Crossroads

Dear me,

It might be slightly confusing to receive a letter from your future self, but time is made of wibbly wobbly timy wimy stuff. A thing which in time you will come to understand in a few years, after watching a year’s worth of Doctor Who episodes – at a moment when in fact you should be working on that 300 page manuscript. But here we are then, four years apart. Not a lifetime. Merely a PhD.

But are we so different, you and I? Both at crossroads in our life. Both marked by what we have been through in these past few years. Both ready for a new challenge. I remember you, on that first day of your PhD, excited and scared at the same time, scared of the plunge into the unknown. Like a first day at a new school. New people, new rules, a new rythm. I feel very much the same now. With a new, unknown path in my life – new colleagues, new rules. And just like you, I know everything will be fine in the end.

But then again, we are different. You are colder, more analytical, unforgiving. You have been trained to be a logical mind, excluding the unexpected, the impulsive, the human aspect. And this has made you hurt people along the road, has led you to make decisions which, with hindsight, you will learn to regret. You are more reckless than I am, unbound by the limits which you will discover and which will impose themselves on your work quite soon. Factors which you will have to take into account. People to reckon with. Yes, people. Those others in the world around you. People with expectations, feelings and emotions. They too, will be part of the quest onto which you embark.

But there will be love too. There too, you are well on the road to discovery. You have just spent your first journey on a different continent with the person you hold most dear in this world. For the first time, really, you have seen what it means to share the road, to share memories. Keep her close, for she will show you how to become the person I am now. To see the world beyond science. There is nothing more fulfilling than to share your daily experiences with the person you love. Without that person, those moments would exist in your memories alone

Your research path will be littered with moments of both joy and dissapointment. Some will drive you to despair. Some will push you forward. There is no advice i can give you other than this: remember why you embarked upon this journey. Remember why you love what you do. Why you chose to spend hours in the lab, to repeat failed experiments time and time again. Because you are a scientist. Because whatever happens, you learn from what you do, what you cause, what you mess up.

There will be tough decisions too. Decisions which will change everything that follows in a radical way. Decisions which will separate you from what you held most dear. Those choices won’t be easy, and they will break you to pieces at first. But after a while you will see that the choices you made were not a spur of the moment but had been there for a while, waiting for you to see them.

You are about to embark on the most exciting journey of your life so far. Four years of research among people who in time will become dear friends. You will forge new friendships. You will travel. A lot. You will see the world through the window of your plane, train or bus. You will see frangrant harbours at the end of the world, smell the spices and the urban chaos of cities near and far. You will see jungles of bamboo, small notes handwritten by Darwin, famous giraffes, cities rebuilt and forgotten. Cherish those moments, for they will change you forever.

And now, i must leave you and embark upon my own voyage. Where it will lead me I do not know. I know i will make mistakes. But i’ll let you know. I’ll write you again.

At the next crossroads.

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The Hidden Footnotes

Image

There it is then. Right there on my table.

Four years of my life, compressed into 260 pages of a small coffee table book.

It’s quite terrifying, really: to see that such a long period – four years. that’s four times 365 days – can be compressed into a book that small. Of course, it’s in very small print, but still. To realise that it all ends here, with a tiny book weighing just a few hundred grams. It holds everything I’ve done during the 1460 days of my PhD. The endless hours in the lab. The long days of data processing. The failed experiments. The successes. All of it.

There are people who doubt the need for such a volume. After all, the main currency of academia is measured in publications. In visibility. In journal papers. Why write a book no one will read? After all, publishing the data is all that matters, no?

I’m terribly sorry. But I disagree.

A PhD is more than just a quest to produce and publish data. It is an apprenticeship. A degree. It exists to turn inexperienced, undisciplined BA or MA students into researchers. It is there to slowly guide them towards the ability to ask questions and solve them by doing solid science. And when all is done, to write it all down into a document with a clear scientific narrative. Of course, most of the questions will remain unsolved. But that is how science works. And that too is part of the learning process, as is publishing journal papers.

Writing papers is part of how science works. You need to get the results out there so they can be discussed. Sadly perhaps, it has also become an important part of academia and university politics. And that goes way beyond the scientific aim of what a journal paper actually should be. A coherent story built around solid data. And a PhD is a chance, perhaps the only chance you’ll ever get, to write several of those stories and place them into a context. To frame them into the bigger picture of which they are an inherent part.

