16.1.17

Fake news and Facebook's True Problem


Much has been made about the emergence of fake news in 2016 and its effect on the election. There’s also been much tsk-tsking of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook for not doing an adequate job of alerting readers to what is real and what is fake. But the discussion seems to be missing the point, which is that the problem with Facebook goes much deeper than what gets shared on it.


A wall in Thessaloniki's Ano Poli

Fake news is not new. And it is not the problem. Propaganda, libel, and lies have been around forever, and certainly has affected history in more serious ways before – the Protocols of the Elders of Zion reverberated in this election still. More recently, each of us has an uncle or (alas) a parent who has been taken in by an email chain with the subject ‘Fwd: Fwd: Re: Fwd: You have got to SEE THIS’ that suggests Obama is an American-hating Muslim who won’t place a flag pin on his chest or his hand over his heart during the pledge of the allegiance. It’s always been there.

Fake news is not good, but it is a symptom of more troubling problems on Facebook and elsewhere. For example, our failure to think critically and distinguish competing viewpoints.

This summer I had a discussion with my father, a Russian-Jewish émigré who left the Soviet Union 35 years ago to enter the states, and is now an American. We got on the point about staying informed in the news or otherwise. He puts on the nightly news, and he gets those email chains, and who knows where else he pulls info from online.

‘It’s all crrrap!’ he said. Which, fine, if you grew up in the Soviet Union and were independent-minded enough to discern that communism is crrrap, you’re probably going to emerge with damaged critical thinking skills – everything is to be disbelieved, and so everything is crap, except for what you already believe and know. I can sort of give him a pass.

Americans don’t have the same inherent excuse, and our collective inability to assess what we receive from the media and discern what is true from what is false is troubling. So is the failure to accept subjective or supposedly subjective viewpoints from different sides as a way of cobbling together a fuller, more objective understanding of a given issue. The source of this inability goes beyond the scope of this article, except to say that Facebook doing our critical thinking for us misses the point.

The point is one that is much trickier for Facebook to solve, because it runs against their very purpose of existence, but here goes: the problem is that we’re all on Facebook too much, and we shouldn’t be. The reliance on Facebook and other social media networks for our consumption of the internet and the world is bad for us, and the fake news ‘epidemic’ is just a symptom of it.

I’ve held that view for a long time, in a crotchety old man sort of way, so this may be self-serving. In light of the recent election, though, and in light of the mania about fake news, it’s important to revisit this. There are a number of reasons that Facebook is bad for our civic health, and there are things we can do to change it*.

*(I’m using Facebook as a shorthand for modern internet consumption, including social media networks like Facebook and Twitter, as well as shallow searches via Google to discover everything, while always staying plugged in via our phone and other devices. The aim is not to be all encompassing – I don’t know how this applies to Instagram or Snapchat, for example, though I expect it remains valid. And ‘we’ is primarily about the U.S. and the West more broadly, as witnessed in my 8 years living in Europe and Israel as well as still being in the American internet milieu.)

The most obvious reason is that Facebook monopolizes our attention. We spend a lot of time on here and without much consequence – making and reading surface-level jokes and interactions and thoughts about politics and everything else. Combine this with mobile phones and people never leave their feeds; downtime is just an excuse to check what everything else is doing.

In theory, an attention monopoly wouldn’t be so bad if that which commanded our attention was providing a useful service. But there is a great deal of stress placed on that source, and we have to hope that we’re managing it well enough to get a healthy balance of information. Which no one does.

I’m not the first to point out that a print newspaper affords easy browsing in a way that most websites don’t. While the internet would seem to offer endless space and information, a screen is less likely to expose us passively to new ideas. But even a website that does its job well will surface some stories you might not have known to look for but can benefit from reading. A feed like Facebook’s might do this as well, but there is a much stronger chance that the feed is controlled to limit alternative viewpoints or cognitive dissonance; you will read an unexpected story, but one that makes an expected point.

Moving on, a more pointed and Facebook-specific problem is that it is ‘social’, and that we are ‘participating’ and ‘interacting’ with the content. As if we are really discussing the ideas passed along and skimmed over as we wait on the subway or prepare for bed. But we are not. We are typing and forgetting and not affecting anything. Before Facebook, we may not have done much either, but at least we didn’t fool ourselves. If nothing else, this election and the 2012 one where the right was sure it would win have proven how much we actually achieve on social media. Not much.

Lastly, the internet-wide problem that is only exacerbated on Facebook is the quest for speed and for clicks. I work at a website, so I don’t claim innocence here. But most times, we are not on a ‘need to know now’ basis about news, and yet news is reported that way. News is then further sensationalized and promoted. I learned about the October James Comey letter to Congress on the New York Times site, where they blasted it like it was a story of titanic significance. It’s not their fault to some degree – they would have looked bad if they weren’t keeping up with everybody else – but as we saw, the story was nothing. And while newspapers have always traded in sensationalist headlines, the business has gotten to the point where it depends on traffic and where news is a commodity, and so there’s a race to be first and loudest.

Facebook exacerbates this because it comes colored through the voices of our friends, who know how to trigger our emotions better - not in a Machiavellian way, but because they care and want to share their feelings. The articles in our feed trigger our sarcasm, our anger, our joy, our pride, or whatever else, which further reinforces that the information is not received and taken into proper context, and we are probably worse off and less informed for having consumed the information**.

