Same Space, A Brisker Pace

Republished by on September 25, 2003

The Times

June 24, 1989

PARIS—Roaring through evening sunlight and showers along
the E5 autoroute north-eastward towards Paris, the words
of the


in Henry V, came suddenly to mind: `Can this
cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?`
And I
found myself wondering, not for the first time, how
Shakespeare knew.

Sheer space and its absence is one of the differences
that most forcefully strikes the traveller between
America and Western Europe. Yet the fields of France are
indeed vast, particularly in that region. And with more
than four times the area of England, France can offer a
hint of the rural emptiness you find motoring through
even the most populated states of America`s eastern

France puts the Englishman resident in America at the
intersection of three cultures. For example, you
regularly come across reminders of England`s medieval
empire in France, the precursor by several centuries of
the later transatlantic empire amid whose similar echoes

I now live.

Charming old towns turn out to have been besieged, or
even owned, by familiar figures from English history
many of whom, in the long aftermath of the Norman
Conquest, were actually, of course, native

In some corner of their hearts, English expatriates
always cherish a romanticized version of their native
land`s countryside. But I am pained to admit that France
seems closer to this ideal. There seems to be an endless
supply of quaint villages and fairy-tale castles,
uncontaminated by modern sprawl whether because of
France`s greater size, or avoidance of the Victorian
industrial revolution, or the natives` thrifty
willingness to live in land-economical apartments.

By contrast, Britain and America share a propensity for

jarring junk development.

But the American wilderness can swallow it. In Britain,
a landscape evolved over a thousand years is being
destroyed. Two years ago, I complained on this page
about the paving-over of the Wirral peninsula since I
lived there as an adolescent. I received a flood of
protesting letters. But I can only conclude sadly that
the process is so insidious that my correspondents have
allowed themselves to be deceived.

When you consider France from an American perspective,
things look different. On a popular level, the Americans
have fully inherited the mutual incomprehension
traditional between the English and the French. But
France fascinates them too. American English is
everywhere in Paris, and American guidebooks are replete
with American angles—the

Luxembourg Gardens

become the place where a destitute Ernest Hemingway

strangled pigeons for lunch.

There is a case, well made in Alain Peyrefitte`s
The Trouble with France,

the two societies represent polar opposites:


with the centralized state and


traditions that can be traced back to Roman Gaul;
America, the extreme case of the Anglo-Saxon preference
for decentralization, limited government, individualism.

But if that`s so, I found myself thinking as we neared
Paris, why were French cars constantly whisking past me
although I was doing 85mph?

In America, the Washington bureaucracy, originally using
the energy crisis as an excuse and arguably breaching
the principle of federalism, has more or less succeeded,
by threatening to withhold highway funds, in imposing a
55mph limit upon all the individual states. This policy,
a misguided substitute for higher petrol prices, was
obviously anomalous given America`s longer distances,
particularly in the

sparsely inhabited western states,

and its

great expressways
edged with acres of soothing gravel where the French
autoroutes have vicious-looking solid barriers.

A promise to relax the restriction

was part of the Republican platform


Ronald Reagan

was elected president in 1980. But, as so often with the
Reagan programme, the permanent government seems to have
prevailed. A long journey by car in America can still
feel like joining a sedate procession of waddling ducks.
On a French autoroute, you feel pursued by hawks. And
you can get there sooner.

The point is not just that the French have speed limits
but ignore them. The French speed limits are higher
anyway. American government may be generally less
intrusive, but its interventions are often massive,
clumsy and imbued with a crusading moral fanaticism.

You could illustrate the issue equally with reference to
toilet facilities in French restaurants, startlingly
meagre to North American eyes although presumably
acceptable to French health inspectors. But I will

Every man, Voltaire said in the 18th century, has

two countries: his own and France.

In the 20th century America has come to play this role.
Anyone who doubts it should contemplate the McDonald
hamburger stands in Paris, filled with feeding French.
But in the glory of early summer it would be a hard
heart that is not melted by this magic land.

The author is a senior editor of
Magazine in New York.

[Originally published in England, spelling and grammar
vary slightly from American style.]