We’re back home. Or we’ve left our new home. Its all a matter of perspective. Relativity is everything, as Einstein pointed out. When you spend half the year in one place and half in another, the question of whether you’re coming or going is more a state of mind than a physical reality. In any event, we’re at our home in Ipswich, Massachusetts after another summer – our third – on Hoop Doet Leven in France. Once again, returning to the U.S. after being away for so long emphasizes the differences – you can decide whether they are strengths or weaknesses – between our two homes of choice.
Let’s look at a couple of those differences between France and the U.S.
We returned in the heat and passion of an election season, with emotions charged by a potpourri of Crises of the Moment. ISIS? Ebola?
Or American cheese?
Let’s start with cheese. This was a cheesy summer. We stayed at B & B’s (or B’s & B. Or B’s & B’s. One of the plurals must be right) on dairy farms in Munster in the Vosge Mountains of Alsace and the Jura Mountains of Franche-Comte last summer, raising our cheese consciousness levels (and, I was told at last week’s annual physical, my cholesterol level; despite my best efforts I evidently hadn’t consumed enough cholesterol-lowering red wine, a deficiency I vow to address by strenuous efforts next summer.)
Being the Summer of Cheese, it seemed proper that my going-home bags would be stuffed with cheese this year, unlike the previous years in which wine bottles clanked as I lugged my bags past Customs agents in Boston.
Being an attorney, I did my research before importing any French cheese to the U.S.. An alphabet soup of federal agencies stood between me in France with real cheese and me in Ipswich with the same cheese. The CBP (Customs and Border Protection Service) of the DHS (Department of Homeland Security) enforces FIMA (the Federal Import Milk Act of 1927, Public Law 69-625, codified as 21 U.S.C. 141-149) as implemented by the regulations of APHIS (the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) of the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture), which prohibit the import of most (especially soft) unpasteurized CHEESE (cheese). Interestingly, while slamming the door on my favorite French cheeses these regulations rigorously allow no more than one fly per can of milk. See, USDA Compliance Policy Guide Sec. 527.200, titled Cheese & Cheese Products – Adulteration with Filth (you would think the Food and Drug Administration could come up with a less repulsive title for its food purity rules). While the nutritional value of flies appears to be a matter of debate at the Food and Drug Administration, unpasteurized milk products are viewed as terrorist tools. As it turns out, I can more easily buy a semiautomatic version of an AK47 assault rifle in the U.S. than I can buy the same unpasteurized Brie de Meaux they sell at the fromage counter at every Intermarche grocery store France.
Nonetheless, fresh from successfully thumbing our noses at the dread German Wasserpolice on the Rhine River, I chose to sneer at the American Homeland Security gestapo by running raw dairy past their hypervigilant snouts. I filled my duffel bag with kilograms of unpasteurized Epoisses de Bourgogne, 24-month old Comte from the Jura, triple cream Brillat-Savarin (“triple” – by French law – means the fat content is at least 75 percent, mon dieu!), and of course, Brie de Meaux, Emperor Charlemagne’s favorite cheese in the Tenth Century. I was a tad apprehensive arriving at Boston’s Logan Airport and steeled myself to confront the fiercest defense America could mount against the Threat of Wordwide Dairy Terror. So what is The Number One Global Power’s first line of defense, you may ask?
A cutesy wootsy beagle.
My bags were approached by a beagle evidently highly trained to detect explosives. Or maybe narcotics. Or possibly unhygienic tiny terrorist elves. But not to sniff out raw cheeses. The puppy, who I hope was named Snoopy, failed to react to my pungent luggage. I barely came to a full stop before whisking past the electrified barbed wire fences and ion beam security devices to breathe the free air – cough, cough – of Boston, dragging my bagful of clandestine cholesterol.
But alas, its been a month and the last of the cheese is gone, gone in a final spasm of comparison with the best our local cheesemakers offer. Our hometown farm – Appleton Farms in Ipswich, which touts itself as the oldest continuously operated dairy farm in the United States – has a new cheesemaker, producing, among other items, fairly expensive – meaning about triple what we paid in France – “Alpine” cheese. We did a taste-off between Massachusetts-version Alpine cheese and the last of the clandestine French Comte, a cheese that could be considered “Alpine” in the sense that on a clear day when the cows gaze eastward they see les Alpes. Now Comte is a great cheese, not just a favorite cheese of French kings but the favorite cheese of present-day France, cheese that is zesty, nutty, slightly crunchy with tiny nuggets of what seems like salt but is actually an amino acid called tyrosine. In our taste test, our degustation de fromage, we nibbled a precious final slice, from close to the rind, of Comte and experienced the reverse of oral sex, an adventure in which the tongue has the orgasm. Gonna miss this kind of cheese for the next six or so months.
