Vacation to the Dominican Republic

Barcelo Dominican Beach Hotel

Barcelo Dominican Beach Hotel

In September our French friends Cat and Jacques invited us to go on vacation with them. They were planning a trip to the Dominican Republic. Since we are in effect already on vacation in Paris, it didn’t seem like a good idea to me, but they told Brenda and me to think about it and that we would be welcome to join them if we wanted. Brenda liked that we would have hot sunny weather, and we thought what better chance to improve our French than to be able to practice with our fun French friends all day long on vacation.

For many in France, French resorts like Saint Tropez or the Normandy coast are too expensive, so they choose to go outside the country to get more for their money. Our friends take vacation just two weeks a year, and for them the appeal of a destination vacation with a fixed price, including airfare, bus transportation, hotel, all meals, and many amenities is compelling. Travel companies in France offer these types of vacations to many lower cost destinations outside France, including Greece, Portugal, Morocco, Turkey, and in our case the Dominican Republic. The innovator of these types of vacations was probably Club Med, but our trip was organized by a French Company called Promovacances. We paid extra to select a smaller (though still big) beach hotel, the Barcelo Dominican Beach, and to travel on an Air France direct flight to Punta Cana instead of a lower cost airline with lower baggage limits and a flight transfer at Santo Domingo. Cost per person for 2 weeks was about 1600€. We figured that we would have spent at least half the cost of our vacation just in typical day-to-day expenses in Paris, so by that measure it was quite affordable.

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Rough sketch of Hispanola Island and points of interest

The Dominican Republic is located on Hispanola Island, a part of the Caribbean island group Greater Antilles (Cuba, Hispanola, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and the Cayman Islands), and shares the island with the country of Haiti. Hispanola was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492 when his flagship the Santa Maria grounded and sank. He left behind a contingent of men who established a community on the north coast in what is now Haiti. That community was destroyed by the native population, but another contingent from Spain returned the following year and established a community on the south coast that eventually became Santo Domingo, the oldest European settlement in the Americas.

In just a few years, the originally large native population was decimated by European diseases, declining from an estimated 250,000 in 1492 to 14,000 in 1517. In 1574 a census documented 1,000 Spaniards and 12,000 African slaves. The Spanish moved on to colonize other parts of the Americas, and English, French, and Dutch pirates started to operate along the island coast. To avoid the pirates, the Spanish colony moved closer to Santo Domingo on the south coast, and the pirates established bases on the vacated north and west coasts.

In 1665 France’s Louis XIV officially recognized the French colony of Saint-Dominique (not to be confused with the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo on the eastern 2/3 of the island). In 1697 Spain officially ceded the western third of the island to France (part of the settlement at the conclusion of the 9 Years War in Europe). The population of this western colony grew, and it became an important trade hub supplying sugar to Europe using its slave population to keep prices low. After the French Revolution in the 1790’s, France was at war with Spain, England, Russia, and the Dutch in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. The Peace of Basel, which produced three treaties during the Revolutionary Wars, included a provision where Spain ceded the eastern two thirds of the island to France. French colonists started to move into what had been the Spanish part of the island.

Meanwhile, the French Revolution abolished slavery in 1794. Unfortunately Napoleon reimposed slavery in 1802, and the previously emancipated slaves staged an upheaval in the French colony of Saint-Dominique. At the same time, more than half of the French army in Saint-Dominique contracted yellow fever. The French decided to remove their devastated army in 1803, and the new independent nation of Haiti was formed in 1804, becoming the second republic in the Americas. The United States and Great Britain refused to recognize the Haitian government for fear of what that would mean for slavery in their countries. The US imposed an embargo, the French imposed demands for compensation for property they had lost. Thus Haiti was saddled with debts that turned it into one of the poorest countries in the Americas, and it remains so today. The former Spanish colony on the eastern two thirds of the island, Santo Domingo, remained in French control. In 1805 Haitian troops invaded Santo Domingo and sacked two towns, killing many citizens and thus fueling animosity between the two countries that still exists today.

In 1808, settlers in Santo Domingo revolted against French rule and with the help of the British, returned the eastern two thirds of the island to Spanish control. In 1821 the colony declared its independence from Spain, only to be invaded again and conquered by the Haitians, who abolished slavery and nationalized private property. The education system collapsed, and the university was shutdown. Farmers were drafted into the Haitian army. The economy faltered and the freed men rebelled against the Haitian rulers. Eventually, after 22 years of Haitian rule, a nationalist army organized and won the Dominican War of Independence in 1844. They established a constitution modeled on that of the United States.

Unfortunately the government proved to be very unstable and endured many years of power struggle between competing factions, resulting in civil war, assassinations, and many changes of government. The US invaded and occupied the Dominican Republic in 1916 and finally departed in 1922. In 1924, elections were held that for the first time produced 6 years of stable government. The economy grew rapidly, even when Rafael Trujillo established in 1930 an iron fisted dictatorship that continued for 30 years. In the 1960s the country returned to democratic government, and though there are still ups and downs, it has grown into the 2nd largest economy of Central America and the Caribbean. While agriculture remains the largest sector, tourism is a rapidly rising area of growth in the service economy.

Our hotel was the Barcelo Dominican Beach at Punta Cana, on the far eastern tip of the island. It was along the north shore facing the Atlantic Ocean, but we were close enough to the point so that we could also visit the south shore, facing the Caribbean. In this part of the Dominican Republic, as well as other areas along the coast, there (based on looking at the Google map) must be hundreds of huge hotels, each walled off from the general public and having guards stationed along the beach to keep the wandering purveyors of paragliding, island tours, sunglass sales, massages, etc. from harassing the tourists as they sit in their beach chairs watching the waves come in.

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Guard on our beach watching one of the motorboats next door make his evening landing at full speed.

A typical day at our resort looked like this: Breakfast was served buffet style at a large open air space with both inside and outside seating. It was wonderful and included everything an American or European might expect – breads, cold cuts, fresh fruits and juices, eggs and different meats on the grill, platters of scrambled eggs, potatoes, rice, beans, pancakes, waffles, toasts, cereals, butter and cheeses. Waiters circulated serving hot coffee and tea. After breakfast every day we would go to the hotel lobby to have a café latté and check in on the hotel’s WIFI, which did not extend to the rooms and was reliably slow. Lunch was a similar feast of great variety, served with a glass of wine or beer if you wanted. Before dinner we would always meet at the lounge for a cocktail, our favorite being a mojito. For dinner there was the buffet, but also Brazilian, Mexican, Japanese, Spanish, and Italian full service restaurants. We alternated between the specialty restaurants for dinner. There was also a beach grill and a seafood restaurant that served meals under the stars. We would go to the beach every day and swim in the ocean or in one of the 3 large hotel pools. After dinner every night we would go to a show called “The Spectacle”, which would feature singing, dancing, and frequently skits with audience participation. Although there were featured singers and dancers who we understood performed at a number of the local hotels, the masters of ceremonies and most of the entertainers also worked by day at our hotel. After a week or so all of them looked like family to us. The entertainment was at a very high level and always kept us interested. A couple days it rained and we spent the afternoon at the Starbucks-like coffee shop drinking lattés. Every other day or so we would work out at the health club. None of these amenities cost us anything additional to our up front trip fee.

The waiters and waitresses were always cheerful and many spoke some French or English. A number of them quickly got to know who we were. There was a contest with voting each day on Trip Advisor to see who was the best waiter or entertainer at the hotel. Unfortunately the Internet service made it difficult to vote.

Brenda enjoys her lobster dinner

Brenda and her lobster on her birthday

We did opt for some extras – we paid extra for a fantastic lobster dinner under the stars for Brenda’s birthday. Dinner was great and the atmosphere not to be found anywhere else. Brenda had a massage at the Spa one day. Also we could add the cost of trips or tours booked through the hotel to our room bill.

Cat and Jacques quickly made friends during their beach walks with a young man who represented a shop along the beach. The way the system worked, every purchase could be negotiated, and the store you negotiated with didn’t have to carry the item. Tell them what you wanted and they would go find it. Everyone would make a percentage. Everyone was in the customer referral business. Everyone in our group purchased something from the stores along the beach.

One afternoon we took a taxi to a local mall at nearby San Juan. Everything was priced in dollars rather than the local currency of Dominican Pesos (about 40 pesos to the dollar). The mall was pretty much like being in America.

Brenda and Jacques at the town center market in Higuey

Brenda and Jacques at the town center market in Higuey

One day we took a taxi ride to Higuey (eegway), a city of about 300,000 and the capital of our province of La Altagracia. The city is named after a native chiefdom that was there when Columbus arrived. We first visited the most prominent monument, the large Basilica of Altagracia. Afterwards we had our driver take us into the heart of town to see what it was like to shop on the streets. He first delivered us to a shop where he must have had some arrangement. We looked at merchandise but didn’t purchase anything and then asked if our driver would take us into a shopping district in the center of town. This was an exciting experience that left us far from other tourists, but we were followed at every step by people asking what we needed so they could help us find it and thus earn a commission. One woman who spoke French had some success. Cat and Brenda bought bracelets of Larimar, the green blue stone that is only found in the Dominican Republic. There were lots of clothes and local artwork for sale at these stores, as well as chickens and lots of other things from the farm that don’t turn up at your local butcher shop.

The church at Altos de Chavon

The church at Altos de Chavon

Another day we took a bus ride and catamaran cruise including dance lessons and music, snorkeling, swimming at the pristine island beach at Catalina Island, and a lobster lunch aboard a paddlewheel riverboat on the Chavón River. The bus trip took us through the Casa de Campo resort complex, the flagship of the La Romana All Inclusive Resorts area. It was my understanding listening to our French tour guide that the main customers for the large homes in this resort were American, though we also know that there was a large amount of investment in island real estate by other foreigners. We visited Altos de Chavón, a replica of a 16th-century Mediterranean village located just minutes from La Romana. None of us knew at the time that it wasn’t part of the original Spanish settlement of the island. It was built by craftsmen from the Dominican Republic in 1976. It has a large 5000 seat amphitheater, which featured an opening concert in 1982 by Frank Sinatra. Everything looks as old as advertised, and it has great shops and restaurants to add atmosphere to the appearance of antiquity. The cruise and lunch were fun. There was heavy rain in the afternoon but we were swimming so it wasn’t too discouraging. The cruise took place near the town of La Romana along the south facing coast, so we had a chance to swim in the Caribbean as well as the Atlantic.

