PAUL BEN-ITZAK, REDACTEUR DE L’ARTS VOYAGER, CHERCHE UN LOGEMENT A PARIS

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Basé en Dordogne, Paul Ben-Itzak, le redacteur / journaliste / animateur de l’Arts Voyager, francaisanglaistraduction, et Dance Insider, cherche un logement a Paris. (Location, sous-location, co-location, ou echange pour services — traduction/ redaction, DJ, cuisine, website development, etc.) Merci de me contacter a artsvoyager@gmail.com. (Il faut copier cette addresse mail a votre messagerie.) Avec moi j’ai une petite chatte blanche, trés propre. (Je l’attache — voir le photo — seulement quand elle promenade sur le balcon, histoire d’empeche qu’elle saute!)

The ink that dreams are made of, 2: Krazy like a Kat

krazy-katGeorge Herriman, “Krazy Kat, My Old Kentucky Home.” India ink on Bristol board, 24 x 16 1/2 inches. Original drawing for a Sunday comic strip featuring Krazy Kat published in 1936 by King Features Syndicate. Signed. Artcurial pre-sale estimate: $40,000 – 50,000. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Like what you’re reading? Please support the Arts Voyager by donating through PayPal, designating your payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address if you prefer to pay by check or in Euros. Based in the Dordogne and Paris, the Arts Voyager is also currently looking for lodging in Paris, Bordeaux, or Lyon. Paul Ben-Itzak is also available for translating, editing, and webmastering assignments.)

Before it was an auction house, Artcurial was an opulently furnished gallery of contemporary art, its 2500 square meter home lavishly underwritten by no less than l’Oreal and opening with a bang with permanent exhibitions featuring the likes of Bonnard, Atlan, Braque, and Poliakoff. Kandinsky’s “Music Salon,” created in Berlin in 1931, was reconstituted, monographs were published on the side for the likes of Wilfredo Lam and Salvador Dali, and le tout was augmented by what Opus International’s Jean-Louis Pradel described after the opening as “one of the richest contemporary art libraries to be found in Paris, [with] 4000 books on 20th-century art and more than a hundred international art revues.” All this was trumpeted on the gallery’s 1975 opening with a massive advertising campaign which broke with the traditional reserve of the toney neighbor galleries on the august rue Matignon. Counter-intuitively — because one would assume that the content of an auction is determined primarily by who’s decided to sell what — this curatorial instinct seems to have been retained in Artcurial’s auctions. Its second Hong Kong sale — to be held Monday in… a museum — is no exception. Notwithstanding company official Isabelle Bresset’s vaunting the sale of 80 examples of street and comics art as representing “a vibrant panorama of a part of *contemporary art* (emphasis added),” among the catalog of 80 lots are two original drawings which also fulfill the historical-educational function of a museum. In addition to a strip by Little Nemo father Winsor McKay, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat also shows up. If the original drawing in question, dating from 1936, doesn’t boast the surrealist mesas and arroyos of Herriman’s work from the 1920s, the three principal characters (see above) are in fine form and the landscape is still peopled by a cactus, a cluster of giant toadstools, and what could be a range of Arizona pyramids. (Source for background on Artcurial gallery: Jean-Louis Pradel, “Artcurial,” Opus International, February 1976.)

Cross Country / A Memoir of France, 17: … in which the Old Boy Network Finally Pays Off — with a Paris Gal Pal

By Paul Ben-Itzak 
Copyright 2013 Paul Ben-Itzak

Sometimes you have to take the long way around to get back home

In Memory of Edward Albee, who died this night, and of Robert Fagles; and for living teachers like Martin and Nancy, as well as Lewis Campbell.

