PARIS — Some clichés have outlived their usefulness. One of them is the myth of French rudeness. I just returned from a whirlwind tour of four countries — Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, France— on a bucket-list trip I contracted for back in the spring, before I realized how close to the end of the election season it would fall. (I know. I know.)
In any case, most of the trip took place in French-speaking Europe, and most of that was in La Belle France itself. Not once did I utter a syntactically complete and correct French sentence to a native of the country, and seldom did I even attempt it. (Well, make an exception for "Où est la toilette?")
Moreover, I was in a group that had its share of American-style rowdies. But no French person — clerk, waiter, or citizen — was anything but kind and responsive and willing to try to navigate across the language barrier in our direction.
Nor was there anything goose-steppy or overbearing about the Germans our group encountered in Munich, or elsewhere in the swaths of Bavaria or western Germany we traversed. Even as reports of newly indigenous German pacifism indicate, and just as the song says, this country ain't gonna study war no more.
A stark reminder of the reasons for that was evidenced in the human and architectural tableau that occurs every afternoon in Munich's downtown square of Marienplatz, where a crowd, composed of both locals and visitors (the latter drawn last week from an estimated 6 million of diverse nationalities in town for the ongoing Oktoberfest), gathers at 5 p.m. in front of the city's medieval city hall structure.
As the bells chime out the time, what follows is a mechanical musical template involving two sequential levels of drama enacted by painted wooden figures in the building's belfry — the higher of which shows a pair of jousting knights, while the lower sets in motion wooden figures of celebrants dancing in glee as the slumping of one of the knights on his horse indicates that the trouble above is all over.
The cheers that issue forth from the massive crowd in the square are clearly for the depicted revelry and not for the little show of combat that preceded it. Ain't gonna study war no more.
Off to the right of Marienplatz is a tall, yellowish building with long, cone-shaped spires that make it look simultaneously medieval and futurist and which somehow has the look of a movie prop rather than a truly functional structure. And, indeed, one is told that this is the site of the old city hall, totally destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II and replaced by a concrete facade with squares painted on to simulate the building's original stones.
Munich wishes above all to manifest its ancient traditions of Gemütlichkeit — hence, the massive annual carnival of Oktoberfest (the original one so named, mind you, and one that dwarfs all imitative festivals, in Memphis or elsewhere).
The city is doing its best to live down its reputation as an erstwhile Nazi capital, of sorts. It was here that an ex-solider named Adolf Hitler attempted to begin a putsch against the newly established Weimar Republic in 1923, and it was here that Hitler, after release from a slap-on-the-wrist prison term, established his party headquarters, biding his time until the international Depression in the early 1930s generated enough new chaos for an already traumatized people to see his iron-hand rule as a last, desperate way out.
We know the story, and, believe me, so do the Germans. They maintain Dachau, the suburban retention facility that became the new regime's first concentration camp, as an object lesson for themselves as well as for the steady train of international visitors that come to see it.
As for the erstwhile headquarters building of the National Socialist German Workers' (Nazi) Party that served as the site for the signing of the fateful Munich Agreement of 1938 and that, against all odds, survived the war intact, it has been converted into a Hochschule für Musik, a conservatory.
As for the prospect of tensions between Islamic immigrants and long-term inhabitants of the predominant ethnicity anywhere in Europe, I offer only two images, admittedly incomplete, to suggest the spectrum.
There was the kids' soccer team in Munich, taking a break from practice at an ice cream store, with one of the players, a swarthy lad with the name Mohamed identifying him on his jersey, joking at ease with his blondish teammates. So there can be, and is, some acceptance.
And in Paris, warily patrolling the edge of a large throng gathered in front of an ongoing mass and communion at Notre Dame Cathedral, were members of a SWAT squadron, making their presence felt as a clear warning to any would-be militants of the sort that famously have staged murderous raids in the recent past and have begun to cast the faint shadow of fear on the edifices and attractions of the City of Light. So there can be, and is, apprehension.
• MEMPHIS, Tennessee — I know the foregoing, strictly speaking, isn't political in the way that readers of this column expect. Nor is it explicitly relevant to the issues and possible outcomes of the pivotal city election that is just concluding.
And yet, there are legitimate points of reference. Ethnic pre-judgments — whether uttered afresh by Donald Trump or whomever or merely passed sotto voce through the medium of voters' habits — will have played a role in the results here in Memphis. There is a reason why demographic categories exist in all legitimate polls of likely election outcomes.
There is a "white vote," and there is a "black vote," and both categories are spoken of freely and taken stock of in the estimations and planning sessions of all serious campaigns.
When, after this week, we look at the results of the 2015 races for mayor, city clerk, and at-large Memphis City Council races, it will be truly revealing to gauge the strength of habitual ethnic voting patterns vis-à-vis the impact of economics or a myriad of issues that transcend race.
Was there a significant impact from the last-minute revelations of a lucrative contract (now canceled under pressure) that was bestowed on Deidre Malone, Mayor A C Wharton's campaign manager, to promote the city's new police body cameras?
With four mayoral candidates all drawing significant votes from various constituencies, where will vote splits have mattered most decisively — in the "black vote" that Wharton needed a commanding share of to prevail? Or within the ranks of voters anxious for change and uncertain as to which of three challengers to give their votes to?
Within that choice lie two different outcomes, and how the choice will have been made is one key to the mayoral outcome, as, for that matter, will have been the relative turnouts of major voting blocs.
If there is a single undoubtable given in the mayor's race, it is in the nearly monolithic vote that Councilman Jim Strickland, regarded as Wharton's leading challenger, was expected to receive from white voters. Strickland was doing his best to court disaffected black voters, as well, and the results will demonstrate whether that effort, perhaps abetted by the aforementioned "September Surprise," came to something or nothing.
Both Councilman Harold Collins and Memphis Police Association president Mike Williams seemed to be making late converts. To what result?
What was the voter takeaway from the Lipscomb Affair? That's another enigma.
How effective was the unprecedented outpouring of money by the two leading mayoral candidates and by a few candidates, hitherto political unknowns, for council positions?
As we speak, all these questions are about to be answered.
Meanwhile, suspense will continue in the several expected runoffs in single-district Council races, not to be decided until November 19th.