Monday, September 30, 2013

The City of Light

Towards the end of September, I found myself on a plane heading to Charles de Gaule airport. I had accepted an invitation to speak at the Global Eco Cities Conference in Nante, France. It seemed simple enough.  The invitation came through the US Embassy in Paris.

Instead of flying straight to Paris from Houston, (and if you want to fly United, the old Continental) you now have to go through Chicago, Newark, or Washington DC.  That's right.  Continental buys United and the third largest city in the US loses direct flights from its so called home hub. That means that it now takes at least 2 more hours to fly to Paris than it used to, and coming back through DC adds another 2 on top of that.  I'm going to write a letter to that CEO of United about it some day. Tell him about the agony of the lower upper class and how we suffer because of his cost cutting.

As the trip began to come together it became clear that I would speaking with folks from Portland and Washington DC.  And we would be paired with cities in France.  A few days before I left, the actual itinerary arrived.  We were also going to Bordeaux, then Nantes, then Angers, and finally Paris. The day before I left, I got the final program.  It was full it seemed.

I landed in CDG airport and soon found out that the global MIFI from Verizon was not working. Europe has pretty crummy free wireless, so I found the bar at the Sheraton and paid the front desk about 20.00 dollars to get on line.  As I tried to use my email, difficulties started to arise.  My gmail account was suddenly locked down.  I got a message saying I had been locked out due to someone in Paris trying to sign in on my account.

When I tried to fix it, it didn't work.   So I went to my back up email account.  It too had a message from gmail saying my account was locked up because someone in Paris was trying to get their email.

That email had a different link to reopen the locked account and after an hour or so I got my gmail account going again.  Until then, Skype was the only communication link I had.  Predictably, the second account went down because of this person from Paris trying to gain access into the account.  It's a lot like buying tickets to Mexico  on your United card and then having your United card go dead because someone from Mexico is trying to use your card.  This kind of cyber incompetence somehow makes me feel better though.  I doubt the NSA is any better.

All of this keeps me busy and its not that long (3 hours) before I need to take the TGV to Bordeaux.  France isn't that big, TGV's are really fast, and so how long could it take?

Four and half hours.

I meet up with my future delegation member from Portland on the train.  She is about 24 hours into the trip as I now am.  When we get to Bordeaux, we finally hail a cab but only after several Bordeauleans let us know we don't know what we are doing.  It was then that the cabbie grabbed my overstuffed bag by the extension handle and broke it as he loaded it into the trunk. As the sun lights up the sky in the west though, we find ourselves in the center of a very clean old city.

Our Hotel is actually pretty nice for a Best Western.   Yes, I said Best Western. And the lady at the desk speaks good English.  Unfortunately, she gives me a weird electric converter and it makes my Apple power supply spark, so my battery begins to run all the way down.  The internet does work though.  I call Dana and tell her I'm safely arrived and ask her to call Verizon to get my personal wifi going.  She does, and Verizon calls and we all try real hard to get the Verizon plan I bought to work on the Verizon  equipment they sold me.  The Verizon guy actually felt like they had failed and actually offered me $100.00 to get some temporary European service.   Not possible of course.

I leave my hotel room and go outside.  I walk down a narrow street.   It opens up.  There are restaurants, open spaces, public art, trams, pedestrians, bars, beautiful streets, brasseries by the tens, and I go in one.

The maitre de offers me a table.  I quit drinking red wine about three years ago, but it seemed pretty silly to be in Bordeaux and not drink Bordeaux.

That small demibottle of vin de maison was perhaps the best bottle of wine I have ever had.

I could feel the stars uncrossing.

The next morning we started early as Toby the US Embassy Consul in Bordeaux took charge with his consul staffers Antonia and Sophie.  We took the bus out of town to see an electric car charger manufacturer.  Then we visited a wind developer.  We ate in a turn of the century natatorium. The day was not full, it was pregnant.  We saw parks, brown field redevelopment, downtown restorations.  We met with regional officials, local officials, various development agencies.

Then we ate dinner on that very wide River as the guests of those agencies. And it was good.

I walked home past the Boarse, the theatre plaza, the magnificent Hotel Bordeaux and the Apple store somewhere before eleven.  My Best Western room looked pretty good.

The next day we met with a dozen or so NGO's.  My little translator head phone apparatus was now becoming second nature.  After a quick lunch, we said goodby to our hosts from Bordeaux and entered the small airport,  headed for Nantes, where the global eco conference was just starting.

Our hosts there were the foreign service staff and consul from Rennes, but Nantes and Angers were in their service area.  Once again our schedule was about as dense as a presidential campaign.  But we did get to see the incredible giant machines of Nantes.

The conference was good, but oddly not well produced.  Our conferences in the US are much better and the facilities and production values are much higher.  From Nantes we drove to Angers where we met the Mayor.  Angers is a sister city of Austin and I had a short message from my Mayor for their Mayor.  There in the home of the Plantagenets, a whole new form of diplomacy was invented as their Mayor recorded a message too.

On the fourth day of our trip, we finally arrived in Paris.  I know Paris, so I didn't wait for the Diplomatic car at the train station.  That caused a little bit of a stir.

In the next two days, in presidential campaign fury, we worked as if the election was tomorrow. We did a press conference in the American Embassy.  I met our Ambassador.  Late on Friday, we walked out of the Hotel de Ville after meeting with the Vice Mayor of Paris unveiling their plans for dealing with climate change. It is a treat beyond measure to talk with officials who actually intend to respond to the challenges ahead with intelligence and ample resources.

I was exhausted.

I was in Paris.

I met my old good friend Jim Haynes at Fajitas on Rue Dalphine.

The owner had some really good Tequila.

I was at home abroad.

And the City of Light was shining.


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