Spring Symphony

Symphony in pink and green

How do the trees find out each year
The one right day to send forth leaves
In unison,
A symphony of greens
With pizzicato notes of pink and princely purples?

Yesterday, the branches stood against the sky
In silent browns and grays,
And then the Maestro gave the downbeat,
for the symphony of Spring.
My heart fluttered into joy,
And set my soul to singing.

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My French Brain

My French Brain

Apparemment, il y a en moi une double francaise qui sort seulement quand en France. Elle pense en francais, elle parle couramment en francais, et elle sait toutes sortes de choses que mon personnage americain ignore totalement. Oh! Sorry! Right! English, please….

I’ve become aware of this strange French incarnation of myself. She has suddenly appeared from I don’t know where. She speaks French better than I ever thought I could. She has French reflexes. She even cooks in French. My American self hates to cook! But it’s mealtime, and I have a few things in the fridge, and in no time at all a lovely French meal appears on the table. I’ve never before been able to speak Parisian French with the perfect cadence, intonation, facial expressions, and reflexes, that persuade Parisians absolutely to treat me as one of their own. When I lived in France those many years ago, my life took place in provincial cities.

It’s like being in France for the first time all over again. Back then, I said things, and people responded, and I had no idea what they’d said, or what to do next. But now, I understand it all, perfectly, and the right responses just fly from my mouth — even humorous comments that give people a chuckle. But then I’m not sure where they came from. From me??? Who IS this other-cultured individual inhabiting me? Some strange transformation has been going on in my brain between last year’s Parisian visit and this year’s. I’ve morphed from a Provincial into a Parisian – something I’ve never been before.

Many, many years ago, when studying how to lead personal development seminars, I learned about something I’ve not heard of elsewhere. It was called the “Ziegarnik Effect.” Apparently it was named for a Russian or Polish psychologist who had determined experimentally that when a person starts working on a solution and then leaves it in midstream, the brain somehow just keeps perking along working out the puzzle until the person mentally returns to finish it.

It’s been a year and a half since we last left Paris in May 2014. And apparently my brain has been working double time to process the many observations and experiences I had during that month in Paris. This has been true for Nancy as well. This year, her French is at least 500% better than it was the last time we were here. Her pronunciation is clearly understandable, so that people respond in French, rather than announcing they can speak English. She’s processing conversations and understanding most of what people are saying in rapid-fire Parisian French. And she’s thinking mostly in French. Both of us are conversing with each other quite effortlessly and unintentionally in French. It’s quite amazing.

I haven’t thought about the “Ziegarnik Effect” for a very long time. But clearly that’s what has happened to us, and it’s powerful. How can we harness this amazing capacity of our brains to learn and process while we are attending to other stuff? We couldn’t have experienced the same year-to- year improvements in our skills if we had worked at it, taken lessons, studied, practiced, spent hours. We didn’t do any of that, and yet the results are hard to believe. We left Paris before the process was complete. We intended to come back. We went about our American lives. And now we’re reaping the benefits of our brains continuing to process and learn from last year’s experiences.

I’ve thought a lot during this trip of the various purposes that travel can serve. Since we are back in the same beloved city for the third year in a row, our desires and our needs have continued to change with each return visit. The first year, we thirsted to experience different places that we hadn’t seen for a long time. Last year, we were starting to focus more on doing things we would do if we lived in Paris for at least part of each year – things like attending church, going to meetings, participating in different activities. This year, our approach has changed even further. Being here sparked different conversations between us than we would have at home, and we attended fully to these, and enjoyed them. They didn’t necessarily involve going anywhere outside the apartment. We became acquainted with a couple of merchants in our neighborhood, establishing a pattern of friendly greeting and jesting. We explored shopping venues, and explored small neighborhood areas on foot to deepen our knowledge of them. We cooked more (what a surprise!). We became even more conversant with the relationship of our neighborhood to different parts of Paris and expanded the areas of Paris that have started to feel familiar and comfortable, readily accessible by bus. We were able to make a couple of contacts with individuals who we hope will, over time become new friends in a deeper sense – people we will keep up with and with whom we can discuss topics mutually important to us. Our initial conversations have indicated that this outcome is very possible. We reinforced our enjoyment and purposeful attention to an activity that seems uniquely rich in Paris, attending live concerts in ancient music, choral music, and jazz.

