Friday, June 27, 2008

Lessons From Our French Cousins

Texas is very much like France, in that it is of similar size and very independent thinking. California and Italy share similarities in land mass, climate and lifestyles. Nothing exact, but some parallels to think about.

Tonight, after a wonderful outdoor concert by the lake, I decided to pose questions to an Italian who is very adept at getting to the French people and obtaining what she wants, to give us some insights into their way and their successes. And quite possibly, how we can learn from our French cousins, things that can make us stronger and more nimble in today’s changing world. Of course, the answers come from the same place as the questions.

Q. Carla, you have adopted France and French ways. In fact you have married the most powerful French man in our time. Can you give us some insights as to how the French mind works and how we as Italians could approach the world in this new time, in ways that would be relevant and appropriate?

A. First, there are more similarities than differences. The macro view is to tear it apart and see how different we are. But if you look at how the two countries live, we are much more alike than not. We enjoy fresh food, prepared in a simple and clean manner. We like our wines fresh and unadulterated with not too much alcohol or wood. We like our clothes fashionable but well made and in a timeless manner. And of course we both are passionate and obsessed with living life with all seriousness and devotion.

Q. Lets talk about the wine. France has a long tradition of winemaking that is famous all over the world. So does Italy. What can Italy learn from their neighbors?

A. For one they should keep their private business behind closed doors. Both countries have a saying that goes like this: If it is meant to be done in the bedroom, then it should be kept behind the bedroom doors. There are private passions that shouldn’t be paraded around for the world to see and judge.

Q. How so?

A. Lets take wine scandals. There are laws and then there are those who think they can make something better than the law will allow. This is all a matter of opinion, unless the aspect of safety enters into the discussion. But when Bordeaux has a conflict, they discuss it in chambers and seek to fight it out, hammer out the points and come to a compromise. It isn’t perfect, but after all the discussion, there is consensus. They arrive at a solution.

Q. And Italy differs in which way?

A. Italy treats these matters like an opera, like a public forum, not realizing that their image, the perception, is altered and sometimes to the detriment of the overall goal of the community.

Q. France is struggling though, recently, with dock strikes and work stoppages. Right now as we speak in the port of Marseilles, there are 29 oil tankers prevented from entering the port. How much more public than that can one be?

A. I cannot speak for the politic, except to say the workers are striking to protest privatization, the inevitability of the modern global world economy. That is more a problem of short sightedness and also the French aspect of pater-familias, whereby the state takes care of their citizens. In the US I believe they call that entitlement programs, and that is no longer economically viable. But it is human nature to try and get as much as one can for as little as they are willing to pay for it. The economies of the world now make that kind of attitude and position obsolete.

Q. That’s a pretty heavy statement from the first lady.

A. One thing the French have long realized is that the world is a stage and to be players on it one must take risks. The Italians do as well, but is usually for a shorter term goal, at least in recent history. But like Catherine di Medici and Napoleon Buonaparte, who both had roots in Italy but shaped so much of the modern history of France, the French understand borrowing and adapting other notions into their culture to make it better and brighter. And then to claim it as their own invention. That’s why they do so well with wine; they understand the art of self promotion.

Q. Restaurants in the US claim to be French or Continental and then you go inside and they have pasta and simple fish dishes and everything seems more Italian than what is proffered.

A. Also in France. Robuchon in Paris makes a wonderful Carbonara, and Savoy has a chicken that Tuscan has inspired. Gagnaire, well he is still very French, but his food is not without their Italian influence and sensibility in terms of bright and simple perfection.

Q. One last question. Where are you planning on going this year for vacation?

A. As you know last year the vacation was in America. But this year I am hoping for a little time back in Italy, perhaps an island like Panarea or Sardegna. My friend Carol Bouquet has a nice place on Pantelleria and Giorgio (Armani) is also there in August. I also like the Isola del Giglio. But Corsica is also being considered, especially since that region is so sensitive and suffers from their loss of identity with France. But we shall see.

Q. So we won’t see you in Texas this year?

A. Not in the summer, but after the elections, you never know. We shall just have to see.

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