Thursday, November 16, 2017

A Verbal Undressing

I was "profiled" today by an American Airlines agent before they would allow me to board a shuttle bus to Heathrow Terminal 3, where I was to catch a flight to Dallas.

I'm thinking it was the beard ... or the wild hair ... or the crazed look in my eyes in trying to make a very tight connection. (I don't think Switzerland or France is on Trump's special vetting list yet.)

These weren't your "Has your luggage been in your possession at all times?" kinds of questions. These were clearly probing to determine if I was shady in some way, whether I hesitated in my responses, or if my "story" didn't hang together.

She started innocently enough: "Where are you coming from?"
Toulouse, France.

"Why were you there?"
We have a place in the south of France.

It got interesting when she asked me, holder of a US passport, if Dallas was my home?
No. 

"So where is your home?"
Geneva, Switzerland

"Where do you spend most of your time?"
(At this point, I was tempted to say Syria or Somalia, but that might have complicated matters.) 
I explained we divide our time between Switzerland and France.

Ms AA shifted to occupation - what do I do for a living?
Journalist. Aviation journalist.

"What is the name of your supervisor?"
(Getting rather personal here, eh?)
I explained that I am editor of ICAO Journal for the International Civil Aviation Organization, the UN's aviation agency. I do it as a contract. So freelance, no supervisor. I also mentioned I write for several other publications.

She wanted to know the topic of something I wrote recently.
(In the tone that I needed to convince her that I really am a journalist. How would she know - I  could have said anything related to aviation.)
I replied, Countering Drones, which would be published later this month in Military Simulation & Training magazine, Halldale Media, for a conference I am attending in Orlando.

Can I please get on the bus now, lady?

"So what is the reason for your trip to Dallas?"
To see my grandkids.

"And their name?"
(Sheesh)
Bell.

"Just one grandchild?"
(Double sheesh)
Two, S* and G*

This was really getting annoying. I'm a frickin' US citizen and I'm getting the third degree to enter American airspace? Good thing I didn't tell her about my nephew Osama and niece Tokyo Rose.

"Where will you be staying in Dallas?"
(Triple sheesh)
I won't be staying anywhere; I'll be spending all my time, day and night, on the golf course.

When my wife, not a US citizen, came into the States the past couple of times, there were only three "challenge" questions:
1. Are you a terrorist? Duh
2. Have you ever kidnapped a child? Lemme think a minute
3. Did you help the Nazis in WWII? She was 3 when the war ended, so (even though precocious) unlikely

All these nuisance questions despite my boarding pass being stamped with a bold TSA PRE-CHECK, which presumes that I've already been through a rigorous background security evaluation.

As many of my friends in aviation security have told me, the whole security scan and pat-down routine is just for show -- there's next to zero real security value in most of the measures foisted on the traveling public. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Top 10 Things We Did in Scotland




This is a dueling blog - read D-L's at: http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.ch/2017/10/10-things.html

10. Binge-watched Season 5 of House of Cards.

9. Saw Queen Lizzie’s digs at Holyrood; yet another royal snubs the Baron and Baroness of Sealand.

8. Did NOT tour Edinburgh Castle (another trip), though we did visit Stirling Castle, where Donna-Lane knelt on the site where Mary Queen of Scots was crowned, plus Rosslyn Chapel (the alien portal).

7. Finished 1st at the Old Course, Saint Andrews – by queuing up before midnight and waiting 7 hours for the starter pavilion to open.

6. Met two very special young women, friends of family and family of friends, and shared meals at two superb restaurants, one Thai, one Spanish. Met for the first time a special Facebook friend and his dogs.

5. Viewed a couple of movies in a fabulous little theatre, the Dominion, which must have pioneered comfortable seating. Good popcorn, too.

4. Experienced all four weather seasons – sometimes all in the same day.

3. Enjoyed the company of my stepdaughter for a week, including a train jaunt to Glasgow.

2. Played the oldest golf course in continuous existence using near-ancient hickory-shafted clubs and a gutta percha ball. A unique experience.

1. Discovered Scottish writers, from Sir Walter Scott (huge monument … hyuuge) to Conan Doyle to Ian Rankin – even met the role model for Rankin’s irascible John Rebus character.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Golf in a Hurricane

Hurricane-force winds. Torrential downpours. Okay, so it only rained a little. And that was after we finished. Ophelia got delayed in Ireland, I guess.

I was looking forward to some true Scottish golf weather - wind, rain, biting cold. All the elements I've seen on telecasts of the Open Championship most years ... and they play in July! The first time I played in Scotland, nearly 20 years ago at Royal Troon, it was a balmy 70 degrees with sunshine. This is Scotland? At the Old Course in Saint Andrews a few days ago, I stood in line, shivering from the cold and rain, to secure a booking; as soon as we started, the rain disappeared. Some guys were playing in shorts!

But yesterday at the North Berwick (pronounced bear-ic) Golf Club "West Links" on Scotland's East Coast, I was prepared for the worst - thermal underwear, heavy slacks, rain pants, two pairs of socks, long-sleeved shirt, heavy sweater, jacket, knit cap. I had so much on I could barely swing the club. (Shed the sweater after a few holes because all that fabric was catching on my elbows.)

The round started out promising; clouds so thick and low you could not see the small islands off the coast. In the middle of round, as we made the turn for the back nine, the wind was so strong we had to lean forward just to stand up. But then, around the 15th, the famous "Redan" design par-3 hole which has been copied the world over, the sun actually came out. (Earlier we had seen the "red sun" shimmering through the clouds that attracted so much attention in the UK.)

I hit the ball really well all day. At No. 12, a long par-4 into the wind with a blind approach, I landed it about 3 feet from the cup for a birdie. Amazingly, never ended up in any of the deep sod-faced bunkers, though there were a few close calls. I did manage to pull one shot into the North Sea. And a couple times I had to extricate the ball from the foot-long rough.

My caddie was a club member, Brian, retired from IT. His green-reading was superb. If you play any of the links courses in Scotland where there are no trees and few visual references to aim at, I strongly advise a caddie. He'll keep you out of trouble, which is everywhere on the course, and save a lot of uncertainty and frustration. Brian was spot-on with distances to the pin as well, which I assumed was local knowledge from playing the course for 40 years ... and then he showed me his GPS watch.


 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Bathroom Books, Bedroom Books, and Bus Books

We love to read, and if we're not talking or walking or watching news on TV, we're usually reading something. Computer screens frequently, either for research or keeping up with family and friends. Occasionally Kindle books.

But there's still no substitute for words on paper, a good book.

In bed, either late evening, trying to keep our eyelids open, or in the morning when we just don't want to get out of the comfort of the mattress and covers, which we have worked all night to perfect, it's usually a novel, often a crime mystery. In Scotland this month, we've both been reading an iconic local author, Ian Rankin, who is quite good, even if he does tend to wrap things up with minor characters who come late to the game with little or no foreshadowing.

On the bus, or more likely the train, it's often a mix of whatever novel we've been reading in bed (or on the couch), a free newspaper, or a magazine that caught our eye for a major article.

In the "reading room," the choices are more eclectic. Right now, in the downstairs loo, we've a choice between Bill Bryson's petulant and often humorous travels through Europe (20 years ago, but not much has really changed), a fiction-oriented magazine I suggested to D-L which turned out to be a collection of very badly written short stories,  and a recent MAD magazine, a juvenile humour favourite of mine as a teenager, which my stepdaughter kindly supplied from across the pond.

Upstairs, another Bryson on travels through the US, though I haven't gotten out of the endless-nothingness of the Midwest section. I like, though, that Bryson has "pauses," essentially sub-dividing a chapter into multiple sections, which is ideal whether your sit is short or long. The "She-Wolves" book on strong queens of England, including Eleanor of Aquataine, is more intriguing.

We've visited a couple of second-hand shoppes and bookstores, and picked up a few very cheap editions, including a copy of Rankin's first novel. A couple we'll manage to read before we fly back to Geneva, so will  leave for our gracious househost. The smaller ones should fit within the EasyJet luggage limits.

Just finished another Rankin yesterday, so need to browse the shelves again. Any recommendations?

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Bond Between Scotland, Catalonia and America

As I write this, Spanish police are cracking peoples' heads with batons and shooting them with rubber bullets in the Catalonia region. More than 300 people have already been hurt (now 460 and rising). I fear this is only the beginning of an ongoing sequence of violence in the region. Certainly there will be strikes. Vandalism. Quite likely terrorist-type attacks against the Spanish oppressors. Possible a full-scale revolution / civil war. This in a so-called democracy.

Unlike the Catalans, Scotland was "permitted" to hold a vote on independence. Then the Tory-led UK government broadcast a series of lies and held out a package of promises they never intended to keep, and the Scots sheepishly voted no. But at least they voted, even if they were not adequately informed. Now, post-Brexit, Britain's declaration of quasi-independence from the ineffectual European Union, they may call for another vote.

