November 11, 1918

At 11 AM, Britain falls silent for two minutes to remember Armistice Day. That tradition began after World War I, which ended on November 11, 1918. In the U.S., November 11 is now observed as Veterans Day.

Screen capture of the American Battle Monuments Commission's WWI page.

Screen capture of the American Battle Monuments Commission’s WWI page.

As Americans, we tend to remember World War II more than our role in World War I. The reasons why are varied, of course. On each 11th of November, though, while we honor all veterans, let us offer perhaps an extra nod to the end of the horrific First World War.

Have a good day, wherever you are in the world….

And You Ask Where Novelists Find Material?

Here’s a UK TV listing for a showing of The Longest Day. I screen grabbed it back on Saturday. Why? Because it made me chuckle:

Screen capture of The Longest Day listing on Sky, on Saturday afternoon.

Screen capture of The Longest Day listing on More 4 on Saturday afternoon.

You gotta love it. The British do “subtle” like almost no one else. Notice that the British cast – despite John Wayne’s photo – get first national mention. And also note which country gets last mention…. after even…. the Germans.

I love stumbling on stuff such as that. We all seem hard wired to have a bit of a dig at each other. A couple of decades of encountering the likes of that has helped provide me with material in two novels so far. ;-)

Happy Monday [grumble, grumble], wherever you are in the world. :-)

English Town

A Sunday aside: Here’s “English Town” from “North,” by Matchbox Twenty:

We saw the group perform here in London, at Wembley Arena, in September, 2003. I remember the show was supposed to have taken place earlier in the year – back in late March. However, they canceled that performance at the last minute and rescheduled it due to the assault on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq having (we were told) made it seem inappropiate.

By September, as we know now, that conflict had by then begun to shift into another, much uglier phase. I still recall singer Rob Thomas opening the show telling the audience that we would all try to forget what was going on “outside” for a while. It was clear to everyone in the arena what he was talking about.

image

Years pass. The leaders change, and the enemies change. And the wars change.

Have a good day, wherever you are reading this….

The Doctor’s Office

As you may know, I’ve been visiting with my parents in Pennsylvania after my father’s “heart failure.” Things have been very tense, of course, at times, over concern for his health. But at other times I’ve also found myself (thankfully) in what borders on a comedy:

• Dad: “God, I’m getting out of breath explaining to your mother I’m not out of breath walking up the stairs!”

• Mom: “My wrists hurt. Maybe I have a health problem?”

• Dad (to me): “I could be in my casket, Rob, but remember, your mother’s wrists hurt.”

Back on Thursday, my Dad had his first post-heart failure check-up. It was at his new family physician. I went along.

Actually, I drove. Another little contribution to being here for two weeks trying to make things just a bit easier for them both as he recovers. (I’ve been handling household stuff Dad would normally do, like chauffeuring mother around – she can drive, but doesn’t like driving their small SUV – and hoovering the house, and related “guy stuff” as I’d mentioned the other day.)

 Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a stethoscope.


Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a stethoscope.

This doctor had been recommended in the hospital by my Dad’s last registered nurse there. He came out from the check-up pleased: the doctor’s a man in his 50s who is also on a “low sodium” diet. Nothing like your doctor having a similar issue to yourself, my Dad laughed.

I think it must be nearly twenty years since I’ve been in a U.S. doctor’s office. And how you can forget. Around the receptionist’s window were well-worn (even torn), taped up, ad hoc reminders that payment is required when services are delivered, and to have your insurance ready, etc.

Many in Britain heavily criticize its National Health Service (NHS), and often rightly so. It has its problems. However, not having to worry about personal insurance coverage and/or having to whip out a checkbook or credit card to cover a “co-pay” when you see your GP, is something many in Britain also appear to take decidedly for granted.

That’s what I noticed. My mother? She had her own opinions about the practice building itself. Sitting next to me in the waiting room, other patients within hearing, she grumbled at one point perhaps a bit too loudly:

• Mom: “This place has no air conditioning. You can tell it’s not New York.”

• Me: “Shush!”

The bear in their back garden has already been the subject of a post. Help! I’m trapped in a Seinfeld episode!

