Lutèce Diary, 39: August 31, 1944 –Critique of the New Press / Critique de la nouvelle presse (French original follows English translation)

by Albert Camus
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

First published in the August 31, 1944 edition of Combat, the heretofore underground newspaper edited by Albert Camus. To read our English translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s dispatch from the same issue of Combat, click here. To read our review with extracts of the recently published correspondence of Albert Camus’s correspondence with Maria Casarès, click here. After returning to Paris with false identity papers furnished by the Resistance, Albert Camus was the underground newspaper Combat’s final editor under the Occupation, on one occasion (as documented by Olivier Todd in his 1996 biography for Gallimard) being saved from being busted with proofs of the newspaper in his pocket at a Gestapo checkpoint when he was able to deftly pass the proofs to Casarès, correctly guessing that she would not be searched.

PARIS — Because between the insurrection and the war, a respite has today been granted us, I’d like to talk about a subject that I know well and which is dear to my heart: the Press. And because it’s a question of this new Press which has emerged from the battle of Paris, I’d like to speak with, at the same time, the fraternity and the clairvoyance one owes to comrades in combat. To read the entire article, in the original French and in its English translation, on our sister site the Maison de Traduction, click here.

The Lutèce Diaries, 19: “L’amour en fuite” or, As Romeo’s teeth bleed, love leaks out

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 20019 Paul Ben-Itzak

Written Monday, February 18. Re-written February 25 and dedicated to Pamela and Sabine in memory des belles moments passé autour de la rue des Martyrs. And to Emmanuelle Pretot, camarade en tout choses Truffaut. Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation so that we can continue this work. Please designate your PayPal donation in dollars or Euros to paulenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. If we bring in $120 we can continue to mend our bleeding heart with a boxed set of the complete works of François Truffaut. To read this article entirely in French or any other language, just click the translation button at the right.

PARIS — So there I was at dusk, heart broken and sentiments seeping out, teeth throbbing and gums bleeding profusely into a bandage I was trying in vain to grit (hard to grit when half your teeth are gone), staggering up the rue des Martyrs towards the Montmartre cemetery and the grave of the man I blamed it all on: François Truffaut.

In the late French director’s five-film, 20-year saga that began with the 1959 “The 400 Blows” and climaxed with “L’amour en fuite” (often mistranslated as “Love on the Run”; “Love Escapes” or “Love is leaking” are more exact) Antoine Doinel, played throughout by Jean-Pierre Leaud, is constantly running away: from school, from the army, from his teachers, from jobs ranging from pushing miniature boats in corporate ponds to spray-painting daisies to night-clerking to agency detective to t.v. repairman, and most often from the women in his life: His mother, his wife (the effervescent Claude Jade, whom Antoine, in the 1968 “Stolen Kisses,” rightly calls “Peggy Proper” for her prim manner), his girlfriend (the eponymous Dorothée, who made her debut in the 1979 “L’amour en fuite” and would go on to haunt the dreams of generations of French children as the country’s equivalent to Romper Room’s Miss Nancy), his older mistress (the wife of his boss at a shoe-store — Delphine Seyrig at her glamorous apex), and various intermittent mistresses. The only one he chases, apart from Dorothée’s “Sabine,” whom he loves but whose love seems to frighten him (he finds her after patching up and tracing a photo of her an assumed lover tears up in a phone booth during an angry break-up call), is Marie-France Pisier’s “Colette,” whom we first meet in Truffaut’s 30-minute contribution to the 1963 multi-director film “Love at 20.”  (They meet at a classical music concert; Antoine is working at the time in a Phillips record factory, the director letting us see the hot wax being spun into vinyl. In “L’amour en fuite,” Antoine finally tracks Dorothée’s Sabine to her work-place: a record shop where couples make out to Gilbert Becaud in the listening rooms, Truffaut’s homage to the listening stations in Jean Vigo’s 1934 “L’Atalante” where the – fleeing – newlywed bride takes refuge.)

In “L’amour en fuite,” after Colette hails him from the window of a Lyon-bound train at the Gare de Lyon where Antoine has just dropped off his son by Jade for camp, Antoine jumps on the moving train without a ticket, surprises Colette in her sleeper car right after a fat middle-aged businessman, assuming she’s a prostitute, rubs up against her in the aisle (a lawyer, she’d spotted Antoine earlier in the day at the court-house, where with Jade he’d just completed France’s first no-fault divorce, echoing my own parents split-up in California a few years earlier). After they catch up, she upbraids him for the revisionist way he recounted their courtship as 20-year-olds in a barely fictionalized memoir he’s recently published: “My family didn’t move in across the street from you, you followed us!” (At the time of “L’amour en fuite,” Antoine is working as a proofreader on a book detailing the 18 minutes that De Gaulle disappeared during the 1968 student-worker uprising. Because the project is top secret, he’s working – literally – underground.  The netherworld also figures in the 1968 “Stolen Kisses,” in pneumatic messages from Seyrig requesting love assignations. It’s as if Antoine can’t get out of the lower depths; in “L’amour en fuite,” his mother’s lover from “The 400 Blows” surfaces to show Antoine, who was in the brig when she died, where she’s buried – which happens to be right next to the tomb of Marie du Plessis, the real-life model for Dumas fils’s “Camille.” It’s one of three of the five Antoine films in which the Montmartre cemetery features, and it’s the last; shortly afterwards he’ll reconcile with Dorothée’s Sabine, returning to the land of the living.) He tries to kiss Colette – we’re back on the train in “L’amour en fuite” —  and she light-heartedly repels the attempt, scolding him, “Antoine, you haven’t changed.” The conductor comes around for tickets and Antoine flees again,  pulling the emergency chord and jumping off the still-moving train. We see the now 34-year-old Antoine running across a field, an echo of the final, poignant, liberating moment in “The 400 Blows,” when a 14-year-old Antoine, having escaped from a youth home/prison, is frozen on screen in flight and in our memories, a broad smile on his face as he runs along a beach, discovering the ocean for the first time (the emotional antithesis of the destiny of the hero in Chris Marker’s 1962 “La jetée,” forever doomed to helplessly watch a woman being killed over and over again on the edge of a dock).

In my own Bizarro universe re-make of the Antoine-Colette train scene from “L’amour en fuite,” it was Colette who, after having chased me and captured my heart, had jumped off the train and was running out of my life.

So it was that last Monday found me staggering up the rue des Martyrs as the Sun set over the Sacre Coeur church (which the 1871 Communard rebels had been forced to build as penance by the ruling Versailles government) which slowly emerged above Martyrs, gums bleeding from the just-extracted tooth, heart raw and as hyper-exposed to its glare as the hero of Albert Camus’s “The Stranger” walking on yet another unshaded beach and with —  au contraire to Camus’s hero — no one to take it out on … except Truffaut and the illusions with which his Doinel cycle (all five seen one week-end at New York’s Anthology Film Archives just before moving to Paris) had filled me. Once at the grave, after filling my plastic cup at a nearby fountain and popping a dissolvable 1000 gram Paracetamol into the water, posing it on Truffaut’s tomb (decorated with an unraveling 35 MM film spool and a worn set photo of Truffaut, Leaud, and a woman who might have been Claude Jade) and watching it fizz away like my love affair, I lifted my Green as Gatsby’s Light cup and, echoing the Charles Trenet song which provides the theme for the 1968  “Stolen Kisses” – in which Leaud’s Antoine and Jade’s Christine fall in love – toasted François Truffaut with “A nos amours,” to our loves.  Looking over my shoulder at Zola’s first tomb, I realized that I might have added: “Je t’accuse! This is all your fault.”

Post-Script, 2/25: Having – like Antoine at the end of “L’amour en fuite” – just taken back the key from under the pillow, I now see myself less like Marker’s hero, doomed to replay the same fate with the same woman over and over again, and more like Antoine in the final frozen frame of the final film in the Antoine cycle, which resurrects the end of the first, of a 14-year-old Antoine frozen in time joyously jumping into the air on a beach, his virgin visit to la plage. And looking for my own Dorothée to patch me up. Interested? Check me out here.

Est-ce que l’antisionisme = l’antisémitisme? Is anti-Zionism the same as anti-semitism? (in French / en française)

Sur l’emission Là-bas si j’y suis: “Antisionisme = antisémitisme ? Un amalgame hypocrite et dangereux.” Entretien de Daniel Mermet avec Dominique Vidal, journaliste et historien. Cliquez-ici /click here pour y ecouter / to listen. (Kicked off public radio in 2014, Là-bas si j’y suis is the French equivalent of Democracy Now.)

The Lutèce Diaries, 18: How I rescued 2000 years of Eastern & Western Philosophy from a toilet at the Luxembourg Gardens, learned that my shit doesn’t stink as bad as all that, and didn’t resolve the latest Jewish and Muslim questions dogging France

hockney sunflower

David Hockney, ” Sunflower I” (347), 1995. Engraving in 80  ex./Arches.  69 x
57 cm. Copyright David Hockney studio  and  courtesy Galerie Lelong & Company.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation so that we can continue this work. Please designate your PayPal donation to paulenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. To read this article entirely in French or any other language, just click the translation button at the right.)

PARIS — Ever think someone is trying to send you signs? From Plato, Eros (by way of Confucius), and Krishna ambushing me in a Luxembourg Garden ‘sanitaire’ to accordionists hounding me across the Left Bank to Albert Camus and Maria Casarès winking at me from a balcony on the rue Vaugirard, from busty marble goddesses having coffee with me at the Delacroix Fountain in the Luxembourg to collaged porn queen sirens in St.-Germain-des-Pres beckoning me to call them on a communication system which no longer exists (the Minitel, France’s Internet avant l’heure), from being snobbed by Germanopretan art gallery interns to welcomed by Ile de France artists on the rue Francis Picabia in Belleville, from trying not to knock knees with a supercalifragilicous architect’s wage slave on the Metro to learning that, echoing a similar tendency in the United States — so I’m not just picking on France here —  if a new law passes France will officially no longer distinguish between anti-Zionism an anti-Semitism (which makes me, what, a Jewish anti-Semite?), from trying to decipher “Botoxed” feminine incarnations of Henry Darger’s Vivienne Girls to learning that my shit doesn’t stink too as badly as all that, yesterday  like the days that preceded it was as replete with overt signs and puzzling evidence as any I’ve had here this past month and a half.

Before heading to a rendez-vous in the 15th arrondissement with neighbors from the Dordogne who also live in Paris, I’d joked to my hosts that the Metro line in question seemed to be the preferred concert hall of subway accordionists who play the same two songs over and over again. Moving from the 9th arrondissement to digs near the Institute Pasteur in the same workers’ housing complex where Soutine once dodged ceilings full of fleas 18 years ago, which required several round-trips on this line, I’d had to listen to dime-store renditions of “Those were the Days” until I was ready to pay the men to stop playing. So I was not at all surprised, on arriving at the line 12 platform below Pigalle yesterday, to find not one but two accordionists waiting to board the train with me. One of whom immediately entered the same car as me. If I was spared “Those were the Days,” there was still the inevitable “La vie en Rose” to contend with. Meanwhile, after having just heard an announcement of all the ways the Metro security was surveiling the lines to make sure male passengers didn’t do anything even remotely associated with accosting female passengers, I was more wary than aroused when a young woman with a generous décolleté in a long slit white dress with black stripes sat down across from me and immediately opened a book called “Surveille et punir,” which, far from being a parenting manual, turned out to be written by the late philosopher Michel Foucault, who primed penal issues before dying of the big disease with a little name that was identified at the Pasteur Institute.

Beside the cylindrical black case she plopped down besides her, the woman posed a bag which read (in English):

“Hi, I’m an assistant. I work for **** (I’m not giving them free publicity) and my boss is forcing me to wear this bag.”

While I was trying to not be glued to the girl, across the aisle a middle-aged man in a tight tie, starched shirt, and with the stiff, red face to go with it was glued to what I assumed was the latest faux-fiction screed from Michel Ouellebecqe, France’s answer to Woody Allen, only without the humor.

