5 Rue Ranfer de Bretenière

We stayed four weeks in France, booking three different vacation rentals through VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner). The last was 5 Rue Ranfer de Bretenière in Dijon. Being new to the whole business, we found the process to involve some adventure. This one was typical.

Unlike a hotel stay or even a timeshare, renting a stay at a privately-owned apartment means you don’t walk up to a desk in a lobby somewhere and pick up your room key. The process usually involves meeting the owner’s agent at the property on a prearranged schedule. This can be an issue.

In our case we made the booking two months in advance, and we went through several pieces of correspondence to make sure we were in agreement regarding the meeting time. Coming by train from Tours, we had to coordinate with the available train schedule and arrive at a 2 p.m. meeting. The owner assured his father would meet us there. Our train arrived about noon, giving us ample time to  have some lunch and to wander over to  the apartment with our baggage. That’s covered in a separate story.

We got there and waited. And waited. Nobody arrived at 2 p.m. Maybe we had discussed 2:30. We decided to hang on until then. Came 2:30, and we were still waiting. Barbara worked a solution. Not having any comprehension of the French phone system, she attempted using the WhatsApp on her phone, which we were assured was a solid way to communicate with the owner. Not having used it before, Barbara was having no luck. She figured to give text messaging a try, and the owner responded within seconds. A misunderstanding. The owner’s father would be there shortly.

And he did arrive shortly, and a very helpful, English-speaking, gentleman he was. He gave us a set of keys, of which we only needed one to get into the apartment, itself. There was fob that activated the front door to the building, and our host took us up and showed us all the facilities. Here is Barbara working the front door fob.

Inside accommodations were completely satisfactory. To start, there was a modern kitchen with about all you could want, except no  microwave oven.

The kitchen table was roomy enough to accommodate my computer, leaving room for two to dine.

And dine we did. On our final night Barbara insisted we remove the computer and show a grand meal she prepared for us.

The bathroom was completely satisfactory, as well, with a modern, glass-enclosed shower and a wash basin with excellent lighting for those of us who have to shave every day. Sorry, I did not get around to taking any photos.

Neither the sleeping area (until the last morning), which featured a queen-size Murphy bed. We pulled it down the first day and never put it back up. There was plenty of room left over with the bed down. Here’s the photo as we were preparing to leave for Paris.

This apartment has a balcony, which we did not use. Lighting was excellent, compared to may places we have stayed. We brought along a number communication devices (phones, tablets) and a computer, and we never ran out of places to power-up. WiFi service was absolutely solid.  Especially nice was the building’s elevator, almost a necessity, since we were on the third floor, three flights up from the street. We also welcomed the ample closet space and storage shelves, something lacking in other places we have stayed.

Leaving was straight-forward, We locked the door to the apartment and took the elevator down, dropping our keys in the number 34 mail box in the building lobby. It was time to wind down after being on the road for four weeks.

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A Demon In The Sky

I was on the road for a few weeks and unable to check the latest Amazon Prime Video offerings. This is the first thing that popped up when I got home Wednesday night, and it appears to be right on time. It was 70 years ago today that Air Force Pilot Charles Elwood Yeager achieved supersonic flight in an aircraft in level flight. This was at Muroc Air Force Base (since renamed Edwards Air Force Base, after a test pilot who was killed) in California.

In 1979 Tom Wolfe published The Right Stuff, about about this and other exploits of post war test pilots, leading to the inception of Project Mercury, this country’s initial foray into manned space flight. The movie of the same name came out in 1983 and is now playing on Amazon. It is a gripping tale, told in a somewhat humorous vein. A bunch of stuff in the movie does not jibe with actual events.

Opening scenes show Air Force film of an an actual flight of the X-1 rocket-powered aircraft built by Bell Aircraft company. At Muroc the aircraft was slung under the belly of a B-29 bomber and dropped un-powered. The pilot initiated powered flight by igniting one or more of several rocket motors. Shown is a chase plane, included in the test to provide close-up observation of the happenings. In the movie this flight ended in loss of control and a fatal crash.

In fact I have no recollection, and I was unable to find any record, of any X-1 pilot killed in such an accident. Jack Woolams was the pilot in this sequence, but he was killed later in 1946 in an accident testing an air racer.

A fictional character in the movie is this angel of death, played by Royal Dano, here seen coming to the front door of a pilot’s home to tell his young wife she is now a widow. The angel appears recurrently in the film to remind viewers of the high mortality rate of this business.

There is a demon in the sky, and it exists at Mach one, the speed of sound, at which an aircraft meets up with it’s own presence in the air and catches the air unaware. Not well studied at the time was that shock waves developed on control surfaces, interacting with them and sometimes reversing their sense. Pilots lost control of the aircraft and several died within the region approaching the speed of sound.

As this story begins to unfold the United States Air Force was just a few weeks old, having been formed out of the Army Air Corps, and the new service teamed with leading scientific minds within this country and friendly nations to study and defeat the phenomenon. Whoever could travel faster than sound would have the upper hand in future air combat.

Civilian pilot Slick Goodlin (William Russ) offered to kill the beast, and his asking price was $150,000 in 1947 dollars (about $1.6 million today). In the movie, as in real life, the brass turned to military pilot Chuck Jeager (Sam Shepard), who willingly offered to do the deed. His fee was his Air Force pay, in the order of $250 per month.

Yeager is depicted in the movie as a cool dude and very focused, which is what he has been in real life. This scene shows Yeager on horse back, inspecting the X-1 as it idles on the desert with its rocket engines shooting out weak flames.

The critical flight is tomorrow, but Yeager takes a wild ride among the Joshua trees and is clothes-lined off his horse, breaking some ribs. He conceals the injury, but he will be unable to work the handle to seal the X-1’s one door. His long-time cohort, Jack Ridley (Levon Helm), comes up with a solution. As in real life, Ridley saws off part of a broom handle and gives it to Yeager to allow him to work the door handle with his opposite hand.

Key to the story and to real life was the relationship between the pilots and their wives. Yeager’s wife, Glennis, was by all accounts a looker, and as far as I can tell she was always on his team. He named the plane “Glamorous Glennis.” Here she sees him off on the mission that could kill him.

And the rest is history. In a shallow climb the X-1 shattered the sound barrier, sending a resounding boom across the desert, initially spooking a fearful ground crew. The celebration was immediate and unbridled. The movie shows Slick feeling mighty regretful he skipped on the opportunity of a lifetime.

And the race is on. Years go by, and a new breed of pilots converges on Edwards. Here Air Force pilot Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid) heads across the desert with Trudy (Pamela Reed) and the two kids. She is not happy about the prospect. For the officer corps, it is all about getting ahead. There exists no greater objective, and the wives tie themselves to what they hope will be a rising star. This was before women’s lib, back when a woman’s worth was her husband’s success. But for Cooper it is more than a chance for advancement. He wants to ride the wild wind.

Reality at Edwards is grim and grimmer. Housing and facilities are God awful, and the periodic columns of smoke marking yet another crashed airplane wear. She leaves with the kids and goes back to San Diego.

In the meantime the Cold War race is on, and the government is looking for astronaut candidates, with an eye to staying ahead of the Soviets. Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum are two NASA recruiters, come to Edwards to find people with the Right Stuff.

And candidates come from all over. Scott Glenn is Navy fighter pilot Alan Shepard, making carrier landings and cracking wise in imitation of comedian Bill Dana, in those days making a hit on TV with his character of a reluctant astronaut with a put-on Mexican accent.

The laughs die a cruel death as the candidates are subjected to inhuman stress in a campaign designed to winnow out the second best. Here Shepard nurses his left hand, which has been run through with a needle and electrocuted.

And seven are accepted for Project Mercury.

And preparations begin for the first space flight. Immediately the fliers are appalled by NASA scientists’ view that they are not pilots but test subjects. There is more. The pilots are out at Cape Canaveral and separated from their wives, and they are still military fliers, in every tradition. Marine pilot John Glenn, (Ed Harris) is more pure than the rest, and he objects to all the hanky and all the panky going on. Gus Grissom, (Fred Ward) turns the argument in another direction, saying the real problem is the lack of input being accepted from the pilots. They solidify behind the movement, and they march on stage in unison.

Producing the iconic image of the seven Mercury astronauts in a variation of the Imperial March.

And tension builds as the first launch approaches. It is a 100% news extravaganza, and all the big names are in. World famous newsman Eric Sevareid portrays himself.

And the first American to go into space (after Ham, the chimp) is Shepard. The movie, reflecting its lighter tone, lavishes on the true account of Shepard being stranded atop a Redstone rocket as the countdown continues to be delayed. His wife observes to the other wives that he had four cups of coffee before heading off to work. A continues series of cuts show coffee being poured, a water cooler bottle burping, a lawn sprinkler. Everything you don’t want when it’s been hours since a pee break. Here he is given permission wet his drawers before launch.

And there is tragedy. Grissom is second into space and almost dies when the capsule’s hatch blows, and the capsule sinks after landing in the ocean. Shepard was celebrated and feted after after being the first, but Grissom meets the harsh reality. The second to do something is an also-ran. Additionally, the scandal of the loss of the capsule drags on official largess, and the reward for Grissom and his wife is a week off at a seaside motel.

His wife is scornful. All the sacrifice she has made for her husband’s career has brought them to this.

The first two flights were sub-orbital, and John Glenn is slated for the first orbital flight. Again the official hoopla and the press coverage take front stage. Politicians weigh in, especially Vice President Lyndon Johnson. Launch day is drawing nigh, and Johnson wants some of the lime light. He insists on a meeting with Glenn’s wife Annie (Mary Jo Deschanel).Even as I noted at the time, she was a rare prize. Good looking, too and an object of Glenn’s affection since childhood. But with severe speech impediments, she was painfully shy. As Johnson insisted, Annie resisted, resulting in a confrontation between the VP and the astronaut. Glenn held his course, forcing the most powerful man in Texas to back down.

And he was off. I watched it live on TV, and never was there before a more dramatic moment.

There was almost tragedy, as an indicator light showed trouble, and the flight was trimmed to three orbits. Then comes the moment I celebrate, as the film features my first ship. CVS Randolph was the recovery ship. I briefly, but only briefly, considered that I should have stayed on the Randolf and re-upped my enlistment. It would have been a distant brush with glory.

This must be file footage, because by the time this movie came out the Randolph was ten years scrapped.

And the drama (for the film at least) draws down. Johnson throws a huge barbecue (presumably at the Astrodome, now extinct) to toast the seven Mercury astronauts. Texas is reaping the wind, as well, as manned space flight control is being transferred to Texas. The show featured Sally Rand (played by Peggy Davis), years past her prime.

The fact is that manned space flight was not the practical side of NASA’s mission, and that part was still being carried on by Yeager and others at Edwards. The film dramatizes Yeager’s record-breaking flight in a special version of the F-104.

The Soviets has just set a new altitude record for an airplane, and Yeager beat that before his engine flamed out. We see him ejecting and suffering burns to his face before gathering up his parachute and walking to meet the ambulance out on the desert come to search for him. There is no doubt this is the meaning of The Right Stuff.

The movie ends with Cooper’s last Project Mercury flight. He flew faster and higher than any person ever had.

The show was not over, however. The narrator (Ridley) tells what happened afterward. In 1967 Grissom and two newer astronauts died in an Apollo spacecraft fire at Cape Kennedy, (now Cape Canaveral again). I will follow up with my own recollections.

Deke Slayton was washed out of the Mercury program due to a heart condition. He later got it somewhat under control and flew as docking module pilot in an Apollo flight.

In the movie Alan Shepard boasts he will go to the moon, and he did on the Apollo program, becoming the fifth man to walk on the moon.

Yeager tells the story in his autobiography—Jack Ridley was killed in 1957 when the plane he was in hit a mountain ridge in Japan. A number of famous test pilots are featured in the film, one being is test pilot Iven Ienceloe. As a youngster I followed his exploits until he was killed in 1958. Joseph Walker was killed when his F-104 chase plane collided with a North American XB-70 Valkyrie while staging a publicity photo shoot.

