Charm Offensive

Rough Draft
(Richard Thompson)

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, July 31, 2005

SOMEWHERE IN MAINE -- Now we go into another excruciatingly charming fishing village. There are hundreds of them up and down this ragged coastline, each village unchanged for centuries, except for the addition of restaurants, tour boats, ice cream parlors and gift shops, the whole scene so unbelievably quaint and precious and perfect that you want to drop to your knees and just surrender.

My initial survey indicates that gift shopping has replaced fishing as the primary industry in Maine. The fishing boats and fisherpersons are just a backdrop, a decoration, a delightful ambient touch, for the serious endeavor of selling people yet another friggin' scented candle.

The difference between a normal store and a "gift shop" is sometimes hard to discern, but the basic rule is, gift shops sell things that no one needs. No one needs a handcrafted wooden duck decoy. No one needs a wine rack that holds one bottle of wine. No one needs any more Amish soap that is surely manufactured by robots at the fully automated Amish Soap Factory.

But when you go to a charming fishing village you feel compelled to buy these things, in part because you owe a present to someone who had previously bought you a totally useless gift. It's like an arms race. It's the Battle of the Wind Chimes.

Sometimes people buy gift items for themselves to prove that they went somewhere charming. The worst victims of the fishing-village charm offensive will feel obligated to completely redecorate their home in a nautical theme. Let's face it, what gift shops sell are costumes for houses. You find yourself thinking: "We should dress up the house like the cabin on a sailboat! We'll have fish netting everywhere, and a pilot's wheel, and paintings of three-masted ships blasting one another with cannonballs like in 'Master and Commander.' We'll have a huge shellacked marlin on the wall, and our houseguests will assume we routinely yank game fish from the Gulf Stream. We'll be nautical. We'll wear a jaunty sailor's cap!" But then, of course, you gasp at the prices, and wind up just buying a silly hat with antlers.

Gift items pretend to be useful while actually being destined for a shelf. The aforementioned wooden duck decoy might, in theory, be used by a hunter, who could float the fake duck in a pond, luring a real duck to its doom. This is a form of entertainment across America. The problem is, no self-respecting hunter would use a gift shop decoy. Real ducks aren't stupid. They can tell when something is a gift item, intended for shelf display, and not an authentic wooden duck decoy.

Look here: a ceramic container for lemons. You know it's for lemons because it says, on the side, "Lemons," in quaint cursive script. On the underside it says, in fine type, "Made in China." You have to wonder, do the Chinese factory workers who crank out lemon containers know the English word lemons, or does it look like meaningless squiggles to them? Do the Chinese find our alphabet to be really weird, unlike their ancient pictographic system that consists of random-looking slashes and little sketches of pagodas?

Now look outside: a wooden footbridge lined with flower boxes! The flowers are blooming, and the footbridge crosses a stream that flows beneath the gift shops and tumbles over a ledge into the harbor, where the vintage sailboats patiently wait for someone to paint pictures of them. The slogan of Maine, declared at the state line, is The Way Life Should Be. But they made a mistake and let a cynic visit, and I will tell you now: This is not the way life actually is.

Maybe there are still people who putter around on a wharf or motor out to sea to catch lobsters. But I guarantee you they have to hold down a second job, and they do their gift shopping at Wal-Mart. Just about everyone else is a tourist, vacationing from office jobs and suburban cul-de-sacs, and trying, for a few days, to imagine a world without war and terrorism and ethnic hatred and epidemic disease. A world of quaint fishing villages.

Within a few months, this lovely little slice of Maine will recede into the back of one's mind and into the photo album, along with snapshots of that vacation in Wyoming or the one in the Florida Keys, and we'll be who we always were.

Only with a new duck on the shelf.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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