Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Living High off the Hog

“Gladly Lerne, Glady Teche” is threatening to turn into another travelblogue. In principle I cannot object to this development. Travel is among the most authentic of learning experiences, and it certainly offers any teacher unparalleled opportunities. But this blog has pretensions of redeeming intellectual purpose transcending yet another candid shot of Madge and me at the beach. (And don’t be confused, alarmed, or hopeful. “Madge” comes from a Thurber cartoon, or somewhere.) Yet again I must share a word or two about this week’s travels and warn you that next Wednesday I shall be computerless, happily exploring the Holy Land under the guidance of my son-in-law Zvi. I’ll hope to post something on Friday, December 4.

Joan and I just had a wonderful three days in and around the village of Salernes (Var), in the south, where we visited our old friends Andrew and Edith Seth. There is something uniquely precious about old friends. Andrew reminded me, as he tossed a piece of an ancient tree limb into the hearth, of a wonderful apothegm of old Francis Bacon: “Old wood is best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old authors to read. “

The adjective “old” here refers of course to the friendship, not the friends. We have all known each other since our Oxford days half a century ago. We have known each other longer than we have been married, and there are not many who fall into that category. Andrew and I were at Jesus College together and even, as I recall, successive presidents of the Junior Common Room. I’ve been trailing ever since. Andrew went on to become the CEO of Unilever (GB); I went on to become one of the world’s pre-eminent experts on medieval Franciscan literature. Therein in revealed the salient sociological distinction between people who own houses in the south of France and people who have friends who own houses in the south of France.

We didn’t do a whole lot except hang out, walk a little, and sit around the fire reading books. The Seths have a sensible rule about the seashore—don’t go anywhere near it between April and August. Since it was November, however, we took a delightful little spin over to Saint-Tropez. (I’m trying to sound casual.) It was a beautiful day, with a sparkle everywhere. Andrew tells me that there are two kinds of people in Saint-Tropez—the haves, and the have-yachts. The latter are so numerous that from the main jetty one cannot actually see the bay, the view toward which is entirely blocked by skyscraping pleasure-craft with Cayman Island registrations. As to the famous swimming beaches of Saint-Tropez, where rock stars and rusticating politicians party through the night on the Quatorze Juillet—ah, there it was a different story! The Seth Doctrine proved its worth. We had the beaches entirely to ourselves. In fact, here’s a picture of Madge and me on the beach at Saint-Tropez. Actually, come to look a little closer, that would be Andrew, Joan, and Edith on the beach. I must have been holding the camera.

We then puttered over to Sainte-Maxime and a fine latish lunch (healthy salads for the ladies, moules marinières for the old Jesuits). Old friends, old books, old wine—but as fresh as fresh can be on the moules front.

I do have a serious episode to explore—the discovery and exploitation of the beautiful library of the Fondation Calouste Gulbenkian in its fabulous palazzo in the rue de Iéna. But you know about me and libraries. It will take a whole blog to do justice to this topic. In the meantime I’ll try to sneak a few shots of the library interior—and even better, of the librarians.

But as we are all facing the Thanksgiving ordeal tomorrow, I had perhaps best close with gastronomy. Last night, when our number-one son Richard arrived from Munich to celebrate Thanksgiving before moving on the next day to give a talk at the British Academy, Joan and I wanted to treat him to dinner. As there are only about two hundred thousand great restaurants in our immediate neighborhood, Rich thought it best for to schlep halfway across town to one of his favorite haunts, the Verre Volé, over on the edge of the Canal Saint-Martin near the Place de la République. There is a kind of Parisian bistro too hip even to be “discovered” by hippest of Anglophone food critics writing for airlines magazines, and this was one of them. It’s run by young people—cheerful, smiling, friendly, easy-going young people. They must have got their restaurant license by mistake. One of the guys wears a sweatshirt that says “Muhammed Ali”. (Another guy simply looks like Muhammed Ali). The place, which has room for maybe fifteen people, is encased in bottles of “organic” wine. They do all the cooking on a glorified hot plate. They offer you a choice of about three things that they decided to cook that night. In short, very cool. So, what to eat?

There is a reason that such useful expressions as “the gravy-train” and “porkbarrel spending” play such an important role in the political lexicon. Pork is by its very nature yummy and transgressive, and of all gravies pork gravy is the yummiest and greasiest. Anybody who grew up in the country knows this; and despite the fact that there is precious little country left, the memory of a vanished agrarian simplicity continues to command the depleted metaphoric vocabulary and the annoying moral theology of our politicians. Pork is precisely what the American people want from their elected representatives. Try for a moment to imagine a reforming president threatening to veto a bill “until every last bit of falafel has been cut out of it.” Perhaps you remember, as I do, Barak Obama, Man of the People, sympathizing with the electors of Iowa over the cresting price of—arugula! Let me ask you this: how much arugula would it take to secure Senator Landrieu’s vote on an important piece of legislation? You know there is not enough arugula in the world to do that. Some measley millions in pork, on the other hand—a done deal!

When you have really made a meal for yourself, what is the phrase you use to describe the experience? Well, I’ll tell you the phrase you don’t use. You don’t say, “Boy did I ever yoghurt out!” No, the correct term is pig out. Such porcine thoughts arise not merely because I am a Razorback but because half of my family keeps kosher, often making me the beneficiary of a diet delicious and salubrious, but definitely porkless. Hence I tend to make the most of such opportunities as may arise to eat as the other half eats. Well, among the four entrées (actually reduced to three by the time we came to order) was something called “carne de cochon”. Carne de cochon? How gastronomically incorrect can you be? Well, the name tells it all. Gross and glorious. I do have one suggestion for the restauranteurs. I think that every gourmand ordering this dish might conveniently be supplied with a three by five card. On the one side might be printed a brief reminder about the basic chops for the Heimmlich Manoeuver. On the other side would be a blank prescription, awaiting only a qualified medical signature, for Lipitor.