There is a window in the bed-alcove on the second floor (“premier étage” or first floor, according to the French scheme of things). It’s also not really a bed-alcove, but the hallway between the doorway from the stairs arising from the street floor to the doorway that allows access to the stairs to the third floor (that’s right, here it’s the “second”). Not a barren space at all, but currently quite minimal. It contains a small table with drawer, it’s some kind of hardwood, stained very dark, and on it sits a very elegant silver-colored lamp, with an oval shade of linen. The lamp is controlled by the light switch on the wall, just to the right of the doorway as you walk onto the tiled floor. On the table is also a piece of sculpture from my talented and dear friend Pascal Masi, who has a love for and penchant for excellent art inspired by the fauna of the Arctic and Antarctic (his name is sufficient, Google him, you won’t be disappointed). It is a bear, lying on its back, in a kind of active repose—the very spirit of the village and the house.
The floor is covered in “tomettes,” the characteristic terra cotta hexagonal tiles that are the hallmark of the Provençal tilemaker’s art. Tomettes are available in a variety of sizes. These measure about three inches to a side, and so the entire tile would fit in an approximately five-and-a-half inch square. They are a deep russet. And each is, of course, a geometric metaphor for France itself, known, at least to the French, as “Le Hexagone,” because of the shape of the country itself.
On this floor, in this hallway, there is a built-in wooden closet, with double doors, lockable. Though the key remains always in the lock; what we call a skeleton key. The half-door not secured by the lock has a sliding bar that anchors it to the door frame of the closet. The closet is in a corner, facing the door that leads to the stairway to the third floor. The closet is as deep as the dimensions allow. Most of the design on this floor is determined by the depth of the stairs leading up from below, and further up from this floor to the next. Shallow steps, which would allow for more floor space, and deeper closets, would be treacherous to climb, and anxiety-making. If there is any design principle at work for the past, oh, I’d say, six centuries, it’s to avoid any unnecessary anxiety as one negotiates the configuration of one’s home.
This does not mean generally, from one house to another, there are not some strange obstacles to access—one room to another, or one floor to another. Winding stairways with extremely steep risers, for example. Some would say the ubiquitous tile is treacherous in and of itself, given that it is the favorite flooring. But generations of French have grown up, and lived long lives, very long ones here in the country, without undue damage to their basic skeletal endowment. Some things become sui generis.
One thing that is sui generis is making the most of what little space one may have. Land is irreplaceable and the supply is as we find it. Hence, I would suggest, for example, the French habit of putting their vehicles wherever they will fit, without unduly inconveniencing their fellows, or obstructing the passage of other vehicles. Same principle.
In all events, back in my second floor hallway, there is a closet, and it is quite shallow. This does not mean it is not usable. Rather, it is quite empty, save for the vacuum cleaner and its parts. Linda and I, much as we had built a “French” clothing wardrobe here over the years, so that we could at least be assured of some minimal fussing over what to pack, given that we knew there were clothes for us in France, nevertheless had not exhausted the other, ample, space afforded us by what was built into the house. For example, there is another, much larger, closet, more like an armoire incorporated into the structure of the bedroom, organically, if you will in the master bedroom.
Anyway, we discovered that, though there was a bar installed in the hallway closet, the enclosure itself was too shallow to accommodate modern hangers. We discovered this when we bought a household-worth of wooden hangers (being acolytes of Joan Crawford). However, the modern hanger, which accommodates the clothing that fits the frame of modern humans, will hang without trouble, even in this narrow space, if carefully suspended at an angle. And so the hangers hang, as the lyrics from “The Mikado” put it, “in serried ranks assembled.” So far, not one of a succession of guests has complained.
Quand même as it’s said in French (“nevertheless” or perhaps, “whatever”), I started in the hallway, and I am back in the hallway.
Today, I was installing weatherstripping. It will clearly be inadequate, as it was designed for new windows. My windows are not new. They are not medieval (I don’t believe many windows from the era had framed glass casements), but they are not modern. And they do not fit properly. And neither does the weatherstripping.
In all events, as I hung out the window, as I attempted to get the weatherstripping to stick, with its “elastomeric” adhesive, “re-locatable” and “good for all surfaces” I noticed just below the line of sight of the window, where I have always known there to be not only grape vines criss-crossing the facade (a major attraction to the house when I first saw it for sale in late fall, festooned with fiery orange grape leaves and the tiny grapes that grow among them), but a rose bush, of some venerable history, intertwined among the vines. These are also, as you might imagine, a feature of the house, in terms of “curb appeal” though there are no curbs, of course. I have printed and published photos of the lovely blood red rose specimens that appear every year without fail, and without care or even minimal monitoring.
On the rose bush, snaking among the vines, and even as we are in the midst just barely of mid-winter, are buds, promising an early spring. As I predicted in an earlier post on this blog. I have checked the almond tree near the cemetery, which is the un-official harbinger of spring—the almond tree that has been blossoming earlier and earlier as the years spin eternally—and indeed there the signs of buds, proto-buds, if you will. But nothing to compare to the few rare embryonic blooms that hang so carelessly from the front of my house.
However, in a mere four days, I leave. And when I do, I will shut up the house. I will unplug everything non-essential, as there are, inevitably, horrendous electrical storms in the spring—which is fast coming upon us here in the Haut Var. I will check all the water taps twice, if not three times, to make sure there is no chance of a random drip. I will tighten the valve on the gas tank for the stove to within a millimeter of its tenuous grip. I will shut down the circuit breaker for the hot water heater, which will otherwise make hot water continually, even as the empty house pings and creaks, and cracks and whispers in the absence of any humans to take advantage of the luxury.
I will pack up all the perishable food that is still of any use and ceremoniously present it to Rudolf and Nicole across the way just before I drive off, and who will make what use of it they will, being the sensible parsimonious citizens we all must be in these parlous times. And I will try to make sure that I dispose of every last gram of disposable or recyclable waste—so that I needn’t make an urgent call to Rudolf from Nice, from my hotel the night before my departure, to ask if he would not mind, please, entering the house, and grabbing the bag of poubelle (garbage) I have left, absent-mindedly, leaning against the wall in the kitchen under the framed posters of varieties of French olives and tomatoes.
I will run up and down the stairs, checking once, twice, three times, to make sure I have left the house in what is for me impeccably neat condition, as if the former mistress of the maison were expected at some future date, and would frown silently at the less than spotless condition—even though I know, as she knew, that, given the length of our predictable absence, there would be dust in every corner, and swirls of detritus huddling across every square inch of floor, and cobwebs festooned between the latched windows, weatherproofed or not, and the shutters shut tight beyond them. There will be dead scorpions in shoes, and dead bugs of arcane taxonomy in every bowl and cooking pan in the pantry cabinets.
Then I will pack the car, and drive off, not sure of the date of my next visit, though this is the universal question, from each neighbor and friend. “When will you be back?” And as always, I cannot, for all the poids lourds of the freight of this question (“heavy load”), answer with any precision. All that hangs on my heart is the weight, not only of the query, and the expectancy, and the unspoken emotion behind it, but thoughts, spontaneous and simultaneous, as if weeks and months of time were compressed into an instant, and I could see in that instant every moment of every event to occur in the time of my absence—sights and sounds, never mind people, that I will miss until I do return. It is never soon enough.
But what I know I will miss, with a certainty that almost pushes me out that second story window, what I will miss is seeing these dear buds blossom and mature and grow into full flower under the eternal cyclic life-giving sun of the dearest place on earth.
Perhaps it’s the penetrating energy from the mid-morning sun on the terrace of the Grand Café du Cours. It is set, bare and unrelenting in a peerless Provençal sky, unmarred save by the tiniest wisp of a cloud that dissipates before I can capture it in camera memory.
Perhaps it’s the seven tables of rural flaneurs, taking a break, a mink coat here, a deep bronze tan there, the smoking cadres of brunette pony-tails (literally smoking—it’s permissible only out of doors).
Whatever it is, the aromatics of the coffee this morning are redolent, inducing only the best stirrings of gastric juices and saliva. The lure of it pierces even the thick crema that is the special draw of the espresso at the Grand Café, penetrating the nostrils and the gorge.
One stalwart, seated nearby, in a beret, with a massive gold signet ring and a thick moustache, chomping on a croissant extracted from the flimsy bag of the boulangerie, peers at the morning paper through his wire-framed glasses. The rest of the crowd, including me, have put on our shades. The sun’s beams are incessant, blinding.
I hear the patron, rushing in and out of the café with trays laden first with full cups and then with empties, pause to explain the uncommon warmth to the beret, as they peruse the thermometer mounted on a promotional enameled plaque courtesy of Martini & Rossi on the wall just above my head and just shaded by the awning extended only a meter or so—to maximize both the accuracy of a reading and the exposure of the clients. “Treize,” he says, “c’est treize!” and he points to the awning and the shaded gauge. Thirteen degrees (almost 56F, the floor of true warmth, especially smack in the middle of January, and with the seductive promise of true shirt-sleeve weather this afternoon). It’s only 11:30 and the sun will bake the open spaces into a hint of sultriness.
Six old-timers arrive and debate their first choice of table. One of them, the smallest and the baldest, argues, pointing to larger more exposed choices to their right, “Le soleil! Le soleil la bas!” and then he points to the tiny square table meant for four in front of them. But five of them have already seated themselves in the shade of a shrub set in a concrete combination planter and traffic barrier. The shrub stands a meter high, and so one corner of the table is, in fact, in shadow.
Save for one couple who have nursed a rosé (she) and a pastis (he) just beside me for the past half-hour, the crowd has exclusively been consuming the fragrant coffee in its many modes, mainly single espressos, the occasional double (including mine), a noisette here, an espresso “longue, très très longue” there. But the old guys are all here to drink, as I would have predicted, something a bit stronger. While they bake their bones and joke and jostle one another each savors his favorite tipple—in the tiniest of glasses. Even the beers are diminutive, perhaps a half of a “quart” (a quarter), that is, an eighth-liter or hardly more than four ounces. Another has a pastis, but, again, in a mini-portion. Another sips a sweet vermouth in a Lilliputian snifter, with an ice-cube crowding the spoonsful of alcohol. They are wetting their whistles. Mere lubricant for the fellowship that is their true purpose.
So much for the myth of mid-day French drinking.
Except for us solitary worshipers, or observers, or thinkers or diners, every table buzzes with talk. The French do talk.
But so do the Brits, and the Germans. The British are loud as their orange-y tans, the Germans sotto voce. The French adopt a uniform conversational tone, setting a universal and incomprehensible buzz, mixing with the heated currents of fresh air and the blinding rays of the relentless sun.
It is almost noon. The siren on the Town Hall will wail soon and for several minutes the shadows from that shrub adjoining the old-timers will disappear from the table top.
Yesterday, to add to the dismay of reaching almost no one I cared to call I realized something about the “same difference” between my two states of geographic/cartographic being. At the risk of sounding particularly malicious or cynical, I could say I could call my friends here in France—Skype costs two cents a minute no matter the destination—but they, each of them, give the impression of having lives, as opposed to, say, agendas and itineraries.
But what is worse, there was, as has become usual, a dearth of email messages. But we’ll get to that in a minute, or several minutes, or several hundred words.
I do use Skype, a voice over IP (VoIP) service, that for a little more than two cents a minute allows one to call anyone anywhere in the world with a legitimate land line or mobile phone number, as long as you have a Internet connection of sufficient bandwidth. Being the true Scotsman you are, you are no doubt at least aware of it. However, as it’s the “magic” of Internet Protocol exploitation, or trickery if you are of a Creationist bent, anyone with caller ID on their receiving phone equipment sees only a meaningless sequence of ordinal numbers (something like 0000123456).
As a result, even Steve, who has become so sensitized as to the need to make wise use of his discretionary time (time when he is not actively engaged in either his current “thing,” which is playing music (a good thing, may I hasten to add), or the same mindless, heedless temporizing he’s been doing his entire life, when not actually earning a living, which he no longer is required to do even in these parlous times, and I am not picking on him, he’s only first among equals, a body of souls, as the 19th century Russian novelists would say, with remarkably similar lives — creating a new statistical category for taxonomic purposes, those of us sufficiently well off, even after abandoning careers of varying degrees of success for whatever compelling reasons: ennui, angst, sudden loss of interest in life’s calling, or, perhaps, caregiving to loved ones with terminal conditions, and still comfortable, i.e., not reading the help wanted pages, or networking by whatever means, even after the rampages and ravages of the Bushite last fiscal hurrah; I suggest the rubric, the “Non-Retired,” similar to the undead, without the inconvenience as yet of having passed through the actual throes of giving up the ghost)—anyway, he does not answer such calls, especially as his chief and only mode of telephonic connection to the rest of the world is a cell phone.