By all accounts, Yeager was an extraordinary flier. He entered the Army as a private during World War Two, and wound up with a warrant commission flying P-51s. Again from his biography, once over Germany he found himself alone and was advised over the radio of enemy aircraft in his area. He asked if they were the ones off to the (north?), and somebody remarked these were 50 miles away. He and Ridley hunted elk in P-38s, and he is noted for being able to follow the path if his bullets to the target. On 12 October 1944 he downed five enemy aircraft in a single mission.

He was shot down over occupied France and hidden out by the Resistance. I recall one of the Resistance fighters asked if he thought the Allies would win the war, and Yeager replied they surely would. The Frenchie thought that was cheeky, coming from a man on the run for his life in enemy territory. I recall reading this and thinking it would be affirmative even coming from somebody who had been shot down and killed.

He fled to neutral Spain with another flier, and the Germans caught up with then in the mountains along the border when they holed up in a mountain cabin and stupidly left their shoes outside the door. The two went out the back window when the Germans came through the door, shooting Yeager’s companion. Yeager placed the wounded man on a ice-covered road and sent him sliding toward freedom, never finding out what became of him.

Yeager made it back to his command and rejoined the fight, but only after the Germans were driven out of France. Higher ups did not want to risk having Yeager shot down again and being forced to give up those who rescued him.

John Glenn left the Project Mercury shortly after his flight and became a Democratic senator representing his home state of Ohio. Late in life, as a senator, he went to space again in the Shuttle. And now they are all dead. Glenn died last December, the last to die.

Except Yeager. He stayed in the Air Force and even flew missions in a Canberra bomber in Vietnam. Seventy years after becoming the first man to fly faster than sound, Chuck Yeager lives on. This is likely Yeager, playing a cameo role in the movie as a bartender, tacking up the photo of a newly-dead pilot in Pancho Barnes‘ Happy Bottom Riding Club, out in the desert.

Anachronisms there are. The scenes showing Jack Ridley with Yeager as he prepares for his altitude record flight. The problem is, these flights with F-104 prototypes took place in the early 1960s, years after Ridley’s death. The films depicts the term “A-OK” being bandied about. It did not enter the public lexicon until NASA PR man Shorty Powers used it during Shepard’s May 1961 flight, telling us all Shepard reported everything A-OK. Shepard never said that.

Glennis died on 1990. This will be Chuck’s last decade anniversary. Nobody has ever been the first to fly faster than sound and lived 80 years to tell about it.

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The Last Train to Dijon

The plan was to stay seven nights in Tours followed by six nights in Dijon. Should have been no problem. We booked vacation rentals on-line before leaving the U.S. A few days into our stay in Tours I figured to map out our trip to Dijon by train. Some kind of problem.

I have an Android tablet app that works up train schedules, and it showed multiple trips from Tours to Dijon on the appointed day. Problem was, most were multiple stops and did not get us to Dijon in time to make our two p.m. meeting with the apartment owner. Some that did also took us back to Paris, to the Montparnasse station, from which we would need a hike across town to the Lyon station, lugging our possessions. But there was one, only one, that went direct, no changes of trains, and with a minor problem. This train leaves at 6:57 in the morning and makes 19 stops, arriving in Dijon at 11:54. That’s nearly five hours on the train. We prepared ourselves.

And we were off. A bunch of other people were making the trip, at least part of it. the train started to fill up just before departure time.

But we were settled in with our carry-on bags stashed nearby. Barbara got out her knitting and prepared to spend the morning on a train.

Getting on a train typically, not always, involves walking down the platform and getting on board. You need to have your tickets, of course, and they sometimes check to make sure you have one. That is, the right ticket for your trip. You also need to cancel your ticket before you get on the train. That keeps people from reusing a ticket. There are machines in the station or on the platform that do this canceling. We had already made multiple trips this outing, and nobody had ever checked tickets. Until now.

When the train stopped at Chenonceau in total darkness, about 25 minutes out I noticed two men in SNCF livery get aboard. I got our tickets ready. Sure enough. Shortly after the train pulled out of the Chenonceau stop they were coming through our car.

One of them looked at my two tickets and punched a hole through them both. I guess that means something to the railroad.

