The "brew-ha-ha" over suspending the open-container laws so that beer might once again flow freely through the streets of Fells Point at the community's annual festival was the first bit of local news that reminded me, after I had touched down from a five-week summer hiatus in Provence, that the culture shock upon arriving in Europe is only surpassed by the culture shock upon returning home.
It may have been coincidental that my first day home turned out to be an echo of my first day in Provence. There we were, at a medieval festival set in a medieval townscape that had not been created by Disney Enterprises. The famed regional vin ordinaire flowed Rhone-red out of the central fountain in the main square of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The gold-emblazoned souvenir wine glasses (purchased for 10 francs, or $2) served as our ticket to unlimited servings of wine from the fountain. Children, adolescents, teen-agers and adults drank freely from the fountain of wine so long as they had the proper glass. To an American, this portended a disaster in ferment.
That day we never saw a drunken person of any age staggering down the cobblestoned byways we came to know and cherish. It was a scene to be repeated at countless festivals throughout France. Young teen couples ambled arm-in-arm, bottles of Kronenberg beer in the free hand -- a scene that would have been shocking had the strollers been students on the Loyola College campus. Rowdy behavior and graffiti were conspicuously absent. About halfway through the trip I remarked to my wife, "There are no teen-agers in France."
Back in Baltimore, birthplace of the anthem, everything that I didn't miss about America rushed back sharply into focus. In college dorms here and elsewhere, freshmen (and women) -- kids all -- were getting their first taste of freedom through the flip-top opening in a can of Bud or Miller or Old Milwaukee, it didn't matter which.
I'll never understand the fascination that losing consciousness, losing contact with life, has for Americans of all ages. Maybe cocaine is the only way to sweep the pain from the streets in the underburbs of East Baltimore and Watts and Brownsville. But Fells Point awash to the curbs in alcohol would never purge the demons that many festival goers bring with them.
Demons and gargoyles are everywhere in Europe, peering down menacingly from Renaissance facades. It wasn't until I climbed the 136 spiral stone steps to the parapet of Good King Rene's castle in Tarascon that I could look down on the demons and see the channels which drained rain water through their downspout mouths from roofs and terraces in the days before door-to-door aluminum siding and gutter salesman.
Every day I scanned the front page of Midi Libre to see if the news would ratify the uncommonly good feelings that were rapidly making me a Francophile. I was seeing through innocent 1940 eyes. And the hot night spent on a stone bench in a square in the heart of Lyon and the seamless sun-perfect days that enveloped St. Victor La Coste made me yearn for an America that once had been. Meurtre, the French word for "murder," never appeared on the front page in 35 days. And when I turned in our leased Citroen at the Charles de Gaulle Airport west of Paris, I noted that 6,500 kilometers had flashed through our windshield with our having seen only one auto accident.
One of the myths about the French is that they are not very tolerant of ugly Americans. I was surprised by the friendliness and kindness shown to strangers, like the young Frenchmen who went out of his way to lead our car to the peripherique (beltway) so that we could circle Paris and get on to the peage (tollway) heading south to Provence.
The melodic cordiality of shopkeepers' voices, and the soft gentle way mothers had with their children, and the absence of bratty behavior in public by tots -- time after time I was stunned by little things. My wife summed it up for me when she observed, "The French are a very polite people." Now I understood the meaning of ugliness.
Coming home to the ugly squabble over beer and profits at the Fells Point Festival left me feeling strangely disconnected from -- actually not wanting to be connected to -- a society where foolishness passed for morality.
I found out that everyone was angry about George Bush's slow response to the Florida hurricane disaster, that restaurateurs were angry about a girl being shot in a Little Italy mugging, that police were angry over the rash of carjacking that exposed their impotence in dealing with terrorism, and that no one was angry enough to force the city fathers to gather their resolve to deal with the drug problem as efficiently as they proposed to handle the beer problem in the same precincts of Fells Point.
Still, the Fells Point Festival offered the chance to feel the cobblestones beneath my feet again.
Andrew Ciofalo is on leave from his journalism professorship at Loyola College and is devoting the year to writing.