Digitalising in Le Mans and eating in Oulx

Monday morning, July 3rd and here I am  again at St Pancras…  waiting for the   Eurostar to Paris which is unexpectedly 30 mins late leaving, and   therefore, likewise arriving. But I have plenty of time to get across Paris by metro to Montparnasse Le Bienvenu, and then by surface street, very hot and sunny, to the grand station where the TGVs hang out. How pleasant, a train system which works, I reflect as it zooms across the unutterably boring flat countryside of the Ile de France, and so to Le Mans, where I am due to address a DARIAH “Humanities At Scale” (whatever that means) funded workshop which rejoices in the title of Bibliotheca Digitalis, though I am pretty sure it will have nothing to do with foxgloves. Out of the station, five minutes up the road, and into the Hotel Chantecler, as advertised. Various emails insist I will be taken out for dinner by and with chums from Tours, and so it comes to pass. It’s time to be lionized for tomorrow I am lecturing.

July 4th

The morning starts with a (guided) walk down to the Médiathèque Louis Aragon, which is a newer and less brutally modernist building than the Maison de Culture we pass en route, and which is in also in a state of unexpected chaos because of a major reshelving exercise. All the paperbacks and DVDs and what have you are spread out on tables under the watchful glare of lady librarians. But this is nothing to do with us: we are in a nice lecture room where we are being welcomed in broken English by various dignatories as per usual. I am second on the bill, after Jean-Yves Ramel from Tours who gives a comprehensible and accessible introduction to OCR and how it doesn’t quite work. After coffee, I pick up the theme and wax eloquent on what sort of not not-quite-working we are talking about, the need to go “beyond the page” etc etc. Then we all depart for lunch in a state of advanced self satisfaction. Lunch is across town in a nice bistrot and is enlivened by the arrival of Mark Greengrass who I havent seen in a million years, when he was starting down a route he seems now to have abandoned, digitizing cultural networks in the Hartlib Papers project at Sheffield. It’s also rather tasty, as French bistrot lunches tend to be when ordered well in advance. Back at the Mediatheque, our local librarian hosts address us in French, with a somewhat hesistant on-the-fly translation from Toshi and then we get to hear from all of the participants, most of whom turn out to be EU researchers or librarians from Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, etc. Impossible to take in fully some thirty or so projects, presented at lightning speed (two minutes each!) thus ensuring that only the outliers stick in the memory, but I gleaned a general impression of keen competence ready to be enlarged, as well as recognizing a couple of TEI acolytes. And so to the first of the formal public lectures: a thoughtful discussion about the relative influences of social networks and of the nascent publishing industry in the production of some major 17th century works. Being public, Mark was obliged to deliver this lecture in French unlike the rest of the proceedings, and some of the good citizens of Le Mans joined us to benefit from it. Huzzah. And then it’s dinner time in a nice old restaurant, of course.

July 5th

I make no effort to arrive on time this morning, which means that the door of the Mediatheque is locked when I get there, so I have to send imploring text messages to gain entry. But those extra minutes in bed were worth it. Somewhat to my surprise, the two technical briefings being given (one from Aurelian Ruellet on how social networks should really correctly be modelled; the other from Eduard Frunzeanu and Régis Robineau on how IIIF works) are both informative and accessible. I don’t think the former mentioned anything that the TEI does not already support; and the second reminded me how overdue is proper discussion of a bridge between TEI and IIIF world views. This led me to interrogate Robineau over lunch, perhaps a tad too aggressively. After lunch, we moved to another room for the first proper workshop session in which participants were invited to do some data modelling based on a 17th c register of permissions to print emanating from the royal Chancellerie in Paris, which they did enthusiastically and in groups. Most groups decided to design a database structure to hold extracts from the document, but a couple of hardy souls did make the effort of thinking about how they’d model the document itself. The evening was a fairly full social programme, starting with a visit to the celebrated Le Mans abbey, followed by a civic reception, and concluding with a guided tour of the old town. I behaved fairly deplorably at all of these, firstly by turning up at the wrong cathedral (I blame Pierre-Yves, who bought the beers); secondly by drinking and eating too much; and thirdly by sloping off early as soon as it became apparent that serious walking was required. Which is a pity, since the bits I did manage to see of the Plantagenet old town looked really rather nice. The same indeed, might be said of the whole workshop. (See further my photo album) But I have a scheduling conflict, which means that I have to skip back to Paris the next day

July 6th

I rise late and take a lingering breakfast, before packing in a leisurely way and accidentally stealing the Hotel Chantecler’s TV remote. And then back to the station for the 1134 to Paris. It is still infeasibly hot and the countryside is still rather dull so I work on the DifDePo schema resolutely and don’t look out the window much. Back in Paris, I catch the bus to Gare de Lyon, walk to my hotel (de Venise, in an interesting little neighbourhood), dump my bag, and only then realise that there isn’t a bus from there to anywhere near rue Monge, where I am due for lunch in er 7 minutes time. Bother. I suddenly remember the existence of Parisian taxis (quite plentiful around the gare de Lyon) and persuade one to take me to the village Monge where Helene and the plat du jour are waiting, arriving a mere 30 minutes late, quite normal by Parisian standards I am assured. And so to a somewhat fraught meeting on the 4th floor of Censier, where I plea for some attention to the XML validation of the DifDePo transcriptions. Nice beers with Marc and Chiara afterwards: it’s still very hot. Then to BVH where I fail to find a nice cool shirt and am assured that there are no more linen shirts in Paris, because of the heat. And so to the Gare du Nord in time to meet L, and then shepherd her by RER (very hot) to the Gare de Lyon, and then back to the Hotel de Venise. After inspecting the local eateries, we settle on a small Japanese supper nearby and retire to bed.

7 July

Up early to catch TGV to Oulx, but we dilly dally (did I say that it was already quite hot?) and SNCF mysteriously decide to make the train leave four minutes earlier than advertised, just as we arrive at the wrong end of platform 15, and realise that it contains two TGVs stuck together, both of which are about to leave, but only one of which has seats for us. Damn and blast. We pile into the cattle class carriage of the wrong TGV, and resign ourselves to two hours of (actually quite well-behaved) excitable children en route to a colonie de vacances somewhere near Grenoble. We escape at Lyon, and find our comfy seats in the right TGV, though they are facing the wrong way for Lilette to enjoy the (very scenic) route from Grenoble to the Alps. The Residence du Commerce in Oulx is opposite the railway station and next door to a nice bar where we refresh ourselves while waiting for the hotelier lady to appear. All very peaceful. Oulx is a tiny place, boasting a scenic bridge over a river, some snow topped mountains, and one street of touristic shops, none of which has a shirt to offer me nor even soap to wash one of the numerous dirty ones I have now accumulated, but never mind. On Guy’s recommendation, we reserve a table at the Ristorantino La Stella, down the road from the station, which turns out to be really rather nice. It is run by a serious Sardinian gentleman, aided by two cheerful ladies, and a third who is his wife. There is only space for about six tables, and the food is cooked to order. We had a salad, which reminded me why one should only eat Italian tomatoes, followed by rabbit and polenta, which reminded us that rabbit can be tender and juicy. I revealed my complete ignorance of Italian history by wondering aloud why a Sardinian should be living in Piedmonte, and the proprietor’s wife (who comes from Bologna anyway) was too polite to explain.

We have come to Oulx, if you were wondering, not just because it has a curious name, but also because it is a sensible place to break the journey to Liserna (where we are now headed,) being the first civilised town you encounter  on the Italian side of the border.