The Lutèce Diaries, 16: Love on the run, heart lies bleeding (unedited and uncensored version)

First sent out by e-mail, and posted today for the first time. After getting more than half-way through with a re-edit seven months later, I’ve decided to leave this piece in its initial, raw, somewhat over-detailed initial state for the sake of authenticity… and for the record. — PB-I, October 23, 2019

PARIS — So there  I was at dusk, heart broken and gums bleeding, teeth throbbing, staggering up the rue des Martyrs towards the Montmartre cemetery and the grave of the man I blamed it all on: Francois Truffaut.

In the late French director’s five-film, 20-year saga that began with the 1959 “The 400 Blows” and climaxed with “Love on the Run,” Antoine Doinel, played throughout the cycle by Truffaut’s alter-ego Jean-Pierre Leaud, is always on the run, 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 manners), his girlfriend (Dorothee, who made her debut in “Love on the Run” and would go on to become the French equivalent of Romper Room’s Miss Nancy), his older married mistress (Delphine Seyrig at her glamorous apex), and various intermittent mistresses. The only one he seems to chase, apart from Dorthee’s “Sabine,” whom he loves but whose love seems to scare him (he found her after patching up and tracing a photo of the girl a supposed lover had torn up in a restaurant basement phone booth during an angry break-up call he overheard), is Marie-France Pisier’s “Colette,” who we first meet in Truffaut’s 30-minute contribution to the 1963 multi-director film “Love at 20.”  (They encounter each other at a classical music concert; Antoine is working at the time in a Phillips record factory, with Truffaut letting us see the hot wax being spun into discs. In “Love on the Run,” Antoine finally tracks Dorothee’s Sabine to her work-place. A record shop where couples make-out in listening rooms.) You may remember Pisier as the vengeful sexpot in the movie adaptation of Sidney Sheldon’s “The Other Side of Midnight,” in which she introduces an inventive way of hardening an older man’s penis which might have come in handy in my own recent saga if I’d only have remembered it before now.

The first hint that I was starring in a sort of Bizarro universe re-make of, specifically, “Love on the Run” came when the woman in question — you know her as “Vanessa,” whom I described picking up on (although I’ve since learned that she may have been picking up on me) at a vernissage a few blocks from the Pere Lachaise cemetery (cemeteries also figure in the Antoine Doinel cycle; the Montmartre one where Truffaut was eventually buried turns up in three of the five films, notably as the burial place of Antoine’s mother, revealed to him by her former lover as being next to the real tomb of the model for “Camille.”) and right after having three teeth extracted, e-mailed me from the Lyon train station before boarding a train to that city to visit her grandkids (like Antoine, I seem to have unresolved mother issues) to tell me that the night, our first together which had concluded the previous morning, and which we’d both exuded at the time was extraordinary and unique (she’d e-mailed me afterwards that she didn’t understand why we weren’t still together) felt “incomplete” (later she’d call it “inaccomplished”) because I couldn’t or wouldn’t get it up.  (My wording; she didn’t put it so vulgarly.) In the Truffaut film, after Colette calls him from a window on a Lyon-bound train at the Gare de Lyon, where Antoine has just dropped of his son 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, has rubbed 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, an echo of my parents’ some years earlier). After they catch up, she upbraids him on the revisionist way he recounted their courtship as 20-year-olds in a fictionalized memoir he’s just published — “My family didn’t move in across the street from you, you followed us!” (At the time, Antoine is working as a proofreader at a – literally – underground publisher on a book detailing the 18 minutes when De Gaulle disappeared during the 1968 student-worker uprising. Letters requesting love assignations sent by underground pneumatics also figure in the 1968 “Stolen Kisses,” in this case from Antoine’s older, married lover – his employer’s wife — played by the glamorous Seyrig.) He tries to kiss her, she light-heartedly repels the attempt scolding him, “Antoine, you haven’t changed.” The conductor comes around for tickets, Antoine pulls the emergency chord and jumps off the still moving train. We see the now 34-year-old Antoine running across a field, an echo of the last, poignant, liberating moment in “The 400 Blows,” when a 14-year-old Antoine, having escaped from a youth home/prison, is frozen on screen and in our memories, a broad smile on his face as he runs on a beach, discovering the ocean (the antipathe of Chris Marker’s ocean in “La jete”)  for the first time.

In my own Bizarro universe re-make of the Antoine-Colette train scene, it was Colette who, after having joined me in a mutually agreed upon and extraordinary kiss was jumping from our train.

