France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

September 26, 2008

Plus blanc la vie

Filed under: Uncategorized — franceblogger @ 7:31 am
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I have nothing against the nightly French soap opera (fittingly set in Marseille, one of the world capitals of soap) Plus Belle la Vie. In fact, I’m one of the 6 million viewers that you shouldn’t try to call between 20h20 and 20h50 Monday through Friday; I’m addicted. My French intellectual friends no doubt look down on it but in fact, I’d argue that apart from the usual ludicrous crime threads, it’s a realistic, multi-generational look at human relations, particularly those between families, nuclear and constructed. Even if the crime threads are far-fetched, they usually act as catalysts for the more realistic human relations. Indeed, as often as not it’s the constructed family of the semi-mythical Mistral neighborhood that rescues its own from diabolical plots often as not caused by blood relations, often but not always fathers. But there’s one color in which this world rings profoundly false, and that’s in the invisibility of blacks.

In fact, the neighborhood after which the Mistral seems modelled, and in which much of the action seems to be shot, resembles the Panier district of Marseille, with its narrow streets and steep staircases. Except that… except that in reality part of that cosmopole includes French Africans. Yet if in every other way the world — the family or even community, if you will — of Plus Belle la Vie is admirably representative, with male and female gay couples often playing central roles, and subplots involving all generations, the color white, even in the multi-color Marseille, dominates. There is a brother-sister couple of North African/Magrebian/Arab origin, Malik and Samia, and they’re not only a lawyer and a police intern, respectively, but two of the purest characters in the community. But when it comes to African, or plutot the color black, the score is just about zero. A metisse character, Rudy, is the closest one comes. Apart from that, in the year I’ve been watching the show, I’ve seen a total of two black or African characters that featured prominently, more or less in the same storyline, Rudy’s father and a character named Tamara; one was an angel, the other somewhat of a demon. The only other appearance I can think of was a minor character who, of course, was a voyou or petit criminal.

I’m talking about this now because this morning on France Culture, Lamence Madzou, a former Parisian gang leader and the co-author of “Chef de Gang,” recounted the story of an African-American visitor who commented that on the streets of Paris, he felt like he was chez lui because of the number of black faces, but when he turned on the television, it was the opposite.


September 17, 2008

It takes a village to rescue a kitten

Filed under: Uncategorized — franceblogger @ 10:33 am

On the surface, country people can sometimes seem callous about the plight of domestic animals. But scratch deeper and they’re pussycats.

I’m hyper-senstive to cats, especially those in distress, after losing my Mesha in June 2007 (at 17; at least he got to see Paris and RDV with a chic Parisienne chick) and Hopey last November (at least she got to see a river and chase after lizards). Indeed, I got a strong sign that they’re still with me (and Sonia, my 19 or so years old Siamese) when, about to turn onto the path into the woods after the horsefarm, I saw a Mesha cat (black and white) crouched in the grass in the hunting position; when I called him he eventually ran past me across the main path whereupon a Hopey cat (tortoise-shell calico) emerged from the brush and they frolicked side by side off into the woods. I saw “Mesha-cat” and “Hopey-cat” again yesterday when I was out promenading with Boobah, the neighbors’ Belgian shephard/collie mix who used to chase after me but now devoutly follows me.

We had just started out this crisp morning, me with cat litter in tow, when, passing the dilapidated woodshed by the house of the elderly woman on my side of the road, right across from the train crossing, I heard an imploring ‘Meow! Meow!” (Francaise: “Miam! Miam!”) Peering through the cracks I saw a tiny grey and white kitten huddled, trembling, in the crevice of one of the walls. At that point the chronologically older but in fact quite lively woman on the other side of the street emerged from her pristine blue and white house, right at the train tracks, and I ran across towards her explaining, “There’s a petite chaton caught in the building next to madame’s place.” She hurried after me (this woman is 95 and if I have that gait at 55 I’ll be a happy camper) and peered in; when she saw it was a kitten she waved her hand, laughed, and said, “Oh, I thought you meant there was a little child stuck in there.” I wanted to knock on the door of the other lady, to whom the shed belongs, but this one said it wasn’t worth it, the lady was mean anyway, and I should just leave the kitten there.

