Up up and away…

Birthdays are (most of the time) rather dull affairs. A cake, candles, a few cheers, and that’s it.
To celebrate my domestic partner’s red-letter day, I decided to take her for a ride… a hot-air balloon ride that is.
The first thing to remember about hot-air balloons is that (unlike bats) they take off shortly after sunrise, when there is a minimum of atmospheric turbulence.

For her birthday, I had told my mate to take the day off, without giving her any specific details about my intentions. I added a little later that on that day we would have to get up early.
How early, she asked?
5:00 a.m. I said. Holy mackerel, she exclaimed (I assume) in Russian.

Sunrise on Saturday October 26 was around 7:20 a.m. and I had been asked to report at the departing location at 6:30 a.m.
The distance from San Rafael to Yountville is about 40 miles, or 50 minutes by car. This means that we would have to leave San Rafael at 5:30 a.m. This also meant that if we wanted to have any kind of breakfast we’d better get up before 5:00 a.m.
So we did, and after a light snack, we left San Rafael around 5:30 a.m. and arrived in Yountville around 6:30 a.m.

There, we were briefed about hot-air balloons.
We were told that a balloon consists of a large bag called the “envelope” and a “gondola” (or wicker basket) that carries passengers. An experienced pilot would steer the craft. There was never any mention of parachutes.
All of us (about 30 people) were subsequently assigned a balloon. Ours was called Tango.

After this brief meeting, we were led to the adjacent parking lot where the beasts were being groomed and inflated.
It was an impressive and noisy operation. Heated air (by the means of a giant fan) is forced into the balloon to make it buoyant, and like a sleepy colossus, it rises majestically.

Four balloons were inflated at the same time and were readied to take off. Some carried 4 people, some 6 and ours the largest of them all (250 000 cubic feet) carried 12 passengers, plus the pilot.

The takeoff was almost imperceptible. We rose slowly and gained altitude without ever having the feeling of moving.
To my surprise, I discovered that the sky above the Napa Valley was filled with balloons, or at least 20 of them. They floated and rose silently past us us like giant pumpkins.

We drifted through the Napa Valley for about an hour while being steered and entertained by a very chatty (too chatty) pilot.
He flew his contraption with the greatest of ease. He lowered and made it rise seemingly at will. To spur its steed, he intermittently fired a kind of giant flame-thrower that pushed hot air into the envelope, and the balloon rose obediently.
While flying the beast he was in permanent radio contact with earthbound roadies that were following us with a van.

After about one hour aloft, the pilot set his sights on a landing spot. He told his crew about it and summoned them to an open area.
Once there, he lowered his craft and threw a line to his men.
They grabbed it and like Lilliputians they pulled the balloon down while the pilot was busy deflating the envelope. Something not unlike a Zeppelin landing.
We touched ground around 8:30 a.m. Mission accomplished! One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

So, how did you like it, I asked my significant other.
I loved it, but I could have stayed up a little longer she said.
OK. Since you like it that much, on your next birthday I’ll send you up on a balloon around the world for eighty days. That should cool your jets for a while.


PS: To look at pictures of this event, turn the sound on, click on the “Home” link at the top of the page, and click again on “My photos” located on the right side of the page.



I just watched the 3rd and mercifully the last round of the presidential debates, and unsurprisingly my opinion about the candidates has not changed one iota.
And I think that the same applies to the 60+ millions Americans who viewed this exchange. Furthermore I am convinced that no political debate will ever change anybody’s opinion about his or her champion.
Even if disenchanted by their candidate, very few people have the moral courage to say so and vote accordingly.

A belief is often formed based on environment and cultural background. It takes years to coalesce and once it has reached that stage, it will seldom change.
A Nazi will always be a Nazi just as a Communist will always be a Communist, regardless of facts or arguments advanced by their supporters. “Converts” will only change their colors for political expediency and financial rewards.

So, why do candidates accept to debate their rivals after all?

I am not sure, but it looks like if the incumbent refuses a debate, he will be branded as insecure, or even worse as “chicken” and no US presidential candidate can afford to be viewed as a chicken. A fool maybe, but not a chicken.

I believe that political debates are also seen as a form of entertainment.
It is a heavyweight contest and it appeals to popular masses, just like gladiator fights appealed to plebeians in Roman times.
People live vicariously through their candidates. Few individuals will ever have the opportunity to throw a few blows at their nemesis. When their champion does it for them, they feel like they did it themselves.
Regardless of the performance of their standard bearer, fans will claim victory.

Political campaigns feed on half-truths. But repeated long enough these fabrications acquire a cachet of authenticity meant to confound the voters. Just like the canard that Obama was a Moslem or not born in the US.

I also think that debates are popular because viewers are offered 90 minutes of entertainment free of any commercial interference, and this is a rarity seldom seen on American television. Regardless of the product, people don’t want to miss a sale.

On November 6th, disregard blind ideology and the spurious arguments advanced by each side, and vote for the candidate that you think will do the most to benefit the average American.




Some people are bisexual, bimanual, bipartisan, bipolar, bisomething… nothing wrong with that, but me, I am simply bilingual.
It is a mild affliction caused by prolonged exposure to certain species, and I understand that it is a fairly common condition in America.
To avoid this kind of contamination, it is recommended to stay away from the natives, wash your hands often and cross yourself when you hear something that doesn’t sound kosher.

Bilingualism is the subconscious ability to speak two languages fluently. It is some kind of mental ambidexterity. A little bit like driving a car with a stick shift.
When you drive a “stick” you are not really conscious of what you right foot, your left foot, your right hand or your left hand are doing. You let your limbs do their own thing while thinking about something else.
The same goes for bilingual people. They let the “bilingual” part of the brain do the talking while the unilingual part deals with another matter.

The bilingual phenomenon happens naturally for some, and artificially for others.
It happens naturally when parents, both natives of the same foreign land migrate and settle in another country, like America for instance.
Their children will first hear and learn the parents’ native tongue and then unconsciously they will absorb English by osmosis. Without even realizing it these kids will turn into bilingual bots.

For some, like me, this phenomenon didn’t come naturally. It had to work to acquire it.
When I came to America, I was alone and I had to learn how to communicate with the natives in order to fend for myself.
I found television to be of great help. Especially commercials. The Persil “Whiter than white” motto became my mantra. I heard it many times and it showed on bold characters on my black and white TV screen.
Commercials taught me a great deal, I am sorry to say, but what can you do when you have no job or friends to go to? Like all immigrants you watch TV.

When you learn a second language, you translate instinctively into you native tongue everything that you hear or everything that you read.

When I first arrived in San Francisco, I noticed a sign on a window. It said “Venetian Blinds”. This was easy to translate; I assumed immediately that Venetian Blinds was a charitable organization dealing with blind Venetian natives.

As I walked the streets of San Francisco, I noticed this ubiquitous sign again and again and I started to wonder why so many blind Italians had settled in this city.
I knew that the founder of Bank of America was Italian, but did he send for all his blind “paisanos” to join him?

Another day I glanced in wonderment at the Chronicle’s headline. It said in big bold characters “cons escape”.
The word “con” in French means stupid, dumb.
I naturally translated “idiots escape”. I thought that it was a rather strange headline but ”when in Rome, do as the Romans do” and I accepted the fact that in America (the land of opportunities), even stupid people are allowed to escape from a well-guarded prison.
On second thought, if stupid people could escape, what about the smart ones?
San Francisco must have been swarming with smart escapees…

In order to become truly bilingual, you need to throw away the translation process and slip into the skin and the mind of a “sabra” Yank. You need to think and act native. Smoking pot and drinking whiskey might help.
This body and mind transfer is not easy and a lot of things can go wrong. One mistake and you could easily turn into some kind of lead-footed Frankenstein.
This transfer business takes a lot of practice, but being curious and being a voracious reader also helps.

I remember that the word “cockpit” puzzled me (and still does) for a long time.
Did pilots originally fight like cocks in the “cock pit”? Everybody knows that large plane have dual controls, but did or do pilots and co-pilots actually brawl in this cramped space? And nobody knows about it?
I am getting goose pimples just thinking about it.

Some words are also misleading. They are “false friends”. They sound and often spell like words you are familiar with, but they have a totally different meaning.
Take the word “sale” for instance. I saw it on the windows of many stores.
In French it means “dirty”.
Were all these downtown stores peddling some X-rated stuff?
I not totally adverse to some tasteful smut, but still…

But bilingualism is not a terminal disease and it is not genetically transmitted.
Your children, and probably your grandchildren, might become immune to it.

After being immersed in a foreign environment for many years, your native tongue will tend to become a little fuzzy, and with time (and a few pills) you can get rid of it.

But if you get a certain buzz speaking and cursing in the language of you forbearers, by all means, indulge in this guilty pleasure regardless of the Establishment’s frowns.

I am bilingual and metrosexual. Hear me roar!