Saturday, August 29, 2015


We enjoyed our one-night stay in Bologna, but had a nightmarish experience trying to leave the city. We got to the train station at 9:20 for our 9:58 train. The reader board in the waiting area showed our train, but without a platform number. We checked the train roster posted in the waiting area and it said it normally leaves from Platform 4, but when we got to that platform the reader board there showed a different train, one that would leave at 10:10. We waited ten minutes to see whether it would change to our train. We asked a police officer, who called somebody on his radio and told us Platform 10. We went over there, and found others waiting for our train; I never figured out how they knew about Platform 10—maybe they had an app that gave up-to-date details, or maybe all of them had asked police or other officials. It got to be 9:57, still no platform indicated on the board. Then finally something happened—it showed that it would be 15 minutes late, still no platform. After 15 minutes, it showed 30 minutes late, still no platform. We'd been standing for over an hour, as there were no benches on the platforms, and we had to keep moving as people lit up cigarettes. As the new time approached (10:25), suddenly a platform appeared on the board: Platform 3!

Everybody on Platform 10 rushed downstairs into the corridor to get to Platform 3. But the corridor was so blocked with people shoving in both directions, that it was almost a standstill. I felt a bit nauseous and claustrophobic, being trapped in a crowd (that's the nightmare aspect), and wondering whether the train would take off before we got to it. A woman near Les had a panic attack, and a police officer edged his way through the crowd to help her. Because I had less luggage, I made more forward progress than Les, and finally got up to Platform 3. I was prepared to stand in the doorway to prevent the train from leaving until Les could catch up. But in the end, even after Les got on, the train stayed there 10 minutes more. So there'd been no need for panic, but we had no way to know that as we struggled to get to our reserved train.

We got to San Benedetto del Tronto, where we spent a week at the Itala Kongreso, Italy's annual Esperanto convention. There were about 250 people, half Italians and half from 31 other countries. The week included many options: excursions every day, classes at three levels and two seminars in the mornings, talks in the afternoons, and entertainment in the evenings. As usual, often two or three things happening simultaneously, so one had to make decisions.

Banner announcing the convention

This was a very intellectual, academic, type of conference. The talks were all by university professor types. For example, a talk by a linguist about the appearance (or not) of definite articles ("the") and indefinite articles ("a") in European languages; some languages use both (English), some use neither (Russian), some use one but not the other; the speaker showed how, from 2000 years ago, articles spread from certain languages to others. Another very interesting talk, by a professor of linguistics, was on "Why should one read literature"; one fact I learned is that 40% of university graduates in the U.S. read no literature at all after graduation; I'm actually surprised that as many as 60% do read literature.

One ongoing seminar discussed the idea that the whole world is becoming more and more like the U.S. (e.g. individualistic, materialistic, businesses having a lot of power even in governmental and university affairs, using sophisticated advertising techniques to manipulate people's desires): is it true, and—if so—what are the consequences of that? Is there an alternative model, and how can we encourage that one? The discussion on topics like this is interesting, where the participants bring a perspective from many countries.

Our favorite talks were a three-part lecture series on the evolution of language, numbers, and calendars. An interesting point: the fact that 80 in French is quatre-vingt (four 20's) shows that in the past the French used base 20 for numbers. Also, in French and some other languages, the word for nine and new are the same or similar (e.g., neuf), indicating that they once had 8 as their base. Interesting fact: the days of the week in Latin-derived countries relate to the order of the things seen in the sky: moon (Lundo), Mars (Mardo), Mercury (Merkredo), Saturn (Saturday), etc. Another one that I didn't know: from 1929 to 1940 the Russian calendar had, first, 5 days in a week (skipping Saturday and Sunday), then 6 (in order to have one rest day). I'd like to have had a whole semester to cover the same material in a less rushed manner.

The organizer arranged for us to stay at a small (6-room) hotel above a cafe/bar. We had our breakfast in the bar, and dinners and suppers at the conference hotel where most of the events were held. Our breakfasts were totally decadent: a piece of delicious cake baked by the owner's wife, an exquisite cornetto (like a croissant, but in many wonderful flavors like pistachio, and so warm they melt in your mouth), a cup of fresh organic juice, grapes or a plum, and cappuccino.

We did three half-day walking excursions in the town, and one full-day excursion by tour bus. The walking tours had an Italian professional guide, who needed to be translated into Esperanto, which doubled the amount of talking. We prefer tours like in the Toronto event, where a local person, not a professional guide, leads the tour and talks only in Esperanto. Also, the pace was too slow for us; although I can easily walk five miles at a fast clip, I find it difficult to walk even one mile slowly, and it's even harder for me to stand for long periods listening to a guide. Often during the tours, the Italian guide would boom out each sentence, then the Esperanto translator would give his version in a soft voice difficult to hear, especially as the Italians in the group had already understood it and felt like it was OK to talk during the translated version.

