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The Big Blue
An Alaskan in Paris

Customs and cultures are an interesting thing. Life experiences can bring enlightenment, clarity and understanding. But some experiences raise a myriad of questions instead. In time, with patience, answers usually emerge bearing the fruit of better understanding. Returning from 3-weeks in France has left me somewhere in the middle.

As a mostly lifelong Alaskan, I've taken for granted the personal space afforded by living in this great land. I've also never really realized how accustomed I've become to travel... above-ground.
Though I expected a language barrier in France, my first jet-lagged day in Paris was essentially a fast-paced hustle through the underground trains of Paris, plunging headlong into a dense stew of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic humanity - all with my 9-year old daughter's hand gripped firmly in my own. There was no choice but to relinquish any semblance of control and put my faith into the hands of my lovely fluent French-speaking Parisian fiancée, Laurence. While she tried to answer my many questions (which train? what direction? which stops? etc), it became immediately apparent the best thing to do was just follow her through the underground maze. Over the next few days, I became less anxious about this rodent-style urban dweller mode of travel, but it never really sat well with me. The idea of not knowing how I got where I ended up - or how I might somehow get back to where I came from (without my guide) was somewhat unsettling. But, to Laurence's credit, we always managed to magically emerge on the surface of the earth again.

Navigation for me has always been more about landmarks than street names, numbers or signs. In the absence of good landmarks, I've intuitively used the sun to give me visual cues on my whereabouts - without really realizing what I was doing. Somehow descending into the ground, then squeezing onto a train with hundreds of sweating bodies - touching me from all directions while simultaneously hurtling through a dark tunnel, was.........definitely somewhat terrifying. When the train suddenly lurched to an unexpected stop and the lights went out, it was hard not to think about our vulnerability to this contraption - in this black tunnel. There could be a derailment, mechanical failure, or worse - some lunatic suicide bomber, and we 'd be just sitting ducks. These are feelings I've never experienced before: feelings Parisians (and millions of others around the world) live with every day. I tried to grin and bear it, but man was I glad to get off that train!

On the surface again, the air was clear, the sun was shining and I found Paris simply fascinating. Growing up with a sweet tooth (inherited from my dad) I found myself magically drawn toward the first French bakery we saw. The display window was irresistible. Before me lay the most beautiful pastries, tarts, macaroons, pan au chocolats, etc. I'd ever seen. I wanted to try them all, but settled on something with raspberries. As I found in the coming weeks, French pastries are the world's best. Sumptuous, delicate, fluffy, crisp, fresh and lightly sweet, they put every pastry I've ever tasted in America to a paltry shame. Americans could start by cutting the sugar by 75% across the board. But how do they do it in France? Texture, mouth feel and taste do not rely on sugar, but butter instead. Of course Julia Child nailed it when she coined the three secrets of French cooking as butter, butter, and more butter. I did find that the other mandatory ingredient in everything else but pastries was garlic. Luckily, I enjoy both.

What also makes the bakery experience so pleasant is the lovely sing-song "bonjour" heard upon entering. I found it fascinating that the delivery of the word was always in a diminished fourth chromatic pitch interval not unlike the sound of a doorbell. "Bonjour", "merci" and "au voir" are repeated in the same sing-song doorbell sound - everywhere you go. If you sit at a café and listen, you'll hear these words and pitch intervals over and over again. I wondered, do they go to a special school for that? Do they even know they are doing it? I found it quite charming that the French culture deems it rude if you do not say hello, thank you and goodbye - whenever you go into a shop. If you blast in there and immediately start ordering something without these niceties, pay and don't say goodbye, you are immediately seen as rude. Perhaps Americans could learn something here.

And then - there is the architecture and history in Paris.
Never, ever, have I seen such a fascinating accumulation of opulence and display of wealth on such a grand scale as in Paris. Notre Dame, The Louvre Museum of Art (Palace), Obelisk, Bastille and other monuments, churches in Paris are amazing works of mankind. But I found nearly as much astonishment in the everyday apartment buildings, "small" churches and government buildings, bridges and fountains with gold plated statues and adornments. Notre Dame began construction in the year 1160. Yes, the sheer scale of the thing is something to behold, and the detail in stonework and stained glass is absolutely phenomenal, but it is beyond my comprehension to understand that it is now 851 years old. And the Obelisk - 3300 years old! As I walked around this city, my eyes were glued to the skyline and my jaw dropped. I know something of construction, but only with mere sticks, and with a designed mortality of perhaps 60 years. I reckoned that if you tasked the entire state of Alaska to build say just one half of one wing of the Louvre, it would likely deplete the entire state budget, take years and years to complete - assuming one could even find the skilled labor and transport the stone. With my western ways and new-world view, Paris simply did not add up to me on many levels.

Where did all the money come from to build these extravagant buildings? How could they stand for 900 years with intricate curved domes and arches all built from carved rock and only held in place by gravity? How did engineers design these free standing structures and flying buttress stone wall supports 1000 years ago? I have no idea! Did this opulence come from taxes, from colonialism, exports, confiscation or exploitation of some other wealth centers? Where? Who? I certainly came away with more questions than answers. One answer that eventually began to dawn on me was - wherever the wealth came from, it came over time. As well, the structures were built over time..........a lot of time. Paris is part of the old world: a world that I do not understand. After all, I was raised not only in the new world and not only out west, but in Alaska, the last frontier. In Alaska, most of western history has occurred in the last hundred years. Now I know that I don't know enough about the old world to begin to comprehend it. But it was most certainly an eye opener to see it firsthand.

I realize too now, that the lack of personal space, pace and blind trust in train travel, the seeming lack of pedestrian rights in general and weird unwritten motorcycle highway "rules" are likey result of necessity from a high density cross-ethnic culture collectively referred to as Parisians. When we took the high speed (above ground) train out of Paris to Arcachon, I did breathe a sigh of relief to see the open green countryside sparsely dotting with old farmhouses and tiny villages. I could see where I was going, I could breathe and the pace of life slowed more to my liking.

I guess this is what travel is all about: stepping out of your paradigm and being thrown hard into another. Being shocked, being scared, seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and feeling the pace and the place for oneself. Being awed, confused, delighted, perplexed and elated is the reward for travel. Vive la France!

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07/08/2011 | s/v Zephyr
Thank you for the vicarious trip back to Paris. Your description brought back many fond memories. I, too, was toatlly confused by the subways; fortunately my daughter was with me and had experience negotiating her way through the maze. Great blog!
And the gods shine down
05/31/2011, Seward, Alaska

It is late Saturday and we've bent on the sails and decided to kick the dock for a shakedown cruise.
As we slip the dock lines, engine running, I put her into gear and we are off. I bank the wheel to the right.........and...........the boat GOES LEFT! I throw the transmission into reverse and try to understand just what is happening. We are out in the channel between F and G dock. Somehow, some way, our new steering cables are doing exactly opposite from what they are supposed to do. Do we try to dock the boat in tight quarters with mucked up steering - or gamble on the fact that I can fix it out in Thumbs Cove? I decide that more sea room is more comforting .........and so we head out of the harbor as I concentrate hard to steer the "wrong" way for every correction. It is hilarious and if it was not raining and cold, I'd be smiling. For the 7-mile trip out, I am trying to solve the puzzle and the only think I can figure is the cables were crossed inside the steering pedestal when we removed them - but could not have seen that. I formulate a plan and we finally drop the hook with plenty of room and hit the sack. This was NOT the impression I wanted to leave with our weekend guests, but it is certainly a shakedown cruise.

First thing in the a.m. I'm tearing into the steering and after a bit of wrangling, I've got the steering cables crossed in the pedestal and the wheel responds in a not bass-ackward way. The sun comes out just in time for a lovely breakfast in the cockpit.

The rest of the weekend was lovely - as it should be. Tons of sun, a nice 10-knot sail out to Bulldog. Otters Dahl porpoises, a humpback, sea lions, white wine, snacks and a quick swim in the chilly clear lake (all four of us) - make for a nice day. We celebrate back in the cockpit with dinner in the "setting sun" at 10:45 pm then laze around on the new cushions in idle chat. Rachel updates the log with her critter count and we crash.

Morning comes too soon and we are awakened by blazing sunshine; a perfect day for sipping coffee n the cockpit. We are relegated to pulling the hook to get going as our friends have an early flight out of Anchorage. Coffee and breakfast along the way and it's a new motor-sail just the same (especially when the boat goes where you point her.)

We're back in Seward by noon and I've got a ride home later with a friend so I can finish up those looming last minute projects on my list. The teak is DRY. Halleluiah. Caulking those edges is a necessity and the gods shone down (finally) - allowing me to clean, mask and apply the black-death calk around the perimeter of the new teak panels. This took much longer than I'd anticipated so I was glad not to be rushed. Last project - clean the cabin sole, sand the cabin sole of the whole boat, clean again, wipe down one more time - and varnish my way right out of the boat. She'll dry now for 4 weeks and with any luck - won't be tacky when we get back. We now have a functional sailboat that is ready for summer.

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all that rain.........
05/24/2011, Seward, Alaska

As I look at the list of tasks we are to accomplish this weekend, I try not to think about that wet-wet drizzle incessantly oozing from the sky. It is evening on Thursday and I've taken the day off tomorrow to make this a 3-day weekend in an effort to be more realistic about the myriad of tasks on the to-do list. But this weather simply must change. It's late, dark, dreary and cold. Let's see......what can I do inside as the cabin heater flickers and helps take my mind from the rain? I settle on finishing the Velcro for the seat backs and then hooking up the new Pactor IIpro modem. Those go well enough, but in trying to troubleshoot an apparent communications problem, (at 1:45 am) my mind is no longer able to discern the techno-babble in the manual and I give up for sleep.

Friday comes with the familiar pitter-patter of rain again. Stress is building. I've got to install and bed the traveler, fit and epoxy down the new aft teak decking panels and caulk the edge perimeter of the forward ones (which is not supposed to get wet yet.........) $#@!

Breakfast and a techno-babble conversation with Dave revealed I'd hooked up a modem wire incorrectly. Fixed. OK - I said I'd have to do "fluff" jobs if it was I start by pressure washing the decks and installing the running rigging blocks and lines. Odds and end jobs keep me busy enough when I realize it has stopped raining. Things are drying out; Lolo is coming any minute.... Perhaps, if I cross my fingers (and the world does not end tomorrow like some have said) it might even not be raining and we can bed that traveler, install new steering chain and cables, epoxy down the aft teak decking, install the wheel, do a bunch of mast work, put the lowers and new baby stay back on, bend on the sails.............perhaps.

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Use in Well Ventilated Area!
05/03/2011, Seward, Alaska

One of the things that slips my mind most of the time is the fact that I've wanted to re-do the aft cabin headliner since I bought the boat. As with all mid-80's Beneteau's the original headliner is way past it's useful life and I've actually either repaired or replaced most of it on Radiance - with the exception of the master cabin. So - while other more exotic projects fill my mind during the week, it is not until I lay down in the berth about to go to sleep after working on other things - that I stare up at the ceiling and remember just how much I hate looking at the crappy job someone else did replacing it before my stewardship began. So - with the main salon remodel done and the forward Pullman berth mod and workbench mod done, I cannot bear to look at this bad headliner any longer. Luckily - we had a sunny day because this job entailed first removing 3 port lights (windows) before I could even remove the old headliner.'s Sunday...that means we have to commit to not leaving until we have all 3 ports re-bedded and installed. Ready, set, go! Lolo went to work immediately on removing the old silicone caulk from each window and the hole from whence it came, while I began removing headliner. Anyone who has done this on an old boat, knows just how disgusting this job is. As the old foam-backed vinyl headliner created a vapor barrier, moisture would accumulate over time between the vinyl and deck - in the foam and presto - you have a wonderful medium for MOLD! As the mold deteriorates the foam, the headliner becomes less attached to the boat and sags. But when you pull the vinyl off.....let's just say you need the shop-vac running continuously. Once off, scraped and rubbed down, the new material can be cut (using the old for patterns) and glued into place. It is now afternoon.

As lolo lets out another lengthy string of expletives showing her utter disdain for silicon, I forge on below. At least she is in the sun. I have elected to replace the headliner with a breathable polyester fuzzy stuff we refer to as "monkey fur." This entails applying the expensive (green can) spray-on contact cement to both the boat and the fabric panels, and then working quickly but carefully to get the panel pressed into place for good adhesion. This sounds perhaps easier than it is. Firstly, the area I am working in (as my dad would call it) is "not much bigger than a broom closet." Secondly, when you spray this glue, the chemical used as a propellant AND the glue itself definitely not conducive to healthy respiration. Suffice to say, that even with 3 gaping holes in the boat, I am higher than a kite and trying not to breath. Once the panel is in place, I head outside to detox a bit. At least it's sunny, but I can see how close the sun is to the top of the mountain - which will soon change the ambient temperature drastically, and we still have to install 3 windows before we can leave. I go down for another round and before long, the inside is done. Time to spell off lolo and get these windows installed. When the day is done, my hands and my tools are extra slippery from silicone, but we've done it. Another checkmark on the list.

