France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

May 30, 2009

39 with a bullet

Could any day have been more perfectly Paris than this one, or rather the one that started at 4 p.m. yesterday in the heights of Belleville, spent two hours in the Andre Malraux library in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-pres with its patron saint, Boris Vian, had a 7 p.m. thermos coffee staring up at the fountain Delacroix’s admirers had erected for him in the Luxembourg Gardens, paused to watch two mimes performing in this week-end’s Mime in May festival rehearse “Le Mort du Signe” in the Luxembourg’s bandstand, took its time at pal Luc’s bookstand on the Right Bank of the Seine under the watchful eyes of 100 year war hero Etienne Marcel, and finished with a late night picnic with Luc on a marble bench on the Ile St. Louis looking at the light reflected in the Seine and across at Notre Dame? No really, could any day be more perfectly Paris?

I used to be sad that Boris Vian died at just 39 years old, ten minutes into a film version of his infamous “J’irai cracher sur vos tombs” novel which he wasn’t happy about. But after perusing the “Real Boris” exhibition at the Malraux library, I realized that Vian had not just one heckuva full life but several before he left us 50 years ago next month. Wrote about a dozen books, plus contributed regular jazz and other columns, plus played a mean trumpet or, as he preferred, trompinet, acted as a general jazz impresario, famously welcoming Duke Ellington into this country in 1948, made several movies, including one which, never mind that it featured him tossing knives at cardboard cut-outs of keystone cops, was funded by the Higher Education Ministry. And on top of that, he wrote 500 songs! (His singing career, by contrast, was short; his one tour was cut short by veterans who objected to his song “The Desserteur.”) In his free time, he translated Chandler and others into French and co-founded the society of Pataphysiques, which held regular parties on the connected terraces of Vian and Jacques Prevert. It was almost as if, learning at 15 that he had a serious artery problem, Vian knew he had little time and packed as many lives as possible into his stay on Earth. He’d already had a rich childhood, living next door to the son of Edmund Rostand and with Yehudi Menuhin as a playmate. Also coté personal, his second and last wife, Ursula Kubler, danced for Bejart and Petit.

After a couple of hours with Vian, I strolled over to the Luxembourg. Instead of my usual refuge the Fountain de Medicis, I stopped at the Delacroix Fountain, and it was there I realized: Life is too short not to spend more of it in the Luxembourg Gardens.

Then at 8 p.m., the Sun still shining brilliantly, it was down a teeming St. Michel, across the Ile de Cité to Luc’s stand opposite the rear of the Hotel de Ville. I haven’t written about Luc before because I feel that by doing so, I’m turning our relationship into fodder for another tale of a typique Parisian, which prompts the question: How much is his metier a factor, on my side, of our friendship? That I think it’s cool to have a buddy who’s a bouquiniste, which thus immerses me in the fabric of an eternal Paris? But maybe that’s okay; on his side, maybe my being an American in Paris is part of the pull. Enough angst; it is cool to be so immersed in this vanishing part of life of traditional Paris. Vanishing, yes, because notwithstanding the myth of ‘the romance of the bouquiniste,’ it’s a tough metier. During the winter months, Luc has another boulot. When it rains, he can’t open his stand. When it’s sunny, he stays open late. As we slowly made our way to the Ile (it wasn’t until two hours after I met Luc that we finally arrived at a miraculously unclaimed bench), Luc explained to the friend of another bouquiniste at whose stand we’d stopped to catch up, and who asked what his specialty was, that he used to sell just art books but got tired of seeing them sit there unsold and unappreciated. (And Luc’s prices, by the way, are great; I got a complete collection of Vian’s jazz writings for just three Euros.)

So many workers in different sectors have been complaining the last two years, and not always with reasons; the punky young doctors who don’t want to be forced to install themselves in the country and petit villages, never mind that these villages need them; the train workers who seem to go on strike once per month, with absolutely no conscience about how train stoppages can strand people in the country or commuting workers in the city; and worse of all, the university and high school students, who seem to think it’s a game,their singing manifs seeming more like parties or football 0rallies. Yet the bouquinistes just quietly go about upholding a fundamental tenet of French tradition, a way of life — and a literary one — but that’s hardly sustaining, with no complaints. I think they should get a subvention, in recognition of how essential they are to the firmament.

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May 26, 2009

Danny le Rouge ne rougé pas

As I was wandering along the rue Belgrand off the rue de Pyrenees Saturday, lost in the world’s longest outdoor market, a flyer pasted to a telephone pole caught my eye: Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a.k.a. Danny le Rouge, leader of the May ’68 student riots in Paris, and lead candidate for Europe Ecology a.k.a. the Greens for the Ile de France in the upcoming European Parliamentary elections (what does that parliament actually DO, by the way? It doesn’t seem to be able to impeach the betises of Brussels, nor permitted to propose new laws.) would be speaking in my neighborhood that afternoon, in a ‘debate’ on the topic “L’outre-mer c’est aussi l’Europe.”

L’outre mer or outer Ocean isn’t actually in Europe, being constituted by French domaines and territories like Martinique, Guadalupe, the Ile of Reunion and Guyane. It’s also sometimes referred to as the DOM-TOM, which I think stands for domaines outre mere and territories outre-mer. They’re former slave colonies in which, in the eyes of some — notably many of those who struck for two months earlier this year to protest high prices — the lighter-skinned descendants of slave-owners now own most of what’s ownable even if they constitute a minority of the population, and the darker-skinned descendants of slaves work for them and have to buy their over-priced goods at stores owned by the descendants of their ancestors’ slave-masters. In other words, the DOM-TOM’s are a relic of colonialism.

If that wasn’t enough, even though they’re not in Europe, the DOM-TOM countries, or at least the DOM, are also strapped by Brussels, a.k.a. the European Commission. So, as one representative explained at the debate Saturday, a DOM country can find itself bound by, say, different rules of the Ocean than the island right next door.

Danny le Rouge showed up an hour late for the debate in a small club here in the trés cosmopolitan 20th arrondisement of Paris, in time to hear some of this and to deliver a rather pat polemic (“Europe needs to take a look at the ex-colonies.” Duh!) which began by his admitting that he’d actually never been to any DOM or TOM countries. It was also a bit bizarre to hear the most famous student leader of the 1960s this side of Mario Savio and Tom Hayden excuse a memory lapse by a reference to Alzheimer’s.

I’d have been curious to learn what Danny the Rouge thinks of his putative descendants, the students who for four months this Spring were not content to just boycott school themselves, in a vague protest of new policies proposed by the government including autonomy for the universities (uh, what’s wrong with that?), no, they had to BLOCK access to classes by any other students — many of whose parents had paid dearly for the privilege of an education for their children — even those not in accord with them. (Whatever happened to Democracy?) This so-called movement seems a perversion of May ’68, with, from what I’ve seen on t.v. and heard on the radio of the manifs, the students seeing it as just one big protest party.

May 25, 2009

Out of the past

“Je ne suis que ‘pour le moment,’ comme je le chant. Je me passioné pour l’air du temps, pour le succes de l’heure, pour l’esprit de l’instant.”

— Juliet Greco, Para Vendu weekly newspaper, May 22, 2009

Of all my collections, my assemblage of Pastis 51 carafes, ashtrays, glasses, key-chains, serving trays, ice-tongs, and mirrors is emblematic of how for eight years (at least) I’ve taken refuge in a secure past — not even my own — to avoid the risks of trying to secure a vivant present, specifically with someone else. I don’t even like Pastis, except as a traditional Frenchy thng in which to indulge now and again, especially now that I live in the south (when I’m not in Paris). But one day at a vide grenier (literally: empty the attic; kind of like a neighborhood-wide garage sale) I found an orange Pastis 51 carafe at a bargain price and bought it intending it to be a gift for one of my brothers the next time he visited; as it was plastic, I figured it would be good for travelling. Five years later, the old stone house where I live in an isolated village in southwest France is crowded with the Pastis 51 memorabilia enumerated above, and its sister memorabilia from two other Pastis marks, one gentiane brand, Aveze, Pelforth brune and various Belgian beers, Martini, etc., etc. Some of the stuff I’ve found in eight years of ‘chine-ing’ at the vide greniers (literally, empty the attic; kind of like neighborhood-wide garage sales) of France is actually useful: My raclette maker (I left two behind in Paris when I moved to an isolated village in Southwest France in 2007), my fondue maker, my vintage churro maker with a Franco-era family on the box happily eating the fried dough, the three thermoses I just got in Paris for 5 Euros, two of them so vintage they’re closed by corks, and the three mixer-babies I got, hand-held blenders with various attachments.

But….

My collection is not life.

It’s a museum in which I’m interred.

And which scares women away. (I thought it might impress French women with my engagement in their own history; in the past two days two French lady friends have confirmed that my ‘stuff’ is more likely to send the messages that I live in the past and that I don’t have room for them.)

So when I saw that glass Pastis 51 carafe on sale at a bargain price at a vide grenier in the Latin Quarter last week-end, I passed.

It was the best deal I never made.

May 22, 2009

The Smokers Won

I left Paris in 2007, before the “smoking ban” went into effect in restaurants. On coming back earlier this month, I was looking forward to finally being able to hang out in cafes. Wrong! Because it’s not actually a ban in smoking at restaurants and bars, it’s a ban in smoking in the *interior* of restaurants and bars. The new development, thus, is not that Parisian cafes are no longer hazardous to the health of non-smokers but that cafe terraces have become *more dangerous* because they’ve become completely occupied by the smokers (who, after all, have nowhere else to go). I’ve been conducting an ongoing survey on both banks of the Seine and for the majority of cafes, ALL THE TABLES ARE OCCUPIED BY SMOKERS. It’s clear that a non-smoker who would dare to insert him or herself in this milieu would be risking lungs and life. So the net effect is that it’s less the cafes which have become off-limits to smokers than the true Parisian cafe experience — centered on the cafe terrace — which non-smokers and anyone who likes to breathe clean air has been excluded from. As has been the case with all French laws supposedly geared to protect non-smokers, there’s a central lie involved, which is that smoke on a terrace is somehow less likely to kill or less irritating for non-smokers than smoke inside, even if you’re surrounded by it.

If anything, Paris has actually become a more dangerous place for non-smokers, who no longer have the choice to avoid exposure to this toxic — and lethal — matter. Before the “non-smoking law,” one could at least choose to not enter a smokey restaurant. Now, just walking down any street with cafe terraces — in other words, just about any street in Paris — requires traversing a corridor of HAZARDOUS smoke.

May 16, 2009

Peut-etre c’est moi

I’ve been trying to figure out if Paris would work better for me the second time around. I know that it won’t be enough to re-visit old haunts whose charm the first time around was a solitary kind of charm. The Seine, the Canal St. Martin, the garden of the Palais Royal, Montmartre — they evoke something for me but it’s that magic, the magic of place and of history, that ultimately wasn’t enough for me… alone. So could things be different socially?

Is it the Parisians, or is it me?

Of course it’s always both, I know that. So let me re-phrase the quandary: Are there things that I could do differently which might lead to a different outcome?

I don’t think I could change that some Parisians, anyway, despite that they have the opposite impression of themselves, find it very easy to let serious friendships go. However, I do think, perhaps, that I could change things in myself that would widen the options — that would make me less closed to people.

Tonight I raced down the rue Belleville, past the stairs where Piaf was born, to get to a site-specific, or rather site-roving dance performance, part of the Belleville Open Studios, taking place at the Place Frehel, named after the singer who was Piaf before there was Piaf. Shortly before the performance, a guy about my age asked if he could take a morsel of the bench. When the show was over, he asked me where I was from. He smiled openly when I said I was American. When he asked me how long I’d been here, I answered six years in Paris, then two years in the southwest. “Where in the Southwest?” he asked, smiling more broadly. “The Dordogne.” “I’m from Brive.” “I live in Les Eyzies.” He laughed when I said it was a bit too tranquil. We could have had lots more to talk about, but I excused myself to go ask about the music details, a mostly futile errand. “I don’t know what Leonard Cohen song, we didn’t write it down when we recorded it,” said the apparent husband- of-artist who was running the sound. Aren’t you American? And you’re asking me the title?” “He’s Canadian!” I pleaded.

My point is I could have talked with the guy from Brive a bit longer — there was no rush. But I have this tendency to think the women aren’t interested and the guys are interested because they’re gay. (Of course, sometimes, they actually are gay, like my former electrician to whom I paid a visit today; when I was leaving Paris two years ago, he showed up uninvited at my apartment to ask me if I liked boys.)

So what’s in me is: I’m more closed than I think I am. This I can change.

May 12, 2009

The best view of the Eiffel Tower sits on the House of Air

François Truffaut’s 1959 “The 400 Blows” starts with a declaration of love. Not for the troubled enfance whose eloge he’s about to sing, but for the City of Paris in which the saga of Antoine Doinel — four more films, following Antoine and his many travails with his many loves through to the age of 34, would come over the next 20 years — is about to unroll. (In a later chapter of the cycle, “Stolen Kisses,” Truffaut shares another perspective, following a love letter on its trajectory through the underground pneumatic system.)

I thought of that great sweeping pan of a panorama this afternoon when I took my thermos coffee on the plateau atop the Maison de l’air that looks out past the descending fountains of the parc Bellevue in the 20th arrondissement and towards the fullest and most glorious view of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. (Yes I know, close-up from the Place Trockadero across the River is cool too, but in Bellevue you don’t have to deal with the tourists. Unless you tell.) At 120 years, Gustave Eiffel’s dream sure looks good. It’s hard to imagine that the defining, most outstanding feature in the Paris skyline — with all respect to the blue and red monstrosity of the Centre Pompidou, which looks like a hippy relic who forgot to pack up his tent — was once greeted with horror by Maupassent (that anti-Semite) and others, much as old fogies like me wince at any prospect of changing our beloved Paris.

May 11, 2009

Behind Harlem’s Désir: ‘Une gauche bo-bo qui n’a rien compris’

Traversing the packed marché along the rue Convention on my way to re-live one of my favorite multi-sensual Paris experiences at the parc Georges Brassens Sunday (the park’s old book market for the brain, its greenery and fountain for the eye, and the end of market 5-smelly-cheeses for 10 Euro platter for the palette, not to mention the imagined strains of Brassens for the ear), I ran smack up against Harlem Désir. And by Harlem Désir I don’t mean a sudden yearning for chicken and waffles at Wells in uptown Manhattan, but the member of the French Socialist party directorate who goes by that name. “Behind, Harlem Désir,” said a middle-class looking 40ish lady inclining her head towards the guy behind her, who nodded bonjour as he squeezed past me. Unfortunately, it’s the Socialist party whose list Désir is leading in the European elections which is fast being left behind by events.

The Socialists seem to think that if they keep repeating ‘pour une Europe social’ the electorate will forget about all the problems the E.U. directorate in Brussels has wrought, chiefly in depriving many French people of control over their ability to make a living. It might be a rancher in Burgundy who kills himself because he doesn’t have the 100,000 Euros Brussels wants him to spend to ensure his cows don’t poop in the creek, it might be a fisherman in the North who would like to sell all the cod he’s caught so he can pay for the gas he used for the boat but who has to throw much of the fish back because he’s surpassed the quota set by the suits in Brussels, or it might be the rosé producer in Bergerac or Provence who sees all his efforts to elevate rosé-making into a real art wasted because the E.U. commission now says anyone can mix red and white and sell it as rosé.

To these producers, who might be called the heart of the bread-basket of France, the Socialist Party pledge to work to guarantee the SMIC or minimum monthly income means nothing. To these custodians of a once-treasured and now vanishing rural way of life — in my village of 997 in the Dordogne department of Southwest France, just four farmers remain — the Socialists’ desire to create 10 million new jobs as part of a European strategy for ecologic growth is irrelevant. And what does the fisherman who Europe forces to throw cod he’s caught and could sure use back in the ocean care if Europe develops a plan to re-launch the economy in favor of consummation and investment?

Speaking on France Culture radio tonight, the politico-social activist Nicolas Dupont complained that as regards views on Europe there is nothing between a French Socilaist party which is largely “a Left Bo-bo (bourgeoisie-Bohemian; Montmartre in particular has been over-run by them) which has not understood anything” and, on the Right, the UMP of President Sarkozy which places the Market before everything.

Even more amazing, there’s nothing on the so-called Far Left. In the screed an activist from Olivier Besancenot’s New Party Anti-capitalist handed me at the marché yesterday, there are lots of fightin’ words, but not one addresses the crises faced by the farmers and the fishermen. In Besancenot’s world-view, there are only workers and their Capitalist bosses; no one else counts.

Enter François Bayrou.

Liberal wags like to sneer that Bayrou has his head in the clouds, but once again it is only Bayrou’s Movement Democratic which seems to have its ear to the ground when it comes to being aware of real problems the E.U. is causing for real people in France, in its campaign literature promising to work “in favor of a maritime politics that maintains a durable economic activity, at the same time preserving this resource.”

May 7, 2009

Paris mon amour: Je t’aime, moi non plus

Today, my birthday — I’m 48, and I miss 47 already, that sleek en forme ‘7’ being supplanted by a doubly plump ‘8’ — I held not one but two picnics on the Seine, or as the French say, ‘abord’ the Seine, because ‘on’ would be impossible, even in Paris. For the first, after some perambulating, I settled on the point of the Pont Neuf, shaded by a weeping willow, after securing the stinky cheese a well-wishing friend from the States had wished me for my birthday. In fact not just *a* stinky cheese but the stinkiest, maybe even too stinky for me, maybe even too stinky for me when I sensed myself particularly stinky, under the mistaken impression that a fart on (appropriately) the rue Lafayette, in my old ‘hood, had turned into much more. (Old age certainly did not waste any time arriving: Voila déja Inability to control my natural urges and inability to tell if I’ve been able to do so.) Where was I? Oh yes: Stinky cheese. Looking danger in the eye, I did not even allow a shaky stomach to deter me from my mission of finding and eating a good ol’ stinky cheese, the stinkiest: Camembert calvo. This is camembert rolled in calvados, from Normandy of course. Even young it has, er, ‘character,’ but I did not stop there, I bought the one on special at my regular fromagerie on the rue Montorgueil (you’ve seen the street in Monet’s rue Montorgueil on the Fourth of July; today it’s yet another bit of architectural heritage the French have let be despoiled, allowing Starbuck’s to open a store at the street’s entrance.). The price, 2.90, had “last day to buy this cheese before when you can barely still eat it” written all over it. I contented myself to verify. “C’est forte?” “Oui, c’est forte,” attested the charming young man pawning it off on me, avoiding my eyes as one evades looking at the condemned man.

Et voila, as soon as I plopped a morsel into my mouth — if you’ve lost track, we’re now back seated under a weeping willow at the point of the pont neuf — I was pretty sure it was too forte pour moi. Still, I made myself demolish a quarter of the thing, which had already begun to seep, in theory saving the rest for tonight’s picnic. Et voila moi who forgot it three times on leaving for picnic #2 tonight, so, beginning my ritual special evening with a stroll up my absolutely favorite street the rue Moufetard (origin: Back in the day — way back in the day, like 13-something — this used to be a redoubtable quarter where the police had to ‘moufe tard (late)’ to keep on top of the racailles.), as soon as I realized I’d forgotten the stinkiest cheese in the world, I contented myself with a moderate, a dry puck of St. Marcellin (1.10 Euros).

Next stop up the hill was my Paris-loving pal David’s favorite the place Contrascarpe (orth.?) with the expectation/hope to find my Argentinian pote Floriana still minding the blue crepe place but alas, she was not there, and here’s where another reason (besides the noise and pollution, which seems to bother me less now) Paris ultimately didn’t work for me last time started wending its depressing awareness into my conscience: Not all, but a lot of my friends were and are merchants. There’s nothing wrong with that, I love them all, but they’re a trapped audience; would they actually seek me out if I didn’t come to them? Floriana didn’t, despite regular invitations — at first amorous, later mostly amical . Next stop was the regular ‘braderie’ of the old record shop, although I wasn’t sure at first I’d be able to get there because a cavalry of police barred the way — perhaps because a notable was expected at the school behind them . Eventually I found myself back in the windowless basement with the air-conditioner buzzing, leafing through the same Fred Astaire, Berthe Sylva, and Felix Leclerc records that were there two years ago and then I got very depressed. For a while all this sufficed as a substitute for real person-to-person love — the Moufe’, watching the stunning women pass by from my perch on a stand-up cafe table as I sipped a creme, the old records, Floriana who was charming and offered me a free cinnamon crepe and cidre if I came to her — but now in this dank windowless basement it just depressed me with its emptiness. Now I understand a bit more why my country pals Bernard and Stephan keep telling me, when I insist on playing these for them, that it’s not my old Charles Trenet and Edith Piaf records — let alone my recording of the grand orations of the General Degaulle — that are going to pull women to me.

Autrement dit: Fascination with a heritage I’ve adopted as my own with the passion of one who wasn’t born with it and thus doesn’t take it for granted is no longer enough. It’s dead. Maybe it’s even death. Because absent a living connection, how is it different than death?

I headed towards the Ile, and it wasn’t until I crossed the Blvd Saint-Germaine that I realized I’d forgot the part of the traditional itinerary where I stop at a particular public toilet that has greater odds of being open than the others (this is not a trivial detail since the time police stopped me for peeing on a tree on er, abord the Seine — “Do you pee on the streets of San Francisco?” “No officer, I don’t pee on the streets of San Francisco.” ((Nor on those of Paris!” I might have added.)) )… The construction that entombed the toilet two years ago was still there, apparently not having progressed much (Paris is a city of green — the hue of its construction barriers — as much as of red and blue). Finally one good thing about getting old: I could probably go a whole picnic without actually needing to pee.

But not before trying once more to see if my ancient bouquiniste pot Lucques had opened up his stand on the Right bank across from the rear of the City Hall. I don’t know why I still yearn to retrouve this guy, all of whose virtues did not stop him from leaving me high and dry at the very last-minute the day I left Paris, when he’d committed to helping me move my stuff down the six floors. When I see the stand still closed, the locked boxes looking neglected, I get a pang of guilt — what if something actually happened him to Lucques that day, between the call at 1:30 when he said he was on his way and my call at four or five — after he didn’t pick up the phone — saying it was pretty hypocritical that someone who once suspended our friendship because I didn’t show up for a lunch date (for a good reason) would leave me in the lurch like this.

Lucques was not there, so I got myself a good substitute prize, at least as far as book action is concerned. The day before my eye’d been caught by a hardcover, “Simenon avant Simemon: Maigret entré en scene.” Since I’d already read the first official Maigret adventure, from 1931, I figured this probably was not that but, rather, stories Simenon wrote under earlier synonyms in which he in effect made his first ‘essays’ at a Maigret-like character. As I was circling the book, the bouquiniste, like Lucques a pony-tailed 40-something, asked me if I was looking for something in particular. (In fact I’d already found it but though the 6 euro price was more than fair, I am on a budget so’d been pondering if I really needed to make the purchase. ((Yesterday I’d treated myself to a new DVD of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” also for 6 Euros, chez un bouquiniste on the Left side of the Seine.)) If the scene were a vide grenier — or community-wide garage sale (vide = empty, grenier = attic), I’d have simply asked him if he’d take 5 Euros — not because I didn’t think it merited 6 or because I wanted to cheat him, but because I have no money. In bouquineste-land, bargaining is generally not accepted.) So I just answered, “Simenon,” as if I’d not already found it, he directed me back to his Simenon section and pointed to the book I’d been admiring. “C’est les romans de Maigret,” I asked, “ou…?” “Oui, car c’est ecrit, ‘Maigret.'” I was still pretty sure it was rather pre-Maigret experimenting. I humbly asked, “Would you accept 5?” and instead of an insulted “No” accompanied by placing the book back in its spot, he said “Sure.” “Merci, je sais c’est pas normal…” “Pas de probleme. Comme c’est lourd (heavy)” in any case….

On the Ile, miracle of miracles, one of my two preferred marble benches, facing both the Rive Gauche and Notre Dame, was waiting for me, albeit with a good dose of pigeon droppings. I’d no sooner verified the bird poop was more or less dry; looked up cautiously at the trees and estimated the likelihood of its being refreshed during my repas at about 30-70; and sat down that the bare-chested pony-tailed black-pantsed young man sitting against the wall with a sketchpad in his lap piped up, “No no no!,” indicating with a hand that would move me that I’d sat down in the middle of his perspective. “Mais, c’est pour sitting!” (I didn’t actually say ‘sitting’) I protested, and just as soon — things are generally mellow on the Ile, we’re all one people, the picnic people of the Ile — we compromised on my moving a bit to the right and not budging for the next three hours.

My next social moment arrived when the skinny young man picnicking with the smart young woman on the ledge got up with the unopened bottle of wine, as I anticipated he would, and before he could even pop the question I posed it, “Are you looking for a bottle-opener?” He was, and I , James Bond-like, pulled it out of my picnic kit #3, a.k.a. the Renault glove department one complete with two services including napkins, a cutting board, a cutting knife, and a tire-bouchon.

As for the young artist, he eventually gave up — not because of me; “C’est difficile?” I asked. “Oui! Et avec le soleil….” “Et j’imagine aussi c’est que c’est trés classique!” “Oui,” he agreed before we wished each other bon soirs…

On the subway-ride home, the atmo being not great for concentrating on one of the stories themselves, I opened the Simenon book to the back where I found a letter the author had written to the Commissaire Maigret at his ‘retrait’ (retirement) place in the Loire. (A real place which, on its website, boasts of being Maigret’s retirement place.) Before reading the following, you should know what regular readers of Maigret do, namely that Simenon plays it loose with his hero’s age. (The part of the following that’s not in French is roughly translated by me.)

Letter to Maigret for his 50th anniversary
(Text published in The Illustrated of Lausanne, where Simenon spent the better part of his final years.)

Lausanne
le 26 septembre 1979

M. et Mme Maigret
Retraités
F– Meung-sur-Loire

Mon cher Maigret,

You will probably be surprised to receive a letter from me, considering that we parted ways about seven years ago. This year is the 50th anniversary of the day where, in Delfzijl (ed.: aboard a yaught, in a two-day writing spree which yielded a whole novel), we met. You were about… 45 years old. I was 25. But you had the chance, in what followed, to pass a certain number of years without aging. (ed.: C’est le moins qu’on puisse dire! It’s actually a bit more complicated than that, as Maigret’s age goes up and down and he in and out of retirement, Simenon throwing any semblance of chronology to the wind.) It was only at the conclusion of our adventures and our encounters that you finally reached the age of 53 years, because the age limit, at that time, was, for police officers, even for the commissaire-divisionnaire that you were, 55 years.

How old are you today? I have no idea, given this privilege from which you profited for so long. I, on the other hand, have aged, much faster than you, as is normal for mortals, and I have now largely depassed my 76 years…

Nous voila two retirees and, I hope for you, knowing the one like the other the tiniest little joys of he life, inhaling the morning air, observing with curiosity the natural life and the beings around you.

May 6, 2009

Prenom: Paris

PARIS — In just two days I’ve remembered everything I love and hate about Paris.

The Parisians, especially the Parisiennes, are, like their river the Seine, almost achingly beautiful, in all the color in which beauty manifests itself, as I was reminded descending the rue Bellevue last night, past the steps where Piaf was born, through French North African tranches, turning into Chinatown, then the Canal, than her lady the Place Republique.

The view through one of its locks down the Canal St. Martin, on the banks of which I took my apero tonight, is also achingly beautiful, as the Sun rests on the foilage of one clump of trees past the lock. The 16th-century Fountain de Medici in the Luxembourg Gardens remains the ultimate curative, with lovers embracing on cue as I arrive there. So what if the dead pigeon I spotted in the pond eight years ago is now more dead than ever, its gut opened to its entrails? So what if the French may know pastries but they still don’t know pastry wrappers, manifest by the fact that the gooey green substance oozing all over the interior of my sack as I take my lunch at the fountain is not pigeon droppings from above but the pistachio flan tart I bought five minutes ago? Paris’s manifold beauty sears through all that. On the flip side is the noise. The noise of the drilling and electric sawing in the workshop across the way I wasn’t warned about, leaving me feel like William Hurt in Chantal Ackerman’s “A Divan in New York” when he touched down in the same Bellevue neighborood, in the apartment Juliette Binoche had traded him for his Upper West Side psychologist’s digs apartment,

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