A fortnight in Provence

Villefranche-sur-Mer FR

After a night of partying on a yacht in the harbor at Villefranche-sur-Mer, three young couples decided to come ashore for breakfast.

They tied their dinghy up to a small dock and chose a café on the promenade. They ordered espressos, croissants, and champagne.

On a dare, one of the young women ran to the end of the dock and dove into the harbor. Her companions cheered. Not to be outdone, her boyfriend followed suit.

As they clambered onto the dock, an employee of a harbor-cruise company informed them diving from the company’s dock and swimming in the harbor were not allowed.

The boyfriend resented being told what he couldn’t do. The two argued. Quickly, tempers flared.

The boyfriend shoved the cruise employee into the water. His mates pulled him out and confronted the partiers. A larger fight erupted between the two groups, as punches were thrown by both sides.

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A lot of Gaul

Roman gate, Reims FR
Porte de Mars, Reims

On the first day of my high-school Latin class, Mrs. Duncan declared (as did Julius Caesar before her), “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres.” Translation: “Gaul is a whole divided into three parts.”

Gaul? It was Greek to me.

Caesar conquered the three parts of Gaul between 58 and 50 BCE. Millions were killed or enslaved during the invasion.

The region known to Caesar as Gaul is now France, Belgium, and parts of Italy, Germany, and Switzerland.

The conquerors and the conquered proceeded to romanize the place. On a recent visit to France, I saw lots of evidence of their public projects.

My first stop was Reims (pronounced to rhyme with taunts), a city in the former province of Champagne in northeast France.

Founded around 18 BCE by a Gallic tribe, Reims became the second largest city in Roman Gaul with a population of over fifty thousand. Its residents enjoyed numerous amenities, including an aqueduct, marketplace, arena, theater, temples, and baths.

Nothing remains of these monuments above ground, except the mammoth Porte de Mars, the last remaining entry gate into the city. Below the surface, however, it’s another story, best told while the champagne chills.

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Channeling flannel

Pole climbing, Lumberjack World Championships
A shanty man’s life is a wearisome one,
Although some say it’s free from care.
It’s the swinging of an axe from morning ‘til night
In the forest wild and drear.

George W. Stace

In June the city is flush with anglers, kayakers, and canoeists, celebrating the Musky Festival.

Later in the year, over two thousand off-road cyclists jam-pack Hayward for the Chequamegon Mountain Bike Festival. The race traverses ski trails and forest roads.

But the one event most true to the city’s roots is held in July. That’s when lumberjacks and lumberjills from around the world flock to Hayward for the Lumberjack World Championships.

The plaid is wall-to-wall.

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On stony ground

At every summit, I hoped we were done with the uphill climbs, but, with each one, the top of another mountain loomed ahead in the mist.

The wind was now gusting to forty miles per hour and driving the rain sideways. I was soaked, even inside of the rain gear. The only way out of the storm was to keep climbing.

Picking my way carefully through mud and rocks, I lagged behind and lost sight of the others. Then, on a downhill section, I slipped sideways and fell.

As I tumbled, I grabbed at a wire fence to catch myself, spun around, and landed backwards against the pale.

Leaning against the wires, I paused to consider my situation. I was off-balance on a steep decline. I was ankle-deep in a mud puddle. Wind was howling at my back. And I was surprised to find myself ensnared by the fence.

As I struggled to get free, I realized the top wire to which I was clinging was barbed. The palm of my right hand was dripping blood from a couple of punctures. Another barb had impaled the shoulder of my rain jacket and held it tight. And one more had pierced both the pack cover and the pack.

I was caught like a fly in a spider’s web.

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Sacrificial acts

Children of Lir, Dublin IE

James Connolly was carried into the Stonebreakers’ Yard of Kilmainham Gaol on a stretcher.

A few days earlier, he had been in command during the armed insurrection in Dublin called the Easter Rising. The revolt was launched on April 24, 1916, by Irish rebels attempting to break free of British rule. It lasted for six days.

The rebels chose the General Post Office (GPO) to serve as their headquarters due to its central location and position as the country’s telegraph center.

After occupying the GPO, Patrick Pearse, one of the movement’s leaders, stepped in front of the building and read aloud the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

Over the next few days, fighting occurred in pockets throughout the city center. However, with greater numbers and better weapons, the British suppressed the rebellion in less than a week.

The GPO was destroyed by fire, except for the granite facade. Connolly was wounded. Pearse agreed to an unconditional surrender.

The rebel leaders were arrested, quickly tried, and sentenced to death.

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Tourist of La Mancha

Arco de la Fronteras ES

Along the harbor in Barcelona is a two-hundred-foot monument to Christopher Columbus. “Why is Columbus so widely celebrated in Spain?” I asked. “He’s from Italy.”

“No one is completely sure where he was born,” I was told, which is Spanish for “We bankrolled him, so he’s ours.”

In 1486, after twice failing to convince the king of Portugal to finance his expedition, Columbus turned to the queen of Spain. Queen Isabella rejected him as well, but he was persistent.

After a few years and several revisions to his PowerPoint presentation, Isabella finally approved his project in April of 1492.

Six months later, Columbus landed in the Bahamas. Five hundred years later, his statue was removed from in front of the city hall of my hometown.

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Test-kit tour of the UK

Pulteney Bridge, Bath
Pulteney Bridge, Bath

Once upon a time, I planned a trip to England.

Three postponements later, I was finally able to set off. Traveling internationally during a global pandemic required some additional measures.

In total, I took three COVID-19 tests—one within three days of flying, one upon arrival in London, and one within three days of returning home.

The first I took at a local pharmacy; the second, at a test station within Heathrow Airport; and the third, in a hotel room using an online test kit. All were uncomfortable. All were quick.

In England, wearing masks was mandated on public transport, such as trains and the Tube. Elsewhere, they were optional. Few of the British wore them.

At the time of the trip, eighty percent of England’s population over the age of twelve were fully vaccinated (compared to not quite sixty percent in the United States).

Due to travel restrictions, foreign tourists seem to be curiosities in England. At Waterloo station, I asked an agent to validate my rail pass. He seemed fascinated by it. “I haven’t seen one of these in two years,” he said.

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