Archive for July, 2006

The Thinker

Goodbye Planet Earth

The good news is that virtually everyone, including our president (who typically sticks his head in the sand), agrees that global warming is happening. Perhaps the movie An Inconvenient Truth was the final straw that convinced even the most diehard skeptics. A very vocal but very well moneyed minority (typically representing businesses that are profiting from the status quo) still thinks that humanity’s impact on global warming is minimal. They assert that since global warming is part of a natural trend there is no reason to give ourselves a guilt trip.

As a result, they argue, there is no reason for us to take any drastic actions since we cannot halt it. Moreover, even if we could succeed in taking drastic actions, they will not do any good. On this last point, I grudgingly have to agree with skeptics. I feel an urgency to start doing something concrete and dramatic about global warming. Yet I also get the feeling it is like trying to stop the tide. Humanity’s demographics are working against us. Even if we could enforce the Kyoto Protocols, all it would do is slow the rate of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, since no one can make us stop, humanity will doubtless continue to breed like bunnies. Those new people will put additional demands on the ecosystem. Today there are about 6.5 billion people on the planet. Al Gore in the movie An Inconvenient Truth shows a linear relationship between successive years and temperature. Each year the average global temperature creeps up at such a consistent and methodical rate, you can easily predict next year’s average global temperature.

Human population growth, on the other hand, is growing exponentially. Somewhere around 1830, after hundreds of millions of years of evolution, the total world population reached a billion people. By 1930, it was two billion. By 1960, it was three billion. By 1974: four billion. By 1987: five billion. By 2000: six billion. Here we are six years later and halfway to adding another billion.

“Choose life,” the pro-life people tell us. They should be cheering. Humanity is choosing life in record numbers. They tell us that every life is sacred. However, you have to wonder about our quality of life when every year more and more people are competing for the same resources. Naturally, those who live in third world countries are not too thrilled about their plight. Therefore, when they can they choose prosperity. They cross borders in search of better lives. Those of us in first world countries are choosing life too. And we are choosing to live a large life. In the process, we exacerbate global warming. We tear down the trees that can convert our excess carbon dioxide to oxygen. We drive vehicles that emit carbon dioxide. The infrastructure that gives us life’s many amenities exists largely because of the ready availability of petroleum, which, when burned it emits carbon dioxide that causes global warming. We are determined to have a better quality of life than our parents had, or die trying. We think micro, not macro. We think me not we. We try to ignore our interdependence.

Nature has been knocking on our doors. It has been trying to give us a wakeup call. For example, over the last few weeks California has experienced sustained record heat. These heat spells are not just a little hotter than things used to be, but much hotter. High temperatures passed 110 degrees in many places in California. It reached 99 degrees in San Francisco. Fortunately, brownouts were minimal. Yet in order to keep cool, Californians pushed the power system for all it was worth, driving record demand. Since most of that energy came from non-renewable energy forms like coal burning power plants, cooling ourselves to deal with global warming also exacerbated global warming.

Meanwhile, China is no longer content to be a country full of peasants and water buffalo. It is Great Leap Forward, Version 2 underway right now in China. In a generation, the country will go from the second world to first world. Soon its carbon dioxide production will equal that of the United States. The pollution in China has gotten so bad that it is making it all across the Pacific Ocean. It contributes not only to California’s high temperatures, but also to its poor air quality too. Other emerging economies are probably learning unwise lessons from China’s success: hang the pollution control equipment. Deforest, defile and pollute as necessary until you are first world.

Democracy is the answer, President Bush tells us. When he visits third world countries, he says that industrialization is the answer. He preaches that nations do not have to choose to be miserable. He says any nation if it works hard enough can industrialize itself into first world status. Coming with that industrialization, of course, will be new environmental problems, including more carbon dioxide and global warming. Yes, it may be a wee bit hypocritical of those of us in the first world to suggest to the third world not to industrialize for the good of the planet. Of course, what would be even better would be for us first world countries to devolve into third world countries. Since that is unlikely to happen (barring nuclear war), is it too much to expect us to stabilize our population and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions? Yep, apparently it is too much. Republican or Democrat, we have these expectations. America is the land of freedom, and we can never have enough freedom. Since freedom generally translates into, “I get to do what I want to do and hang the consequences for anyone else”, it seems unlikely that we will do sensible things like petition for higher gas taxes to discourage driving.

Perhaps as these increasingly nasty effects of global warming continue to manifest themselves, we will begin meaningful changes to our behavior. Perhaps we will all drive electric cars that will run on renewable sources of energy. Perhaps as our telecommunications infrastructure improves, most of us will work from home. Perhaps we will learn to start biking to work. Perhaps, but I am not counting on it in the short term.

I feel despondent. In a way, I am glad to be mortal. I am pushing 50. With luck will be around this planet another 30 or 40 years. Nevertheless, along with my natural angst associated with growing old, I am already feeling deeply sad about the seemingly unstoppable problem of global warming. I also feel nostalgic for a time within my memory when the earth seemed in balance. Our environment, on which we all depend, is now fragile. We are the bull in the china shop, largely heedless of the carnage that we are causing and the effect it will have on this and future generations.

I am nostalgic for bone crushing cold winter days I knew in upstate New York, but which now happens much more rarely. I am nostalgic for a time when mountain snowmelts happened in May, not March or April. I am nostalgic for a time when the hottest day all year was 90 degrees. I am nostalgic for a time when I did not have to worry about the air quality index because the air quality was always fine.

I am distraught and sad at how we have raped our wonderful planet. I am angry and frustrated that we are likely to thoughtlessly keep at it. So perhaps my death will be in some way a relief, because by then the earth will no longer the place that I remember. We have remade it, and not for the better. If after death I reincarnate, I hope it is in some greener and fresher world where the citizens live in balance with nature, where glaciers do not melt, and where we treat nature with the reverence of Native Americans. I will be sorry to pass on our trashed and overcrowded planet to my daughter. I will also be angry with myself for not doing more to shake people up. Here is one more futile attempt to do so. It is likely already too late.

 
The Thinker

Google Adsense Integration

After pondering this recent Washington Post article, I am going to try a little experiment in capitalism on my blog. Google Adsense is a way for web sites to earn some money just for being there. In most cases, it is not a whole lot of money. In general, using Adsense, the more page views a site gets, the more revenue can potentially be generated for the site.

While I am not trying to get rich off of Occam’s Razor, at a minimum it would be nice if my content could pay for my hosting costs. It would be even better if I could earn some small change for the time I invest in creating content for this site. As you may remember, a typical entry is an investment of several hours of my spare time. It would be even better if this site could earn enough money so I could afford dedicated hosting. Because I use shared hosting, occasionally site access is a bit sluggish.

Therefore, I have disabled my site search and enabled Google Adsense for Search. It will replace the site’s search engine. This has the benefit of offering better search capabilities than is possible with the MovableType software I am running, so it should add value for web surfers. Google Adsense for Search will also serve what it believes will be relevant targeted advertising. If you click on some of these targeted ads, the site may earn a few cents. If they add up, they may pay for my hosting costs.

Google also has an Adsense for Content service, which displays relevant ads on web pages based on the page’s content. Again, if you click on some of these ads, I may receive a few cents. I will not put these ads on my main index but only on the individual entry or archives pages. This way those of you who regularly read from the Main Index will not see advertising.

About 80% of my page requests are a result of search engines queries that take the user to a specific archive or entry. The vast majority of these visitors arrive here from a Google search. Consequently, it seems appropriate to me to see if some revenue can be generated from these pages. Heck, my entry Sharon Mitchell: Porn Saint alone tends to average about ten requests per day. I imagine any “Sharon Mitchell Porn” links generated by Google Adsense could alone pay for my hosting costs. I will find out.

I hope these changes do not seem too commercial or obtrusive. If you are less likely to return here because of this ad policy, please leave me a comment. If push came to shove, I would rather serve ad-free content than push readers away.

 
The Thinker

Our Emerging Federated World

The nation-state is dying. What is emerging to replace it is a state of states. It is a newer and smarter federated model of governance for the 21st century and beyond. It is a good model that I believe will work better to serve the needs of our increasingly complex and overpopulated world.

I saw plenty of evidence of this new world order during my family’s recent trip to France. It is not that France, as a country, no longer exists. It certainly does. However, it is no longer quite the sovereign country it once was. Their former currency, the franc is gone. It has been replaced, as have most of the currencies in Europe, by the euro. Since the formation of the European Union, a French citizen no longer needs a passport to move around the E.U. countries. French citizens now travel internationally using a generic European Union passport. (Your country’s seal is embossed on the cover.) These are just some of the privileges of federation. Citizens of the European Union can now travel freely within the E.U. without even the hassle of a border check. There is no need to convert currency inside the E.U. either. All E.U. member countries use the euro. In addition, E.U. residents can compete for jobs elsewhere within the E.U. This has expanded the job possibilities for millions of Europeans.

Bully for Europe. The European Union is the first example of a new kind of federalist uber-state. Europeans have discovered that collectively they can wield much more clout, as well as live richer lives, by federating. For those countries that choose to federate, this tide raises all boats. Europe, which throughout its history was scarred by seemingly incessant wars, can likely look forward toward a more peaceful future. A Frenchman today is as likely to think of himself as a citizen of the E.U.

It is not that countries in Europe have ceded all of their rights. Each country still has its legislature and controls most affairs inside the country. Some members, like Great Britain, have only gone up to their knees into E.U. waters. The British cannot seem to give up their pounds in favor of euros. Nor can they quite adjust to the metric system when their English system of measures remains hardwired into their brains. Other countries like Turkey and Macedonia want to be part of the European Union, but the E.U. is holding them at arm’s length. In addition, countries like Iceland, which are not official members of the E.U., seem to have some of the privileges of federation. Iceland participates in the European Free Trade Association and subscribes to the Schengen Agreement, which lets it share immigration and border policies with the E.U.

If the forces of chaos can be kept at bay, in time what is happening in Europe is likely to happen over much of the civilized world. Our grandchildren may live in a world that is more like George Orwell’s vision of Eurasia and Oceania (just hopefully not as hopeless). Europe is first out the gate, but internationalism in general is emerging all over. Africa is already looking northward for an example. Right now, its African Union is more like a United Nations of Africa than the federated E.U., but it certainly has the potential to morph in time into an E.U.-like state of states.

The mere idea of federating nations here in North America is anathema to America’s leaders. Nonetheless, cooperation is expanding with our neighbors in many areas in the Americas. The Organization of American States has been around since 1948, but is largely toothless. More meaningful are lower levels of federating through trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the nascent Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). We have seen the impact of NAFTA for many years now, both for good and ill, but its effect is to make Canada, Mexico and the United States more economically dependent on each other. In the grand scheme of things, this is likely a good thing.

As you probably know, there are many other regional organizations, most of which are only loosely federated at best. The Arab League allows Arab countries to come together periodically and vent, but it does not accomplish much of note. Southeast Asian Countries have formed ASEAN to work on common economic and political issues. ASEAN has enough mojo that our president usually flies out to attend their annual summit.

Of course, there are many other international institutions serving a variety of purposes. The United Nations goes without saying. Many question its value, but at least it provides a forum for aggrieved nations to scream at each other instead of firing volleys. Considering that it was formed in the 1940s, it is not surprising that it is largely toothless. Less toothless are powerful international institutions like the World Trade Organization and the World Bank. Less interesting, but just as vital are organizations that do our international plumbing, like the International Standards Organizations and the International Telecommunications Union.

All these organizations of course are responding to needs of a changing and growing world. The United States is one of a small number of countries that still harbors the illusion that it is not that connected by an umbilical cord to the rest of the world. We figure, wrongly, that if things outside our borders went too much not to our liking, we could simply lift the drawbridges and dwell in happy isolationism. The reality would be a national depression that would make the 1920s and 30s look like the good old days. Lord, Wal-Mart would even have to buy American!

Looking at the E.U. example, you can almost see the light bulbs going off over the heads of the smarter countries out there. There is strength to be found in joining with likeminded compadre states. The European Union is leading the way with a regional federation of countries with similar values. This new federalism is not that much different from the model we have here in the United States. Our states maintain a lot of independence from the federal government. Only limited control is ceded to the federal government. This gives a lot of flexibility to find solutions acceptable at the regional level while allowing for common needs to be addressed at the federal level. The E.U. now demonstrates a way that this can work with countries, and other countries are taking note.

Except, of course, here in the United States. We tend to look down our noses at other countries. We just cannot help it. We think of ourselves as the epitome of a successful country, and figure all those other countries just need to emulate us in order to succeed. Goodness knows we need not waste our time emulating them. We will cooperate with other countries if they act servile toward us (preferred approach), or do not say too many nasty things about us (acceptable approach). The reality, of course, is this attitude works to our long-term detriment. The global sandbox is getting more crowded. Countries that work well and play well with other countries are going to get less sand thrown in their faces. Right now, the United States is sitting in one corner of the sandbox in a huff, but the sandbox is getting more crowded. When will we learn to play nicer? When will we start sharing pails more often with our sandbox neighbors?

I expect that this new form of federalism will continue to expand. I expect that 100 years from now tourists like me will look forward to going to visit the E.U., not France, Spain or Great Britain. I expect by sharing a common governmental infrastructure that federated states like the E.U. will have a competitive advantage. Witness it emerging in endeavors like Airbus S.A.S., an airplane manufacturer that competes well with Boeing and spreads its jobs across E.U. member states.

Call me nuts but I think there will be a time, perhaps fifty years hence, when the United States will be petitioning to be in the European Union too. We will kick ourselves for not having done it sooner. I expect that Russia will get there long before us, once they too emerge from their nationalist huff. The E.U. may well be the 21st manifestation of George Orwell’s Eurasia, encompassing perhaps the entire Anglo-Saxon world.

I would prefer, however, to look toward an ultimate solution: world government. The very term sends shivers up the spines of most Americans. However, this new federated model should give us hope that it can be done in a way that will work for everyone. Perhaps world government would look like a federation of federated states. This is, in fact, some of the thinking behind the World Federalist Movement, to which I have alluded before. It is a model for how to live together on this increasing small planet in relative harmony. I encourage you to spend some time checking out their site.

Allied against federalism of course is the usual anarchy and forces that want to pull us back into our tribal past. There will be more on this in a future entry.

 
The Thinker

Ozymandias

In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows: –
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
“The wonders of my hand.” – The City’s gone, –
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.

We wonder, – and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

–Horace Smith.

I am certainly no Middle East scholar. I suspect even if you grew up in the Middle East and earned a degree in Middle East studies that you would still be challenged understanding the current situation there. I believe that there are too many permutations between the nations, races, ethnic groups, religious groups, paramilitary groups and shifting alliances to understand the totality of the issues and conflicts. As if things were not confusing enough just in Iraq and Afghanistan, now we have this war between Israel and Hezbollah, the Shi’ite paramilitary group, which has blossomed into a larger war. Lebanon is now unjustly receiving the bulk of Israel’s fury.

Make no mistake. This is not a “police action”. This is not a “limited incursion”. This is a war. Israel has always seemed proactive when it comes to their national security, yet they were blindsided by this one. From their actions to date, it is clear they do not understand that the conflict has changed in a fundamentally new way and that the existence of Israel itself is now in serious jeopardy.

The capabilities of their enemies have morphed. In the last couple of decades, short-range rockets have become cheaper to make and easier to move around. In addition, those funding Hezbollah (which doubtless includes Iran) have dug deeper into their pockets. Hezbollah now has longer-range rockets that are reaching deep inside of Israel. Some of these rockets can reach twenty or more kilometers into Israel. They can be moved with relative ease and are often hard to detect. In a way, the Israelis are fortunate that most of these rockets are low tech. Hezbollah soldiers point, shoot and hope they are effective. So far, their effect has been more psychological than lethal. However, these rockets have killed Israeli citizens far from the front lines. Even if the Israelis could shoot them down, given the large quantities of them and the short flight time, it would be impossible to intercept them all.

Therefore, they are left to try to secure southern Lebanon by clearing it of all of Hezbollah’s fighters and missiles. This is already proving to be very daunting. It is a large territory. To secure it and hold it now requires a large and continuing military presence. Moreover, this territory is not desert. Much of it is wooded. Hezbollah is imitating the Vietcong by digging tunnels. This makes destroying all the missiles and removing all the Hezbollah fighters a very iffy proposition for Israel. Moreover, once they capture all this land realistically they cannot secure it indefinitely. They hope that some other armed force will keep it secure for them. If they return the land to Lebanon, there are no guarantees that Lebanon can keep the land secure.

It is unlikely though that Israel will succeed in controlling Southern Lebanon. On some level, I think they know this already. Therefore, they are blowing up much of Lebanon instead. The plan seems to be that if they bomb Lebanon enough, its government will start securing its Southern border. Yet it makes no more sense to expect Lebanon to secure its southern border for Israel than it makes sense for us to expect the Mexican government to keep illegal immigrants from entering our country through Mexico. The Hezbollah militia is far bigger than the Lebanese army is. Even if it had the means, Hezbollah and affiliated Shi’ite parties democratically control 35 of the 128 seats in Lebanon’s parliament. Hezbollah itself has 14 of these seats. Many Lebanese welcome Hezbollah. If Israel is serious about having the Lebanese government control its own territory, it is hard to see how destroying much of its infrastructure aids their cause.

In addition, they are working against their own long-range interests. The Israelis seem to suffer from cognitive dissonance. It amounts to if you hurt me, I will hurt you back ten times worse, and then you will learn never to bother me again. What actually happens, of course, is they leave people deeply traumatized, upset and eager for retribution. In short, they inadvertently sow the seeds for their own destruction.

Most likely Israeli partisans that read this will insist I am anti-Semitic and want to see the destruction of Israel. Aside from the obvious problem that pro-Israeli advocates just love to paint broadly with their anti-Semite brush, I am not stupid. It was not Israel that lobbed the first missile, but Hezbollah. All this is beside the point: the game has changed.

To really secure Israeli citizens, a DMZ is needed. Since indefinitely occupying Southern Lebanon is not practical, the next step is to withdraw civilians from northern Israel and relocate them further south. Hezbollah has demonstrated that Galilee is no longer defensible. Unfortunately, even if Israel were to embrace this strategy, it would only be a stopgap measure. For rockets and missiles will get cheaper and more accurate. It is possible that within years all of Israel will be vulnerable to rocket attacks.

Israel goes after governments like Lebanon because they do not know what else to do. Perhaps it gives the illusion of doing something that will bring results. They have all the firepower they need to render most governments in the Middle East ineffective. Unfortunately, even if they can destroy the governments in Lebanon and Syria, that does not mean they have won this war. For they are no longer battling other nations. They are fighting paramilitaries. Anarchy is what paramilitary groups like Hezbollah prefer. If the state does not exist, their mobility improves. No central government is left that can constrain their behavior.

Although wars between nations are not yet obsolete, their days may be numbered. The future will see more of what we are seeing now: wars between states and paramilitary groups, or, in the case of Iraq, simply wars between paramilitary groups. Cheaper and more accessible armaments, some of it coming from our defense contractors, have lowered the cost of waging insurgencies and paramilitary efforts. Few nations can totally control what happens inside their own borders. Real control requires the overwhelming consent of those governed. The people who live in the country have to have an emotional commitment to their country to keep paramilitary organizations from having any traction. This loyalty to country must come before loyalty to ethnicity, religion or political cause.

One result of this trend will be the slow dissolution of the nation-state. My thoughts on this will likely be the subject of another entry. In brief, I believe the future will move either toward global anarchy or toward one world government. The nation states of today will eventually become as obsolete as kingdoms.

Whether Hezbollah and similar paramilitary groups understand this or not is beside the point. This is the new reality. What it amounts to is a country cannot effectively fight paramilitary groups using armies trained to attack other nation-states. Ready or not, the paradigm and tactics of modern war have changed. We are already learning this lesson painfully in Iraq. I am left to conclude that Israel simply has no future. I believe that in fifty years, maybe less, it will be a memory. Insurgencies and paramilitary groups will have nibbled it out of existence.

How do you counter a trend like this? I know I would hate to try to find a formula that would bring peace to Israel and its neighbors. Frankly, I do not think that one exists. What would help is a pragmatic vision of hope that all parties can latch onto. Perhaps what is really needed is not a Jewish state, but a Semitic state. Semites in this context does not mean Jews. It means the Semite race, and that includes the Palestinians, who are also Semites. There has to be consensus that all that live there must dwell together in peace and brotherhood, or no one can. It is hard to see how this can be achieved when the hatred continues to grow on all sides due largely to Israel’s latest actions in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, more than a few wacked out religious nut jobs are taking this conflict as a sign that Armageddon is near. They are nearly in rapture because they are convinced the Lord is ready to return. Soon they figure they will be occupying their reserved spots inside the pearly gates, for they are the true believers. Arguably, there are more than a few of these nutcases in the West Wing. From my perspective, it looks like Armageddon is already here. Only it is not quite what evangelical Christians had hoped. Armageddon appears to consist of eternal skirmishes, bloodshed, death, destruction and the sad defilement of the area that gave birth to our greatest religions. With each crime against their neighbors, sides dig in their heels further and refuse to learn any karmic lessons. Somewhere up there Allah, Yahweh and Jesus are watching, and they are crying.

 
The Thinker

Review: Lady in the Water

I am still sorting through my feelings for this movie, and probably will for months to come. Consider this the Version 1.0 of the review of this movie. For the life of me, it is challenging to know whether to praise or pan Lady in the Water. For those of you who have seen M. Night Shyamalan’s movies (and who among us by this time hasn’t seen The Sixth Sense) they are beginning to feel a lot like Alfred Hitchcock movies. They all have a certain style to them that is uniquely Shyamalan. Generally, his movies fall into the scary/creepy/metaphysical genre. Lady in the Water is more of the same. The question for the discerning moviegoers is, “Has Shyamalan’s ambitions exceeded his talent?” This is a director not afraid to take big risks.

