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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.

Some Things Just Don’t Translate

Ninth in a series from Europe…

Photo 6[Paris] – In his great travel book – The Innocents Abroad – Mark Twain wrote: “In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.” I know the feeling.

The French are famous, or depending upon your point of view notorious, for their attempts to protect the integrity of the French language. In the 1980’s then-French Minister of Culture Jack Lang made protecting French culture and language from the onslaught of globalized western words a national priority. Regularly the French single out words like walkman, prime time and the new Twitter word hashtag as having no place in the French vocabulary.

Still, the impact of Western culture and its hip-hop vocabulary is seeping in around the edges in France, but you have a sense the French won’t give in to it easily. You also won’t find much debate in France about “French as a second language.” There is one language in France – French. American conservatives and English language purists who insist that the United States would be better off with an “official language” can agree at least on that much with the very proper French.

So, where does that leave an American in Paris? An American whose French pretty much begins and ends with please – merci – and ordering a glass of red wine – vin rouge, s’il vous plait. It has been a pleasant surprise that through careful observation and close listening one can begin to pick up the meaning of many things articulated in the elegant French language. The announcements on the Paris Metro are particularly helpful. Still a non-French speaking American in Paris must depend on the universal language of signs and, of course, skillful translation as he hopes that the necessary can become the routine even when language is a barrier.

The striding Frenchman on the grass with the slash makes it pretty clear – don’t walk on the grass, stupid. These kinds of signs are a type of universal language, but I have also found that not everything translates quite so well or so obviously. Consider this photosign at Paris’ magnificent Musee d’Orsay, home to the world’s single best collection of Impressionist masterpieces.

I love the Monet, the Renoir, the Pizarro and can almost convince myself I understand enough of their brilliance to appreciate what they produced when they changed the art world forever, but I wonder about this sign.

I’m not sure whether if points to a place where you get your laundry done while lying down, or maybe it signals a baby changing station. There are lots of babies here. I’m pretty clear that whatever it is can be found downstairs.

The signs in the great Paris park, the Jardin de Luxembourg, have clearly been designed with unknowing English-speakers in mind. Perfectly legalThere are three large expanses of green grass in one section of the park and with great efficiency the signs are moved frequently to keep the sitters from damaging the grass. Good strategy, good sign.sign 2

This sign at the Church La Madeleine, a church originally built to celebrate the success of Napoleon’s army and, perhaps for that reason, a church that looks more like a Greek temple than a typical Roman or Gothic cathedral, seems to congratulate the English-speaker for understanding the sign. I appreciate the thought.

sushiThe toughest translations may come when an English word is used in a French context. This sushi restaurant – Sushi Nevada – is just down the street and they deliver, but so far I haven’t seen many sushi eaters inside the place. Maybe the branding is all wrong.

I don’t know about you, but when I think sushi I have trouble conjuring up the bleak geography and high desert feel of Nevada. I know the state really should be better know for its vast coastline, fresh seafood processing and as a haven for those who gamble that the fish today is really, really fresh, but we know that is not the image. Maybe the restaurant is attempting to play off the gaming reputation of The Silver State, but then again I’m just not into gambling with my uncooked fish.

Sushi Nevada as a concept may just be yesterday’s California roll, but then again the restaurant does have 104 “likes” on Facebook.

It has been said that when the American President Woodrow Wilson came to Paris in 1919 to negotiate what became the Treaty of Versailles, the French took great exception to the fact that much of the necessary diplomacy was conducted in English, rather than in the then-universal language of foreign affairs – French. The French have been fighting a rear guard action over language ever since.

The British actor and writer Stephen Fry has written that the English language evolved in messy and unpredictable ways with “military, naval, legal, corporate, criminal, jazz, rap and ghetto discourses” mingled at every turn.Yet, he says, the “French language, like Paris, has attempted, through its Academy, to retain its purity, to fight the advancing tides of Franglais and international prefabrication. English, by comparison, is a shameless whore.”

As the French might say: Thank you for your comprehension. Merci beaucoup.

And Happy Independence Day.


Some Things Are Better Alone

Washer 1Eighth in a series from Europe…

[Paris] – On a European scale the apparatus of daily life – the kitchen gadgets, the automobiles and, yes, the household appliances – are about two-thirds the size of their American cousins. This smaller scale is completely understandable given the fact that, generally speaking, life is on a considerably smaller scale in Europe.

