A trip to the bottom of the glass

It is one of the oldest forms of sustenance, a staple credited with warding off disease, supplying needed carbohydrates, and providing a reason for the cultivation of grain. Bread? No, what we are talking about here is beer.

Indeed, if Andrew and I would had looked more closely at the Code of Hammurabi while at the Louvre in Paris, we might have noticed that this “document” (it is a giant rock) which dates from around 1772 BC, includes provisions for what to do with unscrupulous merchants who water down their beer and sell short portions in return for cash: forcibly drown them (watch out Coors Light).

So it was with a sense of history, a need for sustenance, and in hopes of warding off disease that Andrew and I set out to sample some of Ireland’s finest alcohol at their sources – the Guinness Factory at St. James Gate and the Old Jameson Distillery in Dublin. After this education, the rest of the experiences of Ireland that followed can be best seen through the rich ruby-red color of a pint of Guinness.

Water is the soul of beer, making up more than 90% of the volume of the finished product. It is a local ingredient, and is responsible for the fact that some regions produce certain types of beer better than others (Dublin’s hard water, sourced from the Wicklow Mountains, is good for making stouts like Guinness). Brewers are particular about their water.

“Are you F*****D?!” roared a craggy-faced Irishman as he swept up to the bar at O’Donoghue’s, where Andrew and I had just taken our seats. Taken aback by this frontal assault of friendliness (especially after a steady diet of Parisian disregard), we mumbled an inadequate reply about having just arrived. This man, who we later found out hailed from Cork (“Bastard needs a f*****g passport just to get to DUH-blun,” according to the bartender), was a perfect example of what Ireland is all about – pubs, friends, beer, stories – an open culture that shares its successes and burdens together over a pint.

Barley is malted by soaking it in water, allowing it to germinate, and then roasting it dry. This malt is ground into grist, added to the water, and warmed to release the fermentable sugars that are the basic fuel for the fermentation process.

There is a sickly-sweet atmosphere that comes from staying in a hostel. The sickly mostly goes without saying (consider this math: 10 twenty-somethings living in one room with one bathroom). As for the sweet, these modern-day tenements are a haven for like-minded (beer-minded) young people to meet, make friends, and explore a new place together. Like anything else, if you compress enough of some element together in a closed environment, you can’t be surprised when it goes nuclear.

Andrew and I stayed at the Times Hostel, right next to Trinity College, and while we didn’t have much privacy, we did have a great time, meeting some new friends and sharing (a few too) many pints together in the bars in Dublin.

Our big night out consisted of the all-too-typical trashy pub crawl that seemed to transform each bar it touched (even the one billed as famous for “traditional Irish music”) into one of Faneuil Hall’s finest bro-festivals. But with each bar and each new infusion of Guinness it mattered less and less, as the colored lights, the sounds of the streets, and the voices of our new friends mashed together into the “significant, elemental, and profound” experience that leaves only its most visceral elements on our consciousness the next day.

And yet, when that next day dawned, all we could say was – “that was worth it, hangover and all.”

Hops are not an essential element of the fermentation process. Instead, they contribute a bitter flavor that balances out the sweetness of the malt. Hops are typically added during the boiling process before the almost-beer is chilled and sent to the fermentation tanks.

To provide some contrast to our boozy hostel experience, Andrew and I set out to test ourselves against the local links, a short tight course in Donabate. The golf course was gorgeous, set right along the Irish Sea, and within sight of Lambay Island and the cliffs of Howth.

The course was like a good old Irish face – shaped and pitted by the sun, wind, rain, and tides into a craggy landscape that spoke volumes without the need for words. The narrow fairways were flanked by acres of utterly impenetrable thatch, littered with pot bunkers. It was truly man versus nature – the typical golfing battle of the thinking mind against the wind, rain, and self, mirrored in the scenery as the manicured fairways clashed with the unruly abundance of the deep rough.

By the time it was over, we had learned the truth of Lee Trevino’s summation of the difficulties of links golf. “At 15, we put down the bag to hunt for the ball, found the ball, but lost the bag.” And while we were able to return our rental bags, we left a few dozen out there for the golf gods.

Yeast is the soul of a beer. It is the most proprietary part of the process, imparting key flavor notes as it consumes the sugar and transforms it into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Each brewery guards its strain of yeast as its most treasured trade secret. A culture of the Guinness yeast is stored in a vault in the office of the master brewer in case anything happens to production yeasts.

As we listened to the story of the great brands of Irish drink culture, I was surprised by both how similar and how different they were from the stories that I had heard in America.

A half dozen visits to the Harpoon and Sam Adams breweries have left the basic beer story a rote script (“the malt is ground and headed to release the fermentable sugars…”). The story here was still the same – water plus malt plus hops plus yeast equals beer. Even making whiskey follows a surprisingly similar narrative (with Jameson, we still see water plus barley; the only real difference is in the concentration of the alcohol through distillation).

Yet there was something different in these two temples to Bacchus – scale and history. Both brands date to the late 1700s. And even at their outset, their founders had a sense of purpose that transcended simply filling a market niche. They were out to master a craft, and the scope of their ambitions knew no bounds. Arthur Guinness had the gall to sign a 9,000-year lease for his property at St. James Gate. John Jameson built the largest whiskey distillery in the world in Dublin. The footprints of these two men still loom large over the Irish industry even 250 hundred years later – a fact evidenced in Guinness’s seven-story temple to the creation of the perfect pint and Jameson’s stylized video of the whiskey-making process.

Yet the proof, as always, is in the pudding. And with this pudding, we could only echo Guinness’s current master brewer – “What a rich flavor!”

Truly Olympians of their craft.

-Tim

A couple of hacks, choppin’ away

We hopped out of bed, shook our bleary-eyed hangovers away as best we could, and threw on the nicest clothes we had packed—perhaps not behavior typical of a pair of 20-somethings at 9 in the morning following a marathon pub crawl, but we had a big day ahead of us. A very important date waited for us at 1:20 that day: a tee time at Corballis Golf Links in Donabate, Ireland.

When we examined the course online, we hesitated when we saw the scorecard: the whole 18 was barely 5,000 yards long and played to a par of 66. An “executive nine” style of round wasn’t exactly what we had in mind for our Irish golfing experience. However, the course was nearby, accessible, cheap (only 30 euro, including club rental), and on the ocean, so off to Donabate we went.

A 20-minute train ride to Donabate Station and a three-kilometer walk through the Irish countryside, complete with curious horses and sporadic rainfall, brought us to Corballis, situated directly on the Irish Sea. I’m quite certain Corballis doesn’t get many customers showing up to the course with literally no golf equipment on their person, but they still allowed a couple of scrubby golf pilgrims to put their skills to the test in an entirely new sort of challenge.

When I’ve watched the British Open on television, I’m always stunned that golf professionals can’t bring the courses to their knees; many of the par-4s are within driving distance from the tee, and the distances on par-5s should offer no challenge to the booming swings of Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, and the rest of golf’s best.

As I discovered, distance is just one way to measure difficulty because this course was really freaking hard. The fairways, in many cases no more than 30 yards wide, might as well have been flanked by rivers of magma on both sides; if your ball entered the heather that pervaded the course, it was lost forever. I lost nine (!) balls on the first nine holes, the exact landing points of which I could often see perfectly from where I struck them. There was no hope; they had been claimed by the impenetrable bush as offerings to the golf demons.

It took us about four holes (and a combined six or seven lost balls) for the wisdom of Chi Chi Rodriguez’s famous quote to hit home: “Golf is a thinking man’s game.” The blunt style of golf familiar to us—driver off the tee, choice of iron dictated exclusively by distance—simply wasn’t suited to the links game. The absurdity of our initial strategy was best exemplified by exchanges like this one, on the fourth or fifth tee:

(As I address my ball with a driver):“How many balls do we have left?”

