Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Night in a Museum

Well, the bags are packed, and the taxi to the Blue Lagoon arrives in a couple of hours.  Time to go home, but before we climb onto Katla or Hekla, a recap of our two+ days in Iceland is in order.

We arrived late Thursday.  The plane was delayed by four hours due to mechanical problems.  Pro Tip:  if you use electronics whilst waiting to board a plane, get an external charger.  The gate we were assigned to had fake charging stations, so those without the portable power were SOL.

Reykyavik is about 40km from Keflavik, where the airport is.  If your cab driver speaks English, this is a good opportunity for an impromptu history/geography/culture lesson.  Icelanders are very, very proud of their little island home and the culture they've built and they are all too happy to share it with you.  If you come, and you should because Iceland is a beautiful and interesting place, be ready to ask questions and get answers.  Everyone seems to be a font of information.

Friday, we had reserved for trinketing.  We had done almost no shopping in either Italy or France, so we needed to catch up.  After all, I have dog sitters to bribe.  We also devoted a fair part of the day to the excellent National Museum of Island (Icelandic for Iceland, I finally figured out.  Couldn't understand why everything was called Island this and Island that.  Duh.)  There, the history of Iceland is well documented, from it's volcanic origins to the arrival of Viking settlers, to Christianity, Norwegian and then Danish domination and into the 21st century.  It's very well organized and presented and we both learned a lot.  Then, Rob decided we needed to see the Saga Museum.  It's pretty much the same information, only presented as, at times, a comically gruesome wax museum.  After seeing all the vignettes, you can dress up as a Viking.  Needless to say, it was a hoot.

For Saturday, we had booked a Viator tour of the Golden Circle.  Waterfalls, geysers, and glaciers, oh, my.  Well, things didn't go quite as planned, Viator being a Trip Advisor company and all.  We arrived in the hotel lobby well before the appointed 10:30 pick-up time, and well after there still was no shuttle.  So, I called the local number and the gentleman asked a few questions and then went off on a small rant about Viator.  They contract with the local Grey Line company, and Viator's voucher says to be ready to be picked up at a specific time.  Grey Line wants you to be ready in a 45 minute window of that, but the voucher doesn't say that, so we'd missed two pick-ups.  We got onto a shorter afternoon tour and still had a fantastic time, rain, wind and all.  As the tour guide said, at one point:  "The wind has slowed to 70M/sec.  I think the weather is breaking."  Another Pro Tip:  If you're traveling to some place north (Reykjavik is the northernmost capitol on Earth), bring layers.  And a hat and gloves.  Nobody on our tour was unprepared, but I can imagine that not all tours are like that.

Now, about the museum that is our hotel.  Built in the '60's by a local entrepreneur, Hotel Holt holds the largest privately held art collection in Iceland.  These pieces are a sampling of what is in our room!
There are dozens of examples, most of which I quite liked.  Nearly everything, if not all, are by Icelandic artists.  The hotel is still owned by the family and it really has been a lovely place to stay.  It's within walking distance of all the main touristy things in town (and we should know.  We did 5.93 mi on Friday!)  The restaurant is fabulous and the service there was absolutely impeccable.  There's really no other place to eat dinner fairly late at night, but they're happy to feed you.  We got lucky Friday night as that was the night of the new menu and we both had reindeer with blueberry sauce.  Soo good!  It took us both back to days in Alaska and caribou on the plate, only better!

Fun fact:  Almost all of Iceland's hot water is supplied by geothermal.  And, when it comes out of the tap, it feels like it.  HOT!!

More of the days in photos:

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Walking with Ghosts

ED NOTE:  This isn’t the complete story, just my recollections of the fantastic and fascinating day we had trying to track down my father-in-law’s war experiences. 

Don’t you just love it when you have one thing planned and then something unexpected happens that totally changes your plans?  Well, maybe, not always, but sometimes Serdipity comes to play.

