The Most Interesting Man

Conversations with ConservativesEven before he hired Idaho’s most senior political journalist to run his press operation this week you would have had to say that Idaho Republican Congressman Raul Labrador was the most interesting, unpredictable, and arguably most important political figure in the state.

Putting the former political writer and columnist for the Idaho Statesman on his payroll just adds to Labrador’s fascinating spring and summer. Consider:

He mounted a high profile, but too-little, too-late campaign to become House Majority Leader when Rep. Eric Cantor very unexpectedly lost a primary election in Virginia. That effort might have seemed quixotic, but it also kept the First District Congressman in the middle of the tug of war between the establishment and Tea Party forces in the U.S. House of Representatives. Labrador continues to receive lavish attention from the national media. Among the House’s most conservative Republicans he remains a go-to critic of the president on immigration and House Speaker John Boehner on almost everything. His semi-regular appearances on the Sunday morning talk circuit, especially Meet the Press on NBC, means he gets more national press than the rest of the Idaho delegation combined and, I suspect, as much national political TV time as anyone since Sen. Frank Church investigated the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1970′s.

Labrador endorsed the insurgent gubernatorial candidacy of state Sen. Russ Fulcher who mounted a remarkably strong challenge to incumbent Gov. Butch Otter and then the Congressman presided over the chaotic recent GOP state convention that ended in turmoil, lawsuits and very likely lasting intra-party hard feelings. Still, while navigating the rapids at the center of the Idaho GOP, Labrador seems hard to have missed a beat or stubbed a toe over the last few months.

Little wonder that the most interesting man in Idaho politics again dominated the political news this week with his hiring of Dan Popkey as his press secretary, a move that I suspect surprised nearly everyone who pays attention to such things. Labrador has guaranteed that every move he makes in the near-term will be dissected to determine the level of Popkey influence. It will be great grist for the political gossip mill and will serve to make Popkey’s new boss, well, interesting.

Having made the leap over the line from journalism to politics nearly 30 years ago, I am certain of only one thing: My old friend and occasional adversary, Dan, is in for a thrilling ride. Think about the possible stops: Congressional leadership, a U.S. Senate seat perhaps, the governorship one day. Who knows? Labrador is one of those politicians who is routinely underestimated and yet regularly overachieves and modern politics – think about the guy in the White House – tends to reward a young man in a hurry who has a plan. It helps, as well, not to commit the cardinal sin of politics – being dull. Raul Labrador isn’t.

The other thing the Popkey hire illustrates, sadly, is the continuing and steady demise of real political journalism, and not just in Idaho. Dan’s reporting – along with the excellent work of the Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell – has long been required reading for anyone in the state who cares about politics and public policy. The kind of perspective, experience and knowledge of the political players that a reporter develops over 30 years can’t easily be replaced. Here’s hoping the effort continues to be made, but the trend lines are hardly encouraging.

Popkey likely reached the zenith of his reach as a columnist several years ago when the Statesman featured his work several times a week and often on the front page. His major investigative pieces on the University of Idaho’s mostly botched real estate development in Boise and on Sen. Larry Craig – that work put his newspaper in Pulitzer contention – haven’t for the most part been matched since. Coverage of the Idaho Legislature has declined dramatically, and not just on the part of the Boise media, in the last fifteen years and real critical and insightful coverage of the Idaho delegation in Washington, with the regular exception of opinion pages in Lewiston and Idaho Falls, is virtually non-existent.

Politicians from Barack Obama to Sarah Palin have found they can override the media filter by creating their own content and then by targeting that material to specific audiences. This is the new normal in politics and the media and it increasingly narrows the space for reporters like Popkey and for news organizations in general. Rep. Labrador said in the news release announcing the hiring of his new press secretary that he had “learned that one has to have an exceptional communications strategy to effectively represent Idaho in Congress. I know that Dan will help me better communicate my message to constituents and the media.”

I would fully expect Popkey will do just that, leaving us to reflect on the irony of a politician improving the communication of his own message, while further hastening the demise of old style political reporting.

