[written from the United States, but retrospectively; prepared in part from notes taken in France and in mid-flight from Nice to New York]
Nice, Sunset during a rainstorm, 2006 August 6
Morts et vivants, tout dormait. Et le silence qui regnait était un grand silence de province.
Everyone, the dead and the living, was asleep. And the silence that reigned was a deep, provincial silence.
—Paris, by Julian Green; tr., J.A. Underwood
Aside from the food, the views, the air, the culture (by which I mean the pace and style of everyday life), the essential prevailing climate (meteorological), and the people on a one-on-one basis, there is another significant advantage to life in rural France. It is there, not here. By which I mean that, perspective being all, the vantage of 3500 miles makes things, if not clearer, at least not so hazy, if not removing the fog of incoherency altogether.
For the writer, any writer, whatever his or her merits, clarity is all. For me, there is inspiration in the clarity of being in France. Combined with what is, no doubt, and even after over 20 years of regular intimacy with the life, the sheer otherness—the strangeness to me, plus my overwhelming ignorance—of life in France, there is always a great deal to write about.
To my mind, I am often writing less about the French (though some readers seem to think so, and react solely to this nominal subject), and a great deal more about what are our similarities, if only by way of delineating differences. In short, it is a way to write about myself, or, to depersonalize this, as the subject loses interest rapidly, and most of all for me, when it is a matter of pure self-reflection: it is a way of writing about us, yes, we Americans, but, more importantly, we humans.
One thing to remember, after three weeks in another country, at every conceivable remove, except the electronic, from what is familiar and routine, is that I am not only a long way away from that reality. I am also a great deal closer to another reality, yet one which preoccupies so much of the civilized world. It’s not my purpose to disabuse my fellow Americans of any presentiment they may have about the fate of the civilized world insofar as it consists of the lands contained by territorial borders of the United States. Rather, it is, for starters, to remind them that civilization does not end at the departure gate at Logan or JFK, or wherever.
We are deeply troubled by the state of the world, even from our largely still untouched enclave of a continent buffered by the two largest oceans on the planet—and before the wrath of God and righteous Americans rains down on me, I am well aware of the awful event, and its consequences, known as 9/11. And I do not forget Pearl Harbor. And I remember the Maine.
However, for the sake of defining a certain psychic perspective, I also have the capacity to recall the bombing of Dresden (and innumerable other cities in Europe, including the fire bombing and rockets that rained down on London), the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the siege of Stalingrad, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, and the War of 1812.
Our own latest suffering, however severe and inhumane, is yet another chapter in the lamentable history of human civilization on planet earth. To keep that history at bay, we have, for much of the history of our nation, more or less kept the world at bay, as if we do, indeed, inhabit an enclave. Though if it is an enclave, it is increasingly unclear (at least to a polarizing degree) of exactly what.
Our watery isolation (of an immensity we forget, unless flying over it, however swiftly—it takes five hours of an eight-hour transatlantic flight at over 500 knots to traverse open water to get from America to Europe, or vice versa) has lately proven its inadequacy for preserving a sense of political isolation, for those for whom this has always been a preferred modality. However, whether you are an isolationist, cocooned in the fantasy that the world can somehow be kept not only away, but kept out utterly from a properly defended fortress, or you are more a citizen of the world, with some sense that we have neighbors whose fate just might very well affect ours, we do seem to harbor one frail sense of calm. It’s best expressed in the throw-weights and range of weapons in the hands of those we deem dangerous. For now, we are safe to some degree—what else can we do but think it—as long as Hezbollah can hurl rockets only 20 miles, or North Korea can reach Seoul or the frontier of Japan, but no further.
Tell that to an Israeli or a Japanese.
We do worry about the price and availability of oil, the preponderance of which, even with our record thirst for it, comes from elsewhere, and, in particular, the volatile Middle East. And one must fly even greater lengths to reach these climes than the downrange capability of the missiles of members of the Axis of Evil. I mean to excuse nothing, on any part or any side. I merely wish to point out that weapons—real or suspected—in the hands of Arab states are much closer to another set of first world countries, otherwise known as Europe (new or “old” it makes no difference). And the weapons that we know are in the hands of Israel, for one, because a great many of them we sold them, paid for with money we give them, may someday—with their application—set off a war that will be one time zone away from our friends on the “Continent.” And, incidentally, a single time zone from our bucolic village near the foothills of the Alps.
Hence we have the paradox that shapes the perspective I referred to when I started. One sees things more closely, in a quite literal sense, when one is in Europe. As we sat rapt, watching CNN on our hotel television in Nice the night before departure, for three hours as the Israelis bombed even more of Beirut in a “daring” and rare daytime raid, and, in bloody riposte, the Hezbollah fired six very deadly rockets (the deadliest yet in a single attack) into an Arab neighborhood in Haifa. This too was daring, as they fired the rockets at dusk—which they never do as it immediately pinpoints their position; and indeed, during the night the IDF overran and destroyed the launch site.
What I was mindful of, as the sun set over the Mediterranean just outside our window, during a premature twilight as a brief storm set in, was that we were watching in what I’ll call “very real time.” As it was noon in the U.S. when the rockets struck Haifa, this very live story would have a certain distance, not only in miles, but in time, when it opened that evening’s news broadcast in New York. For me the story happened just across that azure sea, whose coast touches Nice with such allure, but touches Beirut and Haifa too, and gives one a sense of the salty consanguinity of fishermen from Maine to Key West. And one may fly from Nice to the Middle East in the time it takes to fly from Boston to Charlotte Amalie in the Virgin Islands.
As we waited, indolently, at Nice airport to get through passport control, our line was regularly interrupted by late arrivals for the flight in the next gate over. We were flying to New York, they to Tunis. It makes for intimations of a shared fate not felt so keenly on our still safe shores.
The paradox arises from the famous languorous pace of life on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea set against the time it would take to fly to Haifa (or Beirut, if you prefer) from Nice—1600 miles apart. More or less the distance between Houston and Cambridge.
No one has ever said it to me outright, while I’ve been in France, but one is mindful of how much closer things are to each other, when speaking of “hot spots,” than those very places are to our homes in the United States. I must assume this mindfulness, this vintage thought, sitting quietly, half-forgotten, in the wine cellar of one’s mind is true for natives, whose stay is permanent. We can only imagine the effect of this condition on the thinking of Europeans, who have seen their homes destroyed utterly—indeed twice, in the course of less than a hundred years.
We weep for Beirut, and for Haifa, of course. And the tears are most bitter for the fellow citizens of these homelands. Hardly less so are the tears for inhabitants of a continent that saw the utter destruction of Dresden and Coventry within the living memory of many.
It is therefore not with the same poignance that one experiences the beauties of life that we know we will miss when we are gone.
Frequent visits like ours only make the poignance sharper, if anything. Sweet partings that much more so, from our friends, so recently made dear. Each passage is a reminder that life, as we have noted since the Greeks and Romans who first settled the Mediterranean basin, is short. Fondness even fonder. The beauty of the land so much more beautiful.
I don’t know if this makes it better or worse to visit the way we do, in spurts of weeks, brief sojourns spread apart as they are. It’s taken me 18 years of visiting Provence to have visited now every month of the year. By now I should be used to it. But every leave-taking is a wrench, a cloying tug that begins days before the date we must lock up and bid the village farewell until another time. The distance is nothing for the nearness of it all. And I would like to suggest that this mode of constant longing, which does not abate even as we measure each day by the rising and the setting of that piercing Provençal sun, is the stuff of love and deep remembrance.
Beneath the rasp of the cicadas, the buzz of flies, the rustle of Mistral-driven foliage, beneath the random rumble of trucks through the village to pierce the drowzy minutes, the whoops of the neighbors at bowls in today’s contest, beneath the clamor of the chapel bell at each breaking hour, below the stentorian bark of this neighbor’s dog, and the insinuating meow of that one’s cat, beneath it all is a silence, a kind of stillness. Enduring and perhaps only truly known to the sheep and the goats, to the donkeys, and the quail, the rabbits, and the wild boar deep in the woods—the original inhabitants of these eternal hills, a reverie.
But once again, we have left all this. And we force ourselves to scheme for the next visit. And we force ourselves to tamp down that deeper hurt.
Endings have a special melancholy. What has been will no longer be. No matter how much we may expect to return. Any break in continuity is an end. Whatever the promise that one may begin again, and however soon, there is the promise within that beginning of another end.