Don's Diary

August 31, 2001

Paris in August resembles the aftermath of some nuclear holocaust. The natives have gone to ground and the city is full of lost souls from abroad. Restaurants, shops, bakeries - most have signs promising to reopen in September after the grandes vacances . Those of my university colleagues who are still around shuffle past shamefacedly as if embarrassed not to have joined the universal escape to the coast.

But there is a plus side. Now is the time to appreciate in relative peace one of the world's most elegant cities, small enough to explore on foot.

One disadvantage, though, is that the university restaurants are closed. When open, one pays by plastic card. The actual cost depends on salary (not obvious to someone from Blairite Britain).

This being France, there are no vegetarian options, even in the wake of the BSE and foot-and-mouth crises. Unlike the UK government, which initially assured us that there was no risk involved in eating BSE-infected meat, the French government immediately warned its citizens that all meat eating was extremely dangerous.

As neither citizenry believes a word governments say, the BSE crisis caused nary a ripple in the French love affair with bifteck .

Paris University's Jussieu campus is obsessed with asbestos. Several years of demonstrations have ultimately convinced the university authorities that the only solution to the problem of asbestos on the campus is to tear down the place and start again. Many will express relief at this prospect, and not only because of the health hazard.

Although situated on a splendid site in the most beautiful city in the world, the Jussieu campus has never attracted plaudits for its architectural quality. A new structure can only be an improvement on the gridwork of threatening towers, whose elevators are perpetually covered in graffiti. Already certain facilities have been moved off campus, including, alas, the magnificent mathematics library, one of the resources that attracted me here.

I have just heard that due to some cost-cutting exercise to which I am not privy, my host laboratory will be rationalised out of existence. Laboratories are managed by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. Some academics are even directly employed by the CNRS, in which case they have no teaching duties at all - no doubt inspiring intense jealousy from colleagues. However, I shall still be keeping the same office; this being France, no one actually loses their job.

I have had some success in converting my French colleagues to the English habit of an afternoon tea break. But I fear this cross-Channel transplant is de trop . I have slowly come to realise that adding le teatime to a leisurely lunch, which ends with an espresso sipped in the university cafe overlooking the Seine, is not conducive to an efficient working day.

Allan Solomon, professor of mathematical physics at the Open University, is spending a sabbatical at the University of Paris VI.

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