Monday, December 15, 2008

Mighty Maïté

I don’t know when it was that someone told me about Maïté. A sort of Julia Child of southwestern French cooking, for years Maïté had a TV show, La Cuisine des Mousquetaires, which spawned a long list of cookbooks, including the legendary La Cuisine de Maïté. But while Julia regaled us with her semi-aristocratic huffing and puffing, Maïté is a working class food goddess, who was first discovered when she was the official cook for her home-town rugby team. She specializes in simple, traditional recipes. She’s as solid and unflappable as those rugby players, and her home-cooked charm is 100% southwest. I came across this excerpt on YouTube. Watch closely as she coos sweet nothings to nervous eel that she is about to flog with a blunt instrument.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Rama Yade: the movie

It’s beginning to sound like a scenario for a screenplay: a brilliant young woman of African descent is chosen to become France’s first minister of human rights. Full of energy and enthusiasm, she does her job as best she can, in light of the fact that the president who hired her invites Muammar Gaddafi to set up a tent in the backyard of the Elysée Palace, and refuses to meet with the Dali Lama before the Olympics take place in China. Her immediate superior, Bernard Kouchner, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, seems like the ideal boss, being the co-founder of Doctors Without Borders and widely recognized as a leader in humanitarian causes.

But after she speaks out against the Gaddafi visit (see my previous post, Rama Yade Rocks), she is sternly rebuked by the president. She does what she can to assume a more neutral tone, and for a time fades into the background. Slowly, she begins to suspect that what seemed to be an idealistic gesture on the part of the government, is really a marketing ploy. She starts to see that her position was created not so much to promote human rights as to promote the notion that the government is pro-human rights. That her youth (she’s only 32) and beauty serve the president’s image-machine as much as her smarts. And that every time she actually speaks out in favor for human rights she catches more flack than accolades from her colleagues. The final blow comes when the president tries to send her off to Brussels to stand in the European legislative elections. She refuses, because she hopes to be a candidate for the French legislature in 2012. Going to Brussels, she says “would be like a forced marriage to Prince Albert.” The president throws a hissy fit, punishing her by denying her an expected promotion to secretary of state for European Affairs. Then comes the betrayal. The next day, on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Bernard Kouchner declares that he was wrong to ask for the creation of a ministry of human rights, and that the post serves no purpose.

The end of the film is still being written. Rama Yade, the leading character, is currently trying to fight back, saying that “there will always be those who want to renounce this important battle” and that the “fight (for human rights) is not over, the struggle continues.” As does her own.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Glory of Squalor?

Roger Cohen lamented in the New York Times yesterday that Paris has lost “the glory of its squalor”:
Gone was the acrid Gitane-Gauloise pall of any self-respecting café. Gone was the garlic whiff of the early-morning Metro to the Place d’Italie. Gone were the mineral mid-morning Sauvignons Blancs downed bar-side by red-eyed men.

Gone were the horse butchers and the tripe restaurants in the 12th arrondissement. Gone (replaced by bad English) was the laconic snarl of Parisian greeting. Gone were the bad teeth, the yellowing moustaches, the hammering of artisans, the middle-aged prostitutes in doorways, the seat-less toilets on the stairs, and an entire group of people called the working class.
While I’ll agree that much of Paris has become frighteningly exclusive, and that the very word “parigot” has been all but forgotten, I think Cohen is in dangerous territory when he starts to get all misty-eyed about squalor. Of course, for the tourist, squalor can be colorful, exotic, and even exciting. It can make great photos and induce us to think plenty of deep thoughts. But I’d venture to guess that for the people in those photos, it’s a different kettle of fish (if, indeed, there are any fish in the kettle).

Interestingly, Cohen starts his piece with observations on his recent visit to Havana. Yes, it’s true, there is something to be learned from a society that has completely missed the Internet revolution, and is not inundated with crass commercialism. Perhaps the lack of high tech in Havana has preserved the Cubans living there from the constant buzz of cyber-connection and the headaches that go with it. But it’s also what has kept Cubans living in poverty while the rest of the world lurches ahead. I’m no hard-core capitalist, mind you, but I’m sure that most Havanites would be willing to live with a few billboards if it meant that they could feed their children properly and occasionally buy them a new pair of shoes.

There is no glory in squalor. Ask anyone living in it. Parisians, just like New Yorkers, have the right to clean teeth and clean lungs, as well as decent jobs and toilet seats. There is a danger in tourism whereby instead of learning from what we are seeing, we objectify it, and make it into a neat decoration for our scrap books. That the working class has been all but banished from the French capital is clearly a tragedy. But the fact that the standard of living has risen dramatically in France over the last twenty or thirty years is most certainly not.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

WiFi or Non Non?

While working from home has its up sides (easy commute, no dress code, no office politics), being holed up in your apartment day after day with little human contact can get to you. And while making lunch for my son and his friends (school kids get a two-hour lunch here in France) makes for a nice break, the table conversation, though sometimes quite stimulating, often focuses on Pokemons and who chased who around the playground.

So one day, a couple of weeks ago, I had an idea. I would simply pack up my laptop and go to Paris and work there. This is the modern world, after all. All I needed was a WiFi (pronounced “wee-fee” over here) connection somewhere, and I was set. I would work in a café, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of humanity, or at least by other humans. Fully aware that Paris is not quite as wired as say, New York or San Francisco, I did a little research before I left home, to make sure that I had a few WiFi hotspots to target. First I went to Cafés WiFi, a site that claims to have an utterly up-to-date listing of Parisian cafés with functioning WiFi, complete with interactive map and listing by arrondissement. A large number of the establishments listed are McDonald’s, which has cleverly realized that a) WiFi hotspots are seriously lacking in Paris, and b) the young Parisians who think McDonald’s is cool usually have laptops or some other web-related gadget on them.

Still unable to bring myself to frequent a McDonald’s in France, I picked out a regular café in the Latin Quarter. Then, just in case it was too noisy, I thought I’d find out if there were municipal buildings somewhere, like libraries, where it would be quiet (but I’d still be surrounded by humans). So I went to the Paris municipal website and found that the City of Paris has thoughtfully installed WiFi in libraries, museums, and….parks. As in, the lovely little green squares that dot the city and are usually equipped with a small playground and a couple of benches. Perhaps tiny Parisians are so precocious that they will whip out their laptops when they are tired of playing on the swings.

Armed with café and library addresses, I headed into the city, full of hope. It was a fine morning and when I left the Luxembourg RER station I hopped on a Velib’ bike and headed to my first destination, the public library. To my horror, on arrival I realized that it was Monday and all the public libraries were closed. I swallowed hard and got back on the bike. Next stop, the café. Le Mirabel looked like just what I was looking for: comfortable tables, a nice big window to look out of, not too many people. But their WiFi system wasn’t working. Trying desperately to remain optimistic, I got another bike and cycled to the first arrondissement, to a café that I knew would have WiFi, the terribly chic Fumoir. Finally, the planets lined up and I had what I was looking for: WiFi access, my computer, and a comfortable spot frequented by other human beings (albeit upwardly mobile ones). And it was lovely. And I got work done. And I didn’t feel like I had just crawled out of a cave at the end of the day.

I guess the moral of this story is that if you work at it, you can find WiFi in public places in Paris, but you’d better do your homework. When I was updating my guidebook a couple of months ago, my editor asked me why I was listing cybercafés, when in most big cities, like London, there was so much WiFi no one went to cybercafés any more. Well, Paris ain’t London. And besides, why would any tourist in the right mind bring along their laptop? Perhaps I am a Luddite, hopelessly out of synch with the times, but isn’t going on vacation about getting away from it all? By the way, most Parisian hotels do have WiFi, for those of you who can’t leave home without it. But come on…be brave…if you get a bad case of cyber-withdrawal, you can always head to a library and use their computers. Just don’t go on a Monday.

Sartre Thought Here

My article on historic Parisian cafés for Wizzit Magazine is out and online, click here and you can read both the English and Polish versions!