Breandan's Blog

Tales of a Traveling Twentysomething

In which I describe globetrotting on Cars2Go, death-defying feats of gallantry, learning how to deliver a baby, and other mildly interesting stories from a prodigal twentysomething technologist with first-world problems.

Earlier this year, I had the chance to go on sabbatical. So I went. Since then, I have spent time in many interesting places - some for work, some for conferences, some just for the hell of it. As the year is almost over, I thought I would share parts of my journey. Perhaps you may wish to visit some of these places. Some of them, you will not.

In January 2016, I visited the sister of a Brother who lives in Phoenix. She kindly showed me the city where she had recently moved from somewhere in Long Island. We ate breakfast at the Breakfast Club, and looked for a relative who drowned in the attack on Pearl Harbor. In the middle of their city they have planted a huge gun for the lost sailors of the Battleship Arizona.

In February, I flew to Atlanta, and was promptly greeted by a cheerful Hawaiian professional photographer, turned recreational Uber driver, who gave a white kid tips for how to survive on the streets of Atlanta over Italian pasta. I think he took pity on me sitting in the backseat of his Uber. Besides the bomb evacuation at DevNexus, it was a pretty nice trip.

From Google Earth, over the I-20 and I-85 interchange in downtown Atlanta.

Later that month, I boarded Adirondack #69 from New York to Montreal for ConFoo. After running for miles in the freezing sleet, wondering what I was doing with my life and nearly succumbing to hypothermia, I met some incredibly kind people, including a friend from Brasil, the organizers, a plugin developer, and lots of Canadians. Great conference.

Shortly after driving down to EclipseCon in Washington, DC, I met some friendly people from a top-secret Russian laboratory, Goldman Sachs, and a couple of lawyers for the CFTC (all completely unrelated). I also had the opportunity to visit the National Basilica, a gigantic statue of Albert Einstein and the National Museum of Natural History. Go there.

In April I had a layover in Hong Kong and decided to get Dim Sum. Instead, I wandered around and got caught in a thunderstorm. So I did what anyone would normally do and climbed the tallest mountain I could find. After nearly dying of electrocution, the stormclouds parted and I caught a glimpse of the sprawling cyberpunk nirvana that is Greater Hong Kong.

The 68th Hong Kong School Prize Concert for Sacred Music, at St. John's Cathedral.

The rain started back up again, so I ducked into an empty church to dry off. Suddenly, there a great commotion - hundreds of children, dripping and tripping all over the place. They came in busses and bunches, shuffling onto the benches. Thunder and pouring rain. Umbrellas and coats. Candles everywhere. Then, they began to sing. I never heard anything so beautiful.

Landing in Bengaluru, I was greeted by the sound of pandemonium. Bengaluru is the tech capital of India, and I was here to work. After a long series of business meetings, chasing down deliveries, hailing three-wheeled contraptions, and drinking my weight in water every day, I felt cautiously prepared for the ensuing conference festivities.

Vada pav, from Sagar Resturant in Bengaluru.

Our tiny booth was quickly overwhelmed by a multitude of curious people. And from dawn to dusk, we shook hands, we gave away shirts, we held quizzes. Following an amazing culinary extravaganza and near-death experience with food-poisoning on M.G. Road, I am convinced Indian food, like all delicious things, is best consumed in moderation.

Two of my colleagues took it upon themselves to personally drive me around Bengaluru, broker steaming cups of tea from passing chaiwallas, order samosa, vada pav, and chats from busy street vendors, visit parliamentary buildings, gold-laden temples, purchase a saree, navigate massive thoroughfares and narrow alleyways, negotiate access to gated compounds.

Two things stand out in my mind. Indian enthusiasm is contagious. As a North American, my people are cool, reserved. We work hard, and complain a lot. Indians are hard working, and will happily talk to you about anything under the sun. I guess everyone is the same, everyone is different. But I am deeply grateful for their kindness.

Street vendors on the outskirts of Dharavi, one of the largest slums in the world.

After a brief stint in Mumbai, I flew back to New York with a new set of problems. So I decided to ignore them and go for a prolonged bike trip through the Pacific Northwest. Turns out that was just a different set of problems. I took the Amtrak Cascades from Seattle to Vancouver, rented a bike there, packed my backpack, and headed for Alaska.

After several near-death collisions, I gave up and settled for Whistler. If you sit at a desk for twelve hours a day, don’t try to peddle a bike 80 miles uphill the next one. Thank me later. But Whistler has fresh air, LTE, and skiing in May, so I was happy. I watched the seaplanes take off over Green Lake and wondered what I was doing with my life. Such are the problems we have in the first world.

Seaplanes take off from Whistler, carrying passengers and cargo to Vancouver.

After taking stock of the situation, I decided to pursue the full-time occupation of chasing a girl halfway around the planet. That was a pretty good idea in hindsight. We met in Vancouver, in Austin, in New York, in Boston and Portland and most places in between. You name it and we were probably there for some event or meetup this May or June.

It was my first time visiting Portland. We went there for Open Source Bridge, spent some time exploring Washington Park, and saw a spectacular Japanese Garden, recently restored and beautifully manicured, with a traveling bonsai exhibit. They have a Gilded Era mansion on the hill which is well-worth the visit, if just for the view. We also saw an extraordinary production of A Streetcar Named Desire at Portland Center Stage.

Planes. Trains. Automobiles. Every week was somewhere new. The daily milieu of new faces and scenes provided a welcome diversion to the reality of my situation. I chatted with Iranian barbers in Vancouver, brunched with captive bears on Grouse Mountain, had good ramen on Robson, explored castaway shipwrecks on False Creek, sat on the largest chair in San Fransisco, tested the longest slide in New York.

The Cheng-Shi. Her captain was "A sailor of the mind". Sadly, not a sailor of the sea.

How does one afford to travel so much? The answer is, as frequent flyers will explain in hushed voices, with lots of credit cards. By the interest earned from delinquent debtors and with a little help from Uncle Sam, US banks will simply hand you fake currency, if you pay your credit card bills in a timely fashion, that may be used at various airlines and hotel chains.

In June, I boarded UA 149 to São Paulo International Airport with a couple hundred other Brazilians. That plane never arrived in São Paulo International Airport. Nor did any of the subsequent flights we were on. Instead, they abandoned us behind customs in Rio Galeão without food or water for eight hours. To my amazement, United Airlines did not seem to see any problem with all this. The Brazilians just shrugged and laughed.

In São Paulo I had some amazing milkshakes, ate coxinhas and churrasco. I kept watch for police as my friend flew his drone around Ibirapuera Park to much public dismay, reassured fleeing bystanders, and in general did a whole lot of chasing other people around São Paulo. I had excellent ramen in Liberdade. Somehow managed to give a coherent talk about machine learning. Or maybe not. English is not their first language.

Boys in the yard

Oh My Milkshakes has the best milkshake I have ever tasted. It's really, really good.

In July, I fired my dentist. In hindsight, that was probably not a good idea. He was getting on my nerves with the appointment reminders, but he was a consummate professional, through and through. Dentists are good people, and even if they are a little fanatical about oral hygiene, they have your best interests at heart. You should see one regularly.

Later that month, I landed in Los Angeles. This was a big mistake. After breaking down in an antique automobile on I-15, I nearly perished from dehydration in the great suburban wasteland that lies east of LA, running to make an appointment with my father’s third ex-wife. Do not try to drive a car twice your age through the desert in summertime.

In August, after surviving another bout of food poisoning, I flew from LA to Bergen, Norway, by way of Dallas and London. The plan was to meet my girlfriend in Hamburg ten days later. Plenty of time to take the train from Bergen to Oslo to Stockholm to Malmö to København to Hamburg. Or so I thought.

I spent a day dodging lorries in a dodgy part of London on Santander Cycles, and eating mediocre ramen in Piccadilly Circus. After making my Heathrow connection with seconds to spare, I arrived in Bergen, still breathless, with my newly printed Eurail pass proudly in hand to show the customs officer. He sighed, and stamped my passport.

The Bergen Line connects Bergen and Oslo, carrying millions of people each year.

The journey from Bergen to Oslo was completely otherworldly, filled with gaping fjords, scenic vistas, glacial streams, and mountain passes. I sat next to a biologist studying seasonal migration patterns and teaching a summer seminar in Voss. I watched Norwegian villages and stations glide past my window. Norway is a strikingly gorgeous country, and I highly recommend the Bergen Railway if your travels should take you anywhere in the vicinity.

Stayed with a rock band living in Oslo. They kindly loaned me their bicycle, which I put to extensive use exploring the neighboring countryside. There, I wandered into a surreal village that looked like it was from the 17th century. The townsfolk, dressed in period clothing, made pointed gestures at my bicycle while speaking Norwegian. This was confusing, as I do not speak Norwegian and seemed to be only person from the 21st century that morning. I discovered it was a historical reenactment, with live actors and livestock. Nearby, is the Royal farm of Norway, stocked with heavily armed soldiers in open pastures. I took the ferry back to Oslo and ate some delicious Punjabi food for dinner.

I arrived in Stockholm late. The host was asleep, or forgot about my arrival. After accidentally waking up her neighbor and probably the whole apartment building, we arranged to meet a nice old lady, who apologized to everyone in Swedish, made some tea and introduced me to her city. Stockholm is a big park with a city attached. You can bike alongside people horsebacking through the woods. Have lunch in the middle of green fields. Toured an old warship dredged up from the bottom of the sea.

King of Sweden orders the largest warship ever built. Three masts. 64 guns. Topheavy, narrow-looking abomination. Two years to build the damn thing. Launches to much public fanfare. No ballast. Light breeze starts to blow in the harbor, and she sinks, killing thirty sailors. King starts an investigation. Everyone points up the chain of command, back to the King who rubber stamped the whole thing. Investigation quickly ends. Remind you of any software projects?

Kaknästornet is a tower that broadcasts television and radio signals all over Sweden.

Malmö is an little city on the coast of southern Sweden. The area where I stayed had long rows of block-style housing with WWII-era bomb shelters underneath. They have a tall building called the Turning Torso, visible from any point in the city and which my host pointed out enthusiastically. Disappointingly, it did not turn. Very windy and chilly here in August. I rode to Øresund Bridge and returned for hot chocolate, then boarded the commuter train to København.

In København, I stayed with the marketing director for the ESS in Sweden (apparently, big science projects need marketing people to help secure grants and so forth). He gave me directions to a pretty good ramen place nearby, and told me to visit a high-energy particle accelerator in Hamburg called DESY.

There exists a train from København to Hamburg which holds the distinction (unbeknownst to me at the time) of being a boat train. So you can imagine my excitement to be suddenly sitting on such a train, aboard a boat. They even gave us the opportunity to disembark from said train onto said boat, which I availed to great satisfaction.

My girlfriend met me in Hamburg. Much to her chagrin, my primary reason for visiting there was to see the Miniatur Wunderland. To her further chagrin, the second reason was now DESY. This time, I went alone. I slipped into a small tour, lead by someone who looked important. Later I discovered the tour was in German, but by then it was too late to turn back. I nodded thoughtfully and continued to do so for the remaining three hours as we walked from one secure facility to the next. Crisis averted.

Beneath a quiet suburb of Hamburg, DESY accelerates particles to 0.9999999C.

We then proceeded to visit a number of central European cities. Bonn for a week. Berlin for a few days. Potsdam for a day. Zürich for a day. Bern for a day. Lausanne for two. Zermatt and St. Moritz for a day. Salzburg for a week. Two days in Frankfurt. It was a whirlwind of trains, running to catch trains, finding our train was delayed, scrambling taxis to catch another train, etc. This required weeks of planning, but happily we made all of our scheduled connections, through careful chronological concentration.

Bonn is a quaint city with a surprising amount of trivia. Once home to Beethoven and former capital of Germany, it now houses the T-Mobile headquarters, Haribo, a large solar conglomerate, and has the best scrambled eggs I have personally tasted. Met a geology student who wanted to visit America. I encouraged him to do so. Later, I tried Club-Mate for the first time, and went to some good talks at FrOSCon.

From what I gathered, Berlin is a very culturally diverse and hip place to be. Personally, I was more interested in the historical bits, but even if you’re not there’s a lot to take in. There is Shanghainese food, neat European bistros, foreign exchange students hopping gleefully with stories of their latest party, vast swaths of beautifully manicured parks, loads of history. You could spend weeks here. Unfortunately, I only had a few days.

It was in Berlin where I began to appreciate the cultural differences between Germany and America. In the US we are outwardly warm, sometimes overtly so. Germans are outwardly cold, but inwardly warm and caring. These differences may cause some misunderstanding. You may think a German is being curt, or rude. Do not fret. Germans are very kind, once you get to know one.

There is a monument in the middle of Berlin, which you should visit, called Neue Wache. On a boulevard full of pompous looking buildings, it looks like any other. But if you take a moment to step inside, it will catch you off guard. Behind iron bars and beneath a hole in the roof sits a mother cradling her dead son. There are thousands of war memorials with huge guns. Go here instead.

The Berlin Victory Column, as seen from outer space, looks out over the Tiergarten.

Potsdam is nice to visit if you like palaces and gardens. I took the S-Bahn to Potsdam, rented a bike there, and rode for hours through the park. Later, I returned to Berlin and visited the Olympiastadion, a very impressive piece of architecture, accessible from the same line. But even if you’re not into stuffy old castles, you should visit Potsdam, because it is a very peaceful place indeed.

After a brief episode of frantically running around Berlin, chasing down a taxi, swerving to avoid oncoming traffic, and scrambling around the station to find our platform, we leapt aboard the City Night Line to Zürich, luggage and all, as they closed their doors and whistled to beat the band. The conductor tapped on his watch crossly. It was all very Wes Anderson-esque, except far less fun.

We awoke to the Zürich sunshine in August, and quickly realized the sun can be very hot under prolonged exposure. Storing our luggage in the train station, we got Muesli for breakfast, walked around the river baths and had fish at Nordsee, a German fast food chain. You probably wouldn’t associate fresh fish with fast food, but it is surprisingly palatable. Then it was time to go to Bern.

Bern has some very good restaurants which I highly recommend visiting if you have the time and inclination. We toured the Einstein House, strolled through the Rose Garden, peered into a bear bit, dipped our feet into the icy blue river, and did a good bit of touristy sounding things. Switzerland is a marvelous place if you have never been there before.

By the bank of the Aare river. It looks calm, but swimming is actually very dangerous.

Geneva is the home of CERN, which is mainly why we went there. You need to book a guided tour two weeks in advance, which gets reserved within a few minutes of new availability each day, so be prepared to mash F5 15 days before your arrival. The group self-selects for scientifically literate people, and our guide knew particle physics, so the tour is technically very educational.

From Geneva, we took a train to Visp, and up to Zermatt via a special railway that clings to the mountain like a snake in a tree, between cliffside dwellings perched on dubious ledges. We avoided making any sudden movements, lest they decide to take up flight. Cancelled a similar funicular excursion just a few days earlier, due to a large earthquake that had recently struck central Italy.

The town of Zermatt is only accessible by train, which is a good thing, because we had no other way of getting up there. However this means it is inaccessible when there are slides or avalanches. Fortunately, there were no slides or avalanches, and we arrived without incident. Stayed at Best Western (a great place in Switzerland) and watched the sun set over the Matterhorn.

The Matterhorn in the summer afternoon. It is one of the deadliest peaks in the world.

The next morning, we left bright and early on the Glacier Express, the slowest high speed train in the world. Scenic waypoints are narrated in dulcet sing-song, like a person reading a children’s fairy tale, in English, German, Italian, French and possibly Romansh. We passed through steep mountain passes, sweeping valleys, and over trestles spanning deep gorges.

Arriving in St. Moritz later that afternoon, we hauled our bags a kilometer uphill into a hotel above a pizza shop then walked around the lake. We watched people maneuver small sailboats, and tuxedo-clad chaps jump horses over fences in the late summer sunshine. It was all spectacularly European. St. Moritz is very extravagant, dripping with fur, fast cars and grand old hotels.

Then we took a train to Salzburg, by way of Zürich. Salzburg was really interesting, and much more salt-of-the-earth. I grew up watching The Sound of Music every Christmas, so there was an immediate connection. To my dismay, Austrians do not typically break out in A Capella musical overtures, and frowned on my own attempts to engage them in doing so, vis-à-vis My Favorite Things.

Salzburg is a town on a river, as many European towns are prone to be. More importantly, it has an abundance of salt. Salt was once the currency of the day, hence the English, salary. This means that Salzburg was a very wealthy place when salt was the legal tender, and accumulated a great deal of castles and aristocratic types through the taxation and export of salt along its river.

One of these was the Archbishop of Salzburg, Markus Sittikus, who by all accounts was not a very pleasant person, but hey, times were different. He built a large estate, known as Hellbrunn Palace, containing many cruel hydraulic innovations. To this day, guides use his collection to torment passing tourists.

Paragliders taking off from the top of Zwölferhorn Mountain in St. Gilgen, Austria.

After spending several pleasant days exploring the lakes and mountains of Salzburg, riding gondolas, watching people fling themselves off mountaintops on kites, catching Pokémon, concertgoing, and eating far too much Mozartkugel, we waved goodbye to Austria and made great haste for Frankfurt.

I commandeered a Car2Go on the Frankfurt autobahn, a road with no need for speed limits, beside those required by the laws of physics. This was fortunate, as we were short on time. Unfortunately, the laws of physics have bounded Car2Go’s maximum horizontal velocity to the approximate speed of a golf cart, so it ended up taking a while. But once you finally park the thing, you’re right beside the airport check-in.

Then I spent a week in San Jose at the beginning of September, and saw some great talks at Cassandra Summit. Cassandra is a pretty cool technology if you have truly enormous amounts of data to record. Maybe if this blog post is ever finished I will have a legitimate need for it.

Rented a car on Friday and drove south for the weekend. If you have a special weekend enterprise and are looking for automotive transportation, take the Enterprise Weekend Special. They’ll pick you up anywhere but the airport and you’ll pay more for gas than the car itself.

Monterey is the ancestral home of John Steinbeck, and the setting for many of his novels. John is a great writer. But he doesn’t do it justice. The coastline of northern California is indescribably beautiful. You can run on warm beaches crashing with surf in the Caramel Highlands and walk through quiet stands of Coast Redwood in Big Sur. Go there, you will not regret it.

Chrysaora quinquecirrha, or Sea Nettle, are swimming inside the Monterey Aquarium.

Flew to Boston and back the next weekend for JavaOne. Taught some kids how to break ciphers with an friend from India, who lives in Utah. Kids are wicked smart. Went for a nice bike ride to Sausalito with some speakers from Switzerland, a contractor for the US Patent Office, a developer from Ireland. Took the ferry back. Had a fair bowl of ramen.

Each year, Oracle swoops into San Fransisco like Christmas in September and paints everything red and white. Flies racing yachts in by crane, blocks off city streets. The last couple years, they built a carnival complete with ferris wheel and free food, fireworks, Elton John, then bussed ten thousand people out to Treasure Island for an all-night bacchanalian celebration. This year, they were conservative and filled a baseball stadium instead.

From SF, I flew to LA and back the following week, for SVCC. It rained, so I rented a car and drove into the northern Diablo Mountains. I drove into the clouds, and arrived at Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton to a haunting silence. The air was still and there was no sign of humanity. I found a custodian, who showed me the telescopes. We had to be very quiet, because most astronomers are asleep during the day.

Supposedly the Mt. Hamilton Road has 365 turns, but this is a coastline problem.

Returning from the clouds, I had lunch at Sweet Tomatoes, which is my favorite restaurant in California. They have unlimited soup and salad, but not the usual buffet fare. It’s shipped in fresh from the San Joaquin, on produce trucks every day. The supply chain is excellent.

Then I lived in Brasil for a month. I met my girlfriend in São Paulo, where we stayed for some time. Her mother cast spells in the kitchen, conjuring comida caseira: each morning there was coffee, tea, and eggs. Each afternoon there was pão carteira with mortadela and cheese. Each night there was a feast of file de frango, batatas fritas, feijao com arroz, pavé.

We flew to Florianopolis for Python Brasil, where I visited a local faculdade to talk about unsupervised learning. An audience member offered me a drink of hot mate, which was high quality stuff. Floripa is a very warm and friendly place. You can walk for miles on white sand beaches, eat green pasta and perfect pizza. It was here where I discovered a most remarkable drink, limonada suiça.

Brazilians have a long tradition of making juice. Their fruit crushing and blending technology has progressed far beyond the outside world. And they have refined the science of mixing fruit beverages, with profound combinatorial breakthroughs. I will share with you one of their secret recipes. Take fresh lemonade. Carbonated water. Add ice, condensed milk and sugar. Mix to a froth. Serve immediately, with a bowl of hot spaghetti and warm bread.

