Notre Dame Fire Like Losing a Friend

The day dawned cool but clear, tendrils of fog drifting off the Seine. After a quick croissant breakfast, we made our way to Notre Dame Cathedral to be among the first to visit on a Paris morning two years ago.

The pre-opening crowd of about a dozen was split evenly between tourists like ourselves and penitents, including two nuns. Gothic cathedrals are a particular favorite of mine, and visiting Notre Dame was high on the list during our brief, two-day visit to Paris.

Like millions of others around the world, I experienced a profound feeling of loss when learning about the devastating fire at Notre Dame, which will cost billions to repair. According to French President Emmanuel Macron, there is no question that the 800-year-old cathedral will be rebuilt. Cries rang out from the yellow vests and others who believe that money would be better spent assuaging social ills in the republic.

Both sides have merits, but Notre Dame remains one of the most indelible icons of Paris, along with the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the Champs-Élysées. It’s more than a building and more than a religious relic. Failing to rebuild it would be like failing to rebuild the Lincoln Memorial or the Statue of Liberty. When the twin towers fell, there was no question that the World Trade Center would be rebuilt.

Memories linger

On the day of our visit, a prayer service began at 8 a.m., filling the cathedral with sweet singing, a perfect accompaniment to the early morning light filtering into the worship space.

More than 850 years in the making, the cathedral got its start in the 1160s before receiving its Gothic makeover in the 14th century. For many, Notre Dame represents the quintessential Gothic cathedral—massive rose windows, vaulted ceiling linked by capstones, massive pipe organ, stained glass aplenty and gargoyles that, fortunately for us, weren’t spitting water that morning.

Looking back, I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to see Notre Dame in all of its glory. While I’m certain it will be restored, it will never be the same.

Straightest Path to Happy Clients Is Good Customer Service

I handle all health insurance matters in my family, so it falls to me to contact our insurer whenever there’s a question.

Undoubtedly, the person I talk do is competent, knowledgeable and answers my questions the first time. However, getting to that competent, knowledgeable person requires traversing a Byzantine number of obstacles designed to keep me from talking to a live person. Did you call about things not related to health insurance, the voice interactive response system asks? Here’s another number. Did you try the web? Here’s the URL.

This is the same insurance we’ve had for 18 years, and the maze seemingly gets more complicated each time I call. If I could answer the question on the internet, I’d have taken that route, as nearly everyone would.

Good customer service shouldn’t be encircled by traps designed to discourage engagement. Rather, it should be baked into everything a company does.

Attitude over aptitude

And it starts with hiring the right people, perhaps even hiring for attitude over aptitude. A friend of mine is a turnaround specialist for a franchisee for a national casual dining restaurant chain. Management is constantly amazed at how he can take an underperforming store and transform it in a few months. What’s his secret? Hiring friendly faces who can learn the restaurant’s systems.

How many times have you been in a retail outlet and seen clerks and cashiers on their phones. Unless you just walked into an AT&T or Comcast store, employees should be focused on their tasks and their customers—not their phones.

I’ve seen checkout clerks look at their phones during transactions and alleged security guards who are so engrossed in their phones they wouldn’t notice someone in a balaclava and toting an Uzi entering the store. If it’s a store that I frequent, I’ll ask for a manager and point out these customer service failings.

It’s really that simple

Although this happened 15 years ago, I remember calling a large natural resource extraction company for an article I was working on. I fully expected the ubiquitous phone tree and was delighted when an actual person answered the phone. I asked the person if this was normal procedure at the company. “We think it’s important for everyone to receive personal attention,” she said.

And it’s true. While we are all accustomed to ordering online, using tap-and-go payment methods and moving down the sales funnel ourselves, the personal touch still counts.

Take a step back and look at your company as an outsider. How easy is it to contact a live person by either phone or email? If there is a phone tree, how hard is it to navigate? If you have to leave a voicemail, is the message from the person you’re trying to contact current and relevant? Is the person’s voicemail box full (a personal pet peeve of mine). And does that person actually call/email you back within a reasonable amount of time? How hard are you to contact?

Regardless of where you fit in the corporate pecking order, the way you handle communications with peers, subordinates and superiors gets noticed. So how do you want to be remembered? As the person who gets back quickly with the requested information or the person who has to be contacted repeatedly?

It’s a choice we all make, every day.

