Old Houses, Narrow Streets


In one of his more eloquent moments, my son referred to Portugal as an iceberg in time: whatever you see of the present is a tiny part, towed and moved by the massive weight of history.

He wasn’t wrong, of course. Part of the freight on Portuguese culture is the “way we do things” some of which go back to Rome, and it’s impossible to see how counterproductive they are, because they have become “the way we do things.”  In fact, they are largely invisible, just like water is to a fish.

Not that it hasn’t broken, at times, with traumas or — forgive me for using such a term — a paradigm shift, such as the discoveries. But — like art styles, which is what makes Portuguese monumental architecture so fascinating — it never really goes away, it just gets overlaid.

Europe has come the closest I’ve seen to changing the culture, and it’s not really, it’s just another layer.

How does this influence someone growing up in it?  Well, history is impossible to ignore, and you get a sense of how tightly packed it was.

It is comparable to the two Victorians we lived in for the last 30 years or so: you couldn’t turn around and change something, without becoming acutely aware of all the people who’d lived there the hundred years before you, and everything they’d done and changed.

The US, in contrast, is like living in the nice suburban home we have now.  Sure, it was hastily built and it shows in places, and the only couple who lived there before us never wasted an opportunity to do something in the most bass awkward and bizarre way possible, but overall, it’s just a nice relatively young house and much easier to change because you’re not dealing with a century of stranger’s (and strange) decisions and short cuts.

So how did growing up with that freight of the past affect my writing?

I don’t know.  I don’t know for the same reason you can’t be on the street and watch yourself walk by.  J. K. Rowling spent two or three years in the city next to the village I grew up in, i.e. the place I spent most of my time after elementary school.  People keep tracing to her work all sorts of peculiarities of the city.  Though I’m not sure they’re right about the cloaks and suits, because you know, Cambridge and other university towns int he UK preserve medieval attire too.  Honestly, though, I can see the platform whatever and a half coming from her experience with Portuguese railroads, because it often feels like your train is leaving from a secret platform. (And anyway I had all sorts of daydreams tied in to the Portuguese railroads and stations, mostly because they’re chaotic and never throw anything away: there’s carriages and abandoned trains in forgotten byways. But mostly for the same reason I had daydreams about roads.  “I wanna get out of this place.”)

I know that I grew up in a family — or at least with a dad — that cherishes history and historical accounts, as well as legends, and in a place so old that it’s thought to be the longest inhabited area of Portugal.

There were Roman mines in the woods near the train line. There were Roman and medieval inscriptions in the woods dad took me through. It’s impossible not to be aware of these people, that they lived there, and that they and their way of life are mostly gone.

Does it change anything?

I don’t know.  There is only so much deep history you can put in a story, or a future history, before your readers roll their eyes and go “oh, please, now.”

And you have to make the events right there more important, right? Or else, you get lost in grey goo. “Sure, there’s a barbarian invasion, and civilization might collapse.  There’s been many civilizations. Yawn.”

I think perhaps — at least son said this as we were trampling around Porto’s oldest part, (oldest house stills standing dating to the 9th century, before the country existed) — most games and books in the US lack that feel.  The feel of deep time, of things just getting overlaid and surviving wars and revolutions, etc, and still being used, more or less for the purpose they were built.

Maybe I can write more convincingly about stuff being really old and overlaid, and the feel people lived here a long time.  Maybe.

Because with writing the problem is always that you have to both be aware enough of it to write it and communicate it to the next person.  And mostly, what really comes through is the stories people tell themselves about the past, which tend to have a certain sameness to them, whether the past is actually there or not, if that makes sense.

Next up: songs of fate.





122 thoughts on “Old Houses, Narrow Streets

  1. Well, America is a new world. It still has that new world smell and the springs retain all of their bounce. Of course it feels different.

      1. Australia is. The oldest buildings in the country (in Sydney) date back to shortly before or shortly after 1800. When I moved to SE Pennsylvania, it blew my mind to see so many 1700s buildings. There’s definitely a sense of history here that isn’t present in Australia – but then, Australia also wears its history lightly, if that makes sense.

        Possibly that’s the “Australian cultural cringe” of feeling the lack of history and established/ancient cultural traditions meaning that the nation is a bit… lesser than others. It could also have something to do with the national myths being built primarily off convict settlers rather than off religious refugees the way Americans did. I don’t know, but I can see the difference between Oz and US attitudes to history.

        I can only imagine the weight of history in Europe. Or Asia. Or anywhere else that’s been continuously inhabited and settled for thousands of years.

        1. Saying goes something like “In America, a hundred years is a long time and in Europe, A hundred miles is a long distance.” and I’m sure it works for Australia as well. We might not have been here for a thousand years, but we spread a rather unique viewpoint across a far larger area than most of the rest of the nations on the planet, with a lack of cultural and historical weight that often holds back places like Russia or China.

