Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Paris, home of lost luggage and really stinky antiperspirants

    Lucy and I have arrived in Paris, thanks to a $50 fare on Iberia Airlines, although we actually flew on its low-cost carrier, Vueling.
    Fifty dollars is a great airfare. Unfortunately, the bitterness of poor quality lingers long after the sweetness of low price. Vueling/Iberia lost my little checked suitcase, which had my seersucker suit jacket, two paris of shoes, several pairs of pants, plus toiletries. Plus socks. Plus more.
    I’m not happy. Technically I’m entitled to replace some of these items, but I’m at the mercy of the airline in seeking reimbursement. European clothes are terrible; they don’t fit the local citizenry properly, and I’m sure none of them will fit me. Plus, from a cost standpoint a really nice pair of pants that costs $25 in the U.S. costs about $200 in Europe. Did I say I’m not happy.
    I went to a Monoprix today to buy some toiletries to replace those in my bag. The St. Michael Monoprix is about as crappy as they come, by the way. Among the things that I needed to buy was antiperspirant. I spent 30 minutes looking at and smelling the varieties on offer. All of the products contained perfume. I don’t want my antiperspirant to work by stinking more than I do. I want an absolute absence of odor. Why can’t I have this? Why? (To the store’s credit they did not have Right Guard and Mennen Speed Stick (the brown kind), which stink worse than any human I’ve ever smelled). I finally bought a product that I thought didn't smell too bad, but the odor from it is making me sick.
    Did I say these jackasses have lost my luggage and I’m not happy?
    Paris was not part of our original plan. I was willing to fly almost anywhere in Central Europe, but the $50 fare to Paris was the cheapest by almost $100 per person, so that’s where we went.
   Two years ago my dad took the entire family on a Mediterranean Cruise, after which Lucy and I spent four days in Paris before returning home. Last year we managed to scrape together enough frequent flyer miles and hotel points for a family vacation to Paris and London.
    So I feel a little like Forrest Gump. Due to the way the airline tickets were priced, Lucy and I had to go to Paris, AGAIN.
    I had planned to make Paris a quick stop, but last year and the year before Lucy was sorely disappointed that she didn’t get to go up to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Tickets have to be purchased a certain number of days in advance, but I discovered that you have to be sitting at your computer right at 9 a.m. Paris time (that’s about 2 a.m. Mississippi time), as the tickets sell out in a matter of minutes.
    I finally got the Eiffel Tower tickets, but using them requires us to stay in Paris for four days. There are worse fates.
    For the past three years I’ve purchased a goodly number of Choice Hotel points during the American Express Daily Getaways promotion. I’ve managed to use these to get decent hotel rooms relatively cheaply. For example, before our family cruise two years ago I was able to treat the entire extended family to a free night at the Hotel Diana in Venice. My cost, about $38 per room, versus about $200 or more if we simply paid cash.
    I’ve booked quite a number of nights with these points for this trip, including our Paris hotel, the Andre Latin. The cost in points per night is 20,000, so I’m shelling out just under $80 per night for a decent Paris hotel room in the Latin Quarter. It’s more than I’d like to pay, but I’m not sure one can pay any less in Paris.
    Now I’m just praying that my luggage will arrive tonight and be delivered to my hotel tomorrow.

No such thing as a 'free' supper after all

    In my last post I reported that our hotel in Lisbon was pre-paid and cost $51 per night. This was in error. The rate was actually 52 euros per night; a good deal still, just not as good a deal.
    At checkout I also discovered the mystery of the free meal voucher that we were given. At the time I booked the room I checked the option allowing me to pay for one meal in advance. So a mediocre buffet that would have cost the two of us 32 euros if purchased on the spot “only” cost us 30 euros through our advance purchase. We could have had a far better dinner for less money in Old Town Lisbon.
     With the exception of the overpriced buffet meal Lisbon was a budget destination. We bought a subway pass, two museum tickets, plus a few beers and Cokes, and that’s about it; plus the Augmentin for my sinus infection.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Lisbon has been an unexpected surprise

