Quote of The Week

“The consolation of imaginary things is not an imaginary consolation.”

Roger Scruton


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

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.

A few years ago 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.

To misquote Mark Twain, everybody talks about taking it easy, but nobody does anything about it. Perhaps, like these materialistic Italians, we should.

Copyright:David Bouchier

The Slow Train

As we were leaving for France, a thoughtful friend gave us an old Baedeker guide book. This famous German series has been published since 1827, but this was a relatively recent edition from 1907. Studying its closely printed pages and exquisite maps, we were transported back into the entirely different Europe that existed before the two World Wars.

An historic guide book like this is the next best thing to a time machine. There’s no mention of air travel, of course, and scarcely any reference to automobiles or road trips, except to warn the reader how dangerous they are. Travel in those days meant mostly train travel, and it had many advantages. It was cheap and energy-efficient. You didn’t need to get a driving license, or make an investment of thousands of dollars in a car and insurance. The social class system was rigorously maintained, with first, second and third-class carriages, which may seem old-fashioned until you remember the equally sharp class divisions of modern air travel. There were also ladies’ carriages, sleeping cars, and smoking cars. Best of all, your luggage was taken care of from start to finish. There was no need to carry it, or even touch it.

If you are a fan of the Sherlock Holmes series on public TV – the old one with Jeremy Brett, not the new flashy one – you will have noticed that Holmes is forever studying timetables and rushing to catch trains. He even pursued the wicked Professor Moriarty by train, puffing through Switzerland in a parody of a car chase. This was possible because trains in those days were not just commuter links between cities and suburbs. They went everywhere, even to small villages, where you can still find the ghostly, long-abandoned stations. The Baedeker guide offers almost a hundred tours and excursions, and each tour starts with the words: “From the station…”

You can follow these old routes in a shadowy way if you don’t mind some hard walking. The little local trains have long gone, and the iron tracks have been ripped up. But the rail beds remain, wandering through the landscape, over bridges, and through long dark tunnels, providing a spectacular way for the determined hiker to see the countryside far away from the main roads. .

We used to take our daily walk on the old railway when we lived near Montpellier, and now I see from the Baedeker that it was part of a line that ran thirty-seven miles from Montpellier to Lodève, both small towns in those days. It was a three-hour journey with five stops. Now you can do it by car in an hour, and use the other two hours looking for a place to park.

The French destroyed their local rail network long ago, as did the British. The era of the private car had arrived and nothing could stop it. A car is a capsule, just like home. There’s no need to keep a timetable or to interact with strangers. Family feuds can be kept in the family. In short, when it comes to privacy, there’s no contest.

So the slow train has gone the way of the transatlantic liner and the horse and carriage, leaving only these old guide books to remind us of an age when not everyone – Sherlock Holmes excepted – was in such a perpetual, anxious hurry.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Fair Exchange

Whenever I’m in England I go back to the same village. I think of it as “my” village because I had a home there for a few years. But the real villagers are much more deeply rooted than that. They are practically part of the fabric of the place, and they have their own way of doing things.

During my visits I usually stay with my old friend Bob, the ex-mayor. His home is the hub of many community activities. It’s like living in a rural version of Grand Central station. The doors are never locked and people come and go all the time on various errands. Among many other things, Bob’s house acts as a center for exchange by barter. Somebody will pop through the back door and leave a couple of pheasants. “That’s for the asparagus,” they’ll say. Home-brewed beer is exchanged for tomatoes, fresh salmon is swapped for frozen casseroles. Most of the exchanges involve food or unorthodox alcoholic beverages of devastating potency. No written records are kept, and the whole intricate system seems to balance out to everyone’s satisfaction. There is also a subtle bias in the process. People with lower incomes get a better deal.

Barter is a very ancient form of economy that gets around the need for money. But it was and is unsatisfactory in many ways. If you had an excess of goats, for example, and needed some olive oil, you had to look around for someone with too much olive oil and an urgent desire for goats. It was tedious, it was complicated and so, about five thousand years ago, money was invented and quickly became the root of all evil. That’s probably an exaggeration. At least 3% of all evil can be blamed on other things such as planning committees, fervent beliefs unsupported by evidence, and plain stupidity.

