Friday, December 18, 2009

Spectacles 2

Opera was an Italian invention but very soon in the 17th Century an Italian, Jean-Baptiste Lully, was composing for the French monarch Louis XIV full theatrical spectacles, “tragedies en musique”.

No wonder that Paris has not one, but two great Opera houses, three if you count the Opera Comique near the Boulevard des Italiens. The most famous one is the big building at the end of the Hausmannian Avénue de l‘Opéra, also called Palais Garnier, after its architect. It was conceived during Napoléon III’s reign, but not completed until after he had lost power in 1875.

Looking up towards the Chagall ceiling.

Rumor has it that when Garnier was asked by Empress Eugènie whether he was designing in Classical Roman or Greek style, he replied that it was in Napoleonian style. A very appropriate reply as this building reflects and exemplifies the worst of that excessive style. No staircase is spared a sweep, no column is unfluted and uncrowned, no moulding is uncurved, no window lacks in foliage, no opening is un-curtained, no cornice or finial un-gilded, no surface is bereft of a bas-relief, no wall lacks a sconce or a niche, nor will the niche stay empty, no urn is not overflowing, no wall-panel will remain un-treated, no nymph lacked a placement, no cherubim was denied a presence, no greek god or European composer will be without an abode. Garnier must have believed that an inch of undecorated space showed a weakness of purpose, and he was trying to exhibit the exuberance and satiety of a society that was enjoined to get rich as fast as possible and spared no vulgarity to flaunt it. The quietest part of the decor is Mark Chagall’s 1965 cupola design in the main hall, a magical, dreamy confection of blues, reds and yellows, stuck thirty years ago over the old, original painting and reportedly sagging because the old adhesives cannot hold up both.

The interior spectator space of the Opéra Garnier is really overpowering in plush velvet and gold. We attended a matinee, and I found it surprising that all those slobs in jeans and T-shirts, in denim jackets and leather were not feeling inadequate and out of place. The surroundings demanded more “sprezzatura” from the audience.

What we saw that afternoon was in stark contrast with the framework. Three short ballets, Amoveo choreographed by Benjamin Millepied, with music by Philip Glass, Répliques by Nicolas Paul, to music by György Ligeti, and Genus by Wayne McGregor, to music by Joby Talbot and Deru.

Amoveo was danced against luminous chromatic computer-generated intersecting lines and rectangles over the top four fifths of the background slowly evolving to Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach music supporting the exquisitely difficult sequence of pas-de-deux, trios and ensemble dances that developed against the black lower fifth.

In contrast, Répliques is a ballet closely matched with and derived from Ligeti’s music, on a black stage, with architectural sets of tulles, both in front and in back of the action, separating scenic spaces and simultaneously linking them by dancers moving in close synchronicity, like time-delayed mirror images. It is a spare and moving reflection on identity and its perceptions.

The highlight of the evening was McGregor’s ballet Genus, reflecting upon Darwin’s theories of evolution. McGregor is fascinated by how changes in the mind and one’s sense of self inform physical movement. The dancers begin as swarms of protoplasm in a sea of primal life and evolve into sea creatures through evocative choreography, to finally come on land and triumphantly become humans. Toward the end of the piece, a screen reveals a kaleidoscope of images, glimpses of humanity’s greatest intellectual discoveries.

The other Opéra is on the vast Place de la Bastille that can accommodate the towering bulk in greys and blacks. It most closely resembles a stack of silver hat-boxes, curving out towards the Colonne de Juin over a massive staircase leading up to a third floor colonnade. The facade is broken up in squares, like the tiles on the space-shuttle, the windows are contained in the tesselated pattern and the building extends backwards several blocks down the rue de Lyon, that leads to the railway station of the same name, and the Avenue Daumesnil. There are no curlicues on this edifice, no gilded finials; only a sense of powerful repose, a presence of contained energy, a mountainous rootedness.

It was built between 1984 and 1989, designed by a then unknown Uruguayan architect, Carlos Ott, and opened on July 13th 1989, to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the taking of the Bastille prison. President Mitterrand intended the new Opéra to be more welcoming to the masses, more sociable than the Palais Garnier. Its 2700 seats, 500 more than Garnier, have all unobstructed views of the stage. The common areas have all the charm of an airport lounge, with polished marble floors and large glass windows offering sweeping views of the traffic swirling around the Bastille column. A succession of long straight staircases transport the audiences to the upper realms of the edifice.

The scenic space is reputed to be the largest in Europe, and allows for the sets to be erected completely off-stage and wheeled in whenever there is a change of scenery. The acoustics have been described as less than perfect.

Garnier nowadays specialises in ballet performances, and Bastille offers a solid program of classical and modern operas, 20 productions per season.

We watched “The Barber of Séville”, Rossini’s much beloved and much performed opera buffa, in a good production that ended, to the audience’s delight, in a patriotic display of soccer enthusiasm to support and celebrate the French national team, the cast suddenly producing small French flags and the tenor donning a blue T-shirt.

The famous melodies -from other performances- Largo al factotum (), La Calunnia () and other favorites are fresh and attractive for all kinds of audiences and we had a very good time .

Unfortunately we could not get tickets for any of the shows of the Opéra Comique. But we were able, with the help of friends, to see a fascinating show of varietés, at the theater of that name on the boulevard Montmartre. Four musicians, Pierre Ganem , Laurent Vercambre , Jean-Yves Lacombe , Jean-Claude Camors, once thwarted in their lofty artistic ambitions, pooled their abundant talents to create a show of musical comedy, a kind of Marx brothers with violins and other string instruments. For thirty years now they have presented a yearly renewed season of musical slapstick, a jubilant potpourri of jazz, classical, pop-tunes, film scores and inventions set to surrealist juxtapositions and evolutions. One hundred minutes of boundless talent exhibited to an adoring and enthralled audience.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Christmas markets in Cologne

When you arrive in the very busy Cologne Main Station (Hauptbahnhof), on the banks of the Rhine and next to the huge cathedral (Dom), as you come down the stairs and walk to the main concourse, because it is Christmas time, you will see a diorama , depicting a nativity scene (or crèche in French and Krippe in German). In all loving detail it represents a scene during Christmas 1944, a scene of rubble, burnt-out houses, small people pushing carts filed with broken bricks and masonry. The wall sign describes that the artist went into East Germany to find historically correct debris to strew around his work. He researched archives to find the proportions, dimensions and characteristics of the narrow houses along Cologne’s still medieval streets, to show them on that desolate Christmas before the end of World War II.

The main railway bridge out of the Bahnhof and over the Rhine into Deutz on the right bank is shown collapsed into the river, as are two other bridges further upstream, and, in streets leading from the station, the figure of the cardinal archbishop of Cologne helping with the moral uplift and redressing of the ancient city.

The artist’s intention is to remind the passer-by that Cologne was bombed two hundred and forty two times from the 30th of May 1942 onwards, and its downtown incinerated during frequent attacks by British and US air strikes on the German rail network. And, miraculously some will say, the enormous Gothic cathedral survived intact, or almost so, until the end of the conflict.

The Hohenzollern rail bridge over the Rhine, now rebuilt, is the busiest in Europe, carrying a train every two minutes, both local and regional passenger traffic, merchandise, and long-distance trains linking, for instance, Paris to Moscow. As the passenger emerges from the bustling station, s/he is immediately overwhelmed by the massive bulk, dark and spiky, of the Dom, the center and heart of Cologne.

The Cathedral was started in the 13th Century, and stood unfinished for many centuries. Germany’s unification and rise to power in the mid-1800s sufficiently inflamed the will of the people, coming together in a Society for cathedral building (Dombau Verein) to raise close to one billion of today’s dollars to complete the main façade and the two spires. In 1880 the cathedral was reconsecrated.

Its towers were during the following four years the tallest structure in the world surpassed in 1884 by the Washington Monument. Cologne cathedral is the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe, and follows the design of Amiens cathedral. It was conceived as the inspiration for Christianity and the fulcrum of German Catholicism. As such it is a pilgrimage site, as well as tourist attraction, and is a Unesco World Heritage site described as “a masterpiece of exceptional intrinsic value" and "a powerful testimony to the strength and persistence of Christian belief in medieval and modern Europe”.

From the square in front of the station the cathedral is more than all that. It stands, huge, massive and forbidding, darkened by wind, weather and smoke, thrusting spikes, towers, flying buttresses skyward, like a stone porcupine. It is inspiring and dreadful, a bridge from humanity to heaven, or maybe a desolate prayer to stop this ceaseless rain of death and destruction.

