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.