Paris and the redemption of the French restaurant

I have been in Paris for a review meeting for the VisMaster project. I arrived the afternoon before the meeting started and so unusually had half a day to wander around, mainly to check out the location of the meeting places, but also to see Notre Dame, which was really just outside my hotel window. The hotel “Hotel Les Rives De Notre Dame Paris” was somewhat higher budget than I intended, but there was clearly some big meeting on this week as everything seemed booked solidly for the days I needed. However, given its location and it was a double room, it would be an ideal location for a couple visiting Paris: wonderful views, furnishing that made you believe you were in Paris and breakfast in a cellar that had clearly been there since the days of Victor Hugo.

I mention Hugo as one of the highlights of my half-day wander is the Shakespeare and Co bookshop just opposite Notre Dame. The books are all English but there is a special section of English translations of French authors and here I bought a copy of Hugo’s “Notre Dame de Paris“, the fateful tale of Quasimodo and Esmarelda and inspiration for the “Hunchback of Notre Dame” films. As well as Hugo I also bought a copy of one of Montaigne’s essays, which strangely haven’t yet found their way to Hollywood.

Having bought two books to load my already overburdened suitcase destined for its 15 kilo Ryanair weight limit I was drawn back and this time looked through the second hand section. It was fascinating to see what the English speaker in Paris reads, and I was again tempted and came away with Edna O’Brien’s “Mother Ireland” and also an old psychology book “Thinking and Reasoning”. It is an overused title (a bit like “Human Computer Interaction”) and I almost passed it by as it was clearly an old book and so obviously “out dated”. However just in time I noticed the editors, Wason and Johnson-Laird, and realised this was a collection of classic papers from the late 1950s and early 1960s, a real treasure capturing the period when cognitive psychology flowered.

However, the high spot for me1 was the first evening when I ate on my own in a small restaurant, next door to the bookshop. In the past I have been critical if not dismissive of French cooking. Not French food — cheese and bread from even the most basic supermarket is an epicurean joy, but the food you get in French restaurants.

Now by French restaurant I think I mean self-consciously “French” restaurants and in particular Parisian restaurants, as I have mainly been in Paris and in Toulouse twice. The regional food in Toulouse was wonderful (once you get over the fat), but even there “French” restaurants were a disappointment. It was not that I have only been to the Parisian tourist haunts, where the contempt of the non-Parisian can be apparent and where they serve the kind of lump of meat and pile of potatoes meal that I last saw in the UK thirty years ago, with the sole exception of some highly flavoured sauce instead of the customary British gravy. On many occasions I have been with French and Parisian natives who have selected carefully and taken us to well-classed restaurants, but they have still left me disappointed. In Italian restaurants, even the most basic Formica-tabled trattoria, the food itself is not treated with the reverence of the French, but as a more homely pleasure. Not unlike the everyday Catholicism of Italy compared to the more austere cathederals of France. In Italy, like the restaurants I find today in the UK (not 30 years ago), the appreciation is of the food; the food is the focus; the food is what you eat and what you enjoy. In contrast, in French restaurants it is always the chef that is king, the centre stage, the impresario.

That is I would have always said this until now.

Opposite the Notre Dame, set back from the busy Seine-side, in thoroughfare by small jardin, is “Le Petit Châtelet“. It is crushed on one side beside the brash tourist restaurants that cluster round Notre Dame like flies once did round the fetid sewers of mediaeval city rivers. On the other side it flanks Shakespeare and Co., which feels a closer bedfellow.  The service was impeccable and friendly and the food divine including sorbet in unexpected flavours such as lavender.  Out of the dirty mire that had been my previous experience of Paris, like Notre Dame itself rising from the foetid streets in Hugo’s account of 15th century Paris, Le Petet Châtelot has redeemed French cuisine in my eyes.

  1. That is of course apart from the review meeting, which was very productive – and those of you who have been at an EU project review might not believe me, but really it was![back]

From Anzere in the Alps to the Taj Bangelore in two weeks

In the last two weeks I have experienced both Swiss snow and skiing and Indian sun and traffic for the first time. The former was in Anzere for the French speaking Swiss Universities’ annual winter school and the latter in Bangalore for meetings (including another winter school) connected with the UK-India Network on Interactive Technologies for the End-User. Both have been exciting both personally because of their novelty as experiences and professionally due to stimulating discussions … happily not dry business meetings. I will blog later in more detail about both.

I guess joy always has its pains: in the case of skiing, blisters on my shins; and in India, the nearly inevitable wobbly tummy!

