Normandy Celebrates Liberty

photo.JPGFifth in a series from Europe…

[Port en Bessin, Normandy] – We’ve all heard the classic stereotype frequently attached to the French; they’re cool – even cold – detached, formal to the point of rudeness, and some might say arrogant and, of course, they don’t like foreigners. The stereotype is, like most stereotypes, largely poppycock. The next time I encounter the stereotype I’m going to remember this little stone monument marking a road hard by the River Orne in Normandy.

A few minutes after midnight on June 6, 1944 – D-Day – three Horsa gliders of the British 6th Airborne Division made what amounted to controlled crash landings about an eight iron shot from this marker. The British troops came in the night to capture two vital bridges that might have been the route for advancing German tanks to repel the entire eastern end of the “greatest seaborne invasion in history.”

One of the bridges – later known as Pegasus Bridge for the flying horse that was the 6th Airborne’s symbol – was captured by Company D of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry under the command of Major John Howard. Howard and his men, as Stephen Ambrose documented in his celebrated book on the raid, conducted their mission flawlessly and held the bridges for several hours until they linked up the next day with British troops moving up from the invasion beaches. The action at Pegasus Bridge is the stuff of military legend.

In many respects John Howard was an unlikely hero, but like so many in those times he rose amid the challenges to become a fine officer and respected leader. He was wounded twice during the Normandy campaign and came away from his experience at Pegasus Bridge with a Distinguished Service Order presented personally by Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery. The citation read: “Major Howard was in com[man]d of the airborne force which landed by glider and secured the bridges over the River Orne and Caen Canal near Benouville by Coup de main on 6-6-44. Throughout the planning and execution of the operation Major Howard displayed the greatest leadership, judgment, courage and coolness. His personal example and the enthusiasm which he put behind his task carried all his subordinates with him, and the operation proved a complete success.”

John Howard’s men anchored the eastern end of the Normandy beachhead by conducting one of the great and gutsy actions of World War II and obviously the French remember to this day. A visit this week to the bust of Major Howard that sits on the exact spot where his glider landed finds the base of the monument layered in fresh flowers, many placed by locals.

The 70th anniversary of the Normandy landing by American, British, Canadian, Polish and French forces in 1944 is being publicized and remembered all over France, and no place more than in the small villages and towns that stretch along the Normandy coast from Caen to Cherbourg. In Caen, a great and ancient city that was once home to William the Conquer and was severely damaged during fierce fighting after the invasion, lamp posts throughout the city feature pictures of the town’s liberation by British and Canadian troops in July 1944. The restaurants feature D-Day commemorative placemats. In the tiny villages behind Omaha Beach on the western end of the invasion zone homes and businesses display the French tricolor side-by-side with the U.S. Stars and Stripes. In fact, you see as many U.S. and British flags as French. The French postal service has created a handsome series of stamps to mark the anniversary. Films, concerts and art exhibits will continue throughout the month.

On the way back from Utah Beach today, I noticed one farm house displaying French and U.S. flags along with a crisp white banner that read simply – Merci.

Of course there is excess in the name of tourism, including the restaurant with a life-like combat ready mannequin at the front door and there are so many cheesy souvenirs for sale that I have lost count. What isn’t excessive is the remarkable sense of history in this place and what feels like a genuine determination to preserve the memory of what happened here 70 years ago. French organizers of the commemorative events say a principle goal is to make certain young people don’t forget the sacrifices made to liberate the country and hordes of French school children are visiting the important Normandy sites and often siting perfectly still for a long description of why this history is so important.

It has been a rare and special privilege to be here this week, visiting the five landing beaches, standing where Major Howard lead his men to Pegasus Bridge, imagining the great DeGaulle arriving in Bayeax and proclaiming it the provisional capital of France and, of course, walking among the more than 9,000 perfectly positioned solemn, sober and humbling white marble crosses in the American cemetery above Omaha Beach.

