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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Planes, Trains, Ferries, and Automobiles - Euro Style

After stepping down as the EMS Chief of SF Fire in November of 2010, I wanted to take some time to recharge my batteries and get to a place where no cell phone could reach me and to enjoy things that I wanted to do.  Many years ago, my good friend, Mark Ferras and I took a trip to the UK to try and make it to the Scottish Highlands to visit the Malt Whiskey Trail, but alas we were thwarted by snow in the mountain passes.  But while we were tooling around the English countryside in a rented vehicle trying to stay on the left side of the road, we saw many great sights and visited many a pub.  It was in a pub that I put some coins into the jukebox and randomly selected a song called "News from Heaven" by a group I never heard of before called Runrig.

It was one of those songs that just grabbed me and I was hooked.  I looked for every Runrig CD in the UK before we left and took them home.  As I researched the band, I found that they routinely toured in Europe and the UK.  It became an item on my bucket list to see them live one day.

Now fast forward a decade and I am blessed to make the acquaintance of a certain Geordie Paramedic from the Northeast of England by the name of Mark Glencorse.  I met Mark when he came to the States as an exchange program to learn about our EMS System with one of our Firefighter Paramedics, Justin Schorr.  Mark blogs on the Internet as UKMedic999 and Justin blogs as The HappyMedic.  When I knew I would be leaving my administrative position as the EMS Chief in June, I decided that what better place to see Runrig than in Newcastle Upon Tyne (actually Gateshead) where Mark lived.  I would have a friendly face to ask what pubs to frequent and which to avoid.  I left for the UK on December 12th and looked forward to a break.  After a short time in London, and a train to Newcastle, I met up with Mark and met his family.  They were kind enough to open up their home to me as if I were an old friend not just an acquaintance.

The live performance of Runrig was phenomenal, spending time with Mark and his wife Sandra was even greater.  They were kind enough to take me to one of the best Indian restaurants where I had an exquisite Chicken Tikka Masala.  I got to learn about the local history and visit a castle that belonged to Sandra's family.  Met a wonderful woman, Miss Groves, who shared a fantastic history of the Durham Cathedral and spent time in the Shrine of Saint Cuthbert.  I found that the best fish and chips is served with mushy peas and is to be enjoyed in subzero freezing weather on the docks of the quays in Seahouses.  I was too cold to sit on the quays as Mark suggested.

As my holiday ended on the Sunday before Christmas, I encountered the trials and tribulations of having your flight canceled out of London's Heathrow Airport because of snowy weather.  But the friendly United Airlines customer service agent told me that the first flight out of London would be on Christmas Day due to all the travel disruptions.  However, if I could get to Paris, France by Thursday, I would be able to leave on an earlier flight.  So on Tuesday, I set out for Paris from London.  The high speed Eurostar train between London and Paris was operating at capacity and would not take any new bookings so that meant that I had to go the traditional route before the Chunnel came into existence which was to get to Dover and take the ferry to Calais.

On the ferry, I met a nice couple Sophie and her boyfriend Anthony from Brussels who helped introduce me to Mr. Darocha and Sylvain and Jennifer.  Sophie  and Anthony were trying to get home to Brussels and found another couple who would give them a ride home from Calais, Sophie said that as she was trying to get home, she would try to find me a ride to Paris and that was how I met Mr. Darocha, Sylvain, and Jennifer.  Mr. Darocha, Sylvain and Jennifer lived in Paris and wanted to get back that night.  They were kind enough to help me book train tickets on their computer; a great help since I neither spoke nor read any French except for “thank you and please".  From Calais, we hired and shared a cab to Lille, France which was a terminus for SNCF and caught a high speed train to Paris arriving at 12 midnight Wednesday morning in the City of Lights.

On the train from Lille to Paris, I got into a conversation with my seatmate, a lovely French Polynesian university student who was studying politics and her friend who was also studying politics in Paris, both returning from a holiday in Amsterdam.  She told me that she loved President Obama.  She asked me what I thought of  Nicolas Sarkozy and I was embarrassed to say that I knew nothing of the French President except that he was married to the model Carla Bruni.

I noticed she was reading Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" and we talked about how both our governments were similar and different.  I told her that America really hadn’t changed much since de Tocqueville made his observations 175 years ago except for that America’s economic divide had widened further and early efforts to stymie generational transfer of wealth via the inheritance tax had been weakened and the very rich were becoming successful in establishing and ensuring dynastic wealth.  She asked me what Americans thought of the French and I told her that the popular media fanned the flames of anti-French sentiment after the French government opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq by our country.  I told her that we Americans had a short memory, for we would not be a country if the French had not helped our nascent and emerging country secure independence from King George in 1776.  She reminded me that France was very grateful to America for helping liberate her country from the Germans in World War 2.  We parted at Gare du Nord saying that it was important to remain friends and seek common ground in both our country's interests.

Meeting up again with Sylvain, Jennifer and Mr. Darocha, we made plans to get something to eat.  Sadly Sylvain and Jennifer had to catch another train home to Versailles and could not break bread with Mr. Darocha and I.  Over beer, oysters, and Vittel, I learned that Mr. Darocha was an artist by profession and he told me about contemporary art, how much he loved the vibrancy of Manhattan, and how important it was to enjoy art, any art, just let it touch you and make you feel.

I met many new friends and learned that we are really not that different, but I admit that we as Americans are somewhat insular in our world view.  Everyone was friendly and helpful and for that I am thankful.  It was quite an enjoyable adventure very unlike the comedic journey portrayed in the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles.  What could have been a tremendous drudgery with stress and pain turned out to be a joy; and as in the movie, the important thing in all our journeys through life is mutual concern for one another and cherishing our families and friends.

Good travels my friends.