The Bridges Math Art Conference 2013

[Ed: we are writing this post about a month after getting back home to the US! Our final week of summer travels was spent at a conference from July 26-31, 2013.]

Getting There

IMG_3730We woke up with plenty of time to spare, wanting to make sure that we didn’t even come close to missing another train after our previous stressful experience going from Paris to Antwerp. We bid adieu to Jona and walked over to the train station, bought tickets to Amsterdam Schipol, located our platform, and with some time to spare now, got some coffee and bought some souvenirs.

We took the train to Amsterdam, and there we bought tickets for the next part of our journey, to Enschede, a small University town in the eastern part of Holland near the German border. We ran into Bob Bosch and Henry Segerman, two of our good friends from the conference, who had just flown in to Amsterdam. We all got on the train for the two hour ride to Enschede. Near our final destination we had to transfer from the train to a bus due to station construction. We headed over to the location of the conference’s art exhibition to do some setup.

What is Bridges?

IMG_1944Bridges is an international conference that celebrates the connections between mathematics, art, architecture, music, education, and culture. We found out about the conference in 2008 when Nathan was looking for various juried exhibitions for his work. It was in the Netherlands that year as well, and we had such a fantastic time that we’ve been back every summer since then. The conference has been in Banff (Canada), Pecs (Hungary), Coimbra (Portugal), Towson (near Baltimore, Maryland), and two cities in the Netherlands (Leeuwarden and Enschede) in the years that we have attended.

IMG_1960Like many conferences, Bridges has a proceedings where refereed academic papers are published, but it also has a wide variety of experiences and activities beyond that: fascinating lectures, inspirational workshops, an art exhibition, a short movie festival, an informal and formal music night, an excursion day, and more.

We have found that the 300 or so people that attend the conference are not only some of the smartest people we have ever met, they are also some of the most down to earth, fun, interesting and approachable people. Bridges is a place where you might meet a Nobel laureate or winner of the MacArthur Genius award, in a context where you can hang out, chat, have a beer, and explore a city together. We have made a lot of good friends over the years at Bridges and we really look forward to seeing them every summer. There’s always a ton of stuff packed into the week; we’ll include some snippets and anecdotes from our time there this year.

A Bridges tradition: the creation and display of a giant collaborative structure made out of ZometoolIMG_3738

A Long Walk

IMG_3727This year, the events of the conference were in the historic core of the city, but some of the housing was on a university campus about 4 miles away, including the hotel where we stayed. The city is large enough to have busses, but small enough that the busses don’t run after midnight and have less frequent runs on the weekends. After setting up Nathan’s artwork, we took the bus to our hotel, checked in, and pretty quickly headed back to the city to hang out with friends and get some dinner. Dinner was followed by drinks and we found ourselves out past midnight, faced with a decision: get a cab or walk back to the hotel.

Now you may be thinking, why would you even consider walking 4 miles at midnight? A fair question. We had been told that it was a 20 or 30 minute walk, and we were used to walking around Paris all day, so it seemed silly to waste money on a cab. Oh, hindsight. Although we were walking at a good clip, it took us almost an hour to get back. Note to self: don’t listen to other people’s estimates of walking time (we were reminded of the Versailles man who said it would be a quick walk to Marie Antoinette’s chateau… it wasn’t). Needless to say, for the rest of the week we stuck with cabs or the bus.

Neils and Friends

One of our traditions at Bridges is to befriend young people and musicians and find a place to hang out in the evenings and jam. This year we had some trouble with that, until we happened upon a bar called Cafe Het Bolwerk. We were hanging out and enjoying ourselves when all of a sudden, this young, very stylish Dutch man walked up to maybe the shyest person in our party and asked her to come in and play piano. One of the guys in our group had put our new Dutch friend up to this, and we all ended up going inside, moving things around, sitting down at the piano, and busting out our guitar and ukulele. Feeling a little bad that we took over the bar but really happy to have a new friend in Neils, after much thought and wandering we had finally found a place to call home for the next few evenings. Shout out to our crew of musicians, music appreciators, and beer appreciators: Vi, Mike, Patrick, Tiffany, Andrea, Nick, Conan, Curtis, Amina, Katie, Dallas, Dugan, Luke, and Henry… and whomever else we’re missing.





Towards the end of the conference we found out that attendees had been invited to check out Saxion University’s “Fablab Enschede” ( and use it for free during the conference. A group of us made our way up to the lab and marveled at the 3d printers, laser cutter, and various other equipment and products filling the room. There were some staff members on hand that gave us an overview of the laser cutter. Nathan had been playing with a little application on his computer that would take a video stream and turn it into a black and white pattern approximating the image using something called a Truchet tile (more specifically, he had implemented Bob Bosch’s flexible Truchet tiles in Processing). Amy took a nap, and Nathan made some edits to the program so that it could output an image that would be conducive to laser cutting. We took a group photo and added some text to the image, and cut a few copies out of colored paper. The laser cutter is such a cool device. Lots of Bridges attendees use it for their mathematical art and constructions, and it was a blast to learn how to use it ourselves. The staff member even stayed a bit late to allow us to get enough copies of our photo for everyone in the group, plus one as a gift for Bob.

Laser cut paper in progress
A ghost image of the laser cut color paper, that looks cool in and of itself!
A ghost image of the laser cut color paper, that looks cool in and of itself!

Bank Party

Luke and Dugan were couchsurfing during the conference, staying with some folks who lived in an old bank in a situation similar to Jona’s, where the owners of the building allowed people to live there cheaply to avoid paying fees. One night Luke had invited us back to his place to hang out on their roof, but all the stores were closed so we wouldn’t have anything to eat or drink, so we just ended up going back to the Het Bolwerk. We got a huge group together and took over the bar again and decided that the next day we’d be prepared to go to Luke’s by purchasing snacks and beverages earlier on in the day.

We met up with Luke the following day. He said that the people in the building were already having a crazy party, that all of us were invited, and that there was going to be lots of beer, a DJ, and lots of fun young people. There was some mention of bank vaults and other intrigue, but immediately the idea of having a party in an abandoned bank sounded pretty incredible.

The annual Bridges play was that evening, and the plan was to meet up with Neils and whomever he brought with him outside of the Grote Kerk, and then Luke would walk with us the 5 minutes that it would take to get out to the abandoned bank. That’s when the floodgates opened up and it began to pour an incredible drenching rain. Our dreams of a rooftop party seemed to be dashed. However, Luke assured us that all would be ok since the party wouldn’t actually happen on the roof but inside the bank. Eventually the rains let up and a giant troop of at least 20 conference participants made their way toward the bank. There was a guy waiting at the door and it looked every part an abandoned building: the bank parephernalia was still there, the revolving door… classic Europe – DJ music blaring in the background, dimly lit rooms, a train of bicycles cordoned off in an area where you should not venture – it was a strange environment.

It was very loud, foggy from smoke machines and cigarettes; we knew no one there, and most of us didn’t try to get to know anyone there. We had a bit of wine and beer with us already, which was good, because it seemed like the party would run out of supplies soon. A few of our group ventured down into the bank vault. Very little of the building had electricity because the bank was tryin to conserve resource,s so the people who went downstairs did so at their own peril, and it quite possibly could have turned into some type of horror movie. From the crew that ventured downstairs and reported back, it was pitch black and dangerous. Somebody said, “the perfect place to commit a murder.” We hung out in the lobby of the bank, away from the DJ, and reflected upon the end of the conference and the adventures of our excursion day.

Excursion Day

IMG_1979Bridges always has an optional excursion day – one or more guided tours through the areas surrounding the conference site. This year we went on an excursion to a rural area outside of Enschede that has been doing some interesting collaborations between artists, businesses, and residents. We listened to a few lectures, viewed some interesting outdoor sculpture, and met a nice cat. Then we went to an exhibition that was supposed to have artwork from Escher… it did, but they were blown up reproductions that pale in comparison to the real thing (which we have seen before). Luckily, the gallery was mostly dedicated to the sculptures of Koos Verhoeff, which are quite impressive.

IMG_3763After the official end of the excursion, Amy headed back to town to find our iPad, which we had lost… we stressed a whole bunch of people out, including ourselves; called the conference organizers, and they called people for help, got the church unlocked to allow Amy to look for it… all to no avail. Immediately our brains went back to the night before to the bank, and though we thought we had secured our belongings, we couldn’t be entirely sure. When we got back to the hotel that night, we were packing our things, and lo and behold: the iPad was on the floor, matching the color of the carpet! Boy, we felt foolish! But that paled in comparison to actually losing our iPad, and we were thankful. So many people helped us and felt so bad for us. We kind of felt like jerks but were OK in the end because we hadn’t lost it. Amy felt the brunt of this because she was the one who spent 3 hours that afternoon attempting to find our not-lost iPad.

