Aug 20, 2019
This year during my vacation in England and France I published almost daily blog posts. My writing was experiment to see if I could maintain a regular posting schedule. I also wanted to create a record of the trip. I went with my parents and son. I am not sure how many more long trips we will be able to take together and I thought it would be nice to have a travel log.
Over the month, I wrote four sets of posts. Each set was composed in one of the places where we were staying: Arles, Paris, Sers, and London. My posts tended to fall into four general, often overlapping, themes. I wrote about art, food, places, and politics. My favorite posts about art revolved around family friends Markéta Luskačová and Libuse Jarcovjakova. I summarized the restaurants we visited with posts about places to eat in London and Paris and paid tribute to Cadenheads in London. I wrote about the streets of Arles, Parc de la Villette in Paris, Chateau d’If off the coast of Marseille, the fascinating Château de La Rochefoucauld, and the disgust I felt at Versailles. I composed a meditation on the relation between fashion and politics as walked the Rue de Turenne and I met with a retired professor of political science, a journalist, and some anarchists to discuss the state of French politics. And I offered some pastoral words in the wake of a wave of mass shootings in the United States.
If the object was create a travel log that I will use to remember the trip, my blogging was absolutely a success. The same can be said if the objective was to increase the traffic to my blog. It roughly doubled over the course of the time that I kept the blog. The five posts that generated the most traffic were: Rue de Turenne (or some thoughts on champagne socialism); Reflecting on the Mass Shootings in Dayton, El Paso, Gilroy, and Southhaven from London; Château de La Rochefoucauld; It is the Job of the Far Left to Organize the Margins; and Europe 2019.
Composing a daily blog was a time consuming labor. It took me between 30 minutes and an hour and a half each day. It is not something that I will be continuing now that I am back in Houston. Instead, my blog will largely return to being a place for me to publish the texts of my sermons, letters to the congregation I serve, and announcements about upcoming events. On occasion, I will post other things but for the moment I will be focusing my non-sermon related writing on my scholarship.
Aug 16, 2019
Our trip home was relatively simple compared with our trip to London from Sers. It only involved two modes of transit: airplanes and automobiles. We decided not to take the Heathrow Express. The cost of buying four tickets was roughly the same as the cost of hiring a black car to Heathrow. So, we took a black car, complete with London cabbie, from the flat to the airport and then caught our flight to New York. In New York, after we cleared customs, we had to transfer between JFK and LaGuardia. In order to save money I bought tickets from Houston to New York and then from New York to Europe rather than connecting flights through the airlines (I saved over $1,000 this way). We took a New York taxi and then flew home to Houston. Once there we hired a car service via an app and made it home around midnight. We were greeted by a happy cat (or at least loudly purring cat who couldn’t keep off of us if I refrain from anthropomorphizing him).
My blog posts about London are:
Many Happy Future Shocks to You
The Last Bottle in the Country
The Cat Owned the Flat
Reflecting on the Mass Shootings in Dayton, El Paso, Gilroy, and Southhaven from London
Since this is my last post on London, I want to close by praising London cabbies. In London, taxi driving is highly regulated. It is a solid middle income job and getting a job as a taxi driver requires passing a special test, called The Knowledge, and waiting for a few years for an opening (in order to get a job driving from one of the airports you have to be able to speak at least two languages as well). The Knowledge is nothing more than understanding how to navigate through London’s notoriously mazing streets. Cabbies pride themselves in having The Knowledge. And its benefits, even in the age of GPS, sometimes show themselves. On our way to the airport the GPS wanted us to go the wrong way down a one-way street--the street had been converted into being one way for the day. The driver ignored the GPS recommendation and got us to the airport 15 minutes before the GPS on my phone said we supposed to get there, all the while obeying the speed limit. It was an impressive, if minor, victory of man over machine. I am sure that at some point in the near future apps like Waze will outperform The Knowlege. But that moment has not yet come. When I commented on our arrival time to the airport the driver, as if on cue, told me, “It’s ‘cause I got The Knowledge, sir.”
Aug 15, 2019
Like Paris, London is one of the great food cities of the world. On this trip, we ate at two of the city’s most iconic restaurants—St. John and Ottolenghi. We had a number of pub meals, some memorable and some easily forgettable, and fantastic pizza. We also ate mediocre noodles at Menya Ramen House (my son argued, and I agree with him, that the Sunday afternoon ramen—with homemade noodles and broth—served out of paper cups at Ebisuya in Medford is significantly better) and had some innovative dim sum at a place called BaoziInn.
My parents made reservations three months in advance so we could have dinner at the eponymous restaurant of Yotam Ottolenghi—author of numerous popular cookbooks that form a staple in our houses. The thing that surprised me most about Ottolenghi was its modest price. Unlike the two high end restaurants we ate in France, Ottolenghi is quite affordable—plenty of the items on the menu cost less than 15 pounds. In truth, it’s the wine that really costs. If you’re in London, on a budget, and want to eat there, two people could probably have a world class meal without drinks for under 60 pounds (maybe even under 50).
The menu is divided into two sections. There are a bunch of pre-made dishes—essentially tapas—that they have in the window for passersby to see. These are all cold and all delicious. The most memorable was a grilled gem lettuce salad (grilled lettuce being something that I very much like and rarely find on the menu anywhere).
The other part of the menu is the larger hot dishes that come from the kitchen. We got a whole sole to share amongst the three adults, for reasons that are unclear to me neither of my children like seafood, while my son had pork chops (which he split with my father). We had a couple of other hot dishes, the mackerel being most memorable, and finished with some great desserts (the British usually call them puddings) which were flavorful and not too sweet.
We had dinner with Marketa Luskacova our last night in London at St. John Bread and Wine in Spitalfields. Years ago, it was almost impossible to get into. These days it is still quite popular, but St. John Bread and Wine was able to accommodate a party of five with a few days’ notice. Like Ottolenghi, it is surprisingly affordable. The total cost of meal for five, with drinks, was about the same cost as a meal at a fairly good mid-priced place in Houston. The food, however, was in a different class.
St. John is credited with launching a Renaissance in British cooking. When it opened it did something completely different—it offered a well executed return to classic British cooking. Not pub food, or the high-end stuff that, at the time, was basically trying to imitate French or Italian, but the food that the British made for themselves from local ingredients prior to the wars.
It advocated something they called nose to tail cooking—making use of every part of the animal—which I appreciated in the 1990s and still appreciate today (I didn't partake in it then (as I was, at the time, a vegetarian) or now (currently being a pescatarian)). St. John also returned to vegetables that had been forgotten or where rarely used—samphire being one—perfected the Welsh Rarebit, and just generally celebrated local food.
I love St. John because despite all of this it is the opposite of pretentious. The tables are refurbished wood and the chairs exhibit a utilitarian happenstance like beauty rather than an intentional elegance. What’s more, it is quite possible to eat there for the same price as a meal of fish and chips. Their Welsh Rarebit is something like a seven pounds. That, a green salad to accompany it, and a glass to wash it down won’t set you back more than fifteen pounds.
We ate here our first afternoon in London. It is located right up the street from the flat we rented for the week. Overall the meal was quite nice—the best bit probably being their homemade kimchi—but the part we enjoyed most was the sticky toffee pudding. Sticky toffee pudding is a classic British dessert and sometimes can be a bit cloying. This version was just about perfect, spicy and deep with a sweet, but not overwhelming, toffee.
Over the years, I have become something of a pizza connoisseur. As a single parent, I have often had to take my son along with me on preaching and speaking gigs. Part of the deal is that whenever he accompanies, we try the local pizza place that is reputed to be the best. I have lost track of the number of pizza places we’ve eaten at together but it’s easily over fifty.
Our consensus is that the best pizza we’ve had is from Santarpio’s in Boston. It is one of the oldest pizza places in the United States. I took my son there for all of his birthdays between the ages of six and ten and we made sure to eat there when we were in Boston for my first Minns lecture.
Santore is second on the list (I would actually put it first, but I doubt my son would forgive me). Located in the Exmouth Market, they make pizza by the meter. The sauce is amazing (fined ground tomato without too much garlic), the cheese excellent, and the presentation, well the presentation is something else.
We had dim sum for lunch our last day in London before going to go see Hamilton. We wanted someplace near Hamleys, where my son and I spent the morning, from which we could to travel the theater easily afterwards. BaoziInn specializes in colorful dim sum, basically dumplings cooked in dough that’s been naturally colored with beet or spinach juice. Overall, it was among the better dim sum I have had (the salt and pepper squid was exceptional). My son really liked their soup dumplings and there was a cloud ear fungus dish that was something else.
