A Parisian summer, in a time of suspect intellectualism

To think of France is to think of Paris.

And to think of Paris is to think of its icons – the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre with its I.M. Pei glass pyramid (and the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel), Notre-Dame de Paris…and that distinctive odour of eau de urine in the Parisan metro…

View of the Eiffel Tower from a metro train. Paris, France
Arc de Triomphe. Paris, France

The Louvre, with I.M. Pei glass pyramid. Paris, France
Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. Paris, France
Notre-Dame de Paris. Paris, France

…or its iconic foods: cheese (from Laurent Dubois), sourdough bread (from Poilane),
Fromagerie Laurent Dubois. Paris, France

sourdough bread from Poilane, cheese from Laurent Dubois, chacuterie. Paris, France
escargot, frog legs, oysters, sweetbread at the restaurant of Hotel du Louvre:
oysters, escargot snails, sweetbreads, frog legs, roast potatoes at the restaurant of Hotel du Louvre. Paris, France

more escargot and deliciously heavy creamy foie gras ravioli drizzled with truffle oil at Le Comptoir de la Gastronomie (“foie gras maison!” proclaims its website):

escargot with butter, garlic, and parsley. Le Comptoir de la Gastronomie, Paris, France
foie gras ravioli drizzled with truffle oil. Le Comptoir de la Gastronomie. Paris, France

Having read A.J. Liebling’s Between Meals several times as a continually ravenous university student (possibly due to fencing training 3 times a week, rugby training once a week, and cricket, too, once a week), I used to despair of ever visiting such temples of gastronomy, expecting that any trace of them would have disappeared in the intervening years.

What Paris now offers though, is the pleasure of having my tummy satiated by a normal meal. In Asia, noodles and rice just don’t seem to present much bulk at all – an hour after lunch and I’ll be rifling through the office snack stash with a growling tummy, to the chagrin of weight-conscious colleagues. In the U.K., the ubiquitous potatoes helped some, but that had to be topped up with tea and biscuits ever so often. Ah, in France though, all that good tasty dairy fat in cheese and cream totally keeps me going for hours.

Still, worth rounding off a meal with sweets of course, just for good measure, and Pierre Hermé is just the thing.

feuilles. Pierre Hermé. Paris, France
ispahan. Pierre Hermé. Paris, France.
macarons, Pierre Hermé. Paris, France

I joked with my French ex-housemate that perhaps Paris would be a good place to settle in. Not only was the food a perfect Tinder match, the people too were just up my alley. Ex-housemate had been explaining how the locals considered themselves quite intellectual, and would not listen to even a simple proclamation of the gospel until there had been some serious argument over an issue of choice (not necessarily even the very reasonable and logical questions about the authenticity and authority of the Bible), and I simply love a good argument.

Religieuse pastry. Paris, FranceLast year, Sudhir Hazareesingh wrote about How the French Think. He considered French thought distinctive:

  • in its historical character (by which I mean both its substantive continuities over time and its references to the past as a source of legitimation or demarcation)
  • in its fixation with the nation and the collective self, which provide an enduring focus of public debate and the philosophical underpinning of assorted conceptions of the good life
  • in its extraordinary intensity (ideas are believed not only to matter but, in existential circumstances, to be worth dying for)
  • in the belief that communicating specialised forms of knowledge to a  wider public is an integral feature of intellectual activity
  • in its constant interplay between the themese of order and imagination – or to put it in terms of specific thinkers, between the cold linearity of Descartes and the unbridled expansiveness of Rousseau.

Buddhist monk at Shakespeare and Company. Paris, FranceNaturally, as if to prove his point, many French people have critiqued the book for leaving out certain philosophers, for giving too much space to Napoleon, for misunderstanding nuances of certain ideas (“has he not read Baudrillard?!”), etc. But all agree that French pride in the intellect defines the nation.

Je pense donc je suis“. Cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am.

And the French have interpreted Descartes to mean that Thought is man’s highest sacred duty.

But the current hooha over the burkini ban in certain part(s) of France has tarnished this image. Could it be that the French, like everyone else, is happy for the freedom of thought…as long as it is the same as their own?!

crepe, Breizh Café, Paris, France
a bowl of cider, Breizh Café. Paris, France

A more fundamental fallacy is this: the assumption that the human intellect is infallible.

A (more English) empirical enquiry would effectively evidence this.

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