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6.03.2010

The Saga of the "Peace Flotilla" that set out to force the Gaza blockade...

Once again, we are treated to another round of calamities in the Middle East. Whenever the Palestinians do something ghastly, like blow up an Israeli schoolbus or throw a bomb in a market full of innocent civilians, your sympathies inevitably and rightly go to Israel. But you can be sure that the Israeli will do something equally reprehensible the next time around. Like build more settlements in occupied territory or launch an attack on Gaza killing women and children, and your sympathies swing again and go to the Palestinians.

This time (we've all read about it) a bunch of ships loaded with humanitarian aid - reportedly some ten thousand tons of medicines, toys and building material - and with six or seven hundred pacifists aboard, sailed towards Gaza in an attempt to force the Israeli blockade. As expected it was stopped dead in its tracks by the Israeli military.

This episode might have passed unnoticed - several such ships have tried to force the blockade before - if the Israeli military hadn't totally bungled their operation. First, they attacked in international waters ships that were clearly civilian. Second, the attack was, as President Sarkozy immediately noted, "disproportionate": on board the ships there were only knives and clubs (no firearms), and while some Israeli soldiers got unfortunately wounded, the dead (9 of them according to the latest reports) are all on the side of the civilians aboard the ships.

This particular Israel vs. Palestine round has clearly come out in favour of Palestine. As a result of the attack, Israel has lost two of its most important supporting neighbours in the region: Turkey and Egypt.Turkey is clamouring for an international investigation, and so is the EU top diplomat, Lady Ashton. Egypt has reopened its Rafah border post which had been closed in deference to Israeli pressure.

Can America repair the damage done as two of its more trustworthy allies, Turkey and Egypt, clash with Israel? If nothing is done, there is little doubt that this episode signals the end (for the moment) to American efforts to revive the Israel-Palestine peace talks. But America so far hasn't done anything: Obama's silence has been deafening. He keeps talking (rightly so, no one will disagree this is a major issue) about the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but why nothing about Gaza? Worse, American diplomats at the UN Security Council are reportedly busy shooting down any proposal for an independent international investigation, demanding that it should be entrusted to Israel.Are they serious? How independent can they expect Israel to be in this matter?

America is giving the world the impression that it has not yet taken the real measure of the situation. Seeing it from where I live (in Italy),the differences in reporting the episode in the American press compared to the European were very striking. American newspapermen talked of the passengers aboard the ships as "pro-Palestinian activists", reflecting the terminology used by the Israeli Government and echoed the concept that it was an action of self-defense on the part of Israeli forces. In contrast,Europeans talked of "peace activists" or pacifists and underlined that Israel attacked in international waters and that Gaza has become over the last three years, because of the blockade, an "open-air prison" for the 1.4 million Palestinians living there.

Who's right? Nobody, of course. Hamas is wrong in continuing to deny Israel's right to exist and in supporting despicable and horrific terroristic methods. Israel is wrong in over-reacting, establishing blockades and building Berlin walls around Gaza, in continuing with its settlements policy and, more importantly, in denying Palestine's right to become a free, independent state.

What is the way out of this impasse that has lasted now nearly half-a-century? It is undoubtedly in the hands of America. Everyone in the Arab world is convinced that (a) Israel is more than a preferred ally of the United States but a de facto extension of America (even its Prime Minister is a born American), and (b) it has nuclear weapons, which explains why it has recently refused to join the international anti-nuclear pact. Maybe it does, and that is certainly a reason why Israel is so concerned about Iran getting its own nuclear bomb.

What are we supposed to do? Watch the Middle East burst into a nuclear mushroom or recognize Palestine?

With such a simple solution at hand (i.e. mutual recognition of Palestine's and Israel's right to exist as independent states), one wonders about Man and how stupid he can get...But then, we should remember that it took 110 years to solve the "Irish question". So I suppose we've still got time on our hands...

In the meantime, the ships' passengers who had ended in Israeli jails have all been expulsed and deported home (citizens from some 40 countries were involved - many Europeans, even some Americans but most of them were Turks). But what about the humanitarian aid the ships had brought? Not a word about it in the press. I assume that now everything has been confiscated by the Isreali...

And once again, it is the poor and the destitute in Gaza who are the real victims...

