Yesterday was the 51st anniversary of the death of JFK. I was watching some videos of his speeches, including the "Ich Bin ein Berliner" speech. Extraordinary. I got chills. We forget that he was a hawk, a fiscal conservative, and a civil libertarian at home. Why can't we find that combination in a leader now? It is so sensible a mix. But it occurred to me watching the speech that humans really have dumbed down over the years. The speech was so erudite and so unequivocal. There was no coddling of our enemies, a la Obama. You can see why JFK meant so much to so many, including my parents, and how devastating his assassination must have been. My father told me he saw more people crying in the streets that day than on VE-Day.
My favourite part of the speech:
Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was "civis Romanus sum." Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is "Ich bin ein Berliner."
I appreciate my interpreter translating my German! There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass' sic nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin. Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.
Just gave me chills. And of course, the charisma. See it here:
I took the train from Paris to Caen and back, during my recent trip to France. In Italy, I always get first class train tickets because I mostly take the interregionale trains, which are not great so you need every advantage you can get (if you are taking the Freccie the trains overall are much nicer). But Italian trains are inexpensive. Even first class tickets are inexpensive. France is different. Train tickets cost about three times what they cost in Italy, so I wasn't sure I would get a first class ticket. At Gare St. Lazare I asked the ticket guy what the difference between first and regular class fare was in terms of comfort. What are the advantages, I asked him, of paying extra to get a first class ticket?
Without hesitation he said (in French), "You are unlikely to have to sit with anyone in the first class car." He had me at "unlikely", of course, and I shelled out the first class price. But afterwards I laughed, thinking, how French. The idea of not sitting with anyone is an advantage. I agree, of course, but an Italian would consider that a disadvantage. In fact, on buses, planes and trains, they talk to their seatmates -- even those of us they don't know -- and also to people at the other end of the bus/train/plane. And I don't mean that they walk to the other end of the bus/train/plane and talk to those other people, I mean they shout to them from where they are. It's sort of adorable. Italians are not stressed.
So I was in Frankreich last week. Significant Other asked me why I call it that (sometimes) and I told him the story of how, when I was studying at the Sorbonne and Christmas time came 'round, a Swiss German classmate invited me to her family home for the holidays. When we were on the train, the second the train went past the French border, Swiss German girl shouted out, "Auf wiedersehen, Frankreich!" She shouted it out in a very angry, superior tone. It creeped me out and then, when we got to her home, things got creepier. "Judgment at Nuremberg" was on TV and when I expressed a desire to watch it (because the family had asked me what I wanted to watch) Swiss German girl and her parents and siblings and assorted cousins, went bonky. They were all like, "We're tired of hearing about the Holocaust. It's been 40 years and it wasn't that bad, anyway."
Oh, the horror. And I was stuck there. After that Christmas I never talked to Swiss German girl again.
So back to France. It was so great to be back in Paris. Just love it. And you know, after spending so much time in Italy, French people seemed like Protestants. Everything seemed organized and calm and quiet. French people seemed to practically be whispering most of the time. Anyway, I enjoyed it, though I absolutely love being back in Italy. Just love Umbria. Wish I could buy a little villa here and romantically renovate it and pick olives and drink local wine. That is all.
This is a bit late for Remembrance Day, but I wanted to post a picture I took last week (shortly after November 11th) of the Canadian war cemetery (at Bretteville-sur-Laize) where my uncle is buried. I spent a couple of days in Paris and one in Normandy. Visiting my uncle's grave seemed important, given my mother's death earlier this year. I scattered some of her ashes there. She told me she always had a great regret that she had not gone to Bretteville herself. So now she has.
Today is the anniversary of Kristallnacht and also the anniversary of th fall of the Berlin Wall. I always say that Germans have given the world the worst and the best of humanity. The worst represented on this date in 1938 by Kristallnacht (and the correlated horrors), the best by that spirit of freedom we saw 25 years ago in Berlin (and by Beethoven!).
Somewhat a propos, Niall Ferguson offers a terrific take on the events of 25 years ago, arguing that while they were meaningful they were far less important than what happened in 1979, a year that still reverberates in far more significant ways.
By comparison, the events of 10 years earlier-in 1979-surely have a better claim to being truly historic. Just think what was happening in the world 30 years ago. The Soviets began their policy of self-destruction by invading Afghanistan. The British started the revival of free-market economics in the West by electing Margaret Thatcher. Deng Xiaoping set China on a new economic course by visiting the United States and seeing for himself what the free market can achieve. And, of course, the Iranians ushered in the new era of clashing civilizations by overthrowing the shah and proclaiming an Islamic Republic.
One of my many jobs is that I transcribe and edit speeches, debates and interviews given by various people and sponsored by various organizations. This makes me lucky because I get to listen to many cool people to whom I would otherwise never get to listen. Case in point: Garry Kasparov. He recently gave a talk in Toronto and he said this great thing about Russian politics. He said that people often say to him, "Hey Garry, you are a chess champion, so you must understand Russian politics", i.e., life imitates chess.
His reply (I am paraphrasing) - "Chess is a series of predictable moves with an unpredictable outcome. Russian politics is a series of unpredictable moves with a predictable outcome".
Oh, and he hates, hates, HATES Vlad. Hates him. Really.
Hallowe'en is not a big deal here -- although today, November 1st, is -- but it is to me because it is the second anniversary of my brother's death. I wish he were here for many reasons, not the least of which is that it would be great to talk to him about what is going on in the world: the jihadi attacks on soldiers here at home, ISIL, Obama and his contempt for Israel, Obama in general, municipal politics (yes, even that), all that jazz. He was extremely politically astute and had a strong moral compass. There really are few remaining people of that calibre in my circles.
He died on Hallowe'en, which is also Reformation Day. I will use that as an excuse to post this most beautiful of hymns.
These little guys were huddled up in construction site near where I am staying. I talked to some neighbours who said the construction guys were aware of, and very careful about, their presence. Also, they have ear tips, which tells me someone is helping them. Quelle relief.
Such terrible events back home. These guys were soldiers and it makes me sick to think that wearing a uniform that represents something good should have made them targets. May they rest in peace. If your heart isn't broken enough please look at these pictures of Cirillo's dogs waiting for him to come home to them.
Almost immediately, the predictable chorus began: Canada should withdraw from the world, we shouldn't be involved in fighting overseas, we are "peacekeepers"...all the sophomoric and inaccurate drivel you can imagine. Honestly, that peacekeeper myth will never die, will it? What bothers me most about this chorus is that they are saying, in effect, that we should seek the approval of murderous lunatics before we make foreign policy decisions. Unbelievable. Further, they are buying into this nonsensical belief that if we disengage, we will be safe. We won't be. The type of people who commit these sorts of acts will commit them regardless. They do not like us, they do not like what we represent.
George Bush was right all along. They hate our freedoms.
So this was the view from our window in Umbria when the man was here with me. We were in a suite in a nice hotel here. But now he is gone and trust me, this is no longer my view. I am not complaining. My place is fine, but the view is somewhat different. No greenery. Unless Italians walking to work or school are wearing green.
That phrase, about the "me-firsters, even in grief," refers to Germans. It is a line from the wonderful, mind-blowingly amazing novel In Paradise, about which I have written on this site before. If you haven't read it, run to the bookstore and buy it or download it NOW.
So I find my mind wandering to that quote a great deal these days, because in my Italian class is a German woman who is a total and complete me-firster. She interrupts, she chews out, she condescends, she talks over, she judges, she lectures, she expects you to drop everything and answer her question (however silly it might be)...and so on. Today in class, I said that life in Umbria cost less than life in Toronto. She said -- without being asked or without raising her hand -- that I was wrong and that this was not true. The teacher asked her if she'd ever even visited Toronto, much less lived there.
"No," she said, puzzled by the question and the laughter of the class which followed her answer. I mean, really, why shouldn't she expect us to listen to everything she says and think she's right about everything? Utterly shameless, a few seconds later, she was bossing around a poor Chinese kid, who -- unlike her -- doesn't feel everyone should listen to him ALL THE TIME and didn't know how to respond to her jackboots.
I've made a vow to myself to be peaceful in the classroom, but honestly, if she doesn't knock if off soon, this is going to happen (and yes, I'll be the John Cleese character):
Yes Italy, I'm like a bad rash. I keep coming back.
Now, onto politics and those charming folks at ISIL or ISIS or whatever you want to call 'em. I am glad Canada is helping bomb the bejesus out of them, but I'm somewhat embarrassed by how little we're contributing to the cause. What is it? Six fighter jets, 69 special forces folks, two surveillance crafts, one refueling plane? Plus, we're only going to be operating in countries where we have been given permission to operate. Um, excuse me? This is carrying politeness too far, I think.
Still, we are doing something, which is more than we would be doing if Justin Trudeau had his way. What a twit he is -- he has inherited neither his father's wit nor his intellect.
I am enjoying the new Ken Burns series, The Roosevelts, although it is making me sad because I can't help but think how much my father would have loved it. And as much as I appreciate the series and this praise of it, I do also think these criticisms are valid.
What extraordinary people though. Burns has resisted giving us a hagiography. Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor are presented with their flaws as well as their considerable qualities.
What is truly sad is that we could never have such a series on Canadian TV. Why? Because if it were a Canadian creation, there would have to be a ham-handed political message in the show. It wouldn't be a question of merely giving us a portrait of a moment in history. There would have to be a lecture involved, probably one about how bad the Western world is. Remember that god-awful piece of garbage about the Allied bombing of Germany? And remember that dreadful, humourless "people's" Canadian history nonsense?
Oldest of the Chinatown cats I feed. She is at least 15, and still so feral. After years of being fed regularly, trapped and taken to the vet when needed and so forth, she still thinks humans aren't all that, and I suspect she has a point. I only managed this shot with the help of a great and powerful zoom. Rock on, old girl!
After Richard Attenborough died, I re-watched The Great Escape a couple of times, and it occurs to me that the whole meaning of life is in that movie. There's a scene where Attenborough's character sums up beautifully how to keep your spirit alive in tough times and how to fight the good fight, but so far, I cannot find it on YouTube. I have, however, found this scene, one which for me has become code for defeat. In the early part of the movie, von Luger meets Steve McQueen and the latter tells the former that he is going to survive the war (implying also that the Allies will win the war) because he wants to see Berlin. Von Luger scoffs at his arrogance. But after the escape happens under his watch, von Luger says to McQueen, "It looks, after all, as if you will see Berlin before I do." It's a wonderful moment of elegantly conceding defeat. And I find now, when I bomb out at something, I think to myself that others will see Berlin before I do.