Harbor at Bayahibe

Harbor at Bayahibe

Our last great adventure outside of the resort was to take the bus to Bayahibe (byaeebay), a town also along the south shore 10 miles east of La Romana. Cat had learned from one of guys along the local beach that there was a direct bus there from the small town just down the street from the gated entry to our resort. We headed off searching for the bus stop, which we eventually found when a bus pulled up to a corner. We quickly learned that there was no direct bus. Instead we went on the hour long trip to Higuey, and then at at that bus station caught another bus that took us to a place on the highway somewhere, and from there we caught a ride with a hotel bus whose enterprising driver picked us up. An enterprising girl waiting at the drop off with us negotiated a commission from the bus driver by getting us to come aboard and telling us his price. Bayahibe didn’t have much of a town, but it did have a beautiful harbor and beach, where we spent a wonderful afternoon. Afterwords we dined at the Captain Kidd Restaurante and Pizzeria, which was très bon!

Naturally there was no easy bus trip back to the hotel. First we rode in a jam packed van into the town of La Romana, the third largest city in the Dominican Republic with a metropolitan population of about 250,000. We learned from a girl on our bus that there was a bus leaving promptly for Higuey, so we literally jumped off our bus, paying the driver and yelling at the little boys grabbing for our bags and money, and wound through a crowd to another bus, which we hopped on in total faith that it would go to Higuey. We sat in the back of the bus and became acquainted with a boy sitting just ahead of us who was obviously curious about the foreigners who didn’t speak Spanish. Eventually I also met his father, who sat next to me and gave his son stern glances and instructions to behave. He also helped me figure out bus fare and, between each of our non existent knowledge of the other’s language, we discussed that it was good that his son had a father (he didn’t have a mother anymore), that the Dominican Republic had produced some great baseball players, and that there were lots of other parts of the country that we should see and visit. He warned us to take a taxi to our hotel from Higuey and that we should be wary of people at the bus station. Still, once we arrived in Higuey we accompanied a women who had been on our La Romana bus and was kind enough to steer us to a bus that took us back to our hotel.

Moon and beach behind the pool after dinner

Moon and beach behind the pool after dinner

There were many other fun times on this vacation. One significant achievement – we learned to play Scrabble in French, not well mind you. Jacques and I have lost every time so far to those heartless language mavens Cat and Brenda. We monitored the tropical storm Edouard, which passed north of us in the Atlantic during our stay. It caused some rain but had little other effect. We also got to participate in the Air France pilot’s strike, which delayed our return trip by several hours and forced us to fly home on Air Caraïbes instead of Air France. Here we were pretty lucky. Other than cramped economy class seating, it wasn’t much of a sacrifice.

Here is a photo tour showing some of what we saw on our trip.

Trip to Barcelona

Flags of Spain and Catalonia fly above a public building in Barcelona.

Flags of Spain and Catalonia fly above a public building in Barcelona.

In early May we took a trip to Barcelona and spent three days exploring the town. Our Kitsap County friend Don Merry joined Brenda and I as part of a bigger European vacation Don had planned. This was a good deal for us because Don did most of the planning and research and passed on the benefit to Brenda and me.

Barcelona is the second largest city in Spain and is economically important to Europe. It has a rich history and lots of things to do, so like with our trip to Provence, we had to limit our choices. On this trip we were regular tourists, just as if we had come from the US. We flew from Paris rather than take the train because flying was competitive in price and much faster. It was an easy bus ride into the city from the airport.

The history of Barcelona is in some ways like the history of Paris. The first known settlers were Phoenicians, in about 300 BC. Like Paris, Barcelona was conquered by the Romans in about 15 BC (earlier than in Paris). They laid out the grid that became the old town section of the city. Eventually Rome fell and Barcelona was conquered by the Visigoths in the early 5th century, and later was conquered by the Arabs in the early 8th century. Like Paris it was conquered by the the Germanic Franks early in the 9th century (by Charlemagne’s son Louis). He established an area ruled by the Count of Barcelona.

Much like the nobility in Paris had taken local control of the city after Charlemagne had moved his court to what is now Germany, the Counts of Barcelona become more independent and expanded their fiefdom to control a larger area in northeast Spain known as Catalonia. A royal wedding joined the territory of Aragon with the County of Barcelona in 1137. This area known as the Crown of Aragon established colonies and trade with other Kingdoms and cities near the Mediterranean. Eventually there was a dynastic link between Aragon and Castile, and with the marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castille in 1469, Spain was united. The center of political power shifted to Madrid. Barcelona still retains the character from its days of independence by celebrating the history, language, and traditions of Catalonia.

In the 17th century Catalonia revolted against King Philip IV of Spain. Catalan forces joined with French forces of Louis XIII to battle the King of Spain. Eventually Spanish forces captured Barcelona (1652), and the French took control of the areas north of the Pyrenees, establishing the mountains as the border between Spain and France. Catalans again sought independence during the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939, and again they lost. General Franco’s rule of Spain from 1939 until 1969 abolished independent Catalan institutions and suppressed the public use of the Catalan language. Despite all these travails, Barcelona became an industrialized and prosperous city. Population grew rapidly as immigrants came from poorer regions nearby. The city modernized extensively in preparing for the 1992 Olympic games.

Passeig de Gràcia in the Eixample

Passeig de Gràcia in the Eixample

We stayed at the Hotel Indigo Plaza Catalunya. Our boutique hotel was in the area of town called the Eixample. This part of town connects the medieval old town of Barcelona to some of the small towns that used to be well outside of the city. The Eixample was built in the 19th and 20th centuries and is laid out in a grid of wide tree lined streets, allowing a good flow of traffic and creating a light and bright atmosphere that takes advantage of the normally sunny, warm weather. Every night we dined outside at one of the many restaurants nearby our hotel.

Don worked with a firm he found through Rick Steves Web site to arrange a private tour, which quickly got us oriented in Barcelona and assisted us in planning the rest of our stay. Our English speaking guide (her name was Montse) met us at the hotel after breakfast. She took us on a walking tour up one of Barcelona’s main streets, Passeig de Gràcia, which was just a couple blocks from our hotel. There she pointed out some of the famous Art Nouveau style buildings and other features in the neighborhood.  With our guide we were able to quickly move around town and get past long lines at the attractions.

Model of the exterior of Casa Mila

Model of the exterior of Casa Mila

Our first stop was at Casa Milà, an apartment building designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí and built between the years 1906 and 1910.  One floor was dedicated to the family of the building owner. There was an underground parking garage and 20 other apartments to provide income for the owners. We were able to see one of the apartments furnished in the original style. The building is now a World Heritage site. It was renovated and restored as part of the city’s preparations for the Olympics. A further restoration of the façade was in progress at the time of our tour. We found the work of Gaudi to be so fantastic and wonderful that seeing his creations became the focus of much of the rest of our time in the city.

Gaudí’s work was influenced by his passions in life: architecture, nature, and religion. Gaudí considered every detail of his creations and integrated into his architecture such crafts as ceramics, stained glass, wrought ironwork forging and carpentry. He also introduced new techniques in the treatment of materials, such as trencadís which used waste ceramic pieces.

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

After Casa Milà, our guide took us to see  the Sagrada Familia, a fabulous basilica designed by Gaudi – and one certainly unlike any other in the world. Barcelona already had a Cathedral, so Sagrada Familia was to become one of the neighborhood Catholic churches supporting the faithful of Barcelona. Gaudi started work on the Church in 1883, and continued work on it for the next 43 years, until his death in 1926. At that point it was only about 25% complete. He left plans for work to continue, and other architects have stepped into the breach and worked on the design, modernized the materials, and worked to continue construction. The church has been built completely through private donations, and no progress was made for many years after the civil war. Today, largely because of receipts from tourism, the church is funded to continue construction, which builders hope to complete by 2026 in time for the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death. The completed church will have 18 spires representing the twelve Apostles, the Virgin Mary, the four Evangelists, and the tallest for Jesus Christ. Eight have been completed so far. When completed, it will be the tallest church building in the world. The first entrance, the Nativity façade to the east, was completed in 1930. Gaudi thought that the hopeful scene of the Nativity should be completed first to inspire work to continue. The starker Passion façade to the West showing Jesus death and resurrection was started in 1987 and has been completed in a more modern style. The main entry, called the Glory façade, was started in 2002 and continues today. Since 2010 the nave has been covered and an organ has been installed so that the church can be used for religious services. Church services were conducted in the crypt (the basement) for many years. The space is huge and can accommodate a large congregation.

Gaudi was buried in the crypt, off to the side from the congregational seating. He died in 1926 at age 74 as a result of being hit and knocked unconscious by a tram while on his morning walk downtown. Sadly, because of Gaudi’s plain clothing and lack of identity papers, no one at the scene could identify him. He was near death a day later at the hospital when the Sagrada Familia chaplain finally recognized him.

Entrance to the Picasso Museum

Entrance to the Picasso Museum

After Sagrada Familia, our guide took us to Museu Picasso, located in the heart of the old town section of the city. We took a cab, and during the ride the cab driver and our guide chattered in Spanish and Catalan, which she told us get mixed together in every conversation in the city. The cab driver and many others at restaurants and hotels spoke enough English to ensure our needs were met.

Picasso came to Barcelona from southern Spain when he was 14, and he lived there for 9 years before he moved to France. He continued to visit Barcelona off and on until the Spanish civil war in the 1930’s. After that he thought it dangerous to return. We could not take photos of the art, but if you follow the link to Museu Picasso above you can see lots of information about what we were able to see. This was a museum of his formative years, and if you are mostly familiar with Picasso’s cubism and later artworks, you can see in Barcelona that he was also an outstanding classical artist. You can see how his art transforms as time passes. The museum has some works from his “blue period”, and one fascinating section is devoted to Picasso’s many tries to do his own version of “Las Meninas” (The Maids of Honor), a classical work done by Diego Velázquez in 1656 on display on Museo del Prado in Madrid. On display are Picasso’s many attempts to reimagine this painting in his own style. During his school years, his father sent him to Madrid for his education, but instead Picasso spent lots of time at art museums learning to love classical Spanish art. It was Picasso’s wish to have a museum in Barcelona, and it came about as follows:

….in 1960, on Picasso’s own express wish, his friend and personal secretary Jaume Sabartés proposed the creation of a museum dedicated to the artist’s work to the City Council of Barcelona. By 1963, the museum was a reality and opened its doors in the gothic Palau Aguilar located at number 15 Carrer de Montcada.

Casa Batlló exterior

Casa Batlló exterior

After our first day with a guide we were ready on day two to visit some more Gaudi sites on our own. The first was near our hotel, a residential home designed by Gaudi named Casa Batlló, which was remodeled by Gaudi for the Batlló family between 1904 and 1906. Like other Gaudi designs, it makes use of natural shapes and religious symbols. Architecturally it has few straight lines. The façade is a mosaic made of colorful broken tiles. The roof is arched like the back of a dragon. The rounded turret with cross on top is thought to be the lance of Saint George, patron saint of Barcelona, plunged into the back of the dragon. The attic area is supported by skeletal shaped beams. The fantastic looking chimneys on the roof are designed to prevent downdrafts. The tiles in the central light well become lighter as the distance from the sky light becomes greater, giving the the light shaft the appearance that color is uniform from top to bottom. There is extensive design work to keep water out and provide natural ventilation flow. Everywhere in the interior the colors and curved structures continue. It is fantastic.