This means, of course, that he must pay, except for certain hours of the day, even for incoming calls. There is a limit, given the level of service he is paying for, to the number of minutes allotted on a monthly basis before his calls are thrown into a much higher category of toll charges. And, given that his home is in a nearly, but not quite, “dead zone,” (notice a thematic trend here?), which, as you might know, if you watched tv, from some ill-considered grisly television commercials paid for by Verizon, are areas where cell phone reception is absent, or intermittent, but certainly wholly unreliable, he is disposed, prudently, to consider which calls to take and which not.
However, I was trying to write about email, and not to perseverate on my frustration over not being able to contact anyone I know on the short list of people I care to speak by phone to in the United States of America—even in my sequestration in the most rural of precincts of anyone I know (and this includes a number of acquaintances, mainly female as it happens, who for reasons still unfathomable to me choose to spend their waning years, still mentally in full possession, and so forth, and still more than moderately attractive, in such locations as Kabul, Afghanistan, which, though definitely a form of sequestration, especially if you are white and female and have a passport from a so-called first-world country, are definitely not rural, but, in fact, other than certain strategic, if remote, mountain passes in the same country, but which have the definite disadvantage of being among the most deadly, literally, in the entire world, are among the most deadly living areas on the face of the planet). But, as usual, I digress.
The only deaths, according to the newspapers locally, that seem to prevail here in La France Profonde, are the result of suicide (a police captain, with a personal weapon, as opposed to his service weapon, as if the fucking gun would be dishonored with such a dishonorable usage, while sitting in his car, on injured reserve, or whatever the police call it, and not due to return to service until March; they are being unusually mum about the possible reasons; I suspect terminal boredom), or suicide pact, or suicide abduction or suicide seduction (a mother and daughter who elected, there being an absence of subway—to throw themselves in the path of a TGV train; TGV is the acronym for “train à grande vitesse,” which means very high speed train, that being in the area of 180 miles an hour at maximum — a sure fire way to off yourself, and give the coroner some very interesting studies in pathology), or homicide (a young farmer beat his young wife insensate, and then set his farmhouse, with her and their sleeping children within, on fire), there was also a celebrity incident involving his stabbing some bloke with a “poignard” (so much more romantic sounding even than “dagger,” which is what it is), but they are both, alleged perpetrator and his victim, merely under observation and not in danger.
I am not aware if either of them is in possession of a cell phone, or as they prefer to call it here, a “mobile.” It is pronounced with an accent on the first syllable, with a long “o” and the second syllable is pronounced like the excreta of the liver, and not like the city in Alabama. As in “Mo’ bile” similar to (in ghetto English) “mo’ betta’ blues.”
But the subject is email.
Yesterday, I received eleven pieces of email. Indulge me as I enumerate them.
One was actually an acknowledgment of an email that I caused to be sent to another friend, Bill, with a link to Frank Rich’s column in yesterday’s New York Sunday Times‘s “News of the Week in Review,” the sending of which the newspaper allows you to copy to yourself. Although no harm, of course, is done thereby, this kind of reflexive electronic mailing is at least analogous to talking to oneself, something I am proud, or always have been so, to say I never do, though there are those who claim that my style of writing is akin to being a kind of perpetual monologue—the only real monologue, or I should say, “true” monologue, there being no audience that I, at least, can attest to. I assume there is an audience. I will even confess to hoping there is an audience, but as Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller is famous for having written, “one never knows, do one?”—and at worst, it is a kind of slow suicide, intellectual suicide, if you will. So I don’t think that bit of email counts. On the other hand, Bill did acknowledge receipt, and then, in fact, commented on the content of the Rich essay. That was two emails for my one bit of do-goodism.
So that was a good investment on my part. It left me mindful of the golden years of email, back in the 90s, when, in addition to getting actual work done—a full day’s work, for which I was often handsomely rewarded; work that included the use of email for productive discourse concerning the substance of the work for which I was being remunerated—I would conduct sometimes lengthy correspondence with various correspondents, for no other purpose than the joy and pleasure of human contact. The content of those exchanges of messages may have been substantive as well, pithy, or philosophical, as these are natural dispositions, or at least ambitions of mine (and remain so, I might add), or entirely frivolous, if not mindless temporizing (see above). Often enough, certain of my regular correspondents would forward bits of humor they had received in the form of jokes (mainly), or cartoons, or the more technologically adept would forward files of music and the first primitive videos to appear on computers. This was long before the days of iTunes (and Napster… and now the myriad other means of downloading near-commercial quality recordings) or YouTube and its many brethren. Many emails largely consisted of a sentence or two, on the order of, “Check this out!” or “This is cool,” along with a URL to some clever Web site or bit of Web content.
