ACCOMPANYING Marion for a few academic weeks in Hannover, Germany, I have just sent off the final revisions to a manuscript that’s kept me busy for many years, being something of a magnum opus, well, that’s my story.
We arrived here at our apartment in Bern, Switzerland, conveniently across the road from the conference venue, amid crowds celebrating the opening of the World Cup. Our second-floor accommodation is above a bar-restaurant, circled on four sides by huge screens and temporary outdoor seating. Our host apologised that he had hired a dj for the rest of that night. And so the matches have progressed…
The joke is that the thump-thump beat from below that first evening did not stop me getting to sleep. Instead, I was awoken by huge bells chiming 6 am. The nearby Pauluskirche counts each hour, and notes each passing quarter, and there it goes again. Much, much louder than the huge, sixteenth-century Zytglogge in the city centre with its mechanical jester getting in early every hour with his own bells, and the mechanical cock crowing three times. At least the local chimes shut down between 10 pm and 6 am.
The further joke is that I write in praise of Bern’s quiet. This is in the restaurants.
For several weeks we have moved (for Marion’s work) from Fremantle through Glasgow to here, and I have dined to much thumping beat, the seemingly necessary boost to meals these days. (I’m the old fogie in the corner.)
In Fremantle, we seemed lucky to stay adjacent to Bread in Common, to name a name. Quite good food in a vast warehouse conversion, so popular that you can’t hear yourself think. The thump never lets up, except if managing a coffee during the day at an outdoor seat. Fortunately, Fremantle is awash with great spots, albeit mostly also with monotonous mood-lifting.
Much the same in trendy Glasgow, although I must boast that our flat was between the Aragon and Lismore pubs (the video is from the Lismore), both with traditional musicians gathering in varying numbers on selected nights with their fiddles, flutes/whistles, underarm bagpipes, accordions, guitars, and bodhrán (Irish drum). Usually a fiddler starts off, and away they go, the leader mouthing key changes. I kept waiting for a cellist to come back; he’d led them in a wonderfully mournful selection. On another occasion, a tenor came out of the crowd, some notes wobbly, but he knew he had to hit the last one, and did. All determinedly acoustic.
A fellow whisky-drinker (no, I think he had an ale) explained that an Edinburgh conservatorium course in traditional music had generated something of a glut of young professionals.
Heavy “background” music obliterates the clink of cutlery and murmur of conversation. Accordingly, I recommend a couple of old-style places near here (warning: Bern is not cheap).
Being an unusually warm night, filling the outdoor tables, I was the only person inside at Zum Blauen Engel (Blue Angel). With no music whatsoever, I did get a distant exhaust fan. Otherwise, the dull thud of fridge door, clink of bottles, shaking of pans, sizzling from beyond the bench, occasional waiter exchange, old-fashioned clank of heavy glasses and crockery, my own knife and fork … I even heard the chef cut off a tranche of something. All satisfying.
I felt part of the place, belonging to humanity, the world. Not some shouting cosmopolite out for a good time.
Around at the Waldheim, I lunched again almost alone inside, with just another four old fogies at seemingly their regular table, and across an enormous window-sill to those in the garden. The sound of people chatting outdoors, and birds… I could be dreaming (I don’t think so, even about the birds).
Again, a few clinks, waiter exchanges, the espresso being ground and a puck being bashed out, and people enjoying the peak of civilisation. The only odd note was the occasional phone-call announcing itself to a chirrup of Vivaldi.
Pugnacious ex-Prime Minister Tony Abbott urged a “no” to same-sex marriage to help “stop political correctness in its tracks“. Instead, the government’s postal survey found 62% in favour and 38% opposed, and so demonstrated strong Australian support for political correctness.
Tony Abbott deplores the “long march of the left through our institutions”. As he also told a group opposed to equal marriage in New York recently: “It’s not just the loss of Christian faith”; the politically correct also promote the “slow erosion” of “Western civilisation”.
How wrong could he get! But let me just explain here that the end of traditional marriage is a good thing.
Firstly, even professed proponents no longer really want traditional marriage; they want little more than “what I like to think is traditional marriage”.