LA Fitness Follies: What shower curtain?

After being a silent-on-social-media member of a national fitness chain for several years, I can be silent no longer. I don’t want to name names, so let’s call this chain Lower Alabama Fitness, or LA Fitness for short.

curtainWho knew that shower curtains were optional? We’re not in middle school here, and I remember being surprised seeing open showers when Declan and I toured Emirates Stadium, home to Arsenal, a few years back.

On Friday, I reported to the front office staff there were only four shower curtains among the eight showers in the men’s locker room. Today, there were just two.

I reported it to staff (again) and then spoke to the manager, who said he’d check with the facility manager to see whether they had been ordered. “Shower curtains are basic amenities at fitness facilities, just like toilet paper and paper towels,” I said. “You should be ordering them by the case and reordering them when there are six or fewer.”

I even pointed out the Walmart in the same shopping center, which is open 18 hours a day and sells shower curtains. The manager apparently didn’t appreciate my helpful suggestion.

While I certainly hope this is my last installment of LA Fitness Follies, based on part experience, I’m pretty confident this will be the first of many.

@lafitness

Letting it All Hang Out in Tarragona

How did the naked KFC Crispy Colonel get his tender white meat so tan? I couldn’t help but wonder this as we saw the darkest white man possible strutting his stuff (and I mean all his stuff) up and down Savinosa Beach, just outside Tarragona.

We were in a throwback mood anyway, so thoughts of George Hamilton (aka the Crispy Colonel KFC pitchman and the actor known more for his tan than for his acting chops) were apropos. Our hotel, Hotel Sant Jordi, screamed the hipster ‘60s or ‘70s.

When was the last time you saw a hotel’s name reverse-weaved into the bath towels? Or a comb and dental set as in-room freebies? The only things missing were a “sanitized for your protection” strip across the toilet seat and a Dean Martin soundtrack playing in the lobby.

Don’t get me wrong: it was a terrific place to stay, with a big room, great view, thoughtful amenities and a continental breakfast for three large enough to feed a continental army. The service was impeccable and at a level we generally do not experience in US hotels.

‘Nude-Nude, Nudity Beach’

But let me get back to the colonel. One of the attractions of Hotel Sant Jordi was its nearness to the Mediterranean Sea, about a block away. Marilynn and Declan went to Savinosa Beach immediately upon our arrival at the hotel while I stayed behind and caught up on a little work. They came back and reported that the beach actually was a nudist beach, judging by the lack of clothing on many people.

I did a little research afterward and discovered that topless is OK on every beach in Spain and that full nudity apparently is OK on any beach where it hasn’t been specifically banned by local ordinance. While I’m not puritanical, the thought of full public nudity does knock my American sense of decency slightly off-kilter.

It doesn’t affect my sense of humor, however, as I quickly adapted words to the Ramones’ “Rockaway Beach” to my own purposes:

Nude-Nude, Nudity Beach,

Nude-Nude, Nudity Beach,

See the twigs and berries on Nudity Beach!

(Oh baby…)

Enough nuts for one day

And it doesn’t affect Declan’s sense of humor either. He and Marilynn had discovered a quaint bistro overlooking the beach, where we had pizza for dinner. There were still a few nudists hanging out, as it were, as the day waned. For tapas, the waiter offered a bowl of nuts. “Would you like some nuts?” I asked Declan. “No. I’ve seen enough for one day,” he replied.

Our train to Murcia didn’t leave until 1, so we spent time mid-morning the following day back on the beach. Declan played in the shallow waves and swam a little in the Mediterranean, while Marilynn and I walked back and forth along the beach, a stretch of perhaps 300 yards.

A group of  four men, two Fully Monty and two wearing shorts, were also walking back and forth. A few single men sans shorts were walking, and we saw at least two women with their baps out sunning themselves.

And then we spied the colonel. He was 12 shades darker than any other person on the beach, without a tan line anywhere. I looked anywhere but down as we walked toward each other, but I did turn around as he walked past. In addition to the deep tan, his hair was slightly long and pulled into a bun in a style I describe as “Señor Top Knot” when I see it on football players.

His other buns practically glowed, which made me wonder if his dermatologist charged extra for the additional real estate he had to examine. And given how dark this man was, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d fallen into a ‘70s time warp, when a deep tan was a sign of health rather than a warning sign for melanoma.

