Tuesday, March 4, 2014

My New 'Space' - Part II

The charm and beauty of Strasbourg got me slowly, which is weird because I spent the last one month before coming here in the dirt and pollution of Kolkata. And here was this place, serene and calm, and surrounded by water everywhere. The city has two parts, from the architecture point of view - the old part, with colorful Columbage styled building and the dull new part reminiscent of French socialism. I prefer to show the old part, which I find to be visually more pleasing.


Ill, a tributary of river Rhine, flows through the city of Strasbourg. Actually, Strasbourg is located on the islands made by this river, and its canals. It used to be a port historically, and they still maintain the old gate system for boats to move from one water level to another. 

Our reception ceremony was a big hit, with astronaut Kevin Ford being the chief guest. The good food added to the other delights of the evening, like meeting important people from the space industry in the most casual way ever! I posted this photograph with him on Facebook out of excitement, and a feeling of accomplishment, only to be amused by the reactions I got from my friends and family. Apparently, they felt 'proud' ....Alas, all I could feel at this was amusement. Nevertheless, it was a big day for me as technically, he was the first 'astronaut' I had met. I had met another person before who flew to space, our own Mr. Rakesh Sharma, but he was a 'cosmonaut'. 


As I said before, the food that evening was great, and unfortunately I happen to have only one picture of the buffet since I was too busy filling my mouth with delicious European food (and wine of course)


During the first week itself at college, we were handed out first assignment, which was to make a model rocket and fly it successfully with the egg of a bird (thankfully, it was not a hen). We were split into groups, and mine ended up making the most badass looking rocket. But sadly, it wasn't suitable for the task we were asked to execute, although there was no denying that it was pretty and had the class nerds give you those glances of envy. 

The next few weeks went very quickly, as we were usually having classes and workshops till evening, and then had to do some assignment almost every day of the week. Team-working was never an easy task, but it became more difficult with so much cultural differences at stake. I even lost my temper once, but later realized how foolish it was, and how the misinterpretation of tone could lead to manipulation of thoughts. The only things I would like to remember from the first month after classes started were the dinner invitation by an Alsatian family (my friend's landlord), who made the favorite local dish called Tarte Flambees (a type of thin crust pizza), and my evening parties with the new group at every bar/club of the town, and of course, our favorite hangout place- 25 Cathedral!

Partying was never simpler than this - Get a few beers/wine, board the tram to the city, and ring the door-bell to ever welcoming hosts of the place 25 Cathedral, a simple yet effective 3-step process to have the best time of your day....Though what was not that simple was the academics. It consisted of subjects from engineering (both aerospace and avionics), sciences (mainly astrophysics), medicine, policy & economics, law, management and humanities! True to its 3Is principle, ISU curriculum isn't the cup of tea for everyone. Only a person with many shades and interests can survive here. I never knew before coming here that art inspired by space is up there on the International Space Station. I had heard there are space laws, but did not know that our satellites went up to space with a registration number given by an organization called International Telecommunication Union (ITU). So yes, the breadth of my knowledge definitely increased, and I reveled in this structure of education.

As much as I learnt about space, I learnt equally about gastronomy, thanks to my friend Robert from Croatia. I keep telling him that he should take up cooking as a profession because that's the only thing he enjoys doing (apart from his new found hobby of spinning hapless people on a chair for a 'classified' space medicine experiment). I also learnt during the first month itself about how cooking and having food together can be a better social activity than drinking. Indian cuisine was surprisingly popular, and I was amused to see the willingness with which people ate our spicy food at school. Thanks to our above-average cooking skills, me and my friend Pulkit became quite popular! Presently, our vegetarian friend Robert has more stock of spices than us, and probably cooks better daal and chana masala than we do. 

I had a faint glitter of hope that even if we do not get our dream jobs after completion of masters vis-a-vis the famed demon of recession, we could still open a good Indian restaurant (this was something that Strasbourg lacked unfortunately). This kind of optimism was a fresh change, which was brought about by the rate at which I discovered new found abilities. But more on that later, keep reading! ;)  

Monday, March 3, 2014

My New 'Space' - Part I

It has been a long hiatus, and I have absolutely no excuse for being away from blogging for this long. I am writing this piece from Strasbourg, France. Yes, it has been one hell of a ride ever since I left the lush green campus of my college at Trivandrum. I have lived multiple lives in the last 2-3 years, and yet, none of these ever felt a complete one...

