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
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.
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.
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.