Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Funny-looking train

Had not expected to finish our 10-hour train trip from Argeles-sur-mer to Geneva on a bus winding its way around treacherous one-and-a-half-lane mountain roads in the rain.

Apparently the track between Bellegarde, France, and Geneva is being repaired, so for six weeks in the middle of summer travel season, anyone training in and out of Switzerland has to spend the last, or first, hour on a motorcoach. Did not realize that when we bought the tickets a few weeks ago.

Rather than think about the steep dropoffs down the side of the mountains, we read a copy of the Swiss "20 Minutes" newspaper that someone had left on the bus earlier in the day.

For our late afternoon train connection from Lyon, there were six busses waiting at the gare in Bellegarde to which hundreds of people queued up, loaded their luggage under the bus, and found the first available seats.

At the France-Switzerland border near Geneva airport, for some unexplained reason, our bus was asked to pull over to the side (while the other busses whizzed past). From what I could see but not hear of the conversation between the young driver and customs officials, the delay had to do with pink papers and blue papers.

Prior to boarding on the train in Lyon, I thought I'd lost D-L in the station. As we were looking at the monitors to learn which track our train would depart from, she disappeared, telling me, "Stay here til I get back." She may explain why in her blog: http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.ch/.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Le médecin vous verrez maintenant

Love the French (and Swiss) healthcare systems. Efficient, effective, inexpensive.

The Swiss system has been wonderful for Donna-Lane through her breast cancer three years ago and her face surgery a year ago yesterday. You can read her blog about her breast cancer experience here: http://breastisyettocome.blogspot.ch/.

Today I needed some prescription refills for some meds that are running low on supply.

Although I am not (yet) on the French national healthcare system, the doctor welcomed me into his office anyway, checked my vitals, and wrote out the prescriptions. We spoke mostly in French, though some of the doctors (médecins) speak English as well.

At the pharmacy, where I was lucky enough to be third in line when they opened, they provided the full three-months' supply to keep my head clear and my heart pumping.

Altogether, the total cost - doctor and meds - was less than 90 Euros. One of the three prescriptions alone would have cost me at least $200 in the US. (And if I were on the French system, I would be reimbursed for about 70% of the cost.)

In Switzerland, basic healthcare insurance is mandated but purchased privately at relatively modest cost.

Both France and Switzerland consistently rank in the top 5 or 10 healthcare systems worldwide.

http://internationalliving.com/2014/02/where-to-go-for-the-best-health-care-in-the-world/

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Strange Man in the Kitchen

Came home from watering the plants of friends who are away to find a strange young man in our kitchen. (Photo is NOT him.)

Turns out he and his family are staying across the street for a few days, and their electricity had gone out. Since the owner of the house where he's staying, A, has known Donna-Lane for a number of years, she recommended he check with us. Meantime, A (who is in Copenhagen) called D-L to explain the situation.

He came, he cooked, he left to feed his family.

If the electricity is not back on, he'll return to our kitchen this morning to make breakfast for his family.

Just one of the ways life works in a small village. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Boys (and Girls) of Summer

What is it about summer months that motivate men (and women) to revolution against an oppressive government?

Monday is Bastille Day, celebrating the overthrow by the people of the French monarchy.

Last week was American Independence Day.

On August 1st, the Swiss celebrate their National Day.

The photo in the centre depicts Arnold Winkelried, legendary Swiss hero, throwing himself into the ranks of Hapsburg 'pikemen,' taking down several of the wooden spears with his body and creating a breach through which his fellow Swiss could break through in the Battle of Sempach in the 14th century.

Such was the spirit of the American revolutionaries and the French, a willingness to stand up - and die if necessary - for a just cause.

I wonder if the revolutionary spirit still lives in the Divided States of America? Or are we simply willing to let freedom after freedom be chipped away by modern oppressors, every bit as obscenely wealthy as the monarchs of feudal/slave societies (but who are somewhat more discreet about flaunting their riches, lest the non-wealthy rise up)?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Spokesman for the Spies?

I am not looking for a job, nor do I ever plan to look again. But I have not turned off the various job feeds I signed up for a few years ago, just in case something pops up that may be of interest to a friend.

Lookie, lookie at the job opening that popped up today:
http://www.raganjobs.com/c/job.cfm?site_id=759&job=19095136

Director of Strategic Communications, NSA, Fort Meade, Maryland

I can only imagine how many layers of approval the NSA Comms Director has to go through to issue a press statement. (Though not necessarily any kind of court approval.)

Some of the statements in the NSA job description are outright laughable:

"... outreach designed to meet the President's expectations for greater transparency ..." - as opposed to the deliberate obfuscation that the NSA and White House have been doing since the Snowden and other illegal surveillance activities were revealed? (Notice the careful wording, the President's "expectations," ie what Obama really wants, not necessarily the "most transparent administration ever" he publicly promised ... and has proved to be just the opposite.)

"Lead the work of state-of-the-art ... recording studies." Hmmmm, wonder what for?

"Perform all duties in a manner fully consistent with the law ..." Hahahahahahahahaha.

"... and with an unwavering commitment to the protection of privacy and civil liberties." Seriously, they can say this with a straight face?

"... the ability to bring about strategic change ..." Oh, how I would like to change the NSA! Stopping spying on US citizens would be a start.

"... creating an environment that promotes employee engagement ..." Such as suppressing legitimate whistleblowers, ruining their lives, throwing them in jail?

"... preserving, protecting, and defending the nation's laws and liberties ..." Redundant from above, but nice eye-candy.

" ... seek and speak the truth ..." Which won't be easy in a culture where lying starts at the top, ie James Clapper lying to Congress, and never being charged with perjury.

Salary: Up to $175,000. (And all the under-the-table perks you can handle from government contractors.)

Aside from the 10 years of government service requirement, which I am glad to admit I never accumulated (none in fact), my comms skills and experience line up very well with the job description. I could step right into this job. (I even have my own headphones!)

But as much as I detest what the NSA has been doing - and I don't argue in favor of zero surveillance of truly bad guys - the only way I could get hired for this job would be to habitually lie throughout the application and interview process. Wait ... after further consideration, I think I'd be perfect for the job!

Hey, NSA, since you already know everything about me, do I need to send you a formal application? Or are you already considering my credentials? (Please ignore that recent trip to Russia. I did NOT see Edward Snowden when we were there.)


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Cirque-tacular

Late on Saturday evening, as it was an outdoor performance and there is still daylight as late as 9:45pm, we enjoyed a performance of Cirque du Soleil's "Scalada: Mater Natura." If you know Cirque, they are heavy into acrobatics, so the "story" is a bit peripheral and basically sets up the costuming.

In this one, a pair of thoughtless hikers yanks a large flower out of the ground, and are then sucked into the centre of the earth, where they witness a series of incredible performances.

Among our favorites:
* The woman on the springboard-like piece of wood, flexed by two very strong young men, who help propel her high in the air for a series of flips and spins.
* A  woman in a large hoop, large enough for her to fit into, who spun around within it at a sometimes furious pace to the point we wondered how she could not be falling-down dizzy.
* A man on a large cylinder attached to a long arm, which was used to spin the cylinder in circles while he ran on the inside and outside of the cylinder, including at one point jump-roping while on the move and another time blind-folded.
* A pair of women on a trapeze with some incredible moves.
* The hikers hoisted high above stage on ropes, almost dancing in the air, and with the man at times supported only by the strength of one of the female hiker's arms.
As amazing was the price. We paid only 15 Euros each for reserved seats. And there was a large free section for those who wanted to stand.
 
We arrived early enough to get into a parking garage so as to avoid the exit traffic of the 5,000 people in attendance. We used the pre-Cirque time to have a leisurely glass of champagne to toast a wonderful weekend.

Honeymoon Sweet

One of the views from our apartment in Arans     
We liked the place we stayed in Andorra so much, we plan to go back next year, probably for a couple of weeks, and spend (most) of the time writing.

Rather than stay in a sterile hotel, either downtown or at a semi-deserted ski resort, we opted to go deep into the mountains. Relative isolation, even if it meant a little extra driving to get into the main city where the spa and Cirque theatre were located.
Notice on the map the zigzaggy road. That's what we took from the main route into Andorra to get to Ordino and eventually Arans where we were staying. The road zigs and zags because it first winds its way almost straight up the mountain and then straight down on the other side. (I'm wondering when Google will come out with 3D maps so you can see elevation changes.)

The views were spectacular, too beautiful to describe and a photo would not do justice (though there was almost nowhere to pull over and take a photo on the narrow road).

Our host, Pere, did explain to us that there was a much flatter, relatively short route from Ordino into the main city of Andorra La Vella, which was a great relief since we didn't have to take the mountain route late at night after the Cirque performance.

Our destination was an apartment in Arans, which had once been the original first farmhouse of the 'village,' now grown to at least 20-25 buildings, including two restaurants. The price was excellent, as summer is off season (most people who visit Andorra do so in winter for the superb skiing).

There was even a local 'alarm clock,' though the rooster - who had a brood of several hens - tended to sound off in the early evening rather than early morning (guess he's more of a night person, like me).

Compackability

Whenever we travel, Donna-Lane packs very light. One small teddy-bear suitcase and a pocketbook/purse. That holds all the clothes she thinks are necessary, toiletries, a book or two, and room to spare.

I have never mastered the art of light. One reason I probably needed the massage in Andorra (http://lovinglifeineurope.blogspot.fr/2014/07/first-massage.html) is because I'm usually lugging a couple of suitcases and a briefcase (or two) through the airport.

I'm worse when we have the car. The trunk seems to fill up no matter where we're headed, and it spills over into the back seat.

As it was, I kinda wish I'd packed a sweater for Honeymoon, Part I, in Andorra. And a pair of long sweatpants to wear to bed, cuz the nights were a bit chilly. Well, part of the nights ...

One thing neither of us packed was a computer. Almost completely off grid, though we could get emergency email and internet via WiFi on the smartphone, if it were really necessary.

First Massage

The futuristic design Caldea Spa in the heart of Andorra
Aside from a 5-minute chair massage, fully clothed, in the hallway of an aviation conference a few years back, I've never had a massage. Aside from physio-therapy after her cancer, Donna-Lane hadn't ever experienced a professional massage.

But when in Andorra ... one of the feature attractions is Caldea, said to be Europe's largest health spa. So I booked three hours at the facility, including 20-minute massages for each of us.

Had no idea what to expect. Would we be in the same room, on side-by-side tables, or in separate rooms? Would we have a male masseur or female masseuse? Would we be semi-clothed or nekked?
Don't get excited; this is not me - but it is representative
Suffice to say, the experience was wonderful. Came out feeling not only very relaxed, but learned some techniques D-L and I can use on each other to soothe any aching muscles or tension from too many hours at the computer. My masseur, Pepe, described the connection between the mind and the muscles, and I intend to do some research to understand better.


After the massages, we returned to the huge indoor pool, hot tubs, and a variety of other wet and dry sensations. My favorite was the Roman baths (the 36-degree Centigrade one, not the 14-degree C) and the infrared lamp loungers, where our view through the windows was the surrounding mountains, blue sky and clouds. We passed on the Scandinavian ice baths.

I managed the weekend's one klutzy move, inadvertently stepping into the decorative pool opposite the downstairs reception (I was videotaping the beautiful lobby and stairs, not watching where I was going.) D-L probably posted something about drying my sneaker on her blog: http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.ch/.

Honeymoon, Part I

Over the weekend, we went on our delayed honeymoon, Part 1. (Yes, it was cool enough in July to warrant jackets, sweaters, scarves!)

Delayed because we've both been writing and traveling pretty much constantly since our ceremony last August.

Part 1 because we intend there will be four phases to our honeymoon - the four independent principalities of Europe: Andorra, Monaco, San Marino, and Leichtenstein. Originally, we planned to do all four in one grand tour, but that became difficult to schedule. So we decided to do one audacious nation at a time.

First honeymoon trip: Andorra, the closest to Argeles-sur-mer, about a 4-6 hour drive, depending on how often we stop to see things, take photos, have a leisurely lunch.

The short synopsis (you can fill in your own details, or read our separate blogs - D-L's is at http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.ch/): we stayed at a cozy little B&B in the mountains, a one-blink village named Arans which maybe has 30-50 permanent residents (counting the chickens); we went to the futuristic-design Caldea, Europe's largest spa, and each had our first massages ever; on Saturday evening, we took in the Cirque de Soleil production, Mater Natura; before driving home on Sunday (via a sliver of Spain), we went hiking on one of the numerous trails in the mountains.

We are writing our blogs separately without reading each other's until all are posted. You can decide whether Donna-Lane and I were on the same journey.