Something needs to be said about the apartment we were spending our last week in. There were sliding glass doors that allowed one to separate the bedroom, its WC and shower, from the more spacious living room and kitchen part of the apartment, which had a comfortable sofa suitable for a smallish wife person to sleep on, and its own WC. All this would come in very handy, because we moved in on a Wednesday, and the next day those academic friends from London arrived, and although they knew there was a chance* they brought covid with them, they decided spending time with us was worth the risk. Risk? To whom? Why to us, of course.
On Friday the husband could hardly stay awake. The visitors left later that day. The next day I could hardly stay awake, and the day after that, Sunday, the fever and vomiting started. Francesca used one of the covid home testing kits we had with us, and gave me the bad news: covid positive. Shit, fuck, bull balls. I was more than a little disappointed. This apartment was in gallery/cafe central, and I’d need to spend our last days in it in bed. Fuck, shit, bull balls.
[*As it turns out, these visitors probably did not bring covid with them, and the 3 of us got it together, possibly at a Moroccan restaurant we went to their first night in Paris.]
Francesca moved into the living room, kept the sliding doors mostly shut, and would periodically watch to see if her husband’s feet were wiggling, this being taken as a sign of life. She tried to fix me healing food, but I’d lost all appetite, and the only thing I could keep down was yogurt. That was my last week in Paris, spent mostly in bed, and more than a little bit pissed. This 5 week trip was more dominated by foreign friends visiting us than any previous trip. Way more. And in the end, over two years after the Chinese exported their microbe to the world, it finally got us. And it was entirely avoidable. [Well, not really, as I said. Or maybe.] Francesca came down with a milder case, but yesterday, 3 weeks after initial infection, and now home (don’t ask), we both tested negative.
My health permitting further EU travels, will we allow any other foreign guests to intrude on our travels? Initially, when I was “very very angry”, my attitude was no. No capes, and no visitors. After a few days resting at home, and now feeling just “very angry”, I relented. All friends save two will be permitted to seek us out. [Again, reason for excluding them was unwarranted, so …] I have not told the London duo that they are personae non gratae, forbidden our refulgent presence in future, but correspondence on their end has dried up*, compunction (?) finally ascendant.
[*Correspondence has restarted, and they corrected my impression that their son had recently had covid, leading to my impression they could be disease vectors. In fact that spawn had had it months earlier. Still, we are feeling ill disposed to encouraging visitors next time, and my oncologist saw no reason there shouldn’t be a next time, so yay.]
Prior to London duo arrival Francesca and I went to new Top Gun film, and Francesca was considerably more keen on the prospect than I. But she had a ball, and as the film was in English, with French subtitles, she laughed heartily at several of the lines of dialogue. A French couple sat to our right, the male closest, and he found Francesca’s enthusiasm amusing and infectious. His date, Francesca says, would periodically peer around her date and glare knives at Francesca (yet another French coquette). She should have restricted her bile to her date, for in response to Francesca’s enthusiasm, he overcame his French reticence and began laughing at some of the lines that were amusing Francesca. His date, perceiving her date to be under the influence of another woman, was unamused. As usual, I noticed none of this, but Francesca’s ability to absorb social interactions in her vicinity is truly spooky. The date – the girl – exuded vapidity, and Francesca annoyed and perplexed her, and her date found Francesca far too interesting. Yeah, so, that happened.
The day the London duo arrived we went to a Moroccan restaurant, as mentioned. Peter Woit, my favorite physics blogger, was to have joined us, but he came down with something, which likely saved him from catching covid (well, not really; he told me later it was covid; and, you know, we traveled all over France and Italy in 2021 and nothing, and it was, or so we thought, by far the more dangerous year).
Moroccan dinner done, the four of us wandered over to a nearby park. We sat and ordered drinks at a nearby kiosk, and sat at a table to enjoy same. Or we would have enjoyed them had the London male, whose displeasure with our company was coming to a boil, not said something of a political nature that Francesca wasn’t about to let rest. A heated debate ensued, alternately frightening and amusing nearby patrons. At one point I looked across to the London wife, who was, like me, a noncombatant, and said, “How ‘bout them Red Sox?”. This had a very marginal defusing effect. Eventually I did interject with some equivocal words of wisdom, and we all calmed down. When we departed we left a barely visible trail of smoke behind us.
We shortly thereafter encountered something curious. Along the parks edge, on the street, there were around 20 tinted window police (?) vehicles, one full of electronic gear. And dotted along the whole stretch were numerous gendarmes carrying some lethal looking weaponry.
Now, it must be said, our London visitors, are somewhat timid, so when they saw me approach one of the heavily armed guys, they scurried (Francesca says they actually ran) away quickly, wanting nothing to do with whatever I was up to. And here’s what I was up to. I approached the nearest of the lethally armed guys, and indicating all the vehicles, and his equally lethally armed compatriots, asked, “Pour moi?” Initially perplexed as to what the fuck I could possibly mean, he replied “Pour vous?” I beamed in a friendly manner, he got the joke, smiled in response, and a I nodded and carried on, my London friends now but specks in the distance, hoping that that vast distance was sufficient to escape the fusillade of bullets that would inevitably be aimed at me. In the end they needn’t have worried; fewer than five shots were fired in my general direction.
Having caught up with visitors and Francesca, we ended up wandering into a gallery show with displays of really awful art. One of the patrons tried to pick up the male London friend, but we saved him. Evidently bronze etchings were involved.
Further perambulations brought us to an enormous area of cafes full of people having excellent cafe time. I love cafe time. I got the London duo to confess that there was nothing like that in London.
Something else of note occurred our last week in Paris. The Mona Lisa was attacked: “Witnesses said that the would-be vandal approached the artwork wearing a long wig and dressed as an elderly woman in a wheelchair. He allegedly leapt up, attempted to smash the glass, and failing that, smeared it with cake. As he was tackled by guards, he threw roses, Reuters reported. He shouted “think of the earth, people are destroying the earth!” in French as he was taken away by security. A Louvre statement confirmed the attack on the artwork involved a ‘patisserie.’” Ah, Paris. Ah, France.
I have a few notes put at the base of this travelogue as reminders. One of these is “hyper psychedelic dream”. As some of you may know, in my teens I “experimented” with LSD. This is not to say that I put some of the chemical in a test tube and analyzed it. No. I popped pills, the third and last time overdosing. So, over 50 years later, I’m sleeping in France, and I have a dream that in many ways exceeded in weirdness an LSD overdose. Lots and lots of colors, and things happening that made little sense. On a scale of 1 to 10, its bizarreness exceeded 11. By a lot. You should have been there. It may have been due to something I ingested – probably some cheese. I am strongly affected by some cheeses, Camembert in particular, which ought to be illegal.
I have another reminder note that says simply, “Pyramid vs friendly dog”. This is a really good story, or did you miss the part that it involves a dog. Here’s the thing, though: I haven’t a clue what that note refers to. Disappointed? Not half as much a I am. We never went to the Louvre pyramid, so it wasn’t that. And why should there be a “vs” between “Pyramid” and “friendly dog”? Perplexing.
A final note regarded catching covid from [with] London friends. I’ve modified this a trifle, to protect the innocent, but this is a text I sent to French Maryline: “The problem is, we’re really-good-fun, and many of our friends crave our really-good-funness, and visiting Suzanne and myself allows them to experience really-good-fun. And that is why this pair of Brits – actually just the wife (the husband, with each passing year, finds us more and more annoying) – knowing there was a risk that they were covid carriers, were willing – nay, desperate – to put us at risk so that they (she) might briefly experience really-good-funness, as their lives in London were 180 degrees out of phase with that state. She hoped, I believe, that the covid already in their home would not affect us. She was wrong. The lesson: being really-good-fun is hazardous to your health.” [Well, it is, even if none of that actually happened.]
And speaking of disappearing glaciers, as I write this (2022.07.19) parts of Britain are reaching temperatures never before reached. Some airport runways started to melt. Meanwhile, in France, this headline: “Outdoor public events have been banned in an area of France as a record breaking heatwave sweeps across Europe.” So, sure, maybe I have years to live, but I do wonder if European travel will remain viable for as long as I am viable. (And now, at the end of August, 2022, much of the USA, Europe, and China, are drying up. Some bizarre things are being exposed as the waters recede. The earth and I seem to be crumbling in synch.)
Leaving Avignon (screaming) early meant getting 3 nights in hotel in Paris. This was eventually done – at some cost due to Airbnb snafu (you don’t need to know; suffice it to say one of us was panicking and pushing her husby to make questionable decisions). The hotel was directly across from Le Sorbonne. Having checked in we went to a nearby cafe and ordered cocktails. It was 10°C cooler than Avignon; a cooling breeze was cooling us with its gentle cool breeziness; we were surrounded by academics – students and professors. Oh my fuchsia gods! After Avignon this felt like ascending to an ethereal plain; our kind of place; our kind of people. We both simultaneously, once cafe seated and noticing our surroundings, felt blissful. And we were entertained by a very eager old academic codger entertaining a young coquette. She was dressed in a frilly thing and was doing nothing to disabuse the eager old guy that his drooling eagerness might be unwanted. And it would be entirely inappropriate, I suspect, to judge this from an American view of morality. This was France. Francesca overheard her talking, and it was clear she was intelligent, a polyglot, and totally in control of whatever was happening there. In America such an over eager elder would be viewed with disapprobation; a potential abuser of position and authority. In France – and I’m just making this up – the weakness of heterosexual males is often viewed as something to be taken advantage of. Yeah, so, that’s the news from the Geoffrey News Network (GNN), respected the world over.
Email: [Question: Le Sorbonne is incredibly famous and prestigious; and yet I can’t remember any big ideas coming out of l’université – at least in physics – that I’d consider noteworthy. This statement has non-infinitesimal evidence supporting it, but my general impression is the researchers and professors spend their time in cafes, smoking, drinking, and discussing the meaning of meaning. Vrai ?]
Email reply from London academic: [Non non, en fait Le Sorbonne c’est de qualite inferieure – (au-dessous Ecole Normale Superieure et Ecole Polytechnique..) ]
Well well, who knew. Le Sorbonne fairs better in popular fiction that requires a stuffy Parisian academic environment. And it certainly looks austerely prepossessing. We were across the street from what had to have been it’s main building. We wanted to look inside, but without an ID proving we belonged that was impossible. The main building at MIT is larger and even more austerely prepossessing, but its doors are open to all, the end of its infinite hallway a pinpoint due to the mathematics of perspective. What is Le Sorbonne hiding I wonder? Well, having spent years in academic buildings, I don’t really wonder. I know. And it’s not super interesting. And yet, looking at the facade one can easily imagine how difficult – nay, impossible – it would be to rid the building of visitors desirous of camping out in some far corner. We could have saved ourselves 3 nights in a hotel, for example.
Last blissful days
Anyway, those 3 nights opposite Le Sorbonne, and one night at the Airbnb, were a few more days we spent alone in Paris without visitors. We were content. We were alone. We had Le Récamier soufflés.
So, our original choice for an Airbnb was a right bank place we’d stayed at before with a great view of the Eiffel Tower. I contacted the guy running the place. He remembered us, but unfortunately that place was booked for the days needed. But he had another place on the left bank in a neighborhood full of art galleries. It had recently been renovated. Yay and ok. But, he added, he’d prefer that all transactions be done without actually going through the Airbnb app. This was, I assume, so Airbnb does not get a cut, and they maybe avoid taxes. Win-win for them; not so much for us. We had to come up with over 1800€ in cash. This required close to an hour in search of viable banks (4), and 5 different bank cards. But in the end, despite the uncomfortable nature of this transaction, the deal was done, and the place was ours.
After moving in we had lunch at Les Deux Magots, a cafe/restaurant evidently frequented by Luminous Years luminaries back in the 1920s. Unfortunately its cachet was largely undiminished, and many of the clientele were …
Text message to Maryline: [Went to Les Deux Magots today. Still trying to wash off the pretension.]
We were seated next to a curvaceous young woman, sitting alone, dressed in a number of threads that could be counted on the fingers and toes of one hand. She almost immediately left in a huff, our clearly non-celebrity character besmirching the image she was trying to project. No sugar daddy was going to make any moves on her with us sitting next door. Fucking tourists! Merde!
We did more stuff that day, all of it more pleasurable than Les Deux Magots, and even though I don’t exactly remember what we did, The Two Maggots had set the bar very low. Well, we did view a great many art galleries, and discovered two cool sci fi themed shops around the corner from our apartment. That is so so French. In college, over 50 years ago, a friend introduced me to French graphic novels. They were groundbreaking, and the States has yet to catch up … because we’re a colony, too young to have much culture, and so we’re too embarrassed to be seen partaking of an art form we consider frivolous. Oh, and the culture – what there is – is dominated by burly, head shaved Anglo Saxons, for whom even cafe culture is anathema. Fuchsia! Why the hell am I not French, or Italian?
The drive to Nice was the usual: 3 hours of hand cramping tunnels and trucks. And our Airbnb was as advertised: a comfortable studio apartment overlooking the Mediterranean, in the middle of the Promenade des Anglais. This was a problem, although I did not know this at first.
Let’s talk about that name: Promenade des Anglais. In the misty past the English with any means, thoroughly fed up with their dank homeland, would flock here periodically to soak up some Mediterranean sunshine. Of course, there were many sorts of foreign visitors, but few as unsavory as the English, after whom the Promenade is named.
So, anyway, the Promenade itself consists of 6 lanes of auto traffic, separated by curbs, grass, and fence structures, from a 2 lane bike/skateboard/etc path, bordering a very wide paved walkway – the actual Promenade. And then there was the beach … sniff … just a moment … talk amongst yourselves. I need a tissue.
The well-healed for whom the Promenade was built required that it remain clear and clean. In particular, sand from the lovely beach would find its overly intrusive way up onto the Promenade when the wind was onshore. Oh no no no. You French must fix this or we shall take our foreign money elsewhere. Oui oui oui, d’accord. So they dumped over a meter of cobbly stones, 2 to 6 inches in diameter, onto the sand, thereby thoroughly squelching the sand’s desire to socialize. And simultaneously, as walking barefoot on cobbles of that size is excruciatingly painful, they rendered the beach useless save to the most hearty. (We swam once and gave up the practice thereafter; Francesca’s feet took two days to heal.) Meanwhile, world wars having given the well-healed a spanking, they no longer stroll on the Promenade much. Now its promenaders are distinctly more prolish (like us). So why not lose the cobbles and get the beach back? Partly because fuchsia Unesco has declared the place a World Heritage Site. It’s too pretty to interfere with. It wasn’t until the 3rd of our 4 days in Nice that we discovered that the city is not just a pretty Promenade wasteland; there is a charming Italianesque village at the harbor end.
We discovered these good bits of Nice when we encountered the tour tricycles near the old-town. These are electric assisted covered pedal vehicles that can be used as either a pleasant taxi service, or city tour vehicles. We quickly settled with one guy who was studying for a PhD in the linguistics of virtual reality. Utterly cool. Modern world. Anyway, we got on swimmingly with this Savo, and it was he who first took us as part of his tour to the Italianesque harbor area. The next day we asked him (via Whatsapp) to taxi us there so we could spend some quality time in this faux Santa Margherita.
He dropped us off, and we took a little water taxi from one side to the other, at which point I made the huge error of having strong coffee just before lunch.
Why an error? Yeah, so, wait for it. I do some googling and determine a likely place for lunch. I read a review: 3 stars. Really? I investigate. The reason it doesn’t have more stars: a woman seeing to the needs of some diners – one female in particular – was occasionally gruff and unfriendly. The (assumed) Millennial Princess writing the review was quite convinced she deserved better. Her mommy treated her better. She had always been catered to, so where does this gruff French woman get off not kowtowing to her. Anyway, she made no mention of the food, but she inspired in me a strong need to meet this gruff French woman.
Text from Francesca’s French friend, providing context: “Geoffrey, you surely complain, judge and criticize a lot; I think you are ready to become a French citizen. Dual citizenship is legal 😋” Yes, yes, I already mentioned this, but it merits repetition, and it fills me with warm fuzzy yearnings.
We met the gruff woman almost immediately. She ran the place, and, indeed, were I a Millennial, I’d have been affronted by this wonderful Gaul.
And here’s where the earlier cup of strong coffee starts to influence this drama. I start getting a bit hyper – wired – and I am unaware of it. Francesca notices, however. We are sitting next to a pair of Italians, now living in Paris. How do I know this? Because near the dessert course we get to chatting with them. Typical information is exchanged between international strangers, and then the conversation drifted to less typical topics, and I go into full on anecdotal comedy mode. We’re actually conversing, but I begin to dominate, and as the audience is frequently rolling in the aisles, I do not relent. (No one else there has the repartee disease as strongly as I.) At one point, as gruff Gaul is heading off on a scooter to get fresh supplies, I sneak a picture of her. A nearby waitress laughs.
Soon the meal is nearly done, I go to the facilities, and Francesca asks the Italians if I was talking too much. They assure her that they found the whole performance quite entertaining.
But I am not done. Gruff Gaul is now back, and I ask her if she’ll come to the table for a photo with me. She does, and puts on a smile. I ask her to look a little fierce, and I try to emulate, but fail miserably because I’m enjoying myself too much.
Later Francesca goes inside to pay this fierce-some femme, and having done so, adds, “And by the way, my husband is in love with you.” She replies, “Oh, then, I’ll come say goodbye.” Shortly thereafter, we get up to leave, and I go over to look into the restaurant interior (naturally we were seated outdoors). She spied me looking all puppy doggish and came out. Double cheek presses were given, goodbyes said, and off we went (goodbyes also said to Italians, who may have been wondering what just happened). As Francesca and I sauntered away, she asked me if I was aware how wired I’d been. I was not, at least at the time, but now that she pointed it out it was obvious. It has happened before, and I wondered what had induced it this time. Ah. The strong pre lunch coffee!!! This hyperdrive phenomenon is (almost?) always chemically induced.
And by the way, I gave the restaurant a 5 star review, mentioning how annoying that prior 3 star review was. Millennials, am I right? My review:
“One person gave this 3 stars for grumpy poor service, one lady in particular. Well, this is France, not DisneyLand, and we loved the food, and loved this woman. Maybe I saw myself in her. She was all smiles by the end – maybe my poor French softened things. Anyway, we loved the food and the people. If we ever return to Nice, we shall return to Le Marlin.”
The drive to Avignon the next day is unremarkable, marred at the end by the Fembot sending us to the wrong train station. Our fault, entirely. Fembot blameless.
Eventually we get to correct station (TGV), follow rental car instructions for rental car return, park vehicle in appropriate spot, reassemble luggage towers, push them over to Sixt guy, hand him keys, tell him car in better condition than when we got it. Great, he says. And we leave. As I’ve mentioned before, this is the great thing about returning cars in France. They have little patience for the technical minutiae of car returns. No one in France ever actually looks at our cars, clipboard in hand, and checks them over. Our gas tank was near empty, but never mind, they had the keys, and their job was done.
We got a cab to hotel. Temperatures were slated to be in mid 90s (Fahrenheit) each day of our stay, but we thought we could take it for a few days. Shortly thereafter …
Wait. Why Avignon? Well, there was a TGV from there to Paris, and I’d heard of the place, its name evoking ancient quaintness, and popes at some point in history. And that’s it. I did no further research, and I picked the hotel, so I am to blame for … There’s also a TGV to Paris from Nice. Fuchsia.
So, yeah, from time of arrival, to several hours later that same day, there was a linear progression from thinking, “well, ok, it’s hot, but these alleys are quaint and a little cooler”, to concussing myself twice on a stone lintel above an alcove in our ground floor room (stairways to upper floors narrow, winding, and get narrower as you ascend; no elevator in this place that touts itself as quaintly medieval; and there’s no lounge! Having arrived at the wrong time, we got inside with a door code and had to wait on some steps for the owner to show up at 14:00.) Anyway, the little alleys end at some point, and as you near the periphery the populous gets seedier and seedier, the ambiance becomes kind of horror movie fun fair, and the two of us simultaneously reached the point of “get us the fuck out of here!!!” To the owner of the hotel we’re blaming our early departure on the heat and my cancer, and I can’t say for certain that this is not a contributing factor. The guy that runs the hotel has been friendly and accommodating; I have no interest in cranking at him. And in the end he was amiable, but of course we’d passed the point where a refund was in the cards, so amiability was easy.
This work of art is directly opposite the former Papal Palace, and it will always be my favorite image of that benighted town.
We stayed one night out of 4 booked. The type of tourists in town – at least those we were near enough to to make discreet observation viable – were gormless, having been attracted to Avignon as its name conjures up quaint, and ancient religiosity – something out of a 1930s movie. And, indeed, the place we are staying is in a 400 year old building, although only a fraction of the original stones survive. Still, it was more suited to medieval backpackers than the two of us. So, yeah, but, the point is, gormless, inexperienced tourists attract predators, and in a larger area outside the confined old town Francesca noticed an uncomfortable amount of attention being paid to us. Mmmm, fresh meat. (At one point a young guy with an unsettling gleam in his eye rapidly approached Francesca and started blabbering about something. Well, before he got within range my excellent peripheral vision enabled me to spot him, turn, and put myself between him and Francesca, who had no interest in the fellow other than to increase the distance between her and him. I put my hand on his shoulder in a firm, but not unfriendly way, looked him steadily in the eye, and said, “Au revoir.” And we sauntered off without further pursuit.)
And Francesca also noticed there were few if any shops catering to the well-healed. More of a backpacker and first time tourist vibe. You know, we are not rich, but we do enjoy frowsting about in places the wealthy find satisfactory. Avignon is, in our opinion, the opposite of that.
Being at a hotel with no cooking facilities, that first (and only) evening we wandered out and found a place to purchase munchies. There was an American couple at a nearby table. The male was incensed that the salad served him in no way resembled those he was accustomed to in his beloved American homeland. Sigh. You know Disney World has a faux European area. Why not go there? (But, really, who am I to cast aspersions? Remember the story of a much younger, green-about-the-gills, Geoffrey getting steak tartare in Marseille? “Excuse me! Will this be cooked at some point?”)
The other kind of tourist – and there are many – are a kind we encountered in Galway: young, faux hip, on a summer adventure to a place that has lots of stuff, a religious vibe, and lots of other youths like themselves. Galway is smaller, with fewer public facilities, so it was far more gross.
Anyway, our train is changed, and a comfy hotel near the Sorbonne is waiting for us later today.
Text: [At TGV station I walked over to say hi to chocolate lab. “OMG, this guy is coming to see me, and he is scratching me! I must reward him with vigorous tail wags and by wrapping my mouth around his arm.” Good dog. My arm got moistened.]
Text from train moving over 160mph: [This train moves just like the Acela, if the Acela were dropped from an airplane.]
[Note added 2022.08.06: Checked Avignon forecast for first 2 weeks of August; every day nearly 100°F. Guy who gave us ride back home from the airport said he’d been there and liked it. “What month did you visit?” “December.” Yeah, ok.]
Grrr. When we arrived in France I got a text from Verizon offering me no hassle internet connectivity in the EU for $10/day. Tempting, but that would cost $350 by trips end, and I had already purchased a $40 sim card for my Huawei mobile wifi hotspot. It had worked flawlessly in years past, although the SIM chip provider (not Huawei; they just made the mobile hotspot) had a new type of chip now. I thought I was set. (“Flawlessly” isn’t quite right. Last year it didn’t work in Milan at all. Ok, so I was an idiot.)
Long story short: I wasn’t set. The hotspot never worked in Paris … flickers of life, but “No Internet Connection” the norm. Bloomberg said that France was phasing out Huawei 5G. Was that the problem?
I bought a TP-Link hotspot and transferred the SIM. Pfft. Still, until we got a rental and needed accurate navigation data, we could survive.
I decided I may as well accept Verizon’s $10/day plan, but it was a few days after the initial text, and although I was assured I was connected, it didn’t work. Hours chatting with Verizon tech drones online resulted in me accepting the cheaper International Plan. Didn’t work. Worked fine for a friend with same phone, but she got it going before she left the USA. Every new tech drone I “chatted” with told me to try the same things. That got tired quickly.
The rental car now acquired, its navigation map got us to Chamonix. As mentioned, it wasn’t flawless, its knowledge of the intricacies of Chamonix itself dismal at best.
Curiously, the hotspot worked flawlessly above 9000 feet. Interesting, but not useful. We didn’t take the car that high. But it did prove that the fault lay in the chip, not some configuration settings.
Ok, later, we’re through the tunnel and into Italy, and Francesca gets a text from Verizon offering $10/day international thing. She accepts, and it almost immediately works flawlessly. FYI: if it’s offered, and you want it, accept quickly.
Meanwhile my sim card providers are sending me periodic emails with suggestions that might make it work. But it did work high in the Alps, so I’m not optimistic about their suggestions, and eventually lose interest. Most of their suggestions are things I’ve already tried multiple times at their suggestion. That also got tired quickly.
Still, Francesca’s phone is now able to give us accurate navigation, including over the new bridge in Genoa, the rental navigation map having assumed we were flying.
Day 2 in Santa Margherita we are moseying about the city, away from the coast. I’m on a hunt. I want tech stores at which I can buy a prepaid sim card for the hotspot. And then, there it is, tech heaven: half a dozen tech stores. An hour later I have my sim card, and the slow, but helpful, girl we’re dealing with walks us up to another store where some guy performs some magic to charge it up. Total cost: 25€. (My American sim provider has now definitely lost my business.) We take it home, install it, and voila. I mean, shit, perfect mobile wifi.
The next day the hotspot is off, we’re out doing something, I check something on my phone, and it connects to the internet without trouble. The Verizon International Plan ($100) is now working. We now have triple connectivity. Sigh.
[Postscript: when the International Plan first failed to work the chat guy agreed, at my request, to cancel it. He assured me this would be done. So it was a bit of a surprise when it started working in Italy. Well, ok, I thought. But not ok. Whoever at Verizon got it going did so in a way that was open-ended. I would pay $100/month for the rest of my life. I’m still trying to deal with that debacle. Verizon assurances that this is being dealt with do not assuage my growing unease. I mean, the implications are mind-boggling. Could corporations be more interested in profits than customers?]
[Post postscript: It’s the end of August; the issue is still unresolved.]
[Post post postscript: It’s mid-October. Issue resolved. Reimbursements received.]
Our routine here is this: Francesca puts together a light breakfast; I take one pill for the cancer, and a slew of vitamins and supplements; 2 hours pass with no food, some Avatar, the Last Airbender, maybe a nap, then my major testosterone crushing cancer meds; an additional hour must pass before further food, at which time we are at a cafe frequented by wealthy boat owners. It’s in shade, and we get cappuccinos and orange juice; an hour (minimum) later we mosey further down the jetty, back, mosey slowly home, refresh ourselves, and go to lunch, usually at Rêve, our favorite, and where we are well known by the owner (see last 3 travelogues; shortly after we arrived in Santa Margherita he’d seen us walk by and was pretty sure it was us; he was correct).
It’s now siesta time. Many shops are closed until 4pm. Home for more Avatar and naps. Soon after 4 we rouse ourselves and go to another cafe near the church. (Well, a church. This is, after all, Italy. Italy has more than one church.) Between 6 and 6:30 we go acquire comestibles with which to make dinner, and go to prepare foodstuffs and eat same. Soon after dark we join loads of locals in a cool evening passeggiata. There are occasional variations to this routine, some of which I will now outline.
On our first evening passeggiata I spotted 3 young guys throwing a frisbee, mostly backhand, an occasional sidearm, and pretty good. (Spoiler alert: I am a competition-level frisbee thrower.) I approached. I put my hands forward to indicate I’d like a go. The guy with the frisbee leaned forward a bit and carefully threw it to me. Unlike that Swiss woman, these kids evidently considered me a potentially frail geezer and were anxious not to break me. I caught it, and to this point I’d given no indication that I knew anything about the sport. But that was about to change. I flipped the frisbee over, put my right thumb inside the lip, turned quickly around, and simultaneously executed a flawless blind reverse over the shoulder throw to another of the guys. Pandemonium ensued. Holy fuchsia, WTF did that guy just do?
A few more trick throws later, some stories about me playing ultimate, and competing in individual events in Belgium in the 1980s, and we were now best friends. I gave them my email, but don’t expect to hear from them. Great guys, and super enthusiastic.
There were a couple of fireworks displays, in part to celebrate the day they became a republic in 1946, and another short but incredibly loud one on the docks outside our windows. This occurred precisely at 4pm, the official end of siesta. Initially alarmed – I mean, who does big bang fireworks in the middle of the day – I jumped to the window and saw the puffs of smoke that resulted from the explosive bursts. Weird. All over in 2 minutes.
One evening a really good band (featured in a major Italian newspaper a couple days later) did an evening of Pink Floyd in the park in front of our place. And by “evening”, I mean Italian evening, which ends somewhere between midnight and dawn. For a while we sat on the stone seats in front of the bandstand to watch the light show, and be reminded by the band that some teachers are bad and should “leave those kids alone”. A lady with a bored german shepherd sat nearby. The shepherd would wander about as far as the leash permitted, which included my position. Naturally I patted and scratched the beast. This did little to alleviate his boredom, and he grew playful. For the next few minutes he held my hand in his mouth while I pretended to tussle. Then he was taken away when the tussling grew more tussle-like. Good dog.
Our stay in Santa Margherita intersected with one Friday. OMG, party time. Middle school kids had music (deafening) on the beach that, I suppose, they were intended to dance to. They appeared to be immune to the relentless beat, and I have to say, in my experience Italians do not dance much. At all? I’m unsure.
