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HOLIDAY REPORT FROM THE UNITED STATES

 

Dear Friends,

 

Returning from two weeks in America, I thought that I would like to share with you some of the wonderful experiences Béatrice and I enjoyed.

 

The first week was spent at the Chautauqua Institution, 80 miles west of Buffalo N.Y. This was a most rewarding experience from an intellectual, spiritual and artistic point of view in a marvellous setting on the shores of a beautiful lake. (More details on http://www.ciweb.org/about.html). I landed there because my daughter Vivienne and her companion Ethan Mc Sweeney are in charge of the Theatre activities of the Institution. I was therefore able to bask in the additional pleasure of being “a proud father”!

 

The Institution, founded 150 years ago, is located on private grounds comprising individual homes (all built in wood and in an uniform Victorian architectural style characterised by charming patios for leisurely conversation and refreshments), open air amphitheatres and conference facilities, chapels of various religious denominations, an opera, a ballet, a symphonic orchestra, chamber music, a theatre, a cinema and sports facilities.

 

Visitors are treated to 9 weeks of intense varied programming (see Webb site), each of which is dedicated to a specific theme. We were lucky to attend the week dedicated to “Faith in Public Life”. We heard 5 outstanding speeches from eminent personalities of the academic, political, media and NGO fields forming the core content. This was accompanied by 5 morning “sermons” delivered by the Episcopalian Bishop of Washington whose outspokenness on the subject of Iraq and other topical matters was both unexpected and refreshing. Other lectures and seminars during the day focussed on diverse aspects of the main theme.  

 

Indeed, despite the unequivocal “Christian” roots of the Institution, there pervades an atmosphere of true respect for all religious denominations and philosophical schools of thought aimed at deepening understanding through dialogue and concrete action. This deep respect of the diversity of private beliefs was accompanied by a clear warning of the great dangers of all forms of extremisms (and in particular the position of the “evangelical right” in the USA). On the political front, the position of the current administration came in for its fair share of sharp criticism. What is particularly refreshing is the way in which the clear and effective separation of State and Church, which is deeply rooted in American society, is made to be totally compatible with deeply felt and expressed religious beliefs held by political appointees.

 

An interesting illustration, mentioned by one of the speakers, is given by the reaction of the American Founding Fathers to the emancipation of Protestants granted by the Hapsburg Emperor and the end of the 18th century. While considered in Europe as a breakthrough of major importance, it was dismissed by the Americans as largely insufficient. Indeed, it was deemed not good enough as it reflected a condescending attitude by the majority to merely “tolerate” a freedom of belief by others rather than accepting a fully level playing field.

 

Until this day it behoves elected officials to fully respect all creeds (or lack of belief) on an equal footing, even if the elector shows a particularly keen interest for the private beliefs of candidates, as demonstrated by the significant debate around these questions that is taking place in the current Presidential election.

 

The economy was also central to the discussion, underlining that the growing gap between rich and poor, the dismantling of social programs (health care, social security) were paving the way for the growing influence of religious extremisms; there was full recognition that more solidarity was needed if one was to avoid an American version of fascism based on religious fundamentalism.

 

I felt it important to underline the foregoing because it contrasts sharply with the often superficial caricature we have in Europe of the “fundamentalist” religious character of American society (the public in Chautauqua is not  primarily the “east coast” intellectual but rather middle to upper class mid-western).

 

Completing the intellectual side of the program, we enjoyed also two high quality concerts and attended an excellent performance of Shakespeare’s Mid Summer’s night Dream entirely played by actors from the Theatre Summer Academy which, along with music Master Classes, is also a specific feature of the Institution’s activities.

 

There was also ample time to read and walk. Beware, however, Chautauqua (or its immediate surroundings) is not the capital of culinary delights and wine or beer can only be obtained within the grounds as accompaniment to an indifferent meal. So if you rent premises on the charming grounds, be sure to “bring your own”!

 

All in all we can highly recommend the experience. It is also perfect for a family holiday with children.

 

The other highlight of our stay was a visit to the Santa Fe opera. This is also an unforgettable experience where we were fortunate to hear a wonderful performance of Mozart’s Figaro and Haendel’s Radamisto.  The latter, rarely performed, was outstanding both in terms of the voices, the orchestra and the costumes. Situated 8 miles north of the city in a mountainous setting, the building itself is very interesting, seating 2000 people in an amphitheatre open both on the sides and at the back of the stage. On our first night we witnessed a breathtaking sunset through the latter opening. New Mexico is also most beautiful for excursions in between opera performances and Santa Fe boasts a series of very good restaurants and shops.

 

Let me give you an additional tip: for only $69 (€45) you can – as I have just done - get an annual subscription giving you access to a library of over 1500 speeches delivered at Chautauqua over the years that you can listen to at your leisure on your computer (you are entitled to a 15 day free trial for those who are intrigued). Not only is this a great source of worthwhile knowledge but for those who are a little rusty in English, it is a great way to brush up. Beatrice’s English improved considerably in just one week!

 

Well, my friends, this is a somewhat unusual communication, but having so much enjoyed our trip, Béatrice and I wanted to share our impressions and, maybe, incite you to follow our steps in years to come. We truly believe that the Chautauqua Institution is an undertaking that deserves to be much better known in Europe and that it can serve as an important corner stone for promoting a better transatlantic understanding which is so necessary to defend our common Western values.

 

Hoping that you also enjoyed wonderful holidays, I am,

 

Yours truly,

 

Paul N. Goldschmidt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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