In a pastoral letter entitled Don’t Mess with Marriage, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference defend specifically “traditional marriage”. However, among many errors and omissions, the Bishops fail to mention that traditional marriage has included gold ring-wearing priests having “married” the church. The tradition for nuns “marrying” Jesus dates back at least as far as St Catherine of Siena, who saw herself as a bride of Christ, after a vision of the infant Jesus giving her a wedding ring.
Until late in the nineteenth century in Australia, traditional marriage meant depriving a wife of property rights (and she became property herself). In 1969, the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission lifted the general female award minimum wage, but out of deference to men as the “traditional” breadwinners to only 85% of the male wage. The patriarchal marriage was so sacrosanct until recently that police remained reluctant to intervene in a “domestic”.
Historically, marriage has been highly diverse, including polygamy. But let us concentrate on the tradition of child brides. As recently as 1942, the state of Tasmania raised the minimum legal age of marriage from 12 to 16 for girls, and from 14 to 18 for boys, and Tasmania led the other states on that. The Australian Marriage Act of 1961 still allowed girls of 14 or 15 to marry in “unusual and exceptional circumstances”, although that provision was amended in 1991.
Such traditional marriages might now be illegal, but religious “conscientious objection” is so strong that a few such weddings are still performed surreptitiously in Australia.
Tony Abbott’s former chief-of-staff Peta Credlin recently fulminated on Fox News against the silence of “feminist warriors” on these child brides. Blaming the politically correct’s hesitation to criticise other cultures, Credlin said that “in other faiths, we call it paedophilia, but not when it comes to Islam”. But how post-fact could Credlin get?
Worldwide, an estimated more than 700 million women alive today were married before their 18th birthday. That includes massive numbers of Christians. Especially in Africa, Christian-predominant nations still encourage child brides. UNICEF figures show 16% of Ethiopian women aged from 20 to 24 were married before 15, and 41% before 18. In the Central African Republic (where 80% of the population are Christian), 29% were married by the age of 15, and 68% by 18. (For comparison, 3% were married under 15 in Iran, and 5% in Iraq.)
In the US, the statutory minimum age varies between 13 and 17, depending on the state. However, 25 states have not set minimum ages, instead relying on the “traditional” minimum – taken to be 12 for girls and 14 for for boys.
Many American Christians defend child brides, arguing that the girls are of child-bearing age, and, anyhow, Mary was probably 14 when she carried Jesus. Such claims were reasserted recently to defend Judge Roy Moore, the Republican’s fundamentalist Senate candidate now accused of harassing and sexually assaulting girls as young as 14. He is said to be socially inept, and in his early 30s notoriously haunted a shopping mall in search of a young bride.
Kristof interviewed Sherry Johnson, who was raped by both a Pentecostal minister and a parishioner, and gave birth to a daughter when she was 10. A judge approved the marriage to end the rape investigation, telling her, “What we want is for you to get married.”
“It was a terrible life,” Johnson recalls. Married at 11, she missed school, and spent her days changing nappies, arguing with her husband and struggling to pay expenses. She ended up with nine children, and periodically abandoned by her husband.
Proponents of “traditional marriage” have to accept that conservative Republican states tend to have higher proportions of sexually-active school students, teenage mothers, users of prostitution, married “swingers”, and divorce.
As to strongly Democrat states, Naomi Cahn and June Carbone wrote in Red Families v. Blue Families (2010):
the most visible representatives of blue family values [that is, the politically correct] bristle at restrictions on sexuality, insistence on marriage or the stigmatization of single parents. Their secret, however, is that they encourage their children to simultaneously combine public tolerance with private discipline, and their children then overwhelmingly choose to raise their own children within two-parent families.
So the deeper problem seems to be the political choices that conservatives make, underinvesting in public education and social services (including contraception). This underinvestment leaves red [Republican] states poorer and less educated — and thus prone to a fraying of the social fabric.
Australian right-wingers, including Tony Abbott, claim to uphold “the traditional stance of the centre-right in the English speaking tradition”, which is “to be pro-market and to be socially conservative”.
To translate, Abbott-style conservatives are proudly both neo-liberal (cutting social services, and undermining public health and education), and wanting to prop up the ensuing disaster through the promulgation of fundamentalist religious values, plus divisive fear-mongering, and dog-whistle politics.
