Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Nice (South of France)

Nice, France
It was only a couple of year ago that we were on a river boat meandering south along the Saone River heading for Nice in the South of France.  In a strange sort of way it was deja-vu all over again. I was finally completing a journey I started back in the winter of 1967.
Paris has always been a seductive mistress. As the song title goes, ‘The Last Time I saw Paris,’ it was a much different time and I was in a much different place in my life. My first sojourn into the city of lights was supposed to be a simple pass-through as part of a full-blown retreat from the harsh winter in Denmark.

The experience of living in Denmark had been exhilarating at first. But gradually the daily work routine had grown stale with a lack of friends and no clear direction in my life. Then as the first snowflakes powdered my apartment steps, I realized another Minnesota winter was in my near future unless I split for someplace warm. Compounding Mother Nature’s wrath were my own lingering doubts as to the wisdom of leaving home for living in a foreign land without any clearly defined plans or objectives. I was like a rudderless ship facing an on-coming storm.

It didn’t help that the few friends I had up north were all moving on themselves. Tina was leaving town for Istanbul and points east. My Canadian travel companion was heading off for parts unknown with his new girlfriend.  My Spanish tutor Maria had left the laundry to go back to Spain. Heidi didn’t want me to go but that was a commitment I wasn’t ready for. I loved Denmark and its people but it was time to move on.

Map of the South of France
The south of France seemed a logical answer to a young kid who was ill-equipped and clothed to face that Nordic reality. Tall tales of warm sunshine, topless sun bathers and easy work was enough to lure me into the false sense of road security. I was assured that a quick thumb and ready smile would take me to those rocky shores in just a couple of days.

By the time I got to Paris, all bets were off. As I trudged through the city in hope of enlightenment, I only got hustled by Gypsies instead. After three days of aimless wandering I was ready to cash in my pocket money for a ticket home and three steady meals a day. I found a travel agency, got a one-way ticket home, and left on a silver bird the next day.

Paris has always been that stand-alone, a bit stand-offish kind of friend. At once it can be charming, brash, conceited, seductive, alluring and always surprising. Taken on its own terms, the city offers sunlight and sin on an equal basis. This fourth trip through Paris would mean three days in the city before we boarded ship for our cruise to Nice.

Sharon and I in Paris
Our tour guide reminded us that Paris is always ‘in season.’ This just happened to be the height of the in-season. From our high-rise hotel, we could see the waves of humanity crowding the city sidewalks. Tour groups of every imaginable size, demographic, country of origin, level of sophistication and focus of interest had swept over the city in a title wave of humanity. There wasn’t a museum, landmark, art gallery, district, avenue, historical site or coffee shop that wasn’t inundated with foreigners eager to soak up the Parisian experience. Even the best ice cream shop in town had a line of buyers stretched out around the corner.

The city is different now than back in the 60’s. Ornate low-rise buildings have been toppled by towering glass hi-rise commercial enterprises. There are more tourist boats on the Seine than commercial traffic. Bike-sharing stations pepper the city with their light blue bikes while the new tour buses squeeze into narrow side-streets that even an old donkey cart had a hard time man-euvering. Signs of progress are everywhere but nowhere as dramatically as on the ring route and major arteries that are clogged with vehicles of every size, shape and purpose from morning to night.

The city has evolved and changed yet feels much the same as it did back in the Fall of Sixty-Seven. The locals have long grown used to the artists, vagabonds, tourists and people of the streets who wander by their doorsteps in search of enlightenment. The smell of cooking, cleaning and daily living still permeates the side streets and dark alleys.

I’m physically in a different place in my life but mentally it hardly feels as if I’ve left town at all.

The distractions are everywhere. From traffic that can clip you off your feet if you aren’t looking to Gypsy girls who study your every move for an opportunity to strike at your wallet. Still some things never change. All the young French girls and women are out in force, their low-cut summer dresses, short shorts or white flowing transparent skirts (short slips underneath) a marvelous distraction. One’s eyes can’t help but wander and wonder.

Paris Murals
There’s a Parisian phrase that goes: ‘On the Left Bank, we think and on the Right Bank, we spend.’ I have little interest in the Right Bank where towering glass institutions of commerce and wealth line the Seine. My heart and my head are back on the Left Bank where Montmartre and the Latin Quarter still attract all kinds of creative spirits. While there’s no time to retrace Hemingway’s Paris haunts; I find the quaint cafes, dark narrow alleys and winding streets are still filled with the polished and unwashed alike. And while the new Bobos (bohemian bourgeois) fake their artistic lineage at gallery openings, true artists continue to live in squalor and strive to find meaning in life itself.

Montmartre still holds an allure for me. Climbing its hill brings back the same sense of wonder along with deep breaths and dampness across the brow. Parisians talk about the place the way New Yorkers talk about the Village. Hemmingway is no longer lingering at some corner café but other bohemians, artists and lost souls have taken his place.

The trip south to Nice was uneventful, restful and easy on the feet. It gave me plenty of time to ponder the times gone by and the journey I never completed back in ’67.

The first time I stumbled into Montmartre I ordered a coffee at some small corner café. It was a thick black muck that gripped my spoon and burned my throat. No wonder all the pretty young girls were sipping theirs so slowly and taking forever to finish their thimble-sized drink. The small cafes of Nice were no different.

This time around, I found a small café next to a flower shop. I ordered a beer and slowly began sipped it-French style. Crowds brushed past my chair and dropped cigarette butts at my feet. The rush of humanity flowed unabated in a steady stream past the café.

They were all looking around but not seeing a thing. Neither the flowers, the glorious sunshine, nor the warmth of France. It was just another day on the coast for them.

Me…I was finally home.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Where Have My Landmarks Gone

Old Cedar Street | St. Paul, MN
I’ve talked about this before in another blog a couple of years ago. The fact that so many, if not almost all, of the landmarks, monuments, structures and areas that played a background part of my youth and young adulthood are gone now. It’s a past history that exists now for the most part only in old black and white photos, old documentaries and textbook illustrations. It’s the result of decades of growth and change and evolution. But it’s also an erasure of any physical evidence of those places that surrounded my life as I grew up.

Old St. Paul, MN

Old St. Paul, MN
Strand Theater | Old St. Paul, MN

Granted, we’re talking about a period of over sixty years. That other blog entitled: ‘Retracing Cobblestone Steps’ focused on a few specific landmarks that had disappeared. Upon further reflection I realize that this phenomenon encompasses a much larger area and geography. In short, just about every landmark that I encountered growing up in the Twin Cities is now gone.

Normal evolution and urban development has erased any and all vestiges of those times past. It’s almost as if they never existed in the first place. Call it progress but a part of my history (and thus my memories) disappeared in the dust and rubble of those buildings.

Exchange Street | Old St Paul, MN
It begins with early homesteads on Smith Avenue, Exchange Street, and Randolph Avenue. The first two are devoid of any housing stock and the third has increased in value a thousand fold over time.

St. Louis Grade School

Cretin High School
The new downtown Saint Paul has no resemblance to the pre-World War Two stock of ancient buildings I grew up with in grade school. St. Louis grade school is gone now. Cretin High School has evolved, changed, and even moved their front entrance to another building.

My first apartment on University Avenue and my first job at the Minnesota Department of Health no longer exist. My hippie hangout in Dinky Town has been replaced with towering student high rises and a ‘tiny Target.’

KTCA Building

Triangle Bar

KTCA, the old public television station on Como Avenue has moved downtown. The Neuman Center moved off campus and the West Bank has changed colors and flavors since I hung out there. My old favorite bar is now an off-site treatment center.


Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting
But it’s not just local landmarks that have disappeared. WTVS, the public television station in Chattanooga, Tennessee bears little resemblance to the Southern enclave of rednecks and cowboys when I came there as a ‘Yankee’ from up North. MCPB, Maryland Public Television, has evolved over time and now my time frame there is considered their ‘Camelot years.’

Each new generation has created, found, and/or changed any semblance of what used to be. My old hangouts, dens of iniquity, lodging, lovemaking, entertainment, and employment are but dust in that memory bank called my past life.

Now when my grandchildren ask me about the fabulous fifties, the turbulent sixties, the seventies and beyond, I can only smile. It’s all there (or some of it) in my mind. But I don’t have any land-marks we can visit anymore. There are only old photos, sketchy memories and true embellish-ments that only a Papa can spin to the delight of eager and receptive young ears. It was the best of times and...

  • Credit should be given to the Minnesota Historical Society, Jean Day and others who have posted these old pictures on Facebook. I don’t know all their names but the pictures are priceless.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Mile High Return

Unfortunately, three of our five grandchildren live in Colorado. Of course, they wouldn’t have it any other way and they’re probably never moving to Minnesota. So to see them Sharon and I have to jump on a plane and fly to the mile high city. It’s been an ever-evolving process with them getting older with each visit.

Over the years, our trips have evolved and changed as the kids have grown and developed their own set of interests and daily activities. The LaComb household has morphed from its earlier years of daily naps, playground time, and early sports ventures into traveling teams, advanced gymnastics and one of the top soccer teams for her age category in the state.

My, how things have changed. There used to be naps in the afternoon or at least some periods of quiet time. Not anymore. The kids and their parents are throttled up and moving every hour of the day. As the ‘grandparents,’ Sharon and I just follow directions, traipse along and ask what is happening in the next hour. I probably have sat on the sidelines of every major soccer and lacrosse field in the greater Denver metropolitan area.

There is no longer time to venture north to visit boulder; a loss for me. We haven’t been back to our old familiar stomping grounds lately. But it’s been replaced by Saturday morning garage sales, Starbucks coffee nearby, cooking and art classes at home.

Then there is always plenty of fresh air on the sidelines of innumerable sporting events including gymnastics, soccer, swimming competition, lacrosse and the occasional triathlon for all three kids.

Since our ‘dress up dinner’ was such as success with the Minnesota grandchildren this summer, Sharon decided to do the same in Denver.

We went to ‘Brio,’ an upscale Italian Mediterranean cuisine restaurant nearby. That meant a sport coat and suspenders for Spencer, fancy new dresses for Maya and Samantha and a hairdo for Sammi that made her look ten years older (at least in the eyes of her ‘papa’).

Dress up dinners are  always a great way to teach the children about table manners, ordering food, asking questions of the waiter and behaving properly as young children should in that setting. Unfortunately all five grandchildren have taken to the fancy restaurant settings, interesting foods and refined environment which can only hint of the foodie adventures ahead for all of them. They must have gotten that quality from their Nana. It certainly didn’t come from Papa.

Brian showed us his data center. No photos were allowed but sufficient to say it was a large room with more computer power than most of us could comprehend.

A couple of years ago, Sharon began introducing cooking classes as well as art classes to all of the grandkids. They took to the various painting techniques like children to recess. This time around Sharon only had time for teaching several new painting techniques to the kids. They used gauze and string along with alcohol ink and acrylics to create some interesting masterpieces.

It’s been fascinating to watch the LaComb family change and evolve as the grandchildren get older. As the grandparents, Sharon and I have become the sideline cheerleaders, morning coffee companions, ‘treasure seekers’ at garage sales and drivers for a lot of sporting events. (It must been universal, there are seldom if ever games close together or at the same time.) That means carpooling, separate trips and the necessary logistics that would make UPS proud. It’s all part and parcel for a trip for mile high adventures.