Yesterday, we had planned a day with a tour guide to take us through the Normandy Beaches.  In talking with him about what we wanted to see, he asked if we had family that had died in Normandy.  Bob, Rob’s dad, had been critically injured at Argentan, on August 18, 1944, so I mentioned that to Rudy.  He began drilling down, wanting Bob’s unit particulars, dates, etc.  He suggested that we spend less time on the beaches, and go to Argentan to see what we could find. Sounded like a great plan to us!

When we met up with Rudy, he suggested we head first for Argentan, about 40 miles from Bayeaux.  As we drove, he and Rob talked about what had happened to Bob, his later years after the war, his life.  We had copies of some articles written about the 318th Division (Bob’s division) from the internet, and there were several historic photos and a couple of maps.  Rudy was able to determine exactly where the battle took place from the maps, and we first drove through the forest where the German tanks that the 318th fought were hidden.  Then, Rudy decided we should go find the little village where much of the battle took place, and see if we could find the Mayor’s office.  He has had good luck with this strategy, as often someone in the office has more and/or better information than he has.  After he got back in the car, he said, “I have a surprise for you.  Let’s see if he’ll talk to us, but the ladies in the office say there’s a man in this village that saw the battle.”  Whoa.  An actual witness! 

Rudy knocked on the man’s door, and we were promptly invited in.  Serge, the witness, was 9 at the time of the battle and living in a house just up the street in the same village.  His wife, Micheline, sat quietly as we listened to Serge tell his story through Rudy. 

Serge remembers the first day of the battle quite well because the fighting was pretty intense near where his house was.  All the villagers left that night and came back a few days later.  He remembers piles of discarded equipment and materiel.  At one point, he mentioned the farm where the American troops had to cross a little stream, and that they had to cut down all the trees so that their tanks could cross.  Then, he offered to take us to the farm, which was just down the road from his house. 

He and Rudy kept talking.  Serge talked about finding a pile of discarded items and among the items were 5 helmets, each with a single hole.  He spoke for a long time about how poor and hungry everyone was and how his father managed to get a little something for his family when others couldn’t.  It seems his father was the town’s only baker and as such, was immediately conscripted into working at the castle baking bread for the Nazi officers.  Since he had access to the bread, maybe sometimes, it didn’t all make it to the Germans. 
Rob, Serge, and me at the farm
Listening to all this, and occasionally adding a comment of her own, was Micheline.  She finally interrupted her husband and told her story.  Her family was from the same village, although she was only 13 mos. When the battle happened.  Her father had been executed for being in the Resistance, and when the battle started, fearing for her own life because she was also in the Resistance, her mother fled the village with her two children.  They found refuge in a barn, but a shell hit the barn, and pretty much nothing of her mother remained.  Her 3-year old brother sustained significant shrapnel wounds, but survived to the age of 38, succumbing to the health effects of the shrapnel.  Micheline and her brother were declared orphans, but her brother was sent to live with their grandparents, while she grew up in a girls orphanage.  Because her mother is considered a victim of the war, she has a permanent resting place and can never be removed. 

Then, Micheline took off into the kitchen, looking for something.  She came back with two sheets of paper.  This was the story of her aunt, Odette, and how she made it through the war. Odette and her husband had a casino, according to the account, in Oujstrehan, which was on the very north end of Juno Beach and heavily bombarded.   A missile hit the casino, and Odette scrambled to help people out before it collapsed.  She got two of her friends to hide in a foxhole big enough for one person, so their heads and shoulders stuck up above the protection of the hole.  She lay face-down next to them with her feet toward the beach.  A shell hit near where she lay, severely damaging one leg, blowing off one of her buttocks and injuring her in the abdomen.  A male friend of hers was also severely injured.  The British medics who eventually came, tried to evacuate her to their hospital ship, but she wanted to wait for her husband, who was off on a mission for the Resistance. She convinced her friend to go in her place.  Plus, she didn’t didn’t want to go to Britain.   After some time, they told her that her husband had arrived and they were going to take her to him (knowing the gravity of her situation, they lied.  Some lies are ok to tell.)  Instead, they loaded her onto a transport barge, which was then hit by a German torpedo.  Being of compartmented construction, it didn’t sink but they did have to raise the patients up to keep them from getting wet.  Ironically, the male friend died when the hospital ship was also torpedoed. 

After 6 months and many surgeries in Britain, she was sent home with a prosthetic leg.   Odette and her husband rebuilt the casino and she could often be seen in the kitchen, leg stump propped up on a stool, doing all the cooking for their guests and family.  The prosthesis was very uncomfortable for her, and she did without it whenever she could.  The casino/hotel was sold in the ‘70’s because the children were not interested in running it, however, Micheline remembers many good times with her aunt.

After about an hour and a half of listening to Micheline and Serge, Rudy thought it might be time for us to go, but Serge insisted on showing us the farm.  It turns out to be the exact farm pictured in the articles that we had read about the battle.  It’s almost without doubt that Bob crossed over this farm on the way to the edge of the Argentan forest where, only hours later, he would be wounded.  The German Panzers were hidden in a tree line and shooting down the hill into the American forces.  Bob jumped into a foxhole  for cover, and the guy next to him started trying to take out one of the tanks with a bazooka.  The Germans fired on the bazooka and shrapnel took off most of the front of Bob’s skull.  When the Germans advanced, the Americans left him for dead, as did the Germans.  The next morning, when the Americans retook the position, they noticed that Bob was moving and evacuated him to a field hospital.  We assume that once he was stable, they moved him to the hospital at the castle where he remained until he was evacuated by ship to England, where he spent 6 months recuperating. 
The farm in 1944

The farm in 2015
After seeing the farm, we went to the Chambois memorial, where the grander outline of the battle, actually called the Falaise Encirclement, could be seen.  Earlier, the British and Americans had tried to encircle the remaining Germans escaping from the Normandy fortifications.  Through ego on the parts of Montgomery and Patton, 40,000 managed to escape and try to mount a counter attack.  Canadian, Polish, British and American troops finally managed to encircle them at Falaise and the Polish and Americans were the stopper at the bottom of the bottle, so to speak. 

Having heard and seen all this today, I couldn’t help but feel the presence of the dead and the remains of the battles.  I kept trying to picture the farm, the countryside during the war, and it wasn’t difficult.  Perhaps because I’d seen so many pictures, but I think also because their presence and their deeds remain so fresh in the memory of the people and in the memory of the land. 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Au revoir Middle Ages, hello Pre-History

Last night, at dinner, we made the decision to leave from Carcassonne and its beautiful Medieval walled city and go even father back in history, even before Rob or I were ever born. Hard to imagine, but such a time does exist. We are en route (see what I did there? French!) to the caves of the Dordogne and prehistoric art.  

As with so much of this crazy trip, though, it's not as simple as turning on Siri, pointing the Mokka and hitting the gas.  After a lovely morning exploring Carcassone, its walls, the beautiful Basilica St. Nazaire (a stained glass window lover's paradise), and doing a little bit of trinketeria shopping, we got ready to hit the road.  Not five minutes in, Mokka sent us a scary message about the pneu.  Without a two year old's vocabulary in French but knowing that in English, pneu usually refers to something inflated we inferred that there was an issue with a tyre, a theory confirmed by the helpful dashboard graphic with one tyre looking inflamed. We pulled over just before a toll booth.  

Naturally, as always happens in these stories, much hilarity ensued. A phone call to Ernestine The Telephone Operator would have been more helpful than the one to the rental company, who wanted me to hike to the nearest phone box and get the Highway Department to help. The nearest box was no where in sight. According to the GPS the next test stop wasn't even on the screen. Just get me Jedgar Hoover, Ernestine.
What does any self-respecting, frustrated Polish guy do? Why, make an illegal u-turn, in the middle of the tollway, of course!  
We found a repair shop in short order, but they were at lunch. We waited nearly two hours, not knowing if we had a big problem, only to have the very French repairman sneer at my language skills. I did have what we needed on Google translate, he read it with appropriate French contempt, put some air in the tyre, and we were on our way.*