5.30.2010

When a bottle of water becomes a bottle of wine...

That can only happen in France! Yesterday, I ordered a bottle of Badoit mineral water in a nifty Parisian brasserie - btw, I highly recommend it, "Les Ministères" rue du Bac, where they serve excellent traditional French fare (I had superb kidneys with an old-style mustard sauce). And it is frequented by a seriously eating French clientele, always a good sign in a touristy place like Paris.

But the bottle of water? Yes, I couldn't believe it. My attention was first attracted by a neat tag around its collar, annoucing that it is produced since 1778 - a respectable date of birth, by any means - and that it is "recognized for its digestive and exhilarating virtues" (sic). Exhilarating? Yes, "exhilarantes" in French, and that (aside from being good for your liver) also means, as it does in English, something that makes you laugh hard.

OK, that was my first laugh (a small one), but there was more (and better)to come.

I turned the bottle over and read the description on the back. Here it is in bullet points, just the way it's printed:
"Bulles fines et légères" = fine and light bubbles: that would fit a Champagne...
"Nez discret et frais" = discreet and fresh "nose" meaning scent, which applies to wine of course...
"Attaque ronde et veloutée" = round and velvety "attack", meaning touch which again applies to wine...
"Bonne longueur en bouche" = good staying power in the mouth, i.e. the taste lasts the way good wine does...
"Effervescence délicate" = delicate froth, again a term well adapted to Champagne...
"Finesse aromatique" = aromatic delicacy: hey, are we still talking about water?
"Finale rafraichissante" = refreshing finale: all right, this is definitely wine. Every wine connoisseur worries about the finale.

Naturally there's an explanation on the left-hand side of the tag: the author of this superlative description of mineral water is none other than Dominique Laporte, the best sommelier of France. He also explains that this is how he is initating us to EAUnologie with Badoit. Yes, eaunology not enology.

So when are we going to have mineral water tasting competitions? With Perrier, Vichy, San Pellegrino, Fiji water, Ferrarelle and all the other mineral waters that exist around the globe? I can't wait! There's bound to be a lot of experts out there considering that every year an estimated 200 billion bottles of water are consumed and that this is one of the fastest rising markets in the food industry (it has grown some 50 percent over the past 5 years). In upscale restaurants in Paris and London, it has become elegant among the ultra rich to have Perrier as an apéritif and wash down refined nouvelle cuisine dishes with Evian or Fiji water.

I can just hear the comments of mineral water experts. Fruit and flower-inspired: "mulberry scented...clean as violets...with acerbic echoes of lime and lemon... ". Geological: "crystal-clear...pristine as chalk cliffs...". Meteorological: "a Tsunami of bubbles...effervescent as a spring rain...explosive as a volcano..." Spatial: "cool as outer space...shimmering like the full moon on a midsummer night..."

Yes, this is all about water - a rapidly diminishing resource. It is expected that fifty years from now, half the humans on this planet will suffer from drought. No wonder water is beginning to look like wine!

5.25.2010

Stieg Larsson's Trilogy: Another Black Swan in Literature!

Everyone's heard of that phenomenal blockbuster that's come out of Sweden: the Millenium Trilogy. The author is a Swedish newspaperman, Stieg Larsson, who by the way, is unfortunately dead - he died in 2004 at age 50 from a massive heart attack. We, in Europe, for once have been luckier than Americans in getting to know his work. The three volumes - crime thrillers featuring an improbable couple of mystery-solvers, a middle-aged investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and his young bisexual hacker friend, Lisbeth Salander who's a mathematical genius and covered with tattoos - have been translated in all major European languages,since they were first published in 2005 (I read it in Italian). They became a hit in Europe well before arriving in America, a very rare event. Usually, it's the other way round, as notoriously exemplified by Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code.

Now the third volume - The Girl who Kicked the Hornest's Nest - is coming out this week in the US and I thought you might be interested in hearing my...mmmm... opinion! And what a book this is! Once again and like its two predecessors, it's well over 800 pages long and weighs a ton. Anyone who's got an ebook reader would be well advised to load up the electronic version on his/her machine and thus avoid getting muscle cramps.

First, I'd like to point to the amazing odds that faced such a literary product. You'd think that anything longer than 2500 pages (even if divided in three volumes) would be next to impossible to sell. You'd have to be Dostoievsky in person to manage it! Yet Stieg Larsson's masterpiece has been an instant success and has sold millions of volumes all around the globe. His work is the next Harry Potter wonder - with adults this time. Which goes to show that publishers never know from where the next literary juggernaut might come from. In fact, when Larsson proposed his manuscript to publishers in Sweden, convinced that it would make him a millionaire and ensure him a happy retirement, he was the only one who thought so. By the way, that is a very common malady among would-be writers: they're all convinced they're the Next Big Writer... Larsson was turned down by everyone and eventually the only publisher willing to take the risk was a small one. That, of course, is a repeat of what happened with the Harry Potter series, and in the past, it's happened to a great many other big sellers, including Gone with the Wind (it was rejected 20 times!)

In short, books such as these are perfect "black swans", to use Nissim Taleb's famous image: they are totally improbable events - yet they do happen! It does make one wonder what the ingredients for (literary) success are. In any case, they are apparently not what literary agents, editors and publishers are looking for! Left to their own devices, publishers appear to prefer publishing "sure bets", i.e. authors that have already published successfully, like Stephen King, Dan Brown, Danielle Steele, Agatha Christie etc. In this "business model" new writers haven't got a ghost of a chance.

Thank God there are black swans around that remind everybody that it is wise to look beyond the "true and tried". Actually, what publishers forget is that people love anything that breaks the monotony - anything new, and that means, by definition, anything "untried".

The Millenium Trilogy is definitely a break with the accepted genre (mystery, spy stories etc). It's not another Le Carré or anything else you've ever read. Why? First, Stieg Larsson doesn't look down on his reader or takes him for an idiot. He expects him to plod through all kinds of background material, just as any good investigative journalist would. The famous principle of the new American writing school "Show, Don't Tell" is largely ignored - and that in itself is refreshing. Oh,to be sure, there are many suspenseful passages of "show", with plenty of violence, murder, sexual abuse and the like. And they're welcome and fun to read. But in between, you get a lot of thoughtful "tell" and complex disquisitions into highly interesting issues, such as how money is a source of corruption (in the first volume), how violence is linked to sexual abuse (the second volume) and how spies, while necessary for national security, are nevertheless a threat to democracy (the third volume). And a thread running through all three volumes is a definite and refreshing feminist stance. It is nice to read stuff that is unabashedly open-minded and liberal!

So, in spite of the excessive length of these volumes, you never get the impression you're indulging in cheap suspense and wasting your time. His books invite readers to think. Even when the story slows down to snail pace, one keeps reading to find out how the whole thing will get resolved. Because the protagonists - always highly likeable - get themselves entangled in seemingly hopeless situations. The fun is guaranteed.

These elements - dealing with interesting issues, proposing likeable characters in addition to ghastly villains, making the plot so complex that one wonders how it will all end, - are the key to the success of the Millenium Trilogy.

Is it well written? I don't know, unfortunately I can't read Swedish. Because I believe that to judge style, you have to read it in the original. In Sweden, people say it is well written. Indeed, many doubt that Stieg Larsson actually wrote it. They point to his companion,Eva Gabrielsson, an architect who is reputed to be a good writer while he, Larsson, was a graphic designer and reportedly couldn't write. Who knows...A sequel to the three volumes may yet come from his companion who has kept his personal computer which contains, it is said (see article in IHT of 22 May 2010), three quarters of the next volume, plus fragments of more volumes (Larsson had apparently planned on writing ten volumes). Whether we'll ever get to read anymore depends on the outcome of a legal battle between Ms. Gabrielsson and Larsson's father and brother who so far have inherited all rights to his work - a quirky effect of Swedish law that does not recognize any rights to an unmarried companion.


Is there something I don't like about the Millenium Trilogy? Yes, the length! I wish a good editor had taken a red pencil to it. Much of the "tell" parts could be cut back without affecting the book and leaving intact all the issues raised. I'm convinced that instead of nearly 900 pages a volume, it could easily be reduced to 300. And in the process gain in literary value. Because, let's face it, in this form, it's not exactly literature - too often it reads like straightforward investigative journalism.

