January 17-20, 2001
It's mid-January, and that can mean only one thing: The Swiss Alps ballooning festival is about to begin! (Actually, my fellow Minnesota Vikings fans know that it also means a second thing: By this point in time each year, our team has once again carefully avoided qualifying for a trip to the Super Bowl.)
Last night, later than I had intended, I drove over to the Sea-Tac Radisson Hotel, in order to be well positioned for my morning flight. (I shouldn't have stayed up until 2:30 am, I know, but there you have it.) Today's itinerary (which actually extends well into tomorrow) takes me to Cincinnati, thence to Paris, and ultimately to Geneva. There I'll meet up with Alf, who will arrive from Bangkok a few hours before me, and then later with Annie, who has elected a different, less connection-riddled path to Geneva.
I got to the airport with time to spare, so I hung out briefly in the Delta Lounge. I also changed some dollars for Swiss Francs: Once I finally arrived in Geneva, I would need cab fare to get from the airport to the Hotel d'Angleterre, and while I knew I would probably be able to do this exchange at the Geneva airport, I figured it was best to be prepared as soon as possible.
The Wednesday travel proved highly uneventful, always a good thing. On the way to Cincinnati the in-flight entertainment was Nurse Betty, which I had not previously seen but had wanted to see. I'm sure you want to know what I think, and that you read these journals entirely for my erudite movie reviews. ... Well, it was OK. I think it had a chance for greatness, through some clever plotting and interesting characterizations that were thrown into the mix ... but this very potential, in the end, left it a bit frustrating because of its incomplete realization. After the official inflight entertainment, I had a personal viewing of If You Only Knew, a small film starring Alison "Make My Daddy's Day" Eastwood. There were some flaws in this one as well, but Alison was wonderfully charming. (Alison, if you're reading this, send me a note.) I hope she makes more films and doesn't run for mayor or something.
The transfer at Cincinnati was exceptionally smooth. We got in on time, the gates were not too far apart, and boarding began about 15 minutes after I arrived. By the way, I think there's something wrong with the general concept of the "Cincinnati" airport being located in Kentucky, a whole 'nother state, and indeed I suspect that this laxity might be responsible for other weird naming issues at the airport.
Movies on the "long leg" included Waiting for Guffman, for which I had actually been waiting quite a while - it had been recommended to me by my friend Susan - but I found I wasn't in a Guffmanish mood, and I decided I'd save that for later (maybe the return flight, when I think it will be offered again). Instead, I watch all but the first few minutes of The Contender, with Joan Allen. I'd been meaning to see that one, too, although I'd actually lost the link in my mind between the title and the film, which was why I didn't get around to switching it on until after the first few minutes. This one, too, had a lot of potential, and it had some great moments ... but it was a little overly goofy sometimes, and it lapsed into some heavy-handedness as well. It was fun watching Joan Allen and Gary Oldman, however, as well as some of the top-drawer supporting actors. Too bad about the way the Jeff Bridges role was scripted, because he's usually pretty good, but he had little to work with here.
All right, the phones are lighting up and it turns out that people actually don't read these journals primarily for my film reviews. Fair enough, I'll stop ... at least for now.
The Cincinnati-Paris segment covered 6:50 PM (Eastern time) until about 8:50 AM (Paris time). Taking out the six-hour time difference, this means it's about an 8-hour flight. (Did I mention that I had already been on a four-hour flight today?) The morning landing in Paris would about coincide with the arrival of midnight in my Seattle-based internal clock ... but it would be morning in Europe and time to start a new day, ready or not. Some attempt at sleep would be prudent, and it was plainly the choice of most of my fellow travelers.
The "sleep" plan didn't work out as well as it appeared in the plans. I seem to be less able to sleep comfortably on airplanes as the years go by. Perhaps I should bring more powerful drugs along next time. I did sleep well for a half hour or so at one point, and I was into a pretty good "rest" mode for a few hours ... that's got to help, right?
As we reached the European continent and ticked off our last time zone change, the sun was rising over France. It was quite lovely, and the sight removed a good 8-10% of the sleep deprivation cobwebs. Upon reaching Paris itself, however, we encountered some very heavy fog, and we were placed in a holding pattern over the airport while traffic control slowly let one plane after another drop from the skies onto French soil. Upon landing, I discovered just how thick this fog was: This might have been the first flight I've had where the wheels hit the runway before I saw anything on the ground.
The fog issue had resulted in our being about half an hour late. No problem, though, since I had a total of about 45 minutes to make my connection. (If you're not thinking "What an idiot!" by this point, you've certainly never been to the airport named after Monsieur Charles de Gaulle.)1
1 I think the guy seated next to me was a Delta pilot. Since we were so close to where that little incident with the Concorde occurred not too long ago, I asked him if he knew whether those planes were ever going to be flying again. He said he didn't think so. Now this was all just idle chit chat that would ordinarily be unimportant, but the weird thing is this: Later in the day, when I was watching CNN in the hotel, there was a report that an Air France Concorde on a test flight actually took off from Charles de Gaulle within a couple hours of when we were taxiing around. If it hadn't been for the thick fog, we might have even seen it getting its spark plugs changed and its windshield washer solution filled in anticipation of its imminent take-off.
Here's how the transfer from Delta 44 to Air France 1842 works: We walked out the door of the 767. We walked down the steps and walked across the pavement to the bus ... and then we rode around for a while, looking at our watches and marveling at the wonders of those things we have back home ... what are they called? ... oh yeah: JETWAYS!!! Is there no French word for this invention? Have they ever seen one before??
Actually, they might use this busing method mainly for international flights (of which there are surely a lot!), since it does facilitate forcing people who have arrived at various places around the terminal complex to converge on a security area. Hmmm, except we didn't go through any security at that point. Anyway, the process is certainly not ADA compliant (nor is it friendly to people with very heavy carry-on luggage who thought they had solved all their problems by using rollable bags).
After the bus tour of greater Paris, we arrived at some obscure part of the actual terminal. After milling around inside, behind a couple hundred of our fellow passengers, we followed the herd up the very narrow and slowly moving escalator to a bank of monitors that directed us back to the escalator, which took us back down to the very place we just left. There, we waited with the rest of our planeload for a different bus.
The other bus arrived in ten or fifteen minutes, and we then discovered learn that this is the bus that affords the full tour of the Charles de Gaulle airport property. The French are apparently quite proud of this airport. It does have some buildings of interesting design, and acres of pavement surrounding the complex seem to be home to one of the largest fleets of buses in the world. We drove past all of it, some parts perhaps two or three times, before we finally got to Section F of Terminal 2.
Flight 1842 was scheduled to board at 9:00 (right around the time we were completing our holding pattern and initiating our final descent); it was scheduled to depart at 9:45 (which was, at this point, a time that was inaccessible without an H.G. Wells device). I was not without hope, however, as all of the monitors I saw, beginning with the one between the first two escalator rides, had indicated that Flight 1842 was retardé this morning.2
2 I never saw any monitors that reported on the airport design, the bus system, or the lack of jetways at Charles de Gaulle, but I think an honest system would have indicated a very similar status for all of these features.
The fog taketh away, but the fog also giveth: The little Boeing 737 that was chosen to take me to Geneva this morning had gotten off to a late start in Nice, due to the fog problems at Charles de Gaulle and the resultant system-wide delays. As a result, it was just starting to board as I walked into the spacious and lovely area of the F concourse that housed Gate F35. (Wow, so this is where they put all the jetways. Very nice.)
We pulled away from the gate about a half hour late, and then we taxied around the airport and its buses for another half hour or so. (I think we may have driven past the Arc de Triomphe at one point.) I was going to make it Geneva ... but would my luggage? If its trip between Flight 44 and Flight 1842 was anything like mine, I was skeptical. I had thought, since Annie and I took separate flights, that I would not be as likely as usual to suffer the Annie Luggage Syndrome which has become such a staple of these trips. The short connection time and the distance between the two aircraft left me glad that I had thought to pack a couple changes of clothes in my carry-on luggage.
The short flight from Paris to Geneva went well, and we landed in slightly less fog than we had seen in Paris. Once again we had the "stairs, pavement and bus" routine ... but the Geneva airport is much smaller than Charles de Gaulle (his airport, that is), and there was no connection to be made, so "no worries, mate!"
To my substantial surprise, my checked bag appeared!3 I would have boots and shirts and a keyboard and a trackball and all the other stuff after all!
3 The nearly miraculous appearance of my trusty Kirkland Pullman suitcase (get one at Costco, they're great) breathed new life into a suspicion I had while taking my extended tour of Charles de Gaulle Airport: that we had in fact landed only a hundred yards or so from where my Geneva-bound 737 stood waiting, but we were simply taken on a roundabout tour of the airport as part of a complimentary sightseeing package. The luggage probably went by the more direct route.
I rolled outside the airport and found a taxi (no line!), and off we went to the Hotel d'Angleterre. This short ride is especially fun, because it goes very close to the area where I stayed during a summer, long ago, when I was on a study program in Geneva. I almost directed the driver to turn off when we approached the neighborhood so I could see if the Foyer John Knox, the Migros grocery store, and the little restaurants were we used to go were still there.
We arrived at the Hotel d'Angleterre, and it's as lovely as I remembered from last year. The porter whisked away my bags as soon as they were removed from the cab, and I approached the front desk. Although it was barely past noon and my room was not yet ready, Alf and Watcharee were checked in and I joined them in their room. It was great seeing them for the first time since Stockholm! Alf and I got caught up on various techy matters, especially including his new micro-mini Sony VAIO. Alf I and have diverged in our technologies for this trip: I have brought two full-size notebook computers, along with a huge keyboard and a separate trackball. He has whittled his arsenal down to this single tiny PC.
After a while, the manager arrived to say that my room was ready, and so we rode up a flight so they could point out which room had the sink, etc. This is one great room! In addition to being huge, it has great views of Geneva. After so many hours of travel, it felt wonderful to have this totally pampering "home" for the next 24 hours or so.
The room has two phone lines, and within a few minutes I had configured my connection with CompuServe (my recommended connection for travel in Europe, although I never use it in the United States any more). A day's worth of email streamed in. To those who are angry because I am ignoring them: I will try to get caught up!
I was irreconcilably torn between whether to have a nap or to try making it through the day. Fatigue ebbed and flowed; I hoped that staying awake would help get me onto Swiss time faster.
Annie was scheduled to land around 3:40. A few minutes after 4:00 I checked the British Airways web site and confirmed that her flight from Heathrow had come in a few minutes early. After calculating the time for luggage claim and a taxi ride, it seemed like she should be arriving ... well, right about then! So I took the stairs down to the lobby and there she was, finishing up her check-in procedure! I rode with her up to her room on the top floor, where the manager explained which room had the sink, etc. After hanging out there briefly and comparing notes, we headed down to Alf and Watcharee's room, where we hung out and compared more notes.
We made some tentative plans to go out to dinner, most likely at a nearby place that was the traditional "first night in Switzerland" venue. We were all pretty tired, however, and after getting back to our respective rooms, we decided that a better plan was to order room service, take a bath and get some sleep. This turned out to be an excellent plan: I had the hotel bring up a club sandwich that proved to be that rare and delightful experience, The Perfect Thing.4 I watched a bit of CNN, I soaked for a while, and I went to bed at around 9:00 PM. This was noon, internally for me, and so a pretty bizarre time to be retiring, but internal clocks must be beaten into submission. And I WAS tired. Annie and I arranged to meet for breakfast, sometime after 7:00. Ten hours of sleep? That should do it.
4 I was reminded of a similar experience Mike, our friend and pilot, had at the Blue Man restaurant in Lillehammer, Norway. For him, at that time, ostrich medallions had provided the solution. Mike will be joining us tomorrow morning.
With the lights of Geneva shining beautifully outside my windows, I sank into my bed and my exhaustion found what the peaceful harbor it needed.
All right, I probably knew all along that it wouldn't be that easy. I kept waking up every hour or so until, at 2:30 AM, I decided to get up. Hey, at least it gave me a chance to get caught up with some journal duties. Now that it's about 5:30, perhaps I'll try to catch another hour of sleep before morning really arrives ...
Ah, another plan that didn't really work as expected. Best simply to begin the day.
At 7:15 I dialed up Annie's room. Although I was worried that she might be having a more successful sleep experience, she was indeed awake. (She had done better in the sleep department, however; her success in adapting to the time change seemed nearly complete.) We agreed that we would meet downstairs a bit after 8:00 for breakfast.
The breakfast buffet at the Angleterre was just right: smoked salmon, cheeses, some thinly sliced ham, and fruit. Various kinds of cereal were also available, plus there was the option of ordering eggs. The only additional thing a perfectionist might want, of course: herring! But this would do just fine. After completing my survey of the offerings, I ordered some coffee and looked, without really reading it, at the front page of the International Herald Tribune.
Annie soon arrived, and as I went to the buffet to gather my selections, she placed an order for bacon and eggs.
Over the spectacular coffee of the Angleterre, we chatted about past and future adventures. Speaking of future adventures, I don't think any of the exciting plans for 2001 have been spelled out here yet. Perhaps I will spill some beans during the course of this journal ... or maybe you will just have to wait until the future journals happen, and you can find out then! A small hint: Annie and I are very excited about some future plans that will involve new places!
After a little more time, Alf and Watcharee came down from their room to join us; still more time passed, and we returned to our rooms to gather our belongings. Mike "le pilote" Lincicome arrived precisely on schedule at 11:00, followed by a gaggle of crew members, and before long we were on our way out of Geneva, bound for the little village of Château d'Oex. Our trip was lovely and largely without incident.