**I read this article this week and thought its theme echoed this point.

So where does that leave us? The most obvious thing would be to quit all these social media accounts. That’s not super realistic - Facebook has succeeded in working itself into our day to day lives, and it will be hard to unplug immediately, and not wholly necessary***.

Again, using Facebook as a shorthand for social media as a whole – I’m pretty sure Twitter could stop working tomorrow and society would be better off.

There are things we can concretely do, though, to mitigate these problems:
  • Limit our time on social media – use it for specific reasons, not to kill time or when we’re stuck in other places. Use social media purposefully, not mindlessly, and stay focused on that purpose.
  • Do not let social media crowd out other informational or social activities – reading, connecting with people one on one online, calling people, or getting out and seeing people, and really seeing them, not talking with them with one eye on the phone. Social media can shorten distance and speed up interaction and serve as a forum for reaching more people at once; it cannot substitute for thoughtful, personal activities. Don’t let it do so.
  • Do not confuse expressing opinions with acting on one’s beliefs – sharing an article is not getting involved. I honestly don’t know what is getting involved – I live abroad, so I’m not super well plugged in here or in the states. But volunteering, meeting people, sharing ideas, learning how one another thinks – all this has to happen, and it can’t happen on social media.

I realize I’m a little late in writing this, and the fake news hysteria in and of itself passed about a month ago. Fake news has become another partisan term deployed on both sides to mean a number of different things. ‘Truth’ is still a real thing, and it is still important to assess, support, and discover. Fake news is a problem, and I don’t want to ignore it.

It’s important, however, not to let ourselves be distracted from the underlying issues that affect all of us. Namely, if we keep frittering our lives and our attention spans away on social media, we won’t ever be able to talk to one another, we won’t achieve anything, and we won’t have the context or depth of information to be able to tell what’s real from what’s fake. Then what the truth is won’t matter, because we won’t be able to handle it.

22.8.12

Among the Modern Pilgrims

08/08                     23:30                                     Hotel in Rennes



Mont St. Michel is the site of a millennium-old Benedictine abbey in western France. In visiting, I thought of pilgrims.

Pilgrims are a logical object of thought when visiting an abbey. Mont St. Michel has long been a site of pilgrimage, both as a destination and as an early stopover on the way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Key elements of the site have been built or altered with pilgrims in mind.

I thought of pilgrims the day before when getting off the train in Dol-de-Bretagne. Backpackers and sack-laden bikes were legion on that train. One German my age stood out; he had a red goatee tufting off his chin and a fedora-like hat, and he asked in English at the train station how to get to Pontorson, one stop away on a different train or a short bus ride away, the town closest to Mont St. Michel. He bore the burden of his green backpack well, but not doubt grew tired of it at times.

I thought of pilgrims again at dinner that night. A table away at the crêperie sat a British family. The white-trimmed father plowed away with his French in ordering for the table, dictionary in hand, while the two university-age sons played an actor guessing game, and the mother and older daughter looked on in faint bemusement. Much English was to be heard on the train to Dol, as well as on the streets of the small town. I was now on the north coast of Bretagne, hardly a ferry ride away from the UK, so it stood to reason. The main site in the area, of course, was Mont St. Michel. Pilgrims.

Pilgrims came to mind on my bike ride to Mont St. Michel in the morning. Gîtes and chambres d’Hôtes advertised their proximity to the site. In one intersection, I passed a troop of backpackers. “All their lives on their back and all their hopes in front of them.” There were not many on my side path, but they could be found, in German-plated cars or on bikes.

The historical pilgrims and the modern pilgrims share more traits than it seems at first. Both come from distance, near and far to experience a form of bliss and escape from everyday life. Both are inspired by thick books with solid information and dull prose that speak of strange feats and mystical places. Both get on the nerves of locals but also fuel the nearby economy. Both pack away their lives and carry them as penance for the journey. Both smell bad.

Pilgrims discomfort me. The historical ones are more interesting and more honest in their faith, but the piety and closed-mindedness that usually carried those pilgrims on their path would make me uneasy. The modern pilgrims move like herds with their babble of languages and their incessant memorialization of the present. The expectations for a site rise when modern pilgrims are afoot, and fall because of the presene of those same pilgrims. When I see the packs of modern pilgrims, a part of me tenses up. That part twists over itself even more when I remember: I am one of them.

***

The French verb “dominer” is not quite a false cognate with the English “dominate, but it doesn’t have quite the same meaning either. Dominer is to look over, be higher than, or in a sports context, to lead. There is not the strong sense of power and the judgment of force that the English word holds. The French states a fact, plain and ungarnished.

Mont St. Michel domine and dominates the surrounding area. I approached on bike from the southwest through les polders, open wheat fields just short of the salt marshes in the Baie St. Michel. It was a flat, peaceful route, with only the rare tractor, hiking family, or foreign-plated car to be seen. Also a dog, whose sudden barging run startled me enough to send me crashing in a ditch, head over handlebars, cursing furiously in English and French. I hate dogs.

I made a turn east and now ahead of me the back of a sign. “Great, I thought,” I can make sure I’m on the right path.” Then I by chance looked up to my left and cried, “Oh!” I halted in my pedaling.

If you click on this picture, you can see MSM in the center backgronud.

