Wednesday, February 21, 2024

The 2024 Texas NICA high school mountain bike season is rocking and rolling!

One of my favorite people: Kim, the NICA Race Director,
sporting one of Juju's Bula hats
Paris seems to be such a long time in the past, even if I published the last blog update just barely a month ago. By now, I should have already worked three of our NICA races in 2024, but thanks to a terribly, terribly cold weekend right after I got back from France the first race of the season was postponed until mid-April. It was seriously cold, and even though I was a bit bummed since the cancellation came very late and I could have stayed in Paris for a few extra days, in retrospect it was the only sensible course of action to take.

So, I hung out in Lubbock for the next couple of weeks, trying to sneak in the occasional ride but mostly having to limit myself to short recycling runs on the bike since January and early February brought some miserable weather to Lubbock. (The photos paint a much prettier picture than what reality dished up.) Cold is not my thing, as many readers know, but cold and grey skies plus winds from the north are no longer in my playbook. No wonder that during that time I booked a trip to Mexico, starting next week on March 1. 

At least I got to perfect my pisco sours while weather-stranded
Thanks to the postponement, our first NICA race thus came on February 3 and 4. Warda (about an hour east of Austin) is a loooong way from Lubbock. The beemer's odometer showed 911 miles when I finally got back after four days on the road. I was lucky enough that my friends Jay and Campbell offered me to stay in their historic house in Belton (just outside of Temple), both going to and coming from the race venue. As it was, they were off on a trip to Cabo, so I got to enjoy the place in the company of only the nekkid cats and Buck, the ginormous Great Dane or whatever breed of horse he may be.

Rain had led up to the Warda race weekend, and when I arrived at Bluff Creek Ranch on Saturday things were damn muddy. But as they like to say, "it drains well," and the about 450 south division student athletes had a great season opener. (Our league has grown enough to split Texas into two series, with a combined State Championship race in May.) On Sunday, it was sunny, the races were fair, and everybody seemed to be smiling.

Megan, JJ, and Kim (from left)

We are in Texas, after all....
I spent the next 10 or so days in Lubbock, trying to keep control of my live oak's leaves that continue to keep falling at a steady rate. The weather improved somewhat, allowing a few more rides; I enjoyed  numerous good meals and a fair amount of red wine, and soaking in my Jacuzzi became my normal evening ritual. Believe it or not, I even watched the Superbowl. No comment here on the entertainment value of this American ritual.

This past weekend, NICA's race at the 4-R Vineyards and Winery ranch about an hour east of Wichita Falls was on the schedule—the season opener for the North Division. It's the closest of all the high school races for me, at "only" 611 miles roundtrip. I believe this was the first time in all those years that 4-R was dry, but race morning was cold enough that we postponed the first start by 30 minutes to allow things to warm up a bit. Again, it was a fun weekend. I really appreciate the opportunity to work with like-minded individuals and contribute my background and experience to the success of the events. Our race staff has truly jelled over these past three seasons, ever since JJ and Kim took over as League Director and Race Director, respectively. They are the best thing that ever happened to the Texas League, except Vance McMurray's putting some vague idea into motion and founding the league 13 years ago (and bringing me onboard). Good people.

The past three days I have been back in Lubbock, riding my daily 36 miles, alone or with my buddy Smitty. The weather has turned spring-like, with the temperature topping out at 82 F today. Unfortunately, the wind blew at 27 mph by the time I limped home. I'm getting too old for this crap.
Last night, René and Masako came over for dinner, and this weekend Wes and Susan will have a bite at Chez Jürgen. Additionally, my old friend Jessie from Colorado has been overnighting here during her temporary work as an anesthesiology PA at Grace Hospital, so I have actually been speaking to real humans and not only Mr. Google, who is very good at delivering the latest news and shuffling music from Pandora.

This afternoon I filed my 2023 federal tax return, and I am up-to-date with whatever paperwork and Quicken accounting is due. It's kinda nice to be home for a few weeks (these road trips are different from jetting overseas and count for "almost" at home), but next weekend flying is going to start up again, and quite frankly, I'm excited about it!


Saturday, January 20, 2024

It's difficult to ever get enough of Paris

Honestly, I have no idea how often I have visited France's capital. The love affair started back in my high school days when we took our senior trip with our French teacher, Herr Kaduk, because, after all, we were in the intensive French course. (Yeah, right, that no longer has any significance in my ability to converse.) Those students who were enrolled in intensive math got to travel to Moscow....

