This is an open-ended blog ranging from news about my latest gigs and publications
to ruminations about politics, world affairs, culture and whatever piques my interest—or ire.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

LET THEM DRINK (BURNT) COFFEE: The Starbucks invasion

The art of brewing coffee and the café culture that it engendered has long roots in France. The first café in Paris dates back to 1665. At the time of the Revolution, there were no fewer than 2,000 cafés in Paris. One could say that the Enlightenment was fuelled by caffein: Voltaire is said to have downed a dozen cups a day. During the Revolution, legendary establishments like the Café Procope (still in business) hosted stormy meetings by the likes of Robespierre, Danton and Marat. The nearby Café Les Deux Magots and Café Flore were favorite haunts of the Parisian intelligentsia—Camus, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir wrote whole books while sitting at their sidewalk tables, sipping coffee, and chain-smoking Gauloises. Today, there are no fewer than 45,000 cafés in France. 

From all of this, one could conclude that the French know something about roasting, brewing, and drinking coffee. So why does an upstart, greedy, endlessly expansionist outfit out of Seattle—an outfit that burns its coffee beans  on the mistaken assumption that an espresso should taste like smoke, an outfit that commits the travesty of  serving coffee in cardboard cups, that adulterates this noble brew with soy milk and hazelnut syrup—why does such a company think it has a right to plant its all-too-familiar logo in France? 

There now some 50 Starbucks in France—the most recent one (pictured above) is located 200 yards from the chateau where Louis XIV was born in Saint Germain-en-Laye, just west of Paris. Where are the barricades? Where are the sans-culottes? Where are the legions of French cultural purists calling for boycotts and picketing these alien intruders? Nowhere to be found. The French will embrace this new outlet as they have embraced its predecessors. Like blue jeans, rock n' roll, action movies, and cheeseburgers, Starbucks will attract French consumers precisely because it is so...American. Not that the French particularly like Americans, or approve of American policies, or applaud American leadership of the so-called Western world. It's just that the American lifestyle is considered—especially by the young—to be modern, cool, hip, non-stodgy. And so the homogenization of world culture continues. 

Once upon a time, Napoleon's armies conquered most of Western Europe. Now the invasion is led by Starbucks, McDonalds and Disney. In Napoleon's day, at least, the conquered nations put up a fight. Now they blow down their own gates and line up for soy cappuccinos. Call me a snob, an apostate, whatever, I'd just prefer to sit at my local Café de l'Industrie, savor a real espresso, or express as the French call it, and read the papers.

Monday, September 23, 2013


Had a great time guesting with the Fondy Riverside Bullet Band in Klein-Willebroek, Belgium, on Saturday. This was the second year in a row that I teamed up with trombonist Camiel Van Breedam's group at their venerable jazz club, the Het Veerhuis. (The above photo is from the September 2012 concert.) A special treat for me this year was the presence of Brian Turnock on bass and the surprise appearance of my old friend Mike Casimir.

I first met Mike in New Orleans in the early 1960s, played occasionally with his New Iberia Jazz Band in England in the 70s, and last saw him the year of Katrina. He had taken the Eurostar over from London expecting to surprise me, but Sylvaine and I ran into him at a sidewalk cafe before the gig and we wound up having dinner together. Reminiscing about old times, we recalled playing at this same club together in...1977! Mike hung up his trombone some years ago to run the family brass business, but he remains an avid and knowledgeable follower of New Orleans music (check out his posts on Facebook).
     Apart from the music, we enjoyed walking around the village of Klein-Willebroek, located on a picturesque canal about midway between Antwerp and Ghent. Most of the houses are made from bricks formerly produced in the nearby industrial town of Boom, once a major worldwide exporter of bricks. There is a mix of prewar and postwar construction, with some buildings dating back to the early 1600s.  Most of the streets have their original cobblestones. We particularly enjoyed having a drink at the Sachetti cafe, overlooking the canal and the sunlit facades of the houses on the other side. In sum, a most enjoyable weekend. I'm already signed up for a return engagement in 2014.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

DIAMONDS ARE A GIRL'S BEST FRIEND: As Sarkozy plots a comeback, the ex-First Lady underscores his bling-bling image

The night Nicolas Sarkozy was elected in 2007, he set the tone for his presidency by holding a victory celebration at the très chic Fouquet's restaurant, attended by leading members of France's glitterati. The next day, he and his family set off on a Mediterranean cruise aboard the yacht of mega-rich businessman Vincent Bolloré. Those two events, along with Sarkozy's penchant for Rolex watches, gold neck chains and Italian designer suits, forever defined him in the popular mind as the "bling-bling" President, fascinated by the vulgar trappings of wealth and beholden to those who possessed and flaunted them.
     It didn't help matters when he exchanged his first spouse for a stunning trophy wife in the person of Carla Bruni, a Franco-Italian model and singer who proceeded to spend some $500,000 in public money to set up her personal website. Sarkozy, a centre-right politician with roots in the Gaullist movement, protested that he represented the interests of all the French, rich and poor alike, and that those who dared to harp on his celebrity frequentations and his love of expensive jewelry (not to mention the extraordinary tax advantages that he concocted for the super-rich) were guilty of character assassination and base political partisanship. The voters had their say last year and dumped their bling-bling president in favor of the bland, uninspiring François Hollande, a Socialist Party veteran who championed "le petit people" and vowed to change the style and substance of French politics.
     Undermined by an economic recession and high unemployment, Hollande sank to historic lows in the polls and will face an uphill battle for re-election in 2017. As his announced conservative challengers continue to cut one another up with petty backstabbing manoeuvres, guess who is emerging as a potential frontrunner? Nicolas Sarkozy.
Sarkozy has tried to tone down his bling-bling image, even changing his Rolex for a more modest watch, in an effort to broaden his appeal to ordinary French voters. So one wonders what brilliant communications advisor allowed Mrs. Sarkozy to pose in the attached ads for Bulgari (rhymes with vulgary), whose image is so brazenly out of synch with the preoccupations of most voters. Is this a secret plot hatched by Sarkozy's enemies?

Saturday, September 14, 2013


Sylvaine Sancton's new children's photo book, "Some Birds..." (Pelican Publishing) has just come back from the printers and is available in a bookstore near you. We are very excited about the book and think young readers (and their parents) will find it charming and informative. Sylvaine is preparing to do signings and presentations after our return to New Orleans in early October. Please visit the Facebook page she has set up, befriend it, click the "like" button early and often, and tell your friends about it. Here's the link:

In addition to information about the book, you will find details about her author events at local bookstores. Please check it out, and come to her events. Some little one(s) you know will be glad you did.

Here is a description of the book from Amazon:

Learn about the funny lives of birds! Each species of bird is different. Some birds like to float along, others like to splash, and some like to fly up high while others fly down low. The author's amusing photographs capture the quirky characteristics of birds at work and at play in the New Orleans area. Pelicans, cormorants, ibises, among other local birds are featured in this delightful picture book. The book also includes a brief index of the birds and their habitats.

...And from the back cover:

Some birds are shy, and some birds are show-offs. Some birds make friends, some birds are copycats, and some birds even try to read. But all birds are beautifully featured in this sweet and simple book designed for children. Read along and learn about the funny lives of birds found in the New Orleans area, including pelicans, wood ducks, egrets, anhingas, and herons. This entertaining and educational introduction to the fascinating world of birds includes a brief index of the birds, their habits, and their habitats. 

You can find the book in local bookstores, or order it online at the following sites: 

Pelican Publishing

Friday, September 13, 2013

SAINT VALERY-EN-CAUX: a town with rugged cliffs and a tragic past—the backdrop for my latest novel

Just back from a two-day jaunt to Saint Valery-en-Caux, a small town in Normandy flanked by towering cliff walls. Saint Valery has an interesting history. It was the site of the last major battle before the French capitulated to Germany in June 1940. Rommel surrounded the town with his Panzer divisions and bottled up a French and Scottish force, taking some 20,000 prisoners after the Allies surrendered. The part of the town that faced the seafront, heavily damaged by German artillery, was completely razed four years later to give the occupying force a clear view of the sea in the event of an attempted Allied landing. (The actual D-Day landings took place some 50 miles to the south.) The rubble from the demolition was dumped into the sea to impede Allied landing craft. You can still see chunks of brick and mortar at low tide.
     That part of town was hastily rebuilt after the war with graceless, blocky buildings of brick and concrete. The older neighborhoods are composed of traditional structures made of brick and silex stones. The silex comes from the chalk cliffs, resembling the cliffs of Dover, that rise over the rocky beaches on both sides of the harbor. A lighthouse with a green lamp guards the entrance to the narrow port. Each day, the local fishing fleet, consisting of half a dozen small trawlers, leaves the port at high tide to return when the tide rises again. Over the years, many Saint Valery fishermen have been lost to the churning sea; their names and the names of their craft are engraved on marble plaques in the local chapel.

At low tide, the harbor is almost completely emptied of water, its 40-foot stone walls rising like the fortifications of an ancient castle. Seagulls, huge birds about a foot long with fearsome red-tipped beaks, hover over the port, often swooping down to swipe fish off the counters of the vendors' stands that line the quai.

We often buy fish there. It is so fresh that the sole and skate and turbot and cod are still flopping around on the counters. Today we bought two sole and a large sea bass. The fisherman's wife who runs the stand offered to skin the sole for us, but they were still alive so we declined. We have seen the fish mongers skin live sole for other customers, but didn't have the heart to order such a flaying. In any case, as the seller insists, sole cannot be eaten the day of the catch. It has to "rest" 24-hours.
    On arriving yesterday we headed straight to the Hôtel de la Poste on the central market square for a lunch of moules marinières and fries. That is always our traditional first-day meal, since this establishment has the best mussels of anyone along the Channel coast. After a long drizzly walk on the near-deserted beach, we took a drive along the coast, through the picturesque town of Veules-les-Roses to the village of Varengeville-sur-mer. There's a linen goods shop in Varengeville that Sylvaine always likes to visit. This part of Normandy is the world's biggest producer of flax, from which linen textiles (and lots of other things, including bread) are made. Most of it goes to the Chinese textile market, but the Lin et l'autre shop in Varengeville features 100% local merchandise.
Back in Saint Valery, we had dinner at the unassuming Eden Café, which offers some of the best local seafood in town. We both had a dozen oysters from nearby Veules-les-Roses and skate with capers. Before leaving this morning, we took another walk on the beach. The weather was mild for September. There was almost no wind. The sea was calm, with gentle waves rippling on the receding tide. The water is a milky aquamarine colour, due to the pounding of waves against the base of the chalky cliffs. The cliffs themselves tower like canyon walls more than hundred feet high. Sylvaine says she can hear the sound of the insides of the cliffs straining to break free. All I hear is the wind and surf. At the top of one cliff, near the casino, sits the remains of a German pillbox that once surveyed the sea with machine guns at the ready. Today it is just a perch for seagulls.

During the war, the German occupiers forbade the fisherman to go out further than 500 yards, lest they seek to communicate with enemy ships. Several boats were blown out of the water for venturing past that limit. The locals, those old enough to remember, tell me that the people who went along with the Germans got along; those who resisted were mercilessly suppressed. Yet there were resistors, just as there were collaborators, and black marketers, and lonely women who fell into the arms of handsome German soldiers. Strange, dark things happened here in those days—and their repercussions are still felt today.
     That is the subject of my latest novel.

Sunday, September 8, 2013


Here's another amusing souvenir I stumbled upon while sorting through all the junk stored in my attic in France: a rare photo of the amazing Blazers. (Left to right, George Welch, Arthur Ducore, a kid whose name I forgot, and yours truly.)

I wasn't always a clarinet player. There was a time, during my impressionable teen years, when I fell under the spell of the Beatles and joined a rock band called the Blazers.  We used to rehearse in George Welch's basement on Octavia Street in uptown New Orleans. His parents were very tolerant (or very deaf), since we would spend hours twanging our guitars with the amplifiers cranked up and singing off-key harmonies until our voices cracked. Naturally the Beatles were our idols and models, so we massacred all their hits to our immense satisfaction and decided we were ready for the big time. It never happened for us. I only remember three gigs: once at George's church; once at our alma mater, Benjamin Franklin High School  (it was just before lunchtime and one of our classmates pulled the plug on our amplifiers so he could go eat); and once on the occasion pictured above: the 1966 Latin Club party (which explains the togas). We retired shortly after that and I went back to trying to learn the clarinet. I guess you'd call that a good career move.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

TORTURE IN THE MARKETPLACE: A French funny hat band massacres "All of Me"

"Whenever  you feel like criticizing anyone...just remember that all people in this world haven't had the advantages you've had." That was the advice Nick Carraway's father gave him in The Great Gatsby. It's a wise observation and I generally try to abide by it. So I'm not going to make fun of these guys I encountered at an open-air market near Paris this morning. Honest. They seemed to be having a good time and no one was hurt. I looked on with good-natured amusement, captured the moment on my cheap cell phone, and present it here in hopes that it brightens your day.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

TELL IT TO THE JUDGE: why indicting Assad for war crimes is better than a military strike

A couple of days ago, I proposed an alternative to a risky military strike against the Syrian regime: charge President Bashar al-Assad with war crimes before the International Court of Justice in the Hague. I hadn't seen that idea mentioned anywhere else until today, when Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times wrote:  "Involving the International Criminal Court sounds wonderful but would make it more difficult to hammer out a peace deal in which President Bashar al-Assad steps down."

I won't flatter myself by suggesting that Kristof got the idea from my blog, but I will take issue with his assumption that war crimes charges would dissuade Assad from stepping down. The flaw with that reasoning is the notion that Assad would seriously negotiate himself out of power whether or not he faced the threat of a war crimes prosecution. As I argued in my earlier post on Syria, it is delusional to think that a hereditary dictator like Assad will negotiate a peace deal whose result would be to strip away his power. Like Gaddafi in Libya, he will fight on until he is defeated, captured, or killed.

The beauty of bringing charges before the ICJ is that they would hang permanently over Assad's head, designating him in the eyes of the world as an indicted war criminal, and providing the mechanism for imposing a severe but legal punishment (life imprisonment for example) if and when he is ousted from power. So why rush into a dangerous, possibly illegal, and probably ineffective military strike? Retribution deferred is still retribution. As Leo Tolstoy put it in the title of a famous short-story, "God sees the truth but waits."

WHAT, ME WORRY? A goofy snap of France's president goes viral

It's silly season in France. Not for any lack of serious subjects. Unemployment is hovering around 11%, the government is pushing an unpopular pension reform, President François Hollande is trying to win support for a punitive strike in Syria. But the thing that caused the biggest buzz this week was a goofy photo of the president taken during a class visit on the first day of school. Snapped at an unfortunate moment, the photo makes Hollande look like a cross between Daffy Duck and Alfred E. Neumann. The French wire service AFP initially distributed the photo along with a routine story on the president's school visit. The image immediately sparked howls of laughter and went viral on the Internet. Seeking to preserve the president's dignity, AFP withdrew the photo—but not before it had been widely copied and distributed on the web. That unusual step by the French wire service led to charges that the government had intervened to censor the image. Both the Elysée and AFP denied this, but the attempt to remove the picture from circulation only drew more attention to it. At a time when Hollande's approval ratings are at an all-time low, the photo flap was the last thing he needed. But at least no one in France is demanding to see his birth certificate.