How did France — how did Paris — get from Foucault, a real philosopher, to Ouellebecque, a not particularly inventive polemicist imposturing as a novelist? Why are the ’68ers who started out looking for answers in Mao’s “Little Red Book” now seeking solutions from a paranoid middle-aged white man? What’s gone wrong? Or should I rather be comforted that a young woman in 2019 is vigorously underlining Michel Foucault, her way of rebelling against the Yankee imperialist capitalism embodied in the sack she’s forced to carry, Paris still exuding this combination of beauty and brains, like Anne Wiazemsky, one of the Maoists in Godard’s 1968 “La Chinoise,” pensive on a train bound for the provinces, lost in her own interior monologue.

But the counter-balancing signs of a decline in the level of intellectual discourse in France in 2019 are glaring. (I don’t say it’s not the same elsewhere, but this is my beat.)

I’m not talking about the conversation my friends treated me too over a luncheon of scallops with tomato coulis, melt-in-the-mouth beef and potato mousse, ice cream with butterscotch syrup, and the requisite cheese plate augmented with the Perigordian twist of a just ripe-enough Cabicou chevre pellet, as the Sun streamed in through the windows of their salon and dining room overlooking a place with a carousel and an outdoor market, not far from the week-end used book market in the parc George Brassens, a former abattoir — which conversation, from its intellectual density, might have taken place 150 years ago — but the latest imbroglio over Israel, Jews in France, and n’importe quoi Yellow Vest behavior about which my friends informed me. (I’ve debranched from the French media since returning to Paris, and have never been so happy, the news on the street being much more optimistic than the French media bleakitude, particularly as diffused on Radio France.)

I’m going to touch on the latest manifestations of these related issues here (as relayed by my friends from that same French media) because they provide another window to the way intellectual discourse in France — largely abetted by both the private and public media — is careening towards the same place (the toilet) where, later in the day, I would rescue 2,000 years of Eastern and Western philosophy.

What I’m not going to do is look for more details on the Web about these recent manifestations of Jewish-French-Yellow Vest – Journalist – Pundit conflict, precisely because they’d come from that same sensationalistic and unreliable media.

These latest controversies over the Jewish and Israel and Islam and Muslim questions seem to have been fed by two streams.

The first is France’s decision to withdraw from the Eurovision song contest. Never mind that the Eurovision is to music like Bazooka Joe is to art; this annual event is the nirvana (lower-case) of music for many in the popular class. Personally I don’t get it, as the songs — from all over, not just France — seem all hyper-commercial gloss with little originality. I also don’t get why Israel, which is not in Europe (although it should be), is even included in the Eurovision contest. So this year, it seems like France will be represented by a cross-dressing singer of Moroccan origin, and who Israel — which is hosting the event — immediately labeled an “Islamic State”-sympathizing Islamist. This in turn provoked France — probably Israel’s best friend in Europe — to announce it would be boycotting the contest. (Although the government probably did not use that word.) Then, presumably to appease the tensions, French president Emmanuel Macron, addressing the annual meeting of the self-proclaimed counsel representative of Jews in France (a new Franco-Israeli friend joins me in taking exception to this presumption), apparently promised a law against anti-Semitism on the Internet, and which would apparently no longer distinguish between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, or Jew-baiting and criticizing Israel.

Finally, the France Culture radio host and member of the Academie Française Alain Finkielkraut, who likes to say that anti-Zionism, or criticizing Israel, is just a pretense for anti-Semitism, was apparently treated with anti-Semitic insults (as well as, apparently, criticism of his conservative views) by a group of Yellow Vests Saturday in Montparnasse, where he was depositing his mother in law.

In other words, France still has problems associated with how Jews are viewed, treated, and in my view sometimes coddled here (as in the U.S.), and instead of Zola or Jaures or Clemenceau, the best its intellectuals can come up with to address these issues is Alain Finkielkraut, whose main concern when it comes to Muslims appears to be that they can’t all marry outside their faith. This does not seem to be the most crucial intellectual dilemma facing France, nor of our times. M. Finkielkraut’s thinking on this question — the Muslims in France question — is also disappointing. Where normally the level of his discourse is very high — he makes a point of inviting guests who don’t agree with him on his radio program Replique — he seems to have a blind spot when it comes to Muslims. And I’m not just another gauchiste piling on him; as an assiduous listener to M. Finkielkraut’s program — on which he frequently invites those who don’t agree with him — I think it’s intellectually irresponsible for many on the Left to label him a “neo-reactionary.” I was on his side when, after entering the Place de Republique in a spirit of curiosity to check out the short-lived “Nuit Debout” “movement,” he was ignominiously chased away and told “You’re not welcome here.” And of course it’s abhorrent that on Saturday those presuming to fight for the little people told him to “go back where you came from.” In otherwords, the notion of ‘alterité’ — the fear of the other — which in France, as in the United States, used to be turned towards the Jews and is now in some part turned towards the Muslims (but always in the same form, “They don’t dress like us, they don’t worship like us, they don’t act like us”), in no small part aided and abetted by intellectuals like M. Finkielkraut who should know better, was temporarily once again turned towards a Jew perceived as being a member of the privileged classes.

I just ask: What happened to the level, the standard of intellectual discourse, in all its complicity, set by Albert Camus, whose bons mots so many public intellectuals still like to cite? Camus who knew there were no simple answers, Camus the atheist who never stopped talking about St. Augustine and whose most redemptive figure in “The Plague” is that of the priest, Camus who even as his tergivating position on Algeria didn’t conform with his broader views on enfranchisement admitted, to himself and to his public, that this was probably because he feared for the future of his white French relatives in Algeria? Camus who didn’t pray but wasn’t above asking his mistress Maria Casarés to pray for him to her god?

This is the France I grew up idolizing, my mecca and that of generations of Americans, and I don’t see this truly intellectual, inquisitive France often enough any more.

Having thus blissfully retrieved this spirit of debate and exchange chez my friends, I thus made for that other mecca for Americans in Paris, the Luxembourg Gardens, hoping that the barricades would by now be removed from the alley housing the Delacroix fountain, among whose brawny and buxom bronze worshippers, arrayed before a bust of the great master of color, I like to take my thermos coffee. (Barricades apparently placed their because of the alley’s proximity to the French Senate building.)

valantines tal rTal R, “Ballet & Bobler,”  2018. Engraving on wood,   70 x 50 cm. Courtesy Catherine Putnam Gallery.

En route I gave a coucou to the phantoms of Camus and Casarés, tipping my beret towards the top-floor balcony at 185 rue de Vaugirard that I imagined to have been the one captured in a photo of the pair, happy and absolutely in love, circa 1950-something. (The storm windows looked like they hadn’t changed.)

(While we’re talking about berets, and ‘alterité’: Pausing on a quaint bridge over the Ourcq to find the ideal endroit to take our crepuscular rose-hips and green thermos tea Tuesday, my friend C and I were surprised by an older, heavy-set, Baba/Mama Cool ex-hippy looking woman who popped up out of nowhere to proclaim, “You’re from Berry!” At least this is what I at first thought she said, until I realized it was “You’re wearing a beret! We don’t see a lot of those around here these days.” Rather than interjecting “Except on aging Americans who’ve been here so long they think they can pass as French,” I said I lived in the Dordogne, a bad idea because it launched her on what at first seemed a benign anecdote about her friends who have a house in Bordeaux, but which quickly degenerated into an anti-migrant tirade. Still distracted by our search for the perfect tea emplacement, all I understood was something about “all the empty houses” and “all the people loitering about,” until C. later recounted to me that the lady’s concern was actually 400,000 people roaming about who aren’t like “us” — presumably the non-beret wearers — according to her. “And they come from where, in your opinion?” C. had pursued. “From outside France!” At that point C. bid her adieu, leaving the woman to sputter, “I’m on the Left, really!”)

At about 77 (we’re back on the rue Vaugirard heading for the Luxembourg) I stumbled upon a shop advertising that it specialized in ‘art documentation,’ meaning old art magazines and books. “I’m looking for Marcel Gromaire” I inquired of the spectacled woman with greying wavy hair discussing something arcane with a hefty, sickly looking man in a rumpled brown suit comfortably ensconced in an arm-chair against one of the overflowing bookshelves and leaning on a cane. After I’d pronounced the name five more times — my ‘r’ seems to have stopped rolling lately — she searched her computer for ten minutes before fetching a metal ladder and precipitously leaning it against the shelves where the “G”‘s were stocked high up near the ceiling. The slim volume she extracted, an exhibition catalog from 1967, was all in black and white so after thumbing through it in case they were the black and whites Gromaire had drawn in the trenches of World War I (which a bouquiniste at the parc George Brassens book market had priced at 900 Euros) I returned the thin volume to the woman. “I’m looking more for color.” At this point the man struggled up and said, “I’ll be back tomorrow then with the books.” “Couldn’t we have dinner too?” the woman timidly advanced.

Finding the Delacroix fountain blessedly unbarricaded — I wish I could say the same for the rest of Paris, where the ugly green and white barriers seem to have become a permanent part of the landscape — I was so ecstatic that I must have looked to the sleek silver-templed gendarme who cast a glance at me like the substance I was sipping from my green plastic thermos cup was some sort of forbidden elixir.

It wasn’t just the brilliant yet douce 17h00 light which made the moment magical, but the girl-watching. I’d forgotten that besides the busty bronze babe on my left, presiding over the fountain and the spigots that served as its sentinels spewing water next to my coffee cup, the alley was also a prime track for joggeuses. That’s the good news. The bad news is that here too I-phone and Co. seem to have made inroads, snatching the brains of more Parisiennes. A young, Nathalie Wood-bright-eyed and smiling woman who on her first go-round was texting while running (shouldn’t there be a law against this?) by the second time she passed me had her eyes moving down the tiny screen hypnotizing her faster than her legs were advancing through the garden. (I’m too word-tired from writing all day to fix that convoluted sentence.)

Having already pushed my own body to the limit — the sensation of sipping coffee with Delacroix and his muses while looking for mine on a brilliant-douce late afternoon in the Luxembourg Gardens was just too divine to not want to prolongue it by another cuppa — I then set about to search for a potty.

You may not be aware of this if you don’t have gastric issues and drink a lot of coffee and eat a lot of spicy food, but the security of knowing you’ll be able to take a dump in Paris when the need impropitiously arrives seems to have decreased in inverse proportion to the augmentation of the “Vigipirate” security alerts over the past 18 years. (I still remember rushing down the boulevard Arago towards a gathering of French friends who wanted to offer me solace on the place Contrascarpe on the evening of September 11, 2001, and being frustrated to find all the sanitaires closed, “as a Vigipirate measure.” Still haven’t spotted a single Vigitarian pirate.)

I’d received an unwelcome and impeccably ill-timed reminder of the deteriorating toilet maintenance in Paris on Valentine’s Day evening, when after an impromptu urge to rush from the Centre Pompidou to the Ile St.-Louis (I am one of the Pique-Nique People of the Ile St.-Louis, the opposite of the I-phone invasion pod people when it comes to socialization), where of course ‘my’ bench at the head of the line and facing both Notre Dame and the Left Bank was free despite the abundance of premiere pique-niquers of the season drawn by the faux printemps temps we’ve been having, and where I was delighted to find myself in the presence of so many good ghosts — highlights include a 2005 pique-nique with La Belle Mere and a 2005 birthday celebration that terminated with two comely parisiennes, one blonde and one brunette and both provocatively smart (especially the one named Emmanuelle) walking ahead of me down the Boulevard Sebastapol towing the rests of a much-depleted box of Cabernet — I realized I’d run too fast and would shortly have the runs.

