Thursday, December 28, 2017

Quelle Année - 2017

My brother, among many others of our generation, used to write an annual letter for family and friends, summarizing his year's travels and achievements. The tradition has faded in the onslaught of electronic communications, replaced for some by a photo montage compiled from Facebook posts.

As I sifted through 2017 receipts so the accountants can prepare our French, Swiss and American tax returns, I was reminded of the wonderful people and places we were fortunate to see in the past year.

There were numerous highlights, and I won't attempt to rank them, as they all represent special memories.

Certainly a once in a lifetime event, one we could not have even imagined beforehand, was Donna-Lane's testimony in April before Congress on behalf of the millions of Americans overseas who suffer because of the despicable FATCA law. Here's a link to her video testimony - and, by the way, the lawsuit in which she is a plaintiff against the US government is now going to the Supreme Court: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IlASKzZVWdQ&t=56s
L to R: D-L, Doug, Honey, Alicia, Georgia
In March, we were thrilled to introduce my grandson Sawyer and granddaughter Georgia to their great-grandmother (my mother), who is still going strong at 94 years, and my brothers. My daughter Alicia brought the kiddos from Texas to New York, and afterwards we spent a couple days in the Big Apple where the very talented young thespians enjoyed a couple of Broadway shows. Later in the year, I visited Dallas, where Sawyer and Miss G were starring in a production of Elf Jr. Then to Johnson City for Thanksgiving with Honey et al.
 
For her birthday, Donna-Lane got to "meet" one of her historical heroines, Eleanor of Aquitaine, at Abbey Fontvraude. We stayed on the abbey grounds in what was once the leper's building, and went on a late night exploration of a cave with haunting blacklight sculptures.
For the third part of our ongoing honeymoon - visiting the independent principalities of Europe - we stayed at the nicest hotel in Liechtenstein ... after spending the previous night in the kitschy "Bubble" - something like a plastic igloo that provided us spectacular views of the Austrian Alps and the clouds drifting by. And when the WiFi didn't work and we were out of touch with the world for more than a day, we decided that from then on, once a week (Saturdays), we'd go "off grid" - no news, no email, no social media (telephone for emergencies only). It's been pleasantly liberating.
Our newest animal, Scowt (Scottish cow), checks out Edinburgh Castle with Shamrock and Scooby2
We spent a wonderful 30 days in Edinburgh, Scotland, on a house swap, and soaked in the history and culture. The writer's museum (from Sir Walter Scott and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Ian Rankin), a literary walking tour, Stirling Castle (where D-L kneeled on the site where Mary Queen of Scots received her crown), Holyrood where the royals hang out, the classic Dominion Theatre, museums, the botanical gardens, a couple of superb restaurants, haggis, the Oxford Bar, an unexpected dinner with a Facebook friend who we met in person for the first time, a visit from Donna-Lane's daughter, plus her friend from Sweden .... to sum up, we want to go back to see the many things we missed ... for that matter, we would be very happy to live there.
 
I fulfilled one of my lifelong dreams, playing the Old Course at Saint Andrews, the home of golf. As memorable as the round was, being first in the queue for a starting time - arriving in the cold rain at 10 minutes before Midnight to await the doors opening some seven hours later. I also played with ancient hickory-shafted clubs and a gutta percha ball at the Old Musselburgh links. Earlier in the year, I got the first hole-in-one in my 56-year golfing career - in Saint Cyprien, France.

We took in the Paris Airshow, where I was a judge for the Aerospace Media Awards. Also attended conferences in Berlin, Geneva, and Orlando. Helped a small company launch an exciting new product in a big way at the Dubai Airshow.  Marched in Montpellier for women's rights. Took an intensive three-week course in French. Hosted several friends in Argèles sur Mer. Did a pilgrimage to Rennes le Chateau, featured in D-L's Murder in Argeles novel (https://www.amazon.com/Murder-Argeles-Third-Culture-Kid-Mystery/dp/1432825518/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1514489647&sr=8-1&keywords=murder+in+argeles).
Just before Christmas, somewhat to our surprise, though we had talked about it for years now, we added a new member to our family - Sherlock. In less than three weeks, this three-kilo bundle of energy and cuddles has completely changed our lives. Yorkie mother, Griffon / Terrier and who knows what else father, he was too cute not to rescue the moment he licked D-L's face. So a future of middle of the night potty walks and less long-distance travel (though not completely curtailed, as he's small enough to carry on the train or plane).

Some of the best times of the year, of course, have been spent with friends, family, and family of choice ... just sitting at the cafe in the square behind L'Hostalet or other gathering spots, sharing personal news, debating and solving the world's problems, and just ... living.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Another Good Use for Duct Tape

Having our car window smashed by vandals this week has led to some interesting social - economic - linguistic - government discoveries.

Social insomuch as it revealed that, even in our little paradise, relatively isolated from the more serious concerns of the world such as terrorism and consumerism, life is not always perfect. Day to day, we live our lives peacefully (apart from the frustrations of politicians and bureaucrats), but every once in a great while someone - likely high, drunk, or simply disgruntled - takes out their angst on our exposed property, whether the car or shredding / burning the flags we've hung over our door.

The economic is somewhat obvious - the 200 euros to replace the glass - plus the productive time lost for vacuuming the car, filling out police reports, driving to the glass replacement in the next town and killing time waiting.

Dealing with new contacts, such as the village maintenance guy sweeping up the glass in the parking lot, the gendarmerie, the CarGlass guys ... reinforces how I've regressed in my francais skills from lack of practice, not to mention my ongoing hearing issues. Need to double down on the language study in the new year.

And then there's the shift from local government services, such as vehicle registration, to a system of online and third-party contractors. Instead of walking down the hill to the mairie for a replacement carte gris, we now must go online for a duplicate registration and then pick up the hard copy at a local supermarket or other vendor. Guess that means some bureaucrats are losing their jobs to technology and outsourcing.

There have been some pluses in this episode:
1. Beautiful sunrise and morning sky on the way back from the 1st trip to the glass replacement shop
2. Spectacular view of snow-capped Mount Canigou in the sunlight on the way to the shop this morning
3. My legs are getting in better shape from having to walk from a parking spot that is further away from the apartment
4. I did a great job, if I may say so, on using a plastic shipping back and duct tape to cover the window temporarily - held up to high winds and 90 kph driving for two days (wish I'd taken a photo of my masterpiece)
5. While waiting for the glass replacement, I found a sweater for Sherlock on the marche

Looking for things to get back to normal. Just never leaving anything in the car of value, or even things of little value within visibility.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Wrong Place, Right Mutt

D-L's dueling blog is at http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.fr/2017/12/sherlock.html
Sometimes things fall in place, and the fit seems just right.

We headed out this morning to check out a rescue dog that I had seen on an internet site. The location was right by the aeroport in Perpignan, a road we had been on (or so I thought) more than once. The place was supposed to be open until Noon.

The dog we were going to look at, Mila, a female, tricolor, part Griffon, about 8 months old, was listed on one site - https://www.secondechance.org/ - as being at the Perpignan SPA. But she was not listed on the SPA's own site - https://www.la-spa.fr. I thought that might mean she was gone and secondechance had not yet updated their listings.

We drove past Col Gaddafi's former, bullet-riddle airplane, toward the aeroport control tower. After a few kilometres and no signs of the SPA, we turned around and tried the village of Peyrestortes, a name I thought I recognized from web searches. No luck. Crossed the roadway into Rivesaltes and stopped in an InterMarche to ask for directions, which took us back to Peyrestortes. Where we parked and walked into a restaurant, which seemed full of local men at the bar, but the proprietors kindly took the time to look up the location on their phone GPS (we don't have a data plan on my mobile). BTW, we promised to come back there and eat another time - looked like a great patio for summer dining.

It was getting perilously close to 12. Their directions took us back past the Colonel's bird, over the autoroute, and hang a left toward Narbonne, then exit into Espace Polygone near LeClerc and a bricolage. Finally, an animal rescue directional sign. Then back over the autoroute again into an area that looked like Martian wasteland. Three turns later we saw the SPA to our left and pulled into the parking area. There were at least 20 cars there. My hopes of Mila being available were severely diminished.

Turns out the SPA was having a weekend special, and this was the second day. There were people in Santa hats cooking food.

We walked in and established that we were looking to adopt a dog, and Mila in particular. The staff seemed perplexed, so we showed them a printout with the dog's photo and description.

Turns out we were at the wrong SPA. There was another a little further up the road. But would we like to see the small dogs they had there? Hmmm. A Jack Russell? No, thanks (too much energy for our lifestyle). Well, we have another little dog over here.

Donna-Lane walked around the corner of the counter, and by the time I got there she had the pup in her arms, and he was licking all over her face. Coup de foudre.

Younger than we wanted. Not housebroken. Still needs some vaccinations and spaying (which they will do). Part terrier/griffon, part yorkie, so smaller than we had in mind. And we would have preferred a female. But pure adorable. Born 1 September, they said, and eight weeks old, which doesn't match, but we'll sort that out.

This was the first day the pup was available for adoption.  We thought briefly about going to the other SPA to check out Mila, but they suggested the pup would surely be adopted today, and possible before we returned. No doubt about that.

We agreed to adopt him.

First, they needed some documentation, such as an electric bill to prove where we lived and something to show our income. They said they would hold him until 3 pm (about 2 1/2 hours) so we could return home and retrieve our papers. We were back before 2.

When we got home, he trotted around the apartment as if he owns it, exploring every room. No problem with the steps up to the kitchen. Tentative, but managed to jump off the couch. Marked his territory once already. (Not looking forward to middle-of-the-night outdoor potty runs, but ...)

Our lives just changed. Welcome, Sherlock.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Best Friends

Looks like Taffy, my cocker spaniel when I was growing up
There's a homeless chap in our village in the south of France who has a small, ragged poodle as his companion. Awhile ago, we started putting dog biscuits in our pocket, and when we gave the chap a euro or two we also gave him a biscuit for the pooch.

This morning, the man was not in his usual spot on the main street during the marche, as the street is all dug up with construction. Instead, he was near a jewelery store, not far from the row of fruit and veggie vendor stands, on a side street.

As we approached to give him a coin and a biscuit, we noticed there was no dog. Donna-Lane asked him about the "chien," and his answer seemed to suggest that the dog had died.

I know many of us have suffered the pain of losing an animal. A friend in Dallas lost her companion this week, and she was clearly in shock. When we had to put down our teacup poodle, Kissie, who was with us for 17 years in New York and Texas, I cried for three days. But I can't imagine for a man who has so little how devastating the loss of one of the few things he held dear.

Donna-Lane and I discussed getting the man another dog at one of the local rescue shelters. Of course, we would ask him first if he would like a new dog. And, if we got him one and he refused it, we would keep it for ourselves. We've been looking to get a rescue mutt as it is, now that we're scaling back on travel.

When we went to the grocery store later in the day, the man had changed begging positions. Except ... he had a small bundle beside him, and there was fur sticking out from the bundle. Coming out of the grocery store, we gave him a biscuit. Apparently we had misinterpreted his comments in the morning and the dog was still alive.

