Okay, I miss it. I really thought I was French at heart. How can you love so much of a culture and not find your place?
October 1, 2010
September 30, 2010
April 10, 2010
“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
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.
January 4, 2010
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.
August 20, 2009
Well, I guess it’s no surprise that it took Georges Simenon to get me back to this journal; if he could write a book in nine days, I should be able to file one dispatch in one month. (When an interviewer asked if he ever took time out to relax, Simenon answered Mais oui; as it took him nine days to write a novel, if he wrote six in a year that left him with 311 days off.)
If I’ve been absorbed by France Culture radio’s ‘grand traversé’ dedicated to Simenon running every morning this week (click here to listen to the archived emissions), particularly the first hour, dedicated to archival interviews with the author, I’ve been disappointed by the relatively scant time devoted so far, in daily programming of 3.5 hours quand meme, to Simenon’s major creation, the Commissaire Maigret. And when Maigret does come up, as he did today in the discussion portion of the program, the ‘experts’ seem to fundamentally misunderstand his world.
According to this particular expert, the world of Maigret, or of the Maigret novels, is ‘sans esperance” or without hope. While this quality might apply to the other major part of Simenon’s oeuvre, the ‘romans dur,’ in which the criminal himself is the protagonist, typically perpetrating the crime at the beginning of the book and then degenerating before our eyes for the rest of it, the Maigret series, in which the detective is the hero, seems to me more an ongoing love affair with and portrayal of the principal character — his manners and his way to explore new worlds, his typical mode of access for solving the crime being to immerse himself in the milieu in which it took place. In effect, he’s our reliable old friend, the narrator we identify with as we encounter these worlds and communities with him. We feel that we’re with him when he enters a bistro and cries out, “Une demi!,” when he’s lost and morose and doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere in his investigation, when he ‘bavards’ with his inspectors. The most minute details of how he interacts with the drama become more important than the mundane details of the crime itself — even the way he becomes involved. In one tale, Maigret is ready to turn away a man who’s fled a small coastal village, where he’s accused of murder, to come to Paris to ask for Maigret’s help — until, crossing the bridge St. Michel, he gets a whiff of air that evokes oysters and ‘petit blanc’ and decides to take the case. (When he gets there, he discovers that the oyster harvest has been held up because of tidal problems, so he has to content himself with the petit blanc for the duration of the investigation.)
It’s not that the crime is incidental, but that the center of the story is not its grisly details, not the violence of the culpable, but Maigret’s quest — as much a quest for the solution of the crime as for understanding the personages involved. And because his ‘method’ (in quotes because Maigret would vehemently deny he has one) is to infiltrate the world, the milieu where the crime took place — be it that encircling an ecluse or lock, a port, an upper-class household, a demi-monde, a boarding house — the stories become chants to these communities, in Maigret’s case a tour de France alternating with immersions in the neighborhoods and rhythm of Paris. (Even more fun for those who have lived there; Simenon often situates the crimes on specific streets or in specific places in the general area described by Montmartre and, below it, the 9th arrondisement, often Notre Dame de Lorette, a street I know well.)
The point is that where the ‘romans dur’ start from an already ‘black’ point — the crime, usually violent — and descend into an even darker universe as we get inside the mind of the culpable, the Maigret novels use the fait divers as a trigger for a search for understanding, and an excuse to return to the world of a sensitive hero, Maigret, whose encounters with Paris, France, and occasionally other places are elevated and rich, steeped in the culture of the particular place, as it was in the middle of the 20th century. (One of my favorite passages occurs when, sur place investigating a theft and murder in a suburb, Maigret ‘pique’s the lobster delivered to the local bar from the hapless Sgt. Lucas for his own dinner, and pauses to call HQ. “Stay there!” he says, then, “I’m talking to the lobster,” which is trying to escape.
Speaking of food, in one of the archival interviews Simenon offers a ‘how-to-survive when you have no money’ story that rivals Dolly Parton’s claims that when she first started out, she made ketchup soup to economize. The 20-year-old George Sims, just arrived in Paris (at the Gare du Nord in my old neighborhood, which still, 86 years later, fits Simenon’s description as ‘the endroit ‘le plus raid’ in Paris), had taken a chamber in a boarding house where it was forbidden to cook. Here’s his advice for surviving on very little: “You buy a round of camembert — not a good one but the cheapest you can find. You eat a little morsel, and then you put it in the cabinet. Every day it gets bigger.”
July 17, 2009
Okay, so let me get this straight: Factory workers at an auto plant faced with lay-offs threaten to blow up their workplace unless the patron forges over 30,000 Euros to each employee (if this isn’t extortion, what is?), and the government sends in… the industry minister, to re-assure the workers. Meanwhile, in Montreul, a working-class suburb of Paris, citizens hold a peaceful demonstration to protest the police taking out the eye of another demonstrator at an earlier demonstration by firing a paintball gun into it, and the police charge them, firing paintball guns at four more demonstrators… while the interior minister remains silent. Meanwhile, until today (when the Green deputy Noel Maniere introduced a law that would ban police using tasers and paintball guns), the parliament is talking about neither of these abuses of liberty but appears to think the greatest threat to French society is women covering themselves with long dresses. (I’m much more worried by the attack on separation of church and state wielded every night on public television, where the weather broadcaster ends his forecast by exhorting everyone — Catholics, Muslims, Jews and atheists — to not forget to kiss the day’s patron saint.)
July 6, 2009
For my French readers, I should explain the headline: In American journalism, the phrase “Man bites dog” is applied to news stories which aren’t (news), a sort of inversion of “Dog bites man,” an event which would not be news. Or to put it another way: I was shocked!, shocked! to learn, on France Culture radio this morning, about a new study which confirms that if you’re Black or of Maghrebian (Arab) descent, you’re 6.8 or 7.8 times more likely, respectively, to find yourself asked for your papers here in France than if you’re white.
When one thinks about the actual term, “control (or check) d’identitie,” the implications are profound. Taking the commission literally, what’s being questioned — or if you want to be neutrel about it, verified — is whether you’re part of the national identity (although technically speaking, you could also be a foreigner in which case your papers just need to be in order). So theoretically, the implication is that if you’re not white your 7 to 8 times less likely to be French. (Even if in fact the presumption is that you’re more likely to have committed or be about to commit a crime.)
The study was conducted by researchers from the CNRS attached to the Centre des Recherches Sociologiques sur le Droit et les Institutions Penale. It was commissioned by George Soros’s Open Society Institute, based in the United States, where race-based criteria is known simply as ‘profiling.’ The French study was conducted between October 2007 and February 2008 in two Paris locations, the Gare du Nord and Chatelet. And there’s the first flaw in the study, in at least two respects; 1) People of color are more represented in these two places than they are elsewhere; 2) In the Gare du Nord, which has in fact been a magnet for, if not ‘gangs,’ at least rival youth groups from the suburbs more likely to be constituted by people of African or Maghrebian origin, the police scrutiny may actually be justified.
The uber-conclusion from the study — which clocked 525 controls out of 37,000 which traversed the two places during the periods of observation — is that, ‘the police read the signs of the person more attentively than his comportment.” (The two guests appearing on France Culture, Fabien Joburd and Rene Levy, were not always clearly identified, which is why I’m not attributing the remark to one or the other.) Those indicators were not confined to skin color; the researchers also looked at the sex, age, type of sack and, most intriguingly, clothing, in particular paying attention to whether someone attired a la hip-hop was more likely to be questioned. And indeed, the study found that a white person in hip-hop attire was more likely to be stopped than a black person with no particular wardrobe signifier.
Profiling is not a scourge particular to France. But here’s where the French exception comes in: Elsewhere in Europe (and, I can confirm, the States as well), “Circulate!” (or “Disperse!”) is the premiere contact the police are likely to have with the populace. In France, it’s “Your papers!”
June 7, 2009
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.
With his long gray hair, Marc Garanger looks like an ex-hippy. But in fact, at the beginning of the 1960s — 1960 to be precise — he found himself at war in Algeria, assigned to photograph thousands of Algerian women who the French authorities had decided should have ID cards, the better to control them. So the women in his book, “Femmes d’Algerie 1960,” mostly regard him with defiance, if not outright contempt. Photographed again 45 years later, when he returned to Algeria to find his memories and them, some of the same women have joyous expressions as they regard their younger selves and share the photos and another time and ambiance with their grandchildren.
Garanger and photos from both of these books were on display at the Cafe Social de Belleville — a sort of cafe for senior citizens — for the commencement of “L’Algerie au Coeur,” the first of an evening of events that terminated tres tard with the local premiere by Belleville’s own Lyes Salem of his “Mascarades,” itself a light-hearted tale of changing family values in an Algeria where native tradition often confronts the modernity of a shrinking world. (“Mascarades” was selected best film in the 2008 Dubai Film Festival awards and is Algeria’s nomination for best foreign film for the 2009 Oscars.)
Giving a soundtrack to the whole evening was Said Aichel-Fi and his Groupe Idebbal-en playing traditional Berber (?) party music. (The band is available for marriages, circumcisions, and concerts: 01-43-49-32-94.) The taste that I retain comes from the carrots in harisa and spicy chestnuts served at and outside the cafe social (7, rue Pali Kao in Paris’s 20eme arrondisement; the photos will be there for another three weeks.) in a real street party. But also, in a world — and a France — whose very shrinking has sometimes made for inter-community fractures, there were some simple signs of hope: Hearing the music, the residents in the social housing above the cafe opening their windows included a young black woman and a Hasidic Jewish gentleman who could not resist smiling. Later, when the party moved up the street to the Place Alphonse Alias for the screening of Salem’s film and a sort of travelogue by Claire and Reno Marca that traverses all Algeria, it proved a challenge to deplace the teenagers — evidently residents of the social housing that surrounds the square — batting a soccer ball around the square. Tant mieux, I thought; wasn’t this the youth of the greatest French Algerian of them all, Albert Camus? Looking up at the well-kept housing project, I transformed the trees into lemon groves and imagined myself in Oran.