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

hockney sunflower

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

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

zemmour berbere woman small

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

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

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

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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

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

“Laisser la porte ouverte.”
— Suzy Solidor

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

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

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

paul gf reduced

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change starts at home.

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

 

Amélie’s got a gun, just like Patty – Lola Lafon conjures Hearst and illuminates a modern phenomenon

By Lola Lafon, as translated by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright Actes Sud; translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

“Heartless powers try to tell us what to think
If the spirit’s sleeping then the flesh is ink
History’s page will be neatly carved in stone
The future’s here, we are it, we are on our own
On our own, on our own, we are on our own.”

— “Throwing Stones,” lyrics by John Perry Barlow, songwriter for the Grateful Dead and visionary co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. (Click here to listen.)

“You know what your daddy said, Patty? He said, well, sixty days ago she was such a lovely child and now here she is with a gun in her hands.”

— Patti Smith’s cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” cited by Lola Lafon in “Mercy Mary Patty”

“Qu’on se moque pas de mon âme.” (Don’t mock my soul)

— Lola Lafon, “Mon Ame,” from the album “Grandir a l’envers de rien” (Growing up on the other side of nothing) (Recording here.)

“Je suis perdu, je suis revenu.” (I’m lost, I’ve returned)

— Lola Lafon, ibid

(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation so that we can continue this work. Please designate your PayPal donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Patricia Hearst was kidnapped from her apartment in Berkeley, California 45 years ago today.)

lafon small

Photo of Lola Lafon by and copyright Lynne S.K., and courtesy Actes-Sud.

Translator’s note: If the ‘you’ addressed by Lola Lafon’s narrator is Neveva Gene, the fictional American professor teaching at a private women’s college in rural France who’s been hired by Patricia Hearst’s attorneys to analyze the Hearst coverage and the tape-recorded messages from Patty released by her kidnappers the “Symbionese Liberation Army”  as they try to prove she was brainwashed or coerced into participating in the SLA crimes, this is not a case of the author pretending to be the interior voice of her protagonist. There’s a practical explanation: As becomes clear over the course of the book, the narrator grew up as one of the adopted charges of the adult Violaine, subsequent to the latter’s apprenticeship with Neveva in 1974. During that apprenticeship — while working on the Hearst brief – the French teenager kept a diary. So when the narrator, finding her way to Smith College in 2015 (see first excerpt below) explains (still addressing Gene), “I’m not looking for you, I’m supposing you (emphasis added),” she means that she’s supposing Neveva – and the details of her collaboration with the French teenager Violaine on the Hearst case and their ensuing relationship which form the bulk of the novel – based on what Violaine has told her and on her own reading and interpretation of Violaine’s notes. (In addressing Gene in the second person, Lafon employs the formal “vous,” thus dispensing with any notion that she’s presuming to be the character’s interior voice.) I discovered Lola Lafon when her album Growing up on the other side of nothing was among a box of CDs left on the doorstep of my Belleville apartment building on November 12, 2015, the night before the terrorist attacks that killed 130 people in the music halls and stadiums and on the café terraces of Paris. Her music (see link below) accompanied me during the soul-wrenching days, weeks, and months that followed. So when I heard that Lafon had taken on an episode of my own youth in San Francisco of 1974-75 — in part as a way, in my interpretation, to understand what was happening to too many youth in my Paris of 2015 — I had to find out what she had to say. In “Mary Mercy Patty” Lafon reveals things about my own self — and the impact the Hearst episode had on the fragile pre-adolescent I was — that I hadn’t previously seen. )

In this world where everything is manipulated, where the only thing that can’t be split up is money, and where the heart is rent in half, you can’t rest neutrally on the sidelines.

–Paul Nizan, “La Conspiration,” cited on the frontispiece of “Mercy Mary Patty”

 You write of the disappearing teen-aged girls.  You write of these missing persons who cut the umbilical cord to search out new vistas without the ability to sort the good from the rotten, elusive, their minds shutting out adults. You question our brutal need to ‘just talk some sense into them.’ You write of the rage of these young people who, at night, in their bedrooms surrounded by stuffed animals, dream up victorious evasions, boarding dilapidated buses, trains, and strangers’ cars, abandoning the neatly paved road for the rubble.

“Mercy Mary Patty,” your study published in 1977 in the U.S., which has just been re-issued, augmented with a new preface by you and a brief publisher’s note, is dedicated to them.  It’s not yet been translated into French. It concludes with acknowledgments as well as your résumé, from your degrees in American Literature, History, and Sociology through your teaching positions: the University of Chicago in 1973, the College of the Dunes, France, in 1974-75, assistant professor at the University of Bologna in 1982 and, finally, professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Articles appearing in the academic revues over the past few months underline the importance of your research, magazines analyze what they dub your ‘rehabilitation.’ The New Yorker devotes two columns to  you: “A controversial theory: Neveva Gene and the capsized teenaged girls, from Mercy Short** in 1690 to Patricia Hearst in 1974.” The Northampton bookstore clerk slips your book into a paper bag, he seems curious about my choice, the Hearst saga is old history, You’re European, aren’t you? You seem to have your own share of toxic teenagers at the moment, those girls swearing allegiance to a god like one idolizes a movie star, Marx, God, different eras, different tastes…. I’m guessing you’re a student at Smith, he goes on, if you’re looking to meet the author, she’s probably listed in the faculty directory.

But I’m not looking for you. Your office is on the second floor of the building I walk by every morning but it doesn’t matter because I’m not looking for you, I’m supposing youI explain my reason for being here to the bookstore clerk, I pronounce your name, I recount, I refer to “Madame Neveva” as if you were standing right there next to us and insist upon it, I pronounce “Neveva” in the same way as your students in France who venerated you and who I was not one of, Neveva Gene who arrived in a village in Southwest France in the month of January 1974, a young teacher who in the autumn of 1974 hastily tacked up notices at the village’s two bakeries, Wanted female student with high level of spoken and written English, full-time job for 15 days. Adults need not apply. URGENT.

Chapter One

October 1975

The three girls who have responded to your notice are there, sitting across from you in your cramped office, you offer them a bag of peanuts and cashews, your knees bump up against the desk, your light blue Shetland sweater sports elbow patches, your hitched-up Levis reveal the malleoluses of your ankles. You say Bonjour, I’m Neveva Gene, pronounced ‘Gene’ as in Gene Kelly or Gene Tierney, no nick-names please, no ‘Gena,’ no ‘Jenny.’

Squeezed into a window nook, one by one the candidates rattle off their credentials in an effort to win you over, this one is studying English Literature at the university, the next has already been to the U.S. twice, speaking English fluently is important if you’re going to go into business. When it’s the third girl’s turn, she refers to taking a “pause” since graduating from high school in June and the need to make a little bread. As they already know, you’re a guest professor. You studied at Smith College in Massachusetts, a university founded in 1875 and reserved for girls barred at the time from higher education. Sylvia Plath was a student there. Sylvia Plath, the name doesn’t ring a bell to them? You mark an incredulous pause in the face of the embarrassed looks of the postulants. Margaret Mitchell? The author of “Gone with the Wind”? The young women acquiesce to that one with an enthusiasm which you find alarming, it’s a novel that’s more than a little dubious, above all Smith had the honor of admitting the first African-American woman to graduate from college, in 1900: Otelia Cromwell.

American Lifestyle and Culture, the course you’re teaching at the College of the Dunes, is multi-faceted; you rapidly enumerate what you’d anticipated teaching before you arrived, the distinct architecture of Massachusetts houses, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letters to his daughter Scottie, the history of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, an examination of the success of the film “The Planet of the Apes,” an explanation of the urban legend of the phantom hitch-hiker, the adventure of Apollo 16 and, finally, the invention of the Arpanet and its consequences for communication. Daunting program. The fact is that you  harbored big hopes for this college. They should see the welcome brochure, three pages on pedagogic innovation, but the reality is something else, this institution is merely the umpteenth private school for girls without any particular qualities who drift aimlessly about after high school, a factory for future homemakers more hippy than their mothers, adorable domestic pets brought up to be consumed before their expiration dates. And who understand absolutely nothing in the articles you hand out. The young candidates say nothing and wait politely to find out what this has got to do with them, perhaps they didn’t get the sexual connotation of “brought up to be consumed.” Or maybe they’re just terrified now at the idea of being subjected to your judgment for this work about which you still haven’t said a word. One by one, they recite an article from the New York Times out loud, then translate the essentials, you ask them about the books they read, their musical tastes, pretend not to understand if they answer in French, Sorry?