In the afternoon we took a taxi farther out of town to Park Güell (Gway), which was where Gaudi lived for many years and where also he designed a section of the park. In 1900 an entrepreneur named Eusebi Güell contracted with Gaudi to design a subdivision for 60 high end homes on a tract he owned at the edge of the Eixample. The tracts in the development had a commanding view of the city and the Mediterranean beyond – it was envisioned as a gated community for the wealthy. Güell moved into a large home already constructed on the property, now used as a school. A lawyer friend of Güell hired an architect to design the first new  home on one of the tracts. A second new home was built by the project’s works contractor. It was constructed as a show house, designed by Gaudí’s assistant Francesc Berenguer, to encourage sales.  Gaudi himself designed numerous features of the grounds, including the guard house at the gate and the home of the guardian.

Park Güell, part of double staircase and hypostyle room

Park Güell, part of double staircase and hypostyle room

He used crushed tile mosaics (“trencadis”), natural shapes, and religious symbols that we saw in other of his works. At the tract entry he created a giant double staircase and two terraces under which are two grottos. There is a giant tile salamander along the stairway and a fountain running down alongside the stairs. Originally the fountain was supplied from a water tank constructed into the hillside to collect the drainage. At the top of the stairs is a hypostyle room (a roof supported by columns). This was intended to be the market place for the development. The colonnade (structure connecting the top of the columns) is crowned by an architrave (a main beam connecting the columns), inside of which flows the water supplied to the fountain. Atop the structure is a large esplanade, originally planned to be a greek theater but now designated as a nature square. Lining the square is a very long curvy tile bench that runs atop the colonnade to give visitors a view of the nature square as well as the view of the city. The tile bench was by design a surprisingly comfortable place to sit – good lumbar support for a hard surface.

There were many other design features of Park Güell that bear Gaudi’s fingerprints. In 1906 he moved with his daughter and his father into the second residence on the property. Restrictions on the sale of lots and the distance from downtown made the project unviable, and in 1914 works ceased to further develop the property, though Gaudi and Güell continued to occupy their homes. Only two of the sixty planned homes were ever constructed. In 1926 after the deaths of both Güell and Gaudi, the property was turned over to the city and converted to a public park. Gaudi’s home opened as a museum in 1963.

Don and Brenda walk down La Rambla

Don and Brenda walk down La Rambla

On our third day in Barcelona we went into the city, first walking along the big boulevard known as La Rambla that runs through the old town to the sea. Along the way we stopped to explore the huge public market nearby. Then we continued down past the statue of Christopher Columbus on the waterfront and on to where we found a nice bench alongside the harbor. There are many other attractions along the waterfront, including public beaches, numerous hotels, harbor cruises, and the tram that takes visitors over to the Olympic Village area.

Just to try something different, we took a cab across town to Parc de la Ciutadella, a large city park with zoo, fountains, a pond, other museums, and lots of places to walk. The area was originally a fortress built in 1715 by King Philip V of Spain as a way to keep control of the rebellious Catalans. Citizens of Barcelona hated the symbol since many Catalans had been forced to help build it. In 1841 the city decided to tear it down, and the park was developed. We checked out some of the features and eventually headed for a large triumphal arch to the northwest. From there we headed  back to explore more of the old city and its architecture and found ourselves an outdoor café to rest – we were tired from all the walking.

Walking in Parc de la Ciutadella towards triumphal arch

Walking in Parc de la Ciutadella towards triumphal arch

There is much more to see in Barcelona – numerous other musuems, churches, world class shopping and food. We left with the strong impression that Barcelona was a place we would like to visit again – if not sooner, perhaps in 2026 to see the completed Sagrada Familia!

Here is a photo tour with annotations that show and tell more about what we saw on our visit.

Trip to Provence

Exterior view of our house in Saint Cannat

Exterior view of our house in Saint Cannat

In early March our friend Laurie Greig called from Marseilles to let us know that she had just landed and would be spending a few weeks house sitting near Aix-en-Provence. The house was owned by some friends of hers. Did we want to take a trip to Provence for a few days? Yes!

With little advance planning we caught a train from Gare de Lyon in Paris and met Laurie at the TGV station outside of Aix (pronounced ex). Laurie had rented a car (and knew how to drive it) – were we lucky or what? We headed to the house in the small town of Saint-Cannat. It was beautiful, facing a field on the edge of town. It had 3 stories with several bedrooms and two full baths, a big country kitchen, and a large living and dining area with a big fireplace – luxurious by our Paris apartment standards.

Provence is a fairly large area with many many places to visit, so we took a modest approach. Paul Cézanne made numerous paintings of Mount Sainte-Victoire near his home in Aix-en-Provence, so we decided to explore that area one day. We wanted to see a good outdoor market, so we chose to spend a day in Saint Rémy and other small towns along the way. We also planned a day to see the Roman ruins at Orange and to visit the nearby wine country of the Rhône river. Since we had a really nice kitchen we planned a couple dinners at home. A couple nights we went out for dinner nearby, one time for our 25th anniversary at a fine hotel in Saint Cannat. The last day before catching the train back to Paris we stopped in Aix-en-Provence to walk around the old town area.

We had mostly good weather, some days with warm sun and others with sun but also cold northwesterly winds called Mistrals.

Mount Sainte Victoire from Pourrieres

Mount Sainte Victoire from Pourrieres

Our trip around Mount Sainte-Victoire was an exploration. We didn’t know what we might find there. Cézanne loved the mountain – he created more than 60 paintings of it. We followed the loop road (named Avenue Cézanne), first stopping on the south side at a forest area with hiking trails and an area information center.  Next we visited the small village of Puyloubier, where we hiked around the narrow lanes, admiring the colorful houses and eventually visiting the local winery to buy a bottle for dinner. Further down the road we stopped to enjoy the  beautiful views of the valley and Mount Saint Victoire from the village of Pourrieres. We stopped at a bar for a bite to eat and watched some men from the local village play a spirited board game that we didn’t understand. Then we continued driving to the north side of the mountain, stopping at Vauvenargues, where Pablo Picasso is buried. He bought the Château de Vauvenargues, situated at the foot of the mountain, and installed a studio there between 1959 and 1962. Picasso reportedly proclaimed to a visiting art dealer, “Cézanne painted these mountains and now I own them.” The Château was closed to the public – a sign at the gate refers visitors to the Picasso museum in Paris, which has also been closed the past couple years – maybe some day. We were hoping to take the hike up the mountain to visit the 19 meter high Croix de Provence, a cross prominently visible from below, but unfortunately we ran out of time. For a first day’s travel, it wasn’t bad. We felt more comfortable driving and reading the map.

Colored baskets at the market at Saint Remy

Colored baskets at the market at Saint Remy

Our second day we visited the local market at Saint Rémy, where we enjoyed the colored baskets and shopped for all manner of clothing and food. We tracked down the birthplace of Nostradamus, born there in 1503. Vincent van Gogh was treated here in the psychiatric center at Monastery Saint-Paul de Mausole (1889–1890). He painted one of his most famous paintings, The Starry Night, as well as many paintings of the Monastery Saint-Paul, when he lived here. Also, Princess Caroline of Monaco chose Saint Rémy as her family’s home for a few years. In the afternoon we crossed the local river, the Durance, and stopped at a hillside town called Lauris, just because it looked interesting. The sun was nice and the views from the hillside were fabulous. There was a hillside garden and museum where we learned something about plant based dyes used to color fabric.

That night was also our 25th Anniversary, so we headed out on the town in Saint-Cannat to a very nice local hotel, the Mas De Fauchon, where Brenda, Laurie, and I had a wonderful dinner.

Inside the Roman Amphitheater in Orange

Inside the Roman Amphitheater in Orange

The next day we headed for the city of Orange, which was founded by the Romans in 35 AD. The name Orange comes from the Carolingian Counts of Orange, Franks who established control in France in the 8th Century. The name stuck through the ages as various nobilities gained control. It was inherited by William the Silent, Count of Nassau in 1544. He also had extensive holdings in the Netherlands. William’s son Maurice helped establish the independent Dutch Republic, still ruled by the House of Orange-Nassau (why do you think their soccer uniforms are Orange?). A later son, William, became William III, protestant King of England and opponent of Louis XIV. William and his wife Mary ruled the British Isles as William and Mary.

You might recall that we’ve already mentioned William III in this blog for his roll in conquering Ireland in 1691 as part of the history leading up to The Troubles. Europe is connected to itself all over the place.

So all this gives the town of Orange a fabulous history. In particular,

The town is renowned for its Roman architecture and its Roman theatre, the Théâtre antique d’Orange, is described as the most impressive still existing in Europe. The fine Triumphal Arch of Orange is often said to date from the time of Augustus or Tiberius, but is probably much later, perhaps Severan. The arch, theatre and surroundings were listed in 1981 by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

We were wowed by the theatre – still used as an outdoor amphitheater for plays and concerts. On site there were films showing performances by Pavarotti as well as other operas and numerous rock concerts. The triumphal arch, much smaller than the Arc de Triumph in Paris, is also much older and precious.

After spending more time in Orange than planned (because it was so fantastic), we checked out a couple wineries in the center of the Côtes du Rhône region. We had time to sample wines from the Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC and Gigondas AOC appelations (demanding levels of distinction that don’t require Côtes du Rhône on the label), and we also bought a bottle of Rasteau AOC (still to be opened). Damn!

We stopped at the remains of a castle near the village of Châteauneuf du Pape. You might know that the Pope moved from Rome to Avignon (11 miles south) in 1309. Pope John XXII built a castle above the town in 1317. The castle later fell into disrepair, with some of the stone being used to build the town below. In World War II the Germans used the castle as a lookout post, and they tried to destroy it when they left the area; however, half the structure remains today. The wine appellation is a fitting tribute to this era of the Papacy in France.

Street scene along Cours Mirabeau in old town Aix-en-Provence

Street scene along Cours Mirabeau in old town Aix-en-Provence

Our last day we decided we were ready to drive to Aix-en-Provence and see the old town part of the city. Aix hasn’t some of the ancient or important historical sites of other cities in Provence, but it is light and bright and clean – a wonderful place to spend a day.

You can see from this sketch that one could take many trips to Provence before thoroughly exploring the area. Here is a link to a slide show with photos and captions showing more about the places we visited.

100th Anniversary of World War I

A large map of France showing fortifications around Paris at the time of World War I

A large map of France showing fortifications around Paris at the time of World War I

August marks the 100th Anniversary of the start of World War I, an event that transformed Europe and produced a lasting effect on France. In Paris there have been several recent exhibitions showing various aspects of the war through French eyes. Unlike World War II, where the threat of destruction was everywhere, World War I in France was confined to a strip of countryside running from the North Sea along the French-Belgian border and across France to the Swiss border. The land in this wide strip was devastated, first by the various armies digging on each side up to 4 networks of trenches fortified with barbed wire and concrete, and then through the explosions of many millions of shells and even more bullets. The same land was consecrated by the death of millions of French, German, English, and eventually American soldiers, many of whose bodies were never recovered.

Europe in 1914 was at peace, and most governments had been stable for many years. In France, it was the time of the Belle Époch, the period from the end of the Franco Prussian War in 1871 until the start of World War I. It was a golden age of achievements in science, art, and literature. There were strong links between countries in banking and commerce. Continental Europe, though some parts were still imperial, was a civilization of European enlightenment, respect for constitutional principles, the rule of law, and representative government. The war would damage this civilization, bring on the rise of totalitarianism in Russia, Spain, Italy, and Germany and set the stage for World War II.

Civilization, life itself, is something learned and invented… After several years of peace men forget it all too easily. They come to believe that culture is innate, that it is identical with nature. But savagery is always lurking two steps away, and it regains a foothold as soon as one stumbles.

Saint-Beuve, quoted by George Eliot in Impressions of Theophrastus Such

The idea of sending the French army into battle became a rallying point for the country.

The idea of sending the French army into battle had broad public support

Beneath the peace and prosperity, there was in France a cultural battle pitting a conservative viewpoint, which wanted to preserve religious and cultural heritage (including the monarchy) and a liberal viewpoint, which embraced the ideas of the 18th century thinkers who had fostered the French Revolution (including most contentiously the separation of the church from the state). The rhetoric between these two parties was contentious, like the rhetoric in modern day America. War was one idea that both groups, tired of years of public bickering and scandals, found they could support. A way to revive the spirit of unity and progress! Also the French were still angry at the Germans for the loss of their territories in Alsace and Lorraine in 1871. The public expectation was that the war would be quickly brought to an end.

The start of World War I

The war started in a most curious manner. The heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Arch Duke Ferdinand, and his wife were assassinated on June 28, 1914, by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo, Bosnia – then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The assassins were armed and assisted by a nationalist organization from nearby Serbia, a country which had gained its independence from the Turkish Empire. Many ethnic Serbs lived in Bosnia. The state of Serbia was sponsoring nationalist terrorists to rise up against the Austro-Hungarian government (similar to the current activities of Russia in the Ukraine). The Austro-Hungarian government ruled an empire with 5 languages and a dozen religions, so they could scarcely let this external ethnic threat go unanswered. They decided to threaten military action against Serbia.

Pictures of some of the defenses - note that the entry doors to Notre Dame are all bricked up.

Pictures of some of the defenses – note that the entry doors to Notre Dame are all bricked up.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was part of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Italy, who each pledged to support the other in the event of an attack by an outside power. There was a possibility that Russia might decide to come to Serbia’s assistance. Worried about the military consequences of attacking Serbia, Austria-Hungary sought diplomatic support from the German Emperor. There was a mutual assistance alliance between Russia and France in case either was attacked by Germany. There was also an understanding between Britain and France to lend assistance if the vital interests of either were judged to be threatened.

Germany agreed to fully support Austria-Hungary. The Austro-Hungarians dithered for 3 weeks before submitting a diplomatic note of demands to Serbia. Serbia was ready to accept all the demands (which would have prevented war) when they heard from their diplomat in Russia that the Czar was fiercely pro-Serbian and had declared a period preparatory to war (a pre mobilization of troops so to speak). This caused the Serbians to amend their response to Austria-Hungary and reject some of the conditions. While the Serbian army mobilized, the diplomats to all the major powers conferred to try to work out a solution to the crisis.

French soldiers mobilizing for war

French soldiers mobilizing for war

The problem was that the diplomatic efforts were superseded by war planning. The armies needed time to call up reserves and move troops into positions to defend against an attack. The Russians actually mobilized half their Army, and the Czar agreed to fully mobilise on July 30th. Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, cousin of the Czar, sent a telegraph to him urging Russia to remain a spectator in the conflict without involving Europe in “the most horrible war she has ever witnessed.”. The evening of July 29th the Czar cancelled his mobilization order – just in time. Unfortunately, Helmuth von Moltke, Chief of the German General Staff, determined that unless Germany mobilized immediately, they would be vulnerable on their eastern frontier should war commence. He decided to greatly exceed his authority and inform the Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff to mobilize immediately, and that Germany would mobilize as well. The Austro-Hungarians put the order to mobilize before the Emperor Franz Josef, who signed and returned it on July 31st. Russia backtracked and declared general mobilization too. On August 1st Germany mobilized against Russia. The French, fearing a loss of territory from a German first strike, actually mobilized an hour earlier than the Germans. The British declared war on August 4th after Germany failed to respond to a British request that they cease their attack on Belgium.

The War

(I’ll keep it short)

Purple is the closest approach of the German front to Paris. Blue is the approximate front for most of the fighting from 1915 - 1918. Gray is the line the German's fell back to at war's end.

Purple is the closest approach of the German front to Paris. Blue is the approximate front for most of the fighting from 1915 – 1918. Gray is the line the German’s fell back to at war’s end.

World War I spread to involve fighting in Europe, Africa, and Asia. It was a huge and complicated conflict. Considering only the major activities in France, here is a link to a map showing the the western front. Germany had a plan called the Schlieffen Plan to end the war with France and England in six weeks. It involved bringing overwhelming force to sweep through Belgium and across northern France, then turning south to envelop Paris and the northern part of the country. The French plan of attack was to go into Germany through Alsace. Neither of these plans worked out as intended.

The Germans encountered much more resistance from the Belgians than they expected, and then they encountered strong resistance from the British. The French attack reached German territory and then was driven back in a counterattack. Eventually the French General Joffre decided on August 23rd that the offensive plan was failing and ordered troops to withdraw from the front to defensive positions. French troops retreated towards Paris with the Germans in hot pursuit. German logistics worsened, French logistics improved. The French organized a counter attack at the Marne River – the Germans had come within 30 miles of Paris. The counter attack had success, and eventually the Germans concluded that their plan for rapid defeat of the French had failed. They withdrew back beyond the Marne to the Aisne River and its tributaries, giving up the ground they had taken in the previous 2 weeks.

Photograph showing digging of the trenches.

Photograph showing digging of the trenches.

Thus began a new phase of the War – trench warfare. The German Schlieffen plan was designed to win the war in the west before the Russian troops could become a threat to Germany in the east. The German army ran out of time and was ordered to fortify and defend its positions in the west while troops were redeployed to fight on the eastern front. The line of trenches by the end of 1914 was 475 miles long – from the North Sea to Swiss border. In 1915 the French and English had little success against the German defenses. In 1916, the Germans tried to take the offensive at Verdun against the French General Pétain, but in the end not much was gained, and each side had over 200,000 killed or wounded. The Somme was an allied offensive led by the British General Haig. In trench warfare, the lightly protected attackers always suffered horrific casualties trying to dislodge the entrenched defenders. First one side would attack until they were repulsed, then the other side would attack. The attacks at The Somme yielded little ground, and Germany and the Allies each had more than 600,000 killed or wounded after months of battle.

In 1917, the French forces staged mutinies against the war. Their demands were more leave, better food, better treatment for soldier’s families, and lastly, a way to find peace. The French placed Philippe Pétain as Commander of the Army. Pétain made changes in doctrine to provide defense in depth, changes in tactics to limit the number of casualties in battle, and changes to policy to provide simpler and more regular leave. Gradually the crisis of the French army abated. Other countries were to have their own crises of morale during the war.

In April 1917, the US declared war on Germany. Despite efforts by President Woodrow Wilson to remain neutral and bring the warring parties to the negotiating table, the German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare plus other factors finally brought the US into the War. America had a large navy but a very small army, and was otherwise unprepared to make an immediate contribution. General John J Pershing arrived in France in June 1917. By August 1918, America had sent 1,300,000 men to Europe.

Local exhibits were erected in the form of a trench surrounded by woods.

Local exhibits were erected in the form of a trench surrounded by woods.

The Germans were released from their eastern front by the collapse of the Russian Army when the Czar of Russia was overthrown by the Bolsheviks in 1917. Russia had agreed to peace terms with Germany, ceding it territory for an end to warfare. Germany’s plan was to redeploy their troops from the east for one last all or nothing offensive in the west. The Germans still had a numerical superiority, and their plan was to attack before the Americans could mass forces to join the effort. The German aim was to push the British forces in northern France along the Belgian border back into the sea, then to sweep down upon the French forces. Thus on 21 March 1918, 76 German divisions attacked 28 British divisions of lesser quality first using deadly chlorine and phosgene gas and then bombarding them with millions of artillery shells. After the onslaught, the German attackers overran the British positions and pressed into France, attempting to roll up the British against the sea. As the allied armies fell back, they held a meeting between British and French to coordinate strategy, and both countries agreed to respond under the allied leadership of French General Ferdinand Foch. Foch’s coordinated strategy allowed the allies to staunch the assault.

The German’s tried several other assaults, all stopped short of taking Paris. Eventually the Germans could see that they didn’t have the population to provide enough new soldiers to make up for their continuing losses in battle. With an ever growing American army and the allies also possessing great superiority in tanks and other hardware, the Germans finally decided to fall back to the Hindenburg line and pursue negotiations for an armistice.

Aftermath of the War

Typical memorial to French war dead. On far left and far right are columns added for World War II. The rest of the names are from World War I, about 5 times as many.

Typical memorial to French war dead. On far left and far right are columns added for World War II. The rest of the names are from World War I, about 5 times as many in this instance.

There were some great inventions and legacies as a result of the war. The Wall Street Journal published an informative section on legacies of the Great War. These include minor achievements like the development of Pilates and more significant ones like the invention of plastic surgery. Of course there were also many new developments in warfare. The war created new countries and unfortunately also fostered the beginnings of the Middle East conflict. However, all these changes were overshadowed by the horrible, indescribable losses. Just consider some of the sacrifices of France:

The bodies of over half of the men killed in action were never recovered. There were 1.7 million French war dead in a country of 40 million. Twice that many were injured. Some 13% of the men of fighting age were killed. Among the youngest recruits aged 19-22 when the war broke out, 35-37% were killed. There were 680,000 widows. The total French losses in World War II were greater than those of the US. On a per capita basis, they were 5 times the American losses. Yet the French lost more than 3 times as many people in World War I than they did in World War II. A whole generation had been wiped out.