There past the fields stood Mont St. Michel, dominating the landscape. The abbey stood like a bauble castle, on a rock in the bay and fitting in with nothing, yet fitting with everything since it, the castle, the fortress, the abbey, dominated the landscape. To come on it all of a sudden, to witness its power and splendor in both comparative and absolute senses, is to understand how, why Mont St. Michel is a site of pilgrimage. Awesome, that much-abused word, fits this first sight, some 1300 years on.

***

Mont St. Michel was first conceived, the story goes, by Bishop Aubert after the archangel Michael came to him in a dream and inspired him to build a sanctuary on a rock standing out in the curve of the French coast, on the modern-day border between the regions of Bretagne and Normandy. This was in 708. In 966, it became a Benedictine abbey, though much of the current structure dates from the 12th or 13th centuries. The abbey was constructed with military might and held out during the English sieges of the 100-year War, unlike the rest of north and west France. After the French Revolution, the anti-ecclesiastical current turned the abbey into a prison for about 70 years, before at last it became the historic monument it remains today.

There is only one road leading to Mont St. Michel, leading due North from Pontorson 10 kilometers away. One can also reach it by crossing the bay when the tide is out, but bikes ride poorly on wet sand. I joined the Pontorson road about halfway up, knowing I had arrived by the sight of my fellow travelers, picnicking or walking north, undeniably from elsewhere. French families and Spanish speakers, large tour buses of Asians and elderly, bebaseballhatted Americans, German groups and Italian individuals, a few Brasileiros, a melting pot of strangers seeking to behold the abbey, the castle. Pilgrims.

The stream of people approaching the site could not diminish its majesty. We walked on the 19th century causeway across the bay – one the French are replacing with a bridge to allow the bay its traditional tide and to flush out those salt marshes – and the abbey grew to its full might and stature, a power pictures cannot capture. The hour or so I spent between first espying the Mont and finally reaching the site was among the best parts of the visit.

Indeed, once entering the little town at the foot of the abbey, the majesty is shrouded. We came too close to see, and the pilgrim wave overwhelmed. I walked through the street leading up to the abbey. The street was narrow, four people wide, with the upward flow constant and slow, the downward varied and hurried. Souvenir shops, hotels, and crêperies lined the street, seeking to ease and add to the pilgrim’s load in equal measure.

I arrived at the steps at 13:00. The line, or so I heard, was shorter an hour or two before my arrival. When I left two hours later, it was shorter. I waited, treading slowly up the stairs with limited achievement – shade, indoors, at last a ticket – for about 45 minutes.



And for all that, the abbey itself is the least impressive part of the visit. Not that it lacks highlights: the first staircase is grand; the terrace offers fine views of the dominated landscape; the oft-cited cloister is pretty; the audio guide informs in a restrained manner; and a few quiet corners of green or brownstone beauty can be found. It’s not that the site isn’t impressive, but it is on the order of similar medieval churches, abbeys, and the like. For example, I would rank Mont St. Michel’s abbey, known as “La Merveille”, the wonder, higher than the monastery/castle in the Lisboa suburb of Belem, but lower than the more bewitching, wondrous Alhambra in Granada. What sets Mont St. Michel apart is its setting, and on the site that can be perceived only in passing.


One of those hidden green corners.


 ***



There is another way to appreciate the Mont and its setting: encircling the rock on foot, when the tide is out. The tide was out when I reached bottom. I stripped off my shirt, socks, and shoes, lathered on sunscreen, and took off barefoot.

The dark gray tidal sand rippled beneath my feet, caking my toes in mud, which left over puddles would wash. A small child played naked in one of these puddles with his swimsuit-clad older siblings, parents not plainly in site. Maybe a hundred people in total walked on the sand, including a large group led by a guide and an Asian fellow my age, with glasses and a camera, mud snaking up past his calves. He pointed out a piece of my bike helmet strap which had fallen.

To the north of the Mont, a large rock or a small island stuck out as an afterthought. Above us, the Mont regained its majesty, sundered from the wider landscape by our limited perspective but mighty in its absolute sense, alone. The bay offers one views from all sides, pictures dotted with ant-like pilgrims, a final, sustaining image.



The bay crossing comes with risks. My guidebook talks of the massive tidal variation and the tidal return racing like a horse. I did not see this, but I felt the sands shift beneath my feet. In crossing a large pool of water to complete the circle round the Mont, I picked a path I thought shallow and safe. Just shy of the “shore” I suddenly found no ground, my leg plunging into water mid-thigh deep (only about mid-shin for most people, but still). I worried for a moment of my backpack getting wet, even of quicksand, of becoming an example for why one does not cross the bay alone and unguided. Another foolhardy step, another mid-thigh plunge. I changed direction, kept relatively calm, and found slightly faster than normal but not quite quicksand. I pulled myself from the water, half my shorts damp but no further damage taken.

My feet were fully caked in mud now, and the mud snaked up to my shin. I carried my shoes in hand and walked back on the causeway, sneaking glances over my shoulder at the receding Mont. I smiled at passers-by who gave my muddy feet once-overs ranging from sneering to curious. I heard comments about them in several languages.

My day and, in most senses, my trip were at end. My bike, a short flat ride, a brief train journey, and a hotel in Rennes awaited me. My backpack dug into my bare shoulders and the afternoon sun worked from the South to even my biker’s tan and dry my mud. I was tired, hungry, dirty, barefoot, and mostly satisfied.

I was at journey’s end. I was a pilgrim, turning for home.

The People You Meet, Things You See - The Red Bike Rides in Bretagne, Pt. 7

07/08                                     16:32                                     Train to Rennes


Distance biked since last checked: 109 km (45 km Friday, 7 km Saturday, 30 km Sunday, 27 km Tuesday)

Today marks my first directly eastward journey on the trip. The meaning is clear: I’m almost home.

A portside Rozd in Brest
When it comes to traveling, I find the back half of a trip or the last few days more relaxing. With the return home closer, I feel less bad about thinking ahead to arrival and forgetting to enjoy today. Paradoxically, I find it easier to focus on the trip at hand when there’s less of it to think about. My last two days are all but planned, I have only one more bike ride in front of me, and no tight time constraints except to get up on time for my train home Thursday. This sense of comfort with endings contrasts with how I enjoy books. In reading a good book, my favorite moment is the halfway mark, when I know there’s as much joy ahead of me as that I’ve already uncovered. After that, bittersweetness fills a reading that I know too soon will end, even as desire to finish compels me to continue without undue delay. Perhaps the physical effort that goes into traveling and the mental effort required to plan and manage the trip blunts that bittersweetness, or maybe for all my supposed adventurousness I am just a boring homebody who would be happy reading, writing, and eating peanut butter all day without leaving the house. One can rule nothing out.

In any case, I am on my way home, with room for one last big detour. My trip as realized fell reasonably far from the details I imagined, even as of two days ago. The structure of plans and reality matched, mostly.: head west on the southern shore of Bretagne, then loop back east on the Northern side, but instead of going to a festival on a peninsula that would have required a 40 km bike trip each way with no sure thing on tickets or lodging, I went to Lorient and the FIL for a couple hours; instead of working my way through the northern shore of Bretagne over 2-3 days, I took a train to Dol-de-Bretagne, whence I will make my one stop tomorrow; instead of visiting St. Malo I stayed two nights on l’île d’Ouessant (I realized only in the Rennes train station I could have just as easily stayed in St. Malo tonight. Ah well, save something for next time).

Anyway, I’m happy with how this has turned out. And now for a few anecdotes about people I’ve met or seen along the way.

I’ve spent more time in bars on this trip than I might usually. Actually, in Europe there are few cafes as we Americans think of them, ala the local coffee shop or Starbucks. Of course there are Starbucks, but not many. Otherwise, when waiting for a train, a travel partner, or a muse to roll on through, I’m sitting in a bar cum salon de thé cum brasserie.

(The one main exception I can think of: Ghent, Belgium, where they have cupcake shops. It should come as no shock that I like Ghent).

In Auray, a town of little note for me except its position on two train lines, I had a beer and waited for my train to Lorient. Behind the bad a woman with chestnut-brown hair and the wrinkles of the late 40s worked. A man with a large backpack, a large dog, and both a grizzled voice and a grizzled face stood at the bar and had a drink. A couple of old men sat at the right of the bar. A couple of not quite as old women sat at a table to the left. I sat at a table in the middle, against the wall facing the bar. Across perched on a stool a girl with short dark hair and a turquoise shirt, cute, more or less my age.

In to the bar came two men who sidled up next to the girl. The one, older, bigger, with a bandana over his hair, exchanged kisses with her. The other, wiry build and wired energy, talked with the barmaid about what beers were available. His choices were not. His voice rose. He said something choice to either the girl or the barmaid. His companion asked him to go wait outside. This appeared to be a ritual for the duo.

The older of the two men continued to talk with the girl, standing. The other recurred at the door, anger still on his breath and voice. His only pause was to love up on the dog. The dog, at least, did not get upset at him. The rest of us continued our activities as if all was well. The train of life approached.

The man made a last sally to the bar. The diatribe renewed in his tongue, he uttered a choice word at the barmaid (I missed it). A man working at the bar appeared, furious, yelled at the man, it was about time to stop talking and start punching.

Calmer heads prevailed. The older man banished his companion again. The barman cooled off. I caught the eye of the barmaid, drying a glass and shaking her head. “He was looking for it,” she said.

In a bar on Ouessant, a similar tale.  I sat at the bar and drank a Belle Kriek beer (cherry, Belgian), reading my Polish book and watching the TV, the latter more successfully. Around the curve of the bar to my right, a local drunk stood. A green sweatshirt, shorts, thin graying hair, and a half-conscious, eerie smile on his lips. A box of Kinder Bueno bars rested on the bar next to him. A couple of kids came into the bar, about 14 years old, asking for fruit drinks (earlier, walking, I heard the boys bragging about all this alcohol they had on them – vodka, whisky, etc.). The drunk tut-tutted them but with no authority, unheeded. Instead, he tried offering everyone within reach a candy – me, the kids, and so on. Also to no avail.

Another man joined the first at the bar. This had wild gray hair and a stubbled, attractive face. His yes held a spark and his look was, as yet, sober. He ordered a drink and fell into banter with the first man. The two rearranged chairs in the room, possibly with intentions of emulating the 3000 meter steeplechase shown on the screen behind them but most likely out of the first’s impetuous inebriation). The second joined in the Kinder Bueno game, buying one and putting it on his tab – he had a golden credit card with a company name on it. Again, I turned down an offered candy bar.

