The original title of this essay was ‘Niggers fucking bitches in their asses’. More on that later.
Land of terrible infants
Standing in the great hall of Zurich’s main train station, it’s a cold, clear morning, the Thursday before Christmas. I love train stations. And today, here, now, this moment, I am at the center of all things: go that way, south, to Italy, Malta, the Mediterranean; or go east, to Austria, the Czech Republic, or the land of the Margars; take that train north to Germany, Denmark, or as I must, travel west towards France. I love train travel, even when the French are ill tempered. Although there were to be railway strikes in France, none of my information sources indicated that the first leg of my trip, from Zurich to Mulhouse on the TGV Lyria, which runs several times a day between Paris and Zurich, would be affected; I checked not only the main screen showing train departures, but also my array of apps from the various rail companies: SNCF, SBB, and Trainline—all indicated things were as normal.
Still, it never hurts to ask.
At the information kiosk, after first answering a young Asian couple’s question in English, an older French woman’s question in French, the helpful Swiss Bahn woman told me (in high German) that the TGV Lyria was only running as far as Basel, and that I must make my way to Basel on another train.
Glad I asked.
I caught a train to Basel. When the conductor came by to check my ticket, no sooner had I started to explain about the TGV Lyria’s abbreviated itinerary, when she smiled, passed over me, and said not to worry about not having a ticket for this particular train. She understood how things were there.
These latest strikes in France are unlike the protests that started in 2017 after President Macron imposed a carbon tax on gasoline/diesel, putting ‘the burden of ecological responsibility on the [commuting] classes least able to bear it’.1Ketcham, Christopher. “A Play With No ...continue The carbon tax was one of several misguided changes, along with tax reductions on the rich and cutting of public services. Now, Macron proposed some changes to the retirement plans, which then sent the French railway workers into a conniption. I believe in this case Macron’s proposal has merit. A particular category of SNCF worker can retire as young as fifty-two (52)—you read that correctly. The retirement pensions are very generous, and given today’s life longevity rates, it is conceivable that an SNCF employee could have a retirement that lasts longer than his working career. As a result, the French pension system is heavily in debt, and yet the SNCF workers still want their special privileges. French employees from other sectors have joined the strike in support of the SNCF.2See ...continue
In Basel I made the connection to the TGV Lyria, changed trains in Mulhouse, and the rest of the trip was uneventful. Indeed, in this case the strike worked to my advantage: the train from Mulhouse was scheduled to arrive at the new Montpellier train station, gare de Montpellier sud de France, which is located south of the city, and not my preferred arrival station, gare St. Roch. However, in this case the destination station had changed, and from the gare St. Roch I could walk home.
Fast forward to January: on the morning of my scheduled return to Switzerland, as I was packing my bags, Annie called from the upstairs to say she had just received word that my train had been cancelled. Of course. I tried to reschedule online, but gave up, went the train station, and booked a train back to Zurich, not over Mulhouse, but instead to Paris, the gare de Lyon. This change also had it’s compensations: during the several hour layover, I visited the restaurant Le Train Blue, located in the upper level of Hall A. It was a step up from the normal train restaurants, a bit faded, but a club sandwich with white burgundy and a view of Paris, this is not a bad lunch at all.
Obscenity: not a word you hear much anymore
A day or two after getting in to Montpellier, I went with Annie to the new sports club she recently joined. She went to some sort of para-military cross-cardio Muay Thai kick-boxing course, while I opted for the tranquility of the weight room. There was one other guy in there, normal looking except he seemed to have a Smithfield ham afixed to where his biceps should be, a grotesque that could have been from an El Greco painting. Of course, he was doing curls.
There was some music playing, some rap crap that I mostly tuned out, but then in the middle of my second set of dead lifts, I heard something along the lines of:
We be niggers fucking bitches in the ass
I finished my set, then stood listening. Yes, I had heard this correctly. It wasn’t clear to me if the other guy in the room understood the words. Was this really being broadcast on the radio? What to make of the song and its lyrics? Is this art—a modern echo of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”? A celebration of erotica? Utter excrement?
A day later, at Le Bookshop, the English language bookstore in Montpellier, I saw book whose title was Vulva. Being an older male, I don’t think I was the intended audience, but still, I had to look. Yes, surprise, inside there were many drawings of vulvas, along with accompanying text. I wondered if there would a sequel, Scrotum, then the trilogy might end with Rectum? Not at all tempted, instead I bought The Discovery of France by Graham Robb, and Michael Pollen’s The Botany of Desire.
What to make of this? In the introduction to his masterful history From Dawn to Decadence, Jacques Barzun cautions us to “refrain from downgrading what one does not respond to”. His advice is sound, but I’ll make an exception here: not only do I not respond to “niggers fucking bitches in their asses”, but I’ll move it to the bottom of the pile. Regarding Vulva, it’s less clear to me: the women who run Le Bookshop had recently recommended The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal, and this was one of the best works I had read in a long time, cried my eyes out. So here I’ll obey Barzun and trust to their judgement, with the understanding that Vulva is not for me.
The Roman philosopher, Seneca the Younger, wrote Imperia dura tolle, quid virtus erit? Remove severe restraints and what will become of virtue? Virtue, restraint…these aren’t heard so much, anymore.
On the train to Montpellier I had met a programmer who worked as an independent consultant. He gave me the libertarian rap about not working for the man, being free to make his own decisions. Later it emerged that starting with the new year, he was going to work for a larger company, and after a few month he expected to be laid off, then would be eligible to collect unemployment from the government. Independent—right. In a restaurant, while waiting to meet Kieran and Andre for drinks then dinner, I got to talking to a guy at the bar, who was there with his girlfriend. He’s from Nimes, nearly seventy, while his friend was from Viet-Nam, she looked about twenty five. It’s nothing new: he’s clearly financially comfortable, she is from a third world country, an arrangement clearly economic on her side, something else on his: machismo? loneliness? lack of inner resources? It might be great to boink that nubile young thing, but really, what do you talk about?
The accumulation of scales, large and small, continued. I met a conspiracy theorist: multiple shooters of JFK and the CIA/Rothschilds/deep state were behind 9/11. On the culinary front, the frequency of vegan meals I bumped up against made eating out difficult, and meant eating several dozen potatoes, broccoli, cauliflowers, and turnips smothered in cheese, so as to not go to bed hungry. I learned recently that there is an occupation called YouTuber, and while I’m glad for more opportunities for people to make money, a few minutes spent in normally unvisited parts of the internet confirmed the pervasiveness of mediocrity. Former barriers to entry in the media that existed to filter out the awful, the bad, and the ugly were long gone. Finally, a look at the news is the story of the end of the human race, either through direct actions—war—or only slightly less obvious ones—climate change. Nothing is forever. Why bother with anything?
Like Ishmael, November, damp and drizzly, was in my soul.
Like John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, I had changed, aged:
…[McGee was a] rough looking fellow of indeterminate age who did not quite understand their [young people’s] dialect, did not share their habits….who thought their music unmusical, their lyrics banal and repetitive, a square fellow who read books and wore yesterday’s clothes. But the worst realization was that they bored me. The laughing, clean-limbed young girls were as bright, functional and vapid as cereal boxes. And their young men—all hair and lethargy—were so laid back as to have become immobile.
—The Lonely Silver Rain
This could not continue. Relief was in sight.
One if by land: an unexpected landscape by way of an Opel
And every time I think about what might have been, I jump in my car and start rid’n again.
Off and on cars have been a source of solace, an escape, motoring to a change of scenery, relief from whatever ailed me. Early on, I lucked into a Jensen Healey, which I drove as much as I could, as often as a I could, through those difficult years. Later, out West, I went through a BMW phase: a 1973 3.0s followed by a 533i. When things were bad, I drove, often at 3:00 A.M., on the most obscure, windy roads, from Mt. Hamilton to San Gregorio. There’s solace in good leather seats, tight handling, and gear shifting, working it out, ending at an overlook with a dawn view of the Coyote Valley or a midnight beach near Pescadero.
Now, several decades later, two days after Christmas, I was in an Opel. Automatic. With Annie-girl, Catherine Pig, Andre and Maëlys. It was a perfect day: a clear blue sky, dry and cold. We left La Garde, the destination was the Gorge de Verdon, the deepest canyon in Europe. To get there we would cross most of Var, which like California, extends from the sea to the mountains. Some hours later we arrived, the gorge was beautiful, stunning, well worth seeing. But for me it was what came before that etched into my heart.
The terrain was already to my liking as we left Cotignac, just after lunch, still some distance from the gorge: open country, limestone outcroppings, a diversity of trees: olives, oaks, sycamore, several pine varieties, here and there an Italian cypress. But, it was at Baudinard-sur-Verdon, almost in Alpes de Haute Provence, but still in Var, something happened.
One of the great differences between the East and West coasts of America, is that out West there are vistas and sightlines and views that are unimaginable in the East. Wallace Stegner advised that to appreciate the West, ‘you had to get used to an inhuman scale’. Growing up, I was not accustomed to that scale, and spent little time in the American West until I moved to California: there was only the occasional family trip to Texas, a place more southern than western. But once I moved west, the pleasure and awe of seeing the stunning panoramas and eternal vistas was an immediate delight from the moment I arrived, and has never gone out of me: that ability to see into the far. These views could be seen while commuting around San Jose, where there were views of both the East Bay hills and the Santa Cruz Mountains, or in other western towns in other western states I would visit: Lander, Creede, Ruch.
As we left Baudinard-sur-Verdon, coming around a turn, the landscape suddenly opened up to an expanse of land and trees, to distant mountains, to a far off forever. It was an unexpectedly wild, almost savage terrain. It especially reminded me of the landscape between Taos and Albuquerque, there was even a flattop mountain shaped like a mesa. It was like coming into a room in an art gallery, and seeing a painting, unexpected and fresh, which strikes you, stops you there, even before you are in the room. What was this West doing in France? The day had already been wonderful, and now this, to come upon something glorious after so much beauty, it seemed unfair, unearned. The scales started falling away, a happy squeeze ache in my heart.
Two if by sea: in which our man takes a brisk New Year’s dip with all those Germans
The Minister of every Parish shall often admonish the People, that they defer not the Baptism of their Children, and that it is most convenient that Baptism should be administered upon Sundays and other Holy Days. Nevertheless, if necessity so require, Baptism may be administered upon any other day. And also he shall warn them that, except for urgent cause, they seek not to have their Children baptized in their houses.
—The Book of Common Prayer (1929)
We had no minister to admonish us, instead just the quiet urgings of Alexandra. It was not a Sunday, but a Wednesday and we were neither in our houses nor a church, but instead at the Plage du —. The cause to her was pressing: a New Year’s Day swim in the sea.
We drove from the Vlaars to the beach parking lot, and soon met Stephanie and Uwe, their friends from Karlsruhe, others from Mannheim. Monika and Gerard, our former neighbors from the village of La Garde, were walking, and would be along soon. We all hiked the path through pine trees, descending to the beach. There it was magical: yellow-gold sand and stone, the sea a textured blue, the sky another blue muted by an intense winter sun.
Alexandra and some others were intent on a swim; a ritual to start the new year.
Perhaps the sole advantage to organized religion is that often there are well thought out formulas and ceremonies for the events and milestones in life: birth, reaching adulthood, change of seasons, and so on. Secular ceremonies are often lacking: I don’t think I’ve ever been to a moving wedding conducted by friends of the bride and groom. All those religions have had a lot of practice, although to be sure, I’ve also been to some extremely disturbing religious ceremonies. Still, I liked the idea of a gesture or event to start the new year.
And yet…the water looked cold.
If I came to swimming relatively late in life, I came very reluctantly to cold water swimming. The first time was when over a period of a few weeks, the pool heater broke at Menlo Masters, and the water temperature dropped from about 79°F. to something really cold. Swim practice still continued, for those who cared to show up. I found the only way for me to adapt to the cold water was to follow a particular protocol; I couldn’t just jump in and start swimming, because I couldn’t catch my breath. Instead I swam backstroke for a few hundred meters, until I acclimated, but even then, because of the cold, I could only stay in about forty minutes.
But as hard as cold water swimming was, afterwards there was a wonderful feeling, one I hadn’t experienced before after swim practice. It was a like an electrical current was running through me, as I warmed up the numbness became a sort of body-wide sub-atomic vibration. As it happens, there is a cold water pool near me in Chur, the Freibad Sand, open only June, July, and August; sometimes it’s 16°C, sometimes a bit more; I swim there when I can.
The Mediterranean looked cold that morning. Why be dull? Six of us had suits or underwear ready (I had brought a back-up pair of boxers), in we went. It hurt, it was cold, but everyone was game as we walked-waded-yelled-burred-plunged into the sea. I left the water, then we went back in, submerged then rolled over and floated on my back, sculling, in water of electric cold salty pain under a sunny blue sky.
Seneca also wrote, It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Why didn’t I think of that? Judge not, don’t worry about the mote in a neighbor’s eye….I’ve planks enough.
Afterwards there was champagne, apero, conversation.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Ketcham, Christopher. “A Play With No End: What the Gilets Jaunes really want.’ Harper’s, August, 2018, pp. 41-49. An excellent overview on their worthy goals, despite the disruptions by the gilet jaunes.|
|2.||↑||See https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/01/17/why-macron-refuses-to-retire-in-frances-pensions-battle/. For a broader look at Europe, as well as some particulars about the SNCF, see: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v32/n06/tony-judt/the-way-things-are-and-how-they-might-be|