Such “no” leaders are sexually obsessed. For example, in Don’t Mess with Marriage, the Catholic Bishops warn against, among other consequences, “sex-education classes that teach the goodness of homosexual activity” (as opposed to teaching “the badness” or perhaps “evil” of homosexual activity?).
But basing “traditional marriage” on reproductive sex hardly works. Most immediately, other animal species successfully procreate without any tradition of marriage. In turn, embracing childless heterosexual marriages leads to shaky generalities about the “potential” for procreation. The Bishops want an institution, “open to the procreation of children”. The real concern therefore must be the social control/licensing of procreation.
For sexually-preoccupied conservatives, meals don’t matter (or don’t matter enough).
If we take marriage basically to be an institutional foundation for meal-sharing, it is then ideally a core commune of equals.
That explains, for example, the main problem with child marriage: juveniles are typically ill-equipped emotionally, educationally and financially to form an equal partnership, seeking “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” together.
Even the Bishops have a sneaking appreciation of marriage’s gastronomic basis, declaring that the union is “centred around … the wellbeing of the spouses”. Admittedly, the union also aims towards “the generation and wellbeing of children.” But, even in that requirement, “well-being” still counts.
In a little more detail, the Bishops accept:
Each marriage, from its beginning, is the ‘foundation-in-waiting’ of a new family and each marriage-based family is a basic ‘cell’ of society. Families also provide the social stability necessary for the future by modelling love and communion, welcoming and raising new life, taking care of the weak, sick and aged. The principal ‘public’ significance of the marriage-based family is precisely in being the nursery for raising healthy, well-rounded, virtuous citizens.
Once the Bishops have added something about marriage establishing a “nursery for, and household for sustaining, healthy, well-rounded, virtuous citizens”, even they might one day vote “yes”.
Note: I wrote previously about the “habitually divisive” Tony Abbott’s close relationship with the openly gay Christopher Pearson. As Abbott said: “Christopher was the aesthete; I was the athlete; he was a reformed Maoist and I was a lifelong conservative. Yet he had made it his mission to take me under his wing.”
Paris secrets, or at least the dining we’ve enjoyed these past five weeks, with the added test of wanting to return.
We’ve previously reached some three-stars, emerging names (the original Spring, early Septime), and short-lived (Agape Substance – a steamy central bench shared with the chefs).
The plan this time was to concentrate on cheap and near, and I have already reported tagines Chez Hamadi.
Our recently-departed studio in a surprisingly quiet street between St Michel and Odéon-St Germain put us handily a few doors from New Delhi’s takeaway – three men, stove and tandoor jammed in a hole-in-the-wall. Other places were only slightly bigger – costs cut by small, crammed tables with no linen, and probably some bought-in prepared foods.
Yet one visit made me a regular at Vins et Terroirs (competitively-priced at 12€ for two-course lunch, 18€ dinner), and I went eight or nine times. You can’t beat fast and friendly waiters under exposed beams and an ingrained spirit of gastronomie. A lentil soup with egg stood out. One night a missing dish was replaced by foie gras (so I ordered the missing dish a couple more times). Even a toughish steak seemed apt, and they assured me the profiteroles were made in-house in small batches – the chocolate sauce seemed real, too.
Opposite the St Germain covered market, Le Petit Vatel was even more cramped, and a tad more expensive with dishes at a proportionately higher level. The simple boudin noir with a little apple … missing it already.
On the way there, we could check out the lunch queue at the smart Comptoir du Relais (either queue, or get there early or late). Couldn’t resist a second shot at their lobster bisque (not thick, and I recall tomato hidden in there somewhere).
Back closer, and named after an uninhabited, war-ravaged island off Brittany, Cézembre is new, compact and excellent value for high quality, contemporary food (fixed menu of five dishes for 45€, plus 25€ for three matching glasses of wine), even if I couldn’t resist feeling that the overall effect was of comfort food with foam. On tripadvisor, Cézembre rates #14 out of 13,742 restaurants in Paris, so bookings will get harder.
The restaurant has just one young waiter, who also runs the dishwasher, and two in the kitchen, so not a quick night. I heard that the original intention had been to open in Australia, and the waiter looks forward to surfing again at Byron Bay.
A city this size and so densely cultured has innumerable “secrets”, even still in the Marais. Those hazy photos above… that’s a sausage with aligot, approximately two parts potato to one part cheese. We’ve been to Roland and Josette’s many times, although only managed twice this stay – a dream of a small bar with its clutch of long-term, bohemian habitues, leading into an even smaller dining room. It’s hardly mentioned on tripadvisor, and one French complaint is that it’s a survivor of the 1950s (a complaint!). To give away the address, true gourmands, it’s Le Bougnat (the “Le” avoids confusion with another place).
Nearly 40 years ago, I dined Chez Allard, a then one-star bistro founded in 1932. Monsieur Allard (by then, the son, André) recommended sharing the frogs’ legs, because they were the real burgundian ones, and recommended against their famous specialty of duck and olives, because duck and turnips were briefly in season. Just accept our carafe red, he reassured. I probably had profiteroles. And the meal in a then near-empty bistro was magnificent, the duck among the best things I’ve ever eaten.
Allard was so close to our studio this trip that we almost shared a wall. Accordingly, we popped around the corner to catch up with duck and olives (the dinner was a gift, gratefully received!).
The bistro has been done over in a respectful renovation by Alain Ducasse’s team. The recent switch from Laetitia Rouabah to Fanny Herpin as chef has maintained the tradition of a woman in the kitchen – originally Marthe, and her daughter-in-law Fernande Allard on my original visit. Because the door was often left open on to the kitchen, we can confirm that the young chef and/or her offsiders were hard a work every day from early morning until early morning.
The menu retains many old favourites. I started humbly, but well, with Frisée jaune aux beaux lardons et croûtons (curly endive with lardons). Marion liked the oeufs cocotte so much that she ordered them again when we returned for lunch. M. Allard was right about his wife’s duck and turnips (and I again thank them). Although the effect of the olives was different, the sauce was reminiscent, and one of the lively young waiters (immediately picked him as Italian) proudly revealed the green olives were Sicilian.
Still tightly packed, and with a predictable menu, this bourgeois bistro showed the benefits of paying more for table linen, attentive service, no kitchen short-cuts, and warm bath for the profiteroles chocolate.
This was the not-so-cheap, but really-near version of this trip’s search for the tiny “secrets” in which Paris abounds. The city might be losing favour on those near-ridiculous “world’s 50 best” lists, but dining density remains high.
Previously, I have enjoyed looking for the way ahead (the new/the exciting/the “best”). But there’s nothing like lost locales.
To engage in some national stereotyping, Italians are “exuberant and spontaneous”, Americans are “enthusiastic and demanding”, and Japanese are “delicate and discreet”.
That’s not just me, I borrow from the Parisian tourist authority. They also advise tourist businesses that Belgian visitors are “regulars and friendly”, Russians “passionate”, Chinese “serial shoppers” and Australians are “adventurers and casual”. Filling out that last, Australians love to engage in conversation, appreciate warmth and sharing, and are often direct in their appreciation.
Some of the findings might already be changing: how long can Brexiters remain “connoisseurs and relaxed”, here especially for the cuisine, putting them among the bigger spenders (averaging 154 euros each per day), when the pound has been sinking?
Germans are “independent and precise”, and appreciate efficient staff and exact responses. But how long could those traits last, when German trains no longer run on time? In our experience, German trains are likely to be 10, 20 or 30 minutes late, with a weird pricing system often making first class cheaper. And they are slow – our suddenly cheap train from Berlin to Paris only sped up after crossing to the TGV tracks after Alsace.*
Sadly, Australians do not warrant being picked out in terms of “gastronomie”, although I’m not sure where else 177€ per day goes, making Australians the third fastest spenders out of 17 nationalities – and Paris is merely one stop in their notably wider travels. Wealthy Russians book at restaurants with international reputations, and spend a total of 187€ daily. Japanese travellers are particularly willing tasters, and end up being the top spenders on 214€.
At the other end, while Americans look for cafés and brasseries with atmosphere and décor, they also often opt for food trucks and takeaways (160€). The only visitors picked out as definitely not interested in gastronomy are the French (88€). That’s presumably because dining is cheaper, and often also better, where they come from. Some the best meals of my life have been in one-star restaurants in small French towns. Instead, French visitors window shop, visit luxury stores, and take home cheap souvenirs.
Another interesting national difference is meal times. Most nationalities lunch around noon or 1 pm. With a bit more of a spread, breakfast is usually 7:30 – 8:00, but with some expected even earlier. I’m with Germans here, though, because they breakfast seriously, preferably between 8:30 and 10:00.
Dinner spreads even more wildly through the evening. Australians arrive at 7:30 or 8:00 pm, which sounds believable. The earliest diners are Canadians – at 5:30-6:00. Not that many restaurants are open before 6:00, when the colder European nations start arriving. The Latins are later – Italians arriving somewhere between 7:30 and 9:00, when Brazilians join in (and they are exceptionally interested in gastronomie). Also at 9 pm, Spaniards start thinking about dinner, although they might not front up before 11pm. Exceptions to the climate rule, Russians are also latish, probably booking at acclaimed restaurants at 9 pm.
* Footnote: What went wrong with German trains? Germans grimaced, and explained to us that Deutsche Bahn had been privatised. However, Wikipedia says that after the financial crisis, the government had shelved partial-privatisation plans.
To blame is a chronic lack of investment – with money being poured into the welfare state to the detriment of everything else – as well as the nation’s obsession with balancing the books. … Low interest rates and a surplus federal budget mean Germany could have been readily borrowing for several years to pay for upgrades, but the idea of going into debt is toxic to most voters, who consider debt to be immoral. So the majority of politicians, Merkel included, have simply chosen not to go there.
Get all worried about debt and deficit, and your character crumbles.
Have I told you about my introduction to Paris? This was probably in late-summer 1973. Whatever the exact date, it was a warm night. I’d been anxious on the Channel ferry, on the trains and in the Metro, where my jitters were worsened by my first submersion in a foreign language. I came up at the Cité stop, walked around the corner, found my former journalist colleague, who showed me my couch under the apartment window, which I opened to the summer evening in the Place Dauphine.
The sound of that (triangular) square will never leave me. Even in the middle of a cooler day, forty-something years later, it remains enchanting. Away from the traffic, the buildings somehow gently echo care and delight. On that night, people dined outside three or four restaurants in the square, so that I heard through the trees cutlery, wineglasses and conversations.
Ever since that epiphany, I have paid attention to the sounds of dining – and taken restaurants even more seriously. I have generally opposed piped music. When I put on a recording at home, it’s as if to fill in for missing tables. Admittedly, I can almost accept a restaurateur intruding music until two or three tables have made it a restaurant.
The other day, I was almost the only diner in Zorba restaurant, which was all done out in blue and white, and I must admit to enjoying the only slightly Eurovisionised version of Theodorakis (his exiled group’s Sydney concert is another treasured memory). Greek songs have a longing for home, almost reflected in yesterday’s plates.
Back forty-or-so years, no Paris restaurant piped any music, and the best ones still don’t. Marking the Alpine crossing to Italy, restaurants would either have the television full-blast, or nothing.
Probably even before I got to Europe, at an Italian place on Parramatta Road, the level increased steadily as everyone shouted louder to be heard. The waiter would whistle shrilly, silencing everyone, until the level rose again. These days, some Sydney places seem popular not despite, but because of, rowdiness. Restaurant reviewers already warn about deafening places, but there is more to be said.
Not that getting the noise-level right is easy. Our restaurant in the Adelaide Hills could get too noisy, so that after adding to couple of quilts to the walls, architect friend Stefan suggested lining underneath a central serving table with egg-cartons. It helped, except that the cat clawed them down (that’s another story). At its best, the dining room enjoyed a gentle hum.
Increasingly, one pays for the ability to talk. Or one sits outside. As well as the Place Dauphine, and then Ma Bourgogne in the then much emptier Place des Vosges, I have dined in the open-air in Rome, Siena and Todi, and under Bolognese porticos (they have nearly 40 kms of them). One year, I estimated we dined more than 200 times out on the terrace of our present home.
As fast as Paris restaurants have banished cigarettes (putting too many chefs on display in the street, smoking), some have introduced mood music.
At least the modest ones we’ve been mainly getting to tend to be quite crammed. That means crammed not just with people but also exposed rafters, stairs, and accumulated decor. No need for extra soundproofing. The tables tend to be small, so no need to shout, and I haven’t noticed any big, rowdy tables. The tightness makes for efficient waiting, a few steps and they’ve delivered, picked up, and taken an order. And doesn’t require added audio.
I just loved the sound at lunch recently, more a murmur. I was alone, facing towards the door, at a small table at which I had already become a regular (well, twice by then), and so I listened. Discreet conversations, almost entirely in French. Lunch on the street at Comptoir du Relais got a bit cold, and the banging from building work diagonally opposite took from the meal.
As a restaurateur, I cannot deny having loved our regulars. We had a couple who came fortnightly, for years. They drove quite a distance from a beach suburb, and plainly enjoyed each other’s company. We kept Table 8 for them.
Another Sunday pair were a Melbourne manager returning most weekends to Adelaide for his delightfully stay-put partner. Oh, the conversations we had about the strangeness of both the Anglican Church and the devotion of its shunned member (he was gay).
How can I forget the well-to-do couple, who came so regularly over so many years we witnessed the gradual deterioration of one of their healths, and how… no, I’ll miss that
So many regulars, and those are just the first to come to mind. Regulars might have come weekly for a burst, or fortnightly for years, or even just annually, re-living the night they proposed marriage at the restaurant, or married there, eventually bringing children.
I became a regular at a modest restaurant here in Paris’s Latin Quarter after two lunches. By the time I took Marion there for dinner, my third meal, we were greeted with Kirs. The wine recommendation was as delicious as its price was moderate. When a dish was not available, it was instantly replaced with foie gras.
How did this happen? Who knows? I hope I just seemed to enjoy the first visit.
Of course, there’s a element of sales in hailing regulars, but I like to think it’s more human than that. People generally like other people (and waiters really have to like other people). It might be a passing relationship, not necessarily even on first-name or any name terms – perhaps just the “McGuinnesses on Table 8” – and yet meals are at the heart of society, and that goes for hosts and guests.
This good, modestly-priced restaurant in the Latin Quarter seems to fill with locals. At least one or two regulars seem to return for lunch perhaps even daily. Nights are quieter, with a sprinkling of tourists.
Let’s see how the relationship develops. A third visit might have involved something lesser than the previous lentil soup with egg, but I somehow enjoyed the tougher steak (following Brillat-Savarin’s carving instruction: cut across the grain). Next, “my” table by the door was taken, so I tried somewhere else, which was not quite up to it.
Upon our departure, I might give the restaurant a strong online recommendation. It’s already within the top 1000 of the 13,632 tripadvisor listings f0r Paris. That’s despite seven “terrible” ratings for cold ravioli and lamb to spit out, etc. Poor irregulars, I’m sure you enjoyed your crepes down the road. “Do not eat there” – I’m sorry, you missed out. No, I’m not sorry.
Humans need each other, value each other, and the rest is regulars.
PARIS IS ONE WORD worth more than a thousand pictures.
My long-time friend Paul, an acute observer of the human condition, emailed we were leaving for “nearly everybody’s favourite city”.
That line, too, is probably not original, but explains why a thousand photographs are being snapped right now in front of Notre Dame and other monuments. And every picture is stimulated by, and reinforces, the intensely evocative, single word, Paris.
This might be the Paris of Francofonia, the new movie about protecting the Louvre’s own plunders during the Nazi occupation. Or the Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec, or of Sartre. Mine is the Paris of mid-twentieth century Hollywood movies, starring either Leslie Caron (An American in Paris, 1955; Gigi, 1956) or Audrey Hepburn (Sabrina, 1954; Funny Face, 1956).
That’s the Paris of civilised modernity – of pushbikes, the Métro (now more than 4 million passengers daily), baguettes, Michelin guides, Coco Chanel, cafes, and restaurants.
We have arrived in a studio in the Latin Quarter, with sun in the middle of the day, and the sound of young schoolchildren in a courtyard throughout.
On my first visits, even the most ordinary meals seemed shockingly superior to most in Australia.
Despite improvements back home, and Nordic, Spanish and other restaurants also proclaimed top rank, and with the boulevards suffering American chains, Paris still holds its own.
The milk might taste strangely cooked (the microfiltré option has helped), but how good is the cheese. The coffee might remain disappointing, but the croissants more than make up.
Lunch at Comptoir du Relais has been at a recognised destination (might write about that later). More tellingly, we merely followed our nose and chose Tunisian tajines at Chez Hammadi on our first night. The waiter talked about our lamb and fig order with a man in the kitchen, who took a plastic box from a fridge and looked into it, seemingly puzzled. Another man arrived and showed something on his phone. Perhaps they were googling the recipe.
Seemingly by magic, the lids were soon flourished off bubbling tagines. Excellent, and as to the cous-cous … we’ll be back. A succession of presumably other Tunisians joined in, supporting our host, as the place filled up. It was only overnight that I decided the actual kitchen must have been downstairs. And how could I have doubted the pervasive culinary dedication in this country.
We’re around the corner from another string of alleged tourist traps, competing on price, often two courses for 12 euros or lower. I stumbled upon and then out of Vins et Terroirs, whose formule provided a salad with blue cheese and walnuts, and then steak, béarnaise and chips, with a quarter pichet of wine, and another friendly and efficient waiter. My unsteadiness came from leaving via the uneven cobbles of the arcade opposite.
I developed a theory that you scarcely need a restaurant guidebook in Paris, owing to the intensity of gastronomic purpose. Almost everywhere seems to carry the weight of cultural responsibility.
The city is physically big enough to cope with the tourists. The five-storey buildings might constrain the children to courtyards, but sufficiently tightly that people climb stairs, and walk lots, so it’s not just the diet that keeps them slim.
It’s not just demographic density that bears down on everyone, but also the exceptional cultural weight. Again, I do not speak principally of the Louvre or the Académie française. A relatively tight culture pervades every centimetre of the Métro, the narrow streets, the echoing voices, the formal gardens and parks … A visitor has immediately to submit, furiously deny or, like me, risk romanticising the city.
Things have got to be done correctly, which some French people might so stifling as to leave. Some seem concerned by dilution by immigration. Others might worry about the inroads by American fast-food. But a coherent culture infuses dining spots, from the most modest, up.
THE PREVAILING IDEOLOGY is so overpowering that it’s rarely named. So suggests George Monbiot in the UK Guardian. His recent column must have struck a chord, since it has been shared online 233,000 times with comments closed after 3964.
Monbiot identifies the “coherent philosophy” as neoliberalism.
According to the headline, neoliberalism is “the ideology at the root of all our problems”, and his new book How Did We Get Into This Mess? collects earlier columns that survey the devastation.
In Monbiot’s account, neoliberalism portrays “competition as the defining characteristic of human relations”. Among consequences, competition relies on quantification and ranking, which lead to a “stifling regime of assessment and monitoring, designed to identify the winners and punish the losers”.
As “something admirable” about the neoliberal project, Monbiot nominates the patient organising of a network of thinkers and activists, ready with a clear plan when the inadequacies of Keynesianism became apparent in the 1970s.
In turn, John Maynard Keynes made a comprehensive economic theory available when laissez-faire economics led to catastrophe in 1929.
From the success of both Keynesianism and neoliberalism, Monbiot draws a lesson that “it’s not enough to oppose a broken system. A coherent alternative has to be proposed.”
And so what is neoliberalism’s replacement? It’s not Keynesianism, which recommends stimulating consumer demand to promote economic growth, and consumer demand and economic growth are the “the motors of environmental destruction”.
Disturbingly, Monbiot finds that the “left and centre have produced no new general framework of economic thought for 80 years.” So, he issues a call:
For Labour, the Democrats and the wider left, the central task should be to develop an economic Apollo programme, a conscious attempt to design a new system tailored to the demands of the 21st century
This is where I step in.
I have come up with a general framework of economic thought. Taking an embarrassing number of years, the task has indeed felt like an Apollo program.
Seriously, I know a lot about neoliberalism, and have a sound response – to the extent of 100,000 words. If I haven’t posted on this blog for a while, it’s been putting the finishing touches to a complete draft.
Where to begin? The working title: Gastronomics: Because Meals Matter More than Money.
The book is a critique of not merely neoliberalism, because neoliberalism essentially institutionalises the narrow assumptions of mainstream economics. These axioms have become so ingrained that even leftish political philosophers and economists have difficulty breaking through the illusion, and my list of offenders spreads beyond the familiar Hayek and Friedman. As Monbiot ruefully observes: “We are all neoliberals now.”
Even Monbiot under-estimates neoliberalism’s capture of ideas, so that, to most of us, economics can seem to be something they do, when it is potentially the most caring of all disciplines.
Not that I have invented much. Instead, I offer the twin advantages of persuasiveness and surprise – by bringing a gastronomic focus to reasonably established economic and social theory, political philosophy, and intellectual history.
The answer to market fundamentalism is not some other fundamentalism, but is intrinsically complex. Not that this prevents clarifying the meanings to words and re-formulating basics.
To encapsulate the answer in one word, liberalism. Liberalism, not neoliberalism.
This is the liberalism of Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Brillat-Savarin and many others who used to know that meals matter.
Drawing attention to an additional post-Christmas funk, Squires’ column forced me to theorise further, and to suppose the clear benefits of a mid-winter Christmas over our present “shallow celebration”.
Australians have long enjoyed the “joke” that baked turkey and plum pudding are as unseasonal as Santa Claus’s thick coat and tinselly store Muzak. Historian K.S. Inglis pointed to the colonists’ tradition “to enjoy both the heavy Christmas dinner and the absurdity of it”.
Gastronomically, however, more has to be said.
Forget the birth of Jesus, and not merely because of falling church attendances.
Historians have difficulty estimating his birth year, let alone precise date. The choice of 25 December under Emperor Constantine borrowed the mid-winter festival, presumably because the beginning of the year would be appropriate for the beginning of Christianity, too.
Christianity’s local languor has left it too like a sentimental, Dickensian festival. Concentrating on family fun is triply two-edged. Firstly, which family? One practical solution has been for a couple to join one partner’s family for lunch and the other’s for dinner or the next day.
Secondly, it’s for the children, they say. But that should be year-round. Besides, Squires points to parents who just “spent the holidays aching for children in the custody of exes”.
Thirdly, as she reports, happy snaps of elderly relatives and wide-hatted kids on the beach are more than matched by negative stories – this year, one of her mates had a seemingly irreparable falling out with his brother, and a girlfriend’s “strained marriage” finally snapped.
To family woes Squires adds the “general malaise”. Falling into a festive funk, she tends “to ponder what I haven’t, rather than embrace what I have”. She laments another year passing, and flagellates herself for what she didn’t achieve.
And worst of all I make that terrible and oh so common mistake of thinking everyone else’s life is better than mine.
People then return with their holiday stories – about broken families, and about noticing “the empty chair of a lost loved one” – and she realises that “many of those happy snaps I envied should have been captioned ‘help!’”
Squires recommends accepting the Buddhist belief that “life is suffering”. I prefer the formulation in my dear friend Suzie’s long-term email signature, which I suspect she restored especially for the season:
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. ~ Philo of Alexandria
My love for Brillat-Savarin rivals M.F.K. Fisher’s, and is helped by him tackling such downers as “The end of the world”, which is “Meditation 10″ in Physiology of Taste.
In “Meditation 14”, Brillat-Savarin argues dolefully that table-pleasure compensates for hunger, thirst, and pain. He asserts:
Humanity is incontestably, among the sentient beings that populate the globe, that which is inflicted with the most suffering.
His evidence is people’s unprotected bodies, poorly shaped feet, inclination to war and destruction, and a mass of maladies such as gout, toothache, acute rheumatism and strangury. In his view, the fear of all the pain pushes people to give themselves up to the “small number of pleasures which nature has allotted”.
My suspicion is that contemplative festivity works better when it’s cold, and meals are made from thinning flocks and from fruit preserved in puddings. Christmas thinking is helped by the faint cheer of carols and baubles, attempting to keep close for warmth, and the prospect, however distant, of fresh shoots.
Our Christmas made more sense a year ago in Germany when cantatas and Christkindlmärkte seemed to challenge the cold and dark.
Even and, indeed, especially in a secular state, Christmas ought to arouse what the Christian emperor wanted, new beginnings. New Year’s Eve is beaten hands down by Christmas’s gift-giving, family reunions, intense commercialism, and whatever remains of religious thought.
But we need renewal in the right season. Those Antipodeans who move to a “Christmas in July” are on the right track, trying hard to get even colder and more drab than with a six-month shift to June.
We should not have to mourn among young bodies dashing into the surf. Daylight saving was not introduced to serve melancholy. A world flowing with white peaches, raspberries and, further north, mangoes provides pure pleasure, leaving scant room for reflection.