For the past two weeks, I’ve had the privilege of traveling in Europe with my family, leaving the so-called ‘real’ world behind. I say ‘so-called’ because by the end of our trip the distinction between what was ‘real’ and what was ‘virtual’ blurred in a way that left me disoriented. I’m not referring to anything digital or electronic when I use the word ‘virtual’ (3-D versus 2-D), rather I mean the fine line between the actual and the wishful – i.e., what works in the real world and what we think ought to work – a magical, parallel universe that I call, for want of a better word, virtuality.

Take the American presidential campaign, for example. It’s a consequential event with significant ramifications on a wide spectrum of economic and political levels, all real – no? Viewed from the Europe, however, the race between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney looked at best surreal, at worst unreal – as in detached from reality. Despite the candidates’ rhetoric, it’s not actually a contest between Big Visions, unless you believe in hallucinations. It’s a punting game, with a lot of smoke-and-mirrors and mudslinging. Neither aspirant has a credible plan for the Future – not one that my children would consider credible anyway, were they old enough to understand what was being said. Instead, it’s a campaign of virtuality, a rhetorical joust in a magical landscape of economic unicorns and jobless pixies.

In contrast, the supposedly superficial landscape of touristy Europe, with its golden beaches, leisurely cafes, carefully coiffured chateaus, quaint medieval castles, haute cuisine, and groomed farms and vineyards struck us as more real than the headlines we read daily in the International Herald Tribune. We knew that rural France, where we spent most of our time, has been gussied up over the years for tourists like ourselves, but the more we drove around looking at the old stone buildings and the more time we spent exploring the lengthy tenure of human history in the region, the more substantial it felt. In comparison, the virtuality of American politics grew thinner by the day. Obviously, Europe has its own fantastical politics – the inability of leaders to stamp out the ongoing, slow-boil Euro crisis is evidence of that – but Europe’s hallucinations seem more sober and less bizarre than ours. Maybe that’s why the French smoke so many cigarettes.

Here’s a photo from our explorations:

What’s reality and what’s virtuality today? Once upon a time, I felt like I knew. Now, however, I just feel bewildered.

Take, for example, the reality of the long, hot summer America just experienced. A few days ago, NOAA announced that June, July, and August temperatures were the highest ever recorded in American history. Another report detailed the explosion of plant and tree pollen that has accompanied these hot temperatures – likely a result of a desperate attempt by Nature to ensure reproductive success. Allergy sufferers have flooded hospitals and clinics, apparently. For millions of Americans, this is more than enough reality. But has the economic hardship and physical suffering caused by all this reality broken through to our political leaders? Not that I can tell. That’s because they live in a parallel universe where actions do not have consequences and all stories have happy endings.

Europe had a hot summer as well. We saw miles of dead and dying forest at one point and the corn in the fields near our base in Beynac looked abandoned. Indeed, one vendor we spoke with on market day in St. Cyprien said that August had been essentially rain-free, causing crops to wilt and die. He shrugged. However, none of this gloomy news put a dent in the tourist traffic as far as we could tell. The hotels were packed with visitors, the narrow roads clogged with all manner of vehicles (at all hours too), and restaurants overflowed with eaters, many of whom were French. In this, France shared a lively virtuality with America: all is well, carry on. Look below the surface, however, and you discover a land and a people that have endured centuries of harsh reality – war, poverty, hunger, abuse. You see evidence of it in the buildings, despite the gussy-up. A historical reality is embedded in this land that America can’t hold a torch to.

It extends backward 45,000 years as well, as I’ll explain in the next posting.

Meanwhile, Here’s another photo I took: