Friday, July 31, 2009

St. Quentin la Poterie

There must be something in the water here. Every village we stop at seems to be teeming with artists and artisans. Even Madame Bèrard, our landlady, is an artist. Her creations are exceptional. In fact, she made most of her own serving dishes as well as all the paintings hanging in our apartment. Now she is taking on sculpting, with the help of some lessons at Chusclan's own art studio.

If you're not as talented, you can visit a town with over 20 pottery studios. St. Quentin la Poterie is a typical enclave of creative minds. The town itself even features several public art pieces, including the pictured mosaic. Bring your credit card, however. Beauty doesn't come cheap, even here in France.

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Tour de France

When I heard that the Tour de France was coming near our home, I knew this was an event not to be missed. The 20th and last meaningful leg before the victory lap along the Champs Elysees challenged the riders to climb 1800m to the summit of Mt. Ventoux. Since we can see the "Giant of Provence" from Chusclan, I didn't think we'd have a problem finding the perfect vantage point on race day.

In the days leading up to the event, it seemed that the country was getting race fever. An unexpectedly large crowd had already assembled at the lunar-like mountain summit. The only road leading to the top was closed 48 hours before the race was even set to begin. Carefully reviewing the tour map, we decided that plan-B would take us to one of the small villages just before the grand ascent began.

We gave ourselves about four hours to reach the race and find a suitable spot. Although our destination was seemingly nearby, Mapquest suggested a two hour drive. We knew there would be lots of winding roads through the foothills of the mountain. However, we were surprised to find numerous villages perched on rocky outcroppings. Our final destination, Brantes, was one such quaint village built into the side of a steep hill.

Continuing up a narrow winding road, we knew we were getting close to the tour route when makeshift overflow parking lots were found in farmers' fields. After re-applying sun screen and digging our sandwiches out of the cooler, we hiked the last half-kilometer to the course. On the way, we could hear children shouting and horns being sounded. Could we have been too late?

Rushing up to the road, we saw a fast moving parade of vehicles decked out with the tour sponsors' logos. And they were passing out free stuff! We quickly found a position along a bend in the road and joined in the cheers, hoping to come away with some of the swag. The vehicles were moving fast, so you had to react quickly to the flying freebies. On several occasions, my kick save was just a little too slow. All I managed to snag was a cheap noise-maker and a newspaper. Mary Ann and her Mom walked away with the grand prize, a cap with red polka-dots from Carrefour, an hyper-marché chain (kinda like Meijers).

Long after the sponsors had moved on, people continued cheering for every car that passed along the route - no doubt hoping for more free stuff. For more than an hour various tour officials, team representatives and members of the press corps were shuttled along the course in the official sponsor cars. Occasionally, the gendarmerie, a special national police force, would drive by imploring spectators to stand back from the road. This worked for about 5 seconds, before everyone moved in again, angling for position.

Just when we couldn't take the wait any longer, a vehicle with flashing lights and a large banner could be seen in the distance. Around the next curve, we could make out about a dozen trailing dots. This was the lead pack. I prep'd my camera and waited for the glorious moment. One snap shot and then... they were gone. I couldn't believe how fast they were moving. General estimates suggested an average speed of 40 km/hr, but that included steep inclines. On our straight-away, it was hardly enough time to pick out individuals. Was Lance in that group? We wouldn't find out until the nightly news.

Then we waited again. Where was the Peloton? I thought that they would still be fairly close by at this point in the race, well before the epic climb to the mountain top. Ten minutes later, or so it felt, a far larger group could be seen advancing in the distance. This time I was prepared to take a video. They came around the curve equally fast. Intently focused on the road ahead, the riders looked more mechanical than human, like mighty pistons driving their bikes forward. Some teams could be seen riding together by virtue of their brightly colored shirts. Mary Ann asked what team Lance Armstrong belonged to; before I could answer, all 150 riders had passed. The whole sequence took about 25 seconds.

The train of team cars mounted with bike racks followed shortly behind. Finally, A simple banner car noting the end of the race let everyone know it was time to head back home. We had hoped for another round of freebies, but the masses descending back down to their cars let us know that there would be no more.

Letting the town clear out, we found a restaurant with a beautiful terrace, ate an afternoon snack and reflected on the event we had witnessed. The moment of exhilaration may have been fleeting but the day will stand as one of my favorites so far in France.

View more of my photos of Brantes and the Tour de France on Flicker.
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Thursday, July 30, 2009


Far from being the magical times described in countless fantasy stories, the medieval era was more remarkable for the savagery displayed by roaming bands of heavily armed bandits and and equally greedy warlords. Many common people were forced off of their land and forced to live in villages for protection from bandits or for extortion by castellans. In many cases, these enclaves were built on the peaks hills. A drive through rural France reveals several of these medieval cities.

Today, these villages leverage their hilltop locations as tourist destinations. La-Roque-sur-Ceze is one of the most picturesque examples. The 3€ parking fee no doubt pays for a good deal of the city's operating expenses. The cobblestone streets are kept immaculately clean, while the homes appear to be kept in order by wealthy artisans. The peak of the hill appears to be a massive private residence - fit for a duke of course.

Another tourist attraction is located down the river, past the one-way-only 12th century stone bridge. Here the Cèze river descends through a series of cascades. Because of the porous bedrock, sharp chasms have been opened up by the falling water. Slightly further down river, more weathered areas of rock result in a series of hydraulic chutes and whirlpools. Although signs warn repeatedly of under-toes and unpredictable water levels, this area is a favorite of fearless kids.

On the day we arrived, the small canyon was teeming with people. Although an approved beach area is located in an official safe area of the river, the waterfalls and canyons hold the most attraction. Next time I'll be wearing my bathing suit too.

View more of my photos of La-Roque-sur-Cèze on flickr.
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Is there an art to wine tasting? The French seem to think so. Being able to pick the right wine for the occasion is a matter of pride. Local wines, however, always seem to have the leg up on the competition.

Chusclan is home to many award-winning vintages. Most of the villages in our region belong to the Côte du Rhone AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée). This means that the types of grapes used, the aging process and even the way the grapes are grown are all closely monitored by an independent organization. In theory, this promotes consistent quality and adherence to the traditional customs of the region. For this reason, you will not find many sweet wines in this area.

Don't worry. The wines are still smooth and fruity. Rosé is a traditional specialty, but we've been very impressed with the Rouge. And that's really saying a lot coming from Mary Ann. Of course, you'll have to find your own favorites.

For that, the local wine cooperative is fully stocked and ready for tastings. The cave is the only retailer in the village that is open seven days a week and maintains consistent hours. And you can usually count on someone being able to speak near-fluent English to help you through the process. On my first visit to the Cave, with my Mother in law, we tasted four rouge and two rosé wines. The final selection in each flight was a clear winner.

We each walked away with two bottles of wine. Why stop there? The price for the quality is super cheap. Our most expensive 2004 vintage rouge titled, "Excellence" was less than 8€. The French sometimes complain about the prices, but they have no concept of what these wines are going for in the States. Then again, when wine is cheaper than water, you'll indulge enough to make up the difference.
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Tuesday, July 28, 2009


We were lured to Alés by the promise of a large outdoor market - so noted on our trusty markets of le Gard list. Alas, we were misled. There was only a small indoor farmers market. It was far less than we have come to expect.

Having already explored the major regional cities of Orange, Nîmes and Avignon, Alés was a bit of a disappointment. As a tourist destination, it's more significant only as a launching point for trips into the Cévennes area, referring to a low mountain range in central France. We noticed a significant difference in the geography from our current home closer to the Rône.

On the day we visited, the pedestrian shopping streets seemed a bit small while still less than filled. We (my mother in law and I) did manage to do quite well at the stores however. This is the season for soldes (sales in French). A set length of time in which the stores can run their best sales is dictated by the government. The trick is to find the optimum time when stores have lowered prices to their best offers but the merchandise has not been totally depleted. I left the city with three new shirts and a fall jacket for around 50€.
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Monumental Architecture

What motivates a property owner, developer or government agency to endeavor to construct a monumental structure - one that they hope will be recognized as an architectural achievement. In part, it's an exercise in egotism similar to the Pharohs' competition to build the most magnificent pyramid or Napoleon's Arc de Triomphe (itself a copy of a fairly common Roman practice). This question is uniquely addressed in The Edifice Complex, a book by Deyan Sedjic. However, immediate tangible benefit is also assumed a byproduct of such structures. The Pharohs improved their chances of ascending to the afterlife and conquerers have long needed symbols of their authority.

In modern times, the benefit is frequently as simlple as marketing. Landmark buildings can be easier to lease; they can promote tourism to a city or region; they symbolize the strength of the organization.

Increasingly, it seems that spectacular strutures are being designed for infrastructure projects. The crowd-pleasing aesthetic of the cable-stayed bridge has resulted in a quick embrace of this bridge type for long spans. However, this topic entered my mind as I was standing in the train station at the Lyon-St. Exupery airport. Envisioned as a gateway into France's Côte du Rhone and Alpes regions, the complex links the airport to France's high-speed (TGV) rail system.

The structure was designed by Santiago Calatrava, also famous for the station hall in Lucerne, Switzerland and Turning Torso in Malmö, Sweeden. The structure features two massive fans projecting outward from the center of the structure like the wings of a bird about to take flight. Inside, the resulting structural ribs create an interesting symmetric asthetic - like you're seeing the skeletal structure from within a massive flying creature.

While the use of expressed structure clearly pleases my sense of structural beauty, the other part of my engineer's brain wonders about the cost-benefit analysis of such a structure. Clearly, additional cost was involved. The information boards in the great hall even boast that no two steel segments are identical. Could the function of linking an airport to a train station been achieved more efficiently: yes. Is the additional aesthetic effort worth it? That's a question for the ages.

View more monumental structure on the IABSE Photo Contest of Structure website.
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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Who Moved My Cheese

Cover of "Who Moved My Cheese?: An Amazin...Cover via Amazon

While waiting in the airport for my connecting flight back to France, I spent some time in the bookstore. On long flights, I become an obsessive reader. With 12 hours to kill, there plenty of time to dig into a good book or two or three. Sometimes, you don't even need to leave the bookstore before finishing the important parts.

Such was the case, when I picked up Who Moved My Cheese by Spencer Johnson. The premise is simple. Two mice and two "little people" live in a maze. Each day the creatures go out in search of cheese. Eventually, both sets find a large store of cheese. The little people move closer to the cheese and establish a life revolving around the cheese. The mice, on the other hand, never take the cheese for granted.

One day the cheese is gone. The mice simply pick up and go out in search of more, but the people have become too attached to this place. They complain and implore the heavens to restore the cheese that had sustained them. Eventually, one of the people gathers the courage to go back out into the maze to look for more cheese. Along the way, he scribbles down some cheezy life lessons. Finally, after a period of adversity, he finds a new and more impressive store of cheese. The other person, we suspect, never does learn his lesson and wastes away his days dreaming of a life lost.

The morals are simple: do not become complacent; be proactive when change occurs; adversity provides an opportunity for growth. Basic as these principles may be, they are excellent advice for the current place and time. Many people in America had grown complacent with their lives and when the economic crisis hit home, people did not have the will to adapt. Instead, many blame outside sources, like immigrants and international competition. Many of these complaints are amplified by irresponsible media and counter-productive political messages.

Now on my second extended relocation out of the county, I feel like I've gained more of an international perspective on the economy. In order to take productive steps out of recession, I believe Americans need to understand the nature of the maze that they live in.

First, there is plenty of cheese to go around. Although there are many other people in the maze with them, they're not all adversaries. Recently I've been confounded to hear people talk so negatively about the Chinese. "Made in China" afforded middle class American access to cheap consumer products. The "cheese" of industrial jobs was not removed over night. The outsourcing of many industries was an arrangement that many were fine with, up until the market melt down. We felt that America was moving on to a more stable post-industrial economy - and so it still is.

Now is the time to embrace change. In November, a voting majority was committed to a new direction. What has happened? Now is not the time to turn our backs on green house gas pollution control. Now is not the time to delay health care reform. Like the little people in the maze, Americans are loathe to accept the very change that they ushered in (don't forget that the housing crisis is a home-grown problem). The US has the intellect and the capacity for productivity to usher in a new green industry, we just need the kick-in-the-pants that might come from cap and trade legislation.

Likewise, the US can and should reform its health care system to provide equally for all men, women and children. Is that not a moral perogitive of this country? Look internationally for effective options for reform. Health care in France and Denmark is laughably less expensive. An international insurance policy for visitors is pennies compared to a commercial US plan. It's simpler and more effective (life expectancy in France is two years longer than the US). Why is socialism a bad word? Why can't we try what works elsewhere?

The reports that I hear from the US increasingly frustrate me. I cannot even reconcile the beliefs of some friends and family. The US needs to wake up and go looking for new cheese.
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My Best Friend's Wedding

No distance or cost would have kept me from returning to the States last weekend for my friend, Mark Claar's wedding. We became friends in the 4th grade were close through high school and beyond. Mark was notorious for introducing me to new and dangerous activities, including ice hockey, mountain biking, and repelling from large oak trees. If it had not been for his encouragement, I probably wouldn't have joined the soccer team or run track either.

As it turns out, we made quite the team. In our freshman year, Bad Axe High School fielded its very first soccer team. We finished with a record of 1-10, including one loss to a school for the deaf. In a real Disney-movie-like reversal of fortunes, we finished 15-2 just three years later. Mark and I were the starting defensive full-backs for all four years.

Soccer, however, was really just an off-season training opportunity for Mark. His true love was hockey. He convinced me to join the recently formed local league even though I couldn't even skate. We played in the horse barn at the county fairgrounds. Instead of plexiglass boards and glass barriers, the rink was framed by stiff timber planks and chicken wire. We won the league championship one year on successive sudden-death penalty shots by Mark and myself. I was lucky, he was good.

When a traveling league hockey "career" failed to take off, Mark re-committed himself to track and a lifelong dream to set the school record in the 110 hurdles. By the conclusion of the State Track meet, he held three school records. I was along for the ride in the mile relay. Today, the record stands, and I consider it one of my greatest accomplishments in life. Academics and marching band always came easy to me, but I really had to work hard to succeed in athletics.

I believe that my personal drive to succeed was a product of those teams that Mark and I competed on. He encouraged me to find courage and strength in whatever endeavors we undertook. I may still be a nerd, but at least I can hold my own on the soccer field.

Thank you, Mark for helping me become the person that I am today. Congratulations! I'm sure Nancy will help me return the favor and whip you into shape.
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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Customer Engineering

Last week I made another trip across the Atlantic to attend a friend’s wedding in North Carolina. A lousy flight plan took me from Lyon, through layovers in London and Chicago, to Charlotte. Along the way, I realized that I need a haircut and hoped to find a barbershop while waiting for connecting flights. This launched me on a wild goose chase that gave me plenty of time to ponder the inner workings of a major international airport.

My flight from France pulled up to terminal-five of London Heathrow Airport. At the gate, I asked an airport attendant where in the airport could find a barbershop. I eschewed typical male pride hoping that by asking for directions I could avoid a lengthy meandering quest through one of the world’s largest airports. The supposedly knowledgeable staff sent me to terminal three.

The waiting area at London Heathrow airport's ...Image via Wikipedia

For passengers not yet repatriated through customs, a special bus network shuttles between the various terminals. From the bus you can peer into the maintenance and baggage claim back rooms tucked into the lower levels, typically inaccessible to the public. A complex system of machinations could be seen to deliver luggage to the proper destination.

As I pulled up to the next terminal, I began to feel that luggage may not be the only thing carefully distributed around the airport. In fact, the airport is likewise designed to securely and efficiently move passengers between gates, through checkpoints and to different terminals. Bucking the trend, say in search of a haircut, is to risk falling off the conveyor to your next flight.