The energy finally went sour as the bar staff decided the first had to step outside (they may have picked up on the annoyed looks from me and others at the bar). The second, after asking if he too had to leave and hearing he didn’t, turned his liberated attention elsewhere. He was impressed with my Kriek beer and asked, several times, for the name so he could order one. He asked me about my reading before backing off when he either heard my French or decided he might disturb me. After I moved to a table (in part to avoid the first drunk) he again pointed to my book or my beer and offered to buy me another, flashing his credit card. “Vous êtes très gentil,” I told him, “but I’m leaving after the race.”

Outside, a yell and a tumbling piece of furniture clattered among the din. One of the hotel/bar staff ran outside. A few bar patrons joined. I did not go and rubberneck. The second stayed at the bar, craning his neck towards the door and perhaps finding his beer a little sweeter. A man with a notepad entered a few minutes later.

Usain Bolt won the race, of course. I stepped out, thinking of humanity’s highs and lows.

Outside of the bar, the train is a good place to catch sight of our curious habits. On one train, from Lorient to Quimper, I sat in the entry area with my bike. Across the entry way, a white-haired woman sat next to the bathroom. Perhaps an inappropriate place.

A man in the car behind her came to use the bathroom. He was bald and dressed in a Picasso-striped shirt. He tried the bathroom door. It didn’t give. Once or twice more he tried before leaving, perplexed. The woman said nothing.

A minute later a man left the bathroom; I had not been sure someone was in there. A minute later, a young woman staggered into the bathroom, looking not all there. Our striped-shirt man tried the door again another minute after, again with no luck. He tried once more, then looked at the woman. Only then did she tell him the bathroom was occupied.

Passons… the man, without ever changing his strategy by actually waiting for the bathroom, finally got in. A young woman tried the door, found it locked, and waited. The man left. She entered, did her bit, and exited. She left the door half-open. The woman, not one to speak, stared at the girl with annoyance for a few seconds, then rose from her seat and shut the door.

On a different train, from Brest to Rennes, a man struck up a conversation with me about my bike. As with Jeff, it was another of those French-English foreign conversations. This man congratulated me on my journey.

The Picture I took
In between trains in Quimper, before stopping in the African bar, I walked around looking for an internet café (I traveled on this trip like it was 2005). As I crossed over a bridge a couple blocks from the train station, I stopped to take a picture. A black man with dreads approached me and asked if I was Italian. He had a few teeth missing and a beer in his hand (it was a little after noon). My answer that I was American excited him. He told me he was from South Africa, where the last World Cup was, did I go? My negative response did not dissuade him from giving me a big handshake as we parted.

Before capping this ramble, I’d like to mention something about crêperies that I’ve observed after eating crepes an average of once a day since arriving in Bretagne. That is: one cannot order two crepes at once. The waiters worry that either the second crepe or your appetite will cool off too much for it to be worth it. So one crepe at a time does one progress through one’s meal. Also, when one switches from salty, buckwheat crepes (known as galettes) to sweet white flour dessert crepes, the wait staff changes one’s silverware. This does not (usually) happen going from galette to galette. This makes sense but still amuses me.

On Sunday, I rode my bike to Le Conquet from Brest to catch the ferry to Ouessant. Many dark clouds blew over the city, and the sky was clear enough in its cloudy way that one could see the wind at work. Having a fair amount of time to make my boat, and still tense from the night prior (of the Aching Jaw), I decided to wait out the rain when I could (I avoided the two bigger of the three rainclouds that passed over my head).

It was while waiting out the first, still in Brest, perched under a bus stop with my legs folded under to evade the windblown drops, that a woman joined. She had gray-brown hair to match a gray suit, and a faint blond mustache that was all the same quite visible, and in 15 minutes or so, she told me much about her life.

She has a cousin in the Bay Area who she learned about well into adulthood; the cousin’s father left France before the war and, despite aiding the war effort in the U.S., would have been tried as a deserter if he returned. She lived in interior Bretagne before moving to Brest when she was young and the city not yet rebuilt from the war. She finds native Brest folk (Brestians?) standoffish and unhelpful, making it two people I met who moved to another place in Bretagne and disliked the locals. She similarly dislikes people from Luxembourg and that part of Germany, finding them cold, unlike Germans from Munich. She also dislikes Russians and their difficult literature.

I learned that Mongols fought for Napoleon and then stayed in France after the war, helping to build the Nantes-Brest canal. This woman had Scottish and, she thought, Mongol blood in her. Almost every time she made a reference to Mongols, she pulled her eyes thin.

Such are the people I’ve met and the interactions I’ve seen on this trip.


16.8.12

On an Island - The Ride Bike Rides in Bretagne, Pt. 6





06/08                                     19:33                     In front of Lampaul’s Chapel

This piece centers on two main questions. The larger: why does one go to an island? The more specific: What would one find on l’île d’Ouessant, or what happens if one goes there?

One goes to an island to escape. To vacate, hence an island vacation. The visitor seeks to escape the daily rigors and horrors of mainland life, and to step off of those well-worn ruts that continentals dig for ourselves. As if by leaving the actual ground where one has dug those rooted ruts in a physical sense, one can find a way to escape. And so it is.

The Île d’Ouessant, “Isle of terror” in Breizh, sort of the word for “Western Isle” in French, and Ushant in English, sits just off continental France’s westernmost tip. Two hours by ferry from maritime capital Brest (home to France’s nuclear submarine arsenal) and one hour from Le Conquet, the town on that westernmost tip, l’île is an attractive, quiet, and impressive destination. The island offers everything one can ask for on an island.

As mentioned, one takes the ferry to arrive (or a 15-minute plane ride if one is a philistine, or one’s own boat if extravagant). Imagine leaving from Le Conquet, the westernmost tip of France and of the Finisterre department. Finisterre means end of the world, though the region’s propaganda reminds that in Breizh, “Penn Ar Bed” also means beginning of the world, one sign so bold as to make the Promethean claim that man first had fire in his hands here. One wonders what the Breizh words for “3rd degree burns” are.

From this far-flung jumping point, the ferry ride is rather calm. A half hour to a smaller island of Molene, another half hour to Ouessant. If one is worried that French children are much better behaved than American children or any other brand of children, this ride furnishes much evidence to disprove that notion, but the ride is calm and easy all the same.

The ferry arrives in Port du Stiff, on the eastern side of the island. Most visitors stay in or near Lampaul, the one “bourg” on the island, a little past the center, three or so kilometers away from Stiff. Several bike rental options crowd the road leading from the port, as well as a crêperie “d’arrivée”. Minibuses also run passengers to the city. The D81 road that traverses the island starts off uphill before peaking halfway, making for an agreeable coast into Lampaul. Gîtes and chambres d’Hôtes – Bed and Breakfasts – idle on the roadside, as well as a large campground and many sheep.

On arrival in the town, the visitor may well be hungry. If it is the first Sunday night in August, the choices may be limited to two crêperies. Crêperie du Stang is well and good and serves Breizh cola, but the open setting allows one to gather further evidence that French children are just as big a set of misbehaving bastards as the rest of ‘em and that French parents are no less indulgent than American ones. Crêperie Ti a Dreuz,  “the slanting house” offers a cozier, friendlier ambience, better crepes with a top-notch soubise (creamy onions) topping, and a great glass of lemonade.

On any given summer night, one can wander along the nearby beaches and coasts, seeking sunset and cool breezes: the island is unsurprisingly full of sunset and cool breezes. If it is the first Sunday night in August 2012 and one wants to watch Usain Bolt run 100 meters, the only recourse is the Fromveur, a bar that serves Belgian beers and Kinder Bueno chocolate bars. The local tippler may, when not spitting vomit over his shoes, getting kicked out of the bar, or causing a ruckus outside worthy of police attention after getting kicked out of the bar, obsess over buying and giving away these chocolate bars to anyone within arm’s reach. The bar rejoices over Bolt’s win, and also the Frenchman taking second in the 3000 meter steeplechase.

In the daytime, one finds the solitude needed from an island. The thing to do on l’île d’Ouessant is to hike the coast. 45 kilometers of rocky shore, spongy short grass paths, decaying lighthouses, and goats. Bikers too, but the population of the island is listed as 878 habitants, and if that many people come and go each day in the summer, at most, there is still plenty of open space to hide in. For example, while hiking, the cautious and watchful visitor (at least the male ones) can pee up to three times in a five-hour period without causing a stir or looking out of place, by feigning a dignified attention to certain more sheltered rock formations or port landings.

The lighthouses are something to see, if perhaps not the museum dedicated to them. Many a ship have wrecked of Ouessant’s shores on their way to the English Channel or elsewhere. So the French built the Phare du Creach, the world’s most powerful lighthouse. Actually quite ordinary in the day, at night it sends two rotating beams every ten seconds with a power to haunt one’s sleep, should one fear light. Other, older lighthouses loiter off shore and offer better daytime visuals.

Bikers circle the island, and one hears Italian, a little Spanish, but mostly French. And why not? l’île d’Ouessant is quite far away from most of France – six hours away from Paris, another two to three hours at least from the south and east of the country by fast train. Ouessant’s town twin is not from another country but merely the other side of France – Obenheim, next to the German border in the Alsace.

To avoid the bikers, one heads for the grassier coastal paths. Bikes are not allowed on these paths, though some still find their way there. On these paths, solitude and stone surround the visitor. If one is inclined to walk barefoot, theses paths offer a perfect bed for the soles, soft and giving. Beware of muddy areas and little purple and lavender flowers whose beauty is protected by fierce thorns.

Animals dot the island. Ouessant is known for its black sheep and wool. Goats lurk in shrubby fields, barely seen but for their horns and ear tags. Sea gulls of course gull out their lungs going to and from the island. Horses can be found – according to a placard for one abandoned fog siren, horses bred on the island in the 19th century tended to be small, and few people had more than one of them. If one is staying at the friendly Auberge de Jeunesse, there is the chance on the short walk into town to peer into a yard were a coterie of cats hang out, six or seven, fully grown and of several colors – white, black, gray, and mixed.

Weather on the island is predictably unpredictable. The first Monday in August may feel like an October day, though the air is lighter. Out on the path, one can get sun burnt and rained on in two, three, four successive cycles. The sky changes quickly, and one can see the gulf stream make its final push towards Europe, washing over the island inattentively.

At night on the first Monday in August, after eating again crepes, one can attend a concert at the local church, a string and piano quartet playing two pieces as part of the “les musiciennes d’Ouessant” festival. The ladies play well and the well-trained crowd only claps after the 3rd and 4th movements of each piece. The stained glass windows are adorned with French captions that may simplify Biblical language a touch: “Jesus threatens the winds and tells the sea, “shut up!” The end of the concert proves insufferable – the crowd of nearly 100 cheers and cheers, demanding an encore, hoping to prove how sophisticated they are and how non-rural, non-isolated the island can be. The quartet, an ad hoc group no doubt, cannot do but to repeat a few choice parts of the second piece. The crowd howls for more, clearly not having paid enough attention the first time (or so starved for culture they cannot let go? Or just wanting full money’s value for their 18 euro ticket?). One is advised to sneak out before a third encore is possible.

If the truest adventure of our times is away from technology, from phones, computers, the internet, connection, Ouessant provides for this adventure as well. Not that those monsters do not reach the island; one can be connected here. But with the small size of the island and its limited population, there is no need for connecting. Everything one needs to know about the island can be found out through the ancient search engine of asking a local. And if one’s phone battery dies, depriving one of all time-telling devices, the church offers a large clock face and an hourly bell to keep one from becoming completely unstuck in time.

Yes, such is l’île d’Ouessant. All one needs to escape the mainland, to extricate oneself from normalcy, all that can be found on the island. On the ferry to and from the island, one is as if entering a chamber of isolation, preparing for the island and then again for the return. An hour to unshackle the mind and another to reshackle it.


Ahh, but the one thing one cannot escape on an island ? Oneself. All that solitude, space, and isolation forces one in on oneself. One must dig through consciousness, through thought, to deal with the fact that in solitude, one is with oneself. The freedom from other concerns becomes a sentence to explore the base of one’s inner space. The island’s shores limit physical movement but erase mental boundaries.

One can hide in daily life’s distractions. When going to an island, one seeks to escape distractions and relocate oneself. True of all travel, this tendency sharpens on an island. One goes to lose one’s quotidian life and to find oneself.




15.8.12

The Long Night of the Aching Jaw - The Red Bike Rides in Bretagne, Pt. 5

05/08                                     16:35                     Le Conquet Harbor
My jaw hurt.
   I could not sleep.
    And what’s worse
           I had to pee.

I lie in the bed. I lied. I turned off the light when I heard the door open and a foot on the stairs. A roommate in the hostel. I feigned being asleep. My jaw hurt and I had no interest in talking. He saw through my feint, asked me if he could close the shades and turn off the light. “Of course,” I said, “whatever you want.”

The lights off, I lay in the bed. I was tired; I had wadded toilet paper in my ears against the noises of this or the other roommate. The other was still out and this one quiet, only curt sounds of springs groaning emanating from his bed. The beds were aligned head to foot around the room, six beds or five in total, all along the wall, encircling the room (an extra mattress lay beneath my bed). The mattresses were narrow, rust-colored beds, furnished with a round, long cylinder of a pillow; we slept on 1970s styled (and aged) couches. But the beds were good enough, the room dark, the noise not there, and I tired. I should have slept.

I laid myself down but could not put myself to sleep. My mind was not in and of itself especially restless. It had been a day off for me; I took my time getting from Lorient to Brest. I had a 2+ hour stop in Quimper which  I spent in an African bar run by a white, non-African Frenchman, waiting and watching 100 meter sprints. Once in Brest, I spent two hours in a café in the center, waiting for check-in time and typing up diaries. I had a fine dinner, a drink while I waited for the bus, and then arrived at the hostel at about 22:30, read my Pole for an hour, and went to bed. It had been a fine day.

Actually, I lied a little. Or fairer, I skipped a point. My trouble started after dinner. Immediately after dinner, my jaw started hurting. Usually, my jaw is tense, tight; it hurt. I had eaten steak tartar. I always eat steak tartar when I visit France. This was the first time my jaw hurt after eating tartar (or ever, really, to this degree).

I can hear Amy (my, ahem, wife) responding. “Of course your jaw hurts after eating raw cow! You just swallowed a red patty of uncooked pain!” It never happened before like that, but then, why did my jaw become so sore?

My mind and spirit exist in imbalance, exposed to different levels of development. My mind is well-developed, well ahead of my spirit, so far ahead of my spirit that my spiritual inklings are intellectually-based. What I understand in my spirit comes from my mind. I think my way through life, and through matters of the spirit too. Amy once accused me of having no spirituality. In effect, she’s right, but it’s not from lack of trying. I just can’t get at the spiritual world any way but by working it out.

(My heart steps in sometimes and clouds my judgment for better or worse in individual cases, but for the good overall, preventing me from becoming a cold rationalist).

There are two areas on my body that carry discomfort so casually my mind cannot comprehend them. The first is a knot in my back, just below my left shoulder blade and off my spine to the left. 5, 10, 15 times a day (at least) I swing my torso right and left while standing still, or else dip my left shoulder back, both movements intended to crack my back. I do this on command and more frequently than I should (I just did it, while writing the previous sentence, achieving a crack). I have been cracking my back like this for at least five years, since I stopped wrestling full-time. I remember my last tournament in high school, 10+ years ago, eagerly looking forward to having a friend from my rival school crack my back.

The other area is my jaw. I learned at my first dentist appointment in Israel that I was grinding my teeth in my sleep. My dentist, an excitable South African Jew, seemed to be a specialist in diagnosing teeth grinding and providing biteplates to protect the teeth; he bragged about giving himself a plate, his daughter a plate, and so on. I didn’t know I had been grinding my teeth, but for a long time I had been cracking my jaw in three different places by rolling it clockwise away from my face. I asked him about that, why I was grinding my teeth, and what I might do about it. He said don’t crack your jaw or you might get lockjaw, he didn’t know, and go see a psychologist.

