A Parisian Protest

Today Richard and I were walking back from La Tour d’Eiffel when we ran smack dab into a protest march.  As with everything Parisian, it was done with great style and flair.  There was music, and drum beating, and people handing out fliers, and one of those giant dancing air-inflated guys that you see at car dealerships in the States.

It turns out that they were protesting some kind of psychiatric treatment issues.  My high school French is not great — more on that later — but it appears that there is a vote coming before the French National Assembly about psychiatric treatment and hospitalization.  And one of the signs was for electric shock therapy.  Do they still do that in France?

It was interesting to see this drum-beating, musical protest walk by, stopping traffic and provoking some of the French nearby to engage in arguments.  It is one of the things that makes Paris such an interesting city.  You never know what might lie around the next corner.

In Search Of The Elusive Pelforth Brune

When I traveled throug Europe after I graduated from college, during my stay in Nice I had a beer called a Pelforth Brune.  I fondly remember it as one of the tastiest beers I’ve ever imbibed.

Whether it was because I was traveling on a shoe string and not able to buy much beer, or because the beer was exceptionally good, I didn’t know.  After that one beer 30 years ago, I never had it again.  I could never find it in any other bar or restaurant.

Until today, that is.  Richard and I stopped for lunch at a cafe near the Eiffel Tower, and there on the menu to my surprise was a Pelforth Brune.  I had to get it, and I did.  It was as excellent as I remembered — smooth and rich, yet light at the same time.  And it comes in a pretty cool bottle, too.

It’s nice when reality matches your memories.

VRBO Changes The World (Paris Edition)

The kitchen at chez Josette

So, I’m in Paris, meeting up with Richard to spend a week with him as he moves slowly through Europe and soaks up what the continent has to offer.  Rather than spend a ridiculous sum on a hotel, and be squirreled away in some sterile tourist area of the City of Lights, Kish and I decide to try VRBO.  We end up renting an apartment in the Latin Quarter.

When I arrived today, I had some trepidation about what I would find.  Things can look good on the web, but sometimes the reality falls short.  That did not happen today, fortunately.  (Bon!)

The TV room at our apartment

Here is what I found:

*  A surprisingly spacious apartment with two well-sized bedrooms, a TV room with cable TV and a collection of hundreds of DVDs, a full kitchen with every utensil and cooking appliance known to man, a full shower and bathroom, a separate toilet room,  a washer and a dryer, a desktop computer as well as apartment-wide, free wireless, and a dining room with a table that seats six.  And, the apartment is decorated with style and stocked with fresh baguettes and chocolate rolls.

*  An incredibly helpful and accommodating hostess (merci, Josette!) who explained every appliance, computer, TV remote, and key, provided suggestions on restaurants and bistros to frequent, gave us her apartment number and cell number, and encouraged us to call if we had any problems or questions.

A look down the Rue Val de Grace

*  Windows with iron railings that open out to an iconic Paris street with a view like this.

*  A central location on Rue Val de Grace near the Luxembourg Gardens and the Pantheon, located in the heart of a student housing district in the Latin Quarter (District Five), within easy walking distance of the Ile de la Cite, the Louvre, and other sites in central Paris and (perhaps most importantly) directly across the street from a wine shop with an excellent selection and very moderate prices.

All of this, for a price that probably is about half of what we would pay for a decent hotel.  This is why VRBO is changing the world.

In The Midwest, The Civil War Is Never Very Far Away

The recent commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the attack on Fort Sumter and the start of the Civil War brought that horrible conflict back into the consciousness of many Americans.  In many of the cities and towns of the Midwest, however, the reminders of the Civil War are ever-present.

I was in Indianapolis recently, and the gigantic Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument at the heart of Monument Circle is a good example.  Although the monument recognizes the contributions of soldiers and sailors from many conflicts beginning with the Revolutionary War, the portion of the monument that deals with the Civil War is the most memorable.  The devastating statistics of Indiana’s contribution to the Civil War effort, noting the hundreds of thousands who served and tens of thousands who died, are set forth in simple, precisely carved numbers on the facade.  The statistics appear under the heading “War For The Union.”

