Monday, September 25, 2006


France is quite rightly considered to be the home of food, fashion, culture and savoir vivre, but it is also a place where technological know-how is present in daily life. Transport is a case in point.

Recently the country celebrated the twenty-fifth birthday of the TGV: the high speed train (train à grande vitesse) that revolutionized train travel in France. Hitting an average top speed of some 250 kilometers per hour on certain routes, the TGV, in its various forms, has carried substantially over one billion passengers. One can now travel from Paris to Lyons, a distance of 463 km (287 miles), in just under two hours. By car, the same trip takes about four and a half hours, if the weather and traffic are favorable. By train from Paris to Avignon is now only two and a half hours … while on the roads it takes about six hours, forty minutes, if the gods of motoring look favorably on one's efforts. Marseilles – on the Mediterranean, mare nostrum ! – is only three hours away from the capital. Still, the flight time to Marseilles is about one hour twenty minutes, to which have to be added the airport commute time and possible delays at the airport, of course.

Certainly the TGV is a technological marvel and can be very well suited to one's lifestyle in France. It is great for singles, bobos, and suffering commuters. For example: Amerloque knows white-collar breadwinners who commute from Lyons to their jobs in Paris two or three times per week, thus benefiting from the economic dynamics of Paris while taking advantage of the excellent quality of life in the French provinces.

There are some serious drawbacks to using the TGV, all the same. If one is a family man or woman, hauling kids and the needed accessories and required paraphernalia on the trains is always a hassle, and it's even more of one on the TGV, which is not particularly baggage- or child-friendly. The cost can be high, too. There are various reductions in ticket prices: special rates for large families, for example, or when traveling at "non-peak hours", but voyaging as a family is expensive on the "normal" trains - and even more expensive on the TGV. If one has a pet that one wants to take along, and a considerable amount of bulky luggage, the hassles on the TGV, where the luggage areas are rather small, are truly frustrating. Finally, one is dependent on some bureaucrat's idea of schedules, which tend markedly toward commuter convenience.

Amerloque has always found the food on the TGVs to be quite removed from the greatness of the technology. He has accompanied foreigners on the TGVs and each time, without fail, they have been surprised and bitterly disappointed by the "cuisine" served on board. One wonders what the SNCF is thinking: here is a showpiece of French technology being abysmally betrayed by poor customer service, hostile sandwiches and almost undrinkable coffee. France's well-deserved reputation for tremendous dining really takes a hit, on the TGV. Back in the good old days, when taking the train meant leisurely travel in some comfort, the dining cars and the cuisine on French trains were eagerly looked forward to – and remembered. Nowadays, efficiency rules.

On balance, travelling by TGV might be great for some people – singles and childless couples - while an automobile is better – and cheaper, even with the ownership and running costs factored in – for families.

One major result of the TGV has been a certain decentralization of French activity - but perhaps not of power, per se. In some respects, Paris is now less the center of the French universe, since people are able to move faster and more easily between their homes in the provinces and jobs in Paris. On the other hand, a Parisian executive now thinks very little of going to Lyons or Marseilles in the morning, meeting with employees during the day, and returning to Paris the very same evening. Though some top schools have moved from Paris to the provinces, to which teachers and students can commute more easily, decisions are still taken at the Ministry of Education in Paris. Central control, that dirigisme dear to the French, is reinforced.

In recent years more and more people – especially families – have fled Paris and established their residences eighty or one hundred kilometers away. Naturally property values have soared along the TGV routes, and dwellings such as the traditional mas in the south of France, which were eminently affordable a decade ago, are now priced astronomically. The demand from weekending Parisians has simply been added to the background, Europewide real estate speculation. In the property markets, location is everything, as always.

American and French expats sometimes debate the desirability of TGVs in the USA. Constructing a TGV (or a TGV-like web of trains: perhaps mag-lev) in the USA is a waste of money, in Amerloque's view. There are several reasons for this, he feels.

The first is, quite simply, scale. The country is far bigger than France. When it's 21h00 in San Francisco, it's midnight in Boston. Imagine what four hours of flight time (that is, LA to NY) means from Paris ! After all, when it's 21h00 in Paris, it's 23h00 in … Moscow, which is two hours away by air. What cities are four hours away by air from Paris ?

