Rochester Cathedral and The Dongola Expedition

Sunday morning and a plaque in Rochester Cathedral

Rochester Cathedral is rich in history, architecture and ornamentation. Its nave is a marvellous space. But the thing that caught my eye on a recent Sunday morning was the Dongola Expedition of 1896. Well, not the Expedition itself, but rather a memorial plaque along the cathedral’s aisle, just off of the transept. The plaque was short on details, but as it commemorated two lost lives, I took it that the expedition hadn’t gone well. Little did I know just how much blood was involved!


On a recent cold Sunday morning, we grabbed a Zipcar and headed out to do a little exploring of our new home, the United Kingdom. Our target was Rochester, England, a town on the River Medway about 45km East and a bit South of London.

Rochester is a picturesque place with a long, historic, high street of interesting eateries and shops. Charles Dickens knew it well and set part of Great Expectations there. Founded by Romans, there is still a large castle that includes a Norman keep. The castle was besieged by King John in 1215 AD as a reprisal after rebellious barons had forced him to sign the rights-giving Magna Carta. Rochester cathedral is the second oldest in England, with the original structure consecrated in 604 AD during the time of Saxon rule. The Normans rebuilt the structure starting in 1077 AD, yielding the edifice that is still in use. As we wandered through the cathedral, I noted the memorial plaque and it haunted me. This set me to wondering about the story behind it.

Dongala Expedition Plaque   The text of the memorial plaque

“In memory of R Polwhele & E H S Cator Lieutenants Royal Engineers who died on service in the Sudan 1896-7.

Erected by their Relations and by those Brother Officers who served with them on the Dongola Expedition 1896.”

The Story

During the second half of the 19th century, the British became increasingly engaged in Egypt. Among other interests, they sought to protect the link with India via the Suez Canal (which had opened in 1869) and to ensure timely repayment of Egyptian debts. With some British participation, Egypt maintained control of Sudan. This arrangement became  increasingly costly after 1870 due to an Islamist rebellion (the Mahdi Revolt). As this gathered steam, the British drew back their presence and insisted that Egypt do the same.

To facilitate the withdrawal, the British sent Major General Charles George Gordon, who arrived in Khartoum February 1884. Gordon was a seasoned veteran in Sudan, having served previously as Governor-General of Sudan, a post he held on behalf of the Egyptian government and with British support. In that earlier role, he had put down rebellions, led peace missions, developed some aspects of the economy, and used his power to suppress the practice of slavery in Sudan.

Upon his return to Khartoum, Gordon evacuated civilians, wounded soldiers and others, but also feared that, left unchallenged, the Mahdi forces would advance to Egypt. So, he defied the wishes of the British authorities and organised a defence for Khartoum drawing on Egyptian, Sudanese and British forces. Soon, the Mahdi forces laid siege to the city.

Back home, popular support for Gordon prompted the government to change course. General Garnet Wolseley took command of the appropriately-named Nile Expedition, leading an army of 5,400 men with the objective of saving the situation in Khartoum. Wolseley sent 2,400 troops by camel and the rest travelled up the Nile with the support of roughly 400 boatmen specially recruited from Canada for that purpose.

Alas, conditions deteriorated for the defenders of Khartoum and the city fell to the attacking army (50,000 strong) on 25 January 1885, two days before the reinforcements arrived. The victorious army massacred the garrison and cut off Gordon’s head and presented it to their leader, Muhammad Ahmad, the Mahdi.

This did not set well with the British. In the 1890s, they mobilised the latest military resources and with Egyptian support launched a campaign under General Herbert Kitchener to regain control of Sudan. Lieutenants Polwhele and Cator, as engineers, played some role in the construction of infrastructure for the advance and resupply of the British army (including railroads). In the course of this, they lost their lives.

Eventually the British-led forces defeated the rebels at their capital in 1898. Some 10000 defenders lost their lives in the battle. The British then set up the Anglo-Egyptian administration and established colonial dominion over Sudan until its independence in 1956.

Paying attention

This quick summation does not do the story justice. Indeed, books have been written on the topic. For example, Winston Churchill penned a famous — and in places controversial — volume entitled “The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan“. Nonetheless, even from the glimpse shared in this blog post, it is clear that the story underlying the plaque in Rochester Cathedral is a harrowing tale of violence, valour and imperialism.

My pause in front of the plaque opened a new horizon for me, a chance to view the history of the Cathedral from a different angle. That is, it led me to consider not just the physical structure, but also some of the people associated with it. This reminded me of the value of taking a moment every now and then to stop and take in the environment around me.


Selected sources and references:

The Nile Expedition –

The Mahdist War –

Charles George Gordon –

The River War by Winston Churchill (Available on-line for free via University of Pittsburgh)


Listening to a poet

“There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.”

Excerpt from the poem, “Blossoms”, by Li-Young Lee
from the collection entitled Rose, BOA editions, 1986.

It seems to me that I make far too little time for poetry. Sometimes, I am reminded that I regret this. On those occasions, I seek out an opportunity to pause and make space for listening to a poet. Bill Moyers, for example, reminded me of this with his reporting on the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2009. Often, when poetry connects for me, it is about experiencing a moment: something I know or something I am seeking or something new to me.

Last month, a family member’s medical condition led me to drop everything and head back to the United States for a short visit to North Carolina. This is a state that I know from experience. I have been coming to North Carolina periodically to visit family since 1979. There are many things I’ve come to love about this state. Beaches, wonderful diversity in food and restaurants, kayaking (of the tame variety, on the Neuse River or at the coast), family and friends, book and music stores, bagels, splendid rural settings, folk arts and music (often with poetic lyrics), fine museums, and a tradition of investment in higher education, among others. Although it is a state of contrasts and stresses, sometimes disturbing, I still find joy there in many familiar things and many new experiences.

On my way to the hospital, I tuned into WUNC’s program on the “State of Things”, which features interviews on local developments. First up was an interview with UNC economist Stephen Lich-Tyler whose father had been murdered. The discussion focused on capital punishment and Lich-Tyler’s scheduled participation as a witness at the execution of his father’s murderer. The discussion was thoughtful and moving. Among other things, I was struck by Lich-Tyler’s language, which seemed clear and communicative to me. (Being an economist myself, I suppose this may be due to our shared academic experience, something like a shared tribal affiliation, perhaps?)

Next up was an interview with the poet Li-Young Lee who had served as a judge in a NC poetry contest and was returning for the awarding of the prizes, where he would give a reading of his own material. His experience is incredibly wide-ranging and rich. Lee’s great-grandfather was an elected president of China. His dad was a personal physician to Mao. After a falling out with Mao, his family fled to Indonesia, where Lee was born. There, his dad helped found a university. During Sukarno’s rule there were ethnic conflicts in Indonesia and his father was persecuted and jailed. Eventually, the family fled to the USA. And, this was just the starting point for Lee’s education and emergence as an award-winning poet in the English language. His poetry relates his experience with careful observation, reflection and clarity.

Li-Young Lee at NC State, April 2014

Li-Young Lee at NC State, April 2014

In his interview, Lee was asked about his own story, but instead he first referred back to the previous interview with Lich-Tyler. Lee was moved by Lich-Tyler’s story and the experience of suffering. Here he shared an insight that struck home with me: he thinks that art may help. He characterised art as permitting communication about suffering via symbols that transcend language and culture. This communication may take place via various artistic channels, such as stories, poetry, paint or sculpture. This really spoke to me in the context of my visit. Lee continued this line of thought referring to martial arts in Asia as well as art more generally. He portrayed the creation of art as working through issues, leading to clarity in perception of the true nature of objects. “Disillusionment” he called it, as in removing the illusion, getting to the essence of something, achieving a clear perception of a reality. Via clarity, one may be more confident and avoid conflict without a fight, perhaps even finding a win-win scenario in peace.

I was surprised to Iearn that Lee was giving a reading at NC State that very evening. I quickly rearranged my plans and made space in my life to listen to this poet. I arrived early and was glad I did. Lee spoke to a full house. During his talk he read four poems. He spoke about his wife falling asleep in his arms, lulled by his reflections on life. In turn, he reported on his wife’s reflections during an intimate moment. He noted a blurring of divinity and erotic art in his poetry. I was enamoured with a number of his poems touching on food, fruit, blossoms and associated experience. His reading was delivered with a good sense of humour, but also depth and insight.

While taking a few questions he pointed out that his poems are never finished, but he goes back to revisit and rewrite them. Does he ever face writer’s block? Indeed! The problem is that poetry potential is all around. What not to write is the hardest decision; in writing the first word on paper, the writer takes a very hard step, committing to a certain direction.

For me the experience delivered lots of food for thought. It also confirmed that despite the political stress in NC these days, there is still a rich intellectual current in North Carolina that engages all sorts of folks. The poetry prize winners ranged from students to retirees. It amazed me that I could drop in from another continent one day and land at such a poetry reading the next. This positive and encouraging experience left me hungry, so I adjourned to another experience that I don’t often get in France: a big Mexican dinner of fish tacos and all the complements. Looking out across a big margarita on the rocks, I resolved to make more space in my life for listening to poets.

Truth in Music: James Blood Ulmer and Phalanx Deliver A Soulful Performance


James Blood Ulmer

James Blood Ulmer & Phalanx – Live at Fontenay Sous Bois, 31 January 2014

James Blood Ulmer and Phalanx (revisited) delivered a wonderful show last night at the Winter Sounds Festival 2014 (Sons d’hiver) in Fontenay Sous Bois outside of Paris. The music was a blend of jazz, funk and R&B, in finest James Blood fashion. The band was in top form and the small venue was filled with an enthusiastic crowd. Players included: James “Blood” Ulmer – guitar, vocals; Lakecia Benjamin – alto saxophone; Mark E. Peterson – bass; G. Calvin Weston – drums.

While James Blood was the star attraction, each member of the group made an important contribution to the vibe. Mark Peterson laid down a clean, funky base line. Calvin Weston provided the underlying drive and rhythm that held it all together, but with a lot of interesting detailing and nuance. Lakecia Benjamin added warmth throughout, as well as some of the concert highlights (check out the segment at about 19 minutes into the concert for her smooth solo that reaches out and moves the soul).

The festival organisers have posted the full concert on-line in HD. It is available at the link below (starts at about 4m:10s into the video):
=> James Blood Ulmer and Phalanx: concert at the Sound of Winter festival

Check it out and enjoy!

The Amazing (Generally) French Highway System

The French Highway System: A Road to Somewhere

Occasionally, the French find interesting market-oriented ways to deal with strategic challenges. Sometimes they arrive at a capitalist destination in a manner that was not necessarily part of the original plan. A fine example of this is the amazing (generally) French highway system.

Capitalist tendencies

The Normandie Bridge over the Seine near Le Havre
The Normandie Bridge over the Seine near Le Havre (Credit: Pecold /

The autoroute system was established under the direction of the state, which granted concessions to state firms to build specific sections. These firms were largely privatised in recent decades, in some cases with substantial portions of the shares winding up in the hands of institutional investors, employees and small investors. Nowadays, these privatised firms and some emerging competitors from the private sector operate most of the long-haul sections of the system as toll roads. The tolls are generally based on distance travelled and the rates are fairly high compared to what toll roads charge in some countries such as the United States. Only in urban areas and Brittany, do the main highways generally remain in state hands with mostly toll-free operation.

My way is the highway

The amazing thing is that the intercity portion of the system works very well. Despite the heavy presence of the state in the French economy, somehow the government hit upon the right idea of exploiting a market-based solution to further the development and operation of the highway system.

Across most of the intercity network, the roadbed is generally well maintained with wide shoulders. With a legal speed limit of 130 km per hour (80 mph) outside of built-up areas, it is easy to cover distance quickly. Capacity is generally adequate except during peak travel seasons (though, admittedly, traffic can be periodically heavy at other times as well).

Rest stop on way to Nantes

Rest stop on way to Nantes – Accommodations in a non-commercial rest area

There are rest areas every 15 kilometers (10 miles) or so. Many of the rest areas are quiet, non-commercial parks with restrooms, telephones, picnic tables, playgrounds and space to walk dogs. The accommodations in the non-commercial rest areas are basic with unheated restrooms and no hot water. Others areas, at less frequent intervals, are more standard car and truck stops with gas stations and restaurants, heat and hot water.

Yay, infrastructure!

The investment in infrastructure is quite impressive, often implemented with architectural flair. A fine example is the Normandy Bridge across the Seine near La Havre. The various installations are often accented with splashes of color. In some places, there are engineering marvels like the new tunnel in the outer beltway around Paris. With little disruption on the surface, the tunnel cuts under a dense urban area as well as parkland. Built by the construction firm and highway operator Vinci as a toll road, the tunnel uses a duplex approach with North- and Southbound lanes stacked on top of each other in a large tube. The result of such investment is reduced travel time and improved quality of life, all while making a contribution to stimulate the economy.

Beautifully bucolic

View from the wetlands of a rest stop in Picardie

A view of lush farmland, looking across a wetland built into the landscaping of a highway rest area in Picardie

The highways offer an excellent option for exploring the gorgeous French countryside. But, even along the roadway the landscaping is attractive with occasional sculptures and special plantings, and no billboards. As in most countries, the French urban road network may be stressful and challenging to drivers, but out here in the countryside it often feels like one is driving through a postcard setting. Indeed, when travelling across France it pays to budget a bit of extra time for a foray or two off the main road. A surprising number of temptations are situated along the highways, ranging from vineyards to splendid natural sites, from historic monuments to gastronomic wonders.

Conclusion: Time for a Road Trip?

The French highway system is a confirmation that public-private collaboration can indeed make a positive contribution to quality of life. While a country road, less-travelled, can offer many charms and attractions in France, the highway travel to the start of the country road may also be a worthwhile part of the experience (particularly if you plan ahead to avoid peak travel seasons and heavily-utilised routes). Could it be time to hit the road?


Hiking Along The Loire at Muides


This gallery contains 17 photos.

Southbound to the Loire River I awoke to the prospect of a gorgeous day this morning and resolved to get out into nature. It is harvest season and a great time to head off on a day trip to the … Continue reading

On the Trail from Orsigny to Viltain


This gallery contains 12 photos.

From Orsigny to Viltain Sunday – The late summer weather around Paris has been spectacular: low humidity and cool temps with warm sun and blue skies. Today, I could not resist taking a few hours for myself and heading out on … Continue reading

Mission to Planet DC

Planet DC

National Zoo Sign

Washington: A National Zoo?

There is something other-worldly about Washington. Power, wealth, poverty, urgency and complacency are in the air. It is disorienting, amazing, distressing. I got a chance to experience this world up close in July thanks to a month-long mission to Planet DC.

Although I travel there often, this was my first extended visit to the city in a couple of decades: a chance to settle in, observe and swim in the sea of local life. It left me in a funk that has continued after my return to Paris. I am still trying to process all that I saw and experienced.

My mission

During July, I had the opportunity to pursue my economic research agenda in Washington, DC, operating as a visiting scholar based at a Federal government agency. I was struck by the dedication and competence of my colleagues there as they pursued their duties.

They believe in their mission and are seeking to improve policies and government operations. In the same spirit, they generously took time to provide me with constructive input and suggestions for advancing my policy research.

Time and again their positive energy amazed me. Theirs is not always an easy lot. Federal employees encounter many daily challenges including consequences of budget cuts, periodically hostile press and politicians, arbitrarily compromised objectives, and stakeholder conflicts, among others issues.