I was devastated, as I thought we’d also both agreed that what made our first night together magical is that the things other couples often view as preliminary — hand-holding, snuggling, French kissing, hand-kissing — had for us been electric. (I’m purposely avoiding citing the many words and motions we exchanged which confirm this because this piece is not intended as an indictment – “If you don’t love me, what was this?”) After writing her an e-mail to ask why she chose to bring this up in an e-mail as opposed to face to face, and explaining that if you want your partner to get it up, the worse thing you can possibly do is tell him it bothers you that he couldn’t get it up, and that a 57-year-old man can’t just get hard on command, I said she should ask herself, “If he was impotent, would I continue with him?” and if the answer was no, get out. She misinterpreted this in a more dire manner, we made up Friday, but only for her to send me another e-mail Saturday — 20 minutes before she knew I was receiving guests, my artist friends K. & R. for the famous Palestinian and Jamaican chicken twins, breaking up. And adding if I wouldn’t mind returning the scarlet scarf her Islamophobic friend  had left at my home after I asked her and her husband to leave a dinner part I’d hosted for them all when they started going at French Muslims. So it was with misty eyes that I opened the door to K. & R., and found myself confiding my troubles of the heart with friends with whom I’d not yet reached that level of intimacy. Thanks to their and particularly K.’s good humor — leading the conversation to other subjects but ready to go back to consoling me, even suggesting, “We need to find you a woman!” — I did pretty well, considering a germinating girlfriend had just broken up with me by e-mail. But I guess I must have sounded worse than I felt, because when I asked what I should do if she contacted me again, K. said “Drop it! Do you want to end up jumping out a window?!”

After more e-mail exchanges last week, the tenor of which from Vanessa remained mostly consistent — she was still running from the love express our train had become — I finally ceded, agreeing it was better to cut it off as I couldn’t return to the just-friends thing, she sent me an e-mail where she said that she too (as I’d expressed I was) was in tears, that her life had changed since “1/24” — the evening we met at the vernissage — that she’d never be the same again, that she knew she had a problem with loving, that she hoped I’d find someone but that it was probably too late for us.

This of course — the tears — brought me running, and I wrote her to say that I’d been blind, that she maybe thought she had a problem with love but that everything she’d done in my regard — particularly being ready to lose me — was done out of love.

On Friday we had another magical evening, organizing an impromptu, wintry pique-nique on the banks of the Ourcq canal. I assured her I wouldn’t go all out but just bring what was already in the house; as it happened this also included a vintage wooden unfoldable pique-nique table in a valise that came with the apartment. I’d promised her to go no further than a chaste kiss goodnight at the Metro station. “Vanessa and Paul, round two!” she’d blithely announced over the hummus, and the rest of the evening kept to this light tenor, with lots of laughter. At one point I stopped the converation to note: “This is important.  You see? When we’re face to face, we understand each other. E-mail communication is really sinister.” The night concluded with a chaste kiss at the Metro.

Ghosts in the machine

Wanting to diversify my world — I’d be making my famous Palestinian chicken for friends of Vanessa and bringing it to the house they were moving to that day, looking out over (I’m not making this up) the Pere Lachaise cemetery — on Saturday morning I decided to check out the vernissage for a group exhibition in my suburban Paris village of the pre Saint-Gervais. Life is more than women! Life is more than the women in my life over the past few years who seem to be Bizarro Universe interpreting the scripts for Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films!

After sensing that in lieu of the usual joy of discovery I still feel around art I was feeling incredibly wary after entering the art space, in the same room below the covered market where I’d scored my old aborted professor Jerome Charyn’s “The Catfish Man” — I was increasingly regretting that I lacked the coping skills Charyn’s hero (himself) had been inculpated with by being forced to tangle with the urban catfish in the mudflats of the Bronx of his come-uppance — when someone I didn’t recognize at first, a woman in her ’50s with a boyish hair-cut, rose up like one of Charyn’s catfish and announced in wonder, “Paul.” It was another V, the last girlfriend and who, in contrast to the current V., who never stopped blaming herself for being unable to love, had taken the opposite tactic with me when we last tango’d/tangle’d nearly three years ago, blaming it all on me, even though in this case the opposite was true; this was one sick puppy. I know this sounds like the usual break-up sour grapes, but I’m short-handing because she doesn’t merit more time than this. I simply mention the encounter because it may have been an omen….

… And to introduce what I conveyed to “Vanessa” as we marched from the ill-advisedly chosen Pere Lachaise rdv to the dinner at the home overlooking the cemetery. I know it’s not advised to mention an ex to a current, but for me this was a means of delivering a series of compliments:

“Where she doesn’t assume any responsibility, you unfairly blame everything on yourself…. And even though she’s 14 years younger than you, on looks there’s no contest.” Vanessa smiled widely at this. “She’s skinny-ass where you have the body of a woman, uninteresting to look at where you are.”

