Ambulance

Leaving

This will be my final entry on LiveJournal. Many of my friends have already left for other platforms over concerns about the future of this service, but I have held on because I had paid for a lifetime membership. But that was back in 2004, so I guess I've gotten my money's worth out of the membership, and since I find the new terms of use to be problematic, I am moving on.

I have imported all my old entries to Dreamwidth, and I will be continuing this journal at http://resqgeek.dreamwidth.org . I will be deleting this account at some point in the future, and I look forward to interacting with my readers on the new platform.
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Avignon - the City of Popes

When most people think of the Popes, the city that comes to mind in Rome. But for much of the fourteenth century, Avignon was the city that the Popes called home. Beginning with Clement V, a series of seven French Popes established Avignon as the center of Church administration and the capital of the Papal States. Avignon would remain part of the Papal States until the French Revolution.

When we booked this trip, it was this history that excited me about our stay in Avignon. I was anxious to tour the Palais des Papes (Papal Palace) and to wander this city that was the center of the Church for two-thirds of a century, just before the Renaissance.

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And so that was the first place we headed on our full day in Avignon. Soon after we began our self-guided tour, we fell behind the rest of our group...I was simply to interested in absorbing the experience of the building. The architecture is stunning, even with all the damage done in the intervening centuries (much of it by soldiers when it was used as a barracks). Unfortunately, almost all of the original frescos are gone, and most of what remains is badly damaged. But they provide glimpses of how beautiful it must have been when they were intact.

The tour includes two circuits through the building, each beginning and ending in the main courtyard, just inside the main entrance. Along the way, we explored most of the important spaces in the building and even got up on the ramparts to enjoy the views out over the city and the countryside beyond.

After finishing our explorations of the Palace, we tracked down the rest of our group at Marché les Halles (the Market), where they were buying cheese, bread, and wine for lunch. Since we weren't hungry at this point, we left them to their picnic and continued our explorations of the city. We worked our way back to the Palace grounds, where we visited the Cathédrale Notre-Dame des Doms d'Avignon and the palace gardens. We also walked the perimeter of the city walls (Avignon has some of the best preserved city walls in France), and just randomly wandered through the streets of the city. By the end of the day, my wife's FitBit had recorded over 32,000 steps and estimated that we had walked more than 13 miles!
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Pont d'Avignon

After returning to the hotel after our day of exploring the region, we agreed on a restaurant for dinner, based on recommendations from our tour guide and from the hotel staff. We had a little time before the restaurant opened, so we went up to our room to relax for a bit, and met everyone in the lobby when it was time to walk to dinner.

The restaurant we had chosen had both a prix fixe menu and a la carte pricing. I opted for an a la carte pasta dish that was absolutely delicious. The restaurant was mostly empty when we arrived, since we were there almost as soon as they opened, but by the time we finished our meal, it was crowded, and the bar area had gotten quite noisy. After a leisurely dinner, accompanied by a couple of bottles of wine, we headed back out into the streets.

One of the sights I wanted to see in Avignon was the famous Pont d'Avignon, the remains of a medieval bridge that once spanned the Rhone. I had seen photos of it at night and knew that it was spectacularly lit, so my wife and I set out around the city wall and along the river to the bridge. And we weren't disappointed. Not only was the bridge absolutely stunning in the lights, but the river was mirror smooth and we were, quite literally, the only people out there. I spent twenty minutes or so taking photos of the bridge from various angles, trying to get a perfect photo. But the best of the bunch turned out to be the last one, taken almost as an afterthought as we were about to walk away. I simply turned back to the bridge, framed the view, and snapped the shot.

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We then strolled back along the river and around the city wall, back to our hotel for the night.
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Orange and Chateauneuf-du-pape

After walking along the banks of the Rhone river to our bus, we left Arles behind and drove north through the countryside of southern France. The endless vineyards were still in their winter dormancy, with the vines all pruned back and little green to be seen. Our guide continued to entertain us with her ongoing dialog about the region as we drank in the scenery around us.

Our next destination was the city of Orange, north of Avignon. It is because of this city that the Dutch sports fans all were orange when cheering for their national teams. The Dutch royal family belong to the House of Orange, which has its roots here in southern France. And so it is a connection between a city in southern France and the reigning royalty of the Netherlands that results in the color choice for patriotic Dutch.

Orange, like Arles, dates to the Roman period, and boasts of a Roman triumphal arch. The plan was for our bus to park so we could get out to take pictures, but when we arrived, the traffic circle around the arch was under construction and there was no where for the bus to stop. We had to settle for our driver going around the circle a couple of times, while we tried to snap photos through the windows.

After we were all satisfied with our views of the arch, we headed back through the city to our next stop, the Roman theater. As with the arena in Arles, the theater in Orange has been restored and is currently used for music and theatrical performances. In fact, upon our arrival, we couldn't miss the posters advertising the upcoming production of "Phantom of the Opera" that was soon to take the stage.
Once we were inside the theater, our guide spoke at length about the history of the theater and its restoration. We then were given a little time to explore the grounds before we headed back to the bus.

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By now it was past mid-afternoon, but we had one more destination before we returned to our hotel. Between Orange and Avignon is a famous wine appellation, Chateauneuf-du-pape. The name comes from the castle that was built here as a vacation residence for the Popes when they lived in Avignon in the fourteenth century. Little remains of the castle itself, which was heavily damaged by Allied bombs during World War II. However, we did stop briefly to explore the ruins that remain, before we headed into the village. Our tour guide had arranged for us to have a wine tasting at the Musee du vin Brotte, where we sampled three very nice Chateauneuf-du-pape wines, and learned a little bit about how the wines of that region are produced.

Finally, it was time to call it a day. We piled back into the bus for the final time and headed back to our hotel. As we approached Avignon, we found ourselves trapped in the late afternoon traffic, as we crawled past the city walls towards the hotel, but soon enough we were back and it was time to make plans for dinner.
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Arles, France

Our itinerary for our first day in France included a guided tour of other towns in the surrounding region, and so, after breakfast, our group gathered in the lobby where we were met by our tour guide and bus driver. There were only nine of us in our group, which gave us plenty of opportunities to ask questions and to have a really intimate experience with the cities we would visit.

As we drove south from Avignon towards Arles, our tour guide, Nadine, kept up a steady dialogue about the history, geography, economy, and culture of the region. We drove through a light fog, that shrouded the fields in a mist, giving the countryside a bit of a mysterious feel to it, but by the time we arrived in Arles, the sun was out and it was becoming a warm day. Our first stop in Arles was the Arena, which was built by the Romans, and remains in use today as a bull fighting venue. Nadine described the events that take place here, including Spanish bull fights at Easter, as well as the local sport, Cocarde d'argent, where contestants try to pluck tassels from the horns/head of the bull.

After leaving the Arena, we wandered through the streets of Arles, where we saw the site of the Roman forum and the cafe captured by van Gogh in his painting "Café Terrace at Night". We also visited the (former) hospital where van Gogh was a frequent patient, with its courtyard garden, also the subject of one of his paintings. Finally, we made our way to the Place de la Republique. We were given an hour to get lunch before meeting back here to continue our tour.

While most of our group set off to find a restaurant, my wife and I continued to explore the city. We discovered the Théâtre Antique Arles, built by the Romans, but still in use today, and just generally enjoyed randomly wandering the streets of the city, taking photos.

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Eventually, we made our way back to the Place de la Republique, where we rejoined our group and made our way back to our bus for our ride to our next destination.
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Better late than never

When I began our trip to France, I had every intention of posting regularly during the trip, to record my thoughts and impressions while they were fresh. That fell by the wayside on the very first day, and while I did manage to post regularly on Facebook, I wasn't able to find (or make) the time to write any more detailed descriptions. Nevertheless, I do want to share more about the trip, so in the category of "better late than never", I'm going to do my best to remember what I wanted to share from the trip.

After arriving late in Frankfurt, we found that we had, indeed, missed our connecting flight onward to Marseilles, as expected. United and Lufthansa rebooked us on a later flight without any issues, but that left us with a long layover. We were all pretty tired from our long, overnight flight from Washington, and so, after getting some food (using the vouchers provided by Lufthansa), we eventually just camped out at our departure gate, with many of us taking naps.

When we were re-booked, the six people in our group were seated in the same row on our Airbus 319 aircraft, three on either side of the aisle. There was some discussion as to who wanted window seats vs. who wanted aisle seats, and somehow I got the impression that I wasn't going to have a window seat, so I packed my camera into my bag for storage in the overhead bin.

When it finally came time to board our flight, we learned that our gate didn't board directly to the aircraft. Instead, we were loaded onto a shuttle bus that seemed to drive us all the way around the terminal before pulling alongside the plane on the tarmac. We climbed the stairs onto the plane, and somehow, I found myself in a window seat. After boarding was complete, we taxied out to the furthest runway for takeoff. Seriously, it almost felt like we were going to drive from Frankfurt to Marseilles!

After takeoff, we climbed back through the clouds, so I didn't get to see any of the mountains as we flew over them. Only as we began our descent into Marseilles did I finally get to see some of the countryside. By now it was late afternoon, and the low angle sunlight was casting a beautiful glow over the landscape below me. And then, suddenly, I saw the Pont du Gard, the Roman aqueduct over the Gardon River, glowing in the afternoon light in the valley below. Now I was mentally kicking myself for not keeping my camera out, because I could have captured some really beautiful aerial shots of the bridge. It wasn't until after it was far behind us that it occurred to me that I could have used my phone.

Soon afterwards, we passed over the city of Marseilles and flew out over the Mediterranean. The plane banked to the left as we circled over the bay, lining up with the runway, and those of us on the left side of the aircraft were treated to a beautiful view of the city. This time, I used the phone to snap a shot:

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After landing, we made our way through immigration and claimed our luggage and set out to find our transportation to Avignon. By the time we found the bus and got our luggage loaded, it was dark, and so we didn't get to see any of the French countryside as we drove to our hotel, just outside the city walls in Avignon. Arriving about eight hours later than we planned, we checked in, grabbed a light supper in the hotel restaurant, and called it a night. Sightseeing would have to wait until morning.
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Frankfurt musings

We'd been flying through the darkness as we crossed the North Atlantic, and I'd struggled to get at least a couple hours of sleep along the way. Shortly after I'd given up the effort as a lost cause, the cabin lights came on, and the flight attendants began to serve breakfast. I pulled up the map display on the seatback entertainment module in front of me, and saw that we were flying over southern England.

I reflected on how different my experience of this flight over England and on to Germany was from those my great-uncle endured more than 70 years ago. Really, about the only thing in common was the company that designed our planes...He flew in the Boeing designed B-17 and I was riding in a Boeing 777. My discomfort paled in comparison to what he experienced in his aircraft, which was not pressurized or climate controlled, let alone a entertainment system built into every seat back, and a flight crew to serve meals. Not to mention the enemies shooting at him and the fact that his mission was to deliver a cargo of bombs to some enemy target.

The sun came up as we crossed the coast over the European continent. Below us the clouds stretched, unbroken, as far as I could see. I watched as we overtook a slower plane flying in the same general direction, far below us. I checked our altitude on the display in front of me. We were significantly higher than the B-17 flew, and we were traveling far faster as well. He would likely have been flying in those clouds below us.

Eventually, we descended through the clouds, and the German landscape came into view. As we circled over Frankfurt, I pressed my face to the window, trying to imagine what it might have been like to fly over this city, looking for the designated target to drop our bombs on. Unfortunately, I really could quite conjure up the experience, but as I watched, the sun began to break through the clouds, providing some really dramatic lighting effects on the ground. I pulled out my camera and took some photos.

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I wish I had come to some deeply profound new insight this morning, but all I really came away with was an appreciation for the morning light on the city. Perhaps it is just enough that I was able to spend a little time thinking about the tremendous sacrifices that young men made in those skies in the middle of the last century. The legacy of their efforts lives on in the peace that continues between our nations, the peace that allows me to travel in relative comfort and safety in those same skies.
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The joys of modern air travel

I'm sitting at Gate C3 at Dulles Airport, waiting to board our flight, which was originally scheduled to depart about an hour ago. Apparently, there's an ongoing maintenance issue with our aircraft, so I really can't complain...I want a fully functional aircraft before we leave. But we only had a 90 minute connection, so we're going to miss our second leg. C'est la vie.

It has taken far longer than it probably should have for me to learn to not to stress out in these situations. And really, it isn't the delay that annoys me, so much as the dearth of meaningful information from the airline. The gate agent is trying to be helpful, but she doesn't know any more than we do, and she's trying to give us an estimate for our departure time, but she's just guessing, really.

Oh well. There is nothing I can about it, so I'm trying to just chill. We're currently hoping to begin boarding in about 30 minutes. It will happen when it happens.
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Why wait until retirement?

I love to travel (hmm...to be more precise, I enjoy visiting places; the travel in between isn't always my favorite part), and it has long been my plan to travel more extensively after retiring. It is the biggest reason I plan to retire as soon as I am eligito collect my retirement benefits. I enjoy my work well enough, ble but my life is more than my work, and I want to experience more of the world.

Over the last year we've come to realize that we really don't need to wait for retirement to begin to travel more. Our retirement savings are on track to provide a more than adequate lifestyle after work, and a careful analysis of our current financial situation suggested that we had more than enough money left to begin travelling now. And, with our daughter off in college, we really only have to worry about managing our vacation time from work.

And so, we've actively been trying to plan significantly more travel. We began last fall, right after our daughter went off to school. We took a week and drove to Florida, visiting one of my wife's friends and doing some sightseeing that didn't involve theme parks. Then in November, we flew out to LA, in part to some sightseeing but also to visit one of my friends. And, of course, we took our daughter with us for our annual ski trip to Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

And that's just the beginning. We have a number of additional trips either booked or in the planning stages. Over the last few years, I've done a poor job of documenting my travels, but I'm hoping to do a better job going forward. Watch this space to see where we go next...I'm looking forward to seeing some interesting things in the months ahead.
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Are we trying to repeat history?

We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this doy forward, it's going to be only America first, America first.

Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families.


-Inaugural Address, President Donald Trump


I must confess that I did not watch the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States of America. I did not watch, in part, because I did not expect any surprises from the man who will now lead our country. But, really, I didn't watch for the same reasons I have never watched a Presidential inauguration. I find the pomp and ceremony of these political occasions boring. While I do appreciate the significance of the way we hand over the reigns of power in a peaceful fashion and acknowledge how truly rare that peaceful transition has been in history, I simply do not find ceremony of it compelling.

But normally I have enough interest in the proceedings to follow them through the news and social media. Not this time. I have grave reservations about the qualifications, character, and abilities of the newly inaugurated President. I find his personality, attitude, and manner abrasive, and I was more than a little afraid of what he might say, or what might be done by his supporters, or his opponents.

Thus it was Sunday morning before I actually read the text of his inaugural address. There are many things that can be said about the speech, and many points that I find troubling. But the one that sends shivers down my spine is the language about "America first." I don't know if the President was intentionally invoking the isolationist movement of the late 1930s, but my immediate reaction when reading these words was to link them to the pro-appeasement isolationist who were sympathetic to the fascist regimes of Europe. I thought about the strong images drawn by a young Dr. Seuss early in his career, including this one:



I think that history has, properly, judged this isolationist movement harshly for ignoring the brutality and inhumanity of the axis alliance and the evil that was being committed in the territories they controlled. And I think that if we do, in fact, undertake a true policy that always and only puts American interests first, regardless of what that means to the rest of the world, then history will judge us just as harshly.

And while I wonder if the new President is sufficiently well-versed in history to appreciate the full historical context of his words, I see evidence that they may be rooted in a similar worldview. There is already a bill pending in the House of Representatives to withdraw the US from the United Nations. A year ago, I would have thought that such a bill would have had exactly zero chance of actually passing, a product of the extreme political fringes. But in light of the words of the President, I can't help but wonder if we aren't about to try and follow a path we have already walked.