Sunday, 24 April 2016

Other Americas

I began my Sunday morning as a good citizen of the world, by deciding to catch up on the week in US presidential election.  Pretty soon, I was back in the slough of despond.  The thing is, there is an America that is not the grotesque caricature that is dominating its politics just now.  At times like this I just need to make a special effort to remind myself of it.  
So I jammed the earbuds in and went for a walk on the windy beach.  Richard Shindell began singing Wisteria: “The vine of my memory is blooming along those eaves.”  Soon enough, I felt a bit better.
It is a cold October night and my friend Sam Morse and I are camped on Tumbledown Mountain in Maine, which is not so much a mountain as a long ridge of ancient granite that looms over the miles of forests and farms of northern New England.  We have a campfire going, and we are working our way with some deliberateness through a bottle of Jack Daniels, solving the last few remaining puzzles in the mystery that is the universe.  It’s a dark starlit night. Just when I am starting to think it is time to crawl into the sleeping bag, a car pulls up, filled with teenage boys.  They ask if they are on the right road to Mexico.  I start to laugh.  Sam, who knows the backroads of Maine, asks, “Where are you boys from?”  They reply, “Paris”. I laugh again. Sam looks at me as though I am the completest idiot ever to set foot on earth.  He turns back to the boys in the car and says, “I’m afraid you’ve overshot Mexico.”  And then he proceeds to tell them how to get back to the right road.  It turns out there’s more than one way to get to Mexico from Paris, in Maine.  In that other America.
It is a summer afternoon in the early 1990s, and we are sitting in Fenway Park, in Boston, in a row of seats halfway up the stands behind home plate.  The Blue Jays are playing the Red Sox.  It’s a sunny, muggy day. We catch bags of peanuts from the vendor and make a mess of shells at our feet.  We watch as pitchers and batters duel, fielders make spectacular catches, and there is a collective intake of breath with every long ball that arcs towards the Green Monster.  We feel like we are sitting in the nave of a cathedral built to honour the soul of a nation. On the row beside us sit two men who have probably been watching Red Sox games at Fenway Park for over half a century.  They see an opportunity for education.  And so for the whole of that long, deliciously slow August afternoon, they generously regale us with stories of their team, its players and managers, its successes and heartbreaks.  They fill our heads with statistics of unsurpassing obscurity, which they disagree about vigorously. They tell us what to watch for with every batter, and call every pitch before it is thrown. All is said with what can only be described as wise-cracking reverence, as though there could be nothing more important in this world than to know every fact about the life and career of Carl Yastrzemski, the greatest Red Sox player of them all.
There’s a room in Washington D.C. in an art gallery called the Phillips Collection which holds four paintings by Mark Rothko.  We were there last December. Its mid-20th century construction marked the first time an entire room had been created specifically for Rothko’s work.  It’s not a large room; and it is dominated by the paintings, abstract expressionist works that are fields and bands of colour.  When you enter the room, you are literally immersed in Rothko’s vision.  It’s deceptively simple: colours and shapes on four canvases; purely abstract.  But if you take a slow breath, and let it wash over you, you start to realize that the paintings are somehow humming; as though they are alive. And then you realize that you are not just looking at something, you are feeling it. You’re buzzing, elevated by an emotion that’s almost impossible to explain.  It’s glorious to be in the presence of such achievement. 
There is a book by the American photographer Robert Adams called Prayers in an American Church.  It’s a small book, a collection of a dozen or so photographs, accompanied by meditative words from diverse sources.  The church in the title is not a building; it’s the natural world, whose beauty is honoured in the photographs.  Not the grandeur of mountains and canyons, but the simpler beauty of sun-dappled tree branches and leaves, and the peace of quiet places.  Robert Adams’ images are austere.  He captures the intersection of humans and the landscape of western America. It might be a treeless suburban housing tract on the outskirts of Denver.  Or a scarred clearcut hillside in Oregon. Or a woman pushing a shopping cart in a grocery store.  Or the line of the prairie horizon broken by a single tree.  Or a lonely road. He is determined to find beauty in all these places, and, against the odds, he does. 
When I want to think of that other America, I think of Dar Williams, whose early songs were, for a time, the soundtrack of our life as a family.  When I Was a Boy was a kind of anthem for our belief as parents that our children could grow up on their own terms, unconstrained by the limiting stereotypes of mass consumer culture.  The Christians and the Pagans is a generous and funny hymn to the possibility that we can get along, despite our differences, as long as we can find a way to eat together.  The Babysitter’s Here is a short story about love, growing up, and everything else, sung in about four perfect minutes.  She still makes amazing music. 
One summer a decade ago, we rented a car in Las Vegas and began a road trip by heading towards southern Utah and its breathtakingly beautiful red sandstone natural monuments. On our first night we stopped in a town called Springdale, which is on the doorstep of the majesty of Zion National Park.  We try to be respectful travellers.  We had read that Mormon traditions were strong in southern Utah.  We were prepared, then, for a few days of righteous, stoic, alcohol-free travel. But on our first night, we sat down at the table of our restaurant and read a menu that suggested we might like a glass of Polygamy Porter.  Why?  Because, as they said, “you can’t have just one.” It’s hard not to love a country that can make fun of itself.  And while I am at it, I think, too, of Las Vegas, all of it, because, as I said, it’s hard not to love a country that can make fun of itself.
When I think of America, I think of Aaron Copland, and that moment early in the first movement of Appalachian Spring when the orchestra comes alive and I always jump from my seat. And Bob Dylan, because, well, because everything.  Even if “it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.” And Edward Hopper’s paintings.  And Emily Dickinson: "Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.”
And I think of lightbulbs, Linus Pauling, the Hardy Boys, Huckleberry Finn, Rosa Parks, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, ice skating at Rockefeller Center, Walter Cronkite, e e cummings, Rebecca Solnit, and that moment when, after screaming in terror all the way down the Matterhorn at Disneyland, our daughter turned to us and breathlessly said, “Can we do that again?” 

