France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

May 30, 2009

39 with a bullet

Could any day have been more perfectly Paris than this one, or rather the one that started at 4 p.m. yesterday in the heights of Belleville, spent two hours in the Andre Malraux library in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-pres with its patron saint, Boris Vian, had a 7 p.m. thermos coffee staring up at the fountain Delacroix’s admirers had erected for him in the Luxembourg Gardens, paused to watch two mimes performing in this week-end’s Mime in May festival rehearse “Le Mort du Signe” in the Luxembourg’s bandstand, took its time at pal Luc’s bookstand on the Right Bank of the Seine under the watchful eyes of 100 year war hero Etienne Marcel, and finished with a late night picnic with Luc on a marble bench on the Ile St. Louis looking at the light reflected in the Seine and across at Notre Dame? No really, could any day be more perfectly Paris?

I used to be sad that Boris Vian died at just 39 years old, ten minutes into a film version of his infamous “J’irai cracher sur vos tombs” novel which he wasn’t happy about. But after perusing the “Real Boris” exhibition at the Malraux library, I realized that Vian had not just one heckuva full life but several before he left us 50 years ago next month. Wrote about a dozen books, plus contributed regular jazz and other columns, plus played a mean trumpet or, as he preferred, trompinet, acted as a general jazz impresario, famously welcoming Duke Ellington into this country in 1948, made several movies, including one which, never mind that it featured him tossing knives at cardboard cut-outs of keystone cops, was funded by the Higher Education Ministry. And on top of that, he wrote 500 songs! (His singing career, by contrast, was short; his one tour was cut short by veterans who objected to his song “The Desserteur.”) In his free time, he translated Chandler and others into French and co-founded the society of Pataphysiques, which held regular parties on the connected terraces of Vian and Jacques Prevert. It was almost as if, learning at 15 that he had a serious artery problem, Vian knew he had little time and packed as many lives as possible into his stay on Earth. He’d already had a rich childhood, living next door to the son of Edmund Rostand and with Yehudi Menuhin as a playmate. Also coté personal, his second and last wife, Ursula Kubler, danced for Bejart and Petit.

After a couple of hours with Vian, I strolled over to the Luxembourg. Instead of my usual refuge the Fountain de Medicis, I stopped at the Delacroix Fountain, and it was there I realized: Life is too short not to spend more of it in the Luxembourg Gardens.

Then at 8 p.m., the Sun still shining brilliantly, it was down a teeming St. Michel, across the Ile de Cité to Luc’s stand opposite the rear of the Hotel de Ville. I haven’t written about Luc before because I feel that by doing so, I’m turning our relationship into fodder for another tale of a typique Parisian, which prompts the question: How much is his metier a factor, on my side, of our friendship? That I think it’s cool to have a buddy who’s a bouquiniste, which thus immerses me in the fabric of an eternal Paris? But maybe that’s okay; on his side, maybe my being an American in Paris is part of the pull. Enough angst; it is cool to be so immersed in this vanishing part of life of traditional Paris. Vanishing, yes, because notwithstanding the myth of ‘the romance of the bouquiniste,’ it’s a tough metier. During the winter months, Luc has another boulot. When it rains, he can’t open his stand. When it’s sunny, he stays open late. As we slowly made our way to the Ile (it wasn’t until two hours after I met Luc that we finally arrived at a miraculously unclaimed bench), Luc explained to the friend of another bouquiniste at whose stand we’d stopped to catch up, and who asked what his specialty was, that he used to sell just art books but got tired of seeing them sit there unsold and unappreciated. (And Luc’s prices, by the way, are great; I got a complete collection of Vian’s jazz writings for just three Euros.)

So many workers in different sectors have been complaining the last two years, and not always with reasons; the punky young doctors who don’t want to be forced to install themselves in the country and petit villages, never mind that these villages need them; the train workers who seem to go on strike once per month, with absolutely no conscience about how train stoppages can strand people in the country or commuting workers in the city; and worse of all, the university and high school students, who seem to think it’s a game,their singing manifs seeming more like parties or football 0rallies. Yet the bouquinistes just quietly go about upholding a fundamental tenet of French tradition, a way of life — and a literary one — but that’s hardly sustaining, with no complaints. I think they should get a subvention, in recognition of how essential they are to the firmament.

Advertisements

December 3, 2008

Reculade

This was the word chosen by the newscaster on France Culture this morning to encompass the government’s backing down on three major cause celebrés in recent days: 1)Facing opposition within its own center-right majority in Parliament, the government agreed to a compromise on whether to open stores on Sundays: Yes for the already open, in grand metropoles, and in zones touristique, no everywhere else, although there are exceptions to the exceptions; even though it qualifies as both a grand metropole and a zone touristique, the Lyonnaise area will rest closed on Sundays, apparently due to strong opposition from area deputies. 2) Facing the fact that the Socialist mayors who run most of the big cities were refusing to enforce it anyway, education minister Xavier Darcos said he would not take them to court for not guaranteeing ‘minimum service.’ This was a regime the government tried to set in place whereby in cases of teacher strikes, city hall was obligated to provide baby-sitting. 3) After blaming sabotage of the national train network (the rails, not the trains) on a cell of alleged anarcho-leftists, the government has been forced to release all but two of the alleged coupables. The only evidence remaining against the ‘cell leader’ appears to be a ladder and a book on anarchist phllosophy.

I have no truck with anarchists. In reality, what this often means is not simpy a void — a passive non-belief in and non-allegiance to governed society — but concrete and rephrehensible violent action. Incredibly, the hosts of my favorite Lefty Yank radio program, Democracy Now, recently let stand a statement by the domestic terrorist — yes, terrorist — William Ayers that he bombed police stations in the ’60s because, well, those were different times, and anyway, they never hurt a single person. Anarchists, at least those who resort to violence, as well as so-called ‘revolutionaries’ like Ayers, like to say that in targeting government buildings they aren’t hurting anyone, they are going after power. Well guess what? Notwithstanding that it hasn’t always played out this way, police stations are, in theory — and often in practice — not symbols of ‘repression,’ but guarantors of security in the *good sense* of that word. So when a so-called anarchist or ‘revolutionary’ attacks a police station, their real goal is to make the rest of us feel *less secure* and *more vulnerable* and thus create nihilistic chaos. (And while we’re defending the police: Much has been made here the past few days — mostly by other journalists — of the supposedly excessive manner in which police picked up a former editor of the Left-leaning daily Liberation, whose only alleged infraction was alleged libel against an Internet company, Free. Okay, maybe they shouldn’t have handcuffed the guy. But maybe, also, more of the journalists should be reporting (as I’ve only heard two do so far) that the reason police had to go to the journalist’s house to get him was that he’d allegedly failed to appear three times at court dates.)

But returning to the alleged anarcho-leftist saboteurs. It looks like the government rushed to judgment too fast. Not to me to judge them but, easy as it is to identify single culpables for one or two derailing incidents, anyone who’s tried to travel between Paris and anywhere else, not to mention in the regions, knows that the SNCF train network has a real infrastructure problem, to say the least. (And don’t even try using its website; easier to walk 2 miles to a train station and ask the clerk.) That’s what’s got to be seriously acknowledged, looked at, and repaired.

While we’re on the subject of schools, and of alleged feats:

The much-vaunted European digital library, Europeana, continues to be down. (When I contacted a publicist for the institution to complain that I couldn’t even find the site’s supposed greatest virtue, its search engine, he said gleefully, “Well, we have a great video!!”) Unfortunately, this didn’t stop one of the library experts appearing on France Culture this morning from singing the praises of this 2 million Euro (annually) boondoggle. (Demi-traduction: Bidondoggle.) On the same program, one of the guests also pointed out that when he recently presented himself at a local police post to report a minor robbery, he had to rewrite the desk sergeant’s report, so full of ‘faults’ was it. Similarly, he claimed, the reason metro station agents often can’t help him find a given street is that they don’t know what letter it starts with. (Moi, ce n’etes pas les lettres de commencement qui me trouble, c’est ceux qui suive! Ou plutot leur son.)

There’s a connection here! Or rather a disconnect.

Europe is spending 2 million Euros per year on a boondoggle of a bibliotheque (hey, can I get sued and shackled for this?) that so far, DOES NOT WORK. (They claim it’s because there are too many of us that want to use it.) Meanwhile, this year the government eliminated 11,000 teacher positions, including — this is crucial — 3,000 of the 11,000 special education teachers, or RASE. Meanwhile — skipping to another connection here, I know — it’s considering a law which (if I understood correctly) would make it easier to send young people to prison.

In California, my home state, where school funding has suffered ever since, 30 years ago, the state voted to eliminated the property tax, teachers are now thinking of paying for supplies by placing ads on test papers.

Does France know what it’s in train of losing?

Blog at WordPress.com.