Calming The Storm

It was 1998. I remember it happening like this.

A woman friend and I weren’t sure about having lunch at what was a non-descript, although decent looking, roadside diner/restaurant we happened to be driving by. It sat just outside of Swellendam, near Cape Town, South Africa.

It was a sunny, warm day. We pulled in, parked and started to amble to the restaurant door. Even as we walked towards the building we were still unsure if it was where we wanted to eat; but the parking lot was pretty full, and the place seemed to be buzzing. We shrugged, it would probably do.

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Brief Explanation (For Americans): Why Europe Has Anti-Hate Speech Laws

In the wake of the massive “Je Suis Charlie” rally in Paris following the murders at Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket, we are inevitably seeing some U.S.-based media now questioning France’s commitment to free speech. Why? Because France has anti-hate speech laws. One example:

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Some background, and context, clearly appears to be necessary here.

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A New Mafia

Thinking on after yesterday’s post about Muslims in France as part of the fabric of society now, and “jihadists” in their midst, I found myself considering the subject from this personal perch. It’s an imperfect comparison to be sure. But I don’t think it’s without important, relevant touch points.

Anyone with an Italian surname (as I have) in the U.S. has faced “the Godfather” reaction from the mass of Americans who have no Italian heritage.

One may reasonably equate terrorists like the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher killers to Mafia “hitmen” beholden to their “bosses.” Like mob “foot soldiers,” they spring up from among failures in their “community.” They often prey on their own – “protection” rackets, etc. – in doing their masters’ bidding. They make the mass of their law-abiding “community” look bad, and often terrify them, but are also perversely supported by elements within that same victimized “community” itself.

And, again, like the Mafia, their “bosses” have “big dreams” of seeing the world re-ordered to conform to their own agendas and fantasies.

I find nothing entertaining about the Mafia. Yes, The Godfather films are great filmmaking (I’ve never read the books), but I grew up loathing them. I despise the veneer of “romance” and “honor” those movies have thrown over what are in reality murderous thugs who couldn’t run a lemonade stand without beating someone over the head with a brick.

Meaning Al Pacino and Marlon Brando they are most definitely not. They aspired to that. Indeed after The Godfather film was released, mobsters headed to cinemas to try to learn how they were supposed to behave. Seriously.

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It took decades to crush the worst of the Mafia in the U.S. The struggle was often spearheaded by determined Italian-American lawyers (like one Rudolph Giuliani) who had had enough. (The struggle in Italy continues.) But getting the mob under control never could have happened without all manner of lower-level law enforcement and “infiltration” that included, and required the participation of, and support of, ordinary Italian-Americans.

Perceptions Of France

I like to post daily – if possible. But I took yesterday off deliberately because I wanted to have an extra ponder on this post. I also wanted to wait for this to take place, and it was larger than anyone had anticipated:

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I’ve written before that I try to avoid “generalizations” here. This is a novel-writing and expat site. It is not meant to be yet another blog showcasing yet another blogger’s biased views on “politics.”

That caveat again duly shared, I’d like to offer a few observations.

In a great deal of U.S.-based coverage I’ve seen of the Paris murders of journalists at Charlie Hebdo magazine and Jewish shoppers at the kosher Hyper Cacher supermarket, reporting has seemed framed mostly in an “us” [non-Muslims] vs. “them” [Muslims] perspective. That’s not a surprise. For years I’ve been getting the sense many in U.S. media see France as a backdrop for a Woody Allen film that now also contains a terrifying and growing internal “Saudi Arabia” springing up all over the place.

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As in most things, mundane realities are far more complicated and textured than reporting can manage easily to convey. French Muslims, who are now often second, third, and even fourth, generation descendants of immigrants from predominantly North Africa (where France had once been colonial overlord), are often as ordinary as other French. Many drink alcohol. Many don’t bother to get married, and have children outside of marriage – just like other French. Increasingly many are showing themselves indifferent about religion, and some are even atheists – again just like many other French.

The population of France is about 66 million. There are an estimated “5-6 million” Muslims in the country. However, there have been claims recently that that long-cited figure is probably way too high; that the number of “practicing Muslims” is now below 4 million and may be as low as around 2 million, or even less.

The French republic is built on “assimilation” of newcomers. France is also a resolutely “irreligious” state: the French Revolution was about not only freedom from aristocracy, but freedom from clericalism. One is socialized to become “French,” and keep your religion to yourself, and that is that.

So the French government is forbidden from asking about a person’s religious affiliation in a census, but agencies may ask in specific, limited circumstances. Most information about Islam is gleaned from “North African” national origin questions (i.e. Algerian or Moroccan). Yet estimating religion based on geography can be a dicey business given not everyone who has immigrated from there has been Muslim. Some were Jews and Roman Catholics.

