The MacGuffin

Archive for February, 2011

A Tale of a Town and its Cheese

Posted by Lauren Rugani on February 27, 2011

I took my first day trip yesterday to a small village called Gruyere. Some of you might recognize that name, as it is the birthplace of Gruyere cheese. It was about a two-hour train ride, which went by rather quickly because we were all getting to know each other. (The trip was sponsored by a site called, where expats can join and meet other expats, arrange events and social activities, etc.) I found myself at home as there were a large number of Americans as well as fellow employees from CERN. But there were also people from all over Europe and the world, and it was so interesting to hear everybody’s story. I think it’s safe to say that Europeans by far have a greater hunger for travel and culture than Americans.

Our first stop on the trip was to the factory where they make the cheese. They have huge tuns of cows milk that are heated and churned, then drained into smaller basins when they reach the right texture. The bottoms of the basins are fine mesh, so the water drains out, leaving the cheese. Then they put huge metal plates on top to condense the cheese for 24 hours, and finally the wheels are  moved to a storage room where they age anywhere from 6 months to several years. We got to sample the cheese from 3 different stages in the aging process. Verdict – 8 months wins.

From there we walked to the old village of Gruyere, which has been standing for over 1000 years, never falling into enemy hands. It’s been somewhat touristified, as the main street was mostly fondue restaurants and souvenir shops, but you could tell it was old. The doors and staircases were extremely tiny, and the architecture was representative of the gothic style.

Our first stop inside the village was chocolate fondue with fruit for lunch. Very good, but very sweet and rich. Then we walked through the village to see the church and other buildings. The big attraction was of course the castle. Unlike every historical tourist attraction in America, you can actually explore and touch things. They have some things roped off in the rooms, like 14th century beds and dining room sets, but for the most part we had access to the whole site.

After the castle we had Alien Coffee. This was a strange bar/coffeehouse based on the movie Alien, because the movie was based on the artwork of a native of the area, H.R. Giger. The Giger Museum was also there. Alien Coffee was of course coffee, plus meringues that you dip into homemade sweet cream. Soooo yummy. Then we walked around for a while longer to give people a chance to buy souvenirs or cheese if they wanted to.

Our last stop was dinner at the Chalet. Most of us had a dish called Raclette, which is a close relative of fondue. It’s a block of cheese placed on a heated stone, and as it melts you scrape off the top of the cheese and spread it on bread and potatoes. The dish also came with pickles and pickled onions, which helped to cut the heaviness of cheese. It was delicious and of course I had to experience the local customs, but my arteries will be glad if I don’t do that again for a long time 🙂

We left Gruyere at 8pm and got back to Geneva around 10. I met so many awesome people and a group of us decided to try and meet up again. We might take another day trip to the French city of Lyon next weekend.

Here is a slideshow of many pictures I took at Gruyere. It’s about 100 photos and takes about 5 minutes to play the whole thing. Enjoy!

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Always Use Exact Change

Posted by Lauren Rugani on February 23, 2011

I’m not sure if it’s a cultural thing, but when you pay for something here it seems they prefer that you provide exact change. It happened yesterday at lunch, and again today at the store in the mall. The cashiers look at you like you’re crazy if you just hand them a 20. It’s not so much they expect you to have the exact amount, say 16.50, but if you hand them a 20 they also expect the 50 so they can give you an even number of francs in change. I’ll have to keep that in mind. (On a side note, I managed to take the bus and find the shopping center all by myself!)

Work was fun again today. I had a tour this morning, which unfortunately was not as behind-the-scenes as yesterday’s tour. We just went to the visitor’s center and looked at posters and slide shows, right along with a large group of European high school students. I asked if there was anything else to see, but he said not really. On a positive note, I met several people who might be nice to work with to find good stories.

After the tour I tagged along on a lunch meeting with two representatives from the US mission to the UN and the director of communications at CERN. We had a great conversation about outreach, using art to spread science and diplomacy around the world. One of the reps, who is also relatively new to the area, suggested we meet up for fondue (a local favorite) in the near future.

We ate a catered 3-course meal in a private dining room just off the cafeteria. First was some sort of soup, maybe mushroom, with a chunk of something resembling the texture of feta cheese in the middle. It was probably like duck liver or something,  but I don’t want to know because it was delicious. Then they brought out the main dish, which was salmon with what tasted like a creamy dill sauce. Salmon is probably my least favorite food in the world, but I didn’t have much of a choice, so I politely ate about half of it. (Mom don’t read the next part.) It wasn’t half bad! (I know you read it anyway, so don’t expect me to eat it when I come home. :)) Then for dessert we had fancy pastries with custard and fruit, followed by espresso. 5-star living in US = free lunch in Geneva haha.