The good news is that this latest movie by the man from Pondicherry is far better than his last movie, The Village. Moreover, this movie definitely kept me guessing until the last moment. Shyamalan populates the movie with a cast of excellent actors who play rather eccentric, yet strangely plausible characters. Principally the movie revolves around Paul Giamatti (whom you may remember from Sideways). Here Giamatti plays Cleveland Heap, the manager of an apartment complex. The premise of the movie, of course, is laughable, but then this is fantasy. It seems that sea nymphs (or narfs) exist. A sea nymph, apparently, is an aquatic creature like a mermaid, but without the tail. Narfs apparently have an altruistic heart and periodically attempt to help humanity through rough patches. One narf in particular named Story (played by Bryce Dallas Howard, who also starred in The Village) ends up in the swimming pool of the apartment complex that Cleveland manages. Investigating the odd disturbance in the pool, Cleveland ends up slipping into it only to be rescued by the narf Story.

The apartment complex is apparently in Philadelphia but it sure does not seem like it. I would have guessed Southern California. As the super Cleveland spends his days unplugging toilets and resolving tenants’ complaints. Through Story, we soon learn that Cleveland is a troubled man, who lost his family in a mass murder. The apartment complex is a microcosm of America with virtually every ethnic group adequately represented. In addition, virtually every social group is represented too. This is actually fertile ground for the hard work that Story and Cleveland have ahead of them. For they have to set in motion a set of events that will eventually save humanity. Allied against Story are beasts from the underworld. What is Story’s mission exactly? It is all unclear for a while, but apparently there is a tenant (played by Shyamalan himself) who will write “The Cookbook”. This book will someday be used as inspiration to pull humanity out of its moral and political morass before, presumably, our species devolves into phytoplankton.

It does not take Cleveland long to realize there is something very odd about Story, who spends the movie either naked, or in one of his long shirts, and who is calmest when holed up in the shower with water running over her. Through the mother of one of his tenants, he learns about the sea nymph legend. He quickly applies it to Story, for whom he starts to feel almost fatherly affection.

Shyamalan generally succeeds in making us suspend disbelief. He does it by using atypical and oddball characters. After each of them has a chance to meet Story, they seem eager to suspend skepticism too and do not seem to mind helping her out. Unfortunately, Story is largely as ignorant of what she is supposed to do to help humanity as the rest of them. Details emerge slowly through the tale conveyed by the mother of Young-Soon Choi (Cindy Cheung), one of the tenants. Young-Soon, a brassy, university attending student has to translate the story for Cleveland, often in hysterically funny ways (such as over a cell phone from a nightclub). None of it makes much sense as Cleveland tries to figure out who play roles such as “The Guild” and “The Guardian” from the legend. Somehow, he has to find those in the apartment complex who are meant to play these roles. Even so on the final night when Story must return to the underworld while risking death from a nasty beast that lives in the bushes (but can only be seen in a mirror), it’s touch and go. Mistakes happen, the story is misinterpreted, and roles must switch in a rather dynamic fashion as they try both to return Story to her world, save themselves and, oh, save humanity too. Thanks to the uniformly excellent acting and the truly strange characters running around the apartment complex, you accept that clues can be found in a crossword puzzle or can be read by a kid from the alignment of cereal boxes. Just go with the flow! Shyamalan manages to accomplish this quite nicely.

Still, there are aspects of the movie that are disconcerting and should give you pause. Was Harry Farber (played by Bob Balaban), the ultimate skeptical professor, actually devoured by the beast or not? How did Cleveland manage to hold his breath so long and find the vault under the swimming pool to retrieve the magic mud that Story needed to heal her wounds? (Yes, we do see him breathing air from an upturned glass, but sorry, that is not enough for the several minutes he spends underwater. In addition, you cannot see clearly underwater without a facemask, which he does not wear.) Is it necessary to cut to black so quickly at the end? Maybe this is part of Shyamalan’s film noir, but it does get annoying to leave so many plot points unexplained.

Still, Shyamalan manages to pull off a neat trick. Peter Jackson’s three Lord of the Rings movies spent over nine hours of cinema time showing us the ultimate conflict between good and evil. Shyamalan manages to do it in 110 minutes, yet you feel the same rush of anxiety and emotion that you likely felt as Frodo and Gollum tussled at The Cracks of Doom. For me it was not clear why I cared about some of these characters, who you only get to know tangentially at best. Yet by the end of the movie, I did care about them. And gosh darn it, with the whole future of mankind at stake, I sure wanted Cleveland to pull all the divergent threads altogether and defy the odds stacked against them by the netherworld.

I need to see this movie a few more times to see if I can fully figure it out. Interpreting the movie is as much a puzzle for the viewer as it was a puzzle for the tenants in the movie to help Story fulfill her mission. The movie also walks a fine line with being overbearing, particularly since Shyamalan gave himself the most important part (the man whose words would save humanity). I am sure many reviewers will see the movie as overbearing, overreaching and a bit of a narcissistic trip for Shyamalan. It is nonetheless fine entertainment, and not really violent, just periodically scary. I suspect theater buffs will be arguing over this movie for years. A small set will see it as an ignored landmark film, along the lines of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

My inclination is to cut Shyamalan a break, because the film sucks you in anyhow, is finely crafted and certainly is entertaining. Therefore, I give it a solid 3.3 on my 4.0 scale. A minority of you will feel like you wasted your money, but most will be glad you went.

 
The Thinker

Mont St. Michel and our final days in Paris

Except for one day, our French vacation was all about touring Paris. Toward the end of our trip, we took a bus trip to the Brittany coast to view the famous island/fortress/church of Mont St. Michel, or “the Mountain of Saint Michael” for us Anglophiles. If you do not know who Saint Michael is, apparently in Catholic theology angels can also be saints. In this case, Saint Michael is none other than the Archangel Michael.

The mountain is actually a small island that sits just off the northern coast of France, where Brittany and Normandy join. As mountains go, it is more of a molehill, with rock faces pushing up a few hundred feet above the English Channel. For most of its history, it truly was an island. Lately tidal forces have largely taken away its island status. Silt and sand have effectively joined it to the continent. This is a development alarming enough to the natives that there is a large restoration project underway. This effort is trying to reverse the course of nature. If it succeeds, Mont St. Michel will become a proper island again.

It is still impressive, both as an island and as a religious destination. It is also a long day trip from Paris. We had to rise before six in the morning in order to make our way to downtown Paris to meet our tour bus at the Cityrama Offices. In order to make the trip to Mont St. Michel in one day, our time at the island was necessarily short: a few hours. It took six hours on an extremely comfortable tour bus with about seventy other tourists to get to the mountain. By this time in our vacation, we were glad to escape Paris. Our dawgs were tired after a week of touring. It was nice to spend most of the day relaxing in an air-conditioned bus and watch the French countryside pass us by.

On the trip to the island, our bus took the back roads. This gave us a taste of the French countryside that was very welcome. Cloistered farms account for virtually all of the available countryside. There are no primordial forests left in that part of France, but there are numerous small French towns populated with small stone buildings that look like they have been around hundreds of years. The French are if nothing else a tidy people. Their yards are small and well maintained and their towns clean and attractive to the eye. At the center of each small town was a traffic circle. We stopped in one small town whose name I did not capture for a hotel brunch. We were fed well with a quality selection of pastries, eggs, meats and fruits. Not all of us had English as our native language, which meant there was little conversation with others on the tour. Two interpreters were brought for the trip: one who spoke French, English, Spanish and Italian, and another one just to translate for a large number of Chinese.

Our bus was very big and very long, so I was amazed that it was able to negotiate some of the hairpin turns. In some cases, it had to block traffic coming in the other direction in order to make the turn. Eventually we descended into the Normandy coast and caught Mont. St. Michel in the distance.

Mont. St. Michel

Until we arrived at Mont. St. Michel, Notre Dame seemed ancient. I learned that Mont St. Michel’s modern history began in 6th century as an Amorican stronghold. It first became associated with Christianity in the 8th century with the construction of a monastery called Mont Tomb. The island turned out to be strategically valuable. With its large rock-facing cliffs, it was easily defensible. Consequently, it was not too long before it became a combination monastery, fort and church.

View of France from Mont. St. Michel

The island is not for the vertically challenged. Do not expect special accommodations for the handicapped. Prepare to climb. Fortunately, the climb was rather predictable and not too onerous. In some ways, it reminded me of Minas Tirith, the mythical city created by JRR Tolkien for his Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Maybe he was inspired by Mont St. Michel. As with Minas Tirith, on this mountain the higher you were the more elevated the status. At the top was the church itself, which was plain by the standards of Paris. However, the church was not designed to be ornate. It was a church designed for a monastery. The clerics and civic officials inhabited the next level. Further down lived the merchants and the citizenry. For a time the monks abandoned the mountain and it was transformed into a prison. By the 19th century, in part due to an initiative by the French writer Victor Hugo, the Mont St. Michel the prison was closed and the mountain was transformed into its latest incarnation: tourist attraction.

In that sense, it is wildly successful. The tour buses and cars extended for a mile or more into the mainland. There were many places on the island to buy souvenirs, meals or ice cream. Yet still the island feels remote. Even in the middle of the summer rush on a beautiful day, it felt cool and windy. Perhaps the island loses much of its charm during the other seasons. It offers an unparalleled view of the coasts of Brittany and Normandy. Nearby is another smaller island, which was used as a convenient quarry for constructing the fortress. The English Channel in its immensity is to the north. Somewhere across that wide blue expanse is York.

The streets of  Mont. St. Michel

We had about three hours to spend on Mont St. Michel. We followed our tour guide, and then bought a few souvenirs and some ice creams before heading back. We returned to Paris via a different route that took us along interstate quality toll roads. We stopped at a D-Day museum in the city of Caen for dinner. If Paris is ancient, Caen felt very modern. If I had to live in France, Caen would be a logical choice because it felt so comfortably modern, prosperous and clean. We did not return to downtown Paris until around 10 p.m., which made for a very long day.

On our last day in Paris, we had planned tours of Versailles and Chartres. Our Versailles tour was canceled the day before. However, we were able to take a RER train out there in the morning and see it anyhow, although our visit was rushed. We had to hurry back to Paris to catch the bus for our Chartres tour. Unfortunately, we beat our way back to Paris to discover that Travel Bound, the agency AAA contracted with for our tour, had screwed up. They subcontracted the tour to CityRama. Travel Bound they told us they offered the tour on Thursdays, even though our reservations showed confirmations for a Thursday tour. Instead, we hung around the fair grounds for a while, and then returned to our hotel to pack: we would fly back the next day.

Thankfully, our trip back to the States was uneventful. Our flight left Paris on time, which was good because Iceland Air only makes one trip a day to Paris. Our connecting flight in Iceland to Baltimore was delayed about an hour, but we made up some of the time on the flight back. We found the customs process returning to the United States more than a bit xenophobic. There were no less than four separate processes that jet lagged tourists have to navigate. My sister Mary picked us up at the airport, and we chose to drive home to Northern Virginia, arriving home around 10:30 PM. It made for a very long day. By the time I stumbled into a foggy sleep in my own bed, the sun was rising in Paris.

Overall, it was a good vacation. Despite the slipup with the tour, I did not feel cheated. I hope I can explore Paris in a more leisurely fashion some other time, perhaps when I am retired. We just scratched its surface. There is so much to admire about France and Paris in particular. My expectations were modest before the vacation. I got far more from Paris than I expected. I think the French deserve to be proud of their country and their culture. It is an enlightened country.

Occam’s Razor will now return to more traditional content.

 
The Thinker

An American in Paris: Part Four

Here is a snapshot of some of the other places we visited recently during our vacation in Paris.

The first museum we visited in Paris, on a grey Friday morning, was The Hotel Des Invalides. It was never really a hotel, but was instead built to be a home for disabled French soldiers. The “hotel” is grandiose in size. It feels almost as big as The Louvre, just not as well maintained. Today it is a French military museum, with some wings hosting exhibits and some left empty. The exhibit I most wanted to see (the one with the medieval catapults) unfortunately was closed for renovation. If you are into suits of armors (many worn by nobility), pikes, endless variations of swords and lethal cutlery collected in Europe over many centuries then this is your museum. Cannons must have been as common with weeds hundreds of years ago, for Invalides is overrun with them. Many of them are stood up on their sides and ornately engraved.

Picture of the courtyard of The Hotel des Invalides

Of more interest to us were the buildings attached to and near the museum. These included a church, the Eglise du Dome, the first of many we would visit. Its dome and altar seemed very impressive at the start of our vacation. The sound of a soloist rehearsing in front of the enormous pipe organ in the back of the church added an unnecessary feeling of reverence. Yet compared to the other churches we would later visit, it was rather unspectacular. In contrast to the other churches we visited, it was unusually bright, perhaps because it was constructed after the Gothic era.

Picture of the Eglise du Dome

Anyone who knows anything about France has heard of that Corsican general/tyrant Napoleon who eventually elevated himself to the title of emperor of France. St. Helena apparently was apparently glad to get rid of him after he died, so eventually his remains were returned to France for a proper interment. Next to Invalides and Eglise du Dome is Napoleon’s Tomb. It is probably more accurately described as Napoleon’s casket, as you can see from the picture. His casket is enclosed within two other caskets, and placed on a large dais, giving the impression that the Jolly Green Giant, rather than the relatively short Napoleon, is entombed there. Napoleon’s Tomb also includes wings containing the bodies of other, lesser-known French military heroes.

Picture of Napoleon's Casket

Across the street is the Rodin Museum. Auguste Rodin’s famous statue, The Thinker, is there, along naturally with a wide selection of his works, including part of his infamous Gates of Hell. When Rodin found a theme that worked, like The Thinker, it showed up in various scales in many of his other works. Since I shamelessly use The Thinker to dress up my own blog, I felt sort of like a lost dog coming home to its master.