Happy Saturday, wherever you are reading this. ;-)

Armed To The Teeth

In response to events in Ferguson, Missouri, there has been a lot of discussion in recent days about the “militarization” of U.S. policing. Much of the talk lays the blame for this as rooted in the Pentagon’s casting off since 1997 of military surplus that is scooped up eagerly by police departments across the country. But the issue isn’t really that “new,” though: it has been evolving for decades.

For example, I recall how, in the early 1980s (I believe), a New York City police officer involved in a shootout with a suspect, was killed when his NYPD-issue six-shooter emptied and he was caught reloading. The killer possessed a stronger weapon with more bullets than the police officer’s. Subsequently, the NYPD “upgunned” and vowed no officer would ever be “outgunned” by a criminal ever again.

More recently, Newtown police responding to the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012 approached that building as if they were trying to take an enemy position in Normandy in 1944. Indeed, the shooter had enough weaponry – bought legally by his mother, whom he had already killed – on him that he might well have been able to have held Omaha Beach singlehandedly for some time.

It’s no secret that firearms saturate the U.S. As a consequence, a police officer approaches you warily. If he so much as stops someone for speeding, he never knows if at the car window he will be staring down the barrel of a gun. With much of the U.S. populace owning ever more powerful weaponry, police forces have responded by more heavily arming in the face of that public they in many respects greatly fear.

Free Stock Photo: An armored SWAT vehicle in the 2010 Saint Patricks Day Parade in Atlanta, Georgia.

Free Stock Photo: An armored SWAT vehicle in the 2010 Saint Patricks Day Parade in Atlanta, Georgia.

In Britain, routine interaction with police is far less tense than in the U.S. If you encounter a U.K. police officer, he is probably “armed” with a night stick and a radio. Because of the country’s incredibly strict gun control laws, in return he knows you probably aren’t carrying a gun either.

What’s the solution in the U.S.? There probably isn’t one. U.S. police will always feel (not without reason, as Sandy Hook, for one, proved) that they need heavy weaponry as long as much of the populace is armed to the teeth. In turn, much of the populace has no desire not to be armed to the teeth…. because, after all, the police are.
_____
UPDATE: From the New Yorker:

Of course, the militarization of the police is not entirely new. SWAT teams date back at least to the late sixties in Los Angeles. During the eighties and nineties, many big police forces armed their officers with automatic weapons, and, partly to prosecute the war on drugs, some police departments acquired some pretty heavy weaponry. But it was 9/11 that really changed things. Under the guise of beefing up their anti-terrorist operations, police forces across the country acquired all sorts of military uniforms and hardware, sometimes using federal grants to pay for them.

Quite true. We can’t forget 9/11’s aftermath as contributing as well. Worth bearing in mind also, though, is that Britain has also invested a great deal in its own domestic post-9/11 anti-terror policing efforts, and it has done so without the overt military-style approach one sees in U.S. policing.

Five Centuries In Eight Photographs

Yesterday, we visited the Castillo de San Marcos at St. Augustine. For centuries, the fort was central in the town’s existence. Although it has changed hands by treaty several times, no attacker has ever taken it in battle.

That in mind, here is a history of that fort, and St. Augustine…. as, uh, illustrated and outlined, in chronological order, by some photographs:

1. In 1513, Spaniard Juan Ponce de Leon wanders through seeking the Fountain of Youth. He never finds it. [Photo by me, 2014]

1. In 1513, Spaniard Juan Ponce de Leon wanders through seeking the Fountain of Youth. He never finds it. [Photo by me, 2014]

2. The site now marked by a cross, other Spaniards land in 1565. A first Mass is said. [Photo by me, 2014

2. The site now marked by a cross, other Spaniards land in 1565. A first Mass is said. [Photo by me, 2014.]

3. After several wooden forts fail to do the job they want, the Spaniards get serious and decide to build a masonry one. [Photo by me, 2014.]

3. After several wooden forts fail to do the job they want, the Spaniards get serious and decide to build a masonry one. [Photo by me, 2014.]

4. Front of the Castillo de San Marcos. [Photo by me, 2014.]

4. Front of the Castillo de San Marcos. [Photo by me, 2014.]

5. Imperial Spain's flag proudly flew over the town and fort for centuries. [Photo by me, 2014.]

5. Imperial Spain’s flag proudly flew over the fort. [Photo by me, 2014.]

6. Unfortunately, Spain's flag also looked too much like England's Cross of St. George from a distance. Which made fighting naval battles a bit confusing. So in the 18th century, the Spanish changed their flag. [Photo by me, 2014.]

