Wednesday, September 27, 2017
Back from the Old World
There were mobs of folks arriving at Heathrow in early September and mobs arriving at Newark yesterday—some of them, doubtless, like us, parts of both mobs. I am led to conclude that whatever economic, spiritual, and political discontents the West faces just now are not showing up in the bottom lines of the international airlines companies. New Jersey was hot and a little muggy, as though its calendar were running a month behind. Even so, homecoming is almost always sweet, and the sweetness tends to increase as the years go by. I could do without the faint but undeniable aroma of a defunct mouse as yet unlocated among the heavy printing machines that surround my study workspace; but that, too shall pass. Odorless mummification cannot be too far distant. And I confess to a slight disappointment that I found no visual evidence that there had been rioting in the streets on account of the temporary suspension of “Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche”. In any event I am back, and it’s back, though with even less to say than usual.
Our journey, which had no motive beyond that the pleasure of the travelers, had four stages through two countries. We began in England, dividing our time between Cambridge and the Kentish countryside near Canterbury. Then we flew to Nice, where our dear friend and host Andrew Seth met us and drove us to his own personal parcel of paradisal Provence a hundred kilometers to the west in Salernes. We were there for a week before boarding a Paris-bound TGV in Marseilles. TGV, as you probably know, means train à grande vitesse, or “high speed train”; and they really mean it. Just over three hours later we were in the capital for either a short week or a very long-weekend (Thursday to Tuesday).
Once we set aside the cattle car aspect of the air flights, every segment of the trip, which was devoted to visiting family and friends, was delightful. That phrase (“family and friends”) may sound disjunctive and possibly even adversarial. My dear old dad had a favorite joking line: “Of all my wife’s relations, I like myself the best.” It is one of the many blessings of my own life that so many family members, and I might say especially my wife’s relations, are also friends, and very good ones at that.
At Cambridge, the University being out of session, things were a little quieter than usual; but it’s still a bustling place, with the bustle butting up against absolutely extraordinary buildings. We took in a Eucharist at the vibrant old University church, St. Mary the Great—my first time ever in the place. A couple days later at Canterbury, where some official function had temporarily closed the cathedral to mere gawkers, the high point was the bookshops.
On a couple of earlier occasions I have reported on the remarkable country house parties hosted by our friend Andrew. This was perhaps the mellowest of them all. Ancient friendship has a quality like no other. It is almost always forged not merely by the laughter of heedless youth but by the more severe realities of life’s vicissitudes. There is a patina to it that only time can provide and that only age can appreciate.
The final few days in Paris turned into a social whirl. We had hoped to do some memorable chowing down, to see some museums, and visit a couple of old friends. The friends reacted with such enthusiasm and generosity that we ended up having only two restaurant meals. I was in France long enough to do some serious newspaper-reading across the political spectrum, and this left me with the impression that the country is on the whole pretty happy with its new leadership. One very knowledgeable French friend calls Macron not merely intelligent, but hyper-intelligent. To be sure once you move past such accidental and peripheral matters as style, substance, and essence, one can easily appreciate the striking similarities between the situations of Messrs. Macron and Trump. They were both put into office by voters sick to death of the same old Same Old offered up by the same old political parties. Of course Emmanuel Macron actually created a new political party that pulled off the astonishing feat of providing him with a parliamentary majority. Donald Trump’s feat was perhaps no less astonishing, though very different. He simply squatted in the vacancy that was the Republican Party. Mons. Macron has already has some stunning successes, especially with the reform of France’s sclerotic labor laws. The naysayers’ prediction of paralyzing protests have so far proved inaccurate—suggesting to me that on the whole les français can be realists. And now Macron seems poised to take on a major leadership role in the wider European context. I am going to be watching with interest.