Tuesday, September 16, 2014

walking the waterfront

I lied.

Yesterday I promised you a trip to Bilbao’s old city.  I didn’t get there.  One more crowded shuttle bus with its waiting lines eating up time was just a bit more than what I wanted to face on a brilliant Monday morning.

Instead, I decided to take you on a stroll along Gexto’s waterfront.  Gexto, Bilbao’s port, provided our ship’s dock.

I don’t think I have introduced you to our ship --Celebrity’s Infinity.  And a fine ship it is.  (You may hear some more about it near the end of this cruise.)  You can see it at the far right above in a panorama of Gexto’s harbor.

As luxurious as the ship is, when we are in port, I prefer to be off of her.

I wasn’t certain what I wanted to show you.  The day before yesterday, we drove past a couple of mansions on our way to Bilbao proper.  I thought they would provide a center around which I could build a walk.

Before we get there, though, I want to share two scenes I passed on the way.  After all, this is supposed to be a sharing experience.

The first is a tile mosaic at the entrance to the port.

There is really nothing artistically special about the piece.  But I have always been attracted to these pieces that show men doing the work that keeps society running.  In this case, longshoremen.

Most of these clunky pieces also contain some sort of detail that adds a bit of humor (and humanity) to save it from turning into socialist realism.  The gears of the lift bridge mechanism gave me a chuckle.  Orozco would have liked the joke.

And what better to follow art than a girl with her dog.

The young woman repeatedly tossed a ball a good distance into the harbor -- triggering the dog’s retriever genes.  And, even though he would return and collapse in exhaustion, she would toss the ball even further.  And, once again, he would react to centuries of inbreeding.

Good inbreeding.  Not the type that left the Spanish throne ruled by certifiable imbeciles.

But all of that is mere prelude to the purpose of our little tour. 

The street that borders the waterfront also houses Gexto’s mansion row.  The wealthy and powerful Spanish of the early twentieth century built their seaside cottages here.  And, as you can see by looking down the street, the cottages are definitely related to their namesakes in The Hamptons.

And, just as in The Hamptons, the builders of these mansions were wealthy men -- each vying with the other to build a house that would be tasteful, but would still convey the clear message that “the family who lives here is not to be messed with.”

Let’s slip back a hundred years and take a stroll down the street.

Starting with this gallery.  They are built on the site of an old fort that guarded the harbor.  By 1910, Spain did not fear external enemies.  Instead, it was a time to enjoy the peaceful view of the harbor from the terraces of the multi-room gallery.

The gallery was once topped by an English style manor house -- the family home of a businessman.  It was torn down (I suspect to accommodate those apartment buildings); the gallery remains.

If you walk south on the street, the next house -- actually called a palace -- is Arriluze.  A businessman-politician, by the name of Ybarra, built it for his brother-in-law in a medieval revivalist style.  The Spanish enjoyed emulating the British, as you can see in the lines of this house.  It could be an estate house on the Cherwell.

The “palace” designation may not be accidental.  The then-current monarch named Ybarra a marquis.

Up the street a bit is Aitzgoyen.  At first glance, I thought it was a Swiss chalet.

Close.  The house is neo-Baroque.  Built with a pitched roof with wide eaves similar to a chalet.  The half-timber look is actually painted grill-work.  But the blue and white makes me think Heidi is about to appear on the lawn.

You can see the same style in a neighboring apartment house.  The lines are similar to neo-Basque, but filtered through post-modern elements.  The chimney stacks are the give-away.

In 1928, another businessman-politician commissioned noted Spanish architect Manuel Maria Smith to build this family home using regional mountain elements.  “Fort” is the element that comes to mind for me.

Ampuero was the last mansion built before the Civil War broke out.

Vallejo was also built by Smith, but in 1924.

The house is in a Basque baroque style.  It also started as a single family home.  But the builder’s heirs decided to expand it, and turn it into a multi-family dwelling.  With a view similar to my first photograph, it would be quite the place to live.

But not nearly as grand as Lezama-Leguizamon.  This palace -- yes, it is also called a palace -- is the grandest of the lot.

Built in 1903 (once again, by Smith) for another of the long line of businessmen-politicians who were drawn here to show their wealth, it was designed for one family.  And that family (or the heirs) still own the place.

On a far less  grand scale, but still with the quirkiness of Basque architecture, we have the Lifeboat Station, right on the harbor.

It was built in 1920 in a neo-Basque regional style.  The building is supposed to evoke the elements of a farmhouse.  If you compare it to Aitzgoyen, you can see the kinship with its rectangular body and sweeping roof.

I have said it before.  I will say it again.  Spain’s neutrality in both the First and Second World Wars saved its people and its historical architecture from destruction.  If this row of homes had been built on the coast of western France, British and American bombs would have flattened them.

So, there you have it.  My little tour through the waterfront.  I hope you enjoyed the buildings.  I certainly did.  These simple days are some of my favorites.

I arrived back at the ship just in time to watch the ship’s dancers perform as part of a sail-away party.  If all goes well, you may meet them and the singers at dinner tomorrow night.

You can share my plate of venison.  If you like, you can have all of my lobster plate.

Monday, September 15, 2014

slipping across the border

The night was still. 

It was the type of night where a man could steal across the border from France to Spain with his companion Julio.  Julio, who knew how to drink with men, to make love with women, and to die as only as a man could die in the cold of the Pyrenees.  I knew I could not die as Julio would.  I could only continue to fight.

Or, if you like your Hemingway light even lighter still, you could have joined me on my ship crossing the Bay of Biscay to Bilbao.  In the center of Basque country.  Once the center of the old kingdom of Navarre.  A land that dreams of its independence from the Spanish crown.

Ken, Patti, Marilyn, John, and I had one mission in mind yesterday morning.  We were going to visit the Guggenheim Museum.  I cannot speak for the others, but I did very little research for this trip.  Usually, I know exactly what I am going to see (and often what I might write) before I leave Mexico.

Not this trip.  It has all been by ear.  And that is good.  Not only do I not prejudge what I might see, I am actually surprised when I see it.  I suspect that is another element that separates the tourist from the traveler.

Whenever I am in Spain, I can count on one constant.  Eccentric and fantastic architecture will abound.

Bilbao was no exception.  Of course, there is the Frank Gehry building that houses the museum (pictured at the top of this piece).  All curves and lumps evoking a heart.  And so precisely designed, aircraft design machinery was required in cutting the building materials.

But the city offers much more.  Such as this odd collection of art nouveau buildings peering through the trees.  And because this is Spain, a lot of the lines are so Moorish that they could have stepped out of the Alhambra -- with a bit of modernization.

Or this juxtaposition of God and Mammon.  A faux Gothic church vies for attention with a post-modern, post-Bauhaus office building, along with a side chorus of modern and art nouvea buildings.

Having been spared the horrors of the First and Second World Wars, much of Spain’s architectural legacy still stands -- even with the losses of its civil war.  That historical jumble is what gives cities such as Bilbao their structural texture.

But, as I said, our mission was to see the Guggenheim collection.  I wish I could share some photographs with you, but this is another of those camera-free museums.

As it turned out, that was a good policy.  At least for me.  This being a Spanish museum, a large number of visitors flagrantly violated the camera rule.  But, I followed the rules.  Surprisingly.

Putting my camera away allowed me to focus on what turned out to be one of my best museum experiences.  Very much like my experience at the Matisse museum earlier this year.  (And, yes, Jennifer, you were correct.)

The main exhibit was a very thorough collection of the works of Georges Braque.  Most of us probably know him for his monochromatic cubist pieces.  But the exhibit shows him in his full artistic context.

Like Matisse and Picasso (both of whom were friends and occasional roommates with him), Braque experimented with each of the artistic movements that developed during his life.  From Fauvism to his experimental landscapes just before his death.

Seeing all of these works in one place is like a course in the history of modern art.  It also gives the viewer an opportunity to get to know the artist at each stage of his life and to ponder what makes him a great painter, and to try to understand what he is communicating to the world.  Unlike many abstract expressionists, Braque believed the viewer was an integral part of the artistic process.  Without communication, there could be no art.

