Saturday, February 15, 2020

It Could Have Been Worse

There's a scene in the movie Lawrence of Arabia.... Lawrence of Arabia was a movie from the 1960s about the desert war in Saudi Arabia during WWI. Great movie. Lots of scenes of broiling sun and parched throats. The joke at the time was that there was always a long line at the theater's water fountain.

Ennaways, there’s a scene where the Bedouin warriors are awaiting a message from the Front. "Where's Ali?" they wonder. "Wait! What's that?" They scan the horizon. A tiny back dot appears in the middle of the shimmering heat waves. For minutes (it seems) the dot doesn't get any bigger. Then..., yes, yes, it's Ali, riding full tilt on his camel. "Victory!" he shouts, waving his rifle over his head.

That's how I felt on Friday as I stood on a piece of high ground in a desolate part of Marshall County in northwestern Minnesota. Behind me was my car, stuck in a snowbank. On the far side of the car was my trusty friend Steve shoveling away. He reported that the right wheel was still several inches above the ground.

The snowbank the county snowplow had pushed up along the road had stopped me from going full bore into the ditch. But this bank had also lifted up and encased my front end in an encasement of snow. You think of snow as soft and fluffy. Steve rightly described our snow as concrete-like.  In theory we could eventually have shoveled the car out, but I was looking for an easier escape.

It had been minus twenty-two that morning, but we decided to go ahead with our monthly bottle run to Thief River Falls, or Tough Rubber Balls as Steve calls it. The City of Roseau Recycling Facility does not accept glass, so being good friends of the earth, Steve and I collect all our glass bottles and jars and deliver them to the recycling bins by Hugo's Supermarket in TRF.

We usually run a couple of other errands including the purchase of filled bottles to replace those that have gone empty on us. Our last stop is always at Johnny's Café, a friendly lunch counter where they know our names and even save a potato dumpling in the freezer for my monthly visit.

 So I picked up Steve at 8:30 am. It's amazing how many bottles a person accumulates in a month. When it's my turn to drive, I have to remove all kinds of gear from my trunk and back seat to make room for the glass. On our way to the city, we avoid the state highways. The county gravel roads are much more interesting. Most of northwestern Minnesota was bulldozed flat by the retreating glaciers 10,000 years ago, but here and there the glacier paused and dumped piles of gravel. Steve has discovered these hills and we traverse the roads that cross them.

Near our half way mark the road passes through a beautiful scrub oak forest. There was once an Early Warning Alert Tower along this stretch so the road was made extra wide for military vehicles. The gravel road was covered with hard packed snow and was as smooth as a skating rink. As I came around a wide curve and into a slight downslope I realized my speed was inappropriate for the conditions. The car responded neither to brakes nor steering wheel and, scrunch, we were stopped. The bottles made a little tune as they readjusted themselves. Not a one broke.

The temperature had warmed to minus ten, and mercifully there was no wind. It was bright and sunny as we took turns with the shovel, an aluminum job originally meant for moving grain. We were just north of the intersection with County Road 48, another wide gravel road. But traffic was light this morning. I knew that any vehicle coming along would likely have four wheel drive. If that vehicle ever did come along. This imaginary vehicle would see us and stop to offer help. I would get out my tow strap and five minutes later we'd be on our way.

I was contemplating calling a wrecker though this would not be cheap based on the remoteness of our location. It was then I had my Lawrence moment. The land fell off to the east and I could see for several miles. There were no shimmering heat waves, but on the horizon a black dot appeared. It was a vehicle, but I could not tell what kind. It was too small for a pickup, but the wrong shape for a car.

There was a farmstead about a mile to the east of where I stood and the vehicle slowed there. Son of a biscuit! But then he pulled away and came our way. Hooray! It's the mailman! But what's he driving. As he got closer I could see he had a Jeep Wrangler. We're saved! When he rolled down his window, Steve recognized him from that place they both used to work.

"Need a little pull?" Dan asked. His Jeep had right hand steering. Very convenient for the delivery of mail in rural areas. I wrapped my tow strap around my rear axle and Steve hooked the other end to Dan's hitch. It didn't take much to pop me out. When Steve unhooked the strap, Dan did a celebratory 360 on the icy road. I believe he was waving a rifle over his head. I know I was ululating.

                    "There he is! We're not gonna die."




Saturday, December 7, 2019

Toxic Memories


   This Thanksgiving we had dinner at my father-in-law's assisted living facility. The kitchen does a fine job on holidays preparing a fancy dinner with all the trimmings. The only bad thing was no leftovers. So we bought a turkey breast, Teresa made meatballs and I made cranberry sauce. On Sunday we invited friends over. My sister told me we were having a Friendsgiving, which I googled for pointers.
  The website suggested we go around the table and ask each person to tell his or her favorite Thanksgiving memory. I hate that crap. I had a memory I knew would put my friends off their feed. It occurred in 1969 at the Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo Texas.
  I was actually in the Navy, but after eight weeks of boot camp in Illinois, I had spent all my time on Army and Air Forces bases. The Army base had been in Monterey, California where I had been taught Vietnamese for nine months. Now I was in Texas to learn how to get dirt on the North Vietnamese.
  As a low-ranking enlisted man I was sometimes required to do other dirty jobs. My least favorite was KP duty in the giant mess hall. You reported early and stayed till the last pot was hung to dry.
  At least the job wasn't a permanent hell like it was for one poor soul who worked there. He was also a swabbie like me, but his orders had been lost and he couldn't start his training until they turned up.
   They were glad to take him on at the mess hall, but after a month they took pity on him and gave him the job of arranging the decorative parsley around the food pans in the serving line. They even gave him a tall chef's hat and he would wander the mess hall asking us diners how everything was tasting.
   I had the bad luck of drawing KP on Thanksgiving Day. We had to show up early because they started serving dinner at 11:00 for people who had to go on duty. We hauled out the quivering tubs of mashed potatoes, squash and gravy. Soon dirty dishes were appearing in the scullery windows. The plates, cups, and silverware could go through the dishwasher, but the pots and tubs had to be washed by hand. Many of the military people who lived off base brought their families to the mess hall for the big holiday meal. Incredible.
   Finally the last pot was washed and I was dreaming of calling it a night when I noticed a long line forming in the hall. What's this! It was a gang of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, lacking in mercy or any human feeling. These people had eaten early and now thought they were going to get leftovers. Go away! Go to McDonalds if you're still hungry! We're fresh out of everything comestible. But Sgt. Major Pancake, our head chef, guided me to my place behind the serving line and pasted a smile on my face. All I could do was chew parsley and lump it.

                You can clean up after yourselves. I'm not your mother.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Those Eureka Moments


   I didn't say Eureka! when I dropped the top of my costly new coffee mug and the little magnetic slider on the top popped off. This being a Judeo-Christian blog I won't say what I did say, though the Yiddish word drek! gives the idea.
   I also asked myself, "Can't we have anything nice around here?" I'm the sort of person who drives old cars below the speed limit to prevent front-end shimmy. I wear patched coveralls which precludes my entry into exclusive clubs. And when away from home, I drink my coffee from a recycled styrofoam cup, often patched with recycled saran wrap.
   A few years ago travel mugs got really good. I'd watch people pour out the last ounce of coffee at the end of the day and it'd still be steaming. I wanted one, but they were ridiculously expensive. I planned to wait till competition brought the price down, but the competitors were just as expensive. Finally my dear sister-in-law gave me one for Christmas.
   It was great! Having something nice changed my personality. I started driving a little over the speed limit. Bouncers at clubs now ushered me in when they saw my fancy mug. No more styrofoam for me. The only bad thing was that I couldn't clean under the lid's magnetic slider. Here coffee stains began to accumulate, and bacteria too, which probably explained my persistent cough and post nasal drip.
   Then came the day when I dropped the lid and the slider popped off. I had assumed the slider slid in little grooves, but when I set the slider back on the lid it popped right into place. It was magnetic after all and didn't need grooves. I could easily pop it off and sanitize the lid. I felt my cough and drip getting ready to move out.
  As I pondered how an accident can lead to improvements, I thought of the great discoveries of the past that resulted from accidents. The engineer who, while fiddling with radar equipment, felt the chocolate bar in his pocket start melting: microwave oven. Enrico Fermi, playing with uranium, accidently split an atom: Atomic bomb. The British chemist who forgot to put away his mold and returned from vacation to find penicillin in his petri dish.
   I'm not claiming my discovery ranks with any of these breakthroughs. I'm more like the engineer working with tension springs who saw one keep moving after he knocked it over: Slinky.  And even that's a stretch.

Led to the invention of reverse for train engines.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Ninety-Nine Bottles of Wine on the Wall


   There are all kinds of volunteer opportunities available. Some can get you stabbed in a god-forsaken refugee camp. Others may result in no more than a sore back from picking up trash along a stretch of highway you've adopted. Teresa and I are volunteers at the local hospital. We started off working Saturday mornings at the hospital coffee/gift shop. For some reason that gig ended and we weren't called for a few years.
   But then we were asked to pour wine at the nursing home Christmas dinner. That was fun. At the end of the night we saw staff about to empty the half full wine bottles into the sink. "Whoa!" we said. "We'll take care of those."
   This past Saturday we were asked to run the Wine Pull table at the annual hospital fund raising dinner. This is a fancy to-do with fine food, flights of wine and a panoply of silent auctions and games to induce the upper classes of our town to part with their loose twenties to support the hospital. Certainly a worthy cause.
   As I say, we were in charge of the Wine Pull. "Everyone A Winner." We stood in front of a table covered with 96 bottles of wine. Also on the table was a glass bowl with 96 numbered corks in it. People paid $20 to pull a cork from the bowl. Each bottle in the racks had a tag around its neck. We read the number on the cork then hunted for the corresponding  bottle and slowly, carefully pulled it from the rack. Some bottles perched precariously in these racks that weren't really suitable for holding wine bottles.
   The previous year Teresa had been working the table next to the Wine Pull and had seen a wine bottle smash on the wooden floor. It took two rolls of paper towels to soak up the blood-red wine. Teresa warned me that we had to work together to carefully slide the bottles out the rack to prevent disaster.
   Some people took their bottle and left. Others would pout if they didn't get the kind of wine they liked. Sorry, no refunds. Move along please. We made it through the night without any accidents, though there were a couple of minor snafus with the numbered corks. We went home and had a glass of wine to relieve our stress.
   If we're asked to do the Wine Pull next year, we're going to demand some changes. First, get rid of those ridiculous wine racks. Maybe use them to hang posters of Napa Valley. That's all they're good for. Second, set all the bottles upright on the table. Third, Teresa and I will come in early and number the corks. Each bottle's number will relate to it's sweetness. Number one will be Boone's Farm Sugar Afternoon. Just kidding. It will actually be a Moscato, the wine for people who don't like wine, but have to drink it to be sociable. The next set of numbers will  be for the White Zins, then the Rieslings, and on up through the Chardonnays, the Pinot Grigios, the Sangioves, the Valpolicellas, the Montepulcianos, etc., etc. It's not rocket science you know.
  So next year when someone draws a 96 and says "Chianti! Yuck! Don't you have any Germurtzraminer?" We'll say, "Try again. Keep fishing till you find a cork between fifteen and twenty." This could lead to long lines at the cork bowl. So maybe we'll divide the corks numerically into ten bowls to help us help people feel good. Isn't that what a hospital's all about? People feeling good?

We have a suggestion.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Will Meditate For Food



   One of my first jobs when I moved to Minnesota in 1973 was delivering medical equipment around the St. Paul area. I delivered commodes, wheelchairs, etcetera to private homes and nursing homes. This was the era of the nursing home construction boom. There was big money to be made. The daughters who used to care for their aging parents at home were now in the workforce.
   Nursing home were lightly regulated in those days. When I made my deliveries I was depressed by the line of old people sitting in the corridors, and was overwhelmed by the smell of urine. Things are greatly improved. The state has mandated that the homes provide activities for the residents and ongoing urine smells are not tolerated.
   Back in my youth, I never imagined I would end up as a resident in a nursing home. Since then I've grown more realistic. I've talked to my doctor and he's promised that should I ever go in the home, he'll write an order that I can keep a bottle of brandy under my pillow.
   For the last 17 years of my working career I was the social worker at a small rural nursing home. If you must be in a nursing home, this is the ideal. The workers know the residents personally so there's  lots of accountability and love.
   My biggest insight while working in the home is that when you get really old, it's pleasant to just sit quietly and ruminate. I realized that the reason so many residents passed up the invitation to come out to activities was that no activity could be more fun than the endless movie of your memories.
   I read once that Hindu men after the age of 60 are free from family responsibilities. They become "Forest Dwellers," and do whatever they please. If they choose they can give up everything except a begging bowl. These beggars are considered sacred and people willingly give them food or anything else they need. They wander about growing spiritually as they decline physically.
  How would that work in the U.S.? There are lots of beggars here. There must be money in it or else, like telemarketers, they'd quit doing it. It sounds scary though. These beggars are at risk for being robbed and beaten. For the homeless beggar, the police are there not so much to serve and protect as to roust and remove.
   If I ever decide to become a Forest Dweller I have some ideas to make it work. First, my "Forest" will be the metropolis. I'll find a busy intersection with long red lights. A sturdy carboard sign is the beggar's most important tool. It's the American version of the begging bowl. The top line on my sign will say "Veteran." Everyone's a veteran of something. The next line will say, "Ten percent of my income goes to charity." You must actually give that ten percent to your fellow beggars. Then if anyone tries to mess with you, the beggars on your payroll will put the kibosh on that noise. Get yourself a dog. Yes, it's a drain on your income, but a slobbering pit bull will warn off the bastards in case the beggars on your team have taken the day off. Beggars are not the most reliable people.
   I can see that with all this prep and my willingness to have my fellow man beaten and bitten to keep myself safe, I'm not going to have much time for spiritual growth. Maybe I'll just let my kids put me in the home. "Cue the movie of my life, please."

Wait till they see the sequel.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

A Month In Provence


  In October of 2019 Teresa and I decided to spend a month in Europe to see if we could take it. I suggested Provence in southern France, figuring the weather would still be nice there in the Fall. Teresa agreed and I began to study the area. We decided to concentrate on the smaller cities and towns north and east of Marseille. I made hotel reservations for a night in Paris and another in Marseille and also booked tickets on the train from Paris to Marseille. After that, we'd play it by ear, coming and going as we pleased.
   We got to Paris without incident. Our friend Steve drove us to Winnipeg and promised to pick us up in a month. The Winnipeg Airport is just big enough for our purposes. The Toronto airport is immense but nice too. We boarded our Toronto-Paris flight at 7:30 p.m. When the aisle seat next to us remained unfilled we said whoopee! Room to spread out our stuff. The Air Canada seats have more legroom than U.S. airlines. I can sleep anywhere except on night flights, and passed the time watching movies on the seatback screen in front of me.
   We landed in Paris at 9:00 a.m., which was two a.m. at home. Customs in Paris was quick. There was a long walk through the terminal to the train station for the trip into Paris, and an even longer wait to buy tickets for the train at one of the machines. This was my first use of our Visa card in France and my fears of rejection turned out to be groundless.
   At the downtown Paris station we had to change to the Mètro to get to the stop near our hotel. Then it was a 15 minute walk to Hotel des Trois Gares. When I booked this place from home I read it as “Trois Gars” which means three guys. Cool. But it’s ‘Gares’ or train stations. I know just enough French to get things wrong.
   It was only noon but our room was ready. There was a little safe in the room so we left our passports and US money in it and walked over to a cellular store. I wanted to buy a SIM card for my phone so I could get on the internet when we were away from WiFi. 
   We found the store and the woman there asked for my passport. Dang! Another lesson learned. Fortunately I had downloaded the Google map of Paris to my phone so we could use that to navigate around the city. 
   One thing we wanted to see was the Promenade Plantée. This is an old railway viaduct that has been turned into a beautifully manicured promenade elevated above the city streets. So I had the map, but it was problematic. Without Internet access it could only show driving routes, not walking, and Paris has many one-way streets. I had to think outside the app. But my thinker was compromised. I hadn’t slept in over 24 hours so it was a miracle we had made it this far with no major screwups. 
 As we walked, we saw lots of graffiti. We saw a crew scrubbing walls. There are lots more smokers than at home. It's good for them there are lots of outdoor cafés. There are numerous ethnic sandwich shops as well and we stopped at one for a panini. 
   We were wise to fortify ourselves because finding the Promenade was a challenge. I had put in the address for one of the stairways up onto the promenade and we arrived at that address, but could not spot any promenade. I have found in my travels that a single sign at crucial junctures such as this could save us lots of time. That sign is never there. 

   Here came a big group of Japanese tourists following their flag-bearing leader. They looked happy like they had been promenading. We went where they had come from and found a park but no promenade. We made a loop to where we had started and went the opposite way, right up onto the promenade. 

Promenade Plantée 

   We had a pleasant walk along the viaduct and through the narrow gardens. Sweaty joggers whipped past us. A sign said the joggers were merely tolerated. The walkway was for les promeneurs. Our next stop was Notre Dame Cathedral about a mile away. I wanted to make a detour to get my passport, but following the map, I had us walk in the wrong direction for 15 minutes. Teresa said no more detours. 
   Notre Dame was almost destroyed by fire last April. The two great towers were not damaged, but the area in front of the church where hundreds of visitors used to gather is now closed off, and a gigantic scaffolding rises above the church’s nave. We took our photos along with the other pilgrims, then crossed the Seine River to the left bank and found a café for a glass of wine. 


