Pushing the Reset Button

I readily admit that I am still not entirely comfortable with wireless technology. I miss long curly telephone cords and purring electric typewriters. They felt solid and grounded, and I felt in control. I still keep track of appointments with a book-like calendar and I make notes on random slips of paper.

Today, I spend undue time worrying that my smart devices will outsmart me. I am uncomfortable with a car that reminds me to buckle my seatbelt, a navigation device that tells me I am not following directions properly, and a cell phone personality that questions my directives.

I am used to being in charge, and I want my technology to obey my commands and respond to my needs without being coddled.

At the very least, I hope to win ongoing battles without the need to call in reinforcements – read “young technicians who make me feel like an idiot because of my inability to solve the problem myself.

I regularly forget that the way to bypass periodic operational hiccups with both my portable devices and my desktop computer is simply to turn them off, wait a few moments and reboot them. It may be akin to sending an unruly toddler to the corner for a time out, but it seems unnatural and unnecessary to me.

Unfortunately, in other areas of life, I also tend to undervalue the power of pushing the reset button.

A Spring Resolution

I recently returned from a quick overnight in Cabo San Lucas at the tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. A short cruise out of Los Angeles offered sun and warmth, gently rolling seas and good companionship. I savored long, lazy days aboard ship with no agenda, no schedule, no daily deadlines – all equally beneficial for body and soul. I was served interesting food and adult beverages, enjoyed good stage shows and movies, caught a few spectacular sunsets, and watched cavorting whales, sea lions, pelicans and gulls.

We strolled the Cabo waterfront, listened to music, sampled local Margaritas and street tacos and thoroughly enjoyed leisurely time ashore.

As a writer, I am acutely aware that creativity is fueled by new experiences, interesting people, beauty, good food, and even a bit of personal indulgence. But the crush of daily life sometimes gets in the way.

Vacations, especially if they are short, simple and relatively unplanned, are invigorating. Even day trips can be memorable. As much as I love exotic destinations. I have come to believe in the restorative benefits of simple getaways. Unfortunately, those simple excursions don’t happen often enough. But they’re an indulgence I have promised myself more frequently this year.

Getting out in the world is – in my universe – the human reset button.

New Spring in My Step!

I returned to my desk this week with a fresh appreciation for the work I do. Freelancing is, in many ways, a dream job. I understand fully that I have the luxury of being able to escape to far horizons on a fairly regular basis. The flip side of that coin is that, more often than not, I take some work with me.

After all, those portable electronic devices have changed my world, for better or worse. Unless I disclose my whereabouts, there is no reason for anyone to know that I am not slaving away at my desk.

But this time, I chose not to work while in Mexico. Other than checking email occasionally, I did not write a single word. I did not check, nor did I post to social media.  But I returned home with a mind alive with ideas, and a determination to work harder to tell the stories that I find interesting.

So, my promise – to myself – is to get back to work with renewed zest and spirit, and then to walk away much more often. That’s motivation I can embrace.

I pushed the reset button!

Life is a celebration . . .

Note: The news earlier this week of the death of Ed Lowe, renowned Dallas restaurateur, came as a shock, not only to his family and friends, but also to those who loved the family dining spot on Lovers Lane. I couldn’t help thinking of the last time I visited there. It turned out to be a much better experience than I had hoped, thanks entirely to the staff of Celebration Restaurant. Although I sent a note to the restaurant at the time, I’ll share the whole story here. I think Ed Lowe would like it, just as I am certain that his spirit lives on at his restaurant with every meal that is served.

There may be no better way to celebrate a special occasion than with a family group sitting around a table laden with good food. And, sometimes, going out is better than cooking at home.

So, it was with high expectations that I chose a place we had not visited for years, but known for decades, as the perfect surprise for a special birthday luncheon. It represented, in some ways, a trip down memory lane.WP_20180311_14_17_57_Pro (3)Celebration Restaurant on Lovers Lane in Dallas is known as the city’s first true “farm to table” enterprise. It has been serving up good food and good times for 46 years in a location not far from Love Field. It still exists in the same sprawling Bluffview neighborhood home where it originally opened. It has been expanded over the years, and now includes not only an outdoor patio, but also an adjacent retail market.

It’s homey in all the best ways.

Tables are set in rooms of varying sizes. There are private rooms available to accommodate groups large or small. The atmosphere isn’t trendy, but rather as familiar as a visit to Grandma’s house.

The food is much the same: No sushi, fusion or “nouvelle” anything here; just good honest beef, pork, chicken, fish and a choice of freshly prepared sides. The veggies, which vary by season, are served in family style bowls, a choice of three for each table. Every meal carries a choice of starters — soup, salad or fresh fruit; and desserts are too good to miss, even though ordering them reaches the borders of glut.

The concept was unique in the mid-70’s when Celebration opened. Now, after nearly five decades, it is still unique in a market that prides itself on its growing roster of award-winning chefs and innovative eateries.

Celebration is low key and pleasant. Children are welcomed, but the children’s menu contains “adult” food. Portions are reasonable rather than “super-sized,” but seconds on most entrees are available, and cheerily served. No one ever leaves hungry.

On our recent visit, there was a slight glitch with the reservations — some of our party arrived a bit early only to find that there was no record of our request for a large group. On a Sunday, the restaurant was already filled to overflowing. I learned of the problem when I arrived with my husband, the honored “birthday boy,” at the appointed hour. Needless to say, I was upset. We did not want to wait for two hours, and we did not want to go elsewhere. It seemed as impossible situation.

However, with only a few words exchanged and a delay of just a few minutes, we were made welcome at a table hastily set on the patio. Luckily, it was a pleasant, early spring day in Dallas, and overhead heaters warmed our bodies. The pleasant views of  fountain, fireplace and greenery warmed our spirits, as did the friendly smiles and attentive bustling of the servers.

I could go on about the impeccable service, the variety of the food, the courtesy of management. But I won’t. Suffice it to say that Celebration Restaurant is an example of the way it ought to be. There is no doubt that Ed Lowe’s visionary eatery is still in business after all these years because it consistently “gets it right!”

Would that it will continue in that tradition.

 

It’s the people, not the places . . .

It’s good to get away, and sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter where the journey takes us; it’s the break from routine that’s important.

This time, though, it was all about the place. My husband and I, as those who know us (and those of you who read the previous post) know, spent the better part of a summer in Alaska 13 years ago. We traveled the Marine Highway of Southeast Alaska and numerous watery byways that led us to out-of-the-way villages and secluded coves. We went north to Skagway and Haines, west to Glacier Bay and Sitka, spent delightful days in Hoonah and Petersburg and bobbed gently “on the hook” with only stars and lapping waves for company. We visited Juneau, the capital, several times, and we had good times in Ketchikan, Alaska’s “first city.”

At the end of August we returned to the 49th state, arriving in Anchorage on a Friday evening to spend a few hours prior to embarking the next day on a seven-day voyage aboard Golden Princess. The trip would take us past impressive Hubbard Glacier and into Glacier Bay before visiting Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan on a journey slated to end in Vancouver, British Columbia, the following Saturday morning.

It was not a trip we spent a lot of time planning. It was, in fact, a snap decision, made with a “why not” attitude, but with low expectations. We sandwiched it in between short trips to other destinations during August.

Some initial observations:

What we experienced surprised us. We were less than enamored by Anchorage, home to fully 40 percent, if not more, of Alaska’s residents. But, to be fair, we spent only a few hours there and during our brief visit we encountered delightful people. The city, however, is not pretty, apart from its surroundings.

Our appreciation for the spectacular natural beauty of Alaska emerged fully intact. Looking down on the Anchorage area from our airplane and seeing snow-capped distant peaks towering above the clouds was duly impressive. The water and the coastal vistas are incredible and the vast land seems to extend forever.

And the flowers — before I visited Alaska, I would not have believed there were flowers in what I considered a cold and desolate place. How wrong I was. They were — and still are — everywhere. Wild flowers and flowers in public parks; flowers on window sills and in shops, flowers filling huge municipal planters; flowers in airports and on the docks. Wildflowers along the highway. Gorgeous, colorful flowers. Everywhere!

On Saturday, we boarded a bus for the short drive to Whittier, a year-round deep-water port at the head of Prince William Sound. The trip allowed us a glimpse of white Beluga whales in the waters of Turnagain Arm and a herd of Dall sheep navigating a craggy bluff on the other side of the highway.

It’s exciting, to be sure, to wear jackets and knit caps in August, even if we did have to don rain gear as well. We visited the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center to see wood bison and musk ox, wolves and porcupines, bear and moose, deer and foxes.