My PhD is about the effects of radioactivity on plants. But while it’s new and exciting fundamental research, it still exists within a context of pollution, public opinion and policy. Things which are briefly mentioned by research papers in the first paragraph of the introduction as context, but then hastily forgotten when the exciting data are discussed at the end. And that is alright. But there is a reason why a PhD takes this long. It covers a lot of ground, formulates a lot of questions. More than it can ever hope to answer. And when you put all this work together, you have to ask yourself: What does this mean for the bigger picture? Scientists aren’t there to make policy. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t think about the questions related to their work. Writing a PhD is therefore an exercise in framing your research questions into a bigger picture. And it doesn’t really matter if there is not really a good conclusion waiting at the end. Some questions are just meant to be asked, not to be answered..

There’s another thing, though, that strikes me when I look at this picture.

There are a lot of things that the little book does not tell. Hundreds of events and facts which aren’t visually documented into its pages. These last four years, I have lived through several of the most emotional moments of my life so far, both personal and professional. These four years have seen joy, outrageous joy and excitement, but also disappointment, anxiety, fear, several nervous breakdowns. And just recently, they have been witness to one of the saddest and toughest decisions I have ever had to make. And all of that, all of these emotions, are there when I look at this book. When I leaf through its pages. When I read the conclusions. They are there when I remember how I really needed to catch this flight to England just when the experiment failed on page 123. How I really had a very good walk in the park just before I wrote page 200. How I presented the results of chapter 6 at a conference after only 3 hours of sleep.

They are the hidden footnotes to the story, notes to what have been four of the most delightful, terrifying, fulfilling and stressful years of my life.

If I were to write them all down, I would need more than 260 pages.

And most certainly a much larger coffee table.

Acknowledgments

Acknowledgements to a PhD dissertation rarely find their way into the open. Hidden in plain sight at the front of the volume that represents four years of my life resides a chapter that was incredibly difficult to write, but will probably be skipped by most readers interested in the science. How do you thank everyone, in just 3 pages? And how do you thank the people who, for four years, have been there at the sideline, but will never get to see the paper version of the book?

There’s an obvious solution: to bring it out into the open. To blog it. Not in its final form, though. There will be some modifications here. But also some additions which will not make it into the final volume.  Writing an online version of the acknowledgments allows me to add a paragraph for you, dear online reader, Twitter follower or Facebook friend. Because you were part of this too.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

A wise man once said that a PhD is a lonely business. A task which, much like quests in Arthurian tales or in fairy tales, has to be performed alone to prove one’s worth. To slay a dragon, save the damsel, and publish five papers about it. A task which, once completed, opens the castle gates and wins eternal grants and glory.

But that’s not entirely accurate..

A PhD, dear readers, is a Wagner opera. Sometimes tedious, sometimes eventful, but above all a long and exciting journey past trolls, through caverns, swamps and mythical lands to find enchanted rings and swords. But like in any quest, the hero of the PhD drama does not have to be alone.  A team of people and institutions has accompanied me throughout my travels through science. This chapter, this prelude to the Ride of Valkyries that follows, is for them.

Above all I wish to thank my supervisors Nele and Ann. I could not have wished for two better supervisors than my own. For four years, they have followed me, kept up with all the sudden plot twists, developments and changes to the libretto. Their experience and advice has been of most precious value to me. While other projects and quests crossed their path, they have always taken their time to steer me back onto the right path of research. With all my heart, thank you.

I’d like to thank Nathalie, Jaco, Hildegarde and Hans for their counselling and input into my work throughout these four years. In this respect, I also wish to thank the members of the jury for their critical evaluation and comments which have made this thesis a stronger and more robust work of science. Furthermore, such a long and perilous journey could not have been completed without the financial, administrative support of the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO), the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre (SCK●CEN) and the University of Hasselt.

Every good opera has a strong supporting cast to accompany the dramatic moments. To share in the joy of successful experiments, to peer for hours and hours over small eppendorf tubes to place miniscule Arabidopsis seeds on agar (why oh why didn’t I choose beans as a model plant?). To freeze thousands of little seedlings to an icy death. To spend hours in darkened rooms to watch amputated leaves photosynthesise. To provide coffee, chocolate, cake and support. My most profound thanks to all the people (past and present) of the Biosphere Impact Studies Unit. Thank you for these four wonderful years of my life. You have been like family.

There has to be a special mention for my train colleagues here. Sharing two hours each day in a confined space on wheels creates a bond. Especially when that space is usually late or subject to the mysteries of railway operations. Their good humour has on many occasions saved my mood of the day to come.

