CORRECTING A WRONG TURN – Marilyn Armstrong

Once upon a time, I had a job in Connecticut. My daily commute was 140 miles — each way. I only worked three days at the office and worked the other two at home. Even so, after a few months, I was exhausted. I could not continue.

I quit and found another job that didn’t require as much commuting. It didn’t pay nearly as well, but it wasn’t going to kill me. Two-hundred and eighty miles of driving three days a week was nuts. Not only did it wear me down, but it also wore out my car.

I never thought of giving up as “throwing in the towel.” I was not giving up. More like I was acknowledging I shouldn’t have taken the job (or married that guy) in the first place. What in the world made me believe I could spend five or six hours a day in the car and also spend 8 to 10 hours at work?

Whenever I’ve given something up whether it was a job, a relationship, a recipe, or whatever? The problem was never being defeated by a foe. The enemy was always me. I made a stupid choice. I should never have started whatever it was in the first place. And usually, I’d known it from the beginning but for some reason, I couldn’t say no.

Ultimately, I knew I’d screwed up and changed course. If you look at this kind of thing as a defeat, you will have a lot of trouble coping when the road gets bumpy. Know when to hold ’em. Know when to fold ’em.

WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE PARIS – Rich Paschall

A Return to France, by Rich Paschall

When you have been to Paris, you will likely hope that you can return someday. It is just a little sprinkle of magic that the city puts upon tourists and part-timers. There are no cities in America with old neighborhoods that somehow retain their special ambiance like the ones in the City of Lights.  I had been to Paris before. Recently we returned again.

Now for a little moment of truth. Since my ultimate destination was Strasbourg, I would have been tempted to go via Frankfurt as I had done the year before. However, my young friends wished to go to Paris. One had been there with me before. For the other, it was a new adventure. How could I say no?

Return to Paris

When traveling there are a number of sites you can use to book your airline tickets. It is wise to shop around. The old rules about when to buy just do not apply anymore. Airlines are using sophisticated algorithms to price tickets.  Prices are not changing every Tuesday as the old advice believed. Now they can change daily, even more often in some cases.

We were going to use low-cost passes for the trip, but with two weeks to go, I decided it was too risky. I purchased round trip tickets for a direct flight from Chicago to Paris.  I used Skybooker.com. I also had a comparable offer from ASAP Tickets. Airlines are willing to discount if they feel they can not sell 80 percent of the seats. Empty seats are lost revenue. The plane is going anyway so they want to get what they can. Our flight had a few empty seats.

When we arrived at Charles DeGaulle airport in Paris we took the train from the airport station to Gare du Nord in the city. The train does leave from the airport, but trust me. It is a LONG walk to the train once you get your luggage.

Gare du Nord

For the convenience of our brief stop in Paris, we took a hotel near the train station. This meant we could walk to the hotel once we arrived. If you plan it well, you can also be near another major station, Gare de l’Est. This is important for the next part of the adventure.

If your stay in Paris is brief, where would you go? My friends felt there was only one stop for a night in Paris. We headed to a nearby Metro station and took the train to the Eifel Tower. We found a nearby plaza and the view that many picture takers had located before. You have certainly seen such pictures, but it is a much grander site when you take it in with your own eyes.

Eifel Tower

We were present for one of the sparkling light displays that you can see at night. That was something they did not have the first time I was in Paris. In fact, many things had changed. Now the streets are filled with sidewalk vendors trying to sell a variety of trinkets. Most of them have miniature (and cheap) Eifel Towers. Some even light up. They must be selling well for so many vendors to be lining the streets on a rather cool evening.

The other surprise was the plaza where the Tower is located. When I was there about 15 years earlier, the plaza was open. Now it is closed off by what I would take to be bulletproof glass. There are limited entrances where you will go through metal detectors to go in. I guess that is a sign of the times.

We Also Have Strasbourg

After a night in Paris, it was a short walk to Gare de l’Est for a trip to Strasbourg. I purchased and printed our Rail Europe tickets before we left Chicago. The nonstop train is popular and we did not want to get shut out. If you avoid going in the height of Rush Hour, you can get your tickets for a few euros less.

Gare de Strasbourg

In front of the train station is the tram stop. From there you can go just about anywhere in the city. Our next stop was actually the suburb of Illkirch right alongside the city to the southwest.  In Illkirch we made our first ever arrangements at an Airbnb. Our host met us at the train station so we would not get lost on a very short trip to the apartment. The large apartment had two nice bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms, a modern kitchen and a large living room. Apartment City in Strasbourg would have been more expensive for a small place and for a hotel… Well, let’s just say this was the best choice. We bought provisions at the nearby supermarket and hosted our own wine and cheese party. My friend from Selestat, France joined use for a mini-vacation in the city.

If the Eiffel Tower is the must-see stop in Paris, the Cathedral Notre Dame de Strasbourg is the place in Alsace. We took the tram back to the closest stop at Place Kleber and wandered over to the magnificent Cathedral.

Place Kleber

When you have reached the plaza, you just have to look up and around to find the cathedral. Then you head off in that direction. If you look behind me to the left, you may spot the statue of French Revolutionary war hero Jean-Baptiste Kléber. Few may realize that he is actually buried below the statue. Well not all of him, his heart is in an urn in a chapel in Paris.  Seriously.

We also visited the neighborhood known as Petite France. Here you will find buildings preserved from the 16th and 17th centuries. Previously it was a neighborhood filled with tanners and millers and other trades of the era. Now it is home to restaurants, shops, and well-restored homes. This historic area of the city has been designated a World Heritage Site.

Petite France

As I have explained before, the reason for travel is to enjoy adventures with friends. It is also to visit with friends. In this case, it was both. For the tenth year in a row, I visited my friend in France. We have been on many adventures together here, in France and other countries. We always believe there will be another adventure soon.

French feast

In case you missed the reference at the beginning:

See also: “A France Vacation,” Sunday Night Blog, rjptalk.wordpress.com, March 8, 2020.
The Grand Est Region“, SERENDIPITY, teepee12.com, October 20,2019.
Alsace Adventure,” SERENDIPITY, teepee12.com, January 6, 2019.
April Love or April Fool?” SERENDIPITY, teepee12.com, April 7, 2019.

BEST FRIENDS FOR AN AFTERNOON – Marilyn Armstrong

It has nothing to do with hooking up or any other kind of sex. It has to do with becoming the closest of friends with a complete stranger for one afternoon, then never seeing him or her again.

One year, about 30 years ago, I was visiting friends in Montreal. I was poor, didn’t have a reliable car, so I took the bus from New York to Montreal. It was a five-hour ride. I figured I’d sleep most of it, but instead, I found myself seated next to an Indian (from India) medical student who was studying medicine at McGill University. He had just been visiting friends in New York and it was time to go back to studying.

He explained that he was on a scholarship from India and the deal was, he would study, become a doctor, then go back to India and do three years of work there to compensate the government. But, he said, he wasn’t going back.

I was surprised. “But you took the money,” I pointed out. “Don’t you feel you owe them something?” He sighed.

“India is so big,” he said. “So poor. There is very little I could do there that would mean anything. But I could do some great work here in Canada. Research work that might save many people and not just for three years. Maybe for a hundred years.”

He then talked about India’s relationship with Great Britain. “Mostly, everyone hates the British, but they gave us one thing for which we will always be grateful.”

I raised both eyebrows (I can’t raise just one, sorry) and looked at him.

“English,” he said. “Before the British, we spoke hundreds of languages. In each valley, the villages had their own language. Across the nation, we couldn’t talk to each other. Then along came the English and suddenly, we could communicate. For that, we are grateful. It may not be our best language, but it the one everyone speaks.”

After that — getting a look at India I had never seen before — I passed along all of my current issues including trying to get a Jewish divorce in Israel while living in New York, a process so complicated that even 32 years later, I get a headache thinking about it. Not to mention the nasty piece of work who,  for hard-to-fathom reasons, I had married. And children. Mine. His. Ours. As well as the big ocean between us.

Greyhound bus terminal

The two of us never even exchanged names. When we parted at the bus station in Montreal, we had no thought of ever meeting again.

We were best friends for one afternoon on a long bus ride between cities. And three decades later, I still remember it.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – Marilyn Armstrong

Not a rainy day nor a sunny one. Just a day. Cold, no snow or rain. Coming home from Connecticut. Feeling better about the world.

Good thing I had a camera. Traffic was mostly bumper-to-bumper from when we left the Curley house until we were almost home. At least occasionally, until it was fully dark, I had something to do.

Not exciting pictures, but … pictures.

A cloudy sky

Clouds through the trees

Too many cars

Still too many cars

Darkness is falling

Through a tunnel

And back on the road, but getting too dark to shoot

I tried some interesting textures since the subject wasn’t exactly thrilling. I had fun playing with photographs. There’s not a huge amount of excitement between Connecticut and Massachusetts. Just too many vehicles.