We continued on through the engineering marvel of a tunnel that gives the only land access to Whittier. It is shared (on a one-way basis) by passenger vehicles, buses, trucks and the train!

A floating city . . .

Once aboard, we began to settle in to the life of a floating city with 2,600 other people — not difficult, actually, with the wealth of activities and the pleasant mix of public and private spaces. Every day seems a celebration on board a modern cruise ship.

What we knew we would miss was the feeling of being close to the water — the sound of the waves, the experience of cold fingers and blasts of wind as we dropped anchor or secured the lines of our vessel to the metal cleats of well-worn wooden docks. We missed the camaraderie we felt with fishing boat captains as they put away their gear after a long day; and we missed the hot coffee and good conversation that was always available in cluttered dockmasters’ offices.

We also missed seeing whale spouts and fish jumping just above the swells, gulls and eagles trailing fishing boats and circling above small docks, the occasional family of sea otters looking for refuge in a marina, and eye-level contact with those splashing waves and floating chunks of ice. Looking down on the water from a deck 70 or more feet above it, or searching for native wildlife through binoculars and behind protective glass has nowhere near the same effect.

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What we enjoyed was the companionship of other passengers, especially our delightful dinner tablemates, talking with fellow travelers from not only other states, but from Australia and New Zealand, from Germany and England, from Mexico and from Asia. We appreciated the perfectly prepared fresh fish and seafood that was offered at every meal, the smiling service of bartenders and waiters, the helpfulness of the crew, the variety of outdoor deck space from which to view changing vistas of glaciers and icebergs, mountains and clouds.

We were blessed with sunshine for at least a part of every day, somewhat unusual for this part of Alaska.

We also appreciated having the assistance of other eyes to help spot whales and otters, eagles, bears, seals and porpoises. And, yes, we did spot some, although we yearned to see more! The ship reverberated with a chorus of delight for each occurrence. We were thrilled once again to visit Glacier Bay. The naturalists and Park Rangers who came aboard were interesting and knowledgeable. It was a learning experience, and it was good to have their input.

We heard the “thunder” of glaciers as they calved, and realized anew that listening to the natural sounds of Alaska is mesmerizing.

‘Tis the season . . .

We could have done without the proliferation of t-shirt and key chain shops, furriers and jewelry stores, harborside kiosks and lines of tour buses and waiting guides. But then we realized that they were very much a part of port life 13 years ago as well.

As Alaska residents acknowledge, the season is short and it’s tourism that turns the wheels of commerce in the ports of Southeast Alaska. Life after October settles back into familiar patterns and the majesty of the land becomes once again the personal domain of those who call Alaska home.

Travel is enlightening in many ways. But it’s not the places; it’s the people one meets.

We sought out those people on this trip. And we were rewarded tenfold! Friendly residents are more than willing to talk about their lives, their cities, their families and their experiences. As always, we were fascinated to learn about daily life as it is lived outside the pages of guidebooks.

We always asked for local recommendations for food. In Anchorage, we were directed to a popular local brew pub, and were immediately befriended by a local resident only too willing to share his views on everything from oil drilling to recreational cannabis, from the Northern Lights to politics. The next morning we had cafe au lait and warm croissants at the charming Paris Cafe, a short stroll from our hotel.

In Skagway, there was a wait at “the best place in town to eat,” but the wait was worth it — and we were notified by text message when our table was ready. Skagway may be small and remote, but there’s no shortage of technology! WP_20180821_12_44_28_ProWe were rewarded with perfectly prepared fish, crispy chips and superb local brew.

We took a short bus ride to White Pass, following the path traversed by miners with gold fever, and snapped photos at the border between the United States and Canada, “Gateway to the Klondike.” We walked around Skagway for just a short time before retreating back to our ship as it began to rain. Skagway has changed little, but with four cruise ships in town, it was crowded!

That afternoon, before slipping lines and heading south to Juneau, a program by “real Alaskan” Steve Hites, one of the 1,057 full-time Skagway residents, was a highlight of the trip. Accompanied by guitar and harmonica, the 64-year-old songwriter, storyteller and tour operator charmed listeners with a 40-minute history of “his” Alaska, and the small town he knows so well.

In Juneau and Ketchikan, once again we asked for local food tips and were given the names of two eateries slightly beyond the tourist mainstream. At both, The Flight Deck in Juneau, and again in Ketchikan at The Dirty Dungee, we devoured fresh-caught Dungeness crab, and couldn’t have been happier!

