Monday, 31 October 2011

Fleeting visit to Grand Rapids

A small group of us from France and Albion College drove two hours to visit the Mayor of Grand Rapids and have a look around at the sustainability efforts of the city.

The city of Grand Rapids is located on the Grand River about 40 miles east of Lake Michigan. As of the 2010 census, the city population was 188,040 about the same as Waitakere City that was, in Auckland NZ. It is the largest city in West Michigan.

Grand Rapids is home to five of the world's leading office furniture companies and is nicknamed the "Furniture City". The city and surrounding communities are economically diverse, and contribute heavily to the health care, information technology, automotive, aviation, and consumer goods manufacturing industries. They actually have a street dedicated as the Medical Mile where you can find hospitals and clinics and medical imagery companies.

The city is interesting and has a mix of modern and older architecture but I was mostly interested in what they were doing of an 'eco' nature and how they were marketing themselves. Both were a little disappointing. Compared to what was Waitakere City in Auckland the efforts to encourage sustainability are patchy, less intense and less integrated into the city.

When I asked for a brochure on their sustainability efforts I was told they didn't have anything (extraordinary). I asked for a press kit but apparently they don't exist (unbelievable) and there was no supply at the city hall of brochures on the city (touristy or otherwise). To me this all seems incomprehensible. If you're doing something well you've got to show people. Telling them to visit a website isn't effective. This is surprising since the city is the hub of one of the United Nations regional Centres of Expertise.

The city is fond of art and uses it in its building such as its new bus transit centre where the Greyhound buses collect and drop off their passengers. Eventually it may connect to trains too. Each year the city has an Art Prize competition which encourages a high number of entries. Winners get money and everyone who enters can display their entry around the city. It's a real boom for the city at that time.

The city has buildings which qualify for LEED status. This means they are built to particular green standards, mostly in terms of energy but hopefully other requirements too.

We stopped to look at the Smart Meters which are being installed in the more 'sustainable-minded' areas which tell the supplier and the householder how much and when they are peaking with their use so they can adjust when they use appliances to the off-peak tijes.
Our guide from the city council was determined we should see once of their LEED breweries.

It was shut when we arrived but as we looked forlornly through the windows the owner took pity on us, welcomed us in and gave an explanation of their LEED accreditation. The Vivant Brewery brews its own beer and cider in French-German style. It is located inside a renovated church. I found it ironic that the root of all evil had taken over a house of God. They've done a good job of it. The furniture is a bit beerfest but solid and the flags and new bar fit in well with the stained glass windows.

Grand Rapids was the hometown of Gerald Ford, the 38th President of the United States. He, along with his wife, former First Lady Betty Ford, are buried on the grounds of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids.


The Ford Museum opened to the public in September 1981. It is part of the Presidential libraries system of the National Archives and Records Administration, a Federal agency. Unlike other Presidential libraries, the museum component is geographically separate from the library/archives.

The Ford Museum is in Grand Rapids, Michigan and the Library is in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Despite the separation, the library and museum are a single institution sharing one director.

Approaching the museum I was amused by some of the outdoor sculpture. Near the entrance is a footballer made out of metal stuff.


Playing in the fountain outside the entrance to the museum is another piece of art. Permission to display it was given to the artist. I loved the brown bears who really seemed so natural in the shower of water and catching their fish

I enjoyed this museum; we were personally guided by its Vice-President who has an amazing grasp on the relevant history. The first section you come to deals with pop culture. Then immediately you visit the Watergate section with static and audiovisual displays.

Past the section that deals with the President's childhood and early adult life in the navy and his meeting and marrying Elizabeth (Betty) you come to a life-size replica of the oval office as it was in the time of President Ford. Many of the memorabilia on display are the originals.

There's a section devoted to Betty Ford and her good works and then you enter a facsimile of the President's cabinet room as it was. Everything is simple and tasteful.

We finished up the tour with a special treat. We were escorted to President Ford's office in Grand Rapids with all its memorabilia in place, vase from Emperor Hirohito of Japan, an Italian tea service, a rug used by Gerald, his desk set up for a typical day's work.

Outside you can easily find the graves of Gerald Ford and his wife Betty- laid vertically in and behind the concrete memorial. This museum is certainly worth putting on your agenda if you visit this city.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Twenty-four hours in Hungary

As I arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris a sickening thought occurred to me. Maybe I needed a visa to enter Hungary. It hadn't occurred to me earlier as I didn't book the flights and I'm used to Europeans being able to go freely where they want. I felt rather anxious wondering if I would go all that way by plane only to be sent back. My boss would not be happy about that.

In the end I needn't have worried. There was no border control to speak of at Budapest. I had only hand luggage. A bored border guy was sitting down, saw me and waved me through, didn't check my documents at all. Suddenly I was free in Hungary. That felt weird but it happens on entering France too, from a European country. So much of our travel details are computerised and controlled by 'Big brother'.

Budapest is the capital of Hungary. As the largest city of Hungary, it is the country's principal political, cultural, commercial, industrial, and transportation centre. In 2011, Budapest had 1,733,685 inhabitants, down from its 1989 peak of 2,113,645 due to suburbanization. Budapest became a single city occupying both banks of the river Danube with a unification on 17 November 1873 of west-bank Buda and Óbuda with east-bank Pest.

The history of Budapest began with Aquincum, originally a Celtic settlement that became the Roman capital of Lower Pannonia. Magyars arrived in the territory in the 9th century but their first settlement was ransacked by the Mongols in 1241-42.

Following nearly 150 years of Ottoman rule, the region entered a new age of prosperity in the 18th and 19th centuries, and Budapest became a global city after the 1873 unification. It also became the second capital of Austria-Hungary, a great power that dissolved in 1918. Budapest was the focal point of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, and the Revolution of 1956.

Budapest is considered a financial hub in Central Europe and ranked as the most livable Central/Eastern European city on EIU's quality of life index. It is also ranked as "Europe's 7th most idyllic place to live" by Forbes. Budapest is home to the headquarters of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT). I'll write more on that in a future blogpost.

Flying over Europe was quite a novel experience. I'm so used to flying over water, the Pacific Ocean to be exact, or desert (Australia) that the idea of powering across countries without geographic borders is amazing to me.

These days I feel quite comfortable exploring European cities alone. Budapest felt safe and very liveable. It wasn't possible for me to do much in just a few hours though. I had approximately 5 hours to explore and have dinner. Naturally I started with The Danube, the mighty river flowing through this part of Europe. For size it's impressive but the majority of buildings alongside it aren't. It can't possibly compare with Paris and it's less intensely built-up. There are, after all, less than 2m people there.

I wanted to explore both Buda (left bank) and Pest (right bank). To do that I needed to cross the Danube. There are eight bridges in total but the loveliest is the Chain Bridge. The weather was bleak, cold and windy. Somehow it fitted with some of the buildings still a reminder of the communist era, but it's the older buildings that really interested me.


On the Buda side is the imposing citadel fortress, further along is Castle Hill and Buda Castle and churches. On the Pest side you can't miss seeing the Parliament buildings modelled on London's Houses of Parliament.

There's also St Stephen's Basilica which is in a good state of maintenance but so dark my camera had trouble picking out much of the beautiful detailing.

There are some surprising styles of architecture which I felt were rather solid, heavy-handed and lacking in grace but maybe the climate has a bearing on that. It's -20C in winter and between 30-40C in summer.

Night fell and I needed to find some dinner. I walked into a rather unusual (for me) place. It could have been some meetup place in a 007 or Jason Bourne movie.

It had a strange collage of images on the walls which seemed to dare you to be uncomfortable or surprised. They seemed strangely sensual, even a bit sexual. English is widespread in Budapest. I found my English much more relevant than my French so coping in a country with such a very different language wasn't too difficult, except for trying to work out how to say place names-what a mouthful.

I ordered weiner schnitzel with potato salad but it wasn't quite what I expected. The veal slab was enormous though the crumbing was good. The potato salad seemed to be hot until I tried it. Stone cold slabs of potato in a runny sauce (no not mayonnaise-based) with lots of chopped onion, Surprising but actually good.

Fortified with food at a reasonable price, I walked back across the Danube and up a hill to the castle. Buses of tourists where sqarming all over the place but not a lot to see other than the view of the city and the outside of a church. It was late at night so there wasn't much to do.

I walked on, past a poster of Tom Jones advertising his coming performance in Budapest- he looked SO old and haggard.

Past a ballroom dancing class taking their lesson very seriously. Past all the twinkling lights and back to my hotel, the Lanchid 19 near the waterfront.

There are a number of spas from the influence of the Turkish era but I didn't have time to visit any. If I get a chance to come back that's something I'd like to do, as well as a bit of shopping. I didn't have time to do any of that before it was time to get to bed and the next day head off to a conference and then straight back to Paris.

In my opinion the city is worth a two day trip.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Time Out

It was a drowsy, glorious morning in JC's village as I set out for a walk. The guys had gone hunting again and I decided I didn’t have enough curiosity to repeat last weekend’s experience each Sunday; so I had a leisurely bath, dressed and left the house in shadow while I searched for the sunlight.

It’ s a year since I arrived in France and the weather is completely different. It’s hot, not freezing. It’s still, not windy. Here I was wandering down country roads and streets this autumn. It could have been peaceful with just the little birds twittering. It became a little less peaceful as I navigated a village street and a cock crowed on one side, followed by another the other side of the road. Then a dog barked, someone yelled at it. Two joggers scuffed by and a motorcyclist with a death-wish roared past.

Ah the countryside, I sighed, trying not to pay any attention to the shotgun blasts coming from all sides (hours later they were still firing). They are so loud. They were probably JC and his son. So many shots all morning reverberating around the village.

JC struck his hunter-gatherer pose as he cheerfully bounced out of the bedroom this morning, wearing his hunting gear and shotgun in his hand. A year ago I would never have considered myself having this experience. My imagination flew back three centuries as I pictured myself getting on with the day while the man went off searching for food because supermarkets weren’t invented. Of course the reality these days is so different and we don’t need to ‘sport’ our way to food as a hobby.

I love nature, the countryside, cottages and gardens and sometimes solitude. This was a morning to experience them all. ...A horse waiting for some attention...flocks of birds starting to prepare for migrations... brilliant berries and scarlet-leafed Virginia creeper... ancient orchards overburdened with apples of many varieties, a quince tree laden with golden fruit glinting like beacons...

...a pretty cottage with an old well...broken buildings, ugly houses built in the soulless second half of the twentieth century... hay awaiting winter...stone cottages from bygone ages... flowers putting out their last efforts before the cold death arrives... butterflies sucking on windfalls ... a Tigger-like squirrel with a brushy tail as big as his body inconsiderately eating all the walnuts and leaving the acorns (hasn't he heard about Ice Age the movie) who was bounding about in the conifer branches... a woman relaxing and reading outdoors.

I was rather surprised to find myself back at JC’s house. How did that happen? I’d crossed numerous streets, I’d circuited the main part of the village yet here I was, the compass pointed here. So I set off in the other direction but I didn’t get lost. The village is charming and there are some homes I’d love to live in. They certainly need their orchards looked after-so sad to see so much abandoned land full of nettles and sick trees, no love and appreciation and maintenance. I could transform them if i had the opportunity.

I arrived back at the house and took off my wet and grass-covered street shoes. The bodies of two dead pheasants were occupying a basket now and it was time to set to for a barbecue lunch. It was lovely dining outside and then relaxing in deck chairs. Well, it would have been almost Zen-like but for the gunshots. This is the countryside in autumn.