A Visit from The Yule Goat

Joulupukki
Image by esaskar via Flickr

In the northern hemisphere, winters arrive like a black dog breathing permanent midnight.  The gray threadbare days weave into a thick woolen canopy that never seems to lift. Despite the reassuring lights of Sloane Square, ice skaters in Mayfair and the annual grand Norwegian spruce in Trafalgar Square, Christmas is a more muted and reverent affair in England. Each December 24th, St. Martins of the Field church broadcasts its medieval Christmas carol concert urging all the masters of the hall to rejoice and pray.

Along the cold and wind-swept Thames, a city hibernates waiting for the resurrection of spring.  As an ex-patriot navigating life among millions, thousands of miles from the moorings of family, Christmas Eve was a hard time to avoid melancholy self-reflection.

Having been wrested from parents, neighbors, friends, familiar institutions and cultural touchstones, our young family was dispatched on a three-year odyssey that would test us and stretch our ability to cope.  Without the traditional support structures, we were reduced to our lowest common denominator – us.

As we had sought to build a new life, we met other displaced diplomats. Out of mutual necessity, we forged deep connections to this diaspora of the disconnected.  Over long dinners and timeless cups of tea, we would share the daily anxieties of international living where life had become a succession of indignities roaring past you in the middle of a motorway with no exit ramps.  Change was everywhere – tugging at your elbow, tearing the side mirror off your car, visiting some mystery illness upon your family or delaying you in a foreign airport due to a sudden labor strike.  It was mad cow and foot and mouth disease closures of a verdant but now forbidden countryside.  It was an unexpected dog bite and the night terrors of a child unable to cope with the massive change of an international move.  It was a washing machine the size of an Easy Bake Oven and a dryer that could only dry five pieces of clothing at a time. It was an alpenglow sunset in Zermatt and a pink pastel dawn in Provence.

We joined an international brigade that had voluntarily been assigned to new lives on a distant, fatal shore.  Our new and extended “family” was a United Nations blend of ex-patriots and locals possessing passports from Peru, Columbia, Finland, France, Italy, Portugal, Australia, India, Ireland, England, Scotland and Poland. In another place and time, we might have had less in common with these global travelers and passed one another like ships.  Yet, alone on this great ancient island, we found each other and watched as our children moved freely across narrow language barriers and cultural tightropes. Within months we had forged a multinational support network that would sustain us through every conceivable life event.

Holidays were initially the hardest of times. On this December 24th, the darkest corridor of the year, the ancient Druid festival of winter solstice would be celebrated. Christmas in England was a time of evergreens and hard frosts. A pale, frigid mist would settle on the Great Wimbledon Common and across the ancient headstones of St Mary’s church graveyard.  The bleak mid-winter world stands still as the countryside settles into a deep sleep with  the rolling hills of Newlan’s Corner and Box Hill sitting as silent citadels over the South Downs and Kent. In the Cotswolds, wool, market and cathedral towns with names like Chipping Camden, Broadway, Stow on the Wold and Upper Slaughter become fairy tale retreats for the wealthy with roaring fires, curiosity shops and antiques.  It is a quiet, somber time filled with very personal celebrations of resurrection and renewal.

Each Christmas season, we visited with our friends and as we entered each rented home or flat, it would be adorned faithfully with native touches and talisman of their home countries.  One day we might meet a koala with a Santa hat and the next week encounter rich religious icons of Latin America – – Madonna with Child, nativity figurines, candles and white papered gifts — grand colorful offerings of love and sentiment to be offered to those less fortunate at midnight mass..

At this time of year, it was important to keep our own traditions alive. To discard or ignore a cultural touchstone was to defile it and potentially sever another tie with your own past.  It was inevitable that the longer one lived abroad, the more likely it was that one would morph into an international citizen – an odd changeling that was often less wedded to their nationality and more content to be considered part of the global melting pot of mankind.

Christmas was a time of year where I was left with the nagging feeling that I was denying my children some quintessentially American experience. I was obviously superimposing my childhood on to my international children and when those feelings would not fit them, I came away feeling as if I was somehow stunting their growth.

Our youngest was already exhibiting signs of advanced internationalism. Having moved to the UK when he was one, he was not being raised on the empty carbohydrates of Disney movies, American commercialism and a ruddy-faced department store Santa that smelled of Brut and bourbon. My son spoke with a lilting English accent, watched Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob The Builder. He wore a uniform to school and was frighteningly well mannered. He expressed curiosity about  Father Christmas and wanted to “know him better.”

On this particular Christmas eve, I was feeling a wave of yuletide melancholy when the phone rang. It was our Finnish friend Robert.  Bobby and his Peruvian wife, Laila, had joined our extended family after falling in with us on a wild and unforgettable family vacation to Morocco. Bobby was a towering bristled blond Nordic with a rapid-fire mind and a clear, practical lens to the world. The unusual union of a Finn and Peruvian in this international enclave was typical of our circle of friends – a merger of disparate cultures and genetics that produced perpetually clashing perspectives and two gorgeous children who spoke Finnish, Portuguese and Spanish.

According to Bobby, Christmas was first and foremost, a Finnish tradition. All Finns claim that the Lapp mountains of Korvatunturi, not the North Pole, are the true home to Father Christmas. This rugged winter landscape populated by the Sami people is a frozen wonderland of midnight lakes, deep conifer forests and sweeping mountains of ice. It is a magical destination where on certain clear December nights, the aurora borealis swirls and dances on invisible solar winds.

The Finns are stoic culture – except after a few shots of Vodka when they may break into song or break every piece of furniture in your house.  They are a remarkably resilient people and have a fierce history of independence dating back to fated Roman efforts to subdue the tribes living in the “land of the cloudberries.”

“Michael, I have a dilemma,” Bobby said in a thick, educated accent. “Every year, my Finnish friend, Opi and I rent a Father Christmas suit and visit each other’s children, give them gifts, sing with them and then put them to bed” He hesitated. “Opi has abandoned me this year and has taken his family to Lapland. I have no one to play Joulupukki for my children. Could I get you to come over to my house, dress as Father Christmas and visit with them?” It was getting dark and in my late afternoon lethargy, I was feeling more like Scrooge than what the Finns refer to as “  Joulupukki- The Yule Goat”.  Yet, there was an unspoken ex-patriot protocol that when someone in your foxhole needs help, you rise to the occasion.

Within an hour, I was barefoot in a frozen side garden, slipping on boots, a red suit, and a white beard that would have made ZZ Top jealous. I slipped on a long elfin hat and moved across the condominium parking lot in search of their flat. An elderly Englishman walking his Westie looked at me with curiosity and shrugged, “a bit lost, aren’t you?”

I could not see very well through my beard and white bangs. I tripped over a potted plant and thumped against the front door. I could hear someone whispering in Finnish and squeals of excitement inside. Laila opened the door and I greeted them in butchered Finnish.  Bobby was taking pictures as I sat down to play with the children.  They jumped into my lap and sang a traditional Finnish carol.  The beard was gratefully disguising the fact that I had no idea what they were saying. I literally just bobbed up and down speaking gibberish.

The children hugged me with the strength of ten men. I felt myself slowly filling with that elusive goodwill and peace that perfumes the lives of those who choose to serve others. As I drove home, I suddenly saw this winter world for all its charm and tradition. It had lost its depressing decay and tired history. Our village was adorned with evergreens and white faerie lights winding down lampposts and across the eaves of brightly lit pubs. I was finally home.

I returned home to find  my own children restless and unable to sleep. Filled with gratitude and a recognition that Christmas was about my own rebirth, I settled at the edge of the children’s beds to lull them with a yuletide tale of medieval England.  The phone rang downstairs. “It’s Bobby” my wife yelled.

“Michael, I am around the corner now in the costume and was wondering if you wanted me to come in or just climb up on the roof and walk around” I had not expected this Finnish quid pro quo but eagerly encouraged him to come and inspect the house from the street as if he was sizing up how to land his sleigh on our narrow slate roof.

The children were still awake waiting for their story-teller when I instructed them to get up and peer between the indigo blue drapes to the street below where they might see something extraordinary. On this Christmas Eve, a 6’5″ Finnish Father Christmas visited my children on a dark and forgotten English close. “He’s so tall” My daughter squealed. “Santa tall?” my youngest asked rhetorically.  Outside, the oversized elf strained, continued to look for ways to enter our chimney.  The children watched mesmerized as The Yule Goat finally made his notations and disappeared into the night.

“Now quick” I whispered. “Get to bed before he sees you.” They leaped into their bunk beds and after twenty minutes of discussing Father Christmas, they fell into a satisfied sleep that carried them right into morning. It seemed that Christmas would find us after all, and came on the shoulders of a tall stranger from Lapland.

As my children progress into adulthood, I remind them of the visit from St Nicholas and hope they will carry this memory through the years until one night they might find themselves far from home and feeling disconnected from the spirit of the season.  Perhaps then, they will remember that misty, frigid night when they first caught a glimpse of Joulupukki and their own father discovered that Christmas happens wherever there are people.

The Cat Who Came For Christmas

“Thou art the Great Cat, the avenger of the Gods, and the judge of words, and the president of the sovereign chiefs and the governor of the holy Circle; thou art indeed…the Great Cat.” – Inscription on the Royal Tombs at Thebes

white-cat1

 It was Christmas time in England.  The great Wimbledon Common adjacent to our village was a rolling sea of frozen white after a hard frost.  I looked out the window and sighed.  After living abroad for two years, we could no longer avoid delivering on a promise made years earlier to our daughter, Brooke, that she would receive a kitten at the age of eight.

 Spring is lambing season and frankly, every other animal’s time of conception.  In the thick of a foggy, cold winter no animal in England gives birth, let alone moves until the dreary days of the winter solstice have passed.  Unphased by the odds of finding a furry companion for my daughter, I contacted every cattery, vet, animal shelter and pet shop within a 300 kilometer radius to no avail. The best I could turn up was a black ferret and of course, rabbits.  Miraculously, one store, Pets International Ltd. in southwest London, yielded a possible lead.  The owner was somewhat coy and wanted me to come in person.

 My visions of a massive pet-store filled with grinning kittens and puppies of every possible pedigree yielded to the hard reality of urban London as I passed Ladbroke’s off-track betting shops and abandoned buildings interrupted by the occasional Pig and Whistle pub.  I warily parked near the shop and entered the Twilight Zone.

 “Ahlooow, guv’nuh” the Cockney store owner bellowed.  He extended a filthy hand that he had wiped on his pants.  “Ron, git the white kit from the back, lad will ‘ya?” A hunched albino teenager with poor teeth shuffled into a maze of cages and sounds.  That was when the smell hit me like a wave of mustard gas.  It was like I had dived into a colossal dirty diaper that had been buried for weeks just beneath an inch of wood-shavings.  “ Yur a lucky one, you are, guv’nuh. Had a geezer in ‘ere yesterday that wanted to pay me two ‘undred quid for ‘er. “The boy brought out a filthy white kitten with watering eyes, a bloated stomach and a persistent sneeze. “ Oye,dah. I think she’s got the wurms.”  The owner shot a dirty look at the boy.

 “Well guv’nuh, that’ll be 180 quid ( pounds sterling )”.  “ 180 sterling ?  You have got to be kidding me ?  It’s just an ordinary house cat “ He sized me up and smiled a toothless grin and shook his head, feigning sympathy.  “ I seems to recall you sayin’ you wanted ‘er for yer li’l girl.  Like I said, a geezer was jus’ in ‘ere and was all set to pay”.  I asked him if he could wait a minute.  It’s hard to think when you are at the gunpoint of a modern day highwayman.  I called the vet and described the cat’s symptoms.  The vet was classically British and very non-committal, “well, mister Turpin.  I suppose you can wait until spring and find a nicer, healthier animal.  Or, you can rescue this poor creature.  She probably has ring worm, conjunctivitis and an assortment of other maladies. Nothing we probably cannot cure” ( I am sure you can….for another for a thousand pounds )

 This was not the way it was supposed to go.  This purchase was supposed to be a sort of Charles Dickens day at an animal Curiosity Shoppe owned by a Fezziwig character who had this amazing kitten with an IQ of an Oxford grad that smelled wonderful like warm chestnuts and Christmas.  We would drink hot rum and laugh about old times we’d never shared.  He was supposed to give me the cat for free with a promise that I tithe to the poor.  “Ok, I’ll take her …” I rolled my eyes.  I could have sworn the shop owner drooled.

