Monthly Archives: November 2015

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Thoughts on “Thank You” and Related Natterings

I have a friend named Grace. We have been friends for years, and I always liked her ever since meeting her in, I think, perhaps the 4th or 5th grade. Though her own travels took her as far as Australia—long story—for the past several years Grace has had the rare privilege of living in the town in which we both grew up, New Hope, Pennsylvania. I, meanwhile, have lived in a variety of places, from Burlington, Vermont to Pennsylvania, to Rome, to New Jersey, and finally now Texas.texasflagstate

In Texas, oddly enough, I made another friend named Grazia, which is, of course, merely Italian for Grace. I always liked my Italian friend Grazia and her husband, Max, though I’ve not seen them for several years now since they moved to Houston. Both of their names sound like the Italian for thank you, grazie. Indeed, the Italian word for thank you is simply the plural of Grazia’s name, and therefore means “graces.”

“How funny,” I thought to myself the other day when I was out jogging. When you thank someone in Italian you’re sending them graces. And then I thought of Latin, of course, and it is the same. Welsh, gras, is an obvious cognate, though bendith conveys the idea, too, with an element of blessing. And what about Greek? Eucharisto. “Blessing be to you!” Well, it is the same. In fact, right in the middle of the word is a variation on that same idea again—charis—a blessing that is a gift given freely. And then, as if a Lutheran with his catechism in front of him, I thought, “What does this mean?” It means, of course, you want to bless the person who did you a good turn. You want to bless them freely.

But it means much more than that, much, much more, just as “good-bye” means more. The latter expression means, you may know, “God be with ye.” The PC crowd, who are now seeking to expunge any reference to “Woodrow Wilson” from Princeton, will no doubt go after “good-bye” next; surely good-bye is at least a micro-aggression against proper atheists and possibly even agnostics. Likewise, the word “grace” means much more than merely “grace.” It means blessing in the highest; it means a blessing with no strings attached.

Someone very dear to me this week said, “Words are just words.” Could he really know what he was saying? Does he not realize that words are more often than not much more beautiful, much more powerful than actions. It would be like saying, “art is just art,” or “the sculpture is just stone.” Think about the idea that the David of Michelangelo should be described as “just stone.” No, my friend, never tell a philologist that words are just words, for he will tell you that they actually always mean something. They mean a great deal. Wrought well, they can be the equivalent of Michelangelo’s David. They can bring healing; they can render peace; undergirt by proper actions, they can change the world.

Thank-You-word-cloud-1024x7911But back to “thank you.” In Welsh, it is less comely (Diolch) pronounced with more phlegm than the Flemish Dank or the Dutch dankjuwel or the more widely known German Danke. Eucharisto. Grazie. Gratias ago. I render you graces, a blessing with no strings attached. I give you a free gift, a bunch of them. That is how thankful I am: there are no strings attached to my sentiment toward you. I recognize that your gift came to me with a similar spirit of free gift-giving. Thank you for that. That’s what “thank you” really means. And at the center of it is grace.

Then, as I was jogging, I thought about forgiveness, which is an exercise of that grace, certainly the most difficult exercise of it. Is that something like the “amazing grace” about which one might sing on any given Sunday? It is, rather, a response to it. I thought about it in part because I have a dear friend—actually a couple of friends—who need very much to exercise that grace now toward one another and toward others as well. Sadly, they don’t realize that the rendering of forgiveness would free themselves much more than the person whom they might forgive. No, they seem to think of the exercise of grace as some kind of transaction. At least one of them—perhaps both—feels that someone “owes them” something and he is demanding his due recompense; that he is a fool not to claim that recompense. That his whole life has been one of being taken advantage of, and he’s had enough. What he can’t see, of course, is that the forgiveness he needs to render will actually liberate himself more than the person whom he needs to forgive. (“Forgive us our sins as we …” What does this mean? I leave that aside.)