When I started my true dabbling in independent travel, aka backpacking for three months across Europe with a Eurail Pass in 1974, my first stop after getting on the train in Aachen was Paris. A year later, Howard and I spent the better part of a week in his sister's apartment in the City of Love after terrorizing Tunisia and Sardinia beforehand. I remember smuggling Judy into France in my dad's Peugeot—Americans at the time needed a visa, but no problem entering via the tiny, un-manned border posts. The mistake was to assume that nobody would check her papers upon exit. Oh man, she threw the craziest fit, crying and telling the officers "Just take me to jail and lock me up forever!" Really. Somehow we got her back across the border, and it didn't stop us to travel to Paris numerous times, either on quick weekend trips or a little longer playing tour guides for friends and family.

Going back through The Jürgen Chronicles you can find a handful or more instances of my not being solo whilst in Paris. Ah, l'amour.... This time around, the best-laid plans met with nothing but adversity, and Birgit encountered one set-back after the other and was not able to meet up with me for what would have been her 60th birthday celebration. Well, so it goes.

I myself experienced some initial hurdles during my trip, which should have been routine enough: Get to the airport 45 minutes before the flight out of Lubbock on a Tuesday morning, spend a few relaxed hours in Dallas in the lounge, connect in Heathrow (because there was no availability for award flights directly to CDG), and arrive around noon the next day. As seems to be normal nowadays, our AA flight was first delayed, then cancelled, because it was "leaking fuel onto the tarmac," and most of the other flights out of Lubbock had other delays that were partly caused by strong winds in Dallas that allowed only one runway to be used for all arrivals and departures.

Fortunately I have learned to assume the worst when these situations arrive, and I took things in my own hands. Despite what had initially seemed like a safe time buffer in Dallas I realized that in the best-case scenario I'd be sprinting through terminals to catch my connecting flight to LHR—and so I talked one of the local AA agents into booking me onto a British Airlines flight that was going to give me another two hours of ground time in DFW before departure. Somehow young Brittany didn't book me into Business; I assume that she was inexperienced enough to think that domestic First is the same as international First. And suddenly the world brightened when I saw "Seat 4A," which clearly put me at the top of the food chain. Once I was in DFW I had access to the really, really nice Flagship First Dining section of AA's top lounge, something that only ticketed First Class passengers get to enjoy. And the flight in BA's Airbus A380 was pretty damn nice, too.

Despite all these shenanigans, eventually I didn't experience any delay in my eventual arrival in Charles de Gaulle's T2. It didn't take long to buy my ticket for the RER B train into the city center, and from the Saint-Michel—Notre-Dame station it was less than a 10-minute walk to my Airbnb. My host, Isabelle, and her adult son had just arrived themselves, and after exchanging keys and chatting about traveling (they're consummate road warriors themselves) I finally was installed in the Quartier Latin, in 78 rue Mazarine. Well done!

For the next week I used this ideal Airbnb as my homebase for daily forays to familiar places as well as spots that I had never visited before. Thursday, my first full day on the ground, was a spectacularly sunny (yet also very cold) day that I used to ride about 20 miles all over town using Paris' original sharebike, the Vélib. Nowadays, a day pass costs €5.00, which is just a few pennies more in US currency (back in about 2006 it was just one euro). This 24-hour pass gives access to the system's traditional "acoustic" bikes (vs. e-bikes—get it? Think guitars!). There are almost 1,400 docking stations in Paris with around 19,000 bikes, and with the Vélib app one can see real-time which nearby stations have bikes available or offer some free docking spots. Especially the latter is an important consideration since one can rent a bike only for up to 30 minutes before incurring additional charges. Stay within the 30-minute limit, and you don't pay any more than those initial €5.00.

I had brought along my helmet so I'd be able to use the Vélibs guilt free. Danger comes less from cars than—especially—rogue e-bikes and scooters, some of which must have been modified since they zip along at insane speeds. Almost all streets in Paris have bike markings, and even the most narrow one-way lanes can be used by bikes in both directions. Some websites estimate that around 500,000 bike trips are being taken in Paris on a daily basis, and if you Google a bit you find amazing statistics in regard to the city's cycling infrastructure. Cars seem to be resigned to the fact that cyclists have taken over, and it is obvious that if you need to get somewhere on time, the bike is the only transportation option that will make that possible.

Other bike players abound: Lime/Uber, Dott, Tier, Zoov, and several others. However, all of these are dock-less, which means that they get dropped off (and often simply dropped) anywhere and everywhere. Quite frankly, it's a nuisance that many cities live with. Add to that carelessly parked electric scooters and the sharebike concept suddenly gets tainted.

Having visited Paris as often as I have means that I do not feel compelled to follow any kind of schedule to not miss any "must-sees." Instead, every day I'd get up thinking about what neighborhood or small museum I would want to explore. With severely overcast, almost foggy and very cold temperatures prevailing for the next few days after my first day on the Vélib I preferred to simply walk and occasionally duck into a shop, an art gallery, or a bistro so I could warm up. I ended up walking between six to ten miles a day, window-shopping, people-watching, and simply enjoying the vibe that Paris gives off. It is an extremely walkable city, and my location on the Left Bank was ideal for my daily forays.

The plan had been for Birgit to join me for her 60th birthday, but once again fate conspired against the best-laid plans: family issues, a weeklong strike by German train engineers, and then another snowmageddon that hit Germany kept her from even a quick two-day visit. Well, we will keep trying. It was a bit of a bummer to put it mildly, but I didn't let it ruin my stay. I've visited places by myself before, and I always seem to manage just fine.

When it comes to museums in Paris, everybody thinks of the deservedly world-renowned Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay, or L'Orangerie. They are top museums that one can tour time and again, but they also carry hefty entry fees and attract hordes of tourists even in the winter months. So, this time I wanted to see new places, and free just meant that I would have extra money for beers 😜. I have no idea how I had managed to never have visited the outstanding Musée d'Art Moderne de Paris or the nearby Petit Palais. Both are highly recommendable, as is the Musée de Carnavalet in the Marais district (as well as the intimate Maison de Victor Hugo), another museum that doesn't charge a €23 admittance fee that the Louvre now demands. I had been to the Carnavalet once before, but as a museum that is dedicated to nothing but the history of Paris it is a tour de force of exhibits that deserves reading in detail the excellent interpretive multilingual texts.

The last time I had been in Paris, the world hadn't yet heard of COVID and Notre Dame had not been crippled by that devastating fire. I tell you, it was quite sobering to see all the scaffolding, the cranes, and the bright LED lights illuminating the (re)construction site day and night. Hopes had been to conclude the restorative work by the time the Olympics will begin this summer, but it looks more as if it will be the end of 2024 before Notre Dame will be back in its original state—and I mean original as immense efforts have been and are being made to reconstruct according to historical plans, using materials that are coming from the same quarries and forests, and employing construction methods that, aside from incorporating modern fire suppression methods, hark back to earlier centuries. It was my first visit to Paris ever without seeing Notre Dame from the inside.

To make up for not seeing Notre Dame from the inside I decided to continue adding to my list of microbreweries and taprooms at an accelerated pace. (OK, I admit I had to find some sort of segue from the paragraph before the pics of ND, and this is the best I could come up with.) Asking Google to provide me with a list of "microbreweries near me" will yield dozens of entries for brasseries within 500 meters that, technically speaking, are of course no longer true breweries. Any bistro will be listed, and one has to look a bit closer to find the cool places that still brew or at least have some decent local taps. One standout was Les Caves Alliées, a very small taproom just a couple of blocks from my Airbnb that was empty when I arrived and stayed so for at least an hour, during which I had an animated conversation with Gabrielle, the punky keeper of the place who also works gigs in Le Café des Chats, which Tripadvisor lauds as a cat-lover's must-do. While sampling various brews on that slow Sunday afternoon we discussed politics, health care systems, strikes, why nobody can afford to live in Paris (and where they live), and how a stunning number of people pay the exorbitant prices for lunch: Their employers set them up with meal vouchers that are accepted by most restaurants and that are part of middle-class workers' work contracts. Who would have thunk! Those nattily dressed businessmen are actually on, let's be blunt, food stamp!
A restaurant advertising which meal vouchers are accepted

My French stinks to high heaven, at least compared to what it used to be back in my college days. But it still serves its purpose, and I think that if I were to just say bye to those bike races and relocate for a few months to Provence it would all come back. It was fun to go in the mornings to the boulangerie 30 meters from my Airbnb for croissants or a fresh baguette and try to not get recognized as the touriste that I obviously am. Whenever I ducked into a brasserie I tried to use the local lingo as well, of course.

Just across the street from my apartment was the Café Le Buci, a corner bistro where twice I indulged in a dozen oysters et une carafe du vin blanc. Seafood in France is a biggie, and Le Buci had an excellent price of €15 pour la douzaine. The same dozen at the Atlas, just down the street (same size and type, as oysters are well classified) would have set me back €43. One can pick up huîtres in the markets, along with the gorgeous-looking Saint-Jacques (scallops), sea urchins (I have never eaten them, I have to admit, as I've never noticed them on a menu), and all kinds of mollusks and snails that only a French cook would know what to do with. BTW, the price for the half-liter carafe of house wine was a whopping €20 ....

