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Savir's Corner: An Israeli in Paris and Rome
We can learn from the Romans and the Parisians, who have been warriors and have learned to celebrate life and the future.
Recently, I visited two magnificent cities, Paris and Rome, as I have so many times on business and pleasure. Strolling close to the Seine and the Tiber, I reflected on how in these cities, capitals of ancient empires, history has been absorbed by people and society, and, like all Israelis, constantly drew comparisons, with Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in my mind.

Paris is majestic, its beautiful architecture reflecting the complexity of the French language. It is grandiose, triumphant, from the Arc de Triomphe commissioned by Napoleon after the victory at Austerlitz in 1805, down the Champs Élysées to the Obelisk of Place de la Concorde.

The splendor, planned by emperors and kings for the glory of France; celebrating victories, but also expressing the richness of French culture.

No people sanctify their language as much as the French; to mispronounce French words is considered blasphemous. It hardly matters what you say, as long as you pronounce it correctly.

Indeed the French know how to use their language with great pride in their literature. Walking through the Latin Quarter you can enjoy the fragrance of great art; if you are lucky enough to find a small table at Les Deux Magots Café in Saint Germain, you can sip your café crème on the seats used by Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir or Camus. It’s probably the only café that awards a yearly literary award to a novel, a French novel of course. It inspires you to write, if you are not too distracted by beauty of the human landscape, the “Parisien chic.”

From there to the Isle Saint Louis, there is the house of the legendary Yves Montand and Simone Signoret. I was fortunate to visit them in 1985, by the side of then-prime minister Shimon Peres, a Francophile if there ever was one, one of the few foreigners who took Paris by storm in the mid-Fifties.

Montand took his audience by sheer charm, an ultimate French charm. You think of him when you walk through the red autumn leaves of Paris. Paris music is the music of the chansons of Georges Brassens, Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf and it follows you around town.

Parisians live between past and present. They glorify their history, they remember and celebrate victories and forget defeat. They remember the Empire, and the revolution and tend to forget the colonial past and the days of Vichy. They love France and the French, and have a latent disdain for strangers, even for visitors and, except for Woody Allen, also for everything that is American.

Muslims and Jews are welcome, but not really as part of the “real” French society. Yet in their midst there is a side for the daily turbulence of work and traffic, an ongoing cultural dialogue, filled with sophistication and often intellectual brilliance.

The French have taken the worst and the best from their past – the arrogance of victory and the depth of a truly fascinating culture; the gloire de la France and the joie de vivre.

An hour’s flight away is Rome.

It is also built on the foundation of an ancient empire. Immediately the taxi driver engages with you in an endless friendly conversation without knowing a word of English. Rome welcomes you with a smile.

Almost every city walk starts at the Coliseum, the ancient stadium, the beautiful arches of which survived wars and earthquakes.

Its construction was completed under Titus in 80 CE for the glory of the emperors and the pleasure of spectators – 50,000 of them jubilated at the brutal struggles between gladiators and lions; probably with similar acoustics as in today’s Roma-Lazio soccer derby in Rome’s Olympic Stadium with fanfare music, colorful flags, rhythmic chants and much fun.

From the Coliseum to the Roman Forum, in the footsteps of Julius Ceasar, the Roman guide will bring antiquity alive, proud of his past. Rome is full of antiquity and historic sites, spread all over town, as a part of an anarchic landscape.

Anarchy in a way is part of Roman life, also due to the almost nonexistent government.

You sense it all over the city, mostly in the traffic. Rome is full of buildings, but walking through its tiny streets is like a walk in nature. Every house, church and monument tells you that it has been there forever. Yet its monuments, churches and sculptures did not just grow there, it took great genius to create them. When you visit Michelangelo’s Moses in the San Pietro in Vincoli Church, you are hypnotized by his lively expression and feel like talking to him.

Michelangelo once explained that everything he sculpts is already inside the stone. You just have to take off unnecessary stone to discover life. That can be said for all of Rome.

From Moses to his believers in the Jewish Ghetto, created in the 16th century: beautiful orange-colored old buildings and old Romans sitting on benches, talking loudly to bypassers and chain smoking, which in this ungoverned city is politically correct. Some of the best Roman restaurants are located here.

For Romans, eating is a sort of prayer. Not “grande cuisine” but home cooking, even at the best of restaurants. Like at Gigetto’s in the heart of the Ghetto, where you can eat “carciofi alla Judea” (artichokes Jewish-style), the most typical of Roman dishes.

If the artichokes are Jewish, then the steps are Spanish; Romans are gracious to outsiders.

What splendor from the fountain of the Piazza di Spagna to the church on the top. Youth from all over the world cover the steps, with music ranging from John Lennon to Andrea Bocelli.

Once up the steps, it is important to enjoy the breathtaking view of the city. It is recommended to do it from the Terrace of the world-famous Eden Hotel – a Roman Garden of Eden, from which you see the city, in its full splendor. Lucio the barman, a quintessential wise Roman, can guide you to a menu of Rome: at the center, the dome of St.

Peter’s, another Michelangelo marvel, overlooking the whole city and the Catholic world. It is in many ways the center of Roman life throughout history – the popes determined much more than just the prayers. You can also see from the Terrace the beautiful rooftops, the many churches and the grand piazzas.

It is no wonder that Federico Fellini wrote many of his scripts from his table at the Terrace. To him, like to all Romans, the human landscape was the most important one. A few meters from the Eden, he filmed his masterpiece La Dolce Vita (“The Sweet Life”), with the elegant Marcello Mastroianni, chasing news and women all over town on his Vespa scooter, and the beautiful, feminine Anouk Aimée, whom Fellini defined as a goddess.

Dolce Vita is the leitmotiv of Roman life. If for Parisians it is correct pronunciation, for Romans it is how to live right and well. While the Romans are proud of their history and well entrenched in the Land of Rome, they live mostly in the present, quite unimpressed by past and future. They tend to take things lightly, as in a Verdi opera, not a Dante tragedy, even past fascism; everything with a smile, a song, a plate and a flirt. They are constantly in love with each other, but most of all with life.

If history left the Parisians with a sense of cultural superiority, it left the Romans with a combination of pride and humility. In both cities, it left the people with a sense of purpose to celebrate life.

This brings us to reflect on ourselves.

Past and present are very intertwined in Israeli life. Our history is our birthright as a nation and a state. It is part of a unique civilization and culture.

Jewish life was full of great achievements in all walks of life.

Yet its legacy to us is mostly about remembering the sufferings and persecutions.

When we pray at the Wall, we lament. Our uniqueness is remembered more by the threats to our survival, than by the great achievements and creativity of our people. History to most of us is a heavy burden and it blurs our view of the future. We are convinced that history will repeat itself, as we recite from the Haggada, that in every generation there will be someone who will want to destroy us.

Yet Jewish history is a great story of the victory of life as we survived in spite of many odds.

Now with 65 years of independence, maybe the time has come to be less hypnotized by the past and to celebrate life for the sake of the future.

In this we can learn from the Romans and the Parisians, who have been warriors and have learned to celebrate life and the future. In our metropolis, Tel Aviv, this is already happening, as it too has learned to appreciate life and celebrate it.

The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords. Barbara Hurwitz edited this column.
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