Friday, August 9, 2019

My UCLouvain Public Defense Announcement

With the 2nd defense of my Ph.D. double degree around the corner, my 2nd university has announced it in the UCLouvain website. You are welcome to join me in Louvain-la-Neuve on the 23rd of August.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Unplanned Destinations

A beautiful mall in Antwerp
After completing my Ph.D. defense successfully in Lisboa, I returned to Brussels. I decided to stay overnight at the airport since my flight arrived late in the night and I felt it is meaningless attempting to catch the last train and reaching the hotel on a late night. I hadn't even booked a hotel for the next day. I was yet to decide on a city.

I was sitting on the airport floor since there was no power socket close to the seats. After some serious searches, I ended up choosing Antwerp. I booked a nice hotel, had a small breakfast and coffee in an airport cafe, and then got into the train to Antwerp. I reached Antwerpen Centraal by 7:15 a.m. Luckily, the Leonardo Hotel Antwerpen was so considerate, and they let me check-in by 7:30 a.m, although I was initially planning to drop my suitcase and go for a walk later for checking in. Sometimes, random places surprise you in a pleasant way more than a well-planned destination. It was the end of my first Ph.D. defense trip. Until next time, Belgium.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Respecte Ton Lac

#RespecteTonLacLLN
I returned to Louvain-la-Neuve after more than 1.5 years for my 1st Ph.D. defense (yes, there will be one more defense - as this is a double degree). My 1st defense is actually in Portugal. But I had a short stay in Belgium as I wanted to meet my supervisor in Belgium to get his feedback before my defense. While waiting for him to turn up in his office, I decided to have some coffee and a croissant in a bakery I used to frequent while I lived in Louvain-la-Neuve in 2017. I sat down in the seats outside the bakery and had a sip of the coffee. A few minutes later, a waitress came to me and politely reminded that the seats belong to the restaurant and not the bakery - and therefore I should leave unless I order something from them. 

There was this beautiful lake full of geese and
Completed constructions in Louvain-la-Neuve
ducks - we used to feed them.  I decided to go to the lakeside and sit on one of those seats facing the lakes while enjoying my croissant and coffee. I started walking and ended up in the lakeside. To my disappointment, the lake had become dry! A lake that was part of my life for the whole year of 2017. I used to walk by the lake every single day to my lab, and also in the return journey. I was not sure what made the lake go dry. A family (a middle-aged couple and their teenage son) was walking. I decided to ask them about the lake as they looked locals: "There was a nice lake here when I lived here 2 years back. What happened to the lake?" The gentleman smiled and replied, "Oh, they dried it to clean the lake. You are disappointed, aren't you?" I said, "Yes, I came back to see the lake and found it gone. Of course, disappointed" Then I walked around the lake taking some photos. I also saw some guys crossing the lake (which by now is just a patch of grassland) by walking across it.

Later, I found that this is a regular practice in Louvain-la-Neuve. They empty the lake every 5 years in February and keep it dry until November. Before doing so, they carefully move the fish, birds, and animals to a nearby lake, and in October, bring them back. That means the lake will remain dry when I return to Louvain-la-Neuve in August for the UCL public defense. It was interesting (and sad) that I was expecting to see the lake and missed it despite visiting it.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Memories of Portugal

When Portugal hosted the Eurovision 2018
Memories of Portugal is a series of blog posts, attempting to recall my vivid memories of Portugal for the past several years. I have been writing these posts for quite some time at intervals. It has been after all a long journey. When I look back, even the boring routine stuff I did in Portugal makes exciting memories.


My 6-year long stay in Portugal (2012 August - 2018 June) had 4 segments, with some interval between each segment as I had to migrate to another country in between due to the Erasmus Mundus mobility requirements. Given below are 4 episodes of my life in Portugal, each describing one such segment of my stay. My trip to Portugal for my Ph.D. defense would qualify as the Episode 5, and I have no idea when will I travel again after that to write an Episode 6. But I have a feeling we will, sometime in the far future.


Episode 1: Friendships and Goodbyes

Episode 2: Welcome back Home  

Friday, July 19, 2019

Ep 1: Friendships and Goodbyes [Memories of Portugal]

This post is part of a series on my life in Lisboa.

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1.1: Moving In 
2012 August
Getting used to life abroad
When I arrived at Lisboa airport on the 23rd August 2012, I did not know that Portugal and specifically Lisboa would become the one-word summary of my 2010s. I also did not realize Lisboa airport will become my most frequented airport, even more than the Colombo airport, the airport of my home country. Within the years, Lisboa airport had also become a second home to me - making me feel relaxed and comfortable while I wait for my next flight.


View from our apartment
My landlord was waiting for me at the airport with my name on his iPad. He showed me around the neighborhood - the supermarkets, my university, bank, university admissions office, and other closeby places of interest such as Campo Pequeno. Shopping in Lisboa - both for groceries and other fun shopping - was quite fun. It has many shopping malls and supermarket chains. There were 3 major supermarket chains - Pingo Doce - the one I would always visit, Minipreco - a smaller but cheaper one, and Continente - bigger but a bit more expensive one.

Unwrapping and first meal
I had to share the 4-room apartment with 3 others. However, I had arrived before everyone else. Therefore, I had the whole apartment for me for a few days. We also had a portion of an open-air balcony that belongs to us, that we later used for barbecues and parties. Our apartment was surrounded by 3 metro stations - Saldanha, Alameda, and Arroios. Alameda neighborhood has a beautiful park with a water fountain. For the first few days when I was still alone in Lisboa, my life was mostly limited to this triangle where I was walking around. I realized how much time I had saved while living in Sri Lanka, thanks to my parents who were doing many things for me - such as cooking, grocery shopping, and taking care of managing everything that does not need me personally. Now I am on my own, and I had to spend time doing a considerable amount of 'boring' things such as cleaning and grocery shopping. However, since the environment is new, I was still excited. I did feel like a fish out of water at times. My mom had gifted me a God Ganesh statue before I left Sri Lanka, which I had taken with me to Lisboa. The God Ganesh always secured a spot in all my apartments in Lisboa and elsewhere afterward.


1.2: Feeling young 
2012 September - 2012 December
Campo Pequeno
Eventually, my three apartment mates arrived, and we lived like a team during our stay. Our landlord also made sure to help every one of us settle in, with the bank accounts, school administration, and initial shopping. He went above and beyond, showing us the spirit of Portuguese hospitality. We all went to the same university, and our university was at a walking distance. My classmates of the same Erasmus Mundus program arrived soon after, and the courses began on the 17th of September. We all became good friends, as we all had come from various parts of the world. Thanks to Erasmus Mundus, we all had a clique though. No one was left around.

The Alameda Park, in front of IST
The early days, i.e., the year 2012 was exciting. Everything looked new and fresh.  I had visited France (Paris), India (Bangalore and Hyderabad), and USA (Mountain View/Googleplex) before. But this was my first experience living abroad. Luckily I was not alone in this journey, and it was pleasant!  During my first year in Portugal, I maintained a weekly blog on my life in Lisboa. Everything seemed new and fresh, and I never ran out of things to blog about. We tried to learn Portuguese. I even got a certificate for the A1 level. However, my only regret in Portugal was not truly learning Portuguese. I never realized I would stay in the country for around 7 years. Indeed, it was not a continuous stay of 7 years — more of an on-and-off stay due to the Erasmus Mundus mobility requirements. Still, Portugal was my base country for the entire period. My initial plan was to stay just a year. But this lovely country and circumstances made me stay much longer.

Cascais Beach - my first beach outside Sri Lanka
We spent some time visiting popular places in and around Lisboa. We used the yellow bus, the Lisboa's version of the hop-on-hop-off buses you would find in any major cities. We paid visits to major museums and churches. Belem, Estrela, Oceanario, Sao Jorge Castle, Sintra, and Cascais/Estoril beaches - all those popular touristic destinations in Lisboa. Sao Jorge Castle, despite being within the city limits, feels like otherworldly. Sintra is just outside Lisboa. It is blessed with the beauty of nature and architecture. Lisboa Oceanario is undoubtedly one of the best in the world. Cascais beach was clean and nice - but later I would visit much better beaches in Portugal. We do not have a metro in Sri Lanka. I started to getting used to (and love) the metro journeys in Lisboa.

IST/ULisboa - Alameda Campus
Our EMDC program was a coordination of 3 universities - IST/Lisboa, UPC/Barcelona, and KTH/Stockholm. While half of us spent the first year in Lisboa, the other half was in Barcelona. We all would meet in KTH/Stockholm for the third semester, before breaking away for the thesis in the 4th/final semester. I also became the Erasmus Mundus Association (EMA) program representative (PR) for EMDC. It was fun, representing EMDC. Later, I also represented EMDC and EMJD-DC at EMA in the following several years and organized EMA days and participated in an EMA General Assembly.

Taguspark Campus
Some of our classes in the first semester were in Taguspark. A long shuttle journey twice a week also became part of our life. Taguspark is in the middle of nowhere. So when we had lectures there, we had to spend the whole day on the campus. Luckily, the Tagupark canteen offered relatively good food. All you can pick at once with a fixed price. We also had some good memories and made some local friends at the Taguspark campus. The Taguspark campus was also more modern than the Alameda one. Later during the Ph.D. I had the Data Quality course in Taguspark - thus reliving those Taguspark memories after 2 years.

Praca do Comercio
In Saldanha, right next to our campus was "Canela e Acucar", a cafe restaurant that offered cheap food, starting from 4.45 Euro. Bacalhau, the salty dry cod fish is a popular Portuguese food that we tried often. We also had several fish including Carapasinhos (the small fish, fried), Dourada, and Robalo. We also had other options such as Francasinhas. We learned one thing quick. If you ask for "Sumo de Laranja" you will get some orange soda. Not the real orange juice. You must ask for "Sumo de Laranja natural" for freshly squeezed orange juice for like 2 Euro or 2.50 Euro. The orange juice maker was virtually in every cafe in Portugal. We liked to have orange juice as it is natural and 100% orange. No water, sugar, or anything else added. The Civil department canteen food was 4.50 Euro, with daily options for 3 Euro food also. Then there were also subsidized canteens for students in the main building, as cheap as 2.35 Euro. We tried all the canteens - their food options and desserts.

Arraial Do Tecnico
Despite our busy schedules and group projects, we still had lots of fun. Our university also hosted some interesting events, such as the annual musical evening of Arraial Do Tecnico. Music, snacks, and beer. That was fun. Thanks to our diverse friends, we even had our own "cultural days" or international students' days - including a Chinese party and a Brazilian party. We also visited the Hindu temple close to Telheiras in Lisboa, as well as the mosque in Sao Sebastiao! As time passed by, I experienced my first autumn in Lisboa - much wetter and colder than the summer. I enjoyed my first Halloween in Lisboa, meeting new friends.

Bairro Alto
Every Friday evening we would visit the "Erasmus Corner" in Bairro Alto where we have beers and some drinks and meet other exchange students as well as some locals. Bairro Alto hosts the Erasmus Student Networks and an Erasmus Bar. The place had a unique smell of beer, Portuguese and international food, and the occasional smell of urine from some corners. Bairro Alto is popular for its cheap beer - 1 euro per cup. Bairro Alto neighborhood was also special for me - especially the view from the corridor where I had a birthday celebration in 2013.

Christmas at Rossio Square
By the end of 2012, we got more familiar with the city. We had to apply and receive a residence permit, which we then had to renew every other year. We started to visit more interesting not-so-touristy places as well. Lisboa indeed has some hidden gems such as Pensão Amor. We also enjoyed our first Christmas in Lisboa, despite the approaching exams. The exams and group project presentations were a little bit stressful - but we all overcame them successfully. No one was left behind. I also started the habit of writing an annual post, summarizing my interesting events (typically limited to 30 events each year, a number I randomly chose) of the year.


1.3: Those Days
2013 January - 2013 June
2013 New Year - It all started here
My first new year in Lisboa was exciting. Despite the exams, I decided to do a big shopping, because I was so energetic. I also had received my scholarship money. So why not? Falling in love in Lisboa was a wonderful feeling. The experience was mesmerizing. We recall the new year of 2013 and the romantic memories of Praca do Comercio (with the Terreiro da Paco metro station) every now and then. After several years, we still fondly recall those first 6 months of 2013 as "those days".

On the way to Freeport from Oriente
I also had started to travel outside Lisboa. I first visited  Fatima with 2 of my Sri Lankan friends. It was an average Portuguese village, if you remove the religious significance. But it was also my first trip in Portugal outside Lisboa. Therefore, it was special to me. During these days, EMDC also had our Winter Event in Nuria, Spain. We met our EMDC mates from Barcelona for the first time. It was also our first international trip from Lisboa. We traveled to Madrid and Barcelona and stayed in cheap youth hostels - dorm rooms and bunk beds. We enjoyed the snow and a real winter of -11 C. It was also my first time getting drunk. In my entire life, I had got drunk only twice. First in Barcelona (2013) and then in San Francisco (2016). Strong memories.

Romantic Parque das Nacoes
Not all walks are memorable as our extended weekend (Thursday evenings - Monday mornings) walks. Parque das Nações had become our regular romantic getaway. We walked by the riverside, from Cabo Ruivo, Oriente, Moscavide, and until Sacavem. Over the years, we witnessed how the Parque das Nacoes neighborhood evolve. We visited all the restaurants along the river. Some restaurants later closed down and new ones, including a fancy Chinese restaurant appeared years later. We also visited the newly popping up restaurants in Parque das Nacoes. We fed the seagulls close to Oceanario and also fed the geese in Estrela park. I got used to walks and metro rides between my university (IST) and ISCTE-IUL. We also frequented the Hard Rock Cafe in Restauradores and Starbucks in Rossio train station, as they both are close to each other. In the blue metro line, we also visited Santa Apolonia. The photos bring back vivid memories.

Drinks at Hard Rock Cafe Lisboa
Arroios neighborhood had a Dim Sum restaurant. Although the service was bad, the food was good. Therefore, we visited it several times. There was also a Chinese buffet restaurant, which was similar to every other Chinese buffets in Lisboa. There was also a Portugalia that we visited once. Estefania neighborhood, in between Arroios and Saldanha was a good one for a walk from our apartment. We used to buy lots of things from Pingo Doce and take them back home. Eventually, we also started to visit the nearby Continente.

A night walk in the Avenida neighborhood
We watched several movies. At times, two movies back-to-back in the same day in the same shopping mall. We also had the loyalty cards from the movie theatres! There was also a night we decided to stay in the streets just outside Centro Comercial Colombo after a late night movie from 2 am until 6.30 am when the metro station eventually opened. Yes, we were crazy. :) I also started cooking in Lisboa. Initially I started for fun and to save money. I became quite good with cooking eventually. I actually was enjoying cooking various interesting recipes. First I followed the recipes to the letter. Later, I started to innovate. I used to post photos of my cooking to Facebook, until I retired from Facebook in 2015 December. Eventually, as I started cooking, I reduced the freqeuncy of my visit to the Nepal restaurents. However, I would still take my friends to a Nepal buffet.

Beautiful view of Obidos
My first spring in Lisboa was refreshing and romantic. We made boat trips to cross the Tagus river, which separated Lisboa from most of everything. From Cais do Sodre port, we would take a boat to Cacilhas in the other side of the Tagus river. From Cacilhas, then we take a bus to the beach towns such as Costa da Caparica. We attempted our best to see dolphins in Setubal. But we failed several attempts. ;) Óbidos was a town that we loved visiting - its cherry wine / ginjinha (ginja) in a chocolate cup was truly unique, best of both worlds. We played Chess there while enjoying some ginja in a romantic hotel (Pousado do Obidos). We visited Obidos once again later for its chocolate festival. We also went to the Freeport open-area shopping mall twice, taking the bus from Oriente.

Typical Portuguese food along the river
We frequented many good restaurants in the city. There was a Nepal restaurant, Restaurante Kathmandu, in our road. I was frequenting it, especially because it was the closest to Sri Lankan food I was able to get while in Lisboa. I took many of my friends to that restaurant at several occasions. I also visited some other Nepal restaurents. We also frequented Restaurente Destino, a friendly restaurant in Restauradores neighborhood. We would often walk from Restauradores to Avenida, along Avenida da Liberdade.

Porto Matosinhos Beach
Finally, the summer was back to Lisboa again. By this time, I decided that I would come back to Lisboa for my master thesis. Therefore, my stay in Lisboa is not going to be limited to just one year. :) We also started to feel the pain of friends saying goodbye, as the semester ended. Some were in Lisboa for just one semester! I would love it if every wonderful people stay with me, and not to leave in the middle. :) But life is always moving.

My move to Stockholm came close too. I had to go to Sri Lanka before that. We visited Porto and Lagos before I left Portugal. Saying goodbye is hard. But I reassured I would come back. Since we were spending time in Porto and Lagos before I left Lisboa, time went real quick when we were finally back in Lisboa. I came to Lisboa 10 months back with a free memory. I left Lisboa with a strong association to the city. I knew I would be back soon.


1.4: Party Never Ends
2013 August - 2013 December
Vila Franca de Xira riverside walk
While I was in Stockholm, I visited Lisboa twice. First, immediately after arriving in Stockholm, to enjoy the summer in Lisboa and Setubal. Then, during the mid-semester break, which was already wet autumn in Lisboa. During my second visit, we also made a metro station trip, visiting each and every neighborhood connected by Lisboa's extensive metro line - that we had missed previously. We also visited Alcantara-Terra, the touristic riverside of Lisboa. We also visited Vila Franca de Xira by train. It is a riverside town that can be reached by the train from Lisboa that goes towards Azambuja. The town hall had a free open wifi by the riverside in the town. But when I visited the town later, the wifi was no more open for public.

The beautiful Lagos
When I am away from Lisboa, I often think of the days I spent there. Despite my 7 years there, most of my memories revolve around 2013 - specifically those days, the first 6 months there. The memories are addictive and intense, and they are like a drug - I can feel the blood circulations with the memories. My memories of Portugal also is correlated with a few songs I listened to during my stay in Portugal. There are a few songs, mostly of Romanian origin - I always associate them with those romantic memories of Lisboa - because I listened to them for the first time during those days. Some songs bring back the memories of youthful moments, nostalgia, and the longing feeling that is defined as Saudade in Portuguese.


I always made sure to revisit the places that I loved visiting such as Obidos and Evora. But I never revisited Porto and Lagos later. Therefore, those memories are sealed as the memories of 2013 summer. But I, of course, want to revisit Porto and relive those memories. It will always be like time traveling to 2013 if I revisit Porto or Lagos. On the other hand, the place may still be the same. But it may not be possible to recreate the exact moments. We can try.