Shortly after the war ended and partly as a result of the problems of poor health and sanitation caused by the war, a Spanish flu would rage through Europe and kill more people than had been killed in the war. The liberation of peoples formerly in the Austro-Hungarian or German Empire brought little relief for the ethnic animosities that contributed to starting the war, and neither did the totalitarian revolution in Russia. The rancors and instabilities left behind only led to an even more destructive war a generation later. For all parties World War I was a terrible mistake.

Marion Nelson – 1922-2014

Marion and Bill heading off into the fog at Mount Saint Helens in 2005.

Marion and Bill heading off into the fog at Mount Saint Helens in 2005.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. This, the start of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, is also a principle in statistics. From Wikipedia – the Anna Karenina principle describes an endeavor in which a deficiency in any one of a number of factors dooms it to failure. Consequently, a successful endeavor (subject to this principle) is one where every possible deficiency has been avoided.

My mother Marion Nelson died last night. She passed away after 91 years. I looked up the meaning of “passed away” – it is a euphemism for the act of dying – a nice way of saying something that is unpleasant to discuss head on. She was at her nursing home in Pekin, Illinois. My brothers Peter and Chris were at her side. I was here in Paris – there wasn’t time to get there, and the situation was uncertain. I spent a restless night and didn’t really perceive any of my feelings except relief that her struggle and suffering were finally over. But I knew that if I waited some idea would come to me about the meaning of all this.

Mom and I shared the view that every possible deficiency should be avoided. I could be wrong, since my father was also a formidable planner, but I’m pretty sure that my mom and I had the market cornered on worrying – and to the extent that worrying alone can prevent deficiencies, voila! In an attempt to avoid every possible deficiency, I of course nixed the idea of moving to France. Fortunately I am married to someone who does not recognize the importance of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina principle – so we moved here in spite of my grave warnings.

On Mom’s side of the family, we are German. I studied German in high school and back then could actually convey my thoughts, though a trip to Munich in the ’70s convinced me that there was a limit to my abilities. German was the logical language to study in our family. It’s a somewhat harsh sounding language, and though the German’s started World War II, still I loved the connection it gave me with the important non English roots of our ancestry.

Mom, on the other hand, studied French – I have no idea why. Here in Paris, I have her French books. Her address is dutifully recorded in the binding of each, 1115 W Nevada, Urbana, IL. I have her notes in the margins. The pictures, which represented some remote possibility in her lifetime, are of places that I have visited and readily recognize. Though I am no expert, in most cases I understand the French. It’s reassuring to me that I have brought the memory of her to a place where, despite the family’s logical connection to German, she sought to study. When we notified our relatives about our crazy idea of moving to France for a year, my mom was the first to cheer and encourage us, though she must have wondered whether she would live to the end of the experiment.

We don’t exactly know what constitutes a happy family, though perhaps it is a case where you can recognize an unhappy family when you see one. Our upbringing was not all wine and roses. My mom was the enforcer. If you follow hockey in the NHL you might have some idea of what that looks like. Certainly my recollections of childhood feature her as one who would enforce the part about “woe to that man by whom the offence cometh”. I think my brothers know that too. Still, mom was wonderful in her own way. We could bring her any modern idea that excited us, and she would become excited about it too. There was always that youthful exuberance without the fear that the standards of social etiquette would crumble.

We’ve scheduled the funeral, and I’m now planning an unexpected return to the US. Conveniently the timing works with everything else we were planning to do here. It’s funny how in spite of our family having spread all over the country (and now the world), the memory of our parents binds us together now more tightly than when we were younger. We were never the smartest kids, and we were always aware that many other families enjoyed a greater economic fortune than ours. Still, every day here I have a coat of my father’s to protect me and some French textbooks of my mother to remind me of the adventure yet to come. Were I to reconsider my life, I really wouldn’t want to have it any other way.

We finally get our Cartes de Séjour (residence permits)

Up all night celebrating our new cartes de sejour and Hugh's birthday

Up all night celebrating our new cartes de sejour and Hugh’s birthday

Since November we’ve been working to assemble the paperwork required to spend another year in France. The French name for the residence permit we need is carte de séjour. A week ago we had an the appointment at the Préfecture de Police to present our dossier and receive the permit. We documented in an earlier article how we started the process and got permission to stay in France until our official appointment. In that article we showed how we had assembled all of the details we would need to provide. From there it seemed like it would be simple enough to assemble the final documents and present them to the French authorities. Not so!  What might normally be straight forward became convoluted and difficult because we don’t speak or understand French very well.

In mid-March, about a month before our meeting at the Préfecture de Police, I contacted the service assisting us to prepare for the carte de séjour, Mon Ami Andy. We met with Jennifer Denison. Since all of our translations (birth certificates, marriage certificate, health insurance policy) were more than three months old, they had to be redone. The same with the documentation of all of our assets and account balances, sources of income, etc. With Jennifer’s help we planned the following activities to get ready for the meeting:

  • We resolved questions and completed the application forms for the carte de séjour
  • We resolved that Mon Ami Andy would update the translations
  • We would need to make new copies of of our passports and the visa pages and copies of our current récépissés (temporary visa extension document)
  • We would need to include copies of the health certification from our original visit to OFII (agency who cleared us for our visa when we arrived in France).
  • We would need to rewrite our letters promising not to engage in work while in France
  • We would need to collect three months of French and US bank statements and retirement pay statements. We would also provide the letter from our French bank stating we have an account in good standing.
  • We would need to collect the latest financial account statements
  • We would need to make a spreadsheet showing all sources of income and assets, both in France and the US.
  • We would assemble three piles of documents, one of originals and all details of all documents, including our latest tax return, one with copies about Brenda, and one with copies about me.
  • We would make color copies of all color documents, black and white copies of all black and white documents. Copies of financial statements only needed the page showing the account balance. We could look at the original if there was a question.
  • We were encouraged to use a highlighter on each document, highlighting the important information we wanted the administrator to understand.

In addition to this overarching plan, we thought we needed to change our address since we moved to a new apartment in early March. Our understanding was that we needed to update it within 8 days of moving. As soon as we had what we thought were the required documents (rental contract, utility bill showing both our names, receipt showing we had paid rent, and our current passports, visas and récépissés), we went to the Préfecture at Rue Truffaut, where we had gone before, to attempt the change. They sent us away, telling us they didn’t handle changes of address. We had a difficult time figuring out where to go after that. We were told that the police station at Rue Truffaut could do it, and that might have succeeded except that they told us we didn’t have all the required documents. We needed proof of insurance, which we didn’t have with us. They told us that we could do it at our local Préfecture in the 5th arrondissement, but a policeman there told us we couldn’t. We thought maybe we could do it at the downtown Préfecture, but then found out that was not the place. Then we were told we might be able to do it at the Mayor’s office in our arrondissement, but that wasn’t correct. Finally we discovered that what the policeman told us was wrong, and that we needed to go to the 5th arrondissement Préfecture. When we finally met with them, they said we didn’t need to change the address yet, and we should just do it at our carte de séjour appointment.

By now we were closing in on the end of March, so I started in earnest getting the packages of documents together. We don’t have a printer, so every time I needed to print something I had to walk 6 blocks down the street to “Copy Self”, a local printing and copying store in our neighborhood. The guys inside know me, even though I don’t pick up much of their French chatter. I think they talk “copy speak”, mostly consisting of terms of art about toner cartridges, document settings, color correction.

I carefully planned to print as many of the documents I needed as possible. I went to Copy Self and plugged my USB flash drive into their computer. For some reason I could not print my tax return at my usual printer. The office assistant came over to help me. First he printed my tax return to another printer in the back. It came out completely distorted and sized wrong for the paper. He then asked if I wanted to print all the documents at once, which I agreed to do since it seemed easiest. He moved my USB drive to another computer, selected all the documents, and hit print. My tax return document required that I type in my password. Only one hitch – I didn’t know of any password for that document. The assistant asked his boss for assistance. They exchanged copy speak – soon the boss took over. Every document required a password, but he did something to get them to print. Everything printed in portrait even though a good percentage of the documents are set up to print in landscape. It was printing disaster!

I took my 80 plus pages of financial documents home. That night I lay awake worried about identity theft. The next morning I assembled another package of summary financial pages and pages that needed to be printed in color, plus my tax return. I returned to Copy Self and kept things under control this time. By then my packages were coming together, but I was sick of getting ready for this meeting. All my time in France was being spent preparing to get a residence permit. I complained to our French tutor. I complained to Brenda. They tried to make helpful suggestions, but I was having none of it. I wanted this monkey off my back. I complained to my coach, who pulled me up short to ask how was I taking care of myself. We figured out that I needed a rest. Also I needed to recognize that others were making suggestions to try to help me because they could recognize better than me that I needed help. My real job at that point was to help myself.

A few days remained until our appointment. I agreed to take time off – we surfed the web at the Luxembourg Gardens and walked around town. I went to the gym and went to bed earlier at night. I resigned myself that if there was a problem, they would give me more time to fix it.

Our package was assembled. We had another meeting on Skype with Jennifer from Mon Ami Andy to go over everything. I highlighted the places in our documents where the income stream on my spread sheet showed up as deposits in the three months of US bank statements. I highlighted where transfers occurred from the US to France, and provided copies of the transfer documents themselves. I downloaded and printed the Tricare Overseas (retired military medical insurance) pages to show that we were enrolled and to show the list of recommended physicians and hospitals in France. I created an example of a bill from our doctor that I paid and for which I filed a claim and received reimbursement. I went over the checklist again and again, finding a few more mistakes and fixing them (and trudging back to Copy Self to print new copies). Brenda and I rehearsed how we would assemble our documents, how we would present them, and what we would say. On Sunday before our Monday appointment, we rested.

On Monday we went about 2 hours early to our official appointment at the main Préfecture office on Île de la Cité. We got through security and lined up outside of the room where we were to have our meeting. A man at the front door greeted us and quickly checked our paperwork, which he pronounced as “magnifique”. Then he gave us each a ticket and told us to sit down. In our room full of people, there really weren’t others like us. There were corporate employees with their families and a corporate attorney to shepherd them through the process, spouses one of whom is a French citizen and the other requiring to establish residence, students following the instructions from their schools, and others who spoke good French. People always ask us, why are you here, to which we shrug and say because we thought we would like it.

We were finally called to our meeting with a young woman, I would guess in her ’20s. She first went through Brenda’s paperwork and then through mine. She asked questions about our medical insurance, but after we demonstrated the process for reimbursement, she checked with her supervisor and accepted the plan. She was happy with everything else. Finally she wanted to know why Brenda’s last name was neither mine nor her maiden name. Brenda had been married in Australia in the ’70s. The woman asked for a copy of the divorce decree. I told her that I didn’t have it with me, but could get a copy at our apartment. She said she was going to lunch, and for us to get it and meet her back afterward with it.

