See The Treasures While You Can

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The fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral is a devastating event for those of us who celebrate the ingenuity and creativity of our predecessors — but also teaches an important lesson.

Notre Dame is a central landmark in one of the most beautiful cities in the world and a treasure of western civilization, with its Gothic architectural grandeur and exquisite rose window and flying buttresses and soaring ceilings that seem to reach up to heaven itself.  Generations of Parisians and travelers have marveled at the cathedral’s magnificence, enjoyed the quiet solitude of its immense interior spaces, and wondered at how it could possibly have been built so long ago.

Now, much of that has been destroyed by the blaze.  The French government has vowed to rebuild the cathedral, but it’s impossible not to wonder whether fully recreating the structure can be accomplished and how the interior decorations that were destroyed can possibly be replaced.  And even if it can be done, will the result still inspire the same awe-inspiring thrill that the original Notre Dame, in all its Gothic glory, inevitably provoked?

As I was thinking of the fire yesterday, I was immensely saddened by the magnitude of the loss, but also happy that I’ve had a chance to see Notre Dame, on multiple occasions, before the fire, including a visit that Kish, Richard, Russell and I took over the holidays several years ago when I took the picture shown above.  Notre Dame was decorated for Christmas on that occasion, with a huge Christmas tree positioned in front of the entrance.  It was a memorable trip, and I’ll always be grateful that Richard and Russell had a chance to see Notre Dame as it was.

It’s helpful to try to find something positive, even in the face of a tragedy like the fire at Notre Dame.  It’s very difficult to do in this case, but perhaps the useful lesson is this:  don’t assume that wonders like Notre Dame, in all their glory, will always be around, or accessible.  If you want to go see something, do it — because you never know when it might be changed into something different, if not gone forever.

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Our Gut-Suck Weekend

On my flight from Phoenix to Columbus Tuesday, I looked around at my fellow passengers and noticed a lot of them were unusually bulky and appallingly fit.

arnold-classic-worldwide-minThe implication was inescapable:  the annual Arnold Schwarzenegger Sports Festival is back in town.  And, without a conscious thought, I immediately sucked in my gut (at least, to the extent my aging, sagging frame permitted) and stuck my chin out in hopes that it would reduce the obvious wattles in the neck area.  And as I left the plane after a long flight, and saw muscular men and women lugging their tote bags and wearing their ultra-tight clothing that accentuated the strain of every conceivable muscle that exists on the human body, I tried to walk especially straight and keep those glutes as tight was possible — which admittedly was still pretty flabby.  By the time I got to my car I was sore all over.

That’s really the only downside of The Arnold for those of us who live in Columbus.  It’s a great weekend for tourism in our city, the hotels and restaurants do a land-office business — don’t try to get a steak this weekend, for instance — and there are people taking shuttles and walking all over downtown.  It’s one of the top tourism weekends for Ohio’s capital city.

But, in reality, most of us look pretty puny and paunchy compared to the contestants in The Arnold.  That means it’s a gut-suck weekend, Columbusites!

 

 

Vermilion’s Moment In The Sun

Kish hails from Vermilion, Ohio.  It’s a town located right on Lake Erie, about halfway between Cleveland and Toledo.  By virtue of its location, it’s got strong ties to water and boating — there’s a yacht club, the local water tower has an anchor painted on it, and the high school team name is the Sailors, for example — but I’ve always thought of it just as Kish’s home town, and not as a coastal tourist destination.

vermilion35Recently, Vermilion got some nice national recognition.  It’s been named one of the 10 best coastal small towns in America by the USA Today Reader’s Choice Awards.

Vermilion placed fourth after evaluation by experts — which makes me wonder how you become an “expert” on cool coastal towns, and how I can sign up for that gig — and readers.  The text on Vermilion says: “Vermilion, located on the south shore of Lake Erie, feels more like a New England seaport, complete with a historic lighthouse and rich nautical heritage. Popular in the warm summer months, Vermilion’s walkable streets feature small boutique shops, art galleries, ice cream parlors and local restaurants, and summer evenings often involve concerts on the green.”

I’ve been visiting Vermilion since the ’70s, and I’ve always thought it was a nice place.  But, like most of the laid-back, reserved Midwest, Vermilion doesn’t really blow its own horn.  It’s got that nice “boats on the waterfront” feel, but without the alcohol-fueled craziness that you find in Put-in-Bay and other waterfront locations.  The downtown area. which is a short walk from the Lake Erie shoreline, has a vintage Americana vibe, and there are good places to eat, too.

Kish still has family in Vermilion, and I know from our recent visits that the people up there are working hard to make their nice little town even better.  I’m glad to see that their efforts have been rewarded.  If you’re in the Midwest and want to check out a cool coastal town, Vermilion is worth a visit.

All About The Wall

You may have missed it, but Tuesday was the deadline for companies to submit bids for the design of “the wall” that President Trump proposes to build along at least some parts of our southern border with Mexico.

Customs and Border Protection is supposed to review the bids and announce finalists in June, and then some of the finalists are expected to build prototypes of their designs on government-owned land in San Diego.  The AP reports that the government is expected to select four to ten finalists to build 30-foot-long prototypes at a cost of $200,000 to $500,000 each.  Customs and Border Protection has indicated that it is looking for solid barriers, made of materials like concrete, rather than “walls” that rely on technology.

a0af3a441932abf668a4b1a868ee7b0aWe don’t know exactly how many companies submitted proposals, although apparently about 200 companies expressed interest in the border wall project.   I’m guessing that there were lots of bids.  What construction companies could resist bidding on a project that potentially involves pouring enormous amounts of concrete to build a barricade that extends for hundreds of miles?  The “wall” would make your standard highway construction project seem like a minor matter.

And although all of the bids haven’t been made public, we know what some companies are proposing because they have voluntarily disclosed their bids.  One bidder thinks the wall will become a kind of tourist attraction, and proposes a 56-foot-high wall designed with a walkway at the top to allow visitors to enjoy the desert vistas.  (“Hey kids!  Where should we go on our summer trip this year?  Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, or the border wall?”)  A different proposal suggests that nuclear waste be buried in trenches along the wall — which presumably would quash any meaningful tourist activity, by the way.  Another company wants to erect solar panels on parts of the wall, to generate electricity that can be sold to communities in both the U.S. and Mexico to help pay for the wall’s cost, which would allow President Trump to say that he had met, at least in part, his campaign promise that Mexico would pay for the wall.

Will a wall actually be built, given the significant opposition to it?  We don’t know at this point, but we do know one thing:  the bids that have been made public so far indicate the this effort at large-scale wall building could be a very quixotic exercise.

Dope And Hope

The politics of marijuana are changing.

As exhibit number one, consider Michelle Malkin, a reliably conservative political commentator. Yesterday she wrote about her visit to a marijuana shop in Colorado — not to rip the legalization movement, as you might expect, but rather to describe the positive impact marijuana use has had for her mother-in-law, who is dealing with cancer and has experienced problems with loss of appetite. By using the legal marijuana in Colorado, her mother-in-law’s food intake has improved, leading to hope that she will get stronger and weather the ravages of cancer treatment. And, as a bottom line, Malkin notes that the operators of the shops carefully run neat businesses, pay taxes, employ people, and provide goods and services that people like her mother-in-law want and need.

A number of states have changed their marijuana laws in recent years, but Colorado appears to be the focus of attention. In states like Ohio, where there doesn’t seem to be an significant movement toward either approval of medical marijuana or decriminalization on a state level, I expect that legislators are taking a hard look at the Colorado experience. Are significant additional tax revenues are being produced? Is there any appreciable effect on crime? Are people like Michelle Malkin’s mother-in-law benefiting? Is the legal sale of marijuana having any impact on tourism? The answers to those questions will tell us whether states like Ohio, which tends to be a follower rather than an innovator, may change its marijuana policies.

Avoiding Egypt

Going to Egypt to see the sights in the Valley of the Kings has always been a “bucket list” item for me. The beauty and awesome antiquity of the remnants of the Egypt of the Pharaohs exerts an irresistible attraction.

Sadly, I now question whether I’ll ever scratch off that bucket list item — and apparently I’m not alone. Since Egypt has fallen into a crisis involving the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups, with leaders being deposed and jailed and street clashes and deaths at demonstrations often in the news, governments have warned about travel to Egypt and tourists have avoided it. In September, tourism was down almost 70% from 2012, and in October — the most recent month for which statistics seem to be available — tourism was down 52% over the prior year.

Tourism is one of the largest segments of the Egyptian economy and one of the largest producers of foreign currency. I am sure that there are many people in Egypt — cab drivers, tour guides, street peddlers, and others — who are suffering due to the sharp drop in tourism. So why would prominent Egyptians be making public statements that simply exacerbate tourist concerns about safety and security? Recently, for example, an Egyptian editor speculated that the United States government might try to assassinate General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the general who ousted the Mohamed Morsi government last summer, and helpfully added that if such an attempt were made, Egyptians would rise up in a “revolution to kill the Americans in the streets.” Not surprisingly, the editor later tried to backtrack from his inflammatory statements and said that his remarks were about terrorism and that he bears no hostility to Americans.

American tourists aren’t idiots, and a half-hearted explanation isn’t going to cure the fact that such bloody rhetoric was used in the first place. If you like to travel, your bucket list of destinations probably is a long one. There are plenty of interesting faraway places to visit where you don’t need to worry that your visit might put your life in danger. Right now, the prevailing sense is that Egypt isn’t one of them.

Westminster Abbey

007Yesterday we visited Westminster Abbey. It’s the traditional burial site of British monarchs from Edward the Confessor to the Tudor area, the home of the Coronation Chair in which every British monarch has been crowned for a thousand years, and — predictably — a gathering spot for tourists.

The building itself is a beautiful example of Gothic architecture. Many of its original features, however, have been harmed or destroyed and then restored. Most of the stained glass windows, for example, are replacements. In addition, many of the grave markers, plaques, and other tributes to the dead are scratched and, in some instances, broken. Apparently the schoolboys who served in the choir and in other roles at the church were not worried about scratching a gibe into the back of an ancient chair or breaking off the nose of one of countless cherubs decorating the place.

011It’s interesting to see the burial places of such luminaries as Elizabeth I, her half-sister Queen Mary, and Geoffrey Chaucer, among countless others. At a certain point, however, all of the gilt and marble becomes overwhelming and seems more like clutter than anything else.

That’s why my favor part of the Abbey is the only part where they allow photography. It’s the cloister of the original Abbey, where monks once strolled in quiet religious contemplation.

Here there is a bit less clutter, a bit less bustle, a bracing shot of bright green grass after all the gold and cold white marble, and a whiff of cool, rain-washed air. The monastery elements of this lovely old building are, in my view, the most interesting, and the most enduring.