Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Walking Holidays

I’m still very much in a “holiday-minded” mood lately. Like most families I'm sure, we have a certain modus operandi in our travels, a preference for some types of holidays and not for some others. We don’t do many beach trips, especially not after our kids were small, and not very many even then. (I regret that a bit, as yearly trips to Florida beaches were a big part of my own childhood.)

The family above the Mer de Glace.
The kinds of trips we do mostly fall into two categories: the All-American road trip, mainly to visit widely spaced natural wonders (and America is full of those), and urban holidays where we visit a city for a few days to take in museums, famous landmarks and, especially since my teenage daughter is along, the local shopping scene.

All of these trips have often involved a certain amount of walking (not that this makes us unique in any way). At various times we have forced the kids to trek across Rome, London, and Paris – naturally, the best way to see most European cities. And we’ve made small hikes in various less-populated scenic locales (again, nothing unusual there).

View from our apartment in St. Gervais.
Even on our one-and-only vacation on a Greek isle (Naxos), we forsook the endless and mostly empty beaches one day for a hike to the parched summit of Mt. Zeus (1003 m, 3290 ft). Spectacular views by the way, fit even for, well, even for a god.

Over the last decade, though, we've added another kind of family holiday to the mix, one where walking itself was the whole point. The first was in 2002 in Chamonix Valley in France. 

A couple of summers earlier, I had spent a week there on a mountaineering course, indulging in a long-held climbing fantasy (well worth it, though a little late in life). After being immersed in some of the most spectacular alpine scenery around, I couldn’t wait to return and bring the family. 

The beauty of Chamonix, other than the obvious beauty of the Mt. Blanc Massif looming overhead, is the network of hiking trails crisscrossing the slopes of the valley. It’s perfect for a holiday of day hiking.  

Boulders were made to climb around on.
For our weeklong stay, we rented a holiday apartment high above the little town of St. Gervais les Bains, up a side valley about 25 kilometers (15 miles) from much pricier Chamonix. We found the place through Interhome, a great booking system offering longer-term accommodations in some prime vacation spots. Our apartment fit the bill. It sat high enough above the valley to give a view of part of the Massif, but close enough to the village that my wife could easily hike down the steep road every morning to the nearest bakery, “Le Pain Chaud”, to buy freshly baked croissants and baguettes. Ah, I do love France.

On that trip, our first day hike was kind of a one-way affair, and a dramatically scenic one. First, we took a ride on a small-gauge cog railway from Chamonix to Montenvers, a hotel perched above the massive Mer de Glace, a world-famous glacier that snakes between stunning needle-like spires of granite rising some 1600 meters (5000 feet) above the ice-craved valley. 

Lunch al fresco.
After checking out the tunnels dug into the living ice to give tourists access to the interior of the glacier, we made our way back to Chamonix on foot. Except for an initial 300-meter (1000-foot) climb to reach the rocky shoulder of a ridge (where if you look carefully enough along the path you can find small crystals), the route was downhill all the way back to the valley floor. Even with all that scenery, the kids weren’t nearly as into looking at the jagged peaks towering over us as they were in searching for crystals under their feet. That, and playing on some of the gigantic boulders that the mountains had shed in the long-distant past. Kids, of course, have their own way of enjoying nature.

All downhill from here to Chamonix. 
We reached Chamonix in just under five hours. Even if it was mostly downhill, those eight kilometers (five miles) of walking was a decent enough of a hike for my daughter, who was only six at the time. The other four hikes we did that week were mostly shorter, though some were a little more strenuous. But they all were as spectacularly scenic as the first and set the stage for some even more ambitious walking holidays in the years to come. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Travel Planning

With several centimeters of fresh snow this weekend, adding to the nearly 60 (two feet) we already have, it might be hard to imagine that summer is actually approaching. Okay, that’s true as well for the following winter, and the summer and winter after that, and on and on for eons, so maybe it’s best not to get too carried away with squinting into the future.

Anyway, it’s not too early to start making travel plans for the summer (especially if that involves searching for affordable trans-Atlantic flying). In fact, for some of us it’s never too early. I’m an inveterate travel planner. I love mapping out routes for possible future road trips or dreaming up places to visit one day. Somehow, my wife doesn’t always see the utility of detailed planning of trips that we’ll probably never make. She doesn’t appreciate the recreational value of the planning itself.

Okay, maybe she has a point, but in reality I waste spend most of my trip planning energy only on real trips. Or at least trips we might actually make. This year, a large part of our summer plans are already settled, with two brief “city” trips booked, thanks to special airfare deals Finnair was offering before Christmas. (We try to pounce on discounted offers wherever they pop up.) We made a similar short trip last year to Berlin, which turned out to be a great place to spend a few days.

This summer, at least part of our traveling will have a decidedly Eastern European favor, with visits to Czech Republic and Poland, both new countries for me.

Right after school lets out in June, we will take a three-day trip to Prague with our daughter and one of her friends. Then at the end of the summer, we travel to Warsaw for four days. I’ve wanted to see Prague for a long time; it has a great reputation for well-preserved (not bombed to bits in WWII) 18th-century architecture (Milos Forman’s "Amadeus" was filmed there). And I bet the beer is good. Warsaw, I have less of an impression of, but there is always plenty to see in most large European cities, and I’m sure that’s also true for Warsaw. In any event, I have before now and August to look into what we might do there.

Short “city trips” are always nice, but I’m also hoping for a bit of the American open road. In the summer, my wife usually attends some professional conference, sometimes held somewhere in North America. Naturally enough, these meetings have often formed the nucleus of family trips, especially if the meeting is held in some interesting or scenic spot – and usually conference organizers seem to make that a priority.

This year, one conference she might attend will be in the Wasatch Mountains near Salt Lake City, in fact at the same place we visited almost ten years ago. So, we possibly have a Utah/Colorado road trip in the cards. We’ll see. If nothing else, I’ll be flying over to the States for a wedding, so I’m assured of spending some time Amerikassa at the height of summer. At least that’s what I’m planning. 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Gun Happy?

The debate over gun control in the States is in full swing, with Congress this past week starting formal hearings following President Obama’s call for gun-law reforms.

Meanwhile, the gun incidents keep piling up.

One of the most tragic – and, frankly, stupid – of these took place in my home state of Georgia just last Saturday. Keep in mind that details might emerge that put a different light on what actually happened to Rodrigo Diaz, but so far, the facts of the case (as they say on all the TV crime shows) seem pretty straightforward.

Diaz, with three friends, was driving to pick up another friend to go ice-skating. Unfortunately, the GPS he was using directed him to the wrong house, just another one those modern-day annoyances that almost any motorist can relate to. This simple wrong turn, however, went horribly wrong.

The driveway that Diaz pulled into belonged to Phillip Sailors, a 69-year-old man who was convinced that the car-full of young people sitting in his driveway only meant trouble. From reports I’ve seen, there was no actual reason for Sailors to believe this. No one had even gotten out of the vehicle. Apparently, just the presence of a strange car in his driveway at 10 p.m. put Sailors in fear for his life.

It seems a no-brainer that the first thing anyone terrified of bodily harm from intruders should do is call the police. That and locking the doors and staying inside. That’s the obvious response, I would say. Many people would also take their gun, if they had one, and prepare to defend themselves, if needed.

Sailors' first impulse was different. Without bothering to call 911, he grabbed his .22 caliber handgun and went outside to confront the would-be “intruders”.

On Facebook, I sometimes see an Internet meme featuring a photo of a revolver and the text “The average response time of a 911 call is 23 minutes; the response time of a .357 is 1400 feet per second”. (The first time I saw this I think the 911 response time was only four minutes, so maybe police are much slower now due to cuts in government spending. Just a thought.)

The meme’s message that, in any real emergency, the police are too impotent to help you, so you have to take matters into your own hands seems to strike a chord with a lot of people. It’s an article of faith among gun rights advocates who see a weapon as essential to modern American life.

Maybe such thinking convinced Sailors that he had no choice but to dispatch with these strangers himself and skip even trying to contact the law. Who knows what he was thinking. Maybe he was just scared shitless that the kind of violent crime he’s always heard about on TV had finally reached his doorstep. Or at least his driveway.

In any case, he approached Diaz’s car and fired a shot into the air. That act was unwelcoming enough itself, not to say downright threatening, to cause Diaz to immediately start backing out of the driveway. You would think that would be the end of it, that Sailors’ menacing overreaction had removed what he perceived (wrongly, as it turned out) to be a threat. He could have left it at that.

Instead, as Diaz continued to back out of the driveway, Sailors leveled the gun at him and shot again, fatally wounding Diaz in the head. Shot dead. For simply pulling into the wrong driveway.

Sailors is now charged with murder. Whatever justification he might have thought he had for the second shot is hard to fathom. His lawyer has been quoted as saying that when Diaz started to speed out of the driveway, in reverse, Sailors “perceived” this movement as accelerating in the opposite direction, towards him. No doubt, we’ll have to wait for the trial to hear the full explanation.

I’m afraid the underlying reason might be the pervasive fear of crime, if not the actual experience of crime, that seems to grip many Americans. Still, I’ve seen no indication that Sailors has ever been a victim of a crime that could have explained his irrational bravado and lethal overreaction. Maybe it just finely tuned paranoia. There seems to be a lot of that going around.

A few years ago while visiting relatives in the North Georgia town where I grew up, I pulled off the highway briefly to do something like take a phone call. I stopped the car at a wide spot on the shoulder of the road in front of a house, less than a mile from our family home. The house was closer to the road than most. In fact, we were just beyond the edge of the house’s yard, sitting in the pullout the postman uses when delivering the house's mail.  

We sat there only a minute or so before I began to sense that the relative in the car with me was uncomfortable with us being so close to the house. I think she felt that the people inside (if anyone was home) might feel threatened by our presence. I think she half expected someone to come out and run us off, or at least ask what the hell we were doing there.

Maybe I’ve been away from the States too long. Maybe I didn't appreciate how bad crime is there now or how scared some people are. I couldn’t see how anyone could seriously be that suspicious of a car parked next to a busy public highway in broad daylight. I felt my relative was worried about nothing. And nothing is what happened. I finished my call and we moved on after a couple of minutes. No shots were fired.

In college back in the late 70s, I saw the somewhat surrealist film, “Stroszek”, by German director Werner Herzog, about an alcoholic ex-con who travels to rural America to start a new life. Of the entire movie, I remember only two scenes, one because it was filmed at a place I knew well in Cherokee, North Carolina. The other scene I recall because I felt that Herzog’s intended commentary on America was way off the mark.

In this particular scene are two neighboring Wisconsin farmers who have been feuding for a decade over the same tiny patch of ground. To keep each other from taking possession of the field, the farmers, hoisting rifles, circle the no-man’s land on tractors, glaring at each other like two scorpions facing off, not daring to let their guard down.  

To me, this absurd scene was the distorted view of an outsider trying to exaggerate how combative and gun-happy Americans are. It didn’t sound like the America I knew.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about that scene and am starting to wonder if Herzog was right after all. Maybe his dystopian vision of America is becoming all too true. Or maybe US society has always been poisonously uncivil, but only those looking in from the outside could really see it so clearly. Either way, it’s not a happy thought.