Nothing much happens in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where we have lived for nearly thirty years. Nothing except rising taxes and falling services, that is (e.g., they used to collect the garbage twice a week, now only once). But there are plenty of schemes, including one for a light rail line from here to New Carrollton, where there’s an Amtrak station. That scheme is now at risk because, as currently designed, it might threaten the habitat of the very rare, indeed unique, Hay’s Spring amphipod, a small fresh-water shrimp that lives in the streams that feed Rock Creek, which appropriately runs through Rock Creek Park, which is just a block away from Villa Ledeen.
Those little shrimp are protected by the Feds. They only exist here, down the block, and of course they’re endangered, so the grand scheme to let us take a little train to New Carrollton and then a big train to Baltimore, Wilmington, Philly, Newark, or New York will now pause while they try to make sure the construction doesn’t create dirty water that might threaten the amphipods.
You might think this is just a routine event, of the sort that happens every day somewhere in This Great Land. But I take it personally. First, because train, highway and subway schemes have been delayed most everywhere I lived in the last forty-fifty years, and second because fresh-water shrimp played a tragicomic role in one of my African sorties, and left, let us say, a lasting impression.
Have you ever seen Fellini’s Roma? It’s a stream-of-consciousness film about the city, and one of my favorite scenes has to do with the construction of the subway system. In the sixties, seventies and eighties, the project was forever interrupted because you couldn’t dig very far without encountering priceless ancient ruins, and the ministries in charge of protecting the old treasures from modern depredation stepped in, and examined the new finds. Each examination took years, of course, and one of the common one-liners in those years was that while the system was supposed to be ready for the Jubilee (a Catholic festival every fifty years), nobody stipulated which Jubilee. Fellini takes us down the subway shaft and into his fantasy of an ancient world…well, you really have to see it to appreciate how much fun it is.
In 1973, I spent several days each month in Israel, coaching the Israeli national bridge team. The bridge players mostly lived in and around Tel Aviv, so that’s where I was hoteled, but whenever I could, I went to Jerusalem to see what was going on. And one of those things was digging. Digging to build new roads, digging to explore areas of the Old City and environs, digging digging digging…and it was just like Rome. With predictable frequency, the diggers found ancient ruins, and the ministers stopped work to explore. So, as in Rome, you ended up walking a lot, and the archeologists became integral parts of the public works programs.
Now to the shrimp. In the mid-to-late eighties I spent a lot of time in Brazzaville, the capital of what is now called the Republic of Congo in central Africa. I was part of a small team working with the country’s president, Denis Sassou-N’Guesso, to find a diplomatic solution to the civil war in Namibia. Not only did this effort succeed, but it led to peace in the two big civil wars of the time, in Angola and Mozambique, and to the release of a remarkable number of prisoners, including, eventually, Nelson Mandela. There’s a documentary about these efforts, largely focused on my French friend Jean-Yves Ollivier, if you’re interested in the details, and I’m going back to Brazzaville shortly, for the first time in many years, for the 25th anniversary of the happy event.
Anyway, I became a very frequent visitor to Brazzaville, came to love it (great food, great art–the only school of oil painting in Central Africa is there, the school of Poto Poto) and I developed a passion for their fresh-water shrimp. I consumed epic quantities. Never any bad reaction. One evening I was sent to Libreville (Gabon) to discuss a matter with President Omar Bongo, and before leaving Brazzaville I had a shrimp feast. The next morning I awoke to find that I had had an allergic reaction. Giant hives. My ears and lips were enormous, my eyelids were much too big, and, well, I looked ridiculous. And I didn’t have any good antihistamines in my kit. They were back in Brazzaville. So I hightailed it to a local pharmacy, but I didn’t know the French word for “antihistamine,” which I kept repeating with my best accent. No go. I explained that I was swollen up, but the pharmacist insisted that I looked fine, and eventually I went to see Bongo. He didn’t know what I looked like, so he didn’t remark on my giant hives, and we talked…eventually I returned to Congo, took the pills, and survived. I never ate those yummy shrimp again, and thereafter I traveled with an emergency self-injector syringe full of adrenaline, in case I got a hive in my throat that would block breathing.
So I take this amphipod business personally…you would, too. And I’m keeping Watson, the killer poodle, away from the waters of Rock Creek Park.