“Three…well, technically four, but…”

(Grimly):“Yeah.”

(Drive soars hopelessly into the abyss)

We also had to contend with a typically British weather pattern, as a rumbling bank of dark clouds slowly approached from the horizon. Though we were subject to a few sprinkles, the worst of the rain somehow managed to pound every point around us except the golf course, sparing us from a truly Irish round of golf. What little precipitation we dealt with couldn’t dampen our spirits, just like the Irish beachgoers we saw enjoying walks down the wet sand with umbrellas in hand, their prospects of a pleasant outdoor day unmarred by a short spell of showers.

I’d like to tell you that our heroes made a storybook comeback, seamlessly adjusting to the unfamiliar conditions and recording a legendary score on the back nine; but that would be a disservice to the truth. Another way, we found out, to enhance the difficulty of a golf experience is the time-honored excuse of the semi-serious golfer: blame it on the equipment. Our rentals were decidedly well below par, though unfortunately not in the golfing sense. Tim’s three-ball putter may actually have improved his wayward putting stroke, but my ladies’ graphite irons (Mitsushiba brand, with Empress grips) required some adjustment. Ultimately, though, they served our purposes, which was to hack, slash, and chop away at the Irish hills like the shepherds of old, our sticks slapping that little white ball of sheep dung at long last into the rabbit hole.

-Andrew

Winning golds without gold: an economic analysis of the medal standings

By Andrew Mooney

This post can also be found on boston.com here.

The Olympics are, to a large extent, rigged from the outset. The countries that have made regular appearances at the top of the medal standings at the last few Summer Olympics—the United States, Germany, France, and Great Britain—also happen to be among the world’s giants in economic power. It would seem that wealthy countries that have resources to spare toward the development of their athletes produce much greater hauls of gold, silver, and bronze than do nations that wield lesser economic clout.

However, there’s nothing particularly interesting about the “Goliath bludgeons David” narrative, so let’s focus on David’s more endearing characteristics: he doesn’t have much to work with, but he tries hard, and every so often, he enjoys a dramatic morsel of success.

So it is with many of the nations that compete in the Olympics. They send fewer athletes with less access to world-class training and facilities than the familiar characters at the top of the medal standings, but occasionally, they produce a transcendent talent, like Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, or establish long-term dominance in a particular discipline, like Kenya in long-distance running.

To find out who does the most with the least, I took the official medal count from the last three Summer Olympics—Beijing in 2008, Athens in 2004, and Sydney in 2000—and adjusted it for each country’s GDP per capita in each of the three Olympic years. The rankings, now measured in medals controlled for per capita GDP (in 2011 USD), look very different from the traditional standings.

(The weights for per capita GDP are in billions of dollars per million citizens, which amounts to thousands of dollars per person. I divided the countries’ total medal counts by this figure to get the weighted medal score.)

gdp2008.png

gdp2004.png

gdp2000.png

One might think that countries with large raw populations have an advantage simply by virtue of the law of large numbers: with more people living within a country’s borders comes a greater chance that one or two of them will possess unique athletic ability.

But population doesn’t mean nearly as much without the ability to finance and foster its latent talent. India, a nation of over a billion people, has enjoyed little Olympic glory, which may be because many of its people are entrenched in poverty (and cricket isn’t an Olympic sport).

The counterexamples to India, however, are the successes of China and Russia, countries that rank 88th and 52nd, respectively, in GDP per capita, yet regularly enjoy places at the top of the medal standings. For better or worse, both of these nations have made Olympic success a priority, perhaps at the expense of more pragmatic allocations of those resources. They use their capital to find the outliers within their vast populations and give them the chance to shine on the international stage alongside their more privileged peers.

Despite having relatively low GDP per capita figures, both nations have enormous productive capacity, ranking among the highest in the world in raw GDP. In fact, in correlating both raw GDP and population with total medal count in separate tests, I found that the relationship between GDP and medal count was consistently much stronger (for the last three Summer Olympics, average correlation coefficient: 0.71) than the relationship between population and medal count (average correlation coefficient: 0.37). Of course, to some extent, levels of GDP and population go hand in hand—large countries are likelier to produce more economic output by virtue of their larger labor supplies—but the preceding analysis does suggest that national output is a better predictor of Olympic success than the size of the pool of athletes from which a country can pick. Even with a population over one billion, India is only ninth in raw GDP.

A love of sport is not unique to places like the United States, China, and Germany, but as these nations begin their inevitable ascents of the medal podium over the next few weeks, consider that there are larger forces at play behind the athletes’ individual feats. Just like life, the Olympics are not particularly fair. National differences in economic output, culture, and even geography, greatly affect the ultimate results of the Games, something to keep in mind each of the many times we hear the strains of ol’ Francis Scott Key.

Swimming on steroids: the suits that brought down records

By Andrew Mooney

This post can also be found on boston.com here.

The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing were remarkable for many reasons—the opening ceremonies, the human rights controversies, the Redeem Team—but the signature moments many Americans will remember came in the Water Cube, during the swimming events. Who could forget Michael Phelps out-touching Milorad Cavic by 0.01 seconds in the 100m butterfly, or Jason Lezak’s heroic charge in the 4x100m freestyle relay to overtake France’s Alain Bernard and keep Phelps’ pursuit of eight gold medals alive?

Of course, the asterisk with which those events will be tagged by history was the technology: the polyurethane Speedo LZR Racer suit. The space-age, NASA wind tunnel-tested garment increased buoyancy and allowed its wearer to glide through the water with significantly diminished drag. With a life span of only a dozen races and a small army of assistants needed to even put it on, the suit certainly didn’t seem like just a piece of clothing, and the performance it generated in the pool reinforced that impression. A combined 140 world records fell at the hands of swimmers wearing the new suits between February 2008 and July 2009. Finally, in January 2010, the international swimming federation FINA prohibited the wearing of non-textile suits like the LZR and its successor, the Arena X-Glide, in competition.

The results of the suits still stand, however, in the world records they produced. So just how much did they contribute to the swimmers’ successes over this two-year period? I set out to find the answer by isolating the effects of the suit and analyzing the distortions they created on record swimming times.

To start, I examined the progression of world record times in men’s swimming from the last 50 years—a more modern era of swimming, which includes the introduction of the flip turn and half body suits for men—and looked at how frequently, and by how much, world records fell over time. I focused on the freestyle, a stroke that has remained mostly consistent stylistically over this time span, in five different distances: the 50m, 100m, 200m, 400m, and 800m. As an example, here’s the world record progression for the last 20 years of the 200m, which is pretty typical of the general trend.

swimgoo.png

The rate at which the world record times fell was remarkably consistent across the five events. Since 1962, all five world records dropped at between 0.26 and 0.36 percent per year, which I treated as the baseline rate at which all swimming times improve, due to average advances in technique, athletic development, pool design, etc. One way to separate the effects of the polyurethane suits, then, is to compare the rate at which world records fell in 2008-09 to the average up to that time for each event.

swim3.png

*WRs only kept since 1976

As shown by the table, world record times for most of the events fell at a rate about two to five times greater than the average, with the exception of the 400m, which was curiously immune to the effects of the polyurethane suits. This last example says less about the effects of the swimsuit than it does about the greatness of Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe, the previous world record holder in the 400m. At this distance, the Thorpedo was a Speedo LZR unto himself, carving 3.7 seconds (1.7 percent) off the world record time between 1999 and 2002, during which he broke his own world record four separate times. It’s surprising that any equipment, outside of a speedboat, could allow someone to better Thorpe’s time.

