Our first European family vacation...

We're back in the States after a great couple of weeks in the Basque Country of Northern Spain. While travelling with a seventeen month old toddler wasn't exactly pleasant, at least it wasn't the horror-show we were expecting. We couldn't imagine sitting on the 10 hour flight from SF to Amsterdam with a squirming ball of energy on our laps, so we splurged a little and got him his own seat.  

To lug around everything a toddler needs, we were able to find a really nice rolling carry on suitcase that fits comfortably under the seat and opens wide from the top. We filled it multiple small tetra-packs of milk, yogurt, cookies, and bread sticks, as well as diapers and creams, bottles, and a few busy toys including a portable shape-sorter. Thankfully, our son spent most of his time playing with the touch screen on the seat in front of him or raising and dropping the table tray, the latter of which annoyed the flight staff during take off and landing. Other than during a small bout of turbulence on the way there, our travel was almost entirely tear and drama-free.

Well, drama-free but a bit boring. As a general rule, I don't mind long flights; I'm more than happy to pack a few novels, an iPad, and one (or two) portable gaming systems keeping myself occupied pretty much the same way that I do back home[1]. Sadly, this is quite a bit more difficult with a curious toddler sitting next to you. Eating is also quite complicated - we had to get creative with ways to keep our son from grabbing food and beverages and spilling them everywhere. Alas, he still managed to kick at least two beverages into the aisle and pour a bottle of water over himself. Any landing you can walk away from, right?

Spanish family and friends wanted to see the baby, of course, so we didn't do as much sightseeing and travelling as in our previous trips. Thankfully, my Castilian[2] has gotten better, and I didn't feel quite as oblivious to everything that was going on around me like in previous trips. Hanging out with great people while eating and drinking amazing food makes for a great trip, sightseeing or no. Speaking of which, I'd like to finish up this post by spending a bit of time praising the Basque Country's culinary prowess. 


Even though Europeans won't shut up about it, I can't help but agree as to how much better the food is there. Yes, you can pay to eat at high-class restaurants with excellent food in North America, but the average family meal in Basque Country is of much higher quality than what most of us eat. Part of this is because of the concept of the 'siesta', whereby many shops and services close between one and five in the afternoon giving people time to go home and prepare meals[3]. It's also because many foods are simply of higher quality because they're purchased frequently and therefore don't have to be processed for long term preservation: bread, eggs, cheese, meats, etc. There are many local bakeries and butchers in each small town and most people buy fresh bread every single day. I'd love to have similar access to freshly prepared foods in North American towns, but it's really population concentration that make this possible: it's much more impractical to buy fresh bread if you can't walk to the local bakery in two minutes[4].

Another important difference comes down to portion sizes. They're smaller in Europe, and yet I never feel hungry after meals. Eating is a much more leisurely activity (in Spain at least), which probably leads to eating less due to the delay in time-to-satiation. The upshot of this is that I can spend two weeks in Spain during which I eat some of the best food I've ever had, and yet I don't 'feel fat' afterwards. 

The Basque people are particularly passionate about cuisine: as a hobby, many men belong to 'Sociedades' (or txoko in Basque), which are essentially cooking clubs where people can develop recipes with professional equipment. It's not surprising that 'El Pais Vasco' has the highest concentration of Michellin Stars per-capita of anywhere in the world.

... and drink

I've read multiple articles arguing that part of the reason for America's 'binge-drinking' problem is because of the country's long history of demonization of alcohol. I'm not saying that Spain doesn't have problems with alcohol, but in my time here I've witnessed a much more reasonable relationship with 'the drink' than I often see back home. 

Small towns have bars on every corner where people socialize quite frequently. It's totally common to see two couples sharing drinks and chatting while their kids snack on bar food. Oh, and the bar food here is legendary. Bars serve pintxos (pinch-oes), which are elaborate little plates showing off all kinds of different concoctions and ideas. They're a huge point of pride and the pintxo capital, San Sebastián (Donostia in Basque) has competitions to encourage new and interesting recipes. These things are ridiculously delicious, and put garbage like fried cheese sticks and onion rings to shame:

This is an awesome pintxo place called  Bar Zeruko . Notice how the counter is filled with a huge variety of exotic and delicious finger-foods.

This is an awesome pintxo place called Bar Zeruko. Notice how the counter is filled with a huge variety of exotic and delicious finger-foods.

