Thursday, July 30, 2015

Planes, Trains, and Weather Delays

the legendary Pont D'Avignon - our last stop in France

We had reservations for the TGV (high speed train) from Nimes to Barcelona and were looking forward to it. We wondered what would it feel like to travel at 180 miles per hour.

We arrived at the train station with ample time. The station was clean and modern with new messaging boards clearly telling the time and the tracks. There were plenty of SNCF employees to help customers and answer questions. Contrary to the stereotype about the French being rude and arrogant, they were all very polite.

The train was beautiful. It had cushioned seats, big picture windows, and quiet tracks. It left on time and zipped along at 180 miles per hour. We couldn’t even feel the speed and were enjoying watching the passing scenery – until a torrential downpour started.

Somewhere near Perpignan the train came to a halt. Within a few minutes, a train official announced on the loud speaker that because of the rain, it was unsafe to continue and we would be kept informed of developments as they occurred.

Indeed, every ten minutes, we heard another announcement. After the third announcement, they distributed complementary box lunches. They were pretty good – a tuna pasta salad, a green salad, a roll, juice, and dessert. With the lunch was a card apologizing profusely for the delay.

The flip side of the card had the SNCF’s delay policy. Anyone with proof of a ticket purchase could apply for a refund of 25 to 75% of the ticket depending on the length of the delay for any time lag of more than 30 minutes. There were instructions for how to apply for one.

 Very impressed by this service, my husband said, “If we had been on a plane in America, we wouldn’t have gotten anything and they would have left us sitting on the tarmac wondering what was going on.”

We enjoyed eating our lunch courtesy of the SNCF and chatting with the family from New Zealand sitting across from us. Our delay lasted for three and a half hours.

in Barcelona

Sure enough. On our flight home, we had a connecting flight from Charlotte, North Carolina to Chicago. When we arrived in Charlotte, the departure board showed several flights to Chicago had been cancelled or delayed. Ours hadn’t been. “This is a bad omen,” I said.

We boarded on time and then sat on the tarmac for over an hour. There was one announcement saying that the delay was due to bad weather. By the way, we passengers received no food or drinks to compensate. Finally, we heard an announcement that because of the weather, we would be taking a different route. We had to go back to the gate to refuel. The new route would circumvent the storms by flying over Kansas City, back over Des Moines, and finally to Chicago. A 500-mile flight would now be 1200. In all, we had a three and a half hour delay.

No one in Europe or America or anywhere else on this Earth has control over the weather. Things happen. How we respond to them, however, is up to us. You decide which way you want to be treated. 


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Academics Too Low in America? Change the Paradigm

On our trip, we were often asked what we think of when we think of France. Do we think of Paris, French cuisine, wine, the French fashion centers, the Cannes Film Festival? Before this trip, I usually thought of Paris, the Impressionists, and French cuisine. After this trip, I’ll also think about how the French respect and honor their intelligent people, especially those who had significant achievements. 

We took a Viking River Cruise from Chalons-Sur-Saone to Avignon. Our first stop was Beaune in Burgundy. We visited a Vineyard, toured the Hotel Dieu, and walked through Beaune. The town was lovely and I was surprised to see a statue in the park dedicated to a teacher, Gaspard Mongé. He was born in Beaune and was also a prominent mathematician who participated in the Revolution in 1792.

statue of Gaspard Monge
Our next stop was Lyon where we saw wall murals on several buildings of prominent citizens current and past of Lyon. One of these gave prominence to the Lumière Brothers, initiators of the first motion pictures. The main university in Lyon is named after them as well. 

wall painting of the Lumiere Brothers

Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince, was also featured on several murals. Their airport is named after Saint-Exupéry as well. 

the Little Prince and Saint-Exupery
In Bellecour Square, Lyon's main plaza, there is a statue of André-Marie Ampère, physicist and mathematician for whom the measurement of electric current is named. Next time you want to know how many amps an electric appliance has, you can think of him.

statue of Andre-Marie Ampere

In Tournon, as we got off the boat, we saw a statue of Marc Seguin, engineer and inventor of the first suspension bridge. As we looked across the Rhone, we saw that bridge spanning the river.
statue of Marc Seguin
the first suspension bridge