Whenever I’m reeling from calamity and struggling to regain equilibrium, I think about the qualities I get, or would like to get, from my three old cats, particularly in their manners of facing their final days and months: From Mesha, my black and white European male, grace. From Hopey, my tortoise-shell calico, determination; we had just moved, in 2007, to the burg of Les Eyzies, known as the capital of pre-history after the discovery in 1860 (not far from  our home) of the first vestiges of Cro-Magnum man (more boneyards). She must have thought the river we lived on the largest bowl of water she’d ever seen – inveterate faucet licker that she was – and returned from a coma to march three times to the banks of the Vezere, panting and pausing along the way (and breaking into a wheezy trot when the black horse next-door ran towards us, she thought chasing her, the electrified fence invisible to her eye). From Sonia, resilience; if a cat has nine lives, I counted 14 for her, the number of times my Siamese defied death, particularly in her last year before her battery finally ran out at 20-something. For me, determination has often come after failing at something when I no longer had a clear reason to want to succeed at it, then trying again when one became apparent. Inevitably the failure — when a situation no longer worked — came when the bottom fell out of my social life. So it was that I left Princeton — once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to study with people like Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Fagles, Stephen F. Cohen, and Ellen Chances (Russell Banks on the other hand was obnoxious, insisting on smoking in class even though it was against the rules) not being enough to keep a lonely 19-year-old in school (today I would go back just to have time to read; education is wasted on the young) — then came back not so much to study but because I wanted to be a journalist. Already as a freshman I’d risen to founding managing editor of the campus weekly and exposed a case of “collusion” between the student government president and vice president and certain editors of the daily newspaper involving a future governor of New York destined to be hounded out of office by a sex scandal and an eventual Supreme Court justice. (“Collusion” in quotes because there was nothing criminal or illegal about it; the principal personalities involved were all members of the same eating club, and “colluded” to support the candidacy of a fellow club member as the new president. My story earned the epithet of “Yellow Journalism” from a future New Yorker editor.) In my second go-round at Princeton, I’d tried out for a student group called the University Press Club whose members served as correspondents for local and national papers and wires, and had no sooner been accepted than, covering for everyone over Winter vacation – “Nothing ever happens” – I ended up writing a front-page story for the daily Trentonian when Princeton’s nuclear fusion reactor started up for the first time. Covering again over the summer – “Just fireman’s duty, really” – I ended up writing about the Princeton gargoyles and several other stories for the New York Times, and was then kicked out of the club because I refused to stop writing for the paper when the regular stringer returned in the fall, my Times editor agreeing with me that my required abdication was ludicrous. My social circle collapsing again – and, already writing for the Times and thus earning money as a journalist, having no clear reason to remain in school in an environment where I felt isolated and ostracized — I’d left Princeton for a second time, but not before an all-night squabble in the Princeton cemetary (located in the Black part of town) with my best student friend, a Republican from Texas whose father had fought with the Irgun. All I remember from this argument is his insisting that like China and Russia I needed to have a five-year plan, this as we maneuvred around the tombs of the theologian Jonathan Edwards and Grover Cleveland, finally calling it a night when we stumbled upon Aaron Burr, the former vice president who killed Alexander Hamilton in an infamous duel. (Though, as Samuel Burr, president of the Descendents of Aaron Burr Society, once told me, Burr had gotten a bum rap, the myth that he provoked the duel being “a bunch of hooey” propagated by the Sons of Hamilton.) When I got back to my dorm room, I found a copy of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and a paper plate on which my friend had written “Who is John Galt?” and signed, “Your friend, Andrew.”

When I pleaded personal problems in trying to get some understanding from university officials for my falling attendance, the student affairs vice president (who we called “the Kraut” for her German accent and severe manner) was unsympathetic, chiding me, “Other students are able to have personal problems and not let it affect their school work.”

I’d come to peace with my ambivalent feelings about Princeton when I lived in New York in the late 1990s before moving to Paris  — about my failure to finish my studies, as I viewed it. In fact, a sponge for learning even if I didn’t graduate, I’d absorbed some valuable lessons, notably a loopy but brilliant lecture by Chances, a Russian literature professor who with her raven hair and flaxen skin resembled Anna Karenina, about how we all live in and try to encadre everything in boxes, and Professor Oates’s theory that the Suicide (she used it as a noun) is not really expressing a wish to die, because you can’t wish for a negative, but another wish, e.g. “I want you to listen to me,” “I want to teach you a lesson,” etcetera; all this in a pamphlet she’d given me after I’d written a first-person story in which I spoke of committing “slow suicides”; only Joyce Carol Oates could critique a Suicide. (Another student in the class, J.D. Salinger’s son, had written a short story about his elusive father vanishing in the rain after exiting from the back-door of a car.) My first creative writing teacher at Princeton, Reginald Gibbons, a poet who knew it, had not wanted to pass me on to the next level. He’d been annoyed by a story I’d written in which I’d sliced up each typed page to one-inch wide ribbons each of which had only one word, my way of dealing with a ruptured friendship with an Italian girl, Sonia, who had been my best friend in high school, neither the professor nor me being aware that I was only following in the tradition of Apollinaire in allowing form to follow function. So I’d appealed to Joyce, submitting another tale I’d written hatched by closing my eyes and typing five letters which more or less approximated “ELYSIUM”; I was aping a novella by Oates in which she claimed to be channeling a dead Portuguese poet (she even sub-titled it, “Tales from the Portuguese.”) When she over-rid the poet Gibbons and accepted me into her advanced creative writing course, I made the story my first submission for the class. Everyone hated it but Joyce, who liked my expression “the mysterious phlegm.” (It was only when she savored the expression out loud that I realized it wasn’t pronounced PHLEGEM.) Distressed by my classmates’ rejection, I sought Joyce’s advice. “I never read my reviews,” she solemnly told me, a declaration I recalled years later when a critic for the Saturday Review, writing about a novel in which Joyce had been inspired by Fagles’s translation of the Oresteia to open her story with a flock of winged black birds a.k.a. Furies, compared her to Snoopy hacking out “It was a dark and stormy night” a la Bulwer-Lytton, provoking an irate letter to the magazine from Oates. (Speaking of Fagles, and of suicides, that he was the most eminent translator of the Greeks of his epoch did not mean he was too aloof to be aware of and sensitive to the tumultuous reality of his barely post-adolescent charges. One afternoon he walked into our seminar, clearly distraught, with a clipping from the Washington Post about a student who had killed himself after reading “Oedpius” – his translation. Slowly making the circuit of the table and looking each student in the eyes while gripping the clipping, he carefully implored us, in a voice simultaneously stentorian and soft, “I want to make sure that none of you has misunderstood what this is about,” the moral of the Greek tragedy being, in his interpretation, that “Oedipus had to be burned to a crisp in order to emerge whole again.”)

My other best friend at Princeton, my precept teacher for Chances’s Russian Literature course, by then a dean at the university, and in whose eyes I’d thought myself a failure, did not even remember when I visited Princeton in the late ‘90s that I hadn’t graduated. Sometimes our failures loom larger in our own eyes than in the eyes of those whom we think we’ve disappointed.

So — getting back to early Spring 2004 and Paris, where I finally had the opportunity to resolve my outstanding issues with my alma mater and claim it as my alma mater (as Jerry in Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story” says, “sometimes you have to take the long way around to come back home”) — when I found myself once again struggling socially in the midst of a foreign culture (because the stratified prep school culture of Princeton was just as, if not more, foreign to me, a graduate of San Francisco’s Mission High School, the most cosmopolitan high school in the country, as the often calcified French one), willing to try anything to improve my prospects I looked up the Princeton Alumni of France (they’d nixed calling it simply the Princeton Club of France because the acronym was the same as the Parti Communist Francais, and G-d forbid that an alumni association of the school that produced John Foster Dulles and harbored George Kennan after Mr. X should share an acronym with the Communists). As it turned out, the first gathering was a reception at a tony private club on the rue faubourg St.-Honoré (as in the cream pastry, but richer) for Shirley Tilghman, Princeton’s first female president. (Coincidentally, visiting Princeton on my 40th birthday in 2001 shortly before I left for France to be treated to lunch by my old best friend the dean at the faculty dining club, and stopping by the Communications Office, where I’d cut my chops as a reporter for the in-house campus weekly, I’d been handed a press release announcing Tilghman’s appointment.) At the Q & A in Paris, I raised my hand.

“Princeton has not always been great about helping students with problems; when I had difficulties I was told, ‘You’re a Princeton student, you should be able to cope.’ And not having gone to a prep school, arriving as a freshman I thought I was dumb, just because I did not understand the terminology like other kids who had gone to prep school did. Have you done anything to change this?” Shirley — as she’s often referred to — explained that the university now realized that one can get into Princeton and still have learning problems, and has a program set up to help such students.

Afterwards, Pamela W., the president of the club, with whom I’d exchanged e-mails (it turned out she lived in my first Paris neighborhood, Sabine’s, in a compact sixth-floor apartment in a banal sienna brick elevator building above the Franprix super-market off the rue des Martyrs, which she shared with an older Siamese cat, Boris, who could have been Sonia’s twin, and an elderly poodle, Natasha), invited me to join a group of club officers being taken out for dinner at a chi-chi restaurant in the 1st arrondissement by the Princeton Alumni Association. Pam was seven years older than me but, despite my general later life predilection for younger women (having dated older women in my twenties – we’ll spare you those stories…for now), and that I generally wasn’t turned on by women who wore their hair short (or, as Fitzgerald might put it, ‘bobbed,’ like Bernice’s; Pam’s was a neat auburn) I was drawn by her lithe arms, bare and tawny that night in a sleeveless dark brown top. She’d been among the first group of women to enter Princeton (another story I’d written about for the Times), and had lived in Paris for 17 years. Pam had a gleam in her eye and a slight up-turn to her thin lips that said you and she were the only ones in the room in on a joke, or rather who saw the situation as amusing. (What was amusing here was that to get me invited to the dinner, she’d told the visiting alumni association official that I was the club’s vice president, a title which stuck.) So that even though Pam was the classiest woman I met in my first 10 years in France, it was not a class that excluded hapless Harrigans like me. During the evening I must have made at least one faux pas, besides the jacket-less way I was dressed. I remember only that the waiter sniffed when I automatically asked for a noisette, the poor man’s café creme, forgetting that I was not paying. “Oh, splurge a little and have a café creme!” said Pam. “Remember, it’s on Old Nassau.” 20 years after leaving in disgrace, I’d finally been admitted to the club.

Cross Country / A Memoir of France, 12: Choisir la femme

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

Torn between three French Women, and acting like a fool

“It’s for your cats. I don’t know if it’s the right brand, but at least it’s something.” Sylvie shrugged as she said it, only slightly wrinkling the skin-tight shimmering magenta silk Oriental dress in which she appeared for my holiday party, my first at 49, rue de Paradis.

After I’d given her my sunflower in November, I’d left a message with my e-mail address for Sylvie at the Theatre de la Bastille, where she worked as an usher. She’d responded, in an e-mail subject-lined “Histoire des tournesols (sunflowers),” with a long letter telling me how strange I was — and suggesting we could meet for a drink if I liked at the Cafe de l’Industrie on the rue Sedaine, also near the Bastille. I’d liked the joint — a cavernous corner cafe with a set of short stairs leading down to a second, subtly-lit level, a refuge filled with vintage pastis signs that made you feel you were in a roomy ship’s hold in the Bay of Marseille — but a month later, by the time of my party, I still couldn’t tell if Sylvie liked me, or was just amused…. So here she was, her deep brown eyes under her bunned dark brown hair gazing directly into mine, the corners of her lips slightly turned up in a smile, her freckled cheeks flush from the brisk December evening. After handing me the pack of cat food, she lowered her eyes as she dipped into her compact Chinese silk purse. “And this, it’s for you. It’s not much but I thought, for your new apartment, it would be good to help with the… atmosphere.” She gave the last word a dramatic flourish emphasized by a conspiratorial raising of her eyebrows. I unwrapped the tiny package and discovered a box of rose-scented incense cones from India and a hand-crafted incense-holder decorated with tiny mirrors. “I’ll burn one right away,” I said, ducking into the salle de bain, where the workers had plopped a brand new shining bathtub, even if the water wasn’t yet connected and I was still taking my showers in the kitchen sink. I plopped the cone on the rim of the tub and lit it. “That’s a stunning dress!” I said over my shoulder. “Oh, thank you, a friend just gave it to me for Christmas, it’s the first time I’m wearing it,” Sylvie said, entering the bathroom and looking down at the still dirt floor.

“Oh-lah-lah, c’est le bordel ici!” she exclaimed, using the French word for ‘brothel,’ which when used in the context of your home means “mess.” As were my emotions; as soon as I’d opened the door to Sylvie and felt my heart jumping, I regretted that two days earlier I’d slept with Benedicte.   Why had I settled?

Moving into – and becoming — the center of the main room, Sylvie looked up at my white mylar ceiling. “It’s very funny,” she said, munching on the latkes or potato pancakes I’d just served her. “It’s like having a mirror above you. It doesn’t give you bizarre dreams?” I had been contemplating whether to confide that she was the girl of mine when the doorbell rang and Sabine appeared, coming straight from her work of giving clown parties for children, perspiring mildly in grey corduroy jeans and a tight brown top that followed the mold of her curved belly, which protruded slightly from under it. Normally I’d be joyous to see her, but I was so dazzled by Sylvie that I was frazzled to have to take my attention away from her to make Sabine a batch of potato pancakes. Sabine seemed to sense this, purposely retaining me as she devoured the latkes. “These crepes de pomme de terre, they’re terrible Paul,” she said, using the adjective that in French means the opposite of what it sounds like. “What’s in them?” “Oh, potatoes, onions, eggs, flour….” “Paul, Sylvie’s very beautiful, non? How did you meet her?” “Oh, she works at the Theatre de la Bastille. She’s a dancer.” “Ah,” Sabine said, once again seeing right through me, “I see. A dancer. How old is she?” “Oh, I don’t know.” (Sylvie was 29, Sabine 32. I was 40.) As I watched this solid, substantial, and reliable woman appreciating the meal I’d made, and making an effort to engage me despite that she had to be exhausted after four hours entertaining sugar-active children while covered in a hot clown suit and painted with a permanent unbreakable smile, and got an intimation of the life she might offer me if she’d have me — to quote William Hurt’s character in the movie version of Anne Tyler’s “The Accidental Tourist,” “It’s not how much you love someone, but who you are when you’re with them that matters” — and, in spite of my nobler instincts, itched to get back to the more glamorous and dolled-up Sylvie, I felt guiltily conscious of my own superficiality, aware that my potential ame-soeur (soul-mate) was slipping away from me because I was too dumb to make a romantic overture to her when I had the chance. It was as if I expected ‘my’ Sabine, ‘my’ (potential) ame-soeur to show up looking like Truffaut/Antoine’s Sabine in “Love on the Run” and didn’t know how to accomodate reality. And yet: Sylvie might turn out to be the butterfly of a night; Sabine could be the help-mate of a lifetime.

Cross Country / A Memoir of France, 11: The Other Side of Paradis

Paradis sonia hopeyThe apartment at 49, rue de Paradis, several years after we moved in on November 28, 2001. At the time of this chapter, it was empty. Except for the cats: That’s Sonia the Alaskan on the bed, Hopey the San Franciscan on the chair at right, and Mesha the other Alaskan is no  doubt looking out  at the balcony from the cat window. (See below.) Note mylar ceiling. Photograph copyright and courtesy Christine Chen.

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

Paris eternelle, petites mortes fugitifs                                                  

For Noemie Gonzalez, a California girl who came to France to look for eternal Paris, only to find a bullet waiting for her on a café terrace near the Canal St.-Martin.

Princeton, 1982: The Flatbush-born Romantic Literature professor with the ersatz French accent was explaining to an auditorium full of students many of whom were drawn to Princeton by Scott Fitzgerald ‘17’s “This Side of Paradise” that the protagonist of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “La Nausée” “sees himself as if he’s in a film. And of course, no normal person would think this way.”

Besides following the path of Antoine Doinel and searching for the femme de ma vie as had Truffaut’s hero, another goal I had when I moved to Paris in July 2001 was to insert myself into paintings I’d heretofore only observed on museum walls. (Neither scenario envisioning Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon.”) In this light, the view from my new balcony at 49, rue de Paradis, where I and the cats installed ourselves on November 28, was as promising as the girl who awaited me in the non-functional salle de bain as I took my shower in a kitchen sink squeezed under vermillion cubbards one evening just before Christmas: Across the street, at 58, was the former studio of Camille Corot, where the father of pleine air painting had given Pissarro (and, later, Berthe Morisot) his first Paris lessons in color values.

“It has a small balcony,” the proprietor, Helene Valoire, had told me when I’d called to see the place in late October. But the only thing that was small about this balcony, which stretched the length of the three French windows in the salon / bedroom / dining room, was its narrow depth, I discovered when I arrived and looked up at the 5th floor. The two mahogony doors of the building’s entrance, high enough to accommodate horses (as they once did), were flanked by brass serpents turning green. At the top of the spiral staircase but one (a sixth floor housed former servant quarters converted into studio apartments, usually occupied by twenty-something students and workers; you had to be young not to expire from the climb; at 40 the day I moved in, I was the oldest person living on the 5th floor or above), a rickety door opened to the apartment’s narrow entrance whose floor, on the day I first tread on it, was dirt, as was that of the salle de bain behind the second door on the right (the first opened to the toilet), directly facing the small kitchen, also with its own (albeit hollow) doorway. (The Napoleonic Civil Code requires there be two doors between the bathroom and the kitchen. I’ve seen apartments where the two doors are right on top of each other with nothing in between, just to accommodate the code.) An opening of about 3 x 4 feet looked out onto the main room from the kitchen; its ledge would become the cats’ dining room.

Paradis balconyThe balcony (cat window in foreground), with the view towards the rues Poissonniere, Bleue, and Papillon. Turning right at the corner lead eventually to Montmartre. Turning left to the Grands Boulevards. (For more itineraries, see below.) The first complete building across the street is where Corot taught color values to Pissarro and Morisot. Photograph copyright and courtesy Christine Chen.

If I was getting to see the place before it went on the market, it was because Mme Valoire had been planning to sell the apartment, but after learning the building itself had major foundation problems, had decided to put that off.

“Why does the floor slant?” I asked her; the rake made the living/bedroom look like the villains’ lairs from the ‘60s “Batman” television series. “Don’t worry,” she said, laughing. “It’s normal. All the buildings in the quartiere are like this.” Then, pointing up at the white mylar sheet covering the entire ceiling and at my own reflection, I asked, “What’s that for?” “It’s because you don’t want to see what’s above it.”

The French prize proprieté (my three-year lease included a requirement that tenants lead a ‘bourgeoisie lifestyle,’ which the landlord explained just meant no drying laundry on the balcony), so Mme Valoire would have preferred that I wait another month until the apartment was really ready. When I pleaded that I didn’t have any place else to go, she let me move in early but said she would not charge me for the first month. For that period, I’d have to take my showers in the kitchen sink as the tub wasn’t yet installed in the bathroom, which she was having re-done with ivory-colored Italian tiles. (My downstairs neighbors at 49 would later marvel that my bathroom was as big as their kitchen and my kitchen as small as their bathroom.) At that point — December 2001, when the imminent Euro was worth 11 cents less than the dollar — the apartment was half the cost (in U.S. $) and twice the size (42 meters squared not counting the balcony) of the Greenwich Village apartment next to Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady that I and the cats had just left after six years — about $570/month. The French windows were also being replaced by a ‘double-vitrage’ variety and the balcony re-soldered. (I’d later put chicken wire over one of the windows so that I could air the apartment without the cats getting out. It also proved convenient for drying my laundry en caché.) Consequently, when I moved in with the cats, my new home was already occupied, by a half-dozen workers, presided over by a jovial giant of a plumber. They’d arrive every day and change into their work coveralls in my living room. I loved the bonhomie of having the workers there. Sometimes I’d even wave to them on my balcony as I returned home, and they’d wave back. Every morning I’d offer them coffee when they arrived, which they thought was peculiar but which they accepted with pleasure.

Paradis balcony and lafayetteLeft: the rue Lafayette, which leads to the Opera House. Right: The view from the balcony down the rue de Paradis, which leads eventually to Fidelite, the rue St.-Denis, the Gares de l’Est et Nord, and the Canal St.-Martin. Photograph copyright and courtesy Christine Chen.

The first day that I had to leave the apartment with the workers still there, I taped a note on the middle window (this was before I’d put the chicken wire up) asking them to please keep the windows shut so the cats couldn’t escape, signing it, “Le locuteur,” when I should have written “le locataire,” or “the tenant.” Marc, my new friend who’d sublet me the place on the Square Albin Cachot with the catastrophic plumbing, cracked up when he saw this. “You wrote, ‘He who speaks.'”

The ongoing apartment construction was a good excuse for He Who Speaks to get out of the house and explore his new neighborhood, ideally situated for He Who Searches to Insert Himself Into La Paris d’’Autrefois.

Crossing the street from the 10th arrondissement into the 9th at the catty corner of Paradis, Papillion, Poissonniere, and the rue Bleue and heading down to the rue Bergere took me to the Folies Bergere, where in the 1920s Josephine Baker had introduced jazz to Paris. The street was also, reverse-serendipitously as far as this California Jew who felt more at home amongst Rainbow Tribes was concerned – my mother had once dallied with something called the Acquarian Minyon — home to an over-priced kosher restaurant, super-market, bookstore, Jewish supplies boutique, and discrete Orthodox temple. Heading up Papillion from Paradis and turning left at Lafayette (“I am here!”) — after passing the Square Monthion, where a metal “France has lost a battle, but not the war!” note from General De Gaulle dated June 18, 1940 guarded an alabaster statue of three buxom Belle Epoch women honoring workers – conducted me to the Opera House, where Emma Livry, protegée of Marie Taglioni (the first to dance on point), went up in flames not long after making a debut in Taglioni’s ballet “La Papillion.” (Covering Livry’s funeral procession in 1863 for Le Moniteur, Theophile Gauthier, Il St. Louis hashish den-mate of Baudelaire, lamented: “She resembled so much the butterfly; like him, her wings were burned in the flame, and, as if they wanted to escort the convoy of a sister, two white butterflies flew without rest above the white coffin during the trajectory from the church to the cemetery. This detail that the Greeks would see as a poetic symbol was remarked upon by thousands of people, because an immense crowd accompanied her funeral cart. On the simple tomb of the young dancer, what epitaph to write, if not that found by a poet of the Anthology for an Emma Livry of the Antiquite: ‘Oh earth, be light on me; I weighed so little on you!'”)

paradis book tableBackground: The ‘cat perch’ leading to the kitchen. Foreground: A door converted into a book table, where the stars include several of the important women in the author’s life, such as Leonor Fini, Kate Bush, Josephine Baker, Brigitte Bardot, Madeline, and others. Photograph copyright and courtesy Christine Chen.

If in lieu of continuing straight down Lafayette towards the Opera House I took a sharp right at the square and then a diagonal left, after passing a 19th century Portuguese synagogue (next to the Algerians, the Portuguese make up the single largest immigrant community in France), I’d eventually end up back at 33, rue Lamartine, one-time demeure of Baudelaire, PBI, and, still in that Fall-Winter of 2001, Sabine. Turning right at the end of Sabine’s block and hiking up Martyrs brought me to Montmartre. Various detours to the left off Martyrs as Sacre Coeur emerged from “La Butte” (as the top of Montmartre is called) and then veering up to Clichy took me past the homes and/or ateliers of Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Degas; the former locations of the shop where Cezanne traded canvases for pigment powder to mix brand new colors and of the Chat Noir, where Alphonse Alias once held forth with his insolent poetry and Erik Satie contributed the occasoional ditty; and, on a gated alley just before Pigalle (or, as the U.S. soldiers looking to buy ‘petites mortes’ from elderly prostitutes after the Liberation referred to it, “Pig Alley”), the long-time home of Jean Renoir. As for stepping into the paintings, I was disappointed to find that not only was the Square Adolphe Max / Vintemille, right below the Moulin Rouge, more petite than the one depicted by Vuillard from the atelier/apartment overlooking the square he shared with his mother, but the grass presided over by a bust of Berlioz was made of astro-turf.

If instead of mounting Martyrs at Lamartine I crossed it and continued along the rue St. Lazaire – after a nod at Notre Dame de Lorette, where Van Gogh once paused before heading down to the Grands Boulevards to pitch  his paintings to Goupil — I eventually came to the train station immortalized by Zola in “La Bete Humaine” and Monet in gauzy depictions of the locomotive ‘beasts’ clouding up the station with steam. (Along St.-Lazaire, I could also take a side-track to the former home and studio, now museum, of Gustave Moreau, its walls plastered with Ledas and her Swans, Salomés and Jean le Baptistes, and lolling naked sylphs caressing unicorns.) In memory of Zola’s doomed adulterous lovers (from the same book) nibbling on a Sunday chicken in their roost near the station while they plotted the demise of the woman’s husband, I’d sometimes buy a delectable chicken roasted with garlic at a rotisserie on St. Lazare, gobbling it up on a bench outside the one-time mauseleum of Louis & Marie Antoinette in an intimate park named after the royal couple interred there by the Revolutionaries before the Restorationists moved them to Versailles, arrosing the chicken with red wine under the suspicious eyes of a guardian.

If I headed right on Paradis, I soon arrived at the rue de Faubourg St. Denis and Little India-Pakistan. If instead of turning right at St. Denis as Paradis turned into Fidelité (heading the other direction, one might conclude the inverse) I continued straight to Magenta and on past the Gare de l’Est, I’d end up at the Canal St.-Martin. It was catching a projection of Marcel Carné’s “Hotel du Nord” at a park on the canal across from the current Hotel du Nord in the summer of 2001 that decided me to settle in the 10th, and my little corner of Paradis seemed to be the perfect cockpit for discovering the Paris a lifetime of being weaned on Pissarro, Tintin, Babar, “The Red Balloon,” Madeline, Frere Jacques, Brel, Montand, and Piaf had primed me for. And if my brood didn’t quite tally the dozen kittens who accompanied Michel Simon, his co-pilot, and the co-pilot’s bride when they docked at the canal at the end of a honeymoon traverse of the waters of France in Jean Vigo’s 1934 “L’Atalante,” I at least had three feline co-pilots and felt I was ready to search for the bride.

So there she was, that evening just before Christmas 2001, waiting behind the closed door of the unfinished, dirt-floored bathroom. ‘She’ was Benedicte, a 33-year-old banker (our burgeoning couple thus neatly inverting the Jamesian pair that opens “The American” with the French lass copying a painting at the Louvre and the Yank man asking “How much?”). “I’m not quite ready. I still have to take my shower, and I need to do it here in the kitchen as the salle de bain isn’t finished yet,” I’d announced. I was taking Benedicte to dinner at the La Verre Volé (“The Stolen Glass”), a cozy if snobby ‘cave au vins’ cum bistro on the rue Lancry, which wound from Magenta to the canal – and, with its ‘bio’ wines, an early outpost for the BoBos, or Bourgeoisie Bohemians, who would colonize the canal district over the next 15 years, but which in 2001 still shared the street with barber shops guarded by cigarette-toking Serge Gainsbourg dolls. Ever the banker, Benedicte had arrived punctually, covered in a non-descript jacket and with her dirty blonde hair in a neat bun above her thick librarian’s glasses and big round eyes. “It’s okay, I can wait here in the salle de bain until you’re proper,” she answered. Then, after disappearing into the large bathroom: “It’s kind of the bordel here, non?,” ‘bordel’ translating as ‘brothel’ and meaning ‘chaos.’

When we returned to Paradis from dinner, emboldened by a bottle of bio Beaujolais and romantically juiced by a walk along the fog-shrouded canal, I decided to reverse-engineer Arletty’s imprecation (in “Hotel du Nord”) and create as much “atmosphere” as possible when you’re sitting on a bare thin futon on a weathered grey-blue carpet and still coughing from the dirt in the entry-way by starting up Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “Imagination” on my laptop, posed on the only piece of furniture in the room, a sky-blue formica table I’d found along with matching square stools outside my apartment building in the Cité Falguieres next to the Pasteur Institute, one-time worker housing since converted to bourgeoisie digs.  (The rectangular glass-roofed artist atelier at the entrance of the Cité – located in the 15th arrondissement on the peripherie of Montparnasse — had once been inhabited by Chaim Soutine, who spent his sun-infused days dabbing colors on canvasses and his unlit nights dodging fleas parachuting from the ceiling before a Philadelphia art collector named Dr. Barnes rescued him from obscurity.)

So I imagined myself with you.                                                                                                                See what imagination can do.

It didn’t take much imagination to decipher the bedroom eyes Benedicte threw at me from behind her goggle-eyed glasses, but she added a hint for the hopelessly dense by briskly undoing her dirty-blonde hair from its Peggy Proper (as Jean-Pierre Leaud’s Antoine described Claude Jade in Truffaut’s “Stolen Kisses”) pony-tail and pulling me down on the futon for my first trip to Paradise on the rue de (Paradis). We grappled hungrily, two mismatched souls whose only real point in common was their desperation for love, escalated quickly to third base and stopped just short of home plate, but I was sated and she seemed content, snuggling her back against me as we fell asleep. In the morning I brought cappuccino poured into my two large brown and white Italian ceramic cappuccino mugs from San Francisco’s Cafe Trieste to the bed, my hands shaking, and promptly spilled it. “Oh la la! You are so nervous! Why do you shake like that?” Benedicte said, rising in just her tee-shirt and panties. “Do you have some white vinegar? That will erase the stain.” But the coffee stains would remain on the drab blue-gray carpet on Paradis for the next six years, long after our aborted relationship had turned to vinegar. As far as “Love on the Run” (to refer to the title of the final Antoine film) goes, I was a marked man.

Cross Country / A Memoir of France 10: … in which the merde hits the washing machine, the chamallows clobber the sweet potatoes, Benedicte turns eggs a la diable into an aubaine, and the cats and I head for Paradis

 

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.

CROSS-COUNTRY / A MEMOIR OF FRANCE, 6: Les compagnons de la route & more ghosts in the machine

catssm

Les compagnons de la route: Sonia, Mesha, and Hopey, in our Greenwich Village digs next door to Electric Lady, where Jimi Hendrix and Carly Simon recorded. In the background, quelques muses: Sarah Bernhardt, Anne Frank, Mesha’s namesake, a dancer, and a photo by Roman Vishniac of Jewish children in Eastern European slums before the War.

By Paul Ben-Itzak                                                                                                                             Copyright 2011, 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky

Je suis debout. Je suis vivante…. Ce n’etait que ma peur…cette idée dans ma tete qui m’empeche [de vivre], c’etait rien de tout. Des ombres. Des phantomes. Et des phantomes n’existe pas. Je suis vivante.”

“…. Je suis venu te proposé de tout refaire.”

Lola Lafon

Pour V.

At the risk of hovering too long in the land of the dead — Paris being, to paraphrase Malcolm McLaren, a city of ghosts and shadows — I think it’s time to introduce my feline co-stars, the ones who made it possible for me to make all these traverses, from Alaska to San Francisco, San Francisco to New York, New York to Paris, Paris to Les Eyzies, the capital of pre-history for the first cro-magnon discoveries (more ghosts), Les Eyzies to Montpellier and Perigueux, and to Paris and back again twice: Sonia, Mesha, and Hopey, my compagnons de route for two decades of adventures and escapades.