        2. New England was religious refugees/fanatics out for utopia. The South was partly a dumping ground for convicts. The UK started shipping them to Australia after the American Revolutionary War.

          1. Pennsylvania is part of the mid-Atlantic states, situated between New England and the South. While formed as a Quaker colony by the English, it was one of the first to institute religious freedom.

            Philadelphia, was a center of commerce and culture by the time of the Revolution. It was the second or third largest city (depending on your source) in the British Empire as well. That is quite an accomplishment for a city that was so young.

          2. *Georgia* was a dumping ground for convicts, TYVM. MD, VA, and the Carolinas were a much more commercial prospect.

              1. A point of interest: at one point Georgia became the first colony to attempt to ban slavery — but the crown intervened ordering them not to do so.

                1. Hey! The Royal Navy needed the trained sailors provided through the slave traffic. It isn’t as if they didn’t practice slavery (impressment) for staffing their ships, is it?

                  1. Since the main purpose of Georgia was to hold government slaves aka convicts….

        3. If you are in center city Philadelphia and you are in a building built after the 1880s it is certainly not original to the property. Over in Fairmount park there is the Boelson built around 1678, considered the oldest remaining structure in the city.

          Growing up in the city I thought I had developed a real sense of history, living with it everyday. Then I traveled.

          (So the living with it sometimes consisted of sitting with friends in Independence park and playing guess from where the passing tourists came. Middle school age kids are not always that nice.)

        4. Yeah, there’s definitely a sense of cultural cringe; there seems to be an embarrassment of teaching history these days as well, but at the same time you’re right that Australia ‘wears’ it’s history lightly. I’ve been wanting to get books that detail the early Australian settlement / day to day details and such, and I found it a bit frustrating that it’s a bit hard to find.

          It’s easier to find research when one wants to look up stuff about Japan, or China, or Europe, but other places, not so much.

          1. There is a series of Australian settlement novels from the 1970’s or 1980’s, and I cannot think what the author’s name is. Some kind of bestseller guy.

          2. I can find history about medieval England or France in the library. Germany? forget it!

            1. The history of Germany has been suppressed, just as The Church frustrated the formation of the united German state.

              Back in the Nineties while traveling through Detroit the family crossed the river into Windsor for a visit. We had to ask the clerk at a bookstore* where the Canadian History was and he ruefully acknowledged there wasn’t any.

              We have since purchased Conrad Black’s (freaking mammoth – if you get it I recommend the electronic version) history of Canada, commencing with the Earth’s cooling.

              *Why yes, my family does think the thing to do when visiting other countries is to hit the bookstores.

        5. I get a similar feeling when visiting castles and cathedrals in Europe. Europe has a certain way of making *everything* in America feel old!

          I have never been to Australia, but I have a funny feeling I’d still think it feels new. I have lived in Utah for most of my life, and the oldest things (not counting petroglyphs and abandoned Anasazi homes) has, of necessity, been built after 1847.

          1. And, of course, when I say “everything in America feel old”, I meant’ everything in America feel new”.

            Sigh. I’m getting old. 😉

    1. I suppose. Okay I cannot imagine living in a 9th century house, but I have lived in New England houses that were nine centuries “younger.” You can see the “seams” where it went from fireplace – to wood stove – to coal furnace and steam radiators – to oil and forced air. When plumbing came indoors, when the miracle of electricity replaced the whale oil or kerosene lanterns.

      Old enough for me – having grown up in the Southwest, where the very oldest buildings (pretty much schools) were barely fifty years old when I was in them.

    2. Depends on how you look at it. When the Pilgrims arrived, they found a ghost town because of a fishing ship that had brought some disease. Bodies were lying unburied because any survivors had fled.

  2. Instead of history, a gradual accretion of “how it’s always been done,” the US has a central creed, a mythology if you will, of what it means to be American and what tenets are required to be taken to heart to be truly American. Ours is a society as a sort of experiment in applied philosophy. Yeah, Americans don’t usually pay all that much attention to history, except as examples of our creed or examples of rejecting that creed.

  3. Historic houses at home in Dallas might be 150 years old. Most of the houses in this village are at least that old. Like Joni Mitchell sang, too old and cold and settled in its ways here.

  4. In my travels in both England and Germany I was always aware of the weight of history embedded in my surroundings.
    The same though to a lesser extent can be felt in places like New Orleans, towns and cities in the Northeast, and some places in the Southwest such as early Spanish settlements. But adobe does not last nearly as long as stone.
    In some ways I consider Ogden and Salt Lake to be icons of the American spirit where they laid the streets wide open, not narrow pathways barely suitable for two horses to pass each other. And of course once the source of your daily needs did not need to be within walking distance that changed everything, but not so much in Europe where everything had already centuries before been literally set in stone.

    1. But wasn’t Salt Lake City laid out about the same time as the redo of Paris where they put in all those big wide boulevards to make good fields of fire for artillery?

      1. Salt Lake City was laid out beginning in 1847. The story goes that Brigham Young wanted the streets wide enough for a wagon to turn around “without resorting to profanity”. He got his ideas from Joseph Smith, who in 1833 drew out a plat for the “City of Zion” he intended to build in Missouri. The square grid layout was also taken from Joseph Smith’s ideas.

        1. San Francisco is mostly the produst of 1849+, and thus all square grids, which was the height of urban planning at that point. But really nothing wide, and the grids there are laid out with absolutely no recognition of the underlying topography, which yielded great streets to film Steve Mcqueen’s Ford v Dodge car chase in Bullitt.

          You can see the impact of the Mormon settlement of what was then outside the United States all over the US Southwest in all the towns that have a baseline road – those folks were all over surveying.

          1. Since I mentioned it, here is the greatest motion picture car chase of all time:

        2. The main roads in Salt Lake City are two chains wide. Edmund Gunter developed his chain (22 yards) in the early 17th century to decimalize the medieval system of rods, acres, and dayworks.

          I view it a a question of how you treat history. Is it a foundation to build on, or a wall to limit?

        3. Sadly, whoever did the master layout failed to understand the concept of “zero”. You see, Temple Square is the origin of the grid. It is bounded by 4 streets: North Temple (on the North), East Temple, & West &South Temple. Each of these streets serves as 0 East (or west or north, etc.) for the grid. So far, so good.

          Sadly, East Temple and West Temple are a block apart. And there are properties along the cross streets…. between 0 N and 0 S!

          So…. What’s the correct address for the house on, say, 10th East St that sits exactly mid-way between North Temple and South Temple? It doesn’t actually have a natural place in the numbering system because it’s not actually a proper Cartesian grid. Sigh…

          It’s <0 N and also <0 S. Ouch.

      2. A number of places were taken by the redo of Paris.

        Center City Philadelphia had been laid out on a neat grid system. Under the influence of the Paris redo the city decided to cut a wide boulevard from the new city hall being built on Penn Square to the Philadelphia museum at the edge of Fairmount park — putting it at an angle to the established grid system.

    2. … and some places in the Southwest such as early Spanish settlements.

      Yes, The Daughter and I found that standing in the central square in Santa Fe was like being in a different country.

      1. Not so much in San Diego. Presidio Park, site of the first permanent Spanish settlement in 1769, has ordinary buildings on two sides of the park and if you go out behind the Presidio (now a museum) you look across a canyon to parts of the Naval Hospital and the city (or you did last time I was there.) Neighboring Old Town became a state historic park in 68, which at first mostly meant more signs, some preservation efforts, and the state became the landlord. But after Jerry Brown became governor the first time in 75 one of his friends decided that it needed to be run like a business. Rents went up, some businesses were declared to be incompatible, lots of fancy upscale shops appeared, and long before I fled California in the mid-80s it had become a pure tourist trap. 😖

  5. In my opinion, part of the newness feeling of America is the lack of stone construction. You go tromping around England, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, German, Luxembough, Spain, etc. you’re seeing buildings built with stone that have stood for centuries, and those stones in many cases have been used in half a dozen structures prior to the one they’re currently in.

    There are some stone buildings and structures in America, and they do have a flavor, a feeling, of age and permanence. Look at the stone bridges in Acadia National Park in Maine. They feel ancient, even if they were only built by the CCC less than 100 years ago. You get similar feelings of some of the stone railroad bridges like the one in Keene NH., or an old stone road bridge between Keene and Henniker. There’s a beautiful old stone church in Dover, another in Durham, yet another stone building in Newmarket (where they do Medieval dinner theater.) You get similar feelings just wandering the woods and fields looking at the stonewalls; even though those are all only about 100 to 150 years old.

    What is it about holding or touching a rock that just seems to soak up history and drives visions of the past like we were all some kind of amateur psychometrists?

    1. The library I work in is built onto a 1902 Carnegie Library, and I do love the feeling of age imparted by the stone.
      The walls separating the old from the new were left as exposed stone, rather than trying to cover it with drywall or plaster, and I love it.

    2. There are a few stone construction houses in New England. One near where I grew up was the Henry Whitfield house and dates to 1639 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Whitfield_House). It is a little unusual as it’s modeled on northern English and Scottish country houses from that period. It is quarried and dressed stone so kind of formal looking. I’m suprised that you don’t see field stone houses more often as the usual results of trying to set set up a farm in in Connecticut is several cubic yards of assorted field stone. You do see field stone chimneys/fireplaces pretty regularly as decent clay for brick making is rarer than the stone :-).
      It may be that the sheer quantities of mortar you need for field stone construction and New England freeze thaw cycles being hard on mortar may have made it impractical.

