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

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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