Saturday, September 12, 2015

What Happens in France . . .

Some more random experiences from our recent trip to France.

Prior to going to France, we didn't know if our apartments would have soap or not, so Stephanie decided to bring a little with us. Why buy more when you can save money using what you already have, right? Well maybe we sometimes go a little overboard with our efforts to conserve a few pennies. I don't think of us as cheapskates, it's just that if we save money on the little stuff—like darning holy socks—then we can afford the big stuff—like a night out at the Costco Food Court.

Rather than taking an entire soap bar, Stephanie instead found some decorative soap carved into a flower. What else are you going to use something like that for? Sure enough, our second apartment had no soap. I dutifully retrieved the flower and started lathering up in the shower. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that it wasn't regular soap. Instead it turned into Play Dough when wet. It instantly stuck to my skin like a plaster sarcophagus. It was like the spray-on shoes in Cloudy Without Meatballs, except I had it everywhere, and it pretty much took a putty knife to remove. But I did smell like flowers afterwards. Sometimes cheapness doesn't pay.

It's somewhat mandatory to see the Mona Lisa if you go to France. And that means a trip to the Louvre Museum—and of course getting there before the crowds do. We got up very early one morning to catch an early metro to the museum district. We entered the museum from the secret, hidden door in the underground metro stop. We rushed through the mall and after a few wrong turns, ended up about tenth in line at the security screening, ready for the doors to open. We'd done great so far, but still had to get through security, past the ticket checker, and find our way to the special hall dedicated to Mrs. Lisa.

As soon as the gates pulled open, we set off at full speed. We clawed our way upstairs and flashed our passes at the ticket station. I navigated with the map while Stephanie threw elbows. We finally made it to the Grand Gallery, dashed through the hall, and ended up in fourth place, standing in front of the most famous painting in the world.

Taking a picture of people taking pictures of a picture
And were we ever disappointed! She really isn't much to look at. Her colors are all faded, she's quite small, her smile looks forced, and she's behind a wall of reflective glass that makes it impossible to take a good photo. So we just started laughing that we'd basically just committed several crimes and got there first to see something so underwhelming. The others there all laughed with us. It was like we'd just scored a major victory and our prize was a pack of Pez. So we turned around and took pictures of everyone else taking photos of Mona. That was more entertaining.

As we headed towards the airport on our last day in France, a giant flying insect attacked our train car. Not from the outside—that would have been okay. Rather, it emerged from an A/C vent near Stephanie's head and flew around the inside. It was a bee, about two centimeters long. And it flew very fast. Each time it dive bombed towards a group of passengers, they'd all scream and duck, in that order. Thankfully, it headed towards the far end of the car. Within minutes, though, it swung back around for a second run.

It soared straight for Stephanie again, just missed her, then hid behind our chair. The only thing worse than a giant bee you can see is one you can't. We leaped from our chairs as the whole train watched with horror. The bee slowly crawled out from behind the bench and stared us down. Not wanting to lose the advantage, I switched to offense and pounced with my shoe. A collective gasp sounded throughout the car and everyone held their breath while I stood away to assess the damage. It was down, but not out. I had to squish twice more to complete the kill. Finally, it was finished. So we all pulled out our phones and took pictures of the valiant dead bee.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Ministry, Monarchy, and Military

I'm in the Latin Quarter of Paris right now, sitting in a two thousand-year-old Roman coliseum and watching kids play football in the same spot where gladiators fought lions in the first century A.D. I wonder if the kids know that. This is right across the street from our apartment, and was an unexpected find when we arrived.

We've spent the past few days wandering around Paris and visiting both the touristy and the "true Parisian" spots. I've come away with an interesting impression: the history of France is characterized by the power of ministry, monarchy, and military. I'm sure France is not alone in this.

A Notre Dame Gargoyle
The great Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris shows the power of the ministry. I'm absolutely awestruck by the incredible workmanship of a building that's withstood eight hundred fifty years of wars and weather. The architecture outside and the artwork inside are humbling. We climbed up to the bell tower and petted the very gargoyles from the Disney movie. I'm sure of it. But like the cathedral in Rouen, again I'm left wondering if the purpose of the building was to encourage piety and faith and bring people closer to God, or was it to inspire fear and awe of the clergy. I'm not being critical of the Catholic Church, because I think religion has always been used as a means to promulgate power around the world in many faiths and cultures. I just question the point of such a grand structure, while at the same time I greatly admire it.

But at least many in the ministry tried to help those in their care who needed it, whereas those in the monarchy just seemed to abuse the commoner. We visited the Palace of Versailles and saw the power of the crown. That's another building that shows the great ingenuity and artisanship of the French people. It's beautiful and HUGE. The whole thing was designed to enforce the idea of deifying King Louis XIV. After seeing the excess of this monstrosity, I can understand why it all led to a revolution. Now in France the commoner probably has TOO much power, with their daily strikes and demonstrations. Personally, though, I'm glad the everyday person has that ability now, as obnoxious as it sometimes can be.

Louis XIV Trampling His Enemies
Like most of the world, France has a bloody military history of war after war after war. In the Battle Room at the palace, there are large paintings depicting many of the battles France has fought, the first one in about 600 A.D. Most all the paintings show a victorious general on a horse, with dead or dying enemies at his feet. It's not a pretty sight. In the U.S., France has an undeserved reputation as a pacifist nation. After seeing all these terrible battles, I think I much prefer avoiding war, not jumping into one. Too bad more nations don't feel the same way.

Maybe we should bring the leaders of warring nations to this coliseum and have them battle it out themselves.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Living the Artist's Life

We spent the past few days in the charming port city of Honfleur, in Upper Normandy. Apparently, someone named Monet also spent time here and drew a few pictures. I don't know if Monet made the town famous or the the town made him famous. But I'm hoping the town has some magical effect on those pursuing a career in the creative arts. If I'm famous soon, we'll know it worked.

We stayed in a rustic, old apartment with a private courtyard. By rustic, I mean a little dusty with the occasional bug stopping in for a visit. But it was a nice place and despite its small size, I'm sure it will seem like a mansion once we check into the tiny flat we've reserved in Paris.


Honfleur is definitely worth the cost of a train ticket! The tiny, curved streets of narrow buildings with exposed timbers takes one back a few hundred years. I would have liked to live back then and apply for the job of town crier. That would be much better than plague body remover.

Unlike other places where you often look for a specific scenic attraction, in Honfleur the town itself is what you come to experience. Although some of it is certainly touristy, much is still traditional and welcoming. On Sunday morning, we hiked up to Côte de Grâce, which sits on a short hill with a good view of the town and the Seine River. There's a monument on the hill honoring Her Lady of Grace for her protection during the Normandy Invasion when many other towns were destroyed.

We also came across a small chapel on the hill, Notre-Dame de Grâce. It had no bell tower, and instead they built a bell rack next to the church. We happened to arrive at noon just as the bells began their concert. It was fun to actually see the bells rather than just hear them up in a distant tower.

We are very much tourists here. We take pictures of doorknobs and mailboxes. But it's still fun to be a part of the culture and meet new people. As we ate dinner one evening, a young man sitting next to us turned around with a look if curiosity on his face. He was of Chinese descent and surprised to hear Mandarin and American English spoken with native accents. His Chinese name has a great English translation—Iron Breaker. I think he's actually a super hero in disguise.

I'm a little sad to leave the peaceful countryside and head back to the noise and busyness of Paris. But we've reserved an apartment, so we're on our way. I'm just glad it's by train, not another claustrophobic plane.

Monday, September 7, 2015

A City Made Famous By Executing a Righteous Babe

Stephanie and I are celebrating our twenty-fifth anniversary this month, so we decided to do something extra special—we signed up with an outfitter to go on an archery moose hunt. You should see Stephanie all decked out in camo with her bow and knife, and her face painted green.

Actually, the outfitter was booked, so we got plane tickets to France instead. This weekend we're near the northern coast in the Normandy Region and right now we're on a train going through a rural area filled with cows and sheep and of course a chapel in every little town. Last night we stayed in the medieval city of Rouen. Growing up in a city where the oldest buildings are barely one hundred years old, it's pretty cool to see structures that have been around hundreds, and even a thousand years or more.

The Notre Dame Cathedral in Rouen is one of those. This isn't the one from the Disney show—we'll see that one next week. This is a different one without a famous bell-ringing resident. But even this one is a very impressive structure. The craftsmanship of the artisans and laborers that threw this thing together is awe-inspiring. The thing that struck me most though, was this: you gotta figure that in today's dollars, this edifice must have cost millions. And those millions were spent at a time when there was a lot of suffering in the world. I wonder if any nonbelievers back then—or believers, for that matter—pondered if the money and effort might be better spent on something else. In any case, it's a beautiful building.

In the evening, we heard about a light show at the cathedral. I figured at most we'd just see a few lasers painting designs on the walls. Boy, was I ever wrong. They had a fantastic display of light, music, and sound effects that went on for an hour.

They projected the images onto the facade and told the history of France with all its wars and one of the most awesome women of all time—Joan of Arc. Or as Bill (or was it Ted) described her: a totally triumphant babe. If we saw nothing else our whole time here, it was worth coming all the way to France just for that! Madame of Arc, by the way, was burned at the stake in that very town, down the street from the cathedral, apparently with the help of some clergy members.

I'm sure the original builders of the cathedral never had a computer-synchronized light show in mind when they stacked all those rocks together. Maybe it was worth the effort after all. Do you think Miss of Arc would approve?

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Groovy Pop Music

Sometimes I worry maybe I get a little too didactic in my blogs. I guess I see a lot of bad in the world counteracted by a lot of good, and I hope the good will win. So in an effort to avoid preachiness, here’s a fun story from my youth.

As I walked home from school in the fourth grade with my friend Darin, he sang a song I hadn't heard.

“We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun…”

To his utter amazement, I asked what it was.

“You’ve never heard Seasons in the Sun? It’s only the most groovy tune in the world!”

See, I was raised by parents that didn’t pay much attention to pop music. My dad listened to jazz, classical, and the world renowned Mitch Miller’s Sing Along Band. If you’ve never heard Mitch Miller, you need to look him up on YouTube. I guarantee you full minutes of entertainment. Here’s a sample.

With that background, of course I hadn’t heard of Seasons in the Sun. So after school, I went to Darin's house and we waited at least eight minutes before it played on AM 1320 KCPX. And yes, it was groovy.

Now I had to be groovy, so I went immediately home and told my older sister about it. Wendy was in sixth grade and of course had already heard the song. She and her friend Debby immediately started singing it.

I’d finally joined the groovy crowd! I could walk around the house, our street, the school playground—anywhere—and not be ashamed I didn’t know the latest hit. Our dad even bought the 45 vinyl record for us.

In reality, it’s a pretty lame song with maybe only three chords. It’s about a guy who’s dying of some terrible disease and wants to say goodbye to everyone. But the flip side of the 45 was even worse—Put the Bone In. Before you comment on that title, it’s about a dog that died and they want to bury him with a bone from the butcher shop. Both songs are about on par with most songs The Partridge Family ever put out.

A couple weeks later, Wendy and Debby hung out in our living room talking about groovy stuff when Seasons in the Sun came on KCPX. Trying to maintain my grooviness, I ran in and told them to be quiet because their favorite song was on. They looked at me like I was a stink bug.

“That song is so old,” Wendy said. “We don’t like that anymore. Now we like Run Joey Run.”

Devastation! I’d instantly lost my hipness—I liked an old, outdated song from two weeks earlier. To make it worse, Run Joey Run told about a girl named Julie whose dad is upset because she and Joey got a little too friendly. The doctor told them they were in love and better get married quickly. Julie’s dad pulls out a gun and…well, I won’t spoil it. You can watch the tragic events unfold in this official video.

Anyway, as result of all that, I stopped liking pop music for many years. Decades, really. My music tastes now vary from Tuvan throat music, to prog rock, to Indonesian Gamelan, Irish punk, jazz, classical, and, on occasion, a good pop tune like this.