Sunday, April 27, 2014

Explore

Donna-Lane and I have adventurous spirits. Yes, we regularly head for predetermined destinations and scheduled events. But just as often, we throw away Plan A and wander off on Plan B, C, or Z with no agenda nor timetable.

Almost always, we discover wonderful things we might never have experienced otherwise.

Today, after a little chocolate and wine tasting and an excellent leg of lamb lunch in the village of Maury, we opted for an alternate route back. Barbara and Don were willing.

I didn't realize that what I joked would be "the scenic route" turned out to offer spectacular views of jagged mountains, rock-on-rock formations, constantly twisting roads, an ancient Roman viaduct, tiny villages tucked into the hillsides, rippling mountain streams at the bottom of the steep valleys, and finally a breathtaking panorama stretching from the dominating mountain of the region, Canigou, to eerie limestone formations, to familiar mountains (including the watchtower-topped Massane) cascading down to the shore of the Med.

We skipped - for now - other places I want to go back and see when we have more time: a Cathar fortress and a couple of gorges which I understand are quite spectacular.

Work can wait. Sleep can be caught up. Go ahead and explore the world around you. You may be surprised how interesting it can be.

Friday, April 25, 2014

I Am Not a Good Passenger

Anyone who has been driving while I was in the front passenger seat can confirm this.

I admit it, I like to be in control, hands on the wheel.

Not everyone likes being a passenger when I'm driving, I realize. I have been known to cut across 3-4 lanes of highway traffic because I almost missed an exit. I have been told that with my aggressive style I could be a taxi driver in New York City (except I don't know the language).

Of course, I always know what I'm planning to do when I'm behind the wheel. When I'm a passenger, I'm not so sure about what the driver intends, and the three big trucks next to us or the Mercedes trying to pass at 200 kph might make me a little nervous.

As we're preparing to drive up to Geneva (1, so I can take my golf clubs, which is a little awkward on a train, and 2, so we can bring some copies of D-L's novels back to Argeles, and 3, so we can see some places in Switzerland that are not on the rail lines), Donna-Lane mentioned she'd be interested in doing some of the driving on the 6-7 hour journey.

So yesterday, as practice, on the way back from the cookie factory near Sete, we switched places for awhile and she drove some of the A9.

I couldn't see the speedometer from my angle, but I could see her speeds on the new Tom-Tom GPS tracker she bought me for my birthday. European speeds "seem" faster than American, ie 100 kilometres per hour seems faster than 60 miles per hour, even though they are the same thing. And I noticed that in the passenger seat you sense every shift of the car, including the wind buffet - maybe because you're not holding on to anything like the driver is. I seem to do much better in the back seat, where I'm not as apt to be watching all the traffic and wanting to tell the driver what to do.

Years ago, when I tried to teach my daughter to drive, when she turned 16, she would get very frustrated if I reached over and grabbed the wheel when I was concerned we might hit something. I guess that would annoy me, too, if I were the one driving.

For someone who has not driven in quite some time - who, in fact, did not even ride in a car for one 18-month stretch - D-L did very well as a driver. She said our new/old car handles nicely, which it does for a 15-year-old antique. I couldn't get the radio to work (a potential distraction for me?), but I was able to look at scenery along the way that previously I could only glance at while driving.

Of course, it was me driving when I pulled into a street in Frontignan and did not see the green car coming around the curve. And it was me who got honked at on the highway, apparently for not going fast enough in the centre lane. And it was me who missed the last exit in France and we ended up crossing the border into Spain, adding a good 45 minutes to our trip.

D-L often falls asleep when I'm driving. I can do that on a plane or a train. But I doubt I could ever do that as a passenger in the front seat of a car. Regardless of who is driving.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Kid in a Cookie Factory

I still remember how excited Donna-Lane was a few months back when our train route from Geneva to Argeles included a layover in Montpelier. "The cookie store!" she explained. And when we arrived, she headed straight up the stairs, across the walkway over the tracks, and then an immediate right turn. Fortunately, we made it to the gourmet cookie store a few minutes before closing that day, and she filled a bag with an assortment of tasty "biscuits" that we enjoyed over the next few days.
She also learned that the "factory" for La Cure Gourmande was nearby. It also happens that the next novel she is writing, Murder in Schwyz, revolves around the family of a cookie manufacturer.

No surprise, then, that D-L arranged a "research" visit to La Cure Gourmande's home in Balcruc-les-bains, a coastal town known for its thermal springs near Sete, France. 

BTW, D-L's blog on this topic can be found at http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.ch/2014/04/a-few-years-ago-in-medieval-walled-city.html.
We expected to be hosted by a PR type, but instead our tour was conducted by none other than the founder and owner of the business, Christian, a man who is passionate about the quality products he and his employees produce. He and his colleagues showed D-L the cookie-making process from baking to boxing ... and then we went next door where they showed us their candy-making techniques as well.

My part of the "research" was taste-testing various cookies (cinnamon-dusted, chocolate-filled ...) and candies (chocolate-covered almonds, nougat, caramel) ... and I must say, I did my job very well!
After the factory education, Christian took us to their flagship retail store, which was literally wall-to-wall treats. It was especially fun to see a busload of junior high level schoolkids tour the mini-factory and store.

D-L got plenty of material to add "flavor" to her novel, and, of course, we left with a bagful of La Cure Gourmande's finest.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Facebook and the NSA (May Not) Like Me

Facebook and those friendly, cuddly domestic spies at the NSA like to use social media to "profile" people -- in the case of the NSA, your connections to potential terrorists (ie, anyone you know who doesn't live in the US); in the case of FB, your interests in material goods so they can sell your information to marketers.

If they track my posts, as I assume they do, they may be a bit perplexed by the eclectic mix of my supposed "likes."

I have connections with people all around the world, including the Middle East, Russia, China, and that hotbed of radicalism, Switzerland! Not a single connection, to my knowledge, is a terrorist, though I'm sure with the "six degrees of Kevin Bacon" method I'm probably linked somehow with the ayatollah of Kazakhstan (if there is such a person ... I don't really know).

Some connections are relatives, some are friends, some are friends of friends or relatives, some I've only ever known through FB or LinkedIn and wouldn't recognize if we were in a lineup together.

I get posts from a wide spectrum of political interests, anything from anarchist to liberal to ultraconservative. Do any of them represent my specific views? Once in a while, and only narrowly on an occasional topic. Their opinions do not represent mine, and my opinions do not represent them, nor anyone else in my connections. Why do I "like" such a diverse group of feeds? I like to understand what's out there in the world in terms of political thought and passion - I don't want to be spoon-fed from one point of view. (And I recognize that all organizations and media have a built-in bias, so I observe with a huge grain of sea salt.)

My FB feeds include a range of golf publications and bloggers, a few aviation, places I love such as Argeles and Geneva, the Blues Brothers, Il Divo, Roger Federer, Occupy Wall Street, Max Keiser, The Economist, Lego, FC Barcelona, the Ryder Cup, the Princess Bride (movie), Apollo 13, the Tom & Jerry Show, and books by Brad Thor, Dr. Seuss, and D-L Nelson.

What launched this blog were a pair of posts that showed up on my timeline today, back-to-back. The subjects could not have been more different, nor better illustrate the societal gaps of the world we live in today. One was about a guy who was 'exhausted' from 60 hours with the family at theme parks in Florida; the other post was about the (largely unreported) slaughter of 200 schoolchildren by thug/terrorists in Nigeria.

I'm not judging the theme park family; they have a right to enjoy the fruits of their labors in any way they wish and can afford. (Though I might suggest they try a vacation in Europe next, which would be far more educational for the kids.)

I do wish that people around the world would become more aware of other people around the world, not just those in their own backyard. Facebook, other social media, and the internet give us the opportunity to learn about places we will never visit, cultures we will never experience, but which we can understand a little better for the knowledge sharing.

However, Facebook will not necessarily provide much insight for the NSA or Zuck's minions into who I truly am or what I truly think. Give it you best algorithm, guys.

The Shirt Off His Back

You've heard the expression of someone who is an unselfish friend, "He'd give you the shirt off his back."

I found him.

We stopped to talk with a neighbor, two doors up, the other day. He was wearing a sweatshirt with an Argeles-sur-mer logo. I had seen something similar on another man walking through the marche previously, and figured they must sell them to tourists in some of the shops.

As ASM is my adopted home, I was very interested in buying one to wear.

I asked the neighbor where he got the sweatshirt, and he replied he worked for the village.

Then he pulled it off over his head and gave it to me. "Here, you may have it."

I tried to protest but he was insistent, so now I have, literally, the sweatshirt off his back.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Village Church

Disclaimer: It is not my intent to disparage anyone's religious beliefs, so if I do so I offer my sincere apologies.

