By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2012, 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak
I Yam what I Yam
As we left off with Lambert Strether, impossibly trying to ford the gap between American optimism and Old World cynicism in his courtship of a middle-aged French woman in “The Ambassadors,” let’s resume with another Henry James Don Jones quixotically tipping his guilded sword at the citadel of Gallic womanhood (with apologies to my literary forefather for mentioning him in the same breath as a cliché’d opening which attempts to hybridize Jamesian languor and Hemingwayesque concision and ends up just south of Damon Runyon as Freud-ified by Bernard Malamud, a feeble imitation of Vonnegut’s monkey house).
“The American” opens in the Louvre, with a Yank buck posing this question to a doe-eyed French girl in the midst of copying a painting: “Combien?” Perhaps it was to counter this historical mode of exchange – or maybe it was just part of my ongoing determination to mimic Anne Frank (playing her boyfriend Peter in high school was the closest I’d come to approaching the phantoms of the Holocaust before moving to France) in matching her self-description as “a little bundle of contradictions” – that my first quasi-serious relationship in France was with a banker, Benedicte. The rest of my new circle of friends were all Anglophiles, starting with Lucie & Lionel, English teachers at the Sorbonne-affiliated Paris 5 whom I’d met through Beatrice, whose seventh-floor flat in the Square Albin Cachot I’d stayed at in the fall of 2000.
Like most French who speak English, L&L had learned from an English as in England teacher, which meant that whenever we conversed I felt like I was speaking with Brits. Lionel, who liked to crack jokes, thus seemed to me to be a real English wag. The pantherine Lucie, with her olive complexion and Olive Oyl figure, not to mention lilting accent, intimate smile, and penetrating eyes, changed my mind about bob-headed women. On my first visit to Paris she’d taken me to see Claude Chabrol’s “Chocolat,” in which the addictive elixir, manufactured by an industrialist played by Isabel Huppert, is both sexy and lethal, especially when Huppert uses it to try to slowly poison to death her husband, played by ’60s music icon Jacques Dutronc, France’s closest equivalent to Bob Dylan.
This time, in November 2001, I was staying in an apartment rented by Beatrice’s 30-year-old painter friend Marc, also on the square Albin Cachot in the 13eme arrondissement, on the border of the Latin Quarter and around the corrner from La Sante, the famous prison whose most recent residents had included the war criminal and collaborator Maurice Papon. I’d finally found a permanent place — on the rue de Paradis on the Right Bank, near the Grands Boulevards, below Montmartre, and skipping distance from the Canal St.-Martin — but it was not quite good to go. Marc was happy to stay with a friend and earn 3,000 francs while I pitched my tent at his pad for three weeks. Besides Marc, Lucie and Lionel, Beatrice, and Benedicte, I also invited to my Thanksgiving party a couple of L&L’s smart-alecy students: Juliette, who had lived with an American family in Chicago for a year in high school, and Pierre, a pip-squeak who would later get offended when I played Malcolm McLaren’s version of Serge Gainsbourg’s classic “Je t’aime” from the former’s “Paris” album — in addition to Dutronc, Gainsbourg, and Dutronc’s mate Francoise Hardy, McLaren’s album being the other music that had fueled my own Paris fantasy.
But that was later, at the party. First I had to find a turkey. Exiting the Square Albin Cachot on the rue Nordmann and heading towards Glaciere, you first passed a boulangerie whose only attraction — Beatrice had warned me the bread was not that good — was a shrine to French rock legend Johnny Hallyday. Then you came to a long window for the butcher shop on the corner, filled with aged chevre cheese rolled in in green herbs and grey ashes, bottles of red wine, and fresh feathered fowl. On Thanksgiving Friday — Thanksgiving in France not being a holiday, I’d scheduled my party for a Friday, when the next day wouldn’t be a school day — I lucked out: One of the birds was a turkey. It wasn’t as plump as store-bought hormone-fed American turkeys, but it boasted one thing they didn’t: glistening black feathers. In my pigeon French, illustrated with hand gestures, I asked the butcher behind the counter to clip the bird’s feathers, and to give them to me to use as a centerpiece, which I did, placing the plumes in a cowboy boot-shaped glass mug I’d saved from my NY farewell dinner at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame.
Most French ovens sport two dials, one with numbers from 1 to 7, the other with funny pictures that, I presumed as I puzzled over the model in Marc’s flat that late fall overcast Paris morning, have something to do with whether you want the heat to come from below, above, or both directions. After I burned the first pecan pie (made with corn syrup from a boutique in the Marais called “Thanksgiving,” whose American owners bilked their fellow ex-pats by charging $7 per jar), I scribbled drawings of both dials on a napkin and, rushing back to the butcher’s and pointing to the napkin and to the window with the birds, asked him to indicate which settings I should use so the turkey wouldn’t end up charbroiled.
The only disaster at the party itself turned into an opportunity: When I fumbled the plate of deviled eggs onto the floor, Benedicte insisted on rolling up her sleeves, getting down on her immaculately stockinged legs and cleaning up the mess, prompting Lionel to take me aside and whisper, “She came dressed to kill and doused with Chanel No. 5, she insisted on mixing the egg yellows for you, and now she won’t let you clean up the mess you made. I think she likes you mate. She wants to show that you need her to take care of you.”
Of all the dishes I served up to my new French friends, the one they found the most exotique was the sweet potatoes with pineapples and melted marshmallows on top — or, as they’re called in French, “chamalows” (pronounced sham-a-lows). Considering that in France the chamalows come only in multi-colors like pink and green, this was no mean feat, as the melted result of green-pink gloop looked like “The Blob Attacks Orange-ville” in technicolor. (With apologies to Nathalie Kalmas, and to Boris Vian for copping that joke.)
I was supposed to move to the rue de Paradis, and Marc to recuperate his apartment, the following Monday and, right on cue, I had my ritual moving-day disaster. First the toilet stopped up. I poured pink “De-Stop Ultra” liquid down the basin and flushed, whence the toilet flushed in the opposite direction and the bathtub also erupted with dirty water, followed by the washing machine, which began spinning with it. Panicked, I knocked on the door of a neighbor I’d only seen in passing, a petite older lady with a short black curly hair-do who spoke no English. When I pointed to the water seeping out from under my doorway and onto the hall carpet, she got the message, grabbed some of her own fine towels, sank to her knees and began scrubbing and soaking, all the time shaking her head and singing “Oh lah lah, oh lah lah lah lah lah!” as she made the aller-retour between the hallway and her apartment to wring out the towels and return for more muck.
Finally the guardien (what the concierge is actually called in France) returned from his late lunch, and hurried over bringing a vacuum-cleaner type apparatus with a skinny 12-foot long suction hose. It inhaled, but the water kept spitting out. “I will have to call the plumbing squad,” he said, and within 15 minutes, a troupe of at least 10 African-origin men in bright green jumpers chanting lively water sweeping up songs marched in holding a much sturdier, one-foot in diameter grey hose, stuck it in the toilet, and sucked it dry, then marched back out laughing.
The flat still reeked of dirty toilet water, and the cats and I had to skedaddle for our new digs on Paradis. So I left a note for Marc apologizing for the mess, discouraged that I might have lost a best-friend candidate.
When I returned the next day to explain to Marc in person, he smiled drolly and laughed. “Don’t worry, it was not your fault. It seems that there was a lady on the top floor who put something in her toilet she shouldn’t have, and it fell all the way down through all seven floors and didn’t stop until it got to ours.”
I remembered something my father, an architect, had once said: “Paul, in plumbing, it’s important to remember one thing: Shit runs down.” So far, it felt like an awful lot of it was falling on me.