Quote of The Week

“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one..”

Charles Mackay


Othello’s Cyprus

Following the path of Shakespeare’s Othello we traveled from Venice to Cyprus. Cyprus lies just off the southern coast of Turkey and the western shore of Syria. It’s a tricky geographical situation and, in its seven thousand-year history, the island has changed hands dozens of times. The Greeks held it, then the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Persians, the Romans, the Venetians, and the Ottoman Empire. Now it is not clear who holds or can hold it.

Cyprus is claimed by both Greeks and Turks. It is geographically more Turkish, but culturally more Greek. This has caused trouble for centuries. It’s as if the ownership of Long Island was disputed between Connecticut (because we are so close to it) and Italy (because we have so many Italian restaurants). In the end, after many battles, we would probably decide to divide Long Island down the middle: Yankees on the North Shore and Italians along the South Shore. But then the precise boundary would be perpetually disputed, and nobody would ever be satisfied.

This is more or less exactly what has happened to Cyprus. In 1974 it was finally divided into two unequal halves, the north controlled by the Turks and predominantly Muslim, the south controlled by the Greeks and predominantly Orthodox. The frontier is the semi-militarized “Green Line” which runs straight through the middle of the capital city, Lefkosia or Nicosia. When you buy a street map in the Greek sector, as we did when we arrived, it stops at the Green line. There’s nothing but white space above, like those ancient maps of the world where the unexplored areas were marked “Here be Monsters.” In fact, there are no monsters in the white space, just the other half if the city, the Turkish half.

It is the kind of commentary on human nature that Jonathan Swift would have relished. It recalls the standoff between the Big Endians and the Little Endians in Gulliver’s Travels. These were two factions on the island of Lilliput bitterly divided by an ancient religious dispute about which was the proper end to open an egg.

As we drove up from Larnaca airport to the capital through a landscape of parched hills, in a traditional Cypriot rental car with many dents and no brakes, I realized with a shock that I had first come here more than fifty years ago. The violent movement called Enosis (union with Greece) was in full swing at that time. The army dispatched me to Cyprus in 1958 as part of a singularly reluctant and ineffective peacekeeping force. We were ineffective because almost all of us had been drafted, and we spent our time, very sensibly in my opinion, hiding from both the Greeks and the Turks. Shakespeare’s Othello was a general, a much higher rank than I ever achieved in the army, and he was sent from Venice to defend Cyprus against the Turks. Unfortunately, he became involved in a romantic plot and forgot his military duties. Probably because of this the Turks invaded Cyprus in 1689, and they’re still here. Nobody has forgotten a single dispute or a single insult for the past three hundred years. The Cypriot version of the Big End/Little End standoff on the island of Lilliput doesn’t look like being settled any time soon.

Copyright: David Bouchier

A Real Vacation

Back in the pre-COVID days, almost forty million Americans took some kind of trip away from home over the Fourth of July weekend. For many this was also the start of their annual vacations, scheduled by the end of the school year, or by a lifetime habit, or indeed by deeply held, completely mistaken beliefs about the weather. (“It’s always lovely in August,” my parents would say as we drove to the seaside in the usual midsummer downpour).

In France the same collective escape attempt happens at more or less the same time, a massive displacement of families from north to south that creates gigantic traffic jams, and chaotic scenes at airports and train stations, all lovingly described and pictured on the television news.

The speed at which French vacations begin is breathtaking. Empty resorts are suddenly swamped with people, deserted restaurants are full, and beaches simply vanish under the tide of sun–seeking humanity. At the end of August, the tide will flow in the opposite direction, in the process called la rentrée (literally “the return”) when serious life in France begins again after the long summer break.

It is long: the minimum annual paid vacation in France is five weeks, many people have eight, plus of course a thirty-five hour week and a dozen public holidays. So some families can and do stay away the whole summer. Typically they go to a place in the country or by the sea, and stay there. They take every vacation day possible, and don’t answer their e-mail. France is closed for the duration.

Vacation habits are strikingly different on this side of the Atlantic. Many Americans don’t take even the short vacations they are entitled to. Even when they do set out to enjoy some leisure the results are often more exhausting than work. Many American vacations are designed to be in some way virtuous, educational, competitive, or good for your health.

What we see in this contrast, I believe, is another example of the Moral Decline of Western Civilization as described by the Australian sociologist John Carroll in the 1970s. Our great culture, he argued, was based on the Puritan values of self-control, obedience, hard work, and humility. Real Puritans don’t take vacations, because they are a waste of valuable time. At most they might go on a pilgrimage.

America began with a hefty dose of Puritanism. This was no fun at all, and we soon slipped away from its rigid discipline. But we feel bad about it. We may go on vacation, briefly, but we take care not to enjoy it. This explains the cultural marathons through ten countries in ten days, the “activity holidays” that involve canoeing, climbing or long-distance cycling, the “fitness holidays” at punitive spas and resorts, and all the other vacations that are not really vacations at all. This is what Professor Carroll called the Paranoid stage of cultural decline: we want to relax and be decadent, but we’re not quite there yet.

Finally a culture loses all shame and sinks to the remissive or totally decadent stage, in which all impulses are released and all sins are forgiven. That is France in high summer. These people know how to take a vacation! With any luck, if the Decline of Western Civilization continues at its present pace, we will catch up with them quite soon.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Secretive Gourmet

An eighteenth-century French social critic with the splendid name of Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, said this about eating in Paris: “Lunch kills half of Paris, and supper kills the other half.” There is a bit of exaggeration in this statement, but only a bit. Three hundred years after Montesquieu the traditional French meal is still a digestive challenge.

The French have an international reputation for fine food, just as the British are known far and wide for the awfulness of theirs. These stereotypes are not quite as accurate as they used to be. You can eat badly in France, and superbly in Britain. But the French have traditionally cared a great deal about food, while the British have taken pride in their simple meat-and-potatoes diet, which is why the French call them Les Rosbifs (literally the roast beefs). A visit to any French local market compared to its British equivalent will make the point better than any number of words, and only in France will you find a newspaper strip cartoon starring a goat cheese with a supporting cast of chestnuts. Honestly, I’m not making it up.

Good food eaten at a leisurely pace is an aspect of French life that is under threat from the modern mania for speed. Traditional French restaurants saw their business go down 15% even before the economic crash. Diners in a hurry are cutting down on the sacred menu, which traditionally has four or five courses. They are sharing plates, leaving out aperitifs and wine, and generally acting like apprentice Puritans. President Sarkozy was partly responsible for this, with his campaign against long lunch hours and his apparent ambition to make leisurely France into hyperactive America.

It has been reported by those who know that, in restaurant kitchens, culinary standards are slipping too. Chefs are under pressure to cut corners, and even the prestige of the chef is declining. Fast food has made its awful mark, seducing especially the young. In Place de la République, close to our apartment, the great central statue that symbolizes French liberty, gazed out directly at McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Buffalo Grill, with the Holiday Inn just behind her flowing skirts. There seems to be no doubt about who’s winning this culture war.

But, as the travel writers like to say, there are still secret gems to be found among the thirteen thousand restaurants of Paris. They don’t stay secret for long, or gems for that matter once their names have been published. Our “discovery” was a tiny bistro located in a dark back street and consisting of just ten plain wood tables inside a wine store with a traditional not-quite-vegetarian menu of things like tripe, pig’s cheek, and blood sausage. The young proprietor chose our inexpensive wine and described it with great ceremony. There were posters with clever French puns, which it took us most of the dinner to figure out. The place was packed with boisterous young people, wearing scarves and coats against the chill of the room. We were the oldest people in the place by a margin of thirty or forty years. So all is not lost. Young people in France still love traditional food when they can find it. I would tell you the name and address of our undiscovered local bistro, but if anyone else “discovers” it, there won’t be room for us.

Copyright: David Bouchier (2011)

French France

France is still very French, in case you were worried, and Paris is still more French than anywhere else in spite of the annual invasion of thirty million visitors. The French seem to hang on to their habits and traditions more tenaciously than other nationalities.

One habit that has not changed is their annoying habit of speaking French at all hours of the day and expecting others to do the same. My lifelong battle with the French language shows no sign of being won, now or ever. Paris is particularly difficult because everyone there imagines that their French is perfect, and they’re wrong. The city is a cacophony of exotic accents: Moroccan, Senegalese, Vietnamese, Provençal, and dozens of others. Anyone speaking standard French out of a textbook doesn’t stand much chance of understanding or communicating anything.

My weakness, like that of so many English speakers, is gender. Why should it be La France (feminine) the country, and Le français (masculine) the language? It makes no sense at all. And why should nouns and verbs always have to agree? The sacred French principle of la liberté (feminine) suggests that nouns and verbs should go their own ways and, when I speak, they usually do.

Europe already has a universal food, pizza; a universal juvenile headgear, the backward baseball cap; and a universal television hero, Bart Simpson. From 2002 the nations of the European Community had a universal currency. The next logical step must surely be a universal language that will make the union of Europe as solid as that of the United States, or perhaps much more solid.

A lot of people, especially the British, want that language to be English, but I’d vote for Italian. After all, it is the direct descendant of the Latin that was spoken all over Europe two thousand years ago. It is the language of Dante, the language of Grand Opera, and the familiar language of a million American restaurant menus. Italian is so clear, logical, and pronounceable, that I believe even I could learn it. If Italian became the universal language of Europe I might stand a better chance of being understood in France.

But in the matter of language, Paris is still as inexorably French as it was when I first came there as a teenager. Other things have changed. What I enjoyed most in the 1950s and 1960s was the life of the cafés. There are still dozens of busy cafés in the almost-trendy tenth arrondissement where we lived for a while. But the traditional café is under threat, like so many other French institutions. The long lunch hour is shorter, the homicidal taxi driver is almost but not quite extinct, adultery is out of fashion, and cafés all over France are closing at the rate of about two a day. Nothing can replace them.

English pubs are suffering the same fate. It’s the smoking ban, of course, which came into effect in France in 2008. Smoking was as essential to the French café as wine or Pastis, but now it’s gone and many of the customers have gone with it. I’m a non-smoker myself, but I used to love the thick atmosphere of a French café where I could inhale my year’s ration of nicotine in an hour, and free. Now the air is clear inside, if not outside, and social life is the poorer for it.

Paris is still a highly literary and intellectual city. On the subways you see more people engaged with serious books, and even musical scores, than with tabloids or iPods. And I think that the famous French intellectuals have given me a way out of my language dilemma. Twentieth-century enfant terrible Jacques Derrida and his many followers, all of whom were very much smarter than I, have pointed out just what a slippery thing language is. Words do not describe the real world, they argue. Almost any arrangement of words can be taken to mean almost anything. Consider, for example, this sentence from the philosopher G.E.Moore: “It’s raining outside, but I don’t believe that it is.” What do you make of that? Probably nothing, but it’s just the sort of thing I might say in French. So that’s all right then, the philosophers are on my side. My French may be just about perfect, or not. Whatever I say in that or any other language may make sense, or not. As my wife said, rather unkindly: “Quoi de neuf”: What else is new?

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Road to Liberty

One of our favorite road trips – when we could take road trips – was 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 made the trip often on our way to Chautauqua. 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 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 Charlottsville 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.

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 founders 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. 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. Sometimes the name alone is enough.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

They say that God spent the first five days of creation making Provence. It sounds like boosterism until you get here.

This corner of southern France, folded between the mountains and the Mediterranean, has all the conventional qualities of paradise. The climate is mild and sunny, the landscape is lush and rolling, like a medieval painter’s vision of the Garden of Eden, and the food and wine are better than anything found in this world.

From where I sit among the vines high in the hills called Les Auzieres, I can just see the rooftops below of the closest outpost of French civilization, the village of Roaix.

Roaix has the air of a place surprised to find itself stranded in time, at some indeterminate date between 1600 and 1850. There are a few steep, narrow streets, where muddy hunting dogs sleep and scratch through the day. There is a half-derelict chateau perched on a rocky height, and an ancient, windowless church. This is Roaix – all of it.

For a more sophisticated version of French country life, we must drive six kilometers to the provincial town of Vaison.

Vaison has been a hangout for idlers and parasites for more than two thousand years. The Romans used to come here for rest and relaxation in Julius Caesar’s time, and they left behind some impressive ruins – hence the full name of the town, Vaison la Romaine, also known as the Pompeii of France. Vaison is one of those rare places that never has been anything but a retreat, an escape from modern life.

Daily life in Vaison is like a meal in one of its old-fashioned restaurants – full of formal manners leftover from another age. Every meeting, including those between children, requires a polite salutation and a handshake. The greeting of intimates involves one, two, three or four kisses on alternate cheeks, according to the warmth of the relationship.

Formal manners and public rituals show a community at peace with itself. The French in general have enormous respect for the dignity of others, placing equality higher in their value system than any other western nation, including the United States. In a small town like Vaison, respect for the equality of individuals implies good manners to everyone. This in turn produces that rarest of things in the modern world, a safe and civilized urban area.

Vaison will not escape the twentieth century much longer. It’s a refuge and a magnet for people like us precisely because it’s a bit of an anachronism, a stage set for our performance of visiting a French country town. Having created a world we can barely tolerate, we want a piece of their civilized and urbane community. And so do many others.

Vaison is on the edge of becoming an international tourist attraction. When the tourist wave breaks, its character as a sleepy spa will be swept away in a single season. Vaison will become like Avignon or Nice: busy and rich, but as dead as colonial Williamsburg.

Good manners will be the first casualty. There is a critical mass of outsiders beyond which politeness must vanish. There are too many differences, too many misunderstandings, and too little mutual respect. Swamped by loud, mannerless strangers, the community will adapt. People will become more hurried and brusque, citizens of the great world, cosmopolitans.

At least our little village of Roaix is safe. Roaix is not a fantasy of French country life, it is French country life – far too smelly, dirty, petty and grim for any tourist to enjoy. No coach parties will come to Roaix with its shabby alleys, sneaking cats and battered dogs, its rotten flyblown ruins and permanently closed shops.

They will go to Vaison.

But it’s not a happy thought that, when Vaison becomes just another tourist trap, it will be because of people like us: nice people, hordes of us, driving our rented cars through the villages, disturbing the sleeping dogs, claiming our moment of peace and civility in the pretty old country towns, searching for a world we have irretrievably lost.

Copyright: David Bouchier 1996

Born on the Third of July

Certain dates serve as signposts in the maze of history. The Fourth of July is one such date. Everybody knows that the Fourth of July commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

Like most of our historical knowledge, this is wrong. It’s true that an unfortunate misunderstanding between Britain and her American colonies did blow up around that time. But the Declaration was not signed until July 19.

This, of course, is mere historical pedantry. Who cares about the exact date? But it’s a good example of the arbitrariness of history. As far as I can discover, the Declaration was adopted by Congress on July 2, which legally broke the tie to England right then. The proclamation on July 4, the public reading at Independence Hall on July 8, and the signing on July 19 were mere bureaucratic formalities. In fact, the first Independence celebration, in 1777, was held on the appropriate date, July 2. Congress later changed the date to the Fourth, for reasons that are obscure, but that may have had something to do with long weekends.

My question is: what happened on the Third of July in 1776, between the adoption and the proclamation? Here we come up against a little-noticed problem of history, which is that we are rarely told the day of the week when important events occurred. I suppose I could work it out, but I will guess that July 3, 1776 was a Sunday. This would explain why it is a completely blank date in the history books. Philadelphia in July, without air conditioning, is not a place you would want to be. Members of the Continental Congress, on the pretext of going to church, probably headed down to Atlantic City for a day at the beach, resuming their revolutionary work on Monday. In other words, the Fourth should have been the Third.

Such trivial things have momentous consequences. Those who were lucky enough to be able to claim the symbolic birth date, such as President Calvin Coolidge, made the most of it. But there’s no song that proclaims: “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy, born on the Third (or perhaps the Nineteenth) of July.” Folks who happened to be born on those dates have nothing to boast about. Just ask Tom Cruise, or the satirical columnist of the Miami Herald, Dave Barry, both of whom missed their patriotic birthdays by a single day.

Being one day late for the big event is even worse than being one day early. I can hear you asking: did any famous American have the lamentable bad taste to be born on the Fifth of July? Yes, one of our local heroes was born on the Fifth, in 1810: the impresario of the Greatest Show on Earth, P.T.Barnum. And there you have the ironies of history, summed up in three random birth dates: July 3, Dave Barry; July 4, Calvin Coolidge; July 5, P.T.Barnum. I don’t pretend to find any deep symbolism in this. I just thought you’d like to know.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Island in the Sun

The island of Nevis in the Caribbean is a real island – that is to say it looks like the kind of island you see in cartoons and children’s adventure stories featuring pirates with parrots. Nevis is just a speck in the ocean, an extinct volcano covered with very green greenery and rising of an impossibly blue sea.

Columbus first sighted Nevis and its companion island St. Kitts on his second New World voyage in 1493, although he thought he was somewhere else entirely. When colonial settlement came in 1628, it was the British who grabbed the island for sugar cane plantations, and as a luxury hideaway. Nevis has had many famous visitors, including Lord Nelson who married Fanny Nisbet there in 1787. Later celebrity tourists included Princess Diana and, most recently, my wife Diane and myself.

Nevis is just eight miles long by six miles wide, and most of the land is rain forest climbing up the steep sides of the volcano. So we were able to explore it thoroughly in a day using a rented car that left many things to be desired, including brakes. This gave us plenty of time to lie in hammocks on the deck of our rented cottage, drinking exotic tropical drinks, and reflecting on the fascination of islands.

Before aircraft came along life on an island must have been an odd mixture of isolation and vulnerability. On the one hand the sea was a protective barrier, so that many strange end exotic cultures survived uncontaminated on islands. On the other hand, the sea could and did bring invaders and exploiters from all directions. When the strangers came there was no place to hide, many of those exotic cultures were wiped out, and the native inhabitants soon found themselves working in the tourist industry.

Those of us who visit islands today as tourists don’t have to worry about barbarian invaders – unless a big cruise ship comes in – and islands do have a mysterious, magnetic attraction. John Donne’s much-quoted line “No Man is an island…” occurs in a meditation about how connected all human beings are. According to Donne we are all part of the mainland, part of the whole, which may be true but it doesn’t change the fact that a lot of us dream about being disconnected. Islands are dream places apart from the ordinary world, where anything can happen.

That’s why literature is full of islands – from the Scottish Hebrides to the South Seas, and the Aegean. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe has some claim to the first island adventure story, but from Homer’s Odyssey to Stevenson’s Treasure Island, islands have had a special place in our collective imaginations. There are thousands of desert island cartoon jokes, and British radio even has a long-running program called “Desert Island Disks” in which famous guests get to choose eight pieces of music they would want to have if they were castaways on a small island.

Only small islands are truly romantic. Long Island, alas, doesn’t qualify. You have to be closely surrounded by sea, so that every viewpoint takes in the ocean. Nevis fits the bill exactly. The population is so small – about eight thousand – that everyone seems to know everybody else. The island’s history is so meager that the local taxi drivers have reinvented themselves as amateur historians, each one with a repertoire of improbable and inaccurate stories. This just adds to the charm of what is already a charming place, where mass tourism is still in the future.
Being there reminded me how I dreamed about having my own private island when I was a child. It’s a narcissistic, anti-social dream I suppose, but I take some comfort from the fact that just about everybody on the planet seems to share it.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Take it Easy

Our elderly neighbors have the charming habit of ending a conversation with the words “Take it easy.” They say it almost like a blessing, as if they mean it.

This is a classic case of good advice that is universally ignored. How can we take it easy when we are surrounded by personal and political problems, deadlines, pressures and uncertainties that keep us in a high state of anxiety. No matter how often we say “Take it easy,” our lives continue to be ruled by minute managers, efficiency experts, high-speed connections, fast food, fast everything.

And yet taking it easy sounds like such a wonderful idea. The phrase itself is relaxing. So what it is about our lives that makes taking it easy so hard?

The Italians, bless them, have an answer, or at least a theory, and they have actually done something about it. They have created Slow Cities.

We walked into one of these Slow Cities without knowing it. We literally walked, which was the first unusual thing. In Italy, it’s more usual to bulldoze your car into the city center, no matter how narrow or crowded it may be, and park on the sidewalk. But here, we had to park on the perimeter and walk. This was the small town of Grêve in Chianti, and we immediately remarked what a delightful place it was. Built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries around a handsome, traffic-free market square, with a church at one end and the town hall at the other, Grêve had a wonderfully calm and relaxed air. You could almost feel your blood pressure going down.

This atmosphere didn’t happen by accident. It’s the result of a deliberate policy. Grêve is one of four towns in Italy designated as Slow Cities – the others are Orvieto, Positano, and Bra in Piedmont. Another forty cities have applied to join the movement – although not Naples or Rome.

Slow doesn’t imply primitive or backward. It’s not about long lunches and siestas, still less about rejecting technology. The Italians love new technologies and use them more stylishly than anybody. The idea behind Slow Cities is to reject the worst aspects of modern life while keeping the best. To quote one supporter, they aim to “Put the ‘human back into human beings.”

The Italian Slow Cities movement emerged out of the Slow Food movement, which aims to defend local cuisines and food products against the market power of the giant corporations. Fast food sums up everything the Slow movement is fighting against: a society with no time for fun or reflection, no sociability, no variety, and no table manners.

Slow Cities undertake not to change their characters by overdevelopment, to exclude motor traffic as much as possible, to preserve traditional local industry and agriculture, to use technology only to improve everyday life, to reduce noise, and to educate young people in this revolutionary philosophy. It sounds utopian: but I’ve been there, and it seems to work.

It also sounds to some people like old-fashioned anti-materialism, revived from the sixties. But that’s completely mistaken. Materialism is at the very heart of this movement. They care passionately about their material surroundings and their material pleasures. Everything – the food, the landscape, town planning, traffic control, policing – is designed to make life more materially pleasant, comfortable, and slow.

As Mark Twain might have said: Everybody talks about taking it easy, but nobody does anything about it. Perhaps, like those materialistic Italians, we should.

Copyright: David Bouchier

See Naples and Shop

When the first snow hit Long Island my wife expressed an urgent desire to go to Naples. It’s not my favorite Italian city, and it has suffered a bit of a crime wave recently, but I never say no to a trip. I got out my passport and started reviewing my vocabulary of indispensable Italian words: ravioli, Pino Grigio, cappuccino, and so on.

This turned out to be wasted labor because I was thinking of the wrong place. Our destination was Naples, Florida, which has nothing in common with the Italian Naples except being beside the sea. From the point of view of travel time, we might as well have gone to Italy. After the usual comedy of delays, breakdowns, and flight cancellations it took us twelve hours to get to Florida. We could have been in Italy four or five hours earlier. On the other hand, when I checked the news from over there, I saw that in Napoli it was fifty degrees and raining, and gang wars had claimed dozens of new victims. I think we made the right choice.

Naples, Florida is essentially a shopping mall with a beach, consisting of about a thousand trendy restaurants, and two streets of very expensive clothing shops – the kind that X-ray your wallet before they let you in.

Here’s a genuine example of overheard dialogue between two elegantly dressed ladies, as they stepped out of one such boutique.

First lady: “Maybe I can tell him it’s a jogging suit.”

Second lady: “But darling, it’s silk.”

The pretty but slightly surreal downtown area is surrounded by many square miles of up-market houses, condominiums, and golf courses. The natural environment has been pretty thoroughly suppressed. But, quite by chance, we found a little nature reserve close to the hotel. It consisted of about nine acres of scrub oak, pines, and undergrowth carefully preserved to show what Florida had been like before the developers arrived. The reserve was pleasant but rather forlorn, sandwiched as it was between three major highways. It did give some sense of the old Florida landscape – a tough and unforgiving environment. You have to admire the early settlers who carved the first golf courses out of this tangled wilderness.

The highways of Naples are broad and straight and absolutely packed with traffic. There’s no rush hour but just a continuous all-day slow cruise of brand new cars creeping along nose to tail. It occurred to me that these may be the very same people who, as teenagers, invented cruising back in the fifties when gas was a lot cheaper. The other curious thing about driving in Naples was how hard it was to park. Every car park, and there were a lot of them, seemed to be crammed with vehicles. Clearly there was no room for all these parked cars on the highways, any more than there was parking space for those already on the move. It may be that the good citizens of Naples have created a kind of automotive timeshare system. Half the population cruises while the other half parks. Then, at some point in the day, they all switch. Like the turning of the tide the exact moment is hard to catch, but I suspect that it happens at noon.

One of the German romantics, probably Goethe, coined the phrase “See Naples and die.” I don’t think it means that a visit to that interesting city is invariably fatal although, given the crime rate, it might be. Naples was in its golden age in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and was considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. You had to see it before you died.

It’s hard to imagine that Goethe would have been moved to such rhetorical extravagance by the sight of Naples, Florida. “See Naples and shop,” he might have said. But we enjoyed our little vacation in what might almost have been Italy. We walked the streets of Naples, lunched in Venice – ravioli, Pino Grigio, cappuccino – and basked in warm sunshine. It was all quite delightful.

It was snowing again when we returned north, and bitter cold. But apart from this minor difference in the climate we were pleased to have learned that our little corner of Long Island is pretty much exactly like Naples, Florida – it has the slow traffic, the pricey shops, the golf courses, and lots of little Italian restaurants serving – well, ravioli, Pino Grigio, and cappuccino. It’s a wonderful country in which you can travel so far, and still stay so close to home.

Copyright: David Bouchier