Sunday, July 22, 2018

The "United" States Isn't Anymore

United, that is.

The people in the country have become so polarized it is no longer possible to have a civil conversation with someone who disagrees with you on any given issue. Rather than an honest give-and-take discussion, people are labeled - even on the basis of a single issue or single comment - as either Conservative or Liberal. If you are in one camp, there is a genuine hatred for anyone in the other camp. Flag-wavers vs flag-burners. Patriots vs Traitors. Hannity vs Maddow.

Each side spends most of their time in their own echo-chamber and rarely hear the views from the other side, other than the spin put on opposing views by the talking heads on the favorite TV channel within the comfort-zone bubble. Or they might invite a guest from "the other side," then constantly talk over them when they try to say anything.

What's especially appalling is that people of one persuasion have become genuinely afraid to let their views be known, at least by someone they don't know all that well. There could be repercussions in the workplace or in school. I heard of one student who had gotten along well with a professor for most of the semester, until the liberal professor learned the student held conservative views and the prof's attitude immediately soured toward the kid. I heard of a young girl who started choking another girl who had expressed admiration for Trump. We are seeing more examples of in-your-face behavior in restaurants and other public places, as well as personal violence for wearing a hat or t-shirt or a comment that triggers instant rage.

The level of vulgarity also continues to descend into the sewer. How can otherwise-intelligent people think that cursing someone out is going to persuade them to listen to your views?

And given the proliferation of guns in America and open-carry states, how long before that behavior turns into shootings - simply for exercising your 1st Amendment right?

The Americans are united in one area: widespread ignorance of what things are like in the rest of the world, based on misinformation promoted by the US media, left and right. For example, the impression Homelanders are given is that terrorists have overrun Europe - since 2012, one shooting attack, two bombings, four trucks driven into crowds in Western Europe. In that same timeframe in the US, two truck attacks, 4 bombings, 15 mass shootings (not counting the daily activity in Chicago and Baltimore), a bioterror attack, and a couple of machete lunatics.

There are dark forces at work. The uber-wealthy on both sides of the fence (the Koch brothers, Adelson, Soros …) own the politicians and own the media, and they are manipulating the messages that dominate the airwaves and social media to deliberately divide the American people. The bogeyman changes with the news cycle - one day Putin, another day immigrants, another day terrorists - but there's always a constant stoking of the Us vs Them flames. Most Americans are so busy just trying to cover their mortgage, car loan, credit card debt and other bills that there's little time to even consider, to any depth, the major issues and forces at work in the country and the world. So they accept the headlines and spin from a single "trusted" source and ignore or reject all other voices.

I left the US five years ago, and have only started to discover the rest of the fascinating world beyond Etats-Unis. But since I've been gone, the America I know has all but disappeared. It's not only sad, it's become truly frightening. With no real leadership in sight anywhere, it will only get worse.

Monday, July 9, 2018

We've been De-Matriculated and Kbis-ed into Oblivion

Trying to get a replacement for our stolen automobile registration in France has to be about the 3rd most frustrating experience of the past several years.

The new online "carte gris" system is totally bolloxed. (I'm trying to be polite here in mixed company. What I really want to do is scream obscenities en français at the top of my lungs.)

It's been since December … now into early July … that we have been without an official registration since ours was stolen when the driver's window was smashed by some a** or a**es who did likewise to more than a dozen cars in the village.

It so happens that was the week the French government decided to take a very functional process -- go to the local mairie, make your request, give them your tampon (company stamp), and off you happily go. They launched the online system with virtually no warning and no training, turned it over to 3rd-party vendors, and immediately there was a 100,000 backlog. Car dealers trying to sell new and used cars were especially livid. I can imagine their blood pressure now that the backlog is about 300,000.

The vendor we are dealing with allegedly lost our paperwork after the initial wait of 3-4 months. So we had to repeat the process.

They called yesterday, and said they need a different piece of documentation for the business, what's know as a Kbis. So we copied the Kbis from when the business was initiated in 2013, and drove in the 90-degree F heat (no AC in the car) to the vendor. Oh, no, they said, the document has to be current within the last two years.

Back home, ordering the updated Kbis via the web took only three tries. Seriously, the bank needs to provide an authorization code for a €4.62 transaction?

In other downbeat motoring news, on 1 July the French reduced the speed limit on secondary roads (without centre barriers) from 90 kph - about 55 mph - to 80 kph, or about 50 … and drivers are irate. Appears to be mostly an extra revenue grab, as France has installed thousands of highway speed cameras and even provides private contractors with speed guns to shoot their fellow motorists.

Maybe we'll take the train more … wait, are they on strike today?

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Who Rides a Bicycle Into a Lake?

Were they drunk? Was it a prank gone bad? (Sorry, dude, I didn't realize it was so deep.)(Or ... Désolé, mec, je ne me suis pas rendu compte que c'était si profond.)

The bicycle was perhaps the most interesting discovery from the bottom of Lac Leman, as 1,200 volunteers (including me) did a "Grand Nettoyage" cleanup effort. It takes place every two years at locations all around the huge lake.

As I was walking along the shoreline, which is  reinforced with huge stones, picking up the detritus of piggish,  inconsiderate people, I wondered - are the bad people of the world balanced out by the good people? Probably not. Tomorrow, cigarette butts, plastic bottles, and sandwich wrappers will likely be back.

There were 40 of us at the Colony Tour-Carrée spot, which is opposite what D-L and I have taken to calling the "ghost barge."
The early morning looked ominous. A thunder and lightning storm over the Jura appeared headed right for us. And a large body of water is not the best place to be when lightning bolts are crackling. But the storm shifted to the west, and we ended up with only a few sprinkles here and there.
The stars of the effort were the plongeurs, the scuba divers, who scoured the bottom of the lake, bringing up the bike, a pile of glass bottles and plastic, and assorted other metals. I was surprised how many of the divers were young women.
We were all given bright yellow-green safety vests so cars and cyclists wouldn't run us over, or perhaps so they'd see us better if we fell off the rocks into the water. And, if we wanted, a "grabber" tool - which went a long way to saving my back from constantly bending over.

I chose to work in Group 4 along the Quai de Cologny, from the rather unpretentious Yacht Club de Genève to Genève-Plage. I opted to search for poubelle on the lake-side of the retaining wall, where the rocks were slippery at times, but it was the best way to reach anything that had been tossed over the wall.
This is a photo of my bucket filled the first time. After they emptied the contents into a wheelbarrow, I nearly filled it a second time as well.

I picked up:
* Beer bottles and cans, as well as bottle tops
* A corkscrew / bottle opener
* Energy drink can
* Pieces of glass
* A rod which might anchor a boat to the rocks
* Food wrappers, yoghurt cups, plastic bottles
* Pieces of a balloon
* Ribbons
* A toilet-paper holder type wire
* The emblem from a Fiat 500 series hubcap
* A small pile of coins - a 2-euro, 1-euro, two 10-centime euros, a 10-centime Swiss franc, and a 5-centime franc (perhaps a frontalier with a hole in their pocket?)
* A chicken bone
* Cigarette cartons
* And perhaps 200-300 cigarette butts
I am amazed at the inability of people to toss something in a garbage can which is no more than two feet from a bench. The majority of butts I picked up - with the grabber - were lying around the permanent wastebaskets along the quai.

Once in awhile, I paused to enjoy the views: the cruise ships that carry tourists up and down the lake, skiers, paddlesurfers, cyclists, joggers, airplanes landing across the way, the Jet d'Eau ...
Communication was in Franglais. Did what I could in French, but often when folks hear my accent they switch to English.

By the way, there was less trash in and alongside the lake than I would have expected. And, as we have repeatedly observed, Lac Leman (aka Lake Geneva) is one of the cleanest lakes I have ever seen.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Hog Heaven

Fat and Happy
This is a dueling blog - see Donna-Lane's view at http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.fr/2018/05/pigs.html.

There were piggy banks. Thousands of them. Stuffed toy pigs (a pyramid of). Pig figurines. Pig art. Pig advertising. Pig porn (makin' bacon). Flying pigs. In all, about 48,000 piggy thingys.

We had our choice of museums in Stuttgart: natural history, modern art, Porsche or Mercedes-Benz, a Zeiss planetarium (where we stopped for directions). We choose the uber-kitschy Schweinemuseum (https://www.stuttgart-tourist.de/en/a-pig-museum).


You might call it the third in our offbeat museum slumming, after the sex museum in Prague and the prostitution museum in Amsterdam.

Cuddle piggies
The concept of all things pig was conceived 30 years ago by passionate collector Erika Wilhelmer, whose orange hair we spotted in an anteroom when we paid our 5,90 Euros entrance fee. As the collection grew, it found a home in - irony - an old slaughterhouse, and is now the world's largest pig museum (there are others in Linn, Missouri, population 1459 - but they do have a golf course nearby; another near Seoul, Korea, complete with live, hurdle-jumping oinksters, costs extra to see sausage-making; and a Bay of Pigs museum in Miami, but I don't think that's quite the same topic).

Yes, there's a restaurant at the museum, and yes, they serve all manner of pork. We had desserts.

World's Largest Piggy Bank?
Getting there was half the adventure. Googlemaps recommended we take the U-Bahn train from the Staatsgalerie station near our hotel to the Schlachthof station, then a short walk to the museum. The Staatsgalerie was supposed to be near the planetarium; however, they've ripped the former park area apart for a construction project. So we turned around at the planetarium, tried to detour around it, and were advised to just go back to the Hauptbahnhof main station.
Once-beautiful park is gone
Having established a pattern, we are now searching for more oddball museums to visit (preferably in Europe). Suggestions?
In the restaurant, be sure to look up

Friday, April 27, 2018

Not Every Day in Paradise is Perfect

Today was most frustrating throughout. Though we did accomplish a couple of things despite.

First, after a couple years of being on a waiting list for an apartment in a new complex in Switzerland, we received a notice of the unit sizes and prices. There are three that are quite small, though larger than D-L's Nest in Argéles sur Mer, and priced under 1,000 CHF, including parking. Donna-Lane emailed for an appointment on one of the two days they are interviewing, though it will require us to alter our travel plans. They asked her to call, and when she indicated we were two adults and a dog they said no, the units we desired are too small for the three of us. Alas, all the larger units are more than 2,000 CHF, much more than we care to pay.

Next, I was trying to research mobile phone providers. Our bank has a quirky system such that they send an SMS code when I try to make an online purchase. Except the code never gets to me because I have a Swiss phone and their system only takes +33 French country code phones. Therefore, I need a French phone.

Websites kept dropping out on me, or wouldn't come up, because our WiFi has been running incredibly slow since it was restored (after more than a week out of service). Couldn't find an email address or phone number to call for help online - only endless FAQs. Finally, I tweeted and facebooked to SFR Assistance, and amazingly got a response. Even more amazing, the tech tweaked our system twice, and the second time the speeds more than doubled to the approx 12 Mbps we're supposed to be getting. Alas, that's the limit, as there is no fiber optic service in the village yet.

As I was checking the options for SFR mobile phones, the international dialing page suddenly switched from one showing 30 Euros a month to one showing 45 Euros a month. Did they switch prices in the middle of my search? That's something the airlines tend to do.

So we decided to go to the SFR store in Perpignan and deal in person. Long story short, we got two new mobile phones, paid much more for the phones than what I'd expected, but at least we have French phones and will be able to connect with each other if the WiFi is down.

We also managed to get the type of flea/tick/mosquito collar recommended by our vet ... in the next town, as none of the local pharmacies seem to carry that brand. Sherlock is not thrilled. But at least he's safe, especially when he bounces through the long grass along the river.

Monday, April 16, 2018

#FlightFromHell, Part 1

Yes, I do my own stunts
I am not sure what possessed me to throw my suitcase over the rail, then jump after it - from a moving escalator. Maybe I've been reading too many spy and mystery thriller novels. (The phrase, "It seemed like a good idea at the time" comes to mind.)

I was desperately trying to catch a connecting flight at Orly Airport -  Paris' "other" airport - a place I've never been before (and never will again ... they no doubt have me on at least three different videocams). After exiting my arriving flight from Toulouse - which was more than an hour late - I had come to a stairs/escalator choice - going up. Too many people on the escalator, so I hoofed it up the stairs, huffing and puffing from carrying my bag, which was mostly electronics and papers, When I got into Hall 1, another stairs/escalator combination, this time going down. At this point I was not seeing any more "Flight Connections" signs, but I spotted one that read "Transfers." The escalator was relatively empty, so I figured I could both ride and walk down, getting there faster.

To my horror, the escalator was going down 2 levels! I only wanted to go down 1 level to the main concourse area. Realizing the escalator was the wrong choice and would take way too much time to go all the way down then find a way back up, I looked for escape. I had ridden down too far to try to walk back up - against the flow of people coming down the escalator.

That's when I noticed I was nearing the bottom of the adjacent stairs, the concourse level I wanted. Hasty decision time. Hoisted the suitcase over the rail, and it clattered to the floor, startling several people nearby. Then over the rail I followed - in rather ungainly fashion (hey, I'll be 67 this week - not exactly James Bond, or even Jackie Chan). I landed, got up, grabbed the suitcase, and searched for someone who could direct me to Gate 31E.

Getting directions, I raced down the shopping corridor, OJ style, only to be delayed slightly at customs and a security scan checkpoint. Had a heck of a time trying to get my boots back on - they're new and not broken in yet.

I had been led to believe that Air France would "hold" the JFK flight for me (and perhaps others on the flight from Toulouse). I was misled. When I arrived at 31E, out of breath and parched, the gate attendant matter of factly told me the boarding was closed. Couldn't get on. Her sympathy was underwhelming. When I told her they indicated, on my incoming flight, that they would hold the JFK connection, she acted like I must be nuts to even think such a thing.

Resisting the urge to swear at the top of my lungs and throw a tantrum that would get me arrested, I went in search of someone who could get me re-booked quickly on another flight to the States.

Long story short, Air France has only one flight a day to JFK (or anywhere in the States, for that matter) and flights from the alternative, Charles de Gaulle, were all overbooked, in part because of the rolling strikes this spring by disgruntled AF employees. My only option was to stay overnight in Paris and take the next flight from Orly to JFK - the same one I missed, only a day later.

Oh, they lost my bag too.

 

Sunday, April 8, 2018

How old was he?

Why is it that when you mention the news that a famous person, or even a not-so-famous person, has died, the most common response is, "How old was he?" Or she?

Maybe that's just the response of seniors like me and many of my friends. Are we silently comparing the longevity of the just-deceased with our own? Oh, he was only 62; I've already outlived him. Hmm, he died at 67; I'm going to be 67 later this month. Or, he was 77; I've got a good 10 years before then.

We also compare our current age with the age at which our parents died. My dad was 90. My mother is nearly 95 and still going strong. Those are encouraging numbers.

When we hear of someone who has lived to be 100 or more, it inspires hope. We think that maybe, maybe we'll live that long. Of course, it's also a question of quality of life in those later years. One of my favorite lines is from French Smith's character in the alien sitcom "Third Rock from the Sun"; told that smoking would take 10 years off his life, he responded, "Yeah, but those are lousy years anyway."

A huge factor in quality of life is the people in your life. Without certain of them, the quality severely diminishes.

Health and mentally stimulating interests are factors too. People who become couch potatoes when they retire tend to die sooner than those who remain active.

I admire people who live full lives right up to the day they die. I admire people like our friend who went to India just for the experience, even though doctors told her not to fly so soon after a major operation. I also think about our friend Barbara, whom I was privileged to know for a little while, who told a joke to her doctor then died instantly where she sat - we'd all like to go that quickly and painlessly, I think.

I don't know how many years, or days, I have left. Or which of our loved ones and friends will precede us. No one does. 

The chart suggests, as a non-smoker, I should live another 17 years. D-L another 14. But actuaries are averages, not forecasts. They don't take into account genetics or lifestyle (such as my plans to do a parachute jump) or even the will to keep living. Will alone won't keep you alive, but if it did I plan to be around for a long time.