A second reason is the cost. Too expensive. Many Americans feels that there are far, far better things for governments to spend money on than a TGV or two. Tax money is precious and not infinitely extensible; one can attribute the horrible gaps in US public services – such as those in education, roads, and power infrastructures - to the American desire for "low taxes". In Amerloque's view, American governments would do better to increase spending on healthcare and education. Amerloque remembers seeing figures concerning the purchase of possible high speed train rights-of-way in Florida and Texas, and they were astronomical. With the recent Supreme Court decision about eminent domain, state legislatures are having to take a renewed look at where, when, and why the doctrine might be applied, and for whose benefit – and are passing some new laws.

The third and final reason is freedom. The insistence on the TGV in France (and train travel in general in Europe) is a reflection of just how "government" is perceived: as the fount from which all good things flow, as the cornucopia of plenty. In the USA, "government" is not perceived in the same fashion.

Perhaps one or two well-defined corridors might be good places to build a US TGV, because they could receive a mixture of public and private financing. Maybe Washington DC -> NY City, for example, or San Diego -> San Francisco -> Seattle, or even the much shorter Orlando -> Miami. However, putting a plethora of TGVs around the country would be an egregious waste of money. With greenhouse warming apparently threatening the planet, arguments for building one or more TGVs in the USA might appear attractive, on the surface. However, TGVs will undoubtedly not "reduce the number of cars", nor would they "cut pollution" since only a portion of those commuters already using cars in the given corridors would be potential TGV users.

A few years ago, just before the turn of the century, came up with a list of the top 100 US business events during the twentieth century. In first position ? "Eisenhower creates the interstates: June 29, 1956". The judges sum up their choice nicely:

Conceived by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as he rode over the German autobahns as supreme allied commander at the end of World War II, signed into law on June 29, 1956 and built over four decades at a cost of $130 billion, the interstates bind us together even as they free us to move and dream. The frontier hasn't closed; it runs everywhere now, on those quiet, essential lanes of blacktop.

The US has interstates, and France has the TGV - as well as number of autoroutes, which have been built at a furious pace over the last fifteen years or so.

Now that the infrastructures have been constructed, the next step in both countries is to produce vehicles which pollute far, far less, and which use alternative energy sources as much as possible. Quite a challenge: one which each country will rise to magnificently - in its own way, of course.


Text © Copyright 2006 by L'Amerloque
Images © Copyrights reserved to copyright holders

Monday, September 11, 2006


Returning to Paris after an invigorating summer season at the Normandy farm means reviewing any lessons learned during the vacation and easing back gently into the swing of things.

Out in Normandy, surprises are not rare, and this year's lot of them was no exception. The cool weather continued through the end of the month of August. Daily high temperatures were five or six degrees Celsius (say eight or ten degrees Fahrenheit !) under the norm. Evenings were chilly - sweaters were de rigueur for all - and the lengthening nights were, frankly, cold.

At intervals, the winds brought dark clouds aplenty, from which poured down chilly, oversized raindrops, drenching everything and everyone. After each rainstorm, the sky cleared rapidly to an azure blue, puffs of white scudding merrily across the heavens. Nevertheless, on the horizon could be seen approaching rain and mists, three or four hours away. From time to time a particularly strong gust would shake the trees and rattle the windows, reminding Amerloque that Norman weather has always been fickle and changeable. Traitre (traitorous) is the word the Normans use.

A particularly strong blast of wind one evening as the sun was setting in a crimson haze ("red sky at night, sailor's delight") carried away one of the farm's most venerable and much loved trees. In this case it was a plum tree, well over three quarters of a century old. Its delicious yellow fruit was always a welcome addition to the late August fare at the farm. Alas, the tree was blown down – the break is quite close to its base - just as this year's crop of plums (prunes) was ripening; only a few had been removed from the tree and eaten as a test. No more will Amerloque and the family speak of le mirabellier and its "possible fruit this year". No longer will "the prune tree" supply wondrously fresh and tasty mirabelles for the tartes and the confitures at the end of the summer season, and that is sad, indeed.