Paris, for example, is a city of 2.2 million people, but it is a genuinely walkable city. In many cases you can walk from one location to the next, even when they seem some distance removed, more quickly than than you can search for a Metro station or take a taxi. Part of the reason, I’m convinced, the Europeans haven’t had to confront the type of obesity problems with have in the U.S. is that they tend to walk a lot more. Of course, the scale of the place makes walking to work, to shop, to recreate not only possible, but often the best option.

Apartments and homes are on the same smaller scale, and certainly most living arrangements are on a much smaller smaller scale the United States. There are few American style McMansions here and those that do exist more often than not date to the 17th Century and house a museum. So, it naturally follows that the refrigerator, the dish washer, the oven and the washing machine are smaller, too. Ah, yes, the washing machine.

The New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, who lived in Paris at one point, published a sweet little essay in 1996 where, among other things, he sought to explain the ways of French logic. “In Paris,” Gopnik wrote,” explanations come in a predictable sequence, no matter what is being explained. First comes the explanation in terms of the unique, romantic individual, then the explanation in terms of ideological absolutes, and then the explanation in terms of the futility of all explanation.”

Gopnik wrote in his essay about the issues one is likely to encounter when the dryer is on the fritz here, so with apologies to his earlier analysis, I offer my own analysis of the use of the French washing machine. Voila.

First thing to know: with this space-aged looking machine you get two for one, a washer and a dryer in the same little compact package. Imagine the harried French housewife. She must do the shopping, she cares for the children, perhaps she works outside the home. She is busy and a serial multi-tasker just like her U.S. counterpart. She is a unique, indeed romantic individual with her carefully styled hair, her perfect outfit – even at the vegetable market – and her assured sense of command. Such a unique and romantic woman and needs a washing machine and dryer to live up to her expectations.

The idea of a combination washing machine and dryer is, I think, a very French idea. I know you can get these contraptions everywhere anymore, but they dominate the household appliance landscape here. The apartment sizes dictate the combo model to be sure, but the two-machines-in-one idea also nicely passes the French test of working perfectly in theory, if somewhat less perfectly in reality. This is where Gopnik’s explanation of all things becoming an ideological absolute enters our story.

Of course, you may well think that the very different tasks of washing your clothes and drying your clothes might better be done by separate machines designed specifically for those tasks, but in ideological terms you would be wrong. If it can be imagined, it can be done. At least in theory.

Washer 2Having not had the benefit of reading the operating manual for the machine that is housed snuggly in the bathroom of our Paris apartment, I only later discovered that it is recommended that as a prerequisite to flipping switches and tweaking toggles on the machine that the operator successful complete the final exam at the École Polytechnique. To say the controls are complex is to bring us finally to the futility of all French explanations.

Of course, the machine seems to be silently saying, this is a complex, confusing piece of technology. Can you imagine how much work went into designing, engineering and constructing a machine that gets your clothes wet, then clean, then dry and all without removing the clothes once you have pushed the correct button or toggled the right switch? Can you not see that further explanation is useless? Accept the machine for what it is and be happy it works perfectly in theory.

The spinning, the stopping, the whirling and wheezing at least provides assurance to the unskilled operator that enough of the correct switches were bumped to make the thing perform. And, you can go out and have lunch, linger over coffee and still get back in time to catch the last spin cycle. This is the Hundred Years War of washing machines and dryers. I now understand why there seems to be a laundry and dry cleaner on every other corner in Paris.

Readers of this space have probably concluded over the last couple of weeks that I am a partial to France – all of Europe, in fact. I love the history, the culture, the food, the people and the drama. There is a surprise around every corner, a sense of style and individuality, and there are laughs aplenty. I am, however, a committed believer in the American washing machine and the separate American dryer. Somethings were just made to be stand alone. The theory of my French machine is a great one and you can almost imagine it working. Almost.

Hold on, I think that noise signaled the final spin cycle.

The Day the World Changed Forever

Gavrilo_Princip_croppedSeventh in a series from Europe…

[Paris] – We are not always able to precisely identify the exact moment when some overarching event changed the world. History is rarely so tidy. December 7, 1941 was, at least for Americans of a certain age, a defining date when a world war came to U.S. soil. September 11th has defined a new world in which western modernity seems destined to confront perpetual conflict with radical Islam.

Still, there can be little debate that the most certain defining date in the history of the modern world occurred precisely 100 years ago – June 28, 1914 – on a street in Savajevo.

Gavrilo Princip, a young Serbian – that’s him in the photo – fired five shots at the archduke of Austria-Hungary and his pregnant consort, while they traveled in an automobile on the streets of Sarajevo. Princip, armed with a Browning semiautomatic pistol, may or may not have intended to, but by murdering Franz Ferdinand and Sophie he lit the sparks that ignited The Great War. The world has never been the same.

By the time the fighting ended more than four years later as many as 37 million were dead – historians still debate the numbers – the map of Europe was re-drawn and three great empires – the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman – had ceased to exist. The borders that to this day vex the Middle East – Syria and Iraq, for example – were drawn, often with little regard to ethnic and tribal history, in the immediate wake of the war. Bolsheviks took power in Russia and the treaty at the end of the fighting that Woodrow Wilson hoped would make the world “safe for democracy” sowed the seeds of another global war barely 20 years later. Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Churchill, de Gaulle, Franklin Roosevelt and a cast of millions came of age between 1914 and 1918.

Most every significant conflict since The Great War had its origins, both large and small, in the assassination in Savajevo. Yet one of the great fascinations about The Great War is that there remains fundamental disagreement about what really caused Germany and Austria to wage war against the British Empire, France, Russia, Italy and eventually the United States. Who precisely was responsible for the war is still broadly debated, as is the imponderable of whether all the death and destruction might have been avoided had Europe been governed by better, more realistic leaders. Hundreds of new books are being published on the war as its anniversary arrives – one bookstore here in Paris featured more than a dozen new books just from France – and much of the new historical work is assessing the failure of statesmanship during Europe’s last summer of peace.

British historian Christopher Clark’s superb book – The Sleepwalkers – How Europe Went to War in 1914 – makes the case, as the New York Times noted, that immediately after the events in Savajevo “there was a failure to realize that the murder of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by a young terrorist trained in expansionist Serbia might be the ‘some damned foolish thing in the Balkans” that [German Chancellor] Otto von Bismarck in 1888 had predicted would one day trigger a great European war.”

I generally subscribe to the most accepted theory that inept statesmanship – “the sleepwalkers” – in Berlin, Vienna, London, Paris and Moscow contributed to the political atmosphere that enabled the war, but that even more importantly the militant political and military leadership of Germany ultimately made war impossible to avoid. It’s complicated, but there is plenty of blame to go around, including for Serbia, although there is far from universal agreement on that point either.

For example, a recent scholarly conference in Savajevo broke down around disagreement over Serbian responsibility for the war’s origins. “Some Serb political leaders have accused the conference of bias against Serbia,” Paul Hockenos reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “and say that a revisionist history of World War I is laying the blame for the war, which claimed 37 million lives, at their feet.”

Hockenos quoted one participant as saying, “Serbia will neither allow a revision of history, nor will it forget who are the main culprits in World War I.” Presumably he meant the Germans and their Austro-Hungarian allies. Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, called the conference “a new propaganda attack against the Serbs.”

Moreover, one hundred years after killing the archduke, in many places in Serbia Gavrilo Princip is seen not as a murdering terrorist who helped precipitate The Great War, but as a national hero who helped liberate his country from foreign domination. The debate goes on.

Fields of Battle Display in Paris

In France and across Europe the anniversary of the war is being marked in many impressive and important ways.

Fence Display

Along the Rue de Medicis and attached to the long iron fence that encloses the Jardin Du Luxembourg are 50 or so enormous contemporary color photographs of various sites that still show the marks of The Great War. Developed by a British non-profit, the exhibit – Fields of Battle – Lands of Peace – will tour from now until 2018. The photos, by photo-journalist Michael St Maur Sheil, are stunning in their simplicity and shocking in the manner that they capture, better than words often can, the scope of death, destruction and deprivation that spread across Europe, the Middle East and Africa 100 years ago.

There are no people in these scenes, only the memory on the land of what the war created, or more often destroyed. As I walked from panel to panel yesterday reading the excellent notes that accompany the photographs, I tried to gauge the reaction of people young and old who stopped to look and, perhaps like me, ponder how such senseless human behavior was and still is possible.