Arles, as expected, had many statues and sites dedicated to Vincent Van Gogh. He spent the last two years of his life in Arles and painted many pictures in Arles enthralled by the sunlight and colors of the south of France. All over Arles there are monuments and other signs indicating that he was there. The people of Arles have kept the memory of his stay there so palpable that I could almost feel his presence as we walked through that beautiful town. 

hospital in Arles where Van Gogh was treated

picture and actual Cafe Van Gogh
Here in the United States we could learn from this French example. We certainly have many people who have achieved considerable feats but most are not esteemed every day in the general culture. Let’s start erecting statues of our teachers, engineers, scientists, writers, social workers, and thinkers and honoring them. Maybe when our children see alternatives to gaining fame, respect, and fortune as athletes and celebrities, some will change their choices of role models.  Maybe with the ubiquitous presence of our instant news cycles and instant messages it's too late, but I think it’s worth a try.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Visiting Paris Post Charlie Hebdo - Just As Beautiful As Ever

What do you think of when you think of France? Do you think of the incident at Charlie Hebdo or of Paris or wine, Impressionists, French cuisine, iconic landmarks?

Arc de Triomphe

We had booked our trip to France several months before the Charlie Hebdo killings occurred. After it happened, we considered canceling it, but with the placement of French soldiers and police at the major tourist sites as well as the Jewish schools and synagogues, we decided to go as planned. I reasoned that with the increased security, it was probably safer than it had been. Besides, we had been in Paris for a couple of days 42 years before and I was very excited to finally return.

Discover Tours (, free walking tours of several neighborhoods, were a highlight of our stay. All of the guides are Parisians who speak fluent English and most of them, many of them college students, are young adults. No payment is required but tips are strongly suggested. It’s the only payment that the guides receive.

The Discover Tour of the Right Bank provided a glimpse of the beautiful and elite of old Paris. This tour started at the Opera House and went to many famous sites including the Café de la Paix, the Tuileries, and ended at the Arc de Triomphe. There were about 25 people taking the tour with us but fortunately, the tour guide had a voice that carried well.

Opera House

the Grand Hotel

We also took the Marais  tour and were the only people on it. This gave us the opportunity to talk to our young guide and the two interns accompanying her that day. The guide’s boyfriend joined us later on the tour. We learned a lot about the Marais and also heard about life in Paris. Yes, it’s difficult for young people to find employment. Yes, it’s expensive to live there but there is a safety net. Each district of Paris is required to have Public Housing. The waiting list to get in isn’t as long as it is in most places in the United States.
Place des Vosges

public housing in the Marais

The young people providing the tour endorsed the French policy of laicite viewing it as a bulwark against religious persecution. Although women are forbidden to wear hijabs (headscarves) in some French public places, we saw many women wearing them as they walked through the Marais.

We saw Jewish people as well, religious and easily identifiable by their clothes, as well as nonOrthodox Jews. While we’d heard and read about increased anti-Semitism in France, we were fortunate not to witness it or sense it on this trip. This is not to say that it doesn’t exist, but it wasn’t as visible and palpable as it was for us last year in Hungary.

outside the Musee du Judiasme

The people we spoke to were upset by the increased military presence on their streets. Charlie Hebdo seems to be France’s 9/11. “You’ll get used to it,” I told them at the same time hoping that the proud French would not.

Despite any problems that may exist, Paris is still Paris and we had a beautiful time there.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Journeying to the South Provides a Clue

The horrific killings in Charleston, South Carolina reminded me of the trip we took last winter. On our way home from South Florida, we stopped in Mobile, Alabama.

Before the trip, a friend recommended reading Better Off Without ‘Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Succession by Chuck Thompson. Chuck Thompson's premise is that the South and the rest of the United States are so philosophically and culturally different that it makes compromise impossible. All concerned would be better off if we simply let the South secede.

Thompson provides many facts and examples to support his premise, some amusing and many redundant. One amusing example he gave was that since South Florida has so many transplanted Jews from New York, it is not part of the South. As a Jew originally from New York with many relatives in Florida, I found it amusing to be reduced to a cultural stereotype. Then I got angry and understood what he said about Southerners bristling at being stereotyped. 

