By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011, 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak
Menaced by Melancholy
“And I’m walking with Erik Satie.”
— Malcolm McLaren, “Paris.”
In the fall of 2000, the Lyon Dance Festival was supposed to bring me to France to cover the event for The Dance Insider, a magazine I’d founded two years earlier with a group of professional dancers, after years of writing for The New York Times, Reuters, the Anchorage Daily News, and others. I was to spend three weeks in Lyon, and I’d set up an apartment exchange with an English teacher in Paris for a fourth week, my W. 8th Street, Greenwich Village apartment (next to Electric Lady, where Jimi Hendrix and, more significant for me, Carly Simon had recorded) for hers on the Square Albin Cachot in the 13th arrondissement, on the border of the 5th arrondissement, home to the Latin Quarter. When the dance festival’s press office botched the airline tickets, I first threw a fit, then decided that I’d be damned if I was going to let some bureaucrats douse my French dream; I arranged with the Parisian teacher to extend the exchange to a whole month, which I’d break up with a visit to friends from San Francisco living in a tiny village in the volcanic region of the Auvergne. It was my first voyage outside of the United States in 20 years, since an ill-fated attempt when I was 19 to immigrate to an Israel which turned out to be not what it promised (in lieu of chanting folk songs while picking sun-ripened oranges, foreigners on the kibbutz near the Negev desert were relegated to working in a hot bread factory), but my Francophilia by this point was so intense that it over-ruled my fear of flying.
What I remember most about my first view of Paris as I waited for a bus outside the Charles De Gaulle airport was the brilliant and clear early morning light. For the city itself, my entry point was the Metro Glaciere, from which it was a short walk to the rue Nordmann and the Square Albin Cachot, where Beatrice lived on the 7th floor of one of a circle of art deco buildings constructed, like many of those in the 13th arrondissement, in the 1930s. (If I stood on my tiptoes on the threshold of her concrete balcony, I could see the top of the Eiffel Tower as it lit up in sparkles at 1 a.m..) I remember thinking that if I had been there in the 1940s I wouldn’t be here, meaning I likely would have been deported to the death camps after being collected by Vichy policemen zealously anticipating the wishes of the German occupiers.
All the buildings on the square overlooked a blue mosaic fountain in the courtyard. Years later, meandering around an exhibition on the Deportation at the Hotel de la Ville, I would learn that like many corners of Paris, this fountain had its phantoms who lingered still, perhaps explaining why it fascinated me. During the Occupation, a group of teenagers used to meet there and shoot the breeze. When one of their ‘gang,’ a 15-year-old named Kolya, who was already writing for a clandestine newspaper, was picked up and deported, the other boys kept him alive by continuing to refer to him in their journals. (E.g., “I saw Kolya today at the fountain on the square Albin Cachot.”)
This is what overwhelmed me most on my first stay in Paris, the parallel lives one lived, present and past, and the history one walked in and soaked up every day on every street and in every park. (At the Jardin des Plantes one lunchtime, I dined on a wedge of Camembert soaked in Calvados and cold Bretagne cider picked up at the hilly outdoor market on the Boulevard Auguste Blanqui, sitting on a bench set against a wall riddled with ancient bullet holes, while I watched a pair of black swans tangle with a dozen kangaroos.)
In San Francisco, our modern history went back 150 years at most, and there weren’t many signs of it. In Paris, it wasn’t just the ghosts that lingered, but the eternal spirit of Paris which inspired them to dream and to record their dreams, be they the city-scapes of Pissarro or the music of Satie. With this, though, lurked a certain seductive melancholy, which menaced to swallow you up just as it had swallowed up Toulouse-Lautrec and Piaf.