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Sunday, August 27, 2017

Paris - A City for the Senses

    Our stay in Paris began with a bus tour of the city.  Our guide, Madeleine, explained to us that Paris is a very sensual city, in that Parisians like to enjoy the finer things of life through the senses.  That is why almost everywhere you look in Paris, you find beauty and extravagance.  From the statues and fountains, to the soaring cathedrals and churches, right down to the lamp posts and bridges, almost every surface of Paris is the result of artistry and craftsmanship way beyond the norm.  There are very few things that are purely functional in Paris - almost everything is a work of art to be appreciated and admired.
    Let me show you some examples:


     Bas relief carvings on the Arc de Triomphe, which was built by order of Napoleon Bonaparte



This highly carved container was affixed to the stone wall near the entrance of Sacre Coeur Basilica.  I'm unsure of what it was meant to hold.


Fancy brickwork on a building. I snapped this picture from the bus as we were leaving Paris.

The base of a bridge we passed under while on a boat tour of the Seine. 




A room that was once used by royalty in the Louvre Palace/Museum.  This room is about 50 yards long (I'm guessing) and every square inch including the ceiling is this highly decorated.



Pastries and quiches in a patisserie where we stopped for lunch one day. They are as delicious as they look!

Intricate wrought iron railings on the balconies, and notice the carved faces above the windows. Each one is different.


A shop or cafĂ© in the Monmarte neighborhood behind Sacre Coeur Basilica.  If you read French maybe you can tell me what kind of place this is. We did not have time to go in.


One of the most decorative of the many bridges over the Seine.

    Since Paris is a city for the senses, I cannot do it just by writing and talking about it. It must be seen, felt, heard, and tasted to be appreciated.  If you ever get a chance to go to Paris, by all means do so.  Just beware of the pickpockets and scam artists who abound.












  

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Across the Channel to France

  When I left off my story, we had risen to an early breakfast, packed our bags, and were just departing from London in the morning chill.  In order to reach Paris we first traveled by "motor coach" (not "bus") through the English countryside, which looked very much like I imagine the Ohio countryside looked at the beginning of the 20th century.  There was not much to see except road, grass, trees, and the occasional herd of pure white cattle grazing in a farmer's field - no brown Herefords or spotted Guernseys in the bunch. The bucolic scenery was not spoilt by gaudy billboards, strip malls, or urban sprawl.  After a few hours of gazing at the monotonous landscape, we reached the port of Dover and boarded a ferry, bus and all, for the crossing.  It was an overcast gray day, but ceiling to floor ferry windows allowed us to catch a glimpse of the white cliffs of Dover for a few minutes after leaving port.  They were lovely to see, and must be a dazzling sight when the sun shines brightly on the coastline.
   The crossing was uneventful, with the passengers busying themselves with card games, shopping, and beverages (coffee and alcohol) for the roughly 2 hour crossing. When we reached France, we were hustled through customs and loaded back onto the coach with our newly stamped passports in hand..
    At first France's landscape was much like that of England's, except for the appearance of clusters of wind turbines in groups of two, three, or up to a dozen.  Then I began to realize where Van Gogh had gotten his inspiration for his "wheat fields" series, because jarringly bright yellow wheat fields began to dot the landscape, along with the spire-like cypress trees so prevalent in his art.