As one Hoosier mentioned to me on my visit, it is no accident that the numbers appear on the side of the monument facing due south.

Straub – Highly Recommended

Before the late, much-lamented Corner’s Beverage Shoppe closed its doors, and Richard went off on his European adventure, on Fridays he and I used to pick out a six-pack or two of new beers to sample over the weekend.  One day we picked out a six-pack of Straub, and I’ve been a fan ever since.  (Since Corner’s has gone away, I’ve been glad to learn that Straub also is carried by the New Albany Giant Eagle in its enormous “beer cave.”)

The label on the bottle advertises Straub as “honestly fresh,” and I think that is a very fair description.  The brew is a light, quite tasty lager with good body, a clean, smooth taste, and no aftertaste.

Although I’ve only discovered it recently, Straub beer has been around since 1872.  It is brewed in Pennsylvania — hey, I thought only Rolling Rock and Iron City came from the Quaker State! — and is a good example of the quality microbrewery offerings that can be found throughout America.  And, in these days of high gas prices and penny-pinching economic uncertainty, when six-packs of some microbrew offerings are priced at $10 and above, Straub’s reasonable price is as refreshing as its beer.  I’m glad Richard and I decided to try it during one of our weekend beer samplings.

Eurotrip 2011: Nice and Marseille


When I was in Venice I booked two train tickets to take me from Milan to Nice over the night of the 22nd. I noticed that there was a three-hour layover in Ventimiglia from 1 to 4 A.M, but I thought that it was better to endure that than to waste a day traveling and to spend money for a night in a hostel.

It turned out to be one of those instances, pretty common while travelling a planned itinerary, in which the present self curses the past self for being so inconsiderate. I got very little sleep sitting on the floor of the train station in Ventimiglia, which was crowded with immigrants and fellow backpackers sleeping or smoking cigarettes. I took off my contacts and threw them away, because the maid at my hostel in Venice had thrown out the case for them.

I arrived in Nice at 5:30 the morning of the 23rd exhausted and half-blind. No one answered the door at the hostel I had reservations at, so I hung out at a park for a few hours.

Even in that state of being I noticed how clean and pretty Nice was. The empty streets were free of litter and graffiti, and the tram looked like it was made of stainless steel. All the buildings were painted with sunny colors. The park I relaxed in was decorated with palm trees and sleek modern art. In the picture below, taken in that park, you can see seven nude male figures, which I was told are supposed to represent the continents, on the tops of poles.

The park in the center of Nice.

At 7:30 I found a bakery that was open, and I bought a delicious piece of cake for only 2.50 euros. The realization that France isn’t quite as expensive as Italy raised my spirits.

Many people staying at my hostel, the Hostel Smith, didn’t like it. They complained that it was dirty and that the lady at the front desk was rude and confused. I thought it was a decent hostel, although it had its problems. The door to the bathroom wouldn’t stay shut, so you had to stop it with the door to the closet inside the bathroom, which would leave it open just a crack. And indeed, the lady at the front desk was a bit bewildered. She couldn’t find my reservation on the computer, so she accused me of being mistaken about the dates I reserved. When she did find it, she had to drag an extra cot into the dorm for me to use, because they were fully booked.

However, she let me change my reservation from four nights to three so that I could spend another day in Marseille, even though she didn’t have to. The hostel also had an excellent location in the crooked streets of the old part of Nice. But the source of my good opinion of the hostel might be their habit of leaving free bread and pastries on the table in the kitchen.

I spent my first day in Nice doing laundry, buying groceries, making hostel reservations on hostelworld, and writing my previous blog entry on the horribly slow laptops, with strange French keyboards, in the hostel’s lobby. It rained most of the day, so it was a good time to get chores done. That evening I played Gin Rummy (which someone taught me earlier in the trip) with some people at the hostel.

The next day I explored Nice. Like Venice, Nice is a city with a great atmosphere but few sights to see. There is a boardwalk with many beautiful casinos and hotels alongside it. On the other side is a beach. Unfortunately, the beaches in Nice consist not of sand but smooth, fist-sized rocks.