IMG_3766Meanwhile, Nathan went with a group of people to the studio of Rinus Roelofs, a Dutch artist and one of the local organizers of this year’s conference. Rinus is a prolific artist/mathematician/architect/researcher/inventor, and it was a massive privilege to get to see his studio in person. Every shelf was filled with interesting things, and many tables had laser cut paper or wood components that assembled into more interesting things. The group spent quite awhile there, picking Rinus’ brain and discussing the finer points of some mathematical conjectures he had brought to the conference this year. He is truly a renaissance man and we highly recommend looking at some more of his work online.


The End!

We are already looking forward to next summer, when Bridges will be in Asia for the first time. Specifically, it will be in Seoul, South Korea, which is conveniently close to where Nathan’s sister and her family live. Bridges is always a great experience and we can’t wait to get back together with the eclectic family that comes to inspire and be inspired each summer! So, now all we have to do is save some money…



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Two More Days Exploring Antwerp

Day 2 in Antwerp

IMG_1901One of the reasons Jona has a basement full of bicycles in various states of repair is that he and some friends are planning on starting a bike tour company in Antwerp. Luckily for us, this meant that he had a few bikes that we could borrow during our stay, and it also meant that a nice free bike tour of the city was in store for us. Our first major destination was a large park just outside the city, with a huge collection of permanent outdoor sculpture. Because it is a long walk from the historic center, few tourists make their way here. We certainly missed it in 2008.

IMG_1902Zoe met up with us there. There was hardly anyone else in the park, and we wandered around looking at all of the public art – everything from Rodin to Ai Wei Wei. The park continues to expand its collection each year, and we visited some of the newest additions. One of the coolest was a water spout (like a broken fire hydrant facing upwards) shooting about 30 feet straight up into the air, surrounded by scaffolding that you could walk up and around. It looked and felt like an MC Escher drawing, as it was hard to figure out who was above whom. The view down the water spout from the very top was surreal. Water billowing up and crashing down, seen from an unusual perspective.

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Ai Wei Wei “Bridge without a name” made of recycled wood from the park. The pieces that you stand on are essentially extrusions of small parts of the geographic outline of China.

After a good amount of time wandering around, Zoe said goodbye and we continued on our tour. We picked up some weird hamburgers and delicious French fries from a grumpy guy who clearly didn’t want to be working, and brought them to a park with a public swimming pool. This swimming pool wasn’t just any public pool. It was man-made, but it was placed in a natural setting and used plants and other aquatic life to filter the water instead of chlorine, salt or other chemicals. We took a refreshing dip after eating, then lounged a bit in the sun, listening to conversations in Dutch from all different types of people who had gathered at the popular hangout. [Nathan: listening to Dutch feels much more like listening to English than French. I like listening to French, but there was something nice and familiar about the rhythm and cadence of Dutch. Not that I speak it; it’s just closer to English].

After swimming, we ran a few errands on our way back, picking up some medicine for Nathan, who was still fighting a head cold, and getting a copy of the key made so that we could go off on our own. We got back, hung out our clothes, relaxed for a bit, and then went to the grocery store to get supplies. Nathan cooked a delicious meal of lentil and potato dal with coriander yogurt and guferati (green beans with mustard seeds and garlic). We ate with Jona and later his mom came over and we had another nice evening of conversation.

Day 3 in Antwerp

IMG_1918It was still very hot. We slept in, woke up and had a late breakfast, and got some tips from Jona on how to get around and down to the city center on a bike. Today was our day to go off on our own around the city. Getting around Antwerp by bicycle is quite easy in that there are plenty of bike lanes, appropriate traffic signals, and public awareness by drivers and pedestrians. The only tricky part is that as an old city, it is laid out radially which can make for some confusing slow curves and missed turns. We made it down to the city center with just a bit of quarreling between us. Some of that might have been due to the fact that we hadn’t had any coffee, which was very different from our normal routine for the past month. It was already lunch time though, so we opted for a Coke instead, to go along with one of our favorite foods in Antwerp: big bread sandwiches from this little shop in the mall. We are amazed this place still exists, with the same low prices and same sweet couple carefully crafting their sandwiches, not in a rush at all. Delicious. Just don’t go during the lunch time hustle. The guy who makes the food has the same slow pace and precision with each sandwich. Even our Belgian hosts knew about this sandwich shop that takes forever.

