1999 CCCC Conference

July 29-August 2
Loire Valley, France

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Where we left off at the end of the last journey ....

Friday, July 9, 1999

The sky was still alight when Linda and I got out of bed ... just four hours after finishing our last night's dinner.

Our Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt left St. Petersburg a few minutes before 7AM. Eighteen hours after we checked out of the Grand Hotel Europe our Lufthansa #462 landed at Miami International Airport.

"Wait! Wait! Wait! ... what about this quest thing? What was Linda looking for? What's this trip all about?"

Fair questions you ask!

We don't know.

Wednesday, July 28, 1999

It was just a little under three weeks ago when Linda and I breached an early dawn to catch our Lufthansa flight out of St. Petersburg, Russia.

At that time you all screamed something like, "What was it all about, Alfie? ... And, Linda, what were you looking for out there?" As best as I can make it out, that was the gist.

Back then I didn't know. Hey, neither of us had a notion.

Now things are starting again; down that same road, but this time in some different countries. However, I am getting ahead of myself.

Rest with me while I set the stage. Props have to be in their right places. People have to be positioned. Otherwise it'll be a wrong start and everyone will get lost.

Tomorrow evening I'll board an Air France flight that will carry me from Miami to Paris. On that same day Annie will take a Northwest flight from Seattle to Amsterdam; then a KLM connection will drop her in Paris. We'll meet at CDG on Friday morning. Afterwards, a fast two-hour drive will take us to Saumur, the site of the 1999 meeting of the Canadian Corkscrew Collectors Club. And, for the next several days we'll be sleeping at either the Anne d'Anjou Hotel in Saumur (which is an official CCCC hotel) or the Chateau de Marcay near Chinon (which is part of the prestigious Relais & Chateau group). That is, when we are not either ballooning or playing with corkscrews or otherwise occupying ourselves outside the bedroom.

On the following Monday, after our fellow corkscrew addicts have drifted off ... this way and that way ... Annie and I are going to pay yet another visit to Vault-de-Lugny. This time it will be for almost a full week of Burgundian ballooning and Burgundian dining. Of course, we'll again stay at "Becky's Bed and Breakfast." As the first week in August is not a busy one for French hotels, I hope that Elisabeth will be able to find the time to float around the sky with us in the late afternoons. Oh, and just a few kilometers from Vault-de-Lugny there is a Michelin two-star restaurant that was, until just moments ago, a three-star restaurant. It will be very interesting to visit this "cathedral" that has been so recently demoted from the far more august "basilica" status. What will we find? Will it be the averted eyes of a chastened staff? Or, will scalded pomposity be salted with a surly sauce? In the past we have usually managed to catch a menu on the rise, so we'll be clueless about what to expect from a falling kitchen. Maybe I'll ask Becky to order something that wants some real creativity, and then we'll just see what happens.

After about six days of all that fun stuff Annie and I will have to drive to Beaune to prepare the sticky bits for the lengthy caravan journey through the Alps to Tuscany. And the same day that the two of us check into the Hotel Le Cep, just inside the Beaune ring-road, Linda Santarelli will search out her seat row on an Air France 747: one that is scheduled to retrace my own July 29th flight. Yes, sure enough, this is the same Linda that left Russia with me earlier this month. Traveling suits her.

On Monday, about "twoish", I'll rendezvous with Linda at CDG Terminal 3 and we'll dart to catch the mid-afternoon TGV to Dijon. We won't have much free time today.

Dawn on Tuesday the 10th will blurringly illuminate our tiny group traveling at near warp speed on the AutoRoute to Italy. Later that afternoon, David and Adrianna, along with Rosemary and Richard, will fly from Florida to Florence. God only knows what route they will take. Whatever, we'll meet them in Siena. Then our band will be complete, though maybe not yet running on all cylinders. The next twelve days and nights will be jammed with the incredible world of Palio. Well ... what I mean is that all the goodies before and after Palio will be the stuff that chews up the calendar; the "thing" itself flits by in just a few shakes. Dear Reader, at this point you might want to click onto years past to see why we have come so far for something that will be over in but a blink. Yes, do take a look.

Finally, with only days left to figure out what "it was all about", Linda and I will camp out in London at one of the Four Seasons properties. This will be our R&R from R&R. When? During the last week in August.

That's it. OK, let's go!

Back to the start.

Thursday, July 29, 1999

The 747-400 pulled away from the gate about twenty minutes later than promised. But, "not to worry," gushed the chief purser. His soothing murmuring noises were obviously aimed at a row mate of mine who was booked onto a tight connection into Prague. I had no doubt that our arrival in Paris would be on time, if not early. From my experience, airline timetables are notoriously conservative and I was confident that the pilot could land us at Charles de Gaulle by 8:15AM even if our departure had been forty-five minutes past the appointed time. Anyway, for this trip, it made precious little difference to me, as I was not connecting with some departure to Dakar or Hanoi. In fact, due to my on time or early arrival I figured that I would probably have to suffer some airport coffee and croissants while I waited for Annie's inbound KLM 737 from Amsterdam.

Hey, I just noticed from my own header that today is the 116th anniversary of the birth of Mussolini. How many of you saw the movie "Tea With Mussolini"? Well, for anyone who is going to join me for Palio next month this movie is a real must. Not that the film contributes in any way as to why Siena goes nuts twice a year over a little horse race. Rather, it's the location that makes the movie so useful. It was filmed all around Florence and San Gimignano. In fact, when Paul and I and the rest of our balloon team were in Italy last year, this film was being filmed right in front of our eyes. Not that Franco Zeffirelli pointed in our direction and screamed, "By God ... we have to totally recast the villains ... those people are perfect for the parts".

But, I'm getting way ahead of myself.

There are only five other passengers in my section of the airplane. And, I have both seats in my row to myself for the next eight hours. It is rather like having my own sleeping compartment on a Trans-Atlantic train. So, I have allowed myself to completely unfold with piles of reading material. Whenever I leave North America a Pavlovian elbow jerk brings me the International Herald Tribune. Another instinctive clutch usually sends my eyes directly to the bottom right hand corner of the "Op-Ed" page ... to the "IN OUR PAGES: 100, 75 AND 50 YEARS AGO" bit. Let me share with you today's century old news, albeit not something that carries a lot of reader voltage:

1899: Gunboat Duty

WASHINGTON - The cruiser New Orleans, now docked at Newport, and the gunboat Machias, now at St. Thomas, were ordered to proceed immediately to look after American interests in San Domingo. The action was taken in view of a possible revolution, following the assassination of General Hureaux, upon request of New York merchants who have interests in the Dominican Republic.

Now that I have lulled you to the borders of sleep, let me tuck up my own comforter, quench the reading light, slip my seat into the 180 degree position and say good night.

Friday, July 30, 1999

Annie's flight from Amsterdam arrived smack on time. Annie was not on it. Of course, we didn't realize this until way after the luggage carousel had stopped moving ... and, until long after the sliding glass doors that led from Customs to the public area had wheezed to a final halt. Like true believers, Mike and I kept staring at the frosted glass for the longest time. Finally Mike's cell phone started to chirp impatiently. Annie was at a pay phone kiosk in Amsterdam. Though not exactly sanguine about it, watching KLM#8531 take off without her was what she more or less had expected all along. Inevitably, Northwest flights from Seattle to anywhere in Europe are taunted with merciless headwinds whenever a member of the Erickson family is aboard. Today's Trans-Atlantic crossing, being no exception, was 65 minutes late. Naturally, the connecting flight to Paris left Amsterdam promptly.

The next available seat from Amsterdam to Paris was more than five hours away. And, Dear Reader, sad to say, CDG Terminal 1 is not one of the most inviting airport facilities in the world. It is far friendlier to those making their way through the exit doors than to those who have time to kill on the spot. So, what to do? Go into Paris proper, of course!

The Bois de Boulogne is a large and beautiful park on the edge of Paris. Though mostly revered by night crawlers as a woodsy spot for sniffing out Peruvian transvestite prostitutes, the park can fairly boast of having a few worthy restaurants as well as some other legitimate places. Our first restaurant choice was the Grande Cascade. Though a fully booked reservations ledger politely rebuffed us, the gatekeeper of the place helpfully pointed us toward the "derriere." Thoughtfully nestled behind their front row eatery, the owners of the Grande Cascade had wisely allowed for the inevitable spillage: L'Auberge du Bonheur provided a convenient alfresco spot for diners whom had not called ahead for a table. We dined well.

Annie's make-up flight from Amsterdam arrived right on time. Her bags were not on it. But, she was on it. How could the luggage not have made it? After all, Northwest and code-sharing partner KLM had more than five hours in which to shift two small well-marked cases. Though the lost luggage queue was short, Annie groused that she would gladly change places with someone in a condolence line, provided of course that the funeral was for someone "distant". God apparently saw something funny in that remark; for, miracles upon miracles, the Samsonites popped up in the "we found it box" on the airline's "where is it" screen. Presumably, someone who worked in the bowels of the Dutch Airport Authority figured that her delayed luggage could best be whisked to Paris on flights through some intermediate city. Whatever, her suitcases were found stacked under the letter "E" in the unclaimed luggage room.

Three hours later we were at Chateau de Marcay. I had room #21 and Annie had room #44. My room was on the third floor while Annie's was on the ground floor. Gaelic hotel room numbering has no logical relation to location.

We did not balloon. We went to sleep.

Saturday, July 31, 1999

It began today. Well, it DID begin last night; but for us, that beginning was just on a sheet of paper. We didn't make it on Friday evening for the "good-to-see-you-again" noises ... you know, when secretly trying to read the nametags, while pretending to sip a drink. So, for us it really did begin today. Oh, yes, excuse me, I am now actually writing about the title of this chapter: the meeting of the Canadian Corkscrew Collectors Club. The how-we-got-here bit is over with.

Our huge group (140 of us) met in the morning for a visit to Fontevraud Abbey. It was the first item on the agenda. Once in the door, I looked around and was disappointed. The abbey looked all bright and airy. Where was the gloom and darkly filtered light that my Jesuit teachers had taught me to love? And, what about the damp and the rough stones? No tortured saints lined the walls. This place was just too damn cheery to be real. Fortunately, the guide rescued my attention when she came to the part about lots of real dead human bodies being buried under floor. One of these bodies actually once housed the spirit of Richard the Lion Hearted. Stupid me! I thought Richard the Lion Hearted was buried in Sheffield or Canterbury. But, that's beside the point. What's important here is that even his dead body didn't house all of the solid parts that once belonged in him. It seems that before Richard went into what proved to be his last battle, he demanded that the keeper of the fallen knights not bother to sweep up his entrails should he be impaled and disemboweled on the battlefield. Sure enough, Richard's death was nasty in that way. So, the pulpy and messy bits, as per instructions, were left behind so that the rest of him could be trundled away before the horse hooves mashed what remained into the mud. And, further guaranteeing that there was even less of him to bury, Richard, months before had willed away his heart and perhaps his brain to some stranger. As a result, the carcass that was delivered to Fontevaud was definitely light. Not that the abbey minded, as what was shipped to it looked OK when it was unpacked ... and, anyway, the body was just going to be repacked again and tucked away under the tiles. At the end of the day a stone likeness of Richard was stuck on top of the tiles.

The next item on today's list pointed all 140 of us toward the Saumur Horse Bridle Museum. One hundred thirty eight went. We didn't. After one quick but disappointing whip around the outside of the castle of Saumur we decided that we were hungry. But, allow me a word or two about the castle before I open the menu.

For starters, the castle proper and its Horse Bridle Museum have some mighty stiff competition on the outside. Even before you come to the castle moat, the nearby Museum of Tanks with its display of racy Panzers and mighty Shermans is, for sure, going to siphon off every car with any kids in it. Even the local Museum of Mushrooms will win the tug for anyone other than obsessive horse bridle freaks. And, at that point in the pull, there just won't be much left on the road for the castle car park to park. Now, this car park is something else again: all black asphalt lying there in the broiling sun ... with the castle shimmering off in the distance like some stony mirage. If that isn't unappealing enough, there is more. Apparently, a new car park is under construction; with plans for it to be stuffed into what was once the moat. Tour bus operators will probably find it convenient for its huge turning radius, but I really think that the finished product will be very short on sex appeal for the visitor. I mean, who wants to cross a faux drawbridge and look down through a blue exhaust haze at a bunch of dusty car roofs and rental campers? No one! If it were my castle I'd put the parking lots way down on the list of what has to be done and concentrate on the things that makes castles fun. Boiling oil and siege engines are the stuff of castles. Rather than long histories of who lived in the place and what was its impact on architecture and the town economy, the ticket sellers to these places should put their improvement money into such goodies as catapults that can hurl rotting animals over high walls ... bubbling cauldrons with their contents all ready to be poured on the heads of would be intruders ... lots of gruesome torture instruments that can pluck out organs of the captured with a single twist ... dungeons with the broken bones of abused prisoners all over the place ... and terrible tales of vindictive ghosts who lurk in dark corners. That's what castles are made of. Give the public that and the gift shops will take care of themselves. And the parking can be miles away.

Oh, lunch? We had a gigantic portion of fruit de mer at the Restaurant L'Oceanic in Chinon. The place is owned and operated by someone who used to work at Hauts de Loire.

Again, we did not balloon. Though, in the evening we did attempt to "inflate and flaunt" over at the caves of Bouvet. The CCCC was having dinner there. Unfortunately, the grassy knoll that would have produced the best viewed flaunts needed police permission for an inflation. And, the riverbank in front of the CCCC hotel was too narrow to support a balloon.

Sunday, August 1, 1999

Cell phones have annoying rings. Mine rang at 5 in the morning.

Forty-five minutes after the rude ring we were in the Previa on a fast track to the launch site. This was to be our first balloon flight of the trip. About thirty seconds after snapping on the seat belt we were actually at the launch site. Well, it WAS less than 100 meters from my hotel room. Why did we drive? It had something to do with the hotel driveway not being conditioned for non-vehicular traffic. Apparently this is a unique French construction quirk. Unfortunately, our hotel and this adjacent launching place are more than 30 kilometers from the official CCCC billet. Sigh, this surely means yet another flaunt has been thwarted. Seventy-five minutes after the burners were lit we were floating rather high above everybody, at an altitude of 3,500 meters (more than 10,000 feet above sea level). Gee, I wonder if they can see us from there? I doubt it. Though we were aloft for about two hours we only moved less than ten kilometers over the map of the Loire.

Immediately after landing we drove back to Bouvet for the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the CCCC. This was held in the Petit Theatre of Bouvet. Most of the discussion wandered around what we would see and do at the year 2000 meeting in Toronto. And, it looks like the meeting in 2001 will be held in Atlanta despite a recent city history of mass murders. Anyway, immediately following the meeting everyone involved repaired to the garden for Champagne restoratives (well, the Loire version of Champagne) or funless Perrier. The subsequent buffet lunch was held in the wine tasting rooms of the House of Bouvet. As there were so many of us in line for the food it took nearly 90 minutes for everyone to self-serve.

Since I was not going to bid for any of the items in the afternoon corkscrew auction, we returned to our hotel for a nap before our next flight. Late in the afternoon we packed up the balloon truck and drove down to the Vienne River for a beach launch. A crowd of only locals saw us off. This time we flew in a direction away from the CCCC hotel.

We had a late dinner back at the hotel.

Monday, August 2, 1999

[from the International Herald Tribune]
1899: Kissing Society

LONDON - [The Daily Mail says:] There has died in Essex the last survivor of the Society of the Queen's Kiss. The society had its origin when the Queen was nearly a year old and was being wheeled about the park by her nurse. A group of schoolgirls recognized the Royal infant and insisted upon kissing her. Microbes had not been discovered and the nurse's scruples soon yielded to the persuasion of the shillings the girls displayed. When the young princess became queen they recalled the incident. "We are," they wrote, "the first of your subjects from whom your Majesty received homage."

This was the first morning that gave us a chance to sleep in late. We took good advantage of this free sack time. Today, being a transfer day, had only one major activity on the "must" schedule: the five-hour drive from Chateau de Marcay in the Loire to Chateau de Vault-de-Lugny in Burgundy. We left our Loire Valley hotel a little after 11AM.

About an hour and a half later we pulled into the Domaine des Hauts de Loire for a lunch of poached eels on a bed of lettuce. We have actually stayed at the Domaine in the past. And, we have had lunch at the hotel restaurant several times before; but always on previous balloon trips, including the one that we took in June with Paul. This restaurant triggers many unusual memories.

We arrived at Vault-de-Lugny in time for dinner. Becky greeted us at the front door. She looked as beautiful as ever.

Of course, our bed was in the King room.

Next: Burgundy Ballooning Journal

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