Quote of The Week

“Nolus in verbia (take nobody’s word for it).”

Founding principle of the Royal Society in 1660


Happy Hours at the Airport

Air travel is an authentic miracle of the modern age. Popular holiday destinations like London, Paris, Baghdad and Kabul are only hours away; although, if you count the trip to Kennedy airport and the delays at check-in, even the shortest flight can take longer than the original voyage of Columbus.

Personally I prefer to fly out of regional airports like our local one on Long Island. You can park right there at the terminal instead five miles away, and there’s only one small terminal, so you can’t get lost. A few years ago this airport was even smaller, a museum of the early days of commercial aviation. The shorter flights boarded right off the tarmac, so you could take an invigorating walk through the rain and have a good look at your plane, study the various fluids leaking from the engine, kick the tires, and get a glimpse of the captain through the windshield of the flight deck, often fast asleep or reading anxiously in his flight manual. This was much more reassuring than being herded down a tunnel into the bowels of an invisible aircraft.

The old, circular terminal has now sprouted two big extensions, and offers many more flights. But although the 1930s ambience is gone, it is still convenient and quick for those of us who live in the area. There is a price to pay for convenience. Flights from local airports invariably stop somewhere else first. These layovers come in two types, which I call the Nostalgic and the Olympic. The Nostalgic layover is an antidote to the rush and hurry of modern life. It strands you for several hours in Charlotte, Pittsburgh, or Chicago, and allows you to experience the same slow, relaxed travel timetable that our ancestors enjoyed on an ocean liner or the Oregon Trail.

The Olympic layover is much more of a challenge. The airline drops you at some intermediate point, like Detroit or Minneapolis, with six minutes to make a connection half a mile away across an unfamiliar terminal. Here you can really appreciate the marvelous co-ordination the airlines are capable of. Your incoming flight is always late, while your outgoing flight is invariably on time. In the central control room of the terminal, ground traffic controllers crouch over their screens tracking the rush of passengers trying to find their onward flights. As each sweating group of victims gets within twenty feet of the gate, they radio the pilot “GO, GO” and sit around laughing until it’s time for the next flight. Your baggage, meanwhile, has made the onward flight (another miracle of organization) and is on its way to Boston or Birmingham, never to be seen again.

An overseas flight is not so easy. A few weeks ago we took the long slow ride to Kennedy Airport, with the limo driver from hell flipping the AM stations in search of right wing talk shows or anything about sex. After a few pleasant hours on the Belt Parkway, we were decanted into the gigantic cavern of Terminal One, where nothing makes any sense.

We need airport security these days, if only as a public relations exercise. But I wish it was more convincing. On this particular trip I was stopped at the gate, x-rayed, checked for explosives, and thoroughly searched. While this was going on, two young men walked straight through who could have been twin doubles of Saddam Hussein. The security people actually looked the other way, dreading any accusation of bias. Numerous travelers of unimpeachable character, such as arthritic old ladies, small children, and chief executives of big accounting companies, also get stopped and searched. This doesn’t make me feel any safer. Until the political correctness police get over their horror of “profiling” these security checks are a bad joke. Recent reports suggest that air travelers have a good chance of getting an AK47 or a rocket launcher through airport security, unless they happen to be little old ladies or small children.
But security, however unrealistic, is easy to endure compared to the ordeal of the departure lounge. On our recent flight to London, which was delayed by eight hours because the airline apparently lost the plane, we had time to enjoy everything that Terminal One had to offer.

Airport departure lounges all seem to be designed by the same architect, who is suffering from severe depression and wants everyone else to share his pain. The idea seems to be to reproduce the old Christian idea of purgatory – a place of waiting with very little hope. Once upon a time, there was a certain elegance about an airport departure lounge because people dressed up to travel. Now democracy has done its work, and the style is more Disneyland or Muppet show. Perhaps airlines should enforce some minimum standard.There are some very peculiar shops in the departure lounge. Who buys those duty free scarves, ties, perfumes, pens watches. If they are gifts of guilt, the fact is so obvious that it’s scarcely worth the expense.

But the real torture of the departure lounge, what makes it truly like purgatory, is the endless stream of announcements. They all seem to be bad news, they always start off just as you are drifting to sleep in one of their torture chairs. In this hi-tech setting, you might imagine that it would be the simplest thing in the world to make announcements audible. In Terminal One, they are a kind of hearing test, because they run several announcements at the same time. At one point 1. Security announcement 2. Olympic Airlines announcement 3. Gate closing call for another flight in French/ All this plus CNN news, beeps, screaming children, people yelling into cellphones. There are constant calls for missing passengers: “Will Mr Lo Bum come to gate 9 gate closing for flight to Absurdistan – this is repeated every five minutes. Where do these people GO?? There is nowhere to go in terminal one.

The promised delay will get longer and longer as the night wears on, extended half an hour at a time like some exquisite form of torture, even while you know and they know that your plane is still on the ground in Kuala Lumpur or Copenhagen. Most flights are overbooked flights, which creates its own genre of announcements. Then the airline will begin to offer incentives for passengers to quit the flight. They start modestly: a one-way free ticket to Cleveland; then a round trip; and eventually an all-expenses paid vacation in Hawaii. Nobody will buy any of this.

But nobody wants to stay on the ground any more. Even those of us who suffer from vertigo and deep misgivings about heavier-than-air flight still keep buying those convenient tickets to everywhere. Nothing can persuade us to give up the flying habit. How odd it is that we have taken the lesson of the Titanic so thoroughly to heart, while the lesson of Icarus is one we prefer to forget.

Copyright: David Bouchier

World on the Move

As a result of the refugee crisis the citizens of Western Europe have acquired a lot of new neighbors in the past few years – several millions of them. The crisis is by no means over, and the number of people who need or want to move is potentially almost unlimited. The prospect of welcoming more than a hundred million impoverished immigrants has made the citizens of countries like Germany, France and Britain understandably anxious. They’re afraid that their economies will be sunk without trace by these hordes of people looking for a better life. In American terms it would be like throwing the southern border wide open and inviting everybody to come right in.

Historically the greatest movement of peoples has been from east to west, perhaps because the planet revolves in the opposite direction so it’s just easier to go that way, like walking on a treadmill. Australians are spreading westwards across their own continent. Even my nonagenarian mother moved a few miles west to the next town. The instinct to go west is deep. So the poor masses of Eastern Europe will end up in Western Europe, and eventually in California where the rainbow ends. It’s a pity that the economic outlook in California is so bad. They may have nowhere to go but back east, and nobody ever looks for a better life in the east. That means taking the next big westward jump to China, and starting the whole cycle over again.

There are exceptions, including the perverse north to south migration of American seniors. But the general rule is westwards, ever westwards. It seems that migration is a force of nature, as unchangeable as the west wind. But what makes the west so irresistible is not nature, but culture. Western television shows and movies dominate the global market. They show a life of infinite wealth and leisure, huge homes full of gleaming appliances which nobody ever seems to clean or use, big cars, perfect weather, and a population of beautiful, well-dressed people who spend their lives involved in personal problems of stunning triviality, and who never seem to work.

Migration is a desperate measure. Nobody really wants to leave their home country, their culture and their language to start all over again. In an ideal world everyone would have a good life in his or her home place. But they don’t, and that’s why America exists. Millions of immigrants came here on a long shot, hoping that their lives would be better in this earthly paradise.

Now we tantalize the poor people of the world every day with images of a fantastical place that doesn’t exist anymore than the land of Oz exists. If we set out deliberately to create dissatisfaction and unrealistic expectations over the entire planet we couldn’t do better. No wonder so many people want to come here. No wonder they don’t try to change things at home. Why bother, when a ready-made earthly paradise is just over the western horizon? Immigration is the sincerest form of flattery, but it is always flattery based on an illusion.

Filmmakers could (but they won’t) do an international public service by bringing their products just a little closer to the reality. Small things would make a difference: for example showing western people doing real work and commuting, failing to get health care, sinking under their credit card debts, harassed by insecurity, anxiety and paranoia (including paranoia about immigration). In other words, they could simply make the west appear more like it is. We need more programs like “The Sopranos.” Who would want to live within thousand miles of them?

We don’t need to go overboard with this, and make everyday life in America or France look like everyday life in Somalia or Afghanistan. Nobody would believe the propaganda,. But a few gestures in the direction of reality would slow down the migration process, and save a great deal of disappointment.

America is blessed with vast empty spaces where any number of immigrants could be absorbed without even being noticed, just as they were in the nineteenth century. Unfortunately they don’t head for the great open spaces of Nebraska or Wyoming. They all come to Queens and Brooklyn, where they are more visible. Europe doesn’t have the same luxury of space: every place is like Queens and Brooklyn.

Such a modest dose of realism wouldn’t stop people from migrating, of course – migration is about dreams. But the creators of dreams should take some responsibility for their consequences. In the nineteenth century millions of Europeans were lured to America by the railway companies, promising another kind of utopia out west. Now their descendants find themselves stuck in places like Kansas or Nebraska, when they could be back home in Germany or Norway. Was that fair? Was that nice? A little truth in advertising now would save a great deal of disenchantment later.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Tourist Tide

The end of the summer tourist season brings one of the biggest and strangest human migrations in this restless world. Millions of travelers return wearily to their homes, from places as exotic as Bangkok or as comfortably familiar as Boston. They carry the normal tourist freight of overpriced “duty-free” goods, hastily chosen souvenirs made in Taiwan, shaky videos, and interesting intestinal conditions. As the tide ebbs, the main centers of global tourism are left stunned and exhausted. They make a lot of money from their visitors, but they must be glad when it’s over for another year.

Unless you have lived in a popular tourist destination, it’s hard to imagine just how traumatic the annual invasion can be. I spent years in Cambridge, England, which (along with Stratford on Avon) is a compulsory stop on the British tourist trail. For half of the year, it was a delightful place to be – peaceful, civilized and beautiful. During the tourist season it became unbearable. It was impossible to move or breathe in the streets, the museums, restaurants and pubs were intolerably crowded, and the ancient colleges looked and felt more like amusement parks.

As a mere local resident, I was bumped off the sidewalks by groups of bustling Germans, harassed in a dozen incomprehensible languages for directions to the nearest restroom, and photographed by Japanese who seemed to mistake me for some eccentric Cambridge character. Even my bicycle was photographed. It was an unusually dilapidated example of the type known as a Cambridge Boneshaker – one gear, no brakes, and held together by rust and pieces of twisted wire. It was the best bike I ever had, but tourists would stop and stare as if it was some kind of mobile sculpture.

It’s hard to be treated like a Disneyland character in your own town, especially if you’re not making any money out of it. But it helped me to appreciate what the inhabitants of any tourist Mecca must suffer. I got my revenge during a brief stint as a taxi driver, when I would pick up unsuspecting pilgrims at the railroad station and take them on my special guided tour of the ancient city. Coached by older and more creative taxi drivers, I developed a script for this tour that bore almost no relation to the real world. I switched the names and dates of all but the most famous colleges, created completely imaginary histories for them, and added whatever colorful anecdotes I had invented before the beginning of my shift. All the Cambridge taxi drivers did the same thing, and none of us was ever challenged by a tourist. They probably had no clear idea where they were at all, because tourism is about going there rather than being there. “To travel hopefully is better than to arrive,” said Robert Louis Stevenson, anticipating the modern tourist industry by a hundred years.

When I’m being a tourist myself, I always remember that Cambridge experience and wonder what devious tricks the locals are playing on me. Sometimes I can figure it out, but more often it’s just an uneasy suspicion. I just know they’re doing something, because that’s how they console themselves for being on the sharp end of the tourist invasion.

Tourism is said to be the world’s biggest industry, with a value of some $5 trillion. It seems that we all want to get away from home. Six hundred million people travel abroad every year. It’s just unfortunate that we all choose to go to the same places at the same time. As tourism continues to expand, there’s no relief in sight for Cambridge, or Paris, or Florence, or Yellowstone National Park, or San Francisco, or Athens or the Great Wall of China.

