Thursday, December 8, 2016

Slow Trains

Add to Google Reader or HomepageYears ago, I asked my secretary to do something that was either redundant or not needed which she pointed out to me. I still asked her to do it – whatever it was, only to realize that she was right. When she brought me the results, I apologized and admitted that I was wrong. She looked at me over the top of her big 1970s glasses and said: “When God was handing out brains, you thought he said trains and said ‘I’ll take the slow one.’”

Taking the Amtrak train to Chicago last week, I was thinking that I have still not learned my lesson. I still take the slow one. Taking the train to Chicago requires as much time as driving. If we had been able to take a French fast train, we would have arrived in Chicago in less than two hours. Instead, we were on the train for almost four hours.

It is so different from taking a train in France. The French trains are called “TGV” (Train à Grande Vitesse) and they roll at 130 miles an hour.

The big difference is that French trains can roll without interruption. They never have to cross a road or street. Every rail/road intersection is either an overpass or an underpass. The Amtrak train to Chicago crossed a street or road about every four or five minutes until the train got past Niles, MI and then completed the route on Chicago train tracks (no street crossings).

Amtrak does not own the rails on which its trains operate. They have had to rent rail line time from freight lines and, as renters, Amtrak gets lower right of way priority. (Our trip to Chicago was slowed by 15-20 minutes because of a rail use conflict. Our delay was small in comparison to horror stories that we have heard.)

Europe made train travel a priority and as a result has an amazing network of rail lines. A person can leave London in the morning and have dinner in the south of France the same day. The trains are electric and controlled by a computer network. They are as clean as they are fast. Newer rail beds and electric motors make for a very smooth ride on trains in France. The Amtrak ride was not nearly as smooth. Walking to the café car on the way to Chicago, I looked like a little boy who had filled his pants with my wide stride so as not to fall on someone as the cars jostled back and forth. Needless to say, I held my beverage rather than setting it on the tray.

Not everyone likes the fast trains. We have an ex-pat friend who laments the loss of slow trains in Europe. He claims that one can no longer get a proper meal on a train. No more dinner jacket dining for the James Bond types of the world.

I may have chosen the slow one before but now I prefer the fast trains of France.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Rolling up the sidewalks

We still get questions from friends who ask about the differences that we note between life in Lansing and life in Vaison la Romaine. We still get questions about how long it takes to readjust to one environment or the other. 

Since we have been living our schizophrenic lives for the last eight years, I usually explain that we now have a routine of how we handle the changes in location and life style. For the most part, once we have put the clothes away and returned things to where they belong, we are pretty much settled. 

Even though our life in France follows the beat of a different drummer than our life here, we have come to enjoy the differences in tempo and thus enjoy wherever we are. After so many years, it is rare that we encounter a situation that surprises us. Sometimes it takes a visitor to the US or a visitor to France to ask a question that surprises us and makes us think about the contrasts. For example, a French person asking about why we permit pharmaceutical companies to advertise on television (not permitted in France) or an American visiting France who asked what stores are open on Sunday afternoon (none!).

Friday evening however, I surprised myself in my incorrect assumptions about our life in Lansing. We had gone to a concert and invited other concert-goers to join us for a drink after the performance. We chose a restaurant in the heart of downtown Lansing and went to wait for our friends there. We walked through the door at 9:36 and the hostess announced that the kitchen had closed at 9:30. We had eaten before the concert so food was not the objective in going there but nonetheless...

  • If we had been in France - even in our little village - the dinner service would have continued until 11:00 PM. In Paris, people often arrive at restaurants after 9:00. (In Spain, it seems that the most popular dinner hour is 10:00.)


  • The waiter brought our bill shortly after 10:30. To me it was a clear suggestion that we drink up and leave.

To tell the truth, we may have picked the one restaurant in downtown Lansing that closed early. I just never expected that the well-known restaurant that we picked would operate on such a schedule. The restaurant across the street appeared to be open and seemed to have a lot of people in it. I know I am using broad strokes to paint this picture but really... I never expected the restaurant that we chose to have such a roll-up-the-sidewalks schedule. I had believed that Lansing was more cosmopolitan. 