At terminal three, I was informed that there was no barber or salon, but terminal one was bound to have what I was looking for. I again boarded the behind-the-scenes tour and moved on. Beginning to feel a bit like human luggage, I noticed an important looking door titled “customer engineering.” That either confirmed by suspicions or indicated a secret lab attempting to create a serum enabling travelers to put up with excessive delays, lost luggage, and wild goose chases for airport services. By the way, there was no barber at terminal one either.

Returning to my departure terminal un-coiffed and hungry, I sat down for lunch at Yo-sushi. In keeping with the theme, a la carte sushi dishes were served via conveyor. The belt snaked around the tables and customers were instructed to take whatever they liked. Dishes were color coded by price to keep things easy for the wait staff. Like eager travelers at baggage claim, everyone wanted to be nearest the kitchen. The best selections rarely made it all the way down the line.

Passing through a modern airport is an engineered experience. Baggage, food and even passengers are conveyed by various means to their destination. Efficiency and accuracy are variable, but irregularities in the system, like someone striking out to find a non-existant barber, fare less well than the norm.
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Friday, July 24, 2009

Another Epic - Interlaken

With our appetite for adventure whetted by the trip to the summit of Pilatus in Luzern, Roxy (dog) and I endeavored to blaze new Alpine trails at our final Swiss stop, Interlaken. Fortunately, the Interlaken Ost train station is the launching point of hundreds of day trips in the Jungfrau Alps. A system of conventional train lines, cog-wheel trains and cable cars convey visitors up 11,333 ft to the "Top of Europe." It's not really - Mt Blanc, at 15,780 ft holds the true title.

We set our sights a bit lower (and cheaper). Our itinerary took us from Interlaken (1860 ft) to Lauterbrunnen (2612 ft) by conventional deisel train. From there, we boarded a cog-wheel train to Wengen (4180 ft). The final leg brought us to Männlichen (7317 ft) by cable car. From this high point, we hiked across the back slope of the Lauberhorn peak to Kleine Scheidegg (6762 ft). It's from this outpost that you could catch the train to the "Top of Europe."

Despite all of the changing modes of transportation, we made the trip quite smoothly. It hleps that the intire Jungfraubahn system is coordinated with the timeless efficiency of the Swiss. Each train ran on time. Which is not to say that the trip was without stressful bolts to make the departure times. Serenity dominated for the most part, save only for a relentlessly crying baby on the train to Lauterbrunnen.

The steep ascents by cogwheel train were provided some of the most beautiful views. We had the perfect anlge to snap photos of a picturesque mountain village situated below a tall spring-fed waterfall. Roxy's favorite part, however, was receiving treats from the conductor on the way up to Wengwald.

It's not until rising up above the tree line via cable-car that you truely understand the scale of the Swiss Alps. Now over 1.5 hours into our journey, we could gaze down at the villages that we had traveled through and remark, "they're not all that high up." After exiting the cable car, I unleashed Roxy, and we began running up to the Männlichen lookout. Roxy, oblivious to the need to preserve energy for the up coming 2 hour hike, frolicked up and down the grassy slopes of the mountain.

Fortunately, most of our hike was slightly downhill. From the trail along the backside of the Tschuggen peak, we faced a wall of incredibly tall mountains comprised of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau peaks. It was a truely awe-inspiring monolith. At points along the trail, we encountered the final remaining patches of snow - nothing compared to the year-round glaciers on the Jugfrau peak. I was comfortable in shorts and a T-shirt.

Roxy loved her freedom along the mountain trail. She thoroughly enjoyed stopping to smell the wild mountain flowers. Despite all of her botanical investigations, she maintained a roughly consistent 20 ft distance from me. If I stopped to take a picture, she would turn around, as if to impatiently urge me to continue forward. She was also a hit with the other hikers. One Asian couple even posed for pictures with Roxy.

By the time we made it to Kleine Scheidegg and sat down for lunch, Roxy was exhausted. While I enjoyed a goulash soup with rye bread and a local lager, Roxy slept under the table. Even the view from the Grindewaldblick restaurant was incredible. I took some time to reflect on our journey thus far.

Rising from lunch, we hurried to catch the train back down the mountain. Nearby, local goats greeted the visitors. If we had enough time, we might have cought another train to the "top of Europe" from this point. A visitor center and meteorological station mostly carved inside the mountain gives visitors the chance to experience perpetual winter. The protruding lookout platform is called the sphyx for its architecture. From our departure point, it was just a spec on the mountain ridge.

Returning quickly down the other side of the mountain, we passed through the town of Grindlwald. Here, I finally bought some Swiss chocolate. We didn't have much time to savor the chocolate bars, as the summer heat was already melting them by the time we sat down on another train. With Roxy passed out in the aisle of the train and me trying to lick melted chocolate out of the wraper, we slowly made our way back to Interlaken Ost and where our journey had begun.

View more of my Interlaken photos on Flickr.
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Thursday, July 23, 2009

ATM - Automatic Teller Misery

Not everything about our trip to Switzerland was a walk in the mountains, as it were.

IMG 054Image by chisno via Flickr

Switzerland is expensive. The use of the Swiss Franc currency, which it trading favorably against both the dollar and Euro, makes things deceptively more costly. So while you can expect to be understood speaking most European languages in Switzerland, don’t expect to use your Euros.

Inconveniently, the Swiss ATMs appear only to issue bills in 100 SwF tender (roughly equal to $90). You can expect some disapproving looks from small shop keepers when attempting to break these bills. I learned the hard way that automated parking garage tellers do not accept the bills.

Upon arriving in Luzen, the only available public parking was in a downtown garage. Cost was roughly equivalent to downtown Chicago. When we learned that street parking was free at nights and on Sundays, it became my unenviable task to move the car. First, I had to retrieve it from the garage.

The garage’s automatic teller did not accept any of my credit cards, so I had to find an ATM. Returning with a 100 Swf bill, my attempts to pay the parking fee were again rejected. My hotel was able to make change, but this sequence of events took at least half an hour and by then, the parking fee had increased.

I then spent the next hour or so driving around the city looking for an open street space. This adventure took me the wrong way down several one-way streets and to the “nicest” areas of town. Still, no luck on a busy Saturday night. Dejected, I pulled back into another parking garage. This was my least favorite moment of the trip.

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Switzerland is an example of the benefits of diversity. While larger nation, like the US and France, entrench themselves in a singular identity and language, the Swiss have adopted four official languages. These include French, English and German. Crossing through the central mountain ranges between Geneva and Luzern, road signs and architectural styles suddenly changed from French to German. But throughout the country, you can be easily understood speaking any one of the three main languages.

The German culture is the norm in Luzern. The lager is decidedly German and so are the boisterous evening crowds. It appears to be custom for a crowd of drunk men, following a ring-leader dressed as the village idiot (perhaps wearing a watermelon helmet or being pushed in a baby’s pram) who spends the night attempting to sell flowers to unsuspecting tourists. The revelry reaches it’s height at one of the nearby pubs.

Amid this scene, we searched for a table along the decidedly picturesque midtown river. A scenic covered bridge bisects the river. Beautiful Alpine peaks provide a romantic backdrop for the city. The dichotomy of candle lit dinners and broken beer steins seems perfectly normal.

In the morning, we embarked on a five hour voyage to the summit of the nearest mountain, known locally as Pilatus, the red dragon. The trip began by boat. We were ferried across lake Luzern. Less developed than lake Geneva’s shores, the rustic hillside was still home to hundreds of cozy-looking chalets. I was reminded of a previous trip through Oslo Fjord.

One by See (German for lake), two by cog wheel train – the second leg of our trip. I’m not exactly what defines a cog-wheel train, but I do know that they are used to climb steep slopes. The one up the back face of Pilatus is the steepest train of its type in Switzerland. The car, even when docked in the station, was constructed on a 45 degree diagonal, so that the seats would be comfortably level while ascending the slope. As we climbed steadily into the serene and surreal mountain landscape the hustle and bustle of Luzern seemed a distant memory.

