France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

April 28, 2010

The burka that covers the wheat-fields

Yesterday thousands of farmers from all over the country descended on the Place de Nation in Paris in a desperate call to save their profession, in particular that of wheat cultivators, who spend more to produce than they earn. In general, agriculture minister Bruno le Mer said, farmers earn 15 percent of what most workers make. Considering the essential and enduring place of farmers in the life of the country, you’d think that the government might have stopped everything to listen to them. But no, the cabinet had been convened by prime minister Francois Fillon to discuss a more pressing problem, a law to ban the burka, which afffects at most 2,000 women (as opposed to wife beating, which affects 250,000), and which became a priority for the right-wing government after it lost the recent regional elections, in large part because extreme right voters abandoned it for the National Front. (Whose leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is now saying he doesn’t necessarily favor a law banning the burka, because it doesn’t get at the heart of the problem.) So obsessed is the government with distracting the French from their ‘end of the month’ problems with this red herring, the interior minister jumped on the case of a woman who filed a complaint after she was stopped for driving with a burka by threatening to take away her husband’s citizenship because, he says, the man has four wives. (The husband says that like any good Frenchman, he has one wife and three mistresses. “Since when do we take away someone’s citizenship because they have mistresses?”)

As is often the case, my retired farmer neighbor, Mr. Malraux, has a simple explanation for the disparity between earnings and costs today’s farmers face: the tractors, and the gas they consume. While he used them in the latter part of his career, for most of it he propelled his farm machines — antique devices now lined up in front of his shed presiding over the path below — with cows or horses.

PS: Meanwhile, out in the cornfield — that of Mr. Malraux — it’s Day III and the one remaining live chicken is still there, as is the dead one lashed to the stake to trap the fox. We’re expecting 90 degrees today, Farenheit — ca va commence a pu.

April 25, 2010

Cock-a-doodle done

When we last left Mr. Malraux, my neighbor the retired farmer, he was planning to set a trap for the fox that had killed one of his two roosters and absconded with two of his three chickens, probably to nourish his fox puppies, using the carcass of the late rooster as bait. He abandoned that plan because, he told me, “I might accidentally trap a cat.” As the remaining coq-au-vin loitered on his porch last evening seeking morsels — even trying to enter the house — we considered whether maybe it was better to kill this one while we could still cook ‘im up as coq-au-vin a la vin blanc (better, according to M. Malraux), because if the fox came back, it would be too late. Coq-au-vin — the remaining rooster, I mean — had avoided his usual meandering around the ‘hood all day, until, unusually late for him — after 8 p.m. — his cry alerted me that he’d strayed over to my side of the path. I menaced him lightly with the bamboo cane to keep him away, and he went down the road in the other direction.

M. Malraux had told me to yell if the fox came back; the death cry of the other rooster had woken me up at 1 the previous night, while M. Malraux had slept through it. (The cry had been followed by what seemed to me more than one chicken clucking, which is why I’d been surprised that that the next morning only one chicken and rooster remained.)

I did better; as this was Saturday night, I stayed up until 2:30 in the morning watching Law & Order Special Victims Unit (maybe they should start a new one for roosters?) and Law & Order. No rooster cry or fox prowling could be heard. I even opened the window before going to bed; nothing.

And nothing to wake me up the next morning. The remaining rooster hadn’t got going until 7:30 the previous morning, so when I hadn’t heard anything by 7:30 I wasn’t alarmed. But as time went on, it was pretty clear that the fox had returned and killed the remaining rooster and chicken. Also a bad sign was that the carcass of the dead rooster M. Malraux had left at the opening to his shed was gone. Sure enough, around 9 a.m. I spotted M. Malraux from the window — looking very pissed and evidently looking for the fox, with his rifle strapped to his shoulder.

He was actually looking for a rat (a real rat I mean), he explained to me when I hurried across the road to get the latest. As for the rooster and chicken, he pointed to the shed, where two fresh carcasses were stacked up next to one of the tractors; apparently the fox had taken the one he’d left the day before and left two new chicken cadavres. “Now I have nothing!” the farmer said, more perturbed than usual, as I made sure to stay on the good side of his rifle. (The deaths of the other rooster and two chickens, while upsetting, had not crashed the threshold of the “what can you do?” shrug.)