On the average day, not even including actual business-related emails, I would receive for certain, guaranteed, dozens and dozens of emails—not spam or junk or spurious content of any other form; back then, it appeared only at a minimum, as it took at least a couple of years for the production of electronic instant garbage to become a global industry, and an international felony—and often enough, “Oh happy day,” they (email messages) would arrive in the hundreds.
And whereas others, including Linda (who had the onus of managers, and then their managers, and yet more levels of managers above them to the very executive level of the CEO, bearing down upon her to be productive and to cause her many minions to be productive, even whilst they all exchanged hundreds of emails that were, in the main, of that dreary variety of post called memoranda and cover-your-ass notes, all related to the business of IBM, and most of them, in fact, having nothing to do with her specific mandate) lamented the utter lack of headroom because of the volume of email daily, which had to be processed, and yet which arrived in such numbers, from so many levels of hierarchy, that the mere management of which messages to answer, which messages to answer in depth, which merely to store (lest it be sought, however unlikely the future possibility, in some forthcoming query, inquiry, or inquest—of course, now, we learn on the blessed evening of his departure therefrom, the Bush White House has utterly destroyed, lost track of, or simply can refuse to acknowledge ever existed, literally millions of email messages, and there is not a peep or a stir, except the usual ineffectual murmur of protest on the editorial page of The New York Times (another emerging theme here, but related actually, as the NYT is a newspaper, appropriately designated the nation’s “newspaper of record,” that is accurately positioned universally as a dead letter itself, dead news walking, or, at the very least, without over-dramatizing this, a moribund form of news transmittal)), and which messages, finally, to ignore completely, all of which meant that each day was fraught.
The processing of her email usually left Linda with about 20 minutes out of her nominal eight-hour workday, including a yogurt and piece of fruit lunch consumed at her desk, one hand holding a napkin, and the other (hand), no doubt, on either the mouse or the keyboard, in order to get all of her other work done, which means her de facto workday was usually ten to 12 hours. While I blithely would work at least as long, but only because I spent so much time getting all of my work done as well as conducting, if not more than holding up more than my share of, these lively email interchanges I so fondly recall.
But as I say, those were the golden years. And I, social creature that I am, despite my saturnine, if not curmudgeonly reputation, relished the contact, and encouraged it, and promoted it. I sent far more messages than I ever received. I know because I was my own Nielsen rating system, periodically telling my correspondents that, in toto, for each message I received, I had sent something like five or six.
If nothing else, it gave me an incredibly fast touch-typing speed, and, being younger, a much lower percentage of typos and the kinds of solecisms that are now only embarrassing, especially because no one says anything when I send a message that has at least two or three instances of English sentence structure that would be impossible to parse even by a linguist, because I typed a word that passed through my brain minutes before, while projecting ahead to the sentence to come. What the hell? My age is coming in line with the level of expectancy of such mistakes, so in addition to being a crank, I have an excuse for being incomprehensible as well.
However, the point is: in the past, hundreds of messages—I was in epistolary heaven. Today (or yesterday), eleven emails (and I haven’t lost track of the fact that I haven’t actually enumerated each of them as to provenance, subject or purpose).
Two emails were from sources sponsoring services to which I subscribed long since. Not for the pathetic reason of at least being able to expect the occasional quotidian contact, even if only from another machine—and yet, and yet… No, one was from the City of Cambridge, which offers a newsletter telling citizens of that estimable municipality just what’s happening in City Hall, and elsewhere in the confines of the People’s Republik, at least insofar as the official governors of our lives have any say in the matter. It does tell you when there are snow emergency days, and where the Department of Public Works is blocking traffic, and which departments are offering seasonally and temporally relevant services, etc. The other is from one of two sources that provide me with a listing of currency exchange rates for the world’s many great currencies, against the dollar. As I have to pay bills in France in euros, including a mortgage, and mortgage insurance, phone bills, Internet bills, electric bills, water and sewer, home insurance, and the taxes imposed by the government of the great Republic of France because I am a homeowner, and an inhabitant of French real estate, it’s helpful at least to know what the real basis should be of that portion of my daily allowance of anxiety about matters beyond my actual control should be.
I got an email, as I do with infrequent regularity from a diminishing list of friends who pass along what passes for humor, which inevitably has been forwarded to them from their dwindling sources. What is curious, aside from the innate lack of humor in any of the materials thereby forwarded to me, is the quality of a kind of mass or global perseveration. The jokes, or videos, or cartoons, or “astounding images,” or bits of audio, are materials recycled, as I would swear in court, repeatedly over the space of at least the last 15 years—the amount of time it is reasonable to expect is the maximum an ordinary citizen like myself could have possibly spent on the World Wide Web, as it used to be called.
In the old days (see notes on “golden age of email,” above) I could expect a regular flow of material, much of it quite humorous and usually coming from my stock broker (this being entirely reasonable, as brokerages were among the first businesses to comprehend the power and value of the Internet as a communications medium, and therefore were the first to expend the enormous amounts necessary to “wire” a network nationally for their employees, which thereby provided them with connectivity with all their peers in all the other brokerages and financial service companies). Because they were the only ones wired to one another coast-to-coast, brokers and their co-workers, managers, etc. were always the first to “break” new material, irrespective of the source, usually one coast or the other. That much of it was, in fact, not work related, but simply jokes and other kinds of humor, made of it, at worst, a benefit. I am sure bosses turned a blind eye. Stock brokering is a nasty business, as we all know, and anything that improves morale…
Anyway, the same, or very similar, materials are still being cycled and recycled.
The only other material of this type I see are videos of commercials, usually advertising products in foreign markets, and usually with overtones of sexuality that are, in the main, verboten on American television. Further, while I’m on the subject, and not that I object, except for the fundamental sophomoric, if not jejune, quality, and ultimate sameness, at least some of these occasional “pass-along” messages (usually with the admonition in the subject heading, either to turn down the volume, or to view the screen in private) include photographs or videos that feature, prominently, the naked and almost fictive breasts of young women of uncommon beauty and usually of the age segment known as nubile. Needless to say, being on the far reaches of the segment known as “middle-aged” myself, these images are usually sent by middle-aged men of my circle who really, in my opinion, should be spending more time thinking of ways to make their mates, if they are so happily provided, aware of how much they appreciate them—with flowers, say, or terms of endearment, or kisses involving the tongue, or caresses. There’s no need to belabor this.
One email from yesterday, much treasured, is from a female acquaintance—I would like to say a friend, but it is not for me to say—whom I recently met, and who was responding to an email sent by me to her, and upon whom, I should add, I would readily bestow instances of the foregoing suggested attentions I have outlined above. I was lamenting the inadequacy, or lack of reliability, of electronic media. This as a pertinent subject, as she has just returned to the United States from foreign travel, and I remain here, in this state of compromised sequestration, and all we have are phones and computers with which to communicate. And, as if to emphasize the point I am carrying on at such lengths to elaborate here, in fact, as so many people still do, or once again do so, she prefers the phone to email. So I cannot hope for much solace in that form—the electronic epistolary form—from that quarter.
The last of the emails I have not accounted for comes from an old dear friend, a man I have known for 35 years, well, 36 now, with the new year. He makes his living as a consultant and adviser to senior management, and he is very good at it. He is kind and courteous enough to include me on his mailing list of clients to whom he regularly sends, gratis, tips, very brief, and, actually, substantive and useful, as a way of reminding them that he stands ready to serve in any number of possible roles to the betterment of their business.
Obviously, I cannot avail myself of his services, and, though I’d prefer a personal note, even of equal brevity, he has to make a living. I understand this perfectly, but the value of the email he sends me is thereby reduced. Indeed, it’s a form of rubbing salt in the wound of my own incapacity, or indifference, or mere lack of initiative, in pursuing, by the same means, some kind of interest on the part of my potential audience by regularly making the same sort of contact with the objective of periodically extracting money from them in exchange for matters of value produced by me.
One could say that this essay, as it has turned out to be, is my own form of maintaining contact with those whose relationship to me I treasure. But, I am now pushing 3300 words, and counting, with this particular utterance. And I know, long since, because my friends, and other members of the audience I do have—usually as silently as they maintain themselves—that long-winded disquisitions, excrescences, call them what you will are non-starters. The age of the epistolary exchange, even over distances far shorter than that between my living room in the deepest heart of La France Profonde, and the living rooms of Cambridge, Boston, New York, St. Louis, Chicago, San Francisco, and many other great cities, north, and south and east of these destinations, which are the dwelling places of my dear friends, has long since died—I’d say in about 1876, when Alex Bell first uttered that immortal summons to Mr. Watson.
And it was the progeny of Bell’s great invention that sealed not the fate, but the tomb of that latter day epistolary form. As Bush, and all other politicians, and millions of businesspeople, will tell you, email simply is trouble.
Further, of course, no one writes any more. They text. Words are dying. Memes are rampant. Why should I write to you, when I cn txt u?
So I’ll finish by saying simply this, my friend. l8r
As often happens when I am in Provence I have a sense of living parallel lives.
I no longer think in terms of “back home” when I am either in Cambridge or in Fox-Amphoux. They are co-extensive. Or, I suppose, I should say co-existential.
My sense of privilege in this regard, that is, having two places to call home of equal merit and with equivalent worries attached, has heightened in the past seven or eight months. The quotidian details of what there is to be concerned about in either place are of equal merit, or equal unimportance, depending on my point of view. There are leaks of tiny size here and there both here and there. There are stuck doors, or ill-fitting ones, and windows in the same disorder in both places. This is of little moment.
The question of privilege is an important one. Stanley Fish, the redoubtable professor, now of law, formerly of English language and literature, reminded me of the privilege in a recent blog entry of his on The New York Times site. His theme was his own grouchiness, and his brief private war with the ridiculous, yet official, corporate syntax, of his telephonic nemesis, AT&T. It seems he must contend semi-annually, as he closes down one household and prepares to occupy another, with old Mother Bell to have them minimize his service in his absence.
As he said, he knows at least 50 people will rebuke him for complaining about conditions which only the privileged suffer. Hence my allusion. However, I am, of course, not complaining, not by any means.
As much as there are similarities, there are as well many differences. Which explains the title of my book that is mainly about the nature of life over here insofar as I can construe it from my parallax view (the book is Same Difference / Life in France: Peter Mayle Got Some of It Right, and you can buy a special edition, with a special limited edition cover photo and design and other rare appurtenances, here: https://www.bertha.com/same_difference/private_edition.html ). The book aside, I do have plenty of time to ponder the Franco-American duality of my life.
Here, there was a rare and powerful snow storm, which paralyzed the entire region. It occurred four days ago, and the natives are still recovering. At worst, here in the heart of the heart of the southeast, which is referred to as Haute Provence, because of the elevation, we had perhaps five or six inches of the white stuff. The local daily paper is still printing photos, today’s shots being aerial views that they repeatedly refer to as “un vrai carte postale de montagne.” Or such was the description of, among other localities, our little village, as shot from the air, making the rear page of the paper. The publisher, Gantié, must be hard up for talent. One wonders too what they make of the world-wide reputation of the region in general at all other times of the year, in all seasons, and of which one has one’s pick from thousands of true post card views of the mountains, not to mention the valleys, the grape vines, the lavender fields, the Alpine snows, the Alpine lakes.
Day before yesterday, the big headline, on the front page of the paper, was “Haute Provence paralysé par chutes de neige,” in case anyone who happened to be in the territory (and you couldn’t get out, because they closed Marseille airport and one of the major autoroutes for two days—the paper yesterday and today was festooned with powerfully stupefying photojournalism showing the six-hour traffic jams on the secondary roads) missed the prevailing conditions.
I shouldn’t be so cynical I realize about what are truly rare conditions. I’d say once in a lifetime (they used to speak of 100-year snowfalls, they came so rarely; only they now come, well, about every eight years or so, but that’s climate change for you—no one in France, a country unencumbered by a mistrust of science as we in the U.S. experience it, speaks of global warming, perhaps because warming does not explain temperatures averaging six degrees cooler than usual, and 10 centimeter snowfalls, instead of crippling rainstorms that last for days). But it’s no longer once in a lifetime unless we speak of the lifetime of fruit flies. Here it’s nevertheless truly news (les vraies nouvelles), far more so than the same inane images and hyped prose that passes for news every winter and summer, as ordinary conditions on local U.S. stations and the dying newspapers crowd out real news happening outside our native North American borders.