Memorial tablets at Saint-Suplice for those lost in The Great War

Church display

One need not look long or hard in Paris to find quiet and moving remembrances of The Great War.

In the old church of Saint-Sulpice, second only to Notre-Dame in size in Paris and not far from where the haunting images of the old battlefields are displayed, an entire chapel of the church is given over to a series of large marble panels that list the dead of The Great War, and just the dead from this one Paris church.

The collective French reaction to the second Great War remains a jumble of conflicting stories, including to what degree the nation and its people collaborated with their Nazi occupiers, but The Great War is generally seen, as The Economist recently noted, as not so much a matter “of wasted lives and tragic loss as national heroism and glorious victory: the last time the country was unambiguously united on the right side of history.”

One million four-hundred thousand French soldiers perished in The Great War, more deaths than any of the Western powers, and considering the overall population of France in 1918 it was a truly staggering lost. That loss of the talent of a generation, 100 years on, remains a fact of life here. Another great anniversary, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Paris in 1944, will be celebrated here with enthusiasm in August, but that date is marked more as a happy milestone than as a cultural and political turning point. The Great War simply turned the world upside down and that cannot be forgotten.

Some debate has raged in Britain this year over whether too much attention is being paid to the centenary of the war. “Schoolchildren are being turned off the First World War because of the ‘barrage’ of TV programmes devoted to the conflict, according to academics.” It was alleged by some that the “sheer scale of attention given to the Great War…risks leaving pupils feeling bored.”

I have many reactions to the anniversary, but boredom is certainly not one of them. Here’s hoping the attention devoted in Europe and in the United States to the “defining event of the 20th Century” will help all of us – and perhaps particularly young people – understand a little better its muddled and contentious history and remember a little more fervently its awful and enduring impact.

One hundred years ago this weekend the world changed – forever.

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.


Normandy Celebrates Liberty

photo.JPGFifth in a series from Europe…

[Port en Bessin, Normandy] – We’ve all heard the classic stereotype frequently attached to the French; they’re cool – even cold – detached, formal to the point of rudeness, and some might say arrogant and, of course, they don’t like foreigners. The stereotype is, like most stereotypes, largely poppycock. The next time I encounter the stereotype I’m going to remember this little stone monument marking a road hard by the River Orne in Normandy.

A few minutes after midnight on June 6, 1944 – D-Day – three Horsa gliders of the British 6th Airborne Division made what amounted to controlled crash landings about an eight iron shot from this marker. The British troops came in the night to capture two vital bridges that might have been the route for advancing German tanks to repel the entire eastern end of the “greatest seaborne invasion in history.”

One of the bridges – later known as Pegasus Bridge for the flying horse that was the 6th Airborne’s symbol – was captured by Company D of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry under the command of Major John Howard. Howard and his men, as Stephen Ambrose documented in his celebrated book on the raid, conducted their mission flawlessly and held the bridges for several hours until they linked up the next day with British troops moving up from the invasion beaches. The action at Pegasus Bridge is the stuff of military legend.

In many respects John Howard was an unlikely hero, but like so many in those times he rose amid the challenges to become a fine officer and respected leader. He was wounded twice during the Normandy campaign and came away from his experience at Pegasus Bridge with a Distinguished Service Order presented personally by Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery. The citation read: “Major Howard was in com[man]d of the airborne force which landed by glider and secured the bridges over the River Orne and Caen Canal near Benouville by Coup de main on 6-6-44. Throughout the planning and execution of the operation Major Howard displayed the greatest leadership, judgment, courage and coolness. His personal example and the enthusiasm which he put behind his task carried all his subordinates with him, and the operation proved a complete success.”

John Howard’s men anchored the eastern end of the Normandy beachhead by conducting one of the great and gutsy actions of World War II and obviously the French remember to this day. A visit this week to the bust of Major Howard that sits on the exact spot where his glider landed finds the base of the monument layered in fresh flowers, many placed by locals.