Of the five restaurants I have mentioned, I would definitely go back to Ottolenghi, St. John and Santore. BaoziInn and Smokehouse were both good, but I would only go to them again if they happened to be convenient. The dim sum at BaoziInn is a fun experience but in truth its not as good as Windsor Dim Sum Cafe in Boston, where my family went regularly when we lived there. And Smokehouse is basically a less interesting, and less well executed, version of St. John.
Aug 13, 2019
My parents have been friends with the Czech photographer Marketa Luskacova since shortly after my father first started teaching in the United Kingdom. They met her when she was a young single mother living in exile. It was the early 1980s and she was a political dissident who had fled the Communist East for the relative freedom of the West. While she was not a fan of the Marxist-Leninist Stalinist regime in her own country, she was no advocate for Thatcher’s Britain either. She spent most of her time making photographs of working-class people who were on the edge of British society and threatened by neoliberalism.
Her most famous photography from the 1970s and 1980s is her series on the performers, hustlers, street people, and vendors who made up the community of Spitalfields Market. Her photography of them earned her praise from, and friendship with, John Berger. It also provided an important document, an artifact of historical memory, that attested to the diversity of human culture under threat from the neoliberal vision—musicians who made their own eccentric instruments, cobblers who handmade quality shoes in their shops not as luxury goods but as necessities for workers, and people regularly creating, rather than consuming, their own culture around rubbish can fires and wooden crates.
It was fitting, then, that we met Marketa for dinner at St. John Bread and Wine opposite Spitalfields. St. John’s might be my favorite restaurant anywhere. I will write about our meal in my London restaurant round-up. For now, I’ll focus on the conversation. Marketa is always illuminating. She is always thinking, feeling, trying to understand her own aesthetic, considering what it means to be an artist, how her medium enables her to see the world, always seeking the spiritual dimension—which for her always has a deeply political element to it, even if the politics are never explicitly stated. They’re there in her subject matter and her framing.
Marketa brought perhaps a fifty test prints from her ongoing series on a Czech carnival that she’s been shooting for nineteen years. Here was her first insight, there is much to be gained by returning to a subject and community year after year—depth of relationship, sensitivity to change over time, and not a bit of self-discovery. And that’s where she offered a second insight, there’s often an emotional disconnect between when she does her strongest work and how she’s feeling. She confessed that she didn’t particularly enjoy this year’s carnival. Over the last two decades it has grown from perhaps eighty people to over five thousand. Going this year was, for her, kind of a miserable experience—too many people observing, not participating, not wearing masks, making a spectacle of the whole thing. And yet, when she started to review her test prints, she realized that she had taken some of the strongest photographs of the carnival yet. Conversely, she confessed, that when she is feeling euphoric, carried away by the joyous feeling of the crowd, she often takes photographs that are not particularly good. Her own internal euphoria often causes her to misjudge what she’s doing—to think it is better than it is.
I can relate. I usually hate my sermons before I preach them. Often, it is the texts that turn out to be my best work—texts that get anthologized, republished in magazines, or assigned in college courses—that I have most negative reactions to prior to preaching. I suspect that is because that when I do my best work, I am deeply emotionally connected to it and this makes me aware of its flaws rather than its strengths just as I am about to put it out in the world.
I know that I am not alone in this. Not only does Marketa’s experience resonate with mine, but I have had a few conversations with my friend Titonton Duvante over the years on the subject. Titonton has been a techno innovator for almost thirty years. When he is really on, really connected with what he is doing, he is amongst the best electronic musicians out there. I have listened to a few thousand DJ and live sets over the last twenty-five plus years and some of Titonton’s are among the most memorable. But here’s the thing, he’s told me that there’s an exact relation between how nervous he feels, how anxious he is, and how good his performance ends up being. If he’s really nervous, on the verge of losing it nervous, then almost he inevitably offers a masterful performance. If not, then not.
Clearly there’s something about the emotional investment an artist has in their art—and preachers are, amongst other things, artists—that is closely correlated to their artistic production.
Back to Marketa... While we were together, she talked a bit about her recent show at the Tate and her upcoming show at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol. She and my parents had an extended conversation, which I won’t relate, about the various economic challenges artists face. And she shared that last year she received the Jan Masaryk Honorary Medal from the Czech government. Of course, Marketa had a story about Jan Masaryk.
Her grandmother loved Jan Masaryk, thought he was a humane, sensible, and cultured leader. When the Stalinists seized power, they threw Jan Masaryk out of a window. He died. Marketa was four and she remembers her grandmother being completely distraught, sobbing, over and over again, “They’ve killed Masaryk. They’ve killed Masaryk.”
She told me that when she received the Jan Masaryk Honorary Medal she thought of her grandmother. She imagined her smiling down from heaven on that day, proud of her granddaughter who had resisted the Stalinists and was now being honored with a medal named for a political leader who she had admired.
Spitalfields has changed. The street culture that Marketa photograph is entirely gone—washed away by upmarket shops and good. The cobblers who handmade shoes for the working poor have been replaced by boutique stores that sell fancy shoes, still handmade, to the affluent. Neoliberalism has succeeded in destroying so much of the vibrancy and power of the working-class throughout not just Britain, but the world. And yet, there’s something about Marketa’s story of her grandmother and the Jan Masaryk Honorary Medal. It isn’t about anything as quaint as triumph of good over evil or the inevitable collapse of totalitarian regimes or anything else that I might find truly comforting. It has more to do with the power of perseverance and the truth that the future is always unwritten and that resistance, in some for another, continues. And that there is great power to be found in preserving, through stories, through photographs, in all the forms we can. We create records of resistance, memories and stories, so that, even after its defeat—for Jan Masaryk was certainly defeated—our resistance might continue to inspire future resistance to tyranny.
Aug 7, 2019
London is the city that looms largest in my childhood. I spent almost every summer of my youth here and have many memories about time in the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, Camden Town, and so many other places. I remember going to the theater and seeing Dustin Hoffman in the Merchant of Venice and both Starlight Express and Les Miserables with the original London casts. I remember staying in a flat several summers in a row near Michael Palin’s place on the edge of Hampstead Heath. I never saw the Monty Python member, but I did pass by the Laurel and Hardy statues he had outside his home on numerous occasions. And I remember playing in parks with my brother and enjoying British television—Doctor Who and Rowan Atkinson’s Black Adder on the BBC—and, most of all, British comic books.
My brother and I were huge fans of the fortnightly 2000 AD. When we were kids, we could get it at almost any newsstand. My parents bought us copies to keep us happy while they spent time with their friends at the local pubs. Each summer when we would stock up on as many copies as we could before we went back to Michigan. Through 2000 AD we were first introduced to writers like Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Alan Moore. We also became familiar with the comic’s tradition of dystopian political critique and techno skepticism.
I was excited to introduce my son to 2000 AD when we arrived in London. I went to look for a copy in the Gatwick airport only to discover that newsstands don’t carry it anymore. When I was a child it was so ubiquitous that many of the longstanding comic book shops in London refer to it in their store names. Camden Town’s excellent shop Mega City Comics is a direct reference to 2000 AD’s disturbing vision that in the future the vast majority of humanity will crowd into a handful of urban conglomerations. But now Marvel and DC seem to have largely pushed out the independent, and political, 2000 AD. So it was to Mega City Comics that I ultimately had to go to buy a solid set of 2000 ADs. I bought a run of the most recent issues and another run of issues from the early 1990s.
On my way out of the store the clerk told me, “Many Happy Future Shocks to You.” The phrase is a reference to the short vignettes that appear throughout the comics—brief stories with surprise endings. They are creative and often push one to imagine a horrifying, totalitarian, future, as something that might be on the horizon. When I was a child, the comics usually celebrated the plucky bands of misfits and outsiders who struggled against thinly veiled illustrations of futuristic version of Thatcher’s Britain.
The clerk’s invocation of the classic phrase got me to thinking about how much London has changed since I was a kid. In many ways, the future of environmental degradation and rising totalitarianism that some of those 1980s comics warned about appears to have arrived—perhaps partially in the form of a corporate monoculture that won’t stock subversive comics. In other ways, London still feels like a familiar city in a familiar world. Pock marks from German ordnance still line the edge of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Tube is still way too hot in the summer. Double decker buses are still a really fun way to travel. A bits of Victorian, or even Roman, Britain keep popping up in unexpected places. I suppose that’s the way cities, and countries, are, the shocking future comes but often it overlays, rather than entirely replaces, whatever existed before.
Aug 6, 2019
I have a great number of memories associated with whiskey, particularly scotch whiskey. My father became a scotch aficionado through the efforts of his late friend the Scottish photographer Murray Johnston. When I was nine or ten years old the two of them took me out one night to pub in Edinburgh that specialized in scotch. I remember staring up at the rows upon rows of hundreds of different kinds of scotchs as the two of them rambled on about photography. I have no idea why I was with them or what I did while they talked. I suspect that they were watching me while Murray’s wife Kate and my mother caught up.
Whatever the case, scotch has always been a deeply gendered drink in my family. My ex-wife hates it and my mother typically only tastes it. During my parents’ dinner parties there usually comes a point in the evening when the gathering divides along gendered lines—the men assemble to drink whiskey and the women, well, I am not actually certain what the women drink, port or armagnac or calvados or something.
Over the decades, Cadenhead’s scotch has been the second most special digestif served at these parties (the prize of most special belonged to a case of pre-Prohibition rye whiskey, now sadly gone, that someone found boarded up in the basement of a New York apartment building). Cadenhead’s is an independent bottler. They basically go around Scotland and buy casks of scotch which they then age further and bottle themselves.
Cadenhead’s has a storefront in Edinburgh. We go to it whenever we are there. They used to let you taste whiskey straight out of the cask, which was an amazing, if somewhat intoxicating experience. My father arranged for a whiskey tasting for me there the summer I turned 21. And last time I was in Scotland with him we went, and they bottled the scotch straight from the cask for us.
Scotland isn’t on the itinerary for this summer’s trip. Fortunately, Cadenhead’s has a London store. My father and I went while my mother and son slept in. Cadenhead’s London location is near the Baker St. station with its Sherlock Holmes statue. It’s on a street of very tony shops—something like the Marais in Paris but with significantly less grit.
The shop consists of three rooms—two rooms displaying wares and a third for storage. Unfortunately, they don’t sell scotch from the cask anymore. Apparently, the same government that is devoted to Brexit is also devoted to heavily regulating the whiskey business. They made it illegal for Cadenhead’s to bottle in the store and so they can’t offer tastes from the cask anymore.
They still give tastes and guidance. They also offer political commentary. One of the staff members referred to the current administration in the United States as the Fourth Reich and complained bitterly about Brexit and Boris Johnson. He told me that US trade policies have resulted in the cost American whiskey skyrocketing. And he showed me a bottle of 8-year-old Wild Turkey that he had on sale for 85 pounds, not because it was any good but because distributors can’t sell it in the UK anymore.
I love peaty scotches—my ex-wife described the scotch I like as tasting like dirt—and his colleague helped me select some. I bought three bottles: a bottle of the Islay that Cadenhead’s distilled themselves, a bottle of Old Ballantruan, and a bottle of 14-year Benrinnes that Cadenhead’s bottled themselves. The last bottle came from a cask of 264 bottles. It was final bottle they had for sale and they assured me it was good. So, I bought it, the last bottle 14-year Benrinne in the country. I am not claiming it super special, but it has a nice story behind it and, because it is Cadenhead’s, I know it will be good quality. I hope, though, when I serve it at a dinner party people won’t decide to self-segregate along gender lines. I suppose if they do, I have some nice cognac.
Aug 5, 2019
My parents and I had dinner in the Exmouth Market with R and S, two of their oldest friends in London—people that they’ve known for forty years. There was quite a bit of storytelling, including one episode that involved R almost being thrown into a canal in Belgium. When they told the story, I thought it was from thirty years ago. Turns out it was from about five years ago—which surprised me since my parents and their friends would have been in their late sixties or early seventies then. The basic gist is that they went out for a meal in Belgium that turned out to be quite mediocre. After the meal, there was some dispute over check. During the course of it, R unwisely told the proprietor, “Your beer is shite.” I was a little unclear on exactly why he felt this was appropriate. The proprietor apparently didn’t think it was and began backing R towards the canal they were all standing near while threatening to deposit R in it. Catastrophe was averted when my Mom and S hustled R off and my father settled up with the proprietor. It is a little hard to imagine the four of them—grizzled and opinionated—getting into a significant enough dispute that someone—presumably a good thirty or forty years younger—would threaten to deposit one of them in the nearby canal.
That story was far from the most interesting one told over the course of the evening. That honor goes to one that R and S recounted about their mutual friend, the journalist and academic Henry Clother. Henry died almost twenty years ago, earning obituaries in the Guardian and elsewhere.
I have vague memories of Henry from my youth. He loved to sail, and I remember going to see the tall ships with him. I hadn’t thought of him in more than twenty years and if it wasn’t for our dinner with R and S I probably wouldn’t have thought of him ever again. He was a notable eccentric. He never married nor had kids. His closest friend was the well known BBC commentator Margaret Howard. The two of them served as each other’s journalist review companions—one accompanying the other to the theater or a restaurant or whatever when one of them had been assigned to write a review.
Henry’s greatest eccentricity might have been connected to the flat in which he lived in London (he also owned a home in Gillingham). Apparently, it was owned by a cat.
S took great relish in describing the flat, the sight of many, I can only presume, somewhat wild parties from her and my parents not quite youth (early middle age?). It was an old Victorian flat which she repeatedly labelled “grotty.” It hadn’t been remodeled since sometime in the 1880s or 1890s. The kitchen doubled as the bathroom (in Britain the toilet is where you go do your business while the bathroom is where you bathe). There was an old claw bathtub in the middle of it. When Henry had parties, or presumably when he cooked, he put some boards on top of the tub as a makeshift counter and chopped vegetables, sliced bread, and prepared the meat.
Anyway, Henry wasn’t the owner of the flat. It belonged to a cat. Some years prior one of Henry’s equally eccentric friends had died. She had been a cat lover and organized a Society for the Protection of Cat, not cats in general, cat in particular. Specifically, the purpose of the society was to protect her cat. On the occasion of her death, the Society for the Protection of Cat became the owner of her flat. Henry was allowed to live there—rent free as I understand it—provided he saw to it that the cat was fed and received its daily injection (in addition to being, the owner of a flat, the cat was also diabetic).
It is unclear to me exactly how long Henry lived in that flat as a tenant of the cat. But it sounds like a long time—quite probably much longer than the cat itself lived.
Aug 4, 2019
News of the mass shootings in Dayton, El Paso, Gilroy, and Southhaven came as we were getting settled in London. I experienced it differently than I would have if I had been in the United States. I felt somehow removed from it and, at the same time, numb. It is clear by now that the ruling political party in the United States has decided that these mass killings are acceptable. And it is also clear that they will continue to happen at a horrifying rate. That is, unless something changes. And I am not certain where the movement to change gun policies would come from or how it would get past what seems to be the great political power of the NRA.
Right now, I am in a country that almost never has mass shootings. In the mid-1990s, after the Dunblane Primary School Shooting, the United Kingdom put in place serious gun control legislation. Since then the country hasn’t had a mass shooting that resembles any of the mass shootings that have taken place in the United States in the last week.
This simple fact is a reminder that the continuing presence of these shootings is a result of policy decisions that political leaders in the United States make. They could choose to regulate guns differently. And they don’t. And so, the shootings continue.
UUA President the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray’s words capture most of the rest of my sentiments on the week’s tragedies:
We open our hearts to the people of Gilroy, El Paso, Dayton and Southhaven in compassion and heartbreak, anger and shock.
From our grief, may we find strength and courage to fight the systems that perpetuate this violence.
To that I’ll add an Amen.
Aug 3, 2019
Our trip from Sers to London involved almost every available mode of transit. Our friends drove us to the train station and we took the train to Bordeaux. We took a bus from the Bordeaux train station to the airport and then flew across the channel. Once we landed in Gatwick we caught a very expensive taxi into the center of London (the train from Gatwick to London is also expensive, it was actually the same cost either way and travelling with my parents it made sense to take the cab). And, then, of course, we walked from the taxi to our hotel. We’re staying at the hotel for one night before moving to a flat we rented for the week.
Here’s the posts I made while we were in Sers:
Jul 22, 2019
Yesterday we went to Versailles. The crowds were enormous, and it was very hot. Overall, I would rate it a fairly miserable experience. Even with tickets we had to wait almost two hours to get in. And then, throughout the entirety of the palace, there was the sheer press of humanity. The crowd in the famous Hall of Mirrors, built by Louis XIV for parties, was equivalent to that at a large concert. People were packed elbow-to-elbow. It was hard to absorb much of anything.
I’ve only been to major tourist sites like Versailles a couple of times in my life—I went to Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto when I was in Japan this past winter and visited the Tower of London as a kid—and each time I’ve gone the experience has been similar. The site itself has been an impressive tribute to human creativity and, more often than not, an equally disgusting tribute to human greed and cruelty. But when I have been in such spaces, it has been hard to experience much more than the press of the crowds, the energy of hundreds of cell phones thrust into the air trying to get the ideal snapshot, the tour groups shouting at each other, and discomfort and low level anxiety—humans didn’t evolve to tolerate such tight quarters.
At Versailles, when I was able to focus my attention elsewhere, I mostly found myself nurturing anti-monarchist sentiments and feeling grateful for the French Revolution. The level of opulence at Versailles is truly mind boggling and its stomach turning to think that the ruling elite of France lived in such splendor while the majority of the populace had little to live on. In many ways, Versailles was the cause of the French Revolution. The massive spending that was required to build and sustain it—along with the fact that the nobility and clergy (the richest members of society)—paid very little in taxes essentially drove France to bankruptcy. It was Louis XVI’s need to raise additional money for his government, and finance his outlandish lifestyle, that caused him to call the Estates General into session. He hoped to get support for increasing taxes. He got the French Revolution.
I will refrain from singing the glories of the French Revolution. I will simply note that visiting Versailles reaffirmed my belief that inequality is a significant social problem and that a society which sustains gross economic gaps is fundamental unjust. It’s ridiculous that the Bourbons had so much by dint of their births while so many others had so little for the same reason.
Jul 8, 2019
The rest of July and through early August I will be traveling in Europe with my parents and son. My son and I are tagging along on my father’s study abroad class for Michigan State University. He has taught the course on-and-off since 1980. My mother has accompanied him all but one time. When my brother and I were children we went together with my parents as a family. Since graduating from high school, I have joined my parents on four of their trips to Europe. One of these trips was with both of my children and my then wife. Another was with just my son. My daughter has also traveled with her grandparents on her own.
My father’s class is on photography. As a professor of journalism and a photographer, he has taught two generations of students photography through a combination of portfolio projects, gallery and museum visits, lectures and tours. The lectures and tours are frequently given by leading European photographers--many whom became, over time, some my family’s dearest friends.
This summer my son and I are again joining my parents. My son is now twelve which means that he is old enough to really appreciate aspects of such a trip in ways he wasn’t able to before. Along the way we will be visiting many of the family friends that we have made over the years. These will include artists and art critics, friends of mine from my time at Harvard, childhood friends, and members of the international anarchist community. After reading Mark Lilla’s article in the New York Review of Books on the French New Right I attempted to contact a number of people he describes. So, there’s a slim chance I might also connect with some young French right-wing intellectuals.
This year, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to publish excerpts from my journals on my blog. My blog posts will generally be unpolished first drafts--taken almost straight from my journal. They will include not only my reflections on the trip but my thoughts on what I am reading and, possibly, both the profound ecological, economic, political, and social crisis humanity is in the midst of and my thoughts on the role that the Unitarian Universalist church might play in confronting it. In general, when I write about people who are public figures, I will use their names. When I write about people who are not, I will use initials.
My son and I arrive in Paris on July 8th. We will be spending our first night in France at the Paris apartment of family friends Gilles Perrin and Nicole Ewenczyk. On July 9th we meet up with my parents and travel to Arles for the Rencontres d'Arles. I have been to Arles once before and I am particularly excited about this year’s festival because family friend Libuse Jarcovjakova’s work is being highlighted. On Friday it was featured in the New York Times and Guardian. On the 16th we head back to Paris for ten days. We will be visiting with a host of folks there before heading on July 26th to Sers, a village in Nouvelle-Aquitaine where Gilles and Nicole have a home. We will be there until August 2nd when we fly to London. We will spend six nights in London, including my 43rd birthday, before flying home to Houston on the 9th. I am back in the pulpit on the 11th with a question box sermon.