My decision to study at International Space University (ISU), Strasbourg was one that baffled many, including myself. Off late, I have developed this habit of surprising myself, and in a way it helps me to keep pushing my limits and remain motivated. I have to admit that coming to ISU was that one odd smart decision that I seldom take. I have studied in a space institute before, and worked in a reputed national space agency, but never before I actually felt the charm and drive of what I was doing. At ISU, I met and mingled with these people who grew up watching TV shows like Star-Trek, Battlestar Galactica, etc., and always dreamt of being associated with 'space'. In contrast, my aspirations for being a space engineer was so fuzzy that I had to do some serious soul searching for why I was actually among these starry eyed kids! Before I get into details of my last 6 months, let me show you where I live!

Strasbourg, located in the north east part of France, is the seat of the parliament of the European Union. It is the capital of the region called Alsace, and is the 6th largest city of France. With its location by the banks of the river Rhine, the region of Alsace has a deep history of violence between the French and Germans, and its possession has switched several times between the two in the last two centuries. They even have a language of their own, which they call as Alsatian, and is very similar to German. Hence, if your are ever here, don't be surprised to see signboards in French as well as German (oops, I mean Alsatian!).

I arrived here via Frankfurt, since air connectivity of Strasbourg is as good as the train connectivity of Sriharikota. On my way to Strasbourg from Frankfurt by bus, I happened to see most of my dream machines - Lambhorgini, Ferrari, BMW motorcycles, a Harley-Davidson chopper, overtaking my bus (moving at around 120kmph) at ease, as if it were an auto-rickshaw. My first evening was very eventful, and that set the tone of my stay here. I understood the importance of two things that day - the battery life of your phone/smartphone (how I missed those old Nokia phones...), and paying attention to learning the local language. 

I was overwhelmed initially by the surroundings, the roads (they are opposite to those in India) and most of all, the number of people I saw around me. Coming from Kolkata, this seemed like a world apart, and it sure was. It took me some time to stop converting the prices in euros to rupee in my mind, but by that time I was completely aware that I was going to be ripped off in this place! France is expensive, and Strasbourg was no better. But that is a small price that I paid to live in this beautiful city. I had traveled around 18hrs straight, but that did not stop me from going to visit the famous Cathedral within 24hrs of my arrival. And I got to see the cathedral like this! (there was a light and sound show)

Same day, I got introduced to two things that I would spend a lot of time during my stay at Strasbourg. This bespectacled half Croatian-half Italian guy, and the awesome Alsatian Blanc beer!  

The first week at Strasbourg was a blurr...I was attending beginner French classes in the morning, and partying every night with the new found group of people, and my future classmates. The only thing that was common among us was that we could speak English. All of us were from different countries and cultural backgrounds. That did not deter us to quickly bond with each other because we all were foreigners in this country. It was an altogether new experience for me. I shed off the fake south Indian English accent I had been wearing for the past few years in a matter of few days. I also shed off a lot of inhibitions, to be able to greet the French way, by kissing them on their cheeks, without the air of awkwardness. Nevertheless, I learnt it the hard way when I met this beautiful French gal who leaned forward to kiss me, and I stuck out my hand instead to greet her, successfully making both of us look stupid. I made up for that lost moment though, when I met her again at a bar later that week ... ;)

It used to be bright and sunny for the first month when I arrived. Somehow I couldn't help but draw parallel between the weather and the mood of the MSS14 class (that's how we call ourselves). But more on that later..Out of my enthusiasm about my new college, I visited its campus (a 10mins walk from my residence) before the classes started. It was a small, yet beautiful campus and I instantly fell in love with it, especially the student lounge, which was fully furnished and totally awesome!

The next few months were he most memorable (though sometimes not) times of my life. I will try to cover some important aspects in my future articles. Keep reading!