My agenda involved a series of interviews with experts (government, private sector and academic), collection of data, and research to track down various reference materials. I had the opportunity to travel far and wide across the city and to meet folks from various walks of life. To say the least, the city exhibits quite some cultural and economic diversity.

Quest for excellence

As a young Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso (West Africa) broiling under the intense mid-day sun of the hot season, I discovered the joys of pulling up a chair in a shady spot outside of our mud hut and reading. Not much else was going to happen until things cooled off. It was during such a season back in 1983 that I found the time to read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I had never read anything like it. The book describes a motorcycle trip across the United States and an inquiry about values. A central theme for me concerned the importance of the quest for excellence, a message that has stuck with me since.

As the political capital of the largest national economy in the world, Washington is certainly in the position to cultivate excellence. There are some impressive manifestations of this. To cite a couple of examples from my recent mission:

  • Library of Congress – During the course of my research I had the opportunity to visit the Library of Congress, which is certainly a fine historical example. The Thomas Jefferson Building (1897) is a world-class architectural gem. I witnessed people from around the world gawking at the grandeur of reading room. Moreover, the collection itself is also extremely impressive. I took advantage of this to track down references that I’d been unable to obtain in Europe.
  • US Botanic Garden – A more recent example of such excellence is the renovation of the US Botanic Garden, which included establishment of the adjacent national garden. The US Botanic Garden, originally established in 1820, is just up Independence Avenue from the Capital Building and Library of Congress. The renovation of the greenhouse, a Bartholdi fountain (Bartholdi also sculpted the Statue of Liberty), and gardens greatly moved me. Completed in the past decade, this effort resulted in a facility that provides for education, art, entertainment and, in my view, spiritual renewal. It is a place of beauty and yet somehow the renewal was accomplished in a time of tight budgets and partisan in-fighting.

Of course there are many, many more examples across the city. Such examples demonstrate that there can be a positive role for government in contributing to our advancement directly or in partnership with the private sector and non-governmental organisations.

But, on the other hand…

Despite encounters with excellence as I wandered through the world of Washington, there were nonetheless some concerns nagging at me everywhere in the background. These concerns started with the impression that part of the infrastructure is in poor condition. They grew as various contacts and news items pointed to social challenges, civil rights issues, undue impediments to legitimate businesses, environmental degradation and other pressing issues. Some are local, while others are a reflection of national malaise. Although Washington came through the Great Recession with less damage than some other parts of the US, it is not fully insulated and the challenges are visible.

Storm Clouds over the Old Executive Office Building

Storm Clouds over the Old Executive Office Building

My concerns deepened after an admonition from my host to be careful during my commutes into town. He had been stabbed in a mugging a while ago and held up at gunpoint another time. As an economist I am concerned with such problems and their many social and economic roots, but I am not used to facing them as a personal threat on a daily basis.

Then, there was the metro. I recalled the system with an initial sense of pride, thinking back to my days in DC during the 1980s. Nowadays, however, it is only just getting a much needed makeover after years of relative neglect. In July, during a brutal 10 day heat spell, I discovered that the system operators were no longer maintaining the air conditioning on the cars where it had broken down. Commuters were faced with the choice of running from car to car in search of A/C or potentially having to tough it out in a crowded, non-air conditioned carriage.

Next came political issues. A few weeks after my arrival, Bill Moyer’s had an interesting show on Washington, DC, based on a very troubling interview with Mark Leibovich. Leibovich recently authored “This Town“, a book about the workings of the place. He highlights the problem of the rotating door in DC between policy making and lobbying, political fund-raising and interest peddling. He highlights what is essentially a disconnect between the objectives of many of the powers-that-be and the national interest. The insiders with ties to either of the main political parties have access to potentially large incomes if they work on behalf of various vested interest groups. Thus, there are disincentives to tackle issues head-on. Unfortunately, in the interview Leibovich does not offer much in the way of solutions.

Partly as a consequence of the insiders game, progress to obvious problems comes slowly. Outside of the political realm, I have the impression that many average folks are hunkered down living busy lives and, in many cases, dealing with some financial stress. Several news items came up during my stay that underscored the problem. One item showed labor income declining as a share of national output while inequality increased:   see this article from the Federal Reserve Bank in Cleveland. After progressing somewhat in the 1990s, median household has been falling significantly. Another item came from a study by the Economic Policy Institute, showing US workers putting in more hours in a effort to maintain incomes. Then, more recently, Robert Putnam presented an op ed on Crumbling American Dreams using his home town as an illustration.

There were other national news items that added to the gloom:

  • US Health – Recently, a spreadsheet from the Organsation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) caught my eye: OECD Health Data. New data on health developments in 34 wealthy countries of the world were just released. The United States was at the top of the list for healthcare expenditure, spending some 17.7% of GDP in 2011 (GDP is an indicator of our economic output). This was nearly twice the health expenditure in OECD countries on average: 9.3% of GDP. Moreover, US healthcare expenditure is far ahead of the other countries: second place goes to Netherlands, but even they spent just 11.9% of GDP.
    What do we get for our large expenditure? In 2011, American women on average at birth have a life expectancy of 81.1 years, whereas in the average OECD country, women can expect 82.8 years. For American men, the figure was 76.3 years, whereas the average OECD country offered its men the prospect of a life expectancy of 77.3 years. In Netherlands, women and men at least have something to show for their above-average health expenditure. That is, they have above-average life expectancy: 83.1 years for women and 79.4 for men. In the US, we are paying nearly twice as much as the OECD average and our lives on average are shorter by a year or more.
  • Climate change – Then, there were several items on climate change developments. One that really came as a wake up call was authored by James Hansen et al (2013) on Climate Sensitivity, Sea Level and CO2. The authors provide compelling evidence that the damage from the C02 already pumped into the atmosphere is not yet fully manifest due to lagging responses from some natural systems, and that if we continue we can expect significant impacts in terms of sea level rise and disequilibrium in key natural systems. According to these authors, if we persist in use of all available fossil fuels, we can expect this: “Burning all fossil fuels, we conclude, would make much of the planet uninhabitable by humans, thus calling into question strategies that emphasize adaptation to climate change.”
  • Voting Rights – There were other news items from several states on voter disenfranchisement in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s invalidation of a key portion of the Voting Rights Act. Taking North Carolina as an example, the Huffington Post reported on proposed changes that eliminated college students’ ability to use their state-issued student IDs for voting purposes, reduced early voting by a week, eliminated same-day registration, ended pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds and a student civics program, killed an annual state-sponsored voter registration drive and lessened the amount of public reporting required for so-called dark money groups, also known as 501(c)(4)s.
  • Impediments to business – It is not all a bed of roses for business either. There are bureaucratic and regulatory barriers and other challenges related to government dysfunction. One example can be found in the World Bank’s Doing Business Indicators.  The “paying tax” indicator shows that the administrative burdens in the United States are far in excess of other leading countries (and, it is not just the tax rates, but also the hours it takes to comply administratively with the requirements). According to this tax burden indicator, the United States ranks 69th among the world economies, just below Madagascar and just ahead of Mongolia. Hardly a leadership position!

These matters are serious and getting clear information about each issue is not always easy. One cannot rely on the evening news for balanced reporting and it takes a bit of digging to identify a reliable source of factual information. Still, the cumulative effect of this news flow is daunting. I can certainly appreciate the urge to keep one’s head down and to press on with more immediate daily challenges. Unfortunately, a failure to respond to some of these issues will entail heavier costs if one waits to address them later.

Next steps?

This is not to say that I am pessimistic. I was encouraged to find people inside and outside of government working to assess problems empirically and seeking a factual basis for discussing policy options and responses. In addition, there is an emerging debate in the United States that recognises the limits of empirical assessment and the need to have an open debate about the subjective aspects of some policy questions such as dealing with inequality. For example, see this paper on income inequality by G. Mankiw, a former Bush administration official. I don’t agree with all of his suppositions or conclusions, but it is a useful starting point recognising the role of preferences. It has unleashed a helpful debate.

I think we also need to be open to consideration of the role of government as part of the solution. This was underscored to me upon my return to France. I spent my Saturday here running errands on foot, using public transportation and walking to shops past some wonderful public spaces: a forest park, a new fountain, newly repaved roads, and a public-private redevelopment zone downtown. France has many economic problems of its own. For example, the state is large and weighs heavily on entrepreneurship. But, the French example does underscore the benefits of having some public investment in areas where there is a need for a coherent system-wide plan or where there is a market failure. We should not rule this out now in the United States. There are positive examples in the US as well: for example, the initial development steps for the Internet. Government has contributed on occasion to attainment of excellence!

Reviewing the list of issues discussed above, I certainly seems that there is need for action. In the United States, we need to break out of our complacency. We need to challenge the system to do better and to be more responsive to unmet needs. We should not accept business as usual in “This Town”. And, once we have decided that there is a role for government in provision of a given service, then we should insist on government’s quest for excellence in the matter. Why should we the citizens and taxpayers accept anything less?



Silver Spring, Wine and Peace

A stroll around Silver Spring

In 1984, we moved to Silver Spring, Maryland, settling into an apartment right up against the boundary line with Washington, DC. Recently, I had an occasion to visit again and took the opportunity to set out on a walking tour around our old haunts in the downtown.

Silly springs?

Our home was right around the corner from the site for which the town was named: the Silver Spring. Although the town is often called Silver Springs (and, on rare occasions, even “Silly Springs”), its actual name refers to a singular spring. The spring still exists on the edge of town in a small patch of green called Acorn Park. The poor spring struggles on, forlorn and neglected, producing just a tiny bit of humidity. In the decades since we moved away, developments and paving all around have cut off the replenishment of its aquifer and nowadays the Silver Spring is nearly dry.

The Silver Spring

The Silver Spring

According to the historical marker on the site, the spring was discovered in 1840 by Francis Preston Blair and daughter Elizabeth while touring the woods on horseback. They saw sunlight reflecting on mica sand in what turned out to be the spring and named it accordingly.

Wine and peace?

Silver Spring has been transformed in the years since we lived there. Downtown has been rebuilt with new housing, shops and commercial activity all around. On a recent Sunday part of the downtown was blocked off, vendors were selling food and kids were running around in a fountain that sprays water up from holes in the plaza pavement. Funky music played via a PA system and the atmosphere was festive.

Further on I came to an area where there has been an influx of Ethiopians. Although it is near downtown, parts of it have some resemblance to Addis Ababa with signs in Amharic and passersby conversing fluently in the language. Ethiopian flags, coffee and food are all around. The Addis Ababa Restaurant on Fenton Street has a good reputation. However, on my visit this weekend, I had another destination in mind.

I continued my walking tour of our old neighborhood and, based on a recommendation from local friends, wound up in the Adega Wine Cellar and Cafe. The cafe serves up some interesting sandwiches and I had quite a decent crabcake. As it was a hot and humid day, I parked myself at a table in the air conditioning to sketch and enjoy a glass of Koina Riesling. I received a generous pour and savored the cool, refreshing wine, which had a nice acidity, with a hint of citrus and sweetness on my palate.

The Velvet Devil and a few other selections at the wine shop

The Velvet Devil and a few other selections at the wine shop

While sketching, I was intrigued by the wine selection on the shelves around me, including a bottle labelled The Velvet Devil (which I placed on my agenda to try on a future visit). Although the shop is not particularly large, Adega’s has an interesting range of wines with selections that appear to offer good values from key wine regions around the world.

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, Adega’s turns into a kind of wine bar as folks come in for a glass and conversation. Next to me sat a few young Frenchmen quaffing a bottle of a big red. I enjoyed hearing their banter blend with the Spanish, English and Chinese being spoken by some others around. It seemed that although these folks were quite diverse, they would all agree on at least thing: a cool glass of wine on a hot day was a splendid idea.

Stop Sign - Takoma Park, MD
Stop Sign – Takoma Park, MD

Setting out to continue my walk, I had a feeling that perhaps there was some hope after all for most folks around this world to get along, at least as long as the supply of Koina Riesling and big red wines holds out. As I headed back to my friends’ home in Takoma Park, a stop sign gave me some further advice for helping along the cause of peace: STOP EVIL. Makes sense to me!

 Map of Silver Spring


Disruption in Paris; Smooth Sailing in Berlin, Geneva and Lausanne

Traveling through a slice of Central Europe

Despite a French transportation strike, I managed to fly out of Paris this week for meetings in Berlin and Geneva, with a side trip to Lausanne. While some transport workers proclaimed opposition to further European integration, it felt to me as if they were actually promoting European dis-integration. All of my original flights were cancelled, but Lufthansa staff kindly worked with me to find alternatives that got me where I needed to go. In the end, I came away feeling pretty good about the world. I’m pretty sure that the arrival of warm and sunny weather also contributed to my positive disposition.

A dash through Berlin

I get to Berlin every couple of years and with each visit I feel a little more attached to the city. This sentiment is actually helped along by a personal connection. In the 1880s, my great grandfather emigrated to the US from Berlin. He had been an organist in a large church there. So, the city figures somewhere in my family lore.

Berlin is a city with bountiful green space, lakes and flowing water, cultural opportunities (reasonably-priced opera tickets!), history and world class museums, plus quality food and drink. Not to mention shopping for those so inclined. It maintains an excellent public transportation system.

Whenever I visit I am struck by the dynamism of the place. Following reunification of East and West Berlin in 1989, the city set to work transforming and integrating itself. Two decades later much has been accomplished and renewed. Areas that were formerly cut off or disrupted in the communist past have revived as cultural centers (e.g., around Potsdamer Platz), pedestrian zones (e.g., around Nikolai church), or tourist zones (e.g., around Brandenburger gate).

But, parts of the city remain large construction sites as the renewal continues. Cranes dot the skyline. A controversial project to rebuild the Berliner Schloss — a former royal palace in the city center (ruined in WWII) — has just gotten underway after several  years of debate. The metro system is expanding. New commercial construction continues apace. So much to explore, but it was already time for me to move on to Geneva and Lausanne.

  • Recommendation: We had a nice meal outdoors at the Julchen Hoppe restaurant on the edge of the Nikolai Quarter of the city. Our meal included traditional foods and decent wine at a reasonable price. Very nice wild mushroom soup and fresh asparagus, fish and fowl main courses.

Swiss quality in Geneva and Lausanne

I have written about Geneva in an earlier post, but there is more. This time I had business at several international organizations including the World Trade Organization (WTO).

I am always amazed at the wonderful headquarters of the WTO, the William Rappard Center, which was built in the 1920s to house the International Labour Organization (ILO). At a time when communist revolution was in the air, the ILO was developed to address labor concerns and demonstrate that market economies could deliver better quality of life for workers. The original building has some palatial features, without being too extravagant. Nonetheless, the fountains, sculpture and murals reflect a blend of expressionist and classical art that honors the value of labor in fueling economic growth and well-being. During this visit, construction had blocked the main entrance and I wound up being channeled through the Chinese garden that is on the grounds. This was my first visit to the garden and it provided a pleasant and unexpected entry to the facility. That evening Geneva was radiant in the late-day sun and early summer weather. I took advantage of the fine evening to stroll along the Rhone and Lake Leman, before deciding to eat outdoors at a local Chinese restaurant in honor of the WTO garden.

During my stay, I made an afternoon visit for a meeting at IMD, a prestigious business school in the city of Lausanne. After all of the transportation disruption in France, the train ride over to Lausanne on the Swiss rail system provided a welcome contrast. The trains over and back departed in a timely fashion, traveling quickly and sailing along the rails with remarkably smooth suspension and quiet interiors. So nice!

Lausanne is a small city set in gorgeous countryside on Lake Leman. The Alps rise from the water on the opposite shore. Between Geneva and Lausanne, vineyards and farms dot the lake shore amidst various small towns. I took the metro from the Lausanne train station down to the lake. Due to the slope of the hill the metro is built on quite an angle, which was rather surprising to a flat-lander like me. I stopped for a soft drink at a local cafe on Lausanne harbor. Inertia nearly got the better of me and I had to strain against the warm, sunny, lazy afternoon feeling in order to get to my meeting on time.

Paris – Using Charm to Put Things Right

My return to Paris proved mercifully uneventful. The transport strikes had passed and the grey, cool dampness had moved on in favor of sunny weather. It was time to pull out the grill for a BBQ with friends and to take a fresh look at Paris. As usual, after disrupting my life and travel once again, Paris turned on its charm and won back my affection.

Photos from Berlin

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Photo tour from a recent visit to Berlin (06-2013)

[img src=]40Berlin - Alexanderplatz from the Air
[img src=]40Berlin - A Great Green City
[img src=]30Berlin Cathedral and Construction of Former Palace
[img src=]40Berlin - Along the Spree River
[img src=]30Berlin - Spree River Locks
[img src=]20Berlin - A Giant Construction Site
[img src=]20An Old Bridge
[img src=]50Berlin - St George Slays the Dragon
[img src=]20Berlin City Hall Tower and the TV Tower
[img src=]10Alexanderplatz - A Construction Site
[img src=]10Old and New - Competing Towers
[img src=]10Amazing Detail in the Art of City Hall
[img src=]10Berln - Nikolai Church Square
[img src=]10Nikolai Church
[img src=]10Ephriam Palace - Museum
[img src=]10Black Sabbath is Back!
[img src=]00Marx: Long Live the Social Revolution and Peoples' Peace
[img src=]00New Metro Line - The Huge Tunnelling Machine
[img src=]00Spree River Locks
[img src=]00Wonderful Old Doorway

Photos from Geneva and Lausanne

Geneva - Lausanne

Photo tour from a recent visit to Geneva - Lausanne (06-2013)

[img src=]10The Alps - Flying into Geneva
[img src=]20Sunset along the Rhone River
[img src=]20In Front of the United Nations
[img src=]20The World Intellectual Property Organisation
Some of my work deals with IP issues.
[img src=]80Main Entrance to the World Trade Organisation
[img src=]70WTO - Chinese Garden
[img src=]60WTO - More of the Chinese Garden
[img src=]70A Fountain at WTO
[img src=]80WTO: Tile Mosaic Honoring Agricultural Labor
[img src=]20Newly Uncovered Mural at WTO (dates from 1940)
[img src=]20WTO Mural - Work Yielding Abundance (1940)
[img src=]30Mural - Leisure Yields Benefits (Amen says Doug!)
[img src=]20Worker Rights in the Former ILO Building (Now WTO Building)
[img src=]10WTO Mural: Honoring Labor
[img src=]20Another WTO Mural: Honoring Labor
[img src=]20Amartya Sen (A Nobel Prize winner) - Wrote on the WTO Wall
[img src=]10A Park in Geneva
[img src=]20A Monument to a Pacifist - Elie Ducommun - Geneva
[img src=]10Downtown Geneva
[img src=]10An Old Tower in Downtown Geneva
[img src=]10In Honor of Woodrow Wilsom - Founder of the League of Nations
[img src=]30On the Train to Lausanne - An Old Farm
[img src=]20Vineyards Near Lausanne
[img src=]10A Field of Crows
[img src=]20Swiss Countryside from the Train
[img src=]60Ouchy Metro Station in Lausanne
[img src=]40Lausanne Harbor - We Counted 52 Swanns
[img src=]00Lausanne Harbor
[img src=]10A Storm Blowing Into Lausanne


(Copyright, Doug, 2013)

Brittany – Sunshine on the Rhuys Peninsula

Escape to Brittany

Thanks to a kind invitation from a friend in Brittany, the possibility to escape for a few days  from the wet, grey Parisian Winter and Spring beckoned. And, so, we set out from Paris for the Rhuys Peninsula on the Atlantic coast on the south side of Brittany. Our home base would be the little village of Penvins, which is surrounded by gorgeous countryside and sea. This proved to be an ideal starting point for exploring the nearby towns of Port Navalo, Saint Gildas, Sarzeau and Vannes, as well as the nature preserve and castle at Suscinio and the old tide-powered grain mill at Pen Castle.

Notre Dame de la Cote - Penvins

Notre Dame de la Cote – Penvins: This little church stands on a modest spit of land jutting out into the Atlantic. The builders chose a design resembling a Greek cross, which enabled it to better resist the seasonal winds. According to a marker by the church: on this site previously stood a Gallo-Roman chapel, which superseded a even older iron age religious site.

One is never far from water on this little peninsula, a fact that heavily influences the environment. The air is clean and fresh, at times windy. Several old windmills and a number of immense new ones are strategically located to take advantage of the gusts. From hiking and bird watching to swimming and sailing, people orient their free time to the coastal outdoors. Fresh local seafood can be found in the open-air markets and on the restaurant menus. Wetlands have been preserved. Development is generally of the low-rise variety.

The connection to the sea is present in the culture. Via their harbors, the coastal towns face outward towards the sea. Casual conversation often turns towards boats, seafood or water-related activity. We visited several old churches with model ships or other art with sea motifs.

Penvins: The city hall is a little building at a crossroads in the center of town. A sign out front directs visitors to the beach!

Penvins: The city hall is a little building at a crossroads in the center of town. A sign out front directs visitors to the beach!

The legacy of long human settlement — spanning thousands of years — is also very present. Neolithic people left behind numerous rock monuments such as menhir and dolmen. They appear to have thrived here, prior to the arrival of the Celts including the Bretons. The waves of subsequent immigration brought further development. Today, many towns boast expansive historic centers dating back to the early middle ages.

The Celtic culture blends with the French. A minority of folks still speak the Breton language, which is related to Welsh. While the language suffered from suppression by Francophiles during the past century, it is now enjoying a modest revival thanks to educational efforts and cultural programming via the media. More broadly, the Breton culture continues to influence the atmosphere through its music, cuisine and other cultural presentations (including the proudly displayed Breton flag).

This spring the Rhuys peninsula was a particularly wondrous sight for us. We were restored by the sunshine, wildflowers, clean air and hikes in nature, not to mention local cuisine and cider. Even in the course of a short visit, such a place can help one to regain some perspective on what matters. I suspect that given a bit more time there, one might rediscover a sustainable feeling of serenity.

Photo tour of the Rhuys Peninsula from Penvins to Port Navalo

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Rhuys Peninsula, Brittany, France

Photos from a visit to the Rhuys Peninsula on France's northwest Atlantic coast, June 2013/

[img src=]90Arriving in Penvins from a walk along a country road
[img src=]120An old fortified farm in Penvins
[img src=]110A bumble bee among the coastal wildflowers in Penvins
[img src=]111Coastal meadow grasses - Penvins
[img src=]60A meadow in Penvins
[img src=]80Coastal meadow on the Pointe de Penvins
[img src=]70Coastal rock and plant jumble - Penvins
[img src=]60Hiking Trail on the Pointe de Penvins
[img src=]60Pointe de Penvins: life thrives in a tough coastal environment
[img src=]50Path along the coast in Penvins
[img src=]50Point de Penvins
[img src=]50The beach at Suscinio
[img src=]40The castle at Suscinio - Home of Queen Anne of Brittany - ca 1500 AD
[img src=]60Vanne - City Wall and Park
[img src=]40Vannes - City Hall
[img src=]30A shop sign in Vannes
[img src=]30St Peter's Cathedral in Vannes - Tower dates from 1200s
[img src=]30St Vincent Ferrer - Dominican Friar - Died in Vannes 1419 AD
[img src=]50Joan of Arc window in Vannes St Peter's Cathedral
[img src=]40Joan of Arc in Vannes St Peter's Cathedral
[img src=]30Vannes - a city gate
[img src=]40A facade in Vannes Old Town
[img src=]30An old tower in Vannes
[img src=]30Bilgroix passage grave - Neolithic - ca 2500 BC
[img src=]20Vannes - City Wall and Old Town
[img src=]30St Saturnin Church Doors in Sarzeau
[img src=]30Ermine and fleur de lys from the heraldic crest of Brittany
[img src=]20Black lobsters from Brittany
[img src=]20Torteau crab is still alive and kicking
[img src=]20Used Cows?
[img src=]20Port Navalo: Path to the Atlantic Coast
[img src=]30Happy poppies in Port Navalo
[img src=]20Port Navalo sculpture and lighthouse (viewed from the harbour)
[img src=]20Shipwreck Alley
[img src=]40The menhir de Kermaillard monument from neolithic times
[img src=]20In Kermaillard, a donkey from Poitou
[img src=]50The tide powered grain mill at Pen Castle
[img src=]50Saint Gildas de Rhuys - medieval abbey church
[img src=]30St Gildas Church - After the concert - Bach for Organ, Clarinet and Trumpet
[img src=]20Notre Dame de la Cote at sunset - Pointe de Penvins
[img src=]20Sunset in Penvins



  • Les Salines – 11, rue Ker An Pou, 56370 Penvins: Fine creperie in the center of the village, with outdoor seating. Try the caramel-salted butter crepe for dessert. Note: hours vary by season. Tel.
  • Avel Vor – 4, place Richemont, 56370 Sarzeau: Set on the market square next to St. Saturnin church, this restaurant serves crispy and creative crepes of excellent quality. Try the scallops (St. Jacques) and creme crepe for a main course. Outdoor seating for nice weather.


  • St. Armel Cider – This award-winning cider is available at La Maison du Cidre (Musée du Cidre), Route de Lann-Vrihan (RD 780 – Axe Vannes-Sarzeau – Rond point du Hézo), 56450 Le Hézo, Tél./Fax : 02 97 26 47 40. Fine “cidre brut” at a reasonable price! 

Google Map of Brittany, with the Rhuys Peninsula indicated by the red marker