The Vignerons of Bordeaux

I have little time to write this sitting here in a local library while mes amis drink beer impatiently in a local bar (I assume they have found one). Bordeaux is a remarkable place, famed for its wines and its great natural beauty. I’ll have more to say on that later. But there’s something interesting I’ve found in our travels here that I first read about in a book called Voltaire’s Bastards by John Ralston Saul as we flew to Paris.

I forgot to take the book with me when we left today, so I will have to paraphrase the part from memory:

Vignerons in Burgundy live close to an ideal life. They must be talented chemists, good businessmen, effective salesmen, accountants and farmers. Their work takes them indoors and out. Their small plots of land – about 30 hectares, or 60 acres – are enough to make them millions. Some years will be good and others disastrous, but the stock of aging wine in their cellars provides financial stability. But year after year, their children leave home and forgo the vineyard life in favour of becoming teachers, civil servants and corporate employees, even for the promise of less money. To be an employee is desired. To work for yourself is looked down upon.

Burgundy is one of the other famous wine-producing regions of France. As we have travelled to various chateaus to taste the local wines, I have talked to our hosts about what their children do or plan to do.

A couple nights ago, at the closest vineyard to where we are staying, we enjoyed a few hours in an ancient farmhouse. The distinctive look of the houses here, with their white walls and orange roof tiles, comes mostly from the stone they use to build here, which ranges from pure white to light tan. The room had a large open fireplace for warmth. Light came from a single bulb clumsily wired into an old oil lamp which hung from the ceiling. Our host’s purple-stained hands cut cheese for us as we tried the wines and talked to him and his wife.

They have two sons. One works for Airbus, engineering aviation instrumentation. The other son still lives at home. We met him, a quiet young man maybe 15 or 16 years old. His dream is to move to New York. Who knows whether this dream will come true, or if at some point he will realize that happiness might lie here in the vineyard of his parents.

French agriculture is a sore spot in France’s international relations. French farmers are heavily subsidized. I don’t know if these subsidies extend to wine-makers, whose product is in heavy demand across the world, although I did hear they pay no tax. But just like in Canada, France is being pressured to remove their subsidies and compete on a level playing field with other countries, including developing countries with significantly lower standards of living.

This means certain developed countries may end up relying on other countries for their food supply, because they cannot produce food as cheaply as these other countries. If food were bags of marbles or sports socks, this might not be a problem. But the idea of handing your food production – which all will agree is an extremely important part of life – to other countries seems dangerous.

The same goes for other industries such as steel. China can produce steel more cheaply than Canada. We are told this is a good thing and that our steel industries ought to be able to compete head-on, in spite of the fact we are fully aware Chinese workers do not have the same protections that ours do. But what happens if at some point we no longer have friendly relations with China? Or something happens to their steel industry? If Germany was the cheapest place to make steel in the 1930s, and the US allowed their steel industries to close as a result, what would Americans have made tanks and aircraft with in 1942?

Some industries are too important to give up. And some lifestyles are too rewarding for us to allow them to slip away. Those who produce our food, whether it is essential staples or fine wines, ought to know how appreciated they are. Working with soil is an honourable and rewarding profession. It doesn’t mean forgoing the pleasures of access to high technology and the latest trends either, as our hosts’ three computers, MP3 players and digital cameras showed.

There is more to life than moving to the big urban centers like Toronto, Rotterdam or Paris. The traditional way of life has as much or more a chance of providing happiness. Unfortunately, difficult financial situations because of agricultural policies that make no sense combined with the siren call of the elusive big money urban lifestyle means that fewer and fewer young people see things that way. We might want to consider what we could do to change that.


The First Four Days

We are travelling north to Amsterdam from Paris. It’s still dark outside at 7 am, which makes it hard to tell when we’re underground and when we aren’t. The train glides at 250 km/hr comfortably enough for mon cherie to shut her eyes briefly, until we’re interrupted by the mustachioed man who check our tickets. Occasionally another train travelling in the opposite direction whips by, a flash of gleaming windows that disappears in less than a quarter second.

