On the Origin of the Picnic

I am having one myself this weekend, so it seems apropos to read this short piece in The New York Times on the origin of the picnic:

The word “picnic,” however, is of more recent vintage. An early mention can be traced to a 1649 satirical French poem, which features the Frères Pique-nicques, known for visiting friends “armed with bottles and dishes.” In 1802, the term made a hop to Britain after a group of Francophiles in London formed a Pic-Nic Society to gorge, guzzle and perform amateur theatricals. Participants drew lots to determine who would supply which dish — from calf’s-foot jelly to blancmange.


Read the rest here.
.

MacDo: On The McDonald’s Franchise in France

Very interesting post at Roads & Kingdoms how the McDonald’s in France caters to local taste:

It’s not quite a bistro, but it’s close. This is McDonald’s as a decidedly more grown-up experience, where hard plastic is traded for leather banquettes, pull-out chairs for angular cushioned stools, and golden arches for burnt sienna and low-lit nooks where couples can steal a quiet moment. You can still find a Big Mac and a box of nuggets here, but they are overshadowed on the menu boards by the bigger stars of the French universe: the McDoo, a warm ham and cheese take on the croque-monsieur, leafy salads that bounce like a Kardashian’s backside, and a line of burgers featuring artisanal French cheeses like Comté and Camembert that McDonald’s rolled out earlier this year.

I had no idea about this trivia:

It may surprise some, but McDonald’s France—called MacDo by the locals—is the highest-grossing McDonald’s market outside of the United States (despite the fact that worker pay, a recent source of controversy in the US, starts around $12—France’s minimum wage). It’s a fun story to tell: the lowbrow American chain that won over the fastidious French. Something about it makes Americans feel like a warm apple pie inside. That’ll show those French snobs! But this didn’t happen by accident. If McDonald’s has found success in France, it’s because in many ways it has become the anti-McDonald’s: The service is warm, the interiors thoughtfully designed, and, above all, the food—from the baguette vessels to the pain au chocolat to the camembert-swaddled patties—is made for French palates.

Next time you find yourself in a McDonald’s in France, make sure to order something else besides the Royale with Cheese.

The Baguette Police in France

An intriguing piece on Bloomberg about how rule-heavy the country of France is. There are rules for determining the height of sidewalk,  to the composition of the concrete used for construction, to the length of baguettes that can be sold at boulangeries:

A French baguette has to measure between 21.6 inches and 25.6 inches, or between 1.8 and 2.1 feet. Civil servants are required to check how windows open and close in the nation’s public buildings.

The 400,000 norms that go to make France France — many of them “absurd” — cost the state more than 500 million euros ($640 million) to implement and need to be reviewed to stop them strangulating the country, a 116-page report said this week.

All of this scrutiny adds up to a big cost:

Rules including those that ensure hotel stairs are bi- colored and that four-year-old children’s public school lunch has the protein equivalent of half an egg and two chicken nuggets have cost France more than 2 billion euros between 2008 and 2011, with more than 700 million euros just for 2011, according to the report.

More here.

###

(via Chris Peacock)

Traversing Provence by Foot

In a blog post titled “Pilgrims in Provence,” Matt Goulding realizes his dream of vising Provence, France.

My first dreams of Provence came as a teenager, when I stumbled across a picture of a local market in one of my mom’s glossy magazines. The village was tiny and cobblestoned, dappled with a gentle light so perfect it looked like it had been painted onto the page. Everything in that picture seemed impossibly vivid: the Technicolor tomatoes and eggplants, the farmers with dirt still crusted on their fingers, the cafe on the side of the plaza with the chalkboard menu listing untold treasures du jour.

That picture drove me wild with wanderlust. I wanted to be there to smell those tomatoes, to pepper those farmers with questions, to wander back to a small country house with nothing but a dog-eared journal and an armful of ingredients. I’ve been carrying those images around in my head for the better part of two decades, waiting for the day when I could transpose them on to reality.

All of this sounds warm and fuzzy and ripe for disappointment, but the great majority of Provencal cliches exist primarily because it is exactly that fairy-tale region you imagine it to be. To paraphrase Bourdain, it’s what Martha Stewart sees when she closes her eyes.

Having spent some time in Provence (mostly in Avignon) a few years ago, this description is apt:

Avignon is the kind of town that brings Provence’s virtues into sharp focus: the old part of town, circumscribed by an ancient city wall, is home to leafy avenues, a sprawling central market housing the building blocks for historic feasts, and the types of cafés you’d sacrifice unspeakable things to have in your neighborhood back home.

On navigation:

No, your best friends in this mysterious new world are the maps you procure from the local Tabacs shops (or from excitable outdoorsmen in Avignon) and the colored lines that mark the trails at every turn: red and white for the GR 6, our path for much of our time in the Luberon, red and yellow for the long-distance GRP trail, and so on. It takes a bit of getting used to, but soon you learn that an x means you’re going the wrong way, that a 90-degree angle indicates an imminent turn, and that the absence of any color at all for more than, say, 100 meters means you’ve gone rogue.

A convincing paragraph on why it’s better to travel on foot than by car/bus:

Maybe it’s the rosé talking, but there is something undeniably magical about approaching a town on foot. You are invariably greeted by a host of intense, deeply conflicting emotions: elation (over the fact that you won’t be sleeping under a rock tonight), exhaustion (because you haven’t exercised this much in many years), hunger (because that pack is heavy and bread and cheese and sparkling wine only go so far) and, above all, wonder (at just how beautiful and poetic it can be to watch a town towering on the horizon grow closer and closer until the road between you and it has disappeared entirely).

A wonderful essay. Highly recommend reading the whole thing.

###

(hat tip: @legalnomads/@MikeAchim)

 

The French Love Their Books

There are two things you don’t throw out in France — bread and books.

That quote is from this New York Times piece detailing how books sales compare in the United States and France:

From 2003 to 2011 book sales in France increased by 6.5 percent. E-books account for only 1.8 percent of the general consumer publishing market here, compared with 6.4 percent in the United States. The French have a centuries-old reverence for the printed page.

There’s also this:

A 59-page study by the Culture Ministry in March made recommendations to delay the decline of print sales, including limiting rent increases for bookstores, emergency funds for booksellers from the book industry and increased cooperation between the industry and government.

One tiny operation determined to preserve the printed book is Circul’livre. On the third Sunday of every month this organization takes over a corner of the Rue des Martyrs south of Montmartre. A small band of retirees classify used books by subject and display them in open crates.

The books are not for sale. Customers just take as many books as they want as long as they adhere to an informal code of honor neither to sell nor destroy their bounty. They are encouraged to drop off their old books, a system that keeps the stock replenished.

 

David Sedaris on Socialized Medicine

Funny man David Sedaris writes about his experience with socialized medicine in this New Yorker piece. The bulk of the focus is his interaction with his dentist and periodontists, but it was the below exchange with his doctor in France that had me laughing out loud:

The last time I went, I had a red thunderbolt bisecting my left eyeball.

The doctor looked at it for a moment, and then took a seat behind his desk. “I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you,” he said. “A thing like that, it should be gone in a day or two.”

“Well, where did it come from?” I asked. “How did I get it?”

“How do we get most things?” he answered.

“We buy them?”

The time before that, I was lying in bed and found a lump on my right side, just below my rib cage. It was like a devilled egg tucked beneath my skin. Cancer, I thought. A phone call and twenty minutes later, I was stretched out on the examining table with my shirt raised.

“Oh, that’s nothing,” the doctor said. “A little fatty tumor. Dogs get them all the time.”

I thought of other things dogs have that I don’t want: Dewclaws, for example. Hookworms. “Can I have it removed?”

“I guess you could, but why would you want to?”

He made me feel vain and frivolous for even thinking about it. “You’re right,” I told him. “I’ll just pull my bathing suit up a little higher.”

When I asked if the tumor would get any bigger, the doctor gave it a gentle squeeze. “Bigger? Sure, probably.”

“Will it get a lot bigger?”

“No.”

“Why not?” I asked.

And he said, sounding suddenly weary, “I don’t know. Why don’t trees touch the sky?”

Hilarious.

If you’ve never read Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day, get yourself a copy immediately.

A Vintage Crime

In the latest issue of Vanity Fair, Michael Steinberger writes a fascinating story about Rudy Kurniawan, a 31-year-old Indonesian transplant living in the United States and producing counterfeit wine. “A Vintage Crime” is a story of a man who sold $35 million worth of wine in 2006, yet just a few months later was begging for loans. A slow rise but a strong fall, as he now faces up to 80 years in jail.

A bit of background:

Beginning in the early 2000s, demand and prices for the rarest wines shot up rapidly, as did the potential payoff from selling fakes. In 2000, wine auctions worldwide grossed $92 million; by last year, that figure had quintupled, to $478 million. The buying frenzy was driven in large part by young collectors in the United States. In contrast to the more buttoned-down Thurston Howell types who had once dominated the auction scene, these new players were distinguished by their insatiable acquisitiveness and eagerness to flaunt their trophy bottles.

No one moved the market more than a twentysomething West Coast collector named Rudy Kurniawan. He first surfaced on the wine scene in the early 2000s. He was reportedly the scion of a wealthy ethnic-Chinese family from Indonesia. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, in 2006, he explained that Kurniawan was an Indonesian surname his late father had given him to protect his identity. He said that his family had business interests in Indonesia and China, but refused to elaborate.

How Kurwinian’s forgery binge began: by getting the empty bottles of the super-expensive wine bottles:

According to John Kapon, he and Kurniawan met at a wine dinner in Los Angeles. In October 2004, they and some acquaintances went on a four-day binge at Cru that became an emblematic moment for the brash new wine culture that had taken hold. By the end of the last evening, the group had consumed a murderers’ row of legendary wines—1945 Mouton Rothschild, 1961 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle, 1971 La Tâche, 1964 Romanée-Conti, 1978 Guigal Côte-Rôtie La Mouline—and racked up a total tab that one participant said was more than $250,000. Kurniawan paid for the whole thing with his American Express Black Card. He also made a curious request of Cru’s staff: he asked that the restaurant send him all of the empty bottles. He made the same request on subsequent visits to Cru, and between 2004 and 2006 the restaurant sent him box after box of empty bottles.

On Kurniawan’s eccentricities:

He often slept until the afternoon and was maddeningly disorganized, habitually arriving late for engagements and seldom paying bills on time. He also had eccentricities: Wilfred Jaeger, a Bay Area wine collector, says that Kurniawan had a habit of falling asleep at tastings; he would suddenly nod off for 20 or 30 minutes before waking up and resuming drinking. Kurniawan’s mother lived with him in Arcadia, and he sometimes brought her to tastings.

Upon his capture:

In addition to thousands of fake labels for wines such as Romanée-Conti, there were dozens of rubber stamps marked with vintages and winery names; a gadget for inserting corks into bottles; California wines whose labels bore handwritten notes suggesting that they would be passed off as Bordeaux; and dozens of bottles in various stages of being converted to counterfeits.

A thoroughly engrossing read. If anything, this story reinforced my belief in how fickle the rare-wine market truly is.

Starbucks and the European Coffee Culture

This New York Times piece illuminates the struggles of Starbucks in Europe, particularly in France:

After eight years spent setting up 63 French Starbucks stores, the company has never turned a profit in France. And even in the parts of Europe where the company does make money, sales and profit growth lag far behind results in the Americas and Asia.

The reason Starbucks is struggling in Europe:

While a New Yorker might grab a coffee to go — carry-out orders are one of the company’s biggest money makers — French friends tend to sit when they sip. So Starbucks is having to invest huge amounts to give its stores in France additional seating space, along with other renovations.

On innovations Starbucks is undertaking in other European countries:

In London, an experiment is under way to take customers’ names with their orders and then address them by name when filling it. Participating patrons get a free coffee, but many others have lit up Twitter with complaints about bogus, American-style chumminess.

Other changes in the way baristas operate — they now keep milk within arms’ reach of the steamer, for instance — are meant to overcome the Continental curse of slow service.

The most visible innovations, though, involve “concept” stores designed to make a Starbucks feel more like a trendy neighborhood shop. Last month in Amsterdam, the company’s chief executive, Howard Schultz, cut the ribbon on a striking space with local woods and avant-garde architecture, including a stage for poetry readings.

My advice? If you go to Europe, head to the local coffee shops. Why pay for something that you can experience in the United States?

Why French Parents are Superior

Pamela Druckerman is an American mother living in Paris with her British husband and two kids. In her book, Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, she offers her thoughts on parenting and comparing how French and Americans parents differ in their techniques and temperaments. The Wall Street Journal has a great excerpt, citing why French parents are superior to American parents:

The French, I found, seem to have a whole different framework for raising kids. When I asked French parents how they disciplined their children, it took them a few beats just to understand what I meant. “Ah, you mean how do we educate them?” they asked. “Discipline,” I soon realized, is a narrow, seldom-used notion that deals with punishment. Whereas “educating” (which has nothing to do with school) is something they imagined themselves to be doing all the time.

One of the keys to this education is the simple act of learning how to wait. It is why the French babies I meet mostly sleep through the night from two or three months old. Their parents don’t pick them up the second they start crying, allowing the babies to learn how to fall back asleep. It is also why French toddlers will sit happily at a restaurant. Rather than snacking all day like American children, they mostly have to wait until mealtime to eat. (French kids consistently have three meals a day and one snack around 4 p.m.)

The author’s impression of the way the French perceive American kids and parents:

[M]ost French descriptions of American kids include this phrase “n’importe quoi,” meaning “whatever” or “anything they like.” It suggests that the American kids don’t have firm boundaries, that their parents lack authority, and that anything goes. It’s the antithesis of the French ideal of thecadre, or frame, that French parents often talk about. Cadre means that kids have very firm limits about certain things—that’s the frame—and that the parents strictly enforce these. But inside the cadre, French parents entrust their kids with quite a lot of freedom and autonomy.

One final point, according to the article: when comparing beliefs of college-educated mothers in the U.S. and France, the American moms said that encouraging one’s child to play alone was of average importance. But the French moms said it was very important. Being alone forces kids to find creative ways to entertain themselves, an essential skill in deferred gratification.

###

See also: Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.

Comparing French and Germany Identity

Francis Fukuyama writes how French and German identities differ:

French national identity is very much built around French language. I always found very impressive that Léopold Senghor, the Senegalese poet, was admitted to the Académie française back in the 1940’s, something that is indicative of the way French see their identity. If you spoke French and if you could write beautiful poetry in French that qualified you for the Académie française. Therefore, that republican sense of identity has underlined French citizenship.

The German case is very different. German national identity evolved very differently from France. Partly due to the fact that the Germans were scattered all over Central and Eastern Europe, the process of German unification required definition of Germanness in ethnic terms. So legally their citizenship law was based on the legal principle of jus sanguinis. You become a citizen not if you are born on German territory, but rather depending on whether you have a German mother. Up until the year 2000, if you were an ethnic German coming from Russia, you could get citizenship far more easily than if you were a 2nd or 3rd generation Turk that had grown up in Germany, spoke perfect German and did not speak Turkish at all. Germans have changed their practice but the cultural meaning of saying I am German is still very different from the cultural meaning of saying I am French. It has a connotation that is more deeply rooted in blood. This means that when Angela Merkel says that multiculturalism has failed in Germany, I think she is only half right. She would be quite wrong to describe that failure one-sidedly as an unwillingness of Muslim immigrants and their children to want to integrate into German society. Part of the failure of integration comes from the side of the German society as well.

I want to say that the majority of the world culture are similar to that of Germany, but I’m just speculating. I’m not certain if there is hard evidence for this question of defining identity.