The good news is that when it comes to localizing a toilet n’importe ou in Paris, I’m the guy Leonard Cohen wrote that song about. (Your Man.) The bad news is that the portable toilet infrastructure in Paris is falling apart. (Dropping my pants and going on the Ile was out, given that the last time I even tried to take a piss by a tree, simply following the encouragement of Malcolm McLaren — “Everyone pisses on Paris, watch me now” he chants to Satie in “Paris” — I was busted. “You wouldn’t piss on the Streets of San Francisco, would you?” the policeman had prodded me. Not if Karl Malden was still around to scold me.) My toilet of first resort, outside the Metro Pont-Marie where you cross the Seine from the Ile to the Right Bank, was… out of order. What felt to my increasingly pressed anus like about seven blocks further down the River — somewhere after Chatelet — I found a sanitaire that seemed like it had all in order until the door had bolted and I’d lowered my pants, only to find the six-feet tall metal toilet paper container was empty. (Yes, I blame this on City Hall; they’re the ones who hire the concessionaire who’s supposed to make sure that no Parisian, resident or tourist, is left unwiped.) So, after rejecting sacrificing my Taureau tee-shirt, silk 2nd Avenue tie, or la Belle Mere et Mere’s home-made scarf I was reduced to a couple of flimsy left-over pork bun napkins, an empty plastic sac, and a handful of business cards. Using the dubious looking soggy black camisole scrunched in a corner under the ‘sink’ was out. (These sanitaires are also used for needle and sex assignations.)

The real good news is the fact that my bottom was not completely poop-scooped finally provided the opportunity to test the veracity of the assurance my own New York Doll Piper Cappuccio had declared 30 years ago over steamed Buddhist fish in a San Francisco restaurant lost in the Avenues as I nervously sat across from her tongue-tied, stunned by her pouting beauty: “My shit stinks too.” And in the most appropriate of circumstances: I was headed towards the opening of the “Fleurs pour Valentin” exhibition at the Catherine Putnam Gallery in the Marais, my theory being that this would be the perfect place to find women without Valentines.

villegle breasty hottieJacques Villegle, “Route de Vaugirard (bas-Meudon),” collage with ripped street posters. April 1991. Courtesy Galerie Vallois.  

But would they be interested in a 57-year-old semi-toothless semi-French literate journalist-translator-DJ who arrived with actual olfactory proof that his shit really did stink?

As it happened, the cloying manner in which the exhibition was mounted — no names besides the multi-artist works, meaning everyone had to cluster around the one set of sheets where the thumbnails revealed the names of the artists to identify them — made it impossible to avoid hovering near, over, behind or around a bevy of beauties, most of whom were so young and glisteningly beautiful I assumed they’d rule me out before the shit-stinks-too question even arose, so to speak. But I had to test the shit stinks theorem at least once before I left — and it was after all Valentine’s Day! — so I decided to try to open a conversation with the (again) zaftig, MOT (Member of the Tribe) looking woman (a gallerist had addressed her as Talia) serving the bubbly. “What do you think of the exposition?” “C’est bien.” The conversation being not as provocative as my pants, I left.

valentiens flochFloc’h, “A bouquet of authors,” 2018. In and color film on paper,  65 x 50 cm.   Courtesy Floc’h.

Returning after that multi-paragraph scatology of romance digression to the high ground and the grounds of the Luxembourg gardens yesterday, then, which found me poop-full and searching for an appropriate place to empty, my first stop, a pay-to-poop toilet house a couple of hundred yards up from the pond before the Senate building as you march towards the Observatoire gardens, was closed, and the, as usual, upside down map to where to find its open cousins was useless. So I continued heading towards the sanitary toilet I knew should lie just outside the other end of the Observatory, near the Boulevard Montparnasse. I guess I should have known something had changed when I noticed that the exit to the Luxembourg was guarded by a young gendarme who wasn’t letting anyone else in. Normally, to enter the Observatory gardens you just cross the street and open the gate, but all the gates there were closed, and with the gendarme still in sight I wasn’t comfortable following the example of the youth in front of me who had just climbed out and stumbling over it. About half-way further on, after the ping-pong tables, I noticed that another sanitaire just outside the playground and near a side gate was freeing up; that gate was also locked.

Fortunately, on rounding the sanitaire outside the garden and on an ile across the street outside of which a group of high school students were gossiping, I found that none of them were waiting for the toilet, which was open.

Not only was the paper canister sufficiently stocked, this time I’d remembered to bring a couple of rolls with me. A good thing, because I’d have hated to be forced to resort to provisioning myself with the 1800 pages of Classical Greek, Hindu, and Confucian history and philosophy carefully balanced in the ‘sink’ in the form of four books miraculously only barely saturated by the last automatic cleaning:

“Platon” (Plato), Oeuvres Completes, printed on October 21, 1939, in a then new translation, complete with the snazzy inside cover binding painting, and hand-inscribed “Yvette, 1954.”

The 1949 “L’Enseignment de (Teaching of) Ramakrishna,” works grouped and annotated by Jean Herbert with the collaboration of Marie Honegger-Durand and P. Seshadri Iyer, part of the Hindouismes series of the Spiritualites Vivantes collection directed by Herbert and published by Albin Michel, coincidentally the same publisher as the book a translation of which I’ve been trying to find an American publisher for, Michel Ragon’s “La Mémoire des vaincus.” This one was inscribed “Yvette, 1963,” suggesting that after nine years of Socratic dialogue Yvette had had it with the Greeks and decided, like many of her contemporaries, to migrate further East for her spiritual guidance.

…. which, judging by the fact that the pages stopped being cut in the middle of it, lasted until Chapter XIX, “Jnana et Bhakti,” right after part A, in which “Jnana et Bhakti end up by being identical,” at which point Yvette was apparently ready to move on to…

… “Le Guide du Yoga,” by Shri Aurobindo (and copyrighted not by a group of San Francisco Zen Buddhists but by l’Ashram de Shri Aurobindo, 1951), also published by Albin Michel and inscribed “Yvette, 1964,” suggesting that our girl was now plunged into direct practice.

The fourth book, (I’m translating) “The jade fish and the phoenix-shaped hair-pin — 12 Chinese folk-tales fro the 17th-century,” published by Gallimard in 1987, bears no trace of Yvette, indicating that it may have belonged to a descendant — perhaps one of the high school students chatting outside the toilet — who finally decided to follow Hamlet’s imprecation “Bollox for your philosophy, Horatio!” and chuck it all. Examining this last tome more closely much later,  I realized that these particularly stories were actually, and explicitly (and ambisextrously) erotic tales. In other words, I may have entered looking to unload but my go-to  sanitaire on the meridion of Paris had made sure I exited packed with everything I needed for a spiritually, intellectually, and sensually fulfilling life. I also realized that whoever’d visited this toilet equipped with this particular book before me might have had other projects in mind besides unloading. For a good time, don’t call Jenny 867- 5309, call 17th-century provincial China.

Villegle TENSION AU BAS-MEUDON mars 1991 2Jacques Villegle, “Tension au bas-Meudon,” March 1991. Collage from ripped street posters. Courtesy Galery Vallois. Meudon is also where the sculpture Auguste Rodin  once swapped inspirations with Rilke and swapped sentiments with the sculptrice Camille Claudel. (If you want to talk tensions….)

Being a worshipper at the shrine of books, I had no such option (if I left the books there they would surely have been hosed in the automatic cleaning that followed my departure), and so it was with more than 2,000 years of Western, Confucian, and Hindu philosophy, the four books awkwardly cradled under my right shoulder (the canvas string bag holding the thermos, a can of Moroccan sardines, the empty green thermos cup, and Ragon’s “Courbet, Peintre de le Liberté” being strapped to the other) that I made my way down St. Mich, over on St.-Germaine, and finally down the rue de Seine for a gallery opening of problematic promise, the only draw being that the pony-tailed woman either excavating or stone-maisoning in one of the paintings resembled my latest anima. (Slightly zaftig, blonde, and pony-tailed.) If my own shit wasn’t stinking this time, the books must have retained a certain je-ne-sais-quelle arome de sanitaire, because the petite at the welcome desk refused to even look for the publicist I’d been in contact with. If another opening, for an exhibition entitled “Ladies Only,” seemed more promising cote chercher l’anima, I was less impressed with the curating when a galleriste to whom I compared one of the larger collaged paintings, “Botox,” to the Vivienne Girls of Henry Darger had no idea who I was talking about, never mind that the Bruit artist and writer who’d hidden the 15,000-page saga of the Girls in his Lincoln Park Chicago walk-up all his life had been the subject of a major 2015 expo at the Modern Art Museum of the City of Paris.

Fortunately, this Germanopretan gallery ramble was saved from being a bust by the profusion of busts on display in the Galerie Vallois’s latest exhibition for the street poster collage pioneer Jacques Villegle, “Young, Gay, and Imprudent,” the title being misleading because most of the collages on display in three ample rooms, many of them wall-sized, were more focused on ample breasts than temptations to imprudent young gay men, many posters hawking phone sex hotlines catering to all genders, often cleverly overlapping posters whose remnants still advertised “Supported by Humanité,” the French Communist party rag.

From this profusion of feminine pulchritude from that innocent distant pre-AIDS era of the late ’70s, after hopping the Metro 11 to Belleville and turning down the rue Tourtille towards the Gallery of the Associated Artists of Belleville for a vernissage for artists of the Ile de France, I got a reminder of how much that innocence has been lost, and how much France’s Jewish question — let’s say religious and ethnic tolerance question — remains unresolved (and will not be resolved, perhaps only be exacerbated, by a law equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism) in the fact that the green iron fence surrounding an unmarked Jewish school not far from where Tourtille turns into the rue Francis Picabia seems to have only gotten higher.

zemmour berbere woman small

From the group exhibition Artists of the Ille de France: Danielle Zemmour, “Femme Berbere.” Courtesy of the artist.

Lutèce Diaries, 15: (In French & English) And if three out of five Parisiennes were addicted to crack? / Et si 3 sur 6 Parisiennes etait accro au crack?; “On ne parle que de liberté et on se confectionne des chaines de plus en plus”

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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PARIS — J’ai vu quelque-chose d’effrayant hier soir rue St.-Martin, a l’extérieure d’une café qui s’appelle “Café des jeux.” Il y avait une fille qui regarde dans la vitrine; au moins c’est ca que j’avais pensée mais en fait — et comme trois sur cinq filles que j’ai vu hier soir en marchant de l’Ile St. Louis jusqu’au le pré St.-Gervais en passant par la rue Belleville — elle était branché a son portable.

If three out of five Parisians were addicted to crack, the mairie would do something about it. And yet here three out of five Parisiennes (more the Parisiennes than the Parisiens) have their heads hooked by wires to something in their purses or pockets, and no one’s concerned. So this lady that I saw looking at the games in the window of the “Game Café” on the rue St.-Martin in the Marais finally looked up and dashed through the door… letting it slam in the face of the man behind her — who was supported only by two crutches.   He was left to try to nudge the door open himself with his body without losing hold of the crutches. Cette fille a tout a coupe bondi pour entre dans le café, en laissant la porte se ferme brutalement derrière elle sans se souci du type  soutenu qu’avec deux béquilles, et qui a donc du essayer a ouverte la porte par/pour lui-même tout en maintiennent ses béquilles.

At one point high up on the rue Belleville, just before turning onto the rue La Villette, walking ahead of me I finally thought I saw a woman who wasn’t wired, only to recognize on passing her the tell-tale thin chord running from her ears to her purse. I felt like Kevin McCarthy in Don Siegel’s 156 film “The Invastion of the Body Snatchers”: She’s one of them.

Comme un ami / As a friend / m’a dit hier soir / said to me last night on hearing this story /âpres que je lui ai raconté cette scène horrible: “On ne parle que de liberté et on se confectionne des chaines de plus en plus.” Everyone keeps talking about liberty, and yet we fashion more and more chains for ourselves.

