Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Reflections From Roma #15

Reflections From Roma #15
01 maggio 2019

Hello there… Rodger French here.

Even as an admittedly low-level Department of State employee, I consider it my patriotic duty to periodically alert unsuspecting readers to recent department news of a non-classified nature. It is, after all, our tax dollars paying for this and I think you have a right to know what gives with your diplomatic corps.

Therefore, behold: The newly designed, recently promulgated, and very unclassified DoS Ethos (in italicsboldface in the original), presented along with some low-level personal observations.

United States Department of State Professional Ethos 

- I am a champion of American diplomacy.

         [Champion? OK, I see where this may be interpreted as simply an extension of Secretary Mike Pompeo’s fixation with the concept of “getting our swagger back.” But, having been bombarded with fundamental Baptist teachings as a kid, I also understand that the word “champion” is commonly used to exhort the faithful; e.g., “Prayer Champion” or “Champion for Christ.”

It is worth remembering that Pompeo is a fundamentalist Christian zealot, one who believes devoutly in the Rapture, followed by the Second Coming of Christ. All of which, incidentally, is predicated upon (a) the destruction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque (only the third holiest site in Islam) and (b) the subsequent rebuilding of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.

Therefore, question: Is it irresponsible to speculate that the Secretary might, on any level, conflate “champion of American diplomacy” with his belief in an apocalyptic cult nightmare? I submit that it would be irresponsible not to.]

- My colleagues and I proudly serve the United States and the American people at the Department of State, America’s first executive department.

         [That, we do.]

-We support and defend the Constitution of the United States.

         [This is the only damned thing we DoS employees are SWORN BY SACRED OATH to do, and I am more than a little disheartened to see it assigned third position in this or any “Ethos.”]

-We protect the American people and promote their interests and values around the world by leading our nation’s foreign policy.

         [A worthy goal, but undermined on a daily basis by the fact that our “nation’s foreign policy” is ultimately determined by a willfully ignorant man-child who obsessively seeks information and validation from a mendacious and deeply reactionary cable news channel.]

-As a member of this team, I serve with unfailing professionalism in both my demeanor and my actions, even in the face of adversity.

         [This, we also do. Go on…]

-I act with uncompromising personal and professional integrity. I take ownership of and responsibility for my actions and decisions.

         [Acting like a grownup is laudable in a diplomat. But don’t expect any actual leadership in this area from the Champion-in-Chief, who, while “leading our nation’s foreign policy,” dissembles the way infants poop.]

-And I show unstinting respect in word and deed for my colleagues and all who serve alongside me.

         [Unstinting? OK… although if someone wears a MAGA hat to work, all bets are off. To be fair, however, that sort of uncivilized behavior simply does not happen at State.]

- Together, we are the United States Department of State.

         [Big Finish: Cue inspirational patriotic music - possibly unlicensed - and… you’re welcome.]



Thursday, April 25, 2019

Reflections From Roma #14

Reflections From Roma #14
25 aprile 2019

Photo Update Alert:

Hello there… Rodger French here.

A.J. and I recently returned from a four-night stay in the Republic of Malta, a archipelago located80 kmsouth of Sicily, 284 km east of Tunisia, and 333 km north of Libya; that is to say, right smack in the middle of the Mediterranean. Over the course of roughly 8000 years, this geographically tiny place with excellent natural harbours has been inhabited or conquered bythe Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Aragonese, Knights of St. John, French, and British. Currently, the residents of Malta endure and profit from a constant infestation of behemoth cruise ships and their attendant ZOTA™. 

[Nomenclature Sidebar- The Republic of Malta consists in the main of three inhabited islands: Malta, Gozo, and Cosimo. “Malta” typically refers to the largest island of the same name.]

Littered with Catholic churches, megalithic temples, and impressive battlements, Malta is one of those places where History stops by from time to time, throws up all over the joint, and moves on. (E.g., Paul the Apostle - Christianity’s first and greatest PR man - was shipwrecked on “Melita” on his way to Rome, according to the Acts of the Apostles.) Maltese history is utterly, often brutally, engaging.

