Thursday, October 22, 2009

Michael Moore

Just the name Michael Moore sets people off, many think he is a left wing wacko and only picks on the conservative right. In reality he is a thinking man with many thought provoking ideas as well as being the author of several books and producer of several movies. In at least one of those books he is pretty hard on Democrats as well as Republicans. Few people probably realize that. He recently published a Michael Moore's Action Plan: 15 Things Every American Can Do Right Now. At the end of the article he has five things we can do to protect ourselves. I liked the last one so here it is:

Find a place of peace in your life and make the choice to be around people who are not full of negativity and cynicism. Look for those who nurture and love. Turn off the TV and the Blackberry and go for a 30-minute walk every day. Eat fruits and vegetables and cut down on anything that has sugar, high fructose corn syrup, white flour or too much sodium (salt) in it (and, as Michael Pollan says, "Eat (real) food, not too much, mostly plants"). Get seven hours of sleep each night and take the time to read a book a month. I know this sounds like I've turned into your grandma, but, dammit, take a good hard look at Granny -- she's fit, she's rested and she knows the names of both of her U.S. Senators without having to Google them. We might do well to listen to her.

Last, go see his latest movie: Capitalism: A Love Story

Saturday, October 17, 2009

France reflections

Here are a few random thoughts about France. Small cars and narrow roads are the norms with very tight driving conditions in some of the small towns. In Paris, traffic is crazy with a mix of tour buses, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, small cars and Smart cars. As in the USA everybody is in a hurry, every driver jockeys for position to get some advantage. In the one hour drive from the city to the airport our van driver made more lane changes than I have in the last year.

Food choices are far fewer than in the USA, although by our GPS we were never more than 10 miles from a MacDonalds, not that we even thought of going there. The French menus I saw had ham, omelets, cheese and duck as the predominate choices. We did have raw salmon on a salad one day and avoided that choice in the future. In Paris the menus have a few more choices but I think they are trying to pick up some American tourist business. Portions are small but artfully presented in all the restaurants. I did see a few pizzerias but we didn't try them. With that said I saw very few grossly overweight French people. The only grossly overweight person I saw in Paris was an American.

Other than MacDonalds I only saw one other chain restaurant. For that matter I didn't see chain anything in most of the country. Unlike the USA the independent business man is alive and well and unlike the USA every community looks a little different.

The number of smokers per capita must be far larger than the USA, especially in Paris. Sidewalk cafes are everywhere and quite popular but smoke is a hazard. The cigarettes don't smell as bad as the French cigarettes of the 1960's.

Hotel rooms are small, showers are smaller. I'm not sure how that overweight American in our hotel fit into the shower, especially when I had trouble turning around. The showers have a big surprise moment when you turn around and unknowingly hit the faucet handle. The shock can be hot or cold depending on which way you turn.

Monday, October 12, 2009

More Paris

This is one busy city it starts early on weekdays and goes fast and hard until about 9pm. It is almost unbelievable that there are so many people on the streets between 4 and 8pm. Then again I'm just a country boy and this is the big city.

We walked for 5 hours at the Louvre today. They say you can walk 5 miles if you want to see everything. I believe it. I do think you need a PhD in Art History to fully appreciate all the art. Still there were thousands of people appreciating what they saw. Most popular were the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo and Napoleon's apartment.

We finished off the evening at a sidewalk cafe, one of thousands in the city. A couple drinks, dinner and an evening of people watching. A downside to the city are the smokers, it is much worse than anywhere in California. I have never seen a woman roll her own cigarette, tonight I saw two women do that. We will have to wash all our clothes when we get home.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Walking Paris

We hoofed it all over Paris today. First past the Louvre, long line to get in so we moved on, then down the Champs Elysee to the Arc de Triompe. There was a huge 20k run finishing at the Eiffel Tower when we were there adding to the hoards of people and creating a detour to get a better look, as if I needed to get closer to really see it. We thought about climbing the stairs but again the line was huge. At this point we took the long walk back to the hotel and had lunch at a restaurant close by. This evening more walking to Notre Dame as we toured through the cathedral. There was a service in progress despite the hundreds of tourist like us who were gazing at the inside of building. To finish the evening, you guessed it more walking until we found a restaurant with food to our liking. There are sore feet tonight. Tomorrow, probably the Louvre.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


It is Paris tonight and for the next couple of days. What a culture shock, we have been in the quiet Dordogne Valley the last week. It is quite a leap to enter the very busy streets of Paris. To get here we took a ride on the TGV, a high speed train that zips along about 180mph. Travel time from Libourne in southern France took about 3.5 hours and was smooth as silk. Someday the U.S. will catch up with the Europeans and their high speed rail. A taxi from the train station took us to our hotel after a big traffic jam and creative driving. This is a busy city, the sidewalks are extremely crowded and the streets are full of cars, buses, motor scooters and smart cars. Tomorrow we will hit the pavement and see the sights.

