Travel to Bordeaux

19th September 2014

It may be surprising to hear, but I am starting to write this blog while sitting in a Belgian beer bar in one of the most famous cities for wine (lets see how I go with the writing). Don't worry, I did get a chance to sample a few of the local wines, but sometimes a beer on Friday afternoon is necessary. However, this week was not about beer and wine, it was about visiting a prominent researcher in my field, Francois Vanderbeck.

I had the pleasure of meeting Francois in Newcastle, Australia, and we have been running into each other at various conferences since. Francois' talk at the Newcastle workshop influenced a major part of my PhD thesis. So I was very interested in travelling to Bordeaux to meet with him and his working group. Fortunately, the award of the Lift-off Fellowship from the Australian Mathematical Society gave me this opportunity, and I certainly did not take it for granted.

Arriving in Bordeaux

I did not give myself much time to see the city. My plan was to get to see a little of Bordeaux on Sunday afternoon and then fly back on Saturday morning. In terms of sight-seeing, it was not a big part of this trip and it was not really my objective in travelling to Bordeaux. This time in Bordeaux was supposed to be about work.

With that said, I was able to see a bit of Bordeaux on Sunday afternoon. It is an interesting city and was fun to walk around. I have to say, though, I am starting to find that on a Sunday in Europe you don't get to see the real heart of a city. Many things close down on Sundays, meaning that it can get a little quiet. In addition to this I found that the place seemed a little difficult to navigate. Maybe that was just because I didn't know the city yet.

From my little walk around the city, it felt that the place was very touristy -- especially along the river. There were many bars and restaurants that seemed to be targeting the tourist market. These tourists they were targeting must be Australians. I only say this because during my walk I heard more Australian accents than in the whole time living in Berlin.

Getting into work

I arrived at the university just after 10am on Monday morning. That is a little late for me, but 10am was the time suggested by Francois. As soon as I arrived, I was greeted by Francois, introduced to his team and then ended up having a meeting. My meeting with Francois was originally planned for 2pm, meaning that I should have had plenty of time to prepare. But his schedule changed and he was going to be busy at that time. This meant having the meeting earlier was more convenient. Not that I minded, the work that I wanted to discuss with him was related to my PhD. So my knowledge of that material, while not on the forefront of my mind, is very strong. It did not take long for me to get into the discussion, and I found it really interesting. Every time that I have met with Francois, it has been a very nice experience. This was no exception.

During my meeting I mentioned that I was looking into the Improved Primal Simplex work that is being done at GERAD in Montreal. This perked Francois' interest and he asked me to give a seminar on the subject. Now, I was already giving one seminar on column-and-row generation, which I prepared many weeks prior to this trip to make sure it was polished. Giving a second seminar was not within my plan. However, I said I would do it. All of a sudden I had work to do -- preparing my second seminar.

The seminars

My first seminar was on Tuesday (the planned one) and the second seminar was scheduled for Wednesday. At least I had two days to prepare. The whole time I had in the back of my mind a comment made by Alex, a PhD student with me at UNSW. When giving a Postgrad seminar (I will write a blog about these) someone misheard what I said regarding the time it took to get the solution to a particular optimisation problem. I said that it took me three hours to write some code to solve a problem to optimality. An audience member thought that it took me three hours to prepare a 30 min talk. Alex laughed and said that it impossible. In Bordeaux I had a 45 min seminar to give, so in Alex's mind I would be looking at at least 4 hours of preparation time.

The first seminar went really well. It introduced my work on column-and-row generation to the team and I felt that it was well received. I was asked many questions and they really made me think more about the work. It was a great experience for me to have such interest in something that I have done. Thank you to the guys at Bordeaux. The second seminar was a little shaky. I didn't know how I should pitch the work and what background everyone had on the subject. I went really general, assuming too much. Hence, I left many people behind with my seminar. Not the best approach. However, it was prepared very quickly and my knowledge of the area is not strong enough to give an in-depth review. So, in the end I felt like I did an alright job. All up, it was a great experience to give both of these talks.

Being social

Something I have not shared in these blogs is how much I love riding a bicycle. Something that I enjoy about being in Berlin is that I am able to commute to work on a bike. However, I do miss my road bike that I left in Australia. On Tuesday morning, Francois popped into my office to ask about going to dinner on Wednesday night. But it was a little more than that, he wanted to know whether I ride a bike and if riding 20km out through wine country to a village for dinner would be of interest to me. Trying to play it cool, I just said "that would be a nice idea". Really, I could not think of anything better.

Wednesday was the day of my second seminar. By that afternoon I was all done with my planned commitments. I met Francois at his house in the evening and he gave me one of his sons bikes. Another colleague joined us for the evening, who also had the name Francois (could not get that wrong). The ride was great. It took a little time to get out of the city, but once we entered the country, it was very relaxing. Passing many Chateau's and vineyards. We even passed the vineyards that produced one of the wines we had with dinner. Very fun. Adding to it, the dinner was great and the company was really good. I had a great time while at the restaurant. We were even the last people there, meaning that we left just after 11, putting me back home after midnight. Really fun evening. Thank you Francois and Francois.

The guys in the Realopt team were very inclusive. They were very happy to have me join for lunch and talk about random things. Something that did dominate the conversation was the Air France strike. Mainly because my flights were expected to be cancelled. This interaction was a fun part of the stay in Bordeaux.

The work part

It was not a holiday, this was a work trip. I needed to have some outcomes satisfied from my time in Bordeaux. One of those was to meet each member of the Realopt team and have a discussion with them. Since my background is very closely aligned with the research of the team, the discussions came very easily. For example, talking with Boris I found that he had employed Benders' decomposition in his PhD and afterwards: his experience taught him to avoid that particular technique. Francois C participated in the 2009 ROADEF challenge on Airline Disruption Management, which was closely aligned with some topics from my PhD. Ruslan worked with Francois on Column Generation for Extended Formulations, which greatly influenced my PhD work. Finally, Pierre has a lot of experience in branch-and-cut, which I would like to know about in regards to improving Benders' decomposition. It was very engaging talking with each and every one of the members of the team.

As part of the outcomes that I wanted to achieve, the first was meeting with everyone of the Realopt team and the second was improving my own research from any comments I received. Surprisingly, my second seminar really helped with the latter of these outcomes. I received many good comments from this presentation. Additionally, by having to give the seminar, it made me investigate the work performed at GERAD much more closely. There are many things that I am now able to take back to ZIB regarding this work.

Air France pilot strike

Since my research involves airline recovery and passenger reaccommodation, being affected by the pilot strike was slightly interesting. There was a little bit of stress since it was not known whether my flight would be delayed and if it was, when I would be able to get home. I kept up-to-date with the progress of the strike and during the week it became increasingly clear that my flights would be affected.

On Thursday morning I received a text message saying my flight from Bordeaux to Paris had been cancelled. Not good, but understandable. Once I arrived into work I jumped on the phone and tried to find out what options I had. It took many calls to Air France to get through and onto a hold queue. I was on hold for about an hour, then greeted by an operator that could not speak English. Slightly difficult, but I thought I could manage. Well, it turns out I couldn't manage and the operator got someone who could speak to me. The result was that I would be rebooked onto another Air France flight that was departing later on the Saturday. Not a great outcome, but it was a solution.

Then on Friday morning, I received another text message saying that my new flights had been cancelled. Once again I had to go through the calling process to try and get rerouted through alternative flights. Given the number of people disrupted by the strike, I really didn't think that I would get out of Bordeaux over the weekend. I was wrong. There were many options available to the airline. I believe that this is mainly because Air France were rebooking passengers onto competitor flights. My final routing involved be leaving Bordeaux at 7:35 to travel to Lyon, Lyon to Brussels at 11:40 and then Brussels to Berlin at 16:30, arriving at 17:50. The respective carriers for these flight were HOP!, Brussels Airlines and Lufthansa. While it was very long, I was happy that I would be able to get home when I had planned.

How did the writing go?

That brings me to the end of this blog about my trip to Bordeaux. Normally at this point I like to write a little summary of my blog. However, I wrote all of this while drinking Belgian beers in a bar. So I will finish with a review of the beers that I tasted.

Kasteel Rouge: Very nice tasting beer. Has a cherry flavour, of which I am not the biggest fan. However, the sweetness made it go down very well. Tasted a little like a Framboise or Mead. Could not drink many of these.

Gouden Carolus Classic: Very dark beer. However, it does not fit my idea of a dark beer. It is still very sweet. There are hints of coffee and chocolate (maybe more chocolate), which is really nice. Would drink more of this.

Pauwel Kwak: Quite nice. It is sweet, but not overly. I really enjoy the malts that were used to produce this beer. It is a sessionable beer, but quite strong in alcohol. This also has a mead type of flavour to it.