Archives for January 2016

Visit to the Swedish Club

Our group “meet up” at Lili et Riton in Montparnasse

Our group “meet up” at Lili et Riton in Montparnasse

Last week we received an invitation from an acquaintance to go to a mixed French and English group get together at a local Paris cafe, Lili et Riton in Montparnasse. It was followed by a light dinner and jazz music fest at a place called Cercle Suédois (Swedish Club). Brenda and I showed up at the cafe well after the get together had started. Brenda sat down across from me and started speaking in English and French with the man next to her. Another man arrived, still bundled in wool coat, scarf, and hat and sat down next to me.

His name was Didier, and he was most interesting. We had a wide ranging conversation – first me telling him in French about our lives and how we ended up moving to Paris, then him telling me about being a Parisian who moved to paradise, which for him was the west coast of Florida near Naples. He said in passing that his life with women in Florida was thus far a disaster. His French breeding was somehow holding him back. He spoke about nuances of French language – what words you choose and how you present yourself are very important. He noticed that I still had the price sticker on my 2 euro notebook – sign of a person who doesn’t pay attention to appearances. He pointed out that if you say, “je suis à la retraite” (I am retired), people will think you are old and living on a state pension, whereas if you say, “j’ai pris ma retraite” (I have taken my retirement), it conveys that you were able to retire by choice when you were younger. He asked me whether the requirement to be appointed to West Point or the Naval Academy by a Senator or Congressman meant that only the sons and daughters of aristocrats could go to those schools. I assured him that that wasn’t the case. We talked about currency exchange rates. His opinion was that the value of the dollar was largely dependent upon the strength of the US Military. Think about that. When he departed I thanked him and wished him well. He asked me to convey his goodbyes to the others so he wouldn’t have to interrupt their conversations – yet another sign of good breeding in France. After he left, others in the group asked me who he was. Nobody knew him.


Short video of Jazz ensemble at the Cercle Suédois

Enjoying the evening at Circle Suédois with jazz group playing in the background

Enjoying the evening at Circle Suédois with jazz group playing in the background

The group conversation went on some time longer, then we all departed for the Swedish Club, located on the 2nd floor of a building on Rue Rivoli between Place de la Concorde and Place Vendome, one of the tonier neighborhoods in Paris. On Wednesday nights the club has live jazz and serves light fare for dinner, all for a very reasonable price. Our host Frederick helped our group of 10 crowd around a table near the band. The food, conversation, and music were delightful. A grand evening out.

There was something else about the Swedish Club – a door to another room with the label plate “Nobel.” Someone in our group told me that Alfred Nobel used to have an office there where he awarded Nobel prizes. I took a photo of the room (which looked like a dining room) and the label plate. I did some research and found there was much more to the story.

Site of Nobel’s former Paris house on Avenue Raymond Poincaré

I finally found out that Nobel’s Paris house on Avenue Raymond Poincaré had been torn down to build this now famous art nouveau building

Nobel was a very rich Swedish industrialist and entrepreneur. Over his lifetime he became one of the richest men in the world. Though born in Sweden, Noble’s family moved to St Petersburg, Russia, when he was 9. His engineer father moved his business there, invented the rotary lathe used in the manufacture of plywood, and the underwater mine. He also started a profitable factory making explosives in Russia. Alfred and his 3 brothers received a first class education -learning several languages, poetry, chemistry and physics. Because his father wanted him to work in the family business Alfred was sent to Europe and the US for further training in chemical engineering. Alfred met an Italian chemist, Ascanio Sobrero, who invented nitroglycerin, a highly volatile and explosive material. For many years Alfred tested compounds to mix with nitroglycerin in order to make a stable, usable explosive. In 1867, he succeeded, patenting the material under the name dynamite. Yes, Alfred Nobel invented dynamite! The new explosive coupled with other inventions at the time drastically reduced the cost of major construction and could be readily applied to military weapons technology. Nobel became rich and extremely busy founding factories and laboratories in 90 different locations in 20 countries.

Nobel loved Paris. In 1875 he moved there and bought a house at what is today 59 avenue Raymond Poincaré. The original house was completely rebuilt in the Art Nouveau style by a subsequent owner. In 1876 Nobel advertised for a personal secretary, and hired an Austrian woman named Bertha Kinsky. She only worked for him a short time before deciding to return to Austria and marry Count Arthur Von Suttner. In spite of this Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner remained friends and kept writing letters to each other for decades. Over the years Bertha von Suttner became increasingly critical of the arms race. She wrote a famous book, Lay Down Your Arms, and became a prominent figure in the peace movement.

Room where Nobel signed his will

Nobel’s last will and testament was signed in this room at Cercle Suédois

In 1890, Nobel was accused by the French government of treason for selling advanced explosives to Italy. He decided to leave Paris and move to San Remo on the Italian Riviera. In 1895 he returned to Paris, and on November 27th composed his last will and testament before four Swedish witnesses at the Swedish Club in Paris, in the very room where I took the photo. The will was a paragraph just 300 words long. No lawyer was involved. In that document he directed that upon his death all his assets would be converted to cash, invested for a safe return, and the capital would be used to fund annual prizes to those who contributed the most to benefit mankind in the preceding year. The equal shares were to be distributed in following categories: physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and the promotion of peace and the fraternity of nations. It is believed that his choice of the last category was influenced by his long relationship with Bertha von Suttner. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905.

Upon Nobel’s death in 1896, the will specified that his wealth was to be given to a foundation that did not yet exist. His executors, two engineers he trusted, did not know they had been so named. It took the Swedish Academies and the Norwegian Parliament (assigned in the will to grant the various awards) two years of debating before they formed a foundation. Then there were a great many challenges to this will from the governments of France and Sweden, various family members, and academies within Sweden. Eventually all questions were resolved, and in 1901 the first prizes were awarded.

There is also an annual Nobel Prize in Economics, though this was not part of Nobel’s original will. The prize was established in 1968 by a donation from Sweden’s central bank, the Sveriges Riksbank, on the bank’s 300th anniversary. Although it is not one of the prizes that Alfred Nobel established in his will in 1895, it is referred to along with the other Nobel Prizes by the Nobel Foundation. Winners are announced with the other Nobel Prize winners, and receive the award at the same ceremony. In 2001, Nobel’s grand nephew Peter Nobel asked the Bank of Sweden to differentiate this award from the original five categories by declaring it “in Alfred Nobel’s memory”.

And lastly, if you’re in the Naples, FL area and meet a nice French man named Didier, there’s more to him than meets the eye.

Annual Trip to the Préfecture

Hugh standing in front of the Prefecture de Police, Paris

Standing in line before the riot started

On Thursday, January 7th we went on our annual sojourn to the Préfecture de Police to renew our residence permits. Our original appointment was December 10th, the day before we were leaving for a Mexican cruise vacation. It seemed then to be a good thing that the nice lady at the Préfecture asked us if we could please delay because their staff was overworked, but in hindsight it was a mistake. We got up at 8am after a late night out with our friends Cat and Jacques for our 10 am appointment at the Préfecture. We wanted to arrive early. It was also pouring rain.

After arriving at the Préfecture, we found that it was unexpectedly closed as a security precaution for memorial ceremonies being held for the killings at Charlie Hebdo a year earlier. Also there was a madman knife attack at the Préfecture de Police office in the 18th arrondissement that same morning, which may have added to the heightened security. The signboard outside the Préfecture told us they would reopen at 2 pm. We knew we would need to be early so, after getting some coffee, we went shopping (it was the first day of the semi annual government authorized sale in France). After visiting my favorite store, Zone Nordique, I had a big bag of clothes that I didn’t want to take to the Préfecture. I headed back across town to dump off the stuff at our apartment while Brenda continued shopping at some of her favorite stores. I took a 15 minute nap, then hit the road again to meet Brenda at the statue of Charlemagne in front of Notre Dame. They’ve been cleaning the outside of the Cathedral with some kind of pressure washer, so now all the black parts are spic and span.

We arrived at the Préfecture at about 1 pm. The line was already 100 yards long. We got in line and eventually struck up a conversation (mostly in French) with the Moroccan lady in front of us. She kept telling us how much she loved Michael Jackson, that he was very rich, that Americans are all very rich, that Madonna is rich (but was she as rich as Michael Jackson?). She was singing songs by Michael Jackson. He was related to Elvis, etc. Meanwhile the line had formed a U and gone back another 100 yards or so. About 5 minutes before 2pm, someone broke from the line and rushed the door. Suddenly everyone broke out of line and made a big crush of humanity in a semicircle around the door. We were, of course, at the back. The lady from Morocco was probably at the front.

Finally about 10 policemen showed up and told everyone to get back in line again, but this time in a direction different from the original line. Naturally some people who had stood in the original line for more than an hour were outraged to find that they would now be now at the back of the new line. I went to get in line, thinking surely the police would enforce their order by admitting only the people who were in line. Brenda remained with the defiant ones in the crush of humanity around the door. Eventually the door opened, and the police started to let people in. There was a great outcry from the people in line because they saw that the police started to let people into the building from all directions, despite their order for all people to line up in one direction. After about 20 minutes of pushing and shoving, Brenda called me to say that everyone around her was in agreement that I should come forward and join her, since this type of pushing and shoving match occurred every day, and cutting in line was the only way to ensure you could get in the door – so I did.

After more pushing and shoving we were in. I noted that a French lawyer, who had pulled his American client out of our original line and left the area before all civility disintegrated, somehow mysteriously reappeared ahead of us in the room for Americans. None of his client’s paperwork was complete so he kept cutting back in the line in front of us to speak to people, while all the time going back to explain and fill out her forms. She must have been one of those Platinum Club members. Eventually we appeared before our fonctionnaire (civil servant) and presented our files. Everything was in in order, and she issued us our récepassés, the documents that fill in for our cartes de séjour (residence permit) until the new ones are received. Our next appointment, where we get to fight through the line again, is to pay them 106 euros each on February 3rd to receive our cartes de séjour. Our past experience is that they won’t be ready then, and that after much waiting and presenting of the paperwork, we’ll find that we have to come back in March to receive the final product.

Bienvenue à France!