To find grace, I’ve tried to tell him, one must turn around. This is especially true when one is looking in a mirror and blaming every uncomely feature of oneself on someone else. “My nose—I hate it!—I got that from my mother’s side of the family. My ears—too small!—alas, alack, they’re from my father’s side!” Standing right in front of the mirror means quite often obscuring the other folks in the room, or if you do see them, they’re way behind you and in fact you’re viewing them in reverse. In truth, one rarely realizes that even when looking at oneself in a mirror one only sees oneself backwards. I simply mean this: a right- handed person in a mirror appears to be left-handed. Your hair will be parted quite on the opposite side than you really part it. The words on your t-shirt come out all backwards and funny looking. You can’t trust mirrors, and psychologists tell us that it is unhealthy, or at least a little strange, to spend too much time gazing in a mirror, where one can see oneself, certainly, but the vision that we see is skewed and inaccurate, blocking out those behind us or, even when not, seeing them in a skewed and inaccurate way, as well.

But it’s hard to turn away from the mirror and render grace to those behind you, especially when you can empathize better with the person in that mirror than you can with anyone else. Yes, that may be true, but the person you see in the mirror may not be who you think he is. First of all, as we already said, at the very least, he is backwards from the reality. And so is anyone else you see in the background. Your vision, which seems so accurate to you, is, necessarily, inaccurate, certainly when it comes to yourself. Secondly, the person you see in the looking glass may be not the real thing in a number of other ways. Folks with anorexia, for example, sadly do not see that they are morbidly underweight. Instead, they think they see, studies have shown, a person who is overweight; those who are morbidly obese quite often see something quite the opposite, or fail to recognize the danger that they behold.

But let me get back to grace. If you have a friend named Grace, as I do, be thankful. By virtue of her very name, she will, of course, remind you to be so. She will, too, remind you to be generous, as one needs to render grace freely. Her name will also—and this is most important—remind you to be more than giving; her name reminds you to be forgiving, not simply of those who have wronged you somehow—in ways that may appear in your mirror as MACRO-aggressions but in reality, when you turn away from the mirror, are, at the most, micro-aggressions—but also of yourself, and of everyone. What better time of year than the Christmas season to turn away from the mirror, which can so easily deceive, and to face reality, become thankful, giving, and most of all forgiving?

Well, I leave this all aside to allow this week’s blog to remain short and sweet, and to close with a tasty treat, the classic Welsh cookie—also known as Welsh cakes—that our family has eaten at Christmastime every year without interruption since Lucy Hughes Jones arrived from Wales in 1869. The recipe is that of Blanche Jakes, though she herself got from Elizabeth Ann Evans, her mother, who got it from her mother, Lucy Hughes Jones. Though Welsh cookies do not go so well with hot chocolate or coffee—I’ve tried them, and I don’t recommend—they are delightful with tea, truly amazing. You will give thanks for them if you try them with tea. So I recommend baking them, sharing them with friends. Even Elaine’s father, Harry Jakes, who hated raisins, loved them, though he dutifully removed the raisins, an act that always drove his wife Blanche to distraction.

Next week’s blog will be the first in a series of stories about Christmas. I hope you like them. Though they are technically fictional, like the Curious Autobiography, they are all essentially true; they hark back to a true time, one long past, when terrorism didn’t exist, or if it did, it was unknown to the community described in the stories. Then, even though grief and sorrow were all too familiar, thankfulness was simply an aspect of life, as was grace. And forgiveness was well known, as well. In that community, as you will see if you care to read these stories in their weekly installments—and here’s the spoiler alert—grace, in the end, would prevail. Please enjoy those tales, the Stories of a Christmas Yard, as you sit by your fireplace next to your Christmas tree, with your feet up on the divan,

divine divan
a divine divan

and a cup of good Paned Gymreig tea served with a Welsh cookie or two. In the meantime, I hope you have had a Happy Thanksgiving, which itself is a felicitous rendering of grace. Diolch i chi, darllenydd annwyl, grazie, eucharisto, gratias, Vielen Dank—simply put, thanks for reading and, for now, good-bye!

welsh cookies recipe

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Thanksgiving Day as Memory Day (and a Tender Turkey Recipe)

Thanksgiving Day in America is a time of great joy for some, joy sometimes laced with sorrowful memories. Yet one aspect that I particularly enjoy about Thanksgiving is the opportunity to recall, to reflect not simply on the many blessings of the year but also upon old friendships, family members who have passed away, and even those who are alive and well but who live at a great distance. Seeing Emil and Janet (née Jakes) a few weeks ago in Nanticoke was a blessing; reuniting with an old friend, like my Austrian friend Peter, who is coming to visit this Thanksgiving will be a sweeter treat than the pumpkin pie.

Indeed, seeing a friend after many years is a uniquely wonderful thing. A few days ago I was in Europe, finishing a trip to Paris and Rome. (God bless Paris, in this hour, and all of humanity in a difficult and especially tense moment.) On that occasion just over a week ago now, I went for the first time, at the invitation of a friend, to the university known as La Sapienza, Rome’s most renowned university.

La Sapienta bas relief
La Sapienza bas relief

The name of the university (in Italy held in as high regard as Oxford or Princeton is among Anglophones) means, when translated, “The Wisdom,” and though it enjoys perhaps the most interesting name of all the major institutions of higher learning in the world, it suffers from the starkest architecture and least comely examples of bas relief.[1]

The reason for this is that most of the buildings of La Sapienza were designed by Marcello Piacentini (a name that means “little pleasing” and whose buildings please but litte), one of the principal architects of the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, under whom apparently ugly was then the new beautiful, just as abject was the new free. Yet this blog is not to be about politics or architecture or intended to slander the no doubt well-intentioned educational wing of the fascist regime, or even to be rife with paradoxical statements or oxy-(or any other types of)-morons.

One of the principal buildings of La Sapienza.[2]
Rather, it is about my trip to “The Wisdom,” where I heard the lecture of a certain Professor Conte, whom some regard as the most famous philologist in the world. Now it might sound a little bit funny to say the most famous philologist, for I just promised not to indulge in oxymorons. After all, you might be wondering, can any philologist really be famous? But Professor Conte is famous, at least in certain circles, and the sizable lecture hall (or aula) in which he presented his lecture at La Sapienza was so packed with students and professors that many had to stand or sit on the floor. There the esteemed, recently retired professor from Pisa delivered his lecture on literary “thefts,” or borrowings, as he was seated at a desk atop a raised dais at the front of the aula.

Fuld Hall, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton
Fuld Hall, The Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

The last time I had seen the great professor was about a quarter century ago when I was fortunate enough to visit Princeton University when he was lecturing there as a visiting fellow, as I recall, in Princeton’s famous Institute for Advanced Study. All of this was just before he became the top literature professor at la Scuola Normale in Pisa, which, when translated, is perhaps the second most interestingly named institution of higher learning in Italy, i.e., the “Normal School.”

All those many years before, that same professor and I had enjoyed a dinner together, after which we had stayed up smoking cigars, something I pretended that was not abnormal for me, although of course he knew it was. As he and I smoked—he enjoying the cigars, I merely trying not to choke—we chatted about literature and art, culture and rhetoric, and yes, even the idea of literary “thefts”—that is the way that one author might draw on the work of another—a fresh consideration of which was, all these years later, the subject of his lecture at La Sapienza. Such thefts, he said, are not plagiarism, but imitations that are adapted, reinvigorated, and deployed afresh; they are made new, made one’s own.

Seeing him again was something like returning to a favorite grove, one nearby your childhood haunts, if you should be lucky enough to have had a grove or a memorable childhood; I am fortunate to say that I did (cf. Curious Autobiography, ch. 9). book ad

Yet to return to the metaphor, seeing such a friend is a situation comparable to when one might rediscover one’s favorite tree, the one under which you once sat reading and thinking, and reading some more. That is what it was like for me to have sat before him again as he spoke. I found the shade of that tree, its daunting height, the inspiring reach of its branches sweetly invigorating, joyous, refreshing my memory of years gone by.

We spoke for a few minutes after his presentation. He remembered me (“of course,” he said sincerely) after so many years. It was as if, save the cigars, we were discussing literature again, even his favorite poem, and mine; for we share a single poem, a single author. Moments like this are rare, but they are important, and I spend this blog writing about this one for a very good reason: I would submit to you that they are among the finest moments that we can share. Life is tragically short, and we have but few such opportunities. If Milton is more than poetically correct about his late espoused saint come to him like Alcestis from the grave, rescued from death by Herculean effort, though pale and faint, we may just see our friends again. It will not merely be in The Wisdom’s aula, but in the Hall of true wisdom.

But to say as much is itself a Miltonic theft, of sorts, which is why I do it here, both as a tribute to the professor and as a harbinger of a glorious hope. And, in as much as I am about the business of thievery, let me allude to a painting that deftly suggests such a scene, one by Raphael.

Raphael's School of Athens
Raphael’s School of Athens

Though none in the aula of La Sapienza could have known as much that afternoon as we sat there listening intently to the professor, we were but a few hours away from the Paris bombings. How miserable that the arts and humanities can be so quickly destabilized by terror. How incredibly sad such a grotesque act can render the world asunder. Though the terrorists have sadly claimed the lives of a few, they have nonetheless failed to steal our culture, for they know nothing of the thefts about which we speak here. They shall never lay claim to the liberty of our souls that produces art, literature, and what the French call joie de vivre.

Yet we have much to be thankful for, even in the midst of such tragedy. And that brings me back to the notion of Thanksgiving, much more than “turkey day.” Rather, it seems to me that we might better nickname it “Memory Day,” a day to recall both the material blessings, such as shelter and food—a sample of which might be to your taste, see below—and those who came before, whether a distant quasi-historical memory of some pilgrims and their supposed encounter with Native Americans or someone in our families for whom we are particularly thankful. On Memory Day we might just recall all those who went before us: they made our country, the United States, what it is—a wonderful cultural mélange with a distinctly American moral compass and unparalleled work ethic—and they also made the world a better place.

Certainly, my grandparents did that: they sacrificed not simply for their family, but for the poor. Harry took part in, I recall distinctly, a number of mission trips to Haiti, long before community service became chic. Closer to home, he and Blanche, my grandmother, would often clandestinely provide food and clothing for the poorer families nearby—whether in Larksville, Shavertown, Kingstown, or Nanicoke—dropping the homemade care packages off on their porches. foodforpoorSo, my dear reader, I will, for my part, think on these things as a relish the hope of seeing  old friends again, both those who are founts of learning and thosefamily members, whose time in this world may have passed but whose legacy abides. Both are sources of humane and cultured inspiration. Their inspiration stands; it flies in the face of the cowardly acts of terror of our times. From both that professor and progenitors, I will commit humane “thefts,” as I hope to imitate both by borrowing directly from them in my thoughts and my life. And in that sense, I hope you will join me and be a thief. Sometimes, indeed, it takes a thief.It takes a thief




Roast turkey



[2] In the inscription above the main portal the Latin phrase Studium Vrbis presumably suggests a center point for the study in the city rather than the discipline of Urban Studies or the like. When translated, it literally means “Study of the City” or “The City’s Study.”

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: A Prayer for Paris

… Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy:
when I fall, I shall arise;
when I sit in darkness,
the Lord shall be a light unto me.
—Micah 7:8

This week’s blog was to be about gratefulness and thanksgiving for seeing an old friend in Rome and making a new one in Paris. But that will have to wait. Now Paris has come under attack, and those of us who care, which I hope are most of us, are caught in a swirl of thoughts and emotions about a city that most have never visited.

Nevertheless, I have a feeling that somehow we know Paris, even if we have never had an occasion to be there. Those of us old enough to have grown up after World War II recall pictures, mostly black and white (e.g., in Look magazine), when we were kids, as Paris, like London and other cities that sought to recover from the Second World War, was being rebuilt and restructured. We think of the liberation of Paris in late August of 1944, when the Germans surrendered the city and retreated. liberation of Paris

American in ParisIf we should happen to be a bit younger, we might know Paris through film. Perhaps we’ve watched Singing in the Rain or been to a production of “An American in Paris” (or seen the movie) and can easily recognize Gershwin’s familiar tune. Paris is, and for most of us always has been, a place that represents something much more important than most big cities. It symbolizes and brings together style, frivolity, the power of art, history, romance, and beauty—in essence, all of Europe’s splendor and charm—in a single place. It is the place that by its very nature betokens a free society, where art and literature can flourish, where stamp collectors can wander through vendor booths along the banks of the Seine, where the name of a gothic cathedral can serve as a declaration not only for the most important female figure in Christendom, but also for the city, serving as a maternal figure for its country and perhaps the world: Notre Dame, Our Lady.Notre Dame

I took the picture you see here just a week ago when I was in Paris. I was there to meet a friend of a friend who was to help me with a large project I was working on in French. Maria and I struck up an immediate friendship, one that I hope and imagine will last for some years to come. And that is why I wrote to her immediately when I saw the news about Paris yesterday. My heart went out to her and to all Parisians for their immediate dire circumstance. I am glad to say that Maria was unharmed and is safely out of Paris now. But the fact remains, she could have been killed, and I, perhaps the most recent of her friends, would have been heartbroken; if I, how much more her parents and longer-term friends, teachers, colleagues?