But where did you learn to speak English like that, you ask the third candidate who immediately blushes, she refers to American songs whose lyrics she likes to copy, they’re actually British you point out, amused, when she recites the words from the Rolling Stones’s “Time Waits for No One” and David Bowie’s “Young Americans.” She lists her favorite movies, every week on the second public television channel a film is projected with sub-titles, the ciné-club, she never misses it even if it’s on late, 11 o’clock, you call her an Americanophile, she stammers, not sure if this is good or bad. All three listen to you, petrified, as you imitate the annual speech of the director to parents in an exageratedly nasal and mincing voice, “Oh nooo, it has nothing to do with not accepting boys in my establishment but offering girls special attention! To liberate them from their own fears!” You want to know their opinion: Would they like to study there, where one has access to so many courses, Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Cinema History, Introduction to Baroque Singing, Judo, and Modern Dance? The third girl’s answer — the tuition is too high — you greet with exaltation, as if it were a scientific breakthrough: Eggs-act-ly! Yes! The very principal of this establishment is a contradiction: Emancipate only those who have the means to be emancipated. At the end of the day, it’s just a bunch of bullshit. (In English in the original.)

Suddenly, you climb up onto the Plexiglas chair. You grab a box stored on the top shelf and place it on the desk. Voila, you announce in designating the package of American origin, as attested to by an impressive quantity of identical green stamps glued across the top of the box. The job of whoever you decide to hire is entirely contained within, you show them the folders overflowing with press clips, half open a plastic bag filled with cassette tapes resembling those teenagers use to record their favorite songs off the radio. You have to write a report, and you won’t have the time to read all this. You must be capable of synthesizing these tons of articles, you explain to them, pointing your finger at the box. You insist on an availability that will be indispensable but of a limited duration, 15 days maximum.

“In fact, do you know who Patricia Hearst is?” They’re on the landing when you pose the question, as if it’s an after-thought, one of the candidates hastens to answer: During her vacation in the U.S., she saw her on t.v., Patricia is very rich she was kidnapped and…. She’s cut off by her competition, yes they talked about her in France, there was a fusillade, a fire, and she was killed. No, you correct her, she’s alive, the police caught her. It’s the kidnappers who are dead. And you’ve been hired to evaluate the mental state of Patricia Hearst after all these tribulations. A respectful silence follows. None of the three ask about this mysterious “they” who have engaged your services or why “they” picked you, you whose specialties are history and literature. You’re the adult, the teacher, and also a foreigner inviting them into a world of adventure, kidnapping, heiresses, happy endings. That’s enough in itself. The young woman whose English level you praised hasn’t uttered a word, distressed, perhaps, to have lost out in the final leg of the race; she’s never heard of Patricia Hearst. That same night, her mother nudges her bedroom door open, her hand on the telephone: It’s for you, a funny accent, certainly the American professor.

“Is it accepted here to go to teachers’ homes?,” you ask the young woman you’ve annointed as your assistant. “Because in my office we’d be too scrunched up, we’ll be a lot more comfortable in my home. We’ll talk salary tomorrow, I’m counting on you to not let yourself be gypped. By the way, are you really 18? I’d put you more at 15.” And it doesn’t matter that she’s never heard of Patricia Hearst, you add before hanging up.

Chapter Two

During the rambling job interview — a real Show — you conveniently leave out a major chunk of the Hearst saga. Are you afraid of scaring off these three demeure French girls by telling them any more, do they seem too young to you, are you worried that their parents will be alarmed to see them working on such a subject? You’ve been living in this village of less than 5,000 habitants for a year and a half and have already tested its limits, here everyone knows everything, talks about everything, judges everything. It takes time to explain the complexities and nuances of the drama to your interlocutors and time is the one thing you don’t have a lot of.  What angle of approach will you use to study the trajectory of this young American? Which episode will you start with?