I was annoyed when …. No, I find I can’t go into what annoyed me, nor any other details of the party related to my interactions with “Vanessa” because it sounds like evidence gathering, and this piece is not intended to be an indictment nor a reckoning, but a first step on the path out — out of heartbreak and out of “Vanessa” — for myself. I also believe that, like an American black-belt I once knew in Antwerp once explained to me in saying why the very fact that his hands are deadly weapons means he has a reponsibility *not* to fight, a writer doesn’t have the right to use his considerable gifts in romantic reckoning.

So suffice to say that the evening seemed to end sublimely, with Vanessa and I getting lost in perpetual circling of a Paris roundabout, this one the Place Gambetta. We held hands from the moment we left the hosue; there was some warm French kissing. When I said I wanted her to come home with me, she responded that she “wasn’t against” this, but reminded me that she had to get up early to go meet her grand-daughter at the train station.

We seemed to part in joy hands taking an extra clutch before separating…

…but..not before, unprompted, she asked out loud again why she was unable to jump into my arms, then answered her own question with “Is it because you couldn’t get it up?,” though not putting it that way, again sorting the demon.

Once home, in a letter I sent on getting home at 1:30 a.m., I felt compelled to repeat my earlier answers, both the defensive and proactive ones: If you want a man to get it up, the worse thing you can do is tell him it bothers you when he can’t; and then detailing, explicitly, all the other ways I’d like to please her, and ending with, “Let’s have fun with it!”

In the last e-mail I sent her Sunday before she let the hatchet fall again (and once again by e-mail), I wrote, rather poetically (she completed the beauty and humor before lowering the ax), regarding our lost midnight turnabout, “I’d rather be lost with you than found with anyone else.”

Oh and I left out one important detail: After one embrace, I finally said the words in person for the first time: “Je t’aime,” with a big smile on my face. “What am I supposed to say?” “You’re not supposed to say anything, just accept it.”

I mention this because since she broke with me after the late Saturday night letters, I’ve been torturing myself with: Did the letters, particularly the lasciciousness, scare her away? What if I’d backed off – after the happy Metro separating – and allowed her the space to come to me. So to counter this self-torturing (I even mentioned this possiblity in my last letter to her – if I’d backed off, I  might not have lost you) I’m trying to tell myself that it was more this first face-to-face declaration of love that did it.

Ultimately I think this is the problem, the reason that Sunday and Monday morning she pulled out, saying she was arresting the histoire d’amour with me because she wasn’t “at the hauteur” of my emotions and compliments to her, to a degree that it was making her sick: I don’t think she has a problem with loving (at one point she told me she’s never been able to love, that she ended her two marriages because of this); I saw this manifest from her towards me in copious ways over the past two plus weeks. I think she has a problem with accepting being loved.

Before starting this piece this overcast Tuesday morning, I’d determined not to read any new mails from V. because I knew if I read them I’d have to respond. (And that I shouldn’t have given her the power to confirm or deny that my letters, sentimental and lascivious, of late Satruday had scared her off.) The one I did receive from her this morning, sent last night, confirmed this urge but so far I’m resisting. Not so much because I’ve convinced myself that it’s unhealthy to continue on her  roller coaster (I’ve left out the numerous things she’s said or acts she’s done which indicate a profound love because this is not intended to be a requisatory, but a first step towards my own healing .. and advancement / continuation in the search for the vrais amour) but because I’ve told the part of myself unable yet to fall out of love with her, unable to let go even though my brain and a large part of my heart realizes that this is unhealthy, to let myself be swallowed up by a heart that is really broken, that this is my last hope, I’ve decided to follow two precious pieces of advice dispensed to me by my New Zealand-bred horse chief on a pony farm along the Texas – Oklahoma border more than six years ago:

 

  1. You can’t blame yourself for the things you can’t predict. All signs — all the signals she sent me — indicated that this woman was crazy about me from the moment she encountered me. I but responded to that with the joy in my heart this provoked.

 

  1. If you want a horse/filly to do what you want, the worse thing you can do is keep barking at him. You need to give him/her time to digest what you just said, so that he ultimately makes the decision him/herself.

 

I don’t know if she’ll write me again. I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep from opening any mails she might send, or from responding if I do. But this is what I’m going to attempt, at least for a week. What I do know in my heart of hearts is that she’s hurt me so much with the ups and downs that it will take more than an e-mail to convince me of any change of heart that she might have, or rather return to the previous obsession she announced with me.  I need her to do what she’d refer to as a “Woddy Allen,” running to me breathlessly along Fifth Avenue Woody at the end of “Manhattan,” arriving panting and breathless at my door before I move on.

But to get back to the French director towards whose whose grave I found myself staggering up the rue des Martyrs as the sun set over the Sacre Coeur church which slowly emerged above it, gums bleeding from the just-extracted tooth, heart still raw. Once at the grave, after filling my green plastic up from a nearby fountain with water and popping a dissolvable 1000 gram Paracetemol into the water, posing it on Truffaut’s grave (decorated with an unravelling 35 MM film spool and a worn photo of Truffaut, Leaud, and a woman who might have been Claude Jade on the set)and watching it fizz away like this love affair, I lifted the glass 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 Francoise Truffaut with “A nos amours,” to our loves. I might have added “This is all your fault,” for setting a model of Antoines and his women I was continuingly trying to counter-act. I wanted to be the anti-Antoine, proposing a definite “OUI!” to all these French women I was encountering. Why did they keep behaving like Truffaut’s Antoine, falling in love only to deny it and jump off the train, fleeing into the great French wilderness, fleeing love – mine and theirs – on the run?

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, 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

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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, 9: Shadow boxing with Zola or Je brave, j’ose — As tear gas falls on the yellow vests at the Place de la Republique, I cry over the girl in the red dress

dusong labrynthe“Et O,” 2017. Activated sound oeuvre in situ, words, voice, and composition Emma Dusong. Maison Bernard Collection. Courtesy Galerie Les filles du calvaire.

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

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PARIS — While the intrepid reporters of France Culture radio were over at the Place de la Republique Saturday not getting the story of what 200 “Yellow Vests” convened for a Study-In might have done to provoke the riot police into resorting to tear gas, I was down the street at the tony Filles du Calvaire gallery checking out a more studied manifestation of French culture. Notwithstanding a technical glitch — Mercury was definitely in retrograde Saturday, playing havoc with both electronic and personal paths of communication — which prevented the artist from delivering the potentially most pertinent epiphany promised in her debut solo exhibition / installation, involving the possibility that her delicate fingers might get snapped off at the joints by one of the 12 open school desks arrayed like relics from Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” on the gallery’s second floor, Emma Dusong provided a schooling on just how vital artistic, contemplated expression can be in our reactive times.

The first indication I had that my day might go haywire came when I arrived at the top of Eastern Paris on the Place des Fetes and immediately realized that what had been advertised as a “vide grenier” (like a community-wide garage sale; ‘vide’ = empty, grenier = attic) was actually an empty-all-the-crap we weren’t able to sell during 2018 junk sale, organized by a motley collection of what used to be called ‘chiffonniers,’ who famously scoured the trash-cans of Paris looking for treasures. (If you’ve seen Elia Kazan’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” you know that in the Lower East Side they used to call them ragmen.)

It was partly by reminding myself of this fact that I was able to beat Zola at his own game when I came upon one of the three things I was theoretically looking for, a record player (for 78s as well as 45s and 33s) in a suitcase.

“How much?” I asked, faithful to Henry James’s imperative that these be the first words out of any self-respectingly acquisitive American’s mouth when dealing with the natives.

“10 Euros,” the burly, balding, and swarthy middle-aged man busily unwrapping something on the curb 20 feet away from me barked out, not looking up.

“Ca marche? Ca function?” (I’d learned a decade ago that, when it comes to electronics of questionable provenance, there’s an important distinction between these two words, one meaning it actually does what it’s supposed to do, the other promising no more than that it will start up.)

“The cord doesn’t work.”

“The cord? You mean the branchement?”

“The cord doesn’t work.”

“Alors ça ne marche pas.”

“Si, ça marche.”

I’d asked him so many times whether it worked that he’d finally surrendered and given me the answer I wanted to hear.

After figuring out how to lift the arm from its holder, I verified that it still had a needle. (One of my rules is not to purchase anything that’s not 100% good-to-go, because I know I’ll never get around to fixing it.) Everything else looked impeccable: The removable top with the speakers, the sleek metal dials, the cords connecting the power source and the speakers. There were just two hitches: The guy wouldn’t look at me. And the open record player was wet, the seller having done nothing to protect the item from the morning’s intermittent drizzle.

For a moment I tried to convince myself that “c’est pas grave,” it’s no big deal; if upon getting home I discovered that the record-player didn’t work, I could just take it to “Mood,” the handy-dandy vinyl and record player repair shop around the corner. (I could even get some records to test the device; the guy at the next stand was selling his collection of “Songs of the Cuban Revolution” for 2 Euros a pop; if I could find a branchement at the demonstration the “Yellow Vests” were throwing later that afternoon at the Place de la Republique, a few blocks from where I was heading, I could even be the DJ. “American journalist arrested for fomenting Red Revolution among the Yellow Vests at the Place de la Republique.” In 2003 the back of my head made the cover of l’Humanité, the Commie rag, now about to go out of business, the head being turned to lead Americans against the War in anti-Bush chants.)

Then I imagined the subsequent conversation with the repairman.

“There’s water all over the parts. Did you leave it out in the rain or something?”

“No, it was already wet when I bought it.”

“You bought an electronic device that was already wet?”

“Well, the guy told me it worked.”

“Which guy?”

