Friday, February 16, 2018

Scotland and Hickories, the Essence of Golf

My borrowed “set” of hickories for playing Musselburgh Links.


The first few shots I hit with hickory-shafted clubs, I was afraid I might break them. Plus, the grips, what was left of them, were slippery. So I eased off my normal swing.

On the first hole, for comparison, I hit a modern ball, as well as the circa-19th century gutta percha the pro shop had provided me with. Not much difference in feel actually.

I nearly lost the gutty on the first shot at Musselburgh Links (http://www.musselburgholdlinks.co.uk/) – aka Old Musselburgh, the oldest golf course in the world (Mary, Queen of Scots, is reputed to have played the layout in 1567). My half-swing with a somewhat-battered brassie started low and caught the high rough preceding the fairway. I didn’t realize how high the grass was until I started looking, and I was in a panic over losing the antique ball. I couldn’t bear the humiliation of going back and asking for another … not after only one swing. With relief, after 3-4 minutes, I found the ball and proceeded up the fairway, picking up my “provisional” Titleist along the way.

It was a cool, damp morning, as were most during the month we spent in Scotland. I hadn’t been out in the week since playing the Old Course at St. Andrews, and I was excited when I learned Old Musselburgh offered a hickory option. I love the history of the game, and I’m also one of those who thinks today’s equipment is destroying the classic courses (while still appreciating that, as a senior, I can still hit a drive as far as I did when a teenager). At 2,971 yards, from the tips, it would seem sacrilegious to overpower Musselburgh with modern clubs.

Old Musselburgh hosted The Open Championship six times between 1873 and 1889 in rotation with Prestwick and St. Andrews. Musselburgh native Willie Park Jr. won the ’89 version in a 36-hole playoff with Andrew Kirkaldy, and Park still holds the record for the nine-hole layout with a 2-under-par 32.

The course is situated mostly within the oval of the Musselburgh Racecourse, and on days when the horses are running golfers must let the steeds and riders pass before playing the 1st, 4th and 6th holes which cross the track.

When I arrived around sunrise on an early October morning, there was no one else on the course. But by the time I reached the second tee, a local gent, also a senior, caught up and asked if he could join me. I was delighted.

As I gained confidence with the hickories, I started using my usual swing – though still holding tight to the grips. I moved the ball back in my stance a bit to catch it early, as I’d learned from St. Andrews’ hard-packed, sand-based fairways. I managed to hit quite a few good shots, and even figured out what distances I was getting with the three clubs: brassie, niblick and mashie niblick. No birdies – almost on the shortish (479 yards) par-5 7th hole – but enough pars to satisfy. And no more nearly lost balls; I hit most tee shots in the fairway.

I was hooked. I had noticed some news about the World Hickory Open, held the week before at Kilspindie golf course in nearby Aberlady. I found the Society of Hickory Golfers website (https://www.hickorygolfers.com/) and discovered that there are hickory aficionados not only in Scotland and the US but in Switzerland and France, the two places where we live.

I’ve always been a competitive player, but have not entered a tournament since moving to Europe five years ago. Hickory, to me, seems an opportunity to satisfy my competitive urge while reveling in my passion for golf history and travel.

I’m now searching for a set of clubs and any events I can reasonably get to. Hope to see some of you soon.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

One of Those Days - A Dueling Blog

I managed to make a mess of a simple day trip today.

We'd been talking about riding Le Petit Jaune (http://www.tourisme-pyreneesorientales.com/fr/0/0/1/2283/actualites/d/0/train-jaune-en-hiver-saison-2017-2018) -- the Little Yellow Train -- to get a view of the Pyrenees Mountains in winter ... and give Sherlock his first snow experience.

We never got on the train. And Sherlock threw up. Twice. Once each on the inside of the two car doors.

It would have helped if I could read a train timetable. Or a Google Map.

First, I thought it would take us about two hours to drive from Argèles sur Mer to Villefranche-de-Conflent, from whence the train departs. Apparently I had Google Maps set to public transport, not driving. So it wasn't really necessary to get up at 5 am to catch the 830 train. We arrived at the station at 7. But managed to salvage the 90 spare minutes by wandering into the thousand-year-old city (http://www.francethisway.com/places/villefranchedeconflent.php) to find a boulangerie for a fresh pain au chocolate.

That was after the first vomit comet.

Back to the station, sit in the car for awhile, then head into the ticket office when a tourism bus pulled up at 8:15. No one exited the bus; maybe they were keeping warm. Bought two tickets, aller et retour, to Fort Romeu (https://en.france-montagnes.com/resort/font-romeu). We didn't want to take the train to the end of the line, Latour-de-Carol (https://www.france-voyage.com/cities-towns/latour-de-carol-26236.htm) because friends told us there's not much there and it's a hike from the gare to the village. We also did not want to spend the whole day riding the train up and back -- it was our plan to get off at Fort Romeu, maybe grab a quick bite to eat, then catch an 11-something train back down to Villefranche.

Ticket and dog in hand, we went across to the dernier platform to await the train, which was parked on a siding about 100 metres away. A couple of railroad workers passed us as we waited. No other passengers joined us in the queue. The tourist bus departed the station. 830 came, and no movement of the train. Well, we know the French trains are not as on time as the Swiss.

After waiting a few more minutes, something seemed amiss. And the dog was getting cold. So back into the station to inquire. Apparently the train's first departure was not until 930. Another hour of waiting. But worse, once we got to Fort Romeu, the return train did not leave until almost 4 pm, arriving back around 6 in the evening.  And, no, the tickets were not refundable.

It was go home ... or go on. We decided to drive up to Fort Romeu. After all, we are already halfway there. On the way out of the station parking lot, we gave the tickets to a couple who was heading into the station. It took a bit to get them to understand we were not going to use them ... hopefully they did.

Beautiful, beautiful drive up into the mountains. Through don't-blink villages such as Serdinya, Jujols, Olette, Fontpedrouse.  Under the magnificent Pont Séjourné. Very winding road, sometimes a grade of 10-degrees. Slight delays at a couple of construction projects where they seem to be widening and straightening the curves a bit.
Pont Séjourné
 As we took the hairpin curves up the steep mountainside at Sauto, Puke Two. So we pulled into a scenic overlook parking area and cleaned up Sherlock's former breakfast.

Only a few more kilometres to Fort Romeu, but hey, there was snow right here beside the parking area. So we let the Pukey Little Puppy out of the car and walked him over to the small mound of snow. Demonstrated for him that you could actually walk on it. Well, not quite, it was soft and he sank. Donna-Lane remarked in her best Sherlock voice, "Why are you people torturing me?"

We walked around a bit, took a few photos to justify bringing my good camera, buckled up and headed down the mountain. We've been to Fort Romeu before, more than once, Sherlock didn't much care, and the roads might get slipperier the higher we want. (We were seeing several signs advising "chaines.")

D-L slept most of the way back down the mountain, nearly to Perpignan. Which we decided was not going to work on the long drive to Geneva later this month, as Sherlock would slip off her lap if she was not holding him. Then he would want to sit in my lap, which is not conducive to safe driving. So we stopped in Cabestany to buy a cage/bed for the pup. Which turned out to be much too big for the back seat. So we'll take it back and hope he'll sleep on his bed without being confined.

Despite the frustration of getting up way too early, NOT riding the train, and NOT getting to Fort Romeu, we had a good time. Much better than, say, when I vac and scrub the mushy kibbles out of the car.

Since I won't be posting photos or video of Le Petit Train Jaune anytime soon (the 830 am train does not begin until 1 April), here's someone else's video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_8byr_la2g.

BTW, you can find D-L's version of events on her blog: http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.fr/2018/02/oops.html.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Luggage Fits

I was disappointed that I didn't get to use my spiel on the gate attendant. I was annoyed that I felt the need to concoct one in the first place.

One of the aspects of air travel I despise the most is carry-on luggage limitations. It might not be as frustrating if the airlines - and passengers - stuck to the rules. If it doesn't fit the metal "size" box, it must be checked. Problem is, since most airlines started aggressively charging for checked baggage, and discovered they could make billions on what had historically been part of the ticket price, too many passengers try to avoid the fees by bringing their entire wardrobe, sports gear, tourist souvenirs, and Christmas gifts on board. (And don't get me started on so-called "emotional support animals.")

