Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Logbook: London - Chingford

Londonchingford1Sunday morning I got up and went out for one last coffee and croissant in Paris, then grabbed my gear, checked out and made my way to the station to catch the EuroStar train to London. As part of the boarding process, my passport -- which hadn’t even been asked for by anyone since I got stamped into the EU in the Canary Islands! -- was stamped out of the EU by a French immigration officer who I don’t believe even looked at it beyond finding a blank space to put his stamp. Thus, I can report that the EU is sincere about “open movement” between member countries! I next presented my passport to an immigration official from the UK who -- while looking at it in great detail -- asked me what I planned to do in the UK. “Travel around,” I replied, to which he said “It looks like you get around. How did you like the Malvinas?” Knowing how the Brits feel about their beloved Falkland Islands, I was a bit thrown off by his use of the much despised Argentine name for that fought-for and historic British Dependency. Thinking it might be some kind of trick, I said, “I enjoyed my visit to the Falklands very much.” He grinned slightly, added his stamp to my passport, handed it back to me and said “Enjoy your visit.” With that little moment behind me, I boarded the train, settled into my seat and waited only a few minutes before we set off.

The EuroStar isn’t especially fancy, but it is very fast. It seemed much faster, in fact, than the French TGV hi-speed trains based on the rate at which we passed cars on the nearby AutoRoute. Within an hour I heard an announcement that we were about to enter the Channel Tunnel and the familiar French countryside soon disappeared. I’m not sure, but it felt like we picked up even more speed and it seemed like only a few minutes before I could see out the window again. The first thing I noticed was a very different landscape, much greener and wetter than I had been in. England! The second thing I noticed was that I could read all of the passing billboards, store signs. English! About an hour later we arrived in London’s Waterloo station where I got off the train and made my way toward the Underground. I stopped at an ATM to get some Pounds, used a machine to by a ticket and dragged my gear onto the Jubilee line then changed to the Victoria line. Everything was going very smoothly until the train stopped three stations short of my destination and the PA announced that maintenance work would require us to switch to buses to complete our journey. As you know, I have become very familiar with this kind of “incident” along my way so it wasn’t really a big deal to me. What made it practically a non-event was that I could understand every word of the announcement! I didn’t need the kindness of any strange passer-by to translate for me, and that actually made it kind of fun! As the realization that I was no longer a deaf-mute started to fully sink in, I got almost giddy. In fact, I couldn’t help myself from asking a passing stranger “Excuse me, do you speak English?” She replied, “Yes, I do.” and I said -- you won’t believe this -- “That is so cool!” I broke out laughing, and it must have been contagious because she and a couple of other folks within earshot did too. I briefly explained that it had been nine months since I’d been in an English speaking country and that seemed to explain my behavior to everyone’s satisfaction.

The bus ride was crowded but uneventful and upon arrival at my destination I grabbed a cab for a short ride to the Holiday Inn Express in nearby Chingford. You may be wondering why I made arrangements to stay in a Holiday Inn Express way out in the suburbs of London, but the answer is simple: I got to use some accumulated “points” for a “free” stay instead of spending at least $300 a night in downtown London. Besides, I’ve “done” London before, I’ve just finished up a long stay in a big city and I wanted to check out a bit of how the “rest” of Greater-London-Area folks live. The nice girls at the desk welcomed me and happily played along as I engaged them in an extended version of the “Do you speak English?” game before I went to my room, dumped my gear and stood at the window reading every sign I could see. I’m honestly not exaggerating the language thing, it was great! In fact, the only thing I did Sunday night was cross the parking lot to a big supermarket, wander around the aisles for about an hour reading labels and comparing ingredients then buying a simple deli meal to have for dinner. What a relief! I spent most of Monday on my Mac, wrapping up iLife from France, backing up old data, etc., and Skyping lots of folks to confirm plans going forward and catch up with friends around the world. I also made several happy trips to the grocery store for food and beverages plus a fairy lengthy walk around the neighborhood just to check it out.

