Quote of The Week

“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they will never sit.”

Greek proverb


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

The Plastic Horse of Troy

The movie “Troy” starring Mr. Pitt was featured on BBC TV last week, although I contrived not to watch it. However, the following true story seems appropriate.

Last time I visited the ruins of the fabled city of Troy, some fifty years ago, a man in a faded robe intercepted me at the entrance and offered a genuine piece of the original wooden horse. Now I am a sucker for relics of all kinds – I treasure my lock of Patrick Stewart’s hair for example – but I was doubtful about this one. Not only did the wood look suspiciously like fragments of a modern packing case, but also I had my doubts about the very existence of the original wooden horse.

Consider the storyline. It comes from Homer who is the ultimate unreliable witness and would never survive questioning by a Congressional committee. As Homer sketches the tale in The Iliad and The Odyssey the Greek warrior Achilles came to Troy to rescue the incomparably beautiful Helen, whom the wicked Trojans had kidnapped. After a siege of ten years and the death of Achilles, the Greeks hit upon the clever wheeze of pretending to retreat, leaving behind a keepsake for the Trojans in the form of a large wooden horse. The Trojans were doubtful about this Greek gift but wheeled it into the city anyway. That night, soldiers hidden inside the horse crept out and opened the gates, and Troy was doomed.

Homer wrote this tale in about 900 BC, which was already hundreds of years after the events it purported to describe, which is roughly equivalent to a historian of today writing a history of the Wars of the Roses based on hearsay and without the benefit of The History Channel.

But it is a splendid story nevertheless and has survived three thousand years of skepticism from cynics like me. When I returned to Troy with my wife decades later I was looking forward to both of us meeting the man selling genuine relics of the wooden horse. Relics never run out, that’s why they are miraculous. This time I was determined to buy one for my collection. But, alas, the imaginative salesman was gone, replaced by a tacky gift shop. And there, outside the gate of Troy, was a huge brand new shiny reproduction of the famous wooden horse. I don’t know how stupid the Trojans were, but this horse wouldn’t have fooled a five-year-old. There were windows all along the sides through which the Greek invaders would have been clearly visible.

But we hadn’t yet plumbed the depths of this particular fantasy. In the nearby Turkish town of Cannakale we found another Trojan horse on the harbor, a splendidly dramatic sculpture made (we were told) of fiberglass reinforced with steel. This horse was a replica of one used in the 2004 blockbuster movie “Troy” starring Brad Pitt as Achilles. I haven’t seen the movie, and hope not to, but the critics said that, in terms of historical accuracy, it made Homer’s epic poems look like scientific reports.

Right beside Hollywood’s steel and fiberglass wooden horse was a stall selling miniature plastic wooden horses. So here was a plastic representation of a replica of a movie representation of a highly unreliable three-thousand-year-old story describing events that probably never happened. – a copy of a replica of an imitation of a symbol of a myth. I almost bought one of these miniature plastic Trojan horse, to assuage my disappointment at not getting a piece of the real thing. Then I remembered that there was no real thing: only the myth is real, except of course that it’s not.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that all of us – Homer, the archaeologists, the tourists, the cinema audiences, Mr. Brad Pitt, and possibly even bold Achilles himself – have been conned.

Copyright: David Vouchier

Grand Hotel

We spend the occasional week at the Grand Hotel in Folkestone, England. In case this might give you an exaggerated idea of the financial rewards of public radio, I should explain that this particular Grand Hotel has come down in the world. A hundred years ago it was very grand indeed, but now it has fallen on hard times and is, as they say, “affordable.” Retired colonels, writers, artists, radio commentators, and other riff-raff come to the Grand Hotel to enjoy a touch of class without getting a classy bill at the end of it.

The Grand is one of a whole string of splendid Victorian hotels that were built along the south coast of England before British holidaymakers discovered Spain. It is a truly impressive building with four hundred rooms, including a Palm Court and a superb ballroom. It was originally designed as residential chambers – small but luxurious apartments for gentlemen who wanted to escape from the hubbub of London life, and perhaps to escape from some of the restrictions of domestic life too. It attracted some distinguished residents. One of these was Edward VII, Prince of Wales, who came here not only with the Queen but also with his intimate friend Alice Keppel. In honor of their famous liaison, the restaurant at the hotel is now called Keppel’s. The Prince frequented the Palm Court with many of his male friends. Because so many of them were bearded in the fashion of the day, the Palm Court acquired the disrespectful nickname of The Monkey House. The term “Monkey Business” entered the language because so many of these young aristocrats were staying in the Grand Hotel for reasons of which Queen Victoria, could not possibly have approved.

In other words, the Grand Hotel had a racy reputation at the turn of the last century. Between the wars, Edward VIII stayed there, and Mrs Simpson stayed close by. Robert Morley and Michael Caine made their stage debuts at Grand Hotel, and Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express in this very building.

But it all went downhill after World War Two. The building had been damaged by shelling, wealthy and idle young gentlemen were an endangered species, and more and more people took their vacations abroad, away from the rain and wind of the English coast. Ballrooms and Palm Courts were out of fashion. The Grand Hotel became a liability. There was talk of knocking it down and making a nice car park, or perhaps a supermarket.

Fortunately it was saved, and is enjoying a revival. People like us rent apartments by the week or month, so we can pretend to live like nineteenth-century aristocrats, but at motel prices. Our apartment is slightly faded and badly in need of a coat of paint. The furniture is not exactly of the period but of every period from 1910 to 1954, with some very strange lamps and ghastly souvenir teapots, as if the whole place has been furnished in a hurry from one gigantic garage sale.

But it is spacious and comfortable, with fine sea views, and we have the run of the hotel with its grand stairways and classy public rooms. Just being there makes me feel like a veritable little prince. The original guests at the Grand Hotel would no doubt have been horrified by this decline from rakishness to faded respectability. To them, it would illustrate the worst excesses of democracy. But democracy has a way of catching up with history. Tens of thousands of tourists tramp over the Parthenon and through the Palace of Versailles every year. Some of the finest palaces in Asia are now converted into hotels. Even in America, you can find overnight accommodation in some very fine old houses, whose owners would not even have spoken to you a hundred years ago.

Today’s monumental status symbol is tomorrow’s bed and breakfast. I call it the trickle-down theory of architecture, and it’s very reassuring. Right now, we can’t afford a gigantic house, like the four thousand square foot “New Victorian” monsters that are being built all around us on Long Island. But all we have to do is wait.

Copyright: David Bouchier

A Visit to the Middle Ages

A few months after we discovered English villagers re-enacting the American Civil War behind an English pub (see “The South Will Rise Again” below) we walked into another historical anachronism. These things must be more common than I had thought, and perhaps they tell us something. Is it nostalgia for the past or disgust with the present that motivates twenty-first century people to dress up like actors and revive a chunk of history?

Or is it simply that history, at least in books, seems so full of life and color? It was a hot Sunday in the pretty southern French town of Uzès. As we walked through the streets, looking for a place for lunch, I spotted a group of people dressed in medieval costumes, and carrying ancient musical instruments. This
was irresistible. We followed them down the street, through a stone archway, and into a square that was like a stage set for a King Arthur movie. Not only were most of the buildings at least five hundred years old, but also the square was packed with people in medieval costume.

We stopped at an outdoor café thinking that, if this was some curious illusion, a bottle of the local wine might help it along. Our waiter, a cheerful young squirewearing a royal tabard, told us that this was indeed the once a year medieval festival of Uzès. We had just missed the festival of garlic the week before, but he assured us that this was better.

It was. For this one day the whole town had traveled back in time to the fourteenth century, when it was the first Royal Dukedom of France. The modern inhabitants of Uzès had transformed themselves, with beautifully realistic costumes, into lords and ladies, priests and monks, nuns and jugglers, knights and squires, strolling musicians, and all the other characters familiar to the readers of medieval romances. The dark side was not forgotten: there were some nasty looking beggars, a truly hideous leper, a sinister wizard right our of Harry Potter, and plenty of poor artisans plying their various trades. Horses were tethered along the edge of the square, adding authentic sounds and smells.

We felt quite conspicuous in our twenty-first (or in my case mid-twentieth) century attire, and considered dressing up ourselves. Costumes were being handed out from a stall on the edge of the square. I wanted to be a clown, but my wife said that I was really more cut out to be a jester. In the end we kept our own
identities, as bemused tourists.