I also started listening to podcasts of French lessons. Rather than teach vocabulary and grammar, they use complete phrases that are useful in conversation, then explain the parts of the phrases. Hopefully this will give me some good practice so I don’t feel so illiterate any time I need to do anything in public.

Still hunting for an apartment or roommate, but a few good leads have popped up. I hope I can find something soon, as this hostel is terribly expensive.

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My Three-Hour Tour

Posted by Lauren Rugani on February 22, 2011

(three-hour tour… three-hour tour…)

Today went a lot better than yesterday, though I still had a few administrative blips to deal with. First thing this morning I went to get my ID card, and the lady was totally rude, yelling at me for not knowing if I was in the right place and not giving her the papers before I knew she needed them. Then she took my picture without telling me. If I ever get arrested, my mug shot couldn’t be worse than the picture I have to show every guard on site any time I go anywhere. Sigh.

I also tried to open a bank account, but was denied because I will only be here for 6 months. I’m still working on a solution for that. So if anyone knows a cheap way to get money from America to Switzerland let me know, otherwise I will just have to keep paying the exchange fee to turn dollars into francs.

Anyway, onto the good news! This morning I ran into a grad student I knew from SLAC. It was nice to see a familiar and English-speaking face, so I’m hoping it will turn into introductions of more grad students and potential social opportunities. I also practiced my numbers in French, which came in handy at lunchtime, when my meal cost “huit quinze” (or 8.15, which sounds like “wheat cans”).

Finally, this afternoon I met with a scientist who took me on a tour of one of CERN’s largest experiments, CMS, which stands for Compact Muon Solenoid. The “C” part is funny because the detector sits 100 meters underground, and is 7 meters high by about 22 meters long. Unfortunately the protons started accelerating again the same day I landed in Geneva, so the detector is off limits. A shame, because it would have been amazing to photograph. I did see the warehouse where it was built, and the insane mechanisms they used to lower it into the ground, piece by piece. He said each piece took about 10 hours to lower down this massive shaft, and only had about 10 centimeters of clearance on all sides. All in all it took about a year and a half, because they had to build each piece above ground after the previous one had been lowered then assemble everything underground. He did open the gate and let me peer over the edge down the shaft, which was just dizzying. It’s insane the infrastructure they had to build just in order to build the machines that will actually do something!

We also saw the control rooms where people can monitor the beams and the collisions, as well as where they control the magnets that bend the protons around the circular accelerating ring. Then we went up to the room with all the computer servers that process the data. Proton collisions happen roughly 40 million times every second. A trigger chooses about 100,000 of the “best ones” (that look like they might contain something interesting), and the computers pare that down to about 100, which they send off in real time to computers on the main site where scientists will analyze them. It seems like a lot of wasted data, but 100 events per second is still tons to work with! Finally we visited a display area where they have replicas of the accelerator tunnel and magnets. I learned what actually happened during the 2008 accident, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy 😉

CMS is located across the ring from my office, which is about 6km in a straight line, but between 10-15 km driving. CERN doesn’t own all the land above the ring, just the land where they have above-ground facilities, so driving to CMS was all farmland and tiny little villages with stone houses and roads. It looks quite idyllic, except there isn’t so much as a grocery store. It was cloudy again today, but the nearby mountains were visible. Slawek, my tour guide, showed me a road to take on a clear day where you can see all the way to the Alps and everything in between.

Tomorrow also looks promising. I’ll be touring another one of CERN’s major experiments and then having lunch with people from the US mission to the UN. Stay tuned!

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First Day on the Job

Posted by Lauren Rugani on February 21, 2011

After a relatively sleepless night I clocked in to my first day at CERN this morning. The Rugani family will appreciate the following story:

Because I still write for some of the same publications as I did at SLAC, I had plenty to do besides sit around and wait for someone to come up with an assignment for me. But my computer would not go online, so I had no access to email, notes, or saved drafts of stories. The computer services guy came and fiddled around for a bit before telling us to try to find a PC repair person (CERN uses mostly Macs, and my computer is property of Fermilab in the US). So we put a request in.

Meanwhile, I had to register with the users office to get my email and whatever else accounts all set up. On visit number one I was missing a bunch of paperwork. Luckily it was in my room just a few buildings over so I could get it easily. I also needed to fill out an application and get it signed by my group leader. Turns out the group leader as well as the three people below him were all out today. I finally tracked down someone who thought they were authorized to sign the paper, and brought it back to the office.