This has to change. It’s not fair to the few places that get all the tourists, and even less fair to those large areas of the planet that are insufficiently appreciated as fun destinations – Somalia and Afghanistan, for example. Justice requires that those of us who like to travel should spread our patronage more widely. Why not try Mogadishu next year, instead of Monte Carlo?

But people hate to change their travel habits, and this may be a case where, in the end, a little forceful persuasion will be necessary – perhaps a United Nations resolution, or a benevolent conspiracy of all the world’s travel agents. A tourist lottery, that’s the answer, “Scratch and Go.” All the destinations in the world will be put into a computer, the hopeful voyager will pay his or her money and get whatever surprise ticket the machine produces. And if you happen to get Islip, Long Island – well at least you won’t have to worry about jet lag, and next year it could be anywhere.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Labor Day

It’s a paradox that Labor Day is devoted to fun and idleness because, after all, it’s the one-day in the year when we are supposed to celebrate work. Work has a very special status in America. Most foreigners consider work to be a curse and a nuisance. But here it is generally considered to be a good and even a noble thing. If the statistics are to be believed, which perhaps they should not be, Americans work harder than any other nation on earth.

It’s a source of astonishment to Europeans that Americans take so little vacation time. The average worker gets a tiny 8.1 days’ vacation after a year in the job, and 19.2 days after three years – if they’re lucky. One out of ten companies gives no paid vacation at all, and in some states it’s as low as one out of five.

How did American vacations get so short? The Germans enjoy thirty days of paid leisure time each year, and the wicked French have five weeks. The Italians have six weeks. What’s more, Europeans actually take their vacations. They leave work, and leave town, and don’t come back until the last possible minute. Here, many people we know don’t even take the short vacations they are entitled to. The only person in this country who takes it easy in the European style is the President, who vanishes off to the golf course or to one of his resorts at every opportunity. We continue to pay his salary during these relaxing breaks.

An earlier President, William Howard Taft, proposed in 1910 that all American workers should be entitled to a two to three month vacation. In 1939 the Department of Labor also recommended mandatory paid vacations for everybody. It never happened, and in fact vacations have been getting shorter and shorter since 1945.

One explanation of American work habits is that we love our work so much that we can’t bear to be away from it. The statistics on job satisfaction do not bear this out. Another traditional answer, proposed by the sociologist Max Weber in 1904, is that America inherited a “Protestant work ethic.” Hard work is pleasing to God, and idleness is next to sin – a belief that Benjamin Franklin incarnated back in the eighteenth century. But it’s hard to credit that this historic Protestant neurosis still motivates American workers of all faiths today.

Our hard work should pay off in superior productivity. But those lazy Europeans are actually more productive. This makes no sense at all and I can think of only two plausible reasons.

One theory is that Americans are only pretending to work long hours. You may have noticed how few people seem to be actually at work at any given moment. You can spend all day calling people who should be in their offices and getting nothing but voice mail. During working hours the highways and malls of Long Island are packed with people who seem to be of working age and who are not obviously driving taxis or trucks. (I know this because I am often out there myself, driving around as pointlessly as the rest of them.)

Some of these unoccupied folks are retired, of course, some may be working night shifts, and still others may have won the lottery so they don’t need to work at all – but so many? Can these daytime drivers and shoppers be just goofing off, wasting time and gasoline and contributing nothing to the national economy?

The other explanation of the productivity paradox is the one I like better. Americans are just tired. We need a longer break each summer. William Howard Taft – a progressive Republican who liked to take it easy – had it right the first time. If we’d just had a two-month vacation it would be a positive pleasure to go back to work tomorrow.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Life Among the Exiles

We spent a whole morning in a small restaurant listening to a talk about garbage. The sanitation manager of the town had kindly volunteered to speak to our group as part of our education in everyday French.

It certainly was everyday French. This was vocabulary we could use. We might not be able to read Proust or Flaubert in the original but, after an hour of instruction on the science and sociology of garbage disposal in the town we were ready to go out and talk trash with any passing street cleaner.

The group of about twenty people who had gathered for this educational experience consisted of expatriates from half a dozen countries. There are a lot of foreigners living in southern Europe, most of them British, Scandinavian and Dutch refugees from the frozen north. But more and more Russians and East Europeans are moving in too, refugees from both the weather and the toxic politics at home.

They are interesting people and, being separated from their native languages and cultures, they socialize with one another. Food and wine are common interests, and English is the common language although you can have some surreal multilingual conversations. But most foreign residents are at least trying to learn French with varying degrees of success, and many of them are working in education or business. They form a kind of parallel universe, hanging out in their favorite cafes, haunting the markets, and soaking up the sun when there is any sun.

The man who must take the blame or credit for this friendly invasion is Peter Mayle, whose 1989 bestseller A Year in Provence inspired a whole genre of imitations, and a whole diaspora of middle class people who thought that living in the South of France sounded like a pretty neat idea, which it is.

There is a hierarchy among the expatriates of course, and the longtime residents are at the top of it. They know the secrets we all need to know: the labyrinthine ways of the tax system, the real story about health care, the best place to buy wine, the truth about the winter weather, and so on. The rest of us are eager students of their hard-won knowledge.

We don’t qualify as full members of the expat community. We are birds of passage, here today and on the wing tomorrow. Many others do the same, coming and going for a few weeks or months according to the rhythms of weather or work, or simply whim. People are always just leaving, for Holland or Turkey or Brazil, or just coming back.

There is something appealing and almost inspiring about the disconnected expatriate lifestyle. In a world obsessed with nationalism and borders this floating population seems to offer a model of what a peaceful global society could be like. We don’t “belong” here, of course. But what the expats share is the feeling that it is rather nice not to “belong” anywhere, to be comfortable refugees on the face of the planet. When you belong to a place it possesses you, and imposes all kinds of obligations. There are far too many people who feel stuck in the place of their birth, or in some anonymous suburb where they happened to buy a home forty years ago. That’s geographical slavery. It doesn’t matter where you are or what language you try to speak, so long as you have good food, good company, and regular garbage collection. If you know a better recipe for universal peace and happiness I’d like to hear about it.

Copyright: David Bouchier

House Book

Moving out of a house after a long stay is always a tedious affair. There’s a vast amount of cleaning to be done, in the course of which many unfortunate discoveries will certainly be made: lost keys, lost papers, dead mice, and so on. There will be the painful triage when we decide what to take and what to leave behind. If you’ve been wearing the same few garments for months you either want to throw them or away or continue living comfortably in them forever. The latter decision will depend on your sex, of course. There are lots of small repairs to be attempted, and people we must absolutely say goodbye to, including really important ones like the butcher and the baker. But by far the most demanding task is preparing the house for those who will be coming to stay in it during the next few months, because this involves creating a “House Book.”

A House Book is supposed to tell the next occupant everything he or she needs to know in order to have a safe and enjoyable stay, and not set fire to the place or allow it to be taken over by stray cats. Few House Books fulfill this task adequately. They tend to be either too brief and uninformative, with cryptic instructions like “Hot water may be obtained by activating the 20 amp breaker switch”, without any indication of where in the house this object may be found, or they are maddeningly verbose and authoritarian, like an army drill manual written by Marcel Proust.

Creating one of these books is a delicate task, but it shouldn’t be difficult. Our old village house, basically, is nothing but a hollow cube of stone with a tiled roof. It has been around for some hundreds of years and could be destroyed only by a direct missile strike. In the old days goats were kept in the basement and rabbits in the attic, with the people living in between. In short the house is not a fragile object, like a piece of porcelain. There’s nothing to worry about, or so you might assume.

But in this century builders and interior designers have done their transformative work, and now there are hundreds of things to worry about: heating systems, Internet connections a temperamental stove, idiosyncratic light fixtures and water filters, to name only a few. Oh for the simple life, as Thoreau described it! “Our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them,” he wrote, with his usual irritating perspicacity.

I have tried to compose a House Book that will be comprehensive, informative, friendly in tone, and legally impregnable. It was an impossible task until I decided to write it from the visitor’s point of view. They have questions, I have answers.

 What do we do about garbage? Answer: The rules of garbage disposal in a French village are beyond the understanding of any foreigner. Watch what the people next door do with their garbage, and do the same.

