When we were in Caen in October, I saw a little place across from our hotel window: Pizzeria la Neustrie.

Neustria? It rang a faint bell.

I looked it up. Neustria was an area in northern France, back in the late Dark Ages. It was, in fact, most of the northwest of France.

I like thinking of this, even though it’s the memory of a pretty barbaric time. I’ve read Gregory of Tours, and I know that modern France and Germany were a patchwork of principalities and kingdoms in those days, full of petty tyrants and evil queens and benevolent squires. If you didn’t like the area, or the local king or queen, you just put your things in a cart, and rode down the lane a few miles, and you were in someone else’s kingdom.

Of course, this assumes that you were able to leave your home. Most people weren’t. Most people were desperately poor, and unable to leave their homes, even if the local queen was drinking out of a human skull (as I seem to recall Gregory of Tours recounting).

But what’s all this? It’s fifteen hundred years later, and everything seemed quiet and charming when we were there, in Caen and Bayeux and Honfleur and Paris.

And, too, has identified that part of my ancestry comes from Doggerland, which is the land around the English Channel. Which is to say: Neustria.

I am a Neustrian (partly). And proud of it.

Bring me a drink in a human skull.

William the Conqueror

I’ve done genealogy for a long time now, and I know (or sort of know) that I am descended from one of the English noble families, back in the seventeenth century or so.

And since everybody intermarried so much in those days, one way or another, I know that I am descended from William the Conqueror.

Is there any doubt?

We found William  – or rather Guillaume le Conquerant – everywhere we went in Normandy in October. William’s Ducal Palace was two blocks from our hotel in Caen, and his tomb was ten blocks away in the Abbaye aux Hommes. (His wife Matilda was buried not far away in the other direction, but we didn’t get to her tomb. Next time for sure.)  The big cathedral in Caen, Saint-Pierre, was founded by William’s grandfather. When we went to Bayeux, we saw another grandiose cathedral commissioned by William, as well as the miraculous tapestry which may or may not have been executed by Queen Matilda. (At any rate, the tapestry was commissioned by William’s half-brother Odo, bishop of Bayeux.)

We didn’t visit Falaise, where William was born. There’s a lovely castle there:


William’s father was the rascally Duke Robert of Normandy, known as Robert the Devil. His mother was Arlette, daughter of a local embalmer. Robert and Arlette weren’t married, so William was a bastard. (This would explain all the things called “Le Batard” in Caen and Bayeux.)

I was strangely moved by the epitaph on William’s tomb:


I know just enough Latin to translate it without help:









I felt uncommonly solemn in that place.

Rest in peace, Grandpa William.

(We’ll get around to visiting Grandma Matilda on our next trip.)

Things that might happen in world politics

things that might happen

In Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Gravity’s Rainbow,” there is a character who is writing a book called “Things That Might Happen In European Politics.” He writes very comprehensively about a particular thing that might happen, but – invariably – before he’s done – the thing happens. And he has to discard what he’s written, and start writing his book all over again.

It’s Zeno’s Paradox, in a sense: you can never reach the end of your journey, because it keeps moving farther away, faster and faster, before you can get there.

It is for this peculiar reason that I like reading outdated history and political-science books.

I prowl the second floor of the Providence Public Library looking for them. I can tell them by their old leathery bindings and their stamped printing and their quaint titles. I have read WILL CHINA SURVIVE? (1936). And STALIN MUST HAVE PEACE! (1946). And AN AMERICAN IN THE RIF (1921). And many others.

A few observations:

–         Yes, China will survive. The 1936 book was written at a time when China was riven between Chiang Kai-Shek’s regime (which later went to Taiwan), and the Communists, and the Japanese (who had taken a big chunk of the north). The author was prescient enough to see that, if China survived the Japanese occupation (which it did), it would almost certainly go Communist. Ten points for accuracy!

–         Stalin had peace, but not for the reasons the author (the famous journalist Edgar Snow) assumed. His premise (which he maintained for 200 pages) was that the Second World War left Stalin too weak to struggle against the USA and Europe, and that Stalin would be no threat to anyone for at least five to ten years. He underestimated Stalin’s paranoia and power. The USSR had the atomic bomb by 1949, almost exactly four years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oh, well. Zero points.

–         An older book about Morocco, written in the 1920s, was fascinating. Abdelkrim, the Napoleon of North Africa, the founder of the Rif Republic, who led a rebellion against Spain, was described as “passionate, but not a genius.” And so he proved to be; his Rif Republic collapsed soon after. The author also met Raisuli, the pirate king of Asilah, who captured the American diplomat Perdicaris at the turn of the century. The author described Raisuli (I paraphrase) as a “swollen hulk” near the end of his life, being carried around in a litter, palsied, dropsical, unable to speak, looking sadly and angrily at everyone around him.

It’s difficult to predict the future accurately. And even if you succeed, you seldom live to see yourself vindicated.

But it doesn’t stop anyone from trying.


Partner and I stayed in the city of Caen, in lower Normandy, while we toured northern France. In the four days we stayed there, we both fell in love with the city. It is modest and charming, and has wonderful medieval structures still standing – the Abbaye aux Hommes and Abbaye aux Dames and Palais Ducal, all built by William the Conqueror, and the St. Pierre church built by William’s grandfather.

Caen has streets full of shops and bakeries and bistros. We had our best French meal in Caen, at Le Bouchon du Vaugueux.

Ah, we thought: a real French town, unchanged since the Merovingians.

But then we talked to the concierge of our hotel.

It was at the Hotel Kyriad on the Place de la Republique, which I highly recommend to you if you’re ever staying in Caen. It was charming, and it had a wonderful breakfast buffet, and some really nice concierges. Our first was a funny skinny dark-haired guy with glasses, very French, very animated and helpful. Then, after a day or two, he was replaced with a tall blondish Norman-looking fellow with a doleful/cheerful expression.

On the day we were checking out to go to Paris, I noted a postcard behind the counter, a picture of the hotel in days gone by: LE VILLA DES CLOCHERS, the Belltower Building. The building has no belltowers now, so I asked the tall blond Norman concierge, in my (still halting) French: “Is this a picture of this hotel?”

He smiled sadly. “Yes and no. Look –“

It turns out that he was something of a history buff. He pulled out some old photos, from the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. He even had an aerial view of Caen in August of 1944. In it, you could see that the city had been almost completely flattened. “You see,” he said very calmly, “a lot of the old churches survived. Medieval stone – who knows? It stood up. Maybe you saw the Church of St. Etienne-le-Vieux?

“Across from L’Abbaye aux Hommes?” I said. “We thought it was a ruin -”

He nodded sadly. “Yes. From World War II. It was left unrepaired, as a reminder of the war. But most of the rest of the city has been rebuilt.”

“What about the bombs?” I asked.

He shook his head and smiled. “They estimate that maybe two out of ten are still unexploded. People find them all the time when they excavate or build new foundations for buildings. They have ‘controlled explosions.’”

Partner and I left Caen about half an hour later via train to Paris, but as we left, we saw the city through new eyes.

We’d seen Caen as a clean beautiful city, nicely preserved. We hadn’t realized that it had rebuilt so completely.

How very frail we human beings are, and how frail our creations are: our cities, our civilizations.

But sometimes, even if they’re destroyed, they can be rebuilt.

(Somehow this gives me hope. I don’t know.)


While in France I picked up a couple of schoolroom books on French history. One was a long list of French kings, from the Merovingians (circa 500 CE) to the present.

I was impressed, firstly, with the originality of the kings’ names back in the Dark Ages before Charlemagne. Dagobert! Clotaire! Sigebert! Gontran! Clodomir! Much more interesting than all those dull kings named Louis and Francois and Henri later on.

But even those later kings managed to pick up peppier names. Louis VI was The Fat; Louis VII, his son, was The Young; Louis VII’s son Philip somehow lucked into the agnomen “Augustus,” which is a lovely thing to be called. Later we have The Handsome, The Quarrelsome, the Well-Beloved.

Let’s try this custom on American presidents, shall we?

Taft the Fat: too easy. Teddy Roosevelt the Brave, or the Bold. Andrew Jackson the Stubborn.

Lincoln is difficult. I think of him as the Peacemaker or the Mediator – but he presided over four years of war. The Emancipator? Maybe.

Carter the Mild.  Kennedy the Young, maybe? Reagan the Old (though some would opt for Reagan the Great. Not me, though.)

Here’s the real poser: George W. Bush.

Not the Stupid. Better the agnomen of Ethelred II: the Unready.

In Old English, it meant something different: “one who would not take advice,” or “the ill-advised.”


The Bayeux Tapestry

We went from Caen to Bayeux on a sunny Sunday afternoon in October. It took less than half an hour by train.

Bayeux is smaller than Caen, and perfectly beautiful. The medieval church towered over the city – we could see it from the train station – but we didn’t want to waste time, so we took a cab directly to the Tapestry Museum.

The Bayeux Tapestry is a miracle. It is a piece of linen seventy-five yards long and maybe a yard high, which (maybe, but probably not, but it’s charming to think so) Queen Matilda and her ladies stitched as a memorial to Matilda’s husband William the Conqueror’s triumph over Harold II of England.

Partner and I were very lucky; very few people were in the museum that day. We were given an audioguide, which normally I hate, but which in this case was invaluable: it narrated the entire tapestry, and kept us moving from panel to panel.

The story is very absorbing: Harold knows that his brother-in-law Edward the Confessor wants William of Normandy to be his successor, and agrees to carry the news to him in France. William is delighted, but suspicious, and makes Harold swear in Caen Cathedral that he’ll recognize William as the successor. Edward dies, and – guess what? – Harold takes the crown. William takes arms and sails across the channel and meets Harold at Hastings. Harold is killed, with an arrow in the eye. William is victorious.

The whole thing is there on the tapestry. But you really have to see it.

The tapestry is gorgeous. The people are beautifully depicted, and there are even captions, and even footnotes: small pictures tucked away under the main story. There’s a naked man about halfway through, and I’m not sure what he’s supposed to be all about, but he’s very amusing.

Later, in the gift shop, I picked up a cute book called “Le tapisserie de Bayeux en bande dessinée”: “The Bayeux Tapestry as a comic strip.”

It’s already a comic strip.

It’s just a very serious comic strip.

The French expression, “bande dessinée,” is better than our “comic strip.” Our expression implies that the content is funny or at least amusing. The French expression just means “drawn strip.”

The story told by the Bayeux Tapestry is wonderful and beautiful, but it’s not one bit funny. It’s a terrible story of a terrible time when people died.

But then again: every time is a terrible time.

Look at our own time: war, strife, death. Now think of making a “comic strip” out of it.

But could you make a bande dessinée of it?

Bien sur.

Movie review: “Lincoln”

This past weekend Partner and I saw Spielberg’s new movie, “Lincoln.” It’s very good – but then it’s bound to be: not only is it directed by Spielberg, it’s based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about the Lincoln administration, with a screenplay by Tony Kushner, writer of “Angels in America.”  The action covers the first few months of 1865: the Civil War, while still horribly bloody, is winding down, and the North is on the verge of winning. Lincoln is faced with a choice: accept the South’s peace overtures and allow them back into the Union as if nothing has happened, or ensure that the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery is passed first. If he doesn’t do the latter, the old South will insist on its slave-holding ways. If he refuses to talk peace with the South’s representatives, Congress will accuse him of holding the country hostage on behalf of the Abolitionist movement.

If this sounds dull, it’s not. Like all of Spielberg’s best movies, it seesaws between tension and calm. Its best scenes capture both: Lincoln’s ride through the battlefield after the battle of Petersburg, as he surveys the mounds of dead bodies, is captured in ominous silence.

The cast is terrific, led by Daniel Day-Lewis as a gritty folksy Lincoln, half Andy Griffith, half John the Baptist, pacing inexorably (and knowingly) toward his own death, and Sally Field as a plump frantic Mary Todd Lincoln, smarter and more subtle than any other portrayal of Mary I’ve ever seen. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives us a young haunted Robert Lincoln; Tommy Lee Jones is Thaddeus Stevens, the Radical Republican eager to eviscerate the rebellious South; David Strathairn is a lean acute William Seward; James Cusack is a plump mustached “lobbyist” hired by Seward (and indirectly by Lincoln) to bring the House of Representatives around to Lincoln’s point of view.

The movie depicts the reelection of a popular president who is, nonetheless, abhorred by a significant chunk of the populace. This president is trying to put through a significant piece of legislation – not because it’s popular, but because it’s the right thing to do, and because if he doesn’t, he will have accomplished nothing to solve the country’s real problems. This president also faces an angry and contentious congress.

Sound familiar?

Go see this movie. It will give you something to think about.

Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman is a writer and artist and thinker. She has created something I can only call the “graphic essay,” and which can only be understood by looking at / reading one.



Her graphic world is full of bright colors and unusual angles. Her unique calligraphy swoops and flies among her images. She loves capturing Daily Life: hats, kitchen sinks, burger platters.






One of Maira’s great themes is ephemerality: the preciousness of every moment that passes, under the threat of mortality. Every moment, for her, becomes a visual poem.



Here are the first few images from one of her “And the Pursuit of Happiness” pieces:






Never in a million years could I have come up with “soigné diatoms.” Nor could I have rhymed “Beringia” with “herringia,” nor seen the obvious link between motorcycles and dinosaurs.



The sketches and paintings and drawings are all her own work, and the photos, and that candy / cookie / Play-Doh single-celled creature at the beginning.



But the real magic lies in the combination of all these with her words, and her thoughts.



She described herself in a recent Thinkr video as a “loopy optimist,” and I think that’s appropriate, but I think she’s too modest. Here’s the video:





She has written on history, and democracy, and travel, and music. She has shared chocolate with both Kitty Carlisle Hart and Louise Bourgeois, and shown us both encounters:




“Nature is the guarantee of sanity. Or maybe love. Or both. Or not. Anyway . . .”



I feel extraordinarily encouraged when I read her essays. They make me feel that it might actually be worthwhile to continue for a few days or months more on Planet Earth.



And for that: thank you, Maira Kalman.



Ancient aliens


Partner and I like to watch those programs on Discovery and TLC and Syfy about Ancient Aliens.  You know: the aliens who built (or helped build) the Pyramids, and Machu Picchu. They designed the Nazca Lines. They fitted together the stones of Tihuanaco.  They brought Prescelly bluestone hundreds of miles, overland, to build Stonehenge. Our ancestors painted pictures of them, and told stories of them.



I am very happy to believe in alien life.  In fact, I think it’s silly not to believe in alien life.  The universe is utterly bloody vast, and it would be ridiculous to think that we were the only walking talking things in it.  I have two problems with the Ancient Aliens theory, however:



        Where did they all go? They were (evidently) all over the place in our ancestors’ days; now they’ve keeping a very low profile.  How come?  Are they afraid of us?

        Why in the hell would they come here? What do we have to offer? Water? There’s water everywhere in space; if they wanted water, they could probably mine comets.  Metal ore? Hydrocarbons? Nah. I’m with Douglas Adams on this one: the best thing you can say about Earth is that we’re “mostly harmless.”



I also have a problem with the UFOlogists who keep giving us humanoid aliens, and horse aliens, and elephant aliens, and kitty-cat aliens.  Alien life, if/when we find it, will probably be far more peculiar than we can imagine now. I’ll wager that it doesn’t even use DNA.  Scientists (human scientists) have already come up with a number of other molecules that can self-replicate. (Admittedly they’re amino-acid based, but it’s a step in the right direction.) The aliens, when we finally meet them, will be blobs, or sighing clouds of methane with rubbery coverings, or bundles of sticks, or potted plants.


And they will have absolutely no interest in building Stonehenge.


(But it’s fun to think about.)



Movie review: “55 Days at Peking”


When nothing else on television will do – when there’s no RuPaul or Graham Norton or Cupcake Wars – I switch over to Turner Classic Movies.  I will accept almost anything that Robert Osborne, in his eternal wisdom, chooses to give me.



The other night it was something unidentifiable: Ava Gardner and Charlton Heston, wearing vaguely Victorian-looking clothing, entering a Chinese temple and dancing to unheard music.






Ah.  “55 Days at Peking,” a Hollywoodization of the Boxer Rebellion.



First of all, kids, I do not recommend it, unless you are a student of Chinese history, or historiography, or bad movies.  It is a horrible botch in just about every regard.  Dramatically, no one seems very engaged; there’s a nice cast – David Niven’s in it too, along with Ava and Chuck – but they all appear to be thinking about dinner, or the weekend, or their failing marriages.



At heart it is a Western.  The foreigners in Peking – David (of course) represents the British, Chuck the Americans, Ava the Russians (?) – are attacked by Chinese Boxer rebels.  We are supposed to sympathize with the Europeans and Americans, who – hm – have been claiming “territorial concessions” in China.   The Empress Dowager, a stern old lady with orchids (or possibly hydrangeas) in her hair, is not-so-secretly siding with the Boxers.  Prince Tuan, who is quite evidently evil because he has long fingernails and a constipated expression, is not-so-secretly leading the Boxers from within the Forbidden City.



From the point of view of history (and logic), the Chinese were of course in the right; they were trying to protect themselves from arrogant and often violent foreign intervention.



But we cheer as Chuck shoots down the Chinese!  He’s not happy about it, of course, but he does it, just as he’d (mopily) shoot down Indians in some other picture.    And he looks splendidly sunburnt and muscular in his nice Teddy Roosevelt-style garb, as do all the American soldiers.  (I assume this is the way American soldiers dressed in 1900.  It’s possible, anyway.)



Let us also mention that the three leading Chinese roles – the Empress Dowager, Prince Tuan, and the Imperial General – are all played by Caucasians.  I think most of the Chinese in the mob scenes are played by Chinese, but then again, you never know.



Ah, but wait!  We also have a brave young Japanese soldier (played by actual Japanese actor Juzo Itami) fighting alongside Chuck Heston.  Remember, this movie was made less than 20 years after World War II.  How’s that for diversity and tolerance?



Here’s a thought experiment: substitute the Native Americans for the Chinese.  The same “territorial concessions” (on a grand scale), the same sense that the side opposing the Americans is noble but wrong . . .



Creepy, isn’t it?



Maybe I recommend this movie after all.  It is an object lesson in the creative uses of history.



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