We raced home and got our copy of the nearly 35 year old document, which I had attached to an original copy of our marriage license in an envelope of extra stuff I had brought first to San Francisco and then to France just in case. 25 years ago we sent to Australia for it so that we could obtain a military ID for Brenda when I was in the Navy. No one had ever asked about it since. We raced back to the Préfecture, entered back through security and waited for our inspector to return from lunch. When she finally returned I gave her the document, and she asked me for the translation. Checkmate – I told her I didn’t have a translation. She consulted her supervisor and bought back three documents for us to sign, two swearing that we were married and one for me to agree to accept whatever liability France might bear for our not having a good enough divorce decree [my interpretation]. Since I have already signed many software end user agreements, I readily signed what was put before me.

Our inspector printed new récépissés for us to verify and sign. We are once again legal residents in France. She also gave us each a Convocation (appointment slip) to pick up our real Cartes de Sejour on or after June 25th. The new permit is good through the end of January 2015. To renew that one, we need to start 5 months ahead of time, which would be next October.

In the aftermath I came down with a cold, which I’ve now passed on to Brenda. Still, we celebrated our new cartes de séjour and my birthday with our French friends Cat and Jacques, including a night of dancing. I just hit 21 for the third time (63), still trying to grow up.

A new apartment in Paris

Boulevard Saint-Germain when it was first created

We’ve moved just 3 blocks from our first apartment in a medieval building along the Seine to a new apartment in Paris built on Boulevard Saint-Germain during the Haussmannian era of the mid 1800s. From roughly 1850 to 1870 France was governed by Emperor Napoleon III, who as a main priority set about remodeling Paris to open up the view from the narrow, cramped medieval streets and to install sewer and water systems that would serve the city as it grew. To do so, he appointed an exceptionally strong public administrator, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, as Prefect of the Seine Department of France. Haussmann carried out a program to demolish crowded and unhealthy medieval neighborhoods, to annex suburbs surrounding Paris, to relocate many thousands of people from central Paris to the suburbs, to create a series of wide, straight avenues with parks and squares, to construct new sewers, fountains and aqueducts. He overcame tremendous opposition to do this, and in 1870 he was dismissed by Napoleon III to assuage pressure from his critics. The third phase of Haussmann’s plans was still unfinished, but work continued even after he was fired and was finally completed in 1927. In the end, hundreds of old buildings were razed, and more than 80 kilometers of new avenues were constructed.

Our new apartment building

The Paris you know today was the Paris created by Haussmann. The uniformity spelled out in Haussmann’s building codes created a look that is distinctly Parisian, but if you’ve seen one Haussmann apartment, you’ve seen them all. There is still a certain sentiment for the old medieval streets and wood beamed buildings.

We moved for several reasons, but our new place has both pluses and minuses compared to the old one. We looked at apartments all over Paris, but in the end opted for another apartment in the 5th arrondissement simply because we like that neighborhood the best. The basic improvements we sought were a quieter location with more space for guests and a kitchen with an oven. The new apartment is about 50% larger and has a much better arrangement for guests. It has high ceilings and appears much more spacious. Also the fixtures and appliances are better quality. It looks on a courtyard rather than out into a noisy street. On the negative side, the new apartment was quite dirty, and we spent many unanticipated hours cleaning. We were able to negotiate a rent credit for some of the time we spent. The new apartment was not nearly as well furnished as our first, so we’ve spent considerable time and money buying missing pieces. The old apartment had double paned windows, while the new one has the original single panes – you can see the glass flowing. Brenda misses the view of Notre Dame and the light and bright feel of the old place, as well as the large luxurious marble bath with double sinks. Hugh loves it that the new place is quiet at night.

Our medieval street, Rue de Bievre. The French President François Mitterand had lived halfway down the block.

The medieval street, Rue de Bievre, at the old apartment shows how Paris was before Haussmann.

It was the first time we had to arrange for gas and electricity, since utilities and Internet had been handled by the landlord in the first apartment. We were able to call the Frech utility EDF and make our arrangements in English, which really helped since we had to estimate our usage of gas and electricity to properly size the capacity that would be allocated to us. We pay a flat rate that can be adjusted based on meter readings each quarter. The start up of our service went very smoothly. While at the old apartment the heat was electric, here we have gas heat (radiators) and hot water. The old apartment had two electric meters, one with a lower rate from 11pm to 7 am, the other with a higher rate during the daytime. Here we have only one electric meter and one gas meter, the assumption being that since we use the cheaper gas for heat and hot water, we don’t need the same incentives to save power. Gas in Europe generally costs 2-3 times as much as we pay in the US. We have become much better conservers of energy.

It was also the first time for us to sign up for Internet service. Since we already had two mobile phone accounts with Orange, a provider of both mobile and residential communications services, we shopped with them first. For and additional 25 Euros per month, we arranged bundled services that include, in addition to our two cell phones, fiberoptic internet and HD TV with extra on demand movies and TV (all in French of course), unlimited calling to US land lines, plus a mobile hot spot for up to 4 devices that has unlimited data usage. Telecoms are competing in Europe! Our total bill for two cell phones and all our residential communications needs is about 75 Euros per month, far less than we pay in the US.

Installation was not easy. Hugh made an appointment to meet the installer, but when he contacted our building concierge about getting access to the basement for part of the work, she refused him and told him it would have to be after 6 pm because she had other plans for that day. Hugh went and requested that the appointment be cancelled, but the installer showed up anyway. It took over 6 hours to figure out the best way to pull fiberoptic cable from the connection point outside our apartment into the place were the “set top box” was to be located. The installer was quite ingenious and revealed many secrets about how these buildings from the 1800’s can meet the needs of today.

Shortly before 6 pm we again contacted the concierge, who argued with the installer for about half an hour about why we should need to upgrade service, also noting that she had not agreed to assist prior to 6 pm even though she was now there talking to us. She called down some of our neighbors, who testified on our behalf that what we were requesting was necessary. We remained quiet throughout the process and let the installers and the neighbors settle the issue. Finally the concierge relented and our installer was able to complete work in about 5 minutes.

Living room and dining rooms – picture on left was my Valentine’s present

We had to change our address with the mail service so that mail sent to the old address would be forwarded. In France it costs 35 Euros for the service to forward mail for 6 months. Unfortunately, there was a parcel had been sent though the mail that could not be forwarded. Brenda purchased a French print for Hugh to be delivered on Valentine’s Day. It was being sent by mail through La Poste. Unfortunately, the company promising delivery notified us that there was a delay. Perhaps a week later they sent email to us that the print had shipped and included the tracking number for the package. Hugh tracked the package but noted that it remained at an unidentified location at La Poste (somewhere in Paris) for more than a week. We contacted the company that shipped the print and also visited our local post office, who could not help us with locating the parcel. Finally we received email from La Poste that they would be contacting us for delivery. Unfortunately by then we had moved. After the mandatory 2 tries to deliver (we think you need to be standing by your mail box when they show up because they made no attempt to contact us), we received notice that we could pick up the parcel at the post office. We went there the next day with our notice. The postal clerk asked us for identification. He would not accept any ID except an original passport (not drivers license or copy of passport). Hugh had to go back and get the passports before we received our package.

When we opened it we discovered it was damaged – a small dent in the tube caused a crease the length of the print. Eventually we were able to return the print to the company that shipped it and receive a new one. We were able to purchase a frame and hang it a month or so after Valentine’s Day. Voila! All’s well that ends well.

The new apartment remains a work in progress. Here are some photos comparing old and new and showing what it’s like in the new place. It has been a pleasant surprise to discover that there is a world of new shops and activities right in the same area where we’ve been living the past year.

Valentine’s Day in Paris

Abelard and his school on the hill dedicated to Saint Genevive (near today's Pantheon)

Abelard and his school on the hill dedicated to Saint Genevive (near today’s Pantheon) – wall painting at the Sorbonne.

Like in the US, stores milk Valentine’s day in Paris for as many sales of chocolate and hearts and roses and you name it as possible. Plus, Paris is for lovers so there’s no shortage of kissing going on. Still Paris has its own literature that conveys the spriit of Valentine’s Day in a more permanent sense.

Valentine’s Day may come to you as either an awkward moment (pour moi) or a day to be celebrated (pour ma femme) in all its glory. Wikipedia refers to the Roman presbyter (Christian leader) Saint Valentine, of whom some say:

A popular hagiographical account of Saint Valentine of Rome states that he was imprisoned for performing weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry and for ministering to Christians, who were persecuted under the Roman Empire. According to legend, during his imprisonment, he healed the daughter of his jailer, Asterius. An embellishment to this story states that before his execution he wrote her a letter signed “Your Valentine” as a farewell.

The English author Geoffrey Chaucer was the first associated with this idea as an expression of romantic love. In Paris we can find a couple of examples of the Valentine ideal that go way beyond what most men and women are willing to commit to in modern society.

First there is the story of Peter Abelard and Héloïse. Pierre Abelard was a well known scholar in Paris in the early 12th century,  “the keenest thinker and boldest theologian of the 12th Century”. Abelard’s career brought him to the Cathedral School at Notre Dame de Paris, the epitome for his profession, and it was then that his scholastic life was interrupted by his meeting with Héloïse d’Argente, who was under the care of her uncle, the secular canon Fulbert. She attracted Abelard’s attention with her remarkable knowledge of classical letters. In about 1116 he began an affair with her, and she became pregnant (and gave birth to a son named Astrolabe). He sent her to Brittany to live with his family. As a cleric of the Church he could not be married. He arranged a secret marriage to her through Fulbert, but when Fulbert disclosed it, Abelard sent Héloïse to the convent at Argenteuil, where she led the life of a Nun. Fulbert arranged for Abelard to be castrated, ending his romantic career. Abelard became a monk at the monastery of Saint Denis near Paris.

The graves of Pierre Abelard and Héloïse d'Argenteuil, side by side at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris

The graves of Pierre Abelard and Héloïse d’Argenteuil, side by side at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris

Here he published his famous work Historia Calamitatum (known in English as “Story of His Misfortunes” or “A history of my Calamities”), which is a readable window into the life of an academic of the church prior to founding of the first university in Paris. His thoughts on his relationship with Héloïse were a key part. She responded with a letter to him, and they began a correspondence, though they could never again be together. The letters revealed both her continued devotion and his regrets for the troubles his love had caused.

Abelard’s later writings and teachings were controversial, and he was accused of heresy by Bernard of Clairvaux and condemned by the Pope. He was assigned to a monastery and his books were to be burned. Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny intervened. He reconciled Abelard with Bernard and the Pope and persuaded everyone that it was enough that Abelard remain under the protection of Cluny. Abelard passed away in 1142, his accusations largely resolved, and his reputation as a wise scholar restored. Héloïse died in 1163.