It was also special – and frankly a little unexpected – to discover that all these years later the Allies coming to liberate France in 1944 still lives in the villages and farms of Normandy. Along the backroads inland from Utah Beach you see dozens of small signs naming a section of road for an American GI. The French have well remembered Eisenhower with a handsome statue in Bayeax, the kind of honor that has been denied the general/president in Washington, D.C. The small resort town of Arromanches Les Bain, location of the brilliantly conceived “artifical harbor” that supplied troops in Normandy and for six months after the invasion became the busiest port in the world, has erected signs declaring “this is the Port of Winston Churchill.” Churchill conceived the far out idea to construct the harbor out of pre-cast concrete and then float it into place across the English Channel. It became one of the great innovations of the war. The town of Colleville changed its name after the war to become Colleville-Montgomery in honor of the British field marshall.

So, don’t buy the nonsense about the haughty French. They are remembering the incredible events in Normandy 70 years ago with style and grace and amazing hospitality. I raise a glass of Calvados to Major Howard and his glider-borne fighters and also to the French and their sense of history, while I quietly wish that our own sense of history could be quite so widespread, so obvious and so well understood.

 

The Great Gwynn

Tony GwynnRemembering Tony Gwynn

He certainly didn’t look like much of a ballplayer. He lacked the classic physique of a DiMaggio or an Aaron, but with a bat in his hands he became a baseball Toscanini, a maestro who could orchestrate his base hits with a flick of his wrists.

Tony Gwynn was arguably the best pure hitter of a baseball since Ted Williams, or maybe since Ty Cobb. The baseball world and the rest of the world mourns his untimely passing.

Statistics tell only so much of the Tony Gwynn story, but they tell a lot. Fifteen times an All-Star, a consensus first ballot Hall of Famer, 3,000 hits, a lifetime .338 hitter in an era when the long ball was too much celebrated. Think of this: 19 straight years batting at least .300. When Gwynn lead the National League in hitting in 1985 he went to the plate 675 times and struck out 23 times. Amazing.

Tony Gwynn was also something else just as important to baseball and the rest of humankind – he was a class act, a gentleman, loyal always to a usually less than stellar team, a great teammate and, like Ernie Banks and Cal Ripkin, an ambassador for the game and what it can be when it is played at its best.

“My mom and dad always used to tell me the best approach is just be humble,” Mr. Gwynn once told the Sporting News. “Be humble, go on about your business, do what you got to do and, when it’s all said and done you can look back and say, ‘Hey, I gave it a great run,’ or ‘Hey, I didn’t,’ or ‘Hey, I fell short,’ but as long as you prepare yourself every day to go out there and give it your absolute best effort to get it done, you can look at yourself in the mirror when it’s over.”

Good words for a baseball player and a person.

I always thought Gwynn would be an outstanding major league manager, but unfortunately he never got the chance. He was, as George Will wrote in his book Men at Work, not only a deeply devoted student of the game, but a scientist who had his own sophisticated theories about hitting a baseball, which, by the way, may still be the single most difficult thing to do with any consistency in sports. Gwynn was, like Williams, so committed to excellence as a hitter that he had his own hitting room constructed.

“It is a long, narrow batting room,” Will wrote, “big enough for a pitcher’s mound at regulation distance from a plate, and an ‘Iron Mike’ pitching machine with a capacity for about 250 baseballs. The room is lit at 300 candle feet, exactly as the Jack Murphy field is lit.”

Tony Gwynn has died much too young at 54 from cancer. He was a great player of the great game. When fans talk about baseball in 50 years or a 150 years Tony Gwynn will be in the conversation. He was that good and his passing is cause for both sorrow and joy. Sorrow that he’s gone too soon, joy that he brought such passion and perfection to the great game of baseball.

Nothing Easy About It

StrikeFourth in a series from Europe…

[Milan] – Over the weekend the newspapers in France were reporting on one of the worst national rail strikes in memory. The strike was precipitated, it was reported, by a more radical element in the rail union that distrusts the “reform agenda” of the Socialist government of the wimpy President Francois Hollande. You may recall that he’s the guy who reportedly snuck out of the Elysee Palace on a motor scooter a while back to have a tryst with his actress girl friend. Meanwhile the very beautiful and talented “first lady of France,” to whom Hollande was not married, ended up in hospital – I like how the French say “in hospital” – as a result of the president’s boorish behavior, which of course was spread all over the papers.

