Friday, January 8, 2021

Life Balance

Aside from the who-knows-when-it-will-end-we-could-die-anytime pandemic and the inability to travel so see family/friends or eat in restaurants, we are fortunate to have pretty much everything we need in life.

We live in two amazing and quite different places: the very international mid-size city of Geneva, Switzerland and the very quaint small village of Argelès sur Mer in the far south of France. Both feature an array of postcard scenery, mountains (Alps, Jura, Pyrenees), water (Lac Leman, the Med) and plains/plateau (sufficient for a few golf courses). In Geneva, we're about a 2-minute walk (4 or 5 with Sherlock) to the lakeshore; in Argeles, perhaps 20-30 minutes to the longest sand beach on the French Med coastline.

The weather in either place is rarely oppressively hot nor bitterly cold. No hurricanes, tornados or earthquakes, and very little snow.

Geneva has a highly efficient public transportation system, and just about anywhere in Switzerland can be reached via clean, on-time trains. In Argelès, we can walk to most everything we need: grocery, multiple bakeries and butchers, even the vet and doctor. There's a regional train station about a 5-minute walk from our home and a one-euro bus to many of the other small villages.

For what little we drive - mostly back and forth between the two places - we have reliable garages within reasonable distance.

Both places offer superb healthcare with major teaching hospitals no more than 20-25 minutes away (10 minutes when Donna-Lane took a helicopter from ASM to Perpignan). In both places we have excellent doctors and specialists with whom we can communicate in a mix of anglais, francais and franglais. And both locales have reliable vets for the pup, including 24/7 emergency care if needed.

Our two sets of landlords are superb ... and nice people to share an apero with. Our apartments are spacious enough to be comfortable, and over the years we've been able to incorporate our own unique touches. We have phone and internet connectivity which has been improving, and promises even better in ASM with the advent of 20th century fibre optics.

We are blessed with an array of international friends, in the city as well as the village, from all over Europe and North America, as well as the Middle East, Russia, India, Africa, Australia, South America ... Their varied backgrounds and professions (medicine, film, IT, aviation, diplomacy, teaching, art ... and writing, of course), together with their intelligence and wit, make for stimulating conversations on an endless stream of social, political and personal topics.

Geneva is often rated one of the most expensive places to live anywhere in the world, though we notice it mostly in the cost of groceries. The region around Argeles suffers nearly the highest unemployment rate in France, almost 10%, in part because they rely largely on seasonal tourism with the major industrial centre around Toulouse (Airbus), a two-hour drive from ASM.

Did I mention the food in both places is indescribably excellent, including a Michelin-rated restaurant in the centre of the village (currently serving special occasion takeout)? Our own cooking ain't bad either.

The infrastructure, the convenience, the quality, the ebb and flow of daily life all create a very pleasant balance which enable us to be relatively stress-free, focused on things we enjoy writing (and trying to improve the world where we can).

Thursday, January 7, 2021

The Trumpista Insurrection, Phase I

This is not over.

I have been warning for a long time that civil war was coming to America again. It was only a matter of time until a sufficient triggering event pushed the perceived aggrieved factions over the line between vocalization and violence.

Last night's invasion of the Capitol was Fort Sumter. Gettysburg, Manassas, and Antietam are still to come because the misguided sentiment that propelled Donald Trump into the White House is not going away when he slithers out of DC in two weeks.

Trump is a symptom. Trumpism is the disease.

You need only look at the 133 Congressmen and 7 Senators (especially LyinTed Cruz and Who's Hawley), who stubbornly insisted on objecting to the formality of electoral college counting to know where the pockets of rebellion boil the hottest. These are the currently elected representatives (I refuse to call them leaders) who are desperately afraid that Trump's evil forces will run a Qanon primary opponent against them - then all the cushy perks of office will disappear, and they'll have trouble finding any friends to give them a lobbying job. These are people with no principles, no moral compass.

Those who cowered before Trump the past four years, such as McConnell and Pence, and recently found religion, are little better.