 The drive home was a disaster.  The kitten yowled in her box and I took her out to comfort her in my lap – – bad mistake. Driving on left side of the road in London is chaotic and scary enough.  Try it with a scared kitten running up your neck.  The car lost control and I hit a trashcan, ending up on a curb.  I collected myself.  It was like a Farrelly Brothers movie as the cat flew at me in terror each time I set her down.  My car weaved wildly across Richmond Park and up the A3 to Wimbledon where I finally arrived home and honked for my wife as a signal.

 With the kids temporarily distracted, we ushered the kitten up to our bathroom and bathed her.  As dark, dirty water swirled down the tub, a fluffy snowflake with crystal blue eyes emerged, sneezed and then padded quietly over to the litter box and went to the “loo”.  She purred loudly as she curled in my wife’s lap.  “Oh, she’s so precious” she whispered.  I was nursing the scratches all over my neck and face.  Hopefully the local constable would not see me and assume I had accosted someone while jogging in the Common.

 After learning from the vet that the cat indeed had virtually every disease except Ebola, and lighter $ 400 for various medications, we returned home to hide the kitten in our bathroom.  For two long days, we dodged the children’s curious questions about our now, off limits bedroom.  Christmas Eve finally arrived.  The plan was to put the cat in a basket and have Brooke find the kitten that was left by Father Christmas.  The cat would not cooperate.  The cat was terrified of enclosed spaces and would fly at me with fur and claws and frantically tear around the house.  All night I tracked and captured the animal.  About 6 AM, in the dark dawn of a cold Christmas morning,  both cat and man were exhausted and I succeeded in corralling the animal long enough to place her in the basket.  Brooke came down the stairs and screamed with glee.  “ He brought her, he brought her…Father Christmas, how does he do it ?” Looking at those blue eyes, she said , “I think I will call her ‘Crystal’ ”. I sat exhausted, oddly feeling sorry for myself.  She’ll never know it was me.

 I understand now that perhaps anonymous giving is the most evolved form of stewardship.  I watched as Brooke whisked off her new best friend, while I unconsciously scratched the circular red rash on my neck.  The ringworm was already beginning to appear.

A Passage to Italy – Part One: Just Don’t Look Down

[Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy] (LOC)
[Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy] (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)
It had been raining for several weeks in Rome – a lingering and inconvenient wet cotton hangover of a hard winter.  As our plane touched the tarmac, the valley of the Tiber shimmered under its first sustained spring sun.  The fields were filled with blood red poppies and yellow mustard.  The April air was honey scented citrus, hyacinth and jasmine. Spring had arrived on a smile from Jupiter and an entire nation now rushed outside like children escaping school at the final bell.

Our trip had become a pilgrimage of sorts – my chance to prolong the adolescence of one of my children by escaping to Europe for one week.  In a time of tangled earphones, bent heads glued to smart phones and castrated dinner conversation; I was gambling that these trips might yield some precious memories and a chance to sew a few seeds of wonder.  The children had almost forgotten what it was like to be lashed to the same mast – an ancient mariner and his apprentice sailing together across a deep strait of water far from the distractions and conveniences of home.

Italy is a brilliant orchestra with no conductor.  It is the perfect place to reconnect with those things that may be missing or not visible in life.  The heart is always dreaming of the beyond and we often neglect our imaginations and our capacity to fill our days with childlike fascination.  Any pilgrimage is about the journey and those you meet along the way.  It is a chronology of life moments in which one travels, clearing the mind of the temporal and seeking the deeper insights only found in other people and in places where our significance is subordinated to a greater purpose that pulses around us.

For a nation whose debt makes the USA’s fiscal cliff appear more like a children’s slide, the Italians seem to shrug off the mounting complexities of their excesses and roll their eyes at the austerity measures that must now reshape public and social policy if Italy wants to remain a part of the euro and the European Union. For many, taxes and debt are a way of life and with a government that has the life expectancy of a housefly, it seems useless to spend a sunny day worrying about the horizon line clouds. In a nation where history and tradition are knotted together like tangled kite string, complications are a fact of life.   In the last few months God’s emissary on earth, a standing Pope, has resigned for the first time in the history of the church. He is now creating complications, as the government has never had to allocate pension payments to a Pope.

To make matters worse, there is no government because the Italian Parliament cannot agree on a coalition that would be legitimate enough to preside over anything other than a food fight. Gas is $11.00 a gallon but the biggest complaint is over the use of a new Autostrada digital camera system designed to photograph and fine the nation’s notorious speeders. This is a huge problem for a country built on its genteel infidelities.  Divorce courts are filling with wives who now have proof that their husbands are cheating on them.  Imagine a wife’s surprise as she opens the mail to spy a ticket and photograph of her husband and an unknown younger woman near Sorrento when he was supposed to be north in Bologna on business.  Mama mia!

Lazio and AC Roma are wallowing in the middle of the pack of the Italian champions league while hated Juventus has moved into first place.  This is of much greater concern than national debt, mounting taxes or the possibility that Silvio Berlusconi who makes Caligula look like a Trappist monk, is still trying to worm his way back as prime minister.

In Rome, we visited new appointed Pope Francis at the Vatican, enduring throngs of genuflecting pilgrims.  Like attending a Notre Dame football game, it just all makes you want to become Catholic.  It’s like being part of a huge dysfunctional royal family with secrets and power. To be a Catholic is dwell at the feet of Popes, Saints, Templars and martyrs.  Rome is a pantheon to rich historical paradoxes – incredible charity and hidden vice, personal sacrifice and hypocritical indulgence, generosity and profligacy. The new pontiff has promised more open leadership. Most like me, are just hoping he might share the remaining secret of Fatima, which might provide a hint as to whether the Jets might make it back to the Super Bowl, or the GOP will take back the White House.

My youngest son and I spend much of our time with my close friend Vincenzo, a Roman native who has been a friend for over fifteen years.  He loves his city and speaks in emphatic broken English as he regales us with legends, embellished facts and scrupulous details of battles from his beloved Punic Wars with Hannibal.  We walk slowly devouring monuments to pagan Gods, organized religion, imperial empires and theocratic republics. Enzo hesitates after regaling us with stories of the great Roman commander Scipio and his Carthaginian nemesis, the genius Hannibal.  He shakes his head and waves a dismissive hand as if to indict the present as a time of profound decline – the nomadic and cynical offspring of a once great civilization.  “Incredible.” He blurts out to no one in particular.  “Our country is like a beautiful woman with dirty feet. If you want to stay married, you just must learn not to look down.”

Enzo concludes this evening’s dinner with a story that relates to his country’s debt crisis. “There was a man who was plagued by his debts to his neighbor and he could not sleep. Every night, tossing and turning.  His wife, annoyed up with her husband’s walking of the floor asks him what is the problem. He looks at her and brings his hands to his face.  ‘I have such a big problem. I owe our neighbor so much money and I cannot repay him.’ The wife listens and calmly walks across the room and opens up the window facing their neighbor’s house.

“Signor. Wake up. My husband can not pay you back your money!”

She turns to her husband and smiles. ‘Go to sleep.  It is no longer your problem.  It is  now his problem.’”

The Snobbery of Chronology

Replica of the helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship...
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The Snobbery of Chronology

As we crawl out from underneath the havoc wrought by Irene and as we stare at the newspaper headlines each day, I am reminded of the anxiety and angst that accompanied the new millennium in December of 1999.

Aside from the fact that Hebrews viewed January 1, 2000 as the date 5760 AD, Buddhists viewed it as 2544 and Muslims – the year 1420, the Western conceit that the year 2000 held grave significance for the rest of the world was both amusing and terrifying.

Y2K doomsayers and Armageddonists portended the end of civilization.  During this time of great angst, a book authored by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger was unceremoniously published in England and simply titled, The Year 1000.  The author, a medieval scholar, sought to offer the English public some perspective on the daily life of an Anglo Saxon peasant in the year 1000 and to consider the significance of one thousand years of “progress” in Anglican society.

The ability to piece together the daily thoughts, events and travails of those who labored over ten centuries ago would have been an impossible task had it not been for a diligent eleventh century monastic clerk who created a series of pictures and Latin narratives describing daily life known as the Julius Work Calendar.  The calendar unlike many other narratives of medieval learning had a near death experience in the mid sixteenth century  during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the Roman Catholic church and its monasteries. An obscure English historian discovered the documents risked death to preserve the strangely illustrated chronology documenting the lives of common as well as landed individuals.

The calendar became a distant mirror through which modern society could see its own reflections and those of our ancestors. The monk that painstakingly maintained the record of daily living in the year 1000,  painted a picture of kings, lords, ploughman, women and children – – their triumphs and tragedies in a time when death, discomfort and disease were constant companions.  It is believed to be the most accurate record of its kind in the first millennium.

Prior to 1066, Anglo Saxon England was a kingdom characterized by contradictions. It was an age of faith and fear. People lived in profound uncertainty.  There was universal recognition that society could not survive without a profound faith in God.  People were heavily burdened in this agrarian society.  Devils and saints fought for the souls of each citizen of the realm.  People took Satan seriously and often attributed unexplained phenomena and bad luck to the unholy evils that sought to inhabit the twilight shadows and the dark corners of men’s hearts.  Elves, fairies, demons, trolls and goblins inhabited the uncharted lands and the superstitious recesses of people’s minds.  The church fought to diffuse these influences with their own army of saints who offered their lives as an example of sacrifice and faith.  Saints were thought to inhabit holy places and powerful spirits were believed to be embodied in relics that were stored at these sites.

Medieval Anglo Saxon England was characterized by strong individuals, fed on beef from lean, free range animals whose fat content was a fraction of today’s processed food.  Life expectancy was short, only mid-forty; a fifty year old considered an elder.  Boys, as young as 12, were expected to swear allegiance to King Ethelred and to be prepared to go to battle for the kingdom.  Girls married in their early teens to men often two to three times their age.  It was routine to lose more than one child to plague, famine or accident.

Villages functioned as tightly knit communities and were the central threads in a tenuous tapestry held together by hard work and a cunning to survive.  People went by Christian names, not surnames.  One’s vocation often became as significant as their Christian name.  Surnames evolved out of the recognition of one’s parents,  Michael, son of John – – Michael Johnson. Alfred, son of the Shepherd – – Alfred Shepherd.

The English arrival in ancient Celtic England coincided with the departure of the Romans after 400 years of rule.  The swords of the Saxons, Angles and other Germanic tribes clashed and cast a new direction for England.  In bringing some semblance of order, they brought their churches and the role that the church played as the chief interpreter of all that happened in the past, present and future.  Village churches were the economic, social and spiritual hubs of these small societies.  “God was King in Heaven and Ethelred was King on Earth,” remarked one scholar.

Living an honorable life among the various hardships was the ultimate measure of a man.  As with today’s society, there were disparities between those with wealth and the poor but it was much less pronounced and it did not compensate to extend one’s life expectancy.  Rich and poor were separated by the basic necessities of living – – stone and brick versus wood and mud.  Lords offered protection to serfs in exchange for fealty and servitude.  Virtually everyone was aligned with a powerful person and with this allegiance often followed a modest stipend or improvement to one’s quality of life.  Society was more egalitarian than one might think.  The fates were recognized and constantly acknowledged as life’s great equalizer.

CS Lewis was quoted as referring to the “snobbery of chronology”.  Lewis’ premise was that as a modern society we tend to view anyone who lived before us with a degree of patronizing nostalgia.  By studying our ancestors, reading about them and studying their lives we feel superior to them and in doing so, believe we must know more.  We certainly have facts, science and fiber optic technology that have all shined a bright light deep into the recesses of our imaginations and fears and in doing so, dispelled myths and swept away archaic views.  However, it also crowded out that critical need to believe in something greater than oneself to cope with the vagaries of an uncertain world.