This said, I highly recommend it. Because it is after all something new in crime thrillers: one could call it "romanticized investigative journalism". Quite a mouthful to describe, but well worth the effort to read...

Do let me know what you think - after you've read it, of course, three or six months from now!

5.19.2010

A neat fish restaurant in Paris: La Marée

Yesterday I tried again what used to be one of the classic fish restaurants in Paris back in the 1960s: La Marée. It's on the angle of rue Daru with the Faubourg St Honoré in an "art nouveau" building, and it has replaced what used to be until 1963 a pharmacy owned by White Russians.

By classic restaurant, I mean a comfortable setting, with wood panelling, almost (wow, the ugly word!) bourgeois but soooo "gemutlich", and with food that was always remarkably "true" - and by that I mean the best ingredients and careful, precise preparation.In short, a whiff of the sea. The last time I went there was some 15 years ago, it was still very good, even though the 1960s had become something of a lost decade. Then it changed hands in 2006, and I was curious to see whether it had maintained its original class...

Well it has! It's now run by a couple of very talented young people: Yves Mutin, the chef, and Stéphanie Bennassar who looks after clients in the dining room (still with the 1960's panels on the walls - but why not, they've become now part of the "classic look of the restaurant). Next time you're in Paris, don't miss out on it!

First Let me tell you where it is: go all the way to the end of Faubourg St Honoré, where it becomes Avenue des Ternes (that's in the 17th Arrondissement). Ah, before I forget, another plus: if you like music, it's right next door to the Salle Pleyel, so you can combine an evening of music and follow up with supper at La Marée. These young people running the place are clever and keep the restaurant open for the very purpose of catering to late music fans - meaning people come in for dinner as late as 11 pm...

The food? I'd give it at least two stars if I were the Michelin Guide (indeed I've been to 2 stars restaurants that didn't deserve them - more on that another time). The classical cuisine was perfect: I had white asparagus with mousseline sauce, flavourful, cooked right (they could be eaten right to the end, yet they were not soggy) and the sauce was light and tasted just right, not too much lemon. My husband had a classic fish soup as entrée, equally good with the usual accompaniment of fried bread, rouille and grated swiss cheese to float on the soup. This was followed by a salmon perfectly done with new potatoes pan-fried in delicate poultry-flavoured butter and an unusual, very "nouvelle" preparation for fish fillets of St Pierre: served in a light purée of fresh peas (it's the season now), the fish was covered with paper-thin slices of raw tomatoes. A striking green-red dish! The wine was satisfying dry and fruity Pouilly Fumé Blondelet 2009 "Domaine Le Bouchot". We closed the meal with a crème brulée, which was ok (probably the only thing that could have been better) and a coffee with "mignardises" (small petits fours and chocolates) that were superlative.

Total cost? A little over €100 for two, which is very reasonable for a well-served meal based on fish fare - always an expensive kind of food - in a pleasant surrounding and well-served (the service is fast).

The address: Restaurant La Marée 258, rue du Faubourg St Honoré
tel: +33 (0)1 43802000
opened every day

PS It's a good idea to call to reserve a table. We went on a week-day and it was really full (we couldn't eat before 10 pm).

5.11.2010

Post-scriptum: The Euro is Saved but it still Hobbles on One Leg!

One whale of a fund is what it took to rescue the Euro: some €750 billion, nearly a $1 trillion, much more than what the American Government set up through the TARP to rescue Wall Street.

A very respectable amount of money - the level most analysts agreed on - and, not unsurprisingly given its size, it worked!

But if you look at the arrangement more closely, you realize that it's not a fund as such but a rescue mechanism: European governments don't expect (they hope) to have to actually put up the money. And, what is more important, they've given the green light to the European Central Bank to start acting as any central bank worth its name should, i.e. buy up bonds directly on the market to stabilize prices.

Seeing the positive reaction of the markets on Monday was a relief. The problem is that it could be short-lived.

Why?

Because the Euro still hobbles along on one leg only. It is still based on the Maastrich Treaty and on unrealistic parameters i.e. pieces of paper, rather than a real pan-European Treasury to prop it up, the way the American Dollar is.

If the European political class had a little courage, it would realize that what needs to be done now is to set up an institutional structure around the mechanism they've agreed on. A structure that would enable a faster response in case of speculative attacks. A structure that in the end, if it were credible enough, would cost a lot less than the €750 billion envisaged by the mechanism they've just agreed on...

Will Europeans have the necessary courage?

What worries me is the grumbling I can hear in the media. A lot of people - respectable economists and conservative politicians - complain that it looks like European Governments have caved in. To save the Euro was ok, they say, but that doesn't mean austerity measures can now be cut back. Of course, they can't. Governments have to learn to balance their budgets, and citizens to tighten their belts. We all agree on that.

But austerity measures shouldn't be pursued at the expense of economic growth. Remember, a healthy economy is what is needed to raise the necessary funds from taxes and eventually balance budgets. But this takes time and time has to be put into the equation. Before raising our arms in despair and calling for more austerity - and run the political risk of general strikes that block the productive machinery, not to mention kill some innocent people as recently happened in Greece - thought should be given to measures that encourage production and raise employment. The International Monetary Fund has learned that lesson after the Asian collapse in the 1990s, and these days it generally tries to accompany its rescue packages with measures to stimulate the economy.

Will our political class follow the IMF example? I hope so. Measures needed to take us out of the Great Recession are just as important as austerity measures, if not more. The only silver lining on a horizon laden with black clouds is that with a weaker Euro, our export industries (including tourism) will fare better.

Let us hope that a weaker Euro will be enough to drag us out of the recession. But it would be nice, wouldn't it, if Euro-zone governments pursued a common economic policy, so that we wouldn't be helplessly tossed about by every speculative attack, like a ship that has lost its sails and compass...

5.09.2010

Propping Up the Euro with an Emergency Fund: A First Step in the Right Direction

A first step, but a (very) small one.

I haven't seen the details of the proposed emergency fund (or mechanism) but rumours are that it would be around €70 billion.

If that is the right figure, it's peanuts! It's just about 10 percent of the TARP launched by the US Treasury to save the American banking system from collapse after Lehman Brothers had defaulted in September 2008. I know that the Greek crisis - around some €130 billion, give or take a dozen - is much, much smaller than Lehman Brothers which was "worth" some $600 billion. But €70 billion is puny if it's supposed to prop up the Euro, considering that Portugal and Spain are certain to be the next target of speculators. And then Ireland, Italy...

In short, a fund is a first step in the right direction...assuming that all Euro-zone finance ministers have understood that the said "direction" is setting up a European-wide Treasury or Ministry of Finances, like the US Treasury.

But has the European political class understood what is at stake? I doubt it. Consider what props up the American Dollar and has kept it going through the worst storms we've seen in History, including the latest one, the Big Recession. The American Dollar has two legs that keep it walking: one is the Federal reserve, the other is the US Treasury. What has the Euro got? One leg only: the European Central Bank. And not a very strong leg either, because it is limited by mandate to focus only on fighting inflation (unlike the Federal reserve which covers much broader questions of economic growth, unemployment etc) So far, we've been lucky with Mr. Trichet, the ECB head, who looks well beyond inflation (in these deflationary times, a singularly irrelevant question) and talks about a "systemic crisis".

Right he is. It is a systemic crisis, because the Euro is lacking a second leg to stand on: there's nothing like the US Treasury. As I've pointed out in my previous blog, the Euro has only got the Maastricht Treaty and a bunch of (now largely irrelevant) parameters. Will adding a small fund to this sorry cocktail make a difference? I seriously doubt it. It's not a question of money, but a question of mechanism. What is needed is a mechanism to tap as much money as is needed. If 70 billion will do the trick, fine. But if more is required, the decision process cannot take weeks the way it has happened for Greece.

It won't work.

What will work? Obviously, setting up a Euro-zone wide financial ministry. Because Europeans are hopelessly nationalistic, it can't be done politically. What can? I'm curious to see what Mr. Barroso and the EU Commission are coming up with. We should know by Monday morning what exactly they've been cooking in Brussels and whether it will work.

That's for the short term. Over the medium term, I still think that more is needed than an emergency fund. Maastricht has to change: a set of rules that are rigid and immediately disregarded cannot be a serious foundation for a currency. What is needed is a supranational Ministry of Finance responsible to the Finance Ministers of the Euro-member countries.

If that's too much to ask for, forget the Euro. And forget Europe too!
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