The beach in Nice.

To celebrate my first day in France, I treated myself to a Nutella crepe for 2.50 euros. Over the course of my trip, I’ve developed an addiction to Nutella that I will probably take home with me. I avoid buying Nutella because I end up eating it straight out of the jar with a spoon until it’s all gone, sometimes actually giving myself a stomachache.

A Nutella crepe.

For lunch, I bought a rotisserie chicken from a restaurant next to the hostel for 4 euros. I couldn’t finish it in one sitting, so it made up most of my dinner also.

The rotisserie chicken, as well as the remains of the free pastries layed out by the hostel employees.

The next day I followed the recommendation of an employee at the hostel and walked to Villefranche, a small town a mile or two down the shore from Nice. According to the employee, the French government built Villefranche centuries ago to protect Nice from the Turks. To get people to move there, the government made the city tax-free. Thus, “Villefranche” means something like “tax-free city” in French.

The path to Villefranche went up a cliff that offered a beautiful view of Nice, then went back down to the rocky shores, on which many locals were tanning. For better or worse, my stay in Nice coincided with the three-day Easter weekend, so public areas were always crowded.

After exploring Villefranche, I took a much easier walk back to Nice along a road.

The view of Nice from the cliff.

Part of the trail.

More of the trail.


On Tuesday I took an hour-long train ride to Marseille. I considered stopping for the day in Cannes to check it out, but I decided it wasn’t worth the hassle, especially since I would have to lug around my full backpack while I was there.

Marseille, with the Notre Dame de la Garde cathedral in the background.

I was excited to get to my hostel in Marseille, the Hello Marseille hostel, because it had a spectacular 92% rating on hostelworld. It was an exceptional hostel. The furniture was so clean and modern that it looked like it had just arrived after being ordered from a Pottery Barn catalog. The kitchen was equipped with all the necessary cooking instruments, which is rare for a hostel (the one in Nice didn’t have a can-opener, so we had to run down to a restaurant to use theirs). The computer in the lobby was clean and ran well. It had a great location right next to Marseille’s port, the Vieux Port.

The hostel seemed to attract friendly, outgoing people. I found a couple of friends to play cards with, and we taught Rummy to a few more people. People drank and partied in the hostel every night – maybe too much. That was the hostel’s only significant flaw.

I could tell from the walk from the train station to my hostel that Marseille had a different character from Nice. It’s grittier, with more graffiti, more smells, fewer parks and palm trees, less public art, less color, and less extravagant architecture. The populace of Marseille seemed less affluent than Nice’s, with more immigrants. While Nice seemed like a resort town, Marseille seems like a port town. I think it’s more interesting than Nice, though.

The first bit of sightseeing I did in Marseille was to visit Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation, an apartment building/hotel built in the late 1940s. It was one of the first examples of the Brutalist style which begat so many office buildings in the United States, few of which look as good as this one. Unfortunately, it seemed to be falling apart, with the concrete crumbling off in places.

Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation.

Another view of the building.

From there I walked to the Parc Borely, a park by the sea, and rested there for a while. I then walked on the Corniche walkway along the shore, stopping at beaches every once in a while.

The Borely Park.

A beach in Marseille.

The Corniche walkway.

Later, I headed back into the city to visit the Notre Dame de la Garde cathedral atop one of Marseille’s hills, which makes it visible from almost everywhere in the city.

Notre Dame de la Garde.

The view of Marseille from Notre Dame de la Garde.

When I got back to the hostel that evening, I was sunburnt, dirty, and exhausted from walking so far. During my stay in Nice and Marseille, the weather has, for the first time in my trip, been hot enough to make me sweat significantly during the day. I’m worried that this is the start of a new epoch in which I’ll have to take two showers a day, apply sunscreen constantly, and wear shorts, which will make it even more obvious that I’m a tourist.

I relaxed that evening by playing more Rummy with the people at the hostel (some of whom took it very seriously), and drinking La Cagole beer. I bought La Cagole despite the fact that it costs twice as much as other beers because it is a local Marseille brand. We all thought it was really good.

I’m still adjusting to being in France – I still say “si” instead of “oui.” It was easier in Italy because I know a little Italian; I’m afraid to even try to pronounce French words. When someone at my hostel told me she is going to Aix-en-Provence and pronounced “aix” like “ex”, I laughed because that’s not how I would have pronounced it at all.

I spent this morning walking around the old part of Marseille, distinguished, like that in Nice, by its short, crooked streets. I stopped by the beautiful Palais Longchamps park to read a little bit of my book. Then, I started getting ready to move on to Paris, my next destination.

Palais Longchamps.

Eurotrip 2011:  Venice and Milan

Eurotrip 2011:  Interlaken

Eurotrip 2011:  Florence and Pisa

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome pt. 2

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011:  Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  The Journey To Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul

That Overwhelming Sense Of Impending Doom

The NFL draft starts tonight.  The Browns pick sixth.  My stomach churns at the thought of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell advancing to the podium to announce the Browns decision.

Since the Browns have come back into the league, the draft has been the source of incredible failure and angst for Browns fans.  Because the Browns has been so bad for so long, they’ve had lots of chances to select the high-ranking talent at the beginning of the first round.  However, rather than picking the studs who come in and dominate, our beloved team has picked players who are head cases, players who apparently are as brittle as fine china, players who seem snake-bitten.  Few of the first-round choices even remain on the Browns roster.

So, tonight I will grit my teeth — and hope that instead of drafting another disaster, the Browns just make a trade and stock up on whatever help they can get.

Does Limiting Public Employee Collective Bargaining Save Money For State And Local Governments?

In Wisconsin and Ohio, new Republican majorities in state legislatures, and new Republican governors, have modified public employee collective bargaining rights and argued that it is part of an overall effort to bring state and local government budgets back into balance.  Democrats have responded that the budget control argument is a bogus fig leaf and that the real motivation for the Republicans’ actions is union-busting, pure and simple.

It therefore is interesting that in Massachusetts — Massachusetts! — the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bill to restrict the ability of municipal public employees to collectively bargain about health care benefits.  Moreover, the House effort was led by Democrats, who argued that the changes will help struggling cities and towns.  Indeed, the Democratic Speaker of the House contended that the changes would save cash-strapped municipalities $100 million and allow them to maintain more jobs and provide more services.

The Massachusetts initiative still has to pass the Senate and be signed by the Governor, so it may well not become law.  Still, the fact that Democrats in the Massachusetts House supported such a measure on budget grounds seems like a powerful argument for the proposition that modifying public employee collective bargaining rights is a legitimate way to achieve significant savings in government spending.  If Democrats have accepted that argument in Massachusetts, how can Democrats in Ohio and Wisconsin contend that similar efforts in their states are motivated wholly by partisan politics and mindless anti-union sentiment?

Why It’s Hard To Take The U.N. Seriously

Does the United Nations have much credibility anymore?  The principal function of the U.N. these days seems to be providing ineffectual peacekeeping forces, providing an international forum for nuts like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to spout his crackpot, anti-Semitic theories, and provide legitimacy for the governments of dictators and thugs.

Here’s the latest case in point:  Syria — bloody Syria, where the despotic government is shelling and shooting its own citizens for having the temerity to protest for a more democratic government — is in line to become a member of the UN Human Rights Council.  Of course, that Council has always been a bit of a jest — it includes Cuba, China and, until quite recently, Libya.

If UN processes and procedures allow a state like Syria to don the mantle of protector of human rights, why should the UN or its pronouncements have any credibility on the world stage?

Royal Wedding Versus Jersey Shore

On Friday many Anglophilic Americans will get up extra early, brew some good strong tea and let it steep, heat up scones with clotted cream, and tune in the royal wedding.  Great Britain’s Prince William is getting married to Kate Middleton, and the royal watchers will be agog at the extraordinary display — commenting on every nuance of the ceremony, the cost of the event, the origins of the silks and satins in the bridal gown, the nature of the floral displays, and countless other details that no rational person would even notice.

