One of the more difficult things about coming back from a relatively long vacation is the realisation that the world has remained as depressing and stupid a place as it was before you left.
Not, of course, that being on vacation usually means in any way being truly away from the world; however, if you do it right, it is possible to achieve a certain distance from current events and to let your mental horizon shrink to focus more-or-less exclusively on things such as buying fresh baguettes every morning, watching for the fishing boats to return with the high tide and walking along the sea while keeping an eye out for fossilised marine life.
Being cut off from the Internet, I discovered, is particularly vital in achieving that sort of holiday Zen, and, as I also found out, there is no place like provincial northern France - where Internet cafes are very few and very far between - for being forced into that position. This wouldn't have been so much of a problem, but I was pushed to seeking out some kind of public Web access at the start of our holiday because of work reasons. Mission accomplished, as it were, I then gave up on any further efforts to stay connected, not least because of the dismaying realisation that French keyboards are arranged significantly differently than English and German ones. Reduced to frustrated hunting and pecking (I never did manage to find the damned apostrophe), maintaining anything beyond a few necessary e-mail contacts was just too difficult to contemplate.
Thus, I think I spent less time online over the last three weeks than during any time over the past ten years.
Which, after overcoming the initial withdrawal symptoms, was all to the good in the end.
Through the miracle of satellite technology we had access to German television, which provided me with some kind of comprehensible window on the world. (My wife speaks fluent French, but while my French is now getting good enough for buying bread and ordering coffee - probably the two most important skills for a successful vacation - it's still too primitive for politics. I did, however, once manage spontaneously to blurt out in conversation "Non, je suis Americain, mais....je suis aussi contre Bush", which made me feel immensely pleased with myself. Savour the small victories in life, I say.)
Although it was great to be able to watch some worthwhile films and documentaries offered by Arte, maintain the required minimum intake of German crime dramas and keep up with my favourite soap opera, I once again realised how little you actually find out about the world through television. You get a general gist and some fleeting images, but anything more complex is, like the apostrophe on a French keyboard, hopelessly lost. You see Blair give a speech and grumpy Labour delegates at the end of their patience but no sense of how the real palace intrigues and backstabbing are in fact moving along. You see burning cars and blackened market squares in Iraq, as ever, but no indication of the extent to which the situation is improving or - as it seems is the case - worsening. You know that the Pope said something stupid, but you don't really find out just what it was.
So, not being able to follow anything with any depth whatsoever, I found myself ignoring it. Every once in a while, a vague sort of curiosity about what was going on outside of our immediate environment would drift through my mind, but it was easily enough banished, especially as the weather was unexpectedly cooperative, the wine was outstanding and the waters of the Channel very inviting indeed.
It was, moreover, a good opportunity for some reading of the more old fashioned sort (you know, the kind which doesn't involve a screen) and I thank Mme. Lessing and Messrs. Updike, Roth, Eagleton and Orwell for their hours of fine, thought-provoking company.
Now, I'm back and, slowly, I'm beginning to regain my faculties for relatively complex thinking (such as they are). Once again connected to the big, wide, dumb world, I'll get back to complaining about things soon enough.