I am writing from the lobby of the W Hotel in Victoria Square Montréal.
We’re here essentially to celebrate Linda’s birthday, and, well, to be in Montréal, where we have not been in some time.
I had thought by today I would long since have posted a different essay—a proto-review of a new barbeque joint in Boston, but somehow it became a fiesta of divagations, diversions and digressions. How do these things happen? And I’ve written over 2000 words so far and haven’t even mentioned the name of the place, so it will have to wait for a later posting date.
In the meantime, here are some preliminary notes about our digs for the next three days.
Victoria Square is within walking distance of the vieux port or old town of Montréal, by the waters of the St. Lawrence, where the French is thick as pâté en bloc, and the streets as labyrinthine as a Paris neighborhood. It’s a recovering part of Montréal, Victoria Square is, having been allowed to degenerate into a kind of bureaucratic, semi-industrial squalor.
W goes a long way to dispel all that. It is owned by the Starwood Group, whose flagship chain is Sheraton. You’d never know it from a W.
It’s relentlessly modern, indeed modernist. In this one, the prevailing lighting is red, and dim, and lest you begin to conjure images of bordellos and women in bustiers and net stockings, the illumination in the lobby (the halle) is mainly provided by some six monoliths lit from within by red sources of illumination. Red cubes of plexiglas adorn the floor, and are themselves adorned with small sandblasted cylinders of smokey glass with a votive candle within. Above my head are huge globes fashioned of fiberglass strands that were molded around spheres that were then deflated and removed after the epoxy setting the strands in a circumferential matrix had hardened. Centered within each globe in a cluster of five globes is a dim clear incandescent bulb dangling from a chrome cylindrical socket.
There are also tiny halogen down lights in a ceiling of hardwood stained rosewood crimson, and so far above our heads as to be useless as illumination. In short, the brightest thing in this large, echoey space is the screen of my laptop, and the screen of another geek, sitting opposite me, no doubt also too cheap to pay the 20 bucks a day (Canadian, but these days, same difference) for 24 hours wireless service in the room. Here in la halle, it’s free.
We’re lying like Passover celebrants, truly half-reclining because the cushions of the sofas are too deep—I’d say about four feet—and the absence of any but soft pillows for support make it necessary either to sit bolt upright with the laptop on one of those crimson cubes, or to lie as I am, as if wondering where the fourth glass of wine went, and who the hell stole the afikomen anyway?
We arrived an hour ago. From the valet dispatcher, to the bellman, to the receptionist the staff is flamboyantly cheerful. It made me think, having stayed at a W (the one in Union Square in New York last Christmas) before that was not half so friendly, shall we say, that they’ve got the staff drinking a lot of the Cool-Aid, a sort of fancy version of which they bring you in a cup as a refreshment from the journey while you’re standing there checking in. The dispatcher and the receptionist both wore headsets into which they murmured French once every so often, and who apologized profusely to me each time, as I responded with a “wha’?” And I soon realized, of course. They’re not juiced up. This isn’t some corporate facade of packaged bonhomie. Of course, this is Canada. The last civilized English speaking democracy left on the planet. Well, French and English. Well, mainly French and a little English, with a flip on that ratio just across Lake Ontario into Toronto.
Our room is also a cube of extreme dimensions. Big couches must be a theme. If we make friends they can sleep over, all six of them.
The theme of the room is black and white. At least I think so. It’s a little dim in there. I did have my laptop on for a bit before discovering the hook-up ain’t free in the room, which required dialing the front desk, which, in the spirit of zestful relentless modernity, is labeled tout divers/whatever whenever. I had visions of calling at three in the morning for a gram of cocaine, just to see what would happen… The bellman, zealously friendly, but sincere somehow, and in a postmodern kind of forlorn-looking tee-shirt, and with a day-and-half growth (don’t get the wrong idea—published rates for the rooms here start at $339US) showed us how to swipe our room key in the elevator to get to our floor, which is above the first few floors, and he explained that the clubs and disco crowd had to be discouraged from wandering the hotel. I asked, “But what if you’re lonely?” and he took that in his stride, chortling and suggesting we could wander the floors of the clubs.
The bathroom is a kind of open design, at least for bathing and washing up. The toilet is in a separate chamber with a huge floor to ceiling door that swings shut, but doesn’t latch, and in addition to the tub, perfectly square, there is a tiled shower stall about as large as my small office back at the apartment at home. All the fixtures are cylindrical, stubby chrome horizontal tubs that pull away at the stroke of a lever, also chrome, a kind of attenuated cylinder, slender, and levered, pulled it controls the flow, turned it controls the temperature. I don’t have the heart to tell them this all went out somehow when Walter Gropius died, although it does raise interesting questions about the degree to which modernism can penetrate the redivivus gestalt of post-modernism.
For all my sarcasm, this is, in fact, a very nice place. Quite luxe, for all the hard surfaces, and studiously subdued sensoria (music is constantly playing, which is moody, suggestive, not quite the bilge that’s called “soft jazz” or “smooth jazz” or whatever euphemism is used to cover the fact that it’s not jazz at all but some kind of white-bread pap. It’s not soul. And it’s not mood music. It’s probably some package from Muzak, and it’s probably called MZ647 World Pop Instrumental).
It’s a little déclassé if you ask me to charge for the Internet connection in the rooms. What’s that all about? In the halle any geek with a laptop can walk in and jack in. Where’s the cachet in that?
Nevertheless, the bed is very comfortable, and huge, and the surface obliterated with pillows and soft fabrics. And I know they leave delicious candy for you when you turn in, when they steal in, while you’re eating out, and turn down all those layers of finery.
Two last things: there is other music; it just played out… Vocals, vaguely African, and now there’s what is clearly Arab stuff playing, so I have a hunch (in my best mock humble shoulder-shrugging style, I ask, “but what do I know?”), but with a soprano sax hook, so someone is up to something (and it’s probably for sale on a CD on the “W” label somewhere in this joint—everything has a price). And finally, for those of you who care about these things, those globes of fiberglass strands are called “Random Lights.” They’re made in the Netherlands, and were designed by Bertjan Pot for Moooi.
I figure the rig here in the lobby is worth about three grand retail, plus installation.
Look it up yourself if you’re interested. I’m tired of doing all the work, and this is supposed to be kind of a vacation.
[written from the United States, but retrospectively; prepared in part from notes taken in France and in mid-flight from Nice to New York]
Nice, Sunset during a rainstorm, 2006 August 6
Morts et vivants, tout dormait. Et le silence qui regnait était un grand silence de province.
Everyone, the dead and the living, was asleep. And the silence that reigned was a deep, provincial silence.
—Paris, by Julian Green; tr., J.A. Underwood
Aside from the food, the views, the air, the culture (by which I mean the pace and style of everyday life), the essential prevailing climate (meteorological), and the people on a one-on-one basis, there is another significant advantage to life in rural France. It is there, not here. By which I mean that, perspective being all, the vantage of 3500 miles makes things, if not clearer, at least not so hazy, if not removing the fog of incoherency altogether.
For the writer, any writer, whatever his or her merits, clarity is all. For me, there is inspiration in the clarity of being in France. Combined with what is, no doubt, and even after over 20 years of regular intimacy with the life, the sheer otherness—the strangeness to me, plus my overwhelming ignorance—of life in France, there is always a great deal to write about.
To my mind, I am often writing less about the French (though some readers seem to think so, and react solely to this nominal subject), and a great deal more about what are our similarities, if only by way of delineating differences. In short, it is a way to write about myself, or, to depersonalize this, as the subject loses interest rapidly, and most of all for me, when it is a matter of pure self-reflection: it is a way of writing about us, yes, we Americans, but, more importantly, we humans.
One thing to remember, after three weeks in another country, at every conceivable remove, except the electronic, from what is familiar and routine, is that I am not only a long way away from that reality. I am also a great deal closer to another reality, yet one which preoccupies so much of the civilized world. It’s not my purpose to disabuse my fellow Americans of any presentiment they may have about the fate of the civilized world insofar as it consists of the lands contained by territorial borders of the United States. Rather, it is, for starters, to remind them that civilization does not end at the departure gate at Logan or JFK, or wherever.
We are deeply troubled by the state of the world, even from our largely still untouched enclave of a continent buffered by the two largest oceans on the planet—and before the wrath of God and righteous Americans rains down on me, I am well aware of the awful event, and its consequences, known as 9/11. And I do not forget Pearl Harbor. And I remember the Maine.
However, for the sake of defining a certain psychic perspective, I also have the capacity to recall the bombing of Dresden (and innumerable other cities in Europe, including the fire bombing and rockets that rained down on London), the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the siege of Stalingrad, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, and the War of 1812.
Our own latest suffering, however severe and inhumane, is yet another chapter in the lamentable history of human civilization on planet earth. To keep that history at bay, we have, for much of the history of our nation, more or less kept the world at bay, as if we do, indeed, inhabit an enclave. Though if it is an enclave, it is increasingly unclear (at least to a polarizing degree) of exactly what.
Our watery isolation (of an immensity we forget, unless flying over it, however swiftly—it takes five hours of an eight-hour transatlantic flight at over 500 knots to traverse open water to get from America to Europe, or vice versa) has lately proven its inadequacy for preserving a sense of political isolation, for those for whom this has always been a preferred modality. However, whether you are an isolationist, cocooned in the fantasy that the world can somehow be kept not only away, but kept out utterly from a properly defended fortress, or you are more a citizen of the world, with some sense that we have neighbors whose fate just might very well affect ours, we do seem to harbor one frail sense of calm. It’s best expressed in the throw-weights and range of weapons in the hands of those we deem dangerous. For now, we are safe to some degree—what else can we do but think it—as long as Hezbollah can hurl rockets only 20 miles, or North Korea can reach Seoul or the frontier of Japan, but no further.
Tell that to an Israeli or a Japanese.
We do worry about the price and availability of oil, the preponderance of which, even with our record thirst for it, comes from elsewhere, and, in particular, the volatile Middle East. And one must fly even greater lengths to reach these climes than the downrange capability of the missiles of members of the Axis of Evil. I mean to excuse nothing, on any part or any side. I merely wish to point out that weapons—real or suspected—in the hands of Arab states are much closer to another set of first world countries, otherwise known as Europe (new or “old” it makes no difference). And the weapons that we know are in the hands of Israel, for one, because a great many of them we sold them, paid for with money we give them, may someday—with their application—set off a war that will be one time zone away from our friends on the “Continent.” And, incidentally, a single time zone from our bucolic village near the foothills of the Alps.
Hence we have the paradox that shapes the perspective I referred to when I started. One sees things more closely, in a quite literal sense, when one is in Europe. As we sat rapt, watching CNN on our hotel television in Nice the night before departure, for three hours as the Israelis bombed even more of Beirut in a “daring” and rare daytime raid, and, in bloody riposte, the Hezbollah fired six very deadly rockets (the deadliest yet in a single attack) into an Arab neighborhood in Haifa. This too was daring, as they fired the rockets at dusk—which they never do as it immediately pinpoints their position; and indeed, during the night the IDF overran and destroyed the launch site.
What I was mindful of, as the sun set over the Mediterranean just outside our window, during a premature twilight as a brief storm set in, was that we were watching in what I’ll call “very real time.” As it was noon in the U.S. when the rockets struck Haifa, this very live story would have a certain distance, not only in miles, but in time, when it opened that evening’s news broadcast in New York. For me the story happened just across that azure sea, whose coast touches Nice with such allure, but touches Beirut and Haifa too, and gives one a sense of the salty consanguinity of fishermen from Maine to Key West. And one may fly from Nice to the Middle East in the time it takes to fly from Boston to Charlotte Amalie in the Virgin Islands.
As we waited, indolently, at Nice airport to get through passport control, our line was regularly interrupted by late arrivals for the flight in the next gate over. We were flying to New York, they to Tunis. It makes for intimations of a shared fate not felt so keenly on our still safe shores.
The paradox arises from the famous languorous pace of life on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea set against the time it would take to fly to Haifa (or Beirut, if you prefer) from Nice—1600 miles apart. More or less the distance between Houston and Cambridge.
No one has ever said it to me outright, while I’ve been in France, but one is mindful of how much closer things are to each other, when speaking of “hot spots,” than those very places are to our homes in the United States. I must assume this mindfulness, this vintage thought, sitting quietly, half-forgotten, in the wine cellar of one’s mind is true for natives, whose stay is permanent. We can only imagine the effect of this condition on the thinking of Europeans, who have seen their homes destroyed utterly—indeed twice, in the course of less than a hundred years.
We weep for Beirut, and for Haifa, of course. And the tears are most bitter for the fellow citizens of these homelands. Hardly less so are the tears for inhabitants of a continent that saw the utter destruction of Dresden and Coventry within the living memory of many.
It is therefore not with the same poignance that one experiences the beauties of life that we know we will miss when we are gone.
Frequent visits like ours only make the poignance sharper, if anything. Sweet partings that much more so, from our friends, so recently made dear. Each passage is a reminder that life, as we have noted since the Greeks and Romans who first settled the Mediterranean basin, is short. Fondness even fonder. The beauty of the land so much more beautiful.
I don’t know if this makes it better or worse to visit the way we do, in spurts of weeks, brief sojourns spread apart as they are. It’s taken me 18 years of visiting Provence to have visited now every month of the year. By now I should be used to it. But every leave-taking is a wrench, a cloying tug that begins days before the date we must lock up and bid the village farewell until another time. The distance is nothing for the nearness of it all. And I would like to suggest that this mode of constant longing, which does not abate even as we measure each day by the rising and the setting of that piercing Provençal sun, is the stuff of love and deep remembrance.
Beneath the rasp of the cicadas, the buzz of flies, the rustle of Mistral-driven foliage, beneath the random rumble of trucks through the village to pierce the drowzy minutes, the whoops of the neighbors at bowls in today’s contest, beneath the clamor of the chapel bell at each breaking hour, below the stentorian bark of this neighbor’s dog, and the insinuating meow of that one’s cat, beneath it all is a silence, a kind of stillness. Enduring and perhaps only truly known to the sheep and the goats, to the donkeys, and the quail, the rabbits, and the wild boar deep in the woods—the original inhabitants of these eternal hills, a reverie.
But once again, we have left all this. And we force ourselves to scheme for the next visit. And we force ourselves to tamp down that deeper hurt.
Endings have a special melancholy. What has been will no longer be. No matter how much we may expect to return. Any break in continuity is an end. Whatever the promise that one may begin again, and however soon, there is the promise within that beginning of another end.
Now that the readership of this blog has swollen to dozens, I feel there is the necessary critical mass to bring to your attention the ongoing labors of an inestimable cultural worker (he would never consider himself management, though he has found himself in the odd position of having the title of editor innumerable times and publisher somewhat less often—indeed, if truth be told, one of his very few deficiencies is, let me say, a certain inattentiveness to the quotidian requirements of managing the exigencies and demands of life; but this mainly because he lives for his son, his canine companion, the equally inestimable Rosie—a yellow Lab of nobility and gentility—and his art, and likely in precisely that order, and sometimes his own needs receive less than the requisite regard).
Robert Birnbaum—the redoubtable and irrespressible “Izzy” whose chastening remarks
and gentle if insistent chiding now give all signs of appearing regularly on these virtual pages—is a literary journalist, raconteur, and literary conversationalist of national repute. In the past 20 years he has conversed (he eschews the term, “interview” for reasons readily apparent when you read any representative transcript) with upwards of 500 or 600 companions of letters. These are, in the main, published authors, of fiction and non-fiction alike, who have grounds for the designation, “literary.” This is as opposed to your garden variety pot-boiler types.
I commend to your immediate attention, that is, after first checking these haunts for the latest post, which you must read before hying off to some other outpost with a URL designation, either of the Websites through whose channels Robert emits his verbal exertions.
The conversations (you may discover that either or both of these Websites refer to them as “interviews;” I certainly, and Robert likely, accept no responsibility for such misnomers) appear here:
His main outlet, added since the original posting of this essay, is now his own blog, Our Man in Boston: http://ourmaninboston.com, to whose feed I strongly suggest you subscribe.
His many conversations have appeared in a number of places, but mainly in the two following, which maintain an archive of his interviews and where it is safe, for the time being, to go looking for the more historic encounters.
In the fullness of time, that is, once I’ve learned how Typepad allows such things, I will place these as permanent links on the pages of this blog. Until then, you are on your own to roll your own. Go hie, and godspeed…
In the middle of the city of Aix-en-Provence, generally referred to as “Aix” (and pronounced “e(gg)ks”—the parenthetical double-g is in there to suggest that the sound is softened from a hard “ex”) there is a large asphalt paved plaza in front of the Palais de Justice, or court house. I honestly don’t know how much justice has to do with it (in the sense that, on hearing a companion exclaim, “My goodness!” on seeing Mae West’s jewelry and finery, she quipped, “Honey, goodness had nothing to do with it”).
One of the last times we saw this particular plaza was during a visit in March, more than a year ago. The French were demonstrating, specifically the teachers and students, and many other workers as well, but in Aix, the University town, it was your education base of demonstraters. Nothing unusual in this, though, I suppose, it wasn’t entirely usual either. It was orderly. There was a lot of smoking. And they filled this plaza—essentially a huge car park most days, with grand, broad steps of stone leading to the imposing collonaded entry, with metal detectors just visible inside. Then they congregated on the steps, which is where I believe the police preferred them to be.
The students were aroused, but not rowdy, and seemed to be having a good old energy-infused time. They chanted rhythmically, something about “taking it to the streets,” only in French of course, so the word rue was invoked. They carried signs and placards, and ultimately massed on the steps, as if they were on a major, but really big, slightly rowdy school trip, maybe associated with the Future Farmers of France or the high school traffic crossing guards, and had been told to assemble for a group photo.
[Ex post facto correction: Before my vigilant French readers take me to task—they are small in number, but eagle-eyed and armed with facts, which they are not afraid to wield: The particular demonstration I described, involving myriad students in the Aix school system, actually involved the imminent implementation of the "Fillon Law" (Fillon being the Minster of Education, who proposed sweeping reforms). The students and some teachers, on their behalf, particularly objected to a proposed core curriculum, which was noteworthy for excluding the arts, and the abandonment of a program of personal study, guided by teachers, and which combined several subjects, research, and independent study. These are not labor issues, as I go on, below, to discuss. However, the degree of backlash is as much a template as the actual law I do mention. I don’t know the fate of Fillon, but I do know what I go on to say about Villepin, who was vilified as a primary villain in the hiring law—later modified and gutted—is true. Sorry for the incorrect implications, and the temporary memory lapse. However, this did give me a chance to use three words, and one a proper name, beginning with the syllable "vil" in one sentence.]
The issue was a labor issue. France, as you may or may not know (one can never tell with Americans), has an unwieldy unemployment problem, as does much of Europe, save for Great Britain and Ireland. The government (the French one) cooked up a scheme whereby the laws concerning hiring and firing would be relaxed sufficiently as to allow employers—small businesses in particular—to engage new hires on a probationary basis, up to two years (without getting into really messy details—the Napoleonic Code is filled with those) without penalty. To the businessman that is.
It seems it’s very difficult to be fired in France, even for what we call “cause.” In France, I think sometimes, the word cause is used, and may only be used, for circumstances that lead to the massing of many French people waving banners and placards and smoking cigarettes on the steps of impressive federal buildings, or, if the cause is really hot, and the people especially incensed, to storm police barricades. This is as I understand it, and I will admit I have spoken only to a very small number of small businessmen (two or three more and it’s probably statistically significant for a group you would still be forced to call “Friends of Howard”—there is a great tendency over here, as there is in the U.S., to form a group at the drop of a hat; the streets are practically awash in posters with arcane acronyms; I myself, having seen a number of likely recruits in the streets of the cities AND the country, want to organize a group for which I already have a name: HFF, which stands for Hooligans Futurs de France (I think it’s kind of neat that the words are practically cognate in English, which means it will be very easy to import, if it catches on; the only difference is, I think, they only mainly look like hooligans over here… I’m assured they’re all very nice boys, but I digress)). You simply cannot call someone to account, never mind fire them. I mean, that is, unless they do something really outrageous like threaten your life with a kitchen knife, and maybe draw a little blood. And even then, you better have iron-clad proof and, I think it’s, six witnesses.
With the proposed law, there would actually have been more people put to work. French business people are remarkably astute in the application of what is called logic. They prefer not to hire beyond a certain point, if the risk is too great that they will be stuck with a dud. In large companies and the government, otherwise known as the biggest company of all, l’état, the State, a fairly huge percentage of duds only keeps the country perking along at some steady state of what is still high productivity. The productivity here, remarkable as it may sound to Francophobic U.S. patriots, is maintained at a fairly high rate—though it slowly erodes, as one must expect, when so many remain unemployed, and so many of those unemployed are third world immigrants who simply refuse to be deracinated (imagine that…).
The people in government aren’t stupid either. Though they do often give the appearance of let us say, losing attention, through several governments over the years hovering around the center mark of a political spectrum, which has shades of left and shades of right of sufficient bandwidth to make the U.S. look like a one-party state, not unlike, let’s say, Russia, but don’t tell anybody I said that. This too is not surprising, as they, the senior French government members, mainly all went to the equivalent of Harvard, Cal Tech, MIT, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and the University of Chicago, and, oh, what the hell, Johns Hopkins, combined. They want not only to extricate the country from what is a current mess, but what promises to be an even greater mess, entropy being what it is in the course of human affairs, and there being an equivalent desire to preserve what is, after all a unique culture, having been preserved for at least a thousand years, with some variations, and which suits a lot of people who, for lack of a better modern defining principle, simply don’t want to live like we do. I mean Americans.
Part of that culture renders all other parts sacrosanct, or such is the common myth here in France. So try to change the status quo, and the people rise up and say, “Don’t touch that.”
In the end, the forces of labor, represented there on the steps of the Aixoise Palais de Justice (don’t get labor and justice confused in this sentence), prevailed, and the Prime Minister, for one, found himself in deep doodoo (also don’t make the mistake of saying “doodoo” in French, as they won’t know what you’re talking about; toutou is a term of endearment for a pooch, and chouchou (little cauliflower [sigh]) is what you call your sweetie, even if she’s not in the produce game, but shit is merde—and Villepin is still, today, in the merde profond because of that little fiasco over a year ago).
But that demonstration was an anomaly for us. We love Aix. It’s a beautiful city, easy to get around in. Lots of places to shop and eat. A general absence of demonstrations and, in fact, most other disturbances. Even the Musée Granet, the one major museum in the city, has gotten its act together, totally renovated itself a year ago, and is worth visiting more than the once we managed about 11 years ago where I feel asleep while walking through one of the galleries. Every so often, cooped up as we are in the briar patch of very rural Provence, we like to get into a metropolis, kick back, and have a citron pressé at the Deux Garçons, which is the Aixois equivalent of the Deux Magots café in Paris, and more or less as old, being in operation since 1792 (this is what I mean about a culture that don’t fix what ain’t broken).
We don’t always make it to Aix, but this trip had an added frisson for us in that the “Cezanne in Provence” exhibition—a major show of his works associated with his studios in Provence, and mainly in Aix and environs, as this was his hometown—dreamed up and largely curated at the U.S. National Gallery in Washington, D.C., where it opened first, opened next at the aforementioned Musée Granet in Aix. So we demurred from a trip to Washington and planned on catching the show here. It is so popular that tickets obtainable from other outlets and on-line, that is, other than the ticket office of the museum, are now sold out up to three weeks in advance. Like American museums, they let you in by the hour at a scheduled time. It turned out you could get tickets by standing in line at the ticket office for an hour, but I’m glad I didn’t know that. I ordered the tickets on-line in advance from FNAC, which is a strange combination of consumer electronics store, café, serious bookstore, and DVD and CD shop, oh, and also a good place to get a new telephone, whether wired or mobile.
They mailed the tickets to us here in Fox, which is a scary proposition. It turns out the French do this all the time, without worrying about the consequences. As it also turns out, La Poste, the national postal service, is NOT the USPS, despite popular rumor. The tickets arrived two days later.
As a kind of reconnoiter, and because we didn’t want to wait the additional week that Nicole’s schedule required if she was to join us (though, as it turned out, she didn’t), we decided to take a trip to Aix in addition to our scheduled museum visit. We arrived around lunch time as is our wont. We parked, a bit of an ordeal, as always in summer, as the underground parking garages fill up by about 10am. We couldn’t park in the plaza in front of the Palais de Justice, because there is a marché in the plaza, and in other plazas around the city, every Thursday, until 1 pm.
We headed for the plaza anyway, because there’s a small brasserie there that we like. The plaza, incidentally, is named Place de Verdun. This is significant, and I’ll explain this way. It would be as if a plaza in a U.S. city—albeit the likelihood of a plaza in the U.S. with a major courthouse, and ringed by cafés, boutiques, bookstores, pharmacies, and immediately contiguous to a carriage trade kind of neighborhood of even smarter little boutiques and antique stores is remote in my experience—were to be called Plaza of the Battle of the Bulge.
Verdun, for those of you weak in history, and especially deficient in the European variety, was, of course, one of the great protracted battles of the First World War, prior to the entry of the United States. It occurred because the Germans, in a massive effort to end the war by effecting as many French casualities as possible—the German general in charge of their effort spoke of “bleeding the French white.” The battle produced 400,000 casualties on each side. In the end, the Germans did not prevail, because the defensive strategy of the French, masterminded by General Pétain (thereby rendering him a great national hero, at least for next 23 years) prevented the Germans from overruning the French positions around the town of Verdun. These included a salient, or bulge, ironically (for purposes of my analogy), just like the bulge of the ensuing World War II battle, which very much involved American forces.
In 1944, again to force an end to the war on better terms than Germany otherwise might expect given the progress of the war to that point, the Germans mounted an offensive intended to split the Allied forces into four splinters. The Germans thought this would be cause enough to effect a stalemate and cease-fire, and would allow them to sue for peace on more favorable terms. The Germans did not succeed, as they had not in 1916, against the French, though the Allies, and the Americans in particular, suffered heavy casualties in what was the largest battle of the war for them to that point.
The café we like is, indeed, Café de Verdun (so, again, imagine a delightful restaurant, with outdoor seating, traditional American favorites, wonderfully prepared, an excellent wine list, and snappy waiters, called: Battle of the Bulge Café, in, I don’t know, Providence, RI, which is about the size of Aix, and you’ll get some understanding of the somewhat subtle, but not too subtle differences in the ways the two cultures assimilate their own history). I make no invidious comparisons, mind you, so please don’t assume there is some innate advantage to one way of looking at the world versus the other. I just happen to prefer one to the other, and I leave you free to make your own favorites among any set of choices you care to define.
We arrived at almost exactly 1pm. That’s a kind of witching hour. The marché is officially ended. All the goods (produce, clothing, jewelry, gewgaws, tourist junk, etc.) must be packed up, along with their stalls, the huge parasols to protect customers from the fierce sun, and the vehicles which carry all thereof must be removed. The cafés, bistros, brasseries, and other eating establishments which line the plaza’s periphery will then as hurriedly as they may set up tables and chairs, and their own parasols, to the limit of their “territory” encroaching on the public space of the place. The people setting things up and the people breaking things down work in a kind of improvised primitive ballet, always managing to stay out of one another’s way.
It’s when the vendors are gone, and the restos are still setting up that the fun really begins. It seems the parking must be once again available to the public at about 2pm. The city is also very much interested in preserving its image, and the image thereunto appertaining, and so they send in a crew from pubic works, with coveralls and vehicles emblazoned with the logo “Ville Aix Propre” (essentially “A Clean Aix”).
Some fairly burly dudes haul a very long hose onto the place. There are high pressure spigots in the street, and the spraying and hosing begin—the technique consists largely of using the high pressure jet to drive the jetsam and detritus of the marché to centralized piles, where other workers with brooms and pans can pick it up. It is then my new champion appears. He, a vaguely devilish looking fellow with a very closely shorn brush cut is behind the wheel of a cleaning truck, aptly called (by its manufacturer) the Scarab Majeur. The truck—indeed, a huge white beetle of a thing—is rigged with a water tank and a storage tank. It sports outrigger brushes on flexible arms, with a large rotor brush underneath. Clearly the guy has trained in a combination of a French bumper car park and stock car rally.
He speeds the truck through the place, making a bee-line for curbs, restaurant barriers, and piles of garbage. He stops on the proverbial dime. He spins the steering wheel like the controls of an X-Box 360. He clearly delights in terrorizing the pedestrians who should have better sense than to venture, at the usual French pedestrian’s indolent saunter, across this temporary battle zone—workers against trash.
It also seems to me, having witnessed it twice now, that this is a bit of impromptu revanche des ouvriers (revenge of the workers). At one point, on our first visit (the food was so good, added to the endorsement, post hoc, of Café de Verdun in my bible of restaurant recommendations, the Guide Gantié, we decided to return the following week, that is, two days, ago, for lunch before our visit to see Cézanne) I watched from my seat in the café across the plaza as the Scarab dive-bombed a prematurely matronly woman, carrying three large shopping bags, and stopped likely just feet from her, from behind. I saw both her feet leave the ground, her legs bent, before she landed and scurried off.
He kept coming back to our end of the plaza, and stopping short of the borders of the plaza, including the barrier of the Café de Verdun. At the table of the next party over, sitting right on the waterproof divider set up by the Vietnamese workers of the restaurant—who had already done yeoman duty setting up tables and chairs for another 60 diners, plus the shade-producing umbrellas as coveralls, in the space of 12 minutes—a young woman in the party of eight, watching the antics of le Scarab with increasing dismay, suddenly arose and went off in search of someone, anyone.
Clearly she was on a mission to stop this menace to society. She returned, having consulted with the wait staff and the maître d’, shaking her head disconsolately, and glowering in the direction of the denizen of Ville Aix Propre, as he maneuvered his war chariot in several more, what can I call them, but pasobdobles. If only there had been musical accompaniment (we were, in Aix, only minutes from the cities of southern France where French-style bullfighting—no killing—is conducted). Another triumph for labor.
I am not sure, but it is possible that I recognized this young woman as one of those manning the barricades back in September. So much for solidarity.
Ratatouille is one of the many recipes native to this region—and in saying this, as when I say so many things, I cut a wide swath—by which I mean to include any definition of the south of France called Provence, and Nice. The French nicely separate Provence from the Côte d’Azur, of which Nice is the undisputable capital. Our chief agency for France Telecom, for example is in Nice, and it is the office for all telephone business in Provence-Côte d’Azur, part of the official name. Same goes for our branch, and the larger managing office, for our bank, Crédit-Agricole, one of the largest banks in Europe, and the largest mortgage holder in France—it’s C-A/PACA, and now you know what “PCA” stands for, when you see it. In fact, officially, the region subsumed is referred to as Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, but usually the Alpes are left out of it (except in the case of the bank).
It’s my theory that it’s intrinsic in any organizing scheme or management scheme in France that things are viewed in this departmental way. Ultimately, of course, all things flow from Paris, and the central government. It is through and through, administratively, a federalized bureaucracy. France is a big country, however, and hard to govern. It’s not only the largest, or close to it (I simply won’t look it up on-line—not while FT/PCA has us in a holding pattern with regard to the Internet, and our connectivity is dial-up; besides Linda is on the phone, so I can’t use it anyway—and I don’t want the readers here, those even more obsessive than I, and who ache for the chance to tell me I’m wrong about something, to have that chance), sovereign land area in Europe, with one of the largest populations. It not only has one of the largest GNPs of the EU, and one of the largest federal budgets. But it produces umpteen many different cheeses, even more now than when Degaulle made his famous comment about the ungovernability of this country, purely in terms of the number of cheeses it produced.
All moneys come from the central government, but increasingly are not only distributed, but budgeted at the prefectual level. The prefect is the highest government officer in any department. There are 95 departments, or so (there’s that hedge again) in Metropolitan France, that is, what we’d call mainland France, as opposed to the islands in the Caribbean, which are not protectorates, or territories, or any of that wishy-washy stuff, that leaves them nominally (at least) subjugated. When you’re on French soil in Guadeloupe, or in the French Pacific islands, you are on French soil, and subject to French taxes and the entirety of the Napoleonic Code.
That’s a fairly far-flung way of keeping track of things, especially money, when it flows from a single source. It tends to force a people who grow up thinking of themselves first and foremost as French, immediately to think about themselves next in terms of that ineffable, rich French word, terroir, which is essentially untranslatable readily into English.
A French-English dictionary may translate it as “region,” but that’s not adequate, because terroir can be understood sometimes with the same degree of fineness as a micro-climate. It really refers to some unique combination of factors—some incontrovertible, like the chemical composition of the soil, and some more subtle, like the difference between a cheese distinguished by one form of mold (we’re talking blue cheeses; so don’t let your gorge rise) versus another, possibly identical to the untutored palate, with a slightly different mold.
Not all differences are chemical, of course, except possibly in the metaphorical sense. The chemistry is different in one terroir versus another, and it leads to differences in speech, differences in dress, and particularly differences in food, both the native flora and fauna to a terroir, and the ingredients that go into exactly the same dish—exactly the same at least in name. Terroir is the major taxonomical differentiator, I would say, in determining one AOC wine or cheese from another. May be the same mix of grape varieties, but it produces a different wine when the grapes come from one hillside (côte in French) as opposed to another. So there is Côteaux Varois, but there is also Côtes de Provence.
There are five departments in Provence, and the cuisine of most of them—excluding pretty much Les Alpes de Haute Provence, which is one of the two landlocked departments, the other being the Vaucluse—is what comprises what has become known as the essentially heart-healthy, longevity inducing Mediterranean diet of Provence and neighboring Liguria, the section of Italy immediately contiguous and also with a long coast, or riviera, on the ocean. Much of Ligurian cuisine migrated and mingled and became transformed to a variant called Niçois, which the natives of that city (for so long ruled by others than the French; it was Italian, it was Savoyard (named for the mountainous region, now in France, known as the Savoie)) will tell you is not Italian, though it features many pasta dishes, and, as one small example, a basil sauce called pistou, and which, with a little jiggering and the addition of another ingredient or two, becomes what we know as the ambrosial pesto of Liguria. But it’s not the same.
And in the same way, to move rapidly to the opposite end of Provence, the western end, which borders near Marseille on the Mediterranean, there are differences, matters of terroir, between what is called bouillabaise in Marseille, which is located in the department called the Bouches de Rhône (the “mouths of the Rhone,” a major river debouching into the Mediterranean Sea in a delta surrounding Marseille), and what is called bouillabaise in a little seaside resort town called Cassis, about ten kilometers east of Marseille, but in the department called the Var (which also happens to be where we are located). There are terrible arguments about the right constituents of a true bouillabaise, which fishes go into it, whether potatoes are part of the dish, how it is served, etc. There is even an official society of bouillabaise makers, represented by any number of restaurants serving the dish in Provence, and none of them serve it the same way. In this, we see the chief, and chiefly benign, manifestation of the concept of terroir.
I guess if forced to some up with a one-word translation it would be “turf” in the sense that gangs, at least, used to use that word in major American cities, back in the 40s, 50s and 60s. Distinguishable, inviolate, and ingrained, though with none of the political motive inherent in the ways gangs used the term.
So, what does all this have to do with ratatouille, that ineluctably wonderful vegetable stew indigenous to Provence, and possibly the apotheosis, in vegetal terms, of what Provençal cuisine is all about?
Without all the brouhaha that surrounds bouillabaise (and which gets its energy—the brouhaha, that is—no doubt from the money involved, as a dish of bouillabaise, often mandated in a restaurant as a dish to be ordered only for two persons, can cost as much as 160 euros for a serving; it is labor intensive, and tricky, and must be made from scratch to order, and has a number of constituent parts, is served in two courses, and involves some very expensive species of Mediterranean fishes), ratatouille also has its terroir influenced variations. But it is mainly a homely dish. More often than not served as a garnish to a fish or flesh main dish, though Linda and I just recently feasted on a huge helping of freshly made ratatouille served over a steaming mound of semoule (that is, couscous), and that was dinner.
I like to make ratatouille at least once, or twice a visit. And even the meager proportions of the recipe to follow (it’s coming, trust me), guarantees leftovers for at least two more meals, even if one of them is only lunch, with smaller portions to go around. For one thing, ratatouille is a dish best served, unlike Sicilian revenge, not only hot, but cold, or at room temperature, which has a lot to say for it.
There is a kind of basic list of ingredients, and it reads like the ur-definition of the Provençal or Mediterranean diet. It almost always includes zucchini, onions, eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers. It is invariably made with olive oil, lots of olive oil, in which it is stewed. What I will tell you is you can add, within a fairly broad band of extras, just about anything you want, to push the flavor of the thing in one direction or another, grossly or subtly.
I like piquancy, and I like that so-called “fifth taste” called umami, so those are the variants I will include with the basic recipe I’ve contrived.
Those who know me, and know my cooking, know that I work as much as possible from scratch (but don’t be surprised to see some canned ingredients here; I’ll also include a way to be a little more pure, if you are even nuttier than I am, and must do virtually everything from the raw ingredients). When I say contrived, I mean that.
A long time ago, as is always the case when I am cooking something I have never cooked before, and often never eaten before (one of the “joys of cooking” is not reading recipes out of that horrendous collection—revered as it may be; salvation as it may have been to so many neophyte cooks; one of the joys of cooking is deconstructing a dish one has been served, without help, but with one’s analytic skills alone, and figuring out how to replicate it, or at least come up with an acceptable personal variation), a long time ago, probably very long, I read a recipe or two for ratatouille. After that, I’ve always winged it, and I cannot tell you how much is a vestigial remnant of some original recipe, which may have come from Julia Child, or from Larousse—two favorite sources from the period I would have first attempted a ratatouille, probably back in the 70s.
Further, here in Provence, where the ingredients in the summer are always local and always to hand, it’s much easier to just take the best of what looks good at the greengrocer at marché. The other requirement is to make sure the larder or pantry is stocked with at least a few basics that should always be on hand when cooking Provençal.
So the bottom line is, as I head into the recipe proper, this is a very localized version of ratatouille. Localized not only to the Var, not only to the Haut Var on whose edge our village sits, not only to our village (though nobody in the village has anything to do with the genesis of this recipe, but not a few have tasted it), but it’s localized chez nous, to our house… and I say that with neither defiance nor shame.
Universal Almost Foolproof Ratatouille (Provençal Vegetable Stew)
What I think you should have in your larder or pantry (especially if you’re cooking Provençal):
Pepper grinder (with black peppercorns—and, if gilding the lily, another with white, though white peppercorns have a different flavor and less bite and heat; the difference is not only on the palate, obviously, but esthetic, unless you don’t mind the color of pepper, even in a white sauce; personally I don’t mind at all, and it’s a pain to keep white peppercorns on hand)
Sea salt, preferably French, preferably Atlantic: mild, and generally in coarse medium-sized crystals
Green peppercorns, usually in a dilute vinegar solution
Tinned anchovies in olive oil, flat filets and/or flat fillets in salt, either tinned or in a jar
Tomato paste (or as they say in Europe “double concentrated”)
Whole Roma tomatoes, skinned, in their own juice, tinned—one can that has a gross weight of a pound will suffice; if you’re a purist, or prefer fresh ingredients, and you can obtain really good tasting Roma tomatoes, skin and seed about eight or nine medium sized fresh Roma tomatoes and chop very coarsely, and add to the recipe where stated as indicated for the tinned tomatoes
Fresh garlic, whole heads
Yellow onions, either medium or large
Harissa, which is a very hot Tunisian or Moroccan condiment, made mainly from pépins, which are quite hot fresh red peppers, perhaps like serrano, though hotter, and certainly hotter than jalapeño; there are recipes for making your own, but it’s a lot of work—hit the local Middle Eastern market, especially if they make their own (we buy ours in Aups from Chantal, the Olive Lady); it’s also sold under different brands in the foreign food sections of many American markets, either in tins or in tubes. Use it up, or throw it out; it loses its heat, efficacy and flavor very soon after opening.
Cremini mushrooms, medium sized.
Chicken stock, and/or vegetable stock.
Here’s definitely what you’ll need for the ratatouille:
Two medium Italian eggplants (these are smaller variety than the monsters usually sold in the U.S.; I also think they’re more flavorful, easier to work with, and less woody)
Two medium zucchini
Two large red Bell peppers (I wish I could import the local ones that are available everywhere here, even in supermarkets; so much more flavorful, with a musky peppery perfume that you rarely experience in the U.S.)
Celery, in a bunch; you’ll need one stalk of a large-sized bunch
Small amount, say 1/2 cup, of French rosé or white wine; if you use white, you can use a California or Italian dry white
The trick, and the heartache, of this recipe is that you more or less sauté each ingredient separately, store it in a bowl along with the other ingredients to be returned to the sauce pan for final cooking.
Chop one medium to large yellow onion. (with this step and from here on, the directions and the measurements are coarse and approximate at best; if you really need precise measurements, this recipe, and most of my others, are not for you)
Slice at least two large cloves of garlic very thin, as if with a razor. The more garlic the better as far as I’m concerned, but two large cloves are minimal. Chop the slices coarsely.
De-stem and skin the eggplants, and slice into 1/2 inch slices. Line a colander with the one layer of slices, salt that layer generously, and flip the slices and salt again, add another layer, salt that layer on the exposed surfaces, and keep layering in this fashion until you’ve added all the eggplant slices. Cover the last layer with two thicknesses of paper towel, making sure the toweling clings to the surface. Let sit for at least 20 minutes, and no more than a half hour.
Skin the zucchinis. What I like to do with zucchini is to cut it into uneven polyhedrons, not bigger than about 3/4 to one inch in any dimension. This means cutting the zucchini along its length at acute angles, rotating it as you cut, forming these odd shaped objects with many surfaces at varying angles to one another. It’s the closest you’ll come to making round balls out of them, without making yourself crazy.
Cut the stem out of each of the red peppers. Cut each pepper in half, and with a very sharp paring knife, cut away all the whitish pith from the inside. Rinse each half of the peppers under running cold water to get rid of all seeds. With a very sharp knife, cut each half of the peppers into long strips about 3/8 of an inch wide. When all halves are in strips, cut all strips in half width-wise.
Take one stalk of celery (or more, if you really like celery, or none if you don’t) and cut into half-inch slices.
With the mushrooms, again, you’re dealing with an optional ingredient. Use at least a cup and-a-half, but no more than two cups. Cut off the stems, and cut the larger heads in half, or more parts than that if they’re monsters.
Keep each of these ingredients in its own bowl, ready to toss into the sauce pan. Have a large stainless or ceramic bowl handy to accept the cooked vegetables as you finish them.
For each of these ingredients, you will need one to two tablespoons of olive oil for each batch, except the eggplant, which will require three or four, and the mushrooms, which will require four or five. These last two are sponges for oil. The mushrooms will give up whatever oil they absorb once cooked, however, so don’t go crazy with the oil.
Heat the sauce pan (medium sized, probably at least six quart, with a cover) over medium to medium-high heat, depending on the efficiency of your stove’s burner. If it’s a “professional home” stove, use a proportionately lower flame—15,000 BTU burners and higher get quite hot. Add one to two tablespoons of oil while it’s heating up and when the surface of the oil shows it’s hot—it gets kind of roiled, as if a slight wind were blowing across still water—add the onions and garlic and toss, or if you’re not adapt at tossing things in a pan, use a wooden flat bladed spatula to constantly move the ingredients around and get everything coated with oil. Toss occasionally, or mix with the spatula, the onions and garlic should turn translucent and begin to brown around the edges. Probably five minutes of active movement cooking will be enough.
Dump the onions and garlic into the large bowl.
One or two more tablespoons of oil, and once it’s hot, toss in the zucchini. Same deal, only it won’t get translucent, but will soften slightly. The browning is more important. Don’t let it burn, but make sure it browns.
While the zucchini is cooking, remove the paper towel, now soaked with liquid from the eggplant, and rinse the eggplant in cold water. Rinse off all the salt. Keep your eye on the zucchini. Pat dry the eggplant.
While the zucchini continues to cook, cut the eggplant slices into 1/2 inch dice.
When the zucchini is done, dump it into the bowl with the onions and garlic.
Add three to four tablespoons of oil to the pan and when it’s hot, add the eggplant. It will soften and get brown, but keep it moving, little enough to brown, but enough to keep from burning. When it’s done, add to the bowl with the other cooked ingredients.
Add two tablespoons of olive oil to the pan and heat it, and add all the pepper strips. Brown them lightly. Don’t let them get overly limp. Add the cooked peppers to the other ingredients in the bowl.
Cook the optional celery, if desired, with a little oil (even less than the onions), and when lightly browned, add to the other cooked ingredients.
Use four or five tablespoons of olive and heat it for the optional mushrooms, add these to the hot oil and toss constantly. They will first absorb the oil and then begin to brown and then release the oil. With a slotted spoon or drainer, remove the mushrooms and add to the other ingredients once the mushrooms are browned. Don’t let the mushrooms get soft.
If there’s an appreciable amount of oil, say more than a tablespoon, in the pan after removing the mushrooms, drain the excess oil, and return the pan to the stove. The pan should be well coated with a dark brown fond from all the vegetables you’ve cooked in it. Heat the pan, but don’t let it smoke, and add the wine and a splash or two of vodka. You may also add some chicken stock, or vegetable stock, if you’re a purist, as much as 1/4 to 1/2 cup. Turn the heat to high and let the liquids boil rapidly and while they do, scrape the fond from the surfaces of the pan with a flat wooden spatula.
When the liquids have reduced to a very thick syrup, dump the can of tomatoes and their juices into the pan. Leave the heat on high. Mash the tomatoes with the flat blade of the spatula, and get the liquid boiling. Add a couple of pinches of salt and a few grinds of fresh pepper. Turn down the heat to medium, and add the cooked vegetables.
Then add from two to four tablespoons of tomato paste. It’s packed in very small cans in Europe. They’re about two-ounce cans. I add the whole can, scraping out all of it with a silicone rubber spatula.
While the vegetables heat up again (and keep an eye on the pan while you do this) drain the tinned anchovies, and dump the anchovy fillets into a mortar and pestle. If you use salted filets, rinse them thoroughly, shake them dry and dump these into the mortar and pestle. With some force, grind the anchovies into a paste. Do it thoroughly.
Once you have your anchovy paste, dump it into the sauce pan. Add from 1/2 teaspoon to 1-1/2 teaspoons—depending on the volume of vegetables, which is a function of whether you added the celery and or mushrooms—of the harissa to the mix, and blend thoroughly. (Warning: harissa is a very hot condiment; if you’re a spice-a-phobe, don’t add any; and if you do add it, in any amount, don’t blame me if you know what…) You may also add green peppercorns at this time and/or capers, depending on your preference, and the degree of piquancy you like in your ratatouille.
Stir occasionally, and when the whole thing is bubbling, reduce heat to medium-low or low, depending on your stove, cover to keep a simmer, and simmer for at least 10 minutes and probably no more than 20. Stir occasionally. Taste and add salt and pepper if required. Probably not.
Serve very hot over your choice of couscous, or polenta, or rice, or by itself as a side dish.
Can be kept refrigerated for up to a week. If preferred hot, reheat only to the point of serving temperature. Otherwise it’s perfectly good cold or at room temperature.
This is only a basic recipe, remember, so be inventive or experimental.
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