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Cushions Done!
04/20/2011, Seward, Alaska

Well, it is hard to believe - looking over my December 8 blog entry, that we've managed to tick off all 5 of the interior remodel steps and aside from a few minor details, they are all done! The result - a completely different looking boat on the inside as well as a whole new look. Oh sure, we still have yet to come up with an elegant way to lock the cabinet doors when the boat is heeling and crashing around - which it most certainly will soon be. The hidden friction catches might have to suffice for this summer. As well, after installing the butcher block workbench top and bin fronts, I realized I need to put some more design hours into how best to utilize the space below. Multiple shallow drawers - like a snap-on toolbox? How to keep tools from rolling around in drawers? Foam inserts; canvas? Do I want to install something on the wall to hold screw drivers? What will hold them in? This is no standard garage shop sitting on concrete atop terra-firma. This is a cork - bobbing upon liquid; a whole new set of tool storage variables to think about. These, as the installation of the guitar garage bin behind port side cushion backs, storage drawers behind starboard cushion backs, etc. will now wait until next fall/winter - when the snow flies again. For now, it's putting the boat back together so it is once again a functional sailboat.

Well, tackling some nagging things on the "bigger list" has left us temporarily without steering cables, and our portside D1 rigging wire. These things, as well as the dodger have been sent back for replacement and/or repair. We've also placed the order and are awaiting shipment of our new teak cockpit decking - another big project that will require ripping up the old first, to install the new. As I've always said, it's so much easier to "just build new" as remodeling is more than twice the work. But, this is a cash/out-of-pocket operation here, and so I do what I know how to it myself.
So we are checking the mailbox each day - awaiting parts from Belgium, France, Hood River and Surrey, BC. Sailing by Memorial Day? That seems a long long way off at this point.

"Don't think about it", I tell myself. The new upholstery is fabulous. We christened it last weekend and celebrated watching a movie on the new flat screen and listening on the new stereo with a glass of wine. "Wow. This is plush." As we sit by the fire glow in the toasty warm cabin, we feel a great sense of accomplishment. Now - on to the "rest" of the list.

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05/04/2011 | paul rupple
Sounds fabulous Mark, Congrats! (What a lot of work!)

OK. I said I could do this. I'm a man, I can sew............... if I have to. We'd bitten off the purchase of the Sailrite commercial duty machine with exactly this (and more) in mind, but now it's time to buck up and make it so. New foam and fabric had arrived and was awaiting my "free" time. OK, go.

Luckily Sailrite has a few free videos and we'd purchased a $5 one of "how to make a boat cushion." Looked simple enough, but the zipper was my biggest concern. I despise cushions with zippers that fail or fall apart in your hands and I'd ordered beefy ones to ensure this will not happen in my lifetime. The first cushion was the nav seat back and was to be the test. Bobbins wound, check. Thread tension set, check. Panels cut out and zipper stapled to edges, check. No fear. I stepped on the pedal. With a whir, I was off and running. The cushion looked alright - inside-out. Flip it around, stuff the foam in and zip it up, damn, that looks pretty good. One-down, 19 to go.

The decision was made, since we've been torturing Piper with weekend work trips to Seward, that we would stay home and she could have more of a normal weekend, while I sewed away. The end of Saturday saw 5 of the small cushion backs done. Cool. Sunday morn came and my mind was awhirl already, so I got up, made the coffee and started cutting panels for 4 more. A friend dropped by on Sunday afternoon. Laurence was on the computer and I, working away on "my sewing", when she said: "what is wrong with this picture?" This was followed up by some other remark about how she "loves to see a man behind a sewing machine." "What's wrong with that?" I said, and followed up by saying "it's not like I'm sewing dresses or anything - and besides this is a COMMERCIAL machine and these are MANLY items I'm sewing." Fair enough. By day's end, I had 4 more cushions done. 11 to go. Hey, I think I'm getting the hang of this.

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04/01/2011 | Laurence
well, actually I believe I was making dinner....
04/06/2011 | James Thomsen
We bought the same machine and I made cushions that look real. Next: a sail cover. We are (maybe) planing the same trip as you from NZ to Alaska about the same time, so will follow your reports.
Best of luck.

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