Murals matter

9780231196024
Diego Rivera, “Wall St Banquet”

VISUALLY, MY BOOK OPENS and closes with murals. The cover borrows the “Wall Street Banquet” of Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, and the back flap author photo was taken in a restaurant in Germany. I suppose it’s a coincidence that the book is walled-in, so to speak, although there’s something about murals …

Rivera’s “Banquet” is part of a huge set in Mexico City, covering three floors and staircase of the Ministry of Public Education building, taking Diego and his team six years to finish. That was in 1928-29, as Wall Street crashed.

In this panel, eight diners share champagne, while being served ticker-tape streaming the latest stock market prices from the golden machine under a glass dome. Behind that is a bank vault with megaphones. A Statue of Liberty lamp balances on the table in the foreground.

Rivera, “Dinner of the capitalists”

At least some of the well-dressed guests are historical figures, including a Rockefeller, whose family would commission Rivera, who was an on-and-off-again communist, to work in the U.S. Inevitably, in 1934, the family instructed labourers to scrub out his most ambitious American piece, a huge mural in the foyer of The Rockefeller Centre, New York.

Meals Matter might almost equally have been illustrated by a nearby  mural in the Mexico series – “The dinner of the capitalists”, which shows a ruling family served coins, with revolutionaries with abundant food in the background.

Both murals belong to the building’s third level, which illustrates the “Ballad of the proletarian revolution”. Over the Wall St banquet, the banner translates as: “the rich man keeps thinking how to double his money.” The words over the capitalists’ dinner say: “Gold is worth nothing if there is no food”.

I came across Rivera’s murals when idly searching for an illustration of banquets, whose interpretation is important in Meals Matter. (I ended up with a photo of an electric chandelier in Glasgow!) The Wall St version is not strictly a banquet; in this case, “banquet” connotes privilege.

Symons portrait Max 7

The back flap author photo was taken in mid-2019 by my wife, Marion Maddox, in Hannover, Germany. She took out the phone at the Max Walloschke restaurant, where we went several times. Our revisits explain the two versions (shown here) in different clothes in front of different still lives.

Max Walloschke, who was a weightlifter, professional wrestler and German bowls champion, opened the Kneipe (“pub”) on 19 June, 1952.

IMG_20200323_124344735_HDRIn Berlin, I suspected that smart locals crowded old-time Austrian restaurants, because they could not admit to enthusing about what some might call “heavy German kitsch”.

However, Max Walloschke remains unapologetic, calling itself “Das Kultrestaurant am Steintor” – the “cult restaurant at the Steintor”, that is, the place with a dedicated following at the city’s old “stone gate”.

Another of their claims is “Hier gibt es das wahrscheinlich beste Eisbein der Stadt” –  “probably the best pork knuckle in town”.

The restaurant’s official slogan, “Gutbürgerliche Küche und gemütliches Ambiente seit 1952“, uses two words that are allegedly untranslatable. “Gutbürgerliche” suggests “homely” in the sense of lots of sausages, potatoes, and beer. And “gemütlich” hints at a “cosy” atmosphere, and more, because: “Cosy captures an element of it but crucially lacks those of friendliness and belonging.”

Max postcard
Max Walloschke postcard

The restaurant also boasts “authenticity” and “tradition”, which we can believe, and “Herzlichkeit” (“warmth”), which we can confirm. (I plan to say more on this.)

As immoveable artworks, genuine murals (rather than wallpapers) have tended to be sponsored for public places, including cafes and restaurants, where they often employ faux architectural elements to give the illusion of grandeur, space or being in the homeland – sometimes all at once, such as a panorama of the Bay of Naples through trompe-l’oeil pillars. The more Gutbürgerlich murals of beer, pork and vegetables encourage Gemütlichkeit.

I must find out the name of the painter, whose food murals contribute so warmly to Max Walloschke’s welcome.

“Wall St Banquet” on left

How our “consolation of profit” thesis helps understand restaurants, megachurches, and Trump

MARION MADDOX AND I have just published a paper, “The consolation of profit”,* in New Formations, a journal of contemporary culture and politics.

Perhaps the quickest introduction is bottled water. Why do people pay for something they can get out of the tap?

Marion and Michael 3
At Max Walloschke, Hannover

Certainly, the hefty marketing promises health and status. But to those familiar explanations, we add another: the insistent hawking itself arouses a reasonable expectation that sellers are so desperate for profit that they will risk no other complication. If it’s outside the market economy, can it really be safe?

The “consolation of profit” arose from attempts to understand consumer anxiety when Jennifer Hillier and I ran the Uraidla Aristologist restaurant more according to our own earnest ideas than the Market’s.

 

Along with a funny name, the Aristologist had no piped music, no Coca-Cola, no smoking (except in a special room or outside), and otherwise signalled more than mere profit-seeking. The precipitating incident was a sweet, young couple looking at the menu, and asking if they might repair instead to a nearby restaurant. Our food would be “too spicy”, they explained, although, in reality, this would have applied more to the other place.

A more likely explanation was that the Aristologist might seem to require savoir-faire, an unfamiliar wine, reflection on the experience, or any number of other interactions.

McDonald’s redoubles the assurances. Their so-called “restaurants” advertise utterly predictable food – “Do you want fries with that?” – and stilted interactions – “Have a nice day”. The hammering of cheapness backs the warranty: no any other demand.

As a religious studies scholar, Marion added the second case-study. Why have megachurches been on the rise, when mainline churches have generally declined? Megachurches have replaced old liturgies with the forms of rock concerts and television tonight shows. Theirs is “Jesus lite”.

The “consolation of profit” thesis adds that, whereas a tight, more traditional congregation might threaten personal, social or deep theological challenges, these “growth churches” preach a simple message, “we want your money.” The merchandising in the foyer, donation buttons on web-pages, repeated onstage appeals shout out the safety of profit-seeking. The upfront demand for money could risk no challenge.

Our third case study asks how could anyone vote for such a shallow charlatan as Donald Trump? Together with lies and racism, his heavily-funded election campaign came with the “consolation of profit”. Trump never pretended to be anything more than a super-salesman with advertising slogans in place of policies.

This self-professed artist of “the deal” grew up in the congregation of prosperity gospel preacher, Dr Norman Vincent Peale, author of a string of business self-help titles, most famously, The Power of Positive Thinking (1952). Peale officiated at Trump’s first wedding.

Voting for the celebrity money-maker guarded against any untoward governmental decisions. Selling himself as the greatest, Trump offered no “deep state” threats. Denouncing elite expertise, he ostentatiously ruled through Fox News tweets.

With the pandemic, the Symons-Maddox thesis sees a hard-selling, anti-intellectual braggart struggling with an unanticipated crisis. “We’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it”; “I like this stuff. I really get it,” etc, shows he has nothing to sell but himself.

How enduring the consolation proves against obvious lack of social commitment, we’ll find out in November.

*Michael Symons and Marion Maddox (2020), “The consolation of profit,” New Formations 99: 110-126

99: Cultures of Compensation

How to buy Meals Matter

9780231196024PURCHASE THE BOOK THROUGH YOUR favourite seller, or through Columbia University Press with a discount.*** Sadly, after a change of Australia/NZ distributors, and higher air freight costs, Wiley do not expect hardbacks until mid-October, although now at a much better price, $57.95AUD. Meanwhile, Meals Matter would appear to be reasonably available elsewhere, including from several mail-order firms. E-books are instant.

***Here is the Columbia link to use the friendly promo code CUP30 for a 30% discount. Before delivery, the Columbia site quotes $35.00 US and £30.00. With discount and postage to Australia, and improving exchange rate, I made the total $52.44 AUD.

