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Of Coffee and Clippings

Clearing out the notebook after 10 days in France and some great coffee.

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American cars are freakishly large, everything ends with "dot com," and our coffee completely sucks. That's the summary of America I wrote in my journal after roaming France for 10 days. Our SUV craze really is the perfect statement of America in today's world: huge and completely clueless. I could also have added "we are obsessed with television and sports, have no idea about the outside world unless it fits into our travel or military plans, eat poorly and quickly, and outside of a dozen or so cities have no idea what real public transit is." Yep, the traveler's eyes always see home in a new light upon returning. This week, I'm clearing out that notebook, but before I do, I have to talk about this coffee thing. Americans seem to think we're in the midst of some coffee revolution. Actually, we're drinking liquid candy with caffeine. Think about it: a soy raspberry mocha? That's fine, but let's not call it coffee. And what does pass for coffee in the States is watered down and bitter compared to the smooth, strong stuff they've got in Europe. Literally every corner shop in Europe has better coffee than I've ever had in America. I have no idea why, but it's clear that we're no better at coffee than they are at hamburgers or steaks and they're really bad at those. Among the things I never saw in France: Starbucks, the Internet, fitness centers, the word "Microsoft," an all-sports publication, or a mall. I saw "dot com" once. People in Paris do not share everyone else's view of Paris. They seem to think it's just old, crowded, and dirty. When you tell people there that you're from America, they want to know if you've been to New York or San Francisco, and their eyes go a little soft. What they don't seem to realize is that Paris might be the best city in the world to live in. The lifestyle one can live there food, culture, neighborhood walks, scenery, access to Europe by train boggles the American mind. The myth of the rude Parisian has, after three trips, still not materialized for me. I've had worse experiences in Boston. But ask yourself this: If you, on a daily basis, encountered (in your opinion) loud, obese people speaking a foreign language to you like you were an idiot and making no effort to learn English, how long would it take you to get rude? Speaking of language, some of the things they do with English are really wonderful. We encountered one menu that featured "false net grill," "filet white butters," and "assorted crudities." Dutch, I have decided, is a funny-looking version of English with lots of extra letters thrown in. The phrase for "on board" (as in on an airplane) is "aan boord." "Put a card in" (as in a credit card) is "steek een kaart in." And it sounds like a French person speaking German though I wouldn't say that to a French, German, or Dutch person. Among the stranger travel moments was sitting on a KLM flight waiting to leave the gate. They showed this bizarre video with the history of KLM interspersed with images of swans landing, preening, and rubbing their necks together romantically. It went especially poorly with my admitted near-fetish interest in KLM stewardesses. I can't figure if it's the accent, the powder-blue dress, the role of comforter/provider, or the three-language politeness, but I don't really care. Thanks for letting me share. I continued a long travel tradition on this trip: I bought postcards on Day 1, wrote them on Day 4, and mailed them on Day 10. I beat them home by a week. After driving in the French countryside, you understand why people become painters especially Impressionists. You can't re-create the beauty of the place, even with a camera. You have to paint the way you feel when you're looking at it, which is a bit fuzzy and idealistic and like you're lost in a perfection that cares not for centuries. The reason is that the family farm actually survives, even dominates, in France. The fields are small, crops change from place to place, houses and tiny villages dot the countryside, the roads are winding and have no billboards, walls are generally made of old stone As my dad said, the country looks settled and finished and in no need of improvement. About 10 percent of my photos are of old stone walls with flowers growing out of them. When Americans talk about World War II, it's something that happened long ago. When French people talk about it, they say things like "We removed and hid all the stained glass in the church so the Germans wouldn't smash it" and "We had two German soldiers living in our home" and "The Germans told our schoolteacher what she could and couldn't teach" and "There used to be Jews here" and then "We never forget that you sent your boys to die on our beaches to free us." It puts things in perspective.

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