April 18, 2014

Talking Transportation: A Report Card for Metro-North

If Metro-North were a student and commuters its teacher, the railroad’s winter report card would be a D+ and the comment would be “needs to improve”.

As new Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti finishes his second month on the job, he’s making the rounds to meet and listen to commuters.  But his 100-Day Plan for bringing the railroad back won’t conclude until mid-June, so I thought that now would be a great time to survey riders and get a baseline of their sentiments against which we can measure any gains in the months ahead.

Our unscientific online survey ran for seven days and got 642 responses.  Clearly, those who wanted to opine were probably those with gripes, so take the results with a grain of salt.

Asked to give Metro-North a letter grade based on the past months’ performance, the railroad got an average D+.

Asked if service was getting better, 22 percent said yes, 31 percent said it was getting worse and 47 percent said it was “about the same”.

When asked what their biggest complaints were (respondents could list multiple issues),  88 percent said it was late or delayed trains, 60 percent said poor communications when things went wrong, and 59 percent said it was lack of sufficient seating on trains.  Another 30% percent complained about the train cars’ heating / cooling system (or lack thereof), while others (18 percent) said there was insufficient station parking and 15 percent said the stations had poor upkeep.

The survey also asked how commuters reported their gripes.  Ten percent said they never had complaints, 46 percent  said they didn’t complain “because it seemed useless” but 61 percent said they did complain to conductors or to Metro-North.  Of those who did complained almost half of respondents (45 percent) said their problem was never fixed.

We also asked who commuters thought was to blame for the railroad’s problems.  An overwhelming 90 percent blamed Metro-North management, 48% percent said they were due to the Department of Transportation, 35 percent said it was their state legislature’s fault, 28 percent said it was because of Metro-North employees, 12 percent blamed the Federal government, and 9 percent blamed their fellow commuters.

Our last question was most telling:  “Do you feel safe riding Metro-North?” 56 percent said yes, 15 percent said no and 29% percent said they weren’t sure.

We designed the survey to be brief, taking maybe two minutes to answer.  But we also gave space for commuters to comment, and 267 of them did, some at great length.  Here’s a sampling of their opinions:

Sorry to be so harsh … It is 2014, pseudo-modern, wealthy society and the most laughable public transportation system in any advanced country and metropolitan area.

This service is really shameful for the amount that we pay.  I have not been on a train in the last 6 months that has arrived on time.

When I moved here 10 years ago you could set your watch by MetroNorth.  Now the timetable is just a suggestion.

The Danbury Line is the orphaned stepchild of the system.

The lack of self control of “irate” commuters does not help the situation.  Makes us look bad.

The full results of the survey and all of the comments are available online via links from our website, www.CommuterActionGroup.org

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 22 years.  He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

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Letter From Paris: Two Local Elections — Two Remarkably Different Outcomes

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

Local elections have just taken place in Turkey and in France.  The outcomes of the elections speak a great deal about these two countries .

Primeminister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, already in power for 12 years, is showing no intention of stepping down.  His aura at the polls was barely affected by the scandals and accusations of wrong-doing.  Particularly the violent repression of the popular manifestations on Istanbul Taksim Square, the  allegations of frauds directed not only at him, but at his family, the murky circumstances of score settlings.

His recent strategy includes the taking over 85 percent of the main TV channel and the curbing of social networks like Twitter or Facebook.  Nevertheless  Erdogan’s party, the AKP  (Party of Justice and Development),  passed  the test of the polls with flying colors, not acknowledging the distress of the public opinion.  These events did not speak much for the democratic system of that country and should constitute a red flag for the 28 EU members next time Turkey knocks at their door.

In contrast, the French municipales (local elections) were a reflection of the French opinion’s strong disapproval of the policy  of the Francois Hollande government and brought on major changes.

The municipales,  are always an important and colorful event in France,  when mayors and  council members of 36,500 communes (towns) are elected for six years.  But this time they turned into a tsunami, which modified the political landscape of the country.  The vague bleue (blue wave ) showing the gains of the Right and even the vague bleue marine (navy blue wave ) named after Marine Le Pen, head of the far right Front National.  Just a few figures:  in 2008 in the towns of more than 10,000 inhabitants, the Left had 509 mayors and the Right 433.  In 2004, the Left was reduced to 349 and the Right grew to 572.  Emblematic  was the town of Limoges, which had voted socialist since 1912, and turned conservative.

Paris resisted this tidal wave and remained socialist.  Incumbent Mayor Bertrand  Delanoe had groomed his assistant Anne Hidalgo to be his successor.  Together, they engaged in an intensive and efficient campaign.  The Mayor of Paris is elected according to a special system of voting in three rounds.  The first two rounds each Parisian vote for the mayor and council in each arrondissement.  Then mayors and councils vote for the mayor of Paris.  The fight to the finish between Anne Hidalgo and her conservative opponent Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet , was fierce, to say the least.  The former won by 53.34 over 44.06 percent.

The map of Paris to-day is made up of two halves: a blue west, and a red east.   With 11 versus nine arrondissements,   Hidalgo leads but not as much as  Jacques Chirac did in 1983 when he won all of them.  These results will be important in the next senatorial elections since the members of the Senat (high chamber)  are elected by the mayors.

Barely 24 hours after the closing of the polls, president François Hollande appeared on TV.  He declared that he had heard and understood the people’s message of disapproval of the policy he conducted since 2012.  He reassured his audience that appropriate measures would be taken.

A day later he announced the remaniement (reshuffle) of the government.  The soft spoken, kind-looking prime minister Jean Marc Ayrault was replaced by tough and energetic Manuel Valls, former minister of the interior.  The number of ministers was trimmed down from 38 to 16 and the parity men/women respected.  The new ministers are more experienced and some of the “heavyweights” remained, like Laurent Fabius, at the Foreign Affairs desk.

The decision concerning Bercy (ministry of Finances and Economy)  was crucial given the urgency to reduce the budget deficit and increase the competitivité (competitiveness)  of the French industry.  The new prime minister Manuel Valls decided to split the responsibilities between two ministers: Michel Papin handling Budget and Finances , Arnaud Montebourg becoming minister of Economy.  This will be a “hot” area since France has to work in a partnership with Brussels.

Ségolène Royal

Ségolène Royal

The second spectacular move was the nomination of Ségolène Royal as the minister of Ecology, Sustainable Industry and Energy.  She will rank as number three in the new cabinet.  She is an old timer, particularly in the environmental field.  Her appearance in the courtyard of Hotel de Matignon made quite a splash.  Royal is a highly educated woman, used to be Hollande’s companion for 29 years, the mother of their four children and the last contestant for the presidency against Sarkozy in  2002.  Her appointment will be helpful to Valls’ government because she brings her strong connections to the lower working class with her.

The outspoken Housing minister Cecile Duflot left the Matignon in a huff and a puff , showing her overwhelming dislike for Valls.  Her colleagues in the Green party at the Assemblée Nationale, were upset by her move as they were willing to work within the cabinet.

The overhaul of the new government was greeted by salvos of criticisms and gibes from the UMP and naturally from the extreme parties – this is normal in France.   However, the composition of the new government was interpreted, by more unbiased analysts,  as the determination to follow the road map set out by François Hollande at the Jan. 14  press conference and to keep the course on the Pacte de Responsabilité, but to  implement it with more determination, more speed and more pedagogy.

Failure is not an option and Brussels  will not ease off the pressure.

HeadshotAbout the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Eight Little Known Facts About Flying

We may never know what happened to that Malaysia Airlines 777, but there’s plenty more we should know about flying, even domestically.  Here are some little-known truths of aviation as shared by pilots and flight attendants:

Lavatory Doors Don’t Really Lock:

They can be opened from the outside by just sliding the “occupied” sign to one side.  This isn’t so attendants can catch “mile high club” wannabies, but so they can be sure the lavs are empty on take-off and landing.  And those ashtrays in the lavs?  Even though smoking has been banned for decades, the FAA still requires them.

Oxygen Masks Can Save Your Life:    

But only if you get them on fast!  In a rapid decompression at 35,000 feet, the oxygen is sucked from your lungs and you have 15 – 30 seconds to get that mask on or die.  And the on-board oxygen is only good for 15 minutes, so expect an express ride down to safer altitudes.

Airlines Are Suffering from a Pilot Shortage:

New regulations for increased rest time and more experience aviators are making it tough for airlines to keep their cockpits filled.  Boeing alone estimates that aviation growth worldwide will create demand for a half-million new pilots.  And just like Metro-North, airlines are now losing their most experienced crews to retirement.

Your Pilot May Be Asleep:

Actually, that’s a good thing during most of the flight, which can be pretty boring as the auto-pilot runs the plane.  And a good nap should make your pilot refreshed for landing.  But the FAA is also proposing to test ‘heavy’ pilots for potential sleep disorders so they don’t nod off at a crucial moment.

Keep Your Seatbelt On:

Otherwise, unexpected turbulence will see you bounce off the luggage racks like a ping-pong ball.  In an incident like that the hysterical screaming is bad enough, so stay belted.

Flight Attendants Aren’t In It for the Glamour:

They don’t get paid when they arrive at the airport or when they greet you boarding the plane.  For most, their pay starts ticking only at take-off.  They travel for a living and have to endure endless abuse for things that are not their fault.  For all that, median salary for flight attendants is about $37,000.  Food stamps they have to apply for separately.

Planes Are Germ Factories:

Most older jets recycle cabin air to conserve fuel, so if one passenger sneezes, everyone’s susceptible to a cold.  The air is also dry and the blankets and pillows (if you get them) haven’t been cleaned since the previous use.  The same is true of the headphones they pass out.  And your seatback tray table?  Just imagine whose baby diaper was seated there where you lay out your in-flight snack.  Moral to the story:  BYO sanitizer!

Don’t Drink the Water:

Unless it comes from a bottle, water on planes comes from onboard tanks that are rarely cleaned.  At least when they use it to make coffee it’s heated.  Again, BYO.

Overall, based on passenger miles, flying is the safest form of transportation in the world.  But it’s not without its risks, some of which you can help minimize using common sense.

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron


Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 22 years.  He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

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Letter From Paris: Following a New Silk Road

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

The presidents of the United States and of China were in Europe this week.  It was the first visit of a Chinese president to the European Union’s (EU) headquarters since 1975.  He will meet with the presidents of the Council, Herman Van Rompuy, of the Commission, Manuel Barroso and of the Parliament, Martin Schuls, showing a nascent  interest in  Europe as a political entity.

However, Europe has been the largest trade partner of China for a decade, with German leading the pack.  Why then did president Xi Jinping choose France as one of his four stops in Europe in spite of  that country’s small trade and investment with the Middle Kingdom ?  The reasons are historical, cultural, the Chinese’s attraction to  gastronomy and good wine, and, finally, the desire to acquire more areas of French “savoir faire” and state of the art technology, heretofore unexplored.

Xi Jinping and his beautiful star singer wife Peng Liyuan opened his three-day state visit in Lyon, the French silk capital, and announced his intention to promote a “new Silk Road.”  Started with French King Francis I, the silk-making industry in Lyon was flourishing by the 17th century.  In the 1920s cultural ties developed between China and France.  Chinese students entered French universities, among them several future political leaders.  In 1964 General Charles de Gaulle was the first Western chief of state to establish full diplomatic relations with the Middle Kingdom.

In this file photo, Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan wave to the crowd.

In this file photo, Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan wave to the crowd.

Mutual interests in literature, cinema and art have created special bonds between Chinese and French intelligencia.  Chinese fans of the “Nouvelle Vague” films (new wave) are sometimes more knowledgeable about the names of the directors that the French themselves.  The 1992 film “l’Amant‘”(the Lover), directed by Jean Jacques Annaud, based on the 1984 novel by Marguerite Duras, was a huge success in France.  The plot is the affair a “Chinaman” struck with a young French girl on a ferry boat crossing the Mekong river.  French readers cheered on the high school “Joueuse de Go” (Go player) character created by author Shan Sa, whose courage symbolized the determination of the Chinese population fighting against the impending invasion of Manchuria by the Japanese in 1931.

But the objectives of the Chinese president and of his cohort of businessmen and investors who accompanied him were more down to earth:  they were here for serious business.  Both by making inroads into the French industry and by opening their own market to French goods in order to tilt the massive trade deficit between the two countries.  The car company Dongfeng just acquired 14 percent of the PSA’s (Peugeot-Citroen) shares.   The Chinese have been trying to take over 46 percent of  Club Med’s (touristic villages) capital.

Whether it is nuclear energy  or aeronautic technology, automobile industry, or fast trains, the transfer of technology has always been a touchy point for the French.   The most striking example of this situation is the TGV (Train à grande vitesse) or fast train which was designed by Alstom in France in the 1970s and was further developed  jointly with other Western countries.  Now the Chinese network is ten times longer than the French and in July 2013  “Harmony Express” surpassed the speed of the French trains.

On a televised program, a spokeswoman for the Chinese government was asked the question about transfer of technology.   She said that the Chinese now are pretty much caught up, ( which is certainly true with telecom giants like Huawei and ZTE) and that now their policy was veering toward “partnership and cooperation” – language to be expected from a government spokeswoman.

The Chinese love France.  Millions of tourists speed through the most famous halls of the Louvre.  The growing middle class and the wealthy are increasingly   fascinated by luxury goods.  They are not satisfied anymore by the pirated brands one finds all over the world.  Now they can find the real stuff 72 percent cheaper in France thanks to the system of “detaxe” and by avoiding import duties into China.

During the many years we lived in Africa with the American Embassy, in the 1960s and 1970s, I had a chance to observe that, in those days, the Chinese lived in spartan compounds totally secluded from the local population , working on Guinea tea plantations or building a soccer stadium in the Gambia.  They have come a long way.  To-day they visit France to do their spring shopping and buy Chambertin ou Chateau Lafitte wine, Hermes silk scarves or Vuitton bags.

Agribusiness is a field where improvements would be welcome.   One remembers the problems China suffered a few years ago with contaminated powder milk.  The Chinese are very fond of foie gras and cheese.  They have just discovered the “Jambon de Bayonne.”  It takes many hours of preparation and manual work to prepare the dark red ham meat.  The traditional “savoir faire” has existed since the 13th century in the south west of France.  Its commerce is labeled “IGP” (Indication Geographique Protegéee) or geographically protected.  Pork is one of the main food staple in China and there the huge market is promising.  Will the  transfer of “savoir faire” be followed by the loss of the brand?

During the elegant dinner at the Elysees palace and the following night at the  Opera Royal of the Chateau de Versailles, what was president François Hollande thinking of  – 18 billion euros of new contracts or the difficult political situation he is in right now after the disastrous (for him) recent local elections?

HeadshotAbout the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Talking Transportation: The Feds ‘Deep Dive’ Into Metro-North

Jim Cameron

It was worse than we’d ever known.  Metro-North was almost an accident waiting to happen.

That summarizes the Federal Railway Administration’s “Operation Deep Dive” report issued last week, following 60 days of probing into every aspect of the railroad’s operations.  All of this comes on the heels of collisions and derailments in the past year that have taken the lives of four commuters and two railroad workers.

The 28-page report confirms that what was wrong at Metro-North was not just old equipment but a failure of management with very misplaced priorities.  “On-time performance” was what mattered most, even at the expense of safety.

Among the report’s findings …

• Half of the personnel who dispatch and monitor the trains have less than three years’ experience, are not properly trained and are so tired they make mistakes

• The railroad’s “safety culture” was “poor.”  Safety meetings went unattended.

• Fatigue by train engineers, track workers and dispatchers may have affected performance.

• The trains themselves are in good shape, but the tracks are not.

I’ve been following Metro-North for more than 20 years, so much of this is not news to me, but just a substantiation of my worst fears.  Still, the report makes for interesting reading because it cites many examples as proof-points for these findings:

Metro-North has known for a decade that they were facing a “retirement cliff” with 20 percent of its employees — those with the most experience — reaching their 30th anniversary of employment to retire on fat pensions.  But the railroad was clearly inadequate in hiring and training their replacements.

Fatigue becomes a factor because soon-to-retire veterans grab all the overtime they can in their final year to increase their income and their railroad pensions.  They are among the oldest employees and least resilient.

Metro-North’s management wasn’t even enforcing its own rules.  The report says employees were “confused” about cell phone use on the job.  Any teenager studying for his driver’s license knows not to use a cell phone while driving, but track workers at Metro-North got away with it.

Additional funding for staff and infrastructure are important and must be found.  But turning around a culture of lax enforcement and lip-service to safety is going to take more than money.

Only a month on the job, espousing “safety is our top priority” at every turn, the new president of Metro-North, Joseph Giulietti, recently saw the first fatal accident on his watch: a track worker, eight years on the job, was struck by a train just outside the Park Avenue tunnel.  Why?

There are no quick fixes to this mess.  It took years of invisible neglect for Metro-North to slide into this abyss, and it will take years to rebuild the railroad and regain riders’ trust.

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 22 years.  He is the founder of the Commuter Action Group and also serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

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Letter From Paris: Mr. Putin, You Have Much To Lose

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

At the foot of Mount Mithridates, in eastern Crimea, stood the ancient city of Pantikapeion founded in the 7th century BC by Greek colonists.  It is where King Mithridates killed himself in 63 BC by the sword since his body was immune to poison.

In 1992, I joined the archaeological expedition from the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts led by Dr. V. Tolstikov, head of the department of near eastern antiquities, and Dr. Michael Treister, curator, in order to publish an article in Archaeology.  That season the Russian team was researching the acropolis and a vast architectural complex with a colonnade dating from the 2nd century BC.  Below the steep cliff, one could see modern Kerch and the Russian shore of the Krasnodar region across the five kilometer-wide Cimmerian Bosporus.

The scholars from the Pushkin museum were among the many Russian, Ukrainian and foreign archaeologists who have long been researching the rich strata of  human occupation on the northern shore of the Black Sea.  They have also studied the Scythian civilization, whose “kurgans” (tombs) contained the famous gold treasures.

The Institutes of Archaeology in the major cities, like Moscow, St Petersburg and Kiev, the universities and most of  the museums, have their own expeditions.  For instance, Odessa conducts regular excavations in Olbia, one of the major “emporia”  (commercial trading post) for the export of cereals, fish and slaves to Greece and for import of Attic goods to Scythia.  On the outskirts of Sebastopol, the ancient Greek city of Chersonesus has been excavated jointly by teams from Ukraine, the University of Texas and the German Institute of Archaeology.

Archaeologists, historians and other specialists exchange the results of their finds and publish joint papers in scholarly journals.  The Center for Research on Ancient History, located in Besançon in eastern France, is an invaluable source for  the Black Sea region and has collected works from scholars, irrespective of their nationality.  Periodically, a Black Sea symposium, which attracts several hundred scientists, meets in Vani, Georgia.

After this long description of the archaeological scene in the Black Sea region, the question arises: what is going to happen to this fruitful scientific collaboration currently happening across the borders ?

What next for President Vladimir Putin?

What is President Vladimir Putin’s next move?

During our sail along the Black Sea coast in 1991 (see the Feb. 8 Sochi article posted on this site), we saw dozens of wind turbines near Evpatoria in western Crimea.  Today, Ukraine and Russia have ambitious plans to create a wind farm of 3,000 sq. km. for a grid power of 16,000 MW.  Aeolian energy is readily available in this area, thanks to the shallow waters of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

On March 20, Le Monde published an article entitled, “Antonov mirrors the break between Russia and Ukraine.”  The article explains how the Ukrainian aircraft manufacturing and services company, Antonov, builds planes with technology and software from Dassault Systemes and employs 16,000 Ukrainian workers, but 40 percent of the parts utilized in production are Russian.

On March 22,  a Moscow official announced that the extension of the capital’s subway had to be put on hold since they could not take delivery of some of the construction material  ordered from the Ukraine.

In the art world, a Paris galerist told me they also were expecting difficulties in the near future.

Human, cultural and economic ties between Ukraine, Crimea and Russia are so interwoven that the break up of the Ukrainian territorial integrity and the announced sanctions from the West are bound to have serious consequences.

Vladimir Putin is supposed to be an excellent chess player.  One assumed that each one of his moves was made according to a planned strategy.  This does not seem to be true anymore.  He has won the Crimea, but what about the long term waves he is making? Problems are going to catch up with him.

HeadshotAbout the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Senior Moments: My Take on Embattled Ukraine

Independence Square in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

The magnificent Independence Square in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

I’ve been getting one e-mail after another: “John, what you think about Ukraine?  What’s it all about?  How do you feel about it?”  Why those emails?  Because many of you know that I served my Peace Corps hitch–the full 27 months–in Ukraine.  And that was barely four years ago.

I never dreamed this awesome historic event would happen.  That I’d see the Ukrainian protestors —revolutionaries, in fact–storm into Kiev and topple the government.  See their hated president abandon his office and take off to Russia to save his life.  See the revolutionaries take over their parliament, the Rada.  And set the country on a new and so-longed-for course—toward affiliation with the West and the European Union.

Read the full article on John LaPlante’s blog

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Letter From Paris: A Week Like No Other in French Politics

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

It has been a week out of the ordinary in French politics, to say the least.  A summary of the sequence of events may help the foreign reader in deciphering the situation.

It all started March 2 with a few revelations about the UMP (Union for Popular movement) right wing party.  Jean François Copé, UMP president, was denounced in the weekly magazine “Le Point” of surfacturation (over billing) of expenses incurred during the 2012 electoral campaign.  A communications company had obtained the contract without preliminary invitations to tender.  Copé, looking wan and thin, reacted almost emotionally to the attack.  He announced that all the accounts of the UMP would be locked in a sealed room contingent upon the other political parties as well as the media, doing the same .

Former President Nicolas Sarkozy was at the center of an extraordinary week in French politics.

Former President Nicolas Sarkozy was at the center of an extraordinary week in French politics.

Then, on March 3, the whistle-blowing satirical newspaper, “Canard Enchainé,” reported that Patrick Buisson, a collaborator of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, recorded the latter’s conversations.  Buisson was part of Sarkozy’s first circle and his closest adviser.  He made the recordings himself for hours on end, from morning to evening,  with an old-fashion dictaphone carried in his pockets.  Some of the recorded conversations took place just prior to a planned cabinet reshuffle — in other words, they were politically sensitive.

The question was: who gave the recordings to the press?  Buisson’s lawyer vouched that his client did not.  But what was suspicious was the fact that Buisson told his son (father and son have been estranged for two years) that those recordings were a “life insurance” and that cela peut toujours servir (One never knows, it might be useful someday)

But this was just the beginning.  An avalanche of revelations, which followed – all involving  the wiretapping of Nicolas Sarkozy to hamper his return to the political life -  was even more serious and  turned into a full blown political crisis reaching the top level of the Executive and of the Judiciary.

Four legal cases or “affaires,” which had been dormant, were resurfacing now:  the 2008 arbitrage-granting of 403 millions to businessman and former minister Bernard Tapie by the Credit Lyonnais;  the “retro- commissions” obtained from Pakistan after the Karachi terrorist attack in 2002 ;  the alleged financing from Libyan president Gaddafi in 2007 ;  the funds given by Liliane Bettencourt, one of the richest women in the world and heir to the l’Oreal company.

These four affaires share the common factor of suspicion in involvement of the illegal financing of Sarkozy’s electoral campaigns of 2007 and 2012.  Last October, Sarkozy was cleared and received a non-lieu (no ground for public prosecution) in the Bettencourt affaire.

On March 6, the headlines of the daily “Le Monde” were a bombshell: the former president’s phone had been tapped since April 13 by orders  of the judges d’instruction ( investigating judges running preliminary inquiry) – a totally unprecedented occurrence in the French Republic.  In early March, the judges opened an inquiry for traffic of influence  and corruption against Sarkozy, his lawyer Thierry Herzog, and Gilbert Azibert, general counsel at the Cour de Cassation  (highest judiciary court in France).

An aggressive perquisition (search) was conducted in Herzog’s Bordeaux residence.  Ten police and judges showed up at eight in the morning.  The lawyer’s computer and his portable phone were seized.  The taking of the former president ‘s personal “carnets” (agendas) created a great commotion.   In a television talk show, the president of the Bar commented that these actions were reminiscent of the Stasi.

Up to that point it was all bad news for the former president.  The socialist government had remained prudently quiet.  The wiretapping of Sarkozy was legal (he did not have immunity any more) as long as there was a suspicion of infraction.  However, the accumulation of proceedings against him was  beginning to be seen as harassment.  By coincidence, Eliane Houlette  was appointed in the new position of “National Financial Attorney” on March 3 in order to deal with corruption and tax frauds.  The first case was to be Sarkozy’s.

Then the blame game seemed to move from the opposition to the majority.  As a journalist commented, the government turned this gold – Sarkozy on the run – to lead, with the government violating the independence of justice.  The Garde des Sceaux or Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, a high-spirited and smart woman, born in Guyana, was put on the defensive and even accused of lying.