Friday, October 9, 2009


Many people visit foreign countries but I'm not sure how many have the opportunity to go into the homes of the locals. We had dinner with the owners of our house rental last night and it was a time to be remembered. There were 10 for a dinner consisting of 9 courses with wine changing according to the food at hand. The Conversation was plentiful although in English, French and Spanish. We did have 5 Spanish speakers one of
which was Robert our host who was most gracious. It was quite an experience to converse in three languages as the evening flowed. We were even allowed into our hosts meeting room of the secret Cepe society. Dinner began a 8pm and ended after midnight, wine of course in the beginning and cognac at the end with a fabulous meal provided by Mary Jo our hostess. The dinner totally dispelled the myth of the unfriendly French people. The magic of the evening culminated with a guitar and songs by Robert. My PB friend Cathie Mac would have loved this dinner.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Wednesday ride

Wednesday afternoon we decided to take a bike ride, despite cloudy skies and some rain drops. Navigating around this section of France can be confusing. The first couple days I had no idea of where we were, gradually I picked up some reference points, mind you I have always lived close to the ocean and near mountains which help define directions. Here in France under cloudy skies east, west, north, south can be a mystery. We began the ride with a good map and questionable reading skills. Fortunately most intersections are marked with directions to towns. That is only helpful if you recognize the name of the town and small towns are plentiful. This area has plenty of primary and secondary roads, the trick is to stay away from the primary roads. Traffic is lighter on the secondary roads but they do drive fast and rarely slow down when they see a cyclist.

Fortunately the ride was uneventful and the raindrops disappeared. We took a long downhill ride from Meyrals by cornfields, pastures and woodlands to Les Eyzies then along the river to Campagne. Next came a long climb followed by a downhill into St. Cyprien, this town has become one of my reference points. A stop at the store provided a few more items for dinner and further loaded down our heavy rental bikes. The last leg was flat ride by a large chateau and then we turned to our village le Colombier. This is a nasty little uphill and one we will avoid in the future electing to take a longer and higher climb that is more gradual. It was an afternoon well spent with three hours of riding.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Sarlat en Canada

Wednesday is market day in the old district of Sarlat. We were there a couple nights ago and it was pretty quiet, not so this morning. There were vendors all through the old section with a few musicians and lotsof people, many of whom were tourist like us. The old section of town has a huge church, of course, tall buildings, narrow streets and narrower alley ways. The market place had quite a variety: farmers with fruits and vegetables, farmers with sausages, vendor with canned duck, canned beans, meat vendors, knife vendors, and a few artsy craft people in addition to the permanent stores along the street.

The old stone buildings offer many kodak moments, curving tight streets of a medieval age, with colorful umbrellas of vendors and outdoor restaurants where it okay to sit, rest and watch with a glass beer or wine at 11am. Not to be forgotten there was a Boulangerie right around the corner that made a tasty raisin roll.

La Roque-Gageac and Castelnaud

We are here in the valley of the Dorgogne River. La Roque is built into a cliff face that is maybe 1000 feet tall. Beginning at the bottom they built up the cliffs. The back wall of homes appears to be the cliff face. About two-thirds of the way up the cliff is Fort Troglodyte the remnants of series of cliff side dwellings designded to be so unapproachable and forbidding that local marauders would dismiss any thought of attacking it as simply too much trouble. Local history has it that when Vikings came through the locals fled to the cliff caves.A long stairway leads to the cliff that could be easily defended.

The picture on the left is Castelnaud is close La Roque. It is one of the most visited castles in all of France. Built in the early 13th century the castle that had fallen into disrepair and has been restored. Sitting on a hill above the river, with a town at its base, the castle is an example of 13th-15th century warfare, complete with armor, daggers, spears, bows and crossbows. On display were catapults by the names of: pedrero, mangonel, trebuchet and the bombarde.
Several catapult reproductions were on display with an action video demonstrating how they work. This castle also
features the beginning of gunpowder and cannon warfare.The kids around here don't play cowboys and indians they play medieval warriors.

These were difficult times. Both La Roque and Castelnaud were built for warfare and protection from aggressors.If you weren't at war with someone and carry a bow, you were probably building these monstrous structures like Castlenaud. Castle construction took a tremendous amount of calories and man hours. Engineering of the day was kept secret. Even with the technology of today the castles would be a major construction job. I'm sure there were some unhappy camper construction workers in those days.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

French Food

One week in France and I am still struggling with the food. Restaurant fare can be rather expensive and the choices are unlike an American menu. Mussels, oysters, duck, ham, goat cheese, gizzards, uncooked salmon and more cheese are listed. Pasta dishes seem to be nonexistent, I guess we should go to Italy. Of course most menus are entirely in French so it can be a guess as to what you are ordering. I had a club sandwich the first night that was unlike any club sandwich I have ever eaten. One meal item that is plentiful are pomme frites or chips or french fries, just as in the U.S. they can be eaten every meal. The do have apple pie but in a very small size, ice cream or graces as they say in French, non!

Most of the food is well prepared and tasty, elegantly presented but small in proportion. Lastly restaurant food is expensive, at first glance the price seems okay until you remember the price is in euros and that means more in dollars. We have been in touristy areas which no doubt jacks up the price. Soon we will be going to Paris which will be worse.

I searched through the grocery store for a few favorite items and only found one. Peanut butter eluded me until I found an english speaking local who directed me to the right section. Gatorade and power bars are not to be found. We did find peanuts and almonds but they don't taste the same. As expected the wine section is huge but more on that later.

My cycling friend Bob would die over here without a cheeseburger in sight.

Chateau Des Milandes

The chateau was built in 1489 by Francois de Caumont to please his wife, surely she was pleased. The chateau had to be quite the residence in its day and it would be quite the residence today. In the middle ages the name "Milandes" referred to a wooded land, which it is. This was the Caumont's main residence until 1535. The property had many owner over the years and was in several states of disrepair, today it is quite elegant. In 1937 Josephine Baker
discovered the chateau, rented it until 1947 when she purchased the property. She called it her "Sleeping Beauty Castle"

A tour of the chateau is a tribute to Josephine. A dancer and entertainer, who was born in St.Louis. She was discovered on Broadway and moved to Paris to be in the Follies Bergere. Highly successful she became very wealthy, started her own cabaret and was dressed in very high fashion by top designers. During the war she was part of the resistance and decorated for her service. It is a fascinating story of a life well lived.

The final part of the tour was a display of raptors: hawks, owls, bald eagle and a falcon. We lucked into this performance and it was wonderful. Think of owls, hawks, and falcon flying right over your head, without landing of course. Quite a display of aeronautics by the birds.

Monday, October 5, 2009


Mont Saint Michel, I had never heard of it before and then I was there. An amazing abbey in a tidal basin near the English channel. Do a search and check it out, better yet go there sometime. The monastery was started in 709AD and grew into this huge abbey, monastery and later a prison on top of a big rock with a town below. Stone masonry was the occupation of centuries perhaps more force labor than volunteer labor. An impregnable stronghold during the Hundred Years War, Mont-Saint-Michel is also an example of military architecture. Its ramparts and fortifications resisted all the English assaults and as a result the Mount became a symbol of French national identity. The abbey is a confluence of stairways, large rooms, suspended passageways, large support pillars and an enormous wheel and pulley used to hoist building materials and later provisions. The building is an example of architectural mastery perching storied buildings on a steep slope.

Driving in France

With gas at around $5.30 per gallon, as you would expect all the cars are small. The narrow roads and tight village streets might have something to do with the choice of vehicles. We have been through many small villages that would be from difficult to impossible to navigate with a big American SUV. The rental car is a small diesel comfortable and able to carry four adults with baggage. Gas mileage computed to 53mpg after the first fill up. Great little car that we cannot buy in the USA and go is a Ford.

Ubequitous are the roundabouts at intersections. We have stopped at few stop signs. The roundabouts keep traffic moving and probably save gas with less time stopped idling and with fewer accelerations. The intersections are kind a dance as you follow the lead of other cars and time your entrance into the roundabout. Be advised that French drivers are agressive but so far we have not done any slam dancing. My brain is still adjusting to fast speeds on narrow roads and streets.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Meyrals, France

First morning at our rental house in the south of France we took a walk into the village to the Boulangerie. On the walk back we found ourselves in a wild pig hunt. Several cars of oranges vested hunters were jockeying for position as the hounds pursued the pigs through the underbrush. I watched the spectacle trying to look un pig like and hoping my lack of a morning shower didn't attract the hounds. Eventually the hounds moved beyond my position followed by exclamations in french and cars roaring off to another ambush site. Fortunately the house walls are 18 inches thick and able to with stand stray projectiles.

Addendum: it is now later in the day and the hounds are still baying. Evidently the pig is winning or in this case surviving.