But enough, I’m letting French politics and sex get me away from the rail strike.

To put all this an American context, the dispute in France between the radical element in the rail union and the left-wing government would be a little like the ultra-right wing Tea Party in the United States deciding that the very conservative House majority leader was so much of a political squish that he needed to be sacked in a primary election. Radicals around the world simply don’t put up with their own who are just not radical enough.

Give them this much – the striking French rail workers picked a dandy time to strike. Not only is the tourist season gaining full strength, but this is the period in France when many students need to travel for final exams. The strike was, how you say, timed for maximum impact.

In any event, the French rail strike reminds me of two things one should never underestimate: the unpredictable nature of travel, perhaps particularly in France, and the absurd nature of most discount airline travel, as opposed to rail travel, these days. In fact, I have an alternative explanation for the chaos that spread rapidly across France as a result of the rail strike, but more on that in a moment.

I have been climbing on and off of airplanes on a regular basis now for more than 30 years. I belong to a half-dozen frequent flyer clubs and pride myself on knowing my way around airports from Montevideo to Heathrow, from Portland to Milan. I long ago gave up the anger that almost everyone feels when a flight is cancelled or a connection is missed because fog has grounded everything in the Pacific Northwest. I never worry about lost luggage because I never check a bag, even on an international flight. I’m of the school that says travel disruption is as common as political dysfunction and any one of us is just about powerless to affect better outcomes when the travel gods decide this is your day.

So, my mantra – in travel and politics – is to try and remain relentlessly optimistic. What else can you do? Turn off the outrage, have a beer and chill.

I did have to invoke the relentless optimism mantra early Sunday when the big train schedule in Milan’s Garibaldi rail station flashed “cancelled” next to the TGV to Paris. The French rail strike had struck the unsuspecting American.

By my best count I spent most of the rest of Sunday standing in 12 different lines often to be told when I reached the head of the line that I was in the wrong line and needed to go stand for a long time in the right line. Five lines later, and with the rail option from Milan to Paris no longer even as appealing as yesterday’s cold pasta, I discovered easyJet.

Can’t take the train to Paris then why not fly? The British “discount” airline was offering flights from Milan to Paris, so what the heck – book it. While waiting for a train – the Italian trains were running – from downtown Milan to the distant Malpensa airport, I went online and found a flight, booked it, paid for it and started standing in line. Many airline analysts have compared easyJet – and, yes, that is how they spell it – to Southwest Airlines in the U.S. Low cost, no frills, we’ll get you there with little fuss and bother…except easyJet is Southwest with none of the charm or service.

I’ve been a fan of Southwest for a long time. Great customer service, good value, an airline with a sense of purpose and sense of humor. First thing to know about easyJet is you can’t bring normal sized carry-on luggage onto one of the company’s large Airbus aircraft. My no carry-on policy cost me 70 Euros, even though there was ample overhead bin space for those of us who “never” check. I had to stand in three lines to figure out that checking my normal carry-on bag would cost me the equivalent of a good bottle of Champagne. Second thing to know is the Brit discounter wants you to interact with them almost exclusively on the Internet. There is no way in the airport to print a boarding pass. That’s what your easyJet app is for, unless you stupidly neglect to check your normal carry on bags by using the easyJet app and find that when you get to the airport you need to, well, check your bag. That requires standing in a line and getting a form that says you need to check your bag and then going to another line and paying a fellow who is all too happy to take your 70 Euros for a bag that always fits in the overhead bin – except on easyJet.

Once on board my profitably packed easyJet flight to Paris I discovered that I was really inside a flying convenience store. Everything you can imagine was for sale. No free peanuts and a soft drink as on Southwest. On easyJet everything comes with a transaction of a few Euros. You can chose from the largest liquor selection this side of a Paris Hilton party, for a price. Want a sandwich? We have choices. How about some tea or coffee? Hand over the credit card. Some perfume perhaps for the little woman at home? Gotcha covered and we do take cash.

The easyJet business model is clearly to make you pay through the nose for taking two changes of underwear on your discount flight and, oh by the way, if you’re thirsty that will cost you, too.

I will say this for easyJet, whose CEO says in the most recent in-flight magazine that her focus is “on making travel easier for everyone,” that the airline did get me Paris and on time and, not surprisingly, they are making money for shareholders while doing so. Standing in a dozen lines has nothing to do with making travel easier for anyone, but what the heck I got to Paris and today even thwarted the radical French rail unions by actually traveling by train during the strike! Take that you radicals.

Now, back to my alternative theory about why the rail workers went on strike just when they did. As you know if you read an earlier post in this series, rail travel in Europe – notwithstanding the French troubles of the moment – is, in my view, a dream. Fast, clean, convenient, comfortable and affordable. Millions of French citizens and a few of us Americans were reminded this week, thanks to striking French railroad workers. that a train beats an airplane nearly every time. And, yes, carrying my bag on the train today didn’t cost a thing.

Thank you easyJet for saving one leg of a wonderful trip. I hope to never darken your baggage line again.

 

Perfecto

Osteria

Third in a series from Europe…

[Siena] – I have found my perfect restaurant.

I have been fortunate to visit Siena – I think perhaps Italy’s most manageable and possibly most charming city – on three different occasions. The first time, 15 years ago, we just stumbled on Osteria Le Logge by accident. The second time we searched out the intimate little restaurant on a tiny, pedestrian-only street just off the magnificent Piazza del Campo. This week I felt like a regular.

The genial fellow in charge worked hard to accommodate a party of six without a reservation, while Siena crawled with visitors. A big party of American bicyclists seemed more intent on joking with each other than on soaking up the atmosphere. Still the pasta must have loaded them up for the next hill climb. As for me, I wanted to enjoy my return trip to the perfect restaurant.

As the photo accurately indicates, the place is marinating in old style, understated class. Lots of wood, old wine bottles, white table clothes and a sense that Francis Ford Coppola might walk in and take the table in the corner. You can wear your biking shorts here, but linen trousers and a pair of Italian loafers would be more in keeping with the style. Four huge floor to ceiling doors open up the small dining room to the street and a half dozen tables, under the umbrellas that are mandatory during a warm June day in Siena, spill out onto the cobbled stones. Even if the food wasn’t superb, which it is, the setting would help stoke any appetite.

Too often Americans treat lunch as an after thought. Grab a quick sandwich at your desk. Go for a noon time run and skip lunch altogether. Worst of all too many lunch from a too processed, too fat-laden fast food joint where they pick up the chicken-Mcsomething at the drive through window. Little wonder why too many Americans are seriously overweight and tragically lacking in appreciation for the fine art of really enjoying a meal with other people who make a choice to take time and smell the vino blanco and the fresh bread.

Unfortunately, Italians apparently are catching up with us in the “blow off lunch and eat something out of a plastic container,” but thankfully there are still many places like Osteria De Logge where an Italian – and an American – can pause, relax, consider and enjoy one of life’s great pleasures – a good meal in a handsome setting.

The menu is hand written in Italian, as it should be, and indicates that the kitchen is very much in tune with the ingredients of the season. The wine list is extensive and heavy on, of course, Chianti from up the road and Montalcino from a bit further south. The waitress is business-like, her English excellent and her understanding even better. She patiently explained what was what, something she must do a hundred times a day. I opted for the tagliatelle, but I could have closed my eyes and pointed to any item on the menu and been a very happy fellow.

If you agree with Stephen Colbert that “there is nothing American tourists like better than the things they can get at home” Osteria Le Logge is not your place. Oh, you can find superb restaurants anywhere in the world – particularly in the United States – but Europeans, and perhaps particularly the Italians, have a certain respect for a meal as both a time of sustenance, but also a time for relaxation, companionship and conversation.

In the wonderful 1996 film Big Night two Italian brothers are trying to make a go of their struggling restaurant. That settle on an audacious public relations plan to create a great meal to serve when the bandleader Louis Prima is scheduled to visit the restaurant. The resulting publicity will save the day, or perhaps not.

The older brother is a talented chef who insists on creating his food by the book. He refuses to serve two pasta dishes to the same customer. The younger brother is the practical businessman who seeks to always please the customer and, if necessary, tradition be damned. At one point the businessman brother suggests they drop the risotto since it is expensive and time consuming to create in the style that the chef insists upon. Fine, the chef brother says, we’ll substitute hot dogs that will please the customers.