“The guy at the vide-grenier that was really a vide-everything-we-haven’t been able to sell in 2018 sale. I only paid 10 Euros.”

“You have 10 Euros to waste?”

In fact I don’t, which is ultimately why I decided not to buy a wing and a prayer with a classy chassis, and why I can say I beat at his own game Zola, one of whose characters in “The Happiness of Ladies” (Le Bonheur des Dames) enters the spanking new mega-department store of the title (basically a mall before its time; Zola always was ahead of his in detecting the built-in time-bombs in progress) promising “It’s just to look, looking is free, isn’t it?” and ends up with five store employees behind her towing the five cart-loads worth of this-and-that’s (“that fringe would go great with my curtains,” etcetera) she’s bought which will prove the ruin of her functionary husband. Less here than in “Germinal” and “L’Assommoir,” my problem with Zola is that his characters don’t seem to have any free will; they exist to serve the arguments of their creator. I had not just beat the master at his own game, but asserted my own free will against the gods of pre-determination and Haman.

My conviction that I’d made the right move was confirmed when, seeing a man toting fake tulips in a stained-glass lantern as I walked away from the Place des Fetes I thought, “Now there’s something that’s absolutely useless, and yet he’s holding onto it like he can’t do without it,” and realized that if I’d bought the record-player and been lugging an old rectangular rusted valise as if it were true gold, he’d probably be thinking the same thing about me. And it was bolstered when, wandering down the rue Doctor Something towards what I hoped was the rue de Belleville, I crossed one of those “Died for France” plaques, this time marking the life and passing of a Resistant who had been arrested and deported to Auschwitz. “He didn’t die for France,” I reflected, “so that 76 years later an American with the delusion that he can buy his way into French culture could procure a decrepit turntable of dubious functionality.”

Speaking of decrepit, I wasn’t sure if I was heading back to Lilas (another frontiere Paris suburb) or Belleville until I saw the inevitable sign pointing me towards a cemetery, this one for the old Belleville bone-orchard, if I can cop a phrase from Tennessee Williams’s “This Property is Condemned.”

A sign posted on a balcony and indicating the opposite state of propriety greeted me at home base — the rue des Cascades high above Paris, which links Belleville and Menilmontant — with an “another apartment sold” announcement from a real estate agency calling itself “App. Art,” the two words separated by a pineapple. As if by putting “art” in their name the speculators helping the BoBos buy up Belleville could mask the fact that, as in San Francisco’s Mission District and Brooklyn’s Williamsburg before this cosmopolitan neighborhood, the very artists and ethnic communities who have given Belleville its caché will soon be priced out.

Convincing my gammy leg, which wanted to turn on its heels and head back home, that “it’s all downhill from here,” I turned onto Menilmontant, crossed the boulevard of the same name and, after detouring a block to pick up the customary Diplomate bread pudding to fortify me, continued down Oberkampf to the Metro of the same name, a few steps from the rue Filles du Calvaire and its gallery, my Rubicon being the rue de la Folie-Mericourt just above the boulevard and not far from where the gunmen had mowed down dozens of people on the terraces of three cafes on November 13, 2015, on which terraces all the memorials have disappeared. (Depending on your source, the Folie-Mericourt is either named after a Revolutionary heroine who went mad ((Wikipedia)) or the country house of sire whose name started out as Marcaut before it was mutilated by history. ((“Lutèce, à présent nomée Paris, Cité capitalle de France,” Jacques Hillairet, Le Club Français du Livre, 1959.)) En tout cas, I’ve learned to avoid all Paris streets which start with “Folie,” as they usually turn out to be dead ends.)

dusong chairs with her“Classe,” 2012. Motorized sound installation with activated light, words, voice, and composition by Emma Dusong. Co-produced by the City of Paris, Nuit Blanche.  Courtesy Galerie Les filles du calvaire.

“The exhibition isn’t quite ready yet,” announced one of the at least five chic-ly attired (mostly in black) women and one thin man at the desk, pointing to the stairs at the rear of a first room as a group of us entered the gallery foyer after traversing the courtyard and buzzing open a grill guarded by meticulously trimmed midget trees. “But you’re welcome to look at this one,” she said, inclining her hands towards a floor splattered with shiny ceramic still lives which reminded me of the wreath of porcelain flowers decorating Marie Taglioni’s mother’s grave at the Montmartre Cemetery. (That makes two so far, if you’re counting.)

When we were finally allowed to mount the stairs, 20 minutes after the scheduled opening and following a cameo descent to the lobby by Dusong, who’d replaced the black smock of the press kit photos with a form-fitting red dress and dawned librarian glasses, I was initially under-whelmed. We were met by the 12 connected desks, each open to reveal a light and a metal-spool like object, apparently where the technical problem lay, if one is to believe the press release (which had promised the artist sitting at one of them and inserting her hands la dedans, with no idea if the desk would do a “Little Shop of Horrors” number on her delicate digits) and judging by the technician-like looking man seated at one of them and scratching his head quizzically.