Beneath Notre Dame's Towers


   This is Paris at its best. Sitting in a sidewalk café, nursing a drink, with a view of Notre Dame and the tourists on their rented electric scooters. 
   We crossed the river again to the Marais. In the 1800s Emperor Napoleon III tore down much of Paris and built the grand boulevards. He ran out of money before he got to the Marais, so there’s a funky old town to stroll around. We found an outdoor café and had soup and bread. Very good. 
  Even though we were as tired as could be, it’s hard to fight jet lag. I always wake up at 3:00 a.m. and read till I fall asleep again. Next morning we roused ourselves about 9:30 and hiked up to the train station in a light rain. The station was a mob scene. I had already printed our tickets so that was a blessing. We got some breakfast in a coffee shop then, in the hurly-burly, found the line for our train.
   We were taking the TGV, or Train of Great Speed. Four hundred and fifty miles in 3.5 hours. Zippy. We just whipped by the cars on the freeway.  Things slowed a bit in Marseille. We could have walked 15 minutes to our hotel, but part of it would have been through a gritty area so we took the subway. We took a couple of escalators under the train station and got into the ticket line. 
   A woman at the end of line was yelling something to a guy near the front of the line. He was yelling back. Then another guy jumped out of nowhere and head butted the first guy. Then people in line tried to break them up and the action swirled like in a French flick. The ticket seller said, “Welcome to Marseille.” 
   Marseille has a reputation for being gritty. Without grit, you have Disneyland. I did check out the travel sites and learned that Marseille is much safer than Chicago for what that’s worth. 
   The Old Port area was certainly beautiful and full of tourists, mostly European judging by their accents. We checked in to Hotel Hermes, bought some wine and went to a the rooftop patio to enjoy the view. 

   We walked up into the Old Town looking for a restaurant. The city keeps rent low here so it’s a real neighborhood and not spoiled by gentrification. The tiny restaurants with three or four tables on the sidewalks all specialized in fish. Teresa is not a fan so we walked down to the restaurant lined waterfront and found a nice place to eat. 


Welcome to Marseille




   We left Marseille on Thursday on a local train up to Orange, a city of 30,000 souls. We thought this would be a bit more manageable and we were right. Also, this would be  a good place to rent a car and not have to drive through a busy city. 
   There’s a huge ancient Roman theatre in Orange which brings in the tourists. It was built in the first century and held 10,000. The barbarians chased the Romans out in the fourth century. The theatre was too big to destroy even for barbarians, so they smashed or burned what they could and moved on. In later centuries people built houses inside the theatre. 
   When Louis XIV took over this part of France, he destroyed the fort on the hill and was about to destroy the theatre until he saw a drawing of it and decided to keep it for his own glory. By the nineteenth century the French woke up to what they had and restored the place and started holding performances there. Even the Rolling Stones have rocked the ancient stones. 


Roman Theatre, Orange

   We spent four days in Orange visiting the sights and relaxing. On Sunday we went to mass in the ancient cathedral whose bells we had been hearing tolling the hours. There were 14 altar boys and almost as many altar girls, though Teresa noted only the boys went up on the altar. France is a traditional country. 
   After church, we took the train twenty minutes south to Avignon, a city twice the size of Orange. Avignon is famous as the place where the popes, seven of them, lived in the 1300s. Things had gotten dangerous in Rome so the Catholic Church bought the city of Avignon and built a palace, really a fortress, for the pope. The cardinals followed and built palaces of their own. The popes left in 1377 but there is still an Italian feel to the place. The street signs are in both French and Italian, and on this Sunday there was a big Italian market with whole roasted pigs and great wheels of cheese. 


Italian Beer Bus, Avignon

   The popes wanted a bridge across the Rhône River and they had the money to pay for it. This was a tremendous technical operation for the time. The 3,000 foot long bridge made it easy for the cardinals to get to their palaces across the river. According to Dante, who was a visitor, Avignon was the worst smelling city in Europe. 
   We caught our train back to Orange and packed our bags. Next morning we walked a mile to a car rental place and got a little Citroen C3. We drove back to the hotel, picked up our bags and headed for Vaison-la-Romaine. The main reason I wanted a SIM card for my phone (which I finally got in Marseille) was so we’d be able to use Google Maps. We were only going 15 miles and I had a rough idea which roads we'd want, but Google started throwing curve balls. It sent us the opposite way of the correct direction, and then sent us down a series of narrow back roads. Fortunately traffic was light and we pulled over and had a talk with Google. Oh well, it was a nice day for a drive and no one beeped, though they did whip by us on the highway even when we were going the speed limit. 
   Arriving in Vaison-la-Romaine, we pulled over and checked out Airbnbs. We booked one for three nights and headed north of town one kilometer. The owner opened an electric gate so we could drive into the yard then handed me a fob so we could get in and out. “Please close the gate after you,” he said, “or the chickens will escape.” He gave us a tour of the place. It looked brand new and the patio had a view of his gardens and the mountains to the west. Right away we booked it for three additional nights. 
  Next morning was Orange's weekly market. On sale was everything from mattresses and phone cases to brightly glazed Provençal pottery, clothing, cheese, fish, fruit and vegetables, and much more. We helped make it worth the sellers’ while. 
  The first couple of days we explored the town. Across the ancient Roman bridge is the Medieval City atop a high rock where the locals retreated when the barbarians were on the rampage. A network of stony winding paths leads between the houses to the derelict chateau at the summit. There are several artists’ workshops in these buildings and we found some souvenirs before retreating to our patio. 
   I liked that there was a big free parking lot near the heart of the lower town where we could leave the car while walking around. After checking out the main town, we drove east through a beautiful valley below mighty Mt. Ventoux. On the opposite side of the valley perched a series of small villages. 


The village of Brantes, opposite Mt. Ventoux

   Teresa heard of an art walk in the woods outside the village of Savoillans. In the parking lot in Savoillans there was a step-van with its side open. This was the itinerant grocery truck that makes the rounds of the villages that lack grocery stores. The truck belonged to a woman from Belfast who sold us some olives and advised us to buy a baguette at the local boulangerie. She didn’t know about the art trail. 
   There looked to be a trail behind the parking lot and we started up it. We soon met a woman with a box of paints. Yes, this was the art trail. “Go up, go up. But don’t kiss my Esmeralda, I just touched up her lips.” I asked about her Led Zeppelin shirt. “We are all old trippies,” she said. 
  So up we went. All the installations celebrated La Grande Nature. Some were quite intriguing, especially one between two ancient stone walls. A long series of river reeds (roseau) were suspended at eye level by filament. On one end was a pine cone to offset the plume and the balance was fixed by acorns slid along the shaft. The whole affair ran down the steep hill under the trees and the reeds responded together to each shift in the breeze. 
You had to be there.


  Back in the village we found a little restaurant for lunch. The owner was one of the few French people we met who knew about Minnesota. This was because she had once been an au pair in Des Moines. Her husband, who also worked in the restaurant, was Dutch. Just then a couple came onto the patio. The owner asked if they spoke French or English. “Dutch,” they said. “Martin!” she called to her husband.  One must be prepared for anything in the restaurant business. 


Lunch on the Terrace


  When we first arrived in Vaison-la-Romaine, we looked into hikes around the town. Our guidebook mentioned a three mile hike to the hill town of Crestet. The directions seemed simple enough. We walked across the Roman bridge and around the Old Town which sits on the hill we had climbed a couple of days before. We had to watch out for cars and tractors hauling grapes along the narrow road. 
   As we gained elevation, there were occasional signs that said Crestet, and if we saw any locals we asked them for confirmation. After a mile the road got narrower and turned to gravel. No more cars or locals, just thick woods. 
  We continued to gradually gain altitude and through a break in the trees could see the ancient stone village of Crestet perched on a cliff across the valley. Just one more mile. 


Villages in France appear closer than they are.

   We had hoped for some refreshments in Crestet but the restaurant was closed. We met some Americans who had driven up who were also disappointed. Their home in eastern Washington sounded like the plains of North Dakota. 
  The sign on the road they drove away on said Vaison-la-Romaine, five miles! We’re not going that way. And we didn’t want to return the way we came. Google maps said there was a small road that could get us back to Vaison in 2.5 miles. 
  I appreciate Google maps, but the little arrowhead showing our location on the map would drift about disconcertingly. There were no helpful roadsigns or locals along our route. When we got to forks in the road, the arrow would show one way, but after a hundred feet it would jump over to the other route. 
   Soon the gravel turned to grass and then became a steep, rutted footpath. This must lead somewhere, right?  We certainly didn’t want to climb back up to Crestet. Finally we reached ground level and passed a strange encampment with barking dogs and cars up on cinder blocks. 


All paths lead...somewhere.

  At last we found the highway back into Vaison. There’s not much shoulder on stretches of French highways. When a car whips by, you scrunch up against a wall or try not to slide down a precipice. Fortunately, traffic was light. 
  The next day the Office of Tourism in Vaison gave us a map for a two hour hike south of town to La Colline de Mars (Mars Hill). The woman warned us that even French people sometimes lose the trail. “But the directions are in English, so you will be ok,” she said. 
   We headed out and found the narrow gravel road leading to the trailhead. We were told to park by a big post. We drove a kilometer, then another. No post. I was happy to meet no other vehicles on this one lane road. We passed a pair of bikers and a winery. After four kilometers we gave up. 
  We turned around and went back, but just before we reached the highway we saw a sign stating this was a forest preserve. There was room for a couple of cars to park and a path led up the hill. Was this the fabled trail to Mars Hill? Let’s find out! Our map said there would be a steep ascent of 350 meters. Puff, puff. Yes, we must be on the right track. 
  The level track above was fairly broad. The map warned us to follow the marked path to the left and not to go straight on. Well, here’s exactly where even French people go astray. We could find no path on the left. But it was a beautiful day, so, with a Gallic shrug, we went straight on. 
  There were miniature deer stands along the path. Then a dog walked slowly across our path a hundred feet ahead. He looked neither left nor right, but disappeared into the woods. “We need a stick,” Teresa said. All I saw was twigs and leaves. Teresa went into the woods and found a hefty pine cudgel/walking stick. 
  We made a further effort to find the Mars Hill trail. At one point the map said “Take a picture of where you are. You will need it to find your way back.” This was getting too Hansel and Grettlish for us and we turned around and headed for civilization. 


Mars Hill, right there. If it was any bigger it'd bite you.

  To compensate ourselves, we decided to have lunch in the little town of Faucon at a restaurant recommended by our Airbnb hostess. It was a half hour away and when we got there we couldn’t remember the name of the restaurant. Well how many restaurants could there be in a little place like this? I looked up restaurants on Google maps. Two came up and one was a bakery so we went to the other one. It was ok, but expensive. Later we found out the bakery was the correct restaurant. Oh well. 


"Call for Fred Flintstone"

  Back in town Teresa went shopping while I visited the extensive Roman ruins, but my heart wasn’t in it. All the signs were in French and I was tired. I needed a nap. Instead I went to an ATM for some cash, and the machine ate my card. I went inside the bank and was made to understand I would have to return in the morning. Son of a biscuit! Then I got a message on my phone from the temperature sensor at home that the house temp was dropping. This was just not my day. 
  Steve Reynolds, our invaluable friend, went and checked our furnace after I emailed him. Steve by the way was checking our place regularly. The furnace was fine. Next morning I got my card back. And some cash too. 
   On Monday our car was due back in Orange to the west, but we wanted to move east to Roussillon. A couple of days earlier I had called the office in Orange and asked if they would extend my reservation. Their English was as rough as my French, but they seemed to say ok. When it was time to take off on Monday I had a bad feeling about the car and thought we should return to Orange to confirm our reservation even though it meant backtracking. 
   It’s good we went back, because it would have looked like we had stolen  the car if we hadn’t. They wrote up a new contact for nine more days and off we went to Roussillon. 
   Roussillon was only 43 miles east, but we were in no hurry and took an hour and a half on the back roads. Roussillon is very touristy and we had to pay for parking until our Airbnb was available. Roussillon is famous for the red cliffs the town is built on. Unlike other red cliff places around the world, Roussillon’s cliffs contain ochre which was the main industry of the town until people realized they were asking for trouble by mining under the town. 


All the ochre you'll ever need.

  So they switched to tourism. Not an easier life than working in an ochre mine, but it paid the rent. We found a place selling sub sandwiches and sat on a bench and watched the tourists go by. 
  At four p.m. we drove down a narrow street to find our temporary home. Diane, the proprietor, directed our car into a niche and showed us the apartment. Diane and her husband were from Vancouver and had been here for seven years. She did watercolors, with which our apartment was liberally decorated.  
  The apartment was a single room with everything we’d need for a four night stay. It was compact, but doable. The couch became a bed. We left it as a bed for the duration and flopped down at our leisure. 
  Here’s how travelers like us with no fixed agenda spend their days. Check out the local sights, the views, the ancient church, the shops. Hike out of town on the three roads that lead into it, taking paths if possible to avoid the whizzing cars. Back to the apartment for a late lunch. Flop onto the inviting sofa bed. Read. Snooze. Wake up and walk around the now tourist-free streets to build up an appetite. Cook a late supper with locally sourced ingredients. Then read some more until lights out. 


The street with no name actually does have a name.
  
  After four days in Roussillon, it was time to move.  We found an Airbnb in the smaller town of Lauris. There is really nothing of note in Lauris, which made it sound attractive. Lauris was only eleven miles south of Roussillon, but by zig-zagging we could see some extra sights.
  We stopped first in Ménerbes and walked up to the castle. Like so many of the towns in Provence, Ménerbes was built on the top of a hill. Ménerbes was the scene of an amazing siege during the religious wars of the 16th century. Provence was papal territory in those days and the Protestants decided to tweak the pope's nose by holing up in Ménerbes's citadel. Over the next five years, the pope sent 15,000 troops to roust out the 150 Protestant soldiers.

Old jail, Ménerbes

   We had time to kill before checking in to our Airbnb and a sidewalk table in a French café is the perfect place to pass the time. We sipped coffee and watched the life of the village pass by. "Are those guys going to get that big refrigerator into that narrow doorway?" Yes they are.
   Next stop was the town of Bonnieux, built on an even higher hill than Ménerbes. The guidebook says the town is "disappointing," but we found a fine cliffside spot to eat our lunch. The road out of Bonnieux down to Lauris was a never-ending series of switchbacks. I wanted to take it easy, but the locals who knew every curve wanted to run it like a road race. No one beeped, they just rode my bumper, and I pulled over to let them pass whenever there was a scenic overlook. 

View of Ménerbes from Bonnieux  

   Before going to Lauris we stopped in the nearby town of Lourmarin.  Lourmarin has a chateau. Any town with a well preserved chateau will become a tourist hotspot with numerous restaurants, chic shops, and postcard racks.  I was interested in the town's cemetery where the existentialist writer Albert Camus is buried. I used to have an affinity for Camus. 
   Camus grew up in Algeria but had to leave during the war for Algerian independence. He settled in Lourmarin because the area reminded him of his former home. This made me realize that Algeria is not all desert. Its coastal area has a Mediterranean climate, which was why France wanted it. 
  Most French tombs are elaborate crypts in which the whole family is buried. Many are like big waist-high beds covered with small moveable marble memorials expressing "Regrets" from family members and hunting buddies. Camus' grave was marked with a simple stone with his name and the dates 1913-1960. He died in a car crash.
   We had turned an eleven mile dash into a day long jaunt. Now it was time to head to our new home. First we stopped at a Super U supermarket. The supermarkets in France held all kinds of tempting things and the prices were comparable to home. The restaurants in France confused us. At home we usually share a restaurant meal. This is not a common practice in France. Taking leftovers home is also not common. The restaurants have daily specials which often feature fish, lamb, or duck, none of which appealed to Teresa. So we ended up buying take-out sub sandwiches or cooking in our apartment. Of course we did have several meals in restaurants, but it was a trial. I know that sounds ridiculous, but that's how it was.
   The Airbnb system worked well in France. The lodgings were much less expensive than a hotel room, plus we always got a kitchen. It was more relaxing than a hotel. We always made sure there was free parking.  We communicated with our hosts via the Airbnb website. Céline in Lauris sent us the code to open the electric gate to her driveway. It was rare that a house in town did not have an electric gate. The French value their privacy. Perhaps they like to run around naked, even in town.
   Céline, like all our hosts, was extremely pleasant and accommodating. Our little apartment was adjacent to her family's home. Our place was one long room, ending in a patio overlooking the Durance River and some distant mountains. The one downside of the place was the sleeping quarters. A narrow open stairway led to a loft with low headroom and a beam which I never learned to duck under. 
   Teresa's goal during our trip was to get a good walk in every day. On our first full day in Lauris, we decided to walk the three miles to Lourmarin where we had stopped the day before to visit Camus' grave. I used Google maps to plot a path to Lourmarin on back roads. Many streets in France are posted with the word "Impasse," which means dead-end. But that's just for cars. These roads often continue with a path that connects with another road. We had learned from previous hikes that Google maps is good at showing these little foot paths.
   So on this overcast Saturday morning we headed down the street in front of our house, carrying our furled umbrellas just in case. The road was eventually blocked with boulders to keep out cars. We skirted the boulders and hiked down a steep descent. It looked like this had once been passable for vehicles, but it had gotten deeply rutted by winter rains and never repaired. At the bottom we crossed a narrow road, but the path Google said was there ended in a field.  We had to follow the narrow road up to the busy two lane road into Lourmarin.
   It was not pleasant walking along the two lane road. For long stretches there was almost no shoulder on either side and everyone was out doing their weekend shopping because everything closes on Sunday. We got a break along the way at a nursery that was having an Autumn Festival. There were pony rides and several vendors in tents. Sheep bleated in a pen next to a display of cuts from their predecessors. What impressed us most was the 200 year old olive trees in huge tubs of soil: Year end clearance, only 1614 euros. Delivery extra.


Pick your own olives next year.