6. Unfortunately, Spain’s flag looked too much like England’s Cross of St. George from a distance. Which made fighting naval battles difficult. So in the 18th century, the Spanish changed theirs. [Photo by me, 2014.]

7. Great Britain took over Florida in 1763. But they had to give it back to Spain in 1783. [Photo by me, 2014.]

7. Great Britain took over Florida in 1763. But they had to give it back to Spain in 1783. [Photo by me, 2014.]

8. Finally, the Americans.... [Photo by me, 2014.]

8. Finally, the Americans…. [Photo by me, 2014.]

A bit of a history lesson. In pictures. But don’t worry, there’s no quiz to follow. ;-)

Happy Independence Day, 2014

A few thoughts on today’s U.S. Independence Day. It’s an extra-special one for us because it’s my wife’s first as a U.S. citizen. And she is – as you know if you visit regularly – British.

It’s also the first one for some time in which we are actually physically present in the U.S. We have often laughed on our trips around the U.S. over the years as to how the history of “1776 and all that” seems a bit awkward at times. Invariably, at some point, she’d hear some tour guide say something like this:

“Welcome. This is where George Washington lived. He was our first president. He led the American army in battle against the British.”

Or:

“This is the home of Thomas Jefferson. He is most famous for writing the Declaration of Independence during the war with Britain. He also once said he would have sunk that whole island into the sea.”

Or:

“Here, at Yorktown, this is where the Americans and the French cut off the British under Lord Cornwallis, and the British army eventually surrendered.”

She accepts all of that. That was then, she jokes; and things have changed rather a lot since. And, earlier this morning, she reminded me with a smile that this is “her country” too now.

However, one matter she is never too happy about is, uh, that “the French” were here! ;-)

Photo that is the source for the Passports novel cover. [Photo by me.]

Photo that is the source for the Passports novel cover. [Photo by me.]

The famous Tricolor we know so well is not the French flag under which France aided the U.S. in the war. The French flag then was that of the Ancien Régime. During the 1790s, Americans became split on whether they owed the new French revolutionary regime anything, given that regime was not the one that had helped America win independence.

And the U.S. Stars and Stripes was not the flag under which independence was declared either. But never mind. It all gets too complicated. :-)

Happy 4th of July!
________

UPDATE: That said, one Lynn Cole, resident in Italy, shares this view in The Guardian:

I am not a god-fearing, gun-toting, flag-waving, red-blooded American but a world citizen, and always have been.

She would hardly be the first to fancy herself a “world citizen.” To confirm it, my suggestion for anyone who holds that opinion is the next time you approach a border officer in airport arrivals in New York, London, Paris, Rome, or wherever globally, that you inform the officer of that status. A U.S., or other country’s, passport will no doubt not then be required of you as you are warmly greeted, “Welcome, World Citizen.”

Happy Hour

After a dinner out on Thursday evening, we decided to have a couple of drinks in a Cocoa Beach bar that was also attached to our hotel. As we walked in, I spotted several other couples sitting at the bar talking mostly to each other; and the bartender appeared personable enough. As we took bar stools, I thought, “Fine. This seems okay.”

Hmm. However, I had missed that one customer was a 30-something woman sitting by herself near the end of the bar, one empty seat over from the one I had just chosen. As my wife and I settled in, we noticed her son – who could not have been more than seven or eight – was with her, amusing himself at an unused pool table.

While we overheard her (it was impossible not to) increasingly emotionally bemoaning (I suppose reasonably enough) to a man the other side of the semi-circular bar about how she had lost all of her iPhone videos of her late mother, I ordered a Courvoisier. Beside me, my wife asked for a white wine. Having quickly scoped out what others were drinking, after the bartender stepped away to get our drinks my wife joked to me under her breath that he had probably not poured Courvoisier for anyone in ages.

Free Stock Photo: A mug of golden beer with a white froth, against a black background.

Free Stock Photo: A mug of golden beer with a white froth, against a black background.

Indeed he did appear to have served up largely beers. Obviously having heard me order it, after the bartender put the Courvoisier down in front of me, the 30-something woman asked me about it. As she did, she began to get exceedingly talkative and friendly.

Free Stock Photo: A Beautiful Woman Sitting At A Bar With A Drink [Editor's Note: This photo is merely for illustrative purposes, but I gather you've figured that out already.]

Free Stock Photo: A Beautiful Woman Sitting At A Bar With A Drink [Editor’s Note: This photo is merely for illustrative purposes, but I gather you’ve figured that out already.]

Within seconds it became clear she had had too much to drink already. My wife was sitting directly next to me, on the other side of me. Listening to the woman’s ramblings, I noticed my wife look down at the floor and start shaking her head.

Fortunately other customers strolled in, and the woman had a new bunch to distract her. Among that group was a 20-something guy who was apparently a newly minted soccer scholar. Amidst his World Cup bluster, he started regaling the bar about Argentina being the best soccer team in the world, and how John Brooks is the best player ever.

And that guy had only just started drinking. After hearing him hold forth for rather too long, my wife (who is English and usually restrained in her opinions) took hold of her wine glass, leaned over and whispered into my ear, “He’s an idiot.”

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a drunk man with a mug and a watch.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a drunk man with a mug and a watch.

I hardly needed her to point that out, though. Suddenly the boozy 30-something woman called it a drinking session and offered a loud, slurry goodbye: “You are my favorite bartender!” She did not appear to be headed to a car, and the bartender seemed to know that. (My wife later told me she suspected the woman was a hotel guest.) Taking her son’s hand, she ambled out the door.

We finished our drinks. After we left, my wife remarked to me, “That place was such a pick-up joint. She didn’t care you were with me, or what your situation was.”

As I’ve reflected on that evening, I realize I’ve always been mildly uncomfortable in most U.S. bars. I never really relax in them. They are not like British pubs, which are often social places and serve meals.

True, pubs have their drunks, loudmouths, and those out “on the pull” too. But U.S. bars are often dimly lit, excessively cliquish, and devoted primarily to drinking and “escapism.” They may have a “happy hour,” yet more often than not they have struck me as sad places. :-(

Travels With Pets

It’s Sunday. After D-Day’s seriousness, we need a break. Let’s smile a bit. :-)

My mother-in-law loves to declare, “The French are so civilised. They love their dogs.” Indeed we notice there is much less fuss about our four legged friends there than we often see towards dogs in Britain and America.

“No Dogs Allowed” is a common sign in the U.S. and U.K. Even in rural areas in the U.S. – where there is not a person anywhere around for miles – often there’s that threatening sign, “Pets must be on a leash.” We know some dog owners can be irresponsible, but that’s the owner’s fault, not the dog’s.

Try scoping out a vacation home rental in the U.S. and asking the owner if you may bring your dog? Most will react to you as if you are carrying smallpox. In comparison, in France, while of course you do have to check in advance, and you may have to pay a little extra for the cleaning fee, holiday home owners have allowed our dog to stay without batting an eye.

Dino, in our holiday home in France, summer 2011. [Photo by me.]

Dino, in our holiday home in France, summer 2011. [Photo by me.]

In France, pets are also generally allowed in restaurants and eateries. So Dino, our springador (who stays with my in-laws in London when we’re in America), gets to join us. He curls up under our table, usually at my feet (I keep him on a lead, of course; he is a dog), and I pass him some morsels from my plate.

When he’s not partaking in the meal, he pretty much just lies there and observes the passing French scene. Or he snoozes. Often there are well-behaved French dogs at other tables. Regularly, a staffer, unprompted, has brought out a bowl of water for him.

Yes, so “civilised.” Or maybe simply much less uptight is a better description. In any case, I hate to admit it when my mother-in-law makes a good point. ;-)

* * *

Dino’s a conversational ice breaker in public too. Other people with dogs chat with you as another dog-owner. In France, usually it’s a surprise when someone discovers you’re a foreigner: if they don’t hear you speaking English (or bad French), they assume you are French if they see you accompanied by a dog.

I also remember once on a beach tossing stones for Dino to chase into the surf (he never catches them), and seeing out of the corner of my eye a group of young teens watching him running into the water and then back toward me repeatedly. (If I didn’t stop, he’d play that game until he would collapse from exhaustion.) Obviously hearing my speaking English to my wife as she sat a distance away, one lad approached and asked me in English, “May I pet your dog, sir?” Dino behaved like a star and clearly loved the attention.

Dino, on a French beach, summer 2011. [Photo by me.]

Dino, on a French beach, summer 2011. [Photo by me.]

Our pal’s biggest “doggie quirk,” however, is for some reason he does not like “high visibility” jackets. That, as you might imagine, can be a rather awkward issue in certain official situations.

Once, going to France, we were making our way through passport control heading to the Channel Tunnel’s car train. From the car, dutifully at the window I handed over our passports to the French border officer sitting in his booth. (French passport control is in England, so there is no need to deal with it as you drive off; and British passport control inbound is in France similarly pre-loading. As much as Americans hear Britain and France “hate” each other, and their discord is a source for humor, their two governments actually do work together well.)

Seeing my U.S. passport mixed in with the rest of our car’s U.K. ones, the officer greeted me pleasantly. But in the back of our Volvo estate, quiet most of the time and so well-behaved there I often forget he’s lying back there, Dino unexpectedly pressed his nose to the side window and suddenly started barking all bl-ody murder at the officer. We couldn’t get him to pipe down. I think at one point he even spun around in a 360 degree circle.

Uh, I’m thinking, this is not good. After a few seconds of such foreign canine carrying on, the officer smiled wryly at me and remarked in perfect English tinged with an obvious French accent, “Ah, but I see he doesn’t like policemen?”

I tried to make light of the whole thing, and replied that he just doesn’t like those jackets.

He handed me back the passports. We were all allowed into the country….

* * *

To take your dog back into the U.K., you have to bring him to a vet within a 48 hour window prior to travel to the U.K. The vet makes sure your dog takes a worming tablet and stamps his U.K. “pet passport” for re-entry on the British side. It’s a bit of a hassle: you have to find a vet and make an appointment that falls within that tight window. But most French vets within reach of the ferries and Chunnel seem to know “the British returning to the U.K. with their dogs” pet drill by now.

Dino's pet passport. Yes, really. [Photo by me, 2010.]

Dino’s pet passport. Yes, really. [Photo by me, 2010.]

On one visit, my wife went to give Dino the tablet. Despite repeated coaxing from her, as I recall he spat it out at least twice. He never does that; at home, he always takes what he’s given.

Watching, eventually the vet intervened. “You give it him, uh, the medication with the food?” he asked us in English. “Please, you allow me,” he smiled.

He took hold of Dino. He then opened Dino’s mouth and held it open with some secret vet trick. Finally, he shoved the pill down Dino’s gullet so far it seemed the vet had stuck his arm in all the way up to his elbow.

I know dogs don’t have facial expressions. Yet, afterwards, I swear Dino looked bemused. It was almost as if he was thinking, “Uh, what just happened?”

“There, it is finish,” the vet announced. “Ah, he’s a good doggie.” :-)

The Outsiders

The New York Times, being the New York Times:

Britain’s New Immigrants, From Romania and Bulgaria, Face Hostilities

I write “being the New York Times” because the piece chatters, but ultimately leads nowhere. It tells us nothing essentially new about the migration issue itself. Nor does it offer any suggestion of a way to diminish those “hostilities.”

In that article, Britain really could be any country; and Romanians and Bulgarians could be any newcomers arriving in any country. As Britain does (as every country does), Romania and Bulgaria have their borders…. and settlement laws and frontier guards empowered to decide who may enter. And most of those populaces would likely not be pleased about masses of British incomers deciding to cross “their line” and set up homes within their geographical area either.

Even though I have “permission,” I have always been self-conscious of the fact that in my working in Britain a native might not have a job. A Danish friend, married to an Englishman, and living in the U.K., has said similarly that she often reminds herself she is not British. Yet her brother-in-law is also British and married to her sister, and he is living and working now in Denmark.

Twenty-first century borders are far more formal than they have ever been, but human communities have always enforced boundaries. Whether it was an Ancient Greek “city-state” of a thousand souls setting itself apart from another similarly sized one just across a mountain, or today’s high-tech nation-state frontiers relying on biometric passports, we create them for a variety of reasons too complex and varied to begin to explore here. And, lest we forget, even within our modern countries there are uncountable gradations of “borders”: from province/ state, to county, to city, and so on, down through school catchment area all the way to, say, residents’-only street parking.

image

We humans have always been an “excluding” species. Because they are not “from, or of, here,” outsiders have always faced “hostilities” simply because they are outsiders. There is no reason to believe that will ever change.