IMG_1919We ate outside, then walked around a bit to some of our favorite spots in the city center: the building with all of the flags, the fountain with the boy throwing the giant’s hand across the river, and the strange Gulliver-like statue (see the photo) down by the river near the castle. We then grabbed our bikes and went in search of the pedestrian tunnel that takes you across the river. It was very hard to find if you didn’t know exactly what to look for (we didn’t) so we wasted a lot of time going back and forth until we asked some other cyclists for help. They happened to be looking for the same thing… at least it wasn’t just us. Finally at the entrance, we walked our bicycles to the wooden escalator and headed down into a surprisingly cold tunnel. Yes, you read that correctly – you can take your bicycle down the escalator! At the bottom, we hopped back on and cycled to the other side, then rode the escalators up to find ourselves on the other side of the river.

IMG_3718The main reason we wanted to go to the other side of the river, besides experiencing the escalator, was to get a good view of the city, and take a nap in a park. It sounded easier than it actually was. A lot of what would have been nice riverside walkways were under construction. Areas that weren’t under construction were in the sun, and it was still very hot. Back and forth, back and forth. We finally settled down in a quiet, shady spot only to have a bunch of kids come by and start playing basketball. We got up and kept looking, eventually finding a better spot. We played gin rummy for a bit (one of our favorite time fillers on this trip) and then tried to nap but it was very hot and the tree we were taking shade under kept dropping bits of itself on us. Finally we gave up and headed back towards the city via the tunnel.

IMG_1924Our last stop for the day was a museum located on the north side of the city along the river. We didn’t go there for the museum itself; you can ride the escalators all the way up and get a great view of the city for free. Historic buildings on one side, the river on another, and an apocalyptic looking field of giant metal cranes and other machines stretching into the distance, all part of one of the largest seaports in Europe.

We made our way back towards Jona’s, keeping a close eye on the map. Before going home we wanted to stop by the grocery store and pick up a few bottles of delicious Belgian beer to replenish his supply. Remarkably, the grocery store closes at 8pm, and we were just too late to sneak in. Frustrated and tired, we tried to communicate about what to do next, but everything was getting lost in translation. Even though we were both speaking the same language, it didn’t feel like it. The frustrations had been building up all day. Missing a turn, nowhere to sit but in the sun, where is the escalator thing, where is somewhere nice to chillout, and on and on until the grocery store being closed was the last straw. Angry, we went back to the apartment and found Jona and his mother at the tail end of their dinner, which we shared with them along with some leftover dal. They both left shortly after dinner. We headed up to the roof with some beers and musical instruments, and talked out our frustration, anger and sadness. There might have been some tears and some cursing (there were). We worked it out though with God’s help, and felt ok about only having one big fight after over three weeks of being completely in each other’s space with very little alone time.


Back downstairs, we packed and planned for the next morning’s travel to the conference. We would NOT be almost missing another train!

Last Day in Paris: Dynamo, Macaroons, Riverside Picnic


We said goodbye to our couchsurfing host Fabien and headed back to Julien and Michelle’s apartment, having packed up all of our stuff again (for the third time in Paris). This was our last day in Paris, so we wanted to accomplish a few final things on our wishlist, and hang out with Sheila one more time before leaving the City of Lights.

Multiple friends had recommended that Nathan see the Dynamo exhibition at the Grand Palais, so we made that our first item on the agenda for the day. Billed as “a century of light and motion in art”, the art exhibit was quite fascinating and outside the box. Typically when you think of the “Op Art” movement, you think Victor Vasarely and optical illusions. While there was some of each in this show, there was much more as well. Lots of artwork based on flourescent lights, transparent materials, reflection, and interesting arrangements of 2d objects in 3d space. Lots of pieces mess with or challenge your perception in some way, including via flickering lights; those pieces come with well deserved warnings, as they are hard to look at for more than a few seconds.

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IMG_3670One of our favorite pieces was an installation by Belgian artist Ann Veronica Janssens. It was the only place in the show where you had to get in line to see the art, but it was worth it. The installation was a room filled with mist and colored light. The fog was so dense that you couldn’t see past a few inches in front of you – all you could see was colored light. It felt like being inside of a sunset. It was beautiful and disorienting.

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There were too many pieces to see in the amount of time we had, unfortunately. Nathan could have stayed a lot longer. We hopped on the metro to meet Sheila near Laduree, a restaurant and patisserie famous for their macaroons. Having never tried real, fresh macaroons, we decided to splurge and do it right. Laduree’s macaroons are expensive, but worth it. They were recommended to us by our couchsurfing host in Antwerp, whom we would be meeting tomorrow. We decided to get a few more than the three of us needed so that we would have some to share with him.

Before we sat down to enjoy the macaroons, we had a quick errand to run. Sheila had promised a friend that she would pick up a clothing catalog featuring the friend’s child. A simple task, a few minutes out of our way – but with the three of us, it never is that simple! It was really hot (another theme) and we had Sheila’s hand-drawn map to go on, cross-reference by the iPhone. It really seemed like we walked around for an hour, but it might have only been 15 minutes.

Finally we found the correct address and went inside to the fanciest mall we’d ever been to. There was a man in a dark suit near the door, who asked us what we wanted. Sheila quickly explained in French that we were looking for the children’s clothing store. And after giving us a once-over, the man sent us to the elevator to go up to the third floor.

Once on the third floor, Sheila went off in search of the catalog, leaving us to try and look cool as we browsed tiny children’s clothing that cost a small fortune. A t-shirt: 75 euro. A jumper, on sale: marked down to 65 euro. A nice rain jacket: 250 euro. And very nice sales people that seemed quite eager to find out why we were there.

When Sheila returned empty handed, we were all quite puzzled. It turns out that it’s not quite a normal thing for random adults to ask for a children’s clothing catalog. Something about protecting the rights of children. With our endeavor failed, we went to the toy section before descending back out into the heat. Oh yeah – we forgot to mention that this mall had central AC. Something about designer clothing and high prices being able to pay for such a luxury in Paris.

There was a nice little park nearby and we got coffee to go. We sat down and pulled out the macaroons and savored the magic that is the macaroon. Salted caramel, Argentinian chocolate, raspberry, orange blossom, pistacio – all delightful. Each of us took a bite of each flavor and begrudgingly saved a few. We had a great time just hanging out and talking about life and getting to know Sheila better.

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We’re not sure where the time went, but we needed to get down to the riverside for a picnic and swing dancing (we were just watching the swing dancers). There were loads of people down by the river, and little mini amphitheaters with different dancing groups occupying them. Random freestyle rap battles were occuring further up the hill, and we were in the middle of it all. Classic Paris: sunset on the Seine. So much better being on the shore than on the tour boats that blared by with their strangely bright spotlights. We were in the action, not just looking at it.

IMG_3688It was a great last day in this beautiful city, and it was a perfect way to end our time here. But we weren’t quite ready to go home yet. A group of us decided to try and go find a drink and hang out just a little bit longer. We started out a pretty big group (mostly swing dancers, and us). It was pretty late, so most places were closed, so people kept on leaving. As our group dwindled in size, we finally found a place that had awesome beer on tap (and was open!). It was hard to believe that our time in Paris was done. All we had to do tomorrow was get on the train.

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Red Herring?

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We got up a bit earlier than the day before, and had breakfast out on the chilly balcony, after saying goodbye to Jasper. We cleaned up a bit, and packed up a bit, knowing we had to get back around 4:30pm to get ready for our train ride to Paris.

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We rode our bikes – about a 15 minute ride – to the Stedelijk Museum, which is a modern art museum near the Van Gogh, Rijks, and other museums. We loved the art! We especially loved the first floor, with pre-1960s art, but also some of the more modern and contemporary works as well. Pieces by Kandinsky, Mondriaan, Cezanne, Sol Lewitt, Esther Kroon, Hans Haacke, Nam June Paik, Jean Tinguely, Hellicar & Lewis, Werkman, and Naom Gabo stood out to us.

1930s design... IKEA source material
1930s design… IKEA source material
Poang chair, anyone?
Poang chair, anyone?