The Lutèce Diaries, 14: Juliette of the Spirits

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2010, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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PARIS — My last two months in Paris had not gone as expected. The first surprise was that I did not experience the exhilaration I’d expected when I’d stepped out of the Gare Montparnasse. Montparnasse! How could anyone, above all an American who had always felt the thread going back to Fitzgerald and Hemingway, not be moved? (My second place in Paris, just two months into my stay, was next to the Pasteur Institute in the 15th arrondisement — where the AIDS or SIDA virus had been identified — and thus not too far away from Montparnasse; I’d tried to find the bar on the rue Delambre where Fitzgerald and Hemingway had met, but it had changed hands so many times it was hard to distinguish. I’d settled with “Smoke,” on the other side of the street — not where Scott and Ernest met but, with its pony-tailed Chinese bartender who looked like Wayne Wang, a fitting faux dive in which to smoke my first Cuban, a fact  I’d announced to the bartender before correctly guessing that the blues on the juke was “Albert King!”)

What was askew for me on this May 2010 return, though, was that this was the first time I was neither returning to cats or with cats. Sonia, my 20-something Alaska native Siamese — I always said that she and her soul brother Mesha were part-Wolf, born on the tundra (in Alaska, people invariably introduced the tired old mutt stretched out on the hearth as ‘part wolf’) — had finally run out of life, after living 14 of them. (Her last escape being when our last small heater suddenly shot out sparks at her — Sonia’s hind legs had gone out when we entered 2010 and she her fourth decade, so I had placed her blanket next to the heater.) The last of the family I’d arrived with nine years earlier — Mesha had gone in 2007, after a two-week period where he lost function after function, Hopey three months later screaming in my arms — was gone. Sonia had been my train-mate for the last three years, as we moved or travelled from Les Eyzies, the capital of prehistory in the Dordgone department of SW France where we’d spent the past three years, to Montpellier and Paris, back and forth from Perigueux (the nondescript capital of the Dordogne), and a second extended trip to Paris the previous spring. Taking the train without her for this last return wracked and wrenched me. I lost it when I saw a woman with a dog in a sweater on the platform in le Bugue waiting for the train to Bordeaux. I had no one. (And as if this wasn’t enough, Boo-bah, the neighbor’s Australian shepherd/collie dog I’d adapted and who had been a particular solace to me after Sonia left, had been killed by hot-rodding youngsters the night before my departure.)

For a while — two weeks to be exact — I’d received a reprieve from this loneliness in the form of Sophie, the neighbor with whom the keys to his place had been left by Marcel, the bouquiniste – Seine-side bookseller — who I’d imagined to be my best friend. (Romanticizing Marcel because I liked it was cool to have a buddy who was a bouquiniste – one more indice that I was vraiment living the vie Parisien — I’d ignored his faults, and all the times he’d let me down before, and this was about to blow up in my face.) Sophie and I had bonded right away — she’d even given me the keys to her place the first night so I could use her state-of-the-art Mac — but it had really been too easy. It was the bond of someone looking for a life-vest and within two weeks she was trying to drag me down with her. (First hint should have been when in our initial conversation she informed me she was emerging from a depression — most French people won’t talk about such personal things after five years of acquaintanceship, let alone ten minutes. Second should have been the note she left for me on her desk two days later saying she’d checked herself into the mental hospital but, “Not to worry.”) Things got worse when Marcel came back briefly from Russia before heading off to Siberia. I won’t supply the details because the wounds — the profound disappointment, oh how I’d missed him those last three years — are still too raw and I don’t know that they’re that interesting to anyone else. Suffice to say that an angel turned out to be, if not a devil, a bully.

This was not the light and charming Paris that had been my life — at least as I remembered it — the six years I’d lived at 49 rue de Paradis. Camille, the co-ed neighbor from a tiny village in the Lot, in Paris studying at the Ecole du Louvre, with whom I’d nearly set the apartment on fire when the cooking alcohol spilled all over the fondue set when I made her fondue bourgignone, Camille, to whom I’d confessed my love, her eyes opening in marvel as I took her hand after we watched Renoir’s “Dejeuner sur l’herbe,” was gone, moved to Marseille for school and not returning my e-mails. Omar, the light-hearted, hilarious buddy I’d met when he was a bartender at Le Valmy, was not returning my calls. Sandrine, my first friend, whose apartment at 33 rue Lamartine I’d subletted as our first, the cats running under the beds to hide as soon as we got there (at the airport, as if on cue a little French girl in red crinoline had looked into their cages and exlaimed, “Maman, maman! Des chats!”) — I’d later learn Baudelaire also roomed there — was busy with a new boyfriend and the end of the year crunch at the school where she taught drama. (When Sandrine reproached me for attracting and being attracted to unstable people like Sophie and Marcel, practically blaming me for the mess I’d unwittingly walked into, I’d wanted to say, “Well, where were you the first two weeks I was back?”) Katia, the Paris Opera Ballet dancer whom I’d befriended when we worked together on a project to properly remember Marie Taglioni, the first ballet dancer to dance on pointe, on her 200th anniversary — after collecting pointe shoes from dancers around the world to lay on Taglioni’s crumbling grave at the Montmartre cemetery behind Nijinksy’s and down the block from Truffaut’s, we’d unearthed the fact that contrary to city of Paris claims, it was not Taglioni, but her mother that was buried in Montmartre; Taglioni was over at Pere Lachaise, where her grandson had moved her revered bones from Marseille in 1932 to entomb her with the husband who, according to an account by Edgar Allen Poe, had barred her from her home because she would not stop dancing) — Katia also was not responding to my invitations to get together.

Bref, I was fast coming to the conclusion that my connection with living French people was not as strong as it was to dead French people — particularly figures like Bernhardt, Montand, De Gaulle — and their country’s artifacts. The ones I’d collected, including dozens and dozens of Pastis 51 and other Pastis glasses, carafes, and ashtrays, the historic speeches of General De Gaulle, and Bernhardt’s personal mirror (scored at a vide grenier on the rue Germaine Pilon in Montmartre; Sarah had given it to her personal make-up artist who gave it to the father of the man selling it, who had been a photographer of artists, when she was living in a retirement home for artists), and more were in the house in Les Eyzies, which had been repossessed by its owner, gone crazy after his wife died of alcoholism and, after I’d already left for Paris, e-mailed me that I would not be able to come back. My music collection, garnered over 35 years and essential to my work as a DJ (monikers MC World Beat and DJ Yo Mama), was there too, and I was worried about how I’d get it back if I had to leave France, a distinct possibility as my work as an arts journalist — two strikes in the current climate — was not sufficient to maintain me here.

In sum, I had begun to wonder whether I might not be person number 248 to die on the streets of Paris. Such was the hopeless state I found myself in the morning Juliette and her music parachuted into my life just two blocks from the Pere Lachaise cemetery where both Bernhardt and Taglioni were enterred.

Persisting in trying to conjure up my old life, I’d walked the long distance to my old cafe d’hab, Le Valmy, up top the Canal Saint-Martin, where I’d met Omar. But this only reminded me, painfully, that this was not my old life, my family, Sonia, Mesha, and Hopey, were no longer here, I would not go home to them on the rue de Paradis once I finished my noisette.

To return to my current place, Marcel’s bad karma-infested joint off the place Edith Piaf, surrounded by his books (he’d put his statue “L’Esperance” in the cave before he left for Siberia; yes, hope had been relegated to the basement; another tomb) I normally followed the canal to the rue de Temple, stopping along the way to watch a boat glide under a bridge from a lock, then up the rue Belleville, right over to the parc Belleville and the most spectacular view of the Eiffel, then up to the rue des Pyrenees and over to the place Piaf, surveilled by her statue. I decided to change the routine and continue along the green strip in the middle of the boulevard Richard Lenoir — where Simenon’s Maigret had ‘lived’ for years (even Maigret had Mrs. Maigret) — did I mention I sometimes felt closer to historical French figures than living French people? — which covers the water as it continues its course to the Bastille before ultimately pouring into the Seine. Then left at the rue Chemin Vert, continuing on past the smutty but sophisticated erotic bookstore (diversions are essential on a long long walk), intending to  either walk past or through Pere Lachaise to the Place Gambetta before heading ‘home’ to Piaf.

I was just two blocks from the cemetery when I noticed a small, slightly worn black valise sitting on top of a cabinet in front of an apartment building, evidently discarded. At first I thought to grab it as a nice jewelry box for Sophie (I was not completely free of her spell; she was crazy and depressed and destructive, but on a good day she was the spittin’ image of Juliette Binoche). Then I thought…what if…there’s something inside…I unlatched the valise and looked inside. It was filled with music — cassettes. And that wasn’t all. Before I investigated further I decided to take the valise up to Pere Lachaise, where I found a sort of concrete ledge-bench just inside the first entrance, put the box on my lap and opened it.

The cassettes weren’t just any music. They were my music. Music that had been important to me in one way or another over the past 40 years:

Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits.

Bob Marley’s “Legend,” with his greatest, including “Could You Be Loved.”

The Jimi Hendrix Experience.

Canada – Intuit Games and Songs (which went with my Native-oriented sojourn in Alaska.

Rainforest music.

The Doors, “In Concert” and “L.A. Women.” (This just two blocks from where Jim Morrison was interred, at Pere Lachaise.)

Led Zeppelin/Led Zeppelin — the classic album with “Stairway to Heaven,” my teenage anthem, “Going to California,” and more.

Two full tapes of the Grateful Dead recorded live. (As Deadheads know, the Grateful Dead didn’t just tolerate, but encouraged ‘bootleg’ recordings at its concerts, even setting aside an area upfront for the ‘tape-heads.’ As the band was more a live than a studio band, these recordings are emblematic; they spread the Dead gospel, making it the most successful touring band in U.S. history.) One set was from the Oakland Coliseum in 1990 – corresponding more or less with my own belated Deadhead period, when I was dating the widow of one of the group’s lawyers. Another was from the 1991 memorial service for Bill Graham, who I’d interviewed. Among the many tiny notes handwritten on the cassette liner — in English — were “More than 500,000 people!” referring to this event. And “rarities from the vaults,” including, evidently from the ’60s, a duet with Jon Hendricks (who I’d see later in San Francisco performing “Evolution of the Blues” when I was in junior high school; Hendricks had participated in the Normandy landing on Omaha Beach) on “These are your sons and daughters” and “Fire in the City,” and Kesey, Neal Cassady, and Ken Nordine.

But the real kicker — and where the question of angelic intervention stopped being a question but a certainty — was that the box also included the soundtrack to… “Wings of Desire,” the Wim Wenders film all about angels come to earth to aid, even if just by invisible whispering, comfort the desperate and desolate living.

But this was not all.

The valise also contained a black and white passport photograph of an intense looking French woman, hair cut short in the ‘Amelie’ mode popular just after the turn of the millennium, a couple of business cards — evidently hers — a photograph of a building surrounded by snow with the same name from the cards — Juliette — scribbled on back of it. (Judging by the business cards Juliette is some kind of archeologist, so I imagine the photo was taken on an arctic expedition.)

There was also a tape with Juliet Greco on one side and on the other side, “Un homme et une femme,” which I initially thought was from the film but which, on further listening later, appeared to be the voice of Juliet — she of the photo and the business cards – recording a message for her parents and grandparents before committing suicide. (My hope, encouraged by the scrawled “Delires 6eme,” “High school foolishnesses,” on the tape is that she reconsidered, but saved the tape. My practical theory for what all this was doing on the sidewalk is that Juliette had left these things at a boyfriend’s, they’d eventually broken up, and the boyfriend was now evacuating all that was left to him of Juliette. My other theory is that my finding this box with this music was a “Wings of Desire”-genre intervention.)

There was also a thimble, a ruler, a woman’s thin black leather choker, folic acid pills, a tiny metal object that looked like it could have been a triggering device, and a Euro centime (further confirmation that the contents had been left post-2000).

I sent an e-mail to the address on Juliet’s business card and after explaining that I had found this valise at a particularly trying time in my life — with details — said, “So either this is yours or it fell from the sky for me.” (I guess I imagined myself as Antoine in “Love on the Run,” the fifth and last in Truffaut’s Antoine cycle begun with “The 400 Blows,” in which Antoine meets his Ame-soeur by reconstructing a photo a man in a phone booth tears up after violently breaking up with the person on the other end of the line and, using the detective skills gleaned in “Stolen Kisses,” tracks her down.)

Deciding that Juliette was my newest guardian angel, I carried her photo with me in my wallet when I attempted to leave France to return to the US for the second time in a week one month later. Every time my confidence lagged that I would ever make it out, or that I began to doubt my decision, I took my wallet out and looked at the picture of Juliette, who told me I had to make it back because someone in the States needed me, and because Juliette wanted to see the Bethesda Fountain in New York, which the angels had been hearing about since it played a central role in “Angels in America,” for its healing power. There was a moment in the Madrid airport where a U.S. security agent almost didn’t let me on the plane because all I had as ID was my withered passport; an echo in JFK border control when I got passed around by three officers — more amused than concerned — because the lady in Madrid had apparently sent a note which popped up when they entered my passport number — before I was finally able to exit, whereupon I kissed the filthy beautiful New York ground. When I got to the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park the next day, after 24 hours in which I’d already been washed in the healing love and welcome of four friends and colleagues — including my oldest friend J., who I’d known since junior high and when we acted in plays (she was Anne Frank to my Peter, she a civil war wife to my Union captain), and who thus reminded me of who I was, and that I had not been weak but persistently, and consistent with my character, strong and determined — I took out my wallet, where I kept the photo of Juliet as well as that of Sonia, Mesha, and Hopey, and, in the midst of a business meeting, sitting on the scorching rim of the fountain on the hottest July 7 in NYC history, discretely faced Juliette’s photo towards the fountain. The kitties bells on their collars I kept dangling on my wrist wrang out. We were home.

The Lutèce Diaries, 12: Child is the Father of the Man

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

“You are the light of the world
But if that light’s under a bushel
It’s lost something kind of crucial.”

— “Godspell”

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PARIS — For personal reasons, I’ve resolved this week to get out more and circulate: to try to connect with people, with the esperance that the ame-soeur, the soul-mate, is waiting for me somewhere among them. (If you’re also looking, click here to find out more about me — and the us I’m looking for.) So after a moderately successful noon-time Russian Earl Grey thermos tea on the banks of the mighty Ourcq canal here in Pantin / le pre Saint-Gervais — there was the water but there was also the bruit of the garbage truck which seemed to be following me around, and the blight of the gray Centre National de la Danse behemoth which looks more like a prison than bunhead central — last night I was determined to have at least one coffee at Le Danube, a brightly-lit, recoup-furnished pastel colored bar on the place of the same name dominated by a buxom lime-stone babe that I’ve had my eyes on (the bar, not the babe) since attending a vide-grenier (community-wide garage sale; vide = empty, grenier = attic) and activities fair in the ‘hood nearly five years ago. Before that, I planned to watch the sunset and the people jogging and returning from work from a bench high atop the Buttes Chaumont park, my ears caressed by its water-falls and my chest warmed by more Russian tea, moderated with Algerian mint left over from Saturday’s Palestinian and Jamaican chicken twins feast with my Bellevilloise artiste friends K & R. I’d never liked this man-made park, designed by Colonel Hausmann and just as antiseptic as his apartment buildings, with the clumps of cypress trees divided by a concrete periphery path whose connecting trails never seem to lead to the lake at the bottom… until I started translating Michel Ragon’s “La Mémoire des vaincus” (The Book of the Vanquished), in which the young street urchin heroes, who’ve just been taken in by two almost as young publishers of an anarchist journal at the same time they’re hosting members of the violent Bonnot Gang, regal in cavorting amongst the caves and falls before running down to the La Villette Basin. Ragon and his wife Françoise have become my model couple since I met them Saturday afternoon, her nudging her older husband on observations they’ve shared and developed together for 51 years, since getting married in a building constructed by Le Corbusier, a Ragon chou-chou. (Ragon told me he switched to architecture after art magazines, pressured by advertisers, started trying to clamp down on what he could and couldn’t write. When the same thing started happening at the architecture magazines, he turned to books.)

Besides the thermos, the chick — er, soulmate — attracting tools I brought with me were the copy of Ragon’s “Dictionary of Anarchism” M/M gave me (they also gave me, as I was hoping for, a copy of his “Courbet, Painter of Liberty”) and my two vintage ping-pong paddles. (They’re not vintage because I bought them in a vintage store, they’re vintage because I’ve had them since 1973, when I came in second in the city-wide San Francisco championships for the 9-12 age group, having won my ‘hood and my region before getting slaughtered by a nine-year-old Chinese kid half my size whose spin-balls I couldn’t touch. I’ve had the paddles as long as I’ve had this adult carcass, and they’re in a lot better shape.)

paul photo paris apartment

Would you play ping-pong with this man? (Photo: Julie Lemberger.)

I’d decided to pack the paddles for this Paris trip after seeing Forest Gump for the first time; stacked on top of the tiny valise he brings with him when he goes to retrieve his childhood sweetheart is a paddle. And after a twilight spotting from a bridge off the Ile St-Louis of a pair of kids playing in the Tino Rossi sculpture park on the Left Bank, I’ve got it into my head that maybe the first step to finding my soul-mate is finding a playmate. At first the idea was to sit on a bench near a table with the rackets until she showed up. But lately I’ve been thinking that instead of going where the ping-pong players are — which might just lead to another shellacking by a tiny Chinese kid — I might have better luck, soul/playmate-wise, taking my paddles to where the chicks hang out, brandishing my most innocent Tom Hanks smile (being careful not to open my mouth too widely, at least not until the denture arrives), and attracting the French nana with the innocent abroad thing, hoping I’ll do better than Lambert Strether in Henry James’s “The Ambassadors,” whose innocence is ultimately quashed by European cynicism and hundreds of years of European history. (I’ve been hearing the rebuff Strether’s French lass handed him since an Italian boy told me just after high school, “To understand my sister, you first need to understand our history,” an imposing wall for someone who keeps trying to act like he was born yesterday.)

The tea proved edifying, but — initially anyway — not in the way I’d hoped for.

The last time I took a twilight tea in this spot, I’d been moved by the sight of a young couple who paused at the bench next to me so the man could take the baby-pack from the woman. This time I was devastated by the arrival of a boy in a light blue cap tossing a squeaky ball to a beagle, accompanied by a big man in an olive jacket and darker blue cap who, instead of marveling at this precious moment which will never happen again, remained riveted to his cell-phone screen. I got the impression that if the beagle weren’t there, I could kidnap the kid — perhaps by using the ping-pong paddles as a lure — and the father would keep right on staring at his screen. “Go play with the other dog,” the kid said, as he finally wrenched the squeaky-toy from the beagle’s jaws while his father remained oblivious. “We’ll play with the ball more at home.” I followed them with my eyes another 100 yards until they passed through the iron gate, the distance between the father and son growing.

Things perked up for my own family prospects when a tall and lithesome young woman, perhaps in her thirties, her short curly hair ensconced in a dark brown cap, took a look at me surrounded by all this regalia, hot steaming chrome cup of tea at my lips, paddles by my side, anarchists in hand, and, albeit without slowing down much, spread out her arms and, looking at me in the eyes, smiled as if to proclaim, ‘On est bien la, n’est pas?!,’ to which implicit benediction I responded out loud, “Tranquille.” (Not a worry in the world.)

When it finally got too dark to tell the Christian anarchists from the anarcho-syndicalists from the Action Française anarchists (Ragon lays out five distinct categories in an introduction that’s the most concise sweeping history of anarchism I’ve ever come across), after beholding the layered cushions of the Sun setting over Northeastern Paris I left the park and headed down the street to the Danube, telling myself, “Your sole goal tonight is to buy one coffee. If you do that, the evening will be a success.” But when I looked in at the bar and saw there were just two guys with the requisite five-o’clock shadows seated on leather stools chatting with two crew-cut male bartenders, I decided that there wasn’t any point if there were no women in sight. On the off-chance that She might simply be running late, I decided to walk around the block, hoping that no one would wonder what a swarthy unshaven guy in a dark trenchcoat and “I Heart Golf” beret was doing loitering in the area with a pair of Chinese ping-pong paddles and an anarchist dictionary, and call the “I just saw something suspicious” hotline.

When I returned to the bar, the counter-composition hadn’t changed, and it looked like the chercher la femme playmate crusade would come up empty for the night. But all was not for naught, as I did find a good closer for this column: Looking through the glass at the bright interior of the restaurant to give it a final scoping out before leaving, I spotted, sitting alone at a table — whose neighbor table was free — a woman who resembled either Camille Puglia, Gloria Emerson (the Vietnam war correspondent who’d once chided me in an airport jitney from Princeton to JFK, after I’d bragged that I was already writing for the NY Times at 23, “When David Halberstam was 23 he already had his first Pulitzer”), or my high school advanced composition professor Anne-Lou Klein, looking up towards the heavens as if exasperated by the book in front of her:

“L’Homme Nu.” (The Naked Man.)

C’est moi — comme tu le savez bien, dear reader.

PS: As for my ping-pong paddle as chick magnet theorem: Usually when I smile at a woman on the street here in Paris she just ignores me or grimaces. But as I was crossing the street from the Danube to the avenue General Brunet, paddles clearly in evidence, a young woman who registered Amelie on the light in the eyes scale looked at me and coyly smiled with a glint in her eye, a smile inviting enough to make me want to live to love another day.

Lutèce Diaries, 11: Resurrections — About letting your chickens go when they’ve already flown the coop and feeding your brain and stomach in Paris on less than 10 Euros a day while resolving your troubled academic past

Foujita solidar and autoportraitShadows of our Forgotten Chanteuses: One of the hidden retrouvals in the exhibition Foujita: Works of a Lifetime (a paltry selection all the same given the more than 1,000 works created by the Montparno artist) is the 1927 97 x 63 cm oil on canvas portrait of the chanteuse Suzy Solidor, whose throaty alto makes Piaf sound like Chantal Goya by comparison. (In particular check out her renditions of poems by Paul Forte and Jean Cocteau, as well as the port ballad “L’escale.” Laisser la porte ouverte.) Solidor, who fell out of favor after becoming involved with a German officer she met at her Paris cabaret during the Occupation, donated the painting in 1973 to the château-musée Grimaldi in the village of Cagnes-sur-Mer to which she’d retreated. Like the 1929 61 x 50.2 cm oil on canvas “Self-portrait” at right, the Solidor painting is ©Foundation Foujita / Adagp, Paris, 2018. What do these images have to do with the story below? Read on.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

“Time is moving on
You better get with it
Before it’s gone.”
— Donald Byrd & Guru, “Stolen Moments”

“I’ve got to stay awake
to meet the rising Sun.
— Wailing Souls

“Laisser la porte ouverte.”
— Suzy Solidor

(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation so that we can continue this work. WORDPRESS FOLLOWERS: THIS MEANS YOU. Please designate your PayPal donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. To read this article in French or any other language, just click the translation button at the right.)

PARIS — I’ve just lived six of the most extraordinary days in my increasingly youthifying life. (What Hemingway left out — or perhaps never lived, for if he had, he might not have become an old man by the sea at 61 with no way out save shoving a shotgun in his mouth and blowing his brains out — when he said Lucky the man who has lived in Paris as a young man is the revivifying effect Paris can have on the man of the ‘hardened’ age who thinks love’s already passed him by and instead finds adolescent amour resurrected, even if what Boccaccio called the resurrection of the flesh has become problematic. ((This passage from “The Decameron” has stuck in my mind ever since a Princeton European Literature professor, Theodore Ziolkowski, made a point of reading it out loud to a class of 400 randy freshman in late 1979.)))

