Wednesday, February 3, 2010


There are certain dates that are likely to ring a bell for even the most casual of historians among us. For Americans July 4, 1776, is one of them. Most people could at least successfully guess the association of October 12,1492. Surely you recognize December 7, 1941, still and forever living in its infamy. Expand your horizons just a little; include western Europe. How about the famous “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”—i.e., eleven in the morning of November 11, 1918? As for the Quatorze Juillet—July 14, 1789—it’s child’s play. But what about July 29, 1881?

That is a little harder, perhaps? July 29, 1881 is a date that separates the sheep from the goats, or at least the frogs from the toads. Anyone living in Paris, as I have been doing for the last several months, encounters this date every day, and usually many times a day. For it was the day on which the famous law of July 29th was adopted by the French legislature. Curiously, neither I nor any of the numerous Frenchmen I have interrogated on this subject has ever actually read the law of July 29th; but we all know what it must say. It is the world’s most famous piece of anti-billboard legislation. Défense d’afficher. That

is so much more elegant than the awkward and usually ineffectual English version: “Post no bills”. Advertising posters are illegal on the city’s public surfaces. Parisians cannot hawk hamburgers from the walls of City Hall. Nor can Parisians promote diet pills in that manner. Since the only thing they can lawfully advertise is the law of July 29, 1881, they tend to do so on every possible occasion. And I presume the law is not subject to repeal, since it is literally carved in stone in numerous sumptuous public buildings and monuments.

I returned to America on Sunday afternoon, and the Americanness of America, for good and for not so good, immediately overwhelmed me. To the latter (not so good) category I had to assign the roadside pollution along Route 1, where there are hundreds of garish billboards, not a single one of which says “Loi de 29 juillet 1881”. But soon enough I was glad to have escaped that law’s clutches!

The latest evidence of the aging process is a severity of jet-lag I have never before experienced. Though exhausted nearly to the point of collapse, I could sleep only a few hours before awaking, unrested and still disoriented, in the wee hours. I got up and went through the motions of doing some work in my study; but by the time the actual dawn approached, it was obvious to me that it would be impossible for me to carry through with my plan of getting back to my daily early-morning swimming routine. Hence, it was only yesterday, Tuesday, that I managed to get to the gym. There, affixed to the wall at the end of “my” aisle of lockers, was the following violation of the law of July 29th:

While I have no definitive proof of the perpetrator of this outrage, I have the strongest possible suspicions concerning a certain Dr. T. K. Chu of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. No knee-jerk liberal Miranda Rights for Chu. Gitmo now being off limits, I turned to the next best venue. Following our swim I interrogated him ruthlessly over a decaf double latte at the Small World Coffee Shop. Small World in Princeton, NJ, I am happy to report, is one of the few genuinely “Parisian” coffee shops in America. This means that ordinarily you have to take out a second mortgage to finance a double latte; but I made Chu pay for it.

They say that the second day of jet lag is the worst. That is probably true even if one does not, as one in fact did on this occasion, go into New York to see a three-and-a-half hour production of Simon Boccagnegra at the Metropolitan Opera. I was already disgracefully somnolent by the time of our pre-theater dinner with our dear friends John and Susan. By the time of the second intermission I was approaching the comatose. Joan actually secured a taxi in a snowstorm outside Lincoln Center. That’s the kind of aggressive New York street combat that usually rates two stars and an oak-leaf cluster, and it meant that we were able to get the last possible train to Princeton with at least thirty seconds to spare. I stumble into bed about 2:00 a.m.—that is, precisely twenty-four hours after last arising from it.

Hence I was unable to repeat my swimming triumph of yesterday. I didn’t even awaken until after daylight. I was at first inclined to interpret this as failure. But the enforced leisure, as it so often does, soon led to a more mellow view. I looked out of the living-room window, and I was pretty pleased by what I saw.

My sainted mother, dead these twenty years, used to give me advice, even when unsolicited. Perhaps you have such a mother—or are one. She used to say things like “You may live to regret that!” or “Handsome is, as handsome does!” Her apothegms annoyed me intensely. What annoyed me most of all, of course, was that they were invariably true. One of her favorites was “East, West, home’s best!” Given the particular homes involved, I was too often inclined to dismiss that as a defense of provincialism. But as I look about my study, I understand its full force.

As for swimming, there is always tomorrow. And as for a decent blog, there is always at least the possibility of next Wednesday.