Everyone 16 or over was in a cafe or bar, and what they lack on the dance floor they more than make up for in boisterous dolce vita. It is highly infectious. And in truly Italian form, age is no barrier to participation. At one point we found a table and two chairs in the heart of a large cafe. A large table of rowdy 20 something guys celebrating the birthday of one of their members was right next to us. In the USA there would be an expectation of simmering aggression with such an ensemble – exclusionary testosterone-fueled pack behavior. Not here. At one point a matronly woman walked over and congratulated the birthday boy. Everyone at their table was delighted. I’m now going to put in a chart that will explain much about why Italy is the way it is, and different from the rest of Europe., and WAY different from America. Order of the White Lotus initiates will understand.
Italy is unique. This also explains why many Italian men over 40 often appear to be grumpy. They are no longer under the wing of la mama, and their wives refuse to fill that role, likely having their own bambini to whom to be la mama.
We ordered drinks. We bathed in a kind of cultural enthusiasm that does not exist in most places outside of Italy, and the USA is way the fuck outside. In the first 2 weeks of our EU holiday there were 3 mass shootings in my native country, albeit not in New England, where we live. Were it not for my cancer, and my need for MGH, we’d likely start thinking of ways to move across the pond for good. Sigh.
Meanwhile, during our stay, and especially during festive times, young girls, maybe 16 to 18, roved about in packs, many sporting short shorts exposing acres of butt cheek, and held together at the base by a number of threads that could be counted by the fingers of one hand … or so I theorize. If you think you understand this behavior, you are probably wrong, unless you are really familiar with Italian culture. In Matera, some years ago, such young girls, provocatively attired, were accompanied by their mothers. It would not have surprised me at all had the mothers of these young provocateurs been hovering nearby … unless, of course, the girls were foreign.
Francesca loves being on boats. On a previous trip to Santa Margherita we got ourselves on a Cinque Terre day cruise. Cinque Terre is a Unesco Heritage Site, but it’s too small to be labeled such. It’s still pretty, mind, from a boat, but up close it’s kitsch. I don’t need anymore t-shirts or scarves. We stayed on the boat for the third cluster of quaint buildings.
This time, 2022, Francesca did her homework, and on our last day in SM she booked us a small boat just for us. The captain would take us out to sea for 3 hours, tootle around, let us see some sites from the water, then bring us home. Our 5 previous full days in Santa Margherita had been clement, so we had no worries.
Two hours before our 3 hour cruise (and if you’re not thinking of Galaxy Quest, and termites, right now, well, shame on you) the wind picked up, and it conspired with the sea to produce conditions unsuitable for any but the biggest boats. Ours was one of the smallest. Trip canceled. Two hours after we were slated to return the seas relented, but too late. This is why I’m a polytheistic agnostic. I mean, think about it. If there are gods, there’d have to be many of them to see to all this minutiae, like fucking up our three hour boat tour. This is small time smiting.
Oh, there was one other aspect of Italian social life I’ve always found enchanting: groups of old guys, or old women – never a mix – sitting on park benches in the evening chatting about stuff. There was one bench visible from our apartment that never failed to attract its complement of graybeards every evening.
Some incidents, from Geoffrey’s meager, inadequate, pathetic memory
You may recall that we discovered Le Récamier years ago after visiting EDF, a smallish exhibition hall (foundation) evidently funded by the electric company. (I don’t know, and I’m too lazy to look it up.) Anyhow, after lunch we walked next door to the EDF and discovered an important change had been made. One could no longer just stroll in. One now needed a reservation. “How does one do this?”, I asked the attendant. Online at their website. I took my phone out, opened the website, and made a reservation for whatever time it was, and the guy let us in. I mean, … Anyway, it hardly mattered. This exhibit – I can’t even remember the theme – was disappointing. (Francesca tells me it was fascinating, devoted to international travel. Hmm.)
Francesca tells me what I am about to write happened on this first free day. I thought it was on our 2nd full free day weeks later, but she may be right. (Truth be told, she’s probably right.) Anyway, I bought 5 graphic novels (in French; completing my collection of this particular series) at FNAC, 14€ each. The Montparnasse FNAC is one of our favorite places in Paris, surpassing the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower … bad examples, as I am not fond of either, at least up close. From a safe distance they’re swell. But neither of those popular tourist destinations have a floor devoted to graphic novels, and no one in the world can surpass the French in this genre – and I may even know what I’m talking about.
Later we were sitting at a cafe, and I was chafing at the idea of hauling these big books around for the rest of the trip. I opened google maps and searched for nearby post offices, found one not far away that would be open for hours. Francesca said, just go, so I raced to the post office with the books, the intention being to mail them home. This operation was not quick, inhibited by my French, and the need to find an appropriately sized box, but in the end I was asked what I was sending. (Until then the books were in a bag.) Just books. Ok, books go at a discount. She looked in the bag at the books. Are all these books in French? Why yes, yes they are. Further discount! WTF. Evidently anyone wishing to spread the French language to corners of the globe where it is not the primary language should have minimal impediments put in their way in that endeavor. Anyway, sending five 14€ books home cost me 13€. This was a tediously pleasant experience. [PS: the books arrived at our home about the same time we did. 4 weeks, so Francesca is right about when this happened.]
After that we headed to a street full of designer shops. Francesca has written about how disappointing their window displays were this year, still suffering the effects of covid. Thereafter I pointed us to the Seine, and we moseyed along its banks. This never grows old. And that night we had pizza at Gastrolab near our apartment, a student run cafe full of students. It was most pleasurable. Haut cuisine it was not, but it made up for that with its pleasant scholastic ambiance.
The next morning and noontime we had to ourselves. We went to La Samaritaine, a place we had found quite pleasurable a year before. But things had changed. The luster had tarnished, possibly due to a dearth of wealthy patrons (covid?), and increasingly many hoi polloi wishing to goggle at the really pretty interior. Sigh.
The Barbarians Descend
So, anyway, as I say, a bit more than half of this trip will involve my old friends coming to visit from the UK and CH, and Francesca’s friend Maryline popping in and out.
The first two of my friends were Heidi and Clara, whom I’ve mentioned often before. Heidi, Clara and Maryline are all in week one, so it is now in the past, by 3 days. Anyway, regarding Heidi, to paraphrase the GrandMaster (oh, come! Thor Ragnarok?): “It’s all because of [her]. Your [ex]. Whatever the story is. Relationship complicated. I’m sure there’s a big history.”
That history will always be a source of slowly diminishing tension, for Francesca re Heidi …. “big history”. In the hours before the gathering, the tension was uncomfortable. Teeth were being ground. And yet, in the event the presence of Clara and Maryline lightened the mood, and good times were handed out to all.
And by the way, in all past EU trips Francesca and I would dine at night in our apartments, preparing our own comestibles in well appointed kitchens. (Well, my contribution was admittedly minimal, and just as well.) So this whole Parisian nightlife thing was new to us. It was nice. We may continue the habit next year even in the absence of visitors.
The next day Heidi and Clara, for reasons that remain mysterious to me, went off to the large, seedy (it is rumored) flea market northeast of Paris central. We did not see them again. Having no interest in seedy flea markets, I allowed Francesca and Maryline to drag me to huge Pop Air (?) bubble fun fair. Bubble?
Many many kinds of bubbles, and hugely fun.
Maryline, who’d lived 15 years in Paris, and so has many friends in the city (she is a living, breathing, wild woman archetype), had one with her, first gen French with Algerian parents. We all went into the big bubble pool, including Maryline’s friend, who – not being as brave as the rest of us – became a bit uncomfortable, for once in the bubble pool, especially if seated, getting out is less simple. In her efforts to extract herself from the pool, she squirmed, and under the surface, inadvertently, Maryline’s friend braced her heels against my crotch. But, you know, due to the cancer, the tender bits were no longer there, and I was able the support her like that until others grabbed her arms and helped her out. No harm done. If she knew what she’d just done, she gave no indication. Maybe she was just too polite to mention to me that I seem to have misplaced my testicles, perhaps in the bubble pool, where they would be ever so difficult to locate, and subsequently reattach. And how embarrassing would it have been had I, by mistake, grabbed two of the plastic balls and attempted to reattach them? So, yeah, her best course of action was just to remain politely silent.
That night we spent with Maryline and another of her friends. We ensconced ourselves at an excellent cafe, had drinks, then, a couple of hours later, having worn out our welcome (not really; I never encountered a French cafe that became uncomfortable with its guests occupying space for anything up to infinitely many hours), we wandered across the street and had a sushi din. Good times; good times. I mean, really. I just love Paris cafes, and I love (good) sushi. And we were dining out! With entertaining people. I mean, what the fuchsia, we never used to dine out in the evening. And here we were rapidly making a habit of it. And it was proving quite pleasant. I was even able to use some French to exchange humorous quips with the guy who ran the place, and he did not threaten me with death, so I must have done well. Quelle surprise.
Our first week in Paris done (nearly completely dominated my visitors), we took a TGV to Annecy, picked up a car, and drove to Chamonix – our 4th visit there. Alone in our previous visits, a family of Swiss friends came down this time, and we spent all of our time there together. Exhausting, but worth it. Macé, the father, suggested that Annecy would have been an easier place for them to meet up with us. But that misses the point – several points. All eight of my friends that actually managed to connect with us during this trip somehow seemed to exude a misapprehension that our trip, with all its plans, was secondary to connecting up with them. In particular, Francesca and I dislike Annecy. We like Chamonix. Very nice to see friends and all, but this is our trip. There are limits to our willingness to adapt our plans to the wishes of people who actually live in Europe.
To get to Chamonix from Annecy you have to skirt quite close to the 11.6km long Mont Blanc Tunnel connecting France and Italy. The day after our arrival in Chamonix (we arrived on a Wednesday) was the start of a 4 day holiday weekend, their version of Memorial Day. Because we were not going through the tunnel that day, we avoided the hugely long lines of cars and trucks waiting to transit the tunnel to Italy. The trucks were lined up on the right, at a dead stop – a couple of kilometers of them. Periodically that line was punctuated by a confused car having decided the trucks knew what they were doing. Some of these, deciding anything was better than waiting with the trucks, got out of that line and ambled forward to the end of the car line some ways ahead.
Now keep in mind, 5 days later I’d need to somehow navigate to and through that tunnel. I did not relish the thought. Anyway, skipping ahead, we decide to leave a day early, friends being gone, and the pleasures of Chamonix (I’m getting to it) being used up. It’s now Sunday, the last day of the big welcome-summer holiday, and we’re driving up towards the tunnel entrance, looking for the end of the line of cars we might be sitting behind before we pay the 50€ to get through the tunnel. Still driving … still looking … looking. And suddenly, there it is, the gaping maw of the tunnel. Absolutely no one is in front of us. We are the entire line. I pull up to the booth where I am to hand over my credit card. I do so, then it is handed back, and the gate rises. Francesca meanwhile is sure passports and a blood sample will be required, and she’s putting together her material. However, as the gate is open, I decide to ignore whatever it is she is doing, and I drive forward and into the long dark tunnel. And by the way, Italy is still quite mountainous on the other side of the Mont Blanc Tunnel, and we’ll encounter over 20km of smaller tunnels before we are through following the Badger Moles to the coast (only in the northeast are there any lowlands; I am always surprised how mountainous Italy is).
It should be added that, once we exited the tunnel on the Italian side, the line of cars and trucks heading north into the big tunnel from Italy to France was kilometers long. I theorize that the French like to holiday in Italy, but the Italians find no concomitant charms in their neighbors to the north. The Italians have everything they need in Italy, and they are surrounded by a country with a warm culture. I like France, a lot, but I wouldn’t call it warm. Rather disgruntled is the mot juste.
In a text message Maryline wrote: “Geoffrey, you surely complain, judge and criticize a lot; I think you are ready to become a French citizen. Dual citizenship is legal 😋” I immediately replied with a request for Information re where to sign up. I’d always found French sultry sulkiness more charming than aggravating. Maryline is right – I’m a perfect fit.
We never met anyone at the Chamonix Airbnb. I was instructed to find a nearby bicycle with some red on it, input a code into a lock box hanging from it, and extract the key. All this after our rental’s GPS tried to send us down a pedestrian way, and over one of those metal cylinders that require a member card to get through (bollards: they retract into the ground if you’ve got a pass; we never do have one). By the way, before I carry on to Chamonix, and while on the subject of our vehicles questionable navigation software, later in the trip the rental’s GPS was surprisingly lax in one other huge way. On our way to Santa Margherita we crossed over the elegant new bridge that allows one to get by Genoa without going through Genoa. A couple of years ago the old bridge collapsed, with some loss of life. Anyway, our rental’s GPS navigation map is not updated as often as google’s map. Fortunately, after 9 frustrating days of failing to get internet connectivity, Francesca got a text from Verizon when we crossed into Italy asking if she’d like their pay daily plan. She replied in the affirmative, and voila. So by the time we got to the bridge we had trusty navigation. The point of this rambling discourse was the behavior of the rental’s navigation map while we were on a bridge it didn’t know existed. Francesca said that ignorant map indicated, seemingly, that we were flying. Cool. Modern times. I glanced only briefly at the thing, being surrounded by scads of EU trucks and cars, these requiring almost 100% of my attention. So, anyway, that happened.
Now in Chamonix, we had dinner out with Swiss family, continuing our string of violating our previous practice of dining in and going to bed, maybe after an episode or two of Avatar, the Last Airbender (we’re watching the series again on this trip; the Fire Nation drill is even now approaching Ba Sing Se; omg!).
The next day we bought 6 two day passes for the lot of us and and used them to take the train up to the Mer de Glace glacier viewing point – the 2nd biggest glacier in Europe. Recall from my previous travel memoirs that 5 or 6 years ago we’d visited Chamonix, taken the train up to the glacier viewing point, took a small gondola down toward the glacier, walked down 8000 steps (perception and reality possibly not synching in this instance), and followed a path into ice tunnels in the glacier, all cool blue and glowing. Awesome, right? Then we went back up top and had lunch at the patio restaurant overlooking the majestic river of ice. A friendly dog put his chin on my lap and made idle conversation about any leftovers we might have. A good day. (Sniff … blubber … sob …)
This time … you know, it’s just fucking unbelievable. The patio restaurant was gone – and I don’t mean closed – gone; and the glacier had receded up the valley by over 4 kms. In a very few years it will have receded around a bend in its valley, and no longer be visible from the viewing stand. Access to the glacier was impossible.
So obviously we could no longer actually get down to where it used to be. The gondola was closed. The steps below may have been there still, but without the gondola we would never know. And where the patio restaurant used to be there were now a couple construction vehicles. Maybe they’re going to make a path up nearer the the glacier, so you can look down at it. Of course, they’ll need to extend the path over 800 meters every year to keep up with the recession. Fucking hell.
[Meanwhile, it is now July and we have returned home, and in France, UK, Portugal and Spain, very high temperatures are shattering records. Wildfires are burning from Portugal to Russia. It’s just fucking insane. Small wonder Gen-Z films are dominated by post apocalyptic survival dramas.]
A few years ago Francesca and I got to the absurdly high restaurant near the Mont Blanc pinnacle (refer to one of my previous travel memoirs). The air was thin, causing me to move slowly, but I was still in my spry, youthful 60s, and 3 years from cancer meds, so I managed.
The day after the train to the disappearing glacier, we took a gondola up in the direction of that restaurant. Three gondolas are required to go to that dizzy height, but we did not go to the restaurant, but with the help of the 2nd gondola got above 12,000 feet. I exited the contraption, walked down some steps, breathing deeply, but insufficiently. I almost passed out. Swiss friends and Francesca reacted well when I said I needed to go down one gondola level, and when we did, I recovered at a bit over 9000 feet. My inchoate reaction to this was to wonder at how feeble I evidently now was. Well … I still surf, so …
I do wonder why I reacted to the altitude so differently this time. I’m 4 or 5 years older, living under a heavy shadow, and heavily medicated to hold back the heaviness of the heavy shadow. I guess all that is sufficient to explain my wimpiness. But, here’s the odd thing …
So, jumping briefly a week into the future in Santa Margherita, during an afternoon’s cafe time we got to talking with a Swiss woman from Zürich. She is mostly retired, and spends every May and October in Santa Margherita (where I am presently writing). We mentioned Francesca is a university professor, and I am retired. She looked surprised. “You are retired?” “About 6 years ago.” WTF. Francesca said I was 70, three years off, but the lady was already in shock – no point sending her into a deeper shock. WTF!!!!!!! Not only am I of retirement age, but well beyond it. She wondered how that was possible. Evidently no 70 year olds in Switzerland look as young as I do (I believe there is a relevant anecdote in my first travel memoir on the topic of how the Swiss age). He surfs, Francesca helpfully suggested. She couldn’t get over it. [I must add, the Italian sun, a feeling of contentment, and sunglasses, take a decade or more off the old visage. Had that woman seen me dragging myself out of bed any morning (although why she should be in a position to witness such a thing is a mystery), well, she’d have little trouble believing that that baggy-eyed wreck of a human was retired; she might even wonder that I am still alive as she reels away in horror.]
I ought by rights to have been chuffed that my cherubic facade belied the haggard old fart beneath. But I was not chuffed. I weirdly found it disturbing, and I don’t know why. Last year, the night before our flight home from LHR, we dined with our London academic friends. They had learned of my death sentence some months earlier, and maybe expected to see some signs of deterioration. Instead, with a modicum of surprise, they told me I looked younger. Personally I attribute the evidently youthful demeanor to the pills I take daily that suppress testosterone manufacture in my glands. Francesca doesn’t think so, but I think she’s wrong. I think the drugs are trying to turn me into a prepubescent 10 year old, with cheeks to match. Ironically, 10 is my mental age, in my opinion. (I recently saw an online article suggesting that one way not to grow old, is not to grow up, remain immature. I’ve certainly mastered that art, but you know, there’s a cause and effect thing going on there, and, so, anyway.)
Also contributing to my discombobulation is the fact that the day I was told I had incurable stage 4 prostate cancer, I was also given a median (mean?) survivability: 2.5 years. I’m presently looking out a window at the coastline of the Italian Riviera. In 8 months I should be statistically dead. (Truth be told, I’d prefer statistically dead to actually dead.) Maybe, since my reaction to the ADT therapy is “upper echelon”, the statistics don’t apply to my situation, and maybe those statistics applied to the situation in which I did nothing … and they were gearing me up to accept their ultimate suggestion that I try ADT. That suggestion was ultimately a no-brainer. Die; or take pills that hold the cancer in check for some time, and make you look … I shouldn’t say that. I don’t want people … fudge. This whole fuchsia situation is so fuchsia uncomfortable.
Our Swiss family, on their last full day, dragged me up the river to a grassy spot where parasailers land, and, when not landing, frisbees can be thrown on the landing lawn. The father of this family, Macê, a doctor and good friend for decades, seemed intent of stress testing me with excessive exercise. (En route I communed with a boofy dog-faced beastie.
Anyway, the next morning we met them at the train station, said warm goodbyes, waved as their train left, and within an hour realized that without our friends, newbies to Chamonix, we didn’t have any reason to stay, and why not get the Mont Blanc Tunnel nightmare (which was a dream; see above) over sooner than later. And in any case, Chamonix was swarming with French tourists enjoying the 4 day weekend. Yikes. We cleaned up the Airbnb, booked a hotel in Italy, put the key back in the bike, and scooted. (well, that’s an exaggeration; it took an hour to figure out where the parking payment machines were that would give me the parking garage exit ticket) Two days later we booked into a 3 bedroom Airbnb in Santa Margherita, our bedroom window overlooking a park, the Mediterranean Sea, and many boats costing 3 times and more the value of our house in New Hampshire. Bliss.
Six days until I surrender my fair share of blood and receive the good or bad news re my PSA. And that reminds me, I am not sorry my testicles are gone. It is fascinating, disturbing, and a relief, to be without them. And let’s be perfectly honest, they’re fucking slave drivers. They hijack the male brain and force it to be really stupid. I’m happy I am able to experience life without their incessant goading. Every male should try it at least once. Caveat: let’s be absolutely clear; once is all you get. You can’t undo it, so time your experience carefully. Deciding you’ll dispense with them in your early forties for a year or two will lead to disappointment and chagrin if later you decide that the experience, while novel, is not something you want to continue. Doesn’t work that way.
Did I really want to write that? TMI? Well, no one reads my stream of consciousness prose, so, yes, I did want to write that. I’ll reread it at some point, and these words are even now streaming into the cosmos on some quantum stream. Nice thought.
This is a headline in a travel website I recently encountered: “London Heathrow turns into travel bloodbath as British Airways cancels 115 flights today alone”. Our decision to eschew Heathrow, and the UK in general, seems wise. At the present moment the onerous covid testing that plagued us last year is no longer necessary, but Vogons are Vogons, and I want nothing more to do with them.
It’s 2022, and this will be our 2nd EU trip since my diagnosis. Paris, it seems, will be hosting the Olympic games in 2024, so even if I am by some miracle able to travel then, we shall likely bypass the City of Light.
Thinking back on the day I was told my cancer was incurable, I can remember being close to tears, informing some medical staff at MGH, who’d been prodding and scanning me, that I had hoped to sit in a Paris cafe again. One of the medical types smiled a bit, and said that would likely be possible. I didn’t understand his optimism, coming right on the heels of being shown dark spots on my bones that indicated the metastasized naughty cells had spread, and that my lungs and liver might be next. I mean, what the hell? What the hell.
[And yet … remember what I wrote about my trip to MGH two days ago? No!? Grrr.. Go reread it, because a lot of cancer related text has been deleted from this version. Fuchsia.]
The day after my April MGH visit
I guess I can start packing now. Well, as soon as I recover from my PTSD [due to pre-visit stress I wrote about above].
We leave in 5 weeks. I should mention that Francesca and I are devoted to each other. Her steadfast support in accompanying me to each and every … it’s really something. Really really something.
T minus 3 days
Had a flu thing that mimicked covid but wasn’t. Then pollen, as thick as molasses, coated my lungs to a depth of 3 meters. But we’re packed. EU Locator Forms completed, submitted, and QR codes received. All ducks in a row.
Curiously, although we are spending two weeks in Paris, we may have only 3 days of that to ourselves. Francesca’s french friend, Maryline, whom she met in Tucson years ago when Francesca was working on the Phoenix Mars Lander Mission, will be landing in Paris the same day we are, and she’ll be staying not far away. So that’s Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Then Saturday my former inamorata Heidi, and friend Clara, will arrive from Basel. We shall spend Saturday, and half of Sunday, with them.
Hmm. Even as I write, things are changing. There’ll be more days just for us. Yay.
Anyway, good friends are then going to visit us in Chamonix, and two couples, also good friends, will be meeting us in Paris at the end.
So, next year, if healthy enough (I need to feel at least as good as I do now), and financially stable enough (my IRA has lost 14% in recent decline towards recession), we may not tell so many people our plans.
And besides, 73 is an age at which, I once read, people start really heading south into whatever comes next. Still, my remaining sibling is over 80, and she seems spry, so fuchsia the cancer. Let’s go for the survivability record.
T plus some days
Air France once again fulfilled our expectations. If you haven’t seen their advert with the young woman climbing the Eiffel Tower in a red dress with a super long red train, all set to an excellent version of Les Moulins de Mon Cœur, then do so. And if you do so and your reaction is “meh”, then please stop reading. You’re just making both of us uncomfortable.
We arrived at CDG before sunrise. Thinking it would take much more time than it did to disembark … Oh!
So we have this young spectral friend, Francesca’s former student, who – when he gets enthused about anything – absorbs it entirely. He has no pilot’s license, but his proficiency with Microsoft’s flight simulator is astonishing, and I wouldn’t hesitate to let him take over the controls of any commercial flight I might be on in an emergency.
Anyway, he came all the way to the airport to see us off, and before we left he told us (mostly Francesca, who has the capacity to take in information and recall it later) a considerable number of details about the Airbus plane we would be flying, including that it was top of the line and had been in service only 6 months. Yeah, so anyway, somewhere over the Atlantic nature calls, and Francesca moseys to the front of the plane where she encounters one of the pilots. She dazzles him with her knowledge of the aircraft, and she gets invited to see the cockpit when we land. Yes, please.
I took this picture from a pilot’s seat, an actual pilot in the adjoining seat. I told him that Airbus had benefited greatly when Boeing merged with McDonnell-Douglas, whose management demoted Boeing’s engineers, causing planes to fall out of the sky, and sending Boeing’s reputation down the toilet. I didn’t use all those words, but the pilot agreed, uncertain if as an American I was bothered by this. But I gave him a winning smile and all was good. I am bothered by it, but not as an American, but as someone with a strong STEM education. As far as I’m concerned Boeing’s post merger treatment of its engineers was idiotic, and they deserved their downfall, albeit incomplete, as the US military still buys from them.
All right, we arrive before sunrise, and because French customs are largely Vogon-free, we accomplish getting through all that and into Paris proper in record time, and hours before we thought we’d be there. Cafe time!
6 day summary, and then some
We sat at a cafe for 2 hours, had café and croissants, and killed time in the best way possible. We were too early to be let into our Airbnb. Eventually, upon leaving the café, and finding no taxis – despite a sign advertising taxis 10 feet from where we were seated – we pushed our wheelie luggage about a kilometer to our new home, located a short walk from the Tour Montparnasse.
[Sadly, it was only after our return that I bought and read “This Must Be The Place”, the Montparnasse memoirs of Jimmie “the Barman” Charters. So I never tried to find the bars he worked at, and, you know, he often mentioned a woman named Kiki who was big beans in Montparnasse in the 1920s, and I’d never heard of her. Part of the reason for that was that she’d been forgotten. She’d been written out of Montparnasse history. Later, in the WSJ I read a review of a book that intended to rectify this matter. It’s called, “Kiki Man Ray”, and it’s #1 on my to be read list. Another book published 3 years ago, refers to her as the Forgotten It Girl. Below is a photograph of Kiki by the surrealist Man Ray.]
Being in the open enabled us to see a curious Parisian fashion statement. We passed an attractive young woman whose top shirt-like thing ended just below the collar bone. This did not come close to covering her enormous breasts, which were covered in a frilly bra. Cool. And in fact I found this an ooh la la moment. But how, why, you are wondering. You don’t have, you know, those things … you know. Do you still have, as it were …
Ok. Think about it. My brain is still hardwired to find female bits and pieces visually pleasurable. A mountain climber, too old, or maybe too injured, to climb anymore, that person is certainly going to be impressed by mountains, even if he can no longer climb them. Anyway, …
When booking Airbnbs I frequently make one huge mistake: if the apartment is on an upper floor, is there an elevator one can use to get to it? I unfortunately made no effort to find out if this was true of our first Paris apartment, and I regretted that lapse. Its stairs seemed to stretch upward into some unknowable dizzy height, so we were required to laboriously lug our luggage, one step at a time, up and up.
Having done so, a very friendly man and woman duo greeted us, gave us the lay of the land, some keys, and pointed out the nice flowers they’d put on a central table. Then goodbyes were said, and I do not believe we saw them again.
The apartment was quite nice. We checked for feather pillows, which would have to be stowed away to avoid the postnasal debacle of 2021 in Lyon. That being taken care of, my sinuses went into overdrive. WTF? Was it the flowers? Francesca bagged them, and my sinuses dried up. Crap. Crap crap crap. That was not a big bouquet, but it was lethal.
Soon after ensconced we had lunch with Maryline at Le Dôme. Very pleasurable – a trip high point. Maryline is an excellent companion. After lunch we took a walk to the Montparnasse cemetery and passed a grammar school en route. Maryline told us that all such schools had plaques affixed to them in some noticeable place near the front door containing information about the tribulations experienced by the students during WWII (students removed by Nazi occupiers, etc). As to American students and their schools … sigh.
Much later in the trip – in Nice – Francesca and I visited and art museum, and, as had happened in Paris on a previous trip, once again encountered scads of school children brought there to learn about art, in this case mostly depicting naked people. As to American students and their schools … sigh.
When in the cemetery, Francesca and Maryline were frequently separated from me, so I missed her point out Man Ray’s grave, which had been recently vandalized, possibly a result of antisemitism. Maryline and I have a running text exchange about me being a drama queen. I used a picture of Kiki, Man Ray’s best known model, to lend weight to my drama queenliness. Then she mentioned the vandalized grave. I replied: “I just finished a book by a bartender in Montparnasse. He mentioned Kiki prominently, but in all my readings of Paris in 1920s, she’d never [previously] been mentioned – or, if so, only in passing. Then the Wall Street Journal had a glowing review of the new book, “Kiki Man Ray”, and it mentioned Man Ray’s full name, which I thought, because of the spelling, was Polish Jew. You’ve verified the Jew aspect, and if this attack was antisemitic, well fuck. As it seems that grave site was singled out, it seems likely.”
And before I forget I should mention that last year I developed the habit, when crossing the Seine on some picturesque bridge, and espying a tour boat going underneath … yeah, so, I give everyone on the boat the Star Trek Vulcan salute. Last year I think I managed to get only one person to return the salute. This year it was over half a dozen. Most gratifying. (Have I mentioned I’m not very mature.)
The day after Le Dôme, and educational cemetery walk, Francesca and I had a rare day in Paris just to ourselves. Our morning routine is dictated by my medical condition, consisting of breakfast with scads of pills, then a two hour wait at the end of which I take the serious ADT meds. Then, an hour after that I can eat. Being on our own, and not willing to take any of my visiting friends with us later in the week to our favorite restaurant, we headed to Le Récamier on our own (Maryline could come, but the opportunity never arose). And while one needn’t order soufflés while there, since it’s Paris’s number one soufflé restaurant, it’s what we always order. As usual, although I glanced on occasion at our fellow diners, I did not really take in the finer points of what was going on around us. But Francesca has excellent ears, a magical surreptitiousness, and an eager curiosity to observe and assess social interactions of all sorts. Here’s what she experienced, while I was blissfully in my own little world. (it’s by-and-large not an unpleasant world, but I’ll spare you the details of what goes on there.)
Proof that Francesca’s world vastly transcends mine
“Second full day in Paris and we filled it with things we love and the reason we return to Paris again and again.
“First we wandered out of our artist studio loft apartment – just moseying in the general direction of the most ethereal soufflés in the world – a walk bathed in angles, balconies, cascading flowers, big bright buildings, and spacious streets, and green more than any other big city. We came upon a nice café…oh, yes, please. Perfect. Suited men to one side sit arguing, sipping, smoking; ladies dressed in flowers to the other side gossiping, sipping, smoking. And a couple individuals just watching Paris drift by. We joined the collection to write and sip and soak it all in.
“As lunch time grew near, we slipped our notes away and wandered to Le Récamier, heaven in wee ceramic crocks. It was the first time we were seated inside. The ceiling was painted with a huge cross-section of an open book – yet another sign we were with our people. We both had the special crustacean soufflés – clearly what happens when clouds kiss lobsters. A soufflé has the texture and weight of a cloud – but a cloud miraculously full of flavor. Red dots here and there throughout the soufflés did show a lobster had been near the ethereal creation.
“Sitting inside we got to see all locals who were clearly very well known to the waitstaff and bartender. People stop by the bar on the side to have a moment of merriment and exchange on their way in or out. A tall, suave gentlemen with large wavy hair and a very practiced look of loose but exquisite light linen clothing, with just the perfect amount of wrinkle, hung at the bar for a while joking and basking in the appropriately deferential motions and words of the staff, all the while glancing around at the ‘house’ to see if people knew who he was. Unfortunately for him, we were the closest table he examined; alas we failed the test. Geoffrey said, ‘I think he is somebody.’ Indeed. And he thinks so too!
“Before Geoffrey finished his appetizer soup and I my crunchy fresh salad – prior to be taken to heaven – the inside and glassed-in patio filled up. To our right, there was a table of ladies from work in competing designer clothes….fascinatingly, all were in blouses and skirts. And the blouses were not that different, save that one was Chanel, and one was Louis Vuitton, and one was Prada, and one was Valentino. There was a competition of high-end perfumes as well, judging from the cloud of complex floral and spice smells drifting from their direction, and yet amorphously changing with each air movement from waitstaff passing by. They shared a chocolate soufflé for dessert. OMG, how can we never have had that!? Next time. Absolutely next time I am doing that and we will be back 2-3-4 more times on this trip. I have a date with a chocolate cloud.
“In front of me, behind Geoffrey, out on the glassed-in patio, was a couple on a date….or at least in a state of very advanced flirting. She wore a perfectly gleaming white blouse – so white it seemed to glow, so starched it made only severe angles in draping, a huge pointed collar and rolled up French cuffs. Without having any cigarette in her hand, she seemed to always have a reason to have her elbow bent and on the table and her hand floating skyward, either to display a long collection of, not one, but ALL this seasons Tiffany gold and diamond bangles, all in a jangly collection along her French thin arm. She jangled and pouted, then jangled and glowed with smiles and giggles, alternately throughout the entire meal. Pull him in, push him away, in a dance without ever moving from her seat. [This is a classic French dance of seduction, rendering the male alternately despondent and desperate. Or so I – Geoffrey – have been led to believe in readings on the subject.]
“In the glassed-in patio to the left, there were French elders, likely in their 80s, if not 90s or more. Very seasoned, very sophisticated, very elegant, draped in scarves like shawls and chains of gold and pearl, and heavy wine lip stick and manicured nails on hands that took flight often in the saga. One very dapper gentleman in a palest grey boxed cut suit, of thinnest wool, and pale pink shirt, and merlot colored tie, sat listening to the collection of elderly women – just sipping wine after wine. The bartender seemed to know to serve them himself and keep and eye on their glasses. The women talked far too much to have much wine, but the bottle was long gone before their beautiful clouds arrived and silence suddenly descended upon the table at first bites. Even one’s 100th or 1000th soufflé at Le Récamier is awe inspiring.
“In the back of the restaurant, inside, a long row of tables that fit end to end in the second room. They were filled with a family of 4 generations, all dressed to the nines, from eldest, with an elaborately carved cane with an ivory top, to the smallest infant napping in a carriage in her layers of lace embroidered in sweet little flowers, and a cap to match. Even the more rambunctious lads of 6-9 years old had perfect fancy blue or gray trousers. The combination of knowing the French mutter, plus the configuration of the 2 dining rooms, meant not a word of distinct conversation was heard in the other dining room.
“When we finally could stand no more delight for the moment, we wanted to pay. Geoffrey got up to go to the restroom, and he pointed a female of the waitstaff to me. I had the bill and my card out. The thin young black girl, with huge bright yellow and red earrings, and a gorgeous gleaming smile that she was more quick to use than the French are, crinkled her face up like this was sooooo wrong! She took my card and processed it, all the while looking disconcerted. When Geoffrey returned, she looked at him and wagged a finger over this wife paying stuff. Geoffrey, I believe, told her in French he was my gigolo. That made her burst into joyous laughter for a split second before she covered her mouth to stifle the outburst. We then got conspiratorial gleaming looks whenever we caught her eye on the way out (and in a future visit).
“When we left, we continued our tour of all thing we love in Paris. We drifted through a neighborhood of perfumeries that had been there since 1720 and 1760, then through a street of designer stores – a street so narrow the window displays were reflecting in each other’s windows. One of the secret places to buy designer clothes – with no line a block long – no line at all! Then we found a long street and a whole area of art galleries and antique shops and the festival of photography began. Geoffrey particularly liked big green leaves on lampshades and many golden framed small paintings. We found a Ukrainian cathedral. And along the Seine, I bought some prints of different species of octopus from the Belle Epoch period.
“I saw the coolest purse in Etad with an old-fashioned muted tapestry body, but very modern thick leather trim and a huge turquoise button. It was classy, but unusual and evocative of so many things and time periods. It had a very practical nice flat base and was sturdy, and the perfect size to be my school purse in autumn. I plan to return to get it at the end the trip and so I photographed street names and marked the corner on my map with a dropped pin and screen shot.”
Ok, so that was her take on a small part of our trip, and I am reduced to a drooling imbecile when I consider how much she observed and experienced compared to my meager observations. I mean, what the hell. Wine lipstick? Palest grey boxed cut suit? Was I even there? She should write this travelogue … of course, it would be a few thousand pages long, though enjoyable nevertheless.
So, our 2022 EU trip is now over, and I’ll get to that shortly. A version was written, but far too much of it was me being a drama queen about my cancer. Perhaps I’m entitled. Perhaps I can’t help it, because I am a drama queen. I’m hardwired that way. When others point it out, presumably thinking that in so doing I might be cured, my attitude – after long years so afflicted, and knowing that the condition is not susceptible to amelioration – is to reply, “sir or madame, you are correct”. And I usually add a photo of some starlet from the 1930s posing dramatically.
So, anyway, having read aloud to Francesca much of what I’d already written, I realized it was really awful. Angst much? I have a July, 2022, visit to MGH upcoming, and we’ll see if the angst is warranted.
Well, that visit to MGH, the giving of blood, the meeting with my oncologist, was now two days ago. I will summarize, so that we can get to our travels without (much) further drama.
1. My PSA was still undetectable.
2. All other numbers good.
3. Three months ago, oncologist said my numbers are “upper echelon” (which sounds great, but imparts very little useful information). I explained that starting about a week or even two prior to coming into MGH I get quite tense, wondering when the other shoe will drop. That is, my good numbers may (inevitably?) change … Doom doom doom. The good doctor (and he is quite stellar) finally got it, the disparity between his view and mine. He said there is no shoe. My condition, presently stable, could stay that way for years. [What!? What what what!?] I was stunned. I decided to run a test to experimentally determine if his words had weight. “How about if we plan to go back to EU in May, 2023?” I asked. Go for it, he responded. He did add some cautionary words, like buying travel insurance, but it seemed he did so because not to do so would be professionally irresponsible. And can I continue to surf, I pressed? In reply he chuckled, which I assumed was a good sign. He has no other patients who surf, and my continuing participation in this strenuous pastime, at my age, is a source of amused bemusement.
4. Bottom line: that tension I feel prior to Boston visits? Unnecessary for foreseeable future.
It’s now two days later, and I’m still dizzy with deep wells of holy shitness. He used the word “years” at least twice. At the end he shook my hand warmly, almost congratulatory. I was too stunned to even bring out the drama queen. Two years prior the words I remember receiving were “Stage 4” and “incurable”. It’s still all that, but … And now we rewind the clock and tell the story of our trip, in as humorous a manner as possible. The majority of this was written before I lost my shoe at MGH.
Yesterday I bought business class tickets for Francesca and myself on AirFrance from Boston to Paris – mid May to mid June, five weeks total across the pond.
[Note added 2022.08.08: I had been periodically getting emails from AirFrance suggesting that an AirFrance credit card might suit me. I’d had a BA card for years, and it helped pad my BA miles. But last year BA had shown themselves to be – how do I politely say this – well, a large spanner in my works. Ok, so now I have potentially years to live, and I’m deeply in love with AirFrance, so I got the card. It’s sleek, sexy, and tactilely pleasing.]
I had thought we might do something different in 2022. Maybe, after a few days in Paris, we could train to Vienna. But I had misgivings. Like Paris, Vienna in the 1920s was a hotbed of creative activity. I read a book about it. I was not thrilled, as I had been about the ferment in Paris at that time. The names Wittgenstein and Popper popped up frequently, as well as the Vienna Circle. The focus of those people, and that group, was to develop a philosophy of how to do science, and while some of the members of this onanistic cabal brushed shoulders with the likes of Einstein, they never seemed to have actually contributed to the advancement of science. Their whole raison d’être brings to mind an idealistic teenage acquaintance of mine, back in the 1960s, whose goal was to precisely define “love” in 25 words. That goal, like that of the Vienna Circle, was, well, goofy in the extreme.
Part of the reason was that Vienna was then, and is now, stuffier than Paris. I googled the words “Vienna”, and “stuffy”. I was greeted with assurances that, no, Vienna isn’t stuffy. We have nightlife now, of a sort. Come visit. This wording was defensive, and I remained far from convinced. I looked at images that google had accumulated, 95% of which were of grand, formal, Teutonic buildings, most of which had out front an equestrian statue of some really stuffy emperor or lesser noble with a mustache the size of sheep dog. I found the lot of them more than a little offputting.
Ok, rather than blather on this subject any further, we decided that seeing scenery we had not previously seen is insufficient reason to cross the EU to a place even whose cafe culture is stuffier than Paris. New plan.
Omicron spike diminishing, along with people’s patience with continued restrictions. As a consequence, several European countries have got rid of the testing requirement for entry, if you are vaccinated, which we are, up the wazoo. This trend is likely to accelerate on the assumption we have passed the omicron peak, and no new variant appears to wipe out our entire species. This is a win in either case in my curmudgeonly mind.
First 19 days of our 35 day trip are booked: Paris; Chamonix; Santa Margherita. “But haven’t you been to those places already?”, you ask. “Don’t you want to see something new?” Well, maybe, but to what end? Different scenery? We’ve seen scenery. Other scenery is in all probability more of the same, less than the same, or very uncomfortable to get to. I’m 73, fighting cancer (a phrase I always hated, but now understand completely), and I like cafes, mountains, the Mediterranean, and a couple other things. So just back off. Your input is neither wanted nor required.
Meanwhile, the Dolomite option had been hovering in the background as a 4th stop, and we had both been considering it. However, I initiated the thought quite a while ago, and Francesca, presumably because she wanted to please her husband, also occasionally expressed approval for the Dolomite option, and I began to think it was her idea. But she has an autoimmune condition, which means she needs to avoid gluten, and the milk of black and white cows, and various other comestibles. The brown cows of Italy and France are not a problem; their milk does not have the mutation that makes black and white cow milk hazardous. And at this point you may be thinking we don’t know what we’re talking about, and you’d be half right. I don’t. But Francesca has a Harvard PhD, and the title of her thesis contained the phrase “metabolic mechanisms”. Moreover, since realizing her life depended on a deep knowledge of her condition, she’s read dozens of relevant technical papers and books. She has a focus that is extraterrestrial in its intensity. (I am making assumptions about extraterrestrial mental prowess that is possibly unwarranted, but, come on, we all know they’re wicked smaht.) Trust me, at least for those with autoimmune diseases affecting the thyroid: brown cows good; black and white cows bad.
And that’s why when I suggested driving through the Dolomites to western Austria, thence to Switzerland, she finally realized my heart wasn’t in it, and she told me she never again needs to go to any germanic country. She can’t eat their bread, drink their beer, or eat their cheese. I felt relief at this. Even their cultures – germanic and nordic – are uninteresting to me, and to us. And the dolomites used to be part of Austria, so food-wise it’s all oom pah pah, schnitzel, and ugh.
We discovered that last year, in Aosta. Alpine Italy is faux Italy. Half of Francesca’s genes come from southern Italy. We’re now thinking of heading in the direction of Nice after Santa Margherita. If it can be done in a manner that will not exhaust me, then I’m all for it.
Ok, trip is crystallizing. After Santa Margherita, 5 nights in Nice; drive to Avignon and maybe 4 nights there; TGV to Paris, and 7 nights there; before getting to the CDG Sheraton the day before flight home. I’m unsure if Avignon is worth 3 full days. Must discuss with Francesca. Our 2nd place in Paris looks very promising (the benefit of having relationships with people there from previous trips). I just wonder if we want more nights there. I like Paris.
[Note added 2022.09.21. Just a quick word about Avignon, our visit there being detailed in a future section. In the film Breathless (a French friend of ours told us), Jean Paul Belmondo – the antihero – tells an annoying tourist, “If you want Macdonald’s, go to Avignon; for fish and chips, Marseille.” I am watching the film in snippets, and have not yet encountered that scene, so I cannot attest to its veracity, but I rather wish I had encountered it before booking Avignon. Alas.]
Negative covid test still required by France just prior to entry, regardless vaccination status, but USA omicron numbers dropping rapidly, and France’s attitude may change by May. (It did.)
Oh, and getting from Paris to Chamonix will now (theoretically) occur like this: TGV to Annecy; pick up car; drive to Chamonix, waking up each day viewing Mont Blanc. Yay.
So, there are to be two TGV trips, but I cannot purchase tickets until March.
And why do I even mention early plans, many tentative? Because it’ll be so much fun watching it all fall apart later. Or not. This is, after all, 2022, not 2021.