PS: We drove through downtown Lansing again last night and confirmed that I had chosen the only restaurant to close early; every other food-beverage place seemed to be filled with customers. I guess my skill at picking restaurants matches my skill at choosing the slowest line when going through customs. I have a knack at picking the wrong one.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Home again, home again...

Add to Google Reader or HomepageWe have been back in Lansing almost a month. We have settled in and our house feels like it is ours again. Clothes and objects that we stored so that our house-sitters would have empty closets and dressers are now back in their proper places.

I have claimed this so often to be boring but we live in the best neighborhood in the city/state/nation. Just one example: our neighbors wanted to surprise us when we came back to Lansing and since we had changed our calendar to be in France until the end of July, they prepared the soil and planted a vegetable garden for us. What a wonderful surprise! We have been enjoying the fruits of their labors since the day that we arrived. (I need more zucchini recipes!)

For the last eight years, we have been following our schedule of half-year here, half-year there. One would think that I had reported on all of the differences between our two life-styles but there are always things that surprise me when we arrive here (and there). 

One big difference this year, we stayed through two of the summer months: June and July. Vaison la Romaine changes a lot in the summer. First of all, the population doubles - from 7,000 to 14,000. A lot of people arrive with their bicycles. They fill the streets and the roads and, after a nice ride, the cafés. Vaison has one of the best street markets in Provence but in the middle of the summer it is packed with people. It is almost impossible to navigate through the throngs. (The locals have advised us to shop early - before 9:00 AM.) The shops that cater to tourists expand their hours. The cafés offer more live music at night thus the cafés are filled from morning until late in the evening. There is a proliferation of ice cream vendors. There are several ice cream specialty shops but the cafés also add ice cream coolers. If one could rank order the popularity of a type of store by the number of stores of that type, in Vaison in the summer the ranking would be beauty salons/coiffeurs, restaurants and cafés, bakeries, ice cream vendors, real estate sales offices... 

Vaison has become known for the dance performances held in July and August at the Roman Amphitheater. We went to one of the performances and I can only describe it as magical. The show started at 10:00 PM - just after sunset - and we and about 5,000 other people were finding our seats in a 2000 year old amphitheater that was built by the Romans. The performance that we saw was by an American company - the Los Angeles Dance Project - though the director is Benjamin Millepied is French and former director of the Paris Opera Ballet (and husband of actress Natalie Portman.)

Another observation: Even though we live in a village in France, people there dress better than people dress here. One expects people of Paris to dress well but the rules of fashion are somewhat relaxed outside of the large cities. One rarely sees people dressed as casually in Vaison as one sees people here. Even the tourists dress better in France. No sweats in public - ever! It reminds me of the quote about wearing sweat pants in public attributed to Jerry Seinfeld: “You’re telling the world ‘I give up.’” (Training outfits/warm-up suits are becoming more popular in France...) The contrast in fashion was underscored for me when I encountered a woman who was wearing pajamas as she shopped in one of the local superstores. Now that is casual! Welcome home!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Nantes and Paris

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We went to Nantes to visit a dear friend. (We also got to see a friend who we have not seen since she was in East Lansing in 1980!) Nantes is at the mouth of the Loire River on the western coast of France. It was not our first trip there but was the most memorable. We toured the city with our friend who was born and raised there so he is very knowledgeable guide. He lives in the center of the city so we walked most places. 

We took the “Navibus” to the other side of the Loire river and walked around the village of Trentemoult. We visited the island of the city and got to see the huge (three stories high) mechanical elephant that walks around the island.

We went through the castle of the dukes of Brittany (le Château des ducs de Bretagne) and ate at a lovely restaurant facing the castle (Le Fou du Roi - the Court Jester). Every meal during our visit was excellent and, since our friend is a very knowledgeable connoisseur of wine, we drank well.

Note: Nantes was thirty degrees Fahrenheit cooler than Vaison. Everyday, we went out with a jacket!

We left Nantes and took the fast train to Paris. We visited our friends who were staying in Paris for several weeks. Paris is always awesome.

