France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

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.)

le 26 septembre 1979

M. et Mme Maigret
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.


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