TRYING TIMES FOR TRAVELERS – Marilyn Armstrong

We almost never travel these days. The last time we stayed in a hotel was when we went to a wedding in Boston. We made the pricey decision to stay overnight in a nice hotel, or at least the nicest hotel we could manage. That way, we could enjoy the wedding without worrying about the long, dark drive home late at night.

I made the reservation about six weeks in advance, just after getting the invitation. A few days before the event, I got a bunch of emails from the hotel’s parent chain. I assumed that amidst all this communication there would be a reservation confirmation. I had already given them a credit card, so there was no reason why there should be any kind of problem.

aloft hotel aerialshot

There was no confirmation or even a reference to our having made a reservation. Nor was there any information about the hotel and its facilities. Instead, when I opened the email, it told me to log-in to their “club.”

You know how it works, right? Your airline, hotel, rental car are part of a much larger corporation that includes other hotels, motels, and rentals. They want to parlay your one-night reservation into a long-term relationship. Not likely, in our case, but I understand it’s their job to generate business. I don’t mind all the rest of the stuff, but where was the information I needed?

The problem was that this login screen required a username and password. I had neither. The email also lacked a few basics. Like the hotel’s address, phone number, directions, and information about parking. All of that information was probably accessible in their application. Which I couldn’t access.

They did include a corporate phone number. No address or reservation number. No confirmation number. I sighed that huge heaving sigh I use when I know I’m going to spend the next several hours dealing with customer service.

aloft lobby

I called the corporate office. They couldn’t help me. Nor could they transfer me to the hotel, but they found the hotel’s phone number. I called the hotel. After being put on hold for far too long, a man got on the phone. I explained the problem and he said, “Sorry, I’ll send you a confirmation now.”

The email turned out to be a full 6 web pages. In full color with animated graphics.

My printer has never in its life refused a direct order, but in the face of this massive overload of data, it would not load. It tried. Gamely kept trying. Eventually, it locked up my computer and refused to print.

I called back. “Can’t you just send me a plain text confirmation? And this time, please include the hotel’s actual address, phone number, and whatever other information I will need during check-in.”

So he sent me another email. Still no address, email, or telephone number.

I called again. “Uh … an address … and the check-in, check-out times … and your phone number … would be really helpful.” I paused, pondered. “What’s the parking situation? Are you walking distance from the Sheraton?” This hotel was part of the Sheraton group, so I had a feeble hope that they were near one another.

It turned out parking was $40 per night and was several blocks away. In a lot that was not adjacent to their hotel. Moreover, the Sheraton was on the other side of Boston, so we’ll definitely need a taxi. I was getting a headache. Why was this so complicated?

“I’m disabled,” I said. I really hate having to explain, but if we have to haul our stuff blocks from car to hotel, there’s no point in staying overnight. Goodbye convenience. Hello, expensive and inconvenient.

“Oh,” he said. “Well, we have disabled parking at the hotel. You could park there. That would be a lot less walking.”

“Can you promise me there will be a space in the disabled parking area?” I’ve had problems with this before, where they have two disabled spots and both are taken.

“Oh,” he assured me. “There’ll be space.” I’m wondering how come he’s sure because I’m not.

aloft guest room

Eventually, I copied and pasted the plain text email into a document, manually typed the address and phone number, then printed it. Supposedly, they’ll save a handicapped space for us. Maybe put an orange cone in the space. All of this adds up to why the joy has fled from traveling. A night in a good hotel should be fun. Easy. Why make it so complicated?

It was a nice hotel, though it had no dining facilities, not even a coffee shop. The only food you could get was from vending machines. Still, the room was clean and bright and the bed was comfortable. It was a tiny room without a dresser or closet. Just a bar with a couple of hangers. Clearly not a place you’d want to stay more than a night. It was the airline seat of hotel rooms. Rather like the least expensive room on a cruise ship when you won’t pay extra for a bigger room.

I’m old enough to remember when travel was something to which we looked forward. I would call a hotel or motel, made a reservation, then off we went. Sometimes we didn’t even make reservations but stayed wherever we happened to be. I fondly remember the good old days when a reservation involved one phone call, not half a day trying to get basic information and confirmation. Isn’t computerization supposed to make our lives easier?

Ironically, when I later googled the hotel, my reservation came up online with a note that only I could see displaying my reservation. Why didn’t I think of that? How did the information get into Google when I couldn’t get it on my computer?

USING A GPS IN NEW ENGLAND – Marilyn Armstrong

When the GPS’s first came out and the prices dropped from ridiculously high to more-or-less normal, I was an immediate consumer. I was working in Groton, Connecticut which was more than 140 miles from my home.