We recently watched the HBO series on John Adams, which focused on the US Declaration of Independence and the subsequent American Revolution from the viewpoint of my namesake (and likely ancestor, according to my brother's research). King George opted for a heavy hand, much like Spain's PM Rahoy, and it cost Georgie the colonies.

Yet, despite the obvious parallels with America's own experience, President Donald voiced support for preventing the Catalans from their right of self-determination. I suspect he has, or would like to have, business interests in Spain. I also suspect he doesn't even know where Catalonia is on the map.

We can see Catalonia from our house in the south of France. Literally, Sarah. About 10 miles to our south is the ridgeline of the Pyrennees, including the last two remaining frontier watchtowers.

If there is war in Catalonia, we can expect many of the independent-minded Catalans to come across the border seeking safety, as hundreds of thousands of their ancestors did during Spain's previous civil war in the 1930s and the repression by fascist Franco.

If Spanish Catalonia does eventually succeed in gaining independence, I wonder if the French Catalonians, our neighbours, will be inclined to join them in the new nation. Certainly there's a lot of anti-French sentiment currently over the redesignation of the region as "Occatania," which essentially ignores the Catalaness of the far south. In our village, the locals have begun adding street signs with the original Catalan names to trumpet their distinct culture.

For the near term, I think we'll avoid venturing over the border because I'm liable to tell the Spanish authorities exactly what I believe about their jackboot style of governance, and I'm sure they won't be too receptive.

Rahoy - whose administration has been highlighted by austerity measures, tax increases, and corruption - has taken the position that the Catalan referendum for independence is illegal, as ruled by their Supreme Court. But how is the desire for liberty illegal? Of what value is binding people to another country by brute force? It didn't work for George III, and I doubt the spirited Catalans will fade quietly into the night with a "well, we tried" shrug.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Walking in the Spike Marks of the Greats

Gary Player. Arnie. Jack. Seve. Tom Watson. Tiger. Lefty. Champagne Tony. Sir Nick. Sam Snead. Vardon, Taylor and Braid. Old Tom Morris.

I walked the same fairways that the giants of the game have trod for nearly 150 years. The Home of Golf. The Old Course at Saint Andrews.

Mine was a round that had a little of everything. A perfect drive and pure 7-iron over the Valley of Sin to the green on the final hole. A much less-distinguished nervous opening tee shot. From a sidehill uphill lie next to the infamous "Hell's Bunker," I punched a superb half-6-iron right at the white flag on the 4th green; unfortunately, we were playing the red-flagged 14th hole. I had my share of long, long, long putts on some of the largest double greens in the world: one was about 125 feet. On the 12th, after the other players had hit their tee shots to the right into the rough, I hit my second best drive of the day, right down the middle ... and into one of the courses' more than 100 pot bunkers. On the treacherous Road Hole, the 17th, I ended up in the enormous steep sod-faced bunker guarding the middle of the green - blasted out to about 15 feet and made the putt, though this was after my first tee shot (and my provisional) landed on someone's Old Course Hotel balcony ... my caddie, Steve, described my attempted line as "a bit too aggressive" on the blind shot over the famous sheds.

Toward the end of the round, I asked Steve if there was anything I hadn't experienced during the round. He responded, "Well, you haven't listened to your caddie yet."

Headquarters of the Royal & Ancient just before Midnight
 

Being there and finally playing on golf's hallowed ground was almost anti-climactic to the adventure of just getting to the 1st tee. As a single player, I could not reserve a tee time, nor even submit to the lottery the Saint Andrews Links Trust uses to allocate slots. My only option was to queue up at the Pavilion for when they opened in the morning. When we arrived on Sunday and asked around, the consensus advice was to be in the queue by about 3:00 am, maybe even 2:30 or 2:00. But then we learned there were only five spots available for singles on Monday. I wasn't confident that 2 o'clock would be good enough.

So with my exceedingly tolerant wife snuggled in an extremely comfortable bed in James Braid's room at the Old Course Hotel, which I barely got to use for a couple hours, I laid out my clubs and clothes and set the alarm for 11:o5 pm wakeup.

It took me about 20 minutes or so to walk in the cold rain from the hotel to the Pavilion, lighting my way with a flashlight, and I arrived at 10 minutes before Midnight. As I had hoped, I was first in line. The dream was within reach.

I thought I would be alone for a couple hours at least. I had brought a book, some nuts, cookies, water, and of course my clubs and golf shoes in case I snared an early tee time. But at two minutes to 12, Joe from Texas walked up. Not long after, Taylor from Toronto and Casey from Los Angeles arrived. Then Scooter from Austin, Number 5 for the fifth spot. Having confidence we would all almost surely get to play the Old Course, we quickly bonded and talked for the next nearly seven hours until the doors were finally opened. We talked golf and golf courses and golfers and golf equipment and the waffles or Scottish breakfast we would have once we had secured a tee time, the Highlands and haggis. It helped to forget that we were freezing and shivering, despite multiple layers of clothing (thermal undershirt and leggings, pants, rain pants, heavy long-sleeved shirt, heavy sweater, Johnson City high school hooded sweatshirt, Masters green jacket, scarf, Boston Bruins winter gloves, knit cap, APS - Advanced Performance Systems flight training golf cap, two pairs of socks, hiking boots).

After the Fab Five, people continued to come. Because we were the only ones in the front of the building near the door, many of the latercomers were surprised to learn that the queue extended around the building. One young woman came prepared with a duvet (which she had considerable difficulty stuffing back into her suitcase). At 6:30, moving lights started to appear - greens mowers. By 6:55, when we were finally allowed in, there were at least 25-30 people. Most probably did not get to play that day. Mr. Tanaka from Tokyo, whom I chatted with during the queue and saw later in the morning in the hotel shop, did not.

I could have taken the 7:15 am tee time, but I wanted to go back to the hotel and have breakfast with Donna-Lane, then to the practice range to loosen up. I took the 12:20 opening (after showing my proof of handicap). Joe got 12:40. Taylor grabbed the early spot. Not sure about Casey and Scooter because by then I was in the WC, not having had opportunity all night while guarding my No. 1 position.

I have to admit that the Old Course itself did not seem that difficult, certainly with only a light wind, and it's certainly not aesthetic (which is true of most Scottish links courses). Most of the par-four holes are not overly long. The fairways, supported by a deep underlayer of packed sand, were the firmest I have ever played, not like the soft, fluffy turf on most US courses; after a few holes, I learned to move the ball back in my stance to catch it more on the downswing. One challenge is in the hidden bunkers, at least hidden from sight from the tee boxes. I never consulted the course layout book I had purchased; Steve would tell me some bush or cloud to aim at, and I tried to hit it in that direction ... total trust, with no idea what might be in the landing area. Without a caddie, I would probably have been calculating the best distances to go over certain bunkers and short of others. The major challenge is the greens, some with severe slopes and many with double- and triple-breaking putts.

Pre-round, I had some hope of posting a good score. Now that I'm playing regularly again, my game has been improving, almost to the point of considering competitions in France. But score was really irrelevant to just being on the Old Course, perhaps the last item on my golf bucket list. Queuing up at Midnight and being first in line ... that made it as good as a Claret Jug.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Just Leave Me at a Bookstore

One of the experiences I am looking forward to by being in Edinburgh, Scotland for a month is exploring the bookstores. https://www.buzzfeed.com/chelseypippin/edinburgh-has-the-best-bookshops?utm_term=.ai6JkY2GN#.mnXGPvbR1.

In our small village in the south of France, there are no English-language bookstores (though the neighborhood bistro has a leave one / take one shelf where other anglophones offload a few titles, and there's a similar irregular setup on the nearby street started by one of our neighbors). The formal second-hand English bookshop with hundreds of titles disappeared a couple years ago with the passing of our dear friend, Barbara.

In Geneva, there's Payot, which has a good selection mostly of fiction, but it's down in the city, expensive, and we don't get there perhaps once every 3-4 months. Another option is the English Library, of which we are members; their annual used book sale is fantastic - if we happen to be in town at the time.

My daughter mentioned to me she had been in Barnes & Noble in Frisco, Texas, recently, a place I would spend hours perusing the shelves - the new titles, the magazines, history, fiction. It also helped there was a Starbucks inside ... or my favorite place, the easy chairs downstairs by the technology and sports sections.

I also loved Half-Price Books with its musty paper smell and titles that you could no longer find elsewhere.

Yes, I know, we're in the age of Amazon and Kindle, and I do download books there from time to time. But those are mostly "backup" books, something to read when I don't have a worth-reading paperback on hand. I love holding a real book, turning the pages, breaking the spine so the pages will lie more flat, bending the corner of a page to mark my place.

There are few pleasures that exceed lying in bed or sitting on the couch late at night with a well-written whodunit.