I can’t tell you any more than that because it’s too private even for me, so let’s shift to the results, particularly the quality-price ratio, of my culinary and literary shopping expeditions last Friday and Saturday (February 1 and 2, this account being written Friday February 8 before being touched up the past two days; I’ve been distracted) — after all, if your heart gets indigestion you can still feed your stomach and brain! — which might just help you unpack your own past and stoke your brain and stomach in a Paris and a France where to many it seems increasingly harder to get anything without paying an arm and a leg. (Earlier this week, I discovered that a four-minute excursion on a swing half the size of the ones we used to ride for free in San Francisco’s Douglas park will cost you 1.50 Euros in the Buttes Chaumont park in what used to be a working class neighborhood of Paris, above where I’m living here in the pre St.-Gervais. And if we’re unfortunately able to share only two of the works of the under-exhibited Montparno artist Foujita from his current expo at the Maison of Japanese Culture, and in miniscule form, it’s because the mullahs of ADAGP, which has cornered the artists’ rights market here, apparently think art magazines still make money.)

paul gf reduced

Want to get to know this man? Read on: (Française? Tu pouvez traduire cette annonce en poussant le bouton au droit; ou ecrivez moi et je vous faire un traduction perso au measure.) Brilliant, multi-talented, bilingual, cultured man, great cook, great with kids and animals, luminous green eyes undimmed by experience, great jukebox, 57, solid, sensitive, vulnerable and proud of it (is there any greater gift a man can offer a woman?), heart of gold, devoted, sincere, ready to commit, knows what he wants but doesn’t have a checklist, seeks female playmate who at least aspires to the last seven categories, preferably based in the Paris or Dordogne regions of France. (But I’m open to moving for right woman.) PS: Ping-pong player a plus. I’ll bring the paddles, you bring the ball and come ready to play. Looking for my Fatima to join me living in the light. Contact paulbenitzak@gmail.com .

My primary mission heading, thus, into last Friday’s (as in 2/1) outdoor market on the Boulevard Belleville was to score the two for 10 Euro rotisserie chickens I’d passed up on the previous Saturday on the street of the Old Temple below Saint Maur because I thought I might be eating that night at a suburban party I’d been invited to earlier that day in BFB (Bum Fuck Bagnolet), only realizing when I reached the top of the Buttes Chaumont and had finished off my third glass of hot Russian Earl Grey thermos tea (it wasn’t actually a glass but this is a Jewish thing; you can’t resist saying “Have a nice glass tea”) that the pigeon huddling from the humid drizzle under the eve of the small brick condemned building with a blue and yellow mosaic ray across it near the park’s entrance had the right idea.

Having then regretted the chickens all week, I was determined to procure them Friday (2/1). I’d even found the butcher who’d provisioned me in November 2015, the last time I’d treated myself to poulet twins whose gooses were cooked. The plan was to circle back to the butcher’s after having run the three city block-long gauntlet of the market and stocked up on .50 cents per pound bananas, yams ibid, unearthed a cauliflower for no more than 1.50, and secured my 2.30 large jar of peanut-butter and 2.30 per pound spicy olives at the Iranian epicerie on the block after the market finishes at the Metro Menilmontant, not forgetting to reward myself with the customary 1 Euro Diplomate bread pudding pastry at the boulangerie down the block from the epicerie. (Served by the woman whose SCARF can’t conceal her most intimate gift, her smile. In caps because I keep meeting people who seem to believe that the foulard, when worn by women of the Muslim faith, is the greatest threat to the Republic since Pierre Laval ripped the one covering his head off to face the firing squad.) I had 31 Euros in my pocket (and no rocket, in case you didn’t get the Boccaccio citation), which meant 20 for the fruits and veggies to leave enough for the chicken littles and the Diplomate. The only thing I was set on was my bananas (this in homage to a great-grandmother from Kiev who, debarking in the Lower East Side for the first time in 19something bit into a banana before she learned you need to peel it first) and the cauliflower.

I can’t recall all the goodies I crammed into my backpack (in putting this to paper a week later), but it was already at 25 pounds when I spotted the purple Romanescu cauliflower on sale for 1 Euro, and thus at 27 pounds when I spotted her white sister going for the same price a few stalls down, the acquisition of which left me with only one hand remaining free for the two grease er sauce-dripping chickens.

But where my day really took a sublime turn was when the slice of Diplomate the friendly babushka with the headscarf handed me was so still warm like pudding that I knew that this time I really had to justify my request that she not cover it (to avoid French pastry-sticky-top syndrome) and eat it right away. Finding an unoccupied bench at the corner of the boulevard and rue Menilmontant and trying to focus on the Old-School scarlet Metro lanterns and blot out the KFC from my peripheries like a Normandy Percheron attempting to ignore that unlike what her human has just told the gendarmes, the barrels she’s been lugging up the coastal road are stocked not with apple juice but Calvados, I practically drank the pudding as it oozed into my mouth.

Next I had a major decision to make. Given that I also theoretically had to leave one hand free for the Maxi-Coquotte (which I kept calling ‘coquette’ in my e-mails to her, as in, “When will you be leaving my coquette at the Print Bar?”) which my landlord had gracefully agreed to lend me after I’d explained that until my new downstairs denture arrives in two months, I’ll be reduced to soups and purees and which I was supposed to retrieve at the Print Bar and then freight it all, 27 pounds of fruits and veggies, two-pound white cauliflower, one pound of peanut better, and coquotte back to my digs in the pre — I’d perhaps have to let my chickens flee the regret coop. In the end it was with not too much regret that I thus turned up the rue Menilmontant, then left onto the rue Cascades after saluting the “Nous, les gars de Menilmontant” modeling figures ever dancing Matisse-like on the wall of a six-story building looking down on the rue, no doubt to Charles Trenet.

When I spotted a notice on the grating of a gray low-income housing building (this is why if you just meandered along the rue Cascades, where most of the buildings are a dirty grey, you wouldn’t get why I love it; it’s the views sur tout Paris et ses toits and the ancient cisterns that give the street its charm) announcing a meeting at the 20th arrondissement city hall to discuss beautifying and quietifying lower Belleville, my reporter’s instincts kicked in and I copied the dates down, observed by a dour man with a cigar holding a blasé basset on a leash. (The basset also seemed to be dragging on a clope, but it may be that by this time my brain had descended to my herniated disc to lend a hand with all the freight.) After I’d done this and was walking past him, the man said, “Why don’t you just tear it off and keep it? There’s another one inside the building and yet another posted on the rear entrance.” I did this and started to walk away, but then the instinct kicked in again and I turned back to ask him, “What do you think of all this?,” indicating the notice, to which the man responded with the universal fingers flicking off the chin gesture for “Que du blah-blah,” followed by the universal palm up gesture for “baksheesh,” finished with a flourish indicating the condo buildings en face, suggesting that it’s all for the rich now in Belleville. (I went back to Ohio but my city was gone. — The Pretenders. I couldn’t bear it if this happened to Belleville.)

My fear that Belleville — my Paris neighborhood of choice, my base to which the homing device planted there by “The Red Balloon” 50 years ago keeps leading me back — is going the way of my previous home bases, the Mission District and Noe Valley of my coming up in San Francisco (which a recent survey reported has the second most affordable rents in the country…. for those who already live there, with their $92,000 median annual incomes) and Greenpoint, my last stop in Brooklyn where the faux hipsters were last seen marching on the Polish bakeries and butchers with their $20 used-record stores (there’s one here in the pre St. Gervais, right around the corner from me, “Mood,” signaling the presence of BoBo advance scouting parties) was confirmed a hundred yards further down the street. I’d wrung the doorbell to the atelier and gallery of my artist friends K & R (she’s Brit-French, he’s Mexican-French) to fix the dinner date with the Palestinian-Jamaican chicken I’d be roasting for them. (My digs came stocked with Palestinian seasoning and Jerk spice by the owner, now teaching in Haiti; I’d decided to follow a friend’s advice to just cook the chickens myself as opposed to buying them already roasted.) After K. had hiked up the stairs from the printshop in the rear of the courtyard dominated by an Old School behemoth of a lithograph press to greet me and brought me into the atelier where the couple was dining with a young friend at a small table squeezed in between the printer and a window counter, R asked,

“Do you want some coffee?” And then, “Have you eaten yet?” (For R. and K. — this was the first time I’d seen him in three years — this question comes before “How have you been?”)

The result was that by sacrificing the rotisserie chickens, which lead me to taking the rue Menilmontant – Cascades route towards home, I’d not only secured K. and R. as dinner guests for the Saturday after (February 9) but a sumptuous meal of rice, zucchini, and red or kidney beans the likes of which I’d not savored since leaving Texas and as R. is the only one in France who can make the beans. (Though I passed on them in deference to the bread pudding comfortably nestled in my stomach where I wanted it to sit a spell, he even had a jar of pickled hot jalapenos — “I get them from a Turkish place” — which reminded me of the open cans of vinagered peppers with which my three itinerant workers from Chihuahua roommates used to stock our Fort Worth frigo.) And in case the mullahs at ADAGP are wondering what their images are doing linked to a story that seems to have more to do with Fajita than Foujita, a) R. is a spitting image of the Montparnasse painter and b) if the Americans and other Anglophones had done to Montparnesse housing prices in the 1920s what they’re now doing to prices all over the East of Paris in 2019 Foujita would not have existed, at least in Paris. This is what critics do; they don’t just write up ‘compte rendus’ for your publicity, they look at CULTURAL CONTEXT. ) (If you want to verify me on the beans, check out K. and R.’s annual Dia de los Muertos fete, for which he cooks up a bathtub full of them, accompanied by the hottest salsa this side of El Paso.)

“You know that rather moche section of the rue de Hermitage?” R. asked once I’d sent the beans down to percolate with the Diplomate. “A friend who’s lived there for 20 years just sold his 60 square meter place for 800,000 Euros.” “That’s insane,” I answered, launching into my lament for Belleville, to general acclaim. “They come here for the art and ethnic character, and they’re pushing the artists and ethnics out,” just like in San Francisco and Brooklyn before Belleville. (Not entirely just, as unlike SF and Greenpoint, Paris’s affordable housing laws which mandate substantial HLM — Moderate Rent Housing — units in most neighborhoods are kicking out everybody but the very poor and the very rich, who, as Hemingway — not Fitzgerald — said are not like you and me. Wait a minute; wasn’t Bill de Blasio supposed to take care of that?) The young art student having lunch with us shared that in looking to buy a place anywhere in Paris or even BFB, the best she’s been able to find is a 25 square meter flat for 200,000 Euros.

Filled up with the equivalent of range beans if not optimism for my Belleville’s future and crossing the rue Belleville to the rue La Villette — which if the Cascade housing prices continue to opposite-cascade will soon supplant that rue as my dream Belleville nesting grounds, with its menusier and box-making ateliers and cello (luthier) and electric guitar repair shops — and feeling Cowboy-y, I decided to pop in at the hole in the wall cordonnier atelier under the archaic “Topy Soles” sign and ask how much it would cost me to put new soles onto my genu-ine Texas working cowboy boots. (A note to all the well-meaning French friends who keep telling me I need to get them polished because they’re too scruffy: This is how you can tell the real cowboys from the dimestore variety; those’re horse-manure stains, pardner!)

“You’re knocking over my boots with your back-pack!” the ornery blue-smocked cuss emerging from the even tinier workshop in the back railed at me as I tried to navigate between the counter and the shelves of cowboy boots, two pairs of which my back-pack had just knocked to the floor. After 10 minutes of pointing at my worn heels and asking “How much?” I finally got a mumbled “20.” (To help you visualize the welcome, the proprietor reminded me of the cantankerous owner of the Z Bar on San Francisco’s Haight Street who’d once evicted Richard Avedon because “We don’t serve long-hairs here.” This in 1990, and which I know only because of the late Herb Caen, whose boots I only try in vain to fill every day; but Herb had the imposed size discipline of his 1/3 page next to the Macy’s ad to protect him — and his readers — from excess verbiage.)

When I returned Monday to drop off my boots while hopefully not knocking over anyone else’s, the cordonnier groused, pointing to the heels, “When I gave you the price I didn’t see that,” noting how eroded the heels beneath the rubber talons had become. “How about 25 Euros? Is that okay?” When I picked them up late in the afternoon of the following day, toting just a cloth shoulder sack — “See, I remembered about the back-pack!” — the cordonnier left me waiting while he finished cobbling another pair, then went to retrieve mine. Pulling each boot out of a plastic bag to show me the heels, he added proudly, “I shined them too,” for free. (I was relieved to note that the horse-shit patina that certifies me as a genu-ine Texas stable-boy was still visible.) Impressed and wanting to convey this, I started to compare this fine work with the shabby job the “jeunot” (young buck) in the provinces had done on them just six months earlier and which didn’t last longer than two weeks (among other short-cuts, he’d used staples instead of nails; they were also too smooth and slip-inducing, while these new ones were rutted), but he cut me off by shaking his head, “Moi, I’m an artisan. I know my work.” When I asked him if he still felt the 25 Euro price was fair, he answered with dignity, “Ca vas,” and even graced me by cracking a smile (yes, professor J.C. Oates, unlike a window a smile can crack), sending me out to take in the sunset as I broke the boots in with a stroll around the cascades and lake at the Buttes Chaumont, where families and children, babushkas, BoBos, and babies were strolling, jogging, chasing rubber balls and making out, enjoying the false Spring February traditionally offers us just at the moment we’re on the verge of forgetting what Paris is all about: Debate, amour, and converting raw Menilmontant meat into Palestinian masterpieces with Jamaican dreadlocks in a Swiss oven for your French-English, Eastern European-Jewish, Mexican-French guests. (“Save some for the Texas kitty,” my white bi-color eyed cat Mimi pipes in. Hiyo, Silver.)

PS: I see I’ve reached what Herb used to call the Bottom of the Page without getting to the brain food part, except for the stimulating conversation around the printing press about the Belleville housing and the Foujita-Fajita wordplay and pictures, and only 60 minutes left to shrink the Foujita images into ADAGP acceptable dimensions and skedaddle to Belleville to round up the chicken for Saturday’s dinner party. (This last line written on Friday, 2/8, a week after most of the period described in this account.) So: After expending 20 Euros on all of the above, here’s what I got for free — the brain-food — in a 60-minute ramble around the pre (St.-Gervais) last Saturday (2/2) morning. (I’ve been distracted lately, so this one took a bit longer to write.)

** At the “Fete le livre” event hosted by the Bibliotheque Francois Mitterrand: The Italian writer Elsa Morante’s saga “La Storia,” and the inviting smile of the librarian as she directed me to follow the tree-lined alley behind the library to get to the covered market.

** At the free book exchange hall under the market: Two books with, like the Joyce Carol Oates crack crack above (Joyce once chided a fellow Creative Writing student, since become a famous writer, for using the phrase “The window opened a crack.” “A back can crack. Not a window.”), connections to my alma mater: “The Ides of March,” another historical novel, this one by Thornton Wilder, Princeton Class of about 1915. And who, unlike our fellow alums F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O’Neill — whose comment “Princeton is tradition-bound,” with its double meaning, still holds, as I learned recently — and a certain Herb Caen wannabe, actually graduated. And — here’s where the closure with the troubled academic past comes in — “The Catfish Man,” whose author, Jerome Charyn (at one time a chou-chou of the French literati, which lately can’t stop bemoaning that Joyce hasn’t yet won the Nobel, even if they don’t like the way she compared the Charlie Hebdo Muslim spoofs to Vichy-era Jewish caricatures), is one of the many Princeton professors whose courses I never finished.

… And on the way to the open market at the Pantin Church at which I ultimately bought nothing: A set of four large, four medium, and three soup multi-colored ’50s-era hard plastic plates plus a dozen packets of expired Nescafe espresso, which someone had neatly posed in a plastic sack above the municipal poubelles, perfectly timed for serving my multi-cultural bounty to my multi-cultural visitors from Belleville tonight (Saturday, 2/9).

… And now before the Belleville market closes (this written Friday 2/8) and launches me into another week of fowl-regretting, I’m off for Menilmontant to search for my poulets, trying to ignore that they’re the land version of the catfish (whose Bronx versions, Charyn reminds us, eat everything from tires to errant babies).

Have a great week-end, Parisian — whatever you reel in and whatever you’re reeling from.

Lutèce Diaries, 10: Les sujets qui fâche: The Scarf thing, the Jewish thing, the It’s all about me thing

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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PARIS — As today has just been declared National Paul Reconciliation Day, I need to unpack something that’s been obscuring my vision and comportment with others for a while and to an unhealthy degree that now menaces my own happiness and ability to play with others.

On Saturday I rudely and brutally expulsed two otherwise interesting, considerate, smart, and sympathetic people from a dinner party to which I’d invited them, even though it risked alienating a new friend who, at my suggestion, had brought them. And even though I had thought one of the expulsed people might be ‘useful’ to me, though this was not the only reason I invited her.

I did this after this last’s companion made remarks that I considered to be intolerant and hypocritical in regard to French women of the Muslim faith who have made the choice to wear head scarves. (I haven’t yet decided what to make of the fact that one of the two expulsed guests left her scarf behind.) I also believed that the person was not open to listening, after he dismissed my argument that for some French intellectuals, feminists, commentators, politicians, and journalists France only seems to be a lay state when it comes to Muslims, given the large presence of Catholic icons and traditions in daily public life, including as propagated by public institutions. (And also given, I might have added, that the same feminists who have a problem with Muslim women wearing elegant scarves don’t seem to have the same problem with Hasidic women wearing tacky wigs. I also might have — and should have — added that the United States is no different, and perhaps worse, when it comes to breaking its own rules mandating the separation of church and state, the omnipresence of Christian symbols propogated by state institutions and representatives, and in its attitudes towards Muslims and Arabs, not to mention Blacks.)

In other words, I responded to what I considered to be intolerance and hypocrisy with my own brand of intellectual intolerance and hypocrisy. I was not intellectually or morally consistent with what I profess to be my own values.

Why does what I consider to be Islamophobia (I’m not saying the gentleman’s remarks fell into this category — I don’t know him well enough to make that judgment — but that this is how I pegged them) and a selective application of lay values bother me to this point? I’m not a Muslim, I’m not Arab, I’m not French except by literary and artistic heritage, and I don’t have any close Muslim or Arab friends.

And yet when something bothers me to the degree that I feel justified in kicking otherwise kind people out of my home when I consider they’ve passed into this category (and thus beyond the pale), there’s usual a personal angle.

Besides my generally intolerant attitude towards people who disagree with me — I’m right, they’re wrong — the only thing I could come up with is the Jewish thing. That it *may* also be because as a Jew living in France today I don’t need to be treated special, I don’t need Gallimard to reverse its decision to publish the anti-Semitic pamphlets of Céline, I don’t need for Israel to be given a pass even as it continues to kill unarmed Palestinians, and I don’t need for BDS to be banned. (Although I would like for my neighbors to stop talking about Jews controlling the banks and holding us accountable for killing Christ, I would like for people to stop assuming I support Israel just because I’m Jewish, and I would love for Max Jacob to be as familiar a name among French intellectuals as is that of his friend and fellow Surrealist poet Apollinaire.) What disturbs me is to see some of the same outlooks towards Jews held by many non-Jewish French people (as by many, if not more, non-Jewish Americans) prior to World War II now directed (ibid) towards Arabs and Muslims: They’re different, they don’t dress like us, why don’t they keep their religion to themselves…? That this is often done in the name of Feminism doesn’t make it any better, because to my point of view this is a brand of Feminism tinged with post-Colonial paternalism: If a Muslim woman is wearing a scarf it must be because her mec is making her do so, the assumption being that the Arab or Muslim woman isn’t strong or smart enough to claim her own franchise.

But. Given that the source of Islamophobic attitudes (again, I’m not saying my dinner guest’s remarks were driven by this or fall into this category; I don’t know him well enough to judge), like anti-Semitism before them (and not just in France; my own country is much worse in both aspects; if I’m focusing on France it’s because I live here) is intolerance, often liberally dosed by hypocrisy, if I respond to what I perceive to be this form of intolerance by my own brand of intellectual intolerance, I am no better and I am no less hypocritical. The source is the same: Seeing the ideology, or the belief, or the head-scarf, or even the off-the-cuff maladroitly formulated remark, and not the individual.

Change starts at home.

PS: For more on the scarf thing (in French), click here.

 

The Lutèce Diaries, Eight: In the shadows of our forgotten ancestors, the heart is a lonely hunter

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak, The Paris Tribune

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PARIS — The beauty of a mission statement is that it keeps you on track. So, much as it may be justified by later references, my temptation to call this dispatch “C’est quoi dégueulasse? or, I’d rather have my teeth pulled out” was quickly tabled when I remembered that our mission with the Paris Tribune c’est pas de partager mon point de vu sur mes petites disputes avec des services presses but to share my unique insider knowledge of and perspective on all things Parisian. So I’ll just allocate one sentence to the petty stuff, if for no other reason than after having three more teeth extracted Thursday afternoon, I can in all sincerity state that given the choice, I’d rather have my teeth pulled than spend another single evening at the Theatre de la Ville, and that’s not just a testament to the tender manner of my dentist, the best in the world; 20 years of thankless devotion — in critical and editorial work  covering this important venue, which work’s practically volunteer nature has made the difference between having implants and having eight teeth pulled out for an additional denture — only to be spat upon by the Theatre de la Ville, ca suffit. (Okay, I kind of cheated with the semi-colon and the em-dashes.)

So: After having the decaying mandibles extracted, (and on top of the shabby treatment by the theater) rather than subject myself to the exasperation that, based on my last experience at the TDLV’s Abbesses space in Montmartre (in which the members of a Portuguese company railed against their own metier before an audience who had paid to see this self-indulgent temper tantrum) another visit to the same theater might entail, and after securing a slab of sufficiently malleable freshly-baked Lebanese bread at a Turkish grocery store on the rue Faubourg-St.-Denis (food-wise, the most exotic street in Paris), I headed in the other direction, taking the increasingly shallow cavern that is my mouth, my plodding carcasse, mes lourds valises (heavy baggage) and my tired dogs from Pissarro and Montand’s Grand Boulevards to the Place de la Republique, up the rue de Temple to the boulevard Bellevillle, mon amour, where, after stocking up on cheap Ramen (lobster: 40 cents!) clear noodles (44 cents for a two-meal furnishing packet), and Hoisin sauce (1.43 per can) at “The Paris Store” a.k.a. the mecca for all things Chinese, and spicy olives at what now seems to be an Iranian epicerie (when the owner asked another customer, “So, you’re Iranian?” I resisted interjecting that on Grandma Shirley’s side, I apparently am, which explains why Dad was once mistaken for the Ayatollah Khomeini, beard-wise), provisioning myself with the customary Diplomate pastry so I’d have something to glub-glub down after the Novocain wore off, and killing time with about 100,000 dead ancient combatants I finally settled, a bout de souffle and out of breath, at a rendezvous at the gallery of the Genius of the Bastille which terminated with two breathlessly vivacious Parisiennes telling me where all the bodies are really buried.

As I think I’ve just aptly summarized everything up to this point (except for maybe specifying that this adventure did in fact begin with the dentist extracting three teeth), let’s start the rest at the Place de la Republique. I guess it was too much to expect (Don’t look back; you might not turn into a salt lake — that comes up later, with the dead bodies — but you might find yourself staring into the headlights of a ’69 Cadillac Seville ((my first car, my first attempt to park it in New York having halted circulation on the Avenue of the Americas for half an hour)) with a Deadhead sticker left over from your last date with a Deadhead widow) that the stickers left, not by Deadheads but by the living psychological survivors of the 13 November 2015 mass murder on the fringes below the skirt of the Lady of the Republique would still be there, and I would have accepted this cleansing if it had restored the entire classical facade of the statue with its slogans and friezes referencing 1789, but what marred the picture was yet another Packman-style mosaic from the artist whose name I’ve forgotten but who seems to have recently  branched out from clever side-street cameos to marking monuments like a dog pissing on a Cadillac. Universal messages have been replaced by graffiti with artistic pretensions.