 The laundry machine looks funny – does it work? Answer: Yes, but there’s nothing funny about it. Prepare for all your clothes to be the same color.

 Why are there five remote controls? Answer: Because there’s French TV and British TV, and radio, coming from a satellite dish and an antenna and goodness knows where else, and I haven’t figured out how to make it all work with fewer than three remotes. The fourth and fifth remote are a surprise: try them and see.

 Where can I park? Answer: Keep driving until you get to the next village. They Have parking.

 Where can I go for walks? Answer: Anywhere, except in hunting season, when it’s best to stay home especially if you look even very slightly like a wild pig. The hunters don’t discriminate.

The House Book, as it emerges on my keyboard, is a kind of model or blueprint of domestic life in France. It tells us how we should live, and by example tries to persuade others to live the same way. It’s a good life, but only if you read the instructions.

Europe on $500 a Day

If you made any travel plans recently you are probably still suffering from sticker shock. Oil prices have driven up the cost of flights and cruises, and some mysterious inflationary disease has supersized hotel and restaurant prices all over the world. London has lost its proud title as the world’s most expensive city to Moscow of all places, with Paris not far behind. . But even less likely destinations like Nicosia, Cyprus and Seoul South Korea are up there in the top fifty. Goodbye cheap travel, at least for the moment.

You may remember a popular series of guide books that promised to show you how to travel anywhere on five dollars a day – the price of a cup of coffee in today’s Moscow. I used those guides myself, or thought I did. Recently I’ve begun to wonder whether it was a case of false memory syndrome. It seems impossible; five dollars a day?

Then a piece of evidence fell at my feet: a little pocket diary that had been hiding at the back of a shelf. It was one of those devices we used in the ancient days of paper to keep a day by day record of our vacations. In the long lost summer of 1964, I had carried it with me on a trip to Europe, and dutifully filled in the details of every single day, including what everything cost.

So I found that it wasn’t a false memory. You really could travel Europe on five dollars a day, or the equivalent in the old currencies – francs, lira, pesetas, and so on. The first night, at a hotel in Fontainbleau, near Paris, cost two dollars, with “A good breakfast.” But Fontainbleau was an expensive town. As we moved south, over the Alps, into Italy, and down through former Yugoslavia to Greece, the prices got cheaper and cheaper. The cheapest hotel was in Yugoslavia, less than a dollar, but I noted in the diary that it was “A dump.” Even in those days I had high standards.

We were travelling by motorcycle, I should add, which cut fuel costs to almost nothing, although the engine used almost as much oil as gas. For a moment, as I flipped through the diary, there was a danger of slipping into nostalgia about the good old days of cheap travel. But soon the recovered memories began to swim into focus. This type of travel was pure torture. Of course there were good and even great moments, like discovering that wonderful, fat-saturated French snack the Croque Monsieur, and coming to the brow of a hill in Greece and suddenly getting a first sight of the Parthenon, floating like a white mirage above the smog of Athens.

But the motorcycle, an antique Triumph, was painfully uncomfortable as well as underpowered and unreliable. We were soaked with rain and plastered with insects every day. Crossing the Alps was a freezing endurance test. The long drive down the two-lane road that ran through Yugoslavia was an extended suicide mission. The hotels were flea ridden and comfortless, meals were often inedible, and the cheap wine was disgusting. These facts were not noted in the diary because the pages too small for commentary, but they had lodged like a bad dream somewhere in my mind.

We traveled without cell phone, laptop or e-mail, with no reservations and no forwarding address. For three weeks we were completely detached from our everyday world, and perhaps that one thing made up for all the rest.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Joys of Travel

The task of preparing and packing for a trip weeks or months is enough to persuade a person to give up foreign travel forever. Life must be pared down to the dimensions of one suitcase and one carry-on: summer clothes, winter clothes, in-between clothes, medications, files, laptop, and all the other things a modern couple cannot live without. Arrangements must be made for paying utility bills, caring for cats, mowing the lawn or clearing snow according to season, and sometimes both. Time always runs out before all this is done, but we have to go anyway. Napoleon’s army setting out on its catastrophic march to Moscow in 1812 was better prepared than we usually are as we begin an extended trip.

