In Andrew Wyeth Country

12 February 2023 18:58 

August, 2022

Nostalgia’s a funny thing, suspect, especially when amplified by jet lag. It can lead to all kinds of thoughts.

As Andre and I left Dulles Airport, I navigated by a combination of numbers and nouns: I was looking for Rt. 15, but not seeing any immediate signs, I followed signs towards Leesburg. Soon we came to a toll road, for which I thought I was prepared: the agent at Budget showed me where the electronic ticket dongle was mounted on the windshield. But when I drove through the EZ Pass lane, the marquee indicated I had not paid and that we’d been photographed. Andre fiddled with the dongle, and found that there was a pull out sleeve that activated the pass, and thereafter we remained law-abiding, mostly.

I soon found Rt. 15, took the route not towards downtown, and once past Leesburg, it felt rural. Long gone were the days when Dulles Airport was out in the middle of nowhere. An early memory of the mid-1960’s was a family drive from Alexandria out to Dulles to meet my father coming back from Viet-Nam, for some reason those flights always came in around 4:00 A.M. After miles of nothing but darkness, the airport appeared as an apparition of white light, the swept roof, that Finnish marvel. Today the entire area is developed, and there even seem to be signs of a Metro going in.

We passed Bleu Frog Vineyards, the Old Luckets Store, then several discount cigarette stores, crossed the Potomac River and were in Maryland. It was mid-August, high summer, the grass and leaves and bushes were all a dense green, lush, a jungle compared to the aridity of southern France. Here and there were white colonial style homes, acres of mowed lawn. It was all familiar, all known, even comfortable.

I could live here again.

~

Since last in North America, 2017, there had been a few changes: employment in Switzerland, then a transfer to the sister company in France, all of which allowed a home purchase in Montpellier. This was radical: since 2011 we had always rented furnished homes, since all of our possessions were in storage in Maryland. Now we had a place of our own.

It was time to bring over what we had gone without for the last eleven years: the large, three panel black Asian screen, Annie’s modeling portfolio, my tools (leave the standard wrenches, take the Klein tools), the 9’ Agua and 12’ Mickey Muñoz surf boards, Annie’s teak dresser, the brass samovar from Denmark, a mahogany desk, the Japanese gardening tools, the books, the kitchen knives, and my mother’s burnt orange La Creuset Dutch oven.

The weeks leading up to our departure had been crowded. Closing on our new home involved both formal meetings at the notary, as well as obligatory drinks with the former owners, Iberio and Marie Cruz. I had knee surgery June 9th, and was little help when we moved to our new home on July 4th. I drove the rental van: fortunately I found an automatic at Sixt Rental, so I didn’t need to use a clutch. The move work fell to Kieran, Andre, Annie, Catherine, Jade, and Maria.

We settled in to the new place, it was rather Spartan: no refrigerator, little furniture, we ate refugee style, sitting on the floor or on the couch I had brought back from Chur. Naturally, we had visitors: Kurt was visiting from Laos with his two boys; the Chambers family – wonderfully it was all of them; I was to meet up with Andras to help prep his sailboat for some cruising; Robert was supposed to be visiting. And just for fun, every day was at least 35°.

~

The plane from Barcelona was late, no surprise: mid-August high travel season, post-covid-pent-up demand for travel, extra precautions because of the unusually high heat, and that intangible, but key component: we had a connecting flight in Paris.

It was just me and Andre. Annie and Catherine had gone a few weeks earlier to first visit family on Montreal. They were delayed a week because we all contracted covid. Kieran stayed behind to house sit and take care of all the animals.

At the Montpellier airport, the slender, curvy Air France representative assured us we would still have time to make our connection to Dulles. But, I was still on crutches, and we’d need to traverse several terminals, maybe customs, probably several security checkpoints. And that’s how it was: we departed Montpellier 90 minutes late, destroying any realistic transfer time. In Paris we arrived in Terminal 2E, took the transit train, to terminal 2F, too late. We then went to terminal 2G, to the Air France service desk to reschedule our flights, and make arrangements for the night.