We were running short on time because we had to return the bikes by the early afternoon, so we hastened our pace through the rest of the museum and gift shop and rode back to Frederic’s. We attempted to get a guy to take pictures of us on bikes, but the timing is more difficult than it seems 🙂


IMG_0408We sat down by a canal and ate sandwiches. We brought the ukulele, convinced we were going to play it, but yet again, it sat in the case. Nearby Frederic’s is a neighborhood called the Jordaan, which is a highly recommended stroll in all the guidebooks. It’s very picturesque, with fewer canals than other neighborhoods, but more shared central space in which to play and sit. It’s a posh neighborhood – very expensive to live there.

Our guidebook’s tour was great. It told us of secrets you could never know just by walking by… for example, there’s a certain door you can open and walk in to the courtyard of a 17th century home for widows. The sunlight filters in to a majestic garden. At some point, maybe 45 minutes in, we were ready to sit. We looked for a cafe that the guidebook had recommended, great for outside seating on a terrace next to a canal. But there were no seats left. We tried to find another place with good seating, but to no avail. We went back to the cafe and begrudgingly went inside for sandwiches and coffee. It was nice to rest our feet, but Amy really wanted to sit on that terrace. C’est la vie!

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IMG_0434We were running low on time and still needed to stop by a herring stand. We found one near the central station, and got up the nerve to order raw herring (filleted, with the tail still on, and raw onions sprinkled on top). A traditional Dutch snack, at least for some of the older crowd 🙂 We got one to share and Nathan was the first to give it a go. He enjoyed it greatly. As you can see by Amy’s pained expressions, however, she was not a fan. To put it mildly.

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Bike garage!
Bike garage!


IMG_3280We headed back to Jasper’s, packed everything up and went to the train station to catch our train to Paris. We were running low on time and Amy was getting nervous, although we had built in some buffers. The train from Jasper’s to central station was running about 5 minutes late, but we made it to the Thalys train about 15 minutes before it left. The ride was fast, with just a few stops (just over 3 hours from Amsterdam to Paris, which are about 500 km distance by car).

Once we got to Gare du Nord, we were supposed to catch the Metro line 2 to Couronnes. Unfortunately, there was not a single sign in the train station with any hint of a metro line 2. After wandering around for awhile, we went to an information desk. We asked the guy behind the counter if he spoke English (in French), and he said no. We tried to communicate what we were looking for. He was not helpful, at all. In fact, he seemed tired and very annoyed, and was just not nice. This was our first interaction in Paris and it lived up to all the stereotypes.

After poking around a bit more and debating what to do, we went to another information desk, hoping that our second try would be more successful than the first. The second guy was nice, but also didn’t speak English. He tried to communicate with us and at least got us headed in the right direction, though it wasn’t really clear what we needed to do. We got up to the RER gate and, not knowing what to do next, paused. We were nearing the height of our frustration and Amy was about ready to cry.

Someone asked us for help (ha!). We saw the same guy asking a nice younger woman for help, so we asked her for help after he left. As she was trying to remember how to walk to line 2, an Indian man overheard us and asked if we needed help. He explained that he knew where to go and worked as a French/English translator so he liked to practice with people. He shuffled us through the RER gate with his pass (probably not allowed), and walked us towards the long series of hallways that would lead to the Metro line 2. We were extremely grateful for his help, and didn’t have much trouble after that. We made it to Sheila and Austin’s place. Sheila had left a family gathering to come meet us at the apartment, and got us acquainted with their very very small home – 27 square meters… Google it 😉

Getting to Pecs, Hungary

We decided not to bike to the Bridges conference this year. Also we didn’t row across the Atlantic. But we did take planes and cars and many hours: Orlando to JFK(2 hr flt + 2 hr layover) JFK to Zurich, Switzerland, (1 hr pre-flt taxiing, 8 hour flt, 6 hr time change added), fought to stay awake in Zurich, up by 4:30 am to catch a 6:50 flt to Budapest, 1 1/2 HR flt to Budapest, 2 1/2 hr non-ac shuttle to our intended destination: Pecs, Hungary.
Your challenge: approximate number of hours it took of vehicle transportation to get us from Orlando, Fl to Pecs, Hungary. 1st correct response posted to site gets a postcard from our travels sent to them.