When a journey begins with air travel the discomforts are ten times multiplied. Everyone now understands that the airlines are engaged in a vast conspiracy to persuade us all to stay at home, or at least on the ground. This is good from the point of view of global warming, and no doubt we will all have to stay at home soon. But right now there aren’t many alternatives if you want to get from one continent to another. We could drive to Alaska and take a dog sled across the Bering Strait, then a train down through Russia, and come into Europe through the back door, so to speak. But it would take weeks, and it’s not very practical because we are cat people, and we don’t have any experience with huskies.

So we must start with the airlines and their increasingly ludicrous and humiliating “security” procedures. Once disentangled from the airline and the airport, often a major struggle in itself, there is always the question of hotels. In general, we love hotels as a relaxing home away from home. But unless we stay within the safe capsule of the big international chains, which are hideously expensive, every hotel is a lottery. Stars mean next to nothing, guide books are always out of date, and another curious conspiracy operates in the hotel industry. They have agreed amongst themselves that no hotel room should ever be quite perfect, so clients don’t get spoiled. The requirements for a good hotel room are simple: anyone could make the list. But in real life the list is always incomplete. One hotel gives you a coffee machine, but no hairdryer; another has a perfectly comfortable bed, but the pillows are stuffed with dried corn husks; one freezes you with air conditioning you can’t adjust; another tries to bake you alive. All hotel rooms without exception are missing at least one light bulb, and one essential bathroom item. Frills like wake-up calls, newspapers, Internet connections and room service are provided on the basis of a secret lottery run by the hotel management. You may get them, or you may not, but you will never get them all.

I miss the lost age of elegant travel, even though I never experienced it. I like to read about the writer Edith Wharton’s travels in Europe in the 1920s. She crossed the Atlantic on one of the great luxury ocean liners and, once in Europe, she was considered adventurous to travel by car. But the car had a chauffeur and a mechanic on board, and another car full of servants followed right behind. Another group of servants traveled ahead to set up her rooms at each grand hotel. No security checks, no lost baggage, and never any missing light bulbs. That’s the way to see the world.

Time travel, anyone?

Copyright: David Bouchier

Reset password

Like most people I start my working day by avoiding work. Instead I read my e-mail, and then delete it. Or I just delete it, which saves time. But the e-mail program demands a password, and the other day my mind went blank so I had to do something useful instead. The secret code came back to me in time but I worried that this was the proverbial first straw in a coming hurricane of forgetfulness.

The experts who concern themselves computer security insist that we should have different passwords for different things, change them frequently, and not write them down. They have to be meaningless strings of numbers and letters, or they will be too easy to crack. If you use your cat’s name, for example, evil criminals may capture your cat in the street and torture him until he reveals it. Passwords must be obscure to be secure.

That’s all very well for those whose brains are young, un-cluttered and efficient. But that condition doesn’t last long. It occurred to me, as I stared at the blank password box that, pretty soon, all sixty million baby boomers will begin to forget their passwords. I’m a generation ahead of them, and I can guarantee it. My passwords are vanishing into the mist already.

This will be much more serious than the Y2K problem that was falsely predicted in the year 2000. We need passwords for everything: cell phones, e-mail, Facebook whatever it is, wireless connection, data storage, every web company and service we have to deal with, on line banking, on-line shopping, on-line bill paying, and really just about everything. Even the house security system demands a password, and I live here! Once we start forgetting these passwords our lives will shrink, piece by piece, until we are reduced to the pathetic state of folks in the 1970s, who didn’t have any passwords. It’s hard to imagine how we lived without them. Imagine just reading your mail or checking your bank balance without a password.

The web companies have accommodated the frailty of human memory in a minimal way, by offering a little button near the password box that says: “Forgot your password?” There is something condescending and critical about this, like your old school teacher saying: “Forgot your homework?” If you click on this icon it usually presents you with another memory test, like your grandmother’s maiden name or your parakeet’s birthday. If you can’t remember the password, you certainly can’t remember these. So you are stuck, and have no choice but to join the line of several thousand other senior citizens who are on hold, trying to call Bombay and reset their passwords.

