Memories of CERN

by Michael

Six and a half years ago, I arrived in Switzerland to do a work placement with the exhibitions team at CERN as part of my MSc in Science Communication. It followed hard on the heels of producing a play in London – the last night was Saturday; on Sunday I flew from London City Airport to Geneva, me white as a sheet with terror, to start a job for which I had almost no qualification, in a new country where I spoke almost none of the language(s), on Monday morning at 9am.

My memory is shocking – experiences do not live on in my brain to be faithfully recalled like a film (or even radio) documentary of my life. No, they melt away, or melt together, or merge with dreams and imagined conversations. But mostly, they melt away, leaving me with a world-view shaped by my experiences but unrooted and unreferenced to the events that gave it this shape.

My CERN diary and the CERN book they gave me

My CERN diary

It would make sense, then, for me to keep a diary. I have tried a few times, and it has never quite stuck. But when I was at CERN, I kept this diary and I’ve been reading it tonight and I’m ever so glad for it. I wrote in it often at first and, naturally for me, the entries tail off towards the end of my time there, although there are a couple of bonus entries from when I was back in the UK.

Some excerpts from August 2005 are below – apologies if they are excruciatingly dull (did I use that phrase in my last post as well?). I’m mining them for any nuggets I can transfer into the Discreet Dictionary – the first original entries for quite some time.

17 Aug (eve): First day that I’ve had three square meals. Trés bien. Looks like I’ve got a room at Mme Gerber’s – we discussed it over homemade limonade. With me on the first floor will be a Greek Professor who when not working at CERN is worrying, OCD-like, over the state of the bathroom. He also likes peace and quiet.

19 Aug: Thinking about my dissertation … but I keep thinking in French. Now don’t get the wrong idea – I haven’t suddenly become fluent. But I do sort of think on the edge of translation: the border between English and French.

20 Aug: I’m in the Promenade de l’Observatoire, above the Musée de l’Art et Histoire. Me and the pigeons (Tauber, in German). I hope these pigeons aren’t usurping the cute little sparrows that I’ve seen in the city…. I mean, it’s a great place for wandering unseen, unobtrusive. But it all seems a bit random, unstructured. The M. of Art and History was a labyrinth of uncluttered rooms … but what did it all amount to? I’m going to be a stranger here for 2½ months.

26 Aug: It’s nice to hear from Sophie as often as I do, through texts, emails, and soon letters. I do really miss her but in a way, it’s good to have these experiences to look back on – or it will be. I think I should have been less whiney and more ‘romantic’ when I wrote my letter. Still.

27 Aug: It’s the weekend and I have no idea what is happening in the Test match. Sophie called last night slightly drunk but none the worse for it. I, on the other hand, was very bleary, waiting for sleep to catch onto the fact I have nothing to do here except work and my dissertation.

28 Aug: I think I’m a writer, really. This dalliance with exhibitions is all very well in an intellectual curiosity kind of a way, but I think I’ll earn a living mainly through writing. Maybe!

28 Aug: I don’t know whose, but somebody’s infinite wisdom means there’s a triathlon taking over Geneva on the one day I wanted to walk peacable around the shore of the lake. The world and his bike have turned out, not so much to watch or cheer, but more to run or ride sympathetically on the footpaths. So many cycles: shp would have a field day.

28 Aug: I’ve reached the World Trade Organisation, who have a suspiciously drab building. Although, to be fair, all the buildings I’ve seen on this walk so far have been isolated boxes with tiers of rectangular windows and nothing of character beyond stolid matter-of-fact functionality and a sort of distant or covert elegance.

28 Aug: I’m in Chambésy, I think, which is still Geneva, I hope.

28 Aug: What a fucking nightmare: having walked the whole way back to the station, I’d just missed the train home so I went looking for a bus-stop. Forgetting, of course, that I only had a 100CHF note. Well, no problem, I thought, I’ll just potter along route 9 until I get a chance to get some change. But it’s Sunday bloody afternoon and everywhere closed at 2pm. Eventually I reach a little newsagents. I spend a little while looking for Le magazine litteraire (no luck), considering the Economist (too pricey), and eventually plumping for a bottle of Coke. The shopkeeper’s face! A hundred? No, I haven’t got change for a hundred. A fifty, maybe… So I’ve been pottering along the motorway ever since. I passed a sign that suggested Meyrin was 4km away (2½ miles – an hour at most), which would be fine, I suppose, if I hadn’t already spent three and a half hours walking round the lake and back. There probably was an easier solution, but I appear to be in full hedgehog/ostrich mode.

A page from my CERN diary

A page from my CERN diary

28 Aug: A Swiss brass band strikes up. ‘My Way’. The drums are a little loud and the piano solo uncalled for but this is Sunday night in Meyrin and no one’s complaining.

31 Aug: For two days in a row, now, my cutlery has been magnetized. Is this the truth about CERN? It’s just physicists sharing an in-joke…?

31 Aug: You should probably know, if I haven’t already mentioned it, that apart from the first two pages in pen (which I sort of regret now), all my entries have been written with the pencil I stole from IKEA. You should also know that I do not have a pencil-sharpener with me. I have to pick and chew at the end to get any sort of lead at all!!