France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

April 30, 2009

A Paris

Sous le ciel de Paris
S’envole une chanson
Elle est née d’aujourd’hui
Dans le coeur d’un garçon.

“Sous le ciel de Paris,” lyrics Jean Dréjac

I just looked up the word ‘accablement’ to be absolutely sure I understood the implications of host Ali Badou assigning that trait to the ‘patrimoine’ or heritage and history of Paris on today’s France Culture morning program, whose focus was the future of “Grande Paris,” a project for which the state has gathered 10 proposals from ten architects. Here’s what my Roberts-Collins says: “despondency, depression (oppression), exhaustion.” Mais je reve! Car pour moi, the patrimoine of Paris has the opposite effect. It lifts me every time.

I stroll the Grands Boulevards and suddenly their present grime, the garbage on the street is obscured by a vision of Pissarro’s “Boulevard Montmatre on a Winter Morning,” as he saw it from a window of the Hotel Russe at the turn of the 19th/20th century, accompanied by Montand singing their eloge in the piss-poor 1950s. I sit down on a marble bench on the Ile St. Louis, facing Notre Dame and watching the Sun glint off the dappled Seine and suddenly I hear Greco or Francois singing “Sous le Ciel de Paris.” I gaze dreamily across the River at the Rive Gauche, and there I see Kelly courting Caron at the exact spot where they had their dance in “An American in Paris.” The airs of some of this music drifts over from the bridge joining the Ile St. Louis to the Ile de Cité and I make sure, when I leave, to drop a Euro in the case of the man playing the accordion — who seems more likely to be there in cold weather than hot. I’m deflated if, on the way to my nightly picnic on the Ile, my bouquiniste friend Luques’s stand is closed, because the bouqunistes, who struggle — man, do they struggle — they, too are the patrimoine. I climb up to Montmartre on the 14th of July and it’s not the pomp recalling the Revolution that stirs me, but the strains of Satie I hear coming from the single-etage on a winding backstreet where he composed that music.

But when I hear the host of the morning program on the national radio chain which in theory should be placing the most value on French culture describe his own patrimoine, his own heritage as imposing an ‘accablement’; when I hear the program give free reign to a snotty Belgian cartoonist to sniff that ‘history takes too much place’ in Paris, when I hear the program give space to one of the very same (self-interested) architects to proclaim that “that which interests me is the patrimoine of today”– ignoring that patrimoine is not something you buy like a fast-food hamburger and fast track, but something acquired with the richness of history and the events and people which animate it — when I hear all this I wonder if the cultural elite of Paris realize the jewel they have in their hands. They often like to describe Paris as “a museum.” Exactement. Mais c’est une musee vivant, avec, as Montant chants, tant de choses. Everyone wants to leave their mark, I know; but in doing so, do the architects, political and professional, of “Grande Paris” risk erasing their own history? (Roland Castro, the architect accabling his own tradition on France Culture this morning, also apparently has three philosophers on his team; do historians have their place in the equipe?)

Mais si! Il y a une patrimoine, et c’est ca qui fait de Paris une grande ville.

PS Another thing Mr. Castro tried to obscure this morning was that Paris’s eternal gift is its light. So the problem people have with the sky-scrapers whose potential virtue he was extolling is not just that they can be ugly to view or stifling to work and live in, but that they block the Sun and, in Paris, would cast serious shadows over the City of Light.


April 16, 2009

Something fishy in Brussels; wrong lesson from French professors

All the marine fishermen of the principal ports in the north of France want is to be able to fish for cod and sole. Apparently, there’s plenty more cod and sole to be caught. But Brussels rules the high seas, and Brussels has determined that this year’s quota for cod and sole was reached in June. So since Tuesday, the fisherman have been blocking the ports of Dunkerque, Boulogne-sur-Mer and Calais, taking time out only to meet with fish minister Michel Barnier yesterday. The best Barnier could come up with is a promise of 4 million Euros in aid. There’s lots more cod and sole in the Atlantic, there’s no money in the federal coffers, and yet the government can only throw money at the problem because Brussels’s will must be followed.

Speaking of blockages: When I was 13 years old — in the French equivalent of college or what we used to call junior high school — I made the choice to join my teachers on strike. They didn’t ask me to do so; I volunteered. So I’m all for student solidarity with professors. But here in France, in the ongoing blockages of universities, professors and researchers haven’t given those students who don’t want to strike the choice. It’s not enough for them to walk out; they block the entrances of the universities to prevent those who might not agree with them, or maybe who just want to pursue their education, from choosing to keep going to class. (Unlike with the fishermen — who are facing an issue of SURVIVAL — the reasons for discontent of these educators and researchers are unclear. I gather they’re upset that the government wants the universities to be independent; and about some cut-backs.) Consequently, students who expected to graduate this year are looking at incompletes because they’ve missed too much class, sometimes months. And yet, appearing on France Culture’s morning program earlier this week, one of the leaders of this movement had the nerve to say that their militancy is “not of a blind extremism.”

April 1, 2009

Sheepish about Mutton

Okay, so, besides picking more pissenlit (dandelions to you bub) for lunch (in a salad this time, rubbed with lots of garlic) I was supposed to use the walk past the horse and donkey farm (sans the dog, whose owners have — cruelly to my mind — tied or him up while they’re on vacation) to think about whether it’s worth it to go to Paris for a month even if the dance assignments I’ve got will just allow me to break even, and even then not pay right away, but instead I found myself pondering the mutton.

