Paris to home

Charles de Gaulle Airport: I really dislike it. This time our gate was in a pod-shaped annex that resembled a flying saucer. The wasted space below the walkway collected garbage like a little gutter. Looking down through the puny round windows showed us only the pavement outside. Disgusting. Concrete must have been cheap and glass must have been expensive when the airport was built. Every time I walk through there all I think is “Ugh.” What a terrible last thing to see of Europe. I’ll just close my eyes and dream of Parthenon.

A male flight attendant on the plane to Chicago had “Stuart Hess” embroidered on his apron. We debated whether it was his real name or not.

Versailles and Chartres

We rode a train out of Paris to Versailles, one of the great monuments to excess, on a beautiful fall day. Trees here in northern France are in full fall color.

Gilding and stone sculptures adorn the exterior of a baroque palace.
One beautiful corner is a mere fragment of the majestic palace complex.

Saturday visitors swarmed Versailles. It is an intimidating and beautiful complex. I imagined myself as an American commissioner, arriving from the distant colonial world during our Revolution to negotiate with this great and ancient empire. I doubt if any buildings in the new United States were as large as even one wing of one of Versailles’ palaces.

Gilded sculptures of female figures support crystal candelabra.
We could use a few of these around the apartment.

As a museum, Versailles had an appropriately baroque bureaucracy. We visited two information desks, bought tickets at an automated kiosk, and bothered a couple of docents before we finally found our way to the royal quarters in the Grand Apartments.

Spacious as they were, the Grand Apartments weren’t designed to circulate such crowds, so we shuffled from room to room, each one as ridiculously lavish as the last. Our own apartment building could fit in the king’s bedchamber. Nothing in or out of the palace was under-decorated with gold or marble or crystal or mirrors. I could see why the French had their Revolution when they did.

Precisely manicured trees and white marble sculptures line the approach to a grand canal.
The afternoon light, the colors of the leaves, the white sculptures, and the blue water all came together for a stunning view of the Grand Canal.
Late afternoon sun and shadows fall on autumn leaf litter in an alley of trees.
An alley of plane trees glowed like gold in the fall afternoon.

The grounds were even more impressive with their fall ochers under the blue sky. The crowd had a chance to spread out along the long canal and in the maze of gardens. We rented an oar boat for a short and erratic row on the Grand Canal before heading into a cafe for lunch.

The cafe on the grounds of the Louvre was the opposite of everything I thought French food ways stood for. We were herded into a high-density factory feed lot and served swill at inflated prices.

A man rows a boat on a garden canal.
I took Lore for a row on Louis XIV’s personal pond, symbolically pissing all over royal privilege in the name of democracy.

The whole Versailles experience struck me as very funny. Louis XIV would have been appalled. The place was never intended for “the people” and there we all were trampling through his bed chamber, wandering in his garden, and paddling across his pond. Even more obscene than the sight of an unshaven American dipping rented oars in the regal waters was the temporary art exhibit of plastic anime-style cartoon sculptures displayed throughout the palace and gardens. The tacky sculptures were even more alien at Versailles than I.M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre. I think this reflects a healthy sense of irony in the French. It’s a suitably republican way of saying “This is ours” to the monarchy they left behind over 200 years ago.

A baroque palace behind squared hedges and gardens.
Another head-exploding view of the garden and palace at Versailles.

From Versailles we took the train a little further into the French Republic to Chartres. Lore and I can’t pronounce the town’s name correctly; nobody understood where we wanted to go until we finally pointed to the name in our Lonely Planet guidebook. “Ah, Shar-TRUH,” a man said before we nearly got on the wrong train.

Two dissimilar spires of a massive Gothic cathedral pierce the late afternoon sky.
I nearly jumped for joy when I first saw the cathedral.
Rows of wooden chairs in the dark nave of a Gothic medieval cathedral.
The parishioners cleared out after Mass, leaving behind empty chairs.