Planning under a cloud
TGV tix – Paris-Annecy, and Avignon-Paris – purchased. Everything almost done. WCGW?
Well, I mentioned above how our travels coincided frequently with disasters or near disasters, and each of these was unique, like The Equalizer’s weapons in the big Home Depot like store. Sigh. We’re running out of types of trip disruptors. But one thing we haven’t had, and never expected to have, was World War III. Well, anyway, war in Europe.
A thing I once found alarming was the Millennial and Zoomer habit of blaming on Boomers the world’s decline into post-apocalyptic yuckiness. And, yes, to be sure, Boomers had their hands on the tiller during this recent, noticeable period of global disintegration, but let’s look less shallowly at this fact before we go dooming a whole generation to hell.
During the 1960s a great many Boomers were hippies, in favor of peace and love and LSD. And they were vehemently against an older generation that seemed hellbent on sending them to their deaths in Southeast Asia for absolutely no good reason, other than it enriched the Military-Industrial Complex. Are these the Boomers at whom the Millennials and Zoomers are so ready to point the gnarly finger of blame. Well, no, not really.
See, most Boomers were not Flower Children. Most were on a spectrum from conventional and straight-laced, all the way up to psychopaths. And in every generation, without exception, it is mostly citizens on the psychopath end of the psychological spectrum who seek and achieve power and influence. So, you Zoomers may think you’re immune to this societal disease, and that voices of reason will gain power when your turn comes, but those voices of reason cannot compete with the psychopaths.
And this is especially true in nations eschewing democracy in favor of more oppressive forms of government. I mean, yes, Putin is a Boomer, but do you think he was ever a Flower Child? He’s more like some guy whose happiest moments were in high school (or, in this case, USSR KGB), and he’s holding on to those times, carousing with his buds, invading and bombing a neighboring country, because, shit, they did have a crazy good time in high school. Remember how Czechoslovakia and Hungary rolled over so easily? Good times; good times.
So, yeah, I would prefer that this trip not be disrupted by WWIII.
Those capable of beneficially altering the course of theoretical physics, as it pertains to understanding the fundamental architecture of reality, are busy wallowing in a sea of corpses that they have created, using their influence to convince a well-connected younger generation that resistance is futile. Ideas outside the mainstream, like mine, and many others whose work is clumped together with mine … you know, I was going to add “in the minds of the mainstream”, but that presupposes that these alternate ideas have a place in those minds, which I consider highly doubtful.
You might think, given their numbers, that those outside the mainstream could beneficially alter the course of theoretical physics. But nay. Unlike the mainstream, these wild folk are not unified, each wanting as an individual to be The One. Of course, The One they yearn to be is me, right? Right?!?!
I still read Peter Woit’s blog, and discovered in a recent one that some young ruminant at Oxford objected to Peter’s inclusion in a confab over there concerning the future of theoretical physics, because Peter inclines to pointing out the faults in the work of others to actually working to advance the science (which is presently not true; he’s into the twistor thing now). Anyhum, this Oxford drone’s CV lists strings, supersymmetry, and axions as fields of interest. Yikes.
So, is there any reason to care? No, of course there isn’t. Physics has been wallowing in the viscous fluid of bad ideas for almost 5 decades. And, um, …
Yeah, I can feel myself getting lost in more pointless metaphors. Let me end by saying that, as TP is comatose, I will continue to blog about my annual travels. This is pleasurable to me, so much so that the high probability that no one other than myself, and She Who Must Be Obeyed, will ever read any of it – this is immaterial. So, having finished the story of our 2021 travails, I’ll soon move on to 2022. It’s all written, and I find it simultaneously harrowing and hilarious. Ciao.
Illness having diminished our energy levels, I do not recollect accomplishing anything else other than sauntering in parks and along the Seine that penultimate day.
Actually, we did saunter down a street devoted to fashion as we’d done in Milan, and again we were largely unimpressed with this year’s window displays. This one is marginally better than anything we saw in Milan. Kind of cool.
On our final full day we took the metro over to a Japanese bookstore we’d visited previously. I was after the Blu-ray of the anime, Made in Abyss: Dawn of the Deep Soul. This film directly follows the Made in Abyss anime series. Not that it’s relevant, but I would advise you not to pursue this anime material. You may already be a fan, but if not … The artwork is truly spectacular, the story outline very intriguing, but the manner in which it plays out is so fuchsia dark. Anyway, Japanese bookstore did not sell DVDs and the like. When we left the USA it was available nowhere, not even onDemand. (When we got back I discovered it was now available onDemand, and I am 1/3 the way through. I can only watch in short bursts. Dark. So dark.)
We did more sauntering after that, then returned to finish packing, and say bonjour back to creepy guy.
On the last day, Saturday, we quickly walked over to pharmacy to get our final covid test. We’d become regulars by this point, the pharmacist charmed by the frequency of my visits, and my extensive use of French. We tested negative, and got official pieces of paper proclaiming as much. (We could not travel to the UK, nor fly home, without this paper and its QR code.) On the way out I turned back in and waved to the pharmacist, and said: “Merci pour tout. C’etait une plaisir.” She smiled, waved back, and said, “Pour moi aussi.” A rare instance in which my French was understood, gratefully received, and the reply given understood by me. It filled me with warm fuzzies.
Then we scurried back, entering the building as quietly as possible, took two trips down the 2 person elevator to get us and our bags out of the building, then scurried some more to a nearby taxi stand … but now we need to back up and discuss the levels of hell we needed to traverse to get out of Europe entirely.
But wait, first, what did Francesca think of Rue Cler?
“This is a heaven second only to the Italian Riviera.
“We discovered this street entirely by accident the first time we stayed in Paris in 2016. We had taken to the French Paris flaneur – wandering aimlessly and watching and pondering – with neither direction or purpose. We’d go out, and 5-10 miles later we’d be tired and go back. And I fell in love with Paris – a little – then. When I worked in the UK once in the 1990s and visited France, I didn’t take to Paris at all. I felt I didn’t like it, but of course I was there in March and it was a cold, dark, drippy time and I didn’t really tour – just explained some results at meetings – so that may have colored my mood!
“It’s best for just watching people and having no purpose. Anyhow, on one of our long flaneur wanderings, we came across Rue Cler. It instantly became our fav street and our fav cafe of all is du Marche, which is the middle of the market part of Rue Cler but on a corner with a cross road. Every single time we’ve been in Paris since, we have never missed wandering Rue Cler and spending time just sitting at Cafe du Marche watching that corner. Rue Cler is a completely cobbled street and narrow for a street. It’s 90% pedestrian only. I say 90 because I see there are special dispensations or exceptions. Now and then a truck or official car creeps slowly down the street.
“Anyhow, to me it’s glorious. It is the perfect combination of one stop shopping and a hundred (not really, but lots) of tiny specialists, all on 2-3 blocks of one street. At its end, beautiful flowers bursting with color and scent welcome one to the market area, the flower shop first. Across from it a display of the most vibrant biological (organic) fruits and vegetables competing every bit with the color of the flowers. And all along there is usually a fish monger, some specialty shops – like, there’s a whole shop of just beautiful honey, a couple incredible butcheries, a cheese shop, a bakery, a chicken shop – yup, exclusively chicken – there is a specialty shop with things like prepared escargot just ready to take back and cook. And wine shops; several wine shops. Some gelateria – oh, it’s France. I guess it’s Glacier instead of gelato. Chocolate shops, a caviar shop, fancy pastry shop – that’s different from the bakery – marzipan shop with practically exquisite art work on them in the window. And a few cafes interspersed.
“And it is a serious walking street. There are those wandering because they are gathering foods. And others wandering because it’s a fabulous pedestrian way and perfect for a walk. Lots of small dog walking.
“Anyhow, ever since finding it we have come here every time, and we have sat and watched for hours from Cafe du Marche, and I have day dreamed about living right near here so I could use these markets daily for whatever I want to cook that night. And NOW we found a way. We’ve rented an apartment for a week on the top, 6th floor, in the middle of the street – on top of one of the florists and one of the pastry shops – with a balcony overlooking it all. I am between the fresh fruit and veg and a little flower shop, a third of a block from Cafe du Marche, across from the honey shop, wine shop, cheese shop, I look out my balcony on the bakery one corner away and flowers and veg the other…..oh, oh, oh,….it’s so fun!
“Anyhow, when we first arrive we were starved, so went straight away to Cafe du Marche. I had what translated to a multivitamin salad! That was the name. So funny. It was beautiful. I had some tiny sardines for appetizer and then the salad was fennel, grapefruit, radish, carrots, rocket, lettuce, avocado, leafy herbs,…..lovely!
“It was a very late lunch, so we ruined my first night of cooking because we weren’t going to want real dinner. But I played the street as I wanted anyhow! I first got some beautiful strawberries for breakfast, and grapes, bananas, carrots, cukes, and radishes. Then I went to the cheese shop and describe what I like and he gave me a couple small bits. And then I went to the butcher and was going for a paté, but found duck fois gras…,ooooooh! Then went to the wine shop and asked what do you have that is perfect with fois gras, and they gave it to me … and oooooooh, they were sooooo right! I would never have paired the golden wine with it, but zowie it was divine! All we had for din was sliced radish and carrot and duck fois gras and the wine they gave me and on my balcony above watching the Rue Cler at night which was something I had never seen before. The cafes become bars and hangouts and it gets very lively and awesome to watch from an Eagle’s eye view! So fun! It’s everything I wanted it to be. I can’t believe I am right here on Rue Cler!”
“This is a kind of bliss to me!
“And we get morning sun, in fact, watch sun rise on my balcony – even when I have to wrap up in a blanket because it’s brisk – while I have a decaf espresso. Preparing to do my wandering in the shops.
“I am thinking to do either duck or chicken with shallots and French tarragon; I saw fresh of both in the veg stand! And of course, something splendid from the fish monger … Beurr Blanc style, of course, so something white. Oooh, and there is a place with fresh butter too! I just love this 1-3 items per place – all specialists – all with the knowledge and happy to help you pair things and you start with an idea then let them build it up….ooh, so much fun. And I am thrilled to notice they don’t snub me for despicable non French at all! In fact, by a second visit, they know me. I walk in to smiles and what am I cooking today? Soooo fun! I’m having so much fun! So living French for a week on a market street.
“Each time, I always start with the butcher because it turned out the fish monger is having renovations, so I first look things over and find some fabulous looking stuff, then ask for suggestions to make final decisions or cuts. Then I go the other way on the street and get some fresh veggies and juice if we need. Then I go to the wine shop and describe what I’m planning. If I mention only the protein, he wants to know which veg as well. Then I get a whole lesson on what grows where in France – he picks the region, describes the setting and how the grapes grow, describes the characteristics, describes how and why that perfectly complements my meal. The wine shop is the best. Class is in session and I listen and soak it all in. Then to the cheese shop and describe the whole meal and wine and get the perfect cheese to follow. And I also ask what he has that is special and I should just try. A different one each day – by day 2 he gets the game and has a suggestion all ready for my cheese adventure. Fresh butter if we need. To the honey shop if more needed for Geoffrey’s tea. To the market at the end for little extras like salmon and crackers. Some fresh eggs from another shop. Last to the basic bakery for 2 of something ethereal, light and fluffy to go with eggs, fruit, and espresso in the morning. This comes last – even though i have literally walked back and forth in front of it 5 times – but last because it has to go on top in the wheely shopping cart and not get crushed! The meal has to be built in the right order, and so do the things that go into the cart, so I might slip into the market for a couple cans, then back to the focus of the meal, then back to the market later for crackers. I’ll grab juice and special jams the first time past the fruit stand, but save fruit til the second to last time past the stand. Must build up the tall cart in layers that won’t damage lower layers, so last must be fruit, eggs, pastry last of all, then back. And then later I get to cook with all the glorious ingredients. So lovely. Fish monger under renovation. Such a shame. But I’ve made the most beautiful ham, and chicken, and thin veal steaks. One day got a whole roasted chicken from the chicken man’s cart – Geoffrey wanted it, but it gave me the bones to make him some beautiful healing soup full of fresh veggies too. This street is just the most fun. By day 2 everyone was greeting me. By day three, most had suggestions for me already and the wine guy delighted in hearing the plan and giving me vintner lessons. It’s horrible that Geoffrey is up on top being sick and sleepy, but the street is a piece of heaven. I try to do all my back and forth and back and forth on the far side of the street so if I am taking too long and he is peaking out looking for me, he’ll see me trundling along. The conversational parts of shopping here take a while – even longer than the choosing! It’s all so very much fun. I’d like to do this … forever! Actually, where i really want to do this is the fishing harbor of Santa Margherita Liguria – get my fish fresh off the boats, then the little markets there for the rest. That would be real heaven; no need to even die because already there. Wander and watch boats. Ride on boats. Breakfast and newspaper at the harbor. Passeggiata followed by fresh fish in the evening, cooking simple and delicate and fresh things – perfetto. But this French version is pretty damn fabulous and magical also.
“Fresh food is glorious – and quality things done right without GMO, pesticides, plastic packaging. We have just given up on so much in America. And there are places like Rue Cler where perfection still lives, where knowledge is still transmitted and where it’s all such a pleasant adventure followed by dancing taste buds. One can taste the very life force of it all.
“I now know this street is not just any market street but a famous one. But to me, it’s just where we stumbled one day. The street is much more a flood of French than tourists.”
Levels of covid hell
It has to be acknowledged that getting into and out of Europe could have been much easier had we not gone through Heathrow Airport (LHR) and the UK. But we had friends in London, and I booked an Airbnb there, which by this point I must already have mentioned had to be cancelled, as well as our intended jaunt down to Porto from LHR. Had we flown directly to Paris, then to Milan, avoiding the Vogons in the UK entirely, our travails would have been reduced by at least 71.074%. But that’s not what we did.
Thinking optimistically in the weeks before we left the USA, I organized everything, including the TGV train from Paris to London through the Chunnel. (That was to be our mode of transportation to get us to Vogon country, and LHR, and our final flight, now 3 days later than originally planned.)
Ok, so flights and consequences:
1. Initial flight BOS to LHR canceled; shifted to flight 2 hours later; no worries.
2. Flight LHR to Porto canceled; no options; canceled Portugal entirely as being too risky; might get in, but be trapped, as rest of EU not keen on Portugal.
3. Flight home canceled; earliest alternative (not via Los Angeles) 3 days later; initial plan, stay a night in hotel at point of travel (train or plane), then 2 nights at Hilton at terminal 2 LHR, this supplying a buffer in case more crap was dumped on us, and giving us an opportunity to tootle into London and see those friends. Everything seemed settled.
Candide was an idiot, and a hugely inappropriate role model.
At some point a week or more before our flight home, my spidey senses tingling, we bought plane tickets from CDG to LHR, with a night at CDG Sheraton prior.
Chunnel train ticket nonrefundable, so I shifted its date to same date as flight. (This was to be a fallback.) Plan in either case would still lead to 2 nights LHR Hilton Garden Inn. Forget not that this is at terminal 2, and we’d be flying from terminal 5. Vogons carefully watching, preparing to throw spanner into our well laid works.
While in Paris, we took metro one day to Gare du Nord, and managed to get promise that we could take later train, if needed. Train was looking better. Couldn’t get refund anyway.
There being little difference between plane and train, we canceled plane and Sheraton. Now we had to fill out UK Locator form online at UK.gov. Keep in mind, train would arrive in London about 40 hours before plane from LHR to BOS. Let’s do some math: 40 hrs < 48 hrs = 2 days.
Near the end of the Vogon locator form, it asked for the code for the covid test we’d arranged to have done 2 days after arrival. (2 days = 48 hours.) And unlike Paris, where we simply popped into a pharmacy and paid 25€ for a test, which was then almost immediately performed, the Vogons supplied extensive (hundreds of items) lists of test facilities, based on region, and the price was going to be around 300£. This, we determined, was extortion and corruption, the UK since Brexit having devolved into a central African republic. I mean – remember the math done above? – we weren’t going to be there 2 days after arrival. (To get to UK and on to Italy we’d had to spend $350 in the USA to get us both tested with documentation to prove it. Appointment required. Contrast this to France where we’d popped into our favorite pharmacy, paid 25€ each, got tested, and 18 minutes later walked out with appropriate documentation. France has it all over the UK and USA.) Nor did it matter that we could get tested at the Hilton. It wasn’t on the list. So aggravating.
Fuchsia. (In case I have not mentioned it, none of my Apple devices has auto-fill suggestions for profanity; if I type in “fuc”, its first suggestion is “fuchsia”; if I ignore that, and type “fuck”, all of my Apple devices feign perplexity. What could I possibly mean by that? Oh well, user error; let them deal with it. But I decided that fuchsia is just fine. No one is offended, and only the in-crowd knows what I’m really saying.)
Anyway, not that we couldn’t afford this Vogon extortion, but the idea of paying it incensed me, and even if we did, what horrible complications might ensue when the Vogons realized we would be unable to fulfill our obligation. And it was perplexing to a major degree how we could pull it off even if we wanted to. This is something set up for people staying in the UK after arrival. We were transiting, so we naively thought we could get a pass on this onerous burden.
(There were several options, including showing up in person at some very inconvenient location to get the test, or, on the other hand, have it mailed to our address in the UK, at which point we presumably cover a swab with snot and mail it back. Hotel addresses not allowed. OMG. And what if we left, as was our intention, before fulfilling our obligations. Would they bar us from our flight home, ignoring how illogical that action would be. I simply wasn’t willing to trust bureaucratic Vogon logic.)
Fortunately, the locator form could be begun several times before actual submission. I had 4 lined up at UK.gov before I saw a way out of our quandary. And keep in mind, I still had PTSD from the week prior to leaving home dealing with cancellation horrors. It was proving almost as difficult to get out of Europe as to get in. By this point I was ready for drastic measures.
Using a voucher to help (none of our canceled flights were refundable), I re-purchased CDG to LHR tickets that would land us at LHR less than 24 hours before our LHR to BOS flight. And we re-booked the Sheraton at CDG, with its single plug and ethernet cable rooms. All good. Then we went back to UK.gov and carried on with our UK- locator forms, this time clicking the “Change flights in the UK within 24 hours, without going through UK border control”, and voilà, after inputing our flights, the Vogon locator form was done. The cost of our Chunnel tickets would be lost entirely. No voucher; just gone. But no exorbitant covid test fee, so it balanced out.
Now, if you’ve been paying close attention, you may have noticed the flaw in this. Our flight from Paris was scheduled to arrive in the afternoon at LHR, and our flight from LHR would leave the following morning. Since we were not going through border control, that meant a hotel stay was out. We naively started calculating how many hours we could camp in the 1st class BA lounge, and how many we’d need to spend trying to be comfortable in the terminal itself (a little over 9 hours; doable, but not preferable). We’d manage.
So, ok, it’s 24 hours before our CDG to LHR flight, I get on the BA app and check in. Boarding passes are put in my iPhone Wallet. All set. Brimming with confidence.
The following day, a few hours before that flight, and 24 hours before the flight home, I try to check in for our LHR-BOS flight. No go. In fact, 4 times in a row no go. I try a minor hack, re-inputting some data, and am finally supplied with a reason. We are required to check in with a person once at LHR. Fuchsia. Does this mean I have to go through UK border control, thereby violating the terms of our Vogon locator form?
Knickers now in a twist, we head to our CDG gate, hoping to find someone to clarify the situation. We espy a pair of pilots, and I explain our quandary. I am told that everyone is now required to check in in person at LHR, but there is a transit office we may be able to use that will not require us to pass border control. Ok, deep breath. Deep breath.
Still waiting to board our plane, two black women come up to the desk and begin fussing with terminals.
Why do I even mention that they were black. Because I want to, and because, in addition to a 10 year old scamp (white boy), one of the myriad personalities residing in my cranium is a slightly heavy 48 year old black woman with a rich sense of humor. Go figure. As multiple personalities go, those two are pretty good.
Suzanne prods me to go use my French and question them as well. Ok, so …
Miracle the First
Hearing my plaint, one of the women took my phone open in the BA app to our flight information. She began furiously typing information into one of two terminals at her station. She went to the side briefly and an incompetent 3rd women arrived stage left and used the same terminal to input something. Our lady thought her efforts had been lost, but she quickly brought up her info on the 2nd monitor. Idiot white woman then departed and our fierce co-combatant went back to the first terminal. Francesca, now at my side, described her efforts as being like playing a computer game. We hoped she was winning. At one point she said voilà, softly. She wasn’t done but “voilà” sounded positive, and Francesca and I shared hopeful glances. Francesca could see that our Saint was slowly turning a bunch of red Xs on the monitor into green checks, this being the goal of the computer game. Some more time passed, some mechanical noises came from under the desk, and she pulled out 4 boarding passes, 2 for CDG- LHR, which we didn’t really need, and 2 for LHR-BOS, which we needed desperately, more desperately than we even knew at that point. In awe, my goofy old guy side bubbled to the surface, and I bowed a couple of times to our Savior, arms outstretched (Wayne’s World unworthy style). Francesca said our Savior was at first nonplussed and weirded out by this bizarre American genuflecting before her. But then she smiled, recognizing that this obeisance was well deserved. And it was.
Shortly thereafter we boarded the plane CDG-LHR, thinking we’d very likely have to sleep in terminal 5 at Heathrow. Still, we had one hope; there was a flight to Boston later that same day, and if we could take that instead, we’d be able to sleep at home.
Miracle the Second
We made it to LHR, all the efforts of Vogons and covid unable to prevent it. We disembarked, walked past some people lined up to talk to BA people at desks, and confidently strode up to some electronic gates that would let us into the terminal proper. This required a scan of our LHR-BOS boarding passes. However, evidently mistaking us for Balrogs, the annoying machines would not let us pass, for our flight was not the same day. A guy noticing our chagrin explained that terminal 5 was closed at night; there would be no overnighting. I looked around at the small area we were in and imagined overnighting there. Fuchsia.
The guy told us there was a LHR-BOS flight later that same day (someone somewhere told us it was canceled; it was not). We assumed we’d have to get into the terminal to see if that could be managed. We told the guy we’d love to do that. Delighted by our ready acquiescence, he took us up to one of the desks, jumping the queue by a fair bit, and introduced us to Savior number 2 (I suppose the guy was really Savior number 2, but never mind; let’s call him Savior number 1.5). She verified that there was indeed a later flight we could catch, but all 1st class seats were taken. What about business class? Plenty of seats there. Will we voluntarily take the downgrade? The alternative looking very bleak indeed, we said yes, most assuredly. She typed away, and then said it was no longer possible. An unspecified “incident” had occurred at Terminal 5, and many things that once were possible, our change included, no longer were.
She told us we had two options: pop over to terminal 2, and overnight there, or get to a hotel, evidently intended for stranded travelers. Hotel sounds good (she explained that terminal 2 is in any case not very comfortable). Francesca took the lead at this point, more than once needing to shush my repeated mentions of terminal 2. Francesca wasn’t going to sleep in a terminal if a hotel was a viable alternative. Her comfort was now in jeopardy, and she became ultra-focused. Geoffrey, stand aside.
But we’d need to go through security and outside, a thing we’d promised not to do on the Vogon Locator form. She told us to stay there, came around the desk, and pulled us over to a more secluded spot out of earshot. Here’s what we were to do, she almost whispered: try for Fast Track first. If that fails, when confronted by border control tell them a fib. The boarding passes we’re holding were just given to us by the lady inside (Savior number 2). Our connection had been missed and we were rebooked for the flight tomorrow morning (our intended flight for the last month). As a consequence we are being sent to a hotel, which we promise not to leave. And, “oh whoa is us”, we were to simper, then ask if the border control person is ok with this (we are not to mention it’s 80% fabrication.) Once through the Vogon checkpoint, we are to find the hotel guy a short distance to the right outside in the main building. His job is to help people like us, pathetic and downtrodden.
Francesca adds: “You must add how the woman said to me, ‘You did not have these tickets; I just adjusted your bookings because you didn’t make a connection.’ – (she repeated that 3 times to Francesca) – ‘You JUST got these tickets and ended up in this situation which is why the locator form has different data.’ Then she made me (Francesca) repeat, ‘I just got these tickets and got stuck spending a night here.’ “
She was super – not a Vogon.
Miracle the third
Have I ever mentioned how focused and determined Francesca gets when her comfort is on the line? We got out to where the security Vogons were processing passengers, and the line up of passengers was long. Very long. Very very long. Ugh. At least that was what was going on in my mind. Francesca’s mind was going, “No fuchsia way”. She asked some guy about Fast Track, and he pointed us in the direction of some nearby kiosks. No one was in line there. And when I say no one, I mean not one person. They were our personal portals to a better world, and Francesca dragged me over to them. We were required to remove our covid face masks to be scanned (I recall that when we entered the UK our faces had been scanned, so we were in some Vogon database). Then we slid our passports into the slots. And then, holy mother of Cthulhu, the gates opened and we exited. No border control personnel to whom to fib – our lies now a thing drifting in the cosmos, space dust, forever unused. We went through the Nothing to Declare door and were never questioned by anyone.
Miracle the fourth
The hotel desk for stranded travelers was off to the right, as promised. It had a list of 4 hotels. The first three were about 100£ each, and the fourth, a Marriott, was about 149£/night. When we (actually, it wasn’t “we”; Francesca is really good at dealing with situations of this ilk, and she shunted me off to the back) explained our predicament, the guy manning the location was very apologetic; the cheaper hotels were booked up (possibly due to the “incident”?), and only the more expensive Marriott had rooms left. We always are willing to pay a bit more for comfort, and even before being told this we had decided that we wanted the Marriott. When told we were happy with the Marriott, the fellow looked relieved and delighted. Francesca offered a credit card, got us booked in, and then another miracle: he handed Francesca a paper and said to wait on nearby seats for the ride to the hotel. Not long after the driver came in, our helpful hotel guy indicated we were the customers. Francesca showed the driver the paper (actually, maybe she didn’t even need to), and he led us out to a brand new F-Pace Jaguar that would take just us to the hotel, and pick us up in the morning at 8am. And, just to be clear, we were the only passengers. The cost of this was mysteriously already defrayed, and not by Francesca, who paid for the hotel. So instead of sleeping in a terminal, we found ourselves in a very comfortable hotel, breakfast included, and a Jaguar to supply transportation. (This hotel was a little distance from the airport, maybe 100£ cheaper than the Terminal 2 Hilton, and a lot nicer.) We conversed with our driver, who seemed very concerned about covid, and wondered how long this problem would last. He was not chuffed upon being told by Francesca that it would not end, and even less chuffed when he learned she had a Harvard PhD, and her views likely had some weight.
Our hotel room, by the way, had all the needed outlets and USB plugs to keep us fully charged. The CDG Sheraton had one plug near the floor of one wall, and, for the modern digital traveler, an ethernet cable. I haven’t needed one of those in over a decade. Still, French Sheraton restaurant food was very much superior to British Marriott. Quelle suprise, huh? The British do not do food.
As a bonus, our London friends – the entire reason we’d even bothered to fly BA through LHR, instead of AirFrance straight to Paris, Ubered down to us (first mistakenly trying to get let off at a quarantine hotel), and we were able to spend a few pleasant hours imbibing and chatting. Old times were brought up, repeatedly. Diseases were discussed. And then they left, warm goodbyes were given, and the last of our European friends we’d planned on seeing on our jolly summer holiday in Europe were gone, each needing to make a special trip to see us due to our scrambled travel plans.
The next day we had our free breakfast (to which the Vogons attached a VAT that we had to pay … pathetic), then got ready for our 8am pickup. New driver, ex-military, and considerably less concerned about covid. As he’d trained for jungle warfare in Belize, we discussed the film Terminator, and I mentioned talking down a Vietnam vet who was having a panic attack on a boat from the Yucatan to a nearby island. The Mexican coastline there looks quite jungly, and indistinguishable from the coast of Vietnam. It freaked him out, which I totally understand, and he scared the other passengers away from his location. But shit, the guy clearly needed someone to talk to. That would be me.
Dropped off back at Terminal 5, we went through their TSA, and the lies told on our locator form never came up, we never had to pay the 300£ covid test extortion fee, and although they took some of Francesca’s liquids (too many for their little plastic bags), we got through security with 3 hours to spare. (Note, boarding passes had to be shown, and we were leaving, not entering, so Locator forms were irrelevant; they didn’t care where we were once gone from their green and pleasant land. Had we not had those boarding passes for LHR to BOS, however, that Savior #1 gave us at CDG, none of this might have been possible.)
I had pills to take, so we went to 1st class lounge to get some spring water. The asinine lady at the entrance desk tried to point us to a long queue of people waiting to get into Business Class lounge. (I imagine my rumpled self did not look 1st class.) Francesca, however, was having none of that and pointedly stuck our 1st class tickets under the nose of the obnoxious Vogon; she saw her mistake, apologized, but hardly profusely enough for my tastes, and we entered the lounge. (Do NOT mess with Francesca and her comfort!) Oh, and insult to injury, prior to this Francesca had bought some Louis Vuitton boots (no longer duty free – the post Brexit Brits are after every pence they can get). She was carrying a Louis Vuitton bag, for fuchsia’s sake. Of course, the rest of our luggage looks decidedly used. Still, LV bags don’t go to business class, nor do they stand in line. Francesca excels at avoiding travel induced queues. I think I’ve mentioned that half a dozen times. I just sit back and let her lead in these situations.
[As frustrating as the LHR Vogons were, in the past the Brits in general have served us well. On 9.11 Francesca was working in Britain, and her coworkers were solicitous well above the call of duty. Quite touching, in fact. And some few years later yet more eager terrorists had planned to blow up four planes heading from LHR to the USA, at least two of which were headed for Boston, and one of those was a flight that Francesca, her mother, and I were slated to fly home on. The British Secret Services literally saved our lives by catching the miscreants, and grounding all planes out of LHR for nearly a week. And BA refunded our tickets (we flew home out of Shannon on Aer Lingus). (The full story of that horror can be found in my first travelogue, available on Amazon.) Still, in the heat of the moment Francesca and I may have expressed views of the English that are not entirely warranted. She excoriates rather fiercely below, but we recently discussed those past good deeds, and we decided to forgive much. I mean, crikey, they actually and truly saved our lives. And more recently it was a cluster of saintly Brits who enabled us to escape LHR in comfort. So, you guys, sorry for being harsh … heat of the moment and all … you understand.]
Francesca spots some Vogon corruption
“Corruption in triplicate.
“First corruption was them setting up a system forcing anyone passing through UK to pay hundreds for products and services they’ll never use so all the cronies get rich never having to provide either – just take the money. Everyone involved and dealing with them knows it’s a scam – but at government level that can’t be stopped.
“So our emergency ‘incident’ Hotel was completely prepaid Room and vats and all. I paid in full at the airport as arrangements were made. But we had dinner and I put it on my room. So they presented a bill with all items and the vat. And, stupidly, I didn’t just charge it then because usually that is an easy and safe thing to do. I signed it to my room. Then I asked, can I round this up to include tip – as I am not carrying pounds. Yes, of course, thank you so much.
“So the next morning, I check out. For room it says zero as it was previously paid. Then it has from the bar the final total of last nights bill. Then it has vat tax for a second time.
“I pulled out last nights itemized receipt and demonstrated that the vat was already in the amount and that a part was tip as well. ‘Yes ma’am. We know. But we are obligated to tax all money run through the hotel – again’ – so there is actually double vat on the meal. There is vat on the vat! And there is vat on the tip!
“This government is absolutely exactly as corrupt now as a 3rd world country. Pathetic. It’s not that this amount is too high. It’s the principle, and that they are disgustingly, pathetically corrupt now.
“And third corruption: since Brexiting they have canceled duty free entirely. I mean, there is shopping – tons of it. But nothing is duty free. UK won’t allow it. But of course, there is nothing indicating that to shopping travelers! The shop clerk whispered it to me apologetically.
“The UK gov are soo desperate. I think it’s actually really not a first world country any longer.
“Boy are they a mess. They lost their minds and ethics.”
First class on flight was very nice, staff super, and once airborne I began to decompress (this process will take days; it was almost as stressful escaping Europe as getting into it). While actually in the EU, there were few problems, the worst being the lethal feather pillows at the hotel in Lyon that caused my lungs to get congested, and eventually led to an illness we are still suffering from.
Below, Francesca making herself at home on flight to Boston. I did not breath easy until Ireland was behind us. Yes, it was nice to see London recede into the distance (which I could view on the TV screen set to Flight Monitor), but I wanted the Atlantic Ocean under me, and all European land masses behind me.
The day we got home the EU tightened entry recommendations (adoptable by member states) for the EU by US citizens. Italy was the first to adopt the new regulations. Sweden has since closed itself to Americans entirely. The door had been slammed shut behind us. Well, our idiot country is one of the hottest covid hotspots in the world, so who can blame the EU.
That summer there were perhaps 7 weeks during which our trip was even possible. Our 5 weeks was nestled in the middle of that ΔT. The future is very uncertain. Covid will continue to mutate and adapt. Travel as it used to be, free of masks and proof of vaccination and various other restrictions, may be over for the rest of my life. That will depend on many things, not the least of which is the ability of modern medicine to keep me alive. Go team go.
Today we walked on the beach; I patted a dog; I was home.
The weekend after our trip home was Labor Day weekend, and the nearby city of Portsmouth, now evidently renowned from coast to coast for its upscale charm, was loaded with tourists. This town, already pre-covid rather Parisian in nature, became even more so when covid forced the many restaurants and cafes to set up outdoor tables and chairs. We went into town that Sunday, and at one point we sat outside a coffee place and had a drink, watching the people go by. It should have been very Parisian. But at this point, an idea that had been simmering in my grey matter since we got back, this idea came to a boil. Cafe people watching in Portsmouth is very very different from cafe people watching in Paris. The people we watched in Portsmouth are noticeably bigger, beefier, and heftier than Parisians. This is true in every dimension, and probably in a few that are presently only theoretical. Many of the men have their northern European heads shaved, which gives a kind of Wehrmacht feel – Paris occupied, as it were. And then there is style. Parisians dress with style. I’m not talking about Coco or Louis V style. Just pleasant, not an eyesore to be found, at least not among the people not sleeping on the street. Americans – at least that long weekend in Portsmouth – fuchsia. I can’t even begin to describe … Ok, we’re a nation, sort of, of individuals. We have no real culture – the country is too big. What we do have comes from TV, and haute cuisine for the average Yank is anything above Burger King. The beefiness of the people I watched spoke volumes about the quality of their diets.
Still, the northern Europeans we saw in Varenna were just as jarring, big, and annoying. And sure, I’m tall, and rarely encountered Italians or French of a similar stature. But although my cancer meds have caused me to get a tiny bit pudgy around the middle, I’m mostly slender … and I get along great with most dogs. I can forgive much in a person if they value dogs more highly than humans. Still, try to do it with some style.
[Now a year after our return, I recently encountered an article with a list of fashion faux pas that Americans are guilty of in France, and the whole of the EU, really. I remember only two items. One is baseball caps. Not done. In my favor, I’ve always loathed the things, owning but one that was a souvenir from a physics conference. The other faux pas is khakis. This one made me shutter, for I often wear khaki colored trousers when traveling. Ah well. Maybe I’m given a pass on that as I don’t don baseballs caps, ever.]
We accomplished two major goals today: hot chocolate at Angelina’s; and soufflés at Le Récamier, our favorite restaurant in … hmm, THE UNIVERSE. (Francesca’s second favorite restaurant is the truffle restaurant on via Fiori Chiari in Milan, that via being my favorite street (ok, I’ve said it; Rue Cler is my #2).)
As usual Francesca ignored the muggles queuing outside Angelina’s, pushed through to the front of the line, and went into the little shop near the door. In there can you not only buy worthy items to take home, but also cups of their finest hot chocolate to take to the park across the street. She read somewhere that this is how the locals avoid lengthy lines of tourists.
As to Le Récamier, well, words do not suffice. However, there was a comprehensible bonus. At a nearby table sat a pleasant looking woman, and a sterner looking Frenchman (maybe; his provenance was never established). Behind the woman, on the ground, was a container with screening on the top. Periodically a little face would poke out of the top and bark. We, of course, were thoroughly entranced. Two soufflés later the little guy escaped and made a beeline for our table. As the woman seemed unconcerned, we proceeded to treat the wee pup like our dearest long lost friend. He responded in much the same way and licked our hands vigorously. Unsatisfied, I got up, moved around our table, knelt on the ground (we were seated outside under their awning) and proceeded – to the dogs utter delight – to commune properly. Later, my possibly flagrant violation of protocol finished, I told the headwaiter, “Pardon, mais j’adore les chiens.” He replied, to my utter delight – I kid you not – “Mais oui.” Perfect. I’d only ever heard that phrase in movies.
The dog’s owner, by the way, is an American woman living in Paris. The dog herself was born in New York City. Perhaps it overheard our conversation and recognized kindred spirits. Or maybe it’s just … (the woman told Francesca that the dog loves Americans because they’re the only ones who respond right. Francesca thinks that the dog overheard our conversation, had us pegged for the right sort, and made every effort to escape confinement before it was too late. Excellent.)
Francesca and I are more effusive than most – and way more effusive than your average Parisian – in showering affection on receptive canines. A pair of youngish French women witnessed me frolicking on the floor of the restaurant, being vigorously licked by a bundle of cuteness. This seemingly overcame their French reticence, and when they got up to leave they sauntered over to the dog’s owner, who now had her boofy dog-faced beastie on her lap, and took their turns with the little beast.
Francesca succumbed finally to my illness, and since I proved myself covid free on Monday at a nearby pharmacy, we now know it’s a different virus. A bad cold. Still, we had enough energy today to go up the Eiffel Tower – a fifteen minute walk away. Anthony Bourdain advised against this touristic activity, and with good reason. Still, the view is impressive, and the misery of standing in line to get tickets, then again to get on elevator 1, and again for elevator 2, then that whole ordeal repeated in reverse to get back down, it was only half as bad as Anthony suggested, because covid had greatly reduced the number of tourists, especially Americans and Chinese (zero). By the end I was worn out and “rough”, Francesca’s way of describing my mood near the end of a tiring day. After another 15 minute walk we were back at our favorite cafe on Rue Cler, and shortly after that I had a beer in hand and was cured.
(Saying the Eiffel Tower slog was half as bad as it could have been is like saying an Iron Maiden is half as bad as it might have been because the inner spikes are slightly blunted. I’m not saying don’t do it, but if you’re over 70, and tall, and not fond of mobs of people … Still, nice view.)
Two more full days in Paris, avoiding the creepy guy who lives downstairs, trying to see a couple more places, then – or so we hope – scoot down to pharmacy, get official covid negative stamps, get luggage, check out, get taxi, go to Gare du Nord, and put ourselves in the hands of the fuchsia Vogons until we land in Boston on Monday. Details to follow.
Oh my fuchsia gods
So, ok … wait … trying to hold back tears … trying … not succeeding. (Wait for it. Starting to encounter roadblocks re getting home at this point.)
The creepy guy, and the woman whose apartment was directly across from his, were possibly more than just creepy (but probably not; keep reading). He latched onto Francesca on one of her solo shopping trips. That was Tuesday. Later that day, spotting us entering the building, he shouted at us, ran around the stairs up to the 6th floor, and with his small amount of English, and my meager French, managed to get us to accept an invitation to drink champagne with him and the creepy woman the following day, Wednesday, in the morning at an undefined time. Francesca, ever the one to maintain certain social proprieties, suggested we go buy some flowers and a small cake to contribute to this gathering. Keep in mind, everyone on Rue Cler knows everyone else. It’s like a small village in the midst of this grand city. We described to the florist what we intended to do the next day, and she looked concerned. She warned us that the guy had a reputation of being bad with women – even dangerous. But she looked me over and determined that I could protect Francesca if necessary. The couple, by the way, are likely 5 to 10 years older than I am, so bring it on.
Francesca’s enthusiasm for this fête had by this point dropped to zero. She confessed to me that the morning he had glommed on to her, he had tried to convey that he was a photographer, and he showed her some pictures of women he’d photographed, and without exception they looked like they could have been drugged. I made a vow that I would use my cancer as an excuse not to imbibe in anything offered.
Wednesday morning dawns, and Francesca is now sick enough that she will spend the day in bed. Together we went down to the floor in question and knocked first on his door. Eliciting no response, we tried hers. She opened up and I tried to explain that we could not come to their little party, as is too sick. Three things prevented her from understanding what I was saying: my French; her total lack of English; and the fact that one of her two brain cells had died some time ago. We handed her the flowers and cake, and, ignoring her perplexed demeanor, went quickly back upstairs, and put Francesca back to bed.
(Actually, we first went to the wrong floor, and, after knocking on a door, a woman came out, saw two people she quickly determined were Americans, one of whom was holding a cake and flowers. She told us we must be looking for the Americans staying in the building; they’re on the sixth floor. Oh but that’s us. I don’t recall how this confusion was resolved, but the point is that she – and maybe everyone else on the street – knew 2 Americans were staying on Rue Cler. Funny place. At our home in New Hampshire there are 3 neighbor homes within 150 feet of our house. In 3 years we have spent 3 or 4 minutes (total!) talking with any of them. It’s been months since our last interaction. Exactly like Rue Cler? Sigh.)
But creepy guy was not to be so easily put off. He knocked on our door around 11am, and when I cracked the door, still in my pajama top, he vigorously and enthusiastically told me to come on down for cake and champagne. And he did mention the cake, so he had talked to creepy woman, but even if he understood from her that all bets were off, he was not to be deterred. In a raspy voice I explained that ma femme was too sick (mauvais rhume). We would not be able to attend. Did he commiserate? Express sympathy? No, he looked pissed, and, having shot his bolt, departed.
Later, spying me from his window leave the building, when he saw me coming back he went downstairs and when I pushed the elevator button he casually walked by outside the door, eying me suspiciously, in his best creepy guy way. No bonjour, wave, or anything friendly; just creepy guy suspicious. As I was alone, and carried a bag of medication from the nearby pharmacy, what could he do but stew?
The lady at the pharmacy became our favorite person in the neighborhood. More on her later.
As to the creepy guy, on our last day, as we headed out to do some touristy things, from the elevator we heard his door close, the sound of his feet scurrying downstairs, and when we exited the 2-person lift he pretended to be just coming in and gave us a friendly bonjour. I am hoping he did this to get back on our good side so that he could at some later date get us to drink his iffy champagne. I hope this, because discovering us gone the next day would certainly put his knickers in a twist.m
Parisians are not known for their effusive friendliness. If a Parisian is effusively friendly with you upon first meeting, well, that Parisian is likely a mass murderer, and on simply that basis alone it’s wise to avoid them. When we first arrived at the apartment building this guy and the woman were all over us (she insisted on fixing flaws in my attire – wrinkles and whatnot; and only in hindsight do I see this as beyond creepy in a mortuary kind of way). I was slow to read the signs … well well.
The matter did not end there, as I exchanged messages with Paris Perfect about our concerns. They actually investigated. The best case scenario: the man is eccentric, but likely not harmful; the woman has dementia, which we were anyway guessing to be true. The two of them seem to have a symbiotic relationship: he supplies the brains; she the money. From the moment we entered the apartment building they were all over us, and it was mildly off-putting. Anyway, … anyway … I wish them well.
Before leaving our home in New Hampshire I had read about a newly refurbished department store/indoor mall, called La Samaritaine. The building had been empty for 30 some years when Bernard Arnault, 3rd richest man in the world, got hold of it, gutted the place, and on its steel framework hung a lavish and very very pretty alternative to the Galeria (Paris; not Milan). The locals were pissed, because it used to be a kind of Sears, selling crap to the masses, and now it seemed distinctly aimed at rich tourists. Well, we were tourists, although not even in the top ten of the world’s richest people. Still, we were tourists. And the place was worth a visit. We had lunch there, looking out over all the splendor of its interior. I liked it. A lot.
In one of the upscale shops they had a single shoe on display. Francesca and I love this thing, and not as an actual piece of footwear, but as a gloriously offbeat work of art. It’s a good thing we’re a couple, for I can think of no one else in my life who would deem it praiseworthy. My sister, in particular, cast aspersions. I think one of us is adopted. She’s long suspected that we only share one parent. This shoe, and our various reactions to same, corroborates her suspicions.