D-L and I went to Easter service this morning at the village church, Notre-Dame-dels-Prats. It is perhaps the first time I have ever attended a Roman Catholic ceremony. (I cannot remember if I'd been to a Catholic wedding at some point; Greek Orthodox, yes, which I recall as the longest wedding ceremony I've ever endured.)

We had been in the church a couple times previously ... at the conclusion of the local history tour, when the sanctuary was empty. (That's where these photos were taken; we did not pull out a camera during the service.)

As a sociological study, it was interesting for me to compare elements of the Catholic service with the Methodist, Baptist, Mormon, contemporary, and other services I have attended over the years. There was a sermon, of course, though it was in French, and the best I could make out with my limited francais is the priest's topic was the 40 days Jesus walked on earth after the resurrection. There was a choir, and I was surprised that I recognized a couple of the melodies. There was "responsive reading" and what sounding like the chanting of 'the Lord's Prayer' - "Our Father, which art in heaven ... Notre père qui es aux cieux ..." There was a "holy smoke" ritual two or three times, and after the priest swung the brass incense lamp you could smell it all the way to the back of the nave. There was a good bit of standing up and sitting down, same as the Baptists (who often stand too long [for me], especially when the choir director insists on singing every stanza of a song, or multiple songs in succession). There was communion; in that regard, I think the Protestants have a more efficient system, similar to passing the collection plate, rather than the Catholic way of everyone getting up from the pew to queue up for the priest(s). (I wonder if requiring the priest to dispense the wafer and wine is not some sort of subtle 'control' mechanism, ie they are the only ones worthy to handle the 'body' of Christ?)
As it was Easter, they paraded statues of the crucified Christ and the Virgin Mary down the main aisle and back, trailed by an 8-year-old altar boy and four priests, who range in age from about 35 to about 65, at least from their appearance. I was a bit surprised that the statue-bearing young men were in street clothes (including one with black-and-white Converse sneakers) and the statue-bearing young women, all around age 10-12 - ie, not as old as in this picture D-L found for me - and all very solemn looking, wore American-style brand-logo ' statement' t-shirts under their jackets/sweaters (it was cool and damp this morning after last night's rain.)
The structure behind the church altar is quite impressive. There are eight red-and-white marble columns, and plenty of additional marble. The more than 20 life-size statues include the archangel Michael, shield and sword raised, standing on the back of a naked Satan. Several other angels and cherubs as well. The centerpiece is not Jesus, but rather his mother Mary, probably the key difference between Catholicism and Protestant worship, which minimizes the Virgin Mother to the role of a mere God-man delivery mechanism.
Donna-Lane and I did not get to sit together. We thought we were arriving sufficiently early, but the sanctuary was already packed so we squeezed into single seats on the hard wooden benches about four rows apart. I sat next to a distinguished-looking gentleman, perhaps my age or older, who clearly preferred to keep his end-of-row position (I always like the end seat too ... it often means extra leg room to ease my bad knees.) The gentleman was one of the few I noticed wearing a suit; his was gray with pinstripes that matched his white hair and beard.

One thing I did not see was the special "Easter dress" and over-the-top jewelry which has long been common for some women in America who seem more interested in who notices them than in the reason for the service. The folks in Argeles are pretty down to earth, and they come as they are to church or anywhere else. 

There were more children than I've noticed going into services on other Sundays, and the two impish brothers in the row in front of me, perhaps 5 and 7, dressed in identical green jackets, had to be taken out before communion because their sibling skirmishes were spilling into the aisle. Mom was not pleased at having to escort them out, Dad shrugged, Grandpa scowled.

The majority of parishioners were on the elderly side, but, as with just about every church service I've ever been in, there was the obligatory crying baby.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Total Surprise

I know I can be oblivious to what's around me at times. (One of my favorite t-shirts is "I live in my own little world, but it's okay, they know me here.") I prefer to call it "focus."

And I've never been much on celebrating my own birthday since it's another reminder that I'm not (physically) 21 anymore. (Mentally, I doubt I'll ever 'grow up.')

So I was totally clueless that my wonderful wife had - for a month or so - been surreptitiously planning a surprise birthday party for me.

