Open Door Policy: Taking it to the streets in Belleville, Menilmon’, & along the banks of the Seine and the Ourcq

Belleville CatherineReturn to Innocence: If you want to look for where art is being made in Paris today, don’t look in the hills of Montmartre but the heights of Belleville. And if you want to peek inside the artists’ studios and chat with the creators, check the Portes Ouvertes of the Artists of Belleville, coming up next month May 19 – 22 and featuring the work of, among others, Catherine Olivier (above). Art courtesy and copyright Catherine Olivier.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2010, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Want coverage of this May’s Portes Ouvertes de Belleville and a myriad of dance, theater, and visual artists from around the world coming to Paris this Spring & Summer? The Dance Insider & Arts Voyager need your support to make it happen. To subscribe for just $29.95(or Euros) per year and access our Archive of 2000 reviews by 150 writers of performances and exhibitions on five continents over the past 20 years, or make a donation, just designate your PayPal payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn about payment by check. Already a subscriber or sponsor? Thank you and… please spread the news. This reverie on the Open Studios of Belleville, a variety of dance performances real and pretended, and a tapestry of street art of all colors and characters was first published on May 31, 2010 and is updated today.)

PARIS — If the past couple of weeks have taught me anything, it’s that, as has often been the case here and in any major metropolis, art is being advanced not by the established venues and gatekeepers, but in the ateliers, the squats, the docks, the banks of the Seine, even the eccentric personalities of individual Parisians who, often against great odds, infuse the city with its colors and invest it with their dynamism, trying to satiate its denizens’ thirst for the relief and elevation art can provide with, if not a joie de vivre — it’s too much of a struggle to find the means these days to expect that — at least a joie to engage, be it with the elusive muse or the resilient thread that connects a contemporary artistic scene in flux with the phantoms of the past, themselves often barred by the gatekeepers of their time. So if I was disappointed by a lackluster season-announcing press conference by the Theatre de la Ville in which its director, Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, was averse to taking questions from the press (and no wonder: the 2010-11 dance season offers little surprises), I was inspired and invigorated by a photo on the wall of a Lilliputian atelier on the outskirts of Belleville capturing a darkened forest fleeting by outside a train window and the enchanting smile of its simply dressed proud author, Agata Rybarczyk — “It was taken in Poland! I’m Polish!” — who also invited visitors to create their own art out of small cubes.

My descent — or ascent — began last Wednesday with Christian Rizzo’s “L’Oubli, toucher du bois” (The Forgotten, knock wood), theoretically a dance piece, and in which I didn’t see enough either to forget or remark, having been chased out before the artist-spectator contract could be consummated by the bright flood lights the brilliant lighting designer, Caty Olive, assaulted the audience with, directing them straight at the public. I’m not paid to suffer (and when it comes to bright lights, migraines don’t grant artistic license), so I fled, making my way along the Quay towards the Ile St. Louis, arrested en route by a bouquiniste pal, Fabrice, who right away thrust a plastic cup of Kentucky bourbon into my mitts. “It’s not actually mine to give, it belongs to Daniel, who’s descended to the river to retrieve one of my vintage newspapers which flew away,” explained the chronically frenetic Fabrice, even more jittery than usual that night under the Chinese lantern hat shielding him from the Sun. “So that’s why I’m not giving you that much.” When Daniel returned, baked red from the Sun and, I surmised — from a visage as weathered as Balzac’s “Peau de Chagrin” – living outdoors, and looked from Fabrice to the bottle to me, it dawned on me that he had probably already drunk directly from the container. When Fabrice asked me to remind him what I did for a living, I made the mistake of telling him I worked on the Internet. “That’s a CIA – Defense department plot, you know. So you must work for the CIA. In fact that’s why you have bad teeth: It’s a cover.” I have known Fabrice for a while and am accustomed to his delires, so I decided to go with the scenario. “Yes, in fact, if you don’t mind, I need to just check the bug I put in your flower-pot to make sure it’s working.” Then his cell phone vibrated. “A Chinese guy gave it to me!” he said of the phone. “I know,” I said. “We actually gave it to the Chinese guy to give to you so we’d know where you were at all times.” At this point he laughed. “Pass by my stand again when you like!” he said before dashing across the street to the Metro, leaving Daniel to guard the newspapers and the bottle.

I still had some time before the after-performance buffet at the theater (hazard pay for the blaring lights, even if they’d ejaculated me prematurely), so I headed towards the Pont Neuf, where I discovered another government-subsidized lighting monstrosity. (To indigenous culturati readers who may be tempted to interject at this point, “If you loathe what we fund so much, why do you stay?” I respond: By objecting to your new-fangled projects, I’m postulating for admission to a longstanding pantheon of cultural curmudgeons. Never mind that they also despised one of my own chou-chous, the Eiffel Tower.) On an official commission from the ministry of culture and communication, a contemporary artist has framed the statue of Henry IV on a horse with purple neon tubing, even adding a neon sword to his sword-sheathe, thus diminishing the statue and blighting the bridge and the views of it from either side. Sometimes I think that the current cultural gate-keepers of Paris and France don’t appreciate, or at least under-value, their own heritage. This impression was recently bolstered by the theft of five paintings — by Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, Leger, and Braque — from the Modern Art Museum of Paris earlier this month, the thief entering through a window the alarm on which had been out of commission for two months. Security officers had signaled the malfunction to the higher-ups but nothing had been done about it. So the thief was apparently able to take his time before neatly severing the tableaux from their frames.

All this as a prelude to explain why on Friday, on a quest for art created by a less official tribe, I took visitors from San Francisco around Belleville for the annual four-day Open Studios of Belleville, as much an opportunity to see art as encounter its creators and discover the milieus in which they live and work. We started with the plateau on top of the parc Belleville and its panoramic view, which includes my favorite perspective on the Eiffel. Then up to and down the winding rue Cascades, so dubbed because (way) back in the day water from cisterns (two examples of which have been preserved) controlled by the local abbey flowed down it to the faubourgs around the Place de la Republique. We all loved the atelier of Estelle Babut-Gay — me for the terrace with its view of trees and Paris rooftops, David for the sculptures crafted from Atlantic coast driftwood, Jennifer for the rings made from buttons. (She finally decided on two.) I was enchanted (literally) by the gauzy, ephemeral pyro-gravures of Catherine Olivier, crammed into her atelier above a corner café. But most of the allure came from the street itself: the patch of late-afternoon sunlight illuminating the catty-corner below Olivier’s studio and the cafe tables around it, the spectacular view of a panoply of rooftops of varying heights and the skyline below, the serpentine street, conjuring a Belleville which has haunted me since repeated childhood viewings of “The Red Balloon.”  (As Jerry tells Peter in Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story,” sometimes you have to take the long way around to come back home.)

The rue Cascades spit us out (to cop a phrase from Léo Malet) onto the rue Menilmontant, immortalized by Charles Trenet. I wanted to check the status of la Miroiterie, the artists’ squat that takes up an entire alley at 88 Menilmontant across the street from Cascades, mostly to see if it was still there, as so many artists’ squats have been shut down lately by officials of the Socialist city government. The atmosphere was subdued. A few artist-residents were cooking up spicy merguez sausages to sell for 3 Euros apiece and offering beer for 2, but none of the ateliers were open, except for a graffiti’d space where a DJ played very loud reggae. I picked up a flyer, “Le Pari (s) de la Creation,” which explained: “Following so many other popular and prolific artists’ squats, la Miroiterie has to quit the Paris scene, whereas the large institutions of contemporary art continue to turn emptily to grand indifference on the part of Parisians.” (In the nearby 19th arrondissement, the highly touted city-funded Centre 104 has done just that for the past two years.) “What do we want? To revindicate a place for artists in a Paris that continues to sigh in the soft pillow of consensus and the principles of precaution…. We request (simply) a form of tolerance, to exist in the interstices of the city, to occupy temporarily its niches, to live at the most intimate proximity in the neighborhoods, without being attacked and taken to court.” Other cities in France and elsewhere have conferred space to artists’ collectives, but, the manifesto asked, “What has Paris done? The capital of art and culture, has it become so timorous that it doesn’t want to loan orphaned spaces to artists in need of space?”

…. On Saturday, I actually had a review assignment, “The man without a past,” a mime spectacle showing at a recreation center in the 19th arrondissement, on the other side of the Ourcq canal from outer-outer Belleville. As this same arr. takes part in the Open Studios, I thought I would make my way from the rue Menilmontant over to Belleville, past the man-made parc Butte Chaumont with its precipitous waterfalls, over the Basin la Villette to the Metro Crimee and the Mathis animation center, discovering some more studios along the way. That was the plan, anyway.

From the studio promenade, besides Rybarczyk’s showing, which also included inviting visitors into a sort of curtained box, one at a time, to view a life-sized, disheveled naked woman getting out of an unmade bed, I was impressed most by  tableaux which mixed 1930s magazine clips and grey-blue paint, in collages by Sylviane Balustre-d’Erneville, as well as several of her photos, including of a market and a backyard in Egypt. Hers was also the most elegant of showings, with cool jazz and Gainsbourg and champagne on offer.

At the basin, near a grounded destroyer converted into a children’s play structure, I collided with a massive design expo, featuring space-age furniture from the ’50s through ’60s. From this retro outpost one could hear techno music pounding from across the basin. This eventually devolved to canned can-can music, accompanying a live performance by four women and one man who made up the Troupe of Mademoiselle Clairette. It only took me ten years, but I had finally stumbled upon can-can being performed live in Paris. The performance stage as well as the audience area was a floating platform moored in the basin, so that the performers were actually dancing — and performing splits and other calisthenics — on an unstable unprotected wooden floor while being battered by the wind blowing from all directions, with  no Marley in sight. I came away with a real sense of the ribaldry with which can-can must have been performed back in the day, as well as the athletic strength required of the dancers. And ouch!, those splits on that hard-wood floor!

I had some time before the mime show started, so I plopped down on a concrete bank of the basin near the rear of an old-school schooner and opened a can of stuffed grape leaves, which I downed with hot spiced tea from a vintage red-checkered thermos I’d scored at a vide grenier (like a neighborhood-wide garage sale; vide = empty and grenier = attic) for 1.50 Euros. This turned out to be not one of my most brilliant inspirations of the week-end, as the food no doubt contributed to the most sorry part of my day, when I fell asleep as soon as the show which was the one thing I actually had to do that day started. I drifted in and out during the one-hour performance, by the Theatre de l’Epopee’s Hadrien Trigance, which concerned a man who wakes up every morning with no memory of what he did the previous day or the last 30 years. At night, though, he dreams of a woman dressed in purple satin, evoked onstage by a purple satin sheet, before he wakes up wrapped in a white sheet. At one point his memory is jolted and he replays a dinner table scene from his childhood, his parents (heard off-stage in recorded voices) talking while he plays with his food. Trigance’s innocent air and alternately grave and playful aspect as he sat on a high-chair reminded me of Chaplin. I drifted off again, only to wake up in time to see him form a noose with the satin sheet; perhaps the woman of the past now haunting his dreams had hung herself, which is why he had blotted out all memory. The spectacle ends with the hero bedding down with the purple sheet, choosing retaining a tragic past over waking up with a blank sheet ever morning.

Afterwards, when Trigance’s manager asked me what I thought of the piece’s evolution since a 20-minute version I’d caught two years ago at the Mimos international mime festival in Perigueux, I hedged: “It’s…developed.” Later, when Trigance came out, I came up with something (I thought) better, “You remind me of Chaplin.” “Oh,” said the mime, hanging his head. “It’s a compliment, really!”

On Sunday, after a day of recovery resting my tired dogs, I arranged to meet David and Jennifer at Niki de Saint Phalle’s Stravinsky fountain next to the Pompidou museum. I had them take a picture of me next to the big-breasted mermaid which (who?) is just one of the fanciful objects spouting water from the fountain, right out of her plexi-glass nipples. Then my friends stopped to photograph a large chalk pavement drawing featuring the Eiffel, then the artist who’d created it, then his dog; the real-life model was yelping from protective covering in an open suit-case, no doubt complaining about the late May drizzle and wind. The artist had scrawled at the base of the work that he needed money to live. My friends dropped some coins into the hat. Then we scrambled through Les Halles to the rue Montorgueil, in search of a high-class pizza joint. “What church is that?” Jennifer asked as we came to Saint Eustache. “That’s the church where a children’s choir director named Gounod told a ragamuffin named Renoir that it was ‘dommage’ that he had chosen painting over music, because he had such an angelic voice.” Then up Montorgueil, regretting the Starbuck’s sign which now, like a portal, marks its entrance on the uptown side of this street made famous by Monet (“Rue Montorgueil on the 14th of July”), and the rue Reaumur, where Jennifer gave a lesson in the art of grabbing a taxi to a poor young French man trying to protect his head from the rain with a newspaper. As the man waved tentatively at the faraway driver, Jennifer simply marched up the block ahead of him. David, who had studied at the Sorbonne in the ‘60s, started talking about being in the now. “This moment, for instance,” he suggested, looking down what to me is one of the most non-descript, boring streets in Paris, degraded to downright depressing when the gray sky is dribbling drizzle. “I love this moment, this place, right here, right now.” Later, when we finally found the pizza place — in the interim there was a taxi driver who joked that he thought he spotted Che Guevara in his mirror (me, in my beret with the Captain Haddock button) – by way of furnishing another example of temporal bliss David pulled out the photo, on his cell phone, of the salade Nicoise he’d had at our first RDV for this visit, when I took him and Jennifer to an unremarkable neighborhood café on the place Edith Piaf. (‘Took’ being relative; they treated.) I’d retained from this lunch that there were none of the advertised anchovies in the salad and that the charming server who typically greets me with, “How’s he doing, the American?” had not mentioned he was out of them, didn’t think the absence of anchovies in a salade Nicoise was worth an avertissement, and charged us the same, quand meme. On Friday, before a hefty steak dinner at the Relais of the Entrecote on the place Saint-Germain-des-Près (most American writers in Paris would have slipped this reference in 20 paragraphs earlier, and I’m not even going to attempt to capture the ambiance in the nearby lobby of that expatriate Valhalla the Hotel Montana or correctly spell Germanopretan), David and Jennifer had taken me to Bob Cool, where it was Western theme night, Johnny Cash was in the house, and I had to resist the temptation to explain that you don’t leave the ice cubes in the Cosmos. Johnny, Edith, David — they find the serendipitous and the art in the tragic, the hard times, the mundane. Me, I wonder whether I can manage to pull it off, even in the City of Light which has compelled my artist’s soul like a moth since I first opened the pages of Ludwig Bemelmans’s “Madeline” and saw “Pascal” lifted over the streets of Belleville by a barque of balloons — to lift the clouds of blackness that obscure my view so much these days, to live up to a credo scrawled in my high-school year-book by an Italian friend, Sonia, who I lost in a dispute then found 20 years later: “Never stop looking for beauty, never.” Until then, I’m off to the Piaf. Hold the anchovies in that noisette, Isham.

(Some updates, 4-20-2017: La Miroiterie was eventually closed down by city authorities, who claimed that a wall bordering the alley threatened to tumble. A law that would have galleries pay artists for the privilege of exhibiting them has been proposed. Benoit Hamon, the Socialist candidate for president in the election whose first round is April 23, has proposed a regime for visual artists which would resemble the unemployment convention for which freelance performance artists and technicians are currently eligible. Except for Hamon and that when it’s preceded by ‘multi-’ it’s become a Right-wing epithet, culture has been conspicuous by its absence in the presidential campaign, a lapse in attention I’d ascribe more to the Media than the candidates. All the more reason for the artists of Belleville to once again take it to the streets, May 19 – 22. )

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Cross-Country, a Memoir of France, 20: The Man with the Child in his Eyes

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”                    – F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby”

“He’s here again: The man with the child in his eyes.”                                                                       – Kate Bush

 By & Copyright 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

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In an old  house in Paris, les paradises reel

“She loves books,” I insisted, struggling to get Pierre’s attention. “She’s serious. She’s got eyes to die for. She appreciates that I’m a writer.”

Briskly shelving cellophane-sealed histories of art and philosophy, squeezing dust-covered profiles of anarchist agitators and existential theorists in between musty biographies of Belle Epoch clowns and Front Populaire officials, carrying whole rows of obscure scientific revues from the balustrade overlooking the Seine lapping at the banks of the Ile St. Louis across the way — where Gauthier and Baudelaire once threw lavish hashish parties and Camille Claudel plummeted into “the years of darkness” — to his three bruised dark green metal stalls, occasionally brushing his long stringy pony-tailed graying brown hair away from his John Lennon glasses or flicking the soot off the sleeves of his Tang-colored jumpsuit, not even taking time to glance at the fathomless river rippling under the reflections of the crepuscular Sun, Pierre didn’t seem to be listening to my rapturous account of my first dinner date with Emilie, who I’d met at his 40th birthday fete near the Place Edith Piaf.

In Henry James’s “The Ambassadors,” Lambert Strether takes a break from trying to rescue a friend’s errant son from the jaws of a man-eating Parisienne to troll for literary treasures in the bookstands lining both banks of the Seine, finally scoring a complete volume of the works of Victor Hugo, poet-champion of les miserables and exiled political opponent of Napoleon III whose anguished militating against the death penalty from an island in the English Channel stretched even across the Atlantic to plead mercy for the abolitionist John Brown. If it’s true that, as pointed out by Robert Badinter – who as Mitterand’s attorney general would fulfill Hugo’s dream of decapitating the guillotine a century after his death – France is not so much the country of the Rights of Man as the country which declared the Rights of Man, it was Hugo picking up the mantle of Voltaire before passing it on to Zola who would try to ford the abyss between the declarations and the deeds. The gap between the piss-poor metier of bouquiniste – Pierre’s — and that of published author, by contrast, had frequently been bridged. Michel Ragon, the most cultivated man alive in France today (as of this writing, in late 2016), got his start as a bouquiniste before becoming the country’s premiere critic of art and architecture in the second half of the 20th century, as a side oeuvre keeping a log of proletarian movements that culminated in “La Memoir des Vaincus” (the memoir of the vanquished) the loosely fictional biography of a sort of Zelig among the anarchists or, more specifically, anarcho-syndicalists (anarchist labor organizers). (There’s a strain of anarchism in even the most encadred of French souls; as I write this, French policemen and women – the very embodiment of State order —  are defying both their government and their unions by marching for more modern means and the right to shoot in self-defense.)  Léo Malet – who was baptized by the anarchists and accompanied the surrealists before inventing Nestor Burma, the down-at-the-mouth French answer to Philip Marlowe, a poor man’s Maigret unafraid to dive into the muck of the Seine to catch a bad guy, whose rich vernacular and poetic vocabulary make Simenon look like Hergé and who left a trail of bodies in each of the 15 arrondissements in which his New Mysteries of Paris were set — was rewarded for this fidelity to the city with a bouquiniste’s concession, only to give it up after a few months because “I preferred reading the books to selling them.” And when another Léo, Carax – the bad boy of French cinema – wanted to demonstrate how far off the deep end the hero of his 1986 “Mauvaise Sang” had plunged after agreeing to steal a sample of HIV-contaminated blood with Juliette Binoche and Michel Piccoli, he had him break into a bouquiniste’s box after roaming the fog-addled bridges of the Seine in a midnight delirium. It was about the most fragile target one could pick; Pierre supported his metier de coeur by working part-time as a museum security guard, further trimming his expenses by jumping Metro turn styles.

So when I bought my first art book from Pierre, a tome on Impressionism published in the 1950s (the ideal epoch for the quality of the reproductions) with a portrait of Berthe Morisot as painted by her brother-in-law Manet on the cover, it was as if I had procured a part of Paris history directly from one of its guardians, another way to insert myself into the city’s lore.

Finally padlocking the last of the rusty boxes and starting off at a clipped pace for “Le chope des compagnons,” the bar across the street from his stand and the Hotel de la Ville, where he’d promised to introduce me to an Italian mason who specialized in tombstones (my dance magazine wanted to restore what at that juncture we still believed was the ballerina Taglioni’s dilapidated grave in the Montmartre cemetery, only to learn later from Edgar Allen Poe that the mother of pointe was actually buried in the Pere Lachaise sepulcher of the Bonapartiste ex-husband who’d barred her from the domicile congugale when she refused to stop dancing), Pierre scoffed, “Ecoute, it’s not you she’s interested in. She’s a little girl from the provinces set loose in Paris. For her you’re the American —  you’re exotique. If it doesn’t cost you anything, pourquoi pas? Mais fait gaffe:  Already she’s taking advantage of Marcel.” Marcel was the fellow bouquiniste who’d been putting Emilie up since she’d debarqued from Toulouse. “She was supposed to stay for a week-end, already she’s been there for three weeks. He has a thing for her, and she’s abusing his kindness.” As with his attempts to debunk the authenticity of Sarah Bernhardt’s ornate personal mirror, which I’d recently purchased from a Bohemian couple at a Montmartre garage sale, Pierre seemed bent on denying the legitimacy of my burgeoning French connections, be they anchored in the past or present. For me however it was clear that his skepticism derived from too many years of seeing tourists leaf through his precious books – the cellophane wrappers were meant to discourage such marauding —  without buying anything, while he paid his rent watching the same Philistines photograph themselves in front of the museum masterpieces he guarded.

“She’s pretty helpless, Pierre. She needs a friend. And as for taking advantage of Marcel, it’s not her fault if she can’t find work. She’s a social worker with ado’s at a time when the government has just cut 8,000 aide jobs from the schools.”

“Okay, Candide! Fait comme tu veut.  Just don’t come crying to me afterwards. The problem with you Americans is you’re too romantic about France.  You think every waif you encounter wandering the quays has just stepped out of the pages of Les Miserables, is harboring the soul of Piaf, and is looking for a Marcel Cedran to protect her. And you don’t even like boxing.”

“Dans une vieux maison a Paree

Ont vecu  12 petites filles

dans deux etroite files.”

Filles,” (sniff), “doesn’t rhyme with files,” Emilie pointed out with nasally muted contentiousness before taking a sip of chicken soup with approximated matzo balls. Unable to find Manischevitz, I’d bought a box of matzo crackers (or pain d’azyme) imported from Oran — the Algerian city on a hill in which Camus had set “The Plague,” which hosted a large Jewish colony — and pulverized them to compose the body of the balls, pulling out the major gourmet artillery to lure Emilie to my petite coin de Paradis on the rue de Paradis when she’d wanted to cancel our rendez-vous, pleading an incipient cold. “I’ll make you a big pot of hot chicken soup with matzo balls.”

“Qu’est-ce que c’est?”

 “It’s like Jewish penicillin.”

 “You see? It’s like I told you, your Jewish genes are trés important to you.”

“It has nothing to do with my Jewish genes,” I insisted. “It’s my California roots. My father built one of the first Nouveau California Cuisine restaurants in San Francisco, and my mother did the cooking. The only difference is her matzo balls were made of whole wheat.”

Pourquoi pas tofu?”

“She was Old School Nouveau California Cuisine.”

“If I drink the soup, it will make me Jewish?” French humour often being more refined than American, I never knew whether Emilie was kidding.

“It won’t make you Jewish, but it might make you less blueish.” Getting no response – the “Yellow Submarine” film reference escaping her, or maybe she just didn’t get my own sense of humour – I added, “It might help your cold.”

Emilie was now perched primly on the futon with her delicate fingers clasped between her knees, looking thinner in a somber brown skirt over black tights, a light-weight tan pullover not helping her ghostly, wan pallor. In an effort to rally her spirits – the soup had only increased the sniffling, and I was having trouble charming her —  I’d pulled out my Madeline omnibus. Ludwig Bemelmans’s Madeline – the hero of a series of children’s stories set in Paris which no one in France has ever heard of, just as many have never heard of “The Red Balloon” — had been the obsession of Mimi Kitagawa, my childhood best friend who’d turned over in her crib on Liberty Street in San Francisco in 1964 at the age of three and a half and breathed her last breath. During a desperate late-night passage in Greenwich Village in 1997, reeling from a push-and-pull, now I love you, now I don’t relationship with an exotic modern dancer-contortionist and meandering up Broadway in search of salvation, I’d ended up at the Strand (“8 miles of books, millions of bargains”), where a copy of the Madeline collection had beckoned to me from a display shelf near the ceiling, which I took as a hail-Mary from Mimi, by then my guardian angel. Later, whenever the ameritune of past experience threatened to blind me to present possibilities, I’d try to let Mimi become the child taking over my perspective (in Californese: “I’d channel her”), and remind myself that I had a responsibility to live my life for two.

I was now (we’re back on the rue de Paradis, in October 2004) attempting to translate the first Madeline tale into French to make it legible for Emilie, or at least get a rise out of her with my maladroit bungling.

Filles,” Emilie was pointing out, “Is pronounced ‘fee’; files,” French for ‘lines,’ “is pronounced ‘feeel.’ So in fact, Monsieur Paul” – she looked up from the book to emphasize the point with her eyes – “they do not rhyme.” Seeing my deflated disappointment – and realizing I was doing my valiant best to distract her from the cold — she added, this time with a slight upturn to her lips and an accompanying humour in her eyes to indicate she was being ironic, “Et pour ma part, je commence a perdre le file,” the latter phrase meaning ‘lose the thread.’

Dans deux FEEEEEEEEEEEL etroites donc, ils ont coupé leur pain,” or broke their bread, I continued, “et ont lavé leurs teeth,” which I emphasized by pointing to Bemelmans’s simple sketch of the 12 girls aligned on either side of the orphanage dinner table brushing their teeth, “avant de se mis au LITH,” I concluded, adding the lisp to “lit,” the French word for ‘bed,’ to get the rhyme with ‘teeth.’

Turning the page to a double-spread demonstrating the girls’ attitudes towards, respectively, the forces of good and those of evil, I translated “They smiled before the good” as “Devant le bon, ils se sont rejoui” to get the rhyme with my translation of “and frowned on the bad“:  “Tandis que devant le mal, ils aviez que du mepris.

Pas mal,” Emilie admitted, finally smiling through the sniffles. “But I don’t understand why for the good he draws a picture of a rich woman feeding a carousel horse in front of les Invalides – “

“Maybe it’s Napoleon’s horse?” I offered feebly, Bonaparte’s ashes being stored at the army museum.

“And maybe you lead me to Waterloo! Et apres?”

I continued reading and translating until the page on which Madeline, after an emergency appendectomy, wakes up in a hospital room full of flowers.

Putting her thin fore-finger on one of the pictured vases, Emilie complained, “She gets all those flowers for her appendix, and you have nothing for me?”

Au contraire! So, my belle-mere has a boutique in San Francisco where she sells exotic soaps, shampoos, bubble-baths, and body oils.  It’s actually how she and my father met; her store was across the street from his restaurant.”

Ah bon?” This had spiked her interest, as I’d cleverly maneuvered food, perfume, and romantic rendez-vous  into the same sentence.

“My step-mom – er, belle-mere – actually has a French last name. So you could say I’m part French.”

She smiled, if just with her eyes.

“Anyway, I have something she sent me that I want to give you.” Even though I’d asked my step-mom to send me the wild rose body oil specifically for such an occasion, I was trying to casualize the gift so as to not scare Emilie away. Normally I’d pretend to pull such small packages out of my victim’s ear, but the last time I’d tried that trick (inherited from my grandpa in Miami Beach, a liquor salesman, who used to do it with pennies or his wide gold ring with the oval black stone), the recipient had shrieked, thinking I was plucking a bee out of her bonnet, dissipating the ambiance. So this time I merely pulled the present, enveloped in bubble-wrap, out of my pocket.

“It’s very sweet of you,” Emilie said after twisting the cap off the miniscule glass tube and taking a whiff, patting and looking down at my hand to avoid looking me in the eyes. “If you don’t mind I will save it for later, because it could make me sick if I put it on now with my cold.”

“Speaking of roses,” I said, jumping to the stereo to cue “La Vie en Rose,”  “Would Mademoiselle care to dance?” Looking up noncommittally at my offered hand, which at that moment felt to me like a gorilla’s, she tentatively placed her downy palm in mine  and rose with an effort. In theory, waltzing with a French girl to Piaf singing “La Vie en Rose” in my own Paris apartment on the rue de Paradis across the street from where Pissarro  and Morisot learned to paint from Corot should have felt like a dream fulfilled, but my predominant sensation as I strained my back over Emilie’s doll-like hunched shoulders was the memory of dancing with Jocelyn Benford at the Lowell High School 1976 sophomore dance (“I need someone to ride the bus home with,” Jocelyn had explained, counting on my junior high crush still lingering), our ersatz silk shirts sticking sweatily together, broken up only by the ridged outline of Jocelyn’s bra, as we rotated to Earth Wind & Fire singing “Reasons.” As this French girl and I spun slowly on Paradis, the rose light-bulb I’d switched on coronating the reflection of our faces in Sarah Bernhardt’s abalone encrusted beveled mirror with a velvet aureole, Emilie felt even more fragile and fleeting in my American grizzly-bear grasp than that long ago 14-year-old.

Cross Country / A Memoir of France, 19: Verres volé, sabres croissé

By Paul Ben-Itzak                                                                                                                                                     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 or Bordeaux. Paul  is also available for translating, editing, and webmastering assignments.)

Le guerre des grappes, or, We’ve come for your wine and your women

I’d bought the black and white two-piece dashiki with silver embroidery in an African boutique on Divisadero Street in San Francisco (a boutique destined to be succeeded, three decades later, by an organic vegetable market, as Sillicon Valley enterpeneurs replaced the neighborhood’s working-class African-Americans, for whom a $2 tomato was out of reach, and the Church of John Coltrane next-door was supplanted by the Church of Mammon) to wear at the 1992 Black and White Ball, where Sarah, the girlfriend who’d recently broken up with me (“It feels like having sex with my brother”) and I ended the evening in Davies Sympthony Hall doing the mambo to a sweaty, live, septugenarian Tito Puente beating away at the conga drums. Since become my go-to DJ costume, on my first visit to Paris in 2000 the dashiki was the ideal wardrobe for a mobile Halloween party that ended with me sandwiched between two curvy French Algerian sisters flinging their ringlets of blonde hair at me as we grooved to Alpha Blondy’s “Jerusalem”(“You can see Christians, Jews, and Muslims living together and praying: Amen”)  in Club Euro, a hole-in-the-wall dive off the Place de la Republique. Zooming across the 19th and 10th arrondissements after picking up another new pal, Bernard (a French-Ivorian who told me that white French people typically don’t regard indigenous French-Africans the same way they do African-Americans), a cruise punctuated by the sisters leaning out of the Peugot window and shouting “boo!” at other motorists, and seeing the Canal Saint-Martin for the first time, I remember thinking, “The Seine sure narrows out here.” Before heading to Club Euro, we’d dined at le Verre Volé, a cave cum bistro specializing in ‘bio’ wines and, as a wine bar avant la lettre, an early outpost of the impending BoBo (Bourgeoisie Bohemian) invasion of the Canal quartier and much of northeastern Paris.

Now on this September evening in 2004 I’d returned to le Verre Volé and was sitting across from Emilie, considerably more done-up than when I’d met her at Pierre’s 40th birthday party near the Place Edith Piaf the week before, the snug jeans replaced by a maroon peasant skirt, her chestnut hair in a stylishly loose bun framing her oval face, giving her the Roman features (in fact, her last name, “Roman,” had been shortened from “Romanoff,” she’d explained, or maybe it was “Romanov,” her regal bearing that night having more in common with the tsar than the legendary Los Angeles restaurant proprietor) of Berthe Morisot when she was modelling as a ballroom dancer for Renoir, as well as Morisot’s probing brown eyes.

“We’ll take the 2002 Cahors, Ulysses,” I told the gangly server-manager with the speckled chin and naked scalp (this was the epoch when Lex Luthor was vying with the 5’clock shadow as the most legible signifier of hipness among 30-something Parisians), picking what seemed to be the best bargain on the otherwise expensive wine menu, but trying to make it seem to my date like my decision was based on oenological rather than monetary considerations.

“No you won’t,” announced Ulysses, shaking his head. “Not with a veal papillette. You want rather the Beaujolais”— which  of course was twice the price.

“Thank you, we appreciate the counsel, but we prefer all the same the Cahors.”

After recovering from the invisible screw twisting in his butt and ratcheting up a posture which already seemed inclined to its maximum, and smiling at me indulgently with a complicit side glance at Emilie, Ulysses changed his tactic. “In that case, permit me to serve you the steak instead.” Seeing me hesitate – I was a debutant at this game – he added malicously, “If you like we can serve it with ketchup, if it would make you feel more at home.”

This was more like it: In open warfare, I was in my element. “A), my home is on the rue de Paradis; B), I’m the client, and therefore C, we’ll stick with the Cahors.” Then I finished with the coupe de diplomatic grace: “Steak we can have anywhere, but  your veal papilette is sans pareil.”

At this Ulysses executed a demi-pirouette to rival any I’d seen on the stage of the Opera Garnier and marched towards the open kitchen, the smugness on his face nonetheless suspicously increasing. When he returned several minutes later, it was with a bottle of Beaujolais, whose cork he matter-of-factly twisted open before I could protest, avoiding looking at me. I was so taken aback by this maneuvre that he’d already poured a first glass…shrewdly, for Emilie — who so far had been observing our parries with oblique reserve – banking that the superior confidence of a French waiter and the imperiousness of a French date would be too much for a barbarian Yankee to handle at one time.  But he hadn’t counted on Emilie’s personal history; her grandfather having fought in the  maquis outside Bordeaux, she was more FFI than Vichy.  She simply reached across the table, placed her thin fingers around my cravate and straightened it, adjusting her knight’s armor for battle: It wasn’t winning or losing but doing it with aplomb that mattered.

Ulysses valiantly tried to ignore this sign that the invader had successfully poached his woman and dissemble the extra turn of the screw in his butt, barely quavering as he continued to insist, “I think Monsieur and Mademoiselle will not be dissappointed with the Beaujolais.”

My own posture buttressed by Emliie’s benevolent hand around my throat, and notwithstanding that my cheeks were turning more violet than the Beaujolais, I stood up with the replique, “Actually, I think we prefer to find a restaurant where they don’t tell us what to order and understand that the client is always right,” adding, more for my Gwendolyn than for him, “If you like we can pay for the glass you’ve already poured without our consent.”

This concession inadvertently allowed Ulysses to save his dignity by declaring, “If Monsieur is displeased we’d rather not accept his money,” punctuated by a curt, “Au revoir” before he adroitly scooped up the bottle, pivoted on the screw and retreated to the kitchen with his back to us.

Emilie, ever decorous and diplomatic, and after touching my hand and whispering, “One minute,” crossed to Ulysses, touched his arm, and said something  to mollify him, the teacher trying to assure that each party to a schoolyard ramble walked away with no hurt feelings.

After dismissing the idea of suggesting we grab something at the Lebanese grill across the street where they cut the schwarma with the precision of a mohel and eating it on the vintage wooden bridge over the canal because it might seem too cheap, I proposed to Emilie, “How about if we try my café d’habitude, le Valmy? C’est tres convivial and it’s not far from here.”

As we hiked up the canal along the Quai Valmy I jumped up on the ledge and attempted to straddle it. Neither slowing her stride nor looking up, Emilie chided me, “I understand that you must feel very tall in this moment, but how can we discuss if I can’t look you in the eyes?”

“Yes Ma’am,” I said, falling into line, but still skipping.

At le Valmy, we were welcomed by Moumou, the manager. The last time I’d seen him was at the birthday celebration for Ta’ar, one of the owners, in the flat above, where the wailing of Cheb Khaled had been seconded by Moumou’s fervent “Yella! Yella!”

Ca vas Paulo?” he asked, then nodded to Emilie. Next I skipped over to the zinc counter, which the bright-eyed Swiss barista leaned over so I could kiss her cheeks. “Paulo! We usually only see you in the morning; a quoi l’honour?” “Milena, Emilie,” I answered by way of explanation, the latter offering a feeble hand to the former.

After he sat us at a prime table looking out over the canal, where the moonlight had begun to glitter, and handed us the menus, highlighted by an apricot and lamb tajine, Moumou asked, “Something to drink?”

“We’ll take a carafe of the house red, Moumou!” I ordered without looking at the wine list posted on the blackboard behind the counter, adding for Emilie, who couldn’t prevent a wry smile from appearing on her lips, “It’s excellent.”

“Trés bien,” answered Moumou.

Cross-Country / A Memoir of France, 18: Sarah Bernhardt’s Mirror

By Paul Ben-Itzak                                                                                                                                          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 or Bordeaux. Paul  is also available for translating, editing, and webmastering assignments.)

Antoine’s Children

 “Ca pique!” Emilie complained before gingerly extracting the chewy Chinese ginger candy I’d offered her from between her pursed lips and tossing it towards the Seine, prompting a momentary flashback of a junior high school field trip to a movie theater in San Francisco’s Chinatown during which I persisted in sucking a dried plum bon-bon that turned out to be unexpectedly salty because it would have been inelegant to spit it out. We were scrunched together thigh to thigh in the back of Pierre’s Lilliputian 1961 tan Renault. I’d whipped out the bon-bon to change the subject from Sarah Bernhardt’s mirror, which I’d procured at a Montmartre garage sale earlier that Saturday afternoon and whose authenticity Pierre had been disputing, our argument no doubt another manifestation of Old World cynicism versus New World optimism – or, as the French would put it, naivité. (A transatlantic combat to which there are exceptions; Camus has been described – albeit by an American scholar — as an optimistic pessimist.) Never mind that Pierre had not yet seen the mirror, encased by a rotating mahogony frame, itself framed by a mahogony border encrusted with abalone shells, in true St-Honoré Belle Epoch style, le tout supported by two feet; nor had he looked into the eyes of the couple of middle-aged Bohemians who’d sold the mirror to me after furnishing a logical explanation of how they’d inherited it. I’d only just met Emilie at Pierre’s bookstand across from the Hotel de la Ville; a friend of a fellow bouquiniste and just arrived from Bordeaux, she was tagging along for Pierre’s 40th birthday party, which I’d volunteered to DJ on his sound equipment, more ancient and decrepit than the Renault. At the moment, though, I was more perturbed by the warmth emanating from Emilie’s thighs, palpable even through our two pairs of Levis.

“Your music is shit!” the skinny 14-year-old son of one of Pierre’s guests, a bedraggled 40-something woman with a pre-maturely weathered visage, had just volunteered (we’re now later, at the party, and, knowing the Frenchies predilection for the ‘80s, I was spinning the Human League’s “Mirror Man”), prompting me to segué into Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and bound over the window sill into the courtyard of Pierre’s building on the rue Capitaine Spalding in the 20th arrondissement, not far from the Place Edith Piaf with its statue of “La Mome,” to complain to the mother.

“Do you know what your son just said to me?” I interrupted the woman’s conversation with Pierre’s 20-something blonde Russian girlfriend, my hands indignantly posed at my waist. “I’m not getting paid for this. I’m DJing as a present to Pierre. I don’t deserve to be insulted by rude teenagers.”

“He’s just a kid,” the mother replied, smiling smugly in such a way as to try to deflect the responsibility back to me for the tenor of my reaction. “Be cool.”

When I returned to the living room and plopped down to pout on the black double-bean bag “chair” from which Emilie had been regarding the scene with an indulgent smile, she watched me with amused tolerance for a moment before observing, “You know Paul, I’m a children’s social worker by training, and there’s something you must understand:  It is very important for adolescents to be able to claim their independence, to find their territory. Just because you’re an adult doesn’t mean you automatically win their respect.”

“I saw ‘The 400 Blows’ too,” I sputtered out, referring to the Truffaut film. “And Antoine Doinel at least had respect for artists! He erected an entire shrine to Balzac….”

“….And that did not prevent his father from taking him over his knees,” Emilie pointed out, placing her hand on mine for emphasis, “and whipping him with a belt when the candles for his shrine almost burnt down their flat. Those days are gone. We’re living in a new epoch. French children no longer have to submit to the unquestioned authority of their elders and have the right to claim their own autonomy.”

Besides the difficulty of maintaining a serious stance when you’re sitting in a bean bag chair which sends you constantly tumbling into the lap of your adversary, the inclination of my own inner adolescent to sulk was fast losing out (to cop a line from Boccaccio) to the resurrection of the teen spirit of the flesh provoked by the increasing heat emanating through our jeans, so I not so adroitly attempted another segué.

“I’m enjoying arguing this point with you, but I need to change the record. Est-ce que tu peut te liberé pour diner avec moi le mardi prochaine? (Can you free yourself up to dine with me next Tuesday?) Histoire de continue le conversation.” At this Emilie paused, looked me in the eyes, lifted the red ballpoint pen from my pocket, took my forearm between her tiny fingers and wrote her mobile number on my skin. Inspired by this breach, I managed to catapult myself in one leap from the bean bag chair to the record bin and pulled out the Pretenders, cueing up Chrissie Hynde to resurrect Jimi Hendrix:

I used to live in a room full of mirrors
All I could see was me
Well I take my spirit and I crash my mirrors
Now the whole world is here for me to see
I said the whole world is here for me to see.

 

Cross Country / A Memoir of France, 18: Prete-a-habité

Like what you’re reading? Please join Arts Voyager donors including M.E., R.B., E.W. L.R., and E.W. in supporting our work by making a donation. You can do so using PayPal by designating your contribution to: paulbenitzak@gmail.com .  Or write us at that address to find out how to donate by check or in Euros. We’ll be happy to include a sponsor link on top of future chapters to a website or page of your choice. Currently based in the Dordogne, Paul is also currently looking for an apartment in Paris, to rent and/or in an exchange of services. (Translation/traduction, editing, website design, DJing, Cooking…..)

By Paul Ben-Itzak 
Copyright 2013, 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

Pam and I were walking back from Barbes — the French Arab section of lower Montmartre immortalized in Marcel Carné’s “Les Portes de la Nuit,” in which Montand misses the Last Metro at the Barbes station and a nocturnal phantasmagoria ensues – after an unexpected feast at the Cafe Royale, which was celebrating the end of Ramadan by augmenting the standard couscous royale dinner with a lemony lentil soup and sticky honeyed pastries, arrosed with complimentary fresh mint tea served in lacquered glasses. (As I learned later, the resto was located right below the Fondation Barbara, named after yet another legendary French chanteuse.)  I was about to learn that with Pam I had found something I’d not known since my childhood best friend and I walked into a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon that was more greasy than we’d anticipated outside Durham, North Carolina, starving and sleepless after a harrowing night with a black bear in the Pisgah National Forest where we’d been camping out before returning to college, and quickly realized that if we didn’t want to get very sick, we would need to figure a way out of there that wouldn’t offend the owner/grease ladler without being able to communicate out loud: that kind of relationship where your points of view are so synchronized that you can be in any situation and telepathically devine what the other’s thinking.

In the present case, after turning down the rue Condorcet, a street divided by a grassy milieu which paralleled Rochechouart / Clichy (home to the Moulin Rouge), Pam and I were approached by a thin young man in a suit and tie who invited us to enter his house, which was parked at the curb. In fact it was a sample unit for an outfit called, “La maison qui vous suive partout,” the house which follows you wherever you go: Not a mobile home in the classic sense, nor a winnebago, nor a trailer, but a petite pre-fabricated portable box house, with a downstairs kitchen and living room and upstairs loft, from which emerged, as we entered, a middle-aged, unshaven, balding man in a magenta bathrobe, rubbing sleep out of his eyes with one hand and cradling a coffee mug with the other. “I hope we’re not disturbing you,” Pam offered politely. “Pas du tout,” the man assured her with a wave of his hand. “It’s part of the job.” For better verisimilitude, the House Which Follows You Wherever You Go had hired actors to pose as real-life inhabitants. While I marveled that we had somehow shifted from Marcel Carné noir to Jacques Tati prototypical hyper-modernity, Pam switched into journalist mode — after 17 years in Paris, she was still curious and able to be surprised — and posed simple questions about the portable housing pod. It was not the first time we’d find ourselves in a droll situation, made more funny because we both saw the humor in an event that to the French might seem ordinary. This is one of the many gifts Pam brought me: with an American gal pal in Paris to cavort with, I was no longer the Oddity. They were.

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.