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

by Albert Camus
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

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

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

The Lutèce Diaries, 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?

The Lutèce Diaries, 14: Juliette of the Spirits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits.

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

The Jimi Hendrix Experience.

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

Rainforest music.

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

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

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

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

But this was not all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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

— “Godspell”

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

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

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

paul photo paris apartment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“L’Homme Nu.” (The Naked Man.)

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

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

City of Strangers, Looking for Love in their Little Boxes

baletI’ve often wondered: If an alien looked down on us, what would he see? At this moment on the streets of Paris, an awful lot of people talking into little boxes or who simply seem to be talking to themselves, ignoring their prochaine to pummel their box with their fingers. Until the aliens arrive, we can count on artists to give us a clairvoyant perspective on this society increasingly depourvu de la contacte humaine. So if you can get away from your little box and lift your eyes long enough to negotiate the narrow labyrinthine rues of the Marais, the above oeuvre by Catherine Balet, “Moods in a Room #34 (2019),” as well as other works by the hybrid artist pastiching painting and photography to investigate contemporary mores, is on view through March 30 at the Galerie Thierry Bigaignon at 9 rue Charlot. (Chaplin — or Charlot as the French call him — no doubt someone else who might have had something to say about the zombies walking the streets with their heads in the cyber-sand.) Courtesy Galerie Thierry Bigaignon.  — Paul Ben-Itzak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The cord doesn’t work.”

“The cord? You mean the branchement?”

“The cord doesn’t work.”

“Alors ça ne marche pas.”

“Si, ça marche.”

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

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

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

Then I imagined the subsequent conversation with the repairman.

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

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

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

“Well, the guy told me it worked.”

“Which guy?”

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

“You have 10 Euros to waste?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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