Londonchingford2Yesterday, I took a long walk into the center of town, got a new UK chip for my phone, had a real “pub lunch” and generally explored the area. Chingford is pretty much a “blue collar” kind of town, unpretentious and friendly, and I enjoyed my day very much. In the evening I went to the local dog racing track and had a blast. Admission was 5 Pounds -- including program -- and I proceeded to the betting counter where I explained that I was familiar with horse racing and wondered if dogs were similar. I was given an affirmative response, so I used my scientific method to place some bets: “I’d like one Pound on the number 5 dog to win in each of the first five races.” I received my tickets and proceeded to the stands, entering a charming milieu that looks just like a mini horse racing track. With stands, a tote board, a starting gate and everything, it all looks very familiar. With only a 1/4 mile track, however, it is only the size of a typical school field. Wandering around track side, I met bookies and serious gamblers as well as ordinary folks just out for some fun. It was a friendly, lively crowd and the energy was very positive. I had some concern about the dogs themselves, so I was both relieved and a bit charmed by the delightful way in which they proudly paraded in front of the stands before each race, then happily entered the starting gates. With a few excited yips and yaps, they waited for the gates to open then took off at amazing speed to chase the bright red whatever-it’s-called around the track. Upon completion of the race, they would frolic over to their handlers, get their pats and smooches then clear the track for the next race. Obviously, I don’t know the whole story of these dogs and their lives, but what I saw were happy, healthy dogs having a great time doing what they love to do -- run like the wind! -- and being very well treated in the process. (Note: I shot a bunch of media that I will try to make into a Report which may be able to tell the story better.) When I cashed in my 5 Pounds worth of bets, I got a whopping 5.90 back, so I came out ahead! (Not including the 5 Pounds admission, 2 Pound beer and 50 pence peanuts, of course!) Anyway, it was a really nice, well-rounded day in Chingford -- speaking English the entire time! -- that I enjoyed very much. This morning I took the Underground into downtown London where I met my friend Jean who you may recall was my “table-mate” for the first week of my cruise on MV Discovery between Limon, Costa Rica and the Galapagos Islands. We had a nice walk along the Thames while we chatted and caught up on the past six months, then had lunch and took a “flight” on the London Eye. It was kinda “touristy” but it was really fun and provided some great views of the city. We took an indirect path back to the Underground and enjoyed a few sights then said our good-byes and went our separate ways. Jean is a delightful, warm and witty woman who is a pleasure to be with, and I am very glad we could renew our connection during my brief time in London! In many ways -- new experiences, old friends and familiar language! -- it has been another fabulous four days on The Voyage of Macgellan!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Report: Five In The Fifth

During my exploration of the London suburbs of Walthamstow and Chingford, there just happened to be a dog racing stadium across the street from where I was staying. I’d never experienced dog racing before, so I decided to check it out! Here is my Report from The Voyage of Macgellan! Many thanks to Jeff Tolbert for the great background music! (Note to Podcasters: Jeff’s music is clean, tight and varied. Check it out, you’ll love it!)

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Musing: You Got Franced!

YougotfrancedReflections from The Voyage, written by my niece Jennifer: I arrived in Paris about 10 days ago with the intent to 1) explore 2) observe and 3) recharge, and to a great extent that is exactly what I have done, with a healthy dose of reflection and hanging out with my uncle, who awarded me with the CDOP -- Complete Domination of Paris -- the first of its kind. Although most of the time Paris loved me -- the Metro trains arrived on time, the crosswalks would change, restaurants would materialize -- there were plenty of times when Paris seemed to poo-poo at us. Whenever something didn't make sense, or otherwise messed with our plan, we referred to it as "You Got Franced." I thought I would take this time to recall some instances of my experience of Paris, in no particular order but simply to get a sense of the city I wandered around in for 10 days.

1) Walking around the center of Paris was correctly compared by my uncle to a huge Disneyland. You pay with tokens (the Euro coins) for admission to the attractions (in this case being shuttled around in tour buses from monument to monument) with a camera strapped to your neck. Portions of Paris are definitely for show, to show off their history with palaces, statues, and gold-plated bridges galore. But there's another side of Paris that I experienced: the neighborhoods themselves. I would take a day to just walk through them on foot (when i wasn't out conquering the Metro system), take some wrong turns, wander into some neat looking cobble-stone alleys, walk right past historic landmarks without noticing. Paris for me was the trips to the different gardens, ordering baguette sandwiches from venders, sipping a cup of "cafe au lait" in the street watching the people go past. It was fabulous.

2) Paris follows a 30-minute work week, my uncle and I have concluded. Seriously, we couldn't figure out what they did all day. The streets are chock full of coffee-houses where you sit outside on the street at one of the small circular tables on a wicker chair for hours at a time. You could spend your whole day eating. You have to ask for the check! I would enter one of the multiple gardens and it would be full of people strolling or sitting about. I wondered at first about the presence of multiple benches, until I was awakened from a nap under a tree and asked to move by a policeman; there are designated areas for sitting on the grass apparently. I got Franced! Even my first day arriving at the airport involved me getting Franced -- the Metro system was closed due to a strike. I guess the workers wanted extra time on their coffee break.

3) Don't let the sunny skies fool you, it rains in Paris. I have been caught in countless rainstorms, where I can see sunny skies across the bridge. Take an umbrella with you so you won’t be caught like me crammed under the awning of a bus stop, sharing the space with tourists of about 5 different nationalities. Also, museums are fuller on days when it rains. Everyone wants a shelter from the storm.

4) Parisians love their dogs, but they don't clean up their messes on the sidewalks. You will be at a restaurant and look over your shoulder to see a cute little doggie face peeping out from behind someone's back seated on a chair. They sit on people's laps and drink water poured in a saucer on the table. They're everywhere on the Metro, on leashes or hiding their cute little doggie faces in the lap. Also on the Metro, be prepared to be serenaded by musicians who jump from car to car. I once encountered a violin, accordion, and clarinet. It was awesome.

5) Everything is expensive, and food is especially ridiculous. A drink averages 4 euros (~$5). And as the menus are in French, I had no idea what I was ordering (or eating) half the time. My favorite moment is one night when I ordered fish with lemon butter and my uncle ordered veal picata. The chef came out, and speaking quickly in French made it understood that they were out of my fish, but he would take care of me. Well, he comes back out with a platter of 5 different kinds of fish, but no lemon butter. My uncle ended up being served chicken and mushrooms. Once again, we got Franced.

So that was my experience, more or less. Would I do it again, yes. Would I do it differently, probably not. Did I have a great time, but of course. In the best of all possible ways: I got Franced on The Voyage of Macgellan!

Logbook: Paris III - Air Show

Parisiii1Thursday morning Jennifer and I went out for one last cafe au lait and croissant before checking her out of the hotel and heading to the airport. The Metro/RER ride to CDG was a no-brainer given our now vast experience, and we had little trouble finding our way to the check-in counter then getting her squared away. Could it be that we would be Franced no more? No way! We decided to pass the time until her boarding by getting one last French sandwich together so we went to the closest deli counter and, after waiting in line then being told we had to sit at a table, placed our order. The sandwiches that arrived a few minutes later didn’t look exactly like what we ordered, but they were close enough that we figured it was our mistake and started eating them. A few minutes after that, more sandwiches arrived that looked exactly like what we ordered but, since we’d already started the ones we had, they were immediately whisked away. We got Franced! How perfect is that? You can imagine how much we laughed! After we’d eaten, it was time to send her through security and on to her gate, so we said our au revoirs and parted ways, officially ending our time together on The Voyage.

By the time I had taken the RER/Metro back to my hotel, it was pretty late in the afternoon so I spent a little time sorting myself out and getting back into solo-explorer mode before getting dinner and hitting the rack. Early Friday I was up and out, back on the Metro/RER headed for Le Bourget to attend the famous Paris Air Show. I have always been fascinated by aircraft, and the Paris Air Show is easily the biggest and most amazing aerospace exposition in the world. Without question, I had planned my itinerary to put me in Paris in time to check it out, and I am so glad I did. Here are a few highlights of my experience:

1) The train out from the city was pretty crowded, but it was nothing compared to the mass of people who were already at the station when we arrived. Shuttle buses to the Air Show were available, but the lines to ride them were so long -- and so chaotic -- that I opted to follow a similarly large stream of people who were walking away with every indication of knowing where they were going. A good twenty minute walk later, I arrived at the main entrance gate to the Show and found a mob standing on line to get in. My determination to attend the Show overcame my normal aversion to such crowds and lines, so within about an hour I had paid my money, gotten my ticket and emerged from the entry building into the Show grounds... and a still larger mass of humanity! I have no way of estimating how many other aircraft lovers like me were on hand, but it must have been about 100,000 -- despite the overcast, rain-threatening weather!

2) The “inside” show is held in a number of very large exposition halls and is populated by companies which provide the aerospace industry with everything from materials, tools, machines, software and electronics to parts, sub-systems and services. In one aisle alone I saw specialty wrenches, landing gear, passenger seats, pilot helmets, CAD software and in-flight refueling connectors. It was amazing and I enjoyed wandering around for a couple of hours before reaching burn-out!

3) The “outside” show is held on the very large airport ramp area and is chock full of aircraft. Every kind of aircraft is on hand from the very smallest “kit” variety to the very largest jumbo jets. In between are corporate jets, military fighters, cargo aircraft, helicopters and tilt-rotors. Seriously, it is an aircraft lovers super mall! They are all so fantastic and different that I can’t really say I had a “favorite” but the sheer size of the new A380 -- a double-deck super jumbo jet that can carry up to 700 passengers -- made it a stand-out. I walked around for another couple of hours, getting up close and personal with some amazing flying machines.