Having searched the websites of the rescue shelters, of course, we came across a dog or three we might be interested in. We'll go check them out in the morning.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Save the World

I sometimes have a bit of a save-the-world mentality. I come across a problem, and if a possible solution involves my skill set, whether communication or physical effort or even funding, I'm inclined to want to raise my hand and say, "I'll help."

Donna-Lane is the same way. If she could, she would right injustices with the sheer force of her will. And sometimes her effort and presence as necessary. This is a woman who has the gumption to sue the US Government on behalf of 9 million expats. (She's started calling herself "Donna Quixote.")

In researching an article recently, I learned of a need for an awareness / marketing campaign to recruit young people into a good career path. It needs marketing research and some creativity. My thought was: I can do that.

Of course, we cannot take on every cause. There's simply not enough of us to go around (especially the funding part).

So we selectively determine where to best focus the time and energy we do have into things where we think we can make a difference.

We're not saints. We just want to make the world a better place than we found it when we woke up in the morning.

What if more people did so?

Saturday, November 25, 2017

A Taste of Loneliness

Just for today, I'm alone. Can't say as I care for the feeling.

Tomorrow and for the next few days, I will be amongst hundreds, even thousands of people. For the previous week, I've been around family. Something going on every day. In fact, at times it was nice to escape for a few minutes or a couple hours to be alone.

Most days when I travel, I talk with Donna-Lane by phone, but we didn't connect today. Only a brief email.

I went out for awhile - picked up my conference badge, had an ice cream sundae, rode the trolley, bought some essentials for the week.

It's when I'm in the room with nothing but the TV or Facebook for company that the sense of lonely creeps in. Or when dining alone: "Will that be a table for one and a book?"

Sometimes being alone is a choice. I love to play golf alone, especially with no one in front to hold me up and no one behind to push me. I can also be alone, mentally, in a crowd - hence my favorite tee-shirt: "I live in my own little world, but it's okay, they know me here."

There may come a day when D-L is not there to return to, to look forward with great anticipation to her greeting and embrace.

There may come a day when she's not at her desk in the other room, 10 feet away, as we work our separate projects, chat, eat together, watch a DVD.

I'll still write, eat, watch. But I won't like it anywhere near as much as I love life with her.

We've talked about getting a dog. And that may help some in such circumstances. But I watched a bit of a Keanu Reeves movie today in which he had lost his lover and still had a dog. The pain of the loss did not seem to be assuaged in the least by the presence of the pup.

I know there are lots of single people, and they survive. But survive is not the same as thrive.

I told D-L she cannot get sick while I am away from her. If she does, next trip I threatened take her with me. And that means Florida, a place she would hate to go to. So far as I know, not even a hint of a sniffle this week.

Well, time to interrupt this reverie and get some work done. I'll pretend it's the middle of the night, when I often write, and Donna-Lane is sleeping, which she often is. She may not be in the next room, and I can't go in and take the book from her hands and the glasses from her face. But her presence is with me all the same.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Fading Memories

The house I grew up in - my parents bought it in 1949 for $8,500
Except in my memory, the infrastructure of my childhood has largely disappeared.

All three schools I attended in Johnson City NY - Theodore Roosevelt elementary, C Fred Johnson junior high, and JCHS on Main Street - long ago ceased to function as educational institutions. In fact, the new high school opened the year after I graduated. TR has been replaced by an apartment building, CFJ is converted to Campus Square (housing for students), and the high school building houses a mishmash of marginal businesses.
The Johnson City High School I attended in the late 60s
The ballfield where I first tried out for Little League has been replaced by a rehab center. Philadelphia Sales, a precursor to WalMart and Dollar Stores, which I used to walk through enroute to junior high and high school, has been torn down and is a parking lot. The hole-in-the-wall cafe which served as the de facto HS cafeteria, where I waited tables for a short time (fired for eating too much one day) and became a prolific pinball player ... now a coin shop.
Training ground for a pinball wizard
High Score bowling lanes, our team's home, houses boutique shops with no apparent customers. The huge community pool, also named for C Fred, is now the site for the local newspaper (which I wrote for in my HS and college days). The Pavilion which staged many dances - now the location of a Visions credit union office (where I was marketing director in the late 70s). My grandfather's neighborhood grocery store - razed. Mr. Yoggi's basement barber shop next door - closed. Johnson Field, home of the minor league baseball Triplets, a Yankee franchise, and our Wildcat football games, was obliterated by a highway.
Loved to sit in the 3rd base bleachers at Johnson Field, glove ready to catch foul balls.
Perhaps the saddest site / sight - the IBM Country Club, where I spent most of my non-school time for several years (swimming, baseball, bowling, basketball, golfing, eating) is a decaying shell.
The sad, sad demise of my beloved IBM Country Club
When Thomas Wolfe wrote, "You can't go home again," he may have meant that the home you knew growing up has changed while you were gone ... and you've changed too.
The original traffic circle was so large we tried to establish a neighborhood baseball field - but were chased out by the cops
Nonetheless, a few of my personal touchstones are still intact. The house I grew up in. A reduced and re-routed version of the traffic circle nearby. The Floral Avenue grocery store where I perfected my baseball playing cards skills (and trashed an extensive collection before we knew they could be valuable collectors items).  
The Floral Avenue park softball field, where a 300-pound guy once barreled into me at home plate in an attempt to knock the ball loose. He knocked me head over heels into the backstop ... but I held onto the ball.
What we knew as Greenfield, path to Little League glory
The Little League baseball field where I made all-stars, and we nearly made it to the LL World Series in Williamsport. 
Wonderful chocolate cream pies
The Red Robin Diner, our high school hangout. 
Spiedie heaven
Lupo's Char Pit, where I cooked and got hooked on spiedies. The Polar Shot golf driving range, which was Tony Macek's when I was becoming a player.
At least the golf course is still there - this was the original 18th hole
The 18-hole IBM championship golf course is intact, now part of the Traditions resort, but the 9-hole Homestead course where I traipsed the hills for as many as 54 holes in a day was ruined by a flood-control project and is reduced to a "foot golf" novelty.