At another point, Primo, the exacting chef, presents one of his dishes to a girl that he has a crush on and offers a truism: “To eat good food is to be close to God.” Exactly.

As the great film critic Roger Ebert wrote of Big Night,”It is about food not as a subject but as a language–the language by which one can speak to gods, can create, can seduce, can aspire to perfection.” Exactly.

Put on some Louie Prima, open another bottle, smile and talk and laugh. Eat in the good life that comes when good food serves as the catalyst for good living. Find your own perfect restaurant – I found mine in Siena – and savor the memory of a visit. Then start planning to return.

Buon appetito!

 

La Dolce Vita by Rail…

NTVSecond in a series from Europe…

[Near Radda in Chianti] – Probably the best way to really enjoy and appreciate the Tuscan countryside is on foot, trekking from one charming hill town to the next. Or you might ride a bicycle, but considering the very narrow, twisting roads here that could be hair raising. Most folks opt for a car or, for the very brave, a motorcycle. Any mode of transportation could work in the Italian countryside, but you first must get here and there is a good chance – unlike the United States – that you will arrive by rail.

Italy is many things: an agricultural and wine mecca and a center of history, culture, fashion and design. Italy is also a country hampered by a truly inefficient political system that produces a new prime minister about as often as Chianti produces a stellar vintage. Next to the Italian political process our own dysfunctional Congress looks like a well-oil machine. Most Americans would say we could teach the Italians something about the importance of hard work. The Italians might say Americans could learn something from them about la dolce vita – the sweet life.

Italians can also teach us something about trains.

In 2012 a new, private high speed rail operator began service to many of Italy’s largest cities. The sleek Chianti red trains operate on an open access system that provides the private rail company – NTV or Italo – with access to state-owned high speed corridors. I rode the very comfortable train this weekend from Rome’s sleek and stylish new Tiburtina train station to downtown Florence. Once we cleared the Rome suburbs we flew along at 250 km per hour (about a 155 miles per hour) on a trip that lasted hardly long enough – an hour and 20 minutes. You could drive from Rome to Florence if you were crazy enough and maybe – depending on traffic – make it in three or so hours. Flying seems unthinkable. Considering the speed, comfort, convenience and cost the train is really the only way to go.

While the rest of the world plunges ahead to make new investment in a new generation of high speed rail, back in the USA we can’t find a way to link even the most obvious destinations – San Francisco and Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland, Chicago and St. Louis, Atlanta and Charlotte. The mere mention of investment in high speed rail is likely to set off a Tea Party-like rant against wasteful government spending. Governors in Wisconsin and Florida put the hex on projects in those states and California – if ever there were a state that needed high speed rail it is California – continues to battle over costs and routes and the Los Angeles Times reports this week that more lawsuits around the initial $9 billion project are all but certain.

Meanwhile, China – no kidding – has floated the idea of constructing a high speed line from China to the United States that would include a tunnel beneath the Bering Strait. At first blush that seems like an outrageous idea, but the Chinese have invested billions and billions in their own fast train system and they have begun to corner the market, like many other markets, on high speed design, engineering and finance. New analysis in Australia, a country without high speed rail, says a system there would not only be heavily utilized, but would be good for the environment.

Britain, Japan, Spain and France are all moving steadily ahead to improve their rail systems – high speed and more conventional rail – while the United States, virtually alone in the world in this regard, continues to spend its often inadequate infrastructure dollars on more pavement. Opponents of rail often cite the “vast public subsidies” needed to build and maintain a modern rail system as their chief argument against making passenger rail transportation a national priority. It’s a silly argument since governments at every level spend lavishly on roads, bridges, freeways and airports. The U.S. air transportation system simply wouldn’t exist without the truly vast public investment made, usually with little controversy, in airports in any city of any size in the country.