[1] I also brought a solo-play 'game book' called Destiny Quest that was recommended to me by a friend. I didn't get to play it as much as I would've liked as rolling dice on those small tray-tables is difficult.

[2] There are at least three fully differentiated languages spoken in Spain (Castellano, Catalan, and Basque [or 'Euskara' in Basque]) as well as several dialects such as Galiciano. I understand why people from cultures that speak languages other than the dominant Castellano bristle at calling it 'Spanish'. 

[3] The siesta blows my mind every time. In addition to being part of the culture, I also appreciate that by allowing people to close their stores down for a few hours in the afternoon, it allows small businesses to operate with only a single staff member. Nevertheless, coming from a place where I can buy whatever I want, whenever I want, it's tough to wrap my head around having to plan my schedule to avoid a three-to-four hour window each afternoon. This is probably a more general observation about European culture: if you're cool with it, it's very supportive of a high quality-of-life. If you're not used to it, it can feel somewhat rigid. This is something I often think about: when is culture an anchor versus a chain?  

[4] In some cases, I think there are just differences in preparation that lead to more flavorful foods in certain parts of Europe as compared to North America. See for example the larger number of regulations when it comes to processing eggs here in the States.

A fond farewell and new beginnings...

Last week, I finally bid farewell to my lab at Stanford, thus ending my five-and-a-half years of being a postdoc. As excited as I am to move on, it was a bit bitter-sweet: I'm leaving friends and a location where I've become quite comfortable. (To be fair, I'm moving to a job ~20 miles away, so it's not like I'll never see my friends again or anything.) I'm also leaving some projects 'hanging', though I hope to be involved in seeing them through to completion when folks in the lab are able to finish up the required bench-work.

In order to start my new job (see below), I've had to renew my American work visa, so my significant other and I took a brief 'baby-moon'[1] to Vancouver, BC. I did my M.Sc. at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, and I hadn't been back in 10 years. I remember Vancouver as the most beautiful city in Canada, and I wasn't disappointed: the downtown core remains amazingly clean and welcoming compared to other cities where I've lived. 

It's interesting to think that both Vancouver and San Francisco suffer from the common problem of being located on peninsulas, preventing the sort of suburban sprawl associated with less expensive locales. However, it looks like Van is handling this better by encouraging the construction of modern high-rises to meet housing demand. San Fran appears very apprehensive about construction in general, but it's difficult to see how anyone could consider these buildings 'ugly'. Also, it's not as though their presence is changing the charm of the traditional neighborhoods like Gastown or Davie Village - at least from the tourist perspective. I'm not expert on the causes of the exorbitant cost of living in the SF Bay Area, but it does strike me as obvious that improving public transit while allowing higher-density housing would help a lot[2].

Now that the visa situation is taken care of, I can talk about my new job: I'm going to be working as a computational research scientist at Counsyl, a South San Francisco-based genomics company that specializes in non-invasive genetic screening, such as is used for family-planning, checking fetal health (something our 'family' did recently), and cancer risk assessment. Non-invasive screening of cell-free DNA in the blood is a relatively new field that offers amazing opportunities for detection and monitoring of diseases that previously required surgeries and biopsies. It's a brand-new field for me, so I've been doing a lot of background reading to get myself up to speed. I have to admit that I'm somewhat excited about being able to tell people that I work on human health related problems, rather than trying to explain how studying yeast regulatory evolution will unlock the mysteries of the phenotype[3].

So there you have it. Unlike in academia, I'm certain that I won't be at liberty to discuss the specifics of my work here, but I'll try to post about the the field and the generalities of switching to industry science when I can.

[1] I was only made aware of the concept of this 'pre-baby' trip last week, so it's fortuitous that we'd already planned one.

[2] Vancouver is also an expensive city, but a quick Craigslist search reveals that it's nowhere near as bad as SF. I recently read a book, The Gated City, that spends a lot of time explaining that the entrenched interests of the Bay Area benefit greatly from the high-price of housing, and have fought mightily to institute NIMBY laws allowing them to resist any type of change. It also strikes me that fewer people drive in Van as compared to SF as the downtown streets are far less congested. Don't even get me started about all the misguided 'environmentalists' around here who don't understand that urban areas are actually good for the macro-environment.

[3] By no means have I lost my interest in evolution, nor in how phenotypic mysteries will ultimately be unlocked.