When the fox trapper, who we’ll call Pierre, arrived in his small blue ’60s compact station wagon, he immediately set to work figuring out the best terrain to set the trap. Putting it right before the tractor shed — where the chickens and roosters actually lived — was out of the question because of all the people that pass by with their dogs, let alone the cats. So he decided to put it in the middle of M. Malraux’s corn field, which is on my side of the path and by the Vezere river. M. Malraux found a stake, which Pierre cracked was “certainly large enough!,” then they drove down to the river, me following on foot. The dead rooster or chicken (I can no longer tell them apart) he posted there looks like those corpses that you see bound to stakes in bad Cowboy and Indian or war movies as a warning to others. (“Roosters! Show your ass ’round these parts and you’ll meet the same fate!”) Around the stake Pierre placed five rusted traps, panting heavily as he opened and braced the jaws. Then he gently placed dead corn stalk morsels on each one, then covered them with dirt. Basically, there’s no way that fox can get to that dead rooster without getting trapped. For my part, I reminded Mr. Malraux that if he wanted the fox to bite, he should probably hide the other dead chicken.

While they were finishing, Mr. Malraux’s best pote Jacques showed up for his morning visit and eau de vie session. I hailed him. This probably makes me sound more important than I was, which was just a by-stander or witness with occasional wisecracks… But around here, it’s understood that any event — my tearing and burning down the dead walnut tree with my bare hands to open up the view and stop the annual bee sejour, for instance — is open to spectators.

And maybe that’s all I am here; when we all got back to the path, Mr. Malraux, Pierre, and Jacques went into Mr. Malraux’s to boire un coupe; I did not feel like I was in the coupe; one more threshold I can’t cross.

But my role as witness wasn’t terminated. Back home, out the bathroom window I saw what looked very much like the silhouette of a chicken on the path right across from Mr. Malraux’s. I ran over. “Mr. Malraux, Mr. Malraux! Vient voir!” It turned out I was not mistaken in believing I heard more than one chicken clucking after the first night’s carnage. One of the two chickens we’d assumed the fox had carted away to feed to his/her little ones that night had apparently just been hiding for two days. “Now at least you can have eggs,” I told M. Malraux, who was clearly happy all his remaining animal stock was not lost. “One a day!” said Pierre. “That’s all you need.”

I was relieved for M. Malraux. Earlier I’d told him, “You’ll be without an animal for the first time in your life!” A farmer with no animals; how’s that for an existential crisis? Later today, France Enter radio interviewed a man (in the Dordogne, as it happened) whose farmer father had committed suicide after 40 years in the metier because he just couldn’t keep up with the bank bills. Apparently, in the Dordogne (my department) more people die every day from suicide than traffic accidents. M. Malraux is retired so supposedly has a pension or social security, but still, I was worried. Indeed, given that he like me complained about one of the roosters always trying to attack him from behind, and pointed out that they weren’t really good for anything (you don’t need them to make eggs), I think if he held on to those roosters, it was because they have always been a fundamental part of his identity, even if he doesn’t need to be woken up before dawn any more.

As for me, it makes me feel guilty to give in too much to feeling relieved that I’ll no longer have to put up with that horrible rooster cry. And I can’t help wonder if the explanation for coq-au-vin’s crossing the path last evening at such an unusually late hour to my side was that it was his way of saying goodbye.

April 24, 2010

RIP, coq au vin

I was thinking of calling this one ‘cock-a-doodle-dead’ or even “I had a little red rooster,” but when you actually live in the country across the path from two roosters, and find yourself asking, “I fled the sound of 7 a.m. jack-hammers for the sound of 5 a.m., 6 a.m., 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 11 a.m., noon, 1, 3 p.m., 4 p.m., and 6 p.m. rooster crowing, sometimes in stereo?” the cock-a-doodle-doo of roosters is nothing to cackle about. And as my subtly referring to his roosters as coq-au-vin has not yet convinced my neighbor, a retired farmer we’ll call Mr. Malraux, to reduce his rooster roster, I have to confess that as anguishing was the cry which awoke me at 1 a.m. this morning, I found myself hoping it was the rooster, not one of the chickens, that had met his death this night.

When I opened the storm windows (I know, it’s not even winter, but I close them to try to reduce the rooster noise) this a.m. and looked across the road, I was initially disappointed, as the thing lying on its back with two claws frozen in the air in clawing position was all light brown with no red to be seen, thus, I thought, one of the three chickens as opposed to one of the two roosters. It’s head seemed to be missing. The chicken was on the incline under the grand walnut tree leading from the farmer’s shed, tractor garage, and chicken coop to the path/road. Above it next to the shed and below strewn for about 20 yards along the path was a detretious of brown and white feathers. I waited until 7:45 to gingerly knock on the farmer’s door, but he was still asleep. Finally at 9 I moseyed over and,hearing him open the storm doors, announced, “Mr. Malraux?” “Oui?” “J’ai du mauvaise nouvelles.”