Speaking of our sacred dead who died for nothing, or little: So there I was (again), canvas shoulder sack full of provisions, standing in the milieu of the boulevard facing Pere Lachaise, Diplomate in hand until I could feel my lip again so I wouldn’t bite it instead of the pastry, and wondering how I would kill the 50 minutes remaining before the vernissage at the Genie de la Bastille gallery began at 7 (as the teeth extracted were all in the lower front of my mouth, this time around I wouldn’t just be a blood-sucking critic but a critic unable to speak without revealing his wounds, so I’d decided to see how much I could communicate with just the eyes, particularly if the communiqué was a woman), when I spotted it across the street stretching across the entire long block occupied by the front wall of the cemetery: A four-foot high plaque listing, under a citation from Apollinaire — the Surrealist / Cubist poet who, weakened from a head injury sustained in the war, succumbed to the Spanish flu in 1919 — all the names of “les enfants de Paris” who gave their lives during the Grande Guerre, a.k.a. the Grande Gaspillage (waste). Given that every village, even the tiniest burg of 100 people, in France boasts a war memorial listing the names of its sons and daughters dead in the 20th-century’s semi-organized carnages, the real question here was why it took the city of Paris 100 years to give its much more numerous dead a plaque, perhaps yet another indication of what the Yellow Vests and their supporters call the Grande Divide between Paris and the provinces. Foreigners like Malcolm McLaren and me may come to Paris so we can live yesterday tomorrow, but Parisians tend to throw out yesterday, and the ancestors with it; the provinces remember.

Calculating that this would well fill — or fill well — the 50 minutes remaining before the art opening, I determined that starting in 1914 (the names were listed alphabetically and by year) I would read every name. Some of what struck me: A lot of Gauthiers and Gautiers gave their lives for the motherland (patrie) in 1915 or 16; the archivists who culled or tracked down all this information did their homework, even to noting the nicknames — one of the fallen went by ‘La Cressoniere,’ suggesting that it didn’t take until 2019 for Parisians to start growing vegetables; seeing “Actor” after one person’s first name, I thought for a moment that all the metiers would be listed until I realized this was his last name; and, most tragically, after the year-by-year list, which ended in 1925, came a long list of more than 100 whose names were given under “year not known,” presumably meaning they had simply disappeared, lost track of after their deaths.

I’d been curious whether any passing presumably Frenchman or woman would join me in my rather ostentatious gesture (until I abandoned the row by row idea midway through the alphabet in 1916, by my slow progression my intention was clear); only one man did, and after a rudimentary pause beside me in 1914, he cut the line clear to 1917.

At the galerie La Genie de la Bastille the only indications of imminent war were the breadsticks, potato chips, nuts, Japanese-style rice crackers, and hazelnut-studded bread preparing to storm what was left of my lower-teeth if I even thought of nibbling them and incurring the wrath of my dentist (“You said to avoid baguettes. You didn’t say anything about breadsticks.”) and the artist whom the day before I’d addressed as “Narcissus” after he politely asked me to take him out of my address book. Hoping to find someone else I recognized (with whom I’d be less self-conscious about revealing my missing teeth, and maybe even get some commiseration and admiration for coming to the vernissage anyway; “Quelle devotion a l’art!”), the closest I came was a petite blonde woman who resembled a painter I’d previously worked with, that we’d not seen each other for three years explaining the uncertainty. By the way she exchanged semi-embarrassed smiles with me at intervals, I even thought she might be wondering the same thing about me, and opened my coat to reveal the “Obama 2008” button pinned to my “San Francisco Jazz Festival” sweatshirt to give her a hint.

After hovering around her all evening, I realized it was less sinister to simply ask.

“You wouldn’t by any chance be Sylvie?”

“Who’s Sylvie?”

“She’s an artist friend whose work has been featured here.”

“Nope… You’re from San Francisco!”

“How’d you know that?!”

“Your sweatshirt!”

She was soon joined by her friend, whom we’ll call Vanessa, and who exclaimed: “I had a boyfriend in San Francisco!”

“Where in San Francisco?”

“‘Great View’ street!”

“‘Grand View.’ I lived there with a roommate.” (Who was the physical and neurotic embodiment of Robert Downey Jr, the archetypal manic young actor of the late ’80s. I retain a sympathetic image of Robert — I’ve forgotten his real name — looking up expectantly from the couch where he was laying down with a book every time I emerged from the bedroom where I was chatting with my nursery school girlfriend (I mean whom I’d known since nursery school) Laurie Dabkowski, with the universally understood “Have you scored yet?” expression.)

Hoping to score with the two Parisiennes, I brandished my cards.

“Oh, you’re Israeli,” observed Vanessa.

After I’d calmed the bristling hairs on my head, I explained the origins of my last name: How after learning from my grandfather that my birth name was a mistake from when my great-grandmother entered the United States —

“Oh yes, at Long Island!” Vanessa interjected, even getting the Jewish immigrant pronunciation right: “Lon Gyland.”

I clarified that it was Ellis Island where an immigration clerk had changed the ‘V’ in great-grandma’s original name ‘Vinek’ to a ‘W’ and the ‘k’ to an ‘r’ to turn ‘Vinek’ into ‘Winer,’ at which point the other woman, whom I’ll inevitably call “Amelie,” interrupted, “Like Winner! That’s good!”

“No, ‘Winner’ has two ‘n’s. Winer means someone who cries all the time.”

After Amelie nodded and contributed that, “Yes, many Jews emigrated to the U.S. in the early 20th century,” Vanessa prodded me, “Your grandparents were from Ukraine, Russia? Odessa!”

Given that my other grandma Shirley, this one on my mother’s side, had left her Odessa Jazz Festival sweatshirt behind in the shtetl, I was flabbergasted. “Mais c’est incroyable (incredible)! How’d you know?”

“I must be psychic, I know these things.”

I then recounted that I’d chosen to change my name to “Ben-Itzak” rather than return to “Vinek” because Jewish names can be traced back to the origin (Ben-Itzak = Son of Isaac).

“You need to go to Salt Lake City, Utah,” Vanessa responded. “The Mormons have built a library with the family origins of all the names around the world.”

At this point Amelie debarked on a Jewish tangent which, far from making me cry was fascinating as a tapestry of French religious/racial, artistic/cultural, and Jewery/jewelry history.

It seems that Amelie’s great-grandmother was a soloist with the Paris Opera Ballet.

“Like Constance Quenieux, the real origin of Courbet’s ‘Origin of the World’ painting,” I piped in, hoping to score a point that was simultaneously salacious and sagacious.

The way she tells it, Amelie’s great-grams slept with either someone named Verer or was introduced by Verer to a famous jeweler from the 1920s whose name sounded something like Lilac (and who I’ve actually heard of)  and as Amelie’s grandmother was likely the product of this illicit relationship, “Therefore, I’m probably part Jewish.”

I resisted the temptation to respond with “Funny, you don’t look Blue-ish” or the pedantic, “Actually, the descent is based on the mother,” thus missing an opportunity to demonstrate my male-feminist sympatheticness in a discussion on sexism, instead gambling that a sufficiently intimate footing had been established for me to buck up and explain why I had none (buck teeth), announcing, “If you can’t always understand what I said,” which seemed to be the case with Amelie, “it’s because I just came from the dentist.”

Amelie turned away from me and towards Vanessa, to whom she proclaimed, “You have incredible teeth!,” which I wasn’t sure was meant to denigrate mine or to vaunt Vanessa’s to me, a way of saying “If you don’t have enough teeth,  you can borrow some of my friend’s!” (Which the translation engine at the right of this page will probably render as “Maybe you could burrow some of my friend’s!”)

Trying to elevate the conversation from my missing lower teeth to the omni-present French haute culture, I started to explain how my dentist, who shares his office with his doctor brother, has an American mother, which accounts for the waiting-room poster of Belmondo courting Seberg on the Champs as she hawks the Herald Tribune in Jean-Luc Godard’s “A bout de Souffle.”

“I love that film!!” exclaimed Vanessa.

“I’ve only seen scattered morsels,” Amelie half-apologetically confessed.

“You must see it.”

“It’s part of the New Wave, or Nouvelle Vague, isn’t it?”

“Same thing,” Vanessa explained.

Perhaps detecting a window to a potential decidedly New Wave ménage a trois, I announced, “I scored two copies of the film at a sale of books au prix libre (name your price) at the Little Rocket last weekend.” (Taking advantage of name your price so we can empty our stock day at the local anarchist club, for 2 Euros total I’d not only scored two copies of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” but two boxed sets comprising the entire 7th and final season of Mad Men, a CD of early Diz and Bird sessions, a “Lady of Soul” best of Aretha Franklin disc to demonstrate my DJ necrology chops in case I finally get that gig at Pere Lachaise, and — because it was a book sale I had to get at least one — a collection of 50 best short stories. That I couldn’t find an English-language paperback of Carson McCullers’s “Ballad of the Sad Café” I’d initially discarded had been compensated for later that same Saturday evening when my ex-roomie Sabine showed up with newborn baby in tow and a box of things I’d left behind on my last Paris visit, including the Obama button and a copy of a French translation of McCullers’s “Heart is a Lonely Hunter” which I’d planned on giving to one of Sabine’s girlfriends who now accidentally lives three doors down from me but won’t return my e-mails, my having been ready to give the book up because I didn’t like the translator’s version of a retrograde “Blackspeak” which couldn’t have been that bad in the original, given that Ethel Waters didn’t talk like that in the same author’s “Member of the Wedding.” Also because the friend in question had explained her last-minute cancellation of our first and last date by conjuring Greta Garbo ((I vant to be alone)) in referring to personal problems which I assumed to be affairs of the heart.)

At this point — we’re back to discussing Godard’s “Breathless,” breathlessly, with the two Parisiennes — with my lacking teeth and flagging end-of-the-day French, I was barely intelligible, but when Vanessa finally understood that it was the sale at the anarchist club on the Street of the Green Path to which I was referring, she pursued, “Why two copies?”

“Well, when I saw the first I of course thought this would be the perfect retirement gift for my dentist.” (At our last rendez-vous, when I’d pointed to the poster of Belmondo flirting with Seberg on the Champs and asked him if he’d planned to take it with him or if I could recuperate it, my dentist had shrugged his shoulders non-committedly.) And I’d no sooner thought, ‘Too bad there’s not a second copy for me’ then one materialized.”

“Incroyable!”

I know, I missed an opening that was big enough for any other American in Paris worthy of Gene Kelly to drive a truck through, in which I could have said: “Well, as I have two copies why don’t we go back to my place; we could watch them in separate rooms and laisse-faire the rest?” (Robert Downie Jr. would have been disappointed in me.) But I’d already overcome a monumental compunction just by opening my Swiss-cheesy mouth to parlez-vous with these two chic Parisiennes — a considerable feat for this shy American even if my choppers had been rocks of Gibraltar. So I had to settle for Vanessa’s proposition of a much safer excavation (than into the cavern of my teeth), that we all go check out a hidden museum whose name I couldn’t distinguish no matter how many times she repeated it, but which seems to have something to do with 19th-century Algerian furniture.

Considering the prospect later, I reflected: If you want to find a home for your lonely hunter, why not build the house with the furniture of your forgotten ancestors?

PS: In case the Parisiennes in question — for whom I’ve adopted fake names here — are reading this piece, they should know that any licentiousness in my thought bubbles is (mostly) de la license poetique… Ditto, as always, en ca qui concerne mes dents and the best dentist in the world. And the art in question at the gallery was by Pascale Chau-Huu and France-Noelle Pellecer, from the latter of whom I’ve requested a sample which we hope to share with you in a future edition. The expo runs through Sunday.