The title has been used before, but happily titles are not subject to copyright. Unlike Bilbo, I did not run into any dragons, wizards, dwarves, elves, or trolls, at least in their literal form. Nor was there any treasure to be had, although something close to that was a part of my decision to visit the United States after almost three years abroad: a desire to see family and friends; a desire to get out of France for a while; plane fare that could be (mostly) purchased with accumulated miles, some loose ends to tie up that couldn’t be done in France; and I wanted to bring some things back to France.
The rest of the family was already in various parts of North America by the middle of July, and on a Thursday afternoon our Dutch friend, Ferry, dropped me at the train station in La Garde, and after a train change in Les Arcs Draguignan, I arrived at the Nice train station near the airport, and from there I walked to the Ibis Hotel – my flight out of France left very early, requiring me to overnight in Nice.
The last Friday in July I was up at 4:30am and spent the day chasing the sun as I flew from Nice to Gatwick, shuttled to Heathrow, and Heathrow to JFK, then JFK to Baltimore. I had the privilege of going through security three times, including a bonus frisk when I was pulled out of line for an extra check. One problem with this itinerary is that I must enter the UK since I must exit Gatwick Airport and travel on the National Coach Express to Heathrow. The UK Border Patrol at Gatwick, who seem to process people much faster than the US Border Patrol (or whatever they are called at the airport), asked to see my boarding pass for the flight leaving Heathrow. The UK border agent carefully noted into his computer all the particulars, and I assume this is what triggered the extra security check I went through security in Heathrow: after the British Airways ticket agent scanned my boarding pass, she looked a second time at her screen, then at me, then at her screen, and then said I had been randomly selected for an extra security check, and would I please go with Bruno, Mongo, and Tiny over there? Apparently they wanted to know if during that bus ride from Gatwick to Heathrow, did I detour to pick up some Marmite or one of those styl’n Coldstream Guard bearskin hats.
But if the technology was used for security, it was also used to aid my travel. When I arrived at JFK, I was the last off the plane because my seat was one of the aft lavatories. When I got to the customs rat maze, there were a couple of thousand people already there – at the same time we landed, fifteen or so other flights from various parts of the world also arrived. After standing in line for about ten minutes, I began to worry about making my connecting flight, but at that moment I was paged to come to the head of the line. Like a Monopoly Chance card, a British Airways agent gave me a card that put me to the head of the line. A little later I looked at the card: on it was my name, my seat from the UK to US flight (53A), and the information about my connecting flight to Baltimore. The card has an orange border and simply flashing this card to various agents and personnel put me to the head of all lines. Clearly someone, or some computer program, had figured out that a) I had been seated at the back of the plane from Heathrow to JFK AND b) there was a backup at customs, AND therefore c) I might be late to make my connecting flight, which was in another terminal. Nicely done.
The last leg was a pleasant, easy flight on one of the 1 + 2 x 13 row planes, and the flight attendant gave me free, cold Heinekens after I gave up my seat for a couple that wanted to sit together, but did not have adjacent seats.
To the Mason Dixon Line and Beyond
Culture shock, if it ever existed, is a thing of the past. Between the immediacy and volume of modern communications and an increasingly homogenized world, differences are dwindling, and when travelling there should be no surprises and not much difficulty when arriving at destination X: punctuality is subjective, toilets vary, they eat differently there, and so on. The transition from France to western Maryland, where I spent part of the trip, was easy. I knew there will be no good bread but lots of good beer, cars and people were bigger, gas was cheap, and there would be no rosé wine.
And yet, and yet for all that I was still struck by two things. The first is the lack of greeting and acknowledgement of others in American culture – it is peculiar, and a deficiency. Whether it’s someone coming into a store or into a room, often there is no acknowledgement of the other person, and I find this odd. Maybe the French overdo it, but as I have written before, acknowledgement and human contact might make our country a better place. The second thing of note was what appears the be the imminent seizure and removal of all guns from United States citizens. Given the number of bumper stickers, signs, flyers, internet ads, and related materials, it appears that sometime next week all weaponry will be confiscated by the Obama family: Barack, Michelle, Malia, and Sasha. As I understand it, the four of them will be going from house to house and taking all the guns, although Sasha, being the youngest, will only have to carry handguns out to the Secret Service Cadillac Escalade, which has been converted for hauling all those guns. I’m pretty sure it’s conservative paranoia when it’s claimed the Obamas will be joined in the weapon roundup by ACORN, the ACLU, Nancy Pelosi, ISIS, Charlotte Clinton, and Kim Jong Un.
Perhaps the oddest thing about being back, however, was that I could understand all conversations, all the time.
Getting things done required a bit of driving, and when it was all done I had logged another 3,100 miles on my venerable Tundra. I avoided getting any speeding tickets, and appreciated the superior condition of American highways, especially those in Vermont and New Hampshire. One annoyance about the US traffic patterns that I had forgotten was that whenever there was a three lane highway, most of the traffic clustered in the middle lane, leaving only the far right and far left lanes available for passing, and woe if there was someone driving slowly in the fast lane, as there often was. But any frustration was alleviated by tuning in some small town or college radio station, where the stoned sounding dj often played some unknown, not too polished but sweet sounding young woman band, with lovely harmonies – the miles just unrolled.
The northernmost point of my travels took me to Montreal, where I spent three days in that great city, visiting family and enjoying Canadian beer. The most embarrassing moment of the trip was when Annie silenced the very busy Burger Bar Restaurant with her yell, “Oh my God that’s SO good” followed by a moan of pleasure after she tasted their Hangover Poutine: “classic poutine with fried egg, sauteed with wild mushrooms and truffle oil.” It was quite good, if you’re a poutine kind of person. The southernmost point of the trip was to Floyd, where among other good things, for lunch we went to the El Charros Mexican Grill, and despite having a late breakfast, I ordered the dinner carnitas plate, and then ate several baskets of corn chips with salsa, all the carnitas, all the pico de gallo, all the refried beans, all the salad, and then more chips. It was pure gluttony, but it’s going to be a long time before I have authentic Mexican food again.
Things done, things left undone
The trip was a success in that I got done all the laborious things which I ought to have done. Along the way there were some unexpected pleasures. By effort and luck I was able to meet up with two friends and co-workers, Silicon Valley types (although they aren’t there, anymore), and sat with them for a few days in a cottage in the woods by a lake somewhere in the Granite State, watching the water, sitting, and chewing the fat. I had forgotten how enjoyable the company is of these two guys in particular, and more broadly the other well rounded nerds of Silicon Valley I know – the types who in addition to know how to have a good time while making useful software, also know how to grow a grape, fade a golf ball, boogie woogie on the piano, flip turn at the wall, chamfer a chunk of cedar, lay rail road tracks, transition from the swim to bike, tune a guitar sans electronics, and so many other things. I miss you guys and gals quite a bit.
On the return trip from the North I swung through Burlington, where I hadn’t been since I had my Achilles tendon reattached at the Fletcher Allen Hospital a few years ago. The city locale reminds me of San Francisco, sort of: city on a hill, Lake Champlain to the west, view of the Adirondacks, versus a city on a hill(s), the Pacific Ocean to the west, and an occasional view of the Farallon Islands. With my Long Trail hiking buddy, I explored the new downtown, walked around the university campus, and enjoyed being in that great small city. Later in my travels and further south, in the Old Dominion horse country, I had a get together with some likable, down to earth literary types (not an oxymoron in this case) who could talk about books, the Book of Common Prayer, dressage, katas (hyung to you Korean martial artists), and had a particular place in their hearts for turtles on roads after rains.
But there simply wasn’t enough time, and that meant I missed seeing friends around the Bays: Chesapeake and San Francisco. And because I left France too soon, and returned too late, I missed meeting up with my hard travelling, Classics professor, Chivas drinking companion, and landlord, John. Heu!