Air France did just fine: vouchers for separate rooms at the airport Holiday Inn, more meal tickets than we needed, and an emergency toilet packet that included a large, white t-shirt. We caught the RER 3B to the Parking PR station, and were at the hotel by about 1500. I was wiped out. I keep the pain pills to a minimum, using the pain as a sort of guardrail to make sure I am not doing anything radical with my knee. But crutching several kilometers in the heat, a dull pain constant, takes it out of you.

Andre and I went to our separate rooms, agreeing to meet at dinner time. Since I didn’t have a change of clothes, I wore my linen shirt into the shower, put the boxers in the sink to soak. Rinse, roll in a towel to dry, hang up, then iron. I slept two hours, hard and deep, as if after a long sporting event, then met Andre for dinner, both in our styl’n Air France white t-shirts, seen on about ten other guests. That dinner time extra tall lager beer was one of the best, ever.

We landed in Dulles the next day, Sunday. Our bags were already there. We grabbed our bags, made our way to the Budget counter, and by 1700 were driving north and west.

~

I got my driver’s license the day I turned sixteen, and from then on drove to high school every day until graduation. I drove a fair share, as any teenager would with a car and affordable gas. Over the next few years I drove some long stretches, to Vermont and back many times, to Florida, to Wyoming, then later a few shore to shore trans-continentals. I got a speeding ticket now and then: in upper state New York, and another time in Wyoming, where after being pulled over, the officer noted that the car smelled like a brewery, then instructed me to follow him to Laramie to pay the fine – never had that happen before or since.

While studying in Germany I drove now and then on the Autobahn. When I moved to California I joined the ranks of commuting high tech slobs: the 101, 85, 280, etc. and listened with dread to Joe McConnell’s morning traffic report on KQED. During my BMW phase (1973 3.0s, then a mid-80’s 533i), I got seven speeding tickets in two years. Today the penalties would be severe, but back then, by going to traffic school, you could not only get the points removed from your license, but also not have to pay the fine1In time the state of California … Continue reading. I went to traffic school level 1 and 2 three times each. Since being in Europe we haven’t always owned a car, but when we did, I covered a good bit of ground in France, Germany, Spain, and Portugal.

I’ve not caused any accidents (I believe), like to think I’m a reasonably aware driver, know that a turn signal doesn’t necessarily mean anything, nor should you rely on the brake lights of the car in front of you. I’d driven where the highway speed limit was anywhere from 55 MPH to unlimited. I think I’ve done okay.

Yet for all this, I was completely unprepared for the tempo of the interstates in the four state area.

I drove mostly on I-81, or when on Dulles Airport shuttle duty, on I-70. The average speed was about 85 MPH. On small mountain inclines where there was a third, slow lane to the right, that lane was used for passing, while slower traffic stayed in the middle lane. There were few compact cars; most were mid-sized, and mostly SUVs, pick-up trucks (think Ford-150 and larger), and tractor-trailers.

Parked on the highway medians were pairs of Maryland state police: unmarked, menacing and useless, really only a hazard, causing a temporary slowing to 70 MPH.

Although the news from the United States had been about the high price of gasoline, nowhere was that evident: SUVs with only their driver, pick-up trucks with no cargo in the bed, despite all the capacity – lots of fast moving, nearly empty metal moving around. You can’t be worried about gas prices if you accelerate uphill from 75 to 85 MPH, not worried at all.

Nor was this person worried: at the hot-wings shop where we’d placed an order, we saw a pickup truck, parked curbside at a shopping center, engine running, cab empty. After twenty minutes, the driver of the truck, who had been sitting elsewhere, paid his bill, walked out to his truck, unlocked it, and drove away. Neither the price of gas nor climate crossed his mind.

Another time I passed a sort of Russian egg hierarchy of powered movement: a large RV towing a Ford Ranger pick-up truck, and in the bed of the truck was a golf cart.