Trump and his Republican sickophants have not only coddled the white supremacists and self-appointed militia such as the Proud Little Boys, they have encouraged their intimidation and lawlessness. The world saw the result Wednesday afternoon and evening.

For at least some of his many crimes, Trump must be prosecuted. Biden cannot hide behind the "heal the country" mantra because the Trumpistas will see that as weakness. If a president is above the law, there is no law, there is no basis for holding anyone accountable.

Yes, putting the Don on trial would be another tipping point event. But does America tip toward restoring the rule of law or toward further anarchy?

The next time the uneducated redneck militias try to threaten, they need to be met with overwhelming force, rounded up and out down hard. That seems to be the only standard they understand. Their leaders and those in clown costumes need to spend time in confinement on a cold cement floor.

Americans who value liberty and honesty need to stand up against the purveyors of misinformation and hate. Target advertisers on Onan, Newsmax, Fox, Hannity, Limbaugh, Levin, etc. and boycott their products and services.

The same goes for those companies which feast off corporate welfare such as Amazon, Walmart, Tesla ...

White domestic terrorists are no different from radical Islam terrorists or Russian/Chinese infiltrators. Their purpose is to impose the lifestyle and dictums of their authoritarian leader on the targeted population.

America is under attack from without ... and within. The jury is still out on its survival as a functioning democracy.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Birth Certificate Saga, Redux


Here we go again with the private contractor bureaucrat runaround.

I need a copy of my birth certificate from New York State as part of a package of information required to apply for Swiss citizenship. As with many official documents in Switzerland and other countries in Europe, it must be dated and embossed within three months of the submission.

New York and many other states have now privatised document retrieval and reproduction. So you order online, download your validating information, and the birth certificate arrives promptly, right?

Never thought I'd say bring back the government bureaucrats.

Last time I made such a request, five years ago when D-L and I were married civilly, I discovered that my date of birth had been changed, by mistake, by a doctor (not my mother's ob-gyn) three months after I was born. Ended up sending a video of my 92-year-old mother's recounting of the day I was really born. So now I have a certificate with a double asterisk!

Since that's been resolved, I expected a straightforward transaction this time. But first, I get an error email, stating some of my documents were in a "foreign language" that they could not process. I had not sent anything except English documents. Then I got another error email, stating they could only send a certificate to an address on my documentation. So I sent them new documents, showing my Swiss residency - of course, these docs are in French, so we're probably back to Error One again.

I may end up having them mail the certificate to my post office box I keep in Texas (for just such outdated operations), then have them re-ship it to me in Switzerland. Welcome to the 20th century.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Don't Look Back

D-L's spin on things: The ExPat Writer: Christmas letters

As years go, most of us would like to forget 2020 completely, at least the 10 months since the virus was revealed in February. It turned the world outside-in with lockdowns, economic disaster for all but the wealthy opportunists, and politicized compassion. And we're not done with it yet, by a long shot, even as the jabs begin.

For Donna-Lane and I, and Sherlock, life became restrictive where previously there had been almost no boundaries to anything we might want to do. The most obvious was the lack of travel to faraway interesting places: no Ireland, no Norway, no Toronto/Nova Scotia/Boston, no return to Scotland. Though we did manage to get to Locarno and a few other places around Switzerland, which never fully shut down. Less apparent to our friends outside France was the severe 1 hour / 1 kilometre restriction (both in March-May and October-November) and the requirement to carry an "attestation" document as to why we were out of the house ... but I was never once asked for the document.

Haven't been on an airplane since a year ago, highly unusual for me. Nor a train, bus or tram since last February. Have barely been in the car, as there's little open worth driving to except the golf courses (which, gratefully, reopened in France the middle of last month).

We spend most days much the same: walk the dog, eat, research, write, troll on Facebook, watch a little TV news or occasional Netflix, snog (not easy with a furball in the middle), cook, read.

I've learned a lot about Zoom and other formats for online meetings and conferences, including about lighting and books on the shelf in the background.

One highlight was the "fresco" which Marco painted on our patio wall - vibrant with colour and representing the liveliness that is Argèles sur Mer, including the beach, the mountains, the marché, the church, the music school, dances in the square and the people. (Now we need to install an awning to protect it from the hard rains.)

Our apartment is a veritable gallery of artwork by a variety of friends: Eva, Pauline, Stuart, Chris, Mary, Christina, Miloud, D-L's grandmother, a local student, a visiting sculptor, a  stone craftsman  ... and the newest addition (pictured above), a 100-year-old woodcarving of Guillaume (or Wilhelm) Tell, Swiss hero of liberty - appropriate that we live on Rue de la Liberté.

We're making plans for a hoped-for return to a semblance of more or less normalcy in 2021 - a conference in Orlando in late April, writing research / golf tournament trips through the summer and early Fall, including Scotland, maybe even Iceland, Germany for a conference in November.

The two main objectives, however, are continued health ... ours and yours ... and my application for Swiss citizenship, which will likely be a 2-3 year process.

If 2021 is a semi-repeat of the past year, largely because politicians failed to respond appropriately, I expect D-L and I will continue to keep our distance and survive. But this lack of casualness with friends, such as café sits and dining in restaurants, and the constant mask-wearing is getting damn old damn fast.

All our best to our friends around the world, family and family of choice. Here's to looking forward.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Lockdown Meh

There's never a good time, but if there had to be a lockdown during my lifetime, now is probably about the best time it could happen. I am technically retired, so don't need to work. When I choose to work, all I need, really, is a computer and internet connection for research and interviews. I live with my best human friend and our best furry friend, so not isolated as some unfortunately are. There seems to be no shortage of food and toilet paper within walking distance. We have plenty of reading material when television isn't worth watching (which is true most of the time for the news, but plenty of choices on Netflix). And now that the 1km "exercise" limit has been relaxed, I can scoot to the golf course now and then.

The main thing we have to focus on is staying healthy, which we generally are, and especially avoiding the virus - made easier because so few of our village friends are around during winter, and the cafés are not open for conversational sitting.

Once the current US president is dragged out of the White House, there's not much need to pay attention to American politics anymore; that'll free up some of my time, as I felt compelled to raise the alarm ... and pleased that 81 million people listened to me.

I am making a sporadic effort to get organised and minimised. My goal is to have one package of documents / computer files that would contain all the essential material for whomever needs to deal with my passing, then I can get rid of all the other papers I tend to hoard ... just in case I might need them someday (finding them on that someday is another matter).

Today, I arranged and inventoried the clothes I have in ASM, having done the same for clothes in Geneva. I also purged some of the paint supplies I won't be needing, as we hired someone to do what I wasn't getting to. Got my golf stuff sorted too, though that is usually in ready-to-go shape (when I don't get to the course and realise I forgot to put the clubs in the car). I also managed to finish a Michael Connelly novel (love the Hieronymous Bosch character), and found another on the shelf to start tonight.

We tend to lose track of what day it is - one blends into another. I'm aware that Christmas is a week away, but I haven't yet felt all that festive. It's been a tough year, at least mentally if not physically, and we've a long way to go, even with the euphoria of the vaccines. (Haven't decided yet whether I will get it ... unless more or less forced to for travel.)

2020 - meh. Not sorry in the least that it's almost over.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Baaaaaa Humbug

The French don't seem to have much of a charitable culture. It may be that, overall, they take decent care of their people with universal healthcare and so forth. You don't hear about food banks, and even the chronically unemployed have a safety net. During the pandemic, the French government has supported businesses and their employees to 80% of their salaries (ongoing, not a one-time stimulus). What's missing, compared to American culture, is constant professional fundraising appeals for children, the hungry, the insurance-less.

A few years back, when the waves of refugees were coming into Europe, Donna-Lane attempted to offer her vacant studio to a refugee family. She reached out to several government agencies, but never got a response.