 

 

The French Way

home1_0Last in a series from Europe…

[Paris] – The chance to spend a few weeks in France this summer provided both the time and the detachment to reflect – on politics, the U.S. relationship with, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, “old Europe,” history, art and, of course, food and the enjoyment of a good lunch or a fine dinner. The richly appointed bistrot Benoit on the Rue Saint Martin in the heart of Paris – the photo is of the main dining room – is one of my favorites.

My conclusion after happily eating and drinking my way across Paris: the French way of dining in a nice restaurant is superior in most ways to the same type of experience in the United States and there are at least six reasons for my belief and they have nothing to do with the quality of the food, which is almost universally great.

1) The noise level in a French restaurant rarely, if ever, leaves your head throbbing. Typically the tables in a French restaurant are very close together, even uncomfortably close by U.S. standards, but the conversation at the adjourning table hardly ever leaves that table. For some time the New York Times has been noting in its restaurant reviews the “noise level” of New York establishments. I cringe when I read one that says “obnoxious” or “deafening.” Admittedly, I’m getting older and don’t tolerate all that background noise as well as I once did, but frankly it’s never a problem in a French restaurant. Among other things, in France you’ll seldom hear the obligatory background music soundtrack that is a feature of many U.S. restaurants. As a consequence the noise level is restrained, civilized and accommodating of a conversation with your meal. No shouting is necessary. I like that.

2) I also like the fact that a French waiter or waitress doesn’t consider a total stranger a long lost friend of the family. You’ll never hear in Paris – “Hi, I’m Phillippe and I’ll be your waiter…” Rather you’re treated as a customer. The approach is friendly, accommodating, professional, but with no hint of phoney intimacy. The table top chit-chat with a waiter, unless you want to engage, is limited to offering a menu, taking a drink and food order and then leaving you alone. I flinch at the U.S. restaurant tradition that now seems to demand that the waitress immediately ask “how is your dinner?” I frequently have to swallow my first bite before I can answer. I increasingly find myself wanting to say: “Give me a couple of minutes to taste everything and I’ll let you know.” The French wait staff will return and ask if everything is to your liking, but they’ll do so only after you’ve had a decent interval to sample and consider. They then disappear and let you eat and talk. I like that.

3) Wine is a big part of a nice dinner for many people these days in the United States and also in France. Two things the French do with wine is superior in my considered opinion to the American approach. I have watched uncomfortably many, many times in a nice U.S. establishment as a waitress removes the foil from a wine bottle and then attempts to cork screw open the bottle while holding the darn thing suspended in mid air. I want to say: “Sit the bottle down on the table and remove the cork like you would at home.” When did it become illegal to sit a wine bottle on the table and use the natural leverage that provides to extract the cork? It’s not illegal in France. A French waiter will also leave you to pour the wine for your table after the first glass. I like that. In the U.S. too many waiters seem to hover and refill your glass after every sip. Maybe the theory is to get you to race through the bottle and order another, but after observing the French method I’m going to start asserting myself and telling U.S. waiters – nicely – to let me pour. That way I control the pace and the waiter can have more time to go ask someone else if “everything is fine” with their meal.

4) It’s my observation that most men eat a meal more quickly than women. In a U.S. restaurant this frequently has the waiter saying to the men, “still working on that?” Actually, no I’m not, but keep your mitts off the plate. It would be more polite, not to mention that it might slow down the generally over-fast pace of male eating, if all the plates stayed on the table until the last – and slowest – eater is finished. That’s the way they do it in France and I like it.

