Friday, November 29, 2013

Happy Thanksgivukkah!

Another wonderful Thanksgiving dinner with my sister and her extended family of relatives and friends!

I really enjoy these intergenerational holidays. Since Rick and I do not have grandchildren and my sister does not have grandchildren, and most of my good friends do not have grandchildren, we don’t have much contact with little children in our lives.

Fortunately my sister's good friend’s daughter and her husband have produced two gorgeous babies, so we have 3 generations at our Thanksgiving celebration.

In addition to baby Nathaniel, there was something else different about Thanksgiving this year—-the convergence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, dubbed "Thanksgivukkah. " This will be my first and only time at which a menorah was lit at Thanksgiving dinner. Supposedly, it won't happen again for more than 70,000 years!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Why are central Paris hotels so expensive? The 2013 France diaries, Part IV

One of our first Paris hotels, Les Maronniers

When we returned to Paris we stayed at Hotel Le Six in Montparnasse, a charming, well-located hotel which (like all Paris hotels) costs far too much for a small room. This is our favorite part of Paris and over the years we’ve usually stayed in Montparnasse and thereabouts.

When I started looking for Paris hotels I was stunned to find that the little hotels we used to stay in had doubled and sometimes tripled in price. One of our first hotels in the 1980’s was Les Maronniers --if I remember correctly less than 100 dollars a night. It’s now well over 200.00 dollars a night.

The same with another favorite La Varenne which used to be about 100 dollars a night but is now over 300 dollars. Of course one expects prices to go up over the years, but it seems far worse in Paris than in other major cities. Where are those deals on small hotels we used to get? Why is central Paris so expensive?

I think I found a clue in a Guardian article about Chinese tourists who had been targeted by thieves:
One problem is the lack of security in suburban hotels. In central Paris, hotel capacity is at saturation point and new ones can only be built outside the ring road, in precisely the areas now avoided by the Chinese tour operators. Jean-Fran├žois Zhou, the founder of Ansel Travel, says that the Chinese blacklist hotels whose clients have been the victims of theft. He now tries to get his clients into central hotels, even if it raises the cost of his services.
The demand for Paris hotel rooms has skyrocketed since Rick and I began traveling together in the early 1980’s. The Chinese economy has grown tremendously since then with the consequent rise in Chinese tourism; also Eastern Europeans are free to travel and increasingly have the resources to do so. In short there are more people with the means to travel and Paris is the world’s number one tourist destination. Combine this increased demand with a prohibition on building hotels in Central Paris and the result is sky high prices for tiny hotel rooms. But Paris is worth every penny!

Up until this point in the trip we had reasonably good weather, but our last three days in Paris were gray and drizzly. But this was Paris and it didn’t matter. In fact, I really like Paris in the rain. One of my favorite Paris paintings is that iconic Caillbotte painting of a Paris street scene:

There’s a reason the whole world wants to go to Paris!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Bordeaux, the Medoc and St. Emilion: The 2013 France diaries, Part III

The Main Square, Place de la Bourse, in Bordeaux

We really didn’t want to leave the Dordogne. That’s the downside of trip with a pre-planned itinerary. We had already booked the next stop and so off we went to Bordeaux—the only major French city we’d never visited. Bordeaux has a gorgeous old town—-in this case the old town is the 18th century city. But outside the old town it’s not an especially attractive city.

What drew us to the region, wine–lovers that we are, was the opportunity to visit the fabled vineyards of the Medoc and St. Emilion. The Medoc really gives one a sense of just how much of the French economy still revolves around wine—the vineyards go on and on and on.
Vineyards of the Medoc

The real surprise for us were the vineyards around St. Emilion and the town of St. Emilion itself. The terrain is lush with steep hills--unlike the flat, monotonous expanses of land in the Medoc. The town has an incredibly rich architectural heritage and I advise anyone going to the area to consider using St. Emilion as a base.
The medieval ramparts of St.Emilion

View of the vineyards form the old town of St.Emilion

We stayed in Boulliac a beautiful little town outside of Bordeaux. We came across a good deal on a luxury hotel, the St. James Hotel which offered 3 nights for the price of 4. We were intrigued with the idea of a hotel located in a vineyard and having grapes growing outside our window. Well, we were a little late for the grapes. In that area they were picked at the end of September, but the grounds were beautiful just the same. The hotel had a Michelin star restaurant; we would not have gone out of our way for crazily expensive haute cuisine, but we thought since we were staying there, why not just this one time?

We discovered that at this stage in our lives we much prefer French country cooking—-the reasonably priced food with fresh ingredients and generous portions we had at Hotel du Moulin de la Beaune. We no longer want to pay those crazy prices for a thimbleful of food, beautifully presented. Food as a work of art no longer appeals. The St. James Hotel also ran a little inexpensive bistro a block from the hotel and we would definately recommend it.

We were happy to have seen Bordeaux and the wine country but were itching to get back to Paris.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Philly Voter Turn-out: How low can it go?

Election Day was a depressing affair. My Mt. Airy division had a turn-out 3 times that of the city wide average of 11.3 %, but that’s not much of a consolation.

According to an article posted in “only 11.3 percent of the city’s 1.1 million registered voters bothered to show at the polls, which, if it stands, would make it the lowest turnout in at least 20 years, if not the least in modern city history, for a general election.” The trend over the last 20 years has been steady decline—a drop of 14.7% in off-year general elections since the 26% turn-out in 1992.