Back to France, how to water a computer
The return trip was easier because there was one less airport: Dulles to Heathrow, shuttle to Gatwick, then the flight to Nice. The landing in Nice, at least the first attempt, made me glad I had taken advantage of the free red wine. As we had left London, the pilot mentioned that conditions in Nice were ‘a bit windy but also foggy.’ Given that most pilots, by training and natural inclination, are the understated types, and that the pilot was English, compounding the understatement, I assumed there was a Force 9 storm in Nice. As the plane descended there didn’t seem to be any unusual turbulence or what I think experts call wind shear, but suddenly instead of descending the plane went nose up, really up, at an angle I usually associated with take off, and only take off. The cabin went silent, and I wondered if augering in meant you were crushed (atomized, really), burned, or both. The pilot finally came on the intercom to say everything was okay, but he had not been able to see the runaway so had opted to come around for another pass, and he would love to talk more, but was really very busy at the moment. But the second time was fine, and all was well again.
After landing and clearing customs, I set my watch ahead one hour, removed my U.S. phone card and replaced with my Virgin France card. Our English friend, Angela, had offered to pick me up at the airport, which was wonderful because I had returned with two large bags, and after a few texts and calls, I learned she’d be about an hour late because of highway construction. But that gave me time to get my bags, make my way outside, where it was quite hot, and change into cooler clothing.
Angela eventually showed up, and after getting all my bags loaded, we were on our way. As we drove and talked, I noticed on the highway, three lanes, that once one car had passed another, the passing car moved immediately into the middle or right lane, always leaving the fast lane clear and often the middle lane, too. That was the right way to do it, I thought, and on the heels of that I realized, unexpectedly, how happy I was to be back. France isn’t my home, I can’t speak the language, and there’s a lot things here that drive me bonkers, but nonetheless I felt deeply content. Of course part of it is the beauty of the place: it was late in the day, so there was a lot of orange and rose coloring, the pine trees and endless vineyards, and like the American West, there’s a sense of space and distance with the long vistas and panoramas (or to borrow from Annie Proulx – sightlines), from the valley floors to the white chalky cliffs.
Since Angela drives at 1.5 times the speed limit, we were soon back in La Garde, and we went to dinner at the one good place to eat in La Garde – Bistrot Pizza. It was warm and we sat outside, eating a typical south of France meal, pizzas with rosé.
Not long after my return, computer karma caught up with me. In general I’ve been lucky with my computer stuff: no failed hard drives, no dropped notebooks, no accidental reformats, and so on. In 2007 I bought a Dell notebook, and it has traveled with me ever since: to various job sites, through a fair number of airports, and so on. But nothing is forever: once back in town I returned the Dell to my desk in the attic of our home in La Garde. A few days later, a thunderstorm approached (although this is a climate much like California, happily we get thunderstorms here – well, not happily this time). With the wind picking up and the rain starting, I went to the attic, shut off all electronics, and just for good measure unplugged everything from the wall outlet, then left to do other things.
An hour later I returned to the attic: the window right next to the computer had been blown open (it was not latched), the force of the window opening had flattened the Dell into an open and nearly horizontal position, there was a pool of water under the computer, and there were beads of water on the screen and keyboard. I looked a long moment at it all, and had two thoughts 1) the last back up was before I left France; 2) our appointment to renew our visas at the prefecture in Toulon – an event that requires many documents on my computer, was next week. When it was all over, including a three day immersion in a sack of rice (basmati), the computer didn’t come back. However, the hard drive survived, and all data files were recovered. In a bit of serendipity, I had brought back some installation CDs for some applications I use, and generally those applications would not be available as downloads since they are older versions. Because we had another old Dell which was not in use, and with the same operating system (Windows XP, Service Pack 3 – easily the best personal computer operating system, ever), I cleaned the drive, moved all my files over, and I’m at about 90% functionality of where I was before the deluge.
And just yesterday we got our visa approvals in the mail.