We discovered and made it a point to attend a new French musical (“Gospel Sur La Colline”) purportedly written about life in an African American community in Louisiana. We wondered how the Europeans would portray African-Americans, whom they generally find fascinating. During the show, however, we didn’t recognize much that seemed American. The songs written by the French producers were very polished and European in their sound, with no reference to the rhythms and tonalities of African-American music. The accents of most of the francophone actors were hard to understand. The rhythms of motion and dance were polished and choreographed – again very European. The mostly French audience LOVED the show. They really got into the music and the rhythm and the clapping, and gave several thunderous standing ovations at the end. We were puzzled, until the francophone African friend with whom we had attended the play told us that the actors as well as the music and choreography were Antillean – the work of francophone Creoles from the Caribbean. Oh! Apparently the Antilleans are quite European in their way of living – and of course, from a European standpoint, since they are from the Western Hemisphere, not so far from the US they seem like suitable stand-ins for African Americans. So the switch worked reasonably well for the French audience, but not so much for us.  

Clearly, our agenda, like our perspective, has changed for each of these three succeeding visits to Paris. When I first came to France right after graduating from college, I had never been further west than New York City. Travel at that age opened up my experience dramatically, providing the contrasts necessary for gaining perspective on my life and myself. Traveling can also be a way of proving oneself as we meet challenges at all levels. These trips have played that role, even though we have come back repeatedly to the same place – challenging us physically, mentally, and emotionally. Travel can be entertainment – the opportunity to be a spectator on the sights and sounds of different places across the world. Obviously, that is not so much what we are seeking in these trips. In addition, travel can provide the opportunity to encounter and build understanding for the varieties of human experience. Certainly, the two new potential friends we met on this trip created the basis for this benefit of traveling. One is a French wife, mother of two twenty-something sons just launching into the world, a former biologist who had to compromise on a career in computers because of shifting job opportunities.  She is now semi-retired and in business for herself as a flower arranger. The other is a dynamic young woman originally from the Congo, who had the advantages of a European convent and university education and is now a young careerist in international banking – someone in her early thirties who has a vision of how people like her can give back to her native country to help others escape from the cycle of consistent poverty and corruption. She is one of those young people who gives us hope for the continued evolution of the world toward peaceful opportunities for people from everywhere.  

Finally, I find that traveling often provides me with the opportunity to experiment with living habits that I really like but have not yet developed in my everyday life. There are several life changes I want to take back with me from this trip. Certainly, I need to translate into my American life my newly found realization that preparing delicious, informal, light meals using the French template can be very fast and easy. I also want to find ways to spend part of every day relaxing and doing something just for the enjoyment of it – and to continue the spontaneous decision making process each day to do something fun. I’ve thought that before, and haven’t followed through. Can I do it this time? We’ll see. Also, during this trip, I’ve been aware of the blessing of enjoying simple everyday pleasures with the person I most love. I want to carry on with this heightened awareness of a tremendous gift.

Is that enough? I think so. How can I use the Ziegarnik Effect to help it happen?

Over a lifetime, I have indeed improved my ability to carry over insights and behaviors I like from one setting to another. I envision that I will be able to continue enjoying these habits as beloved souvenirs from a memorable stay in Paris in 2015.

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Puttering in Paris

Puttering in Paris October 17, 2015

Before coming to Paris, we made lists of the exhibitions and major events that are happening while we are here. The planning was exciting, uplifting. Picasso-Mania at the grand Palais, the re-opening of the Picasso Museum, the Exhibit on Prostitution in French art at the Quai d-Orsay (well, it does make sense that if the Impressionists weren’t painting their wives, they had to meet the enticing women in their paintings somehow….), “Fragonard in Love” (smarmy!) at the Musee de Luxembourg, the removal of all scaffolding from the now refurbished Sainte Chapelle allowing once again a 360 degree view of the irreplaceable stained glass….