  We made it to town around noon and while checking out the restaurants, the one we wanted to eat at closed. It was a bakery that also sold sandwiches. Everyplace that sells sandwiches has at least one table out front for diners. One minute the place had been bustling. When we returned a few minutes later it looked like it hadn't been opened in years. "You snooze, you lose," Teresa said. After three weeks in France we were just getting the hang of closing hours for the various businesses. One good thing about Paris was that the businesses stayed open all day to snag the tourist dollar.
   The next day we decided to hike over to the Durance River, about two miles away on the zig-zag route Google laid out. The town of Lauris was several hundred feet above the plain of the Durance and the map on my phone showed a small road leading down to the plain. We didn't realize it would be along the face of the sheer sandstone cliff the town sits on. The cliff was on our left and at first there was a wall on our right with residences behind it, but all the residences appeared to have been abandoned years ago. Eventually the houses ended and there was a steep drop off on the right side of the path. 
  There was thick vegetation hanging down from the cliff creating a green tunnel. We came to a stretch of brambles which someone had tried to cut away, but we still got scratched and torn. Teresa questioned my navigation. I found a stick to hold the brambles out of her way. We were on the path of no return. Next we had to scramble over  several trees that had fallen across the way. I felt like we were auditioning for the parts of victims in a horror flick. 
   But we're survivors and eventually reached the flat. "We're not going back that way," Teresa confirmed. We found a quiet back road along a tiny canal that used to power an olive oil mill. We were still a mile from the river when ominous clouds began to gather. We had left our umbrellas behind and decided we better head for home. We found a road that avoided the cliffside path we had come on, and before long we were back home again, Céline gave us some walnuts and grapes from her yard. Time to relax.


The only fat woman in France.

   The next day it rained most of the day. This was the first serious rain of the trip. We learned later that these rains were washing out railbeds in some areas and disrupting train travel. Teresa and I had both downloaded books to our devices and spent a quiet day at home. Céline felt bad about the rain and offered to refund our next two nights if we wanted to leave. But where would we go? We were happy here. During a break in the rain, we walked into the town of Lauris. It was totally untouristy yet it had all the features of towns that became tourist traps. We stopped in a bakery and ordered some goodies. As the woman put them in a bag, I realized I had no money and she was closing in five minutes. I was getting a little too relaxed.
   The next day threatened rain but we decided to drive 30 miles over to the town of Saint-Rémy. This town is famous as the place where Van Gogh checked himself into an asylum for a year. While here he painted some of his most famous paintings. The asylum still functions as a mental health center, but the part where Van Gogh lived is now a museum. Van Gogh only sold one painting during his lifetime. Now, even his minor sketches go for a million dollars. Of course none of his paintings are in this low security place, but there are full-size replicas of the paintings he did while he lived here. You can see the gardens he painted. They still grow irises there. If you look to the right from his room window, you could see the jagged mountains that formed the background for several paintings. Over there were the fields where he gathered sunflowers.

At Van Gogh's Asylum, Saint-Rémy

   By the time we finished at the asylum and got down to the city center, the Old Town, it was 2:00. This is the hour of restaurant closing. "We open again at 7:00 p.m." How very Continental. The man in the closed place sent us across the street to another place. We craved soup and the board out front promised "potage." Inside, the waitress asked "English?" and brought us readable menus. But there was no soup listed. Asked about the potage out front, she said "Oui. You can have."  You have to be smarter than the menu.
   The map on the phone took us back to Lauris by a different route. It must like variety. When I say it was a 30 mile drive I don't do justice to the adventure that is driving in Provence. The roads are good and traffic is usually light, but there are constant roundabouts, and numerous towns where the road narrows and you must slow for speed bumps. On the way back, we passed though the town of Orgon which seemed to be carved out towering limestone cliffs. Men in bars cheek by jowl with our road enjoyed their after work drinks. This place is not on the tourist trail, though we'd like to come back. 
   Day 23: We'd had the car for fifteen days, and now it was due back in Orange by 11:00 a.m. Orange was 46 miles to the west. There was a four lane highway going that way, but that would be boring, plus it was a toll road. We had ninety minutes to go 46 miles. How hard could that be?  Not hard as long as the phone map did not start sending us the wrong way at the roundabouts, and if the traffic wasn't heavy through Cavaillon, and if we didn't have to wait five minutes at a rail crossing. We were in a bit of a hurry because we wanted to drop our luggage off at our hotel in Orange before returning the car, plus we had to fill the gas tank to avoid a penalty. Also, the car place closed at 11:30 for their extended lunch hour.
   We got to the hotel at 11:00 and dropped off our bags, but could not find a gas station, so drove directly back to the rental place. They did not speak English there, but by signs, the man made me understand that if I filled the tank at the station around the corner I could avoid the penalty. Thumbs up to that. On the mile walk back to the hotel we found a bakery with sandwiches, and it was before noon. We were in the pink.
   After getting settled in our hotel, a place where we had spent four nights at the beginning of our trip, we walked a mile to the train station to get our tickets for Arles the next day. Theoretically, you should be able to show up at the station twenty minutes before your train arrives and buy your ticket. There are also machines in the stations that sell tickets, but we had never been able to get them to work. We had been stuck in long ticket lines before, so it was smart to go the day before and be done with it, even if no one checked your ticket on the train. Sometimes they'd do random checks and there was a huge fine for the ticketless.
   Arles, just 40 miles south of Orange, is another Van Gogh hotspot. He lived here for a year and created dozens of immortal paintings before moving on to  the asylum in Saint-Rémy. After the asylum he moved closer to Paris where he took his own life at age 37. 
   Teresa was glad to be done with the car, but I liked it for freeing us from having to tote our luggage over rough ground and up and down stairways. Fortunately, Marcel, our Airbnb host in Arles, was happy to pick us up at the train station. On the way to our apartment, he pointed out the controversial new Frank Ghery designed building. I like it," he said, "but some don't." He also pointed out Paddy Mullins Irish Pub. "If you want a drink after 9 p.m., that's the place to go."