Moreover “national origin” cannot tell us how “observant” anyone may be regarding any faith either. Born of North African immigrants into a “devout” Muslim home, former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s advisor Rachida Dati – while far more prominent than most – epitomizes an “assimilation” that is more common in France than U.S. media appears to grasp. Wikipedia details:

In September 2008, Dati announced that she was pregnant and would be a single mother. She revealed her pregnancy to a group of reporters who questioned her about mounting rumours. “I want to remain careful, because . . . I am still in the risky stage. I am 42″, she was quoted as saying. Her daughter, Zohra, was born in early 2009. As the name of the father was not revealed, many names circulated in gossip magazines….

An unmarried, single mother, who doesn’t share the name of the father of her child. That is NOT sexual behavior an imam would in any way approve of. And did she seem to care?

Clearly there are large problems. The existence of the far-right, anti-immigrant, National Front party reflects a raft of issues and disaffection among a substantial part of the French electorate. All is certainly not rosy.

But in day to day life, “assimilation” problems seem to stem not from religion nearly so much as from economic disparities, and cultural alienation due to marginalization and discrimination aimed at second and third generation children of immigrants – which perhaps makes some of them ripe for “radicalization.” For example, a 2010 study had shown that even with similar educational background and work experience, someone perceived as Muslim is much less likely to get a job interview.

Free Stock Photo: French flag at Arc de Triomphe.
Free Stock Photo: French flag at Arc de Triomphe.

Yet most Muslims are also so “assimilated” – they are teachers, lawyers, businesspeople, military and police, you name it – that if you visit France, chances are you might not be able to spot “a Muslim” on the street. On Friday, a French Huff Po writer pointed out how far more Muslims work for French security services – like policeman Ahmed Merabet, who was murdered outside of Charlie Hebdo – than Al Qaeda. Yes, there are noisy fundamentalists in some mosques, but usually they reach only small audiences: most Muslims don’t attend mosque any more than most French Catholics go to church – meaning rarely to never.

Some American media insist on portraying those murdering thugs’ take on Islam as “conquering” France. However, the norms of “France” appear to be proving much more “seductive” for most Muslims. On France 24 the other night, a commentator noted that before the 2010 ban on women wearing the “niqab” (a full face covering, which was worn by only a few thousand women), far larger numbers of Muslim Frenchwomen preferred bikinis anyway.

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UPDATE:
Similarly Americans are fed daily nonsense like this about Britain:

DesCrier FNC

That comes from the “most watched” news channel in the country. The likes of that hardly helps Americans at home better understand what life is actually like over here. But, then again, is that the goal?

Email To A Younger Self

Dear Rob,

How are things back in 1995? Heh, heh, who am I kidding? I know….

It’s January 2015 now. I’m the older you. I thought I’d write to you and give you a heads up as to how things will go over the next couple of decades.

That girl from France? Nuh, uh. No, you won’t be marrying her. I know she says she loves you, but she also has submerged “worries” you don’t know about yet, but believe me you soon will.

In the longer run, it’ll be fine. Yes, for a while you’ll be sure the world has come to an end, but most everyone thinks that at a time like that. You’ll pick yourself up and brush yourself off. You’ll do college teaching for a few years too, but will fall out of love with that; but, once again, don’t worry.

In a couple of years, you’ll meet another – better – woman, and you’ll end up married and living in England with her. As hard as that is for you to believe. Oh, and she’ll be on at you now and then good-humo(u)redly about that long ago “babe” from across the Channel.

Now, this is very serious, and maybe I shouldn’t mention it, but I feel I have to. Something horrific will happen to the World Trade Center in September 2001. You’ll be in London at the time, in your office at the university where you will then work. Your father will be retired by then, safe at home, and no longer working in lower Manhattan. I won’t discuss the terrible details here. Let’s just move along and stick with you personally.

In years to come, you’ll meet masses of great people you have no clue about in 1995. Several you will come to adore. Sadly you will lose one far before her time, but the idea you might have gone through life without ever having known her…. well, after you meet her you’ll soon find yourself unable to imagine never having known her.

Inevitably, you’ll get a bit grayer, but, hey, you will still have most of your hair. Not bad. You haven’t fallen apart just yet.

Eventually – as tough as this is also to believe – you’ll end up writing novels. Yes, I know you scoff at fiction and love history, but you’ll meld the two. You’ll even base characters on some of the very people you know now (including, of course, Uncle _____, as well as, uh, Mademoiselle…. oh, you know her name), and several who will leave us forever by 2015 (including that woman friend you will make in a few years).