The 70th anniversary of the Normandy landing by American, British, Canadian, Polish and French forces in 1944 is being publicized and remembered all over France, and no place more than in the small villages and towns that stretch along the Normandy coast from Caen to Cherbourg. In Caen, a great and ancient city that was once home to William the Conquer and was severely damaged during fierce fighting after the invasion, lamp posts throughout the city feature pictures of the town’s liberation by British and Canadian troops in July 1944. The restaurants feature D-Day commemorative placemats. In the tiny villages behind Omaha Beach on the western end of the invasion zone homes and businesses display the French tricolor side-by-side with the U.S. Stars and Stripes. In fact, you see as many U.S. and British flags as French. The French postal service has created a handsome series of stamps to mark the anniversary. Films, concerts and art exhibits will continue throughout the month.

On the way back from Utah Beach today, I noticed one farm house displaying French and U.S. flags along with a crisp white banner that read simply – Merci.

Of course there is excess in the name of tourism, including the restaurant with a life-like combat ready mannequin at the front door and there are so many cheesy souvenirs for sale that I have lost count. What isn’t excessive is the remarkable sense of history in this place and what feels like a genuine determination to preserve the memory of what happened here 70 years ago. French organizers of the commemorative events say a principle goal is to make certain young people don’t forget the sacrifices made to liberate the country and hordes of French school children are visiting the important Normandy sites and often siting perfectly still for a long description of why this history is so important.

It has been a rare and special privilege to be here this week, visiting the five landing beaches, standing where Major Howard lead his men to Pegasus Bridge, imagining the great DeGaulle arriving in Bayeax and proclaiming it the provisional capital of France and, of course, walking among the more than 9,000 perfectly positioned solemn, sober and humbling white marble crosses in the American cemetery above Omaha Beach.

It was also special – and frankly a little unexpected – to discover that all these years later the Allies coming to liberate France in 1944 still lives in the villages and farms of Normandy. Along the backroads inland from Utah Beach you see dozens of small signs naming a section of road for an American GI. The French have well remembered Eisenhower with a handsome statue in Bayeax, the kind of honor that has been denied the general/president in Washington, D.C. The small resort town of Arromanches Les Bain, location of the brilliantly conceived “artifical harbor” that supplied troops in Normandy and for six months after the invasion became the busiest port in the world, has erected signs declaring “this is the Port of Winston Churchill.” Churchill conceived the far out idea to construct the harbor out of pre-cast concrete and then float it into place across the English Channel. It became one of the great innovations of the war. The town of Colleville changed its name after the war to become Colleville-Montgomery in honor of the British field marshall.

So, don’t buy the nonsense about the haughty French. They are remembering the incredible events in Normandy 70 years ago with style and grace and amazing hospitality. I raise a glass of Calvados to Major Howard and his glider-borne fighters and also to the French and their sense of history, while I quietly wish that our own sense of history could be quite so widespread, so obvious and so well understood.


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.


Being Defined by History

Sixty-seven years ago this morning The Guardian newspaper in London used this opening sentence to report an astounding story: “Pierre Laval was shot to-day at 12.32 after a vain attempt to poison himself had delayed his execution.”

The man who had twice been Prime Minister of France, an international statesman, a friend of Herbert Hoover and TIME’s Man of the Year in 1931 had been executed by a firing squad in a Paris prison, convicted of treason for collaborating with Nazi Germany.

Laval, a shrewd and capable politician, had to be revived to face the firing squad. He had attempted suicide by taking cyanide in his prison cell. Once well enough to face death, Laval tied on his trademark white necktie and wrapped a scarf of the French tricolor around his throat. He refuse a blindfold and yelled Vive la France as he died.

The trial and guilt of Pierre Laval is still a controversial subject in France, which in many ways has never completely come to terms with the country’s collapse in 1940 followed by four years of occupation and, for many French, collaboration with the Nazis. The still unresolved French history during World War II still finds troubling connections to the present where serious levels of anti-Semitism remain an ugly fixture of French life. The story of Laval is mixed up in all of it.

Charles de Gaulle personally refused to order a new trial for Laval, even amid mountains of evidence that he 62 year old lawyer had been badly treated by a sham proceeding. The once very successful trial lawyer thought given a chance to really defend himself he could have talked his way out of the firing squad.

Laval came to power in wartime France at the side of the World War I hero of the Battle of Verdun Marshall Philippe Petain. By 1940, Petain was in his 80’s and, while an immensely popular figure, was quickly eclipsed by the energetic Laval. Petain, too, was tried and convicted of treason, but his death sentence was commuted to life in prison, a decision that left many to conclude that Laval had been made the symbol of all that France and the French had done – or not done – to accommodate Nazi Germany.