A couple years ago, an American friend of ours in ASM, and her teenage daughters, collected hats, gloves, scarves, etc. to donate to the homeless. The French wouldn't allow her to distribute them, so she went over the border into Spain and handed them out to those living raw in Barcelona. (And they have continued to do so each year.)

Before France went into lockdown, for the second time, we were planning to buy some toys to give to children who don't get much for Christmas. We saw a notice for a toy drive in Ceret, a village about 25 km from ASM, and scrolled down to a similar campaign for ASM.

So this week, when the lockdown was eased a bit, we popped into a local artisanal shoppe and purchased some stuffed animals and puzzles suitable for younger children. The shopkeeper very kindly wrapped each one, and even added a post-it note with the appropriate age for the gift.

However, when we inquired at the address of the designated donation point, they had no idea what we were talking about. So D-L went into the new gendarmerie office, and they told her the village wasn't doing the toy drive this year. We looked again online, and realized the notice was for 2016 !

So we had a sackful of toys, nowhere to donate them locally, and Ceret is beyond the new 20 km lockdown limit from our home. The editor of an anglophone magazine assured us the 20 km applies only to exercise, that we were free to drive to Ceret for gift-giving.

So we contacted the Century21 real estate office which was the collection point, and headed there after lunch. When we arrived, they were closed, though their hours sign indicated they should have been open. Only slightly daunted, we called a number on a sign for the toy drive, and the man leading the effort assured us he would be there in 20 minutes. Sherlock was glad to investigate the local walkways as we waited. After a few minutes, a woman immobilier showed up, and were were able to hand over the gifts (but not the red sack, which we need for our weekly pizza pickup).

Our reward, in addition to the satisfaction of making a few local kids and a local shopkeeper happier for the holidays, included a rainbow and magnificent views of a snow-covered Canigou on a beautiful sunny afternoon. Sherlock's was the chance to run around the perimeter of a nearby lake and completely exhaust himself.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Zoomed Out

I miss my blue recliner. Spent a lot of time in that chair in my man-cave in Texas. I'd get one for the apartment here except there's no room.

If I had a recliner, that's where I'd take my Zoom calls. The office chair at my desk has become decidedly uncomfortable. Probably because I've been using it so much I've flattened out any cushion it had.

Don't know about you, but I'm more than ready to go back to live conferences and meetings. I don't mind that my feet are killing me after four days of walking exhibit floors and maybe a couple days of golf before.

But this routine of sitting in front of a computer screen, staring at rectangles with several talking heads and endless Powerpoint presentations is not good for my eyes, my back, my neck, my shoulder (from leaning my elbow on the desk), or my arthritic knees.

Sometimes I'll sit on the bed, which is softer for sure, but not necessarily better for my back. And after a couple hours the battery on my laptop starts to run out. (The rustic stone wall behind the bed, however, is a better backdrop if I am on webcam. The bookcase behind the desk chair is not bad, but you have to keep it neat, which is not usually my style. And I'm not a fan of virtual backdrops which appear to cut off half your head if you move.)

For a recent major 3-day conference in which I was on camera frequently, and didn't want the dog barking during my or someone else's presentation, I hiked up to D-L's "Nest" (on the next street) and turned it into a temporary broadcast studio, including a large secondary monitor and second computer (which came in handy when my primary computer launched into a Microsoft Update just as I was about to start a monologue). Good thing D-L didn't see how I rearranged the furniture and had papers (scripts and audience questions) strewn everywhere. (I put everything back in place when the conference was over.)

Several years ago (actually 8 B.C. - Before Covid), when I was in Texas and D-L was in Switzerland, we set up our own homemade "zoom" conferencing. I wanted her to see the program "Newsroom" with Jeff Daniels, which she could not yet get in Europe. So I propped up my computer on a small table and aimed the webcam at my television so she could see the program. Sitting in my plush blue recliner, we chatted online and had popcorn as we watched the program together. Here's a classic clip (in a rectangular box, sorry): America Is NOT The Greatest Country Anymore! - Jeff Daniels/HBO Newsroom [edited/clean version] - YouTube

I miss my recliner. I at least need to get a better desk chair.