Riding the Metro one day when I still lived in Paris, I caught an ad for a computer or Internet company in which a (stereo)typical sheep-herder, his charges on the plain behind him and beyond that a vast vista of Pyrenees-like mountains, was staring into his computer screen with a look of satisfaction. The intended message: Now you can reach out wherever you are. My received message: We can reach you wherever you are. (Never mind that the intended message is a lie; when I moved here to the Valley of the Dordogne in 2007 France Telecom promised to connect me right away; it took two months before two technicans arrived with a radar detector to find the line.) I remember thinking: If I were in those mountains, that tiny computer screen is the last thing I’d be looking at.

So here I am looking at my computer screen telling you that here I have a chance to look at real sheep in the tiny pasture in my backyard, with gigantic limestone shrub-covered pre-historic cave-filled cliffs hovering in the background, and I’m saying non?

Okay so if I say yes, what are the potential complications, besides the moral one of turning my pauvre baby over to the hunters after he’s slaved for four months to mow my lawn, and then eating him and having a party for the occasion?

Well, what would I do if the mutton got sick? Where I live there is no veterinarian. When Hopey got sick, I had to walk her to the train station and take it two stops down the tracks early in the morning. And that was before the train workers went on strike, when I needed to take a cab back and forth. So…. presuming the sheep wasn’t so sick that I could walk him to the train station, would he have to buy his own ticket, like my cat? (Which actually has to buy a ‘small dog’ ticket.) Or maybe I could take a cab. The cab driver who occupies himself with Les Eyzies and the surrounding area would probably be more amenable to the sheep than the train company, considering that he has two donkeys of his own. (I know what you’re thinking, but unlike my doomed sheep, his donkeys are not killed and eaten after cleaning his yard, never mind that donkeys make great salami.) Hey, considering that when he was filling in for the noon train from Les Eyzies to Perigueux, the cab company owner/driver not only helped me move my stuff from Perigueux to Les Eyzies on the train company’s tab but brought his moving van, maybe, if it’s among his 18-vehicle fleet (in addition being the taxi, M. Tardieu is also the ambulance and the hearse, thus providing cradle to coffin service), to transport me and my sheep he can harness his donkeys to a donkey cart! Then I would truly feel I’d retrieved the France d’autrefois.

Another potential complication would be what to do with the mutton if it floods here again, but I guess Mr. Marty would let my sheep bunk with his chickens, across the path and on higher ground.

On the plus side, having the sheep would mean I could write it about it and writing about it would probably mean I could write it off my taxes — including up-keep. Which includes food. And if I was able to write off keeping the sheep in caviar, or whatever sheep eat besides grass that’s good, who would notice if I siphoned a little bit off for myself?

Bahhhhhh – Non

So there I was innocently watching Clint prepare to shoot it out with everyone in “High Plains Drifter” last night when I heard a tapping on the window. Stephan and Bernard had found the tree-picker the garbage collector had given me and which I’d hung on the front of the house (I plan to use for picking errant plastic bags out of the trees abord the Vezere) and were using it to let me know they’d come by to chew the duck fat. I opened the window, pushed the speaker out, and started my CD “The major speeches of General de Gaulle” before descending and breaking out the Panache. (I know it might sound more Frenchy if I had broken out the eau de vie but if I had, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing, I’d still be in bed with a brick on my head and a river in my stomach. And anyway, Bernard is on a regime so we stick to the Panache.)

I don’t know how we arrived on this subject, but as Clint and the General were debating in the background (Clint’s prowess with the pistol was trumping de Gaulle’s oratory might), Bernard and Stephan suddenly got it into their mischevous heads that what I need is a mutton to clean up the garden, i.e. the petit field that separates the stone house from the river a hundred meters away. Not only would he mow the lawn (“you just tie him to a cord, move the cord when he’s done with one section, and put out a bowl of water”), but after he was finished, Stephan and Bernard would mow him down so that Stephan, the famous barbeque-er, could put him on a spit over a pit and we could roast him for a grande fete. I protested that this wasn’t fair to the mutton; how would they like it if after a hard day’s work, their employer or client shot, roasted and ate them? Plus I know me and in four months — the time it would take for the sheep to eat the grass and get nice and fat and juicy — I’d give him a name, we’d become friends and, well, there had already been enough animal death around here (my late tortoise-shell calico kitty Hopey is buried right in that pasture). I even enlisted my black sheep bath puppet from my belle-mere Linda’s bath store Common Scents in San Francisco. “Je vous en suplie, Messieurs, ne me tué pas!” (I beg you sirs, don’t kill me!) And my police puppet. “Nouvelle loi du President Sarkozy! C’est interdit a tué les moutons!” (Sarkozy has introduced a new law: It’s forbidden to kill muttons!”) But my pals weren’t buying it. “Your problem is you can’t make a decision!” Bernard complained. “En general peut-etre c’est vrais mais la, il y a aucun dout, je ne veut pas qu’on m’amene pour le tué apres cette pauvre mouton.” In general he’s right, I have trouble making decisions but here, there was no doubt: I don’t want a mutton that they’re then going to kill.

They even tried to cherche la femme angle, pointing out that a mutton in the garden was a sure-fire way to get passing women to stop. “Right,” retorted I, “they’ll pet it, and then when I tell them we’re going to kill and eat it and have a party they’ll call me a beast.” “No, you can invite them to the party!” Stephan countered.

Perhaps they were ribbing me, but despite my protestations, it seems Bernard and Stephan made a plan to drive over to the last remaining sheep farmer in the land that pre-history didn’t forget Friday to pick up the mutton. (Tthere are only four farmers left in Les Eyzies; my retired farmer neighbor Mr. Marty, B & S told me, used to have 15 muttons that promenaded right in this same garden.) I am still leaning against it, but when Stephan mentioned ‘stuffing’ I started to hesitate and since he mentioned he might break out his accordion for the fete, I’ve been wavering.

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