Quote of The Week

“I guess a man is the only kind of varmint. that sets his own trap, baits it, and then steps in it”

John Steinbeck


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Modestine Forbids

The international tourist industry offers many pre-packaged cultural experiences. Some of these experiences are more strenuous than others, and therefore easier to resist. For example, if you drive through a range of gentle mountains in southern France called the Cévennes, you will be astonished at the number of places that offer donkey rides. This is not just a piece of fun. It is all the fault of the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who is best remembered for those splendid adventure stories Treasure Island and Kidnapped, and for the dark, Freudian fantasy of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He was also a fine travel writer, and in 1878 he took an eleven-day hike through these very hills with an obstinate donkey called Modestine. The result was a charming little book called Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, which I discovered and loved when I was about twelve years old.

Stevenson’s book has created a whole donkey trek industry. Many tourists in these mountains actually do hire donkeys in order to relive his experience properly. Little groups can be seen setting off into the woods, the donkeys loaded down with camping equipment and food for the journey. The opinions of the donkeys about this are not recorded. But much as I like donkeys I didn’t want to ride one for eleven days, and nor did my wife. So we followed Stevenson’s route by car, reliving his experience as it were on fast forward in a single day.

This, of course, was nothing but self-delusion. Stevenson and Modestine walked a total distance of about a hundred and twenty miles. They were often lost, often misdirected by peasants, and they slept in horrible inns without cable TV or hot water. Sometimes they were forced to camp in the open, in the rain. Stevenson had plenty of time to think. Indeed, he traveled alone quite deliberately, so that he could think.

His was a type of journey almost forgotten: a philosophical journey. His mental companions were writers like Laurence Sterne, William Hazlitt and Henry David Thoreau. Not many tourists in the Cévennes today carry this kind of intellectual baggage. Stevenson was fascinated by the geography of the region, by the aesthetic quality of the landscape, and also by the religious character of the people who lived there. This was and is the heartland of French Protestantism, so its history interested the Scottish author very much. The light relief in the book is provided by the difficult personality of the donkey Modestine, their joint misadventures, and the people they met along the way.

Stevenson wrote: “I travel not to arrive at any particular place, but for the simple pleasure of traveling.” This meditative experience is precisely what we modern tourists miss. When you are going at hundred kilometers an hour on mountain roads and surrounded by French drivers, any form of meditation or even thought would be suicidal. So although we followed Stevenson’s route, and saw the same villages and landscapes that he saw more than a century ago, I can’t pretend that we had any deep philosophical experiences as a result. But I’m glad we did it. We saved ten whole days on the journey, the scenery was incomparable, I re-read Stevenson’s book with new understanding and respect, and best of all no donkeys were inconvenienced in the course of researching this essay.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Charity Begins Chez Nous

While living in Paris we learned a lot about garbage. You escape this knowledge when you stay in a hotel, but having an apartment meant that we had to conform to a whole ritual of disposal and recycling. Each apartment block had a set of strict rules about the separation of garbage categories, pick-up dates, and so on. The soundtrack of our lives was the crash of bottles being dropped into the glass container, and the big bins rumbling out to the curb to meet their carefully scheduled date with destiny and then rumbling back again.

We owe all this sanitary activity to a famous Frenchman, Monsieur Eugène-René Poubelle who, in 1870, became Prefect of Paris. His self-appointed mission was to clean up the filthy city, which he achieved in 1884 by requiring every household to have a special container for garbage, which was then emptied at regular intervals by carts that traveled around the city, announcing their arrival by blasts on a hunting horn. Et voila, Paris was cleaned up, and M.Poubelle became a kind of hero. To this very day the noble garbage can is known, in French, as la poubelle. There’s fame for you.

All this is very fine and should make us feel good, except that when the big garbage bins were rolled out to the street poor and homeless people appeared from nowhere and started digging in the garbage for any usable or edible items it might contain. This is not what we wanted to see in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

In December the spirit of charity should be active, even if it lies dormant from January to November. There are a lot of poor and homeless people in Paris. In January, a couple of blocks from where we were staying, hundreds of middle-class Parisians moved into tents along the Canal Saint-Martin as a protest in support of the homeless. There are plans to do the same every year.