  6. I’d heard someone say and I thought it made sense and agreed, that the truly revolutionary thing about Star Wars was that the future was old.

    (Huh, just realized that I have two people in the WIP discussing just how many times humanity had advanced into the stars only to have civilization collapse but I should probably include some physical representation.)

    1. To me it was that the spaceships were old: The Millenium Falcon looked like an old tramp freighter, where pretty much any representation of spaceships prior were bright shiny sparkly new-off-the-dealership.

      1. A Navy Reservist (flew A3 in SE Asia) co-worker noted that the X-wing fighters looked like they really were in a flight line; kind of grungy and somewhat war-weary.

        1. A lot of that is just due to the constraints of Naval Aviation – take a look at modern day photos of the planes on a CVN and they all look pretty grimy and well used, unless they just flew on board from the factory – here’s a link:

          Disregard the Marine advancing in the foreground and look at the SeaHawk delivering the board-and-search party – grimy like that. No matter how much you scrub on that stuff, only strip-and-repaint will get it looking clean again, and they are not going to do that on the boat.

      2. That was the #1 thing I liked about the movie – the Falcon’s dangling wiring, open access panels, the ring of grime around the hatch button, the bits of trash kicked to the side. And the Falcon wasn’t exactly *reliable*…

        It was a much different thing from the sanitized-for-your-protection Z-57-D, Jupiter 2, or Enterprise…

        I saw the movie in the theater in 1977, and I *still* get a facepalm laugh when I think about the Falcon failing to make the jump to hyperdrive…

        1. And I always get a kick out of when Han powers up the Falcon, and it immediately shuts down…and he gives a well placed tap on a spot that’s well-worn (indicating that he has done this *often*) to get the Falcon up and running again!

    2. “Alien” caught a similar feel- the Nostromo looks like a worn working ship

  7. Americans don’t understand ‘history’ per se. Our history is ONLY 240ish years… The example that brought it home to me was a friend in Spain. The family had ONLY lived in their house for 550 years, so they were still the new kids on the block! And time spent in Greece and Sicily, seeing the Greek influence and ruins overlayed with the Roman ruins made me take a second look at how I thought about history. Another gotcha was that the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome was designed and built by Michelangelo, and is STILL in use…

    1. Only 240? Speak for yourself. My family has been in North America since the 1690s. And I live in an area originally settled in the 1630s. There is 150 years of American History that predates the Revolution.

      1. So your family is a newcomer…. I can document the earliest birth in the colonies in 1635.

        But two sets of great-grandparents got here in the late 1800s, one set from England, the well to do ones, and one set from Ireland- the not so well to do ones.

    2. I remember a radio interview during the Kosovo War, where the American correspondent at the site of a recently ended battle, asked a local, “What happened here?”
      “Well, four hundred years ago…,” the interviewee began. The American interviewer was dumbfounded.

      1. Same for my favorite college teacher, who taught Eastern European history. Told of seeing a lovely ruined church and asking his guide about it. The guide hissed back “TURKS did this.” “I’m sorry to hear that. When did it happen?” “1625, 1650…”

        1. That’s one of the things that drives me crazy about those BBC travelogue/documentaries. “This former church has been open to the elements since the Vikings stole the lead roof from it in 817 AD…”

          Well, damn. It has only been twelve hundred years, and nobody can be arsed to fix the stupid thing? If the church didn’t want it any more it would be a decent barn. Or for that matter, the stones would have been valuable, back when men worked them by hand.

          But nooo, the country is full of buildings that could be useful for something, that they won’t fix. I’d bet they have laws against that sort of thing, the way they think…

    3. The history of the United States may only go back some 250 years, but that is not the beginning of its the history. It is intricately tied to the colonial period, in which the Spanish, French, English and Dutch all built settlements.

      The Spanish established St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, considered the oldest continuously inhabited city in the country. The area had previously been occupied for a short time by a French Huguenot settlers, who moved further north.

      1. Then there are the Indian Mounds, stone circles and Anasazi Indian ruins. There’s an awful lot of history here that we’ve never bothered/managed to learn.

        1. The Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico has been continuously occupied for more than two thousand years. 

  8. Last summer I got to pet the oldest surviving piece of wattle-and-daub in northern Europe. It is part of a hotel that “just growed’ ” from a warehouse to a patrician’s house to an inn to a hotel, and that incorporates parts of five buildings that go back to the 1200s. In 2017, it was a patrician’s house/warehouse in Lübek turned hotel. it only dated to the late 1200s-early 1300s, and had been extensively remodeled around 1500. The buildings had presence, for lack of a better word, but were worn, and had in some ways become part of the landscape.

    Vienna and its surroundings feels old, older even than “just” Roman. Well, it turns out that settlements have been in that area since the Paleolithic, so 40-30 thousand years of people have worked, loved, fought, pondered, and partied there. I can barely begin to imagine.

      1. Goldener Adler in Schwabisch Hall, and Die Hasse in Lübek. The Adler has the wattle-and-daub. Di Hasse had the oldest staircase I’ve climbed in a public building. The wood dated to the 1700s, and it showed. NOT designed for Americans with suitcases!

  9. I remember when we first moved into our house feeling vaguely guilty about the renovations we did. After all, the previous family worked hard to put that wall in the garage and get that nice induction stove. What right did we, as the interlopers, have to come take all of that away? We did, because darn it, this is our house now, but I still feel a little sad that we destroyed what had taken the last family 10 years to make.

    Change that 10 years to 1000, and make it the entire society instead of just one family, and I think I have at least a little bit of an idea how the weight of history and “how things have always been done” can take a hold of a place.

    1. That’s one of things that I see being a problem over deep time: If everything becomes a Register Of Old Places entry, and thus cannot be replaced or renovated, and all the open land near any city gets gobbled up into Open Space Preserves and National Monuments and State Parks and such, run the clock forward a few hundred years an the only place anyone will be able to nail up a board would be off planet.

      Of course, moving everyone off planet and making Earth a Nature and Historical Preserve complete with reenactor docents for the tourists, like they did in Sparta during the Roman Empire, would probably work just fine. Get all the industry off planet and a lot of possibilities open up.

      1. That’s pretty much what happened in Zelazny’s “And Call Me Conrad…” And the guy who owned most of Earth afterward hired a bunch of actors make a documentary about the building of the Pyramids, which they were disassembling by hand, so they could run the resulting film backwards…

    2. I’ve lived in two houses that were 50-60 years old at move-in time. The 1903 four-square that we lived in in 1960 to ’72 saw the conversion from coal heat to converted-boiler, to purpose built boiler. The kitchen stack had been removed on the first floor; I think Dad and Grampa stifled some rough commentary when they found the brick remnant in the second-story. At least they knew why the floor was sagging there…

      The Depression era house I got in the mid 1980s was built on a budget, and modified by someone who didn’t know better, at least at times; some things worked well, a couple were major “Yikes!” discoveries. I *think* the modifications we did improved the place; last I looked (satellite FTW), the exterior looks like we left it. OTOH, if they didn’t re-renovate the kitchen, they’re nutty. We were on a tight budget, both for money and time. Did the best I could with the resources at that point.

      1. I lived in a lovely little house in South Ogden, Utah – built solidly in 1936, with plenty of storage space, closets, etc, and a deep back yard with a bearing cherry tree and a row of prodigiously-bearing apricot trees along one side of the lot, a row of lilac bushes along the other, AND a vegetable plot — and a shed which could have been a chicken house, another for tools and stuff.
        Sigh. I loved that little place. I would have bought it from the owner, who leased it to me as a rental.
        Alas – I never got to come back to Hill AFB, for which I still bear a grudge to the AF assignments weenies.
        It had been renovated in the 1960ies, by someone who basically made it look like a cheap double-wide. Ghastly carpet, cheap paneling, including covering one of the windows in the living room …
        There was an architectural historian who postulated that the most perfect American small houses were built between about 1910 and 1940 – they made accommodation for indoor plumbing and electricity, but were tightly-designed, attractive, economically livable. I loved that little house…

        1. The Ogden place sounded like it could have been really nice, with changes.

          The 1936 house definitely hit the sweet spot. It had the paneling and burnt-orange shag in a back room. I never got the round-tuit to upgrade the electric wiring; it was all knob and tube in the main part of the house, and thus preventing insulation. OTOH, it was in San Jose, with usually mild climate. On the gripping hand, it was in San Jose, California, so when my job disappeared, it was time to go.

          I had to do some major renovations; the back part of the house was getting eaten by termites, so I had to rebuild two walls. Kitchen and main bath needed work ranging from bare studs to bare floor joists.

          We finished and listed it, and went up to Klamath County to finish house hunting. After showing us some rather inappropriate places, our agent showed what we asked to see. We loved it, made a contingent offer and went home. All on Labor Day weekend.

          At that point, we had two tentative offers on the SJ house. One was probably a coyote or wannabe slumlord looking for a safehouse for a boatload of people. They wanted to house people in the ancient garage and the storage shed. No, nope, no way. The other was a couple, one with a really lucrative tech job. Don’t know about her spouse/SO. They wanted a fast sale (we closed in 2 weeks), and we were able to get our purchase to match. Ended up with three(!) storage units for non-essentials, and we packed just enough to get by. Hired movers to do the household, I later rented a truck to do the shop, and we were done by Halloween.

          If I were a lot younger, I’d look for a similar house in Klamath Falls, but what we have suits our needs. Triple-wide (built 1999), upgraded floors, new kitchen cabinets, and several outbuildings that weren’t there when we bought. I just finished fencing off the solar power array, so I can wire them up and start powering the pumphouse soon.

        2. WordPress ate my response…

          If (a big “if”) we could have insulated the 1936 house affordably, it would have been great in Klamath County. Knob-and-tube wiring requires no wall insulation, and I never got to the point of doing that upgrade.

          It had a 20 x 20 room at the back. Originally shop space, no ceiling panels and a toilet in a cubicle in a corner, and laundry in another. In the ’60s, it was upgraded with partitions, to be a family room, the laundry room, and a small bedroom. Great office for me.

          When the dot-com-boom turned into the dot-bomb, I found a consulting gig, but we were already planning on leaving. (Hey, it was in California…). The back room needed major work, like two new exterior walls (termites) and a panelectomy. The orange shag carpet went a long time previously.

          Had to take the kitchen to the studs, got decent power and installed DIY cabinets and laminate flooring (resource constraints said “quick and fixable”), while the bathroom needed a new floor and plumbing fixes.

          We got it done and listed just before Labor Day. Did our househunting that weekend and made an offer. We came home to two offers (one from a possible coyote looking to do a safehouse, or else he was a wannabe slumlord; he wanted the garage and a shed to be living space. Nope!), and another from a well-paid tech worker. Accepted that offer.

          The only gotcha was the 2 week closing time; we made it, thanks to three storage units. Hired movers for the house, I rented a truck for the shop stuff, and we were moved completely by Halloween. Whew!

          I’ve vowed not to do major renovations again. We had the kitchen done, though I installed engineered flooring. Some of the new outbuildings on the land are my handiwork, but no renovations. 🙂

    3. “…feeling vaguely guilty about the renovations we did,” Zsuzsa.

      Our school system and the leftist culture try to make us feel guilty to own things. My parents had their own home built from scratch with no mortgage, yet my father worried over every nail driven into the wall to hang a picture. They lived in that house until they died, and it was theirs outright.

      When a neighbor bought a bed for their 8-year-old son and told him it was his, he carved his name into the headboard. They were horrified. When they told my wife, she said, “Well it’s his now, isn’t it?”

      Private property is the fountain of prosperity, yet as a child I was told by my teachers and textbooks that the Indians owned no property as if that were a good thing. And we evil, mean colonials put up fences and built farms that despoiled the wondrous natural vegetation by watering the land, growing crops and feeding the hungry (for profit, quelle horreur!).

      Now Amazon, etc. don’t want me to own DVDs. Just stream everything. You buy the rights to it, but we keep it on our servers. Possession is nine-tenths of the law.

      Don’t ever let anybody use the slur “capitalism”. It’s private property and free enterprise and is the true source of wealth. Living off the land usually means dying slowly or suddenly off the land.

      1. I was told by my teachers and textbooks that the Indians owned no property as if that were a good thing.

        So … how’s that worked out for them?

  10. When I was assigned to RAF Mildenhall, UK in the early 90s, you couldn’t get away from the history. I lived in a small city called Ely, in a building that was built around 1850. You could see where indoor plumbing had been shoehorned in, and electrical wires ran along the interior walls, rather than inside them. Below is a link for my neighborhood. Have a stroll over to the cathedral, or go the opposite direction and find the house where Oliver Cromwell once lived.


  11. In general American schools do a terrible job teaching history. My husband and I have come to realize that many people under 32 really have no idea of the major events of the 20th century.

    Blame the obsession with standardized K-12 reading and math (but not history) tests? I don’t know. It’s not regrettable, as, say, the desertion of the literary canon is regrettable. It’s downright dangerous, as an ignorance of history coupled with an arrogant belief that the millenials are the most important and well-educated generation ever will lead to tears.

    1. Alas, given some of the teachers’ interpretation of the subject, I don’t know how much getting to the twentieth century would help. But certainly very few of my teachers seemed to be able to get all the way to the end of a syllabus over the course of a school year, so in history class, more recent events tended to suffer.

      1. Do you remember the old Time-Life books on topics such as the Second World War and the Korean War? The pictures were interesting. You couldn’t help but grow more interested in the topic.

        The modern fascination with computerized media (and “up to date” texts) removes the serendipity of having interesting books sitting around a classroom. Plus, computer resources go screen by screen; you can’t leaf through a computerized text in the same way you can a book.

        A lack of knowledge of the 20th century means there’s a lack of knowledge of what fascism, socialism, communism really meant in practice in Europe. (This impression is gathered from conversations with “well educated” 20-somethings today.)

        The Socialists and Communists are actively educating young Americans in their ideologies on our soil; it would be a good idea for our school system to educate them about capitalism and democracy.

        1. The Socialists and Communists are actively educating young Americans in their ideologies on our soil; it would be a good idea for our school system to educate them about capitalism and democracy.

          Certainly. At least it will once we get the school system populated by people who aren’t Socialists and Communists.

