Sunday, July 24, 2016

My Life in a Backpack

We were checking in at Carcassone airport for our Ryanair flight to London. I had paid for one checked back of 20 kilograms; as it turned out, I could have gotten away with a smaller charge for a 15kg bag, but with Ryanair (and other low-fare airlines) having an overweight bag could cost you even more, so pay a little upfront to eliminate the risk of paying later. (Ryanair's CEO once proposed to charge passengers to use the toilet on the plane during a flight!)

The queue was quite long and only two agents to handle the 40-50 people checking bags. For a good 30 minutes, I got to observe the people snaking through the stanchions with me, and could probably write an interesting short story with them as characters. D-L sat over yonder and waited, and of course struck up a conversation with the woman seated next to her.

As he was tagging my suitcase, the young man asked if he could check my carry-on luggage -- my backpack -- gratuit ... for free! My initial reaction was near-shock that Ryanair would offer anything without charge. Even the drinks and snacks on board are cash or credit card.

But then I realized something even more important. I simply did not want to be separated from the things in the backpack: my computer (and power cord), iPad (and power cord), camera (and power cord), tape recorder (and power cord), papers I had brought to work on, notebook, pens.

With the exception of Donna-Lane, my day-to-day life is contained in that computer. All my work files, financial records, thousands of photos, my connection to family and friends all over the world.

That's why those electronic devices are in the backpack. That's why they don't leave my possession, except when I have to place them in the tray to go through security (and then I don't go through the scanner until they do). The idea of risking them getting lost enroute to and from the luggage hold of an airplane is anathema.

Oh, I know all about backups. Yes, I could replace the computer, iPad, etc. within a day or two and be back in business. But what of the instant "fix" I might need from scrolling through emails and Facebook if I am without an iPad for hours and hours? What of scanning the news of the world headlines on Drudge? How could I survive without cute kitten videos?

No, thank you, young man. Keep your hands off my backpack.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Do I Need to Think About Open Carry?

I am, by nature, a trusting soul.

I am becoming less so.

I don't yet see terrorists and drug dealers under the bed, but I am aware of them in the shadows of the streets.

Today, I was walking along a road in our usually quiet village, on my way to where Donna-Lane had a doctor follow-up visit.

A dark car swung off the road, and I assumed they were going to park. Instead, the driver, a woman in her late 20s perhaps, stopped alongside me and was asking me something.

In my trusting soul mode, I moved closer to the car to try to understand what she was saying. She seemed to be looking for a location, a street or a business. But with my limited hearing and limited French, I couldn't pick up her rapid-fire French. I probably had no idea of the location she sought even if I could understand her. It was pointless to have even listened to her question, except to try to be polite, rather than ignoring her and keep on walking.

Seated next to her was a young man, perhaps 15 or 16, dark complected, possibly of Arabic heritage, wearing a hooded sweatshirt. He didn't look sullen but he didn't look friendly either.

After I'd told them I didn't know of the place they were seeking, and they drove off, I thought about what might have happened in view of recent events like the murders by truck in Nice or the random street shootings in Phoenix. The woman or teen might have had a gun and shot me. Or since guns are much harder to obtain in France, they might have jumped out of the car and slashed me with a knife. (There was no one else on the street that I had noticed.) Or they might have had an accomplice stuff me in the trunk to kidnap me for ransom -- good luck with that, given my bank account -- or just to kill me because I'm a Western white guy and automatically the enemy.

It probably would not have mattered to them that we buy our meat from the two Halal butchers in town. Or that we are friends with a wonderful artist from Morocco. And with a former Ambassador to the US from a Middle Eastern country. Or that one of our dearest "family of choice" is a couple from Syria.

I don't like the feelings of suspicion. I prefer to take people at face value until they prove otherwise.

I don't like to think about maybe carrying a knife as self-defence when walking around the streets (Swiss Army, of course). In London, I stuck a metal nail file in my pocket as we headed to the theatre district after dark.

I have never been inclined to own a gun -- too dangerous with children or grandchildren around. Though I wouldn't mind have a taser handy. My best defence is probably a golf club -- that I know how to use, and it could do serious damage to a kneecap!

Wonder what people would think if I "openly carried" a sand wedge on the streets?

Friday, July 15, 2016

Future Fear

I fear for the future of my grandchildren.

And I am frustrated by my inability to influence the type of changes that would put the world on a more positive trajectory.

Everywhere you look there is an amplification of intimidation, terror, violence, senseless killing.

The root of the problems, in my view, is the lust for money. The symptoms may include racial and religious hatred, inconsistent application of justice, armed conflict between and within nations. But look closer and at the core of every divisive issue is money or lack thereof.

When the US and its puppet states drop bombs from drones on wedding parties in the Middle East, it begets radicalized jihadists who shoot up Paris or Orlando and drive lorries through holiday crowds in Nice. And then nearly ever non-Muslim in the Western world looks with mistrust on nearly every Muslim in their neighborhood or on the trains and undergrounds. And vice versa.

Why the drone bombs? Well, it started with oil, didn't it? And then kinda got out of hand? But consider, too, that someone -- mostly US defence contractors -- have been making bucketfuls of money from war and the constant spectre of war. Not to mention so-called nation-building reconstruction projects. Follow the money.

I have seen, up close, so-called Christian preachers who rail against the alleged sins of others as a blatant fundraising tool, then personally pocket much of the donations. And maybe spend some of it on their own sins. (To be fair, I have also known good, self-sacrificing preachers who are truly interested in the spiritual and physical well-being of others.) The same sort of self-aggrandizing rhetoric is true of some imams who spew and spread hate while enjoying supposedly off-limits pleasures. Follow the money.

A presidential candidate is given a pass for gross and most likely criminal negligence by political appointees, while a young person is incarcerated in a for-profit prison for a very minor offense (often a trumped-up charge). Are we surprised at the anger? Couldn't be because Wall Street wants their corrupt friend and congenital deciever Hillary pulling the strings for the wealthy, could it?

How is it that, despite the increasing terror incidents, immigration crises, civil wars, and superpower tensions that the Dow Jones -- the faux barometer of economic health -- is racing to new records?

When I was growing up, there was a sense that the next generation would build on their parents' generation and thereby enjoy a somewhat better life. And the next generation, and the next ...

I fear we have lost that sense of an ever-improving society. I fear that we have shifted into a state of endless attack and counterattack with the innocents caught in the middle. I fear that when my grandchildren are ready to inherit the world ... there may not be much a world left to inherit.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

I Was Born Under a Wandering Star

In another life, I think I would have been an explorer. Say, 600 years ago, if I came to the edge of the sea, instead of concluding the land I knew was all there was I think I would have said, "Let's jump in a boat and see what's beyond the horizon."

I love to wander and discover new things, at least new to me.

When I moved to the Dallas, Texas area years ago and we were house-hunting, I rarely used the same route from the apartment more than once. I like to see where this road goes, where that one goes, what they connect to. (Came in handy when there were traffic jams; I knew which alternate routes would get me someplace.)

In the past three 700-1000km trips between Geneva and Argèles-sur-mer, we've taken a different autoroute each time. We've pretty much covered the breadth and depth of France, and been rewarded with some spectacular scenery.

Today, a typical lazy Sunday with no social commitments, we headed north along the coast, destined for a couple of vide greniers (flea markets). Never mind that we had just found the premier purchase we had been looking for right in our backyard (D-L will probably tell about it in I was feeling the need to get away from the computer, away from the apartment, and "get the stink out of me," as an earlier generation used to say.

We never found the vide grenier in Saint-Cyprien, perhaps because we bypassed the port area. We ended up in a couple of detours in Canet Rouissillon,  blocked by a marche (street food market).

We kept on to our furthest destination, Saint Marie de la Mer, another of the dozens of villages along this stretch of the Med and someplace neither of us had been before. After cruising the streets in the plage (beach) area for a bit, we decided to park and get a croissant. I'd had no breakfast before we left Argèles.

To our pleasant surprise, their vide grenier was going on right in front of us in the parking lot. We managed to find a wonderful multi-colored blanket for our picnics, and I nearly bought a WWI-era sword, but at 200 euros it was more than I wanted to pay for something I didn't need nor want that badly.

Perhaps I should have bought the sword. It might have come in handy against pirates on the high seas when I set off exploring.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Punches in Paradise

Dramatization, not a photo of the event described below
Sitting at a sidewalk café with friends on an otherwise perfect late Spring morning in the normally placid little village of Argèles-sur-mer, France, we witnessed a sequential altercation among several young men that could have become very ugly.

It started a few feet from our table, at the bottom of the steps up to the church. Pushing and shoving and angry words. The combatants then drifted down the street, where they resumed the skirmish in front of the artwork framing shop owned by a friend of ours (scaring her to tears). The fracas broke up, the young men drifted in different directions, then recongregated in front of the shop where punches seem to have been thrown and shirts ripped.

In the midst of this was an unwise young mother and her two-year-old daughter; I think she was trying to calm the situation. 

As the event unfolded, there were also a couple of school group field trips visiting the church and the local history museum around the corner - the teachers did their best to steer the students away from the action, but certainly the kids received more of an education than was planned.

A few minutes later, as some of the belligerents were walking away toward the river, a police municipale car, siren blaring, came racing up the street and screeched to a stop adjacent to the church. They were told the young men they sought were on foot, and they zoomed to the crest of the hill and intercepted the largest of the young men. Not hard to spot with his ripped shirt and barbed wire tattoo circling his forearm.

Soon, another police municipale squad car and one from the gendarmerie (the federal police) showed up as well. Bit of a surprise as we had heard the police were on strike this week.

Other than too much testosterone, a key problem for French youth is lack of work. More than 25% of young people are unemployed. Often their lack of education or technical skills makes it very difficult to find and hold what low-end jobs may be available. According to The Economist, "Countries with the lowest youth jobless rates have a close relationship between education and work. Germany has a long tradition of high-quality vocational education and apprenticeships, which in recent years have helped it reduce youth unemployment despite only modest growth. Countries with high youth unemployment are short of such links. In France few high-school leavers have any real experience of work."

Hopefully one of the outcomes of the morning is that the elementary school students who inadvertently witnessed the "rumble on rue de la Republique" will make the connection that staying in school is better than skirmishing on the streets. Though I doubt they are old enough to bridge that concept.

I wonder, too, if open-carry guns were allowed in France as they are in the US, might one or more of the volatile young men opened fire, wounding or killing their adversaries ... and perhaps innocent bystanders nearby ... such as a group of friends sitting at a sidewalk café?

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Alligators, Boars, and Birdies

There were no alligators, but I was warned there might be a wild boar. Apparently they like to root around the soft turf on the edges of the greens.

Some of the balls dispensed at the practice range look like they were dredged from a pond, but not until they'd had a good two- or three-year soak. The distance markers on the range are hand painted and probably not accurate. But it doesn't much matter because the sodden balls don't fly normally anyway.

I'm playing golf again.

After a nearly year-long hiatus, I'm back in the swing thanks to a group of 20-odd Brit and Scot expats who stage weekly outings over the border in Catalonian Spain.

Mostly they play pitch-and-putt courses, aka par-3 courses. But these are no powderpuff layouts. The one we played this morning, Mas Pages, is set into a hillside near Girona, and some of the holes stretch to more than 170 yards plus uphill. The longest club I brought, a 7 iron, simply wasn't enough on a couple of holes. (Note to self: bring longer clubs next time.)

There are legitimate bunkers (managed to miss all of those) and some crazy terrain bounces. And the greens are rather tiny targets, most barely 10 or 12 paces across. If you manage to land (and keep) your tee shot on the green, you've got a decent chance at birdie. Plenty of tilt to the greens as well; even short putts can be tricky.

On one of the shorter holes (about 70 metres, or 80 yards), the key obstacle was a large tree smack in front of the green.
At the top of the course, the view of the Pyrenees was spectacular. Amazing that I can play golf in Spain in the morning and be home in France for lunch.
I'm one of those rare lucky guys whose wife actually encourages to play golf. She knows how much I love it and she indulges me. On top of that, to soothe my aching muscles from all those pressure-filled shots, she booked a massage session for me. Amazing woman!

Monday, June 6, 2016

America and Europe - what's the difference?

I've lived in Europe for a little more than three years now. Last night at a dinner party in the south of France with friends from Denmark, Sweden, Scotland, I was asked what I saw as the differences between Europe and the United States (where I am originally from and still file a tax return).

The topic is too broad to do it justice, but after pausing a bit to coalesce my thoughts I made an attempt.

Foremost, one of my observations is that Europeans have more of a world view than Americans. In America, it seems many people know next to nothing about the rest of the world unless there's a tsunami in Asia that kills thousands, and then it's only a story for a couple of days before the news reverts to the latest political kerfuffle in Washington. Perhaps it's because Europeans are closer to places such as the Middle East, Africa, Russia that they are more conscious of the ongoing wars in Syria and Iraq, the millions of refugees trying to escape by sea and land, the belligerence on the Ukraine border, the poverty and desolation and terrorist breeding grounds in Somalia. These rarely make it on CNN and almost never on the myopic Fox News. Certainly in the time I have lived here and become sensitized to issues of immigration, austerity, currency fluctuations, and so forth, and by being exposed to the diverse viewpoints from British and French television, as well as Russia Today and Al Jazeera, I think my own view has taken on a more global (and more tolerant) context.

Next, I think Europeans have a much deeper appreciation of culture and history. You cannot go through the smallest of villages without passing centuries-old churches and chateaus. The US is a relatively young 200-odd years old compared to Europe which goes back more than a couple of millenia.

Of a more pedestrian nature, Europe is far ahead in public transportation. It is relatively easy (when there isn't a strike) to travel around Europe by train or super-cheap airfares. In the cities where we live, the bus and tram systems are excellent. It would be very easy to live without owning a car, whereas in Texas, where I most recently lived in the States, you could not go anywhere without jumping in the SUV or pickup. (The cars in Europe tend to be smaller and more fuel efficient as well.)

Finally, I told our group of Euro friends, in the past couple of decades, America has become far more polarized between liberal and conservative. People in one camp have come to view people in the other as evil incarnate and will not even speak with someone with a viewpoint that doesn't align with their own. Sadly, our friends related, a similar trend is happening in many countries in Europe, which only fuels suspicion, distrust, racism, hatred.

They asked me if I planned to vote for Trump or Hillary. Frankly, I cannot stand and do not trust either, and would like to see a viable third-party candidate, but I don't think things will change much regardless of who is elected. The President is merely a figurehead with little real power: the money people run things and are always behind the scenes pulling the puppets' strings.

This is true, too, in Europe. We have our share of liars and charlatans, some currently in power, others sniping from the wings. Most Americans probably don't know their names: Merkel, Cameron, Le Pen, Johnson, Hollande, Erdogan. (There will be a quiz.) Unfortunately, these so-called leaders have a way of mucking up our lives through their actions or inactions, so it's helpful to keep track of them.

America is not perfect. Neither is Europe. I did not move to Europe as a choice between political systems or lifestyle. I fell in love with someone who happened to live in Europe, and that's the sole reason I now live here. But in the brief time I've been here, I have fallen in love with the place and, generally, the people.