    Sometimes a city will surprise you, and so it has been with Lisbon.
    I don’t think of Portugal as a wealthy county in relation to other EU nations. Democracy came to Portugal while I was in high school, so the history here is quite different from most other European countries.
    In terms of per-capita income, Portugal ranks behind Greece and Estonia, and ahead of Poland and Lithuania. So the country isn’t rolling in money.
    The Lisbon airport was certainly unimpressive. The airport is mostly served by smaller planes which park on the tarmac. We had to take a bus into the terminal building.
    We resisted the urge to just take a taxi to our hotel, which is an easy temptation after a long flight into an unknown city. Instead we headed for the metro. The constant effort to save the $20 or $30 that can be so easily thrown away while traveling is what makes it possible to travel.
    We must have looked prosperous, because two French ladies gave us their unused metro tickets while we were waiting in line to buy our own tickets. My experience is that free metro tickets are always given to those who look like they need them the least, so at least we didn’t look needy.
    The Metro was remarkably clean and modern; certainly far better than the fine systems offered by Paris or London. It’s amazing how nice a metro can be in a city that doesn’t suffer the homeless to defecate, sleep, and urinate all over the common areas!
    Lisbon is a bit like San Francisco, with hills everywhere. Major roads are on various levels, and the sidewalks run up and down a bit like exit ramps. It can be confusing. But the city as a whole is very clean, modern, and pleasant to visit. It's one of the more pleasant places I've been.
    We stayed at a Novotel hotel, in the north part of the city. The downside of this hotel was that it wasn’t really within walking distance of Old Town Lisbon; there were few restaurants in the area and seeing anything required a subway ride.
    The upside was that it is a very nice hotel that I purchased through an advance-purchase special a couple of months ago for $52 per night. A huge breakfast buffet was included every morning, and we got one free supper as well. Thanks to the huge breakfast we did without lunch, and got by with just a snack for our first two nights.
    My biggest unexpected expense in Lisbon has been for some Augmentin. I’ve got a nasty sinus infection that simply will not go away. The cost in Lisbon for sixteen 875-mg Augmentin is about $12, which is pretty reasonable in my book. And the pharmacists were highly trained and did not need a pesky doctor’s prescription.

    On our first day in Lisbon we slept. That’s it. We managed to get checked into our room at 2:30 p.m. and went straight to bed. Lucy slept straight through to the next morning. I got up at around 8 p.m. and had a beer and mini-pizza in the hotel lobby and went back to bed.
Harry Potter was here?
    On Day Two we took a nap after our huge breakfast, followed by a visit to El Cortes Ingles department store and a visit to the old town, where we toured the Church of San Roque and the attached museum. We were mightily impressed, as virtually every surface was covered in gold leaf. Lucy noticed what looked like the Sign of the Deathly Hallows on one of the paintings in the attached museum, which suggests those novels may in fact be based on true events. I couldn't help but notice that the paintings seemed to have a much more vibrant style than paintings I've seen in other countries from a similar period.
    On Day Three we again visited the El Cortes Ingles department store, but still managed not to buy anything. We discovered that the little horsies on Ralph Lauren shirts are about 25 percent larger in Portugal than they are on the American version (we measured). We also saw some people wearing the grotesque Polo shirts with the one-foot-high horsey. Why? We also visited the Castle of King Jorge, atop Lisbon's highest hill.
    Sadly, we missed the Gulbenkian Museum, which is closed on Mondays. We return to Lisbon briefly before our return home, so it is on our list of things to yet to see.
    So the takeaway is that Lisbon is one of the most difficult cities to see in Europe. There is but a single train per day to and from Madrid, and it's an overnighter. But it's a great place to visit. I look forward to coming back for a single day before our return home. I was very surprised at how impressed I was with everything here.
    Tomorrow we head to Paris. Right now I’m off to sleep.

Chapter two, in which we learn advantages of clinging to window or aisle seats

    I mentioned in my previous post that we had managed to get really cheap tickets to Europe. We flew on USAir.
    The plane we flew on explains part of the reason for the low price. It was a 757-200 with 3-3 seating, a plane more suited for domestic flights than international travvel. There was no IFE system. Movies were shown on television screens in the center aisle. I kept wondering if Jimmy Carter was still president.
    Whenever booking seats for two on a three-across grid I always take a window and aisle, in hopes that the middle seat will stay open. I then check back regularly to make sure the middle seat hasn’t filled. If it does I’ll move to a new row.
    On our flight the middle seat showed empty until our check-in a few hours before the flight. I had high hopes that we would therefore have some extra space.
    When we arrived at our row there was already a man in the center seat. By mutual agreement Lucy and I refrained from speaking to each other, in hopes that this middle occupant wouldn’t know we were traveling together, and thus get the idea that one of us should volunteer for middle-seat duty.
    A minute after we took our seats my phone vibrated, indicating an arriving text. Since I have a record, I will share our conversation:
Lucy [all exchanges by text message]: Course of action, if any?
Me: You can ask him if he would like window. I think he’s French (note: Lucy speaks a slight amount of French).
Lucy: Nah...
Me: Well you can’t yik yak w me.
Lucy: Then you can ask him if he wants the aisle...
Me: I am too fat to sit in middle
Lucy: And I’m too comfortable to move. So I think ima just kick back with the book. Let’s see how long it takes for me to finish
    And so Lucy and I headed to Europe with a stranger between us, each clinging to our coveted aisle or window seat, pretending not to know each other.
    I was courteous. I leaned out towards the aisle, giving the stranger the full use of the armrest. But then a miracle happened.
    The stranger motioned that he wanted to go to the bathroom. He never came back. We saw him somehow manage to get an aisle seat a number of rows in front of us. I think it was a seat that you have to pay for, but he just took it (on USAir the premium seats offer nothing more than early boarding and easy exit; no extra legroom or free drinks).
    So for almost the entire flight Lucy and I had an empty middle seat between us. Lucy stretched out a bit, but I kept my armrest down. I just enjoyed being able to use the armrest and my right arm without touching or being touched by a stranger. Of course, if we had offered this stranger one of our comfortable window or aisle seats we would have had his company for the entire flight, no doubt touching us the whole way. So standing firm paid off.
    USAir now offers only a single free glass of wine with dinner, poured from a milk carton. It’s pretty wretched stuff. I accepted my free glass and bought an additional airplane bottle of wine for $7; it, too, was closer to wretched than good.
    Only after my free glass of wine had been poured and my $7 mini-bottle purchased did I discover that the airline offered both Conundrum and Meomi Pinot Noir – two of my favorite wines – for $15 per half bottle. This is about what it would cost at a liquor store. I desperately wanted to buy one of these half bottles, but figured that amount of wine would either make me very entertaining or very unentertaining to my fellow passengers. So I drank my rotgut, put some tunes on my Android, and took a fitful nap.
    Today’s lesson: Bring your own in-flight entertainment. Never voluntarily take a middle seat. Always read the airline drink offerings before ordering.

And we're off . . .

    My daughter Lucy and I have embarked on a grand adventure of sorts. I managed to score us a couple of $600 round-trip tickets to Europe.
    Our tickets are from Boston to Lisbon. So to use them we had to get there, which in the end meant driving to Atlanta so that I could use a companion ticket so that Lucy could fly for free. After factoring in the cost of three weeks of parking I’ve realized this was a terrible mistake; I could have booked a flight out of Memphis months ago, but I kept waiting for the fares to drop. They never did.
    In the end, after tallying all costs we still will have managed to get from Oxford to Europe and back again for less than $1,000 each; flying out of Memphis would have cost almost double.
    Last year we spent four days on rented bicycles. This year we plan to spend almost a dozen. I’m fat and short of breath, but we plan to stay on flat ground.
    My hope is that we will convert my blog into a travelogue for the next three weeks, as we recount our adventure. Where we’ve managed to save money, I’ll share it. Where I’ve managed to blow money needlessly, I will try to admit it.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

If Thad Cochran wants to call Chris McDaniel a racist, what exactly does that make him?

    As Chris McDaniel seeks to find enough evidence of voter fraud to overturn the Republican primary run-off, it’s important not to forget the most important issue: Thad Cochran won, if he won, by running last-minute radio ads and making robo-calls equating conservatism with racism.
    Liberals have, for years, equated any conservative position that they did not like to racism. Now Thad Cochran has climbed aboard their bandwagon.
    I have serious doubts about Chris McDaniel’s ability to prove enough voter fraud and get a new election, although I think there was rampant fraud and vote buying. But I have no doubts about the Cochran-Barbour radio ads and telephone calls. I’ve heard them. There is evidence these ads were apparently paid for through some illegal machinations through the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which attempted to attribute them to an unregistered PAC operated out of a Jackson storefront church.
    I pointed out repeatedly before the election that Cochran had a conservative voting record, with only rare liberal lapses. Until the last days of the campaign I had planned to vote for him. But I can’t ever remember him championing any conservative cause, and I feel he is a little wobbly on illegal immigration; for that reason I decided to support Chris McDaniel.
    So if Chris McDaniel is a racist because of his political views, so is Thad Cochran. If Chris McDaniel is a racist because of his associations, so is Thad Cochran.
    Those who followed the campaign know that a man who donated $800 to Chris McDaniel’s campaign was a member of the Klan back in 1962 (when interviewed the former Klansman said he was a Cochran supporter in prior campaigns). So I guess for some that makes Chris a racist by association.
    But wait! Haley Barbour, who controlled Cochran’s campaign because he essentially controls his vote, claimed the White Citizen’s Council was an organization designed to help blacks. He joked to a New York Times reporter that people shouldn’t use racial epithets because they might be reincarnated as a watermelon and be eaten by blacks. So that makes Thad a racist by association.
    Salon reported that Chris re-tweeted something written by a racist. So I guess that makes him racist (the tweet wasn’t racist, but apparently he was supposed to have read all of the guy’s tweets before re-tweetinig one).
    A senior Cochran campaign strategist is Austin Barbour. Barbour’s business partner in Clearwater Group is Arnie Hederman, as in the Clarion-Ledger Hederman family, which operated the most racist newspaper in America. Headline after Martin Luther King’s March on Washington: "Washington is Clean again with Negro Trash Removed.” Double-racist!
    It’s sad that Thad Cochran was too senile to debate. It could have been a lot of fun.
    Thad could have declared, “You’re a racist!”
    Chris could have responded, “No I’m not. You’re a racist!”
    Thad then could have said, “I’m not a racist. You’re the racist!”
    Chris then could have delivered the knockout blow: “I know you are but what am I?”
    At this point Thad likely would have gotten befuddled and declared “I’m a racist!", perhaps adding something about indecent things with farm animals. And Chris would have won the debate and the election.
    That, of course, is why Thad refused to debate.

