This is how my life looks everyday.

This is my other house.

You may think that I’m only sharing the things that make this look fun and easy.  I take pictures when I’m amused and/or amazed (it doesn’t take much, as you can tell).  My posts are typically guided by what pictures I’ve taken during the week, as I like to be able to show you what I’m talking about. Although frankly, even the things that are bothersome or frustrating in the moment are at least a little bit funny, looking back at them through the lens of a little time.  And wine.  I promise you’re hearing those stories (the tram, the mosquitos, and the heat!) even if they’re lighthearted and perhaps watered down by the time I write about it.  That said, I don’t want you to think that everything here is sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, so this time around I’ll only talk about serious academic stuff and all the downsides of living in Bordeaux…

Russian Roulette time: find the glass that smells like cat's pee.

Tasting is a diabolical game of hide and seek: find the glass that smells like cat’s pee…and then drink it.

The tastings are something I look forward to with a weird combination of fear and excitement. Even though I’m still relatively new to proper tasting, I can’t force my nose and palate to be better than they are, no matter how much I want to be able to identify the characteristics faster. The first tasting was less about wine and more about helping us calibrate our senses: could I identify the order of sugar solutions from highest to lowest concentration? (Yes.) Could I identify the unique-smelling solution out of three at gradually increasing concentrations of aroma/chemical compound? (Yes.)  What did it smell like?  (……….Green Pepper?  Answer: Cat’s Pee.  …. merde!  Well that’s embarrassing; clearly this is where I need some work.)  

Far from glamourous visions of sipping fine wines every day in the tasting lab, we drink a surprising amount of water.  At these early stages, we are trying to understand the differences – on the nose and in the mouth – between sources of sweetness, acidity, and bitterness.  The acidity perception test feels a bit like Russian Roulette – there are five glasses in front of us: the first contains tartaric acid (high acidity, what you might associate with wine); the second, malic acid (tastes like apple), then lactic acid (tastes a bit sweet and creamy compared to the others), citric acid (any guesses?), and the fifth one: acetic acid (smells like…. is that nail polish remover?  And I have to put that in my MOUTH???  Ugh.)

I remember vividly at about the age of 5 being tricked by my brothers into taking a big whiff of what was supposed to be the best-smelling tomato soup of all time.  It turned out to be home-made hot and sour sauce, and I swear that vinegar going up my nose did something to either my ability to smell or my ability to connect aromas to memories as I would confuse wildly different aromas like curried chicken with peanut butter and was completely unable to smell such useful things as skunk and weed.  I still can’t smell them…  I’ll never be a sommelier, but I’m sure I’ll be able to improve enough to do what I want to with wine – make it and drink it!

You're seeing this, right? This is an unintelligible string of letters and numbers that is supposed to mean something to me.

You’re seeing this, right? This is an unintelligible string of letters and numbers that is supposed to mean something to me.

The last two weeks have been quite science heavy, which has been a huge departure from concepts and terminology that are familiar to me. Though the readings have been fairly light in quantity, they are intense with full strings of words that I don’t understand at all.  It can take hours to get through the more difficult articles, and sometimes even multiple reading sessions.  This week we have our first business course in the Fundamentals of Management, so it is refreshing for me to be on familiar ground for a change. (Actually, it reminds me of the Queen’s Corporate Finance course, but instead of M&Ms we have wine!)

We are a class of 16 students, and we spend almost all of our time between one classroom and the tasting lab.  So far we’ve been able to shake up the routine each week with at least one class in a different location – this week brings us to ISVV – the Scientific Institute for Wines and Vines, a multi-disciplinary research centre that we also have access to for our own research.  The class topic for the day is oxygen transfer: the science behind why you let your wine ‘breathe’ before drinking it, except our focus is earlier on, during each stage of the wine making process.  We wrap up the week with a class on identifying all the components in wine that impact taste perceptions (residual sugars, different acids, sweetness compounds from different species of oak that have only been discovered in the last two years.  You know, the usual.)

Chez ISVV: a wine scientist describing her work on aromas, and a bubble machine used for oxygen transfer research.  Everything I know about tasting is false.

Bordeaux is a city that loves its university culture, and as an introduction to the other cultural aspects it offers, the city has organized a series of free tours for all the new students on the weekend.  We begin at the opera house with a short flute/piano concert and then proceed on our walking tour visiting Roman ruins and churches in quick succession.  Though some ruins are at the surface, like the old Roman Arena at Palais Gallien, the city foundations just one or two layers below street level tell very old (and sometimes creepy!) stories.  There is an ancient Christian necropolis below the Basilica of Saint Seurin, dating back to the Merovingians in 400 AD; the amphorae littering the site were used as burial vessels (I don’t really want to know how they got the bodies in…)

Place de Quinconces; Palais Gallien; sarcophagi

The slightly damp Girondists Monument as seen from the front of the opera house.  Herding students into the Roman arena.  Ancient amphorae in the Merovingian crypt.

The land under the Basilica of Saint Michel has a peculiar antiseptic quality, as another crypt and 74 mummified bodies were discovered during an excavation in the 1800s.  The bodies were so perfectly preserved that researchers could identify exactly how each person had died.  They were part of a macabre display in the crypt for many years, arranged in a circle and propped up against the walls for visitors to view (and even touch!). Fortunately, these have been long removed and respectfully buried by the time we visit, so only the grisly imagery haunts us.

I lied.  There are no downsides to living in Bordeaux to tell you – I really like this city!  That said, there are many things I’m still getting used to; here are five in no particular order:

  1. Laundry drying machines do not seem to be the norm.  We wash our clothes overnight (to minimize on the water tariff) and air dry everything.  It feels a bit like pilgrim living again!
  2. It rains often.  I should have brought my boots.
  3. The temperature fluctuates quite drastically every day, sometimes from 3°C (37°F) when I wake up to 24°C (75°F) in the afternoon, so a layering strategy is essential.
  4. Classes do not necessarily adhere to the timeslot.  We’ve gone over our time by 20, 30 and even 60 minutes but nobody blinks an eye.  It’s usually because we’re asking so many questions, so it’s nice to have a high level of engagement from the whole class.  Besides, lunch is two hours, so we have quite a bit of time to flex with.
  5. Bars close at 2 am, but clubs stay open until about 6 am.  (I think.  I haven’t personally tested the limits of this particular fact.)
The mailbox outside my window has gotten a tattoo.

The mailbox outside my window has its own modern art.



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