    2. In general American schools do a terrible job teaching history.

      Fixed that for you.

      Abut the only thing I can think of which the American public schools teach well is disrespect for authority and how to conceal it.

    3. Part of it is the fact that recent events get covered last, and therefore slide off the plate. Add in politicized curricula.

      Having said that, most of the young people know they are ill-educated. They just don’t know where to go to fix this. One item on my “to write after I retire” list is a Post-World-War-II American History overview.

      1. Actually, we need more solid outlines for self-education that teenagers and twentysomethings (and older) who want to fix that. Works to read and topics to write about (encourage blogging) would be key.

        The problem is finding someone well educated and read enough to write it.

    4. “History” in my high school was split up into 9-week electives. I took one about WWII.

      We learned it was all America’s fault (if they ever told us exactly why, I’ve since forgotten), and the final exam was to list all of Harry Truman’s cabinet members in alphabetical order.

      “When I think back on all /
      the crap I learned in high school /
      it’s a wonder I can think at all…”

      1. Standard “US Bad” party line is that the Ebil US Capitalist forced poor little Japan into having to invade their neighbors through lack of resources, and that the Western Capitalist didn’t let the good German Socialist win in the 20’s.
        It’s like they’re trying to make kids hate history (and reading, and so on)

        1. Blaming the war in the Pacific on the US embargo has some resemblance to fact. The embargo was a key part of the Japanese decision to go to war.

          The problem is treating the embargo in utter isolation as though it sprang from FDR’s head (that huge pawn of America free market industrialists and beloved by them one and all) like Athena and in ignoring other choices the Japanese had to end it.

          It’s a classic example of hiding a lie in the truth.

  12. I remember staying in an old mansion outside Stratford-upon-Avon which had been converted to a youth hostel; I’d guess early 19th century, as it was neo-classical in style. The door-step to the front door was stone, and it had been worn down by decades of feet going in and out of that front door.

    1. Heh. “Old mansion outside Stratford-upon-Avon” juxtaposed with Sarah’s description of Will and Nan’s house in “Ill Met…”

  13. I’ve been re-reading Drake’s Lord of the Isles series again, and I love the way he does history and pre-history in it. I think the trick is, you can see how the times have changed, even when the “modern” setting is essentially Bronze Age Greece.

  14. Couple of notes…
    One, since Jamestown was founded in 1607, we’ve actually been here around 400 years. And of course the Spanish settlement goes back farther.
    Acoma Pueblo’s Sky City claims to be the oldest continually inhabited spot in the U.S. It goes back to the 1100s. (We had a moment there: my husband commented on the round Adobe oven and the Acoma guide (who had a degree in marketing, btw) told him they got the ovens from the Spanish….”and they make really good pizza!”)
    Second, the, concept of the Youth of America being wiser and more progressive than their parents goes back at least to the ’70s. I encountered it in high school and carefully did not tell my civics teacher what I thought of the concept.

    1. the, concept of the Youth of America being wiser and more progressive than their parents goes back at least to the ’70s

      That was probably a residual of the Civil Rights Movement, premised on the idea that the Youth were untainted by the sins of Racism that besmirched the prior generations. I believe the technical term for this idea is “Utter Bollocks.”

      1. Also, some of it came from the anti-war protests later in the ’60s. Same technical term applies.

  15. Your musings are so thought provoking, Sarah.
    I have been thinking the last few days why JK Rowling’s stories, when she ventures to write about America and Americans, are so jarring to me and just don’t work, though I was so predisposed with the desire to enjoy them. The American characters and ideas all feel so foreign and discordant. The details are just all wrong and alien, the sensibilities off, the people are caricatures.

    1. Yeah. I live in fear of doing that. But I don’t think I have. Mostly because I actually have lived here all my adult life.
      I’m even more afraid of doing that to Portugal. Because I’ve never lived there as an adult.
      what she got from Portugal are touch-feel things, I think.

    2. I don’t think JKR ever gave America any mental space. If she would have sat down and read some digitized historical US newspapers, including the comics, I think it would have helped.

      1. Part of the problem America has in this world is the amount of foreign mental space we crowd ourselves into. Our dominance of popular culture causes people elsewhere t think they’ve much greater understanding of America and Americans than is actually the case.

        1. Was helping set up for the local fair and heard about an exchange student who’d gotten his notions from Dallas and Dynasty and found himself helping wrangle cows for the exhibit. . . .

          He adapted quickly and entered a loaf of bread and some spaghetti sauce.

          1. Or as you’ve stressed before, their understanding of America comes from Hollywood and the news media… and yet, they criticize *us* for thinking we understand European countries from watching movies set there….

  16. There’s a couple of SF books that did the ‘deep time’ thing quite well- “Dune” is probably one of the best ones.

    1. I thought the initial “Dune” did pretty well. In the rest of them, it feels like more or less nothing changed, even though “Chapterhouse: Dune” was as far from the original as the original was from our time.

