Christmas Letters



The Marks Chronicles: FIRST TIME IN EUROPE.

Lenore, Connie, Marilee and I went to Europe in June of 1988. It was the first time off of the North American continent for three of us. What a delightful time! We arrived in Dusseldorf and rented a car. I upgraded one step from the subcompact that my grant would cover to the next largest car. Hertz didn't have what we ordered and let us have an incredible Mercedes for the same price. We drove to Duisburg on the autobahn at times over 110 mph.

In Duisburg we got a hotel. Because of the exhaustion of travel, we immediately went to bed. Mom, as usual, was the first up. She dressed and toured the hotel to let the rest of us sleep. Connie and I were wakened with her return and her enthusiasm for the new day. We got up and began to dress when we noticed that the twilight of morning, contrary to what we were anticipating, began to darken. The reason was that it was the twilight of evening.

The monetary exchange in foreign countries can be confusing and, when the American dollar is weak, frustrating. Connie and Mom were shopping and excitedly bought a trinket. About 50 yards (or should I say 50 meters) from the vendor, Mom examined her change and muttered "I think that man cheated me". Sound must travel better in German air. The man yelled "I DID NOT! I NEVER CHEATED ANYONE IN MY LIFE!!". He was enraged and red faced. Must be all of that bratwurst diminishing the blood flow in his capillaries.

The most beautiful part of our trip was the drive down the Rhine river. The way they were able to plant crops on the slopes of hills was fascinating. The rows went from the top of the hill to the bottom instead of horizontally. It seems that horizontal rows would be more immune to erosion. We thought maybe vertical rows got more sun. We related this curiosity to Gene Marks during a visit to Cleveland. He maintained the same practice of planting rows of potatoes from the hill top to the bottom was practiced widely in the hills in West Virginia. When the potatoes are ripe, you just dig a little hole at the bottom of the hill and the whole row roles down the hill and into your basket.

The most memorable sites along the Rhine were the castles. I expected Dracula to walk out of some of the ones that were half in ruins. These castles were ancient. One was named Marksburg. "Aha!" I thought. "I have found my roots!" No such luck. The castle was named for St. Mark who wrote the gospel bearing his name. But then again, we may be also.

At the end of our trip down the Rhine was Weisboden, the city of Connie's birth. We found the U.S. military hospital in which she was born. The drawl of the uniformed sentry was out of place in Germany. We explained our circumstances and showed him our passports. He let us in under the condition that we not trespass on any of the areas marked RESTRICTED. We found the building in which Connie was probably born. Connie and Marilee posed and I took a picture. We thought it would be great to take another picture at the entrance gate with The Weisboden Military Air Force Hospital sign in the background. Connie was posing when the guy with the drawl came rushing out of his little building by the entrance gate. "You all can't take pictures in here!". I smiled pleasantly. "Could we just take one of the sign at the entrance". He responded unpleasantly. "If you take another picture, I'll have to call the Weisboden police." We weighed the alternatives, got in our car and left. Two days later when we were leaving Weisboden, however, we drove past the installation and Connie took a picture of the sign out of our car window. I guess it was the challenge of getting in the last word.

Marilee learned to walk in Germany. It took us three months to get her to quit doing the goose step. (Just kidding). We had a fascinating time with European elevators. They require a much higher intelligence for operation than our American counterparts. Connie and Mom got on one in the Helsinki airport. The volume of our luggage prohibited my joining them. The door closed and when the elevator left, I pushed the down button so I could be in on the next trip. In about a minute and a half, the elevator door opened and there were Connie and Mom just as I remembered them. Almost synchronously, they looked at me, covered their mouths with an open hand and bent over at the waist in laughter. The door closed again and, I am happy to report, when it opened a few moments later , the elevator was empty.

Because of a weak U.S. dollar, Helsinki was expensive . I met a man at the conference who was booked into the same hotel in which Reagan had stayed a few weeks earlier before going to a summit meeting at Moscow. The poor guy went down to dinner and they sent him back to his room for a tie. He returned, opened the menu and noticed that an apple cost 28 Finnish marks ($7). He closed his menu, walked to his room and decided that prudency was the best policy that night. In Europe, however, buffet breakfasts were included in room rates. We therefore typically porked out in the morning and even stooped so low as to swipe a few sweet rolls for our evening meal. I met a man from Switzerland at the conference who had purchased a house for over one million dollars at 5% over one hundred years. His kids would probably end up paying it off. The low tax rates and beauty of Switzerland had really driven up the cost of living. He smiled when he explained how it was built out of bricks rather than wood.

Helsinki's hotels are booked solid during May and June. We ended up downtown and I had to take a bus daily to and from the conference. The first day I got on the bus marked 192 and asked the driver "English?" He lifted his right hand, palm down and rotated it slightly back and forth at the wrist. "A little". I showed him a picture of the institute where the conference was being held. "I want to go here". He motioned for me to sit down. "I tell you" he said. And he did. Before I got off the bus, I asked :"To get back downtown, do I take this same bus?" He nodded yes. After the conference, I returned to the bus stop. The first bus was 192. I waved at the driver in an exaggerated manner as I had seen other Europeans do. I got on and queried the new bus driver "English?'. He looked at me disgustedly, shook his head no and motioned for me to sit down. I offered to pay. He again shook his head and motioned for me to sit down. I sat in the front most seat of the bus. The bus moved on to the next stop and about half of the people got off. It went to the next stop the rest of the people got off. Before the last passenger got off, he looked at me and then at the bus driver. The driver placed both palms up and shrugged his shoulders. The passenger again looked at me and said with a thick Finnish accent "This is the last stop". I explained to him that I was told that this bus would return me to downtown Helsinki. He conversed briefly with the bus driver in Finnish and turned back to me. "You were suppose to cross the street". I could feel them both thinking 'Dumb foreigners'. "You can get off here and cross the street" he continued. "There's a bus stop right over there". When I got off of the bus, it pulled into a turn off about 100 feet away and parked, probably to wait until the time of the next scheduled run. The bus and I waited patiently on opposite sides of the street for about ten minutes. At the appointed time, the bus did a U-turn and stopped for me. I got on and we drove to downtown Helsinki.

We got the hell out of that city. Now they call it Sinki.


The Lourve in Paris is the largest museum in the world. It contains innumerable sculptures and paintings of priceless value. Included are the statue of David that is void of the arms and the Mona Lisa. The six of us worked our way through a multitude of rooms containing delightful renaissance paintings and sculptures of half clothed muscular men and fat women. Arrows pointing the way to the display of the original Mona Lisa were our guide. We walked into a dimly lit room, and there, on the wall, in a large glass case, was the original Mona Lisa. A small crowd of people were gathered about admiring the original of probably the most recognized painting in the world. I elbowed my way to the front. The beauty of the original, although marred by age, was indisputable. Small cracks had appeared in the paint. The museum had determined that even light had a degrading effect on the longevity of the masterpiece and had decreed that no flash pictures of the painting were to be taken. About the glass enclosure were three signs picturing a camera flash encircled in red with a diagonal red slash: an announcement in all languages that there were to be no flash pictures. A number of camcorders hummed and a few flashless shutter clicks were heard. Then - there was a flash of light. All heads turned to the source. The lady whose job in was to sit and guard the Mona Lisa shot from her seat and yelled a phrase in French that probably contained a few expletives. I turned to see who had taken the picture. It was Mom. She had forgotten that her camera adjusted for the light level and used a flash if needed. I was certain that we would by arrested and deported from the country by the French Ministry of Culture. The verbal reprimand, however, was apparently felt sufficient. We left the room with our tails tucked between our legs, our encounter with the immortal Mona Lisa forever etched on our memories. We later got a copy of the picture. It is delightful. The `no flashbulb' signs, in particular, came out well.

THE KEY TO THE SITUATION (invited submission by Lenore Marks)

It was a beautiful March day in France. The plans for a trip to visit the "Brittany of the Standing Stones" were complete, three adults and three children dressed and excited ,ready for hour long drive on Sunday. Suddenly Bob announced,

"I've lost my office key. I won't go until we find them."

The GREAT SEARCH began. Every suitcase, coat pocket, drawer, each nook and cranny searched. Emotions ran high. The children's patience and expectations squashed, Bob's ego suffering defeat as he faced the realization of reporting it to the powers that be, Connie and I accepting the fact he would not find it when, just as suddenly as before, Bob announced,

"Let's go."

We went to Cathedrales of Nantes nearby. We felt near to God as we witnessed the beauty of this mammoth cathedral, having its origin in 1434. We each worshipped silently in our own way. Our trip back to the apartment at Ireste university was somber. almost conversationless. We got out of the van and started walking to the apartment. Bob, walking ahead of Connie and I turned, crooked his finger at us and said, "Come see." This key could have been in Chateaubriant, miles away, or in one of many shops in Nantes Centre, but there it lay in the grass, only few steps from the entrance. Was this coincidence or had God answered prayer? We all hugged Bob, holding back tears.


I traveled to Madrid, Spain in September 1992 to teach a short course for Decisions Systems International.

Madrid reminded me of Mexico city. While walking in downtown Madrid at night, the auto fumes were so powerful that I became light headed. Also, instead of blowing out the gas generated by sewage, the Spanish prefer to vent their sewers. Thus, in addition to the auto fumes, we were treated every hundred feet or so to the aroma of vented gas from raw sewage.

The Spanish, though, are great people. Very friendly. Mohamed El-Sharkawi, with whom I taught the course, was particularly enthusiastic after a walk.

`The locals are very friendly! Many natives came to me and acted quite friendly. These people are much more friendly than they are in America.'

A native Spanish participant in the course asked Mohamed if the friendly natives were male. Yes. What was the street? Mohamed told him. Turns out it was the district in Madrid frequented by promiscuous homosexuals.

Spanish people are extremely laid back. They rise at nine, work until noon, and have a siesta-lunch for three hours. They work some more and eat dinner at ten PM. Then they stay up all night. We saw children with their parents on the street in the wee hours.