In and around Hagerstown, the on-ramp merge lanes struck me as too short, and if you don’t know to accelerate as quickly as possible (it’s easier to slot into traffic by deccelerating than accelerating), you’re at risk. During our stay there, on August 26, three teenagers, Clayton Knode (15), Tyler Josenhans (17), and Kannon Shives (16) were killed while merging onto I-81 from US-40.

Also new were the many and fast driving Amazon Prime trucks.

~

What is suitable for a Bay Area, mid-peninsula ranch home, would not fit in our new, modest Montpellier house: the oversized Ralph Lauren leather club chair, the California king bed, the massive mechanic’s rolling tool chest, Annie’s array of photography equipment along with her three sewing machines (one industrial grade), all my books. The combined square footage of our California furniture probably exceeded the square footage of our new home.

I began a painful triage of my library, spent time posting pictures to online sale sites, setting up meets at the storage locker, preparing for a yard sale. We made many trips to the dump: items that could not be sold or donated, not usable after ten years in storage, not shipping to France.

If highway driving was stressful, the drive to the dump was enjoyable.

I took Reiff Church Road through farmland, planted mostly with armies of corn, across railroad tracks, past white colonial farmhouses. There’s something disquieting about cornfields: the rows on rows of stalks, a monoculture of production, more factory than farm, a raw material in search of a use, something I lost my taste for a long time ago, and never mind what Stephen King has written.

But I always, always like the white, colonial farm houses.

Now and then was one of those short, steep hills where for a few seconds during the ascent it’s impossible to see oncoming traffic, followed by a moment at the top with a view to distant blue ridgelines, then down again among the corn. There were a few unlikely businesses out here: an appliance store (new and used) and a shoe repair.

I noted with concern another sign of America’s descent into socialism: a traffic circle on Greencastle Pike 2The horror continues: … Continue reading.

The firearms store was not far from the dump. Tuesday morning Hafner’s was busy, and we had to wait a few minutes before talking to the staff. While I negotiated the sale of my firearms, Annie, Catherine, Aline (a lovely, athletic cousin from the Montreal side of the family, a couple years older than Catherine, who flew down to help), and Andre walked the aisles, trying and failing to understand how this product was the single most important issue for so many Americans.

The staff at Hafner’s were courteous and helpful, and it reminded me again, hands down, Americans can be the friendliest people, anywhere.

~

Since 2020 Amazon.com Inc. occupied or built several warehouses in western Maryland. One of these included the 1.1 million square foot fulfillment center, which we saw everyday: it was built across the street from our storage facility. About new the 500 full time jobs, then Hagerstown mayor Bob Bruchy said:

That [new warehouse construction] in itself is huge, but having Amazon be the first one in this development is also equally as huge. We’re looking forward to it. We’ve had this property that’s been sitting around here for half a century doing nothing, and now it’s bringing this huge benefit to our community 3 … Continue reading.

Quoting an Amazon press release, the Echo-Pilot reported that:

Employees at the fulfillment center will work alongside innovative technologies to pick, pack and ship larger customer items such as mattresses, kayaks, grills and exercise equipment… 4 … Continue reading

The phrase ‘alongside innovative technologies’ is interesting. The 500 workers would not use the technologies, but instead be alongside. What this actually means is Amazon warehouse workers wear a wristband, which…

…minutely tracks every moment of a warehouse worker’s activities, every pause and conversation, [Amazon] has a patent for a wristband that would, the Times reported, ‘emit ultrasonic sound pulses and radio transmissions to track where an employee’s hands were in relation to inventory bins’ and then vibrate to steer the worker towards the correct bin 5From Zephyr Teachout’s The Boss Will … Continue reading.

A wristband telling you what to do and monitoring your activity sounds less like alongside innovative technologies and more like under. But in Jeff Bezos’ world, employees, under any circumstances, should not get too comfortable nor feel secure; if had his way, the warehouse workers won’t be shackled for more than three years:

Instead of a stable workforce, he [Bezos] wanted warehouse workers to stay for a maximum of three years, unless the got a new job internally. He severely limited raises after three years 6ibid.