We have extended our chronological lives and increased our material wealth but have we proven that we have more integrity, wisdom and humility than those that lived a millennium before?  CS Lewis wondered that in times of great moral and personal strife, does modern day society’s sophistication enable us to face hardships and challenges with the same determination, grit, humor and fortitude as those who lived before us?  Perhaps, 1000 years ago, people did not live longer or as well, but perhaps if we explored more deeply how they lived, we might develop a greater understanding of what it means to live more nobly.

Francophile

The Motto of the French Republic Liberty, Equa...
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Francophile

“The French constitute the most brilliant and the most dangerous nation in Europe and the best qualified in turn to become an object of admiration, hatred, pity or terror but never indifference” (Alexis de Tocqueville)

I love France and the French.  No, really. I trust their sartorial intuition and am intoxicated by their fields of lavender and sunflowers, their ancient hill towns, alpine mountains, rugged coast and wind swept countryside.  The French people, particularly Parisians, are like an aging actress – seductive, entitled, proud, elegant, stubborn, self absorbed, mercurial and somewhat unpredictable.  I have come to accept their political contrarianism as a sort of symbiotic fact of life.  I also love to lampoon the French at every possible turn.  The French insist on positioning themselves as a rational and more egalitarian alternative to American hegemony and its “McDonaldization de le Monde”.  Every protagonist needs an arch enemy. Sherlock Holmes had Dr. Moriarty.  Superman had Lex Luther and Republicans have Obama  The French need America.

America is a country where everyone has time to mow their three-acre lawn each week,but no one has time to cook their own food; a country where “evil-doer” and “do-gooder” are both negative characterizations; a country whose academic institutions are better known for their athletes than for their scholars; a country whose car parks are bigger than the buildings they serve; a country where it is possible to purchase (and theoretically consume) sugar-frosted honey-coated deep-fat-fried cheese sticks; a country where they play a brand of football which involves minimal use of the foot and maximal use of the hands; a country which calls itself the Land of the Free yet has the world’s second highest incarceration rate, behind Russia; a country where only the well-to-do ride bicycles; and a country where ( up until very recently ) petrol costs less than bottled water.  – A French View of America, PurePolitics

Their cocksure arrogance and serial devil’s advocacy to anything American just begs for me to assault their penchant for wine, cheese, infidelity and the bloodless surrender.  The French have infiltrated American culture and our lexicon.  The French gave us the term, coup d’état, which involves taking over a government by force or deception while the leader is vacationing in Cannes. They gave us,  “Je ne sais quoi” which means “ I have no freaking idea what that reminds me of so I am going to draw on my fourteen years in le Grand Ecole to say something sophisticated that means nothing.“  What about “Laissez-faire”?  a form of government which is tantamount to a parent running a meth lab.

“Marie, where are les enfants?” “I believe the children are with your mistress, no?“  And, le piece de la resistance?  “Raison d’être” translating to “reason to exist” which for the French, is to be par excellence – – preeminently supreme above all others.

“I would rather have a German division in front of me than a French one behind me.” —General George S. Patton

I developed my tendency to take the starch out of the French while living in Europe. Working with our French operations was a sociological adventure. We had a worker’s council threaten to strike over whether we would install a sales management system.  The labor union leadership did not like the idea of someone monitoring employee performance and potentially paying for those results.  Imagine that!  We had 35 hour work weeks with employees swapping building access cards in order to work longer than 35 hours – – trying not to get caught by those who were trying to enforce the 35 hour rule designed to drive full employment.  We had executives that were cheaper to move aside than to pay a mandatory three year severance. They became frozen fixtures, too proud to leave and too angry to do anything other than criticize management.  My French colleagues referred to the seventh floor which housed these malcontents as “le mausoleum”.  The Parisian staff were by far, the most educated, unprofitable, dynamic, dysfunctional, sarcastic and elegant team we employed.  Teams were merely a shell for individual contributors who competed with one another for success.  This competition of individuals, many of whom were educated in the best schools, was unproductive and highly entertaining.  Personally, I loved it.  Professionally, it drove me crazy.

“France is a mouse with the skin of an elephant ; America is an elephant with the skin of a mouse” ! C. Nadeau

Whether it was the French’s decision not to commit troops to Iraq or a persistent condemnation of our foreign policy, the French remain committed to being distinguished as a mature alternative to adolescent America.  It is lost on many of the new intelligentsia that our countries’ histories are inexorably bound by periods of mutual necessity and alliance: the French helping America gain its freedom during the Revolutionary War or US soldiers fighting and dying in places like the Ardennes and Normandy to liberate France.  Somewhere along the way, our co-dependence yielded to cultural and philosophical differences with each side assailing the other for their self serving values and blind excesses.  And just when we finally screwed up the courage to sacrifice our Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Brie cheese, French wines and god forbid, “French” Fries, along came French President Nicholas Sarkozy pledging to build a stronger bridge with the USA and position France to compete in the new global economy by loosening the noose of suffocating social programs. “Mon Dieu, Jacqueline! President Sarkozy is a capitalist loving, Walmart shopping, American loving traitor! Have you seen his new girlfriend ? The République française is in pieces, n’est pas?”

“In response to the recent terror attacks in Spain, the French government have raised their terror alert status from Run to Hide.”  – Somewhere on a Wall Street trading floor

Thankfully, the French are so predictable. While Sarkozy initially robbed us of our ability to dislike or tease the French, he quickly yielded to popular demands and a deeply distrustful society.  His proposals to reform pensions to mirror private sector schemes led to public workers strikes and eventually it was easier to kick the crepe down Rue St Germain than to start espousing Western notions of personal responsibility.  The French are generally suspicious of success and feel that capitalism promotes a level of corruption and institutionalized discrimination in business and government.  This distrust of government and business manifests itself in a refined intellectual cynicism where corporations and wealth are seen as having corrupted the ideal of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”

Like Richard Burton and Liz Taylor, we simply cannot live with or without the French.  Our contempt for one another should be overshadowed by the fact that we are both great societies and that we need one another. It is true that democratic socialism is not compatible with neo conservative capitalism.  Yet, the USA is learning that we desperately need global partners and that we can do more to support the least among us in our society.  The French, on the other hand, are learning hard lessons about the impact of economic immigration, the burden of massive social programs and inefficient labor law.  We are in essence, stumbling toward one another in a blinding storm – – the aging actress and the powerful adolescent.  We may end up together but we will always be odd bedfellows.

Vive le difference.

The Beautiful Game

Beckham prepares for a set piece. Wow: Beckham...
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Whenever the ball flew toward our goal and a score seemed inevitable, Jesus reached his foot out and cleared the ball.  ~Author unknown, from an article in Rio de Janeiro’s Jornal dos Sports

Moving from Northern California in April, 2000 to the mist swept mud and daffodils of springtime London upset every aspect of my life.   I struggled to acclimate to slate gray days, congested urban living and 6000 miles of separation from all that was familiar.  We had crash-landed on a foreign planet that was a mass of contradictions – history, tradition, bourgeois gentrification and blue collar working class grit.  England was a fierce tribal culture whose allegiances were brilliantly imbued in the rich palette of its colorful football club jerseys.  In an ancient land of Saxon cathedrals and Norman churches, very few of its citizens actually attended Sunday worship service.  Football had become the theology of choice for this secular, post-industrial power.

Soccer had always seemed to me a boring half-sport of gnat like foreigners flopping and feigning injury at the slightest contact.  As a parochial American, I believed that time would bring the rest of the world to our standard of sport – American football and baseball.  I could not imagine powerful American athletes abandoning their shoulder pads and batting gloves to play a game that allowed a tie as a final score.  A tie to an American is the equivalent of kissing your sister.  Watching European football was as exciting as painting a fence.

We descended into a nation filled with great expectations.  The English were once again preparing to invade Belgium and Holland to compete for European bragging rights in Euro 2000. Sixteen countries participated in what many felt was the truest test of national capabilities and perhaps, a leading indicator of relative strength heading into the long awaited 2002 World Cup. England had qualified for the Euro 2000 tournament and was somewhat optimistic to have drawn Portugal, Romania and Germany in its bracket.  Only two teams would advance to the Knock Out Stage round of sixteen.  Midfielder David Beckham, captain Alan Shearer, forward Michael Owen and the ancient 36-year-old goalkeeper, David Seaman, anchored the British squad.  The majority of the national team played for the three most popular football clubs in the Premiere division – – Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool.

On the designated days of the national football matches, the entire emerald island of England shuttered its doors and opened its pubs.  It was standing room only as bars spilled raucous patrons out on to the uneven cobble stoned sidewalks.  Enormous roars and gasps could be heard echoing down every mews, court and close as 70M people were united.  It was as if it was 1939 again and the country’s honor and security must be defended at all cost.

Within weeks of our arrival, my eldest son was suddenly wearing a Michael Owen jersey with its prominent red cross of St George.  Our neighbors across the close Paola and Arnaud were a house divided – as her Italian and his French banners competed for the affections of their two-year-old son. The city of London revealed its complex DNA as legions of immigrant vendors, shopkeepers, workers and ex-pats brazenly broadcast their loyalties and predictions.

The English team had a disastrous first round – falling to a surprisingly talented Portugal, recovering to beat an aging but tough German squad 1-0,  only to collapse in a must-win game with Romania 3-2.  England had not won a major championship since 1966 when Bobby Charlton led the UK to its last World Cup at Wembley Stadium. Euro 2000 was my walk across the pitch of national football mania and with it came the yawning maw of a carnivorous UK press that devoured their struggling national squad with the precision of Jack the Ripper.

Despite seeing their team not advance into the round of 16, British fans stayed glued to their tellies as they focused on the remaining teams – -many of whom were populated with personal fan favorites who played professionally in the UK’s premiere division. The French, anchored by Arsenal’s Thierry Henri and Juventus striker Zinedine Zidane pushed their ways into the tournament finals with a win over Cinderella semi-finalist Portugal and their prolific scorer Nuno Miguel Soares Pereira Ribeiro aka “Gomes”.  Italy, on the feet of Francesco Totti and Filippo Inzaghi, danced, flopped, gesticulated and headed its way through Romania and a thrilling overtime win over Netherlands on penalty kicks.

The stage was set for the Euro 2000 final match between the Gaelic greyhounds and the animated Italians.  On July 2 in Rotterdam, the Italians struck first on a Marco Delvecchio bullet past the bald and brawny French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez. France tied the game in the final minute of the match vaulting the two clubs into overtime.  45 minutes into overtime, French striker David Trezeguet became a national hero as he took a crossing pass from Robert Pirès and won the tournament for France.

The tournament had been an unmitigated failure for the English.  British soccer fans were next to feel the sting of European media criticism for street brawls initiated by a few drunken hooligans. While it was a nadir moment for English football, it marked the beginning of my appreciation European football. I was hooked.

Over the next year, England fought to qualify for the upcoming 2002 World Cup in a series of matches and non-ranked, tune-up games known as “friendlies”. France had been guaranteed a spot and it was up to the English to grab one of the other 13 slots that were to be contested in over 100 matches across Europe.  In the year leading up to the World Cup tournament, 193 countries played 777 matches across five continents in their quest for a berth.

England’s chances were fading. In a final do or die match, the Brits had to depend on a German tie or loss to Finland and a tie or win against Greece to join the tournament.  The nation held its breath.  The press began digging a deep grave for the stoic and cerebral imported English coach Sven Goran Erickson.

The game did not proceed as planned. After a late goal by Greece put them back on top, 2-1, England was trailing deep into post regulation injury time.  As the press whetted their knives, midfielder and captain David Beckham unleashed a free kick that took off like a curling bullet – – defying physics as well as a confounded Greek goalie.  As the shot arced over the wall of Greek defenders, its topspin bent the ball just under the cross bar and England was in the World Cup.  The island shuddered and the popular phrase, “ Bend It Like Beckham” entered the world lexicon.