Shock news flash - the overhead luggage compartments quickly fill up. There's little choice but for the airlines to seize some passengers' carry-ons and toss them into the cargo hold. Many people accept this because their now-checked bag just avoided $€£25-50 in fees.

I like to carry my "can't lose" items in my carry-on - computer, power cable, wireless mouse, headphones, usually the Kindle tablet - and maybe a change of underwear and socks. I no longer pretend I can use the computer on board; the seat space has become too cramped for that. The main reason is I don't want to risk my most valuable items - the things I need to work - might be lost, whether for a day or two ... or for good.

At the Berlin Schoenfeld airport last fall, an EasyJet goon insisted I check my bag in the size box. It didn't quite fit at first, which was easily rectified by removing my man-bag which held the electronic cords. But to the goon, I now was trying to sneak a "second bag" on board, also against his rules.

I say his rules because the gate agent, at that given moment, is all-powerful. He gave me a choice: pay 60 €uros to check the bag or don't get on the plane.

I was especially irritated because I had purchased that luggage to fit the size boxes - which, by the way, vary widely by airline (in part, based on the type of aircraft they fly and the configuration of the overheads). I do admit, because it's soft-sided, I sometimes stuff too much in the bag, especially for a cold-weather trip.

One trick is to wear as much as you can tolerate - ie, keep it out of the suitcase. Layer up. You need to do so before you go to the check-in counter (better to get your boarding pass online or at an airport kiosk than deal with a person who can eyeball your bag). After check-in, stop somewhere before you get to security and stuff everything you can in the luggage - easier than disrobing while you hold up the line for the magnetron and groping session (this would be another element of air travel I despise).

Once through security - but before you are in sight of the gate agent, take out and put on your sweater(s), scarf, gloves, and hat. Grab a book you plan to read: coat pocket. If you have extra pockets that are large enough, stick extra books in those. (Buy a coat with plenty of pockets - also comes in handy for sneaking candy and soda cans into a movie theatre.) Gum, mints, snacks, water bottle in the pockets, too, so you don't have to try to get your bag down in mid-flight. 

I was already exasperated that my early-morning flight to Lyon had been cancelled. I was now re-routed through Paris, and I would be getting home 2-3 hours later than planned. When the agent at the ticket counter asked me to put my bag on the conveyor belt. I told her it was carry-on. She said she wanted to weigh it. I complied. Then she stated there were too many carry-ons already, they needed "volunteers," and my bag would probably be gate-checked and put in cargo.

For the next hour, after arriving at the gate waiting area, I practiced my pitch. "I have a very tight connection because the airline (don't say "you," blaming them personally) cancelled my flight and re-routed me. If I have to wait for my bag to be brought up from the hold, or it is sent to baggage claim, I will miss my connecting flight. And (I thought money might be the clinching argument), I will be entitled to compensation because of the extensive delay. (I wasn't sure that last part was accurate, but I have been seeing a lot of Facebook posts about compensation for long delays in the EU.) 

I was prepared to ask the person's name who would confiscate my bag, and write it down, indicating I would mention them as the one who made the decision to cost the airline compensation funds.

If none of that was successfull, I was prepared to take my computer and other valuables out (and put them in a plastic Hudson News bag - is that a second bag?). As a precaution, I stuck the power cord, camera, digital recorder, notebook and notes I've been working on into the man-bag - so I wouldn't have to remove items in haste at the door of the plane and forget something important. Been there, done that.

Oh, a number of the passengers had been given bright red "cabin baggage" stickers. I thought about (but didn't carry through) stealing one from an unsuspecting passenger and putting it on my bag.

One time a gate agent tagged my carry-on with a "cargo hold" sticker, which would be spotted by a baggage handler or flight attendant at the aircraft door. As I walked down the jetway, I ripped it off and stuck it in my pocket. As I entered the aircraft, one of the smaller Embraers, the flight attendant asked wasn't I given a cargo sticker for my "rollerboard" - which she obviously thought would not fit in the overheads. I breezed by her, saying in my wake, "It'll fit," and it did. Barely.

