20 March 2001

My Spring Break Report

I found this old email in my files, and it seems like it should be a blog entry. But there were no blogs in 2001, so I am predating this to the original email date. Now it's recorded for posterity...

I am sending this e-mail to you because I do not have the energy right now to give 50 oral reports on our trip. I have come down with quite a cold (reasons for this follow :-). Also, I want to get all the complaining out of the way at once so that I can get on with remembering the positive aspects of my vacation.

As you probably know, I spent Spring Break in Paris as a participant in a tour led by Prof. Markus Muller. We traveled in conjunction with another group consisting of students of Prof. Chad Stebbins. These students were attending the International Media Seminar at the American University of Paris.

Due to a mixup with the travel agent (as I understand, a member of the dept. of Communications), four of us (Brenda and Larry Kilbe, my wife, and myself) were forced to take flights separate from the rest of the group and to make our own arrangements for travel to and from Kansas City. We flew from Kansas City to Paris, with stops in Chicago and Boston. Both groups arrived safely in Paris, and we took a bus to our hotel together. (An aside: you lose 7 hours of sleep due to the time difference, so we started out pretty tired).

At this point, if you so desire, you can safely skip the description of the trip and go straight to the "lessons," which are indicated by a row of asterixes below.

Let me start by saying that Susan and I had a wonderful, if extremely busy, time in Paris! We visited the Louvre, the Museé d'Orsay (famous impressionist paintings--great!), Napoleon's Tomb, and a Naval Museum. We toured the Père LaChaise cemetery and the Sainte Chapelle chapel. We walked through the Latin Quarter, and shopped at the booksellers along the Seine. We went to markets, with separate shops or booths selling meat, seafood, cheese, produce, etc. Just walking through many of the different districts in Paris was neat, and we have many photos. (Thanks to Prof. Muller for guiding us to many of the more important sites). The drizzly rain followed us around nearly every day, but it was really no more than a nuisance. Friday was the only day without any rain; we were really lucky here because that was the day that we went to the palace at Versailles. Here, we spent maybe half an hour actually looking throught the state rooms in the palace (yes, they were beautiful, but we had seen so many at the Louvre that the "oooh-ahhh effect" had worn off somewhat) and spent the rest of the time in the gardens. Then we rented bikes and rode around the grounds to see the Trianons--the getaway home and the getaway-further summer home of Louis XIV; the getaway home of Marie Antoinette; and Le Hameau, Marie's own little 12-building hamlet, in which she "supervised" the operation of the working dairy in her spotless white muslin dress.

But the best thing about Paris was the food. No matter how hard we tried, we could not find bad food in Paris. (OK, the falafel sandwich at the gyro stand came close, but that's about it). We had better and more food daily (or even semidaily--is that a word?) than we usually eat at home. I will really miss the fresh baguettes, pastries, and cheeses.

I got a chance to practice my French and to find out how bad it really is. When forced to communicate in French (e.g., at the train station), I could get by (just barely). Usually, people would start speaking to me in English after I tried my phrasebook French on them. But nearly everyone was extremely nice and helpful.

Thursday, I had the opportunity to visit the Université d'Orléans. I was a little (i.e. , extremely) nervous, mainly because I had missed my train to Orléans and had taken a later one. Luckily, Madame Maryse Curé (the director of the Service d'Affaires International) had waited for me at the train station, so she calmed me down, and I only missed a little part of the visit.

It seems that they really "rolled out the red carpet" for me. I met with Madame Curé ,and with the Dean of Sciences (a biochemist) and two other faculty of Chemistry.

Much of the time was spent with them explaining to me the system of French higher education, and the MULTIPLE tracks for getting degrees in the sciences. I have notes on this. I will have to study them further to determine if a student exchange would be in order in the field of chemistry (or other science). The differences in 1) the educational systems and 2) the language of instruction are difficult barriers. For much of the rest of the time at Orléans, I toured various facilities--mainly the chemistry laboratories.

I should say that everyone with whom I spoke seemed extremely open to the idea of further discussion leading to the possible exchange of students. Now that I have some contacts, I may be able to explore this option further. Many of the logistical details are already worked out, as we already exchange students with the Université. I did not discuss the possibility of a faculty exchange, but I will give this some more thought in the next months. As I said, all my contacts at Orléans were quite encouraging.

Another interesting story relates to my family, the Garouttes. I turns out that we are quite a small "clan," and that most of us live in three general areas: Missouri, Oregon, and the south of France (Marseilles area). I was able to contact a distant cousin of mine who was originally from Marseilles but now lives lives in Lyon, France. He invited us to come for a visit. Now, Lyon is almost 300 miles from Paris: 5 hours by car, but only 2 hours by the TGV "bullet" train. So Saturday, we went. Régis Garoutte (we have a common ancestor about 9 generations back) gave me a short tour and history lesson in Lyon, and then we went to his house They talked us into spending the night so that we could have dinner with them (and three other families that they had invited). So we crashed their party and had a real French dinner. The kids had pizza and played video games on the PlayStation. We took only a few photos (time was short) but were invited to stay longer the next time. It was cool!

So,Sunday was to be the last day of our trip. We took the TGV back to Paris at 8:00, and arrived back at the hotel around 10:45. We cleaned up, packed, and made the bus at 12:30 to the airport. There, we and the Kilbys said goodbye to the rest of the group and waited for our own plane.


Now comes the part of the story with the lessons, children. Firstly, never take Air France for a flight. And secondly, never, ever, EVER, even THINK about taking two different airlines for separate legs of a trip. We had heard that this was a bad idea, but now we know firsthand.

Our itinerary to return home had us flying Air France to London and American from London to Chicago to Kansas City. Our flight to London arrived at 4:35, about half an hour late, getting us to the airport about 40 minutes before our flight to Chicago. By the time we reached the transfer desk at the other terminal, there were 30 minutes to go. The airline (American) said that the flight was "closed" and would not let us on. (Actually, I believe that the flight was overbooked and that they had already given our seats to other passengers). So after about 2 hours of discussion and typing on the archaic flight reservation system, we were put onto the (overbooked) 6:40 AM flight for Monday. American referred us to Air France to complain about the missed connection and to inquire
about lodging.

The Air France representative agreed that their flight was late, but blamed it on "airport delay," for which they, as the airline, are not responsible. This category apparently covers weather-related delays, but there were none in Paris. Anyway, this representative appeared to take delight in the fact that she could deny any help to us, indicating that there were no more seats available that day for passengers "in our class," and that they would happily not help us with getting hotel reservations or other arrangements.

By this time, it was after 8 PM, and we were to be in line at 4:30 AM the next morning; so we had dinner in T.G.I. Fridays (we missed American food and ice in our drinks, and it wasn't too expensive) and tried to find a place to "sleep." We spent an extremely nervous, uncomfortable, nearly sleepless night in Heathrow airport (among other things, they "tested" the airport alarm system every five minutes for an hour), contributing to the decline in my immune system that has led to the lousy cold I now have. We did make it onto our 6:40 flight,got to KC about 13 hours later (~1:30 PM) and drove home last evening. Then we had a bath, ate a snack, and went to bed.

This is why I missed class on Monday; I was still in the air somewhere over the USA.

We still had a wonderful time in Paris, and the "interesting" trip home does not spoil that.

And this story serves in multiple ways to further illustrate the tag line in my signature file, which roughly translates from the French into "Learning never ends!"

Deterministically yours,

L'étude ne termine jamais!