About traveling to Alaska . . .

My heartfelt advice to anyone considering an Alaska cruise?

GO!

My husband and I realize that we were privileged to be able to experience the state as we did — on our own — and that trip will remain in our hearts as a unique experience.

We remember how small we felt while on our boat, especially one morning in Juneau as we awoke to the presence of a massive cruise ship snuggled against the dock directly in front of our vessel.

101_0747As luck would have it, on this trip Golden Princess occupied that slip, and we wondered if the private yacht owners felt as dwarfed as we had that long ago morning.

The allure of Alaska has not diminished for us. We shared the excitement of first-time visitors on this cruise. And we understand clearly the sentiments of those who return again and again. There are many ways to travel to this unique state, from “big-ship” cruises to private vessels, land-sea combos, fly-in fishing or sightseeing trips and active expedition cruises. The Alaska State Ferry runs north from Bellingham, Wash., year round, the the Al-Can Highway provides an unparalleled opportunity for those who love road trips. There are summer work opportunities for college students, and the tourist industry brings part-time residents every season. There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for visiting Alaska.

Absolutely, go to experience the place — the stunning scenery with majestic peaks and pristine water, the wilderness, the waterfalls and the icy blue glaciers. Look for wildlife, of course, and marvel when you spot a whale or a group of bears on shore, eagles in the trees, or otters in the sea. Eat your fill of freshly-caught fish and seafood. Snap Selfies. Take tours. Buy trinkets.

But go especially to meet the people! Dinner companions often become lasting friends. At the very least, casual encounters with shopkeepers, restaurant servers, tour guides, ship’s staff, and the people you stop to talk with on the street linger as lasting reminders of the trip  even when memories of specific sights begin to fade.

Cruising is invariably a pleasure, no matter what the ports.  And Alaska still lives up to its moniker as the American “last frontier.” It’s a big adventure!

So, yes, go to Alaska!   

Will we return? Perhaps not. But we would not hesitate to do so. It’s that good!

 

Venturing beyond borders . . .

101_3594Have you ever taken the time to read your passport?

I hadn’t — not until today, when on a whim I checked its expiration date, and was struck by the fact that there are so few visa stamps on its pages.

I remember my first passport! Its pages were nearly filled with stamps before its expiration date rolled around, and it was only valid for three years if I remember correctly. Today, I am happy to report, I have several more years of traveling left before I have to think about a renewal.

But, sadly, I doubt that those pages will be nowhere near as colorful nor evocative of adventure as my original passport’s were. The world’s borders have, in many cases, been erased over the preceding decades.

In the past two years or so, I have set foot on three continents, visited several island nations and spent time in a score of different nations. I have nary a passport stamp to show for the miles, save one from Amsterdam Shiphol, earned because of a plane change that entailed only a leisurely stroll from one airline gate to another!

Traveling

Customs and immigration agents are not nearly as concerned about stamping a page as they once were. After all, all the information now needed is computerized and captured by security cameras! How comforting.

How disappointing! As the world shrinks and becomes more homogeneous, does it become less interesting?

There is something about crossing national borders that was once thrilling and unique.

I always found it exciting to arrive at a national border, even while crossing on a train in the middle of the night; I did not resent the delay, nor the inconvenience. Instead, it seemed a rite of passage, a confirmation that I was about to embark on another venture that would broaden my understanding and fill my journal with memories.

I cannot adequately express the disappointment I felt when I first drove across the border between Italy and France with nary a road sign to note the occasion. It was only when I stopped for coffee that it became obvious: café rather than caffè.

I still have not reconciled euros with traveling through vastly different European nations; I found it refreshing last October when prices in Croatia were quoted in Kuna, the local currency, even though the Euro is accepted and residents seem to have little trouble with the exchange rate!

But I digress . . .

I checked my passport’s expiration date because of upcoming foreign travel plans, but passports are in the news for another reason as well. Residents of some states may soon be required to show better identification than a local driver’s license in order to fly even domestically. Today, only slightly more than one third of Americans possess a passport. But that may change, as soon as January.

American passports are little gems of home-grown philosophy. As one turns the pages, the boundless pride and enthusiasm of a country full of optimism seem evident — through stylized graphics of distinctly American scenery and the quotations that appear at the top of each double truck, passports express what is, somehow, the essence of American pride and determination.

A sampling: Pages 16 and 17 depict a paddlewheeler making its way along a mighty river; I’m guessing the artist had the Mississippi in mind. A formation of geese fly overhead, and homes and hills stretch out in the distance.

The written words:

“This is a new nation, based on a mighty continent, of boundless possibilities.” Theodore Roosevelt

There are other drawings and words of note in this little book that offers me the opportunity to freely travel the world, both in my mind and in reality:

“We have a great dream. It started way back in 1776, and God grant that America will be true to her dream.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.” George Washington

John F. Kennedy: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America.”

The stuff of dreams:

It’s not only the words of leaders and presidents that speak from passport pages, though.

The words inscribed in 1869 on the original Golden Spike at Promontory Summit, in Utah, echo through time: “May God continue the unity of our country as the railroad unites the two great oceans of the world.”

And, then:

 “Every generation has the obligation to free men’s minds for a look at new worlds . . . to look out from a higher plateau than the last generation.”  Ellison Onizuka.

This is the final page of the little blue book, along with a stylized depiction of two worlds together in vast space, along with a circling manmade satellite.

If you don’t know him, Onizuka was an American astronaut aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger when it exploded in 1986. He dreamed bigger and traveled farther than most.

As Americans, we have always enjoyed the ability to cross state borders without worrying about foreign currency, unfamiliar signage or a different language. If a passport becomes required to do that, it will be a new experience for many of our citizens, but it will not change our ability to travel freely in this country.

Across the globe, it was not so until just recently. It still is not the norm in many parts of the world.

Take the time to read that little book, and to think about the implications. It offers a new perspective on the world, whether it’s full of visas and border crossing stamps or not.

 

Pearl of the Adriatic

Dubrovnik, that gem of a city on the Adriatic, is now famous as a filming location for scenes in Game of Thrones, and astute fans may also recognize parts of the city in Star 100_6328Wars VIII scenes. Croatia as  a nation has existed on maps with its current boundaries for scarcely more than a decade, after years of ongoing struggle for sovereignty and independence. The city, though, is solid, ancient and unforgettable, picture postcard worthy.

Because I have never seen Game of Thrones, I had no inkling of the imposing beauty of this city on the Adriatic. It is so much more than a stage set! In the 7th Century, when the Dubrovnik Republic was born, this settlement on the shore of a dramatic fjord already had a long history.

It staggers the senses, but citizens of Dubrovnik celebrate those centuries of history as their personal legacy, both the good and the bad. They embrace it all, and speak as openly about the years of oppression and conflict as about the glory days when seafarers jockeyed for position with other independent maritime governments, chiefly Venice, Genoa and Napoli.

The cultural awareness extends back in time, far back. History is pervasive; it’s a living legacy. By contrast, Americans are still so young on the world stage, barely more than toddlers compared to Dubrovnik, indeed in contrast with most of the rest of the world.

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There is much to love about this walled city with its sturdy ramparts and fortifications. There is also much to discover: Art and architecture, upscale shops, trendy cafes with impeccably groomed servers. Young people sport smartphones and the latest fashions, children smile and play happily on the polished stones of the pedestrian-only Stradun; old folks stroll hand in hand, silently testifying that an everyday existence is very much still a part of this old city.

Teens pose for selfies by a bronze statue with nose and fingers burnished bright by visitors. Visiting adults find it hard to resist as well. 100_6394

Dubrovnik is crowded during daylight hours; it’s quieter at night. There is little of the “touristy” appeal of American beach towns and tour bus destinations. Lines to enter the city gates are often long, but quite orderly. We entered through Pile Gate, with throngs of others eager to explore the life and spirit of the city within the legendary walls.

Dubrovnik has, of course, outgrown its old boundaries, just as other ancient cities have burst their seams, and life in the new city is very different. Buses and taxis rule, and the pace is loud and congested.

I was enthralled with old Dubrovnik, more so with its people. They live in a storybook setting, with a past that intrudes on the present in a sensory way.

I would return there in a minute. Although I was able to visit only a scant portion of the country that lies along the sea, rarely have I been so charmed by a place after only a short few hours. Heading north along the coast on a bus was, at times, a nail-biting experience. But the trip was well worth it.

To be sure, there is something unfair about judgments formed so quickly. But there’s a permanence about Dubrovnik. It seems the kind of city that will remain standing far into the future, both the popular old city and the new one sprung up outside the walls. The city is a wonderful destination, and could be a jumping off point for the rest of Croatia. However, travel to Dubrovnik, other than by cruise ship, is not yet so easy for Americans. It’s more convenient to arrive by air from London or another European capital, or to travel to Dubrovnik, by ferry from Bari, Italy. 100_6409“It’s the end of the season,” we were told. All large cruise ships depart by the end of October, and the cadence of life changes. Locals live quietly, or leave on  vacation, even though the local weather remains pleasant throughout the winter.

Indeed, as our ship made its way out of the harbor, residents lined up on shore to wave goodbye. I had a fleeting vision of families bidding similar farewells to generations of sailors leaving port for adventure in unknown lands.

 

Elevator Philosophy

100_7263There is something immensely satisfying about traveling — even if it’s a kind of working vacation. But there is also a sense of relief, and enormous comfort in coming home, no matter how rewarding the journey has been.

That’s the state I find myself in now — in the middle of November — with business to attend to, goals to accomplish, stacks of notes to make sense of, scores of ideas to develop and hundreds of stories to tell.

Yet, here I sit at my computer, poring over trip photos and marveling at the wonders of  Mediterranean ports. Following two weeks of non-stop travel activity, we enjoyed a calm and rejuvenating week at sea. The Atlantic Ocean seemed to spread out in calm ripples in every direction, welcoming us daily with superb sunrises and spectacular sunsets. We couldn’t have asked for a calmer crossing, unlike some in the past, nor for more companionable shipmates.

Likewise, the varied cities we visited — full of profound history, beautiful sights, friendly people, enticing food, good wine, interesting excursions and fine weather. As Americans, we encountered no hint of hostility or malice; instead, we were greeted with friendly smiles and an eagerness to talk, even though our command of local languages was decidedly limited.

We never felt unsafe, unwelcome or threatened, whether we were on our own or part of a touring group. To be fair, we ventured off on our own more often than we joined organized groups. We occasionally heard some minor grumbling from fellow travelers, but not often, and mostly about logistics, not the people or the places.

We witnessed a calm and well-organized student protest (its purpose unknown) in Messina, Sicily, and we were in Barcelona the week before the Catalan parliament voted to declare independence. Tensions were running high. Catalan separatism was evident, with competing flags and signs everywhere. Now, there is scant news about what will happen. But I think the movement has not died so easily.

Our time there was limited; we were disoriented by the traffic and the sheer size of the city, and I have to admit that we were cautious among crowds in light of recent terrorist attacks. But we walked the streets, rode city buses, joined thousands of children and parents to attend an event at the former Olympics Stadium, and were willingly assisted by locals who helped us find our way about. I would not hesitate to return — to Barcelona and to any other place we visited.

As a side note, high school Spanish was of little use in Catalonia!

No matter what happens,

travel gives you a story to tell.

In coming weeks, I’ll tell many more stories about the trip, share other insights and detail personal observations about the places we visited, the meals we shared, the people we met, the experiences we were privileged to enjoy.

I’ll also refer again and again to the snippets of travel philosophy that were boldly displayed on elevator carpets throughout Royal Princess, the elegant cruise ship that became our home for this journey. Each one is a gem, and although I tried to ride each of the ship’s numerous elevators at least once, I’m sure I missed some. Therefore, I know I missed out on some of the wisdom that is so uniquely displayed.

For now, though, an observation by Mark Twain seems in order:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Samuel Clemens wrote those words in 1869, for “The Innocents Abroad.” He said it pretty well, didn’t he? His point, I think, is as pertinent today as it was when his chronicle of “the great pleasure voyage” was published.

 

 

 

A unique mystique . . .

4802076860_ce7d2a1221_bLegionnaires of the 3rd Foreign Infantry Regiment based in French Guiana were transported on September 11 to the Caribbean island of Saint Martin to help with rescue and clean up operations following Hurricane Irma. I would bet that others were on high alert as Maria turned toward Guadeloupe and Martinique just days ago.

I heard the news reports of France’s quick response, and I was once again entranced with thoughts of this band of men with a long history, a somewhat dubious reputation and a unique mystique.

Somehow, the desert and the sea always figured in my childhood dreams, along with a thirst for adventure, the appeal of colorful uniforms, and the sound of military marches.

The French Foreign Legion

This elite fighting force has always held inexplicable fascination. I once had a romantic notion that I could run away to North Africa and be a Legionnaire. 4566626508_a28b277564_bI pored over pictures of the bearded Sappers with their white kepis and leather aprons, and I listened endlessly to traditional marches, and to Edith Piaf singing “Mon Legionnaire” and “La Marseillaise.”

Strange, I know. But, truth be told, the same things thrill me today,

I wanted to know someone who joined up. I fancied myself fitting in to the hard life, seeing the world, and participating in endless adventure.

There is at least one major problem, however. First and most important, it seems, is that I was born female and, to this day, the Foreign Legion is a men’s club. Only a men’s club!

Actually, one British woman joined during World War II and served with distinction in North Africa. There have been no others.

And, yes, as outdated as it may seem, The French Foreign Legion still exists.

In fact, it thrives. The Legion has changed, but it is still an elite force. Only about 1000 men are admitted to the ranks each year.

Here’s how it works:

First, if you are male, between the ages of 17 1/2 and 39 1/2, you must get yourself to the door of a Foreign Legion facility within France. Literally, you must knock on the door of the Centre de Preselection in Paris or at the gate of Legion Headquarters in the hills above Marseilles; or at one of nine “recruiting offices” scattered in cities throughout the country. They are officially open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. 6550986765_d4ae3024d0_b In truth, however, showing up during normal daytime business hours would be wise.

Potential recruits must have valid documentation from their country of origin, either a passport or government-issued ID, and a verified copy of their birth certificate obtained within the last six months. Aliases and anonymity are no longer an option.

And they must not be on Interpol’s wanted list!

Although it is expected that recruits will arrive with three sets of underwear and socks, sneakers, personal toiletries, and between 10-50 Euros, those who make it in the door are immediately provided food, lodging and uniforms.

That’s it; nothing else matters

Well, almost nothing else: Language doesn’t matter; there is no requirement to speak French. Marital status is unimportant: All recruits are treated as single men. There is no discrimination on the basis of citizenship, background, race, religion, education, training, previous military service, profession or expertise.

There are some “must nots” and some “should nots.” Among prohibited items are knives, weapons of any kind, and keys — no vehicle or personal house keys are allowed! Large amounts of cash, credit cards, jewelry and other valuables are highly discouraged. Cameras, personal computers and electronic devices must be left at home or abandoned.

Recruits must take IQ and personality tests, must pass sports and fitness tests, and must meet specific medical and physical standards. Only about one in eight candidates is accepted.4566623898_3897607b2f_b

Within a few days, those who “survive” an initial interview at a satellite center will be enlisted and transferred to one of the Legion’s two pre-selection centers, either in Paris or in the south of France. Finally, those who make it through the three to 14-day pre-selection testing are transferred to Legion Headquarters in Aubagne to complete the rigorous training process. And it is rigorous.

The initial commitment is for a five-year enlistment, and the entire pre-selection and selection process spans up to five weeks. After that there is training, and more training, then perhaps specialized training. And then duty assignments; often within France today,  sometimes in French territories, but truly all over the globe. The Legion has fought not only in French wars and in two World Wars, but in most of the world’s hot spots, including Vietnam, Cambodia, Bosnia, Kuwait, Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan.

This year, on July 14, I watched with fascination as the new French president and the new American president beamed with pride as the Bastille Day parade along the Champs Elysees in Paris reached its conclusion.  As always, a detachment of Legionnaires participated and, as always, this unique fighting force constituted the final unit in the parade. The marching cadence of the Foreign Legion is measured and impressive (88 steps per minute rather than the normal 120) and a fitting finale to a day full of military pomp and tradition. 7467186668_61d2457d6b_z

The mystery and the magic of this special force still exist. The Pioneers with their leather aprons and axes seem throwbacks to another era as they march with pride and precision; and the band sounds the familiar somber beat.

But, across the globe, other Legionnaires stand ready, as necessary, to don their fatigues and get to work to put a devastated island nation back together. Or to fight, if called. It’s good to know they still exist.

If you’re interested in learning more about the French Foreign Legion, visit Uniforms, History, or 2016 News.

All Photos via Flickr (1) Brian Farrell, 2010; (2 & 4) Marcovdz, 2010; (3) Maglegion, 1993; (5) Archangel 12, 2012