The British people have a hereditary monarchy; they more or less have to pay attention to this stuff.  Why do any Americans, who fought the Revolutionary War 235 years ago to throw off the British monarchy, care?  Who knows for sure?  But Americans do like celebrity, and the British royal family are just about the essence of celebrity.  They’re super-rich and seemingly stylish, they live in castles and palaces, they take fabulous vacations and holidays, they wear crowns and medals and kilts and fine hats and gowns, and they don’t have jobs in the normal sense of the word.  What’s not to like?

Some haughty Americans will use the occasion of the royal wedding to make fun of the Brits and their American cousins who are obsessed with the royal family.  However, in a land where the dim-witted cast members of Jersey Shore are famous, we shouldn’t be so quick to cast judgment on our friends across the pond.  After all, even “Fergie” is not more appalling than Snooki.  If you have to live in a culture that seems to inevitably make otherwise unremarkable people famous, at least let it be folks who can speak the King’s English properly, who live in Windsor Castle, and who don’t apply make-up with a trowel, flaunt their perma-tans and cleavage and pumped-up muscles, blather to a camera about their inane personal problems, and routinely engage in drunken misbehavior.

So, good luck and best wishes to the Prince and his bride!  Now, let us get back to our fixation on American low lifes.

The Columbus Casino Breaks Ground

Yesterday the Columbus casino — which was approved by Ohio voters via a constitutional amendment in 2009 — broke ground.  Given the amount of rain we’ve had here lately, the assembled crowd of hard-hatted dignitaries probably didn’t need a shovel so much as a row boat.

The building of the casino at the western edge of the city’s metropolitan area has been delayed due to a long-running dispute between the city of Columbus and the casino developers about annexation and water and sewer rights.  Although the groundbreaking ceremony has occurred, it’s not clear how much progress can be made because many of the disputes remain unresolved.  There is a welter of litigation between various parties about various issues that is still to be resolved.

The delay is frustrating for many people on the west side, who look upon the casino as a chance to revitalize the area and provide some much-needed jobs.  I’m sure there are many west-siders who are hoping that yesterday’s ceremony means that the jobs, jobs, jobs that were the principal selling point for the 2009 constitutional amendment are not far away.

VRBO Changes The World

Lately we have started to use a website called VRBO whenever we are thinking of taking a vacation and want to check out the rental properties at our destination.  If you are planning a holiday, or just want to do some dreaming, take a look at the VRBO website, click on a location or two, and see what your vacation dollar could obtain.

VRBO (short for Vacation Rentals By Owner) is one of those internet ideas — like eBay or Facebook — that is changing the world.  It is a mechanism for vacation rental property owners to list their properties and for soon-to-be travellers to find rental options.  The internet, through the VRBO website, serves as their giant meeting place.  VRBO is ridiculously easy to use:  click on the maps to indicate where you want to go, click on the listings for the properties at your destination, look at the pictures, and read the comments from prior renters.  And then, if it looks good, contact the owner and reach an agreement on date and price.  No need to rely on word of mouth.  No need to look through ads in the local newspaper.  No need to try to find a realtor who can tell you about rental properties.

VRBO puts lots of information at your fingertips and then gets out of the way to allow you to make your own judgments.  It is that access to information, and then the direct access to the property owner, that is the game-changer.  If, like us, there are times when you would like to stay in a non-touristy area so that you get a better sense of what the local culture is like, VRBO allows you to do it.  If you want to see whether renting is cheaper than a hotel room, VRBO allows you to do it.

It’s become part of our standard vacation planning routine.

Who Is This Guy? (The Time And Timing Side)

One other point about President Obama’s April 13 speech on fiscal policy struck me, and that was the whole question of time and timing.

The budget savings numbers cited by the President in his speech all were based on a 12-year period, rather than the 10-year period typically used in long-term budgeting.  For example, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposed budget, which the President sharply criticized in his speech, uses a 10-year period.  Why did the President use a 12-year period?  Because he wanted to say that he proposed roughly as much in deficit reduction as the Ryan plan, and a lot of the “savings” anticipated by the President occurs at the end of his 12-year period.  In my view, this is the kind of numbers gimmickry that shows a real lack of seriousness about the deficit issue.

Another interesting time and timing issue was raised when the President talked about a “failsafe” that would be part of his plan.  The President stated:  “But just to hold Washington — and to hold me — accountable and make sure that the debt burden continues to decline, my plan includes a debt failsafe.  If, by 2014, our debt is not projected to fall as a share of the economy -– if we haven’t hit our targets, if Congress has failed to act -– then my plan will require us to come together and make up the additional savings with more spending cuts and more spending reductions in the tax code.  That should be an incentive for us to act boldly now, instead of kicking our problems further down the road.”

I don’t follow this logic.  The “failsafe,” whatever it will be, isn’t triggered until 2014 — three years from now, after the President’s first term has long since ended.  Why would the possibility of actions in three years hold the President, or anyone else, “accountable” now, and why would it be “an incentive for [politicians] to act boldly now”?  With an election looming on the near horizon, and the parties already bickering and name-calling about just about everything, why would a distant, post-election deadline have any impact at all?  If a “debt failsafe” really is a good idea, how about invoking it now, so that voters can hold politicians “accountable” the way they should be held accountable in a democracy — through having to explain and justify their decisions in the election that is less than two years away?

President Obama’s fiscal policy is predicated on the notion that our continued deficits are a serious problem that must be addressed.  However, the time frames set at the end of his speech don’t seem to match the urgency expressed at the beginning of his speech.  Instead, the President seems to want to defer making the tough decisions that should be made immediately, while at the same time using words like “accountability” that test well with focus groups.  To me, that seems more like electioneering than leadership — and that is another reason why I found the President’s speech so disappointing.

Who Is This Guy?  (The Revenue Side)

Who Is This Guy?  (The Health Care Side)

Who Is This Guy?  (The Defense Side)

Who Is This Guy?  (The Spending Side)

Friendly Faces In Faraway Places

When you are on the road, it is a real treat to be able to depart from the normal at-the-hotel routine and get together with friends and family.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of spending some time with Heidi, Larry (who had to leave before the picture above was taken), Miles, Max, Andrew, Patty, and Heidi’s dog Stella (whose name always makes me think of Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire bellowing “Stella!  Stelllllla!”).  We met at Heidi’s Long Beach pad, enjoyed an excellent feast of home-cooked Mexican fare, beer, and cupcakes, and had some spirited discussions about typically off-limit topics like religion and politics.  It was terrific to catch up and to see what my always-interesting nephews are doing with their lives.

Thanks for hosting the get-together, Heidi!  It made the trip a very special one.

North Market Lunching: Firdous Express

Your life has been a bit bland, you say?  Your dulled taste buds have a hankering for a little Mediterranean flavor, and you are hungry, besides?  Then wander over to the North Market to Firdous Express, across from Hubert’s Polish Kitchen, let your eyes feast on the many freshly made, piping hot, ever-changing entrees that are displayed beneath the glass, and know that you have come to the right place.

Firdous has something for just about everyone.  They feature stews and spicy concoctions made with chicken, lamb, and beef, a vast array of different vegetables, different salad options and rice options, excellent hummus, and pita bread.  As is true throughout the North Market, lunch is reasonably priced, and you get great value for your buck.  Lunch at Firdous, with drink, comes in at about $10, and for that you get an entree over rice and a salad or hummus with pita bread.  (Guess which I pick?)

When I visit Firdous I usually favor a tender, cubed chicken in a lemony sauce that tastes fantastic over a bed of rice and lentils.  On my most recent trip, however, I decided to branch out and went for a delicately spiced stew of meat and tomatoes, along with my standard side of rice and lentils and creamy hummus and pita bread.  It was excellent — I’d expected nothing less — and I left a happy man.

North Market Lunching:  Hubert’s Polish Kitchen

North Market Lunching:  Nida’s Sushi

North Market Lunching:  Kitchen Little