The low turn-out is in part explained by a lack of competitive races. In most races for Philadelphia municipal offices, the Democratic lead in registered voters is so great that the result is all but decided even before any votes are counted. But the race for Judge of the Pennsylvania Superior Court was a close contest decided by a few percentage points.

The Superior Court makes decisions affecting all Pennsylvanians. It hears appeals from Courts of Common Pleas, including their Family Divisions, in both civil and criminal cases. The Superior Court interprets unclear legislation; unless overturned on further appeal, its interpretation remains final. This was an important race, but you would never know it from the almost non-existent media coverage.

Most voters in my division told me they were unaware of the Superior Court race until they received the letter my committeeperson partner and I delivered to all the households in our division. A few people told me they did not even know there was an election until they received our letter! The lack of media coverage was clearly a factor. Our daily newspapers continue to shrink both in their coverage and in their audience, and candidates in non-competitive races don’t buy TV ads.

Also, it appears that in many neighborhoods around the city, committeepeople were making little effort to inform voters and get out the vote. Apparently the Democratic Party chair didn’t think this election was worth the effort. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, :

Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) had warned the city's political foot soldiers Election Day would be slow, quiet.

"I told my committee people, 'Not much you can do about this one,' " he said Wednesday. " 'But be prepared. It won't be like this next year.' "…

Brady, longtime chair of the city's Democratic Party, noted that Democrat John McVay Jr. narrowly lost a statewide run for Superior Court after barely setting foot in the city --and getting little support from it.

"He should have paid a little more attention to the city of Philadelphia," Brady said. "No one knew who he was, including me."

Isn’t the Party Chair’s job to educate voters about what’s at stake in the election and motivate committeepeople to get out the vote—not to complain about the candidates' failure to get to know him??

The drop in turn-out is getting really scary. I've heard the argument that we could not possibly go any lower in off year elections than 10-11% because we have the old, reliable super-voters who come out in every election, no matter what. But voting is a very age-graded affair—especially so in off-year elections—and those old reliable super voters are getting older. When our age cohort fades away, we may very well be down to single digits.

So what we do? There is no one solution for a problem of this magnitude--making voting easier (e.g. online registration, early voting) would no doubt help. Encouraging more civic minded young people to run for committee person and re-invigorate a moribund Party would certainly help. (Elections for committeepeople will occur in the 2014 primary.)

The door-to-door work we do in my division and throughout the 9th ward explains (at least to some extent) our significantly higher turn-out than 11.3% city-wide average. But the Democratic party is going to have to become more “democratic” if it’s going to attract the civic-minded young people it so desperately needs.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Sarlat, Eyzies-de-Tayac, the Dordogne: As beautiful as I remembered: The 2013 France diaries, Part II

Rick and I visited the Dordogne in the mid-1980’s and I had always wanted to return. The Dordogne is farming country and those gorgeous vegetable gardens were every bit as beautiful as I remembered. And yes, a row of lettuce can be heartbreakingly beautiful.

This time, in a concession to old age, we did not go hiking. Also, instead of re-visiting the magical cave at Font de Gaume which required navigating steep steps, we went to the senior friendly cave Rouffignac where we rode around in a little electric train deep into the bowels of the earth to see wall paintings from 40,000 years ago. We appreciated the train, but the paintings seemed less magical than they had decades ago.

I think it was more enthralling the first time because it was such a surprise. I knew a little about the cave art but had never seen it and was stunned by the astonishing skill of the painters. This time I was prepared for the artistry and as a consequence was less moved by the experience--less moved than I was decades ago, perhaps, but deeply affected nonetheless.

We took leisurely walks around the old medieval towns of Perigueux and Sarlat. Sarlat is especially magical with all the buildings made of gorgeous golden stone—dazzling on a sunny day. When we were in Sarlat in the summer in the mid-1980's, the square was thronged with tourists and street musicians. The atmosphere was so much more festive. I enjoyed the tranquility of October but missed the festivity of high summer. Trade-offs, trade-offs.

In addition to revisiting beloved towns we went to the Museum of Prehistory which was not open when we were there in the mid-1980’s. The museum is amazing for the building carved into the steep cliffs above Eyzies-de-Tayac.
However, the exhibits were more for the specialist than for the tourist and I enjoyed the site much more than the exhibits.

Also, we visited the amazing gardens of the Manoir d”Erignac which were not open to the public when we were there last time.
We spent almost an entire day wandering around the gardens--our senior citizen “slow travel.” We see far fewer towns, historic sites, museums etc., but what we see, we really savor.

Thanks to Rick’s research, we discovered a wonderful and very affordable hotel, Hotel du Moulin de la Beune in Eyzies-de-Tayac.
It was a 2 star hotel--no flat screen TV, no minibar in the room, spotty internet etc. -- but it couldn’t have been more charming. A babbling brook ran through the property and there really was an old mill.

Best of all, it had a seriously good restaurant—-first rate French country cooking at affordable prices. We had dinner there every night. At this stage in our lives we really enjoy having dinner at our hotel. We are a lot more careful about drinking and driving than we were in the days when our reflexes were far better. Having dinner at the hotel means we can indulge in a bottle of wine and after dinner drink and not worry. This hotel was probably the best in terms of good value that we’ve stayed in all our years of traveling in France.

We probably won’t make it back to the beautiful Dordogne. At this stage in life there are just so many return trips we can make, but I’m very happy to have visited the Dordogne again.