And in April, the weather is perfect: Sunny, breezy, and comfortably cool. We set up camp in a very nice small hotel in Valetta, the capital, and made use of the mostly reliable public transportation system. The local buses and ferries cost only €1.50/one way. Since the island is a mere27 km long and 14.5 km wide, you can get around pretty quickly. Among the highlights:

- The Malta Maritime Museum- Located in Birgu, across the Grand Harbour from Valetta. A veritable naval hodgepodge, it is enjoyable, though a bit dimly lit. (The memorial plaque dedicated to the Maltese who were among 1519 dead when the Germans sank three British vessels off the coast of Norway in 1940 proved unexpectedly emotional.)

- Marsaxlokk- A small, ancient fishing village in the SE part of the island, with a fine harbour, colorful fishing boats, and excellent seafood. Also, a large LNG terminal.

[Maltese Culinary Highlights Sidebar- Grilled cuttlefish, stewed rabbit, Maltese sausage/pork hamburgers, traditional (Good Friday) hot cross buns, figolli (marzipan-filled Easter pastry), Kinnie (bitter orange carbonated soft drink), dark chocolate “Maltese Falcons”]

- Mdina- A small, fortified city located in the Northern Region founded by the Phoenicians in the 8thcentury BC and the capital of Malta until 1530. St. Paul’s Cathedral (the Apostle left his mark) is a significant tourist attraction. It is Baroque, it is gilded, it is completely over the top. And I especially liked the marble floor. It was also packed with people praying in groups and priests hearing confessions on the go.

- St. John’s Co-Cathedral- Co-Cathedral, you ask? Here you go:

[Wikipedia Sidebar - “Over time, the St. John’s grew to equal prominence with the archbishop’s cathedral at Mdina. In the 1820s, the Bishop of Malta was allowed to use St John's as an alternative see and it thus formally became a Co-cathedral.”]

St. John’s, located in Valetta, is the major tourist hotspotin Malta. It is Baroque, it is gilded, it is completely over the top. And... I especially liked the marble floor. The place was swarming with visitors, but the crowd was pretty well behaved, notwithstanding the idiots who insisted on taking selfies with Caravaggio’s epic painting “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist” in the background. Good Lord.

I should note that we arrived in Malta on the Wednesday before Easter and departed on Easter Sunday. Naturally, a fair amount of the tourism we experienced was religious in nature. Which I am emphatically not predisposed to, but “Yo, respect.” One should be cognizant of and open to the importance of ritual.

In fact, the high point of our trip came on Holy Thursday night, when, following the sound of a small brass band (complete with matching maroon blazers), we paraded through the narrow, vertiginous streets of Valetta, marching (well, schlepping) from one church to another, mingling with local parishioners and visiting pilgrims. E molti bambini. It was a good evening to be out and about and part of something ancient.

So, if you ever have the opportunity to visit Malta, I sincerely recommend it. Just one thing: In the name of the Saints John and Paul, please, no selfies.



Sunday, March 17, 2019

Reflections From Roma #13

Reflections From Roma #13
17 marzo 2019

Photo Update Alert:

Hello there… Rodger French here.

This is where I suppose I should offer up my apologies for not pulling together a posting in, what, two months? But the truth is that there simply hasn’t been that much to report. Roma may be “The Eternal City” and ground zero for the ZOTA™, but the fact is that day-to-day life here is just as day-to-day as anywhere else; albeit with beautiful art, churches, and ruins.

It also happens that we are exactly a year away from retiring from this peripatetic life and repairing to Fairhope, Alabama on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay (aka “the nice part of Alabama”), there to set up shop and then… do whatever the hell we want, I suppose. We will no doubt miss - and not miss - living in Roma, and I will be exploring the reasons why in a future posting. For now, let’s just say that the joint has lost significant romantic charm due to a relentless tide of heinous traffic and increasingly unreliable public services, notably trash collection.

We are, however, still planning Roman excursions as well as trips of various durations in order to make the most of our remaining time here. The destination list is long and hardly a day passes without someone suggesting yet another picturesque locale we simply must see. Which can be just frustrating as hell. And we still have lists from our African, Asian, and South American tours, so why should Europe be an exception. Sometimes you simply get what you get.

So, be advised that we’re doing just fine and getting on with it here. Those of you wondering about the infrequency of correspondence, well, grazie mille. Your concern is much appreciated. And if there’s anything of real interest to report, report it I shall. Meanwhile, be well, make sure your passport is current, and in case of emergency, don’t panic.



Thursday, January 10, 2019

Reflections From Roma #12

Reflections From Roma #12
10 gennaio 2019

Photo Update Alert:

Hello there… Rodger French here.

A cheery “Buon anno!” to you all, and I’d like to apologize (again) for being such a feckless correspondent. The truth is, my heart hasn’t been in it lately, for any number of reasons, most of them frankly lame. But rather than dwell on the past, let us do a little catching up.

Christmas in Vienna- A.J. cashed in some hotel “miles” and we joined the obligatory Christmas ZOTA™, staying seven nights in Vienna. As with our trip to Salzburg, we elected to book passage on the NightJet train instead of dealing with airports and, although there were some glitches on both ends of the journey, it was totally worth it, especially considering how much loot we stuffed into our suitcases. 

Vienna is a shopping kind of town and the Christmas markets were great fun. It is also positively lousy with music and we attended a couple of classical music concerts featuring excellent musicians performing in butt-freezing cold (but very scenic) churches. And the food was surprisingly good, assuming you’re in the mood for meat, starch, and pastries. We even managed to be treated discourteously by one of the famously rude waiters in one of Vienna’s famous (and, IMHO, overrated) cafés.

It was a lovely being in a city where there was excellent tap water, reliable public transportation, and not one scrap of litter, never mind overflowing trash dumpsters. Given an opportunity, I’d go back to explore further.

America Held Hostage: The Trump Shutdown- I will simply report that I am currently working. Anne is currently furloughed. And “stupid” is the most positive thing I’ve heard anyone at the Embassy say about the whole idiotic thing. 

Ricordando Nereo- A.J. and I typically walk together to the Embassy on weekday mornings, although we return at different times. Our route along Via Salaria takes us through a gap in one of the Aurelian Wallsbuilt between 271 and 275 AD, during the reign of the emperors Aurelian and Probus.

The sidewalk at that intersection was the site of a makeshift habitat for a homeless fellow and his dog. I never really interacted with him (although the dog barked at me once) and, apart from walking the pooch, he seemed to spend pretty much all his time reading. We saw them there almost every day for 14 months.

Today there is a memorial of flowers, candles, and messages in his place. His name was Nereo and he has passed away. But the wall abides, serving no real purpose except to stand a silent vigil for someone who lived, died, and is missed.



Saturday, November 17, 2018

Reflections From Roma #11

Reflections From Roma #11
17 novembre 2018

Photo Update Alert:

Anne and I took a couple of trips recently, one a weeklong excursion to Sicilia, the other an overnight to Orvieto, a town not far from Roma. Both trips were enjoyable, but the approach to each was necessarily very different.

The Sicilia trip necessitated flights on a low-cost airline with inevitably horrible seating, a talking rental car possessing a polite British accent, and several eclectic Airbnbs of decent quality. Our friend H did a great job setting up the logistics for the three of us and, notwithstanding a run of rainy weather (we departed the island just ahead of the worst floods in many years) and a nerve wracking reliance on the rental’s GPS in navigating narrow, steep, and treacherous one-way streets in Sicilian towns, things came together pretty much as planned. Among the highlights:

Piazza Armerina- A classic Sicilian hill town featuring a historic duomo (cathedral) at the top of the pile: One-Way up, one-way down through an area known as “The Fishbone.” Piazza Armerina is the Gateway to…

Villa Romana del Casale– An elaborate Roman villa with an enormous collection of mosaics dating from the 4thcentury AD. An utterly fascinating place and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Caltagirone– A town renown for production of ceramics, where I found the kitchen utensil holder of my dreams.

Agrigento– Another hill town and Gateway to…

Valle dei Templi– (Valley of the Temples) Located on a ridge - not a valley - this is a ginormous archaeological site that includes the remains of seven ancient Greek temples. Thoroughly spectacular, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a huge attraction.

Ragusa– This is a very picturesque pile, although a hard rain prevented us from seeing as much as we would have liked. Perhaps another day.

Siracusa– Specifically, Ortigia (aka “Città Vecchia”), a small island that is the historic centre of Siracusa, an ancient city. This is a great place to just schlep around and features Greek ruins, Baroque churches, and a scenic waterfront on the Ionian Sea.

