The Elder Gods.

A friend of mine sent me a link that really made me stop and ponder. It’s called “The Elders” and the idea is to have a group of almost unanimously respected elder statesman-type people who can operate as a kind of “In my day, you didn’t get to do that. So stop it, straighten up and fly right.”, kind of manner.

On the surface, I really like the idea. The thought of having a group of people who’ve “seen it all” and can impart their knowledge to our reluctant leaders sounds good. It’s would be the global governmental equivalent of going telling on your parents to Gramma and Grampa. Pretty much, anything that makes our world leaders uncomfortable and itchy is something that I can get behind. Accountability is a GOOD thing.

The down side is obvious. The Elders can’t do anything other than shame governments and movements. They control nothing other than influence, which I’ll grant you, does have some kick when used properly. What would be a real hoot would be if they could some how threaten to cut them out of their will like a real cantankerous old patriarch/matriarch. “No, you can’t get my money/brain until you start treating your women/ethically different citizens/neighbors better.”

Hey… Isn’t that what we, the 1st world nations, are supposed to be doing anyway? Hmmmm.

Anyway. The friend who sent the link to me asked if I could think of any one else who should be included as an Elder. His bid was for the Dali Lama, who I do think is a great choice, if not super-duper tricky (what with the whole China-Tibet thing).

And since we’re tossing in a whole “Holy Man” variable with the Dali Lama, why not take it to the next level and just go ahead and elect Gods directly? The rule would have to be that they can’t run for the office. It would need to be foisted on individuals. That and no organized campaigning, just a person by person vote. Personally, I love the idea! Oh… And they should look good in flowing robes.

So my choice is Walter Cronkite. If we could elect our Elders and Gods… I think he’d be right at the top on the list for me. Talk about having seen it all. Plus, I think he’d look good on church ceilings. What do you think?

Walter for God in 2009!

A House Guest in France, Epilogue

I can’t adequately express how much of a good time we had. Our host’s home was far and away more than we had thought it would be. For starters, what he had told my wife was, “You should come visit me in France. I have a house I rent there.”

Now what we had envisioned was some little stone house with roses crawling up the walls. What we had heard was roughly, “Hey there’s this place I rent every year and stay the summers. Come visit and you can sleep in the guest room”, or something along that line. What we encountered was a huge and old rambling farmhouse consisting of an attached barn, two complete guest apartments in addition to the one he stayed in and something like 80 acres of terraced hill side covered in ancient almond trees. Oh yes, and what he meant was “I have a house in France, and I rent OUT bits of it to other people.” Ahhhh. That’s a bit different than we had initially pictured in our minds.

The house was made of the native pail brown stone and squatted on the top of one of the highest ridges in this bit of the Ardeche. Its many terra cotta clad roofs sat in several pitches at various heights, each covering a different addition made to this house over various years. An inviting lawn on the top terrace over looked a comfy and partially shaded courtyard where French resistance fighters once hid from Nazi soldiers based in the village below. During renovation work, our host found an old French service revolver, still loaded and rusted solid, stuffed in a chimney flu; it’s day for use never having arrived.

The view from the house was spectacular. On one side you looked at snow covered peaks on distant Alps. In another direction, you looked down to the valleys of Provence. This often over looked region of France, called the Ardeche, is dry, scrubby, hot and beautiful. Roman ruins dot the country side here and there and though a car is needed to get around, the drives are always pleasant affairs.

We spent many a happy hour walking the sheep paths that line the slopes and old orchards. Gnarled live oak strain to grow in the bottoms of valleys and we pondered about where those wonderful truffles might be hiding, nestled among their roots.

We did go to various “must see” locations. The Pont d’Arc was amazing as was the great Roman aqueduct, the Pont du Guard. Wonderful meals were had in small towns that lived within easy reach, but for the most part, our happiest memories came from out time spent at the House. Many a bottle of fine wine and kilos of wonderful cheese disappeared from the table as the three of us solved the worlds problems. It is a memory I cherish deeply.

It has been many years since that trip and our friend is still there, asking us when we will return. I don’t know the answer to that, but I do hope it isn’t too much longer. If you ever travel through Gras, ask someone if they can point the way up the goat track to the mason, Les Joies. If you make it up the road unscathed and find that wonderful house and host, take a moment to chat with him. He’s a great man and a good friend and perhaps, you might find your self asking if he has an apartment to let. If you do, and he does, it will be the best present you could give your self in years.

Bon Voyage!

A House Guest in France, Part VI

Something that you should know about me. Until the age of about 25, I was a very,very picky eater. The foods that I would not touch were many and varied, to the point actually, that I started to forget what foods I ate and which ones I didn’t. Pain in the butt for everyone around me? Yah, I guess so. I wasn’t one of those really obnoxious picky eaters though. If offered something on my lengthy “no go” list, I would politely refuse and wait for the Tater Tots to come around or simply eat all the bread sticks within reach. Never, did I turn up my nose and say something like, “Broccoli? Eaugh!”, or any other reprehensible behavior. I’m not really sure why I was a picky eater, but I was. The plate that I had just been given would have made me pass out prior to my conversion to omnivore.

Luckily, at some point, I decided that the “picky eater” thing was all rubbish and tossed it out the window. I started to try everything again and I’ve done pretty well. To my amazement, I find that I like just about everything and rather pride my self on it actually. The first food I discovered that I truly didn’t care for was Rhubarb. Other than that and about five other items, that’s about it for “no go’s”. I also swore that I’d try everything that came my way that was within reason. This plate in front of me though, pushed me right to the edge. My mother, however, taught me manners and I was a guest in the house of a man whom I had just met and he was offering me his food out of kindness. I smiled and took a large dollop of mustard.

Our host turned to Action Girl and started to cut her a piece. “Some for you?” he asked hopefully. “Ah… I’m afraid I’m vegetarian.”, she grimaced. “Oh, sorry about that. But it’s alright. I have some lovely fresh bread and olive spread.”

What I wanted to yell was, “FOUL! NO FAIR!” and I eyed her plate with envy. Our host looked back at me with a hopeful smile and I sliced off a good sized piece of my brain-jello. I figured that the fewest bites needed was preferable to drawing it out. A healthy coat of mustard and down it went. It was cold, mostly tasteless and had the consistency of congealed bacon grease. I got it all down, but it was an exercise in self control and gag reflex suppression.

When the last piece was gone, our host immediately lifted the knife to carve me another glutinous slab. “No! Really! I’m fine!” I blurted out to prevent a repeat performance. “Are you sure? You must be hungry?” he added with an arched eyebrow. “Ah, no. I’m all set, but thank you though!” I hoped I wasn’t too transparent. “You don’t like it do you?” He added, matter-of-factly. I decided that the truth was the way to go. “Um… No, not really.” I was almost immediately sad that I had said this because our host looked chagrined. “That’s too bad. I really hoped you’d like it” Great. Now I really felt like a heal. “A friend of mine dropped it off to me as a present and I can’t stand the stuff. Grosses me out. I was really hoping you’d eat it.”

The shock on my face must have been visible form Mars because he immediately burst into laughter and clapped a hand on my shoulder. “You’re a very good man for having forced it down, though!” That set the tone for the time we spent there and we all got along famously. In one soggy plate load of cold brains, I had gained his admiration and respect. I had also earned the right to sass back when he deserved it. We all had a great time. Action Girl and I intended on being there for three days but at our host’s insistence, wound up staying for a week. I can’t wait to return some day and when I do, I’m bringing him some brains.

A House Guest in France, Part V

So now we were at the end of the train portion of the trip and it was time to take to the highways, at least for a while. We went to the car rental lot and walked in. It was mid-day and as you can expect, the place was deserted. I think the most civilized aspect of French life is their fanatical attachment to the lunch. To make a gross generalization, I think the French as a body would sooner drink Turning Leaf than give up one minute of their lunch… well, I was going to say hour, but it’s often far more like two. This is something that I think all countries could learn a lot from. A leisurely lunch meal in the States is about as common as they are nutritious.

We left and enjoyed a coffee at the local cafe and waited until we spotted the workers returning to their desks and followed. We had selected a compact car, with the hopes of getting a Smart Car, but to no avail. The car that they had waiting for us was a Skoda which we immediately fell in love with. We did the obligatory walk around with the agent and then, finding the car to be practically new, went in to fill out the paper work. When the agent brought up the subject of insurance, I had definite opinions. “Yes. Specifically, I want the coverage that will allow me to return the car to you in a variety of small boxes and walk away.” He blinked at me. I smiled. He gave that universal Gallic shrug that says “if you insist” and signed me up.

Some would say that I was tossing away money with this move since my own insurance will cover this, but here’s my thinking. If I’m in an accident in France. I speak no French., the paperwork that would have to be filled out with my insurance company, the French authorities and the rental company would be epic and to be honest, I’m on vacation. I don’t want risk my serenity by noticing a fresh “ding” left on a door after parking next to a jerk in some parking lot somewhere. I’ll do some overtime when I get home to cover the added expense. It’s worth it to me.

After we claimed out ride, Action Girl needed to place a phone call. She phoned up our unseen host and started scribbling directions down. I happily played with the stereo, zipping through various French pop stations in a fruitless effort to find Edith Piaf. Action Girl skipped back to the car and hopped into our trusty Skoda. Directions in hand, we headed off into a new and exciting road system full of locals who knew where they were going…. and at least one car with two clueless tourists in it.

Action Girl is a great navigator and this arrangement (me driving and she, telling me where to go) works wonderfully. All I need to do is trust in her ability to get us pointed the right way and all she needs to do is trust in my ability to shift from the far left lane, through the four lanes on the right to make the exit that just popped up 50 meters up the road , … At 120 kph. We are both very adept at our jobs. She channels the spirit of a WWII bombardier and I channel the spirit of Luke Skywalker in the Death Star trench. WHEEEE!

I was doing fine until I snuck a look at her notes. They were covered in what looked like spirals with arrows coming out of them.

“What the heck are all those?”
“Roundabouts”
How many of them are there!?”
“Um… At least nine or so.”
“Good Lord”

Looking at the crude map drawn by my wife, it looked imposing.

As it turned out, the roundabouts were more of a well marked and courteous affairs than a “Place de la Concorde” mess. The humorist Dave Berry referred to it as “Place de la cars coming at you from all directions”. As time and kilometers whizzed by, I felt more and more comfortable with driving through France. We never did find Edith Piaf though. One turn took us us off the highway, then the next into a small town, then the next to a smaller town, then scrubby and lonely roads, twisting along the hips of hills and mountains. Here and there, we would enter and immediately pass through a small village and Action Girl would be vindicated in her directions as she checked off the names of these places on her map.

Finally, we passed through the miniscule village of Gras. Hardly any one lives there now and the sheep far out number the inhabitants. What was once a road turned in to little more than a goat track and the crazy switchbacks that led up the steep hill made you prey that there was no one coming down. I have driven on some heart stopping roads in my time and let me tell you, this path made the Road to Hana look like a four lane highway in Kansas. On at least one occasion, I actually got out of the car to check around a corner before proceeding.

After the climb to the top, there was a turn off that led to a huge rambling farm house. Action Girl hopped out and started walking up like she always came here. I was more cautious. What if it’s the wrong place? Visions of suspicious French peasants with old shotguns came unbidden to mind. Then, out of an ancient doorway stepped a man who smiled, waved and beckoned us in.

Introductions were made and an offer of dinner was happily accepted. Our host was a man of about 70, easily smiled and was very gracious. Action Girl and our host chatted up a storm as they reconnected and I did my best to be as polite as possible. We gave him his gift which made him laugh and then set the table. I was famished. He went to the kitchen and very proudly set down a board holding a grey, rubbery substance in the approximate shape of a small loaf of bread. He cut a thick slice which made a wet “Thwack” sound as it fell over. He set it on a plate and gave the plate to me.

“It’s calf’s brain in gelatin. Quite a delicacy! Mustard?”
Dear Lord. “Oh yes, please. Mustard would be great!” I preyed that it was very, VERY strong mustard.

One last entry to come. Wine, cheese, bread and no brains, please.

A House Guest in France, Part IV

We awoke to a sunnier day than the day before, cleaned up and since we had some time before our train, decided to head out to take a look around Lyon. We easily found a cafe where we absorbed some much needed caffeine and a croissant. The French are not generally big on breakfast, at least not in the “bacon, eggs and homefries” sense. Across the border in Germany, they are keenly aware of the need to fortify one’s self for the trials of the day ahead with meats, bread, more meat and ummm, other various meats. Aaaand Nutella. Here in Lyon however, breakfast was a light affair and though I truly love France, this lack of a proper breakfast is perhaps the one thing that I have trouble forgiving them.

After a bit of coffee and a bite to eat we set off down the back streets and tried to get the feel of this, the third largest city in France. Most folk on vacation in France do not come to Lyon and this I feel, is a great shame. We found the city to be full of interesting museums, shops, churches and wonderful, wonderful medieval and renaissance architecture. If I had to describe the bit of the city we were in, I would have to say it was like 1880 never quite left. It still maintains that wonderful old world feeling without feeling run down and worn out. In short, we loved it and vowed to one day return and spend at least a week walking its street and eating in its restaurants.

One thing we did decide was that we needed to find a gift to bring with us to give to our soon to be host. Remember, personally, I had never met him before. Action Girl knew him from chatting at work, but I was totally in the dark as to who he was or what he would like. Our upbringing dictated that a gift would be needed for our arrival, but what to get? At home in the States, I would have simply gotten a good bottle of wine, but here… In France… For someone who lives here… Well, I felt a good deal out of my league when it comes to wine selection. We looked around for a while but were running out of time. Then we saw it. PERFECT!

We left for the train station with our happy purchase stuffed in our pack, carefully wrapped up in paper and old socks. As we wandered into the train station I started to slow down. My head was starting to hurt and I blamed it on the stress of travel and the lack of any substantial breakfast. I popped some Bufferin and massaged my temples as we threaded our way through the French rail system. As we found our way to the train departure area and waited for our commuter line, my head got worse and worse. Then the first real warning sign appeared. I started to instinctively shrink away from bright light and tried to shade my eyes. “Oh crap”, I thought. “It’s a migraine

Let me digress here for a moment and leave our intrepid travelers to explain what a migraine is and what it decidedly ISN’T. I don’t want to be pedantic about this but any other migraine sufferer out there will know why I’m getting nitpicky. I have had various individuals say to me at one time or another, “Oh, I had the worst migraine at work the other day.” or “I have such a migraine right now.” and to these folks I say, “No. You didn’t/don’t. I can tell this because you aren’t balled up in the fetal position, retching you lungs out and begging for relief from what ever god you may have displeased.” Confusing a bad headache for a migraine is a bit like confusing a nasty splinter with a gun shot wound. People who get migraines never EVER confuse them with anything. I get them from time to time. They seem to have no particular trigger for me and can hit whenever. Because of this, I carry medication. This is good. The bad news is that though it works, it A: Takes time, and B” comes with the added bonus that it will pretty much knock me flat for a minimum of 6 hours. More like 12 if I’m not disturbed.

