Monday, February 09, 2015

February 9, 2015 -- Phoenix, Arizona -- trip wrapup

After writing this blog about my 2014 attempt, I hiked the Camino successfully in 2015 and wrote an ebook about it. The book is for sale on all Amazon sites worldwide and includes hundreds of color photographs. The title is: A Senior Citizen Walks the Camino de Santiago. 
 Click here for more information on the book.

I intended to do this entry on Friday or Saturday, but I underestimated how much time my post-trip obligations would take up including working as a "volunteer" Saturday at a bike race that our bike racing team, Team RPM, put on.

I managed to get through a month of flying on crowded airplanes, riding in crowded buses and trains, and sleeping in shared dormitory rooms without a sniffle. Today I have the first symptoms of a cold, which I obviously caught in sunny Phoenix.  :(

The flight back from Brussels to Newark (outside New York City) arrived very late. We were delayed on the ground in Brussels by freezing rain that caused ice to form on the plane's wings, and our plane had to wait its turn for deicing. I should have had several hours to recover in Newark Airport, but as it turned out, once I got my baggage, got through customs, and rechecked my bag, I had to hurry to catch my connecting flight. The system in Europe is simpler. If you have a connecting flight, you don't have to take your checked baggage through customs unless there is a question about it. You luggage is checked through to your final destination.

On the flight from Phoenix to Newark, shortened to five hours by favorable winds, my seat companions were a French Canadian couple who spoke little English, so I got to use my inadequate French one last time.

Oh, the bike race Saturday. Yes, I raced in the 70 plus age group. There were only five of us, and I came in dead last. I wasn't disappointed, because it was my first real bike ride in a month, and I managed to hang on about halfway through the race before the other four left me behind. It was a circuit race, and I was worried about taking one fast 90-degree corner on a downhill in a group after not having taken a fast turn on the bike in such a long time, but it turned out that I handled it fine.

This is the last entry until sometime in July, when I head to Europe again to make one more attempt to do the entire Camino de Santiage de Compostela, 500 miles or 800 kilometers, on foot. I will leave open the option of doing it on a bicycle if the tendons in my left leg haven't completely healed from last summer's attempt (it's been seven months, and the tendons are still not completely healed).

Oh, page views during the past week. Views were understandably down, as the trip ended last Thursday, but here are the views by country:

Belgium 60 (due to the fact that Melonie of the Brussels Youth Hostel has lots of local admirers, I assume)
USA 26
Germany 5
France 5
Netherlands 5
Spain 3
Ireland 2
Argentina, Italy and Latvia 1 each.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

February 4, 2015 -- Brussels Belgium

This will be my last blog entry from Europe until I return in July for my third attempt at completing the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. I will try to do a final wrap-up entry of the trip from Phoenix on either Friday or Saturday. When I arrive home tomorrow night, I will be too intoxicated from lack of sleep to write.

I walked this morning to the Plaramenterium, which is the multimedia center that attempts to explain the workings of the European Parliament to those of us who might not be very politically astute. I can't claim to now understand with workings of the European Union's government, but I do at least understand a little bit better the workings of the Parliament branch. I am still completely ignorant of of how the European Commission fits into the scheme of things, for example. Nor do I completely understand why the Parliament performs some of its functions in Brussels and others in Strasbourg, France. Well, I do know why; the French government at the time had the biggest clout in the organization (the UK had not yet joined, and Germany was still keeping a low profile due to guilt feelings about the Second World War), and the French wanted to be at the center of thing.

I was going to take a bus to the Parlamenterium until I checked the price of a bus ticket. It's WAY more expensive than in Paris. Then I remembered that I was here to walk and that the distance was only a few kilometers each way, so I walked both directions.

Entrance to the Parlamentarium
I didn't try to take any photos inside the Parlamenterium. It wouldn't have worked, because the place is a multimedia visitors' center with touch screens, audio, and a 360-degree surround movie theater that puts the viewer in the center of a parliament session.. However, the photo above shows the entrance.

Security was like that of an airport, in theory at least. I had to leave my two small pocket knives outside for safe keeping, and after emptying all of my pockets, I failed the metal detector on three attempts. Then I failed the wand screening. Finally they just let me go through.

I was surprised that the security staff and welcoming committee spoke very basic English. After not understanding much when a few of them insisted on using their English with me, I stubbornly stuck to French, which I at least speak well enough to be able to communicate.

On the way back, I passed through the Parc de Bruxelles, which seems to be the place to go for a run. There were hundreds of runners, almost all of them running around the park's perimeter in a clockwise direction. There was an occasional runner on on of the park's other paths, and naturally there were a few who didn't get the message and were running counterclockwise in the face of the oncoming thundering herd.

Runners in the Brussels Park
Well, that's it for this trip. As I wrote above, I'll do one final entry on Friday or Saturday when I'm in Phoenix. I will have a lot of things to do when I get home, as there is no food (or beer) in the house, and the yard is probably overgrown with weeds. Oh, yes, and then there is that darn bicycle race on Saturday, which I am no only committed to racing but to working, as it is our bike-racing team that is putting it on.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

February 3, 2015 -- Brussels, Belgium

I took the noon train from Paris to Belgium and walked from the South Train Station to the youth hostel. As I walked into the hostel, a voice from behind the reception desk called out in English, "Mister Quinn! I have been expecting you!" It was the same young woman who checked me in weeks ago when I arrived from the airport after flying from Phoenix, and she was in fact expecting me. She remembered me from my last visit, and she said she saw my name on the computer in the list of reservations. I don't know if it is a good or bad thing that people all over Europe seem to remember me. It might be that I have made a very bad impression.

At any rate, here she is at the reception desk. Her name is Melonie, and she is fluent in at least three languages, possibly more, so she will be happy to give you a warm reception in your language if you come to stay at the hostel.

Melonie at the reception desk at Bruegel Hostel
The Bruegel youth hostel is right next to the Chapel la Chapelle in French or Kapellekerk in Dutch on Holy Ghost Street. Here's a picture of the Chapel. To me it looks big enough to be called a cathedral or at least a church, but it is a chapel. Well, that's not quite true. It's full name translates as the Church of Our Lady of the Chapel, and it is called the Chapel for short. It was once a mere chapel, but it began its transformation into a church in the year 1210 when it was decided to enlarge it.

The Chapel near Central Brussels
Right across from the Chapel is a skate park. It is not very crowded now, because it is winter and school is in session, but I have seen it crowded with skaters, skate boarders, and BMX bikers in summer. There is a heavy plexiglass wall at the back, which is a good thing, because the skate park is built out over the railroad tracks.

The skate park at the Chapel
I am staying at the Bruegel Youth Hostel, which is the Flemish youth hostel in Brussels. There are also several Walloon or French youth hostels. Belgium is a country deeply divided between the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons, so there are two of everything including two youth hostel associations. Brussels is a French-speaking city located in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium.

The Bruegel Youth Hostel
If you come to Brussels, there is one place you should avoid, and that's the Pommes Frites or French Fry (or chips if you're British) stand on the Place de la Chapelle. It serves the most delicious French fries (which actually come from Belgium and not from France) that I have ever tasted. I've already succumbed today, despite the fact that I'm trying to keep my weight down for Saturday's bicycle race back in Phoenix. A large (who would get a small?) portion is about three times the size as a large order of fries at McDonald's and about six times as tasty. The only way to eat them is with spicy Belgian mayonnaise.
The Pommes Frites stand is a good place to avoid
Finally, below is a picture of a disappearing French cultural item. In fact, I never see them in France anymore, although they used to be all over the place. It's a (very) public pissoir. Yes, the name means just what you think it means. A man with an urgent need can walk inside, turn his back to the public, and....well, you get the idea. What do the ladies do? I have no idea. Perhaps gender equality and the lack of facilities for ladies to publicly relieve themselves is what is leading to the disappearance of this important symbol of French culture.

  • One of the few remaining public pissoirs
I walked to the Central Railroad Station this afternoon and purchased my train ticket for Thursday's ride to the airport. The station is about a five-minute walk away, perhaps a bit more with luggage, and there seems to be a train to the airport about every 10 minutes. My flight leaves at 10 am, so I'm planning to leave the hostel about 7 am to make sure I have plenty of time in case there are any snags at check-in or security.

Monday, February 02, 2015

February 2, 2015 -- Paris France Hyper Cacher

Yesterday evening I walked down to the Hyper Cacher supermarket, which is located not too far from where I am staying. I would translate Hyper Cacher as "Super Kosher." That is the kosher supermarket where a terrorist held a number of people hostage less than a month ago and killed several of them. I last visited it a few days after the hostage crisis ended and arrived just a few minutes after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry departed after laying a wreath in honor of the victims (his motorcade passed me just as I was approaching the supermarket.)

The Hyper Cacher supermarket in Paris where a terrorist killed several Jewish hostages
I found things there pretty much as I left it last time.The barricades were still up, and thousands upon thousands of bouquets of flowers had been placed along the outside of the barricaded area. There were only a few people present this time compared to scores of people last time I visited. I did not see the wreath that John Kerry had laid, but it is unlikely to have withstood the Paris winter weather.
As the following closeup shows, a single police officer walked up and down in front of the store.

A solitary police officer guards the Hyper Cache
In general, I noticed much more police presence on the streets of Paris than I did a few weeks ago. There are many policemen standing on corners or walking around carrying mean-looking rifles. The American Embassy is barricaded off and is guarded by perhaps a score of heavily armed officers. However, I have not noticed any more security than normal in the train stations, certainly much less than I observed decades ago during the Algerian conflict.

When I left the hostel on foot this morning, the temperature was just above freezing. Light snow was falling and melting as it hit the ground. I thought that the wet pavement might freeze over during the night, but it didn't quite get cold enough for that to happen. I walked all the way from the outskirts of Paris almost to the Arc de Triomphe. Two of my goals on this trip were to do lots of walking to test my injured left leg in preparation for a third attempt of doing the Camino de Santiago de Compostela from beginning to end this summer and to do more reading than I have time to do at home. The leg seems to be holding up fine, although it is still not completely healed from last summer's stress injury to the quadriceps tendons.

I stumbled upon the Stravinsky Fountain next to the Pompidou Center. I have seen video of the fountain in operation many times, but unfortunately it was not operating today, so I have yet to see it in motion in real life. The Stravinsky Fountain contains a number of whimsical figures inspired by Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The figures move, powered by the water that is pumped through them. Perhaps the day will come when I get to see it in operation.

The Stravinsky Fountain, unfortunately shut down for the winter
Below is the Pompidou Center itself, so named because it was commissioned by Georges Pompidou, who was president of France from 1969 to 1974. I am, of course, easily old enough to remember when it was commissioned and the controversy the design caused at the time. I have never been inside, but it houses a modern art museum and a center for music research.

The Pompidou Center
I suppose no blog entry about Paris could be complete without a photo of the Eiffel Tower. Here it is below, taken from the Place de la Concorde with the Luxor Obelisk in the foreground to the left side of the picture. I have only been to the top of the Eiffel Tower once, decades ago with my daughter Inge when she was still a teenager. I prefer to keep that memory rather than ride the elevator to the top again.
The Eiffel Tower right and the Luxor Obelisk left
Tomorrow I will take the train just before noon to Brussels, where I will stay two nights before flying back to Phoenix.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

February 1, 2015 -- Paris, France

On yesterday's train trip from Southern France to Paris, the train passed through areas where snow was falling and light blanket of the white stuff had accumulated on the ground. When I arrived in Paris after sunset, it wasn't that cold, and I was sorry that I had my winter jacket on over my sweatshirt.

Today is another matter. When I left the youth hostel this morning on foot, I felt overdressed and even considered returning to the hostel for a lighter jacket. However, the sky was heavily overcast, and as the day progressed the temperature became colder and colder. Then, a light rain started to fall.

I had intended to walk all the way to the Champs Elysees and then back to the hostel, but by mid-afternoon I decided to give it up, and I returned to the hostel by subway.

Below is one of the farmers' markets that I encountered on my walk into town. Even the supermarkets in France have fresh vegetables. For example, here tomatoes really taste like tomatoes. (Fruits are not always as fresh, however.) For really fresh fruits and vegetables, many people shop at farmers' markets, which are set up several times a week in multiple locations in cities throughout France.
A Parisian Sunday farmers' market
I had no particular tourist attractions in mind today. I decided to let luck lead me. The church in the following photograph intrigued me, so I stopped by. It's the Church of Saint Paul, Saint Louis. According to a historical marker outside, construction of the church began in 1627, and it was consecrated in 1641. It was once much larger, but much of it was destroyed, along with a lot of other church property in France, in 1802 during the French Revolution.
The Church of Saint Paul, Saint Peter
Why does the church bear the name of two Saints? According to a sign, the name Saint Paul was added to preserve the name after the nearby original Church of Saint Paul was destroyed.

I went inside and found the church to be crowded with worshipers and high mass being celebrated. I was somewhat surprised at the size of the crowd, because few French people actually attend church. They maintain a Catholic cultural identity, but they don't practice the religion. I was even more surprised when about 80 percent of those present went to the front of the church to receive communion.
Inside the Church of Saint Paul, Saint Louis
The next stop was City Hall or the Hôtel de Ville, as it is called in French. The French word hôtel often translates into English as hotel, but the word is used in France for many types of large, generally older buildings.

The front of the City Hall was festooned with banners of remembrance of last month's terrorist attack on the weekly humor newspaper Charlie Hebo. The slogan most used in France to evoke sadness for the attack is je suis Charlie or I am Charlie. The banner on the left translates as "Paris is Charlie," and the one on the right as "We are Charlie." The sign in the center reads "Charlie Hebo, honorary citizen of the City of Paris."

City Hall festooned with banners in remembrance of last month's terrorist attack.
Directly in front of city hall there was an ice skating rink. I saw one little girl fall down within a few feet of getting onto the ice. She had to crawl to the side of the rink and grab the railing to pull herself to her feet. I would have felt sorry for her, but she was laughing the whole time and obviously enjoying herself.

The ice skating rink in front of City Hall
I had forgotten that there was an important reminder of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in the heart of Paris. It is the Tower of Saint Jacques, Saint James in English or Santiago in Spanish. I saw the tower on my last trip to Paris and then forgotten its existence. It is a restoration of all that is left of a church that was constructed in the Sixteenth Century and was destroyed during the French Revolution. It was once an important stopping place for pilgrims heading for Santiago de Compstela in Spain, the same pilgrimage that I will make my third attempt to complete this summer, although I will start near the Spanish border, not in Paris.
The tower of Saint James or Saint Jacques
I think I need to dress more warmly tomorrow. The rain is supposed to stop, but the temperature is forecast to drop below freezing tonight and hit a high of 4 degrees C or 39 degrees F tomorrow afternoon. I think I will finally get some use out of the long underwear that I packed. I have been fortunate that it hasn't been very cold up to now on this trip.

The day after tomorrow, I travel back to Brussels for a two-night stay before I fly back to Phoenix, where I'm sure that my lawn is overdo for a good mowing. My sister writes me that it's been raining a lot while I've been away.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

January 31, 2015 -- Paris, France

I made a big mistake today. I thought the train trip from Montpelier to Paris would be a one-beer trip. It turned out to be a two-beer trip, so I had to buy the second beer in the train's dining car, which cost me 5 euros! That's about $5.65 US. Believe me, I won't make that mistake again.

On the way to the train station, I stopped in McDonald's for a cup of coffee. It's only one euro in McDonald's, which cheaper than just about anywhere else. But as you can see in the photo, it's a tiny cup of coffee. It's very delicious, however.

(By the way, if you've noticed that I'm wearing the same green sweatshirt in every photo, you might be asking yourself if I wear the same shirt every day. Yes, I do! It does get washed, however, and I usually only pull it on over by T-shirt when I'm going outside. I don't think it smells too bad, but I do notice that in the pictures I am almost always alone.)

Enjoying a cup of coffee at McDonald's
Below is a close-up of the coffee cup. The French on the cup translates as "freshly ground." Generally, when  you get a cup of coffee in France, the beans are ground after you place your order, and then hot water is forced through the grounds. In other words, each cup of coffee is made individually starting with the roasted coffee beans. You can't get a fresher cup of coffee than that. If you buy a cup of coffee in one of the fancier McDonald's that has a separate McCoffee counter, you pay 1.20 euros, and you get your coffee in a tiny china cup. That doesn't seem to make it taste any better, however.

McDonald's coffee from freshly ground coffee beans
Many people who read this blog are in Europe, and I don't have to explain to you how good European coffee can be. Some people's idea of a good cup of coffee, however, is that mass-brewed stuff that they sell at StarBucks.

Also on the way to the station in Montpelier, I snapped the following picture of a protestant church, or more accurately, a protestant temple. In France, Catholics have churches and Protestants have temples. Of course, Jews have synagogs (or synagogues if you have a hang-up in favor of archaic spelling), and Muslims have mosques.

A Protestant Temple near the Montpelier train station
I like the fact that the Montpelier train station doesn't have the horrible yuppie rock music playing over the loudspeakers that you hear in almost every store and coffee shop in most of the world these days. Instead, there is a piano, and anyone who wants to may sit down at it and play. The young man who was playing when I snapped this picture seemed very talented. Others play not so well, but even a poor musician playing on a real piano sounds better than piped-in, low-brow crappo. Oh the big red box on the right of the picture is a ticket machine.

A traveler playing the free piano in the train station
Below is a picture of a French high-speed train that I shot from another platform while waiting for my train. They are called TGVs, which stands for Trains de Grande Vitesse. That literally translates as "trains of great speed." The train I took looked similar except my train was a double-decker, and my seat was on the upper deck.

A French TGV or high-speed train
On a test run, one of these trains attained a speed of 575 kilometers per hour or 357 miles per hour. On normal runs, trains can hit speeds of 322 kilometers or 200 miles per hour, although most of them travel a bit more slowly than that, say around 150 miles per hour.

In the first part of the trip, I had four seats to myself. Behind the facing seat sat a woman who... let's say she occupied more than her fair share of space. She had a poor little dog with her, which was a bit cramped for room, so it crept under the seat and came over to ride with me. You can see the pleading look in the dog's eyes. "Please don't send me back to squeeze in next to that fat woman!" Oh, the other object in the picture is my right leg. No! No! The dog didn't do what you're thinking, although it does looks as if it's considering such a move.

A dog pleads with me not to send it back under the seat to its mistress.
Statistics from where the blog views came from so far this week (with a few hours left to go before it ends): USA 73, Germany 20, Ukraine 11, France 6, Spain 5, and one each for Indonesia, India, Japan, and Poland.

Friday, January 30, 2015

January 30, 2015 -- Montpellier, France

Today is my last full day in Montpellier. Tomorrow I'll take the train to Paris as I work my way back to Brussels and my flight back home to Phoenix.

Today I decided to visit some non-tourist places including the large Polygone shopping center. In Arizona, the traditional large multistory shopping mall with its department store anchors has almost disappeared in favor of strip malls, where the shopper can drive up to the store and park right in front of it. The traditional multistory department store has also almost disappeared in Arizona. Both are very much alive in France. There is still an advantage to being able to wander around a large shopping mall and ogling the offerings of small shops instead of just driving from Walmart to Costco and then to Target.

The photo below shows the hordes of people entering and leaving the Polygone shopping center near the Place de la Comodie here in Montpellier. There is a parking lot in the subbasement, but most people take public transportation to the area and then walk to the shopping center. This benefits other businesses located nearby that shoppers must walk past to reach the Polygone.

People entering and leaving the Polygone shopping mall
Inside, the shopping center looks a lot like traditional shopping malls used to look in the USA, and may still look in some parts of the country as far as I know. This is one of the two periods of the year when stores in France are permitted to hold sales (soldes). Hence the sign to the right of center of the picture below with the word "soldes" at 50% to 60% off. 

In most countries of the world, a store can hold a sale anytime the management decides to do so. Holding a sale with marked-down prices is illegal in France except during the two six-week periods when the national government allows it (up from five weeks last year). There is a bit more flexibility allowed in some cities, especially in cities on the border with other countries. If you own a store and get stuck with some stock that is not moving, you may not just mark it down in price to try to get rid of it. You have to hang onto the stock until the dates when the French government allows markdowns. Do otherwise, and you will face harsh justice.

Inside the Polygone shopping mall
Despite the efforts of the French government to reduce cigarette smoking, France is still a country of smokers. Through the 1970s, roughly 2 out of 3 French men smoked. The government has managed to get that figure down to 1 in 3 for both men and women. France has tough anti-smoking laws with a fine up to 300 euros for violations (about $340 US at the current rate of exchange). However, the law suffers from lax enforcement, and it is still sometimes difficult in France for non-smokers to avoid secondhand smoke. In 2016, France plans to implement the world's toughest anti-smoking law. In remains to be seen if that law will finally make France a country that is friendly to non-smokers. Tobacco sellers threaten to turn out hordes of French people to demonstrate in the streets if the law goes into effect. However, about 70 percent of French people support smoking restrictions, which is just about the percentage of French non-smokers.

I have only seen one person on the street "vaporing" or smoking an electronic cigarette. However, e-cigarettes are increasingly available here if not yet as popular as in the USA. I stumbled across the e-cigarette shop near the Polygone shopping center on my wanderings today.

An e-cigarette store
Finally a look at the inside of the Montpellier railroad station. Most of the railroad stations in France have not been modernized and looks like they were built in the 1800s, which they were. I prefer the old railroad stations. These modern ones seem sterile to me and remind me of airports and their association with the unpleasant experience of flying commercial airliners. This is the station from which I will take the bullet train tomorrow for Paris.

The railway station in Montpellier