21 May 2006

Homage to My Daughter Isabel

I just spent 6 full days with my daughter Isabel in France and I long for more. It was her 10th birthday the day she left for Paris and this was her birthday present – a trip to Paris to be with me. She arrived early in the morning and I was so happy to see her that I cried. Belle cried too but for other reasons – she didn’t like the airline food and had decided to avoid it and that upset her. We rode a bus to the train station and then took multiple trains back into Paris and our hotel. This is the second time Belle has been to Paris. She was 4 when she made her previous visit and over the course of our 6 days together I learned that she had incredibly sharp memories of that trip. I was worried that she might forget THIS never imagining that she has a clear recall of a trip she made when she was 4. It is clear to me now that she will remember this trip for the rest of her life.

Within minutes of her arrival Belle’s first request was to ride a double decker carousel which she remembered from her last visit. She told me where she thought it was and we found it at the park in front Sacre Couer in Montmartre. She rode it three times and was quite pleased.

The next thing we did was go to the Bateau Mouche for a water tour of Paris. The best part of the ride was when Belle crawled up into my lap and I held her as we both fell asleep for a large portion of the ride. Cost: 8 Euro - Experience: Priceless

The rest of our time is now a blur of metro, TGV and bus rides. While she was hesitant to ride her first metro Belle soon became a skilled “metro surfer” asking me if we could use metro instead of walking a few blocks. She enjoyed trying to ride without holding the rail while I was always reminder her to do just that – HOLD ON. She loved opening the subway and bus doors. She loved walking with me, which we did a lot, and she always either held my hand or my arm. She never strayed more than a couple of feet away from me.

We used bus 80 to get everywhere the metro didn’t take us and soon she started calling it buseighty finding the one word version funnier than my two word version. We joked about the talking GPS systems in the taxi cabs – TURN LEFT IN 100 METERS. As we were walking Belle would all of the sudden say TURN LEFT IN 1 METER and then walk into a wall to make me laugh – I DID!!

We went clothes shopping and she seemed so at ease as we found bargains for t-shirts, skirts and pants at the Monoprix and Okaido. She wasn’t at ease when she tried on the most amazing pink cololured dress which fit her perfectly. The saleswoman doted on her and told her how beautiful she looked and as the salesperson walked away Belle said she didn’t want it. I didn’t press her then, or later, but from what I know of Belle she hates to be the centre of attention or to stick out at all. I presume that this is what she was thinking when she said NO.

We had the greatest time together. As she was waiting to leave at the airport, two women in front of us started talking to Belle. They realized that she was flying alone and they wanted to set her at ease. They told Belle that in terms of “Cool” that a trip to Paris with her father and buying clothes was absolutely the “Coolest thing a kid could do.” She smiled back at them but didn’t really respond.

It is hard to know what Belle was thinking. I haven’t spent a lot of time with her over the past 2 years and I really have been away so much of her life traveling from place to place. I know she misses me because she tells me so. At one point we were walking back to our hotel and Belle said to me “Daddy, you are famous…you are in newspapers and on TV and you are famous.” I thanked her for thinking I was famous but I explained that I really wasn’t famous at all. I don’t think she really understood. She had delivered to me an article which featured me and the work I was doing in Macedonia. My work is what has always taken me away from her.

I was left wondering what she will think of me when she turns 20. Will she still think I am famous or will she resent the fact that I was gone for so much of her life?

As she left me at the airport I told her that I loved her endlessly and will miss her very much. She didn’t realize that I watched her until she disappeared never looking back to see if I was there. I cried then as I am crying now.

02 May 2006

Egypt - 2001

I am riding on the train between the two cities after having spent 24 hours in Alexandria, or Alex as it is called by Egyptians. In my ears I am hearing the CD-ROM soundtrack from The Choir, a BBC production. As I look out the window, I am seeing land that has been continuously tilled for the past 3000 years, if not more. Added to the landscape are power lines, roads, and the rails I am riding upon, but the way of life has probably not changed much over time. Prior to leaving for Alex I had read that it was a city missing life, and beauty, sitting on the Mediterranean Sea. The author of that piece could not have been further from the truth. During my travels through Alex, which took me from one end to another, I saw a vibrant and colourful city full of well-dressed people walking from store to store. I was rather pleasantly surprised.

My day in Alexandria started when I was greeted at the railway station by my pre-arranged guide. He took me to my hotel, the Hotel Metropol where I was immediately impressed. When you walk in the front door, you are met with the smell of “clean”. I am one of the few people in the world who finds joy out of cleaning house. I recognise the smell of cleanliness and it was present in this hotel, more so than my much larger hotel in Cairo. In order to get to my floor I stepped onto an elevator that has been operational for at least 100 years. Barely large enough for three people, and located in the stair well, it ascends in slow but sure fashion. I feel as if I have stepped back in time. My room was more than adequate and very clean – not a spot of dirt or grime anywhere. I immediately go to the window and open it to see a sight I have never before seen, the Mediterranean Sea. There it is breaking against the sea wall. I also get my first view of the city crescent lying along the Sea for what seems like miles.

Not wanting to waste any time, I leave the hotel, with my guide, and we go off to the Citadel. This is a fortress built over 1400 years ago to protect the city from attack. Like the pyramids, it is a marvelous example of the enormous capabilities that the Egyptians have historically possessed. As I walked though the building, I tried to imagine what life must have been like when this building was first built. I also thought about how close I was to Turkey almost believing that if I just squinted a little I might be able to make out some details of the land. We left the Citadel and drove on the coastal road through town until we reached the Castle of King Farouk, the deposed king of Egypt. I will give it to Farouk; he certainly knew grandeur and how to locate the most beautiful site in Alexandria. The entire grounds are now full of hotels and special clubs intended for the richest people of Egypt, but during Farouks time, the majestic quality of his castle alone would have been astounding. President Mubarek presently uses the Castle to entertain important dignitaries. Just prior to leaving I walked along one of the many beaches on the grounds and touched the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Another Sea added to my minds collection. I have now touched all of the largest oceans in Seas in the world.

We left Farouks Palace just as he Sun was beginning to set. We drive back to the hotel where I freshened up a bit before leaving for a Seafood restaurant that had been recommended to me for both the view and the quality of the food – the Tikka Fish Market did not disappoint in either respect. When you arrive you asked to walk up to the fist counter and select your meal. The fish, shrimp, and crab are absolutely fresh. When I returned to the table, an assortment of appetizers, garden vegetables and breads were neatly lined up along the full extent of the dining table. My fish arrived very quickly, cooked to perfection. In all, the meal was absolutely perfect.

After dinner, my guide took me back to the Hotel and my evening was just beginning. For the next couple of hours I traversed the streets and back alleys of downtown Alexandria. The stores are different than in Cairo catering less to the needs of tourists. Unfortunately for me I was searching out purely tourist goods such as Papyrus and something for my children. I settled for a few Cokes along the way, and the joy are seeing Egyptians in their element.

The next day started late. I did something I have never done in my lifetime, I slept until Ten o’clock in the morning, I guess my walks through Alexandria tired me out. I went down to the free breakfast provided by the Hotel and it was as grand and opulent as the Hotel itself. My guide picked me up after the breakfast to deposit me at the train station for my return trip but not before stopping at a Tea Restaurant where we sat for awhile while he enjoyed the joys of the houka. While I did not partake, it was interesting to sit there and watch the people in the restaurant. I felt like I was part of a movie scene. I soon boarded the train back to Cairo leaving Alexandria behind vowing to return someday with my children.

Hungary - Country 87 with an Asterisk

The prime rule for being able to a country to the list of countries which you have visited is that you MUST leave the airport. That is the only real rule I have for this make believe contest and perhaps you must eat a meal when you leave the airport in order to say that you have really been in that country. Today I made a quick transit into and out of Hungary. As I exited my plane I saw the TRANSIT PASSENGERS sign pointing one direction and the Baggage Claim and Customs booth the other direction. I had 2 ½ hours between flights and could have easily left the airport and been able to count this as country 87 but I didn’t. Instead I went to the transit desk to reconfirm my onward passage as I had been told to do by the ticketing agent in Sweden. This is the same ticket agent who forgot to place a baggage claim sticker on the back of my ticket after retagging my bag for the third time. He made a joke about how his day wasn’t going well and it was still quite early. I asked him to place my Frequent Flyer number in my record and that took nearly 5 minutes to do only to find out that the airline does not participate in any Frequent Flyer programme.

So back to the Transit desk in Budapest.

This uniformed woman with short dark hair takes about 40 seconds before looking up at me as I am standing first in line. She asks for my ticket which I hand to her. She asks if I have any luggage checked and I respond in the affirmative. She asks for the baggage sticker. I look at my ticket and there is not one there. I know that the man in Sweden gave and retracted 2 baggage stickers but he must have not given me the 3rd one. I said to the woman that the person who processed my ticket in Sweden was having a bad day and that it was likely the case that the third time he did my baggage sticker he simply forgot to place it on my ticket.

Judging from the reaction of this woman upon telling her this story you would have thought I had just told her that something that completely undermined her basic understanding of life.

“Sir, there are three things expected of you when you travel – your passport, your ticket and you baggage claim ticket”

“Sir, I cannot imagine that someone who works at an airport would not provide you with a baggage sticker”

I asked her if she thought I was lying for some reason. I suggested that it was too early in the morning for her to be so angry at a random traveler.

“Sir, how can I help you if you don’t have a baggage ticket?”

I said the plane is just right there – we could see it – that I could go out and identify my baggage and most likely the sticker the gentlemen neglected to give me in Stockholm would be found.

“Sir, you may not go near the plane. Without the baggage ticket I cannot guarantee that the bag will make it to Skopje”

But the tags clearly had SKP on them I said. Wouldn’t they be routed to Skopje even though I didn’t have a baggage claim ticket?

“Sir, without this ticket we do not know whether your bags will make it to their final destination”

OK, OK!! I got it. Thank you for your help. I am sorry that I disturbed your day.

About 20 minutes later I went to the same desk but a different person. I explained the exchange with the previous person and asked whether there was anything I could do to assure that my luggage made it to Skopje. She walked over to the woman and they spoke for a moment and then returned to me.

“Sir, she told you that your bag would be fine and it would make it to Skopje what more are you seeking?”

WHAT? She never said that. You have to be kidding? Why would I come up to you and tell you something that someone told me if it were not true?

“Sir, I don’t know why you would do that!”

I went and sat down and decided against leaving the airport.

My bag arrived in Skopje and was the first bag on the carousel.

Hungary will always have an asterisk next to it.

HUNGARY* Country 87

(* = derailed by two helpful women at the transit desk)