4) A few times, the skies burst and it rained like hell. One time I was right next to a covered area and was able to duck inside to stay dry while watching an endless loop movie about some company’s “proven aerospace solutions” with a horde of other wet people. Another time I was not so close to cover and the nearest shelter was already packed full when I got there. I ran about 50 meters further to the nearest array of Porta-Potties and stood inside one of them looking out the door. I was soon joined by another man (French) then another (German) and still another (Italian) until there were four of us crammed inside that one little space. We were all in good spirits, making obviously funny remarks that had to be translated around before all of us could enjoy the humor. It was yet another fabulous moment on The Voyage!

5) The cross-section of people was remarkably varied. While the crowd was admittedly mostly “middle-aged male” like me, there were also large numbers of women, young people, old folks and even families. You could pretty easily make up a “story” about the small groups: There’s a group of men taking off from work; There’s a bunch of college guys; There’s a family having an outing; There’s a young couple on a date; Etc. People of all kinds from all over the world brought together by a love of aircraft. Nice.

6) The flying exhibitions! Wow! Even though the weather was marginal at best and downright nasty at times, we were given a phenomenal show. The fighter demonstrations were loud, fast and dynamic; the military specialty-cargo craft did things you wouldn’t expect given their size; the helicopters did astonishing acrobatics; the A380 made my jaw drop as it filled the sky overhead and maneuvered with agility and grace. I loved it all and didn’t mind getting soaked to the skin by the time it was over!

Parisiii2By late in the day I was wet, tired and happily “full” from my aircraft experience, so I walked back to the train station and made my way back into the city for a hot shower, an early dinner and a really good night’s sleep. I have spent most of today in iLife, editing my Report -- see “Paris Air Show” -- and posting some other web content. My two months in France is now at an end, and I am very happy with my exploration in this remarkable country. Overall, I have enjoyed it very much and I have learned a lot. I hope I have been successful in sharing my experience with you along the way. Tonight I will pack up my gear and get ready to take the EuroStar train to London in the morning. It has been almost nine months since I was last in an English speaking country, and I am almost atwitter in anticipation of once again having more or less full facility of language on The Voyage of Macgellan!

Friday, June 22, 2007

Report: Paris Air Show

Like most guys, I have been fascinated -- maybe even in love -- with aircraft ever since I was a kid, and I have wanted to attend The Paris Air Show -- the biggest, most famous aerospace exposition in the world -- for as long as I can remember. Today was the day it finally happened on The Voyage of Macgellan! For all you guys who love aircraft -- and all the women who have had to compete with them for your attention -- this Report is for you! (Special thanks to Curious for the perfect soundtrack song. Click the link to check out her website and be sure to look for her music on iTunes!)

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Logbook: Paris II

Parisii1Thursday was overcast with occasional showers, so the three of us -- Jennifer, Kay, and I -- decided to take a tourist boat ride on the Seine. The ride held some promise of being a good way to see sights from a different perspective, but it turned out to be only so-so. The funniest part to me was the way the guide/narrator switched back and forth between French and French-Accented-English in such a way that it was really hard to tell where one ended and the other began. After a while, it all ran together in my ears and I pretty much gave up on it, opting to just enjoy the ride. Since Kay would be leaving in the morning, we decided to have a “night on the town” and try to view some of the city in the lights for which it is so famous. At dusk we took the Metro out to the Eiffel Tower and enjoyed watching it bloom in light against the twilight sky then started walking over toward the Champs Elysees. We didn’t get very far before our appetites kicked in and we stopped for a drink and a snack. As you might imagine, our night sightseeing plan soon gave way to more French dining and, well, we had a really good time! Kay headed to the airport early Friday morning -- ending her second successful co-exploration on The Voyage -- and I did some web stuff before packing up and moving over to “Les Gobelins”, an excellent little two-star hotel on a quiet street where my niece Jennifer was already staying.

She and I met up for lunch and began our time together in earnest with a fine, lengthy meal, some quality exploration planning and some of the great conversation that she and I are so fortunate to share. In the days that have flown by since then, we have had a really great time! Together, we have toured neighborhoods, seen sights, wandered through parks and even done some museums. Rather than give you a play-by-play recap of everything we’ve done -- the Photos pretty much show you -- I’m going to share just a few highlights:

1) Like me, Jennifer is less interested in “tourist stuff” -- and shares my lack of patience for standing in lines -- preferring to observe people and experience ambiance. So, when we went to places like Versailles where we confronted immense crowds, it was very easy for us to pass by the multi-hour long waiting lines and happily stroll the grounds until we found a nice place to have a picnic and people watch without feeling like we had “missed” anything.