One walk centered on the many statues in town. We liked the fact that each statue has a miniature one next to it, with Braille explanations, for blind people. Also to help the blind, many streets had textured pathways on the sidewalks, including ones leading to the sculptures. We'd first noticed these in Bern. Since the Esperanto Society for the Blind was holding its annual convention in conjunction with the Italian convention, these were nice features for them. Another tour was to the Museo del Mare, with its three sections: amphora, the local fishing industry, and fish and other sea creatures.

Whimsical statue in San Benedetto; note the miniature version on the left for blind people

We did an all-day excursion to several cities up the coast. The first one, Loreto, was our favorite, and we'd have liked to spend more time there. Les heard his beloved Eurasian collared dove for the first time in Italy, and captured his best photo yet.


The next stop was Recanati, where we toured the library of Giacomo Leopardi; he's a well-loved Italian poet. (An Italian fellow was horrified to find out that we'd never heard of Leopardi, and immediately recited a long poem by heart.) Our last town was Ancona. We visited the very unusual Museo Tattile Statale Omero, a tactile art museum where touching is not only allowed but encouraged. It contains sculptures, both originals and also copies of famous ones such as Michaelangelo's David, all geared for blind people to be able to get a sense of.


One evening a good one-woman play was presented, and on other evenings, there were concerts at the outdoor concert venue. One concert was by Kim Henriksen, a well-loved Esperanto rock singer (see a video from an earlier performance). All these evening events started at 9:30, and we were always surprised on the way back, at 11pm or so, to see that children were still playing in the playgrounds—long after children in the U.S. would be in bed.

Rock concert at the outdoor pavilion

San Benedetto del Tronto is a beach town on the Adriatic Sea. There were lots of tourists, but they all seemed to be Italians. (The main clerk at the conference hotel, the biggest in the city, spoke no English; Les sometimes communicated with him in French, which the clerk knew a bit.) The beach, similar to all the beaches we passed in the train, had thousands of umbrellas, each beach area arranged in grids, with tables and lounge chairs. There'd be one grid of blue umbrellas followed by a grid of red-yellow umbrellas, etc. I think the idea is that you rent your umbrella and its furnishings for a period of time, and I'm guessing that you choose your favorite beach based on whether it has a good playground, or area for soccer or volleyball or bocce, or whatever is important to you. Neither Les nor I are beach people, so we didn't take advantage of this part of San Benedetto.

Beach area of San Benedetto, one of a hundred or more

The first weekend there, we hit San Benedetto's Antico e le Palme, one of the most important exhibitions of antiques in Italy with hundreds of booths lining the pedestrian malls, each selling furniture, paintings, sculptures, carpets, ceramics, jewelry, books and prints. and antiques; this happens four times a year. On Tuesday and Friday mornings, all year, there are also hundreds of booths, this time selling clothing, fruits, plants, pots, etc. Every evening until midnight and later there's music in the plazas, buskers, masses of people roaming around. The streets always felt completely safe, day or night.

Twice-weekly city fair in San Benedetto, from our hotel window

Quarterly antique fair still doing business at 11pm

We found this conference frustrating for several reasons. There was a lot of Italian spoken: at the meals, while lounging around, on excursions, even among the organizers, etc. And the groups chatting in front of the conference hotel always seemed to include at least one smoker at every table, making it completely uninviting to sit down and join in. Even though there were lots of good aspects to the organization (and, having organized conferences ourselves, we appreciate the huge amount of work that went into it), a lack of posted information caused several problems for us. Although Italy wasn't as blazing hot as Les feared, it still was hotter than we like, and meeting rooms without air-conditioning were often uncomfortable.

And it was annoying that the waiters at the hotel, where we had our 1:00 dinner and 8:00 supper, seemed to treat vegetarians with either indifference or contempt; it was never clear which, but the end result for us was that almost every meal consisted of just the antipasti. These were very nice, put out as a buffet, with lots of vegetables, but pretty much the same ones every day. While everybody else after that got soup or a pasta dish, followed by a meat or fish plate, the waiters sometimes gave us a substitution (pasta in tomato sauce instead of pasta with small clams), but usually told us to just eat more of the buffet food. After a few days we didn't even wait around; we just ate lots of appetizers, then got up and left, because it felt so dispiriting to watch everybody else getting a nice meal. This was quite surprising because, as I've noted before in this blog, most Esperanto events treat vegetarians very well.