As mentioned earlier, the plan had been to celebrate Birgit's 60th and I had planned to take her out for a nice dinner. So, with plans changed I decided to treat myself to my own birthday dinner—after all, I turned 68 on the day of my return flight. And so I made a reservation for a table for one at Le Procope, one of the oldest restaurants (they claim the oldest, and even the oldest in the world, but a quick fact check shows some hiccups) in Paris. Regardless of the various claims, dating back to 1686 and having been frequented by the likes of Danton, Robespierre, Napoleon, Victor Hugo, Balzac, and most of the pantheon of French icons gives the place a certain foodie cred. And boy, I was not disappointed. Upon entry into the cush foyer and relinquishing my coat to a footman I was led into a dining room that could have been straight from the 17th century.

Ambience is one thing, but service and food quality need to match if the experience is to fully satisfy. Both surpassed my expectations! For starters I ordered escargot, perfectly prepared in herb butter. And for my main dish I decided on an original recipe that goes back to the founding days, tête de veau en cocotte. Not everybody may enjoy the thought of calf's head prepared in a small Dutch oven, but let me tell you, it is to absolutely die for. I could have swum in the cocotte and drowned and been the happiest person in all of Paris at that moment. Add to that a decent (no, not exceptional) bottle of wine plus an assortment of different cheeses, and you'd think I would have had to take out a small mortgage. Incredibly, Le Procope gives you the most bang for your buck you could ask for, and I walked out of there with a bill of less than $100, eighty-seven euros to be exact. That evening was worth flying across the Atlantic!

Another Paris restaurant with history (well, which one doesn't have history?) is the Bouillon Chartier, with the original one in the Grands Boulevard district having opened in 1896, serving simple, affordable meals to the middle class. Judy and I loved to go there on our trips, and I am sure that our step-children (Alison and Emily) and the rest of le baggage did as well. A few years later, a second location was opened in the Montparnasse area, but I had never been there. On my last full day in the city it was time to rectify that situation. Both restaurants serve meals from 11:00 am until midnight, service continu, and generally people will line up for a while as there are no reservations.

The interior of both restaurants is art nouveau, and you'll be served by surly waiters in black and white who don't mind bumping into you and chiding you for not being ready to order. Your addition will be written out on the paper table "cloth." The menu has simple meals ranging from egg with mayonnaise as a starter to Alsassian sausages from the grill as a main. Prices range from from €2.50 to not more than about €13.00 for the most expensive entrée, and half a liter of house wine in a carafe is €6.50. Don't order it but spring for a bottled one for an extra two euros, which I did on the advice of the couple with whom I shared the table. It was drinkable. You can expect to sit together with strangers since every seat at every table is utilized, making for an interesting dining experience. My smoked herring fillet in oil followed by andouille avec pommes frites followed by a piece of camembert and accompanied by that 375ml bottle of Bordeaux set me back about €25.00; the atmosphere and ambience were priceless.

I spent my last night in an airport hotel using an award night certificate, meaning I didn't have to share the RER at 7:00 a.m. with the usual hordes of commuters. It was a good decision as it was a rainy and blustery morning, yet I had just a two-minute walk to the free CDGVAL airport shuttle that connects the various terminals, parking lots, and airport hotels. After a few minutes I had cleared security (rather rude personnel, so keep your mouth shut) and enjoyed my birthday champagne in the new Exige lounge before boarding my direct flight to DFW. It wouldn't have been American Airlines had there not been some mechanical problem: My tray table was stuck and thus inoperable, and with the usual full-to-the-gills flight there was no other option than to balance my Business class meal on a pillow on my knees. Hmmm. But don't worry: AA Customer Service has already deposited 10,000 miles into my account in acknowledgement of my "inconvenience." You gotta love their language .... We got early enough to Dallas that I was able to advance my flight to Lubbock by two hours, and so another trip ended on a positive note.

So, that's my Paris trip. I left out so much: the Grand Mosque de Paris, a few words about the Montparnasse Tower, comments and explanations about the bouquinistes, ditto in regard to the complete lack of demonstrations and strikes, how much fun it is to go to one of the huge department stores such as the BHV Marais with their amazing ladies underwear and kitchen utensil sections, riding the Place d'Etoile and les Champs Elysées on a crap bike and thinking about the last Tour de France— it's all pretty awesome, you know? I saw the Americans' gift to Paris of a 1:4 replica of the Statue of Liberty; seagulls being confused by the ice-over pools in the Jardin du Luxembourg; that pointy finger called the La Bastille monument; the  Coulée Verte René-Dumont where Sabine introduced me to urban planning; the Centre Pompidou; the oh-so-new-yet-attractive area around Les Halles; and so much more (as they always say). 

Quite frankly, I can hardly wait for my next trip to Paris, but it certainly won't be during this year's Olympics, even if the ITA were to offer me a position to "Keep Sports Clean." Paris and that kind of work just don't go hand-in-hand for me.