Meals Matter - Author with first copy
Author with first copy

Now for something completely different … cheese savouries

Mini croque monsieur bites on eatlivetravelwrite.comSOMETIMES THINGS fall into place so neatly as to be scarcely noticed. But I have never let myself forget the good fortune in discovering a simple savoury that we served to every customer from the first night of our restaurant in Tuscany in 1979 until Jennifer Hillier shut the doors on the Uraidla Aristologist seventeen years later.

The cheese savouries became minor celebrities, and various recipes have popped up in magazines and the internet over the years. Oddly enough, no-one seems to have revealed our source, until now.

To quote a recent correspondent with this blog:

Hi Michael – way back when living in Adelaide, I visited several times your lovely Aristologist restaurant in Uraidla – and so often reflect on the wonderful food that came to our table. I was wondering if your recipe for those lovely ‘cheese aperitifs’ that greeted us at the table as we began our evening was available in any publication? Sitting here in London on a grey morning, with this awful virus being the latest ‘panic’ we are facing, I was thinking how lovely it would be to be guided as to how to rekindle the taste buds with these lovely ‘bites’. If you could send me in the right direction, that would be wonderful.
with warmest wishes
Jill

A quick online search showed up this version, “Grown-up grilled tomato and cheese sandwiches” on the blog of Mardi Michels, now living in Toronto, and who admitted she first ate them “at the legendary Uraidla Aristologist restaurant in the Adelaide Hills, where I was fortunate enough to dine a few times when I was way too young to really appreciate it”.

Mardi has added tomato in Toronto

 

That’s Mardi Michels’s photo, here. She wrote about them again as “Croque Monsieur bites”, which is the photograph at the top. We only ever grilled them draped in grated cheese.

On the night before we opened the Cantina di Toia, we were still desperately seeking something to serve with a glass of the Fattoria de Bacchereto’s vin ruspo, the local, fresh, light, rosato-style wine that makes an excellent aperitivo. The best Sydney restaurant back then – Tony and Gay Bilson’s Berowra Waters Inn – would open with something with a glass of champagne. If such a welcome was good enough for them, it was good enough for us. Like them, we offered a fixed price meal (with several choices), which we thought of as a “licence for generosity” (a description Gay agreed with).

Il Libro della vera Cucina Fiorentina: Paolo Petroni ...

In desperation, where does a person turn? We loved Paolo Petroni’s serious local recipe book, but wanted something less familiar for our customers. Italians scarcely knew even basic French things like quiches, let alone the Antipodean Pavlova (both of which we served). So, I checked out Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Mastering the Art.

It was in this last that I found “Croûtes [Toasted Bread Cases]” on page 222 of the Penguin paperback edition. The selected filling became “Fondue au Gruyère [Cream Filling with Swiss Cheese]”, two pages later. I presume that was the original filling – in my head, it’s just a thick, white, cheese sauce. A béchamel, if you will.

To summarise our method: we purchased white, unsliced “supermarket” bread a day or two early (slightly older is easier to handle). Take off the crusts, then cut into approximately 4cm-thick slices, which are divided both ways, to come up with cubes. Next, the tricky bit. After doing this countless times, I became committed to a perfect, little, sharply pointed knife, with which I hollowed the cubes out exceedingly neatly. Brush with melted butter, and crisp a little in the oven until pale gold.

Meanwhile, you will have made a thick white sauce. That is, heat flour and butter in a saucepan to make a golden paste, add milk, slowly at first to stir out even the possibility of lumps. Add grated cheese. Following Beck, Bertholle and Child, we “enriched” with an egg yolk or two. (Did we grate in nutmeg? – not sure.) Fill the cubes, covered with a pinch more cheese, and brown them in the hot oven.

Think that’s right, Jill! It’s many years since we made them. But you now have the source recipe.

Cheese savouries Mastering

The end of the world? In many ways, but maybe, you never know…

The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson, 2020)

EMPTY SUPERMARKET shelves. Flights banned. Cruise lines taking a holiday . . . That’ll pass.

But Parisian bars, cafes and restaurants totally closed? That’s the end of some world or another.

More than just locked restaurants across the globe, urban life closes down and, with it, many seeming certainties. How unconvivial could this get?

My new book, Meals Matter, develops a “radical economics” from John Locke, Brillat-Savarin and others. As the first copies are being printed, a major rethink feels even more necessary. As First Dog on the Moon says: “Things are crazy and scary and they were already crazy and scary before.”

Meals Matter laments the two-century dismissal of meals – the disparagement of domesticity, the corruption of the lively marketplace, and the denigration of the wider, political meal. For this last, I reclaim the name, “banquet”. Needless to say, going along with money’s demands, governments so abandoned their meal – the banquet – that it remains scarcely visible.

Along comes the coronavirus, and governments act financially. Save the stockmarket! This is meant to “save jobs” to maintain metaphorical “bread”, although cynics also know that businesses seek to “capitalise the gains and socialise the losses”.

The government “banquet” should be not just emergency provisioning, but a whole meal. After all, any good meal comprises not just nutrients, but also comfort, pleasure, companionship, beauty, health, learning….

The aristocratic and religious hierarchies embellished their banquets with fine architecture and arts, and employed musicians, dancers, clowns, and jesters to tell truths. They staged whole after-dinner operas.

After pulling down monarchies and theocracies, the people anticipated their own mighty, popular banquets. But capitalism rose up within and against democratic republics, preferring only one meal, that of the market, and that merely conceived as prices.

Without government employment, artists were expected to rely on the market, and private patronage.

Suddenly, performers are out of work. I can no longer attend Verdi’s Attila at the Opera House tonight, nor the Bowral music festival next weekend. With a pandemic shaking live music and theatre to the core, government support looks slim indeed.

New York Times columnist, Michelle Goldberg, just wrote:

it’s chilling to witness an entire way of life coming to a sudden horrible halt. So many of the pleasures and consolations that make dwelling in cramped quarters worth it, for those privileged enough to choose city life, have disappeared. Even if they all come back, we’ll always know they’re not permanent.

Things are changing. Social-distancing and self-isolation atomise face-to-face meals. Yet mass banquets reappear on balconies. Neighbours drop food off at front doors. The whole world comes together as never before.

Meals Matter Front flap 3

Just maybe those who survive the pandemic might have been reminded the hard way that meals matter far more than money. If dictatorships haven’t further edged out liberal democracies, the banqueters might appreciate that the political household depends on cooperative health care, decent educations, the performing arts….

You never know, perhaps even mainstream economists will soon disown their slogan, “greed is good.” Governments might re-nationalise airlines….

Michelle Goldberg also wrote: “Maybe when this ends, people will pour into the restaurants and bars like a war’s been won, and cities will flourish as people rush to rebuild their ruined social architecture.”

To help prepare, put in your orders for Meals Matter: A Radical Economics through Gastronomy.

 

The sound of music

Bern restaurant 2
Zum Blauen Engel, Bern

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.

Bern restaurant I
Waldheim

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.

Please Like Me’s restaurant decadence

We won #AACTA awards! @joshthomas87 won Best Screenplay in Television and Debra Lawrance (Mum) won Best Performance in a TV Comedy. Yeeeaah. Thanks guys. Go team. http://ift.tt/1ycBgmB
Debra Lawrance & Josh Thomas

YOU HAVE BEEN warned: Please Like Me is television brilliance. Perceptive, bold, exquisitely acted, and with a gastronomic thread winding throughout (a domestic comedy has to include meals).

Some movie-goers don’t like Eric Rohmer, and others avoid Woody Allen, so I shouldn’t be surprised that many also seem impervious to Josh Thomas.

If you do not yet know what I’m talking about (despite much praise, including mine a year ago), you could go straight to #PleaseLikeMe Season Four Episode 4 “Dégustation” for a devastating parody of restaurant decadence, the setting for an emotional reunion by Josh and his separated parents. Except for a couple of things.

Firstly, you’d be smarter to treat yourself to the whole six episodes of Season Four, taking them in turn, because the season openers (“Babaganoush”, “Porridge” and “Beluga caviar”) set the scene for “Dégustation” and then … well… watch them through.

Secondly, the “Dégustation” parody was shot in a real restaurant, using its actual parade of 15 dishes (even the culminating “cake”?). The half-hour was filmed over three days at Lûmé restaurant, South Melbourne.

Lûmé is a cheffy fantasy of tweezers, eye-droppers, liquid nitrogen, and, to quote the website:

Artfully deceptive, Lûmé takes a thoughtful and considered approach to dining. It’s a restaurant that doesn’t just serve food, rather, it creates experiences best enjoyed by curious minds. Pronounced loo-May, the word Lûmé evokes a sense of light, elegance and beauty. But its true origin is unknown, and its meaning controversial.

Early reviews of the restaurant mentioned a meal taking 5½ hours, everyone leaving plastered, and some unfortunate misses. After just seven months, two original partners left Shaun Quade to it. Yet, from other comments, the Please Like Me trio’s expressions of delight weren’t entirely acted. Here is a snap of cauliflower “camembert”.

Image result for Lume restaurant Melbourne

Secret Paris

aligotParis 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).

aligot2

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).

allard-profitrolesNearly 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.

img_20161020_205927

National stereotypes visit Paris

See original imageTo 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.

This advice is available online in French as “Do You Speak Touriste?”

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.

Cover artAnother 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.

A recent Guardian article blames deteriorating rail infrastructure:

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.

The new friend

See original imageMy temerity in telling someone the other night about being a “new friend” occasioned further pondering.

The urgent problem is the explosion of virtual friends produced by the start-up business model: become biggest first. Accordingly, Skype urges: “Tell your friends what you’re up to,” and: “Why not post your own status update?” Rotten Tomatoes, I think it is, “can’t believe” I have no friends, so click here. I can imagine the desperation, loneliness, and paranoia of exclusion with a low friendship count, and the never-ending shower of everyone else’s good-times snaps.

This increasingly heavy parade of prompts, pop-ups, pop-unders and peep-outs cruelly parodies social life. Twitter boasts: “Tweets are the basic atomic building block of all things.” Talk about propaganda, as arrogant as “The real thing” and “To inspire and nurture the human spirit“. The so-called “social” media are essentially marketing vehicles, giving the little people a fantasy of competing in an advertising free-for-all. Perhaps some people keep usefully in touch, if they have the time. But the marketing barrage packs us into silos, where some of my “friends” punctuate with “f—ing” in a desperate quest for attention. Need I remind you that Trump tweets?

I compose these thoughts on pen and paper at breakfast at the Deux Magots at Saint-Germain-des-Prés. They no longer seem to serve fresh orange juice here, but, oh, the tartine and butter.

See original imageA couple of older women work on laptops, and one is now on a mobile – she has a friend, or maybe it’s work. A young tourist couple come in for double consumption – photographing their breakfast, before touching it. Are these zillion photos as expendable as Zuckerberg’s 75 million followers?

At least momentarily untied from virtuality, a pair of business types are greeted familiarly by a waiter, and enjoy a quick croissant, espresso and each other’s company. An aged gentlemen with a big scarf never takes his eyes off his newspapers throughout the hour or so we’re there. He remains glued to a declining medium that seems both wonderfully curated, and multi-vocal.

Altogether, to the gentle clatter of glass, silver and porcelain, a scattering of café-goers read newspapers, maps, screens, a notebook, and occasionally each other’s faces. Even the digitally-linked seem reasonably contented, presumably because a table across the room feels closer than up to a satellite via mass-monitoring and back.

See original imageHow odd, a tour group files in a side entrance and out through the heavy revolving door (which waiters manage with a packed tray on the arm), photographing the carvings of the two oriental-looking magi, their backs permanently turned on each other. My impression is that tour groups often lead to lasting friendships, people having taken meals together.

I don’t think we’re properly introduced until we’ve dined together. That “new friend” comment was based on two good dinners.