Noto- This lovely little city, notable for its Baroque architecture, has been discovered by tourists in a big way. Fortunately, it being the off-season, the ZOTA™ was somewhat muted. (Fun Fact: In 1091, Noto became the last Islamic stronghold in Sicilia to fall to the Christians.)

A few other observations on Sicilia, per favore. The food is great, and the antipasti were the best we’ve had in Italia. Sicilian scenery can be quite dramatic, although much of what we saw of the island seems to suffer from a (very) serious trash collection problem. But the Sicilians with whom we interacted (not including motorists, of course) were very friendly, hospitable, and helpful. We had a good, if occasionally challenging, week.

The trip to Orvieto was a very different experience. Located in Umbria, 120 km from Roma (1.5 hrs. by train), this place has seen habitation since before the Etruscans. An underground cave network lies beneath a butte where Orvieto perches, and the main attraction is the Duomo di Orvieto which dates back to 1290 and sports the most fantastic façade this side of Firenze. The town also features 50 churches (half of which are actually open), museums, and (Yes!) ceramics shoppes in abundance. Also, some excellent food, in particular, the wild boar specialities.

We stayed in a nice hotel on the main piazza, where we had a lovely view of the duomo. Orvieto is an easy outing and I recommend it to anyone visiting Roma. I definitely hope to go back… so many ceramics, so little time.

Next up: To Verbania with LaBanana to visit la famiglia italiana, and then Christmas in Vienna.



Saturday, September 22, 2018

Reflections From Roma #10

Reflections From Roma #10
21 settembre 2018

Hello there… Rodger French here.

It doesn’t happen as often as you might imagine, but living in Roma does occasionally result in one having an experience that is picturesque to the point of being cinematic. Permit me…

A scheduling conflict resulted in Anne tending to bidness in Trieste (which is pretty scenic in its own right) at the same time that an old friend, with whom I had worked on some major musical/theatrical endeavors “back in the day,” was visiting Roma with her partner, whom I had never met. (OK, I think that’s clear.) In any case, I arranged to meet at their hotel for drinks and dinner.

[Inertial Dampening Sidebar- This was on a Tuesday evening - a “school night.” I dread going out on school nights, especially without A.J. But that was the deal.]

The hotel was downtown, near the ZOmbie Tourist Apocalypse™, in a neighborhood unfamiliar to me. After close consultation with Signore Google, I decided to take a bus to Piazza Venezia and walk from there. The bus experience was typical: Not too crowded to begin with, but increasingly packed as we neared the ZOTA™.

Arriving at IlMonumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II (in my clever disguise as un tourista gringo) and relying on my (più o meno) accurate map, I managed to get within one block of the hotel, at which point I saw (I) a sign on the building façade and (II) my friend leaning out a 3rdfloor window waving me in. This boded very well indeed.

We greeted, we hugged, we laughed… it was so great to see her again. Since our dinner reservation was for a later hour, we popped by a market, picked up some drinks, and repaired to their (charming) hotel, where she introduced me to her partner, who is also an accomplished musician and a very cool guy. The three of us fell into easy conversation until it was time for dinner.

It was a beautiful settembre Roman evening as we strolled through the back streets to the restaurant, a typical place that serves good food at a reasonable price and was, not unexpectedly, full of tourists, many of them Italians.

[PicturesqueLandmark Sidebar- Walking to our restaurant, we passed a small place - not even a piazza - where we came upon a single, grande, and ancient Roman column. No plaque, no sign, no indication whatsoever of its provenance or purpose. I love that.]

We ordered several yummy items and commenced to talk about… well, the usual catching-up-on-a-lot-in-a-short-time stuff. Which was great. But our conversation kept coming back to music. All three of us have been musicians forever and have accumulated a wealth of experiences and insights. We wandered into the weeds, as music geeks are wont to do, and shared one of the most substantial, connected, and fulfilling conversations about music and what it means to be a musician that I have ever had. It was an absolute joy. And I not only caught up with an old friend, but also made a new one.

[Cinematic Sidebar #1- During this lovely communication, we were intermittently entertained by: An enthusiastic running club, a parade of young Italians on a big night out, and a cavalcade of gringo tourists on Segways. At night. Which is impossibly surreal.]

After dinner, we walked to Piazza Navona to get a taxi, where I threw some coins in the hat of a local - say it with me - accordion player. (I can relate. In 1980, I worked with some friends busking in that very place.) As my hosts had one more day in Roma and I had to go to work the next morning, we made our inevitable reluctant farewells, promising to keep in touch. And then, arrivederci.

[Cinematic Sidebar #2- The ride home was perfect. We motored stately through the Eternal City, past well-lit monuments, cruising the now less frenzied streets. All the taxi windows were open and the breeze was intoxicating. I luxuriated in the glow of good food and friendship. And I felt glad to be alive and proud to call myself un musicista.]

Not bad for a school night.



Saturday, September 15, 2018

Selected Shorts #05 - Swagger


To his credit, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been consistent in communicating with DoS rank and file in the field. After the unlamented reign of King Rex Tillerson, it is somewhat refreshing to have a boss who acknowledges and presumably values your existence.

Most of the Secretary’s email missives are, not surprisingly, in service of whatever “foreign policy” positions the Moron-in-Chief has flatulated following his daily briefings provided by the brilliant minds on FOX News. Other messages fall into the general category of “morale building,” which is not, in and of itself, objectionable.

But all of Secretary Pompeo’s communications consistently emphasize one overarching ideal: Swagger.

Swagger (noun):A very confident and arrogant or self-important gait or manner. (Verb): To walk or behave in a very confident and arrogant or self-important way.

Apparently, the U.S. Department of State was/is possessed of an insufficient quantity of swagger. Pompeo is constantly exhorting the troops to “get back our swagger,” “use your swagger,” and “swagger like it’s 1999.” (OK, that last one’s on me.) He employs the word so often that it has become a running gag, with some DoS wags proposing “swaggering talking points,” swagger evaluations,” and, of course, a “Bureau of Swagger Affairs.”

(The Secretary also signs his memos with gems such as “Keep on crushing it.” Because… your average American diplomat is a 25 year-old dudebro, maybe?)

Unfortunately, IMHO, the concept of “swagger” as an essential tool of diplomacy is some wrongheaded nonsense.

I am admittedly a low-level State Department employee. But since 2007 I have worked in a dozen offices in five embassies on four continents and observed that diplomacy appears to be conducted most successfully by people who are intelligent, confident, well prepared, and respectful. They do not strut. They do not dictate. They do not conflate bluster with strength.

And effective diplomats do not have a burning need to comport themselves like a former Tea Party Congressman from Kansas, much less a bellicose despot from Queens.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Reflections From Roma #09

Reflections From Roma #09
11 settembre 2018

Photo Update Alert:

(Continued from Reflections From Roma #08)

[Publisher's Note ZOTA™: ZOmbie Tourist Apocalypse]

Day 5 - Bergen is known for wet and changeable weather, although we had skated on the rain so far. After a last walkabout in Bergen and a sushi lunch, we decided to catch an early bus - in the rain - to the airport for the one-hour flight to Trondheim. The scenery was interesting and the trip was short but brief.

Day 6 - Trondheim is a very old (997), very lovely city and was once an important shipping port. After my customary fish breakfast (Anne is not really up for that), we made our way to the major tourist attraction in town: The Nidaros Cathedral. Built between 1070 and 1300 over the burial site of King Olaf II (although subject to numerous fires and rebuilding over the centuries), it is the northernmost medieval cathedral in the world and a wonderful place to poke around. We especially liked the fact that someone took the trouble to save numerous ancient gravestones and give them a place of dignity and repose in the church crypt.

The cathedral also features two excellent pipe organs and a killer gift shoppe.

We then made our way to the local fish market where A.J. had salmon patties and I the Bacalao, a stew made with salt cod, bell pepper, garlic, onion, tomatoes, celery, and potatoes. Good stuff. After lunch, more touristing, including an enjoyable visit to the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design. The tapestries by Hannah Ryggen were a particular fave. Finally, a scintillating dinner of surprisingly decent pizza served by a handsome Croatian waiter at an Italian restaurant.

Day 7 - After breakfast and the now customary last walkabout, we caught the train to Oslo, a journey of some seven hours. The scenery was simply magnificent and we arrived at Oslo Central Station relaxed and ready to once again do battle with the ZOTA™, which, it being a weekend, was in full force. Fortunately, we had reservations at our previous hotel, so I was also reunited with my camera when we arrived. Now that’s excellent customer service.