Eight o’clock drew near, and the sky began to brighten. Presently we could sit and watch the French countryside roll by.

And the train did make 19 stops, finishing with Beaune, about 25 minutes out of Dijon.

I sat the entire trip. With some foresight I had stopped at a shop in the Tours station and had purchased a half-liter bottle of Diet Coke. That’s 3.80€. Yeah, you need to plan ahead and buy your stuff at the local grocery market. Barbara brought along four croissants, and we kept refreshed along the way.

And we were finally at the Dijon station and joining a horde of other travelers, trundling a couple of hundred yards to the station, probably none but us having made the five-hour trip.

We stopped inside the station while Barbara pulled out her phone to plot a route to the apartment, and also some lunch. We had two hours to kill before checking in. But that’s another story.

The images are from a video I shot on the trip. I will post it to my YouTube channel when I get back to my computer room in San Antonio. Keep watching.

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4 Rue Rabelais

I have this thing. I can never think of François Rabelais without recalling Robert Preston:

 Professor, her kind of woman doesn’t belong on any committee.
Of course, I shouldn’t tell you this but she advocates dirty books.
Harold: Dirty books!
Alma: Chaucer
Ethel: Rabelais
Eulalie: Balzac!

Two of these are French, and they  name streets after Balzac and Rabelais. So it happened that the apartment we rented for a week in Tours is on Rue Rabelais. And could not have picked a more bare patch of pavement. It’s about a car width, with a dream of sidewalks. It runs two blocks, and it’s done.

Of course, we knew all this before coming, thanks to the miracle of Google Maps, by which means we navigated about a mile from the train station. We rented through VRBO, Vacation Rentals by Owner.

A big part of getting into a vacation rental like this is connecting with the owner to move in. There’s no front desk with a helpful clerk to take your credit card and hand you the room keys. This can be a problem when starting from opposite sides of the planet.

In this case the process went smoothly. An email from the owner supplied us with the access code, and all we had to do was walk up to the entrance and punch in the code. Here’s Barbara doing the deed.

The exterior is on the grim side, apparently under construction, but once in there’s a recently remodeled living space. That cubby hole in the background has a work space for your computer in case you, like me, spend a lot of time banging on the keyboard.

This couch folds into another bed, but you might not want to do that unless you are serious about having an extra bed. If you open it up you will have to find another place to put the coffee table, which also serves for dining. That extra bed sucks up a big part of the living space.

There is a kitchen with the latest appliances. The microwave oven was most useful, but its control panel was opaque, in the sense that it gave little clue by way of operating procedure. A little experimentation enabled us to heat water for making tea.

There is a spacious and comfortable bed.

Extra shelf space is at a premium. If you have a bunch of stuff you like to spread out you have to make use of the top of the refrigerator, which also serves to hold facilities for coffee.

Disposing of trash seems to be a systemic problem with these French rentals. The locals know where to take the trash, but this was never explained up front to us. We had a succession of three rentals on our trip and had the same problem with each. An email exchange with the owner cleared up the matter at this apartment. At the bottom of the stairs is  a door that leads to a car garage, and past the car parked there were some trash bins.

Of course, checking out was also a cinch. Just walk out and close the door behind you. In our case there was a general failure of service lighting, and we were wondering how we were going to negotiate the looping stairwell with our luggage in the early morning hours to catch our train. I shot off an email to the owner, and when we prepared to leave in the morning there was a table lamp turned on and sitting on the floor at the top of the stairs.

We got to meet the owner, Phillippe, when he stopped by to show us the trash bins. I’m guessing he is a business man with a number of these rentals. It’s a small building, of which Phillippe may be the owner.

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Tours Saturday

Who knew this was such a lively place? Off the train from Chenonceau we figured to find some croissants for Sunday’s breakfast. Barbara knew there was a boulangerie on the Rue de Nationale, and we turned up that way, where the rail tracks ran the length of the street. The place was jumping

Yeah, crowds were coming out, the place was filling up. There was a festive air. Trains had to poke their way through. Either this is an every Saturday thing, or else everybody else was in on something we didn’t know about.

And, yes! There was Hare Krishna.