Our destination for the night was a tiny little town called Sarlat de Caneda.  The hotel was a quaint, and charming little place, and we had a room in the garrett (yes, enjoy that family.  A Garrett in the garrett.)  Today, Saturday, dawned grey, ominious and raining.  Not just ominous rainy, antedeluvian ominous rainy.  At one point at breakfast, it was pounding down so hard that we couldn't hear each other speak.  During the course of this meteorological event, I checked the weather advisories and the French weather folks were predicting unusual weather, with flash flooding and washouts of smaller roads.  So much for caves.  Plus, we still have to be in Normandy tomorrow, so we changed our plans, yet again, and are now safely ensconced in a Novotel in Le Mans.  For us, the only reason for Le Mans was that it's only three hours from Bayeaux, so there's not a whole lot of driving to do.  Having said that, the drive through rural France has been very interesting.  Many of the villages look like time has totally forgotten them.  It's so easy to think of France as Paris, or maybe the Riviera but the reality is that this is still a very, very agricultural nation. As with all travel, it's best to just park the expectations and revel in the experience! 

*To be absolutely honest, this guy is the only person in France, in two trips here, that has treated us like that.  Everyone else, and I do mean everyone has gone out of their way to make themselves understood, especially, if they see that you are trying to speak in French.  I have become quiet fluent with:

Je suis désolé. Mon français est très mauvais, mais je vais essayer.  (I'm sorry.  My Frenchis very bad, but 
I will try..)

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The next leg

We made it out by train, to Nice, without incident. 

 If that sounds loaded, it's because it is.  The real fun began when we picked  up the rental car.  It would appear that once you sign the contract, you inspect  for damage and off you go.  No one from the rental company gives a care.  Once we'd figured that out, the joy really began. Just suffice it to say that rush hour, Medieval city streets, and foreign country in,driving all made for a pegging out of the stress-o-meter. Enough said.

The reward for all that was Tuesday.  A perfectly blue skied day exploring Avignon. In my book, any day poking around a Medieval city is a really good day.  We visited the Palace of the Popes home to the mostly, self-employed appointed "Anti" popes from 1309-1403- largely done because the duly ejected French pope didn't entirely trust the Italians, so he pulled, what in later centuries would become known as "The Sonics Sneak," and left town.  For 96 years, so, there's still some hope for the Sonics. For much of that time, there were two popes, one in France and one in Italy.  At least the City owns the mange "Sonics," so that won't happen. 

Wednesday was "Get out of town" day and we set the Opel Mokka toward Orange and the Roman theater there.  It is truly spectacular, and apparently much better preserved.  After lunch, in which my rotten French was put to the test because the waitress didn't speak English, we did Rick Steve's driving your of the Rhone Valley.  Beautiful country.  No wine.  The roads are narrow, winding and a little on the treacherous side.

Now, after having spent time enjoying the Pont du Gard  remains of the Nimes aquaduct, we are hurtling our way to the Medieval walled city of Carcassonne. Should be fun! 

Monday, September 7, 2015

Monza, without the GP

We stayed in a town about 35 KM from Monza, called Bergamo.  A note to would-be travelers to Italy.  The Italians are even bigger pricks about pronunciation than the French.  The first morning we went to Monza, we asked the proprieter of the candy store for tickets to "Mahnza" and he 
"couldn't" figure out what we meant. Finally, with a roll of her eyes at us, clearly meant to convey that he was being an ass, a teenaged girl said very distinctly "Moanza" and all was well.  We were routinely corrected about the pronunciation of Bergamo, too, but there didn't seem to be any agreement.  I think the natives were just messing with us.  

Bergamo is a small town, kind of quiet, with nothing much to draw tourists.  On Saturday night, we finally found the main town square and had dinner with a ringside seat to the nightlife of the town. Families were out walking, having dinne, or eating gelatto ( the Bergamo townspeople consume a LOT of gelatto.)

We found out later, that there was a buskers's festival going on down the street, which would explain the street performers, including a pair of fire twirler, who were quite good.  Even without the street performers, we both felt like we had a ringside seat to a fantastic show.  There were hundreds of people out on a beautiful, warm night, and the opportunities for people watching were endless.  

At the risk of burying the lead, we did have one final highlight of the weekend.  We were having dinner at an outdoor cafe after the race.  I looked over and noticed a large group of very well-dressed, clean-cut men.  I figured there were two possibilies:  either it was the Knights of Columbus having a meeting or it was one of the F1 teams.  Upon further inspection, I recognized Stewart Hamilton, the winner of today's race, sitting at the head of the table.  In the elevator ride up to our room later, Rob said "You know what the best way to end this weekend is?  That was it. "  Lancia Romancia strikes!

Race Report

Well, Jackie, it was a fine day and a fine day for racing, unless you are Lotus.  Neither one of their cars finished the second lap.  Pastor Moldonado reportedly told Lotus  to get rid of his car.  He hit something going into Turn 1 and severely damaged the undercarriage.  

Kimi Rrrrrrraikonen, driving for Ferrari, did not have a good start and spent the entire race moving up from 14th to a 5th place finish. Stewart Hamilton, driving for Mercedes got off to a terrific start and never looked back, finishing 20 seconds ahead of his nearest competition.  To the crowd's delight, Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel moved into the second place slot early in the race and stayed there to the finish.  At the start of the 50th lap, it looked to be a Mercedes (Hamilton)-Ferrari (Vettel)-Mercedes (Rosberg) podium, but in the chicane, Rosberg's engine caught fire, allowing Williams driver Filipe Massa onto the podium. Did you hear the crowd erupt with glee when Rosberg's car caught fire, Jackie?  There's  no love for Mercedes at Monza,I can tell you!  The Italian crowd continued the tradition of rushing the track as soon as the last car was off, running down the straightaway and unfurling  huge Ferrari and Italian flags.  It's all part of the spectacle that is Monza.  

All in all, it was a spectacular weekend of Formula 1 racing, one we'll never forget!

That's your 2015 Italian Grand Prix wrap-up.  Back to you, in the studio.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

It's Race Day!

It's Race Day here in Monza, Jackie, and what a day it is.  The clouds and occasional light rain that dominated the day yesterday, during the last practice and qualifying have become clear blue skies and glittering sunshine.  The stadium is swelling with thousands of  Formula One fans and the famous Italian reserve and restraint have given way to a boisterous party atmosphere as their beloved Ferrari team, Scudero Ferrari, is poised to challenge Mercedes for a spot on the podium.  What's your take, Jackie? Could Team Ferrari have a legitimate chance at knocking Mercedes off the podium at day's end? 
Jackie, is that you? You do know your BRM is no competition for today's F1 machines, right? Oh, fine. One last lap for old times sake...

We have a great crowd today, from all over the world.  Of course we have many, many Italians all in their Ferrari red gear. We have quite a few Britd, many to support British Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, a fair number of Americans mostly here for the spectacle, and Team Suomi, here to support Kimi RRRRRAIKKONEN, and that other Finnish guy.  

Before the race, though, you have to have that time honored sexist traction, the Parade of Bimbos because F1 drivers can't find their starting positions without some skinny thing right out of Vogue to tell them where to put their cars. 
Following the Parade, they brought out the tenors to sing the Italian National Anthem, then the Air Force flew over painting the sky.  

After that,  there was another, apparently, time honored tradition, the Presentation of the Tyres. Each team brings out a rack of tyres (official F1 spelling) and two rolling tool chests. Or barbecues, but we think they were chests of tools.  While the crews are installing tyres, the driver gets his own little cocktail umbrella to keep him comfortable. Such a civilized sport. After the Tyres are changed in front of the crowd, the cars take a warm up lap as the put crews scramble to get off the track before the cars return to their starting places. It's  controlled chaos at its finest.  

To be continued...