You’ll sort of immortalize them. That’s writing “history” in a way too, isn’t it? Sure it is.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a computer surrounded by question marks
Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a computer surrounded by question marks

Oh, and you love that Compaq Presario. You’re probably wondering on what PC I’m writing you this from twenty years down the road? Well, things have moved on a bit technologically.

America Online? Don’t ask. And I’m not writing this on a PC anyway. It’s called an iPad. And it uses wifi. Oh, and your future novels will be read on a Kindle, as well as printed by Amazon.

Sorry, sorry, I forgot. You have no idea what I’m talking about with those. Never mind. You’ll find out.

By the way, when you leave your final university job a bit over a decade from now, your boss in England will tell you that she’s sure you’re going to do something “really big” eventually.

Well, currently, you’re still working on that. ;-)

All The Best,
The Much Older You. :-)

For My Eyes Only – For Now

Yesterday, I was writing at one point while listening to the “Gladiator: More Music From The Motion Picture” CD I’d gotten for Christmas (along with, uh, Sara Bareilles – now, there’s a musical contrast):

Photograph of More Music cover. [Photo by me, 2015.]
Photograph of More Music cover. [Photo by me, 2015.]

At the outset “More Music’s” inner sleeve notes make clear that what’s heard on the CD are often “first drafts” of music from the film, or music that didn’t make it. So technically it isn’t from the released, final “Motion Picture.” (By the way, if you’ve never seen Gladiator, it is really something else. Superb.) Composer Hans Zimmer writes:

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Musicians can get away with that, whereas a novelist would probably look ridiculous doing something similar.

Every draft I do is dated that one day. The next day is another draft, dated that day, and so on. If I make a subsequent change, I can always go back to an older iteration and re-use something. I never “obliterate” an eclipsed version so it’s lost forever.

I’m continuing in that “approach” with the brand new, third volume’s (very early) manuscript. Doing it that way, I’ve kept hundreds of Word drafts from the two now finished novels. The completed books unsurprisingly often ended up rather different when compared to what was in early drafts.

One example: Names. In Passports, initially “James” and “Béatrice” were known by other names. “James’s” earlier name just didn’t click for me, nor fit within his family scheme I was developing. In fact I now recall “Béatrice” actually had two earlier names. I went for “Béatrice” in the end owing to it having been a common name given to many Frenchwomen born from the 1960s until the mid-1970s. Both new names, to me, worked better in the stories. Now, I can’t imagine them called anything else.

In Frontiers, “Rita” is first mentioned while James’s parents – Jim and Joanne – and grandmother are chatting about his upbringing (while he is safely well out of hearing a continent away):

“Hmm, not high school. They were in junior high. He was fourteen. Ninth grade,” Joanne corrected herself slightly.

“Rita was his first real girlfriend,” Jim turned to Lucy and recalled fondly. “In some class she passed him a note with her phone number. At first, he didn’t want his mother to know.”

“Hiding things from his mother began pretty young with him,” Joanne declared.

She had a different name too, which I changed only about a month before publication. Her previous name was, to me, just too similar to another character’s name. It was as simple as that: I didn’t want any reader confusion.

Understand, though, I won’t reveal here what their earlier names were because I don’t want anyone thinking about any of them, “Hey, Rob, I liked that other name better.” ;-)

Another example. I must have made at least two dozen major changes to the opening chapter of Frontiers. By that I don’t mean stuff here and there. I mean I shredded and re-shredded the entire thing – background, location, happenings, nearly all of it – repeatedly until I was satisfied with it.

I did that because several times after I’d re-read it, I still didn’t like it. “It doesn’t convey what I want,” my shoulders slumped again and again. “And it’s the first chapter!”

I can’t see myself as a writer ever releasing the whole “first draft” of a finished book to show readers “the process.” The “sneak peeks” I had shared into Frontiers over the year were just that – and largely finalized. The final version is THE STORY. Looking back on them now, the earlier drafts, frankly, often make me cringe.

Anne stepped up to him. “Oh, yes, of course.” She added, “You’re turning into a silly old Frenchman. Do me a favor, if you’re looking to make a fool of yourself with a girl fifty years younger than you, at least wait until after I’m dead.”

My books and “papers” will be left first to my wife. I suppose she’d leave them to my niece and nephews. Unless of course Oxford wants them. (Hey, my nephew goes there. ;-) )

What they do with them after I’m gone someday is entirely their call. In that, I suppose I see things a bit like Isabelle’s mother, ripping good-naturedly into Isabelle’s father in Frontiers. What happens after I’m dead, well, happens.

