Christmas in Paris

I like Paris in winter – there are not too many tourists and the queues to get into museums and galleries are much shorter. Of course, in 2010 western Europe experienced snowpocalypse and many people suffered from cancelled transport and were forced to spend days trapped in airport terminals. Luckily I was spared that experience.

The typical Australian Christmas experience for me is to join relatives for a long lunch in the heat (trying to stay out of the sun) and then drive home in the evening to collapse for a nap.

Instead, this year, I drove back from Ieper (aka Ypres) in Belgium to join some friends for Christmas in Paris before flying to London. These friends are not geeks, so there was little discussion of technology. Instead we dined very well and went to the opera. Our conversation was wide-ranging and that camerarderie that arises when far from home on a traditional holiday kicked in.

Au Chien Qui Fume Xmas 2010On Christmas Eve we dined at a traditional restaurant called Au Chien Qui Fume near Pont Neuf. The staff were friendly and welcoming – making jokes and recommending wines to accompany our meal.

For Christmas Day we had a late lunch at a tiny but lovely Breton inspired place called Le Relais de l’Isle. It is on l’Ile Saint-Louis just across the bridge from Notre Dame Cathedral. Again we experienced a warm welcome from the proprietor of this establishment and enjoyed a fine meal with good wine.

Opera Bastille Paris Xmas 2010Then on Christmas Night we were off to the Opera Bastille to see a performance of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. It was rather amusing to see the opera performed in German with surtitles in French. It was a very enjoyable production and I enjoyed the strong female performers.

It was a very different experience of Christmas – of note was the fact that so many venues were open in Paris on Christmas Day. The weather on Christmas Day was lovely, Paris at its winter best with cold crisp air and clear blue skies.

On this Christmas Eve in Paris

I contemplate the year past and the year to come and think on how I want my life to be.

What do I want my life to stand for?

Not clamour for power or wealth; not hunger for praise or admiration; not frenzied desire for new and thrilling experiences.

What then is it? I’ve been sitting here in the somewhat chilly lobby of my hotel pondering for a while now.

I want, no aspire, to be civil and just in my words, meanings and acts. I want to meet my fellow human beings with peace in my heart and anger towards none. I want to be real, open, and free of fear.

I suppose that this seems to be all about me. But it seems to me that I am the only thing that I have the power to change.

Interesting to realise how little power I have to change other things and how much power I have to change myself.

Strange ponderings on Christmas Eve.

Wishing one and all a merry Christmas! Peace on earth and goodwill to all.

Flanders mud is pretty bad too

Recently I visited the site in Flanders where John McCrae wrote the famouns pomen In Flanders Fields. It is at the Essex Farm Aid Station only a few kilometres from Ieper (aka Ypres).

I visited on a cold, muddy and miserable day. The concrete bunker where the medicos triaged the wounded was not far from the various battlefields of the Ypres Salient. The site is also a cemetery now – Essex Farm Cemetery – as those who expired were buried in the field next to the aid station.

But the most telling thing for me was the tiny space that so many men fought and died over. The Ypres Salient was about 20 km by 6 km and you can stand on one of the few ridges in the area and see much of the disputed territory that was fought back and forth over between 1914 and 1918.

McCrae’s poem is moving – especially with the backstory of his inspiration at the death of his friend. But the sad truth is that some poetry was a mechanism for supporting the war and encouraging more men to sign up to fight. To become mere names upon a wall (like the Menin Gate) rather than to live, to create and know joy or peace.

I find the final sentiments of his poem not to my taste:

“Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”

Source: In Flanders Fields

More to my taste – having seen the utter waste and destruction of World War One – is Wilfrid Owen’s pungent poem:

“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori. ”

Source: Dulce et Decorum Est

Simply because the wars we fight now are not on the same grand scale as World War One it does not mean that individual and societal human suffering is any less. Afghanistan, Iraq show us the same futility and waste of humanity, and the pain and suffering will reverberate into future generations in ways of which we cannot yet count the cost.

The Somme really does have sticky mud

I have taken some time out from business meetings in Europe to make something of a personal pilgrimage in the steps of my ANZAC ancestors.

It has been a very moving and very sombre experience. To see the tiny spaces of land fought over in World War 1 that resulted in so many deaths is beyond tragic.

It is sobering to realise that every death did not just kill the individual concerned, it had flow on effects to each family, town and country and that damage reverberated for generations. And for every survivor there was no counselling, no awareness of the physical and emotional damage they carried with them and shared with families and society throughout their lives.

I toured the Somme and Ypres Salient with a French guide who combined a deep knowledge of the history of World War 1 with a gerat reverance for the sacrifices made by those who fought. Olivier Dirson of Chemins D’Histoire really helped me to understand what had happened both in battle and to the people around.

One of the saddest places to visit is the Fourth Australian Division monument at Bellenglise. Sad because it is a monument to battles fought in 1918 and to sacrifices made so close to the end of the war.

Yet also sad because, unlike the fine Somme American Cemetery and Memorial near Bony in Picardie, the Australian memorial is in the middle of farmers’ fields and can only be approached by a rough and muddy road. The stories of Somme mud are no joke. It is sticky and clumps-up on your feet and it is easy to see how walking through this mud could add several kilos to every step.

In damp or snowy weather it is impossible to drive up to the Fourth Australian Division monument at Bellenglise. This is a national scandal! That Australia cannot even be bothered to ensure that those of us who would remember them can reach this memorial made me feel angry.

How much would it cost to build a short paved road so that we can visit this site to remember the enormous sacrifices made by these men?

People are still the best thing about LeWeb

Each year LeWeb conference evolves and improves on the last one, but one thing remains – the amazing diversity of people that you meet. And this is one of the reasons that, in spite of many criticisms that others level at this conference, I like to attend.

Last night this was proven on a number of levels. I joined a diverse, smart and interesting group of people for dinner. The conversation ranged far and wide and it was a privilege to participate. I will not report the substance of the conversations as we were all very frank and it would not be fair.

The restaurant we dined at was wonderful, great traditional French food and wine, and the staff looked after our boisterous group very well. I had the venison and it was delicious. The desserts were amazing as well. I will share the food pr0n pics once I get around to uploading them.

L’Aiguière 37 bis, rue Montreuil 75011 Paris

Closest metro is: FAIDHERBE CHALIGNY – Line 8 (pink) towards the direction of Cretel Prefecture.

I can recommend this as a good place for a convivial meal in Paris.