I was in Winslow, Arizona a while back, a place that once was a stop on the route of the Super Chief, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad’s deluxe train that, as recently as the 1960′s, ran from Chicago to Los Angeles. The railroad boasted that the Chief was a “deluxe hotel on wheels.” Now days one Amtrak train a day stops ever so briefly in Winslow. On a starry night I sat outside the grand old La Posada railroad hotel in Winslow watching the BNSF freight trains roll past and on into the night. An Australian visitor took a seat nearby and we shortly struck up a conversation about trains. With true wonder he finally posed the question that must seem incomprehensible to a visitor to the United States. “Why,” he asked, “did you Americans do away with virtually all of your passenger trains?”

Slightly embarrassed I could only shake my head. Why indeed.

 

 

Roman Holiday

Audrey_Hepburn_and_Gregory_Peck_on_Vespa_in_Roman_Holiday_trailerThis is the first of a series…

In the trailer for the enduringly sweet 1953 William Wilder film Roman Holiday there is an aerial view of the vast expanse of St. Peter’s Square. It’s nearly empty. As I look at the film after a mid-afternoon visit to the Vatican, I have to wonder what Italian politician – or papal functionary – Wilder had to bribe to get a nearly empty St. Peter’s Square for his film. It is never empty, not even nearly so.

And how did Wilder stage those scenes of Gregory Peck and Andrey Hepburn on a motor scooter, but not surrounded by all the traffic that is a constant – and I mean constant – fixture of the Eternal City? More bribes one suspects.

On no level does Rome work as a modern 21st Century city. The streets were made for Roman chariots. It’s mind-numbingly congested. It’s dirty and noisy. There are smells both modern and ancient. A crew is digging up a street covered in cobblestones and you just know there must be a few bodies of early Christian martyrs down there someplace. There must also certainly be traffic laws, but they are ignored willy-nilly. A good deal of the congestion comes from the wanton double parking that occurs on all but the busiest streets. Cars half way up on the curb, scooters scooting in and out of three (sort of) lanes of traffic, delivery vans delivering, a bicycle here and a city bus there. It’s general albeit remarkably controlled chaos. It’s Rome. It’s old and kind of broken down and, of course, it’s just about perfect.

The lines were long to get inside St. Peter’s on Thursday, but they moved quickly and with something approaching Italian efficiency and before long everyone from everywhere was inside the cool and dark great church. It was a relatively brief 20 minutes or so in line, a line that looked when we entered it might get us inside in time for Midnight Mass at Christmas. The magnificent basilica is certainly a special place for Roman Catholics, but judging by the multi-ethnic make-up of the line and the Tower of Babel mix of languages spoken around us, the place has special significant far beyond its role as the heart of the Catholic world. I’m thinking some of that has to do with Pope Francis, the new and bright face of world Catholicism. The chairs were spread out on Thursday all across the huge square in anticipation of a papal appearance on Friday – first Friday.

On every level as a place of history, culture, the glory and contradiction of religious faith, fashion, romance and what constitutes the essence of a great city Rome works just fine thank you very much.

The waiter at dinner – he recommended the tagliatelle with ultra-fresh vegetables and a shrimp straight from the sea, and he was right – is contemplating a job in Santa Barbara, but he is worried about the cost of living in southern California. Wait, I wonder, what about the cost of living in Rome? Not so bad he says. A small, but nice one bedroom apartment in a fashionable area of Rome may set you back a thousand Euros a month, but Santa Barbara may be another and higher matter. Still, an experienced waiter with a charming flare for conversation, a fine command of English, and knowledge of the Barbara d’Alba on the wine list can make a good deal more plying his skills in the United States. He’s worked in Boston and Maine in the past and patted his hip pocket as he smiled and noted his long hours and “where is the money” question at the end of the month. I left thinking I’d find an excuse to go to Santa Barbara if he ends up recommending pasta in southern California.

The Italians recently admitted they’re not ready for the World Cup, which must be a the same plain with the Yankees admitting they’re not ready for the World Series. The Italian football manager conceded that his team lacks “flair” as they have lost seven straight matches. The Italians open against England later this month and, while the national mood will not be on holiday when they lose eight straight you can bet the wine will still flow, the scooters will still scoot and Rome – and all of Italy – will remain eternal and full of flair. It’s big and messy, crowded and noisy, and the only thing missing is Audrey Hepburn on that scooter.

I still wonder how they got that on film.