Friday, January 31, 2014

Huh?

When I was a kid - young in years, that is, because I still feel like a kid in many ways - I didn't know the term 'question mark.' For the longest time, I called it the "huh mark."

I still get that feeling a lot when I read about events around the world and the attitudes of leaders and followers who you would think would be more civilized and reasoned by now after centuries of human life on earth.

I just shake my head sometimes and ask, "Huh?"

You know the major issues as well as I: a few people on the planet hoarding most of the wealth (for what, bigger yachts? fancier coffins when they die and cannot take it with them?) while many, many people live in abject poverty and getting worse; policemen-of-the-world indiscriminately dropping bombs on children, women and men, controlling drones from a cozy chair in a darkened room in Nevada; military and civil government hackers spying on every American with a Twitter or Facebook account, including those little 8-year-old 'terrorists' on the schoolbus on the way to their suburban elementary school; millionaire politicians feeding daily at the lobbyists' pig trough, pursuing only their own re-election and posh perks (what constituents? I have constituents?); I could go on for days ...

I'm not a Robin Hood re-distributionist, advocating arbitrarily taking from the rich to give to the poor. I AM for opportunity and reaping the rewards of hard work ... and a level playing field. Now, with mega-corporations like GE using loopholes to pay no taxes, Wall Street and failed car companies being bailed out with yours and my taxpayer money, insidious proposals such as the TPP which will give business legal power over governments - the field artificially tilts 99% of the money into the pockets of the already mega-rich while the rest of us struggle to get by day-by-day. 

I tend to see two root causes for most of what ails mankind - greed and power - and the two go bloodstained hand-in-hand.

I fear that "the people," you and me, have almost completely lost any semblance of control or ability to significantly change anything. "We can still vote," you say? Take a look at the politicians at the highest levels in America (or the UK, France, and other allegedly democratic nations) - at best, there are a handful of bright lights. But they are not nearly enough in number to effect serious change. By and large, the politicians are all of the same cloth. And that cloth is bought and paid for by corporations who control the world banking system, the healthcare systems, the pharmaceutical companies, the food supply, transportation, the military - in short, pretty much everything about the lives of you and me.

I am not young. In a few years, who knows how many, I won't need to fret about the direction of my country and the world much longer. But I do worry for the world my child and grandchildren will live in. And even if I cannot change much, I still intend to try where I can.

Question authority. Question yourself. Question everything. Huh?

We don't burn books anymore, do we?

Book burning seems to have pretty much passed on with the Nazis, though there are still instances of it from time to time ... even supposedly offensive record albums/CDs or artwork ... anything that one group does not like and does not want anyone else to have physical access to.

It's a little more difficult to "burn" the internet.

But what's more insidious today is the intimidation of governments - from China to Saudi Arabia to the United States - who not only want to control what gets posted and read on the internet, they are creating a climate of fear that has led to self-censorship.

I got a message recently from a fellow writer who had purchased a book that might raise eyebrows in some circles. The book represented political views that might catch the attention of NASA (the National Autocratic Security Agency). The writer hesitated but bought the book anyway. (Good for them.) Which may lead someday to an IRASS audit for him/her, and perhaps for me as well since I am linked to him/her on social media and therefore an immediate suspect.

The other day, there was a story about a reporter in the Washington DC area who writes about security issues and who was stalked for days by a private investigator. Presumably the PI was watching to see if any whistleblowers contacted the reporter. Who hired the PI?

Journalists have had their phones tapped. Publications have been pressured not to run stories which may be damaging to government officials. Glenn Greenwald's partner was detained for several hours in the UK because of Greenwald's connection to the Snowden revelations.

This is all very chilling. We are rapidly devolving to a state-controlled press, no different than Stalin or Mao or Hitler, in countries which supposedly treasure "freedom of the press."

The effect of book burning and self-censorship is the same. Ideas don't get shared and discussed. Those in power are not challenged. Not for their agendas, nor for their corruption. What are they truly afraid of? Only of losing their power and the wealth that accompanies that power. 

UPDATE: This is an example of what happens with government intimidation of free speech and subsequent self-censorship. People stop talking. The government "wins."
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10608245/China-kills-off-discussion-on-Weibo-after-internet-crackdown.html

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Computers and candles

Our neighbor, an electrician, is planning to do some work on a few minor lighting issues in the Warren, so we’ve lost lights, heat, and … horrors, WiFi … for a few minutes.

Still have plenty of battery on the laptop, so we fired up a couple of candles to see the keyboards.

Very cozy.

Wishing we had the option of throwing a couple logs into a woodstove like J & R had fired up Sunday. In fact, it gives off so much heat that R had to insert several bricks in the stove to absorb some of the heat so people sitting in the living room wouldn't be driven out.

Probably too awkward to install a woodstove in the Warren because the pipes would have to be mounted on the three-story outside wall ... and the neighbor owns two of the stories!
 
Might look around the pottery stores or flea markets for a chimea outdoor fireplace for the patio, though.

BTW, we picked up our "new" car today. The parking karma seemed to be working - we needed two spaces, and two cars pulled out from the library lot as we entered ... unfortunately, they were both illegally parked, so we ended up by the river.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Whole Lotta Butt-Sniffin Going On

Stumbled upon an announcement in the Pyrenees-Orientales anglophone publication, P-O Life - http://www.anglophone-direct.com/, that there was a dog show being staged in Perpignan this weekend. "Shall we go?" D-L readily agreed. She's almost always up for an adventure, so long as it's not life-threatening dangerous.

The organizers advertised over 1500 chiens were registered to primp and prance, representing more than 167 breeds. We had slight hopes of seeing a "Pomsky," a Pomeranian-Husky mix that someone had posted on FB recently, or at least a Japanese Chin like Donna-Lane used to have.

No luck with the pom or chin, but did see a variety of poodles, all considerably larger than my teacup-size Kissie or Truffles.

And there were some enormous animals, large enough for D-L to ride, even larger than Saint Bernards.
The event reminded me somewhat of the weekend-long high school wrestling tournaments we used to attend with my daughter. Instead of animals running in circles, it was wrestlers of different sizes and weights rolling around a mat - but in both cases, observed by a judge, who was supported by a scorekeeper at a table (my daughter was one of the scorekeepers). And like the dog show, wrestling was a family affair - parents, friends, infants all there to cheer for the one in the arena who had trained for weeks, or years, to reach peak performance. Some of the dog owners even had "team jackets." Also like the wrestling, the dog show structure featured preliminary contests - there were at least 20 different roped off judging areas spread across two buildings - followed by finals competitions in the red-carpeted rings.

It may not have been the Westminster Kennel Club, though I'm sure some of the dog handlers have aspirations to present there someday (or perhaps some already have). But it was every bit a love affair with dogs.

For her version of the day's fun, check out D-L's blog: http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.ch/.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Writer measurements of time



"I'll fix breakfast after two more emails."

"I'm going to sleep once I finish this chapter."

"I want to write another 300 words in the novel, then we can go for a walk."

In our house, with two writers in residence, we tend to tell time in words, not numbers.

That's not to say Donna-Lane's sense of time is the same measurement as mine. She's a speed-reader for one, so it may take me twice as much time to read a paragraph as she does. If we're reading the same computer screen, I can't let her control the mouse because my brain cannot keep up with the speed of her scrolling.

On the other hand, at the end of a long day, D-L may take an hour to read a page or two in a book - "resting her eyes" in between reading sessions. Or, as her daughter phrases it, "pretending to read."

I tend to get into a zone when writing, oblivious to all else. So, for me, time essentially stands still -- until I'm jarred out of my writing reverie by a scheduled phone call I'd forgotten or the realization that the house got very dark and quiet when I wasn't looking ... and it's 3 am!

Instinctively, we understand each other when we reference writing-based time. I have a sense how long it takes D-L to write one of 30 or 40 news stories for the weekly newsletter (http://www.cunewswire.com/) she produces with Alistair Scott. She knows if I'm working on a highly technical, 2000-word magazine feature, I'm looking at several focused hours of referring to notes, fact-checking on the web, drafting, re-writing, proofreading, and re-proofreading.

Blog time is somewhere in between. She's way faster than me at that, but then I crop the photos I use and spell-check, whereas she goes with the free flow of the medium, inadvertently humourous or perplexing typos and all.

We're both time-challenged when it comes to clocks and calendars. We'll show up late for a dinner engagement because we hadn't written the appointment down. The other day, the one time I set the alarm this month, I got up an hour earlier than necessary to catch the train. D-L wasn't sure which day of the week she had booked her travel up to Geneva. I could cite many more examples, but you get the idea.

We won't even mention how many times I've burned things on the stove because "I'm just going to check Facebook for a minute."  

Saturday, January 18, 2014

What's a Foreigner?

The people you meet along the way are not always what you expect, or what stereotypes have led you to believe.

Many people, from whatever country or culture, are conditionally mistrustful of someone from another country or culture. Simply because they know next to nothing about the 'foreign' culture. And what they've been taught often represents the worst examples of the unknown culture. (It's not inborn - watch children meet another child for the first time; there is no prejudice whatsoever.)

Americans, and I realize I am generalizing (so certainly not everyone), tend to have a highly negative opinion of the French. One example is how John Kerry was derided by right-wing talksters  as having 'French-like' qualities, clearly using the word French as an epithet. Much the same is true of many Americans' attitudes toward Germans, Italians, Chinese, Mexicans, Africans, Muslims, Hindus, etc., even the English, though we tend to be more readily accepting of Brits and Aussies because they speak the same language (somewhat) and like to play golf. However, the same is true in reverse - many people around the world have a negative attitude about Americans based on what they've heard or been taught about the worst of American culture, politicians, entertainers, and the occasional loudmouth, boorish tourist they may encounter.

When I first visited Argeles-sur-mer, some were skeptical of me, not only because I was American but, worse, much worse, I was from Texas! I think they were expecting me to arrive in a 10-gallon hat (left it back in Dallas) with spurs on my boots. Most of all, they expected me to be a raging redneck who loved guns, gas-guzzling trucks, and ate only raw red meat. Those of you who have known me over the years recognize I don't quite fit the stereotype. I like my steak medium well.

Most Argelesians, to their credit, accepted me for how they found me to be. Ie, they judged me on what they knew of me from our direct interaction (and, gratefully, on endorsement of my character by D-L), not based on other Americans, or Texans, they may have known or heard about.

I recently met someone who is originally from Russia. Now, for someone who grew up during the Cold War with the Russians as the No. 1 enemy of the world, I might be expected to be very wary of anyone from the old Soviet Union. Instead, I found this person to be highly likable - engaging, professional, good-humoured, considerate ... in other words, the best qualities of people from America, Canada, the UK, France, Switzerland, and others I have encountered. If I did not know this person was 'Russian,' that nationality might never have occurred to me (aside from the accent, of course).

It also brought to recollection my application for a Top Secret clearance when I was working for Raytheon. As part of the 20-page application form, I had to list all contacts I had with foreign nationals, particularly anyone from the former Soviet Union. At the time, in the mid-90s, when I had traveled overseas relatively little, the only such person I could think of was a guy from Poland whom my boss at Link had introduced me to at some conference, or maybe it was even in Binghamton. Now if I were making such an application, I could not possibly remember the hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of 'foreign nationals' I have met from around the world.

I have found over the years that basic human nature cuts across cultures. I know people from various parts of the world who are very personable and outgoing, others from the same country who are taciturn or shy and keep to themselves. Some who will say 'Bonjour' or 'Hello' to a stranger on the street, others with their heads down and eyes averted.

I don't much care about where a person is from or their political or religious views, and try not to pre-judge based on stereotypes. It's more important to me that they be who they are, that they are 'authentic.' We can agree to be different ... that's okay ... because I intend to be who I am, so you'll have to take me as I am, or not.  

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Grassroots

Tonight I attended the first political meeting I had been to in more than 30 years, and it was a joy to observe. This was grassroots democracy at its purest. Rather than corporate lobbyist-driven backroom political dealmaking, this was down-to-earth people investing their time in trying to make their community better.

The purpose of the meeting was basically to organize get-out-the-word for the campaign of a resident running in the municipal elections in Argeles-sur-mer. There were about 20-25 people, mostly in their 50s and 60s, a couple of them younger, and the narrow room was festooned with small French, Catalan, and European Union flags, some of them stuck into crevasses in the lovely stone wall which is so typical of this quaint village.

Like the central part of many villages and cities, large and small, Argeles faces the dual challenges of growth and decline. To a certain extent, the area is undiscovered, or should I say yet-to-be discovered. It is in a lovely setting on the Med with the Pyrenees close by. But because it's a little off the beaten path, there are not a lot of large businesses to drive employment. There is some development of new, cookie-cutter suburban style homes, mostly for part-time vacationing residents.

The heart and soul of ASM has long been the village, or centreville, but several key retailers have started to re-locate out to an un-quaint commercial zone on the edge of town. The big-box WalMart-style grocer, the big-box home improvement store, and several medium-size businesses. Because this pulls shopper traffic away from the village, there are more vacant storefronts, and local small businesses struggle. One fear is that the little cinema, which is about 60 steps from our place, will be forced to close if they build a mini mega-plex theatre in the zone.

So the local residents who met tonight are building a vision of what might be and how they can achieve it over the next several years.

As a new resident, I adore the village and would love to see its charm continued and extended. We live on a street that has been repeatedly voted the prettiest in the village, and it wouldn't take much for other streets to add some flowers and vines, paint the weathered shutters. I would love to see a 'no vehicle traffic' approach for the area inside the old walled city portion, turn it into a pedestrian-only shopping and food and entertainment area much like The Lanes in Brighton, UK. They already do it twice a week on marche days; why not every day?

Donna-Lane was asked to speak briefly at the meeting, and she told them how she loved the village where she has lived for the past quarter century. She pointed out the strong cadre of artists in the village - painters, sculptures, even media folks from Danish television and UK theatre. Not to mention a journalist or two. 

I did not understand a lot of what was being said in French, of course, but I didn't have to know the words to see that these are people who love the place they live and want to see it prosper for generations to come.  

Sunday, January 12, 2014

D-L Tries Pot ... Again

After experiencing the results myself, I can certainly understand her euphoria.

I thought she was having a Meg Ryan moment when T walked into P&P's living/dining room a couple nights ago, carrying a package. D-L shrieked when she realized the package was for her. She jumped up, inspecting the package thoroughly, all the time gushing, "Thank you, thank you, thank you ..." The package was a gift from CP in the UK. I don't know if CP has been to Colorado recently.

For the first time in 24 years, Donna-Lane has a crock pot. Slow cooker to some.

Yesterday, she cooked her first meal using the pot - Moroccan turkey. I don't know if D-L has been to Morocco recently either. Or ever. (I'd like to go to Casablanca sometime, just to see Rick's Cafe. I'm guessing Bogey and Bergman won't be there.)

Here's the recipe -- http://www.food.com/recipe/easy-crock-pot-moroccan-chicken-chickpea-and-apricot-tagine-137530. Substitute turkey for chicken in the recipe 
and add two tablespoons of peanut butter.

No hashish.

She served it over couscous, which I have discovered I like as much as pasta or rice.

Topped it off with a bottle of award-winning chardonnay from Cap Wine International (http://www.capwineint.com/index_en.html), a vintner in Gascogny part-owned by Pascal Debon, with whom I worked at Nortel in Texas.

As you can read on D-L's blog, she has another 4,999 pot recipes available to delight our palate.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Deals on wheels

Donna-Lane is quite proud that she does not own a car. She rides in cars, very occasionally drives a car, and even buys cars for other people to own. But she does not 'own' a car in her name. Nor will she 'own' the car on which she made a downpayment today. It will be owned by the business, of which she is Directeur-General.

The Citroen which D-L acquired for B a few years back and which we sometimes use for short trips to the Industrial Zone or Perpignan is literally falling apart. The driver's door keyhole is so loose it may fall off if we hit a good bump, and the passenger door lock is always a wildcard as to whether it will slide open - we could be climbing in through the hatchback anytime soon. The inside handle on the driver's door is not as loose as it was before I super-glued it, but it still might rip apart with a decent yank. We recently replaced the locking gas cap because vandals damaged the lock with a screwdriver. And I won't begin to try to describe the exterior with its mismatched colors and missing trim. Also, the steering handles like a tank. Amazingly, the engine seems in excellent shape.

The 'new' car is a 14-year-old Peugeot 206. Looks to be in pretty good shape. Only driven by a little old schoolteacher on her daily commute. Buying it from a trusted man who runs a garage, so confident in la voiture's reliability.

We may have one of our artist friends paint a mural on the side with the name of the business. Guess that would make it an advertising vehicle.

Just don't call it D-L's car. She's liable to hit you with her cane (http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.ch/2014/01/i-have-cane-llara.html).

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Ear's my story ...

Many who know me long ago agreed that there's something not right with my head. Now there's medical proof.

For some years, I've had hearing problems, most acutely in my left ear. (If I want to be sure to listen to someone, at a table for instance, I will sit so they are on my "good ear" right side.) I attribute the hearing loss to working next to a radio station transmitter during my college years. Officially, my Dallas doctor labels it Meniere's. (http://www.menieresinfo.com/). My half-brother says he has Meniere's, and my father suffered from tinnitus after getting sick on a camping trip in the Adirondacks, though the medical journals say it is not known to be hereditary, only "familial," as in occurring more commonly in some families.

Regardless, I live with it. I wear a hearing aid. But recently I lost (hopefully only misplaced) my preferred hearing aid. So I started re-using my older hearing aid, for which my audiologist had provided me with "Plus Dome" attachments from Oticon. My advice - don't use these. They have a tendency to separate from the hearing aid.

On New Year's Eve, we were at a pre-dinner party at the home of friends, and I temporarily removed my hearing aid. There was no Plus Dome attachment on the end. I assumed it had fallen, so I and a couple other men searched the floor. I was concerned that the friends' dog would find the small plastic cone-shaped piece and swallow it.

I finally found the attachment - hours later when we got home. It was still in my ear! I couldn't reach it with my fingers, so I asked Donna-Lane to retract it with tweezers.

For the next day, my ear ached some. I figured the pain was residual.

This morning, after showering, I was cleaning my ears with a Q-tip, and thought I felt something in my left ear. It felt and even "sounded" like plastic. And it was quite deep, farther than the attachment D-L had retrieved. Was it possible I had another Plus Dome in my ear from a previous detachment?

In fact, that was the case. Very, very fortunately, we found a doctor in the village who extracted the plastic from my auditory canal. And he speaks excellent English! So no translation necessary.

Maybe the best outcome of this somewhat painful experience is that we now have a general physician within a 3-minute walk from the Warren.

D-L has some thoughts on the event here: http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.ch/2014/01/horrible-socialised-medicine.html.

The other message here is for our friends in the States struggling with Obamacare, rhetorically branded as "socialized medicine." All I can recommend is, get with the rest of the civilized world! France has one of the best-rated healthcare systems in the world. Every resident is covered. It's paid through taxes, not through rip-off insurance companies who charge exorbitant premiums to individuals and force high costs through ambulance-chaser lawyers and malpractice premiums (and who pay off the politicians who favor them).

Keep in mind, I do not (yet) have health insurance in France. However, the doctor treated me without asking. The pharmacy filled my prescription without asking. If I were in the system, I would be reimbursed for most of what I spent out of pocket. And yet - without insurance - I still paid less than 58 Euros (less than US$80) for the doctor's time, the 'operation,' and four prescription medicines. In the States, with insurance (for which I would be paying substantial premiums), I would have paid hundreds of dollars for the same treatment and meds.

Yes, there are a lot of flaws in Obamacare, largely because it was designed to appease the insurance companies (the ones who are cancelling all those "you can keep your" policies and charging higher prices for new "qualified" policies). What they should do is abandon Obamacare and move to a single-payer system which eliminates most of the insurance overlords.

I'm told the hearing aids are less expensive in Europe as well, so time to check them out, eh?

Petite sœur de Mère Nature

Today is take down the Christmas/Solstice Tree day. As we had put up a natural tree, the needles were now rapidly falling to the floor even if we tiptoed past. When we accidentally bumped a branch, it was like green rain.

To avoid tracking needles throughout the Warren, I got out the vacuum and prepared to "Hoover" them up, as our Brit friends would say.

"Wait!" Donna-Lane stopped me just before I pressed the on button. "It may not be good to vacuum all those needles into the machine. Besides, I thought we'd sweep them up, and take them down to the river. Return them to nature."

I looked at her with one of those bewildered "You're joking, right?" faces I get when I think someone's pulling my leg.

She wasn't. D-L is very much into taking as good care of the earth as we can. Things like using washable napkins and kitchen towels rather than disposable paper napkins and paper towels.

I come from a culture that worships convenience and landfills.

Knowing that the tree would shed needles every step of the way as I dragged it through the house, the street, and in Barbara's car trunk on the way to the dechetterie, I decided to try shaking it on the patio first.
Almost every needle fell off.

So we swept up most of them (a few will, indeed, get Hoovered), put them in a blue bag, and headed for the river. I teased D-L repeatedly along the way, but she's absolutely right about recycling and responsible stewardship of the planet.

It was a beautiful sunny and reasonably warm day in Argeles-sur-mer, and the needles made a pattern that morphed into kind of an animal's face and body on what little water was in the river.
We'll go back and check on their progress tomorrow.

Perhaps in the spring, there will be thousands of small pine trees lining the river all the way to the Med. Or maybe some of the needles will drift into the sea and work their way to the coast of Morocco and the desert will become forest. Perhaps not, but it made for a bit of fun in taking down the tree.

Now where'd I put the Hoover?

BTW, D-L's version of events can be found at: http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.fr/2014/01/needles-to-nourishing-nature.html. We wrote these simultaneously without discussing them - one of our 'dueling blogs' occasions.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Taking the plunge ...


Yeah, it sounded a bit crazy. Go swimming on New Year's Day? Okay, we're in the south of France, but it's not exactly the tropics this time of year. In fact, it was 2 degrees Centigrade (35.6 Fahrenheit) outside when we left the Warren to head for Argeles Plage.

Then again, why not? What's the worst that could happen? Get sick and lie in bed for a week reading? Lose a toe or two to frostbite (I could probably spare them). Get sucked out to sea by an undertow and end up in Casablanca?

Before the official start of the annual premier bain de l’année (first dip of the year), a tradition in this millenia-old village that dates all the way back to 2011, I walked down and dipped my toes in the water just to see how cold it was. Surf-forecast.com claimed the Med was 13 °C (55F), which meant the water should have felt quite a bit warmer than the air. It wasn't. If anything, it felt colder. Surfers were advised to wear a wetsuit, gloves and boots. I was going to take the plunge nearly naked.

But it was way too late to back out. My daughter wanted video proof. Donna-Lane was filming. P, P & H had walked down from the village in support of me and about 60 or 70 other hardy fools. There were at least 200 spectators to cheer us in.

So here's the video proof: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JtQY8AQKfic&feature=youtu.be

D-L said if the video didn't turn out okay, I could re-enact the New Year's swim next year.

Don't think so. This was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

BTW, her perspective on the topic can be found here: http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.fr/2014/01/you-want-to-do-w-h-t.html.