From Floripa, we headed to the city of Foz do Iguaçu for Latinoware. Foz do Iguaçu is a fascinating place. Located at the confluence of three rivers, it has an important hydroelectric dam, an enormous Buddha, and a vibrant Islamic community. Oh, and the largest waterfall in the world.

The Iguaçu Falls spill 1,756 m³/s, which in Imperial, is a gargantuan amount of water.

The Cataratas do Iguaçu, or Iguazu Falls, is an enormous chasm in the Iguaçu river, like a giant’s sunken footprint in the jungle. From the air, it looks like something from Avatar. From the ground, it’s breathtaking. There’s two sides, both heavily touristed. If you have to choose between them, go to the Argentinian side. Our guide, who spoke fluent Spanish, Portuguese and English, was a tour de force. She could lead armies.

Visited the largest mosque in Foz and tried a pastry at an Islamic bakery. Tried to eat all the pastries at the bakery. I debated crossing the bridge to Ciudad del Este, but my girlfriend was convinced the Paraguayans would kidnap and sell me into slavery, which is probably not unlikely, so I decided that I was quite happy eating Islamic pastries in Brasil. On to Itajubá.

Itajubá is a small city in Minas Gerais, about four hours from São Paulo by bus. Its primary attraction is the local university, one of the best in Brasil for engineering, or so I am told. I was introduced by an energetic young professor, gave a short speech to the students, then we all went out and had salgadinhos. The students were all lovely and treated me like an esteemed scholar. It was a little embarrassing, but very thoughtful and well organized.

Itajuba is home to UNIFEI, the second largest university in the state of Minas Gerais.

Later that day, I learned how to deliver a baby. At the invitation of my new friend the professor, we visited his laboratory. Inside, was a woman in labor. As you can imagine, this was all very difficult for me to process. But there was work to be done, so we rolled up our sleeves and prepped her for C-section.

I soon learned the lab was studying the usability of medical equipment for neonatal ICUs. To do so, they needed a test subject. This subject was me. Or rather, the version of me with a degree in gynecology. The patient was surprisingly realistic, with fake bodily fluids, breathing, vitals. It was uncanny.

From São Paulo, we just barely made our Heathrow connection to Dublin. Transferring from an international flight to anywhere in the British Isles requires crossing no less than three different security checkpoints. By some accident of chance, I have never missed a flight in my life, but this was the closest I have ever been. The stewardess scolded us sternly.

My family picked us up in Dublin, where we all had a nice supper together. The next day, I brought the folks to Python Ireland, which is an excellent conference that I highly suggest you attend. Thanks to the organizers, I was able to wheel Grannie to the front row, where she learned about machine learning with TensorFlow. It was great fun, and a very gratifying experience.

Back row: Mark (Uncle), Margaret (Mother), Breandan (yours truly). Front row: Grannie.

From Dublin, we flew to Brussels for Devoxx Belgium early Monday morning. After landing in the pouring rain, taking a train in the wrong direction, taking a trolley in the wrong direction, and running around like a madman, I arrived for my talk still dripping wet. It went okay, I probably should have spent less time delivering babies and prepared more. However I did learn a lot from other speakers, saw some old friends and made new ones there.

Spent a weekend in Amsterdam, where I got a haircut and had a great steaming cup of hot-chocolate, made with real chocolate chips. Then we took a train back to Brussels (Charleroi, to my frustration) and flew to Vilnius for BuildStuff Lituania. There are a few small conferences in the world that are extremely high quality. BuildStuff is one of them, and apparently the organizers donate their proceeds to charity. Go there, if you have the chance.

Why else would you want to go to Vilnius? For one, they have great restaurants where you can eat well without breaking the bank. They have a pretty nice city, with good transportation. And Lithuanians are a very friendly people. It’s not Switzerland, but the Europa section is very modern and has good restaurants. My favorite one is in the Old Town, a place called Gusto blyninė. If it looks ridiculous, you’ll know you’re at the right place.

Gediminas Tower has overlooked Vilnius for over 600 years. It is in need of repair.

From Vilnius I flew back to Dublin to take Grannie home, who in the meantime had acquired 200 kilograms of cast iron plates for our woodstove. How did Grannie do this? I haven’t the faintest clue. Anyhow, I got the bright idea of putting them all in my carry-on luggage. Surprisingly, this worked. Now I just needed to get them aboard the airplane, with Grannie and her wheelchair.

I decided it was a problem for another day, so we drove up to Belfast to see the Titanic Museum. Instead we ended up at the Titanic Exhibition Center, which was hosting a snooker championship, so we watched tuxedo-clad gentlemen sink snooker balls on an oversize pool table. Then we went to the Titanic Museum across the street, which was thoroughly engrossing. After wheeling Grannie halfway around Belfast, we returned to Dublin for our flight.

We arrived at the airport in the early morning. Somehow made it through security and all the way to US pre-clearance with our 200 kilograms of cast iron. The Irish authorities were furious. Grannie convinced them not to arrest us all then and there (thank you, Grannie!), and even managed to get our stove parts back, but we had to check everything with special permission from the airline, US Customs, pilots, and a bunch of stern looking people at the gate.

A wood stove should never be placed in your overhead bin, whether in whole or part.

I made it back to Boston, dropped of Grannie, rebuilt our woodstove, got the fire going, and headed to Vancouver on a series of red-eye flights through Newark and Minneapolis. As you might expect, this was one 48-hour long nightmare. In Vancouver, I took the SkyTrain downtown, planned to use Car2Go, but due to earlier shenanigans in Frankfurt, Car2Go believed I was in Germany and needed to update my license. I realized this only after purchasing a boatload of groceries. It would take 24 hours to reactivate.

With groceries and luggage in hand, I ran around downtown Vancouver trying to hail a taxi. Little did I know, taxis there do not stop for grocery-toting, flailing pedestrians, nor do they accept credit cards. And I do not carry cash, or use SIM cards, because I am an idiot. Several hours later, I found a bank to withdraw cash, and boarded a bus to North Vancouver, dropped off the groceries, called Car2Go, and collapsed into a deep slumber.

When I awoke it was nearly midnight. Luckily, Car2Go had resolved the license issue while I was asleep, allowing me to drive their golf carts again. So I ran half a kilometer to the nearest Car2Go and floored it all the way to the airport to meet my girlfriend, who was just then arriving from Chernobyl. On past occasions I have put Cars2Go to very effective use, however this was simply not the case in Canada.

For reasons I cannot begin to explain, we were locked inside a malfunctioning Car2Go at a gas station. We were stuck in park at a busy intersection. We were fined for alleged parking violations. We had to call for help dozens of times, and spent hours troubleshooting their broken fleet of golf carts. Car-sharing is clearly a win in some places, but does not work well in Canada. End rant.

I went to Vancouver for ConFoo, since I enjoyed the one in February so much. It was their first time in Vancouver, and a lovely conference, filled with lovely people. Afterwards, they bussed a few of us up to Whistler and we all went skiing for two days. Met some swell folks between runs, and we talked about science, religion and the post-truth society.

From Vancouver, we flew to Toronto and spent a few days visiting friends there. I had amazing borscht at Gayleys Cafe. I read a great book, called the The Three Body Problem. Then we took a train to Ottawa. Spent a few days visiting more friends, nearly dying of frostbite. Took the train to Montreal. Then I came home for the holidays and spent Christmas day in a hospital because Grannie came down with pneumonia. She’s one tough cookie. We’re hoping for good news.

When all is said and done, I went to 18 countries, 64 cities, 16 conferences, and visited dozens of universities and meetups in 2016. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t do everything the same way. I spent most of the time exhausted and jetlagged. But I also had some very happy memories, particularly those that did not involve nearly dying. And I got to spend time with some extraordinary people along the way. So I’ll mark it with a B+.

If you made it this far, I feel compelled to leave you with some sort of message. The best tales have lessons, answers, endings. But my answers are not the ones you are seeking, and even if they were, they wouldn’t do you much good anyhow. There is a great big world outdoors, and if you have the desire to see it, then I would strongly encourage you to do so (you will not regret it). But don’t try to bring 200kg of cast iron along with you.

This story was made possible by the patience of my family. If you enjoyed reading it, please consider giving a hug to your Grannie, or someone you love.