The location of the warehouses is near Interstate-81, which runs from Tennessee through another five states to the Canadian border. The twelve mile section in Maryland has ten interchanges, which combined with sections that have only two lanes and high volume truck traffic, make this Maryland section the most dangerous stretch of I-81. Some sections have been widened to three lanes, and there are additional plans by various government agencies to widen more sections, and installing sensors and signs to monitoring and if needed, reroute traffic.

Like the warehouse workers, Amazon truckers (the tractor-trailers on the highways) and van drivers (the vehicle that stops in front of your house) are monitored: either with in-cab cameras and/or electronic monitoring devices, or both. This array of surveillance captures everything from facial expressions to time taken for breaks. One can only imagine the psychic/emotional toll of this constant monitoring. And yet for all that, regardless of what Amazon’s public relations department claims, the monitoring doesn’t contribute to driver safety nor well being: reports indicate above average accident rates associated with Amazon’s delivery 7 … Continue reading, 8 … Continue reading.

~

On every visit to the Martin’s Food Center I cleaned out all Peet’s French roast coffee, then put it in the drawers of a dresser that would go on the container and be shipped to France. I was amazed at the number of different salad dressings. Every two or three days I’d buy, then snarffle down a box of Entenmann’s chocolate covered doughnuts. I was the only one eating them.

The sale of alcohol being restricted to special stores, I made many trips to Long Meadow Liquors. The owner, Mike, recognized me as the guy who comes in every three or four years, buys lots of red wine and Tecate or Negro Modulo (we only get Corona in France) for about two weeks, then disappears. This time I’ve added Johnny Walker Red and cognac to the mix.

He came over to talk as I was looking through the California reds, trying to remember what was good (Hess? Bogle? Mayacamus?). Could he help me? Here’s what’s from local wineries (I passed). I asked about business. Well, he said, during covid he set up a call in your order, then stay in your car pick -up system, and did an extra $1,000,000 in sales.

At Starbuck’s I made the mistake of ordering a grande coffee: it was grande but not coffee. Neither the Krispy Kreme doughnuts (airy surgery chemical taste) nor the Arby’s sandwich (bland) were as good as remembered. At Jasmins’ market we felt at home, a mélange of authentic Asian, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern groceries.

I ate Mexican food at every opportunity. I could eat a carnitas plate three times a day for two weeks and not get tired of it; then I might need something different for one meal, like fish tacos, then back to that carnitas plate. It was wonderful.

~

Here and there were front yard signs starting Trump had won, on cars bumper stickers with the same message, or about prying guns from cold, dead fingers. Once we passed one of those while colonial farm houses I like so much, and from the porch hung a Confederate flag. Another time was a sign for re-election of a Trump endorsed politician who promised to lower taxes.

This was interesting. Lowering taxes is all well and good, depending on how much lower and for whom. But a worker keeping a little bit more of way not enough is still way not enough. Still, politicians can’t raise wages, which, among other things, seems to be what’s really needed.

Likewise, the signs and stickers about guns remain curious 9See the Henry Allen essay, Guns, in his … Continue reading. The possession of a firearm seems to offer only a very narrow sort of liberty, and maybe not even really liberty, but instead merely a momentary sense of empowerment, absent in other aspects of life where’s there’s much less liberty and not much dignity, such as when you strap on a tracking bracelet when starting work at the warehouse, or enter the corporate surveillance zone when you climb into your truck to start a day’s work

~

Late one night after dinner with a pint glass of JWR, I sat in the garage, doors open, on a cooler, X-acto knife in hand, cutting out pictures from my high school yearbooks. The day had been hot, still, textured and dense as only on the East coast in August. It wasn’t any cooler after sunset.

The painful triage was in full swing. I was not going to take my father’s West Point year books, The Howitzer (German for big-ass canon), years 1944, 1945, and 1946 10The four year program was cut to three … Continue reading. Courtenay said she would keep them. I now applied the same harsh criteria to The Scroll, nine years of year books from St. Stephen’s, 1972 to 1980.

Looking back, it was a mixed experience. The caliber of academics was high, and the athletic programs good. But it was thoroughly conventional, and sometimes diminished by troubled personnel: an occasional sadistic teacher who threw rubber erasers at students, a zoned-out history teacher, a somewhat off the rails Episcopal priest.

What really mattered? What I remembered…the many good teachers.

John Pullen: lower school English teacher and coach, took me to the Father/Son banquet, I can still hear the graveled texture of his voice.

Dick Babyak’s seventh grade math class: “Sister Elder, do you know the answer?” He was hard, but the gleam in his eye was friendly, he was going to push you until you succeeded.

Bob Reed: aloof and not always likeable, but I appreciated his analysis and positive critique of a paper I wrote.

Dr. Norris’s AP History Class: really just another level, wonderfully hard, with a shitload of writing due every week.

Fred Berg: Such a great guy. I’m sorry I never had him for a teacher. A few years after graduation he got my ass out of potential trouble with our nearby rivals.

None of this, nor many other things, were captured in those year books. I cut out a dozen pictures from the nine years and have them with me now in France. The remainders are now moldering in the Forty Mile landfill.

As I finished, a flash of lightening instantly followed by the sound of the sky cracked open, then the downpour. Summer thunderstorm. Only on the East coast. I shivered, but only partially because of the cooler temperature.

~

I could live here again.

Nostalgia is a curious sentiment, mired in the past, suspect. The word11Definition by way of Orwell’s Roses … Continue reading comes from nostos, to return home, and algia, pain or grief. That sounds right.

 

The first of two essays on our trip.

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  1. My initial driving years in CA (1978-99) featured a feared respect for the CHP: their presence was palpable, and we stayed close to the speed limit. Anything above 70 in a 65 zone felt like a real risk.

    Fast forward 23 years, and everyone – even semis – are flying down 101 at 85 miles an hour. The CHP seems nonexistent, and in any case no one seems to fear them.

    It somewhat makes the case for not having speed limits. 85 doesn’t seem any more dangerous than 70 used to. Maybe it’s due to vastly improved design/engineering: I’d guess that crashing a Tesla at 85 is MUCH more survivable than crashing a K-car at 65 :)

    1. Might be worth looking into, and then redirecting any resources in speed enforcement to something else. The only highway speed enforcement in France is done electronically: your license plate is noted at point A, then again at point B, the math is done (D/T = R), and depending on the result, you might get a fine in the mail.

  2. I meant to post my comments here, as this keeps responses to your work better organized. But I got distracted and then dumped them into FB…

    I'm intrigued by your comment, "I noted with concern another sign of America’s descent into socialism: a traffic circle on Greencastle Pike." What is it about the traffic circle you find to be a source of concern? And how is it indicative of America's descent into socialism?

    Your key theme is nostalgia and you posit twice that you could live on the East Coast again. But most of your observations are of changes that seem malignant, suggesting a deteriorating quality of life (a view to which I'm sympathetic). Do you really think you could live there again?

    1. I love traffic circles and am glad to see them anywhere. My observation is a bit tongue in cheek: traffic circles are common here, relatively rare there (at least when I was growing up), ergo there must be some France to USA reverse navigational Phylloxera going on. Previously I’ve described them as a sort of transitory, moving community where drivers must work together. See the first item here: https://blakeelder.com/why-the-french-dont-shoot-each-other.

      We left our hero drinking whiskey in the garage during a late-summer downpour, brooding and feeling nostalgic. While the emotion was/is genuine enough, what are its foundations? What will ensue? Will a wet t-shirt southern Circe emerge from the erotic dark and sway our man from his Penelope? Will he recognize the hollowness of the feeling? How will it end? The word suspect is also twice used. From the American Heritage Dictionary: To consider something to be true or probable on little or no evidence.

      I write, in part, to work things out. More soon…

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