And my favourite sentence in the English language. “So we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past.”

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Happy Earth Day, British Columbia

The Globe and Mail published this piece online tonight.  I've read some of the comments, which, really, no one should do, who wants to maintain any faith in humanity.  But the hilarious thing is that no one (so far) seems to have read what I've actually written. They've read the headline and that's about it.  Maybe I shouldn't be surprised?  Anyway, here we go.  

Happy Earth Day. Earth Day can be a day to honour the precious gift that is our planet. Often, however, it is also an occasion to lament, or at least feel guilty about, the way we use it.

There’s reason enough to lament. But I would suggest there is another perspective, that there is also, sometimes, a reason to celebrate. In British Columbia today, we actually have an enviable environmental record to celebrate on Earth Day.

A recent report by Corporate Knights confirmed that no jurisdiction in Canada protects more land than British Columbia. There are 1,029 protected areas managed provincially. As of last June, over 15 per cent of British Columbia’s land base, or nearly 14.3 million hectares, was dedicated to protected area status. That’s 2.2 hectares per resident. It’s a remarkable achievement.

And the story gets better. Earlier this year, after years of conflict and negotiation, the Great Bear Rainforest on the central coast was fully and properly protected.

The agreement now in place permanently protects 85 per cent of the old-growth forested area in this enormous and remote part of British Columbia from industrial logging, while allowing restricted logging on the balance. That’s over 5.4 million hectares of additional protection, an area nearly the size of Nova Scotia.

For once, I don’t have to go out on a limb to agree with the Greenpeace spokesman who stated: “From conflict to collaboration, we now celebrate the protection of areas of cultural and ecological importance while ensuring economic opportunities for the communities exist long into the future.”

This achievement is especially important because our forestry, energy and mining resources will continue to drive the growth and stability of our economy.

The reality for our province – and for Canada – is that our prosperity is founded on resource development. That’s not to say we should not diversify our economy; we have done so and should continue to do so. But it’s resource development that built our province, and responsible, sustainable resource development will be a cornerstone of our economy for generations to come.

That makes it all the more important to find the right balance between land development and land protection.

That’s why for the past couple of years, I’ve been involved with a group in Vancouver that is sparking an informed conversation about these issues. Resource Works, a non-profit society with representation from all sectors and corners of the province, works to raise awareness of the importance of our resource economy to our standard of living in British Columbia.

Too often in this province, we hear a discourse that presumes we can somehow maintain our quality of life by leaping immediately to some postresource economy. It won’t happen. And it shouldn’t happen. For as long as we continue to drive cars, take buses or ride bicycles; use smartphones, tablets or computers; expect our streets to be safely lit at night; boil water for coffee or tea; expect our homes to be warm in winter; build and live in houses; catch fish; eat fruits and vegetables in winter – in short, for as long as we continue to do everything that is indispensable to our quality of life, we will make demands on the planet. It’s simply not credible to pretend or suggest otherwise.

Somehow, we need to hold two thoughts in our minds at the same time: the need for access to sufficient resources to sustain our quality of life and ensuring that we respect the planet. Neither side holds a monopoly on truth in this debate. There is no point or purpose in trying to out-shriek each other. The task, again, is to find the balance.

But I’m not suggesting it’s easy. I am suggesting it is fundamentally important that we embrace both sides of the question, and find a path forward that can both recall our duty to protect the planet and yet also find a way to continue to sustain ourselves from its amazing bounty.

Count all of the protected areas, wrap your mind around the millions of hectares of British Columbia that have been put outside the reach of resource development – the forests, mountain ranges, rivers, lakes, estuaries and marshlands that have been been protected. It’s been the labour of a generation to reach a point where our record of land protection is second to none. It’s Earth Day. Let’s celebrate that achievement.

And then ask the question: Is that enough?

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

We are travelling in Laos.  Admiring the glorious Buddhist temples of its capital city Vientiane.  In the back of my mind is this nagging question of how Canada should respond to the events in the Middle East, Syria and ISIS in particular.  There’s a call for greater bellicosity.  Commentators and opposition politicians say we need to increase our military engagement.  It’s not quite wanting to make the desert glow, but lots of “why can’t the Prime Minister sound at least a little angry?”

Well, anger may be a great way of letting off steam, but it’s not always the best emotion for rational analysis.  There’s a recurring moment in the movie Bridge of Spies, when the Tom Hanks character asks his Soviet spy client a question intended to provoke a strong emotion, and the spy always replies, “would it do any good?”  That’s a great question, a question which we should especially ask about whether Canada needs to get more engaged - I was going to say ensnared - in the literal and metaphorical minefield that is the Middle East.  Would it do any good?

All wars come about because older men and women decide to kill younger men and women. Their own citizens. Some of those killed are soldiers, and others are innocent civilians. The Leader says to his people, “Please give me your sons and daughters so I may slaughter them on battlefields, and break your hearts when they never return from the faraway place I need to send them.”  The question begs, “Why, O Leader?”  The answer is often an appeal to a higher ideal.  In many countries of course, the answer is sometimes “because our borders are threatened.”  Not so in Canada, not for the past two hundred years.

Sometimes the answer is, “We need to do this to make the world safe from something bad.”  Perhaps it is justifiable to put Canadians in harm’s way if the result of the loss of lives is that some greater evil has been avoided.  As I get older, however, experience teaches me to be increasingly skeptical of that argument.  The world was told Iraq needed to be invaded to make the world safe from weapons of mass destruction.  Except there weren’t any such weapons.  And the result of the invasion of Iraq is that the world is actually less safe. Much less safe. The world was told that Afghanistan needed to be invaded to make the world safe from the harm being caused by its leaders. Well, the world is always being told that about Afghanistan, and whether it is ever true, the fact is that the lost of precious Canadian lives in Afghanistan has had no enduring positive impact on domestic safety and security in that country, and Afghanistan continues to be a source of international instability.  And we are told we need to increase our military engagement in Syria.  We are told this, mostly, by people who are much better at starting wars than finishing them.  Forgive me if, this time more than ever, I am skeptical of the war-mongers. I have grandchildren.

Why am I ranting on like this?  Yesterday we visited the National Museum of Laos.  The plaster is cracked, there's dust in the corners, and some of the exhibits are a bit timeworn, but the story of the country's passage is compelling nonetheless.  It's a story told from the singular perspective of the Democratic People's Republic, with the special tone that one-party states tend to adopt when praising their accomplishments.  I took a (bad) photograph of this map.  Every dot is a bomb drop.

Between 1964 and 1973, as part of a secret operation conducted during the Vietnam War, the US military dropped dropped 260 million cluster bombs – about 2.5 million tons of munitions – on Laos over the course of 580,000 bombing missions.

As our tour guide said a couple of days ago, “Well there were about three million people in Laos then, so you could say the US dropped about a ton of bombs for every man, woman and child of Laos.”

Did it do any good? Did all those bombs make Laos a free country, with liberal democratic institutions, respect for private property rights and the rule of law?

No.  About a year after the bombing stopped, Laos became a communist state.

Some historians argue that the final triumph of the communists in Lao was a direct result of the US bombing campaign.  That is, not only did this massive, relentless campaign of utter destruction singularly fail to achieve its stated purpose, it actually produced the opposite effect.  Laos was bombed (in part) to protect the US war effort in Vietnam.  Well, so how did that turn out?  The US left Vietnam in failure and disgrace, and soon thereafter, North and South Vietnam became one undivided communist state, the very thing that the US intervened to prevent a generation earlier.

All conflicts have their own histories.  But before we put our children in harm’s way, isn’t it right to ask the question whether it will do any good?  The answer is so rarely yes.  It is often said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.  But we do not have to.  It is also said that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results.  I have heard no one begin to offer a coherent explanation of the kind of multi-generational commitment that would be needed to build a measure of security and stability in the Middle East, and frankly, the region’s leaders are themselves quite conflicted on the question whether they would ever want such a thing, given that a certain amount and kind of conflict and instability seems to suit their interests.  

For a generation, in the aftermath of the Second World War, Canada tried to make a reputation for itself as a peace maker, not a war maker.  Many look back on that era as a high point of our contribution to world affairs.  Others think we should just buy more fighter planes.  I say, just this once, let's reach for something higher.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

We want an open government but we're far too critical for it

The Globe and Mail published this today:
Perhaps you are one of those people who wonders why government seemingly goes out of its way to conduct business behind closed doors? If so, read on.

Last week there was a news report about a proposed new physics curriculum for high school students in BC. A draft of the curriculum was circulated for comment. The document very plainly was not a finished product. It was a draft. Government wanted input. As in, help us revise this document so that the final version is the best it can be.

That’s not the input they got from a physicist at Simon Fraser University named Steve Dodge. Rather than try to improve the document he went public. He slammed it. He called it “slapdash”.

Here is a case where government deliberately sought public input on an important policy initiative. And what government gets is not thanks from citizens for the opportunity to offer their thoughts, but a sharp kick in the backside.

If you were in government, how keen would you be about the next opportunity to share a draft document with the public?

Now to be fair, some folks, such as BCTF president Jim Iker, and Grahame Rainery, the president of the BC Science Teachers Association, welcomed the opportunity to comment on this draft curriculum. Someone even pointed out that drafts like these would not normally have been released, but the Education Ministry decided it would be a good idea to routinely post such material to solicit feedback.

I don’t mean to pick on Professor Dodge, and this is not a column about how to improve our high school physics curriculum. It’s a column about how we get the government we deserve. In particular, we say we want open government, but there’s ample reason to doubt we would ever actually know what to do with it. Is open government about looking for fun new ways to embarrass politicians, or is it about giving ourselves as citizens the tools to improve how we are governed?

You won’t get much help from political commentators on this question. On Mondays, pundits shake with indignation when government officials dare to delete emails. On Tuesdays the same pundits fall all over themselves in a rush to embarrass government officials over the contents of those emails.

When I ran for office, Gordon Campbell made a promise to permit free votes on anything that was not (to use the formal term) a matter of confidence. Members of caucus exercised that right from time to time. A government MLA would rise during debate on a government bill, explain why he or she was going to vote against it and then do so. The headline the next day was never, “Premier keeps his promise to permit free votes.” The usual headline was a version of, “BC Liberal caucus hopelessly divided.” In short, the media both demand openness and punish it.

This may come as news to you, but governments are composed of human beings. When the result of daring to conduct a preliminary policy discussion in public is that the initial work is dismissed as slapdash, we shouldn’t be surprised if government takes policy discussions back behind closed doors. Not because politicians have easily-bruised feelings. But because experience too often teaches them that people don’t have much to offer except criticism.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. But we will have to want to change it.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

My thoughts on the federal government's refugee settlement announcement

As published in Wednesday's Globe and Mail:

In these first weeks of the new Liberal government, few issues have captured more attention than Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s election promise to bring 25,000 refugees from Syria by the end of the year.
Was this target ever practically achievable? Should it be re-thought, particularly having regard to the Paris terrorist attacks, and the possibility that a massive influx of new refugees would strain our capacity to ensure that no one who represents a security threat manages to gain safe harbour in Canada?
With Tuesday’s announcement delaying the timetable for completion by two months, it’s now time to mark the difference between two kinds of questions. First there is a question of policy. Should Canada expand its admission of Syrian refugees, and if so, how many and on what timetable? Then there is a question of politics. The Liberals promised 25,000 more Syrian refugees by year-end. They imposed the deadline. They won’t meet it. Will we now congratulate them for having had the wisdom to adjust their commitments to ensure they can be properly implemented, or simply attack their promise-breaking?
Put another way, once elected, is it the promise that matters, or good policy?
I have no doubt about the answer to the question. Governments are elected to make good decisions, and to persuade the citizens of their merits. They should govern according to clear and consistent goals and principles. They should make and keep credible, responsible promises that will advance those goals and principles. They should also change course when the evidence calls for a different approach.
As was famously said by the British economist John Maynard Keynes: “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?” But Mr. Keynes, of course, was never elected to public office, and never required to revisit an election promise, particularly one made in a campaign that concluded only a few weeks earlier.
It is interesting that the federal Liberal policy platform document attached no timetable to the Syrian refugee commitment. The written promise was “to expand Canada’s intake of refugees from Syria by 25,000 through immediate government sponsorship.” This was clearly a call to action. But a doubting public wants to know not just what a government will do, but when. So during the campaign, the promise became 25,000 new refugees by “year-end.”
The number was always ambitious, the timetable doubly so. We all know that sometimes we need specific targets to force us to complete difficult tasks. But this number was set high deliberately, to speak to the deeply held view of many that Canada needs to turn a more actively compassionate face to the world. In the continuing aftermath of the Paris terror attacks, as other countries publicly revisit their refugee policies, questions of national security are now interwoven into the already complex issues involved in large-scale refugee admission and settlement. So again, is it the policy or the promise that matters?
In 2001, I was a cabinet minister in the first term of the B.C. Liberal government. We were elected on a platform with hundreds of commitments, including a list of specific action items for the first 90 days in power. We worked our way through the list. Most promises were kept. Some were not. Still others were broken. What I found was that while we tried to take credit for the fact that we were keeping our promises, virtually no one cared or kept count. What people cared about was the substance of what we were doing, not the fact that we had promised to do it. And people also cared when we did something that was directly the opposite of what we had promised.
Broken promises matter more than kept promises. But in the end, voters want governments to make good decisions. You can test this proposition by asking yet one more question: What is it that voters will remember in four years about Canada’s commitments to Syrian refugees? I suggest the answer is this: We will remember that Canada significantly enhanced its role in responding to an international refugee crisis, and that thousands of refugees from the Syrian civil war were properly settled and have become our neighbours and fellow citizens. Partisans aside, most of us won’t remember whether the number of refugees was 25,000 or a bit more or a bit less, or whether they arrived in December or some other month.
I don’t know as much as I ought to about Canada’s capacity to identify and safely process and settle an influx of 25,000 new refugees from the hell that is war-torn Syria. But I do know this: To make bad decisions simply because they were promised is bad government. The first true political test of this new government may be that they have found the fortitude to do the right thing.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Wednesday night in Victoria

I am sitting in a hotel bar room in Victoria listening to a jazz piano version of O Little Town of Bethlehem.  The syncopation feels like an awkward fit.  It makes me wonder if there is a jazz version of Handel's Messiah? I try to picture folks in the back row of the choir snapping their fingers and scatting Hallelujahs.

There are a couple of girls on the other side of the room discussing their plans to drink their way through the dessert coffee menu while they take selfies in front of the Christmas tree.

November is like that. Hardly content to be itself, with its early dark, blustery cloudscapes and wind-blown leaves scattered on sidewalks, it can't wait to be December.

And to think, only a few weeks ago, it felt like Canada had rediscovered compassion. Now, apparently, many of us want to bomb somebody, somewhere, who knows who and who knows where, back into the Stone Age.  When in doubt, fall back on a failed strategy. It's so much easier than to have the courage to try something different.

For a generation we have fought terrorism as though it is a war that can only be won by pitting our guns and bombs against their guns and bombs.  It's not working. We need a different approach.  But alas, tonight, there are too many voices falling into the trap of over-reacting in exactly the way the terrorists want us to.  By assuming this is some kind of war for civilization instead of the desperate thuggery of a tiny ragtag collection of homicidal maniacs.

By all means, find those who perpetrated the violence in Paris, and punish them according to law.  And mourn not only for those who died in Paris, but also the children bombed by the gunship attack on the hospital in Afghanistan, and those bombed in Beirut, and the passengers on the Russian airplane.  But maybe, instead of just mindlessly ramping up the violence, let's see if there's something we can do to bring it to an end.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Today my heart aches for the people of Paris

I am thinking this morning of Paris.

Late yesterday afternoon, I was in the car listening to radio interviews with people in Paris whose lives had just been touched or irretrievably altered by last night's terrorist attacks, people who were simply doing what we all might do on a Friday night, maybe out with a friend at a concert of their favourite band, eating a meal at a restaurant, or enjoying a soccer match.  There were harrowing stories of escapes and near misses, told from cell phones in darkened cafes and apartments.  The voices - even those of seasoned reporters trying to keep up with the developments - all had an unmistakable note of incredulity.  Everyone was describing what had happened, but the real question they were asking themselves was why.

When I first started travelling, Paris was famous among North American tourists for its boulevards and gardens and cafes and Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower. It was also famous for its rude waiters.  Notoriously arrogant and condescending. Like all French people.  Or so it was said.

That has never been my experience.

The last time we were in Paris, we were on our way to hike in the Basque country, and we stopped first for a few days in Paris to get time zones caught up.  We stayed in a hotel on the Left Bank, near the Pantheon.  A lovely old hotel, with an elevator smaller than a phone booth and a room barely big enough for its bed.  Breakfast was served in the basement, under ancient stone arches.  Fresh croissants, of course. One morning we talked with our table neighbour, a university lecturer. He started a conversation, by asking us where we were from.  We asked him if he was visiting Paris, like us.  Not so, he said.  The night before there had been an open concert, with live music played at nearly every street corner in the city.  It was an annual event.  And every year, our table neighbour explained, there was a loud rock band stationed just underneath his apartment window, only a few streets away from here, and so he had taken to booking a room in our hotel that one night, every year, just to get a good night’s sleep. He laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation.  But really, if you had a couple of kids standing right below your apartment playing full volume head banging grunge rock at midnight, with a crowd gathered around shouting encouragement, you might start to wonder if there was somewhere you could get some sleep.

We were just tourists, but he was happy to share his story with us, and we were happy to listen and laugh along with him.  And Paris became not just a place to see, like a museum object you are allowed to admire but not touch, but a city full of people with real lives.

We walked.  In Paris, we always walk.  Paris is not just a city of streets, but a city that lives in its streets. On our first day, a lovely early summer blue sky day, we walked all the way to the Arc de Triomphe.  I remember sore feet, and a lovely hour in the house and studio of the painter Eugene Delacroix, now a museum.  Not far away, the crowds were milling about in the magnificent Musee D’Orsay, but we had M. Delacroix’s house pretty much to ourselves.

At the Arc de Triomphe there was a small memorial ceremony taking place, with some dignitaries in suits and military and families carrying wreaths.  I don’t remember the occasion, but it was a reminder that in Paris, history is everywhere around you, and some part of the past is always taking place right before your eyes.  We climbed to the top and admired the view, with all of the great landmarks spread out around us.

One evening we decided to head south east from our hotel, away from the major tourist destinations, in search of dinner.  We found a Greek restaurant on a quiet street in a residential neighbourhood.  There was a table for two outside on the sidewalk.  Jammed in between other tables.  We love Greek food, but this was a new experience: Greek food prepared by Parisian chefs, and with a menu that was simply indecipherable.  There was no “souvlaki” anywhere in sight.  I think I may have started fumbling for the dictionary.  The waiter was sure to arrive in a minute.  You know, a Parisian waiter.  He would be impatient with our incomprehension, and we would hang our heads and well, wait a minute.  The couple on one side of us, about our age, perfectly dressed as Parisians always are, took one look at us and instead of shrugging their shoulders at the amusing spectacle of tourists who had plainly found themselves in the wrong place, smiled and said hello and offered to help us understand the menu.  They were both professors at the Sorbonne.  Their English was as good as our French, and that’s always more than enough to get by.  So we started to relax, and I think the bread and wine arrived.  And then at the table on the other side of us a man reached under his table, pulled up a big bag, and then informed us all that he had been picking cherries that afternoon from the tree in his backyard a few streets away and thought we all might like to sample some.  So he passed the bag up and down the line of tables and we all enjoyed fresh picked cherries.

It was World Cup season, and France was making its way, game by game, to the finals.  There was a match that night.  In the shop windows and bars in the streets around us, you could see TV sets and hunched-over faces staring intently at screens.  And as the evening proceeded, whenever there was a big play, a goal or a great save, a roar overwhelmed the neighbourhood.  And we would all laugh and congratulate one another, and the bag of cherries would get passed around again, and we would marvel at the joy which is Paris and life.

It is unbearably sad this morning to think of what has happened in this beautiful city, with its wonderful people, all of whom must surely be asking themselves whether, after two such attacks in less than a year, they have lost something they will never get back.  Parisians are proud that theirs is the capital city of a major world power, and it’s impossible to keep the world at bay these days.  There is more than enough to think about, and learn, and eventually respond to, but for this morning anyway, I think I will simply grieve for Paris, the city of light, and its people.