But then life took over. We were slowed down by a sore throat and cold, as well as arthritis kicked off by the relatively chilly October weather in Paris, and – frankly – we were taken over by our sense of just feeling at home once we got here, back to Bob and Rik’s lovely apartment in the Latin Quarter that we had enjoyed last year as well. We were delighted to find once again pleasures we had enjoyed last year – simple pleasures of exploring one’s neighborhood and making it feel even more like home.

We spent an evening perusing the new exhibit posted on the lengthy fence surrounding the Jardin du Luxembourg – a treatise in posters – dozens of them – on the influence of bees worldwide. Last year’s memorable lesson, which we had enjoyed reading and learning about, marked the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. The producers of the exhibit had visited important battle sites in all of the countries that had seen trench warfare, describing what had happened in those places 100 years ago and presenting photos of the sites both then and today. It was amazing how the scars of war had softened over a century while yet remaining clear and shocking. This year’s exhibit was a true master work on the importance of bees in sustaining both people and crops in many locations across the world, as well as their many species and variations. We experienced an apiary education on the sidewalk.

We noted that much around our apartment remained the same, and much had also changed. There is now a thriving restaurant two doors up the street. We haven’t had a chance to try it yet, but it seems popular. The bar in the other direction where tough young people hung out, smoking, on the sidewalk all day in May is now, in October, quiet and apparently deserted. In contrast, in May, the huge lycee – technical high school – across the street was deserted. Now, there are students clustering in small groups, smoking and talking, around each entrance. And the art studio a few doors down is full of students sketching – like the lycee, it had been empty in May.

When we arrived this year, we found that a Jazz Festival is going on, called Jazz Sur Seine (a pun in French, which, when said rather than read, could also mean Jazz on Stage). The French have historically loved American Jazz from the early 1900s. One of the jazz clubs in our neighborhood, the Petit Journal St. Michel, is a festival venue. We decided a couple of nights ago to visit the club and enjoy dinner and a jazz concert. It was delightful. The venue is literally a “cave” – a basement, with tables tightly arranged. Dinner was simple and, as always in Paris beautifully cooked and presented. Then the concert began. The musicians, the “High Society Jazz Band,” were seven Parisian guys in their seventies. They were excellent musicians and clearly enjoyed deeply the American music of 1900 to 1929 that they were playing. They announced each number, with its title in English as well as its composer and year of composition. They had a wonderful time playing together, and we, the audience, comfortably sated from a good dinner, enjoyed relaxing with them. Some of the pieces were even familiar, like “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” played with a Dixieland orchestration.

Today, we chose to explore the medieval shopping street a few blocks away, Rue Mouffetard, with buildings dating from the 1500s to the early 1800s. The street is winding and extremely narrow – they had no cars in the 1500s! It’s a favorite destination of visitors, so pedestrian traffic was heavy. We enjoyed a light lunch in a small restaurant, and did some grocery shopping in the “bio” – the natural food store that had opened (since we were here last year) in the ground floor stone-walled original shops of five contiguous very old buildings. It was an impressively creative use of space to meet modern mercantile needs while respecting the structural integrity of buildings from another era. Each original stone-walled room was still intact, save for a passage way leading from one to the other by way of ramps to navigate the uneven depths of the floors between one building and the next. In one space were two refrigerated cases, facing one another, with room to pass between them, in another space were, similiarly, two facing racks with unrefrigerated foods, facing each other. Each stone enclosure measured approximately 12 by 14 feet – a single room. Five of them together became a reasonable-sized modern shop.

When we were walking to Mouffetard, at about 12:30 pm on a Saturday, adults were accompanying children walking home from school. Some children were wearing backpacks, but we’ve noticed that even more kids, these days, walk along dragging rolling suitcases to carry their school things. We passed a couple of schools, and found it interesting to study the posted announcements on their exterior walls, protected by wooden shadow boxes with glass fronts. One such government announcement detailed the activities available in Wednesday afternoon workshops, when children traditionally do not have school. Apparently the schools have adapted to the reality of modern working families by making it compulsory to register for artistic and cultural workshops on Wednesday afternoons. The list of available activities was still posted (school only went back into session about three weeks ago for the Fall) – various kinds of music, visual art, Manga, animation, computerized production skills… Also, one box contained a communication from the city of Paris on how much families would be charged, on a sliding scale, according to ten different levels of monthly income, for school lunches and the Wednesday afternoon workshops. Another box listed a variety of activities that would be available for children over the long holiday coming up the first week of November, for La Toussant” – All Saints Day. This is a traditional long holiday in French culture, and many families travel then for leisure pursuits such as skiing in the Alps, as well as family visits. We also found interesting a set of posters concerning the responsibilities for parents of public school children, and the existence of a “Union” of parents of school children, with their concerns and their planned actions for the year.

In short, much of our time in Paris this week has seemed to revolve around exploring the moments of daily living, and the context provided by a local neighborhood. It is said that Paris is a collection of dozens of villages. I know the same is true in New York, except there I’d say “neighborhoods” or even “small towns.” I also know that we won’t be able to understand the nitty gritty life that truly identifies a Parisian neighborhood or village without actually living here. I was talking with our host Bob today, and he mentioned the concierges as “the most important people on the street.” I remember that from when I was living in France, but as visitors, we are merely “de passage” here. As people who come and go, we don’t have a chance to begin to discern individual patterns and neighborly attitudes. It’s still interesting, however, to discover what we can about the human rhythms and interactions that surround us/ It’s fun to tune into the level that is universal – the humanity that we all share – as well as the countless individual variations that make earthly life so fascinating.

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How Do They DO That?

How Do They DO That?” Paris, October 16, 2015

Every time I take my first bite at even the tiniest, simplest French restaurant, the intensity of fine flavor bursting into my awareness brings to my mind the question “How do they DO that?” How come food here in Paris seems to brim with taste and energy, utterly seducing my taste buds (my “papilles” – a word I’ve seen used several times since coming to Paris)?
The other day, for instance, in a hole in the wall place, chosen because the menu looked simple and the prices reasonable, I ordered their speciality, roasted “bio” (organic) chicken. On the plate, when it arrived, were a beautifully roasted chicken leg quarter, with a patch of lettuce topped with homemade French dressing, and a serving of beautiful golden fried potato pieces. The plate was visually appealing and, for 12 Euros, a bargain. When I hungrily took my first forkful of chicken, I came close to swooning. My mouth was suffused with the most glorious flavor – a little salty, a little herbed, a lot wonderful.

How do they DO that?

I assume the chicken had been brined before being roasted. But beyond preparation in the kitchen, it has to have had a wonderful life foraging for bugs in a green yard, being lovingly raised to become a perfect tasting chicken at a later time. Long ago, my husband and I used to take trout fishing trips. When we were at establishments that raised trout and then released them for fishermen to catch, the real prizes were the fish that had been released the previous year, that had foraged on natural food for a year or more. Their flavor was so much richer than the grain-fed trout that had been released the previous week. There was no comparison. I doubt that feral chickens exist, ones that escaped slaughter the preceding year and are much better now. They wouldn’t be better – they’d be old, tough hens. When I was in France the first time, right after graduating from college in the US, the French, who were contemplating starting to import American raised chickens, were raising a political ruckus because the way American chickens were raised was so artificial and toxic, there would be no comparison with French chickens. They were right! I think that for that meal, I benefitted from a genuine French chicken.
But it’s not just chickens that make me ask that question in Paris. It’s salad, potatoes, ratatouille, eggs, duck, pork, green beans, apple pie, and the dozens of wonderful, rich flavors of house-made sorbets and ice creams – for example. Every meal is a wonderful surprise of rich, bursting flavor, no matter how simple the preparation and presentation.

How do they DO that?

The other thing I realize each time I come to Paris is “I’m in love!” This culture is deeply infused with the love of sensory pleasures of all kinds – music, visual harmony, beautiful parks – to name a few examples. The food is just one way in which moments spent in Paris abound in beauty of all kinds. When I catch a glimpse of a courtyard through an open front door, the plants are expertly arranged so that colors, textures, shapes and fragrances create a harmonious whole. The concert the other night at the Sainte Chapelle exquisitely married visual beauty with rich musical tones — both so exalted as to be other-worldly. The interior of the department store Au Bon Marche, which we visited yesterday, presented awe-inspiring modern design vistas at every turn. Store windows and counter displays were artfully designed, with surprising colors and shapes that also contributed to sophisticated visual compositions. Advertising has a graphic elegance that one appreciates esthetically while absorbing the commercial message. Enjoyment is built into the fabric of Parisian everyday life.

It’s a bit addictive. Having to leave such constantly pleasant moments to return to a life that is mostly focused on accomplishment and results is disappointing. When I went home the first time after my first 3 year stay in France, some of it spent in Paris, I was full of hope that I could bring back my newly honed sense of enjoyment and create some of that ongoing pleasure in my American life. It was not to be. I realized, after returning to the United States, how very contextual cultural experiences are. When nothing and no one in one’s environment attunes to something one appreciate, it’s impossible to bring it about in splendid isolation. Our quality of experience results from a kind of conspiracy – an agreement on what is important. There is no better place than the United States to enjoy clean, effective, well functioning experiences of everything mechanical. We expect it. Even when we take it for granted (which is most of the time), we appreciate it. And it’s fundamentally different from the exquisitely pleasant sensory experiences that form the fabric of everyday Parisian experiences.

There is just no way of duplicating Paris. You have to come here!

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Arriving in Paris, Oct 11, 2015

WELCOME TO PARIS OCT 11 2015


Paris is unlike everyplace else. We love its energy, its irrepressible pleasure in every sensory experience, its affinity for spontaneous expression of feelings.

We came this time from London, via the Eurostar train, which uses the “Chunnel.” This was our first time taking the train. It was a simple, pleasant two hour or so train ride from London to Paris – making the two cities seem suddenly close to each other – closer than New York and Washington in the US. Our assigned seats faced two other seats, with two young British women taking a few days to visit Paris – very chatty and pleasant. Most of our time on the train was spent eating the lunch we had brought with us – sandwiches and crisps, with bottles of soda. The Chunnel was dark, with nothing to watch out the windows, in any case.

When we arrived in Paris Gare du Nord, our car driver was waiting for us (it helps, when one has major luggage, to arrange for a car, for the assistance one receives with the bags.). Very soon after our cheery greetings, we knew we were in Paris, not London. The driver took us to the elevator to the parking garage, and pressed the button for the floor where he had parked. The elevator door opened at the floor – onto a piece of green corrugated metal that had been nailed across the opening. He muttered something about construction going on, and pressed the button for the floor below. There, he deposited us and our bags, saying he was going to the floor above to retrieve the car, and that he’d be back to pick us up, as he sprinted for the stairs. Five minutes later, a black Peugeot 508 came down the ramp between floors and stopped to pick us up.

Then our Paris adventure really started. As we left the station, we noticed that, a block to our left, a huge crowd of people was also leaving the station, on foot. This was a truly enormous crowd, filling the width of the Parisian avenue, and continuing, tightly packed, for at least a block or two. Our driver took off, trying to get ahead of the marchers, who were participating in a demonstration, something that occurs frequently in Paris. We asked the driver what it was about, and he said he thought the people were protesting the attacks that had taken place the past week in Turkey – attacks by the Islamic state, or the Syrian rebels, or some other destabilizing group in the Middle East. After a couple of turns, we came upon the marchers again, and of course, traffic was blocked along their whole route. Our driver then started weaving through a street that had been blocked off from cars as a pedestrian passage for shoppers. There we were, weaving among the Sunday strollers, none of whom paid us any mind. The streets became narrower and narrower, as we wove through, our driver attempting to find a way to get ahead of the march. We finally left the pedestrian area, but then found our way blocked by several people standing in the middle of the narrow thoroughfare apparently engrossed in a heated argument, complete with eloquent gestures. The driver stopped, left the car, and went to join the argument, with his own angry gestures. After a couple of minutes, the driver of the car blocking traffic got back into his vehicle, to move his car forward ten feet or so. As we passed through, he had parked again in the middle of the street to go back and continue the argument, apparently about a minor bump that had produced no noticeable damage to the vehicles involved, but which must have aroused serious issues of honor and precedence. Our driver pulled away, muttering under his breath imprecations of doom on those who will block the way of others for nothing at all.

As we drove on, each narrow street ended in a one-way sign that directed us back once again to the avenue blocked by the marchers. So our driver turned the wrong way into the next one lane street, and we drove the wrong way through a series of these narrow passages, until we arrived yet again at the major avenue, with the marchers still proceeding along steadily.

At this point, a police car was facing us. The driver and the officer, without leaving their cars, carried on a dialogue of gestures – no sound – with hands holding their respective steering wheels. It was clear that traffic was blocked, and our driver presented that as an extenuating circumstance for his apparent – but clearly reasonable – violation of the laws of traffic direction – and the policeman conceded the point. At this point, we could see that the demonstration was truly massive – probably 20-25 people across, in a mass of humanity that stretched for at least a half mile. There really was no way around them. So we ended up as part of the demonstration, driving meekly, at walking speed, at the visible end to the phalanx of marchers. Fortunately, we were by now nearing the Seine, after over an hour of frenzied driving through alleys and one way streets going the wrong way. Soon, the marchers were turning off for planned speeches in the plaza of the Hotel de Ville, so finally, after the last of them turned into the massive plaza, we were able, finally, to cross the river and speed up the Rue St. Jacques to our apartment.

This experience had contrasted dramatically with London, where we had ridden a few cabs, in addition to taking the underground. The London cabbies, before they can be licensed as taxi drivers, have to learn every single street in the city – no matter how tiny – its direction and its connections. So the London cabbies were a delight. They whizzed us away from traffic down and around the same kind of narrow medieval ways that our Paris driver had attempted. But where he was randomly taking alleyways, hoping to come out in a better place relative to the marchers, the London cabbies were coolly efficient. One even used a shortcut through a parking garage. They got us where we were going in virtually no time, traffic be damned. What a delight to experience their encyclopedic knowledge of their city!
We had to laugh at the ways our first ride in Paris from the train station to the apartment had encapsulated so much that was strictly Parisian, in high contrast to the purposeful bustle of the city we had just left.

In that first hour and a half, we experienced a massive demonstration that blocked traffic and stopped normal life, a dramatic argument about a tiny incident, and a driver intent on demonstrating his earnestness with frantic and random attempts to circumvent an obstacle, including minor traffic infractions and a successful ploy to explain them away . There could be no doubt that we were now in Paris, where life is lived intensely, and people’s sense of worth is sometimes embedded in the creative flair with which they process each moment.

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The Land Where Left is Right – Sometimes October 8, 2015

The Land Where Left is Right – Sometimes

Navigating jetlag and learning to walk safely down the street in a new place have a lot in common – confusion — especially with traffic circulating on the left side. In both instances, perceptions and memory are a bit fuzzy. We took measures this year to not be so overwhelmed by sleepiness on our first days in Europe – fairly successfully. But our measures didn’t help much with other jetlag effects, such as slowed perception, mental confusion, holes in our memory banks, and a dramatically lowered level of tolerance for the unpredictable. We’ve ridden a bit, in taxis and buses and of course they are driving on the left side. I’ve always thought that driving on the left would be intensely confusing. But London has enough vehicular traffic that it would be relatively easy to just follow the car ahead. Being a pedestrian, on the other hand, can be life-threatening, especially at street corners. At big intersections with traffic islands, the authorities have taken this into account and stenciled directions in big white letters in front of where toes would be: “LOOK LEFT!” or “LOOK RIGHT.” Ordinary streets in London, however, are extremely narrow, with just a couple of inches between cars going in both directions. Baron von Haussmann, who designed the straight, broad boulevards of Paris never made it to London. Therefore, the cars on the side of the street where one is walking are rolling along right next to the curb. Everyone here, on wheels or on foot, seems to move very, very quickly – lightning fast reflexes are a definite plus (never mind the soporific effect of jetlag on reflexes). When one is about to cross the street on foot, it is essential to look back around one’s right shoulder to see if any cars might be about to make a left turn, hugging the curb. After a couple of days of this confusion, it becomes difficult to believe – even though I can see it — that the car behind me barreling toward its tight left turn really is going to pass right next to the curb on my side of the street – there is no time or space tolerance, and my toes had better be behind the edge of the curb.

Yesterday, our second full day here, we ventured on foot into the famous central areas of London, around Regent Street, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square. There are cars, but not in the congested knots one would expect, because the government has imposed hefty traffic surcharges for driving in central areas during the day. It seems a fairly successful strategy. One consequence, however, is a mass of red double decker buses – buses everywhere — weaving in and out, stopping and going. The other consequence is a mighty river of pedestrians, on every side. Shoulder to shoulder, toe to heel — but sometimes heel to toe — we all move together, a mass of ambulating humanity.

These areas are heavily visited by tourists whose habitual traffic patterns may favor either right or left. And no absolute laws about left or right for pedestrians seem to apply. Therefore, the flow of traffic resembles nothing so much as a weaving. There is not a column of walkers on the left and another, flowing in the opposite direction, on the right. When approaching someone coming from the opposite direction, there is nothing predictable about the side to which they’ll turn in moving past.
But enter the subway stations, and the masses of always running, hurrying passengers have strict rules on the lengthy escalators – stand to the right or be mowed down! The escalators descend to truly impressive depths in the underground stations — sometimes four or five stories in a single flight. Those who prefer to ride quietly line up along the right, while a massive stream of others sprint alongside, either down or up, on the left side. If pedestrians followed the same rule as vehicles, the slow movers would stand to the left, while the constant flow of sprinters would pass on the right – I think.

In large cities, walking stamina is always required. In London, however, speed is an added requirement. Long distance speed walkers rules the sidewalks and thoroughfares. Needless to say, it’s a city full of young people. The average age in these central districts of the city seems between 20 and 35.

At moments like these, I become aware of the intense degree to which my daily movements normally are governed by habit. I usually don’t have to apply reason to questions like which side to select or which direction to choose. One of the benefits of travel is the need to challenge even such ingrained physical habits. Habits can save a lot of time and energy, but every once in a while, it’s good to revisit basics and re-examine what works best in the present moment.

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The Brave World of Globalization – First Impressions, London, 2015

The Brave World of Globalization – First Impressions, London, October 6, 2015

After one of those very long nights trying to sleep on a transatlantic flight in “cattle class” (augmented by two extra hours sitting in the plane on the ground before takeoff while technicians fixed a minor plumbing leak), we arrived at Heathrow, London, England at 10:45 am yesterday morning. Hazy, semi-conscious, aching, we stumbled through border control and luggage retrieval.

When we exited the arrivals hall, the car driver was standing there with my name on a card, as planned. But he was basically sleeping on his feet. It turned out he had not been given the message I’d sent to his company the evening before from Atlanta about the two hour flight delay, and the airport had not posted the flight as delayed. Nancy and I felt enormously guilty — though we’d done everything we could to alert him. And who knew that the plane would not show in airport communications as delayed? Isn’t two hours significant enough any more, in a world where estimated itineraries have been enormously inflated to minimize the number of late arrivals posted for any airline? There’s a surreal feeling about all this!

It’s been decades since I’ve been in London, and my memories are vague. However now, after 24 hours here, it actually doesn’t seem as though I’ve arrived in a different place from where I left to “jump the puddle” called the Atlantic. Have I become jaded as a traveler? I don’t think so. Rather, the world HAS become much more connected – the whole homogenized, even as every local place has diversified. In the airports at Raleigh and Atlanta, the service people had brown faces and variously accented English that had originated, mostly, in Asia or Africa. The same appears true in London. In North Carolina, the cars are a hodgepodge of brands from Asia, the US, and Europe. In London, the same mix of cars plies the roadways. The British do seem to appreciate black cars more than Americans. I saw my first black Toyota Prius. The color of the year in North Carolina seems to be red. The same mix of clothing appears in London as in the US – a wide variety of Muslim head coverings, as well as mini skirts, leggings, wildly colored sneakers, hooded nylon rain jackets, slacks outfits on women, jeans on guys. On the ride into the city, we did pass by one official looking building with people entering and leaving, and those men looked traditionally English – large, broad, bone structure, longish fly-away hair, gray suits with conservative blue or red ties, large dark-rimmed glasses, pasty white round faces with familiar flat features and anxiously raised eyebrows… But the women were the same international blend I was seeing everywhere – slender, small-framed, and dark-haired, striding efficiently on stiletto heels. We drove through the fabled West End, equivalent to New York’s Broadway – and realized that the same shows are playing on both sides of the Atlantic (it HAD seemed strange to us at the Tony awards last year that the shows we had enjoyed on a visit to New York and that had won the lion’s share of awards all were from Britain, with British casts.)

When we arrived at the apartment we had let for the week, familiar Ikea furniture and cabinets greeted our eyes. The laminate floors resembled those in our house in Durham. We have in our house the inexpensive Noguchi lampshades that cover the light bulbs here. The folding canvas chairs, compete with cupholders, available on the balcony, could have come straight from Lowe’s or Home Depot. The Sainsbury’s quick-shop down the street familiarly posts its opening hours from 7 am to 11 pm.
Some things are still characteristic of London. The many grand buildings, square after square, are solidly reassuring. Gabled buildings with numerous chimney pots speak of multiple fireplaces within, probably now unused. The double decker city buses are still bright red (while proclaiming on every vehicle that they’ve “gone green” – a symbolic, though not visual, hint of Christmas images probably not remotely suggested for Londoners). The black taxis still have the traditional high and narrow chassis – though the lines are now curved and so 21st century, and the size has shrunk considerably from the old model cabs. Every once in a while, a grungy corner pub with a clever name survives and clearly has not shifted an inch in its décor, menu, or personnel. And, of course, “Her Majesty’s” presence on numerous signs as on the now decimal currency interjects a frequent reminder of where I am.

On the drive from Heathrow into the city, I noticed the round European style speed limit signs (a colored circle surrounding a number), and asked the driver if the numbers still referred to miles, or if they too had shifted to metric measures. The driver (Pakistani) laughed and replied “Yes, we are stubbornly clinging to our miles, although every other measurement is now metric.”

I’m realizing that Britain, at least, is no longer a truly “foreign” destination. We are aligned so thoroughly, with the same immigrants, the same brands of products and commercial establishments, the same fashions, the same food brands (Coca Cola versus Pepsi Cola, Oreo cookies, Quaker Oats…) that the “Pond” has apparently shrunk to the significance of a pond – despite the physically rattling 5 hours of jet lag. I’m pretty sure that this phenomenon is limited to large cities – but even there, I’m reading of more and more second tier American cities with large and diverse immigrant populations, a situation I’m sure applies as frequently here as in the US. And of course, stores and products have become amazingly homogeneous in America, as here. I came here wanting to purchase a certain well-known brand of British walking shoes, only to find that they’re now more readily available in Durham, North Carolina than in London!

Apparently, we now need to go much further afield than London to reap some of the basic benefits of world travel – the dislocation to the senses and the mind, the challenge to preconceived habitual patterns of thought, an appreciation for the amazing variety of human ingenuity and sensibility.
I know, as our visit proceeds, that we will, despite the globalization of English speaking cultures, enjoy some experiences that we could have only here in this moment, and that we will leave grateful for those opportunities to stretch ourselves. And now, visiting Harrod’s Department Store has shot to the top of my priority list. At least there, from what people are saying, the traditional British shopping experience, enhanced by Harrod’s legendary flights of fantasy, has not only survived, but thrived. Hooray!

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