Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Europe Trip I

We've been back from France for a month now.  I keep meaning to post about the trip, but other projects continue to interfere.  But, at long last, I have cobbled together a post.

What I've done is basically just take the journal I wrote while traveling, proof-read it (I hope) and add, on top, a few ex post facto thoughts.  The stuff written recently--today, to be exact--is marked in brackets.  Everything else is what I wrote while there.

The trip had three legs: Barcelona, the Loire, Paris.  I'll try to get it all out in three posts, though it may take four.  I also took a lot of photos, so I'll include some of those.

* * Post I: Barcelona * *

First full day in Barcelona underway. The total combined trip took about thirteen hours--LA to Newark, Newark to Barcelona, with an hour layover in between.  We spent travel miles to go business class on the last leg, which meant--in theory--we could sleep, but I can't sleep on planes, so instead I drank a vast amount of execrable coffee (probably the worst I've had in my entire life) and worked all night.  At the end, watched the Pixar/Disney Inside Out, partially on my brother's recommendation.  I loved it.  [Still thinking about it a month later, in fact]  A guy I play tennis with--a screenwriter, no less--steered me away from it this summer.  He said he found it too didactic (my word, not his)--too much like he was attending a neuroscience lecture.  Then last month, the same guy told me he loved Birdman (which he thought was clearly intended as a spoof!??).  After which point I realized: he was an idiot.  Anyway, thinking that movie was like a lecture on neuroscience is like thinking Finding Nemo is similar to a lecture on Ichthyology.

Arrived Barcelona at Nine AM.  My usual strategy for adapting to jet lag going to Europe is to immediately go to my hotel and sleep till the next morning--no matter what time of day.  But sleeping from nine AM till five the next day would be too much for even me (nearly 24 hours of sleep) so instead we once we got a cab to the Old Quarter (aka Gothic Quarter) and walked around. 

The Old Quarter

The old quarter dates back to the Romans, and the highlights included old Roman walls (built around 400 AD).  First impressions of Barcelona generally positive--I would say it's sort of a mix between parts of Rome and parts of Paris.  Well that's incredibly vague.  Not necessarily a city to fall in love with, but that's OK.

Our hotel deserves its own description.  Called the Hotel Arts and located right on the Mediterranean.  Lots of sculptures and paintings in the lobby.  While we were there the Port of Rotterdam was having an enormous conference in its halls, so everywhere we went we kept finding ourselves surrounded by suited European technocrats talking in many languages about port maintenance.  About which I, obviously, had a lot to say.     

We got a room with access to the Club Level, because that's how we roll.  Always get Club Level has become a working motto for my life.  They put out free food five times a day and gave us free champagne.  Which, because we were both working, we sadly only took advantage of only once.  (The champagne, I mean.  The food--which was great--we ate frequently.)

The Old Quarter Again.  
In some way a marriage consists of an array of never-concluded,debates.  One ongoing discussion between the wife and I involves the public sector [You can just imagine the sparks of romance that engenders!]  My general conservatism--philosophically more than politically--revolves in some part around the belief that (regulated) markets are (mostly) good, and that public enterprises funded by the state are ipso facto doomed to be less efficient and effective than ones run privately.  [Traveling confirms these prejudices.  Look no further than the TSA for ample proof].  Europe, though, provides strong counter-factuals.  Here the public sector is efficient, it's staffed by competent people, and it's effective.  Anyone who's travelled by rail in Europe can attest to that.

So, for example, my reason for opposing the Death Penalty is not on moral grounds, but because I can't believe the state can be charged with administering it--they can't be trusted to do so effectively and accurately.  Most state government can barely deal with giving people's driver's license, and we're going to trust them with the power to put people to death?  No way.  

The wife, to try and encapsulate a broad series of views, broadly disagrees.   She thinks that instead of saying "the State doesn't do thing well, therefore we should take everything out of the State's hands" we should say "the State may not do most thing well, but that doesn't mean they can't improve.  And since there are a number of roles the State MUST fulfill--which the private sector just isn't equipped to handle (education and health care chief among them)--we're better off trying to fix the State than starving it off."  
The New Quarter.  No.  Just Kidding.  Still The Old Quarter.

It's worth noting that the lion's share of her job involves protracted negotiations with large government bureaucracies, and that her patience for dealing with incompetence and inefficiency is about 3000 times that of mine.

Anyway, in the cab to the hotel I was ruminating, in the wise and profound manner my friends know and value, about how Europe does, in fact, support her view--because, broadly speaking, The State, in Europe does many things well.  (Certainly they do them better than in America).  

But my thoughts on that are that, in essence, the American DNA--the way we're raised--is fundamentally unlike that of Europeans.  American views and ideals all revolve around the individual.  We're raised to try and be stars--not to work in teams. [Look at the people we celebrate.  Steve Jobs has had fourteen movies made about him this decade.  And in all of them he's portrayed--rightly--as a difficult, unpleasant jerk.  And we still love him!]  Whereas, in Europe they're trained from birth to regard group achievement as valuable, and they learn to subordinate the needs of the individual to the needs of the group.  [This reading of Europe v America is, I know, hardly novel.  No one said my ideas were original.  What makes them compelling is, basically, that I'm so handsome.  So I can present them well.] 

But there are drawbacks to this seemingly fundamentally decent way of doing things [Drawbacks that Knausgaard writes about, interestingly, in My Struggle].   It was those drawbacks I adumbrated in the car. But since at this point we'd both been up for something like 30 hours, it might not have been the best time to get into the issue.    [Certainly the wife's eyes, listening to me talk, were even more glazed over than they are usually, listening to me talk.]
They're All The Old Quarter.  Ok?
Why am I talking about this?  It bears not at all on our trip.  But no, because, it does. Because it's just these kinds of thoughts that travel engenders.  What travel does--why it has value--is make you reexamine your own views.  It challenges your settled assumptions and, possibly even makes you alter them.

Anyway, we walked around Barcelona till about 2 pm [note pictures of Old Quarter] then went to bed.  Slept till 4 AM the next morning.  

* * *
Now I'm up, after too much sleep, and ready to go.

Body is off schedule.  Slept fitfully and got no REM.  Am now awake but with part of my brain turned off.  Not pleasant.

* * * 

Spent yesterday in hotel working, then lifted weights in gym, then worked more.  Uneventful.
Our hotel--which is one of the best I've stayed at--is being attended by major executives from the world's international coal companies.  Every morning at breakfast I listen to groups of men sit around and talk about the prices of coke; China; moving ships out of Croatia, The Czech Republic.  It's like I'm eavesdropping on the Trilateral Commission.  Last night I eavesdropped on an interesting meeting between an American man--a folksy unassuming guy from, I think West Virginia--and two suave Italians--one older and very distinguished looking, the other young and respectful.  The young one, we learned at the end, had just had to relocate from Milan to Lugano and was describing how dead it was, living in Lugano.  And you can't even get any good food!  

That was good stuff.  I'm more or less ready to be an international coal dealer, now, I think.

Barcelona's a huge foodie town so we spent some time last night considering where to eat tonight and tomorrow.  And same with Paris.  I have to send an email to our concierge in Paris with our list of preferred restaurants.  White People problems!

Ok, Well, This Isn't.  This is The View from our Hotel Room.  That's Lake Baikal

Friday Morning

In an hour or so we leave for Lyon.  We had planned to take the train but then two nights ago it occurred to me flying would possibly be easier.   The prices were comparable and a flight only takes an hour and change (the train take five hours) so we bought tickets on EasyJet at the last minute. 
My wife was made grouchy by the whole thing.  She thought we had settled on train.  She thinks that I'm too prone, once we've made plans, to want to change them.  But that's how I roll.  I'm all about flexibility and spontaneity.

[Digression added later: Actually that doesn't state her view of the situation fairly.  She thinks--and not without some justification--that I have too much of a tendency, once a plan has been made, to start to question it.  To pick at it, and niggle and doubt.  And that once we've decided to do something, we should just stick with it, because it's easier.  And that, presumably, the original plan was one arrived at after careful thought and deliberation and to go and alter it, in the spur of the moment will generally go badly.   

Except that the 'plan' to take a train was NOT one that had been carefully considered--or even really considered at all.  And when I got online and started researching trains v planes it became pretty clear (to me) that a plane was the better option.

As indeed, she ultimately agreed, it proved to be.  And by the way, EasyJet is good.  Their reputation is well-deserved.]

That will take us to Lyon, where we stay one night and then drive to our hotel in the Loire.
Outside our Hotel.  This is the Sea of Azov


Dezmond said...

Your European travels are much more extensive than mine. Mine mostly consist of a couple of months spent in Italy (in total. Two trips). But I found that at least as far as the Italians go, state-run anything is not very efficient or quality. But perhaps that is because I was mostly dealing with Sicilians? I will always recall going to a bank to exchange some money and to do something else (I forget). Something that in an American bank would have taken perhaps 10 minutes...I remember standing around in that bank for at least several hours. It took all morning actually. But at least I was in the company of Gene Silva. I think this was a state-run bank. Even if it wasn't, most everything I ran across in Italy was the same. Don't get me wrong, I loved my time there and got much out of it. (Especially because I was with Gene Silva, at least on one of the trips). But, I did often find myself getting impatient with Italian inefficiency and service. I was not the ugly American, I held my tongue, but it was irritating sometimes.

ANCIANT said...

You're right. I should have specified "Northern Europe." Italy south of Milan is notoriously inefficient and confused, with Sicily being about as badly-run as imaginable, I'm told. And Greece is obviously not doing so well either. Germany, France, and Scandanavia, really, is what I was talking about.