Our hotel unfortunately did not have convenient WiFi. Les had to make a (free) phone call to activate the internet each time he wanted to use it, and sometimes the connection would drop out in the middle of a session. Considering that his motto is "Home is wherever WiFi connects automatically", this didn't feel like home to Les.

We ran into a couple of people we'd met at other events this summer, but for some reason we made only a few new friends here, including a lovely couple from Lyons. And two or three of the organizers were very helpful to us when we were feeling helpless with our lack of Italian.

The laundromat we used was closed for three hours every mid-day. It reminded me of my experience 50 years ago in Florence. I went to a laundromat far from my hotel, did the wash, put it into a dryer, and went away for half an hour. When I returned, I was surprised to see that the building was locked. On asking a passerby, I discovered that it wouldn't reopen for three hours!

When we tried to get train reservations from San Benedetto to Zurich, we ran into a problem. Even though it was still six days off, all the fast trains were already full. We had to settle for some slower trains, at less ideal times, and it all took a lot of effort, plus meant missing the closing ceremonies. We're really fed up now with the Eurail Pass, for forcing us to wait until we got to Italy to make the required reservation (it has to be done in person at a ticket office in the country of that particular rail company), which in turn meant that the train was already full. And now we have to worry that by the time we get back to Switzerland, the only place that we can make a reservation for our trip from there to Leipzig, that train will also be full. Without the rail pass, you can buy tickets online from anywhere in the world—often at greatly discounted prices—so the rail pass doesn't seem like such a good deal after all. Things were much simpler during the first half of our trip, before we started using our rail pass.

The prices of food seemed amazingly cheap in Italy, after being five days in Switzerland. We had gelato every day, and Les now can say "hazelnut" in six languages (to facilitate his gelato orders). Oh, I guess seven languages if you include Latin; that one is easy because it's the same as Esperanto, as are the names for many plants and animals.

One thing Les appreciated about the people in San Benedetto is they always looked happy. Even when they're arguing, they seem to be enjoying life. My theory is that it's all that gelato.

Friday, August 21, 2015


We spent this week in Switzerland, namely Geneva and Bern. We didn't know anybody in Geneva, but I remembered it as one of my favorite cities from my trip 50 years ago. We walked in the old town and along both sides of the lake, took the municipal ferry across the lake, saw the botanical garden and the outside of the UN. Usually Les and I are in agreement on our opinions, but not this time: I still found Geneva very appealing, while Les didn't feel at home there.

Place des Nations in Geneva

We got sticker shock on arriving at Geneva, which continued during our entire stay in Switzerland. Phone calls and SMS messages are six to twenty times what they cost in other European countries, food prices and transportation fares two or three times as much, etc.

Fruit market in the old town section of Geneva

Next we went to Bern, where we stayed with an Esperanto speaker through Pasporta Servo, but actually we already knew our host Ueli from the New Years gathering in Xanten, Germany, two and a half years ago. Ueli lives and has a medical practice in Zollikofen, a small town near Bern. He arranged a meeting of the local Esperanto group at a restaurant aptly named Esperanto, and we met some interesting people.

Location of our meeting with local Esperantists

We walked in the old town, and spent a couple of hours at the excellent Museum of Telecommunications, also some time at the Swiss Rifle Museum. Bern has kept live bears since 1440, so when I was there 50 years ago, I went to look at them. But I got depressed at the sight of them in their gloomy concrete pit, and this time had no desire to seek out the bears. I should have checked online, because I just discovered that in 2009 the pits were replaced by a spacious bear park—hooray!

Old town section of Bern

Les liked the chimneys.

Main entrance of the Münster in Bern

We passed the most marvelous public playground I've ever seen. It had about ten sections: one for playing in mud and water, one for jumping onto a large pad, one part a tiny soccer area with goals for practicing shots, etc. I had the feeling that you wouldn't see such a playground in the U.S. because of liability concerns.

Small section of the wonderful playground, with the soft jumping pad

We learned a lot about the Swiss form of government, the health care system, and compulsory military service. It's one of the benefits of being with a resident for a couple of days; in the cities where we use hotels, we don't really learn much about the city or country.

In Zollikofen Les finally got a good photo of the bird he's loved since Scotland. Its call mimics the Morse code letter "R" which means "OK, everything's fine". But the bird is quite elusive, so it's hard to even spot it, never mind get a picture. Les' three favorite things about Europe are: the trains, the buildings and bridges, and the Eurasian collared dove.

Les finally got this photo of a Eurasian collared dove.

We've been disappointed since we started using our Eurail Pass two weeks ago. You're required to reserve a seat on many trains, and it turns out to be quite costly at times and often impossible to do online when you're not also buying a ticket. The only advantage seems to be that it's first class, which didn't mean much to us, as we were happy traveling second class. But we discovered, completely by accident, that Geneva and Zurich have first class lounges, and we took advantage of this perk while changing trains in Zurich. The lounge had comfortable seats, free espresso drinks, beautiful bathrooms. Quite a switch from some station experiences where there haven't even been seats in the waiting areas.

Enjoying the first class lounge in the Zurich train station

The train ride from Bern to Bologna today was beautiful, especially in southern Switzerland. Another first class perk we discovered was free drinks and snacks, just like the airlines used to do many years ago. I feel a bit stupid that we missed our snacks on the first leg of the journey, because I didn't realize they were free and said "no thanks" when it was offered.

View from the train window in southern Switzerland

We passed this church three times as we corkscrewed our way through tunnels and bridges up the side of a mountain.

I misread a map when choosing our hotel in Bologna; I thought it was close to the train station, but it turned out to be one and a half miles away. No problem, the weather was beautiful and we got to see a lot of Bologna as we walked there. Later on, I spent another hour walking in the old section while Les got caught up on computer work. We do that fairly frequently, because I enjoy walking around each new city, while Les needs his share of screen time.

Bologna is a nice city which reminds me of Merida in Mexico, where I spent a week in January; the climate, the architecture, the large plazas, the relaxing pastel colors, and the flora seem quite similar to me. There don't seem to be many tourists, there's little traffic, and the people in the streets appear to be happy, tons of sidewalk dining—and not near as many smokers on the sidewalks as in Switzerland.

Tomorrow we start the final big Esperanto event of our trip: the weeklong Itala Kongreso in San Benedetto del Tronto.

Saturday, August 15, 2015


We've spent the past week in the Loire Valley, at the Château de Grésillon near Baugé-en-Anjou. This has been an Esperanto retreat since the 1950s; my penpal Ghislaine used to come here in the 1960s. In the summer they have weeklong events with different themes. Because of the timing and our liking for being with Esperanto children, we selected the week geared to families. Many of the families come back every year for this particular week.

We took a train from Paris to Le Mans, where we spent a night. We had a chance to see some of the old town, which dates from Roman times. The next day we took a bus to Baugé. We thought that there might be others on the bus headed to Grésillon, and—sure enough—a woman from China and her granddaughter joined us. She didn't speak any French, so we were able to help her purchase her ticket and get on the right bus. In turn she helped us out once we got to Baugé; we were prepared to walk the 3 kilometers to the chateau, but she had arranged for a friend, already there, to pick her up at the bus stop, and he luckily had enough room for us also.

Château de Grésillon

Grésillon reminded me a lot of the overnight camps I used to attend as a child. It's way out in the country, a half-hour walk from the nearest village, with lizards and ticks and tiny frogs and such. There were 43 of us, including about 15 children aged 2 to 16. We ate our (very good) meals together in the dining room, family style, and took turns helping to set and clear the tables. We had our own room in the chateau, with the bathroom down the hall and a sink and bidet in the room. (The first time I saw a bidet was in Paris 50 years ago, and I didn't know what the heck it was.) The grounds were large and diverse, with many parts converted to new uses.

Erstwhile pig stalls now used for toilets and showers for those camping in the fields

Like camp, there was some structure, but—unlike camp—we were free to do what we wanted at all times. In the mornings four Esperanto classes, at different levels, were held, but some people elected to not do any. I enjoyed my class very much, especially the many fun games we played, all designed to increase vocabulary and speaking ability.

In the afternoons some people went in cars to a nearby swimming lake, while others attended workshops (e.g. juggling), or did parachute games, or just had a nap. (Ha ha, Les and I did the naps a lot; the warm weather and country quiet seemed conducive.) I enjoyed two workshops about doing fast mental math; for instance I can say in seconds how much is 42 times 48, or what day of the week it was when you were born. Every day before supper we had 90 minutes of group singing. After supper were various forms of entertainment and talks. Twice I gave slide shows; it used to be one show, but now that we have over three months behind us, I've had to split it into two: "Living on a houseboat" and "Our long trip in Esperantujo".

I made bracelets out of little rubber bands

Les took advantage of a couple of the native French participants to improve his French. One of them is a teacher of French as a second language. It seemed fitting to be learning French in that region, because the Loire Valley is known as the cradle of the French language.

Speaking of French speakers, it was interesting to see the problems they face in learning Esperanto. I'm used to the challenges for English speakers, such as getting the "r" sound right, but I hadn't thought about the fact that other nationalities have their own difficulties. The French speakers who are relatively new to Esperanto, for instance, tend to accent the last syllable of each word (as is common in French), instead of the next-to-last syllable which is the rule for every single Esperanto word. And they tend to drop the "h" on the front of a word because that's what they do in French.

The children slept together in boys' and girls' dorms, and mostly kept to themselves, but I got to know Lucie very well. Rather than sitting at the children's table, she ate at the "vegetarian" table. She was attending with her grandmother (not at our table), who had taught her Esperanto, and she spoke very well. She sought me out because her mother had advised her to make friends with the non-French people in order to get the most out of the experience. She conducted herself so easily among the adults that I assumed she was at least 13, so was very surprised to find out that she was only ten! When I mentioned this to a French woman, she was surprised that I was surprised; apparently it's common in France for children to be comfortable speaking with adults, including initiating the conversation and showing interest in the adult. Lucie led some of the children each day in the cup game which was new to me; at Lucie's behest I tried it, but saw immediately that it was hopeless.

Lucie and friend

A few years ago I read a book called French Kids Eat Everything, and now I saw it in action. It was so refreshing to see all the children (even the three-year-olds) contentedly eating what the adults ate. Maybe they didn't eat everything, but I never heard whining or "but I don't like that" or "ugh".

I don't know whether I can generalize from a single experience, but it seemed like the European parents and grandparents (many children had come with grandparents instead of parents, and a 13-year-old boy was there completely by himself) had a much more laid-back attitude, espousing the "free range children" idea. For example, when I saw two 3-year-olds gleefully flinging sand and small rocks at each other, I thought "this is going to end in injury or at least a lot of crying". I looked around for caregivers to alert them, but there were no other adults in sight. The game, fortunately, ended without problems. Crying, actually, was very rare. The children were so infrequently with their guardians that even at the end of the week—when I knew many adults fairly well, and some of the children a bit—I still didn't know which children went with which parents or grandparents.

The children often gathered in this spot

The children played with a large parachute

Les finally had time to research the bird he's come to love ever since Scotland. Its call sounds like a Morse code "R", which signifies "OK" or "Roger". We've heard the bird in every country in Europe, but we never saw what bird made the sound. Les narrowed it down to a type of dove, and on a long solitary walk he finally got to see the bird making the call. It's a Eurasian collared dove.

The weather was generally very pleasant, warm but not hot. Twice there were torrential downpours, and one night thunder and lightning, very different from the drizzles we're used to in Seattle. But the rain was refreshing, and made us feel cozy in our chateau.

A cartoon hanging in one of the bathrooms at Grésillon

With the manageable number of people, and seven days together, it was easy to get to know well a lot of the others. As always, we met some very nice people, mostly from France, but also from Sweden, Germany, China, Serbia, Ukraine, and Brazil. I sometimes wish that I had an Esperanto name, because a lot of foreigners have trouble pronouncing Arlyn; even after several days the French people especially were tentative when addressing me. "Airlyeen?" I should have chosen some name like Masha, that's easy in any language, thirty years ago. It feels like it's too late now.

For me, this was the most relaxing week of our trip so far. And more than any other Esperanto event this summer, I'm already feeling like I miss a whole group of new friends, rather than just one or two individuals.

We had a couple of chances to explore the nearby town of Baugé during the week. It's very attractive, dating from 1000 years ago. We're back in Le Mans now, and tomorrow we'll leave France after 23 days, and head for Geneva.

Scene in downtown Baugé

Friday, August 7, 2015

Trélon, Paris, and Le Mans

After the weeklong Esperanto convention in Lille we took a train to Trélon, a French village close to the Belgian border. Our goal there was to finally meet my first Esperanto penpal, with whom I've been corresponding by snail-mail, then e-mail, for 29 years!

Les and I bonded immediately with Ghislaine and her husband Houcein. They were kind to us beyond words, anticipating our needs and doing all they could to make us happy. They have a wonderful garden, in which Houcein raises dozens of specimens of fuchsias, as well as vegetables and berries. He refers to the garden as "mon paradis", and it really is a haven of peace and beauty.

A few of the many fuchsias in Houcein's "paradis"

The garden was a peaceful place to work on our photos. In the picture below, behind Les on the clothesline are our freshly washed clothes. As far as I can remember (European friends will possibly be amazed), this is the first time in my life that I've hung laundry outside on a line; maybe my mother occasionally did that when I was very young, but I've never had an indoor or outdoor clothesline.

Les working in the garden

Ghislaine and Houcein took us to two very interesting museums. One is a former glass factory, where they originally made bottles for champagne, then for perfumes. The old pot furnaces are still there, and they demonstrated the glass-making process.

Old glass furnaces

The other museum, housed in a former spinning mill, has the old equipment for every step of wool-making (from raw wool to wool fabrics), much of it in working order and used for demonstrations. This area was once the world's main producer of combed wool yarn. The museum also has a restored main street with shops from the 1880s, and lots of exhibits on the history and former life of the region. In both museums Ghislaine translated the guides' French explanations into Esperanto for us.

Tour of the textile museum

We had a short look at ValJoly, a huge "holiday park" with swimming, boating, horseback riding, and dozens of other activities. A family could happily rent a cabin here for a week and find lots to do each day.

We had some wonderful meals with Ghislaine and Houcein, with produce from the garden contributing to salads and potages and jams. The manager of the hotel where we stayed in Lille, on hearing that we were headed to Trélon, had said that we must try the local cheese there, called Maroilles. And, by golly, at our first meal Ghislaine presented us with a tarte made with that very cheese—très délicieuse.

Houcein preparing the Maroilles cheese

After the tarte, appeared a cake for Les! It said "Ĝojan Naskiĝtagon", Esperanto for "Happy Birthday". What a nice surprise!

Les' 71st birthday

Some friends came over for a meal in the garden, and despite the language differences, we had a great time. As we've found all over Europe, it's a U.S. myth that almost everyone speaks English; very few people seem to speak it at all. (Ghislaine says that those who speak it are either in the sciences or need it for their job.) But Les is doing very well in French, and recruited Houcein to be his teacher while we were there, constantly asking for the names of things (birds, berries, nuts, etc.) and for advice on points of grammar.

When we were learning Esperanto, a lot of words were easy because they were so close to French words: "dormi" for "to sleep" and "lito" for "bed", etc. Now, after 30 years of building up a pretty extensive Esperanto vocabulary, the situation is reversed; we recognize lots of French words from knowing the Esperanto words.
sidewalk (Eng), trotuaro (Esp), trottoir (Fr)
blackbird, merlo, merle
spoon, kulero, cuillère
blueberry, mirtelo, myrtille
ladybug, kokcinelo, coccinelle
Of course, in French you also need to know whether it's "le" or "la". And it dawned on us (duh), after 30 years, that the "bo" in Esperanto, a prefix meaning "in-law", is taken directly from the French "beau" for "in-law".

Friends dining in the garden

Les, by the way, learns languages so well because he's fearless about using them with whatever ability he has. While I give up after ten seconds of trying to find the words to tell a clerk at the boulangerie that I want whole wheat bread, and just randomly pick one of the ten bread types, Les is willing to spend two minutes describing what whole wheat bread is until he gets the person to understand. (It turns out to be pretty easy, actually: pain complet.)

Ghislaine organized a meeting at the local community center for me to give a slide show about living on the houseboat and about our long trip. About 20 people came. At first I spoke in Esperanto, with Ghislaine translating to French; then at the behest of some teenage girls who were studying English, I switched to English, and Fabrice translated that to French. Fabrice, a wonderful fellow we'd already met, has been teaching French and Spanish in Brighton, England, for many years, and was back home for a short visit. Les, as always, was very concerned ahead of time about being able to show our slides, because our new computer isn't compatible with older projectors, but it worked in the end and the talk went well.

My talk at the community center

Fabrice was worried about getting back home to Brighton because the ferries were on strike and getting through the tunnel from Calais to England has become problematic because of thousands of illegal immigrants trying to make their way to the U.K. When we drove past Calais a few days earlier during one of our bus excursions, we saw some of the tent camps.

At a restaurant meal in Trélon I had my first profiteroles—yummy! All over France we've been enjoying pain au chocolat and other pastries.

I know at least ten couples who have met through Esperanto, almost always at international meetings like the one we attended last week in Lille. Ghislaine and Houcein met through Esperanto, but in a unique way. Ghislaine, after 11 years of trying to learn English and not yet being able to even ask for directions, was convinced by a friend to study Esperanto. This was a language she was able to master. Meantime Houcein, in Morocco, loved learning languages. He learned French on his own while he was a student in Egypt. Back in Morocco, he found an Esperanto book and took it up. The book told how to get a penpal, so he applied and received five names. He chose Ghislaine's. For three years they wrote to each other, actually switching to French pretty soon. One time Houcein was vacationing in Prague, where it kept snowing, so he thought, "My penpal lives in France, I'll go there and meet her." He did, they fell in love, and soon married. So Houcein jokes that Esperanto brought them together! They're approaching their 45th anniversary.

