Everyone thinks that people in Paris are impossibly rude. The longer I spend in the city, the more I realise that this is untrue. In fact, they are impossibly polite. Understanding this is the secret to an effortless life in the French capital. Mastering lift etiquette is a good case in point. I arrived in Paris a few years ago from London, where even colleagues would rather stare blankly at the closed doors than venture a greeting. In Paris, by contrast, there is a tightly observed ritual. When the lift doors part, you step in and say “Bonjour”. Everybody says “Bonjour” back. Whenever anyone steps out, you wish them a “Bonne journée”. They do the same. And that’s not all. If later in the day you bump into anyone again, you start all over again with (I’m not making this up) “Re-bonjour”....
The general French respect for formality and form is nowhere more finely observed than in Paris. ... When my son was learning to write, his school report gave him marks for whether his boucles, or loops, of his joined-up letters respected to the millimetre the inter-line boundaries printed on the page. At the same time, he would bring back English exercise books filled with a chaotic caterpillar of mismatched letters. Why didn’t he use his neat handwriting in those books too, I asked him? He looked perplexed: “But that’s not how you write in English!”
And so I am caught within a circle from which there is no escape: the less human societies were able to communicate with each other and therefore to corrupt each other through contact, the less their respective emissaries were able to perceive the wealth and significance of their diversity. In short, I have only two possibilities: either I can be like some traveller of the olden days, who was faced with a stupendous spectacle, all, or almost all, of which eluded him, or worse still, filled him with scorn and disgust; or I can be a modern traveller, chasing after the vestiges of a vanished reality. I lose on both counts, and more seriously than may at first appear, for, while I complain of being able to glimpse no more than the shadow of the past, I may be insensitive to reality as it is taking shape at this very moment, since I have not reached the stage of development at which I would be capable of perceiving it. A few hundred years hence, in the same place, another traveller, as despairing as myself, will mourn the disappearance of what I might have seen, but failed to see. I am subject to a double infirmity: all that I perceive offends me, and I constantly reproach myself for not seeing as much as I should.
Morbier is a semi-soft cows’ milk cheese of France named after the small village of Morbier in Franche-Comté. It is ivory colored, soft and slightly elastic, and is immediately recognizable by the black layer of tasteless ash separating it horizontally in the middle. It has a rind that is yellowish, moist, and leathery.
Traditionally, the cheese consists of a layer of morning milk and a layer of evening milk. When making Gruyère de Comté, cheesemakers would end the day with leftover curd that was not enough for an entire cheese. Thus, they would press the remaining evening curd into a mold, and spread ash over it to protect it overnight. The following morning, the cheese would be topped up with morning milk. Nowadays, the cheese is usually made from a single milking with the ash added for tradition.
The aroma of Morbier is found somewhat objectionable by some, though the flavor is rich and creamy, with a slightly bitter aftertaste.
But for Zola, Cézanne would have remained an unhappy banker’s son in Provence; but for Pissarro, he would never have learned how to paint; but for Vollard (at the urging of Pissarro, Renoir, Degas, and Monet), his canvases would have rotted away in some attic; and, but for his father, Cézanne’s long apprenticeship would have been a financial impossibility. That is an extraordinary list of patrons. The first three—Zola, Pissarro, and Vollard—would have been famous even if Cézanne never existed, and the fourth was an unusually gifted entrepreneur who left Cézanne four hundred thousand francs when he died. Cézanne didn’t just have help. He had a dream team in his corner.
This is the final lesson of the late bloomer: his or her success is highly contingent on the efforts of others.
It is seen as the mark of civilised eating, distinguishing well-fed French workers from the English who wolf prawn sandwiches at their desks. But France’s tradition of the three-course restaurant lunch is in danger of being killed off by the economic crisis.
Around 3,000 traditional French restaurants, cafes and bars went bust in the first three months of 2008 and unions predict a further rush of closures as people worry about making ends meet. The number of French restaurants going bankrupt rose by 25 percent from last year, and cafes forced to close were up by 56 percent.
Le Figaro’s renowned restaurant critic François Simon said yesterday that French consumers’ frugality had changed national eating habits and forced restaurant owners to the brink. Diners were now skipping the traditional aperitif, avoiding starters, drinking tap water, passing on wine and coffee and—at most—sharing a pudding.
Creative ideas are not always solo strokes of genius, argues Ed Catmull, the computer-scientist president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review. Frequently, he says, the best ideas emerge when talented people from different disciplines work together.
This week, Nature begins a series of six Essays that illustrate Catmull’s case. Each recalls a conference in which a creative outcome emerged from scientists pooling ideas, expertise and time with others — especially policy-makers, non-governmental organizations and the media. Each is written by someone who was there, usually an organizer or the meeting chair. Because the conferences were chosen for their societal consequences, we’ve called our series ‘Meetings that Changed the World’.
This week, François de Rose relives the drama of the December 1951 conference at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris that led to the creation of CERN, the European particle-physics laboratory based near Geneva (see page 174). De Rose, then France’s representative to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, chaired the meeting. He had got caught up in the process after becoming friends with Robert Oppenheimer, one of CERN’s earliest proponents. De Rose said in a separate interview with Nature that CERN was the result of the capacity of scientists such as Oppenheimer to propose grand ideas, and worry about obstacles later.
Although this approach does not always work, the next few weeks will show that it really has changed the world. In the ensuing half-century, CERN has revolutionized our understanding of the subatomic world; with the switching-on this week of the Large Hadron Collider (see page 156) it promises to scale new heights.
“Cooking eggs is really a question of temperature, not time,” says This. To make the point, he switches on a small oven, sets the thermostat at 65°C, or 149°F, takes four eggs straight from the box, and unceremoniously places them inside. “I use an oven in the lab; it’s easier. But if the oven in your kitchen is not accurate, cook eggs in plenty of water, using a good thermometer.” About an hour later—timing isn’t critical, and the eggs can stay in the oven for hours or even overnight—he retrieves the first egg and carefully shells it. “The 65-degree egg!” he announces. The egg is unlike any I’ve eaten. The white is as delicately set and smooth as custard, and the yolk is still orange and soft. It’s not hard to see why l’oeuf à soixante-cinq degrés is becoming the rage with chefs in France.