France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

June 7, 2009

La vie du passé en rose

It’s amazing how a past that’s not even my own, but rather a memory of how profoundly I felt another culture’s past when I lived in Paris from 2001 to 2007, pulled at me again early Friday evening as I dashed down the winding, chestnut-tree shaded rue Caulaincourt in Montmartre, stopping only to pay tribute to that well-known cat designer and lover Theodore Steinlin as I passed his house and jet my eye at the atelier where Toulouse-Lautrec once drew Suzanne Valadon. This was after, further up the Butte, I’d paid my respects to Erik Satie outside the one-story apartment building where he’d lived from 1890 to 1898, to Valadon at the now-shuttered restaurant where a plaque reminds us that she and Utrillo dined there for some 20 years, and before I madly scurried across the bridge over the Montmartre cemetery like Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel and his pal had done in “The 400 Blows” with a typewriter they’d stolen from Antoine’s father’s office, setting Antoine off on a path of flight that would last 20 years, countless women, and four more Truffaut films.

I wasn’t the only one in Montmartre Friday night channeling ghosts. On the rue Rustique, down the street from the ancient chez Valadon-Utrillo outside the back entrance of a resto, a hyper-spirited pony-tailed young woman with an infectious smile that bared all her teeth was bouncing along in jeans and sky-blue blouse, accompanied Django-style by a guitar and bass player as she sang and snapped a jump version of Gainsbourg’s “Javanaise” and then a jazzy version of “La Vie en Rose” that totally changed its mood from melancholic to celebratory.

Saturday it was more Piaf — have I mentioned that I’m living up the street from where La Mome was born? — as my pal Luc suggested we RDV at noon at the Cafe Edith Piaf, so named because it faces the plaza at the exit of the Metro station Porte Bagnolet dominated by her statue. (On the front of which some connard has poured red paint.) The Resto is decorated with photos of Piaf and her performance posters of the epoch. She’s even playing on the juke. If this sounds like a set-up designed for tourists, it’s not; it’s a local cafe that’s somehow both a tribute to and an authentic living embodiment of an earlier era.

My adventure, though, started earlier, as I rushed (I rush a lot — I may be the fastest man in Paris; I moved here to stop rushing but it hasn’t worked) through the Saturday market stalls. Apparently it’s fete your market week-end in Paris, as I was reminded when I came upon a stand where a man with a mike and a smiley woman seemed to be giving away goody-stuffed sleek blue and white canvas bags inscribed in multi-color with “Les marchés de Paris.” I hovered, but they just kinda looked at me as if to say, “Et alors?” Then they stopped another guy and asked him a question about General de Gaulle; apparently you had to pass a quiz to get a goody sack. I cursed my luck, as Le General is one of my specialties. (I like to regal my Les Eyzies potes Bernard and Stephan with my recording of his greatest speeches when they stop by at night to regard the pre-historic cliffs, drink Panaché ((no, all French ‘paysans’ don’t sit around drinking marc)) and try to get me to adopt a mutton or convince me that the moon has disappeared.) But I persisted in hovering, and I guess they realized they’d have to give me the chance to win a bag to get rid of me. The guy stuck his mike in my face and pointed at my beret. At first I didn’t understand (my French is not that bad, really, but my level drops dramatically in high-pressure situations), but then I caught “Hergé,” and when he again indicated my hat, I realized he was referring to my Captain Haddock (tr.: Craddock) pin. He asked me if I was a Tintin fan, I nodded, and then, with an “Oh yeah?” look in his eye, he popped the question:

“How many volumes of Tintin did Hergé write?”

Merde. “Uh… 12?”

(I realized later that our little interview was being broadcast throughout the ten-block market.)

“That’s right!” he said, giving me a break and handing me a sack. Then he asked where I was from — is it *still* that evident that I’m not from around here? — and instead of f*cking with him as I’ve been doing with a lot of Parisians by answering, “Sud-ouest. Dordogne!” I answered “America.” “Yay Obama!” he said. This gave me confidence, so before I walked off with my loot I said, “Thank you for myself, and also on behalf of Captain Craddock,” which must have been understandable, because the smiley woman laughed.

In the bag was a wide-brimmed straw hat, baseball hat, and tee-shirt, all plugging the marchés, plus a big ‘ol bag of potatoes, tomatoes, onions and garlic. I contributed two of the onions to the veggie feast Luc had prepared for his daughter and me, after we’d picked up two heaping boxes of old books a local bookstore owner, Jose, had given to Luc for his ‘boite’ on the Seine. — he’s a bouquiniste or bookseller along the Seine. Luc stacked them under a big empty box inside his doorway, but as soon as he’d disappeared into the kitchen I delved in, finding treasures like a complete set of the Dos Passos “U.S.A.” saga and a clothbound 1950s circa collection of Tennessee Williams, both in translation of course.

While we were eating, Jose, who’d turned down Luc’s invitation to join us, was digging out his Boris Vian books for me, “Elles ne rendent pas compte” (rough tr.: “These women don’t realize what they’re doing”) and “Les Fourmis,” (“The Ants”), a collection of novellas. Vian books besides “‘J’irai cracher sur vos tombes” (“I’ll spit on your graves”) are hard to find, so I’m sure Jose’s 5 Euro apiece price was just, but a)I’m on a budget which I’ve already exceeded and b)the plain white covers and that these were recent additions didn’t do much for me. “I like the old pocket-book covers!” I explained to Luc. “It’s the title that matters, not the design!” At today’s vide grenier (neighborhood-wide garage sale; vide = empty, grenier = attic) on the rue Marie and Louise near the canal, I scored both these books and a third, “Trouble dans les Andains” (completed in 1942-1943 but issued posthumously in 1966, thus both the first novel Vian wrote and the last published). The cover for “Les Fourmis” features Boris in kaleidescope, wearing a black shirt and four different expressions; ‘Andains’ has him pressing a fist to his chest and regarding the reader with wry menace; and the last has a full-color Vargas Girl kicking up her heels from a reclining position as she starts to remove her stockings. Total price: 3 Euros. Earlier, at a vide grenier nearer to my apartment, I’d picked up sealed DVDs of Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” for 2.60 total. Bi-continental schizophrenic stuck in other people’s pasts: C’est moi.

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