Once inside the scale of the building becomes apparent. The main nave extends backwards and upwards and the silvery organ hangs from the third floor on the side of the main vault. The temple is devoted to worship, and red-frocked church servants guard the entrance to the main body of benches in the center. A low wooden barrier separates the flock from the gawkers, and the mass proceeds for a double audience: the engaged believers and the outside churning crowd of onlookers. The High Mass as grandiose spectacle.

On Sunday the immense pealing of bells calls the faithful to prayer from the tall spires, answered and seconded by the bells from other churches in the city. On this First Sunday of Advent the crowds undoubtedly are arriving to fill the Christmas markets set up around the Dom, on the old market squares and the riverbanks. The merchants offer from wooden sheds all the wares associated with the Christmas celebration, from fir trees, silver and golden wraiths, stars, crystal balls, candles to children’s toys, presents for the grown ups and an unending variety of victuals, sweet and savoury, sausages, roast meats, christmas cakes, spice breads, cookies, marzipan, glog and beer to satisfy anybody’s palate, however jaded.

Nothing remotely medieval or ancient is left in Cologne outside the Römisch Germanisches Museum, right next to the cathedral. The city was destroyed during the second world war and was rebuilt, following the old street map, in the 1960s and 1970s. The architecture is solid, unpretentious and functional. Only lately some architects have begun to design landmark buildings. Some towers are rising, all at a respectful distance from the cathedral’s spires.

The old Cologne was founded by the Roman Empire as a garrison town in the mid first century. By AD 80 the city had a permanent aqueduct to supply it with water from the neighboring Eifel region. The Rhine was the natural barrier that the legions were unable to breach in any permanent way, although many attempts to bring this frontier to the river Elbe had been undertaken. German nationalism in the 19th century played-up the defeat of three Roman Legions under Publius Quintilius Varus by Arminius, chieftain of the Cherusker, himself educated in Rome and an officer of the auxiliary troops supporting the Roman advance. The Hermann monument, erected in 1870, commemorates (at the wrong site) the battle as the core of the German identity.

At the Römisch Germanisches Museum the Roman lifestyle of the city is documented by the excavations of sites uncovered around the cathedral as a result of Allied bombardment. Two wonderful mosaics from wealthy residences are the museum’s core holding, with domestic fixtures from Roman kitchens, bathrooms and sitting rooms. Today, while the subway lines are being built through the city, and whenever demolitions uncover medieval foundations, careful preservation is put in place to ensure full accessibility and visibility.

As we arrived in Cologne on Saturday evening, from a stop in Aachen, Charlemagne’s capital, the streets were teeming with shoppers, all stores open and lit-up. We wandered around for a while, and ended up in our hotel, a bit outside the downtown, quiet, functional and solid. Remember that German double beds sport individual cloudy comforters, for personal nesting. Once we had dropped our light luggage we left again to find a place for dinner. We ended at the Hotel Ernst am Dom, where we managed to persuade the concierge to get us a table in their Hanse Stube.

The meal can only be described as memorable. Both the concierge and our waiter were polished women, smoothly and smilingly polite without being distant. None of the jocular familiarity, frequent in US restaurants, that Stanley Fish portrays and deplored recently in the the New York Times. The word that most often is used in response to the customer’s requests is : “Gerne!”. that can be translated as:” I will do it with pleasure”. Compare that to the detestable “No problem” used in the US. Good service is about the client’s wishes, not her/his problems.!

Linda ordered and was served glazed crayfish in a light foam with miniature gnocchi, and I opted for sauteed veal sweetbreads on a bed of broth-braised brunoise of carrots and celery. As an amuse-gueule we were given small cups of superb consommé, covered in puff-pastry crust, as well as tiny canapés of salmon tartare, and foie-gras, green and black olive tapenade. With it I chose Auf der Mauer, a dry Riesling from the Rhein-Pfalz by Dr. Bassermann-Jordan.

On Sunday morning we had breakfast at the Café Riechert, next to the cathedral, to the pealing of ceremonious Christmas bells. Fresh, crisp croissants with preserves and a small pot of the superb full-bodied coffee that we found to be the rule in Germany. The rest of the day we spent poking around the Christmas markets and we ended up at the cafeteria of the Chocolate Museum, overlooking the Rhine, while the day slowly darkened. Then to the Thalys train, and three and a half hours later, back in Paris and home.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


I will now begin to share with you some the different spectacles that we have enjoyed during our stay in Paris. I have been repeatedly asked: “And what will you do for three months in Paris?”, predicting long stretches of boredom once the Tour Eiffel and the Bateaux Mouche and the Moulin Rouge have been exhausted, the last room of the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay explored (is that even possible?!) and all those croissants devoured. To which I used to respond by turning the question into: “And what will I not do while in Paris?”

The only limitation is the girth of the purse. So we have not done all that is available, but have chosen, from the infinite offerings of a large, civilized city, what we thought was worth while, and we could afford. And could get tickets to…..because, in the middle of the financial crisis every spectacle seems to be sold out quickly and several months in advance. For instance two days ago we saw an advertisement for a Jacques Offenbach concert in the Royal Theater at Versailles. By the time it took us to go to FNAC, the official venue for all concert tickets in Paris, only three seats at Euros 130 ($190) each were left. Guess what? We did not buy them.

One of the attractions of a large, civilized city is that it offers more than you can ever encompass and gives you the freedom of not doing anything at all. Like a restaurant with a huge menu that you read with pleasure, but then decide to fast.

Now let me warn you that I am not an Arts critic, I am not qualified, nor specialized to express any kind of criticism on any art form. What you will read in these chronicles entitled “Spectacles”, will be my view of what I witnessed, my opinion and the thoughts that crossed my mind before, during and after the spectacle.

Let me get started with the most recent, the freshest in my mind:

She is a barbarian! she is a romantic! She is a barbarous romantic!

Pina Bausch-- Juilliard, Paul Taylor and José Limón trained--was essentially the offspring of German Expressionist dance master Kurt Jooss. She died suddenly, only five days after being diagnosed with cancer, in June 2009.

The Paris Cinemathèque organized an homage to her work as choreographer and dancer for the Tanztheater Wuppertal, on occasion of her troupe’s yearly appearance at the Theatre de la Ville at the Châtelet. Jerome Cassou had been filming performances of the Tanztheater for four years with a shoulder-held camera, and the Cinemathèque Française premièred a ninety minute extract from this work.

Mr. Cassou emphasized repeatedly in his pre-show remarks that all the rushes had been viewed and approved by Pina herself, as he was progressing in his work. At no time was the choreography modified to allow for the filmographer’s presence, and the camera had to find its space in the ensemble, maneuvering along with the dancers in the very dynamic scene. The camera took the place of a spectator, a very intrusive yet invisible participant.

Rolf Bausch, Pina’s son, introduced the film with a short notice, where he stated the cinema’s two-dimensionality as a shortcoming in properly representing such a tridimensional art form as ballet. The close-up, he said, compensates only partially for this handicap.

Like many of us I first encountered Pina Bausch’s work in Pedro Almodovar’s film Talk to her, which features two of her ballets, Café Müller as prologue, and Masurca Fogo as end piece. Both pieces deal with break-ins and break-outs, of women imprisoned, dealing with isolation, un-communication, physical and psychological barriers.

Ms. Bausch frequently uses popular music, jazz tunes, Afro-caribbean drum beats, flamenco percussion to move her dancers. The pieces chosen by Mr. Cassou are all very dynamic, swiftly paced flows of movements and emotions. Ms. Bausch emphasizes highly energized swirls, circles, gyrations, of hair, arms, fabric, and props like water, petals, sand, flowers that the camera, because of its cinematic visual retentiveness of the image, decomposes and amplifies. The dancers circle in and out on themselves, around and against each other, around the stage in frantic rushes, alone or in duos and trios and repetition progressively intensifies the emotion that carries the movement.

Clothing is used to emphasize gender: reminiscent of Martha Graham, women wear long, flowing gowns or dresses with wide, expansive skirts, while male dancers are often clad in suits, or elements of suits, ties hanging out of pockets, flying from belts, shirts untucked. The flowing drapes in the back-ground have little to do with Fellinesque wispiness, but billow with the gravitas of canvas or taffeta.

That male-female relationships are often marked and marred by violence is a recurring theme in her work. Women are pushed, pulled, restrained by male dancers using various means, even furniture. Men fight and grab each other as well as their partners in recurring circles of caleidoscopically interchangeable partnerships.

But not all is grandiloquence: in every work shown are passages of small gestures, tenuous caresses to each other and to oneself, a lingering touch, the arms surrounding the head and face, hair as protection and titillation, fingers extended in defiance or splayed in desperation.

Ms. Bausch emphasizes the essential sexual nature of male-female interactions, throwing bodies together in violent encounters and rending separations, glorifying the haphazardness of desire’s unconscious impulses. Emotions are expressed by having the dancers dredging the audience’s deep repertoire of links between sounds and movement, movement and sensation, feelings and sounds, perception and rhythm, as continuously implanted by our interaction, day in and day out, willing or unwilling, with media.

The Tanztheater is meant as an extension to our established notion of ballet: highly trained and athletic people executing a sequenced series of movements to music. The name, in German, can mean “danced Theater” and it begins with dancers and music. But whereas classical and modern ballet is more about pure movement and a quest for formal beauty, Pina Bausch wants to show us the things that we, the audience, feel and do not know how to express, to tell us, with highly trained and athletic people moving to music, that we are not alone, that others feel the same, and show us how they feel it. Her work is composing stories, but distilling them away from the distracting plot, leaving only the pure expression of the meaning of being human, the signs and gestures that we give each other to break, as Kafka says, the ice that binds our souls.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Eating in Paris

Street markets

How do you shop for food in Paris? Mostly you walk the streets. Yes, there are the large supermarkets (grandes surfaces), like Carrefour, but they are limited to the outlying areas, where real estate prices and zonings make it possible to put together large venues. The problem, since the inception of the city, is how to distribute the day to day necessities to the consumer level.

There are smaller supermarket chains, like FranPrix and Monoprix (both flaunt the word prix in their name, to implant the idea that price is what they are all about) spread all through the city. And then there are the infinite variety of grocery stores, fruit and vegetable stores, bakeries (boulangeries) crowding each other on the most frequented sidewalks. Next to them you will find the different kinds of “traiteurs”, doing what we would call the take-out business.

Rue St. Antoine, 4th Arrondissement, Paris

For instance in my neighborhood, two blocks away on rue Saint Antoine, I turn left and I find a “charcutier” offering a dizzying array of meat-loaves (patés), baked in ovenware (terrines) or in crust (en croûte), with mushrooms (forestière), with different kinds of meats, mixed or side by side, plus pre-cooked entrées like sweetbreads with mushrooms in cream sauce, or salmon layered on crêpes with mayonnaise and blanched shredded vegetables, whole salmon baked and jellied, salads like celery root in mayonnaise, pasta salad, shredded carrot salad. My favorite lunch is hure parisienne, pressed pork tongues with pistachios and sherry jelly. The business of the charcutier goes back to the Middle Ages, when at the time of the slaughtering of animals, around St. Martin’s day, November 11th, in preparation for the winter months and the coming festivities at the end of the 40 day Martinmas fast (which in the Christian tradition is called Advent), the meats had to be prepared to last. The most common way of preserving meats is salting, making salt a prime trading commodity in the Ancient world. The via Salaria, bringing salt from the sea to Rome and to other points inland, runs right through the Roman Forum.

The charcutier would devise different ways of precooking, seasoning and preparing meats and poultry. The patés, by pressing the ingredients together and so excluding oxygen as much as possible, and then sterilizing by cooking in a closed container, plus a covering with a baked crust or a jelly, were meant to provide duration to perishable ingredients before mechanical cooling was possible. The coming winter in northerly latitudes helped to ensure the integrity of the larder.

In southerly climates the techniques were salting, spicing, curing and drying, leading to the unending array of andouilles, chorizos, capicolas, salumes, and merghez found around the Mediterranean.

Continuing along rue St. Antoine after my charcutier I find a cheese shop (fromager), where in this fall season, apart from the three hundred-odd cheese varieties common in France, on a huge paella flat pan, heated on a butane burner, a raclette is cooking, sliced potatoes cooked in bacon fat, covered in cheese slices. Walking on I can get a bottle of wine from either of the three small merchants within three hundred yards, a baguette from three different boulangers, some foie-gras (two merchants), fruit and vegetables from a fruiterer, who right now is offering cranberries and pomegranates from Southern France, cherimoyas (custard apple) and kaki’s from Spain and Tunisia, red and white Muscat grapes from Italy (I have reacquired the taste for grapes with seeds, so much more flavorful than the uniform seedless varieties obtainable in US supermarkets), artichokes, celery beets and fennel from around Paris, Italian and Spanish tomatoes, and seven varieties of wild and cultured mushrooms.

Further on two chocolatiers offer dozens of chocolate confections for every taste. Next door you can buy twenty varieties of honey. In between, a refrigerated counter displays Asiatic take-out, presented as any French traiteur. A bit further another shop specializes in sushi, and moving on chicken is roasting on a an eight spit roaster, with potatoes at the bottom to soak up all the good fat and juices. If you order you will have to decide on free-range (fermier) or battery bred. The happiness of chicken will cost you money.

In between all this abundance there is a straightforward meat merchant (boucher), offering the traditional cuts of meat, plus pre-cut trimmed and rolled pieces for your oven at home. Across the street a new fish-monger has just set up a gleaming shop, with twenty kinds of whole fish, and all the fillets thereof, plus fish and shellfish salads, and some four tables to eat right there. At this time of year oysters are on display everywhere, of French origin, Arcachon, Cancale and Marennes plus a number of smaller breeders (cultivateurs) with their own distribution networks.

Another block away, across the street is LeNotre, legendary patissier, exhibiting its confections in Art-Deco-ish frugality.

Boulevard Richard Lenoir. The Bastille column in background.

Once I have finished scoping my street, if it is Thursday before one pm I will walk five blocks further to the Boulevard Richard Lenoir to a neighborhood street market. It also sets up on Sundays. This market is medium sized, and combines with discount clothing. There are fish-mongers, fruiterers, cheese merchants, bakers, Italian specialties, Middle eastern dried fruit and pastries, fried dough in different forms, charcutiers, bouchers. Some are cooking paella, or boeuf bourguignon, wafting irresistible aromas towards you .

The fruit stands are predominantly peopled with North-African Maghreb (Algerian, Tunisian, Moroccan) vendors who will tout their wares loudly and exchange loud taunts rich in the gutturals of their berber Arabic dialects. You will be enveloped in cries of “Goutez Monsieur” (taste it, Sir) while dodging proffered slices of melon, orange, peaches, and “Avec ceci?” (and with this?) encouraging you to purchase something else.

Marché des Enfants Rouges

Should I not be well provided for, I can walk a little further into the third arrondissement (ten blocks), to the covered and permanent Marché des Enfants Rouges accessible from the rue de Bretagne, reputedly the oldest in Paris, dating back to the 17th century. I read that it used to be an orphanage, and the children wore red tunics, hence the name. Being in the fashionable North Marais this little market is certainly more expensive than Richard Lenoir. Some of the merchants will serve a dozen tables within the market with their Moroccan, Latin American and Antillais meals.

Or, on the other side of the Bastille, following the Faubourg Saint Antoine for about a mile, I could reach the covered Beauvau and place de l’Aligré open markets, available daily.

At the latest count I identified 81 street markets, covered and open-air, active in the twenty arrondissements of Paris. They are supervised by the City of Paris, which provides the electrical outlets for the refrigeration equipment that the merchants need to bring to their sites, as well as the basic tube framing for the individual booths. The merchants pay a fee to the City, plus a sales tax, and the Value Added Tax that goes to the European Community, and the City will also take care of the clean-up after the periodic markets close.

Most of the food that comes into Paris passes through the huge Rungis market, the largest wholesale market in the world, near Orly Airport, on the crossroad of three main motorways, and with dedicated railroad access. It covers 573 acres, handles 1.5 million tons of fresh products per year, and employs 12,000 people. Owned by the French State, Rungis market rents facilities to 1300 wholesalers and importers and serves 18 million consumers. Food quality controls are done on site, by private enterprises to regulations from the French government and the European Community, monitored at local and regional level by Government experts.

The good thing is that sampling all those markets requires much walking around, which consumes calories. Enough, I hope.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day

In Cologne, Germany, the 12th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of 11th month of the year marks the beginning of Carnival season, that will end on Ash Wednesday 2010. But the 11th minute is still devoted to remembering the end of the First World War of 1914 to 1918.

Nowhere more so than in Paris. For the first time a German Chancellor, Ms. Angela Merkel did attend a ceremony under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris together with President Sarkozy. For it was the First World War, and what many consider its consequence, the Second from 1939 to 1945, that forged the European Union of today.

France was defeated by an upsurging German Empire in 1870, and lost two provinces, Alsace and Lorraine. Since the end of the 17th century the Rhine had been France’s eastern frontier, but the 1870 war was fought to the tunes of “Die Wacht am Rhein” (the watch on the Rhine), the unofficial anthem of the German Empire proclaimed on France’s own soil at Versailles on that same year. Remember the sequence in Michael Curtiz’ Casablanca, when the Germans start singing in Rick’s café, and start a riot?

Still everybody claimed to have been surprised by the start of the next war in 1914. War by inadvertence? Some historians claimed that during the doldrums in July and August, the rigid plans of the General Staff’s on both sides let a minor conflict in the Balkans between the Austrian Empire and Serbia roll into a full fledged conflagration.

“Christmas in Berlin” was the cry on Paris’ streets in 1914, while German regiments in grey (Feldgrau) rolled through Belgium in punctual execution of a long-standing battle plan by Schlieffen, exerting Schreckligkeit (frightfulness) to ease their advance. The French went to battle in red pantaloons and blue jackets. Not for long, though.

The best laid plans ground to a standstill. The Schlieffen plan did not work out. The High Command on both sides had misinterpreted the consequences of the high technology that they were using. For the first time industrial warfare devoured resources at an unimaginable rate. The machine gun favored the defense, gun preparation of the battlefield could use a million shells in a few hours, units got lost as telephone wires from the front were cut by artillery fire. General staffs laid out plans and executed doctrines for a different age.

For instance the all-powerful British navy went into battle formation at Jutland (May 31st 1916) under Jellicoe, in steel ships throwing car sized projectiles to five miles away, with a Nelsonian mindset of wooden ships and close-up broadsides. Distrusting the information received by wireless, the Navy reverted to communication by signal flag in the dusk, along a twenty mile long line of battle.

In France the battles sank into the mud and the trenches. The high point of this warfare came at the defense of Verdun where the French and the German sacrificed millions of men in a six month confrontation without outcome.

The end came in exhaustion in November 1918. The world as it was then known had also ended. Germany and Austria sank into revolution, inflation and famine. The influenza, brought to Europe by the American soldiers, ravaged the weakened populations. The “victors” looked for righteous compensation.

Ads for fashion in 1920s France featured wedding dresses “for second marriages” and “widow’s clothing”. Because of a new awareness of human fallibility and the fragility of life and happiness the roaring twenties broke all the rules.

Disconcerted populations looking for stability and certainties turned to saving formulas and dogmas, and their strongmen. In response and emulation of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, Dollfuss, Horty, and Pétain offered renewal, return to the old stability, by fire and discipline.

An enraged Germany thirsted for revenge. Pointedly, after France’s renewed defeat of 1940, Hitler insisted on signing the armistice in the same railcar in the forest of Compiegne where the German plenipotentiaries had signed the 1918 Armistice.

In 1945 Europe had reached its nadir. Again it had squandered its wealth and its young in six years (nine if you count the Spanish Civil War of 1936, where all the belligerents of 1939 were already involved) of immensely destructive warfare. 1945 was year 0 of European history.

The reconciliation of France and Germany was the precondition for the avoidance of continued conflict. Precursors like Jean Monnet, Robert Schumann, Konrad Adenauer, Kurt Schumacher worked, under US tutelage, to bring about an economic system that would make future wars impossible. From the initial Coal and Steel Community the framework evolved towards the Treaties of Rome in 1957, the Single European Act of 1987, and the European Union Treaty of 1992.

And on this 11th November 2009, one minute before the start of the Cologne Carnival, Germany and France came together under the Arc de Triomphe.

I would strongly recommend to watch the Michael Haneke film “The white Ribbon” (Palme d’Or in Cannes 2009) as a primer on German attitudes before 1914.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Our Sunday day trip

France-Méteo was set to rain on our Sunday, so we decided to pack the umbrellas and set off to Deauville, the paramount summer resort on the French side of the Channel.

At Bastille métro station the quais were unpeopled, the trains almost totally empty. At Châtelet we changed to the driverless train on line 14th towards Saint Lazare station. This line was inaugurated in its full length in 2007, and the technology has proven so successful that line 1, crossing Right Bank Paris from East to West (Défense to Château de Vincennes) is being outfitted for automation. Line 1 was already famous for running on rubber tires instead of steel wheels.

It takes two hours from Saint Lazare to Deauville Trouville, with a stop at Lisieux, site of the shrine to Saint Therèse of the Child Jésus with its large hilltop cathedral. Nicknamed the twenty-first Paris arrondissement, because of its closeness to Paris, Deauville is a very popular and posh seaside resort, the center of the Côte aux Fleurs.

The beneficent nature of bathing in sea-water was popularized by the 1822 visit to Dieppe by the Duchess of Berry, although it had been popular in England since the last decades of the 18th Century. The main resort on the estuary of the Touques river was Trouville, and when the town built a sea-break wall and mole, the river diverted a lot of sand onto the neighboring marshes. In the 1860s a group of entrepreneurs, led by a local physician, invested 360,000 francs in the purchase of the marshes adjoining the magnificent beach. They interested the Duc de Morny, Napoléon III’s half-brother and noted financier, in the venture. Avid horseman, Morny promoted the construction in 1862 of a race-track and in 1863 the extension of the rail line from Lisieux to facilitate communication with Paris. The developers then started planning the layout of the new town, modeling it on the plans that Haussmann was developing for Paris, so that a Parisian would feel immediately at ease on arrival.

Bathers, by Boudin, 1863

The rich and famous began building summer residences in Deauville, and Normandie became the horse-breeding center of France. The heyday of Deauville came shortly before the First World War when Monsieur Le Hoc, town mayor, met with the manager of the famous Maxim’s restaurant in Paris, and set in motion the building of a Casino, a boardwalk and the major hotels, the Normandy and the Royal. Paul Poiret, noted Parisian fashion designer, opened a boutique in Deauville and Coco Chanel, as yet unknown, followed suit on the way to her fabulous career. After the First World War a second race-track was built, as well as a golf course, The crazy years were on!

Everybody came to Deauville in the summer to see and be seen. Painters like Raoul Dufy and Picasso, musicians like Satie and Stravinsky, horse-lovers, golfers, financiers, financier wannabes, mountebanks, bookies, poets like Apollinaire and his friend Paul Guillaume, the collector and gallerist, as well as all kind of gawkers and hangers-on rubbed shoulders on the race-tracks, in the streets and at the parties.

Claude Lelouch made his film “A Man and a Woman” in Deauville and was awarded the 1966 Cannes Palme d’Or. Nowadays Deauville hosts two film festivals every year, the American and the Asian.

Place de Morny

We came to Deauville because I am a sucker for seasonal towns out of season. They look melancholic, its character uncloaked by the crowds. We had also taken the precaution of coming well prepared for the continuous rain forecast, and therefore not only did it not rain, but was somewhat sunny all day. So we strolled from the station towards the center of town, in search of the tourist bureau. The townscape was inviting and polished, favoring the fake half-timbered architecture called Norman. Houses are two or three stories high on average, and the sidewalk spaces offer an assortment of boutiques, cafés and restaurants, as expected in such a fashionable place. Streets are clean and well groomed, parking stripes fresh and gleaming.. The main square is called (a bit obviously) Duc de Morny, and is laid out in star form, like the Étoile in Paris, assembling eight spokes. But soon the town reverts to an orderly grid pattern, all right angles and squares. The main shopping area is around the Casino, with the usual luxury goods like Sonya Rykiel, Eric Bompard, Ralph Lauren, etc.

The Tourist office, where we got a town map and a restaurant list, is next to Town Hall, a timbered, turreted extravaganza, bedecked with yellow, tan and crimson hardy mums. Conversely the Casino, the original one from 1912, was thoroughly disappointing, sporting the usual claustrophobic red-velvet wrapped, twinkly appearance of most casinos in the world, except in Las Vegas. The basement houses a movie theater.

We walked along the boardwalk on the edge of the immense, carefully tended and combed sands of the stupendous beach, several miles long and half a mile wide, with an outgoing tide. Beyond the horizon, unseen but certain lay Dover’s white cliffs. We roamed out to the end of a jetty to a lighthouse marking the entrance to the harbor basin, where we lingered to watch the sail boats catch the lively breeze, lean into the wind and split the oncoming waves into plumes of spray. Then we turned around towards the boardwalk along the beach with a long row of cabins named after film stars from all countries. In summer, according to the postcards, you can also rent umbrellas with surround curtains to ensure your modesty while changing. On this Sunday the beach was populated by kite flyers, sand buggy riders, or families just soaking their feet, shoes in hand. Dads carried giggling ecstatic little girls on their shoulders, mothers ran after energetic four year olds. And dogs are banned from the beach, not a bad idea.