I like to say that Sonia and Mesha were part wolf. This is because whenever I visited a home in Anchorage, where I adopted them in 1990, my host was likely to introduce the resident canine, usually a sorry-looking mongrel, as “part wolf,” as if he’d been rescued from the tundra. In fact I rescued Sonia and Mesha from the Anchorage SPCA. Sonia, a talkative chocolate-point Siamese who won my heart by batting her eyes at me from her cage, immediately and improbably hid behind the stove when we got home, and Mesha, a black-and-white European with requisite goatee, immediately pitched in to help me find her. Mesha liked to go out in the snow in front of our plain-pied, leaving tiny foot-prints in the fluffy white terrain while Sonia stood on the threshold of our apartment concernedly watching him until he stopped, petrified, and I retrieved him. As the sunlight dwindled and the cold increased — the local public radio station announcing the diminishing light each day (“Today is Monday, November 2. There are 5 hours, 37 minutes of daylight”) —  the job, writing features for the Anchorage Daily News, turned out to be not what I expected, with no assignments to fly out to the Bush in view. This is not to say I didn’t learn anything.

Already, as a San Francisco-based correspondent for Reuters in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, I’d written some of the first stories on the AIDS pandemic to break internationally and nationally, interviewing women with AIDS, prisoners with AIDS, AIDS researchers including Don Francis – one of the first to identify the disease — and, most hearbreakingly, Brendan O’Rourke, one of the first children to be diagonosed and treated in the pilot AZT program for children, never to reach his seventh birthday. I remember flinching when Brendan jumped onto my lap, noticing a cut in his finger. I also remember doing a story on the AIDS Quilt and discovering, by reading his name on one of its patches — “Christian Perry: 1962 – 1982” – that a mate from high school had died of the big disease with a little name, the first I’d known personally to succumb. So in Anchorage, I decided I was going to be the first to break the story of AIDS in the Bush country. We put an announcement in the paper seeking AIDS victims to interview from the Native Alaskan villages, promising anonymity. I immediately got a call from Lorraine Porter, a worker with the Alaskan health service, begging me not to run the story. Explaining that anonymity was no shield in a village of 150 residents, Porter asked me a question that was to become a guardrail for me as a journalist: “What is your intention?”  My editor argued that having won a Pulitzer prize for a series on alcoholism and suicide among the Natives, the Daily News was certainly sensitive to covering this community. The Natives, however, had a different idea: The series had stigmatized them. I also recalled doing a story for the West Wing, the newspaper of Mission High School in San Francisco, on immigrants, in which I shared a Phillipina classmate’s description of her brother coming home with a gun. “I wanted to destroy all the copies of the newspaper!” my distressed friend confronted me with when the story was published.

Having encountered narry a moose (although I did discover moose-nugget jewelry, made from dried moose-poop; and, as a colleague quipped, “and the moose never met you”) I scooped up my feline huskies and took them back to San Francisco, where they enjoyed 4 1/2 years as outdoor cats and we picked up a new family member, Hopey, a brainy tortoise-shell calico with an amplified purr I’d found at an SPCA adopt-a-cat stand on Powell and Market as a gift for a girlfriend who’d been unable to keep her.

With free-ranging privileges from our home base in one half of the house I’d grown up in in the Mission District — my retired architect father had turned the other half into an artist’s atelier where he created fountains and animated figures out of wood (that’s his atelier up top the Home page) — Sonia chalked up the first two of the 14 lives she would lead, surviving a leg wound sustained while scaling fences to return from her daily visit with the Burmese four backyards away, and miraculously not running out into busy 22nd Street traffic from the front of the garage where I found her nonchalantly observing the scene on returning from work one afternoon. Mesha also survived two close brushes with death involving his internal plumbing. Sonia, much to her own surprise, once caught a tall yellow cockateel, that continued squawking as she looked at me as if to ask, “Now what do I do with it?!”; at the exact same moment, Hopey tailed a rat until the rat turned around and started chasing her. (“How about if I put poison out for it?” I’d asked the person who answered the phone at animal control. “Why would you do that?” came the typicallly San Franciscan response. “That’s cruel.” Years later, when we lived in the country in Les Eyzies, rifle blasts coming my retired farmer neighbor Mr. Marty’s meant he had gunned down the rats invading his grange.)

Our NY adventure began in 1995, when we all descended on an apartment with bathroom down the hall on E. 88th Street and Lexington for a sublet with one very freaked out resident cat, a large tabby named Norton, who quickly found himself outnumbered by my three, who took turns hounding him. Most of the next six years were spent in a tiny tenement apartment on W. 8th Street in Greenwich Village, where famous cat neighbors included “Jimi,” the resident feline of Electric Lady Studios, right next door to us and the fabled mecca where not just Jimi Hendrix had held forth but, more significant for me, where Carly Simon had recorded “Anticipation,” which is what I hope I’ve left you with for the next chapter, when I return you to Paris after our move there in 2001 and, eventually, our demeure of six years on the rue de Paradis. ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky.