The sound of music

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Zum Blauen Engel, Bern

We arrived here at our apartment in Bern, Switzerland, conveniently across the road from the conference venue, amid crowds celebrating the opening of the World Cup. Our second-floor accommodation is above a bar-restaurant, circled on four sides by huge screens and temporary outdoor seating. Our host apologised that he had hired a dj for the rest of that night. And so the matches have progressed…

The joke is that the thump-thump beat from below that first evening did not stop me getting to sleep. Instead, I was awoken by huge bells chiming 6 am. The nearby Pauluskirche counts each hour, and notes each passing quarter, and there it goes again. Much, much louder than the huge, sixteenth-century Zytglogge in the city centre with its mechanical jester getting in early every hour with his own bells, and the mechanical cock crowing three times. At least the local chimes shut down between 10 pm and 6 am.

The further joke is that I write in praise of Bern’s quiet. This is in the restaurants.

For several weeks we have moved (for Marion’s work) from Fremantle through Glasgow to here, and I have dined to much thumping beat, the seemingly necessary boost to meals these days. (I’m the old fogie in the corner.)

In Fremantle, we seemed lucky to stay adjacent to Bread in Common, to name a name. Quite good food in a vast warehouse conversion, so popular that you can’t hear yourself think. The thump never lets up, except if managing a coffee during the day at an outdoor seat. Fortunately, Fremantle is awash with great spots, albeit mostly also with monotonous mood-lifting.

Much the same in trendy Glasgow, although I must boast that our flat was between the Aragon and Lismore pubs (the video is from the Lismore), both with traditional musicians gathering in varying numbers on selected nights with their fiddles, flutes/whistles, underarm bagpipes, accordions, guitars, and bodhrán (Irish drum). Usually a fiddler starts off, and away they go, the leader mouthing key changes. I kept waiting for a cellist to come back; he’d led them in a wonderfully mournful selection. On another occasion, a tenor came out of the crowd, some notes wobbly, but he knew he had to hit the last one, and did. All determinedly acoustic.

A fellow whisky-drinker (no, I think he had an ale) explained that an Edinburgh conservatorium course in traditional music had generated something of a glut of young professionals.

Heavy “background” music obliterates the clink of cutlery and murmur of conversation. Accordingly, I recommend a couple of old-style places near here (warning: Bern is not cheap).

Being an unusually warm night, filling the outdoor tables, I was the only person inside at Zum Blauen Engel (Blue Angel). With no music whatsoever, I did get a distant exhaust fan. Otherwise, the dull thud of fridge door, clink of bottles, shaking of pans, sizzling from beyond the bench, occasional waiter exchange, old-fashioned clank of heavy glasses and crockery, my own knife and fork … I even heard the chef cut off a tranche of something. All satisfying.

Bern restaurant I
Waldheim

I felt part of the place, belonging to humanity, the world. Not some shouting cosmopolite out for a good time.

Around at the Waldheim, I lunched again almost alone inside, with just another four old fogies at seemingly their regular table, and across an enormous window-sill to those in the garden. The sound of people chatting outdoors, and birds… I could be dreaming (I don’t think so, even about the birds).

Again, a few clinks, waiter exchanges, the espresso being ground and a puck being bashed out, and people enjoying the peak of civilisation. The only odd note was the occasional phone-call announcing itself to a chirrup of Vivaldi.

Borrowed kitchens

Toaster tongs

Restaurant dining teaches new dishes, and how much better ingredients can be than we thought. And civil behaviour. Working in someone else’s kitchen – perhaps house-sitting, leasing an apartment or just contributing a course – teaches about equipment.

A borrowed kitchen can show that other people don’t cook or, if they do, put up with thin saucepans and ineffective knives. But we often learn useful tips.

No doubt you have lifted out toast without burning your fingers using toaster tongs all your life. I only discovered them in a sunny apartment in Le Marais a few years ago.

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Couvercle

Our present Latin Quarter studio provides more basic kitchen equipment. No toaster tongs, but why no ordinary kitchen tongs? I don’t really miss a microwave oven; the small, bench-top oven is handier.

We do have  “1 Couvercle (petit)” and “1 Couvercle (moyen)“, which translate on the inventory as “Cover (small)” and “Cover (big)”. These are interchangeable lids for the three sizes of “Casserole” (saucepan).

The name, “ouvreboîte camping“, puts the familiar can-opener in its place, as does the translation, “Military can-opener”.

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Clef universelle

The item, “1 Clef universelle” (shown left), translates as “Sardine tin key”. I recognised its purpose immediately, having grown up with smaller versions welded to such tins. Searching the supermarkets, we are yet to find a tin without its own ring-pull. We’ll hunt the specialty shops.

Nearly everybody’s favourite city

paris-tourist-shop2PARIS IS ONE WORD worth more than a thousand pictures.

My long-time friend Paul, an acute observer of the human condition, emailed we were leaving for “nearly everybody’s favourite city”.

That line, too, is probably not original, but explains why a thousand photographs are being snapped right now in front of Notre Dame and other monuments. And every picture is stimulated by, and reinforces, the intensely evocative, single word, Paris.

This might be the Paris of Francofonia, the new movie about protecting the Louvre’s own plunders during the Nazi occupation. Or the Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec, or of Sartre. Mine is the Paris of mid-twentieth century Hollywood movies, starring either Leslie Caron (An American in Paris, 1955; Gigi, 1956) or Audrey Hepburn (Sabrina, 1954;  Funny Face, 1956).

That’s the Paris of civilised modernity – of pushbikes, the Métro (now more than 4 million passengers daily), baguettes, Michelin guides, Coco Chanel, cafes, and restaurants.

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We have arrived in a studio in the Latin Quarter, with sun in the middle of the day, and the sound of young schoolchildren in a courtyard throughout.

On my first visits, even the most ordinary meals seemed shockingly superior to most in Australia.

Despite improvements back home, and Nordic, Spanish and other restaurants also proclaimed top rank, and with the boulevards suffering American chains, Paris still holds its own.

The milk might taste strangely cooked (the microfiltré option has helped), but how good is the cheese. The coffee might remain disappointing, but the croissants more than make up.

Lunch at Comptoir du Relais has been at a recognised destination (might write about that later). More tellingly, we merely followed our nose and chose Tunisian tajines at Chez Hammadi on our first night. The waiter talked about our lamb and fig order with a man in the kitchen, who took a plastic box from a fridge and looked into it, seemingly puzzled. Another man arrived and showed something on his phone. Perhaps they were googling the recipe.

Seemingly by magic, the lids were soon flourished off bubbling tagines. Excellent, and as to the cous-cous … we’ll be back. A succession of presumably other Tunisians joined in, supporting our host, as the place filled up. It was only overnight that I decided the actual kitchen must have been downstairs. And how could I have doubted the pervasive culinary dedication in this country.

We’re around the corner from another string of alleged tourist traps, competing on price, often two courses for 12 euros or lower. I stumbled upon and then out of Vins et Terroirs, whose formule provided a salad with blue cheese and walnuts, and then steak, béarnaise and chips, with a quarter pichet of wine, and another friendly and efficient waiter. My unsteadiness came from leaving via the uneven cobbles of the arcade opposite.

I developed a theory that you scarcely need a restaurant guidebook in Paris, owing to the intensity of gastronomic purpose. Almost everywhere seems to carry the weight of cultural responsibility.

The city is physically big enough to cope with the tourists. The five-storey buildings might constrain the children to courtyards,  but sufficiently tightly that people climb stairs, and walk lots, so it’s not just the diet that keeps them slim.

It’s not just demographic density that bears down on everyone, but also the exceptional cultural weight. Again, I do not speak principally of the Louvre or the Académie française. A relatively tight culture pervades every centimetre of the Métro, the narrow streets, the echoing voices, the formal gardens and parks … A visitor has immediately to submit, furiously deny or, like me, risk romanticising the city.

Things have got to be done correctly, which some French people might so stifling as to leave. Some seem concerned by dilution by immigration. Others might worry about the inroads by American fast-food. But a coherent culture infuses dining spots, from the most modest, up.

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