Even Roxy, our dog, was relaxed. She was able to join us for all legs of the trip up Pilatus – boat, train, cable car and ski lift, no problem in pet-loving Switzerland. I’m not sure if she was more impressed by the amazing panoramic from the top of the mountain or the curiously clanging cows high up on the mountainside.

Two hotels and several restaurants provide hospitality at the summit of Pilatus. Several short hikes up to lookout platforms are worth the effort. One even leads through tunnels in the rocky mountain top. Roxy practically pulled me up the slick stone steps, welcome assistance on the way up – not so helpful coming back down. We ate lunch at the summit and then descended via cable car back down to the city of Luzern.

The voyage was successful. Surrounded by beauty, it’s easy to see how such disparate culture call Switzerland home.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Further along the north shore of Lake Geneva, the city of Lausanne stands in sharp contrast to Geneva. Although prices were no less steep, the city was bustling with pedestrians. A lunch time conversation with a local confirmed the obvious, Lausanne boasts a diverse and vibrant population.

Lausanne is constructed on a series of terraces with sharp elevation changes. It's easy to become disoriented and exhausted walking up and down the streets. The exercise required by pedestrians parallels the city's proud disticntion of housing the permanent home of the International Olympic Committee.

Sadly, we only had time to grab lunch in Lausanne. View more photos of Lausanne on Flickr.
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Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Where are all the people? That's my most lasting impression of Geneva. Sure the city is beautiful, situated on the shores of Lake Geneva and surrounded by extraordinarily expensive cottages. However, I was expecting a more vibrant city on a Saturday morning.

Perhaps the lull is a side effect of the recession. During our trip to Switzerland, we learned that tourism in the country is down over 10% this summer. Despite the diminished number of visitors, prices remain extremely high for hotels, for food, for everything. Apparently the Swiss Commerce agency has even invested in cost consultants. I can imagine the advice, "lower your prices."

And who really needs a $1,000 watch or a pocket knife with a laser pointer, jump drive, and fish de-boner (this from the Swiss Army cyber warfare and fishing department).

The best way, and surprisingly most affordable, way to see Gevena is by boat. The short trip begins with an up close and soggy view of the city's most impressive landmark, le jet d'eau. This is the world's tallest water fountain, reaching heights in excess of 300 ft. It serves as the harbor of Geneva's colossus.

The city is most well known as a meeting place for diplomats. From the boat, many mansions in which ex-presidents and foreign dignitaries have stayed while negotiating critical treaties. The United Nations' European home is also visible from the water. The structure is, however, much less architecturally significant than it's US counterpart.

View more photos of Geneva on Flickr.
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Wednesday, July 15, 2009


An International freeway sign, found mainly in...Image via Wikipedia

French freeways are anything but free. The route from our place to Llyons, about a two and a half hour drive, costs around $25 each way. Continuing on to Paris costs another $50. And that’s before speeding tickets.

Seriously, you might as well include that as a fixed cost. There are no highway patrols looking for speeders. Instead every car is automatically clocked by a high-tech system of cameras and radar guns. The bill comes in the mail, even if you’re driving a rental car! We discovered this first hand. Fortunately, Mary Ann was the first to be ticketed – a whopping $125 for going 138 km/hr in a 110 zone.

The result of all these fundraisers is an immaculate highway system. The autoroute is largely devoid of potholes. Even at speeds well above the limit, the ride is very smooth – making it all that much more difficult to stay under. Even on a road trip to Switzerland, the highway was in excellent condition. It featured dozens of viaducts and tunnels winding through the French Alps.

I suspect that another motivation for the high fees is to discourage people from driving. The TGV, bullet train, makes the trip from Avignon to Lyons to Paris in less than half the driving time, but apparently people need even more persuasion to take the public transportation. From the standpoint of lowering carbon emissions, it also makes good sense to attach these user fees. In Britain, high polluting cars are taxed at purchase, but I think its more fair to manufacturers and consumers to charge the usage.