People have been wonderful in both Switzerland and India, both those in the meetings themselves and those I’ve met along the way.

I knew a few of the Swiss people already Denis and Pascal from a previous visit, but most were new including Micheal, my ski buddy, who had been in Switzerland for a long time, but was his first skiing too. Our ski instructor Rudy from Ecole Suisse de Ski et de Snowboard – Anzère was absolutely wonderful with seeming endless patience as we practised again and again (including the odd tumble) things that to him were so natural … if you want to learn to ski, ask for Rudy! In the village the woman at the ski shop was also wonderful helping find the right boots and equipment for someone who hardly wears shoes normally, and when she realised how bad my shins had become, she Christened me “Brave Shins’ :-/ I struggled to recognise her English accent until she explained she was brought up in Belgravia … it was just posh 🙂 However, the lady at the Anzere tourist information was my hero of the week; insisting on picking up special ‘second skin’ plasters from the pharmacy and bringing them to me at the hotel. Thanks to their ministrations my last day of skiing was blessedly pain free.

In India again so many wonderful people, Rama from HP who organized our demo day, the people on my Bootcamp team Ramprakesh, Dinoop and Ramesh, and many many others , and not forgetting the drivers of ‘autos’, including the one who smiled all the time, but got so embarrassed when accosted by the begging transvestites at the traffic lights.

Bootcamp Team: Ramesh, Dinoop, me, Ramprakash
(photo by Ramprakash)

Bangalore dinner: me, Vijay, Dinesh, Sriram
(photo by Ramprakash)

a Bengaluru auto rickshaw
see more and movie at bengaluru-net.in

sunrise

One of those mornings when Iona and the Ross of Mull peep over the horizon, islands floating above a sea of light.  Then the sun breaks, itself fluid, a drop of steel from the furness, burning gold flowing like mercury.

Christmas services

Lots of travelling about to see family and lots of deadlines over Christmas period, but now back on Tiree and it’s New Year’s day, so time for a short breather.

All the travelling about meant we didn’t seem to get to as many carol services and the like before Christmas, so it didn’t really feel as if Christmas Day was near until it was upon us.

Miriam is in the choir at Birmingham Cathedral and was singing at both the midnight service on Christmas Eve and the Christmas Morning service, so we all spent Christmas with her.  To be honest I expected the Cathedral services to be beautiful, but lifeless affairs.  I was very wrong.

The midnight service was full-on bells-and-smells with smoking incense wafted over Bible, congregation and anything else in range.  Poor Fiona, who had a cough anyway, struggled to breath through the rich spicy fumes and one other girl had to step out for air.  As well as the people, but I’ll come to those later, the turning point to me was when the priest, dressed in a white surplus with beautiful and intricate embroidery,  came to the centre of the aisle to read the New Testament lesson, flanked on either side by candle bearers in cassocks …  of course all heavily wafted in incense … and she began to read.   Clearly she too found it hard to breath in the smoke (Miriam told us later that the incense was only occasionally used in the services, so she had little practice reading under adverse conditions), but, as her head moved from side to side reading the lesson, the light caught a sparkle of glitter in her hair and suddenly the solemnity of the occasion, her own humanity and the joy of the celebration all came together.  A sparkle in the hair a parable for the message of incarnation.

To be honest tired after so much driving, thesis reading, etc., I fell asleep through some of the sermon … and yes, sometimes if you notice me in a talk with my eyes closed it is rapt attention, but sometimes …

Christmas services are always times which bring in the once-a-year visitors as well as the weekly faithful, so always difficult for the preacher.  Some primarily address the latter, hoping that the former will absorb the message and the occasion, often appropriate in small communities.  The opposite alternative is to treat it as an ‘opportunity for evangelism’ addressing the newcomer, but risking treating them as gospel cannon fodder and maybe even neglecting to focus on the celebration that is Christmas. This seems particularly difficult in a cathedral, which is both a place of worship, but also part of civic life; there to serve the city, to welcome people in on their own terms and yet offer them more.

Again, being honest, I expected the preacher to ‘play safe; bland words and a Christmas greeting, but instead (between my naps) he seemed to get it just right, not ‘preachy’ but welcoming yet leaving no doubt that we were not gathered just to sing a few nice songs, but there to celebrate the birth of a real baby, who became a real man, offering a rich promise, and making real demands on our lives.

However, what struck me most was not so much the ‘front activity’ of  priests and candles, lectern and Bible, or even bread and wine, but the people in the congregation. So varied: the lady in ‘Sunday best’ everybody’s image of the librarian or old-style school teacher, three men with tightly cropped hair like the Mitchell brothers in Eastenders, a group of young women maybe going to a party later, a girl in a heavy-metal sweat shirt, and a young couple punctuating their devotions with the occasional hug.  I wondered at their stories, some regulars, some who, like us, had come especially for the service, some who maybe wandered in.

On the Sunday after Christmas we were all in Kendal and went to the morning service at Sandylands, our regular church while we’d lived at Kendal.  Being the post-Christmas service, one of the readings was the familiar story of when Mary and Joseph took the new baby Jesus to the temple to make their offering of two doves after the birth.  Simeon is an old man but had been told that he wouldn’t die until he has seen the Messiah … he sees the baby Jesus and recognises him.

As this was read, the mathematician in me woke up and I did some quick sums, probably a few 100,000 in Palestine at that time, birth rate for replacement maybe 3%, so thousands of babies a year brought to the temple, maybe a few dozen babies every day … and out of  all these Simeon spots one.  I was reminded of Ursula le Guin’s book “A Wizard of Earthsea“.  It is set in a world of oceans and islands … not so far different from the Hebrides … all interlaced with magic.  The young wizard Sparrowhawk is on a quest and in a tower in the far north is lead into a deep room where a great treasure is stored.  The room is empty, but amongst the flagstones on the floor, he spots one, a small insignificant stone, worn from depths of ages, but so so old and holding a deep ancient dark power.  Like Sparrowhawk, Simeon spots the one of great value amongst the many; does it take special eyes or a special gift to see, or just willingness to look?

Although the old dark powers in “A Wizard of Earthsea” are just a story, the Christmas celebrations are themselves set at midwinter at the time of many old pre-Christian festivals.  The early Christians saw no problem in embracing pagan places and even names  (even the English word Easter!) so long as they were consistent with the Christian purpose. Indeed,  it is commonly assumed, there being no indication in the Gospels as to the time of year when Jesus was born, that the early Christians chose the Roman feast of Sol Invictus, the official State sun god so as to declare Christ the Son’s place at the heart of formal society; like those in Birmingham today, treading a difficult line between personal devotion and civic religion.

The parties, eating and drinking of Christmas capture some of the spirit of pagan midwinter, celebrating the sun’s return, and not entirely absent from cathederal mass … see the sparkle in the hair amongst the robes and dress coats of formal civic celebration, but both raw humanity and ordered civilisation give way to something greater.   There is a logic that is not the tit-for-tat logic of base human nature, nor the clinical logic of pure reason (although both are part of us), but instead is a logic that takes all the problems and pain of the world and answers them in a tiny wriggling baby.

toes in the mediterranean

I am in Tirrenia, one of the resorts on the Mediterranean outside Pisa. February is not the normal tourist month and the palm trees are all wrapped in sacking or plastic to protect them from the rain.

It was overcast when I arrived and yesterday was bleak with heavy rain, but this morning the sky was open from edge to edge, the unfettered wind blowing the waves clear from the coasts of Spain.

Dabbling my toes in the waters edge, or wading deeper having to run as the larger waves threatened to wash me clear to my waist. Icy feeling, but I’m sure still just the chill of cool water, air thrown through the night, no Arctic currents penetrate here.

To my back are the shuttered beach buildings, and tall rectangular pillars of plywood I assume enclosing the summer showers. Also sprinklers along the beach edges. I’d wondered at these when I’d walked at dusk when I’d first arrived, but not realised they were along every beach side – presumably to dampen the sand and keep it from blowing and burying the resort.

The sand slopes steeply towards the sea, and on the water’s edge a huge driftwood log, like a seat deliberately placed to watch the sea, but now periodically half covered then left stranded by the flow of waves.

On the map it is an contained sea, the Mediterranean, but here I see open sea – if there are boundaries they are far away and the waves long enough to build and be as terrible and awesome as those that had crossed the whole atlantic a few months ago when I was in Brazil. These waves though are less uniform, not the slowly growing and breaking of surf beaches, but more a tumbling boiling ferment.

To the north the jagged edges of snow flecked mountains mirror the wave crests, sharp edged against the clear morning sky. Further north they will become the marble-shot mountains of Carrera from which the best stone in the world is quarried. Marble not unlike the frozen surface of these surf flecked seas.

The sun just breaks over the land. It must be a marvelous place for sunsets over the sea. Slowly as the orange edge rises over the beach buildings the first rays touch the white wave crests, shining above the grey troughs between, then gradually the grey surface turns slate green.

I retrieve my sandals from under the pile of flotsam where I’d left them earlier, then reluctantly turn my back to the sea.