Monday, June 7, 2010

A European Weekend

I suppose many Americans, when they think about the region at all, see Continental Europe as an impotent, class-ridden, and corrupt civilization that the United States escaped from, quickly surpassed, and now defends, albeit rather reluctantly. To others, it represents a way of life we can only aspire to, where the food and wine are good, the vacations are long, the social safety net secure, and the savoir vivre unparalleled. Both visions are simple-minded…and both harbor an element of truth.

What cannot be denied is that as Europe has become more Americanized, America has become more Europeanized. When I returned from my first visit to France in 1978, there was only one place in Minneapolis that I knew of—the New French CafĂ©—where you could get an espresso. Now there are more than a hundred. And as McDonald’s conquered Europe, Panera sprang up in the United States as a franchise version of the corner bakery and bistro combined. Nowadays great bread can be found at many local bakeries and farmer's markets. Serrano ham is still a rarity, but a number of local bars will be broadcasting the upcoming World Cup—and advertising the fact, as if their customers were interested. The slow food movement, the local food movement, competitive bicycling, fresh pasta, gypsy-accordion bands, Bastille Day celebrations. Things have changed.

The weekend found me firmly settled into European mode, without even thinking much about it. Friday night downtown on the rooftop at Solera with friends (who had a coupon) eating gazpacho, short-ribs, shrimp croquettes, and patatas bravas. The only blot on that excursion was when the waitress asked me, “Are you folks from out of town?” I should have said, “Yeah, we’re from Clermont-Ferrand.”

Saturday morning it was the women’s finals of the French Open, live from Paris, and it was faintly thrilling to see Francesca Schiavoni conquer her nerves and play a commanding second-set tie-breaker against Aussie Samantha Stosur, growing more confident and daring with every point. She looked less like a seasoned pro than like a little girl whose dream is coming true. At twenty-nine, Schiavone is nearing the end of her career and has never come anywhere near a Grands Slam final before.

"I was feeling much more energy and more and more and more," she said. "I couldn't stop it. I felt it was my moment. I took it."

That energy and enthusiasm was readily apparent on the TV screen; it was the kind of sports moment—vaguely irrelevant but pure and beautiful—that one doesn’t easily forget. Schiavone became the first Italian woman to win a Grand Slam in the open era. She had been a source of several remarkable quips earlier in the week that bear repeating. After defeating Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark in the quarterfinals, she was asked to describe how she felt right when the match ended, and Schiavone replied in English, “In that moment, you remember many things from when you were young. Is special, because is your space, is your time, is your opportunity. I felt alone, but with all the love around me....It’s like if I ask you, ‘How did you feel when you married?’ You say, ‘It’s not easy to explain.’”

Can you imagine Kobe Bryant saying that?

After her triumph in the finals, Schiavone was asked what her plans were, and she remarked, "I want to go home to Mommy and Daddy, This is my goal for the moment. Usually we do good dinner or good lunch, 10 people, usually. Now I think I have to buy a new house, bigger, for 50 people."

The London Daily News termed the match “the worst ever” but to me it seemed quite charming. Even the loser, Stosur, remarked, “I guess you want the full fairytale, but it didn't quite happen.”

The men’s final pitted Raphael Nadal (Spaniard and all-around nice guy) against the only man who’d ever beaten him at the French Open, the brooding Swede Robin Soderling. It was a fun match to watch, because it was fairly close right up to the end, though Nadal was playing at the top of his game while Soderling grew increasingly tired and clumsy in his footing, spraying shots a foot wide or long with increasing frequency as the match progressed.

Meanwhile, I'd gone to the farmer’s market in the rain to pick up the fixings for a gazpacho, Andalusian style—smooth, rather than chunky—hoping to match the soup we'd eaten at Solera. I also cooked up a tortilla Espanol, which is basically a potato cake with eggs and a few shallots added that you flip back and forth by catching it with a big plate and sliding it back into the pan. When the tortilla was ready we opened a bottle of La Cala Vermentino de Sardegna and sat down to celebrate the Spanish and Italian victories, and the further Europeanization of Golden Valley.

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