Did she know the content of the recordings?  When did the prime minister and the minister of interior (Secretary of the Interior) know?  Their evasive and even conflicting answers made them appear guilty when their main sin was probably just to be disorganized.

By the end of that memorable week, “Le Monde” published a letter, co-signed by the most eminent members of the judiciary corps, calling for moderation.  The letter praised transparency, but said that lawyers were not above the law, and that wiretapping was only legal if carried out by independent judges.  It also demanded a return to one of the basic rules of the French (and American) institutions – the separation of power between Executive and Judiciary.

HeadshotAbout the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Talking Transportation: The Commuter Manifesto

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

“Quit your moaning!”  “You’re not a railroad person, what do you know?”  “You don’t like the train, try driving.”

These are the reactions I get, especially from railroad employees, when I have been critical of Metro-North in the last few calamitous months.  They think I’m a “moaner”, though I try just as hard to be positive about the railroad as to criticize its failures.

But it’s not about me.  Mine is not the only voice calling for sweeping changes at the railroad.

So in launching the Commuter Action Group I knew it was important to be specific about riders’ expectations of service… to define a few basics of what Metro-North customers deserve in return for the highest rail fares in the US.

Thus was born, “The Commuter Manifesto” which I ‘nailed’ to the waiting room wall at several train stations:

We, the riders of commuter railroads in Connecticut, are tired of deteriorating service, rising fares and indifference and ineptitude from Metro-North.  As customers and taxpayers we deserve better and expect change.  Our expectations are few, and simple:

SAFETY FIRST

We expect a clean, safe, on-time, seated ride on trains with heat / AC and lights.  Don’t treat us like cattle making us ride on railcars you wouldn’t ride on yourself.

We want to know that you make our safety your top priority.  Make every employee understand that responsibility.  If they do anything that jeopardizes safety, discipline them or fire them.  There is no excuse for stupid mistakes.

FAST, ACCURATE AND HONEST COMMUNICATIONS

When things go wrong, immediately tell us what’s happened, why and when it will be fixed.  When you make a mistake, admit it.  Stop making apologies; get things fixed and don’t repeat the same errors over and over again.

RESPONSIVE CUSTOMER SERVICE

When we see a problem, give us an easy way to report it to you.  Then get it fixed and follow up with us to tell us it’s been resolved. Our complaints shouldn’t fall into a black hole.

Train your employees to be courteous and efficient, treating us like valued customers.  When they don’t meet those standards, train them again.  There should be zero tolerance for rude behavior by employees … or commuters.

OPEN & TRANSPARENT OPERATIONS

Let us know how you make decisions that affect us by opening all of your meetings to the public and media.  Share your goals and self-evaluations and ask our opinions as well.  The way you run the railroad affects our lives and we should have input.

LEADERSHIP THAT LISTENS

Meet with commuters on a regular basis at times and locations convenient to us.  Hear our complaints and suggestions and answer our questions.  We will listen to you if you will listen to us:  we’re in this together.

That’s it.  A few simple expectations the commuters of Metro-North have of their railroad.

The reaction so far?  Enthusiasm from commuters … back-patting by the pols … but from the CDOT and Metro-North, silence.

Really?  Are we asking for so much?

Editor’s Note: Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 22 years.  He was a member of the CT Rail Commuter Council for 19 years and still serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com  

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Letter From Paris: US Academy Awards Spark Thoughts on ‘Le Cinéma Francais”

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

The ceremonies of the 86th “Oscars” and of the 39th “Césars” took place this week within two days of each other.  In comparison with the glamorous and giant show of the American Academy Awards, the French Césars seemed almost like an intimate affair.  But for the French it is very important as a way to evaluate the status of the film industry and for professionals in this field to reassert their contribution to the country’s Culture (note that ‘Culture’ is usually spelled with a capital “C” in France.)

In recent years – and this a very personal opinion – the French art of making films has been losing its edge as a leader in the industry, as it did for instance during the days of  the Nouvelle Vague associated with the names of François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard in the late 1950s.  Nowadays, the subjects of the films are so specifically French as to be un-exportable.  Too often they turn into crowd-pleasers with simplistic plots and actors, who seem to have become the pet actors for the foreign market.

“The Artist,” which received multiple prizes in several countries in 2012, is the best illustration of this remark.  It catapulted Jean Dujardin from a second tier actor in France to a star.  Moreover, giving the award to a silent movie represents a negation of what makes French films special — that is, the thought-provoking ideas (such as Men and Gods, 2011) or the humor (such as the Intouchables 2012.)

Cecile de France, hostess of the 2014 Césars was most entertaining.  She kept the proceedings at a fast pace and had several funny quips.  She remarked, “Nobody’s perfect ” about the Belgians.  This obviously alluded to her own origins and also to the fact that the director of the best foreign film was Belgian.  Taking advantage of sexual orientation as the main theme of the evening, she addressed the audience thus, ” If there are any heteros in the theatre, it’s OK.  There are still a few among us who are.”

Francois Cluzet, the President of the Cesars, as he appears (left) in Les Intouchables,

Francois Cluzet, the President of the Cesars, as he appears (left) in Les Intouchables,

François Cluzet  (the lead actor who plays a wealthy quadraplegic in the Intouchables), who was the chairman of the ceremony,  made a few political comments to support the ongoing crusade of the intermittents du spectacle (show business workers) to defend the exception française (French exception.)  For them, special unemployment benefits are at stake.

Guillaume Gallienne’s,”Les Garçons et Guillaume, à Table was voted as the best film and received five Césars.  Gallienne is a societaire  from the Comedie Française, the prestigious theater company founded in 1680.  He developed the idea of his film from the one-man show he created.  It is a funny, but mostly touching, story of a boy,  who was brought up as a girl by a chain smoking and insensitive mother.

Mocked at home by his two older brothers and ridiculed by all, he survives years in French and English  boarding schools.  He continues to be the suffering nice guy always wearing a  big smile on his face, until one evening at a roof party.  The hostess calls out,  “a table, les filles et Guillaume” (“dinner’s ready, girls and Guillaume.”)  He finally realizes he is not a girl.  The film is centered on the brilliant acting of Guillaume, who also plays his mother, using the same voice.

The day after the Césars, Alain Resnais, a monument of the French cinema,  died at age 91.  He will be remembered by many movies, including, “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, 1958  (after a story by Marguerite Duras) and ” Last Year in Marienbad“, 1959 (after a novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet, who was the champion of the Nouveau roman.)

HeadshotAbout the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Letter From Paris: The Complex Conundrum of Ukraine

Editor’s Note: This piece was written prior to the invasion of Crimea by the Russians, but is still nevertheless topical.

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

The future of Ukraine remains uncertain and the problems multiple.

After three months of violence opposing the people of Kiev and the government of Viktor Yanukovich, the situation culminated in a bloody clash on Feb. 19, leaving over 60 dead and hundreds wounded.  Why did the confrontation last so long?  The West holds part of the responsibility.  Some voices from abroad were just throwing oil on the fire, such as an inflammatory piece of Bernard Henri Levy entitled “Vive l’Ukraine Libre”  in the Huffington Post.  Besides, the European Union’s (EU) position was unclear and some of its members made unattainable promises.

The EU may have been slow in acting but when it did, its stand was tough enough to force the Ukrainian government to back down.  Brussels mandated the ministers of foreign affairs of Poland, Germany and France to act as mediators, then announced immediate sanctions – cancelling visas of government officials, freezing assets of Ukrainian oligarchs abroad.  At the same time, Angela Merkel, the chief mediator, was on the phone with Putin, both of them conversing in Russian and German.

As early as five days after the peak of the violence, a few signs of appeasement began to turn the situation around. US secretary of state John Kerry said what needed to be said:  there should not be a partition of Ukraine;  the Ukraine should not be put in a position to have to chose between Europe and Russia.  Even more promising was the statement made by Sergei Lavrov , the Russian foreign minister:  “We want Ukraine to be part of the European family in every sense of the word.”

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The Yanukovich government collapsed overnight.  In rapid succession, the mayor of Kiev, the minister of defense, the whole police force of Lviv in Western Ukraine, the president of the parliament and 40 of its deputies defected.  Calm returned to Maidan square.  One thousand policemen were escorted peacefully out of the city by the insurgents.  An interim coalition government was rapidly formed and general elections were to be held before the end of the year.  As to president Yanukovich, he just vanished.