When he opened the door, I said, “I think you were right about the fox, come and see.” He too remarked the trail of feathers above and on the road, and, seeing the bird, turned it over. “It’s the rooster. The mean one.” According to Mr. Malraux, this rooster was wont to attack him without provocation from behind, to the point where he carried around a baton whenever he went near him. Then he held it up to me. “Do you want to pluck it?” “No merci, but can we still make coq au vin out of it?” I kept insisting it must have been a fox, but he pointed out, “If it was a fox, it would eat it or take it with him,” and not leave it there. He also dismissed the possibility of another creature, whose name I couldn’t make out, but which is black and white and the size of a small dog. “It usually bites the head off… It must have been a dog.” Then he started looking around for the three chickens. I could have sworn that after that terrible cry, I’d heard the chickens chucking as normal, as if slightly perturbed, then silence. In the end, though, he found only one chicken and the remaining rooster. (Which, fingers crossed, must be the one that sleeps in as he didn’t get going until 7:30.)

A couple drove up, the male half of which Mr. Malraux later explained to me is a retired sgt. of the gendarmes. “Fox,” he concluded. I tried to console Mr. Malraux by reminding him he’d been planning on buying some new ones as the chickens weren’t laying anyway, but he said he could at least have eaten them. I think I finally convinced him — by the fact of the disappeared two chickens who must now by fox baby food — that it could have been a fox. Tonight he’ll be laying a trap, hanging poor dead coq-au-vin as bait.

“Well, can we at least eat the fox?” I said. “Ca se mange pas,” he answered. “There was one particularly muscular guy that caught one and tried to eat it, but it was inedible.” The remaining coq au vin is laying low…

April 10, 2010

Jazz is Paris, Paris is Malcolm McLaren

“I often go to Paris to live yesterday tomorrow
Because Paris is a place of dreams
Françoise Hardy. Tous les garçons et les filles.
Juliette Greco, Jeanne Moreau and Catherine Deneuve
And I’m walking with Eric Satie
Along the boulevards of Paris in the springtime.
Un orchestre d’oiseaux every so often breaks
This map of feelings
Drifting through these landscapes of love
Watching strays from Pere Lachaise.”

— “Walking with Satie,” from Malcolm McLaren’s 1997 “Paris.”

“The Velvet Underground meets
The Velvet Gentleman.
Running down the Boulevard Saint-Germain
Happy in the spring sunshine
Into the rue Vermeuil
And the house of Serge Gainsbourg.
On his piano sits a portrait of Sid.
Sid Viscious. I sing to you
For all the things that you do
Because I love you like a girl.”

— Rue Dauphine, from “Paris.”

“Meeting Juliette Greco in bed in the afternoon with Miles Davis
In a cheap hotel in Saint-Germain
Seeing them later in love at the Club Taboo
A ghost of New Orleans.
Juliette dances with Miles’s trumpet
Miles and miles and miles of Miles Davis
echoes around the room
With Juliette sobbing and moaning the verses
A funeral of sublime passion
‘I didn’t know he was black,’ she said.
‘I don’t know why, I just didn’t.
And when I discovered he was black
i just cried and cried.’
Jazz is Paris and Paris is Jazz.”

— “Miles and Miles and Miles of Miles Davis,” from “Paris.”

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that none of the obseques to Malcolm McLaren yesterday on French radio mentioned his landmark ode to Paris — and everything it has represented for romantics around the world for nigh on 200 years — in the concept album of the same name. Thanks to Malcolm, I was already dreaming of Paris for years before I’d ever seen it, having made a nightly ritual of taking my apero in my W. 8th Street Greenwich (Hint to Frenchies: Don’t pronounce the ‘w’) Village flat accompanied by his landscapes of love. But when I first played it for a bunch of French people, at a Thanksgiving dinner shortly after I moved there in 2001, the only reaction I got was from a young intello who called Malcolm’s version of Gainsbourg/Bardot’s “Je t’aime… moi non plus” (with Blanca Li taking the Bardot part) blasphemous. It’s almost as if Parisians resent that a non-Frenchy could have a more profound attachment and appreciation — or at least a more eloquent expression of it — than them, as if by doing so he was usurping their right to interpret it. Consequently, all (all too brief) obits of him yesterday preferred instead to segregate McLaren into foreign territory, that of the punk rock – fashion impresario, for instance.

To me, though, Malcolm McLaren simply followed his passion, and it’s in that fashion that he linked himself to the passionate, those who have found the perfect expression of passion — albeit often melancholy and nostalgic passion — in Paris, or at least the dream of Paris.

Paris’s rich past, and its lingering expression, can pull one like a sort of luxuriant quicksand. When I did my own running down the rue Caulaincourt on the butte (Montmartre) last Spring, I was almost overwhelmed and overcome by that passion, as earlier in the month I’d been subsumed in nostalgic passion for Boris Vian, then the subject of numerous exhibitions and concerts on the 50th anniversary of his death at 39. (Dommage that McLaren didn’t have room for Vian on his tribute, which featured Catherine Deneuve talk-singing, Françoise Hardy singing, Amina in a dance track mixing up audio from a James Bond film, and tributes to Greco and Sonia Rykiel; if Paris is Jazz, Vian was Jazz in Paris.) The ghosts there in Montmartre are particularly strong; in that late afternoon alone I’d run past the demeures of Satie (high up on the butte), Pissarro, Steinlin, Lautrec, finishing by dashing across the bridge over the Montmartre Cemetery which shows up in three of the five films in Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle, and where Truffaut himself was finally interred in 1984, like McLaren a victim of cancer.

But the question for me, still, is whether the romantic power and pull of that past — evoked in the Truffaut films, Pissarro and Lautrec canvasses, Steinlin sculptures, Satie and Greco music, and Deneuve films — can manifest itself in a romantic present. Or is the pull of these emotional landscapes so strong that it’s hard to find their match in present, living reality?

April 5, 2010

Faites entrer l’accusé; Jean Gabin can wait

I swear it’s not the grisly details that make Faites entrer l’accusé (on France 2 public television) one of my addictions, but rather that the weekly reconstructions of some of France’s more infamous faits divers also serve as tours de France, the crimes often taking place in obscure villages or cities I’ve never been to. Plus there are certain characteristics of the program itself that might give it cult status: The music for one, the charisma of the fascinated host Christophe Hondelet, and the way the camera zooms in on the often blemished faces of his subjects — not the culpable himself but attorneys, relatives and friends of the victim, policemen and gendarmes, juges d’instruction….Last week-end’s episode came a little too close to (my former) home. The subject was the butcher of the marché Saint-Martin, in both the professional and criminal senses of that word. “Hey, I know that guy!” I exclaimed to the stuffed Northern Exposure moose who is now my sole companion snce Sonia passed. While it was not my regular marché for the six years that we lived on the rue de Paradis in Paris, the marché Saint-Martin had a cheap cheese store with great selection and, indeed, there it was on television, right across from the Italian butcher’s stand of Italian products.

Now, you might think that a television show about a butcher who cuts his lover up into little pieces would be about the latest program broadcast at night, after the kids have gone to bed, but if you thought so you’d be wrong. After midnight is reserved for the French film patrimoinie. And if I often fall asleep before the verdict in Faites entre l’accusé, I usually don’t make it past the first five minutes of the cinema de minuit feature film, no matter how much I want to watch it. Last night’s film — which rolled around at about 12:30, a half hour after the update that the doctor who slowly poisoned to death the military husband of his lover after she’d conned him into believing he was beating her had been released on parole after 6 years rolled across the closing credits in Faites Entrer — was “Remorques,” starring Jean Gabin, Madeleine Renaud, and Michelle Morgan. Jean Gabin, who has also played Maigret, is just about Mr. French Cinema for me — you might also know him from “The Grand Illusion.” Just the film poster itself — with Gabin in parka battling winds and rain at the wheel of his tugboat — is enough to thrill you. Helas, this was not the best film to watch at 12:30 in the morning with waning attention powers complicating an early but essential rescue scene, with the action going back and forth between the rescue boat and the boat in distress, the dialogue already garbled by the age of the 70-year-old film. Because it was Jean Gabin I weathered the storm and made it longer than usual, but finally had to bow from faitgue, leaving Gabin and Renaud walking along a beach in Brest, before he even had a chance to get involved with Morgan.

I had debated whether to watch the film at all after an intro which explained filming started in 1939 then resumed in 1941 during the Occupation. It’s hard for me to watch French people continuing with life as normal when I know life was getting progressively worse and worse for their Jewish countrymen. But then I noted the scenario was by Jacques Prevert, who also wrote “Barbara,” an ode to a vanished Brest decimated at the end of the war (“It’s raining on Brest”), so to see a film written by him set in Brest before it was bombed out seemed an important chapter in my running history of France.

But here’s my point: Why are these films — France’s heritage — broadcast after midnight on a school night, no less, when the prime-time movie slot is so often occupied by BAD mass-market American garbage. (Though not always: Last night’s prime-time movie on France 2 was, exceptionally, an older and classic, “Les Tontons Flingueurs,” starring Lino Ventura. I’d been wanting to see this one for so long that I overlooked yesterday’s news that a town in France had rescinded a decision to name a street after the author of the novel on which it was based, Albert Simonin, after allegations that he’d collaborated.) There are some good new films produced for the France Television networks, but it seems like half of them are about the war and most of those are about French who helped Jews or fought in the Resistance. Why not replace some of the crappy American films and a few of the probably skewed portrayals of war-time France that take up prime-time movie time with more films like “Remorques” that were actually made before, during, and after the Occupation — at an hour where people are actually awake. If national identity is not just about excluding those who don’t conform to it but actually confirming the MANY parts of that identity about which French citizens can be proud — showing these old films at a time people can actually see them would seem a great way to buttress that identity and legitimate national pride.

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