And our heart goes out to all those whom we have not known, too, and it must. For the lives affected there are real lives. Real families are devastated. Even as I write this, in Paris some mother is lying on her bed sobbing (or a father on his knees crying out to God) because her only child was killed in a theater or a restaurant, simply because he or she happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And if we have a child, we can feel with that person, we can sympathize and we pray that our heartfelt sympathy will pneumatically comfort that mother or father across the miles, by some miracle of the wind blowing wherever it pleases. May it please that Wind to bring comfort now to those in need.

Someone might say the decadence of the West has brought this upon itself. And they would be wrong. I am not here saying that the West does not have its fair share of decadence. But no one in that restaurant was especially decadent. They were just people eating dinner. The problem with any argument that blames the victims is that it is patently facile. I can recall in the early 1980s certain Christians, some of them friends of mine, saying that the AIDS epidemic was God’s punishment upon those who engaged in dangerous sexual liaisons. But little hemophiliac children who needed blood transfusions were also dying of AIDS. The only way such an argument could work is to say that God is inaccurate in doling out his punishment; He cares less about collateral damage than might a general in the armed forces. But generals do care very much about collateral damage, and if a human being cares, how much more the Divine.

Rather than blame the West for its excess, I propose that we look for a moment at the human heart and ask ourselves a more relevant question: why do we hate anyone? By “we” I don’t mean we in the general detached sense of “mankind” but in the particular sense of you and me. I mean, in fact, why do I hate anyone. So I will start with me, and I will put the blame on the Paris attacks where it really belongs, on me as a human being, not necessarily me alone.

What is it about me that makes me hate my neighbor? I have spent the last 35 or so years trying very hard not to hate. Anyone who happens to have read the Curious Autobiography knows why. If you’ve read Augustine’s Confessions, you know what happens to Augustine in the eighth book. If you’ve read the Curious Autobiography, you can find in the tenth chapter an account of something similar. With all due respect to Daniel Burke, I believe—rather I know—that there can come a point in some people’s lives where they (decide to?) turn in another direction. Or perhaps they are turned, but I leave that subject aside; I can only say that, after chapter 10, I now want to try not to hate any longer.

Yet I admit that I have not been entirely successful. It is difficult to look in the face of evil on September 11, 2001 or November 13, 2015 or October 26, 2015 (if that is the correct date), or countless other dates these days, when innocents die in any number. We live in a cruel world, becoming crueler by the second. Fewer and fewer folks are going to church, though world religions in general are not shrinking. In the east and now in much of the west, religion is thriving, but it is not Christianity. To quote a recent article, “Muslims … in the second half of this century, will likely surpass Christians as the world’s largest religious group.”[1] While that article attributes the principal reason for Islam’s expected growth to “simple demographics” (i.e., Muslims will have significantly more children than other folks), it seems to me that there may be another reason, one derived from doctrine, that might speak to the growth of that religion: that, in Islam, works count toward salvation. But, though that can explain a lot and even give us, perhaps, some insight into the motivations of the suicide bombers in Paris, I leave that aside.

And I do so because we need to look into our own hearts, not those of others, to come to grips with what has happened in Paris. If we are capable of hating—even retributively—we must realize that others are, as well. We must understand that the blame for what happened in Paris falls on us all. It certainly falls on me. I have indulged in hatred, for whatever reason, many times since chapter 10. I am therefore as much a part of the problem as anyone else, including the terrorist himself.

Yet just because we are all to blame, does not imply that the response to injustice should be tepid. On this earth, people have been establishing justice through due process in the West since well before 458 BC, when AeschylusOresteia dramatizes the beauty of civic justice; in the East, 356 BC, under Duke Xiao of Qin. France’s president, François Hollande, has stated that the response will be severe . President Obama has said that America stands shoulder to shoulder with the French.

I close with this thought, one for myself, but perhaps for us all. I shall not hate the terrorists. Yet that does not imply a lack of resolve. I shall not indulge in execration. Rather, I shall pity them in my thoughts and lavish mercy on them in my prayers. Will that make a difference? Will it make God any “happier” with me? To the former, I hope yes; to the latter, I can only say that I think Milton is right when he says, “God doth not need man’s work or his own gifts.”[2] As for me, I hope to hold mercy in my heart even as I pray for stark justice in this world. That is my hope, my recipe for this week: Seek justice, love mercy.[3]  Bon courage, mes amis à Paris. Be safe, Maria …

Love Paris? click here

Recipe for 13 November 2015: Hope for Paris, and us allwelsh spoon


Ingredients (serves one [at a time]):

One part mercy, one part justice, and a cup water from the well alluded to below. Mix with a Welsh love spoon thoroughly, and live. Failure to blend ingredients will produce less than desirable results. Failure to care about your neighbor at all will produce death; probably has already. As with another recipe, bake at 365 days a year; eat while still warm, and walk humbly.

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

—Micah 6:7-8



[2] “On His Blindness.”

[3] Micah 6:8.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Mars and French Food

north windAnyone who has ever been outside in a severe and bitingly cold wind knows what wind can do to your face, if you have not wrapped yourself with a scarf. It can dry out your face, crack your lips, and shiver every timber of your being. It can, in short, almost take your face away, if you don’t protect it.

Even on Mars, apparently, there have been such winds, no doubt colder and more severe than even the bitterest of such winds on this planet. Solar winds (gusts supercharged by particles from the sun) have recently been determined—thanks to the interestingly acronymed “MAVEN” observatory spacecraft—to have taken away Mars’ atmosphere.[1] These same wind-driven particles would sweep ruinously over our own planet, too—and do touch down here, but only at the poles, creating our spectacular northern lights

Northern Lights
Northern Lights

—if it were not for our robust atmosphere, an atmosphere held in place simply because of our planet’s fiercely abiding magnetic field. In other words, when Mars lost its sense of north and south, its compass as it were, Mars surrendered its atmosphere to the winds. This did not happen all at once, scientists believe; it happened slowly over time until finally the winds dominated the atmosphere that had once protected and have entirely reshaped the landscape.


Even the dust that covers its surface is foreign to Mars. What appears to us to be, and has long been called the red planet, was once not red at all. It was once a fecund place, or at least had the possibility to be so. It might have looked a bit like earth. It might have been able to sustain life, even if not that of Matt Damon, MattDamon Martianat least some kind of life. Yet when Mars lost its atmosphere, it lost its capacity to do so. Oceans, rivers, everything that could have produced agriculture, and culture, were gone.

My great-grandfather died before I was born, as most do. (His story is recorded in the Curious Autobiography [pp. 169–73], where he is correctly portrayed as a chef for Welsh miners.) He brought his cultural identity—French, in his case—as a contribution to his existing family culture, of which at that time was predominantly Welsh. I was thinking about him (and Mars) recently because, even as I write this, I am in France attending a colloquium. (The colloquium is on philology, not the most poultry area of study these days. If you wish to know more about this “p” word, I commend the fine book along with the series based on it: Portuguese Irregular Verbs, by Alexander McCall Smith. Portuguese verbs)

Aside from the obvious, such as being in France, sipping coffee in a delightful cafe or the occasional glass of Bordeaux, and superb French dining (from one dish of which I affix a recipe below, one that I understand from family lore my great-grandfather prepared, though what you will see below is not his recipe precisely, but my own recollection of what I ate just a few days ago), one interesting facet of such a conference is the opportunity for rich dinner-time or happy-hour conversations. Such conversations usually are held in numerous “scholarly” languages: German, English, Italian and, of course, French. (It was lamented by at least one Italian philologist that the Spaniards are so sorely underrepresented.) Nonetheless, in case you’re wondering, Mars was not discussed, so I will not yet tell you why I opened with that semi-scientific ramble. Instead, as is often the case with my European friends and acquaintances, topics that come up rather naturally are food (a tasteful subject, of course), life’s difficulties (particularly fiscal problems and taxes), politics, and sex (though chiefly only insofar as sex relates to political issues such as population growth or how impractical having children is, which of course it is for philologists). The first two of these—that is the incongruous coupling of food with worries about the economy—normally dominate the discussion, though I prefer the last of these topics, because I, in fact, like children. Yet at this philological “colloque” (to use the French appropriately), a rich discussion arose about cultural identity. So again, as I said above, I thought of my French great-grandfather, James Jacques, who bore in his person the family name that would later be spelled Jakes and would itself incongruously represent a culturally Welsh family.

To my new European friends, the problem was clear: the bitter chill of a wind of a new cultural identity has begun sweeping across the continent. This chilling wind was not, in the eyes of the person who was speaking to me with a low voice—low not out of shame or embarassment but out of, it seemed to me, grief or desperation—welcome. When I say “in the eyes of” this well-educated, middle-aged Italian professoressa (as such female educators are there known), I speak not of her opinion, but of the clear sense of sadness that I could see in those eyes.

“Italy’s borders are porous,” she said, “there is sea everywhere . . . Tanti musselmani vengono. So many Muslims keep coming in. Have you been to Genova?” She asked me. I nodded. “The culture there—the Italian culture is overrun. It is the same in France. Have you been to Marseilles lately?” she added. “We in Italy are losing our cultural identity. We are losing our food, our country, our heritage.”

Impolitically I added, “Some of that you sadly gave up when churches became mere museum pieces and when you gave your lire up for the Euro.”Lire billEuro

“It’s terrible,” another added despondently, “the loss of the lire, I mean.”

As the conversation ran its course, it became clearer and clearer to me that the professoressa (or any of the Italians present) was not “islamophobic.” She was not a hater of anything new or different. They all had high regard for religion and the shared moral code—what C.S. Lewis calls the “Tao,”[2]—that religions can offer. She was merely stating, as gently as she could, the difference from the old days and the way cultural acceptance is nowadays mandated in a politically correct world. She was affirming but lamenting the obvious: now, instead of the immigrant trying, but ultimately failing, to hold on perfectly to his heritage, he expects society (and society tells him to expect) to accommodate his every wish. He expects full inclusiveness, so that if an author were to be foolish enough to write “he” instead of “he or she” or “he/she” or, now I have also read, “zhe” (for which many a German is secretly rejoicing), or viley to use “they” as if it were the singular pronoun, they would no doubt be pilloried, mocked, or at least corrected.

Yet as I am not politically correct (though I do try to be polite), I not only did not rebuke her, but agreed that the immigrant needs to adapt to the culture, not the other way round. “But we are losing our culture, and I am not sure what can be done about it,” she said raising her voice the way one might at the end of a sentence with a question.

At this point I want to be clear: this fine person was not saying that Italy and Europe should not have a heart for the poor and disenfranchised. Rather, she was saying that in her view solar-charged winds are blowing, winds capable of wiping out a culture. And she is right. “When I was in Paris,” one of the other interlocutors said, “I heard the subway announcements in French and Arabic.”

And then I thought again about Mars, and my great-grandfather. Mars was overrun by winds that destroyed its atmosphere. That happened because it lost its magnetic field. It lost its sense of north and south.

“Europe has lost its moral compass,” another added. “I remember when my grandparents would eat their dinner—even in a restaurant like this one, they would cross themselves and say a blessing—every time! Now, well, nothing, just ‘Buon appetito!’”

And then I thought, yet again, of Mars. It lost its atmosphere because it lost, as it were, its compass. That compass, for Europe had long been not some new, insufficient and intolerant form of impolitical political correctness. It has been, rather, for lack of a better word, the Church. “Now no one crosses himself,” she added, a few seconds later, despondently.

So I close this blog not with an answer, not the answer Elaine Jakes at the close of her autobiography espouses I once gave to a dour presbyter in Wales (Curious Autobiography, p. 253) but with a question. Has America lost its moral compass? Are we more concerned about accommodating others, so worried about ensuring the privileges of a few that we actually harm and debunk the rights of all? My French great-grandfather cooked in the French manner, but what he offered was a contribution to a preexisting society; he did not make demands of it. Even the predominant ethnic group learned the language of Pennsylvania, English. I have learned to speak Texan (as best I can). I would not expect Texans to adopt my predominently Phillyesque accent. Or cook me cheessteak at a barbecue. But I ask again, are we so worried about the privileges of a few that we could actually harm the rights of everyone? If we bow to the demands of a politically correct world, could we soon wind up in the position that Europe now finds itself?

You ponder that one. I will return to my delightful French food. I recommend the potato dish, below. I just had it in Claremont-Ferrond, a city so nice they named it twice.

Tartiflette[1] CNN news (11/5/2015).

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, passim.