This morning, as the economy ticket holders were finally allowed out of the cattle pen (another thing I despise, but that's for another blog), a man several ahead of me in the queue was asked to test his bag in the magic size box. No go. He took a few things out. Still wouldn't fit. So he began to argue with the gate agent. (Be nice when it's my turn, I reminded myself. Except to goons maybe.) Somehow, she let him go, though still verbally sparring as he walked away.

Now it was my turn to present my boarding pass. I had already put my man-bag with the electronics under my coat (out of sight, mostly), which made the suitcase look smaller. And as I stepped up to the queue, I kept my wheeled carry-on behind my body (mostly). But damn. She saw it anyway, and wanted a look. I twirled it into view, quickly, to show how light it was.

Voila. She didn't insist on checking it. Off I sauntered to the jetway, though still wondering if a baggage handler or flight attendant might yet intercept the bag. As I got neared to the aircraft door, I made sure the long handle was down to reduce its visibility and rolled the bag to my left side - away from the area where they typically hijack offensive carry-ons.

The tall male flight attendant, however, seemed very laid back. No challenge. I was onboard and luckily found one cubby in the overhead that was reasonably near (and ahead of) my seat.

When we landed in Paris and prepared for the queueing scrum again, I mentally rehearsed my story a couple times. Just in case. But this time, there were self-service e-gates. And the gate agents were harried from trying to board two flights side-by-side, both delayed, leading to a massive crowd of waiting passengers. They paid little attention to carry-ons.

Maybe I should just get an even-smaller bag?

Monday, January 29, 2018

Ho-Hum

We have a custom-made artwork of tiles on our patio, based on this photo

I was not looking forward to a tedious 2-hour drive to the airport, a route I had traversed several times before. It didn't help my mood when I realized I'd forgotten my "Vinci" tolltag device for bypassing the queues at the peage booths.

Then as I left the village, I beheld majestic Canigou, dressed in fresh snow and radiant in the early morning sunlight. Canigou is the mountain peak in the sud de France. Our Matterhorn. Our Mont Blanc. Our Mount Rainier.

A little later I passed l'Étang de Leucate, the sun reflecting so brightly off the water of the lagoon I could only take quick glances. Through the marshes bordering, the rail line curved gently along the irregular shoreline. One of my favorite views, whether from the train where it seems as if you're skimming atop the water, or from the autoroute on the hillside above, and the landmark that beckons "almost there" whenever we head south to Argèles sur Mer.

The orange-and-white wind sock at the top of the hill attempted to appear relevant, but the wind was, as a British golf announcer used to phrase on a calm day, "a mere zephyr." Not like the two recent trips when the Tramontane was blowing so hard the wind sheaths stiffened as if overdosed on Viagra and I had all I could do to keep the Peugot on the road.

Further inland, the wind turbines were spinning in a synchronized choreography, resembling young cheerleaders doing cartwheels in place. Save one, apparently pouting at being stuck in the back row corner.

And then, of course, the magnificent medieval cité of Carcassone. Only a glmpse behind the trees as you speed down the hill heading west. But on the return, you get a good long look at the stone fortress, especially at night when the ramparts are lit in amber glow.

I passed miles of fertile farm fields, which would make excellent golf courses if they weren't so far from any population centre.

Here and there, white and pinkish cherry blossoms were starting to show. Spring comes early in this part of the world. The brilliant yellow mimosa which Donna-Lane loves so much cannot be far behind.

In the distance, the Pyrenees presented a row of jagged white. Reminded me we want to take a ride on le train jaune and get a close up look at the mountains in the snow.

The gray scud clouds that hovered over Toulouse descended into a ground fog, creating an air of mystery. As in, would my flight be able to take off?

It did.

Just another boring day in our special paradise. Ho hum.

P.S. The view from the airplane of the snow-blanketed French and Italian Alps was spectacular. Seemingly endless unspoiled beauty.