Then we tried the “alpine” cheese, manufactured approximately – according to Google Earth – 3,423.371 miles (5,509.382 kilometers) from anything called an Alp. Woops. Silly us. We’d forgotten to take the plastic wrapper from the cheese. Wait. We hadn’t forgotten. That was the cheese. Well, they’ve been making cheese here in Ipswich for three years. The French have a head start of about 1,997 years on this “alpine” cheese-making business.
I’d risked imprisonment to smuggle my Brie de Meaux and friends past the none-too-alert beagle. Yes, Title 21, Chapter 4, Subchapter IV, Section 145 of the Import Milk Act warns that “[a]ny person who knowingly violates any provision of this subchapter shall, in addition to all other penalties prescribed by law, be punished by a fine of not less than $50 nor more than $2,000, or by imprisonment for not more than one year, or by both such fine and imprisonment.” I pictured myself in prison stripes, squatting in my cell, explaining to my father-raper cellmate that I was doing hard time for soft cheese. Arriving home, I was surprised to find some of these same cheeses are sold in our local cheese shop. It turns out French cheesemakers clone for-export-only pasteurized – or, heaven forbid, irradiated – versions of their top-selling cheeses in a manner that satisfies American regulatory bureaucrats, even if they don’t taste anything like their French namesakes.
We chose not to attempt a blind tasting of smuggled French Brie de Meaux and American-approved Brie de Meaux. Besides, by then all the French stuff had been quickly hidden away in a location to which no public sanitation goon – other than a gastroenterologist – would venture.
The American government criminalizes the importation of unpasteurized cheese in order to protect people from their own dangerous food proclivities while the French government extols its cheeses as central to the nation’s cultural heritage. Thats one difference between our two homes. Another examination of differences is more telling.
We’re book people. Partly because Hoop Doet Leven’s staunchly Republican satellite television receiver has refused to actually receive a satellite signal since the night Barack Obama was reelected, we have a lot of quiet time on board the barge. We do a lot of reading. I’ve even written a novel, as you can see by glancing at the left margin of this page. And our son, Ben, published his first novel this summer, as you can see below my book.
France is book people heaven because French culture is the best in the world, just as French wine is the best in the world and French cheese is the best in the world. And French bread is . . . well, you get the picture and you don’t have to take my word for it. Just ask anybody in France. Pick a stranger on the street. Pardon monsieur, is American wine the best in the world? Merde! Putain! Shrug of the shoulder. Another shoulder shrug. He walks off, mumbling, shaking his head. You can take that as a negative answer to your question. Just as with French wine, cheese and bread, books and authors and the whole kit and caboodle of intellectualism, black turtlenecks, berets, deep gazes at infinity are central to the French self-image of what it means to be French.
The French government is the guardian of all these aspects of French culture. The government protects the sanctity of French wine through a byzantine network of A.O.C. (Appellation d’origine Contrôlée) regulations. It protects French cheese by sorting the 350 or so French cheeses into “les huit familles de fromage,” the eight families of cheeses with AOC designations and controlling production standards, not for public health reasons but for gustatory excellence. The government even stands guard over the quality of French bread. Check out the French Bread Law at http://www.cooksinfo.com/french-bread-law-1993. Then look at Decree No. 93-1074 of 13 September 1993 made for the application of the law of 1 August 1905 with regard to certain categories of breads, which begins with this brief preamble:
The Prime Minister,
On the advice of the Minister of State, Guard of the Seals and Minister for justice, the Minister for the Economy and the Minister for Agriculture and Fishing, considering the law of 1 August 1905, modified owing to frauds and falsifications as regards products or services, in particular article 11 of the decree of 22 January 1919 taken for the application of the aforementioned law; Considering the decree n° 84-1147 of 7 December 1984 further modified application of the law of 1 August 1905 on the frauds and falsifications as regards products or services with regard to the labelling and the presentation of the foodstuffs; considering the decree n° 89-674 of 18 September 1989 relating to the additives which can be employed in the food products intended for human consumption, the Council of State (Finance Section) intends, blah, blah, blah.
Eventually, the law gets on to describing the only ingredients permitted in French breads: flour, water, yeast and salt.
As with wine, cheese and bread, similar protections are provided for French books. When French books were seen as threatened, the French government manned the literary barricades, as we quickly discovered. We do most of our reading on the barge on an iPad (Harvey) and an iPhone (Sandra) using a web service called Oyster (www.oyster.com). For $10 a month you can downlaod as many of Oyster’s 500,000 books as your eyes can stand. Sort of a Netflix for books. Despite our preference for e-books we visited dozens and dozens of French bookstores, as much for the nostalgia of being in a real bookstore as to find books. And we wondered why France has so many bookstores. One street in Dijon had more bookstores than all of Boston.
Small, independent bookstores in the U.S. are an increasingly endangered species. Rare. Precious. There were about 7,000 independent bookstores in the U.S. twenty years ago. There are less than 2,000 now, made scarce by the temporary rise of huge bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders. Remember the cute movie with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, You’ve Got Mail? Then Amazon arrived. And Borders went bankrupt. Leaving Amazon controlling the book business. Amazon sells 65 percent of all e-books in the U.S., 41 percent of all printed books sold nationally and 64 percent of print books sold online. Amazon uses its muscle to squeeze authors on commissions, publishing houses on prices and competitors on market share.
This is called capitalism. The American way of doing business. Or, as New Hampshire license plates boast, “live free or die” economics.
Three things result: (1) readers pay lower prices for books, for now, as Amazon squeezes its competitors out of the market by underpricing them, (2) independent bookstores are on life support, and (3) authors of non-mainstream books and of books not destined to become blockbusters can’t find publishers and must resign their works to self-published oblivion. Amazon is the lord and master of the universe of American books. To a large degree, Amazon determines what books are sold and what books are not sold. For now, while Amazon might be greedy it is politically neutral, with no indication it picks and chooses based on anything except profit. But America is a country in which our Supreme Court considers corporations to be people, people with the right to support political parties and candidates, people with the right to exercise their owners’ religious beliefs free from government interference.
Picture a world in which Jeff Bezos, the czar of Amazon, finds God and becomes born again. Then try to shop on Amazon for a book on abortion rights. It could happen. Books as the driving force of intellectual thought, of criticism, of creativity are more and more controlled by fewer and fewer corporations. Little thought, and no government intervention, is given to protecting the intellectual life of the United States from these corporations. The very concept of the American government taking such action seems silly.
Not so for France. Bookstores are everywhere in France. Booksellers inhabit every brocant – flea market – and city streets are lined with stalls of sellers of used books. And they are all busy. We wondered why this is so.
Culture, meaning French culture, is a preciously protected commodity. Culture is protected partly because of respect for the intellectual process, of course, but also out of pure chauvinism – a word that is a historical nod to Nicolas Chauvin, a soldier who was badly wounded in the Napoleonic wars. After Napoleon abdicated, Chauvin was such a fanatical Bonapartist that similar over the top partisans continue to be referred to by his name. Sort of like the tribe of Vandals inspired the term vandalism. French culture is protected out of chauvinism for all things French but more fundamentally because of a French sense of obligation to all Mankind, since, at least in the eyes of those who protect French culture, French culture marks the pinnacle of enlightenment for all humanity.
As a result, books, as an embodiment of French culture are protected in similar ways that wine, cheese and bread are protected. Especially must books be protected from the foreign book-selling mega-corporations. Cultural vandals. First came the Lang Law in 1981, when the French Minister of Culture established a fixed price on each book sold in France in order to help independent bookstores compete against the discount chains that were dominating the book market. The law prohibited discounts of more than 5 percent from an established price. It was remarkably successful in protecting small French booksellers.
When Amazon came on the scene it did an end run – an American football term for avoiding the protected middle path – around the Lang Law by consistently offering the maximum 5 percent discount on every book . . . plus free shipping. And Amazon based its European operations in Luxembourg, with the lowest tax rates on the continent. France’s independent booksellers were pinched by Amazon’s tactics.
The government responded last year with a law referred to as the anti-Amazon law that prohibits offering both the 5 percent discount and free shipping. So far, this new law has acted like a finger in the dike stemming the flood of Amazon. So French readers don’t get the lowest possible prices on books, but they still have local book stores. And the French book market is healthy and diverse.
Cheese and books. Two differences between our two homes, differences reflecting fundamentally different views on life, culture and the role of government. In America, the government chooses to protect people from the small possibility that they might poison themselves by eating unpasteurized cheese (although you’d think that if U.S. law allows one fly in the milk, a little bit of rawness could also get a blind eye). Balanced against this protection is that people are denied the freedom to choose to roll the dice for the sake of eating the world’s best cheese. In France, the balance is on the side of taste, of quality, of culture. Of individual choice.
When it comes to books, the outcome is similar but the balances are the opposite. In the U.S., the government stays out of the picture while Amazon dominates the book market. If small book stores suffer, well, those are the breaks of the business world. And consumers gain, in the short run, by getting less expensive books. In contrast, in France the government intervenes to protect book sellers, who are seen as a national treasure. People pay more for books. In the long run, however, the book market thrives, book sellers large and small operate on a more equal financial footing, authors and publishers and, therefore, readers have more resources available.
We’re not going to choose sides in either of these battles. Won’t say which country we think handles these issues in a more wise manner. But there is no question the cheese is better in France. And no question the future of the book business is brighter there. And probably no question but that a few people get sick from eating unhygienic local cheese. Americans get cheap books and safe cheese. French get delicious cheese, queasy stomachs and lots of bookstores to browse.
But one should not brush off a behemoth such as Amazon lightly. Amazon recently announced that since it is now barred from offering both the 5 percent price discount and free shipping, it will discount every book it sells in France and charge a fixed fee for shipping of . . . one centime, a penny.
And in the U.S., Amazon has a special price on this item: