Tag Archives: France

☕️ ☕️☕️☕️ The Decline of Coffee and Other Observations in the Time of the Great Recession (Part 4 – USA)

A round-about return to (The Great France Art Tour of 2017)

Times were hard. We were about a year into settling back at the office in New Jersey, 2008 – 2009, just in time to see the world economies stumble, waver, and in parts, collapse into the Great Recession.

It started of course, in the USA, where the greed-crazed finance sector was addicted to mortgage-backed-securities. The “sucker was going down” to paraphrase our now-much-more-appreciated President Bush.

Keep in mind, “boom and bust” cycles were all too familiar in the ever-changing-if-not-improving IT world. One year the whole sales force has to have Blackberries. Train. Staff up. A few years later the Executives want everyone to switch to iPhones. Then there’s a merger. Layoffs. Every few years we had to shrink, eliminate waste, clean house, prove our value to the rest of the company. One President wants to make his mark by putting the whole business on SAP, sells the company, and the next CEO pushes to change the entire mail system. Next merger, or spin-off, the cycle would repeat, and before everyone is laid off again and the dust has settled, we have to migrate to the new parent company’s different Quality system, or mail system, or operating platform. It didn’t matter how many millions of dollars were spent so long as the current Man in Charge could lay claim to a big change before moving on to his next takeover.

But the Great Recession was worse than the typical boom and bust. Without dwelling on it too much, there were many layoffs. At the amazing, incredible shrinking New Jersey office we even lost a few people from our relatively small and mostly essential basement IT team.

These losses were called “synergies”—insensitive, euphemistic business jargon used to create a positive spin on FIRED—where people are told they no longer have a job because the company has to cut costs somewhere and YOU are one of the places we are cutting.

“At least you still have a job!” Was a common refrain. If you did. And in the hallways and lunchroom and restrooms, people speculated when is the “next wave” of layoffs? And who would still be there in a month or two?

Those who remained were expected to be grateful, and not complain if they were supposed to now work harder, take on more responsibility, perform “lower level” tasks, and so on. Which in some bizarro fashion, was really no different than what was expected of the worker bee class (in IT, at least) during “normal” times! If you already worked late, if you already worked on weekends, if you already took late night support calls to assist some executive who forgot his password, or dropped his laptop in a Palm Springs swimming pool, what more could you do? Well, as we shall see, for starters, you could be grateful that you were still able to do all that fun stuff, and maybe? Take out your own trash and use less toilet paper?

Still, after our successful installation journeys to Japan and Taiwan, word got out about those lucky colleagues in the Pacific Rim with their magnificent coffee machines, and for those managers who remained in New Jersey, and as a distraction from the growing crisis, a certain amount of nationalist rivalry ensued. Which brings us finally to what might be re-named, the Decline of Coffee and Toilets in the USA in the Time of the Great Recession.

Not to be outdone by international rivals, our New Jersey Manager of Office Operations, “Nick”, looked for a solution to provide an equivalent coffee service, a way to let the surviving employees know they were appreciated, and that if they needed access to stimulants to stay motivated and carry on with their additional responsibilities, then the COMPANY was behind them.

Before this time, in the U.S. office anyway, there had been no coffee. Strange as that seems. Many years before, we had an old-fashioned “Mister Coffee” in our roomy cafeteria, which was okay, but that had been gone for years. It disappeared about the same time that the large cafeteria was converted into office cubes, and the small locker room was converted into a smaller cafeteria. (Nick was the mastermind of that conversion.)

Some managers discouraged people from leaving the bland, monotonous, grey walled, industrial building with its chemical smells and noise during work hours, but they also considered it “excessive” to provide coffee just to entice employees to stick around. As a result, whole teams, small groups, and individuals frequently escaped on breaks and lunch to get both fresh air and coffee at the local Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks.

Nick was respected by upper management for his cost-cutting. Shortly after the first painful reduction (this is another euphemism, it means job elimination, lay off, mass firing) of one third of the workforce at our location, Nick famously introduced a number of innovations.

• First he canceled the subscription to a bottled spring water service, replacing the bottle-topped coolers with headless “water stations” that filtered the chlorine, and killed the bacteria with UV light. If the employees wanted Spring water, they could find their own spring, but at the office there was tap water that was free of bacteria! No big bottles, no expensive deliveries, no monthly fees for the corporation!

• Nick cut the custodial staff in half, which meant there were two custodians left, who, due to that reduction, discontinued vacuuming floors—except for the offices in the “Executive Suite”—four of which were now conveniently unoccupied from the layoffs. Nick’s improvement also eliminated the daily emptying of trash and recycling receptacles in offices, (except for the Executive Suite). The Director of Operations posted happy little signs around the building reminding the demoralized employees, “It’s your trash, you take it out! 😃” Executives approved.

• Next Nick went after the paper towels in the restrooms, replacing them with a much lighter, thinner, flimsier, and cheaper paper towel. Unfortunately, since the new towels tended to disintegrate on contact with water, two or three times as many towels were required to dry hands, and shredded towel remnants littered the floor. But no worries, the “custodial staff” – she could clean those up.

“Cheaper towels” was praised by Country President, Jureet Wariri, at an all-staff meeting which could now take place (with room to spare) in the small cafeteria, as a brilliant, “outside the box” solution! Wariri challenged the surviving employees to come up with their own ideas and submit them to Nick.

One employee dropped into Nick’s office and suggested that a modified toilet with bidet attachment, or a “Bidet toilet” was not only technically innovative (setting a good example for a high tech company), but also required fewer flushes, much less toilet paper and could save money. The conversation included explanations of the public toilets at the Tokyo office, and the Superlet and similar toilets at the hotels in Taiwan. This unsung employee even pointed out that although the bidet was invented by the French, in fact the “bidet toilet” was invented by an Americanand Americans being a fussy, uptight Protestant bunch—it never sold in America, so it had been licensed to a Japanese company! Wouldn’t it be great to bring this American invention back to America?

“Toilet paper? Toilet paper?” Nick thought.

Pointing out why this “bidet thing” would not work—too much investment, too much work, too much change to be asked of any American—Nick dismissed the employee but lingered on one small scrap of the idea. “Toilet paper??” Nick zeroed in on the toilet paper. Riffing off his other paper-themed successes, he hit on the least popular cost-saving effort yet with the workers, and another “ball out of the park” with management: the switch to a low grade toilet paper. A toilet paper that was coarse, rough, abrasive to the touch, so stiff that it resisted crumpling. It was so cheap and so uncomfortable that spoiled employees would rather wait than use it!!

Once again, this “improvement” was implemented everywhere (but not in the Executive washrooms). The executives continued to use softer toilet paper until their private supply was exhausted, coincidentally, just about the time the financial crisis eased. Among the remaining employees, there was much grumbling about the change, but the abrasive policy persisted. Employees found their own workarounds. Years later it was not uncommon to discover a smuggled roll of soft and durable high quality toilet paper in the back of a filing cabinet or stashed in a bottom desk drawer.

The international challenge was declined in the restroom, but in the lunchroom? Into this newly lean, newly empty lunchroom, Nick introduced not a Keurig, not a Nespresso, and definitely not a “Mr. Coffee”, but in fact a mechanical coffeemaker, similar to the French hotel version, that looked and operated much like the jukebox you might find in the Greek Diner up the road on Route 22. For the first month, employees were offered this stale, bland, watery coffee for FREE. After the trial period, the employee was required to insert coins and pay $.85 to $1.15 (depending on choices made and buttons pushed) for the brown dishwater-like concoction.

On the first potentially fee-producing day, Nick proudly walked into the cafeteria at lunch time for a promotional chat with the staff. Before anyone mentioned the coffee machine, Nick (not a coffee drinker by the way) enthusiastically asked, “Have you tried it? Cappuccino for $1.15! It’s great for our employees! Go ahead, try it!! There is NO REASON to go to Starbucks!!”