Two years later, the World Cup lived up to its incredible billing with 32 of the greatest teams vying for a shot at the champions finals match in Yokohama, Japan.  England made it through bracket F, known as the “Group of Death” – – Argentina, Sweden and Nigeria.  Across in Group D, a debutante United States fought its way into the quarterfinals only to lose to finalist Germany.  However, it was in this tournament that I became infatuated with a tanned squad of green and yellow clad boys who attacked the pitch with the speed of cheetahs, the grace of gazelles and the joy of children at play during a twilight alleyway football game.  They were the Brazilians – – a free spirited, handsome clan of kindred spirits weaving through opponents, precisely passing through keyhole lanes and moving like phantom winds that swirled down through these magnificent Asian football stadiums.

The Brazilians’ Ronaldo scored a remarkable 8 goals over the course of the two-week event, followed by an even more youthful and perpetually grinning teammate, Rivaldo who registered 5 superhuman goals.  It was in this tournament that our Brazilian baby sitter and part time journalist, Elaine Medeiros, shared that the Brazilians had an expression to describe football.  They simply called it, “Joga Bonito” or the beautiful game.

As the Brazilians went on to win their fifth World Cup, I came to appreciate the beauty, youth and brilliance of soccer.  It could ignite a nation and eviscerate its soul – all within a 90-minute match

My lens to the world changed across those endlessly pink twilight summers in England – watching this beautiful game.  As I attended Fulham and Chelsea football matches in the fall and winter, I became caught up in the sheer fanaticism of English soccer.  On the continent, I attended a game at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid to watch Real Madrid play archrivals, Barcelona. It was not just the teams competing but it was the hearts minds of the Catalan and the Castilian states.

As the World Cup builds to its crescendo over this week, I am excited and at the same time, homesick for Europe where entire countries stop and linger, smelling and reveling in the deep fragrance of youth – – its skill, passion and its mistakes – – all played out across a single soccer pitch.  Its beauty is in a perfectly executed header.  It is a magnificent diving save.  It is a blind pass and a misdirected shot on goal.  It is one man, possessing brilliant feet weaving between adversaries toward a crouching sentinel.  It is errors, yellow cards, flags and banners.  It is a child in an aquamarine jersey that simply says “Messi”. It is the grabbing, pushing and posturing of a corner kick.  Above all, it is the emphatic, glorious echo of an announcer in a foreign tongue screaming the universal call to open the pantheons to another national hero – –  “GOAL, GOAL, GOAL, GOAL, GOAL!!!!!”

It is time for another FIFA World Cup.  So grab your channel changers and set your Tivo. Soccer, like the world in which we live, is magnificent, messy, inconsistent, sad, brilliant, and unpredictable.  It is an anthem for our planet as hundreds of millions follow for a fortnight the rotation of a single ball as it courses toward a net.

It is, as they say, the beautiful game.

Dreams of the Bosphorus

image“In reality, the great question remains: Who will control Constantinople?”  Napoleon Bonaparte

It was a cool May evening, as our passenger ferry coursed northeast along the Bosphorus. A warm breeze tumbled down from the Black Sea rising up only to be split by the prow of the pleasure ship. The black hole of a far eastern night was periodically interrupted by the glowing safety lights of dark, hulking freighters working their way past us to burst free into the Marmara Sea.  As the cargo ships passed,  our view was obscured to the east – a vision of ancient forts, modern apartment buildings and mosques bathed in ethereal green and blue lights.

My host, Nazim, appeared at a window, peering out to find me.  He was now sliding open the Captain’s door to the foredeck, allowing a burst of raucous laughter and music to escape. He moved silently across the wooden planks and gently clasped my shoulder.  “Our city is magnificent and mysterious, hey? – – Just like her.”He pointed through the bridge window down into a main cabin where a group of clapping men and women had formed a crescent surrounding a sultry, caramel skinned belly dancer.  Her silk hip scarf quivered and flashed with golden sequins as her body moved rhythmically to the Rom Sulukule music.

Earlier we had crossed under The Boğaziçi Köprüsü (Bosphorus Bridge), a grand arcing achievement of zigzagging suspension cables and pylons that stretched almost a half-mile across the horizon line connecting Europe and Asia.  The bridge, built in 1957, was the fulfillment of a vision to join two continents dating back to 500 BC and Darius I whose ambitions to invade into Greece and Europe would eventually clash with a 25 year old Macedonian commander named Alexander at the battles of Thermopylae and Gaugamela.  In the soft silk of this Istanbul night,  we moved through continents, time and space.  The sprawling city was a vast, milky way of motion – streaking automotive comets, black holes of collapsed history, and a thousand years of lights.

I had been dispatched against my will to work with our local Eastern European and Middle Eastern offices to better understand what investments were required to grow our indigenous business.  Much of our revenues had been historically derived from foreign multinationals doing business in countries like Turkey.  We relied on our offices in Istanbul and Ankara to coordinate our activities on the ground but never invested much to grow our local presence and brand. I preferred to work in our larger countries – – those with more revenues, mature infrastructure and developed markets.  I did not think I was being provincial in wanting to avoid these rough, and hardened pockets of raw commerce.  They were turbulent, risky and forever lashed to a fragile economic mast that would be tested over and over by winds of a political unrest.

Yet, my boss felt the opportunity was compelling. Turkey was the world’s 15th largest economy with a GDP of $880B.  It was hardly the chaotic, backward kingdom that I perceived to be constantly teetering uneasily on the edge of the 20th Century. This was a nation rising to meet the newly consummated European Union and the Western world.  It remained the only secular government in the Muslim world – a country with 73M practicing Muslims that trusted their army infinitely more than their government officials or financial institutions.  The army ensured appropriate stability and gave legitimacy to a government that sought to achieve greater regulatory, fiscal and legal certainty – – critical prerequisites to any country’s acceptance into the $12T Euro-zone.

Like  Rome, Istanbul grew to stretch across seven distinct hills – offering a skyline marked with the spires and minarets of mosques whose muezzins fervently called out for prayer five times a day to 11M residents.  Upon deplaning, I experienced that immediate sense of imbalance as I was engulfed by a miasma of scents – sewage, cumin, diesel, perfume, smoke, salt water, and concentrated humanity.  I unconsciously caressed the oddly shaped coins and bank notes that jingled in my pocket having exchanged my British pounds for Turkish Lira.  In developing countries, your Western brain cannot process quickly enough a culture with so few filters.  People do not speak, they shout.  Cars do not cruise, they cough, sputter, screech and honk.  Animals dart in and out of traffic dodging mopeds, motorcycles and bicycles swirling like twilight gnats.  Women move like phantoms swirling in hot wind and flowing bhurkas while a thousand eyes seemed to follow my every step.

Yet, I was unprepared for how Constantinople had transformed from a dusty, underdeveloped Ottoman relic to Istanbul, a wonderfully complicated city dominated by banking, telecom, infrastructure and textile companies. It was as intricate and unique as its precious Iznik tiles and patterned ceramics that accentuated its palaces and public markets.

This was the last stop on the fabled Orient Express releasing passengers into a seething anthill of antiquity, religious fervor, tradition and raw capitalism.  It seemed that with each minute, Turkey was building momentum toward inevitable and irreversible change.  Above the rail station on a peninsula that commanded a view of the fabled Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmar rested magnificent Tokapi Palace.  This golden age palace of Sultans dated back to the fifteenth century when Mehmed the Conqueror subjugated the final remnants of the Eastern Roman Empire.

In my travels to Istanbul, our country head, Nazim Mahmud became my guide, historian and lens to a world that Western culture had conspired to depict as backward and broken. Nazim was a passionate ambassador for his country.  He educated me on every detail of Turkish history ranging from Medmed’s capture of Istanbul to the successful Ottoman repulse of an invading Anzac invasion force at Gallipoli in 1917. As we walked, he led me into the Grand Bazaar, a cavernous domed labyrinth of over 4500 shops and stalls.  On this trip, he had stopped and purchased a book, The Long White Cloud- Gallipoli, by Buket Uzuner.  “I can see your fascination with WWI” he shared as he handed me the Turkish best seller.  “We perhaps picked the wrong side to support in WWI but we showed Churchill that we could defeat the world’s greatest navy.

The Grand Bazaar has been continuously the epicenter of commerce in Istanbul since the 16th century.  Gold, silver, ceramics, clothing and magnificent rugs are all distributed here through designated stalls and shops.  The art of purchasing any item is many ways a metaphor for all business.  It is hardly a sterile transaction. Commerce is a social, economic and cultural dance.  Negotiation is vital economic foreplay to Turkish business.  Any potential transaction is preceded by a courtship of mint tea, conversation leavened with grand, sycophantic compliments and finally, the merchandise.

A young shop owner, Mehet, offered me tea.  He discussed his desire for Turkey to join the EU and his cynicism over whether the West will ever truly accept an Islamic country as a member.  He shared fears that if Turkey’s ambition to join the European Union is rejected that it will make the country vulnerable for fundamentalism and more orthodox foreign and domestic policies.  “ We are on the edge of a falling into our future or plunging back into the past.”  For a young man in such a tiny business, Mehet seemed to contradict the region’s reputation of provincialism.  He certainly understood the complicated choices that lay ahead.

Later that night at dinner, I discussed the shifting plates of a new world order with young Turkish executives from our office.  These highly educated twenty-somethings exuded a sober optimism believing that the battle for the soul of Turkey would continue to rage well into the next decade.  “In many ways,“ a young woman commented, “ the first World War is still being fought.  While, the physical war ended in 1918, the ideological war of the West versus the Ottoman Empire has never ended.  Until Turkey joins the EU, there will always be a battle between authoritarian regimes and democracies for the hearts and minds of our people.“  Another young man jumped in. “ We feel terrible for what happened on 9/11 in America but you now know what it feels like to have consequences of your foreign policy occur within your borders.  (The day before a bomb had gone off in Ankara killing eight and injuring 23).  We are all in this together and we believe building consumer economies is the way to undermine fundamentalists.” I recall calling my wife that evening and relating to her how progressive Turkey had become.

Two months later, Chechen rebels seized my hotel and held all the guests hostage before peacefully negotiating a settlement with the government.  I was fortunate to be back in London at the time but I was rattled by the brush with reality. I thought about my dinner with those young, dynamic Turks who convinced me that their future depended on the West’s partnership. Without engagement, Turkey might more easily buy into the demonization of the West and drift backward toward authoritarianism.

That had been weeks ago.  I was now back in Istanbul standing with Nazim, looking across the dark evening waters.  I had to ask him about the Chechens.  He now knew me well enough to know it was on my mind.

He laughed and sighed. “You know, Michael, we have an expression: ‘abuk parlayan çabuk söner. ‘It means ‘What flares up fast, extinguishes soon.’  Whether it is inflation, Chechens or our naughty neighbors (Iran, Syria and Iraq), we will fulfill our destiny as a respected nation despite our obstacles.  It is our destiny. “

As I looked over to the shoreline, the modern buildings, old forts and minareted mosques did not seem so diametrically opposed.  Perhaps with Turkey finally coming of age, it was time for the West to accept them into the European Union.  While there are many who bitterly oppose yet another member nation whose debt is 40% of its GDP, there is a recognition that Turkey’s fate will exacerbate or diffuse the growing pressure within the region. With Turkey’s acceptance, perhaps the ideological warfare still waged from WWI might subside, breathing new life into the notion that Muslim and Christian cultures can forge a foundation for the future together.

A Saxon Christmas

A Country Christmas - 1913 Vintage Xmas card I...
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A Saxon Christmas

 

If Christmas Day be bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year”, Saxon Farmers Parable

The city along the Thames unfolds for the Christmas season like a flower opening to the sun. From Bond to Regent Streets on to Sloan Street and Kings Road, the twinkling white lights and the festive green of pine boughs are thoughtfully decorated along London’s main shopping arteries.  In small villages, the traditional high streets adorn lights and tasteful holiday cheer.  The West end of London transforms each year into a garrulous, friendly face like old Fezziwig grabbing you and twirling you around the open floor of his counting house.

Global warming has conspired to deny London its most famous winter accessory – a dusting of snow that accents ancient stone churches and sweeps through its narrow mews and lanes.  The pubs, now smokeless, become even more inviting – – deep cavernous hubs of good cheer and raucous debate.  Down to Trafalgar Square, a massive Norwegian pine is erected each year – – an annual gift of friendship from Oslo to commemorate the friendship and sacrifice the Brits extended to their Scandinavian brethren during World War II.  Skaters glide across opaque rinks near Marble Arch and Oxford Street.

Still, as with all things British, the holiday season is understated relative to America. Father Christmas is less inclined to appear on every street corner and instead runs a more discreet operation, much like MI5 does for domestic security.  Christmas carols are much more traditional and echo with reverence and deep religious conviction. Although less than 8% of Brits regularly attend church, great Norman and medieval churches are constant reminders of this country’s history of religious fervor.  The Protestants and  Catholics, now at peace, compete with many other religions, for hearts and minds at this special time of year.  Each vicar or priest is particularly attentive to their midnight mass or service.  The chill of a clear, December 24th night blended with a brisk walk across an ancient graveyard to Westminster Abbey, Southwark or St Paul’s cathedrals is enough to stimulate the most latent religious gene in anyone in attendance on Christmas Eve.

We know that the Christian holiday of celebrating Christ’s birth has its roots in the  ancient white chalk across the Plain of Salisbury, home to the mysterious Druids whose most enigmatic contribution to the history stands ominously as Stonehenge.  The winter solstice, known as “yule”, was a time of celebration as the dark days of winter were slowly giving way to longer days and shorter nights.  Homes were adorned with evergreens as a gesture of hope that warmer days and better harvests lay ahead. The celebration around the 22nd of December was an agrarian ritual.  Somewhere along the way, the Christian celebration of the birth of their messiah coincided with this festival set in the bleak midwinter.

The British celebration of Boxing Day which is on December 26th is one of many tradition differences that arise between Mother England and the USA. Other irregularities range from the harmonies of certain carols different and a much more subdued commercialism.  As I studied my English holiday tradition, I read in the London Times of some ancient yuletide rituals that had some how managed to survive centuries of transition and change.  In Devon, there is the tradition of the Ashen Faggot.  The faggot which can be a yule log or a traditional bundle of sticks is bound with bands of green ash branches and tossed into a blazing fire.  Each unmarried woman chooses a band and whichever band bursts open first indicates which maid is likely to be the next to be wed. The chaos carries on to Yorkshire in the most obscure seasonal cavorting called “Mumping”. Mumping involves going house to house with a Christmas tree followed by a resounding carol and then begging for a treat.

On to Herefordshire and wassailing ! Wassail comes from a mid fifteenth century English greeting, “waes hael”, which means either “Be well” or could be have been started by a very drunken, toothless Welshman who  forgot his toast and raised his glass of ale anyway and shouted ” what the hell!”  Irrespective of its roots, Wassail is a powerful ale based drink that was customarily mixed in a large bowl or tureen – – mixed with sugar, spiced apples, cream, spices and even small rodents (just kidding).  Saxon farmers drunk with holiday cheer (and copious amounts of wassail) would move from farm to farm greeting one another, occasionally attacking the odd Norman bystander.  At the end of December, the feudal Lord would herald the New Year and wish all good luck who belonged to the feudal family.  The serfs, in turn, “waes-haeled” back at him, and in doing so, confirmed fealty for another twelve months or at least until bonuses were paid.  The drunken spree took an even stranger turn in rural areas where the wassailants would begin to pound on trees in the orchards, bringing good luck and making it difficult for dormant pests to get a good night’s rest.  This often led to improved crops and several arrests. When reviewing this practice, the London Times went on to muse,“ and we wonder why they had such a problem recognizing that their cows were mad”.

We next travel across to Ireland, where we walk along the narrow streets and canals of James Joyce.  Tradition runs deep in this wonderful part of the world and the vigilant pursuit of good luck was always a priority.  The ancient tradition of The Hunting of the Wren is a strange Boxing Day activity.  A group of men would kill a wren, hang the dead bird on a pole and sell its feathers as lucky charms.   So, if you see drunken Irish men running around on December 25th trying to catch small birds, you have some cultural context.

The holiday season is inevitably about family.  Perhaps the Irish, more than most, seem to understand that anything can be overcome by preserving family, faith and good fortune.  As this Irish prayer conveys, a holiday is a time to give thanks and to ask one’s Maker for blessings and perhaps, the slightest edge:

May those who love us, keep loving us

For those who do not love us, may God turn their ankles

So we will know them by their limp.

Au Revoir Mon Enfant

Le Nôtre's central axis of the Tuileries' part...
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“On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur.”…. (We see well only with the heart)

The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The first beams of le soleil d’été crawled up the Champs D’Elysses like an early morning tide rising along the beaches of the Cote d’Azur. The city streets were littered with debris and the fading accents of revelry that had only just melted away with the sunrise.

Our street, Rue de Berri was quiet and not yet stirring.  The morning light was only tapping at the highest windows festooned with potted geraniums and midnight blue wrought iron.  A burst of wind, having wandered off the main boulevard carried the stale smell of an urban summer and brushed back our hair.

I had come to Paris with my 16-year-old daughter to suspend, even for a moment, her rapid ascent into the higher elevations of adulthood.  We had planned the trip for over a year but in such difficult times, I was tempted to cancel our journey. Yet, instinctively, I understood she was slipping away.  In time, she would become a distant speck on my horizon line as she pursued her raison d’être.

Given her increasingly independent routine, we had become passing ships. Extemporaneous engagement had been supplanted by negotiated interaction.  Our world was changing – with her universe expanding and mine contracting to supply, support and finance her inevitable departure.  It seemed my initials were slowly changing from M-A-T to A-T-M.  Paris was perhaps now, or never.

We wandered out into a magnificent, cloudless summer morning. Cafes hissed happily with the steam of espresso machines and joie d’ vivre. Sleep-deprived baristas mumbled at patrons as they laid out baskets of chocolate croissants and pastries.

The day would lead us across the Place d’ Concorde through the Tuileries Gardens and across the Seine to the Musée d’Orsay.  After studying Pissarro in art, she was amazed to see the original subject for her semester report, “Vegetable Garden and Trees in Blossom”, painted in Pontoise in the spring of 1877.  The masterpiece         hung prosaically on a wall alongside Manets, Renoirs and Matisse plein air oils.

We immediately fell into Van Gogh’s 1887 ” Starry Night Over The Rhone” with its glowing celestial swirls of starlight and the warm lights of taverns spilling across a sequined midnight blue river.

I was eager for her to see the whimsical strokes of Toulouse-Lautrec who prowled the bordellos and dancehalls of the Montmartre neighborhoods.  It was here that Paris shed any sense of morality and laid bare a world of venal feelings, colors and characters.

We finally fell out into a warm afternoon following the Seine, blown by a strong breeze and the need for motion.  We rented bikes at Vélib – the ingenuous Parisian bicycle rental kiosks and service stations strategically situated throughout the city.  We biked along the river to the Tour Eiffel, Le Trocadero and along bike paths to the Latin Quarter to explore, shop and lose ourselves in the historic, bustling alleys.

We exchanged more smiles and glances than words during our exploration.   As she slipped her arm into mine, it was worth a thousand affections and I had to resist acknowledging the moment.  I can still recall enjoying an experience with my father until he would shatter the moment with innocent enthusiasm. “Isn’t this great?” – a rhetorical question that would be rebutted with a superficial smile.  To publically memorialize any moment to a teen is to kill it – transforming it from substance to a saccharine platitude.  Formal moments were now implicit, having been explicitly left behind long ago like a discarded beanie baby or blanket.

On this night, le grand fete de la Musique- the music festival marking the first day of summer was spreading across the city center.  Our Metro screeched to a halt at Châtelet as we climbed up to a late afternoon multitude surging and straining to feel the youth and music of the June evening. In a deep caffeine and crepe blackout, we coursed through the narrows arteries of the Left Bank moving from one animated coterie of partiers and street performers. There was a sudden blood trail that led to a recently broken fight and three arrests. A young bohemian sat bloodied on the ground as police officers attempted to reconstruct the crime scene.

Across the Seine on the the Île de la Cité, steps that fell down to the quays and embankments served as an amphitheatre for hundreds of people listening to an African guitarist.  The bateau-mouches ( fly boats ) coursed silently across the slate blue water reflecting a night sky of stars and a palette of colored festival lights, lanterns and lamps in their wake.   Notre Dame’s buttresses were bathed in soft pastel light while inside, prayer candles and the gentle chants of medieval baroque music reverently beckoned passersby to sit and reflect. There was magic everywhere.

The Parisian summer night fell slowly – hesitating, and lingering like the gangly silhouettes of teens with their tangerine glow of cigarettes and faces occasionally illuminated with the paparazzi burst of light from a passing car.  Three AM.  It was the realm of these young vampires – sinewy, sartorial and invincible.  They possess a élan for life and belief that tomorrow only happens to other people.  While they wait for life to happen at night, la vie is invisibly passing them by day.  Their restless migration along narrow cobbled streets and across abandoned gardens is occasionally punctuated with a wild yell or pitched outburst. With the dawn, they vanish –presumably undead in some tiny garret apartment awaiting another twilight.

The following day, we travelled to Versailles – my daughter not much older than the Austrian Princess, Marie Antoinette who would marry Louis, Dauphin of France.  He would ascend the throne in 1774 to become Louis XVI.  Marie would reside at Versailles and at the Palace of the Tuileries until 1791 when the reign of terror ushered in France’s First Republic.

As we entered Versailles halcyon gardens, the clouds moved across a brilliant aquamarine sky – great man-o-wars casting shadows across fields of rolled hay and poplar trees. Against a backdrop of shimmering fountains, we descended into the gilded age of opulence and patrician consumption. The gardens of Versailles cover over 800 acres.  A mathematician’s dream, the property was perfectly symmetrical dominated by manicured 30′ high boxwood bosquets that formed intricate passages and mazes.  Alabaster sentinels – statues of mythological heroes frozen in perpetual triumph and tragedy, guarded each path’s junction.

We followed La Croix – The Grand Canal, a crucifix shaped lake edged with footpaths that skirted in and out of the shade of massive horse chestnut trees.  Magnificent swans patrolled the shallows for snails and rudely turned their tails and bottoms at us as they scanned the emerald lake for breakfast.

We stopped and lay across the rough grass staring up at the sky. A middle aged French couple descended the mild sloping hill to our left and sat to picnic.  Within minutes they were rolling across their blankets like mating water buffalo, indifferent to the great risk to one another or their violent public display of affection. We assigned them names and circumstances that seemed to only heighten our amusement. When “Monique’s” blouse started to hike up her alabaster trunk, we agreed that our lunch would be spoiled if we persisted on spying on this amorous wild kingdom encounter.

We returned to Central Paris and retraced the footsteps of Hemmingway, Pound, Sartre, Camus, Picasso, Stein and Fitzgerald.  We tossed back espressos at Les Deux Magots in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area.  I imagined them to be the opaque green absinthe liquors that fueled the conversations of great writers in Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast.  We moved on to shadow artists in Montmartre and peruse the Quai booksellers that sat rigidly next to their long green coffins of artifacts.

On our last evening, we crawled up on to the roof of our hotel and watched the golden lights of the Tour Eiffel.  Off in the opposite direction, The Sacre Coeur shined like Camelot at Montmartre. We sat silent drinking in the history and elegance.

Just as suddenly as we had stumbled on to Rue d’ Berri, we were descending into a hazy east coast evening, falling back into old patterns – texting friends, emailing and checking the blackberry. As the car crunched across the gravel of our front driveway, my daughter turned to hug me.  “Daddy, that was the greatest trip.  I will remember it forever.” Just then, her phone rang and her face lit up recognizing a friend’s voice.  She ran upstairs as I lugged in our pregnant suitcases.

Tickets to De Gaulle? Expensive. Hotel Lancaster? Very expensive.  Sitting on the roof of a hotel looking across the City of Lights through the eyes of your own daughter?

Priceless….

How To Make An Italian Chef Smile

How To Make An Italian Chef Smile

 

It had been a rough first six months since our move to England. Each child was showing the strain of change and unfamiliar circumstances.  I arrived home one evening from a business trip to find my wife striking the washing machine in complete frustration. 

“This stupid thing is so small I can only wash one sheet at a time.”  It seemed as though it would never stop raining. The fickle sun would appear at odd and inconvenient times like an unreliable friend.  While intellectually invigorated by our European move, we underestimated the emotional trauma of being cast adrift from friends, family and the familiar rhythm of our Northern California lifestyle.

 

My parents had joined us in London for the children’s October break and like most Brits, we immediately fled the damp emerald isle for the warmer embrace of Southern Italy.   We landed in Rome and were immediately serenaded by the whimsical strings of a city wired on life and caffeine.  Rome was a marching band with no conductor.  Every Italian seemed to move without regard for traffic lanes, lights or legal parking.  The classically laissez faire Italian police were more intent on staking out single women than suspicious characters. Vespas buzzed like mosquitoes while autumn starlings banked and rose in an aerial ballet. With each hour, we regained our warm weather equilibrium and sense of adventure.  After three days of fountains, forums and fusilli, we escaped north to explore Florence and the surrounding ancient hill towns of Tuscany resting like unsteady siena crowns on the crests of hills forested with beech, oak and chestnut trees. 

 

We arrived at our hotel, Villa La Massa, on October 31st. The chrome morning mist rose slowly, taking its time to shake off low gray clouds.  A wet chill loitered in the ravines and hollows and in between the villa’s main house and the guesthouses that peered over the southern banks above the Arno. There were no black cats, pumpkins or dark effigies of witches and goblins.  The long, pebbled driveway guarded by columned cypress trees and an ancient wrought iron gate, showed no signs of imminent pagan celebrations.  Our children, ages 7, 4 and 2, were only mildly interested that it was All Hallows Eve.  Back in America, giggling adrenaline-fueled goblins would be racing in and out of the shadows and light cast by houses a thousand grinning jack-o-lanterns.  It would be a night of sugar, ghouls and mayhem.  I sighed.  At our old home, we would be wandering our neighborhood – – faceless flashlights inching along dark streets and cul de sacs greeting the silhouettes and voices of our friends. Halloween was America and an essential milestone in the life of a young family and we were missing it.   

 

On this warm, windy day, I volunteered to take the children to the Etruscan hill town of Fiesole while my parents and wife wandered the back alleys of Florence. We spent a glorious morning chasing and playing among the ancient amphitheatres, roman baths and ruins.  A local restaurant owner adopted us, treating us to lunch at his local café where we were overwhelmed with freshly baked foccacia, homemade pastas and pizza. As the sun’s arc dropped toward the West, we descended into the valley of the Arno, navigating a patchwork quilt of vineyards and farms.  As we followed the narrow road back to our hotel, I could see the Duomo and the medieval skyline of the city that was once the cradle of the Italian city-states.  For all the enthusiasm I felt for being in this special place, I was suffering from a parochial melancholy wondering whether my decision to work overseas had been a mistake.  Was I denying my children a quintessentially American childhood?  Would they one day ask me, “Dad, what’s Halloween?”

 

European interest in the celebration of Halloween was mixed.  Given the more reverent traditions surrounding festivals like The Day of The Dead, Italians resisted the secular commercialism of monsters and Milky Ways.  Yet, there were signs of Catholic unrest.  In Milan, Halloween festivities were held by American schools and often spilled over into local communities.  In Bologna, the Miss Strega” (Miss Witch) beauty contest was held to identify the most enchanting sorceress.  A few Roman novelty shops had displayed masks, monster memorabilia and treats.  Yet, the Villa La Massa showed no signs of western infestation. It was just another sleepy Tuesday.

 

Unbeknownst to me, my clever spouse had packed a Donald Duck mask, a spider man outfit and all the accessories that a Hawaiian dancer would ever require.  Prior to departing that day for Florence, she had approached the charming concierge, Sylvia, explaining that the children were far from home and missing an important holiday; would she allow them to come down to the foyer that evening to trick or treat – knocking on the office and storage room doors of the sparsely occupied hotel where we might give them candy?  She left uncertain if our polished patron understood her request.

 

Once home, my wife whipped the kids into a happy lather explaining the significance of Halloween, their apparel and trick or treating.  Dusk brought frenetic preparation and squealing enthusiasm as the children donned their costumes.  I walked down the narrow hallway where a sinister suit of armor looked disapprovingly on my waddling two year old Donald Duck who would not stop making sounds like a dying Merganser.  A serious super hero and a seven-year-old hula girl bolted past the wobbly toddler.   We fell down the elegant staircase like a spilled bucket of tennis balls, crashing across the cobblestone breezeway toward the main house.  There were signs of movement inside the lobby as shadows darted across the row of equal-sized, closely placed windows. Soft light spilled out into the courtyard from the prominent portico.

 

Sylvia gasped with sheer delight as my youngest child quacked, announcing his arrival.  To my surprise, the entire hotel staff lined the foyer like an honor guard.  Each employee – waiters, maids, porters, groundskeepers and drivers – was holding a basket filled with homemade Italian treats.  Throughout the day, the Italians had baked and wrapped homemade cookies and chocolates.  The children were instructed to close their eyes as their hosts darted off to the first floor rooms. As each child approached a guest room door, it would swing open with an Italian feigning surprise and raising their hands in disbelief.  Sylvia suddenly had an idea and motioned us to follow her toward the restaurant kitchen.  She was explaining in broken English that she wanted to have the children trick or treat the head chef.  This spontaneous suggestion elicited disapproving looks from several of her male colleagues.  As a gourmet hotel, the chef was the mercurial lord of the manor.  Yet, Sylvia seemed determined to enter Hell’s kitchen.  My older children sensed the reticence of the staff and held back while our youngest recklessly burst through the cucina’s swinging doors clucking like a hen heavy with eggs.  There was silence, followed by a sudden burst of baritone laughter. The doorway suddenly filled with a large, handle bar mustached Italian chef holding my son and pinching his cheeks. The staff applauded.  Sylvia leaned in victorious and whispered, “they are terrified of him.  They have never seen him smile.”  We lingered in the hotel for some time forging a primitive bridge out of ragged Italian and English words as the children unwrapped candies and explored the living room.

 

We later walked slowly across the empty grounds and into the guesthouse, climbing past a not so malevolent suit of armor to our rooms. My anxiety had melted away.  It was clear that I had been wrong.  We were not missing anything back in America.  Our best Halloween will forever be remembered as a magical blend of cypress trees, ancient ruins, laughing chefs and doting Italians.

 

Meraviglioso! 

 

 

The United States of Europe

The United States of Europe

 

In heaven, the police are British. The cooks are French. The engineers are German. The administrators are Swiss and the lovers Italian.

In hell, the police are German. The cooks are British. The engineers are Italian. The administrators are French and the lovers Swiss. – Anonymous

 

As the Obama administration embarks on a domestic and geopolitical change agenda that is redefining America and our role in the free world, critics are warning that America is moving dangerously toward becoming Europe.  However, given that less than 10% of Americans possess passports and have never actually visited Europe, let alone Chicago, it’s interesting that there is such high anxiety about moving closer to a social and economic model that many have never experienced.

 

Conservatives argue that the US like Europe is setting itself up for dire consequences of more liberal social policies – inflation, economic stagnation, income redistribution and social safety nets that become hammocks for people who chronically refuse to take personal responsibility for anything. The Lefties argue that the last eight years was a drunken orgy benefiting the elite, enabled by the elite and now being cleaned up by people that were not even invited to the party.   Perhaps, they argue, a little bit more egalite might get us on to a better track.

 

While America is clearly my home and has better cable TV, I have lived abroad and believe the US could learn a thing or two from Europe. The traditional arguments of Europe as a failed welfare state just don’t hold up well as Americans wake up to the aftermath of our own excesses. The nascent European Economic Community was forged out of historically liberal, autonomous countries to better compete with Asian tigers and American bulls.  The result has been nothing short of miraculous and while the seams of the Euro-zone quilt are visible to the naked eye, it is a work of art to be admired.

 

Just consider the unique benefits of being more European:

 

In Europe, governments are often formed through the alliance of many political parties.  These coalition governments allow for the existence of multiple interest groups.  In coalition countries, a person can align with Greens, Conservatives, Liberals, Socialists, Agnostics, Fiscal Conservatives, or even start a party for people who have fetishes for string. The down side of coalition governance is perpetual turmoil and in cases such as Italy, some governments have the life span of a housefly.  But hey, at least you can find a party that really represents your views.

 

Life is healthier across the pond. Refrigerators are smaller forcing you to buy your food fresh and eat smaller portions resulting in fewer overweight people.  Because continental Europeans eat less, they need smaller bathrooms. This is particularly true of the UK where the absence of roughage in the English diet requires the average Brit to use the loo about once a week. The French believe in portion control, which explains why your duck l’orange entree is the size of a postage stamp. Meals are consumed over several hours and spiced with great conversation where sex, religion and politics are as politically correct as driving a hybrid. In Europe, you never eat in your car, standing up or alone at your desk. You sit down with others and stop grazing when you are full. There is not much of a market for bariatric surgery.  XXL is a Roman numeral.

 

Protecting the environment is a priority and there is recognition that an abused earth will eventually beginning to poison us.  Europeans do not trust genetically altered food or reality TV.  A trans-fat is not a food additive but a Rubenesque cross dresser that hangs out at train stations.

 

Humility is a sign of social maturity and it is considered dignified to disguise one’s social standing, especially around tax collectors.  In Europe, you tend to move back to the community where you grew up. Multiple generations of families spend Sundays together.  Outdoor cafes spill into piazzas and squares that serve as the heart of every village and town. People eat family style. You can bring your dog into a restaurant and leave your crying baby outside the cafe in a pram. There are no curfews for teens and dinner reservations can be made at midnight. Childcare is provided by live-in in-laws, your employer or by relatives who reside within a ten-mile radius.  Public transportation is outstanding and if you do own a car, it is the size of a phone booth and gets 55mpg.

 

There are more per capita museums, bicycles, and best of all, nude beaches – although the majority of topless women are 55 year old Germans whose bodies have long since stopped cooperating and who have more facial hair than Fidel Castro. There is one sport – soccer.  It is called ” the beautiful game”. It requires physical stamina, intelligence and the ability to flop to the ground feigning injury.  Most great floppers grew up as younger siblings in large Catholic families and are highly skilled at implicating others for false contact.

 

You are much freer to be stupid in Europe than the US and society doesn’t have to pay for it.  If you ski off a mountain, get hit while crossing a street, spill hot coffee on yourself or decide to put your motor home on cruise control and then go back to make yourself breakfast because you mistakenly think cruise control is auto-pilot, you are considered a moron and you deserve what you get.  In the US, the same outcomes result in lawsuits galore and liability that inflates the price of everything from lift tickets to lattes. In Europe, there are no victims, only those that have bad luck or make bad choices. In the US, everyone is a victim as long as there are deep pockets and slick plaintiffs attorneys.

 

The violent crime rate is low because the only guys that have guns in Europe are Russian mobsters and you can smell them coming from a mile away, literally. Property crime is the main problem and there is an old saying in Germany, ” if your car is stolen, it’s probably in Poland”.  Healthcare is free but extremely Spartan. Take a number, lie on this gurney and if you are dying you get to go to the head of the line. If you have good insurance today, you will hate national health.  If you are uninsured, underinsured or a hypochondriac, you’ll love it. Despite the obvious shortcomings of nationalized healthcare, many European countries enjoy higher public health scores than the US – greater longevity and lower infant mortality rates. This is generally due to lifestyle compression where the wealthy do not live ten years longer than the indigent and since everyone has access to care, the median life span increases.  The lower cost of care is due to lifestyles, an emphasis on preventive care, red wine and six weeks of paid vacation.