What happens within our Yankee borders, aside from the weather, seems ordinary enough as well. I note that the Senate has been sworn in, save two seats, left empty because of our biennial political snafus—not precisely hundred-year affairs, far from it.
Except for primaries, runoffs are rare in our country. I am no student, never mind a scholar, of such matters, but I assume there are few if any runoffs to settle electoral disputes, at least for the highest offices. I believe there are local and regional contests that are settled by runoff. But in the main, that is, for state-wide and Federal offices, they are increasingly rare. Rather for the most part, and sadly for democracy, these matters are now infamously decided by courts.
The less than redoubtable Coleman of Minnesota has elected, so to speak, to challenge his challenger, the now formerly jocose Al Franken, in court, because after repeated recounts Franken is now a hair’s breadth, electorally speaking, in front in the Senate race.
I wish there were a runoff. It seems the only fair way. Yet it is always positioned as undemocratic, without substantiation. What it is is expensive and time-consuming. And cost is the ultimate political factor in a capitalist republic such as ours.
Given the deeper costs of seating compromised candidates, I wonder at the wisdom of such economies—not to mention the inevitable price to the public of the allure to so many politicians who finally attain the offices they seek of exploiting their hard-won mandate, and the power and the glory that go with it. To speak of power and glory with regard to a seat in Congress may seem like overstatement, but we are now living the nightmare of unchecked, that is, unregulated, activity in a wide spiral of financial manipulation… and all because our sworn representatives failed in their responsibility to take adequate steps to leave legislation in place where it existed, or to create it where it didn’t, that would have been at least a stumbling block for the greedy.
Some will long lament, and for a long time to come many will make an industry of studying, the effect of having the sitting Supreme Court of December 2000 determine the legitimacy of George Bush’s presidency. And all because a recount was aborted in a single state. Never mind a runoff.
Given the vagaries of the constituents of the Florida election debacle that was settled by the nine old men and women of the Supreme Judicial Court of the nation, we might still be attempting to settle that one.
Nature, implacable as we understand it to be, has nothing on the sense we have in the United States (and likely almost every other “stable” government on earth) that nothing, but nothing must be allowed to stall the progress of civilization as embodied in the transition from one sitting administration, or office holder, to the next one, duly elected. As if an election had the mystical power of an ineluctable body; usually of the sort we believe to derive its authority from some other source than the world, or, more broadly, the entire physical universe. As in, the infallibility of religious leaders.
Who are we to thwart such an inevitability as the installation of a political officer at his appointed time in the appointed place? We might as well else stop a typhoon or a hurricane. Impossible? Of course, but we’re working on it.
In the meantime, in a much smaller way, but equally ineluctably, there is a runoff here in the higher reaches of the littoral. The snow, so much a burden and an obstacle, was doomed to a short life. And, just as every spring, even in the highest reaches of every inhabited corner and cranny of America, there is a runoff, from the high places to the low, the snow has quickly turned to what it is after all, and all in all, but simply water.
For four days, what does not simply melt into air, melts into streams and rivulets and slim threads of drainage. I have been listening to it run, just outside my door and windows. Listening to it drip from the eaves. Just as it is all over the region.
The sun has re-asserted itself, and temperatures even in the barely lengthening days of mid-January reach back into the high 40s and 50s. And with the runoff, which will end deepening the water table, in check for the coming thirsty grapes, comes some hope, once again, of spring not being too far off. We mark the new season here, as I have noted elsewhere in the past, somewhat earlier than in the northeast of the U.S. Spring unofficially arrives on the day, usually in February, though last year and the year before, pace climate change and all that, it arrived in late January, when the almond tree just outside the cemetery gate blossoms. As if Persephone had passed a spectral hand across its boughs.
By then, I will be back in the United States, and dreaming of my village, and with waking thoughts imagining those blossoms and their promise of renewal. I will think of the runoff here, life-giving. There is no other way to think of it.
And I will hope, as millions of others will hope, that our fears that the fiscal snows, blindly raging as they have been, unstoppable, freezing us in place, ineluctable, if not, for good and all and finally, as in our worst fear, implacable, will also melt away. And there will be that runoff that augurs spring and rebirth, and a blossoming.
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