      1. Well, one of the key ideas of the follow-on books was that humanity had stagnated since the end of the Butlerian Jihad and that first Paul’s Jihad and the the later expansion setup by Leto were necessary to fix it.

        Also, remember the whole point of Leto’s rein was enforced stagnation to build up the energy to full the great expansion after his death.

        That no change after that expansion took place in the core follows an idea Arthur C. Clarke used in his various versions of The City and the Stars, that is a stellar expansion the center (for Clarke Earth) would be a backwater because all the energy and creativity is out there.

        The last two Dune books show that energy and creativity coming bad. I suspect had we gotten Frank’s final book (instead of his son’s…the boy should have done what Tolkien’s son did and published all the notes first) it would tie together well.

        1. No, I liked Tanith Lee a lot.
          Dune just bounced hard. To be fair could be the Muslim call out. I had enough experience of Arabian culture via the imprint they left. I was not amused.

          1. Maybe, but I think it was a fair real world culture to use as backdrop for that story, from multiple directions.

            1. De gustibus non est disputandum.

              Much has been written lately about the evils of cauliflower* and broccoli and the necessity of burying each in cheese sauce.

              As a kid one of my favorite snacks was a wedge of cabbage with a sprinkling of salt, while cheese sauces were one of the few non-illness related methods of making me retch. I adore broccoli and/or cauliflower in Chinese and Indian cooking and will happily cut some up raw to have with naught more than a balsamic vinaigrette dressing. We will not get into what I consider a mild level of hot peppers in a dish, but I advise your caution if I describe one as piquant.

              I do not expect the world to share my tastes and do not feel dismay when the world fails to match me. I am generous enough to acknowledge the world can be wrong about such things without feeling a need to chastise it.

              *Thanks, Alexandria you stupid bint, for declaring cauliflower “colonialist” — apparently a good dish of alu gobi is too European for you.

            2. Sure. i’m just disclosing what might be my personal bias. OTOH I REALLY have no explanation as to why sometimes a book just “throws me out” or doesn’t hold me…

  17. My one trip to London, I got a chance to spend a few hours in some very old buildings after-hours. And, you could sense the history and believe in ghosts because the dimensions were off to me-everything seemed a bit too small, too narrow, too low. There was this feeling that the place was built in a smaller world with the walls close at hand, a sort of spiritual agoraphobia. There was also that slight smell of the centuries, the sort of smell most places in America don’t have because anywhere here is about three hundred years old at best.

    1. Europe always feels like it’s 3/4 scale. Roads, cars, rooms, buildings…everything feels like it was designed for someone standing five feet tall or less.

  18. I just learned something I did not know.

    Counting on your fingers was a Greco-Roman and medieval system. It was like using your fingers for an abacus, by putting them in different positions against one’s palm and the joints of other fingers (requiring very nimble bends of the finger). And you started at the pinkie of your left hand (all numbers under 100 were in your left hand), and mostly used only three fingers to do almost all numbers. By the time you got to thirty, you had a closed fist with your index finger nail and thumbnail touching, which was why thirty was the symbolic number of a married couple.

    Everybody learned this in school or in business, to the point that we have very few descriptions of how it worked. Human abacus.

  19. I learned of it as a Phoenician thing, and the reason they developed Base 60. They also used (IIRC) the wrist and elbow joints as counting points.

    Given the trading done by the Phoenicians it makes sense they would develop such a process.

    It’s been years since I learned of it and have never seen another reference after the initial dropped remark (I think it as an off-hand comment from James Burke on Connections.)

    1. Ooops – reply to suburbanbanshee | May 25, 2019 at 7:46 am

      Human abacus comment

    2. Don’t know much about the Phoenicians, but the Babylonians used base 60 (it was really 15 unique digits with 4 modifiers IIRC). That’s why we have 360 degrees in a circle and 60 minutes in an hour, etc. Would have loved to have the duodecimal system win out: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duodecimal. One of Thomas Jefferson’s mistakes was considering it but not pushing for it at the founding and instead letting the competing monstrosity known as the metric system end up being eventually used by most of the world.

      1. Actually, base 60 started in Egypt, as far as folks can tell, although everybody else did more with it. Egypt is weird.

        Anyway, the best rundown of the Greco-Roman digital system is apparently given by Bede in his book on time and math stuff, although there is also a Greek medieval guy. Bede and the Greek guy were starting not to be sure that future readers would know the system.

      2. It could have been the Babylonians; as admitted, it was an off-hand* remark a long time ago. It seems probable that the Babylonians, Phoenicians and Egyptians traded more than just slaves. And even just trading slaves brings along a wealth of knowledge, habits and perspectives.

        *Pun unintended but acknowledged.

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