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Honeymoon in Burgundy (and Paris)
June, 2005

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Written June 29, 2005


It’s just over six weeks since Maxine and I married (May 15).  We had two honeymoons: 3 days in the Berkshires right after the wedding, and two weeks in France starting on June 7.

The French visit was built around a 5 day barge trip (Sunday afternoon to Saturday morning from Montbard to Tanlay) on a Burgundy canal.  The barge, named the Joie de Vivre, is part of a trend that seems to have spread across Europe: to resurrect decrepit canal barges as luxury cruise accommodations for a small number of people—a dozen plus or minus.  I doubt I will ever eat or drink (wine) again as good as what was served on the barge.  The slow travel—surely no faster than a person strolls—on a waterway meandering through rural landscapes, sometimes paralleling a road, was serene.

The trip started with a van picking us up outside cousin Annie’s[1] apartment in Paris.  Another passenger was waiting at the same location, a fellow from South Carolina, probably in his late 60s, who called himself JR.  He exuded bluster and narcissism, and during the wait for the pick-up and then the long ride to the barge (altogether over three hours), Maxine and I were fretting that we would have a terrible time, that all passengers would be like JR.  I was ready to play the honeymoon card: to say that Maxine and I didn’t mean to be antisocial, but because we were on our honeymoon we were going to be pretty private and keep to ourselves.

In fact, there were two other couples with whom we got along great.  All of us luxuriated in the food, peace, quiet, extensive reading, and land tours to places of greater and lesser interest within an hour or so’s drive of the canal.  Maxine and I still think of this as the most peaceful time we’ve had together.

The trip had a couple of down sides.  We had registered and paid for the one room that was advertised as an upgrade over the others.  On arrival at the barge, we discovered this room had been given to another couple.  We complained, and since one of the five cabins was empty, we were given two rooms with a connecting door, which helped us feel less cramped.

Summer was late this year, and early in our Paris visit we were chilly at times.  Half-way through the barge trip, however, the worst of summer heat and humidity struck.  The AC in our room on the barge was almost useless, a fact that greatly interfered with the sense of “luxury” and kept us out of the room most of our waking time.

Let me conclude this summary by dwelling a bit on JR.  My first impression was of a man who expected others to adapt to his way of life, which appeared to be conservative, politically and otherwise.  In Paris a couple of days earlier a pickpocket had stolen my wallet on a bus near my aunt’s home in the 20th arrondissement, a relatively poor, working-class and immigrant part of Paris, and JR’s first question when I recounted the event was about the color of the thief.  Within the first couple of days of the trip, he made at least three disparaging references to Japanese.  On the drive to the barge he referred to “Japs”; normally I feel obligated to respond when I hear such things, but sitting in the back seat, I chose instead to pretend I was concentrating on a book and hadn’t heard him.  The next day he made a reference to Japanese gardeners, and I simply walked away from him.  On the Tuesday, he made some remark about Japanese tourists, and I said, “Were you in the War?  You seem to have an animus against the Japanese.”  He replied that he was praising them, but he made no further mention (in my hearing, at any rate) during the trip.

JR had in recent years become fixated on wine, and while he apparently did know a great deal about it he seemed incapable of letting anyone forget that.  On the barge, he had an opinion about everything.

But as the days passed I began to feel sorry for him.  First, he told us that his sweetheart (“lady,” I think he called her) was unable to come: she had been in a car accident.  Within the next couple of days, he said something that forced any listener (in this case, me) to ask: “What happened to your wife?”  It turned out she was killed in 1999 by a drunk driver; and his current “lady” had recently been badly hurt (though not fatally) in an accident with a drunk driver.  It became apparent that JR was a very sad man who put on a show of total self-possession (having told us this brief history, he immediately added that it was his problem to deal with).  It also became apparent that rather than expecting people to conform to his life context (or perhaps he just gave up on that when no one took the bait), he was desperate to feel that the rest of us accepted him.

Apparently JR had made a good deal of money years earlier by inventing some crucial tool for the oil business, and he had relatively recently taken up wine importing out of personal interest.  I doubt he makes much money out of it, but that doesn't matter: it makes him happy.[2] 

Maxine and I avoided JR as much as possible (the other two couples agreed to take turns riding in the van in which he rode; two vans ferried us around), and I’m not sorry we did so, but I find that after the trip I feel a bit guilty that I didn’t engage with such an obviously sad and repressed—albeit tedious—man.


One key intellectual experience stands out about this trip.  For the first time I can remember, I felt an intense interest in agriculture[3]—or rather, in the role agriculture plays in culture and its evolution.  I’d driven cross-country through Iowa and Nebraska decades ago, and I don’t remember being any more than bored with the landscape.  But the huge fields on the hilly Burgundy landscape fascinated me and sometimes even made my heart soar with excitement.

I think I was seeing, or letting myself see, the signs of how civilizations have originated, both for good and ill.  Looking at a wheat field, for example, I found myself trying to count stalks in a tiny subsection and “seeing” one or a few stalks being planted by the first humans who experimented with farming.  I guessed at how many subsections made up each dimension of the field, multiplied for a rough figure of total stalks, divided by a guess at how many stalks made a loaf of bread to arrive at an estimate of how many loaves of bread that field represented.  Then I multiplied by an estimate of the population of France for a number that represented how many fields it would take to supply a day’s worth of bread for France, and then a year’s worth.[4}  (I've forgotten the numbers, but they were impressive.)

Ignoring for the moment the potential unreliability of crop production over many years, I thought about how farming could stabilize a society’s food supply and allow groups to remain in one place, or at least have a fixed base for an extended period of time, and of the division of labor such a system would quickly prompt: the ability to feed more than a small number of people would easily encourage some with more power than others to decide who has to farm and who got to do other things, including being taken care of by the farmers.

By happenstance, for the trip I had brought along Clarence Glacken’s Traces on the Rhodian Shore, which I started to read on the third day of the barge trip.  It blended with this agricultural interest, for it was looking at the history of the relationship between environment and culture in western thought; and focus on agriculture was central to that theme.  [2007 note: Since that time I found myself reading a number of books on the origins of "civilization."]


The six days we spent in Paris before and after the barge trip included a good deal of time with family.  We were taken out to dinner three times—once, by Mathilde and with Henry, to a small working-class bistro near Mathilde’s home; once, by Henry, Christine and Annie, to a charming nightclub-restaurant, and the last time two days before we returned to the US: by Jai, who  invited a total of a dozen people (including one of his two grandsons) to a the Blue Elephant, a posh Thai restaurant.  He and his wife, Marie-Francoise, had flown from Rodez at least in part to meet Maxine and me. 

Annie, with whom we stayed (and with whom the family tried to fix me up when I came to Paris for 6 months in 1965) was wrestling with dissatisfaction with her boyfriend of perhaps 14 year; she was also into what I can only describe as eclectic new age-related ideas (kabbalah, self-help TV gurus, writings of the apocryphal Egyptian Hermes Trismegistus[5] to name a few).  But she was also totally attentive, gracious and appreciative that we were there, and we spent much time talking.

Annie had no AC—par for Paris apartments; an air conditioner can cost several thousand dollars, and energy is quite expensive.  (While Parisians I have met often have laundry machines, they tend not to have clothes dryers.)  But because Maxine and I have been spoiled by AC in our US homes, it was especially hard to adapt to the heat, and I felt like the stereotype of a fussy American abroad as I struggled with my discomfort earlier on the barge and now at Annie’s.  She gave us what may have been her only fan, which was a big help, and I had learned years ago, before I had AC, that a shower before going to bed would typically cool me off for the night.[6]

Written June 30, 2005

On the metro to meet the rest of the family before going to the Blue Elephant, Maxine spotted Mathilde in our car, and so we walked with her to her granddaughter’s, Marie’s, house where we were all meeting.  While walking from the Metro, she described the neighborhood’s recent history: the Chinese (it wasn’t clear if this meant long-resident Chinese or relatively recent immigrants) had been buying up all retail property for their own businesses, such as warehousing.  As a result, traditional small shops common to all Paris neighborhoods—I can think only of food shops like bakeries and butcher shops, but perhaps there were others, like dry cleaners—no longer existed.  “The Chinese will eat us,” she said with great venom, “they will eat us.”  Her tone made the metaphor border on literalism.  I don’t remember her exact solution, but it was along the lines of uprooting all the Chinese at fault and restoring the defunct neighborhood shops, sending all Chinese back to China, certainly not allowing the pattern to continue.  I made a half-hearted demurral, but then left it alone.

Especially given her political roots (I think they were similar to Hy’s communism) I was quite taken aback by her position, thinking of chauvinism back home and my smatterings of knowledge about Le Pen in France.  At Marie’s apartment, I mentioned this conversation to Jai, who, in a more detached tone than his mother, launched into a similar account in almost identical words, minus the ones about getting eaten.  I jokingly asked if he had voted for Le Pen, and he explained how (like most French people) he had voted for Chirac as the lesser evil.  I don’t know if he got my point about Le Pen’s anti-immigration appeal.

Now I was really flustered, though I told myself that I had never really known Jai’s politics.[7]  His solution to the problem was similar to Mathilde’s, though perhaps did not include sending Chinese back to China.

When I later mentioned these discussions to Henry, whose politics are still well on the left, he repeated the description of the situation almost verbatim, so that I suspect this is a widely discussed issue that adopts the same terminology over and over, as in the US abortion or Iraq “debates” (as I write, the US is in its second year of occupying Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein) typically repeat familiar arguments.  Henry was struggling to adopt a more humane answer, some kind of compromise.  But the power of the problem was palpable for him as well.

I found these concerns from relatives especially troubling because they were part of a group—North Africans in general, Tunisians in particular—that had undergone considerable discrimination and mistrust themselves.[8]

We have had parallel issues in the US, more I think about franchised corporations driving out small businesses than about neighborhood character disappearing.  We certainly see cases in which residents of a neighborhood can get up in arms about pressure for local changes, as in clamor over school busing to end de facto segregation or what one wears to school (I have shared the cynicism that much sentiment invoking "tradition" is a cover for darker motives like racism), and we have been plagued by calls to retain or restore “traditional” values like school prayer or purging of library books or allowing religious (usually Christian) symbols in public places.

But I suspect Americans feel less strongly about issues akin to creeping sinoization of city neighborhoods because of two traditions: (1) the virtue of capitalism (if Barnes and Noble drives out the independent book store or Wal-Mart bankrupts numerous small businesses, that’s the way competition works—and anyway, each of us wants to buy as cheaply as possible regardless of long-term or seemingly ancillary effects like lower wages for strangers) and (2) our melting-pot tradition in which we are supposed to welcome people from many backgrounds and celebrate what has lately come to be called diversity.

[1] I always think of Annie as a real cousin, though biologically she is actually related to the side of Mathilde, the wife of my Uncle Hy and mother of my French cousins, Henry and Jai.

[2] During this trip I heard so much about wine—not only from JR—that I decided I would not try to improve my ignorant standards—that it’s not worth the effort to acquire the immense amount of knowledge a wine connoisseur needs.

[3] The reader will note that I grew up on a chicken farm, an experience I remember as largely miserable.

[4] Some years back, my son gave me an exercise to estimate something for which I had no information—in that case, how long it would take a cannonball to sink at the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  The exercise demonstrated that you could make uninformed guesses for each factor—the depth of the ocean, the weight of the cannonball, the acceleration as it sank, maybe some other factors as you diagnosed the problem—and that the mistakes for each parameter tended to cancel out so that you came up with a not-unrealistic answer.  I was thinking of that as I applied parallel guesses to the wheat supply.

[5] A couple of on-line overviews of this "Hermetic" tradition are and  A classic scholarly work on the subject is Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964).

[6] Annie’s tub-shower, like many in Europe—well, based on my experience in Paris and Florence—was a small affair with no curtains.  You sit or kneel in the tub and hold the showerhead, on a flexible metal hose, close to your body so it does not splash out of the tub.  The apartment rented at 61 Rue des Haies (phone number PYRenees 43-31) in the 20th by Hy and Mathilde starting in 1950 had no shower, and for many years the family would go to public baths down the street By the time I stayed there with them in 1965, they had put in a shower.

[7] Three decades or so earlier, when he told me about his work advising French farmers on improving their techniques, I said that I  hoped he was telling them not to use the horrible agricultural techniques used by American farmers that had so polluted the land and food.  His comment was that when France was as well off as the United States, the country would worry about such matters.  Perhaps with justice, he was treating me like someone who repented a life that had provided and was at some level continuing to provide a cushy life style.  Nonetheless, I was shocked by his statement and have—obviously—never forgotten it.

[8] In 1968, when Hy was dying of a heart condition and in bed for rest, a knife fight broke out in the courtyard of their Rue des Haies apartment.  Mathilde, worrying in part about the effect of the noise on Hy’s heart, phoned the police, while I think Jai ran into the courtyard and tried to shoo the fighters away.  (I stood by and watched.)  The policeman who answered Mathilde's call asked whether the fighters were North African, the clear implication being that if so the police couldn't be bothered.  Mathilde said something like, “I don’t know!” or “No, no!”

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