Ukraine is not an easy country to govern.  The politicians’ class is rampant with corruption and can be violent.  Since it acquired its independence in 1991, at the implosion of the Soviet Union, the Ukraine has been in a state of turmoil marked by the “orange revolution” of 2004.  The government’s way to deal with the opposition has been either to poison its members (everyone saw on the television the pock-marked face of former president Viktor Yuchtchenko allegedly poisoned by dioxine) or throw them in prison (Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko was condemned to seven years behind bars in 2011.)  Fights in the Rada (parliament) are not uncommon.  Seats in that assembly are for sale to the price of one million dollars.  Deputies may be offered a large amounts of money to change camp.

Therefore it is not surprising that the people, who put their lives on the line during the civil war, refused to trust their politicians.  The reaction – or rather the lack of reaction – of the crowd when Yulia Timoshenko appeared in a wheel chair on Maidan square and made an emotional appeal, is very revealing.  One might have expected a wild clamor of support.  But no, it is not what happened.  The people stood, almost frozen, listened to her politically-clever words but did not seem to buy her message.

Many foreign pundits, apparently influenced by the continuous media coverage of the events on Maidan square, seem to forget the other half of the Ukrainian equation – the Russians.  It would be a grave mistake to underestimate the fact that Ukraine is part of the historical past of Russia and also of its culture.  Therefore it is not only Putin who refuses any interference in the territorial integrity of Ukraine, it is also the Russian people.

Historically and culturally Ukraine is the cradle of Russia.  The Russian nation started as a Kievan state.  In the 10th century AD, Slavic prince Vladimir ruled over a huge territory including Novgorod, was baptized in 989 and absorbed the Byzantium culture.  The magnificent mosaics and icons in St Sophia cathedral, completed in 1041, attest to those beginnings.

The cultural heritage of the Russians is also linked in many ways to the Crimea.  The great Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva joined other writers, like Osip Mandelstam and Andrei Bely, in the writers’ colony of Koktebel, in the eastern part of the Crimea.   The short story “The Lady with the Dog”  by Anton Chekhov, which takes place in Yalta, is practically memorized by every Russian child in school.  Based on a Pushkin’s poem, the ballet entitled The Fountain of Bakhshisarai (a town in central Crimea) is part of the permanent repertoire of the Bolshoi.

The violence, which started in Simferopol only one week after the end of the uprising on Maidan square, is a reminder that the situation remains explosive in the area.

What will be the outcome of the Ukrainian crisis ?  A federation of autonomous republics, similar to the Crimea, whose status was recognized by Russia in 1997, but only for a period of 10 years?

Another thought.  Joseph Beuys, (1921-1986) is probably the best known artist in Germany today.  As he was flying with the Wermacht in 1944, his plane was shot down over the Crimea and saved by a Tatar “shaman.”  Beuys’ installations and other works are inspired from that unique experience.  This is what Ukraine may need – a Tatar shaman .

HeadshotAbout the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Letter From Paris: Monsieur (le President) Hollande Goes to Washington

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

For the first time in 20 years, a French President was invited for a State visit to the United States. François Hollande was greeted with the highest honors, including a colorful pageant on the White House Lawn.

There was no better way to emphasize the historical ties between the two countries than a visit to Monticello, the plantation of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States.  Jefferson, ambassador to France from 1785 to 1789, was an ardent francophile.  But he was also a brilliant statesman — particularly when he bought Louisiana from France in 1808, which probably represented the best real estate deal of all time.

In happier days, French President Francois Hollande and then companion Valérie Trierweiler. (Photo courtesy of Reuters)

In happier days, French President Francois Hollande and then companion Valérie Trierweiler. (Photo courtesy of Reuters)

The logistics of the official dinner at The White House were the source of an intense “buzz” as to who would be sitting next to the American president in the absence of a French “First Lady,” after the recent break up of Hollande from his long-time companion, journalist Valerie Trierweiler.

The meeting of the two presidents in Washington had a strong symbolic importance aimed at reinforcing their respective statures on the world scene.  France is one of the staunchest allies of the US today.  It has an aggressive foreign policy demonstrated by military interventions in Mali and Centrafrique and the essential role it played during the international, ongoing negotiations regarding Syria and Iran.

Last summer the attitude of Obama was widely interpreted a slap in the face for Hollande when the latter was left high and dry after his offer to provide military assistance to the US against Syria. Laying out the red carpet in such a manner on this visit might be interpreted as a form of gratitude toward France.

Most of the difficult questions were asked during the press conference, but both Obama and Hollande chose to avoid contentious topics; criticisms were muted.  The resentment felt by France and the rest of Europe about the NSA surveillance was not brought to the forefront.  However, Obama did express his discontent about the untimely presence of a group of French businessmen in Iran even before any agreement was signed with that country.

Unlike Sarkozy, Hollande was not invited to speak in front of the US Congress.  This is not entirely surprising since the presence of a socialist leader could have ruffled too many conservative feathers.

Since the major press conference Hollande gave at the Elysees palace on Jan. 14, it seems that a government plan to turn around the French economy is developing.  The declaration of a “Pact of Responsibility” between the state and the private sector, by waving the obligation to finance social benefits (a reduction of 49% of the cost of labor), constitutes a substantial stimulus for the economy.

This new policy was reaffirmed by Hollande’s remarks made during his stay in California.  In fact, many thought he looked as if he were becoming more “Liberal Democrat” by the hour.  The exposure to Silicon Valley, dynamic French companies and start-ups, successful young French computer scientists, the stimulating atmosphere of flexible working conditions and the surprising remarks about “crowdfunding” were all, in the minds of many, like fresh air blowing from the West coast.

The French President enjoyed having lunch with the CEOs of giant internet companies like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Mozilla and Twitter.  In 1984, the French President Francois Mitterand similarly enjoyed meeting a certain Stephen Jobs, then 29-years-old.

The stay in California triggered a real “digitalomania” (my own neologism) in France.  The media offered multiple talk shows about robotics, artificial intelligence, bio genetics and the like.  Analysts pointed out that the information technology was the key to the restructuring of the French economy.

While a major snow storm impacted 49 out of the 50 American states, the French president, flying the northern route, ended his short, but definitely positive, visit to the United States.

HeadshotAbout the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Letter from Paris: There’s Something About Sochi

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

xxii-winter-olympics-logoAfter a few weeks of a media coverage of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games saturated with predictions of terrorist attacks, confrontations and unpreparedness, it felt a relief to watch the opening ceremony on Feb. 6 proceed without any significant hitch.  The smiling and happy faces of the athletes parading inside the stadium before the beginning of the show were the promise of two great weeks on TV. (Close to four billion viewers watched the last winter games of Vancouver).

The sheer number and size of the national teams are astounding.  Compared to the 250 sportsmen from 16 countries who participated in the first Winter Olympics in 1924 in Chamonix, today more than 3,000 people make up the delegations from 87 countries.  Women have come a long way since the 1900 games when their appearances were limited to tennis and golf.

The German president of International Olympic Committee(IOC), Thomas Bach, defused the feared boycott caused by the Russian government’s homophobic position.  He declared that no discrimination would be tolerated toward any group of people.  President Putin of Russia made the shortest -10 second – speech of his career when he declared open the XXII Winter Olympic Games.

The opening ceremony was a grand scale production – Russians have always been good at those – that evoked the nation’s history.  It started with a short film showing Slavic tribesmen in a small vessel.  Actually the scene looked rather like ancient Greeks on their mythical quest to find the Golden Fleece on the distant shores of the Caucasus.

After a romantic 19th century program exalting Russian literature, music and ballet , the post-1917 era was introduced by dozens of young dancers wearing costumes straight out of a Malevich painting.   The message was clear: the Russian establishment had reconciled itself with abstract art which had been vilipended for so long.

The host country of the 2014 games had to show its pride in the most glorious event of its history: the orbiting around the earth of the adulated “cosmonaut” Yuri Gagarin.  The patriotism toward the country’s achievement intensified when five heroes of the past walked in, bearing the Olympic flag.

Among them was Valentina Tereshkova , the first woman in space in 1963 (she was a beautiful young woman when I met her at a reception given at the French embassy in Moscow in 1965).  The youthful appearance of tennis champion Maria Sharapova, who trained at the Sochi sport center until the age of seven, was obviously directed at the modern audience.

The Sochi games have been organized at a high human, financial and environmental cost: corruption, expropriation of local population, damage caused to the “Sochi National Park” and to the “Caucasian Biosphere Preserve”- a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The Nordmen Firs, which are the tallest trees of Europe (close to 300 feet high) grow in those areas .

Some of the blogs against the Sochi project have been so vitriolic as to be uninformative.  It is better to read well-researched pieces like the one published by David Remnick.  Remnick was the Washington Post correspondent in Moscow in the 1980s and now is the editor of the New Yorker.

Soviet and Russian leaders have cherished the sub-tropical coast of the Black Sea.  Stalin, Brezhnev, Andropov and Yeltsin all had their summer residences in Sochi prior to Putin.  It was on his return from his dacha in Pitsunda, in what is today Abkhazia, that Nikita Khrushchev was overthrown by Brezhnev on Oct. 15, 1965.  Gorbachev’s dacha was located west of Yalta in the Crimea (we were boarded by an armed patrol craft for allegedly sailing too close) .

We circumnavigated the Black Sea on our 44-foot ketch in the summer of 1991.  We had obtained visas for Sochi.  In retrospect, our visit to Sochi was a preview to the 2014 games.  In an outdoor theater, we happened to watch the production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” by the Rock Opera St Petersburg Theater.  It was the first Russian-staged production of that musical.  There will be a repeat performance during the games.

We stayed at the very busy new marina called coincidentally the Center of Sailing Sports or “Olympic Centre.”  Or was it a premonition on the part of the Russians that there would be Olympic games one day in their town?

HeadshotAbout the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Valentine’s Day Advice for ‘Late to the Party’ People

2-red-heartHappy Valentine’s Day to all our readers!  Our revered advice columnist Jennifer Petty Mann has some great suggestions for those who haven’t quite got themselves together yet for the big day … and don’t just want to go down the same old route of flowers and/or chocolates.  Read on!

Dear Jen,
Valentines day is always so generic.  Chocolate.  Flowers.  Hallmark cards.  What can I do that’s different?
Sick of same O

Dear Sick of Same O,
I hear you.  Excellent question.  Of course love is personal, but being a romantic goofball is never out of style.  Don’t be afraid to put it out there in your own way.

  • You can make cookies in the shape of your beloved a initials.
  • You can get kids washable crayons and write notes on the bathroom mirror.
  • You can get henna ( which comes off in a few days) and write stuff on your arms.  Like Melanie Griffiths huge ” I heart Antonio”* on her arm.
  • Make a David Letterman Top Ten list of reasons you love your beloved.
  • You can play 9 1/2 weeks with the fridge.  Take weird food in fridge, dip it in chocolate and make them guess what it is.  Kids would love this.  Hey, is that a vegetable?  No no sweetie.  It’s chocolate.

Anyway, have fun.  That’s the bottom line.  Good luck!

* seriously! who doesn’t?  It’ll be hard to explain, but I may do that anyway …

Jen Petty Mann

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Simple, Real Food: Stews and Entrée Soups

Beef Bourguignon

Beef Bourguignon

Winter is now in full swing as we have witnessed the past few weeks.  With freezing cold temperatures, snowfall, ice and the like, it’s a great time to turn to warming foods such as stews and entrée soups.

Some of my favorite meals are slow cooked in my large Le Creuset Dutch oven or, if you have a crock pot, these recipes are perfect.

I find with a one-pot-meal, the day after it tastes even better.  Perfect for company as everything can be done ahead.

So bring on the warm tagines, stews and what I call “kitchen sink” soups.  Just about everyone loves this type of eating and it’s good for you at the same time.

Amanda’s Beef Bourguignon

Serves 8

Ingredients

Red Wine Sauce:

1 Tb. butter

1 onion, sliced

1 carrot, sliced

2 cups beef broth

1 bay leaf

1 sprig thyme

zest of one lemon

zest of one orange

1 Tb. tomato paste

salt and pepper, to taste

2 cups red wine, Burgundy or Cabernet

Beef:

4 Tb. unsalted butter or olive oil, divided

2 large diced onions

2 tsp. sugar

¼ cup chicken broth

12 mushrooms, stems trimmed, sliced

4 thick slices salt pork, diced finely or ½ pound diced bacon

2 ½ pounds beef tri-tip cut into 1 ¼ inch cubes

Chopped Italian parsley, garnish

Procedure

  1. In a large saucepan melt the butter over medium-high heat and sauté the onion and carrot until browned about 8 minutes. Add the beef broth, bay leaf, thyme, lemon and orange zests and bring to a simmer. Cook for an hour and then add the tomato paste, salt, pepper and wine. Simmer another 40 minutes. Strain through a sieve and set aside in the same saucepan.
  2. Meanwhile heat 1 Tb. of the butter in a large high-sided skillet and add the onions, sauté them until they are lightly browned about 12 minutes, adding the sugar for the last 5 minutes. Add the chicken broth and deglaze the pan, season with salt and pepper. Remove to a bowl. Add 2 Tb. of butter to the same skillet and sauté the mushrooms over medium-high heat until browned about 5 to 7 minutes, seasoning with salt and pepper.  Add the mushrooms to the bowl with the onions. Add the salt pork to the same skillet and sauté until crisp brown, remove to the bowl and drain off the fat from the pan. Set the cooked salt pork aside.
  3. Heat the remaining butter in the same high- sided skillet and sauté the beef in batches over medium high heat to sear, seasoning with salt and pepper as you go. Add the red wine sauce and let it just come to a boil. Lower the heat, cover and simmer until tender about 40 to 55 minutes. Add the vegetables and salt pork and bring to a simmer another 10 minutes..
  4. Serve garnished with chopped parsley.

Chicken Tagine

Serves 6 to 8

Ingredients

1 whole chicken cut into 10 pieces

Kosher salt

1 Tb. white wine vinegar

5 Tb. olive oil

1 bunch cilantro, chopped

1 tsp. cinnamon

½ tsp. saffron

Salt

1 onion, chopped

5 cloves garlic, minced

1 tsp. cumin

1 tsp. ground ginger

1 tsp. paprika

1 tsp. turmeric

2 Tb. olive oil for cooking

¼ cup mixed olives, pitted

2 preserved lemons, rinsed well, or 2 whole lemons, zest and juiced

4 oz. pitted prunes

Procedure

  1. Rub the chicken with the salt and then wash it with the vinegar. Allow to sit for 10 minutes. Rinse and dry the chicken and set aside in a medium bowl.
  2. Mix the oil, cilantro, cinnamon, saffron, salt, onions, garlic, cumin, ginger, paprika and turmeric in a medium bowl. Rub over the chicken and marinate for 30 minutes.
  3. Heat the oven to 350.
  4. Heat the tagine or large deep saucepan and add the olive oil. Add the chicken and sauté until chicken is lightly browned on each side. Add the olives, preserved lemons and prunes. Transfer to the oven and cook for 45 minutes.
  • 2 ½ pounds of leg of lamb, cubed can be used in place of the chicken

Vegetable Chicken Soba Soup

Serves 8

Ingredients

9 cups chicken or vegetable stock

2 cups shredded Chinese cabbage

1 red pepper, julienne

1/4 pound shitake mushrooms, sliced thinly

4 scallions, thinly sliced

3 inch piece fresh ginger, julienne

1 boneless, skinless, chicken breast, cut into thin strips

6 oz. soba noodles, cooked, drained

1 bunch watercress, tough stems removed ( Swiss chard, spinach or bok choy can be used instead of the watercress)

2 Tb. rice wine vinegar

1/3 cup soy sauce or Tamari

1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes

3 Tb. cilantro leaves

Procedure

1. Bring the stock to a simmer in a soup pot over medium high heat. Add the cabbage, pepper, mushrooms, scallions and ginger and simmer 5 minutes.

2. Add the chicken and cook another 5 minutes. Stir in the rest of the ingredients and serve warm.

Amanda Cushman

Amanda Cushman

Editor’s Note: Amanda Cushman of Simple Real Food Inc., is a culinary educator who has cooked professionally for over 30 years.  She has taught corporate team building classes for over 15 years for a variety of Fortune 500 companies including Yahoo, Nike and Google.  She began her food career in the eighties and worked with Martha Stewart and Glorious Foods before becoming a recipe developer for Food and Wine magazine as well as Ladies Home Journal.  Having lived all over the United States including Boston, NYC, Miami and Los Angeles, she has recently returned to her home state of Connecticut where she continues to teach in private homes as well as write for local publications. 

Amanda teaches weekly classes at White Gate Farm and Homeworks and is also available for private classes.  Her cookbook; Simple Real Food can be ordered at Amazon as well as through her website www.amandacooks.com 

For more information, click here to visit her website.

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Two for One Nibbles: Best Meatloaf Ever: Craving Cookies? Try These in Oatmeal

To paraphrase from Philip Roth’s “Love Story,” what can I say about a winter that simply won’t go away.

Last Wednesday I shoveled five different times, just to allow me to get from my front porch to get my newspapers.  And the same number of times so I could get to my garage.  I failed.  The snow was so heavy I was exhausted.

Friends were able to visit me for dinner Sunday, but they had to clomp through now-hardened moguls.  When they left Sunday night, it was snowing again.  Weather reports now say Thursday and Friday, there may be sleet, snow and freezing rain.

meatloafOn Super Bowl Sunday, Joan Gordon brought me a terrific meatloaf she made the day before.  We had sandwiches on good rye bread, salad and dessert while we watched the Stupid Bowl.  I ate the rest of the meatloaf over the next few days.  It is superb.

Lenny Schwartz’s Market Street Meatloaf (adapted)

Yield: serves 8

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

Three-quarter cup finely chopped onion

Three-quarter cup finely chopped scallions (white part and 3 inches of green)

One-half cup finely chopped carrots

One-quarter cup finely chopped celery

One-quarter cup finely chopped red pepper

One-quarter cup finely chopped green pepper

2 teaspoons finely minced garlic

3 large eggs

One-half cup ketchup

One-half cup half-and-half cream (Joan used sour cream)

1 teaspoon cumin

One-half teaspoon nutmeg

One-quarter teaspoon cayenne pepper

Salt and pepper to taste

3 pounds lean ground turkey

Three-quarter cup breadcrumbs, toasted and crumbled (Joan uses whatever is in the bread box)

  1. Melt butter in large heavy skillet over medium low heat and add onions, scallions, carrots, celery, peppers and garlic.  Cook stirring often until moisture has evaporated, about 10 minutes.  Set mixture aside to cool, then refrigerate it, covered, until chilled, 1 to 2 hours.
  2. Beat eggs, ketchup, half-and-half, cumin, nutmeg, cayenne, salt and black pepper in a bowl. Add ground turkey and bread crumbs.  Add chilled vegetables and knead with your hands until well mixed.
  3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  4. Form into loaves or one big loaf and place on a rimmed baking pan.  (You can cover the baking sheet to avoid cleanup.)  Bake until loaf is cooked through to about 160 degrees (about 45 to 50 minutes.  Let loaf rest for at least 20 minutes.

Sweet  Thoughts 

There is almost nothing sweet about my pantry, refrigerator or freezer.  Oh, they’re pretty enough and I keep them clean inside and out.  But when I look, I find not one sugary something to crave my sweet tooth.

This, of course, is reasonable.  I am down many pounds at this point and I have another 20 to go.  I’m afraid that if I had some homemade brownies or Girl Scout cookies in the freezer, I might eat them without thawing them.  If there were Newtons or jelly beans in the pantry, they would be, figuratively, toast.  There are pints of ice cream in both freezers,but ice cream was my husband’s siren song, not mine.

Of course, I can cook sweet things in a New York minute, like my cooktop chocolate pudding.  That would be fine if I would eat just one cup, but I usually eat all four ramekins.  Or make the recipe for a microwave chocolate cake in a mug.

But I figured if I make something truly luscious that I could have “one of” and then give the rest away, I might be happy enough.  So I did have one, gave all the rest away and I’m keeping this recipe.

Oatmeal Sandwich Cookies

“A Good Appetite,” by Melissa Clark (New York Times, page D2, January 22, 2014)

Yield: 36 cookies

Three-quarter cup sweetened coconut

1 cup unsalted butter

2 tablespoons honey

2 large eggs, at room temperature

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

1 and one-half cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoons sea salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

4 teaspoons ground cinnamon, divided

3 cups rolled oats

One-half cup dates, pitted and chopped (actually, buy Sunsweet dates, pitted and chopped)

5 tablespoons granulated sugar

For the filling:

6 ounces cream cheese, softened

6 tablespoons mascarpone

3 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

1 and one-half teaspoon vanilla extract

  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Toast coconut in a rimmed baking pan until lightly colored and fragrant, 7 to 10 minutes. Cool. Raise temperature to 375 degrees.
  2. In bowl of mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter until light. Beat in brown sugar and honey and beat until very fluffy, about 5 minutes Beat in vanilla.
  3. In a separate bowl, whisk flour, salt, baking powder and 1 teaspoon cinnamon. With mixer on low, beat flour mixture into butter mixture until combined. Beat in dates and coconut.
  4. Line 3 baking sheets with parchment or Silpat. In a small bowl combined granulated sugar and rest of the cinnamon. Roll heaping tablespoons of dough into balls, then roll them in cinnamon-sugar. Transfer to baking sheet, leaving 1 and one-half inches between balls. Bake until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Let cool in pan 2 minutes, then transfer to wire rack to cool completely.
  5. Make filling: With a mixer, beat in cream cheese until smooth.  Beat in mascarpone, confectioners’ sugar and vanilla. Scrape down sides of bowl.  Sandwich about 1 tablespoon filling between two cookies.  Repeat until done.

headshot_LeeAbout the author: Lee White (left) is a resident of Old Lyme in a section of town where she and her house are the oldest members.  She has been writing about restaurants and cooking since 1976 and has been extensively published in the Worcester (Mass.) Magazine, The Day, Norwich Bulletin, and Hartford Courant.  She currently writes Nibbles and a cooking column called A La Carte for the Shore Publishing newspapers, and Elan, a quarterly magazine, all of which are now owned by The Day. 

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‘Dear Jen’ Debuts Today with Interior Décor Advice

jennifermannWe are very pleased to debut another advice column today.  Unlike our popular ‘Dear Cammy’ column, which is targeted at middle-schoolers, this ‘Dear Jen’ column is for adults.  Our very own Jen Mann, who has been our incredible book reviewer for more years than we can remember, is turning her hand to yet another thing that she does extraordinarily well.  And that is dispensing advice … so read on and if you have a question for Jen, you can reach her at jpmann@sbcglobal.net

Dear Jen,

I need a change of décor in my living room, but I don’t want to hire someone or spend a lot of money. What small changes can I make that will make a big difference?

In A Rut.

Dearest in a Rut,

Not to worry.  This is not only an easy fix but a fun one.  Look around your room.  Take out 10 things.  Pictures, objects d’art, pillows, throws, plants, anything that moves.  Stick it in another room, better yet, put it on the dining room table where you can see it.

Now, look at the room.  Is there a difference?  If it looks noticeable barer, then you’re halfway there.  What colors stand out?  Walls?  A sofa?  The rug?  This is the color you want to work with.  Pick a color that you love.

If one doesn’t come to mind or you are having a panic attack, go to a paint shop.  Pull 10 colors you like.  Bring them home and stand in the doorway.  Hold them up one by one and see what appeals to you.

Then take that swatch or swatches with you around your house.  Do you have anything that jumps out?  You’d be surprised what you have.

If nothing grabs you.  Go to home goods with your paint chips.  Get a pillow or two.  Get silk flowers.  Get a throw.  A weird statue, a basket.  Anything that is this color is fair game.  Take your prizes home and place them around the room.  Move them around.  Nothing is set in stone.

Play play, play!

If you’re still in a panic, send me a photo and I’ll tell you where to put stuff.  The stuff you took out can be put elsewhere in the house.  Never be afraid to shake it up.

Hope that helps.

If not, there’s always the Monkey Farm Happy Hour…

Jen 

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Talking Transportation: The Commuter Action Group

Now is the winter of our discontent.   I’ve been riding Metro-North for almost 25 years and I’ve never seen the railroad in such bad shape.

Trains are consistently late without explanation.  Some cars have no heat.  A couple of trains were stranded for more than two hours when wires were pulled down.  And on one recent evening, the entire railroad ground to a halt because some tech pulled the plug on a vital computer at HQ.

Our crumbling rail infrastructure is compounded by inexcusable human errors by the people hired to run our trains.

And now we hear that some of our new M8 cars are also in the shop, ingesting snow that burns out their electronics, just like the older cars they replaced.  That means trains are short of cars and it’s standing room only on many rush hour trains.

What’s a commuter to do?  Why, turn on their smartphone and use the power of the web to complain!

That’s the idea behind The Commuter Action Group, launched in late January, the fruits of my advocacy labors for several months since leaving the Commuter Council.

Our website (www.CommuterActionGroup.org) allows commuters to immediately report problems to Metro-North, giving them needed details about where, when, what car number, etc.  They can even take a picture and send it.

Step two is to copy that complaint and send it to your State Representative, State Senator, Congressman and US Senators.  They represent you and need to know how bad things are on the railroad and how you will hold them accountable for getting things fixed.  We will “remember in November” who helped us and who didn’t.

Step three is to use our Twitter feed (@CTRailCommuters) and Facebook page to discuss what’s wrong, share ideas, ask questions and get answers.  As one rider posted… “it’s like a virtual support group.”

The response from commuters has been amazing and I clearly think lawmakers, both in Connecticut and NY State, are getting the message that their constituents are angry.  But we need more than press conferences and lip service:   legislators need to pressure CDOT to hold Metro-North accountable.

As part of our launch of The Commuter Action Group, we also issued a “Commuter Manifesto”, listing a few simple expectations (not demands) that riders have as Metro-North customers paying the highest rail fares in the US …

Safety … Fast, Accurate and Honest Communications … Responsive Customer Service … Open and Transparent Operations … and Leadership that Listens.  The Commuter Manifesto now hangs in most station waiting rooms as we await a response.

A new President arrives next week at Metro-North, Joe Giulietti.  By all reports he’s smart, respected and a good communicator.  Whatever his skills, they’ll certainly be put to the test in the coming weeks.

We wish him success and pledge our cooperation.  As we wrote in our Commuter Manifesto, “We will listen to you if you will listen to us: we’re in this together”.

jimcameronJim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 22 years.  He was a member of the CT Rail Commuter Council for 19 years and still serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at Jim@MediaTrainer.tv  

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Letter From Paris: All Things Braque and Beautiful

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

The Georges Braque retrospective in Paris – the first in 40 years – just closed its doors after four months at the Grand Palais.  Braque is best known for being one of the creators of cubism.  But it would be an error to overlook the rest of his creative life, which was in constant metamorphosis from “Fauvism” at age 24 to his art studio and magnificent birds series from the 1930s onwards.  He was one of those rare artists to be recognized during his lifetime since honors were lavished on him.

Georges Braque (1882-1963) was a tall, handsome man with a quiet manner.  Instead of joining his father as a painting contractor, he left Normandy and moved to Paris to study art.  Soon he joins the Fauves (Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck) and his paintings at l’Estaque, or La Ciotat, on the Mediterranean, are an orgy of colors.

Then, after a two-year period, with the same apparent ease, he absorbed the geometrization of nature approach that Cézanne was the first to introduce.  The old master had died just one year earlier. Braque turned houses and vegetation into stylized shapes, devoid of any detail.  His colors are muted.

In 1907, Braque went to the Bateau Lavoir studio of Picasso in Montmartre.  Since 1905, Picasso (two years his junior) had been feverishly working on the “Demoiselles d’Avignon.”  Braque sees the preparatory studies Picasso had done, and is stunned.

From that time until the beginning of the Great War, a relationship – unique in the history of art – is formed between the two artists, based on mutual stimulation without any trace of rivalry.  They were like mountain climbers roped together, to use Braque’s own words.  Braque’s “Le Grand Nu” of a heavy set woman, with a distorted body, the face like a mask, shows the same understanding of African art that Picasso imbued.

In 1908, art critic Louis Vauxelles commented that Braque’s painting were reduced to cubes — thus, the word “cubism” was born.  Braque and Picasso were about to create the most important aesthetic revolution of the 20th century.

In the next few years, cubism evolved through several phases: “analytic” with the de-multiplication of the object into facets, absent of perspective.  A second phase, called “hermetic”, followed.  It is austere, to the point of being illegible, with colors reduced to camayeux (monochromes) shades of grey and ochre.  During the final “analytic” phase, the artist introduced clues to help the onlooker: letters from wine bottle labels or newspapers, or parts from a piano, guitar or mandolin (Braque had a passion for music.)

During this period, Braque and Picasso were also to invent totally new techniques to be emulated by many other artists: first the method of “collage ” using a variety of materials like sand, metal shaving, ground glass or dirt.  In his key painting titled, “Compotier, Bouteille et Verre, “(fruit dish, bottle and glass) of August 1912, he introduced the method of “papiers collés” (glued papers) serving as “trompe-l’oeil.”

In 1914, Braque is called to the European front.  In May 1915, he is seriously wounded in the Artois battle and undergoes brain surgery.  After coming out of his “trou noir” (black hole), he begins a long convalescence.  Not surprisingly, given his personality, he feels no bitterness, nor anger .

He returned again to cubism, but this time his paintings are vibrant with colors and, in spite of their abstraction, easier to read.

In the 1930s, his series of still life paintings in his art studio setting is so complex as to be called “studio landscapes.”  A charming chaos seem to lift fruits and objects and pile them on the ubiquitous “guéridon” (round table.)  An exuberant humor replaced the austerity of his pre-war cubism. American collectors, like MOMA or the Phillips gallery, are enthusiastic about his new works.

In the mid 1950s, the artists introduces a new theme : a bird floating above the apparent disorder of the studio.  In “Nid dans le Feuillage” (Nest in the foliage), the bird flies over an eerie mountainous landscape toward a nest lit in a frigid light.  The emptiness of his very last painting,”Sarcleuse,” is overpowering.  Under a black sky, golden wheat undulates in the breeze.  The metal wreck of the “sarcleuse” (agricultural machine) left on the beach is a final message of human activity.

HeadshotAbout the author:  Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter.  She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries.  She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe.  Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents.  Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Talking Transportation: The George Washington Bridge

The George Washington bridge is the busiest vehicular traffic bridge in the world.

The George Washington bridge is the busiest vehicular traffic bridge in the world.

We’ve read a lot about the George Washington Bridge (GWB) in recent weeks.  And the scandal over who ordered closure of approach lanes from Fort Lee, N.J., only underscores how crucial this bridge is to the entire region.  All of which got me thinking about the GWB and its history.

Surprisingly, the GWB was not the first bridge design to cross the Hudson River.  As early as 1885, there were discussions of building a suspension bridge to bring the Pennsylvania Railroad into Manhattan at about 23rdSt.  A later design in the 1920’s foresaw a double deck, 16-lane-wide roadway (with 12 tracks for railroad trains on the lower level) at 57th Street.

But it was in 1927 that work began on the GWB much farther uptown at 179th Street.  The $75 million single-level bridge carrying six lanes of traffic opened in 1931 and was widened by two lanes in 1946.

Originally the bridge was going to be called The Bi-State Bridge, The Bridge of Prosperity or The Gate of Paradise (really!), but it was a campaign by school kids that ended up honoring our first President.

The original designers had planned for the future and, in 1961, the lower level, six-lane “Martha Washington” bridge opened to traffic, increasing total capacity by 75%.

Because we usually approach the bridge from the east or west, it’s hard to appreciate its enormity until you’re right on the structure.  But from any angle it’s a beautiful bridge, showing its bare criss-cross girders and bracing, which were originally to have been clad in concrete and granite.

The GWB is recognized by civil engineers and architects alike as one of the most beautiful in the world.

In its first year of operation the bridge carried five million vehicles.  Last year it carried 102 million.  On opening day, the toll was 50 cents each way.  Today the one-way toll for autos (only collected eastbound) ranges from $9 (EZ Pass off-peak) to $13 (cash).  But pedestrians can still walk across for free (when the sidewalk is open).

Those walkways, while affording a wonderful view of the city, also have a dark side as the GWB was scene of a record 18 suicides (and 43 attempts) in 2012.

On an average weekday, 17,000 bus passengers rely on the GWB’s own bus terminal built atop the Trans-Manhattan Expressway (not the Cross Bronx) on the Manhattan side.  There they can catch the A train or the Seventh Avenue IRT.  The bus station is undergoing a $180 million renovation.

The bridge itself is a living thing.  It creaks and groans, moves and sways and it needs constant maintenance.  In 2011, the Port Authority announced an eight-year, $1 billion project to replace the bridge’s 529 vertical suspender wire ropes.  In addition, lanes on the upper level are being closed (at night) to replace steel plates on the road surface.

All of which means more jobs and, eventually, higher tolls.

jimcameronJim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 22 years.  He was a member of the CT Rail Commuter Council for 19 years and still serves on the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at Jim@MediaTrainer.tv  

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