We arrived in Shar-TRUH late in the afternoon, as the sun was about to set. The monstrous cathedral greeted us with bells calling the start of Mass. Scaffolding and safety netting covered the famous eastern facade and signs prohibited photos during Mass. I was afraid I wouldn’t get any good photos, but as before it was an opportunity to look around without filtering the sights through my camera lens.

Detail of figures carved in stone on a choir screen of a medieval cathedral.
My camera flash revealed a small patch of the otherwise dark but expansive choir screen.

Chartres Cathedral is massive, spacious, and dark. The interior is pretty simple except for the stone-carved choir screen and of course the towering stained glass windows which glowed coolly in the late afternoon sun. I walked around the outside which though dingy and in need of a scrubbing, had plenty to keep me occupied. When Mass finished I had a chance to take some photos inside. The sun had set and the light was gone from the stained glass so many of my photos didn’t turn out very well. It doesn’t matter. I’ve always wanted to see this cathedral.

Columns of a stone archway carved in twists.
The twisted columns on the south facade looked like they were actually wrought by some powerful machine.

Back in Paris we had another un-French meal, but this one was better: chicken in a Cuban-style restaurant in Bastille. We are tired and ready to go home, and to sleep in our own bed. Daylight saving time ends here tonight, so we get an extra hour of sleep before tomorrow’s early start for Charles de Gaulle.

Everything we’ve seen on this trip, like Versailles, Chartres, the Temple of Olympian Zeus—even the Parthenon, which strove for balance and proportion—has been beyond the human scale, monumental and overwhelming.

Louvre

We had a good flight back to Paris but it took us a while to get out of the airport. The ground transport from Charles de Gaulle is not as seamless as it is in Athens; that’s maybe one thing Paris can learn from its older, less refined sister city. We even had a broken train, but eventually we checked in to our hotel and headed out to the Louvre Museum.

A Renaissance style palace seen through a steel and glass pyramid.
Lore and I debated the merits of the pyramid.

Lore really likes the Louvre’s glass pyramid. It is pretty cool but looks out of place amid the Renaissance architecture of the palace. Lore pointed out that the Louvre is a pretty impressive building and something similar but of lesser caliber would have been even more out of place.

A crowd of museum visitors look at a painting.
Which is the spectacle, the crowd or the painting?

So we saw La Gioconda, a.k.a. the Mona Lisa. As I’ve said to pretty much anyone who would listen after my last trip: elbowing through a crowd to squint at it from 20 feet away is no way to enjoy this fine little portrait. On our way to it, we made sure to admire some of the other Italian Renaissance paintings in the same wing. A lot of people just blow right past these to get to the most famous painting on Earth, but the Louvre is just full of them, each one a treasure of Western civilization.

A turquoise figure in Egyptian royal dress.
Our photos of the Renaissance paintings didn’t come out very well but this little Egyption fellow did.

What’s really amazing is that this is just one museum’s worth of little treasures. I noticed the Italian painters were very ethnocentric. They managed to make Biblical characters, even Jesus, all look like Florentine burghers. We went up the Northern Renaissance galleries so I could show Lore what I liked about Flemish paintings. I get a little bored of Italian Renaissance renditions of Bible stories. Flemish artists painted more everyday stuff and images from nature.

We had dinner in Bastille again: this time my meal was duck, apples, and chevre. My head nearly exploded from the sensory overload of the evening.

Ohi Day

This was a morning of shopping. We got an early start and there was some sunshine. Fira was very quiet until the cruise ship passengers came ashore. From the hilltop we could see the shuttle boats ferrying them from the mooring the shore. Shortly after they came flooding down from the cable car station.

A cruise ship docked blue water between volcanic islands under white clouds.
With the sun out, we got to see the blueness of the sea.
Teenage girls parade in traditional European dress.
Some of the young women in the parade wore traditional Greek dresses.

After shopping we checked out of the hotel. We had some time to kill and watched a parade of island school children, some in national dress, marching along the main square, carrying flags. After marching the kids formed circles in the street and performed some dances. Turns out today is a national holiday: Ohi (“No”) Day, and so the locals were out enjoying themselves. After the very quiet early morning Fira seemed much busier than it did yesterday.

In the afternoon we rode the bus to Kamari for a short visit to the beach. It was much warmer and less windy down there, but still a bit too cold for bathing. “How can the sea be so blue?” Lore wondered. Our beach visit was more like a short snooze in the black sand. I had some baklava in a beachfront cafe, though.

Blue water washes up on a rocky black sand beach.
I don’t know how that tide pool managed to be so blue on the black sand.

The bus ride to and from Kamari, and our departure from the island showed the more mundane parts of Santorini and Greece. The villages in the lowlands are not obsessively painted. The departure area in the airport was somehow not as nice as the arrival area. Stray dogs wandered around in the terminal, a reminder that Greece is still a Second World country. The classy tourists must come by sea.

Back in the ancient capital, we’re becoming regular experts at getting from the airport to central Athens. Or maybe we just realize how easy it is. The buses and the subway are nice and clean.

We are that fulcrum point of vacation today: when the anticipation and excitement reaches an equilibrium with the realities of beginning the return trip. The memories are starting to outnumber the plans for the rest of the week.

This was a wasted night in Athens. There is not enough time—and we’re too tired—to do anything this evening or tomorrow morning before we fly back to Paris. This will be a day of transition and travel, time to take it easy and give the camera a rest.

Santorini

Our plane landed on Santorini Island (or Thira, as the Greeks call it) at night and it was too dark to have an impression of it. We do have a nice room for a great price in the middle of Fira, the main village.

Our day was off to a disappointing start, meaning rain and heavy winds. Looking for breakfast as the rain came harder, we ducked into an over-decorated and over-priced cafe with an underwhelming menu to be waited on by a brusque waitress. The Greeks have a direct manner that treads a fine line between endearing sincerity and snotty rudeness. I think they are also not morning people.

Pastel colored colored garments hang over the patio of a stucco house.
Even the laundry was colorful.

The streets of Fira are a maze of narrow but colorful pedestrian alleys that wind up and down the hilltop. Our wandering took us up to a place exhibiting reproductions of wall art from Ancient Akrotiri, an important Minoan-era  archeological site on the island.

What a view was revealed as we followed a street along the ridge that looked out over the town! We could see the circle of islands that were the volcano’s caldera. Painted stucco buildings cascaded down the hillside. The hilltop villages form a white rind on the scrubby brown island surrounded by blue, blue Mediterranean water.

A Mediterranean island village of white buildings perched on a hilltop over brown sea cliffs.
We didn’t know this was the view we came for until we saw it.

Our walk took us up to the adjacent village, Firostefani, where we had a lunch of Greek salads overlooking the caldera. Once back in Fira, we stopped at the Orthodox Cathedral and the Catholic Church before taking a cable car down to Fira Skala, the port at the bottom of the cliff.

The cables and towers of a cable car descend down a steep cliff to the sea.
We rode the cable car down and up the cliff again, to the chagrin of a local mule packer.

The cable car ride took about 5 minutes and we were the only passengers. The cliffs are more colorful up close; red, white, and chocolate brown rock layers with some dusty green plants. Fira Skala was quiet. The few shops were closed though ready for business when the cruise ships call. A man offered us a mule ride up the cliff steps back to Fira. We didn’t want to ride the mules and he got annoyed and a little too aggressive. “Why?” he asked, as if we owed him an explanation. The cable car is probably ruining his livelihood.

After we got back to the top we got on the bus to Oia (pronounced EE-a), another hilltop village on the north end of the island best known for its gleaming white church and sunsets over the Mediterranean. The bus was crowded and one of the passengers opened the emergency overhead hatch for ventilation. The driver and the conductor got really upset about that because the hatch nearly blew off on a winding mountain road. We had to pull over so they could secure it. “Malaka,” the driver kept saying.

Two conical white windmills with sails like bicycle spokes.
These are famous windmills; the sails are like bicycle spokes.

Oia was really windy—strong winds that we had to lean into to move forward—and dusty. The wind blows dust right into your eyes.  I was shaking it out of my hair later in the hotel. Actually it was more like coarse sand than dust.

Oia was also amazingly beautiful. The sunset observation area at the north point (it was too overcast to see the sunset) also looked over Ammadou, another cute little village with windmills on the cove below.

We got back to Fira for a late dinner. I had a yummy lamb gyro. There is a thunderstorm tonight. Will it bring sunny weather behind it?

Ancient Athens

Marble seats and risers of an ancient amphitheater.
People sat in these seats over two thousand years ago.

We headed up to the Acropolis today, starting at the bottom of the hill with the Theater of Dionysos. Restoration work everywhere in the Acropolis makes it looks as much like a construction site as a tourist attraction. They’ll probably be restoring it for decades if not centuries.

It’s hard to get an overall picture of the Acropolis without a map or a guide, but we didn’t really need one or want one to admire the marble ruins. There were some waysides with decent illustrations.

Hundreds of people gather on the steps of an ancient Greek ruin.
We encountered multinational crowds on the steps of the Propylaia.

At the top of the hill it got crowded. The steps of the Propylaia, the gate to the hilltop, was crammed with polyglot visitors. The cruise ships brought their passengers up hundreds at a time. There were lots of Americans, French, and Spanish; even some Argentinians. It reminded me of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Then I finally saw the Parthenon! All architects should be forced to stare at the Parthenon until they develop good taste. I wish it wasn’t so crowded. What is it like during the busy season?

Tourists wander among massive marble ruins.
The Parthenon and Erechtheion stood their ground but the hilltop was trampled.
Stacks of scrolled capitals with a Greek flag in the background.
Everywhere pieces of the Acropolis were stacked up as if in a super classy flea market.

The Parthenon is massive but we tried to pay attention to the details. What was so amazing about this building, I realized, was not just the Parthenon itself but what was scattered around the entire site: Acropolis chunks. Ancient columns and pedestals and capitols stacked up like warehoused merchandise to be used later in the restoration. A close look at a random capital on the capital pile reveals beautiful and precise hand-carved decorations. There is not just one of these little masterpieces, but hundreds of them.

Stone foundations and parts of columns describe the sites of ancient buildings.
We enjoyed walking the more serene grounds of the Ancient Agora.

The Ancient Agora, below the Acropolis was much more tranquil. It was park-like and quiet, better organized and less chaotic. The grounds aren’t trampled to death and there are actual blades of grass. Much of the Acropolis crowds didn’t venture down there, or at least the herds of cruise ship passengers didn’t.

Marble frieze carvings depicting wind gods on an octagonal tower.
The Tower of the Winds stuck out as weirdly Roman even though it was.

Then we went to the Roman Agora, amid the maze of streets in Plaka. I thought it was interesting that though it was Roman they still built in the Greek style with no arches.

We took lunch on a quiet, sunny street in Plaka: lamb and potatoes and Greek salad. The meat was very tender and tasty, cooked simply with lemon, oregano, and olive oil. We’ve been lazy about learning Greek pleasantries; everybody in central Athens speaks English. Even traffic signs are in English. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a Greek neighborhood of a big American city.

Marble column sections rest like a stack of fallen poker chips.
A windstorm blew down this column not so long ago.

We wrapped up the day at the Temple of Olympian Zeus. What little was left was even bigger than the Parthenon, built to the mind-blowing scale of the gods. One fallen column looked like a giant stack of poker chips someone knocked over.

Yesterday I didn’t think Athens had any charm but after our tour and our pleasant lunch this fine day, I think it does. The weather was sunny and pleasant, almost perfect, though a little muggy in the morning after last night’s rain. Athens is somewhat ragged and without the elegance of Paris (it’s not even close), but its roughness matches the partially restored remains of its ancient civilization.

Two European capitals

Charles De Gaulle Airport is the ugliest thing I’ve seen so far in Paris. It’s concrete and steel and has ceilings made from some weird plaster covered with mesh netting. It looks like it was designed in the 1960s and is way too small for the amount of traffic it has. We can’t hear the announcements, and there are delays. There was a flight to Nantes before ours that took an hour to board. I doubt it takes an hour to fly to Nantes from here.

But the flight to Athens was on a nice, wide A320 with plenty of baggage space and leg room. The seats are smaller, perhaps because Europeans aren’t as fat as Americans on average, but it worked for us. Air France’s food was quite good.

The Athens International Airport is much nicer than de Gaulle. Metro workers are on strike, so there is no train from the airport, but the city is providing plenty of buses. We are staying in the Koukaki neighborhood, about a 15 minute walk to the Acropolis.

An ancient Greek temple in lights glows against the night sky.
Seeing the Parthenon up there at night made us anxious to visit the next morning.

There are a lot of tourists here even though this is the end of the busy season, including lots of Americans and even some Argentinians. The weather is in the 60s, making a great night for walking around. The Acropolis is lit up from its dark perch on a bluff overlooking the city. All the Greeks here speak English. The city of Athens seems to be lacking in charm except for the stunning ancient ruins sprinkled here and there.

A city plaza at night with ancient buildings lit up on the hill above.
We came upon this lively square below the Acropolis.

We wandered around Plaka, the old neighborhood of central Athens looking for a good place to eat, and found one. I had a very good moussaka, which is like a ground beef, mashed potato, and eggplant layer cake. Our waiter looked at Lore’s unfinished plate of stuffed bell pepper and said, “What?” We assured him it was very good as well. At the next table, amid the several tables of tourists, were some unhurried old Greek men chatting and occasionally bursting into song.

Eiffel Tower

We had a good flight to Paris. Everything was exactly on time with a take-off and a landing so smooth we barely felt them. We did a passable job of transporting ourselves around the city.

A tower casts a long shadow over a large city.
The Eiffel Tower casts a long shadow over Paris.

We needed a nap at the hotel, so we got to our first order of business in the very late afternoon. The Eiffel Tower was crowded and had long lines. It was also very cold and windy. We got to the second level for sunset and to the top as the city lights blinked on in the dusk. The passengers who crammed into the lift car to the top rode in total silence. We heard only the clanking of the lift car cable. Perhaps we were all in awe of the legendary city dropping from the copper-colored steel beams.

When we descended the steps to leave the tower, we were greeted by the legion of immigrants who sell cheap tower souvenirs on the plaza; five for €1, which they could say in many tourist languages. They displayed their wares on cloth blankets with straps, and simply scooped them up in one move as they scattered at the sign of the police, who passed by often.

A man in front of the Eiffel Tower lit in gold at night.
The obligatory Eiffel Tower photo.

By the time we got down it was night and the tower was lit in gold. For a few minutes at 8 o’clock the tower sparkled with thousands of bright white lights like camera flashes. It was literally and figuratively brilliant, as if the tower was taking pictures of us taking pictures of it. An amusing bit of playful mockery, I thought, probably dreamed up by some Paris intellectual to make a statement about spectacle-gawking.

We wrapped up the night with crepes and coffee in Bastille. My crepe had Roquefort cheese and walnuts. The flavor was unbelievable. We didn’t see any strikes or protests, though there were some disruptions to train service. I did see more nudity in five minutes of late night French television than in my whole life on American television.

Flying to Paris

We’re on an American Airlines flight from Chicago to Paris. For a flight to France it’s not very French-friendly. None of the signs are in French and some of the crew don’t speak French.

This is Lore’s first trip to Europe. I was in Paris briefly during a trip to the United Kingdom over six years ago. Jet-lagged and exhausted, I whizzed around Paris seeing the “essentials”: the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame of Paris, and the Arc de Triomphe. I hope to have a more lucid visit this time.

Lost

We’ve watched about half of the first season of “Lost” on DVD. The mysteries of the island are a lot more engrossing than the conduct of the characters. I wouldn’t want to be stranded on an island with any of these people. It’s nice that they have a doctor and a guy who can fix radios, but overall they are a frighteningly dysfunctional bunch, so I’ve drawn up some ground rules for them.

  1. It doesn’t matter who you were and what you did before the crash. They’re pretty good about following this rule, though Jack lets his curiosity about Kate get the best of him.
  2. If it belonged to you before the crash, it is yours. If not, it is for anyone to borrow. As wrong as Sawyer is to hoard supplies, individuals tend to negotiate with him as if anything was theirs to negotiate for. They should negotiate from a position of moral strength — that is, as a group.
  3. Don’t go anywhere alone or without notifying someone else where you’re going and when you’ll be back. They seemed to observe this on the first couple of days on the island, then forgot about it, though the jungle didn’t get any less dangerous.
  4. Don’t jump to conclusions. I don’t even know where to start with this one; it’s a universal character flaw on the island.
  5. Right and wrong are the same as before the crash. I would add the Golden Rule as a useful corollary in the event of a disagreement about right and wrong.
  6. Don’t keep information secret if it concerns the group. This is where the “leaders” fall down. How are others supposed to contribute if you don’t tell them what’s going on?
  7. Do no further harm. Jack should know this one as a doctor, but he seems to have forgotten it.

Even though Jack is emerging as their leader, I don’t have a high opinion of him in that capacity. He’s broken all of my above rules in ten quick episodes. There is a reference to the book “Watership Down”, which is also a story about survival. Jack is the exact opposite of the leader in the book. I hope he picks it up and reads it when he gets a chance.

The Crazies

I was interested in “The Crazies” because, one, I like neo-zombie movies and, two, it was filmed in Iowa. In fact I mistakenly thought it was filmed in nearby West Branch, where I work. Turns out that’s the other zombie movie filmed in Iowa last year, “Collapse“. It has not been released yet.

Before you read on, there are plot spoilers below.

“The Crazies” is a passable suspense-horror film but it is relentlessly grim. No jokes or sex or whatever break the tension. It overuses predictable last minute heroics. As in: several times a crazy raises his (name a sharp household item) to stab someone and gets interrupted mid-windup. Crazies really should kill from the stretch.

The film is really good at making everything, like high school hallways, unattended farm equipment, and car washes, seem very scary. Metal scraping sounds are used effectively to add tension. Nobody dies with any dignity.

Though the film is set in the countryside around Cedar Rapids the Iowa depicted in this film is Hollywood Iowa. It’s completely flat. Every character lives on a farm. There is talk about irrigating crops, though it rains enough here to farm without irrigating. And I was trying to figure out what time of year this movie takes place, when the cornfields are in stubble, it’s baseball season, everybody is wearing a jacket, and the mayor is swimming his pool.

I’d rather watch something about talking owls

Here’s a movie I don’t want to see: “Secretariat”. According to a reviewer on NPR, Secretariat was such a powerful race horse that the filmmakers had to manufacture an underdog story around the horse’s female owner. So in the trailer a skeptical man says to the female owner, “You’re guaranteeing that this horse is going to win the Triple Crown? It hasn’t been done in twenty-five years.”

I can’t get past this line. It hasn’t been done in twenty-five years? Then it’s been done before, right? (That’s like saying, “You want to send men to walk on the moon? It hasn’t been done in forty years!”) And twenty-five years out of the thousands since horses were domesticated is not a long time for something to not happen. With the right horse and the other things that combine to make them Triple Crown winners, it should be achievable. I wonder how they pull it together. Ho-hum.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Not too long ago, upon hearing about Oliver Stone’s new “Wall Street” movie, we watched the old one. Watching it reminded me that it is a really good movie.

The new one is pretty good too but it was missing something I can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe it is that in the first film, the purity of Gordon Gekko’s greed made him more interesting. In the second, because of his much-changed circumstances, his greed is not so pure and worries about things like reconciling with his daughter. It makes him seem sort of squishy and not any more interesting than, say, me.