Up, Up and Away!

January 29th, 2009 by Gid

I had been working for the last 4 years, and while I did have some time off now and then, there was really very little of it that could be termed a “vacation.” An ultimatum from my significant other to renew my passport or get left behind led me to comply. A couple weeks and $200 later, I was the proud owner of a little booklet that probably cost $1, with the same information as my driver’s license, the picture of an antiquated troll, some fancy script threatening dire consequences for any action other than breathing, and patriotic adornments on every page lest I forget where I’m from.

A short time later, we were on our way to LaGuardia bound for Charles De Gaulle. I hadn’t been to Paris for many years, and had no idea what to expect at the airport in the way of security. I knew that in the interim, there had been terrorist attacks there as well as here, so I prepared myself for the worst. I was not prepared to find a very good-natured passport official who asked if I had a nice flight, bid me welcome, and good-bye. Nor did I expect a group of customs officials who were too busy with their coffee/gossip break to bother with someone’s luggage. We waved at them as we went by, and went out to begin our adventure.

I often hear people say that the French are rude and snobbish. I can’t say this is entirely true; I found most of them to be rather helpful, providing I did make an effort to use their language. Even my SO, who knows little (other than “please,” “excuse me,” “thank you,” and some numbers) had no difficulty getting along with most people. I will, however, admit that the French are fiercely proud of their nationality, and can be a little culture-centric, but considering what they’ve achieved over the last couple millennia (as compared to the US’ 2.5 centuries) is rather impressive. There’ll always be the misérables who’ll share their special brand of discomfort with others, but for every one of them, there are usually a few others who’ll go out of their way to do the opposite. Thank you, Shirley, for One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts.

Much of what’s impressive about Paris can be found in any tour guide (museums, attractions), but there’s also a very different feel to the place that’s difficult to describe, and other wonderful things, like a metro that goes just about anywhere, the Vélib’, café life, and just as much stress placed on aesthetics as function…usually. Another thing that struck me is that there’s more stress put on personal responsibility. It was refreshing to find out that no one can sue the maker of a toaster for failure to state that it is not to be used while in the bathtub. Idiots are left to their own devices.

The perverse exists just as much on the other side of the pond; to wit, Le Centre Pompidou. But then, what better place for a life size, hot pink replica of a rhinoceros? Equally pervasive is Murphy’s Law. Yes, I expected to give my conversational French a workout, but not by explaining to a couple of Parisian detectives how the apartment where we were staying had been burglarized, while the owner of said apartment was visiting friends in warmer climes. I’m not sure who Murphy was after, as the owner’s luggage was lost in transit, and one of those whom he visited had to be rushed to the ER. All too soon, we were on our way to Orly, bound for our next destination.

Germans have a reputation for being (among other things) sensible. There’s a reason for this. Outside of Berlin, before landing, we saw a number of wind turbines happily sharing space in agricultural fields. Equally evident were a large number of buildings topped with solar panels. Trains and planes almost always run on schedule. One of the interesting things about Berlin is that there are two. Although it’s been nearly 2 decades since the Wall came down, the integration is not yet complete. During the years of separation, each half developed its own cultural attractions. Each has its own museums, churches, parks, and artists’ quarters, each with their own distinctive flavor.

While it was a little chilly, the winter festivals were a delight to see. There were mechanical toy displays to marvel over, displays of lights, as well as the usual craft booths and food vendors. I happily renewed my acquaintance with Glühwein, which I’ve made several times since returning. Other treats not to be missed: Real beer – while the FDA maintains its silly standards, the stuff you get here will never taste as good, although I’ll occasionally cook with it. There’s also the Unsicht-Bar. Such a place could never exist here due to legal requirements, but it’s an experience unlike any I’ve ever had.

A little more than a month after returning from Berlin, it was time for traveling again. Though not as far, it was equally as significant. Thanks to the generous offer of a friend in DC, we were able to attend one of the most historic events of the last century. I generally go out of my way to avoid crowds, but I gladly made an exception to gather with 1.8 million of my compatriots on the Mall of Washington. There we saw 2 presidents; one was sworn in, while the former was sworn at.

There is really very little I can say here that hasn’t already been posted elsewhere on the internet, but I found it most interesting that so few major networks had the temerity even to intimate that the 43rd (possibly worst and probably most criminal) president enjoyed a less-than-pleasant reception. Certain other reporters offered more complete details, proving that real journalism is not quite dead. I offer thanks to my personal favorites of the last year: Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and the teams that support them.