Shortly after 1:00 we arrived at our home in Château d'Oex: the Hotel Ermitage. This place truly does feel like home, too. This is the third time I have been here for an extended stay, and Annie and Alf have been here many more times. It was so nice to be greeted by our friend Fabio, the manager, upon entering the hotel: His hospitality is associated in our minds with so many wonderful memories.
The Ermitage has 18 or 19 guest rooms, and over the years we have come to know most of them. Alf has had his regular room here for many years, and he will be staying there again. This year, we decided to try something a little different for the rest of us, at least for the first couple of days, by signing up for some of the little rooms on the top floor. Although these are a little smaller than many of the others, because they are so high and face in the proper direction, they have the best views of the balloon launch field in all of Château d'Oex. Annie would try out the room on the end, with me in the room next to her.1
1 I have decided that, after the weekend's festival activities on the launch field, I am going to move downstairs to Room 20, which is one of our favorite rooms from years gone by. Although the view up here in Room 25 can't be beat, the room is too small to accommodate the permanent setup of my corkscrew-balloon.com web update command center. You'll see what I mean once I get it all set up.
We met downstairs for lunch at about 2:00 and, after carefully considering the possibilities, we all ordered the same thing: chicken with noodles, a dish that none of us had ever had at the Ermitage ... but Mike ordered it and it sounded so good the rest of us all followed suit. Luckily for Mike (since we were relying on his choice), it did in fact turn out to be quite excellent.
Just as we were finishing lunch, we saw a large new model Mercedes pull into the parking lot, and we knew at once that it must be our friend, Hermann Sieger from near Stuttgart. He, too, has been coming to Château d'Oex for years, and he is an integral part of Alf's group here. Each year, he seems to have a new large Mercedes; this year, it is a large Jeep-like thing (from Mercedes, of course).
We visited with Hermann for a while, and suddenly it was about 4:30 and time for us to move along. Since I remained sleep-deprived, I headed upstairs for a nap. Indeed, this appears to have been one of the more popular activities for our group at large.
After a couple hours I woke up somewhat rested but completely disoriented. Two timepieces in my room seemed to be displaying different times. (They actually were synchronized - both knew it was 7:00 - but as I said, I was disoriented.) I went downstairs for a walk to clear my head.
It was the night before the beginning of the "Week of Balloons," and very calm before the busy activities that would engulf the town starting tomorrow. It was nice to see the town in what is actually its more normal state, before the festival began and it assumed the characteristics that we generally associate with it.
Around 9:00, a Previa from Geneva delivered unto us Mike and Marg McNair. They live in Jamaica; Alf met them on a Butterfield & Robinson walking tour in Northern Italy in September 1999, and by a coincidence, they were also along with Alf and Annie on their Hebrides trip last August. It was in Scotland that they had agreed to reunite here for Château d'Oex 2001.
Mike and Marg went upstairs and checked into Room 9 (my home last year), and then they quickly came back downstairs to join us for a late dinner. By the time we finished, it was about midnight and definitely time for bed! We all retired ... but, for some reason, I stayed up until almost 3:00, primarily doing research on the early history and doctrines of the Catholic church. Eventually, I went to sleep.
I woke up at about 6:30 and spent the next hour and a half in a quandary over whether or not to get up. At about 8:00 I resolved the problem by going downstairs for breakfast. Annie said she'd be down in about 20 minutes.
Everything was still pretty quiet in the dining room of the Ermitage and across the street at the launch field. The pilots were all having their morning meeting; since the festival does not really begin until noon, the tourists who would be attending had not yet arrived. A group of young Americans at the next table were surprised to discover that they happened to visit at the time of the festival: It was just a happy coincidence.
Annie joined me and we had some breakfast. We tried to order scrambled eggs, a perennial favorite, but something was lost in the translation. It was close enough, however! After a bit, Alf and Watcharee joined us. After another bit, we all went back upstairs.
The weather appeared to make ballooning today unlikely, and when Mike arrived from his pilots' meeting he confirmed this prognosis. We had already begun to discuss "Plan B" options, and were focusing primarily on a shopping trip to Gstaad, which is about 10 miles farther up the valley. We would wait for a bit, however, because a pilots' update meeting was scheduled for noon, and there was a possibility that today could still be a flying day. In the meantime, I walked a loop through town, stopping at the Coop for the weekend edition of the Herald Tribune.1
1 I have been accumulating daily copies of the IHT, but I have not really spent much time reading them. I will try to start inserting a little more history, so in centuries to come our little exploits in Château d'Oex can be accurately placed within the appropriate context of world events by historians and anthropologists. (If you have seen references to current and historical events earlier in this journal, it means that I have gone back after writing this footnote and filled in the details!). For the moment, let me point out that, back home in the United States, today is Inauguration Day for the 43rd President of the United States, George Walker Bush (not to be confused with George Herbert Walker Bush).
During the course of my little walk through town, the mists that enveloped the valley began to dissipate quite rapidly. Indeed, the sun burst through, to the point that it became uncomfortably warm! Down on the launch field, many balloons were being inflated. This did not necessarily mean they would be leaving the ground ... but as I came back down the hill toward the Ermitage the sky did indeed become dotted with envelopes ... today's flight was back "on"!
For the weekend, when the festival balloons were most numerous, our balloons (as well as the Bombard Society balloons) were to be inflated in the field adjacent to the main launching field. Alf's second and third balloons were here, as well as three Bombard Society "tulip" numbers. We engaged in our usual pre-launch activities: Standing around idly while the crew labored, plus taking photographs of the process and of one another.
We were a bit concerned because Mike and Marg were not with us ... but just as we were about to ascend, they arrived in the nick of time! Today, we took just one balloon aloft: Corkscrew-Balloon III, with the Screwmaids. It was great to be with them again: This was their first time out of the bag since Stockholm.2
Our flight was beautiful!3 The day had really cleared up, and we could see forever. Indeed, at our highest point - about 10,000 feet above the valley floor - we were able to see the Eiger, the Münch, and the Jungfrau in the distance, as well as the cloud-covered top of Mont Blanc. As usual, I snapped lots of photos during the flight.
2 Indeed, as the balloon became erect, little bits of Swedish grass fluttered down from inside the envelope. They had been folded up inside it when the crew packed the balloon after our last landing in September. As you probably don't recall, we landed in a field that had recently been partially mowed; this facilitated our inadvertent appropriation of certain agricultural souvenirs.
3 The only beauty lacking was ... Annie! She stayed on the ground to snap some photos from that perspective.
We had an ultra-smooth landing on a narrow switchback road, and our able crew soon arrived to pack up the equipment. Upon reflection, Mike decided to have them walk the balloon down the hill fifty yards to a flatter, more hospitable area for spreading out the envelope. As we hovered slightly above the ground and were guided down this hill, we felt as if we were getting a bonus second flight of the day!
Back at the Ermitage, we had lunch reservations for 3:00. (With our flights regularly leaving around noon, our days tend to get structured with events later in the day than usual, here at Château d'Oex.) Just as we flew without Annie, however, so too we dined without her: She accompanied crew member Julian into Geneva, where Cindy was scheduled to land this afternoon. For lunch we all began with the salade mache, which has historically been a very popular first course with this group. (Indeed, the Ermitage has learned to order much greater quantities of this provision than usual whenever we are staying here.) The most popular main course was some lovely salmon; other choices we selected included veal, both piccata and viennoise.
The main activity between lunch and dinner was napping. Mike and Marg, being the most energetic of the group, took a brisk walk before their nap. The rest of us just went to our rooms. I got a little closer to being "caught up" with events in this journal, then slept for about an hour and a half; Alf and Watcharee actually logged about four hours of shuteye!
Like most of us, Cindy was on a flight that arrived a little late, but upon her ultimate arrival, Julian and Annie quickly whisked her out of Geneva and up to the valley here in the Pays d'Enhaut. It was great seeing her again! Cindy is so much fun, and it is hard to believe that I hadn't seen her since leaving Château d'Oex last year. During the intervening months, we've had occasional contact through email and phone calls, and it just doesn't feel like I haven't actually seen her in almost a year. Well, she's here now, and we're all very glad of it!
Dinner was at a fairly late hour once again tonight ... but when a substantial lunch doesn't end until 4:30 or so, it's probably best not to have another, even larger meal at 6:00 or 7:00. Tonight's favored choice was a very good steak (prepared very rare and served with marrow4); some chose monkfish, skate, and veal filet.
4 This is a complement that I had never had before, and it has joined my list of "delicacies" that, quite frankly, give me the willies. Our friend Stephani is averse to eating cuddly animals, such as bunnies and the like. I, on the other hand, generally shy away from weird critters (especially various slithery ones), plus weird parts of more common critters.
With our late start, dinner once again took us almost to midnight, so it was time to go to bed. The bottom line: Today's entire agenda was basically this:
Our life in Château d'Oex is not very difficult.
Next: Part II