It’s been four intoxicated, caffeine-fuelled, jet-lagged days since we arrived in Paris on an early Saturday morning. The drive in from the airport reminded me of home. The highway looks like the Gardiner Expressway coming into Toronto off the QEW. Amid the illuminated billboards and concrete overpasses the only clues that we are in Europe, besides the unshaven Corsican cab driver who continually snorts back great gulps of snot in between exclaiming the virtues of this “number one city”, are the circular speed limit signs: 110 km/hr. That, and the fact that Parisians appear to obey.

The first real sign that we’re here is as distinctive as it is hard to describe, when you first see it in real life: the Eiffel Tower. The Eiffel Tower – le Tour d’Eiffel as its called here – looks different at different times. It’s changing moods reflect the diverse nature of this city, its inhabitants and their history.

In the early morning it is cool, calm and reserved, like the self-possessed Parisian who ignores my excusez-moi‘s as we struggle to find our way in this maze of a city. I’ve learned two things about navigation here. The first is that maps are useless, because even if you do manage to find where you are on a map after emerging like a sun-blinded gopher out of the subway, it’s impossible to determine direction and the street intersections and signage are impossibly confusing. The second is that Parisians have no clue where anything is either – or they simply don’t care to tell – so asking them is pointless too.

During the day, the view of the Eiffel Tower makes it no surprise that Parisians were first widely opposed to it when it was completed as the entrance arch for the Exposition Universelle in 1889: it’s enormous bulk is monolithic, imposing, impressive in an intimidating, gothic way. To me it looked like an armoured fist covered in spikes jutting into the sky, a defiant exclamation of French pre-eminence. Built to celebrate the French revolution when democracy triumphed over the monarchy, it’s jagged strength evokes imperialism as much as it does pride in the triumph of the people.

This conflict of human nature is everywhere in the architecture of Paris. In the shadow of the Eiffel’s iron fist, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of Parisians lounge, smoke and play with their children in the park of the Champs de Mars, a long green park unlike any public space I have seen in Canada. People congregate here, their children running free – one little fellow pissed by the side of the path, his pants around his ankles as people walked by – and no one seems to be in a hurry. The gray concrete expanse of dowtown Toronto with its street meat vendors, sidewalks covered in chewing gum, and the bulbous Skydome is a very poor comparison.

The architecture here is truly incredible and impossible to describe, so I won’t. Seeing these buildings, many of which are related to government, makes me wonder to what extent the buildings themselves have shaped French history. Anyone who governs here must be filled with a sense of almost righteous certainty just from showing up at work. With such grandeur everywhere, it must be difficult to imagine policies that aren’t grandiose.

At night the Eiffel shines, by turns a shining golden beacon, then sparkling and flashing with white strobelights. Because a company installed a new light display a couple of years ago that they own the intellectual property rights to, its against French copyright law to publish photos of it taken at night. I promise to break this absurd law as soon as I am able.

If this were a travel guide instead of an account of actual experiences, now would be the time to eloquently describe the Paris nightlife, which legendarily sparkles as bright as the midnight Eiffel. Instead, as I found out the hard way, the City of Light might always be shining, but on late Sunday nights in October, its dead as a burned out flourescent tube.

We’d been drinking at our friends and gracious hosts Liz and Mark’s apartment for a few hours Sunday night, but whether I was holding back or had just gotten too used to it at that point, I didn’t feel particularly drunk. I had earlier announced my intention to take some photographs of the Eiffel at night and I was determined to do so. In the back of my mind I also imagined finding a happening bar, having a few pints, meeting some Parisians and having a wild-and-crazy time with my newfound friends.

Instead, after wandering a ridiculous distance down brightly-lit but utterly deserted streets, getting terrible directions from an enthusiastically drunk middle-aged couple (some Parisians are friendly), negotiating with a disgruntled gas station attendant for overpriced beer and getting more (possibly intentionally) bad directions, I found myself in a small brasserie eating stale popcorn, sipping a pint of 1664 (try saying that in French) and talking to a guy named Claude.

More accurately, I was listening to a guy named Claude. Desperate for human contact, I had tried to strike up a conversation with the visibly intoxicated bearded older gentleman at the bar. He spoke no English. Worse, he was convinced I understood French, because in the beginning of our “conversation” I had picked up on a couple words and responded somewhat appropriately.

That was enough for Claude, who proceeded to jabber at me for the next 15 minutes, as I went from sipping my beer to gulping it. I left after vigorous handshaking and heartfelt au revoir‘s and bon soir‘s from poor Claude, who I had deduced was lonely because his wife had left him, or he had never married, or he wanted kids but couldn’t have them, or his kids were over his head, a gesture he kept making. He was over my head too.

Now Paris is behind us. We’re pulling into Brussels, with Amsterdam ahead of us. “Casie looks really good”, she writes in my notebook. She’s right, as she is about so many other things. Thank you for that, Casie.


Au Revoir

We are travelling to France tomorrow, to stay with friends in Paris for a few days. Then we’re off to Holland’s countryside to see some relatives, then to Amsterdam for two days to see how the Dutch do it. For the second week, we travel to Bordeaux in the south of France, where we will be staying in a cottage (a gite). Assuming that we decide to return to Canada, we’ll be back October 29.

I will be writing when I can. I’m looking forward to learning the European perspective on things in general and Canada in particular. I’ll keep you updated!


The Saga of Mr. Abdul Jabbar

It’s your call whether or not the saga of Mr. Abdul Jabbar continues or not. The unfortunate fraudster has a remarkably tin ear for humour, perhaps because of the language barrier, and shows no sign that he is catching on. So it’s up to you. Do I continue this indelicate minuet, or drop him like a greased goat?


Should Churches Be Tax-Exempt?

Toronto Star columnist Slinger makes the point yesterday that if the Catholic Church wants to play “hardball” with Paul Martin and deny him communion because of the legalization of gay marriage, Paul Martin could press for taxation on the Church.

This vengeful approach seems highly unlikely. But it does bring up a good point. If churches act like special-interest groups, why do they enjoy tax-free status?

Angry in the Great White North, the blog I love to hate these days, argues that taking away the tax-exempt status of churches will put them into lobbyist overdrive:

But in general, the Church leaves well enough alone. And she can do so because she is not taxed.

Imagine if she were subject to taxes. Suddenly the Church would no longer be concerned only with the most serious examples of the State failing to fulfill its role. Now the Church would become involved in matters of finance, in budget decisions, in the minutiae of how the GST was calculated on the gasoline excise tax — anything and everything.

People like Slinger think the Church is butting in now?! Take away the tax exempt status, and bishops will be a common site in the halls of Parliament Hill. Like any other constituency having its money taken by the taxman, the Church would move quickly and forcefully to protect her interests.

Of course, I had to respond:

I don’t want to be petty, but there’s something irritating about referring to religions as “she” or “her”. The Catholic Church is not a woman even though you may be in love with it. Just had to get that early morning irritability off my chest. ;)

This discussion over religious taxation reminds me of a trip I took to Detroit’s worst areas a few years ago, with some American friends. I noticed that there was an enormous number of churches that looked like little more than houses with some kind of religious symbolism tacked on. On some streets it seemed like every third or fourth house was a “church”.

I asked them why that was, and they told me that churches paid no property taxes. So it was a good tax avoidance strategy to start a “church” in your home.

Anyway, we all know that religions, including Catholics, like to meddle in the affairs of state. The fact they concentrate on certain issues more than others – abortion instead of traffic regulations, for example – has less to do with their tax-exempt status, and more to do with the issues that are important to them. They are like any other special interest group. The American NRA concentrates on guns, MADD concentrates on drunk driving, the Church concentrates on men who have sex.

In spite of this, we all know that the special status afforded to religions, including their remarkable tax breaks, isn’t likely to go away any time soon. Although why I, as a non-religious person, should have to bear higher taxes because of that strikes me as an unfair, and indeed, most un-conservative notion.

Equal treatment by the law. Sounds good to me!

Life, politics, code and current events from a Canadian perspective.

Adrian Duyzer
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