My habit is to make passwords out of objects in the immediate vicinity of the computer, so I can look around for inspiration. But I still have to remember which object: is it the jade plant today, or the wireless router, or the model number of the printer, or the stone owl that sits on the desk? It’s anybody’s guess, really, and often you are only allowed three guesses before the site blocks you out. In a fair and just society seniors would be allowed more guesses according to age. I would like at least ten.

This password culture suggests that nobody trusts anybody about anything. I’m sure it contributes to the universal paranoia. Before we were all caught in the World Wide Web, less than twenty years ago, only spies like James Bond, and master criminals like Professor Moriarty needed codes and passwords, because they had so much to hide. Now, it seems, all of us have everything to hide: so many secrets safely hidden behind so many passwords, if only we can remember what they are.

Copyright: David Bouchier

A Better Class of Crime?

After walking twenty blocks in crowded midtown Manhattan, I discovered that a flap on my briefcase was hanging open, exposing my credit cards, cell phone, and all the other portable treasures that make modern life possible. Nobody took the trouble to steal them, and I was forced to reflect on the decline of crime and the lack of enterprise shown by our local street criminals. In London or Paris my valuables would have been gone before I had walked ten paces.

What happened to the legendary pickpockets, the linear descendents of Fagin’s boys, whose cunning arts could empty even the most secure pockets without the victim feeling a thing? Nobody can be bothered to learn the craft. The skilled pickpocket has declined into the unskilled mugger, who avoids busy city streets. The last time anyone tried to pick my pocket was in Stockholm, and the effort was so clumsy that I had to assume that the young gentleman was an amateur, or perhaps still in the early stages of his training.

The same decline of expertise has struck the once skilled profession of burglary. Where are the cat burglars of yesteryear who could climb vertical walls, like Spiderman, and slide through apparently locked doors and windows? Where are the gentleman burglars, with beautiful manners and interesting hobbies like collecting antique books? The gentleman burglar was always exquisitely dressed and could crack any safe with a few deft touches. Today’s burglars, if television pictures are to be believed, are very unfashionably dressed and can’t open anything without using a sledgehammer, a backhoe, or dynamite. A gentleman burglar, who left everything neat and tidy, would be positively welcome compared to the Neanderthals who seem to be in the business these days.

The civilized burglar lives on in fiction: Arsène-Lupin, Raffles, and more recently Bernie Rhodenbarr carry on the tradition of a craft that rewarded dexterity and intelligence rather than muscle. But they are not imitated in the real world, which I at first put down to the deplorable state of school system. Kids just don’t learn the value of practice and patience. I was about to call my senator with a proposal for an educational reform bill on the lines of “No criminal left behind,” when I realized that I myself had failed to crack the problem.

Criminal skills have not vanished, they have just moved up market. All the smart people are into white-collar crime. Not a day passes without some new revelation: college administrators getting rich from student loan scams; fire district officials and school board members on Long Island pocket pocketing millions; rapacious non-profits, charities and churches; sleazy businessmen evading taxes; bent doctors manipulating Medicare; and creative stock market operators conjuring money out of thin air. We won’t even mention lawyers and politicians. These respectable crooks have more than compensated for the decline of skills in traditional crime. They can take more money in a day than the best pickpocket could in a lifetime, and it’s all comfortable indoor work.

This crime wave among the privileged and educated classes is a bit depressing, if only because I have missed the opportunity to take part. Reading the morning headlines I feel I have been a fool all my life: paying my taxes, keeping a single (accurate) set of accounts, and drawing a sharp line between money that belongs to me and money that belongs to other people. A fool and his money are soon parted, and I suppose I must face the fact that I am not, and never have been, smart enough for crime.

It is no use hoping for more honesty, but I would like to see a bit more subtlety. This white-collar crime is all so tacky and blatant. Admittedly the perpetrators usually (but not always) dress better than their street counterparts, and often have degrees from good colleges, although I doubt they could open a safe without a key. But they have no taste. They spend their loot on golf, fried chicken and trips Las Vegas. If we must have a huge white-collar criminal class, and apparently we must, the least honest citizens can demand is a bit of style.

Copyright: David Bouchier