Though some researchers dispute this, it is thought that Héloïse’s bones were placed alongside Pierre’s when she died. At the behest of Napoleon’s wife Josephine Bonaparte, their bones were moved to a well known tomb at Père-Lachaise cemetery, where today “lovers from all over the world visit the tomb where the remains of Heloise and Abelard rest eternally together.” I’ll have to say we were among those who have visited.

Now a second story, shorter than the first. At the end of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame“, there is this passage relating the fates of Quasi Modo and Esmeralda (translated):

“…they found among those hideous carcasses two skeletons, one of which held the other in its embrace. One of these skeletons, which was that of a woman, still had a few strips of garment which had once been white, and around her neck was to be seen a string of adrèzarach beads with a little silk bag ornamented with green glass, which was open and empty. These objects were of so little value that the executioner had probably not cared for them. The other, which held this one in a close embrace, was the skeleton of a man. It was noticed that his spinal column was crooked, his head seated on his shoulder blades, and that one leg was shorter than the other. Moreover there was no fracture of the vertebrae at the nape of the neck, and it was evident that he had not been hanged. Hence the man to whom it had belonged had come thither and had died there. When they tried to detach the skeleton which he held in his embrace, he fell to dust.”

There – that’s some Valentine’s Day for you.

Notary Service at the US Embassy Paris

US Embassy Paris - visitors lined up near the small tent on the left and entered via the guard house to the right of the tent

US Embassy Paris – visitors lined up near the small tent on the left and entered via the guard house to the right of the tent

I recently had to use the Notary Service at the US Embassy Paris. My strategy to transfer funds from our US bank to our account in France has been to use a 3rd party company, Venstar Exchange, to provide a better exchange rate than we  could get through the bank. A US bank might charge 3% above the spot exchange rate (plus a wire fee) to transfer funds. A 3% premium is also what you might pay for Euro purchases with your US credit card. On fairly large transfers, such as $25,000, the difference in the quoted exchange rate (Venstar charges a little over 1% above the spot rate quoted at 10 minute intervals) can amount to a significant amount of money. Previously I had been able to initiate wire transfers by sending wiring instructions to our US bank using secure email on their web site.

Recently I sent a funds transfer request to our US bank, and they told me that their procedures had changed. I would need to complete and have notarized a new form with two parts, one authorizing the Venstar account where we send the funds (which they convert to Euros and forward to our French account), and a second part that specifies how to handle recurring transfers so I could complete future transfers with just a phone call verification of my identity. Where do you get a US Notary in France? You have to go to the US Embassy.

We’d been by the American Embassy before. It’s on 2 Avenue Gabriel, just off Place de la Concorde and close by the Elysée Palace where the President of France lives. One day after hiking the Champs-Élysées we were passing by, and I tried to take a photo from the sidewalk outside the security fence. I was immediately whistled down (you know you’re in trouble when guys start to whistle at you) and informed that photos were not permitted.

To see a notary, I made an appointment on the Embassy web site – they had one available in 5 days. The consulate sent me a couple emails asking me to confirm the appointment and assuring me that correct completion of the form was up to me and that they could not in any way help me interpret my paperwork. Fair enough. I sent the bank a list of questions and then used their answers to make sure that I correctly filled out their form, which was an internal bank form not really set up for use by a notary. Their answers also provided instructions about how Embassy was to notarize the form.

Armed with my passport, my appointment form, and all my other paperwork, I set out for my appointment at the Embassy. The weather was cold – windy and in the mid ’30s (yes I know that would be a heat wave in Minnesota). The guard outside checked me off on his schedule and directed me to go stand in line outside the security building behind about 20 other people. We all stood there for about 15 minutes until they began to invite people one at a time into the secure guard building nearby for a security check. Eventually I got to go inside, where they used procedures similar to what you experience at the airport to clear me for entry. After the security check, they took away my cell phone and keys and directed me outside, across a courtyard and into the visitors area in the Embassy itself.

While I was waiting in line, I could see Embassy employees coming and going through a different entrance, but the area where visitors were sent was completely isolated from all embassy staff. Visitors can interact with staff to address their needs through 15 bullet proof glass windows with pass through slots. Perhaps a hundred visitors were waiting in the large seating area. I took a number and followed the instructions they gave me to sit and wait for my turn.

When my number was flashed on the monitor, I went to the designated counter and described what I needed to the woman behind the bullet proof glass. She took my form and passport, issued me a bill for $100, and sent me over to the cashier to pay. The employee taking my credit card laughed when I remarked that the service was “très cher”. Then I went back to wait some more. I was called back to sign the document and swear that the information I was providing was true and accurate, and I was done – it only took a minute.

I left the visitors area and returned to the guard building to recover my keys and phone. Then I exited the security perimeter and headed for freedom, reflecting on how the politics of our world has so restricted many aspects of our lives. I guess we really wouldn’t want it any other way, but what should be a “friendly home” to Americans in France has been transformed into a foreboding and unwelcoming space. I made my way into Place de la Concorde, looked back, and furtively took a photo.

Northern Ireland: The Troubles

Tour of “The Troubles” in Catholic Belfast

Memorial mural to the Troubles on Falls Road, Belfast

Memorial mural to the Troubles on Falls Road, Belfast

As part of our Belfast visit we wanted to learn more about the conflict in Northern Ireland known as “The Troubles”. Anyone old enough can remember how from the early ’70s until well into the ’90s, year after year, every day there would be stories in the news of bombings and killings and disagreements and fighting in Northern Ireland. How did Northern Ireland come to be? What was the fighting all about? How did it start and finally end?

There’s a great deal of complexity to Irish history, and we can only skim the surface in a short article. Still, the story of this conflict needs to be told because it is like so many others that perpetuate in our world today, whether it be the problems with race relations in the US, the conflict over the state of Israel, or the civil wars in Syria, Afganistan, Iraq, Egypt, and numerous other states.

There are two sides to every argument. The British and their Unionist followers in Northern Ireland had political and governmental goals that to them seemed every bit as valid and necessary as the Irish Republican reasoning that we heard about during our tour. The safety and security of a large portion of the population was at risk through the actions of rebellious minority group. The Irish Republicans whose rights were being oppressed decided to stand up until their grievances were addressed. The best practice for doing this has yet to be invented. Redressing the problems caused when one people subjects another people to their will and discriminates against them is painfully difficult – witness efforts in the US to undo slavery.

We’ll describe our tour and afterwards provide more historical details of the period leading up to “The Troubles”, a short history of Irish Republicanism, and a basic historical recounting of period of “The Troubles”.

Jack Duffin on left as our group winds up Falls Avenue in Belfast

Jack Duffin on left as our group winds up Falls Avenue in Belfast. He is talking about how large numbers of Catholics were suddenly displaced from their homes by security forces.

Brenda and I took a more than 2 hour walking tour of Belfast along Falls Road heading west from downtown. Falls Road runs through the center of the Catholic neighborhood in West Belfast. A couple of major streets to the north was Shankill Rd, which was the heart of the Protestent neighborhood. These two neighborhoods were where many of the incidents of “The Troubles” took place.

Our guide was a staunch Republican (a supporter of a free Irish state and usually a Catholic) named Jack Duffin. He is a left leaning supporter of the Irish Republican Army who would like to see Northern Ireland become part of the Republic of Ireland. Jack was born and raised in the same neighborhoods where the fighting occurred. He had been on the front lines, and many of his friends were killed or arrested during the course of the conflict. Jack now works for a company called Coiste, which has a small office near the tour route and also a great web site at http://www.coiste.ie, where you can learn more about the story of “The Troubles”.

There were only 7 in our group – five from the US and two from Italy. From the US we had a Ph.D. graduate student doing research for his thesis, a UCLA Ph.D student and her boyfriend who were enroute to Egypt for similar studies, and us.

Our tour started at the Divis Tower, the location of one of the early neighborhood battles of 1969, then past Saint Comgell’s Primary School, where we could see some of the bullet holes in the concrete and brick. We stopped at a memorial for the Republicans martyrs from one neighborhood and across the street saw a block of murals supporting various situations involving human rights all over the world. A short while later we stopped at a library funded by Andrew Carnegie. Jack pointed out that the Republicans have a museum in an old factory building that was a linen factory back in the days when Belfast was the largest producer of linen in the world. He described how miserable working conditions were for those early factory workers.

We passed several building murals dedicated to players of the Belfast Celtic Football Club, reportedly one of the best soccer teams in the world from 1891 to 1949. The football club ended in 1949 as a result of fighting between Catholic team members and Protestant fans.

Mural for Bobby Sands and Sinn Fein Headquarters

Mural for Bobby Sands near Sinn Fein Headquarters

There was a memorial on the side of one building for the martyr Bobby Sands. Bobby Sands was a leader of a Hunger Strike in 1981 while he was imprisoned at Her Majesty’s Maze Prison south of Belfast. The Catholic prisoners sent there during “The Troubles” considered themselves to be prisoners of war. In the early ’70s the British government had agreed to grant these prisoners a Special Category Status, allowing political prisoners of the conflict to not wear the normal prison uniforms, not perform prison work, to freely communicate with one another, and the right to one visit, one parcel, and one letter per week. These rights were revoked by the British in 1976, and the hunger strike was a protest that these rights had been removed. Bobby Sands died of starvation after 66 days. During the hunger strike, Sands was elected in a special election to the British House of Commons, though he died of hunger in prison before he could ever take his elected seat.

We stopped in front of the local Sinn Féin office, with memorial placards above the door to fallen members of the Provisional IRA during the Troubles. One was Pat McGeown, a leader who died in 1996 from complications started during his hunger strike in prison in 1981. Another was to Máire Drumm, Vice President of Sinn Féin when she was assassinated in 1976. Two other placards were memorials to 6 members who had been killed by the RUC in the early ’90s.

We passed by the place where President Bill Clinton met with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams in November 1995. Adams has been President of Sinn Féin since 1983. President Clinton was revered by the Catholic community for his support of Gerry Adams and the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Royal Hospital, where the first air conditioner was installed, where defibrillator paddles were invented, where modern gunshot wound treatment was advanced.

Royal Hospital, where the first air conditioner was installed, where defibrillator paddles were invented, where modern gunshot wound treatment was advanced.

A couple blocks later we passed by the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, where Gerry Adams’s life was saved after an assassination attempt in 1984. As a result of the many assaults during “The Troubles”, the hospital became a cutting edge facility for the treatment of gunshot woulds. It also made another significant contribution to emergency medicine – a doctor there invented the portable defibrillator. The hospital was also the world’s first air conditioned public building, the unit having been developed by the Sirocco Works in Belfast in 1906.

