Serendipity: Dépaysement

Lebanese Restaurant in Paris

The term dépaysement is a French concept which refers to that feeling of disorientation that specifically arises when you are not in your home country nor identify exclusively with it. It’s the way that I, a Hungarian-American who loves to travel in places like Latin America and Iceland, feel as the United States slides down the drain of Trumpism. Juan Goytisolo (1931-2017), a Catalan writer of Basque extraction who lived most of his life in Marrakech, felt that way about Spain, particularly after the Franco régime’s depredations. The following is from his essay “Why I Have Chosen to Live in Paris” from his essay collection Space in Motion:

Q: If I understand you rightly, French cosmopolitanism ….

A: There is no such thing as French cosmopolitanism; there is interculturalism, plurality, osmosis: a universe in miniature. If a person so desires, he can eat in a Cambodian restaurant, drink mint tea in a Moorish café, see a Hindu or Turkish movie in the afternoon—Yilmaz Güney’s The Sheepflock in my opinion is one of the best films of the year—and in the evening, with a bit of luck, attend a concert of the Noss el Ghiwán or Izanzaren. Society is linked to the idea of space, but culture—like the individual—is mobile, drifting like the wind. Culture today cannot be French or Spanish, or even European, but rather mestizo, bastard, fecundated by civilizations that have been victims of our self-castrating, aberrant ethnocentrism. For up until now we have exported the Occidental model with all its props—from its ideology to its drugs and gadgets—we are at present witnessing an inverse process that personally fascinates and delights me: the gradual dissolution of “white” culture by all the peoples who, having been forcibly subjected to it, have assimilated the tricks, the techniques necessary to contaminate it.

Q: So then, Paris for you …

A: Insofar as it abandons its pretensions of being a beacon and accepts its status as a motley, bastard, heterogeneous metropolis that belongs to no country, I will always feel better in it than in any other exclusively “national” city that is uniform, chaste, compact, rid of its angels.

 

 

Who Will Hold Back the Floods of Change?

A Forest of Dead Trees Killed by the Pine Bark Beetle

The following is a reprint from an Autumn 2009 post to my blog site on the late, unlamented Multiply.Com.

I first became aware of the problem in 2003, especially at Bandolero State Monument in northern New Mexico. For mile after mile, Martine and I saw dead forests with dry brown pine needles. When I asked a park ranger what was the matter, I heard for the first time about the pine bark beetle and its many relatives, which has been ravaging the forests of the Rocky Mountains in the United States and Canada.

There are approximately 220 genera comprising some 6,000 species of bark beetle. Trees which are healthy due to normal rain tend to be resistant to beetle attacks; but in areas of prolonged drought, the trees are successfully attacked and end up as tinder dry skeletons, waiting for a spark to set off a giant conflagration.

As weather patterns change, I see bad times coming for the drought areas of North America. We have already seen the worst year in recorded history for brush fires in Southern California—and they are still raging in San Bernardino County [in 2009]. While these are unrelated to the ravages of bark beetles, they are all part of a new pattern that will result in massive changes to the type of vegetation growing in the mountainous areas of the Southwest. Gone will be the giant pines, to be replaced by fast-growing trees that can withstand the increasing heat and dryness of the region. What these forests will look like is anybody’s guess.

I realize as I write this that one result of living a long life is to mourn the changes from the world of our youth. I remember the cathedral-like stateliness of the elms at Dartmouth College—all fallen prey to Dutch Elm Disease. The American South has been overrun by kudzu and other non-native plants. The face of the earth is changing, but, alas, our memory is still there. And with photography, we have a record of the world of the recent past.

But what of the massive forests of the 18th and 19th centuries, with flocks of millions of passenger pigeons and huge herds of bison. Read Chateaubriand’s novels Atala and René and the works of naturalist William Bartram for a picture of America’s interior that you will not recognize today.

Montaigne’s words on mutability in his Apology for Raymond Sebond come to mind as I think about this subject:

And we and our judgment and all mortal things else do uncessantly roll, turn, and pass away. Thus can nothing be certainly established, nor of the one nor of the other, both the judging and the judged being in continual alteration and motion. We have no communication with being, for every human nature is ever in the middle between being born and dying, giving nothing of itself but an obscure appearance and shadow, and an uncertain and weak opinion. And if, perhaps, you fix your thought to take its being, it would be even as if one should go about to prison the water; for how much the more he shall close and press that which, by its own nature, is ever gliding, so much the more he shall loose what he would hold and fasten. Thus, seeing all things are subject to pass from one change to another, reason, which therein seeketh a real subsistence, finds herself deceived as unable to apprehend anything subsistent and permanent, forsomuch as each thing either cometh to a being and is not yet altogether, or beginneth to die before it be born.

Then I ask myself, “Is this as dire as it seems, or is it all just part of life?”

In Tofino, next to Jamie’s Whaling Station on Campbell Street, there is a huge cedar which is buttressed with steel and held standing by massive cables. It is called the Eid Cedar, after an early resident, and is determinedly protected by the ecology-conscious locals. Will this be the fate of the great Ponderosa and Lodgepole Pines of the Rockies? Will they be watered by irrigation and protected by a plastic shield from voracious bark beetles? Who will hold back the floods of change?

No one.

The Last Mexican Governor of Alta California

Pio de Jesús Pico and Family

Today, Martine and i visited the Pio Pico State Historic Park in Whittier. Lately, we have spent several Saturdays and Sundays visiting locations that figured in the history of Southern California. And none has been more significant than El Ranchito, the home of the last Mexican governor of Alta California, Pio de Jesús Pico (1801-1894).

As it frequently did during that period, the United States essentially steamrollered the territory of Alta California and its environs. This happened in 1846, when a group of American settlers captured the Mexican army garrison at Sonoma. Within two years, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, setting off a gigantic gold rush, and the United States signed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, ceding what is today the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and pieces of Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah to the victorious Yanquis.

Pio Pico’s Home, El Ranchito

After the Americans moved in, Pico and his family fled to (what remained of) Mexico for a few years. He returned when the dust settled, as he and his family personally owned some quarter million acres. He was besieged by lawsuits, many of them fraudulent. He sold most of the San Fernando Valley in 1869 to finance the building of the Pico House Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, which still stands today—although mostly empty.

Arbor with Grapevines at El Ranchito

Toward the end of his life, Pico had problems holding on to money, due largely to his gambling addiction. The last act of his life was a sad one. A criollo of Spanish and African descent, Pico never learned English, which put him at risk in his financial transactions. He decided to deed a half interest in his remaining lands to his brother-in-law, John Forster. A sharper if there ever was one, Forster actually deeded a 100% interest to himself, forcing the aging Pico to move in with one of his daughters.

Today, the Pio Pico State Historic Park is a lovely corner of Whittier. There were only a few other visitors while we were there, probably because most Angelenos have little or no notion of the history of the land on which they live.

 

 

Looking South

I Am Looking Forward to My Next Trip to Latin America

It has been not five months since my return from Guatemala, and already I am looking forward to Yucatán and Belize—which is still more than six months in the future.

(Incidentally, I would never refer to it as “the” Yucatán unless I were wearing a pith helmet and those stupid zip-off pants/shorts worn by travelers who fear to venture more than twenty yards from their hotel room without an escort.)

I have been to Yucatán four times in all, the last time with Martine in November 1992. During my visits between 1975 and 1992, I have visited about a dozen Maya archeological sights. Since then, scores more have been developed, including one of the largest at Calakmul in the State of Campeche. In addition, I hope to visit Cobá in Quintana Roo, Ek Balam and Kinich Kakmó in Yucatán, Edzna and several Rio Bec sites to be decided later in Campeche, and Yaxchilan and Bonampak in Chiapas. In addition, I plan to revisit some of the sites I have already seen such as Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Palenque.

There is something calming about seeing what remains of an ancient civilization—one that had the ability to adapt itself to changing circumstances and survive in the 21st Century.

Yucatec Maya Girls Today

The Maya population is scattered across five Latin American countries: Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. A large number of Maya have found their way to the United States from Guatemala and Honduras, because of dire conditions in their countries of origin, though Maya from Mexico tend not to migrate to the United States. That is despite the long Caste War against the Ladino (Spanish speaking) population that ended only in the early 1900s and the Zapatista Revolt in Chiapas during the 1990s.

 

“The Great Task in Life”

In California, the Realty Interests Are in Charge

To misquote Iris Murdoch, “We live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion. The great task in life is to find realty.” After all, if you have enough money to start with, it’s not terribly difficult to become a millionaire, requires minimal brains. Just invest in real estate. It worked for Trump (if you really believe he’s a billionaire). It can work for you. All it requires is a lack of moral compass: You too can live in a McMansion at the edge of a golf course. Isn’t that what life is all about?

Right now, California politicians are highly disturbed about the increasing rate of homelessness. Of course, they think that the solution is to find housing for all the homeless. Never mind that most L.A. homeless would prefer to live in a tent set up under a bridge, where they can enjoy their heroine and crystal meth without being hassled by John Law. And that doesn’t include the 25-50% who are just plain out of their heads and wouldn’t understand what you are talking about.

The word is out that there are not enough housing units. Then there was an interesting front page article in the Los Angeles Times a couple days ago to the effect that there are approximately 110,000 housing units that are theoretically up for rent, but not really.

The reason is the convenience to landowners of the law governing taxation of housing units. One is taxed not on the gross amount one makes, but on the profit one makes. If too many units are being profitably rented, the best way to lower your taxes is to net the rented units with units that are being deliberately kept off the market. That way, the profit is minimized—or even wiped out—and the NOL (Net Operating Loss) is subtracted from the total income.

From my years in accounting, I have seen dozens of filthy rich landowners living the life of Riley while paying zero taxes. That also is a trick employed by our Presidente.

 

“Eating Poetry”

Canadian-American Poet Mark Strand (1934-2014)

I had not heard of Mark Strand until I read an interview between him and Wallace Shawn that is reprinted in Shawn’s Essays. The following is one of his most famous poems. It is also a hoot.

Eating Poetry
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth
There is no happiness like mine
I have been eating poetry.
The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.
The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.
Their eyeballs roll,
Their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.
She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.
I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

 

How Chefs Are Destroying American Cooking

Archvillain Guy Fieri and His Inedible Creations

My original title for this post was “How the Food Network Is Destroying American Cooking,” but I decided the problem is more general. It’s almost as if all the young chefs have been subsisting on Cheerios and S’mores until they suddenly got religion and started putting together things that never really belonged together. It’s like those stupid Iron Chef competitions in which cooks are challenged to make something intriguing from unlikely ingredients. For instance, some competing chefs may have to cook a dish using:

  • A men’s size 10 double wide leather shoe sole
  • Two cups of lard
  • A dash of Asafoetida
  • Several pounds of kale
  • A pint of Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream

All the components of a dish must be built up in a tower of food, as in the photo below:

Small Tower of Miscellaneous Ingredients

I was raised on Hungarian food, but living in Los Angeles has given me an abiding interest in Asian food (principally Chinese, Indian, and Japanese) and Mexican food. Although Martine and I do visit restaurants (principally on weekends), most evenings we eat dishes which I have prepared. For instance, tonight I made a Middle Eastern vegan stew containing potatoes, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), tomatoes, onions, and cumin. I also liked to prepare a jambalaya (minus shrimp, which we don’t eat), keema, chili con carne, chicken chow mein, kasha varnishkas, and ratatouille vegetable stew. I never pile the main dish up into a tower of any sort, and I studiously avoid ingredients that conflict with one another.

When I read a restaurant review, I have to read between the lines to determine whether the food is good, or merely showy in some strange way.

There used to be a great Hungarian restaurant in the San Fernando Valley by Ventura and Vineland called the Hortobagy. When that restaurant closed down, the owner opened another place off Tujunga and Magnolia called Maximilian’s Austro-Hungarian Restaurant. It turns out that the owner, who fancied himself a chef, thought that the liberal use of raw onions was his trademark. The women chefs who worked at Hortobagy were the real artists; the owner, Laszlo, was anything but.