The medieval band played their authentic instruments—heavy on the drums—and the dancers danced in spite of the temperature, which was around ninety degrees. The entertainers were correctly dressed in rags. Five hundred years ago entertainers were regarded as the lowest form of life. Today, for some inexplicable reason, they are treated like minor gods, or fallen angels.

Children and even babies wore sixteenth century costumes, and were encouraged to play ancient games with hoops and spinning tops. The historical illusion was not complete, of course. There were plenty of funny anachronisms. Nikes could be seen peeking out from under some robes, the waiter at the adjoining restaurant, although dressed as a pious monk, was no better an example of Christian charity and forgiveness than any regular French waiter, and I saw a fire eater put down his flaming torches in order to answer his cell phone. Cigarettes and designer handbags were in evidence, half a millennium ahead of their time. But in general it was a fascinating show, street theater in its most comprehensive form. Everyone was a performer, and everyone was a spectator.

The last time I wrote about historical re-enactments I posed the rhetorical question: “Why are these events always about wars, like the Civil War, and never about peace?” Well, here was my answer: the citizens of Uzès were re-enacting peace in the form of a market day—an innocent day of trade and sociability and entertainment—no blood, no death, no heroism, just fun. What could be more civilized than that?

Copyright: David Bouchier

Feathered Friends

One of my favorite childhood treats was to go to the local park and feed the ducks. My mother told me that brown ducks were brown because they ate only brown bread, and white ducks were white because they ate only white bread, so we took some of each. I believed this long after I had learned the awful truth about Santa Claus.

But, in spite of this parental misdirection, my duck feeding gene had been activated. It’s an innocent and traditional pleasure, very popular at our local pond. Even now, in the heart of the virus hysteria, a lot of people bring their kids on the weekends, and it’s good to see the young ones learning to appreciate their feathered friends at a proper social distance.

For many years, before I achieved psychological maturity, I fed ducks only when I felt like it. My first encounter with a committed duck feeder came at the University of Connecticut more than twenty years ago, when my campus office had a view over an ornamental lake with many wild fowl, and others who just pretended to be wild. Every morning, whatever the weather, an elderly man would drive up in a truck, loaded with several large bins full of duck food. He was mobbed by winged admirers as soon as he stopped, some of them climbing on to the truck and plunging right into the bins. The feeding frenzy was over in a matter of minutes, leaving the lake covered in fat and contented birds.

At the time I thought this was rather strange, and even sad. I’ve seen the same phenomenon at other ponds. Who, I wondered, are these old men who have nothing better to do than feed the ducks every day? Now I know.

Duck feeding catches up with you late in life, like certain sneaky viruses. What got me started was the careless frivolity of some of our local amateur duck feeders. On a sunny day, and especially on weekends, families are so thick on the ground around the pond that you practically have to line up and take a ticket. When it’s wet or snowy or freezing or blowing a gale, just when the ducks most need to be fed, these fair weather feeders are nowhere to be seen.

Even when they are there most feeders don’t do it right. They offer bread for one thing, which is bad for the birds, white or brown. It upsets their digestions and pollutes their water. Cracked corn is much better. And fathers especially tend to throw bread like pitchers in a baseball game. How would you like it? Ducks don’t want food thrown at them, let alone doled out in tiny scraps. They want it all at once, and right now.

So I set up a schedule for myself to feed the ducks proper food in a respectful fashion every day, rain or shine. They appreciate it. They have learned to recognize me, or at least my car number plate. My wife came down to the pond with me the other day. “I see you can still pull the birds,” she said ironically, as about fifty ducks came flying straight at us.

The authorities on wildfowl say that we shouldn’t feed wild ducks at all. It may disrupt their migratory patterns, and undermine nature’s law of the survival of the fittest. The ducks themselves, who are about as wild as our cats, have a different opinion. They have no intention of migrating anywhere, unless someone buys them a cheap flight to Florida on Southwest, but they do have a hard time surviving when the water freezes.

As for the survival of the fittest, we never apply this principle to ourselves. These wildfowl experts, if they eat three substantial meals a day summer and winter, are in no position to recommend it. Let them spend a week or two on a freezing pond with no food, to show how fit they are. If they are very lucky, I may come by with my bag of cracked corn.

Copyright: David Bouchier