2) Also like me, she always has a book on hand and is always game to just sit for a while in a nice park to read. There are many very nice “green” spaces in Paris, so we often found ourselves taking such pleasant book-breaks in the middle of our exploration, always feeling like it was a fine point of our day.

3) Another trait we seem to share is the willingness -- even eagerness -- to move off of a bad plan. On one outing we went to a high-class shopping district to people watch, but found the area not to our liking. Within a couple of blocks of walking, we simultaneously said “Nah” and moved onto something else (probably lunch!) This may not sound like a big thing, but flexibility and adaptability are important traits on The Voyage.

4) A good example of this last point is one day when we had planned a pretty full day of exploration, but I was being bothered by a tooth that felt like it might have a problem. I was concerned about it and mentioned so to Jennifer. Without blinking an eye she said, “You gotta do what you gotta do on The Voyage. I’ll go do some stuff on my own while you take care of your tooth. We can move our today plan to tomorrow.” So, I called a dentist in the neighborhood and arranged an appointment -- it turned out to be a false alarm! -- while Jennifer went off on her own. Again, maybe not a big thing, but an excellent -- and much appreciated -- attitude on her part.

Parisii25) There is also our shared sense of humor, marked mainly by an appreciation of irony. Jennifer immediately picked up on the irony that little obstacles or inconveniences in Paris aren’t really problems, they are mere incidents of getting “Franced” and we have had a lot of fun with that. Then there is the time we were having dinner and she broke into a wry grin so big she could hardly chew her food. Nodding her head, she drew my attention to the table next to us where a poodle’s head had popped up out a woman’s lap and placed it’s chin on the table. You gotta love the irony of us having dinner in a fancy restaurant with a dog!

I could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the point. We have had a really delightful week in Paris. Jennifer is a natural traveler and a self-sufficient, independent explorer. We have enjoyed a comfortable balance of time together and time on our own, and I have been extremely impressed with her clarity about what she wants to do, her resourcefulness in doing it and her willingness to share her findings. Her facility with maps, the Metro, the culture, the language, etc., is truly remarkable and bodes very well for all of the travel that I am sure lies in her future. When she first mentioned to me her desire to join The Voyage in Paris, she said her intention was to “get to know” the city. In my mind, she has done that and more. Jennifer has earned a “Certificate of Total Domination” for Paris! Because she is heading home tomorrow, we are going to celebrate our time together at a fancy restaurant tonight. I have thoroughly enjoyed her company -- especially our lengthy, rambling conversations -- and I will look forward to the next time she joins The Voyage of Macgellan!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Logbook: Paris I

Parisi1On Sunday morning, Kay and I got up and out of Aix, drove to the TGV train station, dropped off the car and were in position to board the train with plenty of time to get “Franced” as follows: A few minutes before the train was due to arrive, I heard a PA announcement that included the words “twenty minutes” which -- along with the mild groans from other passengers on the platform -- was enough for me to figure out that the train would be late. A few people made their way back to the terminal coffee shop for one more shot, but we stood our ground. A few minutes later, another PA included the words “forty minutes” and was accompanied by more groans and migration back to the cafe. Again, we stood our ground. A few minutes later, there was yet another PA that I couldn’t make anything out of, but the uproar and mass exodus from the platform made it clear something was very, very wrong. A nice lady obviously saw that I had no clue what was going on, so she explained in broken English that the train was cancelled and that we would all have to switch to the other side of the tracks, take another train down to Marseilles and board a train to Paris from there. I know this doesn’t sound so bad, but when you are one of several hundred people -- most of whom have luggage -- who have to converge on the single track-crossing overpass, climb three flights of stairs up and down then cram into the aisles and entryways of an already full train, it’s pretty ugly. Thankfully, the ride down to Marseilles was fairly brief, and our new train was waiting for us only three tracks away when we got there.

Now, I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure that the train went back up through Aix on the way to Paris, so I’m not at all sure why we didn’t just wait for it there. Then again, this is France and one learns not to torture oneself with these kinds of questions. I can’t say that I’m as impressed with the TGV trains as I thought I would be -- especially considering the outrageous prices -- but what the train lacked in comfort and amenities it made up for in speed. In due course we made it to Paris’ Lyon station only a couple of hours late, grabbed a cab to our new hotel and drank some wine. I have to admit that I was pretty beat and the wine gave me all the incentive I needed to take a little nap before gearing up to get some dinner then going back to sleep, happy to be in Paris for the next phase of my France exploration.

On Monday morning we got going at a reasonable hour and decided to orient ourselves in this large, famous city by taking a walking tour of our own design. From our hotel near the Luxembourg Gardens, we walked out to the Eiffel Tower, crossed the Seine and continued out to the Av. Charles de Gaulle before turning to make our approach to the Arc de Triomphe then strolled the length of the Champs Elysees, through the Jardin to the Louvre and crossed the Pont Neuf back to the hotel. For those of you who don’t know Paris, this probably doesn’t mean much. For those of you who do, “Ugh!” is right! It was a respectable trek by any standard. Along the way we saw many of the sights for which Paris is famous, and while I’m not going to do a detailed recap I will make the following general observations:

1) This part of Paris is kinda like a big Disneyland. Long lines at every monument are mostly to blame. I did a quick calculation at the Eiffel Tower and concluded -- based on average number of people, hours of operation and average price -- that it is a huge, huge cash cow for the city. The Eiffel Tower alone probably supports a quarter of the socialist programs I have observed in France. The concentration of a varied international populace is another factor; I saw relatively few Parisians -- or French of any origin -- besides those who were working the rides... er, attractions... and those who were hawking souvenirs of every imaginable type, size and price point. Basically, tourist Paris is a dead zone except for tourists, and a bottle of water or a cup of coffee will cost you at least five bucks. I had little interest in “doing” the Tower or the Arc before I got there, and had no interest in doing so after I arrived.

Parisi22) Paris has a reputation -- at least in my mind -- of being a huge, unmanageable city. I really don’t find it to be that big or difficult to get around. Granted, we walked a long way, but it wasn’t more than a good day’s walk and the streets are well marked and easy to navigate. This is another aspect that makes it a bit like Disneyland; the scale just isn’t as big as it appears from a distance.

3) The very wide streets of Paris make it one of the most enjoyable cities I’ve ever wandered around. By the time you take 4-8 lanes of traffic, tree-lined medians and sidewalks with room for cafe tables before you reach the building fronts, you’ve got a very open feeling. My first impression of Paris by foot was very positive, and I have had no contradictions to that impression since. Bottom line: I like Paris, a lot!

Yesterday morning, Kay took off to do some museums and shopping while I did some web work and waited to hear from my niece Jennifer who was due to arrive from Chicago. A little before noon, my cell phone rang and Jennifer explained that she was at the hotel I had booked for her after landing at DeGaulle airport, working her way through the metro system -- including a typical twenty minute workers’ strike -- and navigating the rest of the way on foot. Way to go Jennifer! After she had time for a shower and a brief nap, we met for lunch and had a great time comparing notes and catching up. Later in the day, we all met for dinner and called it an early evening. This morning, Jennifer wanted to “immerse” herself in Paris on her own for a while and Kay wanted to do some more museums, so we all went our separate ways. As for me, I took the Metro -- also very easy -- to the North train station to arrange my travel to London next week. I stood in line for a long time amid folks who were in the process of missing their train because there were too few ticket agents. As their departure time approached, their level of anxiety and antagonism increased. At one point I thought a riot might erupt, but it turns out they were probably only blowing off steam, fully aware that they were simply being “Franced.” I happily spent the rest of they day wandering around, having coffee and doing chores. In a little while, the three of us will reconvene, compare notes for the day and make our plan of attack for tomorrow. So far, Paris is much better than I expected, and I am delighted to have company to share it with on The Voyage of Macgellan!

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Logbook: Aix - Provence

Aixprovence1Since our only real objective on Tuesday was to transit from Nice to Aix, Kay and I decided to drive the “scenic” route along the coast. After two hours of stop-and-go traffic, we abandoned that plan and took a different “scenic” route across the hills then joined up with the highway for our final approach into Aix. The point of relating this itinerary is to highlight the fact that there are many different kinds of roads in France: The highways are very good and very, very fast but not very scenic; the city roads are congested, often scary to drive and not very enjoyable; the country roads are generally in excellent condition, tend to have little traffic, offer lovely views and are downright fun to drive. If you drive in France, I strongly suggest you spend as much time as possible on the country roads! Upon our arrival in Aix, we easily found our way to the hotel, parked the car in a nearby lot and had a glass of wine while watching the sun set over that old and picturesque little city. We have pretty well gotten into the French dining schedule, so at about nine we wandered into the narrow, twisting streets of the oldest part of town and found an amazing number -- and variety -- of restaurants. Aix is also a college town, and the number of young, pretty people who frequent the cafes and bars is astonishing. We enjoyed doing some people watching while eating dinner then called it a night.

We began our exploration in Provence at a reasonable hour on Wednesday and were in St. Remy in time for lunch. Well fortified, we pursued the first of the town’s two claims to fame: Vincent Van Gogh spent a year in the asylum there and produced hundreds of works, including some of his most famous paintings. A kilometer-long walking tour with sign posts along the way show some of his paintings, including a number at the actual spots where he painted them. It was a nice and informative walk, ending at the actual asylum with a visit to Van Gogh’s restored room overlooking the garden. Not far from the asylum is the second of St. Remy’s major attractions: The Glanum -- an archeological excavation site of ruins spanning many centuries from pre-Hellenic to post-Roman. The self-guided tour is pretty well documented and worth doing. By the time we had finished these two explorations and walked the kilometer back to town, we were ready to head back to Aix.

Aixprovence2Along the drive, we stopped at a farm to try some of what else Provence is famous for: Olives! I was happily gobbling down some tasty little gems when the farmer insisted I enjoy them in the “traditional Provencal way” with an unlikely beverage called “Pastis” -- anise flavored liquor diluted with water. I was a bit skeptical at first, but quickly found that the flavors blended in a remarkably satisfactory way. Ooh la la! Back in Aix, we grabbed a quick bite then wandered into an almost empty little wine “cave” where the bar tender was drying glasses. Now, although we have been in “wine country” for a while, we have made very little progress in educating ourselves as to what’s what in that arena. Frankly, there are so many wines to choose from that we have capitulated at every turn and simply ordered some of whatever the “house” was offering. With Ben -- the bartender -- to ourselves, we delved into the subject. I can’t tell you that I actually know any more than I did before, but Ben served us some truly astonishing wines and did an excellent job of explaining French wine making to us. We enjoyed our visit so much that we pledged to return for dinner the following night! Thus, we ended our first day of exploration in Provence having sampled much of what the area is famous for: Art, archeology, olives, pastis, wine and, of course, food!

Thursday morning we drove to Avignon which is especially famous for being home to Popes during their exile from Rome. The entire old city is a vast fortress, surrounded on the outside by a bustling urban sprawl and containing inside a dense ancient city. Having been in so many charming little French towns and villages, my impression of Avignon was not very positive. I enjoyed the two hours I spent on the self-guided audio tour of the famous Palace of Popes -- mostly walking around gaping at the wealth and power of the church -- and can imagine how folks who are more into religion than I am can spend an entire day on the same tour. The Petit Palace was less interesting to me because, frankly, there are only so many versions of the same religious icons I can look at before it kinda creeps me out. Those two tours pretty much satisfied my interest in Avignon and, while I can see why other people might find the city fascinating, I was happy to be heading back to Aix in time for dinner with Ben at the wine cave. And what a dinner it was! The food was only pretty good, but the wine was excellent and the music was fabulous: Blues! That’s right, while sitting in the cellar of a 14th century building, having dinner and drinking wine, we were entertained by an outstanding blues singer/harmonica player and his band. It was a very different Provence experience!

Yesterday, our last day of exploration in Provence, we drove to Arles which is another popular tourist destination. The size, look and feel of the city was pretty positive for me and we immediately set out to tour the many attractions: There are ruins of a Roman amphitheater, a theater, baths, etc., plus more Van Gogh influences from his stay in the local asylum (prior to his moving to St. Remy). Sadly, I found the whole thing to be kind of a bad joke. Yes, there are ruins from a Roman amphitheater, but the place has been converted for contemporary use as a bullfight ring. Similarly, the theater is Roman in origin, but it is set up for music concerts and the metal scaffolds, seats and light stands pretty much destroy any historic feeling. The baths are just a bunch of holes in the ground with bits and pieces of old stone stacked. In no case is there much descriptive historical information. As for Van Gogh, a quick visit to the garden in which he painted -- surrounded by a mass of tourist shops -- pretty much covers it. We may have missed something important about Arles, but I don’t think so. My favorite part of the day was sitting by the Rhone river, watching the water stream by. Enough said! Happy to be back in Aix, we had dinner and toasted the end of our Provence exploration.

I have now spent more than six weeks traveling throughout southern France and I have enjoyed it very much. By and large, I have enjoyed the smaller towns far more than the larger cities. That may be due mostly to my own nature and personality, but I don’t think so. If you visit “The South of France” you will naturally be pointed to the cities. I recommend you give them as little time as possible, get a car and hit the country roads. You will have a lot more fun and spend a lot less money! Today has been chore day for me (laundry, haircut, pack gear, etc.) while Kay has taken a walking tour around town. In the morning we will drive to the train station, drop off the car and take the fast TGV train to Paris on The Voyage of Macgellan!

Friday, June 08, 2007

Haircut Chronicle: #7 - Aix-en-Provence, France

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#7 - June 9, 2007, Aix-en-Provence, France. I’ve been in France so long it’s time for another French haircut! Audrey was happy to be in a “pre-cut” photo once a colleague who speaks English explained the situation to her. She was even happier to be in the “post-cut” photo after giving me another good cut! Cost: 17 Euros ($22)

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Report: Blues-en-Provence

Imagine yourself sitting in a 14th century underground wine cave, having dinner and drinking some really good wine. Now imagine the music starts. What do you hear? Well, while I was in this situation in Aix-en-Provence the music was Blues! Somehow the juxtaposition of dining in ancient surroundings in the South of France and hearing Blues music strikes me as worth sharing. I don’t know much about Blues, but these guys seemed pretty good to me. I regret that I never figured out who they are, but if you are ever in Aix be sure to ask around. I hope you enjoy this little musical anachronism from The Voyage of Macgellan!

Monday, June 04, 2007

Lost In Translation: Nice, France

Niceairportcashier_2Parking Payment Machine

Nice International Airport

Nice, France

June 2007

I found out that "possible" doesn't mean "optional"...

Logbook: Nice - Alps

Nicealps1The past week has really flown by on The Voyage! I spent most of last Monday online, trying to contact people and do some preliminary arrangements for next month when I plan to be in the UK. I really can’t stress enough how much time it takes to do this sort of “maintenance” on The Voyage, but I am pleased to report some solid success for the day and can say that the prospects going forward are now even better than I imagined! (You’ll just have to wait and see what I mean!) Because of how long it has been since my last video Report, I spent most of Tuesday and Wednesday trying to get some photo and video media for one that I have had in mind. Sadly, I was not very successful and I don’t know whether it will ever work out. I’ll keep trying, but if nothing else, it is a good example of how much harder it often is to “make something happen” than to just “be prepared” for what comes our way!

On Thursday morning I packed up and moved to the accommodations where my friend Kay and I will be staying during the Nice-based portion of our two week co-exploration of France, then drove to the airport to pick her up. Having been to the airport before, I thought I was prepared for the adventure but, alas, I still got “Franced” -- a term I have adopted for when things just don’t work the way you think they would -- on the parking and terminal choice. Having left myself plenty of time, however, I was on station and ready to meet Kay upon her arrival. Thursday night involved a little walk-around, a decent dinner in town and an early night so she could try to get a head start on jet lag.

Friday morning was a little overcast, so we decided to take a drive north into the French Alps. After the usual challenge of navigating our way out of the city, we found a good route and zoomed on our way. The roads we chose through the mountains were pretty much what I had become used to from my time in the Cevennes and we had a really good drive. The scenery was stunning, the little towns were darling and the nuances of navigating the French country roads were typically entertaining. Back in Nice, we joined my friend Mark -- who was in town for a couple of days on his way back to the States -- for a farewell dinner.

Saturday morning we caught a train to Monaco, to experience what that tiny city/country is like without the Grand Prix taking place. What a difference! The whole place is a little surreal -- a little Disneyland-like in a way -- with its spotless streets, beautiful people, fantasy architecture and quaint charm. I have absolutely no idea what makes the place tick besides, of course, the money that is there. We walked around for a while, stopped in at the famous casino -- where they charge you an entry fee! -- then had lunch and made our way back to the train station. I can’t say I found much in Monaco to recommend it, but if you are ever in the area it is probably worth a day to check it out just because “it is what it is.”

Nicealps2Yesterday we were back in the car for another great day of driving west-northwest to the fringe where the alps meet the plains. We took a very scenic route out to the Verdon Gorge and worked our way through that amazing geologic spectacle to beautiful Lac Ste. Croix then circled back around to the north before heading south again to Nice. Overall, I think we drove about 300 kms and enjoyed every bit of it. Today is our last day in Nice, so we finally did the tourist “walkabout” through the old city, along the beach and back into the city center. Although Nice is nice, I can’t really give it much of an endorsement. I’m not really much of a “resort” kind of person and don’t relish spending days on the beach. Nice is an entertaining place to be, however, with its vast number of restaurants, ample shopping opportunities and, of course, the unlimited number of beautiful people that seaside -- especially Mediterranean -- resorts seem to attract. If you like that kind of experience, Nice is for you. Otherwise, I’d suggest it only as a gateway to get into the countryside. Tomorrow morning we plan to drive west along the coast on our way to Aix where we will be based for five days of exploration in Provence on The Voyage of Macgellan!