5) In a French restaurant you always – always – need to ask for the bill. The waiter will simply not produce the accounting of financial damages until you are ready to pay. This, too, is a good practice. I choose to believe that the gesture of asking for the bill – L’addition s’il vous plait? – is an acknowledgement by the waiter and the restaurant that you can have all day and half the night if you want to enjoy the meal experience. You’ll be asked whether you want a dessert or a coffee, but even if the answer is “no” you’ll still be in charge of exactly when you want to leave the French restaurant. During a long lunch at another great Paris bistrot we enjoyed watching two elderly gents, good friends obviously, talk and laugh and eat and drink their way through a very long lunch. The waiter never lurked nearby, but was always there when something was needed. The two old guys, slapping each other on the back, eventually left, but not before pausing near the door to bid adieu to their waiter and the guy in the dark suit who is a fixture in many French restaurants. I don’t know what these dark suit fellows really do, but they certainly smile a great deal and generally make you feel welcome and well taken care of. The old guys had a grand time at lunch and they left when they were ready. No one even subtly suggested it was time for them to head for the door. It’s even considered rude to present the bill before you ask for the bill.

6) Finally, there is the tipping, or lack thereof. Generally speaking there is no tipping in France. The cost of service is built into the bill. There is no need for the mental math required in a U.S. restaurant to calculate 15 or 20 percent of the total check and then add it on as a tip. Waiters are paid a salary in France, unlike many in the U.S. who depend on a share of tips to contribute to their total compensation. If you receive particularly good service a modest tip won’t be rejected, but it’s not expected. The expectation is that you’ll get attentive, professional service – and I almost unfailing did – and that the service goes with the meal. Another reason to like the French system.

French politics are messy and about as dysfunctional as our own. The country has deep and profound issues relating to immigration and minorities. Antisemitism remains an ugly feature of the far right in French politics. I doubt whether French worker productivity would compare well with ours. France has it’s problems, as we do. But when it comes to the restaurant experience the French have that down cold.

Hold on there – I’ll pour the wine and, no, you can’t have my plate just yet.

 

Onboard the Orient Express

Tenth in a series from Europe…

OE 1[Paris] – I understand perfectly what Proust meant when he referred to ‘‘the most intoxicating of romance novels, the railway timetable.’’

And what more exotic destination than Istanbul or, better yet, Constantinople. From the 1880′s until the 1970′s you could head for the exotic city that straddles Europe and Asia onboard a train, perhaps the most famous train of all, the Orient Express.

From its earliest days until after World War II the Orient Express was a gleaming luxury train, all cut glass and mahogany. For a few weeks this summer the Orient Express, at least four cars and one of the original locomotives, is back on rails in Paris. Because I love trains and figuring this might be my one chance to actually be onboard the train that sparked a thousand stories I trotted down to the World Arab Institute in Paris one recent rainy day to have a look. It was stunning.

In an age when travel has been reduced to walking around in your socks in an airport security line and jockeying for half the arm rest in a packed Boeing 737, the beautifully restored lounge, sleeper and restaurant cars of the Orient Express offer a envious reminder of what luxury travel once looked like.

A hundred or so curious history and train buffs stood with me in a pouring rain to get a glimpse inside. The exhibit and a fascinating OE 2companion display of Orient Express artifacts and curiosities, including some spectacular travel posters of the era, has proven to be one of the hit shows of the summer in Paris. The gorgeous blue and cream colored rail cars and the shiny black locomotive are displayed in the vast courtyard of the Arab Institute just steps from the Seine in downtown Paris. The exhibit is the brainchild of former French Culture Minister Jack Lang, who now heads the Institut du Monde Arabe, and the French national railway system that owns the name of the fabled train.

As CNN reported in one “compartment identical to the one in scenes from the 1963 Bond film From Russia with Love, the movie is projected onto a screen. With wall panels in precious wood and door handles in gilded brass, each compartment had a matching washbasin and a built-in toiletries cabinet.” To visit the train in Paris is to imagine that it has stopped on a 1930′s journey from London to Istanbul and all the passengers have stepped off to stretch their legs leaving behind newspapers, passports, cigarettes, books and, of course, drinks.

Writing in the most recent issue of Harper’s, Kevin Baker reminds us that once-upon-a-time the 20th Century Limited, a great U.S. passenger train, “rivaled Europe’s Orient Express in extravagance. At five o’clock every evening, porters used to roll a red carpet to the train across the platform of Grand Central Terminal’s Track 34. The women passengers were given bouquets of flowers and bottles of perfume; the men, carnations for their buttonholes. The train had its own barbershop, post office, manicurists and masseuses, secretaries, typists, and stenographers. In 1938, its beautiful blue-gray-and-aluminum-edged cars and its “streamline” locomotives — finned, bullet-nosed, Art Deco masterpieces of fluted steel — took just sixteen hours to reach Chicago, faster than any train running today.

“The 20th Century Limited became a cultural icon,” Baker wrote. “It was a luxury train, but middle-class people rode it, too. In the heyday of American train travel after World War II, they also rode the Broadway Limited, the Super Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles, and the California Zephyr, which were nearly as celebrated and beloved.”

OE 3By 1970 all those great trains and all that travel pleasure had vanished and now, even as high-speed intercity train travel is expanding in most of the world, the United States can’t – or won’t – summon the political will to build a world-class rail passenger system. Heck, I’d settle for restoring Amtrak service between Salt Lake City and Portland.

As I stood in the bar car of the Orient Express recently it was impossible not to think of Agatha Christie’s most popular novel – Murder on the Orient Express – or smile at the memory of James Bond romancing Tatiana Romanova in an Orient Express sleeper car in the film From Russia With Love. It was also impossible not to think of a very dry martini and whether that handsome woman over there wasn’t a Countess.

When the original Orient Express eventually extended its run from Istanbul to Baghdad and ultimately all the way to Egypt, you could make the entire trip in early 20th Century luxury. The restaurant car, the Train Bleu, offered extraordinary food and the railroad featured its own French wine label. The visionary Belgian businessman George Nagelmackers – yes, that was his name – who “invented” the Orient Express came to the United States in the 1870′s to study train travel here. Although rebuffed when he suggested to American railroad sleeping car inventor George Pullman that they jointly develop luxury trains in Europe, Nagelmackers came home and built his own wagon-lits – sleeping cars – and adopted one of Pullman’s innovations, the sleeping car attendant, as one of the features on his trains. The rest, they say, is history and romance and, sadly, only memory now in an exhibit.

I have to be careful how I say it since I haven’t exactly traveled on the Orient Express, but I can say I have been onboard the Orient Express and, like the real journey a hundred years ago, the memories are very pleasant. On second thought, make mine a double.

Georges Nagelmackers

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Georges Nagelmackers

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Georges Nagelmackers

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John V. Evans: 1925 – 2014

JohnEvans-IdahoHistSoc-photo_t210As Idaho’s political history is written it should be kind, and I expect it will be, to John Victor Evans. Evans, who died on Tuesday at 89, ranks third in the state’s history for length of service in the governor’s office and his accomplishments, not always fully appreciated during his tenure or now, were substantial.

Evans, from a pioneering Idaho family, was both blessed by political luck and beguiled by his political circumstances. It was his good fortune, after a career in the state legislature and as mayor of Malad, Idaho, to win the race for Idaho lieutenant governor in 1974. Then incumbent Gov. Cecil D. Andrus drew a particularly inept Republican opponent in that race and realizing that Evans was within striking distance of winning his own race wisely diverted resources from his final campaign television buy to bolster Evans’ campaign.

The strategy worked and that decision, as my old friend and long-time business partner Chris Carlson properly pointed out in his book Medimont Reflections, made it possible for Andrus to accept the offer made by President Jimmy Carter in 1976 to become Secretary of the Interior. Had Andrus been confronted with turning the governor’s office over to a Republican he never would have made the move to Washington, D.C. On the strength of such details political history is written.

Evans thereafter, and often unfairly, suffered in the Andrus political shadow. He took the reigns of state government and provided a steady and often very successful brand of leadership. During the national economic downturn in the late 1970′s and early 1980′s, Evans battled a Republican controlled legislature to prevent deep cuts in education and other critical funding. Three times he worked magic as a Democrat in a state dominated by the GOP to raise taxes enough to prevent the kind of broad scale damage to education that we have seen in more recent difficult economic times. The tax work took both guts and political skill.

In the complicated and acrimonious showdown over water rights on Idaho’s mighty Snake River, Evans helped establish the massive adjudication of thousands of water rights in the Snake River Basin, a vast undertaking that took 30 years and its completion will be celebrated later this summer.

Evans became an early advocate of state-level compacts to help manage nuclear waste and created enough public attention around the U.S. Department of Energy’s dubious practice of injecting Idaho National Laboratory process water into the huge Snake River Aquifer that DOE finally abandoned the practice. I remember the day that DOE finally decided to celebrate the end of the aquifer discharges rather than continue to resist John Evans. A media event was held at INL – I still have the hefty paperweight commemorating the occasion – and a smiling Evans helped seal the injection well.

Evans even had to deal with the aftermath in northern Idaho of the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helen’s in Washington state.

In 1986, John Evans made his last race for public office, a losing effort for the United States Senate in a bitter race against incumbent Steve Symms. Symms finished out his truly lackluster two terms in the Senate and Evans took on his own second act – growing the family business. Today D.L. Evans Bank has become a community banking powerhouse across southern Idaho in no small part because of the same kind of diligence and hard work that John V. brought to his public life.

On a purely personal note, I’ll forever remember John Evans as a truly kind and decent man, which is saying something in our day of too often cynical meanness in our politics. I think it was 1981 when the region’s governors gathered in Boise to help launch the regional energy planning and conservation effort embodied in the Northwest Power Act. As a producer and television host at Idaho Public Television, I hatched the bright idea of trying to pull off a full-blown half hour sit down interview with the governors of Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana. Not only did Evans allow us to turn his office into a make-shift television set for a day, but he personally buttonholed the other governors – Dixie Lee Ray, Bob Straub and Tom Judge – and asked them to participate. It may have been the first and last time such an interview was done and had Evans been any less open or accommodating it simply wouldn’t have happened.

While it is a political fact that Evans reached the governor’s office as an “accidental governor,” it shouldn’t be forgotten that he also won two races of his own to keep the job. He faced a tough re-election in 1982 given the sour economy, a fierce battle over right-to-work legislation, and Idaho’s still unfortunate flirtation with a California-style property tax limitation. Republicans nominated popular Lt. Gov. Phil Batt that year.

The Evans – Batt race may well have turned in the final days of the campaign when an independent expenditure committee produced a comic book-style pamphlet criticizing “Big John” Evans. Evans was portrayed as an inept flunky for organized labor, but the caricature didn’t match the kindly, decent, honest guy who Idahoans had come to trust with the governor’s office. Batt was slow to distance himself from the smear and Evans won with 52% of the vote.

When Evans, somewhat controversially, appointed the outspoken, often caustic former legislator and newspaper editor Perry Swisher to the Idaho Public Utilities Commission in 1979, I sat down with Swisher for an extended interview on the afternoon of the day the governor announced his appointment. Near the end of the interview I asked Swisher for a short sentence to sum up John Evans. With no hesitation, Swisher said of the man who had just appointed him to a very important job, “John Evans is the mayor of Malad who by a quirk of political fate became governor of Idaho.”

A true enough statement, but incomplete. Evans took the small town qualities that make a mayor successful – attention to detail, remembering people’s names and needs, and a focus on practical and common sense solutions – and created ten productive years in the Idaho Statehouse. He should be remembered as one of Idaho’s best governors and, moreover, as a very nice and very decent fellow.

Some Things Just Don’t Translate

Ninth in a series from Europe…

Photo 6[Paris] – In his great travel book – The Innocents Abroad – Mark Twain wrote: “In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.” I know the feeling.

The French are famous, or depending upon your point of view notorious, for their attempts to protect the integrity of the French language. In the 1980′s then-French Minister of Culture Jack Lang made protecting French culture and language from the onslaught of globalized western words a national priority. Regularly the French single out words like walkman, prime time and the new Twitter word hashtag as having no place in the French vocabulary.

Still, the impact of Western culture and its hip-hop vocabulary is seeping in around the edges in France, but you have a sense the French won’t give in to it easily. You also won’t find much debate in France about “French as a second language.” There is one language in France – French. American conservatives and English language purists who insist that the United States would be better off with an “official language” can agree at least on that much with the very proper French.

So, where does that leave an American in Paris? An American whose French pretty much begins and ends with please – merci – and ordering a glass of red wine – vin rouge, s’il vous plait. It has been a pleasant surprise that through careful observation and close listening one can begin to pick up the meaning of many things articulated in the elegant French language. The announcements on the Paris Metro are particularly helpful. Still a non-French speaking American in Paris must depend on the universal language of signs and, of course, skillful translation as he hopes that the necessary can become the routine even when language is a barrier.

The striding Frenchman on the grass with the slash makes it pretty clear – don’t walk on the grass, stupid. These kinds of signs are a type of universal language, but I have also found that not everything translates quite so well or so obviously. Consider this photosign at Paris’ magnificent Musee d’Orsay, home to the world’s single best collection of Impressionist masterpieces.

I love the Monet, the Renoir, the Pizarro and can almost convince myself I understand enough of their brilliance to appreciate what they produced when they changed the art world forever, but I wonder about this sign.

I’m not sure whether if points to a place where you get your laundry done while lying down, or maybe it signals a baby changing station. There are lots of babies here. I’m pretty clear that whatever it is can be found downstairs.

The signs in the great Paris park, the Jardin de Luxembourg, have clearly been designed with unknowing English-speakers in mind. Perfectly legalThere are three large expanses of green grass in one section of the park and with great efficiency the signs are moved frequently to keep the sitters from damaging the grass. Good strategy, good sign.sign 2

This sign at the Church La Madeleine, a church originally built to celebrate the success of Napoleon’s army and, perhaps for that reason, a church that looks more like a Greek temple than a typical Roman or Gothic cathedral, seems to congratulate the English-speaker for understanding the sign. I appreciate the thought.

sushiThe toughest translations may come when an English word is used in a French context. This sushi restaurant – Sushi Nevada – is just down the street and they deliver, but so far I haven’t seen many sushi eaters inside the place. Maybe the branding is all wrong.

I don’t know about you, but when I think sushi I have trouble conjuring up the bleak geography and high desert feel of Nevada. I know the state really should be better know for its vast coastline, fresh seafood processing and as a haven for those who gamble that the fish today is really, really fresh, but we know that is not the image. Maybe the restaurant is attempting to play off the gaming reputation of The Silver State, but then again I’m just not into gambling with my uncooked fish.

Sushi Nevada as a concept may just be yesterday’s California roll, but then again the restaurant does have 104 “likes” on Facebook.

It has been said that when the American President Woodrow Wilson came to Paris in 1919 to negotiate what became the Treaty of Versailles, the French took great exception to the fact that much of the necessary diplomacy was conducted in English, rather than in the then-universal language of foreign affairs – French. The French have been fighting a rear guard action over language ever since.

The British actor and writer Stephen Fry has written that the English language evolved in messy and unpredictable ways with “military, naval, legal, corporate, criminal, jazz, rap and ghetto discourses” mingled at every turn.Yet, he says, the “French language, like Paris, has attempted, through its Academy, to retain its purity, to fight the advancing tides of Franglais and international prefabrication. English, by comparison, is a shameless whore.”

As the French might say: Thank you for your comprehension. Merci beaucoup.

And Happy Independence Day.

 

Some Things Are Better Alone

Washer 1Eighth in a series from Europe…

[Paris] – On a European scale the apparatus of daily life – the kitchen gadgets, the automobiles and, yes, the household appliances – are about two-thirds the size of their American cousins. This smaller scale is completely understandable given the fact that, generally speaking, life is on a considerably smaller scale in Europe.

Paris, for example, is a city of 2.2 million people, but it is a genuinely walkable city. In many cases you can walk from one location to the next, even when they seem some distance removed, more quickly than than you can search for a Metro station or take a taxi. Part of the reason, I’m convinced, the Europeans haven’t had to confront the type of obesity problems with have in the U.S. is that they tend to walk a lot more. Of course, the scale of the place makes walking to work, to shop, to recreate not only possible, but often the best option.

Apartments and homes are on the same smaller scale, and certainly most living arrangements are on a much smaller smaller scale the United States. There are few American style McMansions here and those that do exist more often than not date to the 17th Century and house a museum. So, it naturally follows that the refrigerator, the dish washer, the oven and the washing machine are smaller, too. Ah, yes, the washing machine.

The New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, who lived in Paris at one point, published a sweet little essay in 1996 where, among other things, he sought to explain the ways of French logic. “In Paris,” Gopnik wrote,” explanations come in a predictable sequence, no matter what is being explained. First comes the explanation in terms of the unique, romantic individual, then the explanation in terms of ideological absolutes, and then the explanation in terms of the futility of all explanation.”

Gopnik wrote in his essay about the issues one is likely to encounter when the dryer is on the fritz here, so with apologies to his earlier analysis, I offer my own analysis of the use of the French washing machine. Voila.

First thing to know: with this space-aged looking machine you get two for one, a washer and a dryer in the same little compact package. Imagine the harried French housewife. She must do the shopping, she cares for the children, perhaps she works outside the home. She is busy and a serial multi-tasker just like her U.S. counterpart. She is a unique, indeed romantic individual with her carefully styled hair, her perfect outfit – even at the vegetable market – and her assured sense of command. Such a unique and romantic woman and needs a washing machine and dryer to live up to her expectations.

The idea of a combination washing machine and dryer is, I think, a very French idea. I know you can get these contraptions everywhere anymore, but they dominate the household appliance landscape here. The apartment sizes dictate the combo model to be sure, but the two-machines-in-one idea also nicely passes the French test of working perfectly in theory, if somewhat less perfectly in reality. This is where Gopnik’s explanation of all things becoming an ideological absolute enters our story.

Of course, you may well think that the very different tasks of washing your clothes and drying your clothes might better be done by separate machines designed specifically for those tasks, but in ideological terms you would be wrong. If it can be imagined, it can be done. At least in theory.

Washer 2Having not had the benefit of reading the operating manual for the machine that is housed snuggly in the bathroom of our Paris apartment, I only later discovered that it is recommended that as a prerequisite to flipping switches and tweaking toggles on the machine that the operator successful complete the final exam at the École Polytechnique. To say the controls are complex is to bring us finally to the futility of all French explanations.

Of course, the machine seems to be silently saying, this is a complex, confusing piece of technology. Can you imagine how much work went into designing, engineering and constructing a machine that gets your clothes wet, then clean, then dry and all without removing the clothes once you have pushed the correct button or toggled the right switch? Can you not see that further explanation is useless? Accept the machine for what it is and be happy it works perfectly in theory.

The spinning, the stopping, the whirling and wheezing at least provides assurance to the unskilled operator that enough of the correct switches were bumped to make the thing perform. And, you can go out and have lunch, linger over coffee and still get back in time to catch the last spin cycle. This is the Hundred Years War of washing machines and dryers. I now understand why there seems to be a laundry and dry cleaner on every other corner in Paris.

Readers of this space have probably concluded over the last couple of weeks that I am a partial to France – all of Europe, in fact. I love the history, the culture, the food, the people and the drama. There is a surprise around every corner, a sense of style and individuality, and there are laughs aplenty. I am, however, a committed believer in the American washing machine and the separate American dryer. Somethings were just made to be stand alone. The theory of my French machine is a great one and you can almost imagine it working. Almost.

Hold on, I think that noise signaled the final spin cycle.