That of the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst on February 4, 1974 by an obscure revolutionary cell, the Symbionese Liberation Army? That of the first message from the heiress of February 12, a tape recording deposited by her abductors at the entrance to a radical radio station which mesmerized the entire country, her feeble voice murmuring “Mom, Dad, I’m all right”? How to explain to these French girls just looking for work that in the eyes of the FBI, the victim metamorphosed into a perpetrator in less than two months; converted to the Marxist cause of her captors, she was even identified at their sides April 15 on the video-surveillance images from a San Francisco bank, armed with an M1. It’s understandable that you’re cautious about what the candidates know and don’t say anything about the metamorphosis of Patricia Hearst.

As for your task, the “psychological” evaluation, you don’t exactly lie but here as well you take shortcuts and consign Patricia’s lawyer, your client, to the shadows. You have just 15 days to find something in the cardboard box overflowing with Xeroxes that will help you write an expert report proving the innocence of this child over whom the American media is whipping up a frenzy as her trial date approaches. 15 days to determine, who is the real Patricia Hearst?: a Marxist terrorist, a lost co-ed, an authentic revolutionary, a poor little rich girl, an heiress on the lam, an empty-headed and banal personality who embraced a cause at random, a manipulated zombie, an angry young woman with her sights set on America?

Chapter Three

A large beige dog with chestnut spots greets your new assistant on the doorstep  with boundless enthusiasm, you lean forward to hold him back — blech!, he’s just planted a sloppy wet kiss on me  — a wink, Meet Lenny, you throw a sock at the dog so he’ll amscray.

You put some sugar-coated cookies out on a plate, offer a cup of tea, jasmine, mint, saveur Russe, it’s up to her, you indicate 10 scattered, slightly rusty tin boxes on the kitchen counter. She picks one at random, doesn’t dare tell you that in her family, whether it’s black tea or herbal tea, it’s only imbibed when one’s sick. Remaining standing, she listens to you, her cup in hand, you’ve not invited her to sit down and the only chair in the room is covered with sweaters, an amorphous pile.

“Summarizing the articles would be too fastidious, we need to concentrate on the details,” with a finger you pick at the frayed edges of the cardboard box posed on the dining room table. The French girl acquiesces, looking for signs, are you married, you’re not wearing any perfume, your face is a make-up free zone, the reddened nostrils testify to this, your hair is gathered up into a haphazard pony-tail, your nails clipped like a boy’s are yellowed with tobacco, you laugh with your mouth full of chewed-up cookies without excusing yourself, the beads of tangled necklaces peak out from a half-opened drawer; you tack 33 record covers on the wall, a Nina Simone and a Patti Smith, twice you allude to your “best friend” who lives in San Francisco, the expression suggests an extended adolescence, how old are you? The dog follows you everywhere, into the kitchen, the bathroom, when you go to the WC you continue talking to your assistant, yelling at her to answer the phone. Mlle Gene Neveva is not available, the flabbergasted girl improvises.

You’re the first American she’s ever met. Speaking this language that she associates with novels and movie stars, hearing her own voice become foreign makes your first day together an intoxicating role-playing game. Everything is part of the scenery, a stop-over in an exotic wonderland, the peanut butter you spread on the crackers whose pale crumbs are strewn all over the rug, your bedroom with the storm-windows shuttered in the daytime, the books piled up at the foot of your bed and the stacks of dailies and weeklies that you ask her to sort by name: Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle.  You toss around the words casually, kidnapping, FBI, abductors, when night falls, you rub your eyes like a tired child and twist around and contort your chest with the eyes half-closed, inhaling slowly, sitting Indian style on the floor. Re-invigorated, you marvel at the manila folders that the girl has prepared, as well as the neat rectangular white labels with sky-blue borders that she pulls out of her bag.

“I love how serious you are, Violette. That name doesn’t really fit you, ‘Violette,’ maybe because it makes you sound too much like a fragile flower….”

My middle name is Violaine, the teenager improvises. You skooch your legs under the table, your mouth forms a careful O, the  smoke rings evaporating before they hit the ceiling.

“It’s important, a first name, it’s a birth. Violaine. Not easy to pronounce for an American but o-kay. You know, Vi-o-lai-nuh, what will remain unforgettable for me when I go back to the United States?”

