Saturday, August 30, 2014

Things Are Still Hopping in the Warren

It's been awhile since we've written about our furry friends - Hunny Bunny, Herr Hare, Petite Cougar, and of course Scooby Two.

They're still hopping around the Warren, getting into mischief from time to time, especially with the red blanket that we use mostly for decoration on the bed. (Sometimes we find the bunnies in, shall we say, compromising positions.) They haven't been out much recently, but Scoob is plotting ways he can accompany us on our next wave of travels (and his mother, Petite Cougar, is as determined he will stay put with her).

Sure, we get odd looks when people realize a couple of geriatrics still play with a menagerie of stuffed animals. But then we met the white tiger!
On our recent trip to the medieval city of Carcassone with our Swedish friends, R and E, they pulled out their own plush companion, a floppy white tiger.

Nice to know there are other older folks who have not lost the playfulness of youth.

Scooby Two scolded us, "See, I told you that you should have taken me with you to Carcassone! The tiger and I could be great friends."
Scooby Two's most recent outing to the Jet D'eau in Geneva

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Four Freedoms in My Lifetime

In French language class yesterday, we were discussing cultural customs in France compared with how things are done in our native countries, ie the US for me, an Eastern European country for the other student.

It struck me how often my response was, "It used to be this way, but that has changed over the years."

At the dinner table, do you respect the family hierarchy, ie the children listen while the parents speak? It used to be that way - now, anyone and everyone tends to talk at the same time ... on those rare occasions when families even sit down to a meal together.

Do couples touch and embrace in public? That ... and a lot more! (Obtiennez une chambre!)

When someone gives you a gift, do you open it in front of them? (The French don't, perhaps in case a lousy gift will cause an involuntary negative reaction.) American kids especially rip through the wrapping paper and barely even look at the gift, then on to the next one. A thank you? Ha! Manners disappeared for most long ago.

Do people show up on time for appointments and meetings? When I worked at Nortel (which many of you know is now bankrupt, no surprise), the engineers would only begin to think about ambling down to the conference room at the announced time - they generally got there about 10-15 minutes late - and more surprising, the execs and everyone else waited for them!

I'm in agreement with those who lament that society in general has become less civil, less respectful of others, and we're all the worse for it.
Another significant change from my early years is the steady loss of freedom such as Freedom of Speech (depicted here in one of Norman Rockwell's classic "Four Freedoms" paintings).

Whether it's the NSA spying on every citizen of every country, the US included, or the police using military weaponry and illegal tear-gas to suppress protests (yes, I know there is looting and other criminality, which only gets in the way of the protesters' arguments), or the State Department and IRS intimidating the banks of foreign countries to harass ex-pats via FATCA ... we all lose.

Now Freedom of Speech is equated with the rich's ability to buy politicians. 

Freedom of Religion is either Freedom From Religion (none allowed) or Freedom Only For Politically Correct Religions ... I don't think any religion should be factored into government policies.  

Freedom from Fear? Have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan made America, the UK, etc. safe from terrorists? Or motivated them? 

Freedom from Want - while the rich rake in all the gains in the US economy, the middle class and poor lose ground; the official unemployment numbers don't tell the story of the millions who have given up or taken (or been forced into) part-time work that doesn't cover the mortgage and groceries.

When I think of the America I grew up in and America today, I am saddened. The changes won't have a huge impact on me, as I am toward the end of my life. I worry about how the country and the world will change even further, even worse, for our children and grandchildren.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Inhumanity of Refugeedom

I have been reading a book about the tribulations of the people in the Catalonian region (French and Spanish) before and during WWII. The stories are appalling for the inhumanity of so-called human beings, shocking for the deprivation that hundreds of thousands were forced to endure, yet heartening for those who risked their own liberty and lives to try to help others.

The book is "Love and War in the Pyrenees," by Rosemary Bailey. The subject is fascinating, and the tome is both well-researched and well-written.

In the 1939 timeframe, about half a million Spanish fled from Franco's fascist takeover of Spain. It is known as the "Retirada," or The Retreat. After they struggled across the high mountains in the brutal months of winter, carrying what was left of their possessions in cardboard suitcases, the refugees were forced into internment camps by the French authorities, who feared the unknown impact of the waves of "foreigners" on this otherwise docile farming and fishing area.

In Argeles-sur-mer, just one such place of several, more than 100,000 Spanish were herded onto the cold sand beach and surrounded by barbed wire. They would endure months there, initially with only dunes for shelter, later a few crude buildings. Women and children were separated from the men.
The following year, after Hitler's fascists had overrun France in only six weeks, there was an exodus in the other direction - those who feared German reprisals trying to escape over the Pyrenees in hope of eventually reaching Britain or the US, or at least neutral Portugal. Or die in the attempt. Those who could not escape were rounded up into concentration camps - they were called that by the French before the world discovered the heinous Nazi camps such as Dachau and Buchenwald. One of the camps, Rivesaltes, just north of Perpignan, became a final waypoint for Jews before they were shipped to the gas chambers of the German "labour camps."

Three things strike me as I read the words of people who lived through these horrors: 1 - these events did not take place so long ago, only a few years before I was born; 2 - the same type of concentration camp "solution" was used in the United States with American citizens and residents of Japanese ancestry; and 3 - there are, today, similar refugees in dire circumstances in numerous places around the world: fleeing Syria, fleeing Iraq, fleeing Somalia, fleeing North Africa, fleeing Central America, fleeing Ukraine, fleeing Gaza ... infants, children, women, men, elderly, wounded, sick ... uprooted from their homes and their homelands, usually by oppressive warlords (who are supported by the arms merchants and political hacks of the so-called "civilized" or "developed" world).

We don't seem to learn the lessons of history. Succeeding generations, embarrassed by the crimes of their parents and grandparents, hold memorial services, erect plaques and statues, and think they have absolved the sins of the past. Then they commit, or at least enable and allow, a new wave of similar atrocities against those of an ethnic group different from their own. The atrocity is usually justified by some perceived outrage, some relatively minor incident or affront, but behind it is a grab for control, for power, and the wealth that accrues to the powerful.

Certainly Hitler was a monster. But could he have done what he did without the Vichy collaborators, without Marshall Petain? Without the spineless Neville Chamberlains?

Who are the Hitlers and Francos of today? Who are the Petains? The Chamberlains? Poroshenko? Putin? Assad? Netanyahu? Merkel? Cameron? Obama?

Do you think any of them give a damn about the millions of refugees? Millions of human beings who are not partying with celebrities and lobbyists at the White House but are struggling simply to stay alive day by day. Millions of individuals who once had dreams but the "bad luck" to live in a place coveted by someone with a missile or a drone.

I don't think I can begin to imagine living as a refugee or being caught in the middle of a war zone. Bailey's book begins to give me a sense of what it might be like, but it cannot approach the levels of mental anguish and fear that refugees of yesterday ... and today ... experience every waking minute of every day.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Worst Movie I've Ever Seen

Resolved: in the future, before going to a movie, check out the plot synopsis and audience reviews first.

We just walked out of "Under The Skin," featuring Scarlett Johansson, who I thought was supposed to be a good actress - though scrolling through her credits in IMDB.com, I don't see anything she's been in that particularly impresses me (Home Alone 3? Spongebob Squarepants the Movie? Okay, I liked Iron Man 2 but she wasn't even the lead female in that).
"Under The Skin" was sheer visual torture, beginning with the tiny then growing bright light in the center of the dark screen which seemed like a prelude to hypnotizing the audience: "Stay in your seats. Stay in your seats. Buy popcorn and candy." (Though at our little theatre in Argeles, the snacks are very reasonably priced.)

I'll save you the price of admission: apparently Johanssen's supposed to be an alien who drives around in a van picking up stray single men, then killing them.

Lots of critics seemed to like it, but then most critics have always liked bizarro crap.

Immediately after we walked out, so did another couple. "Horrible," we all agreed, a word that means the same in English and French.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Come into my parlor ...

Flies bug me, especially when we're eating. Other times I don't mind just shooing them away, but stay off our food!

Fortunately, I've been refining my fly-killing skills. My hands have become lethal weapons.

Here's the technique:

For some reason, even though they have hundreds of eyes, flies seem to have a blind spot directly above them. Through hours and hours of observation (I know, I should be spending that time on something valuable, like Facebook, right?) ... I've noticed that flies tend to takeoff vertically - right into their blind spot!

So carefully hold your hands, palms facing, about 3-6 inches above the fly. (Works best if they are on a flat surface, but not totally necessary.) When you quickly slap your hands together, the fly will fly straight into them.

The other day, I didn't even have to slap my hands. A fly was on the back of my left hand. I cupped my right hand (above him in the blind spot) and ever-so-slowly lowered my hand until I had engulfed and smothered him.

I have about a 90% success rate, according to Donna-Lane. Though often they are just stunned, so you may have to finish them off with your foot ... D-L prefers to put them out of their misery; she's much more compassionate than I. I say that a fly's entire life is misery! I'd rather leave them on the ground, squirming and squealing, sending out messages to all the flies within hearing distance that our patio and apartment is a Death Star to them. "Turn back! Stay away! Danger, danger, Fly Robinson."

Maybe I'll hire myself out as a professional fly-sassin.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Inner Dragons

Argilarium, La Grande Parade, Argeles-sur-mer 

There were no doubt a few nightmares last night. Toddlers who had not been pre-conditioned to understand the huge 'fire'-breathing dragon swinging his enormous, acrid-smelling head in their direction was mechanical and not real. The young teenage girl chased around the square by the 12-foot costumed ghoul on stilts.

We all have dragons we face, some sporadically, some daily, some for a lifetime. Many of the dragons or demons are created in our own imagination, fears of what calamity might befall us, sometimes based on real events, sometimes mere worry of the unknown future. Or our dragon/demon might be the frustration of unfulfilled dreams.

At this point, safe to say, I'll never play the professional golf tour. Nor even a single event such as the Dick's Sporting Goods Open in Endicott, NY, on the PGA Champions Tour - which they are playing this week - a tournament I helped start about 40 years ago as the B.C. Open. That dream passed, unless they invent a fountain of youth, so I'll always wonder what might have been. And try to be content that I had a small role in launching something that has benefited the community for four decades.

I used to worry much more about money. That's because I had assented to the bigger/more stuff is better consumerist philosophy in America and taken on all the mortgage and credit card debt that the banksters thought my income at the time could handle. Today, I make less than I ever have, except perhaps the earliest years of my career, but because of our simplistic lifestyle we have more than enough to meet our needs and even help some others along the way.

Professionally, I fret over doing a solid job on a project. That's a good fret in that it keeps me motivated to over-research and continually refine, knowing if I satisfy my own very high standards the chances are good I'll satisfy my client in the process.

If I have any frustration, it is that there does not seem to be enough time to do all the things I want to do - not anything that someone else is requiring but projects that I want to make happen.

As I get older, I think more about health issues. Not so much fear of dying, for I've had a very good and interesting life and can live with any regrets. Not so much concern about pain, discomfort. More about becoming a burden on someone else by lacking the capacity to take care of myself.
 
I know there are real monsters in the world. The banksters and politicians who control the levers of power - to the benefit of the few and the general detriment of the many. As with the multi-ton mechanical beast rolling through the streets of tiny Argeles last night, we'd best stay out of the way or get mangled. Until someone figures out a way to unplug their power source.

I've always been a very sound sleeper. Always had the ability, pretty much, to tune out the angst of the day, leave it til tomorrow. The times I am restless are generally because I haven't gotten as much done as I think I should have, which means I'm adding to the pressure of the next day.

But the changes in my life the past couple of years, including a partner who supports me unconditionally, as I do her, have eliminated any demons I may have harbored in my previous iteration.

The pressure to merely survive, to try to meet others' manipulations,  is history for me. The only objective each day now is to live life to the fullest and make a positive difference where I can. Take that, dragon.  

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Support Your Local Businesses

Whenever possible, D-L and I buy what we need from local Argeles-sur-mer businesses.

It just makes sense. We want them to stay in business and keep the village vibrant. If we and others don't support the local merchants, centreville will become a ghost town as far as goods and services, and we'll have to get in the car to drive to the edge of town to the new 'big box' stores for groceries, household supplies, etc.

It makes economic sense too, not just for our personal convenience. Multiple studies in the US and elsewhere have shown that independent retailers return more than three times as much money per dollar/euro/pound of sales than chain competitors.

Yes, the items we buy are sometimes higher priced than we could get at the chains. But I'd rather support the local green grocer, the local butcher, the local notions store, the local computer ink guy, the local jeweler, the local restaurants ...

Some merchants tell us that the politicians who currently run the village do little to support centreville, that they are more interested in the big-money developers and exploiting the open spaces. If that trend continues, ASM could lose a key element of its quaint charm - the people - and become just another cookie-cutter suburb.

The pols have done some wonderful things in recent years with the beach and the port. It'd be nice if they also have the foresight to preserve and grow the historic soul of Argeles-sur-mer as well.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Progress?


The store on the corner with the fresh fruits and vegetables has been an oasis for more than a quarter century to those living in the 'centreville' area of Argeles-sur-mer, France. It belonged to B and J-P and his grandparents before them.

It reminded me very much of my grandfather's neighborhood grocery, which was only a block away from my house and which I visited daily, often multiple times in a day, as I was growing up. Grandpa Adams' store was actually a converted garage, and he specialized in great cuts of meat, which he would cut himself from whole animals, skinned of course, that he had hanging on huge hooks in a freezer with a big window so customers could see the source. He was a relatively small man, and I wondered sometimes how he summoned the strength to hoist the heavy slabs of beef off the hooks.

Grandpa also had an enormous - at least to us - glass candy case, at least six feet long, with all sorts of tempting treats. You had to be careful when you looked, though, because the front glass tilted backwards and you could lose your balance as you drooled ever closer to the licorice and Mary Janes.

Even the sign above B and J-P's is a personal reminder. My grandfather frequently said I grew up on Oreos and Seven-Up!

You may have noticed the past tense reference to B and J-P's. While we were up in Switzerland for a couple weeks, they shuttered the store and began a very well-deserved retirement.

It's uncertain whether someone else will re-open the store. There are a couple other green grocers within easy walking distance.

It's uncertain, too, whether a different business would open there. It is a great location, right on one of the three main streets of the village, almost directly across from the church, and on the route of the marche which teems with locals and tourists two days a week.

Unfortunately, more businesses are moving out of the village than are moving in. One of the two pharmacies moved out to the 'commercial' zone near the 'highway.' (However, the tabac did move in their, a larger space then their previous one right across the street.)

The local politicians don't seem to focus much on bringing business into centreville. Their preference seems to be developing the beach and port areas and new (and rather ugly) villa developments outside the village. Understandable in some ways but the quaint village is a huge asset and could be more so with some forward thinking.

Many towns around the world, large and small, struggle with the decay of inner cities as the 'suburbs' take precedence. Argeles-sur-mer is no different.

Sometimes I paint a rather idyllic picture of ASM and life in Europe generally. It's not all perfect, of course. We have the occasional pile of dog merde in the street, left by the pets of lazy owners (but little different from, say, Dallas, where the dogs crap in someone's grass - you won't step in it, but the property owner still has to deal with it.) I'm told there are drug dealers in the village, but I've heard they deal drugs in America, the UK, and other places?

On balance, ASM is a wonderful place to spend a week or a lifetime. It's been here for hundreds of years, and I imagine it will be around for hundreds more.

Just with one less favorite green grocer.

Friday, August 1, 2014

My First Alphorn



I’d seen many photos before, but today was the 1st time I’d ever heard an “alphorn” played. The occasion was Swiss National Day, the 1st of August, inspired by the Federal Charter of 1291, regarded as the foundation of Switzerland.

The alphorn is traditionally played by mountain herdsmen and has even called soldiers into battle. Composers such as Bach, Mozart, and others wrote the instrument into their works.

In the 16th century, the uptight fundamentalist John Calvin disapproved of instruments, and many alphorns were destroyed, except in the cantons which did not succumb to Calvinism.

Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau later wrote that it was forbidden “on pain of death” to play the alphorn among mercenary troops because it caused the Swiss who heard it “to burst into tears, to desert or to die, so much did it arouse in them a longing to see their country again.”

An alphorn is traditionally about 3.4 meters long. The musicians create the sound by buzzing their lips together, much like a brass instrument. They alter the pitch with the embouchure (use of facial muscles and the shaping of the lips) and the tongue. By tightening the lips and raising the tongue in the mouth, they can narrow the airstream and play higher notes. By loosening the lips and lowering the tongue, they can widen the airstream and play lower notes. The alphorn is a long horn and therefore requires a lot of air to create a good sound.

We were treated to the mini-concert at a brunch hosted by the German ambassador to the United Nations agencies in Geneva. The ambassador kindly invited the entire village of Corsier, and how could we resist such a gracious diplomatic invitation (proceeds of donations went to charity). The serving staff was comprised of local volunteer pompieres (firemen).