You would think The Eiffel Tower would have been one of our first destinations. However, we did not get around to touring it until the second half of our trip. Based on our experience, do not try to tour it after a long day on your feet. The lines in the evening though were less daunting than the ones we considered in the afternoon the day before. I did not expect The Eiffel Tower to be as large or as tall as it actually was. It is enormous and very imposing up close. In 1889, when it opened, this 1040-foot high behemoth instantly became one of the wonders of the world. Amazingly, more than a hundred years later, it has lost none of its impressiveness or sense of wonder. If you are not vertically challenged you can walk to the second level of the tower, but to get to the very top requires an elevator ride. Unfortunately, there are queues for tickets, queues to get on the elevator to the first or second level, queues for the elevator from the lower levels to the top (on a different elevator), and queues to get in the elevators to get back down again. You need to allow a couple hours at least to take in this attraction. Even if you are footsore like we were, it is worth the hassle. Our legs felt like lead when we traipsed back to our hotel around 11 PM. Nevertheless, it was neat to be on the tower in the twilight. Once an hour starting at dusk, they set the strobe lights on the tower dancing. They delight both those on the tower and those watching it from afar. Here is a view from the top of the tower.

View of Sienne and Paris from Eiffel Tower

The Arc de Triomphe on Paris’ right bank celebrates the victories of Napoleon’s armies. It remains today the largest arch in the world, yet you can climb to its observation level without too much effort, or take the elevator. While impressive when it was built in the early 19th Century, now it feels overshadowed by The Eiffel Tower, which can easily be seen across the Seine River. Since a traffic circle surrounds it, you need to take an underground walkway in order to get to it. Crossing the street anywhere near the traffic circle is not for the faint of heart.

It is a short walk from the Arc to the Champs-Elysees, Paris’ tree lined version of New York’s Fifth Avenue, only nicer, wider and less congested. You can walk the Champs-Elysees all the way to the Louvre and hardly strain yourself. Along the way, there are numerous places to purchase classy and overpriced merchandise, as well as enjoy an expensive meal at an outdoor café. Both Toyota and Honda have showrooms on the boulevard, not really to sell cars so much as to show off what they are working on in the future. Take a look at this short movie clip (18.3 MB) filmed by my daughter to see what the Japanese car wizards are up to.

One of the last museums that we went to in Paris was The Pantheon. Yeah, I thought it was in Rome too. I guess France was feeling an inferiority complex so they created their own. This Pantheon fascinated me not so much for the Foucault pendulum in the center or the enormous painting or embroideries on the walls, but for the tombs in the dark crypt beneath the building. Here we found the tomb of Francois-Marie Arouet, otherwise known as Voltaire. Nearby you will find tombs of other French literary idols, such as Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas. I was delighted. France is indeed a civilized country. I am aware of no place in America where we immortalize our greatest writers and scientists (including Marie Curie, who inadvertently gave her life learning how to harness radiation). The satirist Voltaire is one of my heroes, so I truly felt in awe being so close to his body. Near his tomb is a large, marble statue of him. Perhaps it was against the rules, but a tourist left a small note on the top of Victor Hugo’s tomb, thanking him and saying his stories were immortal. Indeed they are. My little blog will be a footnote of a footnote in human history, but writers like Voltaire, Hugo and Dumas have truly achieved immortality. I should have felt envy, but instead I felt awe.

Statue of Voltaire, near his tomb

My next entry will discuss our day trip to Mont St. Michel on the coast of Normandy, as well as give a few final thoughts about France.

 
The Thinker

An American in Paris: Part Three

The downside of France having a monarchy for so many hundreds of years is that its citizens were (literally) royally screwed. You probably read about their French Revolution in the 18th century, when virtually all of France’s nobility met untimely ends. After touring the opulent palaces of Paris, it is hard to shed a tear for the nobility when they at last had their comeuppance. Even after visiting the Conciergerie, the haunting prison in Paris where thousands of people (including Marie Antoinette) were barbarically executed, it was hard to feel sorry for a class so out of touch with their citizenry.

The upside of the centuries of royalty is that they left the country with many incredibly opulent estates for future generations to gawk at. Eighteenth century France in all its opulent excess is best viewed at the King’s “summer home” in Versailles, which is on the western outskirts of Paris. Those French Kings were clearly unafraid of living large.

A Ceiling in the Palace of Versailles

Above, for example, you can see just one the many marvelous ceiling paintings in the Palace of Versailles. There were so many ceilings to dress up. For a French King, just applying a coat of Benjamin Moore would not do. Famous European painters found plenty of steady employment courtesy of the King of France. It must have taken many decades just to paint these ornate ceilings. Of course, it is not just the walls and the ceilings that needed an artist’s touch, but everything in the rooms. Statuary abounds in Versailles, along with marble floors, enormous stone columns, exquisite hand constructed furniture and enough gold plate to fill Fort Knox. The rooms just go on and on and seem endless. The King’s stables alone are bigger than most apartment buildings. His gardens stretched for miles. Naturally, what summer palace would be complete without an inside church that looks more like a cathedral, and an opera house for a few hundred of the King and Queen’s guests?

There must have been many top-notch French painters and sculptors though, because Paris is awash in spectacular painting and statuary, as well as Gothic churches. The obvious place to view much of it is in Paris’ enormous museum, The Louvre, which takes up several city blocks. The Louvre is the largest museum in the world. Unless you just want to sail past the exhibits, there is no way to appreciate everything in the Louvre in one day. A proper visit to the Louvre would take a week at least. Someone with a history and art bent could easily spend a month taking it in. There is so much artwork in some rooms that paintings hang above paintings that hang above paintings.

If writers are encouraged to write about what they know, then it is obvious that French painters painted what they knew, which was Europe. There likely were not many Encyclopedia Britannicas in those Renaissance and post Renaissance times. It is not surprising then that so many paintings of the time had religious figures in them. Painting Biblical scenes as if they occurred in France and populating the Holy Land full of Anglo Saxons though does become amusing after a while. You have to look hard for someone who looks Semitic among all those paintings. As depicted by the artists of the time, the Holy Land of Biblical times were full of flaxen haired Europeans in 14th century garb. Baby Jesus was apparently overfed and obese, as were many of the women. Speaking of women, as depicted by the artists of the time, they were not very modest. I was amazed by how many women went around with one (or more) perfect breast exposed to the air. Men too were often traipsing around with full genitalia on display. Many artists painted variations of Da Vinci’s famous painting The Last Supper. In these newer versions though, Jesus invited a few more people to the table. You can find paintings of The Last Supper containing many a French nobleman or King breaking bread with Our Lord.

For me the glory of French art was not in its paintings, nor its statuaries, nor even in the opulent excess of its palaces. Fittingly, ecclesiastical art is where the art of its age reached its zenith. For a damned secular humanist like me, it was impossible to slip into a basilica, church, chapel or cathedral in Paris and not feel the presence of the sacred. Everything in these churches was meticulously designed to inspire reverence. There is no question about it: no one does mysticism better than the Catholics. What unwashed peasant would not want to convert to Christianity after entering a cathedral like Notre-Dame? We inspected three churches in Paris. The most jaw dropping of them was a simple chapel: Sainte-Chapelle, with glorious stained glass windows dating to the 11th century. Amazingly, they are still intact today and, as this picture shows, of such magnificence that no contemporary art can come close to matching it. It is ironic that a church of such beauty casts a shadow on the courtyard of that bloody prison, the Conciergerie.

Amazing Stained Glass Windows at Sainte Chapelle

A proper visit to Paris requires a trip to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. This cathedral’s construction began in the 12th Century. For a structure so old, it remains in very good shape. This is thanks, no doubt, to centuries of maintenance. I had heard that Notre-Dame was over-hyped. Thankfully, my sources were incorrect. Sainte-Chapelle is magnificent but relatively simple. Notre-Dame is enormous but ornate, as the picture of just some of its engraved statuary demonstrates.

Engraved Statuary at Notre-Dame Cathedral

Despite more than eight centuries of use, the inside of the cathedral remains awe inspiring, holy and reverent. While we were there, a Mass began. You can watch this short movie (4.7 MB). My daughter recorded it from inside Notre-Dame. You can hear the ethereal voice of a mezzo-soprano singing inside the cathedral. More than a week later, it still sends a shiver up my spine. What you can see, but of course cannot smell, is the incense. My daughter, who professes to be Wiccan, exited Notre-Dame as dazzled as I was. “I have never been in such a holy place,” she said in a humbled tone that belied her sixteen years.

Each church had rows of votive candles. In each, I spent a few euros to light a votive candle for my mother, who passed away last year. I am sure she would appreciate the thought. I also suspect that she would be amazed that her secular son lit a candle in her name in such holy spots.

My wife has some friends in England who came to visit with us for a few days while we were in Paris. With them, I climbed to the top of Notre-Dame, inspected its belfry but did not find Quasimodo. I took many pictures of its numerous gargoyles. It is amazing how well-preserved most of them remain, in spite of so many centuries of being exposed to the air.

Gargoyles at Notre-Dame Cathedral

We also visited a relatively recent church, the Basilique du Sacre-Couer, which is not too far from the morally dubious Moulin Rouge area on Paris’ right bank. As in Notre-Dame, we ascended into its upper levels via many a winding and vertically challenging staircase. Once near the top, we enjoyed this somewhat occluded view of Paris from its highest point.

View from the Bascillica of the Sacred Heart

I will detail more of the museums we visited in my next entry.

 
The Thinker

An American in Paris: Part Two

Take a close look at the photo below. I shot this picture from the balcony of our hotel room. It shows Rue Sophie Germain, an alleyway next to our hotel, which itself is off Avenue Du General Leclerc in the Montparnasse section of Paris. My family and I recently spent eight nights here. You may have seen pictures of Parisian streets like this one before. It was rather typical of the Paris that we saw, at least inside the city itself.

Near our hotel in Paris

This is the Parisian way of living. The street level contains businesses that serve the neighborhood. People live above the street level in apartments. Each building almost looks like a townhouse, except they tend to be seven stories tall. The houses on this block look old. I do not know exactly how old they are, but I would guess they are one hundred years old. While they certainly look weathered, they are not flimsy. These solid buildings were clearly built to last.

Now, courtesy of Google Earth, here is the same view from the air.

Area near our hotel in Paris, from the air courtesy of Google Earth

Do you notice something different? Notice that the backs of these buildings do not push up against another row on an adjacent block. Inside the outer ring of buildings, there is often (as in this case) a large courtyard full of trees. Here there is both a lovely courtyard and even some houses inside the courtyard. Depending on how apartments are arranged, one apartment may face the street or alleyway, another may face the courtyard. If your apartment faces the street, you would expect it to be noisier. If it faces the courtyard, it is a relatively quiet oasis in the midst of an otherwise busy and bustling city.

This may be old fashioned, but this way of living strikes me as very smart. Moreover, it is an excellent way to comfortably fit a large number of people into a relatively small area. Doing so provides both the convenience of being in a major city, yet also provides the ability to escape into a setting that is quieter and more bucolic. You may escape to the courtyard to read a book in the shade of a tree, or to catch some rays on the grass in the sun. Your children might use it to play with other children living in these flats, yet doing so in relative safety and under the watchful eye of many neighbors.

If you need to go shopping, there is no need to get into your car and drive for miles to a Safeway or Costco. There is likely a grocer or two within a few hundred feet of your apartment. Yet this is just the start of it. Just wandering down this particular alley we found a number of restaurants, a Pizza Hut carryout, another small hotel and a dry cleaner. Around the corner was an apothecary. Just a block and a half away was a Monoprix, France’s equivalent of a supermarket with a wide selection of foods at reasonable prices. The Monoprix also had a bakery facing the street selling baguettes and wonderful pastries. There were two banks in the same block. To quickly leave the neighborhood you simply had to walk across the street and descend into a convenient subway stop.

There is no grass to mow, but you can, like most residents, attend a geranium or other potted plant in your window or on your balcony, or decorate your apartment with other living things. You can spend your time at home at leisure, rather than consumed by the incessant chores of maintaining a house.

No wonder I had such a hard time finding a stressed out Frenchman. Here in America we like to think we have mastered the art of good living. From my perspective, the French have mastered it. Almost all of life’s needs are readily available for a short walk. There is no need to get into your car to go out to dinner either. On any block there are bound to be at least several cafes, most of which serve excellent food at reasonable prices. An automobile is truly superfluous. With the limited street parking, almost all of it metered, owning an automobile affords no particular advantage. It is doubtful that even if you had an automobile you could make better time than by taking the subway or bus.

I am sure it is not perfect living. Perhaps you hear noisy neighbors above or below you. In eight days in our hotel room though, which was clearly just another converted blockhouse, we never heard our neighbors. We heard plenty of noises from the street, so an apartment facing the street is likely trying to those sensitive to noise. And while the buildings look very solid, they are also old. Although it is generally not needed in these northern latitudes, they probably do not come with central air conditioning.

I do not know how Parisian urban living compares with the rest of Europe. I suspect their means of living is fairly unique and offers many significant advantages. It is a form of urban living that we Americans could and probably should emulate. Rather than tear down more forests and put in yet more suburban housing in hard to reach areas far from our jobs, why not put in denser housing designed to last for generations in our more blighted inner city neighborhoods, and build in the conveniences like ready food, restaurants and shopping within a short walk that Parisians take for granted?

“Community” is a word that has almost lost its meaning here in America. In my suburban neighborhood, I know a handful of my neighbors by name. Some others I know by site, but not by name. The vast majority of them though will remain complete strangers. We share a neighborhood so we are technically neighbors, but we do not have a real neighborhood. In Paris, your neighbors are likely a lot more in your face. It would be difficult not to get to know your neighbors, and become well acquainted with their quirks and personalities. Each block is a community in the best sense of the word. It is hard for me to believe that such an environment would not foster the community values we say we want to have, but to which we mostly give lip service.

As I noted, my father’s retirement community is also a real community. Just as in Paris, he lives in a community where it is impossible not to know your neighbors. You meet with them every night at community dinners and bump into them repeatedly in the hallways. You sing songs with them in front of the piano in the town center. You play bridge or chess with them in the evenings. Perhaps that is why, nearing age 80, he seems so amazingly happy and content. Perhaps Paris’ engineered neighborliness explains why the crime rate in Paris is so low compared to most American cities. You would think that living in such close proximity to each other would breed ill will. Instead, it appears to draw people closer together. These communities are the real deal.

Sign me up.

 
The Thinker

An American in Paris, Part One

There is nothing like traveling to an exotic destination to blow away stereotypes. Perhaps there was a time in the recent past when the majority of Parisian waiters were rude. Perhaps the French really do hate Americans, or at least our government. If so, I was too emotionally unintelligent to detect it. On the other hand, perhaps there are so many foreigners traipsing around Paris that the presence of one more American family was hardly a reason to single us out. No, we found Parisians to be polite, friendly, classy and laid back people. Unlike us Americans, they do not seem to need to pop Valium in order to calm down, because life rarely seems to upset them.

If anything, America is far ruder and more singular place than France. It was not that we did not witness exceptions. We ate at one restaurant near our hotel to find a patron going into histrionics when he tried to light up a cigarette. This particular restaurant (with an American like décor) actually had a nonsmoking section. This patron was irate when the server asked him to put out his cigarette. He eventually left the restaurant in disgust. In addition, there were a few eccentrics on their subway system. I am not talking about the occasional busker on the metro playing traditional French tunes on an accordion and then soliciting patrons on the car for spare change. No, I am thinking of an extremely rude rider on the metro who, just because he could get away with it, decided to blow a police whistle at ear piercing volumes every fifteen seconds or so for a half dozen stops.

These though were the exceptions, not the rule. In the instance of our whistleblower, his fellow Parisians threw him as many dirty looks as we did. In a city with over two million people, you expect a certain number of oddballs. However, there were far fewer of them than I found wandering the streets of Washington D.C. As with Washington, we did not have to look too far to find homeless Parisians. Unlike our homeless people though, they were respectful. No one seemed too bothered if a homeless person made his home on the street, stacked up a mattress as his bed, and even owned a couple dogs. The homeless people never grubbed us for money.

I also felt safe in Paris, even at night. Our tour book and even signs on the Eiffel Tower warned us to beware of pickpockets. I never felt threatened. By American standards, Parisians are amazingly law abiding. Yes, the many motorcycles and motor scooters and their seeming lack of mufflers often annoyed us. Since there are numerous traffic lights in Paris, there are numerous opportunities for vehicles to stop and start. When the lights changed to green the ear piercing groans of motorcycles accelerating offended my sensitive American ears. Oddly, after eight nights in the same hotel room, I had mostly tuned out their noise, even at night. Perhaps it is a survival mechanism, since you cannot escape the noise. What amazed me the most though was that when lights turned red, both cars and motorcycles actually stopped. In the Washington area, the odds are high someone will run a red light. I witnessed very few red light runners during our time there.

Despite the noise and the population density, Paris struck me as a laid-back city. In America, we seem to be on personal quests to be the best that we can be. If this means getting a graduate degree or stepping on your colleagues in order to win a promotion, well, that is the price of progress in a society where free enterprise and capitalism has become our de facto religion. Money and status are vitally important to Americans. Parisians struck me as content to live a simpler and more stress free life.

I expected Paris to be dirty, but at least in the tourist districts it was not. Their metro system had a certain malodorous stench to it, but it was far cleaner than New York City’s MTA and I never saw rats crawling along the tracks. The subway system itself is amazingly extensive. If it cannot take you where you need to go, a bus will get you there as readily. Unlike Washington’s metro system, where you may wait a long time for a train, in Paris you generally never need to wait more than a few minutes for a train. Moreover, unlike Washington’s metro system, I never saw a train break down. They keep them running reliably. Admittedly the lack of air conditioning on the trains and in the stations is annoying, but it is only in the summer when this becomes a problem.

One thing that is true about Parisians and I assume the French in general: they look gorgeous. The women are not all pretty, nor are they necessarily well dressed, but they make the most of their dress and their appearance. You have to look hard to find an obese Parisian. I am ashamed to say that if you did see someone obese, it was almost invariably an American tourist. Perhaps they stay so trim from the walking that is a natural part of their daily life. On the other hand, perhaps since a majority of Parisians appears to be smokers, the nicotine suppresses their appetites. Whatever. Unquestionably, Parisians have a sense of style and good taste that you find only sporadically here in the states.

At least in Paris, there was little in the way of a language barrier. Paris is very much an international city. At times English seemed as pervasive as French, but it was also not hard to hear most of the other languages spoken on the continent. Most waiters and shopkeepers, through necessity, know enough English to conduct business. Moreover, I found that I could get by knowing a dozen or so French words then apologizing and speaking in English if necessary. From my dress, Parisians could figure out that I was American, and consequently would speak English to me by default. I quickly learned how to say, “Excuse me”, “Hello”, “Thank you”, “Please” and “Thank you very much” in French. Even when we toured museums and the words were entirely in French, I could usually figure out what was written on the plaques. English and French share a lot of words and many words are similar or are easy to infer. Of course, I could not read a newspaper, but I could read street names, find exits and know how to open doors easily enough. It did help to have my daughter to translate when we needed to express a more complex thought. Nevertheless, my wife and I could have navigated easily in Paris even without her.

My complaints are perhaps trifling in the grand scheme of things. They are simply a result of being raised in a different country with different values. I do not mean to imply in my criticisms that there is anything inherently wrong about the way the French life. Indeed, as you will discover, I found much to admire about the French. America has become the country of nonsmokers, so the stench of cigarettes was challenging to my easily offended olfactory glands. When we asked for nonsmoking areas in a restaurant, they generally were not available. To cope, we sat on tables by the street and hoped we were upwind from the smokers. Invariably some smokers near you would light up, the fumes would hit you in the face, and there was little that you could do about it. My wife reports that smoking is down considerably from her first visit thirty years ago. This is good, and I hope that the trend continues. Although I will miss Paris, I will not miss the pervasive smoking.

Another nit is the cleanliness of the restrooms in France. Actually, there are no restrooms in France. They are called “toilettes”, which is certainly more descriptive, since there are no chairs or places to “rest” in American restrooms. You generally have to use a restroom in a bus depot to find toilets as nasty as you find in France (and I imagine most of Europe). Another annoyance: in many places, you have to pay for the privilege of using the loo. In fact, it is more likely you will have to pay to use a “toilette” than not. Fortunately, it does not cost an arm and a leg to pee. Forty Eurocents seemed to be the going rate. In some places, attendants made their living directing people to empty stalls and occasionally going around spraying air freshener. On the plus side, it is much easier to find a toilet in Paris than in most American cities, because pay toilets are right there on the side of the streets in many areas. Often there are waiting lines. For a European visiting America, I imagine finding a nation full of free and clean restrooms must seem amazing.

Due to its northern climate, air conditioning is largely unavailable in Paris. We found some parts of Charles de Gaulle International Airport air-conditioned. The Louvre was also air conditioned, although the press of people in some popular galleries made them unbearably hot. Otherwise, no places we visited were air-conditioned. Our hotel room has an air conditioner, but it was underpowered and largely useless. Since the temperate never exceeded 85 and it was generally in the 60s at night, this was just an annoyance. After a day of touring, we were usually sweaty and hot when we returned to our room. Only a long cool shower and a fresh set of clothes would make me feel like a human being again. When I consider how much money Americans spend to artificially heat and cool their homes for optimal comfort, and how much this contributes to global warming, I consider that the lack of air conditioning may be a good thing. Incidentally, there were no screens on our hotel window. Fortunately, there were so few flying insects that it did not matter. Apart from the street noise, there was no problem leaving our windows opened.

As best I can tell, the most profitable business in Paris during the summertime is bottled water vendor. I did see one public water fountain at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, but otherwise you had to pay from 1.5 to 2 euros for a modest bottle of spring water from a vendor. I would not be surprised if we ended up spending 100 euros in our eight days on bottled water. We did save some money by buying a six-pack at a supermarket. One day I even lugged a six-pack in my backpack as we toured Paris. With the warm weather, it did not even last us the day. Again, I expect that Europeans must be astounded by the free water fountains, generally serving good tasting public water, which is commonly available in the United States.

There will be more on our French experience in future entries.

 

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