 

Everything is collectively bargained.  Even the unions have unions.  The best job in Europe is not CEO but being the head of the employee work’s council.  This tenured power position means you get to review all raises and vote down unfair management systems where your performance might actually be monitored.  If you actually get fired, you are eligible for three years severance and something called ” garden leave ” where you get to plant flowers and listen to opera in your back yard courtesy of your former employer.  Unions are also great for your social life as frequent strikes mean surprise holidays and business savings as airport and transportation actions often mean staying home.

 

The best part of being European is your name. I would much prefer to be called Michel than Michael.  Michel is a guy who can wear a beret and not look dumb. If I were John, I would prefer Juan. Juan can win a sword fight and can wear tight pants without ripping them in the crotch.  Many European names indicate what kind of person you are.  If you go by the name Vlad, odds are you enjoy impaling things.  Fabio?  Say no more.  The Dutch are very predictable.  A man is either Aad or Ruud.  It is possible to be “odd and rude” at the same time but only if you are from Rotterdam and drunk on corn wine.  As you head north and east, you meet Henriks, Dominiks, Theos, Jorgens, Hans Eriks or Dags – all strong names suggesting a person who could easily hold off a hundred Russians with only a hunting knife.

 

In the end, America remains a land of unprecedented possibility.  The main lesson here is to not fall prey to the myopic belief that we are the most evolved of all societies.   It is human nature that when contrasting America to others, we notice differences first and often reject alternative ideas for the mere fact that they are different.  Older societies have obvious blemishes but have had more time to evolve and learn. Ultimately history will judge what defines a great society.  It stands to reason that a great society is not just built on a polarized distribution of wealth between very few haves and many have-nots.  However, it is not defined by colorless socialism or suffocating regulation.  Perhaps, the new US and the new Europe might actually find themselves meeting in the middle and in doing so, forging a brave new world model that offers a balanced combination of the best that we can be – – socially, economically, legally, religiously and collectively. 

 

And, if that happens, I’m getting that beret

An Ambleside Spring

imagesI wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils,

Beside the lake, beneath the trees

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

 —  I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud, William Wordsworth, April, 1804

Springtime in Northern England is a time of inspired renewal.  Lavender crocus and sun kissed daffodils peek from under moss-covered rocks and along the tufts of broken heather that interrupt the fells, crags, scars, hows and pastures of the Lake District.  The weather is a fickle, undependable companion with four seasons visiting every day.  The wind sweeps down from the northwest unfurling great banners of rain and swirling mist.  Suddenly, a swath of cornflower blue appears and expands into a great chasm of sky bursting with unfiltered spring sun.  The verdant landscape comes alive in a kaleidoscope of painter’s palette color accentuated by the natural light.

The shadows move slowly whispering and creeping toward you as the light stretches out of abbreviated winter hibernation.   Each spring day is a reward for the incarceration of a bleak midwinter.  It is a time for poets, writers and artists.

Dove Cottage is situated on the edge of Grasmere in the Lake District.  William Wordsworth, his wife and his sister Dorothy, occupied the cottage in 1799.  It was on a day of broken clouds and rambling near Lake Ullswater, that Wordsworth’s sister recorded in her diary the simple perfection of daffodils peeking through the muddy ground to welcome the sun. As he reflected on her entries later that evening by blazing firelight, the poet was inspired to record his famous serenade to the citrine harbingers of spring.   The Lake District was Wordsworth’s joy. Until his family had literally outgrown their beloved cottage, increasing by three Wordsworth children in four years, they would not entertain leaving this mystical Eden.   Ultimately, the family moved a few kilometers away to Rydal Mount where they remained for 37 years

Behind the cascading slate roofed cottage, John’s Wood stands silent – named for Wordsworth’s brother John, a sea captain who had perished at sea. The hill climbs sharply up the rock strewn Loughrigg Fell, a thousand foot outcrop of bracken-clad knoll.  From the fell, poets looked north on the magnificent River Rothay that cascaded down through villages of Grasmere and Rydal Water.  To the south, more midnight ribbons of blue water converge before feeding Lake Windermere.

The Lakes are terraced here with footpaths and low slate walls, hemming in great flocks of Swaledale sheep.  It is lambing season.  A restless knot of cotton white ewes swirls in a pasture disguising scores of small unsteady legs that stumble and stretch to catch their mothers for a morning meal. Hill fog spills into the steep draws and ridges that form like tendons bracing the massifs and peaks.  With names like Scafell Pike, Great End, Skiddaw Little Man and Great Gable, the mountains draw thousands of hikers and ramblers each year. The Lakes derive their ubiquitous greenery from annual rainfall of over 80 inches but only an average of 2.5 hours of sun per day.   When the sun appears, it is cause for celebration.  Villagers and locals are suddenly still.  They smile, squinting up to the heavens, basking in the precious warmth.  Suddenly, everything is still again as shadows move like islands in the stream of a great malachite ocean.

Across the valley, lies Near Sawrey and Hill Top House – the summer farm of Beatrix Potter for 37 years.  Aside the simple gardens, massive hedgerows climb, obscuring adjacent fields and tarns.  Rabbits dart in and out of the thickets reminding us of a young girl who watched out a bedroom window sketching mice, geese, ducks and rabbits, meticulously weaving their shapes and movements into stories that would captivate an eternity of children.

There is something in the flat light that falls in this northeastern corner of the Western hemisphere –the emerald broken land above the 54th parallel.   Pastoral artists like Constable, Watson and Cozzens labored across rock-strewn fields to paint in open air a soft palette of spring and summer colors.  As the daylight advances, twilight suspends the day in a chrome blue light lasting for hours. Dusk finally yields to a black galaxy of night interrupted by the twinkling solitary lights of remote inns, pubs and small farms.  For any artist, The Lakes are a compulsory corner of the Great maker’s garden, a watercolor combination of elements constantly combining to create new shades of rain, mist, mountains and sun.

If you travel to the Lakes to wrap yourself in an English Spring, consider stopping at the edges of Lake Windermere.  On its southern edge, sits the Rothay Manor Hotel – an elegant country house run by the Nixon family for over 40 years.  In a reassuring mahogany pub, springtime hikers and travelers recovering from their journeys among the scores of lakes and tumbling rivers can drink a pint of lager and contemplate a framed poem, The Ambleside Weather Glass, that hangs next to a gabled picture window:

When Wansfell weaves a cap of cloud,

The roar of Brathay will be loud.

When mists come down from Loughrigg fell,

A drenching day gray heads foretell.

 

When breezes blow from Coniston,

Twere best a mackintosh put on.

If down from Kirkstone pass they come,

You better go not far from home.

 

When Redscree frowns on Ambleside,

The rain will pour both far and wide.

When Wansfell smiles and Loughrigg’s bright,

Twill surely rain before the night.

 

Yet should in nets on Windermere,

Twelve pickled salmon do appear.

No rain will fall upon that day,

And men may safely make their way.

Wordsworth considered the Lake District a spiritual Mecca and a paradox of the highest order – a living, breathing place that never ceased to change and through its constant motion, like the sea and the seasons, it’s ceaseless energy was in itself a reassuring symbol of a divine hand that moved across the land.  Spring it seemed was and remains a time when for a brief moment, the sun appears, breaking through the chill of winter and isolation.  In its cascading beams of light, one might spy the face of God smiling in the swaying grace of a canary yellow daffodil or in the solitary journey of a single cloud.

Playing The Culture Card

 

Česky: West Germanic kingdoms (460AD)
Česky: West Germanic kingdoms (460AD) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

As I returned from visiting Europe this past summer, I was reminded of the cultural chasm that separates us.  Aside from political and foreign policy rifts which have gouged this divide, there has and always will be a separation between the US and Europe. To understand it and to effectively bridge it, one must acknowledge that it exists.

 

I recall attending a cultural sensitivity seminar conducted by a Dutch consultant.  She shared that the DNA of any culture is comprised of densely packed chromosomes of tradition, social class, its geography, history, priorities, values, way of life, weather, sports, music, religious composition, tendency toward tribalism, regionalism or nationalism and resources.  In Europe, a few cultural axioms always prove true:

 

1)    Smaller neighbors always resent larger neighbors

 

2)    Larger neighbors tend to patronize smaller neighbors

 

3)    What you see, is not necessarily what you get

 

4)    There is no culture of blame, focus is usually on the issue not the person

 

5)    The smaller the country, the longer the memory

 

In Holland, I was always fascinated by the Dutch and their attitude toward the Germans.  These countries are economically tied to the hip and there is a saying, “ if Germany gets a cold, the Dutch get pneumonia”.  However, those that live in Rotterdam will never forget their city being destroyed in WWII.  I recall a Dutch cab driver telling me that he always gave German tourists the wrong directions and he cannot wait for the men in Orange to beat the Germans in any national match.

 

To an average Dutchman, a German is fat, drives a Mercedes, nationalistic, arrogant, obsessed by details, inflexible, humorless, dig big holes in the sand on vacation and always arrive at 6am to stake out their area on the beach for the entire day.  They get up at 6:30 am and “ ja” always means “ja”.  Once they get a “no”, the Germans stop. The Germans arrive ten minutes early to meetings.  They are prepared. There are different definitions of quality.  For some in Europe, “ good is good enough”.  For the Germans, “ The best is just about enough”. Does this description sound familiar to you ? In WWII US soldiers commented that the one country whose citizens most resembled Americans in terms of work ethic, community stewardship, focus on initiative and directness were – -The Germans.

 

The Dutch are a trading nation where the Germans are an industrial nation. The Dutch speak in diminutives and constantly downplay their success.  “Oh, that little car.”  “It’s not much, that tiny house.” “ That is a nice dress you are wearing,” to which the response is always immediate, “ I bought it on sale “.  The Dutch do not show a lot of emotion.  When a Dutchman is upset, he/she has three phases of anger : “ I am surprised”, “ I am worried”, “ I am quietly furious “. The Dutch spent 80 years fighting Spain and have spent centuries fighting against the North Sea, and as a result they are by nature, stubborn, doubting Thomases that once convinced, loyally and effectively execute. After fighting together so long to hold back the sea, they are team players.  There is a deeply developed sense of consensus.  Decisions take a long time but commitment is also more sustained once the decision is determined.

 

Then there are the Belgians.  Belgium does not really exist as we know it – – it is in fact, two nations, Dutch Flanders and French Wallonia.  To a French Waloon, “oui” means yes in principal to be changed at any time in the future.  Where the Wallonians might be made aware of an obstacle, they will suggest that it be only be confronted when it presents itself.  The Flemish Belgians will insist that provisions be made now for the bridge that is 500 kilometers away. The French Belgians consider their neighbors the Dutch: arrogant, blunt, direct, stingy, assertive, always selling hot air, uneducated know-it-alls…Wait, isn’t that what the Dutch say about their neighbors the Germans?

 

Europe views the US as unaware of any other culture. We are viewed as arrogant and prone to shoot first and ask questions later.  We are seen as superficial, focused on quantity instead of quality, simplistic, naïve, prone to blame versus focus on issues, top down, poorly educated, dictatorial, mono lingual and short term focused.  Hmmm.  Seeing a pattern developing here ?  The US views Europe often as protracted decision makers, untidy, not result oriented, burdened with an unrealistic social system, confused over the difference between history and tradition, ambiguous, multi-lingual and passive/aggressive.

 

As we have seen in this continental food chain, the larger country in the end, always views the smaller one as passive aggressive and the smaller country views the larger as unilateral and arrogant.  It is important when trying to bridge these natural fault lines and cultural footfalls with humility and honesty.  In discussing expectations or intentions with someone from another culture, acknowledge your ignorance and think of the social opportunity as a small child.  The child must be nurtured and spoon fed.  Children adapt but we must recognize that culture is emotional and part of one’s identity.  To diminish the culture is to diminish the person.  To denigrate the person is to broaden the divide you ultimately will want to cross.