For a moment I thought we might be back in Florence.

And fire jugglers, too!

Who would not want to be in Tours on Saturday night?

We determined to finish up some dinner at the apartment and walk back to take in the action. Never happened. Dinner finished, we remembered we were getting old, and an evening lounging around after trekking about all day was what we really wanted. Who knows if we will ever be back for this?

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Places We Will Never Go Again – Chenonceau Château

There are many places well worth a visit but you know you will never go back again. This is the fabulous Chenonceau Château in the French Loire Valley.

It’s best to go here by train from Tours. Get your tickets at the Tours train station. We paid 10.60€ each for a round trip, and you had better purchase the round trip in Tours, because the whistle stop station in Chenonceau does not have a ticket office, nor any office of any kind.

Once you get off the train you’re home free. Walk across the track at the grade crossing, and you are at the château parking lot. From there it’s a short walk to the ticket office and a stroll down a tree-lined entry to the site.

Yes, the place is impressive.

There’s more inside.

There are two ticket prices. The ticket with audio guide is a few euros more. Both plans include a brochure. The cheap ticket costs about as much as your round trip train ride.

For that you get to stroll the magnificent grounds and peek into the private lives of the Catherine de Medici and the French kings who lived here.

Yeah, when the haughty C. de Medici was lounging here I bet it never entered her mind what one day I would come along and shoot up the place with my Canon SLR.

I am sure the entire facility is not covered in the tour, but what you do get to see gives you to wonder what it must have been like to live here hundreds of years ago.

Get real, people. 21st century commoners have an easier life than those people had. Picture this as your kitchen, and you will not envy the person who fixed dinner here.

The place has an interesting modern history. It was turned into a hospital for wounded soldiers in the First World War, and it was bombed by the Germans in June 1940, during the time the Germans were conquering France. Americans bombed it again, the day after the D-Day landings, hitting the chapel and (I suppose) blowing out the stained glass windows.

Early in the occupation, the Chenonceau Château straddled the demarcation between occupied France and Vichy France, the dividing line here being the Cher River. This hall spanned the boundary and was a conduit for French fleeing occupied France.

Outside, strolling the richly manicured grounds is worth the trip.

Be prepared to be impressed.

 

We took a break after touring the interior. There is a nice restaurant just outside, where Barbara Jean had some kind of chicken with vegetable medley and potatoes au gratin. I had the fish and chips.

When you head back to Tours, remember the return train platform is on the other side of the tracks from where you came in, and it’s past the street at the grade crossing. There’s a machine at the return platform where you can cancel your ticket before getting on the train. It’s a slow ride, with six stops in about 25 minutes. Way comfortable.

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Trouble in River City

It was a nice day in Tours, in the heart of the Loire Valley. For late September it was warm, also sunny. A nice day to walk about the town. We were down to the bridge over the river, took some photos, looked at the monuments to people killed in the wars. We headed back and along the Rue Nationale, where the tram rails run along the middle of the street. And I noticed a sign on a chain link fence near a church or some such building. I translated it to mean, “No singing in public.” Barbara remarked that was a silly idea. Why do they need to caution people against singing in public. Then we heard what I thought was singing. We went to investigate.

Several blocks up Nationale was clogged by a horde of people, and there was definitely singing or chanting or something going on. Barbara advised me to not get involved. We did anyhow.

As we approached we realized thousands of marchers were carrying banners and chanting, chanting in some foreign language. It sounded like French. As we got closer it became apparent they were carrying banners labeled CGT. I did not know at the time, but CGT stands for Confédération Générale du Travail, an institution in France dating back to 1895. They are a significant political party, of socialist bent, at one time allied with French Communists. They seemed to be pissed off at something.

Somebody else was pissed off. A man in a white shirt, standing on the sidelines started shouting at the marchers. He seemed very agitated and could only express himself in French

Presently one of the marchers took offense and engaged. There ensued an exchange of heated conversation, with much shouting and hand motion.

Finally the white shirt man broke it off, telling the marcher to go somewhere, which place I did not catch. Barbara made a video, which I will post later.

Meanwhile the police kept a close eye. There was definitely some trouble in River City.

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