Pardon our progress

Excuse me, ma’am, where would one find the center of town? Is it that this is the center of town?

Well, you could say it was this, the woman said. She was selling tomatoes and other produce. She smiled ruefully. The church and the historic district are down there, across the road, she added.

One had suspected this might be the case, but one’s husband had been saying, ask, ask, and so one did.

She had nothing to apologize for. There was an oval plaza, shaded by trees, with a fountain, banks, pharmacy, bread shop, tabac. We were at the tail end of our trip, when we were winding down, only buying travel food and a newspaper.

Our man’s balcony

In the historic district, we ventured down a short passage into a courtyard. A man, English, called down to us from his ancient stone balcony and told us about his renovation, how the whole side of the cloister had to be reinforced.

Were we looking? A friend of his had a fixer upper for 100 grand, four doors down. It was tempting in a very abstract way. We saw that it would need quite a lot of work. There were a lot of for sale signs. A LOT. The entire ville was a vendre. It was hard enough to keep track of simple work being done on the house we live in now, five minutes away from where we had been living. Imagine doing this time zones away in another language.

The narrow cobbled streets ran between mansions with massive wooden carved doors, the broad plate glass window of hair salon was fitted into the ground floor of one. A toddler ran around while his mother watched from the doorway of what looked like a kitchen.

We carried on up the street and saw another courtyard. Inside the ground floor flat some construction work was being done. There were signs insisting on hard hats and yet the door to the work site had been left open and there was no one around. Whitewashed walls were drying  around an enormous stone fireplace and behind it was another room, walls also drying. But look at the ceiling and the beams. Let’s leave the old paintwork as it is. The entire ceiling is filled with heraldic motifs. Talk about original features and old world charm… Even if it turned out to be a bit of 19th century affectation. In NYC this might mean that you had a picture molding or a broom closet that was formerly a dumbwaiter.

What, we had wondered throughout the trip, would America be like in another 500 or a thousand years? The French have been working at this a long time, improving what they had and passing along the knowledge. Would our wine be this good? The produce? The bread? The cheese? And in America, that’s not even the point. We are after something different. A future that sees improvement in a wholly different way, improvement of that which we have only begun to imagine. Improvements which beget technology which enable faster, easier, cheaper, the elusive “better.”

Yet our technology is unevenly applied. One airline has a very sophisticated baggage app that can tell you exactly where your bag is at every stage of the trip, even if it has been put on the wrong flight, whereas when I signed my children over to another airline as unaccompanied minors, they were using carbon paper (“press hard, this needs to make six copies!”) that airline personnel could initial at key points in the journey. We are a demanding people. I want the app tracker thing installed in the plastic drinks wristlet they snap onto the girls’ wrists. The younger daughter’s friend has made such a bracelet for herself out of a bookstore giftcard because the card was already chipped with her home address and mother’s cell phone.

We are innovative.

We will continue to chemically modify and “enhance” the things we consume, so that we can have zero-calorie sweetness that is 600 times as sweet as sugar, or indestructible tomatoes or herbicidal wheat, unless we are forced by disasters to live in an entirely different way. Once you have tasted the fruit of progress, even if it tastes vaguely of bleach, there is no going back.

One night we drove across the vineyards and up a road towards a great stone house. On the approach the windows were either bricked in or shuttered and it showed no sign that it was inhabited, but we knew that it was, being both a B & B and an active winery.

As soon as we made the turn, the building came to life: cars were parked under carefully sculpted trees, dogs loped around, and a wine tasting was in full swing. Smells of rosemary, apple and pastry wafted out of the kitchen. One of the wines on offer was from a domaine that has been run by the same family and has existed since the 1500s. “Starting when I was 8, my father would take me to the cave to taste, to start learning,” said the winemaker, when we are seated at the table for dinner. She pours a taste of rosé for my daughter.

Shortly after we return to the US, I have a dream where I am involved in inventing a new snack for the car. It is a series of salads that come in little pouches. They have appealingly designed packages that are white foil with the names of the lettuces printed in bold graphics. Somehow the leaves have been infused with the dressings and flavorings thus leaving the surfaces dry so that your hands don’t become oily.

In 500 years, will the wrappers of my miracle, handsfree salad, be caught in the dried vines of the old arbor? Will my 8-year-old descendants be brought into the food lab to taste flavors of memory, something that reminds you of a place that once was, of barefoot summers, like the puff of a synthetic dandelion dancing through the biodome.

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