At the very end, Thompson contradicts what he has been saying throughout the rest of the book. He admits that this solution will probably never happen one major reason being that most of America’s oil resources are in the South. Alas, economic dependence intervenes. Since Thompson’s solution is likely never going to happen, we have to learn to co-exist with one another.
Since South Florida doesn’t count as the South, this was my first trip to the region. As we pulled into Mobile, Alabama, I thought about Thompson’s premise. Many neighborhoods in Mobile were beautiful and we thoroughly enjoyed walking through them. Their history museum was very interesting. Being a Chicagoan, it was a delight to walk outside in 70-degree weather and see flowers blooming in the middle of February.

Street Scenes in Mobile Alabama

Several locals suggested that we visit the Mardi Gras Museum. Since they seemed to be quite proud of this museum, we decided to take a guided tour. We were taken past floors of gowns donated by past Queens of the Mardi Gras. Even now- astounding as it is to us- a full social season of debutant parties and other such events is organized around Mardi Gras. Every year a white king and queen and a black king and queen of the Mardi Gras are chosen. The social events surrounding Mardi Gras are totally segregated. While it  was mind –boggling to us, the tour guide relayed this information without blinking an eyelash. Later, when we told our cousin in Memphis about it, she was not surprised. “That’s something that will never change,” she said obviously not endorsing these customs.

a display at the Mardi Gras Museum

a train of one of the Mardi Gras queen's gowns costing 1,000's of dollars

Was the experience at the Mardi Gras Museum just another example of the racism that continues to inflict us all but the South especially? Did this culture contribute to the killings in South Carolina? Not knowing the South well enough, I’ll refrain from comment. Nevertheless, racism and hatred aren’t cultural choices. They’re pernicious and do major damage to the hated and the hater. When do we cross the line from regional cultural differences to totally unacceptable racism and discrimination? I’m sure that’s an issue we’ll all be discussing in the months ahead. Maybe someday we’ll have an answer. 

Thursday, July 2, 2015


In the bookstore in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, I discovered instruction books on the Cornish language. When I asked the proprietor about them, she rose to attention and slammed her hand on the counter. “We’re not English,” she said. “We’re Celtic - just like the Irish, the Scots, the Welsh, and the people in Brittany, France.”

Mineral Point, Wisconsin
Thanks for telling me. That’s something that I hadn’t heard before. I bet you didn’t know that the Cornish inhabited two counties in the south of England and had a distinct culture. Of late, many wealthy people from other parts of England have been buying holiday homes there and generally raising their housing prices. After we came home, I did some research and found this out. I love traveling to places near and far and hearing previously unknown stories such as that. I love hearing the unexpected. It’s great having one’s assumptions overturned. Sometimes, it happens on a trip to a foreign land and sometimes it happens right in our own backyards.

Eva Peron's grave in Buenos Aires, Argentina
  one room schoolhouse in Amish Acres


At the Skokie, Illinois Festival of Cultures


My husband and I have been extremely fortunate in the past few years to have traveled to many countries that I had never even dreamed of seeing. What we’ve seen has often surprised us, but what we’ve heard has often been even more astonishing. Sometimes what people are doing makes no sense to us until we listen to them and hear why. As the Dalai Lama said, "When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new."

For example, once I took a taxi back to the airport and got into a very intelligent, philosophical conversation with the cab driver. Sensing a story behind his occupation, I asked him if he’d always been a cab driver. “No,” he said. “I used to be a social worker with the State of Massachusetts until my nerves gave out.”

Yes, of course. That explains everything. I was a social worker for over 25 years in the Chicago area and understood immediately. Listening was a major part of my job description so I learned to be attuned to what people said and not to my own erroneous expectations of what I thought they would say. I understand that a lot of people are not but it’s important for all of us to try. We live in a big country with myriad regional, cultural, ethnic, and all kinds of other differences. Somehow we have to figure out how to get along with each other. I hope that in the weeks ahead, the blog posts here and the discussions that they generate will help to bridge these differences. I’m looking forward to hearing from all of you.

Happy Traveling!