I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

Algerian Blues

I was in a taxi heading to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. My driver, Ahmed, was Algerian. Last year he went home for a visit. I asked, “Did it make you happy or sad?” He said, “Sad.”

I asked, “What keeps the Algerian people down: the religion or the military?” He said, “In Algeria, it’s the military. When people are hungry, they get out of bed and think about feeding their family…not politics. We have no energy to find democracy. As long as the military keeps us poor, they will stay in power.”

Ahmed explained why he thinks the French are dealing with more post-colonial anger than the English. He said that the English really believed in “The Commonwealth” while the French just flat-out milked their colonies. The French ruled Algeria from 1830 until 1962. “When they left, we had terrible terrorism. A hundred thousand murdered. No one noticed. No one cared. It was considered a ‘domestic problem.’ Algerian terrorists were allowed to live in Germany, France, and Britain.”

I asked if he felt angry that the world stopped when 3,000 Americans were killed on 9/11 but no one noticed the hundred thousand Algerians killed in the generation before. (The issue of this disproportionate response to terrorism is one that many outside the USA consider, but almost no one speaks of in polite company.) Ahmed said, “9/11 happened on one day, the victims were rich, and you have cameras everywhere. In Algeria, we are poor and no cameras are allowed when there is killing. A hundred thousand can die and it is invisible.”

Ahmed explained how something good resulted from 9/11. Since then, Algeria’s terrorism (which includes al-Qaeda) is considered an international issue. “After 9/11, other nations stopped our terrorists from crossing borders freely and helped Algeria wage the high-tech battle at home. Since 9/11, things are much better. More peaceful.”

I asked, “Can a tourist like me go to Algeria safely now?” He said, “No.”

I asked Ahmed what the term “Islamist” meant. He said he never heard the term before 9/11. He said an “Islamist” is an aggressive and judgmental Muslim who believes, “I am right and you are wrong.” Ahmed said he was a modern Muslim—he could have a glass of wine and go to a disco when he liked. He could be my friend with no thought about my religion.

Ahmed asked if I thought Bush’s brother would be president and what I thought about Eel-hahar-eeiay (he couldn’t pronounce Hillary). I told him my political hopes.

As we pulled into the airport, Ahmed said, “I hope for a day when we discover life in space. Then we would see we are all humans together. My problem would be your problem. And your problem would be my problem. Then we might live peacefully together.”

A Perfect Storm of Travel Thrills — on the Dordogne


Steve Smith and Monsieur Lascaux 1999…2007

Enlarge photo

On one Dordogne day, I enjoyed a perfect storm of travel thrills. A ritual for me and Steve Smith (co-author of my France guidebook) is to canoe down the Dordogne River. Last year, we actually charted a little river map for our guidebook — this year, we got to use it. (What we dubbed “Heron Gulch” still had its herons.)

Pulling our canoe up in Beynac, we hiked up to what stood over the village and river like the mother of all castles. And the lady of Beynac castle actually opened it up for our TV cameras (to the surprise of the local tourist board). It was lit by little oil lamps — puddles of light giving the spiral staircase a visual rhythm — just as in medieval times.

The attendant let me lower a huge plank door that opened up a treacherous little balcony high above the castle grounds. From that ledge, I got to reenact a goofy little speech (to our camera), which I imagine happened many times during the Hundred Years War. (This was the messy front, as England and France battled from roughly 1450 to 1550.) The local noble lord would gather his subjects together (after some dicey negotiations with military types much stronger then him) and declare, “Now you are French” or “Now you are English…deal with it.”

As we left the castle, its aristocratic owner (who so elegantly greeted us earlier) was sitting in a little glass room just inside the drawbridge, selling tourists tickets…making her living five euros at a time. On the way out, I saw her family name on a list of owners that went back a thousand years and included Richard the Lionhearted. Perhaps such is the lot of France’s 21st castle-owning nobility. (Perhaps, also, visions of selling tickets to commoners touring their grandfather’s palace is why the old wealth in American society is so afraid of an inheritance tax that seems logical to Europeans.)

Driving home, Steve and I stumbled onto the classic old farm we dropped in on 10 years ago. We pulled in, not knowing if the dear old man — whose wonderfully ruddy face made it (with Steve’s wonderfully cute face) onto our French phrasebook a few years back — was even alive. He was doing great, remembered us (thankfully, we sent him a copy of the phrasebook) and invited us back into his barn’s attic where we filmed ECU (Extremely Close Up in TV-production jargon) shots of the magnificent stone lauzes roofs characteristic of this region. The man’s name: Monsieur Lascaux. The famous copy cave, 10 miles down the road, is called Lascaux II. We now call our man with the stone roof Lascaux I.

Excuse Me While I Clean My Notebook…

Spain has fun with names. For instance, they call dried apricots orejones — now every time I look at one I’ll think, “Eeeww, big ears.”

One of my pet peeves is that Americans are the noisiest people in mellow and potentially romantic restaurants throughout Europe. The other day, back in Orvieto, I was jabbering away with some happy travelers I met with my guidebook when a local woman leaned far across from her table and gave us a classic “shhhhhhh.” Oops.

Spain has a class of educated professional workers whose wages can’t keep up with prices. They call them “Mileuristas” – meaning, the educated poor, earning 1,000 euros ($1,300) a month.

In Barcelona, we stumbled upon a small demonstration. The police were out in force — it seemed like there were more cops than demonstrators. I commented to my friend that this was not much of a disturbance. He agreed, saying, “Yes, but we like to demonstrate. When the Iraq war started, everyone was out. Barcelona was literally filled with people. The parade couldn’t happen. The streets were only people and nobody moved.”

Use what you design. Three times, I’ve stood up from my hotel toilet and knocked the phone hanging on the wall into the toilet. Anyone running a hotel should sleep in each room before renting it.

I had a nightmare. It was an Edvard Munch painting of 40 people walking their dogs.

For the rest of your lives, you’ll be reminded, “Don’t inflate your life vest until you’re out of the aircraft.” I don’t believe these life vests (or your floatable seat cushions) have ever been used in the history of aviation by a commercial jet “in the event of a water landing.” (Can anyone set me straight here?)

A Spanish friend of mine explained the “rule of seven nos.” When dealing with authority in Spain, you must ask sheepishly and meekly seven times – and get seven nos – before getting the go-ahead. In my TV production, this has worked many times.

Some Spaniards were lamenting the kind of leadership they felt was coming from Washington D.C. these days. We got talking about Clinton. Federico said, “Our king, Juan Carlos, is a whore addict…but nobody cares. He’s a very good king.”

Carrying around my European cell phone is like raising a child whose language I cannot speak. It makes all sorts of noises. I don’t know what to do. I just ignore them.

It occurred to me that if we all work together, we can change the pronunciation of gorgonZOla (pronounced like the lady your supermarket would) to gorGONzola. (Say it like Dracula. Say it like Juan Carlos.)

Pet peeve: a refrigerator motor disturbing an otherwise silent room. I get up in a midnight frenzy and find a way to unplug it. Last night I laid awake at 3:30 and realized I’m listening to a motor cool air.

The French are committed to the best holidays possible. To ease beach congestion, they split their country into three zones and stagger school holidays. In Spanish resorts they know which region of France is on holiday by who fills their beaches.

Traveling and seeing young families, you see how much in common parents have. I believe this is a huge step to peace and understanding between nations.

When I return home and give talks on Europe today, I think one theme will be, “Affluence channeled into good living.”

The Rolling Stones are coming to about the poorest country in Europe — Montenegro. Tens of thousands of kids are paying $50 each for tickets. The concert is sold out. I’m coming to Montenegro too…in just a few days…and nobody knows.

The Sistine Chapel of the Prehistoric World

In France’s Dordogne region, guides call the Lascaux Caves the Sistine Chapel of the prehistoric world. I thought, “Promotional hyperbole.” But yesterday I climbed into Lascaux II. It’s a painstakingly created, perfect copy of the actual cave, which the public is no longer allowed to visit. After a few minutes, you forget it’s a copy. And I was swept away by its grandeur.

The vast cave looked amazingly like my (very healthy) colonoscopy photograph. Main difference: It was covered with paintings made 17,000 years ago, long before Stonehenge and the pyramids, back when mammoths and saber-toothed cats still roamed the earth. These are not just crude doodles. The painting was a huge and sophisticated project executed by artists supported by an impressive culture — the Magdalenians.

Our guide said, “This was a sacred room. You don’t sleep in a church. They didn’t sleep in their cave. It’s not a random thing, but a careful composition of two herds of bison coming together. They met here, and in symmetry, you see the three main animals: horses, deer and bison. It’s the art of a hunter society, but not of hunters — you don’t see figures of people or the animals they hunted (such as reindeer). The artists must be good, because you cannot change the fresco once you lay it. There are no mistakes evident. There are many, many caves in Southern France and in Northern Spain. And each cave is different…speaking a different language. The symbolism is a different vocabulary. Seventeen thousand years seems very old in our perspective. But remember, humans roamed the earth for 3 million years. Biologically, the Magdalenians were exactly like us. In anthropological time, it was like yesterday.”

It’s strange to find yourself “getting into” Magdalenians. In the museum, filled with original Magdalenian artifacts, I began to feel a connection with these people. Skeletons draped in fine jewelry. Teeth of stag and tiny shells delicately drilled to be strung into necklaces. Barbed spears and fish hooks that would work well today. Finely carved weapons used to sling spears.

Looking at the oil lamps, I could imagine the wonder of wandering under flickering flames that lit the Sistine Chapel of the prehistoric world.

Well Fed-Ex Geese

With elbows resting on a rustic windowsill on a farm in France’s Dordogne, I lost track of time watching Denis grab an endless line of geese one at a time in a kind of peaceful, mesmerizing trance, filling them with corn. Like his father and his father and his father, Denis spends five hours a day, every day, all year long sitting in a barn on a rolling stool with a machine that looks like a giant vacuum cleaner filled with corn, surrounded by geese.

He rhythmically grabs a goose by the neck, pulls him under his leg and stretches him up, sliding the tube down to the belly and fills it with corn. He pulls the trigger to squirt the corn, slowly slides the tube up the neck and out, holds the beak shut for a few seconds, lets that goose go and grabs the next.

When I told friends we planned to film geese being force-fed — the traditional way they fatten the livers to make foie gras, the prized delicacy in France’s Dordogne region — many expressed disgust and even thought I was wrong to show it on TV. There are actually people who want to boycott French foie gras for what they consider inhumane treatment of the geese. That’s why I was on Denis’ goose farm…to learn more about le gavage (as the force-feeding process is called).

Elevage du Bouyssou, a big, homey goose farm a short drive from Sarlat, is run by a Denis and Nathalie Mazet. The geese are filled with corn three times a day for the last month of their lives. They have expandable livers and no gag reflex, so the corn stays there, gradually settling as it’s digested, making room for the next visit from Denis and his corn gun.

Watching Denis work, I wondered what a life like that would be…actually knowing an endless cycle of all those geese. Did geese populate his dreams? How did it affect his relations with his wife?

While Denis squirts corn, Nathalie meets tourists — mostly French families — who show up each evening at six to see how their beloved foie gras is made. The groups stroll the idyllic farm as Nathalie explains how they raise a thousand geese a year. She stresses that the key to top-quality foie gras is happy geese raised on quality food in an unstressed environment. They need quality corn and the same feeder.

I join the group as we un-force-feed the baby geese. We stroll into the grassy back lot where the older geese run free — backlit by the low, early-evening sun, they look like a Muesli commercial (perfectly fulfilling my goose dream for the TV show).

Two geese are humping. I can’t help but notice the boy yanking feathers off the back of the girl’s head as he (I suppose) enjoys his orgasm. Nathalie said she can tell which girls are getting any action by the bald spots on the backs of their heads. There’s plenty of action, as about half the birds in the yard sported the souvenir — that fowl equivalent of wife-beating — that comes with a roll in the hay.

The Mazets sell everything but the head and feet. The down feathers only net about 30 cents a goose. The serious money is in the livers. A normal liver weighs a quarter-pound. When done with the force-feeding process, the liver weighs about two pounds. (With a thousand geese, they produce a ton of foie gras annually. Nathalie said, “Barely enough to support one family.”)

These geese actually have a special shape — like they’re waddling around with a full diaper under their feathers. Just the sight of this shape — which is a sales icon in shops throughout the Dordogne — is enough to make visiting English travelers (who come here in droves for the foie gras) salivate.

Why the Dordogne? It’s on the geese migratory path. Ages ago, locals here caught geese on their migration, livers enlarged for the long journey (like traveling with a topped-off gas tank). As French are inclined to do, they ate the innards, found them extra-tasty and decided to produce their own. Those first French foie gras farmers didn’t know it, but the technique of keeping geese and enlarging the livers for human consumption goes back to ancient Egyptian times.

Nathalie, like other French enthusiasts of le gavage, says that while their animals are calm, in no pain and are designed to take in food this manner, American farm animals are typically kept in little boxes and fed chemicals and hormones to get fat. Most battery chickens in the US live less than two months and are plumped with hormones. Her geese are free-range and live six months.

Dordogne geese live lives at least as comfy as other farm animals (that people so upset with the foie gras process have no problem eating) and are slaughtered as humanely as any non-human can expect in this food-chain existence.

Some people raise geese as a hobby. On a different farm I met Cyril, a retired Parisian realtor. His dream: To live his golden years in the Dordogne region with a little barn full of geese to force-feed. He claims to “speak goose” and will feed his geese any time…just drop by, so I added him to our guidebook.

After a few days in the Dordogne, where farmers in the markets are evangelical about their foie gras and constantly passing out little goose-liver sandwiches — and where every meal seems to start with a foie-gras course — I always leave with strong need for foie gras detox.