Hidden Perfections, Global Province Letter, 26 October 2011

Charles De Gaulle Airport-Paris. We arrived at Charles De Gaulle just at the end of Summer and the beginning of Fall. The airport, semi-dreary, hardly honored the last of the giants, General De Gaulle, for whom it was renamed in 1974. It seemed like one of those desperate regional airports that lurk at the borders of the United States. Of course, Kennedy Airport is not that great either, just another of the too many locales tagged with John Kennedy's moniker. Sadly so, since Idlewild, the original name, had such a pleasant ring to it. It meant, we think, a glen of peace and tranquility, a title inherited from the golf course which the airport replaced.

We'd not been for 42 years. The drive into Paris was on unwieldy and mildly ugly highways, filled with Los Angeles-style traffic, followed then by a rather tedious drive through thickened air across some rather commonplace boulevards into the Sixth Arrondisement. It left us in shambles. We took to our bed in a makeshift room while our quarters were readied.

Paris since 1970 has been mishandled by DeGaulle's lesser successors. Back in 1969, the year after the student riots, the place had electricity, and Foreign Legionnaires guarded monuments with submachine guns. Now it has lost both its magic and its majesty. We seem to remember that DeGaulle referred to Kennedy as the last of the great ones. Not so. DeGaulle himself was the last of the great ones. We congratulate President Sarkozy for dreaming of a future great Paris, even if his designs are having a hard time getting off the ground. Just like the Ritz, which is about to undergo a 2-year renovation, the City of Light needs a re-imagining.

Hidden Perfections. Except in their own minds and perhaps in the hearts of Americans abroad, Parisians don't do big well. In fact, it can be safely argued that they don't do the present well, but are supreme masters of the past. By and large, you want to avoid the large hotels and the avant-garde restaurants. But a small, pocket-sized store, a hole-in-the-wall florist, or a boutique such as Kamille of very few dresses offer exquisite charm that Woody Allen tries to invoke in his Midnight in Paris. The petite and the past have their advantages.

The imbroglio over the bells at Notre Dame very much makes the point. The bells in question, four in the northern towers, were installed in the 19th century: they are worn out now and discordant. To boot, they were never quite right. Now they are to be replaced, over the protests of those who would protect even the flawed past, by finely struck new bells that perfectly mimic the beautiful 17th century originals. The past past wins out. Here is how the new beauties (Angélique-Françoise, Antoinette-Charlotte, Hyacinthe-Jeanne and Denise-David) will sound. Twill be a beautiful summoning up of the past..

We ourselves are partial to city gardens, but are not that taken with the Luxembourg and the Versailles. We think instead that Elaine Sciolino, onetime bureau chief of the Times in Paris and now a Paris freelancer, got it right in her "Hidden Gardens of Paris."  She may have missed some of the best, but her selection is pleasing enough. Now and again, private gardens are opened to the public, each revealing the state of mind of their owners, and we took some in this September. Patrick Blanc, garden decorator on the walls of buildings the world around, is renowned for the Musee du quai Branley in Paris. The gardens of Paris at their best are tapestries that adorn locations which otherwise might seem bereft and lonely. In some sense, Parisians are interior and exterior decorators of a world that would otherwise seem like skin and bones. Fashion, as with the sauces that cover French food, is meant to remedy imperfection.

The Side Streets of Paris. We hung about the 6th Arrondisement and environs (especially the 7th and 5th) this trip. Four decades had moved us off the Right Bank onto the Left. There one discovers, tucked away, two streets full of perfect treats with shops and other delights sculpted to the human scale: Rue du Bac and Rue du Cherche Midi. If Paris as a whole has lost its enchantment, it is on paths such as these that the charm and the esthetic still adhere. The marvelous Deyrolle, or Ryst-Dupeyron, which is a wisp of a wine store focusing on Bordeaux and Burgundies where you can find a half bottle of Chateau Margaux your host will appreciate, suddenly rear up on du Bac. After countless visits to the shops, one retires to the Square des Missions Étrangères, a restful park where mothers chatter and children crawl about in play. A space revived, it is a hidden garden many miss. Du Bac and surrounding areas are nicely celebrated in a recent American blog that provides a graphic tour of the 7th and more.

Behind the venerable Hotel Lutetia lies Rue Cherche Midi. There, to escape the hotel, of a morning, you can go to Poilâne for very fresh bread and apple tarts and then onto Il Bisonte for pleasing leather wear. There are so many women's shoe shops along the way that we are now convinced that Paris has a foot fetish such that magasins des chaussures seem to outnumber restaurants. Several blocks past Raspail, just when you think there may be no more store fronts, Bistro & Terroir appears, but just, so that you may skip past it if you are not looking. The Côte de Cochon Fermier is not to be missed and so, too, the terrines. The Baba au Rhum is of a higher order, the rum with beans as you pour it, making the whole feel country rustic.

None of these small streets are copycats of one another. The stores not only harp on artistry but combine it with chic, individualized marketing that is slowly becoming the hallmark of the post-industrial era. Enterprises with ultra crafted goods, a boutique quirky atmosphere, and jolly video graphics are to become the developed nations' response to global tough markets in which low-cost nations such as China can knock one's products off the shelf if uniformity and price are to be the only criteria for purchasers. It is a lesson many of the French have begun to learn well, and the Aux Etats Unis would do well to take instruction from them. Kamille, mentioned above, with its tiny but well-chosen collection of multi-national designed clothing and surprising website, exemplifies this point in spades.

As our colleague has said elsewhere, an occasional grand restaurant such as Taillivent is delightful theater, but it is the small eateries such as Yam'tcha or small hotel or small museum such as Baccarat, each down some inconspicuous passageway, that offers an indelible memory.

Our Debt to France. David McCullough, the historian who is out most recently with The Great Journey: Americans in Paris, thinks in general that we pass too easily over France when tracing the currents, particularly cultural and intellectual, that have put us where we are today. In the nineteenth century, as McCullough explains:

"if you wanted to know truly how to become a painter or an architect or a top ranked physician, you wanted to know anything about opera or the ballet, if you wanted to write in an atmosphere where literature and poetry and writers were taken very seriously, you went to Paris,' he said in explaining why so many ambitious and now-famous Americans made what he calls in his title 'the greater journey' in the mid-1800s.
At that time, France led the world in art and architecture schools, public parks and opera houses. But it was not only the arts. Paris also offered opportunities that Americans could not find at home. America had nothing comparable to the advanced hospitals or the École de Médecine in Paris. There were many engineering and public works lessons for Americans to learn from Frenchmen as different as Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann (the designer of the sewers and wide boulevards that opened up 19th-century Paris as the world's most modern city) and Gustave Eiffel, whose eponymous tower is only the best-known of his extraordinary new engineering uses of steel."

That was then. And now is now. Today the valuable colloquy we would have with France would be of a different nature. No longer should an architect go there for a Beaux Arts education. But we should imbibe the heady brew that compels some Frenchmen to pursue painstaking quality in enterprises of manageable scale where one has to manage a very selective supply chain which may reach into Brittany or Iran for vital ingredients and to follow a complex production process that allows no shortcuts. This confounds most of the world of global commerce that worships the fellow who can slice yet more out of the product while ever raising his prices. The best Parisien dialogue is about how to be stubborn about one's values and to offer unique value at every turn. The products of stubborn quality cannot be imitated by the slicer and dicers.

 For the French, on the other hand, the task is to learn what they don't know. Wonderfully and provincially assured, both at the top and at the bottom, the people of Lutetia don't know what they don't know. This blindness of mind happens in small, wonderful places. The United States, in contrast, offers an incredible mishmash of knowledge just waiting for those who would pick the grapes.

P.S. One is constantly reminded of smallness in Paris. Look across a crowded room and the assembled Frenchmen will seem short, perhaps stocky, and occasionally wide of face. The elevators at the Hotel Lutetia are compact: one is so intimate, in fact, that you will know your girl friend much better after taking a spin in it. The new mini cars are favorites of many Parisians. The glasses in a number of hotels hold very small drinks, indeed. Traffic during morning delivery hours may get caught in a street for 15 minutes while a deliveryman delivers his goods, there being no room to pass.

P.P.S. Baron Haussmann's Parisian boulevards, designed to ward off riots and such by the rabble, remind us of some of the big spoke streets in Washington, D.C. Washington, of course, has the second worst traffic in the United States, and, as we have said, Paris is not a great car journey. Capital-istic gridlock.

P.P.P.S. Leaving Paris, we took happier streets out through the 14th and avoided much of the worst parts of the highways. Circuitous works well. We often found ourselves taking routes that would avoid what otherwise was the longest time-distance between two points---a straight line.

P.P.P.P.S. Currently the chefs' chef in Paris is Pierre Gagnaire who has a restaurant in the Hotel Balzac of the same name. We think the chef mafia is worshipping a false god. The best thing we had there is the wine, a Savigny-Les-Beaune. Gagnaire's sort of France's own attempt at the new chemical-liquid cuisine, with sporadic successes and a lot of failures. As we have said, France does not do today well. A horde of unpracticed waiters are much in one's face, the check is unsupportable, and the clientele is shabbily dressed. Our aftertaste lasted we think 30 hours.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Americans have given France in other times grapes of a more literal sort. When the French vines were struck by devastating disease, America's came to the rescue. Various rootstocks were grafted in order to achieve resistance to phylloxera.


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