Every cloud has a silver lining, as the old saying would have everyone believe. Amerloque can testify that the maxim apparently holds in the highly arcane and very artificial subset baptized "Normandy winds and plum trees". Over ten years ago, on a stormy morning at the end of August after les grandes marées, another equally venerable plum tree on the farm was laid low by a vengeful gale. The main horizontal branch, heavily laden with ripening purple fruit and supported by an ancient Y-shaped metal bar, simply broke away from the gnarled trunk and fell to the ground. Amerloque and the family hesitated mightily about uprooting the tree entirely, since it was nicely positioned, not too far from the spot where the picturesque road enters the farm. Finally, going against the local farmer's advice, they did nothing and left it in place. The prunier stopped bearing fruit and led a merely decorative existence, relying on its ornamental attributes for survival.

Nonetheless, throughout the following years, and although he is no huge fan of gardening, Amerloque made sure that the prunier received its semi-annual quotient of natural fertilizer, obtained from a neighboring farm. Each year, the weather-beaten, distorted trunk seemed to grow a few fresh branches, with green shoots budding anew and remaining. During the past few years, the tree underwent a kind of pastoral renaissance: more and more branches appeared, while the leaves flourished, becoming larger, greener, healthier.

This year, the prunier bore fruit, for the first time in over a decade. It was delicious: far better than the plums which can be purchased in the super- and hypermarkets, and even far tastier than most plums generally available in the open-air markets. While saddened by the passing of the tired mirabellier, the members of the Amerloque family rejoiced together at the rebirth of the prunier while eating its wonderful fruit, and, just as in times gone by, putting the pits aside to plant.

Amerloque's Normandy plums remind him that, although France is a country avidly interested in food, things are changing, with the increasing constraints inherent in the French iteration of the "consumer society". Thanks to subsidies from the European Union, many seasonal fruits and vegetables offered to consumers now come from countries where labor costs are overly competitive with French ones. Not a week goes by but that one farmers' union or another is out demonstrating, complaining that French farmers cannot make financial ends meet when the price to the consumer at the hypermarket … is lower than the French farmers' production cost. In season, amazingly enough, apples from Chile and South Africa and New Zealand, are cheaper in the markets (super, hyper and farmers') than home grown apples from Normandy and the south of France, even with all that money from the European Union's Common Agricutural Policy collected by French farmers. Ca ne tourne pas rond. Nowadays, beautiful imported fruits are widely available at knockdown prices, but the tastier - and, it must be admitted, less squeaky shiny French ones - are not. Quantity and price have superseded quality, alas.

As in the USA, the small farmer in France seems to be a disappearing breed. Earlier this year the Wall Street Journal reported that, in France "… between 1993 and 2004, the number of arable farms fell by nearly a third. Wide swaths of neglected land are now home to unsightly scrub, and the farms people see as they drive down France's immaculate highways are often parts of major business enterprises." A recent report in France stated that " … since the beginning of the XXIst century, the number of professional farms in France has been decreasing by 2.5% per year, a slight slowdown from the annual 3% observed at the close of the last century." Milk producers are hurting, too. The number of dairy farms has been halved since 1988: fully 20% of the drop has occurred in the past five years.

While the servile yet adulated "consumers" seem content to pay less for beautiful but somewhat insipid fruits and vegetables, French farmers are not happy about their lot, and are increasingly making their views known. There are more and more demonstrations, from fruitgrowers to olive oil producers, to winemakers, to French oyster farmers ( ostréiculteurs). Farmers' manifs (demos), by the way, can be somewhat violent: foreigners are generally taken by surprise when they find themselves in the midst of one. Although used to it, Amerloque was still startled when, outside a supermarket this summer, masked demonstrators converged as if from out of nowhere and overturned lines of display bins containing hundreds of kilos of Spanish and Dutch fruits and vegetables. The merchandise was trodden underfoot and crushed by the furious manifestants. A less aggressive tactic used by some farmers' unions - and frequently reported in the press - is simply selling fruits and vegetables "at cost", directly to consumers. On a given day, with the time and place announced by the media, farmers come to Paris or one of its nearby suburbs, throw open their trucks on the street or in a convenient square, and sell hundreds of kilos of merchandise - which might otherwise be thrown away. Needless to say, the general public appreciates this kind of "demonstration" and the throngs arrive early.