Nobody said anything. They wouldn’t want to be ungrateful. People stared at the ground, nodding insincerely. Nick returned to his office to sit in his big chair and look at his bulletin board. He had printed and posted the latest “Email of Praise” from President Wariri, proclaiming Nick a “Thought Leader and True Champion of Company Cost-Cutting, determined to save the company and lead it successfully into the next decade.” This was Nick’s legacy, and he was proud.

Once Nick had left the cafeteria, the employees shuffled out the back door as they always had, piled into their SUVs and drove to the local Starbucks, about two blocks away, to speak freely and have a decent cup of coffee. Neither the Starbucks nor the Dunkin’ Donuts seemed to suffer in the least from the Corporate Coffee Jukebox. If anything, the stores gained some new and regular customers.

And you know the rest. Business gradually returned to the normal boom-and-bust-and-takeover-and-migrate cycle. Some new people were hired, some old employees returned, others were retired. It was pretty much the same. Until Covid. But we’re not going there.

We’ll get back to the Great France Art Tour of 2017 , maybe next time! 🙏🏻

Until then, enjoy your coffee!

—Christo

☕️ ☕️☕️ The Decline of Coffee and Other Observations in the Time of the Great Recession (Part 3 – France)

A round-about return to (The Great France Art Tour of 2017)

On that first Japan visit, I stayed at the Tokyo Hilton in Shinjuku district. The commute to the office was by shared cab. After a quick breakfast at the hotel, the four of us, shepherded by our new manager from Singapore, piled into a cab procured by the hotel’s taxi valet, a tall, eager young woman in a long grey coat and cap, and zoomed off to the office. Where cartridge coffee was available.

Four in a cab, with little time for the privacy this introvert craves to stay sane. And coffee that was just not so good. Early the next morning, I managed to evade my workmates and happily discovered the reliability and solitude of a Starbucks within walking distance of the hotel. What a relief!

Yes, there are Starbucks in France. Although, not many. I looked for one so I could buy a souvenir mug. Seriously. I’m not big on souvenirs, but having a Starbucks mug from Tokyo, or Paris, or Taipei, I confess, it’s a thing. Anyway, I did get a Paris mug, not far from Notre-Dame, but I never drank Starbucks coffee in France. Still, I don’t have a problem with coffee at Starbucks.

Say what you like, many scorn Starbucks as an American plague like McDonald’s. Whatever. I never drink a “Grandé One Pump Half-caf Soy Pumpkin Latte”. (Though even in the USA I sometimes have to accept a substituted “Café Americano” to get decaf.) I can say that at most Starbucks around the world I order my favorite “Half-caf Iced Coffee” confident that this will be a drink of the same quality and flavor regardless of location, whether the barista is Japanese, Korean, German, or French.

That’s the coffee. Be careful, or you may painfully discover, as I have at least once, the milk, cream, or whatever else you might put in your coffee, is a completely different matter, with special risks.

As I said, I never tasted Starbuck’s coffee in France. Because when I visited Rennes in 2011 and Paris in 2012 a request for a café crème at just about any brasserie or café resulted in a rich, flavorful cup of coffee served with steamed milk or cream, sometimes brewed in an espresso machine, but sometimes in some other mysterious fashion. But always good. I thought. Did I believe this just because I was in France? I’m not sure.

Flash forward to The Great France Art Tour of 2017—one of the Rick Steve’s podcasts about France included an interview with writer and Paris resident David Sedaris, who remarked in a masterful sardonic aside,

“Well, you know… coffee in Paris is really not very good.”

Really?! I thought, how can you say that? Okay, maybe not the coffee served in a paper cup at the De Gaulle airport, but otherwise I’ve always been pleased with my café creams!

Alas, the decline of coffee and the rise of the machines in France is evident and largely attributable to the ubiquitous prevalence of Keurig-like coffee machines in restaurants and hotels. Especially in hotels.

If they don’t use Keurig-type cartridges in their breakfast buffets, they establish these horrible self-serve, push-button grinding machines. The machines contain a plastic bin of probably stale, low-grade beans, ground on demand, dumped onto a rolling paper filter (reminiscent of the cloth roller towels once prevalent in public restrooms). Tap water pours over the grounds and depending on the buttons pushed, various powdered or liquid additives are mechanically injected into the waiting brew to convert it into a mockery of espresso, cappuccino, or làtte. This unfortunate situation was true of our 2017 stay at hotels in Paris, in Arles, Avignon, and Nice.

We are not fooled.

Though I normally prefer a simple brewed cup, it seemed the only way to get “real coffee” was to explicitly order espresso or cappuccino.

You would think, one might saunter into a café and feel some relief to see a “classic” espresso machine behind the bar. A beautiful work of craftmanship in brass and copper, a small golden eagle perched on top, its wings outstretched. Maybe you’re looking at a Vesubio, a Gaggia, or a La Pavoni.  Surely the sight would give you the confidence to order that cappuccino? Beware. Proceed with your order, ONLY if you may observe its actual production. Because to my horror, in a little ocean front café in Nice, in exactly that situation, I did that, ordered, and watched the waiter walk into the kitchen, punch a few buttons, and produce a so-called “cappuccino” from one of those infernal cartridge-loaded, machines while the Gaggia sat idle, cold, unused.

Keeping that in mind, we might even have created a small redemption for buying your coffee at Starbucks, in France. Because at least, it will be real, not cartridge, coffee, and if it’s expresso, you can watch them make it. That’s just about it for coffee in France.

All that’s left now is the question, “Quel genre de toilettes ont-ils en France?” a topic that seems to have attached itself to this long essay like a remora on a Blue Shark. I’ve previously mentioned the ancient urinals that have vanished from the Champs-Élysées. I won’t comment on the weird, uritrottoirs street side, red urinals placed around Paris in 2018 (as far is this memoir is concerned, that’s in the unknown future). Oh sure, in your desperation, you might happen upon a café toilette just off the Rue Mouffetard on your way to the Jardin Des Plantes with nothing but a hole in the floor in a tiny tiled closet, I did, but that’s uncommon. France gave the world the bidet, the precursor to the Superlet and other Asian innovations, and most hotels and many apartments and residences sport bidets, really as something to be taken for granted, not remarked upon.

That wraps it. Except for the Decline of Coffee in the USA during the time of the Great Recession. Which is coming right up, next time! 🙏🏻

—Christo

☕️ ☕️ The Decline of Coffee and Other Observations in the Time of the Great Recession (Part 2 – Taiwan)

A round-about return to (The Great France Art Tour of 2017)

Busy Street in Taipei

We flew to Taipei in the morning, and took a cab direct from the airport to the office. Taipei was hotter, more humid, busier, more crowded on the streets and sidewalks, older, less westernized, and appropriately somehow more relaxed than Tokyo. It’s hard to see a country when you spend most of your visit in a corporate office, but those were my first impressions anyway.

My Taiwanese IT counterpart, “Roger”, closer to my age than Tashiki, in glasses, and dressed comfortably for the steamy Taiwan summer weather in an open-collared, short-sleeved yellow plaid shirt and jeans, walked us from the small elevator to the office lobby, where we paused at an empty reception desk. On the wall behind the desk a giant red plexiglass logo reassured us of our unity as citizens of the one same corporation. Roger officially greeted everyone and introduced those who had not yet met. Then looking serious,  told us the first important thing.

Explaining as best he could in English, and with the unending patience of someone who has repeated it for the millionth time, that it may seem strange to us and how we do things in America, but if we insist on using toilet paper, it is essential to place the soiled paper in the little trash can, next to the toilet, and not flush it down the toilet. This practice is important because Taipei is a large island city with an old sewage system never designed to handle toilet paper, which should be disposed of in the same manner as regular office paper waste.

Staring at our feet in the lobby, holding suitcases and clunky Dell laptops, and feeling a bit displaced, our team made note of this explanation with a few smirks, and for my part, naïve disbelief. After all, Roger and I had shared several international calls and previous team meetings in New Jersey, and I knew he had a dry sense of humor. I hadn’t traveled much, hadn’t yet taken my first surfing trip to Costa Rica—with its similar infrastructure—and had never traveled anywhere where this requirement was verbalized so clearly. Was he kidding us? I just didn’t know.

Having quickly covered this necessity, Roger was joined by our second local IT host, Mary, with shoulder length dark hair, trim in a blue button down shirt and cotton vest, sleeves folded back, jeans, and deck shoes, she seemed genuinely pleased to see us. After more greetings and introductions (absent the greeting card ritual), she ushered us past the logo and into the main office, a smaller and more informal operation than the one in Tokyo, with a conspicuous number of empty desks—then she respectfully presented the second important announcement.

Clearly, tea preparation was a simple matter, she explained, mastered over several thousand years by this mature culture, but coffee? This was a mystery that required a modern solution. For their staff, and honored coffee-consuming-Western guests, the office had acquired a Chinese—not Japanese—solution to that daunting problem faced by so many non-Americans, that is, how to make a decent cup of coffee. Offering this introduction as she led us to the little kitchen lounge, Mary proudly unveiled a stainless steel mechanical coffee maker next to a steel rack of little gold and red cartridges, which we could access any time that we required or desired our chosen American beverage. Mary demonstrated how the machine worked, telling us with a smile, “Whenever you need coffee, it’s here! You just come and make it!”

Without discussion, our team agreed that this was a clever invention. We pretended to have never seen such an innovation, and expressed our astonishment at the freshly produced cup!

While Mary prepared a second cup, my thoughts drifted. As the IT expert required to manage and edit our email “directory”, I was familiar with every name of every one of the one thousand or so employees globally. Americans, Brits, French, Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Taiwanese. I could usually identify the user’s nationality by their name, but with the Chinese and Taiwanese colleagues it was different.

In Japan, I didn’t think too much about Tashiki’s name. At least, I was pretty confident that was his name. An American in Asia should know that the Japanese introduce themselves, in proper Japanese, first stating their “Family Name” (what Americans call “Last Name”). Except sometimes, in polite deference to English speakers, the Japanese might reverse the normal Japanese order, and present themselves first by “Given” (what Americans call “First Name”) and then “Family” name. In that case—an American, believing he understands the proper and polite Japanese ordering of names, might then refer to his colleague in the opposite fashion, by “Family” name, when trying to refer to him by his “Given” name.

Without making this more confusing than it already is, let me just say that for a year or more I referred to Tashiki as Wakamatsu, until with his usual kindness, he explained that I should probably call him “Tashiki”.

Our Taiwanese colleagues also have formal names, which sometimes appear on their business cards but which were rarely used with English speakers. As a student of T’ai Chi Chuan, I had some understanding that their presentations of names was similar to the Japanese, that is, “Family” name first. Thus T’ai Chi Chuan Master “Jou, Tsung Hua” is respectfully referred to as “Master Jou”. Which may sound like the informal western “Joe”, but is not the same. So, how, I wondered, do our Taiwanese (and Chinese colleagues) acquire first names like “Mary” or “Roger”? Are these their real names?

That evening, our hosts took us to a local seafood restaurant. Seated almost comfortably on a porch, an ocean breeze fanning the palm fronds; my mind stuck in a distant time zone, lulled by twinkling lights and cold beer, I chatted with the colleagues. Placed in front of each guest, a pot of black volcanic rock roiled with boiling water. The wait staff delivered trays layered with a colorful array of fresh, cleaned and prepared—but uncooked—local sea life, vegetables, and herbs. Using metal tongs we selected and dropped the shrimp, fish, octopus, or some other ocean denizen into the pot.

The slow cooking process encouraged conversation and served as a friendly icebreaker after our first day in the office. When cooked to satisfaction, we removed the food, placed it on the plate, added condiments or sauce, and ate—myself creating a minor stir with my unexpected dexterity with chopsticks. (I’m just full of surprises.)

After some back and forth, I decided to query Mary politely, “If it is not rude for me to ask, was “Mary” her “given” name?” (She smiled at this.) “Or, how did she come by it?”

She explained, these names are an accommodation because most Westerners have difficulty (by which she meant, make such a mess of) trying to speak Chinese. At some point late in their professional education or early in their international careers (if they are to work with English-speaking-Westerners) she and her colleagues acquire what they call their “American names”. They are usually ‘christened’ with their “American” name by a “coach” or employment counselor who is engaged in recruiting countrymen for work with foreign companies.

Most of my American colleagues accepted those “American” names without much thought or sensitivity, but to me it always seemed a bit weird, or awkward, like a “stage name”. As if you worked with and were maybe even friends with Reg Dwight, but only ever called him “Elton”. Or when, did you call him “Reg?”

Dinner concluded, our American and British team traversed humid downtown Taipei, now dark, the streets still rushing with the noise of car and scooter traffic. Checking at last into our nearby hotel, exhausted, I noted that although the office loo had what might be called a “plain vanilla” toilet, nevertheless my hotel bathroom sported a very sophisticated model (was it the Superlet?) with at least as many integrated functions as the “add-on” ones in the Tokyo offices.

There was also, of course, a small, classy brass-lidded container for soiled toilet paper, a reminder of the information provided, but as yet unused, much, much earlier in that very long day.

Although to this point I had only a bit of a “sensitive stomach”, I discovered the next morning after arriving at the office, that clearly, I was unaccustomed to something—seafood, radishes, or some unknown spice. Possibly even the cream I used to temper the Iced Coffee from a Starbucks we had discovered nearby.

With two days’ work left in the office, my digestive system initiated a full revolt.

 Excusing myself abruptly from numerous meetings, I spent an embarrassingly long amount of time contemplating that first important announcement, “the use and disposal of toilet paper”. From my long, seated meditations, I was grateful for the breeze that continuously blew fresh air into the open window of my seventh floor private office. Now and again a colleague might make his way to the men’s room to ask a technical question about migration of a mail file, or query me on the wording of a memo. Several times I tried to rejoin my colleagues only to excuse myself again and again for another visit to the lavatory. Eventually, I just remained in the stall.

After a long interval, someone brought me an Immodium, which I took, re-appearing briefly to obtain a cup of water, and then trying not to run, I returned to my Fortress of Solitude awaiting relief.

In my stall, things were not so busy. It was peaceful. I became overly familiar with the chiming tower clock at the church behind the office, the cooing of pigeons that landed in the shade of the window ledge, and the playful laughter of the students at recess in the yard of the Catholic school next door, which as far as I could discern from my porcelain throne, could have been the laughter of children anywhere in the world.

Relief came eventually, and I was able to move about, slowly. The next day, I didn’t drink the coffee, tried to stay out of the toilet, and yes, finished installing the new email system.

This time with me working “remotely”, or at least intermittently, we completed our IT Magic. Our migration team returned to the USA, where the economy was teetering, and the local New Jersey Executives grew disturbed with tales of great advances in the creation of coffee in Asia – something that was sorely lacking in our office in New Jersey.

But before we go there, let’s first take a look at Coffee in France...

—Christo

☕️ The Decline of Coffee and Other Observations in the Time of the Great Recession (Part 1 – Japan)

A round-about return to (The Great France Art Tour of 2017)

Tashiki, with the onion-framed wire rims, Beatle mop-top, sincere smile and winning sense of humor, gave the impression he had somehow slipped away from working as John Lennon’s stunt double in the “Magical Mystery Tourmovie and stepped into a magical real world that was always of great interest to him.

After spending some time in his youth as a Japanese ex-patriot attending school in Southern California, Tashiki managed to escape the interest of the Big Dumb Corporations of the USA and returned to find a job in Japan. Years later we’d both ended up working for the same multi-national corporation. I’d met him when he visited our site in New Jersey. Now in Tokyo, it was a relief to see a friendly, familiar face. And I might add, a colleague who I knew could communicate with me much better in English, than I was capable of speaking (with my two or three phrases) in Japanese.

This was my first trip to Asia, 2006, not long before the world economies took a nose dive, and our Japanese colleagues on the 23rd floor, in the large open office of low-walled cubicles in the old Kakegawa section of Tokyo, welcomed us with the traditional cross-cultural bowing, exchange of business cards, and handshaking that celebrated our trans-oceanic office arrival. We appraised and complimented each other on our cards, especially the double-sided cards with name and titles in Japanese on one side and English on the other! The ritual complete, the colleagues informed us of “two important things”: the location of the rest rooms (outside and just off the central elevator), and a surprise for us, coffee!

Jet-lagged from the eighteen hour journey, and not yet accustomed to requisite long days of an important Western IT specialist—bringing a new email system to be followed by a hardware “refresh” of new laptops—I was relieved with the unexpected promise of coffee.

We strolled to a little corner of the office which served as a kitchen and lounge. Our colleagues had recently installed a small appliance somewhat larger than a toaster oven. Nearby, between a small frig and a microwave, a shiny, silver table-top carousel held twenty or thirty red and gold, thimble-shaped aluminum containers, but larger—if thimbles, then, those used by a very large seamstress.

An eager and worthy host, Tashiki demonstrated how to pop the coffee “thimble” into the toaster-like coffee maker. He pressed a button or two, and after some grumbling and hissing from the machine, a brown liquid appeared and half-filled a paper cup we had placed beneath it.

The colleagues were excited to share details of this new innovation, and I agreed, making coffee with such convenience was an impressive feat! And, since my stomach doesn’t tolerate black coffee, and already a bit queasy from travel, I politely asked if there were milk or cream so that I might sample the brew in my accustomed manner? We located the cream, or “creamer”, which came in single serve, single use, four-inch-long, drinking straw-width paper or plastic tubes, accompanied by sugar, packaged in a similar fashion, both of which I applied to the brew.

While we took our turns at the coffee machine, Tashiki carefully and passionately explained the adjacent color-coded recycling bins—of which there were at least three. Which bin to use for which items, plastic, paper, other waste. Emphasizing that, as you know, Japanese are a very organized, tidy, and especially clean culture, and as they have an ancient and intimate relationship with the ocean, recycling was “very important to Japanese People”. I could relate to this passion for sustainability, and was a bit disappointed, (but not surprised) by the patronizing amusement expressed in winks and smiles by several of my American colleagues.

It had been a very long flight. Over the arctic ice cap, frozen Russia, and raging seas. My first ever of what would become a number of flights of that distance and duration. I was tired, my eyes scratchy from being open for too long. I located a small, empty conference room, and slumped into a chair under the glaring white fluorescents to drink the coffee. The first wave of jet lag nausea clobbered me unexpectedly, as I sipped. Maybe something was wrong with the paper cup or the creamer. It was that first taste, and politeness aside, the coffee was not so good. It had the stale, manufactured flavor of “instant” coffee, this time worsened by anticipation, by the expectation that there was something special about its production and brewing.

These days, now, many years later, people are familiar with these coffee cartridges, whether known by the name “Keurig” or “Nespresso” or some other marketing moniker. Are they better now? I don’t recall the name of the Japanese innovation at the time, but it was some very similar predecessor to today’s version that, like so many things in the twenty-first century, prioritized convenience over quality.

Not long after that first sample, I made my way to the Men’s Room, pretty typical of any corporate high rise restroom, anywhere—until I opened a stall door. I took a quick look, and figuring that I had stumbled into a “special needs” stall, opened an adjacent unlocked door…same thing: The toilet was clearly retrofitted with additional plumbing and equipment tucked beneath the tank and bowl. Next to the seat, a little “control panel” was attached with buttons marked with icons of lower body parts and water spraying, air blowing, and heat…emanating.

This was one of those novel advanced Japanese toilet seats, nearly unheard of in the USA, except maybe in a James Fallows NPR commentary. But I’d never seen, much less experienced one. So, of course, when the need arose, I sampled the luxury features, though in a public rest room this is a bit, embarrassing, due to the noise of electric pumps and splashing water. One button initiates the bidet (water rinsing) feature, and another an air dryer with several heat settings, and the seat itself was internally heated. This toilet technology was at least as impressive as the coffee maker, and in my opinion executed with a more satisfactory result. Though I was to later find that enhanced toilets were all the rage in Asia, I didn’t see them, not in my room at the Hilton, and not anywhere else in Japan—not that I was looking for them. In other visits to the office Men’s Room, I observed the frequent and long-lasting full occupancy of the stalls, which our matter-of-fact colleagues accepted as a scatological workplace “perk.”

I drank the coffee, I used the toilet, and I installed the new email system.

We completed our mission a few days later, having performed our impressive Corporate IT Magic in Japan, and flew to Taiwan for the next performance—a similar upgrade and installation in Taipei for the slightly less impressionable Taiwanese colleagues. And, welcomed upon arriving at their office, we, as newcomers, were presented with two important bits of information. Which I will review in the next installment…

…to be continued!!

—Christo

Montmartre: Yellow 9 to Green 12

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

Basilica_Sacre_CoeurWe left the Musée Marmottan Monet fully sated and strolled with satisfaction along our previous route. It rained of course, but it was not an ugly downpour and that longest of Paris days was still young. The Muette Metro station was all tangled up with construction and pedestrian detours. Deb wanted to see Montmartre, and that was clearly our next destination. By Metro it was fairly straightforward, really, take Number 9 (yellow Metro) to some giant underground knot beneath Paris where many of the routes collided. Somewhere there we would switch to the Number 12 (dark green Metro) with the endpoint of Aubervilliers Front Populaire, whatever that is, (for us, meaning roughly “North”).

Subway travelers know the importance of these endpoints–they indicate which direction the train is going –and, just as may occur when you are flying down the freeway and take the wrong exit and end up somewhere else, somewhere you had no intention of being, a similar error in the subway will put you on the wrong platform taking the wrong train in the wrong direction. In which case, I say, “Remain calm,” and let that train go if you are not sure that it is the right one, another one should come along soon, unless it is late at night, and, you can always wait patiently, unless you have had a couple of beers and you have a full bladder, pressing, pressing you with the urgent need to empty it, on a quiet platform, well-lit, with no toilet, no obscuring panels, only a few straggling waiting families and a booth with a tired guard dutifully observing all the closed-circuit television monitors as he fiddles with a pistol in his holster, and all you can think about is the long countdown of 20 minutes until the next train arrives, 20 minutes to hold yourself, 20 minutes that never seems to be less than 20 minutes, and if you’re not thinking about the longest 20 minutes you have ever lived, then you think about how could you have chosen the wrong train and ended up way farther away from your hotel than you intended, and you have done so well on the Metro until now, why now, late at night, getting later, but still the same 20 minutes left!! How could this happen? Do the French names of the metro endpoints really all sound the same in the end?

But never mind that, we got off the dark green Number 12 on one of the several Montmartre stops.

A moment monsieur!” Let’s look at the word “Montmartre”. I don’t comprehend it all, but half of that name suggests a hill, a steep hill, a mont. So upon exiting the metro and following the signs in the narrow, tile arched tunnels we are warned several times in Anglais, no less, that to exit here, we had better be able to climb up the 67 steps. Or was it 167? Or 617? Whatever, it was a matter of climbing many upward steps to the exit. Eventually we popped out in the gentle rain onto the winding narrow cobble streets of Montmartre.

Can any “touristy” part of Paris be more touristy than Montmartre? I don’t know. Which is not to say it’s bad. It is old, it is windy, it is higher than the rest of the city. Every little street goes either higher or lower. If it travels on level ground for a time, don’t grow complacent, and don’t be surprised, that little road will soon go either up or down. And by the way, just because the roads are narrow, don’t expect them to be for pedestrians only. There is not a great amount of traffic, but watch for the trucks and vans and motorcycles! Now, continue up and eventually, above the faded red terra cotta rooflines, you catch a glimpse of the cathedral domes of Sacré Coeur, which is about as high as you can go. We arrived at the base of the main entrance, below a pair of wide steps. At the top of these vast staircases, a road circumnavigates the temple, bordered by a few wide sidewalks covered with throngs of tourists enjoying the expansive views of Paris offered from that height.

We were delighted to discover that our Metro passes enabled us to skip another climb and ride the funicular up the hillside. While we waited, I spent a few minutes trying to assist a Japanese gentleman who did not seem to comprehend that the funicular was not free, it required tickets and payment. With English, a word or two in French, and wishing I knew more Japanese, I said, “Hi!” (Yes!), and finally got him to go to the ticket booth to ask for assistance.

I guess Deb has seen enough of the gaudy gold glitz and bleeding Jesus interiors of churches that she did not want to see this one. Which was fine by me. At the top, after taking in the panorama, we circled around and down, reviewing the restaurants and brasseries, many of which were not yet open. I stopped for a selfie at Chez Plumeau, for obvious reasons, and then found an open window crêperie where I ordered a breakfast crepe to go.

BreakfastAnd so we wound our way down, tripping down the cobblestone, stopping now and then to peek in little shops and absorb the changing views. To Deb, I mentioned that the Moulin Rouge was in the vicinity, and which from my last visit seemed almost like a wax museum–unless you took in the live burlesque I guess. No need to see that. We tried not to look at any maps, hoping that we would sooner or later come upon a metro stop. And it was later, later and many steps down before we, that is, I, resorted to Google maps to be sure I was taking us in the right direction.

I didn’t know it then, but our little expedition to the heights and long journey downward foreshadowed similar adventures in Eze, and Vence, and finally in Nice, where we wandered down the back of the mountain into the old city, where the houses and restaurants were all pushed tightly together, and shaded and cooled in the hot afternoon by their own height and shadow and the shadow of the mountain.

More fun to come…

— Christo

A day it was, and what a day it was!

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

It was the longest day in Paris, starting with a grand tour, followed by Monet’s Sunrise and so much more. What a joy it is to travel with an agreeable and flexible companion. That was my thought as Deb and I, now back at the Hotel Bercy, planned the remains of the day. It was a great plan! A magnificent plan! We were in Paris. How could it be anything less than a wonderful and successful plan?

"The Raft of the Medusa", by Eugene Gericault

“The Raft of the Medusa”, by Théodore Géricault

She had no great interest in the Louvre. Nor did I. A decade before, in my fifties, I had stumbled there upon the enormous and magnificent “Raft of the Medusa” by Théodore Géricault. I stood speechless, with tears embarrassingly welling in my eyes, a reaction inspired partly by the monumental size of the work, but more from its significance as a time portal, for I had stood at the same place, in the Louvre, forty years before that. In 1972, I had been overcome by waves of emotions: awe at the work, wonder at my fortune in being there seeing it, the loneliness of an adolescent far from home and family for the first time, experiencing something that ought to be, but due to circumstances, and the formidable magnificence of the art, could never be clearly communicated, much less shared, an experience condemned to always remain deeply and intensely personal. Thrust backward, then suddenly, flashing forward in time, instead of seeing more of what I wanted at the Louvre and processing that adolescent visit, instead, I spent way too much of that day dragged by an acquaintance through the endless sandstone monotony of Egyptian and Middle-Eastern architecture, of which I had in comparison to the Impressionists, no interest whatsoever.

MuseeDeOrsayThis time, I was in no hurry to enter the Louvre. If I were to pass through a time portal it would be at my choosing, and with opportunity to process the odyssey. Musée D’Orsay, was a possibility, although on yet another Paris trip, a redeeming one, alone, and only a few years before, I had made a thorough survey and with great satisfaction sought and found the Van Goghs, and so, even Orsay I could forego for something previously unseen, perhaps the gardens of Giverny? Or Musée Marmottan Monet?

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Giverny replica, “Grounds for Sculpture”

An uneventful 45 minute ride from Bercy discharged us from the train at the La Muette Metro station. We walked through a few typical urban Paris streets, then with the assistance of our paper tour map and Google Maps—for neither by itself seems sufficient until you can get them both to agree—we passed thru the Jardin Du Ranelagh—on the map, a small isolated green blotch before all the grey and white of Paris is surrounded on the western flank by the very green Bois de Boulogne – so very much green!

What is the “B-d-B”?? I don’t know. Don’t think I have ever been! It incorporates the Hippodrome de Autreil – which appears to be a horse track. Was this where Hemingway so smugly bet on horses, bragging about his successes, while living in supposed poverty on Hadley’s trust fund? And there on the map(s) in bold print is the A13, the route to the Chateau de Versailles. Is that the same as the Palace of Versailles? But I digress…

The Jardin was walkable in the overcast and humid late morning, slightly green, but suffering the trampled haggard look of excess foot traffic as only a city park can. Gravel walkways lined with green wooden-slatted benches. A few couples with long black umbrellas, more children with mothers nearby and nannies rolling the small ones in blue prams, and us stopping at the intersections of every odd-angled street, re-checking our orientation and looking for signs to the Musée.

It began to rain softly before we arrived at the steps to Marmottan, an unimposing old building of brick and faded white trim.

bdbinparis.pngThe Bois de Boulogne, as research has now revealed, is the second largest public park in Paris – bordering the west side of the 16th Arrondissement and containing not one, but two horse tracks. And yes, the Chateau de Versailles is in fact the one and same “Palace of Versailles” to us Americans. No, like the Louvre before it, and to the dismay and puzzlement of some, the Chateau de Versailles was rapidly discarded as a destination for “The Great Art Tour” – we had no interest. Been there, stood in line for hours, inside and out, and agreed with myself to never return. Never. Lavish, extravagant furnishings and homes of the royals and super-wealthy, past or present, do not do much for me, nor warrant a second visit.

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“Water Lilies” by Claude Monet

While we sidetrack the narrative with our decisions-not-to-see, a more difficult decision was the potential visit to Monet’s Giverny. The garden documented in books and film, and memorialized in uncountable blurry-until-viewed-from-the-proper-distance “Water Lilies” painted by the aged and near-blind Monsieur Claude. Definitely a place worthy of an Art Pilgrimage, but from our perspective requiring a Full Day traveling and touring outside of Paris with the strong potential for RAIN. We chose to hang closer to the City of Lights.

An excellent choice as it turns out. The next morning we learned that our traveling nemesis “Donald” and his long-suffering wife, hired a car with the aid of our excellent and very French guide, Christine, and we would likely have spent the day with them. From their anguished reports, it was a day mostly memorable for “Impressions of Rain and Mud” as opposed to Water Lilies.

What did we choose? As previously disclosed, a visit to Musée Marmottan Monet, which by chance included a selection of Sisley and Pissarro (among others) in addition to our target of “Impression: Sunrise”. And from there? Well, how about Montmartre? And the Latin Quarter? The Seine. And I have yet to get to the near disaster on the late night Metro.

Oh there is so much more. So much more. Such a long day. The longest day in Paris, with more to come.

…to be continued.

— Christo

Four nights in Nice (Parte un)

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

Nice With Las Vegas Interlude

View of Nice from Parc de la Colline du Château

View of Nice from Parc de la Colline du Château

I knew vaguely of Nice by way of a Frenchman, George, who I worked with at a men’s clothing store on Fremont Street in Las Vegas when I was sixteen. George was a flamboyant character; an excellent salesman with a heavy accent. It was the early seventies, and George almost always wore the brightly colored, tight fitting, and highly flammable acetate shirts with long pointy collars that we sold at the “Knight and Squire”. In his mid-thirties with hair in long dark curls that trailed down his neck, a slightly large rounded nose, full lips and a prominent chin, he had an annoying habit of patting me on the ass. With his rich accent he spoke often of his vacations in Nice, explaining that Nice was a stylish, elegant, beach city in France, where the wealthy dined at fine restaurants, played on their yachts, and in clubs, and in the casino in nearby Monte Carlo. But unfamiliar even with beach towns in California, I was too young and naive to be impressed—which was a great disappointment to George.

He was eventually let go for some reason or other. Maybe for the long unscheduled vacations? Or his tendency to return after long lunches with alcohol on his breath? Through a gossipy co-worker I heard that George had fallen on hard times and was working maintenance, “cleaning rooms and emptying garbage cans at the MGM Grand Hotel”. But never one to fall too far, George, who appeared nearly the same—except for his nose, which was taking on the size and veined red glow of one belonging to an alcoholic—explained to me one afternoon some years later when we ran into each other at a gas station on Flamingo Road, that he now worked for “Lee”.

“Uh, sorry, I don’t know Lee. Who is Lee?” I asked, holding a bright yellow helmet under my arm with one hand, and with the other clenching the gas pump handle to fill the tank of my Suzuki 250cc “Champion” dirt bike.

Preceded by a classic nasal snort of French disdain, George patronizingly explained, “Liberace of course!”

I had no reason to think George’s relationship with Liberace was a lie. George was wiping gas-pump-grime from his hands with a dainty white handkerchief, standing outside a huge limo with the Nevada vanity plate “88 Keys”. This was Las Vegas, and as I did live in the neighborhood, I had driven past the Liberace house many times, around the corner from the one where Redd Foxx was occasionally seen in his driveway shouting at his neighbors to “…get your car washed! You’re givin’ the neighborhood a bad name!”, the house with a black grand piano cutout on the garage door, where everyone local knew “Lee” lived.

He told me he was Lee’s “personal dresser”. I didn’t know what that meant, and didn’t care to ask, although I was a little curious if Liberace himself was sitting in back behind the heavily tinted windows, half dressed. But it didn’t matter, because George made it very clear: I was far below his station in life now, and he could hardly admit he had ever worked retail, selling clothes on Fremont Street, much less waste any more time on a lengthy conversation with me at a gas station. That was the last time I saw him in person, and it was many years before I ever heard anyone mention “Nice” again.

Monday, In France, On the Road to Nice…

Nice was a surprise. I had little idea of what to expect, even having read about it in the tour books. This was after all, the “French Riviera”–whatever that means. Christine informed us the name is anathema to the French, mostly because it was coined by the Brits, who discovered and bought and built up much of Nice as a resort for who else? Themselves. The wealthy Brits. For the French, this was the Côte d’Azur.

We arrived by coach after a few hours on the sunny highway from Avignon. Descending into the mountainous dry east, catching occasional glimpses of the Mediterranean to our right, dark blue slivers between the hills, or as we got closer, silver shimmering behind the enormous sprawling developments and skyscraping townhome complexes. As we passed, Christine pointed to the vineyard of “Brangelina”, remarked that the wine was in fact reputable, despite being owned by Hollywood moguls, (with a few of us wondering what happens to it after the divorce), and she mentioned Cannes, St. Tropez and a few other well-worn and familiar names of communities we would not visit on this trip, advising us of the models and movie and rock stars who frolic in this Southern sun, enjoying the lavish homes and splendid company their fame has purchased. But not to worry, she advised, we would be taking a day trip to Monte Carlo, the capital of Monaco, where she would tell us the real story of the tragic death of Princess Grace.

Eventually we emerged on the Promenade Des Anglais, the main drag, at least four lanes of traffic that runs the length of the Baie des Anges, along the tremendous beachfront crescent from the airport, past all the hotels and resorts to the hodgepodge of bars and restaurants that mark the perimeter of “the old city”, where the road changes its name to the Quai des Etats-Unis, and where the beach abruptly ends, severed by the intrusion of Port De Nice on the right, and steeply on the left, a very old hilltop ruin the Parc de la Colline du Château.

The road continues wrapping to the left around the base of this mountain, with a massive monument to the war dead embedded in the side, and on the right, luxury liners, yachts, or other vessels parked at the Port De Nice before moving on to Monte Carlo or other Mediterranean destinations.

Did I mention surprises? Oh yes. First, the water is the bluest you can imagine. Deep, not exceptionally dark, but luminescent. Next, Nice is huge. An enormous beach city. Not a town. City. With dirty steaming streets and tiny cafés, restaurants, computer stores, plumbing supply shops, architectural and real estate offices, the ubiquitous artisanal ice cream, pizza joints, and every imaginable type of storefront you might find in New York or Los Angeles or Taipei. The “old city” nestled between the beach, Parc de la Colline du Château, and the hotel row of “new” Nice, gives the opposite impression. Not of a city per se, but of an ancient, but large, village, pungent in the mornings on certain days with the fruit, vegetables, and baked goods of the open market, its old concrete, plaster, and brick buildings fronted tightly with bars, restaurants, brasseries, patisseries, charcuteries, and other “ies” that face onto the walking streets and squares.

Saint-Paul de Vence

Saint-Paul de Vence

Though for many the beach is the main attraction in Nice, we put it off a few days, it wasn’t until after we saw the castle town of Eze, and the one time home of Matisse, St. Paul de Vence, and yes, Monte Carlo—which as far as I can tell, consists of one gaudy casino, one hairpin turn, and one big bay for oligarchs and their pretentious yachts—that we ventured to the beach. Having both proclaimed, for reasons I can’t recall, that we would not be swimming in the Mediterranean—even if it was the Côte d’Azur—we found a path down from the wide pedestrian walkway and the Quai des Etats-Unis.

This busy way, straining with pedestrians of all colors, shapes, sizes, and ages, bicycles, Segues, tours of out-of-town tourists, skateboarders, roller skaters, and punctuated by the constant attention of fully dressed French commandos in green fatigues or camo with dark bulletproof vests and carrying automatic rifles and capped in their classic burgundy berets, always traveling two or more, never walking alone, reminded us that to the French we were heroes. We were tourist heroes, crazy Americans foolish enough to brave not just France, but the Riviera, and the same stretch of Nice beach front road where almost exactly a year before, an angry terrorist had squashed sightseers and locals alike, indiscriminately, with a truck, on his mis-guided journey to what any sane person would agree will be his own hell, Islamic or otherwise.

The wide sidewalk, this busy parade route, borders the beach for the length of its crescent, the beach itself broken into public and private subdivisions, the latter discernible by the presence of umbrellas and chaise longue, fenced or walled in, much desired, especially on the hottest, sunniest of days, and which of course must be rented. These private spaces sometimes also have bars or restaurants with expensive and exclusive views of the beach.

Beach and walk, Quai des Etats-Unis

Beach and walk, Quai des Etats-Unis

Public beaches frame the private, with public outdoor showers and toilets, and concrete indoor buildings embedded in the hillside and presumably (since I can’t say that I investigated one..) running under and supporting the walkway above. Instead of sand, the beaches are notoriously covered with round hard gravel: gray, white, black, mottled stones of mostly 1/2 to 1 inch in diameter, but present in many sizes. To enable approach to the beach, authorities, or someone(?) provides a faded, maroon, walkway carpet.

On this aging rug we left our sandals and stepped carefully onto the stones near the lapping water. The feeling was as one might expect. Unfamiliar, prickly although not painful, and with the shifting gravel, a bit unstable. Stepping gradually into the water we found it surprisingly cold.

Its touch was magical.

Standing there, my feet shifting as the waves sucked at the rocks beneath, I felt quickly transported to another place. Or perhaps more accurately, to a realization of where I was, actually standing ankle deep in the Côte d’Azur, the breeze cooling me, the bubbling rasp of a motorbike fading away, my arms comfortably baking in the sun. Far off to my right, a huge plane lifted itself from the Nice airport, like a giant raising its head, upper body, and finally arching sharply over the sea, pushing off the runway, into a sky of blue more faded than the sea and free of all but the most distant clouds.

The  morning bustle slipped away along with all sounds but for the hissing water as it wandered through the rocks, and the giggles of two small children who we’re working hard to bury my sandals, pouring wet pebbles and water onto the rapidly disappearing Keene’s. Standing next to me, Deb appeared to have fallen into a similar reverie.

There was nothing else, just us, the beach of rocks, the warming sun, and the lapping waves of the sea.  Just these.

Still to come, Van Gogh, Avignon, Arles, Matisse, Chagall—the road goes ever on!!

…for Dick Kocher

— Christo

 

At Last Monet

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

Musée Marmotan Monet, 2, Rue Louis Boilly, Paris

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I was there, at last. Standing in front of Monet’s finished “Impression Sunrise”.  This was after all, the painting that started it. The seminal work of Impressionism and much of what followed.

I had after all, painted it. I was, after so many years, pleased with the manageable size of the canvas I had chosen. If I had attempted it on anything much larger—say a canvas as big as “The Houses of Parliament”, or any of the later “Water Lillies”, it would never have happened. I never would have completed it. It was large enough to capture that foggy ephemeral sea moment, that passed quickly, more quickly than brush and oils would have done for anything even a bit larger or a touch more detailed.  No, it was the perfect moment, right down to the smudge of pinkish white on the edge of the sun and the clearly silhouetted figure of the boatman and rowboat in the foreground created with a casual but somehow precise flick of two brushstrokes.

It was simple. If you got the colors right, then the light would be correct, and all the emerging details would follow. It was simple. But not easy.

The painting was treated harshly by the critics. “Impression Sunrise” was supposed to be an insult, but it became an anthem. The banner work and namesake of the whole movement. No one remembers the name of the critic, except in telling this story, but the artist? The whole world knows his name as well as the names of his friends, colleagues, contemporaries–Renoir Pissarro, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, Cezanne, later Picasso, Chagall.

Critics. Bah!

I was 14 when I painted it.

With some minimal awareness of Art History thanks to my hobby of philately, and a year or two of Horizon magazine lying around the house, exposure to art as part of Western Civilizations opened a new world for me. In our very special ninth grade class, the brightest of us were assigned together in a room where the teacher told us to “brownbag” our lunches (meaning, to bring a lunch with us), so instead of dispersing to the cafeteria when the bell rang, we would stay, and he could expand his lectures through our lunch period. We grumbled at first, but delighted in the extra attention to historical and cultural details we would have missed otherwise.

Mike Van Wert, extroverted, sometimes loud, provocative, frequently passionate and nearly always entertaining, was in his mid 30’s with slight temporal baldness, brown curly hair and pork chop sideburns appropriate for the times—the early 1970s. He dressed as a college professor—although this was in junior high school—black or brown wingtip shoes, wool pants, a button-down shirt with a tie, a sweater vest, and a tweed sport coat. That was his uniform. I can hardly remember seeing him in anything else–blue jeans if I caught him by chance at the 7-Eleven on the weekend. But otherwise, no, it was that uniform. He was the teacher, our teacher, and a damn good one, and there was no diverging from that image, from that standard.

He had high expectations of himself and he applied those same expectations to his students, not just to our “Special” class but to the other four classes he taught as well. It didn’t matter who you were, he believed you were capable of learning important, wonderful things; he had fascinating remarkable stories about America, and other nations and cultures throughout history, and he would share this treasure with you, trusting you to pay attention, and listen, and ask questions, and even occasionally challenge him, but above all to participate.

For these classes he purchased or made his own slides of art and architecture. Hundreds, probably a thousand slides from Sumatran mounds of earth, to Duchamp’s “Nude Descending A Staircase” and the constructions of I.M.Pei.

We learned them. Learned the style, artist, title.

And for our “special class”, he imported the local art teacher to instruct us in the basics of drawing, sketching, and painting. We were invited to purchase required art supplies because each student in our class was expected to choose a work of art and create a reproduction of it.

I chose Monet’s “Impression Sunrise” because it was simple. It was beautiful and simple.

“Are you sure, Plummer?” He asked, with that  gravelly voice, and a wink to the rest of the class as if he were amused that I would choose such a daunting task.

But I was confident. “There’s not that much variation in the colors. If I can get that… and it is simple. Look at that boat in the foreground. It’s just two brushstrokes.”

“Okay…” He said with a smirk, making a note in his grade book and mumbling, “Impression Sunrise for Plummer”.

I worked on it after school for days. And it went well. At least I thought it went well. When I got stuck, the art teacher suggested I borrow the slide and project it on the canvas. “Isn’t that cheating?” I asked.

“You’re doing art. Artists use tools. It’s just a tool.” He told me.

The projector helped get the proportions right, and it seemed like it helped with the color, but after a week I couldn’t tell. I couldn’t tell if it was good or not, or how good. My eyes were blurry from turning the projector on and off, seeing the complete image on my canvas disappear, and then my own unfinished one. Matching paints to colors that turned to white when the lights came on. My friends from class would stop by and check it out. They were mostly quiet. Were they quiet because it was a good reproduction? Or because they didn’t want to tell me it was not so good? As anyone who has worked on something with great intensity and at great length can tell you, after a while, you just don’t know.

We brought our work in to share with each other, and I could see there were a couple of other works that were “good” —meaning that they looked much like the originals that we copied. Maybe that was part of why I wasn’t sure. It was a copy; it wasn’t like I had done anything original. And Van Wert didn’t lavish any great praise, I think he was being moderate with everyone, because some were bad, some were just awful, with bad proportions or whacky color. And we had compassion for each other, we knew we were just a bunch of kids trying to copy great art. But eventually I believed some of my classmates when they told me they thought mine was really “good”. And I was pretty sure then, when we displayed all our art at a PTA meeting and one of the adults asked if he could buy it. Buy it? A copy? When I told my Mom, she was appalled. I told her, maybe for fifty bucks? I considered that. But no way was some other parent going to have Plummer’s “Impression Sunrise”! She made that clear. And when I brought it home, she promptly framed it in a thick, classy, wooden art frame and hung it in our hallway, outside my bedroom where it remained for many years.

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I lost track of it eventually. That’s what happens with art sometimes. It travels; it gets away. But I was very happy to find it again. There on the wall of the Musée Marmottan Monet. Just as I remembered. Just as I had painted it.

—Christo

Three Days in Paris (Troisième partie)

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

 Wednesday Day 2 in Paris

Pont Neuf - Paris by August RenoirWe started with strong coffee and excellent croissants all after a good night’s sleep. We wanted now to move past the delays of the previous day. Deb and I were aching to break free and indulge ourselves in the touristic joys of Paris, much as the author aches to break free from the tedious prose of travel details, and speak truly of adventure. Where after all, is all the “Art” in this “Great Art Tour?” But first we had a morning to spend with the ArrowHead tour group.

Christine kept us and our coach driver moving quickly. She provided an informative narrative of the sites we passed, and sometimes the coach stopped and we walked, to view the sites in greater detail. This was essentially an “Overview” of Paris, which was perfect. First stop, Notre Dame. We arrived early enough to avoid the lines, passing inside the enormous dark church and hearing tales of its construction, the preservation and rescue of the stained glass during World War II, the coronation of Napoleon, Michelangelo’s Pieta, gargoyles, flying buttresses, the fictional Hunchback, and so on. I kept a sharp eye out for pickpockets, a notorious nuisance at Notre Dame, but we didn’t have any trouble with them.

The inevitable excitement came as a British guide, with a small microphone boom attached to her head, the little black foam ball seemingly floating in the air next to her mouth, using short range radio headsets for her charges, interrupted Christine, complaining in the nasal, British accent that is so easily equated with snotty arrogance, that Christine was “speaking out loud”, and should also be using transmitters and headsets because it was “impossible” for the two groups to be standing in front of the Pieta and hearing different stories about Michelangelo at the same time. Christine ignored this woman at first, hoping that, like a bothersome fly, she might go elsewhere. But the British radio guide was persistent and insistent, till Christine lashed into her in French, assuming rightly, that when she was done, the annoying woman must have been totally crushed. Without a glance at the other guide, and never skipping a beat, Christine resumed her explanation for us at full volume, while the British radio guide and her British radio tourists stumbled and staggered away in several different directions.

We buzzed around Paris in our coach, past the Louvre and the Tuileries Garden, north to the Paris Opera House, hearing tales of some famous architect or other, about a minor Napoleon’s private entrance at the back of the building, and about all the famous designers and models who had been seen at the opera. Christine was very fond of designers and models, and this was not the last we were to hear about them. We saw the Invalides in the distance, the palatial golden “resting place” of Napoleon, quite large for such a little man, and we finally stopped again at the Place du Trocadero for a spectacular view of the Eiffel tower directly across the Seine. From there? A quick buzz along Boulevard St.-Germain, whipping past a few famous cafes as we headed back to the hotel.

Ah! But what a struggle it is to write about Paris! It becomes a list of monuments and museums, a description of parks and buildings. They’re beautiful, they’re magnificent, but who cares? The power, the attraction of these places for me is not what they are, maybe in some cases what they contain, but especially what happened there. The interior of Notre Dame is a dead place until you realize that you’re standing where Napoleon stood. Where Jacques Louis David, the great Neo-Classical painter, observed and sketched the Coronation. And who else? Who else stood there?

Not far from Notre Dame, Pont Neuf straddles the river, about as famous a bridge as one finds, a bridge painted by Renoir, and referred to frequently by Hemingway. And Hemingway? Across the river also is the Latin Quarter. Is “Shakespeare & Co.”, the bookstore of ex-patriot era lending librarian Silvia Beech, who first published “Ulysses” for James Joyce. The apartment of Ernest and Hadley. The “lions” of that era, the painters, the Gertrude Stein crowd, this is where they were, this is where they hung out and worked and wrote and socialized and promoted themselves.

Shakespeare and Co.And that’s what I wanted to see, that’s where I wanted to go, that’s what I wanted to write about.

And I shall. Soon.

—Christo

 

Three Days in Paris (Partie deux)

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

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…continued from Three Days in Paris (Partie un)

You may know that the French were reputed to be smoking fiends until the last ten years or so. Just watch a French movie. They ALL smoke! Historically they had their “national brands”, the blonde Disque Bleu and Gauloises cigarettes, strongly aromatic and somewhat similar to the much milder American plain end “Camels”. I had smoked Gauloises when I first visited Paris. They seemed cool then. But I was fifteen.

Then there were the “Gitanes”, of many types, in my experience, made with black Belgian tobacco wrapped in slightly sweet tasting, yellow corn papers. I had tried a Gitanes just once after college at Lawrence and Pace Tobacconists. Those fat Gitanes monsters were a little squishy between the fingers,  smelled like a bad cigar, and were known for driving away mosquitoes and other pests.

At least the smoke wafting over from the nearby tables was not that!

A Bleu Memory

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It was 1978 and I was living in an extremely modest rented room near Harvard Square. In that dark room, the narrow mattress sagged nearly to the floor, which was littered with feathers and other debris of the pigeons that managed to come through the rafters at night. Why they came in? I don’t know, on that top floor it was ungodly summertime Cambridge heat and humidity, and there was no air conditioning. If I were a pigeon, I’d stay outside.

And we did. We stayed out as late as possible, those of us at the so-called “Lincoln’s Inn”. Waiting for the city to cool down. I’d watch a Fred Astaire double feature at the Brattle Theater, and then scrawl the exciting details of my new life in my journal at a table in a corner of the Casablanca coffee house. It was my first exposure to iced coffee, served there with a bit of Crème de Menthe and a dollop of whipped cream, it cut through the heat, and I could nurse one for an hour or two before they’d kick me out.

In the morning, I’d pull open the window screen and chase out the pigeons. And this was okay. I was fresh out of college with my degree in English, and was in no hurry yet to work as a teacher—which I felt was my destiny—or to go to graduate school, which might be required, and which I could not afford. I had managed to get all the way across the country from California, and I was pleased to have work in Cambridge. Working as a tobacconist seemed as good as any other job, and better than most.

Before the whole civilized world had quite sensibly turned against the cancer-inducing addiction, there was a certain romantic and literary allure to tobacco and tobacco products. Especially at “Lawrence and Pace”, which was known to have been the preferred local source for a number of current and historical celebrities who attended or visited Harvard. There was the Perkins shop in Boston, and Ehrlich’s too, on Tremont Street, but those were the domain of business men, old men. They didn’t have the hip Harvard Yard cachet of “L and P”, a living museum of Harvard sports and its own tobacco history collected in framed and yellowed news clippings, articles from Time to the New Yorker, and a tremendous collection of other ephemera. Plus, we benefited from the living book of colorful local characters who came and went, revealing their own stories or narrating the tales of others.

On an August afternoon, our Assistant Manager, Thomas, persuaded one of the local Cambridge “boys in blue” to sample a blue-boxed French Gitanes cigarette.

Bill stepped off the street into our air-conditioned store to escape the swampy New England summer heat. He was about 6’5”, a large slightly paunchy man in his late thirties with a pencil-thin black mustache. He walked the Harvard Square beat in shiny black shoes, with a holstered billy club, the usual blue uniform and a blue hat, tilted back. It seemed too small for his slightly bald, large, round head. He was mostly known for writing parking tickets and harassing the many buskers and pan-handling street people who hovered around the Red Line T- stop like yellow wasps circling a glass of Burgundy. He occasionally purchased Newport menthol filters, and not many of those, and this day, made the mistake of telling Thomas he would like to try a different brand, something “more interesting”.

Thomas turned on the charm, the whites of his bulging brown Peter Lorre eyes flashing. He described the romance of “the continental” cigarettes, peppering his spiel with French, German, and Spanish—all languages with which he had proven on previous occasions to be at least passingly familiar. Thomas loved to wax dramatic, and his show went on for 15 or 20 minutes. He pulled various brands in exotic boxes from the shelves, German “HB”, Swiss “Davidoff”s, even the weird papirosa Russians. He took one of those, crimped the long hollow “filter” at the end in the proper manner—pinching it at right angles—occasionally taking a puff from it, but mostly using it as a pointer. Six or eight different boxes lay on the counter top.

Thomas lifted his thick dark eyebrows dramatically as he painted a picture of the Paris scene of the 1920s—which of course included brilliant ex-patriots smoking Gitanes cigarettes as they piled up the color-coded café saucers on the tables where they wrote their stories or poems. (Of course L&P had facsimiles of these props as well, used for ash trays.)French Cafe Saucers

In the end, Bill selected a blue pack of Gitanes, pronouncing the name, “Gee-tanes”, tapping his finger on the box. I watched in horror as he opened his wallet. Thomas took Bill’s money at the register, closing the deal with the explanation, “The French pronounce it softly, ‘Gee-tawn’,” then added his usual overly affected, “If you don’t like the cigarettes, bring them back and I’ll refund your investment. Bon appètit!”

(And yes, he did say, “investment”.)

Bill walked out the door.

There were no other customers for the moment and it seemed very quiet. I shook my head. Thomas leered his crocodile smile, glancing at me, sighing and leaning forward as if exhausted from his efforts, resting his arms on the glass top of the display case of hand carved meerschaum pipes.

He was smug. Laughing slightly, he said, “I think he’ll like those, but his buddies at the station house may not want him nearby!!”

Only moments later, Bill pushed his large frame back through the shop’s heavy front door, one huge hand wrapped around the door handle, clinging to it as if he needed the support to keep from collapsing. Like many of the furnishings at Lawrence and Pace, the door handle was unique, silver metal cast as an oversized briar pipe. At first, Bill just stood there. Even from across the store, in the walk-in humidor where I was stocking cigars, I could see the pained look on his dark green face.

Bill blurted, “I’m going to be sick…” and Thomas quickly escorted him back to our washroom, left him there, and came out to get him a glass of water, explaining, “The Gitanes were too much for him.”

Thomas’s eyes twinkled a bit. This had been his little joke, but things had gotten out of hand, and he quickly adopted a compassionate pout; he had not intended to hurt our friend and customer.

When Bill emerged, he was sheepish about the incident. Thomas refunded Bill’s investment and spent the next few minutes apologizing for overselling the smelly dark cigarettes.

For his part, Bill politely refused Thomas’s offer of more advice and a complimentary box of some other brand, explaining that he was now quite seriously quitting the dirty habit altogether. He was, he said, done with cigarettes, forever. “Nothing personal guys,” he proclaimed, regaining something of his normal commanding composure, “Newport, Gee-tanes, Gee-tawn, whatever. I’m done.”

— And I have to say, that although Bill still dropped in to the shop to visit once or twice a week, to my knowledge, he never smoked another cigarette, or consumed any other type or form of tobacco. In the end, for all the romantic expectation and comic drama, some good did come from that particular pack of Gitanes.

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To be continued…

— Christo