The setting of the museum building itself carries out that theme.  From the rear, it is tied together with the river and the nearby red-slathered bridge arch.

Then there are the sculptures.  You can see what we called “the stacked BBs” in the photograph above.  But there was also this beauty.

A giant spider sculpture whose presence seems to elicit attraction rather than striking fear.  And maybe that is another element of art.  To take the unknown and strip the outer wariness to expose its inherent beauty.

Or maybe it is just a giant spider made of metal that could not harm a fly.

The art did not end when we returned that afternoon to the ship.  Celebrity hired a local Basque group to entertain us with folk dances.  Here is part of the company looking as if they had missed the last bus for the Les Miserables road show.

I am never disappointed after visiting cities in Spain.  Bilbao was no exception.  I may even head to shore later today to get some shots of the old city.  We shall see.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

picking the pockets of the successful

When we left off yesterday, I was telling you a bit of La Rochelle’s history.  How the Huguenots -- the French protestants -- ended up on the short end of a pogrom.

What I didn’t tell you is how all of that came to be.  If you fall into step with me, I will show you a bit of a once-proud and prosperous town -- a town that is regaining a bit of its glamor.

La Rochelle has long served the western provinces, of what would once be France, as a commercial and military port.  The emphasis was on “commercial,” with the military acting as a supporting role to commercial interests.  And they were big interests to protect.  As the years passed, La Rochelle became one of the richest cities in Europe -- so influential were the local merchants that they were allowed to choose their own city rulers.

The area was initially know for its salt mines.  Salt that was traded throughout Europe.  Along with the export of agricultural goods and stone.  The city’s merchants also started trading with Africa in exotic woods and with China in silk and jade.

Because it was such an important city, it changed hands often between the French and the English, as did much of western France.  Eventually ending up as a French city in 1372.

La Rochelle’s charter, and its growing wealth, gave it effective freedom from control by Paris.  Several French kings attempted to curb the city’s privileges.  To no avail.  Instead, the city grew in power.

That power is evidenced by the half-timbered mansions of the merchants.  Some still remain -- with their distinctive slate-covered timbers.  I have never seen that particular architectural design anywhere else.

That is, until the citizens decided to be protestants in the late 1500s and early 1600s.   At first, the rise of Calvinist French citizens was not seen as a religious or political issue.  The catholics and protestants even shared the same churches on Sundays.

But Paris took note when the city morphed into 90% protestant.  The Protestants reacted by tearing down the catholic churches, but not their towers, in the hopes of driving away the remaining catholics, and to use the stone for fortifications for the coming military storm from Paris.  The towers were then used as lookouts and gun platforms.

To this day, you can see gothic towers, with shards of old churches, attached to newer baroque churches.  The catholic churches that were built following the eventual collapse of  the city.

After several unsuccessful attempts to destroy the city by siege, the French royal forces finally prevailed in 1628.  Some of the few surviving protestants remained in the city even though it had lost its privileges.  When the persecution increased, most left by 1685.

Catholic triumphalism is apparent in the city’s chubby cathedral.  It more a symbol of political power than of pious faith.

The departure of the protestants also saw the start of a new trade for France -- slaves.  The same triangular trade from Africa to the New World to Europe, that Spain, Portugal, and England were to indulge in, would bring new wealth to the city.  Until the slave trade was made illegal in the mid-1800s.

There is also a memorial in La Rochelle to its connection with the New World.  One street is paved with stone imported from Canada.  (Mexpatriate shows its care for its Canadian readers in many ways.)  Of course, it seems odd that a city known for exporting stone would import stone for its streets.  But when you were as rich as old La Rochelle, you could show that wealth in common ways.

La Rochelle has never again been as politically powerful as it was up until the mid-1600s, but it has recovered a good deal of its allure as a trading center.  The old city is filled with shops of exotic goods.  Including artsy furniture stores that catch the eyes of new home owners.

Maybe they mean it as a tribute to their past, but you can buy a luxury handbag for 1300 Euros -- and, for all I know it was made by the slave labor of a political prisoner in Red China.

History moves on; the human condition remains constant.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

welcome to my humble chapeau

La Rochelle.  The very name evokes memories from an adolescent’s afternoon adventure readings.

The Three Musketeers.  Count Richelieu.  The great siege dike.  Regional Protestants fighting the centralized authority in Catholic Paris.  Nascent liberty struggling against authoritarianism.

The French wars of religious liberty during the 1600s in this part of western France show little signs of having ever occurred.  That is because when the Huguenots, whose faith was followed by 90% of the people of La Rochelle, fell to the forces of Louis XIII, they simply took up their possessions and headed to Protestant Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, England, and, most notably, the United States.  I am rumored to carry some of that blood in my veins.

Today, less than 2% of the population is Protestant.  An excellent lesson of opportunities lost when nations use religious tyranny as a filter to approve who gets to stay next door as your neighbor.  Paul Revere and the Roosevelts and Rockefellers may have made their names in France, rather than across the Atlantic.

If I had gone in search of Protestant La Rochelle yesterday, I would have come up empty handed.  Instead, we took a bus tour into the country.

First, let me get this out of the way.  Yes, it had all of the worst ingredients of a bad bus tour.  Too many people crammed onto the bus.  Too many people crammed into tiny rooms during the tour.  Too many people talking over the guide about their personal problems.  Too many people who had no interest in the history of the places we were visiting.  A guide who had to read her presentation from a folded piece of paper.

But I was not going to let all of that get in my way.  Here I was in western France with Ken, Patti, Marilyn, and John.  I was not going to let a group of surly Englishmen get in my way of enjoying the day.

Enjoyable it was.  Sunny.  Relatively cool.  A nice refreshing breeze.  And historical buildings to amuse us.  What could be better?

We started with a tour through the Castle of La Roche Corbone.  “Castle” must be a rather elastic term.  If you were looking for Ivanhoe, you would be in the wrong place.  I would have called it a fortified chateau.  At least, that seemed more accurate to me.

Like many ancient homes in England, this chateau was abandoned and then restored by an eccentric 19th century business baron.  It is still a home -- financed with the generous donations of tourists.

The interior, which was a camera-free zone, was rather ordinary.  But it gave a good idea what each of the rooms looked like, and how they functioned, during the various centuries the chateau was in operation.

What makes the place, though, is its garden.  Not surprisingly, set out in the formal French style with a prominent water feature.  Almost a pocket version of Versailles.  My suburban side kept nagging me that this would be quite a weekend project to keep in shape.

Tomorrow I will tell you about La Rochelle.  But I need to give you some background to discuss our next stop.

La Rochelle was a medieval city that had long protected this area of France from the English.  The royal government felt uncomfortable having the regional arsenal in La Rochelle because of the town's growing Protestant sympathies.  Instead, Louis XIII and his boys built a new town quite close to La Rochelle.  But free of its liberty sympathies.

The town was Rochefort.  A bit of it is still there.  With its almost germanic gridded streets.

Almost all of western France was severely damaged from Allied bombing in the Second World War.  Rochefort was no exception.  A 300 meter-long building designed for manufacturing 300 meter strands of rope has been restored.  This was, after all, a town designed to supply the military strength for the 17th century monarchy.

I know I should have been wandering through Alexander Dumas’s mind while walking these streets.  Instead, my head was filled with the images of the superb The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers movies from the 1970s.  The best versions I have seen of the Dumas classics.  I doubt there has been a better Count Richelieu than Charlton Heston.

Perhaps my favorite part of the tour was our guide's repeated reminders that the English were the traditional enemies of the French.  She had a subtle gallic way of twising the knife with each reference.  Rather brave for a woman relying on the kindness of tourists for her tips.  Or maybe her experience has been that certain nationalities simply do not tip -- no matter the barbs thrown their way.

Yesterday was a good reminder to me that France provided the United States with a wealth of talent due to its expulsion policy in the seventeenth century.  And it then went on to become the first (and longest) ally of the new nation.

Where could I have better reminded myself of that than on the streets where the three musketeers once carried out that bit of religious cleansing?  All for the better of my country.

Friday, September 12, 2014

sailing in the fog

I have a score to settle.  And, because we are spending a relaxing day at sea, I thought I would exercise my blood pressure a bit.

The reference is appropriate.  It was my blood pressure that began this little morality play. 

You may recall that when I was in Oregon in July -- the Fourth of July to be exact -- my blood pressure decided to do its patriotic impression of bombs bursting in air.  My sister-in-law was worried enough about how high my blood pressure had hovered for two days that she was able to convince me to set aside all of my misgivings about the American medical system.  Well, she was able to set them aside enough to get me to the emergency room of the hospital where she works.

My biggest concern in the northern system is dealing with the billing side of an expensive trip to the emergency room.  If I incur medical expenses in The States, the bills are first submitted to Medicare.  If there is any amount still owing, Medicare passes along the bill to Tricare -- the company that administers my Air Force retirement benefits. 

The July visit was my initiation to this dual system.  But I have dealt with Tricare in Mexico enough to know that there is always something for me to pay.  Deductibles.  Co-pays.  Fees for looking out the window twice.  

Those bills go to my Nevada address.  The chance of bills sitting unpaid for long periods is high -- and I do not like owing money.  Especially, owing money to medical providers who have no qualms about running a scalpel across the carotid artery of a patient’s credit history.

I tried to pay the intake clerk in cash when I was admitted, but she looked at me as if I had offered her a truckload of crated chickens.  Apparently, paying cash to hospitals is no longer an accepted custom in, as Jennifer Rose likes to call it, the Old Country.

When I returned to Mexico, I looked at some of the mail that had accumulated over the past few months in Nevada.  Deep in the pile was my Medicare card and instructions on how to view my Medicare claims online.  I knew that my friend the internet would not let me down.

But it did.  When I tried to sign on to “My Medicare,” my computer repeatedly informed me that I had a hole in my head if I thought I was ever going to get a connection with the web page.  (The message was a little more technical than that.  But you get the drift.)

So, I went in search of a way to contact Medicare to see if there was a problem with the site.  And I found it -- a customer service page where I could pose my question to the Powers That Control My Credit Rating.

My question was simple: “For the past two weeks, I have tried to access the ‘My Medicare’ site to no avail.  Is there some systemic issue?”

A canned response showed up in my in-box within minutes informing me my question had been received and I would receive a response within three business days.

Three business days went by.  Then a week.  Then two weeks.  I had almost forgotten about my question when on week three, I received this very helpful response.  (Please remember my question was very specific about having trouble getting on the My Medicare site.)

For information pertaining to Medicare beneficiaries, information about health plans, or instructions for ordering Medicare booklets, please call Medicare's 24-hour helpline toll-free at 1-800-Medicare (1-800-633-4227). TTY users should call 1-877-486-2048.
Information for Medicare beneficiaries can also be found on the Medicare.gov website at http://www.medicare.gov.

You can also visit view Medicare.gov's Frequently Asked Questions or submit a question to the Medicare.gov staff by visiting:  https://questions.medicare.gov

Use this link to add notes to the case: [link deleted]
I guess I can stop being morally enraged about the IRS destroying all of the email dealing with its abuse of authority in the Freedom Party audits.  Medicare has a far better device for deflecting assistance.

When I was in private practice, I had a couple of clients in rest homes who depended on Medicare to pay their medical bills.  Each month I would visit them and sift through their respective piles of paperwork.  It took me only about two months to figure out there was no logical way to determine what had been paid and what had not been paid.

That experience soured me on Medicare long before I fell into its trough this year.

Maybe everything will work out fine.  Mexico has taught me if I wait long enough, life will cycle itself into a happy ending.

So, I am going to enjoy this day at sea and leave the medical madness to others.  By the time I get back to Mexico, Medicare may even figure out how to keep me updated on my own account.

Of course, I also believe unicorns are ridden by tax-cutting politicians.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

meeting le havre

To blog is to bend time.

I am currently sitting in an internet cafe looking across Le Havre's harbor.  My today is your tomorrow.  By the time you read this essay, the day that is currently mine -- sun on the harbor, seagulls in the air, all back-dropped by this ancient city that now wears an architectural face of the 1950s and 1960s, it will be gone.  And so will I.

If you come to Le Havre for its historic buildings, you are as misinformed as Rick, in his search for the waters, in Casablanca.  The reason?  Well, we talked about it yesterday.  (Yours, not mine.  See how time keeps bending?)

During the Second World War, the Germans occupied and fortified this portion of France.  First, as a launching point to invade Britain; then, as a means to avoid the British doing what they had intended to do to the British.

Much of Normandy was bombed, if not back to the Stone Age, at least back to the
Merovingians.  Because of the harbor that gives Le Havre its name, almost all of the city, which was once renowned for its architectural beauty, was reduced to non-restorable rubble.

The one exception was the Notre-Dame cathedral.  It was badly damaged, but it managed to survive.  One stained-glass window still bears the blast shards of shrapnel.

To tell the truth, I was a bit underwhelmed by the cathedral's odd combination of Gothic and Classical elements.  I suspect it was never ranked amongst the beauties of Europe. 

But its beauty is not its story.  The fact that enough of it survived to be restored is symbolic of Le Havre and France.  What was in ruins managed to scratch its way up the greasy pole to be a working nation-state.

One church that was destroyed was the church of St. Joseph.  Rather than try to build a faded copy of what it once was, the parish decided to build something entirely different.  A new church in a new style for a modern era.

Auguste Perret, one of the pioneers of the reinforced concrete movement and the re-builder of Le Havre, designed a church whose tower can be seen from almost everywhere in the city.  There is no pretense at romantic beauty.  The building is bulky, but dappled with color.

Take a look at its tower.

You might mistake it for a missile silo.  (Ken claims it looks like a military bunker built upside down.)  But then there are all those colors filtered through small panes of stained glass.

Where you can find beauty is at the Andre Malraux Museum of Fine Arts.  The museum houses a large collection of Raoul Dufy's work along with pieces by Eugene Boudin, Pissaro, and Monet.

That shot is all I have.  It was a long day, and art managed to slip to the end of the queue.

But not so low as to eliminate a stop for lunch.  The cruise ship has served up some of the best dinners I have tasted -- whether on land or at sea.  The breakfasts and lunches have been incentive to seek sustenance elsewhere.

So, we did.  At an unassuming little restaurant named Chengmai.  My first impression was to give it a miss.  The menu offered up Chinese, Japanese, and Thai food -- a combination that any restauranteur would find difficult to pull off.  The sign advertising "free wifi" and the absence of any other customers simply underlined my concern.

But we stuck it out.  And I am glad we did.  I had a bowl of Duck Pat Pet, which the Vietnamese owner described as his specialty and personal favorite, that was unquestionably the best I have ever tasted.  Who would have thought?

Sated, we headed back to the ship.

Our story does not end here, though.  On Tuesday, we had a long conversation with our guide about the rise of anti-American parties of the right across Europe.  Most of them are parties of tradition.  And most of those traditions are sound.

What bothers many Americans is that some darker traditions are raising their heads.  Xenophobia.  Antisemitism.  Insularism.

One of the leading parties, of course, is the National Front, led by the founder's daughter, Marine Le Pen.  Her party's success in the recent European parliamentary elections was a wake-up call that the Eurocratic establishment is ignoring.  I suspect, to their cost.

I liked this shot, though.  It raised the question for me whether Marine reflects the future of France -- or whether her view is merely an illusion.

But Mexpatriate is on vacation, and we have no say over what the Europeans do.  No matter how disturbing.

Instead, we will be off to La Rochelle (not the home of Rob, Laura, and Richie) to review a bit of Huguenot history.  That is, after we spend a relaxing day at sea.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

they have come back

1066.  William, Duke of Normandy, bastard Viking turned nobleman, gathered his retainers together to invade England.

The pope had blessed his efforts to claim the throne of England that Harold had recently acquired and had just defended against a Danish invading force.  Poor Harold was not so lucky -- losing his crown to William and getting an arrow through the eye in the bargain.  He was probably lucky.  For a king dying in battle was far preferable to being captured by the new winner of the game of thrones.

And England had a new royal line -- one that still warms the cushions in Britain’s royal establishments. 

Yesterday, we visited the site of another Norman invasion.  This one with the British returning the favor.  Along with Americans, free French, Belgians, Poles, and assorted other nationalities.  Just months over seventy years ago, the world’s largest invasion force sailed across the English channel and spilt plenty of allied and German blood.

It was an audacious plan.  To land where no military objectives were immediately at hand.  And landing in the face of strong defensive positions -- with a plan that required immediate success on the ground and some rather ambitious time tables.  Most of which would stall.

Ken is an avid military historian.  Normandy has long been high on his list of places to visit.  We did just that yesterday -- visiting the beaches assigned to the American forces.

I am not going to recount the history of the invasion.  You can read about it elsewhere in much more detail than I can offer.  We hired a guide steeped in the history of the invasion to be our personal Homer through what was undoubtedly an inferno when the young American soldiers attempted to cross their assigned beaches.

Of the four designated beaches covering over 60 miles, the Americans were assigned the two most-westerly.  Utah on the far west and Omaha to its east.

Utah proved to be a rather easy invasion.  The German ground troops fired a few shot and surrendered to President Teddy Roosevelt’s Army general son.

The beach offers very few natural defenses.  When we were there, it looked as Normandy beaches should look.  A grand place to have a holiday.

Things did not go so well on Omaha beach.  Numerous movies have covered the travails that the American troops met.  The forces were jumbled together by currents.  The German resistance was well-planned and fierce.  As a result, the beach was not under control as quickly as planned, and casualties were higher than anticipated.

This is the beach where the rangers scaled cliffs to take out the artillery and mortar emplacements that bombing had missed.  At a great cost to the rangers themselves.

Of course, it all turned out well for the allies in the end.  The forces joined up and marched on to defeat Germany.

We were very fortunate in having a German-born guide who is married to a French woman.  He offered a perspective that was as objective as any portrayal of partisan warfare could be.  I raised the fact that it was at Omaha beach that a large contingent of German soldiers, who had surrendered, were summarily shot by their American captors.  And, of course, atrocities happened at the hands of each national forces.  It was a terrible war.

We had to stop at Ste-Mere-Eglise for the ultimate tourist stop -- and one of the best plates of veal I have ever tasted.  The tourist portion of the trip is best evidenced by the historically inaccurate dummy handing by a parachute from the parish church’s roof.

The night before the invasion, paratroopers were dropped behind German lines.  Two Americans were caught in the dark by the church’s roof.  The Germans shot both of them.  One died.  The other faked death through the night and survived.  You probably remember Red Buttons in the role.

Thousands did not survive.  About 40% of them are buried in the American cemetery (the families of the remainder requested the return of the bodies to The States).

Like most military cemeteries, the number of crosses and Stars of David are overwhelming.  Ranks of orderly markers reflecting marching souls.  It is difficult to visit any place hallowed by the blood of heroes and not feel moved.  We can debate the wisdom of participating in any war (including both the first and second world wars) without diminishing in the least the service that the men (and four women), who are buried there, carried out.

I want to add one footnote.  A tale of French courage.

Bayeux contains an ancient church built just a decade after William the Conqueror added the title “king of England” to his résumé.  It is a beautiful building.

When the Americans dropped leaflets that the city would be bombed and that the civilians should evacuate, the Germans also left.  Realizing that his church was about to be reduced to rubble, as many Norman churches would be that week, the village priest bicycled to get word to the Americans that Bayeux was now a German-free zone.

It worked.  The church still stands.  Of course, it still bears the vandalism committed by the crazies of the French Revolution.  (Mexico is not the only country where the Catholic church has suffered at the hands of The Establishment.)  But, better that than being a bomb crater.

Seeing Ken engaged in lively discussions with our guide made the trip one of the highlights -- maybe the greatest highlight -- of this trip.  As for me, our visits to military sites are starting to gel some philosophical adjustments in my view of life.

But those observations can await another day.  This is a day to celebrate friendship between my comrades and to remember the service of others.