A Stinking, Watery Brew

It’s funny when you’re living in Italy and you’re entering a Starbucks – almost everything on offer has an Italian name, from the cappuccino to the caffè americano, and the menu tells you that it’s all made with ‘espresso coffee’, whatever that means, but none of what they have on offer is remotely Italian.

I have never seen a Starbucks in Italy. I don’t think there are any, simply because the Italian coffee culture is very popular in it’s own right. A Starbucks wouldn’t last a week here – maybe in Rome they could try, just to serve the millions of American tourists, but not out here on the edge of Europe. Italians prefer a bar, a quick espresso or ristretto (betcha didn’t know that one, ya barbarians!) on the fly, without sitting down, or a longer pause with a newspaper and maybe a dolce to accompany their choice of coffee.

Last week in Paris I had that craving for good coffee; the French generally don’t know how to make that and ask extortionist prices for their brew. I entered a Starbucks, thinking that a chain which makes coffee their business would at least serve me something decent. Maybe not Italian, but drinkable, pleasurable, close to what I was used to in Holland perhaps. Which, by Italian standards, is still acqua colorata – coloured water.

What I got after ordering a caffè americano, which in Italy is an espresso with a bit too much water in a larger cup, was a fastfood style bucket with a ‘travel lid’, containing a hot brown liquid – about half a liter of it.

I lifted the lid to add sugar and was greeted by a rather unpleasant yet hard-to-describe stench – somewhere between boiled cardboard and soggy shoes. Although that wasn’t very inviting, I did take a sip. And that triggered a memory.

Once, as a boy, I worked in the workshop of the furniture shop where my father was interior designer. I shared lunch and coffee breaks with the craftsmen and in the afternoon they made tea with the same coffee machine they used for coffee in the morning, which inevitably resulted in cups of scalding hot water with a slight taste of coffee, completely overwhelming whatever tea was in there as well. And that’s what Starbucks caffè americano tasted like. Albeit that the furniture shop ‘tea’ was not in the least bit smelly.

Perhaps Starbucks’ ‘frappuccinos’ or whatever the hell it is they sell with whip cream and fancy flavourings are actually a delight. But they market themselves as coffee makers and serve a stinking, watery brew in a cardboard cup. Which probably also serves as basis for their fancier stuff – and that just about tells me enough.

No matter how often Starbucks uses the word ‘handcrafted’ on their site as if they chisel their damn coffee from blocks of wood or marble – it’s the worst few sips of machine sludge I’ve ever had. If the future of food and drink enjoyment is in these giant chains with their standardized tastes and standardized recipes, we’re about to enter the Dark Age.

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Tourist Menu

There you are with your little guide book for Paris – you’re hungry and you’re tired and you could eat a horse. And so you join the crowd of weary tourists from all over the world and circle the streets and boulevards of the Quartier Latin in search of a restaurant. There are many of them and they have everything from traditional French cooking to Lebanese snacks or sushi. Your legs hurt. Your stomach rumbles. Your throat is dry. The mood is getting a bit prickly. Let’s just sit down here and have whatever it is they’re serving, shall we?

I feel we have eaten everywhere, from the Relais de l’Entrecôte where they serve only one dish – entrecôte with fries and their ‘special’, even ‘famous’ sauce which looks like the cook had a runny nose and doesn’t taste at all special – to the restaurant on the grounds of the Versailles castle, where I had a Pizza Margherita from the freezer, with ham (there is no ham on a Margherita). It did cost nine euros, anyway (by comparison: a fresh Margherita here in Italy, made-while-you-wait in a wood-fired stone oven with fresh ingredients, costs about three and a half euros. And they’ll ad ham for you if you really must). In between, as noted yesterday, I was served a variety of slabs of meat with sauce and potatoes, be it a reasonable Boeuf Bourguignon with steamed ‘taters in a brasserie near the Eiffel Tower or a piece of undefinable meat with spongy bits of lard covered in a sauce from the restaurant wholesaler with unsalted fries, somewhere in the bowels of the city.

Anyone telling you they had such fantastic food in Paris is either lying, very experienced in the city or not used to any quality cooking at all. You will eat dead animals in slop (or even without slop), served with usually a rather tacky sort of politeness, if it’s not too busy. But we did find three places which served a very good meal, and two of them in the same small street near metro station Odéon, for your convenience. Don’t worry where exactly – just follow the herd of travellers with the munchies and you’ll get there.

First of all there’s restaurant Old Kashmir (yes, it has an English name) in the rue Grégoire de Tours, which promises Indo-Pakistani specialties. Okay, so the guy at the door tries to talk you in and that’s not something everyone likes (I certainly do not), but once inside it started good when a family of obvious Indian descent compliments the waiter with the food. We ordered a heavy but very tasty meal served by a funny and friendly Pakistani. Rice, sauces, meats, salads, the whole nine yards, and for normal Parisian prices. And spicy here is spicy – not the usual toned-down European version. Definitely worth a visit if you’re as tired of the brasserie style dinners as I was.

In the same street, some nights later, we dropped in at La Citrouille, expecting yet another less-than-mediocre tourist meal. And it was dead-cow-with-a-sauce, definitely, and yes there were potatoes, too, but that was actually a well-prepared piece of meat. The wine they served was above average for what we’d come to expect and I think it was here that I had a crêpe (pancake) with honey and vanilla ice for dessert which was absolutely to die for. For once we had the feeling of not being ripped off.

Restaurant La Citrouille, Paris VIe

Restaurant La Citrouille, Paris VIe

On the last day we did the unthinkable and entered an Italian restaurant near our hotel – unthinkable because usually restaurant owners will adapt the recipes to local taste which may not at all be to the taste of people used to real Italian cooking like us. But the pizzas were not from the freezer – they were delicious and fresh, made in the style of Rome (which is thicker than the Neapolitan style). The spaghetti (which we did not have) was not served with the sauce neatly on top, which causes the pasta to stick together in a big clump really fast, as is the custom in many countries, but it was properly mixed in. The wine was good Italian wine, the staff was Italian and friendly and the ambiance was modern, without any of the tacky green-white-and-redness you expect from what is after all basically a pizzeria. Not a single plastic grape in sight! And so, we also recommend Villa Borgese on rue Bréa, which you’ll find where Boulevard Raspail and Boulevard du Montparnasse cross – the metro to Vavin will get you there.

Bon appétit, and try not to fall into any tourist traps!

Impressions of Paris

So what’s the big deal with Paris, then? Sure, there’s the monuments, but if you realize that almost all of Paris was built in the 18th century or later, it’s not really an old city you’re looking at – at least not by European measures. Then there’s those famous boulevards which are nothing more than rather busy and long streets with block after block of standardized Hausmann-style buildings. After one week you realize where the Soviets got their ideas for cityscaping. It’s all grey and white, all wrought-iron balconies and wooden shutters, all broad and bombastic – and all monotonous and repetitive. And you cringe when you realize how much of the original Paris was mercilessly torn down to create this grand style with it’s endless lines of vision. It feels very artificial indeed.

So, apart from the obvious attractions like the Eiffel Tower and the Notre Dame, what is it with Paris then? It cannot be the food. I am sure that you can have fantastic dinners in Paris, but you and I are tourists and we do not know where to go. And so you end up in Saint-Germain-des-Prés with the rest of the worn-out travellers (Paris means walking until your feet hurt – and then some) and eat in the tourist traps. You’ll pay way too much for the next bit of mediocre or even suspect meat, neatly hidden under an ‘exclusive’ sauce, and lined with potatoes – fried, steamed, boiled or baked, you shall have potatoes. Or try the chicken – we’ve had one that was bone dry and devoid of any seasoning at all at the Place du Tertre in Montmartre. With potatoes as a side dish, of course. Meat, sauce and potatoes – after a few days I refused even to enter a brasserie. And so, two of our three best meals were not French cuisine at all, but Italian and Kashmiri – about which more in the next blog.

Is it the women then? Countless songs have been written about the girls of Paris, ever since the city has been surrounded with that ooh-la-la nonsense of the Folies Bergères and the Moulin Rouge. But the women of Paris all seem to aspire a career in classical ballet with their slender silhouettes and their ballet academy student wardrobe. That’s fine when you’re under 35 but above that it gets ridiculous really fast. And what’s in the shops of Paris was in the shops of southern Italy last year. Which means that it’s probably two years out of step with what’s for sale in Milan.

So what’s it with Paris? Mostly the idea that it’s Paris and that you must see it. If you go, bring a well-filled wallet because prices are steep, don’t save space for any of that fashion which isn’t fashion and plan ahead where you are going to eat, to avoid the dead-cow-with-slop syndrome. And watch this space for the final verdict on that fabled French cuisine.

Paris

Tomorrow we’ll be flying to Paris for a short holiday, which means this blog won’t be updated for about a week. It will be a challenge to speak French again after stumbling my way through the Italian language for almost a year, but I’m looking forward to my second visit of this great city. At heart – and by birth – I’m a city slicker, and revisiting Paris after having seen Rome should be interesting.

Until then, au revoir!

The Sons Of Cham And The Daughters Of Muhammad

I remember – and I hope that I’m not the only one – that South Africa was excluded from competing in the Olympics because of their Apartheid policy. Apparently there was a time when sport and politics did mix, and there were no objections to that. Well – not from anyone but the White South African community of course. From 1960 to 1992, no South Africans represented their own country at the Olympics.

So if excluding black people from your Olympics team is reason for the IOC to exclude you, how about excluding women from your team? And don’t give me that nonsense about religion and culture – the South African Boere used religion as an excuse to explain their Apartheid (claiming that the blacks were the ‘sons of Cham’ cursed by Noah) and it was very much a part of their culture, too. Nobody, however, really gave a damn about their explanations. And rightfully so.

Right now, Saudi Arabia and Brunei are the only two countries excluding women from competing in the Olympics on the grounds that they consider women participating in sports sinful. Imagine that – even Iran has sent women, and one of them carried the flag. Undoubtedly that was mainly a gesture to critics, but there she was: rower Homa Hosseini. And really, nobody should give a damn about this supposed sinfulness. We all know that women are suppressed because it’s convenient for men – God doesn’t enter into it at all.

Wajeha Al-Huwaider, who earlier made a video about women driving, has issued a YouTube video pleading for an end to the ban, claiming that one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad used to practice sports. She deserves respect for what can only be described as acts of bravery. And when all of us are so hell bent on seeing Tibet liberated, surely we can exert some pressure on the IOC to ban nations which practice gender discrimination.

But with Prince Nawaf Bin Faisal Bin Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz in the IOC, do we stand a chance?

Satire Does Not Rhyme With Fire

Somehow the Dutch – never a country with a great sense of humour to begin with – have lost their idea of what is funny and what is not. This week saw the unfolding of a scandal around leftwing MP Wijnand Duyvendak who, in the eighties, had been part of tough actions against nuclear energy; the house of a senior civil servant in the Ministry of Economics has apparently been firebombed after a young Duyvendak published the address in a protest pamphlet.

In reaction to his party’s defense of Duyvendak’s past actions, blogger and columnist Rikus Spithorst wrote (under a pseudonym) that he “…would appreciate it highly if someone would […] find out the home address of [Party leader] Femke Halsema and then […] torch the place. The bitch doesn’t deserve any better.

I won’t get into further details – Dutch readers can find more here. What concerns me most is that Spithorst had the nerve to call his column ‘satire’. But satire – in Dutch as well as in English – works through wit and is it very witty to point your finger and say “They should do the same thing to her”? I guess it’s not. I would call that rage rather than satire, especially if you add that the bitch doesn’t deserve any better.

Somewhere in the last ten years the humour got lost. Intelligent, witty stuff is almost nowhere to be found and the greatest successes can be booked when you dare make the boldest remarks. Spithorst, a fiftysomething guy writing for a decidedly more juvenile audience, is just one of the sorry crop of unhumourous guys – he is a spokesperson for a club of disgruntled public transport users, how unhumourous can you get! – riding that wave on the internet. But when charges are pressed for inciting violence, these characters crawl out from under their rock and claim satire.

You know what, Rikus? Get an education. Get a dictionary. Better still – get a life. Preferably off-line.

Putins Cold Dream

When you clear the smoke from the battlefields in Georgia you can clearly see a truth missed by a lot of the Western mainstream media: Saakashvili started this sorry episode himself, hoping that the Russians wouldn’t retaliate against an attack on their legitimate peacekeepers in the region, or that his newfangled Western friends would come to the rescue. The Georgians would do right to kick him out of office as the man who brought them to the brink of an unwinnable and probably very dirty war.

The media in the West have switched to Cold War rhetoric surprisingly quickly, and not a few American politicians of the older generation – among which Presidential candidate John McCain – are more than happy to follow suit. This can only please the likes of Russian prime minister and de facto leader Vladimir Putin, since he seems to have decided long ago that a return to the Cold War is the only way to give Russia it’s Soviet-era feeling of importance back.

It’s not surprising that in Russia nationalists wave the sickle and hammer – once the symbol of the international brotherhood of Communists, it has become the symbol of rightwingers who feel robbed of their glory. Putin is all too happy to comply, first by going just a bit too far in response to the crisis in South Ossetia and then by threatening troop movements into (independent!) Belarus and the Kaliningrad region in reaction to an American defense program in Poland. The old Soviet sphere of influence is still an issue in Moscow. Even European Union membership of former client or Soviet states is always a bone of contention – and the EU is not a military alliance at all.

Putin knows he needs an enemy – like any autocratic ruler does – and he knows that the Russians, fed on a diet of seventy years of relentless anti-western propaganda, are ready to believe that the enemy is still NATO or the US. And it’s as if our media and politicians have breathed a sigh of relief: finally, back to the good old days of right and wrong, black and white, friend and enemy.

We, however, had better not go along with Mr. Putins scheme.