At around one pm we started looking for a place to eat. I kept pulling us towards the sea and we discovered precisely the place we had hoped for, called Bar de la Mer (Sea bar), with tables in the open, sheltered from the wind by plexiglass partitions, and heated with those propane powered mushrooms that transform al-fresco dining into all-warm meals. We eagerly sat down to an excellent menu of oysters and a grilled bar (a fish) with braised fennel for me; a sauteed salmon filet with braised endives for Linda; and a nice bottle of crisp Sancerre.

And we sat there on November 15th enjoying the wintery English Channel sky streaked with blue, greyish clouds lazily drifting by, looking at the quiet Atlantic, washed-out pale green waves carrying surfers in rubber suits amidst the backward spray. After a lazy hour we picked ourselves up again, walked southward along the beach towards some architecturally distinctive villas in the distance. All were shuttered, and looked asleep. One of them actually sported a crenelated tower. The chains closing the parking lots were encrusted with saline rust, defending empty spaces from non-existent four-wheeled trespassers.

Slowly we circled back to the center of town, past apartment blocks closed for the winter, along straight, plane tree lined streets, now bereft of leaves. We sat again on a café terrace among couples still working on the remnants of their meals. I noticed one pair who, having disposed of half a lobster each and an assortment of shellfish, were relentlessly attacking a tureen of boeuf bourguignon.

Our needs were more modest: coffee and a cassis sorbet and rum raisin ice cream. Then, on our feet again, across the river Touques to Trouville, the town whose thunder was stolen with panache by its parvenu neighbor. This was a working harbor with rusty vessels instead of shiny yachts, the quays lined with light trucks proclaiming that their trade was to grow mussels, “boucholer”, on poles out in the shallow bay. Another Casino here, also run by the Barriere organization, and an establishment offering “cures marines”, marine cures, but some letters had fallen off the sign.

By three o’clock we felt that we had reached the plenitude of what the local deities had to offer and we withdrew towards the train station, physically and spiritually sated. On the trip back I reflected on the quiet charm of these places once they are abandoned by the crowds that overrun them in season. All bluster aside, all passion spent, they go back to their real structure, start breathing and hoping and preparing, like Nature itself, for the renewal, the fun yet to come.

Monday, November 09, 2009

There is no such thing as French identity

Don’t you believe that the French do not like the USA! They may object to some things that we do, but they do love some of our stuff.

On Saturday, November 7th, quite deliberately, we walked up (or is it down?) the rue de Rivoli, to the Louvre. Now that the weather has turned to chilly and grey, the masses of tourists have thinned and some neighborhoods have become available again. As we approached the entrance to that super glitzy Carousel du Louvre underground mall, however, we saw a group of people standing on the sidewalk. Because there is a blockbuster show at the Louvre on the competition between Veronese, Titian and Tintoretto in Venice in the middle years of the sixteenth century, we were not much surprised. But the cloud of security guards around the main entrance, discreetly shepherding people, made us aware of something else going on. We skirted the line that started out in the street, and walked along its flank, into the vestibule, down two long flights of stairs onto the main concourse with its opulent stores on both sides. It was not really a line but a pipeline of hundreds, four or five abreast, of many ages, from young adults to seniors, some excitedly talking to each other, some quietly standing in expectation. We walked on for a quarter mile on this underground golden causeway, towards the main piazza, where the Louvre’s glass pyramid inverts, and its apex touches the floor. The pipeline was exactly constrained and delimited by velvet cords, on each side, separating the waiting crowd from the normal traffic of shoppers. A hubbub of commotion exploded afar every thirty seconds.

As we approached the main octagonal concourse, flooded in natural daylight from above, we could see to our left the main entrance to the Louvre’s hallowed precinct, with the security check-lines and ticket booths, in front of us the huge Virgin megastore. To our right, the line expanding into a controlled audience, a space occupied by a dozen of vigorously exercising youths in red and black and blue T-shirts, hollering and jumping up and down in a staged frenzy beneath a huge white apple on a glass pane. As traffic permitted, they admitted groups of people into the store.

The Apple Store has arrived in Paris, the first one on the European terra firma!

In characteristic style the storefront is all glass and the trademark glass staircase can be seen illuminated in the center of the store. The only identification is the brand’s logo, the white apple, floating on a pane of glass, from ground to ceiling, two floors high.

We did not attempt to enter the crowded store. It had opened at 8:30 am, now it was close to ten. Inside you could watch the people milling around the wooden tables loaded with all the Apple wares, as they are in New York, San Francisco and London. A trickle of people were walking out with the characteristic Apple shopping bag, closed by a drawstring. After Paris, openings are planned in Frankfurt and a second store in Paris. Apple is now selling in their stores more than a billion dollars worth of merchandise per year, worldwide.

The French seem to have taken to this American brand with enthusiasm. Apple computers are seen in corporate settings more in Paris than in the USA. You see them in hairdresser shops, lawyers offices, real estate agents. From our apartment’s window we look out into our neighbor’s window across the street: they own two iMacs. When the network fails, as it sometimes does, I check across the street to ascertain whether it is only my router or a more general downturn.

No wonder that Steve Jobs has been nominated as the CEO of the decade. The disciplined deployment of a brand concept over a wide array of products, the attention to detail, the controlled build-ups of excitement through a mixture of secretiveness and confidential glimpses that precede any launch, and, of course, the pace of innovation have moved Apple from an almost failed computer manufacturer in 1998, to the modern behemoth that drives whole segments of technology forward. Apple does not merely introduce a new product, it establishes a business model based on a specific product. The evolution of the iPod from an MP3 player to hub of the music business ls legendary. Similarly the iPhone could have been just another player in a much disputed arena, and instead it became a game changer, imitated by all. Relentlessly Apple stays abreast of others by evolving their products with continuous improvement setting a grueling pace for the industry and for us, the consumers.

France has launched, again, a debate on what it means to be French. What is the “identité nationale”? Periodically, since the industrial revolution, the French ask themselves the same question: do we have to evolve, do we have to become part of the nineteenth, twentieth or twenty-first century? Forests have been demolished and oceans of ink consumed on this question. The catastrophic 1940 defeat suffered under the onslaught of a new way of making war, the teutonic way, led to a soul-searching examination of “decadence”, the “vigor” of the race, the “essences” of Frenchness. The attacking nation, Germany, had undergone a similar gut-wrenching re-evaluation after its own defeat in 1918, leading into the Nazi dozen years. In France, in 1940, it led into the Petainist Vichy régime. Fernand Braudel, the illustrious French historian pointed out in an interview in the 1980s, at the end of his life, that you should not play games with identities (je ne veut pas que l’on s’amuse avec l’identité), as those discussions often end in totalitarianism.

It is, of course, the pervasive appearance on French urban landscapes of foreign brands, and especially American, like Starbucks, MacDonald’s, Subway, that launches the French psyche into these quests. The French have indulged frequently in inferiority complexes towards the USA. A famous book by Jean Jacques Servan Schreiber, “Le défi americain” (1967) -”The American challenge”- proposed an “americanization” of French “savoir-faire”, just as the Petainists wanted a new France of small farmers and shopkeepers. Braudel’s last work was called “L’identité de la France”, France’s identity, in which he concluded

« ni l'ordre politique, ni l'ordre social, ni l'ordre culturel ne réussissent à imposer une uniformité qui soit autre chose qu'une apparence »

“neither the political organization, nor the social organization, nor the cultural order can achieve a degree of uniformity that is more than an appearance.”

In the daily “Le Monde”, Jean François Bayard is quoted: “Il n'y a pas d'identité française" (“French identity, there is no such thing”) Of course, the present debate centers, not so much around business icons like the Apple store at the Louvre, but at the presence in France of the residual fruits of empire, the ethnic minorities from North and sub-Saharan Africa, who, already in the third and fourth generation are still trying to find a role in the country.

In the Institut du Monde Arabe (the Arab World Institute), a posh modern building on the Left Bank (by French architect Jean Nouvel), in an auditorium with leather covered reclining seats that felt like the inside of a Lexus, we heard the other night a fabulous jazz concert by Elie Maalouf, a keyboardist who describes himself as “Lebanese-Parisian”, surrounded by a multi-coloured, multi-gendered pick-up team of musicians.

Seems that some of those petro-dollars are coming back.

Friday, October 30, 2009


This chronicle is dedicated specially to Leila Whittemore, our guide and inspiration on this trip to Rome.

