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.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The New Grand Paris

Herzog and deMeuron

Let me say to begin with that I am a big city creature. I grew up roaming the streets of a rather ramshackle Madrid, still creaking and straining to overcome the miseries and deficiencies of the Spanish Civil War. Kids of my age, after school, used to test our manhood by jumping up on the bumpers of electric trolleys as they rolled by and jumping off when policemen came in sight. A thrill was seeing an aluminum coin placed on the rails as the tram arrived to watch it flattened by the behemoth. I used to spend my weekly allowance in the local cinema, two blocks from home, for a double feature of mostly American films.

Then I saw the city grow and develop around me. Open, derelict spaces that used to provide fields of dreams to me and my buddies, where we pursued redskins and became French Foreign Legionnaires, were built over into blocks of flats. Sundays, after homework, I used to ride the trams and the subway on a single ticket all around the system, to test how far I could go. New quarters filled up with people from the provinces, new shops and workshops sprung up in the commercial bays under the residential flats. Our curiosity had infinite possibilities to find new experiences.

That is why I was so interested today in an exhibit at the Palace de Chaillot on the concept of a Grand Paris, a look into the future. President Sarkozy called on ten architectural firms to provide visions of how Paris may look fifty years from now. Bernard Delanoe, the Socialist Mayor of Paris, is a great proponent of a new vision for Paris.

The Paris we see now, the city of lights, is largely a creation of the 1870s. The wide, tree lined boulevards, with broad sidewalks, the uniform height of the buildings, crowned with grey rounded mansarded roofs, are the result of the 17 years of planning by the Prefet de Paris, Baron Haussmann from 1853 to 1870. Whole intricate quarters of tightly crowded buildings on dark, narrow, insalubrious streets were razed to create straight lines of intersecting arteries. One of the unstated objectives was to provide clear fields of fire for the troops when called upon to repress the all-too frequent rebellions and mutinies. Enormous opportunities for speculation opened up and enriched many. To his credit the Baron lived exclusively on his salary as civil servant and died almost impecunious.

A trove of pre-Haussmann photographs of Paris have been found and are just now being exhibited at the Louvre des Antiquaires. Many libertarians, then and now, deplored the Haussmann vision as authoritarian. But the result is the Paris that we know today, and that millions of people come from all over the world to admire, to be charmed by this Parisian “je-ne-sais-quoi” which is synthesized and bowdlerized into the bundles of aluminum Eiffel towers of all sizes offered by mostly African street vendors.

Classical Paris has a rounded, vaguely elliptical shape. It has always been delimited and encircled by successive concentric defensive walls, from Phillippe Auguste, to Charles V, Adolphe Thiers and nowadays the Périphérique, the circular freeway built in the 1960s. Anything beyond that has been considered “banlieue”, the suburbs. Sarkozy, when he was Minister of the Interior, had a very fractious relationship with the “banlieusards”, the inhabitants of the municipalities surrounding Paris, mostly from the French-speaking countries in Africa. France offered them French citizenship while they were living in their home territories, but became much less welcoming once they arrived over here.

A quiz question: name the largest African city (after Cairo). Clue: it is not in Africa. Paris is home to 20% of the population of France, and, according to EU statistics is the largest urban area in Europe, ahead of London. Both London and Madrid have however larger densities of population (over 5,000 inhabitants per km/square) than Paris (3,200).

The architects who have been thinking over how Paris can confront the challenges of the twenty first century mention the uneven building density of the city, and point to in-fill development. All of them recognize the need for faster communications as the core of any plan to weave the different quartiers together, by using monorails and a network of high-speed trains, in addition to expanded Metro and RER lines.

But what all of them emphasize is the needs of post-Kyoto development, i.e. reducing the carbon footprint of the city, by encouraging the use of low emission individual means of transport, the use of communal transportation systems, the interweaving of rural areas into the mixed use residential and industrial areas, the rational use and reuse of water and that heretofore forbidden word: skyscrapers. See the heading image.

In what direction is the city going to develop? One team points to the Seine valley, toward Rouen and the Havre; another shows how present population centers around Paris could be expanded into 20 satellite cities of 500,000 inhabitants each, linked by high efficiency transportation networks.

None of this is possible without the political will to legislate deregulation and even without the possible creation of a super-authority to write the rules that would apply to the future Grand Paris, and finding the means to finance the needed infrastructure. The dialogue, however, has started, the exhibition is well attended and schools are bringing young students to visit it and comment on it. Some of the architects have remarked that the tenor and language of the different supervising authorities, the Paris City Hall, the regional Ile-de-France administration and the French Government is beginning to converge.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Today Reims

Yesterday Linda and I decided, almost on the spur of the moment, to traipse to Reims. I wanted to see the cathedral, the purest of Gothic edifices; some even call it the most perfect Gothic cathedral ever built. Clovis, the first acknowledged king of France, was baptized there, bringing the Frankish kingdom into the realm of Christendom. Most Kings of France have been consecrated there, the last one in 1825 and the Germans, during their last Eastern offensive in September 1914, to demonstrate their “Schrecklichkeit”, almost destroyed it. France moved immediately after the end of the war to rebuild this symbol of nationhood, and international philanthropy by the likes of John D. Rockefeller helped finance the effort.

From Bastille the Gare de l’Est is only five stops away. The station has recently been redone, a very pleasant shopping center added, with direct access to lines 5 and 7 of the Métro.Ticketing is electronic, on touch-screen kiosks, or at pleasant well-lit counters. We encountered only nominal lines, and within minutes were sitting in the Train de Grande Vitesse (TGV) that left sharply on time. The 90 miles were covered in 45 minutes, and we arrived right into the center of town, the station opening onto a large park with a statue in the middle, and on the other side a wide pedestrian boulevard lined with an endless array of restaurants and cafés, terrace after terrace, for the repose of the weary traveller.

We directly proceeded to the cathedral, dominating the city. The towers are visible up to 30 miles away, casting their sacred glow over the Champagne plain. No wonder that the Germans, recently rebuffed on the Marne and consolidating their line on the Aisne, were tempted to exercise their marksmanship.

It is richly decorated, covered with close to 3,000 statues, of kings, bishops, saints and angels, many of whom are very damaged by weather and pollution. Now and ever, the cathedral has been a work in progress. The story of its construction, damage by diverse fires and wars, reconstructions, remodeling and preservation is endless. There seems to have been, over the centuries, a continuous cloud of scaffolding around the church. Today it is the left western tower where the activity is concentrated. In the adjoining museum, le Palais de Tau, next the archbishop’s palace, many of the original XII and XIII century statues, four to seven meters tall, are being kept in their eroded state, having been replaced by more or less modern reproductions. The artists now employ digitisation to “feel” the outlines of the sculptures. But because of the weather and time ravages, these outlines are not what they were originally, so the last inch or so has to be imaged (and imagined) before being recreated in stone anew. I find the originals, in their fuzzy state, to be very much more moving than their replacements.

It is such a powerful site! I have to admit that certain places have the accumulated strength of other people’s belief, efforts and faith. The continuous energy, the mobilization of the means to preserve, to recreate, the demands of the endless struggle against time and the elements. It reminds you of the unlikely places where trees and plants will take root, in nooks and crannies, in the slightest accumulation of dirt, the will to life.. It gets to you. Many other sites have this energy, the Parthenon in Athens, the Temple Wall in Jerusalem, well Jerusalem as a whole.

Linda was overpowered by the spirit of the place, and she decided to light a candle to, in a way, join the feeling of communal pleading.

And Reims is overpowering. The cathedral is the most vertical, pure straight lines and lances and arrows to heaven, such a pleading to a manifestation from above, under a silent grey sky-dome. The inside is austere and soaring and light. Many of the stained glass windows were destroyed, but many remain, and some are modern. In 1957 the Champagne wine industry donated a magnificent window about vintners and wine and vines. Chagall, in 1974, completed three windows in blues and reds with a strong happy Christ, more open-armed than crucified.

To see a Gothic cathedral, skip Notre Dame, overcrowded and overpublicized. There is not much in it left after the successive revolutions in Paris. Go to Reims, or Amiens, or Beauvais.

Thereafter we drifted into more mundane stuff: I had found a restaurant, “Les Crayeres” on the Pommery estate ( We had a dreamy meal. No cuisine nouvelle, the good old techniques, lightened up and très réussies.

It takes its name from the deep wells dug since Gallo-Roman times to extract chalk from the subsoil, deep to 100 feet or more, and transformed by the wine industry into cellars to let Champagne bubbly mature and become. All the brands have connected these pits with miles and miles of galleries. We visited, after lunch, the Pommery caves, 116 steps down a long staircase, where, in the moist and cool depths of the earth a modern art exhibit was being prepared for opening that same afternoon. 22 million bottles of Champagne in that cellar alone. Quite a party!

Striking to me was that the industry seems to have been founded by women, once their husbands had stopped bothering them: Mme. Jeanne Pommery established the first underground cellars; and we have also Phillippe Clicquot’s widow, born in 1777, who became the moving spirit of the House of Clicquot, whose CEO is nowadays Mme. Cécile Bonnefond.

Well fortified and at peace, we walked back to the station and boarded a slower train back. We had to change at Epernay, and coasted along the River Marne towards Meaux (good mustard! and another cathedral) and Paris. I reminisced on those days in September 1914, when the German armies decided to retreat along these same grounds, from Epernay and Dormans towards the North, pursued by Sir John French and the exhausted British Expeditionary Force, and the French Third Army under Maunoury, reinforced by the troops out of Paris, travelling to the front in the famous taxicabs (600 of them, and some demanded their fares from the Minister of War). The Germans settled for three more years along the heights above the Aisne river, and trench warfare was invented.

We arrived back home, tired, happy and fulfilled.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Day to day electronics

We all know, because we have been told many times, that the USA is the most electronically advanced country in the world, has the largest number of personal computers in the world, and that nowhere is the broadband penetration larger: 60% apparently. We have just read of a computer whiz who has been sued by Goldman Sachs for stealing another esoteric algorithm that enables the banks to trade shares away from you in milliseconds when you have shown an inclination to buy them, and then resell them to you for a couple of pennies more. Wondrous!

Which is why I was so flabbergasted to see, on the streets of Paris, several clever and useful applications that actually do something for the average citizen:

Linda and I went into a small post office on the rue des Francs Bourgeois, because she wanted to mail a letter to the USA. There was small line, about five people. It was about lunch time. Suddenly a postal worker in shirtsleeves approached us to find out what we were trying to do. When we explained, he smiled, turned around and pointed to a yellow and blue box, standing about three feet high; Linda placed the letter on top of the machine. A screen lit up, with the letter’s weight and five destination buttons, marked EU, USA and the Americas, and so on. She pressed the USA button and the screen indicated that we should deposit 0.85 Euros. After the last coin had dropped, it printed and spit out a self-adhesive stamp of that value. I affixed it to the letter. The gentleman pointed towards a letterbox next to the machine. He said: “Et voila!”, smiled again, returned to his cubicle and waved us on our way.

The municipal buses in Paris are GPS equipped. As they approach a stop, a screen lights up with its name; in some a voice will tell you whether the next stop is Sèvres-Babylone or Vaneau, whatever the case may be. The screen will remind you what line you are on, the end of the line, and the estimated time to get there, as well as the estimated time to certain critical points on the line. While you are waiting for the bus in the glass kiosk, an LCD screen will tell you how many minutes you will have to wait for the next bus, and guess what?…. it is right.

If for some unlikely reason while lying in the sun on the lawn in a Paris park, say the Tuileries, or the Luxembourg gardens, or the new Park de la Villette, you should feel the urge to check your email, you can do so, via WiFi courtesy of the Paris municipality. Cost to you, zero, zilch, nada. You will say, yes, but the taxpayer pays for it, and you will be right. The taxpayer pays also for many other things that are not useful to him directly, and here the young, who are the most likely to want to use a laptop while in the park and pay the least taxes, will have an advantage.

In restaurants, originally no doubt because of the distrust of Europeans towards credit cards and the much publicized frauds connected with them, the waiter does not collect your card to walk it to the cash register any more. S/he will bring a small gadget to your table, swipe the card in front of you, and the gadget will spit out two receipts, one for you to sign and hand over, and the other for you to keep. No wires, no fuss, fully transparent, efficient.

And another adventure, that even flabbergasted some French friends when we told them: Linda came home from the supermarket, and she was uncertain to have received the correct change out of a 20 Euro note. We went down again, receipt in hand, to the supermarket, located the cashier, and very calmly I explained our doubts to her, requesting that she take our phone number, and to call us if at the end of the shift she noticed an overage. She smiled, finished her next customer, and said that she would do it right away. She called the supervisor, and while s/he was on the way, produced from under the counter a device that turned out to be an electronic scale. In a few seconds she was weighing each of the coin receptacles in her cash register, followed by the bundles of bank notes of five, ten, twenty and fifty Euros. They are equipped with electronically readable denomination strips. Within a minute she had completed the survey of her cash receipts, and had a total. The supervisor arrived with the amount the computer indicated that register had sold to that moment, and “Voila, Madame!”, a ten Euro note was produced and handed over. Then she turned to her next customer and continued with her work.