     We continued on. Most of my fellow travelers had been lulled to sleep by the constant hum of tires against pavement, the now near noon day heat, and the shooshing of the air conditioner that only worked part of the time. We stopped at a rest stop for lunch, where we found small shops with ready made sandwiches, fresh fruit, and drinks.  We enjoyed making our first purchases in French francs and had our first encounter with French pay toilets, which we would encounter often during our stay.  (Most cost a Franc or a Euro.)  I spent a few pleasant minutes watching a group of teenage girls play a game of tree tag in the area of the parking lot and marveled at their carefree innocence.  Then it was back on the bus again for more monotony, until the road signs finally began toindicate we were nearing Paris.
   I don't know from which direction,. but I do know we entered Paris through a seedy side of town.  Judging by the run down ramshackle buildings, garbage piled high around unattended trash cans, and the appearance of the inhabitants, this was the low rent district.  I don't wish to be unkind or appear xenophobic, but this neighborhood was inhabited by immigrants.  These people were not French born or of French descent.  I would not have wanted to walk down any of these streets alone at night.
     As our coach wound it's way through ever more dense traffic, the neighborhood improved, but not by much. The streets was still rather dirty with litter scattered about.  The sandstone colored buildings though were now a bit more elegant with the trademark wrought iron balconies at each window.  To our surprise the bus parked and we disembarked.  This was where we would eat supper every night of our stay in Paris.
     We were directed to a modest restaurant where we were served an evening meal of chicken cordon bleu with chocolate mousse for dessert. The meals here were of uneven quality but I imagine it's hard to find a budget restaurant that can server 160 people at a reasonable price.
  Thus began our three day stay in Paris, a city of many contrasts which I will elaborate on in my next post. 
    
         



Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Visiting London - A City With a Past

    
     The first stop on our grand tour of Europe was London England - the city of pomp and circumstance.  Rather than give you a blow by blow account of our every move, let me just give you my impressions.  London is very proud of her past. That is evident in the huge amounts of time and effort spent showcasing the palaces churches, and abodes of the royals, living and dead.  The many historic buildings, from ancient old Windsor Castle to sprawling Buckingham Palace to the fairly modern looking Kensington Palace, are scattered over the city like jewels on a crown.  Being an American and having never really thought about it much, I didn't realize how much real estate the royal family owns in London, and that it's not all bunched together in one little area of the city.  Each building is miles away from the others, with the sprawling city between.  
     When I asked our tour guide the reason for this, he stated that when William the Conqueror came to London he had to lay hold of as much property as he could as quickly as possible, and he could only do that by having a fort every few miles or so.  You must remember, back in those days there was not much in between them except maybe a few peasants huts, I would imagine.  The city has grown up between them over the ages.   So if you want to see all the royal forts, towers, and homes, expect to do a good bit of walking or driving from spot to spot.  And don't expect to get too close to many of them.  There is plenty of barbed wire, spiked walls, electric fences, and iron gates to keep the public at a safe distance, and if there is any doubt, there are warning signs anywhere you get treacherously close to trespassing on royal property.
  Not so say the royals don't allow the commoners to share in the beauty of their properties.  The sunken garden at Kensginton is open to the public, and lovely now as it is adorned in white blooms in remembrance of Princess Diana on the 20th anniversary of her death.  You can take a tour through the public areas of Windsor Castle, for a price, which we did not have time to do.
   One can't help but wonder how it feels to be living within that bubble of royalty, surrounded by all that barbed wire and security. It's no wonder the royals have a reputation for being a little odd at times.  They are as much caged into their lifestyle as we are caged out.
    Apart from, or maybe because of the presence of the royals, London is a very clean city.  It's the only town I've actually seen paid workers on the streets sweeping up cigarette butts and bits of stray trash, in an effort to keep the place tidy.
     Everywhere you look in London are statues - most memorializing some battle or King or Prince or Queen, many covered in gold leaf paint.  There are lots of open public parks, such as Green Park.  The story is, when one particular queen (I forget which one) found out her husband had picked flowers in this park to give to his mistress, she forbade the growing of any flowers there from hence forth.  It's only been in the last few years that Queen Elizabeth has allowed daffodils to be planted.
   The food in London is decent but expensive.  I didn't have any fish and chips but I did have a pretty good "steak & stout" meat pie in Covent Gardens one particularly rainy evening.  You had to be quick and persistent to get a table at the fish and chips joint there, and we were neither, we were just hungry.
  Our breakfasts in the hotel were buffet style with scrambled eggs, sausage (better than Bob Evans), pancakes, cereal, baked beans and tomatoes....wait.....what??  Baked beans and tomatoes for breakfast???  We weren't quite sure what to do with those.  Some put them on their eggs. Some mixed them together and ate them like that. Some just avoided them.  That's what I did.
     London is doing its best to roll out the red carpet to it's guests, despite certain recent terrorist scares.  Chartreuse vested police are everywhere on bikes and on foot.  We were told that only a small percentage carry weapons, but there presence was reassuring just the same.  When we had to cross the Thames River to get to the London Eye, I noticed there had been steel barriers placed between the roadway and the sidewalk, to prevent cars from driving up onto the sidewalk.  I never really felt unsafe, but I was with a tour group and may have been lulled by the "safety in numbers" mindset.  Our bags werechecked thouroughly before we were allowed entrance to any museum or public building. It seems that London officials are making a serious effort to keep the public safe.
     The weather was rainy most of the days we were in London - and that's not a stray shower or tow.  It was an all day drizzly drippy wet rain, with chilly temperatures for June (mid sixties farenheit during the day.)  If you forgot your umbrella and didn't have a raincoat, you were pretty miserable by the end of a long day sightseeing. We felt that the drizzle just contributed to our full London experience.
     I enjoyed London immensely. There's so much to see and do there, and so much history to soak in.  The theater district is a musical lover's dream, with the Globe theater, Queen's Theater, and many others.  London shows are some of the best musical productions in the world!  We were lucky enough to see Les Miserables and it was by far the best live musical I've ever attended.
   But alas! our few days in London soon came to an end and it was time for our next stop, so we gathered together our things, boarded our buses and set off for the City of Lights - Paris!
    
