Let me start by saying that in spite of the fact that I talk about politics in this post, it isn’t really a political post. It is just a set of observations with no particular conclusion intended.
A week and a few days ago, I returned from a trip to Europe, mostly in France. I was at a conference center in a chateau in Normandy, Cerisy-la-salle. The conference was good; its only drawback, for me, was that it was an interdisciplinary conference. I think my presentation and the discussion afterward went well, especially considering the fact that my French is, to put it mildly, barbarous. Contrary to popular mythology, people were not rude about the state of my French. They worked hard to understand me and gave me the benefit of the doubt. I was the only person there for whom English was the mother tongue.
I was in France during the 60th anniversaries of the D-Day landings and the liberation of Paris, and I was touched by how many American flags and other recognitions of the US that I saw, both in Paris and in Normandy. I think every village in Normandy was flying an American flag, not just those where one might expect tourists. Just outside the entrance to Cerisy-la-salle is a large monument to seven Allied airmen killed in a plane crash at the site. Not only were the national flags of each airman flying at it, there were fresh flowers each day. On my visit to Point du Hoc, where American rangers lost 160 of 250 men taking a German artillery site on D-Day in an exercise that was more-or-less futile because the guns had been removed before they arrived, most of the large number of visitors were Europeans, and most of the Europeans were French. They were there to honor the sacrifice of those Rangers, and I heard more than one parent explaining that sacrifice to children. The country road that goes near Cerisy is called â€œVoie de LibertÃ©â€? because it is the route that Allied forces took as they came inland. Time explains why, but we donâ€™t have the same remembrance for the great aid that the French were to us at the Revolution. Perhaps we ought to be more explicitly grateful for their help, even hundreds of years later.
In contrast, though no one was hostile to me personally as an American, I met no one in France, the Netherlands, or Belgium, who wasnâ€™t hostile to current American policy and, in particular, to President Bushâ€”even those who supported our incursion into Iraq, such as Dutch people who support keeping their troops there, are deeply angry about the way we have done things. And the anger wasnâ€™t confined only to the intellectuals. I found it among shopkeepers as well. Because of those feelings, it was almost impossible to talk with Europeans about the issues. Though Iâ€™m not a Bush supporter, I frequently found myself defending him against sincerely held, but in my opinion outrageous charges, such as those implied by Michael Moore.
For a very interesting take on French foreign policy, see this article in the Jerusalem Post
Though I already think French food is fantastic, I was surprised by just how good the meats, sauces, cheeses, and desserts were at Cerisy. This was farm food, the French version of meat and potatoes, and the vegetables were slightly overcooked. The historical connection between the English and the Normans can be seen in those overcooked vegetables. Even with my expectations that the food would be good, I was amazed by how good everything else was. I wanted to take the sauce bowl and drink from it, and I spent time in the evenings plotting ways to smuggle Normandy cheeses into the US. (Never fear, I only plotted. I didnâ€™t actually try. It was only a food-loverâ€™s fantasizing.)
In the Netherlands and Belgium, fresh mussel season had just begun, so I â€œforcedâ€? myself to eat them several times. I donâ€™t understand the general American antipathy to mussels, but Iâ€™ve never eaten them in the US. Perhaps American mussels are different than European ones. In any case, I loved them, whether with garlic sauce, wine sauce, or mustard sauce.
And I also forced myself to have a little chocolate now and then. That exercise in self-discipline meant buying several kilos of Valrhona chocolate in Paris (for cooking) and three boxes of handmade chocolates in Leuven, Belgium (for eating straight). By the way, and to come full circle, the chocolatier in Leuven was one of those for whom I found myself answering questions about US foreign policy. He was polite, politically conservative, and befuddled by us.
Finally, at the conference I saw several short films by an Israeli film-maker of German descent who now lives in Paris, Nurith Aviv. One, â€œVaters Land â€” Perte,â€? was on the loss to German culture resulting from the annihilation of the Jews. The second, â€œLangue maternelle,â€? featured a number of Israelis, both Jews and Palestinians, and had them discussing what their mother tongue is and why. In spite of the boring way Iâ€™ve described it, it was a thoroughly engrossing film. The final one, â€œCirconcision,â€? I found less interesting: interviews with parentsâ€”Jews, Muslims, Christians, atheistsâ€”about why they decided to have or not to have their boys circumcised. If Avivâ€™s films should get to a theater where you can see them, I recommend them, especially the first two.