Even though I didn’t have to go in every day, three days a week of driving 280 miles round trip with a 9 hour day in-between was a killer schedule. A lot of the roads I took were unmarked — no signs telling you what road you were on or which road you were crossing — and very small, so maps didn’t show them. I needed a GPS just to get home at night.

One night, on my way home, I got turned around in Rhode Island. I went around in circles for nearly an hour and finally called home and told them I was lost, had no idea what road I was on. What was worse, I was in the middle of nowhere, so short of calling the police — and since I couldn’t tell them where I was, I was not sure that would actually help — I might never see them again. Eventually, I found my way out of the loop and promptly bought a GPS. It was a small Tom-Tom, but with a little help from my electronic friend, I got home most nights.Since then — about 10 years ago — they have greatly improved the GPS to the point where you can’t be sure they can get you from point A to point C without taking you through golf courses, tiny, snow-filled back roads, swamps, vineyards, collapsed bridges, and roads that may have been real roads100 years ago, but clearly haven’t been used since. I know this because in the center of the road is a full-grown oak tree. It’s a dead giveaway.

So despite having a reasonably “up-to-date” GPS — a Garmin this time — I always print out a set of directions on paper. It’s why so many packages from Amazon don’t show up. Whatever GPS they are using, it seems to send the trucks down unpaved roads which when they aren’t buried in snowdrifts are socked in by mud, sometimes quick-mud (quicksand, but a lot gooier).

To make things just that much more complicated, most of New England is phobic about road signs. When we were in San Francisco, we could find our way around because not only were there street signs on every corner, but they would have a sign two streets ahead to warn you of an upcoming street.

In New England, they refuse to tell you what road you are on and often, what town you are in. You find yourself in the humiliating position of having to ask passing strangers what the name of the town is and what road you are on.

As often as not, the person you ask can’t give you an answer because they themselves don’t know anything. They just work there. The only route they know is the one that gets them to work. On top of that, most people are clueless about giving directions.

When they try, they are wrong. They say left when they mean right and have no idea of the distances between one place and another … AND they don’t know the name of the road (not that this would be much help since there are no signs to tell you the name) or route numbers. Even if they did, the absence of signs makes it hard to know what to do.

Even using a GPS as a map without chatter, many roads supposedly have names that no one ever uses. One of our nearest roads is Route 146A. That’s what everyone calls it because its official name changes every half mile or so. Each town or area calls it something different — and a GPS doesn’t EVER use route numbers except for limited access interstate highways, probably because these don’t have names. But if they do (such as the Massachusetts Turnpike aka “the Pike” and the Merrit Parkway (aka Route 15), they will use it and when that name is not in use in a particular town, change the name to South Main Street and you will have to deduce that it’s actually the same road.

And finally, there is the issue of “go straight on the main road.” New England has no straight roads. Between hills, mini-mountains, waterways, and inconveniently placed towns, everything loops, and swings. Worse, the GPS tells you to “make a right,” but what you see is a fork and both seem to be going in the same direction — sort of rightish. There’s no sign, so take your best guess. My best guess is inevitably wrong. You’d think all you need to do to fix the error is turn around and go back, but much of the time, you can’t do that. Either the road is too narrow or you’ve stumbled onto a highway and you have to find an exit that will let you reverse directions. There are parts of the state where that is impossible. Like anywhere near Quincy (pronounced for you out-of-towners) as Quinzy. So was it John Quinzy Adams? Just asking.

Why don’t they have street signs in New England? We have all had this conversation, usually after we’ve calmed down and had something to eat and drink. Our best guess is the Yankee belief “if you don’t know where you are, why are you here?” The area isn’t set up for tourists, which is funny because tourism is one of our major industries.

This isn’t as much of a problem for people who have a sense of direction, but neither Garry nor I ever know where we are unless it’s close to home. You can’t get seriously lost in the Blackstone Valley unless you use a GPS. We don’t have a lot of roads. Maybe all told, we have a dozen “real” roads. The rest are trails, suitable for ATVs, horses … and walking your dog. They certainly aren’t intended for cars or trucks. Many of them are bordered by what looks like the ground but is really swamp mud.

Recently, Garry has been doing a lot of traveling around Massachusetts and remarkably, probably due to printed directions from Google or Mapquest, has managed to get where he is going. It’s no small miracle. Also, for reasons I don’t fully understand, when we travel together, Garry is always sure I know the way. Or at least know it better than he does.

When I point out that we are equally lost, he thinks I’m hiding something. He never believes I’m as ignorant as I am. Is that a compliment?

I need to buy a new GPS, but I’ve been putting it off. The more they “fix” the GPS maps, the harder it gets to actually find the location to which you are trying to go. GPS’s are great for long, interstate drives and arriving in a neat suburb. On the other hand, when we used to drive up to Jackman, Maine, at some point the GPS would say “no directions are available for this area.” You’re on your own and good luck. Watch out for moose.

I suppose it’s like all other software,  upgrades usually don’t improve the product. After you’ve bought a new one, you wish you’d kept the old one, even if it is inaccurate. They now have so many traffic cams in cities and suburbs so a GPS can (and does) read the wrong input. Sometimes, it shows us driving down the Charles River.

Also, for reasons best known to their designers, no matter what settings you input, they will try to send you by their idea of “the shortest route” as opposed to the route that will get you there safely and quickly.

In other words, upgrades aren’t. Moral? If the old one works, keep it until it dies. Then buy a cheap one without all the frills. It’s the maps you need, not the radio.

FRANKFURT AM MAIN

Our Latest Adventure, by Rich Paschall

Frankfurt, Germany, or Frankfurt am Main (Frank ford at the Main), is the fifth-largest city, but home to the busiest airport in the country.  This is not only because it is home to Lufthansa airline, but also because many other airlines have a major presence there.  Almost 65 million passengers pass through the airport each year, making it the busiest airport in Germany and the fourth busiest in Europe.

There are many direct flights to Frankfurt from major US cities, so finding a flight at a good price and transit time is possible through most of the year.  If you are visiting Germany or a neighboring country, you will want to consider this airport.  Bus and train travel around the region are quick and economical.

Frankfurt

In the past when we have headed to Strasbourg, France, we have used the Frankfurt airport for its proximity to our destination.  Only once did we stay overnight near the airport with a brief stop in the city.  We had considered the city to be just a financial center, which it is, and an industrial center.  This time we stayed longer to explore the city.

I chose an airport hotel because we could easily take the shuttle back to the airport where you can catch the train into the city.  Looking back on this choice, however, you can pick a spot in the city for the very same reason.  Transportation by train to the airport is simple because of the major train station right across from the airline terminals.   If we would do it again, I would try to stay near Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof station.

Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof

The main station in the city is a mix of old-world charm and modern efficiency.  Upgrades to the rail system in recent years have upset the reputation of the German railroads always being on time, or “you can set your watch by them,” but they are still reliable and we encountered no delays.

You can stop at McDonald’s in the train station if you like, but we did not come all the way to Germany to eat in an American fast-food restaurant.  Our motto for travel has been “eat local, drink local” so of course, that is what we did.

Eat local, drink local

My travel companion on this trip, who is always hungry, needed a food stop when we arrived in the city. We chose a restaurant right alongside the station for convenience.  We ordered the Wiener Schnitzel.  My friend is from Colombia so he has never eaten food like this.  He found it goes well with the local beverage.

Fortunately, the old-world train station survives and is a good spot for pictures before you head off on your exploration of the city.  Plenty of tourists were busy taking pictures of the station and surrounding areas.  I took a picture of my friend getting a picture of himself.  “Selfies” are popular at all the tourist stops.

Selfie

Frankfurt is a unique blend of old and new.  I suppose that World War II is partly a reason for that.  Some areas of the city were heavily damaged. Some things were restored, other areas were rebuilt. This allowed for modernization and planning that would improve the quality of life for residents and eventually tourists.

There are many good shopping districts and we made our way to one of them to see what bargains we could find. The outdoor malls our popular and we picked up some items I probably did not need.

Shopping (or selfie-taking)

We also stopped by the Alte Oper (Old opera) to see the lovely old building.  It was heavily damaged in the war and carefully rebuilt through the 1970s.  It opened again in 1981 as a concert hall.  The opera was already in a new building nearby.

The large plaza in front and alongside is a nice stop for locals and tourists.  We took the necessary pictures before stopping inside.

I joined a few “friends” for an opera house picture.

Following our walk around the Opernplatz, my hungry friend needed food so we made our way to the cafe inside the opera house.  It was ornate as expected.  Aside from the modern elevator in the building, it was hard to determine which parts were damaged and restored and which parts of the building were original.

Opera cafe

Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and Cologne are all larger and may hold more appeal for various reasons, but Frankfurt has a charm all its own.  With the Main River running through it and a large city forest, it is a beautiful tourist stop.  If your flight takes you to Frankfurt, it would be wise to spend a night or two to see the culture and entertainment offered here.

A blend of old and new

For more pictures from our Frankfurt Adventure, jump over to Sunday Night Blog, here.