Amerloque's summertime experiences with the prunes on his farm (he has apple trees, too, but that's another story entirely ...) only reinforced his conviction that local French fruits are better than imported tasteless and watery ones. It is clear to him – and Amerloque far from being alone in this - that one of the ways for high quality to be maintained is for small farmholdings to continue to operate successfully. They should not be disappearing into the dustbin of history, as has been happening all too frequently in the USA, Great Britain - and France.

Amerloque has been mulling all of this over for some time: after all, he came to France to enjoy the quality of life. Hence during August, Amerloque joined an Association pour le Maintien de l'Agriculture Paysanne, known here by its acronym, AMAP. In the USA, the phenomenon is called "Community Supported Agriculture" (CSA). Allegedly founded during the 1960s in Japan, a CSA organization is a contractual partnership of mutual commitment between a given farm and a stable community of supporters. Simply summarized, the members of a CSA community – usually in a city - cover a portion of a country farm's annual or semi-annual operating budget by purchasing a share of the season's harvest in advance. In return for the supporters' financing, the farm provides, to the best of its ability, a healthy supply of fresh produce throughout the growing season. CSA group members receive a weekly or monthly basket of produce, flowers, fruits, eggs, milk, cheese, or even a selection of different farm products.

During the first two weeks of his membership in an AMAP specialized in fruit-and-veg (an association 1901), Amerloque received two different baskets containing strawberries, tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, early squash, shallots, various heads of lettuce and chou chinois, a variety of cabbage. All of them were very high quality; some were 100 "bio"; the cost per kilo was about the same as in a top-flight stall in a Parisian open-air market. For the moment, Amerloque is pleased, and is now seeking an AMAP whose specialty is meat and poultry.

Note to expats living in Paris who are interested in excellent food and might be reluctant to join an AMAP: Amerloque recommends a visit to a pick-your-own farm (une ferme-cueillette). There are many to be found in the Paris region; they offer quality at competitive prices. If the weather is nice, a day outing can be a lot of fun, especially with children who are apt to find gathering vegetables enthralling and exhilarating, rather than grueling - if out outright backbreaking – labor as so many adults do.

Ah, yes, Paris … the restaurant world in Paris has changed exceedingly over the past several years, and it's not just all the fault of McDo and KFC. With all the private capital groups gobbling up the choicest plums, i.e. the "name" restaurants, Amerloque, in self defense, has been following the continual shakeout in Paris for quite a while. He simply does not feel that "chain restaurants" run by hedgefunds and private equity groups – whether in the USA or in France – can be considered in any way as the epitome of gastronomy. He is of the opinion that the concepts "chain food" and "excellent dining" are mutually exclusive; he is frankly astonished to see so many of the chain establishments being fulsomely recommended in allegedly "independent" guidebooks and on many gushy "oh-isn't-Paris-great !" blogs and websites.

During the summer, Amerloque's favorite French morning daily, Le Parisien published a revealing "who owns which restaurant" article. When one sees that a single company owns: Au Pied de Cochon, Le Grand Café, L'Alsace, Charlot, Le Procope, La Fermette Marbeuf, La Taverne, L'Arbuci, La Lorraine, Le Petit Zinc, Chez Jenny and L'Appart, and that a second company's portfolio contains Bofinger, La Brasserie Flo, Julien, La Coupole, Le Bœuf sur le Toit, Les Grandes Marches, Le Vaudeville, Les Beaux Arts, 80 Hippopotamus restaurants, 40 Bistrot Romain restaurants, and 6 La Table à Pizza restaurants, one is entitled to ask oneself in all seriousness if traditional Parisian dining has not been thrown into the trashcan of history, preceding the traditional small French farmer, perhaps, by only a few years.


Text © Copyright 2006 by L'Amerloque
Images © Copyright by Amerloque