Trouble in River City

   Our apartment was across the Rhône River opposite the old town. This apartment  was compact, with a loft, but with substantially more headroom than our last place. Marcel's wife Patricia had provided a fine lunch for us with a bottle of wine. After getting settled and enjoying the lunch, we walked across the river. The river had come up from the recent rains and was full of branches and other debris.
  There was something extra-nice about Arles. Yes, it had lots of tourists there for the Roman ruins and the Van Gogh trail, but it also seemed like a place lived in by the locals. Strolling round the winding streets provided lots of visual treats, including a Guinness at Paddy Mullins. The Guinness was also a gustatory treat.


Visual delights of Arles

   The next morning we walked along the river to the train station to get our tickets to Paris. Tied up along the river were a couple of big river cruisers. Luxury. At the train station we learned that a school holiday had begun and travel was tight. The agent worked for a while on her computer and to our relief found tickets for Sunday morning. "You'll have a two hour layover in Avignon," she said. Not a problem.
   Not far from the station was the Yellow House which Van Gogh lived in and also painted. There's just a grassy patch there now. American bombers had hit it during the war while trying to destroy a nearby bridge. They got the bridge later and it was never rebuilt, though the two stone lions on either end are still there. 
  We spent the rest of the day wandering around the city. We had paid to go inside Roman ruins in other cities, and contented ourselves here with walking around the outsides of the arena and theater. I did pay to go down into the crypts under city hall. These crypts were the foundation of the long gone Roman forum. They were dark and dank and I had the place to myself. I got a frisson at one point when I thought I was lost, until I spotted a bust of Caesar in the distance and made for that and the exit (he goes out).


Built to last

  Saturday morning was the weekly market. We had seen weekly markets in other towns, but this was the best. Do you need a new mattress? Or a table that seats sixteen? Are you hungry or ill clothed? Do you want a six-week old live rabbit as a pet or for supper?  Or a clucking chicken? Do you need ingenious kitchen tools as seen on YouTube? This market took over the main street in Arles. By noon the vendors were folding their tents and packing their trucks. Some of them would be in a different town on Monday or Tuesday. There's always a market somewhere.
   Saturday night we were going to eat at a restaurant. God knows there are enough of them in Arles. We wandered the streets reading the chalk boards out front: Lamb. Duck. Fish. Teresa wanted chicken, but everyone was fresh out of chicken. We kept walking. Fish. Lamb. Duck. In desperation we went to a pizza place. We had a few pizzas in France. They were always cooked in a wood fired oven and should have been good, but they were extra floppy and had an unpizzalike taste. I'm just too used to the stuff I make at home.
   Sunday morning, Marcel drove us to the station. "In an hour, I wouldn't be able to get out of my driveway," he said. The annual Arles 10k Marathon was about to start. The police already had barriers up around town and we had to take the long way around to the station. The train to Avignon took 17 minutes.  We had two hours to kill.
   After sitting in the sun outside the Avignon station for awhile, Teresa suggested we walk uptown. "What, with all our luggage?" I whined. We had spent a day in Avignon earlier in the trip, but I followed along behind my wife pulling my wheeled suitcase, a souvenir laden bag on either shoulder. Teresa also had a mighty load. Well, wouldn't you know it! Another Irish pub! How about we have a wee dram and watch the world go by here on the sidewalk. Or we could watch South Africa play Wales in the World Rugby Quarter Finals. No, outside is best.
   Time passes quickly in a pub or a sidewalk café and soon we were hurtling northwards at 200 mph on the fast train. Trump was on the front of the Sunday paper and the young couple in the seats facing us seemed to be taunting us by holding up their copy while they whispered to each other. As we were pulling into the station in Paris, I thanked them for providing a picture of our president because we had forgotten him while travelling in France. They blushed deeply till we told them we were members of the Resistance. Then they asked if we had enjoyed our time in France. "Oui. Bien sûr!"
   From the Paris station we hiked over to our old downtown hotel near the Bastille. After stowing our gear, we walked up to the Marais and found a restaurant. We learned that they served omelets for breakfast. The French don't really do breakfast, being content with a coffee and a croissant. They have a good lunch and an even better supper. But this place catered to tourists.
  Next morning we returned for our omelets. Pas mal, not bad, as they say. We wandered around the funky Marais and on to the Louvre. A show on DaVinci had just opened but it was sold out, so we just enjoyed the ambience around the glass pyramid. On the way back to the hotel we found a Jewish falafel place for lunch. There was a live cam TV of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.


"Will this fit in my carry-on?"

   After lunch we picked up our luggage and began the ordeal of getting to the airport, 12 miles north of town. When I get a little older, I'll splurge for a cab. Today we entered the subway, bought our tickets from a machine and watched how other passengers passed through the barriers. A bunch of kids were slipping under and over the barriers. We slipped our tickets in the slot and retrieved them in case an inspector wanted to see them. The passage through the barrier is narrow and not meant for people hauling luggage. 
   The Paris Métro is very efficient, but it's not at all handicapped accessible. There are long passageways and flights of stairs to get from one line to another. This is especially true at the Châtelet-Les Halles station where we had to catch a suburban train to the airport.  Our flight would be tomorrow. We had reserved a room at the Ibis Hotel right next to Terminal 3. Our room was reasonably priced and clean, but otherwise bare bones. Later we inspected the restaurants in the lobby. It wasn't quite seven so they were still closed. Then Teresa remembered there was a food store just across the street. Yay, sandwiches! I know it's a bit crazy to admit that we went to France and ate mostly sandwiches and spaghetti cooked in our little apartments, but that's what made us happy gastronomically speaking. We're anti-foodies.
   Our travel troubles were nearly over. The next morning a little shuttle train took us over to Terminal 2, and a 15 minute walk brought us to the Air Canada agents, passing, as we went, people travelling to and from all points of the globe, many weighed down by unwieldy bags and crates. 
   There's little more to tell. Our flight to Montreal went smoothly. It's always easier travelling home. You gain back all the hours you lost travelling east. We cleared customs and after a four hour layover boarded our final flight to Winnipeg. We arrived at nine p.m., got supper at an all night café, then caught a cab to a nearby motel. Next day at 11:30 a.m., Steve and Jackie Reynolds picked us up, God love 'em. Before heading home, we went to the Forks area for a big plate of spaghetti, naturally.