Have a good Tuesday. :-)

Sorry, But You Don’t Have A “Right” To Relocate Wherever You Want

Forgive a long post, but this is a complicated, emotional issue just about everywhere in the world, and can’t be addressed glibly. If you aren’t interested, click away. But please do come back another day! :-)

In the last decade of the 19th century, Italian ancestors of mine emigrated to the United States. (One was evidently about age 9, and unaccompanied by a parent.) On cramped, uncomfortable ships they traveled for weeks – from Sicily to Naples, then to Marseille, and eventually they reached New York’s Ellis Island, where admittance to the U.S. was not a certainty. They were granted entry. None ever returned to Italy. They had left behind brothers, sisters, and parents whom they never saw again.

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Obsessed By You

Yes, I wrote just the other day that I planned some time off. Well, I lasted two days. I have plunged now into fully outlining what had been the sketchy ideas I had had for the third novel.

Although they are naturally exasperating at times, I am missing my fictional “friends” from Passports and Frontiers. If you ever in real life feel a bit isolated and alone (even when surrounded by people who love you; I have had bouts of that for as long as I can remember), you discover pouring yourself into characters forces the mind elsewhere. You hope your efforts in the end grab readers and your characters and story take them away from some of their own worries and troubles – and perhaps even help them in some small ways too.

Beginning of the outline of the next volume.
Beginning of the outline of the next volume.

Once again, I’m aiming to finish in about 12 months. The new manuscript is still untitled (although I’ve got an idea for one that I suspect will be the title), but if you know the first two books this coming third will follow much the same form and style. Staring back at us from the pages will be most of the characters we’ve met before – eventually to take us roughly to three years from where the series started “in 1994.” There will also be several new ones, and introductions to some we’ve heard merely mentioned in the first two books.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a rock guitarist.
Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a rock guitarist.

Back on Christmas Day, with my 12 year old nephew and 17 year old niece, I was watching music videos of some of the “all time greatest Christmas songs.” Many were by artists who, now, in 2014, are long past retirement age. Yet many are still out there recording and performing live.

I could only smile at some of the clothes and haircuts of decades ago. Did we actually look like that? “Welcome to 1984,” I joked to my niece at one point.

If those singers are still at it today, it’s because they can’t stop. One supposes they like – and likely need – the money; but we all need money of course. What they also love is the audience, and bringing joy to the faces of their long-time fans.

I’m learning we as authors are not all that different. We may not sing for our supper, but writing for an appreciative readership is certainly much the same thing. I’m finding it is something of an addiction, and can even turn into an obsession. ;-)

Hope you’re having a good Sunday, wherever you are in the world. :-)

Our English Pre-Christmas Miracle

One of CNN’s “Top 12″ places to spend Christmas, is just up the road from us:

BathChristmas

CNN opens its explanation about Bath this way:

There are few cities in the world where you can celebrate the birth of Jesus and the birth of Jane Austen with the same amount of fanfare, but Bath happens to be one of them.

The Theatre Royal, which Austen mentions in “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion,” is home to a musical celebration accompanied by mince pies and mulled wine in honor of the literary doyenne….

Indeed. Just yesterday we decided to have a wander around downtown on Monday or Tuesday. Clearly we’re in a good general Christmas location this year. ;-)

If you’re curious, here is the link to the Bath “Jane Austen Centre” site.

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We also had something of a Christmas moment last night. We decided to splash out and buy a real tree for the first time in years. We needed some new Christmas decorations too: some are packed away here, but most are in America.

So last night we went shopping. At a B&Q, we bought the decorations (many on discount because it’s so close to Christmas now) and a tree (there were still a few nice live ones). We were feeling really good.

Then we abruptly discovered getting a live tree stand was going to be quite a challenge 5 days before Christmas.

Had we stumbled on “The Great English Live Christmas Tree Stand Shortage?”

It sure seemed so. B&Q still had live trees, but no stands at all. “It’s the end of the season for us,” the cashier said. “I think we sold the last one earlier today.” She recommended Tesco. First, we tried three nearer places, and struck out at all those too. Finally, even Tesco failed us.

By now, it was approaching 8pm. There was nowhere else in the immediate vicinity. We figured ordering via Amazon would be the last resort.

On the drive home, though, Mrs. Nello noted, “We had a live tree stand years ago. We must have it. Where is it?”

“I know. I’m thinking,” I mumbled, as we drove, our tree in the back of our small SUV, but with nothing to put it in yet. “Give me a sec. We had real trees when we first got married. Godmanchester. Then in London. Never Christchurch. Remember when I threw the dead tree out the Juliette balcony window after Christmas in Enfield one year after it dropped its needles early? We were so annoyed, we went to fake trees after that.”

“Oh, yeh,” she agreed.

“That must’ve been around 2003 or 4,” I continued. “The fake tree is in America. The live tree stand didn’t go to the Catskills. I didn’t give it away to anyone. It must be upstairs in an attic box. I didn’t throw it out. I never throw stuff like that out.”

“Don’t look at me,” she replied. “Christmas storage has always been your department.”

When we got home, I plunged into a small bedroom we use for storage. At the edge of a floor to ceiling pile of moving boxes full of “unnecessary” items, I found an unopened loft box that was taped shut. It hadn’t been touched in years.

I opened it, and found a few more lights, decorations, garlands and …. there it was! First go. First box. There it sat, looking up at me: our live tree stand, unused for over a decade!

I felt like I’d hit the lottery. I rushed to the top of the staircase and shouted down to Mrs. Nello, “Got it! I found it! It took me ten seconds!”

“A Christmas miracle!” my wife laughed and yelled up to me.

Have a good Saturday. Andy Williams goes on later, and the LIVE tree gets decorated. :-)

World War II: “What does it say about us?”

If you visit my modest site here regularly, you know I write novels revolving around young Americans abroad in the 1990s – in France in particular. Unsurprisingly, I have many French characters, one of whom is a Second World War veteran. Before heading down that literary path, as an academic I’d studied the war and its impacts on post-war Europe.

So please pardon an extremely serious – even depressing – post. For whenever American WWII involvement is cited non-chalantly in present political debates, I take notice. In this case, a former comedian (who now has a chatter show on HBO) tweeted breezily the other day that the U.S. had won WWII without resorting to torture:

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We’ll leave aside his Cold War reference. We don’t know much that happened “quietly” in “black spots” and out of sight during the Cold War. But his raising it in that manner merely demonstrates he probably has only cursory knowledge about how the West and the Soviet bloc intelligence services went at each other viciously during those years, including resorting to umbrella poisonings, and in involving themselves (and sometimes succeeding) in overthrowing unfriendly governments, and then supporting torturers within the new governments.

Let’s focus instead on asking about “us” during the Second World War, which is a conflict that in U.S. lore today is now the last “good war.” Yes, millions of Americans served honorably. Yes, they helped liberate Nazi-occupied Europe. Yes, they helped end Japanese militarism. Freedom and democracy in Europe and much of the Pacific today owes a great deal to their sacrifices and accomplishments.

However, all of that did not come about without misery and death on what is now an incomprehensible scale. Two thousand years ago the Roman Tacitus famously wrote of his countrymen, “They make a desert, and they call it peace.” It could well be said that, between 1941-1945, America helped do much the same…. to “win” that former comedian’s version of the Second World War. Just a few examples:

  • U.S. soldiers raping Frenchwomen was not nearly as rare as we all might like to think it was.
  • After entering Dachau concentration camp near war’s end, U.S. soldiers herded captured guards together and shot them:
29 April 1945. Dachau, Bavaria, Germany: This picture shows an execution of SS troops in a coalyard in the area of Dachau concentration camp during the liberation of the camp. (Public domain.)
29 April 1945. Dachau, Bavaria, Germany: This picture shows an execution of SS troops in a coalyard in the area of Dachau concentration camp during the liberation of the camp. (Public domain.)
  • There were other occasions U.S. soldiers murdered captured PoWs, as in Sicily in 1943.
  • Following the D-Day battle, U.S. Rangers at Pointe du Hoc reportedly shot dead in cold blood French civilians they believed had fought alongside, or had artillery spotted for, the Germans.
  • In the several months’ long pre-D-Day air campaign that sought to hamper German movement by bombing roads and railways in German-occupied France, it is believed “we” may have also killed some 14,000 French civilians.
  • President Roosevelt oversaw years of carpet-bombings of Germany and Japan, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians – including children.
  • President Truman ordered two atomic bombs dropped on cities full of Japanese non-combatants – including children.

Some of us either want us to think, or actually vaguely believe that, the U.S. fought WWII without engaging in “dirty” behavior – as if it were, say, a John Wayne movie. But the problem is even a “John Wayne” movie isn’t even always a “John Wayne” movie. In The Longest Day, the 1962 blockbuster about D-Day starring Wayne among a “cast of thousands,” note that in a brief scene a soldier behind Omaha Beach guns down a group of surrendering Germans…. at least one of whom clearly has his hands up.