Thursday, February 22, 2018

Polite Conversation

Donna-Lane and I almost always have lunch together, at least when we're in the same place. It's an important time for us because it ensures we have an opportunity - during an otherwise busy day when we're both running in different directions - just to talk.

Our conversations range across a wide gamut - social engagements upcoming (in which I try to keep mental track of friends of hers I've met, or maybe not yet met), travel plans and travel dreams (such as our next honeymoon trip), writing projects, things that need to be done around the house, Facebook videos of cats we've laughed at, and of course politics and world affairs and our ongoing crusade against FATCA, CBT and the USG.

In the past two months, we've added several new topics of conversation: for example, the relative moistness of the crap Sherlock just took (too hard, is he constipated?: too runny, what are we giving him that's different?). When was the last time he peed, how much (D-L sometimes counts), which pole he chose, and whether he left some extra "pee-mail" messages for other neighborhood dogs to sniff. What do we need to have in the car in case he vomits on the long drive to Geneva.

We might warn each other that there's a fresh pile of shit on rue Vermeille, and it's approximate location. This is especially helpful to know for the one who has night dooty duty. (Yes, there is sometimes doggy-do on the streets of Argèles sur Mer; not every owner is conscientious - especially if their dog has diarrhea. Fortunately, the village public works comes through periodically with a power washer.)

We talk the walk, ie shouldn't we take Sherlock for a long walk/run to drain some of his excess energy so he's more likely to sleep for an extended period when he's back home. (So we can work in peace, of course.)

And we describe any encounters with other dogs - the snarling bulldogs to avoid, the friendlier pups that might be playmates. (The other day, Sherlock had a play-date with a Jack Russell terrier in an enclosed garden - they had a great time, and Sherlock was wonderfully exhausted the rest of the day.)

Yes, we still discuss all the other things that catch our interest in the villages where we live and the world around us. Let's just say Sherlock has added a few juicy new topics to our agenda.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Channeling My Dad

"Oh, for crying out loud!"

I had spilled some moccachino (coffee, chocolate, whipped cream) down the front of my shirt ... a fairly long drizzle in fact ... as we sat in the back room of La Noisette on  busy marché day.

As I wiped up the spill, I wondered briefly, where did that phrase come from? I had uttered it reflexively, almost automatically.

Of course, I realized. That's something my Dad used to say regularly. It was his way of cursing, in a sense, because he never mouthed a profanity. And when one of his five boys would use a euphemism such as "jeepers creepers," he would let us know this was unacceptable as well, borderline blasphemous.

Today, across most age groups, though it seems especially with younger people, vulgarity seems more the rule than the exception. And not just for something they don't like. Even positive comments are sprinkled with F**, S**, A**, and similar. The re-invigorated gun control movement is popularizing the phrase "We Call B*S*."

My two cents, I think profanity and vulgarity tend to diminish the message, whatever the message. It also diminishes the messenger. It's lazy language. Be a little more creative. If you want people to help carry your banner, come up with something everyone can say without cringing.

Unlike my Dad, I am not a saint when it comes to cursing. Used sparingly, though, I think it has more effect for its rarity.

The same goes for temper. If we are constantly outraged at every issue, major or minor, every day, how does someone else distinguish what is important to you? Choose your battles. And choose your words well to fight those battles.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Freedom (and Responsibility) of the Press

I started my career writing for an independent daily newspaper (the Binghamton NY Sun-Bulletin), and those days remain among my favorite time. I loved the atmosphere of the reporters' "bullpen" with writers covering politics and government, police and courts, sports and business. There was an adrenaline rush to chase the story and pull it together in time for the daily deadline. It was an era when there was a competing newspaper in town -- the despised Gannett corporate-owned Binghamton Press (for whom I would also later work - the summer they merged with the S-B).

I loved the underdog spirit of the Sun-Bulletin, the camaraderie in the newsroom. And I especially loved the printing process: working with the page makeup guys who set the lead type into the forms ... we had to be able to read upside down and backwards in order to tell them where to cut a story that ran too long. We joked that our motto was similar to the New York Times, "All the News That Fits We Print." Then the page forms would be converted into huge curved printing plates and mounted on the giant presses. When all the pages were in place, they'd push a button and the rolls of paper would whirr through the complex machine, spilling out completed and folded newspapers at the other end.

Donna-Lane and I went to see the "Pentagon Papers" movie today, and the scenes of the Washington Post newsroom, the linotype operators, and the triumph of printing an important story evoked wonderful memories for both of us. (She has a dueling blog at http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.fr/2018/02/pentagon-papers.html)

This year marks 50 years since I started my professional communications career (at age 17) and 60 since she started hers in Reading MA (at age 16).

The crux of the movie, though, was about press freedom -- whether a newspaper had a constitutional right to print information from leaked classified documents. Daniel Ellsberg, initially vilified as a traitor, came to be regarded as a brave hero for exposing the US government's decades of lies -- starting with Truman, through Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon -- about the war in Vietnam. Because of those lies, tens of thousands of American boys and Vietnamese died for nothing.
One dynamic that the movie brought out was the coziness, especially between Washington journalists and politicians. They all like to party together. So oftentimes important stories get ignored because otherwise the invitations will stop coming.

If the movie is accurate, Post Editor Ben Bradlee took the difficult but necessary position that the story should be published, the truth should be made available, against threats of jail and ruin. A somewhat shakier Katherine Graham, who inherited the newspaper from her father and husband, also made the right decision despite the contrary pressure of her male-only board who seemed only interested in their financial interests, not in freedom of the press and certainly not in the best interests of the country.

I'm afraid as I look around today, there are very few courageous journalists who are willing to write the truth and damn the consequences. Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras come to mind - the ones whom Edward Snowden sought out when he revealed the sinister inner workings of the NSA.

Most editors and journalists today seem more focused on pushing an agenda, whether right or left, and they ignore any evidence that does not support their viewpoint and trumpet the flimsiest of unnamed source innuendo that will help sell papers or generate clicks.

We hear a lot about "fake news," and it's certainly out there. But that does not justify the moves being taken by Facebook, Google, and others to stifle those voices with which they disagree. If we are only spoon-fed the news the government or the megamedia corporations want us to hear, then it's all essentially fake and biased.

I am predisposed to be cynical about almost anything I read or here, regardless of source. I am especially annoyed when reading so-called news which offers no hard facts to support the sensationalized headline. Time permitting, I will call out such journalistic weakness on social media ... and some of you will presume in such a challenge that I am opposed to or supportive of the person about whom the baseless allegations are made. Nothing to do with that person - I just despise shoddy journalism.

Even though we knew the outcome, the Supreme Court decision in favor of a free press was an emotional moment in the movie. Maybe it almost brought me to tears because of the nostalgia for a time when some press still had backbone.

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.