    A recent PPP poll shows that Cochran is currently highly popular with blacks and Democrats and unpopular with Republicans. He's actually outpolling Democrat Travis Childers strongly among these two core Democratic groups. It’s our duty to make sure the voters of Mississippi know that if they think Chris McDaniels is a racist, so is Thad Cochran. Cochran must be made to pay for the terrible things he has done, and pay he will. We must give him the same treatment that he gave Chris McDaniel, with radio ads and robo-calls letting people know the he and his supporters are racists.
    I really don’t think Mississippi’s black voters will find the Barbour joke about the watermelon very funny.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Eleven years ago Jinny and I hiked the Nietzsche Trail, dressed more nicely than anyone else

    Today is Bastille Day, and what better time to share the story of Jinny and me traveling down the Nietzsche Trail from Eze, France to the coastline.
    We hadn’t planned to walk the Nietzsche Trail. We had planned to eat at a really nice restaurant, but those plans were dashed.
    We were in Eze as part of a 12-day Mediterranean cruise with a port call in Monte Carlo. Monte Carlo is a pretty worthless port call in my view, since you can’t visit the casinos in the day time. But I had read in one of the travel magazines about a great deal to be had in Eze, a short cab ride from Monte Carlo.
    I had read that the famous Chateau de la Chevre D'Or restaurant in Eze, which has two Michelin stars, offered a fixe prix lunch for about 65 euros. Dinner for two at this restaurant can cost as much as $1,000, so a 65-euro lunch was not unreasonable (at the time the euro and dollar were at par). It was hailed as one of the greatest travel bargains in all the world.
    We stepped off of our cruise ship on July 14, 2003. I don’t know the exact temperature, but this was in the middle of the biggest heat wave that Europe had experienced since 1540. It was hot. Seventy thousand Europeans died from the heat in 2003, including 15,000 Frenchmen. I was wearing a blue blazer, tie, and khakis. Jinny was wearing a dress and heels. We wanted to look sharp for our fancy meal, for which we had reserved in advance.
    We arrived in Eze and then at the restaurant, which sits atop the highest hill in Eze like a castle. Jinny decided to read and menu and confirmed that the 65-euro lunch was indeed on offer. It was. Underneath it said, “Except on Festival Days.”
    “You know what today is, don’t you?” Jinny asked. I didn’t. “It’s Bastille Day.” A "festival" day. An a la carte lunch, if we ordered carefully, would have cost us $500. We declined, although we did pay $10 each for a drink at a bar with the finest view we’ve ever enjoyed.
    I had heard about the Nietzsche Trail which went from Eze, high on a hill, down to the French coastline. I suggested we walk down, find a place for lunch and a drink, and catch a train back to Monte Carlo.
    We found the entrance to the Nietzsche Trail. Among my grandmother, Mom Hurdle’s effects was a church bulletin where she had taken a single note from the pastor’s sermon: “Wide and broad is the path to destruction.” Such is the Nietzsche Trail.
    The entrance to the Nietzsche Trail in Eze is well-marked, and there are nice, neat little steps leading downwards to a paved path. This paved path continues for about 100 yards. There is then a bit of deterioration; and then more deterioration. The further down we went, the worse the trail got; but to go back meant a hard trek uphill. The trail deteriorated to just rocks, to the point where we honestly could barely walk, and feared falling off the mountain.
    We should have known something was up when various hikers gave strange looks to this couple dressed for a dinner party stumbling down a path more suited for billy goats. We survived, but for a while we thought we might join the 70,000-plus death toll.
    Jinny has not stopped thanking me for our wonderful lunch to this day.

    Below is a video that someone took of their jog down the Nietzsche Trail, just to give an idea of what it is like.