Cross Country / A Memoir of France, 15: Nobody’s Guignol

By Paul Ben-Itzak                                                                                                                                          Copyright 2012, 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

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The man who tried to pass through cultures, or: Just because you speak French doesn’t mean you understand the French

After a year of enjoying la vie Parisian without bothering to learn to speak a speck of French that was not related to food, plumbing, dating, finding an apartment, ordering coffee (cheap cheat sheet: when the money’s tight, sit at the counter and instead of a café créme, order a ‘noisette,’ a petite café topped off with [nominally hot] milk), finding a toilet, asking directions, or setting up Internet, one early Fall morning in 2002 I spotted a notice on the window of my preferred boulangerie (for the best rapport quality-price, you want the next step up from the common baguette, be it the “Tradition,” “Banette,” “Retrodor,” “Petite Ghana,” or “Samaritaine”) announcing a French for Foreigners course at the Pari’s de Faubourg, a social welfare organization sandwiched between a park and a hospital off St.-Denis. It cost all of seven Euros — the yearly adhesion fee for this association set up to help immigrants assimilate — and I could also take other courses, such as marionettes. My fellow students were mostly refugees who had come to France not by choice but because they had no other choice, from countries including Nigeria, Ethiopia, the Sudan, Palestine, Turkey, Bolivia, the Ivory Coast, and Bosnia, with one Italian thrown in for good measure. Thus it was that on the placement test, which also quizzed us on French culture, everyone crowded around me for help with the questions, with the exception of those related to sports, in which domain a 40-year-old bearded man from the Sudan with a perpetual, mischevous smile was the whiz. “This is really not the correct level for you,” the very proper, delicately pretty, medium-length blonde-haired testing instructor told me. “I know it seems like I’m not a beginner,” I explained, “but that’s just because I’ve been here a year. I’ve never taken a class, so there are many holes in my French.”

The course, meeting two mornings per week, immediately became not only a social outlet but a place to meet women who weren’t French, those encounters having so far proved mostly frustrating. Benedicte had liked me but I’d realized (after some hanky-panky) that I didn’t like her, at least not in that way; it was just need that drew us together. I was still attached to Sylvie, but she wasn’t interested in me, at least not romantically. I was once again not speaking to Sabine, this time for an even more idiotic reason than her arguing that Judaism was not a culture but strictly a religion: She’d been 30 minutes late for a RDV at my apartment on Paradis (only because she’d stopped to get a good loaf of brown bread!), and I’d responded by tacking a note to my door and saying I’d already left for the movie (“La Traversée de Paris”), listening behind the door as she sighed in exasperation and retreated out of my life again. I’d missed her immediately and, whenever I passed by her building at 33 rue Lamartine (where Baudelaire, the author of “Les fleurs du Mal,” had also lived) in the neighboring 9th arrondissement, I looked up regretfully at her fifth-floor apartment (my first Paris sublet).

In mining the seemingly fertile field of my French for foreigners class — where, at least, the women, being new arrivals, would not already be settled into their cliques (the Parisians I’d met so far tended to hang out with the same friends they’d been hanging out with since kindergarten, and spit you back out once you’d surpassed your expiration date as the amuse bouche du jour) — what I didn’t realize was that where these women were looking for love, they were more likely to be looking for it with a Frenchman, which offered the added bonus of eventual citizenship. So I alighted on Flora, a 25-year-old refugee from the Sudan and Ethiopia who’d left her parents behind, and whose café au lait beauty reminded me of my first crush, Christine LaMar. (We met at Rooftop, one of the first alternative schools in San Francisco – the other students included Gio Coppola, the director’s son, later killed in a sailing accident — when I was 11 and she 10. We used to have stare-out contests on the 24 Divisadero bus on the way to school, until she boarded the bus one morning wearing dark glasses and I realized I needed to change my tactic. So the next day I gave her a copy of my first novel, “The Problem Cops,” about a team of police who solved racial problems, which she looked down at dubiously before stuffing it into her trenchcoat. I also annoyed my brother and my best friend by pausing to dedicate my ping-pong matches to her over our basement table in Noe Valley: “This game is dedicated to Christine LaMar. If I win, I will be 24 and 9. If I lose, I will be 23 and 10.” I ended up 187 and 9.)

Flora flirted, but whenever I’d ask her out – innocently enough, with museum invitations and such — she’d respond vaguely with “I don’t know,” “Maybe,” or “We’ll see.” Once again — in retrospect — I may have been distracted by superficial coquettry from not pursuing a much more substantial (and closer to my age) woman, also from the Sudan, who showed up for every class with a full-teeth smile, and who taught me an unlikely folk cure for a bad cough: Hot milk with garlic.

The only French person was the new teacher, Viriginie, and even she was a ‘foreigner’ of sorts, her people being from Guadeloupe; one morning she brought us delectable blood sausages made by her mother. (On the last day of the winter semester, Flora brought champagne.) She also took us on field trips, which I seized as an opportunity to show off my Paris knowledge; in Montmartre, I insisted we see the statue of the man going through the wall, explaining (as Sylvie had to me) that it was a tribute to Montmartoise resident Marcel Aymé, the author of “The Man who passed through walls.” Because I always need to be right — and this was just not going to happen in French class, where the teacher did in fact know more than I did — I sometimes fought with Virginie, but I was nonetheless outraged when she was replaced for political reasons by an unimaginative instructor from Italy whose method consisted of having us do the written exercises in class, cutting down on oral practice. I dropped out of French class, but not the Pari’s de Faubourgs. By this time I’d enrolled in marionettes, a passion since (earlier) childhood. (Even they show up in Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle, with the hero and a buddy playing hookie at the Luxembourg Garden’s puppet show, the director turning the camera on the audience to reveal the gamut of emotions to which children are subject. When the show is over, the boys gambol around the park with a laughing girl between them. The last time I ventured to the Garden, in late November 2015, the metal barricades had gone up everywhere, even blocking access to the Delacroix fountain, the villains now vaporous, no longer confined to the puppet stage and no longer droll.)

Marionettes also took me back to French women. I brought flowers for the suave, hip, naturally honey-blonde teacher, probably more intrigued by her profession than any intrinsic beauty. She remained aloof, at least as far as any romantic response. Much more engaged and animated was a fellow student, Paulette, a curly-haired, dimpled brunette with a cherubic, perpetually mischevous grin — yes, Paul and Paulette. Notwithstanding that Paulette was married, she was thrilled by my American exotic-ness, and that I worked in the arts, so we started hanging out: Strolls along the Canal Saint-Martin, aperitifs; when we lunched at Les Deux Moccassins (the two baby boars) on the rue Hauteville up the street from my flat heading towards the winding garden on the place Franz Liszt and the church that dominated it, I profited from its being Valentine’s Day to give Paulette a box of chocolates. She was shocked, and skeptical when I explained that in my country, friends gave friends presents on this holiday. Things fell apart — both my adventure with marionettes and my friendship with Paulette — when I returned from a week after having missed a class because I was sick to find that the instructor had made my puppet’s costume for me. I turned as beet red as the paper maché and plaster of Paris head of the creature I’d created. I was there to learn; in my view the teacher seemed more interested in mounting a professional production than puppet pedagogy. When I complained about her to the center’s director, Paulette, who was also friends with the instructor, got upset. “In France, to file a complaint is very serious!” I panicked about losing her friendship, but she assured me, “I have confidence in you!” After I responded to an e-mailed appeal to reason from the teacher with a nasty rebuke, I panicked again about Paulette, who was not answering my e-mails. When I phoned her, she was stony and simply issued a curt “Au revoir!” before abruptly hanging up.

Looking back at these exchanges, the fault I find is mostly with myself. But at least — unlike so many Americans in Paris who are content to profit from the food but don’t venture beyond their expatriate circle — I was attempting to integrate. I loved their culture and wanted to be part of it. I wanted them to love me and wanted to find a French woman to love. But transcending my own national character and particular psycho-history and penetrating theirs was proving difficult. It didn’t help that, with the notable exception of Sabine, as opposed to Californians, who like to hash everything out, the French reaction to inter-personal friction (as a French woman once explained to me before disappearing in her turn) encompasses two elements that are lethal to enduring friendships: Taking even minor wounds and slights to heart and preferring not to talk about it. In other words, at the first sign of problems, they tend to just walk away. Add to this Balzac’s observation – still true 200 years after Balzac – that for Parisians amity is disposable, and I was finding that forging friendships with the French, not to mention localizing the femme de ma vie among them, was a much more complex proposition than finding a good baguette.


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