and the last of them were gone by Saturday. We physics students were both saddened and excited by the sudden hollowness of our building. It would be strange with 40 fewer people bustling around (the internship kids make up over two-thirds of our program), but at least we wouldn’t have to fight for bread at breakfast!


Week 7

On Monday, I went to CERN to work. This will probably be my schedule from now on: CERN on Monday. Classes on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. CERN again on Friday. Once I got home, I scrambled to finish the E&M homework. It was not fun.

By physics class on Tuesday, I was ready to quit. Sitting through a physics lecture in French—and absorbing nothing—is not an encouraging way to spend two hours of my morning. I seriously considered dropping my two courses and went class-shopping on the UniGe website as our professor explained Young’s double slit experiment. That night, I actually called Ryan, my amazing physics mentor that I mentioned in an earlier post, who is always still able and willing to lift the spirits of his struggling ex-mentee. As usual, talking to Ryan left me feeling like I could conquer the world. My determination was renewed!

Unfortunately, listening to a pep talk from Ryan over Skype is a very different experience from sitting through a still-unintelligible electrodynamics lecture in French. In class the next morning, I yet again felt resolved to quit. More on that later.

On an entirely different note, I met my Tandem partner on Wednesday! “Tandem” is a program at UniGe that allows students and teaching staff interested in learning a new language to set up a brief “profile” online and choose a language-learning partner. We are given no names, genders, or ages when we send an invitation to a partner—only their general interests. Many students in the BU program take advantage of Tandem to improve their French-speaking skills and meet other Genevese students. I recently accepted an invitation from a girl named Pauline and we met for the first time on Wednesday. We talked for over an hour—in English, for now—about UniGe, travel in Europe, and our respective fields of study. Pauline is an IR student so we brushed briefly on the rich topic of American politics. Ideally we’ll be meeting up every week; hopefully I can improve my French and make a new friend!

That night was our “welcome party” sponsored by the Association des Etudiants en physique, the physics student club at UniGe. It was a fun night of free food and mingling with the Swiss physics students!

Our first 8am class—a discussion section for E&M—was on Thursday. It was simply awful. Unlike discussion sections at BU that we’re accustomed to, we did not get a set of problems to work through in small groups. Instead, we were given next week’s homework (having just turned in this week’s two days before) and instructed to work on that. Getting an early start on homework is definitely a good idea, but it’s not worth waking up at 6:30am and taking a 20 minute bus ride to start something that could have easily been done at any time from home. Staring at that problem set (in French) at 8 in the morning as the instructor rattled on about physics I don’t understand (also in French!) really made me question my motivations for being here.

Later that day, I made my decision: I am dropping my E&M course and continuing with just quantum mechanics for the rest of our semester here. I plan to discuss this decision more in depth in a future post. (For the curious souls, perhaps reading a previous post will provide some insight.)

A mirrored mirror-pic of me in my child-size CERN hoodie.
On Friday, I went into CERN again and I finally bought the blue CERN hoodie I’d been eyeing for a while! I was able to get away with purchasing a child’s size 12 (I’m quite petite), which was cheaper than the adult’s. I am very pleased with my purchase. 🙂

This weekend has been pretty uneventful. The internship students have been slowly trickling back in from their spring break trips, but they’re probably all napping in their rooms so we don’t even really notice them.

This morning (Sunday), Mina, Casey, Natalie, Kavi, Nate, and I went to a free screening of Hidden Figures at a nearby cinema, sponsored by the United Nations Office at Geneva and the International Gender Champions in honor of International Women’s Day (March 8!) We laughed, we cried, and we were touched by the heartwarming and uplifting film. It was especially inspiring to learn about women working at NASA, something I also hope to do one day. The screening was followed by a brief panel discussion with a female researcher from CERN, a gender specialist at the International Labor Organization, and a woman working at the International Trade Center.


General updates

I’ve eaten a lot of chocolate this week. I was actually entirely out of “dessert” items on Friday—I had finished all my chocolate bars, my carton of mint chocolate chip ice cream, and my bag of Madeleine cookies. On Saturday I made sure to restock, but I’ve decided to limit myself to one new bar per week, so as to prevent another stack of seven from building up on my desk. I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m compiling a list of the Best Chocolate in Switzerland; that will be hitting shelves soon, so keep your eyes peeled!

I spent much of this weekend arranging travel and lodging for my upcoming spring break trip! As of now, my plan is to do a whirlwind tour of [northern] Italy: Milan, Rome/Vatican City, Venice, Padua, and Verona (in that order). I will probably do most of my traveling alone but I’ll be meeting up with others from the program at various destinations. And I’m excited to do so much travel by train, which is prime reading and/or audiobook time.


Cultural differences

I ended my first weekly update with a bullet-pointed list of cultural differences I’d noticed during my first seven days abroad. Since then, I’ve been lumping cultural differences in with my “general updates”, but now I may try going back to keeping them separate. I’d like to compile them in a long list that I’ll post towards the end of my semester here. In the meantime, here are some more differences I’ve noticed in the past two weeks…

I did not expect a technology as simple as light switches to be different outside the United States. But here the light switches are actually more like “light buttons”—either a literal button  or a flipping pad.

The “light button” in our bedroom.
Last week, we happened to walk by an active fire truck and discovered first-hand how “fire hydrants” work in Switzerland. In contrast to the the United States’ iconic cactus-like structures preventing parking three times per block, the Swiss have small pothole-like openings in the sidewalk where a fire hose is attached (see photos).

Europeans write their number 1s differently.

The menu for a cafe around the corner from our resident. Notice how the number 1 is written…
They also write their Ms like bottomless rectangles.

A sign reserving a table at CERN for “M. Watanabe”, a perfect example of the funky European handwritten letter “M”.
I have made a fool of myself plenty of times by pushing a “pull” door or vice versa—occasionally in America, but far more often in Switzerland. Unlike in the United States, where it’s sometimes required by law for public buildings’ doors to open outwards for safety reasons, Swiss storefronts often open inwards. I’ve sometimes found myself stupidly tugging at a door marked “poussez” for PUSH. I actually once thought a store was simply closed because I pulled when I should’ve pushed. (Never fear, I figured it out after a minute of confusion.)


Coming up

My weekends are really starting to fill up! A group of us is trying to reserve spots on UniGe’s ski trip this weekend. Every weekend from January to March, the university buses a group of students to a nearby ski resort for a small fee. They even offer classes, which is great because many of us have never skied before….

The following weekend is our next BU excursion—a snowshoeing trek on the Plateau des Glières! I’m excited for the workout and a free meal.

The weekend after that, we have another BU-sponsored trip to go wine-tasting at a local vineyard. That night, Dan and I are also going to see a Switzerland v. Latvia football match (“soccer”, for you Americans) here in Geneva!

And for the last weekend of March…Dan and I are going to the Canary Islands! We were looking up best observatories in Europe, as astrophysics students do (spoiler alert: there aren’t many good observatories in Europe), and two observatories in the Canary Islands kept showing up. Out of curiosity, we checked flight prices and found that that weekend wasn’t bad. So now we get to stargaze in the clearest skies in the northern hemisphere! We’re both ecstatic.


For now, CERN, quantum mechanics, and unseasonably-warm weather will be the norm for me here in Geneva.


With love,

Maddie 🙂

One thought on “a Double Stuf update: Weeks 6 + 7

  1. Pingback: A Reflection + brief update (Weeks 9-10) – mad world

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