Rome? On Seville, Camilo José Cela wrote: una gran señora con la cara pringosa de literatura." (a great lady with a sticky face from all the literature). Rome is this wonderfully grand lady, albeit overripe, enveloped in picturesquely chaotic flowing robes, whom we would like scented with less patchouli, with a bosom that is a tad firmer, a girth more conducive to embraces, somewhat more attentive to personal hygiene and maybe more carefully coiffed before showing herself, but that we admire for her wit, generosity, opulence and welcoming smile; we know that she has made so many happy, and the scars of her many miseries are all too evident, and we perceive the smoldering fires in her eyes and heart, yes, she can and will make you happy too, if you have the courage to talk to her and the wisdom to break away before she possesses you. Her gifts are offered to all to the point of meaninglessness, but the wisdom of her hidden favors holds the sweetest taste and promise.

Lila Kedrova playing Bubulina in “Zorba, the Greek”? But Linda put it best: “We now know that Fellini was making documentaries.”

On a cool and crisp Sunday morning the only fitting thing to do was to wander into Saint Peter’s basilica, past the security checks, the magnetometers watched by inattentive blue blazered functionaries, into the stream of humanity. At some point a sloppy decision, mass only to the right, visit the architecture to the left; we went right, past the bronze doors, discreetly shepherded by impeccably clad young men in grey, with red ties. Rows of plastic chairs on the multicolored marble floors, mostly occupied, but with plenty of spaces to chose from. We were handed booklets, in Latin and Italian, from which we gleaned that the Holy Father himself was to officiate. Linda, always partial to royalty, rooted right there. From high above, from loudspeakers apparently made of marble, came soft angelic choirs. In our world electronics crackle and dissipate; not here, the sound floated down like dust from the hazy heights of the Bramante-MichelAngelo-Bernini-dellaPorta dome. Far away, but of a size that made it immediate, stood the Bernini “baldacchino”, the portal on four 100 feet tall elegantly twisted bronze columns shielding the papal altar. Sun was streaming in through the side widows of the cupola’s cylinder, leaving the rest of the immense space in half-dusk.

The music changed in texture and rhythm. This was going to be a mass to close the conference of African bishops, the Catholic Church's new frontier, and softly beating African drums underlaid Swahili, Kwa-Zulu, Twi, Afrikaans hymnals. The cyclical lyrics were underscored by swaying soft percussion, rounding and softening any primevalism, as if saying that the Church, mother to us all, expects its African children to lead it into the next centuries; it offers them redemption and a path to civility.

At ten o’clock sharp, a processional hymn preceded a bobbing stream of black heads in white hats and green chasubles, followed by cardinals in red. Finally, behind the cross on a staff, marched a small German gentleman all in white, also in a green chasuble. When he reached the baldacchino, he began the steps, evolutions and rituals of the High Catholic Mass. The choir worked through the Introito, the Kyrie, to the Homily. By the time the Credo came around, I was expecting a powerful blast of the organ pipes to “Credo in Unum Deum, Patrem Omnipotentem….”. But the Choir tastefully continued in the genteel tone of universal blandness. No Church triumphant here, but a kinder, gentler sea of thousand points of light.

We did not stay for the Eucharist, but discreetly stepped past the Swiss guards in their workaday powder-blue uniforms and képis, into the Bernini “columnata”, the twin ellipses of columns embracing the faithful gathered on Saint Peter’s square. Giant, high-definition screens provided a view, a highly and impeccably produced live view of the proceedings inside the Basilica. The cameras lovingly dwelled on the exotically clad black ladies in tall head-dresses, that brought readings and tidings from the Dark Continent. Vivid scarlet, blue, gold, stepped in and out of camera range. Close-ups of African nuns in grey white and blue veils bringing chalices of hosts for consecration. The German gentleman, who had counseled “corrrraggio” (courage) to his listeners with his guttural rolling “r’s”, very earnestly touched every chalice proferred. He looked slim, slight but without any frailty, a schist in a multisecular structure.

The outside audience and spectacle rounded out the interior, more mystical and atmospheric proceedings, into a well-organized, highly engineered package. The mediated representation becomes the real world.

From St. Peter’s we walked across the Sant’Angelo bridge, under the shadow of Hadrian’s tomb and the piled on superstructure that conforms the castle from whose battlements Floria Tosca is supposed to jump into the river Tiber in the eponymous opera by Puccini. Sant’Angelo is probably the structure that best represents Rome: on a millenial base, peoples. locals, invaders, have wrought their best and worst, destroying, robbing, repurposing, rebuilding to the whims of their moments. In the streets, whenever a Roman monument protrudes, we look down ten or twenty feet to the excavated bases of temples. The present city is built on the rubble of all the older ones.

But it is glorious rubble. Hitler wanted to rebuild Berlin to emulate Roman ruins. He did not get the opportunity for the glory, just for the rubble. The German imagination has always tended to the Classical South. From Goethe’s “Werther” to Sandra Nettlebeck’s “Mostly Martha”, the German gaze looks to Italy. So did the British, with their 18th and 19th Centuries “Grand Tours” and the spate of ladies wandering through Tuscany and Firenze to relieve their widowhood; even Noel Coward sung the adventures of Mrs. Wentworth-Brewster (rhymes with “goosed her”) in Capri.

We understand today that historical taxonomy fails us here. You cannot talk of pre-Christian Rome as separate from Papal Rome or present-day Rome because they are so closely interwoven. The Pantheon may be the oldest fully preserved site of worship in the world, but already at its erection it was meant to encompass and digest all the deities (Pan denotes ‘all’, and Theos refers to divinity) past, present and in effect future, as there is a fully functioning Catholic church, dedicated to Saint Mary and the Martyrs, but known in Rome as Santa Maria Rotonda (the round one) and the worship has ben repurposed today into a secular movement that drives thousands of visitors under its “oculus” (round opening in the cupola).

Any and all of the noted buildings in Rome have been constructed using ideas and materials ‘borrowed’ or looted from somewhere else. As the saying goes: “quod non fecerunt Barbari, fecerunt Barberini.” (What the Barbarians did not do, the Barberini - a Roman papal family- did.)

The Barberini Arms

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The French flavor

What constitutes the charm of Paris? Which are the elements that have made it the tourist Mecca, the “must-see” capital of the Western world?

It is an ancient city, on a site inhabited continuously for over two thousand years; but other world cities, not only in Europe, have been occupied for even longer periods. Paris is built along and around a river, but this is rather common when you are thinking of establishing habitation. A river provides you with water, and with sanitation, as well as a means of transportation for people and supplies.

Does the attractiveness reside in the charm of its inhabitants? Many visitors complain that Paris would be perfect without the Parisians, of sharp and intemperate wit, and little patience for foreigners. Or in the leisurely pace of daily life? Paris is clogged with traffic and fast-paced crowds, like New York, London or Tokyo.

Yet there is no doubt that Paris is endowed with a distinct atmosphere, that makes its streets immediately recognizable and that has been imitated in many places around the world. The urban environment here is not strictly commercial and “bottom-line”, like New York, where art in the streets is added as an after-thought and a fiscal device. There is a deliberate effort by the people in charge of administering Paris to provide the urban furniture that will make life on the streets more pleasant and add the “flavor” that we so appreciate.

For instance during many years Paris was known for its “vespasiennes”, or “pissotières”, the public conveniences provided for the relief of urgent bodily functions, and so dear to the French novelist Roger Peyrefitte. The distinctive design covered the torso of the gentlemen inside, but left the feet and heads visible to passers-by. They have now been replaced by the automated concrete pill-boxes, flushed and sanitized after each user, that provide the privacy required to make them available to women. Initially they required the insertion of coins, but with the advent of a socialist Mayor, the fee was waived.

The most famous of the urban accoutrements on the streets of Paris are, without doubt, the Métro access stairs designed and built between 1900 and 1913 by the architect Héctor Guimard (1867-1942). Trained at the Êcole Nationale des Beaux Arts in Paris, in the principles and theories of Viollet-Le-Duc, he is one of the European architects who defined the style of Art Nouveau, with Victor Horta in Belgium, the Hoffmann workshops in Vienna as well as, in Barcelona, Gaudí and Puig i Cadafalch.

Some days ago I travelled with a friend of mine to GHM, a foundry east of Paris, in the little village of Sommevoire, where the Guimard entrances to the Métro were cast, and where the moulds are kept. This foundry was established here in 1840, on the site of an older foundry going back to about 1157. The iron ore was available without mining, on the surface, and abundant woods provided the fuel, while a small river assured the water. This conjunction of inputs gave birth in these areas to a profusion of large and small foundries and metallurgical workshops. Pont-a-Mousson with its steelworks lies a bit further east, on the Moselle river.

On the western approaches to the Alsace, this is flat and pleasant countryside, very much “la douce France” (sweet France), worked and reworked by the plow, providing the rich produce that is essential to Frenchness. The small villages cluster around old churches, there always is a bar or an inn, a boulangérie, a monument to the village dead in one or all the wars of the last two centuries. If you step out of the car you will be assailed by the smell of freshly baked bread, of the cattle near by.

Sommevoire is a company town. Most of the population works for the foundry and the jobs are handed on from father to son.

GHM has provided the urban furniture for Paris for more than a hundred years. In addition it owns the moulds to hundreds of figures and monuments designed by its own and other artists. The heyday of the industry came after the First World War, when any village of any relevance needed to put up monuments to its dead in the awful carnage of the Flanders battlefields.

From the GHM workshops also come the charming four caryatid green water fountains found in many Paris streets (one of them flows in the rue Saint Paul, near to my flat), as well as the candelabra on the Pont Alexandre III between the Invalides and the Grand Palais. GHM has provided lamp-posts to cities in the Middle East, and all over the world. On the day of my visit visitors from Morocco were looking at a range of fixtures to be installed on the streets of Rabat and Fés.

Near Sommevoire, on a little hill, lies Brienne-le-Chateau, site of the school where Carlo Buonaparte deposited in 1779 his 10 year old son, Nabulio, to be trained for an army career. Thirty-five years later Napoleon Bonaparte returned to Brienne with an army of 30,000 raw recruits to stop the advance of the Prussian army of the Sixth Coalition on Paris. Although he is reported to have won this battle, he abdicated for the first time on the 30th of March 1814. The school closed long ago, but the old chateau houses a small Napoleonic museum, where you can find, among other things, a hat that Napoleon might have worn.

In France, wherever you go, somebody or something is related to Napoleon.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Let's go to the movies!

Since the Frères Lumière held their first public exhibition of the “cinématographe” to a paying audience on December 28th 1905, in the basement of the Grand Café at the Boulevard des Capucines, Paris has been the city of movies. You may think that Los Angeles or Hollywood deserves that name, but where else than in Paris can you find 500 films shown per week in 365 venues? Where else can you catch up on any film that you may have missed, you lazy movie buff, in the last fifty years? And I don’t mean video, but real 35mm, 24 frames per second, film. Does Los Angeles have an authentic hundred year-old Chinese pagoda with attached cinema? Don’t give me that, Grauman’s is but a fledgling pastiche.

As I speak, Billy Wilder, Robert Aldrich and Truffaut retrospectives are running in three separate venues, Chaplin’s Gold Rush is to be seen at La Pagode. Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart go cheek to cheek at the Action cinemas, while the latest Tarantino and Soderberg blanket the city. Every Friday at midnight the Rocky Horror Show happens at the Studio Galande, (, both on screen and in front of it. At the downtown monstrosity of Les Halles the UGC complex houses 23 screens with current movies, while two bays away the Forum des Images remasters and shows all the films owned by the Paris Municipality, some 6500, since the beginning of the 20th Century. Digitalization is proceeding as we speak, 5000 hours of films are already available in digital form, to be watched on demand in individual booths, group cabins or large screen.

Then there is, of course, the Cinemathèque Francaise, located in a made to measure building by Frank Gehry in the new Parc de Bercy. It is the love child of Henry Langlois, who undertook in 1936 to preserve, collect and show the best of the world’s moving images. This institution and the publication of the “Cahiers du Cinema” (Cinema notebooks), an unavoidable publication for filmmakers, film theorists, critics and film buffs, established Paris as the world capital of the art of cinema.

And in what other city can you find a street named “cours du Septième Art”? (reference to the Confucian six arts -rites, music, archery, charioteering, reading, writing, and arithmetic- and the seventh had to be added). It is in the 19th arrondissement, and I walked on it this morning.

I am trying to put together a list of historic venues, meaning movie houses that have been operating continuously for seventy five years ( a totally arbitrary number), and my spreadsheet contains over twenty already. Some of them are still run by the great-grandchildren of the original owners, and have suffered vicissitudes as the film industry has evolved. They have survived so far because of their owner’s passion for this art form, because there will always be a public who needs help in understanding the human condition and because a film lens is a wonderful instrument in skilled hands to examine its splendour and miseries.

You encounter film on the streets of Paris. During one of our walks Linda and I stopped to have coffee on a terrace, near the Gobelins metro station. At the next table sat a man, with retinue, who looked very familiar. We spent the evening searching for who he was: an elderly movie director, we concluded, and went down the list of alive 80 year olds. We discarded Claude Chabrol and Woody Allen, and settled on Eric Rohmer. But we did not muster the courage to bother him at his table, to find out who he might be. How do you do that? Ask him: “Ahem, we know that you are famous, we have enjoyed your work, but who are you?”

Meanwhile we have figured out that it was not Rohmer but Jacques Rivette, one of the surviving Nouvelle Vague film directors, director at some point of the Cahiers du Cinéma, and a seminal figure in film theory.

Immediately after this fortuitous encounter we watched the latest Tarantino. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision, as Linda and I were walking south of the Jardin des Plantes, into the high-bourgeois Boulevard Arago, Glacières and Gobelins. We had been discussing some days ago whether I should see the film on my own, but as it came along in one of the cinemas we passed almost at starting time, she volunteered to come in with me and spent most of the film hiding her face on my shoulder while QT spilt everybody’s guts on the floor.

The way I read it Tarantino wanted to make the ultimate Nazi-hunter film, to end them all, while he is really talking about moviemaking and loving movies. He spoofs the Audie Murphy legend and film as well as all the John Wayne/Stallone Green Beret stuff. And the good guys are all Jewish and this is how they should have behaved instead of walking into those nasty camps. This is how wars are won, guys, not with your namby-pamby situation room meetings, and assessments and Congressional committees. In the end Hitler gets blown-up while watching a movie in Paris (sorry, I blew up that surprise) and the Second World war ends in Europe one year early.

There is a much-talked-about part of SS Col. Landa that Christopher Waltz hams way over the top, while Brad Pitt is spoofing John Wayne. There are graphic scalpings, people smithereened by machine gun fire (have you ever wondered how German machine guns never jam) and explosions galore, all that fun stuff. Nemesis turns out to be a blonde Jewish girl. Brother, that clever QT must have had a great time making this one!

As contrast watch, as we had done some days before at the Forum des Images, Truffaut’s “L’enfant sauvage” (The wild child), an ungimmicky retelling of the universal story of abandoned children reared by animals. Remember that Rome’s founders. Romulus and Remus, were reared by a she-wolf. Rudyard Kipling used the image to create Mowgli, child of the jungle, and Kim of India, and its most notable representation is, of course, Tarzan. The Anthropology Museum at the Quai de Branly, in Paris, recently staged a great exhibit on the latter.

But Truffaut’s film takes as a base the extant writings of Dr. J. G. Itard, considered the father of special education. In 1798 three hunters capture a naked boy in the forests of the Aveyron, of an estimated age of 11 or 12. Itard takes charge of him and tries to reincorporate him into the human species by providing the boy with sensory stimulation, and developing his communication skills. The film is a wonderful meditation of the things that make us human, on our basic animal instincts, on the predominance of nature/nurture in our humanity.

Films have formed all of us, influenced our outlook on life, shaped our opinions, our way of dressing, loving and living with each other. Each of us carries in our mental repertory images, a bit of dialogue, an attitude, a certain look or aspiration that we have learned, drunk or received from some film that we watched somewhere sometime. That was “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Friday, September 25, 2009

La rentrée

The French, if you have forgotten, take four or five weeks of paid vacations, generally during the month of August. When we arrived on the 19th the city was half uninhabited, many restaurants and shops shuttered and exhibiting the sign asking the reader to “Patientez” (Be patient) and come back on the 30th or the 10th of September.

At that time the fifth season of Paris began. Apart from the usual Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter, in France, in September, there is “La rentrée”, the comeback. Movies open, theaters première new work, galleries stage new artists, and publishers launch new writers or new titles by known writers. The public is supposed to pay attention and admire all the newness.

Because in France, like everywhere else, too many writers compete for eyes. As a wannabe published writer said in Le Monde: “…..unless you have been raped by your father, have killed him or your best friend, or are recovering from any addiction, no publisher will touch you.” Among this year’s launched titles, apart from the inevitable Amélie Nothomb, a newcomer, Mathias Énard, freshly enthroned with the Livre Inter 2009 mention, offers "Zone", a thriller à la Dan Brown, but written in a breathless stream of consciousness flow of prose, à la James Joyce. I started to scale, with trepidation, the 515 page mountain of words, and was quickly taken captive.

Talking of Rome, the protagonist’s destination, he says: “….Rome’s center has been emptied in the same way, no more inhabitants, no more shops to feed the mouth, baubles and baubles and more baubles to lose your head in thousands upon thousands of T-shirts, hundreds of thousands of sneakers ties in the millions scarves to cover St. Peter’s, to surround the Colosseum to bury everything under this crap forever and let the tourist dig into this immense religious crapola to lighten their eyes with the avidity of discovery……”

Is this the destiny of every place that becomes a destination for tourists?. Confronted with the avalanches of people transported hither and thither by the mass tourism industry, in wide-body jet after wide-body jet, in caravans of buses, the uniqueness that was supposed to be their asset progressively gets buried in a worldwide wave of sameness. The three or four day tourist becomes the raw material of a massive machine whose marketing promises unending marvels and delivers long treks, long days, long lines to increasingly bored and dispirited individuals. The photo and the souvenir are their prize, the way to recall that, yes, indeed they have been there, they have filled their tedium filled days with more ambulatory tedium.

The destination becomes mere background, a disembodied collection of theatrical sets. In order to catch this unending flow of revenue producing humanity, the set pieces get refurbished, polished, covered in gold leaf, and vague narratives of history without context offered mechanically to increasingly jaded and glazed individuals, shuttled from hotel to hotel, from meal to meal, and from location to location. A marvelous time for everybody, photograph after photograph digitized to be viewed a couple of times and then, as zeros and ones, recorded deeper and deeper into layers of computer hard drives, never to be seen again.
This fever possesses also Paris. The surroundings of the Louvre, the arches of the rue de Rivoli are densely crowded with postcard racks, shelves of housewares inscribed with “I love Paris”, T-shirts, mugs and assorted paraphernalia that can be found with similar inscriptions in other cities all over the globe. The huge bateaux-mouches cruise the Seine beaming succinct mechanical references in four languages to what the incidental argonauts should be looking at, in spite of their more immediate interest in photographing each other or dozing off in the warm sun, and discharging them after an hour’s cruise towards their buses. The steps of the Sacré Coeur basilica are a sight to behold, blackened with hundreds of people sitting on them and looking out over the incomparable view of the huge city.

That is Paris’ saving grace. It is big, it can swallow those crowds and digest them, process them and send them on their way. Once you have decided to stop being a tourist you can easily step out of the flow, out of the predictable routes and become part of the city itself. Two short anecdotes: Some days ago a small group of Skidmore students had retained the services of a tour guide and a time slot to visit the fabulous Musée d’Orsay. All gathered at 9:30 am before the closed gates. At 10:00 am the expected opening did not happen. The lines of prospective visitors grew longer and longer until hundreds of people were milling around in the forecourt. 10:30 came and went. Close to 11 am the group was finally processed and let loose with the throngs of other visitors. People stood three and four deep before the paintings. By 11:30 everybody was tired and impatient and hot and dispirited. The reason for the delay: the Museum’s director had called a staff meeting for 9:30 am to outline plans for upcoming organizational changes hoping to dispatch it in half an hour. But the staff was allowed to ask questions and the Director had to answer them all….meanwhile, outside the world was waiting at the doors.

Two days later, Linda and I took a walk to the Trocadéro, had a lovely lunch at a café on the Ave. du Président Wilson, and walked into the Modern Art Museum of the City of Paris. This City owned and run museum shows, among other things, the huge painting by Raoul Dufy, “La fée electricité” (The electric fairy). And I mean huge: over one hundred feet long and thirty feet high, commissioned for the 1937 Expo in Paris, it depicts 140 people who described, tamed, and used the electrical force, from Aristotle, through Galvani to Helmholtz and the President of Eléctricité de France (who paid for the painting) and, in the background, the effects and application of electricity, from jerking frogs’ legs, to moving trains.

That museum also houses the roomful of Matisse dancers that he painted for Dr. Barnes’ museum in Merion, PA. Due to faulty measurements they had to be painted twice, and a final version added for Matisse’s own satisfaction. And the set of furniture commissioned by the City of Paris for Georges VI of England state visit to the City...and paintings by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Raoul Dufy, Maurice de Vlaminck, Georges Rouault, Fernand Léger, Georges Braque, Francis Picabia, Amedeo Modigliani, Giorgio de Chirico, Kees van Dongen, Pierre Bonnard, Chaïm Soutine, André Derain, Suzanne Valadon, Maurice Utrillo, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, František Kupka, Juan Gris, Hans Bellmer, Jean Fautrier, Jean Arp, Alberto Giacometti, Yves Klein, Pierre Soulages…

Two dozen other people wandered at their leisure with us through the halls. And it is free.

I am not telling you not to visit the Musée d’Orsay. It is a must. But pick your times, avoid the crowds and keep in mind that Paris is big and has many museums worth visiting. Use the cheaper fares and accommodations that the tour operators offer, but be creative and strike out on your own. Your rewards will surpass your expectations. Don’t buy any T-shirts!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Life and nothing but!

We have been in Paris a month now. Hard to believe!. Slowly we have embedded ourselves into the soft texture of the quartier. The blond lady at the news stand, walking back from the neighboring café, coffee cup in hand (a cup on a saucer, not a mug), greets me with a smile and a “Bonjour, Monsieur”. She assumes her post, framed by colorful magazine covers, shelves cluttered with newspapers and publications in several languages (French, English, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, German). To step into her booth, she has to swing the front, articulated in the center, like a revolving door. She places her coffee cup carefully on the front shelf, steps up, sits down on a stool, adjusts her skirt and swings the front back around herself. It reminded me of a sequence in the first “Alien” film, the Ridley Scott one, when Sigourney Weaver, having detected the alien in the escape pod, carefully dons a space-suit, her armor, to face her altered surroundings. So this average French lady dons the information structure of the world, the interface of the world and the city. Then she stirs her coffee, sips it, takes my coins, hands me my paper. We are not strangers any more, we engage in this almost daily ritual, we share a structure.

Here begins my differentiation. Although you cannot be said to have “gone native” until you have familiarized yourself to the coins you handle, until you can tell whether the change that you have just received is correct by just glancing at them, and not turning them to read their denomination, this mutual recognition constitutes the shaping of a space in the daily fabric of the city for me to occupy.

We are beginning to adopt habits and actions that, although in some way mirroring our usual actions at home, are specific to the place, to the environment. We go to the market at Richard Lenoir on Thursdays and Sundays, we have settled on the boulangerie that offers the most tasteful baguette, I have found the two cafés in the neighborhood that will brew a cup of expresso for one euro flat. The bus numbers at the shelters have fleshed out to evoke destinations, schedules and streetscapes. Linda tells me that every day she instinctively finds a new route to walk to her classes, mazing and wending through the narrow streets with the unfamiliar names.

When we venture daily out of the quartier, I feel a bit adventurous, but I also distance myself from the throngs who people the guidebook sites; I am not a tourist anymore, I elevate myself to a different dimension. In the streets filled with fast-food places offering shawarma, falafel, hamburgers and fries, I quicken my pace and try to look alien to that civilization. If I want an ice-cream, it has to be Berthillon, I look askance at the heaps of prepared subs on the Place Saint Michel, and to the T-shirt vending pushcarts with their loads of aluminum Eiffel towers, adopting the practiced snobbery of the initiated. Linda reported excitedly that she had been stopped in the street by someone needing directions! And she was able to comply. The strike of the blade on her shoulder!

Yet I do not feel the quotidian as tiresome or faded. There is still the sensation of rebirth, of excitement, of newness. This familiarity is exciting in itself, the feeling of being able to master a new environment, of experiential enlargement. The little walk that I undertake most days, to get the newspaper, to buy a croissant, to walk along Saint-Antoine’s sidewalk, looking into the cafés and shop windows, the fromager with hundreds of cheeses, the chocolatier and his confections, the several wine-shops, past the restaurants, reading the slates where the daily menus are displayed, every day a similar trajectory, but always something new. I relish being able to feel the season changing; although it is still warm, and sunny most days, the trees near Saint-Paul are beginning to turn, and in the evenings a little chill presages a killing frost in the making. But most of all the changing displays of fruit in the stalls, every day a different offering, the mushrooms, first girolles, now cèpes, the first chestnuts and walnuts. Huge blackberries have joined the trays of raspberries, and two weeks ago the purple figs appeared, at seven Euros a kg.; they are now taking over every display, prices tumbling daily.

The menus in the restaurants have also evolved with the season, they are shorter on salads and the boeuf bourguignon and blanquettes de veau, food for the colder weather, have appeared on their slates. On some of the cooler days, the merchants do not push out the refrigerated ice-cream chests any more.

As I am sitting here now, in the apartment, windows open, I relish the city sounds pouring in the open window. The steps, the conversations of the passers-by, the rumble of the scooters, the children’s muted din in the schoolyards around us, the bells in the churches pealing the passage of time. Life all around me.