Paris was full of pathetic beggars, many of them old women, squatting in doorways, or on the cold pavements. You couldn’t get on the Metro without being serenaded by a beggar of the musical kind. The street musicians of Paris have gone downhill in recent years. Sometimes you would hear a really talented violinist or saxophone player, obviously trained at the conservatoire. But many had nothing more than a portable CD player, or a Karaoke machine. But there they were, it seemed in every subway car, in your face with their paper cup and their sad cry for help.

Guilt: it’s hard to escape it. In hard times we should be twice as charitable. But if I had given one Euro coin to every beggar and street musician I encountered on a typical day it would have added up to at least twenty Euros (say $25), or more than a hundred and fifty dollars a week not counting Sundays, which was beyond my charitable budget. On the other hand, my wife and I spent thirty-four Euros on two cups of coffee and two slices of apple tart in a café near L’Opèra: guilt.

The tourists and the more affluent citizens of Paris didn’t seem to notice the recession. The streets around the famous stores were almost too crowded to move. The most expensive hotels and restaurants were full. Guilt, like its great interpreter Sigmund Freud, is not fashionable in haute bourgeoisie France, it’s not chic, and to be unfashionable is to be invisible. The poor are always with us, but they have no style, which in this most stylish of cities, is the ultimate misfortune.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Plato at the Polling Booth


“We can no longer endure our vices, nor
the remedies for them.”

Livy

Democracy is a glorious idea. The notion of free citizens governing themselves by electing the best and the brightest people among them as representatives is one of the best notions that the human race has ever produced. It’s a pity that the results are so often disappointing – especially that the chosen representatives so seldom appear to be the best and the brightest. “Politics is the art of running the circus from inside the monkey cage,” wrote H.L.Mencken, and a lot of voters agree.

Public cynicism about politics and politicians is at an all-time high. About half of all citizens just don’t bother to vote. Democracy, as Winston Churchill remarked, is the best of bad choices among systems of government. But the problems are huge, and not just the obvious problems of campaign contributions, and influence, and two almost identical parties.

That’s the problem with democracy; we do it to ourselves, so can hardly blame anyone else. Democracy is a fine idea. The system of free citizens governing themselves by electing the best and the brightest people among them as representatives is one of the only good political notions that the human race has ever had. It’s a pity that the results are so often disappointing, and especially that the chosen representatives so seldom appear to be the best and the brightest, let alone the noblest and honest of citizens.
Plato always elbows into this argument. He suggested one big problem two and a half thousand years ago when he labeled democracy as “Rule by the appetites.” He wasn’t talking about fast food, although he might have been. Plato argued that democracy gives us so many choices that the system inevitably drifts towards mediocrity, instability, paralysis, decadence and chaos.

Plato’s argument, in a nutshell, is that the first principle of democracy is freedom so that, in a democracy, anything that limits personal freedom is resented. Nobody likes restrictions, and nobody loves authority. For that reason, nobody wants to exercise authority either. Politicians pander to popular whims, teachers are scared of their pupils, and parents become like children themselves to avoid the responsibility for disciplining their offspring. Democracy creates the feeling that nobody’s in charge, or that everybody’s in charge. Either way, each one of us is on his or her own, at the center of the universe. Nobody else matters much. There are so many conflicting demands that the system just cannot deal with them. Nobody can clearly tell right from wrong or can even admit that there are such things. All standards are progressively abolished in the name of freedom. Random violence occurs but, because freedom is so important, nothing much can be done about it. Citizens become disillusioned with politics, and stop participating. Eventually, democracy falls apart.

Some modern theorists argue that he was completely wrong and that we have far too little freedom in our democracy, being oppressed by millions of laws and regulations, taxes and government bureaucracies. This is encouraging. When two groups of experts disagree so profoundly, we can assume that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
But if we are living in Plato’s last stage of democracy, the age of appetites, there is some good news. Plato gave it as his opinion that this is the most enjoyable time to be alive, simply because we have so much personal freedom. The main thing is to save our fragile system from moving on to the next stage of the cycle, which is the age of tyranny.

Of course, Plato was an ancient Greek with authoritarian instincts who lived in the very first age of democracy, which didn’t last long. In terms of his own chaotic era and the Athenian political system, he was proved to be absolutely right. His case against democracy, in a nutshell, was that we citizens are just not capable of governing ourselves. We are too greedy and selfish, and not very smart, and we choose representatives just like us. So (said Plato) a few superior people must take on the difficult task of governing the rest. Plato’s Republic was based on totalitarian rule by wise philosopher-kings who governed for the common good.

The idea of philosopher-kings makes us smile, especially now. Imagine a society run by the philosophy department at your local university and you might want to laugh out loud. But forget the antique language and think about the central idea: those who govern should be the most intelligent and the most honest people who can be found.

I thought about this while we were having breakfast at the top of the Sheraton Hotel in Boston. This offers an almost godlike view of the city, overlooking the Charles River towards the noble buildings of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. What a concentration of brainpower there must be in that couple of square miles. If only all that trained intelligence could be harnessed to solving the problems of the world, we would surely be on our way to utopia. The only problem I can see is that people with all these qualities would not want to be politicians at any price.

It’s pure Platonic fantasy, of course. But consider that every responsible profession except politics demands rigorous training, an examination of competence, and a code of ethics. Politicians need no qualifications: they get into power simply by making themselves popular, and that was Plato’s whole complaint about democracy.

But tweak the system just a little, and the problem might vanish. We should require a few appropriate qualifications for political office. These are some of the best jobs in the world, with by far the best lifetime benefits. Surely, at the very minimum, those who govern a society of three hundred million people, with global power, should have excellent educational backgrounds? Not professors, heaven forbid, but men and women with enough intelligence and training to understand the economic and social sciences, to know at least something about the physical sciences, and (perhaps most important) to understand history. They should also be acquainted with at least a couple of foreign languages. It’s a complicated world out there.
This would reduce the field of candidates by about ninety per-cent, and it should be further refined by a few basic psychological tests. Many responsible jobs use testing to weed out unstable and unsuitable applicants, and the tests much more sophisticated than they used to be. They can measure aptitudes like teamwork, honesty, psychological stability, and commitment to higher goals of the institution (in this case The Constitution).

After their educational backgrounds had been checked, and their psychological testing completed, the highly qualified candidates could go forward to the election, with their educational achievements and psychological test scores posted on the polling machines for all to see.

One final thing: I’m sorry about this, but the money will have to go. The Supreme Court decision of 2010 essentially sold the US government to the corporations and the oligarchs. The old joke about “The Best Congress that Money Can Buy” became a stark reality. If politics was actually about the polity (citizens) instead of money, then a very different group of people would want to participate in it, and these might be the people we need.

Frankly I think this is a brilliant idea, worthy of Plato himself. All we have to do is persuade the next democratically elected Congress to pass it into law.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Trick of Treat?

Only five-year-olds and witches really enjoy Halloween. The build-up is long and tedious, and the event itself is short and nasty. This year, the first Halloween candy and decorations appeared in our local supermarket right after Labor Day. Since the beginning of October, the quiet highways of Long Island’s north fork featured full-scale Los Angeles-style traffic jams every weekend. Pumpkin madness has struck again. Thousands of cars head east towards the great orange fields of U-Pick pumpkins, which mysteriously appeared overnight. I never saw them growing there during August and September, so I assume that they are flown in fully grown from some place like Guatemala, and arranged in the fields under cover of darkness.

I don’t care for the look of Halloween. Normally staid suburban homes break out in an ugly rash of skeletons, skulls, vampires, artificial cobwebs floating ghosts, and hanging corpses. Plastic gravestones sprout in front yards, as if whole families had settled their differences once and for all. Every old barn and warehouse becomes a “haunted house” full of dime-store costumes and cheap sound effects.

Whichever way you look at it Halloween is a very, very strange event. The encyclopedia says that it is an old Druidic ritual, but I don’t know any Druids around here. They must be hiding behind those masks. Two thousand years ago, back in the old country, before they all migrated to Long Island, the Druids used to celebrate Halloween as the day of Saman, Lord of Death.

This may have been all very well back in the Celtic twilight of the late Iron Age, before the Plastic Age. But it seems hardly appropriate in the twenty-first century when we are all so rational and sophisticated. Yet when October comes around everyone – or almost everyone – jumps to attention and plays his or her part in this theater of the absurd like members of a well-drilled circus team.

There’s enough material in Halloween for a thousand conferences and a million PhDs in psychology. What dark, repressed Freudian secrets do we see here, suddenly displayed outside ordinary suburban homes – literally skeletons out of the closet?

Or perhaps there’s another explanation. This is a permissive age, and children, as well as adults, are allowed to do or say just about anything. The only remaining taboos are those that come under the general heading of political incorrectness. The modern version of Halloween is an exuberant festival of political incorrectness, the one day in the year when no cows are sacred. American witches have often complained about the bad image they get at this time of year. (They should have been around in Massachusetts in 1692 when they would really have had something to complain about). But every minority suffers at Halloween: short people, ugly people, crazy people, aliens, transvestites, people of color (any color – green, orange, purple), and above all dead people. They all become victims of this wild effusion of political incorrectness on All Hallow’s Eve.

The British, like other Europeans, have been persuaded to give Halloween a try, thus vastly inflating the profits of those who make orange and black plastic, bite-sized candy, and dental equipment. I’ll be interested to see how they handle it – but I can guess. All the treats and most of the tricks will be liquid in nature, political incorrectness will rise to new heights, and children will definitely not be encouraged to take part. When grownups in England discover something really silly, they like to keep it to themselves.

Copyright: David Bochier

A Festival of Pottery

Summer 2019 marks our tenth Bastille Day in this village. The name – Saint Quentin la Poterie – means that it is full of ceramic artists. There are about twenty workshops, most with retail shops attached, and July 14 brings the European pottery festival called Terralha. Every open space, courtyard and basement is pressed into service to display the works of professional or semi-professional potters, who have been selected by the “Cultural Office” for this honor and sales opportunity. There is even a potter, Karen, in the vaulted space under our house, which used to accommodate farm animals. Karen is German and speaks only a little unsteady English. Her pottery is also unsteady but quite attractive, with strange, organic shapes suggesting something between internal organs and tortellini. Her husband is Italian and speaks no French or English, so we have not been able to get to know them very well

We are conscientious. On the first day of the festival, we walk around the village and view all twenty displays, some of them with incredulity. It is astonishing to see what wierd things that people can do with lumps of clay. Even stranger are the descriptions, couched in high-flown artistic language that I cannot reproduce. Even some black, shapeless lumps like coal had several hundred words of interpretation, suggesting that they were metaphors of subterranean darkness. There’s nothing to be said about this curious form of intellectual exhibitionism that has not already been said by Tom Wolfe in his witty and erudite book The Painted Word.

“Antoine Murine interrogates the rural or urban landscape where the human hand had marked its passage. It is this trace that he collects, fixes and organizes in these are clay blocks formed with delicacy. In these blocks, the gesture of the artist is retained. It immobilizes the state of the materials by a ceramic firing. Sometimes the clay is socialized in the hands of the potter who gives it volume as a possible elegant container. In these interventions and installations, M. Murine exposes the tangible presence of human actions on nature. He illuminates in a new way a discrete and essential matter: the earth that our feet tread.” (my translation, with apologies).

What more can one say about square lumps of clay?

The village feels unfamiliar during this festival. It is packed with tourists, wearing the very strange clothes that tourists do wear when they feel that vacation somehow makes them invisible. Young girls take advantage of the hot weather to show themselves practically naked, giving the old stone buildings the air of a background for a burlesque show. I’m not complaining, but sometimes I wonder how their parents feel about this juvenile erotic display.

The tourists make me sad. They look so dutifully at the “sights” and take hundreds of photographs, and usually look sad themselves, forcing smiles only for the selfies. It’s the same everywhere from Paris to the smallest English village – all of them (and us) seeing the same things and taking the identical pictures, yet all atomized and separated, with every image and experience disconnected from every other. How many pictures are there of the Eiffel Tower (an ugly object, in my opinion), and what does it mean that the number is probably in the trillions?

From: A Journal of the Eightieth Year(2020) Copyright David Bouchier

The Theater of War

We were driving through southern England on our way to yet another airport when we left the main highway and plunged into the country lanes in search of a place to have lunch. Actually, not much searching was involved, because we already knew where to find the best lunch in the area. We stopped as usual in the village of Ockham, at a pub called the Black Swan, which rather perversely has a white swan on its sign, and is known locally as The Dirty Duck.

As we stepped out of the car we were greeted by the unmistakable sound of gunfire, which is not usual in English villages, even in these exciting times. Two groups of men were lined up on opposite sides of the field behind the pub, loosing off volleys of rifle fire at each other. At first, we thought it was one of those village disputes about fox hunting, or who grew the biggest marrow for the agricultural show, that had just got out of hand. But, when we moved out of the line of fire and took a closer look, it was clear that the combatants were wearing old-fashioned uniforms, and the flat popping sound of their muskets suggested that they were firing blanks.

It was my wife who, having the benefit of a good American education, recognized the uniforms. We were looking at a re-enactment of a battle from the Civil War. We heard rather feeble rebel yells and shouted orders as the two sides marched and counter-marched across the field. The uniforms and equipment looked quite genuine, and perhaps the action was too. For example, many of the Confederates were in the pub drinking beer during the battle which, if it’s an authentic re-enactment of those events, may explain the débacle at Appomattox in 1865.

What confounded me completely was the fact that a bunch of Englishmen (and some women) chose to re-enact the American civil war in an English field behind an English pub. England had a perfectly good Civil War of its own in the 1640s – lots of slaughter, many atrocities, nice costumes, great fun. Other important battles were fought close to this very place, including one against the invading French in 1066, which the English lost for once. Why not re-enact that one, and perhaps change the ending?

Nursing my pint among the boisterous Confederate troops, I reflected that geographical anachronism was only half the puzzle. I can see the attraction of re-creating a slice of history. It’s theatrical, it’s educational, and it must be fun. But why choose the most dismal, nasty, and brutal moments of the past? Why not re-enact peace?

I know, peace is dull, and war is exciting and even romantic – but only if you choose your war, and your battle I don’t see anyone re-enacting the Tet offensive in the Vietnam War, for example, or the collapse of the Maginot Line. How about a re-enactment of some of the great moments in intellectual history – the Lincoln/Douglass debates, for example, or the debate over the Bill of Rights. That would really be educational.

I wish history enthusiasts would choose to re-enact our moments of collective sanity, instead of our (alas) much more frequent moments of madness. But I’m not holding my breath.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Spirit of Adventure

My family never traveled far because my father refused to cross water. This effectively put an end to any hopes of a trip abroad because we lived on an island – admittedly a rather large one, but so safe and familiar that it scarcely seemed worth going anywhere.

So I compensated by reading about travel. Treasure Island was one of my first real books, and J. Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series offered a pale kind of adventure for a boy living in the dull suburbs. Later I discovered true travel stories about the real world and, although reality was a bit of a shock, I was fascinated by the tales of Laurens Van der Post, Richard Burton, Lewis and Clark, Dr. Livingstone, Captain Cook, and many more colorful explorers of the past age.

So the first time I was able to escape across the water into that mysterious world called “abroad” it was a great adventure. I was sixteen, which was considered more-or-less grown up back then, and took my little motorcycle on the ferry to France and rode to Paris with many interesting misadventures that we don’t need to go into here.

Most people, I suspect, are forever captivated or at least strongly affected by their first foreign experience. For me, it was in France. For others, it may have been Mexico, or the Bahamas, or anywhere. The shock of dealing with a new language, culture, and climate stays with you forever.

There’s not much of that unexpected drama left in travel unless you are in the habit of buying curried meat dishes from little roadside stalls in India. Tourism is a big business now, and most people travel in organized groups with guides. Even on my first trip to Paris in 1956, I had a road map and a phrasebook to help me along. It’s impossible to imagine what it must have been like for Columbus, the explorer par excellence, who set sail across an uncharted ocean with totally inaccurate maps, no phrasebook, and no idea at all where he might end up.

Columbus was fourteen when he first went to sea, just the right age for adventure. Several of his crew on the first voyage in 1492 were ship’s boys, who might have been as young as ten. Today’s fourteen-year-olds are more protected, and a lot of excitement has gone out their lives, prohibited by the Health and Safety Police. Long-distance travel is now so safe and commonplace as to seem almost ordinary. Even tiny babies are hauled around in planes, which can’t be good for their health or sanity.

Yet we lose something with too much early and easy travel. A trip to Paris or Istanbul is still a big deal for me. But a lot of teenagers are already jaded: “Oh, we go to Thailand and Tuscany every year, it’s so boring.” And you can’t even pretend to have an adventure with your parents, or with a school group. If you want to know the true meaning of boredom watch a school group on tour in London or Florence, especially inside a museum. That’s not adventure, that’s torture. It may turn these young people off the idea of travel for life.

We haven’t entirely lost the spirit of adventure, although perhaps we should. Life would certainly be quieter and safer without it. There are still dangers out there in the wide world, just as there were for Columbus. But it can’t be the purpose of life to avoid every risk so that we end up in old age in a nursing home surrounded by security devices.

