France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

October 31, 2010

The cats came back again

20 years ago today I adopted my cats Mesha and Sonia from the pound in Anchorage, Alaska. A year and a half later I’d adopt my third, Hopey, from an adopt-a-pet stand in San Francisco. Mesha passed on June 22, 2007; Hopey on Nov. 28 of that year; and Sonia this past February 24, at the age of 20-something. 20 years!

I just took a bike ride along the canal here in Walnut Creek to pick up a cheap bottle of rouge for dinner. On the way back I stopped to look up at a circle of light peering through the gray clouds, and imagined it was my cats, and imagined what they might tell me on this day 20 years after I rescued Mesha and Sonia. They told me that not only were they rescued, but — what lives were in store for them! I thought of the 20 years and of how much I had to give to them (vice versa too), not just how much love but the adventures we had — from Alaska to San Francisco, to New York, Paris, and for Sonia (and Hopey for an all too brief time), the countryside in southwest France, and a river (which Hopey, a real water fiend, loved — the largest water faucet in the world that river was), then still for Sonia, all around the south of France and back to Paris twice. I mean who knew that Mesha would go from the pound (or as I liked to say, the Alaskan tundra) to the couch of a charming Parisienne on the rue de Paradis (the day he escaped from my apartment and went upstairs to my neighbor’s). Back here in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve felt that my family, or at least my brothers, are taking me for granted. So I asked my cats for advice. The advice they gave me is that from those packed 20 years, those intense and adventurous 20 years, they know how much love I have to give, and also the richness I offer to my entourage — those around me. So — I deserve better. I’m wasted here. On to New York, my real family, the family who came to me not because of what I am but because of who I am.


May 3, 2010

Les Eyzies Law and Order

Well, after a week in which the dead chicken sat on a stake in Mr. Malraux’s cornfield waiting for the fox that had killed it and its sister chicken and two roosters to return and get snapped up by one of the five traps that encircled it, the long arm of the Law finally caught up with it.

On returning today from the little Monday market in the village, where I’d scored six bottles of Bergerac from the last millenium for 15 Euros, directly from the producer Marie-Rose, to impress my Parisian potes with, I saw Mr. Malraux’s mobilette not at his house but above the house at the other end of the path, and him standing below in the garden doing nothing. Approaching our end of the road, I waved at what looked by the tell-tale walking stick like a tourist emerging from the plain leading to the cornfield. Two minutes later he startled me by appearing at my door, whereupon I saw the “police’ insignia on his tan uniform.

“Ca va?” he asked, looking into my eyes as if something wasn’t. “Do you know who put the chicken there?” “Mr. Malraux put it there to trap the fox that killed most of his chickens.” “Is that his house?” the officer asked, pointing across the path. “Does he ride a mobilette?” “Oui!” “Si non, ca va?” I made mundane comments about our six-month winter of discontent here in the south of France, which does not seem to want to end, and this or perhaps my stumbling French (my level depends on who I’m talking to; Mr. Malraux, tres bien; a beautiful fille or the long arm of the law, barely understandable).

I quickly divined that Mr. Malraux must have spotted the policeman as he drove up to his house, figured out it was about the dead chicken that had been sitting in his dead cornfield for a week, and kept on driving, and was now hiding out.

The officer patiently waited, emerging from his yellow four-wheel-drive occasionally to take photos with a camera on a tri-pod, and not just in the direction of the dead chicken.

After about an hour, Mr. Malraux surfaced, in the company of another officer — they were neither gendarmes nor the police national, but forest rangers.

All three quickly marched down the path by our house to the cornfield, where, after one fetched a stick from the riverside, they sprung all five traps, gathering them up but leaving the chicken.

From my post behind the curtained bathroom window, Mr. Malraux did not seem unduly alarmed, but continued to bavard with the rangers, until he bid them, “Allez au revoir!”

I quickly ran over and knocked on his door to get the scoop, above all to find out if he was in trouble. “Not me, because I didn’t put the traps there! The guy who put the traps may be.” Essentially, it wasn’t leaving a dead chicken to roast in a cornfield for a week that was interdit, nor even using it to set a trap for the fox, but the type of traps (which to me had seemed antiques), which is why they had confiscated them. Above all, Mr. Malraux was upset that he’d lost two good traps, which he uses mostly for rats. “It seems to me that you’re the victim here,” I told him. “And they said they’re not going to help me trap the fox!” he added. Yet another way in which France version 2010, with its infinite interdictions, doesn’t seem to be working for the little guy, above all the beleaguered farmer which just last week, the fish and agriculture minister was giving lip service to sympathizing with. A fox had killed four of the five fowl that were all that remained to Mr. Malraux after a lifetime of farming, and which help supplement his social security by providing a few eggs he can sell. Before he gets any more chickens to supplement the one that’s left, he needs to trap that fox. And yet the long arm of the Law is more concerned with the form of trap than with Mr. Malraux’s livelihood.

I thought maybe the fox trap man Michel might feel betrayed that Mr. Malraux had apparently ratted on him, but no, he was back at 6 this evening, rushing down the larger cornfield next door where one of the four remaining farmers in Les Eyzies was turning the earth with his tractor. He held a little bucket and Mr. Malraux trailed him. Thinking it must have some rapport with the fox — the fox traps prohibited, were they now looking for smaller bait? — I braved the wind and rushed out and over the wet turned soil to ask what it was about.

“We’re looking for worms!” Michel said. “Large ones!” The fox trapper was going fishing. I joined in as they continued to traipse down the edge of every new gully Frank the farmer unearthed. “You’re the only one that’s working!” Michel thanked me as I tossed a palm-full of wet creatures into the bucket. “Oui,” said I, “mais c’est degoutant (disgusting)!”

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 8, 2010

Sonia in the sky with Mesha and Hopey / Sonia de retour au Paradis avec Mesha et Hopey

Filed under: Mes chats,My cats,Sonia, Hopey, & Mesha -- my cats,Uncategorized — franceblogger @ 9:55 pm

Sonia Ben-Itzak, c. 1980s – February 24, 2010

Pour ceux et celles que ne parle pas anglais, mon derniere chat Sonia, belle Siamese de 20+ ans, est mort le jour que j’ecrit, le 24 fevrier. Maintenant elle vas retrouve Mesha and Hopey, ses vieux copain(es), et joue encore jus’quau l’eternite.

Like her life partner Mesha, who left us in 2007, Sonia was born in the Alaskan tundra, part wolf.

Secret origin: She was actually not the first Sonia.

When I moved to Anchorage in the fall of 1990, for the first time I had an apartment where I had cats. First I adopted a long hair black and white, who I called Sonia.

The first night she meowed like crazy late at night and, stupid me, I let her out.

That was the last time I saw that Sonia.

I went back to the SPCA looking for another cat.

Sonia, sitting primly in her cage, blinked her eyes as she looked at me and I was hooked.

Sonia, however, was already spoken for. The clinic said I could get on the waiting list for her in case those who’d claimed her didn’t show up.

Next I saw Mesha, who nestled up to the bars in his cage. I adapted him.

As it turned out, those who’d spoken for Sonia didn’t show up, so I adopted her. I thought it would be unfair to Mesha to not adopt him just because Sonia was free, so I adopted him too.

When we got home, Sonia immediately hid.

Detective Mesha helped me look for her, beginning a beautiful love story.

As it turned out, she’d somehow managed to hide under the stove, where it seemed there was not room to hide.

The rule at the SPCA was that if the animal you adopted was pregnant, they had to do an abortion. Sonia was and they did. (That’s how I know she would at least have had to be born in December 1989, but she was probably born before that.)

When she got home, from the anesthetic she walked like a drunken person.

I remembered this in the last year when Sonia got wobbly again.

In the years since, Sonia has been a real world traveler: Alaska to San Francisco, San Francisco to New York, New York to Paris, Paris to Les Eyzies, Les Eyzies to Montpellier and back, Les Eyzies to Paris, Paris to Les Eyzies, Les Eyzies to Perigueux, Perigueux to Les Eyzies, Les Eyzies to Paris and Paris to Les Eyzies — all the French legs of our journey by train, where Sonia always brought us new friends.

There’s more to say but I’m finding it hard to deal with the ‘was.’

They say cats live nine lives. Sonia lived 15.

When Mesha died, Sonia cried and literally craned her neck looking for him at our flat in Paris on the rue de Paradis.

Hopey passed three months after Mesha.

Sonia is now back with Mesha and Hopey in Paradis.

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