I almost spoiled it by scheduling a trip to Marseilles the day before, taking the train up early in the morning (four hours), six hours of meetings, train back in the late evening (another four hours). If one of the trains had been just a little bit slower (a strong possibility on this Easter weekend), I would have missed my connection in Nimes and maybe had to stay overnight somewhere ... not sure I would have made it back to Argeles-sur-mer in time for today's lunchtime surprise. (Donna-Lane had been pretty adamant that I get back on Friday night, as were were scheduled to celebrate my birthday together with Barbara's birthday, which falls the day before mine.)

As we left our flat around 1 o'clock, I told D-L to go ahead, I would catch up with her at La Noisette. Wanted to check the lock on the other door, etc. No hurry, no worry.

When I finally moseyed in to the back of the cafe, still oblivious, I was totally blown away to see about 20 of our friends! "Gobsmacked," as my Brit friends say, a word D-L taught me not long after we re-connected almost two years ago.

As we munched appetizers, enjoyed Patricia's delicious chicken, rice & tomato lunch, drank some of Laurent's excellent wines, and finally devoured the birthday cake and my favorite, chocolate eclairs, I reflected a bit on how I had come to meet all these warm, caring people ... each connection different, many from D-L's long history in the village but a few new folks we'd met together ... every one of them authentic and unpretentious.

There were eight different nationalities represented in the room: French, Brit, Danish, Dutch, Scot, Italian, Swiss, and American. And a lot of talent - musicians, artists, writers, teachers, craftsmen, seamen, technology specialists. What we have in common is we love living in Argeles, and we enjoy each other's company.

My birthday's still not special ... but our friends certainly are. And the memories of this day. Thank you all.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Les Joies de la Vie du Village

Life could not be much more different for me than it was in Texas.

In Argeles-sur-mer, we walk almost everywhere ... because just about everything we need is within walking distance -- the green grocers, the bakeries, the butchers, the cafes ... even the mountains and the beach are each a leisurely stroll away from our doorstep. In Texas, you pretty much jump in the car to go to anything except a neighbor's home.

In Texas, I had a very low-key social life. Outside of work and professional acquaintances, did not have a wide circle of friends, certainly few that I might "hang out" with more than once a month. Lot of reasons for that; not simply the Texas terrain.

Here, living in the village, especially around holidays and summer, we can hardly turn around without seeing someone else we know. And I love it!

Yesterday, we opted for breakfast at La Noisette with a table along the sidewalk so we could "people watch" during the marche. We stopped counting at 20 the friends who came by, stopped for hugs, French two-cheek kisses, and catch-up conversation. At one point, our circle was getting so large we were completely blocking the entrance to the cafe.

Of course, Donna-Lane and I did our own tour of the marche before things shut down around Noon. First stop was C's, the British brownie lady, and we also picked up some yellow daisies and purple blooms for the two planters on the steps between the kitchen and dining room, plus a rotisserie half-chicken for lunch (using for the first time our new wood table and chairs on the sun-drenched patio).

Today, Palm Sunday, they staged the annual village flower show and sale, and the main street was an explosion of color and music. There was even a fashion show in which some of the ladies emerged from cocoon-style wrappings to reveal their trendy garb. Along the way we bumped into friends who just arrived from Denmark, and - 15 seconds after we said au revoir to them - new American friends from Idaho who are here for two months. We purchase some color for the patio - a reddish hibiscus, some delicate violet flowers, and a small multi-cactus planter as a centerpiece for the new table.

I also bought a framed black-and-white, hundred-year-old photo that depicts the street show below. In this village, of course, which goes back thousands of years, 1902 was almost like yesterday. For a small, out-of-the-way place, there's a lot of activity, culture, and history in Argeles-sur-mer. I feel very fortunate that we live here.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Boomeranging catapults and the economics of soldiers

Louis XIVth had this barracks built for soldiers
We took the Argeles-sur-mer village history walking tour, for the second time, with Jean-Marc, re-learning some things and learning a few interesting new facts and educated guesses about the 5000-year legacy of the place we call home.

The area of Argeles and surrounding plains and mountains have been inhabited or traversed by humans since pre-historic times, through Roman occupation, the medieval era, etc.

The fortified village of Argeles with stone walls 10 metres high and another 10 metre hill sloping down to the western plain, probably dates from the 11th or 12th century.

During the short-lived Kingdom of Majorca, the village prospered when the king made it his centre of tax collection (so he wouldn't need to share the proceeds with quasi-rulers of other towns in the region).

There's a tale of a catapult, designed to hurl huge rocks at the enemy, except the trajectory was straight up (and therefore straight down) and the rock crushed the catapult. (Wonder if it was a no-bid contract as a favor to some lobbyist?)

We learned about the three main gates -- the Elne, Collioure, and Sea gates ... some of the flooding tendency of the Massane River (dry most of the year but capable of rising 30-40 feet), which is why Napoleon III had the Rue Nationale built on high ground ... and how some houses could be dated by their construction techniques ... the barracks Louis XIVth had built to house soldiers ... and how the region changed hands from Spain to France in the mid-16th century.

A recurring theme throughout history is that rulers taxed the people so they could pay for soldiers, who they would use to try to conquer other lands ... so they could tax those people so ....

Things don't change much, do they?
One of the corner towers protecting medieval Argeles

Monday, April 7, 2014

Minding my P's and Queues

There's nothing quite like the excitement in the eyes of a child.
The best scene I'll remember about the thankfully uneventful but drawn-out trip from Orlando to Perpignan is of the 3-year-old boy ignoring the entrada prohibida signs and running, arms outstretched, to hug his arriving father as we emerged from the baggage / customs area in Barcelona.

The next best thing about the trip is I now know how to navigate from the Barcelona airport to the new TGV high-speed rail line which whisks you to Perpignan in about an hour. Only trouble is, it takes almost four hours to transition the 20-25 km between the plane and the train.

After waiting for my checked luggage until the carousel stopped, going to file a lost bag claim, only to be told they weren't finished offloading the Miami flight, then walking the entire length of the baggage hall again, it was a good 90 minutes just to exit the airport.

To get to the TGV train station, which is at Barcelona Sants, you first take a bus from Terminal 1 to T2. Adjacent to T2 is the Renfe metro estacion, where the queues for both the ticket attendant and the self-service kiosks were long and slow. Once ticketed, of course, you wait for the next train to central Barcelona.

I could have taken a taxi and gotten there more quickly, but at a cost of 22-25 euros compared with the 4.10 via train.

Finally arrived at Sants a little after Noon (2 1/2 hours after I landed) and only needed to wait another hour or so to board the TGV.

Flying into Barcelona is almost always less expensive than Toulouse (largely because of the added fees when routing through London Heathrow). But I'm not sure the modest savings is worth the extra bus-train-train-bus time and hassle.

Flying into Toulouse, I take a cab to the train station, then a two-hour train through Narbonne to Argeles. I suppose depending on the plane arrival and train departure times it might take as long as the Barcelona route. I'll have to calculate that some other time.

There's no easy way to get to Argeles-sur-mer without a reasonably long train ride. The regional airport at Perpignan only operates during tourist season, and then mostly flights to/from the UK. The relative inaccessibility is one of the things that makes ASM so pleasant -- it is definitely off the beaten path. The only people who are here are the ones who know it's well worth any inconvenience.

The third good thing on my trip is that I managed to transit Barcelona (the pickpocket capital of the world) without losing my wallet, my computer, my camera, or anything else. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

View from the 14th Floor

After nearly five non-stop days, finally a chill break. I've been in Orlando for the WATS airline training conference.

I'm ready to go home to Argeles-sur-mer ... and to D-L.

The first two days were 'rough.' Played golf in perfect weather at two different courses. On Monday, our group managed to bypass the 6-foot alligator on the 13th hole, and we ended up winning the tournament. I was a hack on the front nine but got in a pretty good groove on the back nine.

Tuesday and Wednesday, I basically attended conference sessions, took copious notes, and wrote articles on the presos for Halldale Media's online show daily reports. Halldale is the organizer of WATS and other airline training events around the world, and this was their 17th WATS and 50th event overall in their history. I've probably attended most of the WATS events. Had breakfast with some longtime friends/colleagues, and filet mignon last night with Andy, Chris, and Peter of Halldale.

This morning there was an excellent panel discussion and Q&A on various flight simulator technology topics. Then I met with the leader of an aviation organization on whose advisory board I serve; got an in-depth update on the org's activities, which are pretty exciting and about which I will be writing soon.

Along the way managed to connect with quite a few friends from my 30 years in the aviation training business, as well as several new connections.

Halldale was nice enough to put me on the top floor of the Shingle Creek resort, and I'm looking forward to watching the sun come up in the morning over the golf course and pool before I head for the airport. I suspect I'll sleep most of the way across the ocean.