The announced technical glitch might also have concerned a short film projected beyond a curtain under an “Emergency Exit” sign, which up until the screen abruptly went black mid-promenade and mid-song inspired the exhibition’s most moving moments, starring the raven-haired Dusong moving slowly around a serene pond guarded by a sort of combination Yabba the Hut – Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome labyrinth. After repeatedly chanting in her soprano voice a mantra whose only recognizable (but powerful) words to me were “Je brave, J’ose,” I brave, I dare, while slowly walking in bare feet around the periphery of the pond — set against a tropical bay — Dusang, this time wearing a gently swaying gossamer gown, enters the labyrinth, but after a couple of twists and turns and before she can get out, either the film ends where it’s supposed to or the power went out and the tiny space went black. Given that the press kit includes a picture of her exiting the mouth of the object, I tend to vote for the latter.

Moving as Dusong’s words and the child-like yet sad voice in which she delivered them were, the experience was constricted by the fact that only those able to grab one of a handful of headphones were able to hear her mesmerizing voice straddling the delicate tightrope between melancholy and hope. Perhaps the artist didn’t want the voice of her film self to have to compete with the voice of her taped self, running on a loop in the main exhibition room. There she spoke a bit too fast for me to follow, but I’m assuming she was repeating the same tiny text featured in two Lilliputian notebooks encased in glass boxes affixed to the walls. Over the vast hole in the middle of the space a scrim reflected a projected blue sky with white clouds. I’d no sooner groaned at the banality of it than I noticed the shadow of a guy leaning over the rail guard surrounding the hole’s periphery projected on the scrim. I had to try out a couple of spots before my shadow followed suite and instantly thought back to the shadow room at the Exploratorium, a science-is-fun museum in San Francisco where I worked in high-school as an Orange-Jacketed Explainer, and where intermittent flashes made the green wall retain the form you’d pressed against it during the flash. (In case you’re wondering what my specialty was, I was the go-to Explainer for the cow’s eye dissection; 40 years later and I’m still dissecting others’ visions.)

The gist of all three texts — spoken, walled, and abortedly projected — involved a young woman or girl summoning the courage to speak for and up for herself. The exhibition is called “La voix libre,” with the PR claiming the artist is “libertaire,” the polite word in France for “anarchist,” but given as this was the third event in two days that I came across with aspirations to anarchism, it’s a stretch; all were in organized spaces, either bourgeoisie (the ambiance at the Filles du Calvaire seemed particularly chi-chi), municipally, or nationally funded, the last being a two-day event at the Centre National de la Danse somewhat brazenly called “Occupation.” (If the owners invite the occupiers in, it’s not an occupation.)

It’s a sort of rebellion that falls within socially accepted norms, like the so-called “Yellow Vests” so-called “Movement.” I’m not calling for real physical rebellion — if anything, I’m a hardliner who believes the State was right to arrest one of the movement’s self-proclaimed leaders for holding a protest without a permit. But to cite a precept that a lot of pundits and politicians on the Left and Right have been liberally tossing around lately, as Albert Camus — another French philosopher the libertaires have claimed as their own — said, “Mal nommer les choses, c’est ajouter au malheur du monde.” (When you misname things, you only add to the world’s unhappiness.)

How I interpret Camus’s argument in the current context is that when you give people the idea that simply proclaiming “I brave, I dare” makes you a libertaire, you’re not setting the bar particularly high. Far from really acting up, the Frenchman’s pattern is to act out. (Unfortunately, what elevated the “Yellow Vest”s’ campaign from a harmless temper tantrum to senseless violence was when their round point blockades lead to the deaths of at least eight people.)

Hiking up the Canal St.-Martin after the… artistic … manifestation, I saw a group of men take a table in a brasserie and break out laughing. The only thing that made them stand out was their yellow vests, which they were sporting like a five-star general’s medals, only the generals would be more modest. “We’re special, we’re the stars, because we have our vests.” (Later on on the rue la Villette approaching the parc Buttes Chaumont, I resisted the temptation to ask a group of men standing in front of an official-looking building if they were “Yellow Vests” or municipal workers wearing yellow vests.) A few minutes later, I counted seven dark blue Mobile Gendarmes vans speeding up the boulevard Richard-Lenoir — where’s the Commissaire Maigret when you need him? — towards the Bastille, sirens blaring. This Monday morning, when France Culture radio finally got around to telling us what had actually happened Saturday night, it reported that another of the self-proclaimed leaders of the “Yellow Vests” claimed the gendarmes or police had purposely fired in his eye with a flash ball or a circling grenade or something like that; that he’d been targeted because he was HIM.

They all want to be Antoine Doinel in “The 400 Blows,” playing hooky during the day and praying at Balzac’s shrine at night, but in the end they always wind up walking back across the bridge (over the Montmartre cemetery looking down on Sacha Guitry’s grave) to return the stolen typewriter to dad’s office… and getting busted and sent to the reformatory camp anyway before breaking out and running along the beach in liberated joy, like the hero in Chris Marker’s “La Jeté” fatally repeating the cycle and never finding out who that woman was.

After being mistaken for one of them — an artist I mean, not a “Yellow Vest” — while taking notes in front of a tree-stump with a “real tree coming soon here!” sign from the mayor next to which somewhat had stapled the upper half of a real yellow Formica chair that looked suspiciously like the one I left behind in my flat on the rue de Paradis 11 years ago, and grimacing at a stuffed grizzly bear with a top hat on the inside of a taxidermist’s not too far from the gallery, I finally sat down to rest my tired but not quite dead yet dogs on a thin metal bench (too thin to sleep on; see yesterday’s item) by the Canal St.-Martin to sip my green thermos tea and devour what remained of my Diplomate, causing two drifting mallards and one female duck to change course, paddle towards me, and vociferously accuse me of being a quack until I surrendered and tossed some squishy Diplomate their way. The first dispersement went well, but after I relented and offered a second helping, the sea-gulls and the pigeons descended and started fighting for the remains of the rapidly dissipating diplomat.

dusong pool“Et O,” 2017. Activated sound oeuvre in situ, words, voice, and composition Emma Dusong. Maison Bernard Collection. Courtesy Galerie Les filles du calvaire.

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.

The Lutèce Diaries, 7: Out of the Box in Belleville, or the Delicate Art of Eating Diplomates without taking their skins off

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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PARIS — Careening around the streets and over the canals and rivers of Paris on his way to a heart operation he doesn’t know whether he’ll survive in Cedric Klapisch’s “Paris,” Romain Duris reclines on the seat, gazes up at the sky, and inveighs that most Parisians are so busy kvetching,  they don’t realize what they have.  (Crossing a bridge to the Quay Tournelle, he passes one who does: an Ivorian immigrant, recently arrived after a perilous ocean crossing as also captured in the film, busy capturing Notre-Dame with his cell phone.) It’s this sense of emerveillement that I hope to transmit to these dispatches and this site, even if I’m not lucky enough to have Juliette Binoche as a sister nor hundreds of women ogling my svelte form as I do my number at the Moulin Rouge, as they do Duris’s before he almost dances his heart out.

On Tuesday, then, after running the gauntlet of the outdoor Belleville market (I actually avoid the gauntlet by tracing the gulleys outside the two rows of stands, making strategic plunges into the interior when I recognize good deals on bananas, 2-kilo cartons of black dates from the Algerian bled for 2 Euros, 1 Euro per kilo bargains on sweet potatoes and yams, bins full of multi-colored cornet peppers at the same price, making sure to verify that they’re not ‘piquant,’ and to my go-to source for spicy merguez sausages, making sure they are), and rewarding myself with a Diplomate pastry (like bread pudding but better)  at my favorite Arab-French bakery, I was reminded that contrary to what some misguided  neo-liberal post-colonial feminists would have you believe, most of the putatively Muslim women covering their heads with scarves aren’t being sequestered in their rooms by macho husbands, they are out there, out here, ebulliently interacting with the rest of us. (Somehow those same feminists don’t have the same issue with Hasidic women shaving their heads and covering them with wigs that are a lot less elegant than the head-scarves.) This time the matron not only heard me when I asked her not to seal the top of the Diplomate (the paper rips off the glossy almond frosting), but readily agreed with my reasoning, and could not stop thanking me after I handed her the 1 Euro piece. “Merci beaucoup monsieur, merci monsieur.” For my part, her open smile said more about the nature of her religion than her scarf.

The hic was that because of the excuse I’d given — “I’m going to eat it right away” — I was obligated to devour my Diplomate tout de la suite. The obvious choice was to walk down the block to the Pere Lachaise cemetery and have another grave-side session with Sarah Bernhardt, but ever since I’d been chastised for this by a pirate tour-guide who couldn’t tell Bara from Bernhardt — “In France, we don’t dine on cadavers” she told me (I’m paraphrasing), right after telling her clients that Bernhardt had been “France’s greatest film star” — I’d been squeamish. (I don’t eat on the actual grave, but sitting on the low concrete rim which entours it.) And besides, on this trip I’d sworn to try to spend more time with the living than the dead, actually asking women out as opposed to sitting on, er, by Truffaut’s grave (Montmartre) and asking his advice on how to do so.