Last year – five thousand years late – the village introduced money into their communal barter system. They call the new system the Auction Pledge. It’s a bit more formal than barter, but the spirit and the purpose are the same. People who have a special skill, or time on their hands to help out, offer their services in an auction-like meeting. They might offer lawn cutting, for example, or computer help or house painting or advice on income tax. Anyone who needs the particular service can bid for it. The prices are much cheaper than market rates, and the money goes straight into local charities. Everybody wins, and you can contribute even if you have no money.

In many ways the history of money has been the history of different schemes for distributing it, and stealing it. The original scheme, which lasted for many thousands of years, was very simple. Powerful kings and aristocrats took everything, by force if necessary. In the nineteenth century Karl Marx came up with what seemed like a better scheme – that everyone should share the wealth equally – but it didn’t work. The villagers I just described are trying yet another scheme, which seems to work well on a small scale.

Left to itself, money flows uphill into the pockets of the most wealthy. The trick for a civilized community is to divert some of the flow into things that benefit everybody.
That’s the essence of non-profit fundraising. People will try any crazy thing. A village in Italy, needing to raise money for the repair of the church, hit on the following novel scheme. For a donation of one Euro (about one dollar), any citizen could throw a pie in the face of the priest or the mayor; for two Euros, both. The demand was overwhelming – the line stretched around the piazza. But they needed to raise 20,000 Euros, and there were only two thousand villagers. Also, the priest and the mayor could absorb only so many pies. In short, the scheme failed.
But the Italian villagers, like their British counterparts, are on the right track. It’s no use asking people for money if you can’t offer something better than money in return.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Acqua Alta

After five days of rain Venice felt not so much like the Jewel of the Adriatic as the Jewel in the Adriatic. Sirens heralded the coming of acqua alta, high water, when the sea invades the streets and piazzas closest to the lagoon, and tourists and locals alike don rubber boots below to match their umbrellas above.

It is still a romantic place in spite of all that, although perhaps November was not the best time to be there. Early in the mornings the city was shrouded in fog so that you could scarcely see across the Grand Canal. Gondolas glided in and out of the mist, and the great palaces loomed dramatically through it. Yes, it’s romantic all right, and a photographer’s dream. But the bedraggled honeymoon couples, studying their sodden maps, looked already halfway to divorce. If they can survive a wet week in Venice they will probably survive anything.

There is a sadness about Venice that every visitor feels. Here is the most spectacularly lovely city on earth that became one of the mightiest powers of its time. The Venetian empire in the fifteenth century extended from the Dolomites to Cyprus. Now, there’s no getting around it, the place is a Disneyland. Jets bring in tourists by the thousands every day to Marco Polo airport, and gigantic cruise ships come and go, dwarfing the historic buildings and flooding the streets with yet more tour groups. Even on a wet day in November you can scarcely move in the most popular parts of the city.

I planned to use my extended time in Venice to see the city in some detail, while it was still here to be seen Each day I walked a different district, getting wetter and wetter, wishing I had a portable GPS, and making best use I could of the lumbering Vaporetto or water buses that are almost as slow and noisy as New York City buses.

Venice is of course a treasure trove for the cultural pilgrim: great museums and galleries, fine theater, and concerts of music by Vivaldi, Scarlatti, Bellini, and anyone whose name ends in “i”. There is literary history too: Henry James, Thomas Mann, and not least Donna Leon, whose atmospheric Venetian crime stories I love.

Yet still the wheel of history creaks around, raising up one place after another and dropping them back into the pit of powerlessness and tourism. Istanbul was once the center of a great empire, as were Rome, Babylon, Machu Pichu and Memphis (not the one in Tennessee). No doubt one day tourists will come to Washington to gawp at the monumental buildings without knowing or caring anything about their glorious history “Look on my works ye mighty and despair,” as Shelley might have put it if he had had my gift for words.

There are over a hundred international organizations debating how to save Venice from the sea and from the tourists. We are here for just such a conference, although it seems like an expensive lost cause. Venice has already been reproduced in a Las Vegas hotel, which offers drier weather and more convenient to access to bathrooms, slot machines and guns. I know I shouldn’t say it, or even think it, but on a wet day in November, with the sea pouring in, one is sorely tempted to say: basta, basta, enough: let nature take her course.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Footnote: In August 2020 this essay seems almost quaint. Venice is almost empty because of the pandemic – but the city is still sinking.

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