Gaudí’s Lesser-Known Attractions Merit Attention

Although Antoni Gaudí’s masterpiece undoubtedly is La Sagrada Família, Barcelona’s best-known architect left indelible marks throughout his hometown.

Park Güell, Casa Batlló and La Pedrera are three more examples of Gaudí’s imitable style, each of which attract millions of visitors each year. But you can also see lampposts he designed while you walk along La Rambla and Plaça Reial plaza.

Park Güell a whimsical jewel

Designed as a mountainous retreat for wealthy Barcelona homeowners, Park Güell was a bust as a housing development. The property was purchased by the city in 1922 and turned into a public park. Despite the crowds (Park Güell attracts nearly 4 million visitors a year), the attraction is worth a visit.

Timed tickets allow only 300 people to enter every 30 minutes, but visitors tend to wander throughout the park taking selfies and pictures of each other, leading to bottlenecks. These bottlenecks can be frustrating, but there’s always a side path you can take to avoid the worst of the crowds.

Upon seeing Gaudí’s work, one can’t escape comparisons to Dr. Seuss, with the undulating railings and benches, supports that look like angled tree trunks with expanding roots and buildings that seem to come straight from fantasy novels.

Three kilometers of trails, several buildings and a proposed marketplace for Park Güell were developed before the project was abandoned. From the main entrance, you encounter twin houses and the porter’s lodge without a straight line to be seen. Twin staircases converge on a landing guarded by a colorful lizard.

Further up you’ll discover the marketplace, a welcome respite from a hot day as you wander among the 88 oddly angled stone columns supporting a massive roof. Off to one side, tree roots appear to hold up a covered walkway. Look carefully, and you’ll see a washerwoman carved into one of the columns. Reaching the top of the enclosed park you’ll find a viewing platform with a curvaceous bench running along its edge where visitors line up for photographs. From there you’ll get a great overview of the park, the city in the middle distance and the Mediterranean Sea beyond.

Even more to see

Outside the park itself you’ll find Casa-Museu Gaudí, where the architect lived for the two decades preceding his death. The museum also features furniture that he designed. The surrounding park is tree-lined and very hilly, but it provides more city views and a respite from the worst of the crowds.

Casa Batlló is a residential building in the L’Eixample district that Gaudí redeveloped during the same period as Park Güell. The façade recalls Saint George and the Dragon, a motif that repeats in the interior and on the roof. I defy you to find a straight line in a window, door or hallway. Residents would have felt they were living in a fantasy world as they opened oddly shaped doors with raised designs and walked along hallways that felt more like narrow tunnels.

After La Sagrada Família and Park Güell, though, Casa Batlló was a bit of the letdown. If we hadn’t already seen the other attractions, we would have been more impressed. It doesn’t help that the same number (if not more) people cram into this residential building as explore a 13,000-seat basilica each year. And it cost more to visit Casa Batlló than the other attractions. Kinda like charging the sardine to be put in the can, I say.

La PedreraLa Pedrera, designed by Gaudí as an office/apartment block, was similarly expensive, so we took pictures of the façade and went about our day.

 

La Sagrada Família Lives Up to Reputation

Pictures cannot do justice to La Sagrada Família and neither can words. It just must be experienced to be believed. Some call it a masterwork. Some call it (pardon the pun) gaudy, but everyone should agree they’ve seen nothing like it before.

Walking through the main doors, your mouth opens involuntarily as your eyes fill with color and shape and light. You may draw a quick intake of breath, as I did. Looking back over the hundreds of photos we took, none capture the vibrance of the experience.

A lifetime’s work, give or take a century

For those who don’t know, La Sagrada Família in Barcelona consumed most of Antoni Gaudí’s life. He took over the project shortly after its conception in 1882 and over the next 40 years turned the idea of a Gothic cathedral on its head.

More than 130 years since construction started, it’s still not complete, although principal construction is now projected to be completed in 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death. However, placement of the finials, or tops, of the remaining towers likely will occur several years later.

As numerous signs remind you, La Sagrada Família remains a construction site. Three cranes over the towers make that abundantly clear, as do the tall plywood barriers that obstruct two portions of the main floor designed to seat 13,000. Despite the barriers, despite the tour groups and the crowds and the Italian couple having a lovers’ spat, you feel at one with the place, filled with an inner peace.