Driving around to these once-familiar sites while visiting for Thanksgiving, I was struck by how much smaller the village of Johnson City seems compared with when I was a lad. It took only an hour or so to drive to all of these, and some of that was shopper traffic around the mall (which was not there during my childhood). There are also a lot fewer trees; most streets used to be tunnels of foliage. Downtown is a wasteland - with the exception of the UHS hospital complex that continues to expand (but pays no taxes).
Without the UHS hospital complex, nearly a ghost town
Across the river, Vestal is somewhat more prosperous, thanks to Binghamton University. Endicott, down the road, is as well, though the once 10,000-strong IBM workforce has disappeared. The larger city of Binghamton on the east side has struggled as well. 

Johnson City is no longer the idyllic place to raise a family as created by the Johnsons of benevolent Endicott-Johnson shoes (since shifted overseas). The innocence of my youth has been supplanted by a depressing hard edge. 

I'm glad I grew up in the Johnson City of the 50s and 60s. But that Johnson City is long gone.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

A Verbal Undressing

I was "profiled" today by an American Airlines agent before they would allow me to board a shuttle bus to Heathrow Terminal 3, where I was to catch a flight to Dallas.

I'm thinking it was the beard ... or the wild hair ... or the crazed look in my eyes in trying to make a very tight connection. (I don't think Switzerland or France is on Trump's special vetting list yet.)

These weren't your "Has your luggage been in your possession at all times?" kinds of questions. These were clearly probing to determine if I was shady in some way, whether I hesitated in my responses, or if my "story" didn't hang together.

She started innocently enough: "Where are you coming from?"
Toulouse, France.

"Why were you there?"
We have a place in the south of France.

It got interesting when she asked me, holder of a US passport, if Dallas was my home?
No. 

"So where is your home?"
Geneva, Switzerland

"Where do you spend most of your time?"
(At this point, I was tempted to say Syria or Somalia, but that might have complicated matters.) 
I explained we divide our time between Switzerland and France.

Ms AA shifted to occupation - what do I do for a living?
Journalist. Aviation journalist.

"What is the name of your supervisor?"
(Getting rather personal here, eh?)
I explained that I am editor of ICAO Journal for the International Civil Aviation Organization, the UN's aviation agency. I do it as a contract. So freelance, no supervisor. I also mentioned I write for several other publications.

She wanted to know the topic of something I wrote recently.
(In the tone that I needed to convince her that I really am a journalist. How would she know - I  could have said anything related to aviation.)
I replied, Countering Drones, which would be published later this month in Military Simulation & Training magazine, Halldale Media, for a conference I am attending in Orlando.

Can I please get on the bus now, lady?

"So what is the reason for your trip to Dallas?"
To see my grandkids.

"And their name?"
(Sheesh)
Bell.

"Just one grandchild?"
(Double sheesh)
Two, S* and G*

This was really getting annoying. I'm a frickin' US citizen and I'm getting the third degree to enter American airspace? Good thing I didn't tell her about my nephew Osama and niece Tokyo Rose.

"Where will you be staying in Dallas?"
(Triple sheesh)
I won't be staying anywhere; I'll be spending all my time, day and night, on the golf course.

When my wife, not a US citizen, came into the States the past couple of times, there were only three "challenge" questions:
1. Are you a terrorist? Duh
2. Have you ever kidnapped a child? Lemme think a minute
3. Did you help the Nazis in WWII? She was 3 when the war ended, so (even though precocious) unlikely

All these nuisance questions despite my boarding pass being stamped with a bold TSA PRE-CHECK, which presumes that I've already been through a rigorous background security evaluation.

As many of my friends in aviation security have told me, the whole security scan and pat-down routine is just for show -- there's next to zero real security value in most of the measures foisted on the traveling public. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Top 10 Things We Did in Scotland




This is a dueling blog - read D-L's at: http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.ch/2017/10/10-things.html

10. Binge-watched Season 5 of House of Cards.

9. Saw Queen Lizzie’s digs at Holyrood; yet another royal snubs the Baron and Baroness of Sealand.

8. Did NOT tour Edinburgh Castle (another trip), though we did visit Stirling Castle, where Donna-Lane knelt on the site where Mary Queen of Scots was crowned, plus Rosslyn Chapel (the alien portal).

7. Finished 1st at the Old Course, Saint Andrews – by queuing up before midnight and waiting 7 hours for the starter pavilion to open.

6. Met two very special young women, friends of family and family of friends, and shared meals at two superb restaurants, one Thai, one Spanish. Met for the first time a special Facebook friend and his dogs.

5. Viewed a couple of movies in a fabulous little theatre, the Dominion, which must have pioneered comfortable seating. Good popcorn, too.

4. Experienced all four weather seasons – sometimes all in the same day.

3. Enjoyed the company of my stepdaughter for a week, including a train jaunt to Glasgow.

2. Played the oldest golf course in continuous existence using near-ancient hickory-shafted clubs and a gutta percha ball. A unique experience.

1. Discovered Scottish writers, from Sir Walter Scott (huge monument … hyuuge) to Conan Doyle to Ian Rankin – even met the role model for Rankin’s irascible John Rebus character.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Golf in a Hurricane

Hurricane-force winds. Torrential downpours. Okay, so it only rained a little. And that was after we finished. Ophelia got delayed in Ireland, I guess.

I was looking forward to some true Scottish golf weather - wind, rain, biting cold. All the elements I've seen on telecasts of the Open Championship most years ... and they play in July! The first time I played in Scotland, nearly 20 years ago at Royal Troon, it was a balmy 70 degrees with sunshine. This is Scotland? At the Old Course in Saint Andrews a few days ago, I stood in line, shivering from the cold and rain, to secure a booking; as soon as we started, the rain disappeared. Some guys were playing in shorts!

But yesterday at the North Berwick (pronounced bear-ic) Golf Club "West Links" on Scotland's East Coast, I was prepared for the worst - thermal underwear, heavy slacks, rain pants, two pairs of socks, long-sleeved shirt, heavy sweater, jacket, knit cap. I had so much on I could barely swing the club. (Shed the sweater after a few holes because all that fabric was catching on my elbows.)

The round started out promising; clouds so thick and low you could not see the small islands off the coast. In the middle of round, as we made the turn for the back nine, the wind was so strong we had to lean forward just to stand up. But then, around the 15th, the famous "Redan" design par-3 hole which has been copied the world over, the sun actually came out. (Earlier we had seen the "red sun" shimmering through the clouds that attracted so much attention in the UK.)

I hit the ball really well all day. At No. 12, a long par-4 into the wind with a blind approach, I landed it about 3 feet from the cup for a birdie. Amazingly, never ended up in any of the deep sod-faced bunkers, though there were a few close calls. I did manage to pull one shot into the North Sea. And a couple times I had to extricate the ball from the foot-long rough.

My caddie was a club member, Brian, retired from IT. His green-reading was superb. If you play any of the links courses in Scotland where there are no trees and few visual references to aim at, I strongly advise a caddie. He'll keep you out of trouble, which is everywhere on the course, and save a lot of uncertainty and frustration. Brian was spot-on with distances to the pin as well, which I assumed was local knowledge from playing the course for 40 years ... and then he showed me his GPS watch.


 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Bathroom Books, Bedroom Books, and Bus Books

We love to read, and if we're not talking or walking or watching news on TV, we're usually reading something. Computer screens frequently, either for research or keeping up with family and friends. Occasionally Kindle books.

But there's still no substitute for words on paper, a good book.

In bed, either late evening, trying to keep our eyelids open, or in the morning when we just don't want to get out of the comfort of the mattress and covers, which we have worked all night to perfect, it's usually a novel, often a crime mystery. In Scotland this month, we've both been reading an iconic local author, Ian Rankin, who is quite good, even if he does tend to wrap things up with minor characters who come late to the game with little or no foreshadowing.

On the bus, or more likely the train, it's often a mix of whatever novel we've been reading in bed (or on the couch), a free newspaper, or a magazine that caught our eye for a major article.

In the "reading room," the choices are more eclectic. Right now, in the downstairs loo, we've a choice between Bill Bryson's petulant and often humorous travels through Europe (20 years ago, but not much has really changed), a fiction-oriented magazine I suggested to D-L which turned out to be a collection of very badly written short stories,  and a recent MAD magazine, a juvenile humour favourite of mine as a teenager, which my stepdaughter kindly supplied from across the pond.

Upstairs, another Bryson on travels through the US, though I haven't gotten out of the endless-nothingness of the Midwest section. I like, though, that Bryson has "pauses," essentially sub-dividing a chapter into multiple sections, which is ideal whether your sit is short or long. The "She-Wolves" book on strong queens of England, including Eleanor of Aquataine, is more intriguing.

We've visited a couple of second-hand shoppes and bookstores, and picked up a few very cheap editions, including a copy of Rankin's first novel. A couple we'll manage to read before we fly back to Geneva, so will  leave for our gracious househost. The smaller ones should fit within the EasyJet luggage limits.

Just finished another Rankin yesterday, so need to browse the shelves again. Any recommendations?

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Bond Between Scotland, Catalonia and America

As I write this, Spanish police are cracking peoples' heads with batons and shooting them with rubber bullets in the Catalonia region. More than 300 people have already been hurt (now 460 and rising). I fear this is only the beginning of an ongoing sequence of violence in the region. Certainly there will be strikes. Vandalism. Quite likely terrorist-type attacks against the Spanish oppressors. Possible a full-scale revolution / civil war. This in a so-called democracy.

Unlike the Catalans, Scotland was "permitted" to hold a vote on independence. Then the Tory-led UK government broadcast a series of lies and held out a package of promises they never intended to keep, and the Scots sheepishly voted no. But at least they voted, even if they were not adequately informed. Now, post-Brexit, Britain's declaration of quasi-independence from the ineffectual European Union, they may call for another vote.

We recently watched the HBO series on John Adams, which focused on the US Declaration of Independence and the subsequent American Revolution from the viewpoint of my namesake (and likely ancestor, according to my brother's research). King George opted for a heavy hand, much like Spain's PM Rahoy, and it cost Georgie the colonies.

Yet, despite the obvious parallels with America's own experience, President Donald voiced support for preventing the Catalans from their right of self-determination. I suspect he has, or would like to have, business interests in Spain. I also suspect he doesn't even know where Catalonia is on the map.

We can see Catalonia from our house in the south of France. Literally, Sarah. About 10 miles to our south is the ridgeline of the Pyrennees, including the last two remaining frontier watchtowers.

If there is war in Catalonia, we can expect many of the independent-minded Catalans to come across the border seeking safety, as hundreds of thousands of their ancestors did during Spain's previous civil war in the 1930s and the repression by fascist Franco.

If Spanish Catalonia does eventually succeed in gaining independence, I wonder if the French Catalonians, our neighbours, will be inclined to join them in the new nation. Certainly there's a lot of anti-French sentiment currently over the redesignation of the region as "Occatania," which essentially ignores the Catalaness of the far south. In our village, the locals have begun adding street signs with the original Catalan names to trumpet their distinct culture.

For the near term, I think we'll avoid venturing over the border because I'm liable to tell the Spanish authorities exactly what I believe about their jackboot style of governance, and I'm sure they won't be too receptive.

Rahoy - whose administration has been highlighted by austerity measures, tax increases, and corruption - has taken the position that the Catalan referendum for independence is illegal, as ruled by their Supreme Court. But how is the desire for liberty illegal? Of what value is binding people to another country by brute force? It didn't work for George III, and I doubt the spirited Catalans will fade quietly into the night with a "well, we tried" shrug.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Walking in the Spike Marks of the Greats

Gary Player. Arnie. Jack. Seve. Tom Watson. Tiger. Lefty. Champagne Tony. Sir Nick. Sam Snead. Vardon, Taylor and Braid. Old Tom Morris.

I walked the same fairways that the giants of the game have trod for nearly 150 years. The Home of Golf. The Old Course at Saint Andrews.

Mine was a round that had a little of everything. A perfect drive and pure 7-iron over the Valley of Sin to the green on the final hole. A much less-distinguished nervous opening tee shot. From a sidehill uphill lie next to the infamous "Hell's Bunker," I punched a superb half-6-iron right at the white flag on the 4th green; unfortunately, we were playing the red-flagged 14th hole. I had my share of long, long, long putts on some of the largest double greens in the world: one was about 125 feet. On the 12th, after the other players had hit their tee shots to the right into the rough, I hit my second best drive of the day, right down the middle ... and into one of the courses' more than 100 pot bunkers. On the treacherous Road Hole, the 17th, I ended up in the enormous steep sod-faced bunker guarding the middle of the green - blasted out to about 15 feet and made the putt, though this was after my first tee shot (and my provisional) landed on someone's Old Course Hotel balcony ... my caddie, Steve, described my attempted line as "a bit too aggressive" on the blind shot over the famous sheds.

Toward the end of the round, I asked Steve if there was anything I hadn't experienced during the round. He responded, "Well, you haven't listened to your caddie yet."

Headquarters of the Royal & Ancient just before Midnight
 

Being there and finally playing on golf's hallowed ground was almost anti-climactic to the adventure of just getting to the 1st tee. As a single player, I could not reserve a tee time, nor even submit to the lottery the Saint Andrews Links Trust uses to allocate slots. My only option was to queue up at the Pavilion for when they opened in the morning. When we arrived on Sunday and asked around, the consensus advice was to be in the queue by about 3:00 am, maybe even 2:30 or 2:00. But then we learned there were only five spots available for singles on Monday. I wasn't confident that 2 o'clock would be good enough.

So with my exceedingly tolerant wife snuggled in an extremely comfortable bed in James Braid's room at the Old Course Hotel, which I barely got to use for a couple hours, I laid out my clubs and clothes and set the alarm for 11:o5 pm wakeup.

It took me about 20 minutes or so to walk in the cold rain from the hotel to the Pavilion, lighting my way with a flashlight, and I arrived at 10 minutes before Midnight. As I had hoped, I was first in line. The dream was within reach.

I thought I would be alone for a couple hours at least. I had brought a book, some nuts, cookies, water, and of course my clubs and golf shoes in case I snared an early tee time. But at two minutes to 12, Joe from Texas walked up. Not long after, Taylor from Toronto and Casey from Los Angeles arrived. Then Scooter from Austin, Number 5 for the fifth spot. Having confidence we would all almost surely get to play the Old Course, we quickly bonded and talked for the next nearly seven hours until the doors were finally opened. We talked golf and golf courses and golfers and golf equipment and the waffles or Scottish breakfast we would have once we had secured a tee time, the Highlands and haggis. It helped to forget that we were freezing and shivering, despite multiple layers of clothing (thermal undershirt and leggings, pants, rain pants, heavy long-sleeved shirt, heavy sweater, Johnson City high school hooded sweatshirt, Masters green jacket, scarf, Boston Bruins winter gloves, knit cap, APS - Advanced Performance Systems flight training golf cap, two pairs of socks, hiking boots).

After the Fab Five, people continued to come. Because we were the only ones in the front of the building near the door, many of the latercomers were surprised to learn that the queue extended around the building. One young woman came prepared with a duvet (which she had considerable difficulty stuffing back into her suitcase). At 6:30, moving lights started to appear - greens mowers. By 6:55, when we were finally allowed in, there were at least 25-30 people. Most probably did not get to play that day. Mr. Tanaka from Tokyo, whom I chatted with during the queue and saw later in the morning in the hotel shop, did not.

I could have taken the 7:15 am tee time, but I wanted to go back to the hotel and have breakfast with Donna-Lane, then to the practice range to loosen up. I took the 12:20 opening (after showing my proof of handicap). Joe got 12:40. Taylor grabbed the early spot. Not sure about Casey and Scooter because by then I was in the WC, not having had opportunity all night while guarding my No. 1 position.

I have to admit that the Old Course itself did not seem that difficult, certainly with only a light wind, and it's certainly not aesthetic (which is true of most Scottish links courses). Most of the par-four holes are not overly long. The fairways, supported by a deep underlayer of packed sand, were the firmest I have ever played, not like the soft, fluffy turf on most US courses; after a few holes, I learned to move the ball back in my stance to catch it more on the downswing. One challenge is in the hidden bunkers, at least hidden from sight from the tee boxes. I never consulted the course layout book I had purchased; Steve would tell me some bush or cloud to aim at, and I tried to hit it in that direction ... total trust, with no idea what might be in the landing area. Without a caddie, I would probably have been calculating the best distances to go over certain bunkers and short of others. The major challenge is the greens, some with severe slopes and many with double- and triple-breaking putts.

Pre-round, I had some hope of posting a good score. Now that I'm playing regularly again, my game has been improving, almost to the point of considering competitions in France. But score was really irrelevant to just being on the Old Course, perhaps the last item on my golf bucket list. Queuing up at Midnight and being first in line ... that made it as good as a Claret Jug.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Just Leave Me at a Bookstore

One of the experiences I am looking forward to by being in Edinburgh, Scotland for a month is exploring the bookstores. https://www.buzzfeed.com/chelseypippin/edinburgh-has-the-best-bookshops?utm_term=.ai6JkY2GN#.mnXGPvbR1.

In our small village in the south of France, there are no English-language bookstores (though the neighborhood bistro has a leave one / take one shelf where other anglophones offload a few titles, and there's a similar irregular setup on the nearby street started by one of our neighbors). The formal second-hand English bookshop with hundreds of titles disappeared a couple years ago with the passing of our dear friend, Barbara.

In Geneva, there's Payot, which has a good selection mostly of fiction, but it's down in the city, expensive, and we don't get there perhaps once every 3-4 months. Another option is the English Library, of which we are members; their annual used book sale is fantastic - if we happen to be in town at the time.

My daughter mentioned to me she had been in Barnes & Noble in Frisco, Texas, recently, a place I would spend hours perusing the shelves - the new titles, the magazines, history, fiction. It also helped there was a Starbucks inside ... or my favorite place, the easy chairs downstairs by the technology and sports sections.

I also loved Half-Price Books with its musty paper smell and titles that you could no longer find elsewhere.

Yes, I know, we're in the age of Amazon and Kindle, and I do download books there from time to time. But those are mostly "backup" books, something to read when I don't have a worth-reading paperback on hand. I love holding a real book, turning the pages, breaking the spine so the pages will lie more flat, bending the corner of a page to mark my place.

There are few pleasures that exceed lying in bed or sitting on the couch late at night with a well-written whodunit.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Tunnels of Life

On the drive from Geneva through Lausanne, Bern, and Basel to Colmar, France, then back via Biel/Bienne and Neuchatel, we must have passed through about 50 tunnels.

The Swiss love tunnels. There are 1,329 of them in the country, according to the Swiss Tunnel Database (https://www.swisstunnel.ch/en/tunnelling-switzerland/tunnel-database/). The longest, of course, at 57 km (35 miles), also the longest and deepest in the world, is the new Gothard Base Tunnel, a rail trail from Erstfield to Bodio. It took 17 years to build the 153,500 metres (503,608 feet) of tunnels, shafts and passages.

The tunnels we went through were long, short, curved, and sloped up and down. Kind of like the tunnels in life.

The problem when we enter a tunnel in life, a dark period, is that we don't know how long it will last, nor what we will find when we get to the end. If we get to the end. 

At times on our trip, we would exit one tunnel only to immediately enter another. And sometimes another. At one point there were five in succession in less than 2 km.

The Swiss tunnels are generally well lit, so are not as intimidating as some of the dark, dank tunnels we've been in elsewhere. They are even well marked, showing the direction to the nearest (pedestrian) emergency exit.

Quite often, as we emerged from a tunnel, we were greeted with some spectacular oooh-ahhh scenery. (A lot of that in Switzerland.)

In my life, there have been multiple tunnels - job losses, for example. Times when I didn't know when the next job might come, what it might pay, even where it might require me to be. Not knowing in the meantime whether we could keep the house, the car, or even have something decent to eat. Through most of my life, I had confidence that the jobless tunnel would end, that I would surely find the next decent position, and it often turned out the new role was ultimately better than the one I'd left. But as I got older, recognizing the age discrimination of many companies, I became less sure of the future.

Others have gone, or are going through, longer and darker tunnels than have I - the prolonged illness and eventual loss of loved ones is perhaps the worst. I've done the prolonged illness part but thankfully not the loss. I can only imagine the pain that someone suffers; it must seem like tunnel after tunnel with rare glimpses of light.

The tunnel metaphor appears frequently in literature, music, film. Swiss author Friedrich Durrenmatt's short story "The Tunnel," depicts a student who boards his usual train to the university, except the small tunnel doesn't end ... 10 minutes, 15, 20. The other passengers are blissfully calm, but the conductor is evasive, and the student learns there is no engineer in the locomotive. The story ends with the word, "Nothing," a possible commentary on the ignorance of society in the face of imminent disaster. (It was written 65 years ago.)

Or perhaps you prefer to think of movie scenes in which a train enters a tunnel just as a couple burrow beneath the sheets. We are left to our own imagination what happens in the tunnel (at least in older films). Hitch's ending in "North By Northwest" is one of the better ones: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPt-4Nwght0.

Tunnels are inevitable in life. Let's hope yours are mostly like the Noirvaux in Neuchatel (15 metres, or about 50 feet - built in 1843), and that the scenery on the other side lifts your spirits for the rest of your journey.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Nocturnalism


I am often up not only late at night but into the wee hours of the morning. It seems that's the time I write best. I can immerse myself fully in the material without phone calls or email interruptions.

During the cadence of the writing process, I occasionally take a mental break and check Facebook or the Drudge Report for news on the latest terrorist attack or political scandal.