I returned home and called Helene, the nice veterinary assistant in Le Buisson, to ask her advice. I was convinced that the kitten in fact belonged to Bernard and Sylvie’s cat, as Bernard had asked me a while back to look out for her as she was hidden somewhere in the neighborhood having kittens. My idea was to bring it up the road to them and, if they didn’t want it, suggest they turn it over to the vet. Helene didn’t go for the last part and also said that technically, Bernard and Sylvie were under no obigation to take the kitten. I wasn’t going to leave it so I asked if there would be a risk to Sonia if I took it home, and Helene said to check if it’s eyes or nose were running.

When I returned, the nice older lady emerged to suggest that I bring the kitten to Sylvie. At that point I ran up to Bernard and Sylvie’s and explained the situation to the latter who, after some insisting that she couldn’t take another cat, intermingled with my taking every opportunity to suggest that this kitten probably came from her cat, finally agreed to take the kitten in and to the vet if I could retrieve her. She also strongly suggested I don gloves as the cat might be wild and might scratch me, which could be dangerous. I returned to the house for the gloves, then headed back for the woodshed. Boobah fell in behind me when I passed his house and I had a time of it convincing him to head back so he wouldn’t scare the kitten. The lady’s house is down a rickety set of stairs and I knew I daren’t even knock directly on her door as she’d be scared; sure enough, when she finally responded to my hailing she was *mefiant.* “Who are you?” “The neighbor!” “What do you want?” “There’s a cat in your woodshed and I want your permission to enter and retrieve it.” “It’s not mine!” “I know, that’s why I want to take it out.” Finally she said yes, I unwound the wire around a nail that was all that was holding the door up, slid it aside and descended the dirt floor into the shed. I could hear the kitten wailing but couldn’t see her; finally I realized that she had somehow crawled outside of the hut under the fencing in the opposite wall and was precariously attempting to balance or descend on a two-by-for, crying all the time; she almost seemed blind. I removed a pilon from the fence, scrunched my upper body under it trying to avoid getting sratched, and took the kitten by the scruff of its neck. From that point on she was like putty, meowing but not resisting, as I took her up the hill to Bernard and Sylvie’s. (On closer examination, I realized that what was now grey and white would evolve into black and white — the same as Mesha’s, except the kitten didn’t have a van dyke.) Sylvie was out and her mother was not sure what to do with the kitten; finally she found a bucket and told me to place it in there, covering it with a carton. Just then Sylvie returned from the butcher with her eight-year-old, and when Mathilde bounded up the stairs at the sound of the kitten, I knew it was in good hands.

September 1, 2008

Running from guns in Alaska

Filed under: Uncategorized — franceblogger @ 7:26 am

Hunting season started recently here in the great southwest of France, but my friend Bernard said he his team hasn’t picked up their guns yet. That’s right, in France, they hunt the big game, notably sanglier or wild boar, in teams; it’s the law. The gun culture in this country really is about hunting, and the rules are carefully calibrated as to what one can hunt when. In Alaska, where I spent half a year in 1990 working as a feature writer for the Anchorage Daily News (and finding my late cat Mesha and my Siamese Sonia), the relationship to guns is not just about hunting. It’s about gun ownership as an expression of liberty.

People move to Alaska to be free. Free to act like they want, free to smoke cannabis, free to be alone — and free to own guns. And use them. Against each other. I learned this in just one three-day period where the gun incidents — humans killing humans — kept getting closer to me.

First there was the five-year-old who got into his parents gun cache and shot hiimself to death. Then there was the motorist who blew away another when his car got too close. Finally, one *beau matin* at 4h00, I was awakened by a feignt female voice coming from the apartment below mine: “Help me. Help me. I killed him.” My neighbor in the apartment building on the edge of the woods where I’d just installed myself had killed her husband. Apparently, it came out later, he’d been drunk and had beaten her.

In three days in Alaska, I’d experienced at closer proximity more gun death than in 30 years living in violence-prone cities like San Francisco and New York.

As a refuge for those who are born to be wild and want to be free, Alaska is a great place. (Unless you’re a polar bear. Also when I was there, the small town of English Bay was terrorized by a great white beast who had strayed in from the Arctic Circle and was stalking the village’s 150 inhabitants, knocking them off one by one. You ventured out at your own risk; he even mauled to death a pregnant woman. When they finally killed the bear, they discovered that he had all of 2 percent body fat; he was killing humans because he was hungry. Alaska’s governor/the woman who would be vice president apparently also thinks there’s no reason the polar bear should be protected as an endangered species.)
As a source of political leaders adequately civilized to govern the Lower 48 (or ‘Outside,’ as Alaskans like to refer to the other states), it’s full of nuts.

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