02 May 2007

From there to here

This is a post I wrote at the end of March
but for some reason didn't publish then.

One afternoon a few weeks ago I watched a Gene Wilder movie made in 1984. It was a remake of a French movie I had seen much earlier called Un éléphant ça trompe énormément (1976), which was released in the U.S. with the strange franglais title Pardon Mon Affaire.

All in all, Wilder's American version of the film wasn't the funniest or most insightful movie I've ever seen, but the film (called "The Woman in Red") was set in San Francisco. It was fun to see views of and locations in the city we lived in for nearly 20 years. I haven't been back there since April 2003. I can't say I really miss it very much — except maybe I do, quelque part; I am writing about it, after all.

San Francisco, March 2003, from Twin Peaks

When the movie ended, Walt put some CDs on to play. I was in the kitchen making a pineapple-coconut upside-down cake, but I was listening. The first music I heard was Laurent Voulzy, a French singer we are going to see in Tours tonight. He's one of our favorites, and the only time I have ever seen him in concert was in Paris in ... 1978. We were both a lot younger back then!

The second CD Walt put in was Jackson Browne's Solo Acoustic CD from 2005, which our friend Sue gave us last year. Listening to Browne's lyrics and his patter recalled vivid memories and brought back intense feelings about the U.S. It made me realize again how glad I am to be living in France now, let me say.

One funny thing Browne said to the people in his audience, in Palm Desert, California, was that he wanted to congratulate them for their town's selection in some poll as "the best place in the world to live." Then he added: "But don't you get a little freaked out when you look around and realize that this is as good as it gets?" He has a point there, don't you think? Maybe you haven't been to Palm Desert...

La Renaudière, March 2004. I like the contrast
represented by these photos, taken one year apart.

Here are the lyrics that affected me the most, reminding me of all the hours that I spent behind the wheel of my car sitting in traffic on the California freeways and which, added to the workday, kept me away from the house about 12 hours a day for years. It's Browne's song called The Pretender, from 1976 — the same year as the French movie I mentioned above.
I'm going to rent myself a house
In the shade of the freeway.
I'm going to pack my lunch in the morning
And go to work each day.
And when the evening rolls around,
I'll go on home and lay my body down.
And when the morning light comes streaming in,
I'll get up and do it again.
Say it again.
The difference for me was that often the light wasn't yet "streaming in" when I left for work in the morning. I would often be on the road in the dark on winter mornings, and again out there in the dark and rain on winter evenings. Those were the hardest times, because it was day after day after day.

I was really traumatized, and I was pretty unhappy in California, when I think back on it. That's not to say everything was negative. I worked with a lot of great people over all those years in Silicon Valley, and for many years I found the work challenging and rewarding. The commuting, however, was mostly just fatiguing and frustrating, and sometimes it was downright hair-raising.

In my memories, it was either 80 or 90 miles an hour in heavy traffic, surrounded by drivers who had to be as sleepy or exhausted as I was, and where the slightest moment of inattention might be fatal. Or it was 10 to 20 miles an hour in stop-and-go traffic that you felt might never again speed up. Either way, it was hellish, and there was always some doubt in my mind that I would ever actually make it to my destination. I certainly didn't know at what hour I might arrive.

Having to "get up and do it again" morning after morning really wore me down, and made me realize I was not only wasting many hours and much energy but actually endangering my very existence. It's hard now to imagine the stress of all that, and the effect it had on my mental and physical well-being. Modern life, eh? What have we done to ourselves? What is this civilization we have created? To think that little more than a century ago, cars and airplanes didn't even exist. Are we speeding toward oblivion?

San Francisco, March 2003. I have to admit
that SF is really a beautiful place.

The other morning on the radio I heard this statistic: the average French worker spends 34 minutes getting to work in the morning and 34 minutes getting back home again at night. And the average French worker lives farther and farther from her or his place of employment. A great majority of working people in France now live in one town but work in another and therefore have a significant commute.

Touraine vineyards in the Cher River Valley, March 2004.
The view from just a few hundred yards out behind the house.

A 30- or 35-minute commute is easy for some. That's nothing, you might say. But that's just the average. The worst part of commuting is leaving the house in the morning, or the office in the evening, and not knowing how long you are going to be in transit, or on the road. And doing it morning after morning, evening after evening, in all kinds of weather.

In the morning, if you have a specific time when you have to be at work, you have to leave very early to make sure you've allowed enough time to get there. And in the evening, you just want to get home as fast as possible, and every time the brake lights come on in front of you, you find yourself cursing them. I was commuting more than 50 miles each way at one point in my career.

For me, those days are over. The sun is out at La Renaudière, and I don't have to start the car most days. There is a vegetable garden to be planted out back this month. The grass will need mowing again soon, since it rained a little yesterday. The birds chirp loudly, especially early in the morning, and I can just stand in the kitchen window and enjoy their singing.

And tomorrow we will go get Callie from the kennel and bring her home. That will be a big adventure.


  1. What a positive life-change you and Walt made! The New Yorker recently had an article about ever-increasing American commutes, and I know several people who commute more than an hour and a half a day EACH WAY (like Bill of Exurbitude).

    Good luck with Callie - saw her photo on Walt's site. She's GORGEOUS!

  2. Anybody who has ever commuted can relate. Ask me how much I love living now with the car parked underground for weeks at a time... heaven.


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