Between the days of eppendorf labelling and failed PCR’s, there were always the moments of relaxation and comfort among friends. Some had their own quest, and exchanged hints on how to tackle the dragons and save the treasure. Some did not have a clue what I was raving on about (Plants? Mutants?), but nodded quietly and smiled. Some were lost along the way and some arrived late on the scene. But all were part of this thesis. All contributed in their way to make this voyage through research bearable, by giving their advice, their support, their friendship and their love. This is as much your work as mine.

A tous mes amis français qui m’ont suivi lors de mon voyage scientifique… à tous mes amis périgourdins qui m’accompagnent depuis tout ce temps (certains depuis plus de 20 ans)…cette thèse est la votre aussi. Une grande partie de cet ouvrage a été écrit dans mon pays d’adoption, cette terre d’accueil qui s’appelle le Périgord. A travers ces pages vous verrez, je l’espère, le canard, les noix et le Monbazillac qui ont accompagné ces moments d’écriture et les promenades dans la Bessède, peut-être même les moments de repos au bord de la Dordogne. Ecoutez, les gascons, c’est la Gascogne !

For four years I have posted, blogged, tweeted and ranted about this thesis, about the frustrations and the joys of being a PhD student. About the quest i voluntarily undertook. And for all these years, my Facebook friends, my Twitter followers and the readers of my blog have been there, as a chorus to this play. And it would be unfair not to mention you in this chapter. My online presence has become more than just a pastime. It has become an extension of who i am as a scientist, gradually learning me how to communicate science to my peers and to the audience. Some of those anonymous faces on an avatar have become more than that and have crossed to border into ‘the real life’, have become acquaintances, colleagues, dare I say..friends? For all of you across the world, spectators to my journey. Thank you. The rants about my PhD will end soon. But this is not the end, really. While i’m leaving academia, I will still be a scientist, a hedgehog enthusiast, and before all a biologist. I will continue to tweet, blog and post , only with a slightly different hat on. and yes, #ArabidopsisRocks

And finally, but most importantly, I could not have done any of this this without my family. Without both the moral and financial support my parents have given me throughout all these years of study and research. Without the support only a brother and sisters can give to their ‘little brother’. And perhaps most of all, this PhD thesis is my parents’. I could not have done this without the assurance and advice of my father. Without my mother,  who sadly cannot be here today to see the result of all the support and love she has given me. I hope I would have made her proud.

For you, dear reader, who is about to relive this journey, this four year quest, through my eyes. Don’t let the technicalities of the libretto, the formulas and the strange world of radiation discourage you.

There will be music.

The Vinegar and the Ants, or: How did I become a biologist?

My last post on science and academia , which explained why finding a job outside academia is not such a bad thing, stirred up quite a few questions among friends, colleagues and readers.

Some people continued to disagree. Some had good arguments for that. Some did not, and disagreed simply because a little voice in the back of their head told them to disagree. Overall though, the replies and encouragements told me I had hit upon a subject which, though very much alive, is still a bit of a difficult topic around the academic coffee- and cafeteria tables.

But gradually, the debate became a bit more philosophical. After all, it’s all very well to say that being a scientist has something to do with the way you think, the way in which you solve a problem and see the world. But where does it start? When do you become a scientist?

And, more specifically, how do you become a biologist?

Now, as always, there are people who have asked these questions before. One of these questions has been answered quite brilliantly by my Twitter contact Anne Osterrieder (or @AnneOsterrieder , if you like). Her excellent story in drawings which describes her journey through science is a very good illustration (mind the pun) of the bumpy, long and winding road most people follow in their travels through science and research.

My own story follows similar roads. But I am not as good a communicator as Anne, and I cannot hope to match her drawing skills.. so I will try to do it in words only. Well… almost.

Consider…the ant.

An Ant

My earliest contact with (what you could consider) science are the ants behind our rented holiday house in the South of France.

And a bottle of vinegar.

Now, before you start calling the Ethics in Animal Testing commission, let me explain. I was six years old. No, that’s not an excuse. But still. Hold on. It’s not as bad as it sounds.

There was a nice trail of ants all the way across the stone stairs behind the house, leading from their colony to whatever food source they were interested in. I never found out what it was, of course. Mainly because I quickly got distracted and lost track of whichever ant I was following. After all, their tendency not to go to their destination in a straight line is really quite annoying. But we digress.