On visit number two I was informed that this person, in fact, did not have authorization. It seemed as though I’d have to wait a day to get the proper signature, until miraculously one of the three absent people came into the office for some unofficial reason. I got her to sign the paper (despite her having a broken wrist and cast) and went back to the office.

On visit number three, I was informed that because I will be here longer than 3 months I need to have both a French card and a Swiss card, which I guess are like residency permits or something. However, I only have a Swiss visa, not a French one, so they wouldn’t issue me a French card, which is bad because you need both to be a full time employee. I explained to them that my French visa was not issued to me because of an error on THEIR end. They suggested I return to the US and get a French visa. Finally they agreed that if I secure a permanent address in Switzerland within the next 2 months, I can use that address to acquire the French card. Phew.

Then they told me that because my offer letter states my first day as January 17, they won’t authorize me to stay past July 1. I again explained to them that today was my first day, not January 17, again in part due to their error processing my paperwork. Again, we negotiated with a supervisor and all was well.

In the midst of all these trips to the users office I actually worked. We had two meetings in the morning. The first was just 4 of us because the rest of the office is out sick or traveling. The second meeting was conducted entirely in French, although they acknowledged that I neither speak nor understand it. I guess a good way to pick up a language is to be thrown into the fire and have to figure out what’s going on.

After lunch I got my own computer and brought it back to the office so I could finally get some work done during my last two hours.

When the day was over I decided to walk up the road a bit and get some food to keep in the hostel with me. A pretty mundane chore, except for two things: the view of the snowcapped Alps in the not-so-distant distance, and my first taste of Swiss chocolate. I know I promised to take a picture of the mountains, but by the time I got out of the office it was nearly dark, and I had to make it to the store before it closed and didn’t want to carry my camera with me.

Can’t wait to see what Day Two brings!

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Welcome to Geneva

Posted by Lauren Rugani on February 20, 2011

My first weekend in Geneva is over.

The first impression I had when I landed yesterday morning was, “Where’s all the snow?!” It was a warm day, but gray and cloudy. Going from the airport to my hostel in Meyrin, just outside Geneva, I noticed that the area was very industrial, or at least looked that way. Lots of gray buildings, not a lot of scenery – though I suppose that on a sunny day the view of the Alps is nothing short of majestic (I’ll report back on the first sunny day) and there are some vineyards nearby that might look nicer in season.

CERN, for all of its international renown, is made up mostly of aging buildings, again gray. My room is nice: a bed, desk, armoir and full bathroom. There are a communal kitchen, TV, reading and laundry rooms too, kind of like a college dorm. It’s been pretty quiet so far, but perhaps during the week I’ll meet some fellow hostelers.

I spent my first day wandering about Geneva. It’s a fairly simple bus/train ride, which takes about 45 minutes, but isn’t anything I’m not used to after living in Boston. We walked through the “red light district,” which during the day is pretty tame. Lots of people on the streets, every other shop sells watches or chocolate, very touristy. We walked to Lake Geneva and saw the Jet d’Eau (water jet), walked out onto a cement pier where people were sitting having lunch and feeding birds. Lots of boats are docked there, so I’m assuming it’s quite a happening place in the summer. We also visited a few other neighborhoods in the city and stopped for coffee.

I’ll either need to learn French immediately or make sure I’m with someone who speaks fluently any time I go to a restaurant. For the most part I could make out the items on the menu, but I’m under the impression that waitstaff do not generally speak English. The food is also expensive, but I have to remind myself that the tip is built in. Also, unlike in America, the waitstaff don’t check back on you a million times after dropping your food to ask if everything is alright. I’ve heard that fondue is very popular, as are dishes made of potatoes, cheese and bacon, which I can totally get behind. I’m looking forward to sampling local menus as often as possible.

I joined and Young@CERN in the hopes of meeting people to explore with. My first major project, however, is finding an affordable place to live. I definitely have my heart set on Geneva so I can walk around and see as much as possible.

Tomorrow is my first day of work, which I’m sure will consist mostly of trainings, orientations, introductions, tours, etc. I’m excited to explore the site even more and perhaps see some of the experiments that I’ll be writing about. Hopefully I can get enough sleep tonight – my brain thinks its dinner time but it’s almost midnight right now! Luckily my room is a 2-minute walk to the office, so I can sleep in a little later until I fully adjust to the time difference.

Check back soon for pictures of the site and the city!

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