Friday, July 27, 2018

#23. Mexico. Olmecs and Pool Decks.

As a child, I was fascinated by that show 'Legends of the Hidden Temple'. The one where the Silver Snakes battled the Blue Barracudas in super cool obstacle courses to uncover treasures while being hunted by hidden bloodthirsty native warriors. You know it if you are a kid of the 80's. I'd hold my breath the whole time in anticipation of the feathered barbarian to pop his head out and take one of the kids' three chances to get through the course. I wanted to be Kirk Fogg, the explorer, guide and/or host of the show costumed in tucked-in dad jeans and a fanny pack, to the point that I had my mom buy me a cargo pack so I could run around in my back woods being chased in my imagination by those Olmec warriors (this may also explain why I was so late in life to develop friends).

A poor American child about to be slain by an Olmec warrior
What am I getting at, you may ask? An autobiographical sketch of my early childhood? Maybe in part, but moreso: this, similar to many Americans of my generation, was my introduction to Mexico. Exotic. Dangerous. Ethnic. Full of native warriors and large stone heads in the jungle. This was the land that lay to the south, scorched by the sun (which many of them they still worship, I think) and full of mystery and adventure. This caricature of a vast land began to be engrained in my mind to the point where it became my reality. I'd seen that show, read that book. I got Mexico. 

High school classes taught me of the Gadsen purchase, the noble financial exchange in which diplomats of the United States of America met with Mexican gentleman to purchase the lower half of what is now New Mexico and Arizona. We learned of the Zimmerman telegram, when the Germans scandalously reached out to Mexico in an effort to have her betray our allegiance at the onset of The Great War. But she didn't. We were pals after all.

Then in college, the time when good wholesome young minds become corrupted and indoctrinated, I began to learn more of this ever increasingly complicated relationship between our two countries. I learned of the principle of Manifest Destiny, that midcentury 1800's American politicians decided the territory of the USA should reach to the Pacific from the Puget Sound to Baja Mexico, regardless of who laid claims there. How we systematically went about taking it for no apparent reason other than that we were able to. College is all about critical thinking, so I suppose all of this I took in with a healthy skepticism that my professor probably just hated America. 

Mexico was so simple when it was about the Olmecs and Kirk Fogg guiding excited children through ancient shrines and tombs. Little did I know that behind those Olmec Warriors were murderers and rapists also laying in wait to kill those innocent American children. Thank goodness this was on Nickelodeon who I presume dutifully censored all of this from view. 

Let me pivot. Why is he talking about kids shows and murderers? My goodness. This is a travel blog! And yes, I traveled to Mexico. So I'll tell you a little about my experience. 

Mexico was serene. We arrived in the airport in Cabo on a Southwest flight with a mom and baby who were happy to be on the ground and to see Nanna and Papa. They greeted us with a big car, sunglasses and smiling faces. We drove through the dusty landscape for several miles making our way down toward Cabo - it's a journey that many American tourists have made, with visions of Cabo Wabo, body shots and late night hookups on their mind. The bar full of bros at the airport who could not wait to pregame before their drive down confirmed this stereotype. But this was not the Cabo we were to have. 

Mr. Jacob liked the pool, especially the short one where he could practice standing up, and I was proud that he slept so well in the bathroom away from all that he was familiar with. The beachside condo we were in was bright, comfortable and full of family that made the trip in want of nothing. Jacob was a little offset by the ocean, its waves and sand offending his baby sensibilities. But other than that, this version of Mexico seemed to totally suit the Grimes family. No Olmecs warriors laying in wait, not a rapist or a murderor in sight. 

Mexico passed quickly for us. And never did we leave sight of a fully Americanized version of it. But the exotic picture engrained in my head of this place made me feel a little different here than if I were in Key West or Laguna Beach. It gave me the feel of being on a little American island in the middle of an exotic and dangerous wasteland. That those Olmecs were still out there lurking; that to leave this oasis may cost you one of your three runs through the temple. Some illusions never die. 

*On the off chance that this post outlives the reference here (Donald Trump, Announcement Speech 2015); I should comment that it is of dubious factual merit that Mexicans actually rape, murder or otherwise perpetrate violent crimes at a higher rate than their northern neighbors.

Friday, June 15, 2018

#22b. France. The Moveable Feast.

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast. - Ernest Hemingway - A Moveable Feast

For a nostalgist like me - Hemingway's time in Paris seemed the perfect life. Living a humble existence with his young wife and small son on a street near the Luxembourg Gardens. Waking up and going to the review office for a few hours, then making your way to a cafe patio to write into the late morning and in the late afternoon to the basement of the American Club to box. Getting by with doing what you loved, but still just getting by, to the point that after your bills were paid you chose between buying 'pictures' or 'books' because that's what really mattered (or so Papa would have us believe... many biographers have pointed out he was making the equivalent of $60k while living this 'humble existence' in Paris - quite enough for pictures and books and even a drink here and there). When evening came, surrounding yourself with a group of friends living the same life as you: Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein. Doing it all over again the next day, only to be split up by the occasional trip to Pamplona, Milan, or Chamonix. I've followed him on some of these journeys: to the town of Burgette in Northern Spain where he brought wine skins and stored them in the Irati river while fishing for trout before the bullfights... to the plains of Amboseli, Kenya where he served as game warden and wrote True at First Light and developed his lifelong passion for safari and Africa ... but I'd never followed him to Paris - his home base throughout all of this adventure. And now here we were. 

You've probably sensed now that I have an obsession. If I had not been forced against my will to read Old Man and the Sea in 11th grade it may have even began earlier. As a high schooler I remember how dry it was. His simple straightforward writing style about a not all that interesting topic in a totally uninteresting setting was a bore to me. It wasn't until much later that I came to appreciate how all of this illuminated the ordinary things. How it made one find romance in a trout stream or an old wooded cabin. Coming to Paris marked the next and probably most significant chapter in this search for Papa H, and there were many chapters to this book by now. 

So naturally, on arriving in Paris, I tried to recreate his idyllic and romantic time here. Oh hey! Nice little patio to have a drink and enjoy people watching, sure, we'll sit down! Two hours later after bad drinks, poor service, and a mediocre hamburger (yes, hamburger), I often found myself disappointed with my little recreations. But then I managed to convince Jenn to walk far out of the way to visit Closerie de Lilas one night (she had after all dragged me to all the best known bakeries all across town). Closerie was his favorite place in Paris, where all of his first serious works began to take their shape... Up In MichiganIn Our Time, The Sun Also Rises... it kept warm in the winter and the patio was pleasant in the spring, or so he said. This was the Hemingway equivalent of Da Vinci, Edison or Michelangelo's workshop . So we went and sat down one evening on the patio. The menu had a big picture of Hemingway on the inside cover. O.K... Cheesy. But it was tastefully done and I can't say if he would have loved it or hated it. I ordered a drink that he would have liked (read: any of them) - and the nerding out was underway. I remember at some point telling Jenn that this was my version of Disney world, all the while spewing out to the poor girl all of the useless Hemingway trivia I could remember. The patio was clean and nice and well lit. They had good cheese and a very decent piano player. And that's all Hemingway would have said about that.

The rest of Paris was very much a series of boxes to be checked seeing as it was my first time in there, and there are certain things you just don't miss if you only spend one time in Paris. Versailles. Which made me so disappointed in my lawn upkeep. Even today when I trim my bushes I am never far from the thought that I would be making Louis XIV so, so disappointed  Then the Lourvre, with its people. And all the paintings I learned about in art history class. And its people. And the Mona Lisa. And the people crowding the Mona Lisa. Did you know it would probably not have been so famous had it not been stolen once? This was a fun tidbit our Scottish guide shared with us. Then there was the Champ de Mars which we visited at night. At the top of each hour after sundown the Eiffel Tower glitters with a light show which is nice especially when enjoying it with your wife and a cheap bottle of Champagne in a plastic cup. There is some magic to the place that exists only in Paris. 

While living in Las Vegas a few times I'd gone to "Paris" before work, walked to the street-scape and ordered a cafe au lait and a croissant dreaming of this day that I would be there. These mornings my illusion was normally foiled by overweight 40 something women in Viva Las Vegas shirts stumbling about  with yard margaritas, but nonetheless I enjoyed the illusion while it lasted. So after the light show and some carefully composed night time exposures with the camera (none of which turned out well)  we got in an Uber, chatted about Israeli politics with the driver and returned to the hotel.

I have to imagine that Paris has lost some of its romance and charm since the 1920's when Hemingway roamed its streets. But to quote the always wise Woody Allen.. Nostalgia is denial. Denial of the painful present. The name for this denial is Golden Age thinking - the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one ones living in - it's a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present. I don't know if he believed this, as it was voiced by Paul, the pretentious know it all in his comedy Midnight in Paris, and I have to image Woody is a nostalgist himself.  But it's difficult not to be when walking those streets. How they inspired not just Hemingway but generations of writers, artists and scientists who we still benefit from today. For the rest of my life, it will stay with me, for as someone once said: it's a moveable feast.

Monday, May 28, 2018

#22. France. Day of Days

D DAY -1.  H HOUR -14

Along the Loire River southwest of Paris was the frontier of Nazi Occupied France. To the south beyond it laid Vichy France, the people there still under the thumb of the Germans, but living to a certain degree more autonomously than the rest of their countrymen subject to the German occupation following the fall of Paris in 1940. Chateaux Perreaux, built in the mid-18th century as the estate of a landowner likely soon to be stripped of his possessions during the French Revolution, was tonight where we stayed. Just north across the river from the small town of Amboise, in 1944 it served as a headquarters of sorts for German officers. They picked it likely for similar reasons as we did when looking through Trip Advisor... it was gorgeous... quaint and far from any big towns or people, but also big and opulent enough to afford all the comforts of home to men who were likely being given leave from a tour on the eastern front. It had a greenhouse, a well manicured ground, a pool (ok not sure if that was there in the 40's). I wonder how the nightmares of Stalingrad, Kursk or Smolensk must have caused those Germans so long ago trouble in finding this beautiful place so peaceful as we did. But they did not have the cheerful Francisco, the comfort of their wife, or NyQuil.

By 1944 the border of Free France and Nazi occupied France had disappeared. After the Allied landings in North Africa, the Germans had poured into the south of France and divided the country into the Zone Sud and Zone Nord. On D-Day -1, H-Hour -14 as we had dinner across from the Chateaux d'amboise, this was no longer a frontier, it was in the heart of an occupied territory. 26,999 days later, both quiet Monday nights, the German officers going to bed in Chateau Perreaux as we were about to were oblivious that in only a few more hours, men of the 82nd and 101st airborne would be parachuting down on towns only 150 miles to their north, unleashing a confusion from which the Wehrmacht would never recover.

D DAY.  H HOUR - 5

That room in the top of Chateaux Perreaux was still silent. Jenn wanted to shutter the windows before bed so that we could keep out some of the light when morning came, but on account of the wine and my tiredness I couldn't figure out how to do it before bed. So at 0030 the wind blew in, the crickets chirped and the sound of the nearby stream was faintly heard from the wide open windows. Jenn was sound asleep and I woke to use the bathroom. On the way back to bed I went to the window.  The moon was in its last quarter, casting a light glow on the lawn down below from the top floor of the chateaux. And I went back to bed.

172 miles to the northwest D-Day had begun. Men of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Infantry Divisions were dropping into Normandy. Had history not turned out the way it did, the landings would likely be described as a disaster. Most men missed their drop zone by dozens of miles. Meticulous plans and designated landing zones and rally points were not even closely attained in the early morning hours of June 6th. The town oSainte-Mere-Eglise was no different. Meant to be a objective and rally point for men of the 82nd airborne dropped on its outskirts, it became a landing zone itself. Its namesake church, flaming buildings and German garrison made it decidedly not an ideal spot for a defenseless paratrooper to float down on at 0140 on June 6th. More than 20 men landed in the square of the city, some like helpless pieces of kindling right down into the inferno raging in the Hairon house off the main square. But it was all underway. Soon, 13,000 paratroopers would be in Normandy


As we slept, so many years ago on that Tuesday morning a battle was beginning to rage in Normandy. While we packed, woke and had a leisurely European breakfast (croissants, coffee and a soft boiled egg) 5,000 ships were unloading over 100,000 American, British and Canadian troops onto the beaches of Normandy one hour after daybreak. We drove north, and in full nerd out mode I imagined myself driving towards the front of battle on that morning, maybe a German officer who had woken up in Chateaux Perreaux as we did having been alerted of trouble on the northern coast and had been rushing to see it. The Norman countryside passed as a green blur as we drove north past Le Mans, Alencon, and then Caen. We passed where the German Panzer divisions would have been sitting idle in reserve at H-Hour +4, totally capable of pushing the allies back into the sea, but awaiting orders from Hitler who had personally stipulated that their movements were his call alone... unfortunately for the Germans, Hitler was sound asleep at his mountain home in Berchtesgaden, his staff officers not having the heart to wake him and alert him of what they believed to be a diversionary and unimportant allied maneuver.

We approached the beach through what would be codenamed Entrance D-1, a narrow gap and in the bluffs which would be a key objective for the men landing there. Protected with barbed wire fields and mines, the Americans would be sitting ducks until they could push through to here - we passed through unopposed the opposite way and made our way down to the beach. It's was an eerie thing, stepping foot down on the sand of the beach which would become known as Omaha. Maybe not unlike walking into a reception hall the day after a wedding, or seeing Mile-High Stadium totally empty after it had been packed the night before. The quiet is all that more pronounced, when you considered what happened in this place. What an incredible history changing event that had happened on these otherwise unremarkable beaches. I was surprised by how unimposing they were in fact - and when we stood on the beach wall, I began to appreciate in a whole new way what havoc the Germans firing their MG-42's at 1,200 rounds/minute with a firing range up to 2,000 m could have had on men unloading from landing craft just 100 m away. As we walked I could imagine the drone of the landing craft, the boom of artillery landing on the beach, the endless pop-pop-pop of the MG-42's... all being braved by boys who were not even of drinking age yet. These were the boys that would establish the beach-head, push into Nazi occupied France and bring down Hitler's Germany - and thousands of them never made it off of that beach.

Their gravestones we passed in the nearby cemetery... Joseph Rafferty, Captain, 2 Ranger Battalion of Pennsylvania: June 6, 1944; David Goudey, Private First Class, 2 Ranger Battalion of New Jersey: June 6th, 1944; George Eberle, 1st Lieutenant, 502 Parachute Infantry, 101 Airborne Division of New York: June 6th 1944; Charles Mobley, Sergeant, 41st Infantry 2 Armored, of Alabama: July 10th 1944. My camera clicked and clicked as if capturing these names and re-telling their story in some obscure corner of the internet would do some small honor to their memory 74 years later. The day was May 7th, and this place was a reminder of what France would celebrate tomorrow: VE day. The day of the Nazi surrender to the Allies and the end of the war in Europe. Even though so many Americans died for this outcome, for the French it was not just the day that your son, brother or father got to come back from overseas, it was the liberation of your homeland. As we headed back to the car, I was proud of the contribution our country had made to this end, and I hoped that we would never forget it.

D DAY.  H HOUR +12

The sun had begun to set as we ended our day in Normandy in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the small town where 18 hours before on D-Day men of the 101st and 82nd Airborne had (in many cases inadvertently) landed. The town was peaceful tonight. No fires raging, no paratroopers hanging from the steeple of the church (except the dummy which still hangs there today), no panicked Germans roused from their sleep and spraying anything that moved with their Mausers. We'd picked Sainte-Mere-Eglise for its peacefulness, the big Norman church in the square built in the style that would be the inspiration for Kumler Chapel, where my wife and I had gotten married 6 years before. 12 hours after H-Hour, the town was still being contested by the scattered paratroopers and 100 man strong German garrison.  Not until the next day would reinforcements from Utah beach arrive. Tonight was going to be a long night for those Americans. But as for us, we enjoyed a beer on the patio, had some nice Thai food, and Jenn caught up on her journal at the small desk. We were in bed by 2200 in our room just off the square of the big church. At 0700 as the bells marked the hour, we were up and ready to head to Paris, leaving behind Normandy and ready for our next adventure.