The diversions I enjoy most, though, are messaging exchanges with my daughter or friends in the States or Canada. They're six or seven hours behind me in Europe, so when it's 2 am for me it is only 7 pm for them in Texas. I might be sitting at my desk in Geneva or Argèles sur Mer, wearing headphones as I transcribe an interview, and I'll hear a telltale 'ping' that a social media message has come in. I usually pause at the next logical stopping point, read the message, and respond. (It's my nature that if I don't respond immediately, I will get absorbed in something else and possibly completely forget about the message.)

The middle of the night exchanges reminded me of a syndicated program that used to be on the radio station where I worked in the early 70s - http://www.nightsoundsradio.org/. Bill Pearce had the most mellow voice I've ever heard, something of a white Barry White, and the program's theme song - Claude Debussy's "Beau Soir" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8mkl4kR40D8) - would almost put you to sleep, as Pearce played it for a full minute before speaking a word. Nightsounds came on very late (I checked the radio station website, and they still play it at 1030pm), and I was usually alone in the station on top of a mountain outside Syracuse NY. It was also the time of night when I, as DJ, was supposed to be playing music that had a deliberately slower pace ... though once in a while I'd slip in something upbeat (usually prompting an irate call from the chief engineer).

The sonorous Pearce died several years ago, but lives on of course in syndication. He was also an accomplished trombonist, beginning at age 10 mimicking Sousa marches and Tommy Dorsey, later playing in Marine Corp bands. ("You Needed Me" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZd9ghZV1LU). He had to give that up in the mid-90s with the onset of Parkinson's disease.

Whatever you think of Pearce's religious views, he could certainly play and he certainly had the voice of a confidant of we who are confirmed nocturnalists.

Un conseil d'être heureux semble sortir des choses.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

I Would Be Rejected By Donald Trump's Immigration Criteria

I'm not a Nobel Prize winner.

I'm not an Olympic medal winner.

I'm over 50, and I do not plan to invest at least $1.8 million (in foreign currency) in the U.S.

So Donald Trump doesn't want me in his America.

Under current White House occupant Trump's proposed RAISE Act "merit-based" immigration system, I can't muster the minimum 30 points needed to even begin the application to move to the States. Not even close. I only get 20 points - 12 points for English fluency (well, it is my native language) and 8 points for a Master's degree from a U.S. university. Oops, just noticed, the degree has to be in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. That drops me back to only 12 points total.

Some of the criteria are ludicrous.

For example, a Nobel Prize is not quite good enough by itself - only 25 points. Barack Obama gets to apply, though: 25 for the NP and 12 for English fluency.

And 15 points if you've won an Olympic medal in the past eight years? What, for the gold content of the medallion? Or so Trump can have his photo taken with you? What does winning an Olympic sports event possibly have to do with the merits of immigration and responsible citizenship?

The "meritocracy" also perpetuates the myth that a U.S. university education is inherently better than a degree from a foreign university - an extra point for the American bachelor's and master's and three bonus points for a doctorate. (Note: only three of the top 10 engineering universities in the world are in the U.S. - the others are in the UK, Switzerland, Singapore and China - https://www.topuniversities.com/university-rankings-articles/university-subject-rankings/top-engineering-schools-2017.)

At 50-plus years of age, I get zero points toward the minimum, even though Trump himself is five years older than me at 71. (Maybe he shouldn't be allowed in the country. After all, his ability in English is sadly lacking - maybe not even a "moderate" rating of six points.)

Donnie, since I don't live in the US, and I clearly don't qualify to ever be admitted (even if I came up with that $1.8M), can you please stop requiring me to pay taxes?

If you want to see if you qualify to apply to be allowed into Donald Trump's America, take the quick quiz here:
http://time.com/4887574/trump-raise-act-immigration/

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Dress Codes

This is a dueling blog. Donna-Lane's version can be found at: http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.fr/2017/05/preplanning.html.

Years ago, I read the popular book, Dress For Success, by John Molloy. I see he now has a companion book for women, as well as a blog - http://www.thedressforsuccesscolumn.com/.

I don't read any of them. Don't need to. I'm pretty much out of that corpo-rat race, except when I speak at or attend a conference. For such occasions I still keep a suit in Geneva, another in Argèles sur Mer, a blazer and slacks at each, a couple of dress shirts, and a few ties, most of which have some sentimental value. The biggest decision I have to make for such events is whether to trim my hair ... a little ... so as to not be mistaken for homeless. (I prefer Bohemian.)

The one piece of advice I remember from Molloy's book was to not wear a green suit, so I never have.

Green pants, yes, on the golf course. Green shirts, too, with Masters logos. Though not at the same time. I'd look like the spokescartoon for Green Giant veggies.

Donna-Lane will tell you she plans her wardrobe well in advance. That she doesn't get out of bed without knowing what she's going to wear - including underwear and earrings.

My approach, once I'm out of bed, is to grab some clothes to throw on the couch just before I take my shower. That's about as advance planning as I get. Sometimes I wait until after the shower to choose.

My decision tree starts with ... is it warm enough for a tee-shirt? If so, what tee-shirt is on the top of the stack? Is it big enough to hide my belly? If not, go to the 2nd shirt in the stack. If it's too cool for a tee, segue to the golf shirts or something warmer. If it's really warm, shorts instead of jeans and sandals instead of sneakers. As a bonus, I can wear the same tee-shirt to bed that night. Or nothing.

I have started to build a small collection of French language tee-shirts so I'm less anglo when walking around France and Switzerland. But I'm never giving up the now-threadbare WHWK "The Hawk" radio station shirt I've had since the 80s.