Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Polk in Provence

Villa Rothschild in St. Jean Cap Ferrat, the former villa of Baroness Charlotte Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild, completed in 1912.
Polk in Provence
by Ned Brown

Awhile back, I wrote about a remarkable woman, Milbry Polk (explorer, author, teacher, mother and wife) and the organization she started, WINGS Worldquest, which funds female explorers (NYSD Philanthopy - 5.18.10). It was at a WINGS WorldQuest event five years ago that I met Milbry and her father, William Polk, the latter a former Kennedy/Johnson foreign policy advisor, academician, author (15 books to his name) and a recognized Middle East expert for nearly 50 years.

Paul Bremer.
It was at the chance encounter at the WINGS event that Bill Polk had me hooked with an incredible story. Shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Paul Bremer, the Coalition Provisional Authority in charge of Iraq, needed currency to support the U.S. operations in Iraq. He requested $12 billion in hard U.S. currency be airlifted to Iraq (Note: It’s hard for me to envision $12 billion in shrink-wrapped $100 bills on palettes, but I know it’s in the tons).

Anyway, the money gets shipped to Iraq, it arrives, and for some inexplicable reason, it disappears ... poof ... gone without a trace. It wasn’t until last year that I mentioned the incident to Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, and she confirmed the incident as she had been briefed on the same. There is still no accounting for the money.

I was fascinated by Bill Polk’s background and his knowledge of the Middle East. The logistical problem to interview him is that he lives in Vence, France in a restored and expanded country mas (or farmhouse) with his strikingly beautiful, elegant, artist wife, Baroness Elisabeth von Oppenheimer Polk. It wasn’t until recently that I decided to take a long weekend and head to Provence to interview Polk, and also handle a few other items on my personal travel To-Do list.

I arrived in Cannes to stay with my friends, Cezar and Mara Tiron, two of the happiest, loveliest and most down-to-earth people I know despite having made tens of millions of Euros in the travel business. Mara is very proud of her 14-year-old VW hatchback that she uses to scoot around town, leaving the Mercedes convertible to her two children and grateful guests comme moi. Cezar started his career as a guide in Romania for French tourists.
Cezar Tiron.
When he and Mara fled Romania and came to France in 1980, he had the foresight to see the growing tourism potential of China. At an early stage, he pioneered upscale French tours to China, especially for academics, cultural and history buffs. In 1998, he sold the company to a major travel agency, took a brief time off, and then returned to Romania to begin a highly successful commercial real estate development business.

The Tirons still keep their spectacular apartment in Paris’ 6th Arrondissement overlooking the Trocadero and they own 3 apartments in Cannes. They graciously lent me one for my visit.
Mira Tiron.
After a brief rest, it was off to the Polks’ for my long-awaited encounter. To say that they live in the secluded French country hillside and woods is an understatement — we managed to get lost on two separate visits. After stopping for directions several times, I finally arrived at their gate. Upon entering, I was greeted by Bill and his two English Sheepdogs, Happy (a girl) and Panda (the boy). Originally, the Polks had seven sheepdogs, and the two remain.

I asked Bill, how did you name her “Happy”? Polk explained that Happy and Panda were part of the same litter. The Dordogne breeder told the Polks that on the day the bitch delivered the litter, he thought that was it, and left the mother with the new pups for the first night. When the breeder arrived early the next morning, the mother was in the midst of contractions and delivering an additional pup. Unfortunately, the late arrival came out stillborn. Undeterred, the breeder gave the lifeless pup mouth-to-mouth, and astonishingly, she began to move. From that day forward, the little miracle was known as Happy.
Bill Polk with Happy. Elisabeth Polk with Panda.
Bill Polk walked me through their elegant home and into a great library with a roaring fire where I was met by Elizabeth in her red floor length Kaftan with gold brocade. The library has twenty foot ceilings to house their collection of books that encircle the room in custom bookcases. Polk has a fascinating ancestry. The family originally emigrated from Ireland to Maryland. From there, they went to Charlotte, North Carolina, and then moved to Tennessee, from whence President James K. Polk hailed.

The Polk's library has twenty foot ceilings to house their collection of books that encircle the room in custom bookcases.
The Polk family eventually moved to Ft. Worth, Texas, where they managed to become a “riches-to-rags” story (Note: Polk appears to have done well reviving the family’s financial prospects). Polk was a cowboy at an early age, attended the University of Chile at 16, received a BA and PhD from Harvard, a BA and MA from Oxford.

Bill and Elizabeth Polk have lived in the French country home since 1981. It very much reflects the decades of their lives, hundreds of framed pictures cover tabletops, the books they have collected, the books he has written, and the leather book covers she has designed and personally hand-tooled.

Bill and my conversation ranged far and wide: his tenure as a University of Chicago and Harvard professor on Middle Eastern history and politics; his work in government; head of the Adlai Stevenson Institute for International Affairs; as an advisor for TWA in the Sixties that earned him free first-class tickets anywhere in the world for he and his family; his life’s triumphs and tragedies (Polk’s brother, a CBS news correspondent was murdered in Greece); his children (both of which he is extremely proud) and his dogs.

When he mentioned that he had recently returned from Afghanistan and a meeting with US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, I couldn’t resist asking his perception of the current situation based on his 40 years of experience in the region. Polk told me that at an earlier point in his life, he traveled 2,000 miles by horseback in the country (a testament to his early cowboy days), knew the country, its people, culture and history intimately.

I asked Polk to summarize his thoughts on our involvement in Afghanistan: “Get out, killing too many people on both sides, will cost us $100-200 billion per year (minimum), and there is no hope of winning.”
Hundreds of framed pictures cover tabletops.
We then switched to the Middle East in general. Polk made several observations: “We’ve inherited the problems and ill-feelings of imperial colonialism from the 19th century, the Palestinian situation is the cancer of the Middle East, we need to stop the proliferation of nukes and make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone. Polk was not very encouraging on the prospects of the West Bank in Israel and finding a near-term solution acceptable to all parties.

I concluded by asking him about the story of the missing monies in Iraq. He nodded his head and said pretty much the same thing is happening in Afghanistan: billions of dollars just disappear with no accountability.

After a dinner of blanqette de veau and a superb Basmati rice dish the Polk’s cook prepared, it was time to bid adieu to the sage of the Middle East and the beautiful, charming and artistic, Baroness Elisabeth.
Molinard. Gaby, Guide at Molinard.
There were a few odds-and-end parts of the brief trip that I had on my list. The first was a side-trip to Grasse to visit Parfumeur Molinard, which makes "Extrait Double," a favorite citrus and herb-based cologne. Molinard has been making men’s and ladies’ perfumes and colognes since 1849. In this day of designer labels, Grasse parfumeurs such as Fragonard, Galimard and Molinard have been perfecting their craft for over 150 years. When I arrived, I was met by Gaby, who gave me an in-depth tour of the small family-owned factory and described the process making the various scents.

My only disappointment is that I wanted to meet Molinard’s “Nose.” Every parfumeur has a master blender of the scents, who is known as the Nose; unfortunately, he was off that day. However, I did learn some interesting technical facts. For instance, it takes 4 tons of rose petals to produce 1 kilo of rose essence for perfumes. Gaby explained the ingredients of my cologne, Extrait Double, and then convinced me that I should try MM, their cologne made from the Vetiver root — a standard for many French men.
Baroness Charlotte Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild. Urn in the Jardin a la Francaise.
The next day, I convinced my friends Cezar and Mara to drive to St. Jean Cap Ferrat to visit the former villa of Baroness Charlotte Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild, built by her in 1907 and completed in 1912.

The 17 acres of land of prime real estate at the entrance of the peninsula were bequeathed to her in 1905 upon the death of her father, Alphonse de Rothschild.

The villa and gardens have now been converted to a museum, and since 1991 open to the public. The home, formerly known as the “Ile de France” is bordered by the sea on both sides.
Fountains of the Jardins de la Francaise.
The centerpiece of the garden is a man-made rivulet that flows from the top of the hill into garden pools, where the underwater fountains send the water spouting upward.

The idea was to create the feeling that the palazinno was an elegant ship at sea with water in front and on both sides. The property comprises eight distinct gardens. Two of my favorites are the principal “jardin a la francaise” where the fountain pools are and “la rosarie,” which was in full bloom.
La rosarie.
Return to Paris before the flight home included a traffic jam because of the recent strikes over the two year rise in the French retirement age and an absolute blockade when our mini-entourage encountered a parade of demonstrators. Here we were, one block from our hotel at a standstill. After half an hour wait, we threw in the serviette, unloaded our bags from the taxi and zig-zagged through the throng to the hotel.

One of the world’s great fun brasseries is located along the Boulevard de Montparnasse, La Closerie des Lilas. Balthazar is my favorite in the U.S., but even it cannot come close to the Closerie with its combination of atmosphere, good food (the steak tartare and the shellfish are a must) and energy. You are greeted at the front door by the piano player, and the best seats are closest to same for the music and people watching. Better than ninety percent of the clientele are locals, and it is reputed to be Johnny Depp’s favorite boite in Paris. It is a party every night.
La Closerie poster. Copinnes Christina Baxter and Linda K. Strohl.
Brasserie patrons.
I concluded the trip home on my new favorite airline, Open Skies, owned by British Airways. The planes include over-sized business class seats and a dozen sleeper seats. I’ve tried them both. The sleeper seats are comfortable to stretch-out and sleep, but I find them a bit claustrophobic if sitting by the window, and it’s a bit different staring into the face of a strange passenger next to you.

The biz-class arrangements I find quite adequate for the relatively short flight from either Newark or Dulles in Washington, DC to Paris. The service is impeccable, friendly, the food decent, a good choice of wines (my favorite is the Chateauneuf du Pape), and always plentiful.
Open Skies cabin staff: Khale, Ryan, Jessamy and Carli with happy passenger. The writer after a lunch of paella and Provencal wine in Cannes.
Boarding the plane is never rushed, you await your flight in a private lounge, and your luggage is delivered within 15 minutes. The rates for business class are quite reasonable compared to Open Skies’ competitors, and I find the seat size and legroom more spacious. And in the spirit of full disclosure and objectivity, I did pay for my flight. Open Skies has put the pleasure back in flying again right from the airport arrival.

Every trip should have a “thread”; for this trip it was gracious hospitality. It started and ended with the service on Open Skies. The foundation was the Tirons making the apartments available in Cannes and being helpful in every way (Cezar went out every morning to pick-up croissants).

The Polks indulging our tardiness on two occasions. And the French in general, despite going through a difficult period, still provide world-class service.

Photographs by Christina Baxter
Click here for NYSD contents.