Deplacements, sept 2011 – 2

13 September The AFLS conference has another half day to go, but I have to move on. I have foolishly agreed to do both opening and closing plenaries at a week-long CNRS-funded Ecole Thematique on linguistic annotation to be held in (I am told) a chateau in Biarritz : who could resist. So I catch the midday train from Nancy into Paris, traverse the city of light by metro ligne 4 once more, emerging at Montparnasse to find that it is infeasibly hot outside as well as beneath. How well I remember leaving rainy Oxford with a suitcase full of autumnal long sleeved shirts and a raincoat; what folly not to have anticipated the need for cooler clothing. Well, there is time and opportunity to buy a short sleeved shirt from the C&A store underneath the Tour Montparnasse, and doing so makes me feel cooler already. I even have time to eat something fairly horrible and cheesy at a Flams’ fast food joint , before catching the TGV to Biarritz. This splendid train is sans arret for 3.5 hours to Bordeaux, at which point the climate and the scenery suddenly change, and the train starts pottering through the wonderful Camargue for another hour or two, before finally stopping at Biarritz, where I descend and join the other stragglers hopefully waiting at the taxi rank.

Good lord, I realise, as I descend from the taxi, they were not kidding about the chateau. The Domaine de Francon was built for a wealthy English milord in the 1880s, and is (it says here  « une vaste demeure de style anglo-normand ou Old English, au luxueux décor intérieur très éclectique et très raffiné ». Though now owned by a holidays rental outfit, it still retains most of the original decor (huge wooden staircase, stained glass windows, painted ceilings, second empire japanese-style decorations and marble fittings passim) as well as a very fine tree-filled park, and verandahs from which you can see huge atlantic breakers banging away on the beach half a mile away. See further my photos. It has the atmosphere and the style of an Agatha Christie country house, as well as an excellent cuisine, though by the time I arrive, there’s not much left to enjoy except the cheese board. Never mind: I retire up the vast creaky staircase, past the glorious stained glass window, into my huge room and sleep soundly.

Next morning, slightly disappointed to find that some French version of Jeeves has not discreetly laid out a morning suit for me, I slip into one anyway, grab a hasty breakfast, and proceed to the salle de conferences, to receive another little conference pack (wooden USB key, another badge, another bag) and listen dutifully to the organisers explain the modalities of this event, which has been in the planning for almost exactly a year. Coffee and buns on the verandah, and then it’s time to wheel out my talk on Linguistic Annotation for a (hopefully slightly improved) second performance. There is some discussion, mostly positive, and afterwards Anne Dister kindly takes me to one side and corrects numerous typos in the slides, which I perversely read also as a positive response. The rest of the day is devoted to brief presentations about oral, written, and video data, which nicely reinforced my comment that the Tour of Babel is still very much with us, and also demonstrated to my relief, that I had at least chosen relevant topics (variation in transcription practice, mark up of named entities, co-referencing, etc.). I was also struck by the fact that formats tied to particular software (lPraat, Childes, Elan, Transcriber etc.) are seen as de facto standards.

The next day we meet in a custom-built bunker under the lawn where there is a swish conference suite (though the wifi is a bit rubbish). I enjoy listening to two grandes dames d’annotation linguistique — Anne Lacheret and Marie-Paule Pery-Woodley — give their take on the complexities of the field, but it becomes clear that these formal presentations, though each in their way impressive, are not the real business of this event. Instead it is in the extensive and occasionally heated discussions taking place over coffee and during meals and, yes, during early evening excursions to the beach that the intellectual action is taking place. As it should be, at an Ecole, of course. The twenty or so participants are an interesting mix of people at different stages in their careers, including recent doctorates, established scholars, and a scattering of engineers , and they also come from several different parts of the applied linguistics forest despite a shared interest in annotation (for example, video capture, the language of signs, psycholinguistics…). I struggle to keep up and feel obscurely honoured to be involved, though I am also somewhat preoccupied by more mundane matters like getting the next few talks ready, or getting my washing done.

In retrospect, taking a day out in the middle of the Ecole to go back to Paris was somewhat eccentric, if not barking mad, but I did it all the same. On Monday evening, I found my way to Biarritz airport in time to catch the evening Easyjet flight to Roissy : a fairly nasty experience, not improved by the excessively long walk from the arrival gate at Charles de Gaulle airport all the way to its railway station. I spent the night at a slightly shabby hotel near the Gare du Nord, and on Tuesday morning, I met Celine who guided me by RER out to the wilds of Villetaneuse, and the Universite de Paris XIII. Here, as guest of the UMR « Lexiques, Dictionnaires, Informatique » I gave a completely different talk about the TEI  (the third one of this trip) to a vast and heterogenous crowd of students. Then I got a lift on the back of Fabrice’s scooter back to the station, took the first train back to Paris, and across to Montparnasse in good time to make the 1540 train back to Biarritz, arriving at the chateau somewhat out of breath, but just in time for dinner.

All of this meant that I missed entirely the chance to learn more from Antoine Widlocher and Yves Mathet about the standoff XML annotation tools developed at Caen, which is a shame, judging from the copy of their presentation on the Ecole’s wiki. But I did get to see Alexei Lavrentev demonstrating txm in action (and successfully broke it yet again). . I continued to worry about the two talks I still hadn’t written, but also went for a good walk around the grounds of the Domaine. I started to feel at home. Next day, we were assured the weather would improve enough to warrant a picnic, which would be provided at the end of the morning, as indeed it was.

And so to Thursday, which began with a good talk from Sylvain Loiseau , almost but not quite saying « use the TEI », followed by my final wrap-up talk on why standards might be considered to be a good thing, even in this fragmented field. As requested, I managed to finish this early enough for everyone to go off to the beach with their packed lunches. I however was condemned to sit around finishing my next (and final) talk, before setting off back to the airport. This time I took the Air France flight, which was better in that AF still hand out free drinkies, and don’t quite treat the passengers like refractory parcels, but worse in that when it arrived the Orly bus which comes allegedly every 15 mins, did not, on this occasion, come for an hour, which led to much overcrowding and grumpiness on the short hop across to Denfert-Rocherau . I then sleep-walked my way via metro to Exelmans, checked into another overpriced hotel, and collapsed.

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