The secondary problem was that I could feel the pork brioche I’d lunched on to fortify myself before heading into the belly of the market– after complimenting the owner-chef of the rue de Belleville dim-sum joint with “I’m from San Francisco, and this is the best pork bun I’ve found in France” (he’d smiled gratefully before pointing out “Oui, but San Francisco’s not the same,” Chinese province origin-wise) aching to come up (potty-wise). Remembering the actual normal toilets below the plaza of the Belleville park — which offers the best view of the Eiffel Tower, if you’re looking — I decided to eat the French-Arab Diplomate after disposing of the French-Chinese pork brioche and marched up the rue Menilmontant, unprotected Diplomate in palm of hand like an offering.

After saluting “nous, les gars de Menilmontant,” the gigantic stick-figures circle-dancing a la Matisse on a wall mid-way up the rue, I decided to check in with Caroline Bouyer, who runs a tiny storefront engraving atelier, half of which is taken up by an unwieldy printing press. Brouyer posed no objection when I posed the pastry on the narrow edge of the press so I could take a red-and-black stained hand half-apologetically surrendered so we could shake. “Your visage tells me something,” she said (in my poetically licensed translation) after I explained “I’m the guy who featured one of your lithographs in a piece on the 2016 Open Studios of Belleville.” When I complimented a new, miniature print in the vitrine, a smile mutinied in her otherwise deadpan expression. “Oh yes, the ancient local train tracks!” Just across and below Menilmon’, the rails — where a pair of resistants died during the war after sabotaging them — are now overgrown with weeds of character.

brouyer new

Caroline Bouyer, “Magasins Généraux Désaffectés 2.” Engraving. Copyright and courtesy Caroline Bouyer. Click here for more samples of the artist’s work.

After pausing midway on the rue Cascades (named after the water which used to cascade from the abbys down into Paris, it joins Menilmontant and Belleville) to appreciate the best view of Bellevilloise rooftops — unchanged since the time of Willy Ronis — and skirting the omnipresent green construction barriers bisecting the stairs leading from the plaza to the toilets underneath them, I confronted another challenge: The light-bulb in the handicapped restroom — the only one not occupied — was flickering on and off so frenetically it would give an epileptic pause; not an issue if your handicap is being blind, but for a know-it-all journalist who even in broad daylight can never find the open sheet on a newly installed wheel of toilet paper, a formidable obstacle. After managing to squeeze my fingers through the narrow opening of the metal case, the best I could do was rip off a chunk somewhere in the middle of the roll, and whose narrowness risked to leave debris in the sensitive spot and leave my digits soiled. Not to mention that the darkness made the verification process problematic. (Trust, but verify.) Directing my ire towards the globe shielding the flickering bulb, for a moment I considered simply removing the encasement and tightening the light-bulb myself. But then I saw the headline (did I mention that ever since seeing, repeatedly, “The Red Balloon” as a child — it wasn’t until after I’d fallen in love with Belleville that I’d learned the film was shot on its winding streets and over its sweeping vistas — I’ve had a vivid imagination ?): “Over-intrepid Journalist electrocutes self.” I could certainly anticipate that eventuality by making it seem like I did it on purpose, a la Tunisian, using the Diplomate crumbs to scrawl out my message: “A tout les GAFA qui ont profite de mon travail avant de provoquer mon obsolescence” (to all the Internet giants who profited from my work to make me obsolete), but somehow croacking in a toilet room didn’t seem as glorious as Hunter S. Thompson having Johnny Depp shoot his remains out of a cannon from the top of the Rocky Mountains. So instead I just muddled on like the 1/4 Brit I am, against Gatsby’s tide.

If my internal load was lighter by one pork brioche, my “In the Alps, one knows how to live” “Carefree” reusable shopping bag was two large yams, one cabbage, one pack of chocolate-covered Belgian waffles, one .40 cent sprig of fresh mint, two large zuchinis, one jar of Dutch peanut butter (2.30 at my go-to French Arab epicerie across from the Menilmontant Metro), one sachet of olives (4.60 / kilo ibid) heavier, so after telling a  healthy-looking green-uniformed blonde women giggling in a patch of gardeners about the troubled light-bulb — “C’est pas grave, ca fait un peu boite de nuit,” it’s not a big deal, makes it look like a night-club — I decided to take the Metro home. There I was delighted to witness one of those “only in Paris” things that are more and more rare these days. On the line 5, a big man wearing the blue uniform of the RATF, the Metro company, entered the car and began meticulously wiping down the poles. A second later, another identically costumed citizen entered from the other direction to scrub down the poles on the opposite side. In other words, and as any inveterate New Yorker will tell you, preventive health-care at its best. Recalling my questionable sanitary experience in the Belleville park toilet of tout a l’heure, I couldn’t help thinking how this proved the old adage: There’s never a municipal employee around when you need him.