Stunning inside and out

Oh, but the sights you will see both outside and inside despite the construction. Glimpsed from a high point in Barcelona, La Sagrada Família does not seem out of place. It was well sign-posted until we were a couple of blocks away. Marilynn was looking for signs and glancing at her fraying map when I looked up—and up and up. No signs were needed at this point.

Walking the exterior before our ticket time, we were struck by how huge it all seems but how visible everything is. Whimsical bowls of colored fruit top some towers. There’s a lamb with its legs tied together, obviously a sacrificial lamb. Snakes coil around tall columns. As you enter the church through ornate doors dotted with sculptured frogs, a pair of them appear in the throes of passion.

And then the breathtaking windows come into view. From subtle blues to the deepest yellows and reds, each window is awash in light and color and brilliance. In some parts of the church, the windows paint the floors in green and blue.

Gaudí touches are everywhere, from the nonlinear columns (he didn’t believe in straight lines) to an oddly shaped stairwell that reminds you of Dr. Seuss. Although Dr. Seuss is actually Gaudí-an, rather than the opposite.

An hour’s visit passed by in what felt like seconds, and there still were the museum and the crypt to visit.

When you do visit (note I didn’t say “if”) be sure to get tickets for an afternoon viewing. We wanted to visit the basilica in the morning but could only get tickets for 6 p.m. It turned out to be the best mishap of the trip, as the stained glass windows were truly ablaze.

Some will dismiss the whimsy of the La Sagrada Família as an affront to God. Architecture fans may decry calling this a Gaudí masterpiece 100 years after his death and 80 years since anarchists destroyed many of his plans.

But I will say that La Sagrada Família was as close to a spiritual experience as I’ve had in Spain.

Don’t read about it. Don’t Google it. Don’t watch a documentary about it. Just go.

Looking for the Tower of Hercules in all the Wrong Places

Declan and I set out from Santiago de Compostela to glimpse the largest city in Galicia, A Coruña. The city has a quarter-million residents, compared with just under 100,000 in the Galician capital of Santiago.

We walked through the Santiago market along with way, a fulltime market with meats, seafood, vegetables, fruit and lots more. The train station is a haul, and we got lost a couple of times, but the trip was a quick 30 minutes. Declan ordered our tickets in Spanish, and the seller commented that his Spanish was “perfecto.”

Declan wanted to see the expansive Plaza de Maria Pita, which backs up to the A Coruña waterfront and is the center of the compact old city. We took a bus to near the plaza and intended to walk to the Torres de Hércules, which we both saw signposted along the way.

Although attributed to the Roman god, the Tower of Hercules was built by Romans in the 1st century AD near the northern tip of the city. The signposts certainly weren’t meant for pedestrians, because we wound up walking in the total opposite direction for what seemed like days.

Once we got our bearings back (and took another bus), we arrived in the vicinity of the World Heritage listed tower but didn’t have a chance to look at it up close nor climb its tower because we had a home-bound train to catch.

Aimless Wandering in Pontevedra

Marilynn’s conference ended on Friday, so Saturday was her day to see Galicia. After a quick stop into the Cathedral de Santiago, we made for the train station to Pontevedra, the sixth-largest city in the region. Declan originally wanted me to rent a car and drive through a few towns and into Portugal, but we decided another train journey would be a safer bet.

With fewer people than in Santiago, Pontevedra proved much more walkable than A Coruña. It’s also off the beaten path, so we shared the narrow streets and numerous plazas of old town mainly with the locals. Wheeled transportation is popular for tots and adults alike, so we also shared the paths with little bicycles, big bicycles, electric bicycles, hoverboards and remote-controlled Mercedes and Range Rovers for the tykes.

We enjoyed a good lunch in a street-side café: scallops for me and seafood empanadas for Declan and Marilynn.

Declan wanted to see the original façade of Santiago de Compostela in the Museo de Pontevedra, but that part of the museum was closed for renovation. So we had to settle for modern Galician masterworks and pottery chards from early settlers to the area.

While wandering back toward the train station, we stopped into the Santuario da Virxe Peregrina, an 18th century church with Portuguese style. It was only one euro to climb up to the balcony and then further to the near the top of the chapel, so we did that. There wasn’t much of a view, but it did tick the tourist box for “something to climb.”