What I liked the most is that at no time the word “sorry” was used. It was treated matter- of-factly, cleanly, expeditiously. Another successful transaction in a busy day.

Aren’t you tired of people giving you profuse excuses instead of solutions?

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Stepping towards food

Roger Cohen’s column in yesterday’s New York Times ( beautifully said much of what I had been mulling for some days. To wit: I posit that the French have a different attitude toward food than Americans, even Michael Pollan. Let me say first that I hesitate to use the term “American” in the sense of covering all of the inhabitants of the USA. This is an old Spanish hang-up, because we feel that Argentinians and Brazilians and Venezuelans and Panamanians can also be designated by that geographic term. But it is a sign of the US predominance and weight both North and South, that they have come to designate themselves with a toponymic that actually should be shared.

And, of course, not all of the US Americans share the same attitudes about food and eating. Whatever they are, they are different from the French. I suspect that I could safely generalize by saying that Americans approach food with suspicion, they want to know what is in it (unless it is a raw carrot, for instance), and wonder if it will harm them. The French are more trusting, they aim at a finished product, a flavor effect that is understood. To explain myself, they know what to expect from “moules marinière” without having to know that it is a dish of mussels steamed in white wine and broth, seasoned with onions and garlic and parsley. They will -I would include myself- argue about the particular merits of a “boeuf bourguignon” and attribute the success of the production on the inclusion or exclusion of a certain ingredient, even if they do not identify it (that is where the expression “un certain je-ne-sais-quoi” -a certain I do not know what, comes from).

I remarked the other day that it is rare to see anybody munching a sandwich while walking on the streets, or carrying a large latte in their hands. It is part of that attitude towards eating that understands that it will take a certain time, it is best done sitting down and in the company of friends. At 12 noon the terraces, cafés, restaurants, trattorias, bistrots, estaminets and casse-croutes fill with office employees all over town who will devote the next hour or so to consume a meal offered under the name “formule” -as in proposal- covering generally a meat, mostly beef in different forms, with a salad, french fried potatoes and possibly a dessert. The price will lie, according to location and quality of the establishment, between 8 and 20 Euros (presently $12- $30), will include bottled water, though generally not the concluding expresso. If you want, MacDonald’s offers much of the same, and I am sure that their Paris establishments do brisk business, but they are not the favored venue for most people.

Therefore I reach the conclusion that the French are more inclined to devote both more time and disposable income to what they ingest than the average American. They also seem to enjoy it more.

The fact that many people walk through the streets of Paris has to do, in my view, that they have more places to walk to, like restaurants and cafés, movie theaters and other venues, as well as a plethora of shops of all descriptions spread out all over the city, in all quarters, and of many price ranges. As most tourists or three-day visitors to Paris never find out, you do not have to pay $10 for a small bottle of Perrier or a short beer. It is available for half that two or three blocks away from the madding crowd. As an example I can drink a morning coffee with croissant on the rue de Rivoli, near the Louvre for $7.50, or downstairs from my apartment on the same rue de Rivoli, now called rue Saint Antoine, for $4.

Nothing is pleasanter, in my opinion, than stepping out in the morning, walking two blocks to buy a baguette and a newspaper, coming back home and, after a while, descending again to the fruiterer, or to the fishmonger or wine merchant, stopping for an expresso on the way. It is not a matter of being modern or not, it is pleasant. Even if you have a busy morning making money instead of spending it, you will find pleasure in closing a deal initiated over email at a restaurant table. And as long as they find it pleasant, people will want to continue doing it.

It is this pleasure, and the walking, and the eating only at certain traditional times and nothing in between, that keep, I think, the remarkable outline of Parisian bodies.

Somebody commented on Roger Cohen’s openly Francophile article, saying that the USA’s per capita GDP grew last year by 50% more than France’s. Seeing that per capita GDP is an average and therefore a very fallacious measure, I think that such a remark can only stem from envy.

But, of course, I could be wrong.