The great de Gaulle did much to rehabilitate the French psyche by inventing the attractive, but largely mythological notion that French partisans had liberated Paris following the Allied landings at Normandy in 1944. It’s true that many French men and women took to the streets to battle their German occupiers as the Nazi’s prepared to leave Paris, but it’s also true that many quietly adapted to life under the occupation and, as a recent and excellent book by Alan Riding points out, the cultural and social life of Paris went on pretty much as if nothing had changed, while Nazis officers got the best tables at the best cafes.

Reviewing Riding’s book – And the Show Went On – Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote in the New York Times:  “Though Charles de Gaulle insisted on the execution of Pierre Laval…he said he did not want vengeance on those who were merely ‘misled.’ And yet de Gaulle bears indirect blame. He above all people purveyed the healing notion that the French had been united in their resistance except for a few traitors and weaklings. This helped make possible the creation of a new democracy, but it was preposterous all the same.”

Picasso lived and worked, quite comfortably, in Paris during the occupation, as did Maurice Chevalier and Gertrude Stein, who devoted time during the occupation to translating Petain’s speeches with the hope that they might be published in the United States. They never were.

Pierre Laval went to his death protesting that he had done all he could to make life as tolerable as possible under the Nazis and he may still be the most hated man in French history.

Picasso, who exercised excellent timing in joining the French Communist Party just as the Germans were being thrown out of France, is widely remembered for his great anti-war painting Guernica and has a state sponsored museum in Paris that honors his work. Stein, who the great Kathy Bates played in Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris, is mostly remembered today not as a publicist for Petain, but as an intriguing experimental writer and Ernest Hemingway’s muse.

History can be a strange thing. How one is treated by history can be even stranger. Winston Churchill had it right. He once said he wasn’t much worried about how he would be treated by history since he planned to write the history himself.


Uruguay and Argentina

uruguayOdds and Ends: Politics and Mate

A very big day today in Montevideo, Uruguay and you probably won’t read much about it in the U.S. A new president, a left of center politician and one-time guerrilla, who spent years in jail, will take the oath in the famous Independence Plaza in the Uruguayan capitol today. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is attending. Good for her. It will keep the local spotlight from falling totally on Hugo Chavez.

Our knowledge of Uruguay, such as it is, probably just about begins and ends with futbol. One former politician said of the country’s devotion to the great game, “other countries have their history, we have our futbol.” The Uruguayan’s are proud of their two World Cup championships and are already looking forward to hosting the 100th anniversary of the Cup in 2030 in a storied stadium in downtown Montevideo. The first championship was held in the same stadium in 1930. That will be a party.

Back to new president Jose “Pepe” Mujica; in his initial comments he sounded more like an American-style moderate than an ex-con. He pledged, among other things, to try to improve relations with Argentina; relations that have suffered over a controversial paper mill in Uruguay that environmentalists say threatens the Argentines along their shared river border. Pepe, in pledging to work on the dispute, said he didn’t consider Argentina a “foreign” country. Sort of like us saying we don’t consider Canadians to be foreigners, at least we didn’t before the most recent hockey game.

Argentina and Uruguay do share much. A spectacular river – the Rio de la Plata – a language, much Spanish colonist history, most of the same tango moves, grilled beef, futbol, and a curious tea-like drink called mate.

If Starbucks is to America, then mate is to Argentina and Uruguay. Young men especially carry their gourd cups of mate all day and all night, constantly adding steaming hot water from a thermos to refresh the brew that is sipped through a silver straw. Mate is simply everywhere. One young Argentine tried to explain to we gringos what the habit was all about and simply concluded, “we drink mate, we don’t know why.”

Still, like folks from the United States and our Canadian neighbors, we can’t always get on the same page. Tango, for instance, is common to both the South American neighbors, but the Uruguayan’s reject the more athletic aspects of Argentine tango, preferring a more romantic, fluid style. When told of the dramatic nature of an Argentine tango show, a young man in Montevideo shrugged and simply said, “that’s Argentina.”

Both nations also share a weak economy and a burdensome foreign debt, but these days, who doesn’t. At least these Latin American neighbors have their mate and, at least, two forms of tango.