Overall, the world records fell by, on average, 1.06 percent in excess of the average rate during the two-year polyurethane reign, which I believe to be mostly attributable to the change in equipment. This, then, is the magnitude of the swimsuits’ effects; a one percent drop in time may mean only one or two seconds, but that can be the difference between a very good race and a world record time. If the progression of records resumes its average rate after the ban on polyurethane suits, many of these won’t fall for another five or ten years. Only two world records have been set in men’s swimming since January 2010: the 1500m freestyle, a distance event in which the effects of the suit aren’t as pronounced, and the 200m individual medley, set by Ryan Lochte, perhaps the candidate most likely to produce a record-setting time. I limited my analysis to freestyle, but, as this summary of the 2009 world championships shows, the fact that so many records in other events were broken with the use of these suits suggests that the pattern is fairly uniform.

While the swimsuit may be the most obvious explanation for this spate of world records, a couple other factors might introduce error into my estimates. The first is the evolution of swimming pools over the last half-century, the designs of which have worked to reduce drag on swimmers, with changes in depth, width, and the effects of currents—certainly a contributing factor in the drop in times, though it’s difficult to say to what degree. However, I think the effect of pool improvements, which have come steadily over the past fifty years, would be mostly accounted for by the average rate of world record progression.

The other is that, by dealing with the progression of world record times rather than average times, I’ve allowed the possibility of the distorting influence of outliers to creep into the analysis. It could be that a few special athletes swam incredible times, independent of their equipment, and the presence of the suits merely disguised this fact. But the rise of relatively unheralded swimmers, like German Paul Biedermann, who bested Thorpe’s record in the 400m by 0.01 seconds in 2009, leads me to believe the suits deserve most of the credit for the flood of record times. As Biedermann himself admitted, the suit was “worth about two seconds” to his times.

In London, I anticipate that we’ll see swimming times more like those at the FINA World Championships in 2011 than at the Olympics in Beijing: impressive, but not record-breaking. Still, the accomplishment of a gold-medal winning race shouldn’t be reduced just because it isn’t done in a historic time. At least now we know that, equipment-wise, the playing field is a little more level, and the champions have achieved their status without rocket fuel in their suits.

Paris: Two Retrospectives

What the Dogs Saw

You feel a good day in your feet. If you have good shoes, it is a pleasant ache to match the rest of your lower body. Bad shoes leave behind blisters and their tattered remnants. Fortunately, the Sambas (and my feet) are holding up well.

This particular good day happened to coincide with Bastille Day, the celebration of the Parisian uprising against the monarchy in 1789 – an event which, according to my friend Etienne, who was kind enough to lend us the keys to his apartment, ushered in the first days of the 19th century, and the celebration of which proved good fodder for some more musings.

Morning – The Military in the Popular Consciousness

Our day began with an 8 am meeting with Andrew’s friend Shira Kogan, and a walk from the Luxembourg gardens to the Champs-Elysees for the Bastille Day military parade. For all the American stereotypes, France is a country very conscious of its military. Indeed, the very streets of Paris, the wide boulevards for which it is justly famous, reflect the fact that, after five revolutions between 1789 and 1870, the government got sick of storming brocades and built wide avenues leading to traffic circles and many spokes, so that, if necessary, they could set up a cannon in the middle and quickly clear any troublemakers. (Thanks again to Etienne for this historical tidbit). The military has also shaped its institutions, with a separate mausoleum (Les Invalides) dedicated to its military heroes, separate from those of the rest of French history (Pantheon).

Still, it is a bit shocking to be a part of a true military parade. As fighter jets flew over, trailing the colored smoke of the tricolor, the parade began, and whole squadrons of jets flew over. After the aerial show, row after row of soldiers filed past in full dress uniform, and following them, the tanks, humvees, personnel carriers, and other vehicles of the armored divisions rolled by. It was a very tangible display of national pride derived directly and unashamedly from the military institutions and military power.