I managed to eat one of our granola bars before my stomach got too sour and took the pills I always travel with. I recall laying down on my pack and closing my eyes as Action Girl arranged a coat over my head. That must have looked odd. I can also very vaguely remember getting on the train that, thank God, we would be on for the next few hours, uninterrupted by changes . I shuffled into a seat and Action Girl again covered me up with my coat. It turned out that this was a commuter train and therefre, slow. This turned out to go a good thing since I was dead to the world for the next several hours.

When I finally revived, we were in Montelimar and I was being offered hot coffee by my wonderful wife. I have no recollection of getting off the train. I had caught the migraine pretty early on and I was starting to come out of it. After another little while sleeping off the medication at the Montelimar train station, I awoke feeling… well, not perky exactly, but human, anyway. It was great to be back. Action Girl related to me some of the more quizzical looks that we received on the train. It must have looked like she was accompanying a cadaver on a journey. We chuckled about it, I thanked her for her essential help and we wandered off to find the car rental shop. I’d never driven in France, but I grew up winging a 1974 Chevy Silverado through Boston from time to time, so I felt that I had a bit of an edge over the average American.

How hard could it be?
We’d just have to see.

Next, the land of a million-zillion roundabouts, the goat track of doom and a plate of fresh brains.

A House Guest in France, Part III

It was obvious from the circulating cleaning teams and technicians that this train wasn’t due to leave any time soon. The complete lack of other passengers made us feel odd as we stood alone on the platform. We looked longingly at the comfy seats through the tinted windows and wondered when we could board.

Just as we were staring to feel resigned to sitting on a hard bench for a couple of hours, breathing diesel fumes and sweating in the unexpectedly warm May 1st afternoon, a conductor spotted us from the train. He popped his head out an open doorway and asked us, first in French and then in English, if we were waiting for this train. When we said that we were, he gave a quick, almost furtive look up and down the platform, thought about it for a second and then ushered us into the air conditioned heaven of the 1st class compartment. He checked our tickets, helped us with our packs and then in an act that earned him my undying gratitude, brought us some ice cold bottled water. We thanked him, happily sank into the plush seats, chatted for a few minutes as we drank our water and promptly took a snooze.

We drifted in and out of a light sleep, being vaguely aware of cleaning staff coming through doing their industrious work and then other voices. When the other passengers finally started to arrive in greater numbers, be perked up a bit and enjoyed the people watching. The rest of the trip to Lyon was fairly uneventful. The seats were comfy, the food delicious, and the scenery was blurry. Traveling by TGV is a bit like taking a trip on a jet at an altitude of 12 feet. The countryside goes by at such speed that it’s difficult to look at anything out the window unless it’s a good distance away. Trying to do so actually made me feel a bit motion sick, so we decided to focus on our long running game of Rummy in stead. After a few hours of this, we slid quietly into Lyon, collected our bags and stepped out into a rainy evening.

Thankfully, either the rain had washed away any protesters here or perhaps in Lyon, folks were just more laid back. Either way, we were happy to cross city blocks unimpeded. We checked in to a Ibis Hotel near the station for the night. It was cheap but clean and most importantly, within a short walk to the station. I barely remember the room. I’m willing to guess that 98.5% of the time we spent in it, we were asleep.

Tomorrow would bring a new sunny day, a new train to Montelimar, a huge honkin’ migraine and some confused commuters. But that was still to come. Tonight, we slept, oblivious to the rain out side.

A House Guest in France, Part II

The first thing that I saw that was out of the ordinary at the train station was all the kids selling little bunches of Lily of the valley. Action Girl absolutely adores Lilly of the valley and within seconds, had bought her self a little clutch to happily sniff at as we started our journey. We hopped onto our train and were off to Paris.

Here is where I’m going to ruin your image of a couple roughing it across Europe on nothing but frame packs and baguettes. As I have said before, that is the the way I have done my European travels on many occasions and I have fond memories of those times. The important words here are “have done”, as in, “Been there, _have_done_ that”. I’m older now and though I think I’m still capable of roughing it with the best of them if I must, when left the choice between a family run hotel with fluffy, clean beds and a nice restaurant in the lobby or the local sweat and beer filled youth hostel… well… it’s not a hard choice. This extends to train travel as well. One of the bummers of getting older is that after a certain age you can no longer purchase a student EuRail Pass. This is a double edged sword though. Since we were now forced to pony up some real big money for adult, non-student passes, they can come as first class tickets! As we looked at the faces pressed to the glass in the stuffed-to-the-gills second class cars, any feelings of nostalgia quickly melted away with our complimentary drinks and adjustable foot rests.

We zipped along the fairly short trip to Paris and checked out tickets for the next leg of the journey. It was going to be a long haul from Paris to Lyon and we had splurged. The next train for us was the TGV.

FIRST CLASS, TGV.

Ahhhh! It looked like we would make the train change with time to spare at the Paris station and all would be good. Wrong.

After we arrived in the City Of Light, we stated looking for our train. After some fruitless searching we decided with some trepidation to ask at a window. Our hesitancy stemmed from two things. First, neither of us spoke French, though Action Girl can understand a bit of it. Second, we were in Paris; home to “the rudest people on the planet”, as innumerable ill-informed people will tell you. We steeled our selves for incomprehension, shocking incredulity at not being French or a possible croissant attack from the man behind the glass. Did he speak English? Yes, he did! Can you tell us about our train? The man looked at out tickets and grimaced and then shot us a pained smile. “This train is not at this station, I’m afraid. You need to go to the South Paris train station. I recommend that you take the Metro just out side the door. If you hurry, you should make it, but it will be close.”

We thanked him for his kindness and bolted for the Metro. With bags bouncing along behind us we melted into the Parisian crowd on their various errands. We had a still felt hopeful and we were making good time. Then the train slowed… stopped, and started going BACKWARDS. The conductor came on the P.A. and spoke at some length and the message made a visibly bad impact on everyone in the car. Action Girl and I exchanged panicked looks as we tried to figure out what the heck was going on. After a few whispered guesses, the smartly dressed woman standing next to me tapped me on the shoulder with her manicured finger and said, “Ze conductor ‘as said zat due to street protests, ze next station ees closed. We are going beck to ze last station. Where are you trying to go?”

We thanked our Parisian savior and told her about the train station. As soon as the doors opened to the train car, she practically dragged us over to a Metro map and explained in minute detail the route we needed to take, adding that we should hurry. “Eet will take much longar Zan dis train would ‘ave” Again we thanked her and bolted down a tunnel, following her directions.

She was right. It did take much longer and our hearts were pounding from a combination of running with our oversized packs for long distances and the anticipation of missing our fully-paid for, 1st class TGV seats. We ran a maze of underground Metro corridors, half expecting to find a huge hunk of cheese at the end rather than a train station. By the time we emerged like moles into the filtered light of the South Paris train station we were exhausted, sweaty messes. I loped up to the nearest information booth and disturbed the middle aged woman inside, happily reading her magazine. I could tell by her reaction to me that I mist have looked like a zombie attack victim. All that was missing from her was an oh so French “Mon Deu!”

I gathered what little breath I could muster, asked about our train and showed her our tickets. As it turned out, the fact that she spoke no english didn’t hinder transmitting the message to us. We had missed our train and she felt badly for us. We were crest fallen, exhausted and trapped in Paris with street protest raging through the city center. Great. I reached out for my useless tickets and encountered a metronome like wagging finger. On an unseen computer she immediately began typing. After a minute, and the unmistakable grinding of a dot matrix printer, she handed us shiny new tickets and pointed to a TGV train sitting by its self some distance off. We thanked her in our pathetic French and headed toward it. Another smiling Parisian, just doing her job, but with a sympathetic smile and efficiency.

Mon Deu! It’s enough to make you sing The Marseillaise

Next installment tomorrow…

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