Tuesday, May 3, 2016

¡Vamos a Castilla!

We've enjoyed getting to know Madrid (first in 2010 and again in 2012) and frequently make connections at the Madrid Barajas airport. We've explored Barcelona. Now it's time to get out and about and see what else is in Spain.

We'll start modestly, as we usually do, and explore one region, Castile. We'll begin in Toledo then move on to Ávila, Salamanca, and Segovia. We've arranged our lodging and know the bus and train options to get from one to the other, but beyond that, we shall see what we shall see.

While you are waiting to see snaps from this trip to Spain, I offer to you my Flickr album of photos and videos from our recent visit to Chicago: Chicago April 2016.

We had a good time in Chicago, as we always do. The highlights this time were the Strandbeest exhibit at the Cultural Center, the Michigan Street drummers, and pizza at Lou Malnati's.

Since then we've had a bit of a rest so now it is time to fly away.

120 North Lasalle

Friday, April 8, 2016

Lille, Amiens, Paris

After a couple of trips to Paris some years ago and a visit to Lyon last fall, we wanted to try France again, this time in a new direction: northeast, to be exact, to Lille, near the Belgian border, and then Amiens followed by several days in Paris.

(The Flickr photo album of the trip is here: France / Spring 2016.)

We began easily enough by catching a bus at CDG airport. I would have liked to try the TGV, the high speed train, but the large difference in price (€9 for the bus versus €50 or more for the train) was not worth the small difference in travel time (an hour versus two hours). Besides, the bus was nice: comfortable plush seats, wifi, and a WC.

For some reason, Lille is not much mentioned in guidebooks. It's the fourth largest city in France (after Paris, Marseilles, and Lyon) and has the second largest museum (after the Louvre in Paris). We bought the city pass, which got us a walking tour of the old town, a ride on the tourist bus past all the important sites, a transport pass for buses and the subway, and admission into more museums than we could possibly visit. For five days and four nights we found plenty to do and see. And to eat.

Lille

Click on the image for a larger view on Flickr and more details.

After Lille we took a regional train to Amiens. Mostly we wanted to see the cathedral -- which is stunning -- but were surprised at how pretty and pleasant the town was. Not much to do, mind you, but I was very happy to simply walk about and enjoy the atmosphere, with an occasional stop for refreshment.

Amiens Cathedral

Monsieur Crêpes

Another short train ride took us to Paris, where we had booked a hotel near the Place de la République. The location was perfect, with easy access to trains and lots of Metro lines. Our room on the first night was ridiculously small, even for Paris, but the next morning we were able to move to a much larger room, with a much larger shower, and life was again beautiful.

We had already done the most obvious tourist things in Paris -- Eiffel Tower, Louvre, d'Orsay, l'Orangerie -- and wanted to stray from those well-beaten paths to know Paris a little better. Most importantly, we got new Navigo Découverte cards and unlimited Metro passes.

(A note about the Paris Metro: I love it so much that sometimes I think I would visit Paris just to ride the subway. The network design is awe-inspiring and beautiful. The only problem that I can see is that the system is at or beyond capacity. The trains cannot get any bigger, due to the size of the stations, nor can they get more frequent, since they are running only 3-4 minutes apart. Most of the trains we rode were jammed unpleasantly full.)

We went to museums (Jacquemart-André, Marmottan Monet, Bourdelle, Quai Branly) and walked around neighborhoods (Marais, Montparnasse, St.-Denis). With our Metro cards we were able to change our mind on a whim and head off to a different place whenever we liked. And I indulged myself more than once at Léon de Bruxelles, a prominent mid-range restaurant chain specializing in moules et frites, steamed mussels with french fries. My first meal at Leon's was way back in 2004 on our first trip to Paris.

UncaMikey loves moules

There was one bad day, and it was very, very bad. We went to the Palace of Versailles for no reason other than that it is very famous and we had never been there. The badness of Versailles has two parts. Part one, it is hideously and ostentatiously ugly, and I am not one whit surprised that the French peasantry revolted and chopped off a bunch of heads. Part two, the mobs of tourists were rude and obsessed with taking selfies. We were continually pushed back or aside so that some yokel could grin into her/his phone, snapping their visage against a backdrop of 18th century French decadence. To visit Versailles in the summer heat, when the crowds are far larger, must be a special kind of hell.

Versailles

Fortunately we quickly recovered, our Metro passes whisking us back to the sanity of Paris proper.

We understand France much better now, I think, and are already considering what regions to visit next. Alsace? Normandy? France is a large country of many cuisines and almost endless possibilities.

Monday, February 15, 2016

NY in B&W

The problems of modern society can be summed up in three words: too many options! Cable channels, cell phone plans, banking products, sneakers, coffee, beer, salsa -- why are there so many choices? Why do I have pick and choose among so many possibilities?

So it is with photography, a sometime hobby of mine. I bought my first good SLR, a Pentax, in 1969, and for almost forty years taking pictures was pretty straightforward. Choose a film -- black and white or color, slow or fast, positive or negative -- and you were set for the next 24 or 36 shots. Select a shutter speed and aperture, focus, and click!

La Defense

Click on the image for a larger view on Flickr and more details.

But with the advent of digital, picture-taking got both a lot easier and a lot more complicated. My current camera, a Fujifilm X30, handles well and takes great photos, but before I snap the shutter I have to think about much more than speed, aperture, and focus. The 'quick' menu has 16 different parameters covering things like aspect ratio, file size, IS mode, metering mode, type of color or film simulation, face recognition, noise reduction, and dynamic range. That's child's play compared to the full menu system: screen after screen, hierarchies of screens, options and more options.

Taking snaps, I've found myself at times overwhelmed by what ifs? Should I use the low-light mode in that shot? What about that cute toy camera effect, or the soft portrait option? And once I decide to shoot something a little differently, I have to remember where it is in the menus, and just as importantly I have to remember to turn it off after I click the shutter.

Robert Frost famously said that writing free verse (poetry without rhyme or meter) is like playing tennis without a net. That is, rules and restrictions provide a framework that force you to concentrate on what's important. Without such boundaries, we tend to wander aimlessly. So, I've decided to come to terms with my camera by mostly shooting as if it had film in it, ignoring 95% of the options and instead paying attention to the basics. And I am going to follow this road of simplicity even further on our upcoming trip to New York: black and white only, contrast and tone, no color!

Staircase

Monday, February 1, 2016

It's a Musical!

Before our most recent trip to New York City, I had never seen a Broadway musical. The day we arrived, we went to see Kinky Boots. The next day we saw a taping of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert then in the evening saw An American in Paris. The third day we went to a taping of The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. The fourth and final day we saw Something Rotten. All these shows were entertaining, of course, but I have now seen enough Broadway musicals and taping of TV shows.

It wasn't all song and dance, however. We walked around Times Square and Rockefeller Plaza and strolled through the snow in Central Park and along the Upper West Side. We visited Trinity Church (and Alexander Hamilton's grave) and St. Patrick's Cathedral. We saw the Sorolla paintings at the Hispanic Society of America in Washington Heights and spent an afternoon at the Frick Museum. We were awed by the beautiful and moving 9/11 Memorial downtown. There was even time for stops at the New York Public Library, Bryant Park, and Grand Central Station. Amidst all this rushing about I sometimes had to sit down for a rest.

Central Park

Click on the image for a larger view on Flickr and more details.

(We arrived just two days after one of the biggest snowstorms in New York history. We saw snow everywhere, piled up along curbs, in the middle of the street, along the sidewalks, but it had no effect at all on the life of the city. New York had done a remarkable job of bouncing back and getting on about their business.)

I wasn't especially pleased with my snaps on this trip. It was cold and whenever we were on the streets we were bundled up, making it difficult to reach in my coat and get my camera out. But I did get a few snaps worth sharing, in this Flickr album: A Few Days in New York City.

This was our first visit to New York since 2007 and we liked it so much that we're going back in less than three weeks. American Airlines is offering round-trips from DFW to LaGuardia for $81; with a fare like that, who can resist?

Sunday, January 17, 2016

On Diplomacy

In these early days of presidential primary season, virtually all the Republican candidates are calling for vigorous military action against our enemies, real and imagined. Obama is weak! Carpet bomb ISIS! Our military will be so strong no one will dare challenge us!