We continued along Falls Rd, eventually reaching another area where the street side was lined with posters, one still demanding justice for a bombing in 1971 that killed fifteen patrons at McGurk’s Bar. Individual posters cited the death of over 200 Republicans, showing each to have been murdered at the hands of the Unionist paramilitary groups, the police, or British troops. Jack knew a number of them personally and recounted for us each of their stories.

We went by the home of James Connolly, where he lived in Belfast from 1910 to 1913. Connolly was a socialist politician and leader of trade unions who is revered for his advocacy of Irish nationalism and independence. In 1916 he led a group of volunteers in what became known as the Easter Rising. The Irish Nationalists attacked and took over various areas of Dublin and proclaimed Ireland as an independent republic. The British troops quickly quelled the uprising, and Connolly was badly wounded and had only a short time to live. Still, the British found him guilty of treason, tied him to a chair (since he could not stand) and executed him. Such martyrdom did not go unnoticed – the public awareness soon increased public support for Irish nationalism.

Memorial to some of the fallen Republicans at the Catholic Cemetery on Andersontown Rd in Belfast

Memorial to some of the fallen Republicans at the Catholic Cemetery on Andersontown Rd in Belfast

The tour ended by passing the Protestant Falls Park cemetery, where many of the Unionist victims are buried, and then proceeded to the Catholic Milltown cemetery on the opposite side of the road, where we viewed many graves of the Nationalists, including Bobby Sands.

Our tour ended in the dark and the rain, and afterwards we all went together to a nearby club where we hoisted a pint of Guiness to our guide and to the memory of those in the conflict. The Americans in our group were highly interested in “The Troubles”, and we enjoyed the stimulating discussion. On our cab ride home, the driver related his own feelings about “The Troubles”. He also noted that we’d just come from the most Republican club in town.

See more photos of the tour.

Some history leading up to “The Troubles”

How did Scots and English become the majority in Northern Ireland?

According to a Wikipedia article, the area that is now Northern Ireland was sparsely populated by Gaelic Irish, clans or tribes that migrated seasonally with their cattle. It was the most Gaelic part of Ireland. In the 1590s, the forces of the Gaelic Irish chieftains fought the Nine Years War to oppose English rule in Ireland. The war was throughout Ireland, but was mainly fought in the northern province of Ulster. The English won the war, and in in 1601, in exchange for King James I pardoning the chieftains, they gave up control of their land to England, a substantial part of what is now Northern Ireland. At the end of the war this area was sparsely populated with perhaps 25,000 to 45,000 people.

In 1609 the English organized to colonize a substantial portion of the counties of Ulster, redistributing the land to Protestants from England and Scotland. The English intention was to civilize the Ulster region and to anglicize the Irish, including converting them to Protestantism. The principal landowners, known as Undertakers, were wealthy men from Scotland and England who undertook to import tenants from their own estates. All tenants were to be English speaking and Protestant. Veterans of the Nine Years War also lobbied successfully to receive land grants, these to be paid for by subsidies from other organizations within England. Also the remaining portions of Northern Ireland that were not part of the official plantation, including the area around Belfast, were planted with immigrants in many cases by the private land owners.

In 1641 there was a massacre of about 4000 Protestant settlers when the Irish Catholic population staged a rebellion on the Ulster plantation. Another 8000 Protestants went home as a result. The English sent a force of 10,000 to quell the rebellion, and they committed many atrocities against the Catholics. After the conflict, there were no more Catholic landowners in the Ulster region, but so many of the tenants in the plantation areas had left that the percentage of immigrants was actually greatest in the privately settled areas closer to what is now Belfast.

After England’s William III conquered Ireland in 1691, a complicated series of acts were put in place to limit and discriminate against the Irish Catholics and also those Presbyterian Protestants who would not swear an oath of allegiance to the King. These included exclusion from public office, a ban on interfaith marriages and the state’s refusal to recognize marriage of Presbyterians, barring of Catholics from holding firearms, exclusion from the legal profession and judiciary, ban on converting from Protestantism to Catholicism, and many more similar restrictions. Many of these restrictions were later repealed, but they remained as a strongly resonant element in the politics of Irish Catholicism for long afterwards.

The author and sociologist Allan G Johnson describes how over the years of English control, the English subjected the native Irish to discrimination:

“The British came to view the Irish as something like a separate species altogether, possessing inferior traits that were biologically passed from one generation to the next. In this, the British were inventing a concept of race that made it a path of least resistance to see other peoples as subhuman if not nonhuman, making it easier to objectify them and more difficult to feel empathy for them as members of their own kind, both integral to the exertion of control over others.”

This historical undercurrent eventually resurfaced in the tension between the Irish Catholics and ancestors of the migrant English and Scottish Protestants that boiled over in the a period of civil conflict between 1969 and 1998 known as “The Troubles”.

History of Irish Republicanism

History of Irish Republicanism from the Coiste web site:

Following the enforced partition of Ireland by the British Government in 1921 the newly elected Unionist Government in the Six Counties set about establishing a form of religious apartheid,’a protestant parliament for a protestant people’, as one former Unionist prime minister described it. In the decades between 1921 and 1969, Catholics and Nationalists bore the brunt of institutionalised discrimination and state repression. No opposition to Unionist rule was tolerated.

By the 1960s the Northern Ireland Civil Rights association was formed, and began to campaign peacefully for basic civil rights – one person one vote and an end to discrimination in housing and employment. That peaceful campaign was met with violence by the Unionist regime; demonstrators were attacked with batons, tear gas and eventually live bullets. Whipped into a frenzy of sectarian hatred and fear, loyalist mobs supported by the police force (RUC and B Specials) swept into Nationalist districts throughout Belfast on the night of the 15th August. Hundreds of Nationalist homes and businesses were attacked and destroyed leaving thousands of Nationalists homeless. That evening Gerard Mc Auley, just 15 years of age, was shot and killed by Loyalists. Later Patrick Rooney just 9 years of age was shot and killed by the RUC. Trooper Mc Cabe who was on home leave at the time from his regiment in the British Army was also shot and killed by the RUC in the Divis Street area.

Before 1969 the IRA was a relatively small organisation, made up for most part of older men and women who had previously fought military campaigns against British rule in Ireland. After the suppression of the civil rights movement and the pogroms, hundreds of men and women joined the ranks of the IRA. The British Government ordered British troops onto the streets again and the perennial struggle between the British and Irish Republicans began again.

Short history of the period of “The Troubles”

Wikipedia provides an overview of “The Troubles”:

“The Troubles” refers to the three decades of violence between elements of Northern Ireland’s Irish nationalist community (mainly self-identified as Irish and/or Roman Catholic) and its unionist community (mainly self-identified as British and/or Protestant). The conflict was the result of discrimination against the Irish nationalist/Catholic minority by the unionist/Protestant majority and the question of Northern Ireland’s status within the United Kingdom.

In 1964 Nationalist Catholic Irish began a civil rights campaign to end restrictions on government hiring, gerrymandering of election districts, changing of the vote from 1 vote per household to 1 vote per person, reform of the police (the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was almost 100% Protestant), and repeal of special powers that enabled search without a warrant, imprisonment without trial, banishment of assembly, etc. During the period from 1964 to 1969 the Unionists organized several loyalist paramilitary groups: the Ulter Volunteer Force (UVF) among people in the Shankill Rd neighborhood north of Falls Rd; the Ulster Constitution Defence Committee (UCDC) set up a paramilitary style wing called the Ulster Protestant Volunteers (UPV). During the same period the Nationalists formed the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). During these years there are skirmishes but not outbreaks, and the Nationalists continued to press their case for civil rights.

In 1969, loyalist paramilitary groups bombed electricity and water installations in Northern Ireland, and cast blame upon the then dormant Irish Republican Army. Outside of Belfast, there was fighting between Protestants and Catholics in Derry. Loyalists in Belfast invaded the Republican neighborhoods, burned houses and businesses. Republicans exchanged gunfire with Loyalists and the RUC. British troops were deployed to restore order.

During the period 1970 to 1972, violence escalated and over 500 people lost their lives . Two more Republican groups formed, the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Official Irish Republican Army. Our tour guide was a member of the Official IRA and described the Provisional IRA members as being angered and driven to action by their loss, but not ideologically in tune with the political ideas of the Official IRA. The newer Provisional IRA was more attuned to armed struggle. Unionists imposed a “Falls Curfew” upon the residents of the Falls Rd . Also they imposed internment without trial, almost always applied to the Republicans rather than the Unionists. By 1972 the Provisional IRA had carried out a destructive campaign of violence, killing about 100 soldiers and carrying out more than 1300 bombing of mostly commercial targets. The Official IRA carried out a similar campaign. Loyalist paramilitary groups retaliated by assassinating Republicans, and both Protestants and Catholics were displaced out of their communities by force.

In 1972, the government of Great Britain passed emergency legislation dissolving the Loyalist Government at Stormont, Northern Ireland and introducing direct rule from London.

In 1974 an effort to achieve a cease fire failed, and for the rest of the 1970’s the two sides traded violent attacks. In 1981 ten Republican prisoners starved themselves to death as they advocated restoring a political status to the Republicans in Northern Ireland. The first to die, Bobby Sands, was elected to Parliament. Over 100,000 people attended his funeral. The IRA received arms from Muammar Gaddafi of Libya during this period. During the ’80s, the paramilitary violence between Unionists and Republicans continued unabated.

Sinn Fein headquarters on Falls Road

Sinn Fein headquarters on Falls Road

In the late ’80s, the political wing of the Provisional IRA, Sinn Féin, led by Gerry Adams, sought a negotiated end to the conflict. After prolonged negotiations between Loyalists, Republicans, and the British, the first cease fire was declared in 1994. Subsequent violence interrupted this first attempt. The IRA bombed targets in the UK.

In 1997 a second cease fire was declared with the assistance of the US government as negotiations without the agreement of Sinn Féin became known as the Good Friday Agreement. Later in the year Sinn Féin agreed to the conditions. President Bill Clinton visited Northern Ireland during this time and arranged a US visa for Gerry Adams. He met with leaders of both sides of the conflict and today is well remembered for his influence in helping to bring an end to “The Troubles”.

Though some violence still occurred, the second cease fire has largely held up and a political process has begun. Self government has been restored to Northern Ireland, and the police force has been reformed. There are still some significant problems to be resolved.

Between 1969 and 2001, 3526 people were killed. More statistics of casualties can be found here.

When the north was divided from the rest of Ireland and kept British in 1921, Northern Ireland was about 70% Unionist. Today the percentage of Unionists has dwindled to about 48%, according to our tour guide. Sinn Féin has grown to be the second largest political party in Northern Ireland.