We had planned to go to an American restaurant for dinner on the 4th of July. (American Independence Day is not a holiday in France.) Two of the Americans with whom we were going to eat did not like the restaurant so we decided instead to find a restaurant in the neighborhood that made hamburgers. We found the perfect café and had great hamburgers and fries - with Heinz catsup!

We went to Versailles to see the new exhibition of paintings depicting the role of France in the American Revolutionary War. (The French call it the War of Independence.) It was a very engaging and enlightening exhibit. Somewhere in my past, I remembered that La Fayette had helped Washington and that the French had also sent naval support but I always thought of the French help as a small footnote on the war. The French were very much involved in supporting our independence and fighting England.

There was an exhibit of three hundred years of women’s fashion at the Museum of Decorative Arts. I am probably showing my age but I much prefer the hoop skirts of the seventeenth century to some of the extravagant (outrageous?) fashions of the current time. (There was also a Barbie exhibit at the same building but we decided not to pay to see that exhibit.)

On our last day in Paris, we went to Montmartre - the highest part of Paris. We found a little café and had a wonderful lunch and then spent the afternoon climbing and descending the hills of Montmartre. Ellen wanted to see the little vineyard in Montmartre because she wanted to compare it to the little vineyard our friend had shown her in the center of Nantes. 

As we walked around Paris, I was asking myself if anyone there spoke French. I heard many languages most of which were not French. Maybe it was the multitude of tourists, maybe it was because July is one of the two vacation months for the French and the French-speaking Parisians had left the city. For whatever reason, it was amazing to hear so many languages. 

Bonne fête nationale de France! Happy Bastille Day!

Friday, July 8, 2016

June in Vaison la Romaine

Add to Google Reader or HomepageThis is the first time we have spent June in France. I am glad we did. The weather is warmer and though we had several severe rain storms at the beginning of the month, it has not rained since - and that is a good thing as no rain means low humidity which means the temperature drops after sunset and the sleeping is easy.

Activities in Vaison increase markedly in June. (It also helps when the European Football Championship is going on and the bars and cafés have their big screens tuned in.) On weekend nights when there is no football, there is music. No matter the reason, people seem to flock to the central square of the town and enjoy the long and cool evenings.

The Alliance Française - Michigan Capital Area Chapter has always dedicated the June soirée to La Fête de la Musique (the music festival). We listen to French music on CD's or sometimes played by talented members of the group, sometimes we sing French songs. I have enjoyed our little tribute to La Fête de la Musique but had no idea of how big the celebration was in France or more accurately in Vaison. 

On the evening of the Solstice, musical groups started playing at around 6:00 PM. There were at least six venues where musicians were playing simultaneously. The groups came and went but the music continued well into the night. All of the cafés and bars had added tables and chairs and they were all full. I have never seen so many people in town as were there for La Fête de la Musique. The central square was filled with people as were the other streets and gathering areas. It was harder to walk from one venue to another than it is to walk through the Tuesday market. Some of the music enticed people to dance - and they did! It was a fun-filled enjoyable evening and a wonderful way to celebrate the Solstice.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Health Care in France

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I am continually amazed at the French health care system. 

On Friday morning, Ellen and I walked to the Vaison hospital so that I could have a cyst removed from my eyelid. The operation was the culmination of a four-month process the extent and success of which I am in awe.

When we arrived in France in February, I had developed what looked like a boil on my eyelid. My local doctor referred me to an ophthalmologist. The ophthalmologist corrected my diagnosis: I had a cyst that had become infected. He prescribed antibiotics and suggested that I should have it removed.

Before proceeding with the operation, my physician suggested that I consult with the local cardiologist which I did. The heart doctor did an EKG and an echo cardiogram and he wrote to the ophthalmologist that my heart was functioning well and there would no reason that I could not have the operation. I did not schedule anything for May as we had Lansing visitors and then a trip to Porto, Portugal.

Friday was the day. The cyst had reduced in size from being about the size of an olive pit to being only the size of a grape seed which pleasantly surprised the ophthalmologist. We met him as we were walking to the hospital and he got to meet Ellen. He told her that the surgery would take about an hour and then he asked me to follow him to the operating room.

