France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

September 30, 2010

Tra la la

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.

March 31, 2010

When the saints go marching out

Finally — finally — an official government body, the Counsel d’Etat, has stepped in and said what I’ve been thinking for years:

The law governing the secular applies to the service public — autrement dit, government-funded services and agencies — and not to individuals.

The counsel was responding to the current debate over banning the burka. Essentially, among the reasons it found such a law would be legally contestable is that the principal of secularism could not be applied. to individuals’ right of expression.

However, following the logic of this opinion, the governning principal of the separation of church and state *can* be applied to public service.

This would presumably include broadcasts on the publicly funded television networks.

This would presumably include the nightly weather forecasts on France 3.

This would presuably put a stop to the weathermen/women telling us — telling us — at the end of the broadcast to hug the saint being celebrated the next day.

Hallelujah!

March 29, 2010

Why Françoise Hardy won’t shake your hand

Just about every pundit capable of independent analysis agrees that the reason the Front National mounted in last week’s regional elections was the governing UMP party’s focus on false security issues (immigrants or if you prefer, illegal immigrants, a subset of which is the burka) as opposed to the real insecurity issues actually pre-occupying the electorate, e.g. unemployment, lodging, and the loss of purchase power. (Never mind that the UMP’s leader in parliament, like a parrot who only knows a few words, was still chirping “Burka!” election night, signalling his intention to pursue some form of interdiction of the full-body veil.) Yet there was another government campaign which also tapped into (even if it didn’t intentionalliy exploit) insecurity: the super-hyped campaign to get people vaccinated and to take other measures to protect themselves against swine flu. The campaign had hardly begun winding down when government critics started saying the real threat had been over-amped. There were even hints that enabing the pharmas to profit from the crisis by the government’s purchase of (too much vaccine had been a factor. I don’t subsscribe to this theory. If anything, in the wake of the ancient debacle involving HIV-contaminated blood supplies and the more recent one involving the government’s lack of preparation for the deadly heat wave of 2003, this government would have been crucified if it hadn’t been circumspect about this latest health menace. And it was certainly not alone among the world’s governments in panicking.

Nevertheless, even if, in my view, the amplitude of the government’s swine flu protection campagin was justified, it’s had at least one consequence which to my mind is just as alarming as the resurgence of the Front National.

Françoise Hardy, the lithesome and archetypal French singer-actress of the free-loving and carefree ’60s, is no longer shaking hands.

“Its because of” the government’s swine flu campaign, the self-described ‘grand sentimental’ explained to an interviewer from radio France Inter who observed that in lieu of shaking hands, she was now greeting people in what he called the ‘Japanese or Asiatique” fashion, of folding her hands and bowing. “It’s more beautiful, and it’s more ‘safe,'” she said, using the English word.

Welcome to France version 2010, a country in which fear of the other has become such a virus, at least among some French, that the Front National is mountting in strength and Françoise Hardy is retreating her hand. I’ll hold out for the return of a France where Muslim women can protect their bodies if they want to and Françoise Hardy doesn’t feel she needs to protect hers to the degree of not extending her hand to be touched and held.

March 15, 2010

Elections Regional: ‘Identité Nationale’ and the burka re-launch the Front National

In the 2007 presidential elections, Nicolas Sarkozy successfully co-opted the Front National’s anti-illegal immigrant strain to ensure his election and diminish the FN vote. Battered on other fronts this time around — above all unemployment, loss of purchase power, and the crise de logement — Sarkozy’s governing UMP party tried that gambit again for yesterday’s regional elections, launching a false debate on ‘identité nationale,’ lead by minister of immigration and identité national Luc Besson, and another on the burka, steered by UMP assembly leader Jonathan Cope. This time around, it backfired; people are pre-occupied with pocket-book issues and, if anything, were frustrated that the UMP seemed more concerned about the (maximum) 3,000 women who cover themselves than covering citizens from financial insecurity. Result #1: The winning party in yesterday’s first round was the party of abstention, with 53.5 percent of voters staying home — the highest percentage ever in the regionals. Result #2: The fear of the Other fired up by the false debate on identité national combined with economic insecurity to revive the faltering FN, which came in fourth with 11.7 percent of the vote, behind the Socialists (29 percent), UMP (26), and Europe Ecology or Greens (12.5 percent). “Le debat sur l’identité national a relaunché le Front National,” Communist party leader Marie-George Buffet said this morning on radio France Enter. Or, as Europe-Ecology leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit put it last night on France 2, “Monsieur Besson is content tonight. He’s succeeded in his effort and made the the FN re-mount.” Cecile de Flot, Europe Ecology’s candidate in the Ile de France, blamed the FN’s resurgence on “those who opened Pandora’s Box.”

January 4, 2010

The Stranger

50 years ago today, Albert Camus, 46, journalist, novelist, playwright, and Resistance hero, died — or, as the French say, ‘disappeared’ — in what Paris Match called “a banal highway accident.” And yet Camus, a bi-cultural symbol of hope and unity in fractious times that pitted the country of his birth, Algeria, against that of his blood, France, is more present than ever in today’s France and Europe. Not because president Nicolas Sarkozy wants to move him to the Pantheon, where repose the great men (and one great woman, Marie Curie) of France, but because, in an apparent attempt to change the subject, ahead of regional elections, from fear of daily survival to fear of the Other, Sarkozy, himself the son of immigrants, has launched a nationwide ‘debate’ on ‘national identity.’ At a time when neighboring Switzerland has just voted to ban the Muslim minaret, perhaps we should be thinking not of where Camus’s remains rest but of what remains of his personal example, that of someone whose final battle was to reconcile his two cultures. Coming from the United States and growing up in San Francisco, I see not the danger of the Other, but the beauty of the mosaic; how the base culture — which I treasure, it’s why I’m here — is not threatened, but enhanced by the ‘foreign’ or ‘strange’ cultures it assimilates. (In the French original, Camus’s novel “The Stranger” — in which the protagonist is ostracized not for killing an Arab but for not crying at his mother’s funeral — is called “L’etranger,” which also means “the foreigner.”) Take the example of the pumpkin flan I served my French guests for Thanksgiving-Christmas-Chanuka dinner the other night.

After eight+ years in France, I’ve given up on having a traditional Thanksgiving dinner on Thanksgiving. The first year was fine. Taking advantage of the fact that the butcher on the corner of my street in the 13eme district of Paris always displayed birds complete with their feathers in his window, I decided to buy a turkey with feathers for the first time in my life. “Can you pluck him?” I asked, or rather mimed — I hadn’t been here long, and my French was feeble — “But then give me the feathers afterwards?” I wanted to use them as a centerpiece. After burning one pecan pie in the strange French oven, before I started the turkey I returned to the butcher’s with a napkin on which I’d drawn pictures of the two dials on my oven, one with weird symbols, the others with numbers, and asked him to indicate the proper settings for the turkey. The turkey came out great, as did the second pecan pie, but of all the items I served, the hit of the party was the candied yams covered with pineapples and roasted marshmellows, a recipe of my late dear friend, Annette Clark. (Ironically, I had trouble getting around the concept this time, as the only marshmellows I could find were muti-colored. Melted green glop on top of your sweet potatoes, or yams, does not exactly make them appetizing.)

For this year’s Thanksgiving-Chanuka-Noel party, I’d initially been planning to serve raclettes. This is kind of like fondue, but better. Instead of sitting around a fondue pot in which the fondue gradually turns into glop over the course of a long evening, with raclettes, you make your individual serving whenever you’re ready for it: Each person has a little pan, which fits neatly into a slot under the burning coil, on top of which is a hot surface to keep the potatoes warm. (The raclette apparatus has slots for 6 – 8 pans, so the dining is communal and convivial.)Onto the pan you place your slice of raclette cheese, ideally over a thin slice of raw ham or other meat, until it melts, then you pour it over your potatoes. Raclette describes both the cheese and the device with which, back in the day, and perhaps still today up in the Alps or Savoie where the dish originated, you peeled off the slices after melting a big wedge of cheese over a fire. For raclette to be good, though, it really has to come from the mountains — and not from the shelves of a super-market, where the concept ‘raclette’ is usually taken to mean simply ‘it melts’ and does not promise the cheese in question will taste like anything, let alone its crust. (The first time I bought raclette at my favorite Parisian fromagerie — on the rue Montorgueil, where it came in three flavors, smoked, natural, and pepper — when I asked the cheeseman if it was okay to eat the crust, he cheesily answered, “As long as you have a toilet nearby.” In fact, with raclette as with rebluchon — another melting mountain cheese, the basis for tartiflette — it’s the crust that gives the taste.)

But getting back to my Thanksgiving-Chanukah-Noel party: My plans to make use of my raclette set were foiled by my inability to find any kind of really authentic raclette cheese throughout my county of the Dordogne here in southwest France, which is more known for pre-historical caves and cave paintings and for duck products than cow cheese. (Goat and sheep’s cheese are another story.)

This is the point at which the Thanksgiving party melded into the annual Chanuka-Noel party, as I still had half of a sack of potatoes left and voila, latkes!

For the aperitif I served fresh pissenlit which I’d picked that morning — dandelion leaves to you, bub — and made up like a spinach dip, as well as tartines of fresh walnuts (the paths are paved with them here) and melted blue next-to-Savoy/Alpes cheese. (I mentioned real raclette is impossible to find here. In fact, up to about three weeks ago the Savoy cheese market around here was a bit of a racket. The stands that popped up at area outdoor markets sold the cow cheese for up to 50 Euros a kilogram. Well, apparently this was such a scandal that the t.v. news did a segment on it, which was seen by a big cow cheese maker in the Savoy, who sent his brother here to sell his specialty at reasonable prices. The blue was on sale for 4.90 a kilo. The tome de Savoy injected with penicillin was also cheap, at 8.90. Unfortunately, the one exception was the… raclette! Fairly priced at $10/kilo but with a taste just like monterey jack. “It’s from Italy,” the brother told me.)

Getting back to my aperitifs: Amazingly enough, even though it was the one thing I thought my guests wouldn’t like, as it came out tasting bitter — I told them it was an experiment and I wouldn’t be offended if they didn’t like it — the pissenlit dip was a hit. (Later, one of the guests, learning that I’d picked the pissenlit from the hill between his house and the road, said his dog droopy loved pissenlit and that’s probably the reason it was bitter.) For the apero part of the apero — the drink — I made vin chaud or mulled wine. (A couple of cloves, peel of tangerines and then their juice, lots of sugar, cinnamon, and wine — which can be cheap wine, in my case 1.50 a bottle plus some leftover cheap beaujolais nouveau.) To keep it hot — as I was serving in the upstairs bedroom/salon, where the fire is, and not the cold kitchen/dining room downstairs — I hit upon the idea of plugging in the raclette set and using it effectively as a hot plate, putting the pot of wine where the potatoes usually were. (When my guests said they smelled something burning, I explained that it was just old embedded raclette cheese.)

Before serving the latkes — we’d moved downstairs to the kitchen — I explained why the Jews cooked them on Chanuka: Besieged in their temple, the Jews only had a bit of oil with which they had to keep their lamps going for eight days while they waited for re-enforcements. Miraculously, the bit of oil lasted for eight days. Then I ladled the batter into much more than a bit of oil.

While my neighbors from the north Marie-Jeanne and Christian — young retirees from Lille — had promised to bring a cake for desert, in the market that morning a few freshly cut slices of potiron — like pumpkin — caught my eye. Then I spotted the condensed milk prominently displayed across from the check-out aisle. Pumpkin pie! As my oven isn’t deep enough for pies, I instead poured the filling (to the pumpkin and condensed milk — I used a medium-sized can, with enough left over for my 20-something Siamese — I added two eggs and some freshly grated nutmeg) into individual ceramic custard pots with birds on the bottom, that neatly fit into their own rack that neatly fits into the oven. Towards the end I gave each a freshly cracked walnut morsel.

I was a bit disappointed when no one ate my dessert, instead preferring to go for seconds of the bakery-bought raspberry cake. I even thought I might have committed a faux pas, in making a second desert when Christian and Marie-Jeanne had said they would bring a cake. Mostly to mollify me, Christian asked if he could take one of the custard pots home with him to eat later.

When I went by their place up the hill this morning after picking fresh pissenlit (or, as the French joke, piss en lit/piss in bed), Marie-Jeanne handed me the pot and said she was glad I’d come by as the custard was fantastic and she had to have the recipe to serve tonight to guests. “We’re from the north, so this is all new to us,” she said, showing me various orange, yellow, and orange-green squashes and pumpkins a guy brings by for her once a week.