The spice of life, for goodness sake, is not just to live it, but sometimes to risk it.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Road to Liberty

One of our favorite road trips in pre-COVID times was to Chautauqua, all along the length of New York Route 17 that runs from east to west all the way across the state and finally splashes down in Lake Erie. It’s not as picturesque as a drive up through New England but, because of the vast emptiness out there, it gives a much more vivid feeling of escape. We picked up Route 17 just after the Tappen Zee Bridge and drove on and on and on for more than five hundred miles. I was even able to use the cruise control, which had never been used on this car before because cruise control on Long Island is a joke. The switch was a bit stiff as if spiders had been nesting in the mechanism. But what a rare treat it was to go bowling along, hour after hour, without ever touching the brakes.

There’s not much spectacular scenery along this highway, just pleasant forests, and rolling hills. For entertainment, we had the names. Most place names on Long Island are just plain dull. Some are nothing more than geographical features: Rocky Point, Wading River, Stony Brook. Others commemorate a probably mythical first settler or founder, as Smithtown commemorates the eponymous Bull Smith. The names given to new developments and subdivisions are even duller. They are chosen to suggest a lifestyle, usually one of idleness and pleasure: Leisure Village, Fairway View, Happy Valley, Arcadia. Geography and history have nothing to do with it.

But the people who settled along Route 17 when it was just a wagon trail had the gift of memory. They wanted their new place to preserve something from the past so that the names of these small towns and villages are like an extended test of historical and geographical knowledge.

Not far outside New York we passed Goshen, the Biblical Land of milk and honey. Later we saw Windsor, named after the Royal Borough of Windsor in England, home of the largest inhabited castle in the world, where the British Queen lives. (And let’s not forget that Elizabeth II would be the American queen too if it hadn’t been for that unfortunate rebellion in 1776). Route 17 took us passed Ithaca, the lovely Ionian Island which was the home of Odysseus, and perhaps Homer. We sped past Damascus, the ancient Syrian city that was the home of Arab nationalism in the 1920s and the center of resistance to the catastrophic and ultimately doomed British campaign to occupy Iraq between 1918 and 1932. We saw a town called Monticello in tribute to Thomas Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville VA, and one called Bath after the beautiful spa town in West of England made famous by Jane Austen’s novels. We glimpsed Cuba, named for the well-known Caribbean island with un-American economic arrangements, and Salamanca, calling to mind the beautiful Spanish city with its stunning cathedral, all along the same highway. Route 17 is a liberal education.

Most of these places are invisible from the highway, which is probably how the inhabitants prefer it. You might see a small Victorian house on a hill, gas station signs, the inevitable McDonalds. It would certainly be disappointing to investigate any further. The names are enough.

Names have power, and it seems only fitting that we should associate the places where we choose to live with our most treasured historic memories, or after our noblest dreams. The name of a town or a village is a constant reminder, a monument to something or other that the first settlers thought was important. Just a hundred miles outside New York City, coincidentally at Exit 100 on Route 17, is the town of Liberty named, we must assume, in memory of that optimistic phrase in the Declaration of Independence. When the first pioneers arrived here they must have thought to themselves “Free at Last,” with a whole hundred miles between themselves and the crowded corruption of the big city.

I was tempted to take the exit to Liberty, and even switched off the cruise control for a moment. But then I put my foot down and left Liberty behind. I hope the settlers found the liberty they were looking for in their new town. But even if they never quite found it, they can never forget it. Sometimes the name alone is enough.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Falling Towards Winter

When the words “Autumnal Equinox” appear on the calendar they send a little chill through the heart as well as the body. Labor Day is one thing, but this is official. Summer is over. It should be more dramatic. But nothing much changes.

When we were in the south of France a few autumns ago, everything changed. All the visitors and tourists went home. The roads north were jammed with millions of sun-worshippers, returning reluctantly to their damp and chilly everyday lives. There was an almost audible collective sigh of relief from the people who actually live in the south year round. Many restaurants and shops cut down on their hours or closed entirely. It was true autumn – not just a date on the calendar but an economic, spiritual and social transformation. People would live differently from now until the first signs of spring.

It must be the same in the Hamptons or any summer resort that has this chameleon character – in season or out of season. But, for most of us out here in the suburbs of the temperate zone, autumn brings no such profound changes. A few sunbirds flutter off in the direction of Florida, unable or unwilling to face meteorological reality. The rest of us continue our lives almost exactly as before. The temperature drops in the evening, the thermostat clicks, and the heat comes on. A warm afternoon, the thermostat clicks again, and here comes the air conditioning, keeping our bodies at an even 74 degrees. The fruits and vegetables in the supermarket scarcely change. We have eliminated the natural seasons, leaving only the commercial seasons. I suppose we are trying to convince ourselves, with some success, that we are not actually living on a ball of dirt spinning and wobbling in an infinite freezing void, but in a kind of huge indoor shopping mall open 24/7. Only a few farmers, vineyard owners and mariners study the sky and work according to the seasons, and they are obviously off-message.

We do embrace some trivial lifestyle changes in autumn. We read more, watch more TV, exercise less, and eat much, much more as we prepare ourselves for the great food ordeals of the coming months. I assume this is why it’s called “Fall” in America – the fall from dietary grace begins here, with the first batches of Halloween candy. Homeowners can contemplate future problems with the yard and the gutters, as billions of leaves fall, the storm windows that never fit, and the heating furnace, which has been neglected all this time. We start fussing over winter clothes mothballed in the basement. Our outdoor cats become resentful and demanding. I’ve been promising them central heating in the garage for years.

Poets, like cats, have strong feelings about autumn. Keats famously called it “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” which sounds lovely. Shakespeare wrote of “Teeming autumn, big with rich increase” – which seems to augur well for the stock market. But perhaps William Cullen Bryant was more on the mark when he wrote of autumnal days as “The Melancholy Days, the saddest of the year.”

It’s been such a fine summer – pandemic and politics apart – that I would like to just miss the melancholy days this year, including Halloween the elections, Thanksgiving, and the dreaded Holidays. And it occurs to me that in the southern hemisphere, autumn is spring. Perhaps we could go one better than the sunbirds by changing hemispheres twice a year – catching spring and summer in Australia, for example, and returning just in time to catch spring and summer here. That would be a good life.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Last Time I Saw Paris

The last time I saw Paris she was looking great. Paris is, in many ways, the perfect city. It is full of Parisians, of course, and most them speak French in that annoying way they have. There’s also the diabolical traffic, the wall-to-wall tourists, and the combative restaurant waiters. President Macron has launched a campaign to encourage French waiters to be nice to their customers. This has been about as successful as his campaign to encourage America to be nice to Iran.

But I don’t expect French waiters to smile at me, and say “Bonjour, my name is Jacques, I will be your server today.” Paris is not Disneyland and France is not Iowa. That’s precisely why so many Americans go there every year. Oscar Wilde said: ”When good Americans die, they go to Paris,” which probably explains the long lines of elderly Midwesterners outside the Louvre. They just booked their flights in advance, to get the extra discount. When the sun shines, as it did last week, there is no place like Paris. Nowhere are there more places to eat and drink outdoors, right in the middle of street life. Nowhere can you find more art and architectural treasures so beautifully displayed.

I always feel slightly inferior in Paris, which is another good reason for going there. It’s such a cultural and intellectual powerhouse, and the people have such style. Who can compete with them? Certainly not I. This inferiority complex began when I went to live there at the age of twenty, with the intention of hanging out in cafés, meeting famous literary figures and becoming a great writer, in the traditional fashion. It didn’t work, of course, and my favorite left-bank café is now a MacDonald’s. But the magic is still there and, when I walked down the Boulevard Saint Michel on my last visit it was déjà vu all over again. Paris is a place of imaginary romantic memories as much as a place of real boulevards and galleries and insane taxi drivers.

The French need America to confirm their own national identity. They feel that as long as Americans disapprove of their politics, their drinking habits, their smoking habits, their driving style, their movies, their sexual behavior and their food, then they are on safe ground. They are being French. The recent criticism from Washington has acted on them as a tonic. Nothing could be more reassuring.

The French are not the enemy: they’re just different. They eat late, they kiss each other a lot, they are irreligious, ironical, pessimistic, intellectual, inclined to left-wing politics and pacifism, not particularly obsessed with health or safety, and against the death penalty. They care more about leisure and family than about money and career. Their culture is, in many ways, America’s mirror image.

So America needs France for exactly the same reasons that France needs America – for escape, for entertainment, to confirm by contrast that we are who we are, and above all to remind us that there is another way of life that works. The very idea of one single global culture ought to give us nightmares. Variety is the spice of life. Or, as the French themselves might say if they had my command of the language, vive la différence.

Copyright: David Bouchier