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By Arthur H. Gunther III
PARIS -- It wasn’t “Innocents Abroad,” but a just-completed trip to the City of Light and then to Amsterdam has given this country bumpkin a nice comeuppance, thank you: There is life beyond my parochial shores, and our great nation has lessons to learn from other countries.
I was on a journey with my wife Lillian, who has been owed this trip by a very much non-traveler for decades now, having been a stalwart companion, wife, mother and general fine human being. I went with half-certainty that I would not enjoy the getting to and getting from but would appreciate the sights and especially the people once I arrived. In the end, I surely liked those I met and what I saw, and I found the flights much better than I had fretted about. There were hiccups, yes -- the arranged pickup at Charles de Gaulle airport didn’t show for two hours, the Amsterdam hotel forgot to clean the room one day, and, oh, my knapsack was whisked from my side at the Gare du Nord train station in Paris, leaving me in the same clothes for several days. But Mark Twain could not have had a better experience once boosted to the great continent of Europe.
Paris is, as described -- magical, overfilling with life as it is being lived, not so much life before and after, but the very moment. So, it is exhiliarating. Food is eaten in small portions, the taste savored, the wine a matching partner. Parisians are not brusque, arrogant, indifferent. They are matter of fact, yes, civil, oh absolutely, helpful, especially if you offer a few words in their language, and polite. Most of all, they -- all French are -- proud. These are the descendants of the Bastille, the citoyen (citizens) who went to arms in the 1789 Revolution, the survivors of two world wars and the Nazi occupation. An obelisk marks the guillotine site; bullet holes from the World War II Resistance dot the limestone walls of buildings along the Champs-Élysées; frequent military parades include 90 year olds standing straight at the Arc de Triomphe. They live their history.
Paris is at peace now but seemingly always ready to react to controversial politics; to changing fashion, of which it is a master; to injustice, to threats against liberté, égalité, fraternité.
The Eiffel Tower, a “temporary” structure set by Gustave Eiffel for the 1889 World’s Fair, looms over the city, a direction point for lost visitors, whether by geography or by emotion. A trip to its top, almost a must, gives views of Paris in the round, the arrondissements or districts and the history within so visible.
And then there is the Seine, the origin of Paris, with its two remaining islands, Ile St. Louis and Ile de le Citie. Ile St. Louis is where artists and other bohemians live, and now the upper classes. Ernest Hemingway wrote there, in a quiet contrasted to fast-paced Paris. Ile de le Citie is the official center, populated by many as Paris was settled and built up. Many of the famous features of the city are on it, including Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle and the Palais de Justice.
A visit to Paris can be made for pleasure, for love, for curiosity, to relax, to see historic sights. For me, the City of Light revealed life beyond my quite-ordinary, comfortable world. The Parisians we met set aside any stereotype unfortunately gained, as any such judgment is. This non-traveler would have tarried longer, as morning coffee at a sidewalk bistro table, light off the Seine and the frequent “bonjour!” in such beautiful accent began to clothe me in a comfortable jacket and shoes that I could easily wear for quite a spell. I wasn’t just American anymore, not just a proud American, but a citizen of Paris, too. I was an innocent abroad, a pilgrim, but I am a lot less so now.
Merci, mes amis.
Monday, October 8, 2012
October 8, 2012
By Arthur H. Gunther III
My Colorado correspondent reports early morning temps of 28 degrees near Grand Junction, and in Blauvelt, N.Y., this morning we were in the lower 40s. At long last, autumn seems to be beyond teasing, not welcomed by everyone but certainly more appreciated by many after a hot, even sticky, endless summer.
I can’t speak for Grand Junction save what my friend has reported over almost seven years -- that there is awesome beauty in red rock cliffs and mesas, that there are very fine wineries, that at times she is reminded of growing up in pre-Tappan Zee Bridge Rockland County, in Congers, N.Y.
If you enjoy fall, it matters not where you live, except that you have to have autumn, of course. Cape Cod, with its post-season quiet and chilled salty air, walks in its dunes, sea grass at your knees is a blessing in itself. In Rockland, there are Hudson trails at Piermont, Nyack, Haverstraw, Stony Point and Tomkins Cove that are as majestic against fall’s color as must be the pearly gates.
In Vermont, well, that’s where God must have first dipped a paintbrush, and the great and rich palette is repeated season after season, though humankind and its misuse of the environment can remix and muddle the colors in a particular year.
I imagine Seattle, with its particular fall rain, or the Carolinas or the Virginias or the Midwest, in switching gears from their summers to what is their fall, bring excitement in change, too.
If you have autumn, you get out the heavier clothing, check the furnace, load up on firewood and check the rack of summer preserves. And that’s just the physical, the details. The bigger readiness comes from the psychological, for fall is a passage to winter, when we hunker down, when we draw from our stores. It is a proper emotional time that allows us to endure all year long, to increase our mettle.
While spring brings renewal and recharge after winter, fall leads us into the cold time by getting us snug in a favorite sweater, perhaps in a comfortable chair by a good reading lamp as dark comes earlier, rays of the setting sun filtering through autumn’s wonderously beautiful colors. It's reassurance that all can be well in the cycle of things earthly.
Fall -- it’s where you have to be.
Thursday, October 4, 2012
By Arthur H. Gunther III
Neither of the presidential candidates showed us the bacon Tuesday night in the first of three national debates. Mitt Romney was more aggressive than to be expected, but he was in outer space on some of his “facts.” Barrack Obama looked like he’d rather be at dinner with his wife on their anniversary. Let’s pray the future “debates” -- these were not such -- show us the money. Re-runs of “West Wing” would have been more exciting.
Unfortunately for an American electorate so very concerned about a dwindling middle class, poor job outlook, exponential health-care costs and expensive military involvement that sends home stricken warriors but does not end corruption nor foster democracy, Obama and Romney were talking heads. Each argued poorly, invoking the same, old unfruitful Democratic and Republican rhetoric that has little to do with reality. These were two policy wonkers, and you wanted to send each to a time-out corner for not getting to any point except endless posturing.
Better this debate should have been held in a deserted factory in Detroit, or on a New York City street corner where the homeless gather around fire in an old oil drum, or on an Afghanistan road where bombs take out our military, or in an overcrowded classroom where textbooks are years old and too many students wait for help that will never come. Instead, the stage was well-lit, the candidates in spiffy suits, makeup applied, question-and-answer rehearsals having taken place. Where was reality?
Reality is Main Street, USA. Reality is the ordinary American holding his head in his hands at the kitchen table. Reality is job loss. You see tears now, in the households where the unemployed sit for two years or more, from college graduates without hope, from those who bought into the American Dream only to have it dashed by an economy built on the middle class and now controlled by entrenched politicians who ignore that class in favor of lobby money.
The many in America today know full well that Congress and the presidency are damaged systems, and great change must come if the nation is to survive. Special interests rule the roost, and the people’s voice must rise in volume against them. Otherwise we will continue to have polished-up candidates who talk a line but do not walk it. We need a person of courage to tell it like it is.
The writer is a retired newspaperman.
Monday, October 1, 2012
By Arthur H. Gunther III
At the Hudson River -- If the British had controlled this mighty waterway above New York City, Gen. Washington would not have successfully moved troops and supplies vital to the battles west and south, the colonies would have been cut in two and we might now be crown subjects. Vital to American defense was a mighty iron chain of 65 tons forged in the Ramapo Mountains and in 1778 laid in just four days from West Point to Constitution Island, effectively blocking British movement north during our American Revolution. That early “can-do” inventiveness and spirit saved a nation.
Now, in 2012, we see another Hudson crossing in the making, but will it prove to show the same moxie? The test this time is the coming replacement of a mighty bridge that has proven to be weak-kneed.
The present Tappan Zee Bridge, designed on the cheap so as to get it built quickly to connect the New York State Thruway with Gotham in 1955, is said to be failing. Its main span pontoon structure is perhaps compromised by marine wood-borers and the structure is in need of constant, costly maintenance, in part because the traffic load, particularly from trucks, is way beyond what was projected in the 1950s. No longer is there a breakdown lane, and there is no provision for adequate mass transit in a commuting region.
So, instead of unending repair, and to foster the image of a New York State that can actually solve some of its immense problems, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has arranged for relatively quick replacement, a five-year or so construction of two crossings side by side with space for possible mass transit in-between (likely bus, remote chance of light or regular rail). Design details, and as important, financing await revelation. So is the final cost, perhaps upwards of $6 billion.
But that’s future history. Back to the past: The Tappan Zee was conceived at the last moment in Thruway planning. The interstate was to end 12 miles away at Suffern and connect to New Jersey roads, which would send travelers to New York City. But since the money men realized there was no viable way to pay off Thruway bonding, the idea of a toll crossing over the Hudson -- long sought, a tunnel was planned in the 1930s -- became paramount. Thus the “cash register on the Hudson” was born, linking west and east of the Hudson to a thruway extended to the Bronx. Trouble is, the route has never been best for trucks. Much of that commerce goes to upper New England, and full interstates through Connecticut to the Atlantic shore route should have been constructed instead of the limited I-84 setup. Without the right road network, the Tappan Zee suffers undue congestion and has become old before its time. Its replacement will do little to relieve truck traffic since the combined crossings will not add significant road space, and no widening is planned where traffic funnels into the river approach. Congestion already exists there, and it will not be relieved.
Also, historically little thought has been given to mass transit for the still-developing commuter region served by the Tappan Zee. For the bridge’s first 20 years, no problems. But after that, increasing congestion. Two commuter rail lines west of the Hudson were actually abandoned in the late 1950s and mid-1960s. Today, in New York State, there is no west-of-the-Hudson one-seat train ride to a major world city just 20 miles away. So very backward, that.
Probably, there will be no rail lines on the new Hudson crossings, because of the expected heavy cost, though I’d bet that light rail could work. The governor does promise future transit, but can he guarantee that space will be used for mass transit and not truck and car vehicular lanes? We all remember how the highway and trucking lobby commandeered the mass transit space on the George Washington Bridge in 1960, which not only prevented development of modern commuter and freight rail west of the Hudson River but has greatly added to New York-New Jersey congestion, in a “build-it-and-they-will-come” effect.
In the bridge rebuild, where is the solution to heavy traffic on both sides, a workable east-west commuter system, relief from present and future air, visual and noise pollution and from local traffic runoff? The new crossings at the Tappan Zee may well prove beautiful. Surely they must be at this very scenic part of the Hudson. Indeed, give Gov. Cuomo credit for seeking to protect the river scenery in the rebuild by naming a prestigious design committee. Yet artistry cannot begin and end on the river. While the Thruway approach on the Westchester County side has been improved in the I-287 connection reconstruction, the Rockland County interstate connection looks like Fort Apache in the Bronx of the 1970s. The median barrier is beat-up and the cross-over bridges require serious work. Nice palette, but get a bigger paint brush, governor.
Where is the long-term regional planning in this bridge rebuild, big thinking that would enable Rockland, Westchester, lower upstate and the metropolitan area to move to the expanded frontier that should be the 21st century? Are we Americans no longer capable of boldness, the sort that brought us the Great Chain?
It is not far-fetched to compare creative action that saved a nation to a better-conceived Tappan Zee Bridge replacement. History is again being written on the Hudson River, but present short-sighted government planning seems to have chained our future to mediocrity. This bridge rebuild is like putting it in the middle of a forest, reachable only by a jutted trail. Come up with plans now to improve the interstate leading to the new crossings and add an HOV bus lane from Suffern to Westchester. Start planning for either a light rail connection from the Palisades Center commuter lots to Tarrytown Station on the Hudson Line. And improve the truck routes to New England, bypassing the Tappan Zee. This is a nationally vital crossing, important to commerce and defense, so close to Gotham. Washington must provide reasonable funding for a better rebuild, as it has done for big projects elsewhere in the nation.
Will the new crossings at the Tappan Zee be a resurrection of our can-do pioneering spirit? Not as planned, but we shall see.