The thunder-storms. The mountains. On the beach, on certain days, one can make them out etched into the fog, when they lock themselves around the ocean like an open hand it’s a good sign that it will be sunny the next day, your assistant is amused to hear you recite with such conviction the sayings of the old-timers.

The tidal equinoxes, also. Last week the ocean rose up to the level of the dunes! The paths along the moors. Absolutely identical, no point of reference, a pine tree is a pine tree is a pine tree is a fern tree is sand. The sand, you sigh…. That, mixed with the soil in the forest, which melts into mud the instant it rains, the silky beige sand that ends up embedded in your purse, encrusted in the spirals of your notebooks, stuck to the base of the bed, clinging to the soleus of your calves, rooted in your socks.

Mlle Neveva won’t forget the sand, she who’s just baptized herself Violaine notes in her journal with the detachment of a documentarian, omitting the fleeting moment when she thinks she hears you qualify her as unforgettable even though she barely knows you.

The sand, you repeat practically every day, exasperated, removing your tennis shoes and shaking them out over the ground.

Day 13

When, on the morning of the 13th day, you announce that you’ve read something which has opened your eyes, no doubt your report will be finished tomorrow afternoon, Violaine is more relieved than you can imagine. Her only wish is to get back to the equilibrium of those first days, to be your helping hand which cuts  out the newspaper and magazine clippings, translates, and pastes. Rather than being the person who slows you down and annoys you and doesn’t hear the same thing you hear in Patty’s recorded messages. You suggest going to the village’s bar / smoke-shop, a change of ambiance will help.

It’s noon, people are emerging from the chapel, the church plaza is packed, Lenny goes wild every time a hand is stretched out to him, exuberant and shy at the same time, a little kid who you never let out of your sight, you whistle and put an end to the social whirl. You dismiss all these pious church-goers out loud in English, tell Violaine to note their holier-than-though airs, wearing their religion on their sleeves, they’re so relieved to be in good standing with God. There’s no such thing as lost souls, just passive bodies — our own.

When you walk into the café, the men aligned along the counter rivet their eyes on you, Violaine follows in your wake, embarrassed to be embarrassed by you who are not at all embarrassed, your jeans just a little too big reveal the hemline of your panties, your sea blue pull-over emphasizes that you’re not wearing a bra.

This providential book, you read it all in one night, the Stanislavski Method of the Actor’s Studio is the bible of all the big American actors, Robert de Niro used it for his approach to playing Travis McGee in “Taxi Driver” (Violaine hasn’t seen it, the film is banned for those under 21). It includes an abundance of exercises to aid in character-building. And without a doubt, Patricia has become a character. And voila your idea, to envisage the entire saga like a story, a film! You’ll portray Patricia and Violaine can play, let’s see, Emily Harris, of the SLA. Your assistant’s aghast refusal amuses you; what, Marxism isn’t contagious?!

“First exercise: Two words that define your character.”

“Alone,” Violaine suggests.

“Protected from everything. Oops, I used one word too many.”

“Too mature for her age.”

“Too many words, Violaine! Susceptible and superficial?”

“Secretive.”

“Typical teenager,” you fire back, sticking your tongue out at Violaine.

“A symbolic example.”

A symbolic example? Of what? Your assistant is talking nonsense, she has no idea, she’s simply parroting what the heiress says on the second tape. You admit that you’re perplexed, without doubt Patricia must have said “This is a symbolic example,” and Violaine must have understood “I am a symbolic example.” You’ll have to listen to it again later. Second exercise, write a letter to one’s character. How would a letter addressed to Patricia Hearst, college sophomore, be different from one addressed to Patricia Hearst, convict? One doesn’t change in a few weeks, Violaine protests, regretting all the same to find herself disagreeing with you yet again. You continue to insist that we’re not entities with immutable identities, circumstances change us, does Violaine act the same with her parents as here in the bar, certainly not, but Violaine sticks to her guns, Patricia doesn’t really change over the course of her messages, she’d write her the same letter.

The waiter buzzes about you, when he serves the glass of Armagnac the owner insists on offering  — the American lady from the Dunes is spending the afternoon in his bar! —  his wrist brushes against your hair, Violaine whispers to you, “Il tient une couche celui-là” (He’s one sick puppy, that one), you don’t know the expression but it enchants you, you repeat it to the waiter, who slinks away, the bar is full, the regulars just coming from the rugby match, teenagers putting off going home for the traditional Sunday lunch, you can’t hear anyone in all the hubbub, you step up to the counter to order a beer, you drink to the death of that bastard, Franco finally croaked the day before yesterday, you proclaim rather than simply state, “Those who are against fascism without being against capitalism, those who wail about barbary and who come from barbary, are like those who eat their share of veal then say calves shouldn’t be killed. They want to eat the veal but don’t want to see the blood.”

A young blonde man applauds you, Bravo, say that again but louder this time, so that everyone can hear, a couple approaches you and introduces themselves respectfully, their daughter is in your class, she talks about you all the time, you interrupt them, she should read Brecht, their daughter, voilà, the glasses are refilled and clinked, dirty fascists, then, in the midst of this mob, Violaine rises to her tippy-toes and whispers to you these words that she knows by heart, the phrase with which the SLA signs all its messages, “Death to the fascist insect who feeds on the life of the people.” You stare at her, amazed, she thinks you’re going to make fun of her and apologizes, she’s read the words so often in the past few days that they’ve become embedded in her brain, but you take hold of her hand and execute a rapid, exaggeratedly ceremonious kiss of the hand, everyone whistles for you, you graciously acknowledge them as in the theater.

You insist on walking Violaine home despite her protests, It’s not like she’s going to get lost over 500 meters. Weaving along the path, slightly buzzed, you burst out laughing, recalling the perturbed air of a group of your students, seeing you drinking with the farmers seemed to scandalize them, you regale Violaine with your impressions of them, the way one can never separate those two in classthe sadistic books that one devours, the stories of girls on drugs, prostituted, beaten, locked in closets, raped, the passion of that one for Arthur Rimbaud, she keeps a picture of him in her wallet and sobs over his death, but she’s incapable of citing a single one of his poems.  Arriving at the gate, you can’t seem to decide to leave, you ask about the purpose of the high thickets which hide the property of Violaine’s parents. It’s a question of tranquility, Violaine answers without reflecting. You repeat the syllables, “tran-quil-i-ty.” Your assistant’s parents are therefore insulated from all the terrible racket which rages around here — you indicate with a large gesture the forest and the disparate other houses. You crack yourself up with your own jokes, do Violaine’s parents have a special thermostat in their salon for perfect tran-quil-i-ty, with different gradations:  “bored like a dead man,” “death-like silence….” Violaine, her keys in hand, doesn’t dare tell you that she’s cold, that around these parts the expression is “bored like a dead rat” and that her parents are waiting, the living-room lights are on, if they come outside and find you both on the stoop, they’ll invite you in, and Violaine can’t think of anything worse than you meeting her parents, why do you have to endlessly analyze everything, you tilt your head and hoot at the sky, waiting for the theoretical reply of an owl which doesn’t come. As if it weren’t night, with the humid sand under your naked feet — you clutch your shoes in your hands, they clutch you — you start in on a recapitulation of the afternoon, it was groovy.  You’ll go back to the bar next Sunday as promised with a Nina Simone 33 because you couldn’t find her songs in the jukebox. A propos, did Violaine notice what happened when you recounted how, during a Nina Simone concert, her parents had to give up their seats of honor to Whites and Nina refused to continue singing? Nothing. Nothing happened. Not a shadow of indignation.

The bar had never been so quiet. Violaine should remember it, this stillness, it has an acrid taste, it’s the silence of that which remains unspoken, those who didn’t flinch at the mention of concert seats being off-limits to Blacks thought they were abstaining from commenting but they said it all. In this café, everyone had chosen his camp. There’s no such thing as neutrality.

Day 14 (Excerpt)

Your faith in Method Acting doesn’t last long, the following morning you don’t talk about it anymore. You complain that you have at most two more days before you have to mail the report and you’ve really only just begun writing it. You hole up in your room for most of the day, from the living-room Violaine can hear the tape player starting up, No one’s forcing me to make this recording, Patricia insists. A brief click, the lisping of a tape being rewound, “… understand that I am a, uh, symbolic example and a symbolic warning not only for you but for all the others.”

When you find yourself with Violaine in the kitchen, you sip your tea without a word, no mea culpa and Violaine doesn’t dare bring up again Patricia’s expression that she therefore in fact completely understood, nor ask you who these others are, “all the others,” does she mean “warning” in the sense of an alarm or of a threat, of what is she supposed to be the example, Patricia…?

You’re expected in San Francisco December 15. There, like the other expert witnesses, you’ll be briefed on the potential attacks from the judge and the prosecutor on your credibility and your past. We’ll turn your revolutionary experience into an asset, the lawyer promises. Who could be better placed than you to know that, in these groups, you don’t find many 19-year-old heiresses who’ve never participated in a demonstration? That a lawyer whose universe is limited to Harvard and the circle of influential Republicans would harbor this type of certitude is hardly surprising. That you’ve shown yourself so sure to be able to prove him right is more intriguing.

But here at your side sits a skinny French teenager. Why listen to Patricia at all if you’re going to refuse to hear her?, she innocently asks you over and over. Her question, you also can’t allow yourself to hear it, you whose job is to prove that Patricia doesn’t know what she’s saying.  You were right the day you hired her, Violaine understands perfectly well what you’ve given her to read, just not in the way you need.

Day 15

Are you eviscerated by an experiment which is not turning out the way you wanted it to, all these discussions in which Violaine continues to whittle away at your attempts to prove that Patricia Hearst was brainwashed? Are you drained, between teaching every other day and writing the report, are you pre-occupied by the prison sentence in store for Patricia if the Defense shows itself incapable of proving her innocence — or worried about seeing your reputation tarnished, you who up until now have lived a dream life, the trial promises to be extremely mediatized, your defeat will be public, Neveva Gene couldn’t be bothered to come up with three measly lines to save Hearst. On this particular morning you usher Violaine in and swing open the door to your bedroom to reveal, carefully spread out across the carpet, a mosaic of Patricias. Ten tableaux, the magazine covers from Time and Newsweek. Ten attempts to forge a coherent portrait. One melting into the other, the covers overlapping and supplanting each other.

The cover from February 6, 1974, “SHATTERED INNOCENCE,” a Patricia bearing a wide grin, under the tender blue of a fixed horizon, her hair tossed and tussled by an ocean breeze, she’s wearing a boy’s striped Polo shirt. The cover from February 13, “WHEN WILL SHE BE SET FREE?,” with a pensive Patricia coiled up in a vast green armchair, her father with his back against the bookshelves standing behind her, his hand resting  on her shoulder. The cover from March 10, “FIANCÉ TALKS ABOUT PATRICIA.”

Violaine sinks to her knees, careful not to move the photos. Here’s the most recent one, you indicate the Time cover from April 4, 1974. No more blue, no more sky, but fire. The background of the image is red,**** like the fire of a nightmare which announces the color, red like the flag of the SLA in front of which she poses, her legs slightly apart, Patricia is 20 years and one month old, she wears a beret slanted back over her undulating auburn hair, the leather bandolier of an M16 rifle rumpling the khaki fabric of her blouse. A wide black banner splits the image of the heiress in halfGUILTY.

You tell a stunned Violaine that what you’re going to listen to now is a bit shocking. The discourse itself but also Patricia’s tone, the way she talks to her parents. You propose to listen to the recording three times, once with the eyes closed, to take notes, and then to rapidly read the dailies from April 1974. Only afterwards will you talk about them.

Tape 4, broadcast April 3, 1974

“I’d like to start out by emphasizing that what I’m about to say I wrote on my own. This is how I feel. No one’s ever forced me to say anything in these messages. I haven’t been brainwashed, or drugged, or tortured, or hypnotized. Mom, Dad, I want to start off with your pseudo-efforts to ensure my safety. Your gifts were an act. You tried to fool people. You screwed around, played for time, all of which the FBI used to try to kill me and the members of the SLA.  You pretended you were doing everything in your power to get me freed. Your betrayals taught me a lot and in that sense, I thank you. I’ve changed; I’ve grown up. I’ve become aware of many things and I can never go back to the life I lead before; that sounds hard, but on the contrary, I’ve learned what unconditional love is, for those who surround me, the love that comes from the conviction that no one will be free as long as we’re not all free. I’ve learned that the dominant class won’t retreat before anything to extend its power over others, even if this means sacrificing one of its own. It should be obvious that people who don’t give a hoot about their own child don’t care anything about the children of others.

“I’ve been given the choice between: 1) being released in a safe place or 2) joining the SLA and fighting for my own liberty and for the liberty of all the oppressed. I’ve decided to stay and fight. No one should have to humiliate themselves to line up for food, nor live in constant fear for their lives and those of their children. Dad, you say that you’re worried about me and for the lives of the oppressed of this country, but you’re lying and, as a member of the ruling class, I know that your interests and those of Mom have never served the interests of the people. You’ve said that you’ll offer more jobs, but why don’t you warn people about what’s going to happen to them, huh? Soon their jobs will be taken away. Of course you’ll say that you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re just a liar, a sell-out. But go ahead, tell them, the poor and oppressed of this country, what the government’s getting ready to do. Tell the Blacks and the vulnerable that they’ll be killed down to the last man, women and children included. If you have so much empathy for the People, tell them what the energy crisis really is, tell them that it’s just a clever strategy to hide the real intentions of Big Business. Tell them that the oil crisis is nothing more than a way to make them accept the construction of nuclear power plants all over the country; tell the People that the government is getting ready to automate all the industries and that soon, oh, in five years at the most, we won’t have need of anything but push-buttons. Tell them, Dad, that the vulnerable and a big part of the Middle Class, they’ll all be on unemployment in less than three years and then the elimination of the useless will begin. Tell the People the truth. That the maintaining of order and the laws are just an excuse to get rid of the supposedly violent elements, me, I prefer being lucid and conscious. I  should have known that you, like other businessmen, you’re perfectly capable of doing this to millions of people to hold on to power, you’d be ready to kill me for the same reasons. How long will it take for the Whites of this country to realize that what’s being done to Black children will sooner or later happen to White children?

My name has been changed to Tania, in homage to a comrade of the struggle who fought with Che in Bolivia. I embrace this name with determination, I’ll continue her fight. There’s no such thing as partial victory. I know that Tania dedicated her life to others. To fight, to devote oneself entirely in an intense desire to learn…. It’s in the spirit of Tania that I say, Patria o muerte, venceromos.“

From pages 139-140:  

(The “I” in this segment is the narrator herself, now an adult after having in her turn grown up at the knees of the adult Violaine.)

I’m 37 years old, we’re in 2015, young women are vanishing from their homes. They’re signaled at the borders, designated “S” (likely to commit terrorist acts), inscribed in organizational charts, with graphics establishing the co-relations between them: Coming from the Middle Class for the most part, they range from 15 to 25 years old, and displayed no signs in the preceding months of what was to come. The parents didn’t see it coming when they discovered, stupefied, the B-sides of their children on the ‘Net, in video messages they ask accusingly, in monotone voices, How can we claim to be humanists when in the face of injustice we remain immobile, are we not guilty, with our indifference to the poor? Let’s admit it and say it out loud, they’re a warning. For hours and hours I watch the reportages, read and cut out the articles for no reason, without any particular end, pages and pages of questions, why these girls, to whom everything was permitted and who now grace the magazine covers, they stare at the camera, an arm flattening out their breasts dissimulated under a jumble of fabric. I send the articles to Violaine, the declarations of adults panicked by these impenetrable young girls and who propose to ‘reprogram’ them in a few weeks. Violaine is initially skeptical, Patricia didn’t want to kill anyone, the SLA’s credo was humanist even if it failed, be careful about over-simplifications. We pick up our abandoned discussions, these editorials, 40 years later, employ the same words as in 1975, Could they be our daughters, our sisters, our friends? Violaine answers with a short phrase copied onto a visiting card: “What some people call ‘conversion’ or see as a sudden change isn’t one but a slow process of development, a bit like that of photographs, you know.” — Patricia Hearst (Tania)

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.