Then, for some reason, I started playing God. What would happen, I wondered, if you pluck an ant out of its trail and put it down a few inches to the left? Would it have a kind of Flatland experience, being pulled out of its world and transported to another part within seconds? Of course, this was much too tempting to resist. And so it began. Dozens of ants did not find their way home that night.

I then discovered I could divert them to a different food source. If you soak a sugar cube in water and place it not far from their trail, eventually a stray ant will bump into it and then something magical happens. The lucky individual starts running around in circles as if it has hit the jackpot (in a way, it has), until it bumps into a colleague. What follows is a thing that, until this day, still marks me as a defining moment: they communicate. You can see them exchange information. Now, I know it is easy to anthropomorphise such things, but you could *see* them exchange the information. And I knew. Because, instead of going on to whatever it was going to, the second ant went straight for the sugar. Obviously, I did not decide there and then that I would become a biologist. Let alone an entomologist. Or an ant-ologist (I prefer that to ‘Myrmecologist’). But it did place the living world into a new context for me. It had suddenly become a lot more interesting.

So, when 12 years later I was sitting in that lecture hall in Antwerp for my first lesson of Zoology, I was looking forward to it with a certain feeling of excitement. Now, I know we’ve gone a bit fast-forward here. But really, for 12 years, not much had happened. At least not on the ant-front. Somewhere along the road I must have become a scientist, at least in thought, because I had nicely followed the path to exact sciences during my entire school career and here I was in the 1st year of BSc. Biology. Had I been drawn towards science? I don’t know.

So there you have it. The great reveal. I really don’t know exactly when I became a scientist. All I know is that I started to enjoy (and still enjoy) every bit of science I could read  hear about. At some point the Milky Way in the sky became not only a pretty sight, but the delayed light of millions and millions of stars. At some point, the seemingly quiet world became a fascinating place where living things cover every inch of surface and most of our living space (yes, even those exploding face mites are fascinating). Scientific knowledge has, aside from its role in increasing the understanding of our world, another very important function for me: it adds a layer of fascination and detail to the world. Like an Instagram filter, only slightly less hipster. It makes things much more interesting than they seem.

And once you understand how science works, how it builds new knowledge out of previous facts, how it advances by question, falsification and answer, there must come a point where your mind tells you to release your inner explorer.

And then you become an academic.

An academic

Just kidding, of course. Really.

I realise I haven’t told you about the vinegar. Or the lemons. Or the explosions.
But that will have to wait.

Why i’m leaving academia (but not Science)

I’m leaving academia. There, i’ve said it. Those few words which are apparently enough to incite outrage, unbelief and feelings of treason. For some reason, finding a job outside the world of universities, lectureships and tenure track sparks a fierce debate among fellow academics and the inevitable question “why on Earth would you want to do that?”. A more accurate question, of course, would be just “Why?” At least, that is one which deserves an honest answer. In fact, there are several reasons… First of all, it isn’t as if I haven’t tried to find a job inside academia. I’ve tried hard. I’ve spent quite some time sending CV’s, writing nice letters on why I’m the best, the only one, the alpha and the omega of [insert field name] . But let’s face it: Finding a post-doc position isn’t easy, let alone in times of financial crisis. Chances of finding a post-doc in a niche field like mine are even worse. Not zero, of course, but let’s say it’s quite hard. So inevitably you venture outside of the scope of your PhD field (Radioecology, in my case), and you start to expand your horizon to related fields (say, ecotoxicology), sending even more letters, pictures and CV’s. All that while writing a 250-page PhD manuscript. So whenever people tell me i ‘should have tried harder’, my blood pressure rises. Of course, in the end something will turn up. Something always turns up, doesn’t it? Well, yes. But what if it’s not what you want? After all, research is a bit of a romantic relationship with your subject. There are days when you bounce around the lab, happy with the results that the Machine that Goes Ping has produced (fellow scientists, if the PCR machine goes Ping, you’re doing it wrong). There are the dark days when things go wrong and you’re ready to quit. There are days when you look like this:

A Typical Happy Academic

There are days when you’re ready to commit murder. Or at least inject someone with a GUS-construct. (or perhaps that’s just me). But the bottom line is: it has to match. Your subject is your baby, your friend, your prrrecious. And a PhD is (for most) that one time when you have near complete control of where your research goes. Which road you take. There are others to help you, but it’s up to you to find the yellow brick road. So choosing a post-doc is not as easy as “let’s just do that”. After all, you’re giving away your baby (after 4 years, in my case), and are ready to adopt a new one, which has to be a challenge. (“These are the labnotes of the PhD enterprise. Our mission, to find strange new results. Discover new anomalies in the machines. To boldly go, where no one has gone before”) Which brings me to the second reason: the challenge. After four years, i know most of the ins and outs of my field and of research. I know when the PCR machine is going to give me an error just by the slight delay in the appearance of the dashboard window. I know by the happy purrs of the centrifuge that she is in complete balance. I know when not to enter my supervisors’ office. All these things are part of the apprenticeship that is a PhD. So do i want more of that? Why…yes! But not necessarily.

Because there are so many things I do not know.

How, for example, will my research influence ‘the bigger picture’? Will someone pick up those results and build upon them in the future, letting science run its natural course? It is a big part of the frustration in fundamental research, and I think a lot of people can relate. You’re working on one thing, but you rarely see the end of it.  In a way, that’s a good thing, because it keeps research going. But when you look at the 250 pages of research which represent 4 years of your life, it comes as a bit of a shock.

What does legislation within my field of environmental science look like? I’m in the study of radioactivity, so it’s a bit of a tricky subject, but up until a few  weeks ago I had only a vague notion of how the national legislation surrounding radioactive exposure is structured. These are things of no concern in fundamental research, but of major concern in policy. A side of things you rarely see from inside the lab. These are things that four years of labwork can’t teach you and, most of the time, won’t teach you. Including policy chapters in an otherwise research-based PhD dissertation is a bit of a taboo in most fields of life sciences.

So , there you have it. My main reason: to seek new horizons. To learn things that research can’t tell me. And hopefully to teach things that research has taught me. To use my background as a researcher to analyse problems and to bring scientific thinking to the table. After all, that is the main thing a PhD trains you to do.

And another thing…

This might all sound as if i’m leaving science behind out of some kind of frustration. But no. This is wrong in two ways: i’m not frustrated by research. You occasionally do get frustrated DURING research. Actually quite a lot. Some weeks you’re frustrated all the time. Some days you stare pointlessly at oversized molecules in front of an expensive microscope…ALL THE TIME.  But I love research. I really do. I adore every minute of it. From the irony of getting the liquid nitrogen from the storage tank outside when it’s -15°C in winter to playing the pipetting robot when processing hundreds of samples. And why? Because there’s a point in there. And it’s the science.

You see, by choosing a job in policy (or any job outside of academia) you’re not suddenly transformed into a different human being. You remain a scientist. Because you don’t become a scientist the moment you step into the lab for the first time and write on the cover of you lab notebook. Nor do you become a scientist by wearing a ridiculous hat.

You become a scientist by adopting rational and critical thinking. It’s a process that can begin at a very early age, and gradually evolves towards a desire to apply these values to a problem. But some people are scientists without actually looking like the people in the pictures above. Scientists walk among us, hidden in plain sight. Some might even be close friends,  sit on the bus, play in the kindergarten. Science is a state of mind.

So while i’m leaving academia, i’m not leaving science. One does not simply walk out of science.

One for All…

In the heart of Gascony, far from the hustle of metropolises like Bordeaux or Paris, lies a region that until now has largely escaped the transformation by large-scale tourism to which the rest of France has succumbed. Not a single motorway crosses its territory and only a single dead-end railway line connects the extensive French network to the region’s capital Auch. It is through this capital that flows the slow and narrow river which gives the department its name: The Gers.

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But it is exactly this remoteness that has preserved the region. While you can see the Pyrenees  Mountains from afar in a majestic panorama, it has hardly any relief, let alone snowy slopes. Its landscape folds into low meandering hills, like a fabric that has been stretched and released all of a sudden and curled up again. And in that landscape lies the very key to the two largest assets of the Gers: History, and that other concept, for which no English translation comes close enough to embody its true meaning: Terroir. Technically, terroir is a complex combination of geography, soil and natural environment. In the Gers, the landscape translates into pastures, wheat and sunflowers as far as the eye can reach and an enormous amount of ducks and geese. The soil is excellent for vineyards, which not only produce the most exquisite wine but are also responsible for perhaps the most famous export product of the Gers: Armagnac.  But there is more to it than mere technicalities. There is a love for food. Good food. And while this might be true for most of France, it is even more so for the Gers, where it has been elevated into an art. No wonder then that is was the theatre of the One Hundred Year War between England and France. Who wouldn’t want to fight over such a piece of land? That long struggle between two countries has left its traces in the landscape. Fortresses, fortified villages and castles adorn every hilltop, and the region has more of them than any other region in France.  History in the Gers is very much alive. And quite recently, part of that history has given the region a new push.

gers3

Charles de Batz de Castelmore, born in 1611, was the son of a ennobled merchant family in the sleepy village of Lupiac in south of the Gers. History would probably have forgotten all about him if he hadn’t gone to Paris at an early age to join the army. After several exciting achievements in espionage, Charles became a high-ranked officer in the national guard and, eventually, commander of the Musketeers under Louis XIV.  After spending a few years as governor of Lille, where he had a big row with Vauban about the exterior and interior decoration of the citadel, he went back into battle to fight the Dutch near Maastricht in 1672. There, he was killed by a stray bullet and buried in an unknown location.  If some of this sounds familiar, then his full title, Charles de Batz de Castelmore-Comte d’Artagnan,will probably ring a bell.

Why yes, the swashbuckling witty hero of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers was real. But Dumas didn’t really care to check the background story. Instead, he based his protagonist on a book by Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras, Les mémoires de M. d’Artagnan. Now, de Sandras wasn’t really interested in telling the detailed story of d’Artagnan either. His novels were more of a pamphlet against the ruling order, and adding some (fictional) suspense to the tale to amuse the reader was a common tool at the time. Dumas probably knew about the fictional elements in Sandras’ book, but nevertheless used them to write three books. And the rest is history.  Throughout the centuries, the young boy from the small village in the Gers has conquered the world in dozens of film adaptations, comic books, games, manga and hundreds of other derived products.

 So in 1998 Lupiac decided to honour its illustrious  inhabitant by opening a museum in a chapel just outside the village square.  The museum tells the story of d’Artagnan in greater detail, and shows how the man became a legend. And while the village is very well hidden in the gersois countryside, thousands of d’Artagnan aficionados and tourists find their way to Lupiac each year  to honour old Charles.  The success of the museum has convinced the local community that d’Artagnan, despite being an international symbol, really belongs to them in very much the same way as Robin Hood belongs to Nottinghamshire.

Image: Musee d’Artagnan de Lupiac

In 2012, the village of Lupiac decided to organize a festival for the 400 year anniversary of Charles de Batz’ birth. The first of its kind, the festival sent a very strong message: that d’Artagnan is an inherent part of Gascony. And so it began. The sleepy village was cast back into the 17th Century. For several months, all 350 inhabitants of Lupiac devoted part of their time to transform the village, and themselves, into a living replica of d’Artagnan’s era. Flags were painted, costumes were made (by hand!) for every inhabitant, and local craftsmen were asked to present their products from Gascony in a artisan market.

Image: Musée d’Artagnan de Lupiac

Image: Musée d’Artagnan de Lupiac

Image: Musée d’Artagnan de Lupiac

Image: Musée d’Artagnan de Lupiac

To liven up the festival, a fencing group  was called in from Paris to play scenes from The Three Musketeers and to engage visitors into the re-enactment.

Image: Musée d’Artagnan de Lupiac

The festival, appropriately named “d’Artagnan chez d’Artagnan” was a huge success. A few thousand people attended, of which many discovered the real d’Artagnan for the very first time.

What followed was even more interesting. Shortly after the festival in Lupiac, the city of Auch held a topical seminar day entitled “What can d’Artagnan do for Gascony?”.  Around the same time, Condom (a small town in the North of the Gers) held a small poster exhibition on d’Artagnan. Something had changed. Officially, those events were not related, but it is clear that the region is warming to its newly rediscovered local hero. How it will play out this card is not really clear for now. But what’s certain is that the swashbuckling hero, both real and fictional, has the potential to become a much larger symbol for the Gers and for Gascony than he is today.

Those who want to experience it in person are kindly invited to the second d’Artagnan Festival in Lupiac on the 11th of august 2013.

Some useful links:

The World of d’Artagnan – THE source of information on the real and fictional hero, and on Cloak and Dagger in general.

Lupiac Tourist Office

Tourisme Gers

Social Media

Musée d’Artagnan de Lupiac on Facebook

Charles de Batz on Facebook

Monde d’Artagnan on Twitter

Tourisme Gers on Twitter

For the sake of Greta

Image

Folklore is a strange thing. One day it can be the living memory of times past. The next it can be a collection of rituals underlining the assumption of cultural supremacy of one group or another. In Antwerp, under the rule of the newly elected Flemish-nationalist mayor, the public notion of folklore is shifting rapidly to the latter, with flag-waving and extensive World War I remembrance parties on the horizon. However, there are some events that withstand time and political influence. One of them is the election of the heaviest cow, the so-called “Fat Ox” event.

Legend has it that Napoleon Bonaparte, the man who once called Antwerp ‘the Pistol aimed at the heart of England’, started a competition to find the heaviest cow, sheep, and pig in the land. The meat of those heavyweights was then given to the poor, while the lard was used to grease the cannons. While that didn’t get Bonaparte far with the invasion of England, the tradition stuck with the locals, most likely because the weighing of the animals on the town square was a good excuse to stage a festival, and to get drunk. Others say that it was the Dutch king William that started it all, not Bonaparte. But nevertheless, it was a good excuse.

All we know is, somewhere early 19th Century a club called the Royal company of St John  was founded among the butchers and cattle-rearers, with the aim to help the poor (and to hold binge-drinking festivals). And so the tradition continued until today, though the exact details were modified several times during that time. Today, only cows can participate, and more specifically the Belgian Blue. (Though, at some point during the event, I’m sure I heard someone say “Flanders Blue”. There you go. Even cows can be nationalist).

So what is the set-up of the event? Well, yesterday morning it looked like this.

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The thing in the back is the weighing scale. At some point, as we shall see, the cows have to be convinced to walk into that wooden thing, and be weighed. But while waiting, they have to stand peacefully in their temporary numbered parking spots in the front.  The scale has to be tested first, another ritual that no doubt stems back many many years. So here you are: Five adult men posing as a single cow:

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Then, it was time for the cattle. One by one, the cows were led to their parking spot by the man in blue. Note that this is, apart from the daily horse carriages for tourists, the only time in the year when cattle is present on the Town Square (not counting last Election Day, when there were quite a lot of sheep).

Each cow has then to be motivated to move into the wooden construction. Some of the cows did not protest too much. This cow, for example, was quite happy to float a few centimeters above the earth:

Others were less happy. Cow number 4 had been a problem from the beginning, as she made a dashing entrance into the arena by escaping her owner, and nearly trampling the man with the microphone. Or how Antwerp became the Sevilla of the North for the duration of a few seconds. Leading Cow Number 4 into the scale was not that easy. They had to tie her to Cow Number 3, a more friendly specimen of merely 1,080 kilos, to lead her, as you can see here:

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Cow Number 4, after nearly destroying the wooden shed, was declared as 1,274 kilos. But would she win the contest and Eternal Glory? Weighing the final cow would decide the contest.  The tension in the air was tangible. Or it might just have been the smell of cow dung. Excitement rose as Cow Number 5, owned by last year’s winning owner, entered the shed and was declared… 1,272 kilos.

Consternation! Uproar! Did someone cheat with the weights? When were the scales last calibrated? Did Cow Number 4 drop dung into the weighing shed, thereby falsifying the measurement? Would this be just another case of Animal Fraud? Would she turn out to be a Horse in disguise?

Nothing of the sort. Cow Number 4 did drop dung into the shed, but the Principle of Conservation of Mass was invoked, thereby validating the measurement and avoiding a small catastrophe. The owner of Cow Number 5 had to bow to Newton and the laws of Bovine Dynamics, and was later spotted in a local bar with a 2 kilo hangover.

Then came the Winner Ceremony.  No Chariots of Fire here, but nevertheless with a golden medal for the lucky owner. One disappointing detail: each year, the mayor of Antwerp has to be present to baptise the winning cow with a name of his choosing. This year, the newly elected mayor did not turn up, but sent his deputy. No doubt to avoid association jokes about the irony of fat cows in front of the town hall and his recent diet that made him lose 60 kilos in a few months, got him on the covers of nearly every magazine, and made him win the elections.

Cow Number 4, while probably hoping for the title Destroyer of All, ended up with the name Greta. Here seen in front of what once was marked as Parking Spot 4. Notice the absence of the panel with the number ‘4’ (wrecked) and the absence of the barrier between her and Cow Number 3 on the right. (That barrier, with one well-aimed kick of the horns, had ended up earlier at the place where I was standing to take this picture.)

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Folklore, it seemed, was still armed and dangerous.