Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Greatest Generation

Before: I'm on the train to Normandy en route to a D-Day tour. My interest in WWII lies in its connection to my grandfather, Lt Col TJ "Curly" Williams. My grandfather (TJ Papa) was a B-25 bomber pilot in the south pacific. Though he didn't fight in Europe this was a war he strongly believed in, for which he willingly risked his life.

In 1943, my TJ Papa was a tank commander preparing to ship out to north Africa. A posting in the officers' club advertised that the army air corp had been formed and was looking for pilots. He and a friend thought the food would be better in an airplane than in a tank, so they joined up. In early 1944, he graduated from training and was sent to the Pacific theater, flying missions against the Japanese. He not only dropped bombs, but also leaflets warning of an impending terrible weapon attack ahead of both Nagasaki and Herishima. The entire tank battalion he was part of before entering the Air Corps was wiped out in northern Africa. Had he not become a pilot, I wouldn't be writing this.

My generation has it so easy. There is no fear of being drafted - the brave men and women in the armed forces today made a choice to join. No digging trenches and living in fox holes through freezing winters across Europe. I'm afraid the appeal of a day trip to learn about the Normandy Invasion will be lost on the next generation who grew up with wars only in the Middle East, with no appreciation of what their great-grandfathers did in the world wars. Most people don't even know the names of all their great-grandparents. I'm guilty, are you?

So, I write this all before walking Omaha beach and standing in the American Cemetery. I'm not sure how the experience today will connect with me, but I hope that it does.

After: Powerful day in Normandy. It was rainy much of the day which made the experience more authentic. We started at Pointe du Hoc which is where the Army Rangers came ashore for a cliff-side assault. From there we moved along Omaha Beach, where on June 6, 1944 approximately 5,500 Allied troops died during the invasion. The American Cemetery overlooks Omaha Beach where the remains of 9,383 servicemen and four women are marked with white gravestones. The D-Day museum is very well done and highlights soldiers' personal lives who died during the war in France.
Omaha Beach

I was affected by one photo that was taken of about 25 American servicemen in a boat prior to departing from England toward Normandy. The men have giant smiles on their faces, many of them holding packs of Lucky Strikes. I wasn't there, so this is all my interpretation and could be totally wrong. But the men looked genuinely happy - excited for the chance to go kick some Nazi butt. Things changed as they waded through the 54 degree water under a heavy barrage inflicted by the Nazis. Little went as planned that day and thousands of young men like the ones in the photo were slaughtered. It was haunting. It really made me appreciate the sacrifices of over 400,000 Americans who died during WWII.

It is with good reason they are called the Greatest Generation. 

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Starbucks in any language

I caved. I'm sipping a skinny vanilla latte at Starbucks as I write this. I had expected to give a tour this morning but fortunately it's drizzly and muggy out so I didn't have to go. (not that I mind giving tours - but I have guaranteed afternoon and night tours so I get to work 10 hour day instead of 14. And for that I'm grateful.)

I had a hunch I may not go out this morning when I looked out my window at the gloomy sky so brought my book with me. I've joined the craze and am reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I was craving something familair so decided to spend the morning reading and sipping at Starbucks.

It wasn't just the familiarity of Starbucks that appealed to me, it was the service. I came in and ordered my drink exactly as I pleased. My heart's desire. And it was prepared with a smile! I've been so underwhelmed by the service in France, especially of late. So the chance to order skim milk and Splenda is a satisfying change from the ordinary.

At restaurants I've noticed that tourists are often served differently from locals. For me, courses are often brought together - rather than salad first - unless you specify otherwise. But for locals the default is separate courses. I wish I had some "I'm local" badge so that I could earn the right to slowly linger over my meal. But my broken French when ordering gives me away every time.

Once you have your food you will likely not see the waiter again until you flag him down and ask for the check. No "how is everything?" or "can I get you a refill?" As an American I have come to expect great service. Shamefully I feel even entitled to it. Over here waiting tables is truly a profession - not something one does to put themself though college. Service (tips) is included in l'addition (bill) and the waiters are salaried or a given a high hourly wage so there is no motivation for good service.

In countries like Spain and Italy I found that servers enjoy tourists giving ordering a go in the local language. They often help you along, all with a smile. In France, not so. Trying to order in French generally is answered with an annoyed waiter responding in English - not at all interested in indulging tourist attempts at language mastery.

Another difference in service was highlighted during my day on the Côtes-du-rhône wine trail in the Provence region. Having spent days wine tasting in northern California, Australia and South Africa I had a presupposition of what the winery visit should entail. The domain visits here are a bit shocking to the American "I expect great service" system. No one suggests a tasting order, no one tells you anything about the wine. You are simply greeted by a grumpy French woman who expects you just to point to a list. They have no interest in answering questions and you definitely can't buy a glass of your favoirte to enjoy on a patio overlooking the vineyards. The only exception to this was at Domaine de Mourchon - where we met the friendly British owner (who made his millions living in Houston in the 80s). He told us all about the winery's history, the wines and his upcoming event at a steak house in Dallas. His wines were wonderful and will be popping up on a menu near you!

I've come to expect poor service in France. And on the ocassion where I get great service I'm very appreciative. I notice it, rather than expect it. It's the same in the broader since of my life. I pour my venti-sized expectations into an espresso-sized cup and am surprised when it makes a mess. This summer I have been trying to notice the wonderful things and people that surround me and experiences I'm given, rather than just expect them. Appreciation requires effort. So today I am savoring the sun that's now shining and the smile that comes with my cup of coffee.

*I realize this is filled with generalizations, and I'm okay with that.
** I also realize 'servers' is a more proper term than 'waiters' but just don't feel it appropriate in the French waiter context.


Make a mental list of all the cities you know of in Spain or Italy or Germany. Several, right? Now think about France. My guess is Paris came first to mind and then the list quickly tapers. Unlike most countries in Europe with several large cities, France is built around the single City of Light. Up until recent years the rail system here even reflected this; Paris was the single hub of the wheel and to get to another part of the country you had to first travel to Paris.

Prior to this summer I had been to Paris a few times, but not explored the rest of the country. My goal for the summer was to focus on seeing a much of France as I can - especially towns I had never even heard of up until now. I asked people well-traveled in France what their favorite town is and was told "Annecy" several times. Having never even heard of the place I decided it must be worth exploring.

Delightful Annecy is in the Haute-Savoie region in southeast France near the Swiss border. Colorful flower box lined canals meander through the heart of the old town. The jewel though, is Lac Annecy (Lake Annecy). Situated in the foothills of the Alps, this topaz gem is 40 kilometers around and outlined with charming homes and castles.We went on a relaxing boat ride and the houses and private castles were just jaw-dropping!

On our second day in Annecy we rented bikes and rode the circumference of the lake. Most of the 26 miles is fairly flat, but there is one stretch of hills that made me want to throw my bike in the lake. The jaw dropping vistas distracted me during the three-hour ride. After spending so much time in wondrous places this year a move back to the scenery of Dallas would be a tough adjustment. (no offense Dallas I love you, but you're no village in the French Alps)

There was a musical festival taking place while in Annecy. It was very bizarre. It was mostly brass and percussion and the bands traveled around the streets. So it had some elements of a chaotic multi-directional parade. There was one group that were dueling drummers and used hand puppets. I cannot resist a musical sock puppet!

The rest of our time was spent sipping coffee and wine, napping in a park and of course eating ice cream. There is a place that has 55 unique flavors - and I thought I had already explored the outer boundaries of ice cream! I had reglisse, which is licorice flavored. It flavor was not over-powering, it was fantastic!

The trip was a great respite from the noise and busyness of Paris. And did I mention the hotel had air conditioning? For three sweatless nights it felt like I was living in the castle!

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