Day 8 - More walkin’ around, this time to the waterfront, lunch (salmon for Anne, reindeer patties for meg), and on to Oslo Cathedral (consecrated 1697). It’s not nearly as grand as Nidaros, but is sufficiently intriguing, especially the stained glass windows and a somewhat psychedelic ceiling by Norwegian painter Hugo Lous Mohr. (I actually did get a photo of this.) 

Since we were heading back to Roma the next day, we decided to get ahead of the curve and scout the train to the airport. This we did, and purchased our tickets in advance. After a bit of a rest at the hotel, we headed off to the waterfront (again) and dropped in on an international festival, complete with South Asian rap music and non-Norwegian (Thai, Filipino, Afghan, Mexican, BBQ) food stands. It was a very nice and familial scene.

Day 9 - Our flight to Rome didn’t depart until late afternoon, so we had time for one more Norwegian tourist adventure. Akershus Fortress is a medieval castle that has served as a royal residence, military base, prison, and government offices. Positioned overlooking the harbour, Akershus is also a popular recreational area for Oslo’s citizens.

Of particular interest to us was the Norges Hjemmefrontmuseet (Norwegian Resistance Museum), opened in 1970 and dedicated to the resistance against the Nazi occupation of 1940-45. It’s a small, but well-designed museum featuring a chronological gallery of photographs, documents, and equipment (e.g., hand-made radios and machine guns).

[Real Life Sidebar -1433 members of the resistance movement, of whom 255 were women, were killed by the Nazis during WW II. This museum is a sobering reminder of what can happen when fascism comes to your land, and that actual Resistance is not a casual matter.]

Then… back to the hotel to pick up luggage and catch the train to the airport in plenty of time for the not altogether heinous flight back to Roma. This was the first time either of us had been to Scandinavia and we had a lovely time. I’d like to explore the place again, given an opportunity… and next time I’ll make sure not to misplace my camera.



Monday, September 10, 2018

Reflections From Roma #08

Reflections From Roma #08
11 settembre 2018

Photo Update Alert:

Hello there… Rodger French here.

We’re back in Roma after a very nice week in Norway, where it’s cool and clean, easy to get around, and the plumbing is fully functional. A nice break from the Eternal City, where we have already resided, amazingly, for an entire year. The tempus, it does fugit. In any case, here’s the play-by play, as advertised.

Day 1 - Took a flight (at a rational hour) to Oslo on a low-cost Norwegian airline, a tolerably miserable, as opposed to comprehensively horrible, airline experience. Caught a very handy train from the airport to downtown Oslo, where we schlepped up the main drag, Karl Johans Gate (“gate” meaning “street”), through the ZOTA™ to our hotel. After settling in, we strolled to the waterfront for dinner.

Day 2 - After a delicious breakfast featuring smoked salmon and mackerel, as well as pickled herring (Yum!), we boarded a ferry for a short cruise to Bygdøy, where we visited five of the six museums conveniently located there. The sea, ships, and exploration figured prominently. Examples:

- The Viking Ship Museum features three Viking vessels dating as far back as 820 A.D. that have been recovered from the muck and restored as much as possible.

- The Norwegian Maritime Museum is pretty much what you would expect, but the highlight of the place was a film called “The Cape Horn Road,” featuring B&W footage of clipper ships making the passage around South America from 1929-36. Shot onboard by Alan Villiers, it documents sailing of the highest skill, danger, and adventure.

- The FRAM Museum houses The FRAM and The GJØA, two polar exploration vessels. This museum also contains all the information about the great Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen that one might likely ever need. 

- The Kon-Tiki Museum features the story of Thor Heyerdahl, who, since he had absolutely no sailing experience and did not know how to swim, thought it feasible to sail a balsa and bamboo raft across the Pacific Ocean. It is an incredible tale, made more so once you have a close up look at the Kon-Tiki itself.

Day 3 - Taking our leave of Oslo, we boarded a train for the 6.5-hour journey to Bergen, home of composer Edvard Grieg, homeport for ships servicing North Sea oil platforms, and gateway to the fjords. Norwegian trains are very comfortable and the ride was predictably scenic. And since The ZOTA™, especially the Asian version, is strong amongst the fjords, the passenger manifest included some Chinese tour groups.

The most noteworthy event of the journey occurred when the train made a brief stop at a particularly desolate but incredibly scenic high-altitude station. We saw an elderly lady get off the train and take some photoz. We heard the signal indicating that the train was departing the station. We observed the elderly lady running toward the train as it pulled away. We do not know if she managed to get back on.

[DumbAss Tourist Sidebar - No, not the nice Asian lady, although that wasa pretty dumbass move. I refer to myself. Here I am in one of the most scenic places on Earth and what do I do? I leave my camera at the hotel in Oslo. But I got lucky. Thanks to some very nice hotel staff in Bergen and Oslo, I am eventually reunited with my camera, sans photoz of Bergen and Trondheim, alas. Idiot check, my ass.]

We finally arrived in Bergen, where we checked in, reported the DumbAss Tourist Incident, then set off for a fine dinner at Enhjørningen Fiskerestaurant (The Unicorn Fish Restaurant), located in Bryggen, the historic wharf area that was once part of the German Hanseatic League trading empire. (The place reminds me of the shoppe houses in Singapore.) After dinner, a leisurely amble back to the hotel via the fish market, where I procured some excellent moose sausage.

Day 4 - We did not have the luxury of enough time to extensively explore the fjords, so we elected to take an express boat on Sognefjord, the “King of the Fjords,” the longest (206 km) and deepest (1308 km) - though not the most tragically scenic - in Norway. We cruised four hours (with scheduled stops) to Balestrand, where we spent five hours walking, eating, shopping, and taking mental snapshots. (It wasn’t nearly as boring as you might think.) Then, fours hours back to Bergen.

(Continued in Reflections From Roma #09)

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Reflections From Roma #07

Reflections From Roma #07
04 agosto 2018

Hello there, Rodger French here.

The first of our two Roman summers is upon us, so this seems a propitious moment to check in. As you may know, August is vacation season (“Ferragosto”) for Italians, when they hightail it to the seaside or mountain resorts. As a consequence, Embassy offices are eerily vacant and the hallways littered with tumbleweeds. The ”Eternal City” itself seems downright schizophrenic. If you’re in the vicinity of the ZOTA (ZOmbie Tourist Apocalypse™), the crush of ginormous tour buses and throngs of sun-bleached visitors is simply unbearable. Elsewhere, however, things are agreeably quiet, with less traffic as well as fewer people queuing up at the grocery - if, indeed, it is open - or for the bus. (Sadly, however, the trams are out of service until September.)

[Historical Recreation Sidebar - “Feriae Augusti” was introduced in 18 BC byemperor Augustus Caesar as a celebration of motherhood. The Catholic Church, ever amenable to co-opting popular pagan traditions, subsequently declared August 15 “Assumption Day,” the day when the Virgin (and ultimate mother) Mary ascended to heaven. But it was the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini who really jumpstarted things when, in the 1920s, he organized mid-August vacation trips for the masses, available at discounted prices, utilizing the “People’s Trains of Ferragosto.” And thus the Italian tradition of skipping town in agosto was firmly established.]

August in Roma is hot, often beastly so. When we’re at home, A.J. and I hunker down, playing A/C roulette with our three “pinguinos” (portable air conditioners), attempting to keep cool without tripping the circuit breakers in our apartment. So far the Roman electrical grid has held. When we do have to walk somewhere (to work, to shop, to etc.), we are constantly on the lookout for l’ombra (the shade) and, of course, SPF 50 is a daily sacrament. We hope to luck out and not have to cope with the frighteningly extreme temperatures that are killing people elsewhere in Europe.

We’ll stay in Rome until the end of the month, and then it’s off to chill out for a week in Norway. (Of course, given that Sweden has been plagued by huge fires north of the Arctic Circle, who the hell knows what might happen.) This will be our first visit to Scandinavia and we expect to have a fine time riding the rails, cruising the coast, and “pining for the fjords.” And yes, this does mean joining the Norwegian ZOTA, a philosophically distressing but totally unavoidable eventuality. We’ll just have to muddle through somehow.

That’s the scoop for now. May your summer be tons of fun or, if that doesn’t work out, at least bearable. Keep cool and ci vediamo all'ombra.