Despite the high fees, the French autoroute has nearly the same nostalgic effect as America’s expansive interstate. It takes you where you want to go and provides beautiful scenery along the way.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Internet Woes

Orange is also the new commercial name for France Telecom, the nationalized phone and internet provider. This institution is much less impressive than the Roman architecture in the city of Orange. It has been a two-month long struggle to get service to our apartment. In their latest salvo of incompetence, our internet was disconnected due to an error in our service profile.

The problems began immediately, when Mary Ann informed the store clerk that she could not register for a full year-long contract. Then we waited and waited for the technician to show up and wave his magic wand. We waited again for the connection to start, until Mary Ann returned to the store and learned that they forgot to schedule the service initiation. Even after that mistake, the store clerk announced that it would be another 10 days.

Sadly, this story continues. A miscommunication about home computer installation (you know, like Geek Squad, “this is a mouse…”) resulted another cancellation of service to be scheduled without our knowledge. So today, Mary Ann was back in the Orange store trying to explain the situation. Their solution: set us up as new customers and repeat the entire process. The best possible scenario is internet in 10 days.

As a result, my blogs over the next few weeks are going to be intermittent. I’ll have to go to McDonald’s for their free internet. Yes, I’d like internet with that.

Orange Theater

The city of Orange is home to the most complete Roman theater in all of Europe. In fact, only two other Roman theaters in the world can boast of having a similarly preserved stage wall – the backdrop for any production performed on stage. The theater of Orange miraculously avoided destruction by a series of foes, including: the Christians who frequently destroyed any symbol of Roman paganism, the Visegoths rampaging through the Western Empire, and Mother Nature.

The condition of the theater today is the result of continuous renovation that began in the late 19th century. The latest addition is a modern roof over the stage. In antiquity a wooden roof would have cantilevered over the stage. Long sheets of linen would also be draped across the entire seating semi-circle. The restoration efforts attempt to recreate for theater patrons the experience shared by the Romans.

The events currently hosted by the theater differ significantly from those that would have been most popular during the golden years of the Empire. Symphonies and Operas now rule the theater, but mime would have been most prevalent in the second century A.D. Contrary to our definition of mime, some dialogue was permitted, but the shows were mostly about spectacle: elaborate costumes, “special effects,” action and slapstick comedy. The shows became increasingly outrageous until degrading into pornography. At which point, the Emperor Justinian, whose wife had been an actress, banned mime productions.

The degradation of theater morality is especially ironic, because early Roman leaders were fearful that institutionalized leisure would make the populous lazy and unruly. They partially attributed the Greek’s love of theater to the downfall of Hellenic Empire. For several centuries, Roman theater productions were only permitted to be performed on temporary stages with no seating for guests.

Eventually, the Roman Emperors realized that theater provided a means of indoctrinating conquered peoples into Roman culture and distracting them from thoughts of revolt. It’s highly symbolic that a sculpture of the Emperor looms large in a niche directly over the center of the stage. Within 100 years of the defeat of the Gauls, the residents of Orange had almost entirely accepted Roman language, culture and governance.

The Roman culture and technical achievements would have been highly attractive to many indigenous populations. That is in part why the Pax Romana lasted as long as it did. It also gives some historic perspective to the fear of native cultures in the US and elsewhere that the American Consumer culture will overwhelm local customs. It’s striking, and a bit scary, how many American brands are available in France.

McDonald’s may have kicked off the trend; now, even Starbucks is available. Supermarchés, like Meijers, are springing up outside cities. The French even had to pass a law requiring radio stations to play at least 40% French language music (the balance is typically English). And for the first time, we’ve seen obese French. Locally, this is blamed on the new availability of processed foods so common in American diets.

Once again, it’s fascinating to me how ahead of their time the Roman’s were. The technical achievement of constructing the Theater of Orange is no less impressive than today’s architectural gems. And the cultural warfare conducted through these edifices is eerily similar to America’s goal to win the hearts and minds of the people in whose countries we wage war. The old adage that history repeats itself rings true after a visit to Orange’s ancient theater.

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This work by Ken Maschke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.