    

      

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Impressions of a Novice Traveler - Preliminaries

   
 At the ripe age of 59, having never left my home country of the U.S.A. except for brief childhood jaunts across the Canadian border to see Niagara Falls from the Canadian side,  I recently took my first trip abroad. While raising a family, vacations always were of the camping variety, always within driving distance.  This year when my youngest son was invited to be a part of a traveling concert band touring Europe, my husband decided this was a good time for all of us to take the trip. We would be traveling with a group of 120 young choir, band, and string orchestra students, plus numerous directors and chaperones.
    We signed up well over a year in advance which gave us plenty of time to obtain passports and assemble the appropriate gadgets and paraphenalia for a 2 week whirlwind tour of Europe. We were to visit 7 countries, stopping to perform concerts in about 5 of them.
     It also gave me plenty of time to fret and worry about certain recent terrorist events in and around London and Paris.   My husband finally convinced in the end that, although horrific to those affected, the likelihood of any one person  being caught up in one of these incidents was slim. Nevertheless, when another deadly attack occurred a few weeks before our departure, I visited my family doctor and got a prescription for non-addictive anxiety medication which could also be used as allergy pills and for motion sickness. I was set.
     I spent much time prior to the trip reading up on smart packing and travel capsule wardrobes, which focus on color coordinated separates that can be mixed, matched, and layered to get the maximum number of outfits from the minimum number of articles of clothing. The majority of my wardrobe was bought in s second hand store, where I also purchased a Travelon  purse which doubled as a carry on bag. I also bought a money belt, travel lock, an inflatable neck pillow, and travel insurance that covered multiple issues including trip cancellation, lost baggage, and repatriation of my remains were I to suffer an untimely demise while traveling (a sobering thought.)
     Having done all the necessary preparation well in advance, all that was left was to wait for the day of departure. I packed and unpacked my bags weeks in advance to make sure it all fit, with room left over for souvenirs.
     Finally the day arrived. We were up at & for the 4 hour drive to the Detroit airport. Our flight left at 2 p.m. which meant we had to be there by 11.  Upon arrival, we met the other members of our group, said goodbyes, and proceeded through baggage check and security. Having not flown since before "9-11-2001", the intense scrutiny required today was a bit disconcerting but understandably necessary. We finally boarded the plane, made the short hop to Minneapolis, and settled in for a 7 hour layover where we passed the time by window shopping, sitting in sports bars, and walking the huge airport with it many moving sidewalks.
      Next: "Long Night Crossing the Pond", and "London Arrival"



   

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Let's Make Donald Trump a Figurehead President