As promised, we were walking home an hour later. I had a big patch over my left eye which covered four stitches closing the spot from whence he had removed the cyst.

This is all pretty boring stuff except when one compares health care in France (Vaison) with health care in the US. Some things jump out as differences:
  • Regular visits to a doctor cost 23 € - under $30 at the current exchange rate.
  • Visits to a specialist like the cardiologist are more expensive. I think I paid 150 € for the visit during which I had the EKG and the echo. 
  • Before going to the hospital for the surgery, the ophthalmologist had given me a list of medications and supplies that I needed to buy and bring to the hospital. All of the supplies that the ophthalmologist used during the surgery - minus the thread used for the stitches - were in the things that I had purchased at the pharmacy (about 9 €).
  • Doctors work alone. My physician does not have any office staff. If I call for an appointment, it is he who answers the phone. The cardiologist has an office assistant but he performs all of the procedures himself. The ophthalmologist performed the surgery by himself. He had no assistance at all.
  • As we left the surgery, the ophthalmologist gave me an invoice to pay to the hospital. He reminded me where the billing office was and said: “You don’t have to stop there right now if you don’t want to. Pay the bill when it is convenient for you.” (The bill for my time in the hospital surgery was under $100.) The ophthalmologist had told me that my bill for his time would be about 150 € - $175 - a bill that I won’t see until he removes the stitches.)
  • Medical school is free, so those who become doctors are not burdened with overwhelming debt. Malpractice lawsuits are rare in France so doctors do not have to spend huge sums for insurance.
I remember speaking with an emergency room physician several years ago when I had gone to the ER. He said that health care in France costs about one/tenth of what it costs in the US. (He was a French doctor who had worked as a doctor in California before settling in Vaison.)

Not only is the cost of health care significantly less than in the US, prescriptions are equally inexpensive. I had told the cardiologist about a drug that I was taking and that the copay portion that I paid was extremely expensive. He wrote me a prescription for this same drug and my total costs are now about one/third of what my copay was!

I am pleased that we finally have The Affordable Care Act in the US but when I compare it to health care in France, I know that the US has a long way to go in meeting the health care needs of its citizens. We can and must do better in the US.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Travels

I have been reading Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck and it has made me think a lot about traveling. We traveled a lot in May. We entertained neighbors from Lansing at the beginning of the month by showing them some of the sights and sites of our area and then made a trip to Porto, Portugal to meet up with other friends for the end of the month. Traveling familiar roads with neighbors who have never seen the area forces you to adopt a different way of looking at the area based on their questions and reactions. Their visit expanded our ways of seeing and enjoying beautiful Provence.

Traveling to a different country or a different region of France I notice things that remind me that I am no longer in Provence. It is like the first time we drove to New York via Canada. Once you cross the border, you begin to notice that the houses are just a little different from American houses. It might be construction materials or decorations or maybe gardens but the houses are different. 

The same is true when we crossed the border from France to Spain. The houses south of the Pyrenees were different from French houses. Of course, the predominant culture of the Pyrenees is related to the Basque people and their customs and life style spill over to the style of their houses. Basque houses have wood beams and stucco and thus seemed similar to houses in Switzerland.

Porto and its architecture was different from what we witnessed in Spain. Many houses, buildings and churches were covered with ceramic tiles - some were geometric patterns, others were pieces in a mural. The tiles were predominantly made of shades of blue but there were other bright colors as well.

In Provence, houses are built of stone or cement blocks and covered with stucco. The roofs are orange Spanish tiles and the shutters (everybody has shutters that work and that they use) are painted in muted blues and greens and grays... 

No matter where we went, one thing was constant: local residents recognized us as foreigners - English-speaking foreigners to be exact. I thought that I would have become less recognizable as a foreigner since we have been coming here for so many years but I must have “American” printed on my forehead. Whenever we walked into a restaurant, the waiter would ask if we wanted menus in English. The landscape may change, the architecture may change but we are recognizable no matter where we are.