The back pain I can rationalize. I wrestled seriously for 15 years and 10-11 ½ months a year for the last eight of them. I am lucky to have never suffered more serious injury than a sprained ankle or cauliflower ear, and a knot in my back is small price to pay for long years of competition (I also often crack my knees, neck, and each of my shoulders every time I roll either one of them counterclockwise, but there’s no major discomfort associated with these cracks). I remember thinking in my maximalist college training days that I wanted to wake up sore everyday for the rest of my life – in college from the intensity of my workouts, afterwards for the residual damage willingly, eagerly suffered. This is one of those goals that I am now glad I did not achieve. (Sometimes, my right knee fills with fluid, a remnant of a bursa sac injury suffered my last year, and I have a small scar over my right eyebrow from my final college tournament, but seeing those is like looking at my trophy case, a reward from memory lane).

But the jaw pain cannot be thought through medically. The Temporomandibular Joint Syndrome involves the jawbone coming out of its socket partially, leading to the cracking and grinding symptoms. But why does it slip out? Can it be fixed conventionally? I don’t know and I don’t think so. I’m open to rational explanation, I’m downright seeking it in fact, but nothing has won me over yet.

Where forth I turn to spiritual answers. I have long agreed with Amy that my grinding is related to unexcavated grief, mostly related to my mother’s death almost eight (8!) years ago, and also to other, relatively minor things stuffed away in my psyche (or my jaw). This premise centers on the fact that I have not cried about my mother’s death, have only since then cried due to wrestling, physical and mental exertion that could drive me out of my right mind. So now, despite leading a relatively low-stress life and being as happy as I’ve ever been, I still grind my teeth.

At the outset of this trip I decided that if my jaw represents my unvoiced grief, my back must hold the knot of fear and self-doubt that fight to hold me back. It’s a facile explanation, but it serves a purpose. My back is irritable and maybe even more noticeable as a problem, but it and the feelings it represents are easier to put off or confront. I can make my back feel pretty good for a few minutes at a time. The jaw pain always barks.

Once we step off the rational plane and open ourselves to spiritual explanations, there’s much less logic to deal with. So maybe this cow did cry as it was slaughtered, maybe I stumbled on the wrong day to eat cow, which I tend to eat about once a week on average. Maybe if I had gone with a burger, I would have somehow been better off. Less in pain. Asleep.

No matter. As I lay lying in my bed, my jaw hurt. I worried that I would not have teeth in the morning, that dust on my sheets would represent the final remnants of my molars (it figures that I forgot my biteplate in Michigan and was too cheap/low on time to buy another set). I worried that my jaw might look up in my haunted reverie. And on top of my worries, I kept having to pee.

The peeing thing, that’s anxiety. I’ve always been apprehensive of falling asleep, since I was a conscious child. Not so much did I fear my subconscious – I suffered not from night terrors or especially bad dreams  - but losing control spooked me, spooks me. That second when the lights go out is hard for me to grapple with or get my mind around. My freshman year in college, one of my worst years, I had a night where I needed to pee every 15 seconds. Rather, I felt the need to pee every 15 seconds; when I went to the bathroom directly across the hall from me, I peed drops, maybe. It was all in my head. I panicked that night, called my father, woke him up, and then stayed up reading until I couldn’t think, falling asleep around five. Luckily, it was a weekend night and my roommate had gone home.

(My mother was alive and not yet in her final, awful leg of cancer, but my dad and I agreed she shouldn’t be bothered about this one).

I have learned to function, learned to fall asleep. Usually, I pee twice or thrice between when I shut off the lights and when I fall asleep. On my own or at home, this is not a big deal. A quirk, a mild nuisance, but Amy and I are the only ones who have to deal with it, and I think she sleeps ok through it.

In a hostel, it was a bigger nuisance and an embarrassment. I lay on my couch bed, except when I got up to pee. Five times, six, I rose, shuffled down the stairs, out the door, back in, up the stairs, and into bed. I bumped into a water bottle once. I hoped I wasn’t too annoying.

All the while, my jaw hurt and I could not sleep. I tried to address the problem. In my head, I addressed my mother. I told her I was married, happy. I spoke in Russian and thought what a shame it was that I only really invested my soul in mastering the language after taking a team trip to Poland and the Baltics the summer after she died. A trip I paid for with life insurance money. I told her I wished I could have talked to her in Russian like an adult. That I could talk with her as an adult. I thought about how much she would have liked Jeanie, my mother-in-law. I told her that. I could not find her answers in my head.

I lay in my bed and tossed and turned to other techniques, ones I use more regularly. I sang to myself. I sang Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. A cliché choice for my demographic, yes, but still the most emotionally resonant work front-to-back I know (one I heard for the first time exactly almost eight years ago), and I know it just about by heart. I sang through the first three songs, interrupted by two or three pee runs. The technique didn’t stick tonight.

I lie frustrated and worried and tried my last resort short of getting up and reading, of giving up an hour of sleep or more. My most spiritual effort. I reached out in my mind to the voice, the spirit that is ever present in my ear. The spirit I can trust to wash love over my misshapen, knotted and partially detached body, to soothe my woes and worries with warm words and tender touches. I reached out and thought of her, of what she would say, do if she was here. My mind calmed, slowed.

Sometime later I went to pee again, and the Beatles “Come Together” floated through my head, the happy half-conscious moment when control is not lost but forgotten about.

I woke up early. My teeth were still there. The extra portion of pain in my jaw lingered until late afternoon.