An old friend recently posted on Facebook a picture of a gorgeous Northern California landscape, accompanied by a question that asked, essentially, "Why would anyone go to France or Italy when we've got this right in our back yard?"
I assume this was directed, at least in part, at me, since my friend knows I spent most of the month of September in France and Italy. So let me try to answer the question.
First, it's not about the landscape. We live in a place as beautiful as any spot on Earth, with a variety of river valleys, mountain ranges, pastoral agricultural lands, redwood forests and dramatic coastlines that combines the best of nature's offerings. There are vistas in the Alps that will take your breath away, but no more so than some vistas in the Sierra. The rolling hills of Tuscany are reminiscent of the Alexander Valley, complete with geothermal plants puffing off steam on the mountaintops.
My trip wasn't for the scenery. It was for this:
I stood on the beaches of Normandy, looking at the nearly 70-year-old detritus of the beginning of the end of World War II, walking on the bomb-scarred Pointe du Hoc that separated Omaha and Utah beaches and contemplating the many white crosses in the American cemetery that declared "Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God."
Down the road, several small brown stones at the German cemetery marked the resting place of "Zwei Deutsche Soldaten" – two German soldiers. I grieved that after all that carnage and all that loss, we seem to have learned so little: Our country and others still send young people to die far from home.
I walked through the home and gardens where Leonardo da Vinci spent his final years in Amboise, France, alongside the Loire River. The epitome of a "Renaissance man," da Vinci was an artist, scientist, inventor, visionary. His study of anatomy informed his drawings, paintings and sculpture. His interest in engineering produced innovation in bridge-building and hydraulics. His imagination conjured flying machines, advanced weapons and other innovations that didn't become reality until hundreds of years after his death in 1519.
I paused at the base of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, which is an impressive war memorial, but an even more impressive traffic circle. The Luddites who want to ban roundabouts in Cotati should visit this place, where 12 busy streets converge in a huge vehicular free-for-all that, despite no lane markings, traffic lights or even very many signs, works efficiently and with an amazing lack of fuss and bother.
Cars, taxis, buses, limos, delivery trucks and dozens of motorcycles and bikes and scooters navigate this chaos in a herky-jerky ballet that looks scary as hell but gets the job done. I watched for quite a while but the only pattern or rule I could discern was that everyone paid attention to their own responsibility and respected the presence of other vehicles, then went on their way. American drivers could learn a lot here.
I took a rain-soaked hike on the flanks of Mont Blanc, Europe's tallest peak at 15,782 feet, and watched it turn the Arne River white with granite-laden runoff from the huge glaciers that hang off the side of the peak. The next day, I rode bus through the 7-mile tunnel through the mountain that connects France and Italy, where signs asked motorists to leave 150 feet between vehicles traveling through the narrow two-lane bore – and drivers actually complied.