Friday, September 4, 2015

Off to the races: Monza, Day 1

Off to the Races:  Monza, Day 1

Incoming drencher!
Yesterday, after we arrived in Bergammo we took the day to just catch up on some sleep and kind of regroup.  You know, pick out the dirty laundry and segregate it so it won't corrupt the clean, locate the toothpaste  you'd so carefully packed where you wouldn't forget it's location... that kind of thing.  Late in the afternoon, we decided to take the funicular up to the old city of Bergammo, the Citadel.  Most medieval towns have such a defensive area--it's how they survived into the subsequent historical eras.  We spent a few minutes looking around and then began hearing thunder and seeing lightning.  The Citadel, being high on a hill, was a good place to see the ominous sheets of rain in the distance, and moving our way, quickly.  We decided it might be best to head back down in the funicular and find dinner.

Right after we got off the funicular, it began to rain.  Nothing serious, just moderately heavy stuff.  Two blocks from the hotel, that changed to monsoonal strength and by the time we got back to the hotel, we were soaked to the skin and the insides of our "weatherproof" bags were dripping.  Dried and warm, we grabbed our rain coats (which, of course, both of us had left in the room) and went in search of dinner.  This is Italy.  A good meal is never far away.

This morning, we scurried out of bed, grabbed some hotel breakfast and set off for the train station and our ultimate goal:  Monza.  Rob tried to buy tickets online, but Trenitalia was having none of it.  Not only was their website dead set on speaking only Italian, but it was moving with customary Italian efficiency and would't let us past the initial name/email/where do you want to go page.  So, thinking he had the problem solved (and, he should have) he went to one of the ticket machines.  Insert his card into the machine and BOOM.  No sale.  Our cards all have the chip in them, but the rest of the Western world uses chip and PIN and that hasn't yet arrived on our shores.  Some modern banking system we have when the likes of Italy and Greece can better protect credit cards than we can!

We did finally find a way to purchase tickets, the old fashioned way, at the candy store.  We got on the train and found ourselves in another mini-UN.  An Italian boy, an Australian couple, an English couple and us, all united in getting to the racetrack.  The Italian kid, Vincenzo, was very helpful to all of us newbies and we finally got to the track just as the F1 teams were finishing their first round of practice.  At these events, there are three levels of Grand Prix cars: F1, GP2 and GP3.  GP2 and 3 are where the little boys learn to be big boys.  Quite a few of the F1 drivers came up through the  GP system.  The difference really, is the cars.  They're smaller and a little slower, but still fun to watch.

Team Lotus
After the GP2 practice, we found some lunch and toured the merchandise tents looking for trinkets.  Actually, we were looking for t-shirts, and while the really cool t-shirts are Ferrari and Red Bull, we both had reasons we couldn't represent for either of those teams.  Ferrari is the 9,000,000 pound gorilla in Italy and their fans are legion and legendary.  They don't need two more, plus their merchandise is enormously expensive.  Red Bull--well, it's Red Bull and it's hard to be seen wearing their t-shirt.  The current circuit leaders are Mercedes AMG Petronas.  Their drivers are both just jerks, so can't do that.  We finally decided to go with the really cool (I mean it) Lotus shirts.  Their team has been struggling financially and almost didn't make it to this race, so what the heck.  Team Lotus we are.

A quick word about Monza.  The original track was finished in 1922, one of three autodromes in the world at that time.  Indy being another, by the way.  For many years, because of it's steeply banked (60 degrees) curves, it was considered the deadliest track on the circuit.  It underwent redesigns in the 1950's and again in 1980 and is now much, much safer.  From where we sat, you could see firemen and extinguishers every 100' or so, bulldozers and tow trucks lining the inner field and medics and police everywhere.  We did see one engine fire, but it was out almost before you could register it.  You can walk around the perimeter and still see the old track--photos of that tomorrow or Sunday, I promise.

Rob arranged for our assigned seats in Section 1 of the grandstand.  We are up 8 rows and about 5 seats away from the Start/Finish, right in the middle of the straightaway.  Pretty near perfect.  We got to see the second practice of the day and I'm really excited to see the qualifying and race tomorrow and Sunday.  It's going to be fun to watch all those cars all bunched up together going at full speed!

For the record:  all these photos were taken on my iPhone!