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The French Way

home1_0Last in a series from Europe…

[Paris] – The chance to spend a few weeks in France this summer provided both the time and the detachment to reflect – on politics, the U.S. relationship with, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, “old Europe,” history, art and, of course, food and the enjoyment of a good lunch or a fine dinner. The richly appointed bistrot Benoit on the Rue Saint Martin in the heart of Paris – the photo is of the main dining room – is one of my favorites.

My conclusion after happily eating and drinking my way across Paris: the French way of dining in a nice restaurant is superior in most ways to the same type of experience in the United States and there are at least six reasons for my belief and they have nothing to do with the quality of the food, which is almost universally great.

1) The noise level in a French restaurant rarely, if ever, leaves your head throbbing. Typically the tables in a French restaurant are very close together, even uncomfortably close by U.S. standards, but the conversation at the adjourning table hardly ever leaves that table. For some time the New York Times has been noting in its restaurant reviews the “noise level” of New York establishments. I cringe when I read one that says “obnoxious” or “deafening.” Admittedly, I’m getting older and don’t tolerate all that background noise as well as I once did, but frankly it’s never a problem in a French restaurant. Among other things, in France you’ll seldom hear the obligatory background music soundtrack that is a feature of many U.S. restaurants. As a consequence the noise level is restrained, civilized and accommodating of a conversation with your meal. No shouting is necessary. I like that.

2) I also like the fact that a French waiter or waitress doesn’t consider a total stranger a long lost friend of the family. You’ll never hear in Paris – “Hi, I’m Phillippe and I’ll be your waiter…” Rather you’re treated as a customer. The approach is friendly, accommodating, professional, but with no hint of phoney intimacy. The table top chit-chat with a waiter, unless you want to engage, is limited to offering a menu, taking a drink and food order and then leaving you alone. I flinch at the U.S. restaurant tradition that now seems to demand that the waitress immediately ask “how is your dinner?” I frequently have to swallow my first bite before I can answer. I increasingly find myself wanting to say: “Give me a couple of minutes to taste everything and I’ll let you know.” The French wait staff will return and ask if everything is to your liking, but they’ll do so only after you’ve had a decent interval to sample and consider. They then disappear and let you eat and talk. I like that.

3) Wine is a big part of a nice dinner for many people these days in the United States and also in France. Two things the French do with wine is superior in my considered opinion to the American approach. I have watched uncomfortably many, many times in a nice U.S. establishment as a waitress removes the foil from a wine bottle and then attempts to cork screw open the bottle while holding the darn thing suspended in mid air. I want to say: “Sit the bottle down on the table and remove the cork like you would at home.” When did it become illegal to sit a wine bottle on the table and use the natural leverage that provides to extract the cork? It’s not illegal in France. A French waiter will also leave you to pour the wine for your table after the first glass. I like that. In the U.S. too many waiters seem to hover and refill your glass after every sip. Maybe the theory is to get you to race through the bottle and order another, but after observing the French method I’m going to start asserting myself and telling U.S. waiters – nicely – to let me pour. That way I control the pace and the waiter can have more time to go ask someone else if “everything is fine” with their meal.

4) It’s my observation that most men eat a meal more quickly than women. In a U.S. restaurant this frequently has the waiter saying to the men, “still working on that?” Actually, no I’m not, but keep your mitts off the plate. It would be more polite, not to mention that it might slow down the generally over-fast pace of male eating, if all the plates stayed on the table until the last – and slowest – eater is finished. That’s the way they do it in France and I like it.

5) In a French restaurant you always – always – need to ask for the bill. The waiter will simply not produce the accounting of financial damages until you are ready to pay. This, too, is a good practice. I choose to believe that the gesture of asking for the bill – L’addition s’il vous plait? – is an acknowledgement by the waiter and the restaurant that you can have all day and half the night if you want to enjoy the meal experience. You’ll be asked whether you want a dessert or a coffee, but even if the answer is “no” you’ll still be in charge of exactly when you want to leave the French restaurant. During a long lunch at another great Paris bistrot we enjoyed watching two elderly gents, good friends obviously, talk and laugh and eat and drink their way through a very long lunch. The waiter never lurked nearby, but was always there when something was needed. The two old guys, slapping each other on the back, eventually left, but not before pausing near the door to bid adieu to their waiter and the guy in the dark suit who is a fixture in many French restaurants. I don’t know what these dark suit fellows really do, but they certainly smile a great deal and generally make you feel welcome and well taken care of. The old guys had a grand time at lunch and they left when they were ready. No one even subtly suggested it was time for them to head for the door. It’s even considered rude to present the bill before you ask for the bill.

6) Finally, there is the tipping, or lack thereof. Generally speaking there is no tipping in France. The cost of service is built into the bill. There is no need for the mental math required in a U.S. restaurant to calculate 15 or 20 percent of the total check and then add it on as a tip. Waiters are paid a salary in France, unlike many in the U.S. who depend on a share of tips to contribute to their total compensation. If you receive particularly good service a modest tip won’t be rejected, but it’s not expected. The expectation is that you’ll get attentive, professional service – and I almost unfailing did – and that the service goes with the meal. Another reason to like the French system.

French politics are messy and about as dysfunctional as our own. The country has deep and profound issues relating to immigration and minorities. Antisemitism remains an ugly feature of the far right in French politics. I doubt whether French worker productivity would compare well with ours. France has it’s problems, as we do. But when it comes to the restaurant experience the French have that down cold.

Hold on there – I’ll pour the wine and, no, you can’t have my plate just yet.


Onboard the Orient Express

Tenth in a series from Europe…

OE 1[Paris] – I understand perfectly what Proust meant when he referred to ‘‘the most intoxicating of romance novels, the railway timetable.’’

And what more exotic destination than Istanbul or, better yet, Constantinople. From the 1880’s until the 1970’s you could head for the exotic city that straddles Europe and Asia onboard a train, perhaps the most famous train of all, the Orient Express.

From its earliest days until after World War II the Orient Express was a gleaming luxury train, all cut glass and mahogany. For a few weeks this summer the Orient Express, at least four cars and one of the original locomotives, is back on rails in Paris. Because I love trains and figuring this might be my one chance to actually be onboard the train that sparked a thousand stories I trotted down to the World Arab Institute in Paris one recent rainy day to have a look. It was stunning.

In an age when travel has been reduced to walking around in your socks in an airport security line and jockeying for half the arm rest in a packed Boeing 737, the beautifully restored lounge, sleeper and restaurant cars of the Orient Express offer a envious reminder of what luxury travel once looked like.

A hundred or so curious history and train buffs stood with me in a pouring rain to get a glimpse inside. The exhibit and a fascinating OE 2companion display of Orient Express artifacts and curiosities, including some spectacular travel posters of the era, has proven to be one of the hit shows of the summer in Paris. The gorgeous blue and cream colored rail cars and the shiny black locomotive are displayed in the vast courtyard of the Arab Institute just steps from the Seine in downtown Paris. The exhibit is the brainchild of former French Culture Minister Jack Lang, who now heads the Institut du Monde Arabe, and the French national railway system that owns the name of the fabled train.

As CNN reported in one “compartment identical to the one in scenes from the 1963 Bond film From Russia with Love, the movie is projected onto a screen. With wall panels in precious wood and door handles in gilded brass, each compartment had a matching washbasin and a built-in toiletries cabinet.” To visit the train in Paris is to imagine that it has stopped on a 1930’s journey from London to Istanbul and all the passengers have stepped off to stretch their legs leaving behind newspapers, passports, cigarettes, books and, of course, drinks.

Writing in the most recent issue of Harper’s, Kevin Baker reminds us that once-upon-a-time the 20th Century Limited, a great U.S. passenger train, “rivaled Europe’s Orient Express in extravagance. At five o’clock every evening, porters used to roll a red carpet to the train across the platform of Grand Central Terminal’s Track 34. The women passengers were given bouquets of flowers and bottles of perfume; the men, carnations for their buttonholes. The train had its own barbershop, post office, manicurists and masseuses, secretaries, typists, and stenographers. In 1938, its beautiful blue-gray-and-aluminum-edged cars and its “streamline” locomotives — finned, bullet-nosed, Art Deco masterpieces of fluted steel — took just sixteen hours to reach Chicago, faster than any train running today.

“The 20th Century Limited became a cultural icon,” Baker wrote. “It was a luxury train, but middle-class people rode it, too. In the heyday of American train travel after World War II, they also rode the Broadway Limited, the Super Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles, and the California Zephyr, which were nearly as celebrated and beloved.”

OE 3By 1970 all those great trains and all that travel pleasure had vanished and now, even as high-speed intercity train travel is expanding in most of the world, the United States can’t – or won’t – summon the political will to build a world-class rail passenger system. Heck, I’d settle for restoring Amtrak service between Salt Lake City and Portland.

As I stood in the bar car of the Orient Express recently it was impossible not to think of Agatha Christie’s most popular novel – Murder on the Orient Express – or smile at the memory of James Bond romancing Tatiana Romanova in an Orient Express sleeper car in the film From Russia With Love. It was also impossible not to think of a very dry martini and whether that handsome woman over there wasn’t a Countess.

When the original Orient Express eventually extended its run from Istanbul to Baghdad and ultimately all the way to Egypt, you could make the entire trip in early 20th Century luxury. The restaurant car, the Train Bleu, offered extraordinary food and the railroad featured its own French wine label. The visionary Belgian businessman George Nagelmackers – yes, that was his name – who “invented” the Orient Express came to the United States in the 1870’s to study train travel here. Although rebuffed when he suggested to American railroad sleeping car inventor George Pullman that they jointly develop luxury trains in Europe, Nagelmackers came home and built his own wagon-lits – sleeping cars – and adopted one of Pullman’s innovations, the sleeping car attendant, as one of the features on his trains. The rest, they say, is history and romance and, sadly, only memory now in an exhibit.

I have to be careful how I say it since I haven’t exactly traveled on the Orient Express, but I can say I have been onboard the Orient Express and, like the real journey a hundred years ago, the memories are very pleasant. On second thought, make mine a double.

Ah, but the strawberries…

Rue MouffetardSixth in a series from Europe…

[Paris] – I have been thinking about – and eating – strawberries.

I bought my strawberries last weekend from a fruit stall along the Rue Mouffetard, an ancient street in the Latin Quarter of Paris that is almost totally about food with a little wine thrown in. I may have had better strawberries, some bought from Oregon growers are pretty great, but as strawberries go mine serve as not only a delicious dessert, but as a metaphor of sorts for all food in food lovers France.

You would want to walk the Rue Mouffetard even if the place weren’t a food mecca. The cobblestones echo with history. The street was once a Roman road, it’s that old. The old and lovely church at the foot of the mostly pedestrian street, Saint Medard’s, plays a role in Victor Hugo’s great story of the 1832 revolution – Les Miserable.

Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce and George Orwell all lived and wrote in the neighborhood. Hemingway’s posthumous memoir of life in Paris – A Moveable Feast – opens in the little square where the Rue Mouffetard becomes the Rue de Cardinal Lemonie. Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, had an apartment just down the street. A plaque today marks the spot. All these literary lights certainly ate here as well and Joyce no doubt found the white Swiss wine he fancied. I’m more a burgundy fan myself and my new favorite wine shop half way up the street has a superb selection both affordable and, well, not so affordable.

But, I digress. Back to strawberries. Don’t marry a girl, it is said, who desires strawberries in January. Strawberries in January are unnatural things. They are natural in June. Strawberries also don’t travel well. They are best closest to were they were grown and when they are picked when ripe. Real strawberries are not the size of a small soccer ball. They are small and delicate, not firm and armored. The United States produces a quarter of the world’s strawberries and almost of them would go begging on the Rue Mouffetard where they know their strawberries.

The strawberries I have been enjoying weren’t even the most upmarket berries on the street. Those were expensive, as in ouch expensive, and they were handled by a young man in a long apron with the same careful touch he might have shown the Hope Diamond or the delicate hand of a pretty girl. He examined each little orb with intense care and only the best were arranged in perfect rows in a basket and then sold no doubt to a serious minded French cook of a certain age who will expect her fraise to be just so. My strawberries were not so good, I suspect, as these carefully arranged jewels in their little box. Mine were in a basket in the usual way you see those massive berries with the white centers that we find all year around in the United States. But the French berry – upscale or down market – actually tastes like a strawberry, sweet, just a little tartness and then the juice is released. Ah.

Along the Rue Mouffetard in Paris 

Rue MoufftardThe French, I believe, have a different relationship with food than most Americans. It’s a cultural, historical thing. The influence of American fast food is steadily creeping over the food transom here and the government is attempting to create more disclosure around food that is mass produced and shipped to restaurants to be re-heated and served as if it where produced on the premises. Still, the small neighborhood cafe seems to thrive. The fresh food and vegetable markets sprout up in a dozen neighborhoods in the city. You can get good food here everywhere, great food many places and outstanding food in a lot of places.

Some of the best restaurants in Paris, like good restaurants everywhere, have committed to trying to use the freshest, best ingredients. They are giving awards to those who reach and maintain such standards. The celebrated chef Alain Ducasse – I feasted at his historic and outstanding 100 year old bistrot Benoit today – singles out particular food producers for recognition. And the emphasis on freshness and quality makes a huge difference in the dining experience and also a big difference when you have ready access to fresh fruit and vegetables that you can use at home.

The farmer’s market movement in the United States has a European cousin in the food markets of this richly agricultural nation.

Charles de Gaulle famously asked, “How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?” It’s a funny question, but also profound. The best cheese market on the Rue Mouffetard, by my count, only offered about 150 varieties and not a vacuum packed piece of cheddar in the bunch.

Perhaps de Gaulle, a fellow who knew something about being an individual, was merely acknowledging the obvious with his great question about governing and cheese. With all the effort to protect the French language and culture, and given the political turmoil here over increased immigration, not to mention the country’s dark brushes now and in the past with anti-Semitism, a place that offers so many choices in its food – and considers that a matter of national honor – is going to be a fractured, testy, intensely complicated place where everyone has an opinion, particularly at lunch time.

To quote Captain Queeg from The Caine Mutiny – “Ah, but the strawberries…”

Eat them – all you can – if you come to Paris in June and linger over lunch like the locals do. Sure the productivity here isn’t up to American standards, but a two hour lunch once in a while with time for conversation, a little contemplation, some laughter and discussion won’t kill the economy or you. More likely it will do you good. In any event, the French would tell you that they work late. After that lunch you need some time to get ready for dinner.


Nothing Easy About It

StrikeFourth in a series from Europe…

[Milan] – Over the weekend the newspapers in France were reporting on one of the worst national rail strikes in memory. The strike was precipitated, it was reported, by a more radical element in the rail union that distrusts the “reform agenda” of the Socialist government of the wimpy President Francois Hollande. You may recall that he’s the guy who reportedly snuck out of the Elysee Palace on a motor scooter a while back to have a tryst with his actress girl friend. Meanwhile the very beautiful and talented “first lady of France,” to whom Hollande was not married, ended up in hospital – I like how the French say “in hospital” – as a result of the president’s boorish behavior, which of course was spread all over the papers.

But enough, I’m letting French politics and sex get me away from the rail strike.

To put all this an American context, the dispute in France between the radical element in the rail union and the left-wing government would be a little like the ultra-right wing Tea Party in the United States deciding that the very conservative House majority leader was so much of a political squish that he needed to be sacked in a primary election. Radicals around the world simply don’t put up with their own who are just not radical enough.

Give them this much – the striking French rail workers picked a dandy time to strike. Not only is the tourist season gaining full strength, but this is the period in France when many students need to travel for final exams. The strike was, how you say, timed for maximum impact.

In any event, the French rail strike reminds me of two things one should never underestimate: the unpredictable nature of travel, perhaps particularly in France, and the absurd nature of most discount airline travel, as opposed to rail travel, these days. In fact, I have an alternative explanation for the chaos that spread rapidly across France as a result of the rail strike, but more on that in a moment.

I have been climbing on and off of airplanes on a regular basis now for more than 30 years. I belong to a half-dozen frequent flyer clubs and pride myself on knowing my way around airports from Montevideo to Heathrow, from Portland to Milan. I long ago gave up the anger that almost everyone feels when a flight is cancelled or a connection is missed because fog has grounded everything in the Pacific Northwest. I never worry about lost luggage because I never check a bag, even on an international flight. I’m of the school that says travel disruption is as common as political dysfunction and any one of us is just about powerless to affect better outcomes when the travel gods decide this is your day.

So, my mantra – in travel and politics – is to try and remain relentlessly optimistic. What else can you do? Turn off the outrage, have a beer and chill.

I did have to invoke the relentless optimism mantra early Sunday when the big train schedule in Milan’s Garibaldi rail station flashed “cancelled” next to the TGV to Paris. The French rail strike had struck the unsuspecting American.

By my best count I spent most of the rest of Sunday standing in 12 different lines often to be told when I reached the head of the line that I was in the wrong line and needed to go stand for a long time in the right line. Five lines later, and with the rail option from Milan to Paris no longer even as appealing as yesterday’s cold pasta, I discovered easyJet.

Can’t take the train to Paris then why not fly? The British “discount” airline was offering flights from Milan to Paris, so what the heck – book it. While waiting for a train – the Italian trains were running – from downtown Milan to the distant Malpensa airport, I went online and found a flight, booked it, paid for it and started standing in line. Many airline analysts have compared easyJet – and, yes, that is how they spell it – to Southwest Airlines in the U.S. Low cost, no frills, we’ll get you there with little fuss and bother…except easyJet is Southwest with none of the charm or service.

I’ve been a fan of Southwest for a long time. Great customer service, good value, an airline with a sense of purpose and sense of humor. First thing to know about easyJet is you can’t bring normal sized carry-on luggage onto one of the company’s large Airbus aircraft. My no carry-on policy cost me 70 Euros, even though there was ample overhead bin space for those of us who “never” check. I had to stand in three lines to figure out that checking my normal carry-on bag would cost me the equivalent of a good bottle of Champagne. Second thing to know is the Brit discounter wants you to interact with them almost exclusively on the Internet. There is no way in the airport to print a boarding pass. That’s what your easyJet app is for, unless you stupidly neglect to check your normal carry on bags by using the easyJet app and find that when you get to the airport you need to, well, check your bag. That requires standing in a line and getting a form that says you need to check your bag and then going to another line and paying a fellow who is all too happy to take your 70 Euros for a bag that always fits in the overhead bin – except on easyJet.

Once on board my profitably packed easyJet flight to Paris I discovered that I was really inside a flying convenience store. Everything you can imagine was for sale. No free peanuts and a soft drink as on Southwest. On easyJet everything comes with a transaction of a few Euros. You can chose from the largest liquor selection this side of a Paris Hilton party, for a price. Want a sandwich? We have choices. How about some tea or coffee? Hand over the credit card. Some perfume perhaps for the little woman at home? Gotcha covered and we do take cash.

The easyJet business model is clearly to make you pay through the nose for taking two changes of underwear on your discount flight and, oh by the way, if you’re thirsty that will cost you, too.

I will say this for easyJet, whose CEO says in the most recent in-flight magazine that her focus is “on making travel easier for everyone,” that the airline did get me Paris and on time and, not surprisingly, they are making money for shareholders while doing so. Standing in a dozen lines has nothing to do with making travel easier for anyone, but what the heck I got to Paris and today even thwarted the radical French rail unions by actually traveling by train during the strike! Take that you radicals.

Now, back to my alternative theory about why the rail workers went on strike just when they did. As you know if you read an earlier post in this series, rail travel in Europe – notwithstanding the French troubles of the moment – is, in my view, a dream. Fast, clean, convenient, comfortable and affordable. Millions of French citizens and a few of us Americans were reminded this week, thanks to striking French railroad workers. that a train beats an airplane nearly every time. And, yes, carrying my bag on the train today didn’t cost a thing.

Thank you easyJet for saving one leg of a wonderful trip. I hope to never darken your baggage line again.




Third in a series from Europe…

[Siena] – I have found my perfect restaurant.

I have been fortunate to visit Siena – I think perhaps Italy’s most manageable and possibly most charming city – on three different occasions. The first time, 15 years ago, we just stumbled on Osteria Le Logge by accident. The second time we searched out the intimate little restaurant on a tiny, pedestrian-only street just off the magnificent Piazza del Campo. This week I felt like a regular.

The genial fellow in charge worked hard to accommodate a party of six without a reservation, while Siena crawled with visitors. A big party of American bicyclists seemed more intent on joking with each other than on soaking up the atmosphere. Still the pasta must have loaded them up for the next hill climb. As for me, I wanted to enjoy my return trip to the perfect restaurant.

As the photo accurately indicates, the place is marinating in old style, understated class. Lots of wood, old wine bottles, white table clothes and a sense that Francis Ford Coppola might walk in and take the table in the corner. You can wear your biking shorts here, but linen trousers and a pair of Italian loafers would be more in keeping with the style. Four huge floor to ceiling doors open up the small dining room to the street and a half dozen tables, under the umbrellas that are mandatory during a warm June day in Siena, spill out onto the cobbled stones. Even if the food wasn’t superb, which it is, the setting would help stoke any appetite.

Too often Americans treat lunch as an after thought. Grab a quick sandwich at your desk. Go for a noon time run and skip lunch altogether. Worst of all too many lunch from a too processed, too fat-laden fast food joint where they pick up the chicken-Mcsomething at the drive through window. Little wonder why too many Americans are seriously overweight and tragically lacking in appreciation for the fine art of really enjoying a meal with other people who make a choice to take time and smell the vino blanco and the fresh bread.

Unfortunately, Italians apparently are catching up with us in the “blow off lunch and eat something out of a plastic container,” but thankfully there are still many places like Osteria De Logge where an Italian – and an American – can pause, relax, consider and enjoy one of life’s great pleasures – a good meal in a handsome setting.

The menu is hand written in Italian, as it should be, and indicates that the kitchen is very much in tune with the ingredients of the season. The wine list is extensive and heavy on, of course, Chianti from up the road and Montalcino from a bit further south. The waitress is business-like, her English excellent and her understanding even better. She patiently explained what was what, something she must do a hundred times a day. I opted for the tagliatelle, but I could have closed my eyes and pointed to any item on the menu and been a very happy fellow.

If you agree with Stephen Colbert that “there is nothing American tourists like better than the things they can get at home” Osteria Le Logge is not your place. Oh, you can find superb restaurants anywhere in the world – particularly in the United States – but Europeans, and perhaps particularly the Italians, have a certain respect for a meal as both a time of sustenance, but also a time for relaxation, companionship and conversation.

In the wonderful 1996 film Big Night two Italian brothers are trying to make a go of their struggling restaurant. That settle on an audacious public relations plan to create a great meal to serve when the bandleader Louis Prima is scheduled to visit the restaurant. The resulting publicity will save the day, or perhaps not.

The older brother is a talented chef who insists on creating his food by the book. He refuses to serve two pasta dishes to the same customer. The younger brother is the practical businessman who seeks to always please the customer and, if necessary, tradition be damned. At one point the businessman brother suggests they drop the risotto since it is expensive and time consuming to create in the style that the chef insists upon. Fine, the chef brother says, we’ll substitute hot dogs that will please the customers.

At another point, Primo, the exacting chef, presents one of his dishes to a girl that he has a crush on and offers a truism: “To eat good food is to be close to God.” Exactly.

As the great film critic Roger Ebert wrote of Big Night,”It is about food not as a subject but as a language–the language by which one can speak to gods, can create, can seduce, can aspire to perfection.” Exactly.

Put on some Louie Prima, open another bottle, smile and talk and laugh. Eat in the good life that comes when good food serves as the catalyst for good living. Find your own perfect restaurant – I found mine in Siena – and savor the memory of a visit. Then start planning to return.

Buon appetito!


Roman Holiday

Audrey_Hepburn_and_Gregory_Peck_on_Vespa_in_Roman_Holiday_trailerThis is the first of a series…

In the trailer for the enduringly sweet 1953 William Wilder film Roman Holiday there is an aerial view of the vast expanse of St. Peter’s Square. It’s nearly empty. As I look at the film after a mid-afternoon visit to the Vatican, I have to wonder what Italian politician – or papal functionary – Wilder had to bribe to get a nearly empty St. Peter’s Square for his film. It is never empty, not even nearly so.

And how did Wilder stage those scenes of Gregory Peck and Andrey Hepburn on a motor scooter, but not surrounded by all the traffic that is a constant – and I mean constant – fixture of the Eternal City? More bribes one suspects.

On no level does Rome work as a modern 21st Century city. The streets were made for Roman chariots. It’s mind-numbingly congested. It’s dirty and noisy. There are smells both modern and ancient. A crew is digging up a street covered in cobblestones and you just know there must be a few bodies of early Christian martyrs down there someplace. There must also certainly be traffic laws, but they are ignored willy-nilly. A good deal of the congestion comes from the wanton double parking that occurs on all but the busiest streets. Cars half way up on the curb, scooters scooting in and out of three (sort of) lanes of traffic, delivery vans delivering, a bicycle here and a city bus there. It’s general albeit remarkably controlled chaos. It’s Rome. It’s old and kind of broken down and, of course, it’s just about perfect.

The lines were long to get inside St. Peter’s on Thursday, but they moved quickly and with something approaching Italian efficiency and before long everyone from everywhere was inside the cool and dark great church. It was a relatively brief 20 minutes or so in line, a line that looked when we entered it might get us inside in time for Midnight Mass at Christmas. The magnificent basilica is certainly a special place for Roman Catholics, but judging by the multi-ethnic make-up of the line and the Tower of Babel mix of languages spoken around us, the place has special significant far beyond its role as the heart of the Catholic world. I’m thinking some of that has to do with Pope Francis, the new and bright face of world Catholicism. The chairs were spread out on Thursday all across the huge square in anticipation of a papal appearance on Friday – first Friday.

On every level as a place of history, culture, the glory and contradiction of religious faith, fashion, romance and what constitutes the essence of a great city Rome works just fine thank you very much.

The waiter at dinner – he recommended the tagliatelle with ultra-fresh vegetables and a shrimp straight from the sea, and he was right – is contemplating a job in Santa Barbara, but he is worried about the cost of living in southern California. Wait, I wonder, what about the cost of living in Rome? Not so bad he says. A small, but nice one bedroom apartment in a fashionable area of Rome may set you back a thousand Euros a month, but Santa Barbara may be another and higher matter. Still, an experienced waiter with a charming flare for conversation, a fine command of English, and knowledge of the Barbara d’Alba on the wine list can make a good deal more plying his skills in the United States. He’s worked in Boston and Maine in the past and patted his hip pocket as he smiled and noted his long hours and “where is the money” question at the end of the month. I left thinking I’d find an excuse to go to Santa Barbara if he ends up recommending pasta in southern California.

The Italians recently admitted they’re not ready for the World Cup, which must be a the same plain with the Yankees admitting they’re not ready for the World Series. The Italian football manager conceded that his team lacks “flair” as they have lost seven straight matches. The Italians open against England later this month and, while the national mood will not be on holiday when they lose eight straight you can bet the wine will still flow, the scooters will still scoot and Rome – and all of Italy – will remain eternal and full of flair. It’s big and messy, crowded and noisy, and the only thing missing is Audrey Hepburn on that scooter.

I still wonder how they got that on film.


I’ve had the fortune – mostly good and a little bad at times – to have lived all my adult life in two states where Democrats have become endangered species – South Dakota and Idaho.

The news this week that former South Dakota U.S. Senator George McGovern is in the last days of his 90 years is a reminder once again that even given our nasty, polarized, hyper-partisan politics one man can have an impact. The fact that McGovern, an unabashed liberal, made his impact for so many years in South Dakota, a state almost as conservative as Idaho, is remarkable. No less remarkable than the long runs of Idaho Democrats Frank Church and Cecil Andrus.

McGovern has known ever since 1972 that the first line of his obituary would reference his historic presidential loss to the future unindicted co-conspirator Richard Nixon. An historian by training and temperament, McGovern could take comfort in the verdict of history that, while describing his national campaign in ’72 as quixotic and chaotic, would also come to judge him more right than wrong on Vietnam, Watergate and a host of other vital issues. And, of course, the contrast with Nixon, given the perfect lens of hindsight, couldn’t be greater.

My memories of McGovern start with the personal. He spoke at my high school graduation in 1971. No one remembers a high school graduation speech, but I certainly remember the speaker. When McGovern ran for re-election in South Dakota in 1974 – ironically against a Vietnam Medal of Honor winner and POW Leo Thorsness – I was a college-kid-aspiring journalist who filed his one and only NPR piece on Thorsness’ announcement of candidacy.

Years later I heard McGovern, a part-time Montana resident, deliver a moving memorial speech for the great Sen. Mike Mansfield. More recently I happened to be in Washington, D.C. at a time when McGovern was back on Capitol Hill to talk about his then-latest book a biography of Abraham Lincoln. McGovern took to the Lincoln project – one of the slim and wonderful volumes in the American President Series – with a level of personal understanding of what it must have taken for Lincoln to strive for the presidency, win it against great odds, withstand immense criticism and then die in the cause of Union and justice. A signed copy of the little book, which I highly recommend, is a treasured part of my collection.

George McGovern is the kind of political figure that truly intrigues me; a man running against the odds, who writes his own books, speak with passion and candor about hard issues and ultimately has always been comfortable in his own skin. He is far and way a different man from the “loser” image that some have used to define him for 40 years.

Three aspects of McGovern’s life where little know beyond the borders of South Dakota. First, as a young college history teacher he decided that no one else would take on the task of building a competitive Democratic Party in South Dakota in the 1950’s – so he did. Traveling the state, meeting one-on-one with thousands of people, McGovern organized, planned and plotted. In the process he developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the state from the timberland of the Black Hills to the dry land farming country east of the Missouri River. As my friend Mark Trahant writes McGovern won his first senate race, by a whooping 597 votes, because he appealed to South Dakota’s Native American population, a segment of the state’s population that most politicians had marginalized and ignored prior to 1962. George McGovern was a builder.

Historian Stephen Ambrose’s book The Wild Blue told the story of McGovern’s 35 combat missions as a B-24 pilot over Europe. The young McGovern, piloting the Dakota Queen, survived tough and extraordinarily dangerous duty and he memories of war dogged him all his days. His service won him the Distinguished Flying Cross. Ironically – or cynically – McGovern, the legit war hero, was branded by Nixon during that 1972 race as soft on national defense and defeatist about Vietnam. To his personal credit and to his political detriment, McGovern never traded on his remarkable military record. Imagine that. Unlike a lot of national security hawks who never experienced war up close, McGovern did and conducted himself accordingly.

The third little know fact about McGovern is his life-long devotion to the cause of world hunger. From his earliest days McGovern never grew tired of talking about, nor grew cynical about, the need for the world’s wealthy countries to put aside differences and provide the most basic need – food – to millions of people around the world. McGovern traced his concerns about hunger back to his military days in war ravaged and hungry Italy. He told moving stories about young kids begging in broken English for a candy bar from the American GI’s. It marked him.

By the way, McGovern teamed with another World War II hero, Republican Sen. Bob Dole, to write most of the nation’s food security legislation – WIC, school lunches and food stamps, included. Talk about an historic bipartisan effort.

George McGovern – historian, politician, failing presidential candidate, hunger advocate – will be treated better by the history books than he has been by his contemporaries. If you believe, as Tom Brokaw has dubbed McGovern’s contemporaries, that the World War II generation was America’s greatest, then the gentleman – the gentle man – from Avon, South Dakota was a genuine example of personal greatness. Dare I say it – the U.S. Senate could use a few like him.




Railing Against Rail

trainThe Politics of Trains

I’m going to admit my obvious bias right up front: I love trains. I love travel by train. I collect visits to train stations. I am enamoured with the rails.

I’ve ridden the overnight Red Star from St. Petersburg (Leningrad in those days) to Moscow. I’ve taken the train from London’s Victorian-era Kings Cross Station to Edinburgh. I vividly remember a warm day in Italy and the leisurely train ride from Milan to Florence and on to Lucca. I once flew to Los Angels purely for the pleasure of riding what may be Amtrak’s best train, the Coast Starlight, from LA to Seattle. I shared a cigar break on the platform in Eugene with the sleeping car attendant. In New York, I go to Grand Central Station just to watch the people and have a drink at the famous Oyster Bar.

One of my earliest memories – I must have been about four years old – is of an overnight train trip with my brother and mom and dad. We had a double sleeper compartment and, while I would have liked the upper berth, my older brother got it. Still, when dad took my Buster Browns and sat them in the passage outside the compartment and informed me that the sleeping car porter would shine them and return before breakfast, I thought this is what the good life must look like.

As a junior high schooler growing up in the old railroad town of Rock Springs, Wyoming, I loved to go downtown – the Union Pacific mainline actually divides the heart of Rock Springs – and watch trains, particularly passenger trains, whistle through. In the late 1960’s American long distance train travel was in its last gasp, but the wonderful City of Portland still ran through Rock Springs and the romantic sounding Portland Rose made the daily run from Denver to the Rose City.

Now intercity passenger trains in the United States are about as scarce as the American manufacturing sector. The once great network of trains that existed to carry the mail and people has essentially shrunk to a few routes between major cities. Amtrak limps along with regular threats to its budget and often second-class service. The rest of the world is leaving us in the dust.

Spain has now become the world’s leader in high speed rail. King Juan Carlos opened the new Madrid – Valencia line over the weekend. The 219-mile trip will take 90 minutes.

China – big surprise – is investing billions in its intercity trains and has entered into agreements with GE to manufacture equipment. The Chinese have a plan in place to link, by high speed rail, China with Laos, Thailand and Singapore. In the USA, we can merely watch as the strategic Chinese leadership comes to dominate the world market for rail equipment and then uses that dominance to economically rule all of southeast Asia, in part, thanks to a modern, high speed rail system.

The universally hated Obama stimulus package contained $8 billion for high speed rail construction, but newly elected Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio have refused the money that had been set aside for new routes in those states. Even as congressional Republicans, as well as some Democrats, are talking about reducing the commitment to rail, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has re-directed the Wisconsin and Ohio money to developing rail systems in Florida, California and a few other states. Conservative media voices are almost unanimous in opposition to this type of rail development and the safe betting is that even maintaining existing rail funding in the new Congress will set off a major fight.

The administration has sold high speed rail development a a jobs initiative than as a long-term transportation investment. And, while it is difficult to argue with the jobs that rail construction will create – Wisconsin is already facing job losses from the Spanish company that had set up shop in Milwaukee to build equipment – the real issue here is a long-term transportation strategy for the country.

Here’s a question for American policymakers: why is the rest of the world investing in this technology, even at a time of severe fiscal constraint, while we can’t arrive at any consensus about rail?

I think the answer rests in a different way of thinking in Europe and Asia about transportation. For economic and environmental reasons, countries like Spain, France, China and India are de-emphasizing the automobile and seeking other strategies. While the rest of the world is getting on with the work of finding new ways to get along entirely, or almost entirely, without a car, the U.S. can’t even come together on a strategy to streamline big city to big city transportation.

This may present a pivotal moment, ironically not unlike the moment in the 1950’s when Dwight Eisenhower committed the United States to a comprehensive interstate highway system. That decision, unfolding over years of planning and construction, transformed the country, uniting the nation with a modern surface transportation system. For good and bad – mostly good – we are living with that big highway legacy today. Secretary LaHood, a Republican and respected former Illinois Congressman, makes a compelling case that a new, national high speed rail network is this generation’s legacy transportation and infrastructure project. But, given our lack of ability to create a national vision about almost anything, can we possibly seize the moment?

Gov-elect Scott Walker in Wisconsin based some of his opposition to high speed rail on the on-going costs to the state of maintaining the system that was to connect Milwaukee with Madison and eventually Minneapolis. That is a legitimate long-term planning issue, but no different than the cost every state now incurs to maintain Ike’s interstates. The point is that 60 some years ago, the country made a strategic, long-term investment in transportation and, of course, the interstate highway system was incredibly costly. The federal share alone, not to mention on-going maintenance was close to $120 billion, but that cost pales in comparison to the jobs created, the people moved and the commerce facilitated. What will we do for transportation in 2050? China and Spain may be sending us a clue if we are smart enough to listen.

One of the great train stations in the world is the Gare de Lyon in Paris, the terminus of the French high speed trains that connect the heart of Paris with France’s second largest city, Lyon, and the great port city of Marseille. A high speed rail trip on the sleek and comfortable TGV from Lyon to Paris takes about 2 hours, intercity to intercity the 250 miles is covered in comfort and safety. Trust me, arriving at the Gare de Lyon, home to the fabulous Le Train Bleu restaurant, and grabbing a cab at the station beats the heck out of battling the crowds and traffic at Charles de Gaulle airport in the outskirts of Paris. When I made the trip a few years ago, the Paris bound passengers were a mixture of day trippers, business people and tourists. There were as many laptops and cell phones as backpacks and cameras. It was a first-class trip at a fraction of the time and cost to fly or drive.

I’m nostalgic about that first rail trip from Alliance, Nebraska to Omaha more than 50 years ago, but fond memories aside, I can’t escape the thought that Americans would come to value quality intercity train service if our policymakers could get their heads around the idea that we really can go back to the future.


argentinaThe Wandering Gene

In his marvelous book, In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin speculates whether some folks are born with a gene that causes them to wander the earth in search of adventure. Or perhaps the wandering gene simply pushes a deeply felt human desire to visit new places to see and experience new things, different cultures and interesting sights.

I’m not sure I was born with the wandering gene, but thankfully I have been able to do a far amount of wandering during my life and have become more and more comfortable with the surprise and delight that is generally available when one travels. Of course, there are always travel hassles. The South American immigration system, for instance, could be right out of a Marx Brothers movie. Lots of fellows with tired eyes and bored expressions stamping, stamping and stamping thousands of forms. I’d be able to travel more if I could corner the rubber stamp concession for these guys. They must be glad they aren’t the fellows who have to file all those forms.

Even with the minor hassles, I’m often surprised by folks who travel and complain that the new and unusual places they visit “aren’t like home.” Isn’t that the point of wandering? Let’s go see something that isn’t like home. Argentina isn’t like home.

I have a couple more observations about the land of the Pampas, the subtropical rain forest, the glaciers and penguins before fully re-entering the “real” world and permanently forming those enduring memories of a place seen and experienced, even for a short time.

Today – yes, I’ve sampled them all – the four Argentine food groups – meat, wine, dessert and dulce de leche. Tomorrow, what would a visit to Argentina be for a political junkie without some thoughts on Evita.

But first, every wanderer has to eat.

The Four Basics:

Meat: To say that Argentine beef is excellent would be to damn with faint praise. This is not a country for vegetarians. If you like your beef, you’ll like Argentina. Grass-fed, lean, almost always grilled over a wood fire, the cuts are massive, tender and full of flavor. At one of the best Buenos Aires parrillas, La Brigada, in the San Telmo neighborhood of the capitol, the waiter separated the meat from our T-bone (the most massive T-bone I’ve ever seen) with a folk and a spoon. It was that tender.

Wine: Argentine wines have been enjoying a lot of buzz recently and based upon a very unscientific, but tasteful, sample we have not even begun to enjoy or appreciate the full impact of the country’s quality wine. The wine is high quality and value priced. You can spend a lot on a bottle, but you can buy extraordinarily good Argentine wine from the Mendoza region, for example, for $10 or $12 bucks. Perfect with that T-bone.

Dessert: Lots of ice cream in every conceivable flavor and wonderful pastry form the backbone – or waistline – of Argentine desserts. The ice cream rivals the best Italian and it seems to be available on every street corner.

Dulce de leche: At first blush, we’d call this stuff caramel sauce, but in Argentina it is more like a national obsession. The silky dulce de leche fills the center of cookies, is served with pancakes, accompanies breakfast toast and seems to be applied to just about everything.

The food and wine would be almost enough to justify a visit to this vast place that has a vague sense of having one foot in the 19th Century and the other stepping tentatively into the 21st. Buenos Aires has often been described as the “Paris of South America,” and parts of the city, with its French-inspired architecture, wide boulevards and enormous parks, could pass for Paris. But, Buenos Aires is also its shanty towns and street people, a world-class city with world-class problems of poverty and pollution. It is a place that seems not quite up to meeting its potential, but compared to Paris the Argentine capitol is a new outpost on the frontier. This is a young country, younger than our own and full of possibility and challenge.

The Chatwin book, first published in Britain in 1977, and now a Penguin Classic, has been a welcome companion in Argentina. It is a mix of travel writing, personal observation, fascinating history and perhaps just a little story telling. The book centers on Patagonia, but begins in Buenos Aires. Here is an early line: “The history of Buenos Aires is written in its telephone directory. Pompey Romanov, Emilio Rommel, Crespina D.Z. de Rose, Ladislao Radziwil, and Elizabeta Marta Callman de Rothschild – five names taken at random from among the R’s – told a story of exile, disillusion and anxiety behind lace curtains.”

How could you not wander to such a place and think always of returning.

On the Road – Still

francisWaiting for Godot…or Delta

The British mystery writer Dick Francis has died. I liked his crisp, descriptive writing and thank him for introducing me, along with many other Americans, I suspect, to the sport of steeplechasing. His obit in the New York Times recounts his own early career as a jockey. He rode a dozen races with a broken arm and won two of them.

There was another obit in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution over the weekend that was both difficult to read and impossible to ignore. Diane Caves worked for the Centers for Disease Control and went to Haiti three weeks before the earthquake. Here is one sentence from writer Mark Davis’s poignant piece about her life and work:

Diane Caves of Atlanta, a policy analyst with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was killed in the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti. This past Tuesday, nearly a month later, searchers found her body in the ruins of the hotel where she was staying. She traveled as much as she could. She laughed loud and often. She was 31.”

Moving from those sublime lives to the ridiculous, word comes over the weekend that two former politicians who ought to be retired for life – former Ohio Congressman Jim Traficant and former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci – are positioning to attempt the post-prison comeback. Just what the U.S. Congress needs, an election Salon calls “the year of the crook.” At least those guys will have the most interesting hairstyles in the House. Meanwhile, good guys like Senators Evan Bayh and Judd Gregg are hanging it up. Not a good development for the Republic.

A lot of time to catch up on, and reflect upon, the news this weekend as Delta Airlines continues to recover in the American southeast from a “crippling” one inch snowstorm on Friday. Today is the day, I’m assured, when all returns to “normal.” I have faith.

Still, I couldn’t help reflect while, waiting for Delta, on Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play where two characters wait for that fellow Godot, who never shows up. At one point, Beckett has one of his characters proclaim: “I don’t seem to be able… (long hesitation) to depart.”

I know the feeling. But, today is the day when all returns to “normal.” I just know it.