We hated to leave Ghislaine and Houcein, and the feeling was mutual. We'll certainly try to get back to see them, either in Trélon or in Marrakech, Morocco, where they spend a few months every winter.

We next spent two days in Paris. Neither of us was anxious to go, not liking large cities, and even thought of just taking the train through without stopping. But we decided to come and take it easy, just getting a taste rather than trying to see a lot, and we did enjoy our time there.


We visited Sacre Coeur and Montmartre, which I recalled as my favorite place from my time in Paris 50 years ago. We walked around Notre Dame, Saint-Germain-des-Prés (I kept humming The Seine by the Kingston Trio), Tuileries, Champs-Élysées, in the distance saw the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. The perfect weather helped make Paris attractive. One slightly scary note, however, was the presence of young police officers everywhere carrying submachine guns.

The Seine

Our Paris hotel will stand out from the many others as having the smallest elevators we've seen: 28" by 30". They claim to hold a maximum of three people, but even two people need to be of average size or less, and it helps if they're on intimate terms.

We listened to a lot of Bach in Paris, thanks to our newly purchased audio cable that attaches our computer to the hotel room's TV, and to YouTube (thanks for that idea, Irma).

We took a train to Le Mans. We've started using the only Eurail pass we bought. It's good for ten travel days within a two month period, only in France, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany. It doesn't seem like it actually saves money over ten individual trips, but it is in first class instead of second.

Le Mans, like every European town (it seems), has an interesting old city section. The only reason we're here is because tomorrow we can take an early bus from here to Grésillon, where we'll be spending the coming week.

Roman wall in Le Mans

As I write this I'm covered in mosquito bites. We didn't have any trouble until we hit Lille, but they seem to be everywhere in France.

Saturday, August 1, 2015


We're just finishing up a very concentrated week in Lille, France. We're two of the 2,930 participants (from 82 countries) at the Universala Kongreso (UK). That's the big annual meeting of Esperanto speakers, held in a different place each year. Some people go every year, but for us, it's only our third time; we went to Yokohama in 2007 and Reykjavik in 2013. The week is so jam-packed with classes, meetings, workshops, excursions, plays, concerts, etc., that one can only take in ten or twenty percent of all that's offered.

The 100th worldwide meeting

We signed up for a lot of excursions, each time with a local Esperantist serving as guide. In places with a professional tour guide, our own guide would translate from French to Esperanto for the entire group with its many tongues.

We spent an entire day at various sites related to World War I, which was going strong in this area a hundred years ago. We visited Notre Dame de Lorette, where 20,000 soldiers are buried, and the ashes of another 22,000 (the unknown ones) are held. A huge "ring of remembrance" memorial lists, alphabetically, 580,000 soldiers killed in the area, from all countries (on both sides), with no regard to rank or nationality.

Notre Dame de Lorette

We found out that the memorial at Vimy actually belongs to Canada, because France gave them the 250 acres in gratitude. Vimy was so important in creating Canadian identity, that it is pictured on the $20 bill and also inside Canadian passports.


The trenches at Vimy

At the Wellington Quarry we went underground to see where 500 New Zealanders spent six months connecting old mining tunnels and creating holding areas, with the aim of tunneling under the German front lines; when the work was done 24,000 soldiers hid underground in the tunnels for a week awaiting the call to battle. (The action in that area didn't actually go well; for the next two months 4,000 men lost their lives each day.) We also visited the lovely town of Arras, which was reconstructed after being 90% destroyed during the war.

The final steps up to the battlefront for those hiding in the Wellington tunnels

Another all-day trip was to Boulogne-sur-Mer. Almost every Esperanto speaker knows this city, because the first Universala Kongreso was held here in 1905. The reason this year's was held nearby in Lille is because it's the 100th one; for the mathematicians out there, it's not the 111th because there were no meetings during the two world wars. For an Esperanto speaker, going to Boulogne-sur-Mer is probably a bit like a Civil War buff walking around the battlefields of Gettysburg. Our group went to the theater where the UK took place in 1905, where we watched a filmed rendition of Zamenhof's inaugural address at the 1905 meeting. The mayor greeted us, and told of plans to construct an Esperanto center in the city.

Statue of Zamenhof, creator of Esperanto, in Boulogne-sur-Mer
Normally only the French flag or the city flag are allowed to fly over the belfry, but for this week they made an exception and flew the Esperanto flag.