Such talk makes me ill. Almost 50 years ago, I was in Vietnam, a UH-1 (Huey) helicopter pilot for the U.S. Army. For a year, from 1968 to 1969, I flew missions as part of a crew (two pilots, a crew chief, and a gunner). We always flew by ourselves, a single ship, sometimes in air traffic jams around huge airports like Tan Son Nhut (Saigon) and Bien Hoa, sometimes alone in the sky for miles and miles, eventually landing in a soccer field next to a school, on a bare piece of dirt alongside a canal, or on top of a mountain. We went into the southern Highlands, Song Be, out to the coast, Phan Thiet, and deep into the Mekong Delta, Ca Mau.

Many times we would land to be greeted by kids. Smiling, happy kids, in awe of our aircraft, eager to see it, and us, up close. These young fellows below are middle-aged men now, if they are still alive, which I most dearly hope they are.

1969:  Sa Dec

Vietnam was hot so I often flew at some altitude, into cool dry air, to escape the heat. The green fertility of the tropical country was overwhelming, nature unleashed to grow as much and as fast as she could manage.

Losing altitude made the damage to the country sickeningly apparent. Vast forests had been sprayed with Agent Orange, leaving bare trees and lifeless soil. Arclight strikes, massive raids by fleets of B-52 bombers, left miles of bomb craters disfiguring the landscape.

The U.S. then had, and has now, the mightiest military in the world. At the peak of the war, when I was there, we had well over 500,000 troops in country. (Compare this to the Iraq war, when our strength peaked at 170,000 in 2007.) As for carpet bombing, by the time the war was over we had dropped over 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia -- this is twice (yes, TWICE) the total of all bombs dropped in Europe and Asia in World War II. We lost over 58,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. Estimates of total deaths caused by both sides range from 1.5 to 3.5 million people.

After all this, we lost. No other outcome was possible. The Vietnamese were fighting for their own country, spurred by hopes of independence and freedom from foreign domination. The Vietnamese fighting on 'our' side gave up, having nothing to fight for; their own government was unbelievably corrupt and at the end fled to the U.S. and Europe with tons of gold.

The widespread destruction I witnessed in Vietnam convinced me that never again would the United States commit so many resources to such a senseless and foolish war. How wrong, how very wrong, I was. Now, in 2016, some Americans want to do it all again. They want to waste dollars and lives in a vain attempt to, what? Fulfill some hapless leader's egotistical fantasy? Prove to ourselves that we are tough and fearsome? While the rest of the world cries out, the Emperor has no clothes.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Bronze Age

We're beginning the new year with a short trip to Washington, D.C. There's always things to do in the nation's capital, but the special reason for this trip is the exhibit Power and Pathos at the National Gallery, an impressive display of 50 Hellenistic bronze sculptures.

(Quick history refresher course, if you're interested: The Hellenistic period begins with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. and ends in 31 B.C. with Octavian's victory over Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. During these three centuries, Greek culture, art, and science dominated the Mediterranean world.)

There are not many of these sculptures still in existence, and the ones that remain are scattered all over. Usually you have to travel far and wide to see individual pieces. Back in 2002, on a car trip through Italy's Le Marche region, we visited the small town of Pergola to see the magnificent Gilt Bronzes from Cartoceto di Pergola. In 2009, during a trip to Rome, we oohed and aahed over this life-size figure, called simply The Boxer.

The Boxer

Click on the image for a larger view on Flickr and more details.

We're staying at a hotel near the Mall and a couple of Metro stops, so we'll be able to wander about and find other stuff to look at. If they're interesting enough I'll blog about them or maybe even take a snap or two.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Scooters of Lyon

As in most European cities, Lyon's streets and sidewalks are a busy mixture of pedestrians, motor scooters, bicycles, buses and trams, cars, and even skateboards. Add to this mix something new, at least to me: scooters. Yes, scooters, the kind where you push yourself along with one foot while grasping a small set of handlebars connected to a steerable front wheel.

The first one I saw almost ran us down. The Lyonnais are quite nimble and proficient, able to zip with ease around and through crowds of mere pedestrians. Bicycles and motor scooters have to go in the street, contending with the dangers of cars and trucks, but scooters use the sidewalks.

The scooter riders (drivers? users? daredevils?) cut across all age groups and demographics: small children, students, GenXers and millenials, professionals, a few almost as old as me, alone or in groups, sometimes whole families.

Here then is my small selection of snaps of scooters in Lyon. It's not easy to take a photograph of someone on a scooter. They are upon you and past in a flash, so many of my snaps are of the scooters receding in the distance as I fumble with my camera.