     Let's face it   Donald Trump never wanted to be a real president.  He was attracted to the position by the glitz and glamour, the appearance of superiority to other human beings, the ability to rub elbows with the rich and powerful, and to fire people.   He thought it would be like the ultimate reality show, with him as center of attention and people hanging on his every tweet.
     But as for actual governing and policy making, he is not interested.  He does not want to bother with daily intelligence briefings which are a bore.  (Why hear the same thing over and over again?)  He never realized that issues like health care and national security could be so complicated.  And he had no idea it would all take so much effort and be so difficult!  Running his one-man real estate business, with the help of his children, was so much easier.
     Due to all these reasons and more, his presidency so far has been a miserable comedy of errors. He has made one grievous error after another, the latest of which involved inviting the Russian diplomats (spies) to his office, kicking out all the American press, and then proceeding to spill classified information to the Russians.  He has no clue his responsibilities and boundaries are.  He does not understand his role or the consequences of his actions.  He has no plan.  The more time passes, the more obvious it becomes that there is the real potential that he will do serious damage to our democracy sooner or later.
    There is already talk circulating in Washington of impeachment, but given the spinelessness of the Republicans in Congress, it will be difficult to garner enough support for that to actually happen.  And it's such a messy, long, drawn out process. He could do lots more damage in the mean time.   I have a better solution: let's make Donald Trump a one time only figurehead president, much like the royalty of England.
      He can live in the White House surrounded by all the opulence and air of importance that his ego craves and feeds upon. He can act as the welcoming committee to foreign dignitaries, posing for photo ops, sitting in the wing chairs before the fireplace, flying them down to Mara Lago to play golf and eat chocolate cake and lots and lots of ice cream.  (One for you, two for me.)  He can do all the "fun" things he envisioned he would be doing as president, without the bothersome responsibility.  He need not sit through any more boring intelligence briefings.   In fact, the less he knows the more secure our country will be.  He doesn't need to hold any more press conferences and be asked impolite questions by nasty journalists.
   But who will run the government?  Well, we have Mike Pence and Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders.  We have Congress. There are hundreds of people in Washington D.C. that have spent their careers doing just that.  They'll do fine without him.  Just keep Trump busy golfing, eating cake and ice cream, watching himself on t.v., and "playing" President, and when he has time he can pop over and have tea with the queen.


Friday, May 12, 2017

A Sinkhole of Lies and Deception


    Our U.S. government is embroiled in a quagmire unlike any in the history of our country.  The man who said he was going to “drain the swamp” in Washington is now involved in one of the seamiest scandals ever to hit the front pages of our newspapers.  Even before Donald Trump took office, there were questions about his relationship with the Russians. Why was he so unwilling to express any criticism of dictator Vladimir Putin, when he had no qualms about berating and ridiculing just about everyone else? Just what did the Russians "have" on Trump, that they were the only group he seemed to respect.

     I am convinced that the investigators looking into Trump’s ties with Russia have only begun to scratch the surface.  There must be some kind of political bombshell he’s hiding.  Otherwise why would he have such a visceral reaction anytime someone gets close to uncovering something?  His recent firing of FBI Director James Comey is just one example of that reaction. 

     I shudder to think of how much time and effort is going into meetings of the White House staffers trying to figure out how to do damage control.  It makes me not want to pay my federal income taxes, to think that I am supporting such behavior.  Sean Spicer has been reduced to hiding in the bushes and asking the press to turn the lights out before he will give them a briefing.  Other surrogates including once-banished Kelley Ann Conway regularly appear on news shows to spew the latest "official" White House version of events, only to be contradicted hours later by other surrogates.  When one fails to be convincing, even more able liars like Sarah Huckabee Sanders are trotted out with brand new updated smoke and mirrors, saying anything they can to obfuscate the truth and confuse the issue.  Journalists are having a field day trying to keep up with all the twists and turns in the story.

     Meanwhile all that grandiose rhetoric about “making America great again” is echoing down empty corridors.  Nothing much is getting done in that regard. The Great American Experiment has gone off the tracks and is barreling toward a chasm of self interest and coverup, dug by those occupying the highest offices in the land.  Someone with courage and conviction and a knowledge of the Constitution and governmental checks and balances needs to grab the helm and direct our country back onto the road that the Founding Fathers set us on some 241 years ago. Unless that happens we as a country are headed for certain destruction.