During our walk in the Old Town we had a strange experience. Two punks were stalking our group, following us everywhere. When we all went inside the basilica, the young men stayed outside, then hid behind a planter as we came out. We knew they were up to no good, but weren't sure what to do. Then one of them tugged on the sleeve of a member of our group while asking him for the time, presumably as a distraction so the other could pick his pockets or grab jewelry or whatever. Just at that moment a police car appeared, two officers jumped out, and they quickly had the culprits against a wall for frisking. I was very grateful! We later learned that crime is a big problem in that tourist area.

Pickpockets being arrested in Boulogne-sur-Mer

Another excursion was to the coal mining museum of Lewarde. We went way underground in a lift, saw lots of neat stuff in the tunnels during our 45-minute tour, then discovered at the end that ... we'd only been 20 feet down! I felt quite disillusioned to discover that it was all a reconstruction, not the real mines, but Les already had his suspicions from lots of clues that I failed to observe. The area is dotted with huge mounds of the debris from the mines, visible from miles away.

The shortest excursion was a walking tour of Lille. Our guide has lived most of his life here, so he knew everything about the old town, which is very attractive.

Lunch was provided for the two all-day excursions, and—being used to a smallish lunch—we were taken by surprise by the size of the restaurant meals. At one meal they brought out a beautiful large salad: Bibb lettuce, lovely fresh tomatoes, boiled potato, green beans, cantaloupe, etc., along with tasty fresh rolls. I finished and thought, "That was a nice meal," when suddenly they were bringing out the main course; the salad had just been the starter. I could only eat half of the main course. Then out came the beautiful dessert. We didn't have any food for the rest of the day.

When we weren't doing excursions, we enjoyed a lot of programs. An entomologist did a nice presentation about animal communication, and other experts (physicists, linguists, educators, etc.) shared their knowledge and enthusiasm about their subjects in other talks.

A talk about animal communication

The UK always does a series to teach the local language, and we learned a bit of Japanese and Icelandic that way in previous events. This time, besides a class for beginners, they did a class for those who already knew some French, and this turned out to be a favorite daily activity. The teacher was amusing and energetic, the quintessential French character—even down to the beret. Considering that I had four years of French in high school, it's embarrassing to me how little I remember, but in the class it started to come back to me.

Our favorite musical group Kajto (Kite) performed. Even better, they had a session of singing canons, one of their specialties, with the SRO crowd split into two groups for each song.

Singing canons with the Kajto musicians

Many of the sessions were for special-interest groups, such as mathematicians or doctors or Communists or Catholics. The only ones that fit us were the atheists and vegetarians, which both occurred during our excursions, but we did take part in a restaurant meal for 35 vegans.

We ran into a lot of familiar faces. Some people we've known for years, others were people we first met this summer at the events in Toronto, Scotland, and Slovakia. I even saw the young Korean man who shared our apartment in Herzberg. I was particularly happy to see a Polish woman who'd been in our class in Slovakia, and she'd even brought a package of yummy Polish cookies specifically to give to us. We met a nice young couple from eastern France, who, immediately upon hearing that our granddaughter wanted to come to France some day, offered to find her a place to stay in Paris with relatives. We got to meet the sweet woman from Copenhagen who had already offered to host us there. (That'll be in September.) And a real treat was to meet the Budapest couple with whom Julie lived for four months back in 1991; they told us some stories about Julie from that time that we hadn't heard before.

Our friends from Leipzig, whom we stayed with a few weeks ago, planned a vacation in the Bruges area for this week, so that they could see us again. They came down from Bruges on the first day to see the opening ceremony and have lunch with us, and then on the last day for the closing ceremony and again have lunch (this time to celebrate Les' 71st birthday). They gave Les several cute presents, among them a small wood carving of a stork family, because a few weeks back I mentioned in this blog how wonderful it was to see a pair of storks in their nest.

Just as at the first conference in Boulogne-sur-Mer in 1905, scads of people from many countries met old friends and made new ones, learned a lot, had good discussions and a lot of fun. As familiar as it's become for us now, we always marvel to see how a common second language brings people together on equal terms (without the imbalance of one having mastery of the language while the other struggles to some degree) and makes the world seem smaller.

We liked the city of Lille for several reasons. For one thing, pedestrians seem to have the right of way at most intersections; cars are supposed to watch out for them. Also, I didn't notice any tourist shops. And lots of people use scooters—not motorized ones, but the type that young children use in the U.S.

Meantime, July 27 was the 10th anniversary of the introduction of Les' Morse KOB program. He got congratulatory notes from lots of fans. We both suffered somewhat from colds this week, but are on the mend. We're two thirds of the way through our trip at this point. As always, Les is anxious to be on the move again.