 

Whenever the culture card is played, acknowledge it and be direct about differences of opinion.  Those differences can be bridged.  The shifting loyalties and alliances that exist within Europe and the world are forever changing and it does not take much to move an entire continent into a direction where we are celebrating similarities instead of magnifying differences. As Thomas Freidman so aptly shares, the world is indeed flat.  However, to get from one end of the world to the other safely and intelligently, you need to understand how important the deck of culture cards is to your success.  We can either engage in an enlightened game of global understanding or end up playing “Fifty-Two Card Pick Up”.

 

 

An Empire Revisited

An Empire Revisited

People sometimes ask me, “What is the difference between baseball and cricket?”  The answer is simple.  Both are games of great skill involving balls and bats, but with this crucial difference: baseball is exciting, and when you go home at the end of the day you know who won. ~Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island

The morning of our recent London trip, the newspaper read that two unexploded car bombs had been found near Picadilly and Soho. A third incendiary bomb had been detonated at Glasgow Airport.  John Smeaton, a Glaswegian baggage handler, became a national hero when he tackled and fought with the terrorist bent on incinerating himself and an airport full of people headed for holiday after term break.  Smeaton shared with the BBC, “I thought to meeself, what’s the score here; I’ve got to get this sorted.”  After breaking his leg and teeth in the thrashing of the terrorist, “Smeats” was an instant celebrity – a subject of news specials, blogs and proud recognition.  His reward?  1000 pints of free lager at his local pub.  To other would-be attackers, he was heard to remark with strong Scottish accent and cigarette dangling from his mouth, “This is Glasgow, we will set about on ye.”

Much has changed since our time in the Emerald Isle four years ago.  Gordon Brown is now the Prime Minister of England.  Smoking is banned in all restuarants and pubs, lawyers air personal injury ads, the US dollar enjoys the exchange value of a Mexican peso, and the property prices have gone from ridiculous to absurd.  What has not changed is the constant rain that disrupts Wimbledon, tiny loos, the threat of terrorist activity, great ethnic food, the Royal family as the face of the realm and a National Health Service under siege.  The Royal Mail still arrives the day after a letter is posted.  Manchester United still leads the Premiere Division and, alas, the red eyed, shaved headed lad still stumbles onto London transport wearing his soccer jersey and a sweat suit, clutching a can of Black Carling lager and daring anyone to make eye contact.

The British enjoy a love/hate relationship with their own country.  The NY Times recently reviewed The Angry Isle – Hunting the English, a book by British critic and polemic, A.A. Gill.  His theory is that every classically British trait – stiff upper lip, stoic humility, good manners, keen wit – is an ingenious strategy to deflect anger.  Gill asserts that the English are a culture founded on rage and aggression.  “The English created the queue because if they did not they would kill each other.  Gardening is a displacement activity for unresolved anger.  Pets are preferred as it is easier to love something small and fuzzy than another human.  Nostalgia and deep reverence of the past have helped medicate the embarrassment of Britain no longer making history but merely being resigned to curate it.”

Tradition and history are tricky things.  While Continental Europe is long on tradition, it easily eschews history for the sake of modern conveniences.  Independent England will fight to the death to defend history as tradition – the pound, the Royal family and the size of a phone booth.  History and tradition are fraternal twins and nostalgia is their mother.

Jane Walmsley, an American married to a Brit, crafted a brilliant book called Brit Think, Ameri-Think, which humorously contrasts England’s clash of restraint and tradition with American loud naiveté.  Walmsley jokes that the English bathroom is so small because the British have so little roughage in their diet that they actually never need to use the loo.  As an ex-patriot, you come to understand how clearly your country defines you and that subconsciously we are walking caricatures whose footprints occasionally fit less flattering stereotypes.  Our English neighbors in London could always tell the American houses because every light in every room of every house was illuminated at night.  “It’s as if you are having a party each evening,” one remarked.  We were hopelessly uninformed about European government, law or history.  The Tudors?  Aren’t they kinds of houses?  And what about that strange extra toilet that sprayed like a drinking fountain?  (The kids kept trying to brush their teeth in it before some European friends explained the concept of a bidet.)

Returning to the UK after four years, we quickly fell under the spell of Central London – jogging under the massive elms and horse chestnut trees of Hyde Park, peering through the grated fence of Buckingham Palace hoping for a glimpse of the Queen, navigating the phalanx of pedestrians at Covent Garden, Leicester Square and Picadilly Circus and perching like a peregrine falcon atop the London Eye.  The theatre district remains a joy and high tea is still a tonic for anything that ails you.  London’s richest history is perhaps its most macabre, as recounted deep in the The London Dungeon where children hear stories of serial killers, plague, executions and the Great Fire of 1666.  Outside, the fickle weather unleashes great sweeping thunderstorms, hail, gusting winds, angry grey clouds and the constant tease of intermittent sunshine.

Our village of Wimbledon was dressed to the nines for the tennis tournament as players, visitors and locals mixed every evening in the Dog & Fox Pub and spilled out on to the high street.  Our old church, Emmanuel, had a message board that read, “God made Roger Federer.”  The vicar, Jonathon Fletcher, was quite proud of this; it drew attention to the pleasant Anglican Church.  We went on to Hampshire to overnight in a 500-year-old manor house.  Once the children were bedded down, the lady of the house shared “I did not want to alarm the children, but we have a very active ghost in the room where your daughter will be sleeping.”  My wife and daughter quickly conferred; it was decided that I should sleep in the haunted room.  Around midnight, the door creaked open and as I braced for a poltergeist, my son slipped into bed next to me.  I sighed in great relief…I did not want the house awakened by a grown man shrieking.  It would have been very bad form.

A few observations on touring England:  When boarding a tube, always put the children on first with an adult, lest you leave one on the platform.  Never give a child under 10 a pound coin (they are worth $2 and seem to slip from hands faster than greased acorns).  When anyone offers you pudding, take it.  Remember a yard is an abandoned lot.  A garden is a space in front or behind a home with flowers. Public school boys go to private schools and state schools are public.  The world of a teenager is made up of “shavs,” “skaters” and “preps.”

Although some inside and outside the UK may poke fun at the British, most Americans are Anglophiles at heart and Britain feels as if you’re visiting a close relative you never really got to know very well.  As for their unwavering support of America in these troubled times, we can learn a thing or two from our British cousins regarding their steely resolve, their patience, their pride…and their sense that regardless of what tomorrow brings, we must simply carry on.

So You Think You’re A Gangsta

“I love you like a fat kid love cake . You know my style I say anything to make you smile” – 50 Cent

I was stuck in traffic the other day and decided to listen to some music to pass the time while inching along the snail’s pace of parkway.  When I turned on the radio I realized each station had been pre-programmed by my children to hip hop stations with loud lyrics and thumping bass, a swirling pulse of sound that felt like I was receiving angry CPR.  My car moved rhythmically up and down and for a moment I felt compelled to lose my tie, throw on dark glasses and “stick it to the man.”  I then remembered that, I am the man.

I recognize the messages conveyed in today’s rap and hip hop are hardly respectful in how they depict women or personal and social responsibility.  I find myself torn between the relentlessly creative and militant expression of a new generation of artists and their misanthropic, misogynist words and lifestyles.  The music claws at you.  My own children fashion themselves as suburban “gangstas” and have gotten me hooked on performers like The Black Eyed Peas, Justin Timberlake and Eminem (personally, I feel Outkast should have won a Grammy simply for the lyrics, “Ladies, lend me some sugar, I am your neighbor”. My iPod has been invaded by the likes of Big Boi, Snoop Dog, Akon, Ne-Yo, Ludacris, Dr Dre, Fat Joe (a man after my own heart), Gorillaz, Jay Z (he married Beyonce; enough said), and older, building block reliables like House of Pain and Arrested Development (a term people often use to describe me).

The genesis of rap and hip hop is social expression.  Some artists distort their lyrics, glorifying violence, gratuitous sex and drugs.  They obscure with verbal graffiti the beauty of music that tugs at our consciences with bitter honesty to describe social injustices and the consequences of inequality.  As US hip hop and rap splinters, the rest of the world is carrying the torch, using them to offer young adults an outlet for coping with the hatreds that dangle like poisoned snakes above their heads. As the artist Common puts it, ” real rappers are hard to find, just like the TV remote.”

In November 2003, USA Today profiled the Israeli rapper, Subliminal, and his side kick, Yoav Elasi (The Shadow).  With songs like “Snake Fish” and “Fingers on the Trigger” the artists form a release and graphic honesty around the terrors that plague their land: “The Country is rolling around like a cigarette in Arafat’s mouth.  Everyone running and with a lighter.  The blood flows to the sea….a stunted reality.”

And from Palestinian Arab rappers, Wahad and Chakaki: “To think the olive branch symbolizes peace.  Sorry, it does not live here anymore.  It’s been kidnapped, murdered.  There was peace my friend.  Handshakes, fake smiles, treaties signed in blood.  Where is God?  Domination from another nation.  We used to be brothers of Cain and now we’re under occupation.”

Rapper Disiz La Peste, of both Sengalese and French heritage, raps against the headwinds of racism.  “For France it matters nothing what I do.  In its mind, I will always be just a youth from Banlieve.

There are Bosnian Herzegovian rappers Edo Maajka, Frenkie and Hamza.  Turkish rapper, GurkanKan often jams with Sirgee and Kaisoze.  Each culture wrestles with its own heritage and chafes against the social reins that restrain a generation itching to burst out and run from the problems they inherited but did not create.  This highly charged music and lyrics can cause social fissures and generational stress fractures that shift the status quo, causing cultural upheaval and change.  These artistic quakes both relieve and build pressure.  Rap and hip hop are a confluence of musical artistry that can range from poetic genius to sociopathic nihilism.  It’s a lyrical dark alley with seductive whispers and scabrous, dancing shadows.

I admit it captivates me.  I even tried to master some of the lexicon.  For example, the other day, I was feeling “all flush, raw and bustin’ and decided to blow some cabbage at Brooks Brothers when I got a little skirby cause a Bama Buster Keaton started sidebustin’ my choices.  It turned out the guy was pervin’ and 5150.”  (Translation: I was feeling rich and very good and decided to spend some money at Brooks Brothers when I got a little freaked out because this guy who did not even know how to dress himself started sticking his nose into my business and didn’t know what he was talking about.  It turned out he was intoxicated and crazy.)  Hip hop slang can be useful in social situations.  Let’s say a friend has an infant with a “fragrant” soiled diaper and you want to gently tip them off to the situation.  Just say, “I think lil’ Johnny’s ridin’ dirty.”

Whether some like it or not, rap and hip hop have become as American as apple pie; as with all Western phenomena, the cultural pollution has penetrated the institutional defenses of other societies.  The graphic messages may offend some listeners, causing discomfort and resentment.  However, music offers an outlet and expression to adolescents trapped between childhood and adulthood – too young to rationalize the consequences of a chaotic world and too old to forget what they have seen.  Generations have always had to suffer the hand dealt by the preceding generation.  Whether the fact that old men make wars and young men fight them or a world polarized by the few who have so much and the many that have so little.  Adolescence, idealism and iconoclasm combine with inequity, injustice and anger to create a highly combustible form of expression.

My car throbs – pumping like an iron lung along Elm Street as I drive to pick up my teenaged daughter.  She is embarrassed, as usual, thinking that somehow I’m trying to pass myself off as someone who has a clue about music, her music.  I retaliate by cranking the volume and mouthing the words to a song by Young Money , ” Call me Mr Flinstone, I can make your bed rock. ” – all the while moving my head back and forth, with a smiling overbite worthy of Eddie Van Halen in mid-solo.  What she fails to realize is my appreciation of her music is not a disingenuous gesture to bridge a generational chasm.  I actually like hip hop and readily accept it as my generation’s urban burden to bear.

I say “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Or, as Snoop Dog might say, ” if the music is fly, than you should try.”