A native French person had not just complemented my cooking — of something from my culture — but asked for the recipe. I gave it to her, stranger no more — at least for a day.

November 16, 2009

Identité Nationale: Déja vu

C’est typique. Quand les choses vas pas bien, voila que les diregeants veut qu’on change le sujet. It’s typical: When things aren’t going well, political leaders try to change the subject. And too often, this amounts to trying to re-direct our attention from themselves to ‘them’ — the foreigner. Voila que three major figures from the governing UMP party find themselves either sentenced to prison (Charles Pasqua, senator and former interior minister), awaiting a verdict (former prime minister Dominique Villepin) or soon to be tried (former president Jacques Chirac) — and just four months before regional elections in which the UMP would like to take at least some of the regions (20 of 22 of which are currently controlled by the Socialists) — and President Sarkozy… tries to change the subject. And the national, government-run media more or less complies, notwithstanding a few commentators who question his motives. Of course, we have learned some things since 1940, so we no longer say, “Look at them, they’re different” (well, except in the case of the bourka), but frame the question as “What does it mean to be French?” or “Identité national,” the implication being that some of us foreigners identify more with the countries we came from than the one that — graciously, it needs to be said — has welcomed us.

I’m not against valuing French traditions and values — indeed they are the main reason I’m here. Even the main reason I stay here. And I’m not just talking about the French cultural icons in film, music, literature and art many of whom I’ve worshipped all my life, but basic political, social, and moral values and practices.
Just to give you one example: In the last major elections here, for the European Parliament, 26 parties contested for the French vote. 26! And they all had more or less equal access to the public. For each election, metal panels go up before schools and other public places, each of which features a poster from from a party. So in the European Parliamentary elections, the anti-Zionist party was placed on equal footing with the UMP. Olivier Besancenot, leader of the New Anti-capitalist Party, is regularly included in televised debates. (It’s no accident that in the last presidential election, disputed among 11 parties — 11 parties! — Besancenot got 5 percent of the vote. In the U.S., by contrast, the two main parties, and their allies in the corporate controlled media, do everything they can to exclude other parties from the debate. Some television networks even exclude too liberal Democratic candidates from presidential and senatorial debates. So in contrast to Besancenot, U.S. presidential candidate Ralph Nader — hardly a radical by even U.S. standards — got 1 percent after effectively being blocked from the national corporate-controlled media.

So I absolutely agree that those who come here should prize French tradition, language, culture, lifestyle, and values. I don’t even disagree that a reasoned debate on what it means to be French, and to live in France, and French values, would be useful. That’s not the question. I return to motive, timing, and historical context. When political leaders start talking about national identity — a conversation a subset of which is usually ‘they’re not like us’ — during a time when things aren’t going well, we need to be alarmed. And in France, there’s an additional particularity: I would argue that a knowledge of French history includes awareness of the chapter of that history in which the Vichy government, in the name of France, did what no other occupied country did in not just allowing the Germans to round up Jews and deport them to the death camp, but in many times taking the initiative in IDENTIFYING who was Jewish and having the French police do the rounding up. What made this easier for them to do was the idea that, “Well, they’re not French anyway. They are the other. They act different. They look different.”

This past Saturday in Perigueux, the highlight of the second Salon régional Memoire Résistance et Deportation was a projection and debate, featuring the live participation of Holocaust survivor Marie-José Chambart de Lauwe, who was deported to Ravensbruck, and the film “La deportation des Femmes.” Most of the stories were horrible: Chambart de Lauwe recalled that sometimes new arrivals were marched directly from the train to the gas chambers, without any ‘selection,’ and that each morning, the women had to race from their sleeping quarters outside the camp to the gates of the camp. Any that fell were bludgeoned to death immediately. Newborns were simply thrown against the wall until they were dead. But at least one of the stories was inspirational — and, in the current context, instructive. One of the markers of national identity suggested by some has been the obligatory daily singing of the Marseillaise in schools. In the film shown Saturday, one of the deported women recalled that when her group arrived at Auschwitz — after, no doubt, being localised by French Vichy authorities and rounded up by French policemen, many of whom no doubt justified their actions because ‘they’re not French, anyway’ — as they were entering the camp the women spontaneously broke out in the Marseillaise. France had sent them to their deaths, but they still sang for France — and as Frenchwomen.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.