4th exchange

Dear Abdelkader,

Here we are worrying about Europe and the clashes and misunderstandings between its northern and southern mentalities, with The Hague, Berlin and Helsinki on one hand, and Athens, Rome, Madrid and Lisbon on the other. But meanwhile this world is slipping, like an eel from our hands, into irrelevance.

I arrived in Avignon on the night before the opening of its festival. I must shamefully admit that I had never been there before, perhaps because I’ve always preferred film, visual arts and music over theatre. I’ve also always been annoyed with those painfully long newspaper pieces that covered the festival. I imagined it as a coterie of Parisian snobs under a Mediterranean sun. Why would they let in normal folk like me? But yes, it remains a special city and so it was finally time to see it for myself.

The weather did not cooperate. One day it would be 37 degrees and windless, and the next day it would be 18 and pouring rain. And so it alternated for five days. In a museum I did see Modigliani’s last portrait of a female. She was so well captured that I after spending an hour staring I felt as if I had been to bed with her. Another museum, le Petit Palais, had shockingly good 15th century Italian art, with its cherry-on-top a Madonna by Botticelli with very sultry lips. While Botticelli carefully followed all the rules of religious art, he always managed to give his work some kind of naughty or indecent twist. I love it when artists quietly play with what is allowed and what isn’t.

But anyway, Abdelkader, this is not what I wanted to write to you about. I need to tell you about my restaurant visit. I believe there are two important benchmarks when it comes to regional cultures: the music and the kitchen. In Avignon I built things up very nicely: the first night I had a quick bite to acclimatise, the second night I enjoyed the offerings of a young and up-and-coming chef (the restaurant was named after its street number: 75), the third night I had a classic Provençale meal in a one-star restaurant (La Fourchette), and the last night I went to a local eating temple with two Michelin stars and two Gault & Millau chef caps. This restaurant was named after its chef/owner, Christian Etienne. Such a name makes it easy to remember but I did keep wondering which first name actually came first, Etienne or Christian. But with the restaurant located right beside the Palais des Papes, it could do no wrong.

Each summer Christian Etienne builds a seven-course menu around one ingredient: the tomato. Not only does the ice cream feature candied tomato, but the accompanying bread is shaded in tomato red. Of course one has to pay for all of his delicious creations. A menu costs 60 euros and a bottle of Côte du Rhône costs 40 (naturally a Chateauneuf du Pape would fit the surroundings the best, but that costs over double). But anyway, I will stop exposing my thrifty Dutchness. You yourself also like to indulge when it comes to food, and in this you are absolutely correct. Especially when you are in a place you don’t visit every day – such as a high terrace stuck to the side of a pope’s palace.

I had reserved our table when I was still in the Netherlands because I was worried it would be full of Parisians. You know how they hate tourists, so I made sure not to dress like one: with no Bermuda shorts, no t-shirt, no Nikes, no camera (not even a tiny digital one) and no strange little hat. I wore a decent Boss short-sleeved shirt and dark linen pants.

Due to the extreme heat, only the terrace was open. I had booked for 8.30 which is quite early for the Midi. I was with my lady and we were the last to be seated. The whole terrace was packed. When I ordered the aperitif and began to look around, I noticed that Marietje and I were the only Europeans.

‘A lot of Asians,’ I observed to the waiter when he came to take our order. 

‘Thank God, sir!’

‘Why do we have to thank God for that?’ 

‘Otherwise we would have long gone bankrupt, sir. No French, Italian, German or Belgian can still pay 300 euro for a meal. But for Our Cousins, this is not a problem.’ 

Nos Neveus – that’s what’s he called the Chinese, which I found quite sweet. In French, they differentiate between cousin and neveu, with cousin being a distant cousin and neveu being the son of your brother or sister.

Our Cousins were feasting as if it was all free. They were washing it down with bottles of Châteauneuf du Pape, along with a cola to quench the thirst. They’d first take a sip of cola before taking a sip of holy nectar – and then following this up with another quick sip of cola. Nasty. They showed little interest in the food itself. It was all about the ambience. But they did photograph each course to show how the Europeans did their best for Their Cousins.

In the middle of the terrace on a round table, there was a Chinese man, who could not have been older than 30, along with his wife, and their three-year-old daughter sitting in a high chair. He wore ultra-short pants, Nikes and a cream-white Liverpool football shirt with on its back a big number 18 and the player’s name: Kuyt. Since he was sitting right in front of me, I spent the whole night staring at Kuyt.

Kuyt was a rather dominant type. He could not sit still. He got up regularly to lift his daughter from her stool. He would then want to sit down again so he would put her back – with her screaming in protest. Kuyt required the constant help of a waiter, whether it was to rescue the napkin that had fallen into the tomato dish, to answer the demand for a substitute entrée since his wife could not stomach parsley, or to deal with Kuyt’s kid knocking over her third bottle of mineral water (she thought it so much fun, so why deny her the pleasure?). Kuyt was so incredibly present that I began to hate Kuyt. In fact, he stole me of my appetite.

As it goes with good chef-cooks, Christian Etienne was quick to notice this situation. He came by every 10 minutes to check if his guests were satisfied. I was obviously not. He asked if there was anything he could do to make things right. ‘Yes, you can give Kuyt a good kick in the ass, similar to those you see on English football fields,’ I said.

Alas, he could not grant my wish. But I understood.

‘It’s our clientele, sir. Over the border in Milan, Turin, Venetia and Florence, it’s exactly the same. We could not continue without these boys. And I say “boys” on purpose. Have you noticed their ages?’

Yes. If I had had children, these boys would be younger than my children. Plus these boys are multi-multi-multi-millionaires.

Christian Etienne bought me off with a huge goblet of Châteauneuf du Pape. And I began thinking about how you and I are working ourselves up over Europe and writing passionate statements about how things should change on this old continent. But in fact it’s already been taken over by the Chinese who, just to tease us, wear Liverpool shirts and pretend that they are our very own Kuyt.

In short, Abdelkader, we must aim our arrows at those playing the songs that we are already dancing to. It does not make any difference if we come from Amsterdam, Paris, Rabat or Jerusalem. I believe that even our friend Wilders is not aware that Brussels is already a long passed station. The real story is about Beijing and Seoul. Sure Wilders can say that the Netherlands should step out of the EU, but can he casually state that the Netherlands should happily disengage itself from the whole world? In the world, it’s Our Cousins – with an 18 on their backs – who are defining the future. 

I must now travel onward, Abdelkader. I’ll keep you up-to-date. 

All the best,
Jan 

 


Dear Jan,

I recognise that cousin. It’s me. I share the eagerness of those Chinese who want to eat their way through European culture. I’m also guilty of washing down foie gras with some Cola Light, and of the desire to sit down in a real restaurant with real wine glasses and real cutlery.

Some people have a criminal record. I have a culinary past.

For example as a child, I prepared my own French dishes by frying a big slab of entrecote until it was soft and falling apart. I would then add some mushrooms, let it all bubble in the brown sauce and then, as the cherry on top, add the fattiest piece of Roquefort cheese I could find. Anything to do with meat, brown sauces and mushrooms was French to me.

Playing chef. Those new smells that wafted through the kitchen made me feel as if I was busy with some kind of alchemical process. Through the melting and boiling of substances I was changing the world itself. Cooking is pure esoteric. By visiting that French restaurant, those Chinese were deluded into thinking they were world citizens – and what stories they will return home with!

And because I did this – a bit of stirring in the pan, making my own sauce – I also became a bit French. I believe that every Egyptian who deep-fries a frikandel should be automatically given Dutch nationality.

My little dish tasted like nothing. But I did not expect a miracle. It was enough to get lost in its creation.

Cooking changes who we are. Those who get inspired in the kitchen and start cooking, leave society’s constrictions behind them. They become artists. And those who eat the results become appreciators of the arts. It’s a ritual to be shared with enthusiasm. Full and content, people can then go their separate ways. Until the next exhibition! One of the reasons why there’s still always such an awfully claustrophobic atmosphere around arts and culture in the Netherlands, is because they don’t serve oysters and pop open some champagne after the show. For theatres wrestling with the Zeitgeist, I will say it again: include a tasty meal voucher with your tickets. To make it through a piece by the Austrian Jelinek, people need to enter the theatre with a full belly. The French understand this; their restaurants always offer reasonably priced set menus during any big festival.

To return to my thing with cooking in the kitchen.

My motivation was the desire to join (supposed) high culture – which includes cuisine. To help get me there I began to read Proust who, not coincidentally, begins by eating a madeleine which in turn triggers all these memories of a night kiss once desired. One of the most beautiful scenes in Ulysses, by that lapsed Irishman James Joyce, is the Jew Leopold Bloom’s inner monologue about the pleasures of offal as he walking to and from the butcher. In Lisbon, Bernardo Reis, a.k.a. Fernando Pessoa, studied the blackened banana that was on display in a market stall. Indeed, food runs like an intestine through European literature.

Whoever says there is no link between identity, national kitchens and memory deserves to be scolded. Food is one of the few products of culture that gives its users – both the eaters and the cooks – the feeling that they are taking part in something sublime. It’s a universal art. Cooking programmes are merely the continuation of alchemical rituals. Making mud pies out of mud. Bringing together seemingly disparate parts into a whole that suggests these ingredients were always meant to be together. Paella, bouillabaisse, hodgepodge.

One describes Sardinian worm cheese as heavenly and not that it’s particularly Italian. Enjoying food gives us a feeling of satisfaction because it gives us escape – the taste buds sends a mega ton of wonderful messages to the brain until we feel airborne. We are gone for a moment. It’s as if an angel pissed on your tongue. However by then, the food is already on its way to hell, the stomach. Humans are their own Divine Comedy.

For this experience we are willing to drive a few thousand kilometres out of our way. Even from Shanghai. One never goes to a restaurant; one always goes out of the way for one.

For the Chinese it must be double trouble and therefore doubly attractive. They have to deal with a large language barrier, just as we would in China. So whenever I see a Chinese in Europe in search of salvation, I mostly see myself in China in search of salvation.

The French language speaks little or nothing to them, yet they are impressed by all that it has produced. Last summer I was standing among the ruins of Maccu Piccu looking at all the unbelievable things produced by the Incas. Unfortunately my view was obscured by a young Chinese lady – no older than 16 – hopelessly spoiled by her millionaire parents who wanted a photo of her at any cost. She was crying and whining in a way that would put a Montessori school girl from Bloemendaal to shame. I noticed how she cried and whined like American girls do in sitcoms. There was nothing Chinese about it. She was also crying and whining in American-English and not Mandarin. But what I want to point out to you Jan, which is also a continuation of your sharp observations, is that she had to be on the photo with her fat and expensive Louis Vuitton purse in her small mouse-like hands. The photo was meant to document the purse and not Maccu Piccu, the Incas or any architectural wonders. It was about the purse being in a faraway, exotic location. After all, she did not drag this thing all the way from Paris – likely bought in a shop where a gigantic bodyguard stands as if he is guarding a haram of virgins – for nothing. Consumerism is a project. I cannot deny that I wanted to give her a little push so she’d end up a few meters away recovering among the grazing llamas. That purse, that food – it summarises a culture. It carries a culture. It fits a culture.

And I do exactly the same. Tell me to go somewhere where they are cooking the Holy Grail and you’ll find me there within a couple of days. The first thing I do whenever I am traveling across Italy and entering a new town is visit a bookshop. It’s not to see if they have the latest Veronesi or to buy a newspaper. I go to the cooking section; I leaf through travel guides and I read which restaurants are in the area. What’s on offer? Once I find a couple – quickly remember, not to forget! – I immediately calm down.

I always believed that one was only worthy of European culture once one had licked a plate clean there. And to think I thought I was unique.

Best,
Abdelkader