Cross Country / A Memoir of France, 16: An American Protester in Paris

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

“I often go to Paris to live yesterday tomorrow.”

— Malcolm McLaren, “Paris.”

“Alors, tu fait l’opposition de l’exterior, c’est bien ca?” I had just told the petite, dirty-blonde, 30-something lawyer with the impertinent blue eyes and girlish voice in the floppy gray trench-coat that I was not even tempted to go back to the U.S. as long as George Bush was president. We were at the sable-colored mosaic “zinc,” or counter, of le Valmy, my ‘café d’habitude’ on the Quai Valmy of the Canal Saint-Martin (I was stationed on the corner stool, from which I could look out at the canal through the Sun-streaked cracked window), a mythic Parisian water-way which runs all the way to the Bastille (diving under a panhandle at the Boulevard Richard Lenoir, where Simenon’s Commissar Maigret ‘lived’ with his doting wife), immortalized in films like Jean Vigo’s 1934 “L’Atalante,” in which Michel Simon’s crusty sea captain takes his first mate and the mate’s bride on a honeymoon tour of France’s water-ways; Marcel Carné’s 1947 fairy-tale “Les portes de la nuit,” in which Yves Montand made his debut (introducing “The Dead Leaves,” neutered in the American version to “Autumn Leaves”) as a man who misses the last Metro to live an oneric night in Barbes (in now mostly Arabic lower Montmartre) which ends with the body of his lover (Simone Signoret) being fished out of the canal; and “Hotel du Nord,” also by Carné, in which the legendary music hall chanteuse Arletty indignantly scolds a paramour in her high-pitched voice, “’Atmosphere!?’ ‘Atmosphere!?’ Is that all I am to you?!” It’s a canal intersected by locks, and even on the increasingly frenetic Right Bank of Paris, pedestrians still make time to stop if they happened to find themselves on one of its bridges (from which “Amelie” liberated her goldfish) when a ferry is about to pass under.

When I returned to Paris to live in the fall of 2001, the canal was being dredged and drained; no dead bodies, but a lot of garbage. While my flat on the rue de Paradis was on the periphery of the 10eme arrondissement which included the canal, it was still a vigorous morning walk past the Gare de l’Est to le Valmy to take my morning noisette, the poor man’s cafe créme, a petite café topped off with a dollop of steaming milk foam. Or if had a few sous to spare, I’d order mint tea served in its own individual silver tea pot, a la Montpellieroise, with a dollop of pine nuts. I’d first acquired a taste for mint tea served this way my second summer covering the dance festival in Montpellier, where a tall French-Arab vendor in a wide-brimmed straw hat and Hawaiian shirt hawked it outside an all-night gnawa party in a medieval cloister, a dance party under gossamer silk canopies where I’d brushed against a materialization of the elusive femme de ma vie, a Moroccon dancer I’d named Fatima, after the anima in Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist.” The mint tea had become my madeleine, its murky waters conjuring Fatima’s piercing stare daring me to talk to her, the pine nuts providing the venemous chew of regret that I hadn’t.

I’d earlier tried a bar called “l’Atmosphere,” across the canal from the Hotel du Nord, but ruled it out when I realized it was primarily a gay hang-out; little prospect to find the femme de ma vie there. I was drawn to le Valmy by the sign advertising a weekly poetry slam, which promised an air of San Francisco in Paris, and the exotic music mix. “Who’s the DJ?” I’d asked the thin curly haired French-Algerian 30-something man with the amused grin behind the counter on my first visit. “C’est moi!” Ta’ar owned le Valmy with his prematurely balding brother Maclouf (Max), whose expression also suggested that no matter how grave it seemed, you shouldn’t take it seriously. Unlike Cafe Prune further down the canal towards the Bastille, le Valmy, with paintings or photographs by local artists decorating its dark mustard plaster walls, always well illumined from the tall windows on both sides of its corner location, was hip without being branché – with locals dominating the morning coffee customers — and the tone set by Ta’ar and Max, the staff hip without being aloof. The waitresses were chic yet approachable, French hippy children, and the morning barman, Djamel, a handsome, dark-skinned 40-year-old whose tightly clipped hair and joie de vie made him seem closer to 30, was engaging, funny, and earnestly solicitous, all of which meant there were always lots of vivacious women hovering over the zinc. (Paris tip #145: When looking to meet women, you actually want a bar hosted by an alluring barman, not a mignon barwoman.) We’d developed an easy repartée, but our mutual comprehension was often challenged by the noisy espresso machine and music, not to mention the other conversations, given my still tentative French. (I’d usually go over potential sentences and jokes on my way to the bar each morning.)

Perhaps it was that Ta’ar, Max, and Djamel were French Arabs that made le Valmy the perfect QG (headquarters) for flaunting my opposition to the daily butchering of innocent Iraqis by my country during that spring of 2003. (Yes, it took the spilling of blood to finally bridge the gap between me and the French.) Every morning I would open up Libé, as Parisians refer to the daily Liberation (founded by Sartre and others after the May 1968 student-worker revolts) to the graphic coverage of the atrocities we were perpetrating and visibly shake my head in disgust and dismay while looking at the pictures of dead Arabs. (As American media, from the New York Times to National Public Radio, had helped lead us into this fictional war by their unquestioning, supine acceptance of the Bush-Cheney propaganda, I also felt it was my duty to report back to the readers of my magazine, The Dance Insider, on the quite different reality being reported ungarnished by French media.) At the first Paris protest demonstration in February 2003, shortly before Bush-Cheney abetted by the Times launched the invasion, I’d actually scolded a Communist on the boulevard Montparnasse who’d unfurled a banner equating the American flag with the Nazi swastika, “You wouldn’t be here if not for my country!!” But as soon as we invaded, at the first large demonstration, as we gathered at the Place Concord across the street from the American Embassy, I’d immediately latched on to a group called Americans Against the War. It seemed vital to show that not all Americans were war-mongers out to shed innocent Arab blood. Eventually our group made the cover of Humanité, the Communist daily founded by Jean Jaures, helping to hoist a banner calling for George Bush to be tried for war crimes. (Even if one could only see the back of my head, as I had turned around to help lead the chanting.)

Notwithstanding that I grew up in San Francisco in the 1960s, where I was weaned at the marches against the Vietnam War — when I was five years old I remember a demonstration where my mom pointed at a man in a plaid shirt and said he was probably an undercover FBI agent — I was never an automatic joiner. In fact, growing up among professional protesters in San Francisco gave me an aversion to rote rabble-rousing. I only demonstrated when it seemed that my presence would make a difference (a need to be important might be another way to put this); thus in Alaska in 1991, it was just me and two colleagues from the Anchorage Daily News (one a Native Alaskan) who marched in front of the federal building, holding up signs with frostbitten fingers. And so in Paris in 2003, I paraded with my fellow anti-war Americans towards the front of the march, where organizers usually placed us and where we were applauded by standersby, although once we were elbowed out of the way by militant organizers from the CFTD; the labor unions often seemed more interested in advertising themselves participating in marches than in advancing the actual causes.

For an American in Paris, taking part in these demonstrations held the extra lure of immersion in the rich Parisian lore of citizen insurgencies, inserting me into an earlier Paris history, as their itineraries often shadowed the storied Left Bank routes of the ‘soixante-huitards,’ the protestors of May 1968. It was also a way of re-living a San Francisco history which I had only experienced as a child and re-kindling that memory and spirit with the depth of adult consciousness. In many ways Paris – at least in the early 2000s, before the French malaise set in and the Parisian stress ratcheted up —  for me was that: San Francisco in the ’60s, a way to live yesterday today with grown-up sensations.


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