There seemed something very refreshing in this acknowledgement in the military. Too often in the United States, it seems that military power and personnel are something that are taken for granted. For all the patriotism in our country, the efforts and sacrifices of our armed forces have been too easily reduced to a “Support our Troops” bumper sticker (which has itself been politicized beyond its basic concept), a yellow ribbon, or a kind word in the airport. What has ceased to exist is any up close and personal relationship. The percentage of people with direct family member who has served in the military has fallen from 75% for Americans over the age of 50 to about one-third for Americans ages 18-25. The result has been a military at arm’s length, so much so that we aren’t even able to credibly assess it as an institution any longer (see this link for some good commentary on the impact of this trend). With a professional military and wars on the opposite side of the world, it has become too easy to ignore the articles about Iraq and Afghanistan, and forget that our country and our military (for better or for worse) have been at war for almost a decade. As one soldier wrote, “America’s military is at war. America is at the mall. Or more likely in these difficult days, out looking for a job or standing in line for unemployment benefits.” How much better it is that the people of Paris see the faces of the people that protect them, see the equipment on which so much of the tax revenue is spent, and party with them openly in the streets of their capitol.

Afternoon – Impressions: Paris

After the close of the parade, we walked over to the Champs de Mars for a picnic under the Eiffel Tower. For €14, we had baguette, camembert, prosciutto, and wine enough for three people – one of the true joys of being in Paris.

After our picnic, we strolled to the Museé D’Orsay, a converted train station that houses one of the finest collections of impressionist art in the world. And while Monet’s “Impression: Sunrise” is not among the collection (it resides in the Museé Marmottan Monet), the picturesque landscapes, parties, and events shown in the paintings captured the Impressionist ideal of capturing a particular moment, the way the light hits a scene and lingers on in our consciousness.

Studies have shown that the human mind is not always a reliable narrator of the past. Indeed, we often remember events in the context of our state of mind at the time, referencing the recall of certain facts over others, and even writing in characters and events where they may not have occurred at all. (For further commentary, click here.) Our first impressions, “how the light hits” an event, color our future recollections.

With that in mind, I set down those “moments of light,” my impressions of the city of Paris. What will you take away from these “loose brushstrokes”?

-A hot water heater hanging by metal braces from the ceiling at our apartment on Boulevard Saint Michel

-Queuing for the public bathroom at Notre Dame next to pretty eyes and dark hair in a black t-shirt

-Children bounding on trampolines in the Tuileries, viewed from above

-A French picnic in the park with wine as cheap as water

-Francoise Holland, riding in an open-topped car

-A wife piggyback riding on her husband’s back to see the Bastille Day parade on the Champs-Elysees

-The view of and Montmarte from the clocktower in the Museé D’Orsay

-Sharing tall boys with Michiganders on the way back from the Bastille Day fireworks on the Champs de Mars

-A step-up backflip on the dance floor of the Pompier ball on the Rue Madame

-The “Goofy French Running Gait” (limp arms, open hands, palms facing back, legs sweeping from side to side)

-The feng shui squeegee with which they rake the crêpe on the hot stone

-A cat leaping from the top of a storefront to a second floor windowsill

Evening – A Preference for Beauty

After returning from our afternoon wanderings and enjoying some Ladurée macarons, we set out for our evening activities. Our first stop was the Jardin de Luxembourg, perhaps the most beautiful of the gardens in Paris. Site of the French Senate, this park is a perfect example of the use of public space in France. While American parks have a strongly utilitarian aspect to them (all baseball fields, basketball courts, and playgrounds), this park takes its aesthetics very seriously.  “Pelouse interdit” (forbidden grass) announce many signs on the finely manicured French lawns (which are just calling for short game practice with a pitching wedge). And while there is a “pelouse autorisée” (authorized grass) for throwing a Frisbee or playing tag, it is perhaps best to just sit on these lawns with a six-pack and admire the beauty of the rest of the gardens surrounding you (which is exactly what we did).

As the evening wore, on this preference for the aesthetic only grew stronger. We marched down from the Jardin de Luxembourg to watch the fireworks at the Eiffel Tower, stopping to view them from the vantage point where the Place de la Concorde meets the Seine. The fireworks themselves were fantastic, lasting over 25 minutes and framed by the dramatic light show of the Eiffel Tower. But what was most curious about this experience was exactly where we watched it – in the middle of a busy road, leaving only a single lane in each direction for cars to travel the bridge. And not only did this crowd of Parisians block all but two lanes of traffic, but they jeered any bus or tall vehicle with the audacity to momentarily obstruct their view. As if!

In sum: stop and smell the roses. And don’t care if someone tries to run you over while you do it.

Epilogue – Not Quite Bastille Day Anymore

Our final stop for the evening was the Pompier ball, an outdoor party put on by the fire stations of Paris. This was a proper party, with people hanging out the dancing, singing, and hanging out the windows. After waiting in line for an interminably long time, we were swept up in a mob of some Parisian footballers and eventually spit out back onto the streets around 3:15 am.

When we finally rolled into bed, sweaty and tired, the dogs were barkin’.

-Tim

American in a China Shop

For someone who tried to make a point of not stepping on too many toes, and thereby fulfilling certain unflattering American stereotypes, during my visit to Paris, it was a bit ironic that my stay in the city ended with me quite literally running over a Parisian’s foot with my suitcase in our dash to the subway Monday morning.

“Poutain!” he spat out at me (which, I’ve since learned from Urban Dictionary, is “French for bitch/whore/slut”). The French word for “hey man, sorry about that” eluded me, so a dumb stare and some muttered English had to suffice as substitutes. I don’t think he was satisfied.

It was the last in a series of moments that showed me I was in decidedly unfamiliar territory. Apparently, you don’t need an “Iowa Hawkeyes” t-shirt and a camera around your neck to be identified as an American. It was pretty well understood, as I approached any Frenchman, that whatever business was to pass between us would be transacted in English—though they made no secret of their annoyance at that fact.

Still, I couldn’t help but appreciate the source of their disdain. The French have a value system to which they adhere every bit as fervently as we hold the ideals of patriotism and hard work as uniquely American. Children are expected to be serious, like the eight-year-old boy lunching next to us in a café, whose calmness and manners made his American contemporaries look like they deserved every bit of this current trend in parenting. (For those Mooney family members reading, hiking boots to the face and requests for house-shaped sandwiches would likely not be tolerated). Manners and cultural development are extremely important to the Parisians, and from what I could tell, much of those values are derived from the city of Paris itself and in the art and architecture that makes it unique.

It was suggested to me that the French surrendered prematurely to the Germans in World War II in order that Paris would not be reduced to rubble by the advancing blitzkrieg—in American terms, a singularly cowardly, superficial, and typically French act. But when so much of the national spirit is wrapped up in the city’s old stones, one must at least recognize that the truth isn’t quite so simple. Parisians are fanatically proud of their city, reflected in the disgust with which our host, Etienne, regarded a glass façade tacked on somewhat tastelessly to the classic limestone of a Parisian building. “It is terry-bull,” he lamented, shaking his head.

For them, Paris, and French culture as a whole, represents the pinnacle of culture and an appreciation of life’s finer things. And after touring the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay, even with a pretty elementary understanding of art, it’s pretty clear that they’re not that far off. Maybe they don’t have to be so damn absorbed in their cultural breeding all the time, but it’s nice to know that principle, though in a form quite different from what I’m used to, still lives so strongly in some part of the world.

So I can’t be offended by my French waiter’s frustrated sighs when I jab my finger at my menu like a toddler picking out a new set of Lincoln Logs; I have a necessarily shallow appreciation of his environment and what it means to him. Those are the same sighs I breathe myself when a horde of Chinese tourists, with their goofy SARS masks (yeah, that’s still around) and picture poses, blocks my path on the way to class. They don’t mean any harm; they’re just looking to enjoy themselves (though I’d like to think Hello Kitty backpacks are ridiculous in any culture).

-Andrew