Tag Archives: montaigne

Eiffel TowerI am not watching Downton Abbey. I reached my quotient of British TV drama with Upstairs, Downstairs 40 years ago. Since then, it has been rehash on rehash, and I no longer feel any connection.

It is a widely held truism that American intelligentsia is divided between Anglophiles and Francophiles. The one portion watches Masterpiece Theatre on PBS and cannot get enough of Edwardian melodrama. They swoon over Merchant-Ivory films and generally rate Henry James as readable.Books

The other half reads Camus, loves Montaigne, adores Truffaut.

The one side grieved the death of Princess Di; the other the death of Claude Levi-Strauss.

It is a divide as solid as red-state, blue-state: In one corner, you have Sherlock Holmes, in the other, Inspector Maigret.

The English sleuth, cool, rational, friendless; the Frenchman, intuitive, patient, uxorious and with a small glass of pastis in one hand.

When the English talk of logic, you know a tweedy lecture is in the offing. When the French talk of logique, you know something as baroque as an 18-car pile-up will follow.Palais Garnier - putti

Just as psychologists can divide personalities into types: introvert vs. extrovert — so, too, can we divide Americans into those who identify with the island or the continent.

This is, of course, a divide entirely set amongst the reading, thinking public.  Outside of the library, Americans are suspicious of anything foreign, and especially anything European.

Which is why Americans so much love to despise France. It is hard to understand this, given the history of our two countries, from the time of the American Revolution onwards.

“Cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” we say. Which shows how little we Americans understand about French history. Doesn’t exactly describe Napoleon or his army. And who was it, after all, who won the American Revolution for us? Ah, yes, Admiral de Grasse. And Lafayette was no monkey of any sort.

But back to the bookish Yankee: Perhaps this divide became palpable in 1789. Many Englishman at first applauded the French Revolution, but even most of them eventually grew horrified at the excesses of the Terror.Rabbitshangingmarche

It left England with a slowly dwindling monarchy, and gave France a fresh, if confused start. It has never really comfortably settled, the current Republic being the Fifth, merely five decades old.

The English much earlier had their own paroxysm, but that one ended with the restoration of the monarchy, and an inbred conservatism that has lasted to this day, and I believe, is what so appeals to that brand of American college-educated reader who would rather watch The English Patient.

Or perhaps it is the British Protestant history vs. the lingering Catholicism of France. America is more at ease with the strict, moralistic Puritanism it inherited from its English forebears. There is something suspect about the theatrical exuberance of the Roman religion that is the cultural inheritance of even French atheists.

England says, No, or at least, Not Now. France says Yes, or at least Let’s Try. It is why English food is the butt of jokes, while French food is the world’s standard for gustation. The English do not believe they should enjoy their food.Bayeux store window

For the English, anything of which you partake should be good for you, that is, make you a better person. For the French, it is the same with this difference: Something that excites the senses is good for you and does make you a better person.

The Puritan influence in America wishes to outlaw foie gras.

Well, I love foie gras. It is the most intense flavor I can remember eating,  sunburst of umami, with the cloak of saccharine provided by the onion confiture and finally washed with an excellent fruity sauterne — not the cheap sugary drink Americans buy by that name.

Which means I fall into the camp of Francophiles. I love everything about the country, even their craziness.Rouen Lingerie shop window

I love that the French Revolution elevated reason above all other virtues, and proceeded to get all unreasonable about it. I love that they have a theory for everything, and will argue for an hour on a TV talk show, not about whether a speaker has his facts right, but whether he has his theory right. There is a kind of divine looniness in it all.

In contrast, the British can suck the life out of any proposition. While we can agree that Adam Smith was a genius, have you ever actually tried to read him? Or David Hume? Not bloody likely.

So, you can have your boiled joint and your suet pudding, I will always go for the cassoulet and the moules Normande. There is nothing better tasting than a properly prepared magret de canard. You can keep your English goose.Driving France

When I am in France, I feel at home in a way that is irrational. I do not speak the language; I can never dress as stylishly; I can barely read Le Monde or Figaro. But somehow the culture feels familiar. There is an easy fit, a comfortable tolerance, in the engineer’s sense, you have room to rattle around.

Even the landscape is home. The trees of Verdun, the mountains of the Vosges, the beaches of Normandy, the craggy peaks of the Massif Central, the caves of the Perigord, the waves of the Mediterranean, the 2,000 year history of Arles, the white hills of Aix.Forests of Verdun

And finally, and most importantly, the small, highway-ringed city of Paris, where the girl in the flower shop asks how your wife is doing when you pass in the afternoon and your wife is resting in the hotel room.

I find it all so inviting, so warm, friendly and comfortable. Paris is a city you can negotiate, where every corner — every one of its 20 arrondissements spiraling out from the Ile de la Cité — is as familiar as a classmate from school, and just as distinct.

It is the Berber faces, the Jews of the Marais, the Asians running the butcher shop, the Turks selling pizza, the line each morning and evening at the boulangerie for baguettes, the sculptured heads over the doors, the fountains, the public statues, the warren of roads changing names every few blocks. The squalid suburbs, the train stations, the Bois de Vincennes, the violinist echoing through the tunnels of the Metro, the fromage blanc at the Chinese restaurant, the old men playing pétanque in the flat dust of the Tuileries.Blvd de l'Hopital

There is nothing wrong if you prefer London. If you like bad food and dirty streets, boring television and infuriating politeness.

À chacun ses goûts.

My wife and I have been to France many times and cannot wait to get back. I recently came across the diary I kept on our first trip there, in 2002 (I had visited much earlier — in 1966) and I will be sharing portions of it over the next several blog entries. I don’t know if I can persuade any of you to give up your Downton Abbey for the French version of Inspector Maigret (with Bruno Cremer), but perhaps I can suggest why we find the nation so compelling.

Near Bruhel's Point, Mendocino Cty, Calif

Near Bruhel Point in northern California, the rocky cliffs look out over the Pacific Ocean in a way that is common to much of the northern coast.

From the top of the bluffs, the view is spectacular; it seems as if you can see everything. But don’t be fooled: It’s a lie.

Everywhere, when you take the time, the hidden secrets of place slowly let themselves be seen, as if they were cats waiting to test you out and see if you are friend or foe.

As the landscape allows you nearer, you find details and surprises.

The narrow sandy beach was perhaps a hundred feet below and we could see no way down but to climb. What we couldn’t tell was that the hillside was so steep and so gravelly, that we began to slip and slide, tossing pebbles every which way. They only prudent way to descend was on our backsides.

The surf crashed around the rocks that stuck out of the sand off shore. The biggest of the rocks was about 40 feet high and had trees growing on its summit. The others were smaller and grew bushes, lichen, mosses and nearer the tide line, barnacles and sea weed.

All around were poppies and a variety of succulent phlox that seemed to carpet all the drier rocks in yellow flowers.bruhel point tidal pool starfish

At the tideline the hidden world opens up in a delight of color and textures. The starfish clinging to the tide-wet rocks were maroon and ocher, with a knobbly surface that seemed artificial. They moved slowly over the crust of barnacles enjoying the tidepool version of the businessman’s lunch.

Another pool was full of anemones and purple sea urchins.

Echinoderms live on a different clock from us. They sway and move with the infinite deliberation of a bomb squad.

But for every hidden treasure you find, there is a payment to be made.

We enjoyed our visit there for about an hour and then started worrying about how we were going to climb back up to the car.

We wandered down the beach looking for an easier climb and found what looked like a good way out at the creek mouth. All along the coast, there are headlands that jut out toward the sea and coves cut back into the mainland where streams let out. The hill was less steep there, but there was small shanty built under the trees there and we didn’t know if we would be disturbing anyone.

It was then that we spotted the two large and hungry-looking German shepherd guard dogs legging it to us at an alarming speed. They bore down on us with all the fury of avenging gods, protecting the sacred center of the Earth.

So with teeth flying and paws scratching sand, they ran up to us barking like schizophrenics.

At such times, you don’t know what you will do. I stood in front of my wife to protect her, wondering if a swift kick to the nose would discourage the hounds.

When they reached a point about 10 feet from us, I heard a sound come out of my mouth, with all the authority I could muster:


The two hounds came to a toe-nail scratching halt, looked at me quizzically for a second or two, barked, snarled, whimpered and then sat down and wagged their tails.

We edged ourselves away slowly in the shallow water and along the beach, away from the dogs; they sat for a few seconds and then retreated to the shanty.Bruhel's Point, Calif 2

Eventually, we found a spot a little less steep than the one we descended and, with hard work and diligence worthy of Horatio Alger, we scratched our way back up to